Looking through some back numbers of Globe, I noticed that in June 1994 you asked for old-timers to send in news of their activities. Wondering whether my travels were worth reviewing, I found the list surprisingly long. Here it is.
Joining the Club
First contact with the Globetrotters Club in 1950 gave me the needed push to set off on a lone hitchhike to South Africa. This was in the very early days of hitchhiking when a successful trip was still ‘news’. I managed to get on the BBC and wrote a book (Follow the Sun) about it. That would be impossible now.
I returned home to get married. Young people then were allowed one big adventure before settling down. But hatching the nostalgic African wildlife film “Where No Vultures Fly” at the local cinema, I realised that settling down was not for me. Africa was more important than getting married, so I decided to go back. But how?
Flight to Africa
By this time I was broke, so it seemed sensible to go back with a job in view having written to a few scientific institutes (science writing being a possible career) I had a reply saying the Director of a research station would be in London shortly and would interview me.
The interview went off all right, but the Director said, reasonably enough, that he had to consult the board and would contact me in a few weeks time. Suddenly, a few weeks seemed an eternity; I couldn’t wait. So I went straight from the interview to the Royal Aero Club in Park Lane, where I had the sort of lucky stroke that only comes to GT’s crazy enough to expect the impossible.
Were there any pilots flying to Africa who might like a passenger, I asked. Silly questions deserve silly answers, but in this case the answer was yes, provided the passenger could speak French.
It seemed that a twin-engined trainer was being ferried to Madagascar. Due to political troubles the usual route through Egypt was closed, so we had to go the long way via West Africa and across the Congo. The pilot, who knew no French, wanted a bit of help with the formalities in these mainly French-speaking countries. My French, though not brilliant, was just about equal to the task, so we met and it was fixed. The overseas travel allowance at the time was £25.
The story of that flight would make a book in itself, so I’ll cut it short. The highlight was the demise of one of the engines on the sands of the Western Sahara in Mauritania. The only engineer around dealt with marine engines, not aircraft. To find out how this one worked he took the good engine to pieces so that it ended up being worse than the bad one. Both engines were liberally covered with sand.
The pilot and I took a local boat to Dakar, where we persuaded BOAC (now British Airways) to come to the rescue. They did, and eventually we got going again, calling in on various places where we were given a good time, because visitors in those days were rare and welcome.
Crossing the Congo, We had to keep a sharp lookout for mountains, because this aeroplane didn’t like flying above 5,000 feet. After a month all told, we made it to Dares-Salaam in Tanganyika. Where I got off, leaving the pilot to face the ocean crossing alone.
What the recipients thought of this aeroplane, we never discovered. In Dar, I fell into a job as a hotel receptionist the sort of thing that used to happen to travelling females in colonial times. Those days are gone, but they were great while they lasted.
After six months in the social whirl of Dar, where men outnumbered women by ten to one, I thought it was time to aim for a more serious occupation, so got a lift to Nairobi. Here I got a job in the publications section of Locust Control, a three-year contract.
The job involved a lot of fieldwork and a lot of flying in small aircraft (there being a locust plague on at the time). Besides this, there was the whole of East Africa (then all one territory) to explore, including climbing Kilimanjaro, the Ruwenzoris and Mt. Kenya.
When the contract ended, I decided to take my passage money in cash and travel to UK overland via Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria to Europe. Another GT agreed to come too but as she wanted to go up the Nile and I wanted to go through Ethiopia we agreed to meet in Khartoum.
Neither of us had high hopes of this meeting, but amazingly we arrived in Khartoum within a day of each other. My trip had included a Landrover ride to Addis with an American dentist (who ate straight out of tins and never cooked), then a three day bus ride to Asmara, where I met a party in a truck going all the rest of the way to England . Across the desert, Dorothy (still a member of the Club) now joined us, and we set off across the Nubian Desert where the routine of sticking, unloading, pushing and reloading became the order of the day.
A romantic touch was the arrival one morning of a man on a camel who had come to look for us. At Wadi Haifa, we were made to get on the boat (only achieved by letting down the tyres of the truck). Being quite ignorant of what to expect, we were enchanted when the boat stopped at midnight to reveal the floodlit temple of Abu Simbi, shortly to be moved by UNESCO when the High Aswan Dam flooded its site.
After sundry adventures (several involving a block and tackle), we reached Alexandria, where the former palace of Ex-King Farouk was being turned into a casino, and we were allowed to camp in the garden. A one-night boat trip (deck class) took us to Beirut, then a happy hunting ground for fortune hunters, aid workers and riffraff of all kinds.
The almond trees were in bloom, but higher up the mountains it was still winter; people were skiing at the Cedars of Lebanon holiday resort. Frozen stiff, we were delighted when a kindly hotel owner offered us an empty bedroom, free of charge. I remarked how wonderful central heating and a hot bath would be. After an embarrassed silence we found that all heating had been switched off. But the same, it was a great improvement on camping.
Next stop was Damascus, where I some mysterious means the British Ambassador got us permission to camp in the public Bus Park. Taking in Baalbek, the giant water wheel at Homs, and assorted Crusader castles, we crossed that Turkish border into Europe, where a friendly local trader smuggled our money across for us.
This money was perfectly legal, but the border inspector didn’t think so. Why did we give all our money to a stranger? Because we liked his face! This trust was not misplaced, and we got it back next day. At Athens I left the party and took to the Orient Express, as I was due in the UK for two Ramblers’ trips one to Austria and one sailing down the Dalmation coast.
Reading about the destruction of Dubrovnik, how glad I am that I saw it when I did.
Back in Kenya
Back to Kenya, I didn’t stay long as I transferred to Uganda to study gorillas. This was ten years before Diane Fossey’s memorable work. If I had stayed 18 years as she did, I might have been famous by now, but what a lot of the rest of the world, I would have missed.
After two years in Uganda, having produced a very lightweight book on the gorillas, I felt I wanted to learn more about photography so it was back to England once more r a course. The route this time was across Africa from east to west (by a hotchpotch of hitching and public transport), then across the Sahara, first with a trade truck, then with the French army (for the Algerian war was on).
A lucky break was meeting a medical firm and be paid 50 cents meeting a party in the middle of nowhere who gave me a wonderful tip you could collect soil samples for an America medical firm and be paid 50 cents spoonful!
That kept me going for several years. (Collecting soil samples hell.)
After the photography course, on which I was the only person over 16, I took a job as a factory photographer, just to prove I had learnt something, then headed east as a publicity person for an overland bus company.
We went across Europe to Iran, on via Pakistan and India to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and ha again, taking six weeks each way. High lights were the blue-tiled mosques Isfahan and, oddly enough, Venice winter after the crowds had gone.
Rumour had it that Kenya was going to have television, so back I went again to get in on the ground floor. Transport this time was the most humdrum possible the Union Castle line.
Sea voyages are not my cup of tea, but since they exist no more I sampled just one. The way into television was through films, so I got a job with a company making commercials. Never having held movie camera, I was not allowed to anything ambitious, but was taken on a scriptwriter.
This was great fun, and after a few false starts, I managed to hire an old camera and became a maker training films for the Veterinary Department and, later, the Agriculture Department. When independence came I opted to remain British rather than Kenyan, which meant no job.
But by now had enough experience to set up on my own working mainly for commercial agribusiness companies. I did reasonable veil and blew all the profits on a trekking holiday in Nepal.
Returning penniless again, I was to find that ODA (British aid) had commissioned a series of training films for Uganda and, later, for Kenya. Back in Uganda, I met my guardian angels couple who helped me to get the best job of my life, in Indonesia, but that came later.
In the meantime, during the affluent period in Uganda, I took a trip to Hunza in the mountains of North Pakistan. Then little visited, it was known in health circles as a sort of Shangri-la, where people lived in perfect health to a great age. I was too feckless to investigate the matter properly and it was to be twenty years before I went to Hunza again.
In 1972, the year of the Stockholm Conference on the Environment, the penny finally dropped. I realised that the sort of filming I had been doing was all-wrong, widely supported though it was. From now on chemical farming was I must try to make a living from the right kind, the kind that had no money in it.
So it was a relief to get a commission to make a film on soil conservation in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was still as rugged as when I had crossed it by bus sixteen years before. This time we flew in a small plane. Though the two big famines had not yet happened, one could see the writing on the wall.
Immediately after the Ethiopian trip, two of us went to South Yemen hoping to visit the famous mud skyscrapers of the Wadi Hadhramaut. But they wouldn’t’t let us in, so we went to North Yemen instead which, after its civil war, was just opening up to the outside world. It was to be ten years before I finally got to the mud cities of the Wadi Hadhramaut.
Back in Kenya there seemed to be no prospects of environmental filming, so [ decided it Was time to see the rest of the World. First stop was Hong Kong which, being a British colony, allowed one to work.
I stayed there a year, doing an assortment of PR jobs including a short film in Thailand. Then I went to visit my Ugandan friends, who were now working in Indonesia. The idea was to talk the Indonesian government into making the ‘right’ kind of agriculture] film.
I was too naive to realise that this was a country where everybody is very polite and says yes to everything, without meaning a word of it. However my friends, who were attached to an Australian project, put me in touch with their boss, with the result that I got the job of running the publications department.
While travelling from Hong Kong to take up this job, I paid a visit to the Philippines, where they had the most hair-raising precipice roads in the world, and where a boat trip through the islands gives a glimpse of many different way of life. There was a war on in Mindanao the southernmost island, where our bus was protected by an unfortunate man with a gun. This person would be the first to be liquidated if there was an attack. Wondered if he knew.
The job in Indonesia was ideal well paid, interesting and with plenty of perks including free trips to Penang and Singapore, to offset the ‘strain’ of whatever we were doing. During this time I visited Bali, now fast becoming a tourist trap, and Borneo, at the other extreme in the absence of roads one travels by river, but even here the villagers were being urged, by the clinking of coins, to remember their old traditions and put on a show for tourists.
Highlight of these lands was the Celebes, where, in Tana Toraja, the amazing burial ceremonies were beginning to attract tourists. Whole elaborate villages were built to house the guests, never to be lived in once, the ceremony was over. In some sites the coffin had to be manhandled up a vertical cliff to its resting-place, guarded by a row of lifelike effigies.
Papua New Guinea
After this tour of three years ended (the project was handed over and the Australians pulled out) I took a job as scriptwriter with the government film unit in Papua New Guinea. As the South Pacific Festival of Arts was being hosted by PNG at the time, I had the chance to see a lot of the country. PNG was rugged, with few roads and some very dicey airfields.
Home of the ‘singsing’, the big attraction was that the people didn’t dress for tourists, they wore their traditional dress (or lack of it) every day as a mater of course. Every trip was a voyage of e. exploration, and though I was never enterprising as Christina Dodwell, I certainly saw much of the country right] dubbed ‘the last unknown’.
During my time in PNG, I took a holiday in New Zealand, which included the famous Milford Track and bubbling geysers of Rotorua, but did not include George and Mabel Garside, who were away at the time.
After the PNG tour ended, I took off for South America, an area so vast and so varied that a year is the minimum it needs. I had three months, which included Easter Island and Tahiti en route, then a camping and walking trip in the
Andes which took in Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca and La Paz the highest capital in the world. After that, two of us took a bus trip from Santiago in Chile to Rio in Brazil, passing on the way Lguassu Falls.
My friend, who had seen Niagara, Victoria Falls and Angel Falls, declared that Lguassu beat them all. A highlight was a trip in a rowing boat to the edge of the Devil’s Throat. You are within a few feet of an enormous chasm, yet there is never any danger. Rio, we agreed, fully deserves its reputation as one of the three most beautiful cities in the world.
After PNG, I spent four years in Australia, working in organic farming, a thoroughly unrewarding occupation from the financial point of view. During this time, I managed the long awaited trip to South Yemen, which welcomed package tours while discouraging independent travellers, the reason we had been refused ten years before.
They wouldn’t let me stay in Australia, so after tossing up between Morocco, Sardinia and Kenya, I came back here again, after eleven years away.
It’s still a beautiful country, though rather more crowded than before There’s still no future for a foreigner who is not at the top of the aid hierarchy, so have to count the pence.
Trips have included eastern Zaire again, Rwanda before the bloodbath, and last year my long-time priority Tibet. The Tibet trip took in second visits to Nepal and Hunza. All three having changed dramatically. Tibet is no longer mysterious, and no where is off the map any more.
So this reinforces the view of most globetrotters with anaemic wallets go now before inflation makes it harder.
Go now, before everything becomes uniform and before tourism (of course, GIs aren’t tourists!) obliterates the once unique character of every new place.
Jill Donisthorpe, Nairobi, Kenya