. . . PANAMERICAN 2003
Africa 1999
Around-the-World 2001/02
Panamerican 2003

1. Through Peru
2. Down Chile
3. Argentina
4. Lessons from Misadventure

Various Trips
Planning an Expedition


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#4: Lesssons from Misadventures

(January 2004)

This was the expedition where everything went wrong - and where we severely strained some friendships. For the reader, it’s a great case study of pitfalls that can be avoided when planning an expedition.

Shortly after we started dating I asked Stacey where in the world she most wanted to visit. "South America" she said. In the summer of 2003 she was worn down at work, and after finding out a friend was traveling around the world decided she would love to join his group on a 3 month expedition. Jim was taking a long break from the rat race and wanted to do South America around the same time that Stacey wanted to take a break, it made perfect sense. I proposed that they take the Land Rover and Stacey didn’t need any convincing. She had done six weeks of the Around-the-World expedition and had loved it. It worked out that there would be four of them, Stacey, Jim, John, Christine. I made up a budget based on previous expeditions and after mulling the potential costs they decided that’s what they wanted to do. I would pop down and join them for a few weeks.

An on-ramp to the Panamerican in northern Peru - we asked directions several times to be sure, but yes, you drive through the dump to get to the highway

Camping in Patagonia

The closest we would come to Torres del Paine

Expedition Rule 1: Make an early plan to share the work.
I'll be a hard core proponent of Land Rover-based expeditions for life - but to be honest, I didn't remember how much time the pre-trip planning took. When you are working a 70-hr week there's not a lot of extra time to get container shipping quotes, arrange insurance, obtain the vehicle Carnet du Passage (like a passport for the truck), do mechanical checks, purchase and pack expedition gear, and get the thing stuffed on a ship for the long voyage to another continent. I’d glossed over the depth of planning needed when talking to Jim and his friends and regretted it in the following months. For a trip over territory I’d visited two or three times already, I was doing almost all the work for the least amount of trip payoff.

Sharing the preparation work gives everyone a better sense of being involved and committed to the process. As a leader, if you take on the majority of the work, it’s too easy to be criticized later when things go wrong (and they will). Plus, the team will feel less like owners and more like renters. And that is an important mindset that can come back to haunt you.

Expedition Rule 2: Have a signed travel contract and deposit.
One of the best things I did on my Around-the-World expedition was write up a 15 page travel contract that each person on the team had to sign. Having just battled with a venture capital fund for a year and a half with my own computer company, I’d solidly internalized the need for a good shareholders agreement. It turned out to be a lifesaver for the trip. When one of the women wanted to bail out halfway around the world, there was a signed contract stating she would have to wait until the end of the trip before getting back her deposit. Had this not been in place, we could not have pushed on through the final stages.

Since this was a trip for my wife and friends, I simply explained that doing a vehicle-based expedition carried a lot of risks and asked for their assurance that they would take care of the truck. In fairness to them, without the benefit of a complete description of all the risks that they faced; customs delays, mechanical breakdown, accident, etc., they made their own assumptions. In my mind I’d given them a complete briefing, in their mind they agreed to a set of unclear risks. All this would have been avoided with an up-front deposit and clear and explicit contract.

Halfway through the process, as the planning and preparation was taking its toll, I looked out the kitchen window at the Land Rover sitting in the driveway and realized that no matter what happened on the trip, there was no way that it would return to the driveway in as good a condition as it was right then. For any guy who has loved a car, you understand what I’m talking about. Long weekends of polish and minor repairs. Customized changes. All added up to a value that was more than the engine and sheet metal on wheels. I did some research and emailed the group… “Sending down the Land Rover is probably not the most cost effective idea – it’s cheaper and easier for you to rent a 4x4 pickup in Patagonia…” The group consulted on the costs but were resolute, they wanted the real Land Rover experience. So despite my misgivings, the truck was packed in a container and shipped down to Ecuador.

Having organized several expeditions, I’ve found that partners on the expedition are almost always quite willing to sign a travel contract – because travelers are optimists by nature and minimize risks. Getting a deposit is harder but possible, because it is the intention of everyone to get it back. The contract is their commitment to the team, and the deposit is for everyone’s peace of mind. You will be able to let slide the little disputes on the road, knowing that at the end of the trip the deposit is there to make up the cost overruns. For partners on an expedition, the deposit represents their maximum exposure. Worst case, they can walk away and leave that money behind. It’s much more comforting knowing that they have an upper cap to their liability, and haven’t signed up to share a potentially unlimited amount of expense should the worst happen. If your travel partners are unwilling to sign a contract or provide a deposit - re-think your own exposure and how you want to run the trip.

Expedition Rule 3: Don’t make promises in the heat of the moment.
" Max", the Land Rover, went into the container freshly checked up and ready to go, but emerged in Guayaquil with a mysteriously stripped rear driveshaft link. The truck had been inadequately lashed down and had snapped the joint while rolling around in the container. Already having wasted two weeks on their itinerary due to an incorrect ship arrival date, Jim, John, and Christine, battled another week with insurance agents, dock customs, and repair shops, trying to get the Land Rover ready for the road, but after three weeks were getting frantic. I offered to come up to Guayaquil to get the truck and drive it south to meet them in Chile. Relieved, they left on public transport for the first part of their trip.

Having the truck stranded in Guayaquil was a challenge. A few months prior to the start of the trip, we found out Stacey was pregnant. There was no way she could do the whole trip, high altitudes in Peru and Bolivia were medically unsafe. So we scaled down her portion from three months to six weeks, I decided to go down with her, and we planned to poke around through Patagonia. Now, one week prior to departure, I had to change the tickets to Ecuador – 5,000km to the north. I tried talking Stacey into relaxing in Santiago for five days while I did a solo 1,000km/day sprint south - but she would have none of it. Pregnant or not, she was going to do her share. We were both embarrassed about the disaster at the port. After all, this was my truck, I had made the arrangements, and Stacey’s friends had lost a huge chunk of time on their trip. We were determined to get the truck south and get things back on track.

Unfortunately, we made a bad situation worse by sending a series of emails promising to make things better. “We will meet you south of Bolivia” – but then the parts didn’t arrive in Ecuador and we sat for several days. “We will meet you in northern Chile” – but then I got food poisoning in northern Peru and lost critical driving time. “We will make up the costs for this first half of the trip that you lost” – but then as our own trip went from bad to worse we realized we would be paying over $20,000 for six weeks of brutal desert driving and a close miscarriage … and that was a bitter pill to swallow.

When you are on the road, a lot is going to go wrong. I had a fender bender in Brazil on a prior expedition that put a gouge down the side of another car. We negotiated for an hour on the side of the road and finally the other driver settled for $300 cash. As a team, we all agreed to pay an equal share – even though I was driving. Later on in the same expedition, when one of the women rolled the truck in Patagonia and demolished it, the whole team shared in the costs and hassle of the insurance claims, repairs, and ongoing travel on public transport. On my teams I draw the line at personal negligence or “bad faith” – in other words, if someone on the team lies, cheats, steals, or is grossly irresponsible, they are personally responsible for any resulting expense (and in the travel contract, there is a provision to have the removed from the team with the loss of their deposit if their actions endanger the rest of the team).

I’ve found that something is almost always going to go wrong on a tough expedition. Many times there is no knowing who will be at the wheel when it happens. Instead of blaming the individual, it is most healthy for the team to jointly cover the cost and work together on finding the solution. This is the difference between having expedition participants (or “renters”) and have expedition partners (or “owners”).

Expedition Rule 4: A vehicle giveth freedom, and it taketh freedom away.
There is nothing like having the ability to do an unplanned side trip. As we drove south through 5,000km of desert, some of my best memories were unexpected side trips that were impossible on previous visits when I’d been on public transportation. The mining ghost town of Humberstone, with massive sheet metal buildings rusting away, abandoned when the nitrate mines shut down. Or the oasis in the middle of the desert with paddle boats, palm trees, and a cold Coke. Those are the things that make a vehicle-based expedition special.

Unfortunately a vehicle can also be an anchor. On my Africa ’99 expedition I was almost stranded in Kenya when the border guards refused to recognize my visas. On the Around-the-World expedition we limped into the repair shop a dozen times with a broken thermostat, disconnected ignition wiring, pulverized suspension mounts, blown tires, smashed windows, cracked air conditioning tubing, and other mechanical failures. Two times we found ourselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, literally in the desert with no clue how to escape, and using the satellite phone were able to get advice from our sterling mechanics to jury-rig the truck enough to get going again.

In the afterglow of my last expedition, I failed to paint the full picture of everything that could go wrong. And Jim, John, and Christine, got a run of bad luck. Starting with the broken rear wheel in Guayaquil which cost them a week. And later when they did get the truck for the second half of their trip, they had several days of hassle trying to cross a border. And the final straw, the main fan belt broke in the middle of Patagonia causing the engine to overheat and warp the cylinder head.

When making a decision about whether or not to use a vehicle I use the following rule of thumb – you will cover distances twice as fast as the bus travel times published in Lonely Planet. But you should expect to be either in a repair shop or stranded at some border for about 25% of your driving time. Net, net – expect to move about 25% faster than a bus. It’s a winning proposition. You move fast and get to do the great little side trips. But what you gain in mobility and speed, you will have to pay for with up front preparation and on the road repairs.

Expedition Rule 5: Owning isn’t the same as renting – charge accordingly.
There are two ways to go when traveling with people in your vehicle. Guests pay their share of running costs. Fuel, hotel, food, ferry fees, all of the day to day costs are fair game to be shared around the group. This works because they have input into the decisions – they choose to participate or do it their own way. It’s low hassle, and if they get on your nerves or vice versa, it’s easy for them to leave.

Partners pay a full share of total costs. Up front costs like expedition gear, maintenance, shipping, insurance, Carnet, satellite phone – that is all added on to the running costs of the trip. Most importantly though, they also share the risks. That means when the trip is conceived, everyone agrees that they will live with the consequences of the trip no matter what happens. This is where the contract comes in handy. Where expeditions often get into trouble is during the trip, when something happens, and responsibility is perceived differently.

On the Panamerican expedition, we had very high up front costs mostly due to shipping. And unexpectedly, with the engine blowup, we had some substantial post-trip costs as well. For Jim, John and Christine, it was a bad deal. They had paid several thousand dollars to cover up front costs, had gotten no use of the truck in the first half of the trip because of the breakdown in Guayaquil, and had suffered an engine blowup after five weeks of driving in the second half. So instead of ten weeks of driving, they got only five, and had the added cost of public transport.

For Stacey and I the trip was a disaster. Taking six weeks off work at our high-powered consulting firm (McKinsey) is difficult to do, and in this precious amount of time instead of enjoying Patagonia we spent five weeks on hard core driving just to get the truck to the drop off point where it would be ready for Jim and crew when they returned from their Christmas break to resume the second half of their trip. We almost had a miscarriage in Peru from the bumpy roads, the altitude, and the 40 degree desert heat. The place Stacey wanted to see most, Torres del Paine… we were able to spend 3 hours before we had to move on. Stacey cried from the unrelenting pace as the pregnancy progressed. And for me, the Land Rover arrived back in Canada minus the expensive tool set (“lifted” when Jim and company took the truck in for repairs on the broken fan belt) and with a blown engine that had to be re-built.

For a trip that was originally budgeted at $4,000 per person for three months (I was not in the original budget) – Jim, John, and Christine ended up paying $4,000 each for only five weeks of Land Rover use, and Stacey and I ended up paying $11,000 each for five weeks of driving. From a $12,000 budget the trip ended up costing $31,000 including repairs back in Canada.
As an expedition planner, you must make an early decision about how you want to run expenses for your partners. If you decide to charge a fixed price up front in return for services, then it is important for you to add a margin to cover risk. Something in the range of 30%. That is similar to the margins that tour operators get when they put together packages. And in fact that is what you are doing – creating a travel package. On the other hand, if you decide early on that you will share all expenses, then it must be clear to your partners that they are not “renting” a service and have the option of non-payment if the service isn’t provided, rather they are co-owners. Their cost is lower because there is no margin, but their risk is higher. And if things do go wrong, they are on the hook just as much as you are.

A friend of mine was preparing for a UK to South Africa expedition in his Defender 110 Camel, and decided it would be a good idea for the group to join a Land Rover driving course prior to departure. One of the women was driving across the face of an incline and panicked, she turned uphill sharply and the vehicle rolled over and over down the hill. Of the crew of four, two went to hospital. The Defender was a write off. The expedition never happened. Since there was no contract, the leader was left with a mountain of gear, a wrecked vehicle, and no money.

Another potential disaster is if you have an accident in a foreign country while on a Carnet du Passage. Even if the vehicle is completely wrecked, you must still pay to have it towed and containered back to your home country. If you don’t, you will be liable for illegally “importing” the vehicle into a foreign country, you will forfeit your Carnet deposit, and will be subject to the duties payable in that region. Some countries are not a problem since they have low or no import duties. Others can be a catastrophe (e.g. Egypt with a 300% import duty, Brazil is 200%).
It’s unreasonable to expect to make “fair” decisions after things have gone horribly wrong. Often it’s the vehicle owner left holding the bag. Again, that’s where the contract is crucial – and a deposit. Get your contract signed and your deposit up front, and mishaps on the road will be easily dealt with. Fail to do so, and you may find that your “partners” unwilling or unable to pay extra when things go badly.

Expedition Rule 1: Make an early plan to share the work.
Expedition Rule 2: Have a signed travel contract and deposit.
Expedition Rule 3: Don’t make promises in the heat of the moment.
Expedition Rule 4: A vehicle giveth freedom, and it taketh away.
Expedition Rule 5: Owning isn’t the same as renting – charge accordingly.

I've had a mixed bag of expeditions. On my first, in Africa, things went right when they could just as easily have gone wrong. There was little planning and a lot of luck. On my second, around the world, there was a year of planning for a one year trip. We had our share of bad luck, but the trip still came off well. On the Panamerican, I didn't take the full set of precautions, and without a contract, when tough times hit all the participants felt like they were shortchanged.

Overland expeditions are still a life changing way to travel and I will definitely plan a fourth - but this time wiser and even more fully prepared.

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Copyright January 1999-2011
All rights reserved - Jeff Willner
Contact: jeffwillner@yahoo.com