Johan Bakkes: One hell of a traveller

‘That woman in the dress and bracelets is my dad!’ This is how the kikoi-clad author of To Hell and Gone is introduced to English readers for the first time by his young son. Alison Westwood had lunch with the Afrikaans travel writer Johan Bakkes and came back with a hangover, an Arabian fancy dress costume and a head full of stories.

It’s easy to recognise you. You look exactly like the picture on the back cover of your book.

Ja, people sometimes think I’m Kingsley Holgate, that guy who drives around with the mosquito nets. I know him; he’s a wonderful guy. But there are three differences between me and Kingsley: In the first place, he drinks Captain Morgan, I drink Red Heart. He drives a Land Rover, I drive a Toyota. And, thirdly, his Afrikaans is as kak as my English.

You write travel adventure books, but you’re a chartered accountant by profession. How did that come about?

I was born and raised in Saldanha Bay. My youth was spent in open spaces – the sea, the fynbos, playing in the koppies. My father taught us a love of the veld. Then we moved to Pretoria and I had to decide what to become.

In those days, you became a doctor, a dominee or a teacher. The only other choice was accounting, which I read in the newspapers was the highest-paid profession. As a chartered accountant, I made a lot of money, but I didn’t have any time to spend it. In retrospect, I would have gladly become a professional bum.

And now that you’re a professor at Unisa, you have more time to travel, but not as much money?

Ja, I travel on the cheap side, because I couldn’t afford it otherwise. But it also changes the whole travel milieu. The moment hardship is there, you can relate to the locals and they realise that you’re in the same situation, so they open up more. I believe that travel is experiencing the places with the people, because the people make the place and vice versa. I’m not really very philosophical, but that’s what makes travel interesting for me.

I love travelling in Africa. I’ve been to Europe once and travelled from one postcard to another. It was nice, but I prefer the Third World. I’m built for uncomfortableness, most probably. Backpacking is my first love. As I’m putting the pack on my back and tying my boots, I undergo a total personality change.

Which came first – the travelling or the writing?

I travel for travel’s sake and the stories are a by-product. My mother [Margaret Bakkes] has published 30 books, her nephew, Hennie Aucamp, is a well-known Afrikaans author, and my brother has written four or five books. I never thought I would be a writer. I didn’t want to be one of the Brontë sisters, you see. I only started writing when I was 42. I enjoy it, but the travel is the main thing.

So you and your brother are both writers?

My brother Chrisjan used to be a game ranger in Kruger Park. He jumped into a dam near Orpen with two crocodiles and came out of it minus an arm. He started writing after that. Now he’s the concession manager for Skeleton Coast.

Chrisjan is territorial and he will stay in the desert for the rest of his life. I’m nomadic; I can’t sit still. I need to see what’s on the other side of the koppie. And once I’m there, I hope there’s another koppie so that I can travel until I’m dead.

Some of your stories – especially the ghost stories – are quite far out. Did everything really happen the way you tell it?

In writing, you see something different. You’re looking for the story, but the story doesn’t always happen. I can’t write a story if I haven’t experienced it – I don’t have the imagination for thinking things up. But it can happen that a certain moment will gel with something else that happened years ago or to someone else and then I will combine the stories.

In your book you complain about something you call the ‘Getaway effect’. Are travel journalists a nuisance?

Someone once said, if you’re jealous of a place, don’t write about it – and I’m a very jealous traveller. Travel magazines open up special places for people who don’t experience them the same way. Of course, there’s no place on earth that hasn’t been seen by mankind before. You’re never really a discoverer.

But that specific feeling I get … I don’t know if the person who goes there because I wrote about it has the same experience. I think someone who hasn’t had to make the effort to discover a place experiences it superficially.

Do you ever get tired of travelling?

There are times when I’ve thought, ‘Shit, why am I here? I don’t want to be here.’ But I have been privileged to have my life as it is and I don’t regret a single moment. I can die now – but I don’t want to. The world is too big for one lifetime.

First published in the June 2010 issue of Getaway Magazine.

To Hell and Gone is the first English translation of Johan Bakkes’s adventure stories. Buy it on Kalahari now.

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