Overlanding Travel Safety Guide

Last week’s report of (yet another) gang rape of a tourist in India left me outrageously angry, mostly because India is now being dubbed ‘the most dangerous country for women to travel through’, even though I know of at least four friends, all female, who are safely wandering through the country as I type.

Don’t misunderstand me, the event is tragic and heartbreaking; yet rape, mostly for women, is a clear and present danger in EVERY country, including our own. The particular details of the latest Indian crime however, have compelled me to write this, my own ‘safety travel tips guide’; because I do believe that the majority of woes suffered by people whilst travelling are totally avoidable. Yes, sometimes, you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time, but most of the time if you think very, very carefully, you can probably pinpoint the exact moment you made the wrong choice.

So here goes, because so many people have asked me recently just how we ‘keep safe’ on the road, especially as we do so much free camping. Here’s the best list I can come up with, to ensure that we, and you, never ever become a statistic on the road:

1)     Don’t take risks abroad you would never consider at home

The American tourist who was raped last week in India had, apparently, been out enjoying an evening at a thermal pool, when she decided to hitchhike back to her accommodation at 1’o clock in the morning. She only had to cover a distance of 2km, yet unfortunately the short ‘lift’ she accepted turned into a horrific ordeal.

Stories like this are not uncommon, from the 1am taxi/lift ride to riding a scooter in flip-flops and a T-shirt in Thailand, it seems that many people take more risks when travelling abroad than they ever would at home. Seriously…would you hitch a ride at 1am in your home city? I bloody well wouldn’t!

Be careful what you do, when you do it, how you do it and who you do it with. Think twice before doing something you’d never contemplate at home. Would you jump in the car of a perfectly good stranger you just met 5 minutes ago, or accept an invite to someone’s house for a smoke/drink/coffee/whatever? If you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t to it overseas.

2)     Stay away from alcohol or ‘big nights out’

At the risk of sounding like a real party pooper, avoiding big alcohol-fuelled party nights will go a long way to ensuring you don’t become a victim of crime whilst travelling. From muggings, to rape, bashings and stabbings, many a ‘travel’ crime started with one or two drinks at the local pub/bar.

Chris and I don’t drink much at all, and only ever do when we are safe and sound in a campsite. We don’t go to bars or nightclubs, certainly not in a brand new country anyway and never dabble in any kind of drugs. Do any of the above and the chances of trouble are exponentially increased.

3)     Know where the REAL danger lies

I can’t begin to tell you just how many young backpackers I met in South America who were sooooo worried about muggings, soooo worried about theft and soooooo worried about being raped. Yet without fail, each and every time, they would take overnight long-haul bus rides to avoid accommodation costs and save time. THIS…was by far the biggest risks they ever took, in my humble opinion.

TRAFFIC ACCIDENTS are by far the most common sight in developing countries and your one single biggest danger when overlanding around the world. The sheer number of old, decrepit, brakeless death-boxes (driven by men high off their eyeballs on khat and other drugs) that I saw lying at the bottom of deep ravines, was just staggering. The amount of people who die in road accidents in most South American, Asian and African countries would have you shivering at your desk.

Moreover, the fact that you cover more distance in a short amount of time than you would if you were home, actually makes road accidents a higher risk, even in more developed countries. Regardless of where this trip may take me, that fact that I am riding a motorbike over approximately 30,000kms makes this my biggest threat of all.

Anything I can do to avoid this? Well, technically speaking no, I still have to cover the distance, yet travelling at a lower speed infinitely ups my chances of surviving a crash and consistently wearing ALL my protective riding gear (which I do, even in 30 degree heat) mitigates the risks of major injury. We try to drive no more than 3-4 hours on any given day, and never ride when we feel tired or unwell.

Moreover, we keep learning and changing our ‘tactics’. Recently, we read about a young couple who was cycling around the world and involved in a crash in Thailand. They were riding close to each other and a wayward truck managed to drive both off the road. They both died. Unfortunately, this was a remote part of the country and police and ambulance could not get to them for an hour or so. It is heart-wrenchingly devastating to think that, perhaps, they may have both survived initially, yet died due to lack of immediate help.

Since then, Chris and I have been keeping an even greater distance from each other, to decrease the chances that we could both be hit by a truck, or involved in any kind of road accident, at the same time. As we start to venture into even more remote territories, we realize our best chance of help in case of a road accident, will be from each other. Keep ONE of us safe and at least First Aid can be at hand.

If you happen to be travelling overland anywhere, take trains instead of buses and, no matter what you do, don’t opt for the overnight bus options. Break up long drives, swap buses and sit up the front so you can keep an eye on the driver…if he rides too fast, don’t be shy and tell him to ‘slow the f**k down’ and, if you feel unsafe, just get off at the next town. Better safe than sorry. Cycling or biking around? Do as we do and keep your distance from your travel buddy.

4)     Keep a low profile

This one seems a rather obvious tip, but let me assure you, it is not. From flashing expensive camera equipment, laptops, i-pads, i-phones and pockets full of cash, to ‘bush’ camping in full view of a main road or village, I’ve seen some normally intelligent people do really, really stupid things. When travelling through a country, where the average yearly income is a mere portion of whatever you spent on your latest Canon, rest assured you’ll be getting some unwanted attention should you happen to flash it around in public. Yes, I do have a lovely SLR/digital Canon, but this baby only comes out when I know it’s safe. At all other times, I use a small pocket camera which retails for around $80, is drab grey in colour and looks chunky and old compared to the latest gizmos. I have an old Nokia not even an Indian teenager would want to steal and I only carry $20 cash in my wallet at any given time. The rest is safely locked away on the bike. The bikes, by the way, never leave our sight. When we go on day sightseeing trips, they’re safely parked away in a campsite or 5* hotel car park.

Only carry on you what you’re prepared to lose and remember to only put up a struggle with a would-be mugger when you’re confident you can win (ie. if you have a helmet on one hand and a big German boyfriend on the other). Pick your battles carefully…

As for the bush camping even in relatively safe countries like Italy, Croatia and Greece we keep our ‘visibility’ to an absolute minimum, even though we keep seeing campers overnighting on the side of the road. Granted, considering some of these campers are HUGE, their options are rather limited, yet when I say Chris and I ‘bush’ camp, I really mean it.

With our motorbikes we can venture deep into forests, down gravel roads and far, far away from any village. The one thing we ensure is that we are never, ever, visible. If someone were to stumble upon our tent in the middle of the night, rest assured they’d be as surprised as we would be. Should the undesirable happen, I’m quite sure that even with my puny size I would be able to deliver a mighty wack to the side of the head with my Kevlar helmet, the one thing which, along my 1.94cm boyfriend, always sleeps next to me.

Wanna camp wild? Be prepared and make a plan with your travel companion of what you would do if you were to be approached in the middle of the night by a persona non grata.

5)     Don’t even think about leaving home without travel insurance

Almost no further explanation required. When doing a round the world overland trip, pick an insurance policy which includes repatriation in case of death or serious injury and make sure everything is in order and in accordance with the policy (ie. don’t travel with an expired driver’s licence etc.)

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