Overland travel: Why flying is an overrated form of modern-day travel

The problem with zipping from country to country, city to city, by plane is that you miss a whole lot in between.

Human flight isn't natural. Airliners transport us great distances across multiple time zones at fantastic speed yet, turbulence aside, limit our experience of the environment outside the vessel to a visual one. And what we see through those little retro-television-screen shaped windows from our passive position is, like drone imagery, beguiling yet unfulfilling in its untouchability. It's the overland journey that grounds us in a place, demands more from our bodies and forces a level of relationship impossible to form with something you only ogle from a distance.

When Saturn returned and catapulted me from the directionlessness of my 20s onto the open road headed towards my potential I spent weeks being a tall girl riding a small motorbike across a big country, east to west. Dust up my nose, sun in my eyes and unidentifiable insects squashed under my sleeping head felt like the right way to say goodbye, at least for a while, to the land of my birth and home for 27 years.

From Western Australia I flew to Southeast Asia with my sights set on Cambodia and, beyond that, Europe and The World. But, rather than going directly to Phnom Penh, I flew into Bangkok where I found a bus headed for the border and walked into Cambodia on my own thonged feet. That was also an instinctive move: to see, smell, taste, hear and touch the furthest edges of a new country rather than get plonked by plane into a populous urban centre and try to make sense of it from there.

At the time I recognised this was a roundabout approach but did it anyway. Looking back I realise there was nothing odd about someone who loves slow-cooked food, knowing people beyond their superficial representative and who prioritises quality over quantity and substance over style choosing to travel that way.

I've since journeyed overland by car, bus, train, taxi, coach, four-wheel-drive, more motorbikes, bicycle, on a camel, a dogsled, the back of a ute and on foot at walking pace. I'm yet to do it on cross-country skis, horseback, a scooter, a dirt bike and a road train but have no plans for a Segway, a sedan chair or running. Each version, including all the ones I haven't thought of, reveals every place in a distinct light; hiking Iceland isn't like seeing it from a car; you can't compare riding a camel in Rajasthan to bussing there; motorcycling Switzerland is absolutely nothing like taking the train.

While in motion with the windows up, most enclosed vehicles, like cars and trains and buses and coaches, aren't so unlike a plane except you're sitting in the front row of the theatre, not way up the back in the rafters. Though, in a land vehicle, you can hit the brakes or wait for a station or scenic lookout and step out into the immediate environment easily and more often.

Many of us go on road trips in cars and vans with our friends and family or take coach tours patronised by people from home or other foreign tourists. However, the social scene within long distance public or private local transport can immerse you within the area you're travelling, despite the vehicle physically separating you from it. During 20 hours on a Greyhound bus from Chicago, Illinois, to Rapid City, South Dakota, there was a gradual turnover of American passengers I swapped seats, shared food, checked directions and chatted with, held a baby for and got asked on a date by. And although I only had my feet on the ground at four highway-side service stations, the view from my seat during daylight hours allowed me to fill in some gaps on the map in my mind as we drove between places I knew well but had only flown into and out of.

Likewise, a day-long taxi ride might mean windows up and hot or cold airconditioning on but, within that confined temperature-controlled space, I've had conversations with drivers about their culture, politics, history, religion, family, sexuality and experience of war. Taxi drivers also invariably listen to local music and stop off at their favourite joint for burek on the Slovenian-Croatian border, cachupa on the island of Santo Antao in Cape Verde, cutting grass (bush rat) in Sierra Leone.

Trains may be restricted to tracks but railroads often take an exclusive way through a landscape. Going south from Vancouver on Amtrak rolled me behind the scenes of the Pacific Northwest, where I saw slipped fishing boats caged in scaffolding slung with plastic drop sheets, neglected rivers patterned with derelict pier posts, beached shipwrecks, hard-hatted workers smoking in the sunshine outside low industrial buildings, human shelters under graffitied bridges hidden from everyone but the eyes on the train.


Less enclosed versions of almost all vehicles do exist. There are convertible cars for the wind in your hair and Vitamin D absorption and chatting at the lights with automobile admirers. Sightseeing trains almost always have open-air viewing carriages. Local buses in many tropical countries don't even have windows. When trains and buses in India are stationary you can get screaming-hot freshly-poured chai passed through the window from a street vendor like some inverted version of buying from a hole-in-the-wall.

In Mauritania there's a fully open-air option on one of the longest trains in the world; it's free to travel if you're happy to sit on top of iron ore for the 19-hour journey from Zouerat to the port of Nouadhibou. The afternoon sun beats down, locals in traditional tunics sitting up the other end of the wagon might make you mint tea, there's occasional stopping at sandy stations, after a red sunset the desert stars come out, the train eventually picks up speed and then the ore rains down on you all night like hail. By the end, you could not be more at one with the Sahara.

Motorcyclist or trike riders also know all about exposure. If it's windy you're fighting it, if it's cold you're frozen and if there's a locust plague they'll squish on you and at least three will end up in your helmet. Give or take some protective riding gear there's little between you and the elements and, unless a pillion, you're no longer that passive passenger on the bus or train. Being at speed and physically more vulnerable throws your senses into overdrive and makes you feel very alive. It's on a motorbike, somewhere on the outskirts of Canberra on my way to Alice, that I've had my most palpable heart-bursting moment of overland travel joy.

Though it's cycle touring that really strikes the balance for me. This most efficient type of self-powered human transport means you're fully active but travelling at a greater speed using less energy over distance than if walking, and the bike takes the weight of your luggage. You are exposed to smells and sounds and the feel of the weather and can stop at a moment's notice to interact with someone or something. Your cycling body has to constantly respond to the surface texture and topographical variations of the terrain and, you won't necessarily recognise it at the time, but pedalling up a long hill sweating and aching bonds you to Tuscany even more than whizzing down the other side.

The use of animals for transport is a traditional way of life for some people. Others, for whom it isn't, regard the use of camel, dog, donkey, elephant, horse, mule and reindeer for human propulsion as anything from the ultimate bonding experience between person and beast to cruelty to animals. Though it can be hard to argue those huskies in The North don't adore pulling a sled on snow.

Journeying across bodies of water is not technically overland travel but once you start traversing oceans aboard ships, the seascapes no longer feel so different to the shores they carry you to. I've flown countless times over the Pacific and feel no connection to it but having sailed the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and the Drake Passage I'm now in love with the sea.

Though facilitated human speed, it could be argued, isn't natural either and perhaps walking is the ultimate way to connect with an environment. You independently work for each humblingly slow step forward and altitudinal increment. You bear every gram of gear carried. You process each subtle change in your surroundings with all your functioning senses. Feet can also take you places no land transport can: wading across a thigh-high river in Tasmania's dense Tarkine rainforest; into the limestone karst of the Nullarbor, where you can walk underland for hours; up and down the massive scree slopes of Wyoming's Teton Crest Trail.

Scientists have recently decided that not wearing shoes – referred to in certain circles as earthing or grounding – has the same positive effect on health as antioxidants because it apparently allows electrons from earth to spread over the body and neutralise free radicals. Call it scientific discovery if you want or recognise it as something tuned-in humans have instinctively done for millennia.

Elspeth Callender travels overland as a guest and at her own expense.