A Time for Reflection

We have spent 3 months in South Africa, the first part waiting for Henry, the second part exploring the Western Cape and the final part rushing around like mad things trying to do everything else!

We had felt incredibly at home, something about South Africa just felt right. But it would never be our forever home as the undercurrent of crime, poverty and racism made it the only country we have ever visited where we felt the need to buy pepper spray for self-defence, worried about following the sat nav through certain areas and kept all our doors and windows locked as we travelled.

As we crossed the border into Eswatini, and a new sense of calm spread over us, I found myself musing on our travels so far and how we were feeling about our new lives after nearly a year on the road. How did this life compare to our old, far more conventional, lives back in the UK? Did we have any regrets? Were we looking forward to getting our travelling over with so we could settle somewhere, or did the idea of staying in one place for more than a night or two feel more alien now than it had even before we set off?

The first two months of our travels had been in Europe – specifically France and Spain, countries we had visited many times before. We were excited about our future and settling into our new lives but our surroundings were familiar and our focus was on beating the COVID challenges and getting to Africa.

The next three months were a whirlwind of difficult living conditions, challenging logistics, uncertainty and pressure as we travelled through West Africa. There was no time for reflection but when we were forced to return to the UK early and ship Henry to South Africa we were both disappointed – a good sign, surely, that our decision to travel was the right one?

And of course when Henry finally arrived in Cape Town after 105 days without him, we were so emotional and ecstatic it felt like a dream. Henry is our home and without him we just pine away.

South Africa had been very different in a number of ways. It was more familiar than West Africa. We were living in far better conditions. Everyone spoke English! There was good wine, good food, animals….we were, in fact, getting spoilt! But there was also danger, danger that we had not felt anywhere else before.

I have just been looking through my photos from the last three months. South Africa has been an experience to remember for many, many reasons….

The eclectic beauty of Cape Town and Table Mountain, jaw dropping artwork, museums, aquariums, penguins! Birds and animals, wine and food. Caves, far-stretching beaches. Remote campsites, wonderful people…it has been 3 months that will stay with us forever.

And amongst all that, there has been a growing sense that I am finally where I ought to be.

I find myself walking across a campsite in the evening looking up at the stars and smiling – I have seen more shooting stars in the last 6 months than in the rest of my life put together, by a very long way.

I gaze out of my window from our bed in Henry watching the sun rise over mountains or forests. Or sit on camp watching the trees gently rustling in the wind with a deep sense of belonging to the world.

We move on every night, or sometimes stay two nights, but no more than that. Every day I use a different toilet, a different shower. We meet different people, use different shops, never knowing where the best place is to get what we need, never knowing whether we´ll find a fuel station, laundrette or somewhere to fill up our sim card with data. We wake up every morning with a different view, different sounds and smells. I am often disoriented getting out of Henry in the morning, not quite sure which way to the ablutions block, not recalling how the campsite is set out.

As a nomadic traveller, the one thing you never have is security. You never have a support system around you, never have any local knowledge. You have to make it up every day, live on your wits and rely on human decency and kindness. Most of the time that´s what you come across and, when you find it, it fills you with a sense of optimism for the world and a warm glow that human beings really are amazing…most of the time.

And when you don´t get it, when you find yourself being attacked in Mthatha or scammed in Cape Town simply because you´re a stranger, it is terrifying. I have never felt so vulnerable and yet so happy in my life.

If anything happened to us, we couldn´t call 999 to get help. There is certainly an emergency number in every country but our UK mobiles couldn´t ring it. And even if they could, how could I tell anyone where we were? Much of the time I can´t even speak the language.

We have no idea where the hospitals are, or even a doctor or dentist. Never mind the nearest police station.

But for all that, for all the insecurity and lack of control, there is something compelling and wonderful about a life with no ties. Henry is our home, our place of safety and our transport and we have a huge responsibility towards him and his upkeep. And, of course, we have a responsibility to make sure we understand the laws, customs, visa regulations and carnet details of every country we travel in. But we have no other calls on us – if we don´t like where we are one night, we haul anchor and move on the next morning. If we arrive somewhere and like it we stay, if we don´t, we move on to the next place. We have an itinerary but it often goes out of the window if we decide we´re not in the mood.

We are surrounded by nature, huge skies and animals, I feel connected to the natural world every day. And it gives an overwhelming sense of calm, peace and solidity. But if we fancy a trip into a town or city, a meal out or a cultural experience, we just jump in Henry and off we go.

Do I have any regrets? Not a single one.

Do I miss having a home base or the security that comes with it? Not for a single day.

Does travelling the world give you faith in human kindness and therefore make you a happier person? Yes, in spades – I´ve lost count of the times I´ve come away from an exchange with a stranger saying to James ´what a lovely person´….

Is the vulnerability scarey? Yes, definitely. Would I swap security for everything else? Not on your life!

I was recently asked twice in the space of week whether our lives are stressful. The first time, I was about to say yes when I stopped and thought about our old lives – working 14 hour days under immense pressure, driving 6 hours a day, running three businesses. And I changed my mind and said no, of course our lives are not stressful.

The second time, the person who asked the question stopped himself before I could answer and said that we never know where we are, how to get help, who wants to do us good or harm, never have any local knowledge. Your lives must be about as stressful as it comes, he decided!

Both answers are right, it all depends on how you look at it. I look at it with a smile and choose to focus on the trees, the stars and the penguins. Life is good! And I wouldn´t change it for the world.

2 responses to “A Time for Reflection”

  1. Hi Jen. I read your reflections with great interest and I know where you’re coming from…..
    I have now made my photobook so have my lasting memories of my trip.
    Towards the end of my trip I was in Maputo travelling with a wonderful tuk tuk driver to procure an onward long distance bus ticket. We were engaged in conversations about politics, religion and life in general. Suddenly he turned around and said to me ‘You’re not afraid of anything are you?’ I replied ‘No not really’.
    It says it all doesn’t it?
    On a more mundane note are you back in the UK? I’m here till 14 August and then back to Catalunya for final 3 weeks.


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