Traversa—A Solo Walk across Africa, from the Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean by Fran Sandham (2007)
Reviewed by Living Abroad Contributing Editor Volker Poelzl
Stuck in a grey and less than pleasant London, author Fran Sandham saves his change in order able to afford a planned adventure in Africa. As he confesses about his time in London prior to his trip: “Please, I’d pray silently, let me swap this London awfulness for steaming jungles and burning deserts, vast distances, danger, fierce heat, sickness, exhaustion, wild animals, snakes, the villainous itch of mosquito bites, cockroaches the size of Dinky toys, the clatter of tropical rain on a tin roof, a riot of African color…” And Sandham got all he asked for and then some, yet lived to write about it. But as this list of misfortunes suggests, “Traversa” is as much a book about Sandham’s own mishaps and misadventures on his long walk across Africa as it is about memorable and insightful experiences that reveal this mysterious continent and its people to the readers. The term “Traversa” was coined during the Victorian age and refers to overland crossings of Africa. Author Fran Stanham embarks on a journey across Africa following a route similar to the expeditions of famous explorers such as Livingstone and Stanley before him. And just like his19th century compatriots, he did it on foot.
Although Stanham infuses his travelogue with historic tidbits and information about the great expeditions across Africa, his own long solo walk across the continent does not quite match the epic grandeur and excitement of the expeditions he so often refers to. And while his book is perhaps not among the most exciting of all travelogues, he gives a very honest account of his nine-month-long travail across Africa. He does not spare readers any of his own shortcomings and idiosyncrasies or those of the people he meets along the way. Sandham takes us with him on his journey through his honest and no-frills prose. He states things the way they are, and when he gets thirsty, tired, or mad, readers are right there by his side, witnessing his arduous journey as he slowly makes his way across the continent on his own two legs. This does not mean that he did not try to get the help of another two pairs of legs to help him carry his load—but the relationship between Sandham and the donkey he buys is short-lived. In the end, the author hauls his heavy backpack across Africa on his own back.
What I missed throughout the book however, was a sense of place of Africa, which the author did not really bring across for me. He spends a lot of time talking about himself, how he feels, and what he thinks, and he has a hilarious dry sense of humor when it comes to describing the people he runs into all across Africa. But the great vast land he crosses, and the different native people from the many tribes in many countries remain largely anonymous. Sure, there are plenty of anecdotes of meeting with the locals, but the descriptions of these encounters are general, and one never gets a clear sense of who these people are, what they think, and what their lives are like. The most common phrase I came across was “the local people are friendly,” but Sandham seems too tired and exhausted most of the time to strike up a meaningful conversation with the locals. I got the impression that he was driven by the unconscious mantra “Move on, move on,” to make sure that he would makes it across Africa in one piece. In this sense “Traversa” is less a cultural journey across Africa as it is a personal story about the author and the hardship and difficulties he endures to complete his journey. In this sense I fully agree with Sandham when he writes at the end of the book that in many ways the whole journey was an extremely self-indulgent episode. But if you like Sandham’s dry sense of humor and irreverent writing style, “Traversa” will take you on a memorable journey across Africa, a roller-coaster ride that stretches all the way from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.