Lost opportunity chasing mirages in the Kalahari
As a boy I read Rider Haggard’s captivating books King Solomon’s Mines and She. Decades later, I watched the Indiana Jones movies; various Tarzan films and books were sandwiched in between.
I never considered that there could be a genuine history behind these blockbuster tales. Adam Cruise obviously did — massively and passionately.
A book, Through the Kalahari Desert, written in 1885 by Gilarmi Antonio Farini, crystallises Cruise’s vision of a lost African city in the southern part of the continent and inspires his determination to find it.
He is hooked, in particular, by Farini’s sketches and descriptions of what he claimed were ancient ruins and his map with map co-ordinates.
They lead Cruise nowhere. Actually, we learn that since the 1930s there have been more than 25 archaeological or scientific expedition into the Kalahari to find the Lost City.
Cruise recounts many of these, together with anecdotal snippets from surprisingly many adventurers, wanderers, hunters and travel writers in the century before him. He often provides mundane minutiae about which explorer gave guidance to another; what rumoured remnant of ancestral memory was passed on by a Damara leader or San headsman; or the routes taken by colonial prospectors seeking diamonds and dominion.
Cruise’s perseverance is admirable but — although occasionally spiking interest with tangential anecdotes of encounters with insects and predatory wildlife, or the effects of 50°C heat on his vehicle’s air-conditioning — the descriptions of his journeys are also tinged with monotony.
In these sections of the book the reader’s waning interest is exacerbated by the lack of a detailed current-day map, making his voyages difficult to follow. We are left to our own devices trying to decipher references to little-known villages, obscure landmarks and trickling or nonexistent rivers.
Cruise gives a broad directional context, but the intricacies of his crusades blur like the shifting sands of the desert. Except that the Kalahari sands, unlike other deserts, haven’t moved for 15,000 years. So it is implausible that the dozens of expeditions, aerial surveys and archaeological missions would have missed something — anything — because sand has blown over a lost city’s ruins.
Cruise knows this. But drawcard legends are intricate and entertaining, and verge on the cusp of possibility – enough, nearly, to convince even experts. So, like the hallucinatory pull of a desert mirage, he ventures back, repeatedly.
Eventually, after numerous treks provide not even a vague hint of success, realisation dawns that he needs to re-examine his primary source. As he delves deeper into the backstory to Through the Kalahari Desert, and the life of Farini, he makes salient discoveries.
Farini — real name William Leonard Hunt — was a fascinating eccentric: acrobat, daredevil, impresario, painter, First World War historian, inventor and horticulturist. Above all, as the showman of the book’s title, he built his fortune and not inconsiderable fame by capitalising on the Victorian-era obsession with the bizarre, the mysterious, and legends from far-flung corners of the world.
Cruise comes to accept that Farini’s book was at least part fiction, and his allusions to glorious ruins a tease, a hoax — in keeping with his character and the nature of his occupation and social circle.
As Cruise unravels the life and times of Farini, the book begins to engage. But there is a deeper flaw: he sprouts some outlandish theories to rationalise his obsession and motivate his multiple expeditions.
An unusual, twisting amalgam of travelogue, historical fiction, fantasy and geologic treatise
The idea, for example, that in the third millennium BC the Phoenicians, just maybe, sailed up the Orange River and established trading posts and cities in the interior, is hypothesised from the stories of Herodotus.
He quotes reputable geologists to underpin the truth that the Kalahari was once a wetter region, but its climate hasn’t changed in more than 15 millennia, so it holds no water to believe the region could sustain the life of a "city", even allowing for reduced population scales.
Even quirkier is the over-reach into Greek mythology, as Cruise sidetracks beyond classical antiquity to the roots of Plato’s story of Atlantis, seemingly ignoring that scholars accept this tale as allegorical.
He throws in Old Testament references to the city of gold, Ophir, the source of the wealth and the grand gifts Queen Sheba supposedly gave to King Solomon. But while Ophir’s existence is more possible than Atlantis, its theoretical location is today’s Yemen, not Africa.
It gets even more bizarre. Cruise makes much of the fact that Alan Paton was also a Lost City enthusiast, and to reinforce his imaginative investment Cruise invokes the plot of Wilbur Smith’s 1972 novel The Sunbird, as if name-dropping novelists’ fiction is a persuasive reason to believe.
All of this strains credulity, again making engagement with the book more difficult. It has vague merit only if we imagine Cruise wrote tongue-in-cheek, replicating Farini.
Ultimately, not all of those who embark on intrepid exploits are necessarily adept storytellers, capable of a compelling narrative style which has continuity despite the very nature – stop-start, encumbered and circuitous – of their explorations or quests.
As extreme adventurer Ranulph Fiennes says, referring to his epic 2014 autobiography Cold: Extreme Adventures at the Lowest Temperatures on Earth, "I use the term adventures loosely as, between you and me, writing is not my strong point and much of it will seem quite dull."
If this seems harsh, it’s not intended to detract from what is an unusual, twisting amalgam of travelogue, historical fiction, anthropological fantasy and geologic treatise of the remote Kalahari expanse.
If his intention was to create a romanticised reprise of a legend rooted in Africa, Cruise has succeeded. But readers must be willing to suspend belief for the sake of a yarn which is intriguing only in parts, and accept this book more as a contribution to fanning the embers of classic, boyhood adventure fantasies than as a serious archaeological exploration.