Friday, 13 March 2015

Childhood memories of Africa

Back in the 90s, a couple from Newcastle-upon-Tyne took their two daughters - five and nine at the time - on their first trip to Africa. They would return several times throughout the girls' childhood, but little would they know that, 20 years later, the youngest would become a travel writer. Here, Emma Dodd reflects on the impact those childhood experiences had on her development and the memories that outshine so many others.

A few years ago when my parents were moving house, they uncovered a box full of the scrapbooks my sister and I had made of the holidays we went on as children. There was also a photo album that my sister had made after our first trip to Africa. All the photos were taken from knee height and highlighted the things that catch kids' attention, but pass adults by.

Flicking through the pictures really showed how engaged with our surroundings we were and the extraordinary experiences we had. My own first memories include holding a baby crocodile and making friends with an orphaned elephant named Moto in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, where we stayed on one of our trips.

At the time I didn't realise how fortunate we were to be able to go off to Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, Malawi and South Africa during our summer holidays. It is only now that I understand what an undertaking it must have been for my parents to pack up their family and take two small children to such an incredible continent.

One difficulty was always to get us to take our anti-malarial pills and my mother used to employ a wide variety of tactics to ensure we did. These included squashing them between two teaspoons and adding strawberry syrup to disguise the taste or hiding them in sandwiches.

As a child I could see the differences between where I lived and the places we visited, taking in stunning views such as Victoria Falls and the paradisiacal beaches of Zanzibar. Going to school had much more significance after seeing children in these places ask my parents for pencils and their rapt attention as my dad pulled one from his bag and sharpened it before handing it over.

Making friends has never been a problem for me and I became adept at connecting with children that I met in all these countries despite, usually, the lack of a common language. This formed the basis of a fundamental skill that has come in useful all through my life.

On visiting the Sossusvlei region of Namibia when I was seven, the whole family climbed one of the smaller burnt orange sand dunes. I was determined to see the view from the top of the very tallest and set off towards the summit. After a while, my parents realised I wasn't going to tire until I had achieved my aim and set off in pursuit to be presented with one of the 'great views of Africa'.

Twice in my life I have seen leopard - once on a night drive in Zambia and then again in Malawi, where we stumbled upon a young cub behind an anthill – and, despite my young age at the time, I can still remember the excitement. By contrast, when I then first visited a zoo during my time at university, I was stunned to see a tiger, normally even more elusive than a leopard, just sitting there. Despite the fact that tigers are Indian not African it was then that I really appreciated the patience required to see a big cat in the wild and how the anticipation and search builds the whole experience into something truly holistic and memorable when the 'spot' is made – crucially, even if one misses the sighting, the looking is part of the fun.

For a long time I have had an interest in conservation and campaigns that extend well beyond my own situation and this interest is directly attributable to those early safaris in Africa. Even when I was quite young I had a much greater sense that the world was a huge place than any of my peers and I  understood that there were people who were significantly poorer than us.

I wore my Save The Rhino T-shirt until it practically wore out and, at the age of 12, announced that I was becoming a vegetarian; a decision that was based on careful thought and what I had seen in the world. Travel broadens the mind and my wonderful African experiences as a child had a truly positive impact on me that can I can, today, still trace back to those safaris.

Travel continues to come as second nature to me and I have spent time volunteering as an English language teacher in a pineapple farming community in Costa Rica and taken up every opportunity to visit new places that have come my way. Before I turned travel into a career, my parents would suggest I should be sensible in my thinking about the future and what I would do. To this I have always replied that they shaped what I wanted to be: they took me to Africa when I was five!

This article was originally written for The Explorations Company and appeared on their website in May 2014


Maddie said...

It's funny that it didn't seem unusual at the time that your would all pack up and head off to Africa for the Summer - looking back it makes you appreciate what a privilege it was and how adventurous your folks were (and still are!).

Barefoot Em said...

You are so right Maddie. It all felt so normal at the time, but it is quite clear how it has shaped my entire life. Am so lucky to have been brought up in this way.