Encounter: Chris Scott

Chris Scott is recognised as the man who presciently combined the words ‘adventure’ with ‘motorcycling’ in the late 90s. ‘Overlanding’ was what he meant, but ‘Adventure’ was an alternative which helped express the reality of riding into the uncertainties of Africa, Asia or Latin America – what he calls the Adventure Zone, where surviving requires more ‘wits’ than touring in the Alps.

Author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook, Desert Travels, Morocco Overland and more, his Sahara Overland identified him as a world expert on travelling in the Sahara. Ironically, back in 1982 he merely saw the desert as a desolate obstacle on his way to West Africa, but that hapless baptism aroused a fascination with what St Exupery called ‘this prestige of sand, the night, the silence, this homeland of wind and stars’.

Now, with 40 expeditions in the area and more in the pipeline, he’s accumulated a deep knowledge of the Sahara and yet there’s no-one more modest. His wonderfully pleasing, mild-mannered nature is a joy to encounter and we are delighted that he will be at The Overland Event in June with his newest book, a ‘prequel’, in his words, called Adventures in Motorcycling. It’s not what you might expect…

Chris is the first person we’ve featured in our Encounter series who hasn’t ridden a motorcycle around the world. He’s travelled extensively and seen much of the globe certainly, but he also cycles, hikes and kayaks because it’s being immersed in the great outdoors that appeals most.

“Whatever my mode of transport, it’s about the satisfaction of planning, of self-sufficiency, the thrill of the unknown, and anticipating the inevitable problems which can be magnified in the Adventure Zone. This sort of travel teaches you that you can be more resourceful than you think and that the real world is far removed from the Fox News agenda.”

Chris’ first motorcycle adventure was at the age of 16, when he set off to North Wales on his Honda 50. He didn’t even get close, but the moped was just a means to reach mountains he wished to climb – and that’s not a metaphor.

“Back then such innocently over-ambitious capers were common among bikers: Britain on a moped, Europe in a cranky RD250 with bin bags bungied on the back. In 1979 Bike magazine even ran a story about overlanding to Iran with two-stroke CZ 250 enduros. No wonder there was an oil crisis!”

After some years on the London dispatch circuit, a 22-year-old Mr Scott set off to cross the Sahara on a woefully ill-prepared XT500 and his ascent of a steep learning curve began. A curve he was still climbing ten Saharan expeditions later.

It was an education that every adventure rider is now grateful he undertook, as in 1993 it spawned one of his first books: Desert Biking, a Guide to Independent Motorcycling in the Sahara. Austin Vince and his Mondo Enduro crew were early adopters, but you may not have heard of it. That first edition was little more than a bundle of photocopied sheets stapled together, but it sold well enough to be expanded into a paperback in 1995. This evolved into the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook (‘AMH’), when Chris recognised that by engaging contributors, the whole world could be covered. It’s a successful format he adopted with his later overlanding titles and now AMH is the bible – the one book – that probably helps achieve more motorcycling dreams than any other.

Thankfully, for those who’ve harboured visions of Saharan adventure since primary school, Chris occasionally leads tours requiring varying levels of stamina and ability, and he leads them with some aplomb. He’s happy to recount just what a disaster his first (un)commercial tour was back in the 80s, and it’s that straight ‘tell it like it is’ attitude that makes him such an endearing character.

The expanse of North Africa continues to intrigue and when you consider that the Sahara is the size of the USA, it’s perhaps not surprising. “There’s more than a lifetime’s worth of places left to explore.” He’s convinced that a bike’s mobility and exposure to the elements offers an exhilarating tool for exploration, but with a lower profile than an ostentatious 4×4, which he’s also tried. More recently he’s found camels, the original ships of the desert, to be an even better way of experiencing the alluring sands. As he likes to say, “The more you know, the less you need”, but that knowledge includes recognising that in the last decade much of the Sahara has become a no-go area.

“A post-colonial lull allowed tourism to develop – boosted by the popularity of the Paris-Dakar Rally of the 1980s. Today the Sahara has gone back to what it always was; a lawless wilderness of smugglers, bandits and now, jihadists, who prey on each other or anyone who gets in range.” Like many former ‘Saharans’, Chris is now looking to return to the mountains of High Asia, where he’s previously cycled, or else South America.

He’s used his immense knowledge of the Sahara to advise TV News, documentary researchers and scientific expeditions, and even provides feedback for the FCO. He’s written and contributed to countless travel guidebooks and has also made DVDs. That he was inspired by a part of the world that is often ignored or misunderstood as being wholly inhospitable, has resulted in all of us being the richer.

Words: Paddy Tyson

This article first appeared in Issue 10 of Overland Magazine.