Testing my Tent, Backpack and Public Transport.
12.11.2006 - 12.11.2006
6th to 12th November
(written on the Shosholoza Meyl trans-Karoo train while eating boiled eggs)
I purchased the City to City (Translux’s budget company without air conditioning, entertainment or a stinky toilet) bus ticket going from Pretoria to Lusaka for R330. It will be a 24 hour journey straight through Zimbabwe without any passengers getting on or off (they aren’t allowed to according to Translux’s license). I was hesitant to purchase the ticket, as my Mango flight arrives in Johannesburg at 07:45 and the bus leaves Park Street Station at 10:00. So I didn’t want to cut it too fine, nor have to rely on an exorbitant taxi ride to get me there in a rush – which I don’t think would have been possible anyway, as they have just introduced a priority lane on the Pretoria to Johannesburg Highway for vehicles containing at least three occupants.
What finally changed my mind was Wonder. He is a new recruit at Exclusive Books, where I have been working part time for the past year. Wonder comes from Pretoria and has a good friend who works for Exclusive Books at the OR Tambo airport (formerly known as Johannesburg International). He has arranged for his friend to give me a ride to the Kempton Park station, where I can either get a train or minibus taxi to Pretoria, which should take less than an hour.
So I will catch the bus which initially left from Johannesburg, in Pretoria, thereby causing less stress, but if Mango’s flight is delayed, my plans are screwed!
I have to get to the TAZARA train which takes three days to get from Zambia to Tanzania. I am hesitant to make any firm bookings as the guide books and many bloggers and travel forum experts keep reminding me “You are in AFRICA! You need to cater for major delays!’ Yeah right, I haven’t catered for shit – in fact if a ferry breaks down or a bus driver falls asleep – the rest of my plans are no longer. There’s always a first time for everything – I’ll remain optimistic and pray for perfection – that’s all I can do!
My life is hectic. I am working almost every evening and weekend, researching the logistics for my upcoming adventure, and constantly doing revision for my final exams at City Varsity, where I am studying Journalism. I am currently stressed because the Tanzanian’s still don’t have my passport and the on-line ‘track and trace’ facility offered by our very efficient post office www.sapo.co.za tells me that my parcel is still at the Arcadia postal depot. I sent email after email, to the post office, the Tanzanians, the Ugandans and Fuji Film. I only got one reply – amazingly from the post office. They couldn’t tell me anything more that what their website did! I am hoping Fuji will sponsor the 40 or so professional slide films I need for my travels. So far I have an offer of Fuji Chrome Provia 100F colour slide film, wait for it, for free, gratis, nadda!
Nothing in life is free, and I find out that the film expired over a year ago and it hasn’t been kept in a refrigerator. I ask the professionals, and they all gave me different answers. Some say it’s perfectly fine and that it’s better if it hasn’t been kept cold, as it will get shocked from the heat in Equatorial East Africa! Others tell me that it would be really short-sited to put all the effort into lugging professional photographic equipment, on public transport, in a backpack, for 10 weeks, and then when I get back I have nothing to show for my efforts! So I decided to test two films and check the results.
I swapped my evening shift at the book store in order to attend a bi-polar support group. It turned out to be the 10th anniversary of the group, whose aim is to help bi-polar sufferers and their supporters to live with their illness. I take part in the groups to remind myself that I suffer from a serious illness that is generally misunderstood. If I decide that I am ‘cured’ and stop taking my medication, then I will go hypo-manic, generally leaving a wake of destruction (emotional, mental and physical) in my path. I am so happy I don’t need electric shock therapy or a cocktail of mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. I am taking 300mg of Lamotrogine every morning, which means I have to take 200 tablets with on my trip, with my shrink’s permission, if anyone can read his writing. Why is it that these ‘intelligent’ professionals, who command a small fortune for a few minutes of their time, can get away with illegible scripts? The pharmacists who decipher them must have learnt a special code language at University.
I sent emails to a dozen hotels and guesthouses on Zanzibar and Pemba islands. The authorities won’t let you camp on their islands – so you have to book the budget places in advance – or you end up stranded or broke. I received some hilarious replies. Their English is a challenge to comprehend; suffice it to say that I am ‘booked’ for three days at several establishments for the same period. I am keeping all of them, just in case. I asked one of them for ‘special price’ as the Lonely Planet suggested, and to my amazement they agreed, and, in code language, hinted that I would be picked up at the ferry terminal and get a delicious breakfast every morning – that’s three days for $35!
The Tanzanians have my passport! (Well not yet exactly) I finally got to speak to a human at the Tanzanian High Commission. I pleaded with him (his name was Kabekha) to go to the post office and pick up my registered item with their name on it. Apparently that was not the standard procedure and I had to get a courier to pick it up from the post office and take it to them. I tried to explain to him how the process works, and that only they can sign for it, something I insisted on as I wasn’t planning on losing another British passport (my wife lost hers in the post after she had a new one issued to change her surname). I told him that a postman would have come to their embassy and asked for a signature, and if there was no answer (most embassy staff hibernate after 12:00) then he/she would have left a little slip informing them of the registered item. Kabekha said “I have slip in my hand right now.” I asked him for the reference number on the slip, and before he could finish reading it, I finished it off for him. I had memorized it after tracing it daily over the last two weeks. I begged him to collect it, I told him I really wanted to see his country, and that I couldn’t get a visa on the border as I would be on a train. He understood and said “I see what I do for you – call me in one hour.” Woohoo – some progress, perseverance pays off! Two hours later I called Kabekha who told me that he made a few calls and his man would collect it today. The website wasn’t updated until three days later!
My lectures for the morning included a fitting topic – how to write captions for photographs.
What the experts say: Creating Captions They’ll Love; Sell Stories! Write Great Cutlines; and Hot Tips for Writing Photo Captions. I will bear that in mind on my travels. I am beginning to think that I won’t have the space to write the way I want to – it will end up being a short book or a long blog, neither of which need short captions…
After school I jumped on the back of a bakkie (pick-up) with my backpack and camera bag. I decided to visit my family on a farm near Laingsburg in the little Karoo. I wanted to test my kit: camp without amenities, see what I could do without, and more importantly, what I still needed. It took six hours to get there, with some interesting stops on the way including a vet in Worcester, ice cream in Touwsrivier and an abattoir in Laingsburg. The vet gave us a bucketful of medical supplies intended to save animal’s lives. Ironically, in Laingsburg, I removed the packaging from a brand new chest freezer and loaded 250kg of ‘viande fraiche’ (fresh meat from a dead cow) from the abattoir’s cold room. The vet’s medicines wouldn’t have helped this animal – it was shot in between the eyes. There was nothing wrong with it except that it was a castrated male, a useless domestic animal to keep around for too long, and besides, humans have a desire for young red meat. It had a name – Jay, and a mother - Jessica. Hey, I’m not going vegetarian or anything, the T-bones were succulent and tender. I keep trying to explain to them (the vegetarians) that cow shit helps grow the vegetables they worship, and, without a bull, there won’t be any pregnant cows giving tons of milk to make cheese, yoghurt, cream, butter and a plethora of other very important and delicious dairy products!
My backpack was tested on the dirt roads – now I know I must get a dust and water proof cover for it – more weight – no! I camped on the grass that evening, looking at the stars through the mesh vent in the top of my two man tent. There’s hardly any space in it for my pack – let alone an exhausted six foot sun burnt backpacker. Nevertheless I was getting very excited. I setup everything in the dark, with a little help from the light on my watch.
I awoke at dawn, freezing my fucking tits off! The purple double-thick cotton duvet cover didn’t achieve anything – it opens with buttons two thirds of the way up – which leaves my stomach and chest open to the elements. On top of that, I forgot to close the roof and slept naked (it’s supposed to be warmer that way – if you are actually covered properly or you have another naked body next to you – inshallah).
I sat it out patiently, waiting for the morning sun to thaw out my stiff body. An hour later nothing had changed except for my teeth, which had now started vibrating vigorously.
I looked up through the opening in the roof and saw the moon – it was 3 a.m. I got out of ‘bed’ reluctantly and put on my pajamas, cocooned myself in and things were looking good. That is until the ‘rain’ came in!
I jumped up in shock, closed the roof and snuck back into ‘bed’. I was wet and smelled terrible. I had pitched my tent in front of an automatic sprinkler head which sprays water from the dam. The water had been sitting in the pipes overnight, causing it to smell like a sewer. I saw this as good practice for Uganda, except that then it will be real rain, clean, persistent and completely unpredictable.
I made film holders out of 50mm heavy duty plumbing pipe. They are covered in silver ‘sisalation’ – to reflect the sun and (hopefully) keep my precious film from frying. They have the added benefit (curiosity) of making my backpack look like a self propelled rocket – I wish! I rescued my old slide projector from the attic and it worked perfectly. I was now so motivated to take award-winning pictures – backed up by words and a solid story. Who knows, I might even get paid for it and then make this (adventure travel writing) my new career.
That would really be having my cake and eating it.
I also found a small fubar (fucked up beyond all repair) wetsuit. I used every last piece of it. The arms covered two 1½ liter indestructible coke bottles – to insulate and keep my drinking water from boiling. The legs I used to cover my tripod, which will protect it and also hide what thieves will see as a shiny silver piece of expensive equipment. It’s a pity I didn’t have a disguise for the two rocket launcher pipes flanking my pack!
The torso, after I sowed closed the orifices left by the amputated limbs, has been made into an interesting case for my goose-down pillow. Strapped on the back of my colossal red backpack, it looks like a memento from a vicious shark attack.
I will wait and see if the kids will still shout Mzungu, which Wikipedia describes as: “the Swahili word for “white person”, shouted by children, accompanied by pointing, jumping, and the question/statement “how are you I’m fine!” repeatedly.
With my beetroot red face (it does that after serious physical exertion – like wearing my pack) covered by a rough uncut beard, the rocket launchers, bottles and torso hanging from my pack – they may not think I’m a Mzungu – I look more like a Martian space tourist.
I moved camp and setup my tent under the stars on a cobblestone floor next to a labourer’s cottage. I bent a few tent pegs trying to get them into the impenetrable Karoo earth.
It took 15 minutes to complete and I felt pretty confident then. It was like riding a bicycle – I last camped and backpacked independently through Europe 10 years ago – I didn’t forget. It was winter and we (I was traveling with an enormous friend of mine named Mike) had to down two shots of Stroh Rum followed by 20 push-ups before bedtime, in order to keep warm.
I cooked up some 2-inch thick organic t-bone steaks – home reared – part of the 250kg stash from the freezer.
With a cream, butter and green peppercorn sauce, it was a taste sensation of note. I will have to see how it compares to bush-meat (monkeys, elephants, deer, snakes, rodents, insects, mopane worms, etc). I plan to cook the bush-meat on an impromptu fire, skewered on my home-made sharpened tent pegs (if I haven’t managed to bend them all by then!)
Lonely Planet’s Healthy Travel Africa reminds the reader “before tucking into a close relative like the chimpanzee, you might want to reflect on the fact that the AIDS epidemic is thought to have begun when an HIV-like virus made the jump from apes to humans, probably through bush-meat preparation and eating. Outbreaks of Ebola, the scariest of the haemorrhagic fevers, have also been linked to bush-meat preparation and eating.
I enjoyed the darkness and the starry sky for 10 minutes before I tucked in, this time well prepared, or so I thought.
I didn’t get cold this time – I awoke at dawn – 05:30 – hips bruised and shoulder blades almost dislocated. I will need to work on my ‘foetal position’ and prop a towel and some dirty clothes under my hard bony bits.
I took pictures for over three hours – about 40 in all. I was testing my ‘free’ film, documenting each shot with the date and time, subject, camera, lens, aperture, shutter speed, tripod, filters, timer, etc.
This is how you learn – from both your failures and your successes – which is what LP’s Travel Photography has taught me. Light, composition, preparation etc all add up to quite a bit of pondering before taking that perfect shot.
Many people with the latest 12 mega pixel digital cameras just point and shoot – their camera does everything for them – there’s no thinking about the light, the angle, the composition. Snap, snap, snap – you can just delete it if it’s no good. With a manual SLR, you choose your film, aperture, speed, flash, filters, lenses etc – the possibilities are endless.
I am using two 1970’s Olympus OM cameras – a aperture priority OM10 and a fully manual OM2. I have a wide angle 28mm lens as well as 50mm, 100mm and 85-210 telephoto lenses.
I packed up my tent in a rush – 10 minutes tops in the scorching heat. I applied factor 30 SPF on my burning arms, shoulders, neck and face, while walking with 30kg of equipment and listening to Jack Johnson on my IPOD.
I found an old stainless steel teapot – unbreakable – that I will take along to boil eggs, water, soup, etc.
That night I slept inside – I figured I'd had enough practice and also had to a catch a train early the next morning.
Sunday 12th I awoke feeling guilty – my sleep was too comfortable!
I said goodbye to my Mom and Labrador as I wasn’t going to see them for the next three months. I will use the ‘sms-to-landline’ service to keep in touch with friends and family, updating them on my whereabouts and mental condition. A computer-generated male voice (I don’t think you have any options to change it) reads out your message – it is pretty impressive.
I spent half an hour on the platform of the dilapidated Laingsburg Train station. I took the first of many pictures of train/bus/ferry stations/depots/terminals, one of them on a self-timer when you click and then run fast to hope you make it into the frame. When the train finally arrived, I couldn’t fit through the doors. I will have to rearrange my pack – it’s too wide for narrow train doors. It was an uneventful six hour, 3rd class, R40 train to Cape Town. I scribbled notes about my last week while eating bread, fruit, and boiled eggs from my teapot. The iPod, Sudoku book, photography, journals, speaking to travellers – yeah – that’s exactly what I was going to do for 10 weeks.
My EX refused to collect me from the train station in Cape Town, which was a good thing, as I needed to get used to walking distances with my pack and travelling in minibus taxis.
I did, however, have my slide projector and slides with me – which are bulky and weigh another 20kg! I made it to the taxi rank without dropping anything (I caught the projector several times, mid-air, before it could shatter on the tarmac).
I shoved everything in, offered to pay for an extra person, and then ate an apple and listened to Kruder & Dorfmeister to calm down – my hands were trembling! Exhausted, sun burnt, over-ambitious.
I jumped out at the book store to visit my work colleagues. They didn’t recognize me.
Who was this ‘red yeti’, the abominable snowman? I was a site for sore eyes and had many curious onlookers asking questions. The staff were not happy, especially when my tripod sent an entire display crashing down.
I walked the 1km home up a steep hill. I had to stop three times – first tying my handbag to the ‘torso’, then putting the projector on top of my head – then for a water break.
I got home and threw off everything including my clothes. I could have sworn I didn’t swim that day, but my underwear, socks, and t-shirt were dripping with sweat! After seeing my beetroot read face in the mirror, I stood under a cold shower for 20 minutes. Five hours later I was still naked, I had finished typing this blog entry and my face had finally reverted to its former colour.