How to survive as a couple on the road

So you have the bike(s), the destination, the other half convinced and on board… now facing the reality of spending 24/7 with your Dear Other Half; in countries where, most of the time, you do not speak the language, so the only conversation may be with each other, for days on end… will your couple survive?

This is a question that every couple on the road will have to face, and will probably be asked by concerned friends or colleagues. Maybe you think that because you went backpacking together for few months, it will be the same thing, just with added bikes.

I am afraid that this is not the case. The challenges of the road can bring a whole new dimension of stress and problems that do not come with backpacking from touristic place to touristic place, moving around in public transports, meetings often the same other tourists on your little merry tour.

You will often end up in remote places, with very little comfort, little food, mechanics problems, hard trails to negotiate, usually under torrential rain, storms, hail, cold or intense heat… but despite this, you must go on, reach the next town, village, fuel station… You will be cold, boiling hot, hungry, dehydrated, angry, pissed of, scared, wet, lost, stranded in the middle of nowhere, with a bike stolen or dead, worrying about being over budget… Will you face these tough situations together, or will it be a challenge to far?

Here I can only play agony aunt based on my personal experience and also in my observation of other couples on the road.

I came across a lady once, in Tierra del Fuego.She had dropped her bike, on a gravel road, and we helped her to lift it up. She was on a 650 something. Her husband was nowhere to be seen, as he had taken off, on his 1200 something, miles ahead. What could possibly go wrong? The husband  gets annoyed with the wife because “she keeps falling behind or dropping her bike”, the wife will be furious for being left alone in a trail she clearly struggles with, an then has to rely on passers bye to help her. Not a great start!

With Alistair, we have the same capacity bikes, so none of us can outrun the other. We always ride together, usually Alistair is ahead, with the (bloody!) GPS, while I follow not far. We always stay in visual contact as we don’t have bike to bike radios.

In Mongolia, where I was quite unsure, to start with, about crossing rivers, Alistair would go first, so I could then follow his line.

In South America, when I was still very green at off road riding, some (short) difficult sections ( usually involving deep sand!) were too hard for me. Alistair would pass the section, walk back and take my bike across for me.  The alternative would be for me to try ride it, drop the bike, and get Alistair to lift my bike, as I cannot ( still to this day!) do this. At least not when it is upside down, down a sandy ditch, fully loaded, as the bikes usually end.

In South America, we met many couples. And many were showing this same pattern of mutual help and seemed to had a clear division of labour.

When my bike was stolen in Brazil, we did not start arguing. We immediately got on with the job of solving that problem one way or another.

Another type of couple I have met on the road is the Competitive one. They both have to be able to do everything. By themselves. Each has to be able to repair his/her own bike, each ride the same sections regardless, each able to lift their bikes, cook, wrestle a bear etc… ok maybe I made the last bit up. But you get the drift.

I am puzzled by those guys. Maybe it works? For us, I have no clue how to repair or maintain my bike or how the GPS works. I have zero interest on that. Alistair has zero interest on learning Russian or planning a trip. I am very good at organising a trip, or learning languages, so I do it. He is good with the bikes so he is in charge of them. We have a clear division of labour. We never really discussed it, it just kind of happened. Well ok, for the first big trip, my sweetener was that I would organise it, so he would agree to come!

I think we are both happy with this division of tasks. I look after the website, I blog, so our families know how we are doing. Something Alistair has no interest in doing.

Faced with a problem, we solve it, together, each looking at it from our own ways. When the engine blew up in his bike, I went online using the HU and my contacts to find a solution, he went online looking at the mechanic issues…We don’t argue about it. Yes we can get annoyed at each other (he drives me crazy following the bloody GPS through stupid sections across rivers while I CAN see a perfectly nice road away, for example) and I am sure I must annoy him with some stuff. Can’t think what though 😇.

So here I will list some “points” that could help:

  1. Give yourselves space: when you are set up with the tent or guest house, while I have a shower, Alistair will often go for a wander. You don’t need to be joined at the hip. Do your own stuff!
  2. When something goes wrong, the worse thing that you can do is start the blame game and get angry with your partner. For example, maybe if I had chained my bike in Brazil, maybe it would not have been stolen…. “maybe”, “if”… we say in French that with enough “if” you could Paris inside a bottle! Who care of “if” and “maybes”… face reality and work together to find a solution.
  3. Show support. If one of you suck at something but better that you at something else, support each other. If my bike needs some TLC, Alistair will do it. If we need to be able to speak Russian, I will learn enough to get by. I would be surprise if you all have the same set of skills and competences. Play t9 your strength and rely on your other half for the stuff you suck at.
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Shipping the bikes and alternatives

The bikes are ready to go now. We just need to test the luggage and set up, before we deliver them to the shipping agent next week.

I have been asked few times how much shipping the bikes to Cape Town will cost us and if it would have been easier to rent or buy the bikes over there.

The quote is rather complex and there are many fees. Shipping out of the UK to Cape town is about 500 pounds per bike. But then we have to add the port fees, cost of agent dealing with custom in the other end, and many more stuff. So in summary, I count on about £1,000 pounds per bike per leg of the trip. That is a crippling £4,000 to ship the bikes back and forth; and trust me, there were much more costly options when I started looking into this.

Now you probably understand why, in 2016, we decided to go back to central Asia instead of shipping to the Americas or elsewhere!

But this time we had no choice. Crossing the whole of Africa is out of question, so we need to ship the bikes. You must also add to the shipping cost, the price of the Carnets. This document is required if you ship a motor vehicle to South Africa.

With these costs in mind, I looked into the possibility of buying locally and selling at the end. One hurdle (apart from finding 2 adequate second hand bikes) is the difficulty of registering a bike to your name if you are non resident. It is hard.

Then the second problem, would be to get the bikes ready for the trip. Finding someone to build a luggage rack, finding a bigger fuel tank, and preparing the 2 bikes. The cost can pile up very quickly: new tyres, heavy duty inner tubes, new sprockets, new chains, valve clearances, wheel bearings and sometime much more…

As for renting, for 4 months, it would be prohibitive, with the added problem that the rental market provides huge “elephants” like BMW1200, BMW800 etc and none provide smaller bikes.

At least the shipping costs will be spread across several months, making it more palatable I suppose. And we know our bikes. We carry the tools that are strictly for them, the few parts that we need…. So we deliver them to the shipping agent on Thursday. Next time we will see  them will be at the end of May, in Cape Town.

The camping gear will go with the bikes. I have checked the inflatable mattresses and the tent to make sure all is in good order. We will be camping a lot, as the other end of the market, the lodges, are beyond our price range.

So we are nearly there, for the bikes. Then we will have few weeks to sort out the house, the dog and visit few friends and family before we go.

 

 

 

Trip preparation: let’s go into details

if you read my previous post on  preparing a trip: Where do you start this is the follow up part.

Few things are pretty much sorted: the shipping is dealt with, I ordered the Carnets and we deliver the bikes  to the shipping company on the 9th of April.

The bikes are being prepped up by Crown Motorcycle, in Kingston

. We asked them to do the valve clearances, fit new sprockets and chains, new wheel bearings and fit the back wheel on the CRF with a heavy duty inner tube and new tyre.

The CRF has a beautiful new luggage frame with an auxiliary fuel canister on the side. Gabriel, at Zen Overland, certainly did a very neat job there.

Alistair found a bigger (12l) fuel tank on eBay. He will fit it once we get the bikes back from the workshop. The work surface in our kitchen is filling up with half unpacked motorcycle parts and starting to look like a workshop!

From my researches online, I figure that we need a minimum of 450kms fuel range. The XT250 had a 10 litre fuel tank. I can do 300km with that. With my 5l fuel bladder, Alistair’s new 12l tank and the 5l canister, we will have a total of 32 litres. If I take also my 8l fuel bladder, we go up to 40litres. That should give us the 500km range required in some sections of Namibia.

That brings me to the fine tuning of such a trip. The guide books are a complete waste of  time for that. Although I bought one that covers all southern Africa, it is aimed at backpackers and there is very little of use for prepping my trip.

So I searched the internet. I am especially interested in motorcycle blogs, and I found few very interesting ones, on ADVrider. Few provided maps and GPs waypoints, I took note of everything and read some blogs twice!

These were especially useful and full of detailed info that was, to me, very valuable:

http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/the-wife-the-ex-and-the-kid-do-namibia.517112/

http://advrider.com/index.php?threads/two-twins-hit-namibia.735467/

The photos help decide if I would like to go there. So, reading few ride reports provided me with a lot of useful info about Namibia and Botswana.

First-hand information from fellow motorcyclists is essential, as they face the same challenges than we will, regarding fuel, water, food, shelter, difficulty of the roads and trails, sand, rivers to cross, punctures, wild animals etc. These are problems that do not arise when travelling on a car, where you can carry a lot of stuff, driving through sand/mud/rocks does not mean risk of falling and injury,  and a puncture means just a wheel change. And a lion won’t eat you if you are inside your car!

Last but not least, and I know this is cheeky, I also looked at motorcycle organised tours websites. Very often, they give a detailed itinerary of their tours. That is very useful! After all my previous work, it helps me see where professional  guides are taking the tourists and main points of interest.

Cheating? Not really, they volunteer the info, so why not make advantage of this? Although some places I will avoid. Some Private game parks, that I then researched online, are insanely expensive. I suppose people going on organise tours pay top money for that, while my budget must last 4 months!

So don’t hesitate to research the Internet, including guided tour companies. Plenty of Info out there!

What if… I get stopped by corrupt policemen?

So you have done your research, read the blogs, the forums in Horizons unlimited and ADV Rider. You may even have read my blog. And there you go, the “dodgy “ policeman.

 While preparing my first overland  trip around South America, back in 2005, these kinds of stories with the police were stressing me out.

 By my estimate I have ridden a good 70,000 to 80,000 miles abroad. That includes a year exploring South America, many long trips around Europe, Russia, Central Asia, Vietnam, USA… and soon to come Africa. And let’s not forget I also lived a year and a half in Brazil (Rio) where we had motorbikes.

 I have met many cops and militaries on the road. I have been stopped many times. And I have stopped myself often enough too, near Uniforms, to find my way round, a hotel, a place, a road, ask about safety in the region…

Here are few entertaining anecdotes about some of these encounters, or scroll to the end for my suggestions:

In Colombia, while we were trying to get to a remote archaeological site, we were stopped by the police in a small village. The mountain road had been washed out by landslides and rivers of muds. It was too dangerous on two wheels because of said rivers of mud washing light vehicles down the mountain. After some discussions, it was agreed they would keep our motorbikes while we went to that site on a bus. One Cop volunteered his house, so the bikes would be safe overnight. After a flight of stair, one Beemer (BMW f650GS) was left in a bedroom between 2 beds, the other one in a corridor between the kitchen and the bathroom.

Then while we waited for the bus, we were entertained by  the police’s Chief with coffee and stories about the FARC. He took us out to show the hills from where the FARC were shooting at them. After seeing the bullet holes behind me,  I suggested we finish our coffee inside!

IMGP0697 They even stopped the bus and started searching it so we wouldn’t miss it! The next day we came back and picked up the bikes. We bought cakes for the guys and gave a football t-shirt to the house owner Cop! We decided, with Alistair, not to give any cash, as I am very uneasy about handing cash to someone in uniform.

In Russia, trying to find the trail to Astrakhan, we found a village. Asking the cops for directions, my Russian was too limited to understand all. So they got on their car and drove for miles on end until they told us by gesture to carry on into a main track. I wrote about this in the Post: Where is the Road.

In a Russian town (Nalchik) , trying to find a place to spend the night, with parking for the bikes, I stopped by some cops. One of them explained to me where to find one, and with my limited Russian I still understood when he added to do a U-turn at the following read light. As otherwise, he added with an apologising smile,  I would ride over a solid white line and he would have to fine me.

In Uzbekistan, the guys would stop us mainly out of boredom and to check out our bikes, but they were also helpful.

In Colombia one Uniform stopped me and asked me (pointing at my motorcycle suit) why I was wearing an astronaut costume!

Many times, the cops were just doing their job. In slightly less safe places, like Colombia or Uzbekistan, checking for ID, registering our passage, that sort of thing.

 We did have a couple of weird encounters though. I let you judge.

 The first time we went to Kyrgyzstan, while riding to a small remote border with Kazakhstan, we came across a police check point. Only two guys. The fat chief would not move from his car, eating sunflower seeds that he cracked open with his teeth, barely stopping to breath, while his compere was doing the work. That is when I decided I did not speak any Russian. What he was trying to tell us was that we were not allowed to take Kyrgyz money out of the country and we had to give any left to them. Hmm… sure. We played dumb and stupid. That usually works fine. After a while, saying in English that we had no idea and no money, I looked for some of my British coins, in in my tank bag: a brought out a pound, with portrait of the queen. It seemed to do the trick as they were happy to see the Queen, and let us go.

 In Peru, like in Kyrgyzstan, we were stopped for speeding. In both case, we had no clue whether It was true or not. Road signs are rare. In Peru it was in a nice stretch of road, in the middle of the desert, way far from any village. We were probably cruising at 60 or 65mph. In Kyrgyzstan, we had passed a town. We accelerated, going about 65 or 70 km/h, but maybe we should have stayed within 50km/h. Hard to tell with lack of road signs!

In both cases we did not deny or get angry.  In Peru, as I speak Spanish, I spoke with the guys. They wanted 100 USD or something like that. I told them that we did not have that cash and that we could not go back to the previous town to get any, as the cash point had not worked with our cards (small lie there). We suggested they keep our driving licences and we would come back, once we got money somewhere. After a long lecture about the dangers of speed, they gave us back our licences and let us go.

 In Kyrgyzstan, it cost us a bit. I wrote about this in the Post: The road to Osh. But in summary: the fat chief in his car (why is the chief always fat and sitting in his car?) told us it would be $100 and we would need to go back to the previous town and go to the bank to pay the fine. I had no problem with that. But how lucky we were, if we paid there and then to them, it would be $50. He said we could pay by card.  So the guy got a credit card payment machine. I knew what would happen… Alistair tried with a credit card, then another. None worked.

As I was  the only one speaking some Russian, I was the one talking to them. I told them we did not have $50 with us in cash. I had discreetly removed cash from my day purse. I only left about 6 or 8 USD equivalent in local currency.  As the second card failed, I handed my purse, saying take it all. He took 600 Soms (if I recall –  about $8) and let us go. After that we rode very slowly. In Kyrgyz the cops are famed for fining foreigners for speeding. It is unthinkable a real fine would cost $50 or $100. The locals probably don’t make that in a month! We got to the hotel in Osh, were we met, in the hotel’s carpark, a  group of polish riders, they had been fined 50USD each for speeding!

 So here are few suggestions if you get stopped by Uniforms on the road and they want to get some of your cash:

 1.       Smile and be friendly, we always are, no one likes an *rsehole.

2.       If you break the law, like overtaking where it is plainly forbidden, go over a solid line, speed or anything else, and get caught: the Cops are doing their jobs. The fact you are abroad does not mean you can disregard the rules. Denying it is silly. Especially if they get the gun-speed to show it (as they had for us in Kyrgyz). Too many travellers feel entitled to ignore local rules. However, if they ask payment in cash, see rule 3.

3.       Have a dummy wallet with a bit of local money in it, say about 10 to 20 USD equivalent, no more.

4.       Do not flash cash ever! Make it clear you have credit cards and you only carry little cash.

5.       Take your time when they stop you. You have all the time in the world, why hurry, have a chat

6.       Slow down while riding! Don’t give them any reason to  stop you.

 In the end, don’t worry too much  about “corrupt cops”. In all our trips, we only had one encounter where they were plainly trying to get cash out of us for no reason other than they could. And we gave them nothing (well, a pound coin). And if you get caught doing something wrong and they want payment in cash, see rule 3, 4 and 5.

 The vast majority of times, the Uniforms (military or police) have been doing their job and been often helpful. If they stop you, don’t assume immediately the worse. 99% of the time, they are just bored, want to have a look at the bikes and have a chat with you about your travels. So smile when you open your helmet! (see Rule 1). After all, you are living  the Dream!

 

what if… your bike is stolen?

First of all, let me give you  an update on our preparations. I have agreed with the shipping company to deliver the bikes to them on the 9th of April. A bit of preparation to do first on them but we should be fine by then.

The CRF250 (Alistair’s bike) is currently in Somerset in the trusted hand of Gabriel (Zen Overland) getting a luggage frame built for the soft panniers.

I have ordered the Carnets (kind of passport for the bikes, required in south Africa). The carnets’ price are based on the value of the bikes and allow for a temporary import of the bikes into SA.

I had my vaccinations checked, this is extremely important, and had  a jab for Typhoid. I am up to date with everything else, and, apparently, I will never need another rabies booster again ever. Covered for life! Although, rabies might be the least of my worries if I were bitten or scratched by a lion!

I also bought a large supply of Doxycycline as anti-malaria.

So, let me start the “What if” series with the bike being stolen. People who start preparing an overland motorcycle trip can worry about pretty much anything. I know that prior to my first overland trip, one year around South America with my ghastly BMW, I certainly did.

 IMGP0650

Well, as it happens, I have a bit of experience there. Five month into our trip around south America, we stopped in the sleepy little town of Imbituba, Brazil. The place was empty of tourists as it was out of season, sometime in October, and middle of the winter (southern hemisphere). The weather was cold, it was raining and we wanted a nice place to rest. I had been having quite  a lot of problems already with my bike, further north, with the battery dying repeatedly, and various other issues. We found that little Pousada, the price was correct. We rode the bikes into the compound, parked them in a shed, away from the rain and from prying eyes in the street. We put the steering locks but they were not chained. The shed had no doors.

 The town is famous for surfing, during  the high season, and for whale watching. This is a big nursery area for Southern Right Whales so you can see many females with their babies.

So we took a boat and went to see them, the next day. It was well worth it.

IMG_0544

 The next morning, Alistair went for a wander and woke me up. He asked me “Did you move your bike?”. AS it was 7am and nothing would ever get me out of bed before at least 8am, unless work (!), fat chance of that happening. We walked to the shed. My bike was gone. For few minutes my brain went into “can’t compute” mode. The bike was there last night. Should be there. Why is it no there? Is the bike defying the laws of physics and vanished? I had to eventually admit that the bike was gone. Stolen.

 We found the owner of the Pousada and with a mix of English, Spanish and Portuguese managed to communicate. He took us to the police station. The following few days were the worse of our trip. I won’t go onto all the details. After the police station we went to a bakery for food and coffee and to decide what to do next. I am in charge of the communications.

So I contacted the motorcycle communities through a motorcycle  travel website. The response the following few days was insane and amazing. I had motorcycle clubs as far as Ciudad del Este (at the border with Paraguay – notorious place for smuggling) watching the border in the lookout for my bike. People emailing me from all over Brazil, apologizing for the theft happening in their country,  and offering help, accommodation, advise ….

We also contacted the local newspapers. The thinking behind that was to put pressure on the police to do something. The next day our photo was on the front page of the local paper.

 Meanwhile we started looking into what to do to continue our trip. I had set on this adventure to motorcycle around South America for a year, and I had no intention to let a little toe rag destroy the trip of a lifetime! To cut a long story short, the police eventually found my bike, 300km south, and arrested the thief that had stolen it (he was well known to them) and he went to jail. According to the local police, the thief had probably targeted and followed us,  and waited for the right time to steal the bike.

 Now I make a confession: at the back of my bike was a very sturdy chain. We did not use it on the day when the bike was stolen. We could have fallen into the blame game with Alistair. Kind of “Why didn’t you chain the bikes together?” – “Well why didn’t YOU?” etc… Except that we don’t function like that. What was done was done. We had to come with a  solution and work as a team. This is important. Stuff will happen in a trip like this. If  you are traveling with someone, unless you work as a team when faced with big problems,  your partnership will not last.

And we learnt our lesson. We always chain the bikes together. If you carry a chain, use it!

 Motorcycle travellers getting their bike stolen during their trip is still a very rare event, you have more chance of getting your bike stolen from your house if you live in Greater London. But if you are concerned, make it that bit harder for the opportunists: use a sturdy good quality chain, and try, when possible to get the bike in a secured parking. Our bikes have often been guarded by very scary looking dogs, up some stairs in front of the hotel receptionist, in many hotels’ lobbies, police officer’s bedroom, military compound etc… Ask around and you will be surprised.

But should this happen, don’t despair. Put things into perspective. It could be worse. Really, it could!

Imagine if a loved one or yourself was diagnosed with terminal cancer or some terminal illness? Now, how does your bike being stolen fare vs that fact? Pretty low, right?

 The simple fact is, unless big health problem or death, all problems on the road are down to time and money. If you are on the road, you should have plenty of time… and make sure you have contingency money!

 

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Do you carry a stove?

I often get asked if we cook our own food, on the road, and what we take with us.

These days we go minimalist.  We like to travel light. The more stuff we carry, the more weigh on the bikes and the harder they handle on the trails.

We have perfected, based on many trips, what we really need, which is surprisingly little.

We carry few spare parts, those that would stop us on our track, like clutch cables, puncture repair kit, levers, inner tube, and few maintenance stuff like oil filter and spark plugs. Anything else, we can get on the road. Sure, we won’t be able to find it in the next village but in major towns or, last solution, shipped from Europe.

The camping gear is essential. You never know how long it will take to get from A to B, whether you will make it (hard trails, weather conditions, break down, getting lost…) so being able to camp is important. In Mongolia, we had  a long stretch of nothingness where we just used to pitch the tent in the vast emptiness. However, once you leave the western world, accommodation is so cheap that, we usually try to make it to a village or town and get a room.

It is the same thing with food. For long trips we carry a fuel stove. To be fair we only use it for boiling water. Pot noodles, sardines and bread tend to be good options to survive on the wild, with a combination of fruits like apples, and nuts. Chocolate bars tend to melt in the heat. Alistair always carry biscuits and sweets. As for carrying bananas, we made that mistake once only! Anything soft will pretty much disintegrate on corrugation or tough trails.  Finding banana everywhere in my top box, with no access to water, was not nice!

 

However, whenever possible, we eat out. If we stay somewhere, we will always find a place for  a coffee, juice, and something to eat for breakfast. Then at lunch, we can graze on nuts and biscuits, on the road. For dinner, we can always find something. Worse come to worse we have been dining sometimes on crisps and bread. Wherever there are people, we will find food. And water.

Usually food is very cheap, so eating for a couple of dollars is fine. You have to be pragmatic and eat whatever you can find. On travels like these, it is not about gourmet food but food as fuel.

I have met many travellers who set off on their trips and camp wild all the time and cook all their food. It can definitely cut costs, if you are on a very tight budget. However, I find this very amusing when said travellers are on a 10 or 15,000$ machine with kit worth another few grands! They certainly look the part, I have to be fair here, with their shiny aluminium panniers and beautiful top of the range suits and helmets and all the survivor kit!  Next to them we usually look like cheap tramps!

 

In Kazakhstan, where the police is famous for stopping travellers to “fine” them, the cops would come to our level, on a long stretched of road, in their car, drive next to us to have a good look and move on. They probably felt sorry for us and did not bother us, on our cheap looking bikes and our mud caked soft panniers.

So we travel on cheap bikes and with little kit, but we don’t really camp all the way unless we have to or the price of accommodation is too expensive.

So, in summary, I carry on my bike a roll bag with the camping gear, and some maps. Then some spare parts and the tools to work on the bikes. Total luggage weigh on my bike is about 12kg. I also have a tank bag for water, maps, nuts, and few bits like toilet paper, camera…

We also always end up carrying a bottle of engine oil. Our bikes have a tough life and, once again, we learnt that lesson the hard way, having had an engine blow up and die in the middle of nowhere is Uzbekistan, back in 2014! Checking oil level and topping up is primordial.

Otherwise this could happen:

And then you need a new engine!

Then, in Alistair’s soft panniers, come the waterproofs and warm layers. We do not travel with Gore-Tex motorcycle suits, as we would die of heat exhaustion in most places. Breathable textile suits with plenty of venting zips are my favourites. In some places (Russia or Patagonia) the weather can go from hot summer day to freezing in a couple of hours. We do carry very little clothes, some cheap and some expensive. The expensive ones include a base layer like Merino wool, a thin but good quality down jacket (it packs tiny), merino wool socks. On the cheap side we found that outdoor trousers and T-shirts from Decathlon are super cheap but super-efficient. Indeed  they wash and dry in a nanosecond. They also pack very small and are very light. As we carry few clothes only, we need clothes that can wash and dry overnight! We usually wash our clothes ourselves as we go along, in hotels bathroom sink.

Other than motorcycle boots we have each a pair of trainers and flip flops. Flip flops are really essential in shared bathrooms or campsites.

In term of ‘electronics” we carry a phone and one iPad between the 2 of us. With wifi everywhere these days, they are enough.

Anything else we may need, we can buy on the way. Wherever there are people we can buy stuff. So why overload?

food on the road, Turkey:

 Food on the road, Georgia:

Market in Samarkand, Uzbekistan:

That’s not an adventure bike!

The choice of bike is a never ending topic of discussion, in the motorcycle travellers forums.

You have people asking which bike to choose, some firmly insisting that you cannot possibly go anywhere without a behemoth like the  KTM ADV 1290cc or BMW ADV 1200cc…. those bikes weigh 230kg dry… once you add fluids, luggage frame and metal panniers you get up to 250?

I have met many non-bikers people who think the ideal machine to travel must be a Harley Davidson. Hmm… try doing 1000s of miles on dirt roads, corrugation, through rivers, deep mud or sand, on a Harley.

So the answer to the never ending question “Which bike?” is… it depends! What are you going to do with the bike? Where are you going?

My choice of adventure bike is the humble Yamaha XT250. Yes, it is a 250cc engine. On the V5 it says it weighs 108kg. I think in reality it is about 130kg with fluids (fuel and oil).

How could I possibly travel is such a tiny puny machine? Surely it would disintegrate and die after the 1st river crossing?

There are two reasons for my choice.

The first reason is that the bike is incredibly light, tough and simple to repair. It is so tough, that the 2 bad crashes I had with it, I came off badly but the bike had nothing. I came off once riding a very muddy trail. Under the mud were bricks. My helmet’s camera holder disintegrated under the shock, my shoulder pretty much did too, leading to few trips to the hospital and 2 years of physio and other therapies. My  XT? Nothing.

In Kyrgyzstan, I got attacked by cows. Well, sort off. There are no fences in central Asia, animals roam free. I was cruising along, a rabid dog came out of nowhere, spreading panic through a pack (?) of cows. Who knew cows could run that fast? They charged toward me. I hit one, once again falling badly on tarmac. Same shoulder. It did hurt a lot. The bike? Nothing. Through the trip it needed nothing. Few adjustments, as everything comes loose on bad roads, through the vibrations, but nothing much other than wear and tear.

My second, and major reason, is that I can go through pretty much anything on such light bike. I am not talking only about gravel or sandy trails. I am talking big rocks, rivers with unknown surface under the water, deep mud, mounds of rubble, goat tracks, incredibly steep tracks (up and down) … The GPS tends to take us sometimes through some very exotic “roads”. I could not do that with a big heavy bike. With my small bike I can go anywhere. With my heavy BMW, there were places we could not go as it would have been impossible with them.

So the choice for everyone is the following:

1-      Take a big bike, heavy and comfortable, carrying all the Mods Cons, but restrict where you can go, and miss out on some amazing, but hard to get, places. 90% of the time, that bike will be perfect;

2-      Take a small and light bike, that may not be as comfortable or fast, travel light, in no so much comfort for 90% of the time, but use the 10% where you have no limitation where you can ride.

For our 1st long overland trip, in South America, we chose 1. Now we prefer choice 2.

If you are going around Europe, Turkey, North America or even South America, and you are going to stick to tarmac and main highways, anything will do. Even a Harley! God help you if you break down in the middle of nowhere in south America, though!

I broke down everywhere around south America with my dreadful BMW. Finding a BMW motorcycle dealer was near impossible. Bolivia? None. Argentina? In Buenos Aires only. Chile? In Santiago only. Colombia? Only in Bogota or Medellin. And be prepared to pay mega bucks for the pleasure. Repairing the BMW required getting the computer software for that. Guess what? Only BMW Motorrad will have that. Fancy trucking your bike for thousands of miles? I have met many people who had to end their trip and truck their expensive, fancy motorbikes, from central Asia, back home, as there was no way to repair their precious bikes in the ‘Stans.

And if you think we are mad of riding half way round the world on such small bikes, have a thought about these guys!

We met these 2 in the mountains in Mongolia.

We have met many cyclists, over the years, travelling the length of the Americas, from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia, or the length of Eurasia, from Dublin / London / Paris to Shanghai. Cycling through the ‘Stans requires “balls of steel” (If you forgive me the expression!): never ending very though deserts, mountains passes beyond 4,500m, extremely sparse population… Central Asia will throw everything at you and the kitchen sink!

Would you take the challenge?