How I Became A Travel Writer: Coen Van Wyk

How I got hooked on traveling and started writing about it:

In Ghana (L), Excursion in Red sea (R)

In Ghana (L), African imagery (R)

One of the poems we had to study at school was Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It was just another poem to sweat through in the beastly hot Northern Transvaal mornings, but somehow phrases stuck in my head: “I cannot rest from travel” and ” … all experience is an arch wherethro’ gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades for ever and forever when I move.”

Friends in Chinguetti

Friends in Chinguetti, Mauritania

Our teacher, Mrs Grey, tried to explain the meaning to the rowdy, hormone-laden kids with little success, but it did cause a small programme to start running in the back of my brain. On our holiday to Cape Town, with my dreamy classmate Olga in her lovely plaits along with her parents in loose formation, I did begin to see that fading margin of experience as we moved through the historic homesteads, the vineyards started by my ancestors, the slave clocks and the route along which the pioneers left the Colony. And after that, for many years, my world of experience was limited to the same places I could afford: Kruger Park, weekends at a nearby lake, once or twice to Cape Town.

Florence, IT (L), Wishing well at Juliette House Verona (R)

Italy: Florence (Top), Wishing Well at Juliette’s House, Verona (Bottom)

Then I joined the Diplomatic Corps and found myself in a totally different world, with different cultures, mores, and customs. But I discovered that, underneath, these people shared the same curiosity about the untraveled world except that, for them, my humdrum African world represented unspeakable exoticism.

Tribal dancing in Sibiti, Congo

Tribal dancing in Sibiti, Congo

I began to write to family and friends about our road trips across Europe, our holidays in the Camargue, our very ordinary weekend in the Alps. And they were in awe at us being able to see such strange and wonderful places. And when I spent six months in the Sahara, after four years in the Indian Ocean islands, they were even more envious.

Sinatra castle, Portugal (L), Red sea exultation (R)

Sintra Castle, Portugal (L), Red Sea exultation (R)

My wife wrote a serial letter from Uganda to her relatives, who replied that it sounded like Paris Match. Hence the name of her blog: Africamatch.wordpress.com.

Ben Amera in the Sahara

Ben Amera in the Sahara

And so we began to seek out the places we were told were worth seeing: the Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater, the Red Sea. I missed the dervishes of Omdurman on an official trip to Sudan, but I managed to visit the Kahn el-Khalilli market in Cairo. What woman could resist a market that is one kilometre long and one kilometre wide and has been in operation for more than a thousand years? Where I bought the last of Queen Cleopatra’s perfume for my mother?

Lefini River, Congo (L), Storm on the Niger River , Mopti(R)

Lefini River, Congo (Top), Storm on the Niger River, Mopti (Bottom)

After retirement I continued travelling, and writing about it: An overland voyage from Morocco to South Africa, another through Northern Mozambique. And the people were the greatest discovery: Two girls in Ghana who wanted to have their birthday photo taken with us; some kids in Chinguetti who wanted to share in our adventure; a boy in Mopti who wanted to keep me company and bought me a hat; Madame Chininia on Isla Mozambique who hosted us and went out of her way to make us feel at home; Tilly and Malena in the South Pacific who treated us as brother and sister.

Slid off the road in Cameroon

Slid off the road in Cameroon

And the future? I yearn to do the Silk Route, as soon as the unpleasantness in Syria ends. Rajah Ampat where the manta rays breed, Konia where Rumi wrote, and where the dervishes perform. And then? Ever the untraveled world recedes before me, but like Ulysses I can say: “I’m a part of all that I have met.”

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