Walking with Kate Humble: The Joy of Slow Travel

Posted by Kate Humble 22nd February 2024
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Walking with Kate Humble: The Joy of Slow Travel

Our new Brand Ambassador Kate Humble takes a walk down memory lane exploring the joys of slow travel and the many outstanding moments she's experienced that would only have been possible traversing a destination on her own two feet…

Ludo and I are trawling the aisles of Pick & Pay in Cape Town trying to find food that weighs as little as possible. It is 1994 and we’re here in the earliest days of a nascent democracy to discover what treasures await the traveller to the ‘new’ South Africa.

We’re starting our adventure with a walk. The Otter Trail is a 5-day hike along the truly spectacular coast of the Tsitsikamma National Park. Known as the Wild Coast, it really is wild, with no access by road between the beginning and end of its whole 45 km. Walkers stay in simple dormitory-style huts at the end of each day but have to carry all their own food, clothes and equipment with them. This includes survival bags in which to seal rucksacks and footwear so they can be floated across the various deep rivers that have to be waded through on route.

Neither Ludo nor I had ever done anything like this before. Although there was very little risk of getting lost on the well-marked, well-maintained trail, we worried that physically it might be beyond us. The distances between each overnight stop were not long, but we’d read of multiple climbs and descents of several hundred metres and then there were those river crossings, and the fact that we had to carry everything we needed on our backs. Hence our parsimonious supermarket rations: biltong, instant noodles and trail mix.

It is hard for me to believe that three decades have passed since we set off, stomachs fluttering with nerves and excitement. I remember the walk as clearly as if I did it last week. Not just the views that seemed to get evermore jaw-dropping with every headland we rounded and cliff we summited, but the sounds of the sea against sand and rock, of unfamiliar bird song, of our footsteps crackling on dry leaves, of deep, profound silence. The smell of salt, and fresh air and the spicy dryness of the fynbos grew in all its wondrous variety and profusion along much of the route. The sharp shock of cool water on warm skin. The intense darkness. The dazzling stars. And I remember the feeling of achievement, marred only by the desolation we both felt when it was over. The almost-panic of the real world crowding back in with its cars and shops and people. It was all I could do to turn tail and head back the way we’d walked.

We had, unwittingly, discovered the joy of slow travel before it became known as such. The distance we had covered would have taken barely more than half an hour in a car, but we would have missed all the things that gave us such pleasure both at the time and still do now, 30 years later. We’d learned a lesson that I have put into practice many times since: that to get a true sense of a new place - urban or rural – to feel properly immersed and connected, nothing beats experiencing it on foot. And walking has become an intrinsic part of every trip I have done since, whether for work or pleasure.

Walking helped me discover parts of Tenerife I didn’t imagine existed. To find quirky neighbourhoods in Barcelona, Bilbao, Marseille, Prague and Budapest. I’ve walked across snow and ice in Antarctica and Greenland, across sand in the Sahara and the Wadi Rum; the steppes of Mongolia, the mountains of Nepal, the peat bogs of Shetland. I’ve walked with Afghan sheep herders, Siberian reindeer herders, with friends, in crowds and on my own. I’ve been invited into people’s homes, given keepsakes, and had unforgettable encounters. When walking the Wye Valley walk in Wales, a farmer and his wife invited me and my dog in for breakfast and sent us on our way with a buttonhole of black elder, which, they told me, would keep the flies and midges at bay. In Northern Portugal, after several hours of walking on a punishingly hot day, I stumbled across a small, deliciously shaded bar that was in the front room of a village house. The owner told me how to find a secret swimming hole in the nearby river. In Kenya, I was swept up in what I thought was a protest, but the waving machetes and spears in the hands of the men, and the ululating cries of the women were in celebration of a boy’s coming of age and my walk became a dance, culminating in a riotous feast.

A walk might last a few hours or several days, but the result is always the same. It is as if each footstep records where you have been, and holds it in your mind in a way only a carefully kept diary might be able to rival. They are the treasured adventures earned by travelling at a pace that allows every sense to be stimulated and every memory to be captured. My next walk is already planned: a new route in the highlands of Sri Lanka. More on that next month.

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