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 to fresh to cold to hostile to 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.
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 that was no excuse for my situation. I’d always had a good grasp of geography, you see. I knew quite well enough that Johannesburg lay far inland, where temperatures are inclined to swing from one extreme to the other. And that it 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 (coastal types like me, for example) gasp and wheeze at the slightest exertion. I could have figured out that its towering elevation probably wasn’t going 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, the defrosting process might as well wait till they threw me in the furnace at the mortuary.
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 creative ways to warm oneself up if one had female company at this moment in time. When I’d run out of verbs, I checked the time once more. It was three thirty-eight.
The feeling of powerlessness was horrible. That night, nature was like a shrugging, indifferent bureaucrat: dawn would be at six – rules were rules. No amount of good behaviour 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 hyperthermia 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. Why splurge fifty Rand on Sunday admission when I could pay twenty to enter the circuit on Saturday morning, then simply not leave the premises until Sunday night? It was the perfect plan – 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, hence 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, on the brink of my fortieth birthday, I can say with confidence that my sober night inside Kyalami was the beginning of something much more lasting for me. A rebellious streak that comes out when I travel.
Because when I finally got through those longest hours of my life and had conducted a midly 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. But why, after such a tortuous night, did I feel pleased with myself? It was because barring commendable misjudgements in detail execution such as ambling into the weekend in beach clothing, the essence of my plan had worked. I had spent less cash on a weekend at the races than people thought you needed to. I had succeeded in camping rough in Johannesburg without getting killed by Nigerian drug lords. I had beaten the system.
And these would be useful skills to have when I started to travel the world properly, wouldn’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 think were strictly necessary. I thought that kind of budget could be far better spent on staying on the road for longer. If you were prepared to skirt the need for hotels, find free ways to get around and eat judiciously, then you could do an awful lot of travelling for not very much.
As a cash-strapped student full of optimistic wanderlust, that sounded like an appealing way of going about things. And as a hopeful journalist (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. All I had to do was fail completely to grow up. 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 still generating those stories. Twenty years down the proverbial track from Kyalami, here are some of my favourite adventures.