How often have you wanted to just chuck it all in and head off in a camper van to explore the world? STEPHEN LEWIS reports on a York couple who did just that

What do you do when you’re hiking in the Canadian wilderness and bump into a black bear out for a stroll? Start singing opera to it, of course.

That was Christine Marr's idea, at least. Her husband James wanted to retreat to the nearby woods and photograph the bear as it ambled past.

Christine quickly put a stop to that. “She said ‘what if the bear follows us in?’” James says.

The thought of being pursued through virgin forest by an angry bear wasn't a happy one. So opera it was: sung quietly so as not to annoy the animal. Official advice on bumping into a bear in the wild, James explains, is to make enough noise for it to know you're there, but not enough to frighten it. "You really don't want to frighten a bear," he says.

The opera seems to have worked: because James and Christine are now safely back in York and still around to tell the tale...

The pair's encounter with a bear came towards the end of an on-off-on again 80,000-mile, six-year drive the length of the Americas, from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America to Alaska in the far north.

It was a drive that James, 55, had wanted to do for 30 years - ever since, as a young man, he used to drive to work at the family's ship business in Hull.

A recently published book was being read in instalments on the radio. "Each morning, as I drove to work, a short extract was read," he recalls. "The author's name was Bruce Chatwin and he'd been to an extraordinary place. His book, In Patagonia, stirred my imagination. He told of a vast land once populated by dinosaurs: a country of wild natives, taciturn gauchos and curious beasts."

But there was still the family business to run. J Marr was essentially a deep-sea fishing company. But as the east coast fishing fleets declined, the firm found new uses for its trawlers - as survey ships.

Eventually, however, James decided to leave. He and Christine began to earn a living as small-scale property developers: buying a house, doing it up, and selling it on.

It was a job that meant they could take long stints of time off to do what they both loved doing - travelling.

In 2008/9 they embarked on an overland journey along the Niger River through West Africa to Timbuktu. James then wrote their travels up as a book, City of Myths, River of Dreams.

Finally, in January 2012, the pair decided they were ready for the big one - driving the length of the Americas, with occasional breaks to return home to keep the business ticking over.

They found someone in the south of France to convert a Toyota Landcruiser, ripping out the back to install a bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. It was a tight squeeze, but they reckoned they'd be fine.

Then, on a January day in 2012, they manoeuvred their converted 4x4 onto the cargo ship Grande Africa for the 25-day voyage from northern France to Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina.

Hold on a second - they sailed by cargo ship? How on earth did they arrange that? "We hunted on the internet to see what was available," says James. Simple.

From Buenos Aires, they turned south and headed for Ushuaia at the southern tip of the Americas: a meandering 3,000-mile route through the mesas, canyons, shattered escarpments and rumbling volcanoes of Patagonia, in the foothills of the Andes.

They didn't see many people, apart from the occasional gaucho with his dogs: Patagonia doesn't exactly suffer from an overpopulation problem. But Charles Darwin once passed this way, James says. And in the autumn of 1901, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled here, setting up house in a ranch in a meadow just outside the town of Cholila.

The house wasn't easy to find. James and Christine were in the middle of nowhere, grassland with the high peaks of the Andes looming in the distance. They drove back and forth, but there was nothing to indicate where the outlaws might have lived. "And then eventually we saw a little sign stuck in a hedge which said 'Butch's House'," James says.

Eventually, at the tail-end of the southern summer, they reached Ushuaia. From a point south of the town, they gazed across a channel of water to the mountainous islands that made up the tip of Tierra del Fuego - knowing that beyond them there was nothing until the Antarctic.

And then they turned north. Their journey had just begun.

It's a journey that has taken them years, off and on. They stuck to the higher land in the foothills of the Andes, avoiding the swamps and jungles of eastern South America. "I'm not one for heat and swamps!" says James.

They drove through the rain forests and alpine meadows of southern Chile; climbed to Peru's second largest city, Arequipa, famed for its colonial architecture; dodged condors on their way to Lake Titicaca; and experienced altitude sickness on the high salt flats of the Salar de Uyuni, almost 12,000 feet above sea level below the crest of the Andes in southern Bolivia.

It's an extraordinary landscape, James says: flat, shining in the sun, and stretching to the horizon. "And the salt crumbles under your tyres as you drive."

The speed record for driving the length of both Americas is just under 24 days. But James and Christine didn't want to rush things. They wanted to see and get to know the countries they were driving through.

The great thing about South America, James says, is that if you have a British passport, you don't need to bother getting visas: you are granted 90 days entrance to each country at the border. They spent nine months in Argentina alone.

They visited Inca fortifications, and the ruins of Machu Picchu. In Ecuador, they even left their camper behind to take in a visit to the Galapagos islands

Further north, in some of the central American states infamous for drugs cartels and kidnappings, they made sure to camp in populated areas (on the back lawn of a Chinese restaurant one night; in the luxuriant grounds of a sex motel another). But they never experienced any trouble, James says.

Crossing the border from Mexico into the United States was a real culture shock. Everything was suddenly neat and clean - and huge. A local supermarket in San Diego had aisles as wide as boulevards, cooled almost to freezing by Arctic blasts from air conditioning.

They meandered up through the Rockies: crossed into Canada from the forests of Montana; had that close encounter with a bear; and eventually reached Valdez in Alaska.

There they met 67-year- old Steve, who was wrestling his excavator along the track beside a creek. He was about to start mining a three hundred acre gold concession he'd staked a claim to up in the hills. He was hoping to get enough gold to get his fishing boat back to sea, he told them.

Having run out of the Americas, James and Christine made their way back to York in October last year.

Since then, James has been writing up an account of their travels.

Short Stories From A Long Continent, brought out for him last week by York Publishing Services, takes the form of a collection of short stories or reminiscences that take in the length of their journey. It is lavishly illustrated with photographs the pair took during their journey - and by some beautiful maps drawn especially for them by York-based artist Jonty Clark.

Now, having been based in York for more than a year, they are already beginning to get itchy feet again.

So where might they go next?

"I want to go East, along the Silk Road to The Stans," says James. So Uzbekistan it is, possibly as early as next April...

Short Stories From A Long Continent: The Americas Overland by James Marr is printed by York Publishing Services. It is available, priced £20 plus £2.95 p&p, from