THE OVERLANDERS’ CRAFT
My very first overland trip was a comical affair. Taking a break from the work schedule in Spain, our team of three flung backpacks in the jeep and ventured across the Straits of Gibraltar, landing in Tangier, a colourful seaport on Africa’s northern shores. The siren call of the Sahara had been beckoning for too long; a short drive over the Atlas Mountains would surely see us there. Or so I thought. My planning, however, had not been equal to the task: in the local supermarket I’d bought a tent containing no pegs or poles; I’d left the rear window out of the jeep, permitting all the road dust to settle on its occupants; I’d not thought to take any means of cooking, no drum for drinking water, no knife and fork, not a single tea bag; to enable a greater fuel range I’d hastily tied my speedboat’s fuel tank to the roof rack, though friction between the fuel tank and the roof rack soon created a hole, causing petrol to seep through the glass fibre roof. Finally, I forgot to put a roll of Kodak in the camera, ensuring our attempts at recording this unfolding drama remained no more than that. Within three days we’d abandoned the objective. Scuttling home, I suggested we camp for the evening on a roundabout outside Marrakech, believing it to be our best option. By then all goodwill had stretched beyond the point of elasticity.
I recount this catalogue of errors not as a warning to anyone considering their first overland adventure but more as a reminder to myself: never take anything for granted when planning and executing a long journey. That first experience in Morocco has often caused me to reflect on the qualities required of an overlander. Undoubtedly there are many. I recently pulled the ring on a chilled beer, flicked open the notebook and started to scribble. Here are a few thoughts I wrote down before I emptied the tin:
The capacity to embrace uncertainty: In the 1950s Nicolas Bouvier drove his Fiat from Geneva to the Cyber Pass. He recounted the journey in his book The Way Of The World. “After all,” Bouvier wrote, “one travels in order for things to happen and change, otherwise you might as well stay at home.” How true are those words; only when we are challenged do we really know ourselves. Though, what form those challenges take and how they impact on us presents a psychological challenge. The fear of the unknown weighs on the mind, if you allow it to. Most of us taking off for several months leave behind a structured life. At home, we know pretty well what’s going to happen from day to day; we know where everything is. For some of us such repetition is a defining factor in why we leave. Departing on an overland adventure, it’s not long before the layers of routine and assumption are stripped away. Only as we rattle, all alone, down some long-forgotten Patagonian track might we really cogitate over the mundane issues of where we might camp for the night, how we might fix a broken leaf spring, whether there will be diesel at the next fuel station, how we might react if the camper is broken into and our computers, our mobile phones, our favorite loud shirt and Bon Jovi’s latest CD are all stolen.
Possess at least the faintest idea of how your vehicle works: I’ve snapped more nuts and bolts in my time than I care to admit; by any stretch of the imagination I am not a mechanic. I know how it feels to fret over a mechanical issue I don’t quite understand; the thought of taking something apart causes me to break out in a cold sweat. Before our trans-Americas journey I was glad to have done a short course on how to change the oil, the filters and the fan belts - at least it enabled me to tell the mechanics in Rio Gallegos how to find the fuel filter. Others would be horrified by such paltry preparation. I’ve witnessed often enough how some guys like nothing better than the excuse to rip into their truck. For me such a pursuit smacks of masochism, nothing more than fun for fanatics, though I have the greatest respect for their mechanical abilities. If it comes down to it, and my camper is immobilized at the base of Chaitén Volcano, moments before it erupts, they will undoubtedly have the last laugh.
I remember pulling in at a campsite in Ecuador to find Simon, a Swiss overlander, with the contents of the engine from his Bucher Duro neatly displayed in a grass field. To me it seemed as if the whole world had exploded into a series of valves, springs and pistons. To Simon, on the other hand, it was all a matter of procedure. With the aid of the manufacturer’s manual, including guidance from the Swiss army via the internet, he rebuilt the engine completely, even machining several parts at a local workshop as he went along. When he’d finished putting the vehicle back together he continued to Alaska. Respect, man!
An ability to communicate: We get caught in enough confusion and conflict in our own countries but plenty can go wrong when we encounter foreign languages and cultures, in a region that might not have seen a vehicle for weeks, let alone an irate Toubab with three of his tyres punctured by acacia thorns. In many situations, muddling together a few words of a foreign language, even the ability to gesture, to draw, to laugh, can all break down barriers, find you a well containing water, point you in the direction of a mechanic, or generally keep you heading in the right direction. A good command of the language in the country you are visiting can enhance your experience, forge friendships, enable a greater understanding of your environment and make you feel less of the foreigner. Nevertheless, misunderstandings will always arise. Some years back, at the Mauritanian border, a man jabbering about insurance pushed me into one of the gloomy lean-to huts lining the roadside. Still recovering from the glare of the sun I addressed the silhouette at the desk with, “One week’s insurance for the silver-colored pickup outside, please.” Almost immediately I registered the epaulettes on the shoulder, the pistol at the waist and, finally, the quivering moustache. As the outline of the chief of customs sharpened in stature I quaked under the barrage of indignation.
Patience and a sense of humour: These two qualities will serve you well when your idyllic bivouac is overrun by inquisitive villagers; that unscrupulous customs officer uses your containerized vehicle as a pawn; you’re bogged to your axles in mud. However, it’s a sense of injustice that invariably rattles my cage. Take the road from Resistencia, in northern Argentina, if you want your collar felt by some wonderfully oily characters dressed in blue.
“You’re not allowed a steel bumper,” announced the cop, slapping his hand on the bonnet. "I’m confiscating your vehicle.”
Christine remained calm as my red mist descended. His game was abundantly clear: every pickup truck imported into Argentina has a steel bumper. When a 1950s Chevrolet pickup roared past us, its steel bumper strapped together with strips of guanaco sinew and a wire coat hanger, I really got my dander up.
While I wrestled with the chances of snatching the plods .45, Christine requested an address for his headquarters in Corrientes, so that we might clear up the matter with his chief. This was an infinitely superior idea to nicking his gun. And the cop didn’t much like the idea of his boss getting involved. He started writing the address of his headquarters, and then he thought better of it.
“You’re tourists,” he mumbled. “I’ll let you off.”
Clearly, overloading means different things to different people; our means of transport, from campers to trucks and bicycles to motorbikes, gives rise to differing issues. Even when I reflect upon those hippies from the sixties, traveling to India in their wacky buses, with their groovy hairstyles and their far-out tunics, there is a common denominator to us all: simply having the courage to hit the road.
(This article has been adapted from Short Stories From A Long Continent - The Americas Overland)