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.

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.

CIMG3112

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.