Goodbye Yellow Truck Road

A year ago today, caught my last sight of a big, yellow overland truck as we boarded the replacement ferry over the river from Suriname to Guyana it had narrowly failed to fit on.

A reunion was delayed by red tape, missing paperwork and, eventually, by our forced retreat from Colombia as borders shut and the world shrank with the spread of coronavirus.

But for the last 12 months, there has always been the belief the big yellow truck was out there waiting to open up new horizons when we eventually emerge blinking into the light when travel is not a dirty word.

And then came this week’s news that Oasis Overland, the small company which operates the yellow trucks, had ceased trading.

Final farewell to Spongebob

All of a sudden, that exciting world waiting out there for us when we are able to get out in it again got a whole lot smaller.

The news of Oasis’ demise was met with dismay and no end of shared memories from former passengers and staff on social media – it may not be the best known company in the world, but those in the know will really miss it.

To understand why is to  understand the aspects of these trips which are hard to explain when people ask about what makes an overland adventure on a big yellow truck.

Overlanding: The Things They Don’t Tell You

Have tried to do that elsewhere on this blog – and there is plenty more on the list of pieces to write – but here goes.

My two Oasis trips total more than a year when the answer in the address box on a visa form could easily have been “a big yellow truck” – 10 months on Nala around Africa from north to south and back again, followed by six months on Spongebob in a (sadly uncompleted) circle of South America.

Along the way, both trips took in extraordinary sights and experiences which feature highly on any travel bucket list – trekking to see gorillas, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the Serengeti, New Year’s Eve on Copacabana Beach, journeying up the Nile, the Uyuni Salt Flats, some of the world’s great cities and so much more.

You will find plenty about those in travel guides. They are on the highlights list for the trip that persuade people to sign up in the first place.

And they are all great – an hour spent with gorillas is one of the greatest experiences of my life, likewise rather longer trekking to Machu Picchu.

Even if we could not see much of it through the mist and rain when we got there.

But suspect the reason people feel so strongly about their Oasis experience runs rather deeper than that – it is not the big-ticket items, it is the imponderables, those moments you share with your truck family which elevate the whole experience.

They might be small moments, the stories behind the pictures, but they add up to something special that makes me – and many others – itching to get back for more.

While trying to forget the itching from insect bites.

Travel is not so much about the destination but the getting there. Nowhere is that truer than life on a big yellow truck (and it is always a truck, never a bus – unless putting that on a form makes life easier).

There is some truth in that joke about putting the truck as your address. These trips, certainly the longer adventures, are not holidays. They do become your life, your home.

Even provided an emergency bed when we found ourselves locked out of the hostel at the end of the world.

And the people you share those days, weeks, months, miles, campsites, bush camps, cook groups, nights out, border crossings and back of the truck with become as important as those travel highlights. Even digging the truck out of whatever it is stuck in.

A Day In The Life On A Big Yellow Truck

One of the high points of South America was a reunion in Buenos Aires with a friend who shared those 10 months in Africa for the first time in five years. It was an instant reconnection.

At rough count, have travelled with about 40-plus people on those trips and would happily meet up and share a few beers, rum and cokes or caipirinhas with pretty much all of them.

Couple of honourable exceptions, but even one of them might be fun to see how much effort they put in to avoiding talking, or even making eye contact, with me.

Mind you, at the moment would be delighted to have a drink with pretty much anybody.

While such a drink or travel is off the agenda, spend much of each day surrounded by the same four brick walls.

Given the huge distances covered, overland travel can mean equally long hours surrounded by the four sides of the truck. Often while hot, sweaty, dusty and sharing the space with a number of other people with equally limited access to a shower.

The Overlanding Cookbook

But rather than being restrictive (or even that smelly – you are, after all, in the same boat), those days on the truck always offered a window and access to a wider world full of anticipation about what view is round the next corner or what lies in wait at the next destination.

Be that a Patagonian wilderness, west African dirt road, Brazilian beach, Sudanese desert – all of which provided scenery, destination and camp for the night – or a small village or settlement keen to welcome us with open arms. Or the odd rock.

News of Oasis closure has obscured that view, blocked those horizons.

Thoughts are with the staff and crew – several of whom have become good friends – and the countless guides, local operators and fixers along the way who all help to make the adventure and depend on travellers to make a living.

One day, when this pandemic is over and the world is open again, we may see the yellow trucks or something similar back on the road.

Into The Wild Camping

Until then, we can dream about more amazing overland adventures – and those remaining five weeks we were forced to miss in Colombia and Ecuador, plus a Trans Africa return and the Silk Road adventure were very high on the list – and reflect on the memories of those life-changing journeys.

And life changing is not pushing it too far – even without the yellow trucks, my horizons are far broader than they were before first stepping on Nala six-and-a-bit years ago. Even in lockdown.

Have made friends for life, seen places and experienced things which seemed to be out of reach, have countless tales to tell, learned a lot about myself (despite being well past 40 before starting this obsession), challenged my physical capabilities and my own conceptions of them.

And fell in love.

So for all that and so much more, thank you Oasis.

If this is the end of the road, it has been an amazing journey – there is just an awful lot more miles left to go.

 

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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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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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What’s your Favourite…?

Day 23 of the blog post a day in May and we are off on our travels with a list. Two of my favourite things.

GET home from any long trip and it will not be long before somebody asks a question that starts “what was your favourite…?”.

The most common end to that question is place or country and, to be honest, no matter how many times it has been asked, not sure have ever given a proper answer.

Always had to veer off on a tangent, explaining that favourite moments on overland trips are not so much based on places but memories or moments, where they were is not necessarily the key factor in why they were so great.

Often reel off Rwanda among my favourite African countries, but was only there for about 72 hours.

Those three days included an extraordinary hour with mountain gorillas, a harrowing if hugely worthwhile trip to the Kigali Genocide Museum (both of which are real must sees) and a bizarre afternoon at an eccentric bowling alley.

It is also a beautiful country, known as the land of a thousand hills, but can that really qualify it as one of my favourite places of all my travels?

The same applies to the remaining moments picked out as my five favourites from 10 months on the road in Africa – an afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, an evening camping the heart of an isolated village in Cote d’Ivoire, digging a truck out of a waterlogged hole in the Congo and a visit to an orphanage in Ghana.

Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

All amazing, but enough to land on my favourite places list? Probably not. Even goats on trees is not a good enough reason to lift Morocco onto that list.

Equally, having a few gripes about a place is not necessarily enough to disqualify it – Zimbabwe made it on my best and worst countries in Africa list, such are the delights and frustrations of a remarkable nation.

So have finally tried to work on a definitive list of my favourite places, defined by the city, country or region itself being what earned that ranking rather than some fleeting moment or experience.

Also need to have spent a certain amount of time there – love loads of places having spent very little time there, often just passing through – and the one guarantee of this list is that am determined to go back there. But that’s a very long list.

Diving in to this without having settled on the definitive list – suggest will want to change it pretty much immediately and fairly certain it will include a fair amount of places in the States.

Kept it to 10 or we could be here all day – can rattle on about endless number of places absolutely love – and in no particular order.

Boston
No surprise on this one, have long had a bit of a love affair with the state capital of Massachusetts (not the one in Lincolnshire).

Feel instantly comfortable and relaxed there – my overseas destination of choice to just get away from it all and feel under no pressure to go sightseeing or charge around ticking off the must-sees.

Wandering around Boston, hanging out in a bar or catching a Red Sox game is my version of a beach holiday.

Boston for First Timers

New York
Could easily live in Boston, not sure that is the case with New York but a few days always an exciting prospect, but with the similar feeling of being on familiar – if more hectic – ground.

You cannot run out of things to do, places to see and have every intention of doing and seeing a lot more there.

Watching the Red Sox win in Yankee Stadium would be near the top of the list.

New York for First Timers

Deep South
Bit of a cheat this one, lumping together such a large and varied area but it contains a huge number of places which could easily have made it in their own right.

From the antebellum charm of Charleston – which will always have a special place in my heart – and Savannah to the music capitals of Memphis and Nashville (plus Austin, Texas, which strictly doesn’t qualify) via any number of stops in smalltown America.

And for each of those memorable major centres, there are countless smaller stops, all with the requisite southern charm and fantastic scenery – if you are going to take one road trip, try the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway twisting through the Appalachians. Or the Great River Road down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Could go on and on.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Alaska
The largest state of the union is one of its least accessible, but one of its most rewarding.

It is huge (it is the most northerly, westerly and easterly state, courtesy of a geographical quirk) and that size strikes you at every turn. You will travel for hours between stops and, if the weather is good in the summer, there will rarely be a poor view.

Several American national parks could have made this list – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, even the Grand Tetons which gave this blog its name – but Alaska just does it all bigger and better.

Edinburgh
You do not have to travel across the globe to find memorable cities – Edinburgh has always provided a great stop and each visit (all far too short, often far too drunk or with too much time spent working, occasionally both) leaves me wanting to go back for more.

Cornwall
Slightly surprised that a place not visited for years makes the list, but could not find a reason to take it off. My Dad always used to say ‘if the weather is right, you can’t do better’ and he’s not too far from the truth.

Cape Town/Western Province
Definitely topped the list of places to go back to in Africa, largely because it is simply stunning and Cape Town provides a wonderful centrepiece.

The Beautiful South

Bamako
The capital of Mali was not on our original itinerary and events in the north of the country have not exactly helped it as a travel destination. But the chaos, friendliness and sheer fun introduced us to what was to come in sub-Saharan African.

Beijing
There are people who have trouble with China and, yes, there is a lot to question. But it is a remarkable place, a history and a culture which is totally new to anyone from the west. And the best place for street food.

Namibia
Had to include one African country. Nearly went for the whole west coast or some of the wildlife hotspots of the east. But Namibia combines the best of both – amazing wildlife experiences, the sense of wilderness of West Africa and its own extraordinary natural sights. It is also a mecca for thrillseekers and overlanders, who come together after weeks or months on the road.

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