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What We Have Learned From European Overlanders

Parked on the rim of a canyon overlooking Cappadocia in central Turkey we watched bemused as a relatively large white overland truck searched a track riddled hill for a level area to camp. We had the best seat in the house to witness the sun set and for the following days hot air balloon show which were scheduled to arrive as the sun rose, a hundred multicoloured balloons competing in an endless Turkish sky. I sipped a cold beer and watched the truck attempt what we had so many times before and since.

The next morning after a spectacular spectacle, a cup of coffee and a fried egg sandwich we packed the Defender and drove back towards the main road to find that the white truck had eventually found a place to camp and was accompanied by a 4×4 van which also bore Swiss license plates. We introduced ourselves and soon learned that the white camper truck was called a T-Rex (made by Gremel) which though large was light enough to be driven on a normal European license, that the couple in the truck had been overlanding since the 70’s and that the 4×4 van belonged to their son who had been out of the Swiss military long enough to grow a man bun. They had recently crossed into Turkey from Iran where they lamented the modernization of the country. The T Rex was perhaps their tenth overland vehicle – they had owned and travelled in everything from small French sedans to Defenders, Land Cruisers, Pinzgauers, Unimogs, MAN trucks and motorbikes. They declared the T-Rex to be the best of them all. But, this article is not about the truck, it is about the people (the photos are more about the trucks, because we know you all love some good old fashioned truck porn).

Europeans are by far the most prolific international overland travellers. Germans and Swiss scour the planet seeking adventure and sunshine. Polish, French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, British, Scandinavians and the occasional Belgian or Italian can be found at the furthest reaches of the globe, enjoying a glass of wine and a salad. High salaries, protective labor laws and social systems allow the good people of Europe the opportunity to fulfill their dreams without having to compromise their future. And there would be many more families overlanding the globe if not for the restrictive European home schooling laws – many young couples are choosing not to have children, they have dogs instead.

I remember camping near Cape Town back home in South Africa, many of the vehicles in the camp were European vehicles which housed German or Swiss couples. After seven years of extensive travel over four continents we have often shared a campfire with our European brethren and we have learned a few things from and about them.

1. Travel when you can

The long, cold European winters have over centuries molded Europeans into the culture they enjoy today. We have cheese and sausage and jam and marmalade because the Europeans learned that they had to work hard in the summer months and preserve food for the winter, a strong work ethic and community bonds ensured survival. Modern Europeans do not need to survive the winters, instead they follow the sun south from youth to old age enjoying glorious summers at home before returning to their overland rigs as autumn approaches. Students take advantage of the long summer holidays to travel as do bankers, engineers and the white collared masses.

2. Multi linguisity is an asset

It is rare to meet a European who does not speak at least two languages and they almost all seem to speak English. The Swiss speak Swiss German, French, English and Italian, the Germans speak French and English and the Scandinavians have run out of languages to learn. Not only does this allow them to immerse into foreign cultures but it also allows them to communicate in other languages as they have an excellent base for understanding new dialects and nuance.

3. Do not fear the planet or her people

Europe suffered enough war and bloodshed to learn unity and compromise. Yes, there is rivalry between the nationalities (and the French can be maddeningly, stubbornly French) but the subcontinent is small – modern vehicles and unfenced borders allow the flow of people and ideas. It is only natural that people who do not exist in a mono culture become great travelers as they explore the planet overland respectfully.

4. Don’t fear the cold

European campers are almost always equipped with a Planar or Webasto heater, the younger dreadlocked overlanders may even install a wood burning stove. And though they do not particularly enjoy colder climes they will drive across Russia in winter if they must Some even do it for fun. We camped with a British couple in Bulgaria (they call themselves Trucked Off) and while we headed south to escape the winter they drove their self built Defender into Siberia in December and Dutch LandCruising Adventures beat a similar path through ice and snow. Where there are people you will survive and the more hostile the environment the more hospitable the locals are.

5. Eat your veggies and drink water

While us South Africans are grilling meat, potatoes and corn on a large campfire our European camp neighbors are enjoying a balanced meal comprised mostly of grains, pasta, vegetables and fruit. And while it may seem like we are having a more enjoyable meal they are eating the healthier, cheaper meal. Ten Euros will buy roughly two pounds of meat in Morocco while the same amount of cash will buy twenty pounds of vegetables! While we are swigging smuggled beer and burning through coal and wood they are sipping on water and wine. Yes, we are far more interesting (and significantly larger) but they are a hell of a lot smarter (must have something to do with all those nutrients). What we spend in four months on food and refreshments they spend in a year and they are able to enjoy restaurant food occasionally while we simply cannot.

6. Everything in moderation

And I am not just talking about food and drink. Our northern cousins tend to walk the middle ground and have balanced, educated and sensible opinions just left or right from a broad political canter. Of course we are generalizing, but it is incredibly rare to meet an extremist, they certainly do exist but they are not travelers, they are staring at a screen somewhere in a dank room, screaming. A good night drinking with friends ends with hugs and laughs and everyone contributes equally to the festivities.

7. Modesty is admired

But man, the Swiss do not hold back when building an overland truck! And some Germans have vehicles which would make a Texan whistle. While their rigs may be OTT the inhabitants are friendly, curious, hospitable and usually quite charming. If anything they are slightly embarrassed that they need so much muchness while treasuring ground clearance and indoor plumbing. And though the big riggers are without doubt well heeled they do not imagine themselves to be better than anyone else on an existential level – the population of Europe is majority middle class and therefore well equipped to relate to each other.

8. Never miss a chance to sit in the sunshine

In Africa we have a saying – “Only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun”, and while us pale Africans are sweating in the shade the English, French, Swiss, Germans, Belgians, Dutch and Italians are eating lunch and drink apertifs under a glaring sun. They seem to have the ability to absorb radiation and store it deep down inside, to be released as the mercury drops.

Europeans like to laugh, eat, drink and be merry, they live well and they travel well.

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Graeme Bell was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. Together with his wife and two children he has spent much of his adult life chasing momentous experiences and campfire smoke across five continents. He has traveled overland to Kilimanjaro from Cape Town, circumnavigated South America, explored from Argentina to Alaska, Europe to Asia, and across the entirety of coastal Western Africa, all in a trusty Land Rover. Graeme and the family are now encouraging their self-built Defender live-in camper (and permanent home since 2012) to find a way from Cape Town to Vladivostok. Graeme is a member of The Explorers Club, the author of five excellent books, and an Overland Journal contributor since 2015.