When I was a travelling unicorn in Africa in the 80s

Camping in the Congo, diary writing

My most favorite decade of travel was the 80s – ahhh the good old days. No internet,  no plastic problems, no over-tourism, no mobile phones, no selfie sticks, no extinction problems and best of all, nobody knew where you were. We just drifted around, using the trusted travelers grapevine as our Stone Age Tripadvisor, only pre-booking some things by pay phone. We carried guide books as thick as Bibles and sleeping bags that took up half your pack. Thank God I was born when I was, and was able to enjoy the world when it was still kind of virginal.

Shopping at the local markets, me (left) and my friend Cath. We met on the truck and are still good friends til this day

I travelled across Africa for 6 months in 1989, when I was just a pink-faced, ignorant 22 year old. Back then it was “deep, dark Africa” and if you traveled there, you were basically a risk-taker. I was just basically a lucky, traveling unicorn, oblivious and immune to any danger, bouncing around the globe under a lucky star and a shoe string budget. Today every sucker and his selfie-stick can go to those places – it’s less risky (and less adventurous) when you can be found/contacted at the drop of a hat.

Originally I had wanted to hitch across the Sahara, but without the internet back then, I couldn’t find enough info on it, so I joined an overland truck safari with Kumuka, starting in London, continuing on to Africa via Spain. That trip was a life-changer! I was on a big ole safari truck with 19 other young, intrepid, greenhorn travellers, a driver and a courier. We were a motley crew: 6 public school boys on their gap year, a frustrated courier and an oddball mix of Kiwis and Aussies who had been living in the UK. We got along – and we went through incredible highs and incredible hardship together.

Inside the truck – our group plus another group who we gave a lift to as they had some truck problems

We used to queue up at Post Restantes in unpronounceable towns we had never heard of, eagerly waiting to see if we had any mail. It was always like Christmas receiving a few letters. We posted letters home too, throwing them into rusty, old post boxes that looked like they hadn’t been open since Adam and Eve….and sometimes, 6 months later, they got home…miraculously. We wrote travel diaries, and we talked with each other (we weren’t glued to phones), and we explored the jungles and deserts around us every evening, and stumbled into villages where our white faces caught the light of the moon, and we were invited in by strange tribes people….and we were young and innocent and going to places and countries we had never heard of before…Zaire, Niger, C.A.R and all the others…We relied on the “bush telephone” for news up ahead – meeting trucks going North, we were headed South and we exchanged news of anything relevant that might hinder our path – like essential river-crossing bridges closed, tribal strife, etc. Once we drove into a huge muddy puddle on the road, it was so deep our truck tipped over and we spent two days digging it out, with the help of local villagers. Well, I didn’t help. A couple of days before that, the pink-faced unicorn and her partner-in-crime decided to leave the truck for a couple of days and hitch a ride through the jungle with some Czech dude who was driving to South Africa. We decided it would be a nice break. We also got flat tyres and stuck at crucial river crossings by “ferries” not working, and had to do massive detours, and feared never seeing the truck again.

Feeling ill…

And we all got sick. We were in deep, dark Africa after all. Some people got malaria, some got typhoid, and a couple of us got Hep A. It was all part of the fun of being in Africa!  But we looked after each other in the good times and the bad, we were our own little truck tribe.

I bemusedly observed the “small pond” dynamics because it became a weird study of human behaviour in a confined space. 22 people together on a truck, that was our “pond”. Besides the gay guy, the prudey girls, the married couple and myself, there were six horny young 19 year old boys and 3 women in their early 30s (at their sexual prime). And although at the start of the trip we had all been warned against truck romances because they could ruin your trip, the three women took three young lovers.  None of it fortunately ended in tears, but it was kind of funny to watch.

Our dirty clothes were beaten on rocks in rivers where we also bathed. Once our clothes became rags we had strange outfits made from African material in the local markets.

We cooked in groups of 3 each night over an open fire, and we shopped for veges and fruit at the local markets. None of us were hot cooks at the time, but we learnt.  Meals were “interesting” concoctions of what could be found at the market; sometimes the meals were burnt, sometimes inedible. Sometimes there was abundance at the market, and sometimes it was a struggle to find anything. We were all young and I am sure we all picked up a lot of valuable improv cooking skills on that 6 month trip.

Reading those diaries now is like looking back at a different person

We lived in the moment: there was no internet and we were fully present, soaking up every magical moment through all our senses. We sat in awe of magical African sunsets, observed an array of animals in the wild, trekked up to see mountain gorillas, and we were chased into a pool by monkeys. Elephants wandered through the campsite. We got stoned with pygmies in the Congo and saw strange animals like the Okapi. And we went to sleep in our tents listening to the night creatures making music in the bush.  I remember after that trip, we were sooo present each day that I could recall every single day of the trip .

 

 

 

When the trip ended, myself and my friend Cath hitched a ride on a truck down through Botswana to South Africa for a few weeks, while I was recovering from Hep A. I was 22 at the time, and that trip affected me for the rest of my life. Others went back to the civilized life and got corporate jobs. I went home and recovered from my hep and continued to my nomadic life.

 

 

Niger – a group of women spent 1.5 hours corn-braiding my hair

Eating strange cake…

Bathing in rivers

Our big old trusty blue truck!

Passing through villages

 

 

5 comments

  1. Nevena Barrett · · Reply

    Absolutely wonderful reading, Julie! A real adventure story of exploratory travel to mysterious lands. You were young and brave!

  2. Great times.

  3. Ella Kahu · · Reply

    Julie!! Ella (& Ty) here (the married couple!!) 🙂 Ty just ran across this blog and saw all the photos of Africa. One of my Covid lockdown projects was turning my Africa diary and photos into a big photobook so this trip is oddly fresh in my mind right now! If I could I would post the pic here of you with that crazy hair do!! Great to see you continued with such exciting adventures.

    1. Ella – I emailed you – did you get it? Would really love a chat to catch up! And reminisce about the most amazing, life-changing trip!

  4. Loved this tale! What an adventurer you are! thanks for sharing. One day I hope to take a Venus trip with you…Teresa

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