It’s a new year, and as much as we look forward to what the next year will bring, we also sit and reflect on the year that has been, and for the sake of this blog post, the last few months of 2018 as well. In all honesty, it doesn’t feel at all that long ago when we boarded a flight bound for Chongqing, China, a city that 10 minutes before booking the flight we hadn’t actually heard of. Over the next 15 or so months our journey would take us from the base of Mt Everest to the beaches on the coast of Africa, from being trapped by snow in a Swiss mountain village to the stifling heat of Iran. We loved…..almost every moment, but it wasn’t without its trials. While on the road, and since we’ve been back, we’ve had a similar raft of questions, so for our last blog we thought it would be fitting to answer a few, so here goes.
What was your favourite place?
After “How was the trip?”, this was probably and understandably the most frequently asked question we’ve had, and also the most difficult to answer. Invariably, every country will have some sort of redeeming feature, or viewed through a different lens can be a hidden gem, if only maybe we had a little more time or money. There were, however, a couple of notable highlights on each leg: Leg 1 is Asia, Leg 2 is Africa and Leg 3 Caucasus & Central Asia
LEG 1: Mongolia
Mongolia, it’s fair to say, it didn’t start the best, greeted by being stranded between border posts and then Mark having his phone pinched the moment we got to Ulaan Bataar. From there, mercifully, things dramatically improved with endless wilderness and the clearest skies we’ve ever seen while you stay with a local in their ger (yurt). If you like the feeling of escape, along with incredible and diverse landscapes, maybe Mongolia could be next on your list.
LEG 2: Uganda
In a continent full of stiff competition, the aptly dubbed “Pearl of Africa” blew us away, and we feel as though we’ve only scratched the surface. Uganda has incredibly friendly people, and by African standards this lush green paradise is pretty easy to get around. But the nature, wow! Not only can you see Mountain Gorillas, but also the chimps, and the big 5 aaand you can do some of the best white water rafting in the world…..on the NILE!
LEG 3: The Pamirs
The Pamir highway from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan all the way to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan rolls through some of the most amazing scenery you’ll ever see. It might seem odd to voluntarily put yourself in a car 8 days just to pretty much look out the window, but that’s what we did and highly recommend you do it too. From open arid land near Dushanbe, to having Afghanistan a stone’s throw away with 5000m rocky mountains either side of you, and finally onto the steppes of Kyrgyzstan with expanses of green, wild horses everywhere, and huge snow capped mountains, what’s not to like!
What was the most dangerous place you went?
Aside from every time we got into a vehicle in Georgia, or a bus in Bangladesh and small brush past from a silver back gorilla we were very lucky not to have encountered too many uncomfortable situations. Partly luck of course, partly staying calm when it could go off the rails, but also just common sense; in one Kenyan border town there seemed an above average ratio of glue sniffers amongst the general citizenry, so you probably shouldn’t walk around after dark – as the compare the market meerkat says “Simples”. If we were pressed to answer, it would be Jo’Burg. We loved South Africa, but wow, of all the cities we’ve ever been to, this trip, or previous, it’s probably the place we most felt ill at ease.
We had plenty of memorable one off experiences. Staying the night at the Blue Nile falls and getting trapped in the toilet convinced we were being stalked a leopard (the campsite owners dog) might be one. Eating with a hyena a metre away on the other side of the fence might be another; camping in the Tajik Fann mountains; seeing our first ACTUAL leopard in the Maasai Mara; or finding out after our visit to Abbottabad, that we had stayed only a brief stroll from where Osama Bin Laden was killed, well, that’s not an experience as much as a cool story. But, one thing we can both agree on, was seeing the chimps in the wild at Kibale National Park in Uganda was a true once in a lifetime experience. Most people we’ve spoken with had preferred the gorillas, hands down, and we can see why seeing these gentle giants are right up there. But seeing around 30 chimps, from babies to elders, climbing trees, pulling down trees, banging on trees and making one hell of a racket showing off to the females, as if we didn’t exist. It is something neither of us will ever forget. Our guide was succinct on the matter, simply saying “I come out here twice a day, every day, and this is one of the best I’ve seen”.
Notable mentions include: Everest Base Camp, Tibet. Spotting a majestic Royal Bengal Tiger in the Sundarbans National Park, India. High Tea at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai. Learning about the lives of the bushmen tribe, Namibia. Having the good fortune of being stuck behind a pack of African Wild Dogs and trailing them while thy went on their morning hunt. Hiking parts of the not quite so well established Congo Nile Trail in Rwanda accompanied by endless kids’ smiles. Being allowed to walk around in the Holy Shrine Mosque, Mashhad, Iran (somewhat undercover, thanks to our lovely Iranian friends). Getting to ride the worlds biggest indoor Ferris wheel and seeing the world’s biggest, perhaps only, man-made, gas crater in Turkmenistan.
Did you ever get sick of it or miss the home routine?
Well, the short answer is no, not really. Travel certainly comes with plenty of tough challenges, from things like visas, trying to do anything at all online some places, the constant search for adequate accommodation, and believe us, at times the bar was very low. Being able to cook something for yourself was actually something we missed a lot, especially in parts of Africa and Central Asia, where the food can be….well, let’s be charitable and say it provided much needed sustenance without the added confusion of things such as flavour or texture. The flip side is places like China and India, where you can’t wait for meal times to roll around! As for the routine, well we did have it in some ways, it’s not always the same, but it did feel as exhausting as a full week at work at times, and a few days at the beach were welcome “holidays”, but work….not so much.
How the hell did you pay for it all?!
Thankfully, the staff over here at Catchustravelling.com have a Swiss run finance division as the kiwi one tends to fall a little short at times. Initially, of course you have to have some solid saving behind you, otherwise you won’t be going far at all, weekly saving routines and not buying some of our “wants” enabled this facet. Having a savings target, potential travel duration and an understanding of an approximate weekly or even regional spend while on the road helps, Lonely Planet or Bradt guides are a brilliant source for this information. From your weekly costs you have to factor in externalities; flights, storage and travel insurance (an absolute must) were approximately 20% of our spend. Another thing to factor in is visa costs, for example most countries in Africa charge around $50USD per visa, this adds up and the exchange rates are fluid, so these costs are worth including in the budget plans. In the end taking all these factors into account, we aimed for around $350-400 (AUD) per week, per person. These fluctuate in every country, but having that target meant if we had a big week of activities, we could try scrimp by the following couple of weeks. Things like couchsurfing, eating at local stalls, getting in a Toyota Hiace with 25 other people -repeatedly – all contributed to this end. Finally get a free! budgeting app like TravelSpend – which we found amazingly useful – and leave some contingency! You never want to have to say no to that once in a life time experience!
If you could go back to one country from your travels for your next holiday, which would it be?
Almost as tough as the first question, but the parameters change slightly. Pakistan was one country we both felt that, just as we were beginning to understand the place it was time to leave. We felt there was sooooo much more to this country, but in particular the nature and we would relish the opportunity to go back and spend time with our new friends there, but also head to the mountainous North for an extended hiking trip and see where the 3 great mountain ranges of Karakorum, Hindukush and the mighty Himalayan meet. There is so much to offer and you really need at least a month to explore it. Although if you’re dishing out flights, we’ll go pretty much anywhere.
Our trip took us across 36 countries through an amazing 15 months, and countless moments we will look back upon fondly. As cliche as it sounds, it’s the people you meet as much as the places you go. Guides that are showing your their country, it’s their passion for their surroundings that rubs off on you. The same goes for the amazing Couchsurfing and homestay hosts we had, seeing a place from a local perspective helps to understand a country that much more. The people on the street vary from place to place, while in some places you’re just another tourist, some people couldn’t be more welcoming. In Bangladesh we had passers by insist on doing our haggling for us just to ensure we didn’t get ripped off, or in Rwanda getting followed down the street by 20 kids all somewhat curiously saying “hello teacher”. We’ve made plenty of friends and had the luxury of a great month on our Absolute Africa big yellow bus with 20 people, including Mark’s sister, that made it unforgettable. Travelling with people for a day, or a week, you make some great connections with people from other walks of life you might never get the chance to meet otherwise, you might even get invited to a wedding or if you’re lucky, get to be the wedding photographer! Being open to meet people is one of the best parts or travel, and the great experiences will far outweigh any negatives.
We’ve loved having this outlet to be able to share some of our stories from the road, and we appreciate everyone that has followed along. It feels bittersweet getting home. It’s nice to be back and sit on the couch and have a look at some of these netflix shows we’ve been hearing about. But we also now have time to ponder, where exactly could we go next, West Africa? Central America? or maybe the Middle East? the options are plentiful and we probably now have a longer list than when we left, such is travel, we might have avoided Malaria, but we’ll never seem to shake off this travel bug!
Until next time?