Dry grasses rustled as we carefully skirted the gorge of Ethiopia’s biggest river, the rumbling, crashing sound of the water far below rising as we neared the edge, where a dirt track led several hundred metres down to flatter ground adjacent to the river itself. The light was already very low and fading quickly, as we were only 9 degrees north of the equator. Unseen animals lurked in the thorny scrub alongside our trail. . . .
As the uncle who disappeared for lengthy periods, usually in winter time to India, I was curious about what my very young nephew thought I might be finding in such a place. It may have been his exposure to the enigmatic Scottish poet Ivor Cutler, but he only had to think for a second or two and announced that there were probably egg trees.
In the slightly rising gloom outside I could hear a muffled coughing and grumbling, and the background clatter of hooves on the road nearby. As I had so many times before, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and tried to wake myself to appear as if I knew what I was doing. What followed was quite an eye-opener.
The first book I remember reading that involved travel to far flung locations was one written by an old colonial hand, Fred G Merfield, with the alluring title ‘Gorillas were my Neighbours’. Looking back, I now see it as the memoirs of a casual racist, (amazingly quite acceptable at the time), with caricatures of tribal rituals, cannibalism and bush meat in Equatorial Africa. However, it was a considerable eye-opener for an eleven year old boy and certain phrases from it still loiter in my mind.
When we travel, many of us will at least pay a nod to the old saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”. I guess that this is generally useful advice, in particular paying attention to socially acceptable dress and behaviour, and I have heard numerous instances of people thrown out of places of worship for wearing shorts, hauled off for kissing in public, and of course being obnoxiously drunk. It seems to me rather odd, even disturbing, that so many people will demand that visitors to their country adhere to the current views, but obstinately refuse to adapt their own behaviour when abroad. However, the choices we make once out of the office and ‘into the wild’ can be surprising, even to the participants. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me ‘I’d never have dared do that before’, and am glad I was able to help them go off the rails a little, its good to get out of your comfort zone.
Norway is famed the world over for dramatic scenery, with high mountains alongside a sometimes surprisingly blue sea. In the span of humankind, most of the region was beneath an ice sheet, kilometres thick, which sliced the tops from mountains, then carried the debris along in rivers of ice to the sea. Some areas in the far north and offshore islands like the Lofotens escaped glaciation, leaving a coastal landscape of jagged peaks.
Over the years I travelled many thousands of miles through India by rail, mostly hauled by diesel engines, but when I first went there, a lot of venerable steam engines were still in daily service, a honeypot for rail enthusiasts and history buffs alike. As is often said, the ‘Golden Age’ is never the present one; would one see the age of steam as being a golden age for India, or is that just for the hard bitten nostalgic ?
The BBC recently broadcast a series of one or two hour films on #slowtravel, one was a canal journey, another a reindeer sleigh trip in north Norway and another entitled ‘The Country Bus’ featuring a local bus journey through the narrow lanes and wide landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. They recalled a time not long past when travel wasn’t really about timetables, or at times, even specific destinations ! The early forerunners of modern adventure travel almost all operated on the basis that the traveller was not guaranteed to get to, or to see all the sights along the way, but they would do their best to attain a final objective. Thus, London to Kathmandu, Cairo to Cape Town became ‘routes’ followed by a steady stream of buses, converted trucks filled with hopeful wayfarers happy just to take things as they came.
There are sights that immediately tug at the heartstrings for many people, perhaps more than we imagine. To my mind, a sight of the open road is a symbol of freedom, of potential; of the choice to go or to stay, to feel that one’s personal space extends beyond the horizon. This last sensation is commonplace among native peoples the world over, but I encountered it first among the Sami inhabitants of Northern Scandinavia.
In India there are uncountable religious festivals, drawing in devotees, pilgrims and other people from all walks of life, in uncountable numbers. One such is encountered at Pushkar, in Rajasthan, a desert state. From all over India and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands gather at the full moon in November, around a temple dedicated to Brahma, the creator in Indian cosmology. It is said to be the only such temple in all India, and is sited in the centre of the village.
A tranquil rural scene in Sweden; in this bucolic setting, I formed several striking memories. The best was from the shed in the background; it was the location of a nest from where a newly fledged Pied Wagtail fluttered down and settled on my hand for a few minutes. The most surreal was to open the tent flap on a misty morning with the sun breaking through on the magnificent Harley Davidson in the picture. How it could have arrived there silently in the night was baffling, and there was no-one around to explain it. Other aspects of Tannas (in Jamtland), provided painful lessons.
“Texas always seemed so big, but you know you’re in the largest state in the Union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage”
(song by Michelle Shocked, theme to this summer, sung by Mary McCarthy)
Lumpy air buffeted the plane as we coasted over a choppy looking sea and threaded between snowy peaks toward our landing. This was the land that Jack London had brought alive for generations of armchair adventurers; land that offered promise, a sanctuary, a new start for so many, and literally a dead-end for as many more.
Podcast version here
Art and Survival in the Tassili Plateau
As I’d spent my formative tourleading years in Morocco, when one of the rarely operated tours to the middle of the Sahara came up for grabs, my managers and I both made a beeline for it.
The tour involved taking everything with me to run a trip which was centred around the charming sounding town of Djanet, pretty much smack in the centre of the Sahara, sandwiched between the mountainous region of Tassili n’Ajjer and the legendary Tenere stretching away south to Niger.
My Favourite Day of the Tour… The early 90’s was still a time when you could operate tours in Zaire, but only just. Our tours began in Uganda. Groups arrived at Entebbe Airport not only with their own luggage, but also with a pallet of assorted tinned and dried food put together by the ever hard working and multi-talented operations managers back in the UK.