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NIGEL S. ROBERTS

Travel

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Africa:
Rhodesia, 1960
Travels with a Brother in the Cape, 1961
Living in South Africa from 1949 until 1962

Australia:

Kangaroo Island, 2008
Cycling in Tasmania, 2006
Tasmania, 2007
Tasmania, 2009
Tasmania's Overland Track, 2009-10

Britain:

see also Europe, 1963
Offa's Dyke Path, 2015

Europe:

Europe, 1963
Camino de Santiago, 2010
Portuguese Caminos, 2017

France, 2012

Latin America:
Cuba, 2010

Mongolia, 2005

New Zealand:

Belmont Regional Park, 2009
The Chatham Islands, 2020
The Hillary Trail, 2010
Te Araro/The Long Pathway, 2008
Four Peaks High Country Track, 2013

New Zealand's "Great Walks":

Abel Tasman Coast Track, 1983
Lake Waikaremoana Track, 1987
Milford Track, 1996
Routeburn Track, 1996-97
Heaphy Track, 2009
Kepler Track, 2012
Rakiura Track, 2012
Tongariro Northern Circuit, 2013
Whanganui Journey, 2016

Portugal:
Portuguese Caminos, 2017

Spain:
Camino de Santiago, 2010
Portuguese Caminos, 2017

United States of America:

Ohio and its highpoint, 2013

 

Travelling is in my blood
Travelling is in my blood – or, at very least, in my DNA. My paternal grandparents, Harry and Olive Roberts, picked up my father when he was a few months old and took him to Canada. They didn’t like it there and soon returned to the UK. Although Harry then spent the bulk of his life in England, he was especially fond of Bruges – the town in Flanders that has been called Belgium’s “perfect pocket-sized medieval city” – and went there frequently after he retired from his job as a schoolteacher. It was Olive, though, who was really an inveterate traveller. When she separated from Harry in 1917, she put my six-year-old father on the back of her bicycle and cycled from Stockton-on-Tees to London to look for work. That’s a distance of about 240 miles / 400 kilometres.

Nine years later, Olive really branched out. Together with my father, Bobby, who was then 15, she travelled to Brittany. Their method of travelling had improved slightly: Olive drove her Ner-a-Car motor scooter while Bobby sat behind her, and they both carried their luggage in rucksacks on their backs. Despite their somewhat primitive form of transport (which was undoubtedly better than a bicycle for a long trip), Olive and Bobby hugely enjoyed themselves in France, where they began what Bobby later described as “a lifelong friendship” with Jean and Blanche Rainer, whom they met on a beach near Fort Penthievre. The Rainers lived in Tours, which is where Heather and I visited them more than 40 years after Olive and Bobby first met them on a Breton beach. After their initial trip in 1926, both Olive and Bobby returned to France frequently during the years before the war. Indeed, in 1939 Olive took a small car and caravan (both of which frequently broke down) across the channel from Dover to Calais on Bastille Day (i.e., 14 July), spent six weeks primarily in Brittany, and returned to England on Monday, 28 August. Six days later – on Sunday, 3 September 1939 – Olive recorded in her diary that “war declared 11am.”

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My grandmother, Olive Mary Roberts, was an inveterate traveller. The photograph of her (on the left) was taken in 1930 during one of her many trips to France. On Olive's first visit, in 1926, she and my father met Jean and Blanche Rainer in Brittany, and they became lifelong friends. It was a friendship that even extended unto the third generation: I took the photograph on the right in the 1960s of the Rainers standing outside their home in Tours.

Bobby’s pre-war travels in Europe were not limited to France. As a young doctor, he travelled to Germany in August 1933, less than seven months after Hitler had become Chancellor. Bobby’s travelling companion on this, his first, trip to Germany was Helen Lowe-Porter. Given that she was Thomas Mann’s preferred English translator, Bobby certainly had an exceptionally well-qualified German-speaking guide. They went to Freiburg-im-Breisgau in order to visit Bice Lowe, Helen Lowe-Porter’s daughter, whom Bobby was hoping to woo. Although Bobby’s amorous ambitions amounted to naught, years later he recalled that while he was in Freiburg-im-Breisgau, he was “fascinated by the decorated pavements in the main streets, one of which had recently been renamed Adolf Hitlerstrasse.”

Bobby’s later sojourns in Europe included – quite amazingly – a skiing holiday in Chamonix in February 1940, more than four months after the start of the Second World War. Fifty years later, Bobby explained in his memoirs how during what was called the phoney war, the British government “relaxed and in January [Prime Minister Neville] Chamberlain issued a statement to the effect that ‘His Majesty’s Government has no wish to place any restrictions on travel between Great Britain and France’. We took this announcement literally and booked to go and stay with our old friend the skiing instructor in Chamonix in February.

“We went by train to Dover where the Customs and Immigration officials were astounded when they asked us what was the purpose of our journey and we said ‘A skiing holiday’. I produced the cutting from The Times relating Chamberlain’s statement and we were allowed to proceed. We went across from Dover to Calais in the Cross Channel Steamer accompanied by a couple of destroyers going ‘Whoop, Whoop’, and travelled across France in dimly lit trains, although the French ‘black-out’ was not anything like as strict as the British. We had to change trains and stations in Paris and to us the city was just a little dim in a soft blue light. We saw lots of trains conveying troops in carriages marked Hommes 40, Chevaux 8.”

Travel-essay-02: Bobby and Lilian Roberts skiing
No photographs survive from Bobby's February 1940 "phoney war" skiing holiday, but this photograph of Bobby and my mother, Lilian, was taken when they went skiing near Chamonix a few months after the end of the Second World War.

Moving to the Netherlands
Travel may or may not broaden your mind, but it certainly gives you itchy feet. In the case of Bobby and Lilian (my mother – she and Bobby married in September 1942), the itch was made worse by the fact that they had been largely confined to London during the long years of the war. Peace gave them a chance to spread their wings, and – in my father’s words – “to escape from the stress of London.” In late 1946, Bobby applied for a position in Holland teaching anaesthesia to Dutch doctors. He was interviewed for the job in December, was offered it, accepted it, and in April 1947 Bobby, Lilian, Stuart (my younger brother who was ten months old at the time), and I (who had just turned three) caught a boat from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and settled in Utrecht. My then ten-year-old half-brother, Anthony, stayed on in England to finish the school year, but he too joined us in Holland at the end of July.

Travel-essay-03a: View of Utrecht--Travel-essay-03b: Kromme Nieuwegracht 41
The photograph on the left was taken in 2012 from the top of Utrecht's cathedral tower by my younger brother, Stuart. The house we lived in at Kromme Nieuwegracht 41 is near the upper right-hand corner of the picture, while the fountain into which Stuart fell one afternoon in late 1947 or early 1948 is visible near the lower right-hand corner. I took the picture on the right of Heather standing in front of Kromme Nieuwegracht 41 in 1967, twenty years after my parents, my older and younger brothers, and I had lived there.

Our move to the Netherlands was the first time I travelled to another country, and – significantly – my earliest memories all date back to the eighteen months we lived in Utrecht. I remember the very steep flight of stairs in the house we lived in at Kromme Nieuwegracht 41; Stuart once fell into the fountain in the cathedral’s gardens and I vividly recall him in his camel-hair coat as he walked home dripping wet and crying through the streets of the city; and to this day I can clearly remember my terror when confronted by St Nicholas’ (i.e., Sinterklass – viz. Santa Claus’) assistant, Zwarte Piet: I was sure that instead of giving me a present for being good, Black Peter was going to put me in his sack and take me away because I’d been bad.

Travelling to and in Africa
After 18 months in Holland, we returned England, but a few months later we were on the road again. More accurately, we were on the high seas. On Thursday, 6 January 1949, Bobby’s mother wrote in her diary: “… went to Waterloo [station] to see Frank & Co. [i.e., Bobby, Lilian, me and my brothers] off for Johannesburg.” We caught the train to Southampton, where we boarded the Union Castle Line’s passenger ship, the Pretoria Castle, and set sail for Cape Town. Putting the journey her elder son and his family were embarking on into prosaic perspective, Olive continued her account of the day in her diary by saying, “Then shopping. Bought hat and bed warmer for D.”

Travel-essay-04: The Pretoria Castle
In January 1949, my parents, my two brothers, and I sailed from Southhampton to Cape Town on the Pretoria Castle.

We lived in South Africa for thirteen-and-a-half years. Whereas I have a scattering of sporadic memories from the time we lived in Holland and the short while we were back in England in late 1948, I have a reasonably clear and consistent set of chronological memories of the rest of my life after arriving in South Africa in January 1949. It was in South Africa, too, that I acquired my fondness for and fascination with travel. I was extremely lucky: my parents were middle class with a secure and comfortable income. The money my father earned enabled the family to have regular holidays. We had lived in South Africa for less than a year when we went on our first long family holiday – we travelled from Johannesburg via East London to Cape Town, where we had Christmas. During the early- and mid-1950s, we enjoyed seaside summer holidays in Hermanus on three successive occasions, as well as on the Natal coast once and twice on the Transkei coast (which is now known as the Eastern Cape coast).

Travel-essay-05
On our way to holidaying on the Transkei / Eastern Cape coast in the mid-1950s, we drove past Execution Rock where, according to Pondo legend, King Faku threw his enemies off the mountain's impressive cliffs.

We all loved those lazy, hazy days of summer (but at the stage of my life, at least, I hadn’t yet been introduced to pretzels and beer). The smell of the sea and the sight of waves breaking on rocks still cast their spells on me. In his memoirs, my father said, “Those Hermanus holidays were wonderful. There were two lovely beaches with good safe bathing, and a small mountain stream with water the colour of Coca-Cola with a pool in it large and deep enough to dive and swim in, good rock fishing and spinning for yellow-tails when there was a run on in the New Harbour, good walks in magnificent scenery and countless drives in the vicinity.” My younger brother and I wholeheartedly concurred with those views – so much so that Stuart and I not only hitchhiked together to Hermanus in January 1961, but we also went back there separately in 2013 and 2019 respectively.

Travel-essay-06: Old Harbour, Hermanus, 1953
Two views of the Old Harbour in Hermanus. The photograph above was taken by Bobby Roberts
in the early 1950s; the photograph below was taken by me in September 2019.

Travel-essay-07: Old Harbour, Hermanus, 2019

On Wednesday, 1 January 1958, my father, Stuart, and Olive (who was visiting us in South Africa at the time: she continued to travel for the rest of her life, aided by the fact that her younger son, Bobby’s brother Peter, became a travel agent) left Umngazi Mouth (on the Transkei / Eastern Cape coast) and drove to Loteni in the Natal / Kwazulu Drakensberg. Although we didn’t know it at the time, New Year’s Day 1958 proved to be a red-letter day in our family’s history: it was the end of our seaside holidays and the start of our mountain holidays. During the following four-and-a-half years, we frequently returned to Loteni. The mountains became a focus for our family: Loteni was where we fished and hiked, and where we relaxed and recharged our batteries.

Travel-essay-08: Loteni, Natal Drakensberg
Approaching Loteni: a photograph taken by Bobby Roberts in the late 1950s.

During the thirteen-and-a-half years that we lived in South Africa, there was one other destination to which we travelled time and again – namely, the Kruger National Park. We went there more than to any other single place. Mum and Dad rewarded Deadeye Dick game spotters. On every trip to the game reserve, the first person to see a new species of animal was given threepence (colloquially called a “tickey” in South Africa) or, for big game such as lions or elephants, sixpence. Invariably, on almost every trip to the Kruger National Park, the first tickey earned was by someone who saw an impala (which I note that the Kruger National Park’s website describes as “the most common antelope of the bushveld regions of South Africa”). I was so enthralled by our trips to the game reserve that, from the age of about eight to fourteen, I had one over-arching ambition: to be a game ranger. More than 20 years after we finished primary school, a classmate of mine who went on to become a well-known CNN foreign correspondent, Jerrold Kessel, wrote to me and told me, inter alia, that “there was much sneaking admiration” on his part and that of fellow classmates because I was “destined to be a game ranger.” I do hope that Jerrold and the other pupils in our cohort at Johannesburg’s Saxonwold Primary School weren’t too disappointed when they learnt I had become a political science professor rather than a game ranger.

Travel-essay-09: Elephant in the Kruger National Park
A photograph of an elephant taken in the Kruger National Park in the early 1950s by Bobby Roberts. If you spotted the first elephant on any trip to the game reserve, you were sixpence richer.

Talking of primary school, it’s relevant to mention that travelling restored my spirits even when I was very young. In December 1951, I fell ill with a mystery disease (to this day it’s not known whether I had polio, Q fever, or what). I collapsed while walking home from school, and was hospitalised for three weeks, which included the most miserable Christmas of my life. However, my parents knew how to cheer me up: when I was released from the Johannesburg children’s hospital, my father, two family friends, and I travelled to Swaziland. After England, the Netherlands, and South Africa, the small land-locked kingdom (which was at that stage still a British Protectorate) became the fourth country I visited. I still recall the pleasure I derived from wrapping my tongue round the name of the country’s capital city: Mbabane. In July 1953, we went further afield and I wrote my first book. My account of the family’s two-week holiday – which I called, accurately but utterly unimaginatively, A Trip to Rhodesia – filled an entire school exercise book. I was somewhat disappointed, though, when the manuscript was typed up: it totalled a meagre five-and-a-quarter foolscap pages.

Travel-essay-10: A Trip to Rhodesia
A Trip to Rhodesia
was the first book I ever wrote. I say "book" because in my childish handwriting and with the illustrations and souvenirs that accompanied the text, I filled an entire school exercise book. When typed, however, my "book" came to little more than five foolscap pages.

Four years later, we had a second family holiday in Southern Rhodesia, and two-and-a-half years after that – in December 1959 – I went to Rhodesia for the third time on a trip that still, more than 60 years later, constitutes a major landmark in my life. Accompanied by another 15-year-old schoolboy, I hitchhiked from Johannesburg to Moshi, at the foot of Mt Kilimanjaro in what was then northern Tanganyika. Garth Hoets, my hitching companion, and I split up at that stage – he went north to Nairobi, while I teamed up with four other South African schoolboys we’d initially met in Iringa in southern Tanganyika, and the five of us tried to climb Africa’s highest mountain. They succeeded; I didn’t. However, the trip was the first great defining adventure of my life: never before had I had my own passport; never before had I travelled independently without my parents; and never before had I set my own travel goals. My life and travels since that trip have been very different from the years that preceded it.

Travel-essay-11: Passport stamps
Most of the stamps on the first "Visas" page of the first passport of my own stem from the hitchhiking trip I made in December 1959 and January 1960 from Johannesburg to Moshi (in northern Tanganyika) and back.

AFS: A transformative experience
What is more, two-and-a-half years after my first attempt to climb Mt Kilimanjaro, travelling transformed my life for the second time. In August 1962 I went to the United States on an American Field Service (AFS) scholarship. After twelve years of schooling in South Africa – the last three of which were at a Methodist boys’ boarding school – the opportunity to spend a year as a senior in a public high school in Ohio, attended by boys and girls, black students and whites, and not wear a school uniform, was as I once told an interviewer, liberation.


Above: The official notification I received of the fact that I'd been awarded an AFS scholarship and that my host parents in the United States would be Ralph and Louise Liske of Kent, Ohio. Below: This clipping from the Johannesburg Star shows some of the sixty South African AFS students boarding the flight we caught on 3 August 1962 from Johannesburg to Frankfurt. This was the first time I'd flown on a commercial passenger plane. The following evening we left Frankfurt and flew to Idlewild airport in New York City. We arrived in the United States on Sunday, 5 August 1962.Travel-essay-13: AFS students boarding plane

I certainly did not know it at the time (because, not surprisingly, I cannot “look into the seeds of time and say which grain will grow and which will not”, to quote from Macbeth, my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays), the year I spent as an AFS student in the United States was the first of countless times I have travelled to the USA. Since the time I was a student at the Theodore Roosevelt High School in Kent, Ohio, I’ve visited all 50 states in the US, I have climbed / visited the highest point in each of them, and (something I certainly could never have foreseen) Heather’s and my son, daughter-in-law, and grandson live in the United States. Travel, I hope, has broadened my mind; travel on the part of Evan, our son who went to the United States to do his PhD, has undoubtedly broadened our family.

A European sojourn
After leaving the United States in July 1963 at the end of my AFS year, I travelled almost non-stop for six months – to Europe on the MS Seven Seas; around Europe in my grandmother Olive’s three-wheeled Heinkel bubble car; in southern England visiting relatives, friends, and a selection of tourist hot-spots.

Travel-essay-14: Nigel Roberts, with Olive Roberts' bubble-car on the right
During the 1963 northern hemisphere autumn, I spent two months on the continent (which is how English people often refer to mainland Europe), driving roughly 6,000 miles / 10,000 kilometres in my grandmother Olive's three-wheeled Heinkel bubble car (which is on the right in this photograph). For most of the time I travelled in tandem with three young Americans from Los Angeles who had a Citroen deux Chevaux. Bill Kilbourn took this picture of Gary Wells and Dave Prigge in the Citroen, and of me perched on its roof during a brief roadside stop in Austria.

A "ten pound Pom" and a Kiwi
Following my brief European sojourn, however, I migrated to Australia in January 1964. My parents and younger siblings had moved from South Africa to Australia eighteen months earlier, and as a result I went there as a “ten pound Pom”. Ten pounds in 1964 would have bought what roughly $AUD285 could purchase in 2020, so £10.00.0 wasn’t an entirely trivial amount of money. Even so, I certainly got my money’s worth: I lived in Australia for three happy years; despite being active in students politics (I was, for example, the President of the Tasmania University Union in 1965-66), I got a good degree from the University of Tasmania; and, most important of all, I met and married Heather there. For more than half a century, Heather and I have travelled through life together, even though we have – on a not insignificant number of occasions – travelled separately.

Travel-essay-15: Nigel Roberts at a tertiary students' conference in Manila in 1966
I went to university in Australia after migrating there in January 1964. While at university, I was active in student politics, and (as this picture shows) represented Australia at international conference in the Philippines.

Shortly after we married, Heather and I travelled to England and lived there for three years. Even though we were as poor as proverbial church-mice, we were still able to travel – including going behind the “Iron Curtain” for the first and only time in our lives. In January 1970, we moved to New Zealand. It was our final migration: we have been based here ever since, and I became a New Zealand citizen – colloquially known, of course, as a Kiwi – in 1977. In the 50-plus years that Heather and I have called New Zealand home, we have both travelled extensively – for work, on holiday, and to visit family members. Sometimes our travels took us in different directions. On the one hand, for example, Heather lived and worked in Vietnam for three-and-a-half years. I didn’t accompany her, but I was able to visit her there four times. On the other hand, when I spent four months in Antarctica, working as the New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research’s Information Officer / Photographer at Scott Base in 1979-80, Heather stayed in New Zealand.

Travel-essay-16: Nigel Roberts at the South Pole, February 1980
During the four months that I worked in Antarctica, I was exceptionally fortunate to able to visit the South Pole. When this photograph was taken of me at the Pole in early February 1980, the temperature was minus 40 degrees (which is the same temperature on both the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales).

Incidentally, the fact that I had lived and worked in Antarctica eventually enabled me to achieve a comparatively rare travel milestone: when I landed in Buenos Aires in December 1994 on my way to climb Aconcagua, I had travelled to and visited all the earth’s seven continents. Although I haven’t climbed the Seven Summits (namely, the highest peak on each of the continents) – I’ve only done five of them, I can claim with some pride that I have run on all the world’s seven continents.

Since settling in New Zealand, some of Heather’s and my more notable travels have, not surprisingly, included multiple visits to Australia – and not just to visit family members there or, sadly, to attend our parents’ funerals. I’ve now run in, climbed the highest mountain in, and visited and photographed all the parliaments in Australia’s six states and two mainland territories. My research interests in small democracies and in comparative electoral systems led to visits to the Nordic states, especially to the three Scandinavian states – Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – where I’ve stayed for considerable periods of time. Climbing trips took me to Asia (for a gloriously unsuccessful attempt on Lobuje East) and to South America (where I was a member of a wonderfully successful expedition to Aconcagua, the world’s highest mountain outside Asia). In 2010, Heather and I travelled to Spain to tackle the Camino de Santiago. In a web-album to which there’s a link on this page, I described “our Camino adventure” as “one of the great experiences of my life.” A decade later, those words are still true.

Travel-essay-17: Heather and Nigel Roberts about to start walking the Camino de Satniago, September 2010
Travelling together: a photograph of Heather and me that was taken early in the morning on 24 September 2010 before we set off from Roncesvalles, Spain, at the start of our 26-day journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Other long-distance walks Heather and I have done include spending 15 days hiking the Offa’s Dyke Path which, by and large, follows the England-Wales border, as well as hiking on Portuguese Caminos for 13 days to get from Porto in northern Portugal to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Closer to home, Heather and I have also “done” nine of New Zealand’s Great Walks. (A tenth Great Walk was created in 2020, and we’ve yet to hike it. However, it is – not surprisingly – on our “to do” list.) On this page there are links to web-albums about each of the Great Walks we’ve done.

Travel-essay-18: Heather and Nigel Roberts on the Heaphy Track
Heather and I have also travelled widely in New Zealand. Among other things, we have tramped / hiked / bushwalked [pick one depending on which version of English you speak] nine of New Zealand's ten Great Walks. This photograph of us was taken on the Heaphy Track, the longest of the country's Great Walks.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic’s lockdowns in 2020, I’d made only one Great Walk web-album. The enforced isolation and lack of public activities occasioned by the lockdowns meant I had an unusually large amount of spare time and it was great for making progress on web-albums. On the other hand, however, the pandemic has certainly curtailed our travel plans – as well as those of millions and millions of other people around the world. When we’ll next board an international flight to see our son, daughter-in-law, and grandson is a question neither we – nor a host of epidemiologists and virologists – can currently answer.

Robert Louis Stevenson – the famed novelist: author of, for example, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – was also an inveterate traveller. In 1881, he wrote that “to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive” (it’s a statement that’s frequently condensed as “it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive”). Ever since I was a teenager and first heard Stevenson’s saying, I have had my doubts about it. I think that the Chinese proverb, “the journey is the reward” is a better rendition of the idea (despite Steve Jobs’ use of the phrase as the title of his autobiography). To travel is to learn, and arriving at a destination gives focus and depth to the degree of learning that the travel per se inevitably involves.

The links in the sidebar on the left-hand side of this page will take you to accounts I have written and web-albums I have made about some of my travels. Travelling literally and metaphorically broadens horizons, and I hope you'll enjoy my accounts of some of the highways and byways, paths, tracks, and trails it has been my privilege, from a very early age, to be able to explore.

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Pages in the Travel section of my website were last revised on 3 May 2022.