The longest air journey I ever made took 43 hours. It was from Sydney to Rio while filming the BBC series Rough Guide to the World. We skipped east across the Pacific to Los Angeles with stops in Fiji and Tahiti. At LAX, we changed planes. Then on to Lima, Sao Paolo and finally Rio de Janeiro.
We flew into tomorrow - crossing the International Date Line from west to east. We traversed the Equator (twice) and the tropics of both Cancer (twice) and Capricorn (once). We crashed through 11 time zones, laying a zig-zag vapour trail across a large segment of globe and an even thicker fug of jet lag on our battered brains. Small wonder that the opening links to the Rough Guide to Rio had a hallucinogenic edge.
It is all so easy now. This week we are celebrating a new record for the world's longest non-stop commercial flight. Singapore Airlines will whisk you direct from Changi airport to New York in a mere 18 hours. The 9,000 nautical mile journey takes passengers over the North Pole in a specially adapted plane. The Airbus A340-500 is equipped with bigger wings, lighter body, modified engines and fuel tanks carrying 222,000 litres of fuel. Accommodation is "executive economy" (isn't that an oxymoron?) and business. Even passengers who choose to die inconveniently en route fly in their very own cupboard - a sort of executive economy morgue.
More is on the way. The Airbus 380 - the biggest commercial airliner ever - is taking shape in hangars on the outskirts of Toulouse in France. This behemoth is designed to carry at least 555 passengers up to 9,200 miles non-stop. Singapore Airlines hopes to be the first to have the new aeroplane in service, by spring 2006.
The trend in commercial aviation is for bigger, further and faster. For passengers this should represent progress - more people will travel across continents, more frequently. They will have internet access, umpteen channels of in-flight entertainment, and on-board massage salons. And despite all the questions about deep vein thrombosis (the British Medical Association, incidentally, now reckons flying is no more dangerous than any other form of transport) - they will probably arrive in better shape than I did at the end of my Sydney-Rio marathon. As the slog of trans-continental flying is eased, and the jet-streams of the sky fill up with ever more travellers I can't help feeling nostalgic for pain. Pain was a measurement of distance travelled. Our aching bodies and dazed minds were the evidence of oceans crossed. The world felt large. We are not going back there.
How do you react if approached by a group of drunken, gun-toting border guards as you try to enter Nepal? Or try this - you are on a bus in South America, on a steep dirt road, the bus speeds up dramatically, a sharp corner is looming - what do you do?
A company called Planet Wise (www.planetwise.net) is offering to answer such tricky conundrums as part of a gap year "training" programme. Parents with children about to embark on their pre-university adventure may find the three-day course reassuring.
Much of it can be filed under common sense - no bad thing as teenagers are famously challenged in that area. The curriculum includes journey planning, packing, and choosing accommodation, and is brought home by role-playing games.
Mark Hide from the company explains how they instill the importance of safe drinking water: "We put some bottled water on the table last night and we broke the seal, but nobody noticed. We put salt into the water. They'll remember that - their first gulp of that salty water."
Point made, but what about that bus ride in South America?
"You've got to make a judgement call," says Mark, "We can't teach people right and wrong all the time. All I know is when I travelled with a girlfriend she would shout and scream at them to slow down - and they completely ignored her. And I got more and more embarrassed."
With respect to Mark - that does not tell you "what to do". But maybe it offers the most important lesson. No matter how well you have planned and prepared for your travels - you still need good luck.
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