*First published in Zigzag Surfing Magazine
We’re living in a society where sustainability, renewable resources, the green economy and climate change are dominating the buzzword lexicon. As surfers, we’re exposed first-hand to the effects of pollution in our playground. But what are we to do about it? Of course, there’s composting, recycling, beach clean-ups and re-usable shopping bags, but if we’re to leave our children a habitable world we’re going to have to go right to the heart of our habits and radically change the way we do things.
It was with this somewhat Damascene realisation that comedian and surfer, Mark Sampson and his family, made the call to quit their jobs, convert a 1978 Mercedes 911 into a carbon-neutral mobile home and homeschool the kids while roaring out toward the glorious sunsets and sunrises seen only on the African continent. Mark, a Cornishman who came to SA in ’92 on a surfing vacation and never left, speaks openly about the underlying sentiments that sparked off this life-changing road trip.
“There were three main reasons: we wanted to travel as sustainably as we could before we got too old to enjoy it; we wanted to show our kids Africa so they would grow up connected to the continent they were born in, not more familiar with imported culture; but mostly we wanted to ‘seize the day’ and hang out with them while they were still young enough to think we were cool. Under five there’s a risk they may die from malaria; over 12 there’s a risk you may drive each other up the wall. It’s a small gap – you gotta grab it!”
For the Sampsons, Africa Clockwise was about getting away from the ‘Groundhog Day’ of middle-class suburban life. The never-ending commitments of rates bills, electricity bills, taxes, insurance, armed response, supermarket shopping, cars, running kids around, paying school fees for those kids… Many people feel trapped; just working to stand still. Not saving, just existing. A vicious circle where we’re working extra hours simply to pay for the retail therapy that keeps us sane while simultaneously ensuring we have to keep on working those extra hours. At times it can be so hard just to feel content. “And we’re the lucky ones, with jobs” Mark adds.
A typical refrain of these ‘fast-forward’ times but a rather drastic solution by many of their friends and family’s standards. The Sampsons were regularly faced with apprehensive statements such as “Nigeria? Drug dealers, Boko Haram and internet scams?” and, incredulously, “You’re taking small kids by road through West Africa?! Are you mal?” Well, on that note, if you’ve ever seen any of Mark’s stand-up shows, you may well have concluded that he’s definitely mal but as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland so succinctly said, “Yes, you’re entirely bonkers. But I will tell you a secret, all the best people are.” As it turned out, their kids actually had the best time in Nigeria, hanging out with chimps and mandrills and taking part in the Calabar Carnival at Christmastime.
As many adults are learning worldwide, good parenting is faced with some challenging hurdles in the digital age. “The trip was a way to get Ruby and Zola away from thoughtless consumerism, peer pressure and the social media world which promotes destructive comparisons of themselves to others through fake Facebook lives.” Mark and Sam wanted to teach them how to survive by using less, but experiencing more.
With hearts and minds made up, they told family and friends, “It’s just a trip, a journey around Africa and we’ll be back home in two years tops.” Maybe they should have sensed what was to come when they hit the road in 2013, three years later than their originally planned departure date. But, according to Mark, this is entirely on time by his standards. “My Marvel superhero character wouldn’t be Iron Man, Spider-Man or Wolverine – I’d have to be The Procrastinator! I will save the world – just after I’ve finished alphabetising my DVD collection!” In truth, Mark and his wife, Sam, could well be classed as superheroes as they both live with chronic health conditions. Sam has M.E. and spent her early twenties mostly housebound, sometimes bedbound or in a wheelchair. Mark had a disease as a child that left him with a dodgy spine. “It takes an hour of yoga and Pilates daily just to keep me on my feet. Surfing is a huge challenge and is the only thing that keeps me motivated to do the physiotherapy.”
So, bravely (or borderline crazy?), they set off with their superpowers in overdrive, in the Big Green Truck on a remarkable soul search with the overarching theme of spreading awareness about climate change. Mark breaks down his methods, “I do eco-medy, team-building sustainability shows for schools, universities, companies and the hotels that donate WVO en route. I teach the audience my ‘Eco-waster’ sign: a three-fingered salute to those people taking more than their fair share of the planet’s resources. Using comedy is the perfect way to engage a crowd and get this important message across.”
Of course, uprooting your family and life as you know it takes tremendous personal sacrifice and a few sleepless nights; “Undoubtedly the hardest part was leaving, selling everything, renting out the house. Letting go of commitments, of old values and of old notions of how you must raise your kids and live your life. Leaving salaries and school behind, getting off the grid, away from Eskom – It was literal load shedding.”
Once they’d hit the road and crossed the border a satori-like feeling was soon encountered; kindness, warmth and overwhelming hospitality, especially when locals hear that they are South Africans. Mark sounds like he’d just found his saviour when recounting this experience, “Rejoice in being South African! We are truly blessed.” In a more melancholy tone, he continues, “We are so well off compared to so many, yet people continuously complain and wish that they lived in Europe. Saffas need to know how the rest of Africa lives, how the rest of Africa welcomes us and then do all we can to stop xenophobia in SA.” Bravo.
The family has clearly grown very close throughout the epic journey. Sam has educated their kids from grade 3 to grade 9 while navigating, writing the blog and negotiating with border guards or police at never-ending roadblocks. Her Masters in Intercultural Communication and experience corralling the organised chaos of the eMzantsi Carnival for many years would indeed have come in handy. Mark and Zola have surfed unapologetically at every opportunity: “Travelling and surfing with my son, seeing him grow from a wobbly-kneed nine-year-old into a 14-year-old big wave charger has been an enormous gift. He inspires me in every session. Watching him take off on a monster late drop a kilometre out to sea without another soul in sight is almost better than making that drop yourself!” Ruby prefers scuba diving and had the time of her life exploring the coral reefs of the Red Sea in Egypt, but often gets in the water and films the lads during their shred sessions.
The African continent is clearly possessed of many liquid treasures but remains largely unexplored and inaccessible to the rest of the world. The irrepressible Sampsons have driven through 24 African countries so far and found surf in 15 of them. This is a highly motivating ratio!
While sojourning in Angola, they discovered an un-surfed and unnamed spot: “It’s magical to be the first person ever to surf a wave. A real surfers’ version of ‘Surf Trek’ – to boldly surf, where no man has surfed before.” Mark’s mother, Joy, sadly passed away that week and in her honour they fittingly named the new secret spot ‘Joy’s Gift’. “No luxury yacht trip to the Mentawaiis will ever come close to the thrill of paddling out into the unknown with my son and experiencing the emotions of riding that first wave,” Mark recounts. This in itself is an entirely original experience as there are not many surfers in this day and age who can say that they’ve drawn lines on a virgin canvas.
Yet Joy’s Gift is not the only discovery they’ve made. “In the Congo, we got blown out of spitting beach break barrels like Dunes; in Cameroon, we saw perfect volcanic reef waves reminiscent of Lanzarote; in Ghana, we surfed a perfect A-frame reef at four to eight-foot entirely alone for over two weeks. In Cote d’Ivoire, we both clocked up one minute long rides, and in The Gambia, we paddled nearly a kilometre out to sea to surf an outer reef which had definitely never been surfed before.” As a goofy-foot, Marks favourite waves were in Liberia; Zola’s were in Senegal. They’ve also discovered fun, warm water treasures in Benin, Togo, Sierra Leone and Kenya. Zola may be the only grom in Africa to have surfed 15 countries on the continent before reaching 15.
Equipment-wise they’re rolling with a shared quiver of six David Stubbs surfboards. “One of our biggest challenges has always been equipment. After three years and surfing so many remote spots, you start to get Robinson Crusoe meets MacGyver vibes. I’ve wondered to myself; can I build a new 5’10” for my son using driftwood and all the plastic washed up at the high tide mark?” The intrepid surf explorers have gone through over 30 leashes and multiple repair jobs. It’s with support from Mrs Palmers, Reef Wetsuits, Island Tribe and Scarfini that they’ve never run out of wax, leashes, sun cream or fins! It’s good to see the SA surf industry backing such a noble cause. “Von Zipper sunglasses have also been amazing, donating dozens of pairs of sunnies and enabling us to pass them on to the less fortunate. I’ll never forget the kid in northern Cameroon suffering from albinism whose life was changed by a pair of VZs.”
All the more reason to take the road less travelled even if sometimes there’s literally no road at all! “From Guinea to Guinea Bissau, we spent a week clocking up less than a 100km for a 10-hour drive. Only our Elephant was up to it, and without our Michelin-sponsored military-grade tyres we would never have made it.” Wait, what Elephant? Well, gearheads listen up. Mark had begun hunting for a Unimog back in 2008 when a friend told him about the 911 Mercedes, a 4×4 known merely as ‘The Elephant of the Road’. In 2010 he found a German guy in Constantia with a 1978 model. He’d bought it from the SADF and had started to convert it before his wife told him he was nuts if he thought she was ever going to travel in that! So he gave up, and it had sat in his garden for years…
It took another three for Mark to convert it to a mobile home. It had been a heavy artillery gun puller in the Angolan war and still had the machine gun hatch situated over the passengers’ seat when it was driven back to Noordhoek. Mark elaborates, “It was a true labour of love for me and my friend Maxwell Kuseni, a Zimbabwean craftsman, but, everything really came together on the day we found a fundi named Rob Irvine who converted the engine to run on waste vegetable oil (WVO). This involves installing a heat exchange plate to pre-heat the oil using radiator water to 60 degrees centigrade, so that it has a low enough viscosity to pass through the injectors. It’s a two tank system that starts on diesel (or biodiesel in our case) drives all day on WVO and ends the day by flushing the oil out with biodiesel.” When they burn filtered cooking oil, the same CO2 the sunflower plant absorbed during its lifetime is being put back into the atmosphere, rather than burdening the planet with extra CO2 from millions of years ago. Hence: a carbon-neutral cycle and free fuel! Mark puts it into perspective with his razor-sharp wit, “like much of Trump’s past that toxic stuff was meant to stay buried.” As for electricity, that comes courtesy of a 1KW solar system supplied by Treetops Renewable Energy Systems in Cape Town, CAT in Nairobi and Victron Energy from Holland. “After breaking down 20 times, we know that the best mechanics in the world are African. These guys can fix anything. They’re keeping 40-year-old Mercedes trucks like ours going after a million km across African roads! Now that’s recycling..”
Of course, you’re probably wondering about the safety and security of a defenceless family of four deep in West Africa. Well, as an added precaution the Sampsons have Trellidor security on every window. “We found the prospect of Ebola to be much scarier than crime. When I saw a family walk their mother, who was dying of Ebola, out of the local clinic and carry her down the road, I decided it was time to get on a plane out of Liberia.”
Although the Ebola situation exiled them to England and put the trip on hold for a year, they were back in the Big Green Truck at the first opportunity. “We missed the Ubuntu, the shared humanity of Africa, that is our continent’s strength. On the road, you really feel it. People help each other, regardless of language, religion or shade of skin. Everyone understands that we are in this together and together is the only way we will overcome. With the devastating effects of climate change looming, this is a great lesson to learn.” The family has found that when you travel in Africa, it becomes evident that our similarities far, far outweigh our differences. In rural Africa, there is connection, a spirit of unity and always a smile. Everybody waves. We are all one family, one global village, “and” Mark chips in “Donald Trump IS our global village idiot.”
The honesty and courage of the Sampson family’s adventure really shines through when researching their journey. After crossing Europe in winter to avoid Libya, Sam suffered a severe M.E. relapse and is currently writing about her struggle to keep travelling despite this debilitating autoimmune disease. Mark adds “Laughter may be the best medicine but travelling is definitely the best therapy. People who, like me, suffer from depression should tour through Africa. Not just from hotel to hotel with a platinum credit card. Really travel. It’s good to struggle, to break down 20 times in your old truck and become reliant on the help of others. Or to shop at the market, hunting for bargains with the locals while battling another dose of typhoid. It puts things into perspective and teaches you humility.”
At the end of the day, the family have found their way to cope with the challenges of global warming. “We can’t change the climate today, but we can change our children so they can better deal with the consequences tomorrow. Adaptable African kids will cope far better with what climate change brings than anyone in a first world country. Countries in the global south have the potential to leapfrog ahead of the West’s technology and outdated, closed-minded ways of thinking.” His best advice derived from thousands of kilometres of African adventure? “Expose your children to Africa, learn from the experts: what we truly need is not the latest iPhone or designer threads, what we need is each other. In tough times, people are more valuable than possessions. The ‘Cell Phone Paradox’ of the world we now live in means that our phones bring far away people closer but also move the people who are closest to us further away. The only solution is to spend less time looking at our iPads and more time looking into each other’s eyes, because that person, that fellow African, is your greatest asset.”
[footnote] You can see if the Sampsons make it home by following Africa Clockwise on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or http://www.africaclockwise.co.za