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6 Books to Read Before Heading on an African Safari

6 min read
Published on Sep 20, 2019
Aren Bergstrom
By Aren BergstromManaging Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

When you’re not travelling, reading does a lot to illuminate the world. It lets you into the minds of others and helps you comprehend parts of the world you’ve never been to. It also helps you prep for experiences in the near future, such as an African safari. To inspire and motivate you, we’ve got six recommendations of what to read before you head on safari. To be clear, we’re not talking about guidebooks or general nonfiction works on Africa. You don’t need the recommendation to pick up a copy of a Lonely Planet or Fodor’s guide before you head on an international trip. However, if you’re looking for specific autobiographies or fiction books to read before heading to Africa to explore its mighty wild, we’ve got a few suggestions.

What books should I read before going on an African safari?

Memoirs About Africa and its Wildlife

Out of Africa

Karen Blixen’s memoir (published under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) about life in Kenya between 1913 and 1931 is among literature’s most romantic and evocative portraits of safari. When people mention an African safari transporting you back to the Golden Age of Travel, they mean the portrait of Africa that Blixen evokes in this book when recounting how her and her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, ran a coffee plantation in the Ngong Hills to the southwest of Nairobi. Among its many subjects are her fractured marriage to Bror, her relationship with British hunter, Denys Finch Hatton, and her love of the land and the people she meets in Kenya. Sydney Pollack adapted the memoir into his Oscar-winning film starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, but the original book provides so much of the romantic glow that carries over to the film, such as the iconic opening sentence: "I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills."

House of Karen Blixen seen from the front, Ngong Hills, Kenya
House of Karen Blixen seen from the front, Ngong Hills, Kenya

Gorillas in the Mist

This memoir is Dian Fossey’s account of working with the mountain gorillas of Virunga for 15 years between the late 60s and her murder in the 1980s. Fossey was an American primatologist who embedded herself in the jungle to closely observe the habits of the mountain gorilla, which are among the most critically endangered animals in the world. Her work was instrumental in helping to understand the family structures and tribal habits of mountain gorillas. She was also hugely supportive of anti-poaching efforts in Rwanda and the Congo. If you’re heading on a mountain gorilla trek in Uganda or Rwanda, this is the book to check out.

Mountain Gorilla With Three Day Old Baby, Virunga Mountains, Rwanda
Mountain gorilla with three day old baby, Virunga Mountains, Rwanda

Cry of the Kalahari: Seven Years in Africa’s Last Great Wilderness

If you want to know all about Africa’s famous animals, seek out Mark and Delia Owens’ autobiography, Cry of the Kalahari. This work recounts the experiences of the two American zoologists living in the remote Kalahari Desert of Botswana in the mid-1970s. During their experiences, they were isolated from human settlements and living alone in the wild to study lions, brown hyenas, jackals, and other desert predators. The book became a bestseller and continues to fascinate anyone with an interest in the wildlife of Southern Africa and the experiences of life far away from human habitation.

Black-backed jackal in Kalahari Desert in morning sun, Botswana
Black-backed jackal in Kalahari Desert in morning sun, Botswana

Ernest Hemingway’s Memoirs and Short Stories

Green Hills of Africa

Green Hills of Africa is Ernest Hemingway’s 1935 nonfiction work about a safari he took in East Africa in December 1933 with his second wife, Pauline. While it wasn’t received well at the time, Green Hills of Africa is among Hemingway’s most entertaining nonfiction works and describes the Tanzanian landscape of Lake Manyara in loving detail. Much of the book focuses on his hunting expeditions and his relationships with fellow white hunters and African trackers, but he also fits in literary ruminations about great writers of the past and comments about his own writing. Reading the book was one of my first encounters with East Africa in literature and it has held sway over my imagination ever since.

Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania
Lake Manyara National Park, Tanzania

The Snows of Kilimanjaro

This short story collection has some of the best short fiction in the English language. Only two stories are about Africa, but they are all-timers. The first is the title story, which is about a dying writer on safari in Africa who reminisces about his life and marriage. The opening narration describes Mount Kilimanjaro in a way that is impossibly evocative. The final story in the collection, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," also takes place on safari and deals with a cowardly man and his scornful wife. Many critics have called it Hemingway’s best work of short fiction. Both stories will conjure images of East Africa that you will want to experience for yourself.

Aerial view of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Aerial view of Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

True at First Light

This selection is a bit of a deep cut, but if you really like Hemingway’s writing, you should seek it out. This posthumous fictional memoir was published in 1999, almost 40 years after Hemingway’s death, and is his final work of long-form fiction. It tells the story of Hemingway and his final wife, Mary, on safari in Africa in December 1953, during their final visit to the continent and right before their near-fatal plane crashes in 1954. The novel has a casual narrative that recounts Hemingway’s relationship with his wife and the various African rangers and trackers in his employee. It’s best when it delves into observations about life as a writer and a white man in Africa, but even the subtle moments between Hemingway and the people he meets bear insight into Africa at this particular place and time.

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Aren Bergstrom
Aren Bergstrom
Goway - Managing Editor, Globetrotting Magazine

You might say that Aren was destined to become a globetrotter after his family took him to Germany two times before he was four. If that wasn’t enough, a term spent in Sweden as a young teenager and a trek across Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand confirmed that destiny. An independent writer, director, and film critic, Aren has travelled across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America. His favourite travel experience was visiting the major cities of Japan’s largest island, Honshu, but his love for food, drink, and film will take him anywhere that boasts great art and culture.

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