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Guide to military check points.

Guide to military check points.

An unfamiliar motorbike with a foreign number plate always raises interest from the locals of countries left out of the trodden path of mainstream tourism. Often, it’s the youth that quickly spot unusual vehicles and riders from beyond their nation’s borders and the attention that comes from being recognised as an alien can prove to be a bit of a challenge for the unsuspecting traveller.  

The scrutiny and interest from the locals, although friendly and well intended, can be overwhelming. People congregate around you at any road side stop with smiles or inquisitive frowns. Some offer hospitality, food, water, coffee, tea and inevitably ask the same questions, endlessly time and time again: “Where are you from?  Where are you going? Why are you here? How old are you? Are you married? Can I take a selfie?”. You are treated like like a fish out of water, like someone who has somehow gone incredibly astray and needs assistance.

Sometimes however, interest can also come from those in a position of authority: the police, zealous border officials, traffic cops and of course the military, who to me are the most unpredictable of all uniformed officials.

From the eastern borders of Europe all the way to Thailand, soldiers play a bigger role in society than we are used to in the West. Soldiers can be found at borders between neighbouring districts, counties or municipalities and towns. There are soldiers in areas of political tension or affected by terrorism. There are soldiers in places of strategic interest such as mountain passes (even the remotest in the Himalayas), sea ports, railway stations, banks not to mention airports and govermnet buildings of various description. Men in green or kaki coloured fatigues are never too far away in southern Asia to the point that it’s not unusual to find yourself  escorted by the same for sections of your itinerary, just like a minor dignitary might be (in Pakistan and Iran most of all).

Picture taking with the boys in green
Picture taking with the boys in green

Clearly, the biggest worry for any traveller is the risk of being harassed by gun bearing conscripts feeling bored at a road side check point in the middle of nowhere. Truth is, this kind of thing hardly ever happens, at least not in South Asia. I found the soldiery in this part of the world to be professional and respectful. However, that’s not to say that dealing with the  guys in green is always straight forward. 

There are two types of soldiers: subordinates and superiors. Dealing with superiors (the ones in charge) is generally less time consuming than the subordinates. Nevertheless, I discovered that there are plenty of assholes in both of the above categories, the sort of guys you occasionally come across who love to throw their weight around and make your life harder for longer than necessary, just for a laugh. 

The motorbike is a strategic asset that always helps when dealing with road side check points and soldiers most of all. Every young or youngish fella has an interest in cars, bikes, pick up trucks so an “exotic” motorcycle from far away is something of a welcome distraction from the routine of flagging down scooters or Chinese made lorries for inspection. Stop at a military block on anything bigger than a 150cc bike and smart phones appear, poses are struck and selfies are taken by soldiers to send to girlfriends, wives and pals. The way I see it is that I’d rather soldiers take pictures of themselves sitting on or standing around my bike than deal with the inconvenience of being ordered to open my bags for a rummage of their contents. A little empathy goes a long way and generally helps to engage with the individuals wearing the uniforms rather than trigger they authority that the uniforms represent.

So, whenever flagged down by the army guys I found it best to literally prop the bike up on centre stand, take the keys from the ignition, bury them in a pocket and watch the picture taking routine unfold. Smile, be courteous, answer questions, perhaps use some local language, enquire about where to find good local food, water, fuel, women (always a good one) or a place to spend the night. I found that more often than not a sergent or a coporal would take control, answer my queries, sometimes even offer me tea or coffee and then dispatch me on my way whilst the rest of the crew were still checking out the pictures on their smart phones.

Check point in Pakistan
Check point in Pakistan

Only once, close to the Russian border did I come across a man in green who demanded I let him ride my bike. In cases like this an outright refusal is the only possible way to safeguard trip and motorbike. Make sure the keys are away from the ignition. Humour always helps and I found that comparing my motorcycle to a girlfriend or a wife, something no man would want to share with another,  was enough to brake the impasse with laughter and send me back on my route without further adoo. 

A huge thank you to the military and border guards of Iran and Pakistan who escorted me on my ride through the troubled areas of Baluchistan close to the border with Afghanistan. Their professionl attitude and timely organisation left me in awe of their good will and abilities. Thank You once again!

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Five great hacks to make your motorbike tour hassle free.

Five great hacks to make your motorbike tour hassle free.

Top boxes, tank bags, extra lights and similar all have their special place in the adventure motorcycling scene and serve their purpose well. There are hundreds of online reviews about riding gear, luggage, cushioned seats and the latest tyre technology, all claiming to make our lives easier on the road.  Of course we’re free to pick and choose and spend our cash as we like. However, there are some simple, very affordable extras (some self made) that can make a huge difference to the comfort and quality of our rides especially on longer tours. A few may be obvious to some bikers, others perhaps not so much. Here are five I’ve learned to appreciate.

1. Tank cargo net.

 A normal cargo net (sold in most biker stores), stretched over the tank area just in front of the seat is good for storing gloves, sun glasses, small cameras, maps, pens,  hats, bit’s of paper, selfie sticks, any official document needed for upcoming border crossings, ferry tickets and so on. A cargo net on the tank area secures most stuff you generally want to keep handy both on the go and on a break at a standstill. A cargo net literally turns the tank space into a sort of dashboard and in many cases is just as good if not better than a bulky tank bag. A cargo net is cheap, practical and only needs three anchoring points on either side of the bike to be stretched into place in a few seconds. Easily removed as well.

Tank Cargo Net
Tank Cargo Net benefits.

2. Colour coded stuff bags

Ever had to rummage through your panniers for what seems like an eternity to find that extra layer of clothing or those paracetamols you need? Worse still, have you had to ask someone else to do it for you?

We all have a method for organising kit on our bikes and most will agree that finding the ideal set up is a constant work in progress with adjustments, great and small, constantly being tried out. Colour coded stuff bags are a great way organising our kit inside panniers. Stuff bags are reasonably tough, lightweight and cheap when bough in a set. They come in different sizes and fortunately in different colours too.  Think of them as separate files each distinguished by their own colour. To each colour corresponds different contents so, say… red for first aid and medication, grey for clean clothing, green for laundry, blue for chargers, cables, memory cards, batteries and so on. It all helps, especially when looking for stuff in the dark with just the tired beam of a flash light as an aid. 

Coloured Stuff Bags
Coloured Stuff Bags for filing your kit

3. Salame tool kit bag

There are toolkit bags galore to choose from on the internet, some of which are specially designed for adventure biking. There are zip bags, roll bags, fold bags with velcro, straps and plastic buckles.  However, in most cases once filled with tools these designs end up being overly bulky and difficult to carry.  The question is pretty obvious: do you really need padded packaging, pickles and zips fasteners for your spanners? No, probably not.

Salami tool kit bag closed
Salami tool kit bag closed

A cheap storing solution for sockets, drivers and wrenches is the salame tool kit bag, made out of a recycled piece of inner tube (car tyre) around 40cm in length. It’ll pretty much hold everything you need for the road: sockets, spanner’s, allen keys, ratchet wrench, all of it. The ends of the tube can be sealed by rolling, folding and then wrapping the lips with bands of extra tyre tube or strong elastic bands. The salami bag compacts the size of stored tools to a minimum, holds them securely and prevents them from rattling around. It’s light, tough, water resistant (almost water proof), cheap and easily replaceable. What more could you ask for?

Salami tool kit bag
Salami tool kit bag

4. Extra power socket.

Really a no brainier in todays gadget obsessed world. Smartphones, iPads, and other devices need to be charged to keep in touch with loved ones, picture taking and for those essential apps that aid us on our tours.  Most bikes these days come from the manufacturer with at least one cigarette lighter style power socket available, but these 12V outlets are often only powered up when the ignition is engaged. It’s good to have a plug that is permanently live and accessible say, under your seat for example. Some simple wiring from the bike battery with a fuse will do the trick.  Of course a USB adapter is also essential.

5. Large side stand foot print. 

Another important, often overlooked improvement that can make a real difference to a motorbike trip is the size of the side stand foot or ground pad. A bigger pad on the kick stand will prevent the same from digging into soft ground, and stop a bike from toppling over with luggage, accessories and perhaps an unsuspecting pillion as well.  Mud, sand, ice, even asphalt on a hot day need side stands with big foot prints in order to keep a heavy machine propped up. A bigger foot print makes parking a bike an easy, safe, care free ordeal and all it takes is a piece of hard plastic or piece of metal and some good fastening to make the difference. There are even ready-made kits available for certain bike models known to have poor side stand designs. Do not underestimate the advantages of a decent foot print.

Bike and desert 2
Large foot print at work!
Larger side stand foot print
Larger side stand foot print

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

Adventure Cam Disaster

Adventure Cam Disaster

“You need to watch your step, but everyone makes it across easily” my guide whispered to me in encouragement as I gazed a little perplexed at the hazel coloured water that stirred, foamed and crested in front of me. “Ok, it’s fine, I’ll do it”, I said.

Stripped down to my swimwear with action camera and selfie stick in hand, I felt vulnerable, exposed to the Sumatran sun and the rough forest around me. I told myself I was just getting ready for the far side of the river where there were hot spring water pools waiting to be enjoyed, the thought of which had brought me by the bank in the first place. I simply had to get across.

The sharp, angular pebbles pinched my bare feet and challenged my balance at every step as I hobbled to the water’s edge. “Everyone makes it across easily” I reminded myself as I held my breath and splashed into the fresh flow. Slowly I waded ahead into deeper, mirky cold running water and quickly I lost view of my feet. They were always in pain though,  gripping to the edge of some slimy surface with all toes. The water got deeper and crept up to my chest, the current got stronger as well. “Good thing I can sling my action camera on my shoulder with the monopole strap. Yeah, and how cool that my action camera has water proof casing” I thought.

I must have looked pathetic as I attempted to thread my arm through the selfie stick strap. I could hardly stand on my own two feet let alone juggle camera equipment as well. Then the inevitable happened, I slipped and fell face forward into the flow. Like driftwood the current swept me away and rushed me downstream in its clench. I had no choice, I had to swim and powerfully too if I wished to reach the safety of the nearest bank and avoid painful knocks with rocks and debris. A few brisk strokes from my arms and I was in shallower water once more, out of trouble but to my dumbstruck dismay my precious Sony action camera and monopole stick were gone, nowhere to be seen, lost in the silty water along with two gigabyte of unsaved videos and pictures.

Losing camera equipment is always regrettably costly, but losing hard earned pictures and video footage as well is gut wrenching to say the least.

But what to do? After all, adventure cameras are meant for use in pretty wild environments where the risk of loss is always a real issue!

Here is a list of hints that might be handy for the GoPro enthusiast. I certainly wish I had known about these before that fateful afternoon in Sumatra. Maybe they are nothing new to the avid video maker but I am sure they’re worth remembering all the same.

A) Take the time to write your contact details on a piece of paper and stick this appropriately to the camera body or at least include it in the water tight casing of your camera. ALSO save a “READ ME file” containing the same contact details on the camera’s SD memory card. This way if your device is ever lost and found by someone conscientious enough, all the information needed to get in touch is available.

B) If using your camera next to water, always use a floatation accessory. It can be self adapted piece of sponge cut out and added to your selfie stick, or a specially purchased add on. There are several products available.

C) Hugely useful, but hard to come by, are floating monopoles. Keep in mind though that a wooden stick is definitely a cheaper option and can work just as well if not better!

D) Make sure the your camera and/or stick have a robust enough tether. Reinforce the stock attachments with sturdy metal rings and good quality cord. Hold on tight!

So…..sunk to the bottom of the sea, dropped from paragliding heights, knocked from racing motorbikes or cars it would be good to hear of other action camera disasters experienced first hand. I know there are many. Occasionally some lost cameras are found on hiking trails, by the side of the road and by scuba divers too. All hope need not be lost…..at least  for those who have taken some precautions?

Travellingstranger 2018 ©. All rights reserved.