My planned six-month backpacking trip through Africa, back in 1981, had one small disadvantage: At 107 pounds (48.5kg) the backpack itself was a challenge! (An insight into what it contained may be seen in my previous post — see the foot of this page.)
I was young and fit, so carrying it wasn’t really the problem — although I certainly wasn’t planning on running any marathons with it — the actual challenge was with baggage limitations on aeroplanes. The cost, plus a necessary extra bag to split the load, was out of the question.
It was clear from the outset that my plans had to allow for getting to and from Africa without flying, and given that my initial destination had to be Cairo, this would be no easy feat.
The answer proved to be crossing the English Channel to Ostend by ferry, catching the Tauern Express train from there to Munich, take a brief break to see the city, catch the Hellas Express train from Munich to Athens, and again take a brief break to see the city.
From there, I would catch a ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria and then find some way to get from Alex’ to Cairo.
I could effectively have gone right through without any breaks in Munich and Athens but as I had never been to either of these cities before, that would have seemed like heresy. Just as importantly, however, it also gave me the opportunity to meet some fellow police officers, through an organisation called the International Police Association [IPA] which exists to further fellowship and goodwill amongst officers around the world.
Those police officers, in turn, proved to be very willing guides for showing me around their respective cities…. tremendous fun.
As for the trains, the one from Belgium to Germany was modern, quiet, smooth, fast, well-equipped, pleasant and easy.
The one from there to Greece, however, was owned by the then Yugoslav Railways and it was the absolute opposite. The expression ‘hell on wheels’ took on a whole new meaning for that part of the trip.
I will only list the worst failings otherwise this post would be pages long! The worst involved filthiness, ancient damaged seats, no food or water available for the entire trip (which stretched to over 30 hours due to snow drifts repeatedly stopping us), and no heating. The toilets were literally just holes in the floor, with the track passing by below, and to quote an old song “the wind whistled merrily around me!“
After leaving Munich and later passing through Austria, the train entered what in those days was still Yugoslavia but the same trip now would take one through Slovenia, Croatia, the northeast corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, and North Macedonia, before reaching Greece — every new nation that was part of the former Yugoslavia, except for Montenegro.
After what felt like half a lifetime of unpleasantness and serious discomfort, the train entered Greece, and around the same time, the sun came out and the snow swiftly fizzled out. Indeed, the rocky gorges and beautiful mountains the train passed through put paid to my muttering and grumbling… I was a happy little chap once more.
Two days later, after an utterly wonderful time with my host from the Greek police and their branch of the IPA, I got onto a large ferry in Piraeus — a dramatic story in its own right — and sailed away from Greece.
With my excellent Greek police [IPA] host Anthanassios Georgilopoulas
At long last…. after waiting what felt like my entire lifetime…. I was truly on my way to Africa.