My mother once told me that she would love to travel the world, but once out of the western hemisphere, she would like to do so exclusively in some kind of protective bubble. I retorted that if this was the case, she may as well just watch a travel documentary on television. Why wander the streets of Dehli, if not to feel the sticky heat on your skin, smell the pungent aromas from the spice market and refine the art of polite but successful haggling.
My mother has an exaggeratedly suspicious, media warped view of the world, and would not be able to enjoy the visceral delights that roaming the streets of an Arabian bazaar or Andean village could offer, for fear of pickpockets, muggings or illness. As an Overlander and general adventure travel enthusiast, I have always considered myself to have the polar opposite outlook to my mothers. I treat the dangers and petty annoyances that I encounter with respect, but they would never put me off travel and what is more, most would often accentuate the sense of adventure and ‘expedition’.
The thought she posed, however, got me to thinking; to some extent, does the overlander not seal themselves in a ‘protective bubble’? Does the steel and glass of our roaming homes not, in a sense, allow us to see and experience the world, while still maintaining a sense of home comfort, consistency and above all, safety? Above all else, when is a vehicle too much, with so many similarities to your western home, that it becomes less a conduit to adventure travel and more like a rolling 5 star hotel?
We have all seen pictures of $1,000,000 Big rigs, based on a 6×6 military truck or Unimog, complete with hydraulic Motorcycle lift, iMacs mounted in the wall and a bathroom that would be the envy of most of the world. #wouldyoudriveit? I think for me the answer would be no. I think that if I wanted to travel in that level of luxury, I would choose to do so by yacht, or simply to ditch the vehicle, and spend the money staying in luxury hotels for several years. In fact, usually when seeing these kind of excessive behemoths, I look at the motorcycle on the back, and think that I would rather take that on an overland trip. Above all else, I feel that the guilt I would feel, rolling up to an African Village in a vehicle worth more than the sum total of the homes there, would sour the trip for me.
I began overland travel in a Land Rover defender. Inexperienced and misinformed, I spent the entire of our vehicular budget on raising the suspension, fitting huge tyres, adding a snorkel and winch and so on. I built a plywood bed in the back, packed my camping gear and set off. No sooner had I reached the shores of Morocco, than I was confronted with the flaws in my design. There was no need to have such off road ability, even when looking for the most challenging tracks, I rarely needed to engage low range, nevermind use my winch. What was more, my decision to purchase these off road accessories, rather than a roof tent, forced us up with the sun every morning, and left very uncomfortable sleeping during the night. The African sun beating on the black tin roof of the land rover, heated it to such a degree, that it was impossible to cool the interior, even on a clear Saharan night. Despite the flaws in my design and plan, we lived in that Land rover for 7 months and they were some of the best days of my life. When the decision was made, that this was to become a lifestyle, not just a single trip, we decided it would be worth upgrading vehicle, to something slightly more comfortable to live in, even if sacrificing some of the four wheel drive ability.
We opted for a 1984 VW T3 Syncro, which we restored, and from where I sat on an Anatolian beach, and originally considered this. Comfort wise, it had a fridge, solar panel, sink and cooker, it packed surprisingly decent off road ability and two double beds, along with everything I own, into a space not much bigger than a land rover. It weighed in at about 2.5 tons and returned 35 mpg from its punchy little 1.9TDi engine.
But that trip, everything had gone wrong. Cracked engine block, 2 new clutches, blown head gasket, blown radiator hoses, timing belt, water pump, Cv joints, trailing arm, thermostat, handbrake cable, throttle cable, the list goes on. While we have been able to get repairs done, the work was never of good quality, and more things had broken due to the incompetence, or at least unfamiliarity of the mechanics with the vehicle. We rarely managed to drive 200km without something grinding us to a halt.
As I am sure you can imagine, this ruined what otherwise would have been an incredible journey. In the end opted to return home early, as our funds were drained, as was our energy. What is more, the experience proved to us that the vehicle (at least with out extensive modification) would have had no chance of making it down the Pan-Americas on the expedition that we are currently on. While we were thankful that we at least found this out before we had reached American shores and would have had to push on.
So were were forced to return to the drawing board, sell the van and purchase the Land Cruiser that we now call home.
During the selection process of this vehicle, I was forced to spend a lot more time considering this issue. When is a vehicle too much? This was all in my mind when i was selecting a vehicle. I weighed heavily the fact that I didn’t want too much comfort, as if living in luxury, we compromise the ideals of adventure. Beyond that, despite the assumed off-road ability of large off-road trucks, I know from experience that while they might be right at home on the steps of Mongolia or the plains of Africa, they will never be able to fit down smaller forest tracks or through narrow medina streets.
I think we selected one that is just enough.
We have been on the road for just over two months now, so I feel I can take time to reflect on the benefits, detractions and overall enjoyment of travelling in both our old T25 Syncro and our Current HZJ78 Land Cruiser.
If I was to sum it up, I would say;
Behind the wheel of the Cruiser, you feel like you can take on the world.
Behind the wheel of the Syncro, you feel like you are home.
Of course, for the most part even a two wheel drive would suffice to cross both continents, and the four wheel drive ability of the syncro would mean that we could access 99% of both continents. Seldom is it such that you cannot get to somewhere really worth going without a jacked up 4×4. For us, however, we have found that whilst overlanding, our main use of 4wd has been by choice and used often to access awesome or secluded wild camp spots.
Like this one
The decision, after many a labored night of heated discussion, and chewing the ear off everyone that would listen about the various pros and cons of Syncro vs Toyota boiled down to one key thing;
Sure, the Syncro could likely make it most of the places that I wanted to take it, but after my experiences in Turkey, would I have faith that it would make it out again.
The list, when I really boiled it down had;
In the Land Cruiser Column
In the T25 Syncro column.
Being that this is the trip of the life time, and the first time that I was spending a huge chunk of the money before departure (shipping, flights, visas, dog transport, insurance), I did not want to arrive and spend weeks dealing with mechanical failures.
So with a heavy heart, the Syncro got a new home and after months of trawling the various vehicle sales sites of Europe, I found my Cruiser and flew to Antwerp to collect it.
But researching a vehicle can only take you so far. Building it and taking it on weekend trips can only teach you a little. It takes a few months of living with it on the road to see how it compares to another vehicle for living in on the road.
Basically we have learned that comfort is pretty important. If not to the overland “experience” itself, then just to general livability on the road. With the amount of time it takes to now set up the awning system, gather firewood, light the stove and generally set up the campsite, plus drive, maintain the vehicles, and actually experience the country we are visiting, we are struggling to find the appropriate amount of time to work the amount we need to maintain trip funds.
We sacrificed the interior comforts of the Syncro for the awning and stove setup we now have on the Cruiser. we have also learned that the best awning room with stove and canvas sides, will never stack up to the night heater and rock and roll bed of a Vanagon.
Finally, we never anticipated the difference between being inside a vehicle and being in a roof tent or pop top. Road noise and sunrise dictate the quality of our night sleep, and it prohibits the ease of stealth camping, something we have often relied on in city locations.
All in, we miss the Syncro, but we do love the opportunity that the cruiser affords. We feel that so far in the states, when roads have been everywhere, and the van would have handled every bit of off road we have so far taken, the extra comfort of the Syncro would have been the better choice.
We do, however, remain sure that as we venture south, the Cruser will come into its own, and we will be glad that we made the choice we did.
As a final thought. we still remain glad that we were not taken in by the “Glamping” side of overland travel, and did not go for a big rig. Cruiser or Syncro, they both still fit down forest tracks, and the modest comforts of a Vanagon still allow for full adventure. We feel safe in our cruiser, and we did in our Syncro, but in both vehicles feel that our travel is not such that to enjoy it we needed to bring the entirety of our western comforts.