As a part of our Break Free theme in 2013, we have started a brand new GlobetrotterGirl of the Month series. Each month, we will interview one super-inspiring GlobetrotterGirl and find out just how she was able to break free and to live life on her own terms. The longer we travel the more often we hear from people that they ‘wish’ they could do what we do, how ‘lucky’ we are or how they live vicariously through us. Believe me when I say that we feel extremely blessed and articulate to each other every day how full and exciting our lives feel. However, we have one little secret that’s not a secret at all – you can live your life this way. You can be a GlobetrotterGirl or GlobetrotterGuy, too. We will expose how at least 12 women stepped outside of their comfort zone and broke free from all those things that held them back to live the life of their dreams.
We thought we would start this out with a bang! Seriously impressed when we heard her story, this month we are interviewing Natalie, who has taken her experience driving giant trucks across Africa and South America as a tour guide to creating an overlanding adventure tour company, Infinite Adventures, with her partner Dave. They start an Alaska trip in June for small groups as soon as they have finished kitting out their big yellow school bus. Her stories of driving through Africa as quite possibly the only female truck driver/mechanic/tour guide are incredible – especially when you consider that she was a just a small town girl from Germany who took a trip that changed her life…
We hope you enjoy the interview and the new series, and as always, would love to hear your feedback and comments below.
I am from Germany. I was born in a small town, but I lived nearly ten years in Nuremberg, where I went to university and had an “office job”.
You are now running a company called Infinite Adventures. Can you tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got started?
Infinite Adventures is an Adventure Overland Tour Company. I started this company together with Dave (who I met working in Africa) as we both love the idea of overlanding and thought that this is missing in North America, especially with the rough terrain and outdoor fun that’s possible here. Travelling in a remodeled yellow school bus, we will take small groups on active adventures while exploring culture, wildlife and outdoor activities in Alaska and the Western US. The “heart” of our camping focused adventures is the overland vehicle; which has ample space to move around, tables to play cards or journal and big windows where you won’t miss a great shot of a bear or moose!
When and what steps did you take to break free?
I was looking for an alternative to my position as a project manager for a few years, but I never could quite figure out what I actually wanted in life. So in 2010, I finally decided to take a six-month break.
I confronted my boss by saying, “Either I get six months unpaid leave or I will quit.” I must have been very convincing cause I had the “yes” within two days. When I first travelled to South Africa in 2002, I fell in love with the continent. Since that first trip, I have explored many of the countries in Southern and Eastern Africa, so when I was thinking where to travel for six months I knew it was definitely there. As I hadn’t been to the Western part I started my adventures in Cameroon…
You once mentioned that after two weeks in West Africa you realized there was no way of going back to your old job. I think that many people feel that flutter of excitement when just ‘on vacation’ for two weeks. How was your feeling different to someone who feels like they could just pack up and move to Cancun or Belize during their vacation, but then ultimately go back to work? Do you feel like the feelings are very different or that you just listened to your gut whereas others might not?
Difficult question. But I think my feelings were stronger than for many other people, who might just be carried away in their holiday feeling, but ultimately enjoy having a stable life. I think that many people also see too many difficulties in starting a whole new life. My feeling of freedom was just so overwhelming I could not give it up anymore. Freedom and travelling and exploring always played a big part in my life, but I could never live it to the extent I wanted to being busy living a “normal” life: university, earning money and also being in a relationship for many years.
It was a perfect time in my life as I had no boyfriend, no kids and I was definitely over my job.
Before starting up Infinite Adventures, you were a tour leader for an overlanding tourism company, meaning you were a female driving (and repairing) huge trucks in Africa and South America. This is a particularly unconventional type of life. First of all, how did you feel as female in a traditionally male role, in traditional societies? Did you ever doubt yourself, feel unsafe, etc? Can you talk a little bit about a couple of highlights from these experiences? And also quickly – how long did you work as a tour leader in this way?
I worked as a tour leader, driver and mechanic for one and a half years between Cairo to Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro to Quito. When I started this job I had no clue about auto mechanics. I didn’t even a truck-driving license. I knew I loved working with my hands, and was just one hundred percent convinced that this is what I wanted and put all my energy towards it.
It is the best feeling in the world when you manage to fix your truck as a girl on your own.
One day my truck refused to go into reverse. I was stuck with the nose pointed to a wall. Fifteen passengers were tired after a game drive and all they wanted was to get to the next destination to relax, so the pressure was all on me. Local mechanics showed up and tried their luck, because I had initially doubted I could manage it on my own. But in the end, it was me who knew my truck best. I saw the “so-called” mechanics doing all kinds of things wrong and I just knew it was on me or we wouldn’t be leaving that day. I sat back, took a deep breath and thought about it. Then, the solution popped into my head. It took about 15 minutes to adjust the gear lever and finally my truck popped into reverse! Relief and the feeling of being invincible washed over me! I made it, on my own, without any help after all.
It’s hilarious when you are diving and guys are staring and giving you thumbs up, waving, calling others or pointing at you. Or you just pull into a service station and you already expect to hear something like “you are a far too small to drive the truck, how can you be so strong?” Most African men seem to mix up strong minds and attitudes and physical strength And it’s great when you meet African women who tell you shy and proudly, “I would love to do the same as you.”
On the topic of safety, there were hardly any moments I felt unsafe, either in Africa or South America. You very quickly get a feeling for situations and just walking like you know what you are doing makes a huge difference! For example, I had two totally different experiences in Egypt. The first time I went a few years ago, I was backpacking on my own and men wouldn’t stop harassing me. It got to the point where I really wanted to leave the country. The second time I had a purpose: I was driving a big truck, working with Egyptian men in workshops and walking down streets focused on the things I wanted and had to do. I had hardly any men harassing me and every mechanic in the workshop treated me with respect. Of course they still couldn’t believe I was driving and repairing this truck; preferring to bring me tea and getting their hands dirty instead of me.
Did you have fears related to not living a conventional life? (How you would earn enough money, retirement funds, maintaining friendships, etc?)
I had had these kinds of thoughts and fears before I left Germany. That’s why I started my travels with taking six months off and having a guaranteed job back home. But as soon as I was out in Africa and seeing all these people struggling day by day, I completely lost any fears. Most African people fight every day just to feed their families. They have the hardest life you can imagine and they are still smiling and offering you to join them for dinner. It starts to seem ridiculous worrying about your savings account or pension.
Leaving my friends and family behind is of course the hardest part. But good friends stay with you no matter what. And with Skype and email, you can stay pretty well in contact. I know my parents struggle sometimes with the situation, but there is nothing I can really do about it. Should I go home and live a life I don’t want to have?
How do you maintain your lifestyle?
Well, as a tour leader you are getting paid. Not a lot, in fact a lot less than I earned in my old office job. Personal expenses are low, so it’s pretty easy not to spend your wages and still have some tip money to buy beers.
With Infinite Adventures now, it is a little bit different. I am putting all my energy and savings into getting Infinite Adventures going. Starting a business takes hard work and sacrifice, and I hope the effort will yield success in my future. I like to say: If your dreams don’t scare you they’re not big enough!
Where have you visited that you had built up huge stereotypes about and couldn’t have been more wrong about?
Difficult question, but probably the United States of America (haha): Lots of Europeans have many stereotypes about America and so did I. And some of them are true, but living here the last few months I can see a different side of it, too. For example, I knew that this country is big, but how big it is and what consequences that has politically is interesting. The stereotype about Americans not leaving their own country becomes clearer, too. When you move around the United States you have everything from icebergs and glaciers up in Alaska to the desert in Arizona. In Europe, you would have to travel through many different countries to see so many different landscapes… Plus every state has a different culture, too.
Is there one place in particular that has changed you more than other places?
Well, this is for sure Africa as a whole continent: The people, the smells, the animals and so much more.
Do you have a book or books that have influenced you that you can recommend to our readers?
Well, I have to admit that on the road there is not much time to read. Tour leading is basically a 24-hour a day job. You see and experience so much every day that you don’t need to read about anything anymore, you’re LIVING it! But, if I have time, I do love reading books about the countries I am visiting: fiction or travel writing – that doesn’t matter. I really liked Ryszard Kapuściński who wrote awesome travel books. At the moment I am reading Travels in Alaska by John Muir and getting excited about outdoor adventures…
What music is playing on your speakers right now (or, do you have favorite bands/genres/ for work/social occasions)?
Haha, sorry, this is a funny question and all my former passengers and co-drivers know why… not sure if I should embarrass myself and tell you that I love pop, 80s and all that dance stuff. When I am driving, I usually perform my silly “driving/cab dance” which involves raising one arm in the air…enough said.
Who is your role model/mentor; whom do you look to for leadership?
Actually no one in specific: I admire people who have the courage to live a life off the beaten path… and those people who fight for their freedom and human rights…
How many countries have you been to?
What is the one place you haven’t been that you can’t wait to go?
One place? This world is far too big and so many things are waiting out there! Well, first it will be the wilderness of Alaska, but I am not going to stop there…
What’s on the horizon for Infinite Adventures?
In the next few months we are focusing on the remodeling of the school bus. We already have the back locker and all the storage facilities in and there are many more things to come: seats and tables, the roof rack, a new entry door… at the moment I am also looking into all the equipment we need: tents, kitchen equipment and of course, tools – I can’t wait to be under a truck again!
Our first trip will start in June, departing from Anchorage. You can find out more about this Alaskan Wilderness Adventure here.
Where and how can people get in touch with you?
Let’s keep the dialogue going here, too! If you have questions or comments, please leave them below. Also, are you a GlobetrotterGirl or do you know someone who would be perfect for this series? We are always looking to connect and have a few spots left in our series for the year. GlobetrotterGirls don’t need to be bloggers - they must live large, dream bigger and, of course, trot the globe in some way or another. You can email us info at globetrottergirls dot com or click ‘Contact Us‘ above.