During my travels to places on the end of the world I have travelled in some pretty outrageous expedition vehicles; from the tops of trucks in the Himalayas, to battered taxi brousse in Madagascar and monster 6×6 trucks in Russia. There is nothing quite like the feeling of setting out on an expedition and on these trips I am ready to put up with all kinds of discomfort and inconvenience. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig writes “Physical discomfort is important only when the mood is wrong. Then you fasten on to whatever thing is uncomfortable and call that the cause. But if the mood is right, then physical discomfort doesn’t mean much.” Hard seats, bald tyres, squeaky breaks, no suspension – seat belts? What’s that?!
Travel in these places, like Madagascar, the Himalayas and Kamchatka, is not about comfort – it’s actually about discomfort! If I didn’t suffer, get totally exhausted, eat bad food and travel in dangerous vehicles I would feel cheated and feel that the trip was too easy. Here are a few memorable vehicles I have had the pleasure, in retrospect, to travel in.
Here is a classic shot from my expedition in Madagascar. We spent over four hours travelling in the bowels of this ancient Peugeot and covered little over 70 km that day. The roads were atrocious and we had to get out every so often so the driver could get up a steep hill, across some deep ruts or ford a river. Here the driver was negotiating a deep section of water. He would open the bonnet, disconnect the exhaust, so it wouldn’t backfire and pull water into the engine, and power his way across the watery obstacle.
On the spectacular drive between Munsiyari and Dharchula in the Kumaon Himalayas in India, the road winds through the deep and narrow valley of the Gori Ganga river. On this trip we were headed on a trek to the Darma and Lasser Yangti valleys. Two fully loaded jeeps were crammed with gear, provisions, fuel, rum, porters and three of us. If you get the opportunity, do this drive September in the post monsoon period when the orchids are out; the trees are blanketed with them. Unfortunately a dam is being constructed in this valley and this beautiful place with all it’s diverse ecology and picturesque villages will be submerged forever.
This, believe it or not, is a standard issue Russian military troop carrier! On my trip to Kamchatka we rode for about four hours in that hotbox mounted on the back of this beast. We had to hire this off the military as the area we were in had zero tourist infrastructure. We rode in the metal box which had some carpet and couple of mattresses thrown in the back. The driver had very thoughtfully hung an air freshener for his esteemed guests. The box had a couple of windows which we couldn’t open as we were travelling trough thick birch forest. Tress constantly slammed against the side as we squeezed along the narrow roads; notice the scrapes and dents along the roof.
The sun heated up the metal box and we were bathed in sweat by the time we reached our destination. One of the guys was suffering from a bad hangover from last night’s vodka session. Last night, the Spaniard, oops sorry Catalonian, was in good form singing bawdy songs and crashing around the kitchen pretending to be a bull, using forks as his horns; but that is another story. I cannot imagine what it was like for him being tossed around in the stuffy heat for hours in the back of that truck. He didn’t look too good and didn’t end up doing much that day.
While this vehicle was comfortable, the drive was anything but! We drove on a treacherous road along the Lohit River in Arunachal Pradesh in the Eastern Himalayas of India. The road kept getting washed away in the early monsoon rains and more than once we were forced to backtrack wand wait till the JCB cleared the road. In a couple of memorable incidents the road was blocked by upturned JCBs, so then we had to wait for another JCB to arrive to rectify the situation.
On the way passed through the town of Wakro, which is also known as the ‘Place of Unemployed Elephants’. Wakro used to be a thriving centre for the logging industry and the elephants were used to extract the logs from the jungle where the inhospitable terrain and lack of roads prevented trucks from operating. Elephants were a status symbol for the local people and the rich had many pachyderms in their stables. Then logging was banned by the government and the elephants were all laid off. They now hang around the town like forlorn unemployed Japanese salarymen. This fine fellow was off with his mahout to collect fodder from the jungle.
Russians don’t build better roads, they build bigger trucks and in Kamchatka we got to travel in some of these monster 6×6 trucks. Most of these trucks have been bought on the black market from the cash-strapped military. They remove the back section and add on a homemade cabin to transport tourists up to the volcanoes. The roads are often in terrible condition so you can only get close to the volcanos if you hire one of these – or else walk 60km through mosquito infested forest; an ordeal I would not wish upon my worst enemy.