Don't be misled by the title of Paul Theroux's newest travel book. Dark Star Safari is about neither hunting nor the dark-hearted white hunter made mythic by Joseph Conrad. "The word 'safari,' in Swahili, means 'journey'; it has nothing to do with animals," Theroux writes.

Theroux lived and taught in Africa in the late 1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer. In Dark Star Safari, he returns to a very different continent after an absence of 30 years one that's been ripped apart by AIDS and violent political upheaval, and mercilessly stripped of its natural beauty. In search of the real Africa, Theroux takes his readers on a trek down unpaved roads. He rides on ferries that are prone to sink. He doesn't believe in making reservations, which lands him in smelly, mosquito-infested, three-dollar-a-night hotels. And he frequently has to wait days for a visa.

In the process, this deservedly acclaimed travel writer gives us an eye-opening view of Africa. Tribesmen murmur that elections are rigged. In some countries, almost every grown man has served time as a political prisoner. Though it is illegal, the trade in ivory is thriving, and Theroux predicts the imminent extinction of the Ethiopian elephant.

What makes his report even more heart-breaking is that Theroux sees all this with a sort of dual focus. He revisits the haunts of his youth, remembering the optimism of a newly independent Africa in the '60s. Where there were forests and exotic wildlife, now there is desert. Where there were lovely stucco and tile houses, now there is urban sprawl characterized by make-shift shacks. Poverty has no pride and begging is routine. Theroux is the thinking man's travel writer; in a seemingly casual, wandering fashion, he delivers a complete portrait of a continent's people, politics and economy. And what he finds in Africa is a continent in crisis. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.

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