The To-Do List

This article first appeared in a travel company’s newsletter in July 2011. It was the first of a planned series of pieces plotting my route from starting preparations for a three-month adventure all the way to journey’s end in Sydney. Sadly, only two were written before the plug was pulled on that trip… of which more to come.

EVERYONE has their own methods. Some need guidance, some stick to a schedule, some do everything as early as possible, some squeeze it all in at the last minute. Some of us make lists.

What happens to those lists is not as straightforward as it should be.

In moments of clarity and efficiency, they get worked through, amended and crossed off obsessively. In other times, the lists enter my brain, swim around (usually just as in time to prevent sleep), reorder themselves and grow until they are out of control and the original list needs to be radically redrawn to incorporate all the bright ideas flapping around between the ears.

What invariably happens is that when the two lists are compared, the unnecessary items – those frivolous luxuries which the trip provides the perfect excuse to buy – have been sorted. The things which really must get sorted to prevent a last-minute rush remain steadfastly uncrossed out.

Two weeks into the countdown to departure to Sydney and what has been done?

Well, this article is being tapped out on a shiny new laptop (the last one has not recovered from its last trip around the world slung over my shoulder) and there’s a sleek new phone sat next to it which evidently will map my trip, keep me online, store my to-do list and, oh yeah, even makes phonecalls (the only thing worked out so far).*

The playlists are already being put together for the iPod and a shiny new camera (to replace the two which ground to a halt on the road to New York) is sat in a shop somewhere, just waiting for us to forge a lasting relationship (or brief encounter, as recent history suggests).

Of course, all these gizmos come complete with their own power cables, USB cables and headphones, so the must-have section on the clothes list will have to be severely shortened or the advice to pack light just won’t be an option (again).

So while the power outlets of mainland Europe, Asia and Australia brace themselves for an onslaught of my travelling hardware – and the travel adaptors needed to make them work – a lot of the pre-trip admin sits patiently on the list, just waiting to catch my attention.

None more important than visas. Tucked away inside your passport, they take up a mere fraction of the space of the electrical goodies and the items you realise are filling unwarranted space in you backpack somewhere around Prague, these little pieces of paper are the key items on the to-do list.

Along with vaccinations, insurance and the passport they sit inside, visas are the must haves, the must dos.

Everything else, that new pair of shoes or trousers, even (though it pains me to say it) the laptop, iPod, phone et al are extras (evidently, you can go travelling without knowing where the next wi-fi connection is. Who knew?). If you don’t have any of them when you climb on the bus, the trip will still go ahead and you can live without them – or get them on the road.

Not so most of the visas.

Anyone who has ever travelled has tales to tell about visas, the last-minute fretting, the long hours waiting at embassies and returned applications.

China provided a minor panic last year when they were not exactly enamoured by a less than wise admission of being a journalist (similar to the reaction you got admitting the same in the UK in recent months) while a desire for a longer stay in the USA meant a long day hanging around in their waiting room with just a book for company.

But as they require your passport, you can only have one application pending at a time. So approach them logically and with a clear schedule and they are reasonably straightforward, be it the wait for official authorisation to apply for an Iranian visa, the bureaucracy of India (complete with their strict new rule of a 2″x2″ photo rather than passport size) or the single page application for Nepal, more akin to a permission slip for a school trip compared to the lengthy Indian form.

Wade through it all, embrace the experience and write your own visa tales… it’s the first step on the road to Sydney and for that alone, well worth it.

* The laptop remains (although an iPad has replaced it for travels and a new, lighter one is calling), but the phone has long been consigned to history and replaced with an iPhone. Never did work out how to do much more than make phonecalls.

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Haines & Strange

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 24, 2010

Haines, Alaska

AMONG the welter of advice passed our way before we headed out of London what seems another lifetime ago, one nugget of information appears to ring true for all inhabitants of the bus.

All of us were assured, by friends wanting to be helpful or shop assistants seeing the chance of a few winter clothes and expensive sleeping bags going on their sales figures, that Alaska in May would be cold and wet.

And while a couple of evenings have turned very cold when the sun eventually vanished in the early hours, we have been in far greater danger of sunburn than suffering from the cold.

Takhini Hot Springs
Hot stuff at Takhini

As for rain, that has been confined to our detour into Canada on top a mountain pass and a 20-minute shower in Takhini, when most of us were already wet as we boiled in the hot springs.

To avoid us constant forays under the bus to fish stuff out of our main bags, we have been limiting access and packing smaller day bags to equip us throughout the next 24 hours or so.

My bag included gloves, woollen hat and stuff to keep me warm and dry at the start of this leg. Now it is stuffed full of shorts, T-shirts and suntan cream. Forget Jack Frost, the only thing nibbling at sandal-clad toes are the mosquitoes.

As well as the weather leaving us slightly dazed and confused, for much of the time since docking in Anchorage we have barely had darkness.

Haines Highway
Spectacular views at the top of the Haines Highway from Canada back into Alaska

As we drift south towards the Canadian border and onwards to the Lower 48 States, it is now getting dark around 10.30pm, but for the bulk of the first week back on land, the combined effects of it still being light until the early hours and a couple of erratic time changes left us all a little disorientated

Nothing like, however, as disorientating as the sickness bug sweeping through the camp, claiming roughly half the bus to varying degrees over the past few days.

One ended up deserting the campsite in favour of the adjacent hotel, while two sufferers have set up overnight camp in toilet blocks of differing degrees of comfort to make life a lot easier.

Haines Highway
And the view was pretty good down in the valley

As a consequence, life on the bus and campsite has had to change a bit.

The bus is currently being attacked with bleach and disinfectant and the kitchen has been closed down until the weekend at least.

And, before somebody else alleges otherwise, we can rule out any link between my stint running the kitchen and the current outbreak – at least three victims ate elsewhere that night and didn’t sample my burritos.

Kitchen stints have been split into teams of three for an evening meal and the following breakfast and, on the whole, have produced some pretty good food.

Washing up and packing stuff away onto the bus has also become a well-drilled art, particularly as it seems to be the same old faces weighing in every time.

Breakfast is mixed in with the scramble to pack down tents and return the cushions and assorted stuff onto the bus, which has produced a few bits of tension with Pam and myself installing ourselves as cushion monitors to prevent a repeat of the evening when there were not enough left aboard for the bus dwellers.

Haines
View from the campsite in Haines

Despite illness problems and campsite conflicts, the past few days have sailed along dominated by stunning scenery and wildlife.

When you left us, we were back in Canada, rolling onto the ferry across the Yukon at Dawson City at the start of the long haul to Whitehorse (part of a 1,000 mile stretch without a traffic light).

Courtesy of a late night and a sore back from sleeping in a cubby hole on the bus – very comfortable, but not the easiest of access- much of the drive passed me by, as did much of Whitehorse itself.

But, awoken from a snooze under one half of Phoebe’s sleeping bag and a pile of other clothes, we got our first sighting of a bear as he gambolled on the grass verge before heading back into the undergrowth.

From Whitehorse, we veered back towards to Alaskan border via a night at the Takhini Hot Springs and probably the warmest swim any of us have had.

The drive from Haines Junction across the border to our stop in Haines has to rate as one of the most thrilling pieces of road around.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Having travelled on some stunning roads in the Alps, Pyrenees and the eastern USA – not to mention this trip – the Haines Highway ranks right up there.

Flanked by high, snowy mountains, it drops down to run alongside a wide, fast-flowing river where initial howls of horror on discovering our comfort stop’s facilities were closed were replaced by cries of glee and the clicking of cameras at the sight of a giant moose playing to his audience on an island in the middle.

The town of Haines itself is pretty spectacular, draped around a natural harbour and flanked by a range of towering mountains.

It must be pretty bleak in winter, but with the sun out it is stunning and smalltown America at its best and friendliest.

It is also our starting-off point for the ferry down the Inside Passage, the only way down the panhandle of Alaska to state capital Juneau and beyond, cut off from the interior as it is by the mountains and glaciers.

Subdued by the first outbreak of sickness and the growing need to wash (both ourselves and our clothes), our scheduled day in Haines was taken up largely with housework and pootling around the camp, particularly for those of us on cooking duty.

But news that the evening ferry to Juneau was delayed until morning proved a blessing in disguise as a group of us piled on the bus for a short evening trip to Chilkoot Lake.

And, not for the first time this trip, sitting on the banks of a lake as the sun disappeared behind a mountain produced a real ‘wow’ moment.

Sitting on the edge of such a remarkable setting was good enough, but then something broke the water about 30 yards out – a sea otter fishing away regardless and providing us with a stunning show until swimming off downstream , only to be trumped by the bald eagle sat in the tree across the river.

We had seen a couple flying over the harbour the day before at a distance, but this commanding bird sat yards away, seemingly uncaring about his grateful audience and soaking up the evening sun.

Truly marvellous and well worth an extra night in Smalltown USA.

Mosquito update: Basically, the little buggers appear to be telling their mates about the bountiful meal to be had down at the local campsite.

My arms, hands and knees are an interesting mixture of old and new (in one place, a new bite on an old scab), my back has become a new favourite (they’ve moved up from my arse, but not without leaving their mark) while they have moved down from my hair to my face.

And as for the huge great welt on my big toe – this means war…

Next time: Glaciers, waterfalls, imitation orcas, paddling Puggles and more bloody mossies

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