The Reading Room

Zigzag to Timbuktu

Review of Zigzag to Timbuktu by Nicholas Bennett…

One of my favourite  book publishers was the Travel Book Club  whose reprint editions from the  1950s and 60s  did so much to  inspire my thirst for travel in  later years.  Many of the books appear quite unremarkable at first glance but in reality  give something many of us have long dreamt about; real adventure.

In  Zigzag to Timbuktu  by Nicholas Bennett,  first published in 1963 ,whose imagination couldn’t be grabbed by the author’s determination to earn his fare from England to Ghana by selling ice cream on commission in a circus in winter?! What is apparent from the opening page and my subsequent research of Bennett was his determination to live life outside of the mainstream. He was steadfast in his resolve to travel across Africa without the luxuries associated with Western (white) travellers and began his journey as he intended; as a passenger on a boat travelling third class .

Timbuktu seemed to Bennett the most remote and unpolluted place in the world, from the moment he boards the ship to Africa we get an understanding of the young man’s character as he describes without condescension his fellow third class travellers, saving his ire for the ‘pale faced European colonials‘ sat drinking in the smoking lounge of first class. ‘I would have paid the extra to stay out of it‘ he declared.

The book is full of wonderful, unintentionally funny moments; in describing the crew of the ship he described how one, the intellectual of the bunch and a Muslim with an appetite for alcohol would bow to Mecca every time he took a drink and say “Lord forgive me for I know not what I do”!  or the ‘enormous Nigerian woman‘ who took huge helpings of food during particularly stormy conditions when all but she would be sea sick, declaring !If I’m going to be sick, I must have something to be sick about”!

It is a remarkable journey, given his youth and that he was alone in travelling to an area few Westerners were allowed to visit during the height of the Cold War when communists were rampant in neighbouring Mopti, the Russians had training camps in the north and the Touaregs were fighting in Timbuktu itself. But, after some considerable effort, he was granted a temporary visa and he eventually entered Timbuktu where he was promptly put under house arrest for breach of permit!

He paints a vivid picture of the intensity of the heat, magnified by the lack of wind. His experience of the Mali city was limited to an hourly walk a day with his police guard until the weekly boat arrived to take him on, along the Niger to his eventual destination of Lagos. He encountered stereotypical bureaucracy of the kind where decisions would take hours at best, days at worst. He travelled at the most basic levels imaginable, sleeping on floors, eating tribes food from dog bowls, sharing his bed of sorts with interminable sand storms and swarms of flies. But that experience shaped his outlook and philosophy not only of Africa but the comparison with his native England and its drive for increased industrialisation and its effect on society as a whole.

These are old fashioned books in one sense but very relevant in another. They speak of a simpler time with real reservations for the future and now, fifty and more years later, we can see how those fears have materialised and what we must do to put the brakes on some aspects of our high speed pursuit of technological progress. If nothing else, it is a book about a very brave young man whose remarkable journey allowed me, entrenched in lockdown, to remember carefree days of youth and the splendid experiences of travel which shaped the man I became.

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