Notes from an author: John Ahern

Travelling the world in a camper van with your family for a year demands military planning and, if you won't backtrack, the iron guts of a Viking sailor, says John Ahern

By John Ahern
Published 12 Aug 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:28 BST
John Ahern

John Ahern

Photograph by John Ahern

I hate backtracking. It's a travel obsession of mine. The mere thought of returning the way I've come makes me sweat and twitch. It offers no new adventure and promises no surprises. In Norway, my wife and two kids quickly learnt that I would do anything to avoid it.

We were driving north towards the Arctic Circle's Lofoten Islands, a 60-mile long archipelago that stretches out into the Norwegian Sea. After some research, however, it became apparent that to get to the island chain's southernmost tip required a 750-mile round trip; a serious backtrack. Insisting there had to be another way, I started scanning maps and brochures with fervour, eventually declaring, "I found a short cut!" — a seagoing ferry from mainland Bodo.

My wife Mandy was worried about a storm warning, but with no intention of letting poor weather create days of backtracking, I calmed her. "They'd cancel the boat if it was too rough," I said, as though I had an intimate knowledge of Norwegian ferry policies.

That afternoon, as we drove on to the ferry, I noticed the staff running steel cables through all the vehicle's wheels and bolting them to the floor. It was a huge vessel, filled with salt-rusted fishing trucks and their brawny unshaven owners, and I'd never before seen this tie-down precaution. A woolly mammoth of a man growled, "Storm coming. Could be a bit rough." There was something about the understated way he said "a bit rough" that filled me with dread. I decided not to share this with my family.

Within minutes of the boat entering the unprotected waters of the Vestfjorden my suspicions were confirmed. The craft started bobbing like a toy in a bathtub, swooping up and down over one giant wave after another. People stumbled and fell across the deck, and for the duration of the 55-mile pounding cruise, my wife joined a dozen other spew kinsmen at the back of the boat. When the ferry eventually entered calmer waters, Mandy returned to her seat, but her ready acceptance of my 'no-backtracking' mantra had weakened: "I hate your shortcuts!"

Finally, the island emerged as a massive silhouette through the blanket of misty rain. It was volcanic, dark and foreboding, as though we were arriving at a dastardly criminal's secret island lair. Towering up out of the sea, thousand-foot, sheer-faced cliffs soared and disappeared into the low clouds. The hulking shadow was sprinkled with the white dots of seagulls squawking and diving.

Disembarking, we drove through engulfing fog to the Lofoten's southernmost village of Å, a cluster of red cabins cantilevered on stilts out over its small harbour, backdropped by mountainous glacier-carved walls. Off season, it was an eerie scene, almost skeletal with a network of timber poles — for drying 16 million cod each year — crisscrossing the landscape. Nothing moved, but the post office was open, renting out rorbeurs, the old red huts that were first built by the Viking kings for fishermen, to tourists.

My family were cold, tired, smelly and sad, and that was before the boat vomitathon. So when the shopkeeper drawled, "The hot showers will blast your skin like a fire hose," I immediately booked one.

Our rorbeur jutted out over the harbour's lapping water. The odd boat chugged past, gulls screeched and shower water blasted. Being our first 'day off' in many, I started scratching a letter home to my mum, one of my favourite travel activities. She would later read these longhand-scrawled diatribes, sharing my sometimes too personal brain-dumps with her friends. In the past I wrote to her of train derailments, being locked in an African jail, and being a stowaway on a cargo plane over the Amazon. But sharing a camper with two small kids under five was a scarier challenge than those.

Written in the now, raw and unedited, these letters would become the backbone of my memoir about my family's life-changing gap year. Over the next 12 months, we travelled through 30 countries, from the Arctic Circle, through Europe to Morocco, Turkey and back. We did seven more ferry crossings, bribed Bulgarian border guards, were attacked by apes and entered only one country illegally. But we rarely backtracked. I'd do anything to avoid that.

John Ahern is the author of On The Road With Kids, published by Summersdale (RRP £8.99).

Published in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2023 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved