©Pablo Rey. Published on Overland Journal Magazine, Winter 2014.
After 15 years overlanding the world, Pablo Rey shares some important tips on how to not end up walking in your underwear on a faraway road in the middle of nowhere.
The road is a place where you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Thieves won’t notify you to schedule a visit, the military does not publish the exact location of their checkpoints, and breakdowns have a bad habit of happening suddenly and in the worst possible place—usually far, far away from anything. As I write this we are stranded in a remote area on the northern tip of Newfoundland, where the Vikings first landed, waiting for a replacement part for a broken torsion bar; we’re told it should arrive in a week. More than once during our years on the road we’ve imagined how we would respond to an armed robbery, or to a wicked policeman inventing an infraction to rip us off. Interestingly, each time an uncomfortable situation unfolded, we reacted in a completely different way than we’d anticipated.
When we were assaulted in Brazil by some thugs with a 40-centimeter-long fishermen’s knife, they didn’t approach us from the front, but from behind. Instead of threatening to send me to hell, they just pressed the knife to my throat. They should have said something like, “Give me your money!” “Give me your camera!” “Give me the keys to your rig!” but they said nothing. In a fraction of a second, even before I could think about the appropriate reaction, I grabbed the sharp blade with my bare hand and leaned backwards fast. It was survival instinct in its purest state. Anna came out of the van wielding a can of pepper spray and washed the thieves, and me, with it. This last bit was not part of our plan, at least not mine. After struggling for what seemed like an eternity, instead of trying to keep the knife away from my body, I ended up bringing it closer to my neck again. I wanted to bite his arm and disarm him.
This was an extreme situation, one that will happen, hopefully only once or twice in a lifetime… bad episodes we tend to forget when we assess the positive experiences and emotions of living on the road. Of course, we can minimize the risk by avoiding areas of conflict, driving only during daylight hours, traveling on tarred roads, hiring a guide—or only using our four-wheel drive to go to the supermarket. However, if your desire is to travel overland and to experience the adventure of a lifetime, you need to be prepared for the unexpected. Let me tell you, there is nothing as boring and artificial as when everything goes well.
Protect your House On Wheels
One of the most common concerns of the traveler, if not the most important, is the safety of the vehicle. The world is not a place ruled by justice for all, and in some countries where the monthly family income is a few hundred dollars, a vehicle prepared for a long trip is as tempting as the showcase of a candy shop. You have everything you own on your rig. It is not only a machine and a way to move from one place to another, it is your home, your headquarters, and a fellow traveler who sometimes has a strange sense of humor. Sooner or later you are going to talk to it, you may curse at it, you may insult it, but you have to protect it.
Though you can travel in any vehicle—I have friends who have been touring the world for more than 10 years in a 1928 Graham Page, and others who have traveled from Argentina to Mexico in a Citroën C3—we had some clear ideas about what we wanted. It had to have a 4-cylinder diesel engine, so the fuel consumption wouldn’t be too high, and have four-wheel drive. We needed to be able to sleep inside, as sleeping in a roof tent would make it difficult to jump into the pilot seat and escape if we suffered an attack during the night. At the time, we knew very little about mechanics and we were not worried about vehicle brand, though this is a very important consideration: In a breakdown situation, can you get spare parts in the area you’re travelling in?
For general vehicle security, one of the cheapest and effective measures you can take is to install padlocks on the doors. Thieves, seeing that their job will be more difficult than usual, will often look for easier prey. We always use a steering wheel lock, and had an alarm installed in South Africa, though it might be time to upgrade it. It is not a bad idea to install a safe (Tuffy style, for example), where you can store important items such as money, documents, a laptop, or cameras. The box should be hidden, welded or bolted to the floor, and secured with a pair of good padlocks. If you want to go even further, remove the lock of the nearest door so you can only open it from the inside.
Windows are another temptation for those guys who love to take what is not theirs. They are not only easy to break, they also show what you have inside. And that’s not good. Originally, our van had 10 windows… too many for a trip around the world. We decided to shield four of them with aluminum plates (a good place to display your website or a map of your route) and polarize another three. Only the windshield and the two front side windows were left clear. This is more than enough and avoids unnecessary introductions to local police, since in some countries it is illegal to drive with all your windows tinted.