A week in a motorhome would be akin to boot camp for some, but a French family hit the road and lived five years in a self-contained truck.
A real estate agent would have described it as a pied-a-terre with wood panelling and cheerful decor.
Parked within the compounds of the Maxiwell workshop in Salak Selatan, Kuala Lumpur, the motorhome looked big from the outside, but it was compact inside.
"We named her Tembo, Swahili for 'elephant'," said a beaming Andre Serandour as he led me inside.
|Photo: The Star
Tembo took the Serandour family safely across the Nubian desert, Sudan
After putting up 20 years worth of exhibition in their art gallery in France, Andre, 52 and his wife Catherine, 45 decided to unplug themselves from their everyday work routine and take their two kids, Audrey, 15, and Titouan, 12, on a road trip to Africa and South-East Asia.
"We named our expedition 'Anautica'. That's what you get when you put the first two letters of our names together: ANdre, AUdrey, TItouan and CAtherine," said Andre.
Quite the luxury dig on wheels, Tembo has more bells and whistles than some studio apartments I've seen. It may lag behind the rest of the interior world by a good 10 years, but it has served Andre and his family well for the past five years.
Looking around I couldn't help noticing there was no television.
"There's only 24 hours in a day. Between studying, writing, reading, art and travelling, we have no time for it," Andre said.
Though missing out on creature comforts (like a blowdryer), Tembo comes with a breakfast table, fridge, stove, plenty of cupboard space, a double bunk bed, a bathroom with a chemical toilet, basin and shower, and a queen-sized bed.
Solar panels, a generator and a windmill provide the energy in this home on wheels.
Pulling up in a big truck is definitely a conversation starter.
"People are always peppering us with questions, not so much about our trip but how we extracted ourselves from our lives and made it happen," Andre said.
Sketching a rough route for the travel and roping in the sponsors took Andre and his wife a year and a half.
"We've been to Africa before and thoroughly enjoyed its wildlife, space and the desert, so we decided to go back there for our expedition. We began our journey in Morocco and worked our way south towards Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo and Ghana.
"From Ghana, we shipped Tembo to South Africa and travelled to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Sudan, and Ethiopia. That took us three years. Then we crossed over to Egypt and drove through Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Iran, Pakistan, India and Nepal, before heading back to India so we could ship our vehicle to Malaysia.
"In South-East Asia, we went to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore," he said pulling out a scrap of paper and mapping out the 130,000km they covered.
"We normally stay in one country for one or three months. Our longest stay was in South Africa, because we loved being with the wildlife so much," he recalled.
Audrey and Titouan's jottings have filled up six travel journals, a detailed recollection of their journey.
"Audrey also writes a monthly newsletter that we distribute in France so we can keep our family and friends up to date on our adventures. The memory it brings back is well worth all the effort."
So where to next?
"We're shipping Tembo from Singapore to Buenos Aires. It's a two-month trip, so we're installing safety features at this workshop to prepare for it," he added.
"Here, we've been to the Islamic Arts Museum, Petronas Twin Towers and Lake Gardens. We're heading to Malacca next and if there's time, we might swing over to the east coast. At the end of May, we're flying back to France and will reunite with Tembo in July to conquer South America."
At a glance, hitting the road and hitting the books appear to be mutually exclusive things, but the lessons go on for Andre's two children.
"People are most curious to know about the kids' schooling. My wife and I home-school them. Catherine teaches mathematics and French, while I teach history, geography and science. In 2006, Audrey and Titouan returned to France to sit for their exams and they did very well.?
Although Catherine has a licence to take the wheel, Andre is quite content to do most of the driving himself.
|Photo: The Star
"If I get tired, I'll just pull over and take a nap and be back on the road in no time," he said.
Long vehicles generally do not make for relaxing drives, what with nausea-inducing mountain passes and treacherous terrain.
"After three years on the road, I've learned to manoeuvre through all sorts of roads and thankfully we have never been in an accident. I drive very slowly, averaging 60kph," said Andre.
No road is too rough or puddle too deep for Tembo.
"She does require minor repairs now and then, but we've learned to handle problems on the fly. Once we had some engine trouble and were stranded in Ethiopia. I called up the German maker of the truck through our satellite phone and they explained what to do, and before I knew it, Tembo was roaring again."
Ever fled the motorhome in favour of a hotel?
"In some places, you can't park overnight as it violates zoning laws. In Thailand, we stayed at a hotel for two weeks because we couldn't find a proper place to park. Most of the time, we're lucky. Look, we live in a small place but we have a big garden!" he said, pointing towards the patch of land outside overgrown with weeds.
Waste management can get tricky.
"The grey water, which is what's left after showering and washing up, is easy to dispose of, but black water, what you get when the chemical loo is full, is a little tougher to sort out," Andre pointed out.
Most parents who have taken their kids on road trips probably had to put up with the notorious, "Are we there yet?" refrains even before they have barely left home. One way this family keeps boredom at bay is by reading.
"We packed about 600 books," Adrian revealed.
Being vegetarians, getting adventurous with food is out of the equation.
"It's just not a good idea to change your diet from country to country because you don't want to risk upsetting your tummy, so we cooked in most of the time," he explained.
The only time they ever needed serious medical attention was when Titouan fell off his bicycle while playing in Kenya.
"The nearest hospital was in Nairobi, so he had to be flown over by plane."
Relying on maps and GPS to find their way around, they've made stops at schools, churches, museums, scientific centres and even a bakery.
"If a place offers something different, we visit. We do look up guidebooks but we prefer recommendations from the locals.
"In North Africa and the Middle East, the welcome was especially special because it's their culture to welcome visitors.
Even though French and English are not spoken there, we got by with a big smile and hand gestures," he added.
"When people see this great big truck rumbling by, they wonder what we're up to, but when they see my wife and two kids, they relax and welcome us. If I travel with big, burly men, it might seem intimidating."?
Andre's enthusiasm for travelling in a truck is infectious.
An online journal of the family's adventure - www.anautica.com (in French) - has generated quite the buzz with over 18,000 hits. But if you're wondering, as I did, whether there is room for one more, there isn't. And Andre is not looking to adopt either.