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…

BIKE (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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

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