Milton Schorr has been hitch-hiking Southern Africa’s roads since the age of 15. In December 2015 he set off on his longest journey yet, 2500kms from Cape Town to Victoria Falls.
I am a white boy from Cape Town. I grew up there, in the Northern Suburbs (behind the boerewors curtain), and on the West Coast. It was only when I was in my first year of university, working closely with a black man on a theatre piece, that I suddenly caught myself thinking, ‘this man is human, like me.’
Yes. Before that I saw blacks and coloureds as blacks and coloureds – that is, not quite white. This is crucial information. I am a racist. I see colour. I judge by it in my head, even today.
I read about Athol Fugard’s trip (famous South African playwright) on some sort of ship sailing around Africa just after he graduated. There he found himself to be just another sailor, surrounded by men of all races and given orders by black men. He said that on that journey racism was ‘burned out of him’.
His trip was part of my desire to hitch-hike to Victoria Falls. Not that I wanted or felt I needed to be ‘burned’, but I wanted to see. I wanted to tackle the ‘Dark Continent’, to be more African, to connect more.
I did the trip and wrote the story. I sent it around and the editor of a newspaper finally got back to me. She is black.
‘Thank you for your well written piece,’ she said, speaking from a long and carefully written email, ‘but, and I hope you don’t take offense, why should I care about a white man flexing his muscles in Africa, hitch-hiking the dark continent just because he can?’
That got me thinking. I’d written the story clean, writing only about the people I met, the process of the hitch. I didn’t say much about what was really going on, I didn’t get into the fact that I’m a white boy from Cape Town. I ignored it.
So here’s the honest account of my longest hitch-hike so far, a 2500km journey from Cape Town to Victoria Falls through South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It’s divided into six parts.
On the 26th of December I hit the road, walking down through Tamboerskloof on the slope of Cape Town’s green and leafy mountain, passing white women in yoga pants sipping cappuccinos, and black gardeners, black car guards, and black maids pushing little white kids on the swings. I felt cool and strong. I was going out into Darkest Africa by way of a daunting mission. I was going to flex my muscles.
I took the train out to Worcester, having decided to start the hitch from there.
At Cape Town station there were many blacks and coloureds, a lot of them looking dangerous. I toughened my middle and felt my boxing training within me, ready to get in a fight if I had to. I saw a white junky. I put my hand on my bag when he walked past.
On the long train ride I sneakily took a picture of a black granny and her granddaughter sleeping, because I thought it would make me look artistic and African, especially if the story of the trip went international.
Jan Lourens of Worcester was my first actual lift . He was a white man, an Afrikaner. He saw me walking and hooted for me to jump in his car. Whether he’d do the same for a black or coloured I have no idea. People surprise me all the time. (We are Facebook friends to this day, even though we have very little in common.)
I did my first Instagram post, kicking off a following of mainly white friends, some black, cheering me on. They thought hitching all that way was a cool idea, that I was some kind of hero. In truth I did the posts because I was lonely. I wanted a woman I’d broken up with to see them, and failing that I wanted the praise.
Soon I was picked up by a black man. He was working in the Department of Conservation and was giving people lifts as he went too and fro. We spoke a little bit, but he wasn’t really interested, he was just busy with his day. There were three other black men in the car. I only realised they were getting a lift too when he dropped me off at De Doorns, a township, and the others paid him. He told me not to give him money because I was going far.
I walked through De Doorns along the highway.
‘Don’t go there, you’ll get robbed,’ said a mean looking coloured, pointing further up the road, as if he might be the one to get me.
I ignored him. I’ve walked through places like this. You just put your head down and go, while kids wave at the white boy and sometimes (it’s happened) someone shouts ‘your poes!’ (that means cunt)
When they insult me I want to fight, when the kids wave I wish I knew how to connect. The problem is they know I’ve got money, I know I’ve got money. Tucked in my wallet I have a credit card, and tucked in my underpants I’ve got a bank bag of emergency cash. That’s why I walk fast, run away, ignore the offer of a drink. I’m afraid of having what’s mine taken from me.
By sunset I was standing in the most beautiful valley you could ever see, open fields criss-crossed with vines and grain and smooth, noble hills rising up into the distance. The enormity of the trip rose up in my mind. It was far to go, nothing but the absolute unknown between me and that place where the Zambezi falls, nothing but an Africa I didn’t know.
I heard something snap and turned to see a rundown and overloaded car fish-tailing then spinning into the oncoming lane. One, two, five full circles before it hit the barrier and bounced back to its own side. The car was silent. There was horror on the road.
Slowly people drifted out, unhurt, wondering what had happened.
‘Only blacks would pack so many into one car,’ I thought, looking at their dark faces in the fading light. I know because I’ve had many lifts in cars like that. Me and my white legs tucked in a rusting tin can packed with blacks, all quiet as we roll through the night, going far, everything smelling of woodsmoke, them sharing their space with me as I flex my muscles.
In Kimberley rubbish littered the pavements. Mainly blacks loitered on the cracked roads and whites drove in big bakkies. I was full of energy. The night before I’d slept in the home of an agricultural rep, a white man who’d picked me up just after the Three Sisters petrol station in the heart of the Karoo, after another long day in the sun. He’d told me about his passion for farming whilst a yellow moon hung low and fat. I’d felt freedom then, sitting forward eagerly in the passenger seat of his little Mazda, his thoughts pouring out into the gloom as the road flashed by.
‘He took your phone.’
I looked up to see a black woman of about 50 standing next to me, wrapped in a blanket. I’d been writing about the farmer in my notebook, sitting on a dirty, poverty scrubbed Kimberley curb. She was looking down at me, a mixture of wanting to help and distaste at the way I wasn’t paying attention furrowed across her face.
She pointed to where I’d had my i-Phone 5 charging from a portable charger (a present from a friend, he’d started a film company and made them as corporate gifts), lying next to me on the cement. It was gone.
Dread seized me. My phone was my everything. That was my camera. Without it I’d have no story, no Instagram.
‘He went there,’ she said, pointing to a nearby corner. ‘He is wearing a blue shirt.’
‘Please watch my stuff!’
I ran hard. I knew that if I caught him I wouldn’t hurt him, because I’d ran a robber down before. He’d been a coloured in Woodstock and his underfed, weak body had been a shock. All the fight had drained out of me when I’d held him and realised my own strength compared to his. He was pathetic, even though he’d threatened me with a gun. I was glad to let him go when a black policeman and a coloured policeman arrived and beat him with their boots, chuckling.
‘Drop it!’ I boomed at the young black man in Kimberley with the blue shirt who was jogging ahead of me, clutching a phone that sells for R10,000, new.
He turned and saw that I was gaining. He judged my size. He dropped it, struck a pose that made me think of a warrior, raised his middle finger, then ran off.
I crossed into Botswana in the dusk of the third day, and everything changed. The blacks of Botswana are different, or maybe I was different. The tension of South Africa left us. There was little violence in the air, there was little of that void, that resentment, that wanting to cross the colour divide, the living and money divide, the bewilderment. I felt like a foreigner, not an oppressor.
The world relaxed as I walked into a piece of Africa I’d never been to, full of sweet exhaustion.
‘Hey man, you want a ride?’
The words cut my revery. I looked up to see an SUV pulled off in the gloom ahead. The back door clicked open. I’d been looking forward to some time alone in the bush but I jumped forward. (When hitching you’ve got to say ‘yes’, at least when it’s not too scary.)
Inside the car I met Bambino, a 19 year old black boy who spoke with my own white boy accent. Diamond bright and full of talking he is a comedian who wants to come down to Cape Town to act, or Johannesburg. Next to him sat his father, a Colonel in the Botswanan army. He speaks English with the accent of his tribe, even though he has a degree from Oxford and seven fluent languages live in his mind. He is a wise man. Bambino and I sat in his presence.
‘But Dad, I feel like have to get a degree, to make myself worthy of you,’ said Bambino as darkness settled on the vast bush, and the talking juices flowed. ‘All my siblings have degrees, I can’t be the only one.’
‘Mr Schorr,’ said his father, turning to look at me slightly over his shoulder. He was lit by the orange light of the dashboard, a slight smile on his keen, black face. ‘How would you advise my son? You are an actor. Does he need to study?’
I thought a bit. I had to conduct myself well in the presence of this man, I had to be myself.
‘Well, in my professional work I’d say I use almost none of what I learned at University. My studies did shape me, did teach me to be an artist, but I’m still paying off my student loan. I’d say don’t study, but educate yourself. Make your own work, read, watch movies, copy, try to get better.’
‘What do you say, son?’ asked the Father, nodding, smiling.
‘I want to study,’ Bambino said after a pause. ‘I feel like I need to.’
His father laughed.
I sat in the back on my way to Gaborone, looking out from behind my white face.
That night I slept in a hotel, paid for with my credit card. I went down to the busy bar and met some people. A drunken white boy said to me ‘the blacks hate us here.’ I didn’t believe him. The place looked like Joburg on a busy night, blacks and whites together, laughing, getting drunk.
The Matabele Man
I met Brian Ncube on day four. It was in Francistown, 1,900km into the hike. I’d just had a lift with an elderly advocate husband and wife team in a BMW X5, both black, a space made for me on the plush and air-conditioned back seat by pushing all the Woolies shopping they’d done in Gaborone to the side. We listened to the news together. The channel had spent five minutes reporting on a murder five months old, because that was the only one in Botswana. My South African heart chuckled. We know the violence, we know the dance between the have’s and the havent’s.
Brian jump down from his 35 tonne, 22 metre, double-trailered Volvo lorry. We were at a weigh-bridge, it was 10pm and a wind had come up, dust swirling in his great yellow headlights.
‘Can I come with you?’ I asked, awed by his beautiful truck and his ability to drive it.
He looked me up and down, my dirty white face, my big backpack.
‘Ja,’ he said, ‘just let me finish here.’
We agreed on a price. Black truck drivers almost always charge, white truck drivers almost never. I think it’s because straight hitch-hiking is an American/European idea, while getting cheap transport for what you can afford is an African one.
15 minutes later the long talking began between black Brian and white Milton, both the same age. We covered the ins and outs of smoking (it’s hard to quit but there comes a point where you just do it). We covered the mysteries of women (me with my lost love, he with his ‘friends’ in many towns, and his great love, an Australian who was back over the seas). We covered the violence of South Africa (he a Zimbabwean who now lives in Nelspruit), the machine guns of the South African road.
We spoke long on the ways of trucking and distance, the ways of staying awake and not using energy drinks anymore (because it’s not healthy), the ways of smuggling goods into South Africa (he doesn’t do it), and the ways of accidents. He told me he’d grown up in Wankie, a place not far from where we were, in Zimbabwe, the place my father had spent time as a soldier, and my mother as a woman in war.
A great Africander bull stepped out into the centre of the road, muscled shoulders bunching high over his head and small, contemptuous eyes staring us down. Brian slowed, flicking his lights, gently urging the animal from the tar. He pointed to the burnt-out carcass of a truck.
‘That one hit an elephant,’ he said, ‘two years ago. There are elephant all over here. You will see them tomorrow.’
The Most Fantastic Show
At one am Brian and I pulled into the little town of Nata, about 400km from the Zambian border, and the Falls. Tomorrow I would see the great water, I knew the hitching part of my journey was all but done.
‘We can share the bed,’ he said, gesturing to his trucker’s bunk behind us, invoking the travel grime and the hours that now lived between us, invoking decency among tired men.
‘No,’ I said, ‘I won’t sleep. It’ll be too uncomfortable.’
Instead I sat outside and smoked a cigarette. It was the 29th of December and that whole blink of a town was celebrating the new year early.
I lay down on the hard earth next to Brian’s truck, slipped into my sleeping bag and smeared with mosquito repellent, a breeze born in the places of my parents caressing my face. I turned to the side to watch the most fantastic show. Through the silhouette of the truck’s axle I saw the people of Nata. Silhouettes themselves they stumbled up and down the main drag, calling to each other, singing and falling, searching for home.
‘Why should I care about a white man flexing his muscles in Africa, hitch-hiking the dark continent just because he can?’
This is my awareness.
I am a racist. I see colour, my instinct is to judge people by colour. Even if I know that’s silly there’s a part of me deep inside that holds onto the safety of separation, otherwise I wouldn’t do it. It’s an instinctive thing, an encoded thing, a disease that I inherited but never absolutely refused. It’s a disease that would need to be burned out of me to disappear.
All the time that I was on the road I knew that I was white, different, an alien. I had this constant, nagging feeling that being there was somehow a favour, that I was a guest. And I was treated well.
In talking away the hours with Brian, and with Bambino and his father, the space between us melted, slowly growing smaller and smaller. I re-discovered – just as I did that day when I caught myself thinking that my black colleague was human, like me, and in that instant saw the depth of my racism – that the antidote to racism is connection. Racism, separateness, dies in the face of honest talking.
Why should she care? This is the reason:
I hitch-hiked to Victoria Falls to test my African-ness. On the open road I found that I’m an alien in this place if I want to be, the choice is mine.
This article originally appeared at miltonschorr.co.za.