On 1 July 1997 I set off on what turned out to be a 5 month round the world trip. I’d recently finished a stint of working in Moscow, and was reluctant to return to the familiar world of work in London. I’d never had any kind of long break before; I’d gone from school straight to university, and thence directly into a job. I’d been made redundant once, but took the job in Moscow right on the back of that, and I didn’t want to rush into another thing again without a period of reflection.
My objective was Australia where I wanted to see the red desert, the flying doctors and Sydney Opera House, but decided to stop off in a few places on the way there and back, and bought myself a round the world ticket and a stack of guide books. Having just spent a couple of years dealing with the idiosyncrasies of mid 1990s Russia, I wanted to travel through places where language shouldn’t be a barrier, where I could hire cars and drive myself, and where my credit card would work. It might not have been everyone’s idea of an adventure agenda, but it was what I wanted. That, and good wine.
My basic itinerary, reflected in the stops on my airline ticket was: London, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Perth, Alice Springs, Melbourne, Cairns, Sydney, Auckland, Christchurch, Tonga, Vancouver, Boston, London. The savvy of you will have spotted that I was going what many regarded as ‘the wrong way’, following Autumn, but I’m not a sun worshipper,and although it hadn’t been part of my calculation, going everywhere off season took away a great deal of the anxiety of finding somewhere to stay, and allowed me to practice the art of spontaneity without worry.
I wrote a journal most days throughout the trip, and I’ve been rereading it for the first time since. The overlap between what I remember, what my photographs show, and what I chose to record in the diary is interesting. There are many things which I wrote about which I’d entirely forgotten, while some things which are bright and distinct in my recollection don’t seem to have made it onto the page.
It’s also very interesting to see how my writing style has changed, and – dare I say – improved!
The opening entry for the adventure is all rather downbeat : Didn’t sleep very well the night before the first flight and did not, in all honesty, set out with any great enthusiasm.
Oh dear, she doesn’t sound like she’s going to be much fun as a travelling companion.
And then, almost as the worst kind of omen, I was allocated a ‘middle seat’ on the plane, between a couple of rather broad South African ladies; one of whom, it appears gave me the benefit of her experience of a couple of days in St Petersburg: couldn’t drink anything not even bottled water, couldn’t buy anything not even plasters, saw nothing but run down buildings and poverty.
It was but a brief foreshadowing of many conversations I was to have over the next several months: two things that most people felt compelled to comment upon were, firstly, their view of the dangers and privations of living in Russia, and secondly, how unusual it was that I should be travelling on my own, as I was clearly neither a student nor retired, so why wasn’t I working.
I stayed in a hotel called the Metropole, in Cape Town, chosen partly as it shared its name, if few of the attributes, with what was, at the time, one of the fanciest hotels in Moscow. I’d read the guide book on the plane, but it’s clear from the journal that I didn’t really know where to start, so I kept being drawn back to the Waterfront area, with stops along the way and round about; but I was preoccupied with the repeated warnings that I shouldn’t be out on my own after dark. Returning to my room at dusk each day I seem to have spent the evenings watching Wimbledon on the television, wondering if I was missing out on anything as I couldn’t understand the commentary.
Two experiences which are etched on my memory are walking to the top of Table Mountain, and visiting Robben Island.
Reading my reaction to Robben Island makes me think about the difference between seeing what you expect to see, and being surprised at what you encounter. I suppose I had seen news coverage of the prison, and read the history of the treatment of the political prisoners, and it’s clear from my diary that what I saw on my visit corresponded to what I had anticipated; small cells, and harsh and humiliating treatments.
What I reflected on more specifically was that the guide who showed us around the prison and the island was himself a former prisoner who had made the decision to return, in spite of what happened to him there; it’s a powerful way of reclaiming your own story.
And I hadn’t expected the village to be there; a whole community that had previously been home to the prison staff, houses, a post office and a primary school with a rapidly shrinking roll, and ginger haired children running around us as we toured the island. It had been a whole micro society centred around the prison, in sight of, but isolated and distant from the city of Cape Town.
I also specifically noticed the discomfort of the boat to the island which was unimproved since it had been used as the prison supply vessel.
And the final sentence of the entry for 5 July was, I must eat something healthy tomorrow.….. So some things never change!