Other forms of transport, by Elizabeth Kay

Whatever you’re writing, on the whole, people need to get from one place to another. And the more experiences you have yourself, the more likely it is to occur to you to use something a bit different. When I started thinking about this, I decided to list every experience I’d had, but, to my surprise, there were so many that I had to create some categories. So, land, sea or air, and weather.
Weather is easiest. Snow and ice are the obvious examples. I first learned to ski in Poland with my father, when I was fifteen. I wasn’t very good at it, and I’m still not very good at it. But I did discover what it’s like to head down a slope which is far steeper than you thought, and the terror when you realise there’s no alternative to just keeping going. On the other hand, there was the sheer pleasure of a gradual descent through tracks in pine forests with hawfinches, crested tits and black squirrels. Skating was something that scared the living daylights out of me. But my six year-old daughter wanted to try it, and showing her I was frightened just wasn’t on. And to my surprise, I could do it when I had to and I actually enjoyed it. But falling over hurts, and other people get in the way! I imagine that skating on a river or a canal is very different to an ice rink, and a lot nicer. I had a sledge as a kid, which my dad made for me, but there’s not much snow in the UK, and there weren’t many hills where I lived. I went husky sledging in Norway, and that was a surprise. I didn’t expect the dogs to be so enthusiastic, but they couldn’t wait to get going. Nor did I expect it to be quite so
Tatra Mountains
smelly. There are no comfort breaks for the huskies, so draw your own conclusions... But the silence zipping along under the stars is magical. Horse and sleigh? Yes, I’ve done that too. It’s very Dr Zhivago, with tinkling bells, the creaking of leather and the occasional snort. And it’s cold, even with a sheepskin over your legs. What’s left to try? Snowboarding. Too old, I think. But what about a snowmobile? I quite fancy that.
Air travel. Aeroplanes were the only thing that frightened my dad, who had faced just about everything on the long walk from Siberia to Monte Cassino. It took me a long time to get over my fear of flying and, strangely enough, it was going up in a light plane that did it. If I’d realised that was on the itinerary, I don’t think I’d have signed up for the holiday! But it was Venezuela, and it was the only way to reach Canaima, and the foot of the Angel Falls. It felt like going down the runway in a bicycle, but six-seaters don’t go very high, and the view of the tepuis (table-topped mountains, as in Conan Doyle’s Lost World) was stunning. When we came in to land the pilot announced that he would land on the road, as the runway had too many potholes. And since then, I’ve been fine.
Coming in to Canaima
Familiarity helps a lot, of course. The more you do it, the easier it gets. I know that air travel gets bumpy when you cross from sea to land, or vice versa. I know the engine tones. I know that it changes as a plane levels out. In days gone by I could never have envisaged doing a balloon flight – but I did, over the Masai Mara. When the burners aren’t going the silence is amazing. These days, travel is accompanied by noise so frequently that to be without it is luxurious. The wildlife isn’t bothered by you, and because you’re travelling with the wind it seems that there isn’t any wind at all. The landing was a bit bumpy, but we were warned well in advance. Air travel is the category in which I have the greatest number of untried methods. Helicopter, hang glider, microlight – space travel? Even if I had the money, I don’t think I’d be up for that one!
Over the Masai Mara

Water transport. Big boats, small boats, speed boats. Power or sail or oars, I’ve done all of them. Hovercrafts. Most of us have experienced many of these at one time or another. Wind-surfing. Couldn’t get the hang of it at all to begin with, and kept falling in the water. Then, suddenly, everything clicked and I was away. A fabulous feeling of freedom, and yet being in control. And then lots of aching muscles the following day. And as for under the water… I’ve been in two submarines, once in the Mediterranean (too muddy to see much, and not much to see anyway) and once in the Red Sea, when the water was crystal clear and the fish many and varied and very colourful. These tourist subs are like small aircraft with seats by little round portholes, and are great fun. Which brings me to snorkelling, which I adore. You are exploring a new world that is so different from the one on
land that it is utterly addictive. I’ve seen Galapagos iguanas that feed on the sea floor, sea lions that wanted to play with me, huge turtles that were just quietly going about their own business. I’ve been head-butted by fish which felt I was encroaching on their spawning grounds, and made eye contact with an octopus. And the beauty of the coral and the seaweed and the anemones beats any garden. So what’s left – Scuba diving, which I can’t do for health reasons, and water ski-ing.
Uzbekistan bullet train
Land travel. In my student days I hitchhiked a lot, which meant that I got to travel in anything from Rolls Royces and E-type Jaguars to Robin Reliants, 2CVs and motorbikes. Not sure there’s much to be said about cars, although I had a few dodgy experiences in lorries abroad. But the vast majority of people were incredibly kind, and would go out of their way to get you where you wanted to go, and sometimes even buy you a meal. Train travel – anything from wretched Southern Region to bullet trains in China and Uzbekistan. Overnight trains are the most interesting. The one from Lviv to Kiev had a place to store your champagne bottle, and a lounge with easy chairs bolted to the floor and curtains at the windows. In India it was suggested that you kept
Camel ride in Mongolia
your luggage secure with chains, and use the local toilet rather than the Western one, as the locals know how to keep it reasonably hygienic. Trams in many places – a good way of getting about, but not necessarily the fastest. I’ve ridden horses and camels, both Dromedaries and Bactrians, and travelled in horse-drawn carts and a proper carriage in Krakow. In Madagascar the carts were pulled by Zebus, a sort of cow with a hump. Riding an elephant was the most interesting, however, as they are very intelligent indeed. The one I was on in Sri Lanka knew where the banana sellers were, and used to slow down as he approached them. Of course we bought some, and fed them to his questing trunk as we went along.

My friend the cuttlefish

I have a huge back-catalogue of transport ideas, and it’s the little details like the cuttlefish
following me around in the China Sea out of sheer curiosity and the Russian truck belting across the Gobi Desert without anything that looked remotely like a road to guide the driver that stay with me. And I’ve often combined experiences to create something new when I’m writing fantasy. I couldn’t have done it without the raw material in the first place.


Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for taking us on your amazing adventures, which as you point out, have involved so many modes of travel, both common and exotic. I can't say I've boarded half of these conveyances. I'd certainly go for a hovercraft ride the way you describe it. I did have to research types of 16th-century European ships, and river barges, coaches and roads for my picaresque, historical novel Ophelia Rising. One small note: I never realized that Uzbekistan has a bullet train! Decades of tryng and the mighty (fast declining, I'm afraid) United States can't seem to build any - save the Acela from Boston to DC via NY, but it's not really a bullet train, just a speedy deisel electric affair. Our largest state, California, just threw in the towel on its decades-old bullet train project - bogged down by nimbys, speculators and lobbyists for oil companies trying to corrupt and/or stop it. Pathetic. Anyway, kudos to you for another fine post!

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