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Monica Porter

Gap Year Daredevil

Daily Express, 19 July 2007

While her youngest boy travels the world seeking adventure, MONICA PORTER is back home pulling her hair out

As a mum, I’ve always been a bit of a worrier. When my sons were in their teens and staying out ‘til all hours, I’d worry about them waiting on dark, deserted streets to catch some dodgy night-bus home. And then there was all the other worrying stuff…

But my maternal anxiety levels reached new heights when my younger son Nick, 23, left home last autumn for a year of travelling the world before settling down to Serious Work. Now the dark streets and dodgy buses would be thousands of miles away. And he wasn’t even taking a mobile. Our only contact would be via email. But at least he wouldn’t be alone. His beefy Australian mate Gaz was travelling with him.

Their first stop was Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not content with the usual tourist sights, Nick and Gaz decided to visit the favelas, the squatter-slums run by cocaine barons and notorious for shoot-outs between drug dealers and the police. Travellers have been shot there by mistake.

Luckily, I didn’t know about any of this until Nick emailed me afterwards. I would have been worried sick.

Likewise with their jolly to Blumenau, a town down the coast from Rio. As Nick emailed later: ‘It’s where the Nazis fled to after the war. We went to their annual beer festival and it was full of old Germans. So naturally we drank a lot of beer and staggered around, taking as many photos as possible whilst giving the Hitler salute. Not big or clever but very funny at the time.’

How could he be so reckless? I agonised. We’ve all seen The Odessa File. Those people can be as dangerous as the drug barons!

After this they flew to Mexico, where they travelled around by bus and stopped off in a town called Oaxaca which, according to Nick’s email, ‘has been in the grip of a teachers’ strike for the last five months.’ He attached some pictures of the place. It looked very rough. ‘The bus you can see in the background was used as a road block. This was the scene of a violent clash with the police, who have now deserted the city.’

I had no time to muse on roadblocks or violent clashes, because he ended his message by saying they were about to cross Mexico and enter Belize, ‘where I’ll be diving in the Blue Hole with hammerhead and reef sharks’.

Naturally, I was on mega-tenterhooks until his next email arrived a few days later: ‘Still alive and in possession of all my fingers and toes. Lost count of the number of sharks we had circling us, though. Very exciting!’

Yes, it was.

The next stop was Flores, in neighbouring Guatemala, where on the first day Nick’s debit card was stolen. This misfortune was to culminate some time later in my FedEx-ing a replacement card to him at the British Embassy in Lima, Peru (for a hefty fee). In the meantime they could rely on Gaz’s funds, which reassured me until I heard that ‘Gaz is having problems getting cash out on his card (the ATMs here are pretty dodgy).’ Now I had something else to fret over: visions of them roughing it on the mean streets of South America.

Nick’s next email was very chirpy: ‘Arrived in Antigua this morning, a little colonial town50 kilometres from Guatemala City. We’re gonna hike up some active volcanoes here, should be fun checkin’ out the lava flows and whatnot.’

Lava flows! What if he fell in? Nick was born with an unerring knack for falling into things. As a toddler, when I took him for a walk he’d invariably fall into the only puddle in the park.

I did much nail-biting until his next message: ‘We climbed the Mt. Pacaya Volcano and got to within a meter of fast-flowing lava at 1300 degrees centigrade. Mum, you would have cried at the health and safety implications.’ The photos he attached showed them looking very hot beside the fiery lava.

We were still only a month in – there’d be another 11 months of these hair-raising escapades. Would my nerves would hold out?

They headed south again, to Bolivia, where the boys excelled themselves. After fooling around with dynamite at the ancient Potosi silver mines, they went bicycling high up in the Andes: ‘It was a 68-kilometre descent down “the world’s most dangerous road”, starting at 4700 metres and finishing up at 1100 metres. This is the main highway from Bolivia to Brazil and an unbelievable ride – all gravel, landslides and 1000-metre sheer drops, with not a barrier in sight!’

After this they took a jeep tour through the vast Uyuni salt flats, Bolivia’s most remote and desolate landscape…and ran out of petrol. In the middle of nowhere. By a miracle they spotted another car after a couple hours and managed to siphon some of their petrol (for a fee). Then, back in Potosi, Nick’s rucksack was stolen in an internet café: ‘Now I’ve got no clothes or toiletries. I’m gonna smell a bit worse, but the best the b*****d got off me was a bunch of dirty boxers.’

To my great relief, they left South America soon afterwards, flying from Santiago, Chile, to New Zealand. But my relaxed state was shattered with his first email from NZ: ‘I’m doing one of the world’s highest bungee jumps this afternoon, off a cable car in between two mountains – a 134-metre drop into the Nevis Valley. An adrenalin rush, if ever there was one!’

By now I was getting used to this…which doesn’t mean I got much sleep that night. Insomnia is the price you pay for having an adrenalin junkie for a son. As I tossed and turned I pondered what it would be like to have a son of the quiet, brainy type, one who was content to sit in his room in suburbia, poring over thick books on advanced mathematics…Well, some mothers do have them, don’t they?

Nick arrived in Oz just before Christmas. He was going to spend the holidays with Gaz’s family in Melbourne, Victoria. In keeping with the rest of his precarious travels, the state of Victoria was then experiencing the worst bushfires for 70 years. A seemingly unstoppable monster blaze was raging which threatened to engulf the Melbourne area, and the authorities were running out of water to spray on the wretched thing.

Naturally, Nick wasn’t at all worried and sent an email which was a study in nonchalance: ‘It’s nowhere near Gaz’s house,’ he wrote. That’s all right, then.

His plan was to move on to Sydney in late January and settle down for a few months to work. Once again, I was relieved. He’d get a nice job and rent a nice little flat in a thoroughly civilised city. Which was pretty much what happened. Both the job (serving behind the counter in a deli) and the flat were a stone’s throw from Bondi Beach, the famous surfers’ paradise. And Nick announced his intention to learn how to surf. As he’d already survived swimming with the sharks off Belize, I decided I wasn’t going to fret about that one again.

But in early March, a new danger reared its ugly (if tiny) head. One morning I read in a newspaper that the deadly Irukandji jellyfish, which had long been thought to be contained in Australia’s northern waters, was slowly migrating down the coast in Nick’s direction.

‘These jellyfish are among the world’s most toxic creatures,’ the article said. ‘They are all but impossible to detect in the water, but pack a potentially lethal punch belying their tiny size.’ A scientist observed that increased sea temperatures due to global warming might have extended the species’ range south.

I emailed Nick at once, begging him to stay out of the sea.

I could almost hear his groan. ‘No angst, yeah?’ he replied.

Easy for him to say.