It seems impossible to me now, as I walk through the mizzle and along a little lane slick with damp and chilly in the morning air, that exactly a year ago today I was on my way to the deepest heart of Africa… it was the biggest effort to date that I had made in breaking out of the bubble; getting away from the revolving plastic circles of this island and find some real wilderness. I wanted to be the foreigner and I wanted to be a little bit lost and a long way from home. I wanted to think of these damp fields that were wetting my boots this morning and miss the ordinary and the every day. Maybe, if I was lucky, the rabbits and squirrels and deer would for a short time be monkeys and elephants and lions.
I’m sharing my Africa Notes over the next few weeks as I polish them up and remember the adventure…
People like me aren’t meant to do this sort of thing. I wonder how it came to pass that the boy from Northfield wound up here on this executive liner heading down the M40 for Heathrow and a flight to deepest, darkest Africa. Zambia, to be precise.
I am travelling with a group of highly intelligent teenagers from very wealthy families that spring from all around the UK and as far away as Hong Kong and mainland China. Also on the bus are three highly qualified and very confident teachers who are taking it all in their stride while I sit and stare wide-eyed out of the window as England passes by as though I’d never left my little land-locked suburb in my life. I have to remind myself that I’m one of them – one of these highly-qualified teachers; that somewhere between now and when I last looked I managed to put myself through university, twice, and land myself in a fine private school that is so far away from the world I grew up in that I keep my head down in case they find me out and realise that they’ve maybe made a mistake.
The bigger irony is that they’ll look up to me because I’ve got this thing that makes it look like I know what I’m doing even when my heart is hammering and I’m sure that it’s all a mistake. These kids had travelled to every continent before they’d reached their tenth birthday and are unfazed as we tumble into the departure lounge and go through the rigmarole of checking in and staying together. We’ve got caps in the school colours (my idea) and it’s easy to spot our team – I remember thinking how humiliating it would be to lose someone here and not even board the plane.
But this was the opportunity to shake off all of the usual weights and stringencies and leave them behind with the English rainclouds. I would not think about the girls. It was too early for that and the walk into school that morning had taken it out of me, knowing that I wouldn’t see them for 21 days. We were heading south – the southest I had ever been by a long stretch and a very long way from home in many senses of the term. It’s possible to go further, the west coast of America, maybe, or Australia, and feel closer to home than Africa.
I was heading into the heart of darkness, into the unknown, into a land of savages and disease and animals that were waiting for my blood. As we boarded the plane for Johannesburg I already wanted to go home.