by Tobias Thornes
I could not know, as I scrambled through the suburbs and savannah of Kenya and Ethiopia while May slipped into June of 2019, that my long Slow Travel – over a year by then in duration – was so soon, so hurriedly, to come to a close. Since that sunny spring day when I had set out from Britain to see for myself the sorry state of a changed and battered world, and its ills social and environmental, I had criss-crossed Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. The beautiful continents of South America and Australasia and the white wilderness of Antarctica, of which I can only dream, it was my fate never to see. Now, fifty years hence, there is likely little left there worth seeing.
Back then, we still had hope. The forests were depleted but not destroyed beyond hope of recovery; the deserts had begun expanding but not without hope of arrest. So much of the coal and the oil that had brought us into this mess was still in the ground; we thought that this would be enough. But we hadn’t reckoned on the fateful power of two dangerous adversities: the unquenchable reality of human greed, and the unstoppable force of nature’s reaction once unleashed. Both these hard truths were about to sweep over us. It would take years for us to come to terms with it, but the fact remained: very soon, there would be no way back.
In those days, Kenya seemed exotic, with its humid tropical climate and its cooler, tranquil savanna hosting all the ‘big five’ game animals that thoughtless trophy-hunters liked to kill for sport or cash – lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino. The Serengeti migration of the blue wildebeest, a fantastic sight to behold for one fortunate enough to arrive at the right time, was said to be one of the seven ‘Natural Wonders of Africa’. Much effort was being spent preserving all these glorious species, each individual a splendid spectacle of nature’s fine design, and all endangered under the corrupt stewardship of mankind.
The influence of China, which I saw all around me from the new railway line sporting swish Chinese trains to the Chinese-funded buildings springing up like warts upon the city skylines, hadn’t helped. It was China that had the biggest appetite for ‘medicinal’ animal body parts, and drove the blind machine of the capitalist marketplace towards the illegal destruction of elephant and rhino to meet demand. Nor did it help that the mostly agrarian populations of both Kenya and Ethiopia – where four fifths of the workforce were agricultural workers – required more and more land, farmed in less traditional and less nature-friendly ways than before, and were putting increasing pressure on areas not explicitly protected as habitat. On the other hand, it might have been supposed that a growing tourist industry would be a means of saving all that beauty that I myself was captivated by, if only for foreigners to gaup at and photograph.
But in truth it was not the Chinese medicine-hunters or the Kenyan and Ethiopian locals that tolled the death knell for those wild wonders of Africa’s ancient heart, but the tourists – with their kerosene-guzzling aeroplanes, their meaty diets and their swanky hotels. Kenyans and Ethiopians had been living here since the dawn of humanity itself, in a many millennia long coexistence with the big mammals. Within the space of a generation they would all be gone, not because of hunting but because of climatic change that the locals, whose meagre supplies of electricity were almost met by geothermal and hydroelectric carbon-free means, had nothing to do with.
A dusty bus brought be from the beautiful lakes of northern Kenya high into the heart of Ethiopia, and up into the scorching lands where heavily-logged forest retreated into desert. How pilgrims managed to walk to the Holy City of Axum in such heat I know not, but braving such inclement heat was worth it for what I was there to see. This ancient site of human habitation was home – so it was rumoured – to the oldest relic of the Abrahamic religions, the original Ark of the Covenant described in the Old Testament.
Whether the story of one of Solomon’s sons carrying the Ark here three millennia ago was true, and the small chapel beside the great Ethiopian Church cathedral really did hold the Ark, it was difficult to tell. Nobody was allowed inside to see – not even the patriarch of the Ethiopian church – except for a wizened old monk. But this holy site of worship, the centrepiece of a country supposedly the second ever to adopt Christianity officially, in 333 AD, was nonetheless breath-taking to behold. The Ethiopian Church is distinct from any other, and certainly seemed to hold the Old Testament particularly close to its heart, with its Jewish dietary customs and 250 days per year of fasting from meat and dairy products – perhaps not accidentally also the best thing that any climate-conscious individual could have done to avert the doom that was coming upon the world.
But the world, by and large, did not worship the God of the Old Testament or the New, and was not much concerned with fasting. It worshiped three gods: greed, growth and money, and when in its distress it came to cry to them for help it received no response. It was on my way from Axum, crossing the straggling saplings that made up the eastern side of Africa’s version of the ‘Great Green Wall’ intended to stymie the Sahara, that I heard the news. My Slow Travel through Sudan would have to be cut short; I now needed desperately to return home.
Khartoum to Cairo by ferry and train isn’t quick, nor the boat back to Europe from the mouth of the Nile, that great long river that I’d followed all the way from the heart of Africa. Many more splendid sights I saw pass by, but had little time to stop. The days now seemed a burden to me; the hours that had slipped so easily by now dragged like heavy weights. I longed to see my home again – that precious isle of rolling hills and winding lanes and sunlight-sprinkled woods – before it was gone, for ever. For the permafrost was melting now; methane belching into the sky. A hidden line had been crossed, the dam was broken and there was no hope of halting the flood. And sackcloth, fasting and repentance were not, it seemed, going to be part of the world’s response. Heightening tensions had at last spilled over, panic was ensuing: for that same day, war had been declared.
And that was that: the end of my journey of discovery; the end of the world that was. You don’t need me to tell you about the wreckage that now remains.