September 15, 2012

Exclusive Interview With Sam Manicom, World Traveler

Motorcycle journalist and world traveler Sam Manicom is not only a gifted writer, but also an adventure seeker with open eyes and an open heart. In his first book "Into Africa" he takes us on a journey of discovery of not only a beautiful and magnetic land, but also of himself and his relationship to his motorcycle.
I had the pleasure to read 2 of his books and although always busy riding his trusted BMW around the world, he was kind enough to share some of his experiences.

When I think about challenging bike trips, Africa is right up there on top of my list along with the “road of bones”. However, you decided it would be a good idea to ride from England, through Europe and then cross the whole length of Africa for your very first big bike trip. And you did that only a few months after learning how to actually ride a bike!
My first question is: Was the decision dictated by pannier-sized balls, or was it carefree ignorance, which is the companion of youth?

Actually, the simple answer is that it seemed like a great idea at the time. I've travelled before by bicycle and with a backpack and I know from those experiences that actually, you can be over-prepared. So much so that I've seen people put off by what they've learnt. Sometimes a level of ignorance is bliss.
However, there are key things you do need to be aware of and I tried to cover those while I was getting ready though I need to go. Most of which are really easy to find out about from websites. You need to know about such things as visas, weather patterns, likely road conditions and local customs. For example, some visas start when you cross the border into the country, but some start rolling when you buy it. With the weather there are some parts of the world where its not such a good idea to be riding when for example, the monsoon is likely to hit, or where rains can turn mud roads into a nightmare. And with local customs? I think that travellers have the responsibility to know about the people whose countries they are going to be travelling through. We westerners use a thumbs up as a sign of appreciation; some cultures consider this to be the ultimate insult. But by learning about the cultures of a country you'll also be allowing yourself the chance to get beneath the skin of a country and what a hugely valuable thing that is!
Knowing about the people will also help you when things go wrong; its much easier to ask for help when you respect the environment a person lives in. . Most people in this world of ours are wonderful to be with. Very few want to kill you or rob you. Treat people with respect and they will treat you with respect too. It helps you get around the need for large balls.

On your many travels you’ve encountered a great variety of people. Are you still in contact with any of them? Who really sticks out and why?

Good grief, I’ve never been asked this question before and what a good one it is too. People make so much of your adventure happen with a smile. I’m convinced that most people in this world of ours are good and ones, and travel because of them restores your faith in human nature.

I’ve met many amazing people over the years. The motorcycle has been the ice breaker between us in that it’s given us something to talk about that we instantly have in common. But to answer your question. I try not to use email, Facebook and the like when I’m travelling so it all comes down to using the post and to taking people’s names and addresses. On my 8 year adventure around the world, such things were in their infancy
anyway so keeping in touch with people has been hard. We humans do have the habit of moving on. A quote I like about people from "Horizons Unlimited" is, ‘They may only be in your life for a short time but nearly always leave a lasting impression’ 

Since I’ve been back I have managed to link up with some people again. An example of those people are Heather and Chris in Kampala Uganda. I stayed with them on my way down through Africa and then again on the second time through with my partner Birgit. Such hospitality, but the key thing is the insight that the two of them gave me into real life in Uganda. That’s so hard for a traveller to do; sadly, even if you are travelling slowly, you do run the risk of skating over the surface of countries, peoples and their cultures.
That’s a shame! It’s a wasted opportunity.

Of course the English couple I travelled with for some time during the first months I was on the road are people I’ll never forget. We may hardly ever see each other but that bond is very special for me. The adventures and dramas we had together were quite wonderful, and very dangerous at times!

When reading your books I saw you had your fair share of what many people would call “(un)fortunate coincidences”, but you often talk about your “biker guardian angel”. Can you tell me more about it?

I’m a bit of a magnet for disaster if truth be known. If there’s trouble on the way, it’s likely to find me. But fortunately as you say, I have a guardian angel and though she has a snooze from time to time, she always gets me out of trouble again. What sort of trouble?

Well, in Africa alone I was shot at twice, arrested three times, thrown in jail (still the scariest moment of my life) and had a seventeen bone fracture accident crossing the desert in Namibia. But you know, the most spectacular adventures always happened as a result of my, um, mishaps!

And of course there was the time I was in an accident in Australia and was rescued from that by different angels – Hells Angels to be precise! And my life was saved by a prostitute in Thailand and… Well, during the eight years that I rode round the world my guardian angel was kept busy!

On your first trip through Africa you started on a BMW, and on the way you started naming your bike Libby, for ‘Liberty’. How did your relationship to your bike change from being just a useful machine to being a trusted companion?

That was a slow process. For most of the ride across Europe I was scared of the thing and I really wasn't in control of it. For the first months in Africa I felt more like some sort of motorcycle accessory that had been attached to the back of the bike than the person who was supposed to be in control.

But then, one day I suddenly realized that I was no longer having to ‘tell’ it what to do. We were riding as a team and thinking together. Any motorcyclist will know what I mean by that comment.

And from that time onwards she became a sort of friend and I learnt to read the sound she was making. You do build up a weird sort of relationship with your bike when it’s just you and it in the world every day. I grew to trust her and she turned from being ‘The Bike’, to her and then to Libby. She’s been such a reliable bike too.

The freedom and security she’s given me has been phenomenal and the opportunities riding her have been unsurpassed. I mean, on a bus or a train I’d be travelling past things of interest, unable to get off to look. Libby allowed me to explore to my heart’s content. That’s why I did over 22,000 miles on a continent that’s just 5,000 miles long. And, 200,000 miles around the world over the 8 years.

What bike or bikes are you riding when you’re at home?

I’m still riding Libby. She has 265,000 miles on her now and I’m just about to spend a month riding the trails and back roads of Spain on her.

Having travelled so extensively with your bike, is there still a place you’d like to explore on 2 wheels? Is there a new adventure on the horizon?

Well, I’ve only been lucky enough to get to 56 countries so far, so there are lots more places I’d like to see. Spain is the short term adventure but after that? Who knows. Perhaps the Eastern side of South America, the West of Africa, Central Europe and …

In the mean time though, I’m working on getting the word out about my 4 books. Into Africa, Under Asian Skies, Distant Suns (Southern Africa, South and Central America) and Tortillas to Totems (Mexico, the USA and Canada).

I’m also writing travel articles for several magazines around the world – the idea being to share the fun of the road and to show readers that you don’t have to be anyone special to be able to do a big trip. You do need luck and a really positive attitude! Then you can enjoy this amazing world of ours.


To find out more about Sam Manicom and his books, please visit his homepage.

1 comment:

Ben said...

Great interview!

I think I might have to go get myself a copy of that book...