The Wrong Trousers

THE journey of a thousand miles, said ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu (cheers Google), begins with one step.

Not sure he foresaw that step taking place at a bus step next to a petrol station in a Gloucester suburb, particularly by someone sweltering in a hoodie that was never going to fit into his overstretched bags and wearing the wrong trousers due to a bit of a packing cock-up.

Starting point

But that’s how my next adventure, of considerably more than a thousand miles, started in rising temperatures completely unsuited to wearing or carrying the hoodie and a fleece-lined jacket.

Both will have a part to play – even if only as a handy pillow when camping – in the seven months ahead as we meander our way around South America.

As will the unintended jeans.

A few days ago, they had been confined to a bag in a rapidly filling storage unit before being rescued from their fate – at least temporarily – when my best jeans had been set aside to travel in and the spare pair pulled from the storage pile had proved to be far too big after my weight loss and spent half their time soaking up puddles.

Thought they had been part of the last trip to the storage unit – right up until getting changed before heading off to catch the 444 National Express to Heathrow and realising they were the ones which had been neatly packed away and the intended pair were starting their hibernation alongside most of my earthly possessions in that storage unit.

Fully armed for an 11-hour flight

But if that’s the biggest packing nightmare of this whole trip, so be it – being very careful on that, given the strain being shown by my shoulder bag until a trip to a Quito market to get a lightweight extra bag to ease some of the congestion (a life changer in Africa) and a total repack before climbing on board the truck will do,

These jeans will do. They are smart enough (if you don’t look at the frayed bits at the bottom that have been constantly trod on), comfortable enough and not too big to be totally out of sync with my current waist size.

There are shorts aplenty crammed in the rucksack, just might be worth holding off on them until some of the bruises decorating my legs in a lovely range of colours have had time to fade.

No idea how most of them got there and, bar one right on my left knee, they don’t even hurt if you touch them, but the legacy of several days clearing and cleaning my flat and transporting its contents to storage.

Sliding the final wardrobe through the door and into almost the ideal remaining space was like the finale to the perfect game of Tetris, rewriting the top score and crossing off the final major item on my to-do list before the off.

Which is not far off. This is being written in a rather swish lounge, courtesy of my bank, which may help the jeans fit a bit more snugly and the boarding gate is due to appear in the next few minutes. For what appears to be one of the last two flights out of Heathrow this evening.

The to-do list is all but empty, one late issue about an onward travel document at the airport sorted – will elaborate on that and a possible amendment to the route in later posts – and it is time for the off.

Next stop Quito. Well Bogota, for a few hours, but you get my drift.

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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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Cien Dias

FIVE years ago, wrote a post 100 days from heading out to Gibraltar for the Trans Africa journey.

And having decided to do the same before heading to South America, first decision was when to actually write it – 100 days from flying out to Quito or from the start of the trip itself?

The decision to go with the latter was partly down to it being a bit neater, a landmark shared by the entire group who will make their own way out to the Ecuadorian capital, and partly due to the 100 days falling on a Sunday.

Bit easier to find the time to write on a Sunday afternoon than a Wednesday night after the delights of getting a paper out and hitting the gym (the ideal post-deadline release of stress). At least that’s the theory.

So where are the preparations as the countdown hits the landmark?

Five years ago, the 100 Days post (spent ages delaying writing by coming up with a different title to distinguish them – while sat watching sport, that may have been a bigger delay) mentioned a feeling of being in limbo.

Not only is the long list of things to do still expanding before real dents are made in it…. but normal life has been skewed slightly.

100 Days, July 2014

There are shades of that this time round again. It’s just been flipped slightly.

Yes, there is slightly a sense of limbo, of life being skewed, waiting for and dominated by what lies ahead. But there’s not the feeling of the unknown this time around.

Not that South America is in any way familiar. Overlanding is, but journeying around this part of the world poses a lot of different challenges to what awaited us in Africa.

But there are two major differences this time round.

First, have a lot of the kit or at least a pretty good idea of what is needed and, secondly, planning is a lot easier with a bit of experience.

Especially if drawing up lengthy (frequently updated) to-do lists is pretty much the first thing you did after booking.

Which is pretty much the state of where we are at this landmark in preparations – the lists are drawn, plans are made and… well, sort of waiting to crack on with it.

Much of the preparations have been split into four distinct sections – three of them weeks off spaced out before leaving work at the end of August, followed by the two weeks between then and heading out of the country, the second half of which will be largely given over to moving out of my flat and putting stuff into storage.

There’s a few things to do and arrangements to be made in between those chunks of time, but at the moment it is all a bit quiet. All on schedule.

Which is all a bit worrying.

The growing pile of kit

Much of the major kit is bought or surviving from Africa, a new camera the largest new addition and – having taken a step up from the simple options which have served me well (at least before breaking) in the past – really need to work out how it works. At least the simple bits.

There is a load of kit sat on the old TV unit in the corner of my front room (makes a difference from dust) which is having the odd bits added every time it catches my eye. More will be added as the battle between want and need plays out.

And then there’s the clothes list.

There is a danger working and living so close to a couple of outdoor clothing and activity shops which have developed a magnetic draw.

Been trying to put off going too deep into the clothes buying preparations which are largely pencilled in for a week off next month, but did weaken with a few bargains online which have shown up one major issue.

Am getting smaller.

Travelling down the west coast of Africa, managed to lose four inches off my waist, forcing a hasty shopping trip in Cape Town to find trousers that stayed up.

Having shed seven stone – with a more conscious effort this time round, having put it all and more back on since the African overlanding weight loss programme – and can fit comfortably into those Cape Town trousers.

With the plan to keep the weight loss and fitness regime going – right calf, hopefully, allowing – until the off, there needs to be a certain touch of the last minute about clothes shopping so that it actually fits.

There are also two big differences to Africa which need to be taken into account ahead of finalising the kit and packing – climate and the fact it has to all come on a flight with me.

There was wet weather (Morocco, talking about you) and cold spells in Africa, but not some of the extremes which need to be considered in South America – the word minus does crop up at times.

So that adds a few layers to my clothing choices which all have to come with me.

Hitching a ride – no cheating with kit on the truck this time around

Five years ago, was able to drop off a few of the larger items – sleeping bag, airbed and mosquito tent mainly – with Oasis and they headed out on the truck before making the return journey with assorted other items picked up along the way.

That is not an option this time around. The mosquito tent is a non starter, but the sleeping bag, airbed and everything else has to squeeze into my rucksack and shoulder bag. Already working out what will be worn on the flight to save room (new walking boots which need breaking in for starters).

It also means a new section on the to-buy list – Quito.

One of the great realisations from Africa – which should not really come as any surprise if you think about it – is you can buy most of this stuff on the road. So a weekend in Quito has a few items inked on to the shopping list, most notably a rug. And toilet rolls.

There’s plenty of time before then – nearly 100 days, if anyone has not been paying attention – and preparations will gradually ramp up, especially come that July week off.

Until then, there’s Inca Trail videos to be watched (with equal parts excitement and dread), walking boots to be broken in (once clearance has been given to push that pesky calf muscle ) and outdoor travel shops to be avoided.

And more lists to be updated.

  • Before my fellow pedants point out what is missing from the title of this entry, it is 100 days to Spanish. Bit longer than that to Portuguese (Cem Dias), Dutch (Honderd Dagan) and a bit of French (Cent Jours). Worryingly, had to look up all but one of them – going to be a long seven months.
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Borders and Visas

Day 26 of the bid to write a blog post a day in May and time to tackle two things which will get in the way of any long-distance travel plans.

Not the standard border – arriving in Whittier, Alaska

TWO things in life are certain, according to Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes.

And however you choose to do it, two things are certain for travellers – borders and visas.

They are (mainly) more of an inconvenience or necessary evil than any great hurdle, but they can delay you long enough to disrupt plans or force a quick rethink when somebody has changed the rules.

But no amount of complaining or arguing is going to change all that – chances are, it is merely going to extend your wait. That guy with the right to say yea or nay is going to be behind that desk all day, it makes no difference to him if you wait there with him or not.

The majority of borders you travel through will be fairly straightforward, your passport acting as the one piece of official documentation you need and it all comes down to whichever security

Some countries will require a little more while others will always come up with that extra piece of paper you never knew existed and which somebody crossing the same border days before had crossed without.

That’s borders (and chunks of travel in general), just accept it, sit back and wait for someone to let you through – sometimes they will eventually become as keen to send you on your way as you are to get moving again.

But to help you along, here is some totally not comprehensive advice on easing your way through the process of securing visas and crossing borders.

The world’s second biggest country, just in case you missed it

Visas

Visas come in three main types – online registration, physical pieces of paper in your passport (both of which you need in advance) and those you can pick up at the border. Most will cost you something so budget ahead.

Online registration such as an ESTA for the USA can be pretty quick and you will get an answer in hours or a couple of days (had an ESTA granted in minutes after filing it in a checkout queue at the airport after forgetting the old passport with my US visa in).

But if you need an actual visa or stamp in advance, chances are the form will be a bit more complicated and require either an appointment at the embassy, sending your passport off or both.

Some (Russia and China, for example) require a letter of invitation while the different picture requirements add extra variety – India and the USA require very definite sizes, other countries need specific background colours (which made for some interesting trips to photo shops in Ghana).

Visiting an embassy differs hugely.

For an American visa in the UK, it means a trip to London for an appointment and an interview. If granted, you should get your passport back in about a week and make sure you take note of what you can and can’t take in with you for security reasons (pretty much nothing goes in).

In the case of Mongolia, the bloke told us we could have it back the next day until we told him we were only in London for the day. For a small fee, we had it back in half an hour.

All this sending your passport off means you can only have one application going at a time, so plan ahead, starting with finding out how long the visa lasts – no point getting the visa before you go if it runs out before you are in (and, more importantly, out) of the country.

Which means for long trips, chances are you will be chasing visas on the road.

If going with a company, they will know the best places to pick up visas (often grabbing two or three while staying in major cities) but for solo travellers it means a fair amount of research before the off.

The process of securing the visas varies, ranging from a few hours to several days and it can be hard to predict.

Our Mauritanian visa in Rabat was pretty much the quickest in a few hours – having all queued up to basically pay and apply through a hole in the embassy wall – while others took much longer.

General rule of thumb is at least a few hours waiting around the embassy, filling in a form and a quick meeting with whoever is making the decision. It may take a while and a fair amount of paperwork so get comfortable.

Always a good idea to have something reasonably clean and smart (embassy shirts) stashed away rather than rolling up in shorts and flip flops. A good book is not a bad idea either.

Don’t get me started on single or double entry visas or officials who take a rather different view to what an expiry date might actually mean.

Eventually, you get those precious pieces of paper or stamps in your passport and it is time to head to the border…

Feeling at home on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Border

Any self-respecting traveller will have tales to tell of bizarre or nightmare border crossings – 56 hours camping at a remote Nigerian-Cameroon crossing, the whole train carriage being lifted onto new wheels between Mongolia and China, the unexpected air conditioned cafe at the shiny new Sudan-Egypt border or the US border official at Niagara not believing my night would be spent on the floor of a bus en route to New York.

Modern technology is transforming many borders – that ESTA you applied for will pop up on the border guard’s screen when your passport is scanned and, increasingly, you can do all that yourself at self-service passport desks.

But it is not all time saving, as border crossings away from the tourist trail will quickly prove.

One of the joys of Africa is its ability to make things unnecessarily complicated, so every new piece of technology to deal with border arrivals merely adds a new level of bureaucracy.

Yes, they use computers to deal with the details, logging all the information. As well as entering them into the old-fashioned ledgers by hand which they have always done.

Remember, each crossing involves going through this process twice – into one country and out of another, sometimes yards apart, sometimes miles. They all like to be a bit different.

And there could well be the odd health check or extra paperwork to worry about – we headed through West Africa on the heels of the 2014 ebola outbreak so getting our temperature taken (via the ear) was pretty standard, as well as producing your yellow fever vaccination certificate.

The record for all this, for a group of up to 20-odd people, was inside two hours (they wanted to go home as much as we wanted a beer) but chances are you can box out much of the day for getting through the whole border process.

Simple rule of thumb, more tourists and travellers they get coming through, quicker it will be. They are just more tooled up to deal with it.

Again, it is best to accept it, settle back and await your fate – getting frustrated is not going to help anyone or make the guy who always seems to be waiting for that final clearance to do anything to get it sorted quicker.

Sit back, read a book, change some money (if anyone asks, didn’t tell you that), play cards, relax before you head off on the next leg of your journey. Best to leave the camera alone.

And that piece of paper in your passport is a pretty good memento of the trip.

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The one that’s not a big waterfall
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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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