Book review – The travel writer as suicidal lunatic

2013-10-06 14:00

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Sihle Khumalo has once again done a wonderful job of convincing me to never, ever (there aren’t enough evers) backpack through an African nation. Ever.

In Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu (emphasis on the word “almost” – he didn’t get much sleep), he spends four weeks exploring Francophone West Africa by public transport. Khumalo does it either to atone for sins committed in a past life, or to sell another 50?000-plus books – as his enormously popular Dark Continent My Black Arse did.

Another bestseller in the making or not, I have no idea why anyone would try to do this. I get that he wanted to visit five Unesco heritage sites, but sticking to public transport is half-suicidal. W

hen he wrote his first book, he memorably said his friends considered it acceptable madness from a white guy?…?but they’ve probably just made peace with his craziness now.

All the same, his adventures through what used to be a slave-trader’s Makro make for a great read.

Khumalo is likable and a little naughty. In between leering over and checking out the local babes and female backpackers, he makes honest and often funny observations about the nations, cities, towns, buses and taxis he finds himself in during his attempt to get from Senegal to Ghana on an almost nonexistent budget.

If you’re sensitive or precious about politics, culture or racial identity, don’t pick up this book. Khumalo ribs whites, blacks, politicians, men, women, and whoever and whatever else walks by. But he teases with a playful glint in his eye.

He writes well and does his research. Once he crosses a border, get ready for semi-encyclopaedic lessons on politics, history and sometimes anthropology, delivered with touching and unexpected sensitivity. West Africa was the focal point of the painful transatlantic slave trade and that history cannot be overlooked, even in this tongue-in-cheek work.

Interestingly, Khumalo stood out like something purple and fluffy among the locals. Somehow, his “foreignness” was obvious, even before he butchered his French. Maybe it was because he is shorter than most West Africans, or lighter, but the lesson is Africa is home to a near-endless variety of people.

Prepare yourself for vicarious frustration and irritation as you travel with Khumalo. At every border post, every customs hut, every bloody roadblock, are government officials whose main purpose it seems is to illicit bribes or hinder the progress of weary travellers. Imagine our Home Affairs ministry on sleeping pills. Khumalo calls it ABB (African bureaucratic bullshit). Bravely, he endures all of this with his own special brand of sarcastic stoicism. He presses on courageously because he is a lunatic.

One can’t deny the West Africa Khumalo describes is exotic, frantic, vibrant – and inaccessible. If you want to experience her and her people, and not just her national parks and Radissons, you will have to backpack, as Khumalo has done, relying on murderous motorbike-taxis and combis to move around, and bus stations, sometimes, to rest and find shelter.

By the end, it’s Sihle Khumalo (1), West Africa (0). You’ll be cheering our man all the way to the end.

Almost Sleeping My Way to Timbuktu by Sihle Khumalo

287 pages; Umuzi

R189 on

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.