Benedict Allen: The Skeleton Coast

September 7, 2020

Although I’ve read quite widely about travellers in many deserts, accounts of the Kalahari are few and far between and hard to come by, but this companion book to a BBC series from 1997 turned up; I’ve read one or two things previously by Benedict Allen and enjoyed them, as well as his door-stopper of an anthology of exploration. My father had told me about the Kalahari when I was a boy, and I know that his journey from Siberia to this country had included several months necessary rest and recuperation from starvation and illness in South Africa, but I don’t know whether he ever got to see the actual desert.

First thing: the map is excellent and means pretty much every step of his journey along the coast of Namibia by camel can be followed on it. The diary form works well, too, bringing a sense of immediacy as well as emphasising the hardship; yes, you know he’s going to survive because he writes the book in the end, but you share the journey quite intimately.

Allen conveys the weirdness of the place in good, atmospheric descriptions, which are accompanied by some amazing photographs. There is a sense of a place lost in time, which is emphasised by all the settlements which have been abandoned to the desert. The journey he proposed to undertake was a serious challenge, even at the end of the twentieth century, and many doubted that it could actually be done.

So what you get through his daily entries is a gripping, straightforward account of a very difficult journey, his enjoyment and endurance, and the feeling that he is a part of the place through which he travels. In some ways his manner and approach remind me of the travels of Michael Asher, which you can find reviewed elsewhere in this blog. His determination is important, and the sense that he feels part of the places through which he travels comes over effectively, though he is not travelling as a seeker in the same sense as someone like Ella Maillart, for instance. He enjoys the advantages and privileges of being a relatively wealthy and sponsored Westerner, but these do not intrude, are not flaunted or obvious; here is a real traveller.

In the end, another explorer of whom I felt envious: much as I’d love to do something like that myself, I know I’m not the sort of person who could; I admire anyone who can.

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