The trend in travel equipment today is firmly focussed on weight. Every item must be super-light, multi-purpose and have a half-life of 1000 years. This is a sensible drift, of course, and I’ve seen too many first-time backpackers automatically buy the biggest pack they can find, one the size of a small fridge, in the fear of being without some precious home comfort. With 100+ litres at their disposal, they fill up with such essentials as puzzle books, beach towels, the hairdryer or favourite snack foods (I mean, really, is there anywhere in the world you can’t get a chocolate bar? Experience local junk food instead). This exuberant packing results in pasty-faced, twig-legged teenagers staggering around bus depot all over the known world with more possessions than your average Mumbai slum-dweller. There’s a reason snails crawl: were they to stand up straight the weight of their shell would topple them backwards. Just sayin’.
Anyway, I digress. I like to limit my load to about 12kg, but every traveller has at least one luxury item that they carry around religiously, despite its impractical nature. Some carry a cribbage board, some a musical instrument, some a complete set of Encyclopaedia Britannica. I carry my hat – a Rogue 127X Explorer, handcrafted in South Africa. Of course, a hat is an indispensable article on the road, yet this one is particularly special: its waxy, full-grain leather is extremely hot in the summer, yet weighs a ton when wet. Its greatest asset though, is that it looks really cool.
I bought my hat in Knysna, a town on South Africa’s Garden Route, on my way to Port Elizabeth for a wedding in 2003. It was love at first sight. Unused to owning a hat though, I’d got as far as Namibia by the time I noticed that I wasn’t wearing it anymore, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had been. A thorough search of the car and luggage revealed a hatless state of affairs, and I was inconsolable. I refused to buy another, because in my self-loathing I felt I didn’t deserve one, at least until 2006 when I’d relocated to Cape Town, and my second hat has stayed with me to this day.
Hats are especially useful in deserts, such as the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile. I was on my way there from Uyuni in Bolivia, via the incredible salt flats, on a four-day 4WD tour that straddled 2002 and 2003. On New Year’s Eve we found ourselves in basic accommodation on the edge of Laguna Colorada, a bright red mineral lake fringed with salty deposits. Our group of six had already had trouble with the driver-and-wife team, who were argumentative, refused to cook vegetarian food and generally treated us like children. This evening we were left to our own devices: an all-night party with the other tour groups celebrating, hour by hour, New Year in the home time zones of all present.
Our Australian friends, Rob & Emma, had had their moment earlier in the day, and as the evening progressed we worked our way through waves of Israeli and European zones, through UK and Brazilian dwellers, to the current Bolivian New Year at midnight. A few North American residents followed but most of us went to bed around 2am, before California had had their shout. We were all pretty pleased with ourselves.
We started to wake from 5am in typically hot, blazing sunshine. There had been some commotion during the night when one pissed driver had burst into our dorm and tried to get into bed with Valerie. It soon became obvious that if we had enjoyed a good night, our driver and his mates had put us to shame. Indeed, with an all-day drive in front of them, they were still working their way through the remainder of their stash, now converted to a pyramid of empty beer cans.
Our driver, a belligerent bastard even when sober, turned into a lumbering block of rage when challenged, a character I’d thought more likely to encounter at a post-football riot than being paid to drive me around a desert. Unsurprisingly Emma decided to confiscate his car keys, whereupon he pushed her over and grasped Rob by his dreadlocks, wrestling him to the ground mumbling threats to kill him and his “bitch wife the bitch hag”. I think it was around this moment that his chances of getting a tip began to diminish.
We rescued our friends when he retreated to his vehicle, opening the bonnet to try and work out why it wouldn’t start. The cretin had already forgotten we had the ignition keys. As the only person continuing to over the Chilean border I was able to gate crash another of the Land Rovers, but my comrades were supposed to travel all the way back to Uyuni with this madman. As my rescuer pulled away, I waved at their dejected figures, resigned to waiting a whole day for the company to send out a replacement driver to retrieve them.
And that, my friends, is why you should always wear a Rogue hat in the desert!