Following in the footsteps of author Graham Greene through remote rainforest and malarial swamps in some of the most dangerous parts of Africa was a challenge Tim Butcher relished for his latest book.
The Cape Town-based writer’s new book Chasing the Devil is an account of his attempt to re-discover a route by rail and truck through Sierra Leone and then on foot across Liberia which Greene described in Journey Without Maps.
Butcher, a former war correspondent, is no stranger to epic journeys. His first book, Blood River, was a British bestseller about his attempt to travel down the Congo river.
He spoke about his new book.
Q: What was the motivation behind the current book?
A: Fear and frustration motivate the journey described in Chasing the Devil. I wanted to know more about Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries that rarely feature on the radar of world attention. And I was frustrated that while covering them as a journalist during their civil wars I had never been able to get more than a part picture.
It left me feeling as if I had a stone in my shoe, a niggle I wanted to deal with once and for all.
Q: Your first book Blood River was set in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while Chasing the Devil details travels in Sierra Leone and Liberia - why Africa?
A: Because Africa is framed by outsiders in simplistic terms either as a place of political crisis, corruption and chaos or of gentle safaris enjoyed by tourists.
I wanted to get past the simplistic, to better understand the reality endured by millions of Africans trapped in a reality so different from the rest of the world.
Q: What are the main challenges of travelling in Africa?
A: The main challenge is that the challenges never stop coming. War, crime and political volatility must all be considered when dealing with West and Central Africa.
Health risks are considerable - in Liberia I crossed one of the world’s hot zones for Lassa, a particularly nasty haemorrhagic fever.
Things you might take for granted in the developed world, like bus timetables or airlines delivering baggage, are not to be relied on in Africa.
Travelling in Africa has a purity about it, an unpredictability and wildness that makes it very special.
Q: How much research do you do before going off on your travels?
A: Research is key. If my journeys are to help me understand complex places like Liberia or the Congo then I have to build up an intimate understanding of the history.
This means plenty of time in libraries and second-hand bookshops. But I must also prepare carefully in terms of logistics and security - it took three years to find someone willing to cross eastern Congo with me.
In Liberia I had to deal with a death threat still hanging over me from the regime of the ousted warlord, Charles Taylor.
Q: What is the most dangerous situation you have been in?
A: Hard to come up with a single superlative instance. After 19 years as a war correspondent and adventure travel writer, one develops an abnormally high tolerance for risk. Being called a spy by a gun-toting Congolese border guard was not good for morale.
Choosing not to go down a road in Sierra Leone where two journalist colleagues were killed in an ambush hours later was a close call.
As was being kicked off a helicopter flying into Iraq that crashed shortly after take off, killing all on board. But risks come to us all no matter where we are. One of the craziest things I ever did was bicycle across London at night in a snowstorm without lights.
Q: What has been the most thought-provoking or rewarding experience so far?
A: Again, hard to say what was most thought-provoking but perhaps my subconscious has made the choice for me.
In Bosnia I once found a Muslim woman driven to suicide after seeing her husband dragged off to be exterminated by Bosnian Serb paramilitaries. The woman hanged herself in a tree with her headscarf. That troubling image comes back to me in my sleep more than any.
Q: There must be moments while travelling when nothing happens. How do you entertain yourself?
A: I love tinkering with language, even if it is nothing more than learning a few words or even sounds. In Namibia trying to master the five different click sounds of Nama kept me going for days. I sounded like a ping-pong warm-up.
One of my proudest achievements was arriving in Albania during a coup in 1997 and leaving 10 days later with enough Shqip (for that is how Albanians refer to their mother tongue) to be able to ask the taxi driver how many children he had.
Q: Where will your next book be set?
A: The next book is a work in progress but I can say it reaches beyond Africa. - Reuters