What does it mean to escape?
Explorer, traveller and wanderlust wonder woman Christina Dodwell shares her experiences of life in lockdown, and how the aftermath of a storm helped her find escape in surprising places
The Covid-19 lockdown came as a shock. I’m used to travel, having written books and made films about my journeys. It was a dramatic change to be suddenly confined to one place for an unknown period of time. I felt I’d been stopped in my tracks. The rebel in me looked for ways to escape stagnation. As lockdown progressed, I think many of us spent time dreaming of adventure, seeing ‘other places’ beyond our doors and taking trips to Europe and beyond.
So here I was, stuck on my small farm amid the hills of South Wales. I didn’t have the luxury of deciding what to do with the time as a recent storm had demolished my storage barn, ripping off the roof, and I needed to salvage the contents before rain ruined it all beyond repair. I got started.
Unpacking the past
Beneath the debris, I glimpsed some old sea chests and tin trunks. Twenty years ago, I’d packed them full of things I’d wanted to keep, but I’d forgotten they were there.
Excited, I dragged out a trunk, opened it and found a host of curios from my South African horseback ride: a carved crocodile tooth, my horse’s bridle, some Xhosa beadwork given to me when I somehow took part in a two-day long chief’s investiture. I was asked to make a speech, even though no one understood English, so I spoke using my tone of voice and gestures to thank them for their welcome and said that if Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England was here, she would say thank you, too.
Memories of that fascinating, challenging and glorious eight-month ride alone across South Africa brought a surge of elation, tinged with amusement that I was finding a way through the claustrophobia of lockdown by reliving my adventures. Such vivid memories. That first long ride taught me that the world was not only open to me, but welcoming. As a female traveller, I was a novelty rather than a threat.
Beneath that first layer in the trunk I discovered a campfire cooking pot containing two small fossils of dinosaur vertebrae I’d found on an expedition in the Sahara Desert. My best find was a leg bone that wouldn’t fit into a trunk as it was taller than me. I discovered it half buried in the sand. Now it’s in the British Museum.
The next surprise was a hammock from Antigua in the Caribbean. I remembered swinging below palm trees and listening to waves on the beach. In amongst the nostalgia, excitement was brewing. Where will I escape to next?
Committed to memory
I paused to imagine what it would be like to revisit my favourite places and catch up with old friends. Last year I flew to Croatia to a ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ party. The country was a lovely surprise, with spectacular scenery, glorious old buildings and people who gave me a warm welcome. Yes, I’ll definitely go back to see more of Croatia.
And India. What can I say? I flew to Delhi and had an amazing guided adventure across Rajasthan on legendary Marwari horses. It was a trip replete with lunchtime picnics full of small, tasty dishes eaten lazing in the shade of tamarind trees, watching distant shy antelopes and raucous flocks of wild peacocks. My guide had friends whose almost-derelict palaces were open to guests. One night I slept in a queen’s private apartments with a balcony that was an elephant mounting platform. Despite all this, there’s still so much to discover in a country as rich as India.
But enough of daydreams, there was work to be done on the barn. After moving the trunks to safer storage, I tackled a chest of drawers so damp they wouldn’t slide open. Solution: get a crowbar and, if that failed, kick the drawers out from the back.
Pictures tell stories
Out spilled photos of my two-year journey from Thailand through Southeast Asia en route to Papua New Guinea. The photos were stuck together with damp but at least it was a sunny day for drying things. I peeled the pictures apart, working at speed. It was like a jerky film of the exotic wonders of nature and of man, from Thailand’s ruined northern city capitals down to the coast and pearl-diving in the warm sea of Andaman Bay, from Malaysia’s colourful Chinese New Year to Java’s scalloped rice paddies.
And in amongst them were photos of my parents and family, an essential part of my travel kit in remote countries, which I would show when being introduced to village headmen. I think it made me less of a stranger.
The images became jumbled: San Francisco’s eclectic street life mixed in with memories of Mauritius and Amsterdam’s beautiful and seemingly never-ending canals. What a kaleidoscope. It struck me that I must be one of many to be browsing old photos in lockdown.
Whoever would have thought that rummaging through old boxes could be such a journey, triggering so many memories of travels and friends all over the world?
The foreseeable future
My mind was running away with me now to future explorations. I revel in the buzz of an airport, everyone hurrying to start holidays or adventures, looking forward to what’s ahead. What I love about travel is the feeling of otherworldliness – the different reality, the variety of new sounds and smells.
Travelling isn’t just a geographic change – it can transport you to different times. I am fascinated by historic ruins and their evocative atmosphere. The best thing is that you don’t need to fly far to find interesting sites. I still plan to go to Cyprus to see rock-hewn churches, Knossos in Crete, and Italy to climb Vesuvius.
But I think Spain will be my next escape. My last brief trip there was for the award of the International Medal of the Spanish Geographical Society in Madrid. I’d like to see to see more Moorish culture and towns, sunflower fields that reach the horizon, soaring mountains with tinkling goat bells as the flocks seeks new pastures.
Escapes can be planned or they can be spontaneous – a break from normal life, time to relax, a breath of new life. Leave your expectations behind. Seize opportunity. The world is welcoming.