Some people have this indomitable spirit when they travel, rarely more so than my friend Lucy Barnard travelling in South America, currently in Peru, and currently on-track to being the first woman to walk solo the length of the Pan-American. Fancy a walk of over 30,000 miles over five years? It takes heart. And vegemite. And tim-tams. You can read more about her adventures with her incredible dog, Wombat, in this recent article from Sidetracked.com, and her website at tanglesandtail.com.
For me, I love traveling by vehicle, yet the quest for the ultimate overlander will always be a long drawn out affair. It’s the vehicle that’s right for you at the present time and the terrain/situations you’re going to find yourself in. A vehicle that would suit every terrain, weather and climate? Tough choice. I’m still plugged into the many Land Cruiser websites across the world, and the Troopcarrier, although an ugly square bucket of bolts (people may curse me for that!), is for my money still one of the best around as a two-person overlander. It’s not very spacious compared to a Mercedes Sprinter, or as a grand as an IVECO Daily 4x4 Truck, but it’s simple, easy to fix, and tougher than Superman’s jockstrap. And there are parts around the world. In saying that, I still have a soft spot for a Mitsubishi Delica, admiring them like a forbidden fruit or a pack of Jaffa Cakes I’ve just smashed in one sitting. One day I’ll break and just buy five Delica’s like some kind of crack addict.
Whichever method you’re travelling, whether on foot, bicycle, motorbike, horse (yup!), truck or train, take advice with a pinch of salt, find your own way and enjoy yourself. Offer guidance whenever asked, and don’t judge those that choose to ignore it. Enjoy life when you have it for tomorrow is uncertain.
Geographisits (will make words up as I go, you’ll get used to it) and anyone with a passing knowledge of the globe will tell you that South America and Australia are quite far away from one another. In fact, I would have to fly for fourteen hours just to reach it, let alone take my vehicle along too. Was it all really worth it? In my mind, yes. In other people’s minds, in many other people’s minds, in fact in almost everyone’s minds that I met, I was dribbling lunatic of a man.
Overlanding isn’t for everyone and I can see why: you spend days without taking a shower or sometimes even seeing civilisation; if you break down you have nothing but your wits and possibly only half of those; if the car breaks down you’re in the same boat (well, not boat per say); and you only have enough water and food to last a few days. None of that has to be actuality though: it’s certainly possible to rig up a shower, have a mechanic hidden in a draw and dine at the finest restaurants in town. But I only know one way and so when I’m out bush, as they say in Australia, I do it my way. And that is the essence of overlanding: doing it your way, how you want, when you want, and entirely on your terms. The only timeline is the one of your own design.
As for the driving itself, if there are a few of you, you can share the burden, but if you’re on your own or have a blind uncle, you’re pretty much going to be nailed into the captain’s seat. And let’s face it, if you don’t like driving, overlanding may not exactly be for you. But then again, it takes all sorts. I met a woman once that rode two and a half thousand kilometres across Australia for a motorcycle meet-up, knowing that every hour she had to take a ten-minute nap at the side of the road as she was a narcoleptic. The world is full of extraordinary people. Incidentally, I am not that huge fan of driving, and nor am I very good at it either. I can though keep it up for over an hour at a time, and I can drive for long periods as well.
In Europe driving overland is relatively easy because it’s all joined together as one harmonious club (well, now that the UK has gone). It’s the same in the United States, Canada and Australia too, with vast swathes of open land hankering to be explored with only state borders and some wildlife getting in the way. In South America though it’s slightly different as they aren’t all singing from the same hymn sheet. The Chileans don’t like the Argentinians, the Ecuadorians think the Peruvians stole their land, the Paraguayans know everyone stole theirs. The Bolivians don’t like the Chileans as they closed off their only access to water, and Uruguay is sandwiched between the two monsters on the continent so has no choice but to like everyone. And every single one of them is on the look-out for illicit drugs being couriered from one country to the next, occasionally by stupid smiling gringos inadvertently pronouncing hola like they’re auditioning for Santa Claus . . . ho-ho-ho-holllllaaa!
There are any number of forums available for people to join (many on Facebook such as Overlanding the Americas, Pan-American Travellers Association and drivingtheamericas.com) to find out the latest news or ask for help or advice. Unquestionably the two most popular topics concern mechanical ability and learning Spanish. A smattering of each will go a long way, but as anyone with learning difficulties would attest, simply because you don’t know the language doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel at all. My Uncle has travelled everywhere and can barely even see let alone speak the language. However, you’ll get plenty of time to practice the language and your Spanish greetings isn’t the only thing you get to recite at each border. You will also be tested on your patience, problem solving, bribery techniques and bribery avoiding techniques, not forgetting of course rehearing a countenance that will impart with little fuss ‘I have no drugs hidden there, please ask the dog to stop sniffing my bum’. That one takes some serious repetition to get right, but it’s very worthwhile.
The only advice I would impart though is that despite how you feel - how hungry you are, how hot you are, how little money you have, how frustrated you are about filling out another piece of paper or paying another ridiculous toll - getting annoyed will not help you. You have to ooze trust and honesty, and the more calm, patient and polite you are, the more likely things will get done. In fact, I would wager it’s the only way to get things done. By way of illustration, I was stopped by armed police – many men with more guns than John Wick - to check my vehicle, passport and registration details three times within just over a mile. Each one required the same review of documentation, the same questions, the same stopping and opening up the back of the vehicle for inspection. In each case, your job is to appear as meek as a newborn lamb, albeit a lamb that is out for a Sunday drive, and has all the time in the world because this latest rudimentary check is the merest trifle of an inconvenience.
A vast amount of Central America was passed awaiting some bastards in Guatemala to release the Land Cruiser from customs or being hideously sick in Belize, a country of which I saw mostly a toilet and a sink. Numerous, numerous times. Still, here's a collection of photos from El Salvador and Honduras which I hope you enjoy!
About this time last year, I was eagerly awaiting Izzy to be relinquished from the clutches of customs officials at Valparaiso in Chile. A whole one year ago . . . how the time has flown by. Yet I still look at the photos, review overland forums to add my tuppence worth when someone asks something ridiculously banal - like what's the best vehicle or can I take my dog/child/granddad or if American, can I carry my Dad's arsenal with me in case I get into a shootout (checkout any of the fabulous FB forums by the way, Pan-American Travellers Association for example). Surprisingly, I still own my Land Cruiser.
Having took aeons to find a vehicle in the condition and age bracket I needed for my travels, I felt assured that if I could ship to Chile, if I could clear customers, if I could travel around South America without dying or crashing, that if I could then ship across to Central America and then still be alive to cross into North America, and that if customers were nice and everything went . . . IF I could manage all of that, then I could sell my beloved vehicle very quickly. Despite succeeding in all that, I have been staggered that it isn’t the case. And yet, staggered but quite pleased.
The thought of one day travelling back over to America and having a ready-made super-trooper ready for any travels I had in mind get me ridiculously excited. When travelling from London to Sydney in my old Land Rover Defender, it was a very sad day to see the back of Edna – and that broke down every week! Being re-united with Izzy, never giving a moment of trouble, is an exciting prospect indeed. As anyone can tell you, once you’ve been through the thick of it with a vehicle, they do have a tendency to grow on you.
I’d love to hear from others that have bought and kept their overlanding vehicle. Was it the right move? Did you regret selling her at the end? Izzy is still for sale down in Texas, but whilst I still have her I can still dream of getting back in the saddle whenever I eventually make it to the US again, jolting the straight six into life and taking her for one more jaunt.
I have a lot of love for this part of the world, despite steaming through in some extremely warm weather
So, you’ve pawed and gaped at maps and photographs of distant horizons, and you’ve had ‘the chat’ with your partner. Not that chat. You’re disgusting and you should stop doing that. The other chat, where you’ve done the maths concerning what you can afford, and mused over whether the kids really need school or even need to wear clothes. Finally, you’ve decided that, alone or together, you want to travel on your own steam. And now comes the fun bit!
As a very dear friend of mine is embarking on his planning and we started talking about electric needs, I started going back to basics. One third of your travel will be sleeping, probably even half setting up camp, preparing food, taking down camp and cleaning up. For me it’s as simple as one question: Where are you going to sleep? There are two facets to this: one is how you intend to put your head down each night; and the second is the geographic location. This influences your vehicle choice. Allow me to explain!
Physical Location Now this is where we get to the real root of it:
Hadn't quite realised how long it was since my last photo post, so here is a collection from the next country in the list, Peru. We had an amazing time but it was also the end of the road for Rich and time he had to return to work, so from this point on until the end I'd be on my own - a very odd feeling after 6 weeks of living in each others pockets!
OK, after being back in civilisation I get a few raised eyebrows when the trip is mentioned this has prompted some more questions, so will try to summarise:
1. What, they don’t have cars there? Having a vehicle you can trust is paramount. The people that say ‘breaking down is all part of the experience’ are those with time and money to waste. I have neither: I’m there to enjoy my adventure, not spend it waiting for a mechanic. Having broken down in a Land Rover Defender every week for a year from London to Sydney, my soul yearned for something that just works. Not only do you need complete faith in the vehicle, you know how to fix the small things if problems occur. There are less surprises with a vehicle you’ve spent a lot of time with. Buying a vehicle overseas carried too much risk for me, let alone the complications around fixing it and importing it to my end-country of the United States. Incidentally, in most places you need paperwork when buying a vehicle which takes time and sometimes a lawyer, or in Argentina’s case if you buy a vehicle as a foreigner you cannot leave the country with it. We did run into people without the necessary paperwork at the Bolivian-Peru border, and they looked like they were going nowhere. We saw them two days later though in Arequipa, so they got through somehow (bribery, I would guess).
2. Overlanding – is it for you? Perhaps before launching into a full-scale three-year adventure, sample the lifestyle first! Rent a camper for a week and trek off into the wilderness. Get a feel for what works and what doesn’t, and what you can do without. My other half is a princess, and I have always known this. To that extent, it would be unfair to expect that to entirely change and her to enjoy overlanding the way I do. However, I know that if we rented a comfortable large camper with shower, proper stove, fridge, comfortable bedding, perhaps a television or some books if you’re rained in, she would enjoy it immensely. Be conscious that your idea of outdoor life may not suit everyone . . . which brings me to . . .
3.Toilet? No, don’t do it! Whilst it sounds like a good idea, it literally does not sound or smell like a good idea. No matter how close you are as a couple, there are certain things I have no wish to share and my bathroom habits are one of them. Hell, sometimes even I don’t share in the experience with me. There are plenty of toilets about in gas stations, restaurants etc and if you need to go in a rush, you’ll find somewhere or make-do with the countryside. Just clean up after yourself!
4. Can I take my partner and kids? Of course! There are many countries where women want good husbands, sell your man and make some profit! OK maybe don’t do that. On my travels I’ve always been amazed at the amount off couples bringing their babies, young children, dogs, woolly sheep or elderly parents. The order of that is not any reflection of importance, by the way! In my mind I’d curtail some of the more dangerous areas of the world to ensure the safety of my family, but perhaps I’m being overly protectionist. Then again that’s the same reason why I insisted on my girlfriend buying gear before riding a motorbike – if an accident did happen and I hadn’t taken the proper precautions, I’d never forgive myself
5. Best vehicle? Unfortunately, it’s the same answer as that of ‘the best camera’ – it’s the one that you can afford to have with you at the time. This topic alone though could be huge, so may break into another post! I plumbed for a Toyota Landcruiser because the are extremely reliable, found everywhere in the world and I could buy it easily in Australia. Well, easily once I found one that was of the right age, without rust, been treated well etc There are many different types of overlanding though, and if you’re sticking to bitumen 95% of the time, then you probably don’t need a 4x4. The shipping costs weren’t welcome but were a pay-off for peace of mind in a vehicle I could trust.
Oh my . . . I'm ashamed to admit I knew next to nothing about Bolivia, and yet it remains one of the highlights of the trip for exactly that. The landscapes remain simply astonishing - bloody hard going, but astonishing none the less.
The poorer cousin of Brazil, Argentina and Bolivia, Paraguay is often missed when travelling through South America. Well, here' s a few reasons to go! Enjoy!
The blog will be a record of everything - from idea conception to old age in making this adventure happen
You can find the excellent 2006 Antipodean Adventure blog by Dwyer Rooney here