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Putting your African Adventure to Shame: Kilimanjaro by Lionback

I have a surprise announcement. I will be returning to Africa next week. Back to Mali? No. Mali has incredible people and otherworldly music, but there is nothing else I can conquer there. I already went to Timbuktu and I’ve climbed the Hand of Fatima like 14 times. On this trip I will be going to Mt. Kilimanjaro. It is one of the few things, along with going on safari, that actually make Africa worth visiting. I won’t just be climbing Kilimanjaro, though.

I plan on skydiving to the summit. Kili is pretty high up. Like 20,000 feet. I may actually have to jump from space. During the descent, I will be bench-pressing a lion. When I land on the summit I will ride said lion to the base before climbing back up unassisted. I will do my best not to contract AIDS or malaria in the process. Afterwards I will visit some tribes and watch them dance and play drums before I fly home. Did I mention this is happening on the dark continent? Then I will write a blog post about it that will more or less amount to my ego taking a shit all over you. I will later write a book that will do the same thing.

Most travel writing about Africa is not so obnoxious. It’s more subtle. But the effect can be similar. There are a lot of ego-driven accounts that treat Africa as a trophy, the final travel frontier, a place where life is uniformly difficult – the traveler is miserable and so are the people. With a backdrop of malaria, famine, civil conflict, and AIDS, such a report is easy to formulate. Embellishment and pure fabrication can be employed if the story is not dramatic enough.

In a misguided attempt to entertain my readers, this blog was once narrowly focused on my bowel movements. Sensitive to the fact that I had an audience, I tried to hold their attention by sharing the most outrageous things that happened to me. But I also should have been sensitive to the fact that I was informing a group of people about West Africa, a part of the world that is subject to some of the most deficient and one-dimensional news coverage.

With encouragement from others, I changed my approach. I started writing more about everyday life, about jokes and music and language. This didn’t make my blog forced or less authentic. If anything, it was forced when I was writing solely about my trials and tribulations. I expected my readership to decline along with the shock value. It didn’t. In fact, it grew. This blog has five times as many visitors as it did a year ago, yet I do less and less to promote it. I still write narratives and I still talk about the difficult aspects of travel in West Africa, but those reports are tempered by experiences of joy, discovery, and normalcy.

Everyone travels differently and that’s how it should be. This is not about how you travel. It’s about how you report it. There are no obligations in the realm of narrative travel writing, but know this: it’s possible to write about travel in Africa without it coming across merely as conquest of a difficult place. You may actually find that your readers appreciate a revelation about Africa moreso than a confirmation of their beliefs, which are, in the case of Africa, often doubts more than anything else.

Notes: I have no problem with people that go to Africa only for safari or Kilimanjaro. I just don’t like it when they think that’s all there is to the continent. It’s possible to do those things and acknowledge that there is still so much more (see this post from Audrey and Daniel or this one from Tyler). Also, I have never climbed the Hand of Fatima.

Up next: my actual travel plans..

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{ 34 comments… add one }

  • Dalene August 22, 2011, 8:58 am

    What? So you’re not benchpressing a lion? That’s it. *Unsubscribing*.

    KIDDING, obvs. It’s your approach to writing about Africa that keeps us coming back. And, planning our own travels there… πŸ™‚

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:02 pm

      Thanks Dalene! Let me know when you are going πŸ™‚

  • Jeruen August 22, 2011, 9:18 am

    Hello Phil,

    I loved this post. In fact, this post is perhaps the reason why your blog is one of the few travel blogs out there that I actually carefully read, and not just skim. It has everything to do with reporting.

    The thing is, after being on the receiving end of travel blogs, I realized that there is this fad it seems, that travel blogs is all about two things, 1) lists, and 2) bragging rights. Most travel blogs give me top ten things to do in X, and so forth. While making lists is not bad, I suppose I want something more than that. Your blog definitely has way more than that, it shows your personality.

    And yes, I also agree about the notion of conquest. It makes an implicit assumption that the traveler is above the locals, that the traveler has conquered the place and its inhabitants, when really, that shouldn’t be the case.

    I love traveling too, but since I am more of a student in graduate school than a full-time traveler, my blog is a mixture of things and not a full-time travel blog. Sometimes, it is discouraging to report on my travels because most of the other travel blogs are just blah, lists and bragging rights, which is why perhaps my travelogues are instead heavy on the pictures and not on the words.

    Oh well, I didn’t want this comment to be a rant, so I’ll stop here. Keep on writing!

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:07 pm

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I appreciate the kind words. You’re right, there are a lot of travel blogs that are very one-dimensional. At the same time, there are also a lot of great ones and many that do a good job writing about travel in Africa. Like you, I know how easy it can be to rant about it, but I try to keep things in perspective as much as possible. Blog posts that are like bragging rights, though, are unreadable to me.

  • Kay Johnson August 22, 2011, 11:43 am

    Try to meet up with the Samburu people. I’m not sure if they are north or south of where you will be !

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:08 pm

      I’m in the states right now πŸ˜›

  • Faith August 22, 2011, 11:08 pm

    I’ve read a fair number of memoirs and articles on Africa… it’s a place that’s always interested in me, and I know what you’re talking about. It gets really annoying when a book just takes the problems approach–when people start writing more about their actual experiences, more all inclusive, Africa sounds more real and less like a made up place.

    I look forward to hearing abotu your actual travel plans. They better include that lion!

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:09 pm

      Hi Faith,
      Thanks for the comment πŸ™‚ I will see what I can do to fit a lion into my travel plans. Do I need to be riding it?

  • Andi of My Beautiful Adventures August 23, 2011, 12:09 pm

    I love your sense of humor, never loose that! I can’t wait to see what your plans are.

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:11 pm

      Thanks Andi. I’ll give you a hint: they involve the festival in the desert πŸ™‚

  • Rizwan August 23, 2011, 12:52 pm

    I spend a lot of time disabusing people of their ideas about Africa, and find it particularly sad when I see people planning Cairo to Cape Town or reverse trips and then presenting them as major undertakings – a conquering of ‘Africa’ which of course is referenced as just one country; when in fact the whole journey especially down the East Side except maybe through Sudan right now is easy as pie. Decent roads, planes, buses, trains, hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars, shops, mobiles, wifi, 3G and everything else you expect from any other urbanisation in the world. That’s not to say you can’t make it difficult for yourself if you want to. I’m sure some hero has actually attempted to benchpress a Lion and then been surprised to find himself an arm or maybe even a whole body short. The book sales I suppose make it worth being an idiot.

    Keep writing the way you feel. The blog reads more insightful and mature than it used to be. I miss some of the genius humour sometimes, but the writing is nevertheless excellent and you make a great ambassador.

    Stay cool and come visit us in Malaysia! If you are actually going to East Africa let me know. I’ll connect you with friends.



    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:20 pm

      Rizwan, I hope you’re getting some rest man!! I will definitely let you know if I’m in that part of the world. Will you be sticking around Malaysia for a bit? Getting a place there? My plans right now involve West Africa once again, but we will see from there πŸ™‚ This blog is lacking humor?? The lion bit wasn’t good enough for you??
      Thanks for the comment πŸ˜‰

      • Rizwan August 23, 2011, 5:41 pm

        Lol too close to the bone mate. Painful to read cos its so bloody true. Superb satire though. Still genius πŸ™‚

  • Matt Christie August 23, 2011, 3:16 pm

    Classic. I was a bit sad you were not coming to Mali when I first started reading.

    • phil August 23, 2011, 3:24 pm

      I’ve received 3 very angry emails so far from people telling me how insensitive I am for trying to ride a lion down kilimanjaro. One of the emails used 5 sentences to tell me that it is logistically impossible to ride a lion. Good grief. I’m glad you read past the first paragraphs πŸ™‚ I’ll be in Mali soon, inshallah

      • Matt Christie August 25, 2011, 3:07 am

        I knew you were joking when you said you were going to bench press a lion. I have seen your arms. I must admit that I am ashamed of my gullibility. I was a little envious that you were going to be skydiving on to Killi from outer-space. Oooh la la.

        • phil August 25, 2011, 9:02 am

          Matt, are you challenging me? Ok. When I return to Mali, we are going to have a lifting contest. 50000 cfa to the winner πŸ˜‰

  • Katrina August 23, 2011, 5:56 pm

    Aww, thanks for the mention, Phil. You already know I love your blog, so I’m not going to stroke your ego any more by telling you again. Besides, *everyone knows* camels > lions for pure awesomeness! πŸ˜‰

    • phil August 23, 2011, 10:40 pm

      “*everyone knows* camels > lions for pure awesomeness!”

      Yes!! Thank you, Katrina

  • Kay Johnson August 25, 2011, 9:08 am

    So – r u going to Mali via Kili ? It’s a giant footprint !!! But u could also take in the Wodabee. That’s y I wanted to go to Niger !

    • phil August 25, 2011, 9:11 am

      No Kili for me this time. Only Mali πŸ˜‰

  • pam August 28, 2011, 11:30 pm

    I’m leaving to go on a safari in two weeks, so finding this post is sort of timely. And it made me laugh and laugh and laugh at first, and then I had to have a bit of a think about how I will write about the experience. Perhaps my posts will involve bungee jumping in a harness I share with an elephant…

    So, seriously… I recently started reading the news from Tanzania as published in Tanzanian papers online. It’s been, um, enlightening and kind of weird and already has me reconsidering the way I think about where I’m off to next.

    • phil August 29, 2011, 12:52 pm

      Hey Pam,
      Glad you enjoyed the post. I would LOVE to read about tandem bungee jumping with an elephant πŸ˜‰ Reading the newspapers before you go- that’s a great approach, I think. I think I will start doing that myself! I enjoy your writing for many reasons, one of them being that it is always very thoughtful. I’m looking forward to reading about your trip πŸ™‚

  • Sarah August 31, 2011, 9:16 am

    Hi Phil…I love traveling too..but now I’m a student as a BS-Accountancy..so if there’s a chance to travel ..I want to go to Africa experiencing what you had experience when you where there and I’ll share it..

  • Rena Jane August 31, 2011, 9:17 am

    Hello phil..thanks for sharing your experience..

  • Tami August 31, 2011, 3:54 pm

    Phil, I think your blog is one of the best out there, not just in the travel genre but in general. Because you are real, and you care. Many of the things you’ve written have come to my mind during the last three months that I’ve been in Kenya – as you point out, anyone writing about travel in other countries, especially Africa, is likely making a stronger impression than they might think at first.

    Personally I like both approaches you’ve taken, because even when you were “just” talking about hardship (and poop), your humanity and, dare I say with admiration, humility showed through. But yes, it’s also true that as you have grown as a travel writer, you now more effectively illuminate the truly meaningful things that not everyone gets a chance to see or experience for themselves. Bravo to you!

    As for me, I have had it really easy in Africa, and my narrative, should I ever get it together to actually write anything, will be mostly about how, when open minds meet open hearts, wonderful, transcendental things can happen.

    Meanwhile, I am still hoping to meet up with you in Mali and play a round of Catan or two!

    PS: For the record, I am eating mangoes just about every day. And I’m in Nairobi again for a couple days and I’ve stocked up on camel milk!!

    • phil August 31, 2011, 11:00 pm

      Thanks for your comment and the kind words. I am very happy to hear that’s what your narrative is looking like! I can’t wait to hear more when we are playing catan in Mali together πŸ™‚ If you arrive in Mali in November, how long will you stay there?? Unfortunately, we won’t have mangoes !!! But we will have a season fruit called soun soun that is awesome πŸ™‚

  • Erica August 31, 2011, 5:04 pm

    Oh man, while I do love your writing about Africa, I was really looking forward to you skydiving to the summit while bench pressing a lion.. if you could only add jazz hands to the whole thing it may be complete.

    Been loving seeing how your blog has changed. We’ll be here with you the entire way Phil!

    • phil August 31, 2011, 11:02 pm

      Given adequate encouragement, I will go through with the skydiving plans. I think jazz hands would be easy enough to add to the mix πŸ˜‰ Thanks for the kind words, Erica!

  • Sally September 1, 2011, 12:04 am

    What? No living among the jungle beasts and becoming adopted by the King of the Apes? I did that last year. You can read about it on my “Top Ten Things I Did in Africa That You Would Never Do Because You’re Not as Cool as Me.” This year I plan to adopt an elephant and teach it how to speak Portuguese. Prepare yourself for that blog post! I’m thinking it will be entitled “Top 10 Reasons My African Adventure Kicked Your African Adventure’s Ass”

    • phil September 1, 2011, 10:41 am

      Wow. And here I thought I was going to be doing special. What can I say, Sally. I am in awe of you. PLEASE write this post: “Top 10 Reasons My African Adventure Kicked Your African Adventure’s Ass” I would spend the rest of my life trying to get people to read it.

  • Ekua September 11, 2011, 4:42 pm

    I like that you go to the same places over and over again and that you write about your experiences as they happen. Travel writing can be seen as such a frivolous thing, but I think when people have honest experiences abroad and write honestly about them, the genre is a lot more meaningful… especially when it comes to places like Africa that a lot of people know nothing about aside from safaris or the dramatic headlines they see when a country is in crisis.

  • Menbi April 4, 2012, 3:57 am

    Phil, like I said on twitter, I have been reading your blogs today. So when I read the first paragraph of this post, I was shocked. I was telling my self “oh after all he is just another Westerner traveling to through Africa just to brag”. So I stopped reading and when to the comments that is when I realized you were being sarcastic. I went back and read the whole post and it truly was a very informative post.
    I am from Ethiopia and since Africa is not a country, I know very little about Mali and the rest of West Africa (save may be Nigeria and Ghana). I have learned a lot from reading your blog.

  • LIly March 26, 2013, 12:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree MORE!!! I have actually thought of traveling back just to make that point. Great post.

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