Encounter: Walter Colebatch

Walter Colebatch is recognised for his pioneering work to open-up adventure riding in one of the most remote regions of the Eurasian landmass. He’s also a motorcycle altitude record-breaker. We wanted to find out more about the making of this accomplished adventure rider and confirmed Siberophile…

Walter Colebatch has always been on the move. He grew-up following his Medical Superintendent father around rural country hospitals in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Not surprising then that he took to independent travel in his late teens and early 20s, but he soon became disillusioned with adventure backpacking and the constraints of public transport.

“It was totally fake… herds of backpackers going to the same cheap hotels and same restaurants in the same cities, taking the same pictures, riding the same buses – but honestly believing they were independent because they had a guide book rather than an old lady with an umbrella to guide them around.”

A travel documentary, filmed from a convoy of 4x4s driven across the then Soviet Union, triggered his obsession with Siberia – it also sparked the realisation that having his own vehicle would allow truly individual travel with the sense of freedom and adventure he was looking for.

Having cycled long distances as a teenager, Walter figured the best way to see the world with maximum freedom and independence would be on two-wheels – but this time with an engine.

In 1994, after a year of planning- without any of the internet resources or specialist magazines we take for granted today – and just two weeks after gaining his bike licence – he and a friend rode two Honda Transalps from Tokyo to London. That trip marked the first of many collaborative projects with other riders, filling two decades of moto-adventuring across the globe.

His ideas about bikes and his reasons for travel have changed accordingly; in recent years he’s clocked-up 90,000 miles on his BMW G650X and has a 114kg Husaberg 570 for shorter trips.

“I now have a much stronger focus on the motorcycle, what it can deliver to me and HOW it can deliver it – the more time I spend ‘out there’, the more I need to find more and more remote places to go to keep challenging myself so the bikes have become lighter and more off-road capable. Also, the less thrill it gives me just to be ‘out there’; so the actual riding becomes increasingly important with each journey, until the riding becomes just as much a part of the thrill of the journey as where I am going and the people I will meet.”

Those encounters along the way have shaped Walter’s views about the ages-old politics of identity: he regards nationalism/patriotism alongside religion as ‘primitive tribalism’ providing the means of persuading people to fight and kill on behalf of their leaders…

“Adventure travel has brought it home like nothing else; I am as likely to meet good people of any other passport as I am of my own; as likely to get along with a Russian, or a Dutchman, or a Frenchman than I am with a Brit or an Aussie. A person is a person, not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ depending on what passport they hold. Therefore, what possible relevance does my own nationality have? It has become meaningless to me.”

That attitude appears to have served Walter well over the years, while working in international finance to fund his adventure projects – he puts his money where his dreams lie, opening-up new routes to share with other riders and developing genuinely usable equipment:

In 2009, Walter demonstrated how Siberia offers so many more riding opportunities than simply following in Austin Vince’s pioneering tyre-tracks (or Ewan and Charley’s less glorious rail-tracks), riding further north into Asia than any moto-adventurer before.

“I had been advising people for a number of years on trips into Siberia and kept suggesting this or that alternative, but no-one wanted to venture off the Trans-Siberian Highway or the Road of Bones. I felt that a community worthy of using the name ‘adventure’ had to be quite a bit more ambitious.”

In 2010, he was first to ride the now legendary BAM Road, a service track running alongside the Baikal-Amur Mainline railway from Vanino on the Pacific Ocean to Taishet in central Siberia, before completing the ride across Mongolia from East to West. Since then, the BAM Road has become the new benchmark adventure motorcycle pilgrimage.

“Many guys who have ridden it say it was the best adventure ride of their life – including guys that have been doing it for over a decade all over the world. That pleases me greatly.”

That ‘Sibirsky Extreme’ project had relied on existing maps or signposts and painstakingly asking locals for directions (not much use in remote areas). Wanting to break-out of those confines, in 2012 he pioneered the first dirt-road route from the EU to Magadan on the Pacific Ocean: the ‘Sibirsky Extreme Trail’.

First, he created the route-map turn-by-turn, 100 metres at a time, forging together some of the best trails from his earlier expeditions with thousands more kilometres of off-road tracks researched and traced-out over hundreds of hours in front of a computer monitor, using satellite imagery from Google Earth and similar programs. And then he proved it.

This monster off-road trail takes-in many highlights of Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia… mountains, forests and plains, collapsed bridges and dangerous river crossings, energy-sapping dunes and bogs, with no sense of going somewhere because a guide said to.

“If the advantage of adventure motorcycling over backpacking was the extra independence of your own vehicle – then this was another huge step forward again. It actually works and, for those who try it, a whole new level of freedom is now there for the taking – it’s the future of adventure motorcycling.”

That trip also provided the opportunity to prove his ideas about adventure luggage. First he drove around Europe to source secure, slashproof, waterproof material; then a professional bag maker in the Czech Republic made prototypes; real-world testing involved a ‘brutal’ week in Morocco (with a 2014 Dakar Rally rider) to identify any weak points. To manufacture and distribute these lockable ‘Magadan’ bags, Walter chose UK specialist suppliers Adventure Spec. He knew they understood what works on two-wheels as they had sponsored him with some of their equipment in the past.

Having spent so much time opening-up Siberia, Walter now lives in Moscow with his partner Anastasia, also an investment banker, in the heart of perhaps the most turbulent empire in modern history: Russia.

Check out www.sibirskyextreme.com for a trailer of the DVD and other information about Walter’s achievements.

Words by Paddy Tyson


This article was first published in Issue 7 of Overland magazine.