Encounter: Austin Vince

As the early autumn sun slips behind the ridges that define a Pyrenean valley, one well-travelled Englishman stands to witness yet another glorious sunset from a rugged escarpment. Dressed in his signature retro-style striped overalls, complete with collar and tie, Austin Vince looks like a 1960’s maths teacher who took a wrong turn into the motor vehicle workshop and decided to escape mundanity aboard the school’s trail-bike restoration project.

Meanwhile, I’m among half-a-dozen other riders busying ourselves setting-up tonight’s bivouac in a nearby woodland clearing. Each has a designated job; preparing food, making hot drinks, writing up the day’s events in a team journal. My job is collecting firewood to provide fuel for the night’s meal and beer-fuelled reveries before we retire to our sleeping bags.

No tents mind you. Before actually becoming that maths teacher, Austin’s brief military career showed him how little is needed for functional comfort. We are out in the open with no more than a bivvy bag and tarp to keep the elements at bay. So in-tune are we with the mantra ‘leave no trace’ that a square metre of turf has been cut with a pocket knife and rolled, conserved until it can be replaced after the next day’s breakfast fire is quenched. Any rubbish will leave the site with us.

What better introduction to self-supported minimalist moto-travel can you ask for than a week of wild moto-camping under the guidance of a man who was among the first team to ride all the way across Russia – including the hitherto impassable 400 mile-wide Zilov Gap?

In less developed parts of the world the people may seem very different to us, but Austin has always found they want to be helpful and friendly no matter how little they have. We are in the north of Spain and Austin insists that true adventure riding is not possible here; “this is Western Europe, a phone call away from anything we might need.” That said, this approach to travelling, with a make-it-work-and-have-fun-attitude, is the distillation of Austin’s experience having ridden around the world twice without sponsorship or manufacturer support.

Those experiences brought us the TV series “Mondo Enduro” and “Terra Circa”. Each documented circumnavigating the globe by motorcycle long before The Long Way Round galvanised mass interest in adventure bikes. Unlike the huge, high-tech bikes and support vehicles that LWR relied on, Austin extols the virtues of smaller bikes carrying the bare essentials, “you don’t want to ride a bike that’s so advanced it can’t be repaired in a third world country.”

Moto-adventurer, film-maker, teacher, composer, event organiser, co-curator of the annual Adventure Travel Film Festival, iconoclast, free-thinker, quizmaster, pacifist, and erudite adults-only raconteur. Austin Vince is difficult to fit in a box; you can’t keep the lid down long enough to nail it shut.

And yet, for all the accomplishments he is admired for, Austin remains adamant that “anyone can do this.” Those aren’t just the easy words of a past master. All his activities seem to be aimed at showing people exactly how they can do it themselves and go out and spread the word. Which takes us back to that bivouac in the wooded glade; wild camping with our bikes, watching as the sun sets over that far-off ridge only to marvel as it rises again. Yes, that’s something worth sharing.

Words: Nich Brown

This article was first published in Issue 17 of Overland Magazine.