THE DESERT PRISONER

THE DESERT PRISONER

Think you’ve gone long periods without fishing before? In 2011, a few weeks into a six-month motorbike ride through Africa, from London back home to Johannesburg, Steve McGown was abducted by Al Qaeda in Northern Mali. Most people who encounter terrorists do not survive the ordeal, but Steve not only endured just under six years in the Sahara desert as a prisoner (a world record nobody wants to hold), he also emerged as one of the few people to get to know and understand Al Qaeda on both an individual and organisational level. For issue 24, he was our (inadvertently and inappropriately named) ‘Lifer.’ For the full story, get his new book ‘Six Years With Al Qaeda‘.

Six Years with Al Qaeda

The first fish I remember catching was a stumpie caught at Treneries in the Transkei. I was 5, we were on a family holiday with my parents’ mates. For the three weeks we were there it rained non-stop, but that did not stop my mom from teaching me how to fish. She loved fishing and she learned it from her dad.

I have lived long enough in Johannesburg, London and the Sahara desert in Northern Mali to have thought of each of them as home.

My home waters used to be on a cherry farm we owned near Fouriesburg in the eastern Free State. It was stocked with large mouth Florida bass when I was 7-years-old, which was awesome. My current stomping ground would be the Vaal, fishing for yellows.

Steve McGown on his home waters of the Vaal river
Steve McGown on his home waters of the Vaal river

I’ve had a lot of different jobs, from being a sport shoe salesman at Edgars, to house sitter, dog sitter, I worked in banking for years and then in the desert I was a general dogs body for Al Qaeda (mechanic, goat slaughterer, cook, hut builder, teacher and prisoner). Since I got back home, I am now an inspirational speaker, author and entrepreneur.

A typical day usually involves me going for a cycle with friends and then sitting outdoors drinking coffee and chatting. I then go home and shower, head past the office, reply to emails and WhatsApp, remove an item from my To-Do list and add three items, work on some spreadsheets, some Jojoba oil sales and farm issues, I reply to requests for speaking events, do a Zoom presentation for an event and finish off the day by taking the dogs for a walk in the park with my wife and then relax.

Steve McGown fly fishing in Spain
Steve McGown fly fishing in Spain

I am involved in a few businesses, but my main activity at the moment is speaking at events for corporates, forums and schools both locally and abroad. My largest on stage audience has been just over 700 people, and my largest Zoom call has been a couple of thousand. In addition, we are getting involved in a rehabilitation centre on our farm in the Karoo, 16km west of Ladismith. This is something I am very excited and passionate about. After all, we are all human and we all need a bit of help sometimes.

The best advice I have ever been given came from Al Qaeda surprisingly enough. They taught me something which is relevant in all worlds – that we must learn to be patient in life. Something else less philosophical they taught me – when you are milking a goat you must stuff its head into a bush so it can’t throw its head around and try stab you with its horns. You must also wedge its hind leg into the crook of your knee and hold on tight. I did not do this on two occasions and my cup of milk ended up being kicked over a sand dune.

I am most proud of having an amazing wife and marriage, and a family (father, sister and my late mom) who I could/can always rely on. That and I also had the Emir of Al Qaeda in Mali make me tea this one time.

The best party trick I have ever seen was probably someone lighting a fire in the desert using the lens cone of a torch. I did not believe it was possible so I waged a bet against Al Qaeda that if it did work, I would make everybody in that camp tea from that fire. I lost. A close second was how guys would use three camels to pull start a Land Cruiser bakkie with a tired battery.

 

For the rest of Steve’s interview, check out issue 24 of The Mission below:

 

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