|On Safari in London||
Edition 16: Summer 2001
If you're craving an Africa fix in between visits, take heart: the continent has spread its influence well beyond its boundaries. Armed with his camera, Nigel Tisdall makes the Cape to Cairo journey all in one day - in London.
Are you missing Africa? Well don't worry, the continent is alive and well and living in London. To prove this theory, I recently spent an entertaining day travelling through the British capital on that great dream journey from Cairo to the Cape. The weather could have been better, I admit, but at least there were no mozzies and the only wild animals around were Royal Mail vans and cycle couriers.
Dawn in the bush isn't quite the same as in WC1, but I managed to get an inspirational start to the day with some sun worship on the banks of the Nile at the British Museum. Standing next to the recently opened Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, which throws a spectacular steel and glass roof over the central concourse and opens up the famous domed Reading Room for viewing, the long Egyptian Sculpture Gallery includes three enigmatic figures of baboons dating from around 1350BC. Because they screech at the sunrise, the ancient Egyptians often depicted these animals as sun-gods. One baboon statue bears the charming legend "he who cuts off the face of him who cuts off your face", which could be an early version of that warning to safari-goers to hang on to your cameras.
Outside the museum gates, I travelled into Sudan (using a zebra crossing, naturally) by popping into Arthur Probsthain, a defiantly old-fashioned two-room bookshop in Great Russell Street that has been specialising in books on Africa and the Orient since 1903. Piled high with ripping colonial yarns such as With Flashlight and Rifle and worthy cures for insomnia like Labor and Democracy in Namibia 1971-1996, it has plenty of new and second-hand books to interest the Africa-lover. Books on the Sudan, for example, included anthropological studies of the Nuer and Sennar tribes and The Sudan Canterbury Tales, recalling life during the days of British control. "We're noticing a growing interest in African art," commented Eve Sheringham who works here with her daughter Lesley; one best seller has been the £95 two-volume African Ceremonies by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher.
Lunch was spent in Ethiopia at the Merkato restaurant near King's Cross. Sadly Ethiopian Airlines don't yet fly to the Caledonian Road, so I took a number 10 bus. A former pub that still has an incongruous mock-Tudor decor of black and white half-timbering, Merkato is warm and welcoming and serves inexpensive traditional spicy dishes of beef and lamb on a mat of injera (a spongy pancake). A magnet for the Ethiopian community, the place is particularly lively on Sundays when families congregate for lengthy lunches to the loud sounds of Ethiopian CDs. London has quite a few Ethiopian restaurants; one of the cosiest is Lalibela in Kentish Town, which is only open for dinner. Try to get a booking for upstairs, where you sit on low chairs beside carved wooden tables.
Now it was time for a taste of Kenya, which I found in the aromatic tea and coffee specialist H.R. Higgins, just a short walk from Selfridges. Founded by "coffeeman" H.R. Higgins in the 1940s, the business is still family-run and imports a commendable range of African coffees, including Ethiopian, Tanzanian and Zimbabwean. I tried a cafetiere of Kenya Estate Gethumbwini, which at £24 a kilo is one of the most expensive in a global range of over forty blends and roasts. "That's a good after-dinner coffee," suggested Tony Higgins, son of the great H R. "Kenyan coffee tends to be more acidic, with a sharpness like a dry white wine-and wonderful aromas."
Suitably fortified, it was time to go shopping in Tanzania. Over in Notting Hill, Bryan Reeves, the Australian owner of Tribal Gathering, had just flown back from his home in Dar-es-Salaam. His small studio is a treasury of artworks gathered from all over Africa, including three-legged stools, carved headrests, musical instruments, ivory bangles and tribal jewellery, which he sells to collectors and Africaphiles. Each item is hand-picked, perhaps for its striking design or because some objects, such as century-old Ethiopian shields made from buffalo hide, are no longer created. "Beautiful shapes always sell," he explained before dozing off with jet-lag.
Finding signs of Zambia in London was a little trickier and meant back-tracking to the Euston Road, but as we all know, travelling in Africa often involves going round in circles. At Stern's African Record Centre I found a small selection of Zambian CDs for sale, including acoustic songs by Copperbelt miners, 1950s sounds by Alick Nkatha and the contemporary compilation Zambiance!. Specialising in African music since the mid-80s, Stern's has a serious choice of CDs from Zaire and South Africa but also covers most corners of the continent, including music from Angola, Botswana, Guinea, Cape Verde and Mali.
Heading south, I knew I had reached Zimbabwe as soon as I spotted some Shona sculpture. It was in the window of the Africa Crafts Centre in Covent Garden, alongside a roaring lion with a price tag of £795, which turned out to be made from semi-precious verdite.
Run by a Kenyan, Akmal, the shop sells crafts from all over Africa. Good buys include ebony walking sticks from Malawi and masks from Ivory Coast, and there are plenty of familiar market stall wares, such as baskets, wooden salad servers, chess sets, jewellery and candlesticks. The Africa Centre also has a bookshop on the first floor and a restaurant in the basement, and live African bands and DJs perform every Friday night in the Limpopo Club.
After so much adventure, I decided to call some friends to join me for dinner at the Michelin-listed Springbok Cafe in Chiswick. It would probably have been easier to fly to Cape Town than to reach the wilder shores of west London, but it was worth it. Here chef Peter Gottgens is fulfilling his self-appointed mission to help diners "explore South Africa with a knife and fork". His terracotta-hued dining room is a small, friendly affair, with an open kitchen where you can watch Peter and his team busily preparing boboties, turtle dove, zebra, ostrich and chocolate mealie-meal pudding. The homesick and intrepid should go for his seven-course gourmet menu, and there is a long wine list featuring favourites such as Brampton Sauvignon blanc and the revered Meerlust Rubicon '95.
As the waitress killed me off with some whipped Brie with Klein Karoo waatlemoen and green fig preserve, I simply had to raise my glass for a toast. Oh yes, it had been another great day in Africa.
Where to go...
· British Museum, Great Russell St, London WC1 (020 7323 8000; www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk). Cleopatra of Egypt: from History to Myth continues until 26 August.
· Arthur Probsthain, 41 Great Russell St, London WC1 (020 7636 1096; www.oriental-african-books.com).
· Merkato, 193 Caledonian Rd, London N1 (020 7837 1838).
· Lalibela, 137 Fortress Rd, London NW5 (020 7284 0600).
· H.R. Higgins, 79 Duke St, London W1 (020 7629 3913; www.hrhiggins.co.uk).
· Tribal Gathering, 1 Westbourne Grove Mews, London W11 (020 7221 6650; www.tribalgatheringlondon.com).
· Stern's, 293 Euston Rd, London NW1 (020 7387 5550; www.sternsmusic.com).
· Africa Crafts Centre, 38 King St, London WC2 (0207 240 6098).
· Africa Book Centre (0845 458 1581; www.africabookcentre .com).
· Africa Centre (020 7836 1973; www.africacentre.org.uk).
· Springbok Cafe, 42 Devonshire Rd, London W4 (020 8742 3149; www.springbokcafecuisine.com).
Published in Travel Africa Edition Sixteen: Summer 2001 Text is subject to Worldwide Copyright (c)
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