I’m going to start this story in December 2010, as I just landed in Johannesburg. I start here because although I knew this was a once-in-a-life-time trip, I had no idea it was a life-changing one. The type of event that doesn’t just give you life long memories, but that totally alters the trajectory of your life.

Johannesburg, South Africa. This is probably not the hottest I’ve ever felt the air, but definitely miserable anyways. 30 hours ago I had been in the December snow in Denver, and gotten on the plane when the outside temperature was -10 degrees F. I had the longest flight of my life to get to London, a 7 hour layover and the most culture shock of my life in Heathrow, and then another longest flight of my life to Jo’Berg. When I stepped out of that airport with my heavy coat, long underwear and flannel, I thought I was going to have a heat stroke. When the exit door to the air conditioned airport opened, the stifling heat wave hit me hard, reminding me I’m not in Kansas any more. Or Colorado. Or America for that matter. Though soaked in sweat immediately, I had never been so excited.

Besides a short stent to the ultra touristy and completely Americanized Costa Rica, I had hardly ever even been out side of the USA. So when I hit London and the crowds, I had to sit down and people watch for a good 4 hours. Like a kid straight off the farm, I am sure I just sat there like a bafoone staring at everything around me. The USA might be a melting pot, as they say, but Colorado certainly is not, especially the small town of Grand Junction where I am from. I had never seen an Arab or African in full tribal princess dress with entourage or huge groups of what I could only guess where Chinese, following their leader who held up a flag so no one in the group lost him. I had never seen ninja-looking dudes covered head to toe in all black and carrying machine guns in menacing looking groups, or huddled, crosslegged monks. I had never seen a single one of these things in my 24 years of existence, but in just this short time I saw all that and much more. I was hooked, and I hadn’t even arrived yet.

Why has this dumb redneck come to Africa in this first place? 18 months ago I hated my life, and really wanted to do something completely different. That short trip to Costa Rica had showed me a tiny bit of whats out there, and I wanted to travel the world. But for a country kid sheltered from the rest of the world, and whose entire family and friends are just as sheltered, traveling the world is a unreachable pipe dream. It seemed that way until one day I found out that our local university had just started an outdoor program, run by Professor Chad Thatcher, that would be offering accredited international trips, with scholarships available. I applied the next day. A few months later I was already accepted and starting classes. A year later, I finally got on their next trip, which was to Southern Africa, scholarships and all. Southern Africa, or, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, weren’t exactly my first choice (actually, never even heard of some of those), but I was NOT turning down a trip to ANYWHERE.

But now I am in a truck with my friend Joel, who had arrived a couple days before me, and came to pick me up at the airport. I am one of the oldest of this group of students on the trip, and technically I am one of the most traveled of the bunch (I’ve been to 2 countries don’t you know!), so as we drive down the wrong side of the road in the taxi/truck towards our hostel I try to put on my cool and indifferent attitude about everything. But inside I am really amped up and excited. It takes everything in me not to start gushing out the window and asking the driver a million questions like a new born baby who has never seen anything. well, if babies could talk. I already looked like the American tourist from hell, with my winter clothes, giant backpack and a fishing pole case. Yes, I brought my fishing pole to Africa. I had seen those crazy fishing shows at the Zambezi river, and we might go there.

We were staying at a backpackers hostel, which would be one of my many firsts, and I was one of the last of our group to arrive. We had basically booked the cheapest place we could find, because this whole trip was going to be about budget style travel and full immersion into new cultures. The goal for Professor Chad was to show us how to travel independently, and self-reliantly. Its hard for some people to imagine, but even just figuring out public transportation in these massive cities was alien to us. Where we came from, public transportation was non existent. Everyone had at least one vehicle of their own. Only just recently had Grand Junction just got its first little public bus system, called the Grand Valley Transit, and there was probably 10 taxis in the whole city, usually reserved for the bar areas at night. So even simple things like catching trains to the right locations, or shared collective vans and the like would be new. And that was the agenda for the trip, to learn how the rest of the world works, and to create independent travelers out of us.

Our one giant room in the hostel had rows of bunkbeds for all 11 of us, which was strange, and felt like the greatest and most adventurous sleep-over of all time. I had never really shared a room with a bunch of strangers, and now I was 10 feet or less from a bunch of them, snoring and all. We were also sharing one grungy bathroom, with towels borrowed from reception with a $5 deposit. And it wasn’t just our group in the dorm-style room, but a few other random people from the same amount of countries. We were also issued paddle locks, and our own little locker under the beds. I highly doubt any of us slept that first night from all the excitement, jet lag or not.

For our first day, we took out to go check out the old house that Nelson Mandela grew up in, in nearby Soweto. This is one of those cases where the journey was much more interesting than the destination, even though it wasn’t so far. This was our first crash course in budget, local style travel, and Johannesburg is one crazy place for 10 green, unexperienced babies fresh out of the safety of the American womb. Before we left we talked about pickpockets and thieves, and made sure we only used zipper or velcro-closed pockets with our stuff in them, and our backpacks worn backwards (uh, front packs?). As a group we walked through what must have been the poorest ghetto in the city, with people laying on the sidewalks and streets everywhere, or playing dice or cards. Every single eye was on us, freaking some of us out more than a little bit. It was by far the most dangerous, dirty and scary place I had ever been. I even caught a skinny, scarred, shirtless dude try to pickpocket me, with one mean look in his eye. It was a rush walking through those crowds, and that was just to get to the nearest bus stop.

The next day we visited the Apartheid Museum, but even though I am a history lover and major, all I could really think about was exploring the city and taking in all the strange stuff we were seeing. Every single thing we saw was new and weird and amazing. I love learning and the occasional museum, but I quickly got museum-ed out. Besides, everything around was a learning experience. Even the most simple things like trying to figure out how and when to pay the shared collective taxis, was something new to figure out. So I quickly got bored of the museums we visited, and wandered around outside where there was always a bunch or people selling cool carvings and souvenirs.

Even the skylines and buildings were weird. Maybe not completely foreign or surprising when it comes to architecture, but the interchanging back and forth of rich and poor. I had never seen giant nuclear cooling towers like Jo’Berg’s, and the street art on it, and most buildings was fascinating. We would be leaving the ghettos of Soweto, and then there is the huge new stadium they were building for the world cup, but would probably never use again. I think to me as fascinating as it was already, it was also completely surprising because it did not feel like Africa at all, or at least compared to my pre conceived expectations. Jo’Berg is a giant, filthy, fascinating, , dangerous, hot and crazy concrete jungle. And I love it.

On our third night it started raining harder than I have ever seen in my life. Its impossible to explain how much water was falling out of the sky, but the closest I can describe it is if you were standing under a olympic size swimming pool, and someone snatched the bottom away, but the water never stopped falling. There wasn’t an inch in-between the drops in the air. I had no idea how it was possible that the hostel staff and other guests weren’t freaking out worried about the entire city floating away. But apparently this is a normal and regular thing, and I eventually stopped being amazed, although it lasted a few days.

When I sometimes look back on the last few years of my life, I credit a few things, a few events shall I say, that helped shape my life to something completely different than it was before I got on the plane in Denver. The first event I credit for my life direction, was just meeting Professor Chad, and him turning into my sort-of mentor, and everything that lead after that. The second thing that deserves credit, was the rain during those few days, where we were stuck in the hostel, and what happened during that time; I met Dave. It will be hard to remember Dave’s whole story, but I’m going to try, so that you have some context about how he inadvertently helped changed my life.

Dave was from Israel, and 18 months before he had gotten out of his mandatory military service, gotten a few bucks together, and hit the road. He explained to me that it is practically Israeli custom to hit the road after the military and do some travel, no matter how little money they may have. It was no different for Dave. He didn’t have a whole lot of money, but decided to travel over land from Israel to Cape Town without flying. When he said those words, half of me was very skeptical, but the other half of me was completely intrigued. I had so many questions, such as how was that even possible, was there a train the whole way? Isn’t it dangerous traveling through Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia etc etc etc? Where do you sleep? How did you make more money on the road to keep going? One by one he answered these questions and more, while I sat there completely in shock.

He wasn’t just giving me information, he was showing me things that I never even considered as a possibility. I feel like a huge curtain raised in front of my eyes, revealing so many possibilities. If I could do this, I could do this. If this is possible here, then its possible anywhere. My mind was literally blown. Right then and there my horizons were expanded exponentially. I could not believe what I was hearing, and that it was possible for anyone.

Besides giving me hard information on bus and train routes, visa and border information, and much more, he spent two days giving me 18 months of solo travel stories. He had taken boats through Egypt, buses and hitchhiked through Sudan, took trains across all of Tanzania, a ship down Lake Malawi, safaris in Zimbabwe and Mozambique and South Africa, worked in hostels and bars along the way for accommodations and spending money. He gave me a giant East Africa Lonely Planet guide book, that he had used during his whole journey, with tons of notes and hostels circled and recommendations and more. For months after, I could be found reading that guide book from cover to cover, along with his notes, completely engrossed.

Dave’s stories and gift of the old ratty Lonely Planet, kept me up at night for a long time after that. He made me realize what was really possible in the world, which really meant that in two days he convinced me that chasing my dreams was not only doable, but was being done by millions of other people less privileged then me.

Because this trip was between semesters on Christmas break, and we didn’t have a ton of time, our group wanted to move on from Jo’Berg as soon as possible; none of us were in love with it. I did love being there, but with my new found epiphany, I was like a kid in a candy store and ready to head out into the world. Part of the agenda for this trip was that us students had to plan our travels, mostly last minute. Besides this first hostel, we had made no set plans or reservations ahead of time for any of the trip. On our last night we decided that the cheapest way to get to Cape Town, which is where we all wanted to go next, was the long train. The train wasn’t a ton cheaper than just flying, but we all agreed it would be a lot more fun. In the morning we would head to the train station, and take the 15 hour to Cape Town, then decide where to go from there.

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Justin Carmack
Justin is a dive master and world traveler on a mission to dive and document the top 100 dive sites in the world. In doing this he hopes to bring love for the marine environment to the world!
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