Driving on the “other” side of the road was the least their problems. One wayward driver in Mexico was certain his wrong turn had invited a police shakedown. In Turkey, one breakdown among many ended with locals helping build a campfire on a frigid night. In Kenya, a repair took on extra urgency when the travelers realized they were in the middle of a path for drug smugglers.
Getting behind the wheel in a foreign country can give tourists greater freedom to explore, but also more ways for things to go awry. For many travelers, the extra adventures are worth the troubles.
It was a torrid, humid day in La Paz, Mexico, two years ago when Chris Collard accidentally turned his truck the wrong way down a one-way road. He quickly realized his mistake and reversed out, but a police officer noticed his error.
“I thought, here we go,” said Mr. Collard, whose experiences with the police in other countries have not always been pleasant. An international photojournalist and owner of Adventure Architects, he was expecting to be forced to pay a bribe.
After he explained he was a little bit lost, the officer returned from his car with a map, but no ticket in hand, and said: “I can help you find this place. Follow me.”
What could have been a tense situation instead became a warm memory.
Ray Hyland, a professional adventurer who puts on “overland rally” automotive events in the United States, and his family bought a 1954 Series 1 Land Rover for $225 in 2012, got it running and shipped it to Britain. They eventually spent nine months driving it from London to Singapore. They noticed on travel forums that people “felt they needed to build a hugely customized vehicle to go camping or ‘overlanding,’” Mr. Hyland said. “We wanted to point out the folly of that, using an extreme example.” All five family members, along with their camping gear, were stuffed into a vehicle smaller than a Volkswagen Beetle.
“Maybe not funny at the time, but it broke down every day,” he said. One night when it was minus 18 degrees Celsius in eastern Turkey, “helpful locals tried to build a fire under the engine to warm it up,” he added.
The truck broke down all the time, but the Hylands had planned for that. It was cheaper to fix it on the road with inexpensive local parts and labor than restoring it before they left Chilliwack (a town near Vancouver, British Columbia), where they live. Local people stopped often to help, even if language was a barrier.
“Once I improvised and used a pencil to repair a failing carburetor by screwing it into the hole left when a screw fell out on the highway south of Istanbul,” Mr. Hyland said with a chuckle.
Another part, a seal between the engine and transmission, failed as they were climbing the Himalayan foothills. No spares were readily available, so a mechanic in Darjeeling fashioned one out of the leather from an old Gurkha soldier’s hat.
Dan Grec, a world traveler, photographer and author, said road trips were the quintessential vacation in his native Australia.
“Growing up, my family went on many camping trips around southern and eastern Australia. This is where I got my love of going new places, camping and just enjoying nature,” he said.
In June 2016, he hatched a plan to travel across Africa. Starting in Morocco, Mr. Grec drove south on the west coast to Cape Town in South Africa before he headed back north to finish in Alexandria, Egypt. He’s proud of this particular adventure: “The entire journey spanned three years through 35 countries,” he said. “All told, I drove 54,000 miles.”
You don’t cover that many miles without some bumps along the way.
In rural Uganda near Lake Albert, after a brief moment of inattention from driving, he crashed his Jeep and it fell onto its side. No one was hurt, thankfully, and he got a helping hand from local villagers to pull his Jeep back onto its wheels.
Africa brings particular challenges, which Mr. Collard has experienced as well.
“Late one night in Kenya,” he said, “we got lost on a rough two-track near the Somali border, and our ’73 Range Rover stopped running. Laying on my back in the driver’s-side footwell, I tried to repair a broken throttle cable with my Leatherman, baling wire, Gorilla tape and headlamp while my buddy Sam Watson kept guard for lions and other critters that could eat us.”
Soon, trucks loaded with bales of khat and armed guards zoomed by — and they quickly realized they were on a smuggler’s route, he said. Their desire to leave took on new urgency.
There are health challenges, as well, for anyone who might set out on a four-wheel adventure.
“We all got food poisoning in India, at different times,” Mr. Hyland said. “The hygiene there is so bad it’s inevitable.”
Along with maintaining follow-up injections for assorted vaccines, the Hyland family took prophylactic doses of antibiotics as it traveled through malaria-infested areas.
“It kills the good bacteria in your system as well as the bad bacteria, so it takes about six months for your body to get back to normal,” Mr. Hyland said.
Mr. Grec contracted malaria twice, he said: “The first time, in Mali, I took the ‘cure’ medicine quickly, and for about three days, it felt like the worst flu I’ve ever had.”
Months later, in Angola, he started to feel familiar symptoms. “I took the cure, though the following morning I was shivering uncontrollably in the full sun wearing my down jacket.”
For five days and nights Mr. Grec couldn’t eat, sleep or walk. He also couldn’t talk or drink — and he says he lost about 20 pounds. “My friends were injecting me with the high-strength cure medicine morning and night, and I eventually pulled through,” he said.
There’s a common theme with traveling, no matter what happens. Locals are happy to help, and a friendly smile goes a long way, especially if you don’t know the language.
“People are the same around the world. They simply want to go to work and come home to their families,” Mr. Hyland said. “This is a perspective we can forget when we watch the news. Travel reminds us we have more in common than we think.”
Mr. Collard agrees with that sentiment. “If you embrace the nuances of another culture, its people will embrace you,” he said.
Marianne Hyland has relished traveling the world with her husband and three sons.
“Experiencing the different cultures of the countries we visited and getting to meet the people of other countries is firsthand experience that language and culture is not a barrier to kindness,” she said. “The most important thing is to do it.”