- 1 May 2009
"Lions, no problem but dangerous drivers..... "
VISITING the Oxford Literary Festival recently, Nicholas Newman, of Oxford Prospects magazine, interviewed travel writer, Fran Sandham, author of TRAVERSA, A Solo Walk Across Africa, from the Skeleton Coast to the Indian Ocean.
LIKE many before him, Fran Sandham felt the pull of Africa. This sense of adventure led him to undertake a trek from Namibia’s notorious Skeleton Coast to Zanzibar on Tanzania’s Indian Ocean coast. This amazing 3,000 mile walk took him across some of the wildest parts of Africa; it was lucky for him that the locals were, for the most part, friendly.
Inspired by the great adventures of noted Victorian explorers, David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, Fran had felt the call of the wild. Like these two famous adventurers he was to find it a life changing experience. Before his trek across Africa, Fran had been a quiet bookseller, surrounded by books telling of the adventures of famous travellers and explorers. Since his African adventures he has become a popular travel writer, and, for several years, editor of the well-liked Rough Guides series of travel guides for others with adventure in their hearts.
I interviewed Fran following his talk about his book ‘TRAVERSA’ that recounts his African journey on foot, in a room lined with paintings of notable academics overlooking Oxford’s Christ Church meadow.
As for Fran himself, he, was dressed in a smart broad pinstripe suit, which somehow clashed with his rugged features. During the course of the interview Fran revealed himself to be a self-deprecating and likeable, humorous person, who reminded me of that other great writer, the creator of Morse, Colin Dexter.
Fran realised that his Reginald Perrin dream of trekking across Africa was going to cost him at least £3,000. It took him a year to raise the money and this eventually meant him leaving his job and selling his flat. As for his training, apart from the hours he spent on his feet every day as a bookseller, he undertook no special training.
"Working in a bookshop is very hard on your feet and keeps you fit," said Fran.
Unlike other modern-day adventurers who usually have a camera team in tow, he had no one to record his struggles of crossing Africa alone. Throughout his epic trek, Fran had to depend on his own resources. His African experience was unlike the rose-tinted view of Africa presented in the BBC television series ‘Number One Detective Agency’. Yes, the country was impressive, including seeing the Victoria Falls, where he managed to buy some doughnuts in a supermarket having not eaten for a week. However, despite the poverty and corruption, what did impress him was the hospitality of many of the people, as he travelled each day along the hot, hard dusty roads with his 60lb backpack and his two walking sticks.
Fran's experiences, including collapsing with malaria and losing three and half stone in weight by the end of his journey, made him appreciate Britain, he said. As for the dangers of his African trek, Fran said: "These did not arise so much from wild animals as from dangerous drivers!"
At one point he did consider giving it all up, when in middle of the Namib Desert, he thought the prospect of weeks of extreme temperatures would be too much. Even so he did persevere despite the unavoidable bouts of diarrhea for most of the trip from contaminated water.
Fran's experience of Africa was not the typical tourist view of that continent, stereotyped in much of the travel literature. He told me: "I am not a fan of the typical travel literature that fills our bookshelves today."
Since Fran returned from his epic trip in 1997, he decided a bookseller’s life was not for him. Instead, he turned to travel writing, eventually becoming editor of the successful Rough Guide series of books, before he felt it was time to write up his experiences of Africa, which eventually became Traversa, an illustrated version being published in 2008. Since then he has made a career writing for the press, travelling the literary festival circuit and giving talks about his African experiences on cruise ships or as an after-dinner speaker.
As for Fran Sandham’s next book he is keeping tight-lipped about that.