Essential books and films to inspire a trip to the complex, vibrant and visually arresting African continent


The great travel writer traverses the length of Africa by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry and train, through epic, often fraught, landscapes, including the Nubian Valley, the mountains of Tanzania and the game reserves of South Africa. He endures danger and delay, talks to locals, aid workers and tourists, and unravels the history, politics and beauty of Africa and its people.

THINGS FALL APART (1958) Chinua Achebe

Exploring the tension between the white colonial government and traditional society in Nigeria in the 1890s, this novel follows Okonkwo, an Igbo leader and wrestling champion, in the fictional village of Umofia as he battles with issues surrounding masculinity and status while local customs are eroded by Christian missionaries and the imposition of foreign law. It’s an explosive, haunting tale that offers a colourful, nuanced portrait of precolonial Nigeria.

HEART OF DARKNESS (1899) Joseph Conrad

This classic tale of madness and imperialism ventures into the depths of the Congo, as the protagonist, Charles Marlow, searches by foot and steamboat for the enigmatic ivory extractor Mr Kurtz, who’s developed an unorthodox relationship with the jungle’s tribesmen. Conrad’s most famous novel was used as the source text for Francis Ford Coppola’s disturbing 1979 film portrayal of the
Vietnam War, Apocalypse Now. Since the dissolution of the British Empire, many critics have found issue with Conrad’s depiction of Africa; nevertheless, it’s an unsettling, gripping read.

BORN FREE (1966)

The heartwarming account of real-life naturalists Joy and George Adamson (played by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers) who befriend and raise a young lioness, Elsa, in Kenya and face the challenge of reintegrating her into the wild. Beautiful panning shots of the wild, corn-yellow plains of southeastern Africa are paired with spectacular close-ups of lions and savannah wildlife; the perfect inspiration for a safari. The making of the film was a life-changing experience for the actors, who went on to become animal rights activists and were instrumental in creating the Born Free Foundation.


This epic film chronicles the turbulent relationships of Karen Blixen, a real-life Danish woman who moved to British East Africa (today’s Kenya) in 1913 to start a farm. Meryl Streep’s performance as the independent-spirited Karen is breathtaking, and the romance between her character and Robert Redford’s Denys Finch Hatton, a big game hunter, is one for all ages. It’s all set against the wild, hot expanses and big skies of Kenya, and there’s no shortage of danger, discovery and wildlife on screen as Karen explores her new home. Awards — including seven Oscars — were, quite rightly, heapedon this film.

IN ARABIAN NIGHTS (2007) Tahir Shah

Taking up where his critically acclaimed travel account The Caliph’s House (2006) leaves off, Anglo-Afghan explorer Shah journeys further into colourful Morocco, turning it inside out via the lens of its wise, folkloric fables. Through the labyrinthine medinas of Fez and across the sands of the Sahara, the reader meets a vivid cast of storytellers — including astrologers, superstitious beekeepers and a Marrakchi raconteur whose family has told stories on the same corner of Jemaa el Fna for nine generations — all recounted in entertaining, engaging prose.

Published in National Geographic Traveller: The Collection — Africa 2016

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