May 2014

Blog, Europe

DISCUSSION 14 Comments

Africa Calling

Having arrived in Europe is both a triumph and a shock to the system. For the past two years we’ve explored the Earth’s faraway wild places with wonder and amazement. Every time we moved we were moving into the unknown, and with it came a sense of adventure and uncertainty. Europe is sort of the end of the line on our trip, and marks the emergence from the unknown into a world that we know. We used to live in Europe, after all, and have spent considerable time exploring it. While arriving in Europe after two and a half years of exploration was intended to seem like a relief, what we experience instead is something unexpected.

Being that our goal has been to get to Morocco as quickly as possible, we consciously but begrudgingly speed through Greece. Over the course of two days we drive from the Turkish border to the mountains of Meteora where monasteries are built atop rocky spires with impossibly sheer cliffs on all sides, and we camp. In the morning we head west with the intention to cross Albania and drive the Dalmatian Coast en route to Italy.

A few miles before the turn to Albania we notice that our super expensive car insurance is invalid in four key countries: Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia. Some combination of these countries, may I remind you, must be crossed in order to reach our destination without backtracking all the way to Romania. Some quick research on the part of my trusty and attractive copilot reveals that individual insurance can be had at these borders for no less than $140 each, and we decide that for a mad dash this kind of money is unjustifiable. We reluctantly drive to Igoumenitsa where we catch a ferry from Greece to Italy.

We set up an impromptu camp on the ferry for the overnight trip, and arrive late the following afternoon in the eastern Italian town of Ancona. Camping in Italy, we quickly realize, is a much less private affair than it had been in Turkey and Greece. We spend the night in a parking lot between the ocean and a busy road while being periodically awoken by the screech of train wheels right outside of our window. In the morning I realize that the bearings in Nacho’s bumper swingarm are long dead, so I make a haphazard repair and we set off. We drive through picturesque towns and small mountain villages into Tuscany where we spend our second Italian night in a parking spot behind a gas station next to a big fuel tank. La dolce vita!

At this point in our story, one might be asking oneself: “Why is Nacho in such a big hurry?” Besides the previously stated reason of warmer weather in Africa, there is another—the Schengen agreement. This agreement (pronounced “shen-ghen,” by the way), allows the free passage of goods and people between most countries in Europe without customs and passport control using a common visa—the Schengen visa. The trouble with this visa, though, is that it is only good for three months, and it can’t be extended. In order to receive a new Schengen visa, one must leave Europe for at least three months within a six month period before returning. Therefore, the longer our drive to Africa takes, the less time we can spend in Europe when the weather warms up. And thus we pick up our story where we left off, which is to say where we were crossing Italy in just two and a half days.

We drive to Lucca, a nice city in Tuscany, and walk around the historic center. We regard the pastel walls and narrow cobbled alleys, the smell of fresh bread and sausage wafts to us from open doors, but that sense of adventure that we’ve had up until now is missing. We sit down and enjoy two small coffees on a terrace, and then, what’s this? A bill for $12.50? Twelve dollars for COFFEE!? The chic barista shrugs at my look of confusion and waits for me to hand her what, since arriving in Asia, has been two full days’ food budget. Hanging out in familiar places and paying premium prices for things like coffee feels strangely unadventurous. We start to feel, for the first time, not like daring adventurers but like homeless people.

We cut to the coast and drive to what we’ve always considered one of Italy’s gems, Le Cinque Terre—a series of five small villages perched on the rocky cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean. We drive the winding cliff side road between the villages, stopping in Riomaggiore before arriving in Vernazza for the sunset.

We park Nacho and make our way out to the water front and step out onto a rocky outcropping, the Mediterranean unfolding before us and the pastel Italian fishing village climbing the canyon wall behind us, but we feel a great deal of nothing with a hint of boredom. Our adventure feels strangely devoid of adventure. We notice an American girl in her twenties perched on a rock and she’s glowing as if entranced by her surroundings and the view, and it only makes us feel as though we don’t belong here. Like maybe we’re not quite ready to be back in the modern world, and that perhaps bee-lining it to Morocco might be just what the doctor ordered.

In the morning we head out and point Nacho’s big blunt nose toward the French border. As we approach Genoa we hop on the motorway to speed things up through the foothills of the Alps and into France. After two hours on the motorway we’re feeling completely exasperated by what feels, literally, like highway robbery; in only two hours we’ve racked up $87 in road tolls! And this on top of, I kid you not, gasoline costing $9 per gallon. We’re spending $1.15 per mile just to drive, and we have over a thousand miles to go! We exasperatedly exit the motorway and get back to the slower but toll-free surface roads.

By evening we’ve made it to Provence, and we trundle off on a dirt track and into a vineyard to sleep for the night. France is surprisingly beautiful and we’re feeling much more relaxed. Italy, despite always having been my favorite European country, had us feeling a little overwhelmed, and perhaps in a minor state of reverse culture shock.

In the morning we’re back on the road, where we happily bounce along southern France’s backroads past farm stands selling fresh asparagus and strawberries. We realize that we’ve become emotionally fickle like a couple of fourteen year old girls.

“I’m so sad! My soul feels hollow! I can’t afford to drink coffee! Ooh, is that asparagus? Do you think the French would approve of this cute pants-hat combo?”

By late morning we cross the border into Spain and feel something of a homecoming. Two and a half years ago we started our trip by crossing the border into Spanish-speaking Mexico, and over the next thirteen months came to feel at home in Spanish-speaking lands. Now, being in Spain, we feel it again. For the rest of the day we lumber along Spain’s back roads and highways skirting the Mediterranean coast before cutting inland and finally stopping for the night at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

When we awake the air is crisp under clear skies, and Sheena heads off into the forest for her morning run. This aspect of being in Europe has left Sheena elated; she’s been missing her runs for a long time. She had developed a consistent regimen back in Argentina where it was easy to get into nature and away from people, but as soon as we got to Asia it all came to a halt. It was either too hot or too congested to run, and when we got to India it became impossible for her to go out alone for fear of being assaulted by creepy men. Now she is in her element and she’s a happy copilot. She returns an hour and a half later with her pockets full of wild thyme that she’s picked in the forest and then happily cranks up the Nacho shower, free to do so now that we’re in a place where dozens of creepy men won’t be vying for viewing spots around the shower tent.

We pack up our things and hit the road under sunny Spanish skies, traversing the edge of the Sierra Nevada and then snaking along the water’s edge until we arrive, at long last, at the port city of Algeciras. We stop in at the grocery store to stock up on cold cerveza, Spanish sausages, and other Iberian specialties before heading out to the port. In the distance the shores of Morocco stand watch over the Strait of Gibraltar. As the ferry disembarks we look south toward a new journey; the Dark Continent, a dose of chaos, and a new found sense of adventure. We’ll appreciate Europe for what we intended it to be—our last hurrah—when the time comes. Give us one final blast of dirty street carts, mud hut villages and colorful indigenous people and then we’ll be good and ready to relax away the rest of our trip in the modern comforts of Europe, but not just yet.


  1. canyon haverfield

    Beautiful report ! Sorry to hear Italy is so tainted… In a US TraderJoe’s one can buy to can’s ( 1 lb. ) each of italian coffee for what your two coffee’s ran. How was the coffee by the way ? That must of been hugely disappointing not to rub it in ! Your efforts deserved so much more ! When you return to CA. let me know .. I’ll meet you on the BigSur coast and put up a nice dinner/sunset for you

    Comment by canyon haverfield on May 23, 2014 at 10:46 pm

  2. Donald and Deborah

    I can’t wait for Africa !! Are you going to make it to Cape Town ?
    Really why I’m posting, is to ask is this trip possible (to replicate the SA and Africa portion) in a 1995 Chevy Tahoe, on say a $4000.00/mo. budget ? Perhaps less camping and more Inns and such on a slower trek….
    what are your thoughts ?
    I’m ready to leave. :)
    PS I did hesitate to ask…:)

    Comment by Donald and Deborah on May 23, 2014 at 10:53 pm

  3. Gary Peebles

    AFRICA- you guys will not believe how wonderful this continent is. We just got back from a three month overland tour from Kenya to South Africa. People, Animals, culture are rich, the land is gorgeous and you can drive it with little problem. You already have it down(how to survive). Now, if you can, get down to the Cape of Good Hope. West Africa might be difficult now. If you can, drive to Egypt, then down to Kenya. Then saunter on down to the Cape. English is spoken by all on the East, camping is easy to find and food is inexpensive. You may need to buy visas for a few of the countries but that can be done at the boarders. We drove in another’s rig so don’t know about the passage of cars/Nacho. Transport your vehicle down to Cape Town then drive North, if time is short. Well, thats my twocents… I know that what ever you guys do it will be fun/adventurous.
    Happy trails,
    Gary Peebles

    Comment by Gary Peebles on May 24, 2014 at 12:45 am

  4. mistee

    So the trailer spindle with tapered roller bearings was an experiment – not to be repeated?

    Brinelling, corrosion, inhaled dust/india river sewage and so…

    Comment by mistee on May 24, 2014 at 7:04 am

  5. @Canyon, the coffee in Italy is always good :)

    Comment by Brad on May 24, 2014 at 11:51 am

  6. @Donald and Deborah,

    We only planned to do Morocco on this trip in order to wait out the European spring. Your idea of doing S. America and Africa is a fantastic idea. It’ll be really hard to spend $4k per month, even if you tried. We camped most nights, but hotels are almost as cheap as campgrounds anyway (we just happen to prefer camping). Overall, including shipping, flights, insurance, and everything else, we spend on average just a smidge over $2k per month. Our budget has its spikes and valleys, but $30k per year is more than enough. With a $48k/year budget you could travel very comfortably, no problem. I hope you do hit the road–if you do, please let us know.

    Comment by Brad on May 24, 2014 at 11:56 am

  7. @Gary, we both agree that we’d like to do a full-continent African trip one day, but just not right now. For this trip we’re only hitting Morocco; we’ll come back some other time with a fresh perspective. Looking forward to whenever that is.

    Comment by Brad on May 24, 2014 at 11:58 am

  8. @Mistee, I think the trailer spindle was the most robust option for us give the weight of our swingarms (the one that failed supported 4 full jerry cans on a cantilevered arm). The problem was that we didn’t build in a way to adequately seal the bearings. If I had to do it again I’d try to find a sealed bearing, or else make a way to add a seal. failing that, I’d repack the bearings every 6 months or so. This one lasted about 2 years before decomposing.

    Comment by Brad on May 24, 2014 at 12:00 pm

  9. Mom

    Ah, yes, I remember my visit with you years ago to Le Cinque Terre. I understand your feeling of been-there-done-that, after all you have experienced in rural lands around the world. So glad you found your way back to that environment in a hurry!

    Comment by Mom on May 24, 2014 at 5:32 pm

  10. Donald and Deborah

    Thank-you for your thoughts. They speak to the financial aspects.
    Do you think/know if there are old school Chevrolet parts available in the far reaches of the hinterlands ? I am reasonably certain that Mexico, CA and SA would be doable. Any vehicle problems that I might encounter prior to Africa should be solved by then, I assume, but we all know about assumptions..
    I have turned wrenches for too many years. :)
    Having now 5 years in remission (ACC/RCC) I get the no time like now desire.
    Donald and Deborah (two older farts)

    Comment by Donald and Deborah on May 24, 2014 at 10:01 pm

  11. Excellent! Your photo’s are amazing. I love the one when Sheen is right next to Nacho and downward over looking cliff. Wow! Heights? This is your awesome adventure. Can’t wait to see thousands and thousands of photos when you return. High above the cliff. Did you say that is where the Monks live. Photo is real but interesting how it was built way up there. Harmony & Peace till we all see you both.

    Comment by Barb on May 25, 2014 at 9:31 am

  12. @Donals, I’d say that if we survived with Nacho (spare parts nearly impossible to find in most places) you should be fine with a Chevy. Especially if you’re an accomplished wrench turner. We have a roof box full of critical spares, and I’d recommend the same. Brake pads, various bearings (lots of wheel bearings), spark plugs, belts, alternator voltage regulator, tie rod ends, ball joints, miscellaneous relays, etc. I have hardly been in a parts shop since Ecuador.

    Comment by Brad on May 25, 2014 at 1:23 pm

  13. Mark

    Guys, I’ve spent the past two winters touring Morocco with my dog and our T3 Westy. If you think I can be of any help please don’t hesitate to ask.
    Love your blog.
    Good luck.

    Comment by Mark on May 31, 2014 at 12:42 am

  14. Keith

    Hey Guys!!!

    Africa is looming large on my wishlist…..

    We could rekindle travelling together in Sth Am in Sth Af!!!

    Only downer – Bessie is no longer in my life…. I miss her!!!


    Comment by Keith on May 31, 2014 at 2:42 pm

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