FOR the bulk of my working life, being asked what my job is was pretty simple. If not without the odd hazard.
Journalist hasn’t always been the most popular answer – although, like the vast majority of my colleagues, retrieving messages from my own mobile is a major test, let alone attempting to access anybody else’s.
And the Chinese certainly weren’t impressed by an unwise bout of honesty when applying for a visa (but were easily swayed when told I had quit to go travelling), while our guide in Xi’an almost fell over himself to advise me not to mention it as we sat in a bar chatting to a group of locals.
The senior one, who insisted on buying all the drinks as he was the eldest, was evidently a party official and our guide was worried about his reaction and the consequences. Think explaining that most of my time was spent writing about rugby or designing sports pages would have got a bit lost in translation. And he was buying…
But from the moment my notice went in ahead of the London to New York overland trip in 2010, answering that question has required a little more explanation and – depending on who is asking or my mood – a variety of answers, ranging from the short to the complex.
For much of the intervening time, journalism has again been the main way of making a living. Not sport any longer, but the past couple of years has seen a return home to Gloucester – after more than a decade living and working in south Wales – news subbing for the Gloucestershire Echo and the Gloucester Citizen, my first daily newspaper an infeasibly long 20 years ago.
But mixed in with that for most of the last four years has been working in travel.
And what wasn’t there to love? Working for a small overland travel company – the one which organised that London to New York trip – large chunks of my job involved chatting about travel, answering questions and guiding people from an initial enquiry through the preparations and helping them out until their overland adventure came to an end.
When the company hit problems, a new owner failed to understand the specialised nature of such a firm and what was needed – both financially and logistically – and with the writing on the wall, it became clear that journey was over and a return to journalism was on the cards.
Without wishing to bore anyone with the full story – or to follow the lead of the former owner who responded to the company’s demise with a string of unfounded allegations, rewriting of history and what he liked to call straight talking, but was merely being boorish and rude – the company ended amid acrimony.
One day the full tale will be told, but now is not the time nor place.
But those trips – London to New York without flying and the initial London to Sydney – had got under my skin and that of my former colleague and we just could not let them die.
That is why Epic Overland was born and how, for almost two years, the majority of my spare time was spent in front of a laptop dealing with the new company – and how answering questions about my job became more drawn-out.
It was tough, there’s no denying that, as it has been for many new businesses over the past few years – particularly ones asking people to put lives on hold for three months.
We did it our way and never owed anyone a penny, but in the end changes in our personal circumstances meant a decision had to be made. Epic Overland is not dead – it is on hiatus and who knows what we can make of it at some point in the future – but it needed more resources than we could throw at it to reach a momentum where it would largely take care of itself.
And above all, ironically, working in travel had put travelling on hold.
So, as soon as that hurdle was removed, it became increasingly hard to find a viable reason not to listen to the voice in the back of my head going on about the Oasis Overland Trans-Africa trip.
And so, six months out from departure, the tables have been turned and it is the staff of Oasis who may well end up regretting mentioning “you know where we are if you need anything” in a tweet.
Don’t think they need to worry too much for now as most of my questions this far out are imponderables which they are unlikely to be unable to answer – the sort which differ for each trip and, more pertinently, each person. Africa and this style (and length) of overland travel is not an exact science.
And for all the creating and editing of to-do lists, my plan is to leave the great bulk of my preparations until after a friend’s wedding in South Carolina in August – although couldn’t resist the first bits of new kit while exploring Nomad travel shop in Bristol.
During my time at their end of a phoneline or e-mail from anxious travellers, the questions were generally split into two types.
The first was the details – where were they staying in a certain place, how much time was there in each destination, what was the food like (particularly from one traveller who did not like Chinese food and wanted to know if there were KFCs in Beijing), what facilities were like on the Trans-Siberian Railway and, most wonderfully, a girl who asked if people were voted off the bus like on Coach Trip.
The second were those imponderables that were largely based on concerns and we really had no way of answering – were they fit enough, what made up a standard day (very different in Europe to Mongolia or Australia) and, remarkably often, what were the other people like and would they get on with them.
And they remain the imponderables which, cannot lie, do spring into my head every so often.
But tackling the unknown, embracing it and turning it into an adventure is surely what a trip like this is all about. And the people have as big a part to play as the places we go and the things we see.