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Interview: Heather Sinclair

10 Questions to Adventure Motorcyclists

2 December 2020

Sometimes you come across motorcyclists on Instagram that catch your attention because they are clearly having fun and just want to share their enjoyment of traveling around the globe with you! Heather Sinclair is one of those riders. She has traveled on her Suzuki DRZ400S from Indonesia to the UK, rode from the UK to Morocco, and is now traveling and staying in Europe.

Can you tell a bit about yourself? 

I've been riding for about 6 years and solo overlanding for 3 on a Suzuki DRZ400. For my first trip, I shipped my bike to Indonesia and rode it back over 10 months and 22,000 miles to my home in London, where I had to work for a bit to save up enough money to take off again - this time from London to Cape Town. Unfortunately on that trip I only made it as far as Morocco where I ended up being stuck for 5 months due to the pandemic. 

One of the things that people who follow my adventures are often surprised by is that I'm actually originally from California, where I worked as a designer, product manager, and team leader in the video game industry for 10 years. I managed both Farmville and Farm Heroes Saga, but earlier in my career, I also worked on more traditional video games like Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online. So basically, I'm a giant nerd in addition to being a motorcycle hobo. 

Even though I've been overlanding for a bit now, I always feel like everyone else is always doing much cooler stuff than I am. I'm not the first or the fastest, with the most unusual motorcycle or the most epic shots on Instagram. I just sort of putter around the world, constantly fixing mechanical issues on my motorcycle and trying to travel as cheap as possible so I've still enough money left for a beer! 

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You fell in love with motorcycling in India where you rode for the first time. Can you tell a bit more about your first time riding and what it was that you liked so much?

I had been sent to Bangalore for two months for work and all my coworkers in the Indian office were mad about motorcycles and convinced me to go on a ride with them. I had a scooter at the time but had never ridden a real motorcycle. I borrowed a friend's Duke 200 together with some riding kit. We set off for a weekend trip up to Yercaud, a hill station not too far from Bangalore. 

Learning to ride a motorcycle in India, and in Bangalore no less, was quite an intense start to my motorcycling career. That very first day as soon as we got into the hills I crashed the bike when I encountered a bus overtaking around a blind corner and hit the brakes hard on a patch of gravel. That's when I learned perhaps the most beautiful word in Hindi, Jugaad. It roughly can be translated as the spirit of making do with what you have. My friends had to both jugaad first aid for my skinned knee using Axe deodorant spray as an antiseptic and a torn-up t-shirt as a bandage, and then try to find a mechanic to jugaad up a new rear brake pedal out of a few bits of scrap metal. 

Even though crashing on your very first day is generally not considered an auspicious start to one's motorcycling career, I realized that it was the perfect way to see the parts of the world I wanted to see in a way where I was really immersed in the middle of it. In most of the world, motorcycles are the only method of transport an average person can have, and when you're out on the road in the elements you really feel like you're a part of the rhythm of everyday life wherever you are. It's an experience that you just don't get when looking down from a train or bus window.  

As soon as I got back home from India I started sketching the outlines of an around the world motorcycle journey, and four years later I entered India again on my own motorcycle

You ride a Suzuki DRZ400S, why did you choose this bike for your travels around the world? 

I ride solo the vast majority of the time, and I really hate the idea of not being able to go a certain route that I might want to go because I'd be dependent on someone else to help me pick up or push around my motorcycle. It doesn't matter how good your technique is, if you're dealing with sand, slippery mud, or ruts, it's a matter of brute force strength to get the motorcycle upright again! 

Because of this, weight was my biggest concern when selecting a bike. If you're looking for a RTW capable bike that is 150kg or less, your options are very limited, especially in the UK. I liked the idea of having something with a bit more horsepower than the Honda CRF250L, and the popular advice at the time was to get an older, carbureted bike. In retrospect, that was terrible advice for someone that knew almost nothing about mechanics. I feel like, over the years, I've grown into motorcycling, both in terms of learning how to wrench (including rebuilding the bike entirely between trips) and in becoming much more of a capable off-road rider. 

These days me and my motorcycle have something of a mutually abusive relationship. Every time I think I'm about ready to throw the bike into the ocean, he pulls through and shows how much heart he has, and then I will do something nice for him, and then he comes up with another issue and then I abuse him some more. These days, I spend half of the time working on my bike. It is mostly undoing my own mechanical mistakes and bodges, so that definitely doesn't help! 

I often think it would be nice to have a new bike that didn't have quite so many age and wear-related issues, but there aren't still any really good alternatives in the small capacity, lightweight and affordable dual-sport market.  

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What are the plusses and minuses of your bike regarding worldwide travel?

The DRZ is a really good offroad bike. Not just “good for an adventure ride”, but as in you can do almost anything short of Romaniacs Hard Enduro on a DRZ. YouTube is full of Australians taking their “yellow pig” through absolutely insane terrain and it really shows that the DRZ is just a slightly porky enduro bike with better service intervals. I actually had no idea of how to offroad when I started my trip and my technique through most of it was absolutely atrocious, but I've been investing a lot more time in training and with the DRZ it has paid off. I think with other adventure bikes I would have been hitting the bike's reasonable limits well before I would have hit my own.

Part of the reason why I've spent so much time offroad leads me to the big minus, which is that the DRZ is a bit miserable on the motorway. It only has 5 speeds with a narrow gear ratio, so by the time you flog it up to 120 KPH the engine sounds like it's about to explode and it's not something you want to be doing for any length of time (and certainly not without a good pair of earplugs!). 

My bike has had more than its share of mechanical issues but if you know what you're doing and invest in the prep most of them can be avoided. The oil burn rate is a bit higher than I wish it was even on a well-maintained bike, and the electrical system is a notable weak point. I'm not a fan of carburetors either, but not much I can do about that until the manufacturers start to give us some more modern mid-size dual sport options! 

What has been your most serious bike breakdown so far and how did you fix the problem? 

I'm pretty lucky that I haven't had a catastrophic failure like an engine seizure while out on the road, and most of the times I've been stranded I've been rescued pretty quickly. There was the time my stator was failing and I was left with a dead battery while wild camping in Georgia. I couldn't push the bike fast enough on my own to get a bump start on the grass, and I couldn't push it up the dirt road to get back to the asphalt to do a rolling start, so I left the bike and started hiking. Luckily for me, it wasn't too far before I encountered some loggers who were working down the road.

They didn't speak English but “Motorcycle Problem” pronounced with a Russian accent (the words are almost the same in both Russian and English!) and gesturing up the road was enough to be understood. Their car, an old Russian Lada was so decrepit that we had to bump start the car to get going. They just used a couple of long stretches of wire of which they cut the insulation ends off to do a jump start, but it was enough to get me going again. They refused payment and I went off to find a repair shop in Tbilisi.

Luckily for me, the DRZ has very few electronics, so it can run a surprisingly long time with a near-dead stator. I had no lights and no instruments, and if I were to stop my battery would be completely discharged. But, there was just enough power left to keep the spark plug going. I just couldn't stop the bike at all in the 150km that I had to travel on Georgian backroads or I would never get my bike going again!  

This time I installed a kickstarter on my bike in case the same thing would happen again, but it turns out that it's super difficult to kick over 400cc's of motorcycle so I've not actually managed to successfully kick it over myself. It makes for a good party trick though to see how many people can get it started. 

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What do you think are the 3 most important qualities a motorcyclist should have in order to ride solo around the world?   

Patience:  getting angry at a situation, particularly ones involving bureaucracy, never actually make anything go faster. In fact, it usually does the opposite! 

Creativity: There's always a solution to your problem. It just might not be obvious right away. Unlike in the West, in large parts of the world, you can't just throw money at a problem to make it go away. So you have to do what locals do, which is to come up with creative or unusual solutions to the issue that you have.

Trust: Solo riding often sounds like the ultimate exercise in independence, but you quickly realize that you're often entirely dependent on the help of other people around you. I think we in the West are often trained to assume that there's a “gotcha” in any offer of help, but in reality, the vast majority of people are kind and generous and ask absolutely nothing in return. I've been in so many situations where I'm not sure how I would have gotten out of if it was not for somebody stopping to help. 

You have been riding and camping during autumn in Europe, how was that for you? 

It was already August by the time Morocco let me leave the country, so there wasn't a whole lot of riding season left. My motorcycle isn't exactly suited for traditional European motorcycle touring, but it is very excellent for the Trans European Trail so I ended up spending most of my time on the TET. From southern France I headed northwest into Spain and then South along the Pyrenees via Andorra back across France up to the French Alps then through the Dolomites in the north of Italy. I left the TET for a while to visit friends in Austria, Czech Republic, and Poland, before taking the TET back across Northern Poland to Germany and then the Netherlands. 

The majority of the ride was really wonderful. The Trans European Trail is a really amazing project and I have tons of respect for the linesmen who work so hard to create great off-road routes through their countries. The downside of course is that Europe is very expensive and quite a bit outside of my budget for the most part, so I did a lot of wild camping. I had some really good spots but I also had a lot of somewhat questionable spots - usually where I had to ride up a footpath or to set up a tent behind a hedge as hidden from the road as possible. Luckily I wasn't bothered by animals, except once by a pack of wild boars in France that I had to scare off in the middle of the night 

I can honestly say I had very few problems through the late summer and early autumn with the coronavirus situation. Land borders were never a problem to cross and while sometimes I had to plan my travel around regulations in different countries (like for example, I needed to make sure I spent 2 weeks in Poland after being in the Czech Republic before going to Germany) it really wasn't that big a deal. 

However by late September, it started getting cold in Central Europe, and about the same time cases everywhere went through the roof and then all of a sudden everything went downhill again. Because I had stayed with friends in Berlin, I was suddenly forbidden from going almost anywhere else in Germany. I ended up having to blast over to the Netherlands, where the Dutch prime minister announced a return to a partial lockdown only two hours after I entered! I still can't quite believe how quickly Europe went from almost totally normal to being in confinement again.  

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What has been your ultimate high during your motorcycle travels so far?

I had just crossed into Kyrgyzstan from Kazakhstan and immediately the terrain changed from dry desert into the green rolling hills of the high steppe, and the asphalt road into a piste. I was riding along when seemingly out of nowhere a young boy on a horse riding bareback came up alongside me to race my motorcycle for a few moments before peeling off to where his nomadic family was bringing their herd of horses into the enclosure by their yurt for the night. I never felt quite as free anywhere in the world as I did riding across the Kyrgz steppe, and it felt that not only had I traversed a tremendous distance I also had traversed across time as well. 

Due to COVID-19, being winter, and problems with your bike, you have decided to spend the winter in the Netherlands. What are your plans for the upcoming months?

When I told people that I was planning on heading to the Netherlands for winter, I think a lot of them thought I was a bit crazy. The Netherlands isn't known for either good riding or weather in the winter. It also seems that most overlanders still traveling in Europe have decided to spend the winter in much sunnier Greece instead. 

I had two goals when coming here - one, avoid a full lockdown and two, to “do something” about my motorcycle - either rebuild it again or take the more sensible option of buying a new bike, which is a surprisingly difficult challenge since no manufacturer makes anything close to what the DRZ is anymore! 

Because of Brexit and the fact that I'm traveling on a British passport, I'll head back to the UK, but I really do hope by then I'll have a sorted bike and I could try to take off again in very early spring. I doubt Africa will be possible by then so I'm tentatively thinking Russia. I never much considered it before the pandemic, but it's one border to cross. There are signs that on a British passport, I might be able to get in soon, and I can cross an entire continent while staying within only one border if the rest of the world remains partially closed.  

Where can we follow you and read more about your plans and adventures?

I mostly focus on Instagram @improbablyadventuring these days. I've started working on a book about my first trip, but I'm really hoping I'll be able to travel again before I have time to finish it!

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These are written in an incredibly truthful way, making the reader “believe” that they are on the same journey themselves.

Mikko  | 
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