Sam Manicom: 8 Lessons from 8 Years on the Road
8 Years and 200,000 miles round-the-world on a motorcycle will teach you a thing or two… But here’s 8! These awesome lessons from Sam’s epic trip will help you get started on your own adventure…
The plan for the motorcycle trip was to head down through Africa, Cairo to Cape Town, for however long it took me. I had no real idea. Mostly because when I made it to the Sahara I’d only been riding a motorcycle for 3 months. This journey was before Google, GPS, mobile phones and even digital photography. By the time I made it to the South Africa a year later, I’d decided that there simply wasn’t a good reason to go home. But there were plenty of reasons to keep exploring. Having sold everything I had to do this trip, and having travelled cheaply, I still had some cash. I put me and my bike on a container ship in Durban South Africa. Next stop Sydney, Australia and 7 and a half years of riding, exploring, learning, laughing and being challenged…
Over 8 years I rode 200,000 miles. Once I’d learnt not to be afraid of the bike, I started to explore side turnings; the freedom which my bike gave to do that was fantastic. She’s called Libby. That’s short for Liberty. The full journey took me through Africa, across to Australia and New Zealand before heading up into Asia, Europe, Africa again, South and Central America and finally North America. I started this trip because my feet had become distractingly itchy, and over a few beers one night I’d realised that I had no responsibilities and no debt. That’s desire and freedom in one hit – there was never going to be a more perfect time to do a big trip. The next drunken thoughts were where to and how? Africa made a lot of sense and I thought that a motorcycle would give me more flexibly than a bus, train, sail or hitch. I was obviously drinking good beer that night! The next 8 years were going to teach me a whole new set of skills and here they are – 8 of the most important lessons I learned from 8 years on the road…
Lesson 1: Pick a bike you love and go
Being a complete novice with no mates who were motorcyclists, I didn’t have a clue which bike to use for the trip through Africa. It wasn’t a help that in 1991, most of the motorcycle magazines didn’t have articles about long-distance off-road motorcycle touring. I ended up on a BMW R80GS because of two guys one drunken night in the pub. ‘Bullet-proof’, said one, while his mate told me they were ‘Idiot-proof’. That sounded like just the bike to me. Give me a piece of wood and I’ll make you something nice, but mechanics? That was dark arts, and electrics were a tangle of confusion as far as I was concerned.
Once my interest in the bike had been grabbed, I could start to research and the more I found out about it, the more it made sense. It didn’t look too big in photographs either. Little did I know how incredibly strange it was going to be, going straight from the 125cc Kawasaki I learnt on to the GS.
One of the things I liked about this bike was that I could do most of the servicing. It wasn’t complicated. That’ll be the idiot-proof bit. I also discovered that many of the police forces in Africa used airhead BMW’s so if I was stuck, I might find help. That made sense to me.
Common sense ruled with setting the bike up. Range? I thought 400 African miles would do the trick. Spare parts? Well, the salesmen saw me coming and I ended up carrying enough parts to almost build another bike. In time I learnt to only carry tubes, cables, fuses and any electrical parts that’d stop the bike dead. The bike had to be able to carry a fair amount of weight and one of the selling points of the GS was that with its cylinders down low, so would be the centre of gravity. It made sense that if I could load in such a way to compliment that, then I might be winning.
I made a few mistakes of course but that’s what much of a trip like this is about isn’t it? Learning. To deal with the weight of my on-the-road-home, I beefed up the rear suspension with WP shocks and had progressive springs put into the forks. Both were excellent decisions.
The reality is that any bike will do a trip like this. If you have a bike you like riding, take it. OK, so it’s a sports bike. There will be some things/places that will be harder to traverse. Take a 90cc bike if that’s your thing; the same thought applies; if the other traffic is going too fast, you are on the wrong road. I met a guy in the Sahara. He was on a 125cc trail bike which he’d walked in first gear across much of the desert because the bike didn’t have enough power to deal with the sand, bike, gear and his weight combo. He loved it the rest of the time.
My partner Birgit chose her bike for a set of reasons that many will understand; we started to ride together 4 years into the 8-year trip. She’s just 5’ tall, so finding a bike that she could get her feet on the deck with was vital. She wanted a bike with similar engineering as mine so that anything I’d learnt could come in handy. And she didn’t want a new motorcycle, just a reliable one. She ended up on a 1971 R60/5 BMW. She found it rusting under a tree and then stripped it down to the frame with a mechanic so she could learn what went where. She rode the next 4 years on it. Feet on the ground? Yes. Affordable? Yes. Reliable? Most of the time.
Luckily, my bike was amazingly reliable and now is still my only means of transport in the UK. She has 278,000 miles under her wheels. Just a thought, because I spent so much time on backroads and dirt over the 8 years, and I like to see where I am travelling, I suspect that my average speed was around 40mph…
Lesson 2: Proper planning is the way to freedom on the road
There are plenty who will say, just make the decision, load the gear you have on your bike and go. And I think that’s way better than years of over planning. That just soaks up time, and money, and can be a case of increasing confusion rather than making a person better prepared.
One of the reasons I love to travel with maps, as well as a phone app, is that they open up a world of possibilities to me. I can see the place names and wonder how they became named such. Who was Elizabeth? Why is a place called Coffeefountain? They also show me the topography. High and low lands. Good ones will show me the easier roads, and the veins of back roads which so often are where we will find the real world of a country. That’s just an example.
Good planning shows you what you can see, get involved with and learn from. The right amount of planning can take a ton of uncertainly off your shoulders. Those who don’t plan, except for those rare incredibly laid-back types, always remind me a fly buzzing around helplessly in a large glass jar. A level of planning will allow you to see which sights you will get a buzz out of visiting.
It’ll teach you about the culture of the country. Did you know not to show the bottom of your foot in Thailand, or that touching someone on the shoulder in Vietnam is considered to give that person bad luck for the rest of their lives? Why do tribes in the Sahara cover up so much? Learn from those sorts of things and you can enhance your journey with pure quality – and also decrease the chance of making dangerous or insulting mistakes.
I learnt one such rule the hard way. I like to get off my bike from time to time and to use local transport. It can be funny and incredibly friendly. What a great way to learn about where you are. I also like to hitch hike. But learning the local culture of hitchhiking can be vital.
In Thailand using the thumb to indicate you’d like a lift is like giving the drivers the middle finger here. So you use the flat of you hand in an up and down motion. Do that in the Netherlands and you may find the driver thinks you are up for some gay sex. Extreme examples perhaps, but research and the world of possibilities becomes both huge and clarified at the same time.
Lesson 3: A good budget will keep you on the road longer
When I set off through Africa, I didn’t have a clue how much it was going to cost me. I didn’t fear wild camping and I knew about the fun of bargaining in the markets for food. I also wasn’t afraid to ask for directions to a cheap hotel and I knew the value of getting to a town in the middle of the afternoon when many of the cheap hotels would still have space.
But how many times would I break down? How much fuel would the bike drink and how expensive was it going to be out there? Would I have to pay extra for hotels so I could get the bike off the street, and so the uncertainties affected my budget thoughts…
The point though, is that you can never know everything, and if you did, shouldn’t you be looking for a different type of adventure? Something that would stretch you?
My budget plan was to use the knowledge I had and to set a figure. I’d stick a wet finger in the air for a value of the things I didn’t know, total those two and add a third for contingencies. That would give me a daily survival figure. To that I’d add a chunk for opportunities such as an entrance fee. And then I’d add an estimated amount for visas and other paperwork.
I’d then try to live within that figure. If I was well within it then I could spend more days on the road exploring. It was 1992 and I’d estimated $20 a day all in. In Africa I spent an average of $4! Most of that was fuel and visas. Travelling slowly has huge budget dividends. Suck less fuel, save money. Bargain for your food and accom, save money. Don’t drink beer and save big time. A hard thing to do? Not when you start to realise in many parts of the world that a beer costs the same as 3 square meals.
But don’t be too tight or you’ll miss out on spectacular opportunities. I travel with the thought that this might be the one and only time I’ll ever be in a place, so…
My total, all in, costs over the 8+ years worked out at an average of $7 a day.
Lesson 4: You don’t need to be an off-road god
You really don’t need to be an expert at riding off-road when you set off to ride the world. I had ridden perhaps 50 miles on the beach and coastal paths on the island of Jersey where I’d lived pre-trip. Most of those were on the little 125 Kawasaki. The first time I took the R80GS on the tracks there was a fair bit of damp on the long grass and I dropped the bike within yards of the entrance gate. To make matters worse, I opened the throttle as we went down and the bike swung round to wedge its front wheel on one bank of the path, and rear wheel on the other bank. To add a complication, the path was sloping and yep, the bike dropped downhill. Not perfect!
That was the day I learnt how heavy the bike was, even without luggage, and the power of asking for help. A very well-dressed elderly couple, whose poodle was running around yapping like some sort of four-legged cheerleader, helped me pick the bike up. He got stuck straight in calling to his wife, “Come along ol’ girl, lets help the chap!” over his shoulder! I waited until they were out of sight before trying to ride off. Perhaps that was daft…
Of course I worried about it. I mean, I was heading for Africa. But I decided that I’d go slowly and think about how I was going to deal with each obstacle in advance. There would be plenty of time for that as I was going to be riding on my own. If I made a mistake and fell, then once I’d got my bike up, I’d take a moment to review what I’d done wrong and try not to do it again. Plan made, I tried not to think about it anymore in case I ended up putting myself off doing the trip.
Frankly, for the sort of trip I had in my mind, this was daft. But I didn’t know any better. It was important to get on with it because the weather patterns through Africa had put a time restriction on me. Leave much later and the Sahara sun would be doing its worst, and I’d cop the rainy season in sub Saharan Africa.
With hindsight I should have hunted out some lessons. Learning about changing tyre pressures according to road surface would have been a big help. As would learning the best way to pick up my bike without hurting myself and other such basics. I fell off a lot, but I learnt, didn’t break the bike or me too badly, and the trip rolled on with an ever-increasing smile.
Birgit had been riding a motorcycle for just 600 miles when we rode out of the port in Kenya. She’d never ridden off road. Not the plan. She did well. Eyes wide open and determination.
Lesson 5: Learn the basics of bike maintenance
This starts with you either having chosen a modern bike with a reputation for being incredibly reliable, or an older bike. Modern, young in the miles? Carry a minimal amount of vital spares, key electrical ‘black boxes’ and relays, tyre changing gear, perhaps chain servicing gear and a diagnosis kit.
If you have chosen an older bike that is easy to work on, but needs a little more on the road TLC, then take some classes beforehand. The peace of mind that this will give you is huge.
Either way, learn how to change tyres, keep your chain in trim (if you have one), and learn how to change your oil and air filters. Much of the rest is a case of patience, common sense, a workshop manual, luck and preventative medicine.
I paid to be taught how to do most of the above and, being an airhead BMW, how to set the valve clearances. As for the preventive side, every time I’d ridden a rougher road, and at least every couple of days, I went over the bike checking that no nuts and bolts had been rattled free on the corrugations, that no wires were rubbing, and that there were no cracks in the frames. A 20-minute job. Perfect to do while your billy is boiling, mug of tea brewing and then cooling enough to sup.
Doing so more than saved my bacon in Kenya when I discovered a cracked sub frame. My fault for carrying too much gear, but if it had gone on the road… I also changed my oil, and both air and oil filters more frequently than the service intervals. Take care of your bike and it takes care of you.
Lack of mechanical ability is not something to fear. If you break down and can’t fix your bike, find a truck, pay to have you and your bike taken to the nearest city, and find someone to help you there. If you need a spare you don’t have, then in a bigger town or city you are much easier to find for courier companies – don’t use postal services!!! Things get lost, can take an age and in some countries, your parcel can have you needing to travel to the port of entry to play games with customs. A courier does all of that for you.
The photo is of my girlfriend Birgit in Colombia. Her bike had suddenly developed a significant mechanical fault and refused to move. It did so outside a brothel. There were no hotels, so we worked on her bike with the ladies of the day and night keeping us company.
Lesson 6: Pick your route carefully
For me, this starts off with several key points. How long is my visa valid for? What are the weather patterns? There’s no point riding at altitude in the snow when down on the plains its balmy great riding weather. In 2 months it could be too hot down there, yet up in the mountains the snow could be gone and you’d be riding in crisp clean air surrounded by magnificence. In fact, there’s no point being in Asia in the monsoon period, and Alaska or Siberia in the middle of winter. Some nutters do it; check out the Sidecar Guys, Sjaak Lucassen’s plans to the North Pole or Mark’s ride to the Coldest City on Earth. You get my drift.
Next, what condition are roads and trails likely to be in? The best maps, such as the Michelin maps for Africa, will show what’s what. I also like to take a look to see where the bridges are. Sometimes there are canoes when there are no bridges, or pontoon type ferries but not always…
Before visiting a country, I make a list of the top 10 things I’d like to see, and whittle those down to the key 3. I usually can’t afford to pay to get into all the main sights, so plan my route between the 3 and take in lesser sites of interest along the way. Those are frequently free and have the bonus of having less people exploring them.
Of course, where I’m going to be able to get fuel is important. We work on an ideal range of 300 miles but sometimes need around 350. We always fill up if we see a fuel station and are down to half full, and we always fuel up before settling down in our digs for the night. We carry 3 days’ worth of food so this combo gives the chance to take advantage of side turnings.
Border crossings. When I was doing the big trip you simply had to know where they were. Any additional information was gleaned from other travellers coming from that country or from chats with the locals. Now you can go online to find out which crossing is slow, a notorious chore or good fun. Most border crossings are the latter if you have given yourself plenty of time, have prepared your paperwork correctly and have a friendly mindset.
2 final key points are to plan your route so you can be somewhere to obtain your visa for the next country. That way you aren’t relying on getting it at a border. And the second, plan to steer clear of any dodgier areas of a country.
Love the planning stage and I am fascinated by maps; they are the best planning tool. Add Google and a world of possibilities opens up.
Lesson 7: Choose the right luggage and pack light
I’m a real fan of aluminium panniers. If I was going to spend all my time off road then I might be tempted by soft luggage, but I ride a mix and I like the qualities that well-made aluminium boxes offer. They allow me to easily and efficiently pack – keeping heavier objects to the bottom and front of the panniers. Keeping your centre of gravity down low makes a huge difference when you are dodging in city traffic or tussling with a gnarly dirt road. I like the security they give me when I walk away from my bike. The right mountings and locks and it’ll be hard for anyone to get them off or break into them. When I’m in a hotel room I take them off my bike and spiral lock them to the bed frame via loops that are specially welded onto the ends of the panniers. I have my own hotel ‘safe’ this way. These loops also work as carrying handles and as a way of mounting tyres to the rear of the bike. They are great to sit on outside my tent at night time. I use one to prepare food on the top of and the other to sit on. My sheepskin goes on that and I’m smiling.
But there are some tips here. Go for a lighter weight steel pannier rack. We made mine. If your pannier takes a huge impact, such as being hit by another vehicle, your pannier might get bent but the rack will break before your bike’s sub frame breaks. That’s way easier to cable tie and duct tape a temporary repair on than getting a sub frame sorted.
I like a top opening waterproof roll bag to sit on my pillion seat and a couple of tank paniers up front. I carry heavier items in those such as oil and water. That helps to balance out the weight I’m hanging on the back of my bike, and is yet another way to keep weight down low and between the wheels. On top of the tank I’ll have what I call my ‘Walk away’ bag. Carnet, camera, map, book, back up charger, bike paperwork (originals inside my panniers) and some munchies such as nuts and raisins. That goes with me every time I leave the bike – booking into a hotel or going to a campsite office, heading into a shop, or at a border crossing. It’s also handy if something goes wrong and I have to grab and run. So far so good, but it’s always nice to know it’s there.
Picking the right luggage set-up is all about what works best for you and what type of riding you’ll be doing. Choose the luggage set-up that you feel most comfortable with. Have a read of this guide if you need a hand deciding: Hard vs soft luggage.
One of the keys for packing, whether you have soft or hard luggage is to make sure that regardless of the size of the panniers, both when loaded must weigh more or less the same. Sometimes that means some odd packing but handling-wise, it really pays off. Items I know I’m going to need frequently go at the top and the rest of the items are packed by weight. My top bag has my sleeping bag and mat, a change of clothes, my flip flops and my wash bag. I can grab that with ease when heading into my tent in the rain, or into a hotel. Note that most of those items though bulkier, are light weight. It’s all about packing light and condensing your gear. You won’t need half of the stuff you originally pack – here’s another handy guide: The Complete Motorcycle Trip Packing List.
Lesson 8: Don’t stress the little things
Things go wrong! Sometimes when we see tales of the road, life looks as if it’s a world of smiles. The reality is that some days things can suck. Accidents happen. Paperwork suddenly turns out to be incorrect. The person who is the only person qualified to sign paperwork is nowhere to be found, and so it goes on. The computer has broken down. There’s a powercut. All the hotels are full. The fuel delivery truck is 4 days late and no one knows when it’s going to arrive. The rainy season starts early just as you get to a gnarly off-road section…
The point is that just about everything difficult or problematic that you come across on the road has a solution. Sometimes it just isn’t obvious. Keep calm. So often a solution can be found by doing no more than counting to ten, or stepping back for a moment.
One of my favourite sayings is, ‘The best adventures often happen on a road you hadn’t planned to travel’. It’s why getting lost isn’t really an issue. Of course, I’m talking in general term. Getting lost in the Gobi or in the backstreets of a drug lord controlled village in Mexico are exceptions.
I’m a firm believer in silver linings. I’ve never had a situation go wrong when there hasn’t been a wonderful, usually unexpected surprise as a result. Of course, sometimes the silver lining isn’t immediately obvious. It took a while for me to see the silver linings relating to a seventeen bone fracture prang in the desert in Namibia. But they were there – many of them. It helps to keep a positive eye open or you might miss an opportunity. That’s what silver linings usually are.
I’m also a believer in people. I have no doubt that the greater percentage of people that a traveller comes across are good. That’s frequently enhanced percentage-wise by a series of things such as decreasing the chance of meeting a scrote. Before I write more, yes of course you can get a border guard who hasn’t slept well or is under pressure by his boss to collect in more ‘revenue’.
Someone at a show once asked me what I thought the main differences between someone who had completed a long journey, or was well into one, and someone who hadn’t yet been lucky enough to do so. I loved the way he asked the question. Woven into the answer was this point. Most experienced overlanders don’t worry about mishaps, be they large or small. A long journey’s worth of experience, and so perspective, has given them a much more philosophical way of doing things. I don’t necessarily mean a fatalistic attitude but more of a combination of resigned and positive. In any case, some things look way worse when viewed in a sweat.
It’s gone pear shaped, nothing I can do about that, what’s next? Conscious of doing so or not, most overlanders are very tuned in and are both socially aware and possess the strength of conscious that a long journey teaches. Often, that comes from being constantly surrounded by people who have very little and are never more than a few days away from calamity.
For me, it heads straight back to this thought. If I don’t get exactly what I think I need, is it really going to make a difference? If it is, I’ll work hard to get the situation sorted out as best I can; there’s usually another way. Otherwise I don’t sweat it and move on to something else that I can enjoy.
What are you waiting for?
If you have the dream, start planning and learning. Stop spending your money on anything that isn’t going to make your trip happen; pay your bills and save the rest. Learn to slow down and think about what you are doing. Learning by doing can be fun. You’ll never have all the skills to be a perfect overlander. Good. That’s part of what it’s all about: the wonderful learning curve.
If you aren’t free enough of responsibilities to go, yet, keep your dreams alive until you can by reading, viewing and brain picking. Think of the delay as being an opportunity to learn more about what you really want from your journey, and as the chance to add layers of quality to the journey you will make when the time is right.
Find as many ways to say “Why not!” instead of looking for reasons why you should not. Head out with your eyes and your mind wide open. This world of ours is bloody marvellous. A friendly handshake and a smile will take you a very long way.
Take time to stop and really take in wherever you are. Know that your senses want to be firing on all cylinders. Let them and the quality of your journey will be raised from an adventurous trip to the most powerful set of experiences and memories that you’ll ever collect.
To me, overlanding isn’t about ‘doing’ countries. It’s about exploring them, learning about the landscapes, history, culture and their peoples. That means getting off the main roads, staying where the locals stay, shopping where the locals shop and even trying out local transport. You learn a lot on a twelve-hour journey in a rickety old bus through the villages. It also means such things as eating the food they do and, where religion allows, sampling the local hooch! ‘Doing’ that lot starts with a motorcycle and time, and happens with respect, handshakes and smiles.
Our motorcycles are an amazing way to break the ice. People always have questions and by answering them, even in sign language, all sorts of possibilities happen. Another terrific ice breaker is our willingness to make fools of ourselves by trying. Trying the language, trying some food that looks absolutely grim, trying… The ability to laugh at ourselves when we make a mistake warms others to us too. ‘Oh good grief, look, that foreigner on the motorcycle is human too.’
What really matters though, is that we get out of our home environments to places where we learn, are challenged, surprised and are made to laugh. New skills and perspectives are amazing things to discover. A long motorcycle trip through foreign lands will do all of those things. Now all you have to do is just go for it…
About the author
Sam Manicom has been travelling more on than off since his first solo trip on a bicycle when he was 16 years old. Since then he has hiked, sailed, bused, trained, driven and hitchhiked in many parts of the world. He is better known for his 8 and a half year motorcycle journey through 55 countries across 6 continents. He is the author of 4 motorcycle travel books, writes magazine articles and carries out presentations in the UK, mainland Europe and the USA. He’s also one of the friendliest motorcycle travellers in the world.
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