Over the past two decades, Lois Pryce has gone from being a bored office worker with dreams of adventure to a highly respected motorcycle traveller and author. James Oxley caught up with the veteran of some of the world’s toughest bike journeys to discuss her global adventures
“You can wait all your life until you’re an expert rider and mechanic, and you’ve saved up loads of money, and you’re fluent in five languages, and whatever. But then, you’re never really ready. At some point, you’ve just got to decide to go for it. Actually, that is part of the pleasure. I look back on that first trip and I think my naivety actually added to the fun.”
Lois Pryce is reminiscing about her first big motorcycle adventure, a 20,000-mile journey along the length of the Pan American Highway from Alaska to the southern tip of South America. The naivety she talks about bursts from the pages of her successful debut book, Lois on the Loose, with the infectious energy and excitement of someone thrilled to be exploring the world for the first time.
Lois says: “The theme of Lois on the Loose was the escape and getting away from my boring job. That’s what people really relate to. Loads of people write to me to say they’ve read my book and decided to pack in their job and travel as well.”
I was one of those people. Although I never wrote to Lois to thank her, it was the punk ethos and do-it-yourself ethic of Lois on the Loose, that helped inspire a younger me to quit my boring nine-to-five job and travel the world instead.
Well, they say you should never meet your heroes but the Lois Pryce I’m speaking to on the phone, from her home on a barge moored on the River Thames, is as fun and engaging as the words on the pages she writes. I immediately warm to her as we chat about her adventures and writing career. These now include three travel books, along with numerous newspaper articles, and radio and television appearances as a commentator and authority on world travel.
However, back in 2003, when a bright-eyed young Lois sat astride her Yamaha XT225 Serow in Alaska, ready to ride the length of the Americas, she had no plans to launch a career as a travel writer. She was simply engrossed in living out her own story, but serendipity intervened.
Lois says: “I’d left my job at the BBC with no plan to go back. I didn’t take a sabbatical or anything, so I had no idea what I was going to do for a living. I’d been writing this travel blog about my trip for friends and family, although no one said the word blog back in 2003.
“I ended up being put in touch with a friend of a friend who was a literary agent in New York who liked it and said, let’s turn this into a book. I thought oh my God yes. So, when I got back home, it was really nice for me to have a big project to get on with. Actually, in a way, that changed my life more than anything else because it propelled me into being a full-time, professional writer.”
With the success of her first motorcycle trip and resulting book behind her, it wasn’t long before Lois was looking to get stuck into another adventure and, in 2006, she set off on a journey down the length of Africa. She says: “My publishers asked, do I want to do another trip? I wanted to ride from London to Cape Town because I see that as the ultimate motorcycle trip really, across the Sahara. The publishers weren’t into it. Long Way Round had just happened so they wanted me to basically copy that. But I didn’t want to go to Russia, it was too cold. I like places that have palm trees and deserts and stuff. So, that’s how the Africa trip came about really.”
The resulting book, Red Tape and White Knuckles: One Woman’s Motorcycle Adventure through Africa, proved another sales hit and cemented Lois as one of the world’s hottest motorcycle travel writers. But if Lois on the Loose was the story of a carefree young adventurer barrelling her way down the Americas with gusto, her second journey was a more physically and mentally demanding challenge. When asked if it was her most difficult to date, Lois is in no doubt.
She says: “Oh my God yes. A hundred times more. I mean, from a riding point of view and crossing the Sahara. Obviously, the sand riding is insane, and the heat. Although I love the sun, deserts, and heat, I’m not very good in it. I’d feinted in the heat in Morocco earlier in the year and got heat stroke. I thought that riding 2,000 miles across the Sahara is probably not a good idea, a pasty person like me. But no, it was brilliant. That was the best motorcycling I’ve ever done.”
Lois adds: “And of course, riding across the Sahara is exciting but really physically gruelling. Very rocky and obviously there was deep sand. They’d be a bit of tarmac at the top (of a hill) and a bit of tarmac at the bottom, but not very much in between. That was how it was in Africa. Definitely the most physically gruelling of all the trips from a riding point of view.
“But I never thought, I’m going to pack it in. I’m always pretty determined to do the thing I set out to do. But also, the practical reality of packing it in is just as hard as keeping going. You can’t really turn around if you want to try and get home or get your bike home. You might as well get up every day and keep going. Even if you make it a few miles and have to stop. There’s always a way. It’s plodding away really isn’t it? In a way what adventure motorcycling is. It doesn’t sound very exciting but you just get up and plod away.”
Plodding away she may have been. However, Lois’ humility, a trait that makes her so likeable both on the page and in person, betrays the very real danger she faced in Africa. One such danger involved the possibility of being blown up while riding through a minefield in Angola.
She says: “I had misread the route and ended up straying into one. I was following these white posts thinking that was the way to go, but actually they were saying this is an old minefield, don’t go this way. I only discovered this once I’d ridden into it. I looked at one of the posts and saw it had a skull and cross bones on it. I had to turn around and scream my way back, hoping I was going exactly the same route to avoid the mines!”
Lois adds: “I was really exhausted by the time I reached Cape Town. I probably hadn’t eaten very well and it had been really physically gruelling, so I was ready for a rest. But I did have an amazing sense of achievement and the feeling that I could have a crack at anything now. It’s easy to feel like that when you make the grand arrival, but it’s hanging onto that idea when you get home and applying that to other aspects of your life, that’s where it’s a challenge really.”
With two successful books under her belt, Lois took a break from solo travel for a few years. Instead, in 2009, she teamed up with her husband and fellow two-wheeled adventurer, Austin Vince of Mondo Enduro fame, to ride a Ural motorcycle and sidecar 6,000 miles across the USA.
Lois says: “It was really funny actually. It’s a great marriage counselling system. We totally survived and we took it in turns to ride. There were a few hairy moments, normally me, where went a bit wobbly but it is a different experience from riding a normal bike. It’s very physical, upper body physical, so it’s quite tiring. But it was really fun, and obviously America is a great fun place. We rode from Richmond, Virginia, to Seattle, which is where the Ural HQ is in America.”
As well as riding across the USA, Lois and Austin also set up the Adventure Travel Film Festival together which has taken place in America, Australia, and the UK (Austin will be presenting it at the 2021 Adventure Bike Rider Festival). Lois also spent time indulging in her passion for music, playing banjo in the all-female bluegrass band The Jolenes.
They played Glastonbury Festival twice.
However, by 2011, Lois was itching to embark on another solo motorcycle adventure but she didn’t have a destination in mind. Then, one December morning, she parked her well-travelled bike near the Iranian Embassy, in central London, in order to run a few errands nearby. Iran was in the news at the time after the British Embassy in Tehran had been attacked by a mob and set on fire.
When Lois returned to her bike, she discovered a note attached. It was written by an Iranian stranger urging her not to believe the wicked depiction of his country that appeared in the news, but instead to travel there herself and meet ‘the most welcoming people in the world’. To someone with Lois’ curiosity for the world, it was an invitation that couldn’t be ignored, and two years later, she finally managed to secure an Iranian visa and set off into the unknown.
Lois says: “The initial response to riding my motorbike around Iran was that it’s not a very good idea. But, of course, everyone had said that about El Salvador, Colombia, or the Congo, or Angola or whatever. The reality on the ground is always really different. I thought, hang on a minute, that must be the case with Iran as well. I started investigating and finding a bit more out about Iran and Iranians. I just thought it would be worth giving it a go. There is a reality about it. I met people who had been arrested there travelling, motorbike travellers and stuff, and I do know people who have got in trouble there. So, there is an element of truth to that side, but it isn’t the only story.
“What you don’t really hear, although it has become a bit more prevalent now because so many people have been to Iran and started coming back with stories, is just how incredibly hospitable, and switched on, and amazing the Iranian people are. And, how happy they are. I just wasn’t ready for that.”
In total, Lois spent two months and 3,000 miles riding around Iran, a journey that had a profound effect. She returned twice over the next two years, cementing her love for her “favourite country.”
Lois says: “I had to recalibrate my entire brain. I realised that even though I considered myself worldly and well-travelled, negative sentiments drip feed into you without you realising. We’ve all got these images of Islamic countries, of Iran or Iranians, and you don’t even realise those feelings are there even. So, when you go, especially if you are on your own and you have to open yourself up to the people and the country, you just realise how completely skewed all of that information has been.”
Lois soon realised she had a story tell and, on her return, she set about penning Revolutionary Ride: On the Road in Search of the Real Iran, which was published in 2017. Reading it reveals a shift in tone from Lois’ earlier work. While she continued to write with energy and optimism, the story she tells is bigger than a personal travelogue.
She says: “Lois on the Loose was unplanned. It came out of nowhere and was just a personal story. As you get older, you travel more, you see more, you start looking at things differently. Then Iran made me rethink everything. I realised that I didn’t want to keep writing the same book.
“Like bands, every album is different. You have different influences, you want to create something different. And so, I wanted to make it different. The realisation was that Iran is actually much more interesting than I am. So, I wanted to write about Iran and Iranians and also realise it was from a very unique perspective, being a Brit in Iran and being a female in Iran.
“It was a really important time in Iranian history because of the nuclear deal and Obama making contact, so I wanted to capture all of that and not just write about the roads being really rough, and oh, it’s really hot and there’s a funny noise coming from my engine. I felt like I didn’t need to write that again really. So, it’s not so much about the bike or biking, it’s more about Iran but through the view of someone who’s riding a motorcycle around it.”
Revolutionary Ride won plaudits both at home and abroad for its stereotype-busting depiction of Iran from the likes of the New York Times and National Geographic Traveller. But it’s been three years since the book was published, so what can we expect next from Lois?
She says: “I’m working on an idea for a thriller, set in Iran partly. So that’s what my writing is at the moment. I’m always doing bits and bobs of travel writing for newspapers and stuff for radio and things like that. But travel writing isn’t the best industry to be in in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a been a quiet year.”
You can read more about Lois’ adventures on page 70 of this issue of ABR in her Insider’s Guide to Riding the Pan American Highway. And, you can find out more about her travels, speaking dates, and news at www.loisontheloose.com.