Chris BishopBy Chris Bishop|February 15, 2021|8 Minutes|In Editor's Desk

Editor’s Desk

A love (hate) letter to the road in Africa.

If there is a sharp reminder of life on the road in Africa, this is it. Our four-wheel drive was crawling, down a dirt road so full of holes that you could not miss them if you tried. In short, the vehicle was bouncing up and down like a cork in a storm in the heart of dense African bush

In the front seat I was exhausted with little choice.  I hadn’t slept for three days and had a big interview later that day and needed to be rested and ready. The only place to sleep by leaning forward in the hope of slumber. The violent rocking of the car posed a painful problem – every half an hour and exceptionally heavy jolt would hurl me towards the window, cracking my head against the glass that would wake me up, after which I would drift back to precious sleep. Before you ask, the window was jammed; the back seat was full of crew and TV equipment. We couldn’t stop to rest, neither, as we were late with more than four hours or hard driving ahead.

My choice was simple: suffer the pain, get as much sleep as you can snatch to keep doing the job I loved; or give up journalism for an easier – more boring – life. It was no contest in my mind.

Every time people say to me: “What you do is so exciting!” or, “It must be glamourous!” I think of the above story along with sleeping on a cold concrete floor in Mozambique to add insult to injury on the night my TV channel was relaunched at a champagne reception, sweating for hours at border posts, or going without food for days, or trying to eat food that a dog wouldn’t fight you for; simply because there may be nothing else for days. Or getting bedbugs in Tet, or sleeping in the bush in Zimbabwe, or scratching blood from your skin in a cloud of mosquitos; some nights I looked like I had been sprayed with buckshot. How I never contracted malaria is one of the small miracles of this world.

I still have nightmares about being ambushed by bandits in the pitch black of the bush late one night in Mozambique. The armed assailants They chopped down a tree into the path of our vehicle and luckily the cameraman put his foot to floor and we drove over it leaving us relieved and the bandits – presumably – disappointed. 

Ambushes by officialdom in Mozambique were as bad. I remember pulling up at Ressano Garcia on the border with South Africa on a long drive from Zimbabwe. The queues weren’t too bad and I prayed for a quick passage to Maputo and time for a breather for our first interview. Nothing doing; the man with a clipboard running the post kept us in the sweltering border post for eight hours bombarding us with questions: where was our invitation letter from the minister?  where was our licence to broadcast live from Mozambique? where was $20,000 to cover the cost of importing our camera equipment?

As the sun went down on a day of argument, I pointed out to the clipboard man that we were the last vehicle in the entire border post and were preparing to bed down for the night. He came outside and looked at our lonely transport parked 30 metres away.

“Are you sure you are not broadcasting live?” he said.

“Sure,” I replied.

“Ah, you can go,” said the bureaucrat turning on his heel and walking away. 

We drove away with a mixture of anger and relief at the waste of eight hours. It was nearly midnight when we got to Maputo. Let’s hope the new African Continental Free Trade Area opens up our borders for the better. 

You see, in those days, there was no internet, nor cell phones, if you really wanted to find out you had to go and see for yourself and actually talk to people. There is no doubt that the rise of technology may have opened up the world to many, but it has also given rise to much sedentary and indolent journalism where third hand information – even if it is not true – is taken at face value from a distance. 

In search of first-hand truth, I travelled hundreds of thousands of kilometres in years of reporting from a score of countries across Africa. I did it gladly because I believed in keeping the beacon of freedom of expression alight.  

Glamorous? Not really: Exciting? Maybe five per cent exciting and another five per cent sheer terror, but most of the time it was day after day on road simply getting there.

I thought of this the other day on the road as I travelled across South Africa on my way to interview millionaire Christo Wiese in Cape Town for Billionaire Tomorrow. It was great to see the beautiful country laid out like a patchwork. The fields, the farms, the towns; it was fascinating to see how the country’s love of booze coloured the landscape. The farms producing lamb and beef looked dry and run down, whereas the wine farms looked manicured and prosperous. 

But for all the pain on the road, you cannot deny the promise that and African dawn can be full of. I remember the pink skies as the sun came up with the Baobab trees on the horizon. The birdsong heralding in another blue-sky day – it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring sights in the world and a privilege to witness. On days like this, anything seems possible in this great continent of ours.