First off, I’m breaking a rule here that I’ve upheld for a long time; not sharing photos of my travels on social media. I only share photos of watches. But this is a watch story, so there’s my loophole.
The watch industry consumes my life. Every day I read up on what’s going on in the watch world, keeping track of each new release. This is why I was so delighted by the SRP777 when I first saw it at Wallace Bishop mid 2016 – I’d never heard of it!
The Turtle had only appeared in retailers that week and without any big press. There was no internet hype machine telling me that I must have this watch, I just discovered it organically and liked it. How refreshing.
What I loved especially was the unusual, yet functional 45mm brushed case. Styled after the venerable 1970’s 6309 diver, it had the presence of a Panerai. But I could actually take this on an adventure… a big one. One that I’d been planning/not planning.
A month later, I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Vienna. There was no plan beyond teaming up with my mate Joel, but I knew what watch I’d be bringing.
So where were we going next…Paris? Rome? Joel hit me with the hard sell…
“Hey buddy, want to go Eastern Europe instead?”
Now the thing about adventure and watches is, if you’re a poser like me, you might imagine yourself searching for the Ark of the Covenant or measuring the burn from your Luna Module. I bought this watch feeling like budget James Bond.
What I ended up measuring was much more mundane, such as the elapsed time since consuming an allergen, crab in my case, in a country where providing medical aid to foreigners is forbidden.
While I was able to dodge anaphylaxis in Transnistria, through some rather crude improvised means, this was not the first nor the last time I would get seriously ill or injured. Over the next two weeks alone I suffered travellers sickness in Romania, cutting my knee open in the Israeli Dead Sea (ouch), followed by second bout of travellers sickness in Bulgaria.
This wasn’t the worst of it however; in Ukraine I ended up having surprise midnight surgery in a semi-abandoned hospital. It looked like Resident Evil. This was after having neglected an infected finger for too long. My beautiful translator, Lumidia, told me “another week and you would’ve lost the finger.” I only lost the nail.
Despite being prescribed painkillers labeled “Horse Tranquilliser” when run through the Google Translator, the next day Joel and I ventured into the Chernobyl exclusion zone and explored the desolate remains of Pripyat. Being in an irradiated area is an odd experience. Knowing that there is an imperceptible death field around you is eerie to say the least. Keep your geiger counter close and an eye on the time. There were also mutated catfish in the river and many Call of Duty flashbacks.
Anyone who has backpacked for an extended period knows that it’s not all a party, there’s a significant amount of stress involved too. Where am I going to sleep next? When is the next train to Prague? Am I going to make it to the station in time? Having a tough, highly legible timepiece becomes indispensable in these moments.
Particularly when you wake up at 4am, paranoid that you’ve missed that bus to the airport. Dusk, in my experience, is the hardest time to read your watch. By early morning, the lume on the dial has faded, your eyes are weary and the dark blue light dulls polished surfaces, reducing contrast on the dial. Not an issue for this Turtle. Lumibrite, combined with Seiko’s trademark diver aesthetic is a 10/10 read, 24/7. Rolex Chromolite and Superluminova cannot hold a candle to it. The lume is so bright, you can actually read a book after lights out by holding the watch up against it.
The Day-Date complication, which features both English and Kanji settings, is also a great function. As we all know, it very easy to forget what day it is during the holidays – particularly when alcohol is involved. The blue SAT and red SUN add some colour to an already charming diver.
It quickly became evident that this was the perfect watch to travel with. Whether you’re hiking through mountains, exploring post-soviet ruins or on a pub-crawl. What also became evident was how many fellow travellers were also into watches, many of them wearing Seiko divers as well. Some were even modded too.
After 3 months with Joel, we spit up in Greece. I continued alone henceforth. While the weather was still good, I had to fit in at least one Greek Island. It was time for a dive. The SRP777 is superb underwater. Even if you’re strictly a desk diver, you really are doing yourself a disservice by not at least wearing some goggles in a pool and viewing the watch submerged. It is like seeing it for the first time, but with new eyes. Every detail of the dial and bezel now seem so obvious; the use of circles, lines and triangles, even the curve of the numerals. It’s trippy.
My dive in Santorini was incredible. The Aegean sea water was – Hardlex – crystal clear. At one point I found myself atop an underwater cliff edge with nothing but a dark blue abyss below me. Probably the closest I’ll get to the deep void of space.
The OEM silicon strap was up to the task. While I personally find it too heavy for everyday use, it’s terrific over a wet suit as your wrist expands under pressure. The smooth texture and signed metal keeper make it feel like it’s punching well above its price point.
For day to day, I kept a wide assortment of NATO straps on hand, as any budget collector should. The solid bright red and admiralty grey were my two favourites.
One major highlight was Geneva. My only reason to go Switzerland was because I love watches. I tell everyone I meet who’s visiting Geneva the same thing; go to the Patek Philippe Museum. It’s a true marvel, even if you only have a passing knowledge of watches.
But I got one better. By sheer luck, I had the opportunity to attend the Phillips Geneva Watch Auction 4 and witness the sale of a 1940’s Patek Philippe ref.1518 in stainless steel. I threw on my best rags, dusted off the hiking boots and took at taxi to the Hôtel La Réserve. Only one backpacker was there that night.
The room was filled with suave Italian aristocrats, all wearing fine bespoke sports coats and supreme vintage watches. And while my $600AUD Seiko was nothing compared to their gold pre-Daytonas, they still knew what it was and respected it. That night I got to shake hands with Aurel Bacs, Thierry Stern, FP. Journe and John Goldberger, among many other cool people… all of them eagerly awaiting what was about to take place. The tension during the auction was comparable to a championship boxing match. A slow burn drawn out by Mr. Bacs that went for a nail biting 40 minutes. The 1518 eventually sold for 9.6 Million Swiss Francs, a world record in 2016!
After hopping through the western capitals, my travels took me far east, meeting up with mates for a road trip through the Indian Himalayan Region. After 5 months in Europe, this was a stark contrast to say the least. Then came Christmas in Hong Kong.
I was beginning to become weary of my journey. The uncertainty, the costs, the emotional drainage of making new friends every week only to move on and start over – if there was anyone in the hostel to begin with … Even the novelty of new places had become routine. The lustre wore off months ago. “What am I doing here, really?” I thought to myself. First world problems for sure. But they felt real enough. I had to persevere though, there was one last thing to do.
Many years before, I’d watched a documentary on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). I promised myself that one day I would go there, somehow. Why? It seemed like the furthest I could ever be from home and the closest I could get to an alien planet a la Star Trek. But my reasons had become deeper in my travels. I’d since seen 2nd and 3rd world poverty, been to Auschwitz, the Berlin Wall, the remains of the USSR and Yugoslavia and even heard sounds of conflict from the Golan Heights overlooking Syria. And I hadn’t planned any of it.
To travel to the DPRK, you must go from China. Only one flight a day travels from Beijing to Pyongyang. Foreigners are not permitted to travel unsupervised, you must be with one of three tour groups as a guest of the regime. A two hour course is held in the tour office before your flight, instructing you on what and what not to do, what you can and cannot say and what you can and cannot take photos of.
I could write a much longer article on what it’s like to go there, but I’ll just say that the people there are not robots. They have families, hopes and dreams just like us. To my surprise, Seiko 5’s are very popular there! Which makes sense, I doubt there are many service centres to change your batteries… I was actually able to talk shop with Mr. Lee, an obvious spy posing as a ‘trainee’ tour guide. There’s no OMEGA boutique there, or much else for that matter, but they know their watches! In the Pyongyang Department Store No. 1, I ended up buying a Longines for €5.70 😉 – what was I going to do, not buy a watch in North Korea?
NYE 2017 was spent on a luxury yacht with the Pyongyang elite on the frozen Taedong River, next to the packed Kim Il Sung Square. This is where you see the missiles roll through on TV. Looking at my Turtle as it swept passed mid-night, I had reached peak surrealism.
7 months. 30 counties (32 if you count Vatican City and Transnistria)..
Since coming back, the rotor and bezel have had issues. Good thing Seiko offers a 3 year warranty. I took the opportunity to add a mod of my own; a steel 12 Hour bezel from Yobokies, James Stacy style. It gives just that extra bit of functionality. A cheap GMT. A CMT, if you will…
Needless to say, this will be in my collection for the long haul. As Bilbo Baggins said “The greatest adventure still lies ahead.” Just buy one and get out there!