How dangerous is adventure riding? And what can you do to make sure you’re not actually adding to the risks?
IS RIDING OVERLAND significantly more dangerous than domestic touring? Many assume it is and it’s not hard to see why. The media bombards us with bad news, much of it from Africa, Asia and Latin America what I call the Adventure Motorcycling Zone or AMZ - and this can seem more threatening because our regular lives are generally safe, comfortable and ordered.
Sure, it’s stressful to be separated from the familiar and this can be nervewracking in the early days of any trip. But just like your first day at school or a new job, once you’re in it, nervousness soon evaporates and on the road, senses tingle with the thrilling newness of it all.
As bikers, we’re used to roughing it. What most of us fear is hostility or even aggression from strangers; locals who are very much in their comfort zone when we may be out of ours. Wayfaring strangers were once figures of suspicion or prey to exploitation, but now that we’re no longer wearing pith helmets and bossing the locals around, part of this fear can be based on the guilt of being a rich westerner swanning around the poverty-stricken AMZ on a shiny motorbike. Take heart: right around the world, locals understand the pleasures and pitfalls of motorcycle travel and one of the big lessons long-haul travelers learn is that most strangers will treat you fairly. In over 1000 online trip reports I collected for my website, by far the most common response to the question “Biggest surprise?” was “Friendliness of the people.”
This is a salient point because what separates the AMZ from regular overseas touring is the way familiar things become unfamiliar. Dialing an 0800 number won’t get you recovery by a bloke in pristine overalls.
The other thing you can only learn when you throw yourself out there is your innate ingenuity and ability to solve problems, be they mechanical, financial, bureaucratic or even, potentially lethal. It’s not something you can ever know until you’re faced with a steaming radiator on the Pamir Highway, a grizzly pawing at your tent or a conscript high as a kite waving an AK in your face.
Our little-used survival instinct is as deep-rooted as our fear of the unknown, but with experience comes the confidence to deal with the challenges. Watching yourself become a canny, observant traveller as your street wisdom grows is a hugely gratifying aspect of adventure travel. Anxieties become subsumed by mundane needs: petrol, visas and lodgings.
Lisa Morris of twowheelednomad.com
has been on the road in the Americas with Jason Spafford for more than two years. Before she left, her concerns centered on getting kidnapped by a drug cartel, falling prey to roadside scams from fake or bent cops, and getting robbed. In reality, it’s the Patagonian winds and fatalistic driving styles that have kept the pair on their toes.
So what are the real dangers out in the AMZ? Just like at home, riding too fast for the conditions will get you every time. And those ‘conditions’ can initially seem quite alarming. But the fact that you’re not on your regular commute will automatically heighten your senses and reflexes. The trick is to avoid busy trunk roads. Personally, I’d go further and say that where you have the option, you should avoid sealed roads; it’s off these routes that the best discoveries lie. Maintaining full alertness without burning out is best achieved by slowing down, especially in the early days when you’re much more vulnerable. Reduce distances and avoid dawn-to-dusk epics.
For an experienced rider, the crazy driving in the congested and polluted capitals of the AMZ isn’t the all-out demolition derby it appears to be. There’s order in the chaos; it’s just a little more energised than back home. Once you tune in, it can actually be liberating to bin the Highway Code and get stuck in. Flexibility is key to successful overlanding, and that
can mean pulling unorthodox moves in the name of self-preservation.
Kidnapping is exceedingly rare, robbery and mugging less so, especially in a strange city after dark. Just like at home, keep your wits about you, be wary of scams and don’t stagger home drunk at 3am with your money belt round your ankles.
Of the commonly feared tropical diseases, malaria is the big one. The precautions are well known and it can be treated effectively. But, yes, more generally, you’ll have to take care of your health and that may include avoiding the most torpid of tropical areas. The runs are an occupational hazard but easily treated with rehydration and rest.
Travellers get nervous about developing-world healthcare systems, fearing organ-stealing scams or unsterile practices. Bush clinics may not look like Holby City on the day of an inspection but whatever you’ve got, they’ll have dealt with it before, and you can be reassured by your medical repatriation insurance. In my experience, accidents where you or the bike can’t carry on are all resolvable, often by passers-by rather than formal emergency services.
Wild camping in the real wilds can also raise primal fears of hazardous wildlife or unwelcome human visitors. A Brit used to Lakeland camping will need to up their game, and you’ll be surprised how your mobility plus a bit of planning can render camping (wild or otherwise) a viable option, even in the AMZ.
Handling bribery and corruption is a much-exaggerated peril. The amounts paid to oil the wheels – something that locals are also obliged to do – are small and are often for a small service or a toll rather than an arbitrary ‘fine’. A canny traveller will soon learn the game and such incentives can just as often get you out of trouble.
What’s much more common is overcharging a tourist, but that’s not unique to the AMZ. If anything, on the road you’re likely to benefit from ordinary people’s hospitality in a way you’d never experience at home. So rather than gnashing your teeth over paying two quid for a Fanta, accept that some you win and some you lose. One tip: keep cards for ATMS only, and pay everywhere with cash.
Running out of money is an understandable stress. A round-the-world epic will cost at least ten grand, but you can have a great adventure by simply renting a bike in somewhere like Ladakh, Peru, Morocco or southern Africa for a few weeks without waiting ’til the kids have left home.
You need to make smart decisions and look after yourself in the AMZ. Stress can be reduced by not always traveling alone – especially in remote areas. If you do, have back-ups such as a satellite phone or editable messaging devices.
In the end, of course, live long enough and something will get you. It’s what you do up to then that counts.
Generally, there’s far more to see off the beaten track than on it
Adventure travel is a world away from daily commuting but that’s the whole point
Immerse yourself in the environment and you will have a much more enjoyable experience
Self-reliance becomes an essential skill. No breakdown services out here
Regular RIDE contributor Chris Scott is the author of The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook,
and leads Saharan tours. See sahara-overland.com for more information.