The Murmansk Challenge

Posted: March 13, 2013 by Mr.Nick in Guest Blogs

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Exploring our arctic regions can evoke assumptions of expense, precision preparation, and lengthy expeditions through snow-torn landscape utilising equipment reserved for the specialist. The reality is that Europe’s share of the Arctic Circle is quite accessible throughout the summer months. The sun shines 24 hours each day, and temperatures can reach 12 degrees Celsius, meaning that the region can be reached even by the fool-hardy. From the people who brought you the Banjul Rally comes the spin-off event: introducing the Murmansk Rally, where amateur adventurists take to some of Europe’s most northerly and remote roads.

Preparation can—and that’s not to say it should—be kept to a minimum. In fact, the only necessary prep work is to obtain a Russian Visa if you’re planning on going the full length.

Our adventure starts a day behind the official start date (thus behind the rest of the teams). The major benefit to travel with other cars in a convoy of sorts is the security (or perceived security). Should you break down, friendly faces are available for help, moral support, and even a lift.

For us the first leg of the journey was actually from London to Prague by plane to pick up our chosen rally car—one we’d left with a mechanic six months earlier on an ill-fated rally attempt, buts that’s another story. The K (1995) Reg Vauxhall Astra 1.8 diesel rolls out of a storage unit behind the airport, its red bonnet emerging from a black cloud of smoke churning in the confined space. Luckily, it started on the first go! We load up and within minutes head off on our arctic adventure.

Of course, the first point of call is a petrol station, and not far off the Western suburb of Prague, we pull in for a quick “service.” We fill up the tank, check the oil, tire pressure, top up the water in the coolant-tank, pay the attendant, and hastily pull out of there, gaining speed on the single county road. Suddenly, we hear something flying off the car and see a flicker of … something in the dark in the wing mirror. Quickly we realise what I had done: I’d placed the cap for the coolant tank on the roof. Ops! Breaks are quickly applied, followed by hazard lights as myself and my co-driver jump out. There’s no cap in sight. It must have bounced off the tarmac into the ditch, or into the soft verge overgrown with vegetation. Wearing shorts, I wade through the stinging nettles along the roadside. After about 45 minutes of searching, enduring honks from the traffic flying by and narrowly avoiding being struck, we make the decision to cut our losses. We leave, deciding to risk driving without the coolant cap and hoping all the liquid within doesn’t evaporate before we can find a solution. Nervously driving along, keeping an eye on the temperature gage, we drive through a town where we luckily find the Czech equivalent to a Halfords store that is able to sell us a replacement.

Finally easing into our journey as we race (obeying the speed limits at all times) up north through the Czech Republic, conscious that the last ferry departing Poland for Sweden leaves in eight hours’ time. The journey is a pleasant one as the Czech motorway twists and turns, passing through the mountainous region of the Sudetenlands before the gradient levels out and we pass into Germany. Enjoying the renowned German motorways, we pass signs for Dresden and, a few hours later, Berlin. Hours of continual driving fly by and as the sun sets, we pass the standard blue EU sign welcoming us to Poland, it and the change of the road’s surface serving as the only indication that we’ve passed into another country. As darkness starts to set there’s little to report back on the scenery here, so I just concentrate on getting us on the ship on time.

We pull into the Polish ferry port in the town of Swinoujsci with 15 minutes to spare and purchase our tickets (approx. 170euro – one way for one car + two people). Finally we can relax: it has been an exhausting yet exhilarating day. The ferry crosses the Baltic Sea overnight, taking about eight hours. The ferries are very much what you’d expect crossing the English Channel. Cabins are available, but as we’re on a tight budget we do what so many around us do: lie on the floor in our sleeping bags between a row of seats, crack open small cans of Czech beer, and toast our travel to date before trying to squeeze into an appropriate sleeping position and finally get some shut eye.

The ship’s tanoi makes an announcement in a language I assume to be Swedish, with a further assumption that we have arrived as the next day begins…at 6 AM. We roll out of the ferry—our hostel for the night—and drive out of port, map in hand, and ready for adventure. George my co-driver (who hasn’t driven a car in the ten years since he passed his test—and I have no intention of changing that during this trip!) assures me he knows which direction to head and the number of the road we need to take. Relatively easily, he navigates us out of town (with the help of plentiful road signs) and onward towards Stockholm!

The Swedish motorways are good to us. There’s no traffic, and the roads are well-surfaced with pleasant, green-rolling scenery broken only by a lake. Still a day behind any other British bangers, we’re loath to stop and actually experience any of this, our feet on the ground only to fill up at a petrol station, check the oil, water, and again almost driving off with the caps on the roof! Hours fly by as the motorway bypasses Stockholm and we see the city skyline, church spires piercing though the urbanity of it all. Here, we joke that it’s our last chance to come to our senses and board a low cast airline home.

Hours of driving fly by, fuelled by determination to make good time along Sweden’s coastline at the Gulf of Bothnia. The view is almost uninterrupted forest, save for the road, which seems stark by comparison. More and more hours pass and the landscape seems the same as two hours previous. The feeling of remoteness grows, as well as sadness that my first visit to Sweden is bound to be a fleeting trip confined to the driver’s seat—yet, in our minds, it’s crucial to reach another team before we press through to Russia.

At these longitudes, the summer days are long with night barely managing to creep in for a few hours. This helps with visibility. As we head farther north, the days get longer until there is no darkness at all. Closer to evening, the repetitiveness of it all can cause fatigue. You’re eager to pass something of significance: a border, a town, a river, a taller tree—anything that will give some sense of the distance travelled. Finally, a sign for the Finnish border appears. We decide to end the long day on the Finnish side, near the town of Kemi. On the outskirts of the town, we find a small lay-by on the countryside. It’s 4 AM, it’s light out, and we’ve just calculated that we’d driven 21 continuous hours, interrupted only by the inevitable stop to refuel.

We’re too tired to fluff around with a tent, so we try to make ourselves comfortable in the car, amidst the mess and man-sweat and trace fumes of fuel. It’s amazing how much mess can accumulate in a car carrying two men over a few days of driving! I decide to try and lie on the backseat, crawling into my sleeping bag, and wrapping a t-shirt around my eyes to block the sunlight. My “co-driver” fends for himself in the front seats. Closing my eyes, the image of pristine, never-ending road seems burned to my retinas, yet I soon fall asleep.

Four hours later, around 8:30 AM, we’re both unpleasantly awoken by flies and midges, which have no doubt been attracted by the smell emanating from the slightly-open car window. Hopping around any exposed body parts, I try in a half-sleep to wave them away, but they are a consent irritation, landing on my lip, my one exposed ear, really anywhere that isn’t covered and a million places that are. There’s no option but to admit defeat, so we jump out of the car and prepare for another Le Mans-esque feat. Pesky flying beasties circle us, even beyond the car’s walls, waiting for moments of absolute stillness to land on us again. Annoyed and grumpy, we jump into the car, open all the windows, and drive off, trusting the airflow to vanquish any leftover intruders.

Our route takes us farther north, though Finland’s northern wilderness. Finland is know as the Land of a Thousand Lakes, and as our route meanders through the wilderness, we feel like we’ve seen most of them as the sun reflects off the surfaces of these enormous bodies of water through thin green blanketed with forestry. The road skirts the banks of these shores, marked with trees on the other side. It’s as if the Finns who laid these roads wanted to treat drivers to a wonderful picturesque scene, maybe even reward them for making the effort to travel so far north…and the enchanting idyll is certainly appreciated.

Although not too dissimilar from what we’ve experienced throughout our drive through Sweden, the Land of a Thousand Lakes is somehow more rewarding: the trees seem thicker, more dense and green, and the lakes somehow more large and picturesque and the roads have an unvanquished feel about them. Relaxed, nearly forgetting our rendezvous with other teams, we casually pull over every so often to stretch our legs, even managing a little toe-dip in a lake. The air is fresh and piney, inviting us to snap pictures at our leisure.

Of course, some stops are necessary, for another kind of nature calls to my co-driver; he disappears to do what if—many often ask—bears do in the woods. I flick through the map and run my finger over our anticipated route along the page. A few minutes later, George comes running back from the sylvan roadside, waving invisible beasties from his body and shouting “Go go go! They bite!” It’s like a scene from a comedy script. We set out as he explains how the swarm of midges and mosquitoes hid in the dark woods, waiting to ambush him at the sound of his belt unbuckling. It’s hard to concentrate on driving through the laughter, as George laments that he’s been bitten in the most sensitive areas.

Mid-afternoon takes us to one of the highlights of our road trip: appearing suddenly out of the wilderness are signs for Santa’s workshop appear and—finally!—a large sign welcoming us to the Arctic Circle, complete with a line drawn across the road depicting this invisible line of demarcation between the extremities of the “midnights sun” and the polar night. Taking the obligatory photos of the Arctic Circle sign—a must—and using our phones to confirm the GPS coordinates is fun, even if the large Santa souvenir shop and café ever-so-slightly cheapen the experience.

Deep in Finland’s north-country, we slice through the forest on long, single-lane roads, continuing north when suddenly the road widens and the walls of trees, once inches from our windows seem now to be 100 feet away. Unsure what this Finnish road-feature means, I let off the accelerator and coast on the car’s momentum. With an examination of the markings, it dawns on us that the massive longitudinal tarmac could be an emergency runway incorporated into the road, and why not if you’ve got the space! Coincidently this is where we encounter our first reindeer. These massive, majestic creatures cross the roads calmly, almost oblivious to traffic. This is their land—drivers will stop for them, passengers admiring the close encounters until the reindeer decide they’ve paused long enough, allowing traffic to resume. This also sparks up a discussion on “the difference of elk, moose, and reindeer,” which becomes a recurring theme in our conversations for the reminder of our trip (until finally settled by Wikipedia upon our return).

As we drive north, our trip’s progress is occasionally disrupted by a herd of reindeer walking across the road. The sun gleams much longer then we’re accustomed to, and as we progress to the Norwegian border—again without customs or border process—we encounter a simple sign welcoming us to the Kingdom of Norway. The landscape changes subtly for a few miles, but after awhile, much of the forest disappears, giving way to hills, and then mountains. It isn’t until late afternoon that we finally catch up to another banger team. After a few introductions and a sigh of relief that we have a ride back home should our car decided to give up, we decide that we can just about make the Russian boarder before it closes at 10 PM. We race through the relatively short Norwegian leg, stopping only to refuel (my “co-driver” eagerly reminding me not to place the fuel cap on the roof). Indeed, we make it to the border in time. This is the first real border check, and we’re prepared for this to be a thorough one.

Russia has a reputation for bureaucracy. This, compounded with the fact that old British bangers trying to enter Russian territory through a far off, lonesome outpost not being something the guards come across often, means we’re in for a proper going over.

First we approach the Norwegian customs post, where they check our passports and happily wave us off. A brief, slow, and cautious drive over no-man’s-land takes us toward what we’ve mentally prepared ourselves for. It’s strange how simple things, such as foreign border guards, can get the butterflies flapping in one’s stomach. Surely the worst thing they can do is deny you passage and send you back…or could they arrest you for spying?

It’s too late—we’re committed! We exit the vehicles and enter the customs building, all our papers in hand (What papers?! See below!). One by one, we are inspected by the official. He checks our passports and visas thoroughly before turning his attention our vehicular paper work. “Opel?” he asks in a firm way, I consider correcting him by explaining it’s a Vauxhall, but decide this isn’t the best time. I approach and pass him the paper for the car. In broken English he explains that I need to fill out temporary import papers for the car and lends me a pen. He continues to explain that our vehicle can stay in Russia for up to six months, however I cannot leave without the car. No pressure, I suppose, as it’s only 15-years old and has a history of breaking down. I fill out the comprehensive form, and hand it over minutes later. He sighs, passing me a blank form—I’d filled out a wrong field. Oops! Repeat the process, and I’ve cocked it up again! Clearly, nerves and the fatigue of driving are catching up to me. On my third attempt, the official is satisfied. During the paperwork formalities and stamping of passports, our vehicles are being searched by the border guards. Admirably these formalities aren’t as difficult as I expected, and in a little under an hour we are allowed to continue on into the largest country in the world.

By 10 PM, it’s been a long day, but we expect to be in the city of Murmansk in a few hours where we’d finally be able to check in to a hotel and have a shower and treat ourselves to little comfort–or so we thought. Indeed, Murmansk in only a few hours away from the border, providing you take the correct road and not the unfinished motorway which prematurely erected signs suggest is open.

The final push to Murmansk is a demanding one. However, to call this the worst road I’ve ever driven on is unjust, as the road has not actually yet been laid. Rather, it’s a very wide mud track, where land has been cleared in preparation for the road to go down. With no idea how far the track went on for, after a few hours, we are sure we’ll reach our destination after the next gradual bend or hill in the clearing. Yet each horizon only exposes nothing new. The sun disappears behind dark clouds, yet it’s still light out, which helps. In the early hours of the morning, tiredness really takes a toll as we struggle to concentrate on maneuvering the car though the path of least resistance, progressing truly at a snail’s pace as we avoid holes, bumps, and scraping the undercarriage. Each vibration and knock helps to prevent the danger of sleep kicking in. It’s the fear of what damage we must be doing to our car that delivers true insomnia. A light fog lines our route and the surrounding moorland, almost like a smoke machine’s be left on, providing eerie feel to the drive. Hours later, we finally come across tarmac, and though it is completely riddled with pot-holes, we can finally increase our speed and make actual progress to Murmansk.

The route takes us over an old, metal-framed bridge spanning a powerful body of water. As we near the other side, Murmansk comes into sight. This city, home to some 300,000 people, is an architecturally interesting place. Surrounded by forested hills on one side and heavily industrialised on the water-front with a sea port, the city is positioned along a wide sea inlet on the bay, some 12 km inland from the Barents Sea. The horizon holds a truly stark contrast of naturally lovely landscapes and large, grey, Soviet-era buildings.

There’s little in the way of touristy “stuff” to see and do in Murmansk, but wandering through the city is an experience itself. Crossing large boulevards, walking past massive concrete structures with facades depicting the classic communist hammer and sickle is arresting. Some of these buildings are clearly in a severe state of disrepair, and as with so many Russian stereotypes, statues of Lenin aren’t difficult to find. When the sun shines, it’s surprising how many different shades of grey are noticeable around the city. I begin to feel strangely attracted to this domineering city, like a flower blooming amidst this vast concrete jungle.

There is a museum for those interested in the region’s art, history, or proud shipping and naval heritage. A worthy place to visit is the nuclear icebreaker docked nearby, where guided tours take you through the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. Overlooking much of the city is the Alyosha Statue, a massive 30-meter tall statute of a soldier, which is accessible by car.

Accommodation in Murmansk is not really tailored for those on a shoestring budget, so do not expect hostels or bunk houses. Instead, there are hotels which cater to business men. Nevertheless, you can still find decent offers, like the city’s Park Inn. If you’re after a pub, you may struggle a bit. That’s not to say there aren’t any—just that they’re not easy amidst the sea of grey communist exteriors. It’s easy to mistake the local pub for just another housing block. But it’s fun to get lost in the town and to ask locals to point you in the right direction. The younger people here can be very friendly and eager to practice their English. After a short conversation, they’re happy to help, suggesting the best places in town.

After catching up on sleep and enjoying long showers in our hotel, it’s time to decide our next move. We’ve met more teams over drinks and dinner at a local restaurant. They decide that their return-leg will be head south through Russia to St. Petersburg, and then through the Baltic states before heading back to the UK. We opt for a different route and start planning our quickest way out of Russia, determined not to push our luck with our car. The next day we head toward the border from which we came. However, this time we take the correct single-lane road, and this time it really takes only a few short hours before we reach our destination, with only the odd military checkpoint. We arrive at the border post and go through the same procedure of checking papers, the guards joke with us: “same passports, same car,” clearly remembering us from a few days before. They check our “Opel” and rummage through our messy boot before waving us off. Eager to leave the clutches of Mother Russia, I place the key in the ignition, give it a turn, and… nothing, oh dear. I try again. Nothing. We really didn’t want to break down in Russia, and of all places to attract attention, the worst possible place is where we are, surrounded by armed officials at a northerly outpost. We seriously consider pushing our car over the border, if they let us, which they do. We pop the bonnet and I remember a piece of advice someone gave me about disconnecting the battery for 30 seconds (something to do with establishing a new current). I reconnect the battery, try again, and violà! Much to our relief, the engine turns over and we make our way back into the Kingdom of Norway, deciding to stop at the nearest campsite to plan our return route home.

We decide to spend a few days driving through northern Norway, with a visit to Nordkapp, Europe’s most northerly point. At these latitudes, despite the summer months, it’s noticeably cooler. The landscape is cloudy and misty, rain drizzles for much of the day, and the sea breeze is quite fresh. The official northern-most point is a six hour hike, but we’re happy to leave the car and get some exercise.(read about our Norkapp hike here)

Norway can be a great place to drive, and the scenery is truly stunning as we steer around wide fjords, traverse steep hills, and pass though quaint towns punctuated with the brightly painted buildings associated with Norway, which have been positioned throughout the countryside forming from a distance what looks (respectfully) like a neat little Lego town. Well-kept narrow roads, comparable to Europe’s B roads, are the main roads you’ll find here. They are well- maintained, but can be narrow in places, as they twist and turn through the landscape following routes dictated by the glaciers that carved the landscape thousands of years ago.

Drivers can’t rush anywhere on these roads: there’s not much opportunity for anyone to build up much speed before they need to change gear to negotiate a hairpin turn or steep climb. Being stuck behind tractors also does not really help one gain speed, and over-taking is not worth the risk. Often, a waypoint of your next destination can seem relatively close as the bird flies. But you won’t be travelling in a straight line, as you meander along and more often than not, often traveling much slower than the bird flies. It’s best not to overestimate one’s progress.

Norway is a very safe place and we “wild camped” on a gravely lay-by for the night with the only hindrance being the continuous light. So, if I could recommend anything to anyone, it would be for campers to bring eye covers for their roadside wild camping adventures in Norway.

After a couple of days traversing these landscapes, we decided to head toward Sweden, where we could expect a faster pace of travel as the dramatic landscape eases into a more mellow, flatter expanse, where man has been able to tame the land. The return journey is much like the trip up, with the exception that we opt to enter mainland Europe not by ferry, but rather by Denmark’s amazing bridges. Costly tolls (approx. 30 euro) bridge the two countries over the sea below. The bridges are long, and it can seem that you’re in the middle of an ocean until roads starts to dip towards a man-made island and transform in to a tunnel in the middle of the sea. On your horizon, you see the sea as cars are channeled below the water level though this dark orifice.

On the other side you, emerge in Denmark. Almost home! From here on, it’s a pretty sight! No more highlights, just an incredible urge to surround yourself with the luxuries of home. It’s amazing to think how much we can see and how far we can travel in just ten days.

The Murmansk Challenge is a great way to see a large portion of Scandinavia. The beauty of this trip is that you’re really free to explore as much or as little as you want. There’s no real need to make it all the way to Murmansk or Russia if that’s not quite your cup of tea. But to me, this blitzing visit to a tiny fraction of such an enormous county has definitely challenged some of my preconceptions!

Bureaucracy Check-list

 

  • Russian Visa
  • Russian Invitation Letter – easily obtainable through an on-line agency (£20ish)
  • Proof of Travel/Medical Insurance
  • Passport
  • Driving License
  • International Driving Permit
  • Proof of car insurance
  • MOT
  • V5 registration document or proof of car ownership
  • Copy of travel insurance documents

More Info

 

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With the summer a few months ahead of us, many of us are no doubt making preparations to fill it up with exciting and interesting activities and adventures. For those of us going abroad, especially, there is much to think about, and much to look forward to, where activity planning is concerned. Even for those of us staying in the same geographic region, planning your next adventure, no matter how far it may be, is always a worthy pastime. That being said, there can be a tendency to try out the same old tested activities in your chosen exotic destination, without giving much thought to what else you could be doing. If that’s fine by you, then we certainly won’t judge your tastes! After all, you decide how the great adventure that is your life will pan out!

Here at the Inca Rally, we like going steps further than what has already been done. That’s the way we like to play out our adventures. And we’re also fully supportive of innovative ways to add that spice of interest and uncertainty to what we do. Whilst we are certainly about making the most of our visits to cities, towns and villages, we don’t let the fun end there. The beaten track involves a lot of naturally beautiful areas that are far removed from society but just as worth visiting, if not more so!

 

You don’t need Gandalf’s help to get you into any new adventures! http://www.slate.com ©

 

And that’s just what I want to discuss today: a rising phenomena of recent decades where you morph into another form of tourist. One who is not afraid to brave the natural frontiers, one who is not afraid to discover weird and wonderful facets of nature and one who is not afraid to discover more about themselves than they might in a busy and bustling city.

That’s right! It’s:

The Rise of the Ecotourist!

It’s a fairly recent phenomena on the tourist agenda. Ecotourism, as the name suggests, is a form of tourism that involves visiting natural, pristine and relatively undisturbed areas. In order for this to work, ecotourism really has to be low-impact and sustainable. After all, a once pristine environment wouldn’t be so pristine if scores of camera-wielding tourists arrived in their SUVs and Range Rovers and ravaged the lands! But beyond being a simple tourist venture, ecotourism promotes natural environments and social responsibility, giving the ecotourist a direct role in promoting the sustainability of such events. For example, one might trade their metallic road warrior vehicle for a low-impact, non-gas guzzling animal ride instead. Instead of choosing a tour guide who may not even be from the area, ecotourism promotes gaining crucial information about a given natural area from the local peoples that live there. In return, the ideal form of ecotourism provides them with a means of sustainable income and support.

 

It’s all about adventuring and travelling responsibly! http://www.crazywanderers.com ©

 

This forms an incredible incentive for protecting the rights of tribal people, too. By promoting ecotourism as a low-impact, high-benefit form of income for local communities, as opposed to a range of third parties and middlemen solely, we form an encouraging and sustainable methodology to keep tourism manageable in the area whilst still preserving the natural wonders of the land. Of course, it has to be noted that, with any form of tourism or venture involving socio-environmental considerations, there are criticisms around ecotourism. And I am certainly not arguing that these criticisms should be ignored: they are very real and they are, in cases, very problematic. These issues range from land use rights to negative environmental impacts. But it always pays to have a solutions focused approach and, by taking the right precautions, you could help to make ecotourism a positive force where socio-environmental issues are concerned.

The Ecotourism Vanguard’s Field Guide

We do not buy into corrupt middlemen and putting more money in the pockets of those unscrupulous individuals who have more than they need to have. We also do not buy into the notion that turning a blind eye to potential impacts that we may have on a given environment will make it okay to keep on doing them. To that end, we do not wish to let ecotourism become another form of environmental and social degradation: far from it! Here are just a few tips to consider for the keen ecotourist ready to make sure that his or her adventures are as sustainable and as positively beneficial as possible:

1) Do your research!

Information is powerful and can really help you tell a genuinely positive ecotourism project apart from an unsavoury one. Really take an objective look at any organisation which you may undertake such a project with: who are they? What are they about? What do they give back to the local communities? Review sites are often helpful and can shed some light on which organisations are the ones who are really transparent about what they do! As well as that, do some research into what kind of areas you will be visiting to find out about the habits of the animals there.

 

It’s elementary, my dear ecotourist… http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com ©

 

2) Think it through from different perspectives.

What did that website you just visited say? Ecotourist excursions in groups of 50?? Hold the phone! Before you get sold by the seemingly cheap prizes and pictures of ecotourists and locals with huge smiles, you may want to look at it from another angle. The more people in any given ecotourism group, the increased risk there is to the local environment and populace. Being able to take pictures of the animals and plants there may also seem attractive but consider that flash photography can really have a detrimental impact on the behaviour of the animals you encounter. As well as that, consider that the chocolate bar wrapper you may casually throw away could contribute to the death of an animal who comes across it and eats it. Question whether your seemingly innocent tourist habits are so innocent once you are an ecotourist! After all, ecotourism is about promoting self responsibility!

3) Popularity may not be so popular…

Is the destination you’re planning on going to visited frequently by ecotourists? Chances are that it’s probably not the ideal ecotourism location: actually, it’s probably just another tourist location. Ecotourism is meant to be low-impact, meaning that the more popular destinations are the ones most easily destroyed by tourist activities. When choosing your chosen ecotourism destination and project, keep in mind that this is far from being a popularity contest. Instead, consider going to an area not often visited: that’ll rapidly increase your chances of participating in an ecotourism project that is low-impact and of benefit to the local community and yourself.

4) Listen to the locals!

There is always the temptation to slip away from your guide and group to wander about and take in the scenery yourself. We totally understand that. But consider that the locals who guide you here know the best way to take you around without causing distress to the local wildlife here. For example, deciding to go off the designated trail may seem like a good idea at first…until you realise you’ve just crushed a bunch of rare plants on the way. After all, the locals know this area the best and so see that as a positive thing: they’ll know how to help you to get the most out of your journey whilst still being responsible!

5) Question everything…no, seriously, everything!

It helps to have a natural curiosity about the world around you. It also helps when you’ve realised that this ecotourism project has a few issues with it…issues which you think are a result of bad practices and local/environmental exploitation. But, you sigh to yourself, what can one person do to change this? Quite a lot, actually! We often overlook how much power we have. No matter how small the issue may seem to you at the time, bring it up with people: with your local guides, with the organisation representative that you booked this trip with. Remember, you are on your way to being an Ecotourism Vanguard: one who does not simply shy away from asking the overlooked questions in order to make a positive impact!

 

The more you ask, the more you ask, the more you ask… http://www.interntionalfreelancersacademy.com ©

 

6) Be honest!

With social media platforms increasingly taking up more of our communication time, we all have strong platforms to have our voices heard. Do you think the organisation that you went on an ecotourism project is, despite all your research, actually exploiting local communities and the environment? Write about it! Tell others on the internet social space. Do not resort to simple slander and questionable rumours but your experiences, your feelings and your thoughts. After all, you are entitled to an opinion and that opinion may just help rally others to question unsavoury organisations and their practices!

7) Have fun! 

There are many things to consider, more than I have listed admittedly, but the most important thing is to have fun! Of course, it is important to make it fun that is socially responsible but ecotourism, when done right, offers a host of benefits and fun filled adventures which you can really immerse yourself in. Good, ol’ responsible fun! That’s what it’s all about!

 

The world is your oyster….as long as you take care of it responsibly! http://www.nassauguidance.com ©

 

Changing the Face of Ecotourism

Of course, it may be that quite a lot of work needs to be done on the foundations of ecotourism before it is a true force of good to be reckoned with. There is no question that ecotourism projects need to be up to scratch in order to ensure that they will truly be low-impact and sustainable.  But change can only start on the individual level: with you! By becoming an ecotourism vanguard, you are directly helping to promote the positive aspects of it and diminish the negative impacts it may have. You are helping to ensure that nefarious and dastardly organisations that only seek to put more cash in their pockets are thwarted as much as possible in their attempts. And you are helping to ensure that future generations will be able to reap the same rewards and benefits as you have on your adventures!

Let curiosity be your sword, responsibility be your shield and your burning passions be your armour! Ecotourism vanguards, this is the day you make your mark!

 

Taz

Recently, I was perusing some information about tribal causes on Google, when I ran into a charity website with a news article – quite urgent at that – about something entitled the ‘Noble Savages’. My curiosity sufficiently piqued, I clicked on the link and read the resulting article. After I was done…well, I can definitely say that I was not amused.

It’s My Publicity And I Will Be As Controversial As I Want To Be!

‘Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists’ is an autobiography written by anthropologist Napolean Chagnon, after he lived with the Yanomamo tribe, in Brazil, for a time. Of course, this is not the only book he has written on the matter, having a series of other works around the Yanomamo tribe. His viewpoints include remarks that the Yanomamo tribe are ‘trapped in chronic warfare’ and ‘homicidal violence’…going as far as to call this behaviour ‘biologically ingrained’. Now, I will point out that this comment offends me both as a rational human being with common sense and a biologist. There is just no way that such behaviour has a solely genetic component, based on Chagnon’s ludicrous statement. Whilst intensity of emotions such as anger may have a genetic component, it is worth keeping in mind that the environment is a stronger factor. But even with that aside, it does not even prove to be an accurate portrayal of the tribe. However, there must be some sort of reason for these claims?

It’s a sad truth that, in the media, they who speak controversial words as loud as possible are those who win the ears of the people, even if they are completely wrong. And that is precisely the case here, as I see it. Chagnon has been heavily criticised about his viewpoint, with some academics going as far as to resign from their posts in certain organisations. The criticisms were many and varied, with many critics pulling him up on how dated and completely misleading his portrayal of the tribe is. One Catholic missionary, who had spent 50 years living amongst the Yanamamo tribe, mentioned that he had ‘never found them to be violent’. But, for Chagnon, the real benefit to his wild claims is clear: he has now received the publicity he desires. What more could he want?

Members of the Yanamano tribe, portrayed as ‘noble savages’ by Napolean Chagnon http://www.survivalinternational.org ©

In a nutshell, Chagnon has shown that, far from portraying the tribe in an accurate light, he has instead revealed his true colours: sly, aggressive, intimidating and trapping him in a chronic state of warfare with his abundant critics. See the irony?

The Lies We Speak, They Sting Like Poison In The Veins

Long ago, when I was completing my GCSE studies here in merry old England (age 15-16), I recall studying the Native Americans in History. I emphasise my use of ‘Native Americans’ as opposed to ‘Plains Indians’ or “Native Indians’…the latter of which only stuck because Columbus had severe issues with reading a map, thinking he had discovered India instead of America. Learning the tragic story of the Native Americans was harrowing to be sure but I vividly remember gorging myself in reading about their culture. It was wonderful! Living a nomadic life on the plains of North America, they lived sustainably and relatively peacefully with each other. They engaged in war games but generally did not kill each other, instead honing their skills to be able to sneak up on an opposing tribe member. They believed that a dead Warrior was no use to his family or tribe so did not really see the point in openly killing each other. However, when the Europeans arrived, they labelled the Native Americans as ‘childish’ and ‘cowardly’, given that they did not kill each other in battle.

The punchline? The Europeans openly called the Native Americans savages.

Today, tribal cultures still exist all around the world. But they are being severely threatened by a variety of human-related threats. For the Yanamano, this includes having their territory encroached by gold miners, cattle farmers and just those who generally want to seize their land. To emphasise the problem, between 1989-1993, one in five Yanamano tribe members died to diseases brought to their lands by gold miners. Politically, Chagnon’s work in degrading this indigenous tribe has been successfully devastating. For example, in 1990, the UK government refused to fund an educational project for the Yanamano, citing their violent nature as the reason for their reluctance. And no, being influenced by a publicity-hungry anthropologist is  not something that makes me particularly proud of my country, but it happens, sadly.

Tribal societies are a modern preservation of historical traditions and cultures. They provide us insight into how to live sustainably with the land. Yes, all of the aspects of these cultures may not be aspects we necessarily want to live with. That does not mean we have the right to judge them and dismiss them as mere ‘savages’. There is no denying we can learn more from these tribes than the media will ever let us believe. Instead, they prefer to focus on the paltry debate between anthropologists because it is apparently more interesting.

But where does that leave the tribes who seem to be largely ignored despite being at the centre of the debate?

At the moment? It leaves them hanging on for dear life, as we slowly write them as another footnote in the history books.

And we are the only ones who can help to change that.

Two children from just one of many tribes in the world today. Their Survival. Their Future. Our Responsibility. http://www.solomonberhetours.com ©

“And I Wonder…Who Are The Real Savages?”

I wish to finish this post with a short piece of writing, taken from ideas for one of my personal novels. If you’d like to read it, please check it out on my personal blog: http://www.valistrianchronicles.wordpress.com.

The Inca Rally isn’t all about racing through countries whilst ignoring the environmental impacts happening all around it. Far from it! Ecological and environmental issues very easily translate into socio-economic issues, affecting the livelihoods of millions and millions of people. For example, loss of rainforest area directly means loss of habitats for animals. That then means those living nearby directly lose their food sources. Tribal communities – which the charity Survival International aim to reach and aid – are particularly vulnerable to these threats as it means losing their livelihoods. Raising awareness of this so that it can be prevented is one of the things that the Inca Rally is really about!

The Amazing Amazonian Rainforest

So just how important are rainforests? Well, we can take the Amazonian Rainforest as a prime example, especially as its directly relevant to the countries that the Rally has visited. The countries that the rainforest is located in are: Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guiana, Bolivia, Guyana and Ecuador. To put it mildly, it is HUGE!  Although, sadly, it is not as huge as it once was, thanks to mass scale deforestation. One source notes how rainforests once covered 14% of the Earth’s landmass. Now, this figure is a paltry 6%. Even taking into account some margin of error, that is still over half of the forest gone. And, the source continues, the rest could even be gone within 40 years. The amount of rare and enigmatic species that we have lost, and probably never even documented, is undoubtedly worrying.

Just one of many beautiful areas to discover in the Amazon rainforest www.everything-beautiful.com ©

Just one of many beautiful areas to discover in the Amazon rainforest http://www.everything-beautiful.com ©

It’s all well and marvelling at its beauty and the sheer number of species that make their home here. But just how much is the rainforest worth, economically? One website puts it at around $4,092,000,000,000 if harvested sustainably…although you can imagine that that might be a tall order with the current state of things. That is definitely not pocket change. With such potential economic importance attached to it, it’s pretty terrifying how quickly we are getting rid of this natural marvel.

What Are They Good For? Absolutely…Everything!

If I may include some biology here, any and every tree anywhere is effectively a ‘carbon storage unit’ (so are plants for that matter, but let’s just stick with trees for now). This means that the carbon dioxide present in the atmosphere – e.g. from burning fossil fuels – is taken up by the trees and stored away so it can’t contribute to the greenhouse effect. For those who aren’t sure of the greenhouse effect, it’s essentially where certain ‘greenhouse’ gases keep heat trapped in the Earth. Now given that that is what one tree does, you can imagine the huge effect that the rainforest has. Each tree is constantly storing away carbon that would otherwise contribute to altering the climate of our planet. I’d like to think of them as the ‘anti-lungs’ of the greater organism that is our planet: taking up carbon dioxide and giving out oxygen, which is crucial to the survival life on our planet.

As well as the global effects, the socially positive effects the rainforests have is incredible. One of its key uses for those living locally to it is the provision of a sustainable source of food. And you can imagine that it’d be no easy feat to find food in the rainforest. Whereas we can safely buy our food from local supermarkets or shops without fear of it being dangerous, the same can’t be said for those finding food in the rainforests. A higher diversity of animals means a larger number of poisonous species. Certainly, finding your next meal in the rainforest requires skill and knowledge of what won’t make you ill. But even beyond that, the rainforests provide homes for approximately 50,000,000 tribal people.  That effectively means 50,000,000 human beings worldwide who rely on rainforests to have a roof (or canopy, if you will) over their heads.  These homes are constantly being threatened by mass-scale deforestation.

"Deforestation:

However, local people who inhabit areas in/around the rainforests are not the only people that stand to lose out from their destruction. We have, or really should have, a vested interested in their conservation. Putting aside the fact that future generations deserve to live in a world with both preserved natural beauty and sources of natural education, the rainforests contains an enormous potential for vital cures and new medicines. After all, there are only so many diseases that can be cured from the laboratory. Amazingly, that doesn’t even begin to cover the entirety of the list: from regulating water flow, to affecting the global climate (mentioned above).

We at the Inca Rally believe in the beauty of not knowing what could happen. But that is more the beauty of discovering an animal that you (or even nobody else?!) has ever seen before. The beauty of taking a wrong turn to end up in a wonderfully different area that you never knew existed. The beauty of going on an adventure where literally anything could happen. But it also means being mindful of the consequences of our actions and to minimise the negative impact that we have not just on the planet, but on the people we encounter.

Adventure. With a positive purpose. For everyone involved and everyone that will get involved, or go on their own adventures be it sooner or later.

"Whichever

That is what we are about.

Taz

Love from Lima

Posted: March 8, 2013 by tazjagdev in Tips For Top Travelling

Being the Ground Handler for The Inca Rally, I figured that the best way to explore Lima car wise was to get my own car. So I did! A 73 VW Beetle, bright red and just so beautiful – on the outside. I soon realized I’d done a silly deal after having some troubles on the very first day…

But with the bad, the good stuff always comes along.  I ended up finding a trustworthy mechanic who loves Beetles. He even tuned my engine for free to give her some more power!

Next mission – fix the window that won’t close and the door that I can’t lock. And again, I made friends with this cute, very useful man that knows how to fix all this basic but very handy stuff. I also have a spot to park for free when going to that part of town.

And when looking for a roof-rack, I found the best, but most dodgy place to get whatever you would need for a car if you don’t mind second(third)-hand stuff that still might be dirty from previous user. You can also pick whatever dog you would like for free. There’re loads to choose from!

After giving her some sweet love, my Beetle worked just fine. A bit fuzzy in the mornings, but after gently warming her up, she could go on forever. Until one  fateful day. I wanted chocolate really bad, it was actually raining in Lima (it normally doesn’t) and I was too lazy to walk to the supermarket to buy my treat. And she just wouldn’t start – at all. Not even the lights were working. I found out it must have been the price for wanting chocolate, so I ended up walking in the rain and forgot all about the car.

Giving the Beetle some much needed mechanical love

Giving the Beetle some much needed mechanical love

Two weeks later, I decided to have a look at her after just ignoring it all, hoping it all really just was a bad dream. I was wrong. After trying both pushing and jump-cables, I ended up buying a brand new battery. She was as strong as she had never been before. But with a warning-light in the dash indicating that the generator (the part that charges the battery) was broken, she became weaker and weaker every day.

The second I park outside of the mechanic, the ring that keeps the oil in place breaks, and she’s leaking like a river. The mechanic starts laughing which is never a good sign as they tend to lack expression. You’ll know what I mean as soon as you get down here. This time, I had to find a new mechanic since my favorite one didn’t have time for me . Luckily for me, I I found one who was even better, since:

  • He speaks English
  • He’s kinda good looking
  • He went all over Lima to find a new generator for a cheap price when he could have bought the first one he found for double price
  • I believe I got a nice discount, as I think it was pretty cheap compared to all the work that had to be done
  • He even fixed my clutch for free (was a little loose)
  • He also told me his mechanic has 30 years of experience with the bugs

But now that my days in Lima are coming to an end, I needed to make a smart decision on what to do with my love. As she never got the road trip that I think she deserved so badly, I decided to donate her for a half year for us to pick her up again for the Inca Rally next year. The best place I could find was a new hostel located in the heart of Lima, run by a bunch of awesome guys. Also, being an adventure hostel, it’s just a perfect match for The Inca Rally!

Chilling in the warm, warm sun...

Chilling in the warm, warm sun…

Drive safely and enjoy! 🙂

Line

Help! I need somebody! Help, not just anybody… 

With the start of a new year, we turn our attention to the Inca Rally 2013: an adventure that promises to be bigger, better and even bolder than the original expedition in 2012! Our team is firing on all cylinders to make sure of it! With so much to do and so many potential adventurers joining the Inca Rally and supporting its cause, it’s worth asking: just what do you need to take part in the Rally?

The great news is that ANYONE can take part in the Inca Rally, provided you meet the conditions. That being said, there is a word of caution attached here. The Inca Rally and everything it entails isn’t for everyone, although we hope to help people journey out of their comfort zones and really discover some interesting things about themselves! Nope, it takes a particular set of traits to truly make the most of the Inca Rally…and to even make sure that you don’t give up halfway through. That wouldn’t be fun for anyone!

Below are three key traits that we believe anybody taking part in the Inca Rally should possess in order to truly gain the best experience out of the adventure. After all, why do something half-heartedly?

1)   Adaptability

Your car breaks down for the umpteenth time today. Your Spanish phrasebook just isn’t cutting it today. You’re getting sick of your companion’s story about ‘that one time in a bar in Louisiana’ that he insists on telling you over and over again. It’s all getting a bit too much for you…this isn’t what you’re comfortable doing. You decide to get the next plane home…

It may not be what you thought you signed up for, but the beauty of the Inca Rally is that you really don’t know what you’re signing up for. Actually, neither do we. But it is immensely helpful if you bring a healthy sense of adaptability and resilience. Because, as our Inca Rallyheads of 2012 discovered, journeying off the beaten track can include a lot of surprises that you have to be able to adapt to. To be adaptable and resilient is to be able to truly embrace the Inca Rally and the experiences and lessons participating in it will no doubt bring you. After all, no adventure ever goes smoothly. But it’ll be as enjoyable as you make it depending on how you adapt and react to each and every development!

As Winston Churchill aptly put it, “To improve is to change, and what’s more, to be perfect is to change often.

Adapting to an otherwise harsh situation www.swimupstreamlife.com ©

Adapting to an otherwise harsh situation http://www.swimupstreamlife.com ©

2)   A hunger for adventure

After not having eaten for the best part of a day, you’re eyeing up that delectable meal in front of you. Your mouth is dripping with saliva, your eyes wide with excitement. You lift the first bite to your mouth, ready to let its rich and diverse flavours excite your taste buds…

That is how we feel when we talk about adventures! Let’s face it: most of us are starved of real adventure in our lives. Those of us who can embrace adventure and chase it down can probably really identify with the above analogy. And it is this quality that can separate true Inca Rallyheads from those who are probably a different sort of adventure in their lives?. We are about adventure, with a purpose to make a positive impact on the places we visit and the people we meet. If there is no appetite for this sort of adventure, then there won’t really be much of an adventure! When you’re tired and exhausted and lost, having a hunger for adventure is not only a bonus, but a necessity to sustain you during the difficult times. Whatever you do, and how much you might pack, make sure you work up your appetite for adventure. You will get fed many times over  on the journey, with enough of an appetite left over for next time!

Andre Gide puts it beautifully: “It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves”.

"The

3)   A sense of humour

OK, so that story about the bar in Louisiana is getting pretty stale. But your companion makes a slip and utters something he shouldn’t have. From there on in, the car fills with roars of laughter. A small detail that was meant to be skipped over has now become the reason everyone has enough energy to make energetic conversation until they reach their next destination.

Humour helps us to be adaptable. Humour helps us to appreciate the adventures that we go on to experience the things that we do. Humour is a key component to being an Incan Rallyhead.  Without the ability to laugh about the things that might go wrong on a journey, like taking a wrong turning and ending up quite a distance away from your destination, the adventure would take on a sour taste. Humour isn’t just there to help you get through tough times: it’s infectious. It is a crucial way to connect with teammates and the people we meet on the road: to forge, maintain and cherish our relationships with others.

And, in keeping with the common use of the word relationship, I believe that this quote from Kiefer Sutherland is quite poignant: “I think the most attractive thing is a sense of humour. If you can make someone laugh, you’ve gotten a lot out of the way”

Live, love and laugh and accept no substitutes for either! The Inca Rally expedition of 2012 didn’t!

Live, love and laugh and accept no substitutes for either! The Inca Rally expedition of 2012 didn’t!

 

Of course, the best part to all these qualities is that they aren’t just qualities that people either do or don’t have: they can be learned. If you decide that you need to be a bit more adaptable, or whet your appetite for adventure more than you have been doing or even to try and add a bit more humour in your life, then start today!

As for us? We won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. Once you’ve been bitten by the adventure bug, you don’t just hang up your coat and say ‘that’s that’. You get back on the road eager to share the adventure with more like-minded people. We’ll be waiting here, right next to your vehicle. The keys are already in the ignition and the weather is too gorgeous to be standing around in.

Real adventure awaits!

 

Taz, Line and Nick

The Charitable Spotlight: EveryChild

Posted: March 8, 2013 by tazjagdev in Charitable Causes

One key objective of the Inca Rally is to gain widespread exposure for charities that wouldn’t otherwise have the means to. Whilst racing through beautiful landscapes and diverse towns, all of us here at the Inca Rally are mindful that there are loads of interesting and wonderful people to meet on the way. Unfortunately, a worrying majority of these people live in poverty. And that is where we, and you, can step in to lend a helping hand!

The first charity I’d like to focus on is actually one of the three charities on the Inca Rally webpage: EveryChild. There’re many reasons why images and messages of children living in incredibly shocking conditions affects us. After all, we were once children, some of us more scared and uncertain about where we lived and who we are than others, depending on upbringing. The amount of children that feel magnitudes worse than that in our world today is staggering.

Thankfully, that is the exact thing that EveryChild is leading the efforts in tackling. An international charity that works in a variety of countries, including Guyana (where 2012’s Inca Rally visited!), Ethiopia and Russia, EveryChild’s mission is simple yet striking: ‘We stop growing up vulnerable and alone’. And that is what not just every child needs, but every single one of us: both security of life and people that they can trust. EveryChild’s list of partners (2008/2009) is certainly impressive, yet flags up another underlying issue. Namely, as many partner organisations that they work with, the scope of the problem of child poverty is certainly huge. It is not something that they can do alone: as well as donations, their work requires shifts in social and political attitudes. And change can only really start at an individual level, with people like you.

5 volunteers making a difference for EveryChild!

5 volunteers making a difference for EveryChild!

Horrifically, the issues that millions of children worldwide are faced with on a daily basis extend beyond poverty, which is bad enough on its own. Many are involved, against their will, in drug trafficking, fighting as armed soldiers and even sexual prostitution. I’d like to dedicate a section here talking about a ‘taboo’ subject of sorts, but an important one to tackle all the same: child prostitution. A glance at EveryChild’s webpage leads me to click a link that tells me the story of 11 year old, Preema, one of many girls forced into prostitution and sexual abuse. Although Prema is from India, the problem of child prostitution extends well beyond the one country. And the threats to their lives extend beyond physical and mental scarring: they are put at risk of contracting diseases, such as HIV.

Preema: an unwitting young girl who was subject to the 'Dewadasi' system

Preema: an unwitting young girl who was subject to the ‘Devadasi’ system

Sadly, the site further explains how this is part of a ‘Devadasi’ system, outlawed in 1988, but imbedded in socio-religious practices. In this system, women are expected to sell themselves as a tribute to the Hindu goddess of fertility from as young as four. Thinking about this in line with the recent case of the young woman who was brutally attacked by a gang of men in Delhi, it is clear that EveryChild’s mission is not just one of distributing money to those in need. It is one of combating social attitudes that so desperately need changing.

EveryChild’s mission is huge and, arguably, daunting, but the charity is poised to tackle these important issues head-on. But they need the support of individuals, like yourselves. Without this, they could not hope to have the very impact that they wish to have, and that every child deserves. We, at the Inca Rally, believe in EveryChild and have been immensely proud to support the charity. We sincerely hope that you will too! After all, the Rally is about adventure with a purpose.

We believe that no child should be denied the chance for adventure in life.

We believe that no child should be denied the chance to find purpose in lives.

We believe that no child should be denied the chance to do these things and live.

 

Taz 

 

Both pictures in this article are © of EveryChild, found on http://www.everychild.com