The Serious Road Trip: how one Kiwi woman’s Big OE took her into a war zone   18 Jun 2020

Charlotte Everett

I was delighted to receive in the post a new book to review. Simone van Kan’s The Serious Road Trip was a decent-sized hardcover, with a world map on the front – along with pictures of what looked like some exciting adventures – and a foreword from Iron Maiden’s Bruce Dickinson. This was a proper book, and it already seemed to be promising a lot – I couldn’t wait to delve into it.

Van Kan ended up co-founding what became dubbed “the world’s most rock ‘n roll aid organisation” in 1991. This incredibly detailed autobiographical account starts with her setting off from New Zealand for South America, a somewhat nervous 24-year-old Kiwi girl, on a big solo adventure. She has travelled before – mostly in Europe, with her friends and her boyfriend. But this is an entirely different experience.

Eventually her travels do take her back to Europe, and to London specifically, where she and a group of fellow compassionate people come up with an idea. “The Serious Road Trip” would travel from London to New Zealand on an iconic red double-decker bus, bringing humanitarian aid and entertainment to underprivileged children along the way – particularly to orphaned children in Romania, Poland and Russia.

What follows is a detailed personal account of the next few years. From fundraising, to start-up, to how the organisation evolved, to how its mission changed – and the various tours to a variety of locations, both planned and unplanned. The initial intention of a year-long drive across borders, eventually reaching New Zealand – where many of the road trippers were from – took a sudden turn in a new direction when the Bosnian War broke out... and the double-decker bus joined the Peace Convoy to Sarajevo, making the group the first British NGO to break the infamous siege.

Various colourful trucks of “The Serious Road Trip” made many convoys with vital supplies, in addition to clowns and concerts bringing much hope to children and their families, in often difficult and dangerous conditions. The volunteers “juggled” their way across borders and checkpoints, to reach far-flung areas in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Croatia, and elsewhere.

Van Kan’s account has extraordinary detail, and her memory of events – even some of the more ordinary or mundane details of day-to-day life on the road – is testament to how much the experience has clearly impacted on her life. The book is as much of an account of her personal story and emotions, as it the story of the organisation itself, and the lives of the people it touched. Any Kiwi woman who has set off on an adventure will be able to relate to van Kan’s initial nerves and vulnerability in a new place and new circumstances, and feel both her excitement and heartbreak when it comes to romance. One thing that many readers will not be able to empathise with, perhaps, is exactly what the Serious Road Trip experience was like for van Kan and her fellow volunteers – but reading this book takes you pretty close to feeling as though you are on the journey with them.

Her story is one of bold characters – from the ordinary (extraordinary?!) people she forged lifelong friendships with, to some of the many famous people she meets along the way. Kiwis will smile at references that constantly bring us home – the performance of a haka, van Kan’s regular poi dancing, and the heartbreaking loss of a piece of greenstone. I also personally squeaked with delight when NZ News UK was mentioned towards the end of the book – with one of the drivers finding out about Serious Road Trip from our free (at that time, hardcopy) newspaper here in London.

The Serious Road Trip is a real-life story of love, friendship, courage, and self-discovery, forged through extreme circumstances. It’s the story of ordinary Kiwis and their friends risking their lives continually over the course of several years, to provide both aid and laughter, to those both physically and emotionally scarred by war. It’s the story of how a road trip to New Zealand was transformed into a fully-fledged NGO in a war zone – and into an organisation that still exists to this day.

Take your time reading this book. It is at times emotionally triggering, but also the great detail given to even one day in the life of the Serious Road Trip makes it a truly immersive and on occasion, real-time experience.

The Serious Road Trip is your ultimate solution to wanderlust, making great lockdown reading.

 

"The Serious Road Trip" is available on Amazon, both hardcopy and for Kindle. If you would prefer to get a hardcopy from the publisher directly, you can do so here.

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