We’ve been home for 10 days, and I want to try and sum up all of our learnings from this trip while they are still fresh in my mind. The trip had two broad categories of learnings for us, general travel stuff and photography related stuff. First of all, general travel stuff and much of this is not necessarily brand new learnings but more in the category of things that you want to make sure you always keep in the back of your mind so that they are handy to the front of your mind when you need them. I should also preface this by saying that in the last 20 years we have always travelled as a couple and not part of a tour or group, with the mild qualifier that we have taken 4 or 5 shared trips with our friends from New York, Jane and David. I’m not sure our learnings would be useful for anyone who wants/needs to travel with a larger group, but relate only to the two of us, travelling on our own. 1. Try and have/create a focus or key interest that will help you make the critical rule-in, rule-out decisions on where to go and what to do. V has been involved with the Textile Museum of Canada at the board level for a number of years, Jane in NY is a dealer in quilts and textiles and David is a retired museum curator and he and I are both very keen photographers, so our trips with just the two of us and those that we have shared with J&D are very much centred around these two interests, textiles and photography. There is a lot to be said for having a niche interest in a subject such as textiles as it can take you into places and locations that would not normally come to mind as destinations and allow you to engage with local communities that may not always be accessed by tourists. For instance in our travels through Bhutan a couple of years ago, as everyone does we flew into Paro the only airport in the country, but instead of driving in a 4 or 5 or 10 day loop, arriving back at Paro and flying back out of the same airport, we chose to drive from Paro at the western end of the country, across country and to exit out of the eastern end of the country by road and on into India. This is by no means a unique way of organizing a Bhutan trip, but is sufficiently unusual that once we got past the point of no return about halfway across the country where everyone starts to circle back to Paro, we literally did not see another tourist car for the last week of our trip and we were able to climb into some local weaving villages that rarely see a visitor. In our 3 trips to Burma in the last 10 years, the textile connection has taken us into remote communities and given us local insights that I don’t think that we would have been able to access otherwise. And in the most recent instance, when we began our planning for SA we struggled with our itinerary until we used the photography filter to help us decide on what was critical to the trip.
2. Two other critical pieces of information and these are not new learnings from this trip but were absolutely confirmed by our South African experiences, do tons of research in advance and have a trustworthy and competent organizer on the ground locally. Research and reading have always been a very important step in the planning process for us, which tends to be very iterative as we keep reading, planning and reading. This process is now enormously easier with the full flowering of Trip Advisor. We usually read a couple of travel books on a destination to triangulate points of view; Frommer, Fodor, Lonely Planet, Cadogan, and Rough Guides in some combination are usually in the list. When we start to get some general themes we go to Trip Advisor and other travel sites as well as beginning to poll friends and acquaintances who may have taken similar trips or whose friends may have. Itineraries of friends who have taken or planned to take the trip are hugely helpful, as is feedback on who they used locally to help them plan. By sifting and comparing all of the information, we begin to have some pretty definite ideas on what a long-list for the itinerary looks like and If we are traveling in Europe or the Western Hemisphere, we can usually get it down to a short-list and make our own arrangements and bookings with a high degree of certainty that all will be well. I can’t think of any cases where we have had any problems or been disappointed with our decisions when we have done it all on our own. However, when traveling to third world countries or in regions outside our direct experience, we try and find a good, experienced local agent who can advise us on local conditions and can stick-handle local bookings and arrangements. This contact is the key to a successful experience and once again, we have been extraordinarily lucky. Our relationships with a couple of people with whom we have worked in Asia and in India have been enormously helpful to us in planning and organizing trips and as important as anything else, they are in the country and on the other end of a phone in the same time zone, to pull things out of the fire when problems arise. Now we can add to our list Susie and Rich Prangley of African Avenue who were the key local resource in helping us to think about, plan and organize our SA trip. If anyone is contemplating a trip to southern africa, make Susie and Rich your first point of contact. They were helpful, thoughtful, experienced, passionate and utterly committed to making our experience an over-the-top positive one. They listened to our plans and itineraries, put our feet back on the track when we were going astray and made the kind of helpful suggestions that can only come from someone who is intimately familiar with the country and the conditions. Can’t say enough good things.
3. There’s no shortage of information around about taking photocopies of important documents and telling your credit card company that you will be traveling so I won’t go into all that as others have done it better and in more detail on other web sites, but what has become another key learning for me is to make sure that you travel with an unlocked mobile phone. Mobiles supplied by your local phone network provider are virtually guaranteed to be locked so as to prevent them being used on different phone providers’ networks. Unlocking them however is surprisingly easy and can be done, if you are even slightly techno savvy, by buying an unlock code over the internet and unlocking it yourself. Or if nervous, for a small fee, at a local independent phone store, preferably one serving a recently-settled ethnic community, as they are keen on making their clients travel and communication experiences as cost-effective (read cheap!) as possible. Once possessed of an unlocked phone, most airports in countries outside of North America will have phone kiosks selling local pre-paid SIM cards that will give you access to phone, both in-country local and international, as well as email for rates that are fraction of what you would pay your home country network for roaming access. This has proved to be enormously helpful in my last couple of trips and I wouldn’t dream of traveling without an unlocked phone and a locally-purchased SIM card.
4. Give your time and attention to all phases of the trip. This seems overly obvious, but we spent by far the largest percentage of our time planning our first 3 weeks which included our drive along the Garden Route for 10 nights and our two safari camps at 4 nights each, as well as a couple of nights with Susie and Rich along the way. Much agonizing about and re-thinking of these components and with Susie’s aid they turned out to be magic. The last 5 nights in Cape Town we dealt with pretty cavalierly; just another big city and we know how to deal with those, right? Wrong! The Cape Town portion of the trip we did on our own without Susie’s help because after all….it’s just another city. As a result we did not get the same level of experience from CT as we did from the rest of the trip. Partly, I suppose, because we had had some pretty high-level times in the previous 3 weeks and anything was going to suffer by comparison, but secretly, in our heart of hearts, we just didn’t pay enough attention and plan it very well.
5. Travel with half of what you think you need. I have traveled extensively internationally for many years and have always taken a fair bit of luggage. First, let me say that I do not try and pack all of my 10 day business clothing needs in a carry-on. I admire others who can, but I find that I need a couple of suits for business meetings, half a dozen shirts, a couple of pairs of shoes, you get the idea, and all this just doesn’t fit in a carry-on. Neither am I troubled by checking my bag; I have heard the countless horror stories of lost bags, we all have, but I have traveled between 50,000 and 150,000 miles a year for the last 15 or 20 years without a lost bag. I believe that one of the only positive spin-offs of the terrorist and security outrages in the recent past has been the relentless tracking of stuff that flies so I believe that my bags are safer now and infinitely more likely to reach the same destination as me than ever before. Consequently I happily check my bags and let the more paranoid (and selfish) fight for overhead space. What has all this to do with traveling with half of what you think you need? I have always allowed my approach to business travel to colour my packing for our leisure travel and so have tossed in lots of “just in case” stuff, which, quite literally, would never be unpacked. On our SA trip we knew that a constraining factor would be a couple of flights in small planes with extremely limited weight allowances. Coupled with this was the fact that on this trip I would be traveling with more photo equipment than I had ever traveled with before and while I am confident that my checked bags will arrive, I do not tempt fate by checking my camera equipment or laptop. Our smallest plane had a luggage limit, including carry-on, of 18 kilos and my camera equipment/laptop/assorted technology alone weighed that much, so learning what and how little to pack became more than an intellectual exercise. We got our luggage down to what I thought was a spartan level and merrily set off. On arrival, as we began to drive the Garden Route and to move every two days, we realized that we were still carrying excess. We spent a night with Susie and Rich in White River, near Kruger Park and unloaded a number of items that by now had proved superfluous and Susie arranged to ship these to the house that we had rented in Cape Town for the end of our trip. We were now traveling with probably half the things that we had packed for the trip and we were still in extremely good nick for any situation that arose. Our travels became significantly easier after that and my BIG learning! I may never get down to an all carry-on trip, but neither will I spend my entire travel time developing my pecs and abs with excess luggage.