Heidi actually asked me to write about the WEES trip to Malawi (July 1986). I jumped at the opportunity, firstly because recalling old memories gives me immense pleasure & secondly because even Australia has good maps of Africa at the level (1:1,000,000) required to prompt my fading faculties of exactly the route we’d taken & names of places we’d been. However, the very next day she changed her instruction to
“Sorry for you Brian, but it would appear you were too slow. Actually, I had asked Angus first, but after not hearing from him for ages, I tried to schmooze you (I was, however, tremendously impressed at your willingness to co-operate, & therefore have decided you may write an article on the iTsitsa instead)”
As 1:50,000’s are as readily available as Koeksisters this bend in the river, I had a problem. The only remaining source of information was my memory – it was going to be a very short article.
I then realized this was the perfect opportunity to assess what memories & impressions had survived the test of almost 20 years of time. To perhaps analyze the legacy of some of the most eventful & meaningful years of my life. I also realise I have become much more analytical of this period of my life, the memory now having more significance than the reality at the time, much the same as a person who no longer has legs may think he had not fully appreciated walking.
I went on many Explorer ventures between 1985 and 2001, yet for me there were 3 icon trips. Trips that even now, 20 years later, stick out as particularly memorable & contributed many of the “hard-core” members for the next 15 years - Zambezi July 1985; iTsitsa January 1986 and Malawi July 1986. Looking at the group photos of those trips I realize & reminisce about the strength of the bonds we formed, indicated by fact that at least 90% are still in close contact with each other & actively maintain these contacts despite disparate lives & localities. A surprising number have died (In 1 photo showing 12 Explorers on the Zambezi 1985, 3 have died, each for different reasons). Others live all over the world, from Ashram’s in India, to mines in Zambia, as bakers in London to mothers in Houston, from engineers in Nigeria to accountants in Brisbane. From architects in the Magaliesberg to photographers in Parktown. The only thing that binds us is that we were & always will be Explorers.
In looking back I believe tribute to those who made it all possible is required. In my opinion there are 4 people who win the debt of gratitude of all of us by a country mile. In order of appearance on the explorer stage they are Mike Slater, the visionary without whom none of us would even know each other (who swears he can play a guitar, but I’ve never heard an identifiable tune yet). Chris Kirchhoff, who with Mike founded WEES and who has been a driving force ever since. Paul Marais. No single person has contributed anywhere near the same amount of time, effort, commitment and loyalty to the institutions & vision of WEES or ESSA, as him. Some people have come over the years contradicting & criticizing Paul. They have also gone! Times change & things move on, but he will always be the soul of the Explorers that I remember. And finally Heidi Klingenberg, in ways so much quieter and less obvious than the others, but no less valuable. In difficult times & circumstances when members were scarce, Heidi was always there.
And then there were the hard core of early Explorers. A wider range of personalities, interesting characters & unconventional people you’d struggle to top.
Wayne Cleminson, the most courageous person I’ve ever met, who never compromised living a fulfilling life, despite knowing this would make this life shorter, & did. John Whiteman, the craziest bloke around who kept us permanently entertained. On the Zambezi he named a giant scab on his leg “Frederick”, with daily updates on its progress to the moment it fell off - then ate it. Frank Wimberly, that rarest of breeds, a genuine eccentric who could break all the conservative rules in the game of life but still win. Rick Mathews he of the pierced ear with guinea fowl feathers in conservative Zims, who asked Angus Cowap to look up his arse to check for ticks, and who later died in tragic circumstances. Angus Cowap, who made selection on the early trips only because others dropped out at the last moment, but who went on to become one of my icon Explorers & preferred supplier of accommodation in London. Gus Cox who knew more people & partied harder than anyone, & who became the first explorer to die while rafting the Shire River, shattering the sense of invincibility we genuinely believed in. Andrew Cheadle, one of the very few Explorers who actually made any headway with women, and was one of the strongest rafters we had. Nicky Bremner, the only girl on iTsitsa & one of the toughest Explorers around, without ever trying to be “one of the boys”. Mike Easter, perennial winner of the “Buff Puff” award but one of the staunchest guys around. Bruce Tyson, with a heart of gold and a spine of steel. The best landlord, the most reliable person I’ve ever met & with a pretty good sister too. Garth Beavon, the only guy to smile at the camera through hectic rapids while everyone else is trying desperately just to get through. Piers Pirow, the most talented sportsman in Explorers & the most positive & encouraging person to do any sport with. Andrew Luke, who wouldn’t deign to join WEES, but was on the founding committee of ESSA. Someone with so much more substance than perhaps first assumed. Dagmar Neaumaier, considered the most festive & good looking girl in Explorers, who made it to the top of Sepitwe while some “hard-men”, who said she shouldn’t even try, turned back. Rolf Muller, the mad German and genius with vehicles, who every time they gave problems would ask for a match. He who captained us down “deep throat” on the Zambezi – backwards, giving me the most frightening experience of my life, teaching us how fine the line between living & dying on rivers can be.
In conclusion, expanding on a rare “deep thought”, I now realize I never really appreciated those circumstances at the time. I genuinely thought the world would be full of like minded people & challenging opportunities & compatible circumstances. I was wrong. My experience of the world is that it is filled with nice people going about their nice lives and following nice ambitions prescribed by their nice cultures & environment. Obviously exceptions exist, its just they don’t congregate in a critical mass capable of spontaneously combusting into an identifiable group. Then assuming that limitation is overcome its having enough time, motivation & opportunity to grow this delicate flower (or maybe it’s a fungus!). Ah what the heck. I’ll just stick to photographs and memories (apologies to Jim !) & the occasional beer as paths cross.
So in conclusion squared. A bunch of us went down the iTsitsa River in the Transkei in January 1986. A good time was had by all, & sclerosis of the liver was the winner !!