Overlanding: the New Low-Impact Way to Travel
Actually, overlanding is not really a ‘new’ way to travel; it’s only that in recent years it has been gaining more popularity. According to wikipedia :
“Overlanding is self-reliant overland travel to remote destinations where the journey is the principal goal.”
Most overlanders travel with some sort of motorised vehicle; be it a motorbike, a regular car or van, a small or large 4×4 vehicle, or a completely self-contained camper.
Of course, there are other modes of overlanding. The most ancient and basic form is walking from place to place, sometimes accompanied by pack animals. Others might use a couple of horses or camels, and ride. Then there is cycling. Mountain bikes have become popular; with strong frames, multiple gears and luggage carriers, for camping gear, personal items and basic supplies.
What unites most overlanders is the desire to see and experience more than a normal tourist trip allows.
What makes overland travel different from other forms of tourism?
We chose vehicle-based overland travel for a number of reasons:
- slow travel, where the journey becomes part of the experience.
We like to include unknown, or lesser known, places in our journey. Some might be plain average and uninteresting, others can be surprisingly inspiring or picturesque. They might even turn out to be a ‘future hotspot’. Tourists mostly see places, which are already listed in guidebooks as worthwhile destinations.
- we can stop whenever we like.
That is, in theory we can. In real life we are also limited in our choices. Often roads are too narrow to make brief stops for a photo, and towns are too crowded to find secure parking places. Nevertheless, we have more options for individual stops compared to any traveller who is part of a group with a fixed timetable or itinerary.
- we can carry familiar conveniences with us.
We have our own comfortable bed! Yes, I write this with an exclamation mark because, at our age, this is very important. When we get the chance, we can stock up on food we like, and we have a small kitchen to prepare dishes we love. Since we are vegetarians, and meals with meat are the predominant choice through all of South America, this is something we always appreciate; moreso, since we also have a couple of minor food allergies.
- we often travel “off the beaten track”.
It doesn’t matter what form of public transport you choose for your vacation, they usually follow the most convenient and fastest routes, because they want to get you quickly to your destination. Instead we select minor roads, not only because they tend to have less traffic and are more relaxing to drive, but also because most major thoroughfares are usually lined with commercial or industrial properties. Along back roads we pass through more greenery; like forests, farmland, and small villages and towns. Our journey is more enjoyable because we can drive slowly, without holding up too many vehicles behind us.
- we interact more with locals.
Overlanding forces us to interact with local people – despite language barriers. And these are not people, like hotel or restaurant staff, who are used to dealing with tourists. We shop locally, need fuel and water, often (too often?) require some repairs (not only to our truck), or have to replace things which are worn out.
- we don’t need to reach our next booking.
…because we usually don’t have one! We carry our sleeping quarters with us and only have to find a reasonably quiet and safe place to stop for the night.
- in the long term it’s cheaper.
Since we carry most amenities with us, we don’t have to pay for them. Slow travel means we cover less kilometres per month – so we use less fuel. Whenever we want/have to cover some distance our monthly expenses go up.
- we use less resources.
Yes, our ‘Berta’ is big and thirsty, but still I dare to say it. I will elaborate on this below.
Overlanding requires less resources
As you know, tourism has become a major economical factor for most countries in this world. Our media spreads the knowledge of interesting, and sometimes exotic, far-away places. In general, people are wealthier, and are able to afford to visit these places.
As more and more people are visiting them, the need for proper infrastructure increases. It might start with an improvised stall selling refreshments, and a small convenience block offering toilets. Then the first restaurant opens and, if successful, the next one, and the next. Souvenir vendors move in, and so on…
Very quickly, an idyllic paradise in unspoilt nature gets covered in concrete and trash.
We can’t blame the individual for this. Everybody has a deep-seated desire to be somewhere nice and attractive. People want a worry-free vacation, a pleasant location to forget everything, to relax and have fun. In this mood, most don’t even think about the impact they might be having on the place they are visiting.
But the more people can afford to travel (and do so), the more formerly beautiful places are destroyed. They are covered with hotel buildings, apartment blocks, restaurants, souvenir shops, service suppliers, accommodation for staff, visitor parking, and all the other things people expect to make their vacation enjoyable.
And then, out of season, you find huge, deserted tourist towns everywhere – empty, dead, boarded up until the next influx of tourists. Most aren’t even sent in to a ‘sleeping beauty’ state because, once the orgy of colours from sun umbrellas, hand-crafted souvenirs, lit-up advertising signs, and throngs of people are gone, these towns reveal themselves as cheaply built rows of rather uninspiring, and often ugly, utilitarian structures.
On the other hand, we don’t need a lot and our stay will not have much of a lasting impact on any place we visit! We carry almost everything with us, and we also take it away when we leave – including our rubbish. All we require is a reasonably level place to park during our stay; often we don’t even look for anything paved. We probably have less effect than some day visitors.
Why am I writing this?
Well, first of all, we have just spent roughly 3 months along Brazil’s coast, and most of it didn’t really impress us that much. Places we remembered well from our first visit in 2008, have changed for the worse; more built-up, more houses, shops, and restaurants. Since it was off-season, most places were closed and some sported ‘For Rent’ signs. It struck me then that our way of travel requires so much less – that we usually leave without a trace.
As soon as I formed this thought, I also began to realise how many resources are poured into every tourist destination: all those materials to construct things. And then, it all stands empty for more than half a year, slowly deteriorating due to lack of habitation.
My next thought took me back to our ‘home town’, Byron Bay. It’s also a major holiday destination, although strict council regulations have kept development at bay – to a degree. Every time I’m away for a longer period, like now, I come back and am shocked by the changes. I find a favourite locale has been pulled down to make way for a more profitable structure, of much higher density – leaving even less open public space.
Due to its picturesque location and comparably low-key development, Byron Bay has long attracted a certain group of the ‘rich & famous’. Many of them own a holiday property in town. It is exactly these people, who were the most vocal opposing camper vans overnighting in the town. Imagine, those people in the van standing in front of your verandah, can enjoy – for free – the same beautiful view you paid a million (or two or three) Dollars for!
Under this public pressure, Byron Bay’s council banned sleeping in camping vehicles, outside the few official campgrounds. To police this they reacted in an ingeniously simple fashion: instead of checking that people were actually asleep in their vehicles, they simply declared most parts of town a ‘No-Parking-Zone’ from 2am to 4am. Easy to ticket any vehicle parked there in the middle of the night…
I always found this ban stupid. In Europe, RVs are welcome in most towns. Many have actually installed dedicated parking spaces for self-contained camper vans. Why? These towns realised that visitors with camper vans (which aren’t cheap to buy or rent) often have more disposable income than other groups of tourists, and spend more in their town – if they can stay.
And this happens with us too! If we find a place we like, and where we sleep well, we tend to stay longer. We end up walking around town using local services; drinking a coffee here, buying our vegetables and bread there, and we might even splurge with a meal in one of the town’s restaurants.
So please! Welcome camper vans and overlanders into your town! They will leave some of their money behind, but very little else.