Original globetrotters, part two
After the feature on Elspeth Beard (who circumnavigated the earth a quarter of a century ago on an R 60) this is the second part in our original globetrotters series. This time, we feature Sam Manicom & Birgit Schuenemann - a Brit and a Bremen Fralein - who went globetrotting on a pair of BMW Boxers From novice biker to veteran in a few weeks... then around the world for the next eight years!
Sam Manicom had two problems when, back in 1991, he decided to go round the world by motorcycle. First of all he didn't have a bike, and second, he didn't actually know how to ride one either! But these were only minor obstacles that he soon overcame. Within three months he'd bought a brand new BMW R 80 GS, quit his boring retail job in St Helier (capital of Jersey, in the Channel Islands) and set off across Europe en route to Egypt and points south. It was not his first time in Africa, or his first adventure alone. Sam was born in the Belgian Congo and his parents worked and lived through two rebellions there before the West African country became Zaire. They brought the family home to England when he was ten.
His first big foreign trip was a backpacking `seat of the pants' voyage of discovery across Europe, India and Australia. He was often down to his last $10 but he earned as he went. "It all added up to a great learning experience," said Sam. "I suspect that without it the journey by bike through Africa would have been a far less rich experience. My biggest lessons were attitude and priorities. That three-year back-packing trip taught me that the world is an amazing place full of amazing people".
But as he battled with dirt roads on his overloaded BMW in the Sudan he was on a very steep learning curve and things took a nightmare turn for the worse in Tanzania when a pedestrian stepped right under his front wheel and he found himself locked up in a local police cell. However, the first of many guardian angels who were to `save his bacon' over the next few years emerged from the crowd to help him out of his predicament and he was eventually able to resume his journey south
Sam had an even closer shave in Namibia when a passing 4x4 blinded him with dust and he hit a huge pothole, crashing heavily. He woke up in hospital with 17 bone fractures and later discovered that he'd been rescued by a passing German couple who probably saved his life and almost certainly saved his sight. His spectacles had shattered, filling his eyes with glass and his saviours had rinsed them out with their drinking water. Sam learned his lesson and got shatterproof lenses for his replacement glasses.
Manicom eventually made it to Cape Town and caught a cargo ship from Durban to Sydney (he paid for his passage, but the bike travelled free). He spent a year in Australia during which his drive shaft broke for the first time, at 22,000 miles (33,000 kilometers).
While waiting for it to be repaired he spent three months visiting New Zealand where he met a young geography graduate from Bremen named Birgit Schueneman, who was touring the country by bicycle. It was the start of a beautiful relationship and a lot of travelling together, but first she had to go home to Germany while he went back to Oz, put his Beemer on a boat to Singapore and explored South East Asia.
After spending a lot of time picking fruit, Sam had serious back problems and Australian doctors had warned him that he wouldn't be able to ride again for at least six months, if ever, but he was back on the bike in three. After sailing on to India he had another brush with death when three trucks nearly mangled him.
"It was only a single track tarmac road in a canyon, with a bit of dirt on both sides and there was barely room for two trucks - let alone three - and they were all coming towards me," said Sam. "I thought I was dead. Fortunately the canyon opened out a fraction at the vital moment and I just squeezed through - with my eyes closed," he recalls, with a shudder. What makes the Indians drive like that? "They are fate and karma junkies," he replies succinctly.
Sam rode up to Nepal, where Birgit flew out to join him for two months, riding on the back of the bike. It was a test, in more ways than one and by the end, Sam invited her to accompany him to South America. By the time Sam had ridden back overland to Germany Birgit had made up her mind. She told him: "I'll come with you, but I want to do Africa first and on my own bike". Birgit duly acquired a BMW of her own, an old 1971 R 60/5 twin, and learned to ride it. Knowing how tough the roads were in Egypt and Sudan, Sam thought it best for them to ship their bikes from Europe to Mombassa in Kenya (half way down the east coast of Africa) and continue south from there. Sam enjoyed the mixture of revisiting places he'd been before, and going to pastures new. He was immensely impressed by Birgit's bravery and skill on the bike, especially since, as a short girl, she could only just touch the ground on tiptoe. "The first dirt road she ever encountered in her life was in the dark, in Africa! For a novice, she was phenomenal on the dirt and gravel".
At the end of 1996 Sam and Birgit caught a boat from Cape Town to Argentina and arrived in Buenos Aires in time for Christmas. They headed for Ushuaia - the southernmost town on the continent - but on the way had a nightmare coping with the gale force winds known as the `Roaring Forties'. Sam's back problems returned with a vengeance, leading to another enforced break from riding: "For a while, I had no feeling in my left leg at all." Nevertheless, after several months of hospital treatment, rest and recuperation Sam and Birgit resumed their two-wheeled travels taking in Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Columbia. Sam recalls: "For us, Colombia was the best country in South America. It is stunningly beautiful and the people were incredibly friendly and welcoming."
They continued to Mexico and on into the USA, Canada and right up to Alaska, spending about a year in North America. They eventually returned to the UK in 2000, by which time Sam had been on the road for eight years and visited 55 countries.
Back in 1996 he started writing articles about his adventures for motorcycle magazines and newspapers and is a keen advocate of this way of seeing the world. "The travel bug bites hard, but motorcycle travel bites deep and doing a long trip by bike is the stuff of dreams. I started to write because I wanted to share the fun".
Now happily ensconced with Birgit in a cozy corner of South West England Sam has continued to write, and at much greater length. Last year he self-published his first book, `Into Africa' which is a detailed account of his first trip to `The Dark Continent'. It was a labor of love, which went through many drafts but it was worth the effort. It has been universally well received and many overlanders believe that it is one of the best and most intimate accounts of a long journey on a motorcycle since Ted Simon wrote `Jupiter's Travels' over 30 years ago. Sam still uses his original 1991 R 80 GS BMW as his sole means of transport, even when traveling to do talks with slide shows, posters and a load of books to sell - and Birgit on the back. The trusty Beemer has already clocked up more than 230,000 miles and will probably have passed the quarter of a million mark (400,000 km) by the end of the year!
Sam Manicom is now completing a second book - this time about his travels in Asia and the Middle East - which should be on sale before the end of 2007. If it's half as good as `Into Africa', it will be well worth reading. For more about Sam, and his books, please visit www.sam-manicom.com