As I reluctantly heaved my muddy and sweaty back pack onto my shoulders one more time that mid morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help thinking how the final day of my jungle hike had not gone quite as planned. Sure, there were the leaches, the mud, the humidity not to mention the mosquito bites to contend with but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had gotten my pulse racing.
My group of four hikers and a guide, had made its way slowly in composed silence perhaps for a couple of hours already that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river a few kilometres away from our night’s camp. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen carefully to avoid a grimy fall. The humming and the buzzing of insects all around us was as intense as ever and somewhere in the distance I remember the occasional howl of a lonely Gibbon.
Suddenly, there was a sound of crushing undergrowth not too far ahead of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer to our position. I felt the a surge of excitement and reached for my camera not really knowing what to expect. Our guide was stiff, a look of apprehension over his face, one arm raised in the air, a white knuckle fist urging us all not to move.
Then, some 40 metres or so on the path ahead an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in her prime with a healthy shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with the clear intention of joining our party.
Our guide remained still but gone was his sense of urgency. He knew this ape well and assured us, as it wobbled closer, that the animal had grown in a rehabilitation centre and had been fostered back into the wild some years ago. She had no fear of humans and occasionally made an appearance on the trails trodden by tourists.
I barely had time to take off my backpack anticipating a few minutes of rest when the ape was on us and in a fraction of a second, before I could react, my left hand and arm were in her firm clasp.
I felt calm to start off with and there seemed nothing to be alarmed about. I took this extraordinary encounter as a photo opportunity and asked others in the group to take some frames with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. Also, the the orangutang seemed to pose willingly with me for some pictures and looked straight into camera for a couple of frames.
However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable with animal’s grip as I could see there was no sign from my newly found buddy of relenting the clasp. I tried to pull myself free whilst keeping a smile on my face. Of course there was absolutely no chance I could get away from the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I struggled. Now I was getting anxious, this was becoming threatening and I could tell the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, I decided not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.
The ape had me totally in her power and I looked around for support from my hiking pals. They all saw my concern. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was all it took. My arm was released instantly as the the ape made a dash to snatch the ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising.
So, the moral of the story is: do not attempt to shake hands with an ape. It’s a trick to win some bananas off you and if you have none to offer then you’re pretty much fecked. Apes live in the jungle, many on trees where they jump, swing from branch to branch all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they can appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they are a damn sight stronger than you could possibly think.
On that fresh September morning in Leh in Ladakh, I was gripped by a weird mix of anticipation for what was about to unfold later in the day. I was also dealing with a touch of self commiseration caused, to be honest, by just a touch of “man flu” and altitude discomfort. (more…)
“People never learn anything by being told, they have to find out for themselves.” Paulo Cohelo
I think most people would agree that experience is personal thing and often acquired at the price of mistakes, sometimes painful ones too!
Below is a list of the things I’ve learned about motorcycle travel over the course of almost two decades on the seat of a bike, riding to destinations near and far. It’s no exaggeration to say that on whole acknowledging the truths below came to me via exhaustion, frustration, lots of profanity, wasted cash and a fall or two from my bike as well.
Seasoned riders my find the list familiar but perhaps won’t agree entirely with my reasoning on every point. That’s fine, we all have our own take on what adventure riding should be and is. Regardless, I hope those in search of advice or guidelines will find the list useful. It’s not exhaustive but there’s a few pointers in it that should encourage some critical thinking.
1. Don’t over plan your itinerary
Trying to fill in a detailed route for a long motorcycle tour is generally futile and can be described as a waste of time. So many things can happen once you’re on the road that pre-made arrangements will inevitably get trashed no matter how carefully crafted. There could be dozens of reasons for this. Some of the most common are unpredictables such as the desire to follow newly made friends, problems with embassies and visa applications, unexpected health issues, poor weather conditions that can result in floods, land slides or hazardous road conditions not to mention political turmoil and newly formed “no go” zones. These are all very real scenarios and more can be added to the list depending on which part of the world you find yourself in.
It’s best to have a “general idea” of which direction you intend to move in and which major sites, locations, cities you expect to visit eventually, and at some point. However, be prepared to accept that you may never make it to all of these for the reasons earlier mentioned.
It’s also best NOT to make commitments to family and friends (or organisations of any kind) to meet on specific dates at specific locations. Engagements such as these generally turn out to be difficult if not impossible to honour especially on longer journeys. Promises and engagements become nagging burdens you will resent primarily because they urge you (the traveller) to rush, race, speed through countries on a quest to honour your commitments. Of course, this is the exact opposite of what overland motorbike travel should be. The freedom of having your own transport should be an opportunity to explore towns, cities and parts of a country at a leisurely pace, preferably off the more beaten tourist routes. It’s best to turn unavoidable obligations around and arrange for family and loved ones to join you close to wherever you might be at the time they intend to join you, regardless of whether that means a couple of countries behind or even ahead of your intended time schedule.
2. Know the weak points of your motorbike and don’t fret about breaking down
So called “ terminal” or “catastrophic failures” do occur to engines (some brands are more prone to this than others) but they are very, very RARE. Modern enduro-dual sport motorcycles if well maintained are designed to weather out the abuse that comes from rough road conditions and low quality fuel. Furthermore, dealerships of many major motorcycle brands are expanding their presence globally which ensures that spare parts are generally at hand closer than one might suspect. Of course there are many areas on the planet that are off the radar for Japanese and European brands but regardless, clever mechanics and skilled welders can be found in every community, anywhere in the world.
With the above said it pays to do some research and find out what the known faults and weak points of your motorcycle of choice are. All bikes have them no matter what make or model. The internet is a powerful tool for this kind of research and all it takes is a few clicks to reveal hidden truths from owners all over the globe. Low quality factory parts can include weak suspension, poor lighting, flimsy rear frames. There are even “how to” YouTube tutorials to guide the less mechanically savvy through the required adjustments to fix many issues with many of the more popular machines. In my case I discovered that the F800GS notoriously eats up steering head bearings, has a poor stock fuel pump, and a front wheel rim described by some as being “made of chocolate”.
Be aware of the shortcomings of your motorbike and act or plan accordingly. Either deal with the issues before you leave on a big trip or know how to fix the problems on the road if and when required.
3. Travel light and avoid top boxesand tank bags
It’s a fact (a harsh one for some perhaps) that you can tell how experienced a bike tourer is by the amount of luggage he (or she) is hauling. More gear means more weight and weight is your enemy especially when road conditions get rough and momentum (speed) is low.
You really don’t need a lot of gear with you, not more than say a long distance push biker or a backpacker would carry. Some clothes, a camera, a first aid kit, some medication, toiletries, a minimum of tools and consumables for the bike, an iPad (maybe), some maps (optional), a sleeping bag and Thermarest, passport and bike documents. Anything else can be bought on the road if needed.
All of the above should comfortably fit in a couple of panniers (hard or soft) on the side of the bike. Top boxes can be useful and tank bags even more so particularly when travelling with a pillion. However, they both offer extra storage space (that will be filled) high from the ground that compounds handling issues at low speed especially for those shorter in limb. My personal preference: keep the the back rack free for strapping light items only and the tank area also free so that nothing interferes with the handlebars and manoeuvrability.
Some might argue that travelling with a light, small capacity bike is also important. I tend to agree but there are travel forums full of reviews and suggestions as to which bike does what best. Ultimately, there seems to be no clear consensus on any specific brand or model.
4. Camping gear, is it worth it?
Camping gear is bulky and can be heavy. Sure, camping, wild camping and cooking your own meals sounds attractive especially when confronted with the steep prices of eateries and guest houses in the west (think Scandinavia!). However, especiallywhen travelling solo, resorting to abunsen burner to heat up a meagre meal of beans every day is time consuming, messy, seldom satisfying and … unsustainable.Once away from the high price zones of the world it’s easier to sit at any road side caffe and enjoy some cooked local food for the price of a few dollars without concerning yourself about scrubbing the dishes afterwards.
Making use of a tent or even a bivouac bag is also debatable. It can be a cheap option while in Europe but when travelling through countries like Turkey at the height of summer, with temperatures soaring way above 30ºC, the option an air conditioned dorm or room with a cool shower in a hostel makes perfect sense. Even more so in places like Iran where the thermometer is consistently well above 40º and there is little to no shade available once you leave the Caspian. Wild camping cis still possible but it’ll be a rough for sure.
5. Keep a diary/journal
Keep a record of the places you visited, the addresses you lodged at, the contact details of the people you met. Write it all down along with an account of your days on the road: what you did, who you met, what you felt, what you saw, ate and thought. Even if you never read or make use of your notes again it’s comforting to know that you can go back to your diary and recapture moments from your trip once they inevitably start to fade.
6. Get a good travel camera and learn how to use it
“I don’t trust words, I trust pictures”, Gilles Perres, photographer.
Documenting your trip with pictures or movies might not seem like a priority before you set off on an overland adventure but it often t becomes one as you make your way through foreign lands. Several (not all) overland riders I have met wished they had taken better pictures or used more than just a smart phone to cover the highlights of their tour. Some argue “all the images are in my head” and perhaps they are (for a while) but good pictures to share are undoubtedly more useful. For some, photography is an art form nourished by an individual’s creativity. For others it’s a means of telling a story. Regardless, taking pictures can add value and a sense of purpose to your trip for a variety of the reasons that might not be apparent until you’re back home (a blog, a website, magazine article, stock, who knows…). More on travel cameras here.
7. Always wear protective riding gear and look after yourself
Falls, spills, accidents catch every biker by surprise and exert both an emotional and a physical toll. A helmet is compulsory in most countries these days and it goes without saying that it pays to always don padded motorcycle clothing and sturdy boots to minimise trauma, should an “off” ever occur. Broken collar bones, dislocated kneecaps and road rash take months to recover from and put an end to a road trip instantly.
Biker gear is ALSO essential to keep a rider protected from the elements and the SUN most of all. The sun is like a subtle stalker that challenges our well being on the road constantly. Its rays may be welcome for warmth in colder countries but in hotter ones they are not a motorcyclist’s friend. Sun stroke, sun burn, sun rash, cramps and dehydration (see below) all have painful consequences and are best steered away from. Wear sun protection on exposed skin (face and bridge of the nose), always wear gloves. Use goggles or tinted safety specs to protect eyes not only from the sun but from the dust and fumes of other road traffic as well.
Consider moulded ear plugs to reduce the persistent and damaging sound of air gushing in and around your helmet. There are several articles published and available on line that confirm that the persistent sound of air flowing around our ears under a helmet is enough to cause permanent damage to our hearing even at relatively low speeds. Moulded ear plugs, although initially costly, are comfortable and reduce the level of exposure to air noise. Beware however, that some countries make the use of ear plugs illegal while driving motor vehicle.
Drink a lot of water. You need to drink water regularly to keep dehydration in check while travelling in hotter climates. Regular, frequent stops for gulps of water are a must!. The price for not drinking enough water is drowsiness, fatigue, head ache …it’s no fun!
Watch out for bugs and insects such as leaches, ticks, mosquitoes, ants and spiders (scorpions)when wild camping. The bites of some of these are unpleasant to say the least and occasionally have consequences you do not want to be Googleing. Cover up, check the area around you before settling in for a night and use strong insect repellent.