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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 5 (10 October 2001)

El Jem (Tunisia) - Tatouine (Tunisia) - Ksar Hadada (Tunisia) - Ksar Gilane (Tunisia)

“Which Way To The Oasis?”

Finally, in episode 5 of “The Amazing Race” CBS-TV, victory or elimination was clearly determined by a significant travel skill: navigation.

In this week’s segment, the contestants had to find their way by car and camel through the desert by means of a map, compass, and for part of the route no guidance or clues other than compass bearings.

OK, so compass reading skills are useful if — like the contestants on “The Amazing Race” this week — you’re trying to find your way on camel-back to a remote oasis in the Sahara Desert through trackless sand dunes. But what if you’re not?

The big surprise isn’t that a compass is useful in the wilderness. In real life, if you don’t have a television production crew to rescue you if you get lost, you probably shouldn’t drive off road in the desert in a single vehicle, but should always travel in a convoy of at least two vehicles, each with spare tires, fuel, etc.

The surprise for many travellers is how frequently a compass and basic skill in using it come in handy in more populous places, especially in the city.

You get off the bus or come out of the subway and know from your map that you want to walk north. Or you get on the bus, knowing you want to go north, but are unsure if this bus will go the right way. But the sun isn’t visible, and you don’t speak the language. Which way is north? Especially if you’re good at reading maps, you’ll find a compass — even the tiniest one — more useful than you could ever imagine.

Unless you plan to use it for wilderness orienteering, even the crudest compass is adequate for this sort of use. Look for one that’s small, sturdy, and easy to keep handy. Most of the times when I need a compass are the times when I’m trying to find my way around a new city with my pack on my back, so I keep a tiny compass clipped to the chest trap of my pack. You can also get small compasses that attach to your watch strap, or clip onto a zipper pull.

And of course, practice using your compass before your trip, so you know which end of the needle points north. The most common mistake in reading a compass is following the wrong end of the arrow, in the opposite direction from where you want to go!

But there was another, slightly less obvious, factor in the order of finish in this episode of “The Amazing Race”:

Except for “Team Guido” (Bill and Joe), all the teams that drove their own jeeps finished behind the teams that chose to hire drivers.

It wasn’t because the professional drivers knew the way — they were forbidden to give directions, and only went where the contestants told them to go. And the hired drivers didn’t appear to go any faster than the racers (although Team Guido’s performance was due in part to Bill’s going so fast that Joe kept complaining about the danger of his driving).

The big advantage to hiring a driver? Rob saw it immediately when he and Brennan were faced with the choice: “Let him drive so we can both pay attention.” It’s difficult, at best, to read a map or navigate while driving. Those teams that hired a driver, so that both teammates could concentrate on following directions and looking for road signs, did better than those teams in which one partner drove, leaving only one to find the way.

In most of the Second, Third, and Fourth Worlds, it makes more sense to hire a chauffeured car rather than drive a car yourself. In many countries, it’s the only way to hire a car, and if you ask to rent a car it will be assumed that you want to hire a driver as well.

Here are some of the other advantages of hiring a car and driver over hiring a self-drive car, as I discuss at much more length in “The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World”:

  • In normal circumstances, a local driver’s most important role may be as navigator. They may already know the way, especially if yours is a nearby or a common destination. If not, they may be better able than you to read and interpret cryptic road signs, ask directions in local language(s) from passers-by, figure out which people are best to ask, and —perhaps most important — know how to interpret the directions they are given.
  • In addition to navigating the roads, a local driver can navigate the local bureaucracy and deal with officials. Even if the driver doesn’t speak your language, they may speak the language of cops, toll-takers, and the like. Roadblocks, police and/or military checkpoints, and document checks are more common in countries other than in the First World. Last week on “The Amazing Race”, Margaretta and David were eliminated after being delayed by, among other things, several police or military roadblocks. A local driver is more likely than you to know the appropriate things to say and do in such situations, and to be able to maximize your chances of being allowed to proceed, without having to pay too much. In places where hijackers and extortionists often masquerade as officials, a driver is more likely than you to be able to recognize the real McCoy, and to know when it is best to stop, when and how much to pay, and when to drive on without stopping.
  • A chauffeur can often be helpful as an interpreter both linguistic and cultural, a guide, and perhaps a conversationalist.
  • A driver buys fuel and arranges for any necessary repairs or services, sparing you much work, worry, and responsibility.
  • Hiring a driver greatly reduces your legal and financial liability from the hazards of driving. And a driver will look after the vehicle when you aren’t in it. It is thus, in a certain sense, an effective and often quite cheap form of insurance.

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