Spending three months on the road is nothing new. But my three-month trip beginning in Elba, Italy on September 10 and ending in Sri Lanka on December 9, 2016 is the best and most memorable three-month trip I have ever had.
Why this 3-month trip is special?
Since my retirement in late 2010, I have spent more than three months in a continent (as I did in South America in 2014) or more often three to six months in a couple of continents. This time, I visited six countries in three continents namely Italy, France, Egypt, Sudan, Tanzania and Sri Lanka in three months with Sudan as the only new country on the itinerary. I had a fantastic journey exploring mostly new places and doing many different things. At the end, I can easily count over half a dozen of highlights that have far exceeded my expectations.
First, the 26-day overland journey from Egypt to Sudan was the raisin-d’être for this trip. I threw in a few short trips on my wish list around it. As a result, I travelled over 4,500km by road through expansive deserts with fascinating and awesome landscapes and scenery. It is my longest journey in desert. I also had a quick glimpse of the Nile civilisation along the Nile with a dozen of stops including Cairo, Alexandria, Qena, Luxor, Edfu, Aswan, Kerma, Dongola and Khartoum. I find the section of Nile around Aswan most impressive and photogenic and the trip on a felucca enjoyable. I love to go slow lying in a felucca watch the world go by and may return one day to spend a few days on the Nile in a felucca!
Second, Sudan (the 143rd country I have visited) is a big surprise. Rich in history (though overshadowed by its neighbour Egypt), it has few tourists owing to the prohibitive cost and trouble to get a visa (over US$200 in my case) and its image as a dangerous country. I have travelled over 1,000km from Aswan to Khartoum through the desert. I have seen no sign of trouble, civil disorder and deprivation in this part of the country which is sparsely populated except in the main towns and a couple of cities. The archaeological sites with hundreds of pyramids devoid of tourists are enchanting and more atmospheric than those in Egypt. The highway is well-paved with very light traffic. New trains are running along the Port Sudan – Khartoum line. Khartoum looks tidy and clean as compared with Cairo. Sudanese that I have come across in Khartoum and during the journey are helpful, friendly and often greeted us with a smile. I know the country is in trouble infested with corruption and starved of foreign exchange and economic development owing to international sanction and its own failure in addition to internal conflicts and warfare. If I have only seen the nice side of Sudan on this visit, I would like to return to experience the ‘true’ Sudan and visit the areas in trouble such as Darfur.
Third, I reached the highest point in my life when standing at the ‘Roof of Africa’ – Kilimanjaro (5,895m). I had a bad experience on my first attempt on the Rongi Route eight years ago with an unfriendly and unhelpful guide. Despite my age and altitude sickness, I managed to reach the top this time largely because of my supportive guide, Sanki. In any event, the Machame Route is much more interesting and scenic. Even without reaching the top, I would have been happy and content.
Fourth, GR20 in Corsica is the most challenging hike I have had so far. Attracted by its landscape and scenery, I had underestimated its level of difficulty especially for an elderly and not super fit person like me. Owing to my knee problem and my fall on the second day, I thought I might have to travel to the end point by road. I fully appreciate my young mates who have lent me moral support, treated me with snacks, candies and beer and above all put up with my slowness. Without Jo and Simon, our super guides, I would not have arrived at Col de Bavella on Day 14 ending the 170-km hike.
Fifth, I have been fascinated by Napoleon since childhood after reading about the Battle of Waterloo. I have been curious about this celebrated and controversial figure with a huge legacy. I have been visiting several places closely associated with him including the Les Invalides where he was entombed on my first visit to Paris in 1980, Waterloo in Belgium in 1987-90, Martinique where his wife Josephine was born in 1990, and his last home and empty tomb in St Helena in 2015. My curiosity now takes me to Elba, the island where he was first exiled and Corsica, where he was born. I now realise that he could have been Italian had Genoa not sold the island to France a year before his birth! As a result, he became one of important figures (if not the most important figure) in the French history. My visit to these two islands, though has not deepened my knowledge about him, have heightened by curiosity. I should read more about his life.
Sixth, my pilgrimage trip to Sri Lanka with a Buddhist organisation from Hong Kong is rewarding. My first trip was made some 20 years ago after my first visit to Maldives. Joining a pilgrimage tour has brought me to some of the holiest places in this Buddhist country and given me an opportunity to learn more about Buddha’s life and Buddhism in addition to discover the archaeological sites with amazing art works and architectures. The journey is spiritual though I am not a Buddhist.
In addition, I am delighted to see the visible progress the country has made in rebuilding itself after the end of the 26-year long civil war in 2009. The areas mainly dominated by Buddhists and Christians look peaceful, prosperous and organised though I am aware the Tamil dominated areas may present a different picture. The people are nice, gentle and polite. The green countryside is well-tendered with fields under cultivation with abundant water resources. The villages all look tidy and relatively clean especially compared with India and many countries of similar level of economic development.
Seventh, Sri Lanka though small is becoming a hot destination. There is so much to do. In addition to its archaeological sites, its nature and the long coastline teeming with marine life and beautiful beaches are big draws. I indeed took a safari trip one day and saw my first two Blue Whales on the next day!
Seventh, I had a wonderful time with Alena, Bing and Rupert in Campania and Amalfi Coast under the care of Ben, our Italian host who is a great guy and friend. Ben charged us not much for organising our trip, brought Carmala along as our chef and introduced us to Campania and the Amalfi Coast. We were spoilt by Carmala’s excellent home-cooking for eight days! It’s truly a treat and my best Italian experience.
I write this epilogue more than two months after the trip and still cannot believe I have done so much in 90 days. The last thing I want to record is about the people whom I have met or travelled with. This time, the list is longer than usual. I am sure I would not have enjoyed this three-month journey without my GR20 hike mates, Ben, Carmala, Antonio, Alena, Bing and Rupert in Italy, my 18 truck mates on Xara in Egypt and Sudan, Sanki and his team who helped me to summit Kilimanjaro, and Patrick from the Buddhist association who organised the pilgrimage trip and Cat my friend who joined me in Colombo.
(Written and uploaded on February 24, 2017)