Amidst the Scottish Highlands, battered by the elements, stands a neglected Land Rover. It does not seem to be the ideal vehicle for a trip around the world, but Christopher Many believes otherwise. Overland journey.
When people say “Life’s a journey”, some take this aphorism more literally than others. Christopher Many is one of those. Having embarked on an overland trip in 1997, believing he’d spend no more than a year or two on the road, 19 years have passed, and he’s still somewhere out there, doing what he loves most: circumnavigating the globe with vehicles of questionable reliability, in a quest to understand through first-hand experience, how the Earth really “ticks”.
During the eight year period from 2002 – 2010, he set out with his 30 year old Land Rover “Matilda” on an overland journey to “go where no Landrover had ever gone before”! Traveling over 124,000 miles from a frozen Siberia, to North and South America, across Africa (Mongolia – Somali), and back into Europe, his trip is now documented in a witty travel chronicle “Left Beyond the Horizon“.
We all dream about what life is like “off the grid”, Christopher Many actually did it. This interview is an insight into the eight year Land Rover Odyssey as documented in his latest book. Drive around the world in a Land Rover.
What do you love the most about travelling?
I love the fact that every day on the road is different and the pace too fast for an acclimatization process to set in – life remains exciting and unpredictable.
At the same time, I greatly enjoy the simplicity of my nomadic lifestyle: I sleep when I am tired, eat when I am hungry, and shovel my Land Rover or motorcycle out of a Kalahari sand dune when I get stuck.
That basically sums it up! I probably have far fewer problems than your average home owner with a nine-to-five job and a family to feed – my life is comparatively easy. What’s it like to drive around the world?
What inspired you to start travelling?
Initially, when I decided to leave on my first world trip by motorcycle in 1997, I was driven by simple curiosity and the desire for more freedom. Later, on my Land Rover journey between 2002 and 2010, my motivation received additional impetus though my growing distrust of Western mass media.
One of the greatest advantages of travel is how one can witness global events and current affairs through first-hand experience, and not only hearsay.
Your Land Rover didn’t seem like the ideal vehicle for a trip around the world – what made you choose Matilda?
The quality of a journey does not depend upon the vehicle, but upon the traveller – you can have great fun circumnavigating the globe with anything: a bicycle, Vespa scooter, BMW motorcycle, Land Rover, Toyota, or one-million-dollar expedition truck (if you have sufficient funds to buy one). I’d be the last person to offer any recommendations or discourage you.
If you fall in love with a specific vehicle, and it feels “just right”, don’t let anybody ever tell you that you can’t drive around the world with it. Everything is possible. Even if you’re putting something together yourself from motorcycle parts!
Regarding my personal love affair with classic Land Rovers, I’m sure it would have been more reasonable to purchase a newer car, and not one that was built in 1975. But I had at least three reasons for choosing Matilda.
First, the price tag was quite convincing: I only paid USD 1,000 for my Landy, which meant I could use my limited funds to travel for longer. Second, older vehicles are easier to repair – Matilda even starts with a crank!
Thirdly, I don’t believe being “reasonable” in life necessarily equates to experiencing greater enjoyment. Can you do a road trip around the world?
How much planning and preparation is required for a world trip of this magnitude?
This is very subjective – some travellers require years before they can finally set off, others can leave at the spur of the moment. Meticulously preparing for an overland journey is definitely necessary when the trip is of short duration, say less than 12 months, and you need to keep to a strict itinerary. Or when you must find a way to put your job and life temporarily on hold.
I personally don’t have these issues to deal with: in my whole life I’ve never rented or owned an apartment, my entire worldly possessions fit into a few boxes, and my job is that of a travel writer. So provided my vehicle is road worthy, I usually only need a few days of planning.
Why would I need longer? I have my passport, vehicle documents and credit cards. Country visas, shipping arrangements between continents and all the other bureaucratic stuff I arrange en route. Best overland trips.
Besides: no degree of preparation can ever fully prepare you for what you’ll find “out there”. In-depth reading about foreign countries only marginally helps, but does not necessarily equate to an understanding of it. That’s something one can only attempt to acquire through first-hand experience abroad, whereby I do emphasize the word “attempt”! Around the world roadtrip.
You started with the aim of avoiding well populated tourist cities; what are the benefits of travelling off the beaten path?
Generally speaking, I do not think one can claim that there are objective benefits of travelling off the beaten path. You can see enough wonderful sights and meet lovely people without a diff-lock and studded tyres.
I disagree with the notion that individuals living in isolated villages, only accessible via difficult 4×4 trails, are necessarily more worthwhile to visit than those residing alongside metalled roads. Interesting people live everywhere – perhaps even right next door to your own home?
That said, if you have strong ethno-cultural interests in a specific region then yes: it can be very insightful and enlightening to speak with people who are secluded from direct contact with the West.
What was it like meeting locals who had never met foreigners before? How did they greet/interact with you?
The reactions of locals can be very different, depending upon the cultural and ethnic group you visit, as well as their recent history.
In Siberia, the encounters in isolated villages were predominantly friendly and people were curious. In other parts of Asia, I was occasionally ignored. And in Central Africa, the sentiment in some villages off the beaten track was sometimes hostile. What is the longest overland trip in the world?
This was very understandable – the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, has suffered decades of inter-tribal warfare. Hence, outsiders are often viewed with suspicion, and it takes a long time to gain a villager’s trust.
There’s a famous saying that travel makes you realize that you were wrong about other countries. Would you agree?
I fully agree. And I would say I was wrong about EVERY country I entered harboring preconceived notions! Can I drive around the world?
Having prejudices in your rucksack will backfire – so many opinions we hold in the West about foreign nations and cultures, as well as current global affairs and the world in general, are defined by the media, politics, our education systems and our upbringing. But how much of what we are told is true?
I’d say the only way to form a valid personal opinion about a country is to travel there yourself, stay for a few months at least, build friendships with the population, and be interested in local events.
For instance, Somaliland is not Somalia, a difference many people in the West fail to realize. For more than 20 years this country has been struggling to gain recognition by the UN. Tanks, like this one, belong to the past. Hopefully.
Which countries are most wildly exaggerated by the Western Media?
This changes over time, and is heavily influenced by politics. If you were to go back in history to the McCarthy era, for example, you probably wouldn’t find many Western media stations bestowing praise upon the world’s communist run nations. Not too long ago, Colombia was still viewed as a highly dangerous country to visit, whereby in reality, it was a traveller’s heaven.
And today? Well, it seems it’s the Islamic world’s turn for bad Western press – and yet if you speak to travellers who have been to Muslim countries such as Iran, Sudan or Somaliland, you will hear tales of amazing hospitality. In fact, I’d place all three somewhere in my “Top 10 List” of favourite destinations!
Of course I’m not just pointing the finger at the West … if you follow the local media in Africa or the Middle East, and see how Europe or the United States are sometimes portrayed, you’ll soon come to the conclusion that prejudices exist globally. Circumnavigate the globe in a land rover.
Which culture was the most different from the one you were most familiar with at home?
This is difficult for me to answer, since I do not have a home in a conventional sense. Indeed, I find life in the West very unfamiliar after such a long time on the road! In the end, my definition of the term is not a fixed geographical coordinate on a map, but where my loved ones are. And as Laura holds my heart, wherever she is, I feel at home. Travel with a Land Rover.
However – in response to your question – I presume most travellers who are accustomed to Swiss-like punctuality may feel lost in Africa, those with liberal attitudes might have a hard time in Saudi Arabia, and if you are used to personal space and high standards of hygiene, crowded Calcutta can be challenging. Drive from one end of Africa to the other. Drive across Europe.
Yet these are all just cultural “aspects” – overall, you can usually find at least a few similarities in terms of norms, societal structures, rituals, traditions, and values, no matter where you set foot on the planet. So if you ever feel “culture shocked”, just try to latch on to the aspects you recognise.
Do you believe that travel has the potential to challenge your fundamental values and beliefs?
Definitely. Provoked by daily dosages of new stimuli, your mind starts performing somersaults: soon you’ll think in ways you never thought possible, ask questions you’ve never asked yourself before, and begin to look at everything from a different perspective.
This holds especially true when speaking with people from different backgrounds. You will discover that no two individuals you encounter on the road have identical thoughts, philosophies and dreams.
Realizing this has consequences: travellers lose all faith in anthropological constants. Nothing is universally believed, there is no unanimous agreement upon “right and wrong”, no collective moral or ethical standard and no religion common to all. Drive from the bottom of Africa to the top.
Visitors to any corner of the globe must free themselves of exclusive rights to an absolute “truth”, and accept that every thought is purely subjective and as valid as your own. You need not incorporate other people’s beliefs into your life, but the least you can do is listen and respect their right to differ in opinion.
With everything from vehicle breakdowns to being held hostage, how did you deal with the language barrier to seek help?
I speak a few languages, Laura a few more, and when this doesn’t help, we resort to pen and paper or pantomiming our wishes. If you are patient, and your discussion partner is too, language is rarely a barrier.
Of course you won’t be discussing epistemic relativism by using only hand signals, but it’s fully sufficient to order a meal or point out where you need something welded on your car. Overland journey in a land rover.
The Land Rover seemed to break down at some of the worst possible moments. Tell us about these moments.
Oh dear … I had to get out my tool box, open the bonnet and tinker with my Landy on 1,667 occasions in eight years. That’s one repair every second day! I bled the brakes 52 times, replaced 86 brake shoes and 59 suspension bushes, renewed 40 spark plugs, 18 condensers, four coils, 12 contact-breaker plates and four distributor caps. Best overland journeys in the world.
20 suspension leaves broke, as well as eight universal joints and two prop shafts. Don’t forget 65 flat tyres and three gearbox rebuilds. So I could tell you about plenty of breakdown moments! Travelers who go overland.
My steering unit seized on a steep mountain pass in Chile, for example – that almost sent me over a cliff’s edge. The same nearly happened on Bolivia’s famous “Death Road” when my gearbox decided to disintegrate.
But I guess the worst problem I encountered was when my chassis broke in the Congo. To continue driving, I needed to chop down two trees and splint it like a broken leg. A trunk left and another right … all tied together with a few yards of rope – this worked just fine until I eventually found a new chassis in Zambia. Fortunately, you do not have to pass a vehicle inspection test when abroad!
Was it difficult maintaining a balanced diet if food wouldn’t keep in the car?
To be honest, a Western dietician would probably be appalled by my eating habits. I have never paid attention to maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, and I strongly doubt this is even possible in remote arid regions. I simply eat whatever is available and affordable, just like the locals do.
Being picky about food abroad might also deeply upset your hosts. The privilege to be fussy about what you eat is very much a luxury and a sign of opulence, not always understood by the indigenous population in the developing world, where some would give their left foot for anything to eat at all. Who is the most adventurous traveler in the world?
That said, I do love to eat well when I have the chance. I found my culinary heaven in southern Argentina, where every river and lake is teeming with marine life all too keen to commit suicide at the end of my fishing rod. I enjoy catching my own meals, and fresh trout or salmon grilled over a campfire is divine! How can I drive my car around the world? People who travel with their car?
What was it like to return home after 8 years?
Seeing my family was blissful, fitting into Western modern society was tough. Neither Laura nor I follow the norms as permanent nomads. I’ve been out of the “system” for a very long time now and my continent will no longer gladly accept me. Is it safe to roadtrip through Africa?
Can you imagine the hassles I had when the police noticed a German citizen driving and residing in an unregistered car with invalid British license plates and no MOT inspection sticker? I can legally circumnavigate the globe a billion times as a traveller, but damned if I can return to Europe without breaking numerous laws! Why do our governments not include tick boxes on their documents for freedom-loving world travellers?! Best overland journeys in the world.
Anyway … we didn’t stay very long, but soon left on our next RTW voyage, this time by motorcycle. Matilda is resting in a classic car museum in Germany, and I’m currently writing this from Southeast Asia. Our lives are back to “normal” and we are happy. How to organize an around the world roadtrip.
Most practical piece of advice for those wishing to embark on a similar overland journey?
Maybe just two things. First: never hurry. Overlanding is not a rally, but a way of life. Take your time to learn from the people you encounter on your journey. Build lasting friendships. The pyramids in Egypt, or Machu Picchu in Peru, are stunning … but in the end, they are just rocks. PEOPLE, however, are unique, and every individual has stories to tell. Drive around Europe.
Second: don’t be afraid. You are just another road-user like the millions across the globe who drive cars to and from work every day. The only difference is that you are travelling in a straight line instead of repeatedly back tracking.
Also don’t forget that an estimated 12,000 travellers embark on a world trip by car, motorcycle or bicycle EVERY YEAR. You are not really doing anything “special”, so relax: what these 12,000 per year are doing, you can do too! I wish you an amazing journey! Drive from London to Mongolia.
Christopher’s book about this trip, Left Beyond the Horizon – A Land Rover Odyssey, became a bestseller in Germany, and was recently released in English. It is available as a paperback and Kindle from Amazon. Read it now.
Right Beyond the Horizon – A Motorcycle Odyssey will tell the story of his most recent four-year adventure from Europe to Australia, and will be published in September 2016.
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