A Plastic Kayak, a Piss Bottle and So Many Guns
Jayden ‘Mozzie’ Irving casually mentioned that he had attempted to hitch-hike and surf up the west coast of Africa but the trip had been cut short when he was arrested in the Democratic Republic of Congo on terrorism charges. Needless to say, I was interested. Here’s the interview, including an anecdote about paddling a plastic kayak across the Strait of Gibraltar, having guns pointed at your face and how you have to piss in a bottle when you’re incarcerated in the DRC.
Can you start by telling me a bit about the Africa trip. What was the concept and how did you prepare?
The idea must have come about over a couple of beers – somewhere in Europe – to go for a surf trip where people rarely ever go. It was a close toss up between Africa and Antarctica, but I figured Africa would be cheaper and hence more practical. It was one of those ideas you never assume will materialise, especially when you wake up with a roaring hangover and a scribbled bucket list on your chest; the idea of surfing from South Africa to Morocco accompanied with fighting a bear, building a methane-fuelled rocket ship and getting married.
It wasn’t until I was flopping about on the web that I came across a $2000 sponsorship opportunity from Holeproof Explorer to fund an epic adventure. I thought, “Why not?” and was soon booking tickets and making plans; as a condition of being announced successful, I had to nick off within six months so I had to get my arse into gear pretty quickly.
I wrangled together a few sponsored boards from Firewire and a board case, leggies and accessories from Creatures of Leisure. With little more than a tent, sleeping bag, camera and map, I was jetting off to Jo’burg intending to hitchhike Africa’s entire west coast, from bottom to top (laughs). I spent some time in South Africa, traveling and surfing to the west coast, found a Saffa stupid enough to come with me and the rest is history.
Firstly, did you get any good waves?
Oh, Africa has got some cracking swell. Every surfer knows about the usual suspects in SA, like in Durban, Jeffreys Bay and Cape Town, and the legendary endless left barrels of Skeleton Bay, Namibia. But there is also some ripping surf in the Democratic Republic of Congo and a couple of gnarly barreling waves in the Zambezi River. They’re caused at particular times of the year by rock formations, undertow and super fast moving water, as a result of the impressive Victoria Falls upstream.
How far did you get?
We spent a total of seven months hitching/travelling/surfing Africa. SA to Namibia went awesome, but we came across our first little hiccup after being refused entry into Angola. We spent a while trying to scheme our way into the country with shady deals and building contacts but ended up bailing and illegally crossing the dividing river ourselves. We spent three nights hiking through the unknown bush with our 25kg packs, food, four 5L water bottles and gastro. Eventually, we made it to a derelict post-Civil war, bullet and explosive-ridden town to have an incompetent customs guy check our visas and, lets just say, a bit of broken Portuguese sweet-talking made us realise how lucky we were to be able to go back to Namibia with our lives.
Plan changed and we had to go around Angola and back to the coast of DRC to continue. That was where shit eventually did hit the fan. Technically, we made it to Congo, Brazzaville, but only lasted about 45 minutes with our feet on their soil before we were dragged back onto a boat and carted back to the DRC, where all our big travel problems started and finished.
I know it’s a long story with far too many details for here but can you tell me a little bit about getting arrested? The circumstances and why?
Well the DRC official’s final report will have you know that we were high-risk political terrorists, trained mercenaries and intent on assassinating the President of the DRC, Joseph Kabila. Whereas really, we had legitimate visas to travel through DRC for 30 days and were just unlucky enough to pitch camp next to the country’s primary military base and the President’s summer beach house within the same week. And to make things worse, we unknowingly traveled through the DRC along the entire country’s main gas pipeline, all off-road, by train and by water, from our entry to the beach. And of course we were white, bearded, foreigners carrying two large pointy objects that they had no idea were built for surfing waves, and rather looked like some obscure shaped weapons.
We were fucked!
How come you couldn’t bribe your way out? Isn’t that the way it works in a lot of Africa?
Typically yeah, the entire continent has an inbuilt culture called the “African handshake” where money exchanges across almost every single hand clasp, but shakin’ your way out of terrorism just ain’t gonna happen.
How long were you incarcerated for and how did you get out in the end?
We were locked up for a total of 25 days, and it’s phenomenal how quickly your mental state can deteriorate with a single daily meal, four walls crammed with 20+ scary African criminals, not so much as concrete for a bed, your removed shirt as a mosquito net and broken French/Portuguese to ask for the piss bottle.
We got out in the end due to a cash stash in our shoes used to bribe the guards at the end of week 2 for a phone for a text message home. Weeks later, we were granted our final politically-assisted release due to my parents’ correspondence with Australian, Canadian and South African foreign delegates.
Were you stoked to be home safe or bummed that the trip was over?
Well, to be honest, for a long time after the ordeal I was really just frustrated that I couldn’t finish what I’d planned to do. I barely even made it half way. I had rationalised that I might never have the opportunity or desire to finish the journey, and upon being released I just wanted to push onwards. But reflecting now, I really just thank my lucky stars I’m alive. I remember the amount of hostility I was confronted with and how often I had a rifle pointed directly at my face. I wouldn’t regret a single moment of the experience, but I’m definitely stoked to have made it home safe.
Yeah bro, it’s a wild story but not your first wild adventure… you once paddled across the Strait of Gibraltar in a kayak?
Ha ha, yeah. I had a flight booked from Tangier, Morocco, back to Barcelona where I was living at the time. Two days before the flight I was in Tarifa (southern-most point of Spain) when I was robbed of every cent I had left. As a result, I went harmonica busking and my resulting €20 couldn’t cover the cost of a ticket for the ferry across. So I bought a stick of chorizo and a big bottle of water, hired a shitty blow-mold plastic tourist kayak from a big hotel leisure bookings shop and started paddling, at the crack of dawn, to Morocco. It took about eight hours. It was definitely one of the stupider things I’ve ever done, and the one I feel most guilty about. But I served my deserved night in a Moroccan police holding cell for illegal entry. The next day, I was escorted to the airport, in cuffs, and deported back to Spain.
Ever since, I’ve had on my bucket list to return to that hotel with a brand new kayak and a sincere apology. Otherwise, hopefully some lucky Moroccan took the kayak, paddled himself to Europe and returned it to the man who rented it to me.
So you’re a pretty well seasoned traveller, any advice for would-be travellers or acne-ridden, ethnocentric gap-year kids?
If you read my travel experiences in any sort of wonder, then just take those wacky ideas you have floating about in your head (or the head you stole the idea from) and just give it a shot. If you are a little dubious about the potential ramifications of the idea, consult a friend. And if you are still unsure about whether you want to try new things, be a victim of your own unoriginality… go on Contiki.
Any other wild travel stories for the Global Hobos out there?
Oh there are always many, many stories for anyone who wants to listen. Surfing with two million seals, close encounters with sharks and making lots of local friends. Feel free to check out thumbsupafrica.net for heaps more travel stories, pictures, info or shit talk. Just drop me a line via the contact page or visit the Facebook page for a chat.
Sweet, any plans for future travels? What’s the next adventure?
Well since the Africa trip I’ve decided to take a broader approach to travelling. I’m starting to educate myself about filming and the creative arts to help visually share my travel/adventure discoveries and build on my ability to capture my experiences.
Hopefully within the next couple of years I can scrape up some good funding for an awesome doco: ‘The Unfinished Journey’. Next time I want to start in Africa’s north and work down and complete the journey I never got to finish. I want to focus on the past things I learned, the incredible diversity within the continent, the incredible surf, and hopefully reveal how different a travel experience can be with a changed mindset and a more educated, sense of awareness.
Yeah man, I’d like to see that doco.
Nat Kassel is a freelance writer and assistant editor at Global Hobo. He likes eating out of bins and taking photos of people taking photos.