Prague to Tasmania Overland
Now, how am I supposed to squeeze more than two years of my life on the road into a single webpage? Something unforgettable and extraordinary was happening every day. How do I decide what is interesting or important, and what is not? But most importantly: how do I write it, so that even a person of the 21st century, who is certainly very busy, would be interested in reading something like this? A person who is, moreover, overwhelmed everyday by an incredible amount of short and random information he or she does not need. How to start? Probably not like this, right?
This journey had always been my dream. For many years I had been planning and devising it, in a way it was my life's pilgrimage. However, for a long time various circumstances prevented me from realizing my plans, such as the lack of money or a partner unsuitable for travelling ..... It was not until 2002 that the right time had come.
But the whole thing, however, had started to take shape much earlier, without me knowing it yet. For three years, my then-girlfriend and I used to earn money by playing street music in Germany during the summers. In the winters we did shorter trips, just for a few months at a time (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Mexico - Yucatan, Guatemala and USA). These were just compromises, though, and certainly were not what I was longing for.
After the last season of playing in Germany we broke up, and so I went to work in the USA to earn the money for my long-planned trip. The beginning was not easy though, and eventually I hit the very bottom, and was broke. Then luck smiled at me (well, I helped it a little bit by buying a newspaper, picking up the phone and answering all the ads ...) ... and I found an interesting, well-paid job which solved everything. I took care of a disabled man, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on duty, no time off. But then, I did not spend any money either, as bed and food was naturally part of the deal. I lasted for ten and a half months, and finally I had enough money for the entire trip. Eighteen thousand dollars ... I'd never seen this much money before.
THE JOURNEY - DEPARTURE
While in-depth preparing and planning the details for this journey, I had long wondered how to cross Europe. The logical (and the most common) way is through Romania and Bulgaria. However, I had passed through both countries before, and had no desire to pass through them again. Finally, after much thinking, I came up with a much more interesting route through the former Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece.
I thought I would travel alone, but at the last minute a friend had joined me. She accompanied me all the way to India. We left the Czech Republic at the end of September 2002. We travelled through Europe mostly by hitchhiking, and only if it was not possible for some reason (darkness, rain, bad or dangerous spot, etc.) we used the bus or train. Our journey first lead us to Dresden, where I'd been invited by some friends I’d met in Indonesia. Then all went easily across Germany with a short break at the beautiful Königsee in Bavaria, where I'd previously also played street music. Next we went to Salzburg and crossed Austria to Slovenia without any troubles.
In Croatia we stopped at Plitvice Lakes. From there we got a lift with Zvonimir who took us all the way to Sibenik on the Adriatic coast. Along the way he stopped at an expensive restaurant and invited us for lunch; and he wouldn't take ”Thank you but we are OK” for an answer! Zvonimir and my friend had a whole roast piglet (what was, normally, I would say, a portion for at least eight people) and, because I am a vegetarian, I got two (!) portions of fried cheese with fried rice (it was great; fried cheese is my favourite and it is a popular dish in Czech, but it would be very unusual to eat it with rice, let alone fried rice). There is nothing like Croatian improvisation.
Then we continued across beautiful Croatia and not so beautiful Montenegro to Albania. There we arrived in – this is typical for Albania – an old and smoking Mercedes, after the driver had picked some contraband from the bushes by the roadside! Albania surprised me; it felt like a mini-Asia in Europe. It is also said to be very dangerous, but we met only nice and friendly people there. I have particularly fond memories of one restaurant in Tirana. It was packed with locals, we were very hungry, but everyone spoke nothing but Albanian. Because I'm vegetarian, and meat is so common there, I need to be able to communicate a little bit. But the friendly guy in charge solved the problem wonderfully. He led me into the kitchen and with a huge smile lifted all the lids ... We had an excellent meal.
Hitchhikers are probably not seen very often at the Greek border. Everybody kept saying that we have no chance to get a lift because here, in the Albanian proximity, there are big problems with contraband and weapons ... After about half an hour we were picked up by an Albanian with one arm. He knew only two English words, we knew four in Albanian, and he also spoke Greek ... We did not. For a long time I could not figure out where he was going, but when I said the name of the first Greek town, he nodded; although he kept saying ”atin atin”. After about fifty kilometres I realized that ’atin’ was Athens. Eight hours later he dropped us off at the harbour. Fantastic, we laid down on the benches and slept well. In the morning when I woke and opened my eyes, the first thing I saw was a huge ship anchored in front of me (almost ’above’ me) and there were many people just coming out of it, some with backpacks. So I went to ask them where they had arrived from and they said from Crete. ”Great”, I thought, and we went to Crete.
Next came Egypt where we travelled by train all the way down to the Aswan Dam and back. After that we went through Sinai and crossed the Red Sea by boat to Jordan, with the obligatory three-day visit to the wonderful Petra (already my second visit). From there we mostly hitchhiked again across Syria to Turkey. At this point I had to make a detour to Ankara to solve a problem with my photo-equipment before heading further east. In Egypt, while we were wildly galloping on horseback around the pyramids at night, something got shaken off in one of my lenses. Trying to find a reliable service in Ankara took time and in the end I had to buy a new lens anyway, while I sent the old one home for repair.
Turkey is one of my favourite countries, but winter was catching up with us fast; in Erzurum it was -10°C by late November! But eastern Turkey is very beautiful and the cold had somehow amplified its raw beauty. We met great people there and also experienced traditional Turkish heating - a metal container with hot embers is placed under the table which is covered by a heavy tablecloth to the floor. Going to a cold bed later is much less pleasant though ...
On the 3rd December 2002 we entered into a very different world - Iran. We only had
a five-day transit visa and therefore opted for this strategy: (sight) seeing during the day and travelling at night. I have particularly beautiful memories from Shiraz, where I asked a girl at the bus station how to get to the city; she called her father who was nearby ..... and they spent the whole afternoon driving us around all of the Shiraz sights. Very nice people.
After a cup of tea and a chat by the fire, the Pakistani custom officials gave us a stamp, and we are ..... well, in Pakistan. It felt a little wild, but that was what we wanted, or not? We travelled through Baluchistan to Karachi, even though everybody insisted that we would be very likely killed there. Well, we were not killed, nor had anybody as much as tried. Karachi, though, is impossible to describe, it needs to be seen ... Till then I'd thought that my trip to Dhaka (and all of Bangladesh for that matter) or Calcutta in 1995 was really wild.
After a month in Pakistan our arrival in India came as a nice change. New Year's Eve 2002 we spent at the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar and met a pleasant Czech couple. The four of us were the only foreigners there. It was nice to chat in our language, and so we ended up going to bed at 4 AM, even though we had to get up at 6 AM to catch a train. But from 4:10 AM the concerned watchman kept waking us up every 15 minutes till six, worried that we would sleep in .....
This was the second time I had travelled in India. After a month my friend left me and continued her own way. About a month later I had reached the very south of India. Originally I had planned to return back north and carry on to Nepal and Tibet, but I became enticed with Sri Lanka. I asked myself: ”Why not?” and went to see this beautiful country. I spent the following month running around the ancient ruins and photographing elephants on the east coast.
The trip interrupted
[Here, six months since leaving home, I had to break my overland journey. The reason was that the visa which the Australian Embassy in Vienna had issued me with was only valid for entry within the 6 months, instead of the usual year - not what I had planned for. No explanation given. Now I had a choice: to fly to Australia, or let the (then it was for Czechs) difficult-to-get visa expire. I chose to interrupt my over-landing trip and flew to Australia.
Three months later, I returned to Sri Lanka, only to find out that India had changed the rules and was now issuing visas for Czech citizens only in Prague!
I quarrelled with the Indian Embassy in Colombo for almost two weeks, but despite the support from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Honorary Consul in Colombo and the Czech Embassy in Bangkok, my visa were refused. Now I had to choose again: to fly to Bangkok, but then it wouldn't be overland trip anymore, and I would not be able to go to Australia again anyway ..... In the end, I came up with a new plan: I would fly to England, work over the summer and earn enough money to recover the cost of the ticket. Then I would return to Sri Lanka with a fresh Indian and also new Australian visas, and I could continue the trip exactly where I had finished 8 months earlier ...]
THE JOURNEY CONTINUED
In November 2003, I returned from England to Sri Lanka. All this forced interruption had its advantages though; I avoided the monsoon (which was in full swing when I left Sri Lanka for the UK in July) and now I had enough time for everything before reaching Australia again. Therefore I could also postpone my arrival in Nepal until the spring, when the rhododendrons and orchids bloom in the mountains.
What followed were three wonderful months in India with all the usual pleasures and annoyances of this beautiful country full of wonderful people and cultures. At Christmas, in southern India, I met Martina ..... she joined me and from then on we travelled everywhere together, until our last expedition to Papua in October 2012. It was a very interesting meeting: she was on her first three-month trip (she wanted to learn some yoga), and she was definitely not prepared or equipped for a long journey over the Himalayas and Tibet to Australia. Still, she wanted to go. Fortunately, everything that was ’wrong’ with her ..... we could buy! What an amazing coincidence.
We went to the fantastic temples of Ellora and Hampi, photographed tigers in Kanha NP, Asian lions in Sasan Gir NP in Gujarat, went all the way to Assam where the rare Indian rhinos live in Kaziranga NP, we also stopped in Sikkim to bow to Kanchenjunga (8585 m); the Goddess of five treasures of eternal snow .....
In Nepal we bought Martina all the necessary mountain trekking equipment: sandals (for she had only flip-flops!), boots, backpack, sleeping bag, jacket and so on; and set off for two long treks in the Himalayas. First we walked for 23 days around Annapurna, including the detour to Tilicho Lake (where I had seen paw-prints of snow leopard in 1995 and again this time) and a quick side trek to the ABC - the Annapurna Base Camp. Then we moved on to Kathmandu and on to Jiri, where the classic approach to Mt. Everest starts. In 2004, due to the fears of the Maoist unrest, no-one went this way, instead, all the trekkers flew to Lukla near Namche Bazaar. The whole trek was wonderful and we were incredibly lucky with the weather. Miraculously, we had two clear (!) days under Mt. Everest: at the Kala Patar view point and at the base camp too. We even had the rare privilege to see the sunset, when Mt Everest gets beautifully coloured in golden red.
The nice weather still held out while we crossed the high Cho La Pass to Gokyo Valley, and also for one more day when we climbed to the Gokyo Ri view point and trekked to the Cho Oyu (8201m) base camp. On our way back from Cho Oyu in the late afternoon it began to rain and then it rained all the time - the monsoon has arrived. The whole week, while trekking down in rain back to Jiri, we had to keep laughing and I wondered: what would have happened if the monsoon had arrived four days earlier, or if we set off four days later?! We would have seen none of that beauty, nothing at all! It was simply a miracle! Maybe it was because we had already agreed back in India that Martina would be responsible for the weather, and I for all the rest ...?
To Tibet we had to go half-organised, because the only way to get a Chinese visa with a permit for Tibet was to join an organised tour. Funny thing was that our visa was only on paper, you would not find China in our passports. Price of the ‘tour’ included transportation from Kathmandu to Lhasa in a 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser and four nights' accommodation along the way. Otherwise, we were free and we could stop wherever we wanted. Everything was great and well organized. The cost of the trip was 125 USD per person and I doubt we could get to Lhasa cheaper on our own, considering the distances.
The real fun began in Lhasa when we tried to figure out how to get through the completely off-limits eastern Tibet along the Sichuan and Yunnan Highways - according to the guide books ”the wildest and most dangerous roads of the world” (hmm, obviously they haven't been to the Congo). However, wild and incredibly beautiful it certainly was. In Lhasa, we were told that we definitely would not get through, unless we became Chinese or obtained about six totally un-obtainable permits.
In the end, we made it through by hitching and without the permits, but it was definitely not easy. After days of wandering around Lhasa and having no idea how to proceed, another miracle happened. We met a Swiss guy, who had got across to eastern Tibet from Kunming on a bicycle. Illegally. He gave us a detailed description of the road, the information at exactly which kilometres the Chinese check points were, and invaluable advice about how to cross them quietly at 3 AM. Without his help, we would probably have had no chance. Thank you. Our Chinese visa was absolutely non-extendable, so we just raced through the Chinese Yunnan province. Besides, who would, after nearly three weeks in Tibet, have any interest in China? On the contrary, it was difficult not to feel an aversion.
Pleasant Laos followed, with its temples and (back then) jungles; delicious French baguettes were everywhere as was the peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. Totally. Sometimes we even had to wait until the commercials came up on TV before anyone was willing to check us in to an hotel. We arrived in Cambodia by boat along the Mekong River. At the landing point the touts ran to meet us, usually this might annoy us, but after Laos we were happy that someone finally noticed us. We liked Cambodia; Phnom Phen is full of life and Angkor ..... is truly wonderful. We were running (and cycling) among the ruins of temples for three full days from morning till evening.
We then continued through eastern Thailand and Bangkok down to the Malay Peninsula, visited some beautiful islets and travelled through Malaysia. In Kuala Lumpur, we arranged two-month Indonesian visas and from Penang crossed by the speed boat to Medan in Sumatra. We travelled across Indonesia, following the southern chain of islands; from northern Sumatra to the south, on to Java and Bali, then Nusa Tenggara: i.e. Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and Timor. On the way to Flores we stopped at Komodo and Rinca to see the well-known Komodo dragons. Also memorable was the boat passage from the island of Flores to Kupang on Timor. Apart from the romantic freedom of open tropical sea, we also watched dolphins, flying fish and a huge shoal of hunting tunas. Unforgettable.
From Kupang I had to go on to Australia alone, because Martina's visa was rejected (and so she decided to go to England for three months to work). I also had to fly the short distance from Kupang to Darwin (the only unavoidable flight on the whole journey), otherwise I would not have been allowed to enter Australia.
Even so, it was a big problem: Immigration kept me at the airport for four hours and I was heavily interrogated, all my stuff was taken out and inspected, the immigration people went through my diary, searched my wallet ... Finally, at 4 AM, I'd lost my patience. I told the new officer, who had probably just started his shift, that I do not care to travel in Australia anymore and that I am more than happy to be deported and I would even be willing to pay for my ticket. He, instead, told me that they had decided to let me go in. I did not know if I was supposed to be happy or not. Well, I certainly did not thank them.
The whole problem seemed to be that they suspected that I was not a ’genuine traveller’. And they also thought that 2400 USD was not enough for three months ..... (During my previous travels it had lasted me for almost a year!)
From Darwin, I hitched (I'd already done it three times) that long stretch to Cairns in Queensland (about 2800 kilometres). Then I hitchhiked through my favourite North Queensland all the way to Cooktown. There I was considering to try to make it all the way to Cape York, but hitching was not very successful (well, it was more like looking around the Cooktown's camps for somebody who was planning a trip up to Cape York and who would be willing to take me along), so I abandoned the plan.
It was time to head south and, incredibly, in less than a week, I managed to hitch those about 3500 km to Melbourne, with a stop at my friend's in Sydney (it took me four days from Cairns to Sydney and then I made the 1000 km between Sydney and Melbourne in just a day).
TASMANIA - THE TRIP'S CONCLUSION
There are ferries to Tasmania from Melbourne, but only at night so there is nothing to see and moreover, the flight costs half the price. So I took the plane. I hitchhiked around the whole of Tasmania, trekked the famous Overland Track in Cradle Mountain - Lake St Clair NP, saw the Tasmanian devil, echidnas, wombats and wallabies. I learnt that the Tasmanians are incredibly nice people – except when trekking I had to wild camp maybe twice – most days people invited me to their homes. In this respect Tasmanians win even over the Australians and New Zealanders, or anyone else for that matter .....
All those beautiful places and incredible people I had met were followed with the farewell drama on my departure from Sydney. Immigration officials must have had a report from Darwin and instructions to find out what so illegal I had been doing in Australia (apparently, nobody normal would come to Australia for the third time and still be interested in its natural beauty). I just submitted my passport and was told immediately: ”You’ll come with me!” My backpack was brought to the office already opened with all my stuff out in a pile!
At that point I told myself (and the immigration staff, too) that I would never go back to Australia again. So far I have kept my promise and do not plan to break it.
From Australia, I returned to Kuala Lumpur, where Martina joined me again, and together we went to Burma (Myanmar). On the way from India to South-East Asia, we had to give Burma a miss, because it is accessible by air only. It is a very interesting country with extremely nice people. We spent a month there and visited all the important historical monuments (such as the famous Bagan) in the central part of the country, which is accessible to tourists; many parts of Burma, however, were and are still closed - the entire north, the area along the border with Thailand and much of the south.
The entire journey eventually lasted almost two and half years, from 27th September 2002 to 7th March 2005 (including the eight-month interruption) and cost around 12000 USD in total. This does not include the flights from Sri Lanka to England and back, for I had earned enough there to cover the tickets and even a bit more.
This journey had a sequel in 2006-2007 (after a nine-month-long working trip to England). This one led us from Indonesia, where we focused on Borneo, Papua and Sulawesi, through New Zealand to Tahiti, and continued, with a stopover at Easter Island, to Chile.
From Chile, we were travelling across the Altiplano plateau to Bolivia and on to Peru. We liked it there and so decided, after much thinking on the Brazilian border, not to push forward with the long and hurried journey over Brazil, Venezuela and Colombia. Instead, we spent three months in Peru, much of that time in Amazonia.
Returning from South America via Madrid to Berlin and hitchhiking back to the Czech Republic had, for us, concluded our around-the-world journey.