by James C. Moore
"The road goes on forever, and the party never ends." - Robert Earl Keen, Jr.
The diminutive woman standing in front of the biker was making a simple request. She had just purchased her first motorbike and was looking to purchase a cargo net. The shop clerk, a large man who looked the part of a hard rider, asked where she was going.
“India,” Tiffany Coates said.
“India?” The man sounded incredulous.
“Why, yes, India, it is.”
“Well, I’ve been working on my bike and modifying it for ten years to get ready for a trip to India,” he said. “It’s not that simple.”
“I suppose, I’ll see. We’re just heading off.”
When Tiffany Coates tells that story, she never offers up a description of the bloke’s face or even whether she ended up purchasing a cargo net. But nobody cares. People who know about the woman from Land’s End in Southwest England all tend to be amazed at what an innocuous beginning launched her into a global motorbike adventure, and has turned her into the most well-traveled female motorcyclist in history.
“I was 29-years-old at the time, and I had grown up in a military family,” she said. “I was accustomed to moving around the world every few years, so, I suppose I was naturally less intimidated by foreign travel. I backpacked a lot and always wanted to see obscure parts of the world, and I told my best friend Becky we should go to India. But by motorbike.”
A bit of a daunting trip from the United Kingdom; especially when the two had neither motorbike nor operators’ licenses. They began with a five-day training course on 125cc bikes, and then took the 45-minute driving test, which involved being followed by an instructor watching them move through roundabouts, counting the times they checked the mirror, and the various maneuvers they made in traffic. She ought to have been intimidated by the fact that less than fifty percent of riders pass the British driving test on their first attempt.
Instead, Becky and Tiffany passed and then pulled together their modest financial resources to begin shopping for a bike.
“It’s really quite funny, isn’t it?” Tiffany asked. “We knew nothing about motorbikes, and someone said how about the GS, maybe the R80 or 100? We started looking around and bought a bike over the phone, a 1992 with 22,000 miles. We’d never even seen it.”
Great adventures often have mundane beginnings. The friends planned to ride pillion on the 800cc GS, share the driving, and lift the bike together when they dropped it, which was almost certain to happen along such a route. They reached Germany on their second day, and had only dropped the bike three times that day. The motorbike, which they had named Thelma, took them across Europe and Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and on to India.
“We had a fabulous time riding around India,” Tiffany said. “You just see such a different place, the colors and smells, the people, the way they dress. Every place is different. We traveled very frugally so we made our money last, but when it got down to time to go back home to the UK, we looked at each other and said, ‘Why not keep going?’”
Which is the question Tiffany has never stopped asking herself.
The two pressed on toward Australia, a land of grand horizons, broad deserts, tropical forests, sweeping, crystalline beaches, and roads and tracks almost designed for motorbike dreamers. Even with a practice of camping out and light eating, they landed in Sydney with almost no money, couch surfed, and got jobs, then rented a room, started saving, and continued thinking about riding the world.
“We got to looking at the map, and there was Africa,” Tiffany said. “We were, originally, going to ship Thelma home, but then thought why not just ship it to Africa and ride up to the UK from South Africa. But then Becky met the man of her dreams in Sydney, a Brit, and she was out.”
Tiffany figured out how to pick up Thelma without assistance, and then started emailing friends to see if anyone might be interested in flying down to Cape Town and joining her on the northward trek. When Maggie, her friend from Galway, Ireland, expressed an interest, Tiffany knew she’d have to teach her how to ride pillion and drive a motorbike. But that was nothing when added to the greater challenges of traversing the African continent.
“I’m afraid I was a bit blasé’ about Africa,” she said. “And naïve, I suppose. We did have an amazing time, and I eventually got home. But Africa was challenging. There is so little infrastructure compared to the rest of the world. Wild rivers and mud and rains, and you had to be careful about wildlife, too. It can be dangerous. It was the hardest continent.”
Tiffany had been gone two and a half years, but her spirit was not ready to abide in one location. As soon as the resources had been accumulated, she was off to Alaska and rode from there all the way to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Argentina. There was also a trip to Timbuktu and home again, and then Mongolia and Central Asia, down to Japan, and her first job as a tour guide from London to Beijing, which offered a chance to ride a motorbike up to the Everest base camp.
“People always ask me how I afford to travel like that,” she said. “And I respond with a question: Do you have a car? What is that worth? I’ve never owned a car, so that’s at least $20k I’ve saved. I’ve always lived very frugally. I’m in a shared house when I am back here in the UK. I’m quite sociable as a person. Always travel frugally. I love camping and being outdoors.”
And she keeps going, adding to her mileage total of more than 200,000 in about 20 years. By the middle of 2017, Tiffany had already spent a month in Kenya and Uganda and three weeks leading a group from the UK to Morocco and then back, had been to the Overland Expo in Arizona, and has on the books for August a private tour she is taking to Kyrgyzstan, and then a travel project for Globe Busters in September and October in South America.
“When I’m home, I work with disadvantaged youth,” she said. “They live in a government house and are dealing with complex issues like violence at home, drugs, or bereavement. I like to be helpful. It’s just a small non-profit, and relies completely on private donations, but they are very flexible about my hours. I work long hours and weekends because those are shifts that are hard to fill for them.”
And she still rolls the power up on Thelma, the BMW GS that Becky and she named after one of the characters of the movie “Thelma and Louise” because of strength and independence of the personality portrayed on screen. (Never mind the movie’s ending, Tiffany advises). She’s never owned another vehicle other than Thelma, though she will sometimes ride a bike provided by tour companies, and she stays in popular demand as a tour guide.
“I promote myself as a freelance guide and I work mostly for British companies. But I also do tours to places where other guided groups will not go. I am the only guide in the world to take tours across Madagascar, which is, of course, difficult and expensive to get to. But I like going to places like that, and I like traveling with people who have those same interests.”
To some people, the world is an overwhelming and frightening place. Others see it as warm and beautiful, calling out to be explored, and shared. Tiffany Coates may have left a few conventional items by the side of the road with her lifestyle, but they probably don’t measure up to everything she sees coming into view over the horizon.