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He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father

Nov 2014

Words & pics Bas de Vos

When, in October last year, my father and I completed the final preparations before riding our Honda XR650 motorcycles overland from Cape Town to Amsterdam, we received two distinctly different responses from our friends. 

His friends were very positive and got caught up in the romance of the idea. My dad’s Dutch and grew up in Amsterdam. He arrived in Cape Town nearly 35 years ago when he was 19, after a nine-month trip through Africa on a motorcycle with three friends. The 2013/14 expedition was, in a sense, the return journey for him – in the company of his 19-year-old son. It was something we’d talked about doing together ever since I can remember. 

“Wow! That’s really great… so envious. What an adventure. You two are going to have such wonderful bonding times,” was the sentiment echoed by his friends.

Mine, most of whom had been out of school for less than a year, didn’t share the enthusiasm: “Dude, sick idea. But you’ve just come back from a six-month jol all alone in Southeast Asia. The sandiest beaches, cheapest beer, mooiest chicks and complete freedom. Now you’re going to cross dark and dangerous Africa with your dad? WTF, bro?”  

At first, I dismissed what both groups said. My father and I have always got along well and, while I wasn’t entirely certain what ‘bonding’ meant, I suspected it was something best left to the authors of self-help books.

It didn’t take long into the trip, however, before I realised there may be something to my friends’ reservations. 

Things about my father which, before we left, I’d simply laughed off as a bit eccentric, began to irritate me. He can, for example, appear arrogant at times. Having been a biker for more than four decades, he doesn’t think twice about popping wheelies, hopping up on sidewalks and undertaking various other motorcycling manoeuvres he’s perfected whenever he deems it necessary. While I can’t claim to be completely innocent in this regard, his reckless riding sometimes annoyed me. 

Like the morning in Khartoum when, impatient in heavy traffic, my father suddenly took off and bounced his bike onto a sidewalk to avoid queuing behind cars – right in front of a large contingent of AK-47 wielding Sudanese policemen who, we’d been told the night before, are notorious for their take-no-prisoners attitude.

It wasn’t just my father’s behaviour on the bike that bothered me. There was also his stubborn single-mindedness when it came to tracking down his other great love – beer – at the end of a hard day on the bikes. 

Fortunately, until we reached the Arabic countries, finding a cold one each evening wasn’t a problem. But especially in Sudan – and often in Egypt – things changed and my father was greatly distressed by the lack of beer. 

He never gave up, though; he’d ask anyone and everyone (including those who were clearly not accepting of alcohol) if they knew where he could find a beer. And it never ceased to amaze me how surprised he seemed when his queries were ‘rewarded’ with stares of pure venom, particularly from women wearing burkas.

Then there is his unreliable memory. It became a daily, sometimes twice daily, ritual that he’d forget where he’d placed his sunglasses just before we rode off. This would require checking the countless pockets of his jacket and, inevitably, unpacking several bags while I waited, sweating in my full riding gear under the African sun, which was particularly intense while travelling south of and close to the equator.  

The failing of his memory reached a high point in Ethiopia after we’d encountered another group of Addis Ababa’s finest pickpockets – the city is riddled with them. Soon after he’d been groped in a taxi, my father discovered his motorcycle key was missing. He searched his kit to no avail and the key was therefore presumed stolen. 

Having forgotten to bring spares, this required an emergency call to Cape Town and some days lingering in the polluted city while we waited for one to arrive by courier. I brushed this off as an unfortunate turn of events until (the day after the replacement key had arrived and we’d fled Addis Ababa) the original key curiously reappeared somewhere else in my forgetful father’s bag.

It was also while in Ethiopia that I became annoyed by the amount of time my father spent on his iPhone when he could have been talking to me. This, however, didn’t last long because I soon realised it was unfair of me. 

To begin with, conversation with me must have been terribly boring at the time. I moaned incessantly about the endless stream of goats, which seemed intent on murdering me (and themselves) by running out in front of my bike throughout our journey. What’s more (confession alert), although it emerged the pickpockets in Addis Ababa hadn’t stolen my dad’s key, they had indeed stolen my iPhone. In other words, I was intensely jealous every time my father took his out. 

It was when I recognised some of my own faults that it occurred to me that most of the things that frustrated me about travelling with my father were unreasonable. He’s a biker, which means he’s arrogant, doesn’t it? Also, he’s as old as the hills – we celebrated his 55th birthday being charged by a hippo at Lake Baringo in northern Kenya – so naturally he suffers memory loss. 

Once I’d put it all into perspective, the things that irritated me about my father didn’t matter anymore. Instead, I began focusing on the many really great moments I shared with him on our trip. Was this what the other old-timers meant by ‘bonding’? 

Great moments such as the road through Nyungwe Forest National Park in Rwanda, which passed through the wildest and densest rainforest that covered a series of hills stretching well beyond the horizon. The road surface was so smooth that you could’ve played a game of pool on it. There was minimal traffic. Crowds of curious monkeys sat in the trees on the roadside and placidly watched us zip past. My father and I babbled away to one another, admiring corner after corner of brilliant riding, via our helmet intercoms. There wasn’t a goat to be seen. It was the best biking road of the entire trip.

Great moments such as the day we spent on Lake Victoria in Uganda on a beaten up old ski boat. It was blisteringly hot. There was no shade and we’d been fishing non-stop for the entire day without a single bite. Our ‘fishing guide’ didn’t know how to tie a knot, and the boat’s engine sounded terminal. Then, without warning, all hell broke loose as one of the rickety old fishing rods screeched to life. A long, strenuous fight ensued. Eventually, the monster we’d hooked launched itself out of the water like a rocket and viciously shook its head trying to dislodge the hook. A massive Nile perch was landed. It was the heaviest freshwater fish my father and I have ever caught.

Great moments such as the time we spent in Bujumbura in Burundi where, by chance, we met an expat from Cape Town who one night took us on a tour of the city’s restaurants and bars. We drank a beer at every place we visited – possibly more. At some stage I knew I shouldn’t drink another, but it seemed lame for a 19-year-old to be out-drunk by his old dad. I should’ve stopped. I felt lousy the next day; he was his cheery old self. 

Great moments such as the time we pulled over in a very rural village in northern Kenya to shelter from the rain. The villagers were spectacular. They wore brightly coloured robes, large and elaborately beaded necklaces, and wide wooden appendages in their earlobes. Their faces and bodies were patterned with countless scars. Even so, to them my father and I were the most exotic creatures around. Within no time, a huge crowd gathered to stare at us in apparent disbelief. Our attempts at conversation failed; they simply gawked, mouths wide open and eyes unblinking. Not a smile or a murmur passed their lips. 

Eventually the rain stopped. We clamoured back onto our motorcycles, pushed our ignitions in chorus and, with a roar from our aftermarket-Japanese-go-faster pipes, sped off. The sight in our mirrors of the audience dispersing in terror behind us had us chuckling for kilometres down the road.

There were times I recalled my friends’ sentiments about my travelling across what many believe to be the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable continents for more than three months in the sole company of my father. There were even moments when I wished I’d listened to them. 

But those moments were significantly outweighed by the many times I acknowledged that my fathers’ friends had been right. I would never have experienced the journey without him. And even if I had, the experiences would’ve been different. 

More than anything, though, I think I now understand what ‘bonding’ is all about and why my father’s friends were envious of our African adventure.

Thanks, Dad. 

Source: The Intrepid Explorer

The Intrepid explorer