Count experiences, not countries

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

Roseann meeting with South Rift Maasai women in 2005 . . .

(Note: Some time ago I published a version of the following article in OutdoorX4 magazine. I subsequently received more emails thanking me for it than any other article I'd published there. Thus I am reprinting it here. If you agree—or disagree—with it, please like and/or comment!)

For several years my wife and I lived as volunteer caretakers in Brown Canyon, a remote wildlife refuge property in southern Arizona. One of our duties was leading birdwatching hikes up the canyon, which ascended through several biotic communities from desert to oak woodland. And that’s where we had our introduction to listers. We’re both avid birders, but we simply enjoy seeing them, identifying them, and learning their biology. Not so the listers: Their drive is to record the most species possible, and for a small subset of them it becomes an obsession next to which nothing else matters—not the experience or the natural history, not even, sometimes, whether or not the bird they want to check off is disturbed or even driven off a nest, exposing eggs or hatchlings to predation. The cachet of having 1,000, 2,000, 4,000 species on a life list is all that counts.

Why do I mention this in connection with overlanding (besides the fact that non-obsessive birdwatching is a relaxing and educational pastime while camping)? Because frequently, while chatting with newcomers to our activity at the Overland Expo or elswhere, I’m asked, “So, how many countries have you visited?”

When I answer honestly, “I have no idea,” most are surprised, and wonder if I’ve been to so many I’ve simply lost count. That’s not really the case—I could certainly tally them up with a map. And while I know I’ve been lucky enough to travel in many more countries than the average American (who, statistically, has visited three), I also know there are legions of travelers of more modest means than I whose tally would outstrip mine if they cared to add them up. (My friend Lorraine Chittock, for example, has explored several continents on budgets most people would blow through on a trip to Disneyland.) 

It’s that emphasis on a tally that makes me uncomfortable, and which makes me deliberately avoid keeping track. Rattling off some memorized total would come off to me as, at best, grandstanding, and at worst intimidating to someone who’s perhaps never been outside the U.S. and is dreaming of broader horizons—or who might be because of finances and/or time “limited” to exploring North America, where I’ve counted many of my most sublime experiences.

And there is my point: It’s the experience that counts, not the count. Here’s an example. My wife and I fell in love with East Africa (Kenya and Tanzania) on separate trips—me on a journalism assignment, she while working for a conservation organization. We’ve since been back together a half-dozen times, both to explore on our own and to work with the South Rift Maasai community on wildlife conservation projects. We could easily have used those additional trips to add to our total of countries visited; however, 1) we’ve not nearly run out of areas to explore in those two countries, and, 2) we’ve made several life-long friends through return journeys and continued interaction. To us that beats the fact that we’ve not yet been to Uganda or Burundi or Rwanda, each just a border away.

Or consider the Italian gentleman we met on a dirt road in a remote part of Tanzania. He was on his way from Cape Town to Cairo . . . on a bicycle. He would pass through “only” eight countries on the journey. You could drive through that many European countries in a day and add them to your list. Who has had the richer experience?

I’ve advised dozens of people planning for their first trip to Africa. Since it is a serious commitment for a North American resident to even get there, most want to cram in as many countries as possible in their two or three weeks. I struggle mightily to convince them to scale back on the countries in order to scale up on the experience. It’s fun to drive through exotic new places, but simply transiting doesn’t really gain you anything of lasting value. Digging in and getting to know a place and its people and its wildlife does. 

If you have fun keeping tally of the countries you’ve visited, great. But if the count becomes the chief metric by which you judge your success as an overlander, you might want to reevaluate your priorities and slow down a bit.

Might I suggest birdwatching . . . ?

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

 . . . and reuniting with them five years later.

The Holy Grail of FJ40 wheels and tires?

I’ve owned my FJ40 long enough to have gone through several generations of tire and wheel combinations. When I bought it it still had the factory steel 15 x 5.5-inch rims (with hubcaps), and absurdly skinny and short 215-series tires of a brand I do not recall, but which were genuinely tiny enough to hamper its performance on trails.

Santa Catalina Mountains, 1978

Santa Catalina Mountains, 1978

As soon as I could afford it I bought a set of then-de rigueur 15 x 8 white spoke steel wheels, and mounted larger Armstrong Norseman tires. Big improvement, although I could feel the increase in steering effort through the non-boosted box. At the same time I gave away those factory wheels and hubcaps—dumb move.

And there it stayed until the late 1980s, when I was starting to be aware of how things were done in other parts of the world. I became convinced that split-rim wheels were the absolute ultimate way to go—after all, you could break down a wheel and repair a tire anywhere, right? They were still standard equipment on Land Cruisers in Africa and Australia, right? So at some considerable expense I ordered a set of Toyota factory 16 x 5.5 split rims. When they arrived I was somewhat put off by their mass—they made the eight-inch steel white spokers seem light—but duly had mounted a set of LT 235/85 16 BFG All-Terrains. 

In short order two tire-shredding blowouts revealed that something was not right. It developed that the tire retailer had installed improper liners in the wheels. That was corrected, and despite shaken confidence I began employing the Land Cruiser as a support vehicle while leading sea kayaking trips from remote beaches in Mexico. And indeed it was true: I could break down a wheel and repair a puncture anywhere. Clients were impressed. Several times.

With a split-rim wheel and tubed tire, any puncture means completely breaking down the wheel to patch the tube. A nail hole that could be fixed in five minutes with a plug kit required 45 minutes of hard labor. The romance was wearing thin. By this time I was chalking up some experience in Africa with split-rim-equipped vehicles, and noticed a difference there. First—purely personal theorizing here—the economy of most African countries meant that random nails and screws lying on roads simply didn’t exist. They were too valuable. Also, the tires employed there are typically eight or ten-ply bias-belted 7.50 x 16 beasts that seem more or less immune to simple thorn punctures. I was experiencing fewer punctures on the back roads of developing-world countries—both in vehicles I drove and those in which I was driven while on assignment—than I was in the U.S. and Mexico.

African Firestone tire on a split rim.

African Firestone tire on a split rim.

By now I had replaced the three-speed transmission in the FJ40 with an H41, a four-speed with a low, 4.9:1 first gear. I thought that would allow me to install a slightly taller tire—and I was ready to dump the split rims and try alloy wheels. So on went a set of American Racing Outlaw II 16 x 7-inch wheels, and LT255/85 16 BFG Mud-Terrain tires. Given the two-inch OME lift on the vehicle, this was the outer limit of what would fit without clearance issues or ghastly body-cutting and cheesy riveted-on fender flares. Indeed at full left lock the left tire slightly contacted the steering box link. But otherwise the tires worked fine, and the combination stayed on for over a decade.

Still . . .

Two things began to nibble at my subconscious. First was the memory of those BFG All-Terrains in 235/85 16. So many things about the size seemed perfect. They were tall enough to noticeably benefit ground clearance, yet their narrow tread width made steering easy. Also, by this time the Land Cruiser had become something of a classic rather than just an old four-wheel-drive “jeep,” and I was kind of missing the whimsical look of those factory hubcaps. It would be easy to buy a replacement set of Toyota 15 x 5.5-inch wheels and hubcaps—but there was no tire size in BFG’s 15-inch lineup equivalent to the 235/85 16. For a while BFG sold a 9.5 x 33-inch All-Terrain that would have worked, but it was discontinued. Some owners (and, by now, professional restorers), were squeezing 31 x 10.5 All-Terrains on factory wheels, but those were not quite tall enough and not quite narrow enough to suit. (The size is also technically far too wide for a 5.5-inch wheel.)

What I needed was a 16 x 5.5-inch wheel with clips for the factory hubcaps—and out of the blue a few months ago my friend Tim Hüber sent me a link to exactly that, available from Japan. They were . . . expensive, eye-wateringly so. And would additionally need to be powder-coated a proper gray, adding even more expense. But it was exactly the Holy Grail for which I had been searching.

Ordered, delivered, powder-coated, mounted. And . . . indeed, perfect. The ideal all-around tire size for an FJ40, and the amusingly perfect retro pukka look, too. 

One genuine surprise: I assumed going to a steel wheel from an alloy—even with a smaller tire—would add significant unsprung weight. Not so. One alloy wheel and 255/85 16 Mud-Terrain tipped my hanging scale at 73.2 pounds. The steel wheel and 235/85 16 All-Terrain? Seventy four pounds even.

Never say never, but I predict this will be the final solution to the Land Cruiser’s footwear.

Left: 16 x 7 Alloy and 255/85 16 MT. Right: 16 x 5.5 steel and 235/85 16 AT. Same weight.

Left: 16 x 7 Alloy and 255/85 16 MT. Right: 16 x 5.5 steel and 235/85 16 AT. Same weight.

Now that's a proper suspension analysis

Our last trip to Australia and Tasmania, the first with all the modifications and additions to our Troopy completed, revealed some shortcomings in the suspension—no surprise with 180 liters of fuel and 90 liters of water on board, in addition to the cabinetry, pop-top, bumper and winch, etc. etc. It wasn't bad—the rear sagged perhaps an inch with everything aboard including us—but an inch is too much, and we could feel the shocks working hard to maintain control.

Daniel at the Expedition Centre in Sydney, who'd done all the work on the vehicle, had just one recommendation: A company called, humbly enough, The Ultimate Suspension.

TUS, as I'll call them, advertises "custom-built, fully integrated" suspension systems designed specifically for each vehicle, not just each model. After receiving the analysis above, I can't argue that their approach isn't thorough. I'm not sure what the percentages in the shock absorbers refer to—would 100 percent mean it's as comfortable as a Range Rover? Must ask. In any case it's interesting to see the weight at each corner and across the vehicle, and to know that (ahem, rather surprisingly) we're still safely under the Land Cruiser's GVWR, even with a full load of fuel and water.

An ARB diff lock for the FJ40

I waited 38 years to install an ARB differential locker in my FJ40.

Why so long, and what made me finally decide to do it? A number of reasons explain the delay. First is that the ARB diff lock did not exist until 1987—a pretty ironclad excuse for the first ten years I owned the vehicle. By the time I became aware of the product and its potential, in the early 1990s, I was using the Land Cruiser as a support vehicle for guiding sea kayak trips in Mexico. And sea kayak guides do not make enough to buy ARB lockers. Several years later I moved on to freelance writing—and freelance writers do not etc. etc.

By this time another factor was at work. Through much, much trial and error I had become intimately familiar with the vehicle and its capabilities on difficult trails, to the point that I could predict accurately when a wheel was going to lift, when a cross-axle obstacle would unload diagonal tires enough to steal traction, just how much momentum I needed to get through spots that would have been effortless with a locker. Thus I was beginning to enjoy successfully traversing trails in Arizona that were considered fairly advanced even with traction aids, and a sort of reverse snobbery seduced me. Of course there were plenty of challenges simply beyond the ability of an FJ40 with open diffs, a two-inch lift, and 31-inch-tall tires, but I was happy with the places I’d been.

The fun part: drilling a hole in a perfectly good differential housing.

The fun part: drilling a hole in a perfectly good differential housing.

That attitude began to change when I had a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon Unlimited for a year as a long-term review vehicle for Overland Journal. The Rubicon, with its compliant all-coil suspension, driver-disconnectable front anti-roll bar—and selectable diff locks front and rear—could traverse terrain elegantly that the FJ40 traversed awkwardly. At the time I was stressing—and, a few years later, at the Overland Expo, teaching—environmentally conscientious driving, techniques far beyond the facile “Stay on the trail” message of Tread Lightly. One overriding goal of this is to avoid wheelspin if at all possible—an approach that is easier on the vehicle, the tires, and the trail. In the FJ40 some wheelspin was almost inevitable to get through sections that unloaded two tires, even with judicious left-foot braking, which can reduce but not eliminate it. In the Wrangler I could scan the terrain in front, predict which spots might unload the tires, and engage one or both lockers ahead of time, resulting in perfectly smooth progress. (This, by the way, is the salient advantage of driver-selectable lockers over ABS-based traction-control systems, even the best of which which must detect some wheelspin before they activate.)

Also contributing to my change of mind was the increasing capabilities of almost all current four-wheel-drive vehicles—some, such as that Wrangler and our Tacoma, equipped with factory locking diffs, many others with increasingly sophisticated traction control, even "lesser" models firmly in the cute ute category. Despite its relative primitiveness, I’ve kept the FJ40 competitive in some ways—on Old Man Emu suspension it rides better than our Tacoma did stock and has excellent compliance; it has a best-in-class Warn 8274 winch, good driving lights, a superb no-longer-made Stout Equipment rear bumper and tire/can carrier, a fridge, even a stainless-steel 14-gallon water tank. But newer vehicles were simply outclassing it in traction. 

Fast-forward to earlier this year, when I shipped the Land Cruiser to Bill’s Toy Shop in Farmington, New Mexico, for a complete engine and transmission/transfer case rebuild. As long as it was up there . . . 

I decided on a single rear locker. Why not another up front? Two reasons. First, this damn thing is now worth roughly ten times what I paid for it all those years ago, so I’m a bit more careful about where I take it. I think full traction on three corners is all I’ll need. Second, and probably more important, I still have the factory non-power steering, and a locking diff in front with manual steering would be, if not actually dangerous, stupendously difficult to control.

I took it for granted that with 320,000 miles on it, a fair amount of which was pulling trailers holding, at various points in history, a 21-foot sailboat; sea kayaks plus gear, food, and water for six clients; and cargo trailers ferrying Expo equipment, the diff would need a new ring and pinion gear, if not spider gears as well. Not so, said Bill—they were still in excellent condition. He replaced bearings and seals and called it good. An ARB High Output compressor in the engine compartment will double for tire inflation, saving precious cargo space I used to have to devote to a portable unit. I voted for installing the two switches in the dash, but Bill whined so piteously about sawing two rectangular holes in my unspoiled dash that I let him put them in the overhead shelf that houses the two-meter radio.

I’m now looking forward to quite a transformation in the faithful Forty, given fresh power, reworked transmission, and 50 percent more traction. It will be on its way back to Arizona in a few days.

The fiendishly clever Brompton bicycle

There are folding bicycles.

Then there is the folding bicycle that will fit in the overhead bin on an airliner. 

Those who witness for the first time the origami trick that is a Brompton being deployed or un-deployed invariably exclaim in astonishment. An ancient Navajo gentleman on a sidewalk in Flagstaff, regal in several pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry, stopped to watch me like I was some street magician as I collapsed my new Brompton to carry it into a shop. The process, which I’ve not yet mastered, took me perhaps 20 seconds. When I finished and picked up the bike by its saddle/handle, he looked at me for a minute, then, in that deadpan Navajo drawl, pronounced, “Well, you can’t do that with a horse.”

The Brompton is the brainchild of Andrew Ritchie, who could also be described as a pioneer of crowd funding. With the downturn of the cycling boom in the late 1970s, he could find no commercial backing for his folding bicycle concept, so he pursuaded 30 people to pay him retail for a bike that did not yet exist, with the understanding that if the company were successful, he would refund their investment, leaving each with a free bike. Every backer was paid back in full, and Brompton is now the largest manufacturer of bicycles (of any type) in England. 

Notice I wrote in England, because every Brompton is still built in the factory in West London. The frames are brazed by hand by specialists trained in house for up to 18 months, and each of whom stamps his or her initials on the finished product. CNC milling machines produce other bespoke parts, and final assembly creates one of what the company claims is up to four million permutations, depending on gearing (one, two, three, or six speeds are available), handlebar choice, color (144 combinations), and innumerable rack and luggage options up to and including a pukka canvas-and-leather front satchel by Chapman—also hand made in England.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

While I’ve known about the company for years, we finally found the justification to spring for one on our last trip to Australia. Town-bound for several days while the Land Cruiser was being serviced, we needed exercise. Roseann runs but I can’t. We needed to shop for incidentals, and the town was large enough to require a rental car. Both issues would be eliminated with a bicycle small enough to store inside or on the roof of the Troopy. So once back in Sydney we visited the excellent, quirky Omafiets bicycle shop. One look at the folded Bromptons displayed in nooks on shelves was enough to nearly convince us; watching one of the employees—herself a Brompton owner—perform the origami trick in about ten seconds further convinced us, and a short ride was the clincher. (Watch here for a genuine pro Brompton folder.)

There was just one complication: After riding the Brompton around a bit, Roseann mused, “Hmm . . . maybe we need two?” It made perfect sense—with two we could bop around towns without wielding the bulky Troopy through traffic, and a pair would still easily ride on the roof in the compact, bespoke hard cases available for them. We decided to leave the green example we bought in Sydney with friends, and buy another back in the U.S. so I’d have time to play with it before shipping it with us on the next trip to Oz. Thus, from the folding specialists PortaPedal Bike in Tempe, Arizona, we picked up the second, this one in the total-Brompton-geek “Raw Lacquer” finish that leaves the brass brazing visible on the frame. 

So what’s it like to ride with those small 16-inch wheels? My friend Bruce summed it up perfectly: “Just like the difference between a motorcycle and a scooter.” Those who point out the “compromises” in the Brompton’s handling—which can be described as either “responsive” or “twitchy,” depending on your attitude, are missing the point. The Brompton is essentially a different genus of bicycle. Complaining about its characteristics would be like complaining because a non-folding bicycle (or any other folding bike of which I’m aware) wouldn’t fit in that overhead locker. 

In fact, it’s a blast to pedal. The riding position is no different from a standard bicycle; people do long-distance touring on these things. The same physics that make the steering so quick—low rotational inertia—also make acceleration zippy. As a result of both you can really scoot around in tight quarters. The high-pressure tires don’t absorb much impact, and given their diameter you need to be cautious to cross railroad and trolley trackes at a right angle, but the rear suspension block helps make the ride surprisingly comfortable. The only limitation in my experience so far is dirt roads and trails that aren’t very well-packed. You’ll sink. This is an urban machine.

The front rack mount accepts all sorts of bags, from small Ortlieb handlebar bags to satchels large enough for grocery shopping. And, cunningly, when half-folded the Brompton becomes its own shopping cart, with the front bag mounted and the bike riding on the small wheels of the rear rack. Aftermarket companies sell larger versions of these wheels to make this even easier.

Ah, the accessories. The international Brompton community can fairly be described as “enthusiastic,” from the universe of custom carbon-fiber and titanium parts to replace the standard items, to the famous Brompton World Championship: a race held in the UK during which all entrants must conform to a strict dress code (think bow ties, tuxedos, period military garb . . .). The lightweight parts have the practical benefit of reducing the already reasonable weight of the Brompton for ease of handling and carrying. Some are affordable and whittle away minutely at the total, or you can go insane and order such things as a complete carbon-fiber front clip and stem for around $1700, instantly doubling the price of the bike and knocking off a whole pound.

I’m leery of the term “lifestyle,” yet there is a sort of captivating aura around a bicycle you can pedal to a cafe, then fold up and carry inside. Every time I take my raw-lacquered Brompton out I feel like I should really be dressed in knickers, a black turtleneck, and a beret. For all its undeniable practicality, its the fun of a Brompton that makes it worth every cent.

And then there's all that hay and oats you don't have to buy.

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

And what's this in the top tube?

And what's this in the top tube?

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

Rookie tourist shopping

David Giguere responded to the Lowell Thomas post below with this intriguing comment:

“I wonder if the 'behemoth' truck is one of the Nairn Transport Company vehicles that operated in that part of the world and offered a Beirut to Baghdad route. Nairn also used Cadillac and Buick cars. Thanks for posting the story and video, fascinating stuff!”

He also posted a link to an interesting Wikipedia entry about Nairn, here.

And that begs a short related tale. 

While in Jerusalem last November I spent several days exploring the old town and its cacophonous warren of shops, which sell everything from snow globes of the Dome of the Rock (not kidding) to half lamb carcasses, spices, pots, clothes, jewelry, and antiques. Short video here:

Late one afternoon I was headed back through a passage I’d been through several times before, when I was stopped in my tracks by this:

Oh. My. God. 

How could I have missed it, and could any overlander possibly live without this poster hanging somewhere in his home? Bought in a souk in Old Jerusalem?

Of course not—so, in my dilerium, I made the most fundamental mistake any rookie tourist could commit in any souk anywhere in the world. I leaped into the shop, where the owner sat calmly sucking on a hookah, and, my eyes wide with avarice, shaking finger pointing, said, “Do you have those posters for sale?”

The man slowly exhaled a cloud of cool blue smoke, pulled the mouthpiece from between his lips, and smiled.

Shit.

“Why yes, my friend, I do!” He put up the pipe and pulled out a box stuffed with rolled posters in cardboard tubes. “What size would you like, my friend?”

What does one do at that point? Put on an utterly transparent sham of hard bargaining? Of course not. I picked a tube that would fit on the rear rack of my bicycle, asked how much, and he smiled and named a figure I won’t repeat here out of abject, head-hanging shame. I sighed and pulled a half dozen bills off my roll of shekels. At that price there was bugger all hope of buying extras for my friends Graham and Connie, or Nick, or . . . (And could I find that poster anywhere else in that entire city? Nope.)

Oh well. Let them get their own. I’ve got mine. 

And boy did I pay for it.