Try to take the road less travelled

WE THINK... • January 2016

It pays to be intrepid

Investigative journalist and novelist E M Davey backpacked across Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and the Congo in search of adventure and inspiration for his novel Foretold by Thunder. Here he explains why, given careful planning and risk management, almost nowhere on earth is off limits to the tourist

There was movement in the jungle. Something rounded. Something big. A chimpanzee? For days I’d been tracking the creatures in this remote corner of Sierra Leone. But their demented screeches had remained tantalisingly beyond sight. I readied my camera, heard the crack of splintering wood – then I was charged by a pygmy hippopotamus.

A misnamed creature: it came up to my solar plexus. My guide bravely dropped his machete and ran. A second later I was sprinting too. Peak terror came when I saw ‘Lion Heart’ already halfway up a tree. This seemed sensible. When I looked down, the hippo was gone.

As I returned to camp, cut to shreds by the jungle, adrenalin rush turned to exhilaration. I’d encountered one of the earth’s rarest creatures.

During 15 years of adventure travel I’ve had numerous hair-raising moments. In Ethiopia to research my debut thriller Foretold by Thunder, I was hauled 50 feet up a cliff by monks to location scout a remote monastery. The rope was comprised of old scraps of leather tied together with granny knots.

In the Republic of Congo my Land Cruiser broke down in bandit-infested country, and I had to eat barbecued maggots to curry favour with the local chieftain.

In Brazil someone tried to plant drugs on me; in Burundi I ran the gauntlet of armed militias as the country slipped into civil war. This year I drove along the Tajik border with Afghanistan, within walkie-talkie distance of Islamic State militants.

Going off the beaten track comes with its own rewards

Bonkers destinations; breathtaking settings for fiction. But frankly, even if I were a paper-clip designer I’d probably have visited these places to see what happens. Of these countries, only Burundi is currently on the Foreign Office ‘not on your nelly’ list.

But how to visit such places? Research, research, research. FCO travel advice should always be consulted carefully, and Bradt Guides, the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree and other internet forums lend a more rounded opinion of how safe somewhere is. Talk to people who are there.

And why bother with intrepid travel? (Over and above dinner party kudos, of course.) Interaction with undiluted cultures; the sense you’re striking out somewhere new; astounding sights; that priceless feeling of adventure. But best of all, you meet real people. Not waiters or hoteliers, locals jaded by tourism – but curious, generous, hospitable human beings. Try it!

This article has been tagged Opinion, Travel Tips