via A Promise kept
Reminiscing about the halcyon days of summers past is one of the better ways to ward off the seasonal blahs of mid-winter, especially since back surgery has robbed me of the ski season. Keeping me warm beside the fire recently have been fond memories of our years as ‘narrowboaters’ on the canals of Great Britain.
For the uninitiated, narrowboats are essentially long skinny houseboats. (never more than 7 feet wide, and up to 70 feet long- ours was a 56 footer) They are descended from the working canal boats that plied the rivers and canals of the UK at the dawn of the industrial revolution. The canals, once the transportation backbone of the nation, re-emerged as a recreational marine network, as the commercial importance of the canals faded with the advent of rail and road transport, and people began converting the old work boats into pleasure craft. Modern narrowboats are purpose built for recreational living.
As a form of summer recreation narrowboating is sublime. With all the comforts of home packed between the gunwales, you perch on the small rear deck of the boat, and putter through the English countryside at a sedate 3 miles per hour; about the pace of a brisk walk. We seldom covered more than a couple of hundred miles on a two week cruise, and typically chose a ‘ring’ -a route along several intersecting canals that would eventually lead us back to our starting point without re-tracing our steps.
Although equipped with TV and radio, we preferred to keep them off, shutting out the modern world and slowing ourselves down to the pace of the 19th century, where the original narrowboats were horse drawn. The tow path, once reserved for draft horses, remains in the public domain enjoyed by runners, ramblers and dog walkers, and by boaters who are entitled to moor for free on the tow path. We would find a likely spot, typically a shady rural spot with pastoral views, pull into the bank, bang a steel peg into the ground fore and aft , and wind our mooring lines around them.
The canals meander through some of the most picturesque rural countryside that England has to offer. It glides slowly by all day, an ever-changing panorama of country life, from half timbered farm house to grand estates, quaint villages, and ancient canal side pubs.
It is hard to find a more deeply relaxing vacation than a fortnight on a slow moving narrowboat, unplugged from the internet, your body and your mind slowed to the tempo of life on the canal.
I had a moment of lucidity towards the end of my first year law school exams, and decided to put the paper chase on hold for a while, and bolted for the freedom of the open road.
I joined a small group of like-minded vagabonds and a couple of crazy Aussies who just happened to own a secondhand Bedford Army truck, which we decided to drive from London to Nairobi, across the Sahara desert, through the jungle of the Congo and on to the Great Plains of the Serengeti.
It was the adventure of a lifetime, and the Christmas season of 1973 found us approaching the border between the Congo and Rwanda, a border which abruptly and unexpectedly clanged shut in our faces in a snafu over expired exit Visas (or possibly a miscalculation of the size of the Christmas present expected by the border guards.)
Christmas eve found us rolling out our sleeping bags on what passed as the front lawn of a small mission church, in a tiny jungle hamlet where poinsettias bloomed naturally by the roadside. We made a stab at holiday decorating by up-ending a large hand of Bananas and festooning it with bits of tin foil.
My journal for Christmas eve recorded: “at dinner time, a group of youngsters, led by a guy wearing a band leader’s cap appeared, going door to door, singing some sort of chant-a local version of Christmas carols we guessed-stopping at our truck where we tipped them a few coins.
“Wieners and beans and smash for dinner – about 7:00PM Firos, one of the Cypriots who operate the trading post at the crossroads came by to quietly invite us to a Christmas party. Quietly, because Mbuto, the Congolese leader, introduced draconian measures against the local white population last month – confiscating land, businesses and money. In the aftermath, a ban has been imposed on gatherings of more than five whites, in order to throttle any dissent.
“Firos’ place, a couple of rooms tacked onto the back of the store, was the universal ‘bachelor pad- messy kitchen, but a fridge full of Makasi beer, and an empty living room except for a stereo and a stack of records sitting on an empty beer crate an a bedroom. painted black, with nude pin-ups as wall paper.
” About five guys were there when we arrived, and others filtered in during the evening As the bash got underway loud rock & roll gave way to Greek folk music – and the crockery started to fly as we were taught the rudiments of Greek dancing. The party ended with a drunken sing-song – Jingle Bells, Silent Night, Oh Suzanna (for some unknown reason!) and a beautiful medley of Spanish Christmas songs sung by a maudlin Spanish ex-pat suddenly grown very homesick.”
My journal reveals that much of Christmas day was taken up with nursing a hang over and trying to locate a black market source of diesel, as we were literally running on fumes, and the gas stations (all owned by whites) had been shut down in consequence of Mbuto’s ‘reforms’ It also records our Christmas dinner in some detail:
“We started about 2:00PM- first course was canned beef stroganoff (and beer) , followed by a very hot spanish rice salad that no-one could eat.(and beer) Next, canned ham, with canned new potatoes, and canned mushrooms,(and beer) accompanied by fresh bread, and tinned margarine, all topped off with tinned Christmas pudding topped with tinned Danish cream, (and beer) afterwards, people seemed to just drift off and crash -too much food -too much beer.”
“Boxing day – a cop arrived at breakfast with a letter addressed to “Monsieur le Chef de groupe des hippies”. We have been ordered out of town! Managed to score most of the fuel we needed from the guy that runs the brewery, and managed to clear the town by 4:30 and made about 60km by nightfall”
Christmas in the Congo- they don’t make ’em like that any more !
This year I’m riding the BC ferry for adventure – how about you?
Whistler has just sent a demand letter to a major Alberta oil company seeking compensation for the extra costs incurred by the municipality because of climate change. Now that is a bandwagon I can climb aboard!-here’s a draft of my own demand letter to Big Oil: Continue reading