On the flight into Kinshasa, I sat next to an elderly Englishman who was pallid with fear. He revealed that he was a bankrupt who was determined to survive by smuggling gold dust out of the Congo. He was on the verge of tears at the prospect of returning to the African city where only a week before he had been robbed at gunpoint of his cash and gold. He cut a sad and lonely figure but flying over that ocean of unbroken forest I couldn’t help but envy him a little bit for his risk-taking.
I have never been interested in money but I did enjoy Moscow in the early 1990s, when I met young bankers who launched their business careers selling black-market Levi’s jeans on the pavement. One had become a commodity trader after hijacking a train laden with wheat. I met an American investor who back home had devised software to predict the outcome of dog races and baseball games — before piling into the 1,700 per cent Russian equities surge that predated Yeltsin’s first heart attack. Youthful high rollers invited me for dacha weekends outside Moscow, where I rode a bond trader’s stallion whose previous owner was the chairman of the Supreme Soviet, Andrei Gromyko.
I never had any money either, though I did try to understand how to make it in the 1990s dotcom boom, when I attended conferences in London for entrepreneurs launching websites that made gazillions from selling anything from tampons to mail-order paperclips. The bubble burst but by then I had already moved on to studying Israeli military tech stocks – and what little cash I ever had was squandered in a Las Vegas casino.
I’ve always been attracted by risk. My challenge has been how to recapture the adrenalin of riding on an Ethiopian rebel tank through the palace gates in Addis Ababa, armed with a scoop and an undamaged liver. I’ve gone skydiving with soldiers and I’ve mastered the basics of surfing badly — but bungee jumping and rollercoasters just terrify me and seem pointless. There has to be a proper purpose to risk. Being a foreign correspondent offers a relatively uncomplicated life in which you deal in the big questions and can usually pretend to cling to the moral high ground — even if you confess it’s disturbing to have to take pictures of starving kids or war casualties. One reason I became a journalist was probably that my colonial family had been in public service for generations and one looked down on those who were in ‘trade’. We never made any money and we were damn proud of it.
I recently retired from all forms of hacking other than The Spectator. I thought this was a fine idea because we have school fees for growing children about to hit us and I realised I must devise a clever plan. Quick. But what plan — and how to include risk? Over Christmas at home on the ranch there were cattle raids nearby but the rustlers didn’t have a crack at us — so it was an entirely tranquil holiday during which I planted trees, injected cattle against foot-and-mouth disease and turned in to bed before nine o’clock.
Any man would be happy living such a quiet life on the farmstead but the thought of hanging up my spurs this early and giving up risk entirely reminds me of General Allenby played by Jack Hawkins in Lawrence of Arabia. Hawkins incessantly practises his fly-fishing technique, looking ahead to his retirement even when his greatest battles are still ahead of him.
My battles are also ahead of me. This month I’m setting off again for Africa’s open frontier, hoping to make my fortune while being part of the great economic miracle happening across our continent. I’m aiming more along the lines of fast-food outlets in Mogadishu than smuggled bags of gold dust. But there will be plenty of risk! Instead of the rumble of an old Soviet tank beneath me as we accelerate towards palace gates, I can feel the expensive sigh of air-conditioning on the dawn shuttle to a sub-Saharan metropolis.