Book Review: The Last Train to Zona Verde

Posted: July 27, 2013 in Uncategorized

In the final chapter of Theroux’s anti-travel, travel, novel, he keeps asking himself, ‘What am I doing here?’ over and over again. And I could not help but wonder then what I was doing still reading his book at that point.’ Image


The Last Train to Zona Verde is bound to leave you feeling morbidly depressed, not only about the African continent, but the world in general. Throw in Paul Theroux’s tedious grappling with his mortality and his peculiar obsession with urban and rural African squalor and depravity and you will start thinking of surfing the travel channels from the safety of your couch.


I rather enjoyed his previous African jaunt, Dark Star Safari, and more so The Great Railway Bazaar, despite his jaundice eye, very subtle racism masquerading as irony and dark comedy, and inflated ego. The man can turn a beautiful phrase when he is on a roll. His brave adventures into the back roads are admirable as is his very public display of trying to understand the political and social heartbeat of the various countries. However, reading The Last Train, especially the first and last chapter, was like chewing on an old sweaty sock.


The book opens with his description of the Namibian Ju’hoansi people, ‘I then resumed kicking behind a file of small-bodied, mostly naked men and women who were quick-stepping under a sky fretted with golden fire…pouch-breasted women laughing among themselves, an infant with a head like a fuzzy fruit bobbing in one woman’s sling, men in leather clouts clutching spears and bows – and I was thinking, as I’d thought for years traveling the earth among humankind: The best of them are bare-assed.’Image


And so he continues describing what he sees and experiences, his opinion, ego, tiresome philosophizing, and amateur stabs at anthropology, drowning out the essence of the people and a balanced view of the land.


The Ju’hoansi people perform a demonstration of their traditional way of life for him and he is utterly gutted when he discovers it is all just a show. I find this incredibly naïve for a man who has lived in Africa for many years and extensively explored the continent.


His endless rants about celebs, such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt and Bono, providing aid in Africa, feel petty and become tiresome. His commentary and thoughts appear schizophrenic at times as he laments that traveling through perfectly pretty seaside villages leaves him slightly bored and with nothing to write. Yet when he tosses himself into the great writing fodder of African squalor and misery he gets squeamish, homesick and depressed. It’s a little confusing.


Perhaps the most difficult bit to handle is his repetitive references to the poverty, bandits, beggars, filth and utter desperation that for him makes up the sum of Angola.


‘That was how Angolan laughter sounded to me – insane and chattering and agonic, like an amplified death rattle.’- he writers. For him Angola is only ‘broken signs, slumping power cables, burst-open boxes of garbage, a tidemark of muddy litter, a muttonish smell in the air as of goat breath and decayed meat.’


Maybe this is an accurate description of Angola, I have never been. But I have traveled through the armpit of countries and it’s never just all decrepitude and despair. I suspect it is more a sign of Theroux’s travel weary mind urging him to go home. And he himself finally admits it at the end when he ironically doesn’t even make the last train to Zona Verde.


Despite the above criticism I would recommend the book purely for its chapters on South Africa. Skip the utterly boring bit where he rambles on about living in his super luxurious hotel and everything he ate there, yawn, and go straight to his description of the political situation in South Africa. It is brilliantly written, spot on, and a hilarious take on our bizarre leaders and their shenanigans.  In South Africa we have visitors, mostly foreigners, to some of our worst townships and squatter camps. We call it township tours and applaud it for innovation. Theroux calls it poverty porn, which I found rather apt and darkly humorous, because of the truth of it.


Oddly enough it appears that Theroux, the budding historian and amateur anthropologist, is the one travel writer who has made a living out of writing about how much he hates traveling.


Astrid Stark




Still one of my favourite off the wall musicals, this reincarnation of The Rocky Horror Show doesn’t disappoint, and it even turns the raunchiness, mayhem and giggles up a couple notches. It has been 40 years since the production opened for the first time but the themes of blossoming sexuality, lust, betrayal, sexual identity and anti-establishment are still relevant today. Toss in a good dollop of writer Richard O’Brien’sImage fascination with science fiction and B Horror movies, an excellent and passionate cast and wicked stage and lighting design, and you are in for one helluva fabulous rollercoaster ride.

The costumes are deliciously saucy and you can see designer Penny Simpson was having a blast. Apart from a wickedly funny story line and some unforgettable characters, the music, for me, is what truly sets this piece of theatre apart.  And every self-respecting Rocky fan was singing along. With such a large talented cast and crew it seems unfair to single anyone out but I am going to have to admit that Andrew Laubscher’s Riff Raff looked fantastic and he simply became his eccentric character. Jenny Stead makes a perfect Janet – with the original Janet, Susan Sarandon, as role model – it can’t be easy. For me however there can only be one Frank-N-Furter and Tim Curry’s is a tough act to follow. I would recommend getting a bunch of your best mates together, dress up – do it! – it’s so much more fun, and get your audience participation packet for a hilariously sexy night out.

The all South African cast includes Paul du Toit as Brad, Jenny Stead as Janet, Pierre Van Heerden as Dr. Scott & Eddie, Brendan Van Rhyn as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, Andrew Laubscher as Riff Raff, Daneel Van Der Walt as Magenta, Lucy Tops as the Usherette, Dominique as Columbia, newcomer Shaun Smit as Rocky and Adrian Galley as The Narrator.  Jenna Robinson Child, Angela Inglis, Zolani Shangase and Tarquinn Whitebooi are the ensemble and understudy cast.

The production is directed by Fleur Du Cap Best Director Nominee Matthew Wild Designers on the production are Tina Driedijk and Penny Simpson with Musical Supervision by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder Musical Direction by Stefan Lombard who will be assisted by Roelof Coelyn. Choreography is by Louisa Talbot and High School Musical, soloist for The Cape Dance Company and Bovim Ballet. Alex Tops is the Resident Director.

On at The Fugard Theatre.

Astrid Stark

High EQ

Dame Janet Suzman is great. It is to be expected. But newbie Khayalethu Anthony threatens to steal her thunder in this beautifully written play. Lara Foot, writer of

Solomon and Marion, drew her inspiration for this accomplished work from the social and political situation in South Africa, and in particular the brutal murder of actor Brett Goldin, and his mother’s response to the tragedy.

Suzman is a mother who has lost her son to violence and her daughter to emigration; not an uncommon situation in this country. She is wrapped up in her misery until she meets the young Solomon (Khayalethu Anthony) and together they embark on an emotional journey to truth, acceptance, forgiveness and eventual release. The emotions are raw and it is not exactly a happy story but through Foot’s words and Suzman and Solomon’s superb acting it is brought to life beautifully and it is utterly mesmerizing. Image

Suzman’s extremely experienced and calculated acting is neatly balanced by Solomon’s youthful, slightly dangerous, honest acting. The weight of the play feels just right between these two.  Twenty-six-year-old Khayalethu Anthony made his mainstream theatre debut with this production in the role of the young Solomon. He was nominated for Best Script Writer at the Baxter’s 2011 Zabalaza Theatre Festival where he wrote and directed Inqwithelo Zemimoya, performed in isiXhosa.

“I started googling the name Janet Suzman just after I heard that I got the role. I felt like I have a mountain to climb. She is a world-class actress with an incredible performance reputation. To share the same stage with one of the finest actors in the world is more than a privilege for me; it is more than an honour. It just simply is the best thing that has happened to me in my life.”- Anthony.

Despite his feelings, Khayalethu Anthony seemed comfortable and confident sharing a stage with one of our country’s leading actresses.

Patric Curtis’ design is sumptuous and detailed – gorgeous. And Mannie Manim’s lighting adds ambience to the stage.

One not to miss.

Runs only until Solomon and Marion runs 20 July at The Baxter Golden Arrow Studio. 7pm and booking is through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, on-line at or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet countrywide

 When I think about David Byrne of Talking Heads, his punchy song, Psycho Killer, and the peculiar genius of the Sledgehammer music video springs to mind.

 A lesser-known fact is that he is a keen follower of what he calls, ‘The Fantastic Voyage’: the exploration of the heartbeat and inner workings of urban landscapes from the seat of his beloved bike. Since the early 80’s Byrne used a bicycle as his main form of transportation in New York City. He soon discovered folding bikes and… voilla, he was in love. He took his bike with him on concerts and for thirty years he kept cycling around cities such as London, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Manila and many more.


Over the years he slowly pedaled through ever-changing urban landscapes and carefully recorded each journey. His writings are poignant and clever and at times sad as he describes the neglect, greed and eventual decay all around him. It is also very funny when he cleverly weaves in anecdotes of the band’s wild days and explorations of the different cultures. Byrne is like a sponge. Everywhere he cycles, he absorbs and allows himself to be fully mesmerized and enchanted by the people and the cities.  His open mind is wondrous, like that of a child, but his writing is that of an old soul. This is a real gem.

Byrne says it best when he describes his point of view from a bicycle, “Faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person: this became my panoramic window on much of the world over the last thirty years. Through this window I catch glimpses of the mind of my fellow man, as expressed in the cities he lives in. Cities, it occurred to me are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts. Riding a bike through all this is like navigating the collective neuron pathway of some vas global mind. It really is a trip inside the collective psyche of a compacted group of people. A Fantastic Voyage but without the cheesy special effects.

Eloquently written, insightful, rambling, funny, and sometimes delightfully rude. A must-read.

@Astrid Stark

“Sometimes a journey arises out of hope and instinct, the heady conviction, as your finger travels along the map: Yes, here and here… and here. These are the nerve endings of the world…

A Hundred reasons clamour for your going. You go to touch on human identities, to people an empty map. You have a notion that this is the world’s heart.”


After reading just the first few pages into prolific travel writer, Colin Thubron’s journey along the Silk Road, I guarantee you will be captivated. It is part travelogue, part historical re-exploration and anthropology, written in a somewhat poetic philosophical style that is easily accessible and a great read. Especially if you are planning on exploring this route by bicycle on the

Thubron chose the easy way out, kind off: he hopped on buses, donkey carts, trains, jeeps and camels through the drifts of the first great trade route, the heart of China, into the mountains of Central Asia, across northern Afghanistan and the plains of Iran into Kurdish Turkey. And even then it is a harrowing journey. I wonder if he could do it all over again, on a bicycle, if he would sign up? After all the TDA’s Silk Route Bicycle Tour has been described as “The longest, hardest, highest, hottest, coldest bicycle expedition on the planet.”

As you read Thubron’s tale your eyes will stumble over names like Xian, Lanzhou, Anxi, Charklik, Cherchen and Kashgar, and many times I had to go back to the map to try to figure out just where I am.  Perhaps it is just me, coming from a sunny country like South Africa with mostly easy to pronounce names, and not too many vast and curious stretches of lands still whispering of arduous journeys and ill-fated travelers. Yet he makes the journey accessible by his interactions with the locals, his honest curiosity and all the research he prepared. His description of the silk moth’s life span is as funny as it is chilling. He spends time to speak to strangers, visit mosques and even did a stretch being incarcerated in a Chinese cell. He encounters Hunan traders, Uzbek prostitutes and volatile Kurdish Turks. There is also that bit about him receiving root canal treatment without anesthetic in Iran, which should serve as a serious reminder for anybody taking on this journey, to visit the dentist prior.  Perhaps one criticism is that he gets somewhat nostalgic and too literary as he explores some of the people and places he meets. However his writing is filled with compassion as he attends burials and speaks to the relatives which reveal as much of the history of the locals as of their modern adaptations to an ever-changing world.

I would not take this book along on your journey as a light-hearted recount of the Silk Route but would rather recommend that you read it well in advance and let his evocative, poetic explorations sink into your psyche and hopefully, when you do get the chance to do this incredible journey, you will in part see it through his sage like eyes, which is what any decent travel writer should aspire too.

Keen to explore his journey by bike? The TDA is a 12,100 kilometer self-powered caravan that begins at Shanghai, China, the bustling center of China’s economic rise, and follows the classic Silk Route across fiery deserts and forbidding mountains. Eighteen weeks later you will arrive in faraway Istanbul, the majestic capitol of Byzantium, the Roman Empire.

One of the riders, of the 2007 Silk Route, Jo Demmler, says it best: “Beautiful sunsets, early morning sunrises, days of biking heaven, days of biking chaos, extreme temperatures , different cultures, headwinds, hills, heat, a cold beer at the end of the day, sharing tea, vodka & beer with generous locals, desert camps, sore bum, bike maintenance, snow, ice and yurts, kids on the streets, high fives, rough and smooth roads, long days, history, culture, architecture, generosity, markets, food, life long friendships” @Astrid Stark

I am not sure what is going on. It is nearly winter solstice, rainy season, in Cape Town and we are experiencing ridiculously balmy sunshine days and clear skies. So it was an obvious decision to take a Sunday trip out to the gorgeous seaside village of Kalk Bay.

I have eaten my way through Kalk Bay, several times, so I got pretty excited about trying out the newly opened tapas bar and restaurant, next to the Olympic Bakery, in the main road. Even more so when I discovered La Parada’s chef, Eva de Jesús Galán, hails from Spain and has worked in a 3 star Michelin Restaurant.  ImageImage

Expectations were high. And we were not disappointed. The restaurant is small and cosy with long gorgeous wooden tables that open up the possibility of sharing your tapas or drinks with complete strangers, which inevitably happens. It overlooks the ocean and other daytrippers stroll by your window as you leisurely nibble your way through the menu. Complimentary tapas are offered with your drinks. Eva’s marinated olives are delicious and spicy.

My Cousin of Awesomeness, who has been working in the industry for years and who has an appetite for life and food bar none, almost platzed when he sampled the fresh Serrano ham. He actually stopped talking for almost three minutes which is highly unusual. The Serrano ham is cured locally by a fellow called Lucas Jamon. True story. Jamon of course being the Spanish word for ham. Talk about being born into your destiny.

I love the yellowtail with salsa verde. Yellowtail is not my favourite fish as it can be quite wild and strong in taste but the team cooked this up to perfection, the salsa tames the fish somewhat and they grilled it to juicy perfection. The Cousin had the Grilled Lamb with honey mustard, garlic and rosemary and said it was utterly delicious but a little bit too much to finish. Hard to believe, anyway I am sure the car guard loved it. The crouquetas de jamon and prawn croquettes are creamy and utterly delicious. I can’t imagine a better way than to sample your way through an entire menu on a gorgeous sunny day. Kalk Bay and tapas are the perfect partners. The wine list has something for everyone and it is very reasonably priced.  I was a little surprised to find only one dessert on the menu. But as soon as I tried the rice pudding, I understood, why. “There can only be one,” as the immortal Highlander once said before beheading his enemy. Or to quote The Cousin, “The most spectacular explosion of flavours in this perfectly prepared rice pud. Best I have ever had. BRAVA!”

La Parada tapas bar and restaurant is the newest addition to the Harbour House family. It trades Monday through Sunday from 12pm to late (the kitchen closes at 10pm). The coffee brand used is Tribe.   021.7883992 (no reservations) @taste_kalkbay


This was a good day. All we had to conquer was 20km of ass pounding gravel road followed by gorgeous downhills which made our bikes fly. In retrospect the 20km of gravel ‘road’ is an insult to upstanding roads across the globe: loose rocks, potholes, sand, and all of it climbing up and up – and up.  Image

It took our slowest Doomsday riders almost three hours to complete 10km of this. But we did it. This is where you need your sense of humour the most.

The lunch stop was, for once, out of the wind and rain, in the heart of a dodgy roadside bar. We had music, a dancefloor – though we felt a bit too pooped to do a jig – toilets and running water: sheer luxury. Some of us ran out of drinking water after a while and stopped at a dairy to get some ‘agua’.   Image

Yesterday was a very tough ride and some of the riders are struggling with muscle fatigue. A big challenge for us is the short daylight hours. We can only have breakfast at 6am which means most of the riders can leave at about 7am, depending on how quick we can get it all down.  The rule is that as soon as it is dark, about 5pm, nobody is allowed on the road. A sensible approach since the roads are narrow and steep and dark. Then there are issues: Bill had 3 punctures which needed to be fixed before we left the hotel and the first of the saddlesores have arrived.

We ended up at a gorgeous hotel with en-suite bathrooms – yes really. Much appreciated after the bunk beds and cold water at the last stop. It is our last day in Costa Rica.

Tomorrow we cross the border into Nicaragua. We can report back that the roads in Costa Rica might be narrow and at times potholed but the sedan drivers where pretty considerate. There are a lot of transportation trucks that are not as kind and a few times we had to fling ourselves off the road just to be sure to be safe. But overall it is a good country for cycling. Adios Costa Rica. Hello Nicaragua! 23 November 2013

More fun on this Doomsday Ride here: