Published: 20 October 2023

African adventure approaches 50th anniversary

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of four Surrey graduates embarking on an exciting expedition across Africa in a Land Rover. 

Physics graduate John Rowland, who studied at Surrey from 1969-1973, and his three colleagues – chemical engineers Martin Eldon and Hugh Tarran, and social sciences graduate Marilyn King – had their adventure part-sponsored by the University. 

The travel bug  

“I took my professional work placement in Australia,” recalls John. “After six months, I returned to the UK over land rather than jumping on a plane. That gave me the bug for travel.

“This prompted myself and my good friend, Martin, to talk about having an adventure once we graduated. We decided Africa was an exciting and an interesting place to go – and that was that. 

“Rather than just be tourists on a gap year, though, we thought we should do some meaningful work en route. We talked to a number of people at the University about projects we could do.”

Setting off

John continues: “The upshot of this was that we had an experiment funded by Surrey’s Department of Physics and the World Health Organization, and another was conducted in conjunction with the Science Museum.

“We also talked to the University Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Leggett, about getting sponsorship from the University for the trip. He agreed to give us some money and that added more credibility to our expedition. We applied for additional funds from various industries and we secured support in the form of food, tents and a whole range of different goods for our trip.

“Following graduation, we all worked for a while to save the money we needed. We set off in March 1974.” 

A remarkable journey 

Their journey not only took them across the Sahara Desert, but also through Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Congo and Tanzania. At the end of their six-month odyssey traversing Africa, the group spent three months in Kenya conducting their scientific experiments. 

“Looking back on it now, it seems incredible to think we set off with fairly naïve views about what the challenges were,” laughs John. “You’d find it extremely difficult and dangerous to do it now considering the political difficulties that exist in some of those countries. 

“Mobile phones didn’t exist and certain parts of the route weren’t even mapped. For some of the trip, we used a school atlas and educated guess work to navigate our way.”

A return to Stag Hill?

John and Hugh now live in Cheltenham, Martin resides near Edinburgh and Marilyn is based in San Francisco. But have all met up for several reunions. 

“When we got back from the trip in 1974, we staged a presentation about the expedition featuring a film and lots of photos I’d taken,” reveals John. “Returning to Stag Hill in 2024 to mark the 50th anniversary of our expedition, talk about our experiences and reshow the film would be a special moment.”

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