Sand Rivers Analysis

Sand Rivers (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

ph_0111200961-Matthiessen.jpgPeter Matthiessen. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Writer and naturalist Peter Matthiessen and wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick joined a safari in late 1979 into the Selous Game Reserve in southern Tanzania, East Africa.

The Selous is not a park and has no facilities for visitors. It is the largest wildlife sanctuary on the continent of Africa and is second in size only to the Wood Buffalo Park in Alberta, Canada. Its area of twenty-two thousand square miles makes it larger than Wales or Maryland, and it claims it to be the home of thirty-six species of large mammals. Of all the great parks and game reserves in East Africa, it remains the least accessible and the least known.

Britisher Tom Arnold, a theatrical producer and Member of Parliament, had organized the expedition. He had been traveling to Africa for several years and had spent a great deal of time with Brian Nicholson, the former warden of the Selous. In 1976, Nicholson, also a charter pilot, flew him down to the Selous. Arnold was fascinated, saying that there was an enigma about it and that it was a vast wild place that scarcely anyone knew.

Arnold found that almost nothing had been written about the Selous, and he hit upon the idea of an ultimate safari, with Peter Matthiessen writing the book, Baron van Lawick as photographer, and Brian Nicholson as leader. Lawick was working with Louis and Mary Leakey, the anthropologists, when he was commissioned by National Geographic and became their man in East Africa. Later, he became a free-lance photographer, and he readily agreed to join the safari.

The book takes the form of a journal in which Matthiessen notes not only flora and fauna but also the personalities of the people on the trek. Brian Nicholson is the leader and the leading character, a man utterly absorbed in keeping unspoiled this last outpost where no white men have ever been before. At the beginning, Nicholson is described as cross, stiff, and uneasy, scarcely ever looking anyone in the face, a tall thin man with a sardonic expression. Matthiessen calls him a bitter man, cynical about all forms of progress.

Matthiessen constantly refers to Nicholson’s two idols, Frederick Courtenay Selous and Constantine John Philip Ionides. Selous was a naturalist, elephant hunter, and explorer who was once “white hunter” to Theodore Roosevelt. The Game Reserve was named after him in 1922. Ionides, or “Iodine” as he came to be known, was born in Southern England in 1901. He became a British Army officer but early in a promising career retired from the Army, taking up solitary hunting expeditions. He was much influenced by Frederick Courtenay Selous’ book A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa (1881). He considered Selous’ death in 1917 a personal loss and became deeply interested in working for the Selous Game Reserve.

During a tenure of more than twenty years as the Selous Game Ranger, Ionides worked tirelessly to extend this wilderness with its poor soil and abundant tsetse flies. He discouraged human settlement, believing that the boundaries of the Reserve should be enlarged for the wild animals for which it was best suited.

Ionides was an early conservationist who dreamed of a great and self-perpetuating African wilderness where animals might wander in “merciful ignorance” of human beings. An outbreak of sleeping sickness from the tsetse fly in regions he wished to add to the reserve, helped with his proposals.

Brian Nicholson began working for Ionides in the early 1950’s when he was nineteen, and they became fast friends. Ionides trained him as his assistant in elephant control to take over most of his duties; in turn, Nicholson considered Ionides as a foster father.

Ionides formally retired from the Game Department in 1954 to give full time to collecting uncommon creatures on commission for various clients, including the National Museum in Nairobi, which still displays Ionides’ gorilla group, bongo, and addax, and an assortment of other creatures including a black mamba snake. Ionides was an avid snake collector and used to find the hospital verandas at Mtwara excellent places for snaring cobras.

With the “Africanization” of the park warden jobs in the early 1970’s, the wildlife industry lost much of its international appeal, and the reduction of game wardens, engineers, and mechanics led to a revival of poaching, which previously had been brought under control. Nicholson, realizing that he was beating his head against a wall, resigned his post and returned to Kenya, where he found a job as a charter pilot. He never lost his first love for the Selous, though, and thus was easily persuaded by Tom Arnold to lead the safari, although he admitted grave doubts about the conditions they would find in the game reserve.

Among others invited on the safari as guests were Maria Eckhart, who was born at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro; David Paterson, a young Hong Kong businessman; Richard Bonham, director of Nomad Safaris; and Melva...

(The entire section is 2044 words.)

Sand Rivers Bibliography (Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVII, May, 1981, p. 84.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXIII, April 13, 1981, p. B1.

Library Journal. CVI, March 1, 1981, p. 567.

Natural History. XC, June, 1981, p. 76.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, May 27, 1981, p. 1.

Newsweek. XCVII, April 27, 1981, p. 92.

Saturday Review. VIII, April, 1981, p. 68.

Smithsonian. XII, April, 1981, p. 153.

Times Literary Supplement. October 23, 1981, p. 1227.

The Wall Street Journal. CXCVII, May 11, 1981, p. 26.