Travel before the internet – why it was such a great time, and how to escape again

I feel really fortunate to have grown up in the 80s and 90s before the internet and mobile phones were a big thing. OK, so we had awful hairstyles and bad fashion, but at least we knew how to communicate. But we were also able to disappear off the grid if we wanted to. And that was exactly the best thing about travel before the internet, before it took the adventure out of travel – nobody knew where the hell you were.

The biggest advantage of travel in the 80s was the lack of communication. Neither “Big Brother” (mobile phone location settings) nor mum and dad knew where we were, unless we wanted them to. That was great. The less hassle you have from them the better. You know how parents love to worry and how “dangers” get exaggerated in their minds. So annoying. It was better to just be out of sight, out of mind – and let them just imagine what you were up to.

Travel back then was a real adventure. It was more intrepid, information was hard to find, and places like “deep, dark Africa” were exciting – nobody knew where the hell you were because they could not follow you on facebook, instagram or any other way. If you got in the shit in the jungles of Africa you had to deal with it. You couldn’t just send mommy a facebook message and ask her to pay the ransom or buy you a ticket home. It made you more independent, resourceful and junglewise. Back then, travel brought you into the present moment and made you purely live the day through your eyes and not through facebook. You felt truly free as nobody on the other end of the net could advise or control you.

These days with social media and the internet, formerly “intrepid destinations” are now open to anyone who can afford the airfare. You can travel in the most “dodgy” of places and always have that sense of comfort that someone knows where you are all the time and help is never far away. In my opinion that really takes away that lovely feeling of uncertainty, of being on your own, and having to deal with everything…. without advice from your fb friends or trip advisor – it really spoils the fun.

I always say the greatest trip of my life was when I was 22 and travelling across Africa with a motley mob of 20 other people in a big ole safari truck for 6 months. Nobody knew where the hell we were, and if we needed help, it would have taken a while to get it. That’s what gave that trip a certain “edge”. It was also nice not to have your parents worrying sick about you when they saw the outlandish and remote places you were in. Or if they were worrying themselves to death, at least you didn’t have to hear about it. Ignorance is bliss as they say, and it was good they could only worry that they didn’t know where you were instead of about all the other obscure stuff they like to dwell on.

At night we sat around the campfire and talked to each other (imagine that!), or, being the adventurous spirit that I am, I would take my innocent side-kick, Claire, and haul her off to see if we could find any Africans to interact with. Those were the best times, and we had all sorts of little adventures meeting random African villagers. There was no internet to tell us if we were driving towards a rebellion, a coup, some unrest etc – there was only the “bush telephone”. We would meet travellers coming from the other direction and exchange news of difficulties of border crossings, broken roads and other things important for our onward journey.

So how did we communicate with friends and family in the outside world? Before we left on our 6 month safari we were given a list of Post Restante addresses with an approximate date we might arrive in that town. Our loved ones back home could write to us and hope that the unreliable 80s African post would get the letters to the Post Office Restante on time. We only got mail every few weeks, so it was a really big deal for us to see who wrote, how many letters you got and who had…forgotten about you! In fact, it was almost a competition to see who got the most letters. We sent fistfuls of postcards home, trying to encourage replies. Only having the same 20 people to talk to most days had it’s challenges, and oddly interesting group dynamics evolved. (But that is another story!)

Then the internet trickled into my life and suddenly a fast-paced world of social media, emails and instant-response communication came to dominate my work and private life. It became something that was hard to escape from as people these days expect a same-hour response. Sometimes it feels like a real burden, but the trap is – how to escape it. After 10 years of being online practically 24/7 I longed for the Africa safari days.

Fortunately last year a solution came along in the form of the Sinai Trail – a 200km hike across the Sinai desert from the coast to the inland mountains. Not only was this a great physical challenge, it also brought each and every one of us – a 25 man team of hikers, guides, cameleers etc into the moment, communicating like the old days, as there was practically zero mobile phone coverage. We spent evenings around the camp fire talking, singing, communicating and listening to old Bedouin tales from our Bedouin guides. Sadly, the art of story-telling in these old cultures is dying out and Story Tellers are being made redundant by the internet. But on the Sinai Trail that old feeling of being “lost in the wilderness”, living in the moment, and feeling truly free came back. My message to you is: if you ever get the chance to escape the net for a while – just do it! Run away, go where there is no coverage…and just enjoy being in the present moment…because that is the only moment worth living.

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