To Hell and Back

Don't cry for L.M. Nesbitt. (OK, maybe cry a little.)

I DON'T READ MUCH expedition lit, preferring girl stories and dysfunctional melodramas to aggressive death-wish chronicles. But one night, weeping as I finished Jennifer Weiner's Good in Bed, I wandered into my library looking for another tearjerker and found an adventure yarn so awful I couldn't put it down.

"After some difficulty we succeeded in obtaining enough camels for our purpose." Thus begins L.M. Nesbitt's relentless account of his 1928 expedition with two Italians through the chartless heart of Abyssinia, what is now called Ethiopia. One of the last installments from the jodhpur-and-pith-helmet school of British adventure (and currently out of print), HELL-HOLE OF CREATION is also its crankiest. Bribing his way 400 miles by caravan over the broasted wastelands of the Afar province, the arrogant 37-year-old Nesbitt is not amused by the locals. The "unruly" Danakil tribesmen are by turns "sinister," "restless," and "slothful demons" who appear to wear the dried testicles of their victims around their necks. Nesbitt reminds us—constantly—that no European has ever returned alive from the region. Like a hypochondriac announcing his pulse rate, he relates the soaring temperatures in the sulfur flats: 146 degrees, or 157, or 168. "Sitting half-stunned in the silence of this glowing furnace," he records in a style evoking the torpor of playing video games on Xanax, "we were like men struck motionless by the curse of fate."

Nesbitt claimed the "purpose" of his trip was to collect mineral samples, as he and his pals staggered in an endless fever dream from one dung-fouled water hole to another. But I didn't buy it. So if he wasn't after some mother lode, what compelled this mad Englishman to go out in the noonday sun? A book contract? A lecture gig at the Royal Geographical Society? Was he just not getting any at home? I kept turning the pages, anticipating the comeuppance that he so richly deserved. Alas, it never came. But the account became perversely more intriguing once I suspected that his maps were intended for the Italian generals who would command the 1935 invasion of Ethiopia. Indeed, a year after his ordeal, Nesbitt traveled to Rome with a present for Mussolini's zoo: a crocodile snatched as a baby from the River Awash and carried across Abyssinia in a tin box.

When I finished those final lines, I laughed. And then I cried.

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