Taking a step back from writing about what we’re up to right now (at the time of writing, in Cali Colombia) in this post I’m going to answer some questions about the different ways to travel around overland. For many a motorcycle trip is a big step and seems dangerous, I would say the majority of people moving from A to B do so in a van and many have asked me how that compares to riding a bike.
Luckily as some may know I have been fortunate to have completed a series of trips around Australia in 2009 and 2010 in a van and a station wagon. In this post I’ll aim to discuss the pros and cons of each.
First, about the van. I traveled in a 1995 Mitsubishi Express (I know, sexy) from Melbourne to Perth then north from Perth to Broome and finally to Darwin. This took place nearly a year after I had completed my first trip from Melbourne to Port Augusta, through the middle via Uluru to Darwin and then back to Melbourne on the East Coast. Both trips I was not solo, traveling at the time with my then-girlfriend Segolene and (on the first trip) a friend of hers as well, Audrey.
Looking wistfully over the Nullabor probably sometime in 2010.
We had bought the van in Melbourne for $1,800. An old plumbers van which we had “converted” into a camper van. This basically consisted of getting a mattress, putting up some blinds, and buying a gas stove and plates. The “refurbishing” process took less than a day and cost basically nothing.
The inside of our van, with fully functioning mattress, sheets and even a curtain.
It should come as no surprise that obviously when compared to a motorcycle, a van is leaps and bounds more comfortable to travel in. If you look at the picture above you can see a jerry can of fuel, something very useful when crossing the Australian desert. We also could carry days worth of food, water, and anything else you could possibly imagine.
Taking selfies before it was a thing…too hip for 2015.
Obviously, our motorcycles simply can’t do this. I once saw a man in Thailand driving a scooter while carrying a mattress, but for us the effort required is simply too much. At the moment, we carry the bare essentials just whatever we can fit in our practical yet (when compared to a van) desperately undersized pannier boxes.
We don’t even have the space for a sleeping mat, the ground is just fine for livedeleven.com
With a van, as you would guess from our mattress you can sleep inside your mode of transport which not only saves you time in looking for a campsite but also a significant amount of money as well. You don’t really need to carry a tent if you have the right set up, simply pulling into a somewhat safe-looking spot and crawling to the back to sleep is all you really need.
Seeing this sign on a motorcycle would make us seriously consider our route, with a van this is no problem.
Of course, at least in Australia this isn’t exactly always legal and you can risk getting fines by parking officers. However if you are smart like we were and register the van in the name of a hostel you can just take these and throw them in the glove compartment, never to be paid.
Continuing on from the practicality of of a van in terms of what you can carry and how you can live, there is also the underrated pleasure of being inside, being able to listen to music, sit back in your chair, talk to someone, smoke cigarettes, and pretty much just chill and watch the world go by. This is not always necessarily a good thing however, something I’ll expand on later.
On the WA-NT border.
At Litchfield National Park
People often ask Thomas and I about how cost-effective it is to travel on a motorcycle. For anyone wondering, it isn’t. It isn’t for quite a few ways, but in keeping to the topic of this post I’ll compare it to a van.
Yes it is true that a van consumes quite a lot more petrol than a motorcycle. This can be generally offset by the fact that generally speaking when you travel in a van you are with at least two people and in many cases four or more (in this case you do need a tent). You can split the cost of filling up the tank, as well as carry excess fuel. This means you have more freedom to pick and choose where you fill up, saving money by filling up in cities where it is usually cheaper than remote areas.
You do use less fuel with a motorcycle, but you pay your own way. This cost splitting can be applied to other things, such as repairs as well as the purchase of the vehicle its self.
Two young kids, just days after purchasing our babies back in September.
When we purchased the van for $1,800 ($900 a piece) we ended up selling it for $3,500 in Darwin, the reason being we sold it as a “camper van” because it had a mattress.
It is hard to discount safety as well when considering whether to travel via van or motorcycle. Crashing your van at 60kms an hour will hurt, but the same crash on a motorcycle can be life threatening.
So to summarize, a van:
- Is more comfortable (out of weather, music, talking, etc)
- Is more economical (splitting costs, carrying more food water)
- Is more practical (It also is your house!)
- Has higher resale value (selling it as a house/mode of transportation)
But given all this, it might come as no surprise to some that if given the choice, I will always choose my motorcycle over the van for long trips. My reasoning is best summarized from a quote from “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance”
“You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”
For me (and I feel this is the same for Thomas as well) this quote resonates exactly how we both feel about motorcycle travel. It is a romantic view of not just getting from point A to B, but literally feeling the entire journey. You get tired, you can get hurt, you get wet, hot and cold but at the end of the day you’ve felt every centimeter of a country when driving through.
Parking by the road at the Redwoods, on a motorcycle you can feel the humidity change when arriving.
Yes in the traditional sense of the word, a van is more comfortable however it can also take you out of the essence of what it means to complete a big overland trip. I will always remember being under torrential rain in Seattle and Tabasco, Mexico; The freezing air going to the Grand Canyon cutting into me like a knife, and the scorching temperatures in Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Another understated advantage of a motorcycle is both the sense of community among other motorcycle riders as well as the awe and interest of locals who are more than happy to help with anything you might need.
Shane, a Harley enthusiast, let us stay at his home in Belize, and rode with us for a moment on the Hummingbird Highway.
Our homeboy Al.
Teo, Rob, Thomas and I…The Ferry Xpress biker crew.
And let’s not forget the infamous “hoon squad”
Less people travel with motorcycles, and that’s exactly why I love it so much. There is no feeling like riding in to a town and having everyone stop and stare, children running after you and waving, large crowds forming where ever we go. You feel like a rock star. Locals will invite you to stay at their place for free, giving you a home cooked meal and real insight into their culture and way of life.
A van, you don’t need to worry about finding a place to stay but this in large part is the whole fun of travel. Driving to a town that you have no idea what the name is, and ending up on some farm, sinking beers with a local.
This family spotted our bikes, where we camped in an abandoned lot in Guatemala, they invited us in for breakfast (they didn’t have much but were happy to share what little cereal they had).
I suppose it is a bit of a romantic view of motorcycle travel, but for those of us who have experienced it, it becomes a bit hard to put in to words. Hopefully the pictures will speak for themselves.
Traveling in a van is an immense amount of fun, something I’ll never forget and I would recommend to anyone. It is a logical, but not entirely necessary “first step” you can take if you’re wanting to start traveling overland. That is not to say that a motorcycle is by any means a “last step” or even the “second step”, it is what I am doing now and for the moment is the most amazing trip I’ve ever undertaken.
But hey, these guys riding unicycles around the world might have something to say about that.
Maybe next year…