Paula knows the feeling of walking through England, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Mauritania, Mali and Niger in one go. She also knows how to deal with drunken Germans, survive in a frozen tent and discuss camel prices in Arabic.
First and foremost, what sparked the idea of this epic stroll? I’ve always had the idea of doing a big adventure. It was only a matter of when rather than what. I can remember thinking at the end of my twenties “I still haven’t done what it is that I want to do with my life, there is still something out there, still more to do!” And that is really what drove it.
Describe your typical walking day? We would wake up before dawn, pack and be ready to go before the sun rose. Normally we would just eat a biscuit or a muesli bar, then walk for a couple of hours. Then stop and have a drink; rest, have something to eat, walk on for a couple more hours and then do the same thing. By early afternoon, we would try to find a place to stop – we would ask someone if we could put up our tent in their backyard or just find a bit of forest. We would cook some couscous for dinner and go to bed early.
Any favourite moments? Yes, sitting at a seafood restaurant in Portugal in a deserted tourist town – it was off season. Overlooking the ocean and eating the most glorious seafood in this beautiful white tiled village, at the edge of a cliff.
Any unhappy moments? Being freezing cold in a forest in France in the middle of the night with a tent that was frozen over, unable to sleep. Just very cold and unhappy.
How did you feel every time you walked into a new country? It depended on the country, but usually there was a period of dislocation because when you walk through a place you become so much a part of it that when you walk out of it and into another culture it seems such an abrupt change. It is not like when you fly in and you kind of – to some degree – expect to come out to a different place. It seems very odd when you end one day at the base of the Pyrenees in France and then the next day you find yourself in Spain and everything is totally different. It is a feeling of excitement as well.
You were walking with your husband from England to Africa – did the journey affect your relationship? We managed to actually break up in the middle of the desert walk where my book finishes. So yes, you could say it had a pretty profound effect since we are no longer married. Although, I don’t think it is because of the actual walk. But the walk highlighted what did not work out in the relationship.
Did you meet any strange locals? Yes, loads of them. We stayed with one German guy in Portugal, he ran a hotel and we discovered that he was a hardcore alcoholic. He took us to a local bar and within an hour was rolling drunk – they were trying to get him out. We felt very uncomfortable and had nowhere to go. He kept on telling us that we had to stay there and the next day he insisted on walking us down the road. We were getting scared that he would never leave us.
Were there many moments where you felt like giving up on the walk? No, I can almost say – as strange as it might sound – although there have been moments when I have been thinking “this is so difficult, I can’t believe I am doing it”, I never really thought of giving up because something that I have also learned through walking so far is that what is hard today will get better, you just have to keep walking.
How do you feel about the next leg of your journey? I am very excited. I have had a good rest. I was forced to halt by the political structure in Nigeria. I would have gone back last September but unfortunately the war was not done with yet. I am actually quite glad now because it has given me a chance to put the walk into perspective and I am really looking forward to going back now. Slow Journey South is published by Random House and out now.