Trip Of A Lifetime: How 225 Days in Africa Saved My Marriage

Reading: How 225 Days on the Road in Africa Recharged My Marriage

Love & Relationships

How 225 Days on the Road in Africa Recharged My Marriage

She was 55 and unhappy in her marriage. Then her husband joined her on the trip of a lifetime 

By Janet A. Wilson

If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine; it is lethal. —Paulo Coelho

In 2005, during my midlife crisis at 55 years old, and unhappy in my marriage, I asked myself one question: If I had just a year to live, what would I do?

I immediately knew the answer: I wanted to return to the continent of my birth, Africa, and drive from Cape Town to Cairo. I was prepared to walk away from everything: my family, career, home, and my husband, Tom. After many bitter arguments, Tom decided to join me in the adventure — and this trip of a lifetime changed our lives forever. 

For hundreds of days we traveled across East Africa. We drove a Land Cruiser with a rooftop tent, and camped primarily in the wilderness. We never knew what the day held for us, what we’d see, experience, or who we’d meet. We tried to keep to the rural locations, villages, and avoided the main roads when possible. There was nothing physically easy about the journey we took.

Crossing the Sahara Desert, which is roughly equal in size to the contiguous United States, was extremely challenging and hot. We had no deodorant or bath soaps. Everything was washed with Sunlight soap, and we cut each other’s hair. Tom never shaved. We had only three changes of clothing each. Once, we went for six weeks without a shower. 

The physical journey was difficult, but it was the emotional journey that surprised us the most. I never could have imagined the impact this trip would have on my life, Tom’s life, or our marriage. 

crossing the Sahara

Learning to Communicate, Reconnect & Bond Together
Isolated from the world’s noise, Tom and I chatted about things we hadn’t discussed in years. We reminisced, debated, argued, and realized different priorities had cracked our relationship, and irrelevant news had seeped into the crevices. We knew more about celebrities — what they thought, did, and who they were — than we did about each other. 

The challenges in unknown environments were the catalyst for resolving many stagnant or festering issues in our relationships. Tom was of that old-school mentally that he was the provider of the family; I was a stay-at-home mom. My husband’s stance hung over our relationship until we both set off on our trip and we quickly discovered we both had to be fully capable and prepared to do everything and anything. For example, he became a great cook; I became a great off-road driver. 

Sure, we still argued, but we learned to disagree without anger. 

Tom and I laughed, shopped in local markets, ate unfamiliar foods, and slept beneath a million stars. We learned geography, history, music, belief systems, cultural traditions, rituals, and even more about ourselves. We visited schools, clinics, orphanages, and slave colonies, and witnessed traditional rituals and celebrations. 

We discovered that back home, and for years, we had shut down so much of ourselves to conform to society’s expectations and demands. In Africa, we enjoyed the power of insignificance and rediscovered who we truly were. Nobody ever asked us what we did or what qualifications we had. The only questions locals ever asked were, “Where you from?” and “Where you go?” 

We spent endless days alone, chatting about everything. During the solitude of evenings with only the melody of the night sounds was a time to reflect, write, and chat more about our day.

We both lost weight and were fitter, stronger, and healthier than ever. 

But it wasn’t all joy. In fact, the adventure presented the biggest challenge of our lives, when together, we experienced a heartbreaking tragedy.

I was the one driving, only 6 mph, when someone ran in front of the vehicle.

We were told I would go to prison for accidentally killing a local person. We were offered bribes to have me smuggled out of the country. We were told to seek legal counsel, but I chose to have a trial by the village chiefs instead. I fully prepared myself to go to prison. Tom and I learned, throughout my arrest, trial by village chiefs, and subsequent (surprising) release, how to ban together to overcome it. 

This entire situation took place over 11 days. It was complicated. I felt trapped between different cultures, values, beliefs, languages, and legal systems. My life, in the hands of strangers, seemed to unravel. Tom managed all the negotiations with the officials. Fortunately, by this point in our travels, Tom and I had rediscovered how to work well together and were agreeing on every decision. 

It was the local family’s courageous compassion and forgiveness that revealed their humanity and ours. It reminded me of the African word Ubuntu: “I am because of you.”

driving past Mount Kilimanjaro

Rules to Live By
Since our lives, quite literally, depended on one another, we set up rules. Our rules ensured our safety. We had about 40 of them, which — over time — just became normal and regular behavior.  

We even developed a secret code so that we could communicate with each other when dealing with aggressive persons or difficult officials. Here are a few  of the rules that helped us survive the 225 days we were away:

Rule No. 1: We can argue, but only for 20 minutes. We argued like all married couples do but we set time limits. We had 20 minutes to sulk, and then we each had to get over it. There was nowhere to hide, or escape to, so we had to simply face it. We named the behaviors: Tom had “wobblies,” and I had “hissy fits.” Behaviors are defused when named and permitted within the time limit. 

Rule No. 2: We must both be competent in all travel skills. We both had to have the same level of capability for imperative travel skills, like driving, in case we faced a threatening situation, and the other was incapacitated. I am a more strategic driver, so I drove in cities; Tom is skilled in off-road and navigation. But we taught each other how to fill in. 

Rule No. 3: We must respect each other’s fears.  This was critical to our success. If one of us didn’t want to go to a specific destination, we didn’t go. We never pushed each other when fearful; we respected and trusted each other’s fear or gut instinct. 

Rule No. 4: We have to compromise on the must-do list. We share similar interests, but there are differences too. We each listed our top 10 wants, shared our lists, and then selected 10 things to do and explore. If stuck, we flipped a coin. As simple as that.

Rule No. 5: We must put everything back in the right place immediately after we’re finished using it. Nothing was more irritating than looking for something. We never lost stuff, which eliminated lots of arguments and frustrations. 

Rule No. 6: We must engage in daily conversations. Trust me — you can live without a cell phone or TV! This was one of the richest rewards of traveling together, alone, for so long. We caught up and discussed everything we had ever thought about — our deepest fears, our ridiculous dreams. We read books and shared the brilliant minds of others. We learned more about the world than we had ever learned before and we returned as best friends.

trip of a lifetime, Janet A. Wilson, all you see is sky, saving marriage, travel

Photo by Neil Zeller, courtesy of Janet A. Wilson

Our Marriage Rebirth Through Travel
It was on this journey when we each transformed from brokenness to wholeness and we transformed our marriage from breakdown to breakthrough.

Tom and I learned some hard lessons during our travels, but we were successful and stayed safe because of our comprehensive planning and newly found companionship. We learned to compromise, and navigate through differences. We learned to work as a team with rules to guide us through difficult, and sometimes even life-threatening, situations.

We learned to stay gentle and curious. We reconnected and explored our humanity through courage, wisdom, compassion, altruism, and unconditional trust in each other. We met people who illuminated our lives with kindness, understanding, and forgiveness. 

 This experience proved that Tom and I could truly trust and depend on each other, even in the absolute worst of times. We learned to embrace peace through forgiveness in our relationship… and with others. We had found each other again. We had reclaimed our Ubuntu.

Adventure travel is no walk in the park. But, would we do it all again? In a heartbeat.

Janet A. Wilson, who grew up Vereeniging (an industrial town about an hour south of Johannesburg), has a fierce love for Africa’s wilderness, wildlife, and the rich diversity of cultures and people. She has completed three overland journeys around Africa, traveling a distance of 50,000 miles. Janet and her husband currently live in Calgary, Canada. Her book, All You’ll See is Sky, is about this life-altering trip. Connect with Janet on Facebook, Instagram, or on her YouTube channel.

Tell us what you think.
Leave your comments below