People

Routines . . .

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Routines are important when you are on the road in a strange country. They help maintain a sense of solidity, familiarity, and comfort when much of your day might be spent route-finding and driving in difficult terrain, provisioning in towns where English might be spoken little if at all, or dealing with bureaucracy-choked border crossings. 

The routines don’t have to be the same ones you have at home—which is often impossible anyway—they just have to offer a grounding for the day. And the more of a habit you make of them, the more of a grounding they provide.

Lots of people start out the morning with coffee, of course: the grounding routine of all grounding routines. But how you go about it can be its own routine. My friend Graham Jackson invariably starts the pre-dawn day by collecting twigs and boiling water in one of his growing collection of volcano kettles. In fact one of my own grounding routines is simply seeing that plume of smoke rising into the still air while Graham watches with his hands clasped behind his back. Roseann and I use a volcano kettle as well, but only for our later, mid-morning coffee. At first light we’re too impatient to wait until we’re up and fully clothed to get the water going, so we put a standard kettle on the stove inside the camper while we dress. We might wind up with our coffee in hand a bit sooner than Graham, but I suspect his is more satisfying.

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Graham also starts the day with rusks to be dipped in his coffee—a routine that must be particularly comforting given his upbringing in South Africa. We like them too, when we can find them in a bakery, as we did these superb versions in a coffee shop in Windhoek.

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We generally skip breakfast, but make up for it with another regular treat: bacon and egg sandwiches at a mid-morning halt, either prepared then (while boiling water for coffee in the volcano kettle), or fixed ahead of time, wrapped in aluminum foil, and then re-warmed on the engine block when we stop. On the Troopy we carry the gas (propane) bottle on a swing-away on the Kaymar rear bumper, and we have a burner that screws directly to the bottle, so setting it up to use a frying pan is quick; we leave it right on the mount. A Front Runner drop-down table on the Land Cruiser’s rear door serves perfectly as a prep station. 

The protein-rich sandwich provides plenty of fuel for the mid-day driving and navigating tasks, augmented by a late, light lunch, which carries us through the afternoon to camp, and another shared routine. Roseann immediately breaks out her journal to record our mileage, location, and the day’s events, then does a sketch or quick field painting of some notable event. Graham, meanwhile, fills in his with much the same notes, but goes on to record numerous details about the vehicle to which he can refer in minute detail later. Want to know what kind of fuel economy we each got between Alice Springs and Birdsville when we crossed the Simpson Desert via the Madigan line? Graham can tell you down to the tenth of a liter.

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Meanwhile I will be off snapping photos, which always seems like the lazy approach to recording when contrasted to Roseann and Graham’s diligence. By now, Connie has usually concocted some impossibly ornate tray of canapés with which we can enjoy possibly the best routine of all: sundowners.

I was introduced to the concept of cocktails-at-sundown on my first African safari, when a guide magically concocted iced G&Ts out of a canvas bar in the back of a Land Rover, and we watched a herd of 200 cape buffalo grazing in the last golden light over a plain in Zambia. Since I have tried to watch the sun set every day I can since I was a child, adding alcohol came as a natural why-didn’t-I-think-of-that revelation, and we now adhere to the tradition whenever possible while on the road.

Sundowners would make a good note to end this on, but I have one more routine to which I adhere whenever the sky is clear: Once it is fully dark, I check the sky for celestial sights. I confirm the appearance of favorite constellations depending on season and location: Orion, Scorpius, the Southern Cross and its two pointers. With binoculars I check planets: If Jupiter is  visible I can follow the linear dance of its four Galilean moons from night to night; if Saturn is up and on a closer approach to Earth I can make out the rings giving it an apparent oblong shape. (This was the best view Galileo himself ever got with his primitive telescopes, and he went to his grave thinking Saturn was an oblong planet.)

At the end of a day, what could ground one better than the assurance that the universe is still proceeding comfortingly along its majestic course, no matter what continent one is on?

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African safari guides and tire pressure . . .

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I’m not exactly sure why, but a lot of African and Australian 4x4s still run on split-rim (or, more properly, retaining-rim) wheels and massively belted bias-ply tires with tubes. It might be cost, the supposed (but illusory) ease of servicing in the field, or the brute resistance of those ten-ply tires to the abuse dished out by guides and other drivers who aren’t responsible for actually buying the equipment.

A related archaic practice is the resistance of drivers on those wheels and tires to do anything remotely resembling airing down in difficult conditions. Admittedly you cannot air down a tubed tire to the same degree you can a tubeless tire, for fear of tire squirm ripping the tube’s valve off, but you can certainly vary pressure to more or less suit conditions.

Uh uh, not these drivers. 

Graham Jackson and I recently got a hilarious example of this in the Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. We were parked at a pan watching hippos, crocodiles, and a very nonchalant leopard, when an open Land Cruiser equipped with the standard lodge safari seating module arrived, with two guides and a single guest. The driver came over and asked if I had an air source, as he had a right rear tire that was worryingly low. I pulled our Troopy next to his vehicle and hooked up the ARB Twin compressor, while Graham used our gauge to check the pressure in the suspect tire. He suppressed a smile and showed me the dial, which read a full 45 psi. Dutifully we hooked up the compressor and added ten more pounds. “Okay?” asked Graham, but the guide shook his head and pointed to the barely visible bulge in the tire above the tread. So Graham hooked up the hose again and said, “Say when.” The compressor buzzed, the tire tautened, the guide watched, Graham and I traded glances. Finally the guide nodded and said, “Okay,” apparently satisfied with the appearance of the tire.

Graham quickly checked the pressure again, and handed me the gauge. I snapped a photo before putting it away, with the needle pegged above 75 psi. (At the time we were riding on 24 psi in the rear and 20 in front (in a heavily loaded Troopy), to comfortably negotiate the sandy tracks in Moremi.)

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The amazing thing is that the guides get anywhere at all, although Graham has rescued some and Roseann and I have done likewise in East Africa.

Handbrakes. Don't be one.

This is a handbrake.

This is a handbrake.

Burned in my memory is the first time I read a post on a popular overlanding forum by a fellow who wanted to go on a particular trip, except, as he put it, “The handbrake won’t go if there aren’t bathrooms.”

I was confused for a fraction of a second, until I realized the guy was referring to a human being—specifically his wife.

Shocked, I looked at subsequent posts to enjoy him get flamed for such a demeaning reference. Not only did he not; he had plenty of company. Since then I’ve run across the term dozens of times.

So is this.

So is this.

I’m sure the guys who use the term would act like it was I who were offending them, and laugh it off as “just a joke” if confronted, just as my stepfather used to laugh it off as “just a joke” when he referred to people as Pollacks and Nips, and worse. Spare me. No one uses such a reference as “just a joke.” It is a dehumanizing put-down and points out its user as someone lacking even a vestige of class.

Now that I have that off my chest, I would like to address the very real issue of differing expectations and needs while on journeys, because there is no doubt that many couples have them—especially when dealing with divergent attitudes toward “roughing it.” And let’s be honest: While in some cases it is the other way around (I know of several personally), usually it is the female half of the couple who resists the inconveniences associated with “roughing it.” So what to do?

This is not.

This is not.

Easy: Just make it not rough.

One of the benefits of the explosion in interest in overlanding over the last decade is the commensurate explosion in equipment of all kinds. It has never been easier to bring along most of the comforts of home. Here’s a look by category.

Bathroom. This is the big point of resistance for most women. It’s easy for men to forget that for a woman, going “#1” is basically as involved as it is for a man going “#2.” Fortunately there are numerous ways to make the procedure both comfortable and private. You can store a pop-up enclosure in the back of the vehicle and deploy and un-deploy it in seconds if privacy is necessary or desired. Portable toilet systems now range from basic but surprisingly comfortable seats that fit over a five-gallon bucket with a liner, to porta-pottis with a water reservoir for flushing, and cassette toilets that simplify emptying later. Add something as simple as a tap on a five-gallon water can for washing, and you’ll have all the same things covered as you would at home: privacy, comfort, and cleanliness.

Shower. Closely related to the bathroom issue, since the enclosure can serve both. However, bathing and changing is much easier in a fairly large and decently windproof enclosure (i.e. not a pop-up), so there’s nothing wrong with carrying a compact pop-up for on-the-road bathroom breaks, as well as a larger enclosure for camp duty as both toilet and shower room. There are lots of excellent products on the market that will provide a hot shower, from simple but effective hanging bags heated by the sun to engine-mounted heat exchangers to propane-heated units with 12V powered pumps. Go with whatever level of luxury you feel your mate desires—or deserves.

Bedroom. If you have a camper or trailer this is pretty easy. If not, consider either a roof tent with a dressing room attachment, or a ground tent with standing headroom (e.g., a Turbo Tent or a Springbar, two of my favorites). Equip the ground tent with generously-sized cots, thick Therm-a-Rest camp mattresses, a flannel-lined sleeping bags, and a real pillow, and there’s a good chance your significant other will wake up the next morning and say, “That was more comfortable than our bed at home.”

Kitchen. You might be fine with spooning SpaghettiOs out of a can heated in the fire when you’re out on your own. Or you may have the full-on Snow Peak Iron Grill kit. In either case, when your mate is along you need to orient the kitchen and food to her (or his) taste. Does she do the cooking at home? If so, would she like to in the outdoors as well given a sufficiently well-equipped kitchen? Then make it so. If she cooks at home but has no desire to do so on the road, then do your finest to provide her with excellent meals. With the superb 12V fridges available now, there is no excuse not to bring fresh produce and meats and have menus fully the equivalent of those at home. And if getting her out means skipping camp food for restaurants now and then, do it. Along those lines . . .

Hotels. I’ve talked with a surprising number of both men and women who enjoy camping—just not for weeks at a time. If your situation is similar, then work out trips and itineraries so that camp days can alternate with hotel or lodge days on whatever schedule works best. Do this for a while and you might find you both start being happy with more days camping and fewer under roofs.

Overlanding does not have to be an all-or-nothing proposition, unless your loved one simply does not like camping at all, period. Even in that case it’s possible to compromise. Enjoy civilized trips together, then every once in a while you can take off on your own, skip showers for a week, pee on trees, and eat SpaghettiOs.

Just don’t be the handbrake on your relationship.

The Lion Man

If you're not familiar with him, his work—and his well-used vehicles—this interview on the Leisure Wheels site with Dr. Flip Stander, who studies desert lions in the Namib, is well worth the read. A donation would be well worth it, too. No, your eyes aren't deceiving you: That is a Toyota Hilux in the photo above, with a Land Rover roof and windshield Siamesed on top. Stander put over 750,000 kilometers on it before the South African Land Cruiser Club donated a Land Cruiser to his project. 

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.

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 delirium, 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.