“Once you have travelled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest of chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey.”
Wise words from writer Pat Conroy – and ones that have never seemed so applicable. This last year, with travel plans constantly curtailed and thwarted, I have found myself reflecting on past journeys, experiences and unexpected happenings. And what I have discovered is that it is often the chance encounter that makes a journey truly memorable.
As a regular backpacker during the late 80s and ’90s, my memory of the travel experience seems a world away from the convenience of the 21st century. A long-wave radio and SLR film camera were our only electronic devices, and we distracted ourselves on long journeys with books and endless card games rather than Instagram and Netflix. We journeyed slow, taking trains and buses across continents and sleeping in railway carriages or with people we met who genuinely offered the spare bed in their home.
We talked and engaged with fellow travellers, either ‘local’ or from far flung corners of the globe. We swapped books, exchanged travel tips and learned new card games. Some travel friends we would trek with, some we pooled funds with and hired a car to get to really out-of-the-way spots, and with others we shared edgy, dramatic journeys which – thankfully – always seemed to end safely.
At the end of the journey we would often exchange postal addresses and give a rough prediction of when we might be home to receive a postcard. We would always say something along the lines of: “If you’re ever in the area, come and stay!” But we never thought it would happen.
I am about to share a true story.
Back in the autumn of 1989, while the Berlin Wall was being torn down in central Europe, I was travelling around New Zealand with three friends in an old MK2 Ford Cortina. The four of us drove the length of the North Island, camping freely and enjoying the famous and generous Kiwi hospitality.
By the third week of December, we had crossed the Cook Strait and were camping near Christchurch in the rain. We hadn’t picked our campsite particularly well, and woke to water in our ears and a very damp tent. We hastily packed and retreated to the car. It was the Sunday before Christmas and heading back into the Christchurch we noticed the cathedral service was just about to start and refreshments were available afterwards. An easy way to warm up, we thought.
During the post-service coffee break, we struck up conversation with Mark and his three children, and before long we had been invited to dry out at their home and camp in the garden for the Christmas holidays. Just like that.
We had a great time. Christmas was spent in the sun of the southern hemisphere and warmth of our ‘adopted’ family. Cricket on the beach was followed by a ridiculous full roast lunch. We got to know Christchurch and its charm through new friends, gastronomic markets (first time eating koláče – sweet Czech cottage cheese pie) and the wise words of Christchurch’s, now salaried, Wizard.
After a couple of weeks we were keen to get back on the road and I’m sure they were also keen to get their garden back. We exchanged postal addresses in the hope that one day we could repay their generosity. Needless to say months and then years went by and letters/postcards ceased. We all moved from our exchanged addresses. Lives were being lived.
Fast-forward to September 2019 and we are living on the Isle of Mull in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. One evening, I picked up the ringing phone to a friend some 60 miles away in the north of the island who runs a B&B. “I have someone here who wants to talk to you”, she exclaims. A male voice comes on to the phone. “Hello Anna, this is Mark from New Zealand!”
It turns out that he was on a road trip around Scotland with his grandson. They had been taking it in turns to choose B&B stays, and in the course of the arrival chit-chat at our friend’s guesthouse they soon discovered they had friends in common.
And so, some 30 years on, our paths had crossed again – unexpectedly, without a plan. At a time when we rely so heavily on email and social media to stay in touch and connected, this tale demonstrates how important and exciting random conversations can be – a face-to-face chat among strangers led to two friends being reunited once again.
Whatever we want to call it – coincidence, fate or happenstance – it’s a great example of how circular our lives can be when we leave the four walls of home.
Happily to say, after spending the day together catching up we exchanged emails and now keep in touch fairly regularly. That reminds me – I must check how he’s coping with lockdown now he’s in Melbourne.