It was early last Monday morning, just after sunrise, when I caught my first glimpse of the German-born, British-raised and well-travelled gal with whom I will spend the next 19 days. I had been standing at my sixth floor window in the Hotel Splendid, gazing out over the sprawling metropolis of Buenos Aires when I spotted her halfway down the block and headed in my direction. Although we had not previously met, I instantly recognized her from numerous Facebook photos. This is it, I thought, time to head downstairs and introduce myself to Yana… Yana Dragoman.
Yana is no ordinary woman. In fact, she’s no woman at all. “Yana” is the name affectionately given to Dragoman Overland Vehicle #2530WE93. She is the marriage of an 18-tonne Mercedes-Benz chassis and a passenger cabin custom built in the UK. She will also be my main means of transport for the next 19 days.
Two days before boarding the truck, I had a chance to meet Yana’s two-man crew. British born Joe, an experienced Dragoman driver, will be joined by Tom, another Brit, who is making this particular trip for the first time as a trip leader. Both are in their late 20s or early 30s. After speaking with them for just a few minutes it was obvious they love their job even if it’s far from what they or their families once envisioned.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve also had a chance to meet the other 17 passengers who have signed up for an overlanding trip that starts in Buenos Aires, visits Concordia, San Ignacio de Mini, and Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) before crossing into Brazil and stopping at Foz de Iguaçu, Bonito, the Southern Pantanal, Brotas, and Parati before ending in Rio de Janeiro. About half of the passengers joined the trip in Buenos Aires while half have been traveling on Yana for a few weeks.
The words “comfort” and “truck” aren’t exactly synonymous, and nineteen days might sound like a long time to spend on a truck, but to be fair only seven days involve much travel, the balance being spent at various stops along the way. Still, this could be pure Hell if Yana didn’t have a few modifications not found on your average 18-tonne truck – Mercedes-Benz or not.
The custom built passenger compartment is raised about 18 inches off the chassis, providing ample room below the floor for a large tank of potable water, supersized diesel tanks, propane canisters, a grill, tools, spare parts, plus storage of folding tables and chairs, cooking utensils, dishes and cutlery, tents, sleeping bags, and one large backpack per person.
The interior of the passenger compartment is kitted-out with 16 forward facing seats, two dinettes with seating for eight, a propane fridge, ice chest, and of course being a British-creation there is something called The Pub. While unopened beer and liquor can be brought onto the truck, “The Pub” is actually a code name for the onboard safe. When in the presence of strangers who may have nefarious motives, it’s safer to say, “Tom, I’d like to go to The Pub,” rather than “Tom, I need to get my money, passport and credit cards out of the safe on the truck.”
Like their passengers, overland vehicles come in many shapes, sizes, vintages and states of repair. Some are much smaller than Yana while others are bigger and more rugged, if less agile. From my limited experience, Yana seems to be a perfect hybrid designed for the South American roads that she regularly travels – a mix of decent, paved highways and rough dirt roads with the odd narrow bridge or soggy field to traverse on the way to a campsite. Dragoman has about 20 trucks operating on various routes in South American, Europe, Asia and Africa. While Yana has two axels, some overland trucks have three axels and are thus better suited to travel in third-world countries. After this trip, Bob, our driver, will fly to the UK where he will pick up a brand new truck and drive it to Beijing. The jury is still out on whether I will or will not do part of that route (in the reverse order) in the summer of 2015.
Ever since signing up for this trip last December, I’ve wondered what type of people I will meet on Dragoman Overland. Now, after six days on the truck, I have come to the conclusion that four words can be used to describe virtually all of my fellow travelers: budget conscious adventure seekers.
These overland travelers can be divided into two distinct camps: The first, a group that I will call Young & Adventurous, is just out of university or perhaps between contracts but very early in their working lives, not yet married, mired in mortgage debt, family obligations or a locked-in career. They aren’t “flat broke” but they are definitely conscious of how they spend their travel dollars.
The second group is what I will call Mid-Life-Crisis Averters. They’re between 40 and 55, established but not yet ready to retire, and they will happily give up some of the comforts of home (or the traditional seven day all-inclusive package vacation) in order to spend several months or even several years on the road. I definitely fall into this category.
While I am probably the oldest person on this particular trip, there are two couples that would be in their late 40s. One of those couples has been traveling for well over a year but will go back to their jobs as a lawyer and IT Consultant in the New Year. The group includes no fewer than three lawyers, three accountants, one or two farmers, some young professionals and students, and several who might be described as free spirits – people who would rather travel than settle down. I can honestly say that after six days, I genuinely like every one of them. I wouldn’t name names if I didn’t, but I’d definitely write about it if a few were beginning to get on my nerves.
Let’s see if I still feel this way at the end of the trip. Updates to follow.