Wisdom From One Of The World’s Greatest Travelers, 20 Years Into His Incredible Journey

I’m a photographer. That’s my bread and butter and my passion; it’s what keeps the lights on. I went to school to understand the craft better and I’ve been doing it since I first stole my Dad’s Canon Ae-1 back in 6th grade. On my better days, I’d be bold enough to call myself a writer but if asked the dreaded “what do you do?” cocktail party ice-breaker, I’d always respond “I’m a photographer” first. (In hopes that the conversation would then die off…so I could get back to drinking.)

That statement, those three words, “I’m a photographer.” took me years and years to gain the confidence to say. I hold the title in very high regard. While working on my undergrad I would marvel at the works of Richard Avedon, Richard Renaldi, Lee Freedlander, and Robert Frank and think to myself, these are photographers. I wasn’t there yet. I knew that one day I might be, but as a 20-year-old in awe of Mapplethorpe and Ritts I had a very hard time believing that my over-contrasted black and white photos of fence posts would ever amount to much.

In the same vein, I considered myself a traveler before I first talked to Christopher Many last year. But after talking to him, I realized I’d been over-selling myself. Sure, I’ve been on some journeys. I’ve seen incredible things, met profound nomadic thinkers, and restructured my worldview while naked in a makeshift sweat lodge with 30 other men in the mountains of Ecuador. I’ve been around, is what I’m saying. But Christopher Many? That guy is on a whole new level.

Many has the stories to back up the title of traveler, in fact he has two books filled with them (one of which was just released). If there were a “Vagabonding Museum Show” he’d be in a prime spot. He thinks differently. In a way that few people do. The outlook of a person like Many requires time, patience, and compassion for the world at large. It’s been honed through nearly 20-years of non-stop adventuring (kinda puts your three weeks of backpacking through Europe in perspective, right?). He is wholly and truly dedicated to his craft — an artist with the road as his canvas.

So obviously, I jumped at the chance to sit at the feet of the master for the second time in two years. Here’s our conversation:

Describe your most recent adventure. Where has it taken you? Where are you going?

My partner Laura and I mounted our motorcycles in 2012, followed the ancient Silk Road from Europe to Central Asia, crossed the Pamir Mountains, obtained permission to traverse China without an escort, and rode all the way to Bali in Indonesia – the gateway to Australia and terminus of the classic trans-Asia overland route. From there it was only a short hop with our two bikes over the Timor Gap to the Land Down Under by cargo plane. Currently we’re in Sydney, reflecting upon all the events we’ve been fortunate enough to witness since our latest voyage began. I fear the reminiscing will keep me occupied for quite some time: over the past four years we covered 30,000 miles and travelled through 30 countries. Was it an adventure? Well, I guess by some definitions it was, though I deeply dislike describing my lifestyle as “adventurous.” As a permanent nomad for the past 19 years, I do not seek an adrenaline-buzz on the road, though risky situations undoubtedly occur. Basically, all I do is sleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry and shovel my motorcycle out of a sand dune when it gets stuck. In-between I simply enjoy life, build friendships with interesting people I meet along the way, and attempt to learn more about this wonderfully intriguing and ever-changing planet we live upon.

Where we’re going? I’d love to answer with the opening line of every Star Trek episode, namely “To boldly go where no one has gone before”, but that would be a wild exaggeration. Always bear in mind that an overlander is just a road-user like the millions across the globe who drive cars to and from work every day. The only difference is that we are travelling in straight lines instead of repeatedly back-tracking. Also don’t forget that an estimated 12,000 travelers embark on a world trip by car, motorcycle or bicycle every year, so it’s not all that “special” anymore.

Perhaps we stand out a little because of our slow pace? 30,000 miles by motorcycle in four years is an average of 20 miles per day – you could walk in less time from Europe to Australia. But we’re not in any rush, and this is not a rally. It’s ordinary life. And life needs to be cherished, just like a good glass of Bordeaux wine: you do not down it in a single gulp. You drink it slowly, enjoying every drop until the last. Next stop for us is Tasmania, then we’ll head into the Outback of Australia.

How has this journey differed from previous journeys you’ve taken? How has a motorcycle changed the way you see the world?

Can a mere motorcycle fundamentally change how you perceive the world? I think not. It’s just an engine with two wheels attached instead of four. A fun piece of machinery to move between A and B with – no doubt about that – but it rarely provides the user with deeper political, cultural or philosophical insights. In the end, there are no “better” or “worse” methods to circumnavigate the globe, and it’s all about subjective preferences. If you’re planning an overland journey yourself, buy anything you like. Purchase a 1200cc BMW, or a Vespa scooter, a robust 4×4 with a front-mounted winch, or a standard, old two-wheel drive passenger car. I’ve met plenty of people who drove around the world with VW Beetles or 50cc scooters and had loads of fun! The enjoyment, quality, learning curve and ability to befriend locals on an overland voyage does not depend upon the vehicle, but upon the traveler him/herself.

From a purely practical perspective, of course motorcycles and four-wheelers both have advantages and disadvantages. On a motorcycle you’re open to the elements. If you were considering a winter trip through Siberia or Alaska, it might be wiser to take a 4×4 with a heater. If you are short on money, it’s better to take a bike. The shipping rates for motorcycles between continents are only a fraction of the costs for automobiles. This was ultimately the reason why I parked my 1975 Series III Land Rover – the vehicle I used on my previous eight-year journey – and jumped onto the saddle of “Puck”, my 1996 Yamaha XTZ 660 Ténéré. I was short on cash. Maybe it’s best to go on two separate trips around the world – one by motorcycle and one with a 4×4? Don’t you agree?

What about traveling with a companion. Relationships on the road can be a test, how do you two approach that?

A companion is cherished company on those long rainy nights when you’re stuck in your tent, security on rebel-infested roads, sanity when dealing with corrupt officials – and he/she will also help dry the dishes. But most of all, a companion is there to share your memories and experiences, and that’s invaluable for me. There is also the financial aspect to consider – my travel budget is about 6,000 USD per year, or 500 USD per month on average, everything included. It is a lot easier for me to keep within my budget if I am travelling with an equal partner to share the costs of fuel, shipping, and accommodation. On the other hand, solo-ventures have a few advantages too. Generally speaking, since one needn’t discuss itineraries with fellow companions or find compromises, you can enjoy greater freedom on your lonesome. One might also argue that it is easier for a solo-traveler to connect with the local population, though in my experience, couples who do not encase themselves in a “private bubble” are welcomed just as warmly abroad. Since 1997, I spent seven years travelling alone. But as of 2008, I have a partner … Laura. We met and fell in love in Malawi, and “love” is perhaps the strongest argument for a joint venture!

You are right, of course: travel can test a relationship. But leading a settled life, in which both partners are following careers and trying to raise a family, is no less challenging. Whether you pass the test and live “happily ever after” will depend in both cases mostly upon two factors: your compatibility and love for each other. How one approaches the practical side is a subjective decision – every relationship has different dynamics and follows its own set of rules.

Laura and I, for example, have established a fixed routine and separate to-do-lists with regard to our life on the road. As soon as the sun sets, I reduce my speed and start scanning for a free bush-camp. If a location satisfies my requirements, I signal a thumbs up to Laura, who then follows me into the thicket. She then brews coffee while I practice Zen and the Art of Tent Erecting. Unpacking our sleeping bags is her responsibility, checking our bikes for signs of wear and tear is my job. If possible, I collect wood for a fire while Laura sifts through our food-containers and prepares dinner. We do not view these little jobs as bothersome. On the contrary: this repetitive packing and unpacking is an integral part of our daily lives, and no different from home-owners’ routines such as table setting and bed making.

Why end the journey in Australia?

Who says the journey will end in Australia?

As Americans we inherently fear the Middle East, the area of the world you’ve come to know intimately. Can you explain your experience there?

Yes … why is that? The unwarranted fear many Americans seem to have of the Middle East, and of the Islamic world in general, is a topic often discussed when sitting around a campfire with a group of international travelers. Is it instilled by false or biased reporting through the U.S. media? Is the distrust fueled by U.S. government scaremongering, and claims that the world is divided into good and evil, or “us against them”? Are such phobias a result of an education system that places too little emphasis on global affairs and world history, and fails to teach enough about foreign cultures, ideologies and languages … to the extent that many Americans can’t even find Oman, Iran or Yemen on a map? Or is it because not enough Americans travel abroad – and even fewer to Islamic countries? You’ll know the answers better than I do: what percentage of the U.S. population has ever been further afield than Canada and Mexico? Some official sources claim that a mere 46% of U.S. citizens hold a valid passport, 64% have never left American soil, and of those who do holiday overseas – as opposed to going on business trips – less than 2% consider the Middle East an option for a vacation. Are these numbers correct? If yes, this could be a possible explanation for the skewed perception many have of the region. Without first-hand experience, one must rely on hearsay – and hearsay can quickly lead to prejudices.

I believe the only way to form a valid personal opinion about a foreign nation is to travel there yourself, stay for a few months at least, build friendships with the population, and show interest in regional affairs. Both Laura and I spent years — with two wheels and with four — in the Islamic world, and our experiences were predominantly positive. The people we encountered were amongst the friendliest and most hospitable we’ve met anywhere on the planet! Invitations to home and hearth, dinners and even weddings became regular occurrences, and more than once we woke up in our tent to discover that someone had placed a bag of bread, honey and fruit as a “welcome gift” outside the flap. Are there localized no-go areas for travelers in Iran, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and elsewhere? Absolutely! The sentiment in a few villages off the beaten track was hostile. This was very understandable: if you follow their media, and see how the U.S. is occasionally portrayed, you’ll soon come to the conclusion that prejudices exist globally – not just in the West. In addition, a few countries such as Syria – a traveler’s paradise when I last visited in 2010 – have been engulfed by terrible wars.

But to sum it up: please visit! Heed local advice with regard to which areas are safe and which are not, in the same manner as you would when traveling to certain cities in the United States. There are neighborhoods in Detroit, Philadelphia and even New York where I wouldn’t want to break down with my motorcycle at 2am! Yes, you might initially feel “culture shocked” on your first visit to Saudi Arabia if you have liberal attitudes, and if you are used to personal space and high standards of hygiene, crowded Cairo can be challenging. Yet overall, you’ll always find similarities in terms of societal structures and values. No matter where you set foot on the planet, the desires of ordinary civilians are generally focused upon raising a family, putting food on the table and leading a peaceful existence – just like in America. So next time you wish to book a holiday, and even if you are an inexperienced traveler, try googling “Isfahan” instead of “London”, or “Petra” instead of “Munich” … you won’t be disappointed!

Can you discuss your book titles and what they mean?

My first book is called Left Beyond the Horizon and my second Right Beyond the Horizon. In essence, they are about my two previous voyages – an eight year Land Rover trip and a four year motorcycle journey – and what I witnessed along the way. Why I chose these titles? Well, you see … regardless whether you take two-week holidays or embark on decade-long trips around the globe: aren’t we all united by the same desire to discover what lies beyond that strange, elusive line in the distance? And there’s only one way to satisfy our curiosity: head off towards the horizon again and again. It’s completely irrelevant whether you turn left or right along the way: you are entering virgin territory, and EVERYTHING you encounter will be new and fascinating, no matter where you turn. And in the end, apart from having enjoyed a great change of scene, we can all hopefully return with a greater understanding of the world we live in.

What keeps you hungry to keep moving?

For me, travel is all about fulfilling my curiosity. However, the world is a big place, and I haven’t obtained nearly as much understanding of its “inner workings” as I’d like to, not even after 19 years on the road. I’m also blissfully happy with my lifestyle, so why make any changes? I love the fact that every day on the road is exciting and unpredictable, and life can only be planned one hour at a time – who knows where we’re going to put up our tent tonight, what we’ll find to eat and who we’re going to meet? I’m free from government bureaucracy, paying off mortgages and obligations towards a workplace. I probably have far fewer problems than your average home owner with a nine-to-five job and a family to feed – my life is comparatively easy! It doesn’t suit everybody – there are a number of negative and challenging aspects to our lifestyle – but in this case, becoming a nomad was a damn fine choice. I view “success” this way: regardless of how you lead your life – travelling or settled – if you can wake up every morning and say something along the lines of, “Ah, another magnificent day! The sun is rising, and I can’t wait to see what surprises await me,” that’s an auspicious sign, isn’t it?

If we’re fortunate, and should we share the desire, I guess we can continue overlanding for another 30 years. After all, the oldest person to stand on the summit of Mount Everest was 76, and on Kilimanjaro, 87. Naturally, at some point in the future, the desire for more stability might enter our minds. Laura and I will then think about settling down and buying a second pair of shoes, instead of always evaluating their cost in terms of “how many extra days could we spend on the road if we didn’t purchase them.” Where exactly our log cabin will be is open for discussion. My cultural identity plays only a minor role with regard to our options: neither of us have a home in a conventional sense. I was born in New York City, raised and completed my education in Germany, worked for awhile in Scotland – but in all honesty, there’s no way I could call any of these places “home.” Indeed, I find life in the West very unfamiliar after such a long time abroad. In the end, my definition of the term is not a fixed geographical coordinate on a map, but where my loved ones are. And as Laura holds my heart, wherever she is, I feel at home.

Do you have anything on the horizon (pardon the pun) as far as plans following this adventure?

Absolutely – the journey never ends, does it? I have so many travel-related dreams, I can’t squeeze a fraction of them into a single lifetime. I want to follow in the footsteps of Stanley through Africa to the source of the Nile, then cross the Sahara on the classic RN1 in Algeria, and visit Tamanrasset and the Hoggar Mountains. I have the desire to circumnavigate the Mediterranean on a motorbike, and climb the loftiest peak in every European country. Perhaps I can sail the seven seas in a rickety boat or build a log cabin with Laura deep in the Canadian wilderness. The remote island of Tristan da Cunha definitely warrants a visit, as does Greenland with a snowmobile, or better still, a dog sledge. But next in line is Australia. We’ve already worked out a rough itinerary, and drawn a line on a map by connecting the dots between all the wonderful places we hope to see. At the top of my wish list are dozens of famous 4×4 outback trails I’ve dreamt about since childhood, such as the Birdsville Track, the Old Telegraph Trail to Cape York and the 1,850-kilometre-long Canning Stock Route.

Last go-round you and I discussed the world’s inherent morality. The question of people’s inherent “goodness” came up, on a global scale, have your views toward that changed at all? Are people inherently good?

Ah, I remember you asking me that. I believe I answered by differentiating between “inherent goodness” on a macro-level and on a micro-level. My subjective opinion was that when looking at the “big picture,” I’ve seen too much on my past voyages to have any true faith in our species’ overall capacity to be altruistic, desire to show more empathy, and willingness to reject violence. As an optimist, however, I still hope that the human race will one day learn to be more humble, compassionate and forgiving. On the other hand – looking at the micro-level – of course you meet a great many individuals who have a big heart when you travel around the world! Have my views about this changed in the past four years? No. If anything, they have been reinforced by all my new encounters with people of different backgrounds on my voyage between Europe and Australia.

Aside from cheesecake, what do your meals consist of? Are there staples you can abide by worldwide (rice and beans) or do you have to adjust with each border?

Not even rice and beans are available worldwide. So just like most overlanders, I adjust and eat whatever I can find at village markets, street-side stalls, and restaurants. Dining out, experimenting with local fare, or home cooking with regional produce over a campfire … this is all part of the travel experience, is it not? Besides: wherever your journey leads you, most foreign dishes are suitable for the Western palate and often simply delicious, even in cases where you can’t discern the ingredients. There are exceptions, however. Once, when Laura cracked open an apparently hard-boiled egg in Laos, a pair of beady eyes looked back at her. It was “khai look”, a 17-day-old chicken embryo, a local delicacy said to taste splendid together with a chilled glass of Beer Lao.

Personally, I prefer lasagna. But what to do? The way I see it, being fussy about what you eat is very much a first-world privilege. It’s both a luxury and a sign of opulence, not always understood by the indigenous population abroad – especially not in the developing world, where some would give their left foot for anything to eat at all. Invitations to people’s homes are often impromptu, leaving you no time to inform your hosts of your preferences beforehand. So if you do not wish to deeply upset them, just eat whatever is served, all the more so if their resources are meagre. You’ll survive. Trust me.

Do you have any rules of the road? Truths you’ve found that you need, or prefer, to adhere to?

I do. While it’s impossible to formulate a set of rules every long-term traveler agrees with, most will try to follow principles based upon human dignity and pure common sense: when you’re abroad, be open-minded, tolerant, polite and ready to learn. When interacting with local populations, respect their privacy and cultural practices, and attempt to resolve all problematical situations in a non-confrontational, diplomatic way. This, more than anything else, will contribute to a successful completion of your voyage.

In terms of making this trip possible, how have you afforded your years on the road?

I’m an author. The income from my two books is fully sufficient to cover my travel expenses, purchase petrol, and fill my belly. On occasion, I can even afford a slice of cheesecake, which I consider vital to achieving a state of wellbeing. I’m not sponsored in any way by companies, and needn’t promote my trips by holding regular slide-show presentations or book-reading tours (thank heavens … I’m severely prone to stage fright), but instead, I can focus full-time on doing what I love most: travelling the world and writing about what I experience, without any distractions.

I sold all my belongings, apart from what would fit into a rucksack, and opted out of conventional society to become a permanent nomad in 1997, when I was 27 years old. Since then, I’ve been continuously circumnavigating the globe, either with my motorcycle or Land Rover. I do not have a warm bathtub, but instead, I might have the Pacific Ocean in front of my tent. I do not have a couch or bed, but instead, I might have a sand dune in the Sahara, and above me billions of bright stars during the night. In my whole life I’ve never had an apartment, my entire worldly possessions fit into a few boxes and I’m a travel writer. I have my passport, vehicle documents, credit card and above all else: Laura. What else do I need? Life is about passion, and it doesn’t matter whether this means raising a family, devoting your life to music, the arts, sport, a profession … or travelling and writing. Every passion is equal, and everybody must personally decide what is best for themselves and their loved ones. All I can say is that I made the right choice for ME. What’s YOUR true passion? Once you can answer this question … go for it and fulfil your dream!

Back to the money-issue: I’m fortunate, I presume. Not every author sells enough books to finance his lifestyle. But I also live modestly on the road, travel less than 625 miles per month on average, cook my own meals, repair my own vehicle, and camp usually wild in the bush for free. This way I can keep my travel budget to under 6,000 USD per year, which – in other words – necessitates the sale of about 3,000 books p.a. (I receive only 2 USD per sold copy from my publisher, or about 8% of the cover price). Should I sell more, and have money left over, then I deposit the excess into my savings account, or splash out on a new set of tires. Should the book-market crash and I sell less, well, it’s not the end of the world. I’d then travel slower, cover shorter distances per month, spend less time in costly countries, and if need be, even forgo my cherished cheesecake. The precise breakdown of my budget we discussed in our previous interview.

So please remember, should you also be contemplating a world-voyage: almost regardless of your income, where there’s a will, there’s a way! I wish you an amazing journey … and hope to see you some day “out there”!

Christopher Many’s “Beyond the Horizon” can be ordered online or purchased from your local book-store.