'Traversa' by Fran Sandham

Traversa: A solo walk across Africa, from the Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean by Fran Sandham

Duckworth Overlook 2007

Hardback, 274 pages

ISBN (US): 1590200365 / 9781590200360
ISBN (UK): 0715637029 / 9780715637029

$25.00 / £16.99

It’s hard to read many travel books without a sense of ‘Why? Why are you putting yourself through all this?’ and Traversa is no exception. Those who sit at home may not understand what drives some people to these lengths, but that doesn’t stop us lapping it up and asking for more.

In this enthralling book, Sandham brings his solo walk from the aptly-named Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean to life. He comes across, variously, as courageous, determined, bloody-minded, and completely insane. By the end of the book, it’s easy to feel, as he does, that he has earned his right to be in Africa, even among people so poor that a man who has scrimped, saved and given up chocolate biscuits to be there, is immeasurably rich.

Throughout, Sandham places his experiences in a historical context, evoking the horror of being preserved from shipwreck only to die of thirst, the shame and waste of the slave trade, and butchery in wars over territory that match anything Europe has achieved in that line. As his traversa progresses, he moves from a theoretical understanding of Africa to a genuine affection for the place and its people.

The book is filled with dry self-deprecation and humour–there’s a disastrous donkey, and we can only imagine Sandham’s problems with his mule, as he declines to go into details–and some of the characters he meets are portrayed as so much larger than life that there’s a temptation to believe they’re imaginary. Perhaps the best example of the man’s courage is when, having invested time, effort and money in a donkey (diseased), a donkey-cart (beautifully painted), and a mule (disobedient), he’s able to walk away from all three. Many people would have persisted even in the face of so much discouragement, but Sandham knows when to cut his losses. He probably wouldn’t have made it across Africa without that knowledge.

Apart from the not-so-tame domestic animals, there’s lions. Real, live, traveller-eating lions. Fortunately, the threat they pose is more perceived than actual; some people have been eaten, but Sandham gets through. There’s also explosive diarrhea, a very unpleasant, if probably inevitable, attack of malaria, and, of course, blisters. Yet day after day, he gets up, and gets going. Even after side trips to investigate mules or donkeys, he insists on being driven back to the point where he stopped walking, so he can start again. He knows when he’s idled somewhere too long, and somehow gets himself going. There’s no cheating on this journey, even though the temptations must have been enormous.

This book entertained and saddened me by turns, and I heartily recommend it–reading what Sandham has to say is the only way even partially to answer the question, ‘Why?’.

[[REVIEW BY DEBBIE MOORHOUSE FOR GUD MAGAZINE]]

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