So what is “overlanding,” anyway? One thing I learned from spending three days immersed among seasoned circumnavigators to adventure wannabes is that it means many different things to as many different people. It might mean circumnavigating the globe in one’s own vehicle, or merely driving the dirt Mojave Road across California’s Mojave National Preserve. To me, overlanding means crossing multiple borders/countries/continents by vehicle with no air travel involved. My brother Don is currently traveling in his Navion in Honduras, having started his journey in Texas. That’s overlanding.
There are three levels of admission to the Expo. The day trippers only get to visit the vendor area and observe the demos. Sadly, many of them spent much of their one day admission in traffic, something that will no doubt improve next year. Then there are the weekend attendees who stay overnight. They get camping included with their pass so they can linger at the bar and stay for the film festival and be able to walk home. And the third tier is the “Overland Experience.” These people pay $500 for the weekend to attend all classes, plus special hands on training and driving skills training.
My “job” for the three day event is to staff the concierge tent for those attending the Overland Experience. Duties include checking credentials and directing participants in the CTESA and MESA, (Camel Trophy Expedition Skills Area and Motorcycle Expedition Skills Area.) This is a primo post, first of all because I am in the shade! But also, I get to see the 4×4 vehicles and motorcycles as they enter the arena for their classes on the hour. In between classes, I get to watch as the “dare devil” element builds in the skills area right behind me.
Immediately behind me, motorcycle riders gain experience on all terrains on the “Silk Road” course with steep ascents, rocky stretches, big bumps, and the trickiest of all, the sand pit. The most fun to watch are the “Women Only” classes, because their support and confidence-building among riders is palpable.
And speaking of women, the Overland Expo was actually founded by a woman. Back in 2009, Roseann Hanson, former guide, world traveler, and overlander extraordinaire held an event at the fairgrounds in Prescott. Five hundred people attended that year. Ten years later, the crowd this year was estimated at 14,000. Roseann has done a phenomenal job in making sure women are well represented in what has typically been a male-dominated sport.
One of the big draws for the “weekend experience” is the driver skills training in the Camel Skills Expedition Area. For those who may not know (I did not,) the Camel Trophy was an annual competition held for twenty years, between 1980 and 2000 sponsored by Land Rover and RJ Reynolds tobacco, ergo the name. They were grueling endurance tests, not only of the Land Rovers used in the competition, but of the drivers themselves as they crossed rivers, traversed swamps and jungles, all where roads did not exist. It would often take up to 24 hours just to go two miles.
In the end, the Camel Trophy event began featuring more outdoor activities outside the vehicles, so Land Rover pulled out of sponsorship. Around the same time, Camel was sold to Japan Tobacco, thus ending the annual competition. All that remains are a few of the original vehicles, along with the drivers to tell their tales of sleepless nights, disease-born insects, and efforts to leave a positive impact on the underdeveloped countries.
A group of Camel Trophy drivers now attend the Expo to serve as instructors in the Expedition Skills area. They teach vehicle repair, rigging and recovery skills from winching to welding and everything in between. It’s basically a weekend of “self rescue” for one’s own vehicle. Were it not for my volunteer gig, I would have likely missed this interesting aspect of the Expo.
Volunteers also get to audit all classes while off duty. I must confess that I found the few classes I was able to attend to be much more elementary than I anticipated. I expected instructions on how to ship your vehicle around the Darien Gap, or which route is the safest to traverse Africa. Instead, they were geared toward people yet to cross the border. “Beginners Guide to Mexico,” and “The Journey Before the Journey.” It was at this point when I realized many of the attendees were there more for the gear than the guidance.
From my first timers perspective, there seem to be two very distinct cultures who attend the Expo. There are the weathered, seasoned travelers; explorers who tell of travels to faraway lands, immersion into other cultures, travel on a shoestring. And then there are the “gear heads.” That includes people who own the six figure behemoths like Earth Roamers who spend enough to feed a small village just to look the part. When I asked one of the expedition staff members, “Where do people go in these things, because these vehicles are too big to ship” his answer was “the Shopping Mall.”
My favorite events at the Expo were the talks, films, and presentations given by authors who had actually done the time on the road, crossing borders and cultures. It’s interesting to note these were typically Brits or Aussies. This holds true for a lot of the blogs I follow. Most people from the US just don’t do that kind of travel. In a culture more focused on gear and gadgets, product names like “The Black Series,” “Dominator” or “Poison Spyder” seem to target a demographic more intent to master adventure rather than merely experience it.
My favorite talk entitled “Can you buy Adventure?” given by author and world traveler Ted Simon, addressed this difference between travel and adventure, which boils down to the element of risk. His point was that many think you need lots of money to travel, but in fact money insulates you from the local culture. Best example, nothing separates a traveler from the local culture more than a fancy BMW motorcycle suit. Spend less on the suit and more on the ticket to get there…
It was a fascinating three days, and a stark diversion from my current lifestyle. I had a lot of fun, met some interesting people, and got a chance to explore more about my own views of overlanding. In the end, I think the guys from the magazine Overland Journal summed up my own personal definition brilliantly:
“Overlanding is about exploration and adventure travel. While the roads and trails we travel might be rough or technically challenging, they are the means to an end, not the goal itself. The pursuit is to see and learn about our world, whether on a weekend trip 100 miles from home or a 10,000-mile expedition across another continent. The vehicle and equipment can be simple or extravagant – they, too, are simply means to an end. History, wildlife, culture, scenery, self-sufficiency – these are the rewards of overlanding.” ~ Overland Journal
Well said! With that, I will leave you with a few parting shots of the Land Rover’s Overland Driving Course. I hope you enjoyed my insiders view of the Overland Expo. It’s a beautiful world out there…regardless of “gear and gadgets,” get out there and explore it!