Scenic Scotland

20140614_183043I  hadn’t realised Scotland was such a beautiful and easy country to road trip in, until we spent a week touring there ourselves.  My husband had recounted  his memorable West Highland way walk from Glasgow to Ben Nevis to me, complete with his experience of clouds of midges following his every step and the not so sunny weather.    Yes, I was happy to see green rolling hills and shimmering lakes, but a high of 17 degree in summer and red nasty little bites everywhere…  Well let’s not rush the planning….

I was however curious, and a much needed visit to a relative was the catalyst of this visit. Before we left the U.K, we decided we should visit my husbands relative and his fathers birthplace in Edinburgh.  However, once there,  we couldn’t resist exploring further, even though we were completely unprepared…having packed for a 2 day city visit instead of 8!

P1040796Campervan hire is not cheap at around 100£ per day, a bit less or more depending on what you get.  We happened to get a much better price because we were so last minute and we booked in person rather than via the internet.   We got all the add ons (GPS, 2 x kids car seats, linen/towels for a very good 20£ extra).   A good deal and a very cool VW camper – a new vintage, only a couple of years old, made in Brazil.

Any longer however,  and we were seriously considering buying a caravan to tow for almost the same price of a rental!   The replica  VW camper fooled most people including a couple of German tourists excited to see it still on the road, in mint condition!   Engine wise it had improved from the 60s, but camper design wise, it hadn’t changed much- but why should it…the old design fit out works quite well.

P1040650We spent 5 days touring the amazing countryside.   Scotland is pretty, accessible, and soooo easy. It is  wonderful with kids because every 20-30 kms there is something to stop and see and do….whether its a historic castle, a folk museum, a whiskey distillery ( for the older adults), a nature reserve, a farm reserve, a river, lake (loch) and a load of forest day or longer walks.

There’s a 90% chance of just pulling into any of the parking and picnic rest stops and finding a river, waterfall or lake to have fun at.  There are signs posted everywhere and even if you don’t speak Gaelic..there is English too!

Scotland is cheap to travel in if you have a fuel efficient car ( the VW camper was incredibly fuel efficient).  There are no road tolls to pay, it’s not a very big country so you don’t have to travel enormous kms to experience the countryside (we got to Garve, past Inverness and back).   It  is an affordable way to travel  if you are self contained.

While we treated ourselves to a couple of pub meals including the national haggis dish, we mostly  self catered.  If we had the cash,  staying in accommodation could be a real treat.  We  passed countless of amazing BnBs in beautiful and historic stone house buildings.  Instead we slept  in our camper van pretty much anywhere we wanted to.  After two big camping road trips through Patagonia and Morocco, Scotland was the one place we should’ve been camping in our tent.  Not only is Scotland made for tent camping with its ease of access to river and lake spots but it is what the locals do!!!!

P1040957
The black water

Scotland has amazing access laws…there is virtually no such thing as “trespassing”. There is a Scottish Outdoor Acess code which basically gives you the right to be on most land and water ways. Not only does it give you access but it is  enshrined in law (see Land Reform Act Scotland 2003).   There are even access officers you can report to, just in case anyone tries to stop you!

Of course, with rights comes responsibilities but these aren’t too difficult to abide by. For instance, act safely and responsibly, take your rubbish with you, respect and care for the land, wildlife and keep your dog under control. Really what everyone should be doing regardless of where they are!!!

This legislation doesn’t just cover walking but also other activities such as canoeing, horse riding, wild camping and mountain hiking.   It is the best country we have been in so far when it comes to enjoying and experiencing all the  countryside has to offer, up close.   Why wouldn’t you walk/camp/tour Scotland….!

Given all this access you would think the state of Scotland’s  outdoors would be a mess, but its not….We saw one area with bottles left behind but this seemed to be the exception.  We have seen much worse in other countries.

So just  when we had decided to ditch our tent and go for a camper, we find that camping with a tent in Scotland is the  way to go.   We saw a number of people camping by various lakes, visible and obvious from the roadside.   We felt very safe and secure in our camper…no matter where we were. We camped in parking picnic places without a problem.   Once we saw a ‘no overnight camping’ sign, in another a height restriction barrier was in place which would  prevent motorhomes but not us  in a camper. We could access most of the lakes we stopped at, apart from the famous Loch Ness, the main access route had photo parking spots only.  Must be one way to keep campers safe from any overnight monster attacks!

Coming from Melbourne, the four seasons in one day is something we are used to.   Scotland’s weather is very much like that….a bit of rain, clouds and sun all in one summer’s day (think it would be more like snow, hail, darkness in winter!).   We were fortunate that the midges weren’t in such a biting mood….our first night was the worst but the rest of the time they were of minimal annoyance.

P1040899
The famous Loch Ness

The lakes in Scotland are some of the best I have seen. They are accessible and beautiful. Patagonia had amazing rivers but the surrounding greenery and forests in Scotland make the lakes extremely scenic.

The biggest regret was that we had to return to the city much earlier than we wanted, playing by the rivers and lakes was good fun for the kids…our only hiccup….getting kids to bed before midnight…it’s light til late!!

While it was a shame to head back to the city so quickly, Edinburgh is a lovely city to have a wander in.  While there, look up your history and clan roots.. you might just walk away with a special funky dress, knit, gloves, picnic rug, tie, scarf and tights all in your or your husbands family’s tartan….for those special occasions or clan family reunions!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is there such a thing as too much family time?

walking to the glacierYes and no…  We are often told that having too much of any ONE thing, whether its beneficial for us or not, is not  a good thing.     But what does  a moderately balanced family life  look like and are we really having quality family  moments during those times together?

Maybe there is a secret formula to achieving optimum family time, a  bit like  the 3 fruits 2 veggies a day dose…so something like an equal parts me, relationship, kids…then there’s friends, extended family, work, hobbies etc.. Is my cake tin overflowing yet?!

It’s one thing to compartmentalise things neatly in  a chest of drawers,  it’s another to achieve this perfect  division of time between competing needs and wants….and how to do this when your entire day, yes 24/7 is spent with your family!

It’s a good thing that I like my kids and husband and they like me,  otherwise spending 24/7  together would be excruciatingly painful and harmful in the long term!   Yes, we have our moments of frustration, annoyances and disagreements but these moments usually pass and are resolved, otherwise we would all be feeling pretty miserable.

the one room house!
the one room house!

There is no other room to run  to or hide in when in a car or tent, there is little other distraction e.g. a friends house, a local bar or the television, when out in the middle of nowhere.   There may be a next day but between now and tomorrow there is a myriad of things that need both the attention and  the cooperation of you and your partner working together to ensure there is a bed to sleep in, food to eat, a place to get to,  kids to be taken care of.    Yes, there is a tomorrow, but the present is as good a time as any to sort things out or to decide if the tribulations  you did think are important then, are still now.

Yes, family time when travelling can be intense and it can sometimes feel like it can make or break you and the relationship.   However, what it can also do is build such an enormous bank of memories and experiences that it leaves you wondering how the hell you did it all…..and how you could even  begin to have done it AT ALL, if  it wasn’t for the we/us.

I remember reading an article some time ago about some of the top ten parent regrets.  The first five were something along the lines of: not spending enough quality time with the kids, not having enough holiday time as a family, and not enough time spent with kids in the baby/younger years.

tafroute to chiggaga 14 595
creating memories

I often think about this, because during those moments when I am struggling with the current thoughts of; not having enough sleep, not having enough me time or personal space and not having enough relationship time with my partner, I remind myself of what everyone reminds me, and of what I see and know is happening;  kids grow up so quickly.  I know this but sometimes it feels like another world away.

My eldest son is almost 5 and will soon be a school age kid.  I look at photos to remember what it was like when he  was a baby.  It seemed like the moment would last forever…including the sleepless nights, but it doesn’t and it won’t.

As we travel and meet other travellers, sometimes older retired couples, we know that at some point that might just be us, travelling together but no longer as a family.  It brings both a smile to my face and a tinge of sadness.

Spending 24/7 as a family doesn’t guarantee quality time or yours or others happiness.  Sometimes you’ll be happy other times you won’t.  But it will be whatever you and your family make of it.

Sometimes things aren’t so black and white.  Gadgets and technology can interfere in the quality of the  time spent together, other times these moments may be  quality rich.   Watching a tv program together, hanging out, engaged, interested and talking about what we are seeing is also good fun.. other times I have sat there in a world of my own, enjoyed and relieved to be in my own headspace, reading, doing my own thing, while my son is in his..definitely some quality time for me.

What I do know from spending a lot of time together as a family is that I am 100% comfortable with my kids and my husband.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t get annoyed or frustrated  or some habits irritate or infuriarate ( including my own), but that I’ve come to experience all of their personality and they mine..  Not only are we comfortable with each other, but more importantly we are able to spend time together and lots of it without losing our  heads too much.

For me,  a lot of that comes from being mostly happy and okay to be in this space.    I am happy with where I am because, here, with my family is where I think I should be and where I want to be.  We are overseas because this is where my partner and I want our family to be.      What I have gained or lost is my balancing act….. I may have forfeited girls nights out or romantic weekend getaways with my partner but I have gained in other ways I couldn’t have otherwise.  I am hanging out with my partner and best friend as much as I like and I’m doing something I love together with my kids.

When we left Australia it was a slight shock.  Even though we have been   pretty hands on parents before we left for travel (I stayed at home with the kids and my husband had flexible work hours running a business so he could be around to help out), it initially was and can  still be an ongoing adjustment to  being together 24/7.   It feels normal, and most of the time I don’t think about it, but at different times, I will feel it more intensely than others….depending on what has been happening,  where we are, what phase the kids are going through, what phase I’m going through,  how much sleep I’ve had etc etc.

Even as a stay at home parent in Australia, my days were filled with playgroups and play dates and family catch ups – weekend lunches or dinners.  I was rarely alone and rarely at home!!!    Then, suddenly we were on the other side of the world away from family and friends.  I wasn’t daunted by the prospect of  full time parenting….I was and had already been doing that part, mostly on my own.    In fact, I was looking forward to it being easier, given that there were now 2 of us to share all the responsibilities.    There wouldn’t be the same pressures of work and domestic responsibilities, there wouldn’t be the same  energy and time  consuming distractions that seem to come with living in a modern society whether it be gadgets, paperwork, beaucracy etc…. Simple living would be the aim……

On the other hand, it would be only the four of us, all the time.     None of the  other nice and comforting  distractions of family and friends….for either us or the kids.    Yes we could negotiate time and space for ourselves but a date night or time together alone???  How and when would that ever happen?  Yes we might have all this time for each other as a family, but what if it was too much time!!!

crazily intense at times
crazily intense at times

You would think there would be oodles of time in a day to devote to each of us having some “me” time.   However, in the daily reality of family travel, sometimes a shower alone was the most I could manage, if anything at all.  Other times, this “me” time came at the expense of the other…..e.g the burden or joy, depending on what sort of day we were having, of looking after both  the kids would all fall onto my husband or me.   We met a NZ family, who were taking a gap year with their older children.  The children were at school during the day and they were both at home enjoying the peace and quiet….now there’s an idea!

There is a reason why the proverb ” it takes a  village to raise a child” exists.  That is, to meet the needs of a family, and essentially look after thè youngest members of a community, requires the effort of all the community!!!   Children, parents and the community all benefit from the added support, care,  friendship, learning and working together that comes from this arrangement.

I would like to think this is the ultimate parenting philosophy and goal but who knows, it’s not a concept thats been tested or utilised  well in the western world.   I do know however, what it is like to have a house full of family members and while it can be chaotic and crazy, I have enjoyed the company of chatting to other family women, the kids who disappear with other kids to play for hours, the cooking,  washing up, and everything else that is shared and seems to just happen together.   Its an exhausting day but exhausting in a different way..not the ‘I’ve been overloaded, stressed out of my brain with too much stuff to do today’, but the “I’ve had a great exciting, happy busy tired sort of a day”.   So why were we removing ourselves from this entirely?!

travel..the "family way"
travel..the “family way”

Somehow travelling overseas as a family felt not only possible but easy, fulfilling and practical.   The reality was, we were going to be parents regardless of which country we were in.  Travelling in the  toddler and preschool years made sense….yes it could be challenging but we had no schooling commitments and parents are still pretty cool in a kids eye, to hang out with at this age…. . Being together meant that my boys could have both their parents with them.    Sure I’m good at reading and craft but I would rather leave the lego, and science questions to my husband.   It wouldn’t have to wait til he got home from work…..and I wouldn’t have to wonder and wish he was home sooner.

Separation anxiety

I’m referring to my separation anxiety not my kids… When we  arrived at our first destination in Santiago,  I felt some separation anxiety that I had never experienced before on my travels  as a single person.  My husband spent the first few weeks  trying to find a suitable road vehicle and I hung out with the kids.  A couple of times I had the scary gnawing gut feeling of what if?  What if something happened to my husband? What would I do, two kids alone, strange city, didn’t know anyone etc….It was frightening.

Home alone

I couldn’t imagine my husband leaving me for  5 days with two kids while in my home city and yet it felt completely okay to do this in another foreign city, when in London?  Why?   I don’t know, other than, normal is what normal is.  By this time, even though we were parenting together, there were lots of occasions when I had to parent alone regardless of where we were or which country we were in.

I coped because my kids were older- my youngest was no longer a baby.   I also had less expectations on myself of what should or needed to happen.     The only expectation I had of myself, was that I hang out with the kids, do the minimum required when it came to domestic duties and not feel so bad if we had a meal out.  Of course, the down side was having to be both the morning and the night person…first up and last to bed…. This would get wearing after a while and I really don’t know how single mums do it without adequate support.

What have I discovered?

These things and so much more!

My husband is a really good dad and my kids have  the benefit of what I hope is a quality relationship with both of us, not just now but for the long term

I  miss my kids having relationships with other family members and their friends from back home – different people offer different perspectives that can benefit both  us and the kids…

Having to wait til the kîds are asleep to have “relationship time” or me time!   My husband would still often run late at night or early morning just so it didn’t impact on me and the kids too much.

When the kids were looked  after by a family member after almost two years away, we had almost forgotten what it was like, and what to do with ourselves….We did however work out quite quickly what to do with this sudden spare time!

That spreading your relationship time evenly across the family sometimes requires a conscious effort…

That being a mum is pretty special and can mean so many things but I don’t want to be everything to my kids….I don’t want to be their playmate, teacher, coach, aunt, etc etc….I just want to be their mum….

The older the kids get the more these other external  relationships count.  I want my kids to have things that I didn’t have e.g. relationships with extended family, and I want them to have what I do have…..friends who have known me a lifetime…

That my boys are best mates at 4 and 2 and I hope this will last forever

That we love our friends and family back home but we have made new friends and memories that we can   take home with us!

That parents are pretty important and special people in a kids life and vice versa …..and that  there can never be enough memories to fill up that special bank in your heart and mind…

that after almost two years of travel I not only love my husband but  I really really like him, and his  company….somehow it seems to work out that when I’m not coping so well, he can and vice versa.   Support shows its form in so many different ways and so many times over

That even when coparenting, there are still the old age disagreeements about the division of labour and responsibilities

that even after spending 24/7 together, my husband still can’t read my mind……

To remember to enjoy and savour those moments when my kids want me to be involved, excited to show me stuff, want to hang out…rather than feel annoyed… these moments may not last forever…. Fast forward 10 years and it might be me, vying for their attention.

The kids have seen us in both our glorious and not so glorious moments…and I don’t mean without makeup!   When we muck up, get angry, make mistakes, argue, have a tanty.    Our kids know we are human and we are real.  But they also see us talk  (loudly sometimes) to work it out, resolve it and move on.

Periods of time in  confined spaces are bad…for everyone!

that sometimes the most difficult thing of all this time together is getting a family snap!

Feeling the responsibility of using this time I have with my kids wisely.  Making the most of our time together, ensuring they don’t miss out on same age activities, planning stimulating and challenging activities, sharing personal stories, family history, knowledge….after all you have a captive audience –  you and your partner are the most important people in their world…

That coparenting is pretty cool.  Although you often find it may  not always be what it seems..e.g while his sailing,  I’m with the kids, or vice versa…. Usually one person takes on the task that would need two people….  Sometimes,  it feels like a bit of a tag team effort.

that normal is whatever you make it.

What helps?

Having something to do that gives you some time off and headspace when you can.  My husband loves to run and I like to write.  Making time and supporting each other to have that space is important….and sometimes even after a bit of time away both you and the kids feel  joyous at seeing each other again…..some renewed energy

While there are disadvantages, there are also many advantages.  We think about how lucky and fortunate we are to be hanging out as a couple  with our kids.  This time will only happen once and it will disappear again in a blink of an eye…missing it would be the real loss……

2013-12-22 22.03.29
best friends

 

 

A London summer

london may 13 121I’m writing this blog in my head as I walk through Regents park, on a cold and wet summer’s evening.  My feet are cold – I’m wearing my sandals, the only pair of shoes I’ve been wearing for the last three months in Europe.   I went out without a rain coat…not even thinking….my glasses are covered in rain drops and I’m having my second shower for the day…a cold one this time.   Maybe I should’ve waited…but I saw a break in the clouds, my youngest son had gone to bed early, the park gates were still open  and I was taking my “me” time no matter what the weather.  I just wasn’t prepared for it..after all, it is summer isn’t it?

Well, it should be, but I happened to check Londons weather and compared it with Melbournes weather  and yes both were the same.  17degree, partly cloudy with showers.  One city going into summer, the other coming  into winter.

On my long, now short walk, I curled my fingers into my jumper, pushed my glasses over my head (I couldn’t see out of them anyway), and figured that while my Melbourne counterparts were experiencing the same weather, I was still enjoying long hours of sunlight (5am – 10pm), admiring the greenest, lushest velvet grass…and best of all,  I could still go and defrost afterwards in a big bath of hot water…I knew that my husband would love the opportunity to be out here running in the rain…yet, me….well I’m just pretty Melbournian.  There’s no reason to go out in bad weather when you can be curled up inside, instead and because in an hour/ this evening/tomorrow, the sun will shine again.

london april 13 020Londoners take the opposite attitude, if they waited for better weather, well they may never be out again..  Locals go out whether its rain, hail, or snow ( who else invented a show about muddy puddles!).   I like this…all it takes is some good warm weather gear, and some blankets provided by the local cafe for some alfresco dining.   If your going out with kids, dress in t-shirts but bring jumpers, raincoats, umbrella…basically prepare for all weather…!  Of course, it’s all about perspective, ask a Russian from Siberia or Moscow what they think of the London summer and they would probably tell you how warm and mild it is.

So this year,  the London summer is taking it’s sweet time to arrive.  Last year, we arrived in April to 2 degrees as London was experiencing a long cold winter snap and a delayed spring.  However, almost overnight summer snapped into place by June and suddenly it was reaching high 20s, even 30 degrees.  A heatwave was upon us.  Hard to  to describe it as a heatwave when compared to the 40 degree+ + summer experienced in Melbourne only a few months before.  But a heatwave in London is different.   I laughed too, when I heard the term used but soon I too was feeling it….a humid oppressive city heat, trapped amongst the buildings, and with little relief in a small apartments not designed for airflow or with any type of cooling device….where exactly is the fan/evaporative cooler switch because I could not find one…

london 2  jul 13 127
Sunny summer water fun

However,  London city planners are bright, cool and fun people.  They must be because even if it only reaches 30 deg for some of the two months of the year that is summer, they have loaded the city with lots of fun water play areas for kids and families.  Places such as the Princess Diana memorial water fountain (a round fountain with water spurts, fast water gushes, steep bits, flowing bits etc..), free water play area lidos (Hampstead Heath),  south bank spurting jets and so on and so on.  Now why didn’t  Melbourne think of that….a cool idea for a real summer heatwave….!!

So, my evening walk through Regents park could’ve been very different if the summer sun had arrived and wasn’t too busy hiding behind the thick heavy clouds….I would’ve been walking through the leafy park, watching squirrels and passing many a local relaxing on the grass stripped off to  their boxers and bikinis lying in a strategically placed position, avoiding the shady areas, enjoying a picnic, a glass of Pimms, ….as anyone would do…an ode to summer in London!

So maybe by the time we leave London in a month we may get to  glimpse a little bit of summer sun amongst the rainy, grey overcast days.   If not, as I fly over London with a birds eye view I will wistfully admire the greenest of green patches stretching for miles and be secretly thankful I’m not living it!!

Things to consider when choosing your family’s overland vehicle

The carrera terra austral Patagonia....rks in progr
The carrera terra austral Patagonia….bitumen to come

 

2WD or 4WD?

Do you really need a 4WD to road travel? Well, yes and no….. We have been to many countries where a 2WD capable vehicle, would do just fine. My 20 year old hatchback, could drive down almost all of the dirt or unpaved roads we have been on. In some countries, there are road  works currently in progress to better the road conditions.   In a few years, even the carrera terra austral in Patagonia will probably be all bitumen. However, until this happens, a top heavy vehicle with low clearance, won’t make it on the dirt roads.  So, it really also depends on what sort of 2WD vehicle you have…. you may be able to drive a motor home slowly along a dirt road if you need too but you wouldn’t want to drive 500 kms of it!  We tried initially..see blog: our 12 day motor home nightmare.  You are risking damaging the vehicle, getting lots of flat tyres or worse, getting stuck. A 2WD van would be more durable.

Then there are some countries where you just simply can’t go without a 4WD – e.g. Mongolia (most of the country has basically no roads – your following wheel tracks), Far east Russia, and some of the Stan’s in central Asia. So, first ask yourself where do you want to go – e.g. which country/continent, and then ask yourself, where do you really want to go once there e.g. countryside, national parks, off road etc.

Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track
Crossing the high Atlas Mountains on a 4WD track

The highlight of our Moroccan road trip was spending a week driving on an off road track through the desert and also trying some off road tracks in the high atlas mountains. We only passed about 4 or 5 other cars during our desert time (compared to 1000s along the bitumen inland and coastal roads) and got to wild camp (I mean really wild camp in the desert with no-one else around, rather than camp in a car park with 50 others). It felt like a real adventure. Whilst in Morocco, we spoke to other road trippers who kept telling us how bad the roads were when in our 4WD we hadn’t even noticed.

A 4WD gives you the capability to go off road and find somewhere discrete to camp, or even a really nice location to visit that’s off the main road.  During our central Asia trip, we camped in all sorts of places off the main road, and we were able to get to places (e.g. across a river) to camp where other 2WD/locals couldn’t get to – sometimes for both peace of mind and safety.

4WD’s come in all shapes, sizes and capabilities.   A 4WD is more than just having 4 wheels that drive.   Factors such as clearance, size of tyres and weight carried, can all affect the vehicle’s performance and ability off road. Whatever you decide, consider both the potential and the limitations of any 4WD vehicles; whether it be a van, truck or overloading a 4WD car/pick up (Ute) with a top heavy camper.

A travellers converted fire truck home...your imagination is the limit!
A travellers converted fire truck home…your imagination is the limit!

Can you live without your creature comforts; fridge, shower, satellite t.v.?

I didn’t think I could live without a fridge (I’m a cheese freak, my husband a beer one!)    Our Engel fridge in our car back home was in place and  ready for any camping or weekend trip away.  Do you know what?  It was always full…. However I have discovered during our time overseas that I  can live quite happily without a fridge. It hasn’t meant that  we have stopped eating or buying cold storage products, instead,  anything  bought is eaten and cooked within a day or so.    Most countries stock UHT milk rather than fresh milk so this is easy storage.

A shower however, well nothing quite beats a hot shower with a strong jet. This is not to say that I would get one in a travelling vehicle… filling up every inch of space in a camper is not ideal. A heavy and over loaded vehicle even if it is a 4WD does not necessarily equate to stable and/or practical.   Most people we spoke to who did have a shower, rarely used it, and rather it became  storage space.  Even if you did fit out a shower, at best it would be a trickle…… There are camp-sites available almost everywhere, and  these are often full of self contained vehicles!    Many road travellers even those fully contained will usually stop at a structured campsite, even if its every 2/3 days – to access power, water or for the security, social aspect it provides.  Most camp-sites will have a shower/toilet block to use although I cant guarantee it will be hot water or clean!

However, there are always other ways to wash that will do the trick if you don’t want to stand under a cold shower jet.   Be creative – go for a swim, have a bucket/flannel wash, carry a solar shower pouch or do as the locals do – have a bath at the local bath house (private showers in Mongolia for $1), the baths in Turkey, hammans in Morocco, the saunas in Russia. Washing kids is easy – buckets/baby baths/standing in the sun with a water container….  Even at 2 and 4 yo, my kids could still fit sitting together in a baby bath we borrowed from a neighbouring family, they thought it was hilarious and fun.

Save yourself the money and space and go for the cultural as well as the cleaning experience.

In terms of everything else; ask yourself if it really is a must have.   The bigger your vehicle, the more space to fill, and believe me, you will fill it!

Location and purpose

Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina
Camping in the middle of ruta 40, Argentina

Where and how do you want to travel?

Some of our  trip highlights have been going to places where others can’t go so easily.  Fewer tourists and fewer people equals more remote, and in my opinion, a nicer experience.  If you do meet a local, you might even have a genuine interaction.

Getting to the good bits, chile's national parks
Getting to the good bits, chile’s national parks

In Patagonia, there were few motor homes. Partly because of the shipping costs and partly because you couldn’t drive the kms needed to, on the dirt roads.   We chose a 4WD and camped, it was summer time and lovely. We enjoyed touring the national parks and being outdoors in some breathtakingly  natural and scenic environments.  See blog: overland vehicle choices when buying in South America.

 

However, in Morocco, camping in a tent was not so nice. This time, we bought our 4WD in England.  Structured camp-sites are made for motor homes and are essentially glorified car parks.  Free camping is not so easy and/or practical with a tent.  In addition, it was winter: warm and sunny, but early cooler evenings.  In this situation, we would have liked a contained lock up vehicle – to be able to either camp in structured sites or have the freedom to really park anywhere.    It would’ve  been useful to have the choice to drive even after dark and be able to stop for the night and get into bed without setting up a tent.  You could even buy a reasonably cheap motor home/van in Europe, as there is the variety available – every brand and year you could think of.  For a family of 3 or 4, a pop top or hard top van or 4WD is a reasonable option with enough bed and seat space.

If you are considering a road trip in Europe or North America, you have predominately bitumen/paved roads so that a 4WD would be unnecessary and plenty of infrastructure exists for motorhome travellers such as free camper overnight stops.

When considering a vehicle, imagine how you might be perceived in the local country. Do you really want to stand out? What do you think locals see when you drive by in your €150,000++  convertible travelling home…. Even for a westerner from an affluent country like me, it seems like an inconceivable amount of money to spend.

Imagine locals in some of the poorer countries of the world where there are many more people than cars.   In Morocco, we gave 3 women a ride in our car (yes 3 women squeezed in the front seat next to my husband) when they flagged us down. They were already  walking (in the middle of nowhere), when we saw them and had another 8 kms to travel carrying heavy packs on their heads. They had no car, not even a donkey to help them carry their heavy load. Suddenly we felt very wealthy in our £3000 Land rover.   In Mongolia, we often had locals ask how many people slept in my sister in law’s rooftop tent, surely not just one?!   We would often see old Russian jeeps pull up, and could not believe the number of adults who would emerge….5, 6, 7, 8!   Incredible..it was like a bottomless car..

Period of travel and budget

Think of the period you will be travelling for, are you doing a long extended trip or a short one?  Is it worth spending a significant amount of money on a travel vehicle you will only  use for a short time…what about the re-sale value?  Will you need to sell the vehicle quickly?

Some people will travel for 3 months every  year and want a vehicle that’s well set up and ready to go that they will use for the next 10 years…. In Australia, people love caravans because you don’t have the huge registration costs and expense of another vehicle to maintain.

If its an extended trip – how long for?  Do you plan on road tripping the whole time or stopping somewhere for a few weeks/months?   The money saved in not buying an expensive convertible home could buy you months/years of accommodation in some places – especially when negotiated for a longer period.  While in Morocco, we got to stay in ryiads in some of the city medinas, and in Patagonia in cosy log cabins when we needed to (in times of bad weather, in cities, or simply for a treat).

If you want a stable familiar space for you and the kids – what size do you need?   How much are you prepared to spend for the initial outlay?  This is on top of your daily travel expenses.

We managed to 4WD and camp for a period of 3 months each in two different continents.  This was fine, although any longer, e.g. 6 months to one year of continuous road travel and a mobile home is looking good!

At the end of the day, your budget will determine what vehicle you can afford. Whilst being self contained helps to reduce costs e.g. accommodation, eating out etc, there are still costs to consider. Yes we met road travellers who rarely paid for accommodation (camp-sites or other) but most people we saw still parked in structured camp-sites where we were staying with our tent.

An affordable way to roadtrip in south america
An affordable way to roadtrip in south america

Budget

There are lots of affordable motor homes and converted vans available in Europe (less so in South America). However, a brand new motor home or self converted 4WD truck camper can cost anywhere from $100,000 – 200,000.

We met a traveller in a custom made 4WD truck after doing a desert off road crossing In Morocco.   We found out that he had driven one section of the  off road track we had, but then he decided to re-route back to the  bitumen road because it was too rocky (and it was). However, by doing so, he missed the best bit of the track – a second, more interesting and less rocky leg.   He had invested so much in a vehicle he had purpose built for exactly this sort of off road driving, yet the potential costs of any tyre or body damage was far too great that it outweighed the experience and the reality.  It didn’t matter so much to us, if our £3000 car, (with a couple of dents already) got another one. It didn’t even matter if we re-sold the car for £2,000 and lost £1,000  at the other end…it was a small scale risk. The more expensive the investment, the greater the liability and the greater the financial loss when things do go wrong.

Family size

So, what’s the size of your family? It can difficult to find a suitable vehicle that seats and sleeps 4 people without being oversized. However, if family size and comfort is your main consideration, then there are a multitude of options from vans, trucks, motor homes etc -the list and variety is endless. In some cases, e.g a smaller van and pop or hard top but be suitable.  It might be difficult to find one wide enough to sleep across so that your tall members of your family can fit…for example, my husband stands at 187cm tall.   It might just require a test sleep before you buy one!

What’s your style/personality?

Different countries will have different trends when it comes to road travel. In Australia, your lucky if you see a motor home – caravans, tents, campervans are all the rage.   In Europe/north Africa, there are lots of different vehicles but motor homes are topping the list in popularity – its the new holiday home.   It doesn’t mean you have to do the same. Find out what you like, what’s available and choose your style!  After all,  you and your family will be the ones travelling and living in it 24/7.

What would we choose?

We weren’t completely sold on spending our extended travel period, driving.  We liked the idea in theory, but we weren’t sure the practicality of long term road travel was for us.  Our youngest son was 1 when we started and not a big fan of extended periods in the car.  We also were keen to explore other continents and other ways of travelling.  We were interested in sailing and walking.   However, if we were to go on a one or two year road travelling trip or even if we wanted regular road trips to be part of our home life, these are options we would consider and our must have list….

Our list

  • 4WD e.g off road capable
  • can fit in a standard car park – gives us the flexibility to park anywhere – in a town, city, countryside, etc.
  • simple fit out (bed, sink, cooker, maybe fridge/portable toilet.
  • walk through cab
  • encourage greater outdoor living – cook inside or out and eat/play out
  • have a contained lock up space to sleep in
  • most likely pop top to fit beds for family of four, but be able to all sleep without pop top up- even if it means one mattress on the floor!
  • affordability
  • light!!  Windows that open
  • can fit in a container for shipping purposes
  • think less rather than more – keeping our “stuff” to a minimum: no overloading the vehicle
  • Some vehicles we have considered – 4WD ambulance, 4WD pop top, small ex military 4 or 6WD vans

What did we buy?

After almost two years of travel, meeting lots of other single, couple, families road tripping across two continents, seeing other vehicles/conversions (talking to lots of German and dutch travellers who can be creative and innovative when it comes to vehicles)  and simply working out what would be best for us given our preferences and experiences,  we think we have found the perfect vehicle for future road trips…we are in the process of trying to work out how and if we can import it into Australia….if we can, we will let you know about it!!

 

 

 

 

 

Schengen shenanigans

imageSomething happened to free travel in the EU between the year 2000 and 2013 and no-one told me about it! One year I’m happily backpacking for 6 months around Europe without any consequence and then fast forward to 2013 and I’m told I have 90 days in total (within a 6 month period) in the schengen area.. schengen what??

Yes, that was pretty much my reaction…what is this schnegen and why is it the cause of my European vacation woes…..not too mention some anxious itinerary juggling, some last minute add ons, nervous finger counting on the calendar and missing out on visiting a host of countries not because I ran out of money but because I ran out of time.

So what is schengen and what does it mean? It is basically a convention – a signed agreement between a number of European countries (about 26 to date = most of Europe!) which removes the need for internal border controls and operates a common visa policy across the signatory countries. Yes, a shame not to collect all those country stamps in your passport, but great you say….no border controls…..in and out when you please?!

Well, not exactly….unless you hold an EU passport! For everyone else, its 90 days for the whole schengen area! That’s right, not 90 days for Italy, and then 90 days France or even Greece…no it’s 90 days all up and schnegen, take careful note is different to EU.

You see, countries not even in the EU have signed the schnegen agreement. So if you thought you could escape schengen by going to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Norway or even Iceland you would be schengen mistaken!!!

So two months into the European leg of our trip, and we suddenly discover schnegen. There goes our one year plan out the window, in supposedly border and visa less Europe. Even if you spent 4 days in each schnegen country you still wouldn’t get to see all of them!!

However, I still wasn’t too phased. Surely, we could fly out and fly our schnegen behinds back within a day/week/month to continue our trip ( by this time we had already bought a boat hoping to cruise the canals and the meditterrean schnegen sea). Unfortunately, its a 90 days in and 90 days out rule (not necessarily consecutive….e.g 90 days within 180 days….so you can fly in and out but goodluck keeping up with your 90 schnegen day count). So suddenly we were faced with the other devastating non schnegen prospect…..of spending 3 months in Gibraltar or the Vatican city or somewhere like that!

Did we want to test the enforcement capacity of the schnegen treaty? Not really, we had already heard about another canal cruising Australian couple who got fined 5000 schnegen dollars for overstaying their 90 days in Holland. We also had read countless of forums, of people who had overstayed their 90 days (either wittingly or unwittingly) and were trying to work out what the schnegen next to do…. and others who were quick to point out the legal and immoral implications of being so unschengenlike. It may not look like the immigration person behind the schnegen counter is checking your passport but believe me, it doesn’t take long to calculate 3 months in their head and the last exit stamp is always beside the last entry stamp….they find these stamps even amongst your hundred other ones from Asia or America etc… they know.

Whether they choose to pull you up on it or not is up to the schengen gods. The schnegan agreement doesn’t keep people out, it keeps people in. This is fine if you never plan to return home but for those who do they might just find themselves travelling from one schengen country to the next for 10 years unable to leave the “EU”, until they finally miss family, friends and home cooked meals and turn up at an international airport somewhere prepared to face the fine and the never to return to Europe stamp…..

We almost thought of getting away with it when the immigration officer was about to give us the schengen wave through after seeing my husband’s British passport but no we made mention of the rest of the family’s Australian passports….stupid or schengen smart?

I would like someone to enlighten me on the rationale behind the schengen agreement. Why a bunch of countries, including those not even in the EU and as far away as Iceland chose to open their borders to everyone in the EU but exclude everyone else…. Essentially, give some of us, who are the furthest away, as little time as possible to travel through a glomerate of countries and spend as little of our tourist dollars as possible…. !!!

Isn’t there an economic schengen crisis in Europe? Wouldn’t Spain or Greece like some of our tourist money? Apparently not…UK on the other hand, has benfited the most from our EU “out” time, taking up about 5 months of our total European stay… The UK, like Ireland decided to opt out of the Schengen agreement, controlling their own border entry and exit points.

Why can’t schengen countries determine on a case by case basis whether someone has the funds/ability to remain in their country/area just like the English do… the English are quite happy to ask interrogative questions if they think they need to.

What’s even worse, unlike other countries you can’t even apply for a schengen visa extension! Technically, as a US/Australian/Canadian citizen you don’t have a “visa”, you have a stamp, a stamp that entitles you to 90 days….. PERIOD…. maybe a few more days if you have a medical emergency… In trying to do the right thing, I spent a whole day trying to get someone, somewhere in France to stamp my damn passport so that there would be no dispute when I had entered the country – thats’s how I spent my first schengen day…..and now here I am, with my 90 days ticking away, while I’m motoring at 8 kms an hour along a canal in France, only half way across the bloody schengen country….so what to do?

So where to go besides Ireland and UK, because lets face it, who wants to escape the European winter and head to the UK? So, if it wasn’t for the schengen agreement we wouldn’t have spent 3 interesting months in Morocco…..(we considered Tunisia and Turkey also, as the closest countries to Europe with milder weather). Driving and camping through Morocco was great and wouldn’t have otherwise happened if not for schengen however, a visit to the Canary Islands would’ve been nice, or even Portugal and Spain on the way through but no……By the time we left Morocco three months and counting was far too schengen long and we were all feeling a little schengened out!

So we tried option 2

Apply for a permission to stay in an EU/schengen country. I have family in Italy, speak the language and the funds to support myself so I decided to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (carte du sejour in France) based on family connections and tourism motives (as suggested on their website). Did this work out well…. no, not really and 3 offices later (including a visit to the citizenship office) we left Italy in the same position as before. What I could have applied for, was a permission to stay as a spouse. So, my husband as an EU member would need to register as a resident with the local council and I apply based on my relationship with him. All fine, if we were in a stable address in Italy, but a boat even if parked in Italy does not count as a residence. All we really wanted, was to spend a schengen winter and summer in the Mediterranean (preferably Italy to stay close to relatives) but these was not to be. So off we went twice, for 3 months to a non schengen country, wishing I had an EU passport or even a NZ one… somehow unbeknown to me, there has been some “agreements” made between certain schengen countries and NZ to allow 90 day stays in these individual countries…. how?? now thats what I would like to find out…..!!

Visa free borders, well not really

There are currently 26 countries in Schengen.

Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Austria, Greece, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland , Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Non schegen countries:

Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia (this may change in the future)

Other options

Before leaving home, find out if you or your partner can apply for an EU passport. Do your research. Is there a maternal/paternal grandparent somewhere that you didn’t know about who is really from Bulgaria, Croatia? Dulve deep into your ancestral roots.. a country that wasn’t EU 10 years ago, might just be now!!

Ask your government why NZ can strike a deal with EU schengen countries and yours can’t….time to look at your countries foreign relations….

Re-think an extended trip through Europe before you leave!

Plan your trip through Europe so that you are in non EU territory when 90 days expires

You can’t apply for a visa extension on your stamp. Visit a country’s embassy from your home country to apply for an extended stay before you depart

Apply for a permision to stay (carte de sojour, permesso di soggiorno etc) immediately on arrival to the immigration officials of the country you wish to apply for, usually within 8 days. You need to meet their requirements. Italy’s familial connections law changed in 2009. Do you intend to travel and study? Also check the countries residence requirements if your partner or family member carries an EU passport.

Choose another continent such as South America for your travel of a lifetime dream. We entered several times back and forth between countries e.g. Chile and Argentina, and there are enough countries to visit to keep you busy travelling for a long time.

Sympathise with all those visitors much worse than yourself who are at the constant mercy of a country’s strict visa rules and regulations

Think Karma….there is a reason why strict visa rules apply to you….and also lots of visa charges. Its more expensive to travel on an Australian passport than a British one…we know, as we forked out ridiculous visa fees every time on our Australian one, while my husband on his British passport never paid once…not even in Argentina, and Britain went to war with them!