Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Gates of Africa

The Gates of Africa: Death, Discovery, and the Search for Timbuktu
by Anthony Sattin
$27.95 at Bn.com ISBN: 0312336438
In 1788, the year our story begins, no European had ever been more than a few miles inland from the African coast. Cartographers often made things up: imaginary mountain ranges, forests, and lakes to fill the continent's interior on maps. It was either that or empty space. The white man's knowledge of Africa hadn't really expanded since the days of Plato. For this reason the African Association was formed, the world's first geographical society, which hired explorers to find out what exactly is in there?
There are several obstacles to contend with. Foremost is the fierce geography: thick jungles, terrifying mountain ranges, and of course the vast, deadly Sahara Desert. The lack of navigable rivers (except for the Nile) presented an additional challenge. Aside from this there were virulent diseases, hostile natives, and a host of other difficulties for any hero who sets out on this quest. Napoleon's invasion in 1797 complicates things still further. A story like this can't possibly be boring!
There are actually several explorers covered here, not just one. Some die almost as soon as they arrive, succumbing quickly to malaria, yellow fever, or just disappearing whereabouts unknown. Others, like Mungo Park, are a bit more impressive: he followed the Gambia River and eventually found the city of Timbuktu. Until then no one knew for sure if it was a real place or purely legendary.
The first step was usually to travel to one of the African port cities and spend several months learning the language and mastering how to pass as a native. Eventually an explorer would join a caravan for the security of traveling with a group. Notes, maps, and other proof of one's European origin had to be kept carefully hidden. Gifts were brought along to exchange for assistance or buy favor with chiefs. Sometimes there was a specific objective: to find out if the Niger and Nile River systems connect (they don't) or to map the easiest route across the Sahara.
Overall, you can't expect more from a book than this one gives you. It's loaded with excitement, you'll learn about history and the geography of Africa, and it's not too long or too hard to get into. An ideal choice if you read adventure-based pop-fiction and are looking for a springboard into non-fiction. It took me about a week and a half to finish, not trying to race through. In fact, I was sorry when it was over. For some reason this book does not seem to be too popular, which is a shame. It's out of this world, and fills in a gap in many people's knowledge about this least understood continent. Find out if Timbuktu, the mythical City of Gold, lives up to all the hype; and get all the fun of traveling into the unknown without the grueling inconvenience. Four stars!

No comments: