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Riding a Royal Enfield Through Wild West Africa

Luke GelmiFebruary 03, 2017

How a little touring in England turned into the ride of a lifetime.

Buy the bike you want.

Never mind what anyone else says. If you love it, get it.

It’s your ride.

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My vice: A Royal Enfield Bullet“First contact” was during a two-week ride with my dad through the Himalayas in the north of India. At the end of the tour, one of the blokes we were with said, “If I never see a Royal Enfield seat for the rest of my life, it’ll be too soon!”

But me? I was hookedBesotted. It was as though the bike and I fit like a hand in a glove. We were, somehow, a team. So, when I quit my job and flew to England to “do some touring,” there was only one bike that I could do it on. The only question was, “which color…?”

The answer: Battle Green.

Oh yes…

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Everyone thought I’d gone mad; I had a perfectly good touring bike back home in the shed (a BWM F 800 GS–the right machine for the job) and here I was, shelling out for perhaps the most impractical bike that I could possibly buy. Did I care? Nope. Not one gosh darn bit. Riding out of the dealership, you couldn’t slap the grin off my face. Happier than a pig in slop.

So it began. I had no idea what I was doing, so instead I just toured. It was as simple as that. I didn’t carry the right papers, my insurance wasn’t valid. I didn’t even have an international driver’s license. I would navigate my way around the country by compass. Not even a map; just a compass. Wherever I landed at the end of the day was where I slept.

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It was a piece of cake, and the obliviousness of my planning left room for surprise and delight. And isn’t that what we all live for? In today’s world of everyone knowing everything, I was content to know nothing, and be thoroughly gobsmacked when I rolled across something entirely unexpected and sensational.

I made up the story as I went along. It was bloody wonderful.

But then, winter was coming on—with a vengeance. So, like a goose, I turned the compass around 180 degrees and flew south, escaping—barely—the winter front. Through France and Belgium, through Switzerland and Spain, I escaped the rain and cold, until I had run all the way to the southern edge of mainland Europe. There was nowhere else left to hide. Except Africa.

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From the shores of southern Spain I could see the mountains of Morocco through the fog. Close enough to touch. Tantalizingly close.

I’d picked up an Australian hitchhiker, a wild bastard, who’d hitchhiked up the eastern coast of the African continent on his way to the Middle East and then Europe. Hitchhiked. I wouldn’t do that even back at home—I’d be murdered by some weirdo who’d bury me by the roadside. But hitchhiking in Africa…

He was as mad as a hatter, yet cold as ice. Nothing fazed him. He became my hero and, inspired by his impossible stories of malaria and typhoid, I adopted him, and put him on the back of the bike. The most inappropriate touring bike in the world was now going two-up. We looked like a carbon copy of The Motorcycle Diaries. Absurd.

The Enfield, my little beast, just got on with the job.

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Months later, we found ourselves on the tip of the bulge of West Africa, having travelled two thousand miles and through five countries together on the Enfield. We’d ridden the long, straight roads of the Western Sahara. We’d hitchhiked together for twelve hours on an enormous iron ore train, deep into the Sahara desert and deep into the night.

We’d been robbed blind.

I’d had my two front teeth knocked out.

I even learned some French. French! How quickly things can change. But necessity demanded it; twelve countries down the West Coast speak only French. A colonial hangover.

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What was the hardest part in all of this? First, trusting the street food, and second, that my bike wouldn’t get nicked. Like any rational human being, I was having trouble adapting to this mad, risky new world. But, steadily, I was cutting my teeth, and honing my craft on the job.

In Dakar (yes, the Dakar), I’d outgrown my hero. It had been months of touring closer than any two blokes really ought to be. It was almost 24 hours a day in each other’s company, seven days a week. We’d practically been living in each other’s pockets, and I was ready to go solo again. Craving it, even.

So, I spooned a fresh set of knobby boots on the beast (Bridgestone Trailwings) and set off, solo, into West Africa. Into the wild. Never in my most whacked out nightmares would I have ever dreamed of it—certainly not on a Royal Enfield.

Yet, there I was. With no better ideas, I pointed the compass south again and rode on. All the way to South Africa.

The whole bloody continent.

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It took over a year in the saddle. To say that it’s been a year of pushing personal boundaries—and all those other clichés of self-discovery—would be a gross understatement.

In Guinea, the Enfield had to do the work of an ADV bike, with a two-day rock hop out in the middle of bloody nowhere. Utterly lost, completely off the grid and in some of the toughest terrain you can imagine, with no option to turn around and go back. Like the “Little Engine That Could,” the Enfield thumped its way over the mountains, smashed pillar to post, but it survived. I nearly didn’t…two days in 100-plus-degree heat in a black leather jacket, Kevlar jeans, riding boots and a black, stifling helmet, all while suffering a shortage of water, nearly had me swooning. But “all the gear all the time” are words that I live by, even if I suffer for them.

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In Liberia, I had to stay in a filthy brothel when no other accommodation options presented themselves (other than more filthy brothels, of course…) Pay-by-the-hour…yeesh. I promptly got the trots; I’d eaten a fish with my hands after touching the filthy, damp African banknotes to pay for the dinner. Go figure… After three days captive in a dark “bathroom” that smelled like cockroaches, emptying my guts out, I was finally—barely—OK to leave. I was like a walking corpse.

On the way out of town, I was pulled over and then arrested by riot gear-clad police for not having the right papers. No one had told me about needing a permit. After being held in custody for an hour, I paid the only bribe I’ve ever paid in Africa—but not before they threatened to imprison me for six months and confiscate my Enfield and all my gear. Five minutes later, while trying to eat a banana on the roadside and recover my frayed nerves, some jerk in a car reversed over my bike. It was not my best day.

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In Ghana, while I was out for a swim in massive swells, a man got washed off the shore by a monster wave, out to where I was swimming. I tried to save him, but I doubt he could swim in a bathtub…I left him out there to drown and saved my own skin.

When I got ashore, someone handed me a surfboard, so back out I went to recover the body. It took a fair long while to get him up on the board in all the surf; bodies are bloody heavy things, and he was so slippery.

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Back on the shore, the whole beach was in pandemonium. Women were wailing; the wake had begun in earnest. We dumped him on the beach and, with nothing better to do, I tried out my first aid training. After all, I couldn’t possibly make it any worse…

When the mob saw me hit him for a “response,” they all started laying into him. One fellow got to work punching him in the leg. When they saw me start doing compressions on his chest, they all started pumping him, all over his body. The same fellow was giving him compressions on his thigh. I couldn’t, for the life of me, make them stop.

But it worked…

He chucked up a bucket of water and started breathing again. It was the wildest, most surreal 10 minutes of my life. His name is Richard.

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In equatorial Gabon, I was confronted by a gorilla while relieving myself in the jungle. Scared the absolute you-know-what out of me; I didn’t even know that there were gorillas in Gabon!

I’m an official resident of Togo, I have the papers to prove it. (The lengths one will go to get a visa…)

I’ve accidentally eaten stewed monkey in the Congo…it tastes like a shoe.

I’ve gone from soft as butter to harder than a coffin nail. Twenty-odd border crossings in some tough places will do that. I don’t recognize the man who had his feet under a desk a little over a year ago. We’re the same people, but different. I’ve become windswept and interesting.

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And what of my impractical nightmare of a motorbike? Here’s the thing: I couldn’t have done it on any other bike. I’m sure of it. Every time I see it, I swell with pride. It’s been a juggernaut. But that’s not why I couldn’t have done it on any other bike. I just love the darn thing.

To successfully complete the big tours, the long tours, you have to love your bike. There has to be a connection between man (or woman) and machine, a connection that no one else seems to understand. It doesn’t matter what the bike is, so long as you love it. And, if you love it, you can go anywhere.

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Whether it’s an adventuring beast, a touring hog, a supersport or a bloody scooter, it doesn’t matter! If you smile every time you see your ride, and that smile turns into a wide grin when you hit the ignition (or give it a kick), it’ll be enough.

After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?

So go make a start; ride the bike of your dreams. You never know where you might end up…

Read more about Luke Gelmi’s adventures at shotsfromthebar.com. You can also check out his book about his adventure here www.obliviousthebook.com.

5 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing the story Rider Magazine!
    For all the stories in depth head to my website on the trip, at http://www.shotsfromthebar.com (as in ‘photos from the handlebars’)
    Hope you all enjoy the rest of the epic stories!!
    Luke Gelmi

  2. Hi Luke

    An amazing story and ride. How many kms did you clock up and how reliable was the enfield?

    cheer tristan

  3. Luke, I haven’t even unpacked my bags from just returning from India riding the roads of Rajasthan on the Bullet. I well identify with your “connection” with this funky machine. The Enfield demonstrates just how much fun a simple machine can be. As I have long said, the Bullet is a motorcycle in perfect harmony with India. Thanks for sharing your roads with us.

  4. Excellent article! Royal Enfields are indeed some of the most beautiful motorcycles out there, I also fell in love with them and certainly bought my own.
    Currently I’m planning a trip on my Enfield to South America, would you please share what parts of the motorcycle were the most vulnerable during the trip, meaning the ones potentially needing repair/replace?
    I’m constantly annotating everything I’d eventually need for my trip.
    Thanks a lot and congratulations for your amazing trip!

  5. What a ride. To take off like that would be nice.Do not put it off to long.I did.

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