Best Laid Plans…

IT has been a week of anniversaries

Purely by coincidence, the last few days have been full of Facebook memories revolving around travel – to such an extent, it has become something of a tradition to wish a friend happy birthday specifically from some other part of the world (it will be a few weeks late this year, but we’ll get there…).

Seven years ago, flew home from New York (having had far too little sleep and with a slightly sore head after a night that ended with an Aussie in Greenwich Village probably closer to dawn than was wise) – the first flight of the trip having headed there from London and followed that with a road trip around the eastern US.

Five years ago spent this week sweltering in Charleston at a wedding (while sweating out the previous night’s rehearsal dinner).

And four years ago, climbed off a big yellow truck for the final time as 10 months on the road in Africa came to an end in Cairo.

It was an odd sensation adjusting back to normal life and as the minor frustrations and occasional deprivations of living on and around an overland truck fade, what you remember is the countless good times and enjoyable aspects of that life.

To such an extent you start to think about doing it again – and one month from today, will climb back on another big yellow truck in Quito and take up residence for seven months in a large circle around South America.

So one month out, what state are the preparations in?

To be honest, it’s all a bit of a concern – everything is pretty much on schedule.

Guaranteed that, having written that sentence, something is about to go horribly wrong but as it stands, things are on track. Even having spent this afternoon ignoring some of today’s intended list in favour of watching rugby and cricket.

Have been able to have a couple of weekends largely ignoring the to-do list, helped by using the days off work which have needed taking before my last day in the office.

Most of this lot needs packing – the sofa faces a less dignified fate. And yes, that is a bobble hat

What does remain on that list for the next few weeks is backloaded from then – the first few days finishing off compiling and packing up anything needed for the following seven months, the remaining time largely devoted to moving out of my flat and putting my life into storage.

That to-do list is broken down with jobs allocated for pretty much every day (with little spare time built in for watching cricket, rugby or the remaining episodes of Stranger Things – need to squeeze that one in before the list reaches ‘Cancel Netflix).

There’s a few appointments to go – osteopath, travel clinic for malaria tablets (not as critical as Africa, but better safe than sorry given my ability to be bitten by the lone small, buzzy thing within miles) and one last jab – a couple of leaving dos and even a gym schedule pencilled in.

As well as being better prepared for this trip due to knowledge after Africa, will arrive in Quito in better physical shape. The weight loss has hit – and seemingly levelled out at – seven and a half stone and probably fitter than… well, let’s just say it is a long time.

Could be fitter and the physical demands of the Inca Trail loom large, but the balance between excitement and fear has tipped slightly towards the former. Most of the time.

The pesky calf muscle which derailed a plan to get running and cut down the miles walking in preparation seems to have mended, with just the odd twinge now the ban on me hitting the treadmill is over.

With running limited, walking has ramped up – literally on the treadmill, gradually increasing the incline over 20 minutes – with a few longer strolls proving the lengthy times needed are achievable. Even ignoring lifts in favour of the stairs.

The gradients and altitude of the Andes are harder to replicate.

So physically things are, pretty much, ready to go and the schedule for moving out in place, what concerns remain? The things which, bar having left enough time to move out and clean my flat, keep me awake.

This lot is going in those bags off to the right. Or I’m wearing it

First is totally out of my control and boils down to which country’s economy can implode the most in the next couple of weeks. And that’s anyone’s guess.

The go-to currency for this trip is US dollars, both in the local payment which will form the group kitty to pay for our everyday expenses (you know, the important stuff like food) and spending money for changing at borders or, in the case of starting point Ecuador, the actual currency.

It all adds up to a pretty decent-sized lump sum to be sorted out before the off, which makes it the perfect time for the pound to plummet against the dollar.

Thankfully, not as much as against the euro and – good news time – there’s been sign of life today and the prospect of an improved rate for buying bulk. It’s a question of which country does something to damage its currency first and how long my nerve holds.

All this adds up to another reason to avoid spending any more money on kit, however strong the temptation.

Have spent several years advising people not to over pack, but one look at the piles of stuff waiting to be crammed into my rucksack and shoulder bag suggests that advice has not necessarily been taken on board.

Yesterday’s attempt to organise it better has eased my mind a bit, but it is going to take some cramming in.

Whatever the weather, suggest going to be wearing or carrying a hoodie or a new waterproof jacket – complete with a fleece lining – on the trip from Gloucester to Quito (via Heathrow and Bogota).

It could get pretty sweaty.

But if that’s what is keeping me awake, then that’s fine – certainly beats any work anxiety which is starting to fade away as we enter my final couple of weeks in the office.

Just two more papers to see off, followed by two weeks working through that to-do list.

It’s all getting mighty real.

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Overlanding: The Things They Don’t Tell You

Day 22 of the blog post a day in May and back to overlanding – those little snippets of information which don’t really fit anywhere else

HAVE written a few pieces about overlanding over the last few weeks, but there is still plenty of ground to cover (hey, they were long journeys).

And there have been a fair few bits of wisdom, picked up over a couple of differing trips, to share which do not really come under a specific heading.

Unless you lump them all in one place.

Life On The Truck

  • The further back in the truck you sit, the higher you bounce when you hit a pothole (Oasis Overland recommend you wear your seat belt at all times).
  • Cool boxes (eskies, chillies or any other bizarre Australian term you use) are very useful for foot rests and card tables. Preferably not both at once. Also useful for preparing food on the truck, holding ice – all important – and as punch bowls. Also for storing food and drink, supposedly. Lids not so good for sand boarding. Trust me on that one.
  • If you choose to sit under a speaker, the music will be louder. Sounds obvious…
  • Falling asleep comes with the risk of being photographed or filmed.
  • It is possible to fall asleep standing up while holding on to the luggage rack. It’s just not that advisable.
  • Not being able to see the sea does not mean we are nowhere near it. It might have been behind you for 100km.

Camping

  • People snore, accept it and move on, you going on about it will not make it any better. Let them pick their tents on the edge of camp – we are happy to help out – and work from there. Don’t go the far end of the campsite and get upset when the snorers pitch their tent next to you to keep away from the bulk of the group.
  • That hot water in the kettle may be needed by the cook group – check before using it to make yourself a cup of tea or a bowl of noodles.
  • Moving something off the heat on the fire to cook yourself some sausages will not go down well with food group (take it from one of cook group on those last two).
  • When someone is cleaning the truck, it is not more important for you to get on board to get something you might need in a few hours.
  • Warnings of bears or the sound of lions leads to a huge reduction in people’s needs to go to the toilets overnight.
  • Bodily functions quickly become perfectly acceptable topics of conversation.
  • Take a torch with you – relying on your instincts may not keep you from the cliff edge.
  • It is acceptable (and at times advisable) to, ahem, nip round the back of the tent during the night when bush camping. At an organised campsite, the dilemma of whether it still is can be settled by whether there are men with guns on guard – if so, best not to risk it.
  • Make sure you know where your tent is pitched, especially before a few beers. It might just save you from climbing in the wrong one or getting totally lost on the wrong side of the truck after a late-night pitstop.
  • When heading into the bushes during the night, be aware of where people’s tents are – particularly those sleeping in mosquito nets. They can see what you are doing. And will never be able to unsee it…

Hygiene

  • It is perfectly acceptable to wear the same clothes several days running.
  • If you do find a shower out of the blue, don’t wait until the truck is leaving before telling everybody else (you will never hear the end of it).
  • When you have the chance of a shower, take it.
  • And when you do have the chance of a wash – be it in a shower or a river – do scrub off what somebody has drawn on your back in mud.

The Things Overlanders Obsess About

1 WiFi
2 The WiFi Password
3 Ice
4 Cold Beer (or cold Coke to go with Captain Morgan Spiced Gold Rum)
5 Electricity
6 The Rules of Uno
7 Food
8 Showers
9 Beds
10 Laundry

Things You Absolutely Must Pack

  • Sense of Adventure
  • Open Mind

Things Not To Be Packed

  • Preconceptions
  • A Spear Gun
  • A Cow’s Head

What To Do When Lost

  • Ask a local if they have seen a big yellow truck. It tends to stand out.
  • If near camp – stand on someone’s shoulders (if not alone), shout or remain really quiet and let the snorers guide you in. If nobody notices you had been gone, keep quiet about it for weeks to avoid ridicule.
  • If in civilisation (or somewhere close), log on to the company’s website, go on live chat and ask the office back in the UK where the hell you are supposed to be. Has the dual benefit of reuniting you with the rest of the group and giving everybody a really good laugh.

Things Learned About Nationalities While Overlanding

  • Ay carumba is not an everyday Spanish phrase. However much you try to make native speakers say it.
  • Germans cannot pronounce the word squirrel.
  • Being fluent in several languages will not stop people stuck with just one teasing you about an inability to pronounce squirrel.
  • Relying on Portuguese being similar to Spanish is not likely to help you get directions.
  • MEPs are elected at European elections. Or what New Zealanders use to navigate.
  • Brits cannot roll Rs. Apologies if that means we keep mispronouncing your name.
  • Asking some people what nationality they are can be complicated.
  • Africa and avocado can sound similar in a Dutch accent.
  • Brits and Australians speak a totally different language.
What happens if you let someone near your camera. Could be worse, could be your watch.

General Advice

  • Asking someone to take a picture of you or hold your camera is likely to produce a few surprises when you check your pictures.
  • Before locking the door on a toilet, make sure you know how to open it again. Or that there is room at the top for someone to climb over if you have had a bit too much to drink (had to do this twice for the same person).
  • When taking a picture of the place you are staying to show a taxi driver for the journey home, make sure it is not next to the German embassy with armed policemen watching. They don’t like it.
  • The same is true about selfies near to an African dictator’s palace.
  • Leave the whisky alone when you are on cook group duty.
  • There is only one sunset. Whatever the oil rig flames may look like.
  • Missing truck clean is likely to get your tent let down. With you in it.
  • When you leave the truck and padlock the door behind you, make sure nobody is left on the truck as you wander off to join the others watching the spectacular sunset. My bad.
  • Do not leave your watch lying around. Changing the time on it may not get boring to your travel companions all the way from Gibraltar to Cape Town.
  • Being able to see the sea is a good gauge for how close to sea level you are.
  • Pescetarians eat fish. Presbyterians have a more varied diet.
  • It is not always Christmas somewhere.
  • If you are entrusted with a key for anything on the truck, do not leave it in your room or pack it in your kit.
  • When you get home, you will try to press a button to stop a journey for a comfort stop. It is unlikely to work.
  • Get ice. Whenever you can, get ice.

And finally one final piece of advice for anyone wanting to chronicle their adventures – you are blogging because you are on an adventure, you are not on the adventure to blog.

Don’t miss doing something because you think you have to write your blog – it can wait.

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Lying Down On The Job

Day 20 of the blog post a day in May challenge and it has all gone a bit off schedule again.

TODAY was supposed to be the easy one. The last day the subject matter had been scheduled in advance and the first of a week off.

So the plan was simple, rattle on about the chosen subject matter – the latest A-Z post if you need to know – in the extra time available and draw up a schedule for the remaining 11 days of this idea (suggest the last day may be a piece on the wisdom, or otherwise, of trying this).

It started to go wrong when it became clear was not going to reach the end of H on the A-Z Challenge, the intended stopping off point for the next post. That’s one for tomorrow.

And then it went a bit haywire when the available time was lost by a fair chunk of today spent lying on my living room floor.

That’s not totally true and, thankfully for somebody who has had to do just that a few times after his back gave out, not down to health reasons.

Yeah, it definitely needs a clean

Was actually lying an inch or so off the ground on the air mat which has been retrieved from the cupboard where it has sat since returning from Africa getting on for four years ago.

And the lying down did have a purpose – an ongoing one at that, give me a second…

… sorry, just had to have another quick lie down, checking to see whether the mat is staying up sufficiently.

The need for this was to check whether the air mat is in a condition to come with me to South America, one of the bigger items needed for 31 weeks on the road and among a few key decisions to kick off the process of working through the kit list.

Apart from the state of the air mat, learned a few interesting things while lying there:

  • It needs a clean. Not sure quite what some of those stains are or even if they will come out. But suggest it has only been cleaned when dunked in swimming pools to find leaks and it got used a lot in Africa after a day of getting dirty and sweaty with no chance of a shower. Wet wipes can only do so much.
  • Need to get another repair kit if it is coming to South America with me.
  • The complete break in the chair at my desk is pretty impressive through pretty much the thickest part of the structure. It has its upside – having to sit straight rather than lean off to the right to watch the TV is keeping the weight off the crack and helping my back.
  • My floor needs a vacuum. Slight issue there as don’t own one so my sister likely to be getting a begging phone call.

And the mat itself?

It is pretty battered – one of its valves is blocked up with a patch and a load of adhesive from the original repair kit – and after about eight hours of inflation, it has gone down a bit (which is pretty much how remember it in the last days of Africa).

But it is most definitely still inflated enough to sleep on.

Would have been easier if it had gone down rapidly (or not at all) as the decision would have been made for me. As it is, it is fine to take – but what will it be like by the end of the trip?

May need some more research. And some more lying down.

The air mat is one of three key decisions to make which shape a lot of what follows in building my kit, joining my sleeping bag and rucksack.

In an ideal world, all three would come with me again but question marks hang over them all.

The sleeping bag is possibly not warm enough for the colder extremes of nights in the mountain (to say nothing of the puzzle of zipping it up after it was always opened up as a quilt), but it packs down much smaller than all the options found so far.

And packing down small is key – unlike Africa when was able to dump the bigger items on Oasis for the truck to carry it out to our starting point in Gibraltar, everything has to come with me on a plane to Quito this time.

Which, with full sleeping kit wedged in, limits the room for other stuff and adds to the importance of the rucksack.

It is a bit battered – it has been around the world, Africa and the USA – and one of the zips needs repairing (again) but my existing bag fits the bill in many ways.

Mainly its size (70L in the main bag) but also its 20L detachable part which can double as a day bag and back pack on days or longer away from the truck – the Inca Trail springs to mind.

The growing piles of kit

Like the air mat, the sleeping bag and rucksack need a bit of a clean but suggest one or two – probably not all three – have more life in them yet.

Some kit decisions and purchases have been made – need to break in the new pair of walking shoes and the camera basically comes down to the best deal out of three options in tomorrow’s main job on the to-do list.

Other big decisions need to be made – will my iPod Classic make it through another overland trip or does it need replacing? – but after that it is down to balancing want v need, what shiny things catch my eye and how much of it will fit in my bags.

All adds up to more updates to the kit list.

Just might need another lie down first.

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Overlanding: Frequently Asked Questions

Day 19 of the blog post a day in May and time to let somebody else do the heavy lifting

HAVE spent a lot of time over the last nine years or so writing or talking about travel, overlanding in particular (apologies about that).

A lot of this site has tried to explain aspects of the trips which are difficult to understand without actually being a passenger, but still get asked a lot of the same questions.

So time to answer a few of them, both from people have chatted to about them and people enquiring about trips during my time working for a travel company.

What are you doing?
The most common question when people first hear about a trip. Put simply, jacking my job in (again) and, this time around, heading off to South America for 31 weeks on a big yellow truck.

No, seriously, what are you doing?
The follow-up is usually a variation of this which leads to some sort of explanation of overlanding. Or ‘which part of South America?’ to which the answer is pretty much all of it.

How many other people are there on the trip?
No idea, will find that out in Quito in September. The truck holds up to 24 and people may come and go – the Oasis trip to Africa varied between 14 and 20-odd (plus a couple of crew) as people came and went.

Who are the other people?
Again, will find that out come September and spend the next seven months learning it in more detail. Over two overland trips have travelled with people aged 18 to 81, from more than a dozen countries and a pretty much even split between men and women. And out of about 40 people, probably only one, two at most, just could not get on with.

Can you get some time to yourself?
It is not always easy – hard to escape people during a long day on the back of the truck – and you can be reliant on each other when out in the wilds, but reach some form of civilisation and you get some breathing space. However well the group gets on, it is advisable.

Can you leave the trip and come back?
Yes, it’s your trip. There may be an optional side trip you may want to do or you need to head home for some reason or head off for a day or two. If you know beforehand, you can work it out with the tour operator – who can advise what alternative start and finish points are available – and on the trip you just need to be at an agreed meeting time and place. The trip will not wait for you.

Have you got to follow the itinerary all day, every day?
If you are travelling then yes – you are on the truck – and certain things (National Parks or attractions) are included. But nobody is going to make you do anything and it is up to you what you do and where you go when you reach a destination.

How long do you spend travelling each day?
There can be long days – there are a lot of miles to cover and there may not be many places to stop for a day or two. Other days may be shorter with a stop somewhere along the way while you may not travel for a day, two or longer.

What’s included in the price?
It depends on your tour operator, but the standard cost is accommodation, transport on the truck, crew and included attractions. A local payment in cash as part of the cost will cover food when not eating out (and maybe the odd restaurant meal).

Will there be WiFi?
One of the first questions at any stop is “what’s the WiFi code?”. One of the delights of bush camping is you are off the grid.

What is the food like?
The group will be cooking when out in the wild, so it is up to you – if you can find it in a market. And most major stops will have a wide range of options – street food always a good, cheap option. Vegetarians or food intolerances can usually be catered for, fussy eaters may find things a bit more difficult.

I don’t like Chinese food, will I be able to find food I like in China?
Seriously, got asked that one. Not sure he quite got the gag that Chinese food is just called food in China (original joke courtesy of Friends). Simple answer is yes, in the cities, but it would be a crying shame to limit yourself.

Will I be able to find a KFC?
Same person. Was able to assure him that you can give directions around Tiananmen Square using fast food joints. Service is better than back home as well.

What’s the weather like?
You are away for months, travelling through thousands of miles and entire seasons. Work it out.

Do I need to be fit?
If your idea of activity is picking up the phone to order a takeaway, you may need to put in a bit of work. A certain level of fitness is not a bad idea, but how fit you need to be depends on what you plan to do. Was not as fit as planned for Africa but was rarely too much of an issue, will be fitter for South America.

Can I arrange this trip myself?
Yes, probably. If you are really, really organised and have the time, cash and energy to throw at it. These guys know what they are doing so unless you have a distinct urge to go it alone, this is the easier way. Although it may not seem like it working through the to-do list.

Is it safe?
Any travel comes with a touch of risk and, yes, you can hit some places that may seem bordering on the dangerous, while some spots may be lacking in the sort of infrastructure we take for granted. You can never remove the risk but take the usual precautions and there is not too much to worry about.

Did you ever feel in danger?
Ten months in Africa and only a couple of times – mainly when debating which would get me shot quicker, being sick over the man who had just come on the truck with a gun or jumping off and giving him a nice easy target. Scariest moment (not including lying in a tent in the Serengeti listening to lions roar) was a late-night car ride through Bulawayo. Largely on the wrong side of the road.

Did you get ebola?
No, it was possible to journey through Africa without contracting ebola, whatever people had decided before the off (and while there). And no, we were in absolutely no danger of catching it in Papua New Guinea, what with it being nowhere near Africa. That was a serious question.

You won’t be going to Venezuela, will you?
That’s the current favourite. Simple answer, don’t know. It’s on the route but not until next spring so we’ll worry about that one nearer the time.

Will I get voted off the bus like on Coach Trip?
Seriously, got asked this by a prospective customer. Not sure whether she wanted it to be an option or not.

What are you going to do when you get back?
No idea. Last time pretty much replaced myself in my old job. As for this time, who knows?

But if anybody’s got any writing, subbing or travel jobs starting around next May…

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Into the Wild Camping

Day 17 of the blog post a day in May attempt and back to overlanding and an unexpected highlight.

THERE were several things which concerned me heading out on a 10-month overland adventure around Africa.

Most were personal concerns, largely revolving around my fitness and ability to cope with such a long time on the road away from home comforts.

But probably top of that list was dealing with camping for the majority of the trip. And bush camping at that.

Have written before about the ridiculous argument about whether people are really travellers or tourists (do it your way folks, it’s your trip), but must admit we had a running gag on the Trans Africa along similar lines.

We were bush camping overlanders on a truck, the people we met on more cossetted, shorter trips were – pardon the language – bus wankers. Not that we said that to their faces. Much.

Whatever those initial fears, bush camping became something to relish (most of the time) and given a choice for my next long trip, the extra bush camping helped sway me towards South America.

Was not always such a fan of camping, even the more conventional type with flushing toilets, shower blocks and some farmer coming round to collect your money.

Tolerated a few childhood camps and always returned to the more secure surroundings of the family caravan after moving out to a ropy old tent or the awning.

Even my first foray into overlanding travel failed to grab me. After hostels, trains, four to an indoor cabin on a cruise ship and even the odd hotel, sleeping on our crossing of North America from Alaska to New York was on a mixture of a converted bus or camping in National Parks.

Of which the first was Denali in Alaska.

Even in early summer, the temperature plunged as the sun disappeared around midnight and it was a couple of long, cold nights which made up my mind for the rest of the trip – the comfort of the bus was a much better option.

That was not an option in Africa (bar the nights when given refuge on the track due to illness).

And this came with the added challenge of absolutely no facilities. Bar a couple of shovels.

We had a crash course on the first couple of nights in Spain at a campsite – firm ground, toilets and shower facilities easing us in as we got used to putting the tents up and down while adjusting to sharing with our new roomies.

Which took a while, struggling to sleep for much of the first week or so as got accustomed to life under canvas – which at least spared me much of the blame having been exiled to the snorers’ tent.

But as we headed into Morocco, my airbed and sleeping bag were supplemented by a pillow (which only made it halfway round) and a rug, helping to complete a comfortable little nest on my side of the tent.

And that just left adjusting to camping away from any facilities not supplied by the truck itself.

Not completely, we did stop at campsites (or anywhere with a bit of room for us to throw up a few tents) when available, but there are precious few of those in West Africa and wandering off with a shovel was preferable to some of the facilities presented to us.

Get your head around what you are doing and why and bush camping becomes the obvious option – overlanding is all about the journey rather than the destination, partly because there often isn’t one for days on end.

So stop where you can and enjoy the freedom.

Bush camps developed their own rhythm, collect any firewood available, get the fires going and kitchen started, set up your tents and after completing any jobs that needed doing, pull up a camp stool round the fire, grab a drink and enjoy the surroundings and the company of your fellow travellers.

Occasionally somebody might break out a laptop and show a film or there would be a game of cards on the truck, but most often it would involve a lot of helping out in the kitchen and sitting around reliving the events of the last day or what was coming up.

Sometimes long into the night, many times not. Bush camping tends to fall into natural rhythms dictated by the sun – get up with the sun, go to bed when it vanishes (or when the beer runs outs). We even had an agreed bush camp bedtime when it was acceptable to head to your tent.

We camped in quarries, rainforests, on beaches,, just off (or sometimes on) tracks hidden by grass or trees, next to reservoirs, in olive groves, on clifftops (loo with a view), under rock formations, amid crops with fires raging just over the road, on the side of the road at a border, in the paddock of a police station, on dried up rivers or the only bit of rocky ground we could find. And in the shadow of a sand dune.

And by the time the occasional bed and overnight stop with showers, toilets and even, whisper it carefully, a bar and WiFi became more regular on the second half of the trip, the return of bush camping was met like an old friend. At least by most us.

It will be again in South America in a few months when the split is roughly even.

But there’s one nagging question, isn’t there? The one that everybody asks when you try to explain it.

How do you cope with no toilets and no showers, sometimes for days on end?

Put simply, you get on with it. If that’s the cost of seeing some amazing places then so be it.

Yes, you can start to smell but everybody on the truck is in the same boat – the one thing guaranteed to make it obvious is somebody trying to disguise it with smellies and it is amazing what you can do with a bit of water and a quick rub.

The truck also finds its own rules for how many days in a row it is acceptable to wear the same T-shirt (several, you wouldn’t want to sully a clean one if you haven’t showered for a few days).

As for the lack of toilets… you get used to it. It’s never totally comfortable, but you will discover the pitfalls and how to avoid them (balance and some spatial awareness are key or it can be a risky task).

And you will become to appreciate things to hide behind and soft ground.

Just don’t lose the shovel.

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