It’s More Than Just Flat Tires: Overlanding Expeditions Gone Awry and Lessons Learned with Venky

When you lead overlanding adventures to the farthest corners of the globe, you're bound to run into some bumps along the way. Part of the beauty of each expedition is in these very mishaps. It's not just about the usual flat tires and air filter mishaps, though. Join Nomadic Road’s founder Venky, as he shares a rollercoaster of challenges, lessons learned from expeditions gone awry, and the catharsis that often follows the unpredictable twists at the Nomadic Road.

I'm not usually the teary-eyed type, but that night in Zambia was a different story. I remember patiently listening to a client express their disappointment - no wildlife sightings, days of endless driving with not much else. It felt like a breaking point after a series of consecutive mishaps. I couldn't hold it together and ended up shedding a few tears. The client had a point—there’s no two ways about that. The Zambia 2021 trip was like a string of disasters, one after another.

Truth be told, there were plenty of warning signs from the moment I left home. Yet, like many things in life, I only recognised them when looking back in hindsight.

To start, my car ran out of gas on the way to Mumbai airport. Imagine me pushing it for two whole kilometres until we got to the gas station. Somehow, I made it just in time for my flight. But the chaos didn’t end there. The plane, all ready to take off on the runway, suddenly stops. There's a passenger who's really scared of flying, making a fuss and wanting to leave.

Worn out, I just hoped everything goes well once I land in Zambia.

If I were to delve into a day-by-day account of everything that happened in Zambia, we'd be here forever. So, here's a brief description, no holds barred, of the mishaps, the tragedies, and the blunders from the 2021 Zambia expedition.​​

Throughout, we faced challenges like flat tires, clogged air filters, and engine troubles—standard fare on any Nomadic Road adventure, where these hurdles are integral to the thrill and unpredictability of the experience. Yet, the adventure didn't stop at these hurdles.

The plan for the Zambia expedition was simple: trace the Zambezi river from its source to the roaring Victoria falls. We rolled up to the source, ready for some grand views. But it was just a puddle, like dried leaves and no bubbles. People wondered, "Why have we come to see this?" They expected something more majestic. What we were seeing wasn't dramatic or choreographed like a Hollywood blockbuster movie.

Then, we hit Liuwa Plains for the grand wildlife migration, which was the other major focus of this expedition. There was no signs of animals thanks to unexpected rains. When we did finally spot wildebeest and zebras owing to some improvisations, they were all over the place, rather than gathered in a dramatic bottleneck. Not the Nat Geo moment we'd pictured.

Now, add in crazy delays and remote camping due to not reaching our intended destination on time. Nights in rainy places meant forgoing bathroom privileges out of fear of encountering wild animals. Adding to the adventures, a few travellers accidentally stumbled into a massive red ant hill in the dark of the night, and, on a separate occasion, a pontoon ran out of diesel in the middle of a river.

Throughout the Zambia expedition, there was a lingering sentiment of exhaustion and disappointment that just wouldn't quit.

This isn’t to say that the expedition didn’t have its charm. There was a feeling of community and camaraderie through all of it, nights brimming with dances and the cacophony of tipsy conversations, the thrill of overlanding in Zambia's unique terrain, and the occasional comforts of a hot shower and a soft bed.

Yet, a lot did go south—most of which was beyond my control.

After my return from Zambia, lots of thoughts buzzed around my head. And guess what? Another Zambia expedition was on the horizon just a week later. The lingering question: What if things go haywire again?

But the second group had a smooth ride. We witnessed lots of wildlife, including a lion hunting an impala—right in our night safari! We even spotted a lion pride in Liuwa Plains, the same spot where we had our little hiccup in the previous expedition. 

Timing, luck, call it what you will, played its hand in the tale of two Zambian expeditions.

As you may have guessed though, Zambia wasn't the only expedition where things went awry. Thankfully, the magnitude never repeated itself, but mishaps are a part of every expedition—sometimes extreme, sometimes less perilous.

Take the 2018 Iceland expedition, for instance. An unexpected blizzard hit us on the first two days, with visibility close to none. On one of the days, due to heavy snow, the road where we parked became slippery and frozen, and one of our vehicles gradually slid off the road with the wind.

When you’re up against the powerful forces of Mother Nature, you’re often rendered powerless.

Still, after each expedition, we conduct a debriefing with the team to identify areas for improvement. These insights are documented in our Blue Book of sorts, serving as a handy guide for future expeditions.

In the 2023 Atacama expedition, we anticipated a sandstorm and drew from our past experiences to prepare. As the sandstorm seemed like it could take a turn for the worse, we presented the situation to the team and put it to a vote, in a democratic fashion. The question was simple: "Should we move to the new plan or risk getting stranded here?" Unanimously, everyone opted to move forward. This flexibility and ability to make decisions on the fly allows us to navigate challenges effectively. Moments like these also lead travellers to feel truly united. They’re able to see just how much they’re capable of together.

But even with high adaptability and unity, challenges can arise. 

This takes me back to the 2021 Lake Baikal expedition, when things took a precarious turn. On the final day, the sun was shining too brightly, causing the lake ice to thin out. The ice could only support the car's weight if it was thick enough. At one point, a car almost went under. Luckily, we had the support car on standby, and we swiftly executed our plan to yank it out using a winch. Without that quick action, the car might have ended up entirely inside the lake.

The lesson learned? Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario. Moreover, with climate change impacting conditions, it's crucial to meticulously check and adjust trip timings based on weather forecasts. To avoid a repeat of the Lake Baikal incident, for instance, we rescheduled the expedition to February instead of March in 2022. In such frigid temperatures, there was no risk of the lake melting. But there were other challenges in store for us.

As we landed in Siberia, the Russia-Ukraine War began.

I remember thinking, "Oh my God, this might be another expedition we have to cancel." However, the clients were determined. They said, "Screw the war, we're here for an experience."

Needless to say, in the two years since the war broke out, we haven't revisited the area to avoid promoting travel to conflict zones. 

But the point is that challenges during expeditions are inevitable due to factors beyond our control. The key is not to avoid them, which is impossible, but to be better prepared, anticipate, and handle them calmly. It also helps to believe in the goodness and kindness of people.

When war broke out during the 2022 Lake Baikal expedition, I recall having limited internet and information from the outside world. We needed to ensure everybody’s tickets and documents were in order, just to avoid any complications. So we travelled to the nearest village for proper network access. Settling down in a coffee shop, I realised that despite the ongoing war, the locals in Siberia were nonchalant. “Come on man, the Ukranians are our brothers,” they told me.

It is often in challenging, unpredictable situations like these that we connect with locals, realizing that, even in the face of differences, conflicts, or dirty politics, we're all just human beings. 

We completed the Lake Baikal expedition successfully, and almost everyone made it back on the last flight before complete closure of the Russian-European airspace. We returned home safely.

Over the years, we've picked up valuable lessons, and one crucial one is the significance of having buffer days, especially in challenging terrains like Madagascar’s RN5

There have been times when navigating the treacherous RN5, known as the world's deadliest road, has turned a 30-kilometer stretch into a 10-hour challenge. After all, no human or machine can claim invincibility against treacherous boulders, slippery red clay, deep sand, and potholes resembling the size of pits. Having a bridge day in place ensures our schedule stays intact, providing a safety net without disrupting travellers’ last-day travel plans.

I wish I could share more about the lessons I've drawn from Nomadic Road expeditions that took unexpected turns. But the truth is, no matter how much we prepare—monitoring weather, caring for vehicles, allowing for flexibility, and being honest with clients about potential challenges—there are aspects beyond our control.

Perhaps my biggest lesson has been that mishaps of the sort can be a gateway to catharsis.

The incidents that unfold beyond our control often become the stories clients remember for a lifetime. Interestingly, it's not the seamless hotel stays and tranquil nights they seek. They might end up stranded in the middle of nowhere, sweating, with dirty hands, but it's precisely these anecdotes they eagerly share with friends, relishing the bragging rights they've earned.

This is why, when it comes to planning expeditions, we maintain a core principle: 30% of our journeys remain unplanned. We deliberately leave room for the unexpected, allowing things to unfold naturally rather than imposing a scripted approach. The goal is to put clients in situations where they can mess up without their life being at stake; where things can “go wrong” in a safe environment.

This brings to mind a remark from a client at the conclusion of our Mongolia 2022 expedition, which encountered an unforeseen hailstorm. He said, "Nothing can go wrong in a Nomadic Road expedition. Even a hailstorm is just nature; you have to embrace it."

Surprisingly, what might seem like a negative experience at the time almost always transforms into a positive memory for travellers.

The beauty of the nomadic road lies in its unpredictability.