There is always an element of carefree thinking to say, let’s just do it, and that is where all adventures begin, but there does need to be at least some planning to any adventure. In the first of a series of articles Rob Irving shares his experiences of taking to the roads of North Africa with his motorcycle, camera and travelling companions.
A passion of mine is to travel and I can’t think of anything more exciting or stimulating than finding myself in a far flung land where things simply aren’t quite as they seem. In some respects, I can liken it to joining a game which has already started, the rules of which are well established, taken for granted by the other players, it’s simply up to me to learn fast and get into its flow. With experience I’ve found that to run on instinct is the only way to become assimilated, letting my feelings make the decisions, and only then allowing my head to navigate accordingly. We all live within belief systems created by our local cultures. Such systems are neither right nor wrong, neither the best or worst way to skin the proverbial cat. They just are. They are phenomenally complex, billion piece jigsaw puzzles if you will, where each and every piece is integral to the overall picture, a picture which subsequently can never be fully understood… and that’s just fine.
I have other passions in life too; one of which is the motorcycle: To me it’s the purest form of motorised transportation: an engine drives a single wheel, a second wheel steers, connected by a frame, upon which sits fuel and a pilot. Whatever the conditions or environment within which such is driven, the pilot feels it: the temperature, the wind, the sun and the rain, none of which can be escaped. It’s also dangerous; the safest way to ride is to be mindful at all times, only to think about the moment, potential dangers, condition of the road, its other users. Which brings me to photography, another huge passion with many facets which excite me, but above all, it has to be the mindfulness required in order to take a truly beautiful picture, which in a nutshell means being at one with the subject (of which we’ll talk more about in another article).
Back in 2009, I was able to bring these three passions together into a single adventure. Since my teens, inspired by such books as Jupiter’s Travels and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (and more recently Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s escapades), I’d always fancied a daring motorcycle adventure, pottering around Europe just wouldn’t cut it for me; it would have to be beyond our safe and predictable borders, but close enough so that it could be ridden too. It struck me that circumnavigating the Mediterranean with the emphasis on North Africa would pretty much tick all the boxes.
Travelling on one’s lonesome has it’s charm, but personally I prefer the dynamics afforded by a companion, and on this adventure there was the safety issues to be considered. Enter stage left my good buddy, fellow pro photographer and bike nut Claus; together we hatched a plan. Both living in northern Denmark, we’d head south into Germany, and on through Austria & Italy, to the tip of Sicily where we’d get a ferry on to Tunisia. We would have liked to have crossed from Spain to Morocco but as it wasn’t possible to transit Algeria. So we would start in Tunisia, from where we’d head east through Libya, Egypt, then north into the Middle East and Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and then back west and home.
It took months of preparation: suitable bikes bought and kitted out, (mine registered and MOT’d in Germany to avoid horrendous Carnet de Passage premiums levied on Brits). Various visas, the Libyan one, for some, seemingly unobtainable for months etc, etc.
Boxing Day 2008 we departed.. Envisaging a six-week (circa 10,000 mile) trip, both a dead time in our commercial calendars but too, at least when we got to Africa it wouldn’t be too hot. Wrapped in many many layers it was minus 8 Celsius when we left our northern climes. Uninterested in Europe as suggested, we beelined for Sicily which took around four long saddle days.
There was absolutely nothing predictable about the trip. Bar backpacking Morocco some years previously, neither of us had travelled this part of the world and I have to confess to a feeling of trepidation throughout most of the journey especially as the day we landed in Africa was the day Israel went to war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which created an enormous buzz of anti Israeli/western sentiment throughout all the countries we travelled.
Our first week was spent exploring Tunisia as we gradually wound our way south to the deserts and it’s border with Libya… Tunisia is easy, an established Euro tourist destination, but at least in the North, we were warmly welcomed. We met two Italian bikers on the ferry, Aldo and Urbano, who we travelled with that entire week, and together we crossed salt flats, wild wilderness desert roads, sleeping out under the stars, eating goat at roadside truck stops. It all felt such a breeze and was the last point of the journey that we knew we could turn around and retreat from if need be!! As the truly unknown would start once we had entered Libya….