I asked Ants, adventurer and author, to share her experiences of her latest adventurer as inspiration for my Grand Adventures project…
In the spring of 2013 I set off from the heaving, cacophonous streets of Hanoi on a solo motorcycling adventure down the remnants of the legendary Ho Chi Minh Trail. Riding a 25-year old neon-pink Honda Cub dubbed the Pink Panther I rode south through the mist and paddies of northern Vietnam, the remote mountains of Laos’ Truong Son region and the mud, (remaining) forests and scorching plains of Cambodia. Battling inhospitable terrain and multiple breakdowns, it was a journey that ranged from the hilarious to the mildly terrifying, during which I encountered tribal chiefs, illegal loggers, formers American fighter pilots, young women whose children had been killed by unexploded bombs left over from the Vietnam War, eccentric Ozzie bomb disposal experts and multiple mechanics. My two-wheeled, 2000 mile odyssey ended six muddy weeks later in Ho Chi Minh City, better known as Saigon.
Travelling alone was definitely the highlight of my experience – the feeling of being completely immersed in my environment without the distraction of companionship. I’d always wanted to do this journey solo in order to test myself and see what I was really made of, and I’m so glad I did. Oddly, it was on the really tough days, when I was forced to confront my fears and weaknesses, that I really relished this solitude and learnt the most about myself. I was terrified about sleeping alone in the jungle, with its countless unexploded bombs, huge spiders and venomous vipers. But the feeling of being woken up the next morning by shards of sunlight hitting my hammock and the howl of a distant gibbon will stay with me forever.
Aside from being alone, there were daily highlights: jaw-dropping views over mountains clad in verdant jungle, the smiles and laughter of Laos children as they ran after my bike, meeting Jarai (an ethnic minority in Cambodia and Vietnam) tribal chiefs, finding caves full of graffiti done by North Vietnamese soldiers hiding from American bombs, watching epic Mekong sunsets, gold panning on the Dak Cheung plateau, iridescent blue butterflies fluttering past my head on sun-dappled jungle tracks, doing karaoke in a brothel… It really was the most awesome adventure.
Why did I do it?
I knew that five decades on from the Vietnam War, the Ho Chi Minh Trail – once a labyrinthine 12,000 mile transport network spreading through all three countries – was vanishing fast. I’d seen a glimpse of it whilst producing a documentary for the BBC the year before and was soon hooked on the notion of exploring it fully, before time, nature and development swallowed it forever. As a lover of both history and adventure, it felt like the perfect mission.
Secondly, I’d done a lot of travelling before (driving a tuk tuk from Bangkok to Brighton, riding a Cub around the Black Sea, doing lots of extreme stuff with The Adventurists) but it had always been with other people. I really wanted to do something alone, and now felt like the right time.
What was I doing before?
I’ve been dabbling in the worlds of adventure, writing and television since I left university and immediately before the trip I’d spent a year producing several documentaries for the BBC and ITV. I knew at the beginning of that year that I wanted to write a book, so I set out to work my butt off for twelve months and squirrel away as much money as possible. All the money I saved (more than a third of my earnings that year) went towards funding my adventure and taking six months off to focus 100% on the book. Now, with the book finished and out, I’m back working for the BBC, scheming and saving for the next two-wheeled mission.
What impact did the adventure have on my life?
Every adventure wakes you up, shakes you out of the torpor of routine and everyday life. This was no different. Although I didn’t have any major epiphanies or ‘find myself’ in the Southeast Asian jungle, I did gain insights into my personality that could only have come from travelling alone. In times of adversity, when the mud and the mountains had conspired to beat me, I had faced myself and passed the test. I hadn’t cried or given up, I’d kept plugging on, mile after muddy mile. For someone as self-critical as me, it was a good realisation to have! The knowledge of what I achieved will stay with me forever.
On a slightly different note – the adventure also left me with a mysterious tropical disease which took months to shift, and a very unhealthy bank account! But it was all worth it.
A few tips – how did I turn the dream into reality?
This trip didn’t just happen to me by chance. Time and money were the two vital ingredients I needed to make it happen – and I worked extremely hard to make sure I had both. As I said before, I spent the year prior to the adventure working on a number of different TV documentaries and for all that time I went on what I call ‘a money diet.’ My rules were as follows:
- My money diet mantra was ‘no unnecessary spending,’ and I repeated this to myself every time I felt my hand reaching for something I didn’t really need.
- I cut out things like take-away teas and coffees.
- As much as I could, I took my own lunches to work.
- When I had to travel between my home in Bristol and meeting in London I took the bus (£10 rather than £50).
- The only clothes I brought were off EBay or from charity shops (difficult as a lover of fashion who’d like to be dressed head to toe in Etro, Acne and Cavalli).
- The kit I used for the trip (panniers, bike gear etc) I bought either second-hand off EBay or endeavoured to get it sponsored.
- I set myself a weekly budget and used a spending tracker app on my smartphone to stick to it. This helped me to keep track of everything I spent and see where I was wasting money. Although this might sound like a pain it is actually incredibly quick, easy and helpful.
- I made sure my saving didn’t overly impact on my relationship. This adventure malarkey can be rather selfish and I had to make sure my boyfriend and I still did fun things together, whether it was eating out, going to gigs or spending a week with friends at a music festival in Hungary. I wanted to save cash, but that couldn’t mean becoming a miserly bore.
Having said all that, the trip itself was incredibly cheap (under £3,000) including flights, kit, specialist insurance and food and accommodation on the trip. It was not working for six months afterwards that was the expensive bit!
Aside from the financial aspect, I very much made a plan and stuck to it. When I returned from the adventure I’d set myself six months to write my book, vowing not to accept any jobs that came my way. During that time numerous tasty TV jobs were waved under my nose and – with the funds running low – it was tempting to take them. But sticking to the original plan was vital. And boy I’m glad I did. Determination and self-motivation are key in this game.
What practical steps should people take to make their adventure happen?
Decide on a plan and stick to it! Experiences and memories are so much more important than filling your lives with material crap, so stop buying clothes you don’t need and start putting those pennies in an ‘adventure fund’ instead. When you look back on your life you’re not going to remember the glittery red shoes you once so coveted; you’re going to remember thundering across the Gobi desert in a pink tuk tuk, rafting down the Yukon with a grizzly on your tail or how it felt to be lashed by the steppe wind as you galloped over a Mongolian hill. I might be broke, but I’ll certainly never forget hauling my bike through the Mondulkiri mud…
Ants’ book, A Short Ride in the Jungle: the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle, is out today. To buy a copy please click here. To read more about Ants’ wanderings please have a gander at www.theitinerant.co.uk. You can also follow her on Twitter at @AntsBK.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!