Monday, 10 February 2014

To Plan Or Take A Chance?

Chaos vs Order
In the extreme, that is what we are talking about. Planning in advance can make sure that a trip runs smoothly, reliably and without problems. No turning up in towns and finding there is not a hotel room to be had anywhere. No finding out later that you missed an amazing museum, art gallery or restaurant because you didn't check out the guidebooks in advance. No being invited for a game of golf and realising you have no golf shoes with you. How far does one go? How much planning is useful and when does it become a burden?

Pic Courtesy of

When it comes to preparing for a trip – especially an overland trip – too much planning can make for a somewhat less thrilling experience. Think about it. Most of us will remember how some of our most pleasurable trips away have been where unexpected things happened or decisions were made on the spur of the moment. The time you went to Vienna and were unexpectedly given free tickets to the opera but had no smart clothes with you, but were saved by a lovely couple you talked to at your hotel who had just been to a wedding and the husband loaned you his evening suit. You have remained firm friends ever since. I have had many experiences like this where I felt maybe fate had lent a hand and made something special happen for me. But how far does one go with this theory?

pic courtesy of

Imagine going off on a week's holiday to Paris with no booking and only the clothes you are standing up in, relying on the fact that something will come up. Perhaps someone at a hostel you manage to find, will show you a Parisian fleamarket where you might come across some superb theatrical outfits. Wearing these around the cafes and bars of Montmartre you might then be courted by a fascinating Bohemian crowd who take you to outrageous parties and drag you off to a chateau for the weekend for a masked ball. The best week of your life! It could happen. Yet what if you took no money and no passport? Yes it could be the springboard for a thrilling adventure. Hiding under the tarpaulin of a truck trailer and evading customs. Hitchhiking to Paris and meeting fun-loving people who invite you to stay with them at their houseboat on the Seine or in their squat in an old regency mansion in the Champs Elysees. Again it could happen, but the lack of the passport could be a major cause of stress. Surely that would be one diversion too far?

Le Pompon - pic courtesy of

Le Fanfaron Comptoir - pic courtesy of

The truth, most seasoned overland travellers discover in practice, is a balance of the two. Too much planning and your trip becomes tediously predictable. Too little and you end up cursing yourself for missing out on great opportunities – "If only I'd brought my swimming trunks," or "Why didn't I think to bring my driving license so we could have hired a car?"

Long Road Hard Lessons
Back in 2008-9 my son and I cycled 10,000 miles from Ireland to Tokyo. It was Sam's idea to do this when he was only ten. He was 18 when we set off so I'd had plenty of time to plan for it. I really enjoyed the planning part. I love setting off into the unknown but thinking it through first, working out distances and ideal places to stop on the way. It's almost as much fun for me as doing it. I really get pleasure out of working out what clothing and equipment I need to take; determining which clothes will fulfil a variety of purposes; keeping weight to a minimum; considering climate and what can or cannot be obtained along the way. I did all of these things and made frequent adjustments to these plans as my research uncovered new information. At the end of the trip, friends, the press, TV interviewers (we were on BBC Breakfast TV twice after our return) and other cyclists kept asking us, "what disasters occurred along the way - what went wrong?"  When we told them, "not much really," they looked disappointed. Sometimes even bored. I began to wish I had been less military-minded in my planning and that more had been left to chance. If Sam had done the trip with one of his school-friends, I told myself, plenty would have gone wrong. The results would have satisfied those who questioned us far more. But as someone else pointed out, the result of that could have been a tragic accident. Which is true.

Iran just after Turkish Border - We forgot to get enough cash before Iran and foreigners can't draw any inside Iran. This lack of planning meant we needed to be careful and camp more. We had to be more inventive. Memorable!

The Zen Art Of Balance
The answer is, as I have said, that one needs to keep a balance. Some things – like a passport, some money and perhaps a few phone numbers, are fairly essential. If you are going by bike then a puncture kit or spare tube and a multi-tool is probably a high priority. Beyond that, it can make life far more interesting if you leave things to chance. Have a vague idea of the direction you are going in or a probable destination perhaps, but leave the rest to be decided along the way. You will find it can be far more rewarding in the end, even if a few near disasters happen to send you off in an unexpected direction as you progress.
Remember, a problem – even a disaster – is an opportunity :-)

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