When asked why he decided to ride a motorbike from Australia to Iceland, Rob Armstrong gave me a choice of the short or long answer, the former being: “Growing up in a small town and following the path laid out before everyone that grew up there just didn’t seem right one day, so I tossed it all in and chose something different.”
But what halfway-interesting person ever wants the short version of anything?
“Everything from growing up in a small town, to wondering if the world really is as horrible as the TV says, to not liking the idea of doing what we’re supposed to do,” Rob says, in his lengthy response. “Life back home followed a set pattern: you’re born, go to school so you can go to University, so you can get a steady job and get married and have kids, and then finally seal your fate by putting yourself in debt for the next thirty years by buying a house.
“Halfway through a degree in Mechanical Engineering, something started to feel wrong about it all. I wasn’t even sure what a mechanical engineer did at the time – I’m still a little vague on it now. To cope, I was drinking just about every night of the week, to keep myself amused and distracted from a life that wasn’t making a lot of sense at the time,” Rob says.
As a result of excessive alcohol abuse, Rob started vomiting blood at a friend’s 21st, and was told by a doctor he had stomach ulcers. With family history of alcoholism as his driving force, Rob sought to fill a psychological hole with travel, starting with a two-month trip around Australia in a Land Cruiser troop carrier. Switching to a motorcycle, he then rode to Cape York – the northernmost point of Australia – and across the Simpson Desert between Uni semesters.
“Riding long distances snowballed into the idea of going further and further afield,” Rob says. “TV series like Long Way Round and the ADVrider forum fuelled the fire, until I decided my future was to be on a motorcycle in a foreign country.”
Regarding D-Day (departure day), Rob summed up in one sentence the pressure to get going and, resultantly, the panic of realising one is not always as prepared as one initially thought: “Fuck – I don’t have anywhere to strap my shoes.”
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to be on the road that day, so I didn’t really give any thought to the long-term ramifications of what I was doing,” he says.
Moreover, Rob tried planning his ideal route in the beginning, but found information on roads, ferries, and border crossings to be vague and out-of-date.
“Planning usually wastes more time than getting out there and adapting as you go,” he says. “There’s never really been an ideal route; more of a start and end point with a handful of places and things I’d like to see in between. As I got more into photography, Iceland became attractive as a destination from photos I’d seen online. Also, Iceland is the furthest point in Europe from Australia, and roads and ferries all finish after that point – so it just made sense to finish there.”
His days on the road adhere to a slightly more concrete routine, though the end point of every day sometimes changes. Rob wakes up with the sun (as the tent gets too hot after sunrise), eats breakfast of leftover rice or instant oats while attempting to dry the previous night’s sweat out of his sleeping mat, before packing everything away and changing into his riding gear without exposing himself to locals.
“The rest of my day is at the mercy of the roads, the weather, and any people that might distract me along the way,” he says.
I’ll start looking for somewhere to camp about three hours before sunset, have a rudimentary shower if I have enough water – camping near a river is considered a luxury – cook dinner, and have a look at the map to see where I might want to go tomorrow. I like to stop into a hostel about once a week to wash and dry everything, eat a few good meals, make any repairs, and talk to other travellers, before doing it all over again.
Naturally, motorcycle travel is not for the faint of heart. Gear breakage, dealing with insurance companies, waiting for the necessary paperwork to be stamped and signed, and lack of security are common.
But Rob cites the unpredictable weather as causing the most grief; and, really, the prospect of being rained on for days on end, sleeping in a wet tent and riding in wet clothes is often enough to irk the hardest of travellers.
“Waking up in the morning and putting on wet riding gear can make you want to turn around and go home. Being clean and dry, not too hot, and not too cold are probably the three most underrated aspects of modern life,” he says.
“Travelling by motorbike is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s easy to go where I please and have complete autonomy. The price for this freedom is that I am completely responsible for my travels. If my bike breaks down, I’m sitting by the roadside until I can get it fixed or towed. If I’m staying in a hostel, I need a solid pole outside to lock [the bike] up, and wake up in the middle of the night to check on it like a new parent.
“Riding a motorbike always makes me happy. Thinking about anything other than riding is dangerous, so by default, it clears my mind of everything except for what is in front of me, which I find relaxing,” he explains.
The shinier side of the sword, as mentioned, represents freedom. Moreover, it represents perspective one can only gain from extended time on the road (literally and metaphorically).
“The minimalism might sound a bit rough, but it makes life so much more exciting during those brief stints in civilisation,” Rob says. “Bland food tastes amazing, running water is a blessing from the gods, cold drinks are pure wizardry, and being able to stand up straight in a private room while naked can make you feel like a king after changing in your tent for days on end.”
With little electricity (and desire to sit in front of a computer in a hostel), Rob’s presence on the web is intermittent. He began his blog, Oz to Ice, with the intent to attract sponsorship to replace bike parts that were falling off after two years on the road. Considering he was supposed to hit Iceland eighteen months ago, and has so far only reached Malaysia, the need for funds is paramount.
“I’m thinking about teaching English in China for twelve months, which would give me a financial boost and allow me to explore the country while I’m at it.
“At the moment, I’d only stop [travelling] if I got sick of it…and I can’t see that happening any time in the near future,” Rob says.
And why would you? Having recently cleared Indonesia – a country Rob considers a favourite; “Indonesians are so friendly, generous, and humble that they make me wish I were a better person” – and with so many exciting destinations ahead, the anticipation of what’s to come will undoubtedly see this Aussie traveller on the road for months (possibly years) yet.
“Start saving and commit to a date. Tell all your friends and family your planned date for leaving – then, you’ll have to go through with it, or look like an idiot,” Rob advises. “There will always be more work, more money, and more junk to buy you don’t really need.
Throw it all in, unlearn everything you think you know, and wade into the world with the eyes of a child. The worst thing that could happen is you’ll realise this lifestyle isn’t for you, and you’ll appreciate the life you used to have.
Follow the rest of Rob’s journey on Facebook, and support him if you can. All photos supplied here are his.