Why the Seventies were the greatest decade to travel

·4-min read
Greatest era for travel, golden age of travel, what holidays were like in the seventies, 1970 travel memories - Getty
Greatest era for travel, golden age of travel, what holidays were like in the seventies, 1970 travel memories - Getty

What a heady time the 1970s were for anyone involved in the travel business. The previous decade had already witnessed one major sea change as the popularity of package holidays, combined with a boom in hotel construction, made the Mediterranean an affordable destination for millions of sun-starved British holidaymakers for the first time. Overnight, even skiing became a mass market, and the arrival of the Boeing 747 was about to revolutionise long-haul travel.

I didn’t know it then, but there could not have been a better time for a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist like me to join the ranks of Fleet Street, for already a change was taking place as the green shoots of environmentalism began to spread around the world. When I became a travel writer in 1970 there was no such thing as ecotourism. Even the word itself was unknown, having been coined in 1983 by a Mexican conservationist, Hector Ceballos-Lascurain, to describe nature-based travel to wilderness areas. Now, thanks to the miracle of the jumbo jet, there was nowhere so wild or remote that could not be reached.

Even so, I was amazed how seldom the subject ever reached the travel pages. In ecological terms I had found a niche which I began to exploit and make my own, and in 1974 I realised a long-held dream when I flew to Africa and went on safari for the first time.

India and Afganistan travel in the 1970s, hippy travel, holiday nostalgia - Getty
India and Afganistan travel in the 1970s, hippy travel, holiday nostalgia - Getty

Until then, safaris had been for the seriously rich and usually revolved around trophy hunting. But in Africa, too, the winds of change were blowing as camera-toting visitors began to replace the hunters. When the 1970s began, the entire continent was still locked in a dream of the past. Wildlife was abundant in numbers that seem scarcely credible today and tourism was in its infancy.

That is how it was when I first set foot in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. I had arrived in May, just as the long rains were ending and the plains were a dazzling emerald green. Flying in aboard a six-seater Cessna I watched spellbound as herds of zebras galloped away through endless waves of waist-high grass, and even before we touched down, I had spotted a lion at rest on a termite mound.

That night, as I lay under canvas beneath a sky seething with stars, I heard for the first time the song of the lion. Not close enough to feel the air vibrating, as it would in years to come, but still powerful enough to thrill me to the core.

Since then, I have been back to Africa more times than I can recall. Not only to Kenya but Tanzania, too, and all the way south to the Great Karoo by way of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and Botswana, staying anywhere that offered a comfortable tent under a tree and the sound of lions at first light.

Africa safaris 1970s, what was travel like in the Seventies
Africa safaris 1970s, what was travel like in the Seventies

At Kora in the thornbush country of northern Kenya, George Adamson introduced me to his famous Born Free lions, and for five unforgettable years in the Mara I followed the fortunes of the Musiara Marsh pride with the photographer Jonathan Scott.

But only now do I realise how incredibly lucky I was to have seen it when the going was good. The 1970s were a golden age for the big cats and the boundless savannahs of their savage kingdom. Ecotourism was still a novelty, and the grasslands were not yet criss-crossed with tyre tracks or overrun with vehicles, creating the delicious illusion of having wild Africa all to yourself.

Of course, it could not last. Everywhere, tourism was on the march and soft adventure was the name of the game. From Ngorongoro to the Okavango Delta I watched as new camps sprang up almost overnight. Gone were the old long-drop loos and bucket showers dangling from a tree. In their place came canvas tents the size of tithe barns complete with private plunge pools and other undreamed-of luxuries.

Yet miraculously, the priceless parks and wilderness areas have somehow managed to remain essentially inviolate; and ecotourism is the reason why. What has kept them afloat is the tourist dollar, highlighting its crucial role in ensuring the economic viability of Africa’s last great wildlife strongholds. And that is the decade’s most enduring legacy.

Here's the rest of the series, with recollections of travel during the Sixties, the Eighties and the Nineties.

Did you travel in the Seventies? Please share your stories in the comments section below

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