As I heaved my muddy back pack onto my shoulders once more that morning in northern Sumatra I couldn’t help feel a sense of relife. Sure, my hike had challenged me with leaches, thick mud, heat and mosquitos but what had just happened was on an entirely new level and had sent my pulse into overdrive.
My hiking buddies and I had already marched in composed silence for a couple of hours that morning along the old logging trail that lead to the Bahorok river ahead. Each of us was absorbed by the slippery, mud caked path upon which every step had to be chosen wisely in order 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 in front of us. We froze as the rummaging got louder and closer. 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 all over him, one arm raised in the air, hand clenched in a fist urging us all not to move.
Then, some forty metres or so on the path ahead, an adult female orangutang appeared from the bushes. She was perhaps four feet tall, apparently in good health with a long shiny orange coat of fur. She peered straight at us on the trail for a few intense seconds and then slowly started to approach unthreateningly, with a clear intent 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. The orangutang had no fear of humans, he said and occasionally made an appearance on the tourist trodden trails.
I barely had time to take off my rugsack hoping for a few minutes of rest when the ape was upon 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 as 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 snaps with my camera. The ape’s touch felt soft and warm, not unlike the hand of a human. It was reassuring. My new primate friend seemed to pose willingly with me for pictures and even looked straight at the camera for more than just a few.
However, once I had satisfied myself with the shots, I began to feel uncomfortable with animal’s grip. I could see there was no sign from ape of relenting her clasp. I tried to pull free whilst keeping a smile but of course there was no chance to get out the animal’s hold. She was immensely stronger than I could possibly have imagined and her hand held tighter and tighter the more I fought. Now I was getting anxious, I felt threatened, breaking free was a matter of urgency, but I realised that the orangutang could easily overpower me and even snap a bone or bite should she choose to do so. Struggling was futile, there was no way i could win so I chose not to antagonise my captor any further and simply stood still.
The ape had me totally under her power and I looked around for support from my pals. They all saw my concern and told me reiassuringly to remain calm. Someone reached for the contents of their backpack, pulled out banana and waved it in the air. That was what it took. My arm was released instantly with a dash by the ape to grab the prised ransom. I was free and spent a moment examining my arm. Just a bit sore, no damage, no bruising, all good.
So, please don’t even think about offering a hand, arm or limb to an ape. Apes have evolved to live on trees where they climb and swing from branches all day, we all know that. What we might not be aware of is that although they appear smaller than us, make no mistake, they’re immensly stronger than a human, more than you could immagine and once they have you in their grip there is no getting away … unless you have bananas that is.
On that fresh September morning in Leh, Ladakh, I was gripped by a weird mix of anticipation for what was about to unfold later in the day as well as some self commiseration caused, to be honest, by just a hint of altitude discomfort.
I had travelled a long way to be in India that morning. Fifteen thousand miles on my motorbike, from Europe over the course of a few months across borders, mountain passes, forests, even a couple of deserts. Now I was about literally reach one of the pinnacles of my trip and I could hardly wait.
With sore eyes I sipped some coffee at the small table by the windows of the quaint German bakery opposite my guest house. “Didn’t get much sleep” l thought to myself while I glanced admiringly at “Lucy”, my German two wheeled companion, parked outside between a pair of ageing Royal Enfield machines. I rubbed my eyes, reached for the breast pocket of my jacket and fumbled with the blister packaging of some paracetamols. I swallowed two pills with the last gulps of coffee. Hopefully, I though, the medicine would sort out that persistent sting I felt at the back of my head caused by the lack of oxygen.
Warm sunlight suddenly poured into the cafe. As I put down my empty mug and raised my gaze towards my bike again I felt the tingle of renewed excitement. “Time to go” I said out loud as I tried to brush aside feelings of malaise and pushed my empty mug away. I paid the bill, put my gloves on and wobbled to my waiting bike.
It felt good to open up the throttle on the road that wound its way north towards the Nubra Valley. The views were astounding. Empty barren landscapes framed by jagged Himalayan ridges. It was no wonder so many Buddhist monasteries dotted the ledges and heights around me.
The digits on my altimeter began to flick quickly. Three thousand five hundred meters (11,500 ft), three thousand six hundred metres (11,800 ft), three thousand seven hundred metres (12,140 ft).
Luckily there were no altitude issues with my machine. Fuel injection and oxygen sensors were doing their thing just fine as the pitch from the exhaust was telling me.
Four thousand metres (13,120 ft), four thousand one hundred metres (13,450 ft), four thousand five hundred metres (14,760 ft)
I stopped for a moment on the side of the road. I felt short of breath. The bright light made me squint through my cheap plastic sun glasses and I could feel the rays burn on my face. I grabbed the sun block that I kept conveniently in a pannier pocket and noticed my clumsy movements as I applied some jelly like cream to my cheeks with my riding gear stiffened by the cold.
Five thousand metres (14,760 ft) and climbing….five thousand two hundred metres (17,060 ft)
I stopped one more time. My mouth was dry, my lips even more so. I needed water and grabbed the bottle I had with me for some gulps. As I turned on my seat I felt a moment’s dizziness and for a few intense seconds I wrestled with the 200 kg bulk of my bike to avoid dropping it on it’s side.
Five thousand three hundred metres, five thousand five hundred metres (18,040 ft)
I was almost there. Just a few more switchbacks and I would be “on top of the world”.
There it was ! The big yellow placard I had read about and admired pictures of from bikers and travellers who had been here before me. Now it was my turn, I had made it to this iconic point, too. I was one of the club who had ridden to the Khardungla Pass!
I parked the bike below the big board and asked a lonely guard to take a picture as I posed. The Khardungla Pass at five thousand six hundred plus metres (18,380ft) is supposedly the highest pass accessible by road on earth! I was euphoric, like a little kid in a sweet shop and for a while I was totally taken by a selfie snapping frenzy.
But, no sooner had the excitement settled, that my head suddenly seemed to explode and burn. The paracetamols taken earlier were wearing off and the added altitude at the pass was adding to the discomfort I had felt at the bakery in the morning. The pain grabbed me quite by surprise and quickly removed all the enjoyment of being where I was. My eyes now stung and tears were flooding my vision. My mouth and lips were dry again, the moisture absorbed by the air. For some obscure reason I was sneezing repetitively and every breath I took appeared unable to fully fill my lungs dicouraging any movement beyond just a few easy steps. I could sense I was getting into trouble.
Slowly turned to look around at my surroundings one more time. I had been at the pass for no longer than thirty minutes but was being beaten by my contempt for altitude and its effects. I needed to leave now, quickly or risk possibly passing out.
I climbed back on to my bike, fired Lucy up and slowly limped to the safety of lower elevation, much lower. Here, in the shade of some bushes I opened my panniers and found extra paracetamols I knew I had packed away. Gradually the flames in my head soothed and my eyes stopped stinging. All was good again….or at least acceptably so.
So, what to say?
Altitude drowsiness (I use the word sickness sparingly) is serious stuff. Really, it is and should not be taken lightly. It can ruin your day to say the least and I for one will not get caught out by it again.
Mountaineers and climbers have my fullest appreciation and respect as they train themselves with passion to cope with some very extreme environments. However, I don’t believe any of this is for me and have to admit that I’d rather stick to the occasional jog at sea level for my fitness regimen.
“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 and often acquired at the price of mistakes, sometimes painful ones, too.
Below is a list of 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, profanity, wasted cash and a fall or two as well.
Seasoned riders my find the list familiar but perhaps won’t agree entirely with my reasoning on every point. That’s ok, 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 are a few pointers in it that should at least 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 almost always as a waste of time. So many things can happen once you’re on the road that arrangements will 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 group up with newly made road buddies, problems with embassies and visa applications, unexpected health issues, poor weather conditions that can lead to floods, land slides or hazardous road conditions. Political turmoil is not uncommon either and new “no go” zones with violent clashes between opposing factions can appear suddenly anywhere in the world. More, very real scenarios can be added to the list and unfortunately crime and unexpected financial challenges should be mentioned as well.
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 your chosen travel spots for a variety of valid reasons.
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 honor especially on longer trips. Promises and appointments become nagging burdens you will resent primarily because they urge you (the traveler) to rush, race, speed through countries on a quest to honor those same commitments. Clearly, this is the opposite of what overland 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 travel, regardless of whether that means a couple of countries behind or even ahead of your intended 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 roads 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 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 boxes and 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) packs. 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 when travelling on a bike. Not more than perhaps a long distance push biker or a backpacker would carry. Some clothes, a camera, a first aid kit with medication, toiletries, a minimum of tools and consumables for the bike, an iPad (maybe), some maps (optional), a light weight 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 into 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 and wild camping can be fun 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 cafe and enjoy some warm local food for the price of a few dollars without concerning yourself with scrubbing dirty 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 of an air conditioned dorm or room with the use of a shower 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 is still possible in the hotter parts of the world but it’ll be rough, very rough for sure.
5. Keep a diary/journal
Keep a record of the places you visit, the addresses you lodge at, the contact details of the people you meet. Write it all down along with an account of your days on the road: what you did, who you befriended, what you felt, saw, ate and thought. Even if you never read or make use of your notes it’s comforting to know that you can go back to your diary and recapture moments from your trip once memories 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 a big trip but it becomes one as you make your way further through foreign lands. Several (not all) overland riders I 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 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. These could include a website blog, magazine articles, stock photos to sell and more. More on travel cameras here.
7. Always wear protective riding gear and look after yourself
Falls, spills, accidents catch every biker by surprise and lead to emotional and a physical pain. A helmet is compulsory in most countries these days. It makes sense to also wear a padded motorcycle jacket, riding trousers and sturdy boots to reduce the trauma of a so called “off” should this 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 a subtle stalker that challenges our well being on the road constantly. Sunshine may be welcome for warmth in colder countries but in hotter ones it is 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. Always wear sun protection on exposed skin (face and bridge of the nose). Always wear gloves to protect the back of your hands. 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 molded 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 hiss of air flowing around our ears under a helmet is enough to cause permanent damage to our hearing even at low speeds. Molded ear plugs, although initially costly, are comfortable and efficiently 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 water, a lot of it! 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)especially when wild camping. The bites of some of these bugs are unpleasant to say the least and occasionally carry consequences you do not want to look up about on the internet. Cover up, check the area around you before settling in for a night and use strong insect repellent.
Finally, enjoy your ride and keep a friendly attitude. Smile and be well mannered with those you meet on your trip, always. Whether you like it or not you are an ambassador for the part of world you come from.