Santiago to San Francisco
Here is the full film that Tom and I made from our year-long adventure on Honda XR150’s from Santiago to San Francisco.
This was an interview I did with my good friend Gemma from VC London back in January 2016; at this point we were about three months into the trip and had no idea if we would make it, or what was ahead of us. It made for an interesting read for me a few years later knowing that we made it to California after twelve months on the road.
What made you decide to set out on such an epic trip together?
The main reason for such a long trip was to surf, spend time away from the UK especially during the winter, more to do with the darkness than the cold. We both had pretty intense, stressful jobs for the past few years working in a secondary school and we craved a bit more freedom. Tom was really concerned that teaching in a secondary school was going to be the rest of his life and he hated it, he was really unhappy and under a lot of pressure constantly. After a summer spent riding motorbikes and surfing in Indonesia last year, we both felt a bit more empowered to make that kind of lifestyle last a bit longer. It didn't even cross our minds that the route might not be possible, we found out it had been done before and that was it; we started making plans. In order to try to make a different lifestyle sustainable, we started implementing changes in our lives that would help us both on the trip and when we return. I trained as a Beach Lifeguard and a Surf Instructor and quit my job in the school and spent a summer on the beach saving up. The plan was always to pick up a few bits of work or exchange skills along the way. Tom went to part-time at work and started concentrating on his photography work, so far it has been a really positive change.
Why did you choose to do the trip on motorcycles (especially Honda xr150s) as you didn't ride for long before you left?
We were both riding 125's on a CBT before we left, we had an old 70's Honda CB and a newer XR, mainly because we were planning this trip. When we were in Indonesia, Tom was the one always riding the bikes and to be honest I was happy sat on the back, but for this trip there was no chance of that happening, we have too much gear and Tom just wasn't having it, so I'd have to get myself there. It's been a real challenge but it's starting to feel natural. There are positives and negatives to riding a bike on a surf trip, already we have been able to access some pretty special places purely because we are on bikes. We have dreamt of a car or van at times but we wouldn't have travelled on some of the roads we have done, the ones that are going to have the lasting memory. We get some crazy looks riding down the highway with surfboards attached to our bikes (along with the odd shaka which is always a boost). The amazing thing is that we always feel part of the landscape on bikes, we are in it, not separate from it as you are in a car. There is a romance to the idea of it and rolling into a town, tired and filthy, chased by dogs gives us a real sense of achievement. As for the 150cc's, they're cheap, £1,500 each for brand new bikes, we have never gone over a tenner filling both tanks and these bikes are everywhere, a new engine will be cheaper than one sensor for a BMW that has to be shipped from Europe or whatever, these bikes are really simple, single cylinder, carburettor, minimal electronics. We don't feel like we're screaming 'we have money' when we arrive or pass through a town.
Not having surfboards with us was never an option & this is initially a surf trip so 80kmh is tops for our safety. The XR150's sit happily at that speed, any bigger would be a waste for us. Plus, if I drop my bike, I can just about pick it up...The XR150's definitely aren't 'cool' either but they're doing a really good job so far. Fuck me, you couldn't do this trip on an Enfield or an old Harley, there is a romance to that too but I think we already have enough of that with the route, let alone sitting in lay-by's all day. Although an XR250 is appealing at times!
What made you choose your route, starting from Santiago?
San Fran is one idea... Or we might end up in Texas or Mexico, plans are always changing. We read about two Australian surfers travelling through an area in Western Mexico we were planing on going through who wound up dead, burned to death in their van the first night they got there; places like Sinaloa and Geurerro are crazy. We have nothing to prove but we do have flights out of LA at some point. As for starting in Chile, it's well known that Santiago is a good place to buy bikes and its near really good waves. We have made it to another surf town in the North now, nearly 2000km's up the coast; we thought the Atacama desert might have waves but the swell was small the whole time we were there. From here on up to California there is good surf pretty much all the way. There is one language too which is a bonus, we're learning Spanish and it's going OK so far.
Whats been the best part of your trip so far?
Two free weeks in a dreamy log cabin next to Punta De Lobos (an amazing Chilean wave), surfing an amazing spot surrounded by beauty and surf heritage, being in the sea with whales and dolphins was amazing. That and meeting great people, in particular Alejandro Briones and his family from Herencia Rides in Santiago. He built our racks and has supported us fully the whole way, giving us keys to said log cabin. Looking back there are lots of high points but at times its hard not to think of the low points too. I think the lowest point was the Southern Atacama, 12 hours riding through dirt tracks and goat roads that we knew nobody has used for a long time. Going over the crest of a mountain hoping for a town as the sunsets and seeing more mountains and nothingness, switching off the engine and coasting down the mountains and hair pin bends to save precious fuel. There were tears and I wanted to give up there and then. Looking back, that was unforgettable, it was incredible and we are sure that will be the most memorable and amazing experience.
How long are you planning on travelling for?
We are aiming for a year in total but who knows. We quit our jobs and the flat rented out within a day of being online. We might end up quitting in a couple of months or spending a bit of time somewhere we fall in love along the way. We are totally open to ideas of how to live for a while.
How did you find doing your test in the UK?
I found the process of the test really difficult. I failed my Mod 1 the first time round because I ran over a cone pretty much immediately. The Examiner wore a helmet in the yard the whole time and had piercing mean eyes. I didn't feel like I was actually taught to understand how to ride and instead just told to do it. I changed riding schools and found the next guys teaching style way more helpful, less chauvinist and spent time explaining things more logically. For me actually learning to ride was way more important than passing my test if that makes sense. It cost money but I ended up taking my time, having more lessons than they would usually give. The only problem then was that I was cutting it really fine with regards to the trip. I knew how important it was to have my license for so many reasons but in particular to cover me insurance wise, I am sure there are countries out here that you would never be asked. We cut it so fine that the morning of my flight I had to take a detour to pick up my new license which had just arrived. It was pretty stressful and I ended up putting a hell of a lot of pressure on myself to pass but I did first time, that was after getting the wrong date for my first one, I turned up two days too late and ended up sat in the waiting room next to my old instructor, that was a bit shit, ha. I spent the whole test itself thinking that I had surely failed and when in fact I got two minors for hesitating, smashed it. Never been so happy to finish something and never have to do it again to be honest. Most people I speak to say the same thing, it's not an easy process. I don't mean to discourage anybody because it really is well worth doing, it feels amazing to know that I can now legally ride any bike I want.
How do you think riding in the uk differs from riding in South America?
It's early days yet but after nearly 3,000km's there are definitely positives and negatives. On the plus side, the weather is amazing, it never rains, is always warm and dry. Chile is so big that the cities are really spread out, the infrastructure is not the same as the UK, there are 'gas gaps' of up to 400km meaning you have to carry a jerry can really to avoid getting stuck. In England I wouldn't ever choose to travel on a motorway, here you have no choice sometimes, its the only option for part of the country. The Ruta 5, the Pan American Highway here is pretty horrific, there are huge trucks and busses flying past way quicker than necessary, and then they come up behind you and sit on your tail being really menacing. The smaller roads and dirt tracks are absolutely amazing though; stunning scenery, sea to the left, mountains to the right and when you inland a bit its like a cross between Mad Max and Jurassic Park, not another car for miles and plenty of empty beaches to camp on for free. Those big stretches of empty roads never get boring. One big problem is the dogs. Every time we pull into, or leave a town on the bikes, dogs chase us, snapping at our legs. They don't seem to like the noise of the bikes and they really mean business, I am writing this having just returned from hospital after losing a battle with a German Shepard last night, although that was nothing to do with a motorbike. I'm OK.
Will you be getting a bike the UK when you get back?
We kept our XR125 for when we get back. I can imagine after a trip this long that it would feel strange not to have a bike, I am becoming quite attached to it. For me, the romance is where motorbikes can take you, I'm not bothered about the aesthetics and heritage as much at the minute, though I can appreciate the appeal. Right now, my dream bike would be anything that can let me ride though any terrain, particularly sand and dirt maybe with one of those long range tanks. A set of good OS maps and some better tires would also be mint!
What advice would you give to someone considering to do a similar trip who maybe spent have their licence yet?
I would say that I am not really able to give advice quite yet, but having your licence gives you so much confidence when riding. If you're even thinking about a trip like this, start the process get your license, but do it nice and early! Before this trip, I had no desire to ride bikes really but having this skill feels amazing, that said, I am dreading the next part of the journey (400km's with no fuel on the 'Most Deadly Highway's in the America's). What I would say is get a Garmin GPS, use Bikehike.co.uk to plan routes and take a good tent, a jerry-can and a Primus Omnifuel stove (as these run off petrol). My top tip is a pair of decent old Levis (when they were proper denim), take them to the old lady in the Indoor Market and get her to sew in E-bay Kevlar into the knees and hips, I live in these jeans, on and off the bike, Tom too. Trying to find decent ladies riding gear is a nightmare and it really doesn't need to be expensive.
Article by Gemma Harrison ( @ghwfive)