Overland Adventure By BMW
Sunday, 15 April 2007
Like Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman did in their Long Way Round odyssey, former world triathlon champion Felix Bergmeister is riding around the world to raise awareness of, and funds for UNICEF. Here, Felix describes the challenges and the joys of overland adventure travel.
Why choose the R 80 GS Basic for the RTW tour?
That's a long story. I wanted to travel and to see the world, but I needed a strong, sturdy and reliable travel machine. For big mileage and comfort I looked for a twin-cylinder engine bike with suspension that was capable of dealing with rough terrain and bad roads. I found a newspaper advertisement where this medical doctor from Vienna wanted to sell an R 80 GS Basic. The bike only had about 6,000 kilometres on the clock and hadn't been use for about six years. In fact, it had even been garaged all this time, so I bought it with the intention of going around the world.
As it turned out, there couldn't have been a better bike for me. The flat twin boxer engine is extremely reliable. The set-up with the two carburettors is simple enough to repair it in the middle of the Congo and with because this bike was part of the last production run called 'GS Basic', a good rear shock and fork came as standard. Furthermore, as I got to know from a fellow traveller somewhere in West Africa, the R 80 GS was also Ted Simon's choice on his second trip around the world, so it can't be bad!
What modifications did you make on the bike?
Well, being an R 80 GS Basic there was not so much to be done. What was important for me was fuel consumption, so I had to change the beautiful looking standard fuel tank for a big 32-litre version, which keeps me on the road for about 500 kilometres. The shocks were fine, so I just put stronger Touratech springs in the fork. I left the engine completely untouched because for most of the dirt roads that I will experience around the world, 50 horsepower does the job perfectly. All I added was an oil cooler to prevent any overheating caused by desert sands and tropical city traffic.
Has it been a good choice so far?
Absolutely. Let me give you one example. After having just got out of Burkina Faso and escaped a civil war where the military was fighting against the police, I crossed the border to Togo. I went to the first fuel station to fill up with petrol. After I got back on my bike I hit the 'start' switch and suddenly smoke and fire was everywhere. My electrical system decided to melt down due to a faulty start relay, which basically fried the electrics. This would normally be a big problem but with the bike being so simple I could repair it in Togo by just ripping a cable out of an old car and wiring the whole thing up again. That was the only problem I had, and so far I've made it to Namibia and everything is flawless.
Did the off-road training in Hechlingen prepare you to go on this journey?
Most certainly! I was used to lighter bikes before and I'd never ridden with as much luggage as I would need on a world trip. Being in Hechlingen on an R 1200 GS for the first time was amazing because the handling of the bike is so easy - even on rough terrain - and the way the bike goes around corners is just awesome. With the help of the great instructors I quickly discovered what my weaknesses were (slow speed control) and after just two hours I developed a totally new feeling for the motorbike. Overall, it was an amazing experience for me because I had been riding bikes for most of my life and yet there was still so much to learn. I really can recommend the training in Hechlingen to everybody because you can always get into critical situations on a motorbike. It doesn't matter if you are on your way to work trying to negotiate through urban traffic or if you decide to go around the world - at the end of the day, the rider who knows how to handle his bike always gets there safely.
Why did it take you so nine years to prepare for the trip?
I believe that fortune favours the prepared mind. Being an ultra triathlete racing distances up to 10-times Ironman distance, good preparation has always been crucial to me. And this became even more important for a motorbike trip around the world. Any endurance race - no matter how tough it is - still gives you some sort of safety margin. Being out there solo on the bike, crossing rivers in Congo or being held up by AK 47 carrying militias in Nigeria, there is no security. The rules you live by at home don't mean anything out on the road, so preparation becomes important and enables you to assess the risks, figure out what could happen in whichever country and make an action plan just in case it does!
Why have you decided to raise funds for UNICEF?
It has been my dream to ride around the world for a long time and getting so far and seeing so many things also means taking responsibility in a way. There are not that many people who are actually lucky enough to live their dreams and do what they want in life. I think those who are in that position should also share some of their luck, especially to those who would need it the most, such as the children from third world countries. That's why I decided to support UNICEF. From my years doing 'ultra' sports I still had good connections to the media and they would often write stories about me, so I knew I had the chance to create a certain level of awareness in western countries and show people see how much their help is needed where there is no other help available. After having completed this journey I will act as an UNICEF Spokesman and I will try to involve some individuals and companies to support UNICEF in cooperation with the media.
What sort of riding conditions have you encountered so far?
Well, looking back I think I remember just the roads I enjoyed the most. Crossing Europe was beautiful. I love the culture and all the old architecture as well as the nice landscape. France and Spain are like second homes to me. The roads of Africa were the biggest fun for me. Traffic is not always predictable but people do take care not to hit you with their cars and trucks. The secret behind this is communication. People look at each other, use their horns and shout. After some time you become part of it.
The roads in the Congo and in Angola of course were a different story, basically because of the absence of local drivers. People in Angola told me that no one uses the road. Once a year or so, whenever they want to travel they have a perfectly good airline to use. Having been out there I must say that some of these statements have their reasons. Sometimes you are limited to riding in a rut in the highway because of all the landmines at the side of the road. It can be tough but meeting all the great people more than makes up for the inconvenience.
Which has been the best country you have visited so far?
Riding through Africa was a marvellous experience to me. To see the change of the landscape all the way from the Sahara to the deep rainforests in equatorial Africa and the Kalahari Desert in Namibia was unmatched so far. Namibia has the most scenic landscapes I have ever seen.
Who are the friendliest people you have met so far?
That's a tough question. All over Africa I was always treated with respect and in a very friendly way. Even in places where people would tell me not to go the experience was fine. I came to the city of Calabar in the south of Nigeria. Cash machines were not working for there was no power in the whole city. Fuel was not available and you could only get it via the black market.
In order to change money I ended up in a garage guarded by private gunmen. The whole scene was looking dangerous. The guy wanted to see all my cash and then he offered me a bad rate. So what to do - lose a lot of money or try to become his friend? I went for the second option. After telling him how bad it is that the people of Nigeria have to suffer so much due to having no power and fuel in the city and that no proper steps are taken by the government to help them out, he turned nice. We shook our hands and the gunmen started laughing. Needless to say, I got a good exchange rate as well. I just think it depends so much on how you 'step up' to people. If you show respect you normally get respect back. A little bit outstanding was probably the village chief in Gabon. He and his people blocked the road, so I had to stop and they could invite me for drinks and food.
Have you met many interesting motorcycle travellers?
There have been quite a few so far. There was Taco from Holland, who is a lawyer who made his dream come true on a Honda. Then there was Martin, a scientist from Great Britain who rode his BMW F 650 Dakar down to the Cape. Whenever you meet people out there doing the same thing as you it feels like you meet old friends. We all have more or less the same dreams and the same determination to make them come true.
Will you be writing a book on your travels?
I'm already knee deep into it. The German version is already at about page 150 and then the English version will follow. I'm trying to give people an insight into what travelling over long distances is like and of course what steps have to be taken to actually get where you want to be. Like most dreams we have, as long as we don't get up to follow them they will remain unfulfilled. I will also give a bit of insight into the work of UNICEF in the countries I have visited, especially pointing out how much our support is needed to help the children.
What advice would you give anyone considering an RTW trip?
It takes a lot of commitment to get on a motorbike, to turn the key and go on the long way round. It might certainly be the experience of somebody's life, but it also means leaving a lot of comfort behind. Things like solitude or fear will be there and have to be coped with. When you are ready to face these things, then it is time to go. Just do it.