Seemingly not put off by impossible terrain and near-fatal shootings on his ride around the coast of Africa, Spencer Conway is now taking on his next major challenge, a solo circumnavigation of South America. Rob Slade caught up with him before he set off on his year-long adventure…
The dangers of riding through Africa are known to many, but few will be as starkly aware as adventure motorcyclist Spencer Conway. Just seven years ago Spencer was circumnavigating the continent of Africa, a journey of 34,000 miles that saw him narrowly escape with his life.
Not one to rest on his laurels, he is now embarking on his next big adventure, a circumnavigation of South America. The journey, which at the time of publication should be well underway, will see him cover roughly 31,000 miles over the course of a year.
After arriving in Bogota, Colombia, Spencer will be led out of the city by between 350-500 bikers as they mark a “nice, noisy start to the series”. The entourage will accompany him right up to the northern coast which is where the real riding will begin.
“It’s exactly the same as the Africa one, completely solo, unsupported and camping all the way… But I’m not taking any technology. I’m not taking a GPS or anything like that, just taking a map,” Spencer explained.
From Colombia, he will travel anti-clockwise, passing through every South American country touching the coast, as well as land-locked Bolivia and Paraguay, which he will visit for his own sake. The bike that will carry him over all these miles? His own Yamaha XT660Z Ténéré, the same motorcycle that saw him over the finish line in his previous big adventure.
The decision to carry on with the Ténéré was made with three offers from unnamed manufacturers on the table, but Spencer decided to turn these down in favour of his trusty steed. Having grown up with several Yamahas and having covered over 34,000 miles around Africa on his Ténéré, Spencer is comfortable working on the mechanics of his ride.
“The biggest problem is if you can’t fix your bike, especially when you’re in remote areas. I know Yamaha, if you gave me a car or another model, or these modern bikes with a lot of technology, I don’t think I’d cope with it too much,” he explained. Additionally, there is also the romanticism of using the Yamaha on each of the big motorcycle adventures he plans to partake in.
As with his African trip, on his South American circumnavigation, Spencer will be raising money for Save the Children, a UK-based charity that supports both emergency and long-term relief and development projects.
The second major motivation for taking on his latest adventure is that he would like to circumnavigate every continent in the world before kicking the bucket. “I’m 49 now, so I’ve got to get moving.” Throughout the South American adventure, he has a few specific things he wants to tick off of his list of experiences. “We’ve found a very weird set-up, it’s a bit quirky, but we found three different towns in South America…
In one of them they only speak Welsh, there’s another one where they only speak Afrikaans, from South Africa, and there’s a third one where they only speak German. So, they’re really, really, really weird places.” “The other thing I want to do is try and meet the FARC rebels in Colombia, because they’ve just had a ceasefire, so I’m going to try to get into the jungle and interview some of them.”
Beyond that, Spencer is also just really excited by the fact he doesn’t know the continent at all. “It makes it almost more exciting that I don’t know the culture, I don’t know the language, I don’t know what to expect. I’m one of these idiots that doesn’t do a great deal of research because I don’t want to, I don’t want any sort of preconceptions… I just prefer to go with an open mind and then just see what happens.”
While paved highways would certainly represent the more straightforward of options, it looks as though the blacktop is going to be a rarity on this journey. “My favourite thing is to try and do as little tar roads as possible. So I’m not going to go down the main highways… I’m going to have to scout around to try and avoid those.”
The reason for this, Spencer explains, is that “in out of the way places you always have weirder experiences and meet more genuine people, so I try to avoid cities”.
It’s this ethos that has landed him in some extremely tough situations on past adventures, with one such experience taking place in the centre of the Democratic Republic of Congo. “The road just disappeared and turned into a track, so I had to cut my way through with a machete. On one particular day I did, I think it was, 10km in 11 hours, so that was pretty hardcore.
“And then once you get out of that, in the same country, you hit this very, very slippery red clay, and when it gets rained on it’s like ice and it also starts sticking to your tyres and makes them about four or five times the size they’re supposed to be.” Despite the unique challenges that overland motorcycle travel through remote areas has to offer, Spencer hasn’t actually made many changes to the standard bike set-up.
To get it ready for the trip, he has added new sprockets, a new chain, a new cush drive, new tyres, new cables and a new swingarm to the Ténéré. Speaking of the latter, he said: “The swingarm I had to take off because it had a bullet hole in it and it wouldn’t pass the MOT.”
Ah, bullet holes. This brings us back to the time Spencer was shot at while on his trip through Africa. The incident took place while he was passing through a particularly troublesome stretch of land in Kenya.
“I saw these three guys on a hill,” he explained, “and I just waved to them and one guy pulled up an AK-47 and started shooting. It took off my back tyre, the brake calliper exploded and a bit of it went through my arm, I fell off the bike and broke three ribs, but I just jumped on and rode off.”
Fortunately, he managed to escape relatively unharmed and subsequently went on to finish his journey. “It motivated me more, you know because everyone was fantastic all the way around, so I didn’t want three guys on a hill to ruin the whole thing.”
Understandably, journeys of this scale will rarely pass without any troubles, and speaking about the potential problems he may encounter in South America, Spencer said: “I’m only worried about Venezuela at the moment… They’ve basically got civil war, they’ve got a looney president now and he closed the borders. There’s no food and so there’s lots of rioting and they’re setting fires in the streets.
“But, I mean, that’s going to be the last country that I go to, so that’s going to be about a year’s time, so I’ll just gauge it by then.”
Unfortunately, preparations for the trip have not gone quite as smoothly as Spencer would have hoped. “I decided to get super fit before heading off, so I was getting back into my weight training, and about six days ago I tore my rotator cuff on my shoulder.” Not ideal for someone who is about to begin a mammoth, multi-terrain motorcycle journey.
He has since had anti-inflammatory injections and, while he has been told he may need an operation on it, everything is still proceeding as planned. “I’m still gonna’ do it, I’m all booked up, everything’s ready and I’m psyched to go,” Spencer explained.
Once complete, Spencer’s journey through South America will feature as a 12-part TV series for Travel Channel, with Spencer filming the majority of the journey himself. In the meantime, you can track his progress by heading to www.spencer-conway.com or following him on Facebook (www.facebook.com/spencer.j.conway) and Instagram (www.instagram.com/spencer_james_conway).