A hat, a kayak & dreams of Dar

Posted on September 6, 2017

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Fifty years ago, Thabo Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, Essop and Aziz Pahad and other ANC Youth League members in London exile wished a noisy farewell to two of their number as they set off on the River Thames in a 5 metre kayak bound for Dar es Salaam. I, and more reluctantly, my then new wife, Barbara, were taking on a challenge issued by a Canadian, Kent Warmington, that we could not paddle from London to the Moroccan port of Tangiers.

Having accepted the challenge and wanting to return to southern Africa, to the “frontline states”, I decided — with blind optimism — to make Dar es Salaam the destination in our glass fibre kayak, Amandla. So began a haphazard, often chaotic and frequently hilarious journey that saw us eventually reach Dar es Salaam 13 years, two continents and two children later.

Nearly 52 years after the challenge was first issued, the two of us, with members of of our family, last month met up with Kent Warmington at the riverside site of Amandla’s farewell in 1967. Kent had made contact a couple of years ago via the internet and Barbara and I finally met him for the first time in more than half a century, at the weekend.

We didn’t initially take the challenge seriously until, in 1966, Kent not only tracked, but returned my favourite bush hat that had been stolen by another Canadian. He had followed the hat and its wearer right across Europe to Afghanistan. He got it back and returned it, so I felt we owed it to him to at least attempt the challenge that quickly expanded to include Dar es Salaam.

In many ways, it was a crazy time, but it was full of hope. Despite all the turmoil and troubles in the world there was a widespread feeling that anything was possible; that the world could only become a better place.

Over the years, there have been numerous friends and colleagues who have urged me to write at least about that chaotic and often hilarious journey that took us down the river Thames and around the coast; to tell of blundering into a nudist colony while lost in fog, of making a frequently idyllic and sometimes frightening way through the waterways and rivers of France to the Mediterranean, of the trials and travails of a hopelessly ill-prepared kayaking duo.

When, a couple of years ago, Kent Warmington surfaced via the internet, we thought again about the venture. But we made no commitment to research and write until last year. It was then that John and Erica Platter, the two journalists who make up the acclaimed travel, cookery and wine writing team, encouraged us to think seriously about detailing our experiences.

I, in particular, had been bothered about the fallibility of memory. But then we remembered all the postcards we had sent while on our journey.

They were in an album Barbara’s father had made. For the first time, we took the cards out, read the minute writing on the backs, and discovered we had brief, but fairly detailed information about where, when and how we were doing all those years ago.

Kent Warmington — “I’m a bit of a hoarder” — also helped since he had kept correspondence dating back 50 years and more. There were also audio tapes in a format that could no longer be played, but which, remarkably, were able to be transcribed to disk. These provided the factual scaffolding for a book A Hat, A Kayak and Dreams of Dar that will be published in South Africa in October by Face2Face, the company that last year published Fordsburg Fighter, my telling of MK volunteer Amin Cajee’s story.

A query by John Platter: “How do you cook when travelling in a kayak?” has also been answered, with Barbara providing a section of essentially one-pot “canoe cuisine” recipes. And so we are now in London both to mark the “golden anniversary” of the start of Amandla’s voyage and to negotiate possible publication abroad of the story of a hat, a kayak and our ultimately tortuous journey from this city to Dar es Salaam.

Posted in: Reports abroad