There comes a time in every journey where the novelty factor wears off. Where you finally allow the facade of calm to drop and for your real feelings to come through, no more bravado, no more playing the tough expeditioner. This is about one such time which crept up on me rather unexpectedly.
Since starting to write this blog I have been thinking a lot about what an expedition really is? I mean lets be honest, its a rather over used word. How many times have you heard about someone going on an expedition? One doesn’t want to downplay other people’s trips, but every so often I see the word being used and can’t help but think “But that’s not a real expedition!” Take hiking up Kilimanjaro for example. I was recently on a Kilimanjaro ‘expedition’. There were 15 of us on the trip and 45 staff to carry our crap, put up our tents, bring us warm water when we arrived at camp. If that is an expedition I want to go on more of those! But then again one can’t say that Stanley’s journey into the Congo was not an expedition.
Having given it a lot of thought I’ve decided that my definition of an expedition very simply is a journey where there is doubt in the attainment of the goal and one is largely uncertain about what obstacles to expect. Ideally it should be something that has not been attempted before, something that expands human knowledge about the particular undertaking or region. Anyway, we could debate it all day, and I have an important expedition to undertake today: The buying of groceries in Norway… yes the outcome is most definitely uncertain.
ITS ONLY 200KM HOW BAD CAN IT BE?
Play this while you read, it will get you in the mood…
A few years ago I found myself in Madagascar just before new years. We were shooting a pilot for PBS about a remote peninsula in the north east of the country. I was genuinely excited thinking about the Masoala Peninsula. A place you could only access by boat. Rainforest straight into the ocean, giant chameleons and of course lemurs! But as with any journey first we had to get there.
Since all the flights from Antananarivo were fully booked we decided we would just use public transport to make the roughly 300km journey to Maroansetra, from where we would take the boat. 100km to the coast on a paved road and then a paltry 200km up the east coast of Madagascar to our destination.
The first 100km went really well. It was dusk when we arrived in Tamatav, the last outpost before heading north into the jungle, on what we had heard was a pretty bad road. Being gung ho documentary filmmakers we were unperturbed of course. We clambered aboard the rather beaten looking Toyota Hilux which ad been modified to carry as many passengers as possible. Once we were all loaded I counted 18. Francois and I had managed to get a seat in a bench inside, Claudio was pushed up against the front but also sitting. Rean had decided he wanted a quick exit if the truck overturned and so was sitting on the tailgate. It was the classic case of there always being room for one more. Then there was a commotion at the back of the vehicle as the driver tried to squeeze yet another person onboard. Rean was shouting in very poor French “I will call the police!” and the driver was laughing. There was nothing we could do. Fully loaded with some people even standing we set off into the night on a pretty bad road.
I could relate the entire journey, but there is not much point. I’ll give a couple of highlights. Shortly into the trip Francois and I offered two small children to sit on our laps. They were standing and falling over as they fell asleep on their feet. Sitting on our laps they were snoring almost instantly and became dead weight. Two bumpy hour later our legs screaming in agony we had to wake them up, it was just too painful. As the journey wore on the road became worse and we started to cross small rivers on rickety bridges. The driver would stop and we could all have to get out and walk across the bridge, which was often only a few rotten looking logs, and watch breathlessly as the drivers picked their way across. The journey went on and on. Rain started falling, dripping through the tarpaulin which covered the truck. Music blared from the cab where the driver and two very pretty girls were laughing and chatting. Not cool.
We crossed 14 rivers by pontoon and traveled more or less continuously for 50 hours. People got on and off and endured the nightmare of a journey with impassive faces. This is just the way you get around, complaining won’t make it any better.
The second night while filming one of the ravine crossings I got left behind the truck. Stumbling through the dark I walked to what I thought was the bridge they had just crossed and promptly fell through, only to be caught by my shoulders. I don’t know how far down it was, but lets just say it would have hurt. My shoulder was dislocated and as I hauled myself out in agony I realised that I had stumbled onto the disused bridge and the new one was a few meters away. Luckily the shoulder popped back in. The bumpy journey continued. Twice we had to get out and all 18 of us haul the vehicle up a muddy slope with a long rope while the wheels spun viciously spraying us all with mud, adding insult to injury. We were all trying to keep it together, really we were.
Francois cracked first and managed to buy his way into the front cab. Claudio became silent and Rean’s relationship with the driver further deteriorated. Somewhere around 46 hours we could smell the end. The road was getting better (although this was all relative) and we were hearing Lucky Dube blaring through the little speaker for what felt like the millionth time. There was no past or future, only the agony and fatigue of here and now with Lucky Dube as our soundtrack singing “We were born to suffer!” It was then that I cracked. I literally had blisters on my ass. All it took was one heartfelt yell. “Aaaaarrrrgh!”. Everyone turned to stare at me with shock in their eyes. I somehow felt much better. The uncomfortable silence dissipated and Lucky sang on as if nothing had happened.
I would count those 200km as perhaps the toughest expedition I have ever been on. Which goes to show that sometimes expeditions are not planned and they can creep up on the best of us.