Riding Overseas / Tricks and Precautions
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Riding Overseas / Tricks and Precautions

Apr 28, 2024

Make use of local knowledge as much as you can. Photo: The Bear

I’m off to Spain again shortly and I thought I’d rub everyone else’s nose in it. No, no. I thought I’d share some of my hard-earned experience with you. That’s better. It’s time for you to start planning next season’s travels, and until you’ve tried it, you have no idea how much fun it can be to ride in other countries. Even New Zealand. Around every corner could be something you’ve never seen before, including a border post. Not in New Zealand.

Porpoise on a stick, a delicious regional delicacy in northern Spain. Photo: The Bear

It’s all very well in the Schengen zone in Europe, but in the Balkans for example you can encounter border posts around just about every corner; when the old Yugoslavia split up, some of the splinters created were so small they’re hardly there – but they still have border posts. And those posts have armed guards. Show them the respect you would show any armed person.

Okay, so let’s see. Before you start out you should make certain that you have all the paperwork you might need. Proof of registration and insurance for the bike, plus a copy of your travel insurance and a letter from the owner if the bike is borrowed, are a start in much of Europe. Obviously, you also need to take your drivers’ license with you.

If they can all park outside Havana police HQ, so can you. I did. Photo: The Bear

But here’s a trick. If you’re at all concerned about the probity or reasonableness of the country’s police force, do not carry the original of your drivers’ licence. Carry a good, sharp photocopy instead. Come to think of it, carry photocopies of all of your paperwork. This means that a disagreeable police officer can’t confiscate your license or passport. If I’m asked why I don’t carry the originals I just say that I don’t want them to be damaged, and that the originals are in my hotel room. That also establishes that you’re not just the average bum: you have a hotel room and are contributing to the local economy.

You could also just photograph your paperwork and keep the images on your phone. I do this as a backup. But it’s better if you have a paper copy that gives the cops something to hang onto – you don’t want them confiscating your phone.

You will need original papers at a border, of course. At Third World borders a nice ballpoint pen can serve as a little unobtrusive and often appreciated bribe.

Adjust your standard of caution according to local conditions. Photo: The Bear

In the past I have not bothered with an IDP, an International Driving Permit because I have never been asked for one. I even went to the trouble of checking with numerous embassies and consulates to see if one was required in their country. A few countries do require them, more were confused by the question and others are happy with the Australian plastic card with its photo. In the US, the only State that specifically demands that foreigners carry an IDP is Georgia, but I have also been told it’s vital in other countries like Spain.

But there is another reason to equip yourself with an IDP. The company issuing your travel insurance (which you really must have) will probably require that you have a license covering the riding you are doing, and valid in the country you are visiting. Here’s the trick: if the country or even state in which you need to call on your insurance requires an IDP and you don’t have one, you could find yourself without insurance. Nasty. So, what the hell, get an IDP. They’re cheap and good for a year, and you can usually get them online from your local automobile association.

Lockable luggage is useful wherever you go. Photo: The Bear

While we’re on the subject of insurance, check and double-check the wording of your policy. If for some reason you find that you don’t meet the full requirements (your age, type of license, capacity of bike, whatever) find another policy. “Your” insurance company is not your insurance company, it is the shareholders’ insurance company. I would never rely on the insurance you get with your credit card, but YMMV.

If you have a bike-to-bike intercom, make sure that its frequency is legally available. I spent a week in Europe once inadvertently talking to my mate on the emergency services band and would have been in serious trouble if caught.

Eat the local food, but carry lomotil. Photo: The Bear

Within reason, you can adjust your riding to match the locals’ style by riding at the speed they ride and generally behaving as they do. But don’t forget common sense. In the Alps, the locals habitually overtake in blind corners, for example. I don’t recommend that. But in Borneo, Kota Kinabalu riders overtake any damn way and ride not only on the wrong side of the road but also between opposing lines of traffic – moving opposing lines of traffic. I do the same when I’m there – it’s expected, and the cars and trucks politely make room for you.

In Thailand, on the other hand, you are almost at the bottom of the pile for respect on the road, just above pedestrians and bicyclists. Don’t push your luck – nobody much cares if you go down under the wheels of a tanker truck or a bus, a hospital is likely far away and ambulances can be rare in developing and even reasonably developed countries. This can be disheartening. If you’re hit by a train in India, for example, you may have to wait before you’re taken to hospital by the next train along.

One rule is universal: be polite to the cops wherever you are. In some countries they have staggering powers (officially or not), and they use them. Having said that, politely claiming ignorance does sometimes work: when they try to extract an on-the-spot fine without a receipt, pull out a previously hidden relatively low-value currency note and sadly explain that that’s all you’ve got. Sometimes it works; make sure it doesn’t look too obviously like the bribe it is. Nobody likes to be reminded that they are on the take.

Whatever you do, remember to stop and photograph the flowers. Photo: The Bear

And take it easy, at least until you have had a look at the scenery and aren’t likely to be stunned by it every time you turn a corner. You’ll need your attention to stay on the road and out from under the wheels of the rest of the traffic.

Might see you in Spain. Say hello.