Tiffany Coates: Becoming an Adventure Rider
Leaving for India two-up, fully loaded and after a five-day crash course on how to ride… Here’s how Tiffany Coates became one of the world’s most experienced motorcycle travellers.
It started with an idea
I was still in my twenties when after a chance conversation with my friend, Becky, we decided to travel to India. The idea rapidly evolved into riding a motorcycle there two-up. The only problem was neither of us knew how to ride one…
Choosing the BMW R80
This was over 20 years ago and the choice of bikes was far more limited compared to what’s available today. We knew nothing about motorbikes beyond the fact that they had two wheels (the shafts and chains thing we found out about later). We had a very limited budget and decided to take one bike between us… we were in for a steep learning curve.
We asked biker friends what they considered to be the best bike for two people with all their travel and camping gear to travel across the varied terrain of Europe and Asia to reach India. It boiled down to the Africa Twin: too tall, or the BMW R80 and R100GS: big and heavy but ideal for our needs. We quickly realised that second-hand GS bikes are not easy to come by, but eventually a mechanic friend sourced one for us and it was love at first sight! We knew we had lots to learn but we were determined.
Learning to ride the hard way
We went on a five-day intensive training course using125cc bikes to learn the necessary skills. We purchased our motorcycle second hand, bought helmets and bike gear, worked out how to pack light and fit everything into our panniers and top box.
I had never owned any vehicle before the trip and had zero mechanical knowledge. Becky wasn’t much better either. We knew we would need to be self-reliant and so spent two days in a workshop, working alongside a mechanic, learning how to do minor repairs, full maintenance, changing tyres and all the other parts of roadside maintenance necessary for an overland journey.
Going for it anyway
It was 1997, there was no internet or emails and so researching for the trip involved a lot of footwork alongside much trial and error. We didn’t know anyone who had completed a similar journey, but we assumed that there would be other people on the road. So, we got some guide books and maps, a Carnet de Passage, applied for visas and off we went.
We set off, two girls in their twenties, riding two-up on a BMW R80GS nicknamed Thelma, with a five-day bike riding course under our belts and heading east to India.
We didn’t really know what we were attempting to do, but we had a thirst for adventure and a desire to succeed.
Crashing our way to India
I think Thelma has been dropped more than any other bike in the world. We were dropping her two or three times a day at the start – and that was on the smooth tarmac of western Europe! But like with anything, practice pays off and as the days and weeks went by we dropped her less and less. That was until we started to encounter the trickier terrain in Pakistan and India where our lack of off-roading experience hindered us somewhat. We pushed through with a lot of “one, two, three, heave,” working together to pick up our quarter-ton bike and eventually conquering gravel and dirt roads.
People’s reactions before leaving
There were plenty of surprised faces before we left. The main thing was that our families were supportive, if bewildered by our mode of transport. We encountered just one negative reaction from a bloke in a bike shop when we went to purchase a cargo net. He enquired what we needed it for and when we explained he said he had been planning a trip like that for 10 years and had spent the past three years modifying his bike. He ended his rant by aggressively demanding, “What makes you think YOU can do it?” Our answer? “Because we want to.”
We’re not coming home!
After many adventures along the way, we reached India and travelled around there for a while. We had come to the realisation that life on the road with a bike is the best way to see the world, so we checked our bank account balances and made the decision to see if we could make it to Australia! And we did, travelling through Southeast Asia to get there.
We made it through Southeast Asia, reached the west coast of Australia and rode across to Sydney. We got jobs there, saved hard and then ended up riding home across Africa. We felt as if we had all the time in the world as we had no schedule. We just kept riding until we ran out of money! Two and a half years after setting off on Thelma I arrived home.
Finding your passion
Every day on a motorbike feels like an adventure. It’s the freedom to go anywhere and the sense of independence that we fell in love with. On a bike we were part of the landscape and not just travelling through it. It’s also an instant icebreaker, especially as we rode into remote villages and were immediately surrounded by people asking us questions – and that was before we got our helmets off and they realised with a shock that we were women.
My life on two wheels
How do I begin to relate all the adventures I’ve had since that first journey… I’ve crossed the Americas from the top of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South America. Then there were two more crossings of Asia and I became the first motorcyclist to cross Asia on all three classic routes in the process: southern to Singapore, central to Beijing via Tibet and Everest Base Camp and the northern one to Tokyo via Mongolia, Siberia and the ferry to Japan. Then there was a Trans-Saharan odyssey to Timbuctoo as well as more travels in east Africa, two incredible trips to Madagascar, an exploration of Borneo and several trips to Central Asia. I’ve also been back to South America a number of times to explore areas I’ve missed. In total I’ve probably covered half a million miles.
Life is sweet. I get to fulfil my travel dreams on two wheels and also love my life at home; I work part-time as a youth worker with children living in our most disadvantaged communities and live in Lands’ End – the most beautiful part of the UK.
Your turn! Tiffany’s advice for female adventure bike riders
- Go for it! Follow your dreams because you’ll never know what you can achieve until you try.
- Ride cautiously in other countries, as road conditions and driving styles are very different from western Europe and north America.
- If asking others for advice, only ask those who have done it. I think that with that first journey, Becky and I have shown that it’s not just men who can do this, women are more than capable. You don’t need a lot of money and also, it’s not rocket science- we set off knowing nothing about bikes and yet we did it.
- The most important thing is the desire to go and the belief in yourself that you can do it, or at least have a good try at it.
- There are pros and cons to being a woman traveller, I always urge caution when in new countries, especially those which may have a different culture. Look around you and observe how the local women behave and how they are treated and aim for that.
- Make the most of the friendships and encounters you have with locals on your travels, trust your instincts to know when you can accept invitations to homes for dinner and when you might need to shout loudly and run as fast as you can.
- An awareness of personal safety and self-defence will enable you to feel more confident about travelling in overseas countries, especially if you’re solo.
Go riding with Tiffany
Twenty years and many thousands of miles after that first journey and I’m now helping others do it too. As a freelance guide, I get the chance to share my passion with others. I lead and consult on bike tours in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
If you’d like to join in with the adventures, take a look at my upcoming tours in South America, South East Asia and in 2021 Madagascar. I’ll take you to all the quirky and interesting places I’ve discovered on my travels, following routes that will take you off the beaten track.
If there’s anywhere in the world you want to explore, I can tell you how to do it and guide you, from the homes of the eagle hunters in Kyrgyzstan to looking for lemurs in the lush jungles of Madagascar.
I can also advise and guide on private tours. Name the destination and I’ll give you ten great reasons why you should be riding there!
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