The Sunday Social with adventure rider Nathan Millward
In 2009 Nathan Millward set off from Sydney, Australia, on a 105cc Australian postal bike named Dorothy. His destination? England.
Since the trip Nathan has gone on to ride across America on the same bike, and now finds himself a freelance motorcycle writer and tour operator.
Nathan, we’ve not spoken in quite a while, how are you?
“Not so bad, just doing the washing up and getting stuff ready for the NEC this year.”
You’ve got a stand again?
“Yeah, I think it’s the fourth year I’ve been there. Selling books, tours and whatever.”
What tours have you got coming up?
“A couple of Lands’ End to John O’Groats ones and then one across America from New York to LA next August. 10 people have signed up so far. It should be alright – it’s kind of semi-guided, people can do their own thing if they want or ride as a group. We’re just helping them get the bikes in and out really.”
That sounds pretty relaxed.
“Yeah, I couldn’t do a proper guided tour, I wouldn’t want people to think they could just turn up and switch their brains off so it’s kind of encouraging people to do their own thing but with a bit of a safety net behind them. What about you, busy with the paper?”
Yep! So, what’s for breakfast at the café?
“Full English I suppose, that’s the whole point of a greasy spoon. And a cup of tea with no sugar. I was at Cotswold Airport café at the weekend and that was good. Aviate I think it’s called.”
What are your riding essentials?
“Just a phone and wallet, really. I suppose I should take puncture repair kits and things but I never get round to it Maybe some waterproof trousers in case the weather gets bad.”
What’s your mission for a Sunday ride?
“I don’t generally go out that often for a Sunday, I suppose a bit like you, when you’re working on bikes you don’t go out on them to relax very often. So I guess the only time we ride them is for work, which is a bit of a shame really. I went out last week on some green lanes on the Ducati Desert Sled. A local green lane expert took me out on the Trans Euro Trail near Cirencester. That was a mixture of work and pleasure, and it was nice to see some different sites and a different part of the country. Yeah, I just want to see something new.”
What have you been up to since we last spoke?
“I’ve done a couple of issues of Getting Into Adventure now, I visited Iceland in summer as well on an R1200GS. That was a three week trip taking the ferry from Denmark.”
You can get a ferry from Denmark?
“Yeah, it’s called the SMYRIL Line and it’s a two day ferry.”
I thought it would be a bit longer.
“There used to be a ferry from Scotland but I think that stopped 10 or 15 years ago. It’s not that far from the top of Scotland, you just go past the Faroe Island and then there’s Iceland. But to go from Denmark you have to ride 1000 miles through Europe to the top of Denmark. Then after a day of sailing you’ve only just gone past the Shetland Isles.
"So you’ve done almost four days of travelling to be on a boat just off the Shetland Isles. It’s such a pain in the arse. If I was going to do it again I’d probably sea freight the bike because it’s the same price and it saves you all the riding. It was an interesting trip but I wasn’t as blown away by it as I thought I would be.”
Iceland’s a place I’ve always wanted to go. Everybody I know who’s been says it’s amazing.
“I’m probably the odd one out I suppose, but then I always find people say it’s amazing to justify the fact they’ve been there, I don’t think they always tell you the truth. For me it was a bit overrated – I didn’t get great weather for a start. The landscape’s bleak, the weather’s bleak and it’s quite expensive when you want to upgrade to hotels and restaurants. If you want to camp and cook your own food it’s still quite cheap.
"For me it’s a victim of its own success – everyone who is there is a tourist. Everyone on the road, everyone you meet is a tourist, so you just feel like you’re part of this tourist experience, you don’t feel like you’re travelling or getting away from the tourist zones.
"There are some local people but there’s only 300,000 of them. I like the sense of getting lost in new places, meeting people and having chats with the locals, but I didn’t get any of that, it was a bit one dimensional for me. I guess I also like point-to-point adventures as well and then whatever happens along the way is part of the trip, but I got to Iceland and then I was there so I didn’t have the same drive. It just didn’t suit me.”
What were the roads like?
“There were some great tarmac and gravel roads. Iceland’s been sold as some sort of off-road adventure playground – and there are plenty of those roads – but there’s also loads of tarmac roads that you could do on a sportsbike and it’s a shame that side of it’s been ignored really. It’d be great on a Harley – there’s not many twisties.”
So where would you go that’s off the beaten path?
“America I guess, it’d be the same kind of price if you flew and rented a bike. Yeah, America is obviously touristy but lots of it isn’t so you could ride into local towns and still get that sense of adventure which I didn’t get in Iceland.”
Have you done your America trip now? Last time we spoke you were thinking about it.
“Yeah, I did it on my postie bike and then two years later on my GS. Then I’ll be doing the tour there next year. As a destination to ride it has really good terrain and roads and the experience you get exploring the country and all the different cultures is really good. I think it’s a really manageable place to travel and it still gives you a lot to discover.”
I guess because it’s so vast.
“Exactly, and it’s kind of affordable, you know, if you stay in motels every night it’s about $50. I didn’t have enough money to enjoy Iceland properly. What else have I been doing? Just working and riding I suppose.
"I started the Garbage Run just by chance in May this year. I just put a social post out asking if anybody else wanted to do a Lands’ End to John O’Groats run and 25 people turned up to do it. I did it on my postie bike and others came on C90s, MSX125s, V-Strom 650s. That was eight days on back roads just to show you can have an adventure without going too far and without it costing too much money.”
How did it go?
“Yeah, well, everyone survived and had a good time. It was a lot tougher than we all thought it would be. 200 miles every day becomes quite a lot when you’re doing all back roads on small bikes. Camping every day grinds you down. There’s all this emphasis on doing these big overseas trips, but if you take back roads from the bottom to the top of the UK then it’s just as draining as riding anywhere else and just as eye opening because you’re looking at things from a different perspective.
"There was the camaraderie of doing it with 25 strangers as well. It was a challenge to make it happen, and then once we got there they said I should charge for it, so I thought ‘okay’, and did another one in September, which Ped (former MCN staff member) came on.”
How much was it?
“£175, and that included your camping spots.”
That sounds cheap for an eight day holiday, if you look at it that way.
“Yeah, I didn’t really want to put a price on it, but I’ve got to make a living. I didn’t like the idea of making money out of it but I had to. And they said it was too cheap! I’m doing another one in May and that will cost £245, but that will include a bit more, like food and stuff. There are only five places left. Tony Hoare (another ex-MCNer) is coming on it as well just for the laugh.
"You don’t have to do it on a small, slow bike. I don’t want people thinking they have to go out and buy a sh*t bike to do it on. Whatever you’ve got, just bring that and ride at your own pace. Everyone knows the route each day so they can blast off if they want. We found the nature of the roads was quite a good leveller anyway and 125s were probably the best bikes because you could do 70mph but it was still cheap. And, to be honest, sh*t, old bikes just give us headaches because they break down.”
You’ve been pretty busy by the sounds of it then, and I guess this all started with your ride back from Sydney?
“Yeah, I guess so. I got commission to write the book which kind of forced me into it and then I was on this path and I wanted to see it through. I wrote one book, so then I wanted to write another. Then I started doing a bit of work for magazines and I wanted to do a bit more of that, and now I’m doing my own magazine. Doing a tour wasn’t really a conscious decision, I just wanted to do Lands’ End to John O’Groats and I knew I’d keep talking myself out of it, so I put a time and a date online and now there’s more tours.
"I guess as a freelance writer you’ve always got to be looking for the next thing. Doing my own magazine and doing the tours gives me a bit more of a predictable income. I’m doing the adventure stage at the MCN Show in February again next year as well.
"I want to try and make it a bit more relevant this year, include some workshops and things, so it’s not just people talking about world trips they’ve done. I think everyone’s been bored to death by the world trip stuff, there’s nothing new there, it’s all been done. I think people want to know what they can do in a couple of weeks, rather than jacking everything in and spending two years travelling around the world.”
The shorter one is definitely more interesting to me. Have you heard of Al Humphreys? He does micro adventures when he travels on business - just walks to some woods outside the city for the night and sleeps under the stars. That appeals to me – as cool as riding round the world would be it’s just not feasible for most people.
“No, it’s not. I wouldn’t say it’s even desirable unless you were really desperate to do it.”
The thought is probably better than the reality.
“Don’t tell Andy! (Another ex-MCNer who is preparing to travel the world).”
Do you think your desire for shorter adventures has come because you’ve done such long trips?
“Yeah, I guess so. At the time I didn’t have anything to lose by doing them but now I’ve got a house, I’m married and I’ve got no desire to ne going off for any long period of time. A week feels long for me, so I guess it just depends on your situation. I’ve done it so I don’t need to do it again and I can just enjoy my days out on the bike now. I wouldn’t want to do Sydney to London again or anything like that. Nine months on a bike is far too long – you’ve got to be really up for it to do it.
"You get a lot of people that say they want to do it but when push comes to shove they don’t because it’s just more commitment than they probably thought. I don’t know where I was going with that… but I wouldn’t want to do it again basically. I think part of the problem is there are people who’ve done big trips and they sell it as the most amazing dream ever and say everyone should do it. Some people say anyone can ride around the world, they say it’s safe easy and cheap but it’s the opposite of all three really.
"There are a lot of dishonest people who come back and want to sell the dream I think. I’m just at a point where I’m happy to get out for a day now, you know, ride for six hours or whatever and be back for tea and you don’t have to sleep in a tent.”
What are some of your overriding memories from the Sydney trip?
“I don’t know. It’s a funny one because it’s got me to where I am now but I hate talking about it because it feels so long away. I guess just achieving it really. I set off with no knowledge, no money and only a basic plan. I didn’t have any mechanical know how so just getting it done.
"It’s not rocket science, it’s just getting up everyday and riding the bike, but I think what I got from it was a bit more robustness, and knowing that I could do stuff like that. You learnt to trust yourself a bit more because you have to sort your problems out. The Australian outback was a great place to ride as well, I’d love to go there again.”
What do you enjoy about the outback?
“There’s just nothing there, and then every 250km there’s a homestead where you can have a good chat and then crack on. You might see a car or a road train and some kangaroos. There’s nothing to see but it’s just a great place to be on a bike with a big sky. Doing 40mph for 12 hours a day on the postie bike I wouldn’t really see anybody. But again you could just do that in a couple of weeks.”
Would you do it on a postie bike?
“Yeah, I’d go back to the shop in Brisbane and pick up another one for £100, do the trip and they’d probably buy it back for £750.”
Do you recommend smaller bikes for adventures?
“No, just take what you’re comfortable on. The GS was great for America and Iceland. People say folk only buy them because they’re sheep and they’re told to, but they’re just great bikes – you can do everything on them. If you’re comfortable on one, why wouldn’t you take it? Equally if you’re not comfortable on one then don’t. I’ve been riding the Suzuki V-Strom 250 and Kawasaki 300 Versys-X recently and they’ve got plenty of power to get through Europe on, it’s just changing your trip to suit your bike, I guess.
"Every a bike has it virtues, there shouldn’t be a big bike vs little bike debate. Yeah, you can take two people in comfort on a big bike and cover the boring ground quickly, but you cut your cloth to suit your budget. Is that the saying? Nobody should sit in judgement on anybody else’s bike choice. There’s too much debate on what’s the right bike.”
Yeah, and some people seem really adamant that you should do it on whatever their preference is.
“There’s no happy medium for them, I don’t get why people get so eaten up by it, and I find those who advocate small bikes are more militant about it. Ed (March, C90 adventurer) has softened his stance a bit, but he used to be all bout small bikes. There’s just no need for it. Ride what you want. I can see when the postie makes sense and I can see when the GS makes sense.”
Will you be doing the next Garbage Run on your postie bike?
“Probably not – I thrashed it a bit more than I’d like.”
I guess as the organiser you need to be on something that can keep pace with everyone as well.
“Yeah, I did it on a VanVan 200 in September and that was good. It’s similar dimensions to the postie bike but it’s got a bit more power. It was still dead comfy and economic, but the fuel tank was a bit small.”
How are you finding life as a magazine editor, publisher and designer?
“Terrifying. In a way it’s easier doing it on your own, because I don’t waste time facilitating with people and I can do everything how I want it.”
Thanks for talking to us, Nathan. I’ll see you at Motorcycle Live!
“Yeah, take it easy mate.”