Losing My Travel Virginity
Despite being someone my friends now think of as ‘a travelled person’ the first few years of my life were rooted firmly in England. The first time I ever went abroad I was 13 on a school trip to Calais.
Enchanted by this budget experience (and extremely un-enchanted by living in England)
I vowed to become as well travelled as I could, as soon as I could.
This – do I dare say it – inner journey began with a poorly planned hiking trip around Eastern Europe. A friend and I ambitiously planned to land in Budapest, Hungary and hike West through to Austria, then North to the Czech Republic, crossing the finishing line in Prague. We gave ourselves 5 weeks – very manageable. If you walk 6 hours a day, a trip like that will take you 26 days. Easy.
Well. Easy if you don’t get lost. Or if you don’t decide to go in July, when average temperatures are around 25◦C. Or if you in any way know what you’re doing.
Naturally, we did not.
The “planning” consisted of two giddy seventeen-year-olds darting around Go Outdoors, flinging sleeping bags, metal mugs and trousers with too many pockets into our basket with gay abandon. We briefly tested out the Trangia (an alien kind of cooking stove) and trialled the tent by camping on the stretch of field behind the local pub. Good to go.
Two weeks later we finished college for the summer and hopped on a plane to Budapest. This was the first plane I’d ever been on, and I spent the entire three-hour ride gleefully gazing out the window – undoubtedly writing abysmal poetry about how the sun splices through the clouds oh-so-beautifully (we were all edgy teens once).
We arrived in Budapest, grabbed our gargantuan 85L rucksacks – knocking over several bystanders in the process – and headed into the great beyond.
The great beyond was actually a massive car park. And like the embarrassing, naïve kids we were, we whipped out a compass to try and figure out which way to go. A compass in the middle of an airport carpark. Why? Why not just read a sign? I don’t know. This is the level we were working at.
The first day was probably the worst. It was about 28◦C, boiling hot. Especially when carrying these immense rucksacks. But as these things tend to work, it was also the day we learnt the most. For example, you cannot, and should never, try to hike between 12 and 2pm. There’s a reason shops in Spain close for a crazy long time for lunch, and we’d just discovered it. It’s so so hot, and your skin will sizzle like bacon within minutes – at least, that’s what it felt like. This was a useful lesson.
We also learnt the knack to rolling your rucksack in that specific way to get it back onto your back. Because it’s so colossal, you have to awkwardly jiggle your body to try and haul it on.
The most important lesson we learnt is that walking takes forever. Really, very slow way of getting around. We walked for 3 hours and could still see the airport in the distance.
That night we were looking for somewhere to camp. Wild camping is illegal in Hungary, but of course we didn’t know this at the time, because neither of us had thought to check. We figured we’d just turn up on a field or a forest somewhere and set up.
While looking for an appropriate field/forest, the clouds begin to darken. It gets very windy all of a sudden. As if in some Poe-esque horror poem, rain begins to pelt down, and lightning lights up the sky. We thought we could maybe wait it out and hide in a Billa (Europe’s Aldi) for an hour. But no, still thundering rain, still lightening, still thunder. There’s nothing for it.
Trying to put a tent up, especially one that you have only put up once before, in the pouring rain is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. So uniquely frustrating and depressing. Needless to say, we put it up inside out the first time, and had to completely re-do it. Once inside, and completely drenched, we giggled maniacally at where we were, and what we were doing, and what a total mess this was. We fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on nylon.
It got much better after that. We walked through some amazing forests, and learnt where we should buy food, and how often we should make sure we pass through a town. We did as much of the walk as we could on country trials and camped most nights.
Walking through a border is a fantastically weird experience. While crossing through the forest that has Szombathely, Hungary on one side and Austria on the other, we anxiously watched our GPS. Waiting for the moment that we had walked to another country.
We didn’t walk the whole thing though; I think there were 3 trains in the journey, costing about 4p each. This trip also began my love affair with hitchhiking, a fantastic (and free) way to travel huge distances. On passing the border between Austria and Czech Republic in some stranger’s car, she told us how she lived in Austria, and worked in Czech. She had to cross the border everyday to get to work.
My friend and I thought this was incredibly cool, and it later inspired us to move to Spain, while working in Gibraltar.
I have never been as fit in my life as on that trip. By the end our legs were absolutely ripped. Turns out that part of Europe is really fucking hilly. There were parts where we’d have to walk for 40 minutes and take another break.
What no one told us is that coming down the steep hills is infinitely worse than going up. Climbing up hills? Sure, you get out of breath, you get hot, blah blah. But going down – it is so so steep. I have rarely been as confident of my imminent death, than when trying to stumble down a massive decline with a 20kg rucksack waiting to flatten me.
After enduring the horrific sunburn (there is no SPF in the world that will save you from 12 hours of exposure per day in that Hellscape) and the literal hundreds of blisters, we triumphantly arrived in Prague. When I say ‘triumphantly’ I really mean ‘flopped into the nearest bed without waking or moving for 12 hours’. We did the whole slog in about 30 days, as we took days off in places like Graz, Vienna and Brno.
To celebrate this victory, we got matching tattoos (cringe) of ‘Budapest 2015’, despite the fact that we did not step foot in the city of Budapest – unless you include the airport carpark.
I cannot recommend walking holidays enough. If you decide to go with another person, you will learn more about them then you could any other way. You will get into the best shape of your life. You will ‘be at one with nature’ in that way that posters of the Dalai Lama are always telling you to.
But, for the love of God, google where you’re going first. And don’t go in July.