… just something I’ve been jotting together.
Traveling the world by motorbike. We’ve all seen Ewan McGreggor and his mate do it. Long Way Down, Long Way Around; the pair of them jumping on expensive motorbikes and riding to earth’s every sacred corner with a team of medics, mechanics and film crew in tow. But what’s it really like, who are the people living this dream off their own back, without any corporate support or the glittering flash of fame to greet them at the end?
Well I shall now try and tell you, because I’m a 29 year old Englishman currently riding from Australia to England on a moped called Dorothy.
Three months ago me and Dorothy, or Dot for short, left Sydney, headed north to Darwin, crossed to East Timor before riding along Indonesia, over to Malaysia then on to Thailand where we currently are now. Nepal is next, then down into India and on through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey until we reach Europe and the last leg home. So far we’ve covered 18,000 kilometres and reckon to have the same again to go.
That’s a lot for Dot. On a slender budget she’s all I could afford; a five year old decommissioned Australian Post bike bought from auction and fitted with a long range tank and panniers. With a 105cc engine and 80km/h flat-out-downhill-wind-behind-us top speed she might be slow, but she’s tough and easy to fix; a crucial ingredient in the wild’s of this vast fascinating world.
Despite 60,000 km/s on her clock she’s in rude health, even with all the weight she has to carry. Clothes, electrical gear, spares, tools, camping gear… me. It’s a lot for a little bike originally designed to potter around the streets. Sometimes, if the hill is so steep, I have to get off push. Once, when I camped by the road In Indonesia, it took me two hours to shove her out of a ditch. Then the bitch wouldn’t start.
My budget for everything, including the bike, the visas and all the living costs for the trip was 5.000 pounds. That was for a four month crossing. With delays and visa issues that’s going to take longer, maybe six months, so the budget has gone up, but only slightly, because on the road, in these countries, I spend no more than ten pounds per day. That’s for food, shelter if I’m not in the tent, and petrol. Those on bigger bikes like McGreggor need more because shipping and paperwork costs are calculated on the vehicles weight and value. It makes it cheaper for me riding Dot.
Some riders manage to get sponsorship and corporate funding. It’s a massive help. All I have, and all you need. to get started is a bike, the necessary paperwork – called a Carnet de Passage – to get your bike over the borders and the necessary tourist visas for the rider. Getting those involves many frustrated hours waiting in line at embassies where you begin to realise that riding’s the easy part of an overland trip. It’s the logistics and formalities that grind you down.
That’s where, as an adventure motorcyclist, you have two options. Plan or just go. Some take years to outline the perfect trip. They know where they’ll stay, the road they’ll take ,and the places they’ll visit along the way. Others, like me, just make it up. Set off on a whim and have total faith that things will work out along the way.
I only had 16 days left on my visa when Australian immigration said I had to go. I’d already had the trip in mind but suddenly, with the window of opportunity briefly open, a distant dream became an overnight reality. In two days I packed and planned and rushed around town picking all sorts of stuff. Tool kits, a storage box, tent, sleeping bag and clothing. Then I set off, leaving just two weeks to cover the 5000 kilometres to Darwin. For me it was the best way. Keep me focused and moving. And so began a life in a tent or hotel room. Up at dawn to ride in rain and across landscapes you’ve never before seen. Lost, alone, on the road, your home is your bike now
A typical day would have me wake at 5am, pack up my tent, skip breakfast, hit the road and for the next 14 hours just keep riding. As Dot can only cruise at 65km/h that gave us a realistic daily distance of 600 kilometres. At night we’d eat a banana sandwich, find a place to pitch the tent, sleep, then wake up and do the same thing again. It was like that across Indonesia, too, where my error in applying for a one month visa not two meant we had to cross this vast island chain without barely stopping. It was five thousand kilometres across Australia, six thousand across Indonesia.
My main worry, always, is having an accident or taking ill. Who will scrape me up off the road and ensure Dot and my belongings are safe while the hospital glues me back together? There’s no safety net on this tight-rope. Slip and fall and you’re on your own. Sometimes you worry too long about this and feel utterly vulnerable, which you are, but there’s no point thinking about it. In truth, on the road, the past and future barely exist. You don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow, just on getting somewhere, in one piece, today. Total focus with no wasted energy on things that can’t be changed. Always in the zone; you could say that.
As for loading the bike, everything has a place, a purpose and necessity if it’s to avoid being abandoned as waste. You become attached to these things. I give them names and ask how they all are in the morning. We’re brothers, on the same quest, surviving in conditions their maker never intended. Clothes, laptops, cameras and footwear. All working overtime, being tossed around in accidents and crashes and in terrain they‘ve never been tested. But on we march. Together, a band as one.
That’s why it’s so upsetting when you have to say goodbye to something or see it lost. Hats, gloves, penknives and socks, casualties along the way for which you mourn. I now have to ditch some weight if Dot’s going to climb the hills of the Himalayas. The first thing to go will be clothes, but only once I’ve torn a off a piece of fabric to be tied around Dot’s handlebars. They’ve earned that place, deserve that place.
So why do we do it; to sight-see and send postcards? Nah. We’re escaping, running from something that in our minds make us go. Boredom, the routine of life, a relationship, an inadequacy, you can escape them all on the road. That is until you stop for a while and they quickly catch up. You will be sat, merry in the moment around a campfire or at a table having lunch, when WHAM, they come right back having pursued you all this way across the globe.
But solitude; it’s a mesmering sensation. One where you feel true and unsmudged. You can be you, you are you, not the one at home you think should be you. There’s no act, no face or front. Raw, bare and naked. Finding yourself. There’s no bigger cliché but that’s the truth. Only here are you faults and flaws completely exposed. You see yourself. Am I really like that, why have I not seen that before? It’s not always nice, but necessary, if you’re going to get more from this trip than a bedtime story.
I don’t know what Ewan and Charlie experienced on their trip, where their personal journey took them. The act for the camera must have been tough. To put on a smiling showbiz face when really all they wanted to do was sit and relax, think, stop, listen, look. Breath. Take in the magic of their adventure and get drunk on it. I imagine they yearned and longed for that.
Just to be alone and free. The life of a motorcycle adventurer.