There’s A Hole In My Bucket List

Day 27 on the blog post a day in May. mixing up travel and lists. Should feel right at home

“YEAH, that’s on the bucket list.”

It’s a standard response every time conversation drifts to travel and places which have never been to, but is it any more than a standard reply?

Largely not (sorry if you have been on the receiving end) as simply do not have a bucket list. Unless you count a mental list of pretty much any place, sight, experience, country, bar or whatever else is on offer, wherever it might be in the world.

Why limit yourself to what you can jot down on a list?

Have a love of lists. Find me a Top 100 this or Best Five that on something vaguely interesting and will gobble it up.

And no job, project or travelling is too small not to draw up a things to do list in preparation (the discovery of Google Docs has added a whole new dimension to this obsession – if only did not spend too much time drawing and redrawing to-do lists to actually work my way through them).

But never drawn up a bucket list for travel or anything else.

Any list of things to be done “before you die” drives me nuts – when else are you supposed to do it?

Anything “… Before 30” or any other age is just as bad. Why limit yourself? Do it when it suits you

Yeah, that’ll make the list

As someone who did not start traveling even half seriously until well into his 30s and was pushing 40 with a mortgage before my first major overland trip, would not have made the most of those experiences if they had been done before some arbitrary deadline – probably would not be planning another one either.

Don’t get me started on the phrase trip of a lifetime. What, we only get one?

Have tinkered with trying to get the mass of places on my mental want to see list onto paper (showing my age there – clearly would be tapped into a laptop) but it soon became obvious it would have been ridiculously long, endlessly growing and never fully achievable.

And besides, some of my greatest travel experiences would never have made it on there.

Africa certainly was not on my list. Sure, seeing wildlife up close would be on any list and always wanted to visit South Africa after it became a regular subject of my work life (ditto New Zealand – one day).

An overland trip from London to Sydney was always the likelier plan, but got diverted by a chance email to reading the itinerary of Oasis Overland’s Trans Africa adventure and was in.

Ask me to draw up a retrospective bucket list (if for no other reason then the thrill of crossing things off) and it would be full of places, extraordinary sights and unplanned moments from that trip.

Although not sure you can foresee a cheetah eating your flip-flop.

Flip flop not pictured

The same is true of the upcoming South America journey – was all ready to sign up to London to Singapore overland and then make my own way down to Australia and New Zealand.

And, surprisingly enough, got distracted. Read the itinerary on the website and, hey presto, South America was suddenly at the top of the list.

The prospect of trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – never really considered not that long ago – is exciting and terrifying me in equal measure.

Working through a bucket list also limits the chance to go back, revisit and savour favourite places. A lot of travellers are not so keen, but nothing wrong with mixing up old and new (if time and money was no issue, would happily do the whole Trans Africa again).

But amid that mass of things fighting for attention in my head with any other shiny things which grab my attention,

So here is a very brief bucket list. The elite level of travel wish list to be completed one day.

All 50 States

This one has been kicking around for a while and briefly considered a quest to finish all 50 before 50 – a plan complicated by a friend’s suggestion to try it in one trip, which sent me off on a bit of a diversion for a while.

Time is running out on that one – a year to go, of which about two thirds will be spent in South America – so will do it at my own leisure.

Had been stuck on 39 for a while until ticking off West Virginia last year (somehow managed to go all around it twice) so 10 to go.

For the record, they are Michigan (the only one missing east of the Mississippi), Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Hawaii.

Mt Rushmore
Route 66

Huge fan of the American road trip and this is the ultimate, as well as ticking off several of those missing states.

London to Sydney

Worked for a company which ran overland trips from the UK to Australia (its demise was not due to my stint selling the trips, he says confidently) and was due to make the trip myself. There are unused Indian and Nepalese visas in an old passport.

And twice been distracted from heading out on this route by other trips. One day.

Singapore/Malaysia

Never been there, but partly responsible for my wanderlust.

Where my father served on National Service and he always talked about going back with my mum when they retired. That they never had the chance is what spurs me on to go now, you never know what is round the corner.

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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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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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Light Enough to Travel

OVER the past few years, this blog has developed one or two traditions – the end of year music lists, the new year state of the nation post and any number of good intentions and plans to write more regularly going out of the window.

Certainly things have been quieter than planned since the latest new year missive, partly due to a lack of time and partly due to a couple of A-Z iPod Challenge posts being scrapped or overhauled due to being overtaken by events (another one is on its way, just not on what was planned – it might even be about music. Well, sort of).

Signed off the new year post by promising there would be more regular posts, particularly on travel and overlanding and have been itching to keep that promise and reveal just why that vow could be made so confidently.

This post has been lurking in the wings for even longer, just needed to sort a few things out first before revealing some news. The last of which was handing in my notice at work.

And later this year, that promise will be kept. From out on the roads, mountains, cities, jungles, beaches, wilderness and whatever else we can find in South America over the course of 31 weeks.

Going back for more… the last day on the truck in Africa

Having returned from 10 months in Africa in 2015, my initial assessment was that my days of epic, long trips were behind me. Instead, the travelling was going to be short and often.

Ah well, all plans are there to be changed – have failed to live up to the little and often plan, so why not abandon the no more long adventures idea as well?

That idea was floated on the back of 10 months overlanding around Africa, so maybe there is a bit of an excuse for some weariness with such large scale travel. Reckon that lasted six months – by the time we met up for our first trip reunion just over a year after our return, most of us were admitting we would happily do it all over again.

And when a smaller bunch of us assembled in Nice just over a year ago, the idea of doing another trip was met with pretty much universal agreement. Just not the one which has tempted me back on the road.

The initial plan from three of us was to head out on an overland trip from London to Singapore through the Stans with Oasis, the same company which carried us around Africa on one of its trademark yellow trucks.

In the end , none of us are doing that – one plans to travel on her own, another headed to West Africa yesterday for an overland trip through part of the continent we were forced to go round due to ebola.

And me? For a long time, that trip to Singapore (now starting in Istanbul) was top of my list and a few months ago it was my likeliest destination – followed by heading down to Australia and New Zealand – and would have had me leaving next month. Was within days of booking.

But then something in the back of my mind planted the idea of South America as an option.

It was a tight call. Spoke to people who had completed both trips – as both passenger and driver – who all came down very much on the fence, finding it hard to pick between them.

In the end, having studied the itineraries, it came down to one crucial factor – there were more things on the South America trip which really grabbed me. More potential wow moments.

And so the trip is booked, the lists of things to do are drawn up (and have been redrawn several times) and even managed to make inroads into key things on the Africa prep list which never really got touched – lose weight and get fit.

The weight loss was, originally, far more for health purposes but the target from very early on has not been a certain weight but a size and state of fitness to tackle the rigours of the trip, especially with a less than perfect record of coping at altitude.

My weight loss has been documented elsewhere on this blog and is ongoing – although frustratingly slowly in the last couple of months – while the fitness is making strides in the gym with three weeks under my belt on a Couch to 5K programme (slightly derailed this week by a back problem).

So what lies ahead of a fitter, slimline me?

It is a way off yet. At work until the end of August before heading to the Ecuadorian capital Quito in September, possibly via a few days in the US, which is the start and finish of a circle around the continent which finishes next April.

From Quito we head south along the Andes and Machu Picchu – to trek the Inca Trail or take the train is the first major decision – and on to Bolivia and the salt flats of Uyuni.

Oasis Overland Trans South America

The journey south bounces between Chile and Argentina as we head through Patagonia as far as the world’s most southerly town Ushuaia before turning back north and a few days in Buenos Aires, the Iguazu Falls and into Brazil – our home for, well, ages. Such is the size of the country.

There’s new year in Rio, the Amazon, beaches and an awful lot more to take in before we head through French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, some more of Brazil, Venezuela (we’ll keep an eye on that one), Columbia and, finally, back to Ecuador and Quito.

And we will do all that on board a big yellow truck with a mixture of camping – often wherever we can find, something which we approached with trepidation before embracing as a trip highlight in Africa – and hostels or hotels.

There’s plenty to be done between now and then, the first jobs on the to-do list are being ticked off and will keep you updated in the coming months and out on the road.

Should be fun.

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