When 10-year-old Romeo Cox rang his grandmother in June and said he was coming to visit, she didn’t entirely believe him. She was locked down alone in Witney, Oxfordshire; he was at home in Palermo, Sicily, his family having moved from Hackney, east London, two years ago. And thanks to Covid, there weren’t many flights. No problem. Romeo explains: “I hadn’t seen Granny for a year and a half, so [during lockdown] I planned in secret to go see her. I drew a map. I would walk and take boats and do it naturally to help the planet. And I’d take Dad. It would be handy to have an adult.” Also handily, Dad — Phil Cox, 46 — has been a journalist in war zones (he’s now a film-maker).
This flight of fancy turned into an improbable, and successful, Boy’s Own adventure. Last week, after three months and 1,700 miles of walking, some cycling, one yacht, a ferry and one emergency bus, Romeo, now 11, and Rosemary, 79, were finally reunited. He hurtled to hug her and she shepherded him inside for boiled eggs, soldiers and scones. “It felt really good to be back in her arms,” says Romeo.
“I planned in secret to go see [Granny]. I drew a map. I would walk and take boats and do it naturally to help the planet.”
His Italian mother, Giovanna, and his British father had taken some persuading to give permission for this madcap escapade, but Romeo’s refusal to take no for an answer finally paid off. On June 18, a teary Giovanna kissed her only child goodbye and father and son set off across a scorching Sicily. “We were excited and secretly nervous too,” says Romeo. “We didn’t know if we could really make it.”
To begin with father and son camped each night, rising at 4.30am to walk before temperatures soared. “It was brutal,” says Phil. “There was no shade and it was 40C.” Romeo carried a 22lb backpack. Also along for the journey, in Dad’s heavier pack, was Arturo, Romeo’s white teddy bear.
Bleeding blisters struck them both, Phil more severely, thanks to his old boots — Giovanna had splashed out on a top-of-the-range new pair for her son. When they reached Messina, a yacht carried them to Agropoli, south of Naples. But there the plain sailing ended: Phil’s feet had become infected and they had to cycle rather than trek out of Naples. “I was walking so badly that Romeo crossed the road because he was embarrassed by me,” he says.
On a “shortcut” across wasteland on the outskirts of the city, they were attacked by five wild dogs. “We got separated and then I found Dad cornered,” says Romeo. “I had to be brave. We shouted and screamed and got away but they tore Dad’s rucksack with their teeth.” And due to a Google Maps misunderstanding (Dad’s), they ended up cycling on a four-lane motorway. “I did briefly think we might die,” Phil admits.
From Rome, the pair followed the ancient La Via Francigena pilgrimage route, which eventually reaches Canterbury. Romeo was usually in front: “I’m, let’s say, fitter than Dad.” They stayed at convents, churches and hostels. “Our favorite nights were sleeping out under the stars, under the trees,” he says.
“It felt really good to be back in her arms.”
As news of Romeo’s own pilgrimage spread, via social media and then the local press, they were increasingly invited into people’s homes for the night: “Everyone wanted to give us a four-course meal.” In Lombardy, worried about catching Covid in what had been the epicenter of the outbreak, Phil decided to play it safe and they took a bus for 75 miles.
Back on foot, there was the small matter of the snow-topped Swiss Alps, crossing the 8,100ft Great St Bernard Pass, fueled by Toblerones and tins of sardines. Romeo developed earache — “have a banana and you’ll feel better” had been Dad’s initial suggestion — and ended up spending the night in hospital in Yverdon-les-Bains.
In eastern France, the kindness of strangers continued. “There were lots of grandmothers who fed us tarts: chocolate tart, pear tart, plum tart, apple tart. I learned how to make a plum tart too. People were shocked when we said we were walking to the UK. Some said Dad was crazy, but I’d say I was going to my granny. Children can do big things too.”
“I did briefly think we might die,” Romeo’s dad admits.
Spirits ebbed through the flat terrain and quiet villages of Hauts-de-France, but elation came when they reached Calais. They had a swim in the Channel and allowed themselves a small celebration.
In Calais, Romeo met a Sudanese boy who was sitting staring across the sea. He told them his brother was in England but he wasn’t allowed in. There was another reason for Romeo’s journey, aside from seeing his nonna: to raise money for React, a charity run by his mother that supports refugees and local disadvantaged children. Romeo explains that when he arrived in Palermo two years ago “I didn’t speak any Italian, I didn’t know anyone. But I met some refugee kids in the street and they helped me a lot. Especially Randolph. He came here from Ghana and he’s my best friend.” Romeo has already smashed through his $19,600 fundraising target.
The walking stopped at Dover where, due to Covid restrictions, they were advised to take a train directly to their destination. To prepare for that hug with Rosemary, the duo quarantined for a fortnight in their old Hackney home — their neighbors threw them a socially distanced celebration party, complete with “Welcome Home” banner, trifle, cake and prosecco. Then came the drive to Oxfordshire to see his granny. “I ran down the road and to her door, calling her name,” says Romeo. “We had the best, longest hug. She’s so special to me.”
After all that effort, he spent only a few days with Rosemary before having to fly home. Now back in Palermo, he has school tomorrow. “I’m lucky. I got to hug Granny and help my friends. Some of them had much harder journeys to get to Sicily than I had with Dad.”
“Some said Dad was crazy, but I’d say I was going to my granny. Children can do big things too.”
The adventure has helped Phil too. “In my adult world, everything is a problem. The news is overwhelming. But Romeo is positive, talks to anyone, and people respond to that openness. Children’s spirits seem indestructible somehow.” Phil was kidnapped and tortured while filming in Sudan in 2017. He took imaginary journeys with Romeo to help him cope. “I nearly didn’t make it back to him. Now we were together in a real adventure born from his imagination.”
Romeo is unfazed by the attention his journey has generated. His advice to other children trying to persuade parents to say yes? “Do your homework, eat your vegetables and clean your room. Plan, be smart and keep asking. Anything is possible.”
The largest carnivorous marsupial — a feisty, snarling devil that repelled Tasmania’s white settlers — is back on the Australian mainland for the first time in 3,000 years. Tasmanian devils disappeared from the Australian continent, except for the southern island state, after dingoes arrived from Asia. However, the wild dogs never established themselves in Tasmania, which lies more than 300 miles from the mainland, allowing the devils sanctuary.
Conservationists have revealed this week that a wild population of 30 devils has been established in northern New South Wales. They hope the animals will reoccupy the mainland, eventually forming a natural shield against the tens of millions of foxes and feral cats that have caused Australia to suffer the world’s worst mammal extinction rate.
“You look at the devil, you see a 44-gallon drum with legs,” Tim Faulkner, president of the Aussie Ark wildlife organization, said. The devil lacks agility and intelligence — its skull is twice the size of a fox’s but contains a brain only a third as big. It preys on sick, injured and very young animals and its powerful jaws can strip large carcasses in minutes. European colonizers tried and failed to introduce foxes to Tasmania at least six times, most probably because of the devils.
Every day, millions of feral cats in Australia are estimated to kill more than one million birds, nearly two million reptiles and more than three million mammals. Although dingo numbers in eastern Australia have vastly reduced, the relocated devils will, for now, live behind a 7ft protective fence that encloses the 1,200 acres of forest at their new home at Barrington Tops, 160 miles northwest of Sydney.
“They are not going to eat small children or our livestock,” Mr Faulkner said.