Sam Manicom: “Have an open heart, be kind, and become a stranger in a strange land”

Now established as one of the world’s foremost motorcycle travel writers, Sam Manicom (pictured above) set off to ride the length of Africa less than three months after learning to ride a motorcycle. This one-year trip turned into an eight-year epic across 55 countries … in this interview,  he shares some of his thoughts on travel.

Where did your love of adventure start? Has the adventurous streak always been there?

My first solo trip was when I was 16 years old. I’d been doing a paper round, odd jobs and so on. Eventually  I’d earned enough to buy myself a brand new bicycle. There it was; a gleaming black and blue bicycle. It seemed a waste just to ride it to school and to do my paper round on, but summer holidays were coming up…

I borrowed a page out of an atlas and set off to ride across England and into Europe. The scale of the map was awful and I got lost. A lot! This trip taught me some important things. Dreams are where adventures begin, we don’t know what we are capable of until we try, and reaching a destination isn’t so important; it’s the things, situations and people we encounter along the way that make a journey into an adventure.

Am I right in saying that on your first motorcycle trip you didn’t leave with a huge amount of money, it was more a case of earning along the way? What did you initially set off with and how did you make money and sustain yourself for such a long period of time?

You are right. I didn’t have a huge amount. I sold everything I’d got to fund the trip, but even selling my house, car and other belongings didn’t pull in a huge amount of cash.

I started off with £20,000 and no idea, as a novice motorcyclist, how long this would last. Once the journey went from the planned 1 year the length of Africa into, well, more, it was a case of doing backpacker type jobs along the way.

Actually, it was also important to learn how to live cheaply. Not spending much is as good as having more. I wild camped as much as possible, camped on the edge of villages, stayed in $2 hotels, ate the local food and bargained in the markets. The combination works amazingly well. I also didn’t buy much beer. That’s a major budget killer. In some countries, one beer is the same price as 3 full meals. As I wasn’t eating anything like as much as I did at home, this often equated to 3 days’ worth of meals. 

You’d also only learnt to ride a motorbike just three months before you left! A 200,000 mile trip must have made for quite the maiden voyage. How did you cope with the more difficult terrain to start with?

The plan was to ride the length of Africa. At that stage I’d no idea what was going to happen over the coming years. I’d actually been riding a motorcycle for 3 months the day I arrived at the edge of the Sahara. A great place to have an anniversary! I’m laughing at myself because I’ll never forget looking south over the sands and asking myself if I was some sort of idiot. I didn’t even know if I liked riding a motorcycle, but it seemed like a great idea, until that moment. At that stage the bike was telling me what to do and I was just hanging on the back trying not to fall off.

I had the idea that if I took things steadily, used as much common sense as I could muster and respected everyone and everything, it’d work out ok. I knew there would be times I did some idiotic things, but hey, laughter is good isn’t it.

The worst terrain for me was soft sand and thick mud. Thankfully my BMW R80GS was both bullet proof and idiot proof. It has a really low centre of gravity and that helps when you are riding in gnarly conditions. Of course it helped when I got rid of a lot of gear. I ended up carrying basic spares for my bike and the equipment to allow me to cook food and to sleep well. I think if you can get those things right, you can travel with a smile.

I’m sure you’ve got many stories to tell, but what stands out as one of the most difficult moments from your trip? Were there times when you thought, “this isn’t going to end well”?

The one that leaps instantly into mind is being thrown into jail in Tanzania. It’s still the scariest moment of my life. A man had stepped out in front of me and I hit him hard. I was charged with driving at him on purpose. Daft.  You know, it was a combination of the kindness of the people of Tanzania and common sense that solved the situation. I was released with all charges dropped. It took over a week of major uncertainty to get to that stage.

I was lucky in my unluckiness. The full story is how my first book Into Africa starts. Something like this happening was one of my two main fears for the trip. The other was being on my own in a desert and coming off the bike with it landing on top of me. Thankfully that adventure didn’t begin, though I fell off many times.

Choosing from the 55 countries you visited can’t be easy but which bring the fondest memories?

I can’t narrow it down I’m afraid. Each country had its challenges, its delights, its ‘I had no idea about that’ moments, and the customs and cultures of the world are fascinating. One thing that always stands out is that after this trip I’m positive that at least 95% of the people in this world are open hearted and kind. Treat them with respect and you get it back. 4% can be good or bad depending on their day, their living situation and the influences upon them, and 1% are totally grim. I can live with that range of percentages, so long as I remember them to be the reality.

What surprised you most – either about yourself or the overall journey – during your adventure?

I came to realise what a dangerous word fear is. One of my favourite sayings is ‘Fear is that dark room where negatives are developed.’ You don’t have to be old enough to have taken photos on film to understand that.

I learnt to change the word fear for the word respect. Fear really is a negative but respect that you are in a situation you don’t understand, with people you don’t know etc, is an attitude that opens up possibilities, not close them down.

What’s next? Any big trips in the pipeline?

My partner Birgit and I are still travelling shorter journeys together. We actually met on the trip and she rode her own motorcycle with me for the second 4 years of the ride.

I’m spending quite a lot of time riding in the USA at the moment. It’s a huge and fascinating country to explore. It’s almost as if each State is a country of its own. The landscape, food, clothing, customs, and history all change when you cross a State border. It’s interesting, with wonderful riding and the USA has such a powerful influence over the world I’m fascinated to learn about what makes it tick.

What’s your best piece of advice for anybody planning on doing something similar?

Get rid of your debt and try to cover your responsibilities so that when you are on the road you can be flexible enough to take advantage of the possibilities. I was able to do this and for example, it meant I could ride and explore 22,000 miles of a 6,500 mile long continent. Being free to explore is wonderful.

Also, plan to allow yourself 6 weeks of slow riding in familiar lands at the start of your journey. This time allows you to come down from the rush of everyday life. We are so focussed on meeting deadlines and on rushing from one task to the next that we forget to take the time out to enjoy the moment. Do that on a long journey and you’ll be scooting past some of the best moments. Sometimes those moments can be an hour soaking up a stunning view, instead of a quick 10 minutes and then off again.

I know you only asked me for one thought but I’d like to tag on a third. Another favourite saying is. ‘Become a stranger in a strange land’. That’s wonderful. But do take the time out to learn about the culture of the lands you are travelling to. Not only will you increase the possibilities for your trip, but you’ll cut the chance of treading your travel boots over things that are culturally sensitive to the locals. Learning such things is fascinating anyway!

What would you say to anyone wanting to go on an adventure of their own but thinks they can’t do it for whatever reason?

The reality is that some people genuinely can’t set off on a long journey. They have responsibilities that they must take seriously. What sort of world would we live in if people didn’t take their responsibilities seriously? For those people I say, bide your time. Keep your dreams alive. Your moment will come. The key is to not let that moment pass you by.

For those people who want to set off and could, but haven’t yet… Don’t let uncertainty and a feeling of ignorance get in the way. Enjoy the tingle that those feelings give you. They should be there at the start of a great adventure. No one is an expert when they set off and you don’t have to be highly skilled to travel the world. What you do need is an open heart and to be kind. People respond wonderfully to that combination. You also need to be unafraid of making a fool of yourself. Talking to strangers is the way some of the best adventures begin. Just have a go, even if the conversation is in sign language. Ordering a chicken dinner with sign language and mime always gets you your chicken dinner, a lot of laughs, and a bunch of new friends. Perfect.

Thanks Sam, and good luck on all your adventures!

Find out more about Sam Manicom at