The Sunday Social with the British Trans America Expedition team
For this week’s Sunday Social we spoke with Major Nick Foulerton and Surgeon Lieutenant Alex Bamford, two members of a six man military expedition that recently rode from Ushuaia, Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska on CCM GP450s.
Major Foulerton was the expedition leader, while Surgeon Leiutenant Bamford was the expedition doctor.
When did the idea first come about?
Nick: “I’ve done quite a few motorcycle expeditions before – I organised a motorbike race from New Delhi to London in 1999 and in 2006 I rode to Singapore with my wife. I’d spent the last three years in the Middle East with the army riding my bike in the desert there and when I came back I wanted to do an expedition. I wanted to do an official Army expedition because motorcycling is a big thing in the army, it’s very popular and it’s an official sport but we don’t do much overland expedition. Because it was an official expedition it needed a decent run in time and also the biggest problem we face – and ultimately fell foul of – is that unlike a civilian expedition we had to receive diplomatic clearance wherever we went. South America was quite good so we got permission from all the countries we needed.
"The record was to ride the length of the Pan-American Highway from Ushaia in Argentina to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska on one continuous unsupported journey, including the Darien Gap where there’s no road. A few people have crossed the Darien Gap on bikes, but they didn’t complete the rest of it. It was also the 45th anniversary of the British Trans-America Expedition which was led by Colonel John Blashford-Snell in 1972. He did it in Range Rovers."
Have you been riding long, Alex?
Alex: “No, I was recruited as the doctor for the expedition – I managed to sell myself despite not having a bike licence at the time! I did my full bike test in a week and spent a lot of time riding on Salisbury Plains getting used to the bike. I only had 1500 miles under my belt before we started so I was pretty much a novice!
:One of the guys is the captain of the Army enduro team so he took me under his wing and got me out focusing on the off-road stuff. We did several 1000km off-road on gravel and sandy tracks and that was some of the hardest riding we did, so he got me out on a bike as much as possible before then. There were plenty of spills and stuff when I was training and during the expedition as well.”
It sounds like you were thrown right in at the deep end.
Alex: “Exactly, it was a good way to learn to ride – I learnt a lot of lessons the hard way! I just kind of got on with it. We tried to stick together as a team while moving at a reasonable pace but I could tell some of the other riders with a bit more experience were getting a bit frustrated. They just wanted to blast along and I was there falling off and having all these tank slappers, which was quite entertaining.”
Have you got the biking bug now?
Alex: “Yeah definitely. I’ve got another bike now, a CBR600. Slightly different.”
Are you going to stick to road riding now?
Alex: “For a bit, yeah. This country’s not as well set up for off-road riding. It’s great getting out for a quick blast on the weekend, I’ll probably save the touring for another day.”
Going back to the first day of the expedition, what was the overriding feeling that day?
Alex: “It was quite funny, really. We flew to the Falklands and the flew to Punta Arenas in Chile where the bikes had been shipped. There was quite a bit of apprehension opening the containers – we didn’t know if the bikes were going to be trashed or anything, but they were working fine and we were good to go straight away. On the first day we had a short ride to the ferry to get to Ushuaia to the start of the journey and about a mile in I looked up and just saw Nick rolling down the road!
"He just clipped a curb and wiped out before it had even started! It was a bit strange at first because we had to head south which felt like we were going in the wrong direction so that was just a little bit frustrating. It was nice just to get on the bikes. We’d been planning the expedition for years so to just get on the bikes and not have to worry about all the nonsense we’d been dealing with up to that point was good.”
Were your skills as a doctor ever called upon during the trip?
Alex: “Yeah, on a few occasions. There was a really extensive medical plan for the trip because we were a military expedition so we had to take steps to mitigate risks along the way. Everybody undertook what’s called Team Medic training, which is basic battlefield first aid training. So everybody knew how to put on tourniquets and stuff like that. I had to make sure all the vaccinations were up to date and everybody had the correct anti-malarial tablets.
"The first major problem was an eye injury when we camped out in some woods in Patagonia. Tony, our mechanic, stood up quickly and got a stick in his eye which scratched his cornea. That could have been the end of the expedition for him if it had got infected but luckily we had the right eye treatment and it healed pretty quickly. There was lots of diarrhoea and vomiting, you know, travel bugs.”
Yeah, I did wonder if that would be something you’d have to deal with.
Alex: “Oh man, it was just awful. Everyone was completely broken when that hit.”
Is something like that just a mix of eating bad food and exhaustion?
Alex: “Yeah, our bodies were quite run down anyway as we weren’t always getting the best food and all it takes is one dodgy bit of meat or something. It wasn’t a big problem but it happened on a couple of occasions – mainly in Peru. We had quite severe altitude sickness coming over the border from Chile into Bolivia. We came up a mountain pass that was about 4500 metres. Everyone came down with quite bad symptoms – bad headaches, feeling sick and just generally wanting to lie down and curl up on the floor.”
Does it make you dizzy as well?
Alex: “Yeah, it makes you dizzy and quite irritable and gives you the worst headache you can imagine.”
That’s not ideal for riding a bike
Alex: “No, and the kind of riding we were doing as well on gravel it felt like our brains were rattling round like conkers inside our skulls. That was a real test of will power for everybody to just keep going.”
Is there anything you can do to delay altitude sickness or lessen the effects?
Alex: “Yeah, we ascended a bit too quickly. Really you should ascend 500-1000 metres and spend a bit of time there before going up again. But because we were under such time pressure we just wanted to get it done. But it did result in a couple of days where were feeling pretty miserable. As soon as we came back down the symptoms improved and everyone was good again.”
What’s the difference doing a trip like that as a military expedition?
Alex: “The concept behind it was that this was a world record, so we were attempting to do the first overland crossing of the Pan American Highway from Ushuaia to Prudhoe Bay, crossing through the Darien Gap. Because we’re military we can’t just go through countries unannounced. A huge amount of work went into planning the route and gaining diplomatic clearance from all the countries we were travelling through.
"That’s probably the main difference, you can just travel through all these places as a civilian. Going back to the medical thing we had a nasty crash in Panama as well, which is another reason for letting the countries know, in case we need medical help or anything like that. One of our guys crashed on a wooden bridge and took a big chunk of flesh out of his arm. We had to get him patched up but it wasn’t too serious.”
How was the culture shift along such a long trip?
Alex: “That was really interesting. Luckily we had a linguist on our team – Major Adam Szczerbiuk – who could speak Spanish and without him we’d have had a really tough time. Argentina and Patagonia generally is quite sparse. Because we were under such time pressure we didn’t really have time to stop and integrate with the local people which was a shame, but we met a lot of interesting people along the way.
"The most overwhelming thing was people’s generosity and just how friendly they were. We were sleeping by the road every night so sometimes farmers just let us come sleep in their fields or barns. It makes you realise how unaccommodating we are in our country! Six complete. That was quite a nice, humbling experience. I guess people were really intrigued as well as the bikes were quite unusual as well. People just seemed friendly towards bikers and people seemed to warm to us, maybe because we were travelling in quite a pure sense.
"Every now and then we’d meet other bikers who would offer us places to stay – people just wanted to look after us. When we hit the US, going through the central states the hospitality was incredible. They were just inviting six smelly guys into their homes!”
Going from America to Prudhoe Bay that must have been quite a change going to such a sparse landscape.
Alex: “Yeah, that was one of the highlights, riding up through the Rockies in the late spring and Yellowstone National Park. Up there it’s just big wide open landscapes and it was just a complete change to what we’d experienced in South America. The sheer size of Canada, the Yukon and up into Alaska is just enormous. The scenery is breath taking as well. We tried to capture it as we went along but it was really hard to capture the enormity. A few mornings we woke up and there were big bear prints in the mud around our tents!”
Did you see any bears?
Alex: “Yeah we saw quite a few. Coming up through Canada and Alaska there were a lot of black bears by the road side. Going along the Dalton Highway - the last leg of the journey – we saw some grizzlies running around and a couple of kids. It was quite an amazing thing to see and it felt like a huge privilege.”
Which was your favourite country?
Alex: “That’s so difficult to say because every country was incredible in its own way. Peru was amazing because it’s got a mix of everything – mountains, deserts, and bits of jungle - and the people are super friendly. I think Peru was a highlight for a lot of us. Chile is huge as well! It was about 6000 miles of riding and again the people were really friendly.
"The Atacama Desert – one of the driest places on earth – is just this huge barren wilderness and it’s magnificent. But then coming up through central America, Alaska and Canada was a highlight for a lot of us as well. There was still snow in the mountains and just being able to see all the bears and wildlife was really special.”
Was there one day or one moment that sticks in your mind as a real low point?
Alex: “Me personally I got hit by a car in El Salvador. It was pretty low speed just before pulling into a petrol station and the driver just drove off. I was just annoyed at myself for letting it happen. El Salvador is supposed to be the murder capital of the world and it didn’t feel like a particularly friendly place. We had a lot of trouble at the border crossing and we ended up spending two days at the border which was really frustrating because you’re just sitting about not making progress.”
Would they have known you were a military expedition?
Alex: “I think they did eventually, yeah. We were having problems with some paperwork so we had to go through our defence contact in the country to try and sort it out but that didn’t make a difference. They wanted money because we’d allegedly breached our time in the country but that’s because we were issued the wrong paperwork when we got into the country. It was just one of those unfortunate incidents we couldn’t get round and in the end we had to pay the money.”
Was that the only time that happened?
Alex: “Yeah, most of the time it went fairly smoothly which was good because we were crossing borders so frequently in Central America.”
And what was the best day?
Alex: “Once we’d got through into the US the riding became a bit easier and we had access to better food we started to relax and enjoy it a bit more. For me coming up through Yellowstone was a real highlight. Riding in that late spring weather with the snow-capped mountains was pretty amazing. Prudhoe Bay is quite a bleak oil town with quite an industrial feel to it, but it was a huge relief to make it.”
What happened after the journey, did you have to ride back?
Alex: “Yeah, we turned around and rode to Fairbanks – a few days ride – and then we had to get the bikes to a military base near Calgary. Because the bikes needed a bit of work doing we hired a big rental truck and three of us drove 3000 miles from Fairbanks to Calgary with the bikes while the other three flew. That was a pretty long drive and it was quite emotional after such a long trip. We got the bikes packed up and flew them back to the UK on a military flight.”
Have you been reunited with the bikes since?
Alex: “Not yet, they’re at CCM now being refurbished. They probably need a bit of TLC! CCM have been great.”
Did the bikes cope well with such an intense trip?
Alex: “Yeah they did. We certainly had our fair share of problems along the way but I think that’s to be expected on such a long journey. They’re only small 450cc engines and they were loaded up with loads of kits so for all of them to make it to Prudhoe Bay was quite an achievement. Our mechanic Tony certainly had plenty to do, but he’s experienced so he jumped on problems as soon as they arose and we were all trained in basic mechanics so we checked them out every morning because we didn’t want anything to have a chance to get worse, you know. We had a problem with an engine in Panama and had to replace it so CCM sent us a replacement engine. That held us up for about a week.”
You mention El Salvador being the murder capital of the world. Did you ever encounter any trouble along the way?
Alex: “The boring answer’s no! I think because we’re six guys, all dressed in black. Most of the time we were sleeping out in the middle of nowhere so there wasn’t anybody about to give us any trouble. We didn’t look like we were carrying anything valuable, anyway. The only real problems were the border crossings.”
I only learnt about the Darien Gap a few weeks ago, but most people fly over?
Alex: “Yeah there’s different ways of getting around it. The inspiration for our expedition was a similar trip in 1972 by Colonel John Blashford-Snell. He took a team of British soldiers and did a north-to-south crossing of the Darien Gap with Range Rovers. It took them 100 days to carve their way through the jungle using chainsaws and dynamite! It was an unbelievable feat. Some days they were only moving a few hundred metres. We ran into problems in terms of getting clearance to go through the Darien Gap – that was probably our lowest point on the trip.”
Nick: “The Darien Gap is the border between Colombia and Panama. It’s a mixture of swamp and mountainous jungle that they’ve never been able to put a road through. It was 300 miles wide in 1972 and now it’s 100 miles wide. It’s just track so you have to clear a way. On motorbikes we could do all but about 25 miles of it by putting the bikes on canoes. For that 25 miles you’d have to physically push and maybe ride the bike on the trails. Don’t get me wrong it’s still quite an undertaking, especially in the wet season. But in terms of the expedition itself that 100 miles absorbed 80% of my planning time because it’s difficult.”
I didn’t know you needed clearance.
Alex: “Yeah, and this is why it’s more difficult doing it as a military expedition because you can’t just turn up and crash on through because it’s dangerous and if you get held hostage or something it becomes a major international incident because you’re in the military. If you’re a civilian and you go through and get taken hostage then it doesn’t have the same international impact. Historically the Farc rebels controlled that area with a lot of drug and human trafficking routes, but there was a peace agreement signed between the rebels and the government and it was out understanding that things were a lot safer. Unfortunately the situation changed and the region destabilised. The Farc rebels split into smaller splinter groups and the region was deemed to be less safe.
"That was the main problem for us and sadly we were denied permission to go through and do the record-breaking part of our journey. It was absolutely devastating for everyone. It was the shortest part of the journey but we’d been planning and training for it the most. We knew between us we had the skills to get through but because we’d been refused at a government level there was no way we could go against that decision so unfortunately we had to fly round to Panama and continue from there. Totally deflating. We learnt a lot from that experience and I suspect in the future we may return and try to complete unfinished business.”
Nick: “When you plan an expedition a year before, Colombia might say they’re happy to support you and for it to go ahead, but anything can happen in that year, and it did. While we were in Peru everything was going to plan until we received a message from the Ecuadorian government saying they had declined our permission to enter Ecuador. No reason was given. The moment we then put the bikes in a plane to fly over Ecuador to Colombia we would have lost the record and at the same time the situation in the Darien Gap wasn’t great.
"The Colombian Army, who were due to escort us through, were still happy to do it but there was going to be a delay. Time was against us so I had to make a very difficult choice. If we flew into Colombia we’d have been delayed and might have had to fly them over the Darien Gap anyway. I made my choice and ultimately we missed the record and the highlight of the expedition, but we still got to Alaska and rode 24,000km. Our sponsors were happy. There’s an American team setting off to do it soon from north to south and I suspect they’ll do it because physically it’s not exceptionally demanding.”
Have you settled back into normal life now?
Alex: “Yeah, I still think about the journey a lot. It doesn’t feel life changing at the time but I guess it is because it changes your perspective on things. The opportunities and experiences you have out there can have quite a profound impact on the way you look at things.”