should I go?

Many themes keep coming back in the motorcycle travel forums.

One of the things that seems to worry people is, coming back after travelling for a long period of time. How to find another job? How to quit work and maybe a successful ( if unfulfilling ) career? How to resume your life at the end of the trip?

Each traveller I have met (and I have met many!) is different and has different circumstances.  I can only talk for me in this subject.

The first time I decided to go travelling for a year, around South America, risigning was a tough decision to make.

It had been so hard for me to build some sort of career. I went through years of minimum salary temp. jobs in France, after university, unable to get a permanent job. In France, unless you know someone and are part of some Business school and its network, it is extremely hard. Youth unemployment was, and is still, huge.

Then, I moved to London, finally landing a permanent job, in a big company.  Through hard work and very long hours, studying and going through a lot of grief at work, I made my way from the bottom of the ladder to a decent wage… yes, resigning was hard. Would I find a job again? Ever? Would I get the opportunity to even resume a career I had spent over 10 years building?

It was scary. I hated my job, but I still needed to work after my trip.

I took the plunge, and Alistair with me. After a year around South America with the bikes, we came back home.

We found jobs, quickly and at the same level than when we left. Since then, we have come and go many times. We now both work as contractors, giving us much flexibility for our trips.

My CV has more holes than a Swiss cheese, and yet, I seem to be very much in demand, in my industry. At least for now.

What most overlanders will have is a sense of purpose, independence, problem solving skills, the hability not to panic when the SHTF… all qualities that are in demand. No boss wants to worry about their staff. Turn up on time, do the job well done with minimum fuss, don’t made demands, be nice to everyone and at all times, even the one you would love to punch in the face… That big gap in your CV should not be a problem.

My first overland trip changed me. I learnt a lot. It made me confident enough to apply for jobs I would have thought beyond “my level”….

Do you come back to your previous life? Not really. You may appear to… but everything will be different.

For me, the only way to keep my sanity at work these days, is to plan the next trip!

The hardest part of any first long trip is not the trip itself and its challenges. No, the hardest part is making the decision to go, making that leap unto the unknown, plunging way beyond your comfort zone. That is the very hard part.

As one guy, who had never done anything or gone anywhere, told me angrily, “anyone can do it”!  Indeed, anyone can travel overland by motorbike, yet, very few chose to. Why? Because that leap of faith, that jump into the unknown, is too hard for most to comtemplate. However, without risks, there are no rewards.

Can you jump?

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We have our tickets

I plan to terminate my contract at the end of March. Alistair will be done by then too. The beauty of being contractors!

We bought our planes tickets for Cape Town. Departure the 28th of May. That’s it! No way back.

I have confirmed the shipping for the bikes. I am shipping with Moto Freight. They come recommended by other travellers, and Roddy, my Moto Freight contact, has been really helpful, answering all my questions and more! So the bikes have to be delivered to him no later than 16th of April, preferably earlier.

I will arrange for the Carnet ( the bikes’ passport) to be delivered at that time, so I can give them to Roddy. He can then send those to the freight company dealing with the Port authorities and Customs, in Cape Town. Still some paper work to sort out but my time frame is fine.

We have about 2 months to get the bikes ready, including a bespoke frame built for the CRF.
Gabriel, from Zen Overland, will do the luggage frame and fit a 5 litres fuel canister on it. Fuel might be a problem is some lightly populated sections, so we will need to carry some extra.

I have not looked at vaccinations yet, but most stuff should be up to date from our previous trips. I don’t think we need anything other than Typhoid.

For the anti-malarial tablets, I am not sure what to get. Malarone is good, no side effect on us, can be used to treat malaria, but extremely expensive. Each tablet is about 3 pounds! One a day! Argh!

I am not keen on taking Lariam (also known as Mefloquine) , because of the potential side effects. It comes with long lasting risks of hallucinations, psychosis, depression etc… So bad that even the US FDA issued warnings. So this one is a big no.

The mix Atavaquone/ Proguanil, made me very ill for few weeks, when I used it for one trip.

Then there is Doxycycline. I have used that one before with no side effects. But a lot of tablets to carry.

I will book the travel clinic and discuss the options with the nurse. Also I am not sure I can get 4 months of prescription drugs at once.

Few weeks ago, I contacted Johan, one of my south African former colleague and friend. We both contracted on and off at the same company. We worked in few big projects together. He moved back to Cape Town with his family, soon after the birth of their first daughter. I was asking him recommendations for accommodation with secured parking for the bikes. His quick answer was “ no if, no but, you are staying with us”. With his growing family (a toddler and a baby) I was not angling for an invite. Honest. They have enough to deal with the kids and jobs. But the offer is gratefully accepted.

It will be great to open my paper maps and get some input from him and Jo-Ann, they know this region of the world very well.

There is no greater pleasure in life than opening a map flat on a table, gathering around ( with few cold beers!) and getting (or giving!) tips, write on the maps, highlight the best roads, mountains, jungles, deserts and settlements in the most unlikely locations… dreaming about and anticipating all those places with mysterious names. I love my maps. Paper maps. I am going to be controversial here, but I care very little about GPS. It is useful in town when looking for a hotel, I will grant you that! But more than once, the stupid thing has taken us too many time through donkey trails and rivers, while there was a perfectly nice tarmac road a mile away!

As for the many farms’ tracks and disused roads it took us through, in Russia and Siberia, to this day we have no clue where we were! I presume, in one way, it does not matter much. When travelling, we are rarely going anywhere precise, so we always end up somewhere!

I think my love of maps started at 12, reading The Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings. I loved to look at the map in these books, the details, the kingdoms, the mountains, the Moria, Mordor… ah yes I am “One of Those”! Many books with maps followed: SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Adventure, Classics (Jule Vernes!) anything…. I was not fussy, world maps, Fantasy maps, any map.. so full of possibilities, so full of stories…

When I was a student, playing “Dungeons and Dragons” with my friends, I always volunteered to draw the maps!

Yes, I am “One of Those” too! From Nerd to Motorcycle traveller, it was not such a big step!

( this was the birthday card I got from Alistair! I love it! )

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Aren’t you scared?

Aren’t you scared? Isn’t XYZ country (take your pick) dangerous?  These questions keep coming when I talk about my motorcycle plans.

My answers are always the same: Colombia / Brazil / Russia / Kyrgyzstan and so on,  are safe. We avoid troubled places. Depending on the country / Town it is easy to know which regions / places to avoid. I would not go faffing around Dagestan, one of the Russian republics, for example; Or some parts of Colombia, or wander into an “unpacified” favela in Rio.

Our personal safety is my top priority. The safety of the bikes comes second!

I do a lot of research. Often, the best info is on the road. The police and military will be around. Especially in more volatile regions. Who best to ask? In Colombia they gave us good advice, in Central Asia, while making our way to Andijan (eastern Uzbekistan), the heavy police and military presence was enough of a hint to avoid wandering too far off the hotel in the dark.

Common sense applies at all times. We have lived in big cities, and we know there are places, even in London, Paris or Rio, where you do not go, ever; places you avoid at night.  The same applies when you travel. So far we never got into trouble with any mugger or gangs.

However…

For Africa, I must admit, something had been worrying me for a while. So I had to ask a specialist.

Let’s introduce Sandy. I met her at Motorcycle Mechanics evening classes, back in 2005. She was planning to ride from London back home, to Cape Town, while I was in the early planning of our 1 year around south America. She did ride back home the following year, through the middle East, Egypt, Sudan etc… all the way to South Africa. Then, in Cape Town, she created a motorcycle tour company. She knows the region very well, and as a biker, she understands the risks. So I sent her a message. I am a bit concerned about wildlife. I certainly do not want  to be eaten by a lion!

You see, we often end up travelling across very remote roads, and on the bikes, we are “out there”, very vulnerable. Namibia is very sparsely populated, so my question is not that daft. The answer came fast. Lions in Namibia are very wild, but she never saw any while riding there. She gave me valuable advice: avoid wild camping, stay in campsites as much as possible. If wild camping, have a fire going all night. Do not walk at night in remote places, do not go for a swim, unless someone who knows what s/he is doing tells us it is safe (crocodiles and all that!).

So, reassured, of sort. The bit about not camping wild is tricky. We are always at the mercy of a mechanic problem. I suppose, in such case, we could hide the broken down bike and ride 2 up on the other. We did that once, in Kyrgyzstan, when Alistair’s bike died. We hid it in a ditch and came back the following morning.

So I guess we will have to wing it and improvise. My plans are vague. I know by now, that the day we get on the bikes, my plans will last about 24 hours, before we have to make changes!

“Wildlife” encounters in Kazakhstan were a little less intimidating!Aren’t you scared?

 

 

Itinerary

This is just what I have in mind at the moment.

Obviously, once on the road, plans will probably change a little! We may push to Tanzania if we have time or spend more time in some countries or others…

Time frame: end of May to mid/ late September.

 

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where do you start?

As I get on with planning our trip to Africa, I often see this question popping out regularly in forums and meetings.

Where do you start?

If you have never done an overland motorcycle trip before,  it can be overwhelming, so many decisions to make, so much choice….

In our couple, I organise the trip entirely as well as being in charge of communications (Blog/website), while Alistair is the mechanic, deals with the bikes, repairs, getting them ready and the sorting out the GPS Open source map stuff. And picking up my bike when I “throw it “on the floor! His words not mine!

The bikes, what to take, and the way to set them up, is a topic that fills millions of pages in forums. We found what works for us through trial and errors. It fits our travel style. There is no perfect bike and perfect set up, only what works for you. And to be fair, we have 2 bikes each, what we call the “big bikes” and the “little bikes”.

The “big bikes” are solid touring bikes. I currently have a Honda CB500X and Alistair has a Triumph Tiger XC. They are perfect for motorways and can do a bit of gravel.  They are not for the roads and trails beyond Europe/ Western world, or at least not for us. So we have the “little bikes”. I have an XT250 and Alistair has a CRF250. Those little bikes can get through anything, they are simple to fix and maintain, light and agile.

But really, for you, the 1st choice, before even talking about bikes is: where to go and for how long. That may influence what sort of bike you take.

These days, we go away for 4 to 5 months. Where? Usually places we have not explored yet. I love discovering new countries, new regions and new cultures. For our next trip, we considered Africa (instead of the US as originally planned!) after a very inspiring presentation at the HUBB meeting in Wales, last year. Leonie, the half of “Amsterdam to Anywhere” did a very beautiful presentation and inspired us to consider Africa.

I got online to look at a map of the continent. Crossing all Africa was out of question as we have time constraints. Visas and shipping the “little bikes” was my first step. The HUBB shipping pages was, as always, very useful.

Initially, I thought about shipping to Ethiopia and ride down to Cape Town. Or even starting in Kenya or Tanzania…. Until, after few quotes and some investigation, I realised that shipping would be cheaper and much easier to and from Cape Town. So it was an easy choice. I like to keep things simple.

For the itinerary I use countries road maps to design a vague route, but that can change considerably once we start the trip. But we still need a general idea. Sometimes, seasons will dictate your itinerary. For example if you go to Ushuaia, you will have to go there during summer. So some points may be “fixed” in your trip, because you can only go there during a certain time only. Other than that, I keep my plans and itinerary flexible. Usually my plan goes out of window within the second day of riding!

I always start my preparations with a spreadsheet. One sheet is the “Getting there” costs and general budgeting: The carnet, required for shipping into South Africa, is added to shipping costs (back and forth) and the return flights.

Another sheet is for visas, carnet requirements and countries specific requirements (vaccinations and anything else). This time there is nothing to do much, but for Russia / central Asia you need to be organised, in term of Visas.

I have also a sheet for “Bikes”. There, I list all the preparation work to be done for each bike (e.g. “new chain” etc…) and Alistair completes it and deal with those.

The “Luggage” list starts with the spare parts to take with us.

My last sheet is with the “To Do” list. It always ends up being quite long!

Oh and I sometimes have a sheet of “places not to miss”.

Basically my spreadsheet is where I put everything about the trip that I have to deal with, sort out or remember.

So do you start with a spreadsheets? Where do you start?

 

 

Epilogue – trip 2016

From Kochkor we rode to Bishkek.

The road was rather busy and we crossed many buses full fo people going to the Nomad World Games. These were going to start soon, in a small town by the shore of nearby Lake Issik Kul.

We got to Bishkek and rode to Hotel Rich.

The following few days we repacked everything and delivered the bikes and luggage to the compound, ready to be tucked back to Europe.

The compound was full of bikes form everywhere in Europe!

We then had few days left in Bishkek, and got bored very quickly!
We decided to rent a car for a couple of days and visit a Ala Archa national Park.  We also visited a derelict and very soviet style sanatarium.

 

 

 

It was then time to go home.
In total we covered 15,000 kilometres, had no punctures and no major issues with the bikes.
Thank you for reading my blog. I hope you enjoyed our adventures across Russia and Central Asia and that it will inspire you to visit some of those beautiful places.
That’s all for now! Until next trip 😉
Maria x

Short cut through the mountains to Bishkek

Day 77 – Friday 26th August – Kazarman – 260kms

Finally we left Osh for the last time. We had spend way too much time in Osh two years ago, and this time again!
We first took the main road to Jalal-Abad, although, as usual, the GPS took us through some shortcuts of its own!
The shortcut ended  in a  near dead end. This bridge had collapsed and was closed to traffic.
After further inspection we decided that it was solid enough for our light motorbikes.
Alistair went first (he is the heaviest!) and I Followed quickly!
Then, in Jalal-Abad, the GPS tried to take us through the wrong track. Fortunately, as we hesitated, an old man told us how to pick up the correct road to Kazarman.
Once on track we left town. The road out of town had new Tarmac, and the locals seemed to use half the width of that road  to dry sunflower seeds.
Finally the Tarmac ended. The road was also less busy and we were able to relax a bit.
We started climbing into the mountains. The region is very dry.
We didn’t  really cross any villages of significance during the day, few farmers here and there.
One guy was guiding his cows by the side of the road. His very large and very aggressive dog ran after  Alistair and then tried to get me, his teeth just inches from my legs. I stopped  and gave  a superb mouthful to the farmer who found it funny. Moron! I wish I could have been able to taser his rabid dangerously aggressive dog.
I am losing patience with dogs and crazy drivers now. I tend to give them my opinion using a very colourful language!
And we climbed even more….
Eventually, in the evening, we arrived at Kazarman. My guide described the town as a poor, dusty bowl settlement with a reputation as a tough mining town, down on its luck. That’s one way of describing it.
I could think of other terms, but would be less flattering! Oops!
The GPS took us to a Bed and Breakfast. Well… It is how it was called. The place was a bit under construction.
It had no running water so the toilet was the usual hole in the ground in the back of the courtyard, and they had a sort of shower: a plastic hut with a big bowl of water on top!
After taking a  look at the kitchen, we decided we would  not have any dinner or food at the place. After our adventure in Osh we have decided to stick to processed food or biscuits, in places without running water!
So we went in search of a shop. We found few. Each was so small it hardly had any food at all. One had two boxes of pot noodles left. After closer inspection, the expiry date was still to come. Once again, we have learned our lesson the very hard way about checking expiry dates!
Back at the guesthouse, we sat inside the yurt that was used as a dining room. We asked for boiling water. The look of disapproval on the middle aged woman running the place was a story in itself! I shrugged, I did not fancy a trip to the hospital.
The dining room had small jars of jam, uncovered,  sugar, bread and others foods in one table. And lots of flies around making the most of it! Nice!
I have observed food covered in flies often enough to convinced me not to touch anything! Best to be avoided!
We ate our chemical pot noodles. 
 
As there was nothing much to do, we had an early night and asked for breakfast at 7:30. 
 
 
Day 78 – Saturday 27th August – Kochkor – 310 kms
 
I was up and around very early. We packed everything and we were ready for breakfast at 7:30. We asked for green tea only but yesterday’s bowl of bread and croissants were still there. The woman also brought some butter covered with sugar and unidentified stuff. Happy flies! 
 
After having our tea, we were ready to go. There are places, no matter how simple it is, you feel at ease. Some places are the opposite and you can not wait to leave. That place was one of those were I just want noted to get back on the road as quickly as possible! 
 
The first 80 kms out of Kazarman, we rode a very bad gravel road. It was also very busy as it joined to the main road to Naryn.
 
Eventually we took the turn toward the Moldo Ashuu pass…. No one but tourists would use it. We stopped at the turn off, near a derelict bus station, to have a drink and eat few peanuts.
 
Then it was time to negotiate the stunning pass. 
 
We met some cyclists on the way and we had a good chat with them. They were on a 3 years tour! 
 

The climb to the pass was spectacular. Shame we don’t have good pictures of it! 

 

From the pass, we followed the gravel road to the Song Kul lake, another major tourist point. It is set at 3000 m altitude, and with the many yurt settlements and animals roaming free, it is a bit picture perfect! 

 
 
The road went along the lake and through another pass. 
 
 
 
We finally picked the main road to Bishkek. 
 
We arrived in Kochkor by late afternoon. 
We rode straight to the hotel Adamkaliy. We had been staying there one night, three weeks ago, on our way to Naryn. We had liked the place and the family was welcoming and friendly. 
 
The place was empty this time so we took a room with private bathroom! Luxury! 
 
It is funny how perception can change. After so much time in little places, Kochkor seemed almost like the height of civilisation! It had a mini market that  actually had stuff you wanted to buy, and aisles, so you can pick your stuff yourself , rather than ask someone over the counter and pointing ; it had a touristic cafe with a menu in English and food that would not cause too much problems to our stomach…. Civilisation!