(Too much) dust in the wind

A cool wind provided a prelude to the rising sun, which began to paint the desert landscape a vivid red. If there was one moment which reminds me of Namibia, it is this one, sat on top of the immense Dune 45. Shame that wind blew dust into my camera. Ah well, it was worth it.

When I visited Namibia it was on an overland tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. I wasn’t burdened, therefore, by public transport, which is scant in this sparsely populated country. Hiring a (4×4) car is, however, a great part of the experience with long drives through spectacular, untouched scenery. Even budget travellers should give it a go (fuel is expensive and so I’ve kept self-drives to a minimum for those on a budget).

As well as Dune 45 at Sossussvlei, there are many astounding sights in Namibia – the vast Fish River Canyon, the busy watering holes in Etosha National Park, the shipwreck-strewn Skeleton Coast. All of them so remarkable I can easily visualise them all these years later. I also vividly remember sand boarding and I’m sure I’m still finding sand, 18 years later.

Accommodation can book up early in Namibia, possibly because decent places are hard to find. Those I have found do, however, look excellent. With South Africa and Botswana just across the border, Namibia is a worthy destination as part of a longer trip. Once I find a reliable timetable and means of public transport between Namibia and Maun in Botswana I’ll be sure to link both countries and advise on how to travel between them.


Beaches, buses and budgets

The Fiji & Samoa itinerary is only the second I’ve created for a destination I’ve never been to. Fortunately Fiji has a simple bus system with an online timetable. Planning for travellers who can afford to hire a car is, thanks to Google Maps, a breeze.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the Cook Islands, but what appealed about Fiji and Samoa was their relative proximity to one another. Like the Cook Islands they seem to burst with culture, beautiful interiors and, of course, some of the most perfect beaches you’ll ever see.

This is the only itinerary where the budget traveller visits very different places to the luxury and mid-range travellers. Why? Because it’s so expensive to fly to and from Samoa. I took a look at freighter routes between the two countries, but these aren’t cheap, they seem uncomfortable and they take a long time. For the sake of visiting a new country it didn’t seem worth it, and so the budget travellers get to visit Fiji’s Yasawas Islands instead.

One last note about this itinerary; the Octopus Resort which features on the budget itinerary is a luxury beach resort on a remote (but easily reachable) island. They do, however, have a building with comfortable and cheap dorm accommodation. Their reason for this is so that there are a mix of guests on the resort, not just older, wealthy folk. This seems like a brilliant idea and I hope that other establishments follow suit.

Perfection isn’t cheap

Of all the 83 countries I’ve been to, none has yet to knock Switzerland off the top of my favourites list. Why? Because it has breathtaking mountain scenery, cute Alpine villages, an excellent public transport system which takes you to the top of mountains, clean cities and an admirable appreciation of cheese and chocolate.

What’s the biggest obstacle for enjoying this country? Cost. If budget isn’t a problem you’ll have a wonderful time. If budget is a problem you’ll still have a wonderful time, but will have to be much more careful about how you spend your money.

The Switzerland itinerary I’ve created will be one of the most expensive journeys you take, regardless if you’re a luxury, mid-range or budget traveller. I tried to find alternatives to the railway system for budget travellers, but bus travel here is scant and so I’ve found the best way to use the railways without spending a fortune.

Thankfully Switzerland has an excellent youth hostel organisation which even mid-range travellers may want to consider. I also love the concept of the chain which sells products at the end of their sell-by date. But what to do with all those saved Swiss Francs? Take advantage of Swiss engineering, of course, by riding cable cars and cog railways up to the very tops of those picture-perfect mountains.

Persistance pays off

I nearly gave up on creating an itinerary for Kenya. It was hard to find info online and the various conversations I had with operators in the country rarely led to anything useful. Scheduled public transport doesn’t go to the Masai Mara or Amboseli. Although it’s probably possible to get matatus (colourful minibuses), they don’t operate to a timetable and so don’t help with planning, plus it could take a couple of days to do just a few hundred kilometres.

Frustrated, I decided to put together the Peru itinerary instead. Whilst doing this some of the safari and helicopter operators replied to me and so I was eventually able to put something together. What was (for me) an exciting discovery was that Kenya has a decent railway system which is being extended to other countries – now I’d love to one day travel from Nairobi to Kigali by train.

Kenya has spectacular beaches, but safety in this country is an important consideration. Diani Beach is picture-perfect, is far away enough from trouble, is fairly easy to get to and offers a large range of accomodation – a good place, therefore, in which to end a journey in must-see Kenya.

Abandoned in the dead of night

Lima festival
Lima festival

Our porters slipped away from camp before sunrise. We were left to wait in the dark before we could commence the final day of the Inca Trail. Why were we in this situation? Because the train operator had changed their schedules, and the porters needed to get to the nearest station earlier than they used to do.

When I did the Inca Trail in 2000 I didn’t have to endure this final-day early start, but it wasn’t ever an easy hike. The reward, though, was just as worth it almost 20 years later.

Machu Picchu – the reason most people come to Peru. There are two ways to get here; hiking various trails (the Inca Trail being the most popular), or taking the train from Ollantaytambo. All itineraries make use of the hugely expensive train from Machu Picchu. I’ve given Mid-range travellers a day-time ride to Puno (following the rave review from friends we travelled with) and Luxury travellers get to enjoy the additional journey towards Arequipa. Budget travellers? Well, they just get a bargain.

I was tear-gassed in Arequipa, but that’s because I managed to get between protestors and supporters during a presidential visit. It’s well-worth the detour though, and I’m sure you won’t have the same tear-inducing as I. Lima was also a much more enjoyable experience this time around, partly because this time we explored the old part of the city rather than just hang out in the bars of Miraflores, and partly because we were there at the same time as a ridiculously colourful festival.

With online bus and train schedules, this itinerary was easy to plan. Peru has also become much easier to travel around – although the Nazca Lines require long bus journeys to and from. There’s a certain hop-on hop-off bus operator that I haven’t recommended because, in my experience, they’re exploitative, and because the local bus operators do a great job.

Big country, big puzzle

Oh, here we go. Planning drive times in Canada? Easy. Planning public transport? Nightmare. Even Greyhound have severely reduced their services here. Although, following my experience of them, that’s no great loss.

It’s currently impossible to get a bus from Whistler to Jasper, and almost impossible to get a bus from Vancouver to Jasper. This is both a problem and an opportunity for budget travellers, as the alternative is the train which, whilst not cheap, does travel overnight and so doubles as both transport and accommodation (albeit not particularly comfortable). This is a train journey so spectacular that it acts as a little reward for those budget travellers who have to put up with dorms and coaches.

Getting from Jasper to Lake Louise/Banff is easy, visiting the Atahabasca glacier along the way is much more expensive but absolutely worth it if you have the budget. I have fond memories of staying at the HI hostels in Lake Louise and Banff and so was glad to see they’re still highly rated.

The Budget, Mid-range and Luxury itineraries are all quite different (I particularly like how the Luxury version includes a two-night stay on a ranch). Putting the last parts of a public transport journey together in a country as car-focused as this is as satisfying as putting in the last pieces of a puzzle.

Kia ora

New Zealand’s North Island feels surprisingly different to South Island. Where the South Island is full of immense mountains, wide and empty landscapes, deep fjords and pristine forest, North Island seems to have more picture-perfect volcanoes, buzzing cities, sunny beaches and geothermal activity. It’s also easier to get around by bus. Well, less difficult anyway.

Mount Taranaki is the volcanic pimple on the North Island’s nose. It sticks out on the south west side and requires quite a long diversion, whereas the other destinations in this itinerary are far more sequential. Figuring out how to get to and from here by bus, and then to and from the Tongariro Crossing took hours. Sadly it just wasn’t possible to get to Taranaki without wasting huge amounts of time.

Once again, the Department of Conservation proved super useful. Their ‘kia ora’ greeting on their correspondence made me pine for New Zealand. The Waitomo Caves were a little off route too, but having had one of the most incredible experiences of my life here, it just had to feature.

So, once again, the budget backpackers need to spend more time getting around the place. Once again, my advice for them (and anyone else who visits New Zealand) is; if you’re going to spend several weekes here (which you should) then consider buying a cheap campervan and, like us, finding a lovely German couple to buy it off you at the same price you paid for it. Nga mihi!

Crossroads and cross guards

“You can all proceed, but he needs to stay here”

It was a gloriously warm and sunny day when we travelled up the Mekong and crossed into Cambodia from Vietnam. The boat was uncomfortable and we were already behind schedule. Our eVisa did, however, permit us easy entry. Sadly one of the other passengers wasn’t so lucky.

He was from a country which didn’t send many visitors here, and the grumpy border guards wanted to spend more time checking his application. This, we were told, could take a very long time. Unfortunately this border post was many miles from anywhere and the only way in or out was by the very occasional boat. We voted to stay as one group.

Having now made it into Cambodia, and without an abandoned fellow tourist on our conscience, we set out to explore Phnom Penh and then Siem Reap and Angkor Wat. In retrospect, we should have spent longer in Cambodia and visited the country’s beautiful but relatively undiscovered beaches.

On a very strict budget, we pedalled our way around the immense site of Angkor Wat on rickety bikes, comically holding up umbrellas whilst we balanced the handlebars with the other hand amidst a tropical downpour. Tuk-tuks, motorbikes and cars occasionally roared by, making us realise how wonderfully serene it was to see Angkor Wat by pedal power.

Putting together this itinerary was a breeze, thanks to the availability of an online bus booking system. Cambodia seems to have become much easier to plan since we visited. As with most of my itineraries, this one can be plugged in to another – treat Cambodia as a crossroads and enter Phnom Penh from Vietnam, visit Laos (for which I’ve yet to create an itinerary) or Thailand from Siem Reap and just keep going and going and going…

Once upon a time…

Fairytale castles and towns, vibrant cities and pristine forests and mountains – putting together the Germany itinerary made me want to drop everything and go back. Even better, thanks to Germany’s excellent rail and bus network, it was a breeze to plan.

So easy, in fact, was it to plan travel in this country that I decided to throw in the challenge of a Rhine cruise on day 5. Having once worked in the cruise industry, there was a temptation to make this a multi-day cruise, but that would have made for an entirely different holiday, and one which wouldn’t take much planning. The other challenge was finding well-rated budget accommodation, often in small towns – Germany is not a cheap destination.

Hiring a car isn’t necessarily possible for budget backpackers, and so finding a route through the Black Forest (which meant that travellers could experience the best bits) involved scrutinising local bus routes which, unfortunately, proved inadequate. And so the second night in Baden-Baden was swapped with picturesque Triberg and incorporated in to the onward journey.

Stick to currywurst, follow the recommended itinerary and hit those museums on a Sunday and you can have a relatively cheap German holiday. Or just splurge on some of the best accommodation that Europe can offer.

Disconnected Jordan

Jordan is the first itinerary I’ve created without actually having visited the country. Through a combination of studying various tour operator itineraries, researching the top sights and knowledge of what simply cannot be missed on a visit there, I hope that I’ve put together something which proves useful to visitors (all feedback welcome!)

Whilst it’s relatively easy to put together an itinerary for those with a larger budget, due to the availability of personal drivers, figuring out public transport for the other itineraries was more challenging. At first I was happy to see that there is a national coach operator (Jett), but then realised that their network was pretty limited. So, what to do?

More research, including contacting various local tourist boards, meant that I was able to eventually figure out how to get about. The answer was a rather vague one – something along the lines of ‘take one of the many minibuses that leave from this random bus station at indeterminate times’. Having obtained the best advice on how to determine those departure times I was able to progress to the next destination and, faced with the same issue, started again.

For a relatively short itinerary, Jordan took a long time to put together because of these challenges. But now there is a fully-detailed plan which should make a visit far simpler for any independent traveller.