The last year or two have been, more than ever before, a period in which Africa has been on our minds. Our travels have taken us from the tea plantations of Limpopo to the dune coast of Maputaland. We have explored back roads in Swaziland and street markets in Mozambique. In our last newsletter of 2014 join us as we venture beyond the shores of Europe to reflect on the landscapes of Africa.
Dear fellow travellers
We have in hidden europe often extolled the merits of books which deftly capture the spirit of landscape. The craft of the travel writer is deeply bound up with notions of place. If travel writing does not evoke a sense of place, it falls at the first hurdle. Yet that ability to catch the specifics of landscape, the genius of place, is not solely the preserve of travel writers.
In December last year, we published a piece that reflected on the life of Nelson Mandela. In Farewell Madiba we commented briefly on the role of African landscape in Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom.
Mandela's celebrated autobiography is a book with hundreds, even thousands, of characters. Yet there is one character which co-stars with Mandela - and that is Africa. The yellow mealie fields, the dusty highveld, the green hills around Qunu, even the broad skies of the Orange Free State all play a role in Mandela's plot. Landscape is both a witness to the struggle against apartheid and a protagonist in the fight for freedom. The Free State's wide horizons encourage Mandela to let his thoughts roam, even to dare to imagine a day when all the peoples of South Africa might enjoy equality and freedom. The pressing cry 'Amandla' with its refrain 'Awethu' is more than a demanding medley of African voices. It is in the soft sigh of the wind that blows over scorched plains, past waterholes and rondavels and on down into the fairest valleys of Africa.
Which brings us to another book which celebrates those fairest valleys of Africa. Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country is a volume where the land and landscapes of Africa stand centre stage in the plot. In his book, first published in 1948, Paton goes beyond the romantic rendering of South African landscape which was long the tradition of English language writers such as Rider Haggard and John Buchan. In Cry, the Beloved Country the very soil of Africa storms into the story. "The red blood of the earth" spills over page one. The forlorn cry of the titihoya - the lapwing which is so distinctive a resident of the highveld - frames the entire novel. The call of the titihoya echoes through the story from the very opening lines to the closing paragraph of the book.
Landscape is central to Cry, the Beloved Country. In Paton's writing, there is a touch of Thoreau (think Walden) and an attention to the detail of landscape which presciently anticipates the current wave of new nature writing. The journey of Reverend Stephen Kumalo from his rural parish to the demonic and morally bankrupt city (Joburg naturally) is at one level a very fine travelogue. But of course it's very much more. With his sharp political critique of a divided South Africa, Paton ventures further than many travel writers would ever dare.
Capturing the spirit of landscape is not an art in which travel writers have any monopoly of excellence. Some of the reports on Ebola in 2014 have communicated more about the anguish of village life in rural Guinea than many accounts of West Africa by travel writers. Discerning the genius of place is what we travel writers do well - but we are ever aware there are often others who do it even better.
Thank you for following us on our travels in 2014. It is time for us to put down our pens for the year, and retreat into the wintry solitude of the North Frisian islands. Please join us again next year. Hambani kahle. Go well.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)