The search for a KLR650 begins

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Left: 1999; 6,300 kms; $4,250                              Right: 2001; 12,800 kms; $4,500

Below Left: 2006; (almost new); $5,499               Below Right: 2004; ? kms; $3,899
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These bikes are being advertised right now.  They’re all being sold from dealerships, which means that both GST and PST have to be added, as well as a host of hidden fees (e.g. administration, transport, etc.).  Still, the prices are reasonable.  Personally, I’m partial to the red colour.  Not only does it look cool, but it’s also less likely to blend into the jungle (like the army green bike) and this might translate into a reduced risk of being run down by a driver who didn’t see me. 

There’s a lot of interest in KLRs right now: the ad for the army green KLR just appeared today, and apparently there have already been a dozen calls about it.  This bike looks like it’s been in the snow – check out the wheels.

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Is Salar de Uyuni really on this planet?

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For more on this adventure, scroll down this page.

By all accounts, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is as close as you can get to experiencing another planet while still remaining on this one.  In the dry season it is a huge flat expanse.  It is surrounded by desert and mountains, and covered by several inches of…salt.  It can even be seen from space (see the pictures below).  During the wet season, it becomes a vast shallow inland sea.  Motorcyclists say that riding across it (during the dry season) is like riding across a frozen lake, except with better traction.  For many it is the single important stop on any tour of the Americas.  It has certainly captured my imagination, and it has earned a spot on my list of must-see places.  This list is still in its infancy, and so far the only other items are Tierra Del Fuego and Machu Picchu.

1. Tierra Del Fuego
2. Machu Picchu
3. Salar de Uyuni

I hereby put out the call for suggestions of places to see on my epic adventure across the Americas.  Please send me comments with suggestions of anything cool on the route from the tip of South America to Toronto.  I’m open to anything.  However, since I will be riding up the west side of South America, Brazil and Venezuela will have to wait for another time.

Let the route planning begin.

Machu Picchu, Peru
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Salar de Uyuni from Space:
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The Kawasaki KLR 650 is the bike

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The picture of the blue Kawasaki KLR 650 was taken at the Toronto Motorcycle show.  At the time, I didn’t seriously consider it as a realistic alternative to the BMWs or the KTMs and barely gave it a second glance.  But af
ter much deliberating, I have decided that it is the motorcycle to take me on my trip across the Americas. 

There are many factors that favour the KLR; it is cheap, it is mechanically simple and can be fixed all over the world, it is tough and reliable, there is an abundance of after-market accessories (such as the Happy-Trails panniers in the top picture), and there is a lot of information on maintenance and repairs on the web (did I mention that it’s cheap?).  It’s neither as flashy as a BMW, nor is it “adventure-ready” like a KTM 640 LC4 (which you can drive out of the dealership and head straight for the Sahara if you wanted).  But it can be modified for a RTW adventure, and getting it “adventure-ready” is part of the fun (or so I hope).  It’s not fuel-injected like a BMW, meaning that a basic understanding of how a carburetor works is a must.  For example, the air/fuel mix might need to be adjusted for a high altitude trip through the Andes (something not required for an electronic fuel-injected bike).  However, the flip side is that if anything does go wrong it can probably be repaired in areas that are far away from “civilization” (unlike a BMW).

Admittedly, I Initially dreamed of riding the world on a BMW R 1200 GS Adventure.  After all, Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boorman rode around the world on a version of this bike.  However, I soon realized that it’s way more bike than I need.  I wouldn’t need the power, nor would I want the attention of such a flashy bike.  Perhaps most important, it’s just too expensive, especially considering that any bike I take will likely get beat up badly.  The G-Spot (as it is called by die-hard fans), is just too nice of a bike to destroy on this type of adventure (it costs more than $20,000).  Even the BMW F650 Dakar is pricey, clocking in at about $15,000. 

The other bike that I had my heart set on for a long time was the KTM 640 LC4 Adventure.  But like the BMW, it is too expensive (over $12,000) and hard to find in Canada.  In contrast, there are a lot more Kawasaki KLR 650s around.  Not only that, but the KLR will be much easier to maintain in the field than the KTM (although it could be argued that the KTM practically maintains itself).

In any case, the Kawasaki KLR 650 is about $7,000 new.  I could probably get a decent used bike that’s one or two years old for $4,000 or $5,000.  If I do fall of a cliff in Peru and trash the bike, it won’t be as painful as if it were a BMW.  Speaking of falling off cliffs in Peru, that’s exactly what happened to this poor guy (Dale Thornton) on a similar trip to the one I’m planning.  Interestingly he was riding a Kawasaki KLR.  Amazingly, both bike and rider survived the ordeal relatively unscathed.  The story does make me wish I could find someone willing to go with me on this adventure though.  The whole situation may have turned out differently if his buddy hadn’t been along to get help.  Otherwise, no one would have known that he had fallen down the mountain.

This wasn’t even the first accident that befell Dale Thornton on his trip from Omaha, Nebraska to Santiago, Chile.  This blog entry describes two more crashes.  One of them was a direct result of him being (self-admittedly) reckless, passing a line of traffic on a mountain road when he couldn’t see what was coming.  But it is nonetheless a little disconcerting to read about his crashes and injuries.

I’ve been reading a lot of accounts recently of people on motorbike adventures getting into accidents that were completely outside of their control.  For example, in this case (look at “Part V – Letters From the Road”) an oncoming car went wide on a turn in Mexico and there was nothing the motorcyclist could do to avoid the collision.  Luckily there was no permanent damage to bike or rider.

It all makes me wonder whether the risks are worth the adventure.  But consider the above story again.  If you read the whole thing, you’ll discover that a father and son were traveling by motorbike from Panama to Nelson, BC.  Why?  They were doing it partly as a homage to their son/brother who traveled the world by motorbike.  He died of cancer a year and half after he got back, but his passion for motorcycling and world travel brought his father and brother together for an adventure of a lifetime.  The lesson is that you never know when you’re going to buy your ticket.  Granted, taking foolish risks is inviting disaster, but living life in fear of the unknown could result in a lifetime of missed opportunity.  Sometimes there is no second chance.

Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh.

I’ve been planning on going on a three-week motorcycle tour of Argentina this June for some time now.  This plan has recently morphed into something much more ambitious.  It has become a dream that I will go public with now.  A few weeks ago I awoke in the middle of the night with a burning desire: to ride my motorbike from the southern tip of South America (Tierra Del Fuego) up through the Americas all the way back to Toronto.  It would be an adventure of a lifetime.  I would ride thousands of miles across two continents.  I would see the barren plains of Patagonia.  I would see the towering peaks of the Andes.  I would see lush rainforests and barren deserts.  I would see volcanoes, rivers, waterfalls, and canyons.  I would meet people living everywhere from remote villages to megacities.  I could climb Machu Picchu in Peru and go whitewater rafting in Argentina.  The possibilities are endless.  I could go whereever I wanted.  With the right motorcycle, you can go just about anywhere.

Such an adventure is not without its perils.  There is the risk of having an accident or succumbing to some tropical disease.  There is also the chance of being robbed or worse.  But such things can happen anywhere.  I will not live my life in fear.  (Although I won’t deny that sometimes I find the prospect of riding such a vast distance alone more scary than exciting.)

Planning such a trip normally takes over a year.  I have less than 5 months.  It will be extremely challenging to pull it off.  I need to choose a motorcycle.  I need to decide what gear to bring.  I need to check to see what paperwork will be required.  I need to learn how to fix a motorbike in the field.  It would be nice to learn how to speak Spanish too.

One of the ironies of life is that when you’re young and have the time and energy to explore the world, you don’t have the money; and when you’re old and have the money, you don’t have the time or freedom.  How many people could escape their career and family obligations for 3 months to travel the world?  I have the desire and the time, but if I choose to use my line of credit to travel instead of spending the summer earning money doing a research project (which is arguably the sensible thing to do both financially and in terms of my long-term career prospects), I will run out of credit well before I finish my 4 year program.  Is it reckless to knowingly put myself in a position where I won’t have enough money in the future for daily living expenses, let alone tuition? 

The sad truth is that even if I didn’t travel, and worked both summers remaining to me, I still wouldn’t have enough credit to complete my education.  So here’s my logic: if I’m already screwed, I might as well go all out.  Either way, I’m going to have to be creative to stay afloat.  Maybe I’ll tend a bar on the weekends and sleep on friends’ couches.  All this while working crazy hours during clerkship.  I may be insane.  But I really want to do go on this adventure, despite the consequences.  Someone wise (or incredibly stupid) once said: “Leap and the net will appear”.  Here’s to hoping it’s true.

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This picture was taken in the mountains of Puerto Rico in the summer of 1999 (when I still had hair!).  The summer I spent doing tropical neuroethology in San Juan, Puerto Rico remains one of the highlights of my life, and reminds me why I want to travel and experience the world.

Winter Riding

When I bought my motorbike in September, I thought I’d be able to ride it until maybe mid-October before winter set in and I would be confined to riding in circles around my underground parking lot.  How wrong I was.  I’ve been able to ride uninterrupted right through the “winter”.  Even now, in January, I’ve been riding almost every day.  Last night the temperature went down to minus 7 degrees (one of the coldest nights of the year so far).  It was a perfect opportunity to try out my new heated Gerbing’s vest that I had just purchased online http://www.gerbing.com/heat/vest.html.  To use the vest, I had to attach the Gerbing’s battery harness to my bike’s battery, which involved removing the bolts that attach the negative and positive terminals in place.  

I learned the hard way to be ready to catch the bolt when it comes free, lest it fall down into the bowels of the motorbike never to be seen again.  Even after removing almost every fairing, it was nowhere to be found.  I had to go to Canadian Tire to find a new one.  There were no exact matches, so I decided to go with something that seemed close enough.  It was a little longer and required a wrench instead of a screwdriver to install, but luckily it did the trick.

Then I realized that Gerbing’s sells the temperature controllers (US$69) and on/off switches seperately.  They warn not to use their heated clothing without such a device or “burns” could result.  Bollox I thought.  So I plugged my vest directly into the battery harness, and took Helen out for a winter ride.  The warmth of the vest was amazing.  I wore only a turtleneck underneath it and my leather biker jacket on top.  My torso was warm even at speeds of 80 km/h (and no “burning” took place).

I wanted to try the vest out at freeway speed, but unfortunately I had to cut my ride short.  My boys were complaining of the cold (hopefully thermal underwear would be enough to solve that problem).  But the biggest problem was my hands.  My fingers especially were beginning to cry out from pain.  I had to stop at a gas station just to warm up my hands.  I don’t think that new and supposedly warmer gloves are the answer (the gloves, they do nothing!).  Rather, I think electric gloves are where it’s at.  Too bad they go for US$139.  But the electric vest worked such a miracle on my torso that I have high hopes for electric gloves.  Besides, you can easily pay $100 for a pair of regular, unheated, riding gloves.

Not only will this gear serve me well living in Toronto, but it will come in handy when I go to Argentina in June.  June and July are the coldest months in the southern hemisphere.  I hope to go to Patagonia and Tierra Del Fuego, which are at 50-55 degrees south of the equator.  That is equivalent to Edmonton, Alberta, where the current temperature is minus 24 degrees Celcius.  Luckily it doesn’t get that cold in Southern Argentina because of the moderating effects of the ocean, but it has been known to snow there every month of the year, so snow in winter is almost a sure bet.  I expect temperatures in the range of minus 10 degrees Celcius and the possibility of blizzard conditions.  Hopefully the heated gear will be up to the task.

Vive Le Quebec Libre

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I just got back from a weekend in Montreal.  2500 medical students from across Canada (but mostly from Ontario and Quebec) descended on the city for medgames 2007.  I think sports were played, but I wouldn’t know.  All I know is that Montreal was a fun city, with many places to drink beer and eat smoked meat.  Poutine for a 3:00 AM snack goes down really well too.

I was pleased to be able to use my French.  I wasn’t sure at first if I would be able to understand or speak enough French to have a coherent converstion.  I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to strike up a conversation with some female medical students from Sherbrooke without any problems.  They were quite pleased that I could speak French so well.  That I was able to converse in French with them is even more impressive given that I can’t even speak to girls in my own language.  Actually come to think of it, I seem to do better in French.  Hmmmm……