“But to look back from the stony plain along the road which led one to that place is not at all the same thing as walking along the road; the perspective, to say the least, changes only with the journey; only when the road has, all abruptly and treacherously, and with the absoluteness that permits no argument, turned or dropped or risen is one able to see all that one could not have seen from any other place.”James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountains
The Evolution of The EXPEDITION Project
The Long Road Ahead
“Success is not a place at which one arrives but rather the spirit with which one undertakes and continues the journey.”Alex Noble
They say hindsight is a 20:20 vision. What they forget to mention is that you earn that vision by having the courage to go somewhere. As I packed my 4×4 on the 31st of December 2011, I had no idea what the next several months would entail. As with any journey, there were uncertainties. That was a given. Understood. Accepted. The only thing you can bank on as a traveller is that the journey will find you. But only if you hit the road.
The road to your destination is littered with intersections, potholes and hitchhikers. Sometimes you wonder if you will ever get there and you suddenly remember why, as a child, you always asked “Are we there yet?!” Is this detour just a scenic delay or a risky departure? It might even end up being a path of least resistance with surprises along the way. Sometimes you find yourself on a lonely road less travelled and sometimes on a highway swarming with the journeys of others. Some follow their GPS; some follow their instincts; and some just drive, not knowing where they might end up.
“Some follow their GPS; some follow their instincts; and others just drive, not knowing where they might end up.”
Before our departure on New Year’s Day 2012, I had met as many anxious cynics as enthusiastic supporters. But no one could have known the fierce battle those two extremes were waging inside of me. To succeed with The EXPEDITION Project, I had to succeed as a person.
Eleven months later, it is time to evaluate The EXPEDITION Project 2012 in the cold light of dawn. Illusions and misconceptions must be cleared out. It is time to consider what has changed and what has remained the same. What was achieved and what was not. Who The EXPEDITION Project is, who I am, and where I am headed.
Is there anyone in your back seat?
“Being mistaken is the essence of the traveller’s tale.”Paul Theroux, Riding the Iron Rooster
From the word go, “we” were creating this project. “Our” journey would take us to 200 towns in one year. Without discounting all the indispensable media backing and practical help, the truth is that The EXPEDITION Project has been a one-man undertaking all along. The strands of the support network have all been intermittent, temporary, or simply external. The only person who has been 100% invested is me.
In speaking of this project as a collective endeavour, I tried to make it sound more established, and more remarkable. I used a well-known and cheap marketing trick. I promised to be honest with my supporters and followers but fell short before I even hit the road. I was so anxious to get the support I needed, that I lost sight of the essential struggle I was going through. This journey was always personal. It was always going to be hard. In hindsight, I needed to be confidently upfront about it.
“This journey was always personal. It was always going to be hard. In hindsight, I needed to be confidently upfront about it.”
What are you driving at?
“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.”John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Human nature tries to understand new things by categorising them with something that is known. This has led
to a stock of standard interpretations of what exactly The EXPEDITION Project is. To some, it was a documentary film project. To others, it was a holiday in disguise. For some, it conjured images of Kingsley Holgate’s overland journey from the Cape to Cairo. Others were only perplexed by the question of profitability.
Perhaps the name was always going to obstruct vision or obscure explanation. Not many modern expeditions are true to the dictionary definition of the word:
A journey by a team on a mission of purpose.
I added “project” to it, which is defined as:
A project in business and science is typically defined as a collaborative enterprise, frequently involving research that is carefully planned to achieve a particular aim.
I did not want to create an association with “terra incognita”. The borders of South Africa, my homeland, would confine the EXPEDITION Project. I was not heading into unknown physical terrain. I wanted to create a template that could be replicated in any other country… by locals, not benevolent and idealistic foreigners.
I underestimated the cost and structural requirements of filming. I also did not realise how important it would be to the project’s future. What started as a grand dream of a sweeping documentary has now been whittled down to hyper-realistic snippet inserts. Think Twitter for TV and you won’t be far off the mark.
This is where we are with that concept:
The world is moving faster
We are moving faster to keep up
We don’t have time for all the fuss
SO LET’S CUT TO THE CHASE
The heart of the matter
The heart of the people
And the heart of our country
In 36 five-minute episodes, we will condense our country into bite-size chunks
Each will be a story within a story
It will show our successes
And definitely entertaining
Join our very own soap opera – reality show – documentary
It is everything you always knew and never spoke about
And many things you didn’t know and wanted to learn
Join ‘The EXPEDITION Project’
“Most travel, and certainly the rewarding kind, involves depending on the kindness of strangers, putting yourself into the hands of people you don’t know and trusting them with your life.”Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
After getting underway with the project in January 2012, I soon realised the critical importance of tourism. The EXPEDITION Project was not well funded by any stretch of the imagination. We had the support of some big names, a few respectful pats on the backs and even a last-minute injection of financial support from two well-meaning corporate businesses. But when I left Stellenbosch on New Year’s Day, the figures still didn’t add up. I had set myself an impossible task. It was too late to cancel or postpone. I had to just go for it and hope that ‘something’ would happen along the way. If I could just get going for a few months, I thought, it would all work out… somehow.
In all fairness, tourism was that “something”. It solved the crises of food and accommodation, both traded for marketing exposure and the longer-term benefit of being part of the network for future expeditions. But it also added to the daily workload. For the most part, Internet access was even more fleeting than the brief overnight stops. As a result, blog posts and social media updates soon focused almost exclusively on promoting the project’s hospitality partners. The upside was that this encouraged more people to feed me and put me up for the night. The downside was that our audience got the impression that The EXPEDITION Project had degenerated into a holiday road trip. It meant I could keep going, but not keep everyone happy.
The fact that Maddy and I had become romantically involved along the way only fuelled this fire. Making our relationship public was deliberate. We envisioned it giving the expedition’s story more soul and more realism. This subplot was a breath of fresh air and became integral to the unfolding of the journey and the way we recorded it. Unfortunately – despite our consistent professionalism – our audience then began to interpret The EXPEDITION Project as a honeymoon road trip.
Hitchhikers and Pit Stops
“Travel, its very motion, ought to suggest hope. Despair is the armchair; it is indifference and glazed, incurious eyes”Paul Theroux, Fresh Air Fiend
I would not trade my 2012 experiences for anything. The journey re-ignited my passion for South Africa in so many ways. It also highlighted just how much work needs to be done and how widespread that work is. Many people thought The EXPEDITION Project was too diverse. They saw a diffuse, unfocused attempt instead of a holistic approach. A Department of Health representative recently summed it up perfectly:
“It is about a whole person and for this reason you can’t restrict yourself to one aspect.”
South Africa is at a crossroads. One path leads to a bright future and the other lies in the shadow of a dark cloud of animosity that refuses to let go of the past. The aim of The EXPEDITION Project is to find out exactly what we need to do as a nation to move into the sunlight of a promising future. Where are the necessary pit stops that will make that journey possible? How can we build and support them? What do they need? This project is not after cosmetic changes and warm, fuzzy feelings that disappear the moment that a taxi cuts you off on the highway. It is about making a real and lasting impact. This is why it needs to continue connecting with the people of South Africa and find out what they feel, think and want.
Our nation is filled with so many positive stories and yet the negative ones make much better news. Communities of all sizes are making inspirational efforts to remain above the poverty line. Even the smallest communities have some sort of community centre, orphanage or NGO crèche – created by the community itself, to answer an overwhelming need.
Tired of poor service delivery, Graskop in Mpumalanga became the first town in the region to vote for the opposition party and see its municipality re-structured. Piet Retief, closer to KZN, was the centre of the first uprising in 2007 when the government and local municipalities weren’t keeping their promises. Of the towns surveyed this year, 78% don’t care who is running the country as long as the people’s best interests are looked after.
Hard-pressed and fed-up South Africans are coming up with ingenious survival tactics and enduring so much more than the average Westerner could manage or even imagine. Best of all, they do this with a smile on their face – a truly African smile from ear to ear. This creativity and tenacity make South Africa the small business blueprint for the world.
But of course, it is not all moonshine and roses. The EXPEDITION Project aimed for an accurate assessment and noted the negatives too. The Department of Social Development spent R3.8 million on a community development project in Hondeklipbaai, Northern Cape, only for it to be vandalised and abandoned. The thought was there but the follow-through failed. The Department of Health set up a LoveLife Centre (HIV awareness) in Bray in the North West, only for the staff to sit around with minimal facilities to execute their assignments.
The majority still see big families as a security blanket for the future rather than a burden in the present. Condoms are still generally rejected in favour of a religious philosophy that “If God wants you to have kids you will have kids” – 67% of South Africans surveyed agreed with this statement.
82% of the small towns we visited believe that substance abuse (drugs and alcohol) is the number one problem within their community. That is followed by education, health service and job creation. But as one interviewee in Jozini said, “There are plenty of jobs out there people just like saying there are no jobs. People think the jobs will come looking for them but they need to look for the jobs.”
In every instance, the force for positive change from within the communities far outweighs any negatives. Positive people are helping their own communities and in the process, they are transforming this country. That is what The EXPEDITION Project wants to publicise and replicate.
“There are plenty of jobs out there people just like saying there are no jobs. People think the jobs will come looking for them but they need to look for the jobs.”
“Most journeys have a clear beginning, but on some the ending is less well-defined. The question is, at what point do you bite your lip and head for home?”Tahir Shah, In Search of King Solomon’s Mines
Full speed ahead to August 2012. The situation I was dreading in January had materialised. No more financial sponsorship had surfaced and my petrol money was running out fast. I was only seven months into the project and it looked like I might make it for a few more weeks if I spend money only on fuel. This would only bring me to September; four months shy of the 365-day target and a few towns short of the 200-mark.
I decided to speed things up while still driving slowly (to save fuel) and covered two provinces and approximately fifty towns in one month. Once I was within shooting distance of Cape Town, I reasoned, I could cover the more condensed Western Cape until my petrol tank ran dry.
That day arrived, a little ironically, on the 24th of September: Heritage Day. The EXPEDITION Project for 2012 covered 192 towns and all that remained was to process photographs and start planning for 2013.
Not long after that, the Isuzu Trooper that served me so well gave up the ghost. The 1991 import was old, but it looked the part and it did the job. And it still was my backup plan for 2013. But the repairs would have cost half the vehicle’s value, so I had no choice but to sell it for a pittance. The driver has become the hitchhiker.
“The driver has become the hitchhiker.
The Road Ahead
“If all difficulties were known at the outset of a long journey, most of us would never start out at all.”Dan Rather
A month later, after collating and processing all the information gathered in 2012, I find myself in a position similar to the one I faced a year ago – uncertain of what the New Year will bring. It is a position that is so common to causes, initiatives, NPOs and NGOs the world over. Even as I resolutely continue planning for 2013, I can’t help but feel slightly panicky at the thought that this “annual expedition” might only last one year.
The EXPEDITION Project was always going to be treated like a business, or more like ‘a business with a heart’. Sustainability was always one of its most important core values. Every decision I made on this journey was aimed at that goal. If my future decisions need to be more commercial, I just hope that the ethos of the project isn’t lost along the way. One way to ensure sustainability is to increase the filming presence, but this requires commissioning or funding. The second route is to further explore the tourism avenues of business.
The EXPEDITION Project may have to be put on hold temporarily. In other words, the 2013 expedition may not launch in January, but rather in March or even later in the year. I will have to wait until the project is sustainable or well-funded. 2012 was executed on a shoestring and while it yielded fantastic data and solid experience for future journeys, it also left sponsors and supporters feeling confused and disappointed. I simply did not have the resources to keep everyone happy and still do the groundwork that is the reason for this project’s very existence.
My whole mission is to find the good & the bad, the happy & the sad in SA… to cheer the feel-good stories and find meaningful solutions to the tragic ones. That has not changed. And the only way to find the real stories is by hitting the road. Again and again and again.
“The only way to really find the real stories is by hitting the road and hitting the road. Again and again and again.”