I love planning an overland trip.
I could spend hours surfing the net, checking out recommendations by local government and commercial sites welcoming visitors to their particular patch of the world and all it has to offer. Combine this research with some documentaries and a few good books — whether historical narratives or environmental guides — and pretty soon a travel itinerary starts to self-generate.
The trouble is, all this research can sometimes come at a cost, specifically when it removes the element of surprise from a journey.
There are plenty of scientific studies that tell us surprises make experiences more pleasurable. The reasons are apparently hardwired into the human psyche. Surprise is a driver of our motivation to learn — it feeds our natural bias to enjoy new experiences, makes us pay more attention, triggers dopamine, and can intensify our emotions immensely. Indeed, a study from the University of California found that people who experience more awe in life (awe being a type of surprise) may be healthier than the rest of the population.
If this is true, it’s no surprise we enjoy travel destinations better if we don’t know what to expect when we get there. And reflecting back on the many trips we’ve done, it’s fair to say that some of the most enjoyable experiences have been those that have caught us by surprise.
For example, one of the most memorable days of a six-week overland trip from Melbourne to the Gulf occurred when we made an impromptu stop along the Birdsville Track where the Strzelecki and Sturt Stony Desert’s meet. To our east were sand dunes, and directly to our west was a vast expanse of gibber plain. Once we got out, we found ourselves scrambling around on the sandy ridges, tracing the footprints of all manner of reptiles we hadn’t known were there; finding animal dens burrowed in the soft ground and zebra finches by the hundreds among the stumpy vegetation; and we walked across a desert pavement of sharp pebbles that once covered an ancient ocean floor. All the while we imagined how hard this country would be to inhabit permanently, how difficult it would be to traverse for European explorers like Sturt, Burke and Wills, and how the rocks would have wreaked havoc with their pack horses’ hooves, so unsuited to the conditions.
The point is, there was nothing at this spot that would have specifically recommended it as a tourist destination, we hadn’t pre-planned a stop, and we had no pre-existing expectations about what we’d find when we did stop. Not to sound selfish, but I was happy to see three other vehicles simply drive straight by. They’ll never share the beauty of the moment. They’ll have their own moments down the track, but this moment was mine. As a result, the whole experience generated a level of vitality, curiosity and wonder among our little travel crew far beyond anything we could have planned.
Knowing this, I find there’s a dynamic tension between my natural tendency to plan and my innate desire to trigger surprise. Indeed, sometimes when I’m planning a trip I feel like a kid lying in bed on Christmas Eve — squinting through half-opened eyes — wanting to see Santa Claus but worried that if I do, the magic will evaporate. So I’ll avoid watching a documentary about a place I’ve planned to visit just so that I can see it for the first time ‘with my own eyes’ rather than through someone else’s lens. For the same reason, I’ll ask friends for general recommendations about places to include on an itinerary, but I won’t let them show me their happy snaps. I’ll be content to read about the social, cultural and historical context of a place, but I’ll try to leave gaps I can fill in when I walk the ground.
Can I engineer surprise into a trip? Probably not. But there’s something we can do to increase the probability of being wowed during a road-trip without abandoning planning altogether. That is, we plan to stay flexible.
That means having enough supplies on board our rig, and enough time up our sleeve to take advantage of the potentially limitless opportunities that we may encounter as we travel. Whether it’s to say ‘yes’ when a property manager invites us to take a 100km detour to hang out at his 200,000-hectare property in the Simpson Desert; ‘yes’ to a four-hour lunchbreak along the shore of Lake Eyre listening to Midnight Oil; or ‘yes’ to a few extra days enjoying the pot belly stove at a mate’s converted garage on a property along the Huon River in Tasmania — these are the experiences that really stick.
Sometimes having no plan for a few days is the best plan of all.