Interview with Tiffany Coates, world's foremost female motorcycle traveler

Interview with Tiffany Coates, world's foremost female motorcycle traveler

Posted by Mike Werner on Feb 9th 2016

Tiffany Coates, aka “Tiff”, after finishing her studies, decided to head for India with her best friend Becky. They came up with the idea in early 1997, and it involved riding a motorcycle and camping on the way. Neither of the dynamic duo had any motorcycle experience, so they went through a crash course; a sort of “Riding Motorcycles For Dummies”. They bought a second hand BMW R80GS, called her Thelma, and with UK€2500 between the two of them, set off for India. Mind you, the motorcycle was too tall for both of them, so when they came to a stop, they had to tip-toe to stay upright.

So on their 800 cc bike and a vague navigational plan (head East young girl), they travelled through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran and Pakistan finally reaching India after four months on the road.
During the four months on the road, they had plenty of adventures, some involving bears and wild wolves roaming around their tents, wearing chadors (Middle Eastern scarves that mask your face) over their leathers in Iran, arrested by the police in Iran and the many mechanical problems that naturally occur at the worst possible moment.

Once they arrived in India and having travelled extensively through that country, they came to the conclusion that adventure riding was in their blood, so they continued their journey, riding through Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and finally Australia. After riding through Australia, and working hard to earn a few more bucks, Becky returned to England to start university, while Tiffany shipped her bike to Cape Town, South Africa. Over there she managed to convince another good friend, Maggie, to fly from Ireland and ride through Africa with her.
Together they travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Enough adventures to last a few life times (riding with a herd of elephants in Zambia, swimming with dolphins in Zanzibar, bad crash resulting in loss of consciousness for Tiffany).
Getting back to the UK (traveling through Europe in the middle of a freezing winter, after traveling through sandstorms a week before) just fueled Tiffany’s wanderlust. So she shipped her trusty Thelma motorcycle to North America, started in Alaska and made her way South – as far as it’s possible to go, Tierra Del Fuego being the destination. 14 months of solo bike travel through the Andes, jungles and deserts.
Since then she has travelled all the continents at least once, some several times. On another recent trip from the UK to Outer-Mongolia (if you got to ask why she was traveling to Mongolia, then you don’t understand adventure traveling), after having reached her destination, she decided to travel a different route back home, involving Russia. Somewhere she made a wrong turn and ended up in Japan. From there to the USA is a short stretch of the imagination, so she spent some time traveling through the vast landscapes of the USA and South of its border. She left her bike with friends in California, and some time later when returning to the US from the UK by airplane, she flew over Labrador. She marveled at the enormous stretches of forests, so instead of picking up her bike and returning home, she took her BMW and traveled to yet another part of the world that had not seen her bike.

With all her experience as one of worlds foremost female motorcycle travelers, the motorcycle touring company Globe Busters, is using her as one of their main expedition guides. So if you want to try your hand at adventure riding but don’t want to do it on your own, try taking one of the (very long) tours to Tibet, or deep into South America, guided by Tiffany. Check their web site for more information. Knowing Tiff, it'll be a blast.
Before we ask Tiffany some questions, have a look at the video below that was produced by BMW. As you can imagine having a bike that has travelled some 200,000 miles is astonishing, so no wonder BMW decided to make an infomercial about her.

And finally, if you want to see more about her travels, photos and text, head on over to her blog. Click here to access Tiffany’s blog.
The obvious question: How many miles do you think you’ve travelled so far on your motorcycle?
Thelma has got 211,000 miles on her clock – actually it says 23, 498 at the moment, but this is the second clock! The vast majority of those have been travel miles, all transcontinental journeys.I’ve also done another 100, 000 on other bikes.

Another obvious question: What was your most favorite country to travel in?
There is no single country that has been the favorite, however each region has thrown up a place that I particularly enjoyed.
Southern Asia, for me Pakistan really stood out, in Africa it was Ethiopia, Bolivia is my favourite in the Americas and in Northern/Central Asia, I love Kyrgyzstan. Home in Europe, I enjoy the roads of Romania.
And the least?
I never like to pick on one country, but Russia was a toughie- being ignored after a tyre blow out, stood by the side of the road desperately trying to get someone to stop and help and just being ignored – one of the lowest moments I’ve ever experienced. It’s also the country that refused to serve vegetarian food!
Which parts of the world would you not recommend riding for novice adventure riders?
I feel that everywhere is achievable, it just depends on the individual’s sense of adventure. I would have said the Sahara would be a big challenge, but they’ve tarmacked it now, so it’s no longer the same ride. Deserts are the hardest, the lack of people, the difficulty of riding a travel bike on sand, the lack of water and food available and thus the need to be self-sufficient and also the isolation. Strangely enough desert riding is probably my favorite, there is nothing to beat the sheer beauty of camping out in the middle of a desert, with a panorama of stars stretching out across the sky.

After so many years on the road, do you think you will ever settle down in one place for more than a few weeks?
I grew up in an Army family, we used to move every two years so it comes naturally to me to be transient. I do go away a lot but I am currently based at Lands End in Cornwall – the most scenic spot on Britain’s coastline.
How do you keep a social life going?
I’m pretty good at walking into a room and making friends from scratch, whether I speak the language or not! Traveling friendships can be quite intense (in a good way), a close bond can quickly develop when you are facing tough riding conditions and challenges together.
From all the people you have met on the road, did you meet any famous (celebrity) people? Who?
I’ve bumped into a lot of people in a variety of different places including Walter Colebatch (Ed: another famous extreme-adventure rider) in Mongolia and Helge Pedersen (Ed: another famous Norwegian-adventure rider) playing croquet in Seattle. However it’s the unexpected and unknown from the French guy on a Vespa on top of a mountain in the ‘Stans and Fernando from Mexico on his Harley Davidson FatBoy in the middle of the Amazon jungle.
What were your most anxious, even dangerous, moments while riding your motorcycle?
Different situations bring different dangers, sometimes I’m not even aware of the danger until later – whether it’s camping wild in lion country in Northern Kenya or having to ride across a series of floating pontoons to reach a ferry in Sudan. But for sustained difficult and dangerous riding I would nominate the south east coast of Madagascar, where conditions ranged from deep mud to steep slopes comprised of rock – yep, nothing else, just a smooth expanse of stone with a river crossing at the base –it’s the main road and an incredibly tough ride on my own as day after day I continued onwards, never sure what I would encounter.

And your most pleasant ones?
Just about any mountain ride, the joy of riding twisty roads combined with incredible landscapes, Ladakh in the Himalayas is a great place to ride. I have great memories of a mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan, traveling two up (my Mum’s friend was on the back), we were at 3000m, riding carefully on the snow, when we paused at the high point of the pass to admire the peaks ahead, I looked up to see several Golden Eagles flying just above our heads, swooping low to get a good look at this strange contraption and the humans on it. I remember thinking – this is what travel is all about.
Are there any countries left on the globe that you want to travel to?
There are always more countries and places I want to see, these days it tends to be the countries off the beaten track and in fact often off the coastlines as well, from Oman to Borneo, but also those that may be currently inaccessible due to political situations such as Libya.
How did you manage to keep traveling if money ran out? What did you do to earn money on the road?
When the money runs out it’s either time to head home via a flight using a credit card or get a job. I’ve worked as a cleaner, a cook, doing bar work, fruit picking, running a hostel and teaching. Like the vast majority of travelers I’m not sponsored I have to save up my money and then make it last – it is the only factor that limits my travels.
How many motorcycles do you have now?
Umm, would you believe still just one – Thelma is the only vehicle I have ever owned.
Is it dangerous for a female rider to travel to certain countries?
Every country has its own dangers, including our home nations. It’s a question of being aware of surroundings, common sense and using your intuition about situations and people. But all without getting paranoid; women may seem to be more vulnerable, but I don’t think we are more likely to be attacked.

How skilled a mechanic do you need to be when adventure traveling?
While on my trips, I’ve met the full range from those who are full-time mechanics to people who don’t even know how to top up the oil in their engines. As with any aspect of travel, it’s personal choice, but I do think a basic grasp would be useful.
Before I set off I had two days working on Thelma in a workshop with a mechanic– I learnt all the basics for full maintenance. I was also instructed not to leave the country without a Haynes Manual in my luggage, I was told even if I couldn’t understand it, there would be someone who can and this was very true.
Being resourceful and able to do bodge jobs by the side of the road can be one of the most important parts of travel mechanics, never underestimate the usefulness of a piece of wire found on the ground.

Apart from motorcycle riding, what other hobbies and/or passions do you have?
I love snowboarding, scuba diving, sea kayaking, coasteering and any activity in the mountains.
What is your next destination?
That’s a secret!
Thank you Tiffany for the interview. Keep well on your journeys, and let us know how they turn out.