Dangerous lure of the wild
Those gorilla-watchers payed a fearful penalty not for rashness, but for courage and intelligence
Thursday 04 March 1999
It was always so, of course. The bolder the wanderers, the more dangerous their journeys are likely to be, and the more ready they are to take risks. In a society obsessed with safety, in which a child may not climb a tree without an emergency harness or ride a kiddy-trike without a helmet, these are anachronistic attitudes; but the truth is that travel has always been a hazardous business, in one degree or another, and to a brave minority of our citizens (thank God) the chance of peril is an essential part of it.
The nation of wimps and grumblers complains now that the Foreign Office neglected to warn the public about the dangers of travelling in Uganda. But nobody in their senses would suppose that a journey into the darkest heart of Africa, land of the Hutus and the Tutsis, where the Uganda of ex-President Amin meets the Congo of ex-President Mobutu, would be like a trip to Benidorm. Those gorilla-watchers, I have no doubt, weighed up the risks in their own minds, and paid a fearful penalty not for rashness, but for courage and intelligence.
Can you imagine the great travellers of the past waiting for a Travellers' Advisory from Whitehall, still less listening to warnings from the US State Department? Their colossal journeys of adventure and exploration, across the Gobi Desert, up the awful Niger, into dread ravines and down nightmarish caverns, were undertaken in the very spirit of liberty, and were all too likely to end in death, ignominy or imprisonment in the rat-infested dungeons of malignant despots. Often they were undertaken in direct conflict with restraining bureaucracy; but what pale functionary could prevent a Gertrude Bell or an Isabella Bird from setting off on another hair-raising initiative?
Mind you, few of those tremendous travellers took unnecessary risks. There were unavoidable risks enough. Then, as now, you would be a fool to travel anywhere without taking pains beforehand to learn as much as possible about your destination. You could not learn much about the Valley of Assassins in Freya Stark's day, or about conditions in upper Dahomey in Richard Burton's, but there is no country in the world nowadays where conditions go unreported. With or without official recommendations, we all know that travelling in Chechnya, say, or Kosovo, or Yemen, or Sierra Leone, or Afghanistan, or upper Burma, is unlikely to be a bed of roses. For some, that's all the more reason for going there; for the rest, better go to Tenerife.
And who knows, even in Tenerife there may be mad camels on the run. Not even compulsory travel insurance can protect us against every hazard; not even the most impressively multilingual tour guide can stave off every tout.
It is up to travellers themselves to use their common sense, and their privilege of choice. If they want to enjoy the splendid frisson of a skulk through the kasbah, well and good. If they are not the skulking kind, let them join the rest of the group at teatime; at least when poor Mr Rowbotham returns from the souk, ripped-off and resentful, they will have the pleasure of saying "Well, you were warned..."
Health warnings, safety warnings, Government warnings, medical warnings, warnings from park wardens and policemen and tour guides and counsellors - contemporary Britain lives in a state of having-been-warned. In my view we should be subject only to our own warnings. If, having been alerted to the disadvantages of tobacco or beef on the bone, we decide to ignore the advice, that is our own business; and similarly in travel it is our own good sense and instinct that we should obey or disobey.
Good sense should surely tell us not to flaunt our wealth amid poverty, or to wave flags or to shout slogans amid other patriotisms, or get into ideological arguments in the blaze of tropical suns.
Instinct awakens us to signs from which even the boldest traveller usually finds it best to back away: the indefinable murmuring sense of threat, for instance, like the first hint of thunder, that heralds the start of a riot, or the feeling that your movements are being monitored by young men on motorbikes, or a sudden inexplicable profusion of policemen on the street, or the clatter of shop shutters dropping long before closing- time, or an abrupt rushing of black cars through a city, hooting their horns.
Such are intimations of danger that everyone can sense; unless there is some powerful professional or political reason for hanging around - to stand in defiance in front of a tank, say, or to get your report on to the nine o'clock news - even a Gertrude Bell or a Charles Stoddard of The Great Game (who ended up in a pit at Bokhara full of reptiles and decomposing matter) might then find it best to get the hell out of there.
But if at that moment an official from the Embassy were to tap Ms Bell or Colonel Stoddard on the shoulder and issued a Travel Advisory, I bet you that in a trice those two bravehearts would be off into the thick of things. It is in the nature of a free spirit to resent interference, however well-intentioned, but in the Britain of today official interference is not merely welcomed, it is positively demanded.
What does that say about the survival of liberty? The cloudily powerful protective classes - the wardens and the counsellors and the experts, encouraged by molly-coddling back-benchers and columnists, conspire to make us ever less self-reliant. How long will it be, I wonder, before Travel Advisories are made mandatory, and we are allowed to go only where officialdom thinks it's safe, or where there is no smoking? The best citizens, like the best travellers, are the free of spirit, the rebels, the outsiders, the sort who go to see gorillas in Uganda.
The only warning they need is a warning as old as travel itself (and life too, for that matter): caveat viator - let the traveller watch out!
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