If you’d spent the best part of your life travelling the world, you’d also have some pretty amazing stories and a lot of experience to share. Sam Manicom has travelled for much of his life. His first solo trip was when he was 16 years old and since then he’s hitchhiked, travelled by bus, train, bicycle and sail. On his longest journey he set off as a novice motorcyclist, aiming to ride a motorcycle the length of Africa. This planned one year journey turned into eight years and 320,000km around the world. Sam describes himself as a traveller first, a motorcyclist and then an author. He’s written four books about his journey and tells us that his aim is to share the fun of the road, and to encourage others to go out and live their dreams of adventure. We wanted to know more.
ARR: Bearing in mind that you’ve travelled in so many different ways, what is it that excites you about motorcycle
travel so much?
SM: Without doubt it’s the freedom a bike gives me. I can wake up to each day and think, what shall I do today? Not, what does my bus or train ticket tell me I have to. The freedom to explore is quite magnificent. Africa, for example, is just 9600km long. I rode 35,000km because there was so much to see, and I could. I spent just over two years riding across Asia and every day really was an adventure.
I love the fact that my bike allows me to stop just about anywhere. That’s a huge bonus in some parts of South America, for example. There are some spectacular views that I can stop to look at, but a car wouldn’t find space to park and a bus would belt on past. I also like the fact that I don’t have to carry a rucksack! Riding into a headwind is relatively effortless and being out in the open means you are really accessible. That’s the first step to meeting people. You know, I also like the fact that I don’t have a roof over my head. My bike, by the way, is called Libby. That’s short for Liberty — it’s what she gives me.
ARR: You are a bit of a disaster magnet aren’t you? You fell critically ill in Thailand and am I right in thinking that you were saved by a prostitute?
SM: One of the risks of making a long journey is that things will go wrong. It doesn’t matter how you travel, stuff happens, but for me it’s how you handle those times that’s so important. We all travel to have adventures, to learn and to find out more about ourselves, don’t we? Something going wrong is a combination of all of those, and inevitably there’s a quirky or funny side to things. One of my favourite travelling mantras is “expect the unexpected”. It’s not that I go looking for disasters — rather, they kind of find me. I certainly didn’t expect to have my life saved by a prostitute! What happened? I’d stopped for a while to enjoy exploring one of Thailand’s islands. The road was treating me really well and I was having fun riding away from the beaten track. This time my temporary home was a small bamboo cabin right on the edge of a white sand beach. The sea was turquoise and the palm trees rustled their unique sound every time the breeze joined us. Life was pretty darned good.
Then I fell ill. Within two days I was so weak that I couldn’t get out of bed and was so dehydrated that I was hardly sweating. A very pretty Thai girl was living in the cabin next to mine. She was a fun girl to meet but she surprised me by her lack of knowledge. She was from a poor mountain family and had recently become a prostitute; she worked so she could earn the fees to continue her schooling. Though she’d heard of AIDS, she hardly knew a thing about it and wasn’t being as careful as she should have been. We’d sat on her verandah talking about life in Thailand, her ambitions and how to protect herself from all the STDs she was vulnerable to. I think that she enjoyed the conversations — in part because I didn’t want to take her to bed. We became friends and it was Kulap who noticed my bike outside my cabin, but no sign of me. She knocked on my door and called out but I was too weak to answer. She came into my cabin and saw the semi-conscious state I was in. Unbeknown to me I had a bad bout of Dengue fever. She knew exactly what it was and over the next week Kulap nursed me back to health. When I had the strength to make it to a doctor, he told me that she’d saved my life.
ARR: You’ve been arrested in several countries, haven’t you, but what happened in Chennai in India?
SM: One of the things I love about travelling by motorcycle is that not only is it an amazing icebreaker between strangers, but I find myself in all sorts of situations that other travellers are unlikely to experience — often in ports. They are a world of their own, with all the traditions, rules and regulations that customs offices and warehouses inevitably have. But the port of Chennai in India wasn’t fun. I simply couldn’t get the bureaucracy into gear and I wasn’t even allowed inside the port gates. From outside of the port I could even see the container my bike was in, but could I get at it? No. Scores of forms were filled in, rubber stamped and dispatched via runners. They all seemed to get lost in humid offices where the only thing that moved the papers was the lazy swish of overhead fans. It felt like red tape gone mad.
The weeks were ticking by. I had an appointment to keep in Kathmandu and I was getting to the stage where I was risking not making it. Then, one day the shipping agent I’d been working with had a brain wave. We were at week number five of the tortoise speed chase. “I’ll give you a document that says you are part-time on the agency staff . We’ll use that to get in the port and then we will try to see the port managing director.” All went well and inside the port we had a stroke of luck. Yes, the MD would see us. I explained the situation. To my surprise he apologised, rubber stamped my documents and gave them to me with words to the effect of, that’s you sorted then. If the gravity of the port had allowed it I would have done a few leaps of joy, but I wasn’t counting my chickens. I’d learned enough about India not to do that! Moments later the guard on the exit point arrested the shipping agent, and then me. “These documents are forgeries,” he stated, looking at my temporary agent papers, pointing his gun at me as he did so. The next hours were very long …
ARR: On a big ride everyone is going to make mistakes. Which one of yours leaps into mind?
SM: One of the most stupid things I’ve ever tried to do is to ride through northern Turkey in the middle of winter. It wasn’t the plan; I’d been delayed in Delhi. It’d taken me three months to get a visa to travel through Iran. I’d been determined that I wouldn’t miss the chance to explore some of this beautiful and unique country, but the delay meant I was in the right place at the wrong time. The mountains of Turkey should have been beautiful, but with inches of black ice on the roads and metres of snow on the roadsides, they didn’t look that way to me at all. Every section of road was a battle to stay upright — even to survive.
The warning tingle that frostbite was an issue buzzed in my fingertips and I battled to stay warm. Snow fell ever stronger and my breath froze on the inside of my visor. I rode, with my bike shimmying unpredictably on the ice, one finger inside my visor to clear away my breath-ice, and another on the outside to clear away the snow. Let’s put it this way, lesson learned.
ARR: Have you ever feared for your life?
SM: Yes. The first time was during the initial weeks of the eight-year trip around the world. I’d only been riding a bike for a couple of months when I left the British Isles. I spent the time riding across Europe feeling like I was some sort of motorcycling accessory hanging onto the back of the bike. I really wasn’t in control and I was afraid. But I was determined I was going to learn and to make it to my target. Cape Town seemed a very long way away. Actually, other than that I’ve very rarely feared for my life. Perhaps I have a strong streak of stupidity or maybe it’s more a case of when something is putting your life at risk, you are too busy dealing with the situation to be afraid. I’ve been shot at a couple of times, had a 17-bone fracture accident in the Namib Desert, and my bike caught fire while I was riding it.
There were a fair few other mishaps but mostly it was my own imagination that made me fearful. The worst time was being jailed in Tanzania. I had an accident and was charged with speeding, driving without due care and attention, and attempting to commit grievous bodily harm. I’d been travelling very slowly on the busy road into a small town, my senses were firing on all cylinders and I defiitely didn’t ride on purpose at the man who stepped out in front of me. Being thrown into a jail cell with 20 men was the scariest moment of my life. And when I realised that rape was on one of the guy’s minds … thankfully fate didn’t let the situation head any further in that direction.
ARR: Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met on your travels?
SM: Now that I can’t answer, sorry. The world is full of fascinating people. In fact, I’d be happy to lay money on the belief that at least 95 per cent of the world’s population is basically made up of good people, and they are all interesting in their own way. Each has a tale to tell and each gives us the opportunity to learn. The mainstream media only concentrates on scandal and drama so we hardly ever hear about the good people. Perhaps I should tell the tale of the orphan children in Tanzania, who set up their own business so they didn’t have to beg. Or the raggedy woman in the deserts of northern Kenya who insisted on sharing her food with me. Then there was the blond Aboriginal man in the outback. We sat under the stars and he told me about his family’s history and their lives today. One of the most amazing things about long-distance travel is the constant chance to meet new people. There are millions of interesting people out there and many of them are other travellers! Candidates would be Australian David Woodburn, his wife Emmy and their seven-year-old daughter Matea. This family had been travelling the world in their motorcycle sidecar rig for years. Matea had been born on the road, spoke a series of languages fluently and was as much at home playing with the local kids as she was holding a conversation with adults.
ARR: What drives you to put yourself in potentially dangerous situations?
SM: Well, I do get carried away with my curiosity from time to time and maybe I have a diff erent perception of what danger is. It can be a buzz where every sense in your body is working on full power. Things taste sweeter, smell richer and it’s at times where risk is involved that you find out who you are. Ethiopia and Southern Sudan weren’t safe places to be when I rode through with an English couple I’d met, but to get further south we had to travel through them. I was also fascinated about how decades of war would have changed the countries and the people. Would hunger and suspicion have taken over? Everyone said, “Don’t go to Colombia.” I’m glad I did. It’s one of the most spectacular countries I’ve ever been to. On occasion I’ve been warned off riding particular routes — “Too Dangerous!” This is where both common sense and research come into play. Many times I’ve been told things like, “The villagers in the next place are all robbers; they will kill you.” When I’ve ridden that route, I’ve found that the villagers were amazed that I’d survived the place I’d just come from. I do have a healthy survival instinct but perhaps it’s that I’ve been lucky enough to learn that most fears are not based in reality. Treat people and situations with due respect and though things can go wrong, chances are you won’t die. The chances are far greater that you’ll have had a fascinating time.
Read More in Australian Road Rider #113
Check out Sam’s books at http://www.bookdepository.com/author/Sam-Manicom