A desert adventure
One of Annette Henderson’s most treasured possessions is a battered map of Africa.
Purchased almost 40 years ago in London, it traces the places, people and experiences that comprised her near-death adventure crossing the Sahara Desert in a Kombi van.
The author, alumna and former staff member has been waiting to tell her extraordinary story since that time, with a new book released earlier this month.
Scorched is the prequel to Wild Spirit, the memoir Annette released in 2009 after completing a Master of Philosophy in creative writing. This followed two decades working as a senior administrator in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History, where her colleagues encouraged her to chase her dream of becoming an author as a mature-aged student.
Annette’s first taste of adventure came during her honeymoon in 1973, with her husband Win leading an overland Kombi expedition from Brisbane to London via countries including Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Turkey and Iran.
Once in the United Kingdom, the newlyweds found nine-to-five jobs, but it didn’t take long before they started planning for their next trip. Annette was appointed navigator and also translator, with her knowledge of French, acquired at UQ, proving invaluable.
The couple’s journey started on a ferry from Spain to Morocco in the winter of 1975. From there, they drove through the centre of the desert into Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and finally Gabon, where Wild Spirit kicks off.
The progress was slow-going, with long stretches of the 3500km Trans-Sahara Highway consisting of nothing more than sand.
“The feeling most of the time was this incredible infinity, and you would look and there’d be nothing,” Annette says of the Sahara.
“It was a moonscape, and that’s a very interesting feeling as you don’t come up against that often in life, even if you’re a keen traveller. It really confronts you with yourself.”
Only a small caravan of vehicles braved the terrain in those days, with Annette and Win’s Kombi sporting a special steel belly plate and a “visor” on the front to protect the windscreen from rocks. The tyres were let down to half-pressure to deal with the soft sand, which often hid large holes.
Driving through the desert was akin to riding a rollercoaster.
“If you could get a run-up of speed, you could sometimes float up over the top of these soft areas and go quite fast, but you never knew when you were going to end up in a thump down in a pothole. And we had no seatbelts, so I became quite used to my head being banged on the ceiling of the cabin, and I used to hang on to the handle on the dashboard and brace my feet on the front wall if I thought this was going to happen. You couldn’t describe it as relaxing at all while we were on the move,” Annette recalls.
Although the trip had been carefully planned, it didn’t take long for the couple to enter uncharted territory.
One afternoon in soaring temperatures, the van refused to start. Win made a thorough check of the vehicle but they were stuck fast.
Scorched details the generosity of fellow travellers and the remarkable turns of fate that helped the pair out of danger.
The night of the breakdown, an exhausted young man in a turban materialised on a camel. Annette recognised his distinctive eye make-up as belonging to the local Fulani tribe, and tried her best to communicate with him by hand gestures over dinner.
“We sat there in silence. We were in this terrible situation not knowing whether we would get out of it, yet we had to give hospitality because that’s the rule of the desert. So he finished his meal and he was very gracious, and he thanked us and put his hand near his heart, got up on his camel and went away. It was kind of like a dream sequence,” she said.
An earlier encounter with the Tuareg, the nomadic people of the Sahara, sealed Annette’s desire to study anthropology via distance education once back in London.
In an incredible coincidence, Annette and a Tuareg tour guide named Mahmoud shared a mutual friend – a French student who had studied at UQ several years before. Mahmoud invited Annette and Win back to his home for dinner and mint tea. At 1am he offered a parting gift – a delicate beaded necklace made by his sister, which Annette still has.
Other highlights included exploring the stunning high country in Cameroon, which included a private tour of an ancient sultan’s palace, complete with hippopotamus skull ceremonial chairs.
The last three days of the journey were among the most difficult, with the couple having to hack through the forest in Gabon with a machete to make a path while under attack from thousands of insects.
Although she kept detailed diaries during the trip and wrote several drafts of a manuscript upon her return to England, it wasn’t until 2009 while promoting Wild Spirit that Annette decided Scorched also needed to be published.
She is now focusing on her writing full-time, and is a regular guest at bookstores, libraries and writers’ festivals. She has also returned to UQ’s St Lucia and Gatton campuses to share her experiences with creative writing and wildlife studies students.
“My motto is: ‘it is never too late’,” Annette says.
“My husband, bless his heart, has always said to me: ‘When opportunity knocks, race to the door.’ The world is full of infinite possibilities and to a large extent, what you do with it is up to you.
“Always follow your dream. That’s the best advice I can think of for any person.”
To read an excerpt from Scorched, please click here.
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