How one intrepid family shook off normality for a life on four wheels.
BBC By Shira Levine 17 May 2016
It's one thing to talk about quitting your job to hit the road. It’s another to actually do it and set out to traverse the entire world, one continent at a time. And, it’s a whole other world to load your wife, your two children, ages 9 and 4, into your DIY-modified 2003 Land Rover Defender 130 to drive until, well, the money runs out. That’s what Graeme Bell, 41, began with wife, Luisa, 40, and their children, Keelan and Jessica back in 2009 after Luisa’s adventurous father unexpectedly passed away. Feeling the weight of impermanence, they decided it was now or never. In the seven years since, they have logged more than 100,000 miles, driven through 30-odd countries, and tried to live on the equivalent of £40 per day.
“We’re at our best when we’re travelling,” says Graeme who describes his family as “longtime nomads” who prefer the backroad journey to the actual destination. The Bells hail from Cape Town, South Africa, and first tested the life as short-term nomads in their beloved Defender, “Landy”. Long-haul road-tripping — or “overlanding”, as it is known to those who do it — involved plenty of vehicle research. After considering Toyota Land Cruisers, Nissan Patrols and even the odd Unimog, the Bells settled on Land Rover’s venerable Defender 130 Double Cab Pickup. In the family’s back garden, Graeme installed a stout aluminium canopy before embarking on their first big overland jaunt — to Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro and back, a distance of close to 7,500 miles. Overland bug bitten, the Bells have since shipped Landy across the Atlantic and explored South America and Central America and into the US and Canada. Most recently, they drove from Argentina to Alaska.
When BBC Autos Skyped with Graeme and Luisa, they were housesitting in Los Cabos, in Baja California, Mexico, taking it easy before heading north for the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, Arizona. There, they will join fellow overlanders to geek out about life on the open road. They’ll also promote Graeme’s first book, We Will Be Free, and raise funds for book number two, Travel the Planet Overland, via a Kickstarter campaign. The book details overlander archetypes and how-tos. Turns out there are more than a few pre- and mid-career Eat Pray Love types and retirees who take on the world via their fancy RVs while enjoying restaurants and pausing to fly home for family celebrations.
“There are quite a few of us families overlanding and the numbers seems to have grown” says Luisa. “The French tend to do it for a year over a sabbatical, but the homeschooling issue is a problem because it is illegal in a lot of countries.”
Days within Landy are an ongoing adventure and education ripe with cultural experiences and drastic changes in landscape and climate. Life has transformed dramatically for the four. They’re still husband, wife, father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister, but now they’re also writers, photographers, chefs, mechanics and disciplined domestic workers. As one might suspect, seven years of overlanding depletes funds. Starting with a modest nest egg — made more so as South Africa’s economy struggled — has meant getting creative.
“We like being totally out of our comfort zone and not knowing what’s ahead of us, just what’s behind us,” says Graeme. The family’s DIY mechanic skills are on point. They were self-sufficient in repairing a wheel bearing in the middle of the night somewhere in Brazil, they made roadside repairs in Guyana, and when stranded in Argentina with a failed fuel pump (albeit at a campsite with a swimming pool and celebrated butcher nearby) they ultimately triumphed. Landy also survived a failed oil cooler in Chile’s Atacama Desert and a broken water-reservoir cap at high altitude in Peru.
“We prefer to do our own thing rather than travel with a convoy,” says Graeme.
Forever gone are Graeme and Luisa’s monotonous marketing careers, distant corporate blips of yesteryear. The same goes for the kids’ traditional public-school education, bullying and any awkward angst Keelan and Jessica might have otherwise suffered.
Confirmation of such came when the Bells spent two months in a Brazilian farming village and sent Keelan and Jessica to attend a local school.
“They were very shy kids back in South Africa. Keelan had been bullied a lot and his confidence was really low,” says Graeme. “In Brazil they both walked into their schools with their heads held high.
They didn’t want or need us. We were in this small village where no one spoke English, and in a just a few weeks they were communicating just fine. They call it ‘Faceybook’ there, and Keelan’s wall was just pumping with girls writing all over it.”
Now that Keelan is nearly 17, his interest in girls and dating has the potential to change the dynamic.
“About a year ago we were in Salta, Argentina where we had some trouble with the fuel pump so we were staying at this camp and Keelan met this girl,” says Luisa. “About three hours after we left he exclaimed, ‘That’s it! Give me my bicycle and my passport! I’m going back to go work there’. That’s where things get hard. He’s young and because we’re not in those kind of places long enough for him to establish relationships it gets very intense.” Meanwhile, with Jessica, now 11, things remain cool. Graeme half jokes about a rule of “no dating until age 20.”
“I want them to stay with us for as long as they want to and we’ll accommodate,” says Graeme whose big picture plan is to cover the planet and then “do it again in reverse.”
How does the family manage travel through countries where the political climate can be, well, challenging?
“Stay calm, work together and don’t antagonize. When at the point of wanting to kill the guy: smile, kiss his butt, and commiserate.”
The system worked when the Bells explored less-traveled French Guyana and drove through southern Colombia, past sandbag barricades and soldiers with machine guns. At Colombia’s northeastern border with Venezuela, police escorted the family to a safer camping spot than their oft-preferred location near the local police station because there was intel about a potential attack.
“In Venezuela we practiced drills for potential scenarios on how to stay safe if machine guns were pulled on us,” says Graeme, who mentioned they travelled the very road on which a family had been killed a few weeks prior. Ultimately, though, it was camping in the US that scared Graeme the most.
“Camping in the Pacific Northwest at night really freaked me out because these are the landscapes of all the horror movies I’d watched back in South Africa right after apartheid when all we got on TV was American popular culture,” says Graeme. “I was fearful of a man showing up with gardening shears or something. In Boulder, Colorado, at the Rocky Mountain National Park we saw a crazy Texan walking around playing the same love song over and over all night while carrying an axe. Another time we met a man who told us about his son’s PTSD, where he’d disappear into the forest with a Samurai sword for weeks. I felt very paranoid.”
That’s not to say overlanding is all Indiana Jones adventure and Swiss Family Robinson family bonding.
“It’s difficult to find privacy,” says Graeme. “We live under the same tent, and my son is now 6ft 2in and 220lbs.”
Everyone longs for a couch and a new mattress. “Sitting on a camping chair for four years is a pain in the butt,” says Graeme.
What they don’t miss, however, is routine — and television, although on those long, boring drives, the kids sit in the back seat watching downloaded episodes of Cheers and Seinfeld as Landy plows through jungles, deserts and armed conflict zones. And yes, they miss family too. Although even today, the Bells are amused by those who still believe their adventure is one long vacation.
“My mum is extremely proud, but goes through waves of emotions where she exclaims, ‘This is enough now! When the hell are you coming home?’” says Luisa. “So I try to go home every two years for a month. That seems to keep everyone happy.”
Considering a great escape? Take some sage advice from the experts.
Determine how far you want to go and your style of travel. If you’re like Graeme and Luisa and enjoy off-roading and riding dunes, you need a vehicle that is capable of that. If you’re more into main roads, don’t bother with a vehicle prepared for the end of the world because it’s a waste of money.
“Keep it simple and try to do it with what you already have before you spend all this money and give up your previous life. We learned the hard way and spent money on things we didn’t need because we were told we needed this or that. That wasted money took up months we could have been on the road.” —Graeme
That means, accept what you actually don’t need. The Bells found the recommended water filtration systems, IV packs, and full-on medical equipment were unnecessary and took up needed space.
“All you need is three pairs of shoes, two pairs of jeans and some T-shirts. Don’t get all that REI gear for a full-on wardrobe. Sure, a juicer is nice but that is massive and you can buy a juice on the road. Prepare for your whole lifestyle to change. You won’t require that one superfood you can’t live without one you’re on the road. You don’t need the Gore-Tex everything. You don’t have to be prepared for the armageddon unless you’re going to go through the Darien Gap and to the North Pole.” —Luisa
And always carry the right tools: