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Real adventurers face their fears with boldness, humility and honesty. Then they add wisdom. This book contains a list of some great South African adventure travel tales, contributed by great publications such as Adventure, Getaway, Men’s Health and Out There magazines.
"Out there is a region like no other: a place in which you are completely extended, totally committed and strung out. You're flapping on a limb in the wind." - Andy de Klerk
A waterfall thrashed me once. I was brave and stupid. A beginner kayaker on a beautiful river. And in love: besotted with the flow of the water beneath my boat, the tingle of spray on my face, the warmth of this brotherhood of fellow travellers.
So I blindly paddled my way through fear, a fuddled landing and a botched Eskimo roll. Pushed deep by the force of who-knows-how-many tons of falling water, I thought about life and death. But mostly it was matters of ego that dominated: how embarrassing to die here, my heroes as onlookers. I bottom-crawled till the current spat me out...
Adventure, I have come to see, is not just for daredevil teens too stupid to care. Real adventurers face their fears with boldness, humility and honesty. Then they add wisdom. They push through, beyond their personal boundaries, journeying to the land of satisfaction on the other side of challenge. They are honest about fear, and about failure. They cry. They laugh. And they report back with compassion.
This is my list of great South African travel tales - or the most adventurous ones, at any rate. It is a most subjective list - and I make no apologies for that. For I have conned my way into the company of gods and goddesses. My wildest journey, my bumpiest ride was years back on a magazine called Out There, which celebrated the adventure lifestyle. Other magazines, especially Getaway and Men's Health, have continued to laud the achievements of wild-at-heart South Africans, and encouraged us all to keep dreaming.
For there's something enabling about a great adventure story: it inspires you to stare your fear down, to step out and seek new places. And then to return home with humility. These are some of those great stories.
It was the middle of 1992 and South Africa was one of the most violent places on earth. I was a foreign correspondent reporting South Africa for Canadian television; my partner, Liz Fish, was directing a film for the BBC. Friends were dying and being shot at. We were both burned out and exhausted. We'd seen too much killing and too much hatred and despair.
So we decided to ditch it all and go travelling while we sorted out our heads. We discussed it long and hard, debating and arguing. Was it the right thing to do? How could we leave South Africa in the middle of one of the most important events and biggest news stories in the 20th century history of the world? Then we began debating destinations. They all seemed so foreign. Africa? The idea started off small, a few months meandering around Southern Africa was what we would do, we decided. Then, like Topsy, it grew and grew.
We went shopping for a vehicle. Nothing we could afford or that looked as though it was vaguely in working order was for sale. We had decided on an old Land Rover, and the most we could afford was R30 000, including all the gear we had to buy.
One Saturday, an ad appeared in The Argus and is still stuck in our trip accounts book. It read: 'LR SIIA 1969. Full safari equip. R20 000.' It was so terse and cryptic and the price so high that it had to be genuine. We got there and the hydraulic clutch had been cut, so it couldn't be driven. The seller was covered in oil, busy fixing it. That should've tipped us off. But we had already fallen in love with the vehicle. A graceful old Landy, a sort of rusty beige colour, that reeked of African bush.
The seller told us his sad tale. He had wanted to travel from Cape Town to London via Angola, then Zaire and on through West Africa, and had been looking for three travel companions. 'Nobody seemed very keen on the Angola bit, and now I've run out of money, so I'm going to backpack to Madagascar,' he said. He showed us the equipment that went with the sale, most of it brand new. Two hi-lift jacks, six new spare wheels, two hydraulic jacks, a tent, eight jerry cans, three boxes of tinned food, two cases of bully beef, two cases of Post Toasties, a case of peas, a two-plate gas stove, three gas cylinders, two skottel braais, two gas braais, three tin trunks, a short wave radio, an axe, three pangas, two sand ladders, two complete Gedore tool kits, wash basins, four Gaz Lumogaz lanterns, ten Camping Gaz cartridges, a neon strip light, four Dietz lanterns, cutlery, glasses, cups, plates, pots, pans, braai grids, two halogen hunting spotlights, a pair of Chinon binoculars, a catapult, a sjambok, four bottles of HP sauce and eight pots of meat tenderiser.
Eight pots of meat tenderiser?
We bought it all the next morning. As we said goodbye, the seller said, 'Jeez, I am so glad to get rid of all that shit. Now I can go backpacking.' We worked out that there was R25 000 worth of equipment and spares. We sold the trailer, discarded three quarters of the stuff, threw away the meat tenderiser and still took too much with us. Five years later, half the spices and tins were still sitting in our camping trunks and we owned enough unused Cadac gas equipment to start a boerewors stand.
A complete set of Michelin Africa series maps went up on our passage wall, the whole continent spread before us. Well, we thought, if we go to Malawi, we might as well go to Tanzania, and Kenya's not that far away. That was about it. There were no other options. The civil war was in its final stages in Mozambique. Ethiopia and Eritrea had not yet opened their borders to overland travellers, we had almost no information on Uganda, and it was going to be pretty tough travelling through Tanzania as two white South Africans. Just in case, we decided to get a vehicle carnet de passage for East Africa. The man at the AA had never heard of one. He phoned London, and they issued one from there. We could get as far as Harare by buying visas at borders; after that we had to start talking. Just in case, we pulled all our news and political strings and managed to get letters of introduction from the ANC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Namibian cabinet minister Danny Tjongarero saying what nice people we were.
That's the upside of being a journalist: you can get letters like that. The downside is that, in most countries, press freedom is not a popular issue, and journalists are as popular as cockroaches. So for the duration of our travels we became an artist and a businessman. (I was 'in computers', though I don't know the difference between a 486, a 323 and a 747.)
Weeks were spent packing and unpacking the vehicle. A man who made cupboards for yachts built 22 separate compartments for cameras, laptop computers, medicines, books, maps, food and clothes; we fitted a rooftop tent, spent a fortune on medical supplies, and then took the Land Rover, an original 1969 Series IIA six-cylinder, 2.6-litre hardtop, to the best workshop in town for an engine rebuild. I negotiated with the management that I would spend the next six days with the mechanics to learn how to fix a Land Rover. They were the most important six days of my life.
We travelled a long way in that Land Rover - 65389 km to be precise. We broke two spring main blades, sheared three shackle hangers, smashed the alternator bracket four times, destroyed the starter motor, burnt out two valves, blew the rear main bearing oil seal twice, cracked the fire wall, burnt out the clutch plate, sheared the bull bar right off (and drove from Addis Ababa to Nairobi with it held on with nylon rope), the third gear popped out every time we went uphill, the chassis cracked, we replaced all the spring bushes three times, our distributor head cracked, all our CV joints and all the HT leads had to be replaced, the prop shaft splines wore out, three wheel bearings dissolved, we split three rims and once one of our wheels fell right off. And the brakes failed, twice. Other than that, we had no problems.
While we were overhauling the engine in Cape Town, there was one nasty little mechanic who reconditioned our gearbox. During the overhaul, he lifted a grease-stained face to his black assistant. 'You better do a good job on this, Mandela. This baas is going into Kaffirland.'
The assistant rolled his eyeballs. 'Ja, baas,' he sighed. A bit later, at lunch time, he took me aside and asked, 'Where are you going?'
There are many ways to travel Africa. Some people fly in with a pocketful of dollars and whizz around the safari circuit. Others do it with a backpack full of old clothes and a head full of young dreams. One of the finest ways to travel Africa is in a very old, very slow Land Rover. There is a timeless feel to it, a dreamlike quality to the landscapes, which change very slowly as you drift along at a pace that quietly digests rather than gobbles up the miles. There is also a hospitality extended to the owners of old Land Rovers that other travellers do not find.
Crucially, wherever you go in an old Landy, in the most rural parts of Africa, there is a mechanic who knows how to fix them. There are always spares available, cannibalised from wrecks or else genuine Land Rover parts on sale in a tin shack at the market. We said goodbye to all our friends in a series of drunken farewell parties. 'See you in a year,' we told them all, 'maybe even six months.' We left on a chilly day in November, 1992. It was already getting into mid-afternoon, but we felt the need to get some miles on our tyres.
We got as far as Algeria, in the Cederberg, and both got badly sick. Real humdinger flu sick. So we spent a couple of days recuperating there. It took us quite a while to get to Namibia, ambling along, smelling the daisies.
Namibia was familiar ground and didn't feel like Africa. This may sound weird, but we were bored. We sat around the fire late one night discussing this problem. We were on our way to Tsumkwe, then into the Kaudom, on our way to Botswana and Zimbabwe. Namibia was in the grip of one of the worst droughts in living memory: the countryside was covered in dirty grey dust, and even the cacti were shrivelled. It was a depressing realisation. We had broken free, sold everything we could, sorted out all our affairs, turned down offers of lots of US dollars to stick around for the transition period, and now we were bored. Then clouds began pouring in from the north-east. A full moon broke through and lit up the plains. Somewhere in the distance we heard the roar of a lion. We smoked a joint and got very giggly. Then, in honour of the spirits of ancient Africa, we put Sade on the tape deck, stripped naked and leapt about in a mad, fertile rain dance.
A great bolt of lightning struck the earth 200m away. It created a fireball of energy, and we were terrified, not knowing if we were earthed in our rooftop tent, so we dived into the Land Rover cab as lightning thudded all around, exploding, singeing the air and creating energising waves of ozone. And it began to rain, and rain, and rain, in the way it can only rain in Africa. We were never bored again. Our journey had begun. We went for a year. We came home two years later.
How do you begin to tell the story of two years of travel through Africa in limited words? I suppose by telling small stories, snapshots of our lives. We got to Ethiopia; we got to Uganda. We lived in Kenya for a while, using it as a base. We climbed Mount Elgon, mule trekked through the Simyen Mountains, hallucinated on Lake Turkana, caught a bus into Harar in the Ogaden Desert, hiked the Nyika Plateau, sailed in dhows over coral reefs on the border of Somalia, tracked chimpanzee in Uganda, walked with elephant on the Zambezi and caught trout in the Aberdares in Kenya, the Bale Mountains in Ethiopia, the Nyika, Zimbabwe's Nyanga and on the Brooke Bond Tea Estate near Iringa in Tanzania. East Africa is full of delightful places. We heard tales of an alpine lake high on the slopes of Mount Kenya so inaccessible that a Scandinavian millionaire stocks it once a year by helicopter and flies in to fish. A friend went fishing there and said he lost a fish as long as his arm. He is a tall man, and an honest man, a farmer, salt of the earth - you know he would not lie. He has long arms, so the trout must be very thin up there, but you expect thin trout on Mount Kenya, living so high up the mountain. I hope he does not lie, because that is a secret spot I will return to and fish with my son. Trout dreams. African dreams.
There is an image that will stay with me as long as I live. We had been in the Serengeti for two weeks. It was at the height of the migration. It was quintessential Africa, vast plains of tawny grass dotted with umbrella trees, a sea of milling wildebeest and zebra, grunting and snorting in a mad bedlam of insane noise. We followed the migration out of the park and into the Grumeti conservation area, a corridor of protected land where nomadic pastoralists and wildlife live side by side.
An hour before sunset, we set up camp at the foot of a small koppie looking down towards the Grumeti River. We were in the Garden of Eden. Spread before us on the plains was one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on earth: thousands upon thousands of animals, wildebeest, zebra, giraffe, ostrich, kongoni, elephant, lion, Thomson's gazelle.
They moved unquietly back and forth, politely keeping 100m from our camp. Late into the night the grunting and groaning continued, singing us to sleep. We woke to silence. The plains were empty. Not a single animal remained. They had ghosted off in the night, leaving us wondering if we'd imagined it all. We were gone for two years and came home to a new country. Go figure! We were gone from November 1992 to December 1994. We left classified white South Africans, we came home Africans, citizens of the whole continent. Whenever we sit around a fire now, we look at each other and say, 'Let's go back.'
African Odyssey (Tony Weaver)
Beeld Plus (Cecile Cilliers)