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Manicom's adventures


Meet Sam Manicom, writer, biker, adventurer.   Sam has been and adventurer for many years, he's travelled over 200,000 miles around the world, through 55 countries. He published his well-received first book ‘Into Africa’ in 2005, then ‘Under Asian Skies’ in  2007 and 'Distant Suns' in 2008.  His latest book ‘Sidetracked. From Tortillas to Totems on Two Wheels’ will be launched at the famous Ace Café in London on Saturday the 18th of September, 2010.

Sam very kindly agreed to talk to the Intrepid Optimist team and gave us some wonderful insights into his many adventures and some tips for anyone thinking about embarking on their own adventure:

How old were you when you set off on your first adventure across Europe, India and Australia?
I was only twenty-one, and very wet behind the ears. I’d completed just one trip on my own outside the UK before that. I rode a bicycle from southern England to Holland, and back again. The trip across Europe was supposed to be just that, but as always I got a bit carried away. The original plan was to hitch hike around mainland Europe for a few months. I had just a couple of hundred pounds in my pocket, so I knew I wasn’t going to be on the road for long – unless I could find some work.

Traveling around Europe was a real eye-opener. I’d not realized how much beauty there was on my doorstep. It also satisfied a childhood dream: to travel long distances in big trucks. I targeted my hitch hiking at TIR trucks and had a ball. But the first challenge was to get my rucksack up into the cabs of the trucks. I, of course, had planned for every eventuality and my backpack was ridiculously heavy. The driver of the first truck had to give me a hand to lift the pack up. That red face was a good lesson. The drivers were all a rum lot and took me to some amazing places; including my first brothel!

I found work when I arrived in Greece. I was down to my last five pounds, so finding work was becoming rather urgent. I was very lucky and found a job waiting on tables on my first day on the island of Corfu. Bizarrely, whilst on the way to get the photo done for my work permit, I somehow managed to lose this last five pounds. This was my first experience of the kindness of complete strangers, and the trust that some people are prepared to give to someone they didn’t know. As a result of this kindness, and a season of hard work, I saved enough money to make it to Australia.  I arrived there with just a few dollars in my pocket but also found work really quickly; this time in a fun fair. I managed to work my way around that amazing country and earned enough money from a score of different jobs to buy an onwards plane ticket. I’d not arrived with a return ticket. I hadn’t realized that I should have one and no one had asked so…

The ticket out was to India, where I traveled on a real shoestring. India was like no other place I’d ever been to and I loved it. It’s an exotic land full of surprises.

My few months on the roads of Europe turned into three years of backpacking on three continents. Thinking back to those times, the things I learnt really changed me and they formed the basis for all my subsequent adventures.

How old were you when you learnt to ride a motorbike?
I was thirty-four. My parents, quite rightly, banned me from learning to ride a bike. I rather like to stretch boundaries and I suspect I’d have killed myself if I’d learnt at an earlier age. I suppose that setting off to ride the length of Africa with just three months experience is a prime example of the boundary stretching I’m talking about. A really stupid thing to do, but such amazing fun; once I’d learnt how not to fall off all the time that is. One of the most special days in Africa was the day that it dawned on me that I was no longer just some sort of biking accessory on the back of the motorcycle, but that I was actually in control at last. A huge amount of fear suddenly disappeared and I started to enjoy every moment on the bike, even to the extent of actively hunting out dirt roads to ride on. Until that time I’d approached such things with fingers crossed and a lot of sweat.

Did you have any assistance along the way on your adventure through Africa?
From some friends as I was getting ready to go, yes, though none of my friends were bikers so mostly that help was a combination of wry comment and encouragement. A few bets were taken on how far I’d actually get.

As I was getting ready to do the trip I’d naively thought that I was doing something quite spectacular and had sent off 400 letters hunting for sponsorship and assistance. Not for me, but I was raising money for two charities ‘Children in Need’ and ‘Mission Aviation Fellowship’. I failed to get any sponsorship, quite spectacularly actually. But it was interesting to try. Nowadays I don’t actively hunt for sponsorship for an adventure. If someone asks me then I carefully consider their proposition. It’s important for me as a person that a sponsor gets value for money out of their investment in me. The other key to this issue is that I don’t want to have so much sponsorship that my adventure is dictated to by the responsibilities attached to having ‘free’ kit.

Perhaps this is a little selfish but I really enjoy waking up in the morning and asking the question, ‘What am I going to do today?’ The thought of waking up every day and having to think, ‘What is required of me today?’ is something I’d rather not deal with. It gets in the way of adventure. I love side roads and the freedom to explore, and to spend time with interesting people is what it’s all about for me. Oh, and I’m not averse to spending a week or two here and there, swinging in a hammock under a palm tree on a white sand beach. Warm, turquoise water? Yes please.

I was very much helped by all sorts of people along the way. This help came in the form of a friendly welcome, and directions to towns whose names I struggled to pronounce.
A perfect example of this was in the Sudan when the English couple I’d met on the way and I kept on getting lost. The desert scrub was veined with tracks and no sign posts, and it was fifty degrees Celsius in the shade. We were trying to make it to the border with Ethiopia before dark and we knew that no motorcyclist had travelled this road for getting on for twenty years, due to the civil war that had been going on in Ethiopia. We’d just been given permission to carry on  by the police in the village we passed through and about ten minutes later we took the wrong track again. Both options had looked as well travelled as the other and of course both headed in roughly the right direction. The sun was beginning to fall and once again we were faced with the same set of problems. Fuel, water and time - not to mention the bandits that were supposed to be active in the area. This time our luck was really in; there on the horizon was a man herding goats. He stood leaning on his long black staff. At first it looked as if he only had one leg, but on drawing closer, I realised that he had his right foot tucked behind his left knee. It’s a typical pose for this part of Africa. The man stood absolutely still with an unperturbed expression on his face. Whilst approaching, it seemed almost as if he was totally used to seeing two dirty, large and overloaded motorbikes thumping across his world.

Now we only had to make him understand what we wanted. The next village down the road that we should have been on was called Maliha. Perhaps if we pronounced this in as many ways as we could manage, then at least one of them would be close to the mark. Well, the man stood, one legged, and still with his unperturbed expression until we had finally run out of variations and were beginning to feel a bit desperate. “I do speak perfectly good English you know”, he suddenly told us in an excellent Oxford English accent. “If you ride for half a mile in that direction you will come to the road, go left on it.” Feeling decidedly silly, we asked how he spoke such good English. It turned out that he was the son of a wealthy Chief. His father and older brother had been killed in a truck accident, which had left him head of the family. Now, to get back in touch with his ‘old world’, he’d decided to herd goats for a couple of weeks. We chatted on for a few more moments and then, thanking him, set off again. Perfect directions and minutes later we were turning left and on to Maliha.

For most of the time, even the dreaded border guards and customs officials were very helpful. Some even invited me into their back offices for a cup of tea and a chat. All these little moments of help along the way were rather like gifts. So, the answer to your question has to be, yes, I had lots of assistance.

Lots of us have enjoyed watching Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman's Long Way Down and Long Way Round - how do their trips compare to the real thing?
These two guys have a huge number of admirers and quite rightly so. They have achieved something special and quite frankly, I think they have done an incredible amount of good for the world of adventure motorcycling in particular. Not only that, but they have opened a lot of eyes to the beauty of our world and to the possibility of adventure. There are a lot more dreamers out there now than there were before, and a surprising number of those dreamers are making their adventures live. But would I want to travel as they do? Absolutely not. There is a vast difference between the way Ewan and Charlie travel, and the way that the ordinary bloke in the street can make an adventure on two wheels happen. Charlie and Ewan are out there to make documentaries, and that’s great. It allows us all to see some spectacular parts of the world. But I want impromptu adventure. I want to be surprised every day. I want to have the freedom to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. It’s those side turnings again. I love them. One of the things that used to frustrate me about travelling with a rucksack was that too often I’d be on a bus or a train and zipping past the very things that I really ought to be stopping to take a look at. Being on a motorcycle gives you tremendous freedom and in a very affordable way. A motorcycle is also a fantastic ice breaker between strangers. So many conversations in strange lands started off with questions about the bike first. Safe ground for many I suppose, as motorcycles are all over the world.

Your latest book "Distant Suns" covers trips through Africa and South America - there must have been some pretty hairy moments along the way - which was your worst.
Ah, well, I’m a bit of a disaster magnet. Things go pear shaped on me all the time, but the thing that constantly amazes me is that every time something goes wrong, something wonderful happens as a direct result.

There have been some pretty dodgy riding moments over the years and on my way through Africa the first time, I managed to get myself shot at twice, arrested three times, jailed, and had a seventeen bone fracture accident crossing the desert in Namibia. But they were just the off days.

In Distant Suns I suppose that the day my bike was about to blow up and I’d not noticed, was a pretty tense moment. I’d just filled my 43-litre petrol tank and was happily riding along with the satisfying sense of security a full tank gives you, when some of the stitching on my tank panniers disintegrated and one of the bags fell down to sit on the very hot cylinders. That was bad enough, but I made this worse by stuffing a candle into that bag at the last moment when we’d been packing up for the days ride. This candle melted from the heat and turned the canvas tank bag into a huge ball of flames, right next door to the petrol tank.

At one stage I ended up being medivac’d back from Chile to the UK with a badly damaged back. The docs said I needed an operation that would give a fifty percent chance of me ending up in a wheel chair. Not happy times at all, but the girl in the cabin crew on the way back was fun. I’m lying on the stretcher and she offered me a glass of champagne. This was far nicer an experience that the one with ‘Olga the shot putter’, but you’ll have to read Distant Suns for the full story.

Perhaps I can put it this way, my guardian angel must have been caught napping, but she more than made up for that moment of inattention with what happened next.

What inspired you the most throughout each of your journeys?
Can I make my answer a ‘who’ please? People are the inspiration for me on a journey such as mine. I am constantly surprised and delighted by the kindness and open warmth of people throughout our world to a stranger. It makes me think very hard about the way I treat visitors to my own land.

We hear so little about other countries that doesn’t involve political scandal or war, but the reality is that the world is made up of amazing people, most of whom, more or less, have the same ambitions in life as any of us do. We want to survive and to have a level of comfort. It comes back to such basics as a roof over our heads and food in our stomachs.
 
What is the most important thing to bring along on one of these journeys?
Great question! But I can’t answer it with just one thing. My answer has to be respect for others, an open mind, and a hunger to learn. A sense of humor also goes a long way.

You have written about many sticky situations on your travels - what was your most daring escape?
This is a really hard question to answer. I’m not sure if any of my escapes have been particularly daring. Most of them have been down to plain luck. I mean, how lucky was I when I fell off the bike in Namibia, that two Germany holiday makers in a 4x4 came along. It was a really remote area with almost no traffic. I’d waited for four days for another vehicle to link up with, before finally setting out to make the crossing on my own. Peter and Edith saved my life, and if Edith hadn’t had such awareness and presence of mind, I’d be blind now, even if I had lived.

And I’ll never forget the three Hells Angels in Australia who rescued me after an accident just north of Brisbane. I really should mention Kulap the Thai prostitute who saved my life too.

There are so many tales to tell. Like I said, I’m a bit of a disaster magnet. Thankfully, my tales do all have happy endings. Life should be like that in an ideal world, shouldn’t it?

How did you support yourself along the way?  Did you raise money before you left or do jobs to pay your way?
This is always one of the killers of adventure isn’t it. You have to have money, even if you do have the ability to travel on a thin budget.

I’d been working very long days for about three years before I decided to hand in my notice, and to learn to ride a bike. The long hours meant that I didn’t have much of a chance to spend the money I was earning. To get the rest of the money together, well, I sold everything I had.

It was a very liberating and rather exciting feeling to sell my house and contents, and my car. A houseful of things went down to just a few cardboard boxes in my mother’s loft. But I also worked along the way. Over thirty jobs during the eight years I was on the road. Most of the jobs were typical backpacker types of things; construction work, fruit picking and so on. Most of them were for just a week or two. The thing about the jobs though was that sometimes I didn’t work for money, just for the chance to experience something I wouldn’t at home and for the opportunity to be in one place doing something repetitive for a few days.

One of the problems of a very long journey is that it’s possible to become what I call ‘travel blind’. That’s when you spend more time thinking about getting somewhere than you do about where you are along the way. A week or so of doing some job or other gets you back on the road with a fresh and hungrily open mind again.

In a way it’s a series of repeats of some of the sensation of starting out on the trip at the very beginning. It’s a buzz that I love; the more of it I can get the better.

You have travelled alone and with other people - what do you think is the best way to experience this kind of adventure?  Do you meet more people alone?
I spent the first four years travelling mostly on my own, but the reality is that you are almost never alone. There are always people to meet and new friends to be made. Funnily enough, its one of the reasons I like travelling by bike. I enjoy the fact that when I’m on the bike with my helmet on, I have some privacy.

It’s a weird sort of privacy though. It’s not like shutting the door on your house and taking refuge out of sight in a comfortable armchair. On a bike, your senses still zing. You smell the changing scents of the journey; you hear the noises of the farms, of people laughing, or a baby crying. You feel the changes of temperature too. The fact that no one can talk to you as you are riding in your own little helmet sized thought bubble, is a bonus that allows you to really appreciate the fact that your senses are working overtime in such a wonderful way.

The problem is that this freedom and the ability to wake up each day and think, ‘What do I want to do today?’ means that you run the risk of becoming a rather selfish two-wheeled hermit.

When I started to travel with my partner Birgit, I had a bit of a shock. It was really weird to have to think, ‘I wonder what we can do today?’ It took a few months for the selfishness to rub off me, but then the time together was pure bonus. The key for me is that to travel with someone, I have to really like them, and they have to really like me. There has to be complete openness and trust, even when the former can be difficult to hold to sometimes. Once we had settled into travelling together I felt as if a whole new world had opened up. There was something spectacular about sitting looking at an amazing view together. Often no words were needed. Travelling with Birgit also meant that I ended up going to see things that I’d not have bothered with on my own. Each time that happened, I realized that I’d been given the opportunity to do something special and to learn something new.

Do I meet more people when I’m on my own? Yes, very much so. This comes down, I think, to the way that others perceive you. When you are with someone else you are seen to be a self-contained, self-reliant unit. When you are on your own you are more vulnerable, and this vulnerability means that you are less of a threat to a person who wishes to talk to you.

Interestingly though, when I am travelling with someone else, particularly a girl, I end up meeting a cross section of people that I as a single man would not meet. This often happens in Moslem countries. If a girl is with me then I am invited more into local people’s homes.
 
What advice would you give to someone considering undertaking a similar trip?
Just do it. Don’t spend too much time planning. If you do, the chances are you’ll scare yourself with the thoughts of the things that can go wrong. Oh, and if you aren’t sure you will need an item of kit, don’t take it. Keep your weight to a minimum. That rule applies to any sort of budget travel.

What else? Travel as slowly as you can. By doing that you won’t be rushing from one stress point to another. By stress points I mean such things as border crossings, visa applications and the like. If you travel slowly you have time to take your eyes away from where your foot is going next, to the world that surrounds you.
 
What bikes did you use on your travels and which was your favourite?
My bike was an R80GS BMW. Two guys in the pub suggested it to me. One said that it was bullet proof and his friend said it was idiot proof. So I thought I ought to have one. They were right, bullet and idiot proof. She’s called Libby, which is short of Liberty, because that’s what she gives me.

Birgit used a vintage BMW R60/5. He’s retired now. He coped well with the adventure but his brakes are just a little too unreliable for the rush of modern traffic in the first world. He is called Sir Henry the Hybrid. He’s an old gentleman and is now made up of parts from seven different bikes.

You are currently writing a new book, what is it about and when will it be out?
The book is called ‘Sidetracked. From Tortillas to Totems on Two Wheels’. It takes the reader through the wonderfully diverse country of Mexico and then on up along some of the most beautiful roads in the world through the USA and Canada. Disaster follows me as usual, and so do the happy endings each time.

Actually, I really wasn’t sure if I wanted to head on up into the USA and Canada. I like third and second world countries, but Birgit really wanted to get to Alaska. I think part of the fear for me was that North America was going to be a little too easy after over six years on the roads of the developing world. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I loved it. It was an intriguing and challenging case of reverse culture shock.

As for Alaska, you’ll have to read the book to find out what happens. ‘Sidetracked’ is being launched at the famous Ace Café in London on Saturday the 18th of September. If any of your readers can make it, I’d be delighted to see them there. It should be a full and buzzy afternoon at a great venue.

What is your next adventure going to be?
Actually we are not long back from riding motorcycles in Vietnam, but we are going to escape somewhere later on in the spring. Only for a month or so and we’ve no idea where yet. I suspect that we might leave deciding where to go until the last minute, and see where we end up.

I’m going to be spending the bulk of this year doing signings at shows, and talks at motorcycle and travel clubs. I’m also writing articles for a couple of magazines here in the UK and for one in the USA. The aim is to share the fun and with a bit of luck, to encourage people to get out and explore. In the end, the objectives of my books are to share the fun and to help people realise that you don’t have to be anyone special to have a great adventure.

Thank you Sam - it's been a pleasure talking to you.

www.sam-manicom.com

 

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