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Leaving Home: How A Road Trip Transformed a Teen Into a Traveler

In 1958, after getting expelled from school at age 16, Geoffrey Kent become the first person to travel by motorcycle from Nairobi to Cape Town, a 3,000-mile solo journey that set the foundation for the company he would found in 1962, luxury outfitter Abercrombie & Kent.

Knowing there’s no talking me out of the ride from Nairobi to Cape Town, my mother steps in to lend support. “It’s the beginning of the rainy season, GJ,” she says. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Without a doubt.”

Safari hc c

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“Right then, love,” she says, sighing as she hands me 200 pounds and a paper bag filled with food. “We’ll try and make the best of it.” My father, still furious over my expulsion from Nairobi’s Duke of York School (which was to set me up for a degree from Oxford, and, in his mind life in oil), is nowhere to be seen.

I head into the center of Nairobi to buy a Shell Oil road map, and then stop at the Salvation Army to get a poncho and a tarpaulin sheet. Then I visit the motorbike shop to have containers for spare water and fuel fitted onto my bike. On the back of it, I fasten a handpainted sign:


3,000 MILES

I stuff as many elephant-hair bracelets into my bags as I can— the prized bracelets a tracker taught me to make on my 15th birthday, and my equivalent of trading beads—and sling my saddlebags full of food and gear across the bike. Then I rev up and roar off, speeding straight down the Mombasa Road before turning south at the Athi River onto the road that will take me over my first border into Tanganyika (now Tanzania).

The acacia bushland is primitive and wild, the acacia trees rooted sparsely—romantically—across the savanna. As I continue on the road, I note leopard tracks on my trail, harems of zebras that fix their strange striped stares on me, giraffes nodding among the bush. The animals seem to whisper the promise of thrills to come—should I make it.

Yes, I resolve. I’ll make it.

Mount Kilimanjaro at sunset. Photo by Roman Boed, via Flickr.

Mount Kilimanjaro at sunset. Photo by Roman Boed, via Flickr.

Later, in the distance on my left, comes Mount Kilimanjaro—nearly four miles high and capped with gleaming white snow. You’re my next challenge, I pledge silently, just as soon as I return to Kenya. The long road opens my mind to a much wider vision for my life. Suddenly I’ve started to realize that possibilities exist far beyond producing my next batch of elephant-hair bracelets. In this whole great world, who is Geoffrey Kent? What do I think is worthwhile? The only way I can sum up the answer is what I’m living, right here, right now: being one with the wild, with the wide, open road.

As I near the Tanganyika border, I twist the accelerator a little harder and cruise, the wind rushing against me. The freedom is magical; the scenery, stunning. My father travelled every nook and cranny of Africa during his time in the army, and even he shied away from this journey—maybe I’ve got more nerve than he does after all.

Cape Town. Photo by Diriye Amey.

Cape Town. Photo by Diriye Amey.

Then, within minutes of crossing into Tanganyika, the road surface changes without warning from hard clay to soft sand. I skid across the road and fly off, ass over end, the crash pinning me beneath my bike, the hot exhaust pipe sizzling my arm. For a moment I look around, stunned. As I extricate myself and get to my feet, I’m overwhelmed by the desire to be back home. Only one thought keeps me from turning around: my father’s words. You’ll never make it.

I take a moment to gather myself and inspect my wounded right hand—nothing critical. In that moment, I make what turns out to be a life-altering decision to soldier on. I climb back on my bike and slowly motor towards Arusha, still several miles away, ready for whatever comes next.

SAFARI: A Memoir of a Worldwide Travel Pioneer by Geoffrey Kent. Copyright © 2015 by Geoffrey Kent. To be published on August 11, 2015 by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Excerpted by permission.

Top Photo by Erik (HASH) Hersman.
This appeared in the August/September 2015 issue.