Photo: Black rhinos in Namibia

In The Black Rhinos of Namibia, author Rick Bass paints a vivid portrait of the imperiled rhinos and the desert they inhabit.

Photograph by Paul and Catherine Apps Images, Alamy

By Don George

Book of the Month: The Black Rhinos of Namibia, by Rick Bass

Author of many thoughtful, eloquent works rooted in the American West, especially Montana’s Yaak Valley, where he has lived for 25 years, Rick Bass journeys in his new book, The Black Rhinos of Namibia, to the very different world of Damaraland, the red-hot heart of Namibia’s forbidding Namib Desert. Traveling with his longtime friend Dennis Sizemore, co-founder of the nonprofit Round River Conservation Studies group, Bass bears witness to the black rhino, a species that had been driven to the brink of extinction by human slaughter, and to its nascent renaissance in this region, which has been propelled by the unstinting efforts of a coalition of African and Western conservationists.

The resulting account is an extraordinary exploration and meditation. Bass evokes the beauty, texture, and pace of the “horribly austere” desert, “one of the oldest unchanged landscapes on earth,” where one of the most prevalent plants is the poisonous Euphorbia tree and sand temperatures can soar to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. He vividly describes the wildlife they encounter: oryx, springbok, elephant, and giraffe, and especially the regal rhino, “a great silver tank moving slowly across the plains.”

Bass draws a poignant portrait of the late, heroic Mike Hearn and the Save the Rhino Trust, one of the individuals and organizations leading the rhino renaissance, and offers reflections on the correspondences between Africa and his own Yaak Valley, the plight of the rhino and the plight of mankind, and the recurrent striations of landscape and wildlife, history and time. Most moving of all the book’s gifts is Bass’s portrayal of his own exhilaration as this new world unscrolls before him. At one point he writes, “I cannot remember being in such a state of perpetual wonder since childhood.” Happily, he transports us along on this wonder-filled tour, full of hardness and hope, into an otherworldly place that mirrors our own.

New Book Roundups

Historical Insights

In The Graves are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People, author John Kelly tells the stories of the individual lives affected by one of the worst disasters of the 19th century—and a pivotal point in Irish history. Lions of the West, by Robert Morgan, portrays ten figures, from Thomas Jefferson to Kit Carson, who shaped westward U.S. expansion in this lively history steeped in the western landscape.

War-torn Writings

In Out of It, by British-Palestinian novelist Selma Dabbagh, the fictional Mujahed siblings navigate the tragedies and everyday realities of living in Gaza. Author Vaddey Ratner draws on her childhood experiences as a survivor of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia for her searing debut novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan.

Lines by Heart

In Before the Rain, journalist Luisita López Torregrosa recounts her time working as a newspaper bureau chief in Manila, Philippines, during the Marcos years and her love affair with a woman she meets there. The City of Light is the enduring setting to which journalist Kati Marton returns again and again in Paris: A Love Story, a memoir of her life as a globetrotting correspondent and of her high-profile marriages, first to newscaster Peter Jennings and then to diplomat Richard Holbrooke.

A Past and Future Reimagined

What if Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert met and fell in love while on their travels through Egypt? In 1850 they did both venture there (though not together) and Enid Shomer explores the possibilities in the novel The Twelve Rooms of the Nile. Adventure writer Peter Heller turns to fiction in The Dog Stars, the story of an avid fly fisherman named Hig and his dog, Jasper; the duo struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic Colorado where nature is altered—the trout decimated, the forests diseased—but already beginning to reclaim gutted urban areas.

One Last Thing

Way Off the Beaten Path

In a quarter-century of global roaming, I’ve been tempted to try some foolhardy feats. Probably the most notable was impetuously deciding to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, a folly that—with the aid of some kind friends living in Tanzania—had a happy ending. I still admire people who consciously embark on stretching-to-the-limits journeys, which is why I’ve been enthralled by Ed Stafford’s Walking the Amazon, his account of hiking the length of the Amazon River from its source in the Peruvian Andes to the coast of Brazil. Vicariously joining this 860-day trek through extremely inhospitable terrain—made all the more challenging by hostile tribes, lethal animals, food scarcities, and extreme weather—has made for an exhilarating adventure.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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