Elisabeth Easther talks to Far North tourism specialist Anika West
I grew up in England, Dad was half Austrian and half Polish and Mum's Swedish so we used to spend our summers in Sweden. For three months we'd stay in a little cottage with no running water or electricity on a farm on an island called Oland. The Swedes are very much about nudity and we ran wild.
After I left school a group of us went Interrailling around Europe. We slept every night on the train and during the day dragged ourselves around cities we thought we should see, living on bread, cheese and wine, flying by the seats of our pants.
When we arrived in Porto Villa San Giovanni, opposite Sicily, we piled off the train and into a police chase. The police turned to us and said, "You must get out of this town. You must not stay." It was clearly a Mafia town, and for eight hours we waited for our train, petrified. At 17 your life flashes before you, and there's not much to it.
After university, for my 21st, my parents gave me a one-way ticket to Bangkok. That was the start of my big OE and I didn't go home for four years.
Eventually I went back to London, licking my wounds from a love drama in Hong Kong, and got a job in recruitment. After a few years I was offered a high-powered role but I decided to go to Africa instead. Mum asked me: "Do you want to drive a Mini or a Rolls Royce?" I chose the Mini.
So I landed in Malawi where I had an old friend doing VSO. I spent two weeks with her acclimatising then hitchhiked north.
One night, parked up in her guarded compound, we were having a party when we hear this big bang on the door. And downstairs are three robbers with pungas, like machetes. Because there were louvred windows by the front door, one of the robbers grabbed my leg and tried to pull me through. We screamed and shouted and ran run back upstairs calling for the guard, but he'd fallen asleep in the bushes. So we rang the police but they needed money for petrol.
In the end we poured boiling water out of the window and they ran away. The police arrived two hours later and we had to give them petrol money and that was that.
Next I travelled through Tanzania and spent three weeks in Zanzibar which is just beautiful and I met this English guy taking refugee trucks from Dar es Salaam to Rwanda. I did no research, didn't even think about what was happening there. We drove through the Serengeti and a three-day trip turned into 14 days through the most dangerous countryside in the world at the time.
Crossing from Tanzania into Rwanda, people were amazed to see us. We found the tourist information and said we wanted to see silver-backed gorillas and they said, "You can't, you'll be killed. You need to go to Uganda. There's a bus leaving in a couple of days." So we pitched a tent in an NGO compound and ate beautiful croissants and European food and drank amazing coffee in the middle of crazy, wartorn Rwanda.
Getting on a convoy of buses, at one stage we thought we wouldn't be let through. We were standing meekly, not looking anyone in the eye, as men were screaming and shouting with their AK47s. We stood calmly looking at our feet for three hours. In the end we got to Uganda where we rafted the mouth of the Nile and walked with silver back gorillas.
Because travel has given me so much, I want my kids to love it too. They've been to lots of countries and this year I took them to India for three weeks. Landing in Delhi — it's the worst place in India in terms of population and poverty — that first morning we got up at 7am, and walked around the slums. It was relatively quiet with lots of kids with backpacks and packed lunches being taken to school by their parents.
Even though there were open sewers and rats, the kids could see in this very different environment, normal things still happened. Sure we had some luxury, but we did some very raw stuff. India changed the way they look at the world and that's what I believe travel should do.
I love Northland. I knew I would end up here the first time I came. When I first arrived 19 years ago, I came on a one-way ticket and hitchhiked north and when I got to Paihia I knew I'd come home.
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