Friday, April 6, 2012

Adventure travel with a classic motorcycle

Ron Fellowes' 1910 FN under repair in Nepal.
Just recently I came across this blog of a rather amazing journey by an Australian, Ron Fellowes, who is riding his 1910 FN four overland from Nepal to Belgium via Pakistan and Iran. The India overland route is one of the classics but it's not an easy one on any bike, least of all one more than 100 years old. There's some terrain to challenge the rider of a modern bike and it will certainly test an antique one, these days however many folks would hold reservations about overland travel through Pakistan on the basis of personal security. I've always held that the vast majority wherever you go are just regular people striving to get on with everyday life. They hold little concern for world politics and least of all any animosity to you personally. I've found myself relying on the hospitality of strangers in strange countries many times and have never been let down by their generosity. People in Pakistan in particular have been incredibly generous to me in the past. That's not to say though that a ride through Baluchistan wouldn't be a daunting prospect.. So hats off to Ron. Well done! And good luck with the rest of the trip.

Pass storming in the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield Bullet.
Ron's journey is certainly a biscuit taker as far as I know for the age of bike used. For me using a post war bike is a relatively easy choice, even perhaps sensible for reasons I will go into. A thirties machine is still very practical but once you start mixing beaded edge tyres and open valves with hot, dusty and rough roads you are making things a lot tougher for yourself. But then again you are only facing the same conditions as the pioneers did a hundred years back.

There seems to be a growing interest in taking old motorcycles on long journeys. Maybe it's because I am more interested in the subject, maybe more news of peoples' trips gets blogged or just maybe more folks have realised that there's something less than satisfying about roaring through developing countries on a new BMW GS...

My 1955 Royal Enfield Bullet in Mozambique.

My first overland trip was around India on a 1997 Royal Enfield Bullet and then India to UK on a 1958 model via Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. That was back in 1998/9. Since then I've made a short trip around the high passes of the Indian Himalayas in 2005 on a Bullet and then a trip around most of the outside of Africa on a 1955 Bullet between 2006 and 2008. From the UK down to Cape Town via the Middle East and down the East coast of Africa and then back towards home, getting as far as Mali up the West Coast. I kept a blog of these travels on the Horizons Unlimited website, a treasure trove for anyone contemplating or underway with an overland trip whether by motorcycle, bicycle or car.

One of the inspirations for my Africa trip was from a Dutch couple who travelled from Cape Town back to Holland on an Indian 350cc Bullet two up with a trailer. They've since made a trip with the same rig through the Americas. Some pictures from their trip can be found here.

Round the world Nimbus' or is that Nimbii?
The thing about adventure travel is that whatever you are doing and no matter how trailblazing you think it is there will always be someone doing something more outrageous, This has always been the case, think back to Scott and Amundesen... Of course nowadays we are not representing Queen and country and it is not a race. It is purely for fun so I take my hat off to those undertaking adventures of perhaps greater derring do. I reference the couple riding through Africa at the same time as myself on a early fifties rigid frames Triumph Thunderbird. I never managed to meet them and they have no web presence. I salute the Frenchman on a moped from Burkina Faso to France. And I take my hat off to Norwegian gentlemen Tormod and Klaus of the 'Dumb Way Round' aka 'King Croesus Contempt for Death' riding round the world on Danish Nimbus motorcycles with sidecars.

Pop goes the Bullet in Malawi!
It may seem slightly unhinged to many but there is a good logic to travel by classic motorcycle. The pace of travel is less frenetic than with a modern meaning you are compelled to choose the back roads in favour of major highways as the tempo is more suited to your machine. You are more connected with locals and more approachable dressed in dusty, scruffy understated gear with a similar machine than someone head to toe in Paris Dakar Rally kit in lurid colours and with full face helmet astride a bike that may as well have come from outer space to someone in a small village in the middle of Africa. I could go on extolling the virtues but cutting a long story short, break downs are good. You are forced to spend time where you may not have, people rally round you. You get to know locals and experience their hospitality and have the satisfaction of fixing something yourself. Plus don't think that modern machines don't go wrong, try fixing a KTM ECU in deepest Cambodia or think to yourself that nearly every BMW arriving in Nairobi from Ethiopia need a new shock absorber that costs almost as much as you bought your Royal Enfield for...

Setting up camp with the Bullet in Sudan.
Gordon May has done his bit to stem the tide of Indian Royal Enfields being ridden to Europe by taking a Redditch built one over to India and written a book on it - Overland to India, a good read. He followed it up with Overland to Egypt, doing what it says with a 1952 BSA Bantam inspired by Peggy Thomas' travels in the fifties on a similar Bantam and written up in the book, A Ride in the Sun. Rumour has it he is soon to take his Bullet down to Cape Town.

The bottom line is that any journey on a classic or vintage motorcycle is an adventure. Even just down to the shops. Folks seem concerned to take their old bikes big distances but the chances are that if it'll complete a Sunday run it can keep on and on. So pack up, set off and keep going!

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