A love affair with Africa (4.5 stars)
Source- personal copy
Published October 1984 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Paperback edition- 370 pages
Cry of the Kalahari is the story of Mark and Delia Owens- two American zoology students who embarked on their own research study in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970’s. After selling virtually everything they owned in order to fund their daring trip, they flew to Africa with only $6000 in their pocket, determined to live in the wild and study animals that had never encountered humans before. This is the tale of their seven years spent in the desolate wilderness of Botswana, with only the animals for company. Amidst the beauty and the barren landscape they encountered bush fires, drought, furious storms and sadly, poaching- and came to realise that even in such a beautiful country as Africa which they had somewhat idealised in their minds, there is still conflict and destruction.
This wonderful book is not only an inspirational, uplifting story; it is also a tale of survival and science. I have to admit when I first picked it up I did think that the Owens’ were absolutely crazy. Though I would love the opportunity to study animals close up, let alone in Africa, they seemed a bit ill-prepared from the outset and their initial trip was the very epitome of ‘winging it!’ The control freak in me shudders at the fact that they took such a massive chance, but then again that is why I admire them so much. They risked absolutely everything in order to study the animals that they loved and to try and better their lives and are really to be commended for that. That being said, they were camping out in the Kalahari Desert with lions, jackals and hyenas regularly wandering into their camp. That I certainly could not do! And the snakes! *Shudder*
The Botswana that the Owens’ write about really came alive for me from the pages of this atmospheric book. The descriptions of Botswana are very intricate, from the bustling cities and towns to the bleak, isolated emptiness of the desert. The Kalahari seemed unspoiled on the surface, a place where animals didn’t seem afraid of humans and the lions, hyenas and jackals let the Owens’ get incredibly close to them (incredible pictures in the book testify to this). Poaching appeared less rife decades ago and the Kalahari was such an inaccessible place that it was the perfect location for their research to be carried out. As the years progressed however, the researchers came into contact with miners and big game hunters, encroaching into the territory and it is amidst this backdrop that we witness their heartbreak as the species begin to be decimated by both hunting and environmental factors. In displays that were both poignant and moving, we comprehend the Owens’ realisation that much as they try to help, humans themselves will always cause the most devastating problems to nature. I also genuinely understand how they wanted to intervene to help the animals that they had grown to love, but sometimes couldn’t. I actually felt quite emotional in parts of this book as the families of animals that the Owens’ wrote about were hurt, grew sick or died.
This book was beautifully written throughout, told in alternating chapters by both Mark and Delia and very much an account of thoughts and feelings, not just science. There is some humour and their experiences are really unimaginable to the everyday person. I seriously don’t know how they survived their time there- sheer bullheadedness and grit I suppose! Or just plain luck. Their determination to study lions, hyenas and jackals in their natural habitat shines through and they themselves resort to a wholly primitive existence for almost a decade in order to get the job done. Their tenacity and independence in this respect is incredibly admirable. They also seem like warm-hearted, albeit crazy individuals!
I’ve deducted half a star from this book, merely as I did find that some information was repeated a couple of times. This could be down to the two narrators however as I didn’t really note who was saying what as I was so absorbed in what I was reading. It also grew to have more of a focus on politics towards its end- understandably so, but I felt this detracted from the rest of the text.
This wonderfully detailed account of life in 1970’s Botswana makes me want to visit the country even more and was a fascinating study of both animal and man- as well as the tale of a real love affair with Africa. Hopefully one day I will get to experience Africa for myself, though certainly not in the same way the Owens’ did and I also anticipate it will sadly be a very different continent from the one wrote about within these pages. It goes without saying that I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in animals, animal behavioural research, travelling and in Africa generally.