Man who nearly died travels the world – in an ambulance


Meet the man whose near-death experience led him to pack up his life and travel the world in a converted ambulance.

After Ian Dow (34), from California in the US, nearly died in a snowboarding accident he realised his life could’ve ended without him getting to see the world.

In the 12 years since the incident he’s travelled to 69 countries – first on a motorcycle and then in an ambulance he bought and converted.

The 1994 Ford E350 Type III vehicle cost Ian around $2 700 (about R40 700) and he spent another $5 500 (R81 400) converting it into a suitable travelling home.

“My personal travels started with chasing my ambition as a competitive snowboarder and moving domestically to various mountains in California and Nevada,” Ian says.

“At 22 I broke my back snowboarding and had an epiphany at that same moment: I thought to myself that life is fragile. I was staring at a rock that my head had missed by an inch; that could have been it, right there, and I haven’t been out to see the world yet. It was time to go.

“After returning to America from living in Europe I bought a motorcycle to travel the States. I had no money so I lived in my hammock while exploring the forests of the Pacific North West.

“When I’d spent my last pennies I found temporary work on a farm in Northern California. I worked there for a great season in a beautiful place with awesome co-workers and a farm dog named Rhino that had become my best bud.

“As things were dying down on the farm I was asked to adopt a puppy from an accidental litter my new buddy Rhino was responsible for. I gladly accepted the most beautiful blue-eyed little puppy I’d ever seen and which I later named Dino (son of Rhino) after his dad.

“My lifestyle on the motorcycle wouldn’t suit life with my new buddy so that, coupled with the fact it was getting cold outside, started my search for larger wheels; something we could also live in.

“I was in search of a van when one morning on a ride I went down on the motorcycle and almost slid off a cliff.

“That was it. I was broken and needed emergency help – another epiphany. I needed an ambulance. I bought one on eBay that night and was in Missouri three days later picking it up.”

Ian has travelled through the US, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize.

Before that he’d spent around $15 800 (R232 000) visiting 50 countries in 18 months in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America and the South Pacific.

“Life in the ambulance is glorious,” he says. “When south of the border in Mexico or Costa Rica the van life is perfect. Dino and I would pull up on secluded beaches with perfect waves and not only have them all to ourselves but also have our home with us.

“I set up the ambulance to really feel like a tiny home rather than a camper so whether we’re completely away from society and on our own, or in a parking lot in a city, we really feel at home.

“I love to travel because no two days are the same. I learn so much from the cultures I get to experience and the people I’m lucky to meet along the way.

“I guess what I love most about travel is that for me it’s really living. When out in the world I have to apply myself to do simple tasks like finding food, finding water, charging a phone or even just finding a place to park,” Ian says.

“When I’m in a new place with new people and a different language it takes more involvement and effort. Some people prefer an all-inclusive holiday where this is taken care of for them, but I love not knowing what’s around the corner and dealing with everything as it comes.”

While the van life has treated him well Ian now has his eyes set on the ocean and hopes to move onto a boat soon.

“I grew up in California in an old wooden shack from 1914 and sailed with my dad on his 1928 R Class Sloop named Aloha,” he says.

“Because of this upbringing I’ve been feeling the call of the ocean a lot lately and I’ve been thinking about selling the ambulance to buy an old wooden sailboat so I can sail away and eventually circumnavigate the world.

“Luckily old wooden boats are cheap to buy but they require a lot of time, money and love to upkeep. Everyone I tell about wanting a wooden boat says I’m crazy. I don’t disagree, it’s just my style. I have one in my sights – a beautiful 53-foot Herreshoff ketch that’s currently in Canada.”

Ian Dow

Ian encourages people all over the world to follow their dreams and face their fears.

“Just do it! The most important thing to know is that the ‘worst case’ in your mind, that thought that makes you afraid or apprehensive about starting a trip like this, is usually not so bad in reality.

“A breakdown or flat tyre, getting stuck in the mud, a roadblock or even a revolution can all be opportunities for experience. Every time something goes wrong and I find myself in a vulnerable position, that’s when I’ve had my most amazing experiences.

“Sometimes it’s the kindness of others or a forced roadside camping experience, and sometimes it’s a test of nerves to overcome or solve a problem on my own, leaving me with a sense of triumph and accomplishment when it’s done.


“The hardest thing to do when planning a trip is to forget your fears and get started. Just get out and go, you’ll soon see how beautiful and non-threatening the world is.”

Source: Magazine Features


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