Today let’s talk about risk, and sweat, and tears. Now, it’s been a while since I was travelling fully loaded on the KTM: my whole life strapped to the bike, 26L of fuel, and 690cc of wild Austrian animal.
Covid is to blame, of course: if not for covid I’d still be doing exactly that. But the closure of the borders means firstly, that my 690 is stuck in Cambodia while I’m in Thailand, and secondly that I no longer need to carry all my possessions with me at the same time. Lately, you’ve seen me prancing about on lightweight dirt bikes, and even lighter weight trials bikes, pretending to be someone who can actually do wheelies. Here’s the thing though: this is a different game. Of course I can wheelie that trials bike. Of course I can controlled-slide that enduro bike down the cliff.
But that’s not the same as riding alone, through foreign countries you’ve never visited before, with your whole life packed onto a big dualsport beast, and I’m not just talking about the physics. I’m talking about risk profile, I’m talking about fatigue, I’m talking about physical vulnerability, I’m talking about parts availability.
Let me explain. When I’m riding with my friends here in Thailand and we come to an obstacle, here is what I think: how will I get over it? If I fail, will I die immediately? If I fail, will the bike end up in a river too deep to get it out again? And then I give it a red hot go.
Now, consider me on my fully loaded 690 Enduro.
I’m alone in East Timor. I am looking at a steep, scree-covered road with switchbacks leading down the mountainside. There’s no-one around right now. This is bad, because there is no one to help me if I fuck up. But this is also good, because this is a country totally impoverished and traumatised by a recent war of independence, meaning there are some people I don’t want to meet on a vulnerable footing. Should I attempt the slope? It’s not that difficult – as long as I don’t fuck up. On one hand I have enough fuel to turn back to the previous village; but on the other hand, this is what I came here for. I came here to see this eastern-most tip of Timor Leste – a country with a name which translates literally as East East.
I came here to camp beside deserted beaches (well, I have the crocodiles for company) and visit the tiny sacred island just off the coast.
But there are more things to consider. If I get stuck, or fall down, this rig is heavy: self rescue may mean pulling every bit of luggage off, piece by piece. Even if I can extricate myself, I’m at risk of heat stroke because the temperature is forty. I’ve also been riding for three days straight, navigating the gauntlet of an unknown language in a wild place, and my muscles and mind are tired; this will make a mistake more likely. My reflexes will not be so fast, my confident not so high, my concentration not so sharp. If I do make a mistake, recovering the bike will take so much of my strength that I might not be able to ride well tomorrow.
So you see, this is how non-physical circumstances can transition the same riding conditions from easy to downright hazardous.
Why am I telling you about this? Because I recently watched a video from a fellow solo adventurer, Fanette, of an obstacle she faced with a fully loaded DR650 in the Australian bush. It was a tricky log, and she ended up just dragging the DR over the log with a hell of a lot of elbow grease. She was tired beforehand – hot weather, a bad night’s sleep – and was exhausted after.
I watched her going through the solo overlander’s complex calculations, and I saw all the keyboard warriors, from their armchairs, massing to tell her that she was doing it wrong. The airwaves vibrated with the condescending refrain: If you can’t wheelie over a log like that, you shouldn’t be out there. Every man and his dog was there to tell her about how easy it was to wheelie over much larger logs, and how they did just that last weekend on their… KTM 250 with six mates to back them up.
Mofo, please. The risk calculation is not the same.
The solo overlander’s calculation is far more complex, and far more courageous. Maybe far more stupid, too, but you do you.
You line up for that log, you get ready to wheelie that buffalo of a bike, and you think about what happens if you fuck it up. Maybe you fall between the bike and the log, and the bike breaks your leg? Who’s going to come rescue you then? What will you do if your leg is broken and you can’t ride for six weeks, but you only have twenty days left on your visa? What happens if you break the bike and can’t ride it out?
You line up that wheelie with 180kg of loaded motorcycle and then you think, no, fuck it, and you get off that bike again, and you drag that mofo across the log instead. Slow, painful: but low risk. No broken legs. No trip ending disasters. No motorcycle damage that’s going to leave you stranded or waiting for parts.
It’s not elegant, it’s not pretty, but it’s a different calculation.
And that’s what I came here to say.
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