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“Dark Lands”, by Tony Wheeler (Melbourne, Oakland, London: Lonely Planet, 2013), 335 pages.
--- click here to jump straight to the conclusion ---
This is the sequel to “Bad Lands” by the same author published in 2007. At the end of that book he already laid out a list of possible further countries that would have fitted the list of places visited for the first book (which was inspired by the expression “axis of evil”), and indeed some of these feature in the new book (though not all, Sudan, Somalia, East Timor, Syria, Argentina and Angola don't).
The approach is very similar, just that instead of “Bad” the author uses “Dark Lands” as the common label, explained in the Introduction as places having “distinctly dark shadows in their story, which to a greater or lesser extend coloured the atmosphere of the country today” (p 8). That is to say that a country as a whole has to have a dark ring to its name to qualify for this book. But that does not necessarily mean that the author actually does any genuine dark tourism once in these countries. Just as in “Bad Lands”, he does indeed mostly seek out rather more mainstream tourism activities and sights. However, in several of the countries there is a distinct overlap with proper dark tourism as well. This makes the book much more relevant to this website than its predecessor. Let's take a closer look:
The first chapter is about Colombia. The author gives a splendid overview of the troubled history of this country, and especially the role of rebel organizations (such as FARC) and the drugs trade (cocaine!), which he sees exacerbated, rather than restrained, by American interference through the so-called “war on drugs” (possibly the most pointless and unwinnable of “wars”). Yet no actual dark sites are visited. Instead the author mainly reports from a several-days-long jungle trip to some ancient archaeological site.
The next chapter about the Congo, more precisely the DRC, on the other hand, does feature two places that are also covered on this website, namely Nyiragongo and Goma. In a way the entire trip through the DRC has something dark about it, in terms of complications, corruptions and chaos, and of course the reader is told the excruciatingly painful history of the Congo as the country most damaged and looted by colonialism (in this case by Belgium, like neighbouring Rwanda), and more recently by regime changes, wars and organized-crime-like mining operations, most importantly for the extraction of coltan – a mineral crucial for the manufacturing of mobile phones. In fact most of the stuff comes from the north-east of the Congo, the Kivu region, and hence most smartphones these days are in fact rather turn-a-blind-eye-to-evil phones instead of smart, much like “blood diamonds”. (Virtually all smartphone manufacturers are complicit in this, one notable exception being the “Fairphone”, an initially crowd-funded initiative from the Netherlands to try and make a phone without minerals from dodgy sources, Chinese slave labour, built-in obsolescence or other ethical issues.) The places visited for the first part of this chapter are, however, largely unrelated to all these things.
In contrast, Nyirogongo is indeed a dark site, if for very different reasons: it's an active volcano whose crater contains one of the few lava lakes in the world, and the author goes on a trek climbing to the rim to see this. And I have to admit that what he had to say about the experience made me green with envy. The destructive side of the volcano is still visible in Goma, which was partly destroyed by an eruption in 2002. The author tours some of the vestiges of that destruction, but apparently there isn't that much left to see. One other activity he indulges in in this part of the Congo is trekking for mountain gorillas. I did that across the border over in Rwanda once and can thus relate to the author's description of an encounter with these fascinating, yet endangered gentle giants. It's possibly the best wildlife-watching experience to be had anywhere on Planet Earth.
But back to dark. The next chapter takes us to Haiti, another “failed state” with a brutal history and one further battered by natural disaster, namely hurricanes and earthquakes, especially the totally disastrous one in 2010. The author visits the capital Port-au-Prince and sees, for instance, the partly collapsed National Palace and other quake ruins. But again his sightseeing is otherwise more targeted towards general sights of potential mainstream tourism attraction. Except that there hardly is any tourism in Haiti, and grand sights such as the massive citadel near Cap-Haitien are largely overlooked. The only trickle of organized tourism business Haiti was getting at the time was through a single cruise ship calling at a single beach to disgorge its load of passengers who then go for a spot of jet-skiing and such activities before leaving again after a day or two, without ever having seen anything of the country as such, just the beach. That such cruise-ship tourism would include earthquake-stricken Haiti had been criticized in the media, but Wheeler defends it as at least something that brings in a few well-needed tourist dollars, and argues that that has to be better than nothing. I'm not so sure myself – but that probably has more to do with my general disdain for the whole cruise-ship business. I find these polluting monsters of the sea abhorrent in every way and would certainly never even consider setting foot on one (unless it was a wreck). But I admit it's hard to counter that “at least some money comes in that way” economic argument.
The next chapter takes the author to what he considers one of the “baddest” countries of them all: Israel & Palestine. He does a few things that will have to be regarded as dark tourism here, including a “politics tour” of East Jerusalem, as well as various encounters with the “Separation Wall” and Israeli “security” in general, as well as getting stones thrown at him by Palestinians. And he briefly takes in the Dead Sea too. But otherwise it's the religious sites that the region is so rich in that dominates the sightseeing, and for my taste it often gets a little too Biblical here. The main other activity the author is after in these lands is hiking along various trails, some again on Biblical themes. Yet, the chapter is also full of fascinating travelogue stuff, including encounters with interesting people. And of course there's the political-historical background information and evaluation of this impossibly complicated part of the world.
Following this in the next chapter comes a big jump to a far-away little island in the Pacific Ocean with a unique and ultimately tragic story: Nauru – this is the part I had been looking forward to the most once I had taken a look at the table of contents. I have a thing about remote islands (cf. Falklands, St Helena, Easter Island), and Nauru has been a dream destination of mine ever since I first learned about it at school! But I reckon my chances of ever making it there are fairly slim. So I was all the more keen to read this chapter. The author provides a good detailed summary of the island's odd history – in keywords: colonial exploitation, independence, rags-to-riches, indeed to being the richest nation on Earth for a while, namely thanks to phosphate mining (guano – fossilized bird poo), exhausted deposits, destroyed land, riches-to-rags economic collapse and now one of the poorest nations. I knew most of this before but learned a lot about how Nauru screwed itself up post-phosphate through bad investments and dodgy dealings (including money laundering for Russian Mafiosi). What about dark tourism on the island then? Well, it turns out there isn't that much to do and see on this island. The inland, called Topside, is where the former phosphate mining turned the land into a desert-like wasteland, punctuated with rocky columns left like stelae, and hardly any green bits. Vegetation is largely limited to the coastal belt. There's a smattering of relics from the time the island was occupied by the Japanese in WWII, and a few industrial remnants in the form of semi-collapsed cantilevers formerly used to load phosphate onto cargo ships. There are still very small-scale mining operations ongoing, but most of the mining infrastructure is now derelict. At the time of the author's visit, the refugee camps Australia set up on Nauru weren't in operation, and he gets to see one of them. And, of course, there's plenty of commentary on Australia's highly controversial refugee politics … As a travel destination Nauru gets a bollocking. An Australian is quoted who ranks the island as the worst shit-hole in the world, and the author does not contest this. Tourist facilities are indeed basic and crumbling, and the atmosphere on the island depressing. Has reading all this put me off visiting Nauru? No, not at all. Given the chance, I'd still go, undeterred.
The next chapter is about Pakistan, a country the author has many links with, including childhood memories (his father was stationed there for the first six years of little Tony's life) and recollections from passing through on the 1970s “hippie trail”. This time, he travels from India into Pakistan and moves from Lahore to the capital Islamabad, but the main thing is travelling north through the Himalayan mountain passes towards China. The beginning of the trip takes in one very specific dark-tourism attraction: the border-closing ceremonies at Wagah. It's likened to Monty Python's Silly Walks and the choreographed Mass Games in North Korea. En route to the Himalayas the author passes Abbottabad – where Osama bin Laden had his secret compound until he was tracked down and assassinated by the Americans. Since the building was razed to the ground after the raid, there is, however, nothing at all to see here. It's a non-site. And that was the point – to prevent it becoming some jihadists' shrine. The journey through the mountains is clearly an adventurous one, but there is no more real dark tourism, rather a focus on scenery and petroglyphs, Buddha statues, old forts and such things. A couple of darkish sites are taken in in passing, such as an old British cemetery or the site of a gigantic landslide that buried the road, several bridges and a couple of whole villages. Eventually, this travelogue's end is crossing into China, which came with all manner of logistical and bureaucratic problems.
If Pakistan was adventurous, the next chapter really ups the ante. For this Tony Wheeler starts out travelling by boat from the Solomon Islands into Bougainville, the easternmost island belonging to Papua New Guinea, and then onwards to Rabaul on the eastern end of the island of New Britain before making it to the New Guinea “mainland”. While the chapter about Nauru had been the one I had most been looking forward to, this chapter intrigued me even more and it did indeed turn out to be the most revelatory of the entire book. Bougainville has a very dark history of post-colonial independence aspirations (not granted, obviously) and civil war involving a gigantic open-cast copper mine called Panguna that once generated a large chunk of the country's GDP. None of this has been widely reported in the West, so it's even less well known than, say, the troubles East Timor endured until the 2000s. Hence, reading up on all this in this chapter is highly educational. And on top of that, the chapter is chock-full of proper dark tourism! This begins even before the author reaches Bougainville, when he explores several of the many Japanese plane wrecks from WWII to be found all over the Solomon Islands. Apparently this is also a prime destination for wreck divers as the seabed off the shores of these islands is littered with shipwrecks sunk in the fierce naval battles between the Japanese and the USA in WWII. But this is only mentioned in passing, the author does not engage in any such diving himself. Instead he makes his way by boat to the southern tip of Bougainville – the adventurous way, through the back door, as it were (also risking some bureaucratic hassle).
On Bougainville, the author's first top site to visit is the place where the plane of Admiral Yamamoto, the US “enemy No. 1” at the time (he had masterminded the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), crashed into the jungle, after having been shot down by American fighter planes. The trek to the historic crash site and wreck is adventurous, involves lots of negotiations and bribes, but finally the author and his group do get there. Bougainville's top dark-tourism site #1 ticked off! 
Site #2 on the priority list is up next: the Panguna mine. I'm a sucker for industrial wastelands, so I got suitably excited at this point. And evidently I'm not alone in having this fascination, as the author admits he's “saying 'amazing' far too frequently” (p 274) while at the mine, exploring the ruins of the former workers' quarters, the empty, shattered swimming pool, the crumbling ex-cinema, the rows of abandoned “massive, and impassive” (p 275) mine trucks quietly rusting away, and of course the otherworldly big hole of the mine itself, inactive for over two decades because of the civil war. Yes, 'amazing' … it is the correct word!
And it goes on. The next stop on this trip is Rabaul, at the eastern end of the island with the somewhat unfitting name New Britain. Rabaul sits in the immediate vicinity of several active volcanoes, and in 1994 an eruption covered half the town in volcanic ash. The destroyed buildings and volcanic wasteland beyond sure make for good dark-tourism material, as do the war relics. It was from here that Admiral Yamamoto took off on his fateful final flight and his command bunker is still in situ, as are various rusty bits of military hardware and a few plane wrecks that can be dived off-shore (and on this occasion the author does go on a dive to a Japanese “Zero” wreck). In addition there are war cemeteries, and in particular POW cemeteries. Japan's infamously bad treatment of POWs (cf. Death Railway or Singapore) was especially nasty here. The topic is apparently touched upon in the local museum. I got the impression that Rabaul is a place I should seriously consider for my travel bucket list!
After Rabaul, the capital of PNG, Port Moresby, is the final stop on this leg, and apart from a short visit to the apparently wholly underwhelming war museum, that's it for dark tourism in this country.
The final chapter takes us to Zimbabwe, included as a dark land primarily because of the infamous rule of long-time dictator Robert Mugabe … and the extreme hyperinflation the country saw until a few years ago (when it terminated its own currency altogether and reverted to US$). Those (in)famous 100 Trillion Zimbabwean Dollar notes are now novelty souvenirs. After that highly intriguing chapter about PNG, this last chapter is a bit of a let-down in terms of dark tourism, however. All of what the author actually does in Zimbabwe has to be classed as non-dark tourism: safari, ancient cultural sites, and so on. There's perhaps one exception, namely when the author tries to find the residence of Ethiopia's former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam (of “Red Terror” infamy) whom Mugabe granted exile. But he fails to locate the place. Another small exception may be the railway museum, as it includes an armoured train adapted for mine sweeping on the tracks. But the rest is National Parks and game watching and lodges. All nice, but not particularly relevant to dark tourism (unless you count the sad stories about poaching), so I'll leave it at this.
The book finishes with a ca. three-page section of acknowledgements, but there's no index. For further reading there's only a Web link to Tony Wheeler's website, where there is a 'Dark Lands Reading List'.
Obviously, Tony Wheeler is an accomplished travel writer and he proves it again with this book. It is wittily worded, highly readable, entertaining, and very often quite educational at the same time. There's hardly a dull moment and so it's a joy to read. The book is also almost free of typos or such mistakes (I can only recall one, in fact). But the author does get east and west confused in a section in the last chapter, namely one about Mutare “out west” at “the Mozambique border” (p 327); yet that country is indeed to the east of Zimbabwe. I was almost pleased to see that I'm not the only one to whom that sort of embarrassing slip happens. (I can't tell you how many times I found that same kind of mistake in my own writing here – but fortunately with online publishing you can always correct it in an instant once spotted.)
In terms of dark tourism, however, the relevance of the book varies enormously, from some chapters with next to no dark-tourism sites covered (e.g. Zimbabwe) to ones dominated by it. The report from Papua New Guinea, in particular, reads like a dark-tourism dream adventure trip. The other highlight is Nauru, though the coverage is, necessarily, much shorter (not that much to see). The Congo chapter is kind-of in between. The remaining chapters are more interesting for the accounts of the relevant countries' chequered histories and ongoing problems, but not so much from the point of view of dark tourism. Still, a very good read. Recommended.
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