For as long as I could remember, I had always wanted to travel and see the world. By the age of eight, I had read my parents’ 12-volume encyclopaedia and spent hours devouring the maps of the world in volume two. My birthday present that year was a huge pictorial world atlas that had two photographs which were to shape my life. One was of the dunes of the Sahara Desert and the other was of an immense African river set in a dense forest. Closing my eyes, I can still see these photographs and feel the same surge of excitement I felt as a small boy when I so desperately wanted to see them in real life.
In 1977, in the final years of dental school in Manchester, I had agreed with two friends, Paul Speight and Pete Flooks, to buy a Land Rover and travel across Africa to Cape Town. On qualifying the next year, reality raised its ugly head. Student life was finished and it was time to work for a living. Within two years our pipe dream was over: Paul had got married and Pete was about to open his own practice. Their priorities had changed. Neither was interested in a long overseas trip. That left me with a simple choice – abandon my dream of travel to Africa or go it alone.
Staying around Manchester I had started working in general practice as an NHS dentist. I enjoyed the satisfaction of a job in the health sector and revelled in the intense pressure we worked under. In those days it was not unusual to see and treat over 60 patients a day. The routine wearing of protective gloves was unheard of and hot air ovens were not only used to ‘sterilise’ instruments but also to warm pies for lunch.
It was not all work and no play. In 1979 I joined six other dentists on a three-week sailing holiday in the Caribbean from St Lucia to Grenada and back. My only previous sailing experience was as a young boy in a dinghy with my dad and brother on the Norfolk Broads. Happily, the others had been out the year before and one of them was a competent yacht sailor and navigator. I devoted myself to learning essential life skills: how to make jugs of Harvey Wallbangers and to maintain a smile after falling off a windsurfer for the hundredth time.
Each day we anchored in a picture-postcard bay and plunged into the crystal-clear, turquoise waters to cool off and snorkel amongst the myriad tropical fish. Rowing our dinghy ashore, we’d work our way through the extensive cocktail lists at places like the legendary Basil’s Bar on the island of Mustique. At another stopover in the Grenadines, well-stocked shark pools lined the narrow gangway from the jetty to the bar. It was not wise to overdo the Planter’s Punch and risk a short, terminal swim on the way back.
On an outing in Grenada we drove an open-top Mini Moke into the heavily forested centre to visit a remote waterfall. We took a wrong turn and were headed down a steep and overgrown road when we came to an abrupt stop in front of a stack of ammunition cases. Earlier in the day our car had lost its reverse gear so we were stuck. A group of rag-tag soldiers in full camouflage outfit and wielding automatic rifles appeared out of the trees either side. We thought we were in real trouble when a tall officer in a smart green uniform and Che Guevara hat stepped forward and asked what we were doing there. Once he realised our predicament, he could not have been more helpful and ordered his men to help us out. They all laughed and joked with us, indicating we needed to get out of the vehicle. The men put down their weapons and picked up our Mini Moke with ease. Turning it around, they helped push as we drove it back up the hill. Four years later the United States launched a full-scale invasion called ‘Operation Urgent Fury’ to wipe out their perceived menace of a Cuban threat in this tiny island. I only hope these great guys were not hurt.
As a student, I had shared a house for two years with five friends in Fallowfield in Manchester. In 1980, I flew to Los Angeles with three of them Phil, Ken and Paul, where we hired a Lincoln Versailles and toured California. This was the Lincoln Continental’s little brother but was still a huge car and even had air-conditioning, a luxury that until then we had only read about. We did the classic road trip following California Route 1 along the coast and Big Sur to San Francisco. It was amazing to visit places we had seen in films and TV shows such as Bullitt and The Streets of San Francisco.
It was summer, and we had not realised that ocean currents peculiar to California enveloped the coast strip in fog while it was baking hot only a few miles inland. We headed east to enjoy the sunshine and spent the next week visiting the awe-inspiring rock walls of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Continuing southwards, we stopped at cheap motels to keep costs down. We stuffed our faces with cheap hamburgers with exotic names like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, so much better than our English Wimpy burgers. Our route took us through the Sequoia Park to see the magnificent trees that are the largest living things on the planet. They estimate the famous General Sherman tree to be over 2,500 years old.
Our next step was to drive to Las Vegas through Death Valley, one of the hottest places on earth. With borders of steep high mountains, it formed a major obstacle for westward-bound early American settlers. We were running out of fuel on our descent into the valley, but discovered it was not a good idea to switch off the engine and try to freewheel around hairpin bends in a car that had powered steering and power assisted brakes. A ranger station on the valley floor helped us out with a gallon of petrol and we carried on to Vegas across the sun-baked salt plains.
After the natural wonders we had passed through, the concrete and neon experience of the Las Vegas strip was a shock but no less impressive. The cost of motel rooms and eating out in restaurants were all kept affordable to attract gamblers, as were the incredible evening shows. In one casino, the stage turned into a cascading waterfall during the extravaganza and live tigers ran in caged tunnels through the audience.
It was staggering to watch so many people mindlessly feeding the acres of slot machines or gambling their hard-earned wages on the roll of a ball on the roulette wheel, and for all of us it was a relief to get out of the artificial environment of the city. The beach on Lake Meade above the Hoover Dam provided a moment of sanity before making our way back to Los Angeles and home.
These holiday experiences in exotic locations made me realise that I was still desperate to travel. I would have to give up the comfort of companionship and the security of a Land Rover and go it alone, with just a rucksack for all my worldly possessions. With enough money saved after two years of work, I quit my job before I could change my mind. I packed my belongings and left Manchester ready to convert my childhood dream into reality. My parents’ house near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire acted as my base while I prepared a full and heavy pack complete with side panniers. I crammed it with every conceivable item I deemed essential for a long trip. The only thing missing was a large L-plate on the back.
I thought the easiest thing would be to buy a one-month Interrail ticket for Europe. I planned to travel as far as Greece, from where I would get to Egypt as the first step in my journey across Africa. And so, on 5 December 1980 at the ripe old age of 24, I set off on my own to Cape Town. I turned left at Amsterdam and ended up in Copenhagen, where I met a freezing mermaid with a hat of snow gazing out across the bleak seafront. I wanted to think I was getting as much mileage as possible out of my ticket. Either that, or it was a subconscious attempt to run 180 degrees away from the challenge I had set myself.
Thankfully, I found it easy to get around the train network and staying in youth hostels provided the perfect introduction to solo travelling and there was always someone I could talk to who spoke English. Tourist information offices identified local places of interest which I dutifully visited to fill up the day. Absorbing information from guidebooks and leaflets helped counter my feelings of loneliness.
Continuing northwards, I arrived in Oslo and walked to the top of the huge Olympic ski jump ramp. It did not take much more than a downward glance to admit that there was no way I would ever be brave enough to launch myself down that slope. I could congratulate myself on having already left home and friends behind, but my admission only fuelled recurring doubts as to whether I would be mentally strong enough to continue down the ski slope of life to Africa once my rail ticket had expired.
Setting off on a whirlwind tour of Norway, I caught a hydrofoil ferry through the beautiful fjords, then headed north through snow-clad mountains over the Arctic circle to Narvik to experience the eerie permanent darkness – the only hint of daytime being a lighter area in the gloom just above the horizon for a few hours around midday. Crossing into Sweden, the train route went through endless forests to Stockholm where I took two days off to explore the history and culture of the old town, Gamla Stan.
I caught an overnight sleeper back to Amsterdam on 23 December and checked into a dormitory-style hostel where I met other backpackers, many of whom also had railcards. There were bragging rights among the backpacking fraternity that depended on how long they had been out and how many places they had been to. I kept quiet as my two-and-a-half weeks and super-fast tour of Scandinavia did not count for much. I came across an unhappy Englishman who wasn’t looking forward to Christmas in Amsterdam. He had arrived from London three weeks earlier and had not liked backpacking but had told his friends he would be away for two months and, not wanting to lose face, felt he could not go home. Even as a novice I understood that the ethos of travelling was to do whatever you wanted. If that meant going north when headed south or returning home for a few days, then so be it. Listening to his talk of home made me realise that was exactly what I wanted to do. It was only a ferry and two train rides to Aylesbury. I went home the next day to enjoy a great family Christmas and reassure everyone I was fine. It gave me the chance to get rid of my panniers and the bulk of my ‘essential’ items, and I set off for Amsterdam again the day after Boxing Day with a much more bearable pack and a much lighter frame of mind.
I wanted to be in Athens when my one-month rail ticket ran out on 4 January as I had heard I could get a ferry to Crete and then another to Egypt and the start of the real travelling. This left me with a whistle-stop tour across central and southern Germany, Switzerland and Italy where I could catch a ferry from Brindisi to Patras in Greece. There were magnificent views of the Rhine and the famous castles from the train to Basel where I took a breather to visit the zoo. Stopping for two days in Luzern, I took a cable car and walked up Mount Pilatus to get my first ever view of the snow-covered Alps. Running out of time, I sped through Italy with only a single stop in Rome. I loved Roman mythology and history and walked for miles trying to see and learn as much as possible in two days. It seemed ridiculous to be in such a rush, but I kept telling myself I had a whole lifetime to come back and visit Europe. As I careered southwards, I could feel the lure of Africa and the excitement of the unknown getting stronger inside me.
My arrival in Athens by train from Patras coincided with a severe winter storm that closed all the roads, air and seaports, cutting Greece off from the outside world for 24 hours. At last I could spend as much time as I liked relaxing and visiting the sights. The extreme weather meant that I spent most of my time sheltering in cafés and bars, enjoying Greek food and drink with other backpackers I met at the cheap hotel where I was staying. A freezing wind took the edge off a visit to the Acropolis. I resigned myself again to a return visit in a more clement season.
The unrelenting cold weather and uncertain ferry times led me to take the more attractive but expensive option of a flight to Cairo for £30. Collecting an Egyptian visa after only 24 hours, I did my washing and sent letters to friends and family, letting them know I was OK and moving on.
My probation period was up. It was time to mature from an embryonic European backpacker into a world traveller. I was all too aware that I was again entering the unknown at the bottom of yet another learning curve, but I had the comfort of feeling that I was doing the right thing and had the gumption to get off my backside and do it on my own.