Epic eye-open­ing jour­ney through a lost world

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - BOOKS REVIEWS - RÍONA JUDGE McCOR­MACK


In 1834, armed with sev­eral let­ters of in­tro­duc­tion, English­man Henry Inglis em­barked on a trip around Ire­land. Di­vest­ing him­self of “carriage, or horse, or bag­gage”, he stomped through bog­land and traded to­bacco for shel­ter, record­ing – in some de­tail and with lively cu­rios­ity – the rel­a­tive mer­its of po­teen ver­sus whiskey-punch and the im­por­tance of a house pig to the ten­ant farm­ers he en­coun­tered.

Though set more than a cen­tury and half a world apart, there is some­thing of Inglis’s af­fa­ble in­quis­i­tive­ness about John Devoy’s ac­count of trav­el­ling across north and east­ern Africa by bi­cy­cle, 30 years ago.

Travers­ing lakes, rain­forests and deserts, Quondam: Trav­els in a Once World takes the reader on a 6,000km ride through Egypt, Su­dan, South Su­dan, the DRC, Uganda and Kenya. There is no short­age of drama on of­fer: sand­storms and in­testi­nal worms, de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­nesses and pre­car­i­ous river cross­ings. The phys­i­cal feat in­volved in haul­ing a bi­cy­cle across the Bayuda Desert is vividly por­trayed.

But this is fun­da­men­tally a jour­ney about peo­ple. Count­less acts of kind­ness and unasked-for hos­pi­tal­ity greet Devoy along his route, from the sug­ar­cane and soups and tea pressed upon him at ev­ery turn, to hosts who give up their own beds to ac­com­mo­date him. Other mo­ments – such as an im­pas­sioned dis­cus­sion of Yeats in ru­ral Su­dan – un­ex­pect­edly thread the dis­tance be­tween home and abroad, pulling them close.

There is much hu­mour to the telling, too. In one de­light­ful ex­am­ple, Flann O’Brien’s molec­u­lar the­ory is in­voked while hitch­ing with a friendly trucker. (“I am slowly be­com­ing 100 per cent bi­cy­cle,” Devoy de­clares, “and you Ali, after 15 years of driv­ing, you are al­ready 100 per cent truck!”)

This is an ac­count that can shift from de­scrip­tions of bowel move­ments to mo­ments of quiet in­tro­spec­tion: of the con­stel­la­tions on clear desert nights or the very na­ture of travel. These and other reflections are en­riched by rel­e­vant asides. The role of the Bel­gian Congo in rad­i­cal­is­ing Roger Case­ment is just one; the lit­tle-known link be­tween the Coca-Cola Com­pany and mod­ern-day Su­dan an­other.

The per­sonal drama run­ning through Quondam pro­vides an in­ter­est­ing coun­ter­point to the jour­ney it­self. But when these two threads fi­nally – and dis­as­trously – in­ter­sect, a less-nuanced at­ti­tude shows it­self. The en­coun­ters de­scribed here are also al­most ex­clu­sively with men. This is some­thing ac­knowl­edged in the book, but it nev­er­the­less il­lus­trates the lim­i­ta­tions of any travel ex­pe­ri­ence, bounded as it is by gen­der, lan­guage and cul­tural ac­cess.

Writ­ing about such ex­pe­ri­ences is an in­her­ently risky busi­ness. The world of travel writ­ing is lit­tered with ex­am­ples of con­de­scen­sion, in­ac­cu­racy and sweep­ing gen­er­al­i­sa­tions, par­tic­u­larly when the sub­ject is Africa.

Quondam, to its credit, com­mits none of these sins. Un­like that other well-known chron­i­cler of African travel, Paul Th­er­oux, Devoy dis­plays both a warmth and an ad­mirable hu­mil­ity. In the desert of North Kord­o­fan, he re­flects: “I re­alised I knew noth­ing about any­thing here. I barely knew my own ex­pe­ri­ence.” Not a sen­ti­ment you are likely to hear from Th­er­oux.

This hu­mil­ity seems linked to the slower, more in­ti­mate pace of two-wheeled travel, and the en­forced close­ness with – even de­pen­dence on – the peo­ple and coun­tries be­ing writ­ten about.

In many ways, Quondam is less about a place than a process. Far more than Th­er­oux or Inglis, it owes a clear debt to Dervla Mur­phy, that pi­o­neer of Ir­ish cy­cling trav­el­ogues – and who in fact au­thors the book’s in­tro­duc­tion. In it, she joins Devoy in railing against “In­ter­net­tery” and the ease of mod­ern travel.

There is an un­doubted charm and in­her­ent value to the low-tech ex­pe­ri­ence de­scribed here. But the grit of “real” travel – specif­i­cally travel by bike and be­fore the ad­vent of smart­phones – be­comes a too-fre­quent re­frain through­out. The reader is treated to many caus­tic reflections on mod­ern cy­clists, kit­ted out with “hel­mets, speedome­ters, heart mon­i­tors, GPS, even satel­lite dishes, for God’s sake!”

This touch of self-con­grat­u­la­tion, here and else­where, is un­der­stand­able. But it is just one of the rea­sons that Quondam could have ben­e­fited from a firmer ed­i­to­rial hand. Er­rors and oc­ca­sional clichés de­tract from the read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, as does the length. That this is only the first of three planned books about this trip only am­pli­fies the sense that much could have been con­densed.

While not quite in the same league as Dervla Mur­phy’s trail­blaz­ing works, Quondam is a con­sis­tently en­ter­tain­ing, thought­ful and eye-open­ing read. Fizzing with youth­ful en­ergy, it fully em­braces the chal­lenge laid down by Robert Louis Steven­son: “The great af­fair is to move . . . to come down off this feather-bed of civil­i­sa­tion and find the globe gran­ite un­der­foot and strewn with cut­ting flints.”

Ríona Judge McCor­mack has spent eight years liv­ing and work­ing in south­ern Africa

John Devoy: through sand­storms and in­testi­nal worms, de­bil­i­tat­ing ill­nesses and pre­car­i­ous river cross­ings, he rides his bi­cy­cle across the Bayuda Desert

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