Em and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

By Hamish Oag

Surely there was more to life than doing what was expected? Fortunately, my girlfriend, Em, agreed. Standing in her bathroom doorway one morning, I asked her if she fancied riding a motorbike with me half way round the world. My resignation followed a year later.

‘Resign! You can’t resign!’ Markus, my German boss, didn’t seem to be getting it, or did he? I explained yet again that I wasn’t playing some sort of underhand salary negotiation game. Not only did I want to leave my job; I wanted to leave the system. I was done with responsibility, ever-demanding targets and a lack of appreciation. I was done with nine to five.

Of course, this unaccepting, non-conforming attitude wasn’t exactly new. Thirteen years previously, I was fresh out of college, a year into the job and already requesting voluntary redundancy. Himalayan hikes and Thai full moon parties held significantly more appeal than any supposed graduate career path. Here I was again. I began to realise Markus did get it. His frustration was not solely centred around seeking my replacement; I was about to realise the dream he never would.

After months of planning and supposed preparation, we slid helmets over hungover heads, said goodbye to our home and set off into the unknown. One mile later we were sat by the side of the road; front wheel off, attempting to fix a broken speedometer. The sign of things to come?

‘The frame’s cracked’, announced Em one morning, deep in the Australian Outback, some months later. A closer look confirmed one of the frame tubes to be completely broken. Our find was not exactly a surprise; the corrugated, wash-board like tracks, infamous with Outback thoroughfares, had certainly broken us the previous day, never mind the bike. Perhaps by shunning bitumen roads, my stubborn quest for adventure was beginning to haunt me?

The nearest town was a day’s ride back the way we’d come. And having to nurse a broken bike, a long day at that. Two days later I had the bike stripped, welded and back together, whilst Em planned an alternative onwards route. A route involving wading through crocodile infested rivers, but that’s another story!

Another Continent, but similar riding conditions, lead me to contemplate my decision to ignore valuable local advice and embark on a one-week detour to cross the Salar de Uyuni; the allegedly dried up salt lake, stretching across the 4,000m high Bolivian Altiplano. 

The flying tin of tuna that narrowly missed my head and the sight of Emma’s back as she walked off, lead me to believe she was having similar thoughts. Em obviously wasn’t enjoying riding pillion today. Maybe it was the altitude. Perhaps she was just hungry. Better rescue the tuna…

Salt crystals formed a surface of hexagonal tiles which glistened in the sun as we approached the Salar the following day. So did the water that covered the salt bed’s perimeter. Not a promising start. Seeking out a raised track, acting as an effective pontoon, we teetered onto the arid expanse. We’d made it! Tearing across the moonscape, with nothing on the horizon but a vivid blue sky, was indeed a surreal experience. And after days of riding dubious dirt tracks, so was riding on a flat surface!

With spirits rejuvenated we made for Isla de Pescado, only to be met by a multitude of jeep tourists, bussed in in four-wheel drives. Yet again there was more local advice. The exit point on the other side of the Salar was apparently flooded. To what extent was not clear. Quantifying ‘mucha agua’ was difficult to say the least.

Not relishing the prospect of retracing our steps, we pressed on; convincing ourselves we’d manage to avoid the deluge. Small puddles developed into large puddles. Large puddles into small lakes…

Optimism waned and vanished. We’d reached the point of no return. The ever-deepening salt water sprayed plumes of corrosive liquid over our pride and joy. I cringed at the damage being inflicted - worse than riding behind a gritter on a winter’s night.

Land appeared on the horizon; the end was near. Not far now.

‘Look out!’ Em shrieked through the intercom, as we narrowly missed one of the many mine shafts submerged in what was now a foot of salty water. Screaming expletives, I cursed why we’d ignored recent advice to ride across the infamous Salar de Uyuni during the wet season. Rebellion is one thing, stupidity quite another. Our bike, our dream, our everything for the past 18 months, had taken us 50,000 miles so far. It’d be a shame to throw it all away down a Bolivian black hole.

Stopping to gather our thoughts and figure a way out of this mine shaft maze, we suddenly heard a jeep approaching from behind. Assuming the driver knew of a safe passage to shore, I gunned the engine and followed in tow, abandoning all hope of bike conservation in the process. Carving a wake a water skier would be proud of, the bike surged onto dry land and immediately stopped dead. Enough! It appeared to scream.

A couple of beers and a good night’s sleep put our nightmare into perspective. The bike took a little longer. A week of repairs to be exact. Was it worth rebelling against what was evidently accurate advice? Was it worth rebelling against the norm to ride half way around the world for two years with the girl who would later become my wife? Definitely!

adventure, personal rebellion, relationships