Hitchhiking and camping with a recent upgrade to life in a carpet van...
As much as I've always been in love with the freedom and lack of consumption involved in hitchhiking and sleeping outdoors, we've recently "invested" in an old carpet fitters van. We have a little house on wheels and are hoping to return the favour to some of those adventurers in need of a friendly ride.
I've worked as a warden along the Laugavegur trail for the past two years and these are all the things that I always wish hikers/campers knew before they arrived.
This information is not official, but just from my personal experience. It is not a substitute for talking to the wardens in the Information Office when you arrive; there are some things which cannot be checked online. The hike is very dependent on the weather and other conditions on the trail.
Strútsstígur is an unmarked path; it is not possible to follow indications or footprints. It is also not guaranteed that you will meet staff working in campsites or even other hikers. It is therefore, vitally important that you are experienced at hiking in Iceland, have a GPS and are entirely self-sufficient. I have added some useful information at the bottom of this article.
Being flexible with your timing and working around the weather forecast can make the difference between a great hike and a disaster.
The two most reliable online weather predictions are www.vedur.is and http://belgingur.is (often more accurate for Hrafntinnusker). You should familiarise yourself with both of them. It is good to look some days in advance, but things can change quickly and you should not forget to make a final check just before you leave civilisation. Wind and rain are the most changeable factors which I have focused on here, but you should also be aware of general temperatures day/night, the effects of wind chill and decreasing hours of daylight. Fog comes and goes at will and your only real defence against it is a GPS device.
Always speak to the wardens at Landmannalaugar or Langidalur before you start and in each campsite you visit along the way, to ask their advice about weather and conditions. Up to date local knowledge is impossible to find online.
2018 was my second Summer in the Icelandic Highlands. My job as a warden revolves around the Laugavegur hiking trail and its campsites.
Passing through areas of colourful geothermal activity; across snow plains; over ice bridges; through vast, black lava fields; and finally down into a twisted birch forest with the view out towards two glaciers – all within 56km – it's no surprise that the Laugavegur is Iceland's most famous hiking trail. It's an incredibly beautiful trek, but for every nine people I've met having the time of their lives, there was [at least] one who hated it. Aside from a defeatist attitude or serious lack of physical fitness, the most certain thing to ruin your hike is the lack of adequate gear. Though temperatures are not that much more extreme than many other places in Europe, the wind can get phenomenally strong and you'd be very lucky to pass a whole day without having to don your water-proofs.
Before catching a bus to Landmannalaugar (or Þórsmörk), please also read these articles I wrote about how to prepare for hiking the Laugavegur trail and how to read the weather forecast. They include everything else you should know.
Despite visiting the Lake District three times on our winding ways up and down from Scotland in the van, I had never walked further into the wild than the banks of Haweswater Reservoir.
The main intention of this haphazard adventure was always to delve into Portugal, though I would have been surprised to find out that we'd enter from the South. Passing the most built up stretch of the Algarve in the rain, we bee-lined towards Sagres on the promise of surf.
March is a good time for waves, but attracts far less ordinary holiday makers. Though relatively quiet and very easy to park up our van at this time of year, I think you would have to be more careful in the Summer.
South from Ubrique, towards Alcalá de los Gazules, we drove an hour or so along small roads, though idyllic forested mountains, only persisting because every turn off was marked clearly as private land. For once our severely unspecific road map was correct in assuring us that there were no real settlements here, but under a mountain we found another "area recreativa". Somewhat of a labyrinth, "El Picacho" had barbecues cut into large boulders, picnic tables fashioned from giant hunks of wood and the generally overgrown delightful air of not having been visited much since last summer. The tree branches crooked above us like ancient witches fingers and we hid under the bridge, as the odd car passed above, like grubby trolls bathing in the river.
By now we thought we were getting a little better at travelling in the van. We were driving in little hops, poking into the countryside or along the coast for an hour or two each day, never waiting until after sunset to find somewhere to sleep. Water was easy enough to find from taps in children's play parks, fontes or town centres, fuel was cheaper in Spain and we knew just about Spanish to make our lives a little easier. Slowly but surely our body clocks began to adapt from a slovenly 11am until after midnight norm, to one which made better use of the light. With little to do in the evenings, we were sleeping before the majority of eight-year-olds and I often woke up just before dawn started to scratch through the curtains. We appeared to have escaped the winter.
Had it not been for the gloom, I would have liked to stay beside Pantà de Rialb longer in the eerie silence, but we chased the promise of sunshine South. Skirting around Lleida, we followed a succession of steadily diminishing roads, looking for a blank spot on the map, as if paddling upstream to the source.
The sky was stubbornly overcast as we approached the lake. Though with all the elements of beauty; reflections of leafy trees onto the green water's surface, rocky outcrops and a silencing distance from the highway, we couldn't shake the feeling that it was a little bit too quiet down this rough track. On the map, these roads lead to nowhere. I possibly expected a picnic site or somebodies house at the point where on paper it descended to the bank in two directions, but instead we got to a sign, "PELIGRO INUNDACIONES", and it simply became impassable in the van; great hollows and troughs down a steep slope.
On foot the road disintegrates into mud clots, completely disappearing and being replaced by shrubby bushes and rocks. What at first appeared to be a chimney poking out of a small clump of trees, turned out on closer inspection to be an empty shrine, simply a window to and from nowhere without the Mary doll to stand in it. We followed a faint and precarious pathway, still twenty-five meters above the water level, around a small headland and confusingly emerged onto the remains of a two direction tarmac road; only slightly faded white lines in the centre, but edges crumbling into emptiness. Over a sinking bridge, once proud enough for an archway, metal barriers meant to protect impossible traffic, bent towards the water like discarded staples. Sloped into a disturbing width ways diagonal, as well as the simple down-hill gradient, the road plunged into the water and obscurity.
The morning of our intended departure from Morgins, Dan discovered that we (he) had left the head-lights on all night. Burt was in a coma. The oldest vehicle in the village by a good fifteen years you can imagine the spectacle we made heaving the van to the top of an icy hill and then charging down again with only the hand-brake to rely on. The slope out of the car park wasn't enough, but the only remaining gradient was right down through the middle of the village, road lined with kit laden skiers and troops of school trip children. A kind old man helped me get up some momentum and we watched as Dan hurtled a good hundred meters before bellowing out a puff of smoke. I hadn't been keen to be in the drivers seat...
If you've been dropping by for some time, you probably remember a little hype around last June. We'd saved and stagnated for over a year in Exeter. Unexpectedly, I'd found many things to love in that sleepy South-Western city; a small but solid medley of people, plenty of camping on Dartmoor and Devon's coast. Still, I was restless, we were gearing up for a great adventure. Burt the carpet van spluttered into our lives as a kind of tiny home on wheels, a fortified tent with space for a duvet, and we finally set of on our epic European road trip. Though the weather was better, things started that month the same as we just have, with a trip up to Scotland. As you might also know, that first drive up North and down was our last great road trip of 2016. We finished the year in Calais, laughing and crying and forgetting to shower. We're starting that original plan from scratch.
Anything I write or do now seems trivial and trite compared to what's been on my radar the last half of this year. I've almost forgotten how I used to write about beautiful things, but here we go...
Searching for a van was a mundane daily hell...
It took us months. We were looking for something that didn’t have a massive amount of miles (many under £2000 had around 200,000 on the clock), with no major mechanical problems and that wasn’t too big. More importantly, it still had to be long enough for Dan (who’s 6’4) to lie down in.
Having never owned a car before, we took vital and occasionally contradictory advise from the internet and other more experienced family and friends. Dan’s dad (Rod) came along to view and test dive any potential options and we listened to the advice of a friend's trusted mechanic before we finally took the plunge*. Our budget was £1500 and eventually, after many false starts, we eventually spent £1150 on a Hyundii H100 from 1997, an old carpet fitter's van, and £350 on repairs and a new MOT.
Deciding what to do with it next and getting materials...
Before we could begin, we spent a day dismantling and removing the ugly carpeted wooden platform and shelving from the back of the van, removed the mouldy panels from the walls and cleaned the van inside and out.
After a very slow and somewhat arduous trip up to Swansea, Wales the week before, we were particularly relieved to make it up to Scotland in relatively good time without any major mishaps.
In between fixing rusty holes in the van, changing our oil (and spilling a whole tank full onto my parents’ drive) and generally trying to sort ourselves out a bit better before leaving the UK, we found a little time for the beach...
Having got to know each other over long, stressful nights in the library, the least organised History students in our year, it's hardly surprising that Dan and I struggle to get ourselves together before a (hopefully) long trip. Despite slogging and saving for over a year in preparation, we found ourselves committed to leaving our jobs forever in two weeks time, with no van to move into, half a flat full of things and Dan still learning to drive.
One cold, soggy winter in Southampton we were dreaming of an adventure.
My friend Bryony and I had been struggling to find any inspiration in our grimy university accommodation and imagined spending long days painting on quiet beaches; I bought a map of the Cyclades and we began to highlight dots to aim for.
Milos was so beautiful that our island hopping adventure didn't end up as extensive as we imagined, but I haven't regretted it for a second.
I've been rotting indoors for months as we "prepare" for an as-of-yet unspecific adventure elsewhere in Europe. I bounce resigned from one box to another, staring between screens and sitting so badly; my back is aching. Wild camping for Dan's birthday has become somewhat of a tradition and as the weather is starting the clear up again, we ventured out to Dartmoor to absorb some wilderness as an antidote.
This collaboration of magical camping spots has taken an embarrassingly long time to put together, but I can't help but feel proud of the result. With some of my traveller idols, friends and even family involved, it's hard to decide if I'm more excited by the contributors or the places they have written about. If this doesn't persuade you that you don't always want to sleep with a roof over your head, then I'm happy to keep the wilderness for myself.
After dragging my pack around a 45 miles Ten Tors* expedition that felt like the closest I've ever come to dying of exhaustion, I've had an interesting relationship with Dartmoor. This is one of the few places in England where it is free and perfectly acceptable to camp almost anywhere you like but, ignoring the rolling hills of desolate moorland, we headed into the forest near in search of a covered clearing to pitch out tents.
Having spent a week or so hopping from one nasty, [relatively] expensive accommodation to another, we were heading to Samaipata in the hopes of finding a peaceful campsite. Being enormously ripped off on a long, hot day of buses, I was feeling quite miserable by the time we arrived. It was dark, raining, everything was soggy and I wasn't appreciating being stuck back in our one-man tent. Balancing electronics and valuables on a mountain of shoes, under waterproof coats in our 'porch' to stop the water from destroying them didn't lead to the most restful night's sleep.
Waking up groggy with sun, I found El Jardin more intriguing than I could have imagined...
I'm sorry to point out the obvious to those of you who know, but for the first-time camper building a good fire can often be a challenge. These are my trusted methods, materials and tips that work (nearly) every time.
I've been struggling for weeks over this post- how to explain my two month hiatus, how to cobble my words and photographs into describing my total infatuation with this little patch of woodland. It's been twenty-six days since we were forced to leave, but I still wake up expecting to hear the sound of insects, before realising the sad truth and missing the beautiful simplicity of that life. I'm finding it hard to move on, to step forward into modernity and realise I don't like the way the world is going, but lets start at the beginning.
As usual we'd been searching for somewhere cheap, relaxed and beautiful to stay...
By the time we left Mancora, our first stop in Peru, Dan and I were feeling pretty down. Although nothing terrible had happened, we'd spent too much time in tourist hell-holes, been ripped off a bit too often and just felt a little out of our Spanish speaking depth in the dirt-cheap campsites we'd been staying in. To make matters worse, a manic, middle-aged Australian woman approached us in Guayaquil bus station asking for $10, quickly changed her story and ran off with the money without saying thank-you. The final straw came when, after only managing to hitchhike about 50km all day, our final lift turned out to be an "unmarked taxi".
We were on the edge of the mountainous desert- the out of sight coastline on our right and the desolate town El Alto on our left. Both directions seemed like a long hot walk, so when a truck stopped to ask us if we wanted a lift down the cliff road we jumped straight in the back.
Bouncing along in the back of a fish-truck we watched the parched, cactus territory along the coastline turn to lush forest. With isolated micro-climates changing the scenery from place to place, Ecuador is amazingly varied for its size. Winter is warmer than Summer here, but the only season I didn't want to miss was when Humpback Whales come to mate. We'd spotted a few from the beach at Puerto Cayo, but it's hard to get a sense of scale at distance and I really wanted to see them up close.
Most of the time the weather in Puerto Cayo looks something like this...
At weekends, the stretch of beach directly in front of Canoa's town centre is mayhem. There are hippies selling jewellery, places to buy fresh fried octopus and the usual pot-bellied middle-aged men lying prostrate on the sand. Occasionally you might even see clueless tourists bobbing along on horses which will only move if chased by a man running behind with a whip. You'd be lucky to find a couple of square meters to lay out your towel and turn your head away for a second too long, your bag might disappear.*
Camping next to the river, surrounded by cloud forest, with the occasional eagle swooping overhead, we've spent most of our time in Mindo cooking.
There have been few places in the world that have brought tears to my eyes when it came to time to leave. As I'm sure I've made quite obvious in my last four(?!) posts about La Esperanza, Dan and I really loved living there. This post isn't going to be very informative, but mostly a thank-you to the friends who made us feel so welcome in the village.
We finished painting the house just in time for fiesta of San Juan. This was the third fiesta we'd been part of in La Esperanza and by far the most extravagant. There were lavishly decorated vehicles throwing out sweets and roses for spectators and several parties of costumed dancers; everyone was wearing their finery and some people even brought their animals along to display.
I don't know if it's just me, or maybe the presence of so many horses and those hats, but San Agustin feels a bit like the Wild Wild West. This small, isolated town up in the mountains of Southern Colombia is picturesque, but would never have been considered any more remarkable than its neighbours had it not been for the discovery of the largest group of religious monuments and megalithic sculptures in the whole of South America. It must have been quite some excavation!
Firstly though, the town itself is worth exploring: there are plenty of cheap, tasty places to eat, people are friendly and they've really been very patient as we've tried out our limited Spanish with them. I've been trying to capture some of the locals going about their every day lives. I find taking portraits very difficult, but this horse was tied up and therefore fair game...
|River by Allenvale Mile campsite.|
These are obviously intended for novices and will probably otherwise come across as a bit patronising...
|Night 1- a horse field|