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Inspirational women travellers: The unconventional life of Janine


Born in 1948 and raised in Southern Africa, Janine has led what you might call an unconventional life. In the 1970s she served in the South African army and lived in a hippy commune. Aged 50 she set up her own company, then left it all behind to work as a housekeeper for English aristocracy in her 60s. Along the way, she’s collected some jaw-dropping travel tales, from close encounters with deadly creatures in Africa, to coach trips across Europe. Now in her 70s and settled in the UK, she’s a freelance writer. If there’s been one constant throughout it all though, it’s Janine’s love of travel.

Here, she shares her remarkable story and her life in travel with the Thelma & Louise community.

“I was born an only child in a tiny town where my dad was the District Commissioner, in what was then called Rhodesia. Later, we moved to Salisbury [now Harare] where I lived until my early 20s when I moved to Durban in South Africa. 

I was so lucky to grow up in Rhodesia. We had such freedom. The climate was wonderful. I had many friends and we really enjoyed life. Unfortunately, later we also had a war and many of those young men were killed. It was a brutal bush war and it changed us all.
I joined the South African army as a volunteer in the 1970s. I felt strongly that South Africa had given me a home and I wanted to do my bit in the war they were fighting in Angola and Mozambique and their own bush war. It was a Kommando Unit and we were there to give support to the regular army. I worked part-time, mainly in intelligence and our office was a converted bus. Most Saturdays we would do shooting practice and I learned to strip and reassemble an R1 rifle with my eyes shut! I also learned to drive a Bedford truck and a Buffel (land-mine protected armoured personnel carrier). I was with them for three years and only left because of the demands of my job plus the fact I got divorced and had a young son to bring up on my own.

After living in a hippie commune for a while – it was the 1970s after all! – I finally decided to grow up and train as a nurse. After I qualified, I was offered a job with a pharmaceutical company where I spent the next 17 years working my way up the corporate ladder.

Aged 50 I decided to set up my own company providing continued medical education for doctors. This was a huge challenge but we did well and went national with our service. There was a gap in the market to provide event management for the pharmaceutical companies so I expanded my company into that area. At aged 59 however, I was completely burnt out and with all the changes in the country, running one’s own business was no longer fun. I sold up and emigrated to the UK where I got a job as a housekeeper for an aristocratic elderly lady called Mrs Bastard (yes, really), who lived on a magnificent 600-acre country estate. Her home (now a hotel) was over 500 years old!

This was a big culture shock for me. Always having had servants (as one does in South Africa), as a housekeeper I was now the servant! It was a humbling experience but as there was no stress involved; for the next year, it was just what I needed.

After I resigned, I carried on living on a cottage on the estate and took a job as editor of the village magazine and ran the local Community Centre. I also trained as a Samaritan and became the editor of their in-house magazine. Now, having just turned 70 and relocated to East Devon, I work as a freelance writer, have just taken on the job as editor of our parish magazine, and I’m on the committee of a local charity where I handle their media, publicity and fundraising events.

Earlier this year, I returned to South Africa to visit friends around the country. This, after an absence of three years, made me feel a lot of sadness and disappointment. The people are still wonderful, the service excellent, but violent crime is on the increase, and there’s been a general deterioration of essential services like roads, electricity, even the police. A huge rise in the cost of living, increasing unemployment, bribery and corruption and there are many people living without hope for the future with nowhere else to go. Regardless, I still love Africa; that sense of freedom, the wide-open spaces, big skies, wild game, and the smell of the bush veldt after the rains, the people and the life are amazing.

My life in travel

To me, travel is important because it expands the mind. I love to learn of new cultures and meet and see first-hand how other people live. It makes me appreciate my own life so much more.
I always wanted to travel and see the world. South Africa is a long way from anywhere and I was curious about how other people lived. I first travelled around Southern Africa, doing several overland trips through Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Those were amazing experiences covering thousands of miles, camping all the way and really experiencing life in the rough.
I have been in fear for my life several times: being bitten by a violin spider, which meant a very quick trip to the hospital; a close encounter with a deadly black mamba snake in the middle of Namibia, miles from any civilisation; being caught up in the middle of a riot; and living in a war zone (in Rhodesia), where we had to travel home every day in an armed convoy.

When I lived the corporate life, my company used to send me to Sweden, Germany and the UK on business (and in Business Class!) and I always took the opportunity to explore and see as much as possible. Once I took a coach around Europe so I could experience the different countries from the safety of an organised trip.

Although I’m comfortable travelling alone, I have a friend called Anita, who is always willing to join me. She is great company and happy to explore anywhere new. The one item I can’t travel without is my Kindle! I’m an avid reader and could not ever be without books. An e-reader is ideal as you can load dozens of books and read them at leisure. It also weighs little which is an advantage for someone like me who, even after all this time, always packs far too much!

Next up on my travel wish list is India. I would so love to visit before I get too old and decrepit! I would also like to see New York at least once and return to Morocco to which I have a real affinity.”

Visit Janine’s places