Between March and December 2000, my stepson, Christian Pancorvo – made a trip from Dover, Kent, England across the length of Africa to Cape Town, South Africa – by truck (Truck Africa Ltd)… but I’ll let HIM tell you about it…
Travel changed my life and this is how…
When I was 18 I was living in South London with friends, smoking drugs most days and doing little else. One day I was visiting the family in Kent and my stepfather David Hodges asked me if I wanted to go on an organized nine-month tour of Africa (all expenses paid). He did this because both he and my mother realized how unfocused I was. I declined.
A few months later I was looking at Big Ben at the turn of the century. I do not know what I was expecting but it was a huge disappointment. The world did not end. Everything was the same; London and everything I had been living for died that night. This sounds like a negative statement but it is not; the experience drove me to Kent asking David, hopefully, if the offer of the trip to Africa was still on. And so it was.
Another few months and I was off, waking up at 7a.m., eating vegetables, brushing my teeth and breathing fresh air (four things I scarcely did before). I was now living and in the trust of 23 people I had never met, all older than me in varying degrees, from many walks of life and different parts of the world.
France and Spain were tedious and cold but it was an important time getting to know the truck, tents, equipment and each other. By Morocco we had segregated fundamentally: basically into ‘conventional’ on the lower deck of the truck and ‘rebellious’ on the upper deck. I loved my friends on that trip. We experienced so much beauty and humour together and saw each other as wild, happy people. Inevitably, separating from them at the end of the trip was very difficult although I have kept in vague touch with one or two.
After being in Morocco I soon saw aspects of Africa that remained throughout; the derelict, the vastness, the melancholy and romance written in the skies and the faces alike. For the first time I saw that humans are just another species of animal and that we are all connected to each other in nature. Nothing beyond this fact mattered anymore.
One thing that was solely Moroccan, though, was a propensity to invite strangers into their homes and on several occasions I found myself holding conversations with no strict language or meaning, and trying to plough my way through humorously oversized meals.
We cut through Mauritania and the Sahara which seemed like a whole world unto itself. This feeling of being in a huge and endless space affected me like a kind of loneliness, but a nice kind – apparently Eskimos feel like this when fishing alone. It’s called ‘kayak angst’. We felt detached and free. The only settlements we saw during this time were a couple of hamlets consisting of “Mad Max” type huts put together with corrugated iron and junk, but sadly Mel Gibson wasn’t there. My jaw dropped at the humility and simplicity of these people’s way of life.
Mali was a highlight. Nothing short of magnificent. I remember the capital, Bamako, a huge, flat shanty town with a couple of motorways cutting through it and a single skyscraper which was a bank. Then there was a town made of mud and another one built into a cliff face.
The soil began to turn orange and red because of the iron in it which in turn tinted everything, including the people. This continued throughout much of West Africa. The red against the lush green of the forests was stunning.
Burkina Faso is a very sweet little country although vultures infest its capital, Ouagadougou, like pigeons infest London. I was spellbound by a river stop we made, surrounded by numerous little cascades and surreal rock formations like a Star Trek set.
By this time malaria and intestinal parasites were at large within the group many of us endured intense periods of illness that came and went long after the trip ended.
As we entered Cote d’Ivoire the locals were becoming less self-conscious, and massive groups often gathered round while we cooked and ate. Cities were getting bigger and we travelled down to the political capital Yamoussoukro which was quiet, eerie and in an arid setting, in contrast to the culture capital Abidjan, on the coast, which was more classically African and even a touch metropolitan.
Ghana was like the Caribbean, in the way of life as well as visually. We ramshackled our way through lost beach resorts, massive dramatic markets, and restaurants that only served chilli soup with a lump of maize dough in it.
The travellers separated for Togo where a few of us settled on yet another beach, eating steak poivre and playing boules for a week or two. I was amazed to realize at this point that I could walk on my own practically anywhere and feel safe. Being in the home of black magic, I almost bought a monkey’s paw but then remembered an old ghost story about one that scared the wits out of me when I was a child.
The best pictures I have of African people were taken in Benin where they were very photogenic and willing to take part. We skirted through to Nigeria and to a musicians’ shelter where I was in my element, showing off both my drumming and football skills. The locals played barefoot; we did of course thrash them in our latest Adidas trainers, maybe to make up for our crushing defeat to the Moroccans who played brilliantly and to our amazement scored goals into three-foot wide spaces we couldn’t manage.
The country was going through religious unrest and there was a riot in the local town while we were in a grocery shop that ended eventually in tear gas to disperse the crowd. Breathing it wasn’t that bad but I couldn’t see or concentrate on anything and it was very disorientating. We managed to get onto the truck and drive away amidst airborne machine gun shots – this was the loudest noise I’ve every heard…..and I am a rock drummer.
There were also riots up north in Kaduna which led to us being trapped in a charmless campsite for a good ten days, smoking Bond Street cigarettes and watching tortoises fornicate.
By Cameroon the jungle was rampant and the food spicy. One shish kebab I had was so hot I almost fainted and my hearing temporarily dwindled – this is true, not an exaggeration.
Whilst belting through the forest small animals would fall off the branches, jarred by the truck and into our open top deck…
amongst these were tree frogs, stick-insects, and much to our discomfort, a red ants’ nest which fell on a girl’s head.
The highlight of Cameroon was climbing its eponymous mountain. It took one day on foot to go up and one day to come down. We did this too fast though, and it took my legs a week to put themselves back together.
After the group voted against driving through Sudan (because of the civil war), we flew to Nairobi, picked up another truck. There we sampled the various game on offer. We drove through Kenya and on to Uganda after staying in a Masai settlement where they held a camel derby, one of the local pastimes. The Masai are skilled cattle herders whose beautiful clothes and textiles reflect the crimson earth of their country as well the cattle blood they drink as part of their staple diet. The image that stays with me, though, is a group I saw of Masai teenagers with white face paint and black robes attending, I believe, a rite of passage ceremony.
In Kampala I entered a dance competition at a culture festival and came second. I would have come first if I were black but anyway…The country turned from savannah to banana plantations to a sea of rolling hills not unlike parts of Italy but on a bigger scale. And for some reason the cattle here had massive horns two or three feet long.
In Rwanda we spent an incredible day tracking silverback gorillas in steep mountain forests. They exceeded our expectations of beauty and were surprisingly jovial.
Tanzania was all in all the most enjoyable country to traverse. Both the Serengeti and the Ngoro Ngoro crater are marvels of nature. They offered all the classic African animals to view subtly, including cheetahs and a green mamba (lethal snake) – both scarcely seen even in these parts. Everyone was so happy, even with the perpetual irritation of biting tsetse flies. Eastern and southern Africa are more culturally diverse than West Africa and it was good to see a lot of our drinking move from around the truck to inside bars.
Zanzibar is another top trump for Tanzania. I felt I could have lived there. It is a beautiful, ethnically interesting island with great resorts and lots of diving clubs. My stepfather and I learnt to scuba dive there and got our P.A.D.I open water certificates. He and my mother Patricia were staying at what seemed to be a luxury beach resort with an unlimited buffet – much to the pleasure of my stomach and its new resident parasites. I loved seeing my family there, I stayed there for a fortnight, they had come specially to meet up with me. It was exciting and gave me perspective: it reminded me how far I was from home, not just geographically but also practically and spiritually.
Malawi was characterised by dancing and drinking. I remember almost crossing its famous lake – Lake Malawi – sailing with my Kentish buddy Simon, who is now a fireman in West London. We went on to Zambia and for a cruise on Lake Kariba which is always rising and sinking, keeping the crocodiles on their toes. At this point I was looking forward to meeting my stepsister Trish, David’s daughter, and her family. This turned out to be a lovely and enlightening experience at their farm near Victoria Falls.
The truck had a pitstop here and I went to Pretoria, South Africa, where I spent entire days at the cinema, catching up with ‘civilization’ as best I could. I loved this city. Because of the architecture and the jacaranda trees lining the roads, it reminded me of North London where I was brought up and where there are Chinese cherry trees, similar to the jacaranda. Pretoria is known as Jacaranda City and is one of the two capitals of South Africa, the other one being Cape Town.
Before rejoining the truck with new passengers, I had an amazing time trecking in the Drakensberg which is a mountainous area near Lesotho. On my way there I met a charming, neurotic South African who ran the guesthouse where I ended up staying for several days. I’ll never forget the strange beauty of this area; very stormy, very misty and cool. There was something inexplicably English about it too.
Our new group were a gas. No soul-searching here. This lot just wanted to have a good time and that they did. One hefty female member broke the local drinking record for downing fifty-two shots of sambucca. The Okavango Delta in Botswana was gorgeous if a little lifeless at that time of year. Then we entered one of the most visually spectacular countries on earth, Namibia.
Namibia is a little conventional (an ex German colony) but it is great for what are sometimes referred to as “power places”. These are places of such exquisite natural beauty that they can have a very strong impact on the mind and body. There were multi-coloured sand dunes as far as the eye could see, rock patterning I thought could only be seen on other planets, and huge canyons to get lost in. I climbed alone to the bottom of a canyon but could not go up the same way as it was too steep. The only alternative was a loose rockface which I feared on every step might collapse beneath me.
With great anticipation I looked forward to meeting my folks again, this time with my brother Ben who was finishing a little tour of his own across South Africa. The only stop prior to this meeting in Cape Town was a town called Springbok, inhabited by the most amazing people I had ever seen. There were few blacks or whites; everyone was mixed and many were stunning as a result of it.
Ben opened our hotel room door when he arrived and there I was, right on time and in one piece after nine months on the road. Our grins seemed to reach across the area we had travelled. David and my mother Patricia met us in the same hotel having also travelled around South Africa by car. It was my 20th birthday that day and everyone celebrated appropriately. I don’t think it was the quantity of alcohol that made me think I was in an urban bar full of sand: this was African reality.
That was probably the best year of my life and turned me 180 degrees around. From then on I have been aware of the world around me and committed to travel, health and culture. I always have goals now and that will never change.