Michael Batson

Travel Writer





Travel Baggage - You Can Leave Home Without It - 10 January 2017

There’s an old adage about what to take with you on your travels and it goes something like this: lay out all the clothes you’re planning on taking with you and then all the money. Then take only half the clothes and bring twice the money. That may be a little dated in the age of plastic but back when people carried cash and traveller’s cheques, remember those, it made a lot of sense.


In fact it still does today. You can never have enough of the readies but clothes and other such items well, you can always buy some more. In fact even high-tech countries in this digital age can have problems. A friend of mine once found himself transiting through Japan a few years back when some kind of outage hit the ATM network. All the banks were closed. Let’s face it, if you can’t get the latest IT help in Japan, then you’re in pretty dire straits. 


The point being cash and Thomas Cook, or similar, can still come in handy. As an aside, I have history with Thomas Cook after a mishap at the Pyramids with a local named George, one of Cairo’s more infamous characters and if I recall, had his very own feature piece in Fodor’s Travel Guide, or some similar travel publication.


One of the great attractions of travel is that you get to leave much of your baggage, in a holistic sense, behind. You are after all, going for something different. Well most are. But you still need something to carry your stuff in – or on. This article of mine isn’t designed to tell readers what the ideal for travel baggage/accompaniment or luggage should be, you can make your own choice about that. I’m just telling you what I’ve used, what’s helpful, and some of the things that are not so useful or just a pain in the arse, some specifically and others more generally.


Back in the day when I first started travelling as a teenager, I carried a trusted canvas Macpac backpack. It was a huge thing with side pockets which, among other things, prevented me walking onto public transport easily , and as it was wider than my shoulders meant I also endangered passers-by. In the end I ditched my first pack it for something more urban friendly, which turned out to be another Macpac. I still use to this day even after trying other options.


Macpac is an outdoor clothing and equipment company that once upon a time was made in New Zealand, a country renown for making some of the best outdoor gear to be had.  No I’m not on a retainer and here comes the downside. Now it’s manufactured in sweat shops somewhere in Asia and isn’t even New Zealand-owned anymore.


My first pack back then was 100% heavy duty canvas with an external frame. You don’t see those anymore. If there are any left, hunters go for them. They take off the actual bag part and use the frame to carry their kill, usually wild pigs, through the mountainous terrain of New Zealand. If you ever want truly rigorous heart-pumping exercise complete with blood and guts, that’s it.


My pack lasted for years and was indestructible. It survived a drop of about 15m down a cliff at St. Tropez one summer near Bridget Bardot’s house. I wasn’t visiting, she just happened to live nearby and someone pointed out which place was hers. Actually, to be truthful, the impact of the fall combined with the weight of the contents snapped off one of the pegs holding the canvas to the frame, but a footwear repairer easily fixed that. A bit like a car with a real bumper.


An Alsatian dog once pissed on my pack. But a bit of water, some soap and a scrubbing brush had it back to near new. It was amazing how much dirt came off of it after so many years, turning the bath so many shades of dishwater grey, I had to then clean the bath.


A Peruvian police officer once stuck a bayonet into it while I was on a train from Cuzco looking for illegally transported coca leaves. I wasn’t carrying any; he was just ritually bayoneting any article of luggage that could be found. All the local women on the train had kilos of the stuff hidden under their voluminous skirts, which they were all sitting on and refused to move, bayonet or not.


The best story of resilience of my Macpac was in Brazil, when my bag survived exiting the luggage compartment of a bus heading south from Rio de Janeiro to Angra Dos Reis, an area of beaches and islands well worth a visit. There was there terrible bang followed by a screeching noise at about 100kph, so the driver pulled over. I looked out the window back to the corner we’d just negotiated to see what look like a green bag sitting in the road. I said to my mate, “That looks like your bag,” and on a second take said “hey, that is your bag.” Several passengers including me and driver got out to survey the damage. My bag had shot across the road and down a bank. I had to scramble through the underbrush to find it. Luckily it came out of the bus frame-side down, so had only a few scratches to show for its high-speed detour. My mate however had a later model, fake canvas and where the frame could be zipped away behind a cover, like a suitcase. His faired much worse and wound up looking like it’d been through a cheese grater.


Backpackers were called that because they carried their gear on their back, like upright turtles. Packs in New Zealand are also used for what is colloquially referred to as tramping, but in other places is hiking, so they had a definitive practical purpose originally. I’m still of the view if you can’t carry it, don’t take it. I’ve seen diminutive Asian woman with wheeled suitcases larger than they were and so heavy even airport bus drivers were unable to lift them onto luggage racks.


These days there’s a range of luggage options. Backpacks have evolved into a crossover with suitcases and vice versa. They have wheels, that click-clack along like skateboards. They can be opened from the top, from the side or both. They have retractable handles with which to move them along, and all kinds of compartments the design manufacturers spend their time inventing and over complicating. You think they would come up with a more diverse and imaginative range of colours for bags, other than black. Look at average baggage carousel at any major airport and see how many anonymous black pieces of luggage there are – thousands.


There’s little danger of my trusty pack being left unrecognised on a conveyor belt, or anywhere else for that matter. It’s customised and is likely one of a kind. Thailand sells lots of coloured patches and logos. Streetside tailors using extra strong twine can attach these items relatively cheaply, though often complain the construct of a Macpac is such it often breaks the needles.


I have nothing against wheeled luggage as such, they can be practical and even quite stylish, and are lockable. I just object to the way people use and abuse them. Having to navigate people using these things wandering down the street talking on mobile phones without any thought to how they interfere with other pedestrians. Then there are invariably people standing in the middle of the footpath, their arms fully extended with the bag on the end, almost saying, “go on fall over that.”


Most manufacturers of travel bags have moved offshore from their original place of manufacture. It’s a phenomenon of globalisation and designed to take advantage of lower wages and conditions found in developing, or as the Chinese would say, “Changing” nations. Often this is down to cheaper costs; and where environmental standards are non-existent or poorly enforced. Workers are often not unionised and it allows the parent company back in the home country to increase profit margins further.


Moving business offshore also of course, does workers out of a job where the items were originally manufactured. Interesting to note that despite the much lower labour costs, the prices of most these products in the high street stores back home haven’t usually decreased.Most of these companies have outsourced manufacturing to Asia. Brands like; Marmot, Columbia, Camel Active, North Face, Kathmandu, and lesser known names like Crumpler, and of course Macpac to name but a few. I find it ironic, that while these companies move their manufacturing to Asia, most backpackers can buy the knock-offs in the local Asia markets at about the tenth of the price they can back home. So who’s kidding who?


Packing for travel is liberating. There’s nothing like heading on to the next destination, especially if it’s new or an old favourite. After all you’re heading for fun, exploration, and for most at least, something you cannot find at home. Carrying everything you need for however long is the ultimate in independence.


Hardest is travelling for all seasons. I did this in South America; from 4000m-plus Andean passes to deserts to sub-tropical jungles to Brazilian beaches. That was back before polar fleece or the wonders of other present day constructs like polypropylene under-garments, lightweight and durable.


Compare this with packing to move house. No matter how you do that it’s a drag, an awful experience. It’s neither art nor science, just a grind; tedious and no matter how well it’s planned it just a pain.I admire people who travel light. The ultimate are those who manage with carry-on baggage only; easier to do if you stay in one region or are traveling to just one climate for a limited period. But to do that for any event, that’s takes ability. I haven’t managed it yet but have come close. I’d spent a month here or there with just two day bags to carry everything, including a computer but that’s it. I’ve never managed beyond that, so I admire people who can. 


What people consider as qualification for cabin baggage has reached ridiculous proportions. Airlines have prescribed dimensions, rarely though, if ever applied. I saw one couple boarding a plane in Melbourne with two children, a double pram, one of those side-by-side designs who, in addition to the children and the pram carried seven, yes count them seven, items of carry-on baggage. I’ve seen people with 75-litre backpacks as cabin baggage. I once heard of a guy who took part of a car axle on board weighing 50 kilos, and in Bangkok once, a Thai lady got on with a full length knight’s sword. When she transited through Sydney, security were aghast.


Flying is turning me into a grumpy old man. People with luggage so large they can’t fit them into the overhead lockers. People who won’t sit down, or suddenly think it a grand idea to have a conversation in the aisle while others are trying to board. On Air Asia, four demure Thai cabin crew are not going to shift anyone in a hurry. What you need are a couple of big kick arse Kiwi chicks, which basically tell you to “sit the f*ck down”.


My ideal, my dream, is to take everything you need on board as cabin baggage. For that you’d need amazing organisational skills, excellent choice in apparel, and a cabin bag the equivalent of the Tardis. I’ve done it heading off to Asia with an overnight bag or a small bag empty save for a single change of clothes and a toilet bag, only to have it filled later on my travels.


As a mate of mine always tells me, “a true bagman of Asia only every carries one bag.” I continue to carry my bag; it’s unique in appearance, though age must be catching up with me as I recently went to look at versions with wheels. In the meantime I’ll stick with what I’ve got and have used for years. If you see a MacPac with the large scorpion with the Red Bull, you’ll know I’m not far away.

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