Johannesburg, March 1999
It felt as though somebody had shoved me into an industrial refrigerator, slammed the door and wished me a good night’s sleep. I tried every possible variation on the foetal position as I dealt with the situation. I curled my body as tight as I could on the relentlessly hard wooden shelf beneath the bar counter. But I had neither sleeping bag nor jumper, and nothing could stop the shaking.
The Highveld air just kept on getting colder. I’d felt its every downshift, from pleasant to cool to chilly, from fresh to cold to hostile, from freezing to Antarctic. Now it squeezed my bones like some slow-burning tool of torture. I ground my teeth just to stop them from chattering. I never knew Johannesburg could get like this on a summer’s night.
Why had I chosen to do this again?
Maybe this sleeping-outside thing hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
But then, I was one dumb student.
This was my first experience of laying down my head out of doors, at least beyond the confines of a family garden or supervised, socially-approved campsite. My virgin stab at devil-may-care rough camping. And I was learning things the hard way already. Lesson number one? No matter how blazing yesterday was; and no matter how murderously roasting tomorrow’s temperature will be, you always need a jacket at three-thirty in the morning. At minimum.
I squeezed my hands between my thighs, hoping that I could tap into a limitless supply of warmth from the one spot that seemed immune to the polar temperature, and send it over to some of the places currently in dire need of a boost. For that desperate plan to work, I probably needed certain laws of thermodynamics to put themselves on hold for my benefit. I prayed they might see my plight and take pity.
Needless to say, science proved unwilling to bend to my fervent importunes that night. Not only was I one thick first-year student, but I was a thick first-year journalism student. Physics had never been my forte.
But my scientific shortcomings were no excuse for my current situation. I’d always had a good grasp of geography, you see. I knew well enough that Johannesburg lay far inland, where temperatures were inclined to swing from one extreme to the other. And that the city was perched at the sort of sky-scraping altitude – 1753 metres above sea level to be precise – that made visitors to this part of South Africa (especially coastal types like me) gasp and wheeze at the slightest exertion. I could have figured out that its towering elevation probably wasn’t going to make things toasty in the dead of night either. But, perhaps consumed by the bravery medals that would surely come my way if I survived a night as a hobo in murderous, violent ‘Joburg’, I had chosen to ignore these important truths as I gaily made up my mind to do this sleepout.
So here I was, locked inside Kyalami racetrack on a Sunday morning in March – that’s summer down our way, remember – counting the minutes until the sun would rise up over the straw-brown hills and the colourless industrial parks between Johannesburg and Pretoria. I fixated on dawn, clutching at its promise like a lifeline. If I could just hang on until a ray from our life-giving star – one lame, pathetic little beam, anything! – landed on my skin and began the thawing process. My only thought was to survive until sunrise. If I turned into an ice statue before then, defrosting might as well wait until they threw me in the mortuary furnace.
But of course, my watch barely seemed to move at all in the darkest hour. I glanced at the time at three thirty-seven. Then I spent what seemed about an hour trying to distract myself from the cold with anything from irregular French verb declensions to all the fun ways I’d be able to generate heat if that slender girl from the hiking club were here. When I’d run out of verbs and impure thoughts, I checked the time once more. It was three thirty-eight.
The feeling of powerlessness was awful. That night, nature was like a shrugging, indifferent bureaucrat: dawn would be at six – rules were rules. No amount of fawning or bribery could change that. Falling asleep to make six o’clock come faster clearly wasn’t going to be an option – I was far too close to frostbite to nod off. I almost panicked at the thought of the remaining hours passing this slowly. I tried walking around. I did push-ups to very little avail. I hunted about for something to cover me, but quickly established that although the average racing circuit is a vast property, they’re not places you’re likely to stumble across a stray blanket in the night. They also present no houses on whose doors a man on the verge of hypothermia might knock. Unless I was willing to get bust for trespassing, I was going to have to grit my teeth – literally – and bear this.
But why on earth was I attempting to sleep inside a racetrack, of all places? It wasn’t actually about saving money on accommodation – I could have stayed at my mate’s house down the road. It was about saving on ticket costs for the opening round of the 1999 World Superbike Championship. I didn’t have fifty Rand to splurge on Sunday admission. What made the trip viable was my cunning plan to pay twenty Rand to enter the circuit on Saturday morning, then simply not leave the premises until Sunday night. It was the perfect coup – apart from my rocking up there in a t-shirt and shorts without giving a thought to the wee hours.
This was the first time I was travelling with my own money, which at eighteen was obviously in short supply. The handful of articles I’d written for the Sunday Times in Cape Town during the summer holidays weren’t going to finance my wanderlust for long. Thus it was the first time I’d thought so creatively about looking after my funds.
For that time of life, I dare say it wasn’t so unusual. All students go to great lengths to save. Many sleep outside once or twice, though that’s typically due to the after-effects of sweet alcoholic beverages. But looking back now, I can pick out that sober night inside Kyalami as the beginning of something much more lasting for me. A rebellious streak that comes out when I travel. A tic that has allowed me to explore the world far broader and deeper than I otherwise would have. A mindset that has brought me more gratification and entertaining memories than shivers.
Because when I finally got through those longest hours of my life and had conducted a mildly euphoric sun-worship ritual, I figured I was onto something. Once my exhausted brain unfroze – the heat was beating down by eight-thirty, of course – I began to feel a deep satisfaction. I began to grin like a Joburg rugby player who has just mown down his opposite number.
But why, after such a tortuous night borne of my own idiocy, did I feel pleased with myself?
The answer was already as clear as the African sky that morning. Barring commendable misjudgements in detail execution such as ambling into the weekend in beach clothing – things I could easily fix – the essence of my plan had worked. I had made an expensive and impossible jaunt into a cheap and possible one. I had succeeded in camping rough in Johannesburg without getting killed by Nigerian drug lords. I had beaten the system.
And then I thought to myself: these will be useful skills to have when I start to travel the world properly, won’t they? I’d seen how much money grown-ups were willing to pay for hotels, taxis, restaurant meals and other features of travel I didn’t believe strictly necessary. I reckoned that kind of budget could be far better spent on taking more trips. Longer trips. If you were prepared to skirt the need for hotels, find free ways to get around and eat judiciously, then you could go far and wide for not very much.
As a cash-strapped student fit to burst with travel desires, that sounded like an appealing way of going about things. And as a hopeful writer (a career in the sciences, as we have seen, wasn’t ever on the cards), it sounded like a reliable recipe for the kind of travel stories nobody writes. My night out in Johannesburg had given me a story, hadn’t it? All I had to do to collect more was fail completely to grow up. To remain a man of modest means who needs to stretch his pocket money. To never lose my youthful, idealistic zest for beating that system.
Did I manage these last? Well, all I need to tell you is that I’m nearly forty and I’m still generating those stories. Rewarding adventures born of next-level scrimping and saving. Twenty years down the proverbial track from Kyalami, here are some of my favourites.