By the looks of things, love was in bloom and Jimmy was the object of affection.
Brian Routledge hunkered down in his seat, fear in his heart and dollar signs flashing through his mind while an amorous bull elephant made lusty advances upon the bumper of his GMC Jimmy 4 X 4. Jimmy had been thoroughly customized to withstand rough roads, heavy weather and burglary attempts, but who knew what damage a scorned elephant might inflict. Repelled by unyielding, cold, hard metal, the confused animal backed away, seemingly to reconsider his strategy. Gradually, Routledge relaxed enough to shoot some film, then he retreated to safer ground as discreetly as possible. Go to Slide Show
That startling episode is one among many mementos of a remarkable journey that took three years in planning, is now ten months in progress and is expected to be Routledge's retirement pursuit for the foreseeable future. Inspired by a buddy's travels in Kenya, in 1995, Brian's plan began in the form of a question. While poring over his friend's maps he mused aloud, "I wonder how much of Africa you could do by vehicle?"
The answer was from Cape Town to Cairo if you have the right equipment, time and nerve enough to tackle the hazards of a continent struggling with third-world social and political problems, and an unpredictable travel infrastructure.
About then came ominous news. A government employed weatherman, Brian was approaching 50 when he and thousands of civil servants were asked to consider early retirement or alternative employment.
Faced with starting over again career-wise, Brian took stock of his suburban lifestyle, savings and investments and realized he had acquired possessions enough. He no longer needed the job driven rat race, but he needed something . . . change, challenge, what? Opportunity knocked and Africa beckoned. With time to spare and no family obligations, he thought why go for a short trip. Why not six months, a year, a lifetime?
Meanwhile, the ways and means of organizing and accomplishing a lengthy, independent sojourn half way across the world presented themselves in a tangle of possibilities: organized tours, public transport, rental vehicle, buy a vehicle.
Guided tours were quickly ruled out, not Brian's style. Fancy hotels, he couldn't care less. Trains, planes and buses, not if he could help it. A vehicle it would have to be. A self-reliant guy, he wanted the freedom to come and go as he pleased, he wanted the confidence that only a vehicle customized to his own strict standards would allow.
The 1981 GMC Jimmy was just a rusty clunker when Brian picked it up for C$3,000. But after C$5,000 in repairs and C$5,000 in added safety gear, sleeping and storage compartments, the vehicle was a beaut in the strong and sturdy sense if not in the sleek and pretty sense, which suited Brian just fine. A little wear around the edges would be a deterrent to thieves looking for quick resell value, as would Jimmy's unique and easily traceable design. An added bonus was that Brian figured he might recover some or even all of the costs of his trip by selling Jimmy in Africa at the end of his travels.
By January 1998 restoration was complete, documentation and shipping arrangements (see Nuts & Bolts) had been made, and Jimmy was ready for transporting by train and container ship to Cape Town, South Africa. Mounted on Jimmy's back bumper, a Suzuki 250 dirt bike "Suzi" went along just for fun. Brian followed by plane.
Three weeks later Brian flew home to Toronto, his travel budget significantly dinted and his rosy outlook somewhat dampened. Sometimes travel is hell. Brian had learned that even the best laid plans can go awry.
For starters, Jimmy landed in South Africa two weeks after Brian, in Durban rather than Cape Town as anticipated - a difference of 1,600 kilometers plus unexpected hotel and transportation costs. Then came days of delays and hassles with the shipping company, which were only resolved with the help (and added expense) of a lawyer and a customs broker. Finally, on the road at last but not far along, a wheel fell off Jimmy, apparently the result of a foiled thievery attempt when the vehicle was still under customs wraps.
While Brian waited for a tow-truck, a crowd of begging street urchins made off with his expensive cameras. "The really hard part," says Brian, "was that you knew these five year-old's had no use for such equipment. Somebody had to be using them. They probably only got a few pennies out of the deal."
It was a shocking, painful lesson, and it sent Brian home to file insurance claims and ponder the whole situation. Well, nobody said it was going to be easy. He chalked one up for experience, bought new cameras and booked a return flight.
That queasy beginning is all water under the bridge now. Several trips later Brian has fallen under the proverbial spell of Africa. He's hooked. And the continuing plan is to spend six to eight months each year roving the continent as long as he is able. "When I am in Africa, I feel like I'm back in my 20's," he says gleefully.
No wonder. In Africa, every step he takes is new and exhilarating. Back home it's business as usual, repairing the roof, mowing the lawn, paying the bills. In Africa, he hops on Suzi and rides off to back country with nothing before and behind but hills and valleys of breathtaking beauty.
In Toronto he usually eats alone. In Africa, monkeys and baboons come to dine. "They'll grab every morsel if you turn your back for a second. But you gotta love 'em." In Africa, TV viewing has been replaced by the tiny screen of a camcorder and the thrill of watching, in the dark of night, a pair of eyes gradually merge into a fully formed, monochrome image of a prowling hyena captured by the magic of night-vision technology.
At home, driving in traffic is a pain in the neck. In Africa, traffic is hooking up with two or three other touring vehicles to ford a washout in tandem. In Africa, Jimmy has proved to be a star performer in tough terrain. Take the little side adventure with Sparky, a happy-go-lucky, fifty-something American psychologist. Sparky was doing a solo trip from Johannesburg to Nairobi in a psychidelic-painted, under-equipped rental vehicle, cheerful in the notion that good fortune will never fail to get her out of trouble.
Brian happened upon Sparky on some rural road in Zimbabwe. The rental vehicle was side-down in a ditch. Sparky was okay and, true to her belief, a small crowd had gathered to help get the vehicle up-right. Then Jimmy was enlisted to tow it to the nearest service station, which entailed a hard pull up a steep escarpment. Fortunately, Jimmy was up to the task.
A meticulous and cautious planner himself, Brian thinks Sparky's ill-prepared African safari is nothing short of reckless. Neither the terrain nor the political landscape should be taken lightly. Yet, in southern Africa at least, he has been surprised to find a completely established tourist infrastructure in place.
Accommodations include the gamut from five-star resorts to comfortable campgrounds. Main roads are in good repair, and he has even been able to check his E-mail en route in larger towns.
With super-equipped Jimmy, and Suzi as backup, he has felt secure in exploring remote corners of at least eleven nature parks and reserves, from the famous Kruger National Park of South Africa to the Mana Pools of Zimbabwe. Alone in some isolated places he has felt as if he might be the only human on the planet.
During his travels he has seen the dramatic Drakensburg ranges of South Africa, the towering sand dunes of Namibia, the scrub and marsh lands of Botswana, the thundering Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe. He has been startled by strolling hippo, amused by thieving monkeys, thrilled by the sight of stalking lion, and awed by the sheer multitudes of herd animals that cross his path. For thrill, wonderment and self-discovery, Africa has exceeded expectations.
Brian's project began with the self-centered desire to test his skills and resourcefulness in unfamiliar territory then expanded outwardly over time, inspired by a growing curiosity about the interactions of nature in general and human nature in particular. For example, he says, "At first I just enjoyed watching the animals, but now I'm constantly fascinated by similarities I see to human behavior."
People too are an endless cause for introspective contemplation. In fact Brian is something of a curiosity himself. Parked by the roadside having lunch, he regularly draws inquisitive locals. He usually keeps a bag of cookies handy as an ice breaker, and the camcorder often works wonders. His day is made if a group of youngsters break into spontaneous song and dance (as frequently happens) when he shows what he has been filming on the tiny screen.
But truthfully, reactions have been mixed. Sometimes he receives unconditional hospitality, like the time a passing woman stopped to give him a smile and three ears of corn to add to his lunch. Then again he's been perplexed and frightened a few times to be greeted with suspicious looks and even threatening gestures, for no reason he could figure. He wonders why: Anger? Fear? Racially biased distrust? Cultural misconception? These unanswered questions compose the larger view Brian wants to investigate during future journeys. These are the questions that mark his transition from tourist to traveler.
P S As of May 2012 Brian Routledge continues taking his annual sojourn in Africa. While Cairo is still on the agenda for sometime in the future, Zimbabwe has taken a hold on his interest for the time being. He runs a small business venture with some local folk and lives in Beitbridge, a community located on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa.