Glen David Short
South American Motorbike Adventure
Here are answers to the most common questions I get asked about my 5 year, 55,000km South American motorbike trip:
What gave you the idea to do this?
When I was about ten years old I borrowed a Tintin book from the library about when he went to Peru and met the Incas. That sparked a lifelong interest in the Incas and South America. Later I travelled there, and for a few years I worked in Colombia teaching English. Any history or travel book about South America I got my hands on would be devoured in no time. Then along came the internet, digital cameras, and online translations... before this bike trip, I backpacked across South America three times, and made my first documentary in Peru. I met a couple of famous motorbike travellers, the most famous of whom would be Ted Simon, whom I hosted one weekend in my apartment in Colombia, and the late Alberto Granado, travel mate of Che Guevara, whom I met in the Peruvian Amazon during the filming of The Motorcycle Diaries.
What about motorcycles, are you a lifetime biker?
No not really, I had a small commuter bike, a little 2 stroke Suzuki when I was at high school, but sold it after 2 years, and never really rode another bike till I turned 50, when bought Atwakey as a 50th birthday present to myself. I still had my motorbike licence, but took some riding lessons to get back into the saddle so to speak, but also more to get used to driving on the opposite side of the road. And I had a small accident while re-learning on a rented bike, that left me on crutches for a couple of weeks. I was apprehensive about bike riding, but after I recovered, and saw many other bikers coming and going in the hostel where I was recovering, I decided I would always regret it if I let my dream plan lapse. My original plan was do it on a Diesel Royal Enfield, which I almost bought when I lived in India, but the costly paperwork ultimately dissuaded me. But, funny how things turned out, in Cusco I feel honoured to have gone for a ride on the back of Harry Lyon-Smith’s diesel Enfield, and he went on to become the first person to ride around the world on one.
Do you get lonely or homesick?
I have been single without wife or kids all my life, so loneliness… well it not really much of an issue for me, and, I never get homesick because I never really had a home town. I had a bit of a mobile childhood. I attended 8 different schools, as my dad worked in a bank, and every couple of years he was transferred to a new branch. As an adult, I worked as an electrician in mining and construction, and both these industries require you to move around a bit. I think the longest time I’ve ever lived in one place was 3 or 4 years. I've had some good jobs, but I get restless after a year or so, and end up quitting. I don't regret leaving any of them. I would have a lot more money on the bank, but as a single man, watching your savings grow gets a bit boring after a certain comfort level is reached. By the way, don't ask how much my trip cost, because I only have a rough idea... tens of thousands over the 5 years. But in my opinion, it was money well spent... more rewarding to me that is, than say, buying a new car or renovating the kitchen. And if you look up the cost of guided motorbike tours, where you often have little say in the itinerary, I think I got a bargain. Not that I want to denigrate the people who go on these tours, they are at least getting out there and doing it rather than sitting at home dreaming about it... many working people are cash rich but time poor, and such tours would be best for them.
What was the most memorable experience?
A lot of people ask me that, and it's actually very hard to answer. There were so many different experiences, some tough but satisfying, others easy but amazing... probably being able to look at a map of South America and know I have visited all the cardinal points... north south east and west. The east and west are quite easy to get to, but the northern and especially the southernmost point were very, very difficult, as they are so isolated. (Easy to get to by boat, but I wanted to get there by terrestrial means.) The all-night-long electrical storms in Lake Maracaibo were something incredible, as were the traditional fist-fight festivals I saw in Peru... and also the amazing talents the ancient people of South America demonstrate with the ruins they left behind, many of which were incredibly accurate astronomical clocks. One near Quito lies right on the Equator, built several centuries before GPS were invented. It might sound cliche, but meeting interesting people was one of the highlights. You can't plan on these, they just happen. In Ushuaia I met Anita Yusef, the first Muslim woman to do a solo round-the-world bike trip, and in Cusco Harry Lyon-Smith, the first man to do the same on a diesel bike; in Medellin I met an American couple on KTMs travelling with a huge pet Labradoodle in a custom-built dog-cage on the back of the bike. Some amazing locals as well… like the Venezuelan man building a working, full size Fred Flintstone-style car, or the Ecuadorian woman who recalled the panic and hysteria when they did a version of War of the Worlds in Quito, or the Peruvian pilgrim dragging a full size crucifix through the desert, or the Brazilian girl who started singing out of pure joy when we both got saturated by waterfall spray at Iguazu Falls. So many good experiences came from meeting people, not from just seeing the sights. Luckily, being fairly fluent in Spanish, I could converse with many interesting locals.
Why did it take 5 years?
I naively thought 1 year would be enough... but the more I saw, the more I wanted to see. For years, when I was planning the trip, whenever I saw an interesting photo or story, I noted it down in a kind of bucket list. I still didn't get to see everything I wanted to even in the 5 years I was there. But I wasn’t always travelling either, if I liked a place I would stay for a few months, like I did in Cartagena and Cusco, and if I got sick, I stayed put, which I did in Venezuela (with an attack of gout) and Paraguay (keratitis in my left eye). After ten months (and the first three engine seizures) I went home for a few months without the bike to see my dad who had emergency surgery, and to use my return air ticket which was non-refundable. Also my Chinese bike fell ill, spending long periods in workshops waiting for parts. I actually went over some of the same ground in Argentina twice, but in different seasons, coming from different directions, the same places can look completely different. After a few years, I became comfortable living on the bike, and it was difficult for me to decide where to end the trip. It easily became a kind of way of life that you don’t want to give up.
Why did you do it on a Chinese bike, and why did you endure so many breakdowns?
My bike cost less than US$1700 new, with a 1 year warranty (valid in Peru only) and an advertised 22hp. That’s about the same hp as a Jap bike of the same engine capacity, but a sixth of the cost. As I found out, when the bike seized after only 8000 kms in Chile and parts could not be obtained, the guarantee was worthless outside of Peru, and the horsepower output was pure fantasy. But, many of my later problems I blame firmly on poor repair jobs. A replacement Chinese motor purchased new in Cusco in 2013 saw me ride more than 20,000 kms over the Andes without fail… until one day a mechanic rebuilt it, it started making a funny noise the next day, and failed a week later… Another reason to own a cheap Chinese bike is in some large Latin American cities, a Honda or Yamaha 250 will attract thieves… some of them stealthy, others ambush at traffic lights with guns to relieve your bike. I figured this would be less likely with a cheap Chinese bike. And if it did get stolen (or written off) I wouldn’t be losing anything of high value.
As to why I endured so many engine problems, well, I did consider changing bikes several times, especially in Paraguay and Punta Arenas, where bikes are cheap and the paperwork pretty easy. But I started to view Atwakey kind of like a girlfriend: temperamental, expensive to maintain, but we had been through so much together, I wanted to keep the relationship going for sentimental reasons. I didn’t like the idea of changing horses mid race just because of a broken piston. Besides, in some countries, like Argentina (where several of the engine meltdowns occurred) it is almost impossible to legally buy a new bike, or sell the old one, if you are a foreigner on a tourist visa.
What is that pole on the back of the bike?
Its actually a broom handle with a small 2rpm electric motor hooked up. I sometimes put my GoPro camera there to get slowly rotating footage, pretty amazing footage sometimes, but vibrations and shaky footage meant I often just fixed to to the pole without the rotator, which gave a cool "over the shoulder" look to the video.
What is the plastic box on the front of the bike?
It contains an auxiliary battery, identical to the main battery. This battery was charged by the bike alternator, but had to go through a key switch separate from the ignition. This way the spare battery was only ever connected to the other battery when I was on it with both keys, as one battery will discharge the other battery if you leave them connected. I also added a Zener diode so the thin spare battery cables would not overload and melt when starting the engine. From the spare battery, I could run extra headlights, and charge my GPS gadgets, and even run my laptop when camping, without discharging the main battery. I also had digital voltmeter hooked up, so I could monitor if the battery was being charged. The main drawback was the box itself was not aerodynamic, catching the wind. I also added a solar panel on the back pannier to keep the main battery charged. It worked well.
Any low points?
Yes, several. Breaking down in the middle of freezing Patagonia during the winter solstice just a few days after having the engine rebuilt, was probably the worst. Being told I might go blind in one eye by an ophthalmologist when in Paraguay was another. Having your last credit card rejected by ATMs as damaged when you're so far from home isn't fun either. Cashiers trying to rip you off gets a bit tiring, but it's not so common outside touristy places, and once you get into the habit of always asking the price beforehand and always counting your change, you can thwart most of the scams. Also, when you get to my age, over the course of 5 years, there is a high chance some of your friends might pass away, and in my case in fact more than a couple did (one, unfortunately, in a bike accident in Peru). You learn the bad news instantly these days thanks to the internet. But, thanks to God, and perhaps my upbringing, these setbacks just spurred me on to continue my travels. Giving up and "going home" was never an option for me because I never had a home to return to.
Anything you would do differently?
Yes. Despite the good things I said above about Chinese bikes, I wouldn't do it on the same make of bike. A Japanese bike would have been much more reliable, say a Tornado, Lander or KLR, even a second hand one. And I should have bought the bike in Chile or Paraguay, much less paperwork for the bike. But, having said that, I know many riders whose Jap or expensive Euro bikes failed as well, and if mine hadn't broken down in the various places it did, the trip would have been over in a year or less, so I wouldn't have seen half the things I ended up seeing. No doubt I could have travelled with a lot less baggage. But, I am a bit of a hoarder, and I have a passion for rare books and photographic gear, and every time I sorted my stuff to look what I could leave out, I couldn't find much to leave behind.
Tell us about your logo and nicknames
I called the bike Atwakey, a native Alyawarr name for wild orange, as the bike is orange, and my parents are from a town called Orange, though I originally picked orange for the bike because it was more highly visible, on the coast of Peru, fogs can be impenetrably thick, so high visibility becomes a safety feature.
The website is called madaru, which is my surname Short, also in the Alyawarr language.
“Gringo Loco” is rather self-explanatory, I heard it many times, and I kind of agree!
The mandala-like symbol on the right is based on a beautiful pre-Columbian gold disc I saw in the Gold Museum in Bogota, said to induce auditory hallucinations it it swings before your eyes for a period of time.
Any plans for another bike trip?
At some future point I would like to ride around Australia, and also India. But no concrete plans at the moment.
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