Travel

Meet the Tour Group Taking Your Next Vacation Off-Road

Nomadic Road invites drivers to channel their inner Indiana Jones on the adventure of a lifetime.

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Some people’s vacation memories are collecting shells on the beach. And for others, it’s wearing a child-sized helmet while zipping through the Indian countryside on the back of a motorcycle. The latter describes the experience of Nomadic Road founder Venkatesh Kanchanayakampatti Sugavanam-Venky for short-who cultivated his love of exploration perched behind his father on meandering bike trips through the backroads of their home country.

“Back then, there wasn’t much infrastructure,” he says. “There’s no road access, except for guys like us-even if there was no road, we tried to go into that territory.” Not only was a sense of adventure imparted on these trips, but also a dose of fatherly wisdom. “I would be sitting there, listening to some of the most interesting stories,” Sugavanam continues. “He used to teach life by being on the road.”

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

For Sugavanam, those off-the-beaten-path rides begat several truths. First, that India was a gorgeous country, especially from the vantagepoint of a motorcycle (if you’re looking for a road trip, we’ve got one to get you started-there are a lot more paved roads these days). And secondly, that the open road can take you anywhere, both mentally and physically, if you let it. “What’s appealed since childhood [are] the emotions that run through my mind when I’m on the road,” says Sugavanam. “The freedom of the open road, and going places where not many people have gone-your gut instinct takes you.”

Sugavanam’s love for that open road led him to a career in experiential marketing, figuratively trading in his two wheels for a position at a company that specialized in four-by-fours and other off-road vehicles. One of his duties included planning expedition trips intended to showcase the vehicles for journalists, overland adventures from places like India to Tibet, journeys across Africa and Latin America, and one particularly intense 22-day, 15,000-kilometer course through seven different ASEAN countries. The process of mapping out these routes plus planning meals, accommodations, and once-in-a-lifetime experiences gave him an idea: Why should journalists have all the fun?

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Then, in 2016, he launched Nomadic Road, organizing bookable, motorized public group tours-and, newer to the roster, curated private solo tours-under a name inspired by the roaming herders of Mongolia. Combining his penchant for exploration with his affinity for driving was a no-brainer, and he designed his trips to cater to a clientele seeking the excitement of an off-road adventure, but lacking the experience to execute it themselves. The company’s debut run was a rumbling jaunt through Mongolia’s sagebrush-perfumed Gobi Desert-one of the coldest, highest, most unforgiving places in the world-along the way spotting snow leopards and examining dinosaur fossils. It remains one of their most popular destinations, with two trips scheduled for this coming August.

Today, Nomadic Road offers seven expeditions lasting 10 days or more and starting at around $7,000, including four new routes this fall in Peru, Bolivia, Madagascar, and Namibia. The only thing guests need to bring is a sense of adventure. Plus, a driver’s license and perhaps a few changes of clothes. If you’ve never experienced the thrill of this type of travel before, by the end, you’re guaranteed to have a new motto: The open road will take you anywhere if you let it. And if there’s not a road, you make one.

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

On the open road, expect the unexpected

Perhaps you’re an avid follower of a renowned road race like the Dakar Rally, or maybe you’ve just watched too many Indiana Jones movies. Or maybe you’ve checked off everything else on your thrill-seeking bucket list and are looking to challenge yourself to something new. (Skydiving? For sure. Scuba diving? Heck yeah. Safari? Several times, plus a gorilla trek or two.)

Or maybe, just maybe, you know in your soul that you’re meant to be an adventurer, but up until now, that’s merely been a fantasy. You may feel the call of the wild, but actually getting there is another story. Whatever the reason, if you want to go places where only those equipped with specialized skills and knowledge have been before, Nomadic Road can help you skip a whole bunch of steps.

What steps? A typical off-road expedition not only requires the right vehicle to traverse places like the Gobi Desert, the salt flats of Bolivia, or the sand dunes of Namibia, but each country also has its own set of rules and regulations for strangers hoping to roam around and set up camp. And then there’s researching the safest routes, making sure you’re culturally literate, and reading up on how to eat, sleep, and stay alive while you’re out there (consider bear spray). And if your vehicle breaks down, do you know how to fix it? Probably not.All those pesky details are covered by Nomadic Road, including a convoy stocked with a private chef, mechanics, professional translators, and even photographers and filmmakers tasked to create the photo album of a lifetime. Depending on the location, your accommodations range from pitched tents to yurts to luxury lodges, but don’t get the wrong idea-you’re not just coasting along. Each group of up to 10 people are organized into pairs and given a four-by-four along with some cursory driving lessons on paved and unpaved terrain.

Throughout the training, Nomadic Road makes sure to emphasize that this is a motoring journey, not a race. “If this were a motorsport, then you might need to go to an arena and get into a rally mode,” says Sugavanam in his introduction to guests. “This is an expedition. You’re not competing with each other.” And though you might get a flat or break the suspension-things happen, of course-actively risking harm to your vehicle won’t be tolerated. In fact, that’s the quickest way to have a member of the Nomadic Road team escort you out of the driver’s seat.

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

After all the instructions, the cars finally take off in a snaking motorcade formation linked by walkie talkies-each set of drivers autonomous, but with a safety net. “You are in control,” says Sugavanam, calling the format “mostly unscripted.” The route is, for the most part, already set thanks recon done ahead of time. A pilot vehicle sets the pace, warning those behind about unforeseen obstacles like, say, a recently developed crevice. “We take care of the end-to-end experience, but you’re at the helm of the adventure. You’re in the driver’s seat.” Literally, he means.

The landscape becomes your teacher and your entertainment. And as much as it sounds clichéd, the journey truly doubles as the destination. You’ll splash through rivers to reach Madagascarian villages where, with the aid of the cultural specialist, you’ll learn about day-to-day life in the remote farming landscape. Afterwards, you’ll follow the spice route sampling local vanilla, ginger, and cardamom that pops up in pink blooms from the side of the road.

You’ll learn to drive on varied terrain, from rocky, crumbling mountainscapes to seas of sand and salt that can easily suck you in if the atmosphere decides to add a little moisture to the mix. Which can definitely happen-sometimes the point is to figure out how to navigate sticky situations. “The idea is for them to get stuck,” says Sugavanam. “Otherwise, if you already know everything, you don’t need us. You can do it all by yourself.”

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Leave your comfort zone behind

And yup, precarious situations have happened. It’s simply par for the course when you’re out in the elements. “The wrath of Mother Nature in some places is so brutal and so realistic,” says Sugavanam. One day you might have to dig your wheels out of quicksand, while the next you’re contending with something totally unexpected, like the time it hailed in the Gobi Desert. “The Gobi Desert is one of the driest, apart from Atacama,” says Sugavanam. “You’re climbing the sand dunes and suddenly you get struck by hail-you never expect a hailstorm in the middle of a desert.” In situations like that, when you’re out on a hike far from your car with no shelter in sight, you learn exactly what you’re made of.

“People got hit and bruised, [but] some people really enjoyed it,” says Sugavanam. Some, however, really did not, like an Italian couple Sugavanam remembers whose tent had been dismantled by the hail. “They said, ‘How can this happen? We never expected this,'” he adds. While others in the group rolled with it, that couple ended up leaving the trip early.

Prior to an expedition, Sugavanam assesses the level of adventure a guest is asking for, and whether or not they’re being realistic. “Even if somebody says they’re interested in Mongolia and ‘this is my past travel experience,’ I might tell them that Mongolia might not be right,” he says, stressing that he always aims to determine the perfect balance between desired risk and real-world constraints. “For them, it’s more of a chest-thumping moment, bragging rights for family and friends in their social circle. That’s the experience we strive to create for them.”

Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road
Photo courtesy of Nomadic Road

Naturally, the clientele runs the gamut, from unaccompanied doctors wanting to test their mettle, to an adventurous team of sisters out exploring the world, to a daredevil father-daughter duo spending quality time together before her impending wedding. “They were in the first-ever expedition that went to Mount Everest Base Camp in Tibet,” says Sugavanam of the prenuptial pair.

And then, there were the two mid-20s private equity investors from New York who didn’t realize they would have to drive a stick shift. “They landed at the airport and I gave them a manual transmission-they were clueless,” says Sugavanam. While not exactly easy, procuring an automatic vehicle for the pair was the best option for all involved, adds Sugavanam. “I gave it to them after seeing how they drove.”

Want to put your skills to the test? There are still spots available on upcoming trips to Atacama, Peru, and yup, the Gobi Desert, among others. Just enquire about booking on NomadicRoad.com. And maybe brush up on driving stick before you land.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She’d be down to sit in the back seat.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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