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Where in the world are ...
World-travelling couple roll into Yellowknife in all-terrain vehicle

Emelie Peacock
Northern News Services
Friday, September 29, 2017

This week Yellowknifers may have seen a rather odd-looking RV rolling into town.

NNSL photograph

Tina, left, and Udo Schnabel, traveling the world in a purpose built Mercedes RV that took two-and-a-half years from design to completion, are making a brief stop in Yellowknife. Each time they cross a border, an process that takes four or more hours, they switch out the flag on the right to the country flag they are traveling in. - Emelie Peacock/NNSL photo

"We get asked by a lot of people, 'What is this?'" said Udo Schnabel, who arrived here from Panama with his partner, Tina. "Some people say it looks like an army truck, some people say it looks like a mobile veterinary clinic, like a dump truck."

Udo and his wife Tina have been on the road full-time since 2015.

They travel with the seasons. Starting in Panama and making their way to Alaska, they will soon turn back around to Mexico as the winter descends upon the North.

"Our philosophy, and Yellowknife is a bit of an exception, is we always travel in shorts and T-shirt weather," said Udo, sporting jeans and a duvet vest.

Tina prefers to let Udo do the talking as the couple travels the world, her native language being German.

They travel in an RV with a trucker cab, an attached living space and massive all-terrain wheels.

Every part of the vehicle has been thought out. It took two-and-a-half years to build from design to finished product before Tina and Udo started adorning it. Flags hang from either side of the cab.

"I always go with the German flag and I always go with the country flag I'm driving," said Udo. "I've got all the country flags of North and South America and every border when I cross, I put up their flag."

A world map along the right side of the vehicle serves as a friendly conversation starter. Udo gestures at the map, saying it is Tina's and his 'rough roadmap.' On the other side of the vehicle are large photos of baby animals.

"A lot of people say this looks like an assault vehicle or an armoured vehicle and we don't want to make it like this. So we put up these pictures up here, these baby animal pictures," explained Udo.

"When you're in South America or Central America, family is a very strong tie. They come, the kids, they say, 'Oh there's a lion, there's a rhino,' and then they start talking. So the ice is broken."

Travelling through countries considered a bit more dangerous, such as Mexico or El Salvador, Udo said he is not deterred. He said the couple listens to their gut feelings about new places, learns at least a few words in the local language and uses common sense as they travel.

This is not the first time Tina and Udo have trekked around the world. The pair met in Namibia, where Udo was born and raised, and shortly after they met, they set off on a backpacking trip to South America, Australia and New Zealand.

"When we went off on our backpacking trip 26 years ago, all you have is what you can carry," he said. "Twenty kilos in your backpack, but that's it. And 26 years ago there was no Wi-Fi, there was no internet, no Facebook, nothing. The only thing you could correspond with was postcards, send them off in Africa and maybe two months later they arrive where they should go. And so our family knew, 'OK, two months ago they were there, we don't where they are now, whether they are still alive.'"

While in New Zealand, a fateful encounter with a Danish couple helped cement their life plans. The seasoned travellers advised the two to go and raise a family somewhere safe, give their children lots of love, then kick them out at 18. 'Go see the world before old age or illness catches up' was the message. Udo said he followed their advice exactly and would recommend it to anyone who has similar dreams.

Travelling the world full-time has had salutary effects, Udo said. Stress is virtually non-existent and the result is they feel more balanced and rarely face colds or flus.

"We don't know stress," he said. "You see people running around, 'I've got an appointment, this is important.' You say, no, if something is about somebody dying then it's important but to catch an appointment or to be at a place at a certain time, it's not important. I always ask them, 'Is somebody dying?' No. Then how can it be important?"

Time has also taken on a different meaning for them as they trundle along, sometimes covering less than 100 kilometres per day and spending as much time as they want in each location.

"We don't know whether it's Thursday or Sunday or the 25th or whatever, it's not important for us," said Udo. "Because as long as the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening and everything around it works, everything is fine."

Other than questions about their home-on-the-road, they often get asked which place they've visited is the most beautiful. This is something Udo said he couldn't answer with conviction.

"It's difficult to tell because every place on its own is so specific," he said.

"For example, the Grand Canyon is so different from Glacier National Park or from Alaska or from the Dempster Highway. Every one is so beautiful on its own, it's so special on it's own. So you can't compare it."

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