Get on board ... when travelling you take risks you normally wouldn't take at home, especially when it comes to transport.

Get on board ... when travelling you take risks you normally wouldn't take at home, especially when it comes to transport. Photo: Eric Wheater/Lonely Planet

Most travellers have had the feeling. You take one look at the heap of crap you’re supposed to be riding in, and you know it’s not right.

The bus looks like it’s falling apart, and the roads are terrible; the plane looks too small, and you have no idea if the pilot’s even qualified; the boat looks rusty and there are no lifejackets.

But you’ve got no choice if you want to get anywhere, so you climb aboard, and take a chance.

Most of the time, these crazy trips turn out fine – I’d guarantee most travellers have done plenty of them. But every now and then, as tragically demonstrated by the four Australian girls who were recently involved in a boat accident in Thailand, your worst fears are realised, and something goes wrong.

I don’t blame the girls for getting on that boat, even if they had their misgivings. I’d have done exactly the same thing.

Travel is a game of calculated risks, and if you spent your entire time ensuring everything you touched adhered to Western health and safety standards, you’d never leave the airport.

After all, you can usually persuade yourself that it’s all good fun, that the bus driver who keeps nodding off at 100km/h is all part of the experience, or that the twisting mountain roads with no guard rails must actually be a good place to overtake, because surely your local driver knows what he’s doing.

But as a general rule, if it looks dodgy, it is dodgy. Regardless of where you are.

Those clapped out old minivans that roar down potholed roads in Africa have accidents. Those cab drivers who seem like they’re driving way too fast in crappy old cars have accidents. Those old boats in which passengers use the only lifejackets on board as shields from the rain have accidents.

It pays to understand that, because it’s easy to get this weird feeling of invincibility when you’re travelling, a “that’ll never happen to me” mentality. Or the old Aussie “she’ll be right”, as you jump in an old rust bucket you wouldn’t set fire to in Australia.

Fortunately, for me, it actually has been right. The worst that’s happened has been the odd breakdown. But I’ve been genuinely worried on hundreds of occasions.

There was the tuk-tuk ride through Bangkok, with no seatbelts or safety bars as we roared through the busy streets. It was an absolute blast, and stupidly dangerous.

There was the overnight bus trip in Vietnam with the driver who talked on his mobile phone with one hand, smoked a cigarette with the other hand, and kept the steering wheel in a firm grip between his knees. Luckily I have no idea how fast we were travelling, because the speedo was broken.

There was the rusty old cab in Cairo that shuddered every time it came to a halt, threw my head into the ceiling every time we went over anything larger than a pebble, and shook and creaked the whole time we made our way around town. None of that would have been such a problem if we weren’t going 100km/h most of the time.

I took a matatu in Nairobi, which, if you’re familiar with them, doesn’t even warrant extra description. Let’s just say, rusty, dusty, potholed roads, and about 20 Africans in a space designed for 10. Oh, and a solid history of being robbed at gunpoint.

There was also the taxi in La Paz, the bus in Bangladesh, the rikki in Cape Town, the “speed” boat on the Mekong, the motorbike in Cambodia, the ferry in Dar es Salaam and the rickshaw in Delhi.

You take a risk every time you get in any of them.

But when the only alternative is staying at home, it’s a chance you have to take.

Have you feared for your life on public transport overseas? Has anything ever gone wrong?  

My travel memoir, Five Ways to Carry a Goat, is in bookstores now – it’s the tale of my travels staying with you, the kindly readers of this blog. For more information, or to check out photos from the trip, head to my website. Otherwise, send topic suggestions/personal abuse to bengroundwater@gmail.com.