From Tortillas to Totems

There is no one better qualified to offer up good advice on every aspect of long distance motorcycling than Sam Manicom. Subtle advice on dealing with surly border guards is the order of the day here! Keeping your wits about you after a gruelling day on the motorcycles is not always as easy as you might think! It’s no good staggering from a tinking bike, almost comatosed with ‘road shock’, only to get robbed blind by threatening and pseudo officialdom! Wrap your mitts about this book and Sam will make sure this never happens to you.

Along the way you’ll be treated to tales a plenty that will both intrigue and delight in equal measure. Drawing on his travelling diaries, Sam has been able to populate his many adventures with minute and telling observations that often give the reader the real story behind the narrative. You’ll be taken down roads, along trails and through towns and every step of the way you’ll have Sam describing the scenes, characters and yes, even animals, they encountered. It’s these informative and often telling insights that really make Sam Manicom’s books what they are.

Tortillas to Totems describes what could very well be the final leg of Sam and Birgit’s worldly travels - and there’s no getting away from the fact that Sam misses life on the road. As I read this book, the sense of ‘journeys end’ I felt coming from within the pages was almost palpable. I got a real impression of just how attached this pair had become to that whole way of life and it left wondering how they could possibly ever hope to endure the mundane.

The bond that develops between man and machine is always important and much talked about but in the end it’s the open road that is the ultimate temptress. I strongly suspect that should the opportunity present itself, both Sam and Birgit will be saddling up and riding out once more. And if that ever comes about let’s hope that Sam is just as particular about his diary keeping as he has been in the past. Because I for one, would again like to be taken along for the ride!

Sam and Birgit.


Two-wheeled lush.

Setting off for Africa, one of the things that worried me the most was how I was going to find enough fuel. I had the Sahara to contend with, I had war zones to ride through and I had areas where wars had only just finished. And besides those worries, there was the simple fact that there was a long way between towns; it’s a large continent.

To compound these concerns, I’d only been riding a bike for 3 months and I’d only had the bike I was on, an R80GS, for a couple of weeks. I’d already gained some confidence from the two guys in the pub who had advised me that the R80GS was bullet proof, and idiot proof! They seemed to think it was the right combination for me, but tough as it might be, I had no idea how much fuel my overloaded bike would drink in the heat and on the rough roads. The final twist in my confusion was that the speedo on the bike was faulty, not that I knew it to begin with, and the bike seemed to be giving me amazing fuel returns. That, if I’d not discovered it in time, would have given me hugely dangerous confidence.

When faced with this lot, what do you do? Research, as best you can, of course. And then use common sense. The research bit was to read as much about desert travel as I could find. This taught me that if I was grinding along in low gear through thick sand and mud, I was going to use up dramatic quantities of fuel in just the places I didn’t want to. But I also found Michelin maps, and if they lived up to their reputation, then the towns they had marked as having petrol stations, would have them. That would help with the planning. However, there were still some very large gaps and that was where common sense had to kick in.

I bought a nylon nine and a half gallon petrol tank, and the bike instantly changed from being a sleek and shiny brand new set of wheels, to a colour-mismatched beast that looked totally top heavy. I bought the nylon tank because the salesman assured me that it wouldn’t break if I dropped the bike on rocks – methinks he’d heard of my lack of riding style! Nine and a half gallons would give me an average range of about 470 miles. Not enough I worried. So, I strapped on an extra 2 gallons in a pristine, dent free, bright green tank. To balance out the weight of that, I strapped my 2-gallon water supply to the other side of the bike. I put both just forward of my panniers so I was keeping as much weight between the wheels and low down. I’d heard somewhere from someone, that this was something one should do – keep that centre of gravity low. I worried about hitting my heels on the tanks but could see no alternative. I had to have fuel, and I had to have water. But now the bike was looking outrageous with its mishmash of purple bike, cream tank, apple green fuel can and stainless steel water tank. When the luggage went on, the bike instantly turned into something that looked more like a mobile Christmas tree than an overlanders bike!

I dreaded dropping my technicoloured monster – would I be strong enough to pick it up again? And what on earth would it be like to ride through sand? Common sense couldn’t find a solution, so it was a case of go, suck it and see. Anyway, I reasoned, the bike stood out so vibrantly, if I dropped it someone would notice and I was sure that they scoot over to give me a hand. I have faith in human nature you see.

At this time it had never occurred to me that in many Third World countries the fuel is far lower octane than at home, and therefore the bike would be sucking it up at a rate that would have beaten the enthusiasm of any wino. It is cheaper than meths though!

The fuel in Egypt sucked, literally and the first time I heard that nasty dit-dit-dit noise that a pinking bike engine makes, I thought I’d already trashed the thing! 78-octane petrol will do this to a bike, and as I meandered my way down the banks of the River Nile, it was the first time that I wondered why it wasn’t possible to buy a diesel engine bike. Surly there wouldn’t be the same problems, and surly such a bike would make sense. In fact, I pondered – the back of a bike being a great place for pondering – for my trip I really didn’t need any of the advantages of a petrol engine. I didn’t need or want to go quickly. For sure I didn’t have to worry about icy starts. What I did need was consistent miles for my gallons, and a solid gentle cruising speed. I certainly wasn’t planning any attempts at the Paris Dakar! I pondered some more as I weaved between the Egyptian trucks that never use more than one headlight at night - for fear of wearing out their batteries you know. These beaten up decidedly battered one-eyed monsters of the road vie for the crown of king of the road with the equally battered local buses. Nope, I didn’t need speed, just enough agility to evade the trucks, buses, potholes, goats, sheep, dogs, more potholes, raggedy edged asphalt, and kids who seemed to think that it was wonderfully funny if they managed to get a rock to bounce off your crash helmet!

I hit the real sand in Sudan, and here I would have been in trouble, but I wasn’t and that is another story. Ethiopia had been at war for 20 years and I was sure this was going to mean that petrol would be a problem, and it was. The towns that were supposed to have fuel in their several petrol stations, didn’t. I rode into one town and none of the seven petrol stations could help, but two of them had diesel! I’d only seen trucks on the road until this time, and that explained things. After all, particularly in Third World countries, truck transport is the lifeblood in the veins. At the ninth town across the border I was down to my last eggcup of fuel and was getting really worried. To compound the problem I was in the country with a forgery in my passport and that meant I had no right to buy fuel, because I couldn’t apply for a permit. Things could only get better, so with fingers crossed on the throttle, I joined the two-mile long queue at the one station that did have petrol.

I was in luck, with the amazingly kind help of a local lad who acted as fixer for me, and an assumption on the part of the officials that if I was there then I had the right to be there and therefore I had the right to a permit. Well, they never asked to see my papers did they.

This was the worst though and from that moment on, my top-heavy tank gave me enough range to be able to make it between stations, but frequently only because once the tank got to the half-empty stage, I topped it off at the first chance. In Nairobi I bartered my extra tank for some local carvings, and set off to revel in the difference riding with 2 gallons less weight made to the bike. I continued my 200,000-mile journey around the world with this technique working well, but the bike still drinking like an old lush. It would have been very nice to get the grey cells that were focused on where the next fill up was coming from, onto the stunning lands I was riding through.

I never stopped dreaming of owning a diesel trail bike. When I was struggling with the weight of fuel I was carrying, I knew that could be carrying less. When I’d dropped the bike, again, I cursed when I’d done so with a full tank. And no, there wasn’t always someone around to help me. So, the fact that I’d not been able to deal with riding a Christmas tree around the world, and I’d painted the whole thing white, hadn’t made any difference to the discovery rate. When I couldn’t find petrol, I knew that I’d have been able to find diesel. I just had to be somewhere the trucks went, and I found them in places no sane First World truckie would even remotely consider going. I still dream of owning a diesel trail bike now – what a fantastic way to tour the world!

Sam Manicom adventured for 8 years and 200,000 miles around the world through 55 countries. He published his well-received first book ‘Into Africa’ in 2005 and‘Under Asian Skies’ was released on the 3rd November 2007.His new adventure motorcycle book 'Distant Suns' is out now.

Visit his website below now to buy the books.

Sam Manicoms Website

‘Adventure travel books where every day is an adventure.’

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