Sam Manicom travelled the world on his trusty 1992 BMW R80GS, with his partner Birgit on her 1971 BMW R60/5, for 8 years. He has been writing for various magazines around the world since 1996. Those titles include: Motorcycle Sport & Leisure, Adventure Bike Rider, Motorcycle Voyager, Canadian Biker, Motorcycle Monthly, Motociclisimo, Motorcycle Explorer, Australian Road Rider, MCN and ADVMoto Magazine.
He is the author of 4 acclaimed motorcycle travel books. His first book was written as a result of readers’ letters to editors. ‘We like Sam’s articles. When’s he going to write a book?’ Until that time he’d been travelling with just new adventures in mind.
Over the last few years, I’ve got to know Sam Manicom through our talks while working at #OverlandExpoWest in Flagstaff, Arizona. I finally had a chance to ask him a few questions about his journeys and inspirations.
What got you into travelling like you do?
A drunken moment in a bar on the tiny Channel Island of Jersey! Beer is a very dangerous thing, isn’t it? For sure it has the ability to dull the senses, but it can also open up a world of free thinking.
I was working on the island, which is tucked in the English Channel between the UK and France, and following a career path, as you are supposed to do as an adult. I’ve travelled a lot during my life but had eventually settled down, thinking that perhaps it was time to grow up and to be sensible. After all, we are supposed to feather our nests for old age aren’t we. Besides that, developing a career was going to be a new challenge. I’d not really done it before, so why not see what it was all about.
I surprised myself at how well I did in my retail manager role. Taken on as a very junior manager, I advanced fairly rapidly through the ranks and had all the trappings of life that one is supposed to have with success. An apartment, a sports car, holidays abroad and so on. I think the keys were that people matter to me, I’m fairly organised, I find it easy to respect the people I’m working with, and I liked looking after customers.
Some say that selling is a hard-nosed business, but my attitude towards it was that customers needed help, not sales spiel. If a customer was in my store, they were either there looking for general knowledge, or there for a problem solving reason. I’m happy with the former; we all do it, its curiosity, window-shopping from the inside. As for the latter, my job was to make sure that the customer was listened to, and guided towards products that might be a solution to their needs.
My staff and I had fun and we were successful. The Jersey shop was the number four store out of hundreds of branches throughout the UK. But for me, there was something missing. I had itchy feet, and the itch was increasing dramatically each week. I worked on, telling myself that bunking off on another long trip was irresponsible. After all, I was 34; at the peak of my professional career.
One night in the pub over a bit of a solo celebration when the beers were slipping down rather wonderfully, my thoughts had turned to the itch. By the time I’d made it to the 4thbeer I’d realised some important points. Other than work I had no responsibilities, and I had savings. What a brilliant combination.
The next beer slipped down dangerously and I started to ponder that call of the road. Perhaps I should push off on a new adventure. Would I ever be in this position of potential freedom again? I’d be giving up a lot though…
I’d actually spent most of my life travelling in one way or another. I was born and brought up in the Belgian Congo in Central West Africa. I was 10 years old when my parents decided that it was time to take my sisters and me to live in the UK. I think that was a really hard decision for them. Life had revolved around their work in the Congo for so many years. It certainly was odd for me to go from my usual attire of a pair of shorts and a great tan, to wearing full English school uniform; even a tie and a cap! I was known as Jungle Boy for quite a few years as I came to terms with life in England. I must have been quite a strange little lad as far as the other kids were concerned. A python? So what. But apples, chocolate bars and the Beatles? All new to me.
I made my first solo trip as a foray into mainland Europe, age 16. I rode a brand new bicycle, that I’d worked doing odd jobs to save the money for. That first trip taught me that destinations don’t matter, other than as a plan. What matters is that you go, and that you appreciate the things and people you see and get involved with along the way. Back then I’d no idea that this was going to turn into a plan for life; value the moments.
On finishing school age 18, I’d no idea what I was going to do. Having been to multiple schools and spent most of my time trying to fit in with each new environment, and buzzing around on the sports field, my grades weren’t very good. University? With my grades, only a poor one and it’s just another school, isn’t it. I chose to work a retail management training course for three years with one of the UK’s leading department stores.
Of course, at the time I’d no idea how much the training, new skills and character building would stand me in good stead. I probably couldn’t successfully do what I do now had it not been for all of the training that was involved.
At the end of those three years, the open road was calling and I set off to spend a year hitch hiking around Europe. With that trip, life changed. It wasn’t hard to make this become a way of living. Work and travel; sometimes combining both. Many of the jobs were basic and low wage, but with each new job I learnt; about the role itself, myself, and the country I was in. I travelled as far as India and Australia. Over the next years I hitch-hiked, bused, trained, hiked, sailed and had a go at every form of getting around that I could. And then the career in retail management took over. The trouble was, at no time in my life had I felt as alive, as challenged, as amazed, as delighted and at times frightened, as when I was on the move in some different land. One of my favourite sayings is ‘Become a stranger in a strange land’.
As I was sitting drinking those beers, that saying was in my mind. I started to ponder the possibilities; where to go and how to go? What didn’t I like about the other ways I’d travelled? I loved hitch-hiking but I’d done that a lot. So what’s new? I’d really enjoyed the pace and challenge of bicycling, but yep, those head winds weren’t something I looked forward to. I also knew that I wanted the ability to cover more ground in whatever time I could make available. Cycling was out then, and so was travelling by bus or by train. Unable to stop, I’d zipped on past things, people and places that looked interesting.
My beery brain was hunting for a new way to travel. A way to solve the issues I was identifying, and give me new things to learn. Slowly my mind worked around to travelling by motorcycle. I knew I wanted to travel through Africa too. I wanted to see if my childhood memories about how things sound smelt and tasted were true. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle!
I handed in my notice to work the next morning. I had a bit of a hangover but I was convinced that I was doing the right thing. I then bought myself a little 125cc trail bike to learn on, and passed my test 6 weeks later. It wasn’t long before I’d made it to the edge of the Sahara. Sitting on my 800cc BMW motorcycle, I looked south over the sands and contemplated the point that quite likely I was a complete idiot! I mean, ride a motorcycle through Africa with just a few months experience? I must have been mad, but it was too late; I was there. And anyway, I’d told my mates in the pub what I was doing. I couldn’t deal with the loss of face if I turned back without even trying.
So the journey through Africa began. The original plan, if I dare call it that with things happening at such a pace, was to ride through West Africa. Just as I passed my motorcycle test, things went politically pear-shaped in Algeria, and all the borders in that part of Africa closed. No one had the remotest idea how long this situation was going to continue. I had a ticking clock in my mind. Because of the terrain and the extreme temperatures, there are only certain months of the year when it’s sane to travel across the Sahara. If I didn’t crack on I’d lose the opportunity.
The alternative route was through East Africa. The problem there was that Sudan had a North to South civil war going on, and Ethiopia had been at war within itself for the past 20 years. On the up side, some people were getting visas for Sudan, and the war in Ethiopia was just coming to an end. With nothing to lose, I set off with new rough plans in mind; I might as well try. After all, I’d given up my job, and sold just about everything I owned. What hadn’t occurred to me was that Mike, and Sally, who I’d met on the way, and I were to be the first people to ride motorcycles North to South through Sudan and Ethiopia for those 20 years. We’d struck it lucky. A window of opportunity had opened.
This was 1992. No Google, no GPS, no cell phones and no digital photography. If you wanted to find something out you went to the library or wrote letters. If you wanted to find the way, you hunted out the best maps you could, and you asked the way. Getting lost was a part of the journey, and instead of being a negative it simply opened up a world of the unexpected. Some of the best adventures happen on a road you hadn’t planned to be travelling.
19 fascinating countries and a year later, I decided that actually there was no good reason to head for home. There were plenty of reasons to carry on though. Travelling by motorcycle, in spite of being thrown in prison in Tanzania and 17 bone fractures in the desert in Namibia, was more than fulfilling my beery thoughts in the pub. Another favourite saying is ‘Stop worrying about the potholes and celebrate the journey’.
I booked passage for my bike and I to sail on a container ship across the Indian Ocean to Australia. And so, what turned out to be an eight year journey around the world began. My motorcycle by the way, is called Libby. That’s short for Liberty; it’s what she gives me. All these years later, she’s still my only means of transport in the UK. She does now have a younger sister getting me around in the USA on trips there. A 2013 BMW F800GS. That bike is still waiting for a name to grow. Who knows, it might be ‘Lucky’. For sure I know how lucky I am to have her, and the opportunity to explore more of the amazing land that is the USA.
What next? More travels but in shorter stints; I need just enough to keep scratching that itch and to give me material to write travel articles about. I also spend a fair bit of time doing travel presentations and book signings at motorcycle dealerships, libraries, clubs, schools and businesses. They are my opportunity to share the fun of the road, and perhaps even encourage others to head out and to explore for themselves. I’m keen that people really think about life, recognise the opportunities as they occur, and take advantage of them. This is such an invigorating thing, both at work and play. I fully accept that many people have responsibilities that will not allow them to head out into the blue for months even years at a time. I really value being around people like that who are accepting their responsibilities and making life zing as much as they can. I love it when people say such things as, “I’d love to travel, but I can’t, yet.” Adventures begin with dreams.
I think of myself as being a bit of an accidental author. I didn’t set out on my journey with the aim of writing magazine articles or books. With enthusiastic encouragement from others I thought I’d have a go. I’d kept a journal every day, so I had the facts and many of the descriptions. Long term travellers learn quickly about the risk of being on intake overload each day; it’s so easy to forget the dates, statistics, sights, sounds, smells, names and so on. The drama and the funny side to life do tend to stay in one’s mind though.
It would be a new adventure seeing if I could write a book, and so settled down to write my first; Into Africa. I was putting in 10-12 hour days working renovating houses and then after a quick shower and some food, I sat down to write. It took me two years. Learning everything about the publishing and print industries has been a side fascination and I’ll never forget the sensation of having my first printed copy in my hand; it’s a wonderful moment.I certainly didn’t expect the 5 star reviews my books have been collecting from kind readers and media reviewers.
Each of the four books takes the reader riding and exploring through a different section of the eight year journey and thankfully people seem to like them. ‘Thankfully’ because I wrote them as travel books, rather than specifically as motorcycle travel books, and I describe the sorts of things I like to read about as a traveller. Years later I read that authors should only write about things they know about and have a passion for.
I think of my books as being a way to share the fun of the open road with those who for the moment can’t head out on a long trip, with those who really don’t want to travel but love to read about it, and also as encouragement to those who think they don’t have the skills to travel in this way. I had few skills when I started, but I had an open mind, a strong curiosity, understanding of the value of respect and I’ve got a positive attitude to most things. It’s a great world and travelling by motorcycle, to my mind, is a superb way to see it.
Into Africa Takes the reader on that first eye-opening year through the incredible continent that is Africa. There are challenges a plenty; it’s a genuine tale of the unexpected. Woven into this journey between Cairo and Cape Town are the riding, the people, wildlife, history, the disasters and the silver linings; there’s plenty of humour too.
Overland Magazine: ‘The word-pictures that bring a good travel book to life are all here; Sam’s perceptions of people, places and predicaments have real depth and texture, their associated sights, smells and sounds are evoked with a natural ease. Where other author’s detailed descriptions can sometimes get in the way, Sam’s style is engaging and well-tuned. I found myself in the midst of action rather than a mere fly on the wall.’
Under Asian Skies This is the story of just over 2 years travelling from Australia and New Zealand, up through SE Asia, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and through Eastern Europe. This without doubt is the most colourful and culturally diverse part of the world I’ve been lucky enough to ride. Every day was an adventure.
Horizons Unlimited: ‘Sam has the skills of the story teller and this book easily transports you into three years of journey across Asia. He manages to bring the sounds, scents and heat of Asia to life without wordy overkill and he has obviously researched his historical facts carefully. In places Under Asian Skies is sad, and in others it’s outrageously funny – look out for his battle with the Sydney port officials and the bus ride in Indonesia. All in all this is a really good read, whether you have been across Asia, or are planning a trip.
This is true travelling on the cheap and not your everyday story.’
Distant Suns My third book has me linking up with a German lass in New Zealand. Birgit agreed to ride with me, but to Africa first, and on her own bike. She rode out of Mombasa harbour in Kenya with just 600 miles of experience on a motorcycle! Over the next 3 years we rode together through Africa, and on up through South and Central America. These continents may be on the same latitude, but the contrasts in landscape, cultures and the peoples are huge. The Andes? Simply stunning. Oh and I’d not told Birgit what a disaster magnet I am!
Motorcycle Explorer: ‘An epic ride that almost becomes secondary to the events that happen and the very human element of travelling. Always evoking the emotions of others, because Sam never forgets to use his five senses in his tales. Leaving you immersed in the sights, sounds, touch, smell and taste of a journey of true human discovery.’
Tortillas to Totems: This book takes you travelling with us through the 3 countries that make up North America. Three neighbours that are so wonderfully different to each other, make travelling this part of the world a delight. North America was in fact the part of the world that surprised me the most. When you read this book you’ll find out all the reasons why I keep coming back.
ADVMoto Magazine: ‘What I enjoy most about Sam’s method is his way of describing the moment. You feel it, smell it… you freeze, you sweat, and you see what’s before him like you’re along for the ride. You are very much there. It’s a rather intimate, honest style that easily carries you from chapter-to-chapter. I highly recommend that you add Sam’s books to your reading list.’
Fall Presentation Tour 2019:
- GO AZ Motorcycles Peoria AZ September 6th(Friday). On this, my second visit to GO AZ, I’ll be talking about the delights of travelling across Asia. I’ll also be book signing. 6pm start
- BMW Motorcycles of North Dallas TX September (FRIDAY 13th!) Feel like risking it for a Presentation Evening and Book Signing? Start time is at 6pm. My multi-media presentation is about Incredible Africa!
- Adventure Motorsports of NWF Pensacola FL September 21st (Saturday) Africa Presentation Evening and Book Signing. Join us 5pm if you can – we will be starting the presentation at 5.15 pm.
- Pandora’s European Motorsports Chattanooga TN September 24th (Tuesday) Africa Presentation Evening and Book Signing – 6.30 to 9pm
- Motorcycles of Charlotte NC October 2nd (Wednesday) – Africa Presentation Evening and Book Signing. Doors open for food at 6.30pm and the presentation with be starting at 7.15pm
- Overland Expo East VA October 11th to 13th in Arrington. I’ll be presenting, running Classes, in Round Table sessions and Book Signing.
If you would like to meet Birgit then please join us at Motorcycles of Charlotte and at Overland Expo East. She will be joining me for this section of the tour.
Signed copies are available from Sam-Manicom.com with free UK delivery, and with free Worldwide delivery via the Book Depository.com https://www.bookdepository.com/author/Sam-Manicom
Sam’s 4 books are available as Paperbacks, Kindles and as Audiobooks. Sam narrates the books himself.
Facebook– Catch up with Sam via his two pages: Sam Manicom and Adventure Motorcycle Travel Books by Sam Manicom.
Twitter– You’ll find him on @SamManicom
Website– If you’d like to learn more about his books and his presentation schedule please go to www.sam-manicom.com
Sam is Co-Host of Adventure Rider Radio RAW show. Hosted by Jim Martin, the show is recorded monthly with a panel of 5 highly experienced overlanders from around the world. Listeners submit topics for discussion. RAW has been described by listeners as akin to sitting around a giant kitchen table with the team, beers, wine and coffee in hand, discussing motorcycles and travel; there’s controversy, challenging ideas, top tips and plenty of banter!
Sam says, “If you are a You Tube fan, have a hunt. There are various riding and interview clips to be found, including a recent chat with the phenomenal Ted Simon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-658_CSkrA
He was the first Overlander Interviewed by Adventure Bike TV for their popular ‘Under the Visor’ series: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bToV6paAEXM
In 2017 Overland Magazine awarded him the‘Roho Ya Kusafiri Spirit of Travel’ award for his contribution to Overland and Adventure Travel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1Y1BKPbp_Y
In 2011, Sam joined the team of advisors working with travellers supported by The Ted Simon Foundation.
I had to learn about book writing the hard way – there were few people in the world of publishing whose knowledge I was able to tap into. I’m delighted to have the opportunity to help other travellers get more out of their adventures, and to learn how to get their work published. We live in a stunning world that’s full of surprises, and what better way is there for a person to share those experiences than to write and publish a great book. The Ted Simon Foundation is the perfect platform to help this happen.
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