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Reviewed by Carine Engelbrecht for Readers' Favorite
A Rock and a Hard Place is a memoir chronicling the experiences of author George Zelt as a geologist in mostly Southern Africa in the 1970s. The title plays on several different facets of its meaning. For academic purposes, he turns over a fair amount of rocks, but it also plays on his experiences in the difficult social landscape of apartheid-era South Africa and the minefield of academic politics. Additionally "rock" was also a term once used to refer to the more conservative members of the Afrikaner community. When George finds himself at odds with the Afrikaner who holds the keys to his ultimate academic success, his position becomes increasingly difficult. He uncovers curiosities of various kinds - both human and inanimate - and spends a vacation in the unspoiled Okavango Delta with a hygiene-challenged Australian and an Irishman who seems to be a walking encyclopedia on Africa. There are tense moments, but also the unexpected magic of close encounters with elephants, rhinos, hippos and crocodiles.
Africa lures adventurers with the promise of freedom and hints of tall tales and wild legends. Even as recently as the 1970s, when the continent seemed precariously juxtaposed between an idealized western dream and the bitter consequences of the white man's passing, some glimpses of the old Africa remained. With A Rock and a Hard Place, George Zelt captures some of that lingering glamour. One finds humor and nail-biting tension. He bemoans missed opportunities and highlights some of the idiosyncratic contrasts of apartheid, but while the author is rightly critical of apartheid, he seems a little more tolerant of the softer discrimination of Anglophone colonialism. Or is that me trying to project 21st-century attitudes on the past? I'm not sure. But social commentary only comprises part of the narrative. Read on and the book will also instill awe in you for Africa's geographic uniqueness and a healthy respect for its wildlife, both large and small, balancing beauty and inherent dangers.