“What am I doing here?” That was not the question that Paul Theroux expected to be asking himself not long after he returned to his beloved Africa and exclaimed that he was “happy again.” His last African journey, chronicled in Dark Star Safari (2003), was south by land from Cairo to Cape Town. This time, he would start in Cape Town and travel north along the western edge of the continent, through Namibia and Angola, and ending, if all went well, in the fabled desert oasis of Timbuktu, in what was once the heart of French West Africa.
The trip did not go well.
So what did he see on this, his last journey to the zona verde? The phrase is Portuguese for “green zone,” or anywhere outside the city, and is “a euphemism for the bush.” In South Africa, the Cape itself is idyllic: temperate, prosperous, and green. But not far inland, on the hot, dirt-encrusted plains, sprawl endless squatter camps, where every upgrade, every improvement is overwhelmed by the African rule of population: “People keep coming.”
His journey north through the Western Cape takes him through a “green bosomy veldt,” sunlit and serene, glowing with vineyards, orchards, and dairy farms, but the farther north he goes, the drier and more barren the landscape becomes, and the more merciless the sun.
Namibia is a...