Southern Africa – mid 1980s
When I touched down in Africa I was acting in the capacity of an amateur. Some might say a dilettante, others a hopeless and hopeful romantic. I prefer ‘amateur.’ The father of one of a string of women I ought to have married (had I wished to avoid the life I ended up leading) gave me my marching orders. I was delighted to be posted first to Honduras and then to Jamaica. I was less thrilled to be finally sent to Africa. Little did I know the pull it would forever have on my heart and my life.
A long train journey from Scotland to Euston Station, without a ticket but with a modicum of courage, had left me with an abiding sense that the Lady who had kindly lent me space in her sleeper carriage had been given a far more frightening and hazardous posting than I had been fortunate enough to receive. The certain knowledge that, should she need rescuing, there were others far more capable than I, left me knowing that I had to leave her in no doubt I would not be there for her before we left England. To my eternal shame it was less difficult than it ought to have been. I landed in Africa a free man.
I had been paired with a professional of some standing. The sort of woman who knew that she was there to change the world for the better. Luckily we found each other’s company at best bearable. What I hadn’t anticipated was the extent to which I would adore almost every person I came across apart from her. The heat was extraordinary. The hero who collected us from the airport took us straight to a colonial hotel of great standing. He curiously refused the meat from the buffet, informing us that monkey was his totem. I wondered why a hotel as good as this one might be suspected of serving monkey, but consoled myself with the fact that monkey was not only not my totem but, if it were in the salad, was entirely delicious.
We picked up some supplies and drove the 80 miles on tarmac and 60 miles, on what can charitably be described as a dirt track, to base. On arriving we discovered the extent to which ‘Tricky Nicky’, our trainer, was wont to bend the actuality. Our digs consisted of a two room shed, an asbestos roof and a shiny concrete floor. I must confess to a moment of ingratitude that led to the Boss returning with us to town to buy beds. Unforgivable.
If you have never been a middle class Brit arriving in Southern Africa for the first time, let me tell you that perhaps the biggest culture shock is the fact that the men, who one has not even been introduced to, will smile and take you by the hand to lead you like a blind puppy to where you need to be. Taxi drivers, elderly gentlemen with no English, even the occasional policeman finds this the most useful way of ensuring that lost souls like me found their way around paradise. Within a day of arriving at base one such elder took me to a thatched hut several miles from camp and fed me on fried locusts taken live from his pocket. They turned out to be salty and good, like slightly esoteric popcorn.
I walked into the mountains and listened to the locals moaning about the baw baws. Baboons were the bete noir of anyone whose main source of nutrition was maize corn. They would come down from the mountains in packs, steal as much corn as they could hold under each arm, and return with it to their lairs; laughing at the efforts of their benefactors. I managed to impress my kindly guides by pointing a stick at a troupe that were intent on our misfeasance. It is better to be lucky than clever in this life. Don’t let anyone tell you different.
Given that this is a confession, rather than a travelogue, let me cut to the chase. Anyone but me would have known that buying a motorcycle with borrowed cash from the Boss’s brother was a bad plan. For me, determined to have free access to as much of the splendour of Africa as I could manage, it was the only plan. Had I known what I was doing I would have chosen a small, economical trail bike, much beloved of everyone around me. I chose a beautiful 400cc street bike with ape hanger handlebars and a comfortable seat. It may well have been the best bike I ever owned. Despite my partner demanding to ride it, dropping it and bending the foot brake, it accomplished three things I shall never forget. It took me across Africa; it took me to the edge of life itself; and it took me to the first of my princesses…tbc