A Packing List for a Grown-Up Gap Year

It’s kind of amazing how travelling changes you. Opens you up to adventure, new experiences, new people. Only a few hours after we said goodbye to our families, switching from ‘vacation’ mode to ‘backpacker’, we met a Brazilian couple who gave us tips on everything from how to ward off the Zika virus to the best places to eat in Rio. We exchanged email addresses and they told us to get in touch if we needed anything once we arrived.

Travel magic at its best.

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First official selfie of the trip – at Fort Lauderdale airport en route to Rio via Bogota

It’s officially been eight years since my last gap year – and in many ways, not much has changed. I’m older and (hopefully) wiser, but I’m still using the same backpack, sleeping bag and packing cubes as last time. The backpack in particular has seen many corners of the globe; she also accompanied my sister Sophie on her gap year adventure! I can definitely vouch for the longevity and durability of a Lowepro bag. I’m taking more or less the same amount of clothes, and I still remember that the most useful thing I brought with me was my sarong. But what has changed is the sheer amount of technology that is accompanying me this time around. Whereas in 2007 I travelled with a flip phone, iPod and a point-and-shoot camera, this time I feel like I’m carrying around my own Best Buy superstore. I guess that’s the burden that comes with being a ‘digital nomad’. I do have The Potion Diaries book 3 to write on the road, after all!


Two backpackers ready for the road

Looking at this list all laid out, I’ve probably overpacked – and from everything I’ve heard, there will be plenty to buy in South America! The tricky thing has been to prepare for all the different temperatures that we’ll be encountering on our trip – from the sweltering heat of Brazil to the potentially very cold nights of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Also, now that I’m closer to 30 than 21 (I turn 30 on this trip, ahh!) and this is supposed to be a grown-up gap year, I don’t want to feel like a ‘backpacker’ all the time. My solution is to bring jeans with me so I can go sit in a café and not feel too grungy. And if I’m ever wondering why my bag is so heavy, someone please remind me that I’ve packed five actual tree-books, in additional to my Kindle. Don’t judge me, I need them all! *clings to books*

Here’s my packing list, comprising my life for the next four months:


1x aforementioned skinny jeans
1x grey hiking trousers
2x shorts
1x cut off trousers
1x jogging pants
3x sundresses
4x t-shirts
4x vest top
1x long sleeve shirt
8x underwear
3x bras
3x socks
1x long winter socks
1x thermal top
1x thermal pants/leggings
1x rain jacket
1x sweater/fleece
1x cardigan
1x beanie
1x gloves
3x bathing suit/bikini
1x sarong


1x waterproof trainers
1x Merrell sandals
1x Flipflops
1x Butterfly twist flats


Paracetemol + Ibuprofen
Bite cream
Savlon (antiseptic cream)
Bio Oil
Birth control
Hand sanitizer


Bug spray (75% Deet)
Solid shampoo from Lush
Make-up (mascara, concealer, bb cream, blush, lip salve, black eyeliner)
Dry shampoo
Toothbrush + toothpaste
Hand mirror
Nail scissors
Cotton swabs
Eye drops


Laptop + charger
Kindle Paperwhite + charger
iPhone 6 + charger + extra batttery
Waterproof Lumix camera + extra battery + charger
SD cards
External hard drive
Letouch 4-in-1 USB charger
Gopro (and a few accessories – a floating device, selfie stick)
Headphones + headphone splitter
Plug adaptors (for all variations – South America seems to have a ton of different variants when it comes to plugs!)
Withings watch (to track steps and sleep along the way – also works as an alarm clock)


Writing notebook and pens
Books (to be exchanged on the road)
Passport + travel documents (including photocopies of passports and travel insurance documentation)
Flashlight + head torch
Toilet roll
Day bag + small side bag for the cities
Sleeping Bag
Water bottle
Sewing kit
Trek towel
Travel lock
Canada pins (to hand out along the way!)

But probably the most important items we’ve packed are our travel mascots… Kylo Ren and his minion! I initially bought a Disney Star Wars vinylmation hoping to get BB8 (it’s a lucky dip out of 8 different characters) but decided I wouldn’t mind getting Ren, Poe, Finn… but I ended up with Kylo. While initially I was a tad disappointed, it all works out now that Lofty’s mascot is a minion 😉 Look out for KR and minion showing up all over South America.

KR and minion – our intrepid travel companions




Five Ways to Learn Spanish for South America

Hola todos!

Since we’re going to be spending at least four months of the world in Spanish-speaking countries, I thought I’d better get a wriggle on trying to learn some of the language! Lofty has been much better at this than me, and has been learning for almost 18 months. I, however, have taken the more ‘intensive’ approach and trying out lots of different methods! I’ve compiled a list of just a few of the ways we’ve been trying to learn Spanish (and some bonus ones that have been recommended to us, that we will try in the near future):

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1. Best if you have three months or more: Find a Groupon/Amazon Local deal!

Lofty found a brilliant deal on AmazonLocal that offered a 12-week Spanish course for only £79 with the Elegant International College in London. Definitely worth every penny! With a course over 12 weeks, he really got to know the teacher and the other students, so he was able to meet up with them outside the classroom to help improve his Spanish even more. After 18-months, Lofty is a confident Spanish speaker and well prepared for a few months in South America!

2. Best if you only have two weeks: Instituto Cervantes ‘Intensive’ courses


Instituto Cervantes in London on Eaton Square

This is the course that I took over the last two weeks of November. Instituto Cervantes is run by the Spanish government as a way of promoting the Spanish language around the world – and all the teachers are native Spanish speakers. The course takes place every day for three hours a day (from 10:30-13:30) and costs £312. The class sizes tend to be pretty small, with a minimum of 4 up to a maximum of about 12 people per class.

Although I initially started with the very beginner course (Inicial 1), because I had been using Duolingo (see below) I already had enough vocabulary to jump to the Inicial 2 level. I’m so glad that I did. Over the two weeks, I went from a completely shy Spanish speaker to being able to have actual conversations and write full on emails and postcards. The course is quite intense – they try to speak as little English as possible during the lesson, even to complete beginners – but I thoroughly recommend it if you get the chance before you go. They also give you a ‘qualification’ at the end of the course which allows you to pick up a Spanish language course anywhere around the world.

3. Best if you’re learning on your own (for free): Duolingo


I downloaded a bunch of Spanish apps to help me learn, but the most useful one has been Duolingo (and bonus: it’s free!). It’s easy to use, fun, and has really helped improve my vocabulary. The biggest drawback to Duolingo is the fact that you don’t say much out loud – and you don’t get a chance to interact with anyone, so translating Duolingo knowledge into an actual conversation is tricky. That’s why I would thoroughly recommend taking a course as a way to cement that knowledge!

3a. Best for learning on your own (for ££): Rosetta Stone

A bit on the expensive side, but well proven to be one of the best pieces of software for learning Spanish on your own! I have yet to use it but have heard only great things. I have the Latin American Spanish version, level 1 and I’ll be adding it to my laptop for learning on the road.

4. Best if you can start your trip a bit early: Homestays

Lofty and I are unfortunately starting in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, so we’re not able to do a homestay. But if my experiences learning French are any indication, becoming fully immersed in the language with a homestay is the only way to become truly fluent. Oasis Overland offers week-long homestays as ‘added extras’  on most of their South America itineraries.

5. Best if you like to watch videos: VideoEle

This website was recommended to me by my Instituto Cervantes teacher and it’s so useful! Some of the Spanish learning videos I found on YouTube were very basic and not very helpful. But these videos are clear, useful and tie in to the different levels used by Instituto Cervantes. If you’re a beginner, go to the section marked ‘Alumno’ and then level ‘Nivel A1’

I would also like to download some great (but easy) Spanish-language podcasts for the road – does anyone have any recommendations? We’ve been listening to Coffee Break Spanish and Show Time Spanish but always looking for others!



Goodbye Real Life – Hello South America!

Since Lofty handed in his notice and I’ve gone full-time freelance, the question we’ve been asked most is: What now?

And our answer…


This is the Kingdoms and Carnivals route of our upcoming South American adventure, run by my favourite travel company, Oasis Overland. I travelled with them from Nairobi-Johannesburg back in 2007 and I just love their itineraries and their ethos – they’re all about off-the-beaten track adventure mixed with the opportunity to make great friends. Everyone is expected to muck in with the cooking, cleaning and set-up, but the Oasis crew take care of the sticky business of how we get from point A to B! Lofty had a taster of an Oasis trip when we used them to travel in Egypt and Jordan in 2012, and he was hooked.


With Oasis travel friends in Dahab, Egypt

The trip begins almost exactly 8 years since Lofty and I first met in Christchurch, New Zealand, on our respective post-university gap years. We met in a hostel kitchen, fell in love pitching tents on secluded beaches, and together experienced some of the most beautiful places on this earth. From that moment onward, our fates were sealed: our life together was always going to feature travel in a big way.

But reality also beckoned. We both wanted long-term, sustainable careers in addition to lots of travel. (Nothing like wanting it all!) For the years that we were settled in the UK, Lofty worked and qualified as an actuary and I worked in publishing and wrote my books. We travelled as much as we could in Europe (and sometimes beyond), taking advantage of the cheap airfares, long holidays and short distances. We also, you know, got married, bought a flat, bought a car… all the trappings of a life most people would dream of.

Yet our dream of travel was still alive, and we knew we had to somehow fit in one more big trip before we added ‘family’ to the above list. Now we’ve jumped in with both feet! We’ve sold the flat (and all of its contents!) and moved in with very generous friends, sold the car, quit our day jobs, and put everything remaining into storage. Our flights are booked, the trip is paid for, the backpacks have been dragged out from under the bed and are filled to the brim. All that’s left to do is fly!

Some of the highlights of the trip have been on my bucket list for years:

  • Dancing the night away at Rio Carnival
  • Visiting the stunning Iguazu Falls
  • Eating steak in Buenos Aires
  • Hiking in Patagonia and Torres del Paine
  • Turning 30 somewhere between Chile and Argentina (I’m hoping for a posh vineyard in Mendoza…)
  • Taking crazy perspective photos on the salt plains of Bolivia
  • Walking the Inca Trail and seeing Machu Picchu (of course!)
  • Flying over the Nazca Lines
  • Spending a few nights in the Amazon jungle
  • Sailing around the islands of the Galapagos

Has anyone been to these places? We are collecting must-dos and would love your tips! Otherwise, follow the blog for more tales of our adventures… setting off on 4 February 2016.


The Oasis truck in Africa 2007 (spot me in the blue T-shirt on the top)


Full Up!

Full Up!

I’m practising “blogging” directly from my Flickr account. Unfortunately I have only two pictures on the account right now, but I plan on filling it up as the trip progresses.This picture is of my backpack! I’m really happy with it, and although I wanted to get a 55L pack, I would never have been able to fit a sleeping bag and all the sleeping accoutrements (like the therma-rest and liner) in a smaller pack. Perhaps if I travel in the future without sleeping stuff, I will be able to go with something smaller. But for now, this works for me! It is super comfortable with a unique hip belt that moves independently from the rest of the bag, to make walking much easier. Also, it’s a ND (narrow dimension) pack, which means that it is better suited for women. I tried on many different bags and this definitely worked the best.So what’s in there? My packing list looks long, but I’ve definitely tried to keep things as “light” as possible. 

Medical Kit: Sunscreen, insect repellent, afterbite, aloe vera, antiseptic ointment, antihistamine tablets, pain-killers, eye drops, immodium, sterile syringes and suture kit, band-aids, malaria pills, antibiotics, rehydration tablets, bc pills, cold medicine 


2 x T-shirts
1 x short sleeve shirt
2 x long-sleeve shirt
1 x sweater
1 x convertible pants
1 x shorts
1 x capri
1 x rain jacket
1 x tanktop
5 x underwear
3 x socks
2 x swimsuits
1 x flip flops
1 x tevas
1 x walking shoes

Toilteries: Toothbrush, toothpaste, Lush shampoo bar, concealer, mascara, razors, contact lenses, antibacterial handwash, diva cup, small scissors

Other stuff: Camera, binoculars, photocopies of important documents, the important documents themselves, Ipod, chargers for electrical stuff, alternate plugs, travel journal/pen, travel towel, sleeping bag, silk sleeping bag liner, therma-a-rest, repair kit for therm-a-rest, hat, sunglasses, money belt, really small daypack, torch (flashlight), emergency cellphone

Can’t think of anything else at the moment… I’m sure there’s more stuff in my bag that I can’t remember! The scariest part is thinking about carrying my life for 10 months on my back. But luckily I’ll be able to share clothing with my travel partner Sarah and I’m sure anything I’ve forgotten will be remembered by them.


The End of “To-do”?

With only 8 days left until my flight, I’m supposed to be in countdown mode. Instead, I feel like I’m still ‘crossing off’. My to-do list is still a million miles long, but today I finally feel like I can see the end of the road (or the page, as it were!). I took my number and stood in line to notify the province of Ontario of my extended absense, I got my international driver’s permit, I phoned VISA and changed my address and informed them of all the countries I would be visiting.  The best thing about all these tasks was talking to people about my trip and having them share in my excitement. I was feeling lost these past few days — lost in missing people, in facing the fact that I will be away from my family and friends for 10 months, in wondering about how leaving would affect my future plans.  But nothing brings the excitement swelling back than by having people, random strangers even, remind me of how much of a BIG DEAL this trip is. This is every cliché: a once in a lifetime experience, a dream trip and it will change my life forever.

I can’t thank Sarah enough for allowing me to hijack her trip and tag along. She had been planning this trip with Jason (whom I’ve yet to meet!) long before I decided to join them. Their plans to “travel around Africa by truck” were too good a deal to pass up. Africa, especially Kenya and Tanzania, have been dream destinations of mine since Roald Dahl’s Going Solo. Pile on the rest of the itinerary and you’ve got an irresistable trip!!

I plan on blogging with regularity throughout my trip. So keep checking back! If you would like a postcard, then e-mail me your address at mcculloch.amy @ gmail.com (no spaces) or visit my facebook profile.

Now back to that to-do list…