Dispatch from the Razor's Edge, the Blog of Michael Stephen Fuchs
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Led Toward Heaven; Driven Through Hell
"Heav'n but the Vision of Fullfil'd Desire
And Hell the Shadow from a Soul on Fire
Cast into that Darkness from Which
We so late Emerged, Shall so soon Expire"
        - Omar Khayyam

    Right, then – so one more beach camp site on the shores of Lake Malawi. And although this one would be indistinguishable from Kande Beach to, say, Martians, it sure was a whole new kettle of worms for us. For starters, there was peace to be had. There were no obscene t-shirts in evidence; and the only annoying people were the ones we brought with us. But, mainly, there was a world-beating hike involved. While the others, erm, well, laid on the beach again I guess . . . Mark, Stephen, Allison, Christina, and I headed into the mountains (in the company of our stalwart guide, Washington).

Knowing only that it was a 8km hike – but not the extent or grade of the climbing involved – we made like French nobility and headed off. Our intended destination was the mountain town of Livingstonia, by way of Manchewe Falls. Between us and our destination: Locusts! Swarms of them! On Mark's shoe! (I admit to Mark that I guess I would have pictured locusts as gray, ragged, and menacing – not as the prettiest little buggers on any ground anywhere). Also blocking our path was a sizeable hunk of mountain, part of which looked like a mini-Table Mountain. I invite Mark to consider everything we've done; how far we've come; and everything we've seen, since climbing Table Mountain our first day in Africa. And today's right up there on that list. We begin climbing and scrabbling in earnest.

Before too long, the climb does start to take it's toll – we're stringing out, and taking more and longer breaks. And no one (including me) brought nearly enough water for seven hours of serious exertion. Luckily, we've got a bit of cloud cover, and a breeze. So we make like Lee Nails and press on. We reach the summit, and spill out from the trail onto the mountaintop road. There we encounter a load-bearing woman (one who ultimately was to cook us lunch); two very cute little girls who were amazed to see instant picture developing – never mind of themselves; and the falls. We have lunch at the "restaurant" (their best table is their only table!) nearly on the fall-viewing precipice. Stephen and Allison tell us about their decision to pack up life in Cape Town and try moving to London – three years ago.

On the trek back, the colors of land and sky seduce us. We stagger back into camp, entirely exhausted – but elated. Mark christens me – with my safari shirt (borrowed from Susan), hat, and satchel – Indiana Fuchs. I dare to hope aloud that The Hike will ultimately represent the turning point of the second half of the trip.

* * *

We wake at 4am to get out of DodgeMalawi. As we pull at tent poles and stir coffee, a promising little wound in between the black flesh of the night sky and the rich blood of the sleeping lake blossoms, before our eyes, into the most heart-shreddingly lovely dawn yet. (*)

Stepping into Tanzania costs us (Americans, that is) a crisp new U.S. Grant each. Back on the truck, Lars (a Swede; Swedes get in for $20!) hands Mark a ten-spot.

Me: Is there anyone on this truck you haven't lent money to?
Mark: . . . The Australians.
Me: You're like the IMF – the International Mark Fund.

Crossing the border, both the weather and the terrain change immediately, and radically. Rich, chilled air pushes thick cloud cover across lush farmlands. We shoulder through mist; then drizzle. We've sure come a long way, it occurs to me, since our desert wasteland piss breaks. (Though some things have abided. Isn't she cute?!) Soon, mountains spring up – winningly.

Mark: This almost looks deciduous, rather than tropical. This could be Virginia. Except for the huts.
Me: Okay . . . West Virginia.

The decision is taken to push straight through to Dar es Salaam, the coastal capital. I'm not in favor; aside from the immense discomfort we experienced the last time we did this, safety takes it on the chin. However, most of the group has a cash crunch issue. We've had no luck drawing U.S. dollars; and many people didn't bring nearly enough. Moreover, tomorrow is Friday, and the banks close at noon. I'm opposed to the plan, but I abstain from voting; if these guys don't get cash, they're not going to Serengeti.

I would have voted (and I suspect the others would have voted differently) if we'd had foreknowledge of the road to Dar: mountainous, precipitous, slim-shouldered, and pothole-blighted. Actually, those words don't capture it – but they'll have to. There are no photos from this period – because it was impossible to use the camera in the truck. Boom!, head into the bins; Smash!, tailbone into the seat bar. Rumpa-rumpa-rumpa-rumpa!!! Boom! Okay, so my oneimatopeia's not doing it. How's this for evocative? We pass two demolished trucks – one on either side of the road. An evident head-on – and it didn't happen very long ago. (We see three or four more wrecked truck hulks before we're done.)

The sun goes down. The roads get worse – much worse. During a semi-waking period – amongst all the hours of hellish fugue state, where I'm full-on dreaming, but conscious of every back-torsioning wrench of the vehicle – Mark tries to explain that part of the turbulence was a national park with large speed bumps, punctuated by gargantuan speed bumps. I'm past taking any of this in.

We stop for dinner on the side of the road. Paul and Dudu make a gorgeous stir-fry, with rice; the insects descend on it, and us. In the near-darkness, swatting and slapping at the air and ourselves like schizophrenics (except with real bugs), almost everyone gets one good crunch in their meal – beetles. (In fairness, they were only going for the light – that was lighting the dinner preparation.) Me: "This has got to be the conception of Hell in some religious tradition: Shaken without cease in a steel container; kept from sleeping all through the night; and plagued with insects – including in our food."

And, finally, try this on for size: we did 25 hours of this shiznit. We left our Malawi camp at 5am, and hit Dar at 6am the next day. For some reason, I find I'm not angry or bitter about any of it; but I sort of just intellectually recognize (as I did even at the time) that this was one of the most unpleasant nights I (or most people, I suspect) have ever spent. So much for that turning point.

* * *

And it's a flipping bank holiday in Tanzania (last day of Ramadan). <Cartman>SON of a BITCH!</Cartman> On top of this fact (and Paul not being aware of it), there is confusion about arranging a ferry (or flight) out to Zanzibar; there is conflict about which bits of this trip are paid for, for whom, and which are add-on costs. And, unsurprisingly, most of us are cranky as soiled, hungry infants. Dissension erupts on the back of the truck. I can almost see Paul losing control of the mission. I keep my mouth shut and wait.

And before the clocks strike noon, we've got wheelbarrows of Tanzanian schillings (from a functioning, high-withdrawal limit ATM Paul dug up); much of which we turn into U.S. dollars (at an open ForEx booth in a chi-chi hotel (they're hosting a UNESCO meeting), which Paul also dug up); and tickets for the 1pm ferry across the channel (which, well, guess who worked that out as well). And all this pulled off by a guy who just drove a truckload of big, backpacking babies nearly 1000 kilometers on no sleep . . . on a tour he wasn't supposed, and has no desire, to be leading . . . and who took heartily-slung crap about it all morning. I wish I could say a chorus of thanks and praise erupted; but it was only a solo.

On the upside, Tanzania is, officially I gather, the land of the cashew nut. That's just alright by me. I buy and eat a bag of cashews while we're milling around the ferry terminal. Then I buy and eat another, rather larger, bag of cashews, as we jostle down the gangway. These revive me, or something does. I think we're all feeling pretty cool – with our affairs sorted, all our gear on our backs, and adventure ahead. Mark and I are a little afraid Zanzibar will be another beach resort; but we've also heard that it's got a lot of history, intrigue, and a genuine mystical vibe to it.

We're hustled onto the inside lounges; but Paul blusters his way (me following) out onto deck, before we even steam. We spill our bags and take a position amongst a lot of piled cargo on the starboard prow. When I spot a jaw jutting through a canvas bag, we relocate to the port prow. (Which also has a bag of horse parts, but at least a sealed one.) We talk for about an hour (me enjoying my first look at the Indian Ocean).

Since my intended special Paul-and-Jo section appears not to be all that forthcoming, I may as well spill a few more details. Paul's father (now estranged) intended him to be a lawyer; but Paul was having none of it, and went to sea at age 16. He sailed and worked around the world, based out of Monaco for three years. (In the Delta, he told us his harrowing piracy story – when an approaching ship opened up on them with an anti-aircraft gun.) He's sailed (and surfed) around Indonesia, Australia, and throughout Hawaii. He worked (as a cook; Paul: "It was the only berth I could get."; Mark: "That explains the ability to cook rapidly and deliciously for 25 people.") on an icebreaker in Anarctica. He learned to be a master yachtsman, did well for himself, and returned to Cape Town – where he was able to buy a 1.8 million rand house, at age 19. He then took up tour leading, which he's done for three years now. Oh – did I mention Paul is 23 years old – and Jo is 20? I found this out shortly after the two of them fished me and Astrid out of the Orange River and paddled us against a hellish current to safety. That knocked everyone out at the time, and still amazes me. At any rate, this is their last tour for Nomad; in the new year, they are launching their own tour company – starting with one truck, and working the Garden Route in South Africa. (They're also getting married, if that's never come up before.)

Anyway, Paul goes to nap on a flatter piece of deck, and I construct myself a little cargo lean-to, which I scrunch under, and enjoy a lovely breeze, and spray, through the bow-line hole. (Also, not a bad view out through that thing.) Finally, Stone Town – the western tip of Zanzibar Town, which is the western tip of the island – hoves into view.

Next: Zanzibar (Spice Island and the Venice of Africa).

  africa     camping     danger     hiking     omar khayyam     people     photography     pitely  
close photo of Michael Stephen Fuchs

Fuchs is the author of the novels The Manuscript and Pandora's Sisters, both published worldwide by Macmillan in hardback, paperback and all e-book formats (and in translation); the D-Boys series of high-tech, high-concept, spec-ops military adventure novels – D-Boys, Counter-Assault, and Close Quarters Battle (coming in 2016); and is co-author, with Glynn James, of the bestselling Arisen series of special-operations military ZA novels. The second nicest thing anyone has ever said about his work was: "Fuchs seems to operate on the narrative principle of 'when in doubt put in a firefight'." (Kirkus Reviews, more here.)

Fuchs was born in New York; schooled in Virginia (UVa); and later emigrated to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he lived through the dot-com boom. Subsequently he decamped for an extended period of tramping before finally rocking up in London, where he now makes his home. He does a lot of travel blogging, most recently of some very  long  walks around the British Isles. He's been writing and developing for the web since 1994 and shows no particularly hopeful signs of stopping.

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ARISEN : Operators, Volume I - The Fall of the Third Temple by Michael Stephen Fuchs
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