By ,11-Dec-2013 10:10:00
Drugs on holiday - probably a bad idea, a bit like drugs at home for that matter. I don’t really understand why some people differentiate, choosing to indulge in countries where the punishment could involve being buried up to the neck and used as a quoits post, yet abstaining at home where a slapped wrist is likely all they’d receive. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t take drugs (see review of Garmin eTrex 10 GPS) either travelling or at home. I may be boring but at least I’m consistent.
By ,14-Oct-2013 10:16:00
Now, I'm not a huge fan of clothes. That isn't to say I'm a naturist who travels the globe touring nudist beaches, camping in a teepee at music festivals and coming down to breakfast with the old fella tucked under one arm. What I mean is that I'm not particularly bothered about the age of what I wear, especially on the road. I own some clothes and I try to wear each one until it falls apart, then I throw it away reluctantly (ask my missus) and reach for the next t-shirt on the shelf.
By ,29-Sep-2013 00:34:00
In 2005 I travelled across the Nubian Desert, in North Sudan, in a variety of pick-up trucks. During the penultimate leg my poor backpack was strapped to the flank of a Toyota Hilux, where she likely received the worst punishment any pack could reasonably endure and still remain in one piece. On reaching Dongola I almost wept at the sight of her as she fell limply from her strapping like a drowned corpse, and that night I lovingly washed her, dabbing her furrowed lid with a damp cloth. In time, she recovered, and carried my gear all the way to Cape Town, and a couple of years later all around South East Asia. What a pack!
By ,20-Aug-2013 11:51:00
How many sleeping bags do you own? Now, how many do you think you should own? Big question. I received my first proper sleeping bag one Christmas – a synthetic fill model by Ajungilak of Norway. Great bag – I’ve still have it 20 years later, although I don’t use it anymore. It’s probably a collector’s item, worth thousands. I’ll tell you what - $500 and it’s yours. I’ll even wash it first. Okay, $350. It’s in good nick, just a couple of stains. $200? You’re killing me here; I’m cutting my own throat!
Where was I? Oh yes. “Great,” I thought, “A sleeping bag! All my camp night woes are over.” And I was right, for a while. Rewrite the same scene today and I’d be thinking “Pfft! One sleeping bag? What am I supposed to do with that? Talk about limiting my options.” Okay, let’s cut to the chase - how many bags should you own? I’d say the absolute minimum is three: a super-lightweight synthetic one, for travelling; a super-warm one, for winter hiking/mountaineering; something that covers every other eventuality. I reluctantly admit that many travellers have to make do with one - the all-rounder - which is why I’m reviewing it, and Sea to Summit’s Micro McIII is my do-it-all bag.
By ,04-Aug-2013 16:00:00
Self-sufficiency – the watchword of the nWD traveller, along with night-bus, streatery and discombobulation. The road is tough on gear (hence the practice of taking only my oldest, shabbiest stuff) so one should always have the necessities on hand for running repairs. After all, one spends a disproportionate amount of time waiting (for transport, on transport, on transport to be repaired having broken down one hour into a 12 hour journey), time which can be put to good use with a sewing kit.
My personal kit comprises: a reel of black cotton; a reel of white cotton; a set of needles; a large button; a small button; safety pins. All of this fits neatly inside a compact film canister which lives in my mini equipment cell which in turn lives in the profound depths of my pack. If one wanted to get fancy one could include coloured thread, a thimble and maybe one of those ridiculous needle-threaders (is it really that difficult?). There should be scissors in your first aid kit so no need to double up there.
I suppose, if you couldn’t scrounge the individual components, you could purchase a purpose-built travel sewing kit. I believe airlines have been known to include such things in their business and first class welcome packs, although I’ve never been lucky/rich enough to find out. The same goes for expensive hotel rooms.
I’ve mended many things on the road, from trousers and t-shirts to my pack and sleeping bag. Heavier-duty items may require assistance from the handy cobblers that litter third-world pavements, usually as numerous as the charity muggers here in Australia. They will whip your footwear into shape in minutes for a pittance and a smile. On our memorable trip through Africa I had my sandals repaired at least once in every country throughout the length of the continent. It seemed like each week the poor things would start to come apart in a subtly different way, and the ingenuity of the various elves I contracted was a pleasure to behold. I’m amazed they lasted so long, at least until Tanzania where I ditched them for a pair of bespoke Maasai clunkers made from old tyres. Now those bastards never wear out.
If pickpockets are a threat, try sewing up your pockets. It’s the only way to block the nimble fingers of trained street-children from Rome to Mumbai. Speaking of Mumbai, I was once relieved of cash there in quite a different way – by a smooth-talking French junkie. He must have spotted me for a 1st time, 2nd rate 3rd world-er and approached me with a hard-luck story about being robbed, beaten and jailed by the police. He claimed his brother was wiring him some money but he just needed a few hundred rupees to rent a room until that came through. He was quite convincing, even throwing in a detail about having co-written the Indonesia chapter of Lonely Planet’s SE Asia guidebook – a nice touch, and one which impressed my naïve mind.
I was by no means won over, I may have lacked experience but I was born a cynic, but I agreed to loan him 300Rp. It was only about $5 but a significant amount out of my budget, and equal in value to five night’s accommodation. He said he’s send the cash on to a post office in Goa, my next stop. I didn’t really believe that part but still I was surprised when I saw him the following day – lying on a scrap of cardboard in the gutter, smacked up to the eyeballs. That was the moment I waved goodbye to my innocence and never trusted any beggar again, local or traveller. Maybe I should have sewn up my ears.
[Non-warmduscher option: sellotape]
Not satisfied? I don’t blame you.
By ,21-Jul-2013 16:00:00
Ah, the old waterproofs dilemma: wherever you’re going, unless it’s Antarctica, there’ll be a chance of rain, so you really should take some weather protection. Of course, it might not rain, you damn well don’t want it to, and weight is at a premium, so you resent carrying them, never mind buying them in the first place. Is it really necessary?
Okay, so if you’re planning on hiking that’s a definite affirmative (and yes, even the over trousers) because if you get soaked out in the wilderness you’ll be uncomfortable or, worse, dead. But general travelling? Surely you can just duck into a shop or a café? That is a possibility but there are inherent dangers. During one afternoon cloudburst in Sihanoukville, Cambodia Gerda and I popped into a convenience store to escape and only emerged several hours later, well after the storm had passed, drunk on Klang beer. Klang is actually Khmer for elephant although the word also onomatopoeically describes the state of one’s head the morning after drinking it.
Where was I? Ah yes, if the aforementioned downpour is tropical (usually brief and scheduled to the minute) then you can plan to avoid it but sustained drizzle can really dampen your day, especially if you have a weather-dependent outing planned and only no spare days. There’s nothing worse than waking up early for an adventure-filled day’s sailing around the spectacular limestone karsts of Halong bay, Vietnam and thrusting open the curtains (if you’re lucky enough to have any) to reveal a leaden sky throwing down rain drops the size gin n’ tonics. A beautiful beach destination is never quite same when you’re drier in the sea than on the sand.
So, we’ve established that rainwear is useful. Modern waterproof/jackets are excellent but if space is an issue then there are options:
a) You could drop $800 on the latest ultra-packable Gore-Tex jacket from Arc’teryx.
b) You could buy disposable plastic ponchos for a couple of dollars apiece whenever the need arises. I did exactly this when hiking the Inca Trail in Peru, and the 223km Larapinta Trail in Central Australia. Both times it rained and I ended up slimy with sweat and stinking like a fishmonger, but I saved myself carrying a jacket for the rest of those trips.
Curiously enough I observed an interesting phenomenon in Vietnam: on any given day the scooter riders (90% of the traffic) would be self-cooled in the tropical heat by the self-generated breeze. The second the inevitable afternoon storm hit I would look around from my hastily-found shelter to see every one of those previously-uncovered riders swathed in a full-length plastic poncho. Yet at no point did I ever see one of them stop to don said garment – they were just simultaneously on. What’s more, after ten minutes of biblical deluge, lo and behold, every rider would just as suddenly be poncho-less in the sunshine. I saw this many times but never worked out how they did it.
c) The Helly Hansen Stratos. It’s light, windproof and packs down to the size of a baboon’s prostate. It is coated with a durable water repellent chemical which is quite remarkable in its hydrophobia, but it isn’t fully waterproof – after 15 minutes of average-strength rain water will start leaking through the unsealed seams – but it is a good compromise. Call it emergency protection to stuff in the bottom of your pack and then struggle to locate when urgently necessary.
Option c is what I chose on my last trip and I was very impressed. Well, I only used it a handful of times but then I was lucky with the weather. If it was properly raining I stayed inside, of course. Look, I still had to buy a crappy $2 poncho for the six-day hike up Roraima in Venezuela but the Stratos is not built to cope under such conditions. It isn’t waterproof! One has to know one’s limitations. As long as I didn’t wear it outside in the actual rain – it was perfect!
[Non-warmduscher option: bin bag]
Not satisfied? I don’t blame you. Read a real review of the HH Stratos instead.
By ,08-Jul-2013 12:44:00
Oh Lonely Planet – what have you become?
I used to scoff at guidebooks when I first started travelling. My first trip, in 1991, was supposed to be just myself and a good buddy, a couple of young chaps raising hell across Europe. But, he decided to bring along his new American girlfriend from university, and she invited her sister, and her sister invited her best friend, and suddenly the two of us were overrun with dictatorial San Diegans with plans, itineraries, lists and timetables. I hadn’t even thought further than Amsterdam – our first stop - but one of them had a Let’s Go Europe guidebook which she wielded like the Necronomicon. I never looked at it but I was happy to follow them wherever they wanted to go, figuring that surely everywhere in Europe was interesting so I couldn’t lose. I could, and did, but that’s another story.
My 2nd trip, up the east coast of Australia (solo this time – I’m a quick learner) was reliant on tourist information and hearsay but I did travel for a while with someone who had a Lonely planet book – the first one I ever saw. Again, I barely glanced at it. It was only on my next adventure – India – that I was welcomed into the guidebook fold. My mother heavily suggested some help and, more importantly, paid for it. After my first late-night train arrival in a dusty country town with no electricity or English-language signage, I was hooked.
Over my next few continents I tried and tested various publications and eventually settled on Lonely Planet as my guide of choice. It was their Shoestring series that I really used – weighty, continent-wide tomes that would detail every possible tactic for saving and scrimping. From “You can walk to here,” and “Don’t believe the young chancers hanging around the entrance – you don’t need a guide,” to the ubiquitous “Cheapest rooms in town”, I hung on their every word and followed their every recommendation through Central America, South America, Europe, Africa etc. Thanks to the so-called Lonely-Planet Effect I knew exactly where to find some like-minded travellers when I needed company. I even shopped specifically for trousers that had a cargo pocket large enough for my trusty companion. We were together for life.
Then Lp revamped their format, moving all the useful stuff from the front pages to a Survival Guide in the back. I wasn’t happy (I fear change) but I rolled with it. In 2011 though, they changed again, catastrophically. This time there was no getting away from it – they were blatantly pandering to flash-packers and, worse, tourists! Of course, they’d always had their money-making volumes: ‘Discovery spinoffs, city guides and coffee-table books, but the traditional destination guides had still been aimed at us – their hardcore base, the backpacking masses who discovered places for them to write about.
No more. These new editions sported colour, fold-out maps and dozens of pointless sections detailing every conceivable itinerary for people with little time and less imagination: Regions at a Glance, Top Experiences, Month by Month etc. Why not just hand out pre-drawn routes on a map and have done with it? You’d think being in an industry with a built-in obsolescence would be enough, but no - they were digging up their own roots. Lonely Planet - the guidebook that ate itself.
And so to the Caribbean Islands book, which I used on my most recent trip. (As well as this volume I did, for the first time, download some chapters to read on my father’s Kindle but that was an absolute disaster. It was impossible trying to browse them or quickly find information – never again.) Anyway, this was my first test of their new format and I was mightily disappointed: this is no shoestring guide. Granted, the region isn’t known as a budget destination but there are affordable places, yet almost no budget options are recorded between Trinidad and Haiti. For instance, St Lucia’s airport is only a couple of kilometres from the capital, Castries, yet walking is not mentioned as an option. Only two hotels are listed in the city, the most economic of which is $50, yet as we walked we discovered, not 100m from the end of the runway, a hotel that was cheaper than any priced on the entire island. Massive fail!
Now this is my question: was the guide useless because Lp has turned into a digital nanny for weekend city-escapees and gappers financed by their parents to experience a little life before being trapped forever in soulless careers, or was this particular title deliberately not aimed at backpackers? And if not, why not? We get everywhere, you know! Hey, Tony, don’t forget about us! This is when we need you the most. Why hast thou forsaken meeeeee!
Okay, just in case it is the latter I’ll give you one more chance. Damn it, you're still probably the best. One more! You’d better pull your finger out, Loners, or I’m gonna have to Rough it.
[Non-warmduscher option: just ask the locals, dude]
Not satisfied? I don’t blame you. Read a real review of Lonely Planet instead.
By ,24-Jun-2013 11:41:00
Adaptability – always a good thing, whether it’s switching effortlessly between riding a pushbike and flying an AH-64D Apache Longbow helicopter, or helping a European hairdryer power up from an American wall socket. No prizes for guessing which of those scenarios most resembles the daily grind of the Skross family of adaptors.
Electricity is a pain in the arse to the traveller. 2-pole, 3-pin, earthed, 220v, 120v, 2.1 amp … “WHY CAN’T IT ALL BE THE SAME??” we cry. Well, then we might as well all use the same money and speak the same language – it’s all part of the rich tapestry of travel. It is still a pain the arse though, especially in these modern times when half your pack weight seems to be taken up by chargeable electronic devices: your phone, tablet, camera, laptop, iPod, speakers, even a portable power source. Back in the old days the most technological item in your arsenal was your torch and now even that simple piece of kit is an over-complicated beast with seven modes, three power options and bright enough to light up the moon. Even your passport has a chip so that your identity can be stolen and sold to a Somali immigrant and before you know it you’ll be arrested in Woolworths for piracy on the high seas.
I digress. Some sort of travel adaptor is clearly necessary for most travellers, and after a thorough search of the internet I found this little Swiss beauty – the Skross World Adaptor EVO USB. Why was I searching the internet, contributing to the death of retail? Well, because of Australia’s progressive/antiquated nanny-state legality, that’s why, where adaptors which do not convert voltage cannot be sold. Adaptors with inputs and outputs for all the gizmos in the world, such as this Skross thingummy, are not clever enough to also convert the voltage coming from the socket to that exactly required to safely power the gizmo. So rather than trust her good citizens to read the destructions and use the device safely, she has ruled to ban them altogether. What’s next – ban hedge trimmers in case some idiot tries to use one to shave?
I digress. The consequences of voltage non-conversion are ignored or safely dealt with by most of the rest of the world, but what are these potential consequences? Well, if the power output is 110 volts and one plugs in a 230 volt hairdryer, the device *gasp* might not work properly! Imagine that hairdryer only blowing vaguely warm air weakly across your fair locks. Noooooo! Thank you over-protective Australian government – you’ve saved us all from a horrific fate! I’m being flippant, of course. Try the same experiment the other way around and the resultant surge could blow the fuse or melt the power cable, set fire to the curtains and burn down the guesthouse, and possibly the entire slum district in which it is located. Stranger things have happened, such as the time I inadvertently caused the collapse of the Argentine economy by over-exerting myself in the bathroom. Damn that butterfly effect.
If, however, you decide to risk your life by using this adaptor, you will also get the benefits of its twin USB outlets – a boon for 80% of the common travellers’ charging needs. And the elegant lines and ergonomically-curved buttons and sliders are worthy of H.R. Giger, the famous Swiss biomechanical artist and designer, even more so were the unit moulded in the shape of a twisted penile shaft. Maybe a Giger/Skross collaborative special edition adaptor is in the works? The possibilities are endless.
[Non-warmduscher option: jam it in the wall and hope for the best]
Not satisfied? I don’t blame you. Read a real review of the Skross Adaptor instead.
How was it for you, dear?
By ,10-Jun-2013 07:49:00
Spillage - never a good thing, whether it be an environmental accident or a more embarrassing, private matter. If only Nalgene made a device for minimising either of those scenarios. Come on Nalgene! Get your act together! We shouldn’t be too hard on them though – at least they have addressed the spillage issue on their wide-mouth bottles, and very successfully at that.
The easy-sipper is an ingeniously-designed plastic widget that jams into the aforementioned mouth making it possible to drink from the bottle without afterwards resembling the victim of a Songkran attack. Thai new year water-throwing festivals aside, try drinking from a WM in a moving vehicle and then calculate the proportion of liquid in your mouth vs. your clothing. And God forbid that liquid should be juice or *gasp* alcohol!
Nalgene have good reasons for opening their mouths so wide (ease of cleaning, addition of ice cubes etc) and the Easy-sipper neatly enhances that functionality. Having said that, $4.95 (in Australia) seems a bit steep for a few grams of plastic that can’t cost more than 10c to mould. Of course, once Nalgene have paid for production in their Chinese factory and turned a profit, the local distributor and retailer must also profit. And it’s not impossible that same Chinese factory churns out the exact same unit on the night shift (minus the brand stamp) and sells it on to a 3rd party company to flog cheap on the internet.
Speaking of drinking problems, I once spent 6 weeks driving around Namibia with my wife-to-be, Gerda, in an aged VW Golf – not the perfect vehicle for graded dirt roads through the Kalahari but the only one we had. On one particularly ill-advised expedition we set off to hike up the Spitzkoppe – a tall, smooth, granite inselberg stuck out in the desert miles from anywhere – with only a litre of water between us, in the hottest part of the day.
That reminds me, the roads around southern Namibia are often lined with extra-tall wire fences to prevent the passage of springboks between the surrounding farms. These agile antelopes can leap up to 4m in the air (‘pronking’) and thus normal cattle fences prevent no obstacle. On one remote back road we encountered a ‘bok in our path. Naturally he was concerned by our vehicle and began running, the high fences either side funnelling him forwards. We followed slowly but this was a very long, very straight stretch of road with few exits and we were making poor time.
Rather than continue worrying him for hours I decided to overtake but the faster I drove, the faster he ran. I accelerated little by little, amazed it his speed and endurance as he kept pace ahead of us. Soon we were racing along at over 80kph, a dangerous speed on a rough dirt road. Fortunately he couldn’t keep that up forever and as we drew level the poor beast panicked and tried to turn too fast, stumbling head-first into the dust. Ouch. We felt awful (G even shed a tear) but he got up okay and trotted away in our rear-view mirror. Shame.
Anyway, after getting lost a couple of times among the giant marbles littering the base of the Spitzkoppe, we finally found the correct path. By then we’d drunk all the water and the sun had reached its boiling zenith. We topped out a couple of hours later, already thirsty, and by the time we staggered back to the car we were dangerously dehydrated and still a long drive from any shops or other water sources.
The situation was looking sketchy until G remembered the box of icy poles we’d stuck in the boot that morning at our last camp site. They had mostly melted during the day but were still sweet, colourful tubes of sticky, lifesaving fluid. After sucking down five each of those we had enough energy to drive the 35km to the general store at Usakos. At least, we did until we came bumper-to-horns with a game young springbok down the road!
[Non-warmduscher option: one of those cheap fakes that doesn’t fit properly and leaks anyway]
Not satisfied? I don’t blame you. Read a real review of the Nalgene Easy-Sipper instead.
By ,27-May-2013 12:17:00
I recognize this place – it’s where we arrived three months ago. I ate at the same little plaza and watched the young muchachos riding their toy cars. Yes, I’ve closed the loop, gone full circle and circumnavigated the Caribbean Sea. I can’t believe it all went so smoothly and the best thing is that, for the first time ever after a full-sized trip, I have a job, flat and relationship waiting for me at home! All I have to do is remember how to prepare a meal, and I can assure you I won’t be cooking rice or fried chicken for a long time.
Cuba was great – my favourite country of the trip. Of course we partook of all the essential experiences: old American cars; crumbling colonial architecture; mojitos; salsa & son with the locals. The biggest surprise was some incredible cavern diving which was certainly on a par with the cenotes of the Yucatan. There’s nothing like floating through a 50m deep canyon, illuminated only by a narrow shaft of sunlight shooting through the tiny entrance hole above. Nothing compares.
My highlight of Cuba though was the lack of advertising – there is almost none whatsoever. The view in every direction remained free of the modern blight of billboards and hoardings, blocked only by the occasional mural praising Che or Fidel. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this. Ugly, manipulative messages have somehow been taken for granted by today's world as necessary. How ridiculous. I could rant for pages on this topic but suffice it to say that it was refreshing to enjoy Cuba, within and without the cities, free from giant, leering faces and their insincere hyperbole.
We were joined in our last week by Mucki, a good friend of mine from Austria. Mucki was one of the founding fathers of the non-warmduscher movement that formed in Nicaragua in 2001 (see history) and although I’ve seen him many times since then we’ve haven’t travelled together until now. I was looking forward to examining his nWD credentials after the passage of 12 years. Of course I had the advantage over him having been on the road for nearly 3 months, whereas he was technically only on holiday, but time had clearly softened the man. I remember him dragging us all around Granada searching for the cheapest bottle of rum in the city, even I was getting exasperated, and yet now he insisted on spending several times the minimum for a taste of Havana Club Añejo Reserva. Don’t get me wrong, Mucki isn’t a complete, full-blown, all-singing all-dancing warmduscher just yet, but he’s clearly feeling the inevitable pull of comfort and the ridiculousness of resisting it for no valid reason.
A little older, a little more financially stable – it’s easy to let standards slip, to think “Dammit, why shouldn’t I have an entrée? I can afford it.” Therein lies the slippery slope. Before you know it you’re sitting in a bar on Gringo Alley buying $3 mojitos instead of sitting on the pavement outside with a $3 bottle of rum. These last 13 weeks of semi-warmduscher behavior have taken their toll on me: I have found it harder and harder to argue against the fancy restaurant or the taxi, my once-staunch resistance fading into a brief exhalation of resignation, content to blame the other party for leading me astray. At times I would think back to my trip through Africa, to spending hours asking the prices of every hotel and pension in town just to save a measly $1. Would I still do that, I wonder, if I could afford not to? Unburdened by warmduschers I would have no excuse. I want to remain true to my roots but I’m only getting older. There’s no disgrace in that, is there? I’ll just have to wait and see if I can still walk the talk.
My Dad left a couple of days before me, back to the UK for his operation. I don’t know when I’ll see him again. He snuck out before breakfast on the morning of his flight, explaining through Rosa, the landlady, that “He no light <sic> say goodbye”. Instead he sent me a short email: “I thought an unexpected departure was appropriate for the unexpected arrival,” he wrote, “Thanks for a great trip. I wouldn't have missed it for the world.” Me neither Dad. Me neither.
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