A Chat With Motorcyclist, Global Traveler & Storyteller Sam Manicom

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Sam Manicom set out on a journey, said goodbye to life as we know it, and took off on a long motorcycle adventure.

There’s more though. For a sprinkle of added spice, Sam’s journey began at the edge of the Sahara desert after just 3 months of riding a bike. The plan? To spend a year riding the length of Africa on a 1991 BMW R80GS. Sam told me, “You know, if I hadn’t told my mates in the pub back home that I was going to make this trip, then perhaps, at that moment I might have turned around and gone home.”
He didn’t though, and this one-year trip turned into an eight-year, 200,000 mile epic across 55 countries around the world (Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Africa again, South, Central and North America).

But there’s a twist in this introduction. Sam has now four books published about the journey, and he never intended to write a thing. The point, for him, was to hunt out new adventures, but along the way, other travellers encouraged him to write magazine articles. He did this successfully over the latter 4 years of the ride, but he’s quick to point out,

“Writing never took over as being the point of the journey. Sometimes you find yourself in places for longer periods of time. It might be because you are on a Visa hunt, that takes longer than anticipated, or that you have simply found yourself in a place form where you really don’t want to leave in a hurry. I wrote all of my articles in times such as these. The journey is what really matters.”

His first book, “Into Africa” was written as a result of readers’ letters to magazine editors.

Sam has a fairly unusual background, in that he was born in the Belgian Congo in Central West Africa. His parents worked and lived through the two rebellions that preceded the change of the country’s name to Zaire. They brought the family home to England when he was ten years old, and for the first few years at school in the UK, he was known as ‘Jungle Boy’, he said with a wry grin.

His first big trip was a backpacking, seat of the pants voyage of discovery across Europe, India and Australia, which often saw him down to his last $10. On arrival in Australia, no one asked him if he had any money or a return ticket. He had neither. He told me that what was needed, he earned along the way, and this, he says, was a great learning curve.

“I suspect that without it my motorcycle journey would have been a far less rich experience. My biggest lessons were attitude and priorities. The original three-year backpacking trip taught me what an amazing place the world is.”

Though not looking for a girlfriend, Sam met his partner Birgit Schuenemann in New Zealand during year two of the trip. Sam says, “Birgit wasn’t looking for a boyfriend either; certainly not one like me!” After riding pillion with him for 3 months through Nepal and India, she joined him for the latter four years across Africa and the Americas. She was travelling by bicycle when they met, but transferred steeds to ride her own motorcycle, a classic 1971 BMW R60/5. She started her ride in Africa with just 600 miles of experience on a motorcycle…

Sam’s books are prescribed reading for any motorbike traveler, or indeed, anyone with the desire to explore. His four books complement each other extremely well, and cover a broad geographic scope: Under Asian Skies, Into Africa and Distant Suns(Southern Africa plus South and Central America). Also Tortillas to Totems (Mexico, the USA and Canada). I asked him if there was any particular reason for his decision to attempt to write the books in the first place:

“I guess it was a new challenge and I’d spent time during the last year or so, on the road, wondering what I could do with all that I’d learnt. Not only would trying to write a book be a new adventure, but I had another thought in mind. In part, my books are aimed at those fortunate enough to know, that they actually can go out and live the dream, with the hope that the books might encourage them to have a go.”

He said, “I hope this doesn’t sound horribly pompous, but when I was writing, I was doing so with full appreciation of exactly how fortunate I really am. I’ve been hugely lucky. I thought, if a person can’t do it, then they can at least live the dream with me. In particular I’ve written them for those who live in circumstances that may never allow them to ride two wheels into adventure. But I’ve also written them for those who love the sound of travelling, but are quite happy with adventure from the pages. No worries. I’m always drawn by tales of the road, and I know the value of a comfy armchair at the end of a long day. Who knows though, perhaps I might change a mind or two! “

What is it about his books, that have drawn the many good reviews they have, from both readers and the press?

“I’ve been very honest with what I’ve written. Yes I did daft things and I stuffed up on many occasions, but that’s all part of a big ride. I’ve also written about all the things I think go into making a journey. Each day is a wonderful mix of culture, politics, history, geography and of course people. I met some amazing people out there, and they really restored my faith in human nature. And, of course, I’ve written about the riding, and the fact that being on two wheels, with the whole of you exposed, means that all your senses are working on full power.

Before I set off, I had no idea how much this was going to be such a bonus and vital part of the journey. Riding this adventure by motorcycle is one of the best things I’ve ever done and what a great bike it was too – especially when I’d learnt how not to fall off all the time!”

In just his first year on the road, he was shot at twice, arrested three times, thrown in jail, and had a seventeen bone fracture accident crossing the desert in Namibia.

So riding bikes across the world is a pretty dangerous thing to be doing then, Sam?

“It is if you are a bit of a disaster magnet. Stuff kind of happens to me, but there’s always something spectacular that follows, as a direct result of things going pear-shaped. I’ve written about the mad, the scary, the beautiful, and the surprises. There were days that my ‘traveller’s guardian angel’ took time off without warning me, and I cost my medical insurance company a fortune! When my angel was there, the journey around the world was a combination of fascination and adrenaline-burning fun. But, she did seem to take a few too many siestas!”

What’s the best bit of reader’s feedback you’ve ever had?

“That’s an easy one. About six months after Into Africa was published, I had an email from a guy who’d ridden his bike as far as Nairobi in Kenya. He wrote, “Sam, I thought if an idiot like you could do this then so could I. I’m having a ball!” From that moment on, the book was a success for me and just that email encouraged me to crack on, and write the next three books.”

Sam at a book signing, with Austin Vince (left) and Paddy Tyson (centre), and on the way into Columbia (right).

Are your books very different to each other?

“Absolutely! It’s not only because they are about very varied parts of the world. Actually, that’s one of the things about the journey that I found fascinating. Each part of the world sounds different, smells different and of course the food tastes different. It’s also that each stage a book covers, sees very different things happening. For example, Africa is not only a fantastically challenging continent to ride, but I was a novice.

By the time I made it to Asia, there was more time to see what was going on around me; perfect timing. It’s an incredibly colorful part of the world. ‘Distant Suns’ is different if only because it’s in this book that Birgit and I start to ride together, and that throws a bunch of new aspects into the mix. As for riding the Andes, wow! Tortillas to Totems? Well, how diverse can three neighbouring countries get? And I do admit of a stack of preconceived ideas being blown out of the water!”

Sam, if you have one bit of advice for anyone dreaming of such an adventure, what would that be?

“Just do it. I know that sounds awfully easy to say, but the fact is, that it is an amazing thing to do. It’s life changing for the better. We do live in an incredible world that is full of great people and fantastic things to see. It’s such fun.”

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