My life in Travel – Eleanor Mills, Founder of Noon

I’ve written so many articles in my life as a journalist for the Sunday Times that it’s rare I kick one off which feels like so much fun. My Life in Travel, what a fantastic brief!

Usually, we are told to start stories at the beginning, but the biggest ever thing in my travelling life was that I met my husband! I was 25, working at The Telegraph running their features desk and a mate of mine had split up with his girlfriend and run off to India. This was the early 90s and those who hadn’t had a gap yah were making the most of the world being their oyster to ‘go travelling’ after uni. Unlike many of my peers I already had a good job, but when I got offered another one with the bonus of six weeks off before I had to start, I booked my passage to India (or my bucket shop flight at least) and went off to join my mate. He met me in a cream Ambassador car decked with orange flowers. We went off to Trivandrum, hung out on the beach and took an overnight train to Bangalore (then a very embryonic and dusty tech hub) and another train to the holy city of Hampi.

Hampi

Hampi is a gem. It looks like the gods have been having a bowling competition with loads of boulders which litter the place in unruly stacks. A huge river cuts across the plain and nestled in the rocks are temples and caves. We had a blissful time swinging in hammocks and marching round the ruined city, there was one temple where you could whack the marble pillars and they played a tune. One morning I was relaxing on the roof reading a book when my pal Jim popped his head up: “Here’s Derek” he said. A tall, noble looking man with a long mane of brown hair and a shy smile appeared beside me. “Hi” I said. We got chatting. We went for a coffee. He and his mate were trying to get rooms in our place, the Shanti Guest House because it had the best view in town. My mate Jim and the other guys wanted to shark Israeli girls and drink beer. Derek was actually interested in exploring the temples – so we went together.

One day we bought a picnic, when he handed me the bag of oranges he touched my bare arm and he flinched. It was an Aha! moment. He was so cool and laconic I wasn’t sure if he was interested in me or not. But that little spark of electricity told me everything I needed to know. That night he juggled fire for me in the café down by the river. And I was hooked. When I got back to London I told everyone I’d fallen in love with a juggler. There were, lots of ‘yeah right’ comments, and ‘hmm, well that’s going to last, not’! But it did. When he came back from India, he went straight off to South Africa to help his friend build a house. After three months of writing back and forth (this was the dark ages, before email) I got on a plane to Cape Town to join him. We drove the Garden Route, hung out watching whales in Hermanus, really, they were right under our noses, you could smell their fishy breath… went on safari with elephants, swam with penguins at Boulders Beach – but wonderful though all of that was, most amazing of all, we realised we were supposed to be together. And 25 years and two daughters later here we still are!

That is the best thing about travel – it throws up people and opportunities you would never have had otherwise. I confess to having spent a lot of my twenties racketing around the world. I did three months in Indonesia by myself, ending up one day so miserably hungover in Kuta Beach I had to be manhandled onto my tiny plane to Sumbawa by three burly Germans. When we arrived in the middle of nowhere they took pity on me and loaded me into their taxi. When we got to the very end of the island, where we were supposed to get a boat to Komodo Island to see the famous dragons, we were told there was no boat for three days. The Germans were on a schedule. I wasn’t. They left. I was the only gringo in town, so I took a room at a friendly guest house and made some new pals. I was taken into people’s houses, played with their children, went out to tiny islands and drank from fresh coconuts and saw turtles kept like sheep or cattle under shacks built on stilts over the lagoon. It was magical – true serendipity. I then finally saw the dragons – wow they wolfed down a sheep quick, pulling it apart with their teeth. And then I got a dive boat back across the north coast of Sumbawa to Lombok where we snorkelled in pristine waters, surrounded by fish – I’ll never forget a four foot cuttle fish spraying ink at me when I got too close, or the rainbow coloured murmurations of fish on the reef. The food got a bit dull – banana pancakes and more banana pancakes served off plastic plates. But sleeping on deck under the stars was fantastic and the sleeping bag I bought for about £1 in a shopping mall in Borobudur did the trick. It is always the things we don’t plan, the serendipity which makes travelling magic.

So what are my other favourite moments? Full Moon parties in Koh Tao, walking under the palm trees in moonlight so bright there really were shadows. Swimming with sharks on the reef there – that shot of adrenaline when you see something in the water that is bigger than you.

My favourite place ever has to be Temple Four in Tikal, the most spectacular Mayan city of all in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle. That was quite a trip – nine hours bumping cross country in an old yellow American school bus, with wooden seats from the Mexican border. There was a military occupation at the time, so we went down the river from Palenque in Mexico, through several check points – official Mexican, the local Junta, Guatemalan military and then guerrillas. Luckily one of my travelling mates was a former officer in the Coldstream Guards – we trusted him to do the talking (until we realised we’d painted his toenails gold, he was the only boy travelling with three girls, and they were looking at him peculiarly).

Tikal

Latterly, I’ve fallen in love with Jamaica. Treasure Beach on the South Coast, particularly the barefoot chic Jake’s Hotel is about as cool as it gets. I’ve promised my best friend we’ll never spend Christmas anywhere else. But I also love Devon – every summer my whole family decamps to Putsborough Beach, near Croyde, to surf and boogie board. My husband’s family live down there and two weeks in the Atlantic swell and you are scoured clean and new – I love the familiarity of returning there. Parking the car on the grass, heaving on my wetsuit, crunching over the gravel, hearing the pounding of the surf, immersing myself in that amazing ocean. That is my happy place.

Croyde Bay

But it’s never too late to find your new favourite place – at www.noon.org.uk we’re all about helping women in midlife, we call them Queenagers, find their next chapter. We deserve joy, fun, sun, excitement, all the good stuff. And for me that usually starts with a journey… come and join us on a Noon trip, we’re organising some fantastic ones with Silver Travel Advisor. It’s all about finding a new tribe of mates in midlife, sharing our woes, and the joy. What could be better?

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Eleanor Mills

Eleanor Mills is the Founder and Editor in Chief of Noon. She is an award-winning writer, magazine editor and former Editorial Director of The Sunday Times.

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