While I was backpacking in South Africa, I met many interesting travellers, but Roland was very different: he was about 15 years older than me, nearly 50, but had the optimism and outlook of a man half his age. Tall and slim, he reminded me of Ricardo Montalbán from the 70s TV show, Fantasy Island.
We shared a common goal: we were both planning to see the other countries at the bottom the African continent over the following two weeks, and as he was also holidaying alone, we decided to travel together for a while.
At the Mozambique border, he was shuffling through all his passports – he had six of them. Once I asked him, ‘How come you have so many passports?’
‘An occupational hazard,’ he replied, ‘I used to design and build dams.’
‘How does that give you extra passports?’ I asked.
‘Each project was in different country, and by the time each one was finished, I’d been there so long, I’d become a resident of that country and then a citizen, so could apply for a passport,’ he said rather matter of factly.
There were signs all over that the civil war had only just ended in Mozambique such as bombed out houses and large pot-holes on all the major roads.
We headed over the mountains into Zimbabwe successfully dodging all the unexploded landmines, and then made our way to the capital, Harare.
The next morning, we took a bus to the Zambezi River to see the spectacular Victoria Falls. The first European to sight them was the Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone, who named them after Queen Victoria.
A couple of days later, we crossed over the Zambian border and visited the town of Livingstone, where we wandered around the streets checking out the cafés and restaurants.
‘Well that’s another country off my bucket list,’ I said.
‘Not quite,’ he said, ‘we need to spend the night here for it to count.’
‘Yes, I suppose you’re right.’
We walked into one of the smarter cafés and sat at a table with a view of the dusty street.
‘How many countries have you visited now?’ I asked.
‘It’d be easier to tell you how many I have left,’ he said looking pleased with himself.
‘You are one of the few people I’ve met in this world who’s been to more countries than me!’ I laughed.
‘You need to get back to work, so I can catch you up,’ I joked.
‘I won’t be doing that,’ he said, ‘since I retired last year, I’ve been on a mission to visit every country in the world before I die, and I only have 20 left!’
‘It sounds like you will have completed your bucket list long before you kick the bucket,’ I said.
He laughed out loud. Roland laughed a lot. He seemed to get the most out of every moment of his life. I never saw him complain about anything. He took everything in his stride. He was such an inspiration to me, a real role model on how to live life.
The next day, we crossed into Botswana for a few days and then headed to Victoria Falls, which would be my last stop in Africa. I was amazed by the power and beauty of Niagara Falls when I was there, but this was something else, as it was twice as high and twice as wide!
That evening, while reminiscing in a bar, Roland asked, ‘Do you realise, we’ve managed six countries in two weeks?’
‘Yup, South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Botswana,’ I said, ‘and I’d love to tick off some more African countries with you, but as you know, my parents are expecting me back for Christmas.’
‘I know,’ he said.
‘I get you don’t drink, but are you sure you don’t want one?’ I asked, ‘this could be the last time our paths will cross.’
‘Doctor’s orders I’m afraid, no beer for me,’ he said.
And then came the bombshell. He told me the real reason he was on a mission to see as many countries as he could this year.
Without any remorse or disappointment, he very calmly said, ‘Guy my friend, I have an inoperable cancer. The doctors told me at the start of this year that it wouldn’t slow me down or make me feel ill, but it would take my life within a year!’
I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. Roland was so full of life and joy. There was no despair, he was full of hope. If I didn’t know better, I would have said the screenplay of the movie, The Bucket List, was inspired by his story.
‘By the time I arrive in Egypt, I will have received a stamp in one of my passports from every country in the world,’ he said proudly.
‘And what will you do after that?’ I asked.
‘I need to leave Africa by the end of November because I have to be in Buenos Aires for the start of their summer.’
‘Why Argentina?’ I asked.
‘Just because I’ve been to every country in the world, doesn’t mean I’ve set foot on every continent,’ he explained.
I looked confused.
‘My last goal is to visit the driest desert in the world,’ he said.
Now I was really confused. ‘The Atacama Desert in Chile?’ I asked.
He toyed with me for a while before explaining that the final place he needed to visit was Antarctica, which of course has no countries and is the driest place in the world.
Throughout their summer months, Antarctic cruises leave from Ushuaia in the very south of Argentina. I was so inspired, not only by the courage of this man, but by his enthusiasm for life, that I instantly promised to fly over from Australia and join him on the cruise, so we could celebrate his final accomplishment together.
The next day, I left Africa for an English Xmas, and a month later, I was back home with my girlfriend at our house in the Blue Mountains of Australia. However, it didn’t take long before I was in a travel agency checking out tickets for the cruise that Roland had told me he wanted to take.
Over the following weeks, he emailed me listing the countries he had visited since his previous correspondence. He never mentioned his health and I never asked. He made it to Egypt on time, and then let me know that he was about to fly to Buenos Aires.
A few days later, I got an email from him telling me he wouldn’t be able to travel with me to Ushuaia as he had taken a turn for the worse and only had about a week to live. He still wanted to board the ship, so he could die in the last place on earth in which he had never set foot, but he said the doctors wouldn’t let him. I never heard from him again.
Roland travelled the world with his work. And when he got his diagnosis, he continued to travel. Only death was going to stop him from achieving his goals; he never gave up. What an inspiration!
I cancelled my trip to Antarctica and promised myself that one day I would take that cruise for the both of us. And I did, but that’s another story.