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10 Motorcycle adventures with danger guaranteed

Anyone can have a nice, easy, safe, overland trip. But some people prefer to make things a little more difficult for themselves. Lois Pryce explains how and why

In the words of the song, things ain’t what they used to be, or at least that’s what the overlanding old-timers will have you believe. They say there’s no real adventure left in this world, not with all these satellite phones and GPS and internet cafes on every corner. Where’s the danger? Where’s the thrill? Where’s the heart-stopping, nail-chewing, white-knuckle fear? You can’t even get properly lost anymore!

Well, they may have a point. Never has worldwide motorcycle travel been so darn easy – today’s bikes are more reliable than ever, you can find all the info you want, buy all the stuff you need (and don’t need) with a click of a mouse and before you know it, you’re off on your Trip of a Lifetime™.

But in other ways, global motorcycle travel has never been more difficult. Everything changed on September 11th 2001 and now the so-called Axis of Evil has turned a huge swathe of the planet into a no-go area for all but the most determined. And the Sahara, once the ultimate wilderness playground for European desert riders, and of course, host to the Dakar Rally, is now riddled with gun-toting extremists and crackpot political groups with a nice line in kidnapping.

Back in the day, when Britannia ruled not just the waves, but most of the world too, an intrepid motorcyclist could quite happily trot across Africa or Asia with no bureaucratic hoo-hah at all. A border crossing would involve nothing more taxing than a salute from a safari-suited colonel and if you were lucky, a nice cup of tea. No expensive visas, no angry comments about your country’s foreign policy, and certainly no palm-greasing of shifty uniformed men with gold teeth. But those heady days when a British passport provided some sort of superior status in the world are long gone, as are the embassy soirees and afternoon tea with the ambassador and his wife.

These days, if it all goes wrong, don’t even think about the Foreign Office stepping in. You’re on your own.

Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and common sense will realise that motorcycling in strange lands is on the whole a fun, exciting and yes, largely safe business. Most people come back alive from their motorcycle adventures. Of course they have a few hair-raising tales to tell, but hey, it wouldn’t be an adventure otherwise would it? But even The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, that trusty bible for all overland riders, features a crucial piece of small print at the beginning: ‘Global travel by motorcycle is unpredictable and can be dangerous’. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Most adventure motorcyclists stick to established routes, avoid the trouble spots and make it back in one piece. But there will always be a small hardcore of riders who are not just out there for the sunshine and the cheap beer. They are answering some primeval call to seek out the darker corners of the world – the lawless desert lands, the feral cities of failed states, the uncharted minefields, the ravaged war zones. Some may call them brave, some may call them foolish – you decide. But if you can feel adventure calling and you know deep down in your soul that the South of France just ain’t gonna cut it this time, you may want to consider a tour of these ten holiday hotspots…

So if you think you're ready to discard the shackles of safety, read on.

10. UK

10. UK

Bad news I’m afraid. There’s more chance of you being killed on your motorcycle on Britain’s roads than of being kidnapped in Colombia, bombed in Baghdad or shot at in Somalia. You have two choices:

  1. Stay at home and never get on a bike again.
  2. Get out there and have an adventure.

Remember, the first choice will take the rest of your life and be painful.

09. Republic of Chad

09. Republic of Chad

This poverty-stricken African country on the edge of the Sahara hit the news a couple of years ago when the French air force flew in to battle the rebel uprising in the capital city of Ndjamena. Northern Chad has been a no-go zone for as long as anyone can remember and the chaos of neighbouring Darfur has spilled into the east of the country, bringing the usual African cocktail of banditry, car-jackings, landmines, robbery and murder.

Ndjamena is virtually a war-zone after dark, patrolled by armed gangs, and most inhabitants scuttle home by 7pm, batten down the hatches and hope to live to see another day. Paranoia among the authorities is rife – wielding a camera in public will have you arrested – or worse, and arriving on a motorcycle will attract plenty of attention. Most trans-African riders give Chad a miss but a few brave souls have made it in and out alive. They just may not have the photos to prove it.

08. Nigeria

08. Nigeria

I sneaked in and out of Nigeria with no problems but according to my Nigerian step-mother, I was lucky. Even she warned me against visiting her home country – a hotbed of corruption, carjackings, scams, kidnapping and utter madness.

Whatever you do, take plenty of toilet paper, unlike poor Gideon Akaluka, a Christian trader who was imprisoned in 1994 for tearing a page out of the Koran, allegedly for such a purpose. Fortunately he was sprung from jail. Unfortunately, a gang of Muslim students who cut off his head and paraded it around the streets on a stick.

Stay clear of this kind of thing and you’ll have a great time. Most trans-Africa riders make it through Nigeria with nothing more dodgy than a few requests for ‘gifts’ at the police checkpoints. Par for the course in Africa…

07. Iraq

07. Iraq

Topping the kidnapping charts, it seems that the fabled Arab hospitality has reached new heights in Iraq. Sure, being taken in by the locals is one of the highlights of foreign travel, but it is nice to know you can leave if you want to, and preferably with your head intact.

The northern state of Kurdistan is said to be safe and welcoming to overland travellers but suicide and vehicle bombs, rocket and mortar attacks and shootings are still all too common elsewhere in the country. There is, amazingly, a minister for tourism, who, although not exactly claiming overtime, is keen to promote Iraq as the birthplace of civilisation, which seems kinda ironic.

06. Somalia

06. Somalia

Somalia is a failed state. In fact it’s the number one failed state in the world and the only country to which the Foreign Office advise against all travel. It is a lawless nation where the government has no power over its people. Corruption, piracy and crime are widespread, there are two-million assault rifles in Mogadishu alone, and the whole place is run by a bunch of insane war-lords and gun-toting child soldiers stoned on qat.

As you can imagine, tourism in Somali is not exactly a booming industry. Any former tourist sites are bombed to smithereens and the animals of the national parks have all been eaten, but if you’re still tempted you can peruse Mogadishu’s market and pick up a hand grenade for a fiver. Outside of the capital the roads are totally dilapidated and improvised roadblocks pop up everywhere so be prepared for pretty much anything.

Unsurprisingly, I have not heard of any motorcyclists riding through Somalia for many years but if you do fancy a punt, the advice on the ground is to hire a bunch of locals in a heavily-armed Toyota pick-up to protect you from, er… the locals in heavily-armed Toyota pick-ups.

05. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

05. Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Entering DRC was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my entire African ride. But what do you expect from a country that spent thirty-two years under the reign of a dictator whose name translates as ‘The All Powerful Warrior Who, because of His Endurance and Inflexible Will to Win, Will Go from Conquest to Conquest, Leaving Fire in his Wake’? Yes, seriously.

This is a country where rebel groups impale the heads of their victims on their car aerials, burn babies, rape, pillage and literally chop up anyone who gets in their way. Oh, and don’t forget, the Congo is also home to Ebola, the lethal flesh-eating disease. Strangely enough, getting a visa can be tricky but many eager motorcyclists try every year. There’s something terrifyingly compelling about the place.

04. Colombia

04. Colombia

Africa and Asia have the monopoly on dangerous countries these days, but let’s not forget good old Latin America, once the home of so much terrorism and violence. Whatever happened to The Shining Path, The Sandinistas and The Zapatistas? These days it seems the Muslims have all the fun.

Well fear not, although Colombia has recently lost its Kidnap Capital of the World crown to Iraq, it’s still up there in the top three with about three-thousand kidnappings a year, not to mention the bombings and violent robbery. When I was there in 2003 I narrowly missed a bomb attack on a video store in Bogota (not something you normally consider when popping into Blockbuster) but for other motorcycle travellers the reality of Colombia’s political situation has been a truly terrifying experience.

In 2001, American motorcycle traveller, Glenn Heggstad, aka the Striking Viking was kidnapped by the ELN, one of Colombia’s terrorist groups. He was force-marched into the jungle at gunpoint and held for several weeks until he made a daring and miraculous escape. Ecuadorian motorcyclist, Ricardo Rocco was captured by the FARC, Colombia’s other major terrorist group. Ironically, he was on a trip visiting schools to promote world peace and when the rebels found his literature, they were so impressed with his campaign that they let him go.

Most riders make their way through Colombia with no problems and plenty of good times but if you do head that way and a bunch of guys jump out in front of you with AK47s, don’t stop – unless you’re into beatings and mock executions. In which case just stay at home and find a nice lady who offers that kind of service.

03. Angola

03. Angola

Twenty-five years of civil war, a vicious conflict over oil and diamonds, a life expectancy of forty-five, a total lack of infrastructure and, despite Princess Di’s efforts, fifteen-million landmines. It’s probably a fair bet that Angola isn’t going to be featuring in Club Med’s brochure any time soon. Having said all that, I rode through Angola in 2007 and had a fantastic time! It was probably the most gruelling 1300 miles of my life but it was one hell of an adventure.

The civil war is over but the biggest threat to the motorcyclist remains the abundance of mines throughout the country. Rural areas are the most heavily mined with the verges of the road being a particularly popular location. This means no pulling over at the side of the road to check the map, have a snack, or answer the call of nature. All of these activities have to be undertaken in the middle of the road, often with amusing consequences.
When I say ‘road’ I use the term loosely. There are no roads. There are just churned up muddy or rocky tracks that are so deeply flooded in the rainy season that you are forced on to the very verges you’re trying to avoid.

Rusting tanks lie abandoned, any road signs that once existed are riddled with bullet holes, and navigation can be tricky in remote areas where multiple tracks lead off in all directions. A situation like this led me fifty yards into a minefield by accident. Riding back out of it was probably the scariest fifty yards I have ever ridden in my life. Does it sound strange to say I can’t wait to go back to Angola?

02. The Sahara desert

02. The Sahara desert

The mighty Sahara has always represented the world’s greatest motorcycle challenge and in my own experience, crossing the Sahara was truly the most exciting riding of my life.

If you want danger, it’s got it all. The sheer magnitude of it (it’s the size of the USA), the remoteness, the lethal heat, the snakes and scorpions, the minefields, the deep sand, the vast dune fields, the rocky pistes, the lack of water and the sheer stamina required to ride in these conditions day after day. There’s a lot to go wrong in the Sahara, as many poorly prepared travellers have found out the hard way.

You’d think all this is enough for it to qualify as one of the world’s most dangerous places. But in the last few years your chances of a trouble-free Saharan trip have got a whole lot worse thanks to the kidnapping antics of AQIM (Al-Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb), a North African militia group that has captured travellers across the desert in Algeria, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Mali and even the relative civilisation of Tunisia.

In February 2003 Chris Scott, author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook and Sahara Overland, crashed badly in the Algerian Sahara. Little did he realise at the time that had he kept the rubber side down, he would have ridden straight into the path of an ambush. The kidnappers were just around the corner, busy capturing thirty-two European travellers, including several motorcyclists in a series of coordinated snatches across Algeria.
Since then there has been a glut of kidnapping and banditry across the Sahara with what Chris Scott refers to as the Nexus of Nastiness being in north and north-east Mali and more recently in Niger where a French man was kidnapped in April this year and a number of British motorcyclists have recently fallen victim of bandits.

If you still have a yearning to tackle the biggest desert in the world on your bike, make sure you take plenty of sunscreen and a good book; you may be gone a while.

01. Afghanistan

01. Afghanistan

Back in the ’70s almost every motorcycle journey from the UK to India passed through Afghanistan as a matter of course. It was a popular backpacker’s destination and a favourite stop-off for idealistic hippy types on their way to the mystic East. Kabul was an exciting, cosmopolitan city and its dusty streets were filled with long-haired, loon-panted European youngsters smoking hookah pipes and shopping for exotic trinkets in its street markets. My, how things have changed. There’s a war going on there now, in case you hadn’t realised, and we’re in it. Nevertheless, a handful of hardy motorcyclists are still venturing forth into the Taliban’s homeland.

According to a US Marine friend, it’s not the insurgents, the roadside bombs or the Afghan army you need to worry about, it’s actually the American military who could end up taking a potshot at you. Motorcycles are a favourite form of transport for suicide bombers so the GIs might get a bit twitchy when they spot you getting your knee down in the Khyber Pass. A top-tip – don’t even think about overtaking that US army truck – you will be shot. Questions will be asked later.

If you do make it to the relative safety of Kabul, you could do worse than look up the Kabul Knights, Afghanistan’s first ever motorcycle club. Founded by Australian photo-journalist Travis Beard, the KKMC now boasts ten members, including women, who make regular trips into the mountains surrounding the capital city.

But if the thought of going it alone in Afghanistan sounds a bit scary, the solution lies with two super hardcore Polish motorcyclists, Sambor and Izi of www.advfactory.com. These fearless Poles organise two-week guided tours in the Wakhan region of Afghanistan on Africa Twins. Now wouldn’t that be a holiday story worth telling back in the office?

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