Seeing the light side of Africa

by
22 February 2013

These letters are full of fun, Alexander Lucie-Smith finds

Ride the Wings of the Morning: Letters to and from Africa
Sophie Neville
Lulu.com £9.99
(978-1-47524447-2)

IN THE early 1990s, Sophie Neville went out to South Africa to work for a horse-safari company in the Northern Transvaal, in an area called the Waterberg. Most tourists to Africa see the wildlife from the back of a minibus with a raised roof. Riding out into the bush to see wild animals close up sounds much more fun. But it can also be rather dangerous.

Neville's letters home speak of people's experience of being charged by rhinos, as well as other misadventures. No one is ever killed on her horse safaris, although there are a few narrow escapes. But these letters home are written in a comic, not a tragic, key; so being chased by a rhino sounds fun rather than otherwise.

The letters cover the decade of the 1990s, a period when South Africa was emerging from the period of apartheid. The Waterberg is remote farming country, an Afrikaner stronghold, and subject to all the doleful things that we hear in media reports - the scourge of AIDS, droughts, the rising tide of violence - as well as an appalling standard of road safety, which we tend to hear little about.

Neville does not obscure these things, but it is clear that Africa is so much more than the bad-news stories. Even though she contracts potentially deadly diseases, such as bilharzia and amoebic dysentery, besides breaking her pelvis in two places in a road smash, her tone is positive throughout. There are also romantic complications with Afrikaner farmers which do not quite break her heart. I suspect that her ever-present but understated faith has something to do with this.

The astonishing natural beauties of the Waterberg dominate many of the letters; but she travels far and wide in her safaris, into Namibia, Botswana, and Mozambique, too. Namibia, with its deserts and sand dunes, sounds enchanting, as does the famous Okavango Delta in Botswana, one of Africa's must-see attractions.

Also included are various letters from the two sisters whom Neville left in England, which describe lives full of husbands, horses, babies, and other animals, as well as a delightfully eccentric mother. Perhaps Berkshire is never going to be as exciting as Africa, but these letters are deeply amusing, and reminded me, in their texture, of the "Home Life" column of Alice Thomas Ellis in The Spectator some decades ago. The sisters have an eye for

the absurd. Nothing really gets them down for long. Their correspond-ence is an affirmation of all the reasons why life is, in the end, such great fun.

Horsey people will adore this book, as will Africa enthusiasts, but so, too, will all those who love to eavesdrop on the intimate disclosures that make up the lives of others.

Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith is the author of Narrative Theology and Moral Theology (Ashgate, 2007).

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