Queueing with Elephants

The Sacred Combe by Simon Barnes

FOR Simon Barnes the sacred combe is the Luangwa Valley in Zambia. It is a place to which he returns regularly, sometimes for as long as two months. Here he experiences a ‘wildness’ that he feels is essential to happiness, and, indeed, humanness. In the combe Barnes finds patience and serenity, which are not generally aspects of his character. He describes himself as one who suffers ‘the agonies of the damned at any hint of delay’.


He also discovers that he can be brave although he dismisses this as hardly worthy of the word. It is not brave, he says, to feel and overcome fear if one sleeps in a tent, as he does, in lion and elephant country. A chapter of the book is entitled ‘Some African Animals that Can Kill You’. It consists of 18 words, one of which is human. Also listed are lion, leopard, hippo, buffalo, Nile crocodile, black rhino, white rhino, puff adder, black mamba, elephant, mosquito tsetse. You need to be brave then.


This list is typical of Barnes’s informal style. The Sacred Combe reads like a collection of blogs. I think that is exactly what it is. Looking on his website, his most recent blogs about Luangwa are dated November 2016. One, posted on the 2nd describes him looping round a trio of lions on his way back to camp.


Barnes is a prolific writer. He spent over 30 years on The Times (London) as a sportswriter and wildlife columnist. He has written more than 20 books. So writing comes easily to him. But what he has attempted in this book is beyond reportage.  Barnes links his love of the African valley with his memories of childhood. He writes of the books he read and the heroes he chose and comes to see that his boyhood and Luangwa represent a similar type of lost innocence.



They are redolent of greenwood, an Eden, a time when everything was simple. Sitting on a riverbank, mere yards from three replete lionesses, all four of them dangling their legs over the water, reminds Barnes of a family picnic by the river Eden, in which the water sparkled and he, as an eight year old, swam. The problem is that Barnes could not swim at that time so he knows the idyllic memory is false. Whereas the present can still be perfect if he goes to his combe. It was sublime on 20th November when he was stopped in his tracks by a small herd of elephants and had to wait patiently for them to move on, which in the end they didn’t.



Barnes compares his first visit to the valley, when elephants ate the roof of his house, with falling in love. He suggests that the marvellous moment cannot be sustained but that returning as he has many times to the beloved place enables him to get to know and love it better and more deeply, even if not so ecstatically. Rather like his love for his wife, Cindy, to whom he has been married for over thirty years.


Luangwa remains as it is only because of conservation. This is fed by tourism. It is as unreal a world as that of Robin Hood or Mowgli. The ‘lions and tigers and bears, oh my’ may be fierce and unpredictable but they are preserved in a wildlife park rather than roaming free throughout the world. Those, which are not shot by guns are shot by cameras. It’s a bit like WestWorld with no robots. Nevertheless the combe, enclosed by escarpments, is still there and provides a safe-haven for wildlife and troubled humans. And you can go there too for about €8500 in September 2018. Unfortunately Barnes’s, 2017 trip is already fully booked. Or you could stick to your own sacred combe in West Cork, perhaps?

Works cited

Barnes, S. The Sacred Combe. Bloomsbury. 2016


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I am a Londoner living in the centre of Cork City and studying for an MA in Irish Writing and Film at University College Cork. Even though I have lived more of my life in London than elsewhere, and even though I love London with an indescribable passion, I am falling in love with Cork as well. It is such a cornucopia of Irish culture; scarcely a week goes by without something interesting happening. That is why this blog is called Corkucopia. I want to celebrate the city as well as Irish Writing and Film and, indeed, Irishness itself.

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