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.
(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 . . . ?
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.
“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.
One day in the summer of 1993 Roseann and I were sitting in a café in the Canadian Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. We’d been having one of those time-warp conversations with a phlegmatic local whale hunter: He’d ask a question such as, “Where you from?” We’d answer, there’d be a two-minute silence, then, “How’d you get down the river?” We’d answer, then ask him a question: “Lived here long?” Two minutes, then, “Born here.” We were in no hurry, having just paddled sea kayaks 120 miles to get there, so it was a fun way to pass time and—slowly—learn something of the area.
After a while a couple came in—anglos, surprisingly, the first we’d seen since landing the day before. They sat nearby and said hello, and we struck up a conversation that must have seemed alarmingly hasty to the Ent-like whale hunter. They asked how we’d got to Tuk, and when we described our trip expressed open-mouthed admiration. They’d flown from Inuvik, it developed, and had left their pickup and camper there.
And as soon as they mentioned a truck and camper, I realized that the couple was Gary and Monika Wescott. It was my turn to be open-mouthed, as I’d been reading tales from the Turtle Expedition in Four Wheeler magazine for, what, 15 years already by then? I’d devoured the articles documenting the extensive modifications to their Land Rover 109 during the 1970s, had been disappointed but intrigued when they switched to a Chevy truck (which, even more intriguingly, vanished without comment soon after), and then followed the buildup of the Ford F350 that would prove to be the first of a series. Our Toyota pickup had a Wildernest camper on it at the time, but we were saving to buy a Four Wheel Camper of the same type that sat on the F350 Turtle II. Most recently, I’d read along as the Turtle Expedition completed an epic 18-month exploration of South America.
We saw each other over the next couple of days as we all took in the annual Arctic Games, watching harpoon-throwing contests and blanket tossing, and snacking on muktuk. Then we lost touch for 15 years (while they journeyed across Russia and Europe), until reconnecting when I edited Overland Journal.
Since 2009 the Wescotts have been regular instructors and exhibitors at the Overland Expo—until 2013, when they embarked from the show on their latest adventure, a two-year trans-Eurasian odyssey along the Silk Road.
Now we’re delighted to welcome Gary and Monika back from their journey. They will be giving presentations and taking part in roundtables at Overland Expo WEST 2015. Don’t miss a chance to meet these two personable and friendly travelers. Listening and watching as the Wescotts describe their journeys is both entertaining and inspiring, and their latest journey should be fertile ground for good tales.
Best of all, Gary and Monika are genuinely excited to share; there’s not a trace of bravado between them, despite being among the most-accomplished overlanders in the world (and still traveling). They travel because they are passionate about exploring and learning and sharing, not because they are trying to count coup or gain fame. It’s refreshing, and we are glad to have them back.
- Regional Q&A: Russia, Mongolia & Southeast Asia; Friday 2pm
- Regional Q&A: Europe, Eastern Europe & Iceland; Saturday 8am
- The Silk Road; Saturday 11am
- Experts Panel: Top Travel Tips; Saturday 1pm
Explore 40 years of adventures with the Turtle Expedition at http://turtleexpedition.com
In 1975, Squadron Leader Tom Sheppard led the Joint Services Expedition on the first west to east crossing of the Sahara Desert, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea—a trek that covered 7,500 miles and took 81 days coast to coast. The team used four of the very first production forward-control 1-tonne Land Rovers, two of which were equipped with powered-axle trailers driven from the rear PTO of the vehicles. In addition to completing the route, team members conducted a series of gravity measurements along the way, collected minerals, lizards, and bilharzia-bearing snails for researchers at the British Museum, and experimented with navigation techniques combining astro-fixes and sun compass bearings with calculations provided by what was then a cutting edge piece of technology: a Hewlett-Packard HP65 programmable pocket calculator.
Sheppard, already a desert veteran by that time, nevertheless learned much that would stand him in good stead on numerous solo Sahara treks by Land Rover and Mercedes G-Wagen, knowledge he subsequently shared through such books as the seminal Vehicle-Dependent Expedition Guide and Four-by-four Driving (not to mention his more introspective and lavishly photographed works such as Nobility of Wilderness and Quiet for a Tuesday: Solo in the Algerian Sahara).