For the past year, Matt Bishop and Reece Gilkes have been riding around the world on their custom-built Honda SH300 scooter. They’ve battled numerous breakdowns, ridden through deserts and are now making their way back to the UK through the Siberian winter. Matthew Forde spoke to the affable duo to find out more about their incredible journey so far.
In October 2017, Matt Bishop and Reece Gilkes set off from the Ace Café, London with one mission: To ride around the world on a scooter and sidecar outfit while raising awareness of modern slavery. One year later, having ridden through Europe, down Africa from Egypt to Cape Town, and up the length of the Americas, they’re riding through a Siberian winter on the last leg of their trip. We were lucky enough to catch them on their brief return to the UK to visit the Russian Embassy, and sit down with them to chat about their incredible journey so far.
ABR: Tell us a little bit about yourselves and your background?
Reece: My name is Reece . I’m one of the guys who spends his whole life sitting in a sidecar. [I’m] from Banbury, Oxfordshire in the UK, studied film at university, and after that went on to do this.
Matt: I’m Matt, we’re childhood friends from school, so very similar background. Just from down the road in the Banbury area [and] 27 now. We were working for Flight Centre before we did this, and we just decided we’d go off and do something adventurous and fun. We’ve spent the last year on the road, just driving around really cool places in our ridiculously awful vehicle (laughs).
Reece: Yeah, fixing a vehicle in lots of nice places.
Matt: And we don’t know anything about fixing vehicles…
Arrival in Cartagena
ABR: What inspired you both to journey around the world in a scooter and sidecar?
Reece: The thought process of looking at trying to raise awareness of human rights abuse came before the actual trip. So, we were both working for the Flight Centre and both decided we wanted to do something a little bit different. By the time we actually started looking at it, it was about the same time of the migrant crisis in Calais.
We just thought it was quite bizarre that there was a lot of bad, negative comments in the press about it. At the time, and maybe still, a lot of people were scared of certain places, just basing it off what the media would say about it. So, we thought we should go and visit some of these places and show that they might be slightly friendly.
Matt: We’d never ridden a motorbike or anything like that before, so it was completely brand-new to us. It all came from this idea of ‘let’s go tell the other side of these stories and let people have their voice’. We’ve been doing that as we’ve been going.
ABR: You built the scooter with some friends; can you tell us a bit more about this?
Matt: We bought the scooter brand-new. We searched high and low across the country for someone that would build us this sidecar, because no one has put a sidecar on a [Honda] SH300 before, but it was the best scooter for the job.
None of the manufacturers would touch it because it was going to take so long to work out how it would work. A lot of scooters don’t have proper frames, they’re just an engine on the back of handlebars. Then, a guy walked into Reece’s step-mum’s bank (where she works).
Reece: Yeah, so Charlie regularly banks with my step-mum and she was just telling him about it. I messaged him a couple of times about over the course of three months, just asking him questions… So, him and his brother (Richard), who are in their early seventies, were just like ‘yeah we’ll do it’. So, they’ve pretty much been the saviours of the project.
Matt: They’re complete geniuses. They built it with a tin of beer in hand and by eye.
Reece: No tape measures!
Matt: At one point, Richard said to me ‘Hold it here, then look down and I’ll weld it’ and it was just all over. Since then, we’ve taken it to festivals and shown the manufacturers we’ve been talking to before and they were all like ‘Wow, that is a really good job’. Yeah, so those guys built the vehicle. We didn’t build it. We just watched a bit and they were just like ‘can you get out of the way?’
Sidecar on sun-baked earth
ABR: Your scooter’s not the fastest, so which particular part of the journey took the longest?
Matt: The definite longest part was getting it off the ground, but then actually on the road, there has been some stretches where we’ve been wondering ‘seriously, are we still doing this?’ One was recently: we were going through the Arizona desert and our bike was overheating massively at the time.
We were going 20mph through this desert and my lips were just burnt beyond belief – they were just one big blister. Lorries are going past you the whole time, sat in the hard shoulder at 20mph in this desert thinking ‘what are you doing?’.
Reece: Another one, a bit different… We ended up spending three weeks in Gondar (Ethiopia) because it was our first major breakdown. Gondar is essentially a tourist town but for people [who stay] one night, then they go off trekking.
But we obviously weren’t going off trekking, we were trying to fix a bike, so we were literally there for three weeks getting a new clutch ordered into Gondar from the UK. People, before we left, were telling us ‘this might break’ or ‘that might break’ but no one ever mentioned that the clutch might break. So, it didn’t occur to us that this may be a thing, and then it did and we essentially had to put it back together.
What we quickly realised was that nobody has a clue about a scooter clutch. So, for three weeks we were in Gondar just waiting for it and trying to fix it, with no mechanical knowledge at all. But, while we were in the middle of that we were thinking ‘blimey, are we going to do this?’.
Matt: We were only in Ethiopia. We weren’t that far away [from the UK]. The thing with Gondar is that it’s a typical town because the same thing happens everywhere. If you get a lot of tourists, then people will try and mug you off a bit really.
They’ll try to sell you stuff that should be less or maybe not as nice as a town that doesn’t get tourists or where tourists stay for a long time. It wouldn’t bother anybody else, but we were stuck there with them for three weeks. It took us two weeks for the locals to realise ‘oh, they’re going to stay, I’ll stop trying to mug them off’. It was a weird halfway house to be stuck in.
ABR: Do you each have a particular favourite moment from the trip?
Matt: Yeah, if I had to pick one right off the bat it would be doing the Lagunas Route between San Pedro de Atacama and the Uyuni Salt flats, Chile to Bolivia. There’s a really nice, paved tarmac road right around the outside, or there’s this cool adventure track through the middle of the mountains.
We spoke to a couple of adventure bikers and they were like ‘yeah, you’ll be alright’ so we thought let’s go for it then. [We] packed a sandwich and we were off. Then we were going up through the mountains and we didn’t realise before we left that we had to go to the top of the park to go to Bolivian customs, just to get a signature and carry on. So, we could have taken this decent track, but we’d go off [and] go all the way up 5,000m above sea level, which is really high – that’s 800m off the top of Kilimanjaro.
And the bike stops working because it needs oxygen to get up there, so we end up getting off the bike and pushing it up this mountain at 5,000m above sea level. By this time, we had really bad altitude sickness, it’s about five o’clock at night, it’s getting dark because it’s taking so much longer than we thought.
Anyway, we finally got there, and [Bolivian customs] were miraculously still there, so we didn’t have to camp at the top. We coasted and absolutely stormed it down this mountain way too fast – smashing up all the sidecar. We got down to the Laguna, which is a red lagoon and the sun was setting this mad sunset. Everything was red, everywhere you looked, and I was like ‘wow this is actually just insanely cool’.
Then we found this random house and knocked on the door and asked if we could stay because it was freezing out there and we ended up staying there. So, one of my highlights is one of the worst days turned into one of the coolest things.
Tabletop mountain, South Africa
ABR: What about for you Reece?
Reece: Good question. Tough one to follow. I’d probably go back to when we broke down in Gondar. The actual breakdown itself was just really interesting.
We went to Ethiopia and it was Timkat, which is essentially when the whole of Ethiopia turns into a massive party town. We were going through different villages and each village we came to, all the locals were out on the street going wild, and Ethiopia has a different culture to the rest of Africa in the sense that they’re a bit more… what I guess can be perceived as unfriendly, but we don’t think it is.
They’re just being ‘banterful’. For example, a lot of people get stones thrown at them, but I don’t think it’s a thing of [where] ‘I’m trying to hurt you’, it’s more of a ‘ha-ha this is funny’. Anyway, we came to this village, we’re driving along and there are hundreds of people around us.
We’re in a queue of traffic going slowly and they’re all very excited because they have never seen a scooter and sidecar before. Then we just stop, because the clutch melts. It locked up, so we couldn’t push it away.
Matt: We were completely trapped in the middle of what was basically Notting Hill carnival.
Reece: You’ve got people pulling at you, you’ve got an army of police officers there whipping the crowd to get back, and it’s like a wave. As they whip one part, they go out and another part comes in and it’s going like this pretty much the whole way around.
We then managed to get a police truck to put the vehicle on, but then we realised we needed the help of all these locals to get it on the actual truck. So, we’re saying, ‘no stop hitting them, let them in’ [laughs]. We had about 15 people lifting it, but everyone thinks when they see the scooter and sidecar that the sidecar is the heavy bit.
You’ve got about 15 Ethiopian guys around the sidecar and just me on the scooter. Eventually, we got on the truck and got it out there. They dropped us off at the next police station [about five miles from Gondar], and we were waiting and behind us is this jail cell.
This jail cell was just literally wooden poles and a bit of barbed wire, not very secure at all, and there’s about five or six blokes in there just going ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhh!’ It’s getting dark, and we’re just like ‘ah shit’. It was quite hilarious really.
ABR: Who sits in the sidecar for most of the journey?
Matt: We swap! We just pretty much do a tank of fuel and then change. It’s just easier.
ABR: But do you have any preference?
Reece: It’s weather dependant! Matt: Yeah, if it’s raining a lot you want to be sat in the sidecar, if it’s sunny you want to be driving.
Triglav National Park
ABR: What’s the most unusual moment you’ve experienced on your trip so far?
Reece: We were in Tanzania and Matt got pulled over for speeding and he tried to barter with them for about half an hour. They weren’t having it. They were going to charge him the equivalent of about £25.
Eventually, Matt gives up and gives them his driving licence, Matt’s surname is Bishop, so this guy looks at it and goes ‘ah, are you a bishop?’ So, Matt replies, ‘yes…’. And he’s like ‘oh sorry!’ and he assumed that he was some sort of pastor or something!
Matt: The weirdest one, we were in Texas, which is the weirdest place on the planet anyway, and we turned up at Walmart and this lady pulls up and says ‘hey, how’s it going? You wanna come and hang out when you get to Amarillo?’ and we’re like ‘alright sure!’ So she says, ‘I’ll take you out for dinner’ and we’re thinking great, at last we can go out for dinner!
Then we told her that we slept in this pub garden the night before, and she says ‘you can’t do that! You’ve got to have a shower before we go out for dinner!’ A ‘you stink’, sort of thing. So, she invites us to her house to have a shower before we go for dinner.
So, we turn up at the house, and we really did stink, so as soon as we got there I went straight for the shower, I thought I’d leave Reece stinking for a bit and I’ll come out fresh and make an impression. So, I went in, ‘Hi how you doin’? Nice to see you again. Where’s the shower?’ Said ‘how you doin’ to her husband and then went and had a shower. I came out and walked around the corner and Reece was signing a man’s leg!
Reece: This bloke, he’s proper Texas, he’s saying he’s lost his leg because he got trodden on by a donkey and the doctor couldn’t do anything, so he just left it. Eventually, it went black and he had to get it amputated. Then he just goes to me ‘I want you to sign my leg!’ He’s the man of the house, so it would be rude not to! He screwed his leg off and I just sat there with a pen, writing ‘best wishes, Reece’.
Matt: I came out of the bathroom and was like ‘Oh my god! We’ve got to go, why have you got a man’s leg in your hand!?’
Road in the Sahara
ABR: What city, town, or particular destination, would you recommend to anyone going on an adventure?
Matt: Blimey, that’s a tough one! I guess we always go back to Sudan for being somewhere awesome to go because there’s no one there! There are no tourists there at all. You drive down from Egypt and then you cross Lake Nubia and then you drive down from there, you can ride down and pull over anywhere and camp, and it’ll just be you and the desert, and maybe a guy will come past you.
One night we had a farmer come past singing a bit, then he said hello and pointed down at the bank and went ‘crocodiles…’ and we were just like OK! So that was kinda fun. All the way down, everyone’s so friendly that you really struggle to buy dinner because they never see tourists. It’s really cool.
Reece: It’s cool as well because when we went you always know you’re going to be OK, bearing in mind we had just come from Europe and it was the first month of the trip, we did have that thought of ‘OK, Sudan, it’s going to be scary’. But I’ve never felt as safe on the whole trip.
ABR: Is there anywhere you didn’t visit that you wish you had?
Reece: We tried to make it to Alaska but we missed it… That was a disappointing one. Central America was also quite disappointing. Matt: Central America was really gutting. We had lots of charities lined up to go and visit. There was big trouble in Nicaragua all of a sudden.
It was one of the safest places in Central America, through all of our planning we didn’t look at it at all, then this big thing kicked off with student protesting against the Ortegas, and all the roadblocks, guys stood there with RPGs and machine guns and stuff.
We would have been completely fine with chatting to those guys, because it doesn’t really matter if someone’s got an RPG if they don’t want to shoot it at you, but the problem was, they dug up the roads to make the roadblocks and we couldn’t physically have gotten our scooter and sidecar through them.
ABR: What has been the complete journey for you guys so far?
Reece: So, we started on the 21 October 2017, from the Ace Café. Matt: That was just an awesome day. Reece: Yeah, it was basically on the week of anti-slavery day, so we did a London to Paris rally, then we rode all the way through Europe down to Athens, shipped to Egypt and rode all the way from Egypt to Cape Town and then shipped it to Chile and rode to Colombia, shipped it to Mexico and rode to Vancouver.
Matt: you’ve caught us mid-way because the bike’s just going to Russia. We’ve literally just come here to put our fingerprint at the Russian embassy and we’re going to be going back off to Vladivostok and we’re driving 12,000 miles back from Vladivostok to the UK through a Siberian winter. Reece: That’ll probably take us to our target of 40,000 miles.
Departure with “Let’s nail it” Campaign
ABR: After that, what’s next for As Seen from the Sidecar?
Reece: Well, we’re going to be doing a lot of talking and promoting what we’ve done. We’re going to be making a documentary about it, we’ve been self-filming it as we go, and then hopefully there will be something in the pipeline. We’ve got a lot of ideas.
Shortly before going to print with this issue, we caught up again with Matt and Reece to see how they were getting on on their ride across Russia:
Matt and Reece: We’ve currently made it nearly 3,000 miles from Vladivostok to the city of Krasnoyarsk. We’ve been on the road for around three weeks and every day we get to a roadside motel feeling like we’ve run a marathon. It’s unbelievably hard.
Absolutely nothing is easy out here. As soon as temperatures get down to -30C everything is painful and nothing works. It’s by far the hardest thing either of us has ever done and it’s taking its toll on the bike too. Thankfully, we’ve had the warmest welcome imaginable by the Russian people.
We’re constantly relying on strangers to help us fix things and they’re helping us way beyond what’s necessary. We’ve actually become minor celebrities and almost every day we have somebody come up to us in a café (or pull us over) to show us a picture of our bike and our Spot tracker page.
It’s hilarious and really fun! We’re gearing up for another day’s ride at -30C tomorrow and, if all goes to plan, we should ride back into Ace Café on January 19 – hopefully still with all of our fingers and toes!