The Savvy Travels journey, like all good adventures, has been a long and rewarding process. As the year that we first launched has come to an end, it seems an apt time to reflect, to remember the roots of Savvy Travels, and the experiences that led to its conception. So in this next series of blogs, excuse me whilst I take a trip down memory lane.
I grew up in leafy Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Though it’s a beautiful place, I always had the gnawing feeling that there was plenty more out there to experience and explore. My parents have always been ardent travellers, and I hoped that one day I might be able to follow in their footsteps and see the world. Little did I know how much this little niggle would go on to change the course of my life.
My first taste of independent travel began after I finished my first year at University. I spent 6 weeks teaching sailing and water skiing at a summer camp in upstate New York. After the camp was over, and with a thirst for exploration, I decided to travel across the States for a month, speeding through New York, Boston, Miami, Kansas, Missouri and California on a whistlestop tour.
As is often the way, the month passed far too quickly and soon I was back in Blighty. At university, I was tasked with finding a placement and ended up securing one at a tough Private Equity firm. I found myself having to dress smartly, stay clean shaven and spend countless hours endlessly fiddling with excel spreadsheets.
As a difficult year drew to a close, it started to dawn on me that perhaps this rigid working environment was not for me. So I did what any young man rebelling against the stiff upper lip of the business world does; I grew my hair past my nipples and vowed to return travelling.
After a few more camps and road trips around America, I was ready to take on the rest of the world. I knew it all, or so I thought. I came back and relayed this unabashed enthusiasm to my parents, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, had a few more reservations than I did. They set about trying to equip me for the multitude of potential disasters they foresaw befalling their naive son.
As preparation (…and a bit of a self-coping mechanism for them!) they assembled an odd assortment of travel items that they, for some reason, deemed essential. They spent months constantly reiterating that I must carry them at all times "because you never know what’s around the corner." Although I truly doubted whether I needed a mosquito net that was solely for my head, I heeded their advice, packed my gear, and off I went.
I flew out to Belize with my girlfriend and then travelled down through Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Along the way we learned to scuba dive, completing open water and advanced qualifications, and had some truly amazing new experiences. Unfortunately, my hardy travel companion had to return to complete her studies. I had a choice to make: return to the real world or continue this once in a lifetime journey on my own. Now fully in the raptures of an intense wanderlust, I decided to continue by myself to Panama, and then on to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia.
I began working wherever I could along the way to fund my global adventures. I spent 6 months completing a ski season in Val d’Isère as a chef, stowing away any spare funds to continue travelling. I flew out to Sri Lanka and India for 3 months, then went to Mexico to study for a divemasters qualification. Once qualified, I served a short stint as a divemaster back in Panama, before flying on to Hong Kong. Finally, I headed to Australia to work as a divemaster on the Great Barrier Reef, followed by a few weeks on the east coast before returning home, exhilarated and exhausted in equal measure.
It was a lot. Such a long, eye-opening journey teaches you a lot about travel, the world, and most importantly, yourself. With my mosquito hat long discarded, I had managed to travel around the world and come back in one piece. I was as surprised as anyone else.
However, a few difficult situations that I had found myself in always stood out in my memory. Though I hate to admit it, my parents might have had a bit of a point when it came to being prepared for the unexpected whilst travelling.
In Guatemala I had arranged to climb Volcano Acatenango, not far from the city of Antigua. The peak of Acatenango acts as a great viewpoint for the neighbouring active Volcano Fuego. The itinerary was to climb up to ‘base camp’, pitch your tent, eat some dinner and get some sleep before hiking the last hour early the next morning in time to catch the sunrise. It seemed so easy, but as any backpacker will attest, things don’t always go to plan. I was going with a tour agency, surely they had everything covered, right?
Apparently not. Before we’d even set off, it transpired that the agency didn’t even have enough sleeping bags and tents for our group. So we started the climb a few hours later than scheduled. Then the weather turned, greeting us with a terrible storm, which not only soaked all of our clothes and made for a miserable hike, but also delayed us even further. As a result, the last two hours climbing the volcano was in the dark. And not just quite dark. Pitch black.
At first this didn’t seem like a problem as we all began to crack out the lights on our phones. However, with batteries soon drained and the rain still beating down, we were soon a group of eight attempting to navigate with the one light our guide was carrying. I remembered that by fluke I had bought a torch, and by some miracle I actually had it on me. Now with double the light, morale began to lift and our challenge got a little easier. Especially when we arrived, wet and exhausted, at base camp with the difficult task of pitching our tents in the dark.
(The sight of our wet tents first thing in the morning after pitching them in the dark).
Though it wasn’t the best night of our lives, we had made it. In the morning, our ordeal was made worth it; at sunrise we witnessed the volcano erupt. As we sat there in the dawn light, taking it all in, I couldn’t help but think how much harder the whole excursion would have been if I didn’t have the torch with me.
Although this experience wasn’t exactly life threatening, it began to change the way I felt about carrying items that I might need if things didn’t go to plan. How much easier could that night have been if I’d have had a waterproof poncho to shield myself from the elements, a battery bank to keep my devices charged or an eye mask and earplugs for the important night’s sleep before our early start.
I started trying to amass some bare-bones essentials for the rest of my journey across the Americas and any future travels. By the time I started my second global adventure, I had a small collection of items that I hoped might come in handy, until an event in India affirmed how vital these would turn out to be.
I was in Leh, Ladakh, in the northern Himalayas. The remote town acts as a base camp for a series of hikes through the Himalayan mountains, and I had booked a 5 day hike from Lamayuru to Chilling. Through the hikes you would stay in homestays in remote villages, where you were fed and watered, given a ‘bed’ (loosely termed) and you could ‘shower’ in the river.
To reach Lamayuru where we would start the trek, we had to undertake a 3 hour drive with our local guide through the multiple winding chicanes, with vast steep drops on either side of the road. There was a real sense of isolation; no phone signal, hardly any cars passed and certainly no towns or villages on the way.
After two hours, and one particularly steep, blind, right hand turn, we were suddenly greeted by a bus on its side, precariously positioned on the edge of a cliff. We were the first vehicle there. There were people strewn across the road, old and young, writhing in pain and screaming in panic.
I immediately got out of the car with my first-aid kit. My girlfriend acted as a nurse, applying the limited first aid she knew to the people at the side of the road. I climbed atop the overturned bus to help the people who were still trapped. I vividly remember dragging a monk out of the wreckage, dressed in his religious robes, bleeding profusely from his mouth and head.
We wiped wounds using alcohol prep wipes, applied bandages where we could and tried to calm a dire situation as much as possible. It took a seemingly endless half an hour for the army to arrive and take the injured passengers away. Four people had already died. We were very shaken, but took small comfort in the fact that we had done all we could. Thanks to our first-aid kit we were able to provide an immediate, though basic, level of care in incredibly desperate circumstances.
This was the final impetus I needed to realise how crucial it was that I be more prepared. It was time to get my act together; to get savvy, not just for me, but for those around me.
It would be easy to say that at that exact moment I decided I was going to create Savvy Travels; that a plan of action immediately crystallised in my head. However, that’s not how life works. But amongst the amazing experiences I was lucky enough to have had, the vague seeds of an idea were sown in my head.
At that point I did not yet know how much time I would spend amassing the perfect collection of travel essentials. How much of an obsession the selection of these items would become and how it might shape my future plans. It hadn’t yet dawned on me the universality of the situation I had found myself in. How many thousands of young people set out into the world every year, unprepared for what awaits them. But in time it would, and to hear more about that in the next stages of the Savvy Travels journey, be sure to check out part two.