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Women on the Road

Unusual Transportation Methods
When Everyday Travel Isn't Enough

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Flying may be the safest and fastest way to travel but unusual transportation could turn a humdrum journey into an exciting adventure.

There's more to travel than getting from A to B and for many of you, the journey is as important as the destination.

I've traveled by camel, by donkey, by river barge and by kayak. And I have friends who have gone cross-country on horseback, journeyed by dogsled or cycled across continents.

Travel by camel
This type of travel was African's mainstay but it's now rare - although it hasn't quite disappeared. Just a dozen years ago I met a camel caravan traveling along the border between Niger and Nigeria, and it was every bit as colorful as it might have been a hundred years ago. If you want to try taveling by camel, you'll find safaris in Mongolia and India, or in the northern part of the Sahara where you can wander off into the desert for a few days or a week on camelback, as I did in Morocco recently. If you're ever in the United Arab Emirates, El Ain's camel market is apparently worth a visit - if you want to buy your own.

Unusual transportation by camelGetting from A to B is half the fun - like me here, heading into the Moroccan desert

Travel by donkey
Now that's a form of unusual transportation, but it depends where. Across central France and northern Spain it's not wholly uncommon to see people on a pilgrimage to Santiago pulling their donkey along (most hike, but the occasional bray does make itself heard). Or travel like author Dervla Murphy in Eight Feet in the Andes, about her travels in South America, or In Ethiopia With a Mule. There are plenty of tales of travels with donkeys or mules but don't get too excited - they tend to carry your packs, not yourself. In Ethiopia I did take a short trip on a mule but I turned back, convinced I was too heavy for the poor beast.

Travel by kayak
Kayaks aren't just for lakes and rivers and if the current's going your way, you can travel long distances across the sea. It's a painless ride - slip in, push away and start paddling. I don't like water but for some reason the smoothness of being so close to the water eliminates the fear. And they show up in the strangest places: I was lying on an empty beach at Nungwe on the Zanzibar shore one warm Christmas when two kayaks beached and the paddlers rose out of the water: they had been traveling down the coast from Kenya, something that wouldn't be safe to do these days. Kayaks may be a bit heavy, but at 16lb/7kg some of the new-generation inflatable ones like the FireFly can actually be carried.

Travel by freighter
Freighter travel was hugely popular in the seventies but with the arrival of huge container ships much of the romance was gone. It seems this is changing and I've heard cargo travel is again in vogue. This is cheaper than cruising, and in many cases costs less than staying in a hotel, especially if you're keen on offbeat ports few cruise ships ever approach. If you love the sea, this could be a great way to stay afloat for months, far from tour groups and shopping adventures.

Travel by river barge
Long a favorite in France or the Netherlands, a barge is more for short-term travel simply because it has limitations - it can't go everywhere. The exception is the Brazilian Amazon, where river barges ply the mighty waters heading far upstream. In many parts of the Amazon they're the only transportation you'll find. With dozens of hammocks sandwiched on deck, it's definitely an experience, and I can vouch for that personally. It's not a leisure trip but it does get you from one place to the next along the mighty river. As I spend a lot of time avoiding motion sickness and don't like the open sea, any kind of river transport is ideal. 

Travel by bicycle
Cycling long-distance doesn't really qualify as unusual travel, certainly not in some parts of the world where two-wheel travel is more the norm than the exception - like anywhere in Europe, for example, where pedaling up rugged mountains even a car labors to climb is a common sight. That's not the case everywhere, or for everyone. Take travel writer Dervla Murphy, whose Full Tilt chronicles her journey across Europe to India in the mid-sixties, Miles from Nowhere by the late Barbara Savage about her two-year trip around the world with her husband (not just about the good times, either), and Changing Gears by fellow travel writer Nancy Sathre-Vogel, who documents her family's bike ride from Alaska to Argentina.

Travel by recumbent bike
If sitting for hours on a bicycle isn't your idea of fun, a recumbent bike might be: you get to pedal, but you get to do it lying down with your legs stretched out. Not quite like a nap but an intriguing form of unusual transport, which you can occasionally see ride by. I've never tried one but they're said to be both faster and more comfy than a regular ride, unless you're climbing. Imagine they're great conversation-starters, too.

Travel by camper van
If you were backpacking in the sixties and seventies (and some of us were), you'll remember the ubiquitous Volkswagen vans dotting the Hippie Trail across several continents. They were usually furnished with a foam mattress and little else, as thousands of young people searching for something headed East. Many of them are in corporate jobs now but the campervan is making a comeback. It doesn't quite qualify as unusual transportation but it's definitely less common than flying or taking the train. And these days it's much more comfortable.

Hippy campervanI think I traveled across Spain to Morocco in something like this... many years ago (photo courtesy

Travel by motorcycle
Plenty of women travel by motorcycle - they certainly don't consider it unusual transportation. And many of them keep records of their travels by writing about them. Carla King is a pioneer in solo motorcycle travel, and her book How to Choose a Beginner Bike, written for women, is hugely helpful. Carla wrote American Borders about her solo trip around the US on a Russian bike. You'd be surprised how many women travel long distance in this way. You can also check out Beth Whitman, who rode her bike solo from Seattle to Panama. I also hanker to take a long motorcycle journey - but I'd have to learn to ride first!

Travel by dogsled
You definitely need snow for this most unusual transportation method, not to mention a pack of dogs, a driver and quite a few skills. If you're a fan of sub-zero temperatures (and I know at least a few of you are), mushing may be just the thing for you. You don't need to race the Iditarod in Alaska, but a few days in Greenland, Scandinavia or other northern destination may make that hot, humid rainforest look awfully good.

Have you ever taken a trip using unusual transportation? What kind and where did you go? Please let us know in the comments below!