The West Road
Words & Photographs: Tom Bing
Was there a reason that you choose South America?
South America is a huge landmass full of really interesting countries and a huge variety of terrains and cultures but, most importantly for us, it has thousands of miles of coastline - offering some of the best surfing opportunities in the world. We considered other great surf destinations like Indonesia or West Africa but in the end, South America won on a few key features. It’s got desert, jungle, mountains and everything in between which we knew would offer some great riding. You don’t need a carnet to pass through the borders, which makes the Americas popular with over landers - we didn’t have enough money to sort out all of that extra paperwork etc. We also loved the fact that there was one common language for the whole route until we got to California.
Did you know much about the places you planned to travel through before you left?
It’s funny, when we talk to people who have visited similar countries or were doing trips to the same places as us, it’s as if we were in totally different countries. We could tell you which waves were in which country, which season those waves would be working but we couldn’t tell you much else before we left. We put a lot of time into budgeting and working out the gear we wanted to take. I remember spending hours and hours pouring through information on Horizons Unlimited about bikes and the legalities and process of buying them in Chile but, the minute we headed out on the road we realised how little we actually knew about the journey we were taking on. In loads of ways that was a good thing, nothing was set in stone, for an entire year we didn’t have to be anywhere. We’d just talk to people and respond to the advice we were given on the road and let that dictate our itinerary and route.
Could you let us know a little bit about your bikes?
I can’t stress enough how little money we had to do the trip. I did research, lots and lots of research into what was available within our budget and we ended up getting Honda XR150L’s that we bought brand new. There is a whole community out there who are into small-bore touring. I guess for us, the mindset was that we needed something reliable, cheap to run and easy to fix. We didn’t need speed. We had time, that was our biggest commodity. Sally is pretty small; she could handle an XR150 really well and just about pick it up when she dropped it. We rode those things hard, through rivers, beaches, full throttle for hours on highways, up mountains, across deserts, up to our knees in mud, across jungles and miles and miles of rough dirt roads. We pushed it every time before changing the oil and the only thing that ever went wrong with either bike in 26,000km was one fork seal sprung a slight leak and needed replacing. Cold mornings, hot days, the bikes were the most reliable things ever. Also, we could get over 360km on a tank of fuel too which was amazing.
In the entire year, the only people we saw on bikes bigger than a 250cc were tourists or sometimes cops. If anything had gone wrong, any roadside mechanic could have fixed us up no problem. We met one guy who was stuck in Chile for nearly two months waiting for a part for his 2015 BMW GS, we didn’t want to be in that situation! We got the bikes for about $1500 each and rode them out of the showroom in Santiago, Chile. We took them to Alejandro at Herencia Rides, an amazing guy who took us in for our time in Chile and helped us out no end. The only change we made was a pair of custom surfboard racks he fabricated for us.
As the trip progressed and we fell more and more in love with the bikes and where they could take us, we realised we were looked on as idiots by the ‘overland’ community. We were talked to like kids by some, ignored by most and even at one point given some abuse online by a furious guy on social media who told us it was impossible to ride over the Peruvian Andes on our bikes. The irony was, by the time we got back to the internet to pick up the comments, we had already taken the bikes up to 5,000 metres above sea level. They were slow, but we made it just fine and had a great time.
What's one thing you wish you'd brought & one thing you could do without?
We really didn’t have space for too much stuff. If things broke, we just learned to live without or replaced them cheaply. There was probably a lot of stuff it would have been nice to have but nothing stands out as being really necessary. One thing we did have that was probably the best thing either of us owned was a Primus Omnifuel Stove. We ran it on Petrol for the full year. Either filled up from a petrol station when we filled up the bikes or we would fill it up straight from the petcock if we were in the wilderness for a long time. We ended up cooking for some guys only a few hours south of the US border that had run out of butane for their stove. They were heading to Argentina; I don’t think they’d get a proper canister for their specialist stove until about Santiago, Chile.
Anything unexpected happen along the way?
I think really, the most unexpected thing was the fact that we got off very lightly with drama on the trip. People we met along the way would tell stories of how they'd been ripped off by bent cops in certain countries or robbed or whatever; we were expecting a fair bit but in the end didn't experience any of that. We didn't pay a single bribe and only once had to stand our ground with a cop in Nicaragua who was trying to rip us off for turning around in the road. We never got stopped at military roadblocks or police checks. I think the story could have been a bit different on bikes that stood out more (although we did have surfboards on the side.) We did get ourselves involved with a cocaine smuggling operation as we took a tourist sailing boat trip across the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia. That was pretty scary but not entirely expected. We spent a lot of time deliberating on the cheapest way to cross the gap and ended up spending a large proportion of our budget on what we thought was the safest way; turns out it wasn't.
Anywhere that you'd like to go back to? Any that you wouldn't?
At the time I think we found Chile a challenge; the magnitude of the desert, everything was pretty much the same as European prices and we had a little trouble registering the bikes and getting them out of the country. That said, we've been looking at flights recently to see our good friend Alejandro from Herencia Rides. We want to go and stay in his log cabin in Pichilemu, surf Punta De Lobos again and enjoy central Chile - it was beautiful there.
What do you think your time away taught you?
Our time away taught us so much. It definitely gave us a sense of perspective in life and got us thinking about our priorities. It taught me a lot about hard work and independence, I used to be a teacher, I know now that I never want that life again and it's up to me to work hard enough not to have to. It taught us a lot about the sea, about the tides and the weather patterns and swell seasons, that's pretty useful for our lives going forward. It's hard to quantify how a trip like that changes you but it does, in loads of ways.
What advice would you give anyone looking to set out and do a similar trip?
My first piece of advice would be to slow down! Sitting on your butt on a highway all day isn't the fun bit, it's good to have a reason to do a trip - for us it was surfing. That gave us a clear list of destinations to go and what season we needed to be there, that focus was great. Also, don't get hung up on 'cool' bikes, research what bikes are in the areas you are riding and get the same as the locals, that way you can spend more time on the road, not waiting for parts.
Another great piece of advice from Sally is to not overthink it. I think if we had really thought about ours properly, I mean, really thought about it, we wouldn't have done it.
If you have access to money, then you will probably just have a great time. If you don't have a lot of money, that might not be as much of a reason to stay at home as you think. You can live off very little. We survived off cups of raw oats in water for two meals a day for weeks at a time and felt great!
We've had an incredible year of work since coming back. I've gone full time with my photography and have been lucky enough to work with some amazing people. My diary's been packed with projects both in and out of the two-wheeled world which has been great. I want to keep going and push my work to new levels. I just got back from California shooting for the December issue of Built, which will be my biggest piece of published work yet, both written and photography.
I share a studio in Newcastle with Ryan Roadkill and Ashley Willerton, two super talented artists. We are carving out our own paths up in the North East, it's a great little community.
Sally and I will always have a thirst for adventure; we just picked up a huge Talbot motorhome and are just working on getting it back on the road. We’ve just had a baby and we want to give our son the right start in life. We'll probably try for a trip in the Spring, maybe 4-6 weeks in Scotland and Ireland surfing and walking. Until then, it's head’s down for winter, grafting, surfing and learning how to be parents!