We are always keen to offer advice to help you plan your adventures. So we caught up with Graham Field, the published author of three books about motorcycle overlanding, and picked his brain to find out twelve tips for solo overland motorcycling on a budget.
With 25 years of travelling experience, there are not many people who are more qualified to provide these tips. Grahams solo overland motorcycling adventures have seen him cover over 50,000 miles on a £750 Kawasaki KLR650 he bought from eBay.
Graham’s latest book, Different Natures, covers three trips journeying from the Alaskan Arctic Circle to Southern Mexico. His other books both cover 15,000 mile journeys, In Search of Greener Grass is from UK to Mongolia and Ureka is from the UK south to Iraq and east to Azerbaijan. There is an excerpt of Different Natures below so you can get a feel for his style.
My top tips are not necessarily your top tips, they might not even be mine next week. Tips evolve based on needs, experiences, age and wisdom. So I withhold the right to change these tips as I continue to travel and learn.
Less is more, anyone one who has done it knows this. The big bikes, the accessories and the latest gadgetry are not really necessary especially if you are travelling on a budget. Every £20 not spent on accessorizing my bike is another day on the road – once out of expensive western countries. Also poorer countries improvise, I find I get respect and conversation when my homemade accessories are seen.
The more bling you have the richer you look. The more enticing your bike is the less likely you are to haggle down the price of a room – which is an important tip for solo overland motorcycling on a budget. Also once in that room you will be worried about your shiny, appealing, unattended and out of sight bike.
Get a bike cover. It doesn’t have to be waterproof but it works like a cloak of invisibility and the unattended bike is a lot less noticeable.
When choosing a bike go low, as it will be heavy and overloaded. I can’t give any tips on travelling light, other than when I get back from a trip I list everything I take out of the panniers and make a note of what was used. And still I pack too much stuff. However with a low bike handling it, flat foot on the ground is so much easier. Control and confidence is comforting.
I’m frequently asked ‘What’s the best thing you took with you?’, expecting my answer to be Leatherman’s or an iMac or something. Both my answers sound corny but they are true. A smile goes a long way and works in any language, smiles are contagious – as is a shitty attitude. Smiles will get you through borders and police checks better than stubbornness and non co-operation.
And what’s inside those panniers they want to search? The best thing I took was space. Precision, full capacity packing will impress the OCD spectator but room is priceless when you stop for tomatoes, bread, crisps, and those essentials to sustain you through that night of spontaneous wild camping. As you leave the little village shop you will soon discover why Tesco’s trucks don’t use bungee cords to secure their loads. A bit of space in the top of the pannier will accommodate crushable foods with a scrumptious satisfaction.
Research is fine when it comes to visa regulations and other bureaucratic hurdles but I have found the well known sites are well known for a reason, they are popular. I ride out of my ‘special’ and independent status into a tourist trap, the expectations of peaceful sunsets and romantic solitude disappear, and as the side stand goes down begging hands and post card sellers enter my personal space.
For me the most rewarding experiences are the surprises, the vista over the brow of the hill, the river with the shady tree to camp under. Surprise is a vital ingredient of adventure, the unknown and dealing with the day as it occurs.
It’s not a race, when you find you are behind your schedule, change your schedule, better to do all that an opportunity has to offer that to leave it in search of another opportunity. Opportunities, like lightening and rainbows are not daily occurrences, so when one comes give it all the appreciation it deserves and recognise it for what it is, because it may be a while before one occurs again. The road is full of tempting diversions and none of them are in the wrong direction.
Electronics are needy things, they have to be charged, protected, answered, programmed and general paid attention to. I try to bear in mind that people travelled long before any of this was available. Look up, look around, take a map; spread on a restaurant table it will attract company and everyone has a suggestion and knows of an ‘idyllic’ place that the guide book doesn’t mention.
Looking at a sat-nav or phone will mean the world passes by as you stare at the digital interpretation of where you are. It can isolate as well as liberate, I see it like a comfort blanket, a thumb to suck when I’m feeling down, not a cigarette pack that needs to come out of the pocket every time I stop.
Travelling is hard, it’s not the romantic endless road of nonstop excitement and encounters, sometimes it’s just exhausting. Another language I don’t speak, another menu I can’t read, another noisy hotel I can’t sleep in, another scam set up for me to walk into. Those are the days to have a compassionate Skype call, escape and watch my favourite movie, because this time too will pass.
Having just put down the phone I’m about to suggest you get a second one, a small simple unlocked one that will stay charged for 2 weeks and accept a local sim card. Great for those local calls and no distraction, no roaming charges. That friendly accommodating person you met at the petrol station will be able to call you and you him if you need some emergency translation doing, and the bike shop can call you when they have your parts.
I seem to have a mental block when it comes to learning languages, where others learn phrases I struggle and then mispronounce a single word. However the big 5 that are worth making the effort to learn are ‘please, thank you, hello, goodbye and sorry’ that’s always going to help the day run smoother.
Who are you doing this trip for? If it’s enviable facebook statuses, likes, shares, and retweets then perhaps you need to reassess your objectives. If it’s to look, see, experience, learn and report back than good for you. Inspire, enthuse, inform and encourage.
If you’ve done it you know how easy it is, if you haven’t, listen to those who have, not to those who haven’t. Instead of habitually looking at facebook as soon as you have Wi-Fi, try putting your location name into Wikipedia and learn a little about where you have stopped.
Never take someone else’s tips as top. My experiences are based on solo overland motorcycling on a budget and may not work for people with company, more money, a different form of transport, less time or a different perspective on life.
Hopefully those tips for solo overland motorcycling on a budget have you itching to get away. But if not have a read of the below excerpt from Graham’s latest book Different Natures.
I head down to a national park, Big Bend is imaginatively named by the shape of its border with Mexico. Now I’ve reached the warmth I was heading for I can slow down, I have to get back into road mode, enjoy the journey, forget the destination, live in the moment, feel the immersion, take it all in. $10 entry fee and I’m a tourist again. So I better go to the visitors centre I suppose, get the lay of the land. As I pull into the car park so does another bike, its Bob, Bob say’s he’s been riding this park every winter for 19 years. He marks my map with the best off road trails and camp grounds and with that, the transformation has occurred, I am synchronised again, back in the rhythm of the road. It only took 3 days and 1000 miles which is actually very quick.
As I apply for my back country camping permit, I’m told I only have one hour and forty minutes of day light left, where the hell did the day go? As is often the case at international borders I meet a bloke from Reigate who invites me to the lodge for dinner but I need to find my camp ground before dark, my relaxed manner was short lived. Instead I get a frozen burrito from the fuel station. I don’t have my glasses, how long do I put it in the microwave for? Long enough to buy a tin of ravioli, kettle chips and some water, another healthy dinner awaits.
The park is big, it’s 30 miles before I find the 4 wheel drive track. The evening is getting warmer, the dirt road is getting harder, I have to stuff my scarf into my pocket, when the surface allows I feel behind me to check my water bottle hasn’t fallen off. I ride between the rocks and around hills, up an incline that looks out over miles of nothing, I think I’ll be living down there. The descent brings me to a wooden marker and I leave the track to find my individual desert camping spot, its perfect, the only indication it’s here at all is a circle of stones. Solitary, silent and best of all, legitimate, I have a sunset to myself. Did the ranger who booked my back country permit read me? Who I was? My desired location? Or did he just want me out of the way? Like a hostess seating me in a roadside restaurant. I don’t care, this is just what I was looking for. With joyous exhilaration I throw off my cloths and run round my stone circle like a demented druid, having marked my territory and assessed the situation I erect my tent in the centre.
When the distant desert dusk fades behind the biggest furthest mountains, a half moon casts me a shadow and now I’m ready, ready to stop. I think I’ll have a nice cup of tea. My camping stove has not been used in 11 months, it still has fuel in it, impressively it still has pressure too. I’ve forgotten the knack and the hairs on the back of my hand singe with a sickening smell. I take my chai up a nearby hillock. I question my freewill, why did I walk up this hill, is it my choice? How long will I stay? It’s cheap here, beautiful and warm, I have no deadlines, just phone reception.
The human mark is minimal, in a 360 degree view only is a single light 30 miles away is visible, actually it’s becoming quite annoying, bloody inconsiderate neighbours, and I may have to go have a word tomorrow. Now I know why I rented out my house, so few people experience this silence and solitude and even less appreciate it. I absolutely love it, I’m the luckiest person here, I’m the only person here. The antisocial, light sleeper in the silence of the desert.
I’m in my sleeping bag at 6.45 on a Saturday night, I don’t care, there is no credibility here to lose, time and days are irrelevant out here. I just wonder what I’ll do for the 12 hours of darkness… sleep is what I did, delicious undisturbed sleep.
Through the open flap of my tent first light spans the horizon like a shallow rainbow, just where I anticipated it would appear. It’s hard to get perspective on it, could be a head light, or the top of an illuminated dome. But it’s just dawn, just the first evidence of it and its very exciting, to new to miss, and too vast to view from my tent. It’s cold, I put on my thermals and I run up the hill to take it all in. I’m spinning round like the dawn is picking me, every direction I look in is stunning, Only the brightest stars can compete against the crimson rippled texture of passing morning cloud. The tops of the rocky mountains that the sun hid behind last night catch the first rays with red radiation. At any moment the sun will appear over the ridge, I watch the shadow cross the desert floor and the highest points of the undulating terrain catch the beams. A receding tide of non colour sweeps towards my tent, I hold my breath like it’s going to physically hit me, then simultaneously I start to cast a shadow as I feel a warmth through my thinning hair. At fucking last, finally an advantage to my advancing years, a shaggy, younger me would not have felt that sun on his thick mane. Morning has broken, how exciting, how rewarding to be in awe of an event that happens every day, an event that defines day. Exhilaration spawned by the most basic and fundamental laws of our revolving planet. I want to do this again, same time tomorrow?
When the sun and hot chai has taken the chill away, blood, ink and thoughts flow more freely. I don’t even need my glasses, the light is not simulated or diffracted its bright, pure, and feels like it has rejuvenating qualities. As I write my diary I hear the rush of wind and look up to see it comes from the wings of an inquisitive crow as it glides over my head. It’s really quite loud, and then it’s replaced by the sound of silence. No crickets, no wind, no distant traffic, not even planes over head. Utter silence, the sound of my pulse pumping blood in my ear vessels, it’s such a rare sound. (Well I think it always pumps, just not always noticed) They say when you are deprived of a sense your others are heightened. This is a still land, and it can still be found. I don’t think I want to leave it for a while.
There is no urgency to the day, it free of time constraints, it’s so liberating. I eat my last bagel and a degree of urgency returns, with my depleted supplies comes compromised liberty.
I wander around my desert, everything is positioned perfectly, the fossilised rocks, and flora it’s all so idyllic, so wondrous. I find a pile of gathered rocks, dilapidated dwellings, surrounded by rusty cans, not litter, history, embossed dates from last century can still be made out, miners? Prospects? Pioneers? It just adds to the mystique.
I find my bike keys on the ground, I didn’t even know I’d lost them, maybe I hadn’t. I hadn’t been manically opening draws or looking in pockets, this is simplicity, minimalism, pursuits like that only happen in manmade environments. You couldn’t create desert like this in your theme garden, with cactus and succulents, tumbleweed and the odd trace of a past civilization. Your B&Q sand would lap up to conifers or an interwoven fence, not infinite distance and daunting mountains of red rock, nothing is as authentic as nature.
The other thing that is genuine, the fact I have to face is than I need more supplies.
The bike that was so sloppily packed with cold apathy is now stripped, I lay everything out on my poncho and I totally unpack and repack my panniers. This methodical and meticulous reorganisation will make for far greater efficiency, if I can just remember where I put everything. My attempts to remove the now sun baked salt are ineffective, this requires a power washer.
Right, time for a ride then, what a great morning I’m having.
A huge thanks to Graham Field for sharing his tips for solo overland motorcycling on a budget, and for giving us a glimpse of his latest book. To find out more about Graham and to buy any of his books visit: www.grahamfield.co.uk