When we attended the Overland Expo in Arizona a few weeks ago (or as some have called it, the “Snoverland Expo”) I met a bunch of interesting people. One of the people I saw but didn’t meet was Sam Manicom. I had no idea who Sam Manicom is, so when this quiet and friendly-looking guy stopped by the CSC booth and left a flyer, I barely noticed him. I stuck the flyer in my pocket, from there it went into my saddlebag for the freeway blast back to California, and a week or so ago I actually looked at the thing.
My first reaction was that I had missed an opportunity. Had I heard of Sam I would not have let him slip in and out of our booth without a conversation. Just a few lines into the flyer I knew I wanted to read his books.
Sam is a true adventure rider, and he’s written several books about his exploits. I wrote to him, he wrote back, and as soon as I’m done writing this blog I’m ordering a copy of each of his books. (You can do so here.)
Sam sent a copy of an interview to me and he gave me permission to use it on the CSC blog. I found it very interesting and Sam, I’m going to take you up on that offer…
An Interview with Sam Manicom
Who is Sam Manicom?
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 1 year journey turned into 8 years and 200,000 miles around the world.
Sam describes himself as a traveler first, a motorcyclist and then an author. He’s written 4 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.
Bearing in mind that you’ve travelled in so many different ways, what is it that excites you about motorcycle travel so much?
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 6,000ish miles long. I rode 22,000 miles, because there was so much to see, and I could. I spent just over 2 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 I like. 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 that 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.
Why did you choose your bike?
I ended up on a BMW R80GS because to guys in the pub told me that they were both bullet-proof and idiot proof. It sounded the sort of thing I needed! I’d been riding a bike for just 3 months when I got to the edge of Africa so for sure it needed to be idiot proof. I don’t think they meant bullet proof as in being shot at, but that happened a couple of times. They gave me great advice!
Now I know that actually it doesn’t matter what bike you ride so long as you like riding it and it’s in good mechanical repair. One of the keys with choosing a bike is to work out what you want from your trip. Mostly off-road? An asphalt cruise with gravel in the mix? The thing is, on a longer trip you are rarely going to ride above 50mph and of course a smaller bike is easier to pick up when you drop it, and drop it you will. (Note from Joe: Check out our blog on this topic: Why a 250?) I even dropped mine once, by, wait for it… stepping on a banana skin! Good job I have a sense of humour.
You are a bit of a disaster magnet aren’t you? You fell critically ill in Thailand and I’m right in thinking that you were saved by a prostitute?
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’. (Another note from Joe…check out our blog on this very same subject and how Justin set the standard while we were on the Baja ride.) It’s not that I go looking for disasters but 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 2 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; working 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 veranda 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 that 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.
You’ve been arrested in several countries haven’t you, but what happened in Chennai in India?
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 other travellers were unlikely to. Ports are just one of those situations and usually I enjoy the inevitably sweaty chase through them. They are a world of their own with all the traditions and 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 5 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…
On a big ride everyone is going to make mistakes. Which one of yours leaps into mind?
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 that 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 at the roadsides, they didn’t look that way to me at all. Every section of road was a battle to stay upright; to survive even. The warning tingle that frostbite was an issue buzzed in my finger tips 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.
Have you ever feared for your life?
Yes. The first time was during the initial weeks of the 8 year trip around the world! I mentioned 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 attempt 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 definitely didn’t ride on purpose at the man who stepped out in front of me. Being thrown into a jail cell with 20 men is the scariest moment of my life. And when I realised that rape was in one of the guys minds… Thankfully fate didn’t let this situation head any further in this direction.
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve met on your travels?
The world is full of fascinating people. In fact I’d be happy to lay money on the point that at least 95% of the world’s population are basically 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 with him telling 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!
What drives you to put yourself in potentially dangerous situations?
Well I do get carried away with my curiosity from time to time and maybe I have a different 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. (Note from Joe: I agree completely. Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, and I am very excited about the possibility of riding Colombia on an RX3!) 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 such things as, ‘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’ve survived the place I’ve 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.
Do you think travelling by bike makes your journey more dangerous?
No not at all, unless perhaps I choose to make it so. I don’t have to rely on dodgy bus drivers to control my destiny. Some trains around the world look as if they would be happier on a scrap heap and if I can see a potentially difficult situation going on in front of me, I can change my route. A bus has a schedule and a route it has to work to. There’s no doubt that in some countries size is what matters. But that’s simple to deal with. If it’s bigger than you and it wants to go first? Let it. Why not? You soon lose any element of machismo and rules of the road are things you learn each time you go into a new country. Looking back on India, I was literally run off the road 12 times in just one day. There the buses and trucks are dictators, and I don’t think I’d look good as a bonnet ornament on a TATA truck! There is one other thing. People don’t feel threatened by you when you are out in the open. Perversely, your vulnerability to the world makes you less of a target.
What did you learn from your ‘living on the edge’ experiences?
Take your time and keep calm. Think positively and positive things are most likely to happen. Don’t be afraid of people, but show them respect and even in the worst situations you are most likely to get respect in return. Trust your instincts. If something looks dodgy and has the feeling that it’s not right, then that’s the way it probably is. Never be afraid to turn around; there’s always another adventure waiting to happen. Know that every time something goes wrong, it’s the start of a new and unexpected adventure. They are often the most fun!
Is there anything you regret?
Yes, that I had to stop the 8-year ride.
What advice would you give people looking for an adventure?
The three most important things any traveler can take with them are an open mind, a smile and a handshake. These three forms of friendly respect open doors to opportunities and take away so many of the dangers. Really.
Can I give you random thoughts as they pop into my mind?
Work out what you really want from your adventures. Is your priority to visit museums, to lay on white sand beaches, to climb every mountain, to…
If you are planning to travel with someone else, make sure that you know what their aims are and that you make sure they understand yours.
Don’t be afraid of the unknown; revel in the fact that there is so much to learn and to become involved with.
Do your homework so you can take advantage of as many aspects of your journey as there are available. Don’t over plan but enjoy the learning curve. For me a good third of an adventure comes from this stage.
Don’t overload yourself with kit that ‘may’ be useful. If you don’t have something you need, either buy it along the way or get it sent out to you. Both are amazingly easy to do. Battling with too much stuff can make an adventure into a chore.
Learn about the cultures and customs of other lands, so you understand more about where you are travelling and so that you don’t risk offending others through your ignorance.
Enjoy meeting people – don’t be afraid of making a fool of yourself. Buying a chicken dinner in a land where you know little of the language can be great fun and can make you friends.
(Note from Joe: Wow, that all sounds familiar. Check out our blog on preparing for the Baja ride!)
Do learn how to say the basics in the new languages you come across. Hello, please, thank you, which is the way to? These things will stand you in great stead. As will learning how to say, ‘Don’t be silly, I’m not paying that much!’
While you are travelling, pay a lot of attention to local knowledge – all sorts of opportunities can open up as a result and you can steer clear of dodgy situations too.
Pay good attention to weather patterns, visa conditions and the health situation – what inoculations should you have and how long do they take to organise.
Make sure you have a top rate travel insurance policy – preferably one that includes repatriation in case something goes badly wrong.
Work out how much you think your budget should be and then add half again. You are free to deal with most eventualities and opportunities then.
Write a will before you go and make sure your family know exactly what you want to happen. You can save everyone a lot of grief by doing so.
Write a journal. You’ll be on intake overload. It’s so easy to forget the things that happen.
Don’t get bogged down with blogs and websites. Go out and live your dream. Become a stranger in strange lands. That’s so much harder to do when you are under pressure to find wifi and to make regular reports home. Cut that umbilical cord!
Travel slowly. You could be on an adventure of a lifetime. Go too fast and like as not you’ll belt on past the good stuff!
And finally, really, don’t get bogged down with the prep and don’t let fear get in the way. Let your fear become a trip enhancer! It’s an anticipation thing not a negative.
Why did you decide to write books and in fact, was that the aim of your trip?
Gosh, far from it. I set out to ride through Africa because I loved travel but wanted to do something different. It was all about the opportunity to explore new things and yes I know this sounds corny, to find out more about what I was capable of. So adventure and learning were my aim. I guess I also liked the idea of a long break!
Once I’d fallen in love with the idea of travelling by motorcycle and all the freedom and opportunities it gives you, I decided not to go home. From Africa I headed for Australia and across Asia. There, spending 3 months stuck waiting for a visa for Iran, I was encouraged to have a go at writing articles. To my amazement a magazine in the UK took them and asked for more. I submitted more as the journey continued through Africa again, then across to South, Central and North America.
When I got back to the UK, the magazine editor told me that he was getting letters and emails from readers saying they liked my articles and wanted to know when my book was coming out. What book?
I wrote my first book Into Africa revelling in the fact that doing so was another new adventure, but knowing that I could well be doing something daft and quite useless. Nothing ventured nothing gained though. I guess it was a bit like looking at a hundred remote miles of really rough dirt track and thinking shall I? Why the hell not. If I don’t try then I’ll never know.
You’ll imagine my delight when people liked it and were asking, “What happened next?” I stopped my full time job and settled into writing my next three books. Each time thinking that I might ‘fall off’ but thankfully that’s not been the case. You know, the real reason for me writing them is to share the fun of the road. I wrote about that in the Prologue for Into Africa http://www.sam-manicom.com/into-africa/prologue/
Sam’s books – Into Africa, Under Asian Skies, Distant Suns and Tortillas to Totems, are available as paperbacks and in e-book format, with Into Africa and Under Asian Skies now available as audio books from Audible and i-tunes. Distant Suns is due to be released as an audio book in the spring of 2016. The paperbacks are available with free worldwide delivery from The Book Depository. If you’d like a signed copy, order direct from Sam via his website www.sam-manicom.com where you’ll also find interviews with Sam and more background information.
Sam, thanks for sharing your knowledge with us and for sending a copy of this great interview! I’m really looking forward to receiving your books!