Highway to the danger zone

Some gappers do sun and surf, while others seek their thrills in the nearest war zone
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The Independent Online

"You definitely get respect at university for being a traveller," says Devon Walshe, 21, who spent his gap circumnavigating the globe by land and sea.

Gap years such as his would not be endorsed by reputable gap year organisations. It was a journey that took him down some dangerous paths: along roads controlled by Maoist insurgents in Nepal and through Southern Afghanistan, a country under little government control, thick with men bearing kalashnikovs.

However, on both occasions Walshe came across nothing but friendliness and curiosity from locals. What made it worth the risk? "It's a childish desire to go to the worst possible places," he says. "And because it's off the beaten track it's more authentic and less influenced by the West."

While some gap year students, such as Walshe, ostentatiously seek danger, others have danger thrust upon them. Ryan Daly, 21, spent his gap year on a kibbutz in Israel. He was disappointed in his search for a socialist way of life, but did experience what it was like on the front-line of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For two months he lived a peaceful kibbutz life, cooking for the factory workers and apple-pickers, until the first of several rocket attacks by the Hizbollah.

"I was in bed when the first attack happened," he says. "I turned to the guy in the next bed, and was like, oh my God, what was that?" Daly had good reason to be concerned. In one attack a teenage boy was killed. His fellow kibbutzers said that it was quite normal. "I put on the impression that I wasn't scared, but I didn't get much sleep that night," he says. "The first time you hear a rocket explode you can't judge how close it is, but you get used to it. After a while it didn't bother me." The experience gave him a taste for danger. Last summer he visited Afghanistan, and again had to sleep through rocket bursts and gunfire in Herat when fighting broke out in the city.

For both Walshe and Daly, danger is one of the attractions of travel. For others, the axis of evil is just an inconvenient obstacle: places you have to get through to reach the other side. Phillip White, 24, was more interested in head winds and body weight than local politics, while cycling around the world in his gap year. Iran was simply on his way to India, but it could have been the end of his journey.

At dawn on the road south from Tehran, White was accosted by a dodgy-looking character on a motorbike, trying to pass himself off as a policeman. When White refused to hand over his passport, it quickly became a marathon slanging match in the eerie wilds of the Iranian desert. The man eventually gave up, but it could have been nasty. "I was lucky," he says. "This guy was clearly an amateur and didn't really know what he was doing."

Clearly vulnerable, White took pains to dress respectably to avoid offending Muslim sensibilities. But leaving Pakistan, he committed the ultimate Muslim faux pas, and got naked. "I was bending over to pick up my bike, and my trousers ripped along the backside," he says. "The Pakistani guard wasn't that impressed. I just thought I must get to the Indian side fast, so I crossed the border with my trousers flapping around me."

In one way or another, though rarely so literally, that's the feeling all travellers in danger zones have in common. Setting yourself, naked and alone, in the eddy of politics and war. "It's an adventure," says Daly. "Seeing for yourself the political instability and how society goes when the infrastructure collapses."