Fifty years after a young Che Guevara crossed South America on the back of a motorcycle nicknamed La Poderosa (The Mighty One), a Canadian decided to traverse Africa on a Chinese-made scooter nicknamed Anne Murray.
The Alberta-born Brendan Van Son, 29, is a travel enthusiast, photographer and social media entrepreneur who provides travel advice, hostel booking information as well as his own humour-laced adventure stories on his website brendansadventures.com. He even gave up a job in Canada to pursue his dream of full-time travel over the last four years.
Once arriving on the shores of Africa, in Morocco, from Spain and before that, Latin America, Van Son was attracted to the idea of solitary travel. He had no plan, but knew he wanted to get off the beaten path. He decided to forego the big tourist overland routes and game parks to make his own way across this vast continent in the spirit of other seasoned travelers who came before him. But Van Son had something else in mind, wanting to do something completely different from his previous backpacking excursions in Europe and South America.
The first six months in Africa were the toughest as he headed through some unimaginably rough terrain, namely the Sahara desert. By the time he made it to Bamako, Mali, en route to the ancient city of Timbuktu, he was held up by advancing rebels and looming French air strikes and began to feel worn down. On a whim, he decided to buy a fire-engine red scooter and take the long way down on an impromptu road trip.
“When I got to Mali I was already sick of public transport. I saw some scooters from the window of my taxi,” he said. “I asked the driver how much they cost and decided on the spot to buy one. It was very spur-of-the-moment actually.”
Like a 2.0 version of the Cuban revolutionary, Van Son held a naming ceremony for his scooter via social media. His Twitter and Facebook accounts were bombarded with potential names paying homage to his nationality. Pamela Anderson, Rita MacNeil and Anne Murray were his top three choices.
“What can I say? The response was overwhelming. It was destiny that I would choose Anne Murray and ride her all the way to Cape Town,” he said with a laugh. “The thought did cross my mind how odd it would be for Murray, who may suddenly see her name trending as a hashtag on Twitter.”
The intrepid traveller chose Cape Town as his end destination in a very Paul Theroux-type fashion. But instead of the Cairo-to-Cape Town itinerary attempted by many before him, Van Son took the route less travelled from West to Central and South Africa, and shared his experience every step of the way online.
“It was such a roller-coaster ride. At the start it was really easy. From Mali to Burkina Faso and Ghana things were going smooth. Then in Togo I got malaria,” he said. “I got to Cameroon and crashed my bike. I got to DR Congo and got malaria again.”
Like Graham Greene many years before him, Van Son did his entire journey without maps. Rather than GPS, he relied on good old-fashioned “LPS” — something Africans call local positioning system, in which you ask a few people for directions, and go with the most popular response.
“The most important thing is to travel at my own pace,” he said. “So far, that’s worked for me. As for comparing myself to other travelers or writers who’ve done it, I guess I just avoid reading their stuff so as not to influence my own writing.”
Now in the process of compiling his memoirs from the last four years, Van Son feels his time in Africa isn’t quite complete. He remarks how his original travel plan, to begin and end in North Africa, was thwarted due to problems faced en route, mainly bouts of malaria and poor road and weather conditions.
“As you can see I’m bad at planning. This trip was to be a loop,” he said. “Africa wears you down. It can be tough. I will return to Canada and Europe and come back to Africa soon though. Maybe I’ll take a tuk-tuk or a rickshaw to finish the job.”
That would require Van Son to return to South Africa and make his way northeast, possibly through Zimbabwe or Mozambique into Malawi, then on through to Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan into Egypt. This would essentially be Theroux’s Dark Star Safari route in reverse.
“I guess I’d try to do something original,” he said.” If it’s already been done, I’d find a new way. Maybe I’d avoid East Africa and try one that hasn’t been attempted before. I know that sounds dangerous.”
As Van Son completed his journey and arrived in Cape Town, he spotted the majestic Table Mountain in the distance and was overcome with emotion. A post on his Facebook page June 28, 2013, summed up his thoughts.
“I don’t feel like I’ve conquered Africa, I feel like I became a part of it, and it a part of me. I feel blessed to have had so much support from all of you, so I thank you. And for those who laughed at me and told me it couldn’t be done, thank you as well. I needed you the most. As anyone who really knows me knows, the best way to get me to do something is to say I can’t.”
It took the Albertan a little over a year to traverse Africa. He’d be the first one to tell you the continent is not a singular entity, as perceived by many back in Canada, nor does the Heart of Darkness stereotype have any relevance today. It’s a place of disparity and compassion.
“When you’re in a bus or a car you feel closed off from the world, but when you’re in a scooter going 20 kilometres an hour through the village you really feel like you’re a part of it,” he said. “Each country’s post-colonization process has such an influence on how it is now and how the people behave. When I got malaria the second time in DR Congo, I was in a rural village. The people looked after me. They were so kind.”
Sadly, as Van Son’s voyage came to an end at the Cape of Good Hope, the southernmost point of Africa, he sold his scooter, and partner-in-crime, Anne Murray to a hotel bellboy. Although happy to be back in Canada spending time with his young niece and nephew, Van Son will soon be back on the road, travelling his home province with the support of Travel Alberta. Of course Africa will always be at the back of his mind and he may find himself returning soon to face another personal adventure.
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