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Swashbuckling adventure novelist Wilbur Smith dies aged 88

Zambian-born bestselling adventure author Wilbur Smith has died at his home in South Africa after a decades-long career in writing, his office said. He was 88.

With 49 titles under his belt, Smith became a household name, his swashbuckling adventure stories taking readers from tropical islands to the jungles of Africa and even Ancient Egypt and World War II.

“Global bestselling author Wilbur Smith died unexpectedly this afternoon at his Cape Town home after a morning of reading and writing with his wife Niso by his side,” said a statement released Saturday on the Wilbur Smith Books website as well as by his publishers Bonnier Books UK.

“The undisputed and inimitable master of adventure writing, Wilbur Smith’s novels have gripped readers for over half a century, selling over 140 million copies worldwide in more than thirty languages.”

The statements did not reveal the cause of death.

His 1964 debut novel “When the Lion Feeds”, the tale of a young man growing up on a South African cattle ranch, became an instant bestseller and led to 15 sequels, tracing an ambitious family’s fortunes for more than 200 years.

Born in Zambia in 1933 to a British family, he was also a big game hunter, having grown up experiencing the forest, hills and savannah of Africa on his parents’ ranch.

He also held a pilot’s licence and was a scuba diver.

As a conservationist, he managed his own game reserve and owned a tropical island in the Seychelles.

He credited his mother with teaching him to love nature and reading, while his father — a strict disciplinarian — gave him a rifle at the age of eight, the start of what he acknowledged was a lifelong love affair with firearms and hunting.

He contracted cerebral malaria when he was just one-year-and-half — an ailment so serious there were fears he would die or be brain damaged, if he survived.

“It probably helped me because I think you have to be slightly crazy to try to earn a living from writing,” he later reflected.

His bestselling “Courtney Series” was the longest running in publishing history, spanning generations and three centuries, “through critical periods from the dawn of colonial Africa to the American Civil War, and to the apartheid era in South Africa”, said his publisher.

But it was with Taita, the hero of his “Egyptian Series”, that Wilbur “most strongly identified, and River God remains one of his best-loved novels to this day”, it added.

– ‘Gave pleasure to millions’ –

He also used his vast experiences outside of Africa in places like Switzerland and rural Russia to help create his fictional worlds.

In his 2018 memoir “On Leopard Rock”, Smith recounts having had “tough times, bad marriages… burnt the midnight oil getting nowhere, but it has, all in the end, added up to a phenomenally fulfilled and wonderful life.

“I want to be remembered as somebody who gave pleasure to millions,” he wrote.

His books have been translated into 30 languages and several made into films, including “Shout at the Devil” with Lee Marvin and Roger Moore in 1976.

Smith “leaves behind him a treasure-trove of novels,” including unpublished co-authored books, according to Kate Parkin, a managing director at Bonnier Books UK.

Kevin Conroy Scott, his literary agent for the past decade, described him as “an icon, larger than life” and said his “knowledge of Africa, and his imagination knew no limitations”.

Tributes poured in on Sunday.

“The world’s greatest storyteller has passed,” tweeted well-known South African crime writer Deon Meyer.

In 1997, he penned a controversial article in a safari magazine, defending elephant hunting and controlled sale of ivory, as a way to save Africa’s wildlife.

He was married four times, with his last wife Mokhiniso Rakhimova from Tajikistan 39 years his junior. They met in a London bookstore and married in 2000.

“She brought me back to life. She taught me to love again,” Smith wrote on his website.