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Chris and I have started planning our trip in more detail, plotting out a route across the globe like a dashing young Burke and Wills. Here’s our loose itinerary:

Fly from Perth to Kuala Lumpur. Take a leisurely sleeper train up the peninsula into Thailand, and laze around on beaches, snorkelling over tropical reefs and eating cheap Thai cuisine until we get tired of the unrelenting swarms of fellow Western backpackers. Cross the border into Cambodia and explore the crumbling, overgrown ruins of Angkor Wat. Head east into Vietnam and follow the idyllic coastline north, before cutting west into Laos where hill tribes and French colonial towns are nestled in deep jungle. Travel north into China, and explore the rugged wilderness of the west, Jade Snow Mountain and Tiger Leaping Gorge. Budget and Chinese government permitting, take the train up into the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where Buddhist monks pray under the unblinking eyes of the PLA. Descend from the roof of the world into Beijing, and take the Trans-Mongolian Express to Ulan Bator. Spend some time wandering around the plains of Mongolia, with horse nomads and yurts and such, then continue on the Trans-Siberian into Russia. If the Russian visa system proves to be anything other than a Kafkaesque ordeal, devote a few weeks to kicking around Siberia and Lake Baikal. After the train eventually spits us out in Moscow, catch a plane to Cairo.

Giza, the pyramids, the Red Sea, the Sahara Desert and the Nile should provide plenty to see and do before continuing our journey south into Africa. If overland travel through Sudan proves possible, we’ll move through there as quickly as possible (not much to see, and one of only eight countries DFAT thinks you absolutely shouldn’t visit) into Ethiopia. If not possible we’ll just fly from Cairo to Addis Abbaba. Moving through the highlands of Ethiopia, we’ll travel south into Kenya, then again into Tanzania, which encapsulates everything African in one nation (minus the warfare and all that): Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lake Victoria, the Serengeti and Zanzibar. Once that’s been exhausted, cross the border south into Mozambique, where 15th century Portuguese forts sit in marshy river deltas. Cross the border into South Africa, which is a first-world (read: expensive) nation and offers nothing African we haven’t already seen, so make a beeline for Jo’burg or Durban so we can fly to our next stop: Buenos Aires or Santiago, depending on which is cheaper.

Upon arrival in South America, head south into the mountains and glaciers of Patagonia, before swinging north again up the Andean spine through the high altitude Atacama Desert. Pass through Bolivia if we feel like it, then enter Peru. Just as Tanzania encapsulates Africa, Peru encapsulates South America: snow-capped mountain peaks, unexplored jungle, coastal deserts, the ruined Incan city of Macchu Picchu and the mountainous shores of Lake Titicaca. When we’re ready to leave, we’ll travel downriver along the Amazon, ideally swinging in hammocks in a two-storey saloon boat piloted by a gruff old jungle expat, cutting through the heart of the world’s largest rainforest. After reaching Belem on the Atlantic coast, we’ll either island-hop through the Caribbean or (more realistically, less awesomely) fly direct to the USA. Whether by hitchiking or buying the cheapest car we possibly can, we’ll head north along the Appalachians to New York City, then cut cross-country to Los Angeles, stopping along the way in Las Vegas and the various natural parks of the nation’s west. From LA we plan to head north along the west coast, detouring into Wyoming for Yellowstone National Park, and then crossing the border into Canada. Our funds will be near exhaustion by then, if not before, so we’re limited only by our bank accounts and our imagination before returning home.

My absolute minimum budget for this trip is $15,000, and even that is shaky, influenced more by Chris’ unwavering demand that we leave as soon as possible. I’d be a lot more comfortable with $20,000. As of now, the beginning of December, I have $10,700. I have dramatically slashed my outgoing expenses and usually earn at least $500 a week. I’m on holiday for two weeks in January, but even then I should be able to earn another $7000 by the end of March, the latest possible departure date I’ve coaxed out of my compatriot.

It’s sort of hard to tell how much these things will cost. We’ll be travelling almost exclusively through third world countries where you can live on dollars a day, plan to use couchsurfing.com extensively, and have a total of three definite flights: Australia-Malaysia, Russia-Egypt, South Africa-Argentina/Chile. (I don’t include the flight from Canada back home as part of expenses, because I’ll either be broke and have to wire my Dad for some money and then pay him back when I get home, or I won’t be tired of travelling and will get a working holiday visa and try to find a job in Canada.) The vague estimates you can get from online travel calculators and guides suggest the $15,000 to $20,000 figure is fairly accurate.

Chris is several thousand dollars ahead of me, since he had a long period of gainful employment at Mornington Wilderness Camp at the same time that I was cutting my losses and escaping a South Korean hagwon in the dead of night. He also has stuff like a guitar and piano and motorcycle and 4WD he can hock before he leaves, whereas I have a Hyundai Excel worth maybe $400 and absolutely nothing else. He also earns roughly the same amount as me, so I don’t really have any chance of catching up to him unless I break his arms and put him out of work for six weeks. Ideally we’d both have some cash left over at the end of this trip, but I can’t help but look at that long list of countries (and more than a year of travelling!) and believe that either of us will have a cent to our name when we’re done.

Money’s a weird thing.

I put up the free map that came with my gap year travel book and have started throwing darts at it. I have no intention of going to Greenland, but it’s fun to do.

Last night I went to Mike’s house and helped him plan out what he’s going to do on the way home from his stint at Camp Schodack. We hooked his laptop up to the projector and, in MS Paint, put red dots and lines all over the CIA World Factbook Map that was now emblazoned across his entire living room wall. New York, Orlando, London, Paris, Munich, Barcelona, Cairo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the myriad air routes in between.

I wonder how many thousands of commercial aircraft there are in the sky at any given moment. I wonder how many ferries and trains and buses, how many millions of people in transit.

There’s in island in the Andamans, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, called North Sentinel Island. Anyone can find it on a map. It’s inhabited by a tribe of uncontacted people, who are hostile to the outside world, who still hunt with spears and bows and arrows. In the 1980s a container ship washed up on their shores after a storm, and helicopters had to be dispatched to rescue the crew because the Sentinelese were attacking them. After the tsunami in 2004, the Indian government sent a chopper to see if they were still there, and the pilot responded in the affirmitive, because wooden arrows were bouncing off the undercarriage.

My cousin Georgie is a flight attendant for Qantas, based out of London. I was taking to her on Facebook at 1 am the other night, and announced that if I decide I hate Korea, then I’m taking a ferry from Incheon to Tianjin, a train to Beijing, the Trans-Siberian across Mongolia and Russia, and then a plane from Moscow to London, where I will sleep on her couch until Mike shows up and we can all bum around Europe together. I did the calculations this morning, and taking the Tran-Siberian would only cost about fifty or a hundred dollars less than a direct Seoul-London ticket. But then, it’s not really about saving money.

The longest non-stop flight in the world is Singapore Airlines Flight 21, an eighteen hour haul from Singapore to Newark. Because of the curvature of the globe it doesn’t cross the Pacific, but goes north/south, directly up over Asia and the Arctic Ocean and then down across Canada. Imagine being a pilot on that flight. You get up, shave, have breakfast, go to work, and ten hours later you’re above an iceberg choked sea with the rainbow colours of the Northern Lights playing across your cockpit windshield.

After playing around with the map, Mike and I went to Ranger Camping and Anaconda to look at backpacks. I need a good solid one for Korea and whatever comes after. I’ve sworn off Denali after the duffel bag I bought for Japan split open on the last day of the trip and ejected my possessions across the train station in Hiroshima. Right now I’m eyeing off a Black Wolf Cuba, for around $220.

There are cruise ships to Antarctica. Package tours to Mt. Everest. You can get dunked into the water with great white sharks in South Africa, swim with humpback whales in Tonga, hike into the mountains to see silverback gorillas in Uganda.

Chris has made it through the wall of adjustment up in the Kimberley, and is starting to enjoy himself. He sent me a photo of him sitting in a tree that was leaning out over a pool in a rocky red gorge, that classic Australian outback image. We’re spinning out wild ideas about travelling overland from Cape Froward to Murchison Promonotory. Via Central America or the Caribbean? There isn’t an unbroken chain of ferry services across the archipelago arc, but someone with enough time, money and determination could hang out in the ports waiting to hitch a ride on a private yacht or freighter. We’d have two of things. Central America has its own problems: the Darien Gap, a vast swathe of undeveloped jungle and swampland connecting Panama and Colombia, no roads or railways, inhabited by several different groups of guerilla fighters with a penchant for taking Western hostages.

There’s a guy called Karl Bushby who is walking overland from Cape Horn back to his house in England, an enterprise he calls “The Goliath Expedition.” He started in 1998 and he’s currently in Russia. He walked across the frozen Bering Strait.

By the end of this year I will be a dual citizen of Australia and Ireland. The way things are going, I’ll soon be able to live and work anywhere in the European Union.

The fabled snows of Kilimanjaro are shrinking, and in twenty years they’ll be gone. The islands of the South Pacific are slowly sinking beneath the waves. Cuba can’t stay a stronghold of socialism forever, and when the embargo goes, so will all the vintage cars. Last year the King of Nepal was forced to abdicate the throne, and one day there will be no more kings and queens and emperors, just bland presidencies and parliaments.

Zanzibar and Timbuktu and Xanadu are real places.

There are 203 sovereign nations in the world. I can name all of them, even the obscure ones – Bhutan, Burundi, Cape Verde, Nauru, Kiribati, Moldova, Azerbaijan – and I can place them on a map. But I’ve only been to three of them. I don’t know shit.

I still haven’t swum with whale sharks. I’ve never crossed the equator while awake. I’ve never set foot on the mainland of any continent except Australia.

I’m really tired of Perth. I’m tired of these endless suburbs, of the same people, of the same places, of the thousand kilometres of concrete curbs and roads and footpaths, of the eucalyptus trees and the shopping centres. I’m tired of my routine. I’m tired of having nothing to challenge me. I’m tired of the feeling that my life is being stripped away, second by second.

If everything goes well, then in a month I’ll be sitting in the departure lounge of Changi Airport as a stopover enroute to Seoul. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to teach kids, or live alone in a foreign country. But I’m damn well going to give it a shot. And if it doesn’t work out, then I’ll fling myself on my cousin’s mercy. You don’t have to stay anywhere forever.

I like this stage in my life. I like the fact that the people closest to me are scattered across the globe – in the outback, in London, in America. I like the fact that we are at a stage in our lives where we’re travelling wherever we want, doing whatever we want, broadening our horizons and seeing as much as we can of this enormous, incomprehensible world. You can tell when you’re entering a new stage in your life: I knew I was when I started uni, and I know I am now. It’ll certainly last for five years. It might last for ten years. It could last the rest of my life.

“We all live in cages. We don’t want to admit it, but a lot of us walk in there voluntarily, cause the stuff outside can be really scary. We have these reasons why we can’t do stuff and they limit our options until we’re forced into whatever’s left. So we sit in there complaining about what we ended up with, and eventually we forget that there’s no lock on the door.

Well I figured out about the lock. I went outside and nothing bad happened. I got some weird looks from people, but no one tried to stop me and I’m still prancing around outside the cage. I don’t want to get back in.

Planet Earth is a hoot. It’s not all hidden lagoons and virgin rainforests; there’s lots of awful shit to deal with. But that can be fun too.”

– Matt Harding
www.wherethehellismatt.com

Everybody has an age they are most comfortable in. Some people are always going act like kids, while others have maturity beyond their years.

I’m an old man, I think. Cynical, prone to complaining, reads a lot, writes letters to the paper, and enjoys trains. I’m not a fanatic or anything. I’m bewildered by the obsession some people (invariably British) have with railway gauges and such. I just really like riding on them.

some guy on flickr

The Trans-Siberian Express is the longest railway in the world, cutting across more than nine thousand kilometres of plains, taiga, farmland, mountains and rivers, a journey that takes several days and spans eight time zones. It was constructed in the 1890s as the Kremlin’s response to the bitter whining of eastern peasants about how isolated they were, and remains in operation today as one of the world’s greatest train journeys, its name second only in dashing intrigue to “the Orient Express.” My own nation’s “Indian Pacific” can’t even compete.

There are routes running into Mongolia, China and North Korea, and it’s the Mongolian one I’m interested in, since Mongolia is high on the destination list. We then have to get across to Europe/Africa somehow, and the world’s longest train journey seems the most appealing option. Moscow in itself would be a mildly interesting destination, and then it’s a much shorter flight to Paris or Istanbul or Cairo or wherever the hell we decide to go.

Apparently Russian visas are very difficult to get a hold of, more so than Chinese visas, which I found surprising. Failing a trip across the Siberian plains, I suppose we could fly straight to Nepal and then across to either Turkey or Egypt. It’ll sort itself out. Ah, daydreaming about travel and making blog posts while waiting for a goddamn phone call. What a wretched rainy afternoon this is.

Scuba diving is an activity which:
a) I really want to do
b) Scares the shit out of me

I am not good with technical equipment. Valves and hoses and such. “Clumsy” and “lack of common sense” are tags frequently applied to me. I cannot even cook for myself. I am the kind of person who requires other people to take care of me. Placing me under thirty metres of seawater in control of what is essentially a very complex life support system is probably not the best idea.

Chris, on the other hand, is a rugged and competent he-man who has recently decided upon “divemaster” as his latest career ambition, and enrolled in a six-day course scheduled for June. I’m probably going to go to Sorrento Quay and enrol in the same course tomorrow, because there are certain destinations on the Hypothetical Round The World Trip where a diving certification would be very, very useul. This includes virtually anywhere in the South Pacific or Caribbean, but the place I’m most intrigued by is Chuuk.

(Images courtesy of Where The Hell Is Matt, my favourite travel blog, in which the writer spends a substantial amount of time below the water in Chuuk.)

Chuuk is an island in the Federated States of Micronesia. During World War II it was a major base for the Japanese Navy, right up until the Americans attacked it in the largest aerial bombardment in history and sent them down to, wait for it, a watery grave. It was essentially the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbour. About twelve battleships, fifty merchant and supply ships, and a whole heap of planes are now lying on the seabed all around the island.

Due to the fortunate presence of a thick reef barrier, the lagoon all these shipwrecks are located in is well sheltered from waves and currents. Meaning that all the ships are still there, at a very shallow depth, with great visibility. It’s basically the best wreck diving in the world.

To do list: sit in the cockpit of a sixty-year old Japanese fighter plane, underwater.

In order to accomplish that, of course, I first have to spend a surprisingly large amount of money and six consecutive days dipping myself into the TURGID GREY SEA that encroaches on Perth during the rainy, wind-whipped months of winter. Summer would have been a much nicer time, but them’s the breaks. It will be either one of the best or worst weeks in my life.

Either way, it should be worth it.

Chris and I have started throwing darts at the map in a form of loose planning (or daydreaming) about our round the world backpacking trip set vaguely sometime next year, i.e. as soon as we can scrounge up about ten grand each. This is probably the most fun stage of planning, since most of it involves browsing lonelyplanet.com and WikiTravel instead of doing my university work.

LOCATION SPOTLIGHT: MALE’

There are islands in the Indian Ocean. This was news to me. Even more surprising was the fact that not only are there islands, but those islands have cities on them, like this:

it's been out there this whole time?

(full resolution)

According to most travel guides the Maldives is insanely overpriced – an archipelago of paradise resorts for rich people, with tennis courts and swimming pools and rented yachts. There’s great scuba diving, but nothing you can’t see elsewhere for a fraction of the cost and without a bunch of braying California socialites being herded around by their tour guides (good Lord, I’m already an elitist and I haven’t even left the southern hemisphere yet). Overall, it’s not really a feasible destination for shoestring backpackers.

But man. That city!

It would have been yet more visually impressive if it wasn’t for some fuckwitted dipshit…

Formerly it was a walled city surrounded by fortifications and gates (doroshi). The Royal Palace (Gan’duvaru) was destroyed along with the picturesque forts (kotte) and bastions (buruzu), when the city was remodelled under President Ibrahim Nasir’s rule after the abolition of the monarchy.

…but still! That city!

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