Motorbike adventures take Aussies on the high road

It’s not one of Wall Street‘s more quoted lines but when aspiring Master of the Universe Bud Fox is asked what drives him, he responds: “If I can make a bundle of cash before I’m 30 and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.”

If Fox hadn’t gone down for insider trading he might have ended up like Zander Combe, a Brit who got out of the share trading racket in his early thirties to ride motorcycles across a number of the countries neighbouring China.

“I spent 12 years working as a stockbroker in London and was worried if I didn’t do something drastic I’d still be doing the same thing in 20 years’ time,” explains Combe, now 40.

“I’d travelled through India on a motorbike during a gap year in 1991 and fell in love with that part of the world. But it wasn’t until eight years ago I made the leap and started a business combining my passion for motorbikes and travel.”

Seven gears in Tibet

Combe’s business, Extreme Bike Tours, now offers motorcycling tours through India, Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal and Bhutan. He’s eyeing off Sri Lanka and Cuba, too, but says his main focus will always be the mountainous terrain of South Asia.

“These are amazing locations. On the Himalayas tour you get to ride the highest road in the world. Mongolia and Bhutan have remained quite isolated, so they are fascinating cultures to experience. Then you’ve got places such as Tibet and India which, while not so untouched by the modern world, still have a profound impact no matter how many times you visit them.”

Combe’s clientele strongly skews to men of a certain age and level of success. One is Richard Thwaites from Adelaide, who – having sold his real estate agency a few years back – has the time, funds and drive to undertake such an adventure.

“I’m a doer, I’ve got no interest in sitting around on a beach,” explains Thwaites. “I’ve done several motorbike tours with a couple of different companies and I’ve found it’s typically people like me who are signing up for them. I suppose it isn’t surprising as it’s not something you’d do with children or that has much appeal to women. Plus, you’re away for a couple of weeks and won’t see any change from $10,000 once you’ve paid for the flights, tour and perhaps a few days’ sightseeing before or after the road trip.”

A premium rush

Combe argues that, particularly on a motorbike tour, it’s worthwhile paying a bit more for a premium experience. “There’s no shortage of operators offering these tours,” he notes. “The difference with Extreme Bike Tours is customers can relax and enjoy the ride knowing every detail is taken care of.

“The best available hotels along the route are booked and a lot of thought and research goes into setting up excursions that, depending on the location, can involve anything from camel rides through the desert to hanging out with the Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia.”

Surprisingly, Extreme Bike Tours’ customers – overwhelmingly middle-aged men accustomed to the good life and travelling at high altitudes on treacherous roads – usually do make it to the end of their journey unscathed.

“Accidents happen, as they do everywhere, but my main headache isn’t the riders, but natural disasters such as landslides and earthquakes closing down roads,” notes Combe.

Adds Thwaites: “You’ve got Zander leading the pack up front and a collection of support vehicles behind you, so there’s plenty of support. And if anything does go wrong, there are systems in place to make sure you get the appropriate medical care, by being helicoptered out if necessary. I was delighted to discover that, because of my age, I didn’t even have to pay much for travel insurance.”

Riding through the risk

In a world growing ever more determined to mitigate any imaginable risk, the opportunity to dice with truck drivers on serpentine alpine roads seems to be one of the main selling points of these tours.

“The weather can change at any moment and you’re travelling through alien landscapes that are unlike anything you’ve experienced in your own country so, yes, the people on our tours do get a certain high from that. Given that around half of them come back to do another tour, it seems to be an addictive high,” says Combe.

There’s at least one member of staff for every rider, and they’ll do things like pitch tents and cook meals if it’s a tour that involves any camping. “We use Royal Enfield 500cc Bullets or Classic Desert Storms; British bikes that have long been manufactured in India,” says Combe. “They’re a user-friendly bike to begin with and we customise them to deal with the long distances and often rough terrain they have to cover on the tours. The customers love riding them – quite a few want to take them home with them at the end of the trip.”

Thwaites, who did the Extreme Bike Tours Bhutan tour last year and is heading to Mongolia to do another one in September, says he found riding a motorbike through a country suffused with Buddhism was the closest thing he’s likely to have to a spiritual journey.

“I’m not a particularly spiritual person. But when you’re travelling through a country like Bhutan, being forced to focus on the present moment and your surroundings by virtue of needing to avoid crashing your bike on tricky slingback roads, and you’re visiting religious monuments on the top of mountains and getting to interact with the locals in a way you wouldn’t if you were being chauffeured around in a tour bus, well, that’s that kind of getaway that’s more enlightening than most.”