Where this all began
Written by Aaron
Born and raised in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2004 I embarked on a two year OE to London, UK. It wasn't to be my first time living away from New Zealand, as I had then previously spent some time after university living and working in San Francisco, USA. My two year OE to London soon turned into a decade of working in the fast-paced corporate banking scene in ‘the City’. Suffice to say that in the days before I learned how to fix a 4wd by the side of a dusty track, I wore a suit & tie to credit committees and boardrooms across London and the UK. I advised on complex financial risk matters and particularly enjoyed a sideline of teaching corporate finance courses to bankers. It all seems quite a contrast now.
Having incredible European cities just a cheap budget-airline flight away was the original attraction in moving to London, back when I was travelling solo, but after meeting Sylwia and starting a young family our preferred mode of travel began to change. In 2010 I bought a Hyundai Santa Fe, this being a 'softroader' SUV with all-wheel-drive. It certainly was not a serious 4wd, but the overland dream had not then been born and hence the Santa Fe wasn't purchased with that kind of duty in mind. Nevertheless, the Santa Fe's modest off tarmac abilities exceeded those of a regular car and would prove just enough to give us a taste for the adventures that could be had away from the well beaten path.
Europe is easily accessible by car from the UK and especially so from London. From where we lived in South East London it was only a 90 minute drive to the port, where a variety of ferry services to France and Spain departed frequently. In France there are 'Autoroutes' - toll motorways with a 130km/hr speed limit - on which you can safely maintain the 130km/hr speed limit due to the excellent design of the roads. At that sort of speed you can make your way to the South of France in a day if you wish. We soon became accustomed to taking one-month long holidays every summer, during which time we would drive the Santa Fe as deep into Europe as we could. Though I’m not convinced one can ever truly tire of magnificent cities like Paris and Rome, or the Tuscan countryside, after living in close proximity to Europe long term I began to feel that cities were cities; a desire was gradually emerging from within to explore further from the well beaten path.
Our first visit to the spectacular French Mediterranean island of Corsica in the summer of 2011 proved quite an inspiration. Back then the Santa Fe was crammed full of standard fare camping gear, and in a none too organised fashion at that, but as we only had a young Marcel at the time it was workable. We had begun to enjoy the freedom and flexibility that camping offers, which is easy to grow accustomed to in Mediterranean Europe, where each summer’s day is reliably blue sky and warm. Most of Europe knows what a gem of an island Corisca is. Coastline that boasts some of the finest beaches in all the Mediterranean was the main draw for most summer tourists, though the centre of the island is no less spectacular with its forested rocky mountains, gorges and waterfalls.
But in summer, at easily accessible beaches nearby main towns, typical holidaymakers compete to find a patch of sand big enough for their beach towel. I quickly discovered this was not my idea of an enjoyable day at the beach, regardless how idyllic the surroundings!
Fortunately, prior to our arrival in Corsica the budding nomad in me had already been scouring Corsica’s surface with Google Maps. I had discovered an interesting looking 4wd track leading for 12km across an area known as the ‘Desert des Agriates’ to reach beaches reputed to be among the most stunning in all the Mediterranean. And so it was one beautiful sunny morning (same as every morning on Corsica!) that we set out to locate the track across the Desert des Agriates. It proved not to be a difficult a track by 4wd standards, such that the Santa Fe managed just fine with some careful driving.
Set back from the beach, behind a forested area, was a rudimentary little campsite. It was very basic, with cold showers and few facilities, yet bizarrely this seemed only to add to its charms given the location. In the evenings a diesel generator would fire up to provide power to a tiny rustic restaurant, bar and pizzeria within the camp – and of course to power the brightly coloured party lights! What we were then learning is that if you have the means and motivation to go beyond where the masses can easily reach, then you can experience better locations and experience them in an uncrowded fashion. The following day we relocated our tent from the commercial campsite near Calvi to the colourful little campsite behind the heavenly beaches. This would become a favourite location that we would return to again and again over the years.
It’s one of those tracks that shows up as a regular road in many sat navs, which explains why so many drivers of regular cars would arrive at the edge of the Desert des Agriates each morning intent on getting to the heavenly beaches beyond. We observed that whilst many of these drivers quickly recognised their trendy Euro hatch was not designed for that sort of terrain and turned back, others would not be deterred. On our first traverse across the Desert des Agriates we spotted some car parts to the side of the track, seemingly torn from the undersides of low riding cars by the jagged rocky terrain, and in one spot a small oil slick hinted at a rock having made short work of an engine's oil sump. But upon completing the track all the way to the coast the reason for these drivers’ seemingly reckless determination was instantly understandable; it was stunningly beautiful. You could walk chest deep into the warm sea and still count your toes through the crystal-clear water. Best of all, unlike the easily accessed beaches on the island mentioned earlier, here you could have a huge section of that perfect beach all to yourself. We were quickly attracted to the relative isolation of the location.
Right from the start I was intrigued by the seriously setup 4wd vehicles from all over Europe (and the World!) that would come to that little beach campsite on Corsica. Everything from Landrover Defenders to big MAN trucks set up for long term overlanding. It was clear that these were vehicles built for a purpose, but it was also clear that this little remote campsite was not their ultimate destination, merely a resting place well known to the overlanding community. I was keen on establishing where it was these vehicles were going to, or returning from, which led to my growing interest and awareness of the types of vast overland journeys that could be readily accessed from Europe with a well-equipped 4wd. And not just destinations in Europe: many of those well setup 4wds on Corsica were going to/from Morocco or Tunisia in North Africa, or destinations in Central Asia. Ferries destined for all over the place depart from various European ports, making it surprisingly easy to get around.
The Santa Fe had been a good 'softroader' that could get us to select places like that inspiring little beach campsite, however that was about its limit. It was clear that I would need to upgrade to a real 4wd if we were to embark on new adventures further from the beaten path. With this in mind in 2012 I bought a 4th Generation Mitsubishi Pajero (‘Shogun’ in the UK) and quickly set about giving it the most common upgrades that any 4wd needs before being put into regular off-road service; bash plates, suitable wheels & tyres and a 2” suspension lift. It’s had a lot more done to it since then, but those three initial modifications were all it needed to undertake some fairly rugged 4wdíng between the UK, Morocco, Europe and the Balkans before I shipped it to New Zealand in 2016.
We've twice visited Corsica with the Pajero - the previously described track across the Desert des Agriates, which used to take the Santa Fe near an hour to complete (a car would likely need nearer two hours), can be done in the Pajero in under half an hour! And that's an example of an easy track where 4wd isn't strictly required because there's plenty of traction available: it's all down to how much ground clearance/suspension you have. A car would have to proceed cautiously around every rock. The Santa Fe could go over some of those rocks, whereas the lifted Pajero could just drive straight over everything. Additionally the Pajero can go places that a 'softroader' type SUV could never hope to go, and it does it with relative ease. I won't elaborate further here as to how I modified the Pajero.....
2013 marked the last of our one month-long European summer road trips ex London and our first with the Pajero. That summer we...
...undertook an off-road route through the stunning Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain...
...crossed the border between France and Italy off-road high in the Alps....
...drove to the highest vehicle accessible point in Europe at 3,000 metres....
...and completed an off-road crossing over the Plateau Du Coscione on top of Corsica.
As that summer drew to a close, I felt distinctly not ready to head back to work in London. You can’t really go that far from London in just a month, even if that is more time than many people ever have available to work with.
In late summer 2014 we departed London with the intention of spending four months exploring overland with the Pajero. We toured East & West Europe, the Balkans (Bosnia, Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Macedonia etc), ultimately getting as far as Istanbul in Turkey and spending ample time in Morocco. Our trips to Morocco have been particularly inspirational and educational, as long stretches through remote desert were involved. At the time this was new and different and initially we were very cautious about doing that solo, but the upside to successfully doing it is that it allowed our comfort zone to expand. It's not the case that there were no difficulties or obstacles to overcome, as with this sort of self-reliant 4wd travel something tends to pop up that needs to be resolved, but we did overcome the challenges that were presented. Our comfort zone has sufficiently expanded to the point that an off-road trip right across Central Asia now seems a logical next step more so than daunting.
Our 2014 expedition was supposed to have lasted a total of four months, and initially it did. At the end of the four months, just before Christmas 2014, we flew to New Zealand and the Pajero was supposed to follow us by sea. But whenever I called the shipping company I was told the Pajero hadn’t been shipped and was still not even in a container. It wasn't too long before I suggested to Sylwia that we had a well setup overland vehicle sitting there in London and it would be so tempting to fly back there and resume our journey... quite rightly Sylwia thought it a preposterous idea..... but within a couple of days she too found the idea too appealing. Plans were then hatched for a 2015 trip - I phoned the shipping company and told them not to ship the vehicle, which they were already doing a very good job of! We spent five months of 2015 touring overland, and though we again explored largely the same World region as we did in 2014, we were able to delve deeper into some of the countries that we had most enjoyed on the first leg of our tour. We spent ample time in 2014 and again in 2015 in Morocco and Albania, which have been two of our favourite countries to date.
For our 2014/2015 trips I established an online blog rather than a full website, however it was then only shared with friends and family. We’re going entirely the other way now and are embracing social media, hence the launch of this website ahead of our 2019 trip commencing. Content from the previous blog is now accessible via this website - that content includes some stunning images from our past overland travels and is well worth checking out.
Apparently you can't do this sort of thing with kids... or so we've been hearing for years. I must admit that our complimentary skills greatly assist us in undertaking these sometimes lengthy family overland adventures. Sylwia is a qualified primary school teacher and is well placed to home school the kids as we travel. For 2019 the two school age children are enrolled in a correspondence school curriculum that Sylwia will deliver while I attend to a mix of online work, editing videos, writing freelance articles (an area I am keen to develop further into) and maintaining the website etc. Over the years I have become a capable DIY mechanic, proficient at keeping the Pajero on track. This is an important skill to have within our mix of capabilities, given our reliance on the vehicle and the remote locations we explore.
Whilst these sorts of travels are just part of what we do, I have been pleasantly surprised recently by how many people are interested in how and where we travel and have expressed an interest in following our trip across Central Asia. By subscribing below you will be automatically notified whenever a new blog post is added to this website.