Timbuktu and Bust

Journalist, Eugene Costello and I are driving from the UK (North Shields…) to Bamako, Mali, a distance of over 4,100 miles, departing 26th December. Our planned route traverses Europe, taking a ferry from Spain into Morocco, then heads south, across the deserts of Western Sahara and Mauritania, into Senegal and finally crosses into Mali around a month later.

Desert 4x4
Desert not Dessert…

Our vehicle, a former British Transport Police 4×4 – my trusty family transport for a number of years – is destined for donation to the Rotary Club Control Committee in Mali.  Funds from vehicle and parts sales support the important, on-going work of the Eden Medical Centre in Dinfara, where medical provision, though basic, is crucial.

Eugene’s story
In early August 2018, I was on holiday at my brother’s house in a tiny village high in the Pyrenées when I began to experience severe, extremely painful chest pains that caused me to break out in a cold, clammy sweat. They went from three or so per day at the start of the week to as many as ten by its end.

After landing at London Stansted, I toyed with the idea of going home, but on balance took myself straight to Whipps Cross Hospital in east London.

It’s just as well that I did. After an immediate ECG, I was taken straight to the front of the queue of about 50 people, put into an ambulance and “blue-lighted” to Bart’s Hospital in central London.

I was already having a heart attack when I had turned up at Whipps Cross; it seems the chest pains were likely to have been a series of minor heart attacks. And I was having another heart attack when we arrived at Bart’s. I was taken straight to the operating theatre, where they attempted and failed to insert stents. I then had a massive coronary, leaving them no option but to carry out open-heart surgery, using a vein from ankle to thigh to graft triple bypasses.

During surgery, I suffered a stroke and they found a blood clot on my brain. There were serious complications with my lungs and kidneys.

My body shut down and I stopped breathing; I was on life-support for about ten days, unresponsive.

The surgeon later described the events as “catastrophic” and said they would not have been “survivable” had I not been at a hospital – given I was in a tiny village in the Pyrenees 12 hours earlier, it is a miracle I am here.

Those who know me won’t be surprised to know that during a bout of “delirium” (basically, hallucinations) I shouted at nurses, called the head of press to complain about a dirty tricks campaign by the hospital’s “managing editor” (I have since apologised profusely) and had a huge row with my ex-wife and daughter for not taking my account of having been shot in New York seriously or being mugged the next day in Rajasthan. I also insisted that my friend, whom I told I had terminal cancer, find a bookshop to buy me a copy of The Time Traveller by EJ Thribb. Needless to say, he was unsuccessful.

Three weeks later at time of writing (October 1 2018), I am in recovery.

Three days after my own attack (hereditary and lifestyle-related coronary heart disease, CHD) my poor brother, only 48, suffered a wholly unrelated sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). He remains gravely ill and unresponsive six weeks later. We don’t know what will happen next. To have two of three sons on life-support with both cases looking unrelentingly bleak was a cruel trick of fate for my elderly parents; I came round eventually and now I want to put something back.

Since I am freelance and have been told not to work for 12 weeks minimum, money would have been a problem. A closed Facebook group for freelance journalists (A Few Good Hacks) read of my plight and created a fund-raising page that topped £2,500, largely from people whom I have never met, an incredible display of solidarity.

The journalists’ charities, The Press Fund and NUJ Extra have also been remarkable, giving me financial assistance in this life-changing scenario.

Thanks for reading!

Best,
Eugene

Nick’s story

This journey wasn’t initially conceived as a fundraising charity event.

I am 52, fit and healthy.  An occasionally sore knee doesn’t point to any particularly worthy cause.

I certainly can’t claim a motivation any higher than the fact an independent overland journey across north and west Africa still carries a sense of adventure, and I like that.

The last ‘long drive’ I attempted, in November 2011, started in North Shields and ended in Amman, taking in Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut along the way.  In Aleppo I slept in Lawrence’s room at the Baron’s Hotel – they were understandably quiet and offered a ‘special’ rate.  Despite having given the barman ‘a holiday’ the hotel still managed a couple of tins of beer, and boiled eggs for breakfast.  I was probably one of its last guests.

When I first mentioned the possibility of this Timbuktu Challenge, Eugene was immediately enthused.  His proceeding, in-depth exploration of NHS emergency services was not part of the plan.  It changed everything.  Far from looking for a new co-driver as I’d expected, I was now presented with a newly energised Eugene determined to give something back.

This journey will have its travails.  If Eugene shares just some of his obviously immense reserve of resilience, any difficulties surrounding mechanical failures, digestive uncertainty, bribery, bandits and minefields will be as nought.

Look out for postcards from Bamako.

Best,
Nick

We wish to raise funds for three charities:

The British Heart Foundation (especially to fund more research into Sudden Cardiac Arrest, SCA, because of Eugene’s brother’s terrible situation)

The Newspaper Press Fund, now known as the Journalists’ Charity

NUJ Extra

(Any revenue to be split three ways, though we will need some money to cover rent, bills and on-the-road expenses in the month that we are away.)

Individual sponsorship
Any little helps… whether it is the price of a latte, a sandwich, an after-work bottle of wine, dinner out, we would be hugely grateful for your help. You know what to do…

Support the UK to Bamako overland challenge via this link https://uk.gofundme.com/uk-to-timbuktu-by-road-challenge

 

Corporate sponsorship
We are seeking one overall sponsor whose name and logo will be prominently displayed on the side of our vehicle. We will also put together reports, podcasts a video for YouTube and so on, all of which can be used on your website. Please get in touch if you think your company might help or if you know someone else who might be able to!

Existing business sponsors offering support are:

Bradt Travel Guides (pioneering guides to exceptional places since 1974)

Kamageo (the leading marketing and representation agency for African tourism)

• Undiscovered Destinations (an award winning, groundbreaking adventure travel company dedicated to providing truly authentic experiences in some of the world’s most exciting regions.)

The Narrow Nick (Nick’s preferred waterhole in Rothbury, Northumberland)

We are now seeking a headline sponsor to act “in association with” to help fund this huge challenge!

Chicken Telly

My laptop’s on.  I’ve chucked another log on the stove.

Outside on the windowsill two chickens dibble amongst their feathers, pause, press against the window, extend their necks and stare in, pecking at spots of dirt on the glass.

Tap. tap, tap, tap…

My inbox proffers a couple of press trip invitations.  Both are vaguely diverting and would make engaging copy.  However, I’m overcome by inertia.  The prospect of hauling my arse half-way around the world, spending five or so days researching and the same writing, effectively oiling the cogs of a corporate marketing machine, does not appeal.  In more practical terms it’s likely any writing fees would be eroded by out-of-pocket expenses and be rendered mostly irrelevant by the time they’re paid.  More immediately, I’d be jetlagged, my bank balance would be bumping around twenty quid, and my wife would claim not to know me, again.

Chicken Telly
Helga, Boudica and Petra

That’s not to say I’m tired of travel.  There are places I’d do almost anything, short of elective amputation of a limb, to experience and write about.  However, I need to solve the financial equation such that X remains a positive integer.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

More broadly, newspapers and magazines continue apace to abdicate responsibility for paying travel journalists.  Travel writing is seen by editors and others as a dilettante pastime rather than a profession – a source of free holidays.  Even worse, travel copy is becoming synonymous with marketing.

On the page differentiating between editorial and advertising used to be straightforward.  Fact Box information provided by the writer offered recommendations, handy hints or a disclosure of facilitation (free flight, free hotel, free tour etc…)  Paid ads surrounded features.  These days it’s not so clear. Editorial publishing schedules are determined by advertisers – it’s commercially expedient.  Back channel kick backs can govern who receives a Fact Box mention, sometimes to the detriment of readers.  In the case of digital media and blogs in particular there’s often no attempt at editorial balance – 100% 21st century marketing.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

The digital democratisation of publishing driven by the internet has made everyone a writer.  As a result we surf around in a cut-and-paste sea of lies, half truths and wishful thinking.  Instead of being information rich we’re weighed down by a poverty of facts.  This isn’t limited to travel.  ‘Fake News’ is everywhere, occupying airtime, that not reserved for product placement, billboards not destined for advertising or column inches not screaming PR.

If you’re expecting a great reveal, an answer or a call to action heralding a renaissance in ‘real’ travel journalism I’m sorry to disappoint.

Tap, tap, tap, tap…

Perhaps we should all be more like chickens.

Planes, trains and automobiles…

Perhaps in the hope that it’d be buried beneath the kind of trite tosh that surfaces when most folks are taking a break, BA recently announced a revised sequential boarding procedure.  Nothing new in that, save that this process is allegedly based on what you pay rather than where you sit.  I said then that BA had upped its game in a struggle to provide an even more miserable flying experience than Ryanair.  Apologists for BA have said the process will speed boarding – this is nonsense.  Others have suggested we have only ourselves to blame in that we’re suckers for cheap flights – time will tell.  If BA had a USP that allowed us to forgive a too often sour and testy customer experience, it was its ‘full service’ flights. This latest ‘enhancement’ joins the abandonment of complimentary cabin service and checked baggage, the roll out of cabin seating ‘densification’ on some routes, the eroding of seat cushioning and the removal of seat recline (though on short-haul this is excusable.)  Overall it’s a race to the bottom.  Other low-cost carriers have been successfully plumbing these depths much longer than BA and though cheap and cheerful doesn’t cover it, at least they’ve never presumed BA’s false sense of entitlement.

YorkshireAirlines

Elsewhere, I use the East Coast rail line fairly frequently.  I’d use it more if I could afford the ticket prices.  And before we go there, I’m tired of being told there are cheaper advance purchase deals.  If I had a bleedin’ crystal ball that let me look three months into the future I’d not be writing this in the here and now.  Train travel in Britain is becoming prohibitively expensive, and certainly poorer value than much of Europe.   Despite increased fares, aspects of Standard Class service appear in decline.  Trolley service is often not available – no staff to do the job we’re told.  And then, when staff are available, trolleys are suspended because aisles are obstructed by passengers who mistakenly presumed that buying a ticket would also buy them a seat.  Let’s not explore too deeply the realm of delayed journeys – but I recently experienced an eight-hour trip from Newcastle to King’s Cross – the scheduled journey time is nearer three.  I did claim back the £136 Super Off Peak (?) ticket but, even changing into my DJ in the pungent train lav, I pretty much missed the event I travelled to attend.

Then we have the roads…  Driving south from Newcastle to London or the Channel Ports is to be avoided if at all possible.  Britain’s arterial network is clogged.  Constant maintenance appears piecemeal and only adds to the woes of drivers, who in turn become unnecessarily unpleasant to each other.  To the individual who attempted to prevent me merging en route to central Newcastle the other morning, lent on their horn, gave me the fingers and then tried to undertake me, I suggest you expand your life experiences.  On an earlier occasion, when returning from Oxford, I had to abandon the M40, which had to all intents morphed into a Long Stay car park.  The ensuing ‘Hidden Villages of  Oxfordshire tour’ proved only a minor consolation.  These days if I’m planning a long drive across the continent I try to book the overnight ferry from North Shields (Newcastle) to Ijmuiden (Amsterdam.)  It costs much more than a Channel crossing but saves on fuel, hotels, peage tolls, frustration and fatigue.

Well, I feel better after that. I’m going out for a run this afternoon.  It’ll be cold, wet and muddy but the endorphin rush will more than make up for it.  Happy travels to all for 2018.

 

Travel Journalism WTF?

Having cleared my desk before Christmas – all commissioned pieces filed – I find myself inhabiting the un-festive season of oh-bloody-hell-now-what?  A few loose ideas dangle in the uncertain future but that’s about it.  Although I know I’m doing it, writing instead of writing and pitching inevitably leads to this abyss.  Like Wile E Coyote, the road ran out a while ago, I’ve just noticed and I’m now in free fall.

But it’s not just that…

After quitting PR in 2006/07 I’ve explored various aspects of travel writing; regular round-up columns, hotel reviews and destination features, along with current affairs crossover pieces for print, web and radio.  Many of these I’ve enjoyed researching, writing or broadcasting, even some of  the deskbound round-ups.

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However, there’s been a developing theme, and it’s nothing new.  Rates for travel writing now barely cover getting to the airport.  For the record, some pieces bring in £150, others a little more.  A half page feature in one broadsheet national nets a princely £350.  Factor in expenses (few papers cover these), and the industry’s system of payment ‘on’ publication (‘on’ could be months afterwards) rather than on filing and…  Well, you can see where I am.

Helping to focus my disillusion was a conversation I had with a blogger while on a recent press trip.  They were describing Orlando.  I responded along the lines of, ‘Each to their own, but you’d have to pay me.’  Whereupon it transpired some organ of Florida’s tourism marketing machine had not only sponsored the trip but also paid a daily rate for the blogger’s time.  On top of this Orlando wasn’t even somewhere the blogger really rated – it was simply ‘transactional.’  Whoop de ‘effing doo!

For most, freelance travel writing is now unsustainable as a primary income.  One former section editor recently described travel editorial as ‘a hobby’, another editor described writers’ pay as ‘low’ – accurate at least.  Sorrow is knowledge.  It’s clear that newspapers and magazines are either unable, unwilling or uninterested in paying better rates.  In which case why not allow a tourist board or a sponsor pay a journalist directly?  The same editorial rigour would be maintained – not something that applies to most blogs – and the writer’s fee might actually add up to more than the cost of a Happy Meal.

I know this upends a principle and will go against the grain for some.  However, in absolute terms it’s little different to what we have now with sponsored press trips, goody bags, complimentary gear etc…   The fact is that few of these enticements, beyond the basic facilitation, appeal to freelancers who’d much rather write a balanced, straight story and be able to pay their bills at the end of the month.

For me at least, 2018 will definitely see some changes.

 

Return to Tunisia… again

Last month I flew to Tunis and spent a week exploring Roman, pre-Roman and pre-historic sites across Tunisia.

I’ve been ‘back to Tunisia’ before, after the Jasmine Revolution, the first and most effective popular revolt of the Arab Spring.  This time it was the murder in 2015 of 30 British tourists and eight others on the beach in Sousse that defined ‘back.’

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Amphitheatre of El Djem

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice has been revised.  Coastal regions and much of the country’s north are now ‘green.’  Further south, about 50% of Tunisia falls into ‘all but essential travel’ in FCO terms, while mountainous areas to the west near Algeria and southern areas abutting Libya remain ‘red’ zones.  Despite this relaxation, while legal action continues in UK courts, tour operators have been understandably slow to act.

Tunisia’s tourism eggs were mostly collected in one fragile basket i.e. beach holidays.  An emphasis on all-inclusives was another characteristic.  When all is said and done cheap holidays featuring sea, sand and all-you-can-eat buffets are not a unique selling point.  The world is full of sand.

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Basement flat, Bulla Regia

Tunisia is not mineral rich.  Educational standards are good but unemployment is high.  While agriculture, high-tech manufacturing and textile production provide some economic foundation, the effect of the tourism downturn has been profound.

Tunisia’s remarkable sites of antiquity may draw some visitors back.  Carthage is best known, but oversold and underwhelming – a jumble of middling ruins.  It’s the context of the Punic Wars that’s engaging.  Far more impressive ancient headliners include El Djem’s magnificent 35,000-seater amphitheatre – second only to Rome’s Colosseum, the atypical Romanised hilltop town of Thugga, the still-being-excavated city of Bulla Regia, the Genoese fort at Tabarka and the Great Mosque of Kairouan.  Elsewhere, the mosaics at Sousse’s Archaeological Museum and Tunis’s superlative Bardo Museum are unmissable, almost worthy of a trip to the country in their own right.

Tunisia’s ancient world will never bring the numbers required by mass tourism – an indictment of the industry perhaps?  The coast’s cavernous resorts are currently consumed by a race to the bottom, pitching discounted all-inclusive packages to the Russian market for ever reducing returns.

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Oceanus, Archaeological Museum of Sousse

Tunisia has a genuine wealth of appeal;  striking landscapes – over and above its coastlines, a rich ancient and contemporary history, engaging Arab and French culture, excellent cuisine and fine wines, mountain hiking, (FCO permitting) desert trekking, and a diverse natural history.

Some holiday flights look set to operate from May 2018.  What’s the plan?  More of the same?  Tunisia’s many unique attributes are unlikely to be embraced by large tour operators.  They’re simply too irregular for businesses built on sand.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sinai – Dahab’s other story…

I’ve separated this post from the last one.  The story is the kind thing that doesn’t make it into travel copy – ‘Social commentary, we don’t have the word count…etc…’

As I described, for visitors Dahab is a funky beach stay – excellent dives sites (the Blue Hole and others) and, even for those packing British Pounds, it’s relatively inexpensive.  However, dig down and there’s another narrative.

Dahab is a Bedouin town.  Egyptians and Bedouins are, to quote local sources, ‘completely different.’  Egyptians don’t understand Bedouin language, and their brasher, noisier lives are at odds with local custom.  These differences have reinforced mistrust and resentment.  Ongoing violent incidents, mostly in the north of Sinai, are in part both a symptom and a cause of this mistrust.

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Beach cafe development in Dahab’s ‘Lighthouse’ area

Across Sinai access to tribal lands is being restricted.  The authorities have banned private 4×4 vehicles.  Check points and physical barriers have been erected to close off wadis.  For an historically nomadic people these attempts to control movement are an affront.  The police would say their actions are designed to inhibit smuggling and improve security.

In Dahab houses built on land where title is disputed have been bulldozed, sometimes before the contents have been removed.  Such properties are generally inhabited by poor people.  The Egyptian legal system, in common with others, does not favour those of limited means.  Cleared sites await redevelopment by whom?  Elsewhere, blatantly illegal beachfront development, mostly Egyptian-owned bars and cafes, is tolerated.  You have to ask why?

Foreign-owned businesses describe incidents where jealous neighbours have instigated malicious prosecutions.  Reports of systematic police harassment resulting in imprisonment and even deportation are commonplace.  Shopkeepers in Dahab are being obliged to install CCTV – for many a considerable expense, and to what end?

On a street corner I asked a young Egyptian man about the revolution. ‘The revolution is finished, over,’ he replied.  ‘What’s changed?’ I asked.

‘Nothing changed.  Nothing good for Egyptian people,’ he said.

In Dahab overweight plain clothes policemen lounge in cafes, watching people, and eating free food.  Their jackets fall open to reveal holstered weapons.  ‘It’s a police state,’ say many residents.  The 2011 revolution and the 2013 military coup have been removed from Egypt’s secondary school history curriculum.  What’s unsaid speaks volumes.

Sinai – the other Egypt

I’m just back from another Sinai trip.  A few days in Cairo then 10 1/2-hours by bus to Dahab.

In Cairo I stayed at the same  $10 Downtown hotel I’ve briefly called home on numerous occasions since my first visit to the city in the late 1980s.  I’ve seen the place buzzing, filled by young Israelis and foreign backpackers, and empty, save for the elderly Scots lady resident who has long preferred Cairo to Edinburgh, with no fuel for hot water. This time it was different again.  International visitors were few.  The reasons for the collapse in Egypt’s tourism are well known.  However, domestic travellers appear to have taken up some of the slack.  An almost 50% devaluation of the Egyptian Pound (LE) has made foreign travel expensive for Egyptians.  As a result many are choosing to restrict their travel to Egypt.  My hotel was full.

Travelling from Cairo to Sinai involves either a 50-minute flight or a 10-hour bus ride.  The British government advises against flying to Sinai’s airport gateway, Sharm el Sheikh.  Following the bombing of a Russian MetroJet flight in 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew, no Russian or British direct flights have operated.  Lapses in airport security were identified in the subsequent investigation.  Though no advisories are in force for Sharm el Sheikh itself, the British government advises against overland travel through the entirety of the Sinai peninsula.  For UK tour ops the glittering jewel in Egypt’s mass tourism tiara remains off limits.

I took the overnight GoBus from Cairo to Dahab – about 90km north along the coast from Sharm el Sheikh.  A ticket cost LE145 (about £6.30). The bus left at 9:00pm and arrived into Dahab the following morning at around 7:30am.  Police and military check points punctuated the route.  Standing in a line, in the middle of the night, my ‘checked bag’ was searched twice.  My passport was examined more times than I can remember.  Egyptians themselves require special permission to travel to Sinai.  Checks on their IDs and documentation were even more stringent.  That said, a raft of alternative-minded young Egyptians have adopted Dahab as a weekend escape, a kind of turn on, tune in and a bloody long bus ride to somewhere less conservative.  For tourists Dahab is a breeze.

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GoBus… Cairo to Dahab.  Almost there…

Dahab existed before tourism.  It has grown chaotically but organically.   It’s still small – though no one is quite sure how small, maybe fewer than 10,000 people.  It’s relatively resilient style of tourism has helped it endure the worst of the Egypt’s downturn.  Visitors today are either domestic weekenders or summer holiday families, foreign residents or independent foreign travellers.  Perhaps most surprising is the number of young Israelis now choosing to venture across the border to Dahab.  Some estimates bandied around suggested 50,000 have journeyed to Sinai this year.  This influx in the face of government travel advice at least as negative as our own.

I’ll write about my travels for the Indy, but in the meantime I thoroughly recommend Sinai.  For adventurous hikers, have a look at sinaitrail.org – something I tackled last year – and for an alternative Red Sea break (see indirect flights from the UK with Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air to Sharm – then a taxi) Dahab for tourists is engagingly earthy crunchy.

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Dahab – Looking up the Red Sea coast from Eel Garden