Korea: The South

Korea: The South

An old overlanding trick we learned long ago was to start thinking about your exit from a country shortly after you arrive. That may seem a tad hasty, but it really isn’t, especially when your only route out is by sea and there is just one ferry line that takes vehicles to your destination. Such was our predicament in South Korea.

Camelia Line ferry, Busan ( Korea ) to Fukuoka ( Japan ). Courtesy, Klook.

With that in mind we reached out to the Camellia Line once we knew we had our van on the ground here. Lucky we did- turns out that the week we hoped to ship on to Japan was the ship’s annual “maintenance” week ( hence no sailings ). We’d thus need to bring said departure date forward a few days or push it back over a week, so we opted for the former, giving us a bit less than a month here, rather than a bit more. Still enough time but we’d have to ditch plans for Jeju-do ( a popular island in the far south of Korea ), plans that were not in any case firm and would have necessitated yet another long return ferry ride. Being a bit “shipped out” at this stage we were quite happy to limit our travels to mainland South Korea.

Adjusting for the earlier ferry date, our remaining time here would allow for a swing south to Gyeongju, out west to Gayasan National Park, down south to Namhae and east on to Tongyeong before wrapping up in Busan from which we were now booked to sail on to Kyushu, Japan. All places highly recommended by the Koreans we’d met and which, judging by the visits of overlanders ahead of us, had been popular with them as well.

Early in the week we passed this sign on the expressway – had no idea we were travelling on part of a 20,000+ km highway that stretched from Japan to Korea to China to India and on to Turkey. Such is the Asian Highway, the AH1.

If Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan, Gyeongju is its Korean twin. A smaller, easily navigable city, it has more temples, palaces, burial grounds and other historic sites than the average visitor is ever likely to see ( including us ) so we leaned on “Dr. Google” to give us its top 3 or 4. Excellent choices, all, and our time was well spent between the magnificent Gyeongju National Museum, Bulguksa Temple, Donggung Palace and Woljeonggyeo Bridge. If you’ve a real passion for Korean history, this is the place to spend time- so much of Korea’s dynastic history was centred in this part of the county and remnants are everywhere. Our pick was the National Museum, so informative, and the displays and organization overall were just first class.

Ornate gold, Gyeongju National Museum.
Stone carving, Gyeongju National Museum.
Armour plate from a warrior, Gyeongju National Museum.
Donggung Palace viewed across Wolji Pond
We were ( pleasantly ) surprised how often we saw young Korean girls at tourist sites wearing the traditional costume. We noticed it in Seoul, Seoraksan and again in Gyeongju.

Woljeonggyeo Bridge.
Bulguksa Temple.

From Gyeongju the next move was west, via Daeju ( another massive Korean city ) to Gayasan National Park. It’s famous fo a couple of well known hikes and the historic Heinsa Temple. Enjoyed the temple but got mixed directions on the hikes – ended up on the wrong trail and walked far further than we had to for a less impressive experience. We figured the exercise never hurts !

Beautiful drive into Gayasan.
Namsan Jeilbong peak. Gayasan NP ( at least this peak ) was a bit disappointing simply because there was so little foliage on the trees at this time. We’d see more stunning vistas elsewhere.
On the hike to Namsan Jeilbong peak ( Gayasan NP ).
Pathway to Heinsa Temple, Gayasan NP.
Heinsa Temple.

Heinsa Temple.
Heinsa Temple, inside, home to the Tripitaka Koreana , the most complete collection of Buddhist texts, engraved on 80,000 woodblocks between 1237 and 1248.

Our next move was more or less directly south to the island of Namhae – decidedly greener, warmer and in general, prettier than the landscapes we’d seen so far. We managed to score an amazing campsite right on the water at Sangju Beach which, in one fell swoop, redeemed our hitherto disappointing view of Korea’s camping offerings. Fantastic to meet some great locals who insisted on sharing some Korean BBQ food with us and introduced us the Soju, Korea’s national drink – not bad!

Best camping in Korea so far – Sangju Silver Sand beach. We were definitely “wowed” !
It was more reminiscent of Thailand than Korea. Water not quite as warm, mind you…!
A great evening was shared with our Korean camping neighbours……

…..who introduced us to “soju” ! Amazing hospitality.

In addition to great beaches and some of the prettiest views we’ve seen in the country, Namhae is home to the Admiral Yi Sun Shi museum and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit, honoring Korea’s most famous naval hero ( globally ranked up there with Nelson and others ) – 23 battles and no losses, an incredible record. One of his great tactics was to use so-called “turtle ships” to defeat the numerically superior Japanese forces who threatened Korea at the close of the 16th century. Turtle ship replicas and Yi memorials are common in the southern islands, the very area in fact, where many battles were fought 400 or so years ago.

Legendary Admiral Yi, Namhae.
A replica 16th century Korean “turtle ship”, Tongyeong harbour.
Wall mural, Admiral Yi museum, Namhae.

Traveling the scenic coastal roads around the islands of Namhae, Tongyeong and Geoje would consume most of our remaining time in Korea, a very relaxing way to wrap up our time here. As has been the norm everywhere in this country the Korean people have been unreservedly warm, friendly and helpful – without exception they have been impressed to see foreign travellers exploring their country in some depth ( and, truly incredulous that we brought our own vehicle ! ).

Koreans do their own version of fried chicken ( hugely popular here ) and we were constantly asked if we’d tried it. In Namhae we did – it is absolutely delicious, best we’ve ever had !
Typical coastal scenery around Namhae and Tongyeong. A really beautiful part of South Korea, which we spent days just exploring.

Hallyeohaesang NP, Namhae. A very steep climb near the top but the views made it worthwhile. Beacons like this, atop high peaks, were part of a smoke and fire signal communication system to warn of enemy invasions.

From Namhae and Tongyeong the outlying islands are all connected by bridges ( and then quite a long undersea tunnel ) back to the mainland again, just west of Busan. Busan, Korea’s second biggest city and a major port, stretches more or less lengthways across the south coast. It’s a thriving, bustling place and the many offshore highways ( nowhere to build more highways on the coastline ) afford great views of the city and and its mountain backdrop. We’d heard in advance that, rare among big cities, it had an an incredible spot to park up for the two nights we’d be there – the Busan Yacht Club. A truly amazing spot, central, in a very upscale neighbourhood with all amenities nearby. Predictably it is packed with campers ! If one needed any proof that Korean’s have taken to camping, or RV’ing in a big way, this was it. Our time in Busan was mostly organizational, arranging the shipping out, scoping out access to the International Ferry Terminal ( unfortunately right downtown ) but also managed some exploring and last minute shopping ( there is plenty of choice ! ).

Finally made it to Busan. A massive city, the drive in was, er, shall we say, interesting ! Parked up at everyone’s favorite, the Busan Yacht Club. They seem to allow lots of campers in here – it was full to overflowing. Rare to get a place like this in the heart of a big city – and on the waterfront.

View from Busan Yacht Club at night.

I’ll close this week’s blog on a little historical footnote. As we were walking along a downtown Busan street to the subway, we passed a huge walled complex with a police presence out front – we were unsure of what it was initially. I then noticed the bronze statue of a young Korean girl sitting, just staring ahead with an empty chair beside her. I then recognized what it represented and where we were ( we’d not gone looking for this ). She was the symbol of thousands of young girls ( and older women ) taken away from their homes and used as “Comfort Women” by the Japanese Army during WW2. It’s been a hugely contentious issue between Japan and Korea for decades, the Koreans feeling that the Japanese government has not properly acknowledged what happened, nor atoned for its war-time actions. A number of former comfort women survive to this day, and for many years have sought to bring visibility to the issue. That building the statue sits in front of ? The Japanese Consulate in Busan.

Comfort Women monument, Busan.

By the time this blog goes out we’ll be in Japan so I have added a separate “shipping” edition this week as previously promised – all nitty, gritty detailed shipping stuff so not a relevant read to most. Oh, and for those interested, Lois won the bet – in almost 4 weeks there we saw tons of RV’s and campers but not one single other overland traveller who shipped their rig in, ( darn ! ).

While very excited to be returning to the Land of the Rising Sun, we leave Korea with real sadness and a huge appreciation for the places we visited, the amazing people we encountered and a real “Wow” of total respect for the incredible economic miracle Korean’s have performed in developing this amazing country into what it is today. We hope, one day, to visit again.

Korea: Random Observations:

Each week as we roam around, we encounter situations, places and practices that we find interesting and which really shine a light on the people and culture of a country. As we leave Korea, I’d thought I’d share some here:

Filling the van ( with water ) required some creativity at times – here, we asked a fuel station attendant if we could use his tap/hose and he graciously obliged. Korean fittings differ from ours – lucky I have a gravity fill input on one side ( it’s saved us often ). Just like any other time we have needed assistance, Koreans have always been incredibly willing to help – no matter how weird our requests might seem !
ATM’s are everywhere in Korea, but not all are linked to the global Cirrus/Plus systems. We tried many before we were directed to a specific location with a “Global” ATM. Quite nerve-wracking when you think you’ll have no access to cash ! We were both offered coffee and cookies by the staff, just for making a withdrawal ( a no-fee withdrawal, no less) ! Amazing….
While at the bank ( with the Global ATM ) I noticed they provided a selection of reading glasses for elderly customers to use who might come to the bank without their own. They are all about service here……..and are acutely aware of the needs of the elderly.
It’s a fact – Koreans are getting old. You see road signs everywhere warning you to watch out for the elderly ( and you see LOTS or very elderly people ); as we approached these signs our Korean “Naver” navigation app would say, “Caution, ‘silver’ zone ahead !”. South Korea also has the world’s lowest birth rate and it is a source of national concern and much discussion.
HomePlus is a great grocery store, but in Gyeongju, exiting the gated parking lot required that a code from our shopping receipt be input into a machine that gave us an exit authorization, linked to our licence plate number. Ummm, what to do with a Canadian plate ? The helpful staff member came out and gave us an “override”. Sometimes there is too much technology in Korea !

Till next week…

Korea: Mountains & The Coast

Korea: Mountains & The Coast

As we left the Imjingak area I took a rather serendipitous opportunity to deal with a nasty little issue that had arisen just prior to leaving Melbourne.  With only days left in Australia the water pump had failed ( camper water pump, not van engine water pump ). No time to deal with it there and we could get by on bottled water short term, but knowing we needed a long term solution I purchased a new one while in Canada and brought it with us to Korea. I had the presence of mind to bring all the small imperial measure fittings that might also be needed, but forgot that I would need a drill to remount the replacement unit. Where to rent a drill in Korea ? Fortunately, as I knocked on the front door of the first “campground” we were to stay at, I noticed the owner had (sitting right there on a nearby counter ) just what I needed! The inclusion of a loaned power drill made the steep campground fee bearable and within a few hours I had the old pump removed and the new one installed – bingo, we had running water again. Pure bliss, and a good start to another week in Korea.

Our first formal Korean campground ( well, perhaps “formal” is a stretch ). We were alone there, too early in the season for most Koreans. Hey, the owner had a drill, which I desperately needed, so we stayed.
There, to my left as I walked inside to pay the campground owner, among a slew of other tools, was an old ( but still working ) drill.

….and once it was all done, we had running water again.

Folly that we might think just by leaving the Imjingak and Gangwha Island area we’d be done with the heavy South Korean military presence. In fact, as we headed east towards Sokcho ( on the coast ) we saw more military vehicles, more military installations, heard more military jets and saw more military “devices” than we had back nearer to Seoul. On reflection, this should not have been surprising. Although only at certain points were we again close to the border with North Korea, there are of course many points along the northern frontier that a possible invasion might come from ( as was seen in 1950 ); to that end the South lives in a state of constant readiness. Troops, both US and ROK, are based in various camps in the area and all civil infrastructure is designed in such a way to quickly thwart the progress of any North Korean aggression – a few images below will explain that ( pretty clever, the South Koreans ! ):

At random points near the N. Korean border, large concrete blocks are balanced on the roadside, usually on both sides, ready to be deliberately collapsed onto the road. A small explosive charge is all that is required to destroy the supporting “legs” and hence make the road impassible.

We passed countless military vehicles like this, and many tanks.

Our travels east took us on a bit of a zig zag route (generally avoiding freeways) through the pretty lakeside city of Chuncheon, Hwacheon, the incredibly circuitous ( but very scenic ) route to the Peace Dam Park and on, eventually, to Soeraksan National Park, our next major destination.

The Peace Dam was constructed solely to prevent South Korea being destroyed by an accidental ( or deliberate ) flood created by a dam breach on the North Korean side of the border.The base of the dam is massive and designed to stop a deluge from the North.

We were able to ring the Peace Bell,( made from old shells and casings from past conflicts around the world ).
The bell is missing one tiny piece – it will be added when Korea reunifies.
Saw some of the fullest cherry blossoms on a lakeside walk in Chuncheon.
Saw this “campsite” in Chuncheon and asked about staying….
….turned out their focus was on selling “glamping” ( for a couple of nights – or more- in an on-site upmarket tent ). We would come across this kind of camp site quite often. They were not interested in us parking on site !

Soeraksan is one of Korea’s top national parks and stunning in its landscape – neither Lois or I expected mountains this high, this rocky, nor ( so late in the year ) to still be snow-capped ! A very pleasant surprise. Sadly, what was not a pleasant surprise were more “Public Alerts” on our phone addressing the poor air quality ( blamed on particulate matter from Chinese factories just across the West sea ) which left otherwise beautiful days with a blue-ish haze; not conducive to good photography, unfortunately. This would follow us for the next few days. We actually spent a couple of nights at Soeraksan and got in some lengthy ( well, lengthy for us ! ) hikes and a spectacular gondola view. Two weeks later and the cherry blossoms would have made it even nicer ( more of that down south we hope ) but we were just a bit early for that this far north and this high.

First views of Soeraksan NP. Surprised to see snow.
Mountains, Soeraksan NP..

A cable car / gondola made for a speedy ascent.
Views from here were wonderful.
Selfie, Soeraksan NP.
Sheer rock face, Soeraksan N P.
Statue of Buddha, Soeraksan N P.

While in the Sokcho/Soeraksan area we had finally made a couple of important ( to us ) discoveries. First, we discovered a Korean laundromat ( we’d been struggling to find one ! ) and second, we realized that “HomePlus” was in fact a giant Korean grocery store ( which we also desperately needed ) and not ( as we had assumed ) a Korean version of Home Depot ( a large North American hardware store ). Now we could both wash our clothes and, finally, stock up on life’s little luxuries. The selections at HomePlus were indeed impressive.

After getting by with 7/11 type convenience stores we finally stumbled upon a “real” grocery store. Heaven !

Been to a lot of laundromats in our travels, never to one that had a special machine for washing shoes ( and a shoe drying machine beside it ) ! Sokcho, Korea.

Beyond the attractions up north, there was a geographical gap (further south ) to the next areas of interest to us. Korean’s we’d met encouraged us to fill that with further exploration of more of their excellent National Parks. Beyond Soeraksan we travelled to and hiked in Chiaksan NP, and took a rather twisty, circuitous and very narrow road around Korea’s largest lake, Chungko, which delivered us some of the best cherry blossom viewing on the trip so far.

Lois, Chiaksan NP.
Chiaksan NP.

Further south, through Danyang, a popular tourist area for Korean’s, we made a couple of pit stops to check out at least a few of Danyang’s famous “8 views”. These were less than notable, and we were glad we’d not detoured too significantly to take in these “attractions”. If they were a bit underwhelming, the UNESCO recognized Hahoe Folk Village in nearby Andong definitely was not. A very well preserved traditional Korean village with buildings dating to the 1500’s, it was very impressive. Very authentic ( and still lived in ) it was also surrounded by some of the best cherry blossoms we’d seen in Korea so far. Only after we’d almost completed our visit here did we realize that no less than HRH Queen Elizabeth herself had visited in 1999 !

Us, walking the cherry blossom pathway, Hahoe village, Andong.
View across rice field and cherry blossoms to traditional Korean village, Andong.
Hahoe Village, Andong.
Hahoe Village, Andong.
Dodamsambong, ( 3 Peak Island ), supposedly representing the typical love triangle of ancient Korea ( husband, wife and mistress )
Sainam cliff, Danyang.

I’ll close with a few important learnings from this past week on the road here ( seems there is some tip or trick we pick up almost every day ! ):

  1. Expressway rest stops serve two other useful purposes ( in addition to offering fuel): a) a place to get rid of rubbish ( rubbish bins being VERY scarce in Korea ), and b) a place to park up for the night when all else fails ( they’ve saved us once already ! ).
This is where we usually have to go to dump our garbage bags ( expressway rest stops ). It is very difficult to dispose of rubbish in Korea.
Typical highway rest area, this one near Danyang. A safe park-up when nothing else is available.

2. The country has more tunnels than any other we have ever visited ( and yes, we’ve been to Switzerland ! )

3. Almost all car washes in Korea are those low clearance automatic ones – we looked long and hard to find a high clearance hand held spray wash ( and still only just made it underneath ). Ten days in the country before we found one like this.

4. We’ve accepted that we’ll never figure out how to get a Korean toll payment machine to accept our credit card ( or even cash ! ). Wait long enough, though and one of these ever helpful toll collectors will come out of the toll booth and help us out !!!!

5. And, finally, we realized there ARE other campervans in Korea ( many people had us believe we’d be the only ones ). Here, two others parked beside us at Soeraksan and below a few more we saw free camping in a municipally designated free camping area near Imjingak. That said we’ve yet to meet anyone else who brought their rig in – Lois and I have a bet going, I say we’ll see at least one, she thinks not. Who’ll win….?

Here, we’re parked up at Soeraksan, wedged in between a couple of Korean “camping cars”.
Korean campers, roadside designated camping area, near Imjingak. Still not mainstream in Korea but catching on.

Till next week……..

Korea: We Have Wheels!

Korea: We Have Wheels!

As our first few days in Korea wrapped up we were feeling optimistic about next steps – namely, getting to Pyeongtaek port and arranging to collect our van. Separated for almost 7 weeks, we were anxious to be reunited with our rig. Staying in downtown Seoul hotels was a nice change of course, but there is nothing like having your own wheels – and bed, and kitchen, and bathroom, and sofa and…..basically, all your stuff in one place ! We had missed that.

Prior to heading down to Pyeongtaek with JB from YCL Logistics, we still had some more sightseeing to do in Seoul. This thriving city of over 10,000,000 is Korea’s economic and cultural hub and offers much to the visitor. Imperial Palaces, famous markets, great restaurants, home of “K-pop”, one of Asia’s hippest suburbs, an amazing War Museum and a truly vibrant downtown. Connecting it all is one of the best, fastest, cleanest and most affordable subway systems we’ve seen anywhere. Especially notable was the lack of graffiti and the fact that the subway information was always posted in 4 languages ( Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese) – there are not many places where you see that and just another great example of the lengths Korean’s go to in order to make navigating this huge city as easy as possible for all visitors. We also found the Korean people to be incredibly friendly – more than once people actually approached us ( when we were staring blankly at maps ! ) to offer assistance. Safe to say that Seoul left a great impression on us and had us hankering to see more of the country.

Street near our hotel. Street name in English, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Meticulously clean Seoul subway – seen here at a quiet time of day !
Must say, this was a first : our hotel in Seoul ( room was on the 3rd floor ) offered a “ Life Line”. Upon opening the box it was a nylon rope you could use to exit via the window in case of fire. Luckily we had no need to use it !
Wander the backstreets and you occasionally find a gem. This local restaurant offered the best prosciutto pizza we had eaten in ages.
Always nice to get a good “foodie” surprise.
Throughout the museum the Koreans go to great lengths to recognize the support of all UN nations who supported the South against the North Korean invasion.

One is left in no doubt as to who the “bad guys” were.
The museum has Douglas MacArthur’s famous old corn pipe.
One of the greatest planes of WW2, the P51 Mustang saw lots of action in Korea.
This was touching. A monument at the Korean War Memorial depicting two brothers, separated when the Korean peninsula was divided, leaving one fighting for the North and for the South. They actually met on the battlefield.
Monument depicting the split of Korea and the hope that one day the Korean people will see their country unified.
General Yi Sun-Shin.
King Sejong, Seoul. A revered leader, King Sejong is credited with developing the Hangul alphabet which Koreans now use. Previously they used Chinese characters
National Museum of Korea – ornate royal garment.
Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul

Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul
Modern art, downtown Seoul.
First we found Gangnam station……..
…..not far away we found Psy !
Gangnam – hippest part of town in Seoul. Can’t beat Gangnam Style !

I’ll leave the full “blow by blow” blog of vehicle importation steps in Korea till we leave and merge that with the steps for exporting the vehicle. Putting it all in one place and tagging it appropriately will make it accessible via a general Google search to those that follow us in Korea and wish to see what’s involved. It’s absolutely invaluable to have a current example of what the process looks like. But, more on that in a few weeks.

JB Chang  escorted us to the Port of Pyeongtaek and after some minimal signatures, ID checks, and a short wait we walked through the gate to see our van. All alone, covered in a light coating of dust, but otherwise in perfect shape ! The inside was still quite clean (we’d left it sparkling ), things appeared in order and, most importantly, no one had tampered with the Slicklock on our rear doors, which secured them closed. That was a good omen, because in all likelihood everything that we had stored inside the garage area of the van was likely to still be there. Using a key that only I had, the Slicklock was opened, and there before me was everything neatly stacked just as we left in the Melbourne . I can’t overstate what a huge relief that was given that we had seen some serious theft from both previous RoRo passages. No need to fight with insurance companies, no need to pay large excess/deductibles, and most importantly, no need to be living without critical items that are not easily replaceable on the road ! I gave Lois a big high 5 as I drove through the gates to pick her up – she was waiting just outside. A very nice start to our road travels in Korea!

JB drove us from Seoul to Pyeongtaek in his own car, a very nice new BMW.
Pyeongtaek International RoRo Terminal ( PIRT ) through which our van was unloaded ( Photo courtesy P.I.R.T. ).
Thank you, JB !
Out of the port, first step was to fill the van with diesel. Hmmmm, how to distinguish between the diesel pump and the gasoline/petrol pump when everything was written in Korean. No room for error there…!

We had driven a couple of hours south of Seoul to pick up the vehicle and now we would begin our planned route around the country. Step one was to get out of Pyeongtaek and find a rest stop for the night ( it was getting late ) and step two was to head into the city of Incheon where I had really been looking forward to visiting the Memorial Museum of the Incheon Landing ( sort of a Korean War “D Day” equivalent – in WW2 terms ). 

First lesson learned  in Korea ( which came as little surprise ) – there aren’t many formal campsites here (in the Western sense) so we knew we would be relying on tips from those that went before us who had documented their rest stops on the trusty iOverlander app. A quick glance at the whole country map revealed that there certainly were not very many of these and most of those were three or four years old (hence, probably of dubious relevance today). Furthermore ( as we would soon discover ), of the few campsites that did exist, many were closed because it was not yet high season. Finding a place to stay each might require more creativity than we thought……

Thanks to notes from a lady who last stayed here way back in 2019 we found the parking lot where she rested, near a Catholic Church, not far north of Pyeongtaek. It was late, and we were tired; “any port in a storm”, as they say.

The second lesson came in Incheon. As big and congested as the city is we did not find driving there to be difficult but it certainly helped that JB had tipped us off to some of the unique Korean driving rules. We found the Incheon Landing Memorial with no drama at all but got the shock of our lives when we saw the parking lot. While a memorial like that in most western countries would have a large parking lot for cars and tourist buses, we could see no such provision here, and with the extremely narrow lanes and tight corners, there was obviously no way I was going to navigate a 7m van through the place. Worse, there was absolutely nowhere, within a reasonable distance, where I could park our vehicle. A full hour after trying, we just threw in the towel and headed on out of the city. Note to self – sometimes it might be easier to park on the outskirts and take the subway in to the centre of town !!!

Having wrapped up our sightseeing in Seoul before leaving to get the van in Pyeongtaek, our aim for the rest of the week was to explore the areas north west and just north of Seoul, all of which closely bordered North Korea. From past personal experience, and recent updates from other travellers, we knew there were a couple of great spots for getting as close as possible and thus having a birds-eye view into the Hermit Kingdom. One thing we knew we would not be doing, somewhat sadly, was re-visiting the “truce village“ of Panmunjom. We’d luckily visited it back in the mid ‘80’s but tourist visits were now suspended after an off-duty US soldier dashed across to the North during a tour of the DMZ back in 2023. Over the next few days we travelled to Gangwha Island ( west of Seoul), the Imjingak/Panmunjom area (to the north), and finally the Odusan Memorial Tower – all provided interesting access points and/or harrowing tales of life in North Korea as well as showing the immeasurable pain and suffering caused by the conflict.

Blue dot shows where we visited/stayed on Gangwha Island. The Han River is just 1.8 km wide here.
Access to this area is tightly controlled – here, a passport check with a Korean Marine.
The 60x binoculars provided a clear image across the river. Easy to see people walking in the fields.
On Gangwha Island we met Ahrum, a Korean lady who owned the restaurant at the viewpoint and who gave us some great travel advice (and served up delicious Korean food). She’d lived for 5 years in Canada.
Military checkpoint on Gangwha Island. They allowed us to park up nearby for the night. If nothing else it was secure !
Parked up for the night at a military checkpoint, one of the stranger places we have camped on the road !

Display from the Korean War at the Greaves Museum, Imjingak. Showing the actual demarcation between the Korea’s.

One of the saddest displays at the Greaves Museum. A letter from a 16 year student soldier to his mother just before he died in the war. I had no idea so many of that age were involved.
Odusan Memorial Tower display of statements from North Korean defectors. It lists examples of the North’s many breaches of the UN Declaration of Basic Human Rights.
Another telescopic viewpoint of the North at Odusan.

We really enjoyed our time along the border with the North.Of the several locations one can visit, we most enjoyed the experience on Ganghwa Island. Quiet, relaxed, far less touristy and yet provided an excellent opportunity to look over the Han River to what goes on in the North. On a sadder note, the Odusan Reunification Tower, while providing probably the closest visual perspective, also provided some rather grizzly examples of what life is like in the North via first hand accounts of recent defectors. We seriously have no idea how lucky we are if we live in any free, Western democratic society.

Our exploration of the North Korean border region complete, we’ll next head east towards some of Korea’s great national parks and northern coastal regions. Stay tuned.

Till next week…..

Onwards to Asia !

Onwards to Asia !

All good things come to an end, as they say, and so it was with our return visit to Canada. After 5 wonderful weeks at home in Kelowna ( while our van transited from Melbourne, Australia up to North East Asia ) it was finally time to re-pack the bags, bid a sad farewell to our kids and new grand-daughter, and head to the airport. The 6.00am departure from Kelowna, though, made for a god-awful early start !

Our grand daughter seemed to enjoy having us back !
….and it was so hard to say goodbye to her !

When we left Melbourne back in mid-February I know I left things a little “cryptic” as to where our van was actually headed – so, now for the reveal. By the time this blog is distributed, our van should have been unloaded at the Port of Pyeongtaek, just south of Seoul, in South Korea. Obviously, we are now here to meet it, and to get here we flew from our home in Kelowna, to Vancouver ( 1 hour ) and then from Vancouver on to Incheon ( Seoul ), an almost 10 hour flight. Exhausting, certainly, but as I type this we are finally in Seoul…!

Flights to Asia almost all leave Vancouver late at night. Ours was a daytime flight which made it a bit harder to sleep so the jet lag was worse when we arrived.
Our route to Seoul, over Alaska and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

Ok, I know you’re asking – why Korea ? Indeed (insofar as vehicle-based overland travellers go), Korea is certainly not a common destination. It is, after all, a very small country, and most definitely always a “ship-in” option ( the only land route, in or out, has been rather firmly closed for almost 71 years !). Being a major vehicle producer itself and increasingly affluent, South Korea offers great RoRo shipping options and is a major transit point for vehicle traffic from Australia to either Europe or North America, and ( equally importantly ) is only a short vehicle ferry ride to Japan, Russia and China when it comes to onwards travel. Given the current global status of Russia, we certainly won’t be heading that way, and while China is also a possible option it’s not our priority just now. So, following our time in Korea, and all going well here, it’s our plan to travel ( via ferry) on to Japan next.

The shipping route to North Asia through the South China Sea is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. Here, our ship ( the Arc Commitment ) en route, from Melbourne, to Fremantle, Singapore, Bangkok, Kunsan, and Pyeongtaek – about 30 days.

The whole Asia decision itself was actually a bit of a toss up. As it always does, weather at various destinations played an important part in the decision. We had looked at shipping to Europe directly but with the Red Sea situation forcing shipping detours via South Africa, that passage was long – very long in fact, meaning we’d miss some of the optimal weather by the time we got to Europe. The transit to Asia was less than a month by comparison and we’d arrive in what should be optimal conditions there ( here’s hoping anyway ! ). While Korea is not top of most overlanders’ bucket list there have been a number of people we follow who’ve made the effort in the past few years and all their  accounts were the same – just go for it ! Thanks especially to the folks at Landcruising AdventuresTread The Globe, and  VanDeViaje for inspiring blog, YouTube and Instagram accounts of their vehicle travel in Korea, your tips and recommendations were invaluable. Hopefully we can “pay it forward” for others by sharing our own experiences.

The Kelowna – Vancouver – Seoul flight was uneventful and in fact, arrived a bit early. The time made up in the air, however, soon got gobbled up in the inordinately long immigration line-up. Still, it was friendly enough and once we got through, purchased a Korean SIM card right away and took the airport bus on into Seoul’s downtown. Funny, only because we were tracking the route on Naver ( Korea’s version of Google Maps ) did we realize just how close Seoul is to the North Korean border ( a bit alarming when you think of it ! ). In places, barely 50kms.

Like everyone else, first stop at Seoul airport was a Korean SIM card. One can’t function in modern Korea unless one is “connected” since everything is touch or tap with a phone.
Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE a in Korea has a phone so “Public Alerts” are common. This one only an hour after we got the SIM card. Fortunately, not an air “raid” warning but just an air “quality” warning in this case !

Settled in to the new time zone after a good nights rest, first order of business in Seoul was to meet our Korean shipping agents ( YCL ) , complete some customs forms, and plan for the vehicle collection. We already knew from the Wallenius Track and Trace system that our vessel had just arrived in Pyeongtaek port ( one day early, in fact ! ). I cannot say enough about these good folks, we were simply dazzled by their incredibly warm welcome – from the time we were picked up by James at our hotel till we left them a few hours later, they went way beyond our expectations – it certainly helped a great deal in what is always a stressful situation. We still have the vehicle to collect, of course, but so far so good. I’ll let the following pictures tell the story of their amazing hospitality ( I will, as always, do a full review of the shipping process next week ).

Our shipping line, Wallenius Wilhelmsen, provide a Track and Trace service so you can follow the ship’s progress and specifically the handling of your own vehicle on the ship. It’s the 3rd time we have used this company – hopefully no theft this time..! Shows our vessel had just arrived in Pyeongtaek.
What a touching welcome – this greeted us in the foyer of their building. We were then personally greeted by all the senior people at YCL.
Discussing importation and customs clearance procedures at the offices of YCL in Seoul. Here with senior staff, Emily, JB and James.
Our friends at YCL must have known about my chocolate sweet tooth in advance. There was plenty on the table – and Swiss, no less !

The warm welcome continued with lunch at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant – absolutely delicious ! Thank you, YCL !

This little yellow sticker is of critical importance – issued by Korean Customs it permits us to drive on the roads for up to 90 days. It’s known as a TIP ( Temporary Importation Permit ), and also allows us to buy vehicle insurance. At the time of this blog we did not have our van from the port but did have this critical permit at least, thanks to Emily at YCL. A huge step in the process !

Our morning filled with the shipping meeting, the afternoon was free for us to start doing some sightseeing in Seoul. We managed to explore a few of Seoul’s historic sights, famous Namdaemun market and in the evening some of its shopping and nightlife backstreets. What a change we noticed since our first visit over 40 years ago !

Shopping in Namdaemun Market we were helped by one of Seoul’s legendary “red coat” tourist information guides. They are present near many of the city’s major attraction and fluent in multiple languages.
Historic Sungnyemun Gate, Seoul.
Men wearing traditional dress preparing for a ceremony in Seoul.
Deoksugung Palace entrance, Seoul.
Inside the palace grounds with at least one cherry blossom tree in full bloom. A very pretty time of year.
Cherry blossom, Deoksugung Palace grounds.
Changing of the guard ceremony Doeksung Palace entrance.
Ditto. The colors were stunning.
Strolling along the busy backstreets of Myeongdong, the area of Seoul where we stayed,
We’ve now confirmed that there are at least some camper vans in Korea. To our surprise we came across this Iveco van right in downtown Seoul, near our hotel. Perhaps we won’t be the only van campers in the country after all !

We’ll spend the weekend in Seoul completing our sightseeing and next week hope to have our van . Fingers crossed !

Till next week……..

Australia – Some Finer Details

Australia – Some Finer Details

First, a heads up on this blog; there are fewer pictures and there is no “travel” component as such, it’s been put together more to to provide information relevant to those possibly considering doing something like this in Australia and hence differs from our usual “ sights-based” content. During our travels here by campervan through 2023/2024 we’ve picked up invaluable tips and been given excellent advice from all manner of folks we’ve met along the way. Countless people have asked questions about the “how”, “how long”, “when”, “how much” etc, relating to long term van travel in the country. I promised a few I’d build a summary blog to address as many of those questions as I could in order that so much of what we have learned might be shared with others. Hopefully those contemplating an extended trip down here ( with or without your own campervan ) will find this useful. Most reading this would be coming from North America or Europe.

Iconic Ayer’s Rock ( Uluru ).

When To Go:

Given the great latitudinal difference between the north and south of the country, it’s always a great time to be travelling somewhere in the county. In fact, the Australian winter ( June-August ) is considered high season for travel in the northern part of the country and the outback in general. Simply too hot and/or humid at any other time and subject to heavy rains. A bit of a generalization but the southern half is best in the Australian summer. It’s usually very easy to plan your travels to be in the best weather at least most of the time so it does not really matter when you come unless your time is limited and you have a very specific part of the country in mind.

Beautiful sunny weather, beach near Esperance, Western Australia.

Travelling By Van:

The primary reasons for shipping in our van were:

a) Australia was just one part of a bigger global trip so we had/have no intention of buying and selling ( or renting ) everywhere we go,

b) We’d be here a long time ( 12 months plus ), and

c) We could go anywhere we wanted – rentals place significant restrictions on where you can go  and unless you buy something with 4×4 capability many of the best parts of Australia are out of reach. It’s extremely expensive for a long rental as well. Renting was not viable for us.

I’ve previously compiled information on the shipping “to” Australia here, and of course the shipping “out” of Australia was detailed in last week’s blog, so won’t elaborate any further on that this week.

You don’t need to bring your own vehicle of course, and it only starts to make sense economically if a) you already own a suitable van, and b) you plan to spend at least 6 or more months down here. Otherwise, renting may make more sense. Alternatively, buying and reselling is viable and lots of ( predominantly ) younger travellers do it, but almost all of those would be in vans in the sub $A10,000 bracket where any valuation drop on sale would likely be modest. Also, that price bracket has a ready resale market. The more expensive the van, the more difficult the resale process and the bigger the risk of material loss on sale, and possibly a lengthy sale process – one has to allow some “sale time” prior to departing, not the fun part of the buy/sell strategy !

For us a campervan was always the way to go when setting off for global travel ( which included Australia ). Not too big to be awkward to drive, there being nothing to tow, it being easy enough to park, relatively affordable to ship, 4×4 capable and ( veryimportantly ) fully self-contained. For us, simply the ONLY vehicle choice that represented the combination of all the things we wanted and needed for overland travel. We have so far been extremely happy with the choice.

Cost of Living/Travelling in Australia:

We have had lots of questions on this. Generally similar to Canada, very broadly speaking, but probably higher than the US.

Fuel was by far our biggest expense and we probably averaged about $A1.85/litre for diesel. That “average” is probably a bit high because of the long distances we covered in more remote ( and thus more expensive ) areas. Stay near the cities and you’ll pay less. Unleaded gasoline is slightly cheaper than diesel in most places. Fuel cost matters because a) distances are huge, and b) campervan/RV’s tend to use a lot of it. Our 3.0 litre turbo diesel Sprinter averaged about 13.5 litres/100 km or 17.5 miles per US gallon overall ( we did not think that was too bad ). If you are driving a gasoline/petrol vehicle the base grade in Australia is 91 octane, much higher than the standard 87 in Canada and even 85 in some parts of the US, so not exactly an apples and apples comparison I suppose. In North America most folks use the GasBuddy.com ( app ) and in Australia, the PetrolSpy.com.au ( app ) to seek out the best places to fill up. These apps are hugely valuable as prices can move significantly between different centres..

Diesel fuel on the Oodnadatta Track. Here at A$2.99/litre ( US$7.45 per US gallon ). We carried enough to pass this one by.

When it came to food prices ( our next biggest expense ), Lois felt Australian prices were definitely a bit lower than those in Canada, but probably above the US. The current exchange rate helped a bit with the Aussie dollar averaging about 65-66 cents US and 87-88 cents Canadian during our time here. It can often be higher than that thus making it more expensive for visitors. Two huge food retailers dominate in Australia, Coles and Woolworths, ( though Aldi stores, very popular, are also widespread ) – one can simply Google their websites to look at prices for specific items.

I’m a beer drinker, Lois enjoys wine. Australia makes plenty of both ( of excellent quality, the wines probably globally more well-known ). Note – no one I met in 13 months drank “Fosters”, nor does any Aussie consider it the national beer. Advertising myth…! Aussies buy beer typically in a 24 or ( now ) 30 pack and it’s by far the most economical way to buy it. You’ll pay a hefty premium to buy beer in 6 packs ( and almost no one does ). Prices for beer and wine are broadly on par with Canada but again not as cheap as the US. I’m talking prices at major liquor retailers, such as Dan Murphy’s, not prices in restaurants.

For most folks, those would be the big items. Beyond these fairly standard expenses costs will vary depending on lifestyle choices.


This was one of the great joys of travelling by van in Australia. Finding free ( or “wild” ) camping spots ( also known as “boon-docking” in North America ) is generally very easy in Australia and the practice is very widespread. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, uses an app called Wikicamps which is an excellent camping tool and will save travellers huge amounts of money. There are a host of other free or low cost camping  apps and Facebook groups dedicated to helping you find a safe, free ( or very low cost, say $5-10 ) site for the night. “Pub” camping is hugely popular. Many towns and cities advertise themselves as “RV Friendly” ( free dump sites, free water and almost always a flat, safe area to camp often near the centre of town ). We’ve camped pretty widely in many different countries and in our opinion only NZ is in the same league when it comes to making RV camping as easy, safe and low cost as Australia. Paid campgrounds are generally $25-60 depending on location and services ( and whether powered or not ). We very rarely used them, though, and most long term travellers don’t. One of the great things about travelling in a van in mostly sunny weather, with a big battery bank, a DCDC charger and large solar capacity is that we rarely needed to “plug in” ( in fact, only 4 times during our 13 month stay ). It provided us great freedom and flexibility.

THE app used by all campers in Australia. Indispensable.
The Sprinter van gave us incredible flexibility, convenience and maneuverability all the while providing a comfortable area to sleep, cook and relax. Here on Tasmania’s west coast.
One of our more unique camping experiences: a remote, ( currently unused ) WW2 gravel airstrip, Northern Territory.
Dream wild camping spot, Sandy Cape, Western Australia.

Curiously though, no large, national supermarket-type chain ( a la Walmart ) in Australia offers the free overnight experience that North Americans can fall back on (when all else fails !) with a Walmart, Cabelas, Cracker Barrel etc type experience. Not sure why, no one could tell me, but given the smorgasbord of other free camping options it’s not a huge loss (with the exception of big cities where free camping options are definitely more scarce in Australia). As I have indicated often in previous blogs, you can find literally EVERYTHING a camper would want on “Wiki”. If you are reading this you will likely have been following our blogs and I often made reference to places we stayed at, both mainstream and ( occasionally ) the more unique. Both Lois and I would agree that the ease of camping helped enormously to make the trip so easy and enjoyable overall. Almost never any “drama”.

The Roads:

Main roads are of good quality and even the secondary roads have improved greatly over the years. Outback dirt tracks ? Well, they can be pretty rough ! Tolls are only common in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and you can get by without them. Roads are well signposted, speed limits are reasonable, just remember, STAY ON THE LEFT ! The same as driving in the UK. It always helps when there are two in the car and most would be travelling in pairs at least so the extra set of eyes definitely helps with navigating generally.  

Overseas visitors do need to be aware of speed cameras.  You can be caught speeding ( or make some other infraction ) and not know it until your bill comes in the mail or you get a follow up bill from the vehicle rental company. These can be VERY nasty and, as I have mentioned before, you can ( and people do ) get multiple fines before you ever learn of the first one ! You have been warned. Not a system I like particularly ( give me a good old cop with a radar gun any day ) but, knowing about it in advance, we simply always carefully stayed under the limits ( easy in a van, we did not usually drive fast anyway ).

Fuel is good quality, ( called petrol in Australia, not “gas” ) and we never got any dirty fuel, even in the outback. All diesel is ULSD and lots of vehicles in Australia use it, it’s as prevalent in Australia as it is in Europe. Filling up differs slightly in that Australians customarily pay for their fuel after they have filled up.


Australia has a great selection of attractions  – we had no problem spending a year looking and some spend even longer. It all boils down to one’s personal tastes. I have commented on all of them as we travelled through so won’t rehash here, but I will add a few random thoughts. Every town, even most small ones, has a visitor information center almost always staffed with friendly, knowledgeable locals who delight in helping travellers out. Maps, guides, and brochures are generously provided at no charge and clean washrooms are almost always on hand. We found this service consistently amazing. Many beachside communities also offer free barbecues so you can cook up what ever you like while enjoying the beach. Yes, propane is included, free.

This building needs no description – Sydney, NSW.
While remote, outback roads can be rough, dusty and very corrugated, major highways and secondary roads are generally excellent.
Pristine clear waters of the Western Australian coast.
Little Penguins, Philip Island, Victoria.
On the beach, Great Ocean Road, Victoria.
One of Australia’s more famous roads. Many travellers look forward to “crossing the Nullarbor”.
Up close with dolphins ( yes, this close ! ), Monkey Mia, Western Australia.
Public barbecue, beachside, Townsville, QLD.

Admission fees to sights can vary from free ( National Museums for example ) to ocassionally expensive but most things are in line with what you’d pay in Europe or North America. One thing we did find a little bit inconvenient was National Parks passes. The parks themselves were great, often stunning in fact, but ( despite the name “National” ) park passes are only sold state by state. Yes, you need one for NSW, another one for Victoria, another one for Queensland….and on and on. At $70-80 for a vehicle ( average cost ) in every state, it can get costly. An annual National Parks pass in the US for example ( giving access to all 50 states ) is $US80 for comparison. The Canadian version is about $US115 but both cover every national park in the country. A truly “National” parks pass would make a lot of sense in Australia, alas, not available yet to my knowledge.


Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE in Australia has a “mobile” phone ( the term “cell” is, of course, understood but always generates a bit of a giggle ). SIM cards are cheap, (if not free), and pay by the month Data/Voice/Text plans are widely available from multiple vendors. Coverage in the cities and major towns is excellent however it can be sparse between centers in the outback ( as we’d been warned ). It’s amazing how many Australian RV travellers have their own Starlink dish ( paying about $170AUD/month ), especially those who spend serious time in the more remote areas where cell phone coverage is often nonexistent. We often wished we had one !

While Wifi is available in all malls, McDonalds, Starbucks etc as you would expect, it’s not as common in every coffee shop or small business as it is abroad. Inconvenient on occasions, yes, but we simply purchased more data from our supplier- it’s pretty affordable. We got some odd looks when we asked some of the small local cafes if they had wifi. Very few did.


So that about covers the issues that most matter to would-be travellers. In addition to the above, as we travelled around we were reminded of some of the customs and practices in Australia that will delight visitors ( especially those from North America ). Tipping is not required ( though it’s never refused ! ) and posted prices in stores represent the actual price you will pay ( taxes are always included in the price ). Almost 35 years of living in Canada (and of travelling often in the US) and I still find the standard practice of adding embedded taxes at the point of sale just odd. I have no idea why it’s done that way. That said, Australia has the odd inexplicable thing, too; why, for example are we not allowed to turn left at a (red) light when there is no traffic coming ? Not sure, but you definitely can’t !

Lois and I truly hope that this closing blog on Australia provides some value to our readers and that at least some of those who have followed our travels “Down Under” through 2023/24 will, at some point find the opportunity to explore the country for themselves. It’s been an incredible experience for us, it offers so much to the visitor and, in what is currently a rather troubled world, offers a fun, safe, and adventurous option for those with a passion to explore.

We’ll now take a few weeks off ( at least ) while we enjoy some family time back in Canada and return to our blog as the ship carrying our van nears its next destination.

Till then………