Chemical #1 in Namibia
"The gun was much heavier than I'd expected. I could see the grooved surface of the percussion cap behind the cocked hammer and the flat explosion as it detonated, kicking the gun hard upwards, dulled my hearing momentarily. The 9mm bullet kicked up a flume of rock and dust a couple of inches away from the pipe that I'd been aiming for and at a distance of about 70 metres that was OK by me.
"Good !" said the Afrikaans policeman, "Now would you like to use the grenade launcher ?"
Well, why not ?
The second Jesus Jones single from our first album in 4 years, "Already" (ho ho) is "Chemical # 1", a brief study of my quest for
adrenaline (the substance of the title), admittedly a rather adolescent preoccupation but a fun way to live nonetheless. As with all our singles, a tape went out to a number of video production companies for them to return a script, or "treatment", an idea that everyone hopes will go on to be piece of film that lodges at MTV for 6 months and wins all kinds of awards while helping record sales go multi-platinum. Either that or a promo that gets your relatives excited one Saturday morning on the Chart Show. Usually, the creation involves the band miming to the song, wearing light clothing in a disused, draughty warehouse somewhere in London during winter, becoming increasingly hypothermic over the 16 hour shoot as Goretex and fleece wearing crew members look sympathetic. Pain is a theme that recurs frequently too, like the last video where band members were hung upside down on steel trusses for hours on end and revolved through 360 degrees in a giant baked bean can. So, when Stuart Gosling sent in a treatment suggesting the best way to capture the essence of the song was to spend 8 days in Namibia, formerly the South African colony of South West Africa, filming us as we mountain biked, sand boarded and generally did all we could to promote the presence of noradrenaline and the accompanying
betaendorphine in our systems, it was with the utmost professionalism, I felt, that I read the other 8 scripts.
We'd flown overnight to Windhoek, Namibia's capital, hired VW "Combi" vans and driven the 400 kilometres to Swakopmund and the Atlantic Ocean, 1200 kilometres north west of Cape Town. To call the place a seaside resort, whilst accurate, would be misleading : this is hardly Benidorm. For a start it's tiny. Then there's the location - from Windhoek, we'd travelled west over rolling hills and grassland, the typical southern African bushveld the nearer we got to the coast the less the vegetation until 100 kilometres from Swakopmund the Namib desert swept in. Flat, arid, treeless, grassless gravel flats, barren brown isolated "inselbergen " mountains and at the end of the journey, sand dunes rising to over 90 metres high. Then Swakopmund, besieged by sand and sea, more of a village
than a town, sitting (as linguists will have already ascertained) by the mouth of the Swakop river, a waterway which only sees surface water once every few years and even then only as a flash flood. Quite why the German settlers of the last century chose to live here is puzzling. That they decided to recreate a Bavarian village in this desolate place is a joyous testament to European colonial's more extreme idiosyncrasies. Here we are then, Swakopmund : Hansel and Gretel meet Lawrence of Arabia.
Back to the weaponry. Our location scout had suggested a long deserted copper mining village 50 kilometres out into the desert. Getting there involved traversing a series of increasingly tricky gravel and sand roads culminating in a "closed" sign before a heavily corrugated, boulder strewn "road" leading to the site. After a journey like that we didn't really want to see the location fuzzing with Namibia's blue uniformed paramilitary police. In the UK this would undoubtedly result in the "nothing to see here, go away quickly" routine from the law, and we expected the same here. Instead, presumably bored of their training manoeuvres in the desert and with the subordinate ranks (the black Namibians) off marching for days on end in the sand and heat, the officers (the white Namibians) were more than willing to help us shoot up their country. Would we like some smoke bombs for this shot ? Oh, go on then ! Would an explosion in the background look good ? I think we could fit that in. Have you ever used a hand gun before ? A grenade launcher ? It didn't seem like it would be long before we'd be driving tanks into Swakopmund and loosing a few shells off down Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse as our cheery, moustachioed kommandos looked on amiably.
So we stand around, nancy pop stars miming our silly song as these undoubtedly ex-members of the South African Defence Force, the army that fought Namibia's brutal war of independence on the side of colonialism and apartheid, stare at us through their sunglasses. The next shot involves me driving the Land Rover that contains the band and the sporting paraphernalia relevant to the video - mountain bikes and snow boards - "as fast as you can". There's a 20 minutes wait while the police clear away their booby traps from the area where the camera crew want to film from. Once the call comes through on the radio, I set off as instructed but judging by the whimpers from the back of the car and the crew's problem with filming us at what seemed to me to be a pretty modest rate of travel, my Duke's of Hazzard ambitions will have to lie wrecked at the side of the road for further takes.
More filming, more driving. Meanwhile, the police are getting bored - not enough firepower is being used and their honeymoon period with us is wearing off. Two of our local crew are talking, a short distance down the hill from the camera crew and the police. One of the men in blue asks us if they are foreigners or locals, presumably because the police assasination of dead locals causes less of an international incident. A shot gets fired at them, a few feet to their left. Then another, to the right. Possibly under the impression that if they ignore the bullets they'll go away, there's no reaction from either of the crew which turns out to be a mistake as the next round passes about 12 inches from one of the guy's head. It's time to leave.
As the Swakop river forges through the Namib near the end of it's desert sojourn, it forms a stunning canyon vista, a massive array
of dark fissures in the earth that stretch for miles into the distance, overlooked sternly by the Rossing mountains. This vast, desolate area is appropriately known as Moon Valley, although the moon has perhaps more vegetation. This is the location for the mountain biking filming and as I've spent many joyous, sunburnt weeks this decade pedalling off into deserts around the world, this is the bit I'm really looking forward to.
However, this is a video shoot and the budget didn't run to hiring a helicopter, Tour de France-style, to trail my progress through a 40 mile stretch of wilderness. Instead we get to ride up and down the steep gullies that make their eventual way to the river, cruising the flat crests of the watersheds and dropping down the loose rock and sand inclines. It should be explained here that the demarcation lines within the band are roughly that I do the energetic and hard work parts and the other three handle the more archetypal rock 'n' roll aspects. For them then, exercise means the walk to the off licence. And back. They were also the first people to eagerly misinterpret the title, "Chemical # 1". In a performance later described as "shit" by one of the camera crew, Jerry quickly finds his nerve to be in the same condition as his cardio-vascular system and opts to spectate rather than lie panting in the dust with a collapsed Kona on top of him, sand sticking to his profusely sweating face. Alan, whose body has taken this opportunity to remind him of all those late nights and all that vodka, is faring better but facing a crisis of ambition over ability - his were by far the best crashes. Iain, however, has grabbed the bull by the horns, or so it must feel as he plummets swiftly down a trail-less, gravel precipice, following my back wheel and the director's exhortation to take the steepest, most difficult route from top to bottom. We do take after take, sitting so far off the back of the bikes for balance that our chests rest against the back of the saddles, trying to avoid the back brake locking up and sliding the bike out of control, trying to avoid the front brake ( aka "the ejector lever") altogether. At the end of an impressively audacious novice performance, Iain comments, "Fear isn't normally something I associate with being on a bike". The penny drops - Chemical # 1, indeed.
All through that night the wind punches the hotel windows and scythes through the palm trees lining the beach outside, bending their
fronds to 90 degrees - don't try this at home. Perhaps it's me : my visit to Lanzarote (just off the Saharan coast) where " a couple inches of rain a year is unusual" was a wash out, a long, freak storm in Mediterranean Minorca made an optimistic biking holiday there as muddy as a week in the Lake District and one of my two trips to Australia coincided with floods in New South Wales the size of Western Europe. What my freak weather blighted existence is experiencing this time is the worst sandstorm in Namibia for
seven years. My first inkling that all is not well is at the wake up time of 5.30 AM when I stumble groggily into the bathroom and discover a quarter of an inch of sand covering every surface and a fine, sparkling mist of the stuff descending from the skylight. There is sand in my toothbrush, in the soap, in my clothes, in my razor and even horrifyingly, on the toilet paper : it's the ultimate beach picnic nightmare.
The local crew are refusing to come out as they like the paintwork on their cars the way it is. Later in the week, I see a car that has been out in the sandstorm ; the front of the bonnet is beautifully smoothed of all paint so that the bare metal fades in toward the front of the car and the headlights have the appearance of an old piece of glass on the beach. At 8 o' clock, tired of waiting around on "maybe later" I go out to do some shopping. The town is being obliterated by sand and wind, I feel like I've wandered into a documentary about natural disasters. Eerily, visibility is down to about 100 feet with the sun just visible, looking more lunar than solar. Small drifts, parodies of the dunes a few hundred yards away are ganging up at every street corner and snaking across the roads. It's soon apparent why the streets are empty as the wind blows sand into my eyes, ears, nose, mouth and stings any skin it comes into contact with - all this for a tube of toothpaste.
Returning to the hotel, I find evidence of the eccentric Namibian service ; the bed is perfectly made, the room tidied, the welcome chocolate mint on the pillow and the welcome half inch of sand all over the toilet. Still, several local farmhouses have had their roofs removed in the storm so I expect they have sand in the bathroom, too.
By 10 AM, director Stuart, driven by remorseless artistic frenzy and the knowledge that all the equipment here is hired, decides to brave the elements and so we drive out into the dying storm to film a few shots of us standing about trying to look cool and iconic whilst being skinned alive. I feel like a butcher's shop carcass wearing sunglasses. The storm is over by early afternoon and our convoy of vans and Land Rover heads into the sand dune belt that runs parallel to the coast between Swakopmund and Walvis Bay. Some of the dunes here are big enough to be permanent landmarks and "The Matterhorn" at around 90 metres, although far smaller than some of
the dunes a few hundred kilometres to the south, juts impressively into the cloudless sky. The first shot here involves climbing over the other side of the Matterhorn to where the uninterrupted view is of a sea of dunes below us stretching magically to the Atlantic. It's a phenomenal sight, enriched in a sort of stoic way by having to plod half a mile uphill over sand with all the film and sound equipment. OK, so I personally didn't have to do that but dressed for the shoot in a woollen jersey, combat trousers and snowboarding boots, I figured my suffering was at least a token attempt at sympathy with the sand Sherpas of the crew. Revenge, at last !
It took 2 hours to climb the dune and set the shot up. By this time the fading light that would be gone by 5.30 was introducing a note of
anxiety as the last few details were co-ordinated over walkie talkies. And with impeccable timing, here, somewhere to the left of the middle of nowhere, come a large group of American tourists. Stuart gawps in mute disbelief as clad in canoe helmets and holding small sheets of chipboard, they stride to the top of the dune and into shot. Then, instructed by a woman whose strident Californian accent scathes the dunes like the storm earlier in the day, one by one they lie on their chipboard toboggans and drop down the dune face first, leaving great trails in the previously unblemished sand for the unforgiving attention of our camera. One of them starts singing the chorus of a six year old hit of ours. I grit my teeth and discover more hidden sand. And an English voice yells out in despair, "F**king TWATS !"
Lucky there was room in the budget for post-production trickery, then.
The next day the Matterhorn was ours alone and we would shoot the sand boarding scenes. As the band member who had snowboarding experience, I thought I'd have a head start with this. Nice idea but wrong. Manoeuvrability on sand is far less than on snow and the pathetically enthusiastic snowboarding moves I tried resulted in a large quantity of sand down the back of the trousers. Alan, with novices naiveté, discovered the best approach - point the board straight down and go like Hell, thus leaving you to fall off at high speed on the bottom of the slope where the sand is packed hardest. Standing at the summit of the Matterhorn, much of Namibia below you, the stiff wind blowing sand into your sweat and a very, very steep slope falling down to the seemingly Dinky toy-sized convoy below, it took some commitment to launch yourself strapped to a chunk of wood. But by the time we'd struggled for 15 minutes in 35 degree heat up steep sand there was little else for it . The sweat involved in the climb and the frequent falls on the way down made for some particularly unphotogenic material. Best image from this session was of Alan, whose bald, shaven head at the top had, infomercial style, transformed into a sandy wig at the bottom.
I managed five runs, fifteen minutes uphill and 15 seconds down each, before lip synching shots saved my Achilles tendons from permanent damage.
Our last day of filming. This particular shot had bothered me beforehand, us driving the Land Rover through a shanty town situated
unfeasibly 60 desert kilometres from anything human, next to what would have been a river if it contained any water. "A cheap holiday in other people's misery" snarled Mr Lydon in my ear. But if we were insensitive, comparatively rich Europeans exploiting this beautiful poverty, darling, no-one had informed the local Topnaars, part of the Nama tribes, one of the oldest native Namibian peoples, who turned out in force to laugh at the circus come to town. Racially, they're quite different from other Africans, having pale, almost yellow skin, heart-shaped faces and a language that has to be heard to be believed. It's odd enough that it includes "!" as part of it's alphabet, loosely represented by the sound you get from clicking your tongue from the roof of your mouth. The conversation around us popped and clicked, little verbal firecrackers exploding in the streams of otherwise familiar human speech as I thrashed the Land Rover through the village and almost but not quite, over the village chickens.
Then it's the last shot, the last obstruction before our time here is all our own for the last couple of days. Stuart has decided that I
perform better having worked up a sweat and so instructs me to run up the road out of Swakopmund, into the desert while the camera crew make the final preparations. Fifteen minutes later I'm still running, I've definitely worked up more than a little sweat and I'm out on my own in the Namib desert. Briefly, I contemplate doing a Forest Gump, keeping on right across the continent to Mozambique but the crew catch up with me before the practicalities of not carrying my passport do. Close up shots of me lip synching are needed and I must drive the Land Rover while Stuart hangs out of the side of the van running alongside with the camera. This means I have to use the old dirt road that is corrugated, full of rocks and punctuated with vehicle-deep flash flood channels gouged out of it as it runs parallel
with the new tarmac highway at a steady and exact 60 kmh while lip synching. I'm not sure whether the rest of the band trust me implicitly or have no idea that I feel like our last moments on earth will be spent miming as we plough steadily and exactly into a gully, a ludicrous fate finely documented on film. The stock runs out before we bungle off this mortal coil.
Our time is all our own now. I celebrate with a bike ride down the coastal road towards Walvis Bay. A few kilometres south of Swakopmund is a promontory sticking out into the Atlantic where the already impressive surf is at it's largest. I sit in the sun, the dunes at my back and drift into an early afternoon contemplation watching the surfers rise up and down in the cold ocean. It seems pretty idyllic here, the sea, the sun, the sand, the relaxed lifestyle of the people we've met. It's like the world we imagine the Beach Boys lived in before the unpleasant urban reality of modern southern California intruded. Here, there really is a sense of New
World youthfulness, vigour, innocence from the locals and the South Africans on the crew (one of whom it transpires I was in the same school class as twenty two years ago), an air that Europeans automatically attribute to America but which the US in reality seems to have lost hold of in the main. Perhaps this is just a tourist's indulgence but it comes together smoothly watching the surfers under a cloudless sky.
I've been hooked up with Kirby, a local mountain biker and for the next two evenings we check out his local trails, an inaccurate term as the desert sand all around Swakopmund limits the riding to the course of the river. We ride the valley between dark granite hills that point bleakly from the hard packed sand floor, a quarter mile strip where we are free to ride wherever we like, thorn bushes, sand and river channels dependent, in the knowledge that our 2 inch wide tyre marks will be gone with the next storm. The end of the rides, at about 5.30, are as the sun is falling behind the jagged edges of rock and the violent orange and red colours of sunset are of the sort normally only found in children's drinks.
On the night to celebrate the end of filming, we drive to Walvis Bay and a place called The Raft, a bar and restaurant built on a jetty in
the town's lagoon. The nearby docks employ the local population, many of whom cannot swim and The Raft's opening night was somewhat tarnished by a corpse floating serenely underneath but still in clear view of the revellers. With the quantity of alcohol consumed tonight, it's just a matter of time before one of us (probably Alan) ends up drunk in the drink. I eat a jalapeno shark fillet, on the basis that I should eat dangerous animals before they eat me, an approach I've utilised the world over with a variety of toothy fish, crocodile, bear, alligator and kangaroo (OK, not strictly a predator but try and find an Australian animal that isn't lethally poisonous). A very appetising method of self preservation it is too.
The final adrenaline inducing activity we had planned was one that we weren't able to film and could therefore attempt at full throttle : quad biking. These four wheel drive, 200 cc motorbikes bring out the delinquent teenager in anyone. Within our first few minutes of what was supposedly a guided tour, Iain was pulling doughnuts in the gravel, Ben from the crew took a flying jump at speed and buried the bike in a minor dune, Stuart had come over all speedway and Jerry was, well, joyfully unravelling the mysteries of piloting a motorised vehicle for the first time. The guided element of the tour comes into it's own when you head out of the start area by the road and move into the desert. The gravel flats are sensitive ecological areas, tyre marks can be visible for decades afterwards (unlike in the dunes where the next day, our tracks were all but gone) and so the group sticks to existing trails. Not that this is restricting ; in a speed tuck, in 6th gear and at the maximum speed of 90 kmh, racing the rest of the group in a storm of dust, you don't feel particularly nannied. Then it's into the dunes where the manoeuvrability and power of the bikes makes them perfect for the terrain. The speed and G forces involved in firing up an 80 metre dune on the left side, riding along the crescent edge of the summit and then plummeting down the right hand side to the valley leading to the next dune are exhilarating, the essence of what Chemical # 1 is about, what we were here to try and capture on film. Through the sand mountains, tilting at crazy angles to the left then the right, dropping down 45 degree slopes, getting air, wheel spinning through slaloms, climbing impossible looking faces of sand : Two hours of sand spewing, grit in the eyes, throttle bashing heaven.
A couple of hours of this wasn't enough for me. I came back on our last day, a few hours before the drive back to Windhoek and the flight home and tagged along with a group of Americans, school friends on an extended trip around southern Africa. After the briefing, there is a period of getting to know the controls on the bike, easing your way into the forthcoming ride. Within the first sixty seconds of this warm up, one of the women in the group had hit a couple of ridges at unfamiliar speed, tipped the bike back over front, face planted and had the bike come down on her, breaking her collarbone. The ambulance took half an hour to arrive. Twenty minutes later, having travelled a few short miles at speeds golf cart drivers would sneer at, one of the bikes breaks down with a clutch problem. During the 40 minutes it takes for a replacement to be sent out, one of the riders says of his friend, "I hate to say "I told you so "but he was saying you don't need to use the clutch on these things". This, I feel, the bike manufacturers would not fully agree with. Two hours and many, many gear changes later, the same rider was asking me how to select neutral. The fact that he purposely chose a manual gearbox when automatics were readily available only heightens the mystery. At about this point the "What do you do ?" questions start and their knowledge of an old hit song of mine brings the cameras out again. "Hey ! Can you sing the words to the song while I take the picture ?" says one of my fellow bikers. Things become tense for a while.
At great delay, my mind on the 400 kilometre drive I should have already started, we are about to reach the half way point. The guide with me on his tail descends the first of the dunes, hits a jump and coasts to a halt on a gravel flat. We turn around to watch the arrival of the first rider behind us, the diplomatic photographer, who hits the jump, lands, turns around to look at it and tips the bike over on it's side, speedily introducing his face to the grittier side of Namibia. Very, very quietly, I can make out the guide saying, "Not ...again !" He has never had a "faller" before. Faller # 2 this morning, but for the presence of ears, looks like he has done 5 rounds with Mike Tyson, his left eye swollen and bloody and cuts leaking all over his visage. As he is being patched up, the rest of the crew are pootling towards the dune. The last of them, the second woman, attempts the 70 metre high, steep sided lump of sand in a too high gear with low revs and even less speed, if such tender velocity can be referred to as such. It's an interesting approach and an utterly useless one : she
stalls, axle-deep, about a third of the way up. With the guide busy staunching Gravel Face's wounds and my flight imminent, I scoot to the bottom of the dune from where I can accelerate away again without getting trapped in the sand myself, walk up the slope and start to haul the immobilised bike out of the sand. Another bike is heading our way, across the gravel then up the dune. "Keep going ! KEEP GOING !" I'm screaming to myself but telepathy fails me and the second bike pulls to a stop almost on top of us, oblivious to the slope, the sand and the limitations of both bike and rider. "Hey ! What's up ?" Well, what's up is I'm digging you lot out of this bloody great dune one at a time while a couple of Air Namibia pilots tap their fingers on the black box and the air hostesses grow steely eyed and spiteful, vengefully awaiting my eventual arrival. Freed, the woman attempts the same dune in the same manner with the same result.
The pattern for the remainder of this epic ride is set. Half of us will hammer up the dunes like the Banana Splits with road rage, reach the top, pause expectantly while looking over our shoulders, then switch the engines off, watch the guide disappear behind us to emerge five minutes later towing a Sunday driver of the future.
And so my exit from Namibia is guaranteed to be in the spirit of the video, an over-amped rush, part exhilaration, part panic. The
accelerator pedal in the van remains stuck frantically to the floor as desert turns slowly into scrub then bushveld and our snail-like progress is made across the vast landscape. We tear past giraffe, springbok and jackal, our attention is occasionally drawn to traffic police and vice versa. The final surge comes from one last explosive, Technicolor sunset over Windhoek. Then the night fades Namibia out for me, the journey ends and I'm drained of energy, ready for sleep.