On the wrong track

Do we know where we’re going to? Not always – but that’s half the point of travelling, writes Ewan McDonald.

Is the journey really the reward? Photo / Thinkstock
Is the journey really the reward? Photo / Thinkstock

QUOTED, misquoted, over-used and misunderstood, so let's get it straight. What Robert Louis Stevenson wrote was, "To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive". There were a few other words before and after, but the gist is from an ancient Taoist proverb, "The journey is the reward".

Frankly, that's bollocks.

First, that adverb. It's Martha telling Brenda that she's booked a Mystery Weekend flight for her Significant Anniversary: "Hopefully we'll go to Queenstown". When the stewardess tells Martha and Bruce to be careful opening the overhead locker because items may have moved in flight, they look out the window and see they're in Gore.

Now, reflect on the circumstances. Stevenson was in his late 20s, still dependent on his parents. He set out on his Travels to raise money to marry the woman he loved and for adventure: he'd been sick throughout his youth.

So far, so good. It's a belated gap year and he wants to impress a girl.

Admittedly, not one of the great pickup lines but, hey ... we've all been there.

He decides to hike and camp for 12 days and (ahem) slightly less than 200km through the sparsely populated, impoverished Cevennes mountains smack-dab in the middle of France in 1878. For which he had to commission the first sleeping bag and pretty much invent the idea of tramping as a fun way to spend a couple of weeks. Not quite so far, but still pretty good.

That's when it all turns to crème pâtissière. He chooses to travel with a donkey; and not just any donkey. He buys a stubborn, manipulative ass (that may be biologically off-topic) named Modestine. They agree to disagree, or rather disagree to agree. Every step of the way.

COME ON: is this the guy you'd invite around for wine and dips and say, "Hey Rob, got any ideas for our Golden Wedding trip to Europe?"

That whole RLS/Taoist shtick is and was a marketing concept. The fantasy of some graduate with a degree fresh off the Inkjet printer who's never been in the front seat of a hatchback while the two outliers and the booster seat in the middle are chanting, "Are we there yet?"

"No. Everyone quiet until someone sees a white horse." Or a black dog.

Another way it's been translated is, "Getting there is half the fun". This probably was a romantic conceit when Europeans glided down the Nile in a felucca, fellow in white cotton suit waving fan to over mildly fevered brows, steward knowing the precise ratio of Pimms to lemonade; or when Anglos were littered - meaning, a chair carried by locals, of course - about the Raj, copious supplies of G&T at hand to stave off malaria until the next teahouse. (Somerset Maugham dealt to that idyll fairly conclusively, of course, but let nothing stand in the way of a good cliche.)

It does not translate to a cheapo flight to the Gold Coast where you buy the movie, the headset, the peanuts, the bottled water, use of what one's grandmother called "the facilities" and woe betide anyone who packs one pair of togs more than 7kg in their carry-on.

Or when Martha and Bruce arrive in Rome on the once-in-a-lifetime trip to celebrate their Significant Event and their baggage has just landed in Des Moines, Iowa. Of course the airline will sort it for you, madam. It will be back in New Zealand before you know you've left.

ALL OF which can make travelling seem something that's not worth the bother. Which is even more cobblers than dear old Stevenson's wistful thinking.

Travelling is that moment when you use your schoolboy French for the first time in 30 years and the Parisian waiter understands that you want a red wine and not peanuts; when it's 5am and minus 2 in the Kruger and you haven't bought a woolly vest because you thought Africa was hot but the sun is rising above the mountains and there are wildebeest and warthogs and zebras in touching distance; when the Turkish carpet merchant offers you tea and a good deal because you are his first customer of the day and you catch his eye and both of you know each is having the other on.

Getting there is half the fun when you're on a cruise ship that left Brisbane on Saturday afternoon and won't dock at Noumea until Tuesday afternoon, and you've got four new books from the library.

And it is that moment in 2007 when another Scottish writer toddles into a remote village in the mountains in the middle of France and asks the mayor about Stevenson's ramble, and the mayor tells him why it mattered, then and now: "Because he showed us the landscape that makes us who we are".

You'd go a long way to hear a better reason for travelling than that.

• Ewan McDonald is an award-winning writer at the 2011 and 2012 Cathay Pacific Travcom Media Awards. Read more at nzherald.co.nz/travel

- nzherald.co.nz

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