With more and more people being able to afford to travel, the unknown world is becoming less so every year. Every country nowadays seems to have a major attractions checklist in the trusty Lonely Planet guide and these tourist trails are only becoming more popular. The beaten track may be saturated with tourists, which means you might end up meeting more fellow travellers than locals, but should you always seek to avoid it?
The Euro Railer
Let’s face it… Europe’s been done. Grad trips, field trips, Euro-railing… everyone does it nowadays. And if you haven’t, it’s on your List-of-Things-To-Do-When-I-Get-Around-to-Them. In Berlin, there are two paths that can be taken, each of which has been beaten solid. The first is marked by sightseeing stalwarts, like the iconic Brandenburg Gate. The second is the nightlife – the many clubs, pubs, and eateries. We chose the former, arguably geekier path. With our Eyewitness Guide to Berlin in hand, we stuck to the book’s recommended course like glue. The Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Jewish Museum, currywurst stands… so much to do, so little time. Thank God for the checklist of “Places You Must See While in Berlin for 72 hours”.
In the past three years, I’ve returned to the international hubbub that is the German capital, each time with different people and each time taking a different path. Shopping: the glittering Kaufhaus des Westens (that’s the “KaDeWe” for all of you up to date on your German slang), the Alex Platz, and simply wandering down the Friedrichstrasse – all tips courtesy of the Eyewitness Guide and suggestions from friends who have previously visited or lived there. Clubbing and nightlife: what can I say? The city is alive all night, every night – but, without a guide, beware of potentially spending your night wandering the streets searching for ‘the perfect club’. So, the next time your friend is getting all excited about Euro-railing and you want to roll your eyes, think about it – maybe it’s a good thing that everyone’s been there and done that. It’s safer, easier, and chances are you won’t lose time seeking out the perfect club or landmark for yourself.
The Gold Coast Cruiser
I’m someone who rarely strays from the beaten track; in fact I take credit for beating it further. Sure I’ve been diverted from time to time; it can be fun and it’s nice to see somewhere that hasn’t been so affected by tourism. It can be lonely, however – especially if you go alone.
East coast Australia is as much of a beaten track as you will ever find – generally everyone does the same activities and most people you meet are tourists, but that’s why I loved it. You never know who you’re going to meet or what stories they’re going to have and you can get contacts (aka places to stay) all around the world. Touring around Fraser Island was my favourite thing to do. We spent three days in a truck with five random people, driving on beaches and through the rainforest. We cooked, attempted to build tents, explored, sat around a campfire and drank goon. We also had to work together to push our truck out when we got stuck, literally, on the beaten track! When we later made it up to Cairns, which is where everyone ends up, we’d be walking down the street and find ourselves greeting every other person because we’d already met them up at the coast. That’s why I love the beaten track – because you get to know so many people that after a while, it starts feeling like home.
The Lone Hitcher
One of the best ways to get off the beaten track is hitch-hiking. I’ve done it in Canada, New Zealand, Honduras, East Timor, Malaysia and Indonesia – and have learnt a great deal. It does take guts. You’re taking a risk here; you may have a bad time, but far more likely, in countries with a stronger sense of community, hitching will be a fantastic way to mix with the locals.
You may find yourself cramped into the back seat between Maori women, answering questions about why you are so thin, or riding in an Australian army Land Rover in Tior, asking the sergeant about his deployment, or even standing in the back of a pick-up in Honduras, speaking bad Spanish and trying to avoid marriage proposals. These are some of my fondest travelling memories.
These days you can even “hitch a bed” through websites like couchsurfing.com. I’ve done it a few times and my results have been mixed. A Colombian friend and I stayed with a couple in Estonia, who were lovely if a bit dry. I did feel like I was imposing, despite everyone trying his or her best. On another occasion in Sweden, I had an awesome time. Picking the right person is key. I still get calls and emails from Stockholm asking when I’ll be back.
Meeting people is often the easy part when travelling. It can be done on the infamous Kon Tiki (STDs included!) buses around Europe. But learning something from the locals at the same time…. now that is travelling.
The Shabby Adventurer
As I wandered down a dusty coastal road in Kupang on the island of Timor, I heard a chorus of children’s voices, screaming “Bule! Bule!” and a battered pick-up truck struggled past, the kids in the back shouting and pointing at me. This was the colloquial term for “Westerners”, and it was a word constantly screamed at me from afar, before I was suddenly surrounded by smiling locals wanting to shake my hand. It was a far cry from the touristy confines of Bali, and a strange yet welcome experience.
Few tourists make it to the far south of Indonesia. Each day my friend and I would find ourselves being offered lunch and palm wine by residents eager to show us their city. The week culminated with lunch and whiskey at the East Timorese embassy, courtesy of the ambassador of Indonesia. Bedraggled, with long hair and stubbly beards, we were made to feel welcome by this powerful, suited man; he’d spent ten years waging guerrilla warfare against Indonesia and a further ten years in a Jakartan jail for his actions. We soon began adventuring into the surrounding islands, learning the language on long ferry rides over bowls of noodles, exploring out of the way towns on the back of an old motorbike and seeing natural wonders without another soul in sight.
There surely comes a point on every traveller’s journey when the throngs of tourists and persistent clamours get too much. Getting off the beaten track is a welcome relief, an adventurous challenge and a greatly rewarding experience.
The Sanctuary Seeker
When planning a trip abroad, will you follow the well-established tourist track leading to the “must sees” and “must dos”, or will you opt for the less-frequented route, devoid of tourists? Take India, a destination increasingly on the traveller itinerary, its hotspots including the iconic Taj Mahal, countless forts from the Mughal and British Empires, and the palm-fringed beaches of Goa for the more party-minded. Having visited all of the above, I learned that the real treasures lie away from India’s “Golden Triangle” of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. On my visit, we hired a driver to take us through Rajasthan and found ourselves in one of the most beautiful towns in the state: Mandawa, packed with hundreds of intricately decorated forts and havelis. With only a handful of hotels in the small town, we were taken to what looked more like a palace than the grotty hostels we were used to.
Having come from the dirt and dishonesty of Delhi, the comparably quiet dirt roads of Mandawa were blissful, with only heads turning (something inescapable in India) instead of the hands-on heckling encountered elsewhere. We were treated less as an economic resource to exploit and more as a pool of knowledge from which they wanted to fish. During our two-week journey across the North Western state of Rajasthan, we enjoyed eating rotis by the roadside and basking on woven beds, sipping chai without a single tourist in sight. This was the real Rajasthan. In my opinion, there’s definite merit in staying away from the well-established tourist routes.