The 2017 Overland Expo West in May was the second OvEx for MTdrift. After our great experience at OvEx East in Asheville back in October, we were invited back again to talk about self-drive safaris in southern Africa. This was a solo trip for me, Julie stayed home in Montana.
I arrived early on Thursday afternoon after a quick two-day Interstate blast through Montana, Idaho, and Utah (I’ll have more posts on the trip itself coming up). The vast majority of the 200 or so vendors hadn’t even set up yet, and I snagged a pretty great camping spot in the designated OvEx instructor/staff/volunteer camping area.
I soon discovered the defining characteristic of this venue – it is gigantic. From my campground on the western end of Ft. Tuthill County Park, to the attendees’ campground on the far northeastern end (where the only showers were located) was a 30 minute walk. I deeply regretted not bringing my bike, which several folks on the forums had recommended. Let’s just say I put a lot of miles on my Salewas over two days, which wasn’t all bad.
The weather Thursday through Saturday was Arizona-spiffy. There were a large variety of food trucks to sample, a cheerful al fresco bar selling local Flagstaff beer and spirits, of course a dizzying array of rigs of all shapes and sizes, and more overlanding kit than you could shake a MAXTRAX at. Organizers were planning on 12,000 people over the course of the weekend, which I don’t doubt, but the sheer size of Ft. Tuthill meant it never really felt all that crowded (except at happy hour!).
I presented two classes on self-drive safaris in southern Africa (similar to what we taught at OvEx East), and I was a panelist on one Africa travel roundtable. I had plenty of time to wander through the parking lots and vendor areas, meet some of the world travelers who populated the “Special Vehicles” area, and just generally chill with lots of neat folks.
If you are interested in overland or adventure travel of any kind, you owe it to yourself to attend one of these expos. The opportunities for education and inspiration are unmatched in the US. Overland Expo East in Asheville offers a more intimate feel and a slower pace – the venue is more compact, and the crowds considerably smaller. OvEx West, on the other hand, has an undeniable electricity – the hundreds of vendors and thousands of attendees make for a truly exciting atmosphere.
A few open-ended thoughts before we move on to the photographs – sadly all taken on my iPotato with my wall-eyed sense of depth, light, and composition (Julie’s the photographer in the family).
- My self-drive safari courses were fairly well-attended (a good 30 or so on Friday, and fewer on Saturday). We had probably 20 explorers show up for the Africa round-table. I would say interest in Africa travel is increasing as folks get more heavily invested in overlanding and its accompanying lifestyle(s). This year I talked to a lot more people over the weekend who were actively planning, or had already booked a trip to the continent, than I did at OvEx East last fall. My students were much more informed – that might be a function of having a different audience than we did in Asheville, too.
- Regarding that “lifestyle” thing – like many leisure pursuits, the growth in overlanding and adventure travel has spawned a category of consumers that specialized manufacturers and retailers are desperate to woo. And I think all of them were populating the vendor areas. I must have seen 15 different portable grill companies. There were foldable kayaks, tents of all designs, dehydrated foods, Hi-Lift accessories, bumpers, winches, solar systems, tires, entire engines, campers, not to mention all the firms that build overlanding rigs from the ground up like EarthCruiser and EarthRoamer.
How much of this avalanche of stuff helps people actually get out into the woods and see interesting things, and how much of it ends up simply as new and shiny ways to say to the world “Hey! I just spent a whoooooole lot of money”, I’m not entirely certain. Without a doubt, one of the reasons we enjoy this kind of travel, and invest time and money into it, is our love of gear and trucks. But, like my friend Patrick Rich articulated so well in his podcast appearance with the Untitled Car Show, what’s the ultimate end? Epic drone footage and Beef Wellington on the tailgate? (I mostly ate Cup Noodles on this trip.) Or an opportunity actually to be in a particular place, at a particular time, with nothing but you, your friends and family, and the wilderness? It can probably be both at the same time – those ends aren’t mutually exclusive – but the Expo concentrates the consumer aspects of overlanding like no other experience (I mean, that’s part of the point, right?). After a while, the vendor area just became one big blur.
- People: this is why I love the Expo. Just a couple of snapshots here – I had a chance to connect with Alex and Michaela, of Greeting the World. They are doing a trans-global trip in their Delica from Australia, and I reached out to them on Facebook to encourage them to come to OvEx while they were in the US. They were open, friendly, and deeply enthusiastic (which you need to be on an around-the-world expedition). Tiffany Coates and Sam Manicom sat on my Africa travel panel. Tiffany spent two years GPS-mapping Madagascar on her 250cc bike single-handed for Tracks4Africa, not to mention her two ‘round-the-world trips. Sam is a legend in the overland moto community, and possibly the nicest guy on the face of the planet. Check out his adventure travel books. They both were extra generous with their time and knowledge. I connected with Kelsey and Tim Huber from the fantastic @dirtsunrise – Tim is a long-time instructor with the Overland Expo crew. I shared a beer and talked Africa with the always entertaining and knowledgable Pete Sweetser. Plus one more celebrity you’ll see below…
I left on Saturday afternoon. My teaching commitments at an end, sufficiently inspired to find some dirt, and with Utah a stone throw’s away, but Montana not so much, it was time. Now it’s time for some photographs.
A quick word about Andrew St. Pierre White – one of the most widely-known overland explorers on the planet: what a great guy! He is, as far as I can tell, the same in person as he is on YouTube. We chatted for about 30 minutes on Saturday morning. He’s like a juke-box – drop a dime and he will go on and on. He told me all (and I do mean all) about the plans for the electrical system in his new Land Cruiser Troopy to the point where I was well and thoroughly lost, and his daughter Kate was rolling her eyes right onto the ground. But he also listened carefully to my advice about traveling in Montana and he offered to put me in touch with a couple of his friends in Botswana. He currently wrapped up an expedition on the Canning Stock Trail in Australia’s Outback.