All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience. – Mao Zedong.
On September 3rd, 1988, my girlfriend Linda and I set off overseas. We intended to be away for two years. As it turned out, by the time we returned home for the final time, six years had passed by. In that time we had visited 35 countries on five continents, taken thousands of photographs and written home dozens of times. We had also found time to become engaged in Vienna and get married in New Zealand.
These are my diaries from those years. They chronicle our journey from a couple of naive country kids from the South Island of New Zealand to hardened world travellers and adventurers. They also chart my emergence as a writer, beginning with farmer-style notes in a 1988 New Zealand Farmer’s Diary, to long, descriptive entries as our adventures unfolded out in the world.
There will be occasional gaps in the narrative: times when we were settled somewhere and I didn’t keep up with my entries. There will also be letters we wrote home, letters we received on the road, photographs, maps and other bits and pieces.
Where it is necessary, I will add relevant explanations in the form of annotations at the bottom of each entry. And although I will reproduce these diaries as they were written, occasionally, I may omit details that are too personal or sensitive. But rest assured, all swearing and offensive material will be left intact and included for your delectation!
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND TWO. The sea was quite rough when I woke in the morning. Everyone else in our cabin was still asleep so I lay there looking out the porthole at the green waves rolling around the ship with the wind whipping spray off the whitecaps.
After showers we went up to the cafe for a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages and chips. There were quite a few green faces around, not all of them due to the rough sea. Pullar & Skip were well under the weather after a night of drinking whiskey with some of the ship’s crew and Skip decided that he didn’t want his breakfast after he’d ordered it so he gave it to me. While I was eating this second brekkie a kid spewed right behind us so that did it for Skip and he headed for the dunnys!!
After breakfast we went and packed our gear then spent the remaining two hours of the voyage wandering round the ship or sitting in the lounge watching the swells.
At around 10:00 we sailed past a lighthouse and half an hour later we were sailing into Plymouth Harbour. The sea calmed as we came in past the headlands and sailed up the harbour past more lighthouses and the many old, stone maritime buildings built on the cliffs above the water.
We docked on schedule at 12:30 and drove the truck off the ship, once again back in England. Immigration and Customs were pretty straightforward. They put a drug dog through the druck which gave druggie Skip another fright, especially when it started barking at Chris and Bron’s stuff. The customs man went through it and found nothing so we were free to go.
The weather as we had sailed up Plymouth Harbour had been beautifully clear and cold, with a calm blue sea under a bright blue sky. But as we drove out of Plymouth, the fog came down and turned the day into a bleak and miserable one. We spent the day wrapped in our sleeping bags as the cold and wet, but never-the-less beautiful landscape of Devon rolled past.
We stopped for lunch at a Happy Eater¹ then later on for a coffee at a roadside cafe. Darkness was on us by 4:00 and it was bitterly cold.
We drove into London at about 10:00 and dropped Sale off then headed for Earl’s Court². We parked the truck on a corner and unloaded our gear onto the footpath.
One by one everyone drifted away in taxis or on foot to their friend’s flats nearby or in other areas of town. I walked up the street to a hotel called The Hunter’s Lodge where the police were busy rescuing a drunken Aussie who had passed out on the fourth floor parapet.
Linda and I lugged our heavy packs, our day bags, the camera tripod, the Tuareg sword, our treasures from Africa, down to the hotel and booked in, went upstairs, showered and went to bed.
¹The Happy Eater was a motorway restaurant chain in England. It’s logo, a happy round face with a comma for a tongue brought to mind a Pacman. The food was dreadful – tepid, greasy and expensive – and so Linda and I always referred to these places as The Spewing Pacman.
² The inner London suburb popular with backpackers and antipodeans.
DAY ONE HUNDRED AND ONE. Linda and I got up at 6:00 and got the fire going. There had been a good sort of frost during the night and everything had a white film of ice on it. We cooked up scrambled eggs with onion and tomato for brekkie then packed up the camp for the last time.
We drove down to the ferry terminal and hung around there all morning. The ferry “Bretagne” berthed at about 11:00 and we drove on at 12:15.
The Bretagne is nearly brand new and is very well appointed. We shared a cabin with Rob and Pete and although it was small it was comfortable and warm, with a shower and toilet cubicle and 4 bunk beds.
Once we were settle in and had had a lovely hot shower we went up to the cafe and had a huge feed of chicken and chips, orange juice and lots of other greasy English delicacies! After lunch, we went for a wander around the ship then went and had a rest until 5:30.
The Bay of Biscay was calm as we sailed north-east away from the setting sun. Linda and I went and had a few drinks at the bar while we waited for 9:00 to roll around. That was movie time and we paid two quid each to see Batman in one of the three cinemas on board. It was a good film, with Jack Nicholson putting in a totally over-the-top performance as The Joker.
After the pictures, Linda and I went out onto the stern deck and watched the wake froth and shimmer as it disappeared into the darkness but it was very cold so we didn’t spend long there.
When we got back to the cabin, Rob and Pete were both asleep so we hopped into our bunks & were rocked to sleep by the gentle motion of the ship.
The sun shining into the truck woke me up at about 8:00 before anyone else was awake. I got up and took my camera and went for a walk out to the headland near our camp. The sea was calm with a light swell rolling in onto the beach and the head of a small cove. The sun shimmered on the water and a gentle breeze blew in off the sea. I clambered over the sharp white rocks to a point and sat watching the sea and the passing ships for a while then wandered back over to the camp where most of the gear was already packed up ready to go.
We drove into town, stopping for a coffee on the way, and spent 2 hours driving round looking for an open camping ground. We eventually found one on the peninsula on the opposite side of the bay, about 20 minutes drive from the ferry terminal.
We had some lunch then Scotty, Mike, Bron, Pullar & I went back into town to try and change money to pay for the campsite. After a fruitless search we discovered that we could scrape up enough money between us so we returned to the camp.
The rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning out the truck and packing all of our gear and souvenirs into our packs. Once Linda and I had finished, I sat down with Mike, Scotty and Sale and had a few beers while Rob and Pete cooked tea and bitched at each other! I went to be (a seat in the truck) at about 11 but Mike, Scotty & Sale carried on drinking and arguing round the fire which they kept going by pouring diesel on it.
DAY NINETY NINE. We got up with the sun, which was rising bright and golden through the mist and packed up the sodden camp. We drove north out of Madrid without the hassle of rush-hour traffic which was all going into the city in the opposite direction.
About 9:30 we stopped at a Servicio for our customary breakfast but found that i was too expensive so we had to settle for a bag of taco chips and a Coke. We were heading for the hills behind Madrid where the monument and shrine to the people killed in the Civil War, known as Los Valle de los Caidos” is situated. We stopped to photograph the huge cross showing through the mist high up on the pine-clad hill upon which the shine sits and as we were pulling back out onto the roadway, a a car hit us at full-speed from behind. The only damage the truck suffered was a bent wood-rack but the car, a Ford Granada, was fucked! The driver and his wife were alright, however, so after Scotty had taken some photographs and given them Kumuka’s address in London we carried on.
The Basilica of the Valley of Heroes is a massive cavern carved into the face of the hill beneath the huge cross. We spent 3/4 of an hour there looking around but it was bitterly cold and once we’d seen the interior there wasn’t much else to detain us. So, we spent the rest of the day driving towards Santander and at about 4:30 we pulled into a field beside a ruined farmhouse on the side of the road, intending to camp. However, the weight of the truck was too much for the sodden ground and we got stuck! It took about 10 minutes to dig and sand-mat it out (just as we had done in the Congo jungle all those weeks ago!), keeping a nervous eye out for the farmer and by the time we were free there was a dreadful muddy mess on the edge of his wheatfield. We beat a hasty retreat!
After that little faux pas, we decided to drive right to Santander so we settled into our sleeping bags and caught a couple of hour’s kip.
We got to Santander at about 9:30 and after 1/2 an hour of driving around, found that most of the camping grounds were closed for the winter. So, we drove down to the beach and set up camp in a carpark! We cooked up a feed of de-hy and soup for tea then spent the night in the truck.
NB The entry for this day is missing from my diary. However, writing about it from thirty years in the future I can still clearly remember what happened that day. We still occasionally tell this story.
After breakfast, most of us took a commuter train into the centre of Madrid. Linda and I went to the Prada museum where we saw, among other famous works of art, what remains one of my favourite paintings: Los Meninas by Deigo Rodriguez Velázquz. Painted in 1656, the picture shows the Spanish Royal family as they appeared in a mirror, with light flooding in from the side and the artist himself at the left of the composition: a neat self-portrait disguised as a portrait of the royals.
Upon leaving the museum we were greeted with a sudden and somewhat scary realization…we did not know the way back to the camping ground. Not only that, we didn’t even know its name, what part of town it was located in, nor even which train we had taken to reach the centre of the city earlier in the day. We were lost! After several hours of making fruitless enquiries at various train stations, we just happened to spot two of our fellow overlanders in the queue at a bus-stop. We were saved!
That evening, we all got severely hammered on sangria.
We had a leisurely get-away from the old kiln and headed for Madrid. We stopped for a snack at a rip-off service station then drove into the city amongst heavy traffic. We by-passed the centre of town and got on a motorway heading north and found a camping ground about 10 minutes out.
We booked in and set up camp then drove further up the road to a HUGE hyper-market where we spent 2 1/2 hour buying food for tea and yummies for ourselves. Scotty and Mike bought a shopping trolley full of assorted booze to make a sangria for tomorrow night.
Back at camp, we mixed up the sangria and ended up with about 30-35 litres! For tea we had de-hy¹ chicken supreme² with mashed spuds and cabbage then relaxed in the camp bar for the rest of the evening playing pool.
¹The truck carried a supply of dehydrated food in cans for emergency rations. We referred to this stuff as “de-hy” and it was quite revolting. ²”supreme” is the hopeful title given to this pale, amorphous white stew.
We broke camp just as the sun was breaking through the thick fog and drove the last 30 kilometres to Toledo. We stopped for a hot drink in a cafe on the outskirts of town and by the time we got into the city the fog had thickened into cold drizzle with a biting wind.
It took about an hour to find somewhere to park, at the foot of the hill upon which the old part of town is built. Toledo is an old walled city surrounded on nearly every side by the Tagus River, which curves around the base of the hill. The huge palace at the very top of the hill, called the Alcazar, was the scene of the decisive battle of the Spanish Civil War. The Revolutionary Forces, under General Franco, defeated King Juan Carlos’ forces there in 1936 and virtually reduced the place to rubble in the process.
Linda and I walked up one of the narrow streets and found a place to have some lunch then went off in search of the sights. Our first stop was the cathedral which, at first sight, seemed closed but after walking right round we found the entrance and went in. It was a magnificent cathedral with huge pillars reaching up into the vaulted ceiling, with a huge amount of wood panelling and sculptures. There are several works by El Greco including a domed painting called the Transparency and many of the statues are finished in gold. We met Scotty there looking around and together we walked up to the Alcazar.
The palace has been restored to its former glory and turned into a museum of the Spanish Civil War and Spanish military history. One room has been left as it was after a shell exploed in it during the seige of 1936.
About 2:30 we made our way back to the truck and drove out of town in the direction of Madrid. We camped the night in a dis-used brick factory under the cover of a lean-to shed. We found some old pallets to chop up for the fire and made ourselves comfortable. We had a very warm and comfortable night sleeping on the ground around the fire which we kept burning most of the night.