An 11-year-old boy spent more than three months trekking 1,700 miles from Sicily to London just so he could give his granny a hug during lockdown.
Romeo Cox and dad Phil, 46, fought off vicious wild dogs, tamed a feral donkey and slept under the stars during their epic adventure.
The pair set off from the Italian island’s capital Palermo on June 20 and spent the next 93 days walking through Italy, Switzerland, France and finally the UK ‘just to see granny’.
With sore feet and a book full of stories, they finally made it to Trafalgar Square on September 21. They are now isolating before they can be reunited with 77-year-old grandma Rosemary.
Visit our live blog for the latest updates Coronavirus news live
Romeo said: ‘We got lost a few times, we slept under a wasp nest which wasn’t a good idea, got bloody feet, but we never thought about giving up.
‘As we got closer I just kept thinking about seeing my Granny, and how excited I was.
‘I can’t wait to give her a cuddle, it’s been over a year since I last saw her. She was all alone during lockdown.’
‘I’m feeling tired now – like an old 100-year-old man – but it was so fun,’ he added.
Romeo – whose dad Phil is English and mum Giovanna is Italian – had been secretly planning his once-in-a-lifetime journey during lockdown, before asking his parents about ’50 times’ if he could make it a reality.
Visiting his grandma wasn’t his only motivation to keep going through the 5am wake-up calls and rough nights’ sleep, Romeo also hoped to raise money for refugees.
After completing the trip, the schoolboy is close to reaching his £15,000 target for Refugee Education Across Conflicts Trust, with more than £12,000 worth of donations so far.
Romeo, who moved from Hackney to Palermo last year, was taught Italian by refugee children he befriended while playing football and wanted to give something back.
His friend Randolph, who migrated to Italy from Ghana, had to walk miles until he found safety.
‘He walked even further than I have on this trip, but without food and water and in fear,’ Romeo said. ‘He was risking his life.
‘He helped me when I came to Sicily, and so I wanted to help him and other vulnerable children in return.’
Romeo began secretly planning his trip to see granny Rosemary, from Witney, Oxon during lockdown. But because there were no planes flying to the UK at that time, he came up with a plan to walk.
‘Even after quarantine, I thought walking might be a new experience,’ he said. ‘I asked my parents and they said no more than 50 times.
‘Eventually they agreed – provided we planned everything was Covid safe.’
Mum Giovanna was tearful as the pair set off on their way more than three months ago. The adventure saw them meet kind strangers, before they recruited Pedro the donkey to help carry their belongings.
The idea was to use no petrol, so they walked more than 80 per cent of the journey, using a sailing boat and bikes as well.
Romeo said: ‘I loved swimming under the stars and swimming in the sea. The first two days with Pedro the donkey were great, although after that he was a nightmare.’
But the father and son also encountered some difficult situations, including meeting a Sudanese boy in Calais who was trying to cross the Channel is a desperate bid to be reunited with his family.
In Naples, the pair were chased by a pack of seven feral pitbulls and boxer dogs who shredded Phil’s backpack.
After the terrifying incident, they decided not to take any more shortcuts and from Rome to London they mainly stuck to pilgrim’s trail, La Via Francigena, meaning they were able to stay in convents and hostels.
When the pair finally arrived at Romeo’s old road in Hackney, East London, the whole street came out to applaud them.
Phil said: ‘A lot of people have responded because I think with so much dark and heavy news happening, this is something really positive.
‘Walking was a bit frustrating at the beginning, but then it became something really beautiful. Slow travel is really special.’
The father said he ‘didn’t want to be the adult to say no’ to the trip and believed his son could do it because he is ‘open and positive’.
‘Romeo never complained, we got up a 5am and walked until the sun went down,’ he added. ‘I still shouted at him each day, so there was no change there!’
The father, who is a filmmaker and journalist, was captured, held hostage and tortured in Sudan in 2017. He managed to film his captors by tricking them into using his camera, and hid the memory card for more than three months’ imprisonment.
Phil said the experience was ‘really great’ for his mental health, particularly being able to ‘participate in a child’s imagination and a child’s epic journey’.
‘It was a special time and moment to share with my son and something we both shall never forget for all our lives,’ the dad added.
‘We got lost a lot, and up to all sorts of adventures. Some things we agreed never to tell mum.’
Get in touch with our news team by emailing us at [email protected].
For more stories like this, check our news page.