Big Trip special: 120,000 miles and we're not finished yet
Chris Smith and Liz Peel wanted to travel the world, but after three years still found themselves in the Americas. Here they talk to MCN’s Events Editor Dave Rawlings about their eventful trip of a lifetime.
We decided to bite the bullet and actually do this once in a lifetime trip after two separate incidents happened. The first was that Liz had fallen quite ill with a collapsed lung and then I had a really bad motorcycle accident.
From that point on it was a simple matter of saying: “Look, life’s too short to waste. Let’s make our dream come true and ride around the world.”
We started the trip on our Africa Twin in LA. Although at the time of year we chose it was too cold to go north so we headed south to Mexico first off, then turned around and headed up to Canada once things had warmed up.
The problem was, we took too long to get up there – by the time we reached British Columbia there was lots of snow already - six foot deep drifts were common and the ride quickly stopped being fun.
The most enduring memory of that part of our ride was that we’d get off the bike and were barely able to move enough to even be able to get into the hotel room.
To be honest though, most of our time riding in Canada and the States all felt a bit ‘easy’, it felt like everything was virtually laid on for us.
It sounds great but something of the adventure spirit was missing – we didn’t feel like we were on an epic personal voyage of discovery.
At least, until we crossed the border into Mexico.
Once we’d hit Mexico we headed straight to the Copper Canyon, a popular tourist spot. There we stayed in a nearby town called Batopilas where they have a huge drug economy and very little else.
There’s some police, a few military and the people that make or sell drugs and that’s about it. It’s not an unsafe place, but you have to keep your head down (so much so that when we’d go into a restaurant we would be given a table close to a wall with our backs to the rest of the restaurant, it meant that we could still eat, but weren’t allowed to look at what was going on behind us).
And that’s when we first realised we were on a real adventure.
Batopilas was also one of the towns where we had our first really weird coincidence. As we were riding into the town near the river, we saw loads of pink balloon animals floating past on the still water.
When we pulled up to the town centre we saw a clown making balloon creatures for a crowd of children, the second he saw us he came running over, all excited.
He’d spotted the British numberplate and it turned out he was a professional clown from Wales who was doing free workshops for the kids of the town. It’s really weird because you chat to these people for 10-15 minutes, don’t even exchange names and then go your separate ways.
You’ll never hear from them again, but you’ll remember them forever.
We met up with another couple riding through the Americas, Martin Weiss and Sylvia Gotz from Stuttgart on their BMW Africa Twin and Honda Transalp. Their company was welcome after thousands of miles of riding alone.
Out of Batopilas we cracked on and were soon in the high desert in Bolivia. The terrain changed for the worse and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves falling off the bike about half a dozen times a day.
We’d fitted a toolbox on the front of the bike, mounted right next to the tank. Throughout all the miles we’d travelled so far this had been a handy spot for the tools – until now.
We took a pretty hard spill crossing a deep truck tyre track. The bike toppled over but there was a sickening crunch from the left side of the tank.
A large, jagged rock buried just under the sand had caught the toolkit bracket as the bike had gone over and pushed the metal into the tank, puncturing it.
Liz and I were picking ourselves up when the noise of petrol pouring out of the bike forced us in to a rushed panic. Fuel was gushing out through the sizeable hole made in the tank’s shoulder.
We were about 200 miles from civilisation. With our only fuel pouring out of the bike. Martin and I grabbed the bike and flipped it up and out of the rut so it was laying on its right hand side to stop the fuel pouring out.
First thing we had to do was to save as much petrol as possible, but the only containers we had were our water bottles. We had to make a choice, do we save our water or do we save our petrol?
We decided to save the petrol, because at least we could go and get water if the bike was rideable.
As luck would have it, we’d bought some magic-fix-everything solution in Belize. Sorted, or so we thought.
We put it on the holed tank and left it overnight to harden. Come the morning the solution had gone off and felt solid enough so we slowly poured the petrol we’d managed to save back in – and the hardened solution then fell off in one big lump.
Panic again. The only repair kit we had left were tyre patches for punctures so we quickly stuck as many patches over the hole as we could. We knew the petrol would melt the rubber glue quickly but we were in a pretty desperate race to find help.
We got everything back on the bike in double-quick time, finished filling it up from the water bottles and rode as fast as we could.
The botched repair started dripping almost instantly and as we were riding along I could hear the petrol fizzing beneath my left leg as it dropped onto the exhaust.
A few miles on I was getting more worried so we stopped for a quick break and Martin and I snuck off for a quick chat, unbeknown to the girls, to work out an action plan should the bike catch on fire.
We decided I’d ride it into the nearest dune as fast as possible to cover it in sand.
Thankfully, the bike didn’t go up in flames and we managed to get through desert and on to paved roads arriving at a town called San Pedro de Atacama where there is a customs office into Chile.
We were quite sad to leave Bolivia because we had suffered some our worst, but also our best times of the trip. The incident in the desert was hard but the people in Bolivia were so friendly, offering us so much stuff when they had so little.
To help us fund the trip we somehow managed to pick up odd jobs here and there; one of which was at a manatee refuge in Belize, we went down as tourists with a real interest in seeing the wildlife because we’d both worked in conservation, and got to know the people who run it.
A couple of days later they came into the village we were staying at and asked if we’d do some GPS surveying for them.
We only had a ten-day visa for Belize because we only wanted a quick look around, and ended up staying for four months.
We were in Ushuaia in Argentina when we got an e-mail from Julia and Kevin Sanders (the Round The World Guinness Record Holders) asking if we could work out a tour for their customers and then run it for them.
So we set off to make the route notes, making our way up to Buenos Aires and back into Bolivia during the wet season.
We were falling off several times a day and it was cold, tough and the bike was starting to suffer and we knew if we carried on we would either hurt ourselves or the bike would just give up the ghost. So we decided we’d run the tour and then come back.
We’d covered most of the Andean countries, in fact we’d been into Chile 11 times. But we’d not done Brazil, Venezuela or any of that side.
We’d already covered 120,000 miles and thought we could save the other venues for the next stage of our trip.