One of the great joys of travelling in the third world is not having to cook for yourself. Street food is sometimes so cheap that it makes economic sense to eat out every night. This can lead to problems on arrival back in the real world though, when food preparation skills have simply been forgotten, like the ancient Egyptians’ ability to travel through time. This is unlikely to be the case after a trip through Europe, where one’s talent at preparing pasta and sauce in hostel kitchens can become so honed as to constitute a practical thesis on modern Italian cuisine.
Either way, “Why would I want to carry a stove on my travels?” you might be thinking. Well, when your trip is likely to involve hiking in remote national parks, as mine almost certainly do. Some popular treks, for instance Kilimanjaro or the Inca Trail, are now accompanied by compulsory guides and cook crew who will magic up sumptuous meals with just a couple of gas burners, a collection of battered steel pots and a smattering of muddy, local produce, but budget-conscious travellers can trek to their hearts’ delight in thousands of breathtaking national parks with just a few supplies purchased from the Chinese-owned shop that is undoubtedly situated in the trailhead village – usually noodles, porridge and biscuits (no matter in which country you are hiking).
And it’d not just while hiking that a stove proves useful: I have often unpacked and fired up my hardware at bus stops, on the decks of ferries, even in my hotel room. Emerging from the Simien Mountains in northern Ethiopia after a four-day stroll though its picturesque escarpments and pinnacles, we checked back into our room in Debark, hungry. Since we had some leftover Maggi noodles (and also because most Ethiopian food is revolting) we saved the cost of a meal and cooked them up in the corner of our room.
Trangias burn methylated spirits (meths) or other denatured alcohol as opposed to butane gas or hydrocarbon-based liquids such as white gas. The latter two of these are too uncommon in 3rd world countries to be guaranteed available. Some stoves can burn petrol but it’s dirty and clogs up your pipes worse than ten Big Macs a day. Wood? Usually available but prohibited in the places where you’d want to use it. The charred and denuded slopes around the Simiens, guarded by solitary roadside charcoal vendors, are testament to the wisdom of these laws. Ethanol though – I’ve never found a town where some form of ethanol wasn’t available. If there is no hardware store, try the supermarket, petrol station, pharmacy, or that Chinese shop. If all else fails, try the off-licence. Plus, meths can be stretched by mixing it with water.
Another time, we were traversing one of the via ferrata in the Italian Dolomites. Day two was particularly hot and water was scarce, and we somehow misjudged our resupply timing and ran dry. We had no option but to continue on until we found a water source but, increasingly parched, I began to feel faint and wobbly on my pins. Vertiginous mountain paths and steel cables bolted into the sides of rock faces are not good places to stumble or black out. Our desperation grew as we searched desperately for standing water, trickles of condensation or freshly deceased rodents.
Eventually we spotted a patch of off-white snow which had somehow survived in the shade of a cliff since the last fall, many days ago. Like homesick Inuit we scurried over, unpacked the Trangia and threw in a few lumps, ignoring the mud and gravel trapped in the surprisingly dry matrix. The only meths we could find back in Cortina had been impure and burned with a sooty flame, so we watched with greedy eyes as black plumes of smoke licked up the pot sides and curled, by some improbable physical law of fluid dynamics, over the edges depositing a shadowy residue over the already-soiled snow. We didn’t care. As soon as sufficient liquid had gathered we swilled it down, soot, gravel and all, to slake our heady thirst.
I’ve had my Trangia now for 14 years and carried it the length of Africa and South America. One of my favourite pieces of kit, the Swedish aluminium is very hard to break and I’ve somehow managed to avoid losing it, but it is bulky and relatively heavy. I don’t know the word for ‘streamlining’ in Swedish (I only know one phrase and it isn’t repeatable here) but if I did I would heartily apply it. The Trangia Triangle is a simple stand created by linking three stainless steel plates, in the centre of which rests a circular burner support. Holes in the plates provide the ventilation and the unit is surprisingly stable and effective. The original stove is still the most stable and windproof, but at 115g the Triangle is the way to go for travelling or lightweight trekking. Upgrade.