Backpacking Across Africa 40 Years Ago

Post No. 1 — Looking back forty-years to 18 January 1981

From the age of perhaps six or seven, I was besotted with wildlife television programmes — all in black & white back then in the early 1960s — by the likes of Armand and Michaela Denis, ‘Look,’ by Sir Peter Scott, and ‘Animal Magic,’ by Johnny Morris. 

Before the trip, my mother told me not to come back with a beard but when she saw it was bright ginger, she was convinced this was our Scottish and Viking ancestries shining through and jokingly forbade me to cut it off! My father was much more pragmatic, He simply wanted to know which one was the chimpanzee. {:-) As for the baby chimp, its parents had almost certainly been killed for ‘bush meat’ and its owner claimed he had ‘rescued’ it, but it wasn’t being adequately cared for — a very common, sad fate. (More on this story in a later post.)

Above all else, this helped me develop a powerful desire not just to visit Africa but to spend significant time there.

Once I became a police constable in the mid-1970s, with a modestly reasonable salary, my first goal was to acquire good quality 35mm SLR cameras and lenses and learn how to use them effectively.

As my photography improved, I started to concentrate on how I might achieve my Africa ambitions, which took a few years both of planning and, of course, saving my money.

To keep a long story short, it took some time to convince the Cumbria Constabulary powers-that-be to let me have a six-month unpaid sabbatical but my Chief Superintendent at that time, the sadly unpopular Ron Willatt, was immensely helpful and supportive of my cause and helped me until my application was successful.

Perhaps he just wanted rid of me for six months! Hahahahahaaa {:-)

Apart from clothing and travel necessities, my huge backpack also contained three camera bodies, six lenses (21mm up to a 500mm ‘mirror’ lens) a Cullman tripod, and — bulkiest and heaviest of all — four hundred rolls of 36-exposure transparency film (two hundred each of Kodachrome 64 [ASA/ISO] and Ektachrome 400). That was enough film for 14,400 photographs, if you are curious.

I also took a pair of heavy, alpine-standard climbing boots in the hope of being able to team up with someone to tackle the 17,057ft (5,199m) Mount Kenya, but sadly that plan never came to fruition.

My sleeping bag and an indispensable mosquito net finished off the main items.

To put things in perspective, my backpack weighed 107 pounds (48.5kg) and while — at 25 years old, I did get used to it — I readily confess that when I got to London, at the back of the train, the walk through Euston Station damned-near killed me! {:-)

The weight of that backpack and the need to minimise costs meant that I chose to travel across Europe by train and cross the Meditteranean by ferry, to avoid flying.

One last thing: For younger readers, try to remember that this was in 1981, before mobile phones (cell phones) hadn’t even been dreamt of, so what little communication people doing this could have back then consisted of getting your loved ones to send letters to you, weeks in advance, to post offices that you planned or hoped to visit across the continent but didn’t always succeed in doing so. There was an undeniable need to stand on one’s own two feet and be self-reliant.

I’m hoping to add regular posts to tell the main story of this life-changing and truly life-affirming trip, hopefully with each post on the 40th anniversary of the day it recalls.

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