The Exciting Introduction
The sweat was dripping from our brows as the armed policeman debated our refusal to give him a bribe. I was convinced that with his melodic glances up and down, shifting his gaze between our eyes, and the passports he held in his hands, he was mentally pulling leaves from a daisy and reciting ‘let them go’, pluck, ‘lock them up’, pluck, ’let them go’. Our only crime was an invalid visa after all, we were not drug runners or anything serious, but I had just refused point blank to give him a US$200 bribe. I’ve seen those TV shows where innocent people get banged up abroad. How many petals do daisies have in Vietnam anyway?
Nic: ‘Dun Dun Dun!’
Nic: ‘Well that sounded like it needed some dramatic music. Anyway, I thought you were writing a book about our trip, and you’ve started months into it?’
Lee: ‘I’m trying to entice people in with some excitement so they will stay with us for the journey.’
Nic: ‘Isn’t it going to confuse people, jumping around like that? With your mix of past and present tense, they are probably going to feel like Dr Who as it is. Shouldn’t you at least have introduced us first?’
Lee: ‘Face it hun, we are boring people. I fell asleep twice writing about us. If I picked up a book and started reading about us, it wouldn’t be long before I’d get distracted and start Googling funny aardvark videos on YouTube.’
Nic: ‘Well that’s the point isn’t it. We’re average people who didn’t believe they could ever complete a trip like this, it just wasn’t in our upbringing. It’s a story of achievement, of relationships, of adventure.’
Lee: ‘Yes, but other people complete trips like this on unicycles or with a donkey in tow, or circumnavigate the globe doing a Monty Python funny walk. Who is going to want to read about normal people?’
Nic: ‘We completed a 77,000km trip through 27 countries, 60% of which was completed without flying, a distance of more than the Earth’s circumference. That’s an achievement in anyone’s book (excuse the pun). There were certainly some exciting moments, like nearly being stranded in Siberia; numerous near-death experiences on various modes of transport; and of course that moment in Vietnam, which I’m still trying to forget. Anyway, it’s not all about the excitement, you’re not Jason Bourne despite what you think. What about the laughs? What about the moments of heartache?’
Lee: ‘To be honest this will mainly be about the fun and laughs, and less about Bear Grylls moments, although I did eat those insects in Thailand.’
Nic: ‘How about you just start with us and if people like us, they will hopefully stay along for the ride.’
Lee: ‘Fair enough, back to the beginning.’
Let me introduce ourselves to those who don’t know us, we are your common or garden average couple in our 40’s. Not too boring, not too exciting, socially awkward, reserved as only the English can be. We are certainly not too tall, one of us has a good sense of humour, the other travels with a first aid kit that’s the size of a house. Get the picture? Oh yes, our names – Lee & Nicki.
We were brought up in the North West of England, and although we had some limited experience of travelling with family, we were undoubtedly late bloomers as far as being a tourist. At the end of 2002, three months after we were eventually married, we decided to embark on a pretty scary (for us) mini-migration to Australia. Planning to start off in Melbourne ‘for a few months’, before moving to the next city, and so on, for a total of 12 months before returning to the UK. I’m sure you’re thinking that this was a big step for newlyweds, but don’t worry we’d just completed a 10 year ‘try before you buy’ scheme so knew what we were getting into.
So how did our plan go? Well, 10 years after landing in Melbourne, we still hadn’t managed to move onward (or return home). Writing that down certainly makes it sounds like we were pretty damn lazy at this travel malarkey. The problem was, we immediately felt at home in Melbourne. Within days of landing we were directing tourists around this beautiful city. On one hand, it was great that we’d built up the courage to travel and we were finally putting ourselves out there. However, when your first stop regularly tops the rankings as one of the world’s most liveable cities, the urge to move on, suddenly becomes quite flaccid.
Because of the city’s status, you’ll often meet travellers in Melbourne who are generally much better at escaping the lure of the city. This gave us the chance to meet many people that have travelled much more extensively than us. Even with the locals, it seemed like most Australians were kicked out of the country to travel the world in some kind of drunken national service/rite of passage. Now I’m sure that this also happens by their UK counterparts but for our age group, the area we grew up in, and our socio-economic backgrounds, it was rare. Even though we had ‘upped sticks’ and moved across the world, we didn’t feel brave enough for any serious travelling. The more people we talked to about their experiences, the less scary and more obtainable travelling seemed. When we initially landed in Melbourne, we felt akin to Lindenberg and Earhart for completing such an adventure, even though the process was actually pretty damn easy. We thought it would be our globe-trotting pinnacle and we’d be able to ride the coattails of this endeavour for the rest of time. This was not to be so.
A couple of years after we arrived, we were introduced to Tim and Moira, a couple who were passing through on a global journey. They had become frustrated with their working life in London, decided to quit their jobs, buy two round-the-world airline tickets, and go travelling for a year. To us, this made them real heroes. We were awe inspired, hearing their stories about different cities and countries over a few glasses of wine, thinking how boring our migration story was. After they moved on from Melbourne, we would often continue to talk of their adventure. Their trip finally came to an end, and they decided that, from all the places they’d visited, Melbourne was the place they wanted to live. They eventually returned, and we became good friends. Surely this seemed like further validation that we should be more than happy where we were, shouldn’t we?
Over the next year, they introduced us to something we fell in love with, scuba diving. This new passion opened up some great dive trips and our first foray into the joys of South East Asia with mini trips to Thailand and Malaysia. We were protected from the potential culture shock of these exotic locations by having these experienced travellers with us, and the fact that we were mostly underwater so oblivious to it. Did we think we could do it by ourselves? No, not really.
Despite getting away regularly for these underwater adventures, it still didn’t seem to calm down a brewing wanderlust. The more trips we took, the shorter the gap we wanted until the next one, like an addiction, we just didn’t seem to get enough. The general rule was that we had to have the next trip at least planned, if not booked, within a week of returning from the current holiday. Don’t get us wrong, we knew we were absolutely blessed to be in such a situation and really appreciated our lifestyle. We both had good jobs, worked hard, and the fact that we are unable to keep a goldfish alive for more than a fortnight has made us refrain from producing our own little travel bugs. Since arriving in Australia with nothing more than our suitcases, we’d naturally accumulated some ‘stuff ’, but not enough to mean we weren’t comfortable in a smaller, and therefore cheaper, apartment. All this enabled us to maximise our disposable income.
Working in Australia provided a much-improved lifestyle for us, especially with some of the employee benefits we both received from working in the government health industry. For instance, the use of salary packaging enables employees to pay their rent and eat out in restaurants using pre-tax salary. Where else in the world would you get something called ‘leave loading’, a mechanism where you get paid a little extra during your annual leave to help you enjoy yourself? One of the key benefits that will often secure a jaw drop when telling folks back home is long service leave. In Nic’s case, this rewarded her after 10 years of continuous service, with 17 weeks of paid leave. She is also given the option to take this at half pay for double the time, giving her a reduced income for 34 weeks. As you may have just twigged, this benefit is quite pertinent to the future of this book.
This feeling to travel kept growing within. Apparently, there is a condition called Dromomania which gives people the uncon- trolled psychological urge to wander. I much prefer the thought that we were inflicted with this disorder, rather than just being spoilt brats with a ‘because I want to’ mentality. Either way, we knew something was coming....
A big trip shaped lightbulb
The way things generally work in our relationship is that Nic will spurt out a harebrained idea and I have the bad cop duties of reeling that idea in with practicality, or dash her dreams with the phrase ‘We’ll see’ which we both understand is the non-confron- tational code for saying ‘No!’. Case in point, one rainy Melbourne afternoon, we were walking through the backpacker section of a travel expo, and she hit me with a real humdinger, ‘let’s travel from Sydney to London on a bus!’. A typical Nic statement, and a trait that’s one of the three reasons I married her. Now, the thought of spending twelve weeks sharing low-cost transportation and dorm accommodation with the great unwashed didn’t appeal. I’m way too short to be some kind of father figure, and way too old to spend eleven of those weeks too drunk to remember a thing. I think this idea even bypassed the ‘We’ll see’ response and went straight to ‘Not on your nelly, luv’, as I made a beeline for a cruise ship stand which funnily enough didn’t have any dreadlocks within 20 feet of it. That would be the end of that!
As the years rolled on, Nic’s long service leave approached, we thought we should take advantage of this fantastic opportunity and do some form of a trip to celebrate. Not just any trip, one of those big-ticket items like the Grand Canyon or Machu Picchu, but how would we choose which one, and what were the chances of us agreeing on the same place? No problem, we could each pick a location and take an extended holiday. Then, you pull out a map, and you notice; if you go there, then look how close that place is; if we are going there, then it would be silly not to see this place. Just like a dodgy 80’s ‘made for TV’ film, we’d get regular flashbacks to the wine infused fireside stories from Tim and Moira. One thing led to another, bucket list items were added, introducing more countries, the knee bone connected to a cross continent rail trip and the hip bone connected to a trans-ocean boat crossing. There you have it. A one year adventure right around the globe.
Surely we couldn’t, it was just little ol’ us, on our own without the protection of our regular travel buddies. Could we?
The World is your Lobster
It was time to start getting serious about the route, so we pulled out a large world map and laid it out on the floor. Nic was first to speak, ‘Where do we start?’, ‘Well look, the world is your lobster!’, was my reply. I’d used this saying for years with the context that you shouldn’t settle for an oyster when you can have lobster. With a little research, I found out that the phrase was coined by a real gem of classic British comedy. A character called Arthur Daley, played by the late great George Cole, in the TV series Minder. This made the saying even more endearing, and it quickly became the catchphrase for the whole trip.
So it was now set in stone, it would be a Round the World trip, and we needed to make a complete loop, out from one direction and in from the other. I think Nic’s crazy idea of the Sydney to London bus trip had taken a subliminal toll, it just seemed appropriate that we should head west. This meant it certainly wouldn’t be a ’follow the sun’ trip, but we didn’t seem to mind at the time. Between our dive trips and stopovers to the UK, we’d previously visited Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia so liked the idea of starting the tour on familiar ground.
After that, places just appeared from everywhere. It’s always been my ambition to visit Moscow, and as we wandered around the next travel expo to hit town, we came across a stand advertising the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Based on the view that if it didn’t kill us, it would make us stronger, it was added to the list.
One of the ideas we liked most about the trip was that we wouldn’t plan it too much, and just see where things would take us. The romantic thought of just turning up at the airport and deciding where to go today made us very excited, although it never did actually eventuate. The train trip was ideal, it was something we had to book in advance, locking in a deadline of reaching Beijing around five months after setting off. That way, we wouldn’t just find an idyllic tropical island and stay there for a year.
The well-trodden ‘Banana Pancake’ route through South East Asia was looking like a sensible option, but there was another country we had on our radar. My father was based in wartime Burma and told us stories about its temples, especially one he’d seen with a giant reclining Buddha. It seemed like quite a scary place to go, but if we can add Russia to the list then, why not?
Things were starting to fall into place. As we were embarking on our Aussie traveller rite of passage, we would begin in Bali, Australian’s Benidorm. It seemed only right that we should hit this hot spot for partying Australians first. From there, we had a rough plan mapped out that took us through Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China. I did say we weren’t going to run by an itinerary but figured we needed to have an idea of what a route might look like. That way, if we stopped somewhere longer, or went off at a tangent, we would know what other areas might be missed. Secretly, I created a spreadsheet.
The train would get us all the way to Europe, then what? Surely, it was about time for one of Nic’s harebrained ideas. Her timing was perfect. ‘Let’s buy an old VW campervan like the one dad had when I was 8, and tour in that!’. You already know what my reply was, but as the words ‘we’ll see’ were rolling off my tongue, the voices in my head were saying, ‘how cool would that be’. By this point in the journey, we should have taken a few trains and buses, it might be nice to do something different and be more flexible. When we first started to think about having a year out, we initially conjured up an image of living in a French village for a few months and becoming a local. As we’d decided to conquer the world instead, this wasn’t looking likely, but the thought of a slow meander through France sounded good. Back when we called the UK home, we loved nipping across the channel and driving our old car through the French countryside to Le Mans, where we would camp and watch the 24 hour motor race. It holds great memories. More and more, I was sold on the idea. The plan was to buy an old cheap campervan that we would use for the trip and sell as soon as we finished. We would start looking for one as we approached Europe. I’m afraid you will have to wait and see how that turns out. For the rest of the route back to Australia, surely we would have time to research that as we travelled.
Big Trip Preparation
It’s all a bit vague, but I would say we started planning in earnest about 18 months before we left. First things first, money. We needed to sort out a budgeting plan and ensure we had enough saved, so we quickly opened a high-interest saving account. We chose one that had a website with a nice graph to see the money going up for added saving motivation. I think it’s fair to say that we had never been able to save for anything in our life before, financially speaking, we (mainly me) were experts at clearly understanding our means, then living just outside them. This was the first challenge we had to overcome, how could the minimum payment Mountfords get enough dosh together to take a whole year off?
I’m pretty sure it’s not just me, but how many of you when faced with a financial situation, find that the dark recesses of your brain suddenly wake up, and from nowhere, out pops: ‘I could rob a bank or a petrol station’. How all of a sudden this can become a viable solution in a normally rational brain, I’m not sure. Nic promptly reminded me that I have never looked good in either stripes or orange, so it was back to the drawing board.
Maybe it was time for one of those ‘Get Rich’ self-help books. I’ve always been quite sceptical about such things, and the real reason these authors get rich is because of suckers like us buying their books. I’m positive that if I knew the secret of getting rich, I’d be sipping Margaritas in a posh resort somewhere, certainly not encouraging riffraff to get rich and join me.The book (loaned from the library for free, no Margarita for you) did resonate with some sound advice. It talked about the cumulative effect of how we waste money on small things, like buying a latte, and by saving the cost of just one of these each day, makes a difference long term. This made us look at the little things that add up to big things, and we tweaked our lifestyle just a little to accommodate. I suppose we started with baby steps as it’s all very well and good to say you’re going to stop buying a Latte a day, but what about the fact that without coffee we are unable to perform even the most basic of functions. So we started our holiday saving regime by spending $300 (throughout the book, $ refers to Australian Dollars unless identified otherwise) on a Nespresso coffee maker. It seemed wrong, but our morning coffees were now a tenth of the cost of what they were. It actually did make a difference, and we didn’t really feel any worse off. Probably one of the best bits of advice was to have a salary paid into the savings account and then taking out what you need, much more productive than just transferring what you haven’t spent at the end of the month into your savings (which often doesn’t happen).
Week by week, we’d watch the graph grow but still never quite believed we would ever reach our target amount. The balance took the occasional hit, but after a while, it did actually look like we just might be able to pull it off. I backed this up with various spreadsheets, they are like comfort pillows to me. They’ve come to the rescue of many a household crisis, ranging from choosing a wedding location to finding solace when we were thousands in debt.
The wedding location exercise, wasn’t so much working out the cheapest venue, it was the fact that we kept fudging the figures to make one particular location rise up the list. We knew, then and there, that this was the one. In a similar fashion, we would later take an antique coin on our journey that would be used to make decisions. Not necessarily to leave it up to fate, but to check that your heart didn’t drop a little when the wrong side came up, informing us what we really wanted to do.
Adjusting mental baggage to reduce our travel baggage
Having never done anything like this before we really had no idea what we might need with us on a journey that would take us around the world. One benefit was that we were used to packing for dive holidays. Where, 80% of your baggage allowance is taken up with dive gear, leaving you to live in a pair of shorts and a couple of t-shirts. This meant that we couldn’t afford to be precious about our wardrobe. However, these trips never lasted more than two weeks in a warm beach setting, compared to a year in pretty much every environment you can think of. Your first thought is to try and list everything you possess that you might want to use in a year. Then when you realise there is no magic spell to shrink it all into a backpack, you are forced to reassess.
Probably one of the most stressful aspects of packing was making the decision on which backpack to choose. Now is perhaps a good time to delve a little into our psyche to explain the significance of this. We are the opposite of those personality types that just look at something and decide to buy it (or do it), without a single worry about whether it’s the right decision.They just go through life looking, deciding, and doing, without any fear of the consequences, and a mind as unburdened as a babe in arms. In our house, they are referred to as, ‘lucky, lucky bastards’. We, on the other hand, are deeply troubled by making the right choice after researching all the facts and alternatives, not to mention getting the best possible value. You can understand how significantly different planning a trip like this would be between us and them. To them, it would be like popping down the shops to buy milk, and a spanner set (because they saw it). For us, it’s like planning a trip to Mars.
It’s a bit of a double edged sword as we are chained down by this inbuilt responsibility to make sensible, informed decisions, and it certainly limits the spontaneous and free-living aspect of our lives. However, it’s slightly made up for by the fact that our diligence can give us a faint underlying smugness. We know that any spanner set we buy will be the best it could be, and years later we can turn to each other and comment on, ‘how good a decision we’d made on that’. Something that now, post the trip, we are regularly saying about our backpacks.
Given the lack of any magic spell, it seemed that we would need a bag at least twice the size of us, and maybe come with wheels, and a sherpa to carry it. We started reading many forums (of course we did) which all disagreed with this notion. The first big mistake was the wheels, they add weight, bulk and are only suitable on certain surfaces. Next was the size, the consistent advice was that we should get something less than half the size of what we thought, that surely couldn’t be right could it?
Luckily, we found a wonderful shop in the centre of Melbourne called Backpacking Light. Much as the name implies, it stocks lightweight products for serious travellers. In the 12 months leading up to the trip, we would visit most Saturdays, scaring ourselves silly about what we were getting into. This place made the trip seem very real.
Nick, one of their experienced staff members, came over as we were looking at a 75-litre behemoth backpack and we got chatting about our plans. He pointed out that his choice would be a 38-litre backpack at which we scoffed in disbelief, how could we manage with so little space for a year? We left without making a purchase that day, imagining how many times Nick must use the old trick of turning undies inside out to reduce the amount he needed to pack. Compared to us, he was a big unit as well, surely just one of his t-shirts would take up the space of three of mine. After regular visits to Backpacking Light to chat with Nick and Tim (the owner), supplemented by more forum searching and YouTube watching, we finally came round to their way of thinking. We were lucky to find such helpful staff, and I would highly recommend building up a rapport with your local specialist shop, so that they understand your plans, and can give you the best advice. Including the advice that you didn’t think you needed.
After half an hour of walking around the shop with a bag weighted up to test its comfort, we both decided on the Osprey FarPoint 55. This was actually a 38-litre backpack with a detachable daypack. The backpack has a couple of wings that enclose around the daypack, making it look fairly presentable when arriving anywhere a little bit fancy. One of the hardest parts was convincing Nick to sell both of us the same colour, something he initially flatly refused for our own coolness (or lack thereof). This was an epic moment in our preparations. It had been a long hard decision with lots of research, these bags were after all our home for the next year. From memory, it’s previously only been the design of our wedding invitations that have caused as much heated discussion and general indecision. Thankfully, in this case, we came to an agreement without the need for me to sleep on the sofa. So, now we had his ’n’ hers backpacks in matching olive green, what the hell do we put in them?
Let me start with one piece of great advice (of course it was passed onto us by Tim and Nick). Packing Sacks, Packing Sacks, Packing Sacks! They are little miracle workers, and each tiny little Tardis compacts your belongings into easy to find sections, meaning you can easily access what you are looking for. You can choose different sizes and colours to help differentiate the contents. Another one of my favourites items, despite being warned that you can look a bit of a knob in them, were zip off trousers. You know, the ones that have a zip around the knee to remove the legs. They’re shorts, no they’re trousers, no wait they’re shorts again. ‘Crikey, I’m getting hot in these trousers’, ‘zzzzzzzzip-zzzzzzip’, ‘Ah that’s better!’. Knob or not, they will always be on my essential list, I packed two pairs. The final clothes list was now significantly reduced from our first draft.
It was great fun putting together our travel belongings and finding quirky travel items, such as peg-less washing lines, duct tape, a Shewee, and flat rubber sink plugs (some budget lodgings don’t have them). One essential for all travelling Australians is a supply of mini Koala toys, the ones that you squeeze and the hands open up to clip on something.These would be used as gifts on our journey. We even took a washing machine, but I’ll tell you about that later. Some items would work a treat and became essential, but for others, we would realise early on in the trip that we didn’t need them, and either post home or donate. Obviously, we made sure that we wouldn’t take anything we were precious about and couldn’t be replaced.
I included one clothes item that didn’t require any thought and that was the Magic Shirt. I say magic as it’s the stuff of fables. In the early ‘90s a Greek God (Gusset, The God of Needlework) decided that he would use his magical powers to create a shirt to suit all occasions and would never ever crease. He hated being late to a cocktail evening with the other Gods, only to realise he should have ironed. Zeus and Athena would point and make fun as always. The shirt he created could be scrunched up into a ball at the bottom of his bag and then be pulled out looking like new. He made it in a timeless style that could be worn for decades to come. To top it off, he decided to make it available in the River Island clothes store where it would be heavily discounted in the New Year sales to only £6.
The shirt and I have had a faithful relationship for twenty five years now, I’ve not come across anything else like it and it will be indispensable on this trip.
Sitting on the dock of the eBay
Historically, we are serial hoarders. When we left the UK, we rented our house out and put all the things we couldn’t live without in a storage container, we were only going to be away for a year after all. 13 years later, we are still paying the monthly storage fees for those things that we can’t live without, whatever they were, we really can’t remember.
We were determined not to do the same this time around, no siree bob! This time we would make much more of a concerted effort to minimise our belongings. One saving grace was the fact that our relatively short time in the country meant we hadn’t had the chance to build up a lot of sentimental belongings. Most of our Australian possessions had been bought on the cheap as there were only supposed to last a year. Also, our small apartment lifestyle meant that we just didn’t have the room to accumulate much.
eBay was our friend and helped to bolster our funds a little too, although because of the urgency of the matter there were good (a.k.a heartbreaking) deals to be had by others. We even managed to sell some memory foam pillows. Now I know they are not cheap to purchase new, and these were a good deal, but to buy secondhand pillows seems a bit weird in my book, especially ones that have a memory. A good friend of ours, Susan, won’t even borrow books from the library at the thought of someone previously having a good read while squeezing one out on the big white throne (potentially me). You can bet your bottom dollar that it wasn’t Susan that bought the pillows. We were quite lucky with our sales, especially as some larger items were sold with perfect timing, such as the fridge heading to its new owners on the day before we moved out.
Of course, we were then left with, you know, the stuff we can’t live without. We found the smallest size storage unit that would fit our essentials, a 2m x 2m x 3m room in a nice new facility nearby. One of the last things we sold was Sherman, a devoted member of the family, a Land Rover Discovery Series 1 (it was a big green tank, hence the name). Before we said our goodbyes, we did as many runs as we could to the storage unit. The last big load was transported using a hire van with the large items such as the bed, TV, sofa, not to mention another member of the family, Big Ted, a huge Costco teddy bear that was bigger than me. He was excellent for hug therapy, but not the most practical possession in a small apartment. We placed him high on top of the storage room to oversee our belongings and hopefully scare the crap out of any would-be burglars.
After a very sweaty day, we finally finished, and vowed next time to pay someone for help. We looked up to see Big Ted staring down at us with sad eyes as we closed the door on our Melbourne life. It felt quite symbolic and would have been an emotional moment if we didn’t smell so badly, in some sadistic competition to see who could make the other faint. Only one thing for it, a treat. We’d booked ourselves into a nearby hotel for a well deserved relax and a nice soak in the bath (our apartment didn’t have one). That was it, the only things left in the apartment were the bags we were going travelling with.
The following day, having learnt our lesson, we paid someone to clean the apartment before handing back the keys to the estate agent. We were now suddenly homeless. One aspect of this really hit home, we had no keys. None, even our backpack padlocks had a combination lock. Since you’ve been old enough to be trusted with a copy of the front door key, when do you ever have no keys in your life?
The previous two months before leaving was a whirlwind as we were very focused on our preparation plan. Each day, jobs were ticked off, and affairs were put in order. The enormity of the workload was detracting us from thinking about the actual journey, and helping suppress the worry about what we were about to embark on. As each job was scratched from the list, there were fewer things to distract us, and then on the 22nd of December we reach the last item on the list, ‘Get to the airport on time’.