Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Worst Journey in the World - extract.

  1. Apsley Cherry-Garrard
  2. Apsley George Benet Cherry-Garrard was an English explorer of Antarctica. He was a survivor of the Terra Nova Expedition and is acclaimed for his historical account of this expedition, The Worst Journey in the World. 
An extract:


'Two days later the sun appeared for the last time for four months.

Looking back I realized two things. That sledging, at any rate in summer
and autumn, was a much less terrible ordeal than my imagination had
painted it, and that those Hut Point days would prove some of the
happiest in my life. Just enough to eat and keep us warm, no more--no
frills nor trimmings: there is many a worse and more elaborate life. The
necessaries of civilization were luxuries to us: and as Priestley found
under circumstances compared to which our life at Hut Point was a Sunday
School treat, the luxuries of civilization satisfy only those wants which
they themselves create.'

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The end

First a word of warning, this will be the last blog, perhaps forever, so get some tissues at the ready, there won't be a dry eye in the house.

We left Africa on 15th October. And after a year of travelling the breadth of the earth, we flew back to England and then on to the wilds of Bovey Tracey, Devon. If Bovey Tracey sounds a little less exotic  than say, Dar Es Salaam or Gabarone, that's because it is. In fact, it is almost certainly the least exotic place there is, and it was the perfect cushion to ease our fall back into everyday life and help us adjust. I should define what I mean by 'adjust', and in Bovey Tracey it meant to eat cake or pie or crumble or a heady mixture of all three. Fay's dad, now my father in law, has an obsession with collecting wild blackberries and baking pies. Delicious pies that are kept in huge numbers in the fridge and are available on demand. They should be called Pie+. So 'adjust' we did and 10 days later we squeezed ourselves into our new car and set off on the last leg of our world tour, from Bovey Tracey to ... Portslade, the town famous for coming second only to Port Talbot in the 2011 crap town awards.

And now it's a week later and it's Sunday evening. Worthing is the new Nairobi, Bognor Regis the new Sao Paulo. I've just ironed the same work shirts I was wearing before I left and packed my work satchel containing the same half used notebook. 'Tomorrow' is no longer an intriguing, enigmatic, unknown quantity. Tomorrow is Monday, and worse Monday morning, and I'll be back at work.

Friday, August 26, 2011

You... shall... not... PASS!

In the spirit of simplicity, transparency and efficiency, all African countries have come together and adopted a unified border control policy. Streamlined and orderly, the process is an example of African co-operation and organisation. NOT.
Our first real experience of border 'control' was across the Zambezi river from Botswana to Zambia. We crossed close at a place called Kazungula, not too far from Victoria Falls. As we approached the riverbank, the scene that revealed itself to us did not fill us with much hope that we would make it across the river alive, much less negotiate our way off the 'ferry' and through the chaotic scene on the other side. I just used the word ferry, but only in the very loosest sense. If you can imagine a mid size raft, made by a madman, with the skill of a child and a very real desire that anyone who sets foot upon it should instantly sink and drown, then you'll be close. Then imagine seeing a lorry crawl down the muddy bank and wobble it's way forward towards it's inevitable watery demise. Then imagine, in amongst some crazed rantings about money and documents and who (it was clearly no-one) was in charge, being told to follow on behind the lorry. For want of anywhere else to go and infected by the noisy madness of the situation, we did just that and found ourselves balancing on the end of the raft, bumper to bumper with the lorry in front, our rear bumper overhanging the water. The journey was short and we stood outside our car, opting to take our chances out swimming the crocs rather than going down with our very negatively buoyant car. On every third world public transport there are chickens and this was no exception. The chickens and locals smelt potently, but the smell was masked by the noxious soot that was unrelentingly billowing from the motor, a contraption faintly attached to the raft that, with every stuttering vibration, shook the lorry and our car ever closer to the hungry Zambezi.

But we arrived, so ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. We did, the lorry did, and then started to reverse. The continuous blast from my horn wasn't having the desired effect and so Fay leapt from the car and danced her way between the chickens and locals to protest. Frantic waving of arms, gesturing and 'STOP STOP CAR CAR WATER WATER DROWN DROWN!!', was enough to persuade him to make use of his forward gears. A narrow escape from the drink.
Having no idea if we were still in Botswana or had crossed into Zambia, we parked our car and then found we couldn't open our doors. The reason? Every Zambian (or were they Botswanan?) within a 10 mile radius had descended upon our car and were waving bank notes, insurance papers, mobile phones, chickens, bananas or assorted unidentified foodstuffs in a desperate attempt to relieve us of our burdensome cash. We tried to look like we'd done this a million times before. When we finally managed to get enough bodyweight behind the door and wedge it open so we could slide out, we strode off purposefully, in, much to the locals delight, completely the wrong direction. Eventually, after a mind boggling number of repeat journeys between unsigned offices, we emerged and passed through the final control post. We were a few hundred dollars lighter, but we had our road tax, our third party insurance, our visas, our carbon tax and a whole variety of other amusingly named documents designed with the sole purpose of maintaining the world class Zambian roads network. Er, NOT, of course.
After a similar (if dryer) experience at the Tundama border between Zambia and Tanzania, we had a sequence of much more pleasant experiences (although all equally as financially punishing), until we reached the border between Malawi and Mozambique at a town called Mwanza. At all other crossings we had bought our visas at the border without too much aggravation, but as we passed through Malawi we heard an accumulating array of stories about officious Mozambican border staff turning back tourists who hadn't arranged visas in advance. Arranging one in advance would not have been a problem but for two factors. The first was that there was no fuel in Malawi. None at all. The second was that we'd learned that there had been public protests a couple of weeks earlier. A protest during which the police were said to have opened fire and killed 18 people. Another was now scheduled for 18th August and some of the army would be protesting too. If the police opened fire on the army then some feared that there could be violent repercussions across the country. So for those two not unreasonable er.. reasons, we didn't have the time or means to get a ruddy visa. Which is what we should have eloquently explained to the female customs official at the border, but we couldn't, for two other not unreasonable er, reasons. The first was that she was THE most MISERABLE woman I have EVER encountered in my entire life. Her personality was so devoid of any redeeming features, that is she had smiled, the laws of physics would have self imploded. The second was that this was now Mozambique, and, oh yep, they speak Portuguese here, and we, well, don't.
So we waited. And waited. And when that didn't work we tried a bit more waiting. We stood at the desk beside the endless queue of victims as each in turn handed her their papers. Without exception she would pick up the document, flick to the photo page, look up at her customer and snarl. She would then bring down her mighty stamp with enough force to fell a tree and literally fling the passport bouncing back across the desk. Should anyone dare to approach out of line they would be met my a stern rebuke and be sent to the back of the line. Should anyone have failed to fill in the exit/entry form correctly they would be sent to the back of the line, sometimes time and time again. Should anyone smile, they would be sent to the back of the line.  The woman, in short, was born to be a border official.
But in the end we did get our visa, and we did cross into Mozambique where we have spent the last couple of weeks on idyllic beaches diving azure blue seas with turtles and stingrays. We have just one border left to go in Africa, before selling our car in Cape Town and taking that long flight, with heavy heavy hearts back to London Heathrow and to border control at terminal 5. Maybe they won't let us pass? Here's to hoping.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

So-fari, so good.


As we drove further north the weather changed from hot, to baking hot. And as the temperature rose, my temper boiled and my tolerance plummeted. We were ever thankful when the sun dropped below the horizon. The cooler evening also meant only one thing, a thing that we'd travelled the entire world before finding it. That thing was 'The Fringe', an American sci-fi TV series that someone had copied 3 series (or seasons as they like to say in the US) of to our computer a few months before. It had lain there dormant, like a sleeping behemoth, before being unleashed with a mighty fury that had Fay and I watching like two junkies for hour upon glorious hour, evening upon guilty evening. It is, like this blog, both wildly inaccurate and at best only mildly entertaining, but it must have sated some unmet desires in both Fay and I and whilst at the end of every evening I sincerely promised myself that 'that was it' and 'no more, this time was really the last', we couldn't help ourselves and when Fay or I started watching again, the other would, as sure as night follows steaming hot day, be lured in.

It got hotter. We took a passenger ferry from Dar Es Salaam for a mini holiday within a holiday.  Zanzibar gave some temporary, windy reprieve. Not just from the heat but also from the car which had been our home, and increasingly an albatross around our necks for the last two months. Especially in the early stages, we were reluctant to leave the car unattended, and this meant many a time when I would go and buy another new sim card or negotiate the price of some market tomatoes and Fay (poor Fay) would be left to swelter in the hot tin can. As time has gone on, and we've discovered that Africans are generally more honest and trustworthy (if much more chaotically unorganised) than Westerners, we've managed to let go and leave 'Rhino' to her own devices whilst we go about our business.

One of the foremost reasons we left on our travels was Fay's desire, seeded when she was in her early teens, to see Africa, and more specifically, the Serengeti and the Masai Mara. Arusha is the main base town for both trips into the Serengeti and also to climb Kilimanjaro. Not having the time, money or inclination to climb Kili, I did manage to persuade Fay that climbing Mount Meru would be a good idea. Often used as an acclimatisation climb prior to attempting Kili, it is a great mountain in it's own right. At 4500 metres it's difficult enough, and the route is varied and at times spectacular. You are obliged to take an armed ranger/guide should the resident buffalo or mountain elephants take a dislike to you. We found a ranger at the gate called Jeffrey and he arranged for his friend with an unpronounceable name (whom I re-named 'Pen') to carry some of our equipment and food. The climb takes three days and on the third morning we set off at 1am and arrived at the summit to see the sun rise from behind Kili and cast it's imposing shadow over the clouds beneath us. What I won't say here is that despite my having to encourage Fay to attempt the mountain, it was her who had the much easier time getting to the top, my routine bouts of altitide sickness making life pretty tricksy 'up, up in the atmosphere' as they say in Mary Poppins. Jeffrey and Pen, were very patient as I had to take things very 'Pol-e Pol-e' (slowly slowly). We reached the bottom the following day and flicking through the comments book, I found the entry which best summed up the experience. Carlo d'amato thought the mountain was 'frickin' sweet'. How had he recorded his nationality? 'Eggplant' of course.



After Mount Meru we made our way to the Serengeti Plains and from there into Kenya and the Masai Mara. There are a million hoofed beasts that roam the plains in search of fresh grass. We were in the Tanzanian part of the park and with luck on our side we managed to view thousands of them crossing the Mara river. The power of ants comes from their working as a seamless organisation. To look at them as if to watch a single entity, each constituent part instinctively knowing it's job and performing it without question. The wildebeest seem to work in almost exactly the opposite way. So whilst we watched one group brave the currents and the crocs of the Mara River, we were simultaneously able to watch another, crossing at the same point, in the opposite direction.  The spectacle was fascinating to watch. The Wildebeest gather in ever greater numbers on the banks of the river. Time after time you think they are about to GO, but time after time they DON'T, and slowly disperse before gathering again. It's only occasionally, when one specifically suicidal beast makes the initial dash that it begins and thousands plummet   

frantically into the water, jumping over or standing on each other in their bid to get safely to the other side.


From the Kenyan side we had a different experience. We arrived at a point famous for Wildebeest crossings, and there were hundreds there. Although present, they were also very much dead, bloated and stinking of death and decaying flesh. They had attracted the morbid attention of an equal number of vultures and other scavenging birds to this corpse banquet and the sight was as harrowing as it was unexpected. We later found out that the unfortunate dead had either drowned or been stampeded to death. I can't imagine there's a better advertisement that the 'grass is not always greener' anywhere in the world.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Walk the Line

We met a man named Mario in Cape Town. He's not a pizza addicted plumber like his namesake, but a mechanic. He's also someone that has helped us more than any other person on our travels so far. He fixed our car. Trained us how to drive a 4x4 (where we learned how to drive through sand, mud and water (when driving through water, ALWAYS pull up your trousers and walk through the tracks where your tyres will drive and do NOT start your engine whilst under water) and luckily took pity on us and became our friend.

Mario on left with luminescent legs

His tuition has proved invaluable so far, but in the Okavango Delta, we nearly came unstuck, hence the full title of this next chapter:

10 things not to do in a national park where the animals (mostly, but not limited to, lions, leopards, elephants, hippos, snakes and spiders) want to kill and/or eat you but not necessarily in that order.
The man eaters of Tsavo

1. Start off the day arguing with your wife

2. Get out of your car to take photos

3. Get a flat tyre in lion country

4. Find out that your no1 spare tyre doesn't fit your car

5. Find out that you don't know how to release your no2 spare tyre from it's bracket

6. Arm your wife with a machete and can of pepper spray for protection from lions

7. Drive around with a wobbly wheel loosely attached to your car

8. Mistake Africa's largest snake (the African Rock Python*) for a log, just as you're about to step on it.
Er.. that's not a log.

9. Wallow in glory as a man wearing a pink shirt, chinos and cravat has trouble starting his very expensive Landrover.

10. Fail to properly wade through and check the water you're about to drive through to avoid stepping on more Pythons that might be lurking in the muddy deep.

11. Get the car stuck, waist deep in water, in deep holes that were in the murky muddy deep.

12. Try to start the car with the exhaust under water.

13. Swim around in the Croc and Python infested water in an attempt to get the car out.

14. Walk 1km with a machete, can of pepper spray and wife for protection to an empty campsite deviod of help.

15. Mix up pepper spray with insect repellant.

16. Have to ask the very same man in pink shirt, chinos and cravat for a rescue.

*The  African Rock Python:
An enormous stout snake, with small smooth scales. Triangular head has many teeth for holding prey. Up to 7metres in length. Usually attacks by biting first, hanging on with it's many teeth, and then coiling around the victim. The African Rock Python usually prefers small antelopes, jackals, monkeys, monitor lizards and crocodiles.

The eye of the tiger.

Being a vegetarian and going fishing don't usually go hand in hand. But I'm not a vegetarian, I'm a pescatarian and I eat fish. I've been known to say that one of the reasons for my fish but not animals policy is that I could bring myself to kill a fish, but not, for instance, a defenceless baby cow. I suppose the reason might also be that I don't like fish, the slippery little buggers.

So, on the edge of the Caprivi Strip (a little rectangle that belongs to Namibia and is bordered by Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana), my new wife and I made camp and arranged to go out with a local big game hunter, Anders. We were going onto the Okavango river in search of our lunch, what the locals call Nwembe, but known to you and I as Bream, and what Anders enthused was the tastiest fish in the world (and this from a man who has eaten elephant).

What people really come to the area for though is the Tiger Fish. Said to hit the lure at 60kmh and have teeth like a shark, they are on many peoples fish hit list, if such a thing exists (and if it doesn't, it should).

Anders probably hadn't taken many pescatarians out fishing before, and it goes without saying that he hadn't taken any on big game hunts (there being not much point in not eating meat if you're going to kill it in the name of fun). But he was open to talking about his way of making a living and Fay and I learned a great deal. We learned that nearly all his customers are American. That the rights to hunt animals are strictly controlled. That the government allocates to tribes different quotas of animals depending on how endangered the various species are. The tribes will then sell some or all of those quotas for a considerable sum to companies and then individuals pay for the privilege to hunt and kill the animal. An elephant sets you back a mere 50,000 USD. But if you want that extra special something hanging above your fireplace, above, presumably, your polar bear skin rug, something that just NONE of your neighbours will have, then why not go the whole hog and bag yourself the very endangered black rhino? A snip at a quarter of a million US dollars. Their eyesight is so poor that they can barely see. But don't let anyone tell you that shooting the thing from 50 metres away, from an armoured jeep, with an elephant gun, makes it an unfair fight. If you tell yourself you're a hero enough times, then it must be true, heh?

Anders hadn't killed a rhino, and said he probably never would. He also said that one of the biggest subjects he had to study at animal killing school was how to kill as humanely and quickly as possible. He seemed to mean it too. He said that when his clients insisted on trying to kill an elephant with a head shot, they would invariably miss the brain, so he insisted that as soon as they took their shot, he would shoot the elephant in the heart at the same time. It's probably a given that he's not going to win the Greenpeace 'Man of the Year Award', but he had his morals and he stuck by them, which is more than can be said for me as far as this story goes.

We fished by 'trawling' with rod and reel. This meant we let our artificial lures out about 30 metres behind the boat and then the boat chugged along and the artificial lures get towed along and act like little fish that the bigger fish want to eat (from that sentence you can probably gauge what an experienced fisherman I am). After a blissfully happy unsuccessful hour or so of fishing, I felt a tug on the line. I reeled in my prey to find that I had caught a Tiger Fish, but caught it through the eye, and not unsurprisingly it hadn't put up much of the fight it's famous for. I grabbed hold of the fish and with a handful of fishy goo, tried to disgorge the hook. I managed it, but disgorged the fish's eye along with the hook. I'm not sure who disliked the experience more, me or the fish (but accepted, probably the one eyed fish). Tiger Fish aren't really for eating so I threw him back and with the eye still attached to my hook, I cast back into the river and over the next couple of hours caught two more unfortunate beasts. But alas no Nwembe, no lunch and my pesky-tarian moral high ground sunk and drifting between the murky reeds, looked down upon by my cycloptic victim.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Heal the world

At a certain point in Northern Namibia you pass through what is known as the red line. It marks the transition from mostly white owned farm estates to black communities living in rural, basic, accomodation. The contrast is immediate and stark and feels like literally crossing from the the first world to the third. We crossed the line and were so engrossed in the traditional dress, mud huts, people selling earthen wares, that we had become unaware of the song that had been chosen by the ipod shuffle. We were also unaware that we had started singing the song and waving our hands back and forth. The song was Heal the World by Michael Jackson and for two white people to drive along in a relatively expensive car, waving at the locals whilst singing 'Heal the world, make it a better place, for you and for me and the entire human race' must surely be in breach of the Geneva Convention. In fact there should probably be a clause specifically prohibiting it. Once I'd realised what was happening, I wouldn't have been suprised if dry ice had started to pump out from our car and we'd donned white robes and started to place hands on some of the children. If Jarvis Cocker was there he would have punhced both of us in the face, and rightly so.