End of the road! 60,000km to the World Cup Final!
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
36Trip End Jun 01, 2010
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Cold and wintry on the fringe of the Kalahari Desert – get offered the sparse conference room's linoleum floor in front of a two-bar heater.
Awake in the middle of the night to find half a dozen policemen hovering over me, hands outstretched trying to find some warmth from the heater I am hogging.
Hitch a ride on the back of a 10-ton flat-bed truck fully loaded with bags of cement.
Coolly dump myself at the rear end, while the other five hikers snuggle up tightly behind the cab.The road is tarred. But not for long.
Barely metres on to the thick, powdery desert sand, and the first bump rattles the bones. Hundreds of bags of cement, stacked four deep, rise in unison and thump down, as does the traveller. Another hundred metres a repetition. Scurry across the heaving bedload to relative safety where the wiser are sheltering.
The truck grinds forward painfully, averaging 30km/h; 600km seems a lifetime away.
Overnight next to a fire. Temperature drops to below freezing point. Shiver in a totally inefficient sleeping bag. Get thrown a hessian grain bag into which I also stuff myself to help ward off turning into an icicle.
Start the day and the wheels sink into a soft section of the strip. Five passengers add pitiful heft to the rear of the truck as the driver inches forward fractionally, then reverses fractionally more. Repeat, repeat, and success into reverse, the vehicle lurches out the trap, but one man does not dodge away in time.
Two metres from me, in front of my eyes, a migrant labourer returning from a stint on a South African mine, a large, muscular man in blue canvas overalls, topples backwards and the double, rear right wheels roll over his torso. Ten tons of crush.
There is a small rent in his garment, across his chest.
His eyes move. Unbelievably he is not dead.
There is only sand and scrub as far as the eye can see. The closest village is 100km away.
Stand on the rear of the truck, tailgate now down, and help lift the man up. Feel his shoulder pull away from the rest of his body, broken bones grating.
A Bushman (San man) lowers the miner’s head on to his lap, lays his hands on the dying man’s forehead, and croons softly.
Every bump etches further agony on an already archly-grimaced mouth.
After an hour, the horror on his face seems to recede. Unconsciousness and the quiet kindness of death end the pain.
The Bushman does not move for three hours, continuing to stroke the dead man’s brow, mewling.
Arrive in mini-village Kang, find the clinic. Man dead on arrival.
All are required to make a statement at the police station. The truck is dispatched back down the road to its base.
The passengers are offered overnight accommodation in the police cells, doors ajar.
Back on the road, now a tight-knit group. Five days to cover the distance that should have taken two. On arrival, the person I have gone to visit is not there, but am told a further 500km deeper, southwest, into the desert.
That all took place 29 years ago. A na´ve, young traveller.
This is the road to which I now return.
Then I was heading north, Lobatse to Ghanzi, across Botswana.
My first own venture north of South Africa as a young man, the road that would begin an amazing life journey including taking public transport (with apologies to Antarctica) the length or breadth of all the continents.
Now the journey nears completion, the great circle finds its origin. Dots are finally beginning to be joined.
Since then, the old sand track has been replaced by the Trans-Kalahari Highway, built to expedite traffic flow between South Africa and Namibia.
From the town of Maun (mao-oon), at the base of the Okavango Swamps, to Ghanzi, to visit the same friend, the see the miracle of the paved road across the desert, to return back down the umbilical track.
Maun has changed since first visiting all those years ago. Then a frontier, cowboy town of one sealed road, mingled into a soft, mellow, classic African village – the glory of the Okavango barely known to the world - it has since lured millions of visitors who have rained dollars, often indiscreetly, on the region, Ngamiland.
It is now an ugly town fronted by elite safari operations, mostly secreted behind a conurbation of cheap cash and carries, Western Unions and quick-loan shark pits.
Lumps of shops are scattered and dumped in seemingly illogical fashion and shape – doubtless a result of developers who could prise any plot, anywhere, out of the hands of traditional owners.
Ghanzi, once a T-junction, the north-south road abutting the east-west concourse between Maun and Namibia, has also modernized. Yet somehow has kept a centralised town structure. It feels quietly prosperous, the centre of large cattle ranches, and a vital pit-stop for travellers and truckers.
Find my friend of 33 years, Julian Butler, entrepreneur, builder, farmer, lothario and safari camp owner. The desert has been good to him, albeit in an often lonely, forgotten neck of the woods.
A construction company building the highway quarries stone from his farm. They dig deep, crack open the ground with dynamite, and break through the water table, accidentally creating a rock-lined seep pit 300m x 100m, and some 20-30m deep. The only 'pool’ of its kind in the country.
The Kalahari is a semi-arid desert, known for its temperature extremes and dryness.
The cool of ‘Die Gat’(The Hole) is the perfect place for vast quantities of golden mead to flow, fuelling reminiscences and updates.
Small antelope drift out of the scrub to sip at dusk. Kingfishers patrol for the growing shoals of introduced tilapia.
Flick a small lure out with a small rod. Instantly the waiting pan is filled.
Angling in the middle of a desert!
The water is crystal clear. The perfect antidote for the warm winter sun – a paradisical oasis by summer.
Late one night stumble upon a group of Bushmen women seated next to a fire.
The are clapping, clapping, unsynchopated, monotonous, with a strange over-riding rhythm – differing rhythms of each participant joining to create, generate a peculiar togetherness.
They are beating a tune for two elderly traditional healers who use the energy of the clack-clackclack-clack to drive their dancing around the fire, around, around, and fuelling a path into a trance.
A half-blind man of around 70-years-old and a slightly younger acolyte, legs well-wrapped in strings of dried pupa rattles, shuffle around the fire, sway, mutter, chant inaudibles round and round and round.
Bodies lurch, lean, a fly whisk cracks across the upward-reaching orange tendrils of flame that flicker, casting ochre and sepia shades, bouncing light and colour off the reddish soil and taut, brownish bodies. Not full colour, not black and white – somewhere wondorously in between.
Tak-clakclak-taktak-trrrakkkkk, the clapping quivers and quickens. Hand gestures from the dancers spur the women on, the rising crescendo spurs the dancers further.
The two pairs of thighs begin to agitate, moving from slow shuffle gait towards a ‘running on the spot’.
Feet drive into the sand, grains spray, the rattles crackle and prattle with a schuck-a-schuck-shtrukk progression.
Hardened feet, 70 years of callouses thud, and shuffle, and thud.
Fire, sand, sound, more and more. Primordial. Genetic memories from the beginning of mankind combine and erupt into a ‘here and now’. The women have moved into a frenzied syncopation of sound, dancers thrum feet, grunt, calfs pump pump downwards.
A low wail, sigh-like, emits from clan audience and the women. Everybody has understood, the dancers have moved ‘to the other side’, into a trance.
Trances are important rituals for Bushmen, where participants commune with spirits, ancestors, conduct healing ceremonies, ceremonies of gratitude to nature for providing sustenance, to search for answers or even to seek … and seek.
Now already long after midnight, the clapping drives, drives, and suddenly the younger dancer halts, motionless, mid-step.
And falls as a chopped tree would, hard to the ground, face down in the sand, hands half outstretched just before me. Two fingers twitch and claw desperately into the sand, spasms run up and down this small man’s naked, finely muscled back.
Titters from the watchers: "hy het hom geskiet" (Afrikaans – “he has shot him”), and in SeSarwa, the Bushman click-like language …. Xwee, tkwaa tqi!!tqui! to the uneducated ear.
The dancers had found each other ‘on the other side’ and had been dueling. The older man wins.
Half-an-hour later, the women begin to slow their clapping, making worried sounds.
The slowing rhythm releases the victorious dancer from the reins that had been holding him in his trance, allowing him to slowly return. He too shows concern.
His victim has not moved a centimeter since falling. Tiny puffs of sand fluff around his nose as he breathes, his head angled into the ground.
The woman stop clapping, and all gather around the prone figure, laying hands on his back, stroking him, talking to him, soothing him.
Bringing him back, I am told, in case “he goes too far away and gets lost for ever”.
The dance takes place in the middle of the bush, many kilometres from any village. Only lit by brilliant stars and flame.
Only the clan and one or two privileged interluders are witness to the dance, trance, outcome of the duel.
The conquered man stirs, returns to consciousness slowly, slurs words, sits up, squats next to the fire; the women, content, sit again, and begin to pick up in a late-night, slow clak-clak-clap.
The younger dancer has returned – from where? What place? I ask. The only answer I get is a repeated: “From the other side.”
These traditions and practices go back to life’s birth, carrying on instincts and abilities stripped from most of mankind over centuries and millennia of numbing modernization.
I don’t truly understand what, where, how, but I see … and so I believe.
Back down time’s own highway, and on across the Kalahari, down my own highway of time.
Five days of hell ride now becomes 7 hours of smooth cruising down an airstrip quality road to Gaberone, the capital of Botswana, near the South African border.
Arrive at the Tlokweng border gate, cruise through Botswana’s formalities then find a 150m queue of people waiting to enter South Africa’s immigration offices.
This is a week before the World Cup is due to kick off. What, one wonders, will the situation be like when the hordes really begin to descend.
The queue is for foreigners. There are only three waiting in the ‘citizens’ section.
An officer asks: “Are you rasta?” Perhaps alluding to travel-worn beard, bangles and beads.
I chuckle out a Bob Marley one-liner: “Rastaman vibrations …. Yeah …. Positive,” and smile.
The retort catches one off-guard: “Why have you lost touch with Jesus,” before rambling on about the evils of Rastafarianism. Just because I have a beard?
“Do you smoke dagga (marijuana),” he asks.
“That’s for kids,” raises a chuckle from his colleagues seated next to him.
All smiles around, and business proceeds.
Welcome to my country!
My first time south through this border, in 1981, in the days of arch-white supremacy, I had arrived in similar condition: bearded, covered in white dust from days of hitch-hiking on very unsurfaced roads, with backpack, a bushman bow and arrows and a finger piano.
One look, and the very fascist boer (mildly derogatory slang for Afrikaner) border officer just said: “Open it (the bag), spread it out along the pavement. All of it.”
The 1980s and early 90s were an era of the same reception and feeling of entering South Africa. Always an uncomfortable weight – which I thought might have receded by now. Not quite.
Engage the border Bureau de Change to procure some South African currency.
Passport? South African.
“What is your phone number?” I don’t have one.
“What is your phone number at home?” I don’t have one. Home nor number. On the road for two-and-a-half years, returning to the motherland after 15 years, and my tenants have their own numbers, to which I’m clueless.
I simply don’t feel like lying, as I had done for “number of next of kin in case of emergency”, just stringing a few digits together and praying I had the correct amount.
Do you work in South Africa? No, Hong Kong, of which I am a permanent resident.
“But if you have a South African passport, you have to have your currency cleared as a South African. Do you have a utilities bill less than 3 months old?”
Totally nuts. I fall into the cracks, some kind of grey zone. She relents, but I see the future. I need a utility bill. But how the hell do you get that yesterday?
Sit on the curb awaiting the bus, and the foreigner’s queue, sipping coffee from a shipping-container kiosk.
Start shooting the breeze with a couple of South Africans hitch-hiking south.
“How’s life,” etc … A flicker of distrust flashes across the pair of brows, guarded looks. The response comes, but not with the same casualness, nonchalance at passing acquaintances and discoveries of 9,000km north across Africa.
Of course, how could I forget, many white folk don’t just pass the time of day with black folk down here in deep south Africa. An ice-pick between my eyes.
Welcome to my country!
And yet … and yet …
The bus into Johannesburg wends around the edge of Soweto, local energy centre of the liberation struggle two decades ago.
Temporary roadsigns and arrows declare: Super 14 Rugby Final: Park and Ride.
Rugby, the bastion of Afrikanerdom is being played in Soweto. The home ground of finalists Blue Bulls, Loftus Versfeld Park in Pretoria (where the grand architects of apartheid held sway for so long) is being prepared for World Cup football games.
The boere are venturing into the very zone they warn their daughters about: a zone with rape, robbery and murder statistics to cause a case of national psychosis. Though many might flitter over the obvious, that the residents of Soweto suffer the most from said incidents.
It’s simply now a case of haves and have nots. If you’ve got it, somebody else probably wants it.
And the gods simply laugh. The fearful ones are welcomed with open, open arms. Barbecues are enjoined on the roadside as impatient rugby fans park their cars anywhere and slowly walk to Orlando Stadium.
Front doors are thrown open. “Have a beer, have a beer….”
Vuvuzelas are introduced to rugby fans, that drone and buzz now known to all who have watched a World Cup football game on television.
The Blue Bulls beat the Stormers of Cape Town. South African rugby is at the top of the world. And it is being played in Soweto.
Things have changed, some much for the better.
Johannesburg, and South Africa, is abuzz with World Cup fever. New highways, byways, stadiums, speed trains, a serious polishing and facelift for our foreign guests.
The local team qualifies under ‘host’ terms after failing to crack the regional qualifiers.
It acquits itself averagely well: 1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss. Out, where some teams go through with the same results.
But they join the winners and runners-up of the 2006 competition, Italy and France, who also fail to progress past the early round.
Informal traders flock the roadsides, pressuring one at all traffic lights to buy flags, scarves, vuvuzelas.
National football fever includes flags that extend from rolled up car windows. Favourites, and less, flutter and fly down the highways.
But it is not all hunky and funky.
Second day into Johannesburg finds the neighbour of my host hosting a neighbourhood-watch security meeting. A fortnight prior, thieves had broken into his house, he a Canadian journalist with German wife and baby child.
“Where is your safe?”
“I don’t have one.”
Half an hour of approximate waterboard treatment; a plastic supermarket packet filled with water over his head.
Still no safe.
One of the thieves gets imaginative and domestic, finding the clothes iron. Plugs it in, heats it up and begins to iron the victim.
“Where is your safe?”
Same answer. Only then do they believe him.
There are reasons for the local reputation of inhumanity.
Four African World Cup teams have dropped out of the race. Rumour has it many of their fans feel they might like to remain indefinitely.
Very high profile warnings abound of xenophobic attacks scheduled for after the tournament. There are already an estimated 6 million illegal aliens resident in the country. And with unemployment running at 40%, no wonder local have-nots get twitchy.
An American tourist is shot and robbed walking from a train station to a backpacker lodge.
Police comment: “He is just a normal tourist, he is not here for the World Cup.” (ie Please don’t add him to World Cup crime stats!!)
Welcome to my country.
Cape Agulhas, the southern tip of the continent, the end of the ride. Crisp fresh air rolls off Antarctic swells. Clean, fresh, sparse, wild.
Two oceans meet.
It has been a long road to travel to get to the World Cup final.
After attending the big game on 11 July, a huge ! (exclamation mark) will mark the formal end of 2-and-a-half years of living out of Betsy, a 30-year-old chicken-mesh lined backpack.
In the 60,000km that carried me through 22 countries, I was not confronted by one moment of physical animosity, danger or hostility.
For this, I give thanks, I bow to all who gave me shelter and companionship.
There is hope!
And finally I would like to thank all those who have watched over me, who have ploughed through the tales here over the years, who have offered encouragement, advice, suggestions, who have criticised and enjoyed, corrected me and travelled virtually. It’s been a pleasure to know you.
Now I need to go and watch the World Cup final, unpack an entire home, sip on a favourite mead, put my feet up, and watch a few whales pass by.
With a little bit of luck and work from me, there might just be a book out of this sole-wearing expedition. Watch this space.
If anybody wants to pay me to embark on another voyage, my backpack is still packed!
In the meantime, thanks, ciao, and bon voyage on your own adventures … :)