The Motorcycle Diaries
Words and photograph Geoffrey Kent
Geoffrey Kent, the award-winning founder and CEO of travel company Abercrombie & Kent, recalls the career-defining 2,500-mile motorcycle trip across the length of Africa that he embarked on at the age of 16…
I was actually born on safari, in what was Northern Rhodesia [now Zambia] in 1942. In fact it was the same place that the author Wilbur Smith was born – Lusaka General Hospital. After three or four days in Lusaka I flew back with my mother to Nairobi, Kenya, where we had a farm. My father was in the British Army and had come to Kenya in 1936 with the King’s African Rifles. Whenever we had any time off we’d be off on safari.
For most people, travel is a part of their lives – for me my whole life was travelling, with a bit of school in between. I rode horses from the age of two and became a really good polo player in later life. You have to understand that our nearest neighbours were 10 miles away, and so just to go and play we had to get on the horses and ride. My mother would send me offfor a whole day with a tin of sardines, some sandwiches, a banana, an apple and a can of Coke.
When I was aged three my father was posted to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to set up the equivalent of a Sandhurst Military Academy for the emperor, Haile Selassie. But instead of taking a plane, he decided to drive.
I grew up riding, shooting, fishing – we had a lovely river called the Chania that ran through the farm, and my father often took me out there fishing with him. So it was a completely outdoor life. Nothing about it was indoors at all.
In the early days people shot animals of course. And so when I was big enough, aged 16, I told my dad I wanted to go offshooting. So he sent me off with a very close friend of his called Major Lynn Temple-Boreham, one of the most famous game wardens in Kenya. At that time they were shooting elephants for pest control, to stop them damaging crops. I shot two buffalo and an elephant, which was actually horrendous. I have said before that it changed my life, because I was just getting old enough to realise that actually there’s something wrong with this. So I vowed then and there never to shoot animals again.
When I formed my travel company in the 1960s, I came up with the slogan ‘Shoot with a camera not with a gun’ – which is part of the success of Abercrombie & Kent today: I was the first to do photographic safaris when everybody else was hunting.
Anyhow, my tracker made me some elephant hair bracelets, as a trophy. I used to sell my photographs in Nairobi to the shopkeepers, and the shopkeeper saw my bracelets and said he’d buy them and asked how much they were. I just made up a price, one dollar each – or about five shillings in those days. And he said, ‘I’ll take them all.
I made more money then than my father gave me all year as pocket money. Each one cost me about 15 African pence and I sold them for a dollar. I was the first to promote it – I went to Ethiopian Airlines and I convinced the MD that he should give every passenger one for free. This was when Ethiopian Airlines was huge – it was owned by TWA and used to fly to Kenya. At the age of 16 I was making about £3,000 a year from elephant hair bracelets – my dad probably made about £1,000 from the farm if he was lucky.
So I was a very rich kid. And I loved motorbikes, so I bought a Triumph Speed Twin which was then the bike. After that I bought a Daimler-Puch, which was a 250cc two-stroke. And of course I started using them when you weren’t meant to at school, and I started taking girls out on them – I was the only kid of my age in Kenya with a motorbike so of course the girls liked that a lot.
And then I was caught. I’d been at the Duke of York School, which was like a very smart English public school in Kenya. I’d been studying Arabic and I got a scholarship to Brasenose College Oxford. That’s when I was caught on my bike when I shouldn’t have been. The headmaster rang my dad up and said, ‘Look, I’m not going to expel him publicly, but I don’t want him to come back next term.’
‘Take risks: then you’ll know what winning is about’
And so there I found myself. My dad of course was furious! Beyond belief. ‘What am I going to do with you?’ I got on very well with my mother and one day I just said to her, ‘I’m leaving.’ And she said, ‘Where are you going to go?’ And so I just made it up at the breakfast table – I promise you! I said, ‘I’m going to go to Cape Town.’ ‘Cape Town? How?’ ‘Well I don’t know, I’ll just buy a Shell map. It’s easy, you just get on the road and go.’
And that’s it. Literally – it was decided at breakfast and I left that afternoon. My dad’s last words before I left were, ‘Good luck but you’ll never make it – see you next week.’ And offI went. So that’s how I came to ride 2,500 miles to Cape Town by motorbike at the age of 16.
My mother introduced me to one or two people along the way, but otherwise I slept rough. I had a tarpaulin and a sleeping bag that I bought from the Salvation Army the afternoon I set off. I had some biltong and raisins which I carried in my helmet – I just hung it from the handlebars to keep my raisins in, and I’d put it on when I came into the cities. I’d literally pull up beside the road when it got dark and go to sleep, that was it. No problem.
I wrote diaries from that trip onwards, which helped me when I formed the travel company because I’d taken all these detailed notes.
The most important lesson of all of this is you have to be self-reliant. And if people then say you need money to be self-reliant – well OK, you have to go and make some money then. Take risks, because then you’ll know what winning is about. These days in school everyone gets a prize for competing. No! You have to win!
I’ve had many accidents playing polo – I was nearly killed in 1995, I’ve been in three comas, but I won everything because I took risks. People used to say I was fearless from my polo days. I suppose it’s always a question of – are you fearless because you’re really stupid? I think there’s a good element of both. You’ve probably got to be pretty stupid, but you’ve got to have something in you to make sure you’re not going to fail.
My mother would always say you can do anything you want to do. In my army days I was aide-de-camp to Major General John Frost, who was the famous hero of Arnhem – the movie A Bridge Too Far was made after him. He told me, ‘I’m still alive because I plan things by the second – not even by the minute.’ That was a life-changing moment for me: he taught me logistics.
It’s the complete opposite attitude to my motorcycle trip, of course. I still have the same courage to go and do something like that, but these days it would be more carefully planned!