With a personal focus, it explains why I chose to undertake a long motorcycle journey around South America, and how the experience has helped me recalibrate after 18 years in the British Army. It draws on my recent post, “The Big Trip – Feeling the Call, Making the Jump.”
In February 2012, I bade farewell to a long career in the military. For eighteen years I had been an officer in the Gurkhas, and for many years before that a career in the Army had been my focus. But after many operational tours, culminating in a deployment to fight in Afghanistan, an inner voice told me it was time to leave. I didn’t know what I would do next, and the decision to leave an organisation that was a deep and integral part of my self-identity was an incredibly hard one, but intuitively I knew it was the right thing to do.
I wanted to give myself time before choosing a new career. So I decided to set aside a year and a half, to prepare for and undertake a solo row across the Indian Ocean. I got as far as buying a custom-built ocean rowing boat with the money the Army had given me when I left. Then one morning in May I woke up and saw the absurdity of this proposition. I had spent most of my adult life working to a plan, driving myself hard and proving myself – and here I was, doing it again. I had a major personal transition in life facing me, and five months alone in a small boat on the high seas was blatantly not what I needed. So I sold the boat and contemplated the blank canvas that suddenly confronted me.
Soldiering had been more than a job for me; it was a lifestyle, which I believed in and which reflected my personal values. I felt strongly that whatever came next for me must nurture me similarly, but I didn’t know what that was and I wasn’t prepared to compromise. I needed time and space to allow whatever would come next in life to emerge.
Two months earlier, I had finally passed my motorcycle test after years of procrastination. I was the proud owner of a brand new Triumph Tiger 800 and had fallen in love with the thrill of the ride. Travel had always been one of my passions, so the idea of a long motorbike ride across foreign lands came easily to me. It would give me the time and space I needed to recalibrate, as well as open up my path to new places, people, ideas and perspectives on life.
So the decision was made. I dug out and read an unopened copy of “The Long Way Round” (a gift before the motorcycle bug bit), and bought Chris Scott’s overlanding bible, “The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook.” When test-riding a 990 Adventure at my local KTM dealership, I saw an almost new and fully-prepared Yamaha Tenere 660 sitting on the forecourt; three days later it was parked beside my Tiger. After a little research, South America was chosen as my destination. And five months after the decision to sell my ocean rowing boat, I drove my moto out of the customs shed at Buenos Aires Airport. A very new, and profoundly impactful, chapter of my life had just begun. Eighteen months on, it is still unfolding every day.
As a soldier nearly all my adult life, I had become used to structure, organisation, having a defined path ahead, always being ‘in control’. Here in South America, that all fell away. This new way of living excited me, yet at the same time it felt quite daunting. I had given up an identity, a clear set of reference points and a sense of purpose and had chosen to step into a void. I was suddenly very free – an anonymous rider on foreign roads, no longer in control of the hand that life would deal me, with my worldly possessions on the back of my bike.
For me, this experience of expanded freedom has been profound. Yes, at times having an empty horizon and undefined possibilities ahead can feel like a lack of direction, a lack of purpose, and can be unsettling. Letting go of the need to have a purpose can be very hard after maintaining such a strong professional focus for many years. But during my time travelling I have come to see the importance, indeed the imperative, to force ourselves to occasionally stop and take stock; to have no purpose for a time; to embrace that empty horizon. Only then can we really see where life has thus far led us, who we have become, and where life’s ‘flow’ wants to take us next.
It is very hard to ‘flow’ when you are living within a routine. However, it’s easy on the road. I had a plan, or at least an idea, when I set off from Buenos Aires in November 2012: I was on a road trip, Ushuaia to Colombia, six months to a year. As I write, I am still in central Peru, with many months of travelling ahead of me. I’ve learnt to stop planning and controlling – a broken moto in Patagonia less than two months after setting off, which took six weeks to repair, taught me that early on. By ‘going with the flow,’ and sometimes ‘rolling with the punches’, I have found myself in wonderful, unexpected places. And I have met special people who would otherwise not have crossed my path. When you travel, especially on a moto, plans rarely work out and surprises lurk around every corner.
Life on the road has given me time and space to recalibrate. In fact, travelling in foreign lands over a protracted period of time leaves you no choice but to recalibrate. First-hand exposure to different cultures – different ways, ideas and values – challenges your preconceptions, your blueprint of life. Stay in a foreign land long enough, especially such a wonderful continent as South America, and you simply can’t hold on to all your old ideas.
When I look back over my time here, I see that my personal blueprint has been edited in many areas. I now see life differently and I see myself differently. My priorities and that which motivates me has changed. Leaving the Army after so many years was not an easy process. It needed time and space. A long bike ride has turned out to be strong tonic. It was exactly what I needed; a chance to reflect, an opportunity to see other ways of life, a lesson in letting go of control and learning to trust what life has in store for us. Above all, it’s been a taste of real freedom, and it’s enormous fun – something we all need in our lives.