Friday, 24 January 2014

A Rav4 Rental in East Africa

I've never liked Toyota Rav4s much. Something of the styling always spoke to me of neon, spandex, and other day-glo transgressions of 80s surfer fashion. Good for a Saturday night out in Umhlanga rocks, but of debatable poise elsewhere. Rav4s were to me, salsa and nachos to Land Rover's meat pie -basketball shoes and hoop earrings to the gumboots and tweed jackets of my Biggles-obsessed Anglophile youth in the Natal Midlands.

On my arrival in Tanzania last month, I rented a late model Toyota Land Cruiser, outwardly as robust-looking as a cattle trough on wheels. Sensible as a bowl of oatmeal. An imperious, four-wheeled deity of the Third World. Outwardly… Sadly the years nor the local roads had been kind, and in these twilight years of its dotage, the car’s sagging back springs, and mushy suspension made it bob and lurch like a dowager doing Callanetics on a water bed. Whether asthmatically wheezing uphill at a rattling, engine-roaring shuffle, or wallowing through off-road tracks, the grumbling old pensioner Land Cruiser made it plain it’d be far happier spending its golden years on a comfy suburban school run, or retiring to a well-tarred seaside town and playing sedate Sunday afternoon games of  bridge – anything but the gymnastic 4x4 snakes and ladders game of Tanzanian roads.

A word about the roads here. Firstly the word “road" which  -to my Southern African ear -conjures up miles of smooth tar, or well-tended rural dirt roads where a dry skid or mildly impolite speed bump is likely to be the only thing to topple your thermos of Milo. The Tanzanian roads -if I can call them that- are about as well tended as sinkholes, and once leaving any main track the track devolves into the most notional, abstract idea of a road, with bumps, crevices, and potholes the size of Zimbabwe's national deficit. Rough, bellicose - the type of ill-behaved, rambunctious ruffian that a conservative, God-fearing South African boulevard wouldn't want their daughters to date, let alone sit next to on the school bus.

Any speed faster than labouring, huffing first gear, made the elderly Land Cruiser lollop and yo-yo like a butter churn. Added to the laissez-faire, fatalistic traffic in front, behind, and side to side -the road beneath adds a sinister undertone to the whole experience. Arusha’s disaffected, dysfunctional roads greet your tyres like a bottle-swinging bar brawler spoiling for a late-night bit of aggravated assault. Belligerent, denture-snapping speed bumps; lurking, axel-snapping potholes the size of suburban swimming pools; faded, illegible road markings menacing as prison tattoos; and dust clouds blinding as pepper spray all add to the combative bellicosity of Tanzania's road surfaces.

So, the idea of swapping my rheumatic land cruiser for a rental 1998 Umhlanga by Night Surfer-Mobile Rav4 seemed an unlikely choice of weapons, like to taking an ice cream cone to a knife fight. In the dog eat dog of Tanzanian traffic, I'd prefer to do my shopping runs here in something far more substantial than a squat little mammalian Rav4. Something big, something fearsome- like a shark strapped to an elephant -just trampling or chomping anything you see. Nevertheless, I cautiously nosed the little Rav4 into the traffic, feeling timid as granny with some heavy shopping who had blundered into the bull run at Pamplona. To my surprise and delight, after the lurching, sagging, swaying of the elderly dowager Land Cruiser, the Rav4 felt surefooted as a cocky teenager. Like a Jack Russell chasing a marrow bone, it bobbed and darted into the bus, car, and motorbike soup of Arusha rush-hour. I felt as adroit and cocksure as a grinning, grizzled helicopter pilot at a expat pool party of nubile trustafarian NGO gap year lovelies.

Atheists make better drivers. Though Tanzania is nominally secular, the majority of the populace is evangelical Christian or devout Muslim. Never trust a driver with a firm belief in the afterlife. Taxis festooned with “Jesus is Lord", and “Allahu Akbar" above their cracked windscreens like the headbands of Kamikaze pilots. They overtake, race broadside into traffic, or veer onto your side of the road with a maniacal, grinning fatalism. Solid lines, red traffic lights, or the corporeal laws of Newtonian physics are blithely ignored in a roiling mad rush to get anywhere but here fast.

In the soul-sapping heat of a November afternoon in downtown Arusha, this furnace of rushing metal and rasping dust combines into a conflagration of chaos, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell where the damned ride motorbikes, cars, or herd gaunt, skittish cattle into oncoming traffic. Just as foxholes bring up the piety of even the staunchest non-believer, there are no atheists in a pothole.

Luckily, with the “point and shoot" one-handed simplicity of an automatic gearbox, my gear shifting hand was free to funnel high tar cigarettes to my fear-dried lips, mash rosary beads between my fingers as I muttered wordless prayers, or just cover my eyes when wincing and waiting for the blood-burning crunch of glass and steel that -praise whatever deity you may choose -never came. With power-steering light as the heft of a pool cue, Rav4 zipped here, dodged there, and delivered me on the edge of town. I patted the dashboard with thanks, feeling like Moses on the far shore of the Red Sea.

As you leave Arusha, driving North, the main Kenya road comes up like a smooth-tarred blessing, a weary monk's benediction. The Rav4's air conditioning whispers against your fevered brow like the minty fresh breath answered prayers of golden haired seraphim. After the oven-hot privation of Arusha’s roads, this long stretch of smooth, uninterrupted tar road feels like the first taste of cool cream soda when you were five, or like the balm of a long absent lovers touch. The little Rav4 purred down the road at a comfy 100 kilometres an hour-a speed belonging to science fiction in the normal Arusha driving experience. I smiled, turned up the dulcet, soothing, warm cup of Horlicks before bedtime sounds of BBC World Service radio, and all was right. For a time…

To my daily, handwringing regret-my drive home only takes in about eight kilometres of the sublime, untrammelled main road. Turn left onto the dirt road to my house, and the feeling of bonhomie and well-being turns quite literally to dust. Rural Tanzania roads may look very different from their leery, pocked urban cousins, but they have just as many dirty tricks up their sleeves as their street-fighting counterparts. The final five kilometres of dirt road up to the mountain to my house wades in fists swinging, like a bruising boxer in the final two rounds of the daily prizefight of the drive home. The road veers, undulates, then becomes more of a donga then anything resembling the meanest goat path. Fallen rocks, stray cattle, ant bear holes, and a peanut brittle, choc chip mud salad that leaves me wondering if the Masai have as many words for rainy season mud as the Eskimo do for snow. This panoply of hazards force even the weariest driver keep wide-eyed alert as a meerkat after 20 cups of dark roast Ethiopian coffee. Oblivious to my worries, the Rav4 seemed unperturbed as a gum-chewing teenager. Its permanent 4x4 put nary a foot wrong, as it insouciantly marched up twisted, steep inclines that would give even a mountain goat pause to ponder the right foothold. We parked, and I fist-bumped the steering wheel in triumph.

As I write this, the Rav4 is sitting contentedly in the driveway, unharmed despite all East Africa could throw at it. Next time I'm in Umhlanga Rocks -a garish, neon and chrome holiday I've always resolved to save for when I'm dead, though you never know -I just might hire another Rav4.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Zimbabwean Internet

It seems in Zimbabwe, internet access is not so much a business service to the market, as more a privilege bestowed on suitably entreating, begging penitents. And once granted, this dubious connection is slow as continental drift. Communications from this digital Pangaea are a hit and miss affair. Skype meetings with someone in Sydney are aurally distorted with cavernous, gastronomically-themed echoes, burps and wheezes, like you’re calling them from the digestive tract of a dyspeptic narwhal somewhere off the coast of Greenland. Enabling video chat is out of the question- a lofty dream up there in the Dan Dare sci-fi future neverworld of hover cars, glass-domed cities on the moon, or zapping Mrs Nesbitt, my seventh form French teacher with a shrinking ray.

One would think Internet speeds slower than asthmatic lichen would be commensurately cheap. And one would be wrong. Internet access here is two to three times more expensive than in South Africa, Tanzania, or Kenya, while managing to be seven to ten times slower. When it’s up. Doing business online with the rest of the world remains the privilege of those with the vast financial resources and business connections of a Bond villain.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Bolt Action Rifle or AK-47? Part 1

Game ranger weaponry: what would you feel safer behind as one of the Big Five bears down?

“It's better to have a gun and not need it, then to need a gun and not have it."
- Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction (1994)

Bambi is Jesus
… And any situation where you may need a gun in the bush is anathema to me, heebie-jeebie city. I got scared watching Bambi, and that presented wildlife- through the rose-tinted lens of Disneyfication-  as adhering to peaceful, Judaeo-Christian principles of live and let live. The Big Five cast of The Lion King may look personable and winningly able to burst into song at important plot points, but their real-world counterparts excel more in the stomping, goring, and gouging modes of self-expression. My aversion hasn’t been helped by being snapped at by crocodiles, charged by elephants, capsised by hippos, and an ostrich giving me the hairy eyeball. If anything larger than a pimply, adolescent guineafowl approaches the land Rover I go into anaphylactic shock.

Hand-powered Emergency Exits
On any game-viewing outing, I always carry a judicious amount of whiskey, tranquillisers, and a stepladder, a one-man fire escape I can erect and scuttle up to the top of if no climb-able trees are nearby when mother nature bears down snorting, growling, or trumpeting. Unlike many blithe holidaymakers, I’ve seen a rhino peel open a three ton land Rover like a can of beans. Some tourists, usually the eco-friendly hippie types, say that witnessing the Big Five while on foot is “humbling", and that the animals are “noble, “majestic". Bollocks to that. I don't care where you come from, whether you're paying in euros, pounds, or dollars- when buffaloes charge everyone speaks the same international language of screaming. Terror is not classist, we all taste the same, and a Hippo with PMS doesn't really care that you bought your Greenpeace T-shirt at Oxfam.

Dale Carnegie: How to Win Friends and Not Get Eaten
Seeing a game ranger nonchalantly sling a rifle over his shoulder at the start of any ill-advised walking safari makes me scared as a mielie sharing an elevator with a scythe. So imagine my Nesquik-bowelled terror when I saw my guide for the morning’s walk holding an AK-47, nonchalantly holding it casually as a cigarette lighter.
“What will we be needing that for?" I asked, with a voice like curdled milk.
“Elephant. In the forest here, you can’t hear them, so quick quick I must shoot. Warning shot, no time." He said, in a lazy, avuncular Swahili accent, calmly as if he’d been giving me the cricket score of a slow-going test match.

I don’ t know about you, but any situation that needs any weapon beyond a pithy, disdainful retort or an icy glare of reproach, is a little far from my preferred comfort zone.

The Librarians Get Eaten Too
South Africa’s savannas and plains give animals that prey on humans less to hide behind. So a lion or buffalo keen to see the colour of your insides can be spotted with enough time for the Ranger to unsling his 303 rifle, slam home the bolt, and fire off a single carefully aimed warning shot. Not so in the forests of Tanzania, where the thick brush allows the irascible wildlife and hapless human to get cheek by jowl, sardined together like commuters in a cramped London Underground train. Except here several of the commuters are tetchy, man-goring buffalo the size of a black London cab- not mousey, whey-faced librarians waiting for the change at Edgware Station.

Bilbo Gets an AK-47
Nevertheless we pressed on into the forest, like Bilbo Baggins and pals. I don't recall Tolkien mentioning in The Hobbit that any of the dwarves had an AK-47 though. The book would have been a lot shorter if one of them did, I guess.

[to be continued…]

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Bottom Feeder's Guide to Finding Love in Jo'burg

A Palace of Broken Dreams
In purgatory, all pubs will be like this. Stained floors, nicotine-yellowed ceilings and surfaces sticky to the touch. The interior is a klepto beachcomber's lair of found signs and flickering neon beer lights. Frayed, over-worked bartenders slop out draft beer and J├Ągermeister in shitty plastic tot glasses. The music blares from a neon jukebox, the sort of plodding rock anthems you're likely to hear at a Randburg wedding.

Then I Saw Her Face, Now I'm a Believer... Tra la la
I sat down with some friends, and got down to the task of getting baboon-whipped as quickly as possible; it had been a bad week. More of our friends rolled in, and the table grew. Across from me, I saw her. Blonde hair tied up, with strands falling across her blue eyes, pale skin, and dressed in a suede jacket and cotton shirt. Even more encouraging, she had a small pile of empty tequila glasses around her, and was just then dispatching the last one, slamming the glass on the table with a grimace and a sigh. Turns out she was a friend of a friend, so I leaned over the table, and introduced myself. She smiled, shook my hand, and resumed talking to her friend, who then became the most envied, loathed person in my universe. I retreated behind a double Jameson, and fumed quietly.

The night drew on, people left, one passed out under the table, and I threw myself into conversation with the paragon. We clicked, and in moments were having the focused, tunnel-vision kind of tete a tete where your parents could be being murdered at the adjacent table, and you wouldn't bat an eyelid.

The crowd thinned out, the lights seemed dimmer, and the conversation paused for a moment. I lunged. The lunge is the fix bayonets, over-the-top gung ho approach to getting a snog. It's not for the faint of heart, and has a worryingly high slap-to-kiss rate. Bam! She kissed me back. This carried on for some time, both of us oblivious to the fact that we were snogging in the Jolly Roger; about as classy as kissing in a rubbish skip.

"So, would you like to come back to mine for some coffee?" I asked; "coffee" being the adult semaphore for "let's go back to mine and shag". She said "yes..." I almost whooped for joy, grabbed my jacket and bundled her outside, racing through the pub no-man's land fast as a man running under shell-fire. We linked hands, and strode round the corner to my car. My car. Some (censored)-head in a Landrover had left his handbrake off, and that his (censored) car had rolled downhill into mine, shearing the side clean off, cracking the radiator, and dislocating a front wheel. The paramour made her excuses and left. I was left with the taste of her lipstick, and a circling pack of tow trucks.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Seffrican Inglish Litruhchah Gaaahd

Ov Maas end Mehn
Thay lank por. Thuh thik big oke kulls uh maaahs, thenn he kulls Currrlee’s waaahf, so hus frend sehs “Ull teyill yoo uhbout tha rebbets” end shewts hum un thuh hed. Thuh ehhnd.

Lawd ov tha Flaaas
Thees kuds hev a pleinkresh, soe thay maik uh faaah wuth Puh-ggee’s glossis, but thehn  thay kull hum awn a stoen. Thehn thay kull ah waaahld bor end chow ut. Thehn oll thuh kuds faaaht lenk end kull eech utha.

Tha Raaam ov tha Ainshint Marina
Thus oke goes aaahn uh bote. Hee duzznt laaahk seeegolls, so he shewts wun wuth a crawsboe. Baaaht thehn ehvreewun daaahs, soe he puts thuh seegoll rind hees nek. Aaaah gawt bawd ofta thet.

Tha Uld Men end thuh See
Thus uld oke ketchus uh grate whaaat shok, but awll thuh uthuh shoks chow ut tull thehs just uh hed left. He gos huhome end daaahs.

Chawllee end thuh Chalklit Fektree
Thus med ruch oke kulls ol these kuds wun bi wun un frunt orf theh perents. Lenk fukt aaap shut.

Ketcha un Thuh Raaah
Mostli thuh boek uhs just hum taukkeen too humself, uhbowt lenk kak Uh woent diskraab nyow. He gos sumwheh and byes a prawstitoo   prossdidoo   hoar, but he jus tauks too hir eefin mor.

Uh Klaukwirk Orinj
This “droog” (oke) Eleks hez uh geng awf chaaahnas hoo mishin uhrownd end klap beggas, then raip peepull un uh laaaney haus. But thuh kopse ketch Eleks end mayk hum wotch lenk vyelint biskopes wuth KAK klessikull muhoosik.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Locomotive Speed: A Hell-Bound Hubris?

Hosted by men of Science, Thadeus Pyle and Jebediah Kneebone, Victorian Myth Busters blends the age of the enlightenment, sound biblical principals and the glamour of the photo picture into a rollicking slice of edu-tainment. With a steady supply of wretched whores, drunkards, debtors and urchins to use their cutting-edge scientific contraptions on, Thadeus and Jebedia get to work debunking or confirming the popular myths of the Victorian age.

My wife Millicent and I are planning to travel to the Metropolis from Brighton. Instead of using the usual cow sleigh, we have- with some misgivings- decided to travel by the newly-launched locomotive. I have some qualms about high speed beyond the natural rhythms of the cow cart, or footwalking. Is it true that passengers suffocate at speeds in excess of 30 miles per hour? Is our hell-bent quest for speed a folly, an obsession to send us tumbling like Icarus?

Yours sincerely

Wilderberforce Throckmorton

The Cobbles, Brighton

My dear Mr. Throckmorton,
My gravest apologies for my delayed reply to your letter. Thadeus is in the local infirmary and I am dictating this from my bed, recovering from various powder burns and a case of the grippe after being hauled from the Thames.

This new-fashioned locomotive, or “Stephenson’s Rocket” as we refer to it in London, may be a blessing for our age, or an ungodly, speed-engorged steam and steel harpy rushing our fair populace into the most searing of Satan’s vilest pits.

Finding no biblical reference to the limits of human speed, we turned to the empiricism of Science. The fastest pace yet known to man, being that of a speeding cannon ball, is by our calculations approximately 80 miles an hour. So, with gunpowder as our muse, and the varied modes of cutting edge travel as our vehicles, we schemed to break the manned velocity of 30 miles an hour.

Attempt #1
With bravado modestly veiled by grumbling, trembling and a bible clasped white-knuckled to his belly, Thadeus lowered himself into the visiting messr PT Barnam’s circus cannon. As the usual Italian rocketeer looked a mere slip of a man, and what with Thadeus weighing in at 16 stone, I judicially increased the powder charge to compensate. Before I could even press the button on my stopwatch, Thadeus had bulleted over the safety net, his fall broken only by the Tombola stall. Tragically, the bible was in flinders, and Thadeus- bandaged head to foot- remains in a state of permanent concussion, and unfortunately incapable of any foreseeable input into your query.

Attempt #2
With our tamed urchin using my stopwatch as a timer, I strove to ramp a Penny Farthing with two aft-facing punt guns strapped to it over the raised booms of Tower Bridge. The recoil hit like a bullock to the buttocks, and I shot off, the cycle beyond my control. My glasses fell off, and to add even more insult sartorial depravity, I was cast into the Thames with an almighty splash. Sadly no measurement of my velocity remains, as the urchin has made off with the stopwatch.

After these two failed attempts, I must confirm that any speed beyond a slowly trotting horse buggy to be grievously perilous. The modern speeds of the locomotive are no place for any passenger attempting to survive the journey without suffocating, or vomiting forth their innards in a steaming spume of offal. Myth Confirmed.

I remain, your humble servant

Jebediah Kneebone Esq.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Can You Flog Satan Out of a Wayward Child?

Hosted by men of Science, Thadeus Pyle and Jebediah Kneebone, Victorian Myth Busters blends the age of the enlightenment, sound biblical principals and the glamour of the photo picture into a rollicking slice of edu-tainment. With a steady supply of wretched whores, drunkards, debtors and urchins to use their cutting-edge scientific contraptions on, Thadeus and Jebedia get to work debunking or confirming the popular myths of the Victorian age.

Dear Messrs Pyle and Kneebone, 
The gravity of my situation forces me to write with candour and brevity. My fair child, Cedric, has become possessed by the Devil. 

Earlier this week at dinner, Cedric speared a potato before the commencement of Grace. Naturally I flogged the child. This only served to egg on the Demon inhabiting his body. The child has danced and I have flogged; the child has been found cavorting with the lower orders and I have flogged, it has whistled a profane tune and I have flogged. For the love of my child and for the sake of his immortal soul I will be steadfast in the administration of the beatings, but Sirs, I must know if this is a futile ritual? Pray tell, can you confirm that you can flog Satan out of a wayward child?

Jonah and Ida Pfeiffer


Dear Sir,
Your most worthy missive arrived with a touch of divine providence. Indeed, I took receipt of your message while Jebediah was at the courthouse giving evidence in the case of a rascally little jackanape who had recently pilfered a loaf of bread from our pantry. I burst through the courthouse doors moments before the judge was about to send the child to the gallows and bid the court that he become my ward.

My good man, I profoundly doubt if there has ever been an urchin on this ‘Fair Isle’ more possessed by Satan’s wickedness. Filth and soot have rendered him the blackest of Satan’s imps and he has a mouth and manners to match. In fact it was an act of extreme probity that prevented us from flogging him senseless on sight.

But we are men of science and so, with a restraining hand, we devised a system of punishments whose severity increased in increments. I will spare the most gruesome of details, suffice to say that the first week followed a tempestuous pattern – A flogging in the morning; remorse by noon; hijinx and devilry by nightfall. We were on the point of surrender, when we introduced a bullwhip dipped in brine. When this instrument is met with the bare skin of a wayward child the results are extremely positive. Calling out to the glory of the Lord, the child expelled Satan from his soul by vomiting demonic plasma clear across the room. But the Lord of Darkness has infinite cunning. For, expelled though he was from the little wretch, he slithered his nefarious way into Jebediah’s body. This was revealed to me in the morn, when I arose to find the child returned to his errant ways. At my wits end, I set upon the child and thrashed him until he was unconscious. And then a most curious thing happened. Jebediah spumed. From his throat flowed the Devil’s toxins. And herein lies your answer. With a briny bullwhip, flog your child until he expels Satan, then flog him again until your wife expels Satan. That is the ticket. As I write, the child is rocking gently in a chair in our drawing room, not uttering a peep, with the bible upon his lap. Myth confirmed.

We remain, your humble servants

Thadeus Pyle & Jebediah Kneebone Esq.