Book review: The Sacred Combe

For Simon Barnes the Sacred Combe is the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. It is a place to which he returns regularly, sometimes for up to two months. 

Book review: The Sacred Combe

Simon Barnes

Bloomsbury, €12.59

Here he experiences a ‘wildness’ that he feels is essential to happiness, and, indeed, humanness.

In the combe Barnes finds patience and serenity, which are not generally aspects of his character.

He describes himself as one who suffers ‘the agonies of the damned at any hint of delay’.

He also discovers that he can be brave although he dismisses this as hardly worthy of the word.

You cannot feel brave, he says, if you overcome fear that you have chosen by sleeping in a tent, in lion country.

A chapter of the book is entitled ‘Some African Animals that Can Kill You’. It consists of 18 words, one of which is human.

Also listed are lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo, Nile crocodile, black rhino, white rhino, puff adder, black mamba, elephant, mosquito, tsetse. You need to be brave then.

This list is typical of Barnes’s informal style. The Sacred Combe reads like a collection of blogs.

I think that is exactly what it is. Looking on his website, his most recent blogs about Luangwa are dated November 2016. One describes him looping round a trio of sedentary lions on his way back to camp.

Barnes is a prolific writer. He spent more than 30 years on The Times as a sportswriter and wildlife columnist. He has written more than 20 books, so writing comes easily to him. But what he has attempted in this book is beyond reportage.

Barnes links his love of the African valley with his memories of childhood. He writes of the books he read and the heroes he chose and comes to see that his boyhood and Luangwa represent a similar type of lost innocence. They are redolent of greenwood, an Eden, a time when everything was simple.

Sitting on a riverbank, mere yards from three replete lionesses, all four of them dangling their legs over the water, reminds Barnes of a family picnic by the river Eden, in which the water sparkled and he, as an eight year old, swam.

The problem is that Barnes could not swim at that time so he knows the idyllic memory is false. Whereas the present can still be perfect if he goes to his combe.

It was sublime on November 20 when he was stopped in his tracks by a small herd of elephants and had to wait patiently for them to move on, which in the end they didn’t.

Barnes compares his first visit to the valley, when elephants ate the roof of his hut, with falling in love.

He suggests that the marvellous moment cannot be sustained but that returning as he has many times to the beloved place enables him to get to know and love it better and more deeply, even if not so ecstatically.

Rather like his love for his wife, Cindy, to whom he has been married for more than 30 years.

Luangwa remains as it is only because of conservation. This is fed by tourism. It is as unreal a world as that of Robin Hood or Mowgli.

The ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my’ may be fierce and unpredictable but they are preserved in a wildlife park rather than roaming free throughout the world. Those which are not shot by guns are shot by cameras. It’s a bit like WestWorld with no robots.

Nevertheless the combe, enclosed by escarpments, is still there and provides a safe haven for wildlife and troubled humans. And you can go there too for about €8,500 in September 2018.

Unfortunately Barnes’s 2017 trip is already sold out. Or you could stick to your own sacred combe in West Cork, perhaps?

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