A Crazy Idea
In 2014, I had moved from Sydney to London. The plan was to stay a couple of years, see the sights, work the pubs and fly back. Then one day, out of what seemed like nowhere, I had a crazy idea. How good would it be to drive all the way from London to Sydney?
It was just an idea. In the absence of full time work or a social circle at this early stage in my London journey, I mentally escaped into the fantasy when I needed a break from reality. I never thought that I would, or could, actually do it. There were too many sizeable obstacles – visas with strict requirements and long waiting times, I had very little money and resources, no back up support, no modified vehicle, I’d be on my own and I’m a girl (should I put that down as obstacle or asset?). But what a story to tell if I actually made it!
Wait, can you even drive all the way from London to Sydney? Before getting too caught up in the idea of this great expedition, I realised that I should see if it’s even possible to drive from London to at least somewhere in Asia. Surely you could, people were doing it on camels across the Silk Roads at least a thousand years ago.
The Mogao Caves, located in Gansu Province, a key stop on the ancient Silk Road. They were constructed from 366 AD
Where to start researching this? The source of all knowledge of course - Google. After consulting Google Maps, I could see that it was possible, in theory, to get at least all the way to Singapore.
The next obvious questions that arose were: can you cross certain country borders? Do you need to apply for visas before leaving or can yo get them at the border? Will they let you take you own vehicle in? Do I need a special licence? Does it matter which side the steering wheel is on? Will they check that I have insurance? Omg, I’ll have to start a list to check all this before I even consider it.
Over the next year and a half, I got on with my London life and gained a lot of experience and confidence. Despite all that had gone on during my time there, the crazy London to Sydney Expedition idea never went away. It would pop into my head from time to time, later I would think of it more and more. One day I realised that the thought had become a part of my story – I’d imagined doing the expedition and completing it in my head for so long now, I couldn’t imagine a life without at having given it a go.
Time for some more serious research.
While searching whether it was possible to cross half the planet overland, I came across a book called The First Overland about a bunch of absolute lads who drove from London to Singapore in a couple of Land Rovers. They were a group, had sponsors and news of their feat was enough to open doors as they arrived at certain cities, particularly towards the end of their journey. Plus, it wasn’t a recent feat, they’d done it in the 1950s, a time when the Middle East wasn’t the hot spot for war and conflict as it’s been forced to become today. Back then, it was actually a kind of paradise, with a series of oasis’ offering a number of delights for anyone keen to join. So, they were able to drive through these parts with little trouble. For me however, given the current climate of hostility, it was impossible to drive through certain countries such as Iran, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Plus, there’d be certain country border changes and stricter entrance requirements for everywhere now. However, their story showed me that it was at least physically possible to do it. That was heartening.
The First Overland lads
Then I found another great, and more recent, guide - Overlanders Handbook. This answered a lot of the tricky questions that arose the more I looked into driving through certain areas. It also gave me answers to things that I hadn’t even considered, from cosmetic stuff like tips on how to take better pictures to more serious stuff like how to bribe an official at the border. Ok, I’ll make a note to bring some US dollars with me.
Right, I’m Doing This. How Am I Doing This?
Not many thought that it was a very bright idea let alone possible. I was told again and again by everyone that I knew - friends, family, colleagues, “adventure” companies - that it can’t be done.
Whenever I’d excitedly tell someone of my planned expedition, I’d be told of the many obstacles that I’d have to overcome and the many things that could go wrong, and the many places along the way that are just too dangerous (especially for a woman alone) and the impossible amount of visas, international licences, insurances, fuel, money, languages, ongoing political tensions, volatile areas, dodgy roads, road maps, that one bit of water between Asia and Australia, oh and the fact that they drive on the right side of the road in Europe (I didn't even bother to mention that I'd only ever driven on the left hand side of the road at this point).
None of this put me off. From all the research I’d already done, I didn’t see them as obstacles so much as an inescapable part of the journey. They didn’t have to be a problem necessarily and they were certainly no reason to cancel the whole thing. Indeed, the Age of Discovery would never had happened if we all thought like that.
Imaginary 16th century explorer: "See them sea monsters?! We ain't going...". Imagine if everyone believed the conjecture of others and never went out and discovered for themselves.
However, there was an obstacle that might be a problem – the vehicle. I didn’t have one. And I certainly couldn’t afford a modified one for a journey such as this.
Any documentary, youtube video or book I’d seen that had made me feel that it was possible for my crazy expedition work, featured adventurers that seemed to be spontaneous and devil may care types, but the reality was – they had a lot of gear, back up support and any vehicles they had were modified to the hilt. That was always the significant difference between me and them. Perhaps it was a romantic notion, at worst naivety, but I always felt that it’s still got to be possible. What kind of world are we living in otherwise?
Next, I planned a route to determine exactly(ish) what I’d be up against and to see if it was possible to forge a path from London to Sydney without an expensive, modified vehicle. To my delight, from what I could gather through looking at maps and general research, it seemed possible to do through cunning and sense and not just dollars and cents. That’s good enough for me. Not needing an expensive 4X4, I found my Peugeot 206 on a car sales website and paid 450 pounds for her (reduced from 500 because the radio needed replacing).
Definitely worth a lot more than 450 quid: Peugeot in Italy
A rough itinerary materialised. My journey would of course start in London, England and by my reckoning of where the passible terrain and penetrable invisible borders were, take me through France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece, Turkey, Georgia, Russia, Kazakhstan, China, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and finally, Sydney, Australia.
The Original Route
The only thing that could stop me would be some silly government rules, like not being granted entrance into a certain country for any reason. I just had to see if there was any obstacle like that on my path and if there was, how to avoid it or dodge around it.
The Visa Headache
One of the problems I was facing was the impossibility of applying for a Chinese visa at the same time as a Russian visa. It was impossible because both required the applicant to still be in their country of residence at the time of the application (in my case England) and they both had a maximum of 3 months by which time the visa had to be used – otherwise it would expire. I did not have time before I had to leave to get both visas back and to make it to each border before they expired. I had to choose one.
Looking at my route, I didn’t have an option with China – if I were to make it all the way to the other side of the planet, it could not be left out. Russia and not being able to cross its border without a visa, even just to transit into the next country, became a headache. Skirting around the Caspian Sea the other way was equally challenging. For example, due to the geopolitics of the area, I may or may not be granted entry into Azerbaijan (which borders Russia) depending on whether they noticed that I’d been in Armenia rather than Georgia – it was a problem that I didn’t want to deal with on the road. What to do? I didn’t have experience in this part of the world so it was difficult – actually impossible – to filter any exaggeration (which sometimes happens) from reality. I had to take my research at face value.
Then, once again the Overlanders Guide book proved itself worth every cent. In it, a chapter explained that it was possible to cross the Caspian Sea itself with your vehicle using a ferry. This negated the need to go via Russia and instantly cured my migraine. Excellent. I’ll sort that once I’m in Baku. Some things aren’t displayed on the internet and therefore must be done the old-fashioned way.
The modified route, cutting Russia out and crossing the Caspian Sea to Kazakhstan
Every other country that I would pass through either didn't require a visa or I could pay at the border and have it issued on the spot, such was the case with Laos for example. The only other country that required a visa for before they would let me enter was Azerbaijan. Fortunately, unlike the Russian visa, I could apply for it from the Azerbaijan embassy in Georgia. I was absolutely fine with all of that, go with the flow.
How to Filter Government BS
Not wanting The Expedition to come to a grinding halt due to my own ignorance, I checked the British Government website for any “Do not travel” warnings. There were a couple of areas around the Caucasus that were suggested to be no go zones - a problem if I were to pass from Europe to Asia overland.
Being an Australian citizen with an Australian passport, I thought I’d better check my own governments travel advice, seeing as they’d be the ones negotiating on my behalf should I be taken captive and in need of assistance (as the British warnings made you feel). Strangely enough, the Australian travel warning wasn’t as bleak. It suggested to use caution, but other than that, just don’t look anyone in the eye and you should be fine.
It was the first time that I’d consulted two different travel websites issued from two different governments and compared them both; even though I had travelled fairly extensively before, I hadn’t the need for this kind of diligence travelling by plane from my own country. The differences in the two not only put my mind at ease about my particular journey, but in an instant, I realised that the world (or certain parts of it anyway) may not be the bleak place that our governments will have us think.
How Can I Do This with Little Money?
Once I was pretty sure it was physically possible to cross the planet overland, the next obstacle that arose were the modern practicalities. It may be possible to cross the planet by car, but what about a modern planet with all its invisible boarders and axis made of money?
Like any other travel I’d done up until this point, I could budget and be frugal, but I still needed to pay for the basic things that The Expedition couldn’t do without, things such as fuel for me and the car, visas and gear. Without being able to take a bank loan (I was overseas) I needed to think of another way to get some backup.
“Robbing a bank?”
For the 10th time brain, no. Not an option.
Much better. Nice one brain.
The “adventure” companies that I had excitedly contacted in the hopes of getting a little help, either financial or just in the form of some gear, all declined siting that the likelihood of success for what I wanted to do was very slight. So?! Makes it all the more interesting doesn’t it?! Would it have made a difference to them if I were a boy? Would my adventure be more likely to succeed and therefore worth parting with their money? At the time, I had reached this headspace where I was ready to take anything on, I had conditioned myself to be very mentally strong which meant anything that wasn’t impossible, was possible. So, I was dumbfounded every time a massive entity balked at something like my expedition and the only reason was it being a huge undertaking. It wouldn’t be very adventurous otherwise right?
A journal entry after being rejected by Australian Geographic:
“I’ve received an email from Australian Geographic stating that I have not been rewarded the Nancy-Bird Walton sponsorship. Obviously, I’m disappointed…I really could have done with the $5,000. However, it wasn’t meant to be and not just for me, apparently, no one was good enough this year! The 5 grand is going to roll over to next year, giving the future recipient a total of $10,000. The hope is that that will attract the “right kind of inspiring women that Australian Geographic are looking for”. I don’t know what is more insulting – knowing that someone else is going to get double the meagre amount that I so humbly requested (and desperately need) or having it insinuated that the application that I’d spent so much time on and really felt hit all the marks, was part of a whole pile of crap applications so far from ok that Australian Geographic would rather not reward the sponsorship at all than give it to any one of us. Anyway, I’m not bitter, mainly just concerned and genuinely curious as to how I’m going to fund this expedition.”
Those were the ones that wrote back – many didn’t. And what is “the right kind of inspiring woman” anyway?
Although I kept trying, I didn’t manage to get any kind of sponsor for The Expedition. From the beginning of my preparation, I knew that I had to rely primarily, if not entirely, on myself and any sponsorship would be a bonus. So even though it was frustrating, I was willing to find any means possible to do this.
In the 5 months that I had to prepare, I used every pay check to purchase from the list I’d made of things needed for The Expedition. Buying one or two things at a time was manageable, just a small dent in my pay. The figure to buy it all at once was definitely more damaging financial, not to mention psychologically, so I avoided doing that. With every fortnightly wage, I would consult the list, shop around for the best deal and spend as much as I could spare on one or more items - things like cooking gear, a tent and sleeping bag. Some items, the ones I’d marked “Work” on my list, found their way into my bag after a shift – tea towels, sponges, old rags, an empty dolce delice bucket for use as a container, toilet paper, a small fire extinguisher – nothing that would be missed.
To further ease the financial burden, a couple of months out from the start of The Expedition, I handed in the keys to my rented room and slept at work to save money on rent. This lasted about a week until I was busted by my boss and told in no uncertain terms how unacceptable that brilliant plan was. I then had to lay low at my old house for 6 weeks so the landlord didn’t catch me in my sleeping bag on the lounge. Living like a stateless person was worth it in the end, the money I saved bought the SLR camera I used for The Expedition.
Having the basics ready, all I needed during The Expedition was to pay for petrol, accommodation, food, insurance at certain borders and any other miscellaneous stuff that would no doubt arise en-route. I had a few thousand saved for this, plus a credit card with another AUD$5000.
Next was driver’s licence. A reasonably quick search showed that using my unrestricted Australian driver’s licence was fine in all countries, except for Thailand. I needed to have an international driver’s licence for there. Lucky these are easy to get, just a case of filling out some paperwork and providing a photo – no worries.
But then, this was no standard road trip and likewise, the preparation for it was largely, actually entirely, figured out as it went along. As it turned out, just like the rest of the preparation for this expedition, the international licence ended up requiring most of my sheer will, determination and problem solving skills just to get the blessed thing.
If you already have a driver’s licence issued in your own country, all you need to do is present this along with a passport sized photo, the application form and the payment to your local automobile authority (in the UK it’s just at any participating Post Office) and an international licence is issued. The only tricky thing for me was the fact that I never swapped my Australian drivers licence for a British one. However, since I was still living and applying in Britain, the requirement for an international licence was a valid Great British (GB) or Northern Ireland driving licence – not an Australian licence.
Swapping my Australian licence for a British one was possible, but would take too long. I had enough time to apply for an international licence but not enough to apply for a British licence, which could take up to 2 months, and apply for the international licence. Plus, I'd need to surrender my Aussie licence in order to apply for a British one, which made me nervous. It was one thing to attempt this expedition without fancy equipment, but quite another to do it without even a licence (there’s an idea…).
The only other alternative I had was to apply via post through the Australian automobile authority (which for my NSW issued licence was the NRMA), which - alongside handing in your documents physically - was the only other accepted way to apply for an international licence using an Australian drivers licence. The only extra thing I had to do was go to the Australian embassy in London to have copies of my documents made, sighted and signed off. A mild inconvenience but major time saver. I did this and sent my application 1st class to Australia. Even the stamps have a social rank in Great Britain.
After all this was done, I got on with organising everything else, believing that my international licence was on the way.
To this day, I still don’t know what happened to it. It must have been lost en-route or slipped down the crack of something because, although I had been advised that it was sent, it never landed in my mail box.
Time was running out. Applying for the international licence via post was eventually no longer a possibility. I needed to somehow hand my documents over physically in order to have the licence issued on the spot. Unless I flew all the way to Australia and back, it was another impossibility that forced me to come up with a plan B.
Out of all the government agencies I consulted, all the international embassies I visited, all the travel guides and expert advice I read, as it would turn out, the final part that made it possible for The Expedition to be completed in its entirety was done by – my mum and dad.
I’ve stated that I organised The Expedition without the help of a room full of personal assistants - and this is true. However, it is also true that without the help of my parents at crucial points in The Expedition, it wouldn’t have been successful.
They were the ones that marched down to the NRMA, took a number and waited valiantly to seek the long-lost document. They eventually were able to parlay through the waist high wall of the NRMA fortress, only to be told that a new international licence must be issued - the old one was lost to history. “Ok”, said they, because I had emailed them all my sighted documents, which could be accepted. But there was one essential piece missing – a current passport sized photo, original of course - no copies.
The only acceptable size and type of original photo of me in existence was in my possession in London, and even I had had that done for The Expedition because I didn’t own any. The lady appointed to serve them thankfully not only had some ranking in this NRMA land (she was a manager) but she also had sympathy and determination of her own. She told mum and dad to go back to their village and get any old passport photo of me they could find and to return when they had. Fortunately, when I was 15 years old, we took a family trip overseas and mum and dad had applied for my first passport. That had long been replaced by a number of successive passports, but incredibly enough, an original copy of the passport photo, thought to be long gone, was still in existence, preserved by a decaying, dog-eared envelope.
With this in hand, my parents went back to that manager at the NRMA. Being the understanding individual this manager was, she overlooked the fact that the child in the photo not only wasn’t in their late twenties but also wasn’t old enough to drive. The photo completed the list of requirements and a new international licence was forged. Now mum and dad just had to express post it to my address in London. This one I received in a nick of time.
The international licence with a passport photo of a 15 year old me
Now, the only potential show stopper that I could see was Azerbaijan – they don’t allow you to use right hand drive cars in their country. Feeling far too committed at this stage, I decided to worry about that one when I was at the border.
If the paperwork requirements of modern travel wasn't enough to deal with during the preparation, my car itself definitely added to the challenge. In the end, just getting Peugeot roadworthy, never mind any kind of expedition standard, became the goal to reach before the start date of The Expedition. When I bought her from the used car salesman, he told me that the previous owner was an old lady who only took it out to get groceries and the one before that bought it new and sold it just a few years later. The price was right – 550 pounds. The radio was broken, and so was the bulb that lit up the millage, so I was able to get a further 100 pounds off. Deal.
What I didn't know at the time was that a few months later, a mechanic would not consider her roadworthy. She would not pass inspection and could not be re-registered. Once again, what I thought was a formality - applying for registration papers - became a problem. I needed to present those registration papers at country borders.
From my journal:
"I received a call from the garage – the car didn’t pass the MOT!* The mechanic started rattling off the list of things that needed fixing just so it would be deemed road worthy and, I’ll admit, I drifted off a quarter of the way through. Mostly because I was still mainly concerned with the (Chinese) visa and also because I just wanted to get to the bottom line – how much is this going to cost?! He quoted between 4 and 500 pounds at which point, I’m a little ashamed to say, I did swear. How I was going to pay for the repairs to the car I had no idea. None the less I booked it in for the following Tuesday. At this stage I just need everything in place – car rego plus a car that is functional."
The day I dropped Peugeot off at the mechanic for surgery was also the day that I caught an early morning train up to Manchester in order to apply for my Chinese visa (of course their London embassy required an appointment and I couldn't get one in time). I distracted myself from my massive car problem by watching the green countryside fly by the train window. Having the visa to worry about also helped with the distraction.
Thankfully, Peugeot was eventually made roadworthy and I finally had the all important registration papers. The mechanic said, "It should be fine for a while now. Are you going on holiday to the country?"
I told him that I was taking the car out for a run - I just didn't say which country. My mental strength had been tested enough for the moment. I didn't need someone else shaking their head in disbelief at what I was about to ask this inappropriate vehicle to do.
A winding road in Northern Greece. Lucky Peugeot had to have new tires before passing her MOT
*Annual test of vehicle safety and roadworthiness.
Dealing with Self Doubt
Then there were all the “what ifs”, mainly concerning finances and safety. What if I don’t have enough money? What if I break down in the middle of nowhere? What if I’m taken advantage of and unthinkable things happen? These are important to plan for but, equally importantly, they are potential scenarios, not yet and may never be, reality.
After much consideration of the facts and general soul searching, all the what-ifs were eventually deemed surmountable and not reasons worthy enough to cancel the journey of a lifetime. Once I’d realised that I am free to do whatever it is that I dare to dream (within the boundaries of physics and other universal laws of course), I felt a surge of excitement – it’s all there for the taking, the only thing stopping me is me. I would just have to use my inner strength to control any feelings of self-doubt.
From previous travel experiences, I know that if you are sensible, sensitive of others and their culture, research and follow the local rules, then the chances of attracting peril are reduced. For the number of negative what ifs that sprang to mind, there were an equal if not greater number of positive ones. Positive is always more attractive than negative (the one rule of physics I will break), so the obvious worst case scenarios were prepared for, the remaining ones would stay a mystery until they revealed themselves down the track and would be dealt with on the road, and the positive ones were dreamed of and anticipated until they could be experienced.
The Expedition was a once in a life time event that I was very excited about attempting. Through my research, I had determined that it wasn’t impossible – that meant that its success, or failure to start, would be down to me. From the experience of moving to the other side of the planet by myself – dealing with extreme loneliness and self-doubt – I knew that there would be times during The Expedition where I’d want to give up. There would be times when I’d be overwhelmed and feel that I was not capable of doing it. Just knowing that I’d occasionally find myself in this headspace made it okay when I did find myself there. When I wandered into this mental territory, I wasn’t taken by surprise. I also knew that it would be temporary, I’d find the end of that road sooner or later.
In the same vain, one of the mental exercises that I did to prepare for the reaction of friends and family was to imagine all of the negative reactions from anyone that I told and to respond to them. The idea was to, not just be prepared with an answer, but to have already dealt with the potential problem psychologically. I told myself that I mustn’t be put off – the more I thought about the reasons for not attempting the expedition, the more I saw them as being very silly reasons to cancel a life altering experience. Because “something” might happen – what if it’s something great?
By the time I was ready to announce to my inner circle my intentions to drive half way around the world solo, in a hatchback that needed work, I already knew the reactions that I would receive from them and I was ready.
I knew that their concerns and opinions came from the place of people who have been taught to view the world in a certain way and to never question the status quo. They came from a place of fear, fostered by what they were fed on the nightly news and what they talked about in daily conversation. They based their assumptions about the world on just one aspect, one perspective – theirs and that of their government.
Over the months spent preparing for The Expedition, as my abstract dream began to materialise, I felt a surge of pure excitement – this is it, I’m actually doing this!
Next - Travelling Solo as a Woman (Coming Soon!)