WHY THE ROAD IS THE DESTINATION
I found it tough to earn a living as a travel writer, because travel always got in the way. Travel journalism is all about top-ten destinations and best-kept secrets. But my problem is that I savour the spaces between more than the destinations. I don’t understand why anyone would want to go where everyone else is going, and I like keeping secrets.
I should have given up somewhere between Djenne and Bomako in Mali. The tyre exploded, we were overloaded, and the Burkinabé man in my lap jumped with fright. We held each other as the driver wrestled with the steering, and the taxi skidded across the tarmac, but he managed to gain control, and we came to a stop.
Judging by the relaxed composure of the Malian passengers, this was a common occurrence. We clambered out of the taxi. Some people lay down to sleep in the long grass, some ate chicken, others went for a pee. We were a long way from anywhere, the sun was setting, and the air was warm. A few of us lifted the car onto a rock so the driver could fit another bald tyre, and I realised I was happy. I finally understood that this is what travel was about for me – the spaces in-between the destinations.
I was as happy as I had been in Djenne with its mud mosque and comfortable hotel bed. I was as happy as I would be in Bamako, a place I knew for its music and beautiful women. The spaces between allowed me to catch a breath, reflect on where I had been, and imagine the place to come.
I wonder how many others enjoy these spaces – the remote gas stations, small-town stopovers, endless horizons and quiet nothings on empty roads. Often they are punctuated by bursting tyres or sand traps. It’s why I especially like travelling in Namibia and Botswana. There’s a lot of space, tyres burst often, and sometimes you hit sand traps that hold you for long enough to really savour the space between.
When I think of either country I recall the roadside landscapes more than the famous destinations. The smells, the sounds – or often the lack of them – the animal crossing the road. Often what stays with me is changing a tyre, or trying to coax a motorcycle back to life. Or just a break to look at the surroundings.
I recall people who materialise out of nowhere. Like the villagers who gathered around my motorcycle in a remote area just south of Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans when I was stranded because the electrics had cut out while fording a deep mud puddle. I was trying to figure out which wire goes where, and why I hadn’t brought spare fuses. They tried to help, and gave me advice in a language I didn’t understand. And when they got bored, the kids danced and the women nattered but the men stayed and watched, and I imagined them discussing the merits of spare fuses in hushed tones. I was fiddling around for a long time until the bike finally sparked to life, and I remember them cheering and laughing – the men waving me on, and the kids running alongside for a while. And I remember reaching my sedate, brochured lodge on the edge of the salt pans, and thinking ‘I wish I had stayed with the villagers.’
One Christmas Eve, I was behind schedule because of a motorcycle puncture, and I arrived at the South Africa/Botswana border as it was closing. The South African officials hardly checked my passport and rushed me through to make sure I made it to the Botswana side in time. I tore across no man’s land, but I was too late. However the gate guard called the officials over and they gladly reopened for me, checked my passport picture, kindly laughed at the joke I made, and sent me on my way.
The Christmas spirit didn’t end there. In Tshabong, the epitome of a dilapidated border town, I had to find a place for the night. I was drinking a coke outside a café, contemplating what to do, and the owner wandered over. Before I knew it he had arranged a place for me to stay at a motel, and I was invited to spend Christmas Eve with his family and friends. I left much too late the next day, hungover and thirsty in the 40+ heat. Stopping at a remote village for a drink of water, I found myself enjoying Christmas lunch with a Herero family who were hosting the whole village at their home for the celebrations. It was carols and good cheer, and I joined in the festivities. No offence to my family, but it was one of the best Christmases I have ever had.
I was behind schedule again, but this is a common trait with me – always arriving at my destination well into the dark hours because I savoured the space between. This is easy to do on a motorcycle. Continuously exposed to the open air you feel so much more a part of the environment. You feel the heat and the cold, the sun on your shoulders and the sea mist on your face. The smells are more acute, as are the flies in your teeth. And the people are more open to you because you’re not speeding by behind steel and glass.
It doesn’t mean I don’t like travelling in cars. But I like cars with character. They are usually uncomfortable, and often very slow, but their quirks enhance the spaces in-between. The rhino-emblazoned 1967 Land Rover a group of us travelled in on the inaugural Put Foot Rally only reached 70 km/h – on the downhill – and it had the suspension of a brick. But it gave us time to contemplate the empty spaces of Namibia and Botswana, and the suspension meant we were always awake to enjoy it. A lasting memory of that trip – cold winter mornings, lying across the luggage in the open back, wrapped in sleeping bags for warmth watching the sun rise over the desert as we slowly crept west.
I fell in love with an old Land Cruiser named Nigella. She was painted a soft eggshell blue but she was hard as rock. I met her and owner, Paul Graham-Clarke, on the Mzanzi Trophy rally. He and his son drove her across Namibia having all sorts of adventures, like burst tyres and broken radiators. So they were also always late for rallies, and sometimes they didn’t make it to our destinations at all. Naturally I was jealous.
I was riding in a very comfortable, reliable VW so, when Paul’s son flew home from Maun, I begged Paul to let me ride shotgun. Soon I was bouncing along in Nigella through the slow sands of Botswana’s Moremi and Savuti. It was uncomfortably hot and incredibly dusty, and by the time we reached Livingstone and the Zambezi river’s raging waters, I felt like we had already been on a wild rafting adventure across the sands.
And if you must tackle sand, I recommend doing it in the most unsuitable car possible. Brett Wild tried to reach Kubu Island on Sua Pan in his little smart car. His brother and I followed in a Land Rover with a tow-rope, waiting for the inevitable. But Brett drove so fast the tiny car appeared to sail over the sandy kilometers. Brett coaxed it to the edge of the salt-pan whereupon he stopped to celebrate, and promptly sank into the sand. The fan belts ate so much grit that they were shredded beyond repair.
The night on Kubu Island that followed was the most starry and memorable I’ve ever had. And the slow, difficult journey to get the smart car back across the sand to Francistown was bliss. Better still, I was stranded in Francistown for three days while Brett travelled to South Africa for new fan belts. I wouldn’t have spent time there otherwise, but now that I know it better, Francistown is no longer one of the spaces in-between. It’s become a destination – at least for me. Most people wouldn’t say that, and this town will never make any top-ten lists. But, you see, it’s got a secret – and I’m going to keep it.