Interview with Sam Manicom: Author and motorcycle overlanding adventurer

Jul 28, 2014 BY Sam Manicom

Packing in the job and setting off round the world on a motorbike is a dream for many of us. Sam Manicom is one of the few people that actually turned the dream into a reality. Thankfully he’s documented many of his travels in books and audio books so that we can share his motorcycle overlanding adventures. In our interview with Sam Manicom we asked him a few questions about his travels and his latest literary works.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom’s owner Luke Rees has described Sam’s latest audio book in the following glowing terms: ‘Under Asian Skies is engaging, entertaining and easy listening. A perfect driving soundtrack. Sam Manicom weaves his travel experiences into an interesting and informative story that will leave you a little richer for the experience.’ So keep reading to find out a little bit more about both Sam and his latest motorcycle overlanding adventure.

An interview with Sam Manicom

How did you get into motorcycle overlanding?

In a way it was pure accident and involved beer. But seriously, it was a thought process that I suspect many people will recognise. That moment when you realise what you are doing with your life isn’t making you happy and isn’t taking you somewhere you really want to be going.

I’d been chasing the career path as we are all supposed to do. Working towards promotion, a fatter pay packet and long term security, but I wasn’t enjoying what I was doing at all. I retreated to a quiet corner in my local pub to think about life and soon realised that I wasn’t being fair to myself, the people I was working with or the company.

I’ve travelled for much of my life. It started when I was ten years old. My parents had been teachers in the Congo and they moved back to the UK. From that time on I’d been on the move; never staying in one place for more than a few years. My first trip was age sixteen when I rode a bicycle from West Sussex to Amsterdam. I have to admit to getting lost rather a lot – my map was from my school atlas. But this was just the start and over the next years I hiked and backpacked around Europe and in India, hitchhiked in various parts of the world, sailed a bit, travelled by car in Australia, train and every other way I could.

Over my second pint, I realised that I had to hand in my notice. I’d reached a turning point and perhaps a career change was in order, but I started to think about the fun I’d had travelling and how much I’d learnt. My thoughts also slowly edged towards the aspects of those forms of travel that I didn’t like. For example, a train shoots you on past things of interest and you have few options to get off and explore. Riding a bicycle into head winds for days simply isn’t fun – ‘been there, done that…’ And I like people – you don’t see many of those when you are at sea.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

Each form of travel had its own unique disadvantages and my mind hunted for an alternative. What would give me the freedom to wake up each day and think, ‘What shall I do today?’, What would give me the chance to explore side turnings at whim, and to stop wherever I wanted to? What would give me the chance to travel again with solutions to the down sides and a new set of challenges?

I found the answers in my third pint. A motorcycle. I handed my notice in the next morning, but I still had a few issues to face. Not least was the point that I couldn’t actually ride. At lunchtime I bought a small cc bike, passed my test six weeks later and six weeks after that I found myself at the edge of the Sahara looking south. I’ll never forget the feeling that I was a total idiot to be at the start of a ride the length of Africa. A complete novice? Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. But what fun that year was – full of fascination, and I certainly found the challenges I’d been looking for. The concept of stopping the ride was a hard one to face.

What do you ride?

The answer to that is also from the pub – makes me sound like an alcoholic doesn’t it? But really it was just the way it happened. My friends and I were in the pub talking about my plans. They of course were creased up with laughter. After all, they knew I couldn’t ride a bike. On the table next to us, a couple of blokes had been listening in to our banter, and one of them after quite a while leant across and asked: ‘So what bike are you going to use?’

I had little idea and had been worrying about this very thing. I had no motorcycling friends so was relying on what magazines were saying. The trouble was they all had conflicting opinions. I was none the wiser and the clock was ticking on both my notice period and the rainy season in Africa.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

Our neighbour told me to ignore what the magazines were saying. ‘Take a BMW R80GS’, he said, ‘They are bullet proof.’ When his mate told me they were also ‘idiot proof’’, the decision was made. And little did I know how right they were. Bullet proof, and idiot proof – me I mean.

How do you plan your overland adventures?

Actually, I don’t do a lot of planning. There are essentials though. Visa conditions, a rough idea of a route, likely budget, weather patterns (no point riding in a monsoon) and I like to know something about the cultures of the places I’m travelling to. You can make far better connections with people if you know how not to offend them, and how to show respect.

I’m always fascinated by the history of places too but I tend to read up on these things as I’m actually on the road. Knowing a little helps you to keep your on-the-move surroundings in perspective. Of course there are always ‘must see’ places and I try to get to them. I don’t always succeed though – sometimes other opportunities bounce them to one side – I think of that as saving something for the next visit.

What do you like best about motorcycle overlanding?

Mostly it’s that freedom thing. You very rarely wake up in the morning knowing what you’ll be doing that day. The only tickets you have to pay attention to are those attached to shipping or flying across to another continent. This leaves you open to take advantage of both your own mood and the opportunities you’ve discovered or actually, have just had presented to you. My bike by the way is called Libby. That’s short for the liberty she’s given me, and still does. She has over 275,000 miles on her now and is still my only form of transport – unless you count my bicycle that is.

One of the things I came to love was the fact that my bike got me involved with things that most travellers never have the chance to. For example, dealing with customs and immigration in a port is a whole new ball game. It’s a very different world behind those barb wire topped harbour walls.

I fast discovered that wherever I travelled, Libby was an amazing ice-breaker. She always gave a topic of conversation to start things rolling with people I was just meeting. Many fantastic conversations rolled out from those first brief questions about engine size and how much fuel I could carry.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

What situation was the scariest you have encountered?

There have been a few moments. I’m a bit of a disaster magnet. I’ve been shot at and ended up in hospital with seventeen bone fractures. Three Hell’s Angels in Australia rescued me from an accident and I had an episode with an Afghan who wanted to slash my face with a wicked looking knife. I was arrested in Madras by a very angry soldier and I’ve ridden sheet ice in the northern mountains of Turkey but still, the scariest moment on the ride came from being thrown into jail in Tanzania. The hair on my arms has just risen as I’ve written that.

How many countries have you ridden through?

Well, my planned year-long ride the length of Africa turned into eight years and 200,000 miles around the world. I’ve been lucky enough to explore 55 countries, so far.

Of the places you have visited where would you choose to stay for one year?

I had an instant grin when you asked this; it’s such a hard question to answer. Perhaps I start by saying that the only place I wouldn’t want to go back to would be jail. But where to stop for a year? New Zealand was simply amazing – such diversity. I could see myself living in the beauty of the Flinders Ranges in Australia. A small group of islands off the coast of Malaysia were quite a magical place, though a year of turquoise water, amazingly soft white sand, palm trees… hmm, might pall after a while. I suspect that I’m too much of a fidget to handle it.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

India is always an incredible country to visit and to stay in for a longer period would be a fine thing. It really is a land where you never know what is going to happen to you. The country is home to a constant stream of fascination, culture, and dramatic geographical changes. I guess part of the challenge comes from the point that any preconceived ideas are pretty much blown out of the water. This is a country where you are on intake overload just about every day. With that in mind, if I ‘have’ to go to India for a year, may I have a few weeks respite in Nepal midway please? That’ll get me fresh of the next things India is going to either offer, or throw at me.

What do you miss from home while motorcycle overlanding? And what do you think you will miss but don’t?

Now that’s a simple question to answer. I only really miss cold pasteurised milk and mature cheddar cheese. I do miss friends and family too, of course. I used to think that I would miss how easy it is to get just about everything done at home. But the reality is that when I’m on the road, so long as I don’t have time restraints, getting anything done is a new adventure. An example of that is bargaining for food in an Indonesian market. Often it would take me a full day to buy the things that I could swoop round and do in 30 minutes in a supermarket at home. But meeting the people, seeing the full ranges of roots, fruits and vegetables, fresh from farms is great. And bargaining? Once you have lost your fear and are happy to make a fool of yourself, its pure fun with lots of smiles attached.

The hardest bit is getting home and still having the instinct to bargain. Mind you, you can have fun with that here too, if only because you are giving the cashier something nutty to natter about in the pub.

Tell us about how your books and how your audio books came about

The truth is that when I set off on the trip I had no intention to write or record anything. I was far too busy exploring and trying not to fall off all the time. When I made it to southern Africa and was due to be heading for home again, I had a serious conversation with myself. Was there any good reason to go home? Africa had been amazingly cheap to travel through so I still had money left. If I did head for home, would I ever have such an opportunity again? Perhaps not and anyway, I was really enjoying travelling on a motorcycle.

I booked passage on a container ship to Australia and a very new set of adventures rolled out. Although a first world country, there were loads of new things to get involved with because of the very nature of its geography and culture. Ever budget conscious I worked in several places and I had more accidents, but always came away from those with a high. They were normally as a result of a person I’d met.

Under Asian Skies, for me is a favourite because the journey through Australia, New Zealand, SE Asia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey had me scooting from one very strong and unique culture to the next. Asia is the most colourful part of the world I’ve ever travelled through and though not always so nice, the scents of the different places are a very strong part of their identities. This part of the world has been a joy to write about.

But I’ve digressed. Stuck in Delhi trying to get a visa to ride through Iran meant that I had time on my hands. I met some people on the camping site there and one of the girls said: ‘Sam, so many mad things happen to you, you should write articles.’ I had a go and to my amazement the first three articles were picked up and I was asked for more. When I got back to the UK, eventually, the editor told me that he’d been getting letters and emails from people saying: ‘We like Sam’s articles, when’s his book coming out?’

I settled down to write my first book Into Africa. I didn’t have clue what I was doing, but I know what I like to read about in a travel book and I was also aware that an author needs to paint the full picture. Not only do the highs and lows, and the historical and cultural snippets need to be included but all the senses of the reader need to be brought to life. True isn’t it, when we travel we are surrounded by sounds, sights, the way things smell, and how something feels; our senses come into life on overdrive. That makes them all a vital part of a tale of the road.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

To my delight all four of my books (Into Africa, Under Asian Skies, Distant Suns and Tortillas to Totems) have been well received by both readers and reviewers. But I started to receive emails from people, and they got me thinking. One was from a chap who told me that he was a ‘raging dyslexic’ and had therefore never been able to read a book. He knew he was missing out. His sister had tapped out the email for him.

I had many more emails from people who suffer from dyslexia and then also from some people who struggled with sight generally. I also had emails from people who said that they never had the time to sit for long enough to read a book. One day I was on a train and thinking about everyone who has a long journey to do or a regular lengthy commute, and about those who drive long distances for a living.

These thoughts had me wondering about making an audio book. Research showed that there were hardly any travel books in audio book format. Just five motorcycle travel audio books at that. Was there a good reason for that? Did they not work? Were they too expensive to do? And critically, in spite of the emails and my instincts, was there no market? And anyway, who would narrate it? I suspected that Stephen Fry was going to be a tad too busy.

I could see a new adventure opening up and the more I explored the world of audio books, the more I felt they were worth trying. It really has been an adventure but I admit that right the way though the recording process I was wondering if it was doomed to failure. Sometimes adventures have you standing at the bottom of a mountain and the peak seems a very long way off; will you ever make it all the way up anyway?

Tell us about your new Audio book Under Asian Skies

To my delight the first audio book was liked and people were getting in touch to ask for Under Asian Skies to be made into an audio book too. We have done just that. It seems that in spite of the recording studio’s initial concerns, I do have the ability to read. Most audio books are narrated by professionals. Feedback is that because I’m reading about the adventures I’ve been lucky enough to get involved with, an additional layer is there. I do have to give full credit to the Kite Studios in Cambridge though. They also took a gamble by agreeing to work with me on the project. Thanks guys.

But what is Under Asian Skies all about? What will you be listening to? It’s a real mix of everything from the road. One of the realities of a long journey is that inevitably a traveller’s plans don’t always work out as intended but that every time something goes wrong, inevitably something special is going to happen as a result; silver linings do exist. Mixed in with the drama you’ll find plenty of laughs and mysteries, and I take you along roads with plenty of surprises of the fun kind.

Listeners will be travelling with me across the vastness of Australia and along the twists and turns of New Zealand. We’ll be riding dusty back roads, easing along some spectacular coastlines, and working with fruit pickers. Now that’s a culture all of its own. A couple of my favourite tales come about as a result of meeting a blond-haired aborigine in the outback of Australia. What a fascinating man and he gifted me with a very special view of life in Australia. The other tale is where I met a runaway from the police. This guy was a complete character and almost the perfect example of a renegade Australian.

Motorcycle overlanding interview with Sam Manicom - Copyright Sam Manicom

Up into SE Asia, my life is saved by a Thai prostitute; really. And for a while I travelled with a girl who lived her day by reading her tarot cards before doing anything. I’m going to take the listener on to the remote north of Thailand and across to a gamblers’ den in Burma. There’s also a taste of what really is involved with a decidedly hedonistic Full Moon party.

We travel on through India, Nepal, Pakistan and Iran. Riding Himalayan mountain roads and paddling through the orange glow of the dawn on the River Ganges and we’ll be staying in villages little changed since the Middle Ages. I also throw the listener right into the noise, fumes and organised chaos of the grand cites of India. I travel with smugglers for a while too, but it’ll spoil the story to say now exactly what they were smuggling and where.

I love the opportunity that sharing the fun gives in this new way. To quote from the first review for the Under Asian Skies Audio book, ‘Sam manages to imbue the recording with a sense of remembering each event as it unfolds. His voice is clear and welcoming as befits a story that is full of honesty, humour and descriptive detail where the little events, thoughts and conversations are just as compelling as the pivotal points in the story.’ Overland Magazine

With your eight year journey under your belt where is your next motorcycle adventure?

My partner Birgit and I are always up to new things, though sometimes the trips are for just a month. She and I were lucky enough to ride in Vietnam for example, and this year? I’m not sure at the moment.

I’d love to go back to Indonesia for a while but there are places closer to home too that we’d like to explore; Corsica and Sardinia sound interesting. I’d like to ride in the USA again, Colombia was magnificent and both Laos and Cambodia are quite a draw. I suspect that something will guide us in the right direction. Life has a habit of doing that doesn’t it.

I know only too well how lucky I am to be able to travel as much as I do. The point of my books is to share the fun of the road – the highs and the lows, and as many of the fascinating things as possible.

The fact is that many people would love to travel but responsibilities do get in the way. I admire them for taking their responsibilities seriously until they too can escape to the road. I also recognise that though some people love hearing tales of the road, actually, they are quite happy with doing that from the comfort of their arm chairs. That’s great. I also rather like the thought that just perhaps there will be people who’ll think, ‘If an idiot like Sam can have adventures like these, so could I.’

We hope you’ve enjoyed this interview with Sam Manicom and have taken a little bit of inspiration for starting your own motorcycle overlanding adventure. As Sam has successfully proved, you really can change your life, do the things you want to do and be blissfully happy doing it. What’s stopping you?

You can download Under Asian Skies here:


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