29 Feb 1996 - Mvurwi, Zimbabwe

This will be a bit of a short report. I am in the north of Zimbabwe with my wildlife artist friend Larry Norton. We have finished creating a painting of our trip together in West Africa. It is called "Congo." I am having this made into prints and postcards, so that I can give these out as "thank you" gifts along the way. I can also sell them to help with the petrol fund. It has turned out well, I think. A photograph can sometimes be a little limiting; it is real, but it is often difficult to capture the light or the perspective in a photograph that shares the mood of an experience.

This painting, "Congo," tries to convey something that I have felt a lot on this trip - and that is the fear of the unknown. It is about that empty place inside of you just before you make a decision - a decision to turn around or to carry on. The plane is over the Oubangi River in northern Congo. Larry and I have flown for about four hours between thunderstorms heading for Impfondo. This is near the perfectly round Lake Telle that isn't on any map; the Pygmies believe that a dinosaur called "Mokele-mbembe" lives here. It is very late in the afternoon and another large storm looms ahead. If we leave the river, we might miss the town. We descend low and follow its course through the storm and into darkness to the dimming lights of a misty town.

Larry and I are planning a series of paintings on the trip. The next one will be "Sahara." This will be about wonder and mystery. The Sahara is three and a half million square miles of desert - the largest in the world. We see it on a map; it is that large yellow thing. Inside it is a vast and bizarre collection of images from barchans and tassili to giant ergs; the sand is like the sea. The painting will be of the approach to Timbuktu.

I recently saw my father for the first time in five years. He came out to Larry's farm. A lot has happened in my family since I left from Philadelphia. If a family is strong, anything can seem possible; but if it stumbles a little, it can leave you feeling very vulnerable and alone. I never would have imagined this before. To see my dad again, was like looking in a mirror. He said that I had acquired that thousand yard stare - like a soldier who has been under fire a little too long. Well, now I know, and I can accept that. I know my most powerful tool has been to laugh at myself. Now, I will laugh at my thousand yard stare, and maybe I can turn it into a smile. Another friend told me to be more human. She said that I was too programmed. These things are like gold - to step outside of myself, to trust someone, and then to adjust.

I think I suspected from the beginning that this trip would be as much of a journey inside my head as it would be a physical journey across continents. I never imagined how powerful a force loneliness could be. Even when I am surrounded by people, I can feel like a stranger. I smile - I am good at that - but I am alone. They are friends, but they don't know me. It has been frightening, because it is something that I have never really experienced before. It is not on the outside like a thunderstorm or a hostile place; it is on the inside, and it can't be avoided or ignored.

When I was in the mountains of Lesotho, I was snowed in at a small airstrip on the edge of a cliff. I was very cold and wet. Several young Basotho children dressed in rubber boots and blankets brought me back to their "lapeng" (home). The round mud hut had a roof of thatched grass. Inside, there was a smoldering fire fueled by dried cow dung. It was so warm. I took out my pen and wrote to a sailor. He had sailed a small boat around the world by himself when he was younger. I had met his uncle in Niger. I think I was asking for a friend - one who had made it back. He did write to me; he didn't quit. He had had some difficult times; his reply was thoughtful and honest. I received a lot of letters in Zimbabwe. It has shown me the importance of friends and family. I have written seven hundred letters and cards since I have been here; I am grateful to a lot of people.

From here, I go to Zambia.

Tom Claytor