My Best Student Travel Experience

I was twenty – only just – between high school and university and life was not going quite according to plan: not my plans and not to my parents plans. I needed to do something different for a while; I needed to rethink; I needed to get away; I decided to do what so many young people do – I decided to travel.

Somewhere, at some point in time, neither of which I quite remember, I had come across brochures for overland expeditions. What had begun in the late 70s or early 80s with a bunch of young people loading themselves into a truck and driving across a continent had progressed by 1991 to something slightly more organized; but essentially, it still comprised a bunch of young people – mostly older than me – loading themselves into a truck and driving it across a continent.

The Mechanic - Marrakesh, Morocco

The Mechanic – Marrakesh, Morocco (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I chose Africa. I really wanted to choose South America but it costs too much. The reason for the considerably higher cost was somewhat banal. South America is separated from Europe and, in particular, the UK by the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean which, obviously, necessitates flying there and back. Africa, on the other hand, is separated from Europe by the straits of Gibraltar, across which runs a ferry. The distance between England and France is even less and ferries are more numerous still. In short, you can drive to Africa and that means only one flight – the flight home – and therefore, considerably less expensive.

And so I and twenty or so other intrepid travelers from various corners of the globe loaded ourselves into a Bedford truck in Folkestone, boarded a ferry for Calais and headed for Africa. More precisely, we were headed ultimately for Nairobi in Kenya, most of the way across the continent.

We drove rapidly though Europe in the freezing cold of January. We stopped in Paris for a day and walked miles around the city wrapped in scarves and sweaters; we drove to Madrid, shed the scarves and explored the city in just the sweaters; we continued to southern Spain and shed the sweater; we crossed to North Africa and entered Morocco; it was pleasantly warm in our T shirts.

We visited Fez and lost ourselves in a maze of narrow streets and narrower streets still and back alleys from which we feared that we would never emerge. I drank mint tea, a novelty for me which I rather liked. Eventually I would drink so much mint tea that I would never wish to taste it again.

We arrived in Marrakesh and lost ourselves again in the kasbah. I bought a Moroccan carpet. It is beautiful and I am looking at it on my floor now, as I type. It didn’t matter that I almost certainly paid over the odds for it because I haggled for it in a real carpet shop in Morocco. That is what matters – the story behind my magic carpet. The vendor told me that it would last for one thousand years. My friend didn’t believe it but he reckoned that it would last for one hundred and that is enough for me.

Woman with traditional veil in Marrakesh (Moro...

Woman with traditional veil in Marrakesh (Morocco). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We continued across Morocco and crossed the dusty and snow-capped Atlas Mountains into the fabled Sahara desert. The desert wasn’t quite what I thought. Sometimes, it was flat and barren and rocky; it stretched for miles and miles and miles. It is as large as the contiguous United States with only about half a dozen roads running across it from north to south. We took the road to Tamanrasset. En route, we stopped at Targhit on the edge of the Grand Erg Occidental. This was more what I had in mind. We got up an hour before dawn and climbed to the summit of a sand dune some 300-400 feet high. The sand flowed like water and covered every trace of our footprints. At the summit, I watched the sun rise over a vista of sand dunes, each identical to the one on which I stood and stretching as far as I could see. I could see for ten miles or so; but I knew that dunes stretched for hundreds of miles – further than I could see and as far as I could imagine. It was wonderful to know. We had pair of skies with us – heaven only knows why – and we took turns skiing back down the dune.

We drove on and on through country after country as we made our slow progress across the massive continent. We camped outside under the starriest of starry skies in the remotest corner of the planet; we slept in Dogon huts and ate the worst dish on earth – chicken with baobab leaf sauce. Think, if you will, of the most disgusting smell imaginable and think of your dinner smelling like that. I say we ate it but we didn’t – we couldn’t. Sometimes you just have to risk causing offence to your hosts.

We crossed the sandy Sahara, we made it through the Sahel beneath it, we entered the rain forest of central Africa. The road turned to mud. The truck got stuck. We dug it out. It got stuck again. Our progress was painfully slow. It rained like nothing on earth; it thundered and the lightning, which strikes more often here than anywhere else on the planet, provided the real entertainment. It forked, it circled, it branched and re-branched and joined up again and produced every sort of shape you can imagine. It was quite a show.

Madrassa Ben Youssef

Madrassa Ben Youssef (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eventually, we made it through the rainforests and reached the great plains of West Africa. We knew our trip was nearing its end and a tinge of sadness hung over the group as we watched the extraordinary creatures which inhabit these grasslands: giraffe and lion and wildebeest and elephant and hippo and so on and so on without end.

All, that is, except the elusive leopard. We reached Nairobi and spent a few days there.  Everyone prepared to return to their respective corners of the globe; but before we went, we made one last effort to see a leopard. Six of us rented two cars and headed out into the nearest game park early in the morning. We searched and search. We saw every creature known to man but there was not a leopard in sight. We drove back to Nairobi and returned the hired cars.

We had made it almost across almost an entire continent. I never did see a leopard and probably now, I never shall. But it didn’t matter. I had seen as much as a twenty-year-old needs to see. I have memories to last me a lifetime. And, of course, I have my Moroccan carpet.

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