Part 1 – DIY
Planning your overseas bike trip
There’s no doubt about it; it pays to listen to your readers. It would never have occurred to us that there was a place for another how-to OS travel story. We had a few requests, though, and when we asked other people the response was fast and positive.
As the bloke who brought up this subject while we were chatting in the pub at Braidwood (sorry, I’ve forgotten your name) said to me: “Lots of people are planning on heading overseas now who would never have gone until our dollar picked up. And most of them have never ridden a bike outside Australia.”
So, okay. Here’s lots of useful advice on making the journey as smooth and pleasant as possible and a few tips that we hope will help make it a lot of fun as well. For those of you who are not planning a Big Trip, may we suggest that you read this anyway? You might find by the time you get to the end that you’ve changed your mind.
For the sake of this story we are assuming that you want to organise the trip yourself. We will put together another one about the increasingly popular option of organised tours, too.
We’ll do it question-and-answer style, that’s usually the most accessible.
With whom should I go?
Far be it from us to suggest an answer to this – travel can bring people closer together but it can also expose previously hidden incompatibility.
What we do say, though, is that the best number for travel in civilised places such as Europe or the US could well be one. If you’re by yourself you are free and you’re also more likely to make friends.
In wilder places, we’d suggest travelling with someone else – as Ecclesiastes says so presciently, “if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”
Tip: Choose only willing and enthusiastic travelling companions. If you need to convince someone that it’s a good idea, anything that goes wrong will be your fault. And that is sooo annoying.
Where can I go?
Wherever you damn well like, with a very few exceptions. The place to do your initial research is www.smartraveller.gov.au. This is a somewhat conservative website that can sound quite scary if you take everything it says literally. In fact, though, it’s just listing a lot of commonsense advice that you’d be smart to take on board. It will give you the basic information and then refer you to the specific country’s website or sites for full details.
But when it comes down to it, there are probably only two or three countries where you cannot ride your or a borrowed/rented motorcycle. We suspect they include Myanmar (Burma) and North Korea (Lalaland). You can even ride in Afghanistan – we’ve had a story about it – but we wouldn’t recommend it. Not just now.
Generally, though, and despite what your daily paper might make you think, the world has not been as accessible as it is right now for nearly a century. Have fun.
Tip: Take a small phrasebook if you don’t speak the language. Believe it or not, there are people who don’t speak English.
Where should I go?
Well, it’s your call – and depends to a great extent on what you enjoy. It’s worth saying, though, that motorcycling is usually not a lot of fun in places where civil order has broken down (danger of being robbed, kidnapped etc), where there is an actively repressive regime (too many roadblocks, extortion, other restrictions) or where absolute poverty is ubiquitous (that one shouldn’t need an explanation).
Presumably you can think of a few other conditions that would reduce your enjoyment of the trip to the point where you wouldn’t want to go.
Things such as a lack of roads or other infrastructure, on the other hand, need not be a problem. I recall a magazine story about a couple of blokes who rode through the vast steppes of Kazakhstan navigating by GPS and not using roads at all – because there weren’t any. The photos looked wonderful. I rode through China before the liberalisation, when there were no petrol stations, and we just bought fuel from the army. Remarkably convenient.
Tip: There is no “should”. Go where you want to go. If there’s nothing else in your life that’s just yours and nobody else’s, make this trip the first.
Where will I go?
If you’re anything like the more than 90 per cent of Australians who travel by motorcycle overseas (except those who take part in organised tours) you will go the New Zealand, the United States or Europe (especially the UK).
There are good reasons for these preferences. Motorcycle transport to these places, or rental once you’re there, presents few problems that cannot be sorted by first studying the advertisements in this magazine. Language is not much of a problem, except in New Zealand (joke, bro), and medical care is good.
But these are not the only places that call the travelling motorcyclist. South and north Africa, South America, South-East Asia (see our story about Malaysia in this issue) and Canada are among the other obvious choices.
The point is that the world’s your oyster. Take a look at the interwebs and you’ll see roads that just beg to be ridden and scenery that’s positively hanging out for motorcyclists to see it; pubs and cantinas and beach beer shacks and whatnot that would look even better than they do now if they had your bike parked outside them.
The Koran says, in Surah 21, “And We have placed in the earth firm hills lest it quake with them, and We have placed therein ravines as roads that haply they may find their way.”
Tip: Start somewhere more or less civilised so you can ease yourself into the full-on Third World experience if that’s the way you’re going.
When should I go?
Now. As the Bard recommends, “stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once”.
All right, I know you can’t just drop everything but think of this: I have a family, I have a responsible job (yes, I know that few of you would look at it that way) and a mortgage and so on and so on and I can’t really go on big trips any more. Fortunately, I went on a couple of nice long rides before I acquired all of these things – but if I hadn’t, I would possibly not ever be able to do it.
These days the best I can manage is three or four days here and a fortnight there. I’m not complaining – in fact I am deeply grateful for the way my life has turned out – but I am restricted.
Can you go now? If you can, don’t plan for too long. If you can’t, think about it. Maybe you can after all.
The most important thing to check before you do book tickets (after you’ve consulted www.smartraveller.gov.au about your destination) is the weather, or rather the climate, where you’re going. Riding is not too bad even in the monsoon, in my opinion, but I wouldn’t want to be saddling up in 10 degrees below.
Tip: The interweb has official weather reports for just about anywhere in the world. That’s a great reference that is somewhat more reliable than the tourist offices.
All right, that’s the easy stuff out of the way. Now let’s get serious.
Should I take my own bike, buy one overseas or rent?
That’s not as difficult a question as it might seem at first. If you’re thinking of a short trip, probably anything up to a month or so, rent. (Unless it’s New Zealand – here, it can be worth shipping your bike for a much shorter visit.) In other cases, check the ads in this magazine and see if there is a shipping service to somewhere near the area you want to visit and ship your own bike.
Otherwise, buy. But check first if there are any barriers, such as a need for a local residential address in order to register a vehicle! If conditions are tough, you may find that the bike shop will be amenable to a buyback arrangement, which can simplify matters. Ask.
Tip: Specialised shipping services often can help you with the importation/registration/insurance paperwork. Make them work for you.
What paperwork do I need?
For yourself: a passport that will ideally still have six months’ life when you get back and your driver’s/rider’s licence. Add a vaccination certificate with the appropriate squares filled in if the gummint’s website suggests it.
If you’re going to rent, also add an International Driving Permit. Rental agencies love these. I’ve been told again and again that I would also need one for the police in various countries but have never found it to be so.
Our plastic photo licences are so simple and convincing that mine is all I’ve ever needed. I don’t bother with an IDP any more. Mind you, I haven’t been everywhere … it’s your call – and remember you can’t get these things outside your own country.
IDPs are available from your local motoring association (NRMA, RAC) and are good for one year from date of issue. Make sure the motorcycle box is ticked if you get one.
As far as I know, the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) is the only place that requires a local motorcycle licence. I have one and getting it was not especially difficult but quite time-consuming.
If you’re a member of the NRMA or RAC you may find that they have some useful publications about the places you’re going but most importantly there is a good chance they will have reciprocal benefits with a local organisation. That can mean free maps and guides and even roadside assistance.
Roadside assistance … umm. These schemes may seem to offer “worldwide” assistance but don’t count on them coming to your aid on the Alaskan Highway or 100 (or even five) klicks out of Tamanrasset. In our experience, global roadside assistance is really only available “within reason”. Check the fine print and get any promises the salesman makes in writing.
Also for your bike: a piece of paper that shows you as the legal owner, or a note from that legal owner allowing you to ride it; a certificate of insurance; and in some cases a Carnet de Passages en Douane.
The first of these should look as convincing as possible because there is no way that the customs officer at the Italian checkpoint on the Slovenian border will be able to check it out. Yes, I’ve struck precisely this and fortunately had enough bits of paper to reassure him that I was not stealing the bike I’d borrowed from BMW.
Insurance for the bike is a local matter. It will make up part of the cost if you rent and Dave Milligan for one will be able to fix it up for you if you ship your bike with his service. It’s harder if you need to organise it yourself and you will almost certainly need an address in the country you’re going to, although I have been told that Geico in the US will insure furriners. Hey, it’s owned by Warren Buffet – bound to be good. In Europe, you will want a green card that can be issued in one country and accepted just about everywhere else.
Just to be perfectly up-front about this, in the old days I only ever bought insurance overseas when someone had my arm up behind my back and was twisting it. In retrospect, that was very foolish; get insurance, or risk some fairly horrendous consequences.
The NRMA suggests you take evidence of your good driving record, which in NSW you can get from the RTA for a fee; a letter from your doctor confirming good health, if you are over 65; and a certificate of no-claim bonus from your insurer in Australia. This might help reduce the premium you pay overseas. It also points out that drivers under 25 years will find it virtually impossible to buy insurance cover in the USA.
Tip: Scan all of your documents. Leave one file at home so it can be emailed to you. Take another file with you on a small water-proof thumb drive. Print out copies and take a printout as well – with the originals, the thumb drive and the printout in different places in your luggage or on your person.
What should I pack?
It’s difficult to improve on the clothing list we published, lo, these many years ago, so I won’t try – except for updating it a little.
You’ll want a riding suit – ideally a waterproof one with a zip-out warm liner. Add waterproof boots, two pairs of gloves (summer and winter) and of course your helmet. I sometimes wear an open-face overseas but generally I’d recommend a full face – ideally a flip-front for photo taking. Then you pack:
pair of Kevlar-lined jeans or moleskins
pair of light walking shoes (tennis shoes)
pair of thongs (jandals to our New Zealand readers, flip-flops to the Americans and a complete mystery to anyone else)
two sets of underwear (as well as the set you’re wearing). That’s one to wear, one to wash (every night – that’s easiest) and one for emergencies.
“good” shirt and pair of pants
small first aid kit
Swiss Army knife with corkscrew
your wet pack containing shaving gear, toothbrush and toothpaste, nail clippers, comb, small containers of soap and shampoo and a box of matches. You never know when you might need matches. See the list of bits and pieces at the end of this story, too
air gauge (can’t trust the gauges in servos)
compact tyre repair outfit
This will make it possible for you to cope with just about any set of conditions you’re likely to encounter, on and off the bike. The clothing can be worn in layers – if it’s really cold, wear the jeans as well as a T-shirt, then the long-sleeve T-shirt, then the jumper and then the riding suit, with the cold weather liner zipped into it, over the top. As it gets warmer, remove layers.
By the way, that list is the minimum. There’s no reason you can’t carry more – you just don’t need to carry more.
Your doctor will be able to help you with suggestions for the first aid kit. It depends on where you’re going. Don’t worry too much about major bandages and such; if you need serious bandaging you need professional help. Make sure you have antihistamines, disinfectant and antibiotics, as well as sterile water (to wash out eyes) and Band-Aids.
There obviously will be other personal things you’ll want to carry. Add a paperback book to fill in waiting times, a notebook and of course a camera with a nice, big SD card. Take the opportunity to download your photos at places such as railway station kiosks and have them burnt onto CDs, or upload them to your home website.
I usually carry a netbook computer with a USB drive as backup but in most places there are now cheap internet cafés.
Tip: Take ear plugs. Please. They make a huge difference to immediate comfort and long-term hearing. I’m near as damn deaf because I didn’t wear them. Learn from my mistake!
How do I deal with money?
You’ve read about the layer theory of dressing, above. Here’s the layer theory of money: take many different types and put them in many different places.
Euros, schmeuros: I still find the greenback to be the most easily understood language in the world. You’d have to go a long way into the jungles of Kalimantan before you reach people who don’t know what a US dollar looks like. Carry a few low-denomination notes (singles and fives) to reward good service, smooth the way and generally identify yourself as someone worth looking after.
Then have at least two credit cards (in case an ATM swallows one and yes I’ve had that happen, too), some US (euros in Europe) and some local cash and an emergency stash of traveller’s cheques. You can get those Visa cash cards but I don’t like them. Too many things can go wrong, methinks, and there are too many opportunities for people to add charges.
Visa and Amex work best for me, although I understand that Mastercard has made serious inroads in Asia. Diner’s? Not even breakfast in my experience.
Tip: Make up a “throwdown wallet”. This is intended to be surrendered if you’re mugged. Put a bit of money in it, enough so the robber won’t get annoyed and chase you (he’s still the one with the gun or knife, remember) as well as non-vital cards that look like credit cards (frequent flyer, library, loyalty). Hand it over or better yet really throw it down and then run.
Can I expect decent medical care?
In most places, you can. In some places where you might not expect much at all, you will get superb medical care. The worrying questions are, one, what if you step off or get sick in a country where the standards are not what you might like and, two, how do you pay for all this?
The answer to both questions is: take out good travel insurance and pay special attention to the medical coverage. I rode a small dirt bike right around the world without any medical insurance at all and I still wince when I think what might have happened to me.
Health care in Cuba is superb and, if I understand this correctly, free. Much the same is true in Malaysia and here I have personal experience to call on. Many countries have reciprocal medical arrangements with Australia, so care is free or affordable.
That’s great, but it’s not universal. Health care in Thailand, for example, is superb as well but it ain’t free. Indeed, I have heard of people being forcibly detained – and not in a nice hospital bed – until their relatives back in Australia have paid their (steep) bills. The United States of America has a bad name for medical care – in fact that’s undeserved; in an emergency you will get treatment whether you’re insured or not. But you will need to pay for it and the charges are astronomical.
And then there are places, such as parts of India and much of Africa, where you may be better off staying in the ditch you’ve just crashed in rather than going to hospital.
The answer is travel insurance, with repatriation included if things get serious. That means you’ll be flown back to Australia with a nurse or doctor to hold your hand, or whatever part of you that needs holding – a most enticing thought if you’re lying in hospital in Brazzaville with interior bleeding and the bloke next to you appears to be suffering from Ebola fever.
I use Medibank Private travel insurance because it’s reasonably priced for what you get and covers me for motorcycling; feel free to check around but make absolutely sure you’re covered if you are riding. Many policies consider this to be an unacceptable risk and exclude it.
Tip: Give blood before you go and put a blood donor sticker somewhere obvious on your bike – it gives you lots of cred with medical people anywhere. Painting your blood group on your helmet is pointless and dorky; nobody will give you a transfusion without testing first. Err, I hope.
How will I go?
Well, you’ll fly. There are few other options these days. Luggage, both check-in and carry-on, is strictly limited now, so pack carefully. You can usually ship a lot of heavy things such as tools and spares with the bike (if you’re shipping) but you’ll need to make everything else count. More than once, if possible – a towel can roll up into a pillow, that sort of thing.
Bob Rosenthal used to take a complete TZ750 engine as carry-on luggage when he was going to race meetings but those days are gone.
My rule of thumb is that I book direct flights on the airline’s website but use travel agents for anything more complicated. They know how long you need between flights to make your connection and so on. They also usually have access to the best combination deals.
Tip: Put your helmet in a helmet bag and take it onboard along with your carry-on bag. I have never been called on this except on very small planes where there was simply no room for the helmet and where it had to go in the hold. Even then it wasn’t added to my luggage weight. You can fill the helmet with all sorts of stuff, including gloves and scarf, which takes the pressure off your check-in baggage. Wear your bike jacket onto the plane and fill the pockets with other small but possibly heavy stuff. Smile a lot to reassure the crew.
Serendipity strikes again. Coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, it means “making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity”, of things which you’re not looking for. I can’t claim a lot of sagacity in this case, though, because the press release from Global Travel Products that appeared in my inbox popped up just as I was preparing to write this story about – global travel!
Spooky, as Dame Edna would say.
Anyway, a lot of the products mentioned seemed really useful to travelling motorcyclists, so we selected a few and asked Global to send us samples. Here’s what we thought of them.
If you’re going to the US, you will need to either leave your luggage unlocked or have it broken open by Transport Security Administration (TSA) officers. Unless you have Travel Sentry locks, that is. The TSA can open these and lock them again, whether they’re combination or keyed locks.
The keyed locks cost only $9.95 each but we prefer the combination locks, which cost more – $15.95 – but don’t require you to carry yet another batch of keys around. We tried one of them and found it light and easy to use and also easy to see due to its bright colour. We do wonder, though: if the TSA can open them, how long will it be before the bad guys can, too? But that’s not an argument against the locks.
Motorcyclists can’t always fit their gear into neat (and lockable) suitcases. I know that I sometimes use a soft duffel-type bag for my riding gear. But these don’t always lock – and they often have more than one pocket accessible from the outside. Not only do you not want anyone to get at your stuff, you don’t want them to put something that you don’t know about in the bag, either. Think dope in a boogie bag.
The answer is these TamperTell seals. Thread them through zipper tabs and if they’re broken at the other end of your trip you know someone’s been at your bag. They cost $12.95 for a packet of 20, or $14.95 for the deluxe version which has a numbered tab for extra security. I love the peace of mind these things provide.
This is simply a package containing a couple of rehydrating sachets for $9.95. Larger packets with more sachets are also available. Add to water and drink – before, during and after a long flight. Global reckons they rehydrate two and a half times as effectively as water alone.
I haven’t had a chance to try this, although I will soon. It sounds good in theory, though, despite being a bit expensive. Anything that can reduce jet lag is good in my book, especially if you’re going to be riding a bike soon after landing.
Hands First alcohol free sanitiser
The documentation for a South American bike trip I’m taking later in the year suggested bringing a tube of hand sanitiser because they couldn’t guarantee that water would be available to wash hands – and here it was.
The little pump-action dispenser is good for 100 to 120 applications and requires no water or towel to do its work. Great. You don’t need to go to South America to find this useful, especially at $4.95.
Stay Dry bag
Ever worried about what that shower of rain might do to your passport in the chest pouch, or the small camera in your pocket? Worry no more; this bag with its fold-over double seal will keep them dry and the lanyard allows you to wear it around your neck where it’s accessible. That’s $9.95 well spent.
Travel laundry kit
Wash your undies every night and your T-shirts when you can – and you’ll smell a lot sweeter while feeling more comfortable. Best of all, you need to carry fewer sets of undies or T-shirts, reducing the bulk of your luggage.
But washing clothes with soap or whatever is available doesn’t necessarily work very well, so this kit comes in handy. It contains some concentrated detergent, a twisted clothesline that doesn’t need pegs and a flexible “universal” sink stopper, all for $19.95. Seems like a good investment, too, and worked well when I tried it in the garage!
Howsar portable door lock
This is a little nylon gadget that allows you to “lock” just about any inward-opening door, without a key. That means you can effectively lock hotel (and hostel!) rooms, toilets and any other rooms where you want to be left alone, in a flash. I like this $15 lock best of all of the products listed here and I will not be heading off to the Third World (or France) again without one in my bag.
Yes, all right, I admit that like most blokes I like gadgets. But these really seem useful to me. You can find them, and more Global products, in travel shops or buy them direct from the website www.globaltravelproducts.com.au. And no, I don’t get a cut – worse luck.