Feature 2 of my thesis
Take a woman on the verge of insanity, a motorbike verging on dangerous and the length of three entire continents and you have yourself a wild adventure.
Torn between following in the footsteps of two famous relatives, Max Born, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics and his granddaughter, Olivia Newton John, Lois Pryce instead opted for a life on the road. In April 2003 the ‘whiter than white’, five foot four, product manager from London left her cosy houseboat, her loving husband and her job with the BBC to embark on a 20,000 mile trip of a lifetime.
“I was looking at the Americas and it really does start right at the top of the globe and end right at the bottom so it’s like travelling half way around the world,” she recalls.
Travelling down through the Americas Lois had no real schedule, deciding it was much more fun to sit back and enjoy the ride. She spent over a month in Mexico staying in cheap, grotty hostels infested with cockroaches and with no running water where she suffered from a nasty case of food poisoning. She also ventured down a lawless jungle highway into Colombia, a country renowned for its international drug trade.
“When you get from Panama to Colombia the road actually runs out. It is just this dense lawless jungle for about 75 miles and no one has ever cut a road through it. I was nervous about entering Colombia because back in 2003, a few weeks before I arrived, a group of English backpackers were kidnapped there.”
Following on from the success of the trip, Lois had officially caught the travel bug and set her sights on traversing Africa, a 10,000 mile journey taking her through some of the most lawless and dangerous countries on the planet. She says she was in search of a ‘real, proper, old-fashioned adventure’.
“Africa was a real tough trip compared with my first trip. Even though the American journey was twice as long; Africa was ten times as hard.”
Lois’s unconventional route through Africa turned out to be very testing and took her through war-ridden countries with little to no infrastructure, where level motorways were a distant dream.
“Once you get to the Sahara its just sand and rocks so that’s really tough going. Then in central Africa it’s just mud and where there is tarmac it’s all broken up with potholes so it’s physically a very difficult continent to cross”, Lois says.
“My greatest memory though would be riding across the Sahara, from an actual motor biking point of view. It’s the best riding I’ve ever done in my life; it was so exciting.”
One of the scarier moments from her trip was when, she had to choose between a concrete road dotted with landmines or a muddy track which had been transformed into a gushing river, reminding her that tarmac roads aren’t always the safest.
Her route into Africa included a boat trip from France to Tunisia and then riding on into Algeria where she met some other bikers.
“In Algeria I was really grateful that I had the company of some other travellers because I was thinking ‘my god what would this be like if I hadn’t met up with them and had done this on my own’. I would have been so miserable; I wouldn’t have been able to do anything. I imagine it’s a pretty bleak place to be completely alone if you’re a white woman.”
As she was crossing a border in Algeria into the Sahara, officials refused to give her a permit simply because she was a woman. Often men would totally ignore her which left her feeling excluded and lonely. She believes that they were simply “not ready for the idea of a white woman riding a motorcycle.”
“It was just beyond their comprehension. They would think I was a man a lot of the time when I would drive up to checkpoints. When I would speak back to them, and they realised I was a woman, they would literally flinch and pull their hand away.”
From Algeria she travelled straight through Niger where chickens had run of the villages and cigarette smugglers were in abundance. She then crossed the northern part of Nigeria, a country which she had worried a lot about ever since entering the chaotic Nigerian Embassy back in London.
“I was worried about Nigeria because it has a bad reputation for corrupt officials and bribery but we didn’t have any of that and actually I found it very welcoming.”
Having survived Nigeria, Lois had only one thing on her mind: The Congo. Throughout Africa Lois was warned not to venture into the Congo, one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world. She put on a brave face, however, and entered the heart of darkness.
On entering the immigration office, Lois was left speechless at the sight of gruesome photos of tortured civilians. From genital mutilation, de-capitation and hangings, she recalls being guided though the casualties by the young immigration official who, when asked why these gruesome murders took place, calmly replied, ‘C’est la vie’.
“There is a definite air of hostility, not just towards travellers but amongst the people themselves. They have been brutalised over the years of the regime and through civil wars. It’s an unpleasant place to be whether you are Congolese or English. There were a lot of signs of brutality. It’s in everybody’s life, in their eyes in their faces. It’s a hard place to live. I had a lot of scary moments there with officials and the police as they are the people you fear over there.”
Following the terror of the Congo, Angola turned out to be the biggest surprise for Lois and her favourite country on her trip. The West African nation has been troubled by civil war for nearly 27 years and is known to be an impossible country to traverse due to widespread land mines and bombed roads and railways.
Despite the county’s troubled past, Lois found the people went out of their way to help her.
“I could not have asked for more friendly and welcoming people; they were just so lovely. The place is a wreck; there are tanks all over the place abandoned by the side of the road, land mines everywhere and kids who have got their legs blown off because of mines. It’s horrible but the people are just fantastic,” she remembers with a sad smile.
On her next trip, Lois hopes to ride eastwards towards India or Mongolia and perhaps take her husband, who has also embarked on biking trips around the world. She leaves me with some wise advice.
“It’s better to travel alone than to travel with the wrong person. You need to choose your travelling companions very carefully!”
SIDE BAR- Polly Evans
Another Intrepid traveller who decided to leave her loved ones in search of a motor biking adventure is Polly Evans, travel writer and author of ‘Quirky Travel guides’. Unlike Lois Pryce, however, Polly Evans has always been a little offbeat.
Evans strives to find the interesting in the ordinary wherever she travels, preferring to dine in restaurants that dish up road-kill or bars that serve cocktails garnished with human toes rather than visiting tourist attractions. So when she decided to embark on a biking trip around New Zealand in search of the last bastion of masculinity; the Kiwi bloke, nobody bat an eyelid.
Despite Evan’s mad raving lunatic expeditions around the world from reindeer chasing in Siberia to learning to Dog sled in Canada, speaking to her you will quickly discover she is a very calm and quiet woman. When asked where she got her ‘quirkiness’ from, the ever modest Evans denies she is ‘all that quirky’ and puts it down to her odd personality which has grown with her throughout life.
Evans grew up in Derbyshire, in England, until she was nine years old, when her family moved to Tokyo for a year, something she feels was a strong motivating force in travelling later on.
“When I was in school there we had 18 kids in the class and between them were ten different nationalities. It was a very big eye-opener for me coming from rural England to see that there were all sorts of people in the World doing things differently and that they were still good people.”
Her biking trip to New Zealand, although predominantly a search for some Kiwi masculinity, brought her in contact with numerous interesting characters along the way.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t find what I was looking for. I decided that all the real New Zealand men had probably disappeared, as you would imagine. I wasn’t expecting that New Zealand men would still be in the 19th Century and indeed they weren’t. They had moved on with the rest of the male species across the globe which is probably a very good thing”, she laughs.
Her journey around New Zealand brought her in contact with Maori warriors who carved their enemies’ bones into cutlery, a pioneer family who lived in a tree, and some flamboyant gold miners who lit their pipes with five-pound notes and wondered how their descendants have become pathologically obsessed with helpfulness and Coronation Street.
To find out more about the adventures of Polly Evans, log on to her website, www.pollyevans.com and be sure to look at her section on ‘Hamster escapes’. The quirkiness continues…