Ever Thought About Overlanding?
I’m certainly not your average overlanding material. For the past 18 months I’ve been slowly making my way via public transport through some of South America’s least-visited destinations.
But I’m always open to new forms of travel, and thanks to last year’s Gapyear.com and Rough Guides writing competition, I recently found myself jumping on-board a Dragoman overlanding truck. With my 23 new travel friends, I was ready to take a once in a lifetime adventure through some of Argentina and Chile’s most splendid scenery.
34 days later and here’s what I learned about overlanding: the good, the bad and the downright scary, but above all, why it should definitely be top of your travel list.
Need new friends? You’ll go home with a whole bunch
As a concept, overlanding doesn’t seem too far from a sadistic social experiment or the fundamental principles of Big Brother: put 24 strangers into a confined space for a month and see what happens. Sparks will fly, bodily fluids will most likely be shared, and you’re guaranteed to see far more nudity than you ever anticipated. Most importantly, you’ll be surprised when you make it to the end of the first week and you’ve not been asked to vote anyone off yet.
Despite these worrying similarities, overlanding does guarantee you at least one thing: you’ll gain new friends quicker than you can contract scabies in a budget hostel shower. Sharing a 10am whisky and coke as you wait for a flat tyre to be fixed, deliriously bellowing discordantly along to Michael Jackson after you’ve conquered El Torres del Paine’s ‘W’ walk, and never quite getting over the fact that the passenger charged with truck security somehow lost the door handle, will ensure friendships that last well beyond the moment the truck pulls up at its final destination.
Of course, you’re never going to be besties with everyone on the truck, but you’ll be struck by how immediately you bond with those around you. Go in with an open mind and free of preconceptions and you’ll be surprised by the friendships that fall into your comfortably-seated lap.
You learn to appreciate nature – particularly bushes
One of the finest parts of overlanding is the option of bush camping: the silence of being hundreds of miles from civilization, the insanely beautiful blanket of stars under which you pitch the tent, and even the wind that blows the tent down in the middle of the night, making you crawl desperately to sleep in the truck. Taking the ‘toilet trowel’ for that special moment between you and nature will also soon feature as an interesting part of the experience.
Getting down and dirty with the great outdoors will also do wonders for any shyness or prudishness that you might have: ‘bush wees’ (just you, the side of the road and a line of other white asses) will soon be a natural part of your everyday travels. You’ll find yourself always peeing side by side with the same person and realising the strange but enduring bond that this creates.
I quickly learned that, to ensure that these interactions with Mother Nature are the most pleasant possible, a warm sleeping bag, a pair of flip flops and a secret, emergency toilet roll are indispensable items.
You’ll put your cooking skills to the test
Overlanding is all about sharing the day-to-day running of the truck, and this includes feeding the hungry mouths of your truck mates, rain or shine.
You’ll need to be resourceful with what you can find in the shops (some of which look like you’ve just entered a wartime British pantry) and battling to produce a curry for 24 people in a gale is no mean feat. But, you’ll have grateful, satiated friends to thank you afterwards, and even more so if you avoid giving them food poisoning. It hardly needs to be mentioned that a dicky tummy does not make for a comfortable bush ‘wee’.
Arriving with some knowledge of using a stove, some basic recipes and how to avoid killing people through your cooking will make the whole experience far more bearable.
Compared with backpacking, overlanding is just sooo easy
As someone used to 21-hour overnight buses where my crocodile-like capacity for one-eyed sleeping comes into play, overlanding in your own private truck is just so damn stress-free. You get on, you load your stuff in, pop your lunch in the fridge and that’s it. No worrying about some dodgy person eyeing up your camera bag, just thoughts about how long you’re planning on kipping until you persuade someone to play a game of eye-spy with you.
This is what makes overlanding so great: it’s your vehicle, which means you can have all the toilet stops and diversions to random places that you might want. For us, a morning visiting the King Penguin Colony in Tierra del Fuego and later, The Cave of Painted Hands near Perito Moreno, were experiences that would never have been an option on normal public transport.
The ease of having everything you need accessible on-board can also not be underestimated. I can’t count the number of times we opened a chilled bottle of Chilean white from the on-board fridge as we pulled up at our accommodation for the night – an option most certainly not available on your average bus.
Travelling as a group is the most rewarding part
Travelling alone, you’re constantly forced to run through the standard list of travel questions: “Where are you from?” “How long are you travelling” yawn, yawn, I’ve stopped caring.
But with group travel, this information has been established on day one, leaving you free to discuss life’s important topics: what exactly is a ‘merkin’ and how does it differ from the Chilean spice ‘merkén’? What are the best ways of swearing in the Afrikaans language? What happens if you try and cross the Chilean-Argentinean border with a marker-pen moustache?
Community life can also be quickly established by insisting that the shout of “buddies!” to ensure you haven’t left anyone behind after a pee stop becomes “fuck buddies!”, and yelling it out to a surprised set of Argentinian passengers on a public bus will also build rapport.
Unlike single travel, where you change your travel companions more regularly than your underwear, overlanding is the chance to establish your own travelling family. I know that any mention of a merkin, or reference to fuck buddies, will from now on fill me with an insatiable nostalgia as I recall the wonderful days I spent in the middle of nowhere with that random assortment of people I now call friends.
It might all go slightly tits up – but that’s the adventure
Overlanding does advertise itself as a form of travelling where things might not go exactly to plan, but that’s all part of the fun, right? We had the unfortunate luck that our truck broke down and had to be abandoned for some time in the suitably apocalyptically nicknamed “End of the World” (aka Ushuaia, Argentina).
Despite this, our group leaders worked hard to keep the itinerary on track. It soon became a running joke that we were cursed, thanks to the truck failure and the fact that even our final hostel was shut, forcing us to find alternative accommodation at the last minute. But, thanks to good weather, fantastic leaders, and our own unfailing patience, the group continued to bond and a real sense of community was established. Everyone was genuinely sad to say goodbye when we finished in Santiago.
Ultimately, overlanding requires you to go into the experience with a recognition that not everything may go as you originally anticipated, but that the attitude you bring with you, and openness to appreciate your surroundings even if things aren’t going as planned, will determine whether you enjoy every minute.
For us, we soon learned to make the most of the fact that, despite lacking a truck, we were blessed to find ourselves in the wilds of Patagonia, which I can now say without hesitation is definitely one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Hurrah for overlanding!