Book review: Shadows across the Sahara ~ John Hare


John Hare, 2003

Possibly of pensionable age but with experience with Bactrian camels as well as living in Africa and speaking Hausa, John Hare sets off to traverse the great trade route from former Borno Kanem (northern Nigeria) to Tripoli. With him are his chums: an even older Kenyan farmer, a Chinese academic and the relatively young Johnny to do the chores, plus Tubu and Tuareg cameleers and two dozen camels.

The organisation and permission for this trip goes unerringly smoothly – even the intractable Libyans are up for it and so the guides and camels turn up on time and the crew sets off reversing the camel prints of Hanns Vischer’s 1906 trek (the author’s inspiration), if not Denham, Clapperton and Oudney’s 1822 expedition. So far so good. But what should have been a stirring account of a historic trans Sahara trek plods along without enough engagement. Interminable quotes from Denham and Vischer fill the gaps, but there is barely a conversation recorded between the protagonists (a Brit upper lip was stiffly maintained, perhaps) while the local guides come across as the customary grumps.

Anticipated highlights like the Bilma Erg slip by in a couple of paragraphs while the dreary Hamada el Hamra is built up to epic proportions. One fails to get an impression of what the undoubtedly arduous three-month trek along a little-known Saharan axis was really like, even on a practical level. It all comes across as too easy and repetitive – perhaps it was, although it’s interesting to learn about the history of this trade route and why it became depopulated. It’s on this level that the book has something to offer, rather than using camels as a mode of travel in the Sahara.