The Malagarasi River, Tanzania's second-longest, originates in the mist-clad mountains of Burundi and takes a serpentine path southward before meandering west and merging with Lake Tanganyika. A few years back, Tucson writer and compulsive explorer Richard Grant learned from a Zimbabwean safari guide that the Malagarasi had never been navigated from beginning to end. The two of them decided to give it a shot.
Unfortunately, the guide had to bow out of the expedition. But in 2009, with a gargantuan backpack and a growing sense of trepidation, Grant set off by himself to conquer the river. He flew to Zanzibar, a small island off the coast of Tanzania, and after connecting with a cranky, gout-stricken big-game hunter who agreed to be his guide, he eventually made his way across Tanzania to the Malagarasi. He failed in his attempt to descend the entire river, but, as detailed in this thoroughly engrossing new book, Crazy River: Exploration and Folly in East Africa, Grant's quest for adventure and discovery didn't go unrewarded.
If there is such a thing as an adventure gene, Grant has it. He suffers from a perpetual case of itchy feet, an insatiable thirst for knowledge and a "strange compulsion to hurl myself into the unknown."
Arriving in Zanzibar, Grant quickly discovered that his Western ways of thinking wouldn't be very useful in making sense of this magnetic but discombobulating continent. He writes that during his three months in Africa, he was "never at ease, always wary and uncertain." However, Grant adds, too much wariness can dim the potential for a heightened travel experience.
"It's better," he says, "to plunge in, and get used to feeling off-balance and out of your depth, than to cling to the remnants of your comfort zone. Don't be too concerned about your personal dignity. Accept that you are a fool here, and hope that people will teach you this gently."
Indeed, in this land over which magic holds powerful sway, guides and teachers seemed to materialize at just the right moments, including the book's most-memorable character, an alcoholic South African golf pro stuck in the deep rough of life, who introduces Grant to Zanzibar's urban street scene, taking him on a raucous tour of night clubs and dive bars.
Grant joins up with his new river guide and team in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania's chaotic coastal metropolis. Their trek westward—following the path of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, an absurdly mismatched pair of 19th-century British explorers—gives readers a vivid impression of African life. Battling constant physical maladies, Grant traverses a land of bone-grinding poverty ravaged by overgrazing and drought, and swarming with beggars, bandits, hustlers, prostitutes, poachers, venal officials and disease-bearing insects. Reaching the Malagarasi near the Burundi border, the party rafts portions of the often-impassable river, threading its way through rock outcroppings and tangled vegetation, and negotiating rapids—ever watchful for hippos, crocodiles and other denizens of the wild.
Upon reaching Lake Tanganyika, Grant proceeds on alone through Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world, to its neighbor, a post-genocidal Rwanda, where he interviews Rwanda's popular but despotic president.
Grant clearly loves Africa, writing about it with a mixture of sadness and frustration. Noting a spirit of warmth, generosity and optimism, and a level of resourcefulness and "basic mental sharpness" in the average African that seems to surpass that of the typical Westerner, Grant laments that the continent is in "shambles and a disgrace." He considers a host of possible reasons—including a harsh climate, rampant disease, superstition, corruption, a resistance to change, the lingering effects of colonialism and, ironically, the unstinting flow of humanitarian aid. But he ends up even more perplexed than when he started his journey.
Returning to another discombobulating continent—where people throw tantrums when their coffees are made with the wrong kind of milk, and pet superstores advertise $7,000 courses teaching "the correct massage techniques for your pet"—Grant writes that he was drawn to the Malagarasi because of a fascination with an earlier age of exploration. But the part of Africa most worth exploring today, he says, is the dynamic "human geography" of its cities.
"I look at a place like Dar es Salaam and see the future gathering strength ... a crucible where the skills for the future are being forged and honed ... (with) urban slum-dwellers pioneering new ways of surviving."