Deciding you’re going to embark on a motorcycling adventure is a big commitment. Quitting a job in the city to do so is an even bigger one. And doing so, to go riding in some of the toughest conditions on the planet, on your own, is a step up again. But it’s exactly what Claire Elsdon has just returned from doing.
We first met Claire in August last year, just before she set off to Cape Town aboard her DR-Z400 after quitting the day job. Many people dream of calling time on the rat race and starting something they’ve dreamt of doing. And Claire was no different. She just needed a bit of a push from her gran.
“There were a couple of factors that provided me with the motivation to go and do this trip,” Claire recalls. “I’d had it with my job in London; it just wasn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d always dreamt of the ‘big outdoors’ and yearned for that freedom. I also spent a lot of time watching adventure DVDs and videos. So much so in fact one broke. And I realised that I wasn’t getting anything else from them and needed to do something about it.
“My gran unfortunately had a bit of a fall. She’s 80-odd and I went to visit her in hospital and she said to me, ‘I wish when I was your age I had done what I wanted to do, not what people expected me to do.’ And I thought that was quite striking, and sadly at her age, it’s too late for her to do anything about it. So I thought sod it, let’s just go. Within four months I’d bought the bike, turned my life upside down and quit my job, re-homed the cat, and I was off.”
In September 2012, Claire set off on the journey that would take in 27 countries, heading from the UK into France and through Europe to Greece and Turkey, before catching a boat to Egypt, and riding down to South Africa.
“I’d always been drawn to Africa. The people have this joy and zest for life and I think we in the west sometimes lose that. There’s a big difference between what you need and what you want to be happy and have a good life, and I wanted to see and experience that, and riding there was the best and most exciting way to do that.”
But wanting to go on a round the world adventure is one thing, planning and preparing for one is another, and dealing with that can be a big a reason enough not to go through with it. Prior to setting off, Claire was no different.
“To be honest in the run up to the trip I was more concerned with the re-homing of my cat! I hadn’t even considered how I’d feel about riding through Africa. But two days before I set off I started feeling nervous and apprehensive, and when I was packing up to go I thought, I’m not so sure I can do this. I will be all on my own in some remote places a lot of the time. I thought about if I had any problems or crashes, and they were pretty scary thoughts.
“When I got to France I was really quite nervous. I was all alone, it was about 10pm and it was dark and raining. I didn’t know where the campsite was and I was just really miserable. I’d never even ridden on the other side of the road before. Then this older guy in a van started beeping at me, and I thought ‘here we go’. But when I caught his eye he just gave me a big thumbs up and a smile. That was just a huge morale booster. And the cat was fine with the re-homing!”
Claire’s solo ride did, rightly or wrongly but certainly understandably, raise a few questions, most of them about the same point; the fact that Claire will be a woman riding solo in some potentially challenging situations.
“To be honest, before I set off, I did think about the fact that I would be a lone female rider. Everyone asked if I was going to take weaponry with me! But I did wonder then about any situations where it might be necessary to defend myself. But I spoke to some other female riders and adventures, notably Lois Pryce and the best bit of advice I got was, if you feel for any reason when you meet someone that they’re a bit dodgy, just go. Don’t ask questions or wait around to find out. Just go.
“But the ‘lone woman’ thing wasn’t an issue really, and in a lot of places it even added to people’s welcome. However I did have a bit of trouble in Egypt, and to be honest it was in Egypt that the magnitude of the trip hit me. I hadn’t really acknowledged the distances, and I got the map out and looked at it and thought, crikey, this is a long way. That was quite daunting, and then the episode in Egypt made me think, if the next six months are like this, I don’t think I can do it.
“I had to wait for a week for the DR-Z to be released from customs, and in Egypt I got a lot of hassle for being a solo woman. It was a hard experience. I got molested one morning, and was told several times I shouldn’t be let out on my own to do what I was doing. I got a lot of grief for being a woman on a motorbike.
“I had another scary experience riding south through Egypt. I was riding through the western desert, as I’d opted to go that way as, despite being a longer distance that following the Nile, it was a little less touristy and I wanted to avoid people. The way I went the roads were pretty much empty, but perfectly surfaced, and only had oases every so often. Other than that there was nothing. If you needed to stretch your legs or go to the toilet, there was nothing.
“I stopped to eat a biscuit and tried to be as discreet as possible about the fact that I was a woman, when two guys in a pick-up truck stopped alongside me. I think they thought I had broken down at first, but then started being very creepy and getting in my space and making gestures. I said I was going, got on my bike and left, but it’s not like you can easily lose them on a straight, empty road. I took off and then slowed to a more comfortable speed, I didn’t want to draw too much attention, but then they overtook and slowed down in front of me, trying to force me to slow down. So I overtook again, but never in a position to lose anyone. This happened on about five separate occasions.”
Egypt, and a scary border crossing between Serbia and Kosovo involving tanks and armed soldiers back in Europe, aside though, and the rest of the journey through Africa went far more smoothly, providing Claire with some of the experiences that she set off for in the first place.
Before setting off, Claire had also arranged to work with a microfinance charity in Malawi, helping locals grow their businesses, and even though she would be riding all the way to Cape Town, Malawi was where Claire was most looking forward to getting to.
“I was really excited to get to Malawi, and on the tough days on the road, it was the thoughts of getting there that kept me going. When I got there to meet this charity I came across this courtyard and with mud huts around it, and as I arrived all these women came out and started to sing as I arrived. It just felt like they were celebrating that I’d arrived. I’m sure they weren’t, but it just felt like a real achievement to have got there and it was a great welcome.
“While I was there I was helping them with their motorbikes. The charity operates by loaning small amounts of money to local and small businesses, so they can grow their crops for example, and it helps them start their business. They also have a fleet of motorcycles they use, but the charity was becoming constrained due to the cost of repair.
“There was this sad, little graveyard of motorbikes, around 10, so I took the least broken and had a look at it. The chain was rusted solid and about ready to snap. I took the airbox off and an ant’s nest fell out, there was no filter. They were replacing chains and sprockets every three months or so because they weren’t using quality parts or looking after them. But their mechanic thought it was all okay because they still worked. I explained they would stop working very soon.
“So to help, we set up a little workshop called ‘Love Your Motorcycle’, where I showed them how to look after their bikes and some basic maintenance. But the hardest part was educating them on the fact that a bit of expenditure for maintenance saves them money in the long run. We got there in the end though.”
Riding through 27 countries was always going to place a lot of stress on both rider and motorcycle. But bar a couple of minor crashes and a fuel line succumbing to some of the difficult conditions, Claire and her DR-Z400 arrived in Cape Town unscathed.
“The bike was genuinely amazing,” Claire explains. “Some people assumed I’d miss the power with a 400, but for the route and terrain I was coming across, it was perfect. The Ethiopia to Kenya route is renowned for being dangerous, and has to be in a police convoy. I went a different, off-road route, over sand. And I hate riding in sand. But the bike made it as easy as it could be and handled it all very well. Plus on the road stuff, if it went any quicker I’m pretty sure I would have hit something; there was livestock and suicidal chickens everywhere! But it was so reliable. Apart from a hose going, which was easy to fix, I didn’t have an issue. I didn’t even get a puncture.
“I did run out of fuel at one point. But this amazingly sweet man called Maxwell pointed me in the direction of a petrol station a few kilometres up the road and flagged a car down for me and offered to look after by bike. I didn’t really have another option so I jumped in the car, leaving everything bar my passport. But the petrol station was closed so I had to go an extra 30 kilometres or so away.
“I did start to worry and started to barter with myself, about what it would be okay to have stolen, so long as they left me something. But over an hour later and he was still there, as was everything else, looking after my bike, albeit with a few more friends around.”
The end of the trip for Claire was the national park at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. Before loading the DR-Z400 on to a slow boat home.
“When I arrived at the Cape of Good Hope I thought it would be some brilliant moment of reflection. But in reality there were lots of tour buses and people. It was really cold by this point and the last leg of the journey had been pretty uncomfortable. So I was quite grateful to finish in the end.
“But all I wanted was a picture in front of the sign but with so many people around it sort of ruined it. But this sort of tour leader spoke to me and I explained what I’d done and that I’d been waiting ages, and he essentially just started his own crowd control. He moved everyone out of the way explained I’d ridden there from England and allowed me to get the shot I wanted. Then these Americans overheard and wanted a picture with me! But his help was typical of the sort of random people I’d met on the way.”
Claire stayed in South Africa for a few days before flying home with the bike on a ship bound for the UK. She’s now in the process of writing about her travels to be published in a travel writing book, and is even doing meet and greets and various biking and travel events.