All photos by Akela.World
“I think everybody dreams of making a world trip, or something like this," says Leander Nardin, his face slightly pixelated on my phone screen as he dials in from Eastern Siberia. Lots of people dream of making a world trip, sure. But not everyone finds themselves driving a converted 1977 Mercedes truck halfway across the world.
Yet this is exactly what Austrian photographer Leander, his girlfriend Maria and their six-year-old son Lennox have been doing for that past year and a bit. “I think it started five years ago," says Leander, explaining the genesis of this crazy journey. “We went to Thailand when Lennox was one year old. We just went with backpacks for a few weeks but you know when you're traveling with children, you have lots of stuff. It was way too exhausting and complicated."
"He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’"
“Our dream destination was always New Zealand," he explains, but after the Thailand experience they realised that it would be difficult enough as a couple, let alone with a young kid. “Flights only and the campervan for two or three months in New Zealand is about 10 or 15 thousand euros.
“So I came up with the idea to buy a small bus and drive all the way down to New Zealand. Maria was like ‘man that's a crazy idea, it's bullshit’. But somehow it worked out." So far this ‘bullshit’ idea has taken them almost 40,000km, and through some of the most incredible landscapes on earth. “My favourite has definitely been Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia," says Maria. “Kyrgyzstan felt a little bit like home, like Austria - all the beautiful lakes and mountains".
Follow the family on Instagram and you can see instantly why they have no regrets about their decision to pack up and go. Leander is a talented snapper, whose photos include portraits of interesting locals (“the eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan were people I always wanted to shoot", he says), and incredible landscapes. In fact, he says, “the only thing I regret is that we travelled through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan way too fast."
Certainly on the surface, their life looks pretty perfect. Leander’s shots include plenty of Lennox, who’s an almost unbelievably photogenic kid with a cheeky smile and a mop of blonde hair. As we speak, he occasionally chips in in impressively fluent English.
There are also a lot of photos of what they refer to as “the fourth member of our family," the truck itself. “The truck is named Akela because he's our leading wolf," explains Maria. Like the leader of the pack from the Jungle Book, “he protects us when it's hot outside, when it's raining, when it's cold outside".
However, Akela is not always the infallible guiding force the guys might have hoped for. “When he doesn’t work," says Maria, “it’s pretty shitty." But this is the great thing about Leander, Maria and the Akela.World Instagram account and blog they run, and what makes them really worth following.
They don’t try to project the always-perfect #VanLife cliché, they’re more real than that. Neither of them are about to pretend that life on the road doesn’t come with problems, and their account is full of pictures of the truck breaking down at inopportune moments. “Engine overheated with outside temperatures of -10 degree Celsius!! Really?? In the middle of nowhere in Siberia - on a Sunday!" reads one post.
Leander tells another story of a breakdown in rural Iran, “300 kilometres from the last big city. There are not many people on this road so we just waited and stopped a truck driver. Truck drivers actually know about other trucks. But my Farsi is pretty shitty so it was quite difficult. We figured out it's a big problem, and he couldn't help us. I asked him if he could call a mechanic. He was just laughing, he said: ‘No mechanic is coming into the desert.’"
As well as the truck the couple also worry about Lennox’s wellbeing. He’s homeschooled, and life on the road has been great for his English, which far outstrips the level you’d expect from a regular 6-year-old Austrian kid. But at the same time, Maria says, “meeting other children on the road is not the same like having friends at home. It's only for a very short time and language is always a problem.
“He's missing all his friends. We are two adults so we can speak on the same level, but Lennox is alone, and he misses his friends."
But for all that life on the road can be tough, overall the experience has been a massively positive one according to Leander. “It's more intense, for sure," he says when I ask if it’s brought them closer together. “But more so in positive than in negative ways I think."
Even back in Austria, the family was adventurous. And having brought a motorbike, snowboards, and even Leander’s wingsuit with them, they get out into the mountains at every available opportunity. But for every shot they post of skiing in Japan, or hiking up hills in Mongolia, there’s something self-deprecating to bring things their Instagram account back to earth.
“Let’s start with a kistchy sunset at one of Borneo’s beautiful beaches," reads one post - which sums up exactly why we love Akela.World and why you should follow them. In an environment characterised by 'hashtag influencers' on 'hashtag adventures', these guys are the real deal.
They’re going all the places we wish we could get to, and taking better photos than we ever could. But they’re not taking any of it - or themselves - too seriously.