August 15, 2008

somewhat belated notices

1) The Night of Knives, my fourth novel - a.k.a. "the Africa book" - has been released into the paperback wilds of UK bookstoredom.

The official blurb:

Veronica Kelly came to Africa to start her life over. Still reeling from her divorce, she is grateful when a handsome stranger invites her to join a tour to visit gorillas in Uganda's wild Impenetrable Forest. A trip that goes desperately wrong when their group is captured by brutal gunmen.

Then one tourist is executed.

And then another.

This is no random kidnapping: their abduction is only the first move in a deadly strategic game. A game in which Veronica's ex-husband is somehow involved.

Now she must embark on a wild journey across Africa, to unveil a malignant conspiracy before it consumes entire nations - and thousands of lives...

You can find it in fine bookstores across the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere, and also on, or, eventually, Shop early, shop often!

2) Vertigo Comics has officially announced its Vertigo Crime imprint. I have a rather personal interest in this line.

August 06, 2008

dark continent diaries

Ten years ago exactly I spent six months in Africa. The first four were spent on a big yellow truck with twenty-three perfect strangers, overlanding from Morocco to Cameroon via the Sahara and the Gold Coast. Then I fled to Zimbabwe, hung out there for a month, and made my way to Cape Town via Botswana (very briefly) and Namibia.

It was a pretty seminal journey; personally, on several levels, and it also led directly, as is obvious to those of you who have read it, to my first published novel, Dark Places.

Today, going through some old CD-ROMs, I found that some years ago I transcribed the travel journal I kept. I just put its entries up on my blog, backdated.

To be perfectly honest they aren't that exciting - mostly dry and factual. Also, I journalized less often as the trip grew more interesting. But who knows, some of you may find them somewhat readable, so I'll link to them all here, and then copy some good bits below.

The Good Bits

(warning: this is still quite long)

Marooned, but the natives are friendly.

Truck Africa remains strictly hypothetical, but we've been adopted by the good people of Bukima Africa, another trans-African group. Hopefully tonight/tomorrow.

In the medina: "You are in a maze of twisting streets, all alike." Narrow, high-walled, lined by countless alcove-sized shops selling leather, ornaments, carpets, hats, daggers, tortoiseshell harps, every article imaginable. Kids playing soccer and shopkeepers hawking, hustlers attaching themselves like leeches to white faces. The ragged edge of the Kasbah's walls. The uttermost edge of Europe, seen through a salt-laden wind. Conditioned reflex suspicion.

A stroll through Volubilis, an extraordinary Roman ruin, once the furthest outpost of the Empire. Roofless walls and hints of walls, pillars and archways overlooking the crumbling stone, faded mosaics peering up at the sky, feeling not so much abandoned as neglected, as if the Romans might come back in a century or two and get the place back in shape. The view from atop the central hill, a field full of an empire's gravestones, surrounded by rolling hills of farmland and placid streams. The lonely entrance arch. Sewers, undercutting the rooms, choked now with weeds.

Off to camp in an olive grove; seemed like a good idea at the time. The truck got stuck in the claylike mud. Shovels and sand mats out, and after much digging and wallowing in mud we managed to catch the back axle on a stump. Gave up, ate, crashed.

The BYT warrants a description of its own.

20 tons, 1500L of fuel, 500L of water in jerry cans, two winches, tools and sand mats, wood compartment, three axles (two drive), four spare tires. PK, Shirray, and Mick drive up in the cab: we sit in the back. Communication via buzzer and intercom.

Seating's divided into three pairs of bus seats at the front and two long benches at the back, two steps between levels. Two big bins at the back hold safes and sleeping gear. Storage space behind webbing at the top, under the seats, and under front floorboards. Food & dry goods stored below rear floorboards. There's enough space to stand comfortably at the back.

Batteries (separate from starter) power tape deck and lights for hours. Fridge runs only when engine does. Couple of other nooks and crannies for common storage. Garbage bin doubles as card table.

We've seen so many staggering landscapes in the last couple of days that I'm afraid I'm already starting to get jaded. An endless green lawn of grass and moss beneath a canopy of cedars, their monkey-highway trunks ("monsieur! monsieur! le singe dans l'arbre!") impossibly straight and slender, with a creek weaving slowly between the trees. Endless mountain slopes strewn with rocks like God's own gravel, grass spilling out beneath the boulders, dotted by conical pits half-filled by water and sinuous glacier-carved lakes. An interminable plain of stones and dirt overseen by a snow-capped range of mountains. Raw jagged scrubland where only the hardiest and thorniest bushes and weeds survive the baking sun and flash floods. Ribbed cliffs and sudden outgrowths of stone above a red desert pockmarked by tufts of grass, an almost Martian landscape.

I'm enjoying the journey more with every passing day.

It's amazing how much perspective shift you get from 24h away from the truck; we're so much our own insular society when on the move that it's a reassessing shock to be independent again, with all the other truckers now irrelevant figures Somewhere Else.

I understand cults a little better now.

Our lives revolve around food. We wake early in the mornings, just past the crack of dawn, and have our tents down before breakfast. Drive for a couple of hours and stop for today's and/or tomorrow's cooks to shop, while the remainder have cafes au lait and watch the baked streets and houses or guard the truck from endlessly enthusiastic hustlers selling fossils or racks of semi-precious stones. Drive on, playing cards, listening to music, staring out the window, until we stop for the night. Pitch tents, wander for half an hour, and mark time until dinner. After dinner we crash almost immediately.

Spent more days in Marrakesh than expected, due to mech problems. Cafe au laits and a long sonorous night next to Tim + Nick + Mattias, the Place Djemaa el-Fna, usually a riot of people and noise and food stalls and orange juice stands and trinket vendors, cigarette eaters, snake charmers, acrobats, henna tattooists, hasslers, hustlers, and a seething mass of tourists and Moroccans. Hitching in with a fellow EE and walking the 13K back to the campsite. Leonard Cohen drifting over the IHT.

Last night - the 10th - by a wide salt plain like a lunar crater, six inches of salt and earth crust above six inches of muddy water, moonrise ahead and sunset behind peeking over the rims of the crater, bands of purple in the sky and the salt plains glistening in the mingled lights, a dessicated goat's skeleton slumped in a depression in the middle, the omnipresent dry wind hanging over the tableau.

14 April money:
cash francs 5,000
cash pounds 100
cash dollars 250
TC pounds 250
TC dollars 700

In sight of the shattered remnants of a Land Rover that must have strayed onto a mine. Not surprisingly, no one is exploring the area. About 10K up a winding desert trail with more bumps and surprises than a roller coaster, but we're on a sort of pavement - well, hardpack - now. The convoy is being inspected by the Mauritanian military.

Woke up last night to patter-patter on the tent fly and assumed it was a Lariam dream. Rain in the Sahara, who'd'a thunk it? Stopped now, but the sky is still a bright poisonous gray.

Dakhla is a hideous military anthill of a town, but I like desert more and more, in its many faces - windswept dunes, straggling chains of rock, endless plains pounded absolutely flat by sun and wind. More life than I expected - tufts of thorn and cactus are speckled everywhere.

I tried so hard to work up enthusiasm for the scrub and near-desert we passed through, but it's been completely overshadowed by the real thing in all its windswept majesty.

Into Nouadhibou, meaning "Jackal's Well," a long low colourless squalid sprawling city, oppressively hot, where it's hard to tell the endless goat-and-poverty-strewn shantytown from the centreville. Good bread though.

Sam didn't show up for dinner and nobody knew where he went. I scaled the sand dune to look for him and, after being briefly dazzled by more stars than I ever knew existed, was stunned by two sets of headlights, coming at us. In the middle of the Sahara.

Turned out he'd wandered off just before sunset, lost his bearings when the dark hit, and (fucking idiot) wandered off to look for us. Eventually he saw some lights, ran at them, and flagged down two Tuareg Land Rovers about 10K from where we were camped. They managed to find us and delivered him. Then they invited us over for freshly slaughtered lamb - mmm, red meat - with mint tea and a multi-cultural array of songs.

Slept under the truck, after repeatedly bruising my head on the drive shaft. Up and across the wide ocean of sand, dunes and plains and ridges and solitary twisted trees, and repeated sand matting. The heat at lunch was like an anvil, but it didn't affect the hovering lime-green wasp-like bug.

God, it's hot. Still well above 30 even at this hour. At lunch today it was pushing 50 in the shade and the sun was like an anvil. We're heading towards Kayes, "the hottest town in Africa."

At least it's a dry heat.

Eastern Mauritania is a desolate, squalid wasteland, where shrivelled trees and mangy goats and crowds of dangerously skinny people try to eke out an existence in an environment too harsh for grass. The kids in town demand presents while we're there and fling stones at us when we drive off, and it's hard to feel outraged.

The sight of a fridge is a cause for celebration.

Yesterday and today, deeper and deeper into nowhere. We must be in the middle by now. One-camel towns with no name, and mile after mile of shrub-spotted desert. No terrain until some New Mexico-esque ridges today; this afternoon wasn't quite as unbearably stark as the previous few hundred K.

Free-camped again tonight. Tomorrow night is our last in Mauritania, and I've written less inspiring sentences.

Bamako: not much to see, lots of hassle from would-be guides, but a nice laid-back change of pace from the social petri dish of le camion.

The hyperintensity of travelling on your own still appeals to me, but I think I headed out with Nick + Tim for the last few days just to get a break from the truck. It's fascinating to watch heat, isolation, hard roads, lack of privacy, and sheer dirty making tempers fray and shrinking our world to a 100' radius from the truck.

Spent our last day in Mauritania and our first in Mali being ambushed by trees, very Wizard-of-Oz. Drove on a tiny dirt track sandwiched tightly between trees so thorny you could have sold them to Vlad the Impaler. Branches reached their long arms into the side and clawed at us as we huddled in the middle.

Nick was sick with heat rash, so Tim & I hung out at "Bar Bat," a tin shack under bat- barnacled trees by the river, and sipped Coke & beers for the afternoon. Went to the jazz club at night after a few beers with Mohammed, heard a kick-ass version of "Little Wing," ate a kebab, went home.

Camped outside San night before last, and it was a pleasant night before we noticed a few flickers on the horizon. Eventually those developed into the most oh-my-God, pull-out-all-the-stops, Steven-Spielberg-eat-your-heart-out storm I have ever witnessed: two or three lightning flashes a second dancing around us for almost two hours, raindrops hurled so hard they bruised, wind that blew our tents down like tumbleweeds. We huddled in the truck (and occasionally went out to revel in it) until it passed.

Yesterday, off to Djenne. Bold plans to take a riverboat to Mopti fell apart after a 5K walk through the sun revealed a completely dry riverbed. Djenne feels like it just stepped out of the 16th century: mud-brick buildings, narrow alleys and archways, open sewers, wide dirt market spaces, and the towering mud mosque above it all. Saw an albino girl with milk-white eyes (sighted) and very pale blonde-green hair, a freaky sight anywhere but especially in Djenne. Wandered the town for an hour, did the cafe thing w/Tim-Naomi-Ali-Ang-Heidi-Andrea, made our way home under moonlight - only half full, too - so brilliant I could read Lonely Planet by it. Trees rearing against the sky like H.R. Giger nightmares.

Heidi: "Is the lower infant mortality due to the vaccinations or the good spiritual feeling?"

Tim & I decided to leave the truck again. Truck stopped in Ouahigouya next morning, and we left them there, did a brief cafe tour of the town and hopped on a bus to Ouagadougou which a) left right on time and b) took less time than we expected. Grabbed a cab to the pleasant, cheap Hotel Kilimandjaro and wandered into town, picked up an IHT, ate a 100-CFA meat sandwich (now a staple along with 150-CFA yogurts and 200-CFA Cokes), splurged on ice cream, got a couple of beers, headed back just in time to see Chelsea win the Cup-Winner's Cup on Kilimandjaro's fuzzy, often-B&W TV.

Yesterday, sent Al's letter, bought train tickets for tomorrow, saw the 5th Element (crowd smaller & less rowdy than expected) and ate at the Cafe "God Is Love" pondering its thought for the day: "The Eternal Is My Burger."

Princess Di postage stamps, as weird as Mali's Star Wars ones.

I like Burkina Faso a lot - much more relaxed than Mali, less hassle, less heat, a city it's fun to walk around in, cafe and cinema culture, and real cheap.

I have happily flung cultural authenticity to the wind and devoured a top-notch burger/fries/Coke. Am now the picture of contentment.

The missionaries did well in Ghana, or thought they did: I'm sitting under "Ignoring JESUS is choosing HELL!" and "Are you living like there was no JUDGEMENT DAY?" signs along with the local beer posters and omnipresent Coke/Fanta/Sprite signs.

Have moved from the land of no-small-money to the land of no-big-money: Ghana's largest bill is the c5000, approx. US $2.20 and falling, so US$50 means el-wad-o-cash.

Eating: Fufu or rice balls, with pepper sauce and (surprisingly good, if suspicious-looking) fish bits. Coconuts. Pineapples. Avocados. Bananas & plantains. Green oranges.

Sleeping: Massive amounts, generally 9PM-8AM, believe it or not. On foam beds that might be uncomfortable if I wasn't exhausted. Tonight's bed has Coventry City Football Club sheets and pillowcases, for that extra dollop of surrealism.

Listening: To African music, which has some cool rhythm & bass going on under the sickly-sweet. Hymns sung on the street, and in one of the countless churches (still not sure if Christianity absorbed animism or the other way around, but on the surface, at least, it's a curious melange - Jesus-as-talisman). World Cup fever building on the radio.

Walking: Everywhere. Klicks, maybe 10 a day, just roving around Accra's urban sprawl. My 10-pound sandals would still be a great deal if - God forfend - they fell apart tomorrow.

Spent a few nights at the nice-and-cheap YMCA (seemed even nicer when I went over to the Bellevue hotel for an excellent draft beer and a German man told me how his luggage was stolen) in a dorm room with John Akefesone, a nice guy who was theoretically doing his national service but who pleaded malaria with his boss every morning and spent the day shooting the shit with his friend.

Shopping in Shell stations for luxuries. Power cuts every night, and the hum of generators rises above the city.

Strange to be back, on the move, with the truck. Can't help thinking - especially at moments like this - that it would actually be less hassle to be on my own. Well, maybe not in Nigeria.

Lome's not a bad town - lots of hassle, but I'm getting inured to that. Colourful, busy, lots of cold Coke.

Off to Ouidah, birthplace of voodoo, muddy streets in a constant drizzle, spaced out forever, decaying colonial buildings. Chong & I went off for lunch and were promptly abandoned by the truck. Wandered about, were serenaded by a brass band. Ouidah has a very strange feel, like there's no connection between the buildings and the people on the streets, like they reject the notion of "town." Eventually chased the truck to the Voodoo Museum, OK paintings & pictures and very good if disturbing sculptures, made of bicycle bits & spare engine parts. Camped in a soulless patch of dirt on the outskirts of Cotonou, watched more World Cup.

Nigerian cities are loathsome, but the rest of the country isn't bad - in part, I think, because the roadblock police have been instructed to be nice to tourists, in part because of the World Cup, and in part because we're here at a time of transition what with Abacha's death and its repercussions.

Next day - 23d? - with PK & Shirray sick, Tim & I took over the cab and rode along with Mick. Bombing down a four-lane highway carved from rainforest, listening to Kenny Rogers, like it was the most natural thing in the world. Cops taking money from local traffic (who don't even stop, just slow down long enough to hand over the dash) and welcoming & waving us on. A fruitless quest for diesel in one of the world's major oil-producing countries. Navigating with nothing more than Rough Guide maps and Michelin #953 - and stops to ask for directions.

Into Benin City on the 24th, a hot noisy dusty polluted hellhole where we couldn't even find a decent lunch spot but did have two saving graces: a donut stall and the Benin City Plaza Motel, an oasis of comfort with a good bar, good restaurant, plush leather chairs, CNN, laundry service, and a swimming pool, all at a decent price.

Massive girder just struck massive tank six times: it's 6 PM, and the day shift watchmen are signalling the night shift to come in, incidentally driving me near-deaf.

In the lap of luxury, with Mount Cameroon above. Fantastic place: cool mountain temperature, green lawns, hot bath, ornately comfortable sitting room where I write this, and a swimming pool. OK, the pool water is opaque with muck, but you can't have everything.

Hurtled pell-mell deep into nowhere, on roads so bad the axle ground against pothole edges, the whole vehicle shaking and quivering, passengers screaming threats at the driver. We stopped in the middle of nowhere, the driver muttered something about bad directions and loaded fifty litres of diesel into the bus, and we went back to the main road and Calabar and Paradise City.

Next day, up to the Mount Afi drill monkey sanctuary, stopping to look for diesel on the way. Halted off the paved road by a ford and bush-camped. In the morning we tried to cross the ford. Heh. The creek was exactly wide enough for the truck to bog down. Three hours of digging, interspersed with good-natured mud fights, got us back exactly where we started, with a punctured tire and a curious sense of accomplishment. Fortunately, the sanctuary's Land Rover pulled up, we piled our gear and half of us onto it, put the other half on "machines" - motorbike taxis - and headed up to the sanctuary.

Went for a 3-hour solo wander through rainforest the next morning, which was outstanding. Enormous trees, 80' tall and as little as 6" wide, raising up a canopy to block out all direct sunlight. Narrow trails, barely the idea of a path, through thick brush and vine-wound trees. Bush noises - crickets, birds, things scuttling and crying out in the distances, bushes shaking as they passed. Swarms of butterflies and showers of yellow petals. Huge flanged tree trunks. Perched on a log above a babbling brook, watching leaves bob by.

Abandoned the truck the next day, w/Ali & Andrea & Chong, off to jump ahead to Mount Cameroon. Caught a lucky taxi ride straight for the border and its 7 desks we had to stand in front of. Dash showdown with an immigration officer: Ali & I were reaching for our wallets, when Chong & Andrea made a stand on principle and - amazingly - not just talked him out of it but had him telling us not to let anyone try and get a bribe from us and not to dash anyone.

Across a picturesque bridge to Cameroon, quick immigration, lunch & a celebratory beer, and then the road from Ekok to Mamfe, a sea of mud with puddles deep enough to swallow our car and improvised detours around the impassable parts. God knows how long the truck will take to get through. [ed. note: three days. To go 25 miles.] Eight of us crammed into a tiny Corolla, but we had a fantastic driver who gunned the engine through some amazingly tricky situations; only had to get out and push a couple times.

A ray of sunlight lights up a patch of Limbe's green. Equatorial Guinea, above a bank of clouds and below the streaks of a sunset, a faraway dreamscape. Mount Cameroon behind Mile Six Beach with the waves battering me as I look.

The climb: gruelling work, from before dawn to after dusk, as physically arduous a day as I can remember. Chong and I never doubted we'd make it, but Ali & Andrea got there on sheer stubborn grit & determination.

Humped our own packs, which didn't make things any easier. Two hours to Hut 1, forest air thick as a sauna around us, the path steep and slippery and laced with ankle-catching roots. A sea of green behind us when we could spare a breath to look. Bananas and boiled eggs and nuts and raisins and roast coconut splinters, good climbing food, when we hit the hut.

Hut I to II was the worst stretch. Out of the forest after half an hour, than a mind-reeling expanse of very steep grassy ridges that seemed to go on forever. The "magic tree" in an otherwise bare plain. Patches and breaks in the clouds drifting around us. Rocks tumbling down the mountain for minutes as we gaped.

The universe shrank to my feet, my aching legs, and where they might go next.

Lunched at Hut II, corned beef sandwiches & chocolate, drank tea from Tupperware, filled our water bottles with ice-cold rainwater, and decided to go for the summit. Dumped most of our stuff and set out.

Isaac-our-guide, he of the lazy but unwavering pace, didn't think we'd make it. I caught my second (OK, more like seventh) wind halfway to Hut III, but Ali & Andrea were running on vapor. Always one more ridge between us and the top.

From Hut III to the summit was almost easy, though the wind at the top was viciously cold and we could feel the altitude-thinned air getting to us. Clanked & drank the two beers Chong & I had brought to the top. Cursed myself for forgetting my camera on the truck.

The way down to Hut II is a long miasma of stumbling misplaced steps in my memory; too exhausted to think, the last hour with only the moon to light our way, it's a wonder none of us were hurt.

Ate a tinned & cold but much-appreciated dinner, drank tea straight from the pot, and slept, too tired (except Chong) to be bothered by the scuttling rats.

Woke & watched a cloudy dawn, stretched aching muscles, breakfasted, and went down, four hours' hard slogging. Took a wrong turn after Hut I and walked half an hour further than the others but came out in the middle of town right next to a bar as the rain began to pass. Rarely has a beer been so appreciated.

Zimbabwe is a different world from West Africa: orderly, organized, wide clean streets, buses not tro-tros, shopping malls not markets, teeming with backpackers and Europeans.

Thurs. the 16th, taxied to low-hassle airport and waited 'til we were called, when the chaos ensued. First there was no one to exit-stamp our passports, then the guy who arrived went a little stamp-crazy. The security guards were having a keg party in the departure lounge, the X-ray machine and metal detector were broken, and the lone on-duty guard waved me through without opening my bag.

Got up v. early and wandered around Harare, dazed by culture shock, gaping at store windows and office buildings, dining on cheap-n-good meat pies and real bacon, checking email, etc.

David is working on an irrigation/farming-techniques project on a communal land/reserve/tribal trust land (same thing, but apparently names with three very different connotations) which has been renewed because it all went to pieces when the European money/skills pulled out, which is apparently usual, and the dam burst, which is a bit extreme.

David's a nice guy, taciturn, with a walrus moustache and a tough job: the locals keep damaging or destroying machinery through carelessness, theft has become rampant - very un-Shonalike - and his successes may well not outlive his departure. Sue's terrific too. Sat and had tea and listened to colonial talk; like stepping back through decades. Favourite phrase: MMBA - Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa.

Got into Bulawayo on early Monday morn, fought off the hordes of lodge touts and taxi drivers and went to the v. nice Africa Sun lodge. Scuppered plan to take day off and went straight to their Matopos tour. More Bushmen paintings, there even older, amid stunning backdrop. Cecil Rhodes' grave, at Malindzidzi or View of the World, one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen, valleys of otherworldly granite formations twisting towards the sky as far as the eye can see. A game drive amid white & black rhino, sable antelope, giraffe, wildebeest, and more ridiculously implausible columns and piles of balancing rocks. Returned to Africa Sun and discussed the problems of the world over many beers & cigarettes - and some lethal slivovitz - with three Dutch guys and a Slovenian couple. A very good day indeed.

Thurs. the 6th, walked up to pleasant Kariba Heights and back, about 20K round trip up and down hills. Nice walk, and terrific panorama of the lake from the heights. Later that night walked up to the dam observation point. A stunning elemental view: a million tons of concrete holding back 300 km of water, while a huge bushfire burned its warped elongated away across the river in Zambia and a strong wind ruffled even my hair. A full moon beaming down above. Quite a sight.

Old Rhodesian society, as recently witnessed, is...strange. Rachael's comment about the seaweed tossed up by the highest wave is fitting. A mixture of 18th century aristocracy (estates, servants, rigid class structure), 19th century colonialism (surprise) (hunting trophies, tales of wild travel, "natives" comments) and 20th century angst (they are the last of a dying breed, their world is slipping away, and they know it).

Thursday, went on an epic - 35-40K - walk, along the Vumba road past once-Eagle School (didn't know it) and a "Drive-In Hyper-Kiosk", past Cloudlands, down Essex Valley Rd., through the Wattle Company's vast timber plantations and the terraced emerald-green farms of Essex Valley, to the Mozambican border for a couple of well-deserved Cokes, and partway back through the timber, before catching lifts back to Ndundu. Thick dark rainforests, rolling sculpted hills, high shoulders of tree-barnacled stone ridges, sparkling blue dam pools. Ate (great food) back at Ndundu and set off to the Leopard Rock Casino with other inhabitants - mainly archaeology students, strangely enough - and spent a few hours playing blackjack (broke even) and kibitzing.

Saturday, off to wildly rugged and beautiful Chimanimani National Park, stiff rocky climb for 2 hrs. to mountain hut, stunning views over vast grassy plain surrounded by jagged mountains, dark clear mountain rivers burbling down the slopes and across the plain, forests of huge standing stones worn by wind and water to shapes more like coral than rock, fields & ridges of cracked jagged granite. Climbed Mt. Binga, over fields of steep stone, drinking from clear cold mountain streams, somewhere crossing the border to Mozambique en route to the spire-laden view from the top, dark rippling layers of hills, down in all directions. Back to the hut just before dusk, met nice Dutch-Aussie couple, rolled out sleeping bag next to (too-pricey) hut, slept 'til dawn and its dew & drizzle.

Zambia: been there, done that. In one day no less.

Here in the adrenaline-cum-tacky-tourism capital of Africa, I make preparations to leave.

Woke, came to Hitch Haven - here - and dropped stuff, headed out to town and promptly booked a bungee jump. A nervous hour later, was on the Zambezi Bridge, looking down spectacular Batoka Gorge, attached to a giant rubber band, about to fling myself off.

What I hadn't expected was the sheer acceleration: the gorge-sides blurred like the stars in STAR WARS when the Millennium Falcon went into hyperspace. The lightning-bolt adrenaline rush I was expecting but not prepared for. Still buzzing hours later.

Saturday, rafting day. Minibussed across to Zambia, brief instruction & indemnity session, and to the river. Our whole crew was catapulted into the water at the very first rapid: water pulled me down, down, down, before reluctantly releasing me. Amazingly, I was relaxed during the whole thing. But I guess I'm used to water.

Waves pounding, crashing, rearing like liquid mountains in front of us; paddling like crazy to our guide Alf's commands, half-heard over the surf; hanging on two-handed as a wave casually flips the raft at rapid #7, and the current trying hard to tear me away. Switching rafts to take the grade V "Star Trek" on #8, flung off as the raft double-flips, swept away by the irresistible force of the river. Walking around the seething boiling cauldron at #9...and watching a kayaker dance through it with ease.

Tons of fun.

Etosha is incredible: a huge park, bigger than Kruger or the Serengeti, surrounds a vast salt pan, absolutely flat bare white-gray, 100Kx60K. Thorny trees and tufts of brown grass dot the dust-clogged landscape, and the heat beats down like a hammer. Animals - thousands of springbok, hundreds of gemsbok & zebras & giraffes & wildebeest, scores of elephants and jackals, foxes, ostriches, eland, guinea fowl, rhino (at the amazing floodlit lunar-landscape watering hole by the second campsite), hyenas, and birds galore.

Saw a lioness, posed dramatically at the head of a crag overlooking the pan. Hadn't realized just how big & strong they are.

Saturday, into the appropriately-named Skeleton Coast, the bleakest landscape I've ever seen, a vast expanse of wind-carved rocks and sand the colour of bone, absolutely waterless, running straight up to the near-freezing sea, where a vicious salt-and-sand wind scours everything in its path. Picnicked in the lee of the combie on cucumber sandwiches, a truly bizarre sight, and picked mussels at the seashore. Made our way to the 60,000 seals at Cape Cross, swarming like clumsy army ants over the rocks and swimming with incredible grace through the sea, a sharp foul smell and a noise like a herd of satanic sheep riding wheezing Harley-Davidsons.

The "what a long strange trip it's been" entry. (And I'm not even a Grateful Dead fan.)

I feel...I don't know _what_ I feel. Other than turbulence (several kinds, he echoed). Flattened affect.

Maybe Africa forces serenity as a survival mechanism.

I have no dramatic philosophical conclusions to draw from the last six months. I'd hate to cheapen them to a few scrawled lines even if I could.

Let's just say: I'm more who I want to be than I was when I began.

Here endeth the manuscript found in a Moroccan corner shop.