A Journey Through South America…
This week we set off on our 27-week overland tour of South America. For the entire journey, 187 days, 9 countries and 36,000 kilometres, we will be travelling in a custom built truck named ‘Ithaca’.
Meet Ithaca – our trusty mode of transport for our overland trip across South America.
Joining A Group Expedition
We’ve travelled over land in the past when we journeyed through South East Asia. This was largely because the public transport system there is so well facilitated and really easy to use. Also if you’re a budget conscious backpacker, over-landing is a really cheap option for travelling between countries, particularly Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Having said that, our first thoughts of an overland trip in South America filled us with trepidation. We weren’t sure how well we would get on with the public transport network. Were routes well connected? Would transport be frequent and reliable? And most importantly, would it be safe? We didn’t want to be hanging around bus or train stations late at night with all our gear waiting for the next connection. We might have felt more confident had our knowledge of Spanish been more than a few simple phrases. So with these questions in mind we decided to join an organised overland tour where we are part of a group of 23 travellers, led by an experienced crew.
Now as seasoned travellers, we knew there would be both advantages and disadvantages to travelling in a group. But what swayed us in favour of an organised trip this time round was the fact our luggage is taken care of with a proper storage compartment in the truck. We don’t have to lug 20kg bags between bus and train stations and cram both the bags and ourselves onto public transport heaving with passengers. There’s also the safety and security aspect. There’s something reassuring about travelling alongside 23 other people in the same position as ourselves.
The men take charge of off-loading everyone’s luggage!
We also liked the idea of being able to reach more obscure destinations and get off the beaten path a little, which we wouldn’t be able to do easily using public transport. Being the sole driver, hiring a vehicle to cover South America just didn’t appeal. Since arriving in Buenos Aires and seeing the 12 lanes at Avenida de Julio and the sheer craziness of traffic, I’m glad about that decision!
A Passion For The Great Outdoors & Teamwork
On our overland trip, camping is the order of the day. We don’t want anyone to have illusions of us on a guided tour staying at boutique hotels. Our itinerary focusses on camping for 70% of the time and this consists of pitching the tent at established camp sites, as well as setting up camp out in the wilderness with no facilities. Plus we all have assigned roles such as keeping the truck clean, setting up the camp, collecting firewood, and performing general kitchen duties, alongside being part of a cooking team on a rota basis, so that this whole adventure should run like clockwork!
Our first bushcamp & successful tent erection!
We were told that the worst job to be assigned was ‘truck wallah’. This involves collecting money and paperwork on behalf of the group (a nightmare at a group meal when everything is put on the same bill and people want to pay separate). And low and behold, this was the job I was given, alongside setting out camp chairs when we arrive at a new campsite. I’m thinking they picked me because of the whole teacher organisation thing! I think I would have preferred a cleaning job like mopping out the truck, which is already filthy from everyone’s muddy boots.
The first work rota of the trip!
Wayne being the ‘man’ was sent off to collect firewood and for now is in charge of getting the tents out of the truck and putting them away again before leaving camp. (We are hoping these jobs change and we don’t have to do them for the entire 187 days!) We have yet to perform cooking duties as we are in groups 3 and 6. (Watch this space for a future post on campsite cooking for 20+ people!) I have also been put down for ‘Xmas Crew’. We are yet to discover what this involves – maybe seeking out some decorations or organising a ‘Secret Santa’. But I’m prepared with Christmas songs on my MP3 player. I just couldn’t fit my reindeer jumper or a mini-tree in my bag! (Believe me I tried!)
All Good Fun…
After our first day of travelling on the truck, we have already experienced a bushcamp. Our journey into Patagonia involved a 2 day drive, so after 9 hours of driving on Day 1 we stopped by a lake and bush-camped for the night. After a quick tour around the truck, Ithaca has lots of great storage compartments and quirky features, we had a lesson on erecting our tents. These are 2-man, heavy duty, dome tents and relatively easy and quick to put up with two people. What’s fun about them is that each tent has been named after an English pub, so there was the likes of ‘The Royal Oak’, ‘The Red Lion’ and ‘The Fox & Hounds’. We were hoping for a tent named ‘The Grove’ after our own local, but had to settle for ‘The Cherry Tree’. Someone had already claimed the ‘Wetherspoons’! They are quite roomy for two and we actually got a good night’s sleep in our new Rab 3-season goose down sleeping bags. (Good choice Wayne).
A fantastic location for our first bushcamp experience.
After putting the tents up, we all got to task with our relevant jobs and camp was ready. Cook Group 1 did a great job preparing and making a traditional spaghetti bolognese. We’re already used to these one-pot specials when camping! Then we all settled down with a beer to reward ourselves for our efforts and watched a beautiful sunset over the lake… But no chance to party, it was an early night for everyone as we were told we were departing at 7am…
Cook group have been hard at work preparing food ready for dinner.
So Why Overland? The Advantages…
First of all, overlanding is better for the environment. Travelling in the truck together is like one giant car share and has got to be less polluting than each of us flying between the different countries of South America. Yes it takes longer, but that’s a good thing on a trip of this magnitude. You really get to see a place – from the shape of the landscape, flora and fauna, wildlife, buildings, people – by driving right through it. Plus you get to interact with locals by stopping at supermarkets and services along the way, which puts something back into the local economy and helps a little.
Overlanding enables you to visit off-the-beaten path places with relative ease. We have already experienced the might and will of Ithaca and the skill of our driver Simon as he took us off the motorway onto a dirt track down to the lake where we bushcamped. On public transport, you couldn’t just decide to stop at the lake and get off the bus, if you even went past it at all.
Meet Simon, our designated driver!.
Overlanding as part of group tour removes the stress and hassle of planning a route, looking for campsites and booking accommodation. Basically the logistics and itinerary, route planning, accommodation and campsites are already organised. All we have to do is make sure our passports are valid, that we have got the appropriate visas, have the appropriate funds and then really just show up.
Overlanding with a large group of people can also prove beneficial in terms of safety in numbers and security of possessions. With everyone in the same position, people are keen to keep everyone and everything safe and secure and have a shared responsibility for the group. This gives everyone confidence with new places and things that are unfamiliar.
As part of a large group of people that have signed up to do the very same thing, you are also hopefully going to meet and interact with like-minded travellers. Swapping travel tales around the campfire, sharing tips and inspiring others to visit places they have not yet been is likely to be the order of the day!
Some Disadvantages To Overlanding
If you don’t like camping, this isn’t for you. There’s no ‘glamping’ involved in a bushcamp! You’ve got to be prepared to pee behind a bush or dig a hole and do your business, plus go without a shower for a couple of days. (That’s where I knew the wet wipes and dry shampoo would come in handy!) There’s also no designated pitches – you’ve just got to hunt for the flattest spot to pitch the tent, preferably away from a wasp nest or anthill.
We have said why overlanding in a large group is beneficial. However the downside is you are in a large group. This means you’ve all got to get along, muck in, be fair and accept a group majority – even if it’s not really your thing.
All hands on deck… Or maybe not!
With overlanding on a group tour the itinerary is set. You don’t have the flexibility as with planning your own trip. So if departing camp is set for 7am you need to be ready, there’s no deciding to stay at the campsite for one more night or laying in the tent with a hangover – especially if you have cooking duty to take care of.
On that note, having set times for getting up, set meal times, and set times for departing campsites can all seem regimental. Be prepared for little or no flexibility on things such as these.
We all like to have a clean space and a good meal. Great if you’re not the one on duty that day! Group responsibilities and tasks that need to be done before you can go off and have a little ‘r & r’ can sometimes be overbearing especially when you’ve had a hard day on the road and just want to sleep. It’s a good job we take turns.
Custom-built in the UK, Ithaca is our lovely bright blue and orange overland truck. I had visions of a ‘Big Brother’ house on wheels! Ithaca is not quite as chic but she is extremely robust and perfect for the rough roads and hard terrain we have to cover.
Our overland truck has seats for 24 passengers.
There are 24 seats on board plus 2 in the cab. Some seats are positioned around tables and all have a good amount of legroom. We have been asked to swap it about and not claim the same seats each day, so we’ve sat right at the back and right at the front so far. There are some charging points on board to recharge phones, cameras and tablets etc and some lockable storage boxes. We also have a large fridge which is halved for food and alcohol. (Seeing as the beer was all drunk on the first night’s bushcamp we are stopping at a supermarket on route today to re-stock it!)
The front of the truck has a library to keep people entertained during long driving days.
On the outside of the truck their are numerous compartments used to store tents, chairs, cooking equipment, firewood, gas and we have a fold out double grill attached for cooking dinner. The truck also has a huge treated water tank providing us with clean, drinkable water when bushcamping.
The cook station.
So as you can see, Ithaca is well equipped and well cared for. Some of our assigned roles involve cleaning the truck’s windows and mopping out the floors. It’s important to keep the truck in good condition especially as we still have a lot of ground to cover!
Overlanding – Is It For You?
Our experience of overlanding so far is one that we pretty much expected. You have to go into a trip like this with your eyes firmly open, particularly with the amount of time spent camping and the teamwork that’s involved to keep everything running smoothly.
Those tales around the campfire are already flowing and we’ve already found ourselves adding some new places to visit in China to our ever-expanding list. I’m sure we’ll have our ups and downs and maybe the rest of the group will want us to be quiet for a while, but overall we’ve found ourselves amongst a great group of travellers!
And so the journey continues…