At the tender age of 18, I took a gap year before starting University and joined an overland expedition from London to Kenya, in a clapped-out Bedford army truck.
Twenty-two strangers boarded the truck in Balham and four months later – having dug up roads, repaired bridges, dodged malaria and dysentery (some more successfully than others) and come face to face with the mountain gorillas – emerged as lifelong friends.
For four months, the only way to keep in touch with family and friends was via airmail letters, which were sent to the post offices in each of the larger towns we were due to pass through.
There were no mobile phones, no pagers (remember them?), no Twitter or Instagram on which to post amazing photos.
Only the major cities had public phones – and it was a risk to phone England and spend all that money, if you couldn’t guarantee someone would be home to pick up the phone at the other end.
Sometimes we passed through the post offices a few days too early and missed the post. Other times the airmail just got lost in transit (or perhaps opened by a nosey postal worker).
Receiving letters was so exciting. And the lack of them – devastating.
Half way through the journey we spent six weeks travelling at a snail’s pace through the rainforest of what was then Zaire, now Democratic Republic of Congo. Facing torrential rain, mudslides, overturned lorries and broken bridges in a ten ton truck, meant that on average we travelled only 12 kilometres a day.
Meanwhile our letters sat unopened in Kinshasa. And my parents were wondering if I was alive or dead. There were no phone calls, no postcards and the expedition’s head office had no news of our progress. Mum tried not to imagine the worst.
It’s so hard to conceive now how my family must have felt and how they coped, not knowing where I was, or if I was safe.
When my kids are ready to travel, they’ll be equipped with the latest technology and never entirely out of contact. Even if they don’t want to talk to me when they’re away, I’ll be able to read about their adventures on the latest social media channel.
[Tweet “There’s nothing like #travelling around Africa for 4 months with 22 strangers to make you appreciate #home #travel”]
I remember so vividly walking through the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport several weeks later. My hair was plaited in corn-rows, I had a deep tan, yet must have looked skeletal, weighing just six stone (38 kilos), after a diet consisting exclusively of green peppers and onions. My parents must have felt a mixture of relief and concern.
Walking through the door of my family home made me feel like a child discovering things for the first time. I hadn’t had carpet beneath my feet for four months. That first proper cup of tea, warm bath and night in my own bed, were all magical.
A bit like this:
I haven’t lived out of a rucksack since 1991, choosing to stay in one place when we go on holiday. I always feel that the best part of any holiday, is coming home.
No matter how incredibly and life changing my African adventure was, there really is no place like home.
Much love, Vx
[Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Hive]