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Bill Bryson's African Diary
Dangerous Beauty, Life and Death in Africa: True Stories from a Safari Guide
By Mark C. Ross
Miramax, 336 pages, $34.95

Pipe bombs in Belfast, drug wars in Columbia, earthquakes in Turkey; there is an endless litany of dangers that anyone planning to vacation abroad needs to consider. Two books on Africa show how the phrase "holiday of a lifetime" can take on a completely new meaning.

In Dangerous Beauty, Life and Death in Africa: True Stories from a Safari Guide, Mark C. Ross documents a holiday gone seriously awry. In February 1999, Ross and four tourists flew to Uganda, where they visited the endangered mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. Their camp was surrounded by Interahamwe, rebel Hutus who hoped to damage Uganda's tourist trade by kidnapping foreign tourists and escaping with them into neighbouring Congo.

Ross leads readers through a terrifying day spent trekking through the rain forest with his group's AK 47-wielding captors, a day that ends fatally for two of his clients, as well as for several foreigners from neighbouring camps. He also provides many dark insights into Ugandan politics during the 1980s, when rebel factions were fighting Milton Obote for control of the country after the overthrow of Idi Amin.

Dangerous Beauty is a worthwhile read for anyone planning to visit central Africa, but the book is like Jekyll and Hyde: it flips unpredictably as Ross interrupts his chilling narrative after two chapters to write about fuzzy encounters with leopard cubs and close calls with elephants and rhinos, and to share humorous stories like being dragged in his sleeping bag into the bush by a pair of juvenile hyenas. He doesn't return to the abduction until near the end of the book.

Dangerous Beauty includes both the disturbing depiction of a terrible experience and a lighthearted, though sometimes hair-raising, collection of African adventure stories. Taken separately, each stream is enticing. Read as a single work, Dangerous Beauty is as frustrating as its title might suggest.

Richard Leakey's Wildlife Wars: My Fight to Save Africa's Treasures, co-authored by Virginia Morell, chronicles both Leakey's crusade to save Kenya's elephants from ivory poachers and his struggle to make the country's national parks safe for tourism. It's a fascinating exposé of the danger and corruption he encountered along the way.

Before Leakey was appointed director of The Kenya Wildlife Service in 1989, Kenya's parks were lawless tracts where elephant herds were being decimated and tourists were game to gun-toting bandits. His appointment by President Daniel arap Moi was a call to war against those that were destroying the country's wildlife and threatening to redirect tourist dollars critical to Kenya's economy.

Leakey's attempt to build a self-sustaining conservation program and his commitment to ending the international ivory trade came at great personal cost. In 1993 he lost both legs after an airplane crash that he suspects was sabotage. Later that same year, he became the subject of an intense smear campaign that marked the end of his tenure with the KWS.

Although Leaky appears to beat his own drum, he does manage to give credit to the rangers under his command, and to the resolve of some of his colleagues, for taming Kenya's national parks. One can see in Wildlife Wars why he is such a controversial figure in African conservation. Like many movers and shakers of the world, he seems willing to take drastic measures to achieve his aims and seems willing to pay the price.