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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E-Bow The Letter to Elvis Presley Blues

TRAVEL took centre stage this weekend, although not to the extent the man in the wheelchair who did his best to run me off the pavement on Sunday morning would have liked.

Not quite sure what led him to his conclusion a long journey was in order as fast as possible.

Perhaps it was the slightly scruffy hoody in the rather salubrious surroundings of Kensington High Street, the lingering outside a branch of a well-known electrical goods shop to discover it didn’t open for another hour or my reaction to the cyclist who had  shot out in front of a bus, vociferously (and less than politely) haranguing the driver for daring to prove his horn was in as good a working order as he had just proved his reflexes and brakes were.

The hand gesture from the cyclist to my passing comment was predictable, the sudden appearance of the guy in the wheelchair from a shop doorway was not.

Have done my best to avoid being run in front of another bus, my efforts were rewarded by his request – tidied up considerably for a family audience – for me to get out of the country and return rapidly to my point of origin.

Back where I come from…

Not sure he was expecting to be answered in English and that Gloucester was only about 100 miles away, but some bee had got in his bonnet and not sure any response would have convinced him of my right to be setting foot in his country.

All rather bizarre and out of keeping with the rest of an enjoyable weekend, catching up with friends, being a bit of a tourist, getting some travel inspiration and firming up a few ideas for further trips and the future of this website.

The event that drew me and huge crowds – must have been about a million and a half of them, huge crowds, massive, whatever any pictures or official figures may suggest – was the Adventure Travel Show at Olympia.

It is, for the travel geek, a chance to discuss future travel plans and form a few new ones with a wide array of exhibitors – particularly my old friends at Oasis Overland, who managed the not inconsiderable task of getting me round Africa in (almost) one piece – and to listen to a few talks from people who have been there, done that, written the book to prove it.

And it was sat in one of those talks that something struck me.

Why do I miss it?

Most of the talks were hugely entertaining, inspiring and were almost enough to have me scurrying for the nearest tour operator and getting the credit card out.

But one struggled to keep my attention and as my mind began to wander, something became clear.

That million and half people who had crowded in (or some alternative, slightly smaller, number if you are really after facts) to some of the more popular talks heard about any number of unusual journeys.

And all of them had a  passion for travel and exploration – they wouldn’t have been there otherwise (unless somebody had brought them in just to clap, laugh and cheer at the appropriate moments… maybe too much time spent watching the news).

Unicyclist and chipmunks not pictured

But how many of them are really going to walk solo across the Kalahari, ride a chipmunk the length of Route 66 or unicycle up Everest? Not too many. Otherwise it would get a bit crowded with a million and half people crowding into a desert, never mind the centre of a major capital city.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do something adventurous, hitting the route less travelled or doing it in an unusual manner. Nor is there anything wrong with writing about it, be  it a blog or a book – if they are as entertaining as some of the speakers at the weekend, sign me up for a copy.

But having ignored that request to return rapidly to where my kind came from, a hunt around the travel section of a large book store revealed two main kinds of books – guide books to specific places and the tales of those very specific adventures.

Which leaves a middle ground – a place worth heading to rather rapidly for the future of this website.

The vast majority of those few hundred in the audience (sorry, facts are facts, no alternative, regardless of who won a vote) and those outside at the show visiting the stalls will head off with a guide book and explore new horizons. The top shelf of my bookcase will testify for my willingness to do just that (or just to read about these places).

But a good number of them will sign up with one of those exhibitors for something in between, an adventure and a journey of a different kind – breaking fresh ground for them, but organised to varying degrees by whichever firm comes nearest to their needs.

And where is the stuff for them to read? What is available is usually on those firm’s websites, some of which are better written and better presented than others. It provides the facts, but does it really provide the colour? The truth beyond the itinerary, what to pack and what excursions you can do along the way?

That’s the gap in the market which this blog is going to attempt to fill in some small way – the stories, the colour, the (sometimes harsh) realities and, yes, the smells of overlanding.

Like the crowds for Trump’s inauguration (and unlike the following Women’s March), my experiences will not come close to filling every available gap.

But over the coming weeks and months, this blog will share some tips, advice and stories about overlanding – hopefully with contributions from people with far more experience and any readers, please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.

We’ll see where it takes us.

And for those of you here for the A-Z iPod Challenge, don’t worry that will continue alongside the travel articles (which, after all, was the initial point of this website).

There’s still a long way to go on that one after reaching a couple more landmarks in the latest section from REM’s E-Bow The Letter at 2,900 to Elvis Presley Blues by Gillian Welch.

It took us past the 10,000 to go mark (possibly not for the first time with the fairly regular additions to the collections) with Each to Each by The Gutter Twins at 2,907 and beyond 3,000 with The Stone Roses’ Elizabeth My Dear.

Along the way there’s been old favourites – Ease Your Feet In The Sea by Belle & Sebastien, Eat Yourself Fitter by The Fall – and a pair of triple appearances from The Beatles, Eight Days A Week and Eleanor Rigby, while Godspeed You! Black Emperor soundtracked most of a journey home from work, although at 17.58, East Hastings clocks in at one of their shorter contributions.

The picks of a not particularly inspiring selection were Elephant by Jason Isbell, Elevator Operator by Courtney Barnett and, maybe slightly surprisingly, one of last year’s best tracks, Eat Shiitake Mushrooms by Let’s Eat Grandma.

But hey, nothing should be counted as a surprise from the last 12 months.

  • No playlist on this entry – technical issue that’s beyond my understanding. Normal service as soon as possible.
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The Crapsons to Cygnus Vismund Cygnus

COMPARED with a lot of what has gone before over the past year, sleeping on a sofa with ready access to hot water, clean, flushing toilets, electricity and hot food without building a fire is a major luxury.

Even if going to bed each night generally starts by fighting with a large black Labrador over the prime spot (generally in a losing cause) – still far easier than blowing up an airbed which, by the end of our African adventure, needed topping up throughout the night.

IMG_0046
My roomie

Heading back to the real world has not been a complete culture shock – we were sort of eased back in by increasingly frequent beds over the closing weeks when even the electricity, if not the wi-fi, became (sort of) reliable – but it has taken some readjusting back to life at home.

Not helped by living in a state of limbo (a word which has appeared in my vocabulary over the last couple of months, along with, for some reason, mate. Where did that come from?) and still out of a bag until my future becomes a bit clearer.

Homeless, jobless and largely rootless on my return from Africa, it was time to throw myself on the kindness of others – my sister and her family homing and feeding me for the last two months, my old firm taking me back on a freelance basis, originally for the odd day, then supposedly for three days a week which very rapidly became five or six days.

My bank manager is eternally grateful.

That state of limbo (see, keeps popping up) is nothing new. It has sort of existed, in some form or other, for more than five years.

Since first quitting work in Cardiff to go travelling early in 2010, there’s never been a sense of permanence in my life. It took a bit longer than originally planned, but there was always another lengthy trip looming on the horizon.

It was supposed to be London to Sydney in 2012, but that one fell through (unused Indian and Nepalese passports sit in my old passport) and something similar always looked favourite before the Trans Africa grabbed my attention. And never let go.

SAM_0299
About to pop something in the oven

But at some point heading down West Africa – there was a lot of time to sit and think on the back of the truck – the decision was made that after reaching Cairo, it was time to head home and stay put for a while. Put down some roots somewhere familiar and get back to the career which was put on hold in Cardiff, working with some form of thought to future progression, rather than to future travel plans.

Not that travel is off the cards. Doubt there will be another trip of anything approaching this length, but the spotlight will switch to more shorter journeys – allied with a determination that at least one weekend a month will be dedicated to doing something, going somewhere, even if it is just following Gloucester to an away match. If nothing else, need to fit them all into annual holidays and as many lieu days as can be racked up (once the freelance gig is switched to something more permanent..

There’s plenty more American trips on the list, the remaining 11 states to tick off, Route 66 to drive and more soaking up of the familiar in Boston, New York and elsewhere. Further afield, there’s a few more sofas to be slept on in Australia and New Zealand (although that one will have to wait at least a couple of years), while Cape Town and more time in the rest of South Africa head the list of spots for an African return.

And Europe is, relatively speaking, on the doorstep.

For now though, the focus remains on life back home – settling on something more secure for work, somewhere to live and taking control of my life, rather than relying on the kindness of others.

And, of course, making the most of those little things we take for granted but which became more of a luxury the longer we were away from home.

SAM_0532
Handy for digging, not that good for cover

Not that we minded being without – bush camps with a total lack of facilities, other than a shovel, were one of the mainstays of the trip and one most us relished, at least in the dry – but it is nice to have constant electricity you can rely on not to cut out constantly (one poor musician in Calabar, Nigeria, never made it through a single song without it cutting out on him), wi-fi that doesn’t take an age to load each page and showers. Hot or cold, we really didn’t mind after a while.

Cold beer and hot pies have to appear on that list as well, but top of the list has to be proper toilet facilities.

Some of the toilets we encountered – when there were any at all – were the stuff of nightmares, but when you’ve got to go…

And while the current night-time trip to the loo may involve trying to let sleeping dogs lie and not let cats through the door to start chaotic pet wars, that pales into insignificance to rooting around for a head torch and picking your way to a suitable spot.

At bush camps, that suitable spot (for the boys at least) was often just round the back of the tent. At campsites, whether you risked that or made the trip to the toilet block generally came down to whether there was a security guard with a gun in the vicinity.

But back to the familiar it is and, for me, that means back to the A-Z trawl through the contents of my iPad.

Picking up where it left off 12 months ago, the first job was to complete the final furlong through those starting with C, which took us from Pulled Apart By Horses to The Mars Volta and through the 2,000 mark (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles).

Fittingly, it was back to a lot of hugely familiar songs and artists – Crash by The Primitives, Creep by Radiohead, Creme Brulee by Sonic Youth, Crocodiles, Crystal Days and four versions of the The Cutter by Echo and the Bunnymen, Cruisers Creek by The Fall, The Crystal Lake by Grandaddy, Cut Your Hair by Pavement and Cuyahoga by REM.

And that’s another long journey which can continue as normality returns…

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Pictures On My Wall

The non-expert guide to managing travel photographs

A FRIEND heading out on their travels leaves conflicting emotions among those left behind – keen to follow the traveller’s progress and hear a few anecdotes (just a few mind), they know at some point the wanderer will suggest they sit down to see pictures from the trip.

Once upon a time it was prints or slides -my childhood was dotted with nights when my bedroom and its giant blank wall became the venue for a meander through the holiday or, even worse, childhood slides – but now digital cameras mean travellers are free to snap away without worrying how many shots they have left on a film.

Yosemite Falls
Yosemite Falls – One of a myriad of pictures from a day snapping away in the National Park

Not all of us (guilty as charged) have learned to edit our digital stockpile, meaning any session guiding friends and family through a trip contains the oft-repeated phase “yeah, that’s exactly the same thing, only from a slightly different angle. And so’s that…”

Don’t let any of that put you off snapping away freely. Pictures are a wonderful way of preserving the memories – any long afternoon or evening back home spent flicking through your pictures will instantly return you to those magical moments.

If it is ‘a trip of a lifetime’, you want the pictures and memories to last that long. (You won’t see that trip of a lifetime phrase often on this site – it suggests one trip has used up your allocated allowance of travelling, rather than merely being a link in a chain of adventures).

So snap away, preserve those memories, but just remember, just show off the pick of the bunch – nobody wants to see six different shots of the same mountain or fountain, no matter how creative and arty you have been.

And here’s a few tips to help you along the way…

  • Know your kit – No technical jargon, mainly because it is way over my head. Work out your budget and look around for what is available. You’ll be surprised what you can get your hands on, be it from under £100 to much more expensive. When you’ve got it, take it out and use it before you head off, play around with the settings and learn what it can do – better to find out then than after you’ve missed that great shot in the opening few days.
  • Denali Moose
    The disappearing moose – what somebody else managed to shoot

    ABC (Always Be Charged) – Apologies to the person who came up with the ABC line, but this is one learned the hard way. Make sure that battery is not going to give out on you, especially if you are heading somewhere power may be in short supply. Otherwise you may find yourself walking back to your camp one night in Denali NP, Alaska, when a moose strolls across your path, only for your camera to remain totally lifeless in your hand.

  • Keep the camera handy – “Not going to take my camera out today, don’t think there’s much point.” Don’t you believe it, keep it with you – it is safer than leaving it back in a hostel – and in some place you can pull it out quickly. You never know when that moose may appear or what lies round that corner.
  • Caption – How’s your memory? Good enough to remember the name of that building, that mountain, that beautiful beach you spent the afternoon on or that girl you met in that bar? Until you’ve got home? Weeks, months, even years later? Chances are it isn’t and you’ll spend ages trying to remember what that statue was commemorating or that fascinating fact the local guide told you about that town square. Keep notes and caption your pics, then you don’t just have your pictures to look back on, but also the tales behind them.
  • Ming Tombs Info
    The easy way to remember info – Ming Tombs, near Beijing

    Shoot info – You don’t have to remember everything. If something catches your eye to take a picture, look for a sign or plaque explaining what it’s all about and take a picture of it. You can always delete it when you’ve added the caption.

  • Swap shots – If you are travelling with friends or meet people on the way, swap some of your pictures. After all, they are likely to have more pictures of you than you’ve managed to take (and they are likely to be better than selfies).
  • Facebook – The modern equivalent of  showing off your holiday pics, with the added advantage you can share them while still out of the country. Don’t throw them all up, just drip feed them onto your status to make your friends jealous (nobody wants to see every meal you ate). It also saves on the postcards.
  • Look for something different – Chances are you’ll find yourself at an attraction which has people queuing up to take pictures from the same classic spot (think the Taj Mahal from the end of the reflecting pool). By all means join in – cliched it might be, but that spot is famous for a reason – but look for some fresh detail or angle that people haven’t seen before. It’s a challenge, but good things rarely come easy.

    Great Wall of China
    Don’t ignore classic views – but look for fresh angles
  • Back-up/Upload frequently – If you are travelling, you normally have time to kill, be it on or waiting for a plane, bus or train. Use the time wisely – write blogs, catch up on sleep and upload your pictures. If you’ve got space, you don’t have to wipe them from your memory card, but if you load them onto your laptop, an external hard drive and a picture storage account such as Flickr or Picasa, you’ve got added security (Facebook is also useful for that). Little and often means you don’t spend hours waiting for a load of  pictures to upload via a slow internet connection when you could be out taking more shots of whichever stop you’ve reached.
  • Don’t leave camera unattended – Common sense really, if just for the security. But anyone leaving their camera alone on a night out may be surprised what they find when they next check it.
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