Book review: A Single Swallow, Horatio Clare

arriving in Marrakech

arriving in Marrakech

An ancient Taoist saying goes: “The journey is the reward.” Horatio Clare’s journey begins in South Wales.  He decides to trace local swallows to their winter hangouts in South Africa and then follow them across Africa back to Europe.  The destination in this case, like much good travel writing, is a personal arrival rather than a physical place.  As Clare moves across Africa, through different cultures, languages, colonial heritage, poverty and occasional conflict, he does so with the locals, sharing their lives, encountering their problems and very occasionally overcoming them.  In each place, he looks for the swallows and learns about the folklore associated with them – they are heralded as the bringers of rain; in some places are considered lucky and occasionally as the medium of messages from the ancestors.

Clare’s story is charming in its romanticism and its naivety – it appears that although he knew such a journey might change his life, little prior consideration was given to the extent to which this might occur.  He travels through countries and across borders only the most intrepid would even countenance.  Sadly, due to the pace of the swallows’ migration, he is seldom in any for long.  His prose is honest (particularly as he describes a moment of apparent madness on re-entering Europe) and the profound personal impact of his journey is palpable.  Overall, he demonstrates an endearing modesty and fallibility (especially as he is fleeced by an elaborate hash con in Morocco!)  and returns home a different person as a result of what he has witnessed and experienced and the people he has met.

A good read for both travellers and birdwatchers of the active or armchair variety!

This review was first published at on March 29, 2012

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