SAVED BY A SUZUKI DRZ400S
Aaron Mitchell man’s was ex-bomb in transition trouble. disposal The from military highs, and lows, to ‘normal’ life was headed in the wrong direction. He needed somewhere good to go. In every sense…
Ex-army bomb disposal expert Aaron Mitchell’s road to salvation.
IREMEMBER LEAVING HOME and setting off down the road. My heart was racing – for the first time it really hit me what I was about to try and achieve. The overall mission? Get me and my Suzuki DRZ400S around planet Earth. And I had no idea how. My anxiety was in overdrive. Looking back, I think the reason I left that day was so I did not lose face with all the people I had told what I was planning. The pressure to succeed was immense, and I don’t like failure.
The reason. There’s always a reason…
In 2002, at the age of 18, I joined the army. It was my ticket out, my ticket to see the world. To this day most of my working life has revolved around the military – I have spent time on operations in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. A soldier can be sent to a variety of places and this leads to many different experiences. Some are incredible and beautiful, such as watching a sunset over the deserts of Kuwait or seeing bears go about their day on the prairies of Canada. Some unfortunately are not so beautiful. My trade for most of my career was working in a bomb disposal team. When that job goes wrong, it goes horribly wrong. I returned from Afghanistan, mid 2011. This would end up being my final operational tour. Things were great for a while. I had money, a fiancée and a home. But as the years passed by something was eating away at me and I was finding it more difficult to suppress. Depression and anxiety were beginning to take over my life. Nothing was pushing me forwards and things became flat and mundane. I told myself this was normal life so I stopped working at it and just went with the flow. This decision had a huge and detrimental effect on everything. My relationship broke down while my social life picked right up, but in the wrong way. My weekends became about instant but temporary gratification and I found myself sinking further into this dark hole. Something needed to change, and fast… I remember telling my family I wanted to ride a motorbike around the world. ‘Is that even possible?’ Mum asked. In my head I knew it was because I’d heard of others who’d done it. So, before I even knew if I could do it I told my friends and family I was going to do it. I’m not too sure if this is the best approach, but it definitely got me on the road.
The hardest part is getting to the startline
I spent almost a year planning the trip. I say ‘planning’ very loosely, because I didn’t really know what I was planning for. The army had taught me to look after myself and I’d had lots of training in various environments, but this was different. I still wanted to have fun, meet people and have the best time of my life. I really hoped it wasn’t going to turn into an exercise in survival. When I wasn’t working I was reading blogs and speaking to everyone I could, and when I was working I was reading blogs and speaking to everyone I could. The trip became my life and I was throwing everything at it. It was what I needed. It became my next ‘mission’ and it felt great to once again feel passion and to work hard at creating something fulfilling. As far as planning goes there’s not that much to it. Put a big map on the wall and start highlighting places you would like to visit. Naturally a route will start to form and you can go from there. I visited my GP to get the relevant vaccinations. Top tip if you are coming through the Americas, get your malaria tablets and anything else you require in Mexico. Way cheaper than using the USA or Canada. As most travellers will tell you visas can be an issue and you will need to plan for this as every country has different requirements. I travel on a British passport which is very helpful and I had no real issues. The Russian visa takes a little time to get your head around, but it’s definitely doable. Don’t pay for a third party to do the work, it’s not difficult.
One of the biggest decisions is always what bike to take. And one of the biggest problems is there’s so much conflicting advice. I’d only been riding bikes for about two years prior to this trip, so my knowledge was minimal. One of my inspirations was watching and reading Mondo Enduro (mondoenduro.com) which is essentially low budget, lo-fi, motorcycle adventure travel. I absolutely love their style so I started there for my bike. In the end I settled for a 2002 Suzuki DRZ400S because it is light, cheap and easy to maintain. And it fitted with my budget. Buying the bike was a big moment, it made everything a lot more real. I named her Penny. You can spend so much on extra bits of kit. Lots of riders modify for different reasons. I had no idea about suspension so I kept the stock set-up. If the suspension broke then I would replace it on the road. In fact, I rode all that way with no issues at all. I’m not saying it was a comfortable ride but my suspension held up and I used the cash I’d saved to have fun on the actual trip. The stock fuel tank is only ten litres so I upgraded to a bigger one. The seat I have now was made in Guatemala. I was spending time there trying to learn Spanish at a school and was out meeting the locals as much as possible. This one guy took my seat and put new foam and a cover on it. It’s so comfortable and cost me £15! Every scratch, dent or modification has a story to tell and I love that. She’s not the most beautiful bike but the smile I have when I still look at it is great. I’m a huge believer that the ideal overland bike is lightweight: my bike was hauled by hand onto the side of a sailing boat to get me round the Darien Gap, I crashed many a time in the deserts of Mongolia, she flew in a plane back to Europe and travelled down Colombian rivers in a dugout canoe. Going lightweight meant I could get through these obstacles a lot easier.
Embrace the unexpected
In life there are things that are out of our control. People use religion, destiny, luck, whatever it may be to help them through these moments. I travelled for 505 days, through 29 countries across four continents. Doing this means you will encounter new situations, good and bad. They are all part of the journey and you need to adapt and go with the flow. Central American bureaucracy is so bad that you have to laugh. I was told that if you can get through the borders here then you are good to go anywhere in the world. It simply doesn’t make sense but a smile helps hugely at times like this. They have the power
‘I was in Honduras with my motorbike that I rode from England. I had got this!’
and they know it – keep them happy and eventually you will get through. Crossing into Honduras in 48°C heat wearing full motorbike gear is not the best way to spend a day. Going back and forth to the one copy machine in town to get copies of a document that means nothing can easily frustrate most people. Stay calm, keep smiling and remember where you are. I was in Honduras with my motorbike that I rode from England. I had got this! I had always wanted to visit Russia and it had to go on the list of countries to travel through. As I was riding across Siberia I met a Russian biker named Anatoli who invited me to join him and visit friends he was due to stay with. I agreed even though I had no idea what was going to happen. He could not speak English and I could not speak Russian. One evening I was with my new Russian friend in a small town called Satka. He introduced me to another two of his friends, and yes, we drank a lot of vodka. This tradition is very real in Russia – get used to it! What followed next was a trip to a random sauna (banya) at someone’s house. This I could deal with, I’ve been in the army long enough to feel comfortable being naked in front of people. But having three big Russian guys with wet branches whipping your naked body while drunk on Vodka was a new one for me. Apparently it’s meant to relax you, but that took a while especially when it was my turn to reciprocate. I’m not saying you are going to end up drunk and whipping naked Russian guys but just be warned this – meeting new people and experiencing new things – is the sort of thing that happens when you travel. Embrace the unexpected and you will have plenty of stories to share down the pub when you return home.
Was it worth it?
My life completely changed around when I made the decision to travel by motorbike. I am not a bike nut, motorbikes are not everything in my life, but I found a real unique love for overland travel on two wheels. It is fully immersive, there is no escaping from people, the heat or cold, and you cannot take everything with you. To travel is hugely rewarding. It makes you a better person, keeps you humble and makes you appreciate the smaller things, which are the most important. To fund the trip I sold everything I could. I did not own my home but I did sell all my possessions. I reduced my life to what I could fit on my bike and it felt liberating. While riding along the Oregon coast I had one of those beautiful golden hour moments. The colours were incredible, the road looked like it had been built by an artist and it was perfect for being on the bike. I pulled over in tears. I was not sad, or angry or feeling anxious. At that moment things were just perfect. I found a real deep happiness in myself – being comfortable in your own skin is incredible. In the Western world I feel expectations, achieving a certain ‘status’ and taking your place in society get in the way of how we really want to live. Returning home has been a huge transition. I was not too sure what was going on. It was a real mix of emotions. I missed family and friends but I had become accustomed to my new way of life and I loved it. The last day of my trip was a special day for sure. Various friends and biker groups met me at Dover for the final leg home. The convoy was headed up by the Royal British Legion and what an honour it was to receive this welcome home and to then be met by more family and friends at the place I started. I did not just survive for 505 days, I lived! The friends I made, the languages I tried speaking, and the food I spat out, made the trip an incredible experience. Mission complete.
‘I’m not saying you are going to end up drunk and whipping naked Russian guys but just be warned…’
Leaving the relative safety of the EU behind
Always make time to take it all in
Wild camping on the edge of the Atacama Desert Smile, it’s the Huascaran National Park, Peru
Ecuador: crossing the equator for the rst time overland
The Oregon coast
Machu Picchu: sometimes you don’t want to avoid the ‘gringo trail’
Ger: a traditional Mongolian house