Imagine breaking free. You sell your possessions, buy a van, pack it with what you need, and go. For months or years you live a frugal life, going wherever you want. But for thousands who made this dream a reality, coronavirus brought them to a sudden halt, writes Paula Dear, and left them stranded with a van and a vanload of kit on the far side of the world.
For Radka and Ivar the plan began to form when they met in 2016. Both working as personal carers for a disabled man in Trondheim, central Norway, they would cross paths as she finished the night shift and he took over for the day.
“We met for like five minutes, to change the shift. I was very charming in the morning,” jokes Radka.
“And then you would stay for breakfast sometimes,” Ivar adds.
Radka was the more experienced traveller. She had previously hitchhiked from Russia to south-east Asia and was preparing to do the same from Argentina to Alaska. But after falling in love with Ivar, who was in the process of retraining as a nurse, she faced a dilemma.
“There were lots of conversations. I said, ‘You have to promise me that once you’re done studying you’ll go with me.’ It was a deal-breaker, and Ivar adopted my dream very quickly!” she says.
In the meantime, Radka took a six-week trip to Patagonia with a friend, and at one point hitched a lift with a woman called Silvia from Ushuaia in Argentina, the world’s southernmost city. They stayed in touch, and three years later this would turn out to be a critical stroke of luck.
Radka and Ivar’s plan slowly morphed from backpacking to travelling the Americas by van, and they picked up a second-hand Toyota Hiace. With help from Radka’s dad, they built a basic bed and kitchen in the back, and storage for their gear – including climbing and freediving equipment, bicycles and an inflatable canoe.
“We needed a van because Ivar has a shedload of sports stuff,” says Radka. “But also it’s the freedom of it. When we are inside the van, with gas for two months and food for several weeks, we can be totally off grid. We thought it would be great to have comfort and the ability to drive wherever we want.”
Ivar, who’d previously been a climbing instructor, studied hard for his nursing degree and they worked “every single job that came our way” to save money, says Radka, who would often finish a nightshift and go on to do cleaning jobs before having four hours off ahead of the next nightshift.
She developed terrible sleeping problems, she says: “I burnt out and made myself ill. But I did it because I had a dream, and I wanted to make it come true.”
In the flurry of preparations, they were still making last-minute modifications to the van on the day they drove it to the port in Germany for its voyage across the Atlantic and through the Panama Canal to Chile.
Six weeks later, in early January they were in San Antonio to collect it and begin their epic journey. It was the height of summer and their plan was to loop down at a leisurely pace to the southern tip of Argentina – the symbolic start of their one-to-two year trip – and then drive north, all the way to Alaska.
So, stopping frequently, they slowly headed south, enjoying hikes in the Chilean island of Chiloé and Argentinian trekking hub of El Chaltén, and a trip to the 5km-wide Perito Moreno glacier. Camping out in nature soon started to smooth out Radka’s erratic sleeping patterns.
El Chaltén was “absolutely amazing”, says Radka, who had long fantasised about photographing the famous fiery reds and burnt oranges and yellows of the Patagonian autumn, which by this time was already beginning.
“But the weather forecast was bad, so we said, ‘Let’s go to Ushuaia and when we come back this way it’s going to be even nicer colours,'” Ivar says.
By this stage they were hearing reports of Covid lockdowns in Europe, but were reassured by friends in Argentina and Chile that similar moves seemed unlikely there.
“We were discussing whether we should go to Ushuaia or not, because it’s locked in with a Chilean part above it. But there really wasn’t any news, and when we asked people they said it was just recommended to wash your hands, no more. So we decided to go. And then it all happened really quickly and we couldn’t get back out,” says Ivar.
Hours after they arrived on 15 March, the borders unexpectedly closed, trapping them on the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego island, which can only be exited via a Chilean ferry.
With people being ordered to stay at home or in hotels they decided to drive out of the city and wait out the initial 14-day lockdown in their van. As camping was banned, they had to conceal their plans from the police when they encountered a checkpoint at the edge of Ushuaia. An hour north, at a forest lake called Laguna Margarita, they found a spot to wild-camp.
“We were afraid someone would see us and report us. But we were really deep in the woods, and nobody came,” says Ivar.
When the weather allowed, they paddled on the lake or went running. Ivar taught Radka how to rope-climb in the trees. It was tough going at times, too. The wind and rain often forced them inside and there wasn’t enough sun to replenish their solar-generated electricity. On day two they ran out of cooking gas, and they were washing in near-freezing water.
But they weren’t too worried. Once the two-week confinement was over, they would return to El Chaltén and wait out the crisis – they could happily spend months hiking in the national park’s mountains. The lack of gas, however, forced them to drive back towards Ushuaia, and when they picked up a phone signal again it became obvious the crisis was deepening. National parks had closed. They read increasingly desperate reports from fellow nomads on Facebook forums.
Moreover, they were “really afraid” they would get into trouble from the police for camping in the car during lockdown. “We didn’t know how to explain where we’d been for those two weeks, or where we were going,” says Radka. She messaged Silvia, the woman who had given her a ride in 2016. Could she vouch for them or provide an address?
En route back to Ushuaia they hit a police checkpoint.
“They were filming us and the car, asking where we had been, where we were going. We tried to tell them we’d been camping but we don’t speak good Spanish. I’m not sure they understood,” says Ivar.
“We were so stressed we then took off in the wrong direction. When we turned back we were met by two police cars with sirens.”
The officers weren’t pleased.
“They said they would escort us to our hostel in Ushuaia. They didn’t realise we didn’t have one.”
On the way Radka tried Silvia again, and luckily she responded. Within the half-hour drive she had secured them a friend’s rental apartment, and they were escorted right to the door by the police.
Two weeks of lockdown in the apartment followed. It was much like those seen elsewhere, with trips to the supermarket or pharmacy allowed, and little else.
“For the first few days we felt OK, binge-watching TV series, enjoying hot showers. But we started to realise this was not going to be a situation for a couple of weeks, and that we really couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation for up to six months, because even if they then opened the borders, we’d be out of money. We were quickly getting more and more tired and depressed, and I started having problems sleeping again,” says Radka, tearfully.
“When you are at home, I imagine you find things to keep yourself busy – clean or paint or bake, whatever. But being in a foreign flat in a foreign country where you were not planning to stay, it’s maybe different,” says Radka. “You can’t focus on doing something new. You spend your day researching every desperate possibility to get out of there. We were even looking at whether it was possible to sail across the ocean! And when each one is a dead end it feels like such a waste of energy and motivation.”
Ivar adds: “It’s like waiting in a bus stop, when you don’t know exactly when you’re going to leave and it’s not the place you want to be.”
But the decision to leave wasn’t straightforward. It slowly crept up on them, says Ivar: “It kind of evolved from possibly going home because it’s going to be boring to wait, to realising if we stay three of four more months our well-being might suffer.”
When Radka received an SMS from the embassy to say there were repatriation flights from the capital, Buenos Aires, she felt an irresistible pull homewards.
“I felt a bit like a failure when I started to consider going back. We have friends who are staying. It was like we were giving up. But everybody’s situation is different.”
Radka and Ivar are part of a sizeable community of people who travel and live in vehicles for months or years at a time – sometimes permanently – and are known as “overlanders” or “vanlifers”. Some work as they go along, or stop for a while to volunteer, others have already retired. Ask them to #stayathome and, well, it can be a bit complicated. Where?
You might think that as they are equipped to live off-grid, they would be fine during lockdown. In reality, their lifestyle choice depends on the ability to move around, camp, and access services like water, power, gas and toilets. With regional and national borders closed, most campsites shut and wild camping banned, “outsiders” being discouraged in many areas, and bureaucratic headaches over visas and complicated vehicle permits, thousands of travellers around the world are either trapped or having to abandon their homes on wheels and return “home”.
In some ways, Covid-19 has been like a game of musical chairs for overlanders, who have found themselves in varying situations depending on where they happened to be when the music stopped.
Around 10,000km north of Ushuaia, in the Colombian city of Medellín, Berliners Anne and Martin are living in their VW Westfalia camper in the driveway of a hostel, where they can use the toilets and showers. That wouldn’t be allowed in many places under lockdown but they happened to be staying there while fixing some mechanical issues, when the crisis began. The owners allowed them to stay and they decided to sit it out in their van.
“For us there was never a question of leaving the van behind,” says Anne.
“We also didn’t really see the point of returning back to Europe as the number of infected people was much higher than here. We don’t have a home, as we moved out of our apartment and sold all our belongings. We could stay at our parents’ places but, in our mid-30s, it’s not really our goal.
“The days are getting really long and repetitive. We are safe and healthy, but we are stuck. We miss being on the road,” she says.
Radka and Ivar missed it too, but they couldn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, the airport in Ushuaia re-opened and they booked a flight to Buenos Aires. The van and their gear would have to stay behind. But with strict rules in most countries, including Argentina, about how long a foreign-plated car can remain there, they had just one day to work out the logistics and find a place to park it. Again, through Silvia’s network they managed to secure written permission from a resident who would allow the van to be parked at his house, and a letter from the customs authorities enabling them to leave it behind until the crisis is over.
“It was a stressful day. We really hope that everything is OK with the papers,” says Ivar. “It’s incredible how it worked out, although when we parked the van and left it there I was nervous about handing the keys over because we had never met the guy. There’s a part of us that’s afraid we won’t see the van again. Maybe we’ll show up and they’ll be like, ‘What car?!'”
After they arrived in Buenos Aires, their repatriation flight was refused permission to fly. Just before the next flight, a week later, they were told they hadn’t made the list. For nearly three weeks the couple waited in a cheap hostel room in the city, feeling increasingly despondent. They started to question whether they really would get out. Finally, on 7 May, they boarded a Norwegian Air flight to Oslo, costing them €1,300.
Back in Norway, they had to complete 10 days of quarantine, but were lucky to have access to a rural family cabin, where they sat it out in peace.
“We have gone through all the emotions… but right now we’re just really happy to be back in Norway,” says Ivar.
“On a scale of one to 10, the disappointment is 11,” says Radka.
“The longer we stayed and the worse I felt, I said ‘OK I admit it, I can’t imagine spending another four months like this, so I’m willing to spend some of our savings on going home to Norway where people have a bit more freedom.’ I was going crazy.”
The self-confessed pessimist of the pair, she worries about whether they can gather the funds to return to Argentina and, if they do, whether tourists will still be welcomed under the “new normal”.
“And I feel like we have lost time. If we start the trip again in, say, January, that was a time when we were supposed to be somewhere else [in our life]. I have a hard time letting go.”
A few months in Norway will give them some perspective, says Ivar.
“We would have felt worse if it was something that we should have seen coming. I think we did everything we could, and I am at peace with that. I feel like we’re pretty lucky compared with many other people. I know we will continue the journey.”
‘Our car is in Tanzania: we could be fined €1,400’
Many overlanders who have abandoned their vehicles are risking penalties, from fines to confiscation, for failing to drive their van out of the country by the time agreed when they entered. When you drive into a country you usually temporarily import the vehicle for a fixed period, after which penalties begin to be imposed.
Armin and Tanja, from Germany, were driving their 2004 Mitsubishi camper through Tanzania, as part of a planned two-year trip through the Balkans, Africa and South America, when the pandemic struck. Initially hoping to stick it out, they eventually decided to take one of the last repatriation flights out.
“We found a place to store the car safely on private ground. If we hadn’t have found that place we definitely would not have left our camper behind,” says Armin.
Their carnet de passage – a type of vehicle permit that has a cash deposit related to the value of the car – will expire in June. Attempts to arrange special dispensation with the customs authorities before they left were unsuccessful, and they have so far been unable to get hold of the right people in Tanzania to help them.
“The penalty for an expired carnet in Tanzania would be €1,400 in our case, as it is 20% of the carnet car value. We are lucky that we have quite an old car but still we hope to get out of this without paying. We will ask for a flexible solution,” says Armin.
The delay has caused them to cut out the South America leg of their world trip, but they hope to return to Africa by September.
Read Radka and Ivar’s blog here
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