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There’s an incredible travel story in my family and it ties in well with my upcoming trip to South Africa.
In fact, from January I’m going to be treading the 100-year-old footprints of my great-grandparents as they travelled across Zambia by foot.
We only know the details thanks to my great-grandad’s diaries. As someone whose scribbled down every travel memory since I went to Cornwall aged 7, this is pretty poignant for me.
Thirty-five years ago, my mum had to publish a book for a university project. She chose their story and used extracts from his diary to tell the tale of the grandparents she never got to meet. So, yet another generation later, I’m going to attempt to do the same. From battered diary pages to a hand-published book to an online blog, I don’t believe there’s any bad way to tell a travel tale.
Let’s go back 96 years. My great-granddad, Will, was about six years younger than I am now and worked for Barclays Bank in its early days. Aged 20, he was posted overseas to Northern Rhodesia (now known as Zambia) to set up one of the first African branches.
He was based in Zambia for nine years, while my great-grandma, Jessie, waited patiently for him at home. She was 20 when he left and 29 when he returned. This blows my mind just about as much as any aspect of their story – I can’t imagine anyone in our generation having this kind of patience.
In 1920, he was able to visit home and then move Jessie out to Africa with him. The two of them travelled by train from London Euston to Glasgow, where boats departed for South Africa. After a rocky voyage of 19 days, they arrived in Cape Town and caught a shorter boat ride to Durban. From there, it was a nine-days of train rides through Johannesburg and Livingstone, finally arriving at the small town of Broken Hill (now a Zambian town named Kabwe).
From Broken Hill, they needed to get to Fort Jameson (now Chipata, a town in Zambia) where they were to live. However, the only way to complete their journey was to walk the rest of the way.
‘Walk the rest of the way’ to me usually means 15 minutes from a bus stop to a friend’s house. Theirs was a slightly longer feat that would take 26 days in total.
Will and Jessie trekked and camped across Zambia, staying in tents just as I’ll be doing on my upcoming overland trip. My great-grandma, Jessie, was pregnant with my grandma throughout the entire journey.
Will wrote a lot about the people he met in Africa. When passing a local village, he and Jessie were invited to join the residents as they ate. The locals were fascinated, especially by Jessie, and timidly crept up to stroke her hair and pale skin. Will described the eldest member of the community, saying ‘He had a dear old face and when he smiled you could almost hear the parchment of his face crinkling’.
This makes me think of my own travels. All around Asia last year, I marvelled at the generosity of the locals as they invited me into their homes, meal times and lives in a similar way. I don’t think there’s a better way to truly learn about a place than by experiencing it with the people who know it the best – and there are definitely no better stories than the ones that involve loveable or quirky characters!
My great-grandparents visited Victoria Falls, just as I will during my upcoming Africa trip.
‘Words cannot describe that sight because it is too terrible and majestic for anything’ wrote Will. ‘Jessie just held on to me and went pale in the face. She asked if this was the end of the world’ he said, referring to their journey over a rickety bridge across the Falls.
It really makes me think. When I visit Victoria Falls, I’ll have not only seen tons of impressive waterfalls all around the world, I’ll have seen photos and videos of that very waterfall already. In the digital age, do we ever really see things unlike anything we’ve ever seen before? How would I react to something as majestic as the world’s largest waterfall when neither I, nor anyone I know, had set eyes on one in our lives?
My great-grandma (who I’m named after – Jessie is my middle name) may been scared of many things, but having never previously left a small town in Norfolk or experienced any forms of media, could you blame her?
One incident in Will’s diary told of a lucky escape for Jessie when she was caught in the path of a herd of stampeding buffalo. Pregnant Jessie was saved by fate as something distracted the buffalo and they changed path at the last minute. When Will ran to Jessie, expecting her to be traumatised, she just said ‘What a lovely sight dear, weren’t they wonderful?’, in awe at the whole event and oblivious to the danger she’d been in. (Probably something I’d do – I’m rarely stressed about anything!).
So as they found out, travel isn’t always problem-free or enjoyable. It’s especially easy to forget today. Instagram would have you believe anyone abroad is always sunning themselves on a beach with a cocktail. If you’ve been travelling you’ll know there are just as many sleepless nights and uncomfortable days in transit. Some of my toughest times (so far) were probably in India where the hectic streets and curious eyes on you were often tough to ignore. Loads of people I know hated India but the colour and culture made me want to like it – which meant I found a way to look past the bad bits and embrace it.
My great-grandad shared my mentality. ‘Resolve to love the country and half the battle is won. Make up your mind not to cry for the moon and you’ll win’ he wrote, referring to the stressful moments he endured in Africa and how his love of the country overcame any doubts in his mind.
When I visit Africa, my trip will be slightly different to my great-grandparents’. I’ll be starting in Nairobi, Kenya and travelling through Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa. Along with a tour group and guides, we’ll drive in 4×4 vehicles the whole way, meaning they’ll be no walking – but there will be camping. Whilst in Zambia, I’ll be sleeping on the same plains under the same sky that my family did a century before. I wonder what they’ve have said had they known.
I suppose the main difference between my trip and theirs is that today we travel for leisure and enjoyment. We’ve evolved to keep moving because we want to, not because we have to. Whatever drives us to make our journeys, the point is that we make them – we always have. I read a quote in the National Geographic the other day that said ‘If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet’. I might get that tattooed, you know!
I’d have loved to have known Jessie and Will, seen them interact and heard them talk about their travels. I know well how any travel partner can boost your spirits and find the funny side in even the most hopeless situation. Even though it was a different era, would they have been any less in awe at the people and sights they saw, or acted very differently to me and my travel friends?
Apparently, Jessie wrote a list of all the foods from home she missed and wanted to eat on her return. Anyone who knows me can laugh at the irony of that!
Sadly, even their own children wouldn’t know them long enough to hear much about their adventures. Will and Jessie had two girls but when they were seven and six, my great-grandad died of a tropical disease. His grave remains in Cape Town – I hope I can visit it during my visit.
Jessie moved her daughters (one of whom was my amazing grandma who was passionately interested in my travel stories and only passed away in 2014) back to England. They’d had relative wealth during their time in Africa but none of the money seemed to come home with them – my grandma always thought her father’s colleagues at the bank had swindled them. On an anniversary of Will’s death, Jessie was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer and passed away on January 12th, a date which would become my birthday. There was no national health service and my 21-year-old grandma and her sister couldn’t afford a headstone and had to have their pets put down as they couldn’t afford to feed them. World War II was upon them and life was to get harder still.
When I think of their story I make a mental note to never complain about anything again. Tomorrow I’ll be whining about my commute but for today, I’ll try a bit harder.
Interestingly, Africa became relevant to my family again a few years later. My grandma married my grandad and he was sent to west Africa as an officer in the army. Like the parents-in-law he never met, he spent some years there and wrote of his own experiences, which included surviving malaria.
Although we have no way of tracing them, our family’s legacy lives on in Africa. Will’s brother was also sent out to Africa by the bank and stayed out there with his wife and children. This most likely means I have family there today – but Jessie lost contact after her husband died.
So there we have it. From a lonely grave in Cape Town to a great-granddaughter’s diaries a century later, it seems like more than coincidence that I want to do little but travel and write. From hand-scrawled pages to my online blog, both paying homage to new experience, is there any difference between my ancestors and I, aside from the opportunities I have today?
Update one year after writing this!
During my Africa trip I kept online diaries. You can see the series here:
- Exploring Nairobi and meeting my tour
- First few days and Serengeti safari, Tanzania
- Zanzibar island, Tanzania
- Lake Malawi by horseback
- Tracing my family history in Zambia
- On safari in Zambia
- Halfway point at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe
- Our week in Botswana
- Arriving in Namibia and spying rhinos in Etosha
- Damaraland, rock carvings and sunsets in Namibia
- Adrenaline activities in the Namib desert
- Dune 45, Sossusvlei and Fish River Canyon, Namibia
- Wine tasting, South Africa and saying goodbye
See you next time for more adventures,
2018 update – I found my great grandad’s grave in Cape Town and laid a flower to keep him company.