"There's got to be more to life than this!" It was a lazy Sunday afternoon in the summer of 2001 and I was visiting my younger sister Natalie, who was feeling somewhat unsettled and disillusioned with her life. "I'm 27 now and still in Dover, the town I was born in, doing the same job I've done for years; I want to do something with my life . . . but I don't know what."
"I know I keep saying it, but I still reckon you should go travelling," I told her. I considered myself a born-again traveller after going on a round-the-world-trip a few years earlier, and was convinced that it was the answer to everyone's prayers. If it was up to me, travelling would be compulsory for all; national service with a backpack.
"But I'm not like you - I don't want to go off on my own, and none of my friends are up for it - and if you and I went away together, we'd kill each other. I'm not even sure that I'd want to go travelling, anyway."
"Well it was the best thing I ever did. Turned me into an optimist from a pessimist. . . ."
And so the conversation went on, as it had done all summer. I was familiar with the feelings of dissatisfaction, and the urge to break free from the monotony of everyday life. I'd had a similar desire a few years before, finally deciding on a year out from work and a big solo adventure.
I'd been doing a job I hated for seven years, and felt trapped by my life and increasingly unhappy with my lot. English winters got me down: the claustrophobic grey skies and gloomy weather were reflected in my mood, and my seasonal depression extended further into the spring every year.
My despondency escalated to a level where I no longer cared what happened to me . . . as long as something did. I went away with a melodramatic notion: "I don't care if I never come back."
I was surprised to find, within a week of leaving home, that I was enjoying life more than I ever had. Before I'd found it easier to dwell on the bad, to notice the negative; suddenly I could see the positive with shining clarity. Travelling had opened my eyes; I discovered that the closer you look, the more you see. There was an exciting world out there, and I wanted to explore as much of it as I could.
After years mired in depression, I finally felt that life was something worth embracing rather than merely enduring. I returned from my trip a much happier person, determined to travel again.
My sister and I are very different characters though. I've always been self-reliant, and content with my own company. I'm quite shy (although I sometimes hide that with boisterous behaviour), and I find it hard to make new friends. I was a bit of a tomboy as a kid, and didn't mind getting dirty. I never worried about outward appearances - I could say that my mind is on higher things, but I think I'm just a scruffy git really. Travelling - especially alone - was something that suited me down to the ground.
Natalie, my junior by nearly three years, was a neat child. Her side of the room was always spotless - making my messy space appear even worse in comparison. She's pretty and popular and likes her home comforts, and the fact that she has to show up smart for work every day. While I thought that travelling would help her to get some direction in her life, I couldn't see her disappearing off into the great blue yonder all on her own. It would appear that we had reached a stalemate.
Then one day I stopped and bought a Big Issue from one of those homeless guys, instead looking the other way as I walked past. As I flipped through the magazine, a page crammed with advertisements for overland trips through Africa caught my eye. They covered a wide variety of itineraries and costs - and I could spot at a glance that some of them were way out of our price range. I'd not considered the idea before, and thought it had potential. Maybe it was the perfect compromise; a way for Natalie and I to travel without the intensity of it being just the two of us.
I found the thought of being cooped up on a truck with a group of strangers a little daunting though. I enjoy my own space, and even when surrounded by friends and family there are times that I long for solitude; how would cope on a trip like this?
I'd never know unless I tried - and, whatever happened, it would be an experience . . . against a backdrop of Middle Eastern deserts and African savannahs, full of interesting locals and exotic creatures.
My mind racing, I contacted the companies advertised - even the swanky ones, just to see how the other half live. Once I was armed with the brochures, I popped around to Natalie's flat to sound her out on the idea.
She seemed interested, and I left her to peruse the leaflets at her leisure. I'd already studied them, and knew that the itinerary that appealed most to me was a combination of two tours: the first from Istanbul to Cairo, and the second from Cairo to Cape Town. Trips lasted anything from a couple of weeks to six months, but the old adage "if a job's worth doing it's worth doing properly" sprang to mind. Why go to Africa for a month or so, and visit a couple of countries when we could go for half a year, and see a whole chunk of the continent?
A couple of hours later I received an enthusiastic telephone call from Natalie; she too had been inspired by the brochures. We were thinking along the same lines, of doing a longer trip and seeing as much of Africa as we could - we had even honed in on the same company. Their brochure was less glossy than some, and contained a number of spelling and grammatical errors, but they projected a rough, realistic attitude that appealed to us both.
We spent the next few weeks checking out the competition, before booking with the company that had fired our imaginations. We had a plan - the next summer we would be off to Africa.
. . . to be continued . . .