Friday, 11 February 2011

Run for Africa; A Parable. Part One.



It was the night of Tuesday 10th February 1998 and The Run For Africa team were camped for a rest day at Van Zyhrus, only kilometres away from the Botswana border. Nick and Emma were lying on their camp beds, away from the real hub of camp life which was gathered around a concrete picnic table. The Waterboys' 'Room to Roam' LP - a gorgeous mess of love songs, ballads and Irish folk - was playing on the vehicle's makeshift stereo as Ian, Roger, Carlo and myself talked of essential equipment we needed on the trip.
'Fuel and water,' Ian proposed, 'that's it -the rest are luxuries.'
'Love,' murmured Carlo.
'Yes. Love,' we all agreed. 'That's what's really needed. Love, food and water. We should get rid of everything else.'

It had been a hard day for Ian. At around midday he'd learnt, via e-mail, of the death of a close friend. He'd wandered off, led by thoughts and memories for a while and, on his return, Roger and I had joined him in the bar of the bush hotel across the way. We'd matched his beers with cokes as he'd talked of old times, both tragic and estatic, and raised a toast of double whiskeys for his absent friend and his family. When all our last coins had been spent, Ian had convinced the hotel owner to trade a bottle of Johnny Walker's Red Label and 3 cans of Castle beer for a field oven he'd used on his Glastonbury Festival catering sprees over the years.

It was this whiskey that Ian was now sipping as we listened to the music. He began to talk, inspired by the sounds, of a girl called Mary - a girl who could make a violin weep, the girl of his dreams. She'd married Mike Scott, he said, the singer and founder of The Waterboys. 'That's Mary now,' Ian said, and we listened to 'A Man is in Love.'

When the song was finished, I told them of an interview i'd read with Mike Scott in an old NME and of a story that had stuck with me since.

It was 1985. The Waterboys' single, 'The Whole of the Moon' had gate-crashed the Top 10 and its parent LP, 'This is the Sea' had been released to immense critical acclaim. In interviews with the music press, Mike Scott had shared his dream, his vision of The Big Music - an epic sound built from cymbals, trumpets and guitars. And now he sat on a London bus, en route to meetings with record industry people - people who wanted to refine the raw sounds he held in his head, who demanded to choose the follow-up single, who requested another LP within the next year in order to capitalise on success.

The Big Music was a dream that Mike Scott had created. It was pure. It was beautiful. It was the most important thing in his life. But now it was being pulled at from all angles, moulded to fit other people's thinking, made dirty.

As the London double decker pulled up at traffic lights, Scott suddenly knew what he must do. A decision that was the hardest he'd ever taken - that involved giving away his dream but holding on to his dignity, became, in one moment, crystal clear. He must get off the bus.

As the lights changed to amber, green, Mike Scott stepped off the bus and walked away.

Several months later, Scott was tracked down to the west coast of Ireland. He'd bought a cottage by the sea, invited the members of his band to live with him and recruited a crew of local folk instrumentalists to help shape his new musical direction. One of them, a female violinist, he told the press, was the finest musician he'd ever encountered. He was blissfully happy, he said. From now on he'd record love songs, ballads and Irish folk. When reported in 'Hot Press', Ireland's foremost music publication days later, the writer of the article noted that, at this point, Mike Scott appeared to ramble. Something about getting off a bus.

'That's a beautiful story,' Roger said once I'd finished, 'Is it true?'
'All my stories are true,' I lied.

Later that night, as sleep descended, I lay thinking of my own dreams. Tomorrow I'd be running across the first national border, climbing the first rung on this immense journey's ladder. It would be a good, good day, inspite of all the bad feeling that our expedition was drowning in.

Little did I know that in only a few hours time, I would also be getting off the bus.


It had all started well enough. I'd been leafing through Runner's World one evening when a short article caught my attention. Some bloke was going to attempt to run from Alexandria in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa - the length of the African continent. To ensure the success of the expedition, he was looking to recruit a second runner to accompany him, along with a team consisting of a mechanic, cook, medical staff and drivers. I'd been looking for some meaning recently. In the past 2 summers I'd run, literally, the length and breadth of the British mainland in a futile attempt to find some hapiness. But this, I thought, was it. I rang the number given in the magazine, thinking I had no chance of being chosen. Three months later, after various interviews, long runs and 'psycological testing', I received the call telling me I was in.

The Run For Africa expedition started in September 1997. Nick, the expedition leader and myself, the team's number two runner, flew from Heathrow to Cairo for 2 week's acclimitisation. Both of us had survived a brutal 6 month training regime, laid down by a London fitness expert, involving up to 200 miles of running per week. I'd given up my teaching job and secured a long term let on the flat I owned. Nick had left behind a modelling carreer a couple of years previously and had spent much of that time putting together this trip whilst living with his wealthy parents. He had originally planned to run with his best friend but for reasons unknown the relationship had soured, leaving Nick as the sole runner. Commercial sponsors, however, much preferred a '2 runner scenario'. This would increase the expedition's chance of success - should one runner get injured and have to retire, the second might have a decent chance of completing the trans-continental journey. Accordingly, this would give the sponsors a greater chance of publicity and a better return on their investment in the expedition. Hence the original article in Runner's World. It was Nick's expedition. I was absolutely clear about that. But I was the back-up plan and there was no way that I was going to let anyone, including myself, down.

Before we left the UK, I'd already had reservations about exactly what I was getting myself into. Nick was a man of few words, intensely private, and with an arrogance in his nature that was often off-putting. In spite of early efforts, I felt there was no connection between us at all. My past was in the working class community of a Nottinghamshire pit town and a slightly jaded East Coast holiday resort. His was in the different realm of prep schools, country estates and 'gentlemen's clubs' in the City. I couldn't take to him - the feeling was, most probably, mutual, but I found it hard to envisage us sharing the immense physical challenge of what lay in store as team mates, let alone friends. In addition, the actual logistics of the trip seemed ad-hoc and under-prepared. From everything I'd read about travelling through Africa, it seemed to me that the running would be the simple part. Countless border crossings, militarised zones, 'bandit country' areas, local government corruption, endless red-tape - this is where the trip would succeed or fail. Yet these issues were marginalised. 'It'll be ok.' That was the attitude that prevailed. 'We'll get through because we're British.'

I pushed any doubts aside on a number of occasions before we even flew to Cairo. The idea of running the length of Africa was a dream I didn't want to give up on. Anyhow, the expedition had already gathered momentum. Officially, the aim was to raise awareness of, and funds for, Save The Children. Various commercial sponsors, including Guiness and a fledgling satellite communications company had provided funds and equipment, and the RAC had delivered 4 Landrover 101 trucks to accompany us on our journey. On arriving in Cairo, Nick informed me that we'd be staying at the Inter-Continental - one of the best hotels in the city. He aimed to secure some sponsorship from them, but in the meantime, some of the cash donated from other sponsors could pay the bill for the £200+ per night rooms. My teenage hero, Terry Fox, had refused to spend a single cent of the cash pledged to his Run For Hope on either himself or his team. This had been my naive vision of this trip when I stepped aboard. It appeared the truth was more sobering. My mis-givings grew, but in for a penny, in for a pound.

The Nile Inter-Continental overlooked the busy centre of Cairo, Tahrir Square. After completing a morning 2 hour treadmill training run a few days into our stay, I'd returned to the hotel room and ventured out across the square in search of some lunch. I was to walk straight into hell. Over the square, outside the Egyptian Museum, armed gunmen shouting, 'God is greater!' firebombed and shot into a crowded tour bus. In the ensuing chaos, 9 German tourists and their Egyptian driver were shot dead. Later, I rang my mum and assured her things were fine. In for a penny, in for a pound.

A week later we were in Alexandria. The rest of the team, all of whom I'd met briefly in the UK, had arrived. The Run For Africa was about to get rolling. Although I couldn't get on with Nick, relaxing with the others over several days filled me with optimism. Nick's sister, Emma was a pleasant, if occasionally annoying, Sloaney-type. She desperately wanted the expedition to succeed and mustered all of her effort and limited intelligence to  try to achieve this. Billie, the nurse, was travelling around the world from New Zealand when she ended up, as a result of a series of unexpected coincidences as part-time nurse to Nick's aristocratic grandfather and then full-time medic for this trip. She was straight-talking, bubbly, easily wound-up and prone to the odd strop. The mechanic, Simon, worked for the RAC. He was a burly, jack-the-lad who had a passion for photography. His hard exterior hid a warmth that was infectious. The drivers, Richard, Roger and Ian completed the team. Richard was fresh from University - quietly spoken and genuine. Roger, an engaging Scotsman with a quick temper, had originally applied for the 2nd runners role. I took to him immediately. He could be moody, like myself, but he shared my outlook and soon became a true friend. Ian, the oldest member of the team, had successfully worked his way down the social ladder. Originating from a well-to-do family, he spent years serving BLTs from a converted double decker bus on the festival circuit. He was a loveable eccentric, honest, with an unending treasure trove of stories and tall tales.

The Run For Africa left Alexandria on October 1st 1997. It was a relief to be running. Each day started at 3.30am and initial progress through Africa was swift. Although I'd bonded well with the team, my relationship with Nick was, at best, awkward. Running 45 miles a day, split into 3 15mile blocks, it became apparent that Nick was intent on showing me straight away who the most important runner was. He'd hammer each run as if each was a race. At first, I stayed with him, but after a couple of days decided to hold back, running coccooned in my own world, repeating my mantra 'Keep it easy', focusing on that one 2 hour block but constantly aware of the 6000miles still left to cover. A pattern began to emerge. Nick would run hard for a day or two . Then he'd break down - a minor injury or stomach complaint and the whole expedition would come to a halt until he'd recovered. This was frustrating for all of us, but any reminders to Nick to keep the pace easy were ignored. I'd started running the afternoon block in the company of Roger - a great running partner. These runs were some of the most enjoyable of my life. We'd chat constantly, laughing at stories from our pasts. Oftentimes we might pass Nick towards the end of the run. Usually, we wouldn't even get an acknowledgement.

Emma had worked hard before our departure to procure visas to Sudan. A vast country, plagued by civil war between rival guerilla factions, no visas had been granted to cross the land border between Egypt and sudan for over 3 years. Somehow, to her vast credit, Emma had managed to do this. However, it appears, nothing in the African continent is ever clear-cut. As we camped in the desert outside of Quesir after 17 days of running, we awoke to find ourselves surrounded by police and military vehicles. The next day's run would take us into a 100km wide militarised zone on the Egypt-Sudan border. The Egyptian army, it was now apparent, wasn't going to let this happen. Our expedition would make no more southerly progress in Eygpt.

Nick and Emma immediately returned to Cairo. The rest of the team and myself retreated to the desert just south of Suez, where we waited for news. Although our ambitions were on the verge of collapse, unspeakably worse things were happening at the same time only miles from our camp.

On November 17th, in a mid-morning attack, terrorists from an Egyptian Islamic group massacred 62 people at the Temple of Hatshepsut, near Luxor. The 6 assailants were armed with automatic firearms and knives, and were disguised as members of the security forces. They had descended on the temple at 8.45am. With tourists trapped inside, the killing went on for 45 minutes. During this time, many bodies, especially of women, were mutilated with machetes. A note praising Islam was found inside one disemboweled body. The dead included a 5 year old British child and 4 Japanese couples on their honeymoons.

As a high profile UK expedition in Egypt, we were immediately given a military escort. Nick returned quickly from Cairo and called a team meeting. In the unlikely event that we would be able to cross into Sudan, would we be prepared to press on with the expedition? We all replied 'yes.' In that case, Nick informed us, after taking advice from his mother in London, we would be required to write a good-bye letter to our next-of-kin which would then be sent to her for safe-keeping. In the event of our deaths, these letters could then be forwarded on.

As I ran through the desert later that afternoon, the enormity of what had just been said struck me. Would my mum, twin brother or sister find any comfort in a last good-bye that came in the form of a hastily scribbled note written in the middle of an Egyptian desert?

On returning to camp some time later, any doubts were swiftly put to bed. Emma had arrived back from the capital. The British Foreign Office had advised, in the strongest terms, that we leave Eygpt immediately. Save The Children had made contact to inform us that they would distance themselves from the expedition should we decide to continue through Egypt. And the chiefs of the Egyptian military had stated categorically that we would no longer be able to proceed through their country. We were a risk they could not afford to take. We could run no further.

The first chapter in the story of The Run For Africa had come to an end.


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