As I settled into my spacious seat and waited for the Kayes to Bamako train to start the long journey to the capital of Mali, I slipped into that quiet reverie you get when you're settled in a comfortable seat and you know you don't have to do anything for hours. I remembered the nightmare bus journey from Diboli, I thought about the heat of the desert, I wondered whether the open windows would provide much respite, and I decided I'd probably need to wear my hat when the sun was high enough to strike my side of the train. And with an icy shard of clarity I realised I had no idea where my hat was.
Ah well, you're thinking, that's a bit inconvenient, losing your hat like that, but you don't know about me and my hat. My hat and I have been together through almost all of my travelling days, and I have grown so fond of the old bugger that it's not an it, he's a he, and he's not just a hat, he's my friend. We go back a long, long way, and we've been through a great deal together.
I first met my hat on , when Laurence and Mary, my wonderful hosts in Melbourne, gave me the best Christmas present a traveller could have. Folded up inside a cotton bag bearing the name 'The Great Australian Bush Hat in a Bag' was a brown, leather bush hat with a spring around the inside of the wide brim. When you took it out of the bag it sprang into shape, but it was floppy enough to squash up into a little bag with no ill effects. It was perfect for my backpack-based travels, and I wore it constantly throughout Australia and New Zealand; it might be a cliché, but wherever I laid my hat, that was my home.
I was devastated, then, to find that when I pulled my hat out of my luggage after an ill-fated sailing trip across the Pacific, the salty sea air had dissolved the poor bugger's rim, and had turned half the leather into a hard, brittle mess. There was nothing else for it; I gave my hat a burial at sea, wondering what I was going to do without him. It was like saying goodbye to a dear old friend, but at least I was going back to Australia, so I could no doubt get something else there.
In the event I found an exact duplicate in Brisbane, complete with the same cotton bag and the same moniker. I snapped him up faster than you could say 'reincarnation', and I was a happy man with my hat once more. We stayed glued together until I got back home in 1998, and we hit the road together every time I took a holiday. My hat – he's a mate.
And that is why it hurt so much to realise he'd disappeared. I checked everywhere – on the floor, in my bag, under the seats – but I'm organised enough to know when something is missing, and my hat was well and truly gone. Perhaps someone had swiped him when I'd been stuffing my pack on the luggage racks? Or perhaps I'd left him at the shop when I bought my water for the trip? Whatever, I was desolate, and it showed; people thought I'd had my whole bag stolen, not just my hat, but they were genuinely sympathetic when I told them he was more of a friend than a piece of clothing. They knew what I meant.
I rushed out of the train and back to the shop, hoping that they might have seen my wide-brimmed friend, but they shook their heads. By now it was 7.30am and the train was supposed to have left at 7.15am, and I frantically looked up and down the platform, straining to see if anyone was wearing a bush hat. The panic started hardening into a sense of loss, and I realised that this was one of the worst things I could have mislaid. It's annoying when things like cameras and sleeping bags get stolen, and it's inconvenient when travellers cheques and passports go missing, but to lose something with such emotional value is far worse. I was never going to be able to replace my hat, and I slumped into my chair, no longer so happy at the prospect of sitting there all day. I could feel my mind settling in for a good, serious wallow.
'Excuse me, sir,' came a voice from behind me. Oh no, I thought, I'm really not in the mood for polite conversation with my fellow passengers, not just yet. 'Is this yours?' it said, and I looked round. I couldn't believe it; a young man in a yellow shirt had found my hat, and my face must have said it all. He grinned back, handing him over, and explaining that I must have dropped him when I was boarding the train; he'd been trying to find the owner ever since, and the story of my desolation had spread through the station. I think I hugged him; I certainly shook his hand until it was about to fall off.
I raised my hat to the sky, and all around me my fellow passengers cheered. I guess people will watch any kind of soap opera while they're waiting for their train to pull out of the station, even one with such a soppy ending.