October 24th, 2003

(no subject)

Driving around on Johannesburg's freeways really gives you the feeling you're in a strangely warped version of the Southland. True, the freeways themselves never get as wide--four lanes in each direction is exceptional here--or as crowded, though folks here still complain about traffic. I drove the 90 km around the ring road starting at 8AM one weekday and still managed to get all the way around by just after 9. Try doing a loop around LA (the 405 to the 605 to the 210, say) during the morning rush, and see how long it takes.

But look out the window at the endless tract housing marching across the scrubby brown hills, punctuated by big malls (Southgate, The Glen, East Rand Mall) and you quickly realize that sprawl has taken over Gauteng Province the way it has much of America.

The difference here is that much of that sprawl has been built by the ANC government in an effort to house millions of poor black people who live in shacks made from corrugated iron and scrap wood. The visual effect is the same: thousands upon thousands of identical little houses on little plots. But at least one gets the feeling progress is being made.

Turning on the radio adds to the weird Californian vibe.
Highveld Stereo ("Joburg's No. 1 Hit Music Station") is a whole lot like KIIS ("LA's #1 Hit Music Station"). I kid you not, the stations use the same damn phrase. Their station IDs sound like they were made in the same studio, somewhere up in the Valley.

Hearing "Africa", by Toto (on Jacaranda 94.2, a local soft rock station) while driving *in* Africa was about as surreal as hearing "One Night in Bangkok" on some Thai station the night I arrived in Bangkok.

At least all the talk radio I heard sounded more like NPR than Rush Limbaugh.
  • Current Music
    Africa - Toto

Anyone fancy a short drive across Africa?

I ran into a lot of people in Southern Africa who'd bought vehicles and were driving them long distances across the continent. In fact, I hadn't even gotten out of Cape Town International when I met a Californian and his SO who were planning to buy a 4WD and drive it to Ethiopia. We talked about their plans on shuttle to the backpackers on Long Street. They offered me a ride but I clearly wasn't going to have enough time to go all the way there, not if I were going to Laos with Leah.

I don't know how far they've gotten. They didn't have much money, and after about five days they said they had a lead on pretty old Land Rover, which was all they could afford. I wished them luck.

The folks I met at Jollyboys in Livingstone, Zambia had all gone at least five thousand kilometers already. All of them were driving Toyota Land Cruisers, of various ages, kitted out to various degrees.

The Toyota Land Cruiser seems to be the preferred overland vehicle in this part of the world. Most of the used ones have upwards of 150,000 km (all of the ones described below, for example) and are still running.

Some conversation overheard and participated in, inaccurately remembered:

"Say, you just came in from Lusaka. How's the road from there to here?"
"Most of it is okay. I mean, the usual potholes, but nothing too bad. The last hundred K, though, that sucks."
"But the bus came over it, right?"
"Yeah, I mean, it's a bad road, but it is passable. And after that hundred kilometers, you should be okay."
"The last hundred coming into Livingstone?"
"Yeah. I guess it's the first hundred from here."

"Mozambique? Oh, man, the roads are supposed to be bad there."
"Really? I heard they were really good."
"Well, okay, down in the south, the road from South Africa into Maputo? That one is great. It's like you're still in South Africa: smooth pavement, lane markings, reflectors, the works. But I hear the roads up north...well, they suck."

"Hey, have you used your winch yet?"
"No, actually it's been kind of a pain, really. If you have a winch, you need to have a chain to attach to the cable, and then you need to find a place to put the chain. And with all the spare parts we're carrying, it's hard to find a good place for it."
"Well, it's always the spare part you *don't* have that you find you need."

"So, we lost our spare wheel one afternoon."
"What happened?"
"Well, we went over this enormous bump, and the whole vehicle came crashing down on the other side, wham! The spare wheel in our Toyota is under the load area in the back, and it's attached underneath by a chain. The wheel came down and had so much momentum that it broke the chain and came loose. Fell right out of the back. We were bouncing so hard we didn't notice it."
"Oh, man. What did you do?"
"Well, we were very lucky, actually. The only other people to come along that road that day came along about fifteen minutes later. Not only did they come across our wheel they loaded it into their vehicle and caught up to us. 'Is this one of your wheels?' they asked."

"Have you shown anyone your carnet yet? We were thinking about whether or not we'd wasted all that money to get one because we haven't showed anyone the thing yet."
"Oh, you definitely need it."
"Yeah, we met a guy coming south from Kenya who said he must have shown his papers about 250 times at roadblocks so far."
"Yeah? Good, because we were wondering, y'know? Here we are, having paid a pile of money to the insurance company, and put up a bond which was another big chunk of money, and no one's asked for it yet."
"No, you'll be showing it to people. I mean, we haven't either, but we just came through Namibia and Botswana. It gets worse farther on."

"So, we're at this police roadblock, and the officer asks for my papers. So I hand him my passport. And he puts it in his shirt pocket. And then I think, 'Oh, shit. I'm going to have a problem.'"
"So what happened?"
"Well, first he said there we hadn't paid enough for our visas, which we'd specifically asked about at the border and they'd said, 'No, it's fine.' But what can you do? Now this guy is angling for a bribe. So we go back and forth about it for a while, and I'm just not interested in paying him off. Finally he says he's going to let me go, because I've been so polite."
"Welcome to Africa."

"Hey, fuel's more expensive here in Zambia."
"Yeah, I noticed that. It's more than four thousand kwacha per litre."
"Good thing we filled all those jerry cans in Botswana."
"Well, at least you didn't come through Zimbabwe."
"Yah, I was kinda worried about that. I mean, I'd heard the civil unrest had died down a little, but there's no fuel. And if there's no fuel, you can't go anywhere."
"We talked to one woman on the Vic Falls side who said the filling stations hadn't had fuel for a *year*! A year! I mean, later on we talked to someone else at the station who said it'd only been nine months, but still!"

"Realistically, we can't stop anywhere there isn't secure parking, not with all the gear we have strapped on top of the roof. I mean, if I come to a place and there's no secure parking, well, I just have to drive on."
"Yeah, like the hundred litres of fuel in the jerry cans on the roof."
"Well, yeah, those are a pretty big attraction right there, aren't they?"
"You know, given the sun and the heat, we probably have a lot less than a hundred litres now."
"Don't remind me."

"Which way did you come from South Africa?"
"Oh, we went through Botswana, over the Kazangula ferry."
"Oh, ouch. That's the one that overturned, right?"
"What happened?"
"I hear a truck got on, the ferry started, then the truck broke loose. Then the ferry overturned."
"Yah. I hear it killed a bunch of people."
"Yah, and the trucking company was more concerned about their truck."
"Yah, the ferry stopped running for a few days, so there was a huge line of trucks. We were worried because we saw this enormous line, and then we saw the sign that said Heavy Vehicles (to one side) and Light Vehicles (to the other). They load four cars on one side and one truck on the other. I can definitely see how the thing tipped over. It's not a big ferry."
"I hadn't heard about that. The ferry capsizing, I mean. And I just came over it!"

"We actually didn't know much about cars when we started."
"Yeah, but we're learning a lot."
"Particular bits, though. There are still vast areas we know next to nothing about."

"There was this one guy, pretty cocky. We ran into him in a backpacker's a while back. Later on he came in saying how he'd bogged down three times on this road we'd just been down. Three times! I mean, there was sand, but really! We couldn't figure out how he'd managed to get stuck at all. We'd had a little trouble with sand, but not very much, really."
"Well, we did get stuck that one time."
"That hardly counts. The front wheel got wedged between two rocks when we came down hard."
"Yeah. We came over what turned out to be a big rock because as we did the tire came down and turned sideways and wedged itself between two rocks. They tell you never to drive with your thumbs around the steering wheel, because if the wheel spins suddenly it can break your thumbs. Anyway, it was pretty easy to get out of it; we just put it into four-wheel drive and backed away, but it was a sudden shock."
"There was that other guy who managed to burn out his transmission and engine somehow."
"Yeah, but that's because he forgot to lock the hubs or engage four-wheel-drive or something."

"You going to Laos? Excellent! Where?"
"Well, I was thinking of going south through Laos to Cambodia."
"Oh, shit, that road sucks."
"Yeah. It was so bad in places that the pickup truck just drove beside the road instead, because it was better. I mean, you could see a little bit of crown in the middle of the road, but it was worse than driving off the road. I figure someone built the thing in the fifties or sixties and never maintained it."
"Hmmm. Maybe I should fly."
"Well, I'll tell you. It's your choice, but twelve hours of bouncing around in the back of a truck--oh, and there are no buses down there, just trucks that take passengers in the loadbed--and my ass hurt for a whole day afterward. That road is worse than *any* of the roads here in Africa."
"Yah. Wow. Well, cool. Thanks."
"Sure. You been to Laos before?"
"Yeah, about six years ago."
"Man, you won't recognize the place. I'm sure it's changed a lot, if the last time you saw it was in '97."

(Thanks to Andy, Sandi, Jason, Ian, Ruth, and Shannon, who were paraphrased here. Any inaccuracies are mine.)

A funny South African gun story.

Guns are pretty commonplace in South Africa. I mean this in two ways: lots of people seem to have them, and people don't seem to think that one appearing is that much out of the ordinary.

I'm in the Intercape Mainliner bus office in Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga province. Nelspruit is a fairly relaxed, medium-sized city, as South African cities go: you can pretty much go anywhere you like in town on foot and not get hassled or risk being mugged during the day. At night, of course, it's recommended you be off the streets. Taking a taxi home from wherever you are at night is a good idea. So, pretty laid-back, overall.

Intercape is one of the big bus lines, along with Greyhound and Translux. Most of the passengers are white people take these buses because most black people can't afford them. They're pretty comfy, with air-conditioning, videos, and reclining seats. The bus company is reliable and not particularly expensive.

I buy my ticket to Maputo from the nice middle-aged white lady behind the counter, who suggests I take a seat in the waiting area, with all the other travellers, some of whom are seriously heavily laden with big backpacks. I pick up my ticket, and start walking across the room.

I don't get three steps in that direction when there's a bloody great slamming noise, like a file cabinet falling to the ground. Everybody turns and looks.

I see that the black man in a windbreaker sitting on one of the high stools near the entrance is bending down looking vaguely sheepish. I see that the reason he is bending down is because he has dropped the large revolver which is now lying on the ground. The revolver which made the loud slamming noise as it hit the tiled floor. The revolver which, it appears, he kept in his windbreaker pocket.

He smiles at us, still a bit sheepish, stuffs it back into his pocket, and straightens up.

I shrug, feel fairly glad that the revolver didn't actually go off, as I was the closest bystander, and take a seat to wait for the bus. I decide to assume that the man is actually the security guard for the bus office. He's not in a uniform, of course, but maybe he is anyway. He doesn't get on the bus, for one thing.

Later, a guy I meet in Maputo says he was told to wait in the bus office instead of on the street because he'd be safer in the office. We have a good laugh about that.