On the road to getting published (1)

This post is the first in a series of short updates on my trying to get American Safari published by a professional, traditional publisher. 

On September 24th 2015, I got off the train in Churchill, Manitoba, to start my overland journey from the polar bears to the penguins.

On September 24th 2016, I sent the manuscript telling the thrilling and compelling story of this journey out to the first publisher.

First draft, second draft, and the proofread version of "American Safari"

First draft, second draft, and the proofread version of “American Safari”

Although I’ve been writing since childhood, I’m completely new to dealing with publishers. The thought that you can simply write the book, send it to a publishing company and await their decision – as I naively thought – is an illusion. No, they want a cover letter, either printed or digital versions (“PDF files only” or “Word-documents only”), sample chapters, a synopsis, a chapter breakdown, a word count, an author’s biography, and specifics on the market your book tries to break into. Some want all of this, others only a combination.

So after I had done the writing, revising, and polishing, thinking the hard work was done, I had to sit down again and create this whole package of extra documents.

Now that the first two publishing companies have received their desired combination of either PDF- or Word-processed documents, a hopeful feeling has captured me, as though I’ve just thrown a quarter into a slot machine and set the reels in motion.

These reels will be spinning for a long time to come: it can take weeks, even months, for a publishing company to respond – if they respond at all, that is. In the meantime, I will keep feeding the slot machine its quarters, just to increase my chances, a few times a week, until the day that curious armchair travellers, aspiring backpackers, and others who are interested can walk into a book store and pick up a copy of American Safari.

Pictures of an “American Safari”

So, there it is. The book’s title has been revealed. American Safari. 

It has been a long way coming, as you can tell by the thickness of the first draft and the thickness of the proofread version (picture below). Many hundreds of hours have gone into the project. Every day of the last eleven months, at least some time has been dedicated to the production of this story – something I had definitely not foreseen.

The first draft underneath the second draft and the proofread version.

The first draft underneath the second draft and the proofread version.

The book is based on a trip I took from the arctic town of Churchill (Canada) to the world’s southernmost city of Ushuaia (Argentina) while aiming to travel overland on public, scheduled, local transport from the polar bears to the penguins.

I left the town of Banff (Alberta, Canada) on September 21st 2015, and arrived in the town of Churchill after three nights of bus and train travel on the morning of September 24th. This is where the story starts in the book: getting off the train, trying to spot a polar bear before having to leave on the next train out of town three days later.

Along the way, I recorded conversations, landscapes, situations, fun facts. Many people have asked me if the book will contain pictures. No. It’s a written story. But to give some visual idea of the journey, here are some pictures I took and show scenes I wrote up to be included in the story.

Clockwise: the opening ceremony of an arch in Winnipeg (Canada), Mexican children selling cans of Coke, a Guatemalan pulling a cart, a Chilean woman between delivered goods on a mooring dock. Middle: a Peruvian farmer working on his paddock.

Glimpses Of Local Life

Glimpses Of Local Life

Clockwise: on the train in Panama, hitchhiking through the Atacama Desert, on Lago O’Higgins , on the train in Canada. Middle: between Tortel and Villa O’Higgins.

On The Road

On The Road

Clockwise: Canada, Guatemala, Argentina, Chile. Middle: Peru (Lake Titicaca is in the background)

Countries of the Americas

Countries of the Americas

Clockwise: the tundra just outside Churchill (Canada), a circus tent-shaped hill south of Phoenix (USA), a Bolivian volcano, a mountain road in Colombia. Middle: Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina.

Landscapes of the Americas

Landscapes of the Americas

Animals of the Americas

Animals of the Americas

All this culminated in a massive writing project, American Safari.

First draft, second draft, and the proofread version of "American Safari"

First draft, second draft, and the proofread version of “American Safari”

I’ll finish the proofreading this week. Once that’s done, it’s time to send out the manuscript to traditional publishers. This will be a period of waiting, twiddling thumbs, sighing, and then, if everything works out the way any prospective writer would love to see things work out, a crazy time of editing, cover designing, more waiting, more writing, more revising, well, all that, will follow.

I will update regularly on the progress of the next journey: getting the book out there.

The Kununurra Walking Trail


The following hike takes you through Kununurra and its surroundings. The Kununurra Walking Trail has been divided into six sections, giving you the choice on how far and long your walk is going to be. The walk encircles the town and passes the Diversion Dam, Mirima National Park and ends on Kelly’s Knob. Allow 6 to 8 hours for the full walk.

Designed by Jeroen Vogel, author of In Australia 

⇒ Starting point: Kimberley Croc Backpackers YHA

⇒ Section 1

⇒ As you leave Kimberley Croc Backpackers YHA, cross Konkerberry Drive towards IGA, and turn right alongside the supermarket.

⇒ Cross the streets in front of you and enter the park. Follow the footpath as it curves to the left and take the first turn-off to the right, cross the street and turn left on the sidewalk.

⇒Take a right into Coolibah Drive.

⇒ Follow Coolibah Drive until the end of it.

Please note that the sidewalk ends at Ivanhoe Caravan Park and that walking continues on the side of the road.

⇒ Take a left on Ivanhoe Road. After approximately 20 meters, take a right at a sign ‘Department of Environment and Conservation’.

⇒ Enter the gravel road and turn left behind a few installations, ignoring a trail to the right at a Y-junction. You’re now on a dirt trail following the cables above you.

On your right, in the bush, you’ve got a good chance of spotting kangaroos and wallabies.

⇒ Take the first turn-off to the right.

⇒ Take the first trail to the left.

⇒ Turn left at the waste water treatment facility. Where the road that you now walk on bends off to the left, turn right onto grassland. You now walk alongside a ditch and road train parking, both on your left.

⇒ After 300 meters, cross the Victoria Highway.

Section 1 ends here. For Lake Kununurra, Swim Beach and the Diversion Dam, see section 2. Otherwise, skip to section 3.

⇒ Section 2

⇒ Cross the pedestrian/bicycle path and enter a dirt road.

⇒ At a Y-junction, go right and continue until you reach an elevated, paved road. Enter the paved road and turn left.

About 30 meters before a big sign ‘Prepare to stop,’ you’ll find a plaque tucked away under a big tree. See if you can spot it. The plaque marks the site of the “original Carlton Reach agricultural experimental farm”. Before Kununurra came into existence in 1961, and even before there was any other agricultural activity in this area than cattle farming, the experimental farm was established in 1943 to determine which crops would successfully grow in this environment if it was irrigated. It turned out to be such a success, that the government went ahead with one of Australia’s most ambitious projects of the 20th century.

⇒ Pass the Pumphouse and enter the ‘Lake Kununurra Walking Trail’. At the end, cross the paved road and follow the dirt road until the Victoria H’way (100m). On your right you’ll find a memorial with three different plaques, on your left you’ll find the Diversion Dam with the only traffic lights in Kununurra.

The construction of the Diversion Dam took place between 1961 and 1963. It holds back the water that feeds the main irrigation channel, which then feeds the much smaller irrigation channels on the farms on Weaber Plain through gravity. The Diversion Dam is one of two dams: the other one, upstream, is Lake Argyle Dam, which is there to guarantee that Lake Kununurra (Upper Ord River) is always on the same level.

⇒ Walk back on the dirt road. As you reach the paved road, you’ll find the Swim Beach and some picnic tables on your right.

Swimming is said to be relatively save at the Swim Beach. However: saltwater crocodiles have been sighted in this part of Lake Kununurra and can fatally attack with a speed and strength that leave no chance for escape.

⇒ The walk continues on a dirt track to the left, which runs alongside the paved road. The dirt track continues as a pedestrian/bicycle path. Follow the path for the next 4 kilometers. You’ll cross a bridge with a wide channel just past the airport. This is the main irrigation channel.

Section 2 ends here.

⇒ Section 3

Hikers having skipped section 2: Turn left on the pedestrian/bicycle path.

⇒ Ultimately, you walk along a caravan park on your right hand side. At the end of it, cross a paved road and enter ‘Celebrity Tree Park’.

To the right are toilets on the park edge. At the end of the paved road, past the caravan park, is a boat ramp where a quick dive in the water can be surprisingly refreshing. Just remember the warning on crocodiles…

 Follow the footpath as it meanders through the park, continuing between Victoria Highway and Lily Creek Lagoon. The path crosses Victoria Highway. Follow it as it bends to the right, cross Messmate Way and keep going past the All Season Hotel.

⇒ Turn left on Weaber Plain Road.

Section 3 ends here. For those who want to go into Mirima National Park, use section 4. Otherwise, skip to section 5.

⇒ Section 4

⇒ After 400 meters, turn right onto Barringtonia Avenue. Cross the road to the left side to use a sand track.

⇒ Take a left into Hidden Valley Way, towards Mirima National Park.

Enter the cemetery to view the headstones of Harry Langford Payton and John Darsey, two stockmen whose remains are now underneath the bottom of Lake Argyle. They are about ten meters behind the entrance on the right hand side.

 Just after the road bends off to the right (small parking in the left corner), enter the walking trail. Allow about 90 minutes return.

⇒ Coming back the same way, turn right onto Barringtonia Avenue. Then right onto Weaber Plain Road.

Section 4 ends here.

⇒ Section 5

⇒ Turn left onto Leichhardt Street and walk until you get to a roundabout.

Hikers wishing to include Kelly’s Knob (1hr return), skip to section 6.

⇒ Turn left to go back to Kimberley Croc Backpackers YHA.

Section 5 ends here.

 Section 6

⇒ Turn right at the roundabout and walk until you get to a T-junction.

⇒ Turn left.

⇒ Take the first road to the right. After about 500 meters, take a right up Kelly’s Knob. The road leads to the lookout point.

On top of Kelly's Knob

On top of Kelly’s Knob

⇒ To go back, return the same way you came.

⇒ Down the right, take a left.

⇒ After 500 meters, take another left.

⇒ Turn right into Konkerberry Drive. You’ll find Kimberley Croc Backpackers YHA after another 500 meters on your left hand side.

Section 6 ends here.


Awesome People I Met On The Road

One of the greatest things about travel is meeting the greatest people. We all have our list of people we share fond memories with. Sometimes they’ve become really good friends, sometimes they simply take a front row seat on memory lane because they were such a welcome addition to a journey, and sometimes they are the ones who inspired during a single conversation. But whatever the circumstance: they were Awesome!

Out of the many people I had the honour to spend time with – sometimes just a conversation, oftentimes a situation, a location, or a circumstance – I picked four people who represent that wide variety of people we encounter on the road.

(This is not a selection of friends of mine that ignores other friends and acquaintances. Yes, such is the potential danger of this blog post. But no: I purely looked at stories that could (and should) inspire. C’est tout.)

So here we go.

As a 21 year old, I spent some time working in Italy. I had a colleague there, a Dutch guy, who was 51 years old. He was tall, muscled, charismatic, and had the wildest stories. He had been travelling his whole life, working as a stunt man and camera man. He had been the world champion Frisbee throwing, he had slept with Miss World (I asked of course what year, upon which he shook his head and said, “That’s irrelevant.”), he had been in the Burmese jungle for six months shooting monkeys out of trees for supper, and whenever I asked him to which countries he had been, he’d say, “Asking where I haven’t been would be an easier question.”

He was full of stories and these stories were, for a 21 year old, fantastic and extremely inspirational. Not in the sense that one should literally sleep with Miss World and jump through windows for a film and shoot wildlife to survive, but in the sense that this variety of stories inspires one to venture onto different life paths. Having done different things in life leaves as little as possible to regret by the time one has to present himself before the Gates of Heaven. If all these stories were true, just imagine closing your eyes for the last time, thinking: “That life was damn well worth it!”

“Frans Zonderland” is not the guy’s real name. His real name was Franklin. I renamed him Frans Zonderland already in Italy, when I took pen and paper and started writing a fictional story with this man as the lead character while I sat inside my mobile home and he sat outside his. This story was the very foundation of the novel I’m still working on. The fictional character that evolved from this inspirational traveller has taken on a life of his own, there are no longer any resemblances, except for the film industry – Frans Zonderland travels with money made as his alter ego Franklin Sunderland, the world’s most successful porn actor.

Imagine this: you’re a young Belgian backpacking around Australia, and you fall in love with a girl from Taiwan. Then your visa runs out, but your love for each other most certainly has no expiry date. That is when you’re faced with a very tough geographical problem.

Plenty of people give up at that point, calling the affair a “holiday love affair” – in the way Sandy and Danny in Grease thought that they would never see each other again. But sometimes people don’t give up, and Kenny and his Julia are an example of a couple who remained together.

Initially, they went back to their homelands. Julia became a stewardess and when she happened to be in London, Kenny flew over. She came to Belgium for a bit; he went back to Australia. But now they are together in Taipei. Kenny works as an actor in commercials and he might just be the new talent in town. Either way, they are together, thanks to being persistent.

Having a well-paid job and your own place is usually a reason for people to stay put. But Jason took the leap: he quit his career, sold his house, and left Australia. First he flew to the United States, where he got robbed and lost everything generally considered irreplaceable: his wallet with all of his cash and cards, and his passport. All gone, just like that. The Miami Police Department wasn’t of any help in this matter, either.

Like so many people, Jason went home devastated to sort out his new passport and bank cards. But unlike so many people, he sorted his shit out and flew back to the United States to continue his trip. He went to Canada on a working holiday visa, and is having the best time of his life (he’ll never fail to emphasize that). His motto is that everything that’s happened to him has made him stronger and a better person.

I had the honour of working with him and found him very inspirational: setbacks can be constructive in a personal way. Deal with them, learn your lesson, and move on. That’s just Awesome.

One of my tallest friends comes from the Netherlands, which is familiar territory of course, but we first met in Australia (as the six people who have read In Australia can testify). Dirk is in attitude the perfect traveller: he loves every experience the travelling life throws at him. After two years in Australia, he went on to New Zealand, and then he (and his Belgian girlfriend Jess, whom he met in Australia) were planning on going to Canada.

This didn’t work out, but Dirk being Dirk I’d expected him to do something else instead – milking cows in Norway or chopping down trees in Russia would be ideas that he would listen to, then nod, and say, “Why not?” But instead, they settled down.

I was at their apartment, just south-east of Brussels, in March. And how cool it was to see them in their own place, with their own furniture, no longer sleeping in sleeping bags but under a duvet. And I thought: how cool is it to settle down into your own place? This triggered me to take that same step, a settled life, and it’s about time!

Who would you think of as an awesome, inspirational traveller? Give kudos to your favourites in the comment section down below!

Writing, revising, more writing, more revising…

The last weeks have been completely (well, almost – there’s always time for procrastination) about turning the first draft of my book into the second draft. As a writer, written words are your performance, just like a singer uses a song and a painter a canvas. Any performance has been fine-tuned; no actor hits the stage without having rehearsed the emotions needed to deliver the lines.

With writing it’s not any different.

A book is not just the story on its pages. It’s an accumulation of many ingredients – a premise, originality, humor, conflict, drama, dialogue – and all these ingredients need to fall into exactly the right place.

My first travelogues were based on trips I simply happened to undertake. I’d always wanted to go to Australia, and wrote In Australia about my two years in that wonderful, beautiful country. And then a friend asked if I wanted to buy a motorbike and ride it from Saigon to Hanoi with him. I based In Vietnam on that trip.

These two books worked because of their characters. During two years in Australia, I kept meeting the same fellow backpackers and this automatically brought continuation into the story. And the friend who had initiated the Vietnam trip automatically became the antagonist in that trip’s book. (I’m hoping he’s over it by now.)

But this new book is something entirely different.

First of all, the book was the purpose of the trip – I deliberately traveled from the polar bears to the penguins on public transport to write about it. And secondly, traveling alone on a linear journey means that no person, such as a fellow traveler, returns later on in the trip, eliminating the possibility to develop conflict, relation, and drama between protagonist and antagonist.

This of course brings along certain challenges. I remember sitting in the hostel in Churchill, with a blank page on my laptop screen in front of me, knowing that I now had to start writing the book that had brought me to that remote, little town in the first place. It was a very daunting moment, because I had no idea how to turn the first few events – arriving on the train, walking to the hostel – into compelling enough sentences.

I quickly learned that this was not even the way to go about it: I couldn’t write the story “live” – nobody wants to read about a trip verbatim. And so I just took notes – writing down conversations, the weather, thoughts, the landscape, the people, architecture, everything – and, later on, edited all that together on that blank page on my laptop screen, which ultimately grew into a document of more than 100,000 words.

One of the most powerful story telling tools is scene development, and when, as a travel writer, you share a Mexican hotel room with a pandering drug smuggler or you accidentally walk into Honduras without seeing a border guard, you’re presented with material that can be developed into the best parts of the story. It’s about selecting those events that work for the book. I took at least 82 buses between Vancouver in Canada and Ushuaia in Argentina, but nobody would want to read 82 descriptions of bus journeys. Nor would anyone want to read about the history of tens of towns only because the traveler found himself in it.

The first draft had the story as I wanted it; the second draft now has the pace, the humor, the drama, the scene development needed to tell the story with. I’ve sent it out to my local print shop for them to print and bind it. Then I’ll let it sit in a drawer for a while, a week or so, before going over it with renewed enthusiasm.

My ultimate goal is to have this story traditionally published – hard copies sold in book stores. But until then I’m enjoying this mental journey just as much as  the physical one.

The trip has come to an end

A quick post here to let everyone know that my trip down the Americas has come to an end in Ushuaia. I’m at Camping Hain in the nearby town of Tolhuin now to wrap up the writing of the book’s first draft. On February 4th I will fly to the Netherlands out of Ushuaia, with a night in Buenos Aires, and arrival scheduled on February 6th.

It has been quite the journey.

It started with hunting down a polar bear in the Canadian town of Churchill, which was pretty hard because no bears had been seen (registred) for more than one month and they don’t remain in one area. After eight hours of driving and searching, when we were just about to give up because it was getting dark, an enormous polar bear emerged from behind the rocks. (“Looking for me, boys?”)

Churchill was not only the town from where I wanted to travel to the penguins in Patagonia, but also where the railway line started. From here, the very beginning, I wanted to reach the end of the line in South-America.

It went down to Winnipeg and Vancouver, to family in California. In Las Vegas I stayed at the famous Circus Circus hotel, and from Phoenix the journey went down into Mexico.

That’s where it became more adventurous.

I shared a hotel room with a drug smuggler (“We’ll share the room and split the cost,” he’d said. “I know the town.”) during the Mexican army’s shutdown of roads due to hurricane Patricia. I had to bribe a customs agent to get out of Honduras.

Things like that.

Struggling with Spanish made things pretty complicated in the beginning, but by the time I reached Chile, it was possible to spend longer amounts of time with the locals (read: drink sessions that last until 4:30am).

At some point I reached the penguins. That day was adventurous in its own way, but at least these funny little creatures remain, unlike polar bears, in one spot and were easy to find.

You can’t help but enjoy places like La Paz (Bolivia) and Cali (Colombia). You can’t help but hate border officials. You can’t help but like colourfun encounters. You can’t help but cherish the memories.

But when you’ve reached the end of the trip, when, one day, you suddenly find yourself on the shores of the Beagle Channel after the last bus has dropped you off, you’re glad that it’s over. Travel really does wear you out. Always looking for a place to stay, finding out what time the bus is due to leave, remembering the conversations for the book, taking notes for the book, the repetition of explaining in every other town what the itinerary entails…

And now I will get this one: “What are you going to do next?”

I’ve got a fantastic story to write down. So, if you will excuse me, I will go back to Camping Hain now to sit on the lake with my laptop and work maniacally on that book. And yes, you will know when it’s done.

An alternative to Machu Picchu: The Ruins of Sondor

A step-by-step guide on getting to the Ruins of Sondor can be found underneath this article

When you visit Peru, do you feel obliged to visit Machu Picchu? Many people do. But the country has so many “alternatives,” that you can actually visit a ruin site without any other tourists. Yep, that’s right: I was the only one today at the Ruins of Sondor.

Where now?

That’s what I thought, too, when a lady told me about the site. I was on my way to Abancay, but I travelled back the next day to the city of Andahuaylas because that’s the jump-off point for Sondor. I booked into a hotel for two nights (Hostal Diamante, just outside the bus terminal, 15 soles per night) and set off the following day (this morning) to see the ruins.

The colectivo (a 15-seater filled with just locals) left the town, followed the road over a mountain, and soon the Laguna Pacucha came into view. This is a mountain lake with the farmers’ village of Pacucha on one side, and the road to Sondor on the other. The colectivo dropped me off at a split in the road, after which I had to walk for another kilometre.

Along the way I was surrounded by paddocks and grazing animals – cows and pigs happily sharing the same soil. Only that beautiful mural on the photo indicated what was ahead. The ascending road to the ruin site was an easy walk through a breathtaking landscape.

When I arrived, there was only one other person: the lady who had me sign the guest book (I’m on page 197 of the current book, look me up when you get the chance) and pay ten soles. It’s always kind of thrilling to have a place to yourself – it awakes the explorer we all have in us. There were no tour guides, no other visitors; it was just me and the ruins.





The highlight is the pyramid, where you reach the highest point:

At the top:

And it almost looks like Machu Picchu from up there, too. Almost!

Afterwards, I decided to walk back to the town of Pacucha, along the lake, taking in the sights. It was a walk through a part of Peru where they weren’t used to seeing a gringo. Life is so quiet here. The friendliness of the peasants, mostly indigenous folks, felt very welcoming in a place where I was a true foreigner. This is the road through the valley toward the lake:

A lady guides her four cows through a field to the place where she’s going to tie them up for them to graze. Behind her walks her 3-5 year old son:

The road into town from the lake:

And, of course, lamas! Peru is home to this animal, and I have seen hundreds of them living freely in the highlands. But always from behind a bus window! On the outskirts of the town, I saw four of them from upclose. The light-brown coloured one was held on a rope, while the three white ones followed the lady and the brown lama, including on their walk home through town!

Before I left the town on a colectivo, there was one last glimpse of the lake from the main square:

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to get to the Ruins of Sondor from Andahuaylas:

  1. Bring water from Andahuaylas, and perhaps some food. There’s nothing available at the site;
  2. Take a colectivo from the property near the corner of Avenida Los Chankas and Avenida Andahuaylas;
  3. Ensure the driver knows you’re going to Sondor. You’ll recognize the drop-off point by the mural, about 1.5 km after the lake. The ride costs 3 soles and takes less than 30 minutes;
  4. Take the road to the left at the split, it’s just short of a kilometre;
  5. The entrance fee is 10 soles

If you choose to walk back (which is a great way to experience rural Peru), allow for about 1.5-2 hours. In case you get bored with it, taxis and colectivos drive by all the time. Once you’re back at Pacucha, colectivos leave from the main square – one after the other.

Why an alternative to Machu Picchu?

Machu Picchu reportedly attracts about 2,500 visitors per day. That’s such a vast amount, that a few negative consequences come into view.

First, it takes the true energy of such a place away. The experience is shared with so many people that it’s hard, if not flat-out impossible, to truly absorb the place.

Secondly, it’s now a true tourist industry (=trap). People pay an extortionate amount of money to visit the site. Where does this money go to? The Peruvian driving your train (Presidential class, anyone?) and the conductor helping you on board are employed by a big company that cashes in big time, but allegedly still receive a very average Peruvian salary. Your entrance ticket is $50 or 126 soles (without the museum and Machu Picchu mountain) while Peruvians pay half (64 soles), which is an act of discrimination. A man should have more dignity than to let someone discriminate him.

Thirdly, do you want to see an Inca site, or do you want to see Machu Picchu just so that you can say that you’ve seen it? In other words, how much of your choice to go is yours? I wanted to see an Inca site, and found Sondor.