Australian Rensina van den Heuvel has been travelling overland since the late 1970s. It’s a way of travel she’s never fallen out of love with. Here she tells us why this rough and ready form of travel is always her first choice.
“I have travelled through over thirty countries in a truck, Land Rover and Russian van and feel as though I have seen a lot of our magnificent earth.
“There is nothing that compares to overlanding. It is a raw, unfiltered way of experiencing the world.”
There is nothing that compares to overlanding. It is a raw, unfiltered way of experiencing the world. You are at the mercy of the elements, you are responsible for your own security and you meet the locals when you buy fuel or visit markets and local stores – you’re always on the hunt for good food! You also meet plenty of police, border guards and other very interesting overland travellers. It is not easy travel but, for me, it is the only way to travel.
My first overland travel experience was on a rickety old bus from Athens, Greece to London in 1978 when I was 20 years old. The two young drivers got lost so many times and there was about 47 passengers on a 43 seater. They were sleeping in the aisles.
Despite the challenges of being five months pregnant at the time, I loved experiencing the different countries, the people, the foods, the cultures, traditional dress and languages.
I travelled a bit after that and worked in China for six months, teaching English. Then a few years later, I met an overlanding man whose very first question to me was, “How would you like to travel across Russia with me in a Land Rover?”
Without hesitation, I said “YES.”
Travel light, and choose the right overland vehicle
The vehicle you choose is the most important part as you are going to live in it for a while. But keep it simple. I have seen many people with too much ‘stuff’ and it just drags behind them like a ball and chain.
If you are planning to go on an organised overland trip with a company then the best thing is reviews. I look at reviews for everything. No matter how good someone’s website is, it is marketing! “Read the reviews” is my best advice.
Connect with the locals, especially women
I was a bit shy way back and also a bit fearful of being rejected, I guess. China sorted it out! Being a silver-haired, white-skinned woman in a sea of dark-haired Chinese people I could not hide. That journey forced me completely out of my comfort zone. I was stared at all the time!
But then the truth is, I have always been willing to step out and take a risk. I know that if I don’t, my life will be dull and I dislike dull. Life is to be lived. Even as a child I always wanted to see what was over the next hill.
On overland trips, I find that the best way to meet local women is to be bold, be brave. Step right out of your comfort zone. Make contact, smile, say hello, go to markets and buy food in the same way all the local people do. Be fearless and go on your own sometimes. The women, everywhere, will welcome you.
“Step right out of your comfort zone. Make contact, smile, say hello, go to markets and buy food in the same way all the local people do. Be fearless and go on your own sometimes. The women, everywhere, will welcome you.”
In Russia, the women look formidable as they sit outside their homes on the side of the dusty track in their villages, selling their home-grown buckets of produce. But when I learned to just say ‘hello’ and a few words in Russian, they would break out in smiles and chatter among themselves, plying me with extra generous amounts of vegetables. I remember one woman ran inside her garden gate, came back with a big bunch of flowers and handed them to me with a smile as big as her heart.
In Africa I saw a large group of women of all ages down an alley in a small town where we had stopped to stock up on food. A gorgeous, curvy, older woman spotted me and waved me in. I ventured over slowly, feeling very shy, but within minutes they had put music on and we danced all together. It was scary but fantastic all at once.
I’ve met solitary women on remote dusty tracks and young women in school uniforms who came to the back of the truck to sit in a circle and learn to sew the sanitary pads and then took the kits away to teach others at their schools.
I have met hundreds of women in so many countries and have so many stories to tell.”
Join Rensina’s next trip to Mongolia, in August 2021, and read more of her stories: