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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION

A Safari in Need of a Sense of Adventure

THE SHADOW OF KILIMANJARO: On Foot Across East Africa by Rick Ridgeway; Henry Holt$27.50, 288 pages

October 12, 1998|JONATHAN LEVI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ten years ago on safari, while snoring in a tent beneath a giant fig tree on the floor of the Ngorogoro Crater of central Tanzania, I was awakened by a gentle swishing sound. Too slow for the regular rush of wind or rain, too fast for the grazing munch of the dik-diks that had roused me from my sleep a few nights before, the sound pulled me awake and up to the zippered window of the tent for a look. There, looming 12 feet above me, was the gray wall of an elephant.

It took all my self-control to contain the gurgling in both my throat and intestines, until the elephant slowly moved away to rub against the fig tree, beneath which our driver and cook were peacefully sleeping in their Land Rover. The ping of falling fig branches soon roused both men out of the vehicle. "Now," I said to my brother-in-law, with whom I shared the tent, "we'll see how the experts deal with elephants." At which point, both Abbas and Mohammed began shouting in panic, throwing stones, pots and flashlights at the confused elephant, who, quite logically, turned in his tracks and loped back in the direction from which he had come.

Nobody, not the experts, not the tourists, knows what to do about elephants, which is essentially the theme of the adventurer and naturalist Rick Ridgeway's latest book, "The Shadow of Kilimanjaro." Using a 300-mile hike from the summit of Kilimanjaro across the game preserves of Kenya to the Indian Ocean as a trail through an argument, Ridgeway spends nearly a page a mile wondering about the relationship of man to his neighboring megafauna. Balancing the work of native poachers against that of white wardens who cull overpopulated herds, weighing the needs of farmers against those of conservationists, Ridgeway ponders a notion as old as man: "Possibly we, as a species, whenever we have the opportunity and the capability, hunt to extinction the large animals with whom we share our landscape."

In the company of three white men, including Kenyan-born game wardens Bongo and Danny Woodley, and two black representatives from Kenyan tribes, Ridgeway attempts a true safari (the word means "traveling on foot" in Swahili) in a day and geography where wildlife is encountered more often from the air-conditioned comfort of four-wheel drive.

The pace of walking (and of the book itself) gives Ridgeway time to contemplate his great theme and the great men and women who have struggled with the conundrum of whether man can live at peace with the beasts.

Among the greatest of his fellow strugglers is the recently deceased father of two of his companions, a heroic hunter-turned-warden named Bill Woodley, whose bravery in the face of beasts and compassion in the face of natives has put him in a pantheon that includes Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt. As Ridgeway walks east, he searches for the source of the Woodley myth in interview and campfire gossip. Yet Ridgeway's spirit is strangely earnest and taxidermic, unquestioning and determined only to disinter the good in Woodley's bones.

Consequently, next to the memory of the elder Woodley, the younger Bongo and Danny seem as dry and humorless as those bones themselves. Nature writers like Redmond O'Hanlon and Gerald Durrell have long realized that a good adventure book needs good companions, whether they be neurotic poets or the Fon of Bafut. No wonder Ridgeway wanders off the path of his own journey into the journals and anecdotes of other travelers, from the early Persian hunters of the 6th century BC to the Dr. Livingstone of the last century and the Dr. Leakey of the present. For those of us walking with only our imaginations, those are the writers who take us on safari out of the shadows and onto the peaks.

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