I chatted to photographer Archie Leeming about riding a motorbike down Africa and crossing the Congo by bicycle, canoe and over-crowded trucks. The photographs are from the Congo adventure.
Alastair: I’ve been rummaging around on the internet before talking to you, trying to find out about you. There are lots of pictures and not much else, which I suppose is the photographer’s ideal! So who are you!?
Archie: Nothing incriminating I hope! I am 27 and originally from Scotland but now live in Cape Town. I used to work in Guildford and quickly realised this wasn’t where I wanted to be, so for a year I saved all my earnings, sold everything and bought a motorbike to ride across Africa. Since arriving here, its been hard to leave! I now live and work as a freelance designer and photographer here.
Alastair: That’s a good story. Cape Town is an amazing place, isn’t it?
Archie: It’s an absolutely stunning place. You have the beach, the ocean, the mountains and Africa all on your doorstep. It’s hard not to be exploring every day. It’s going to be tough settling somewhere else knowing this exists here.
Alastair: What you just explained is a perfect summary of what I’m trying to show: that if you save up £20 a week for a year, you get £1000, which you’ve demonstrated is more than enough to go and have a great adventure.
Archie: I try and tell my friends this, that if you cut out a few of the luxury things in life you can afford to go and see the rest of the world. I am always being asked how I afford this, so when I see friends come back from holidays sitting by swimming pools, I always want to tell them you could have gone somewhere a lot more exciting for the same price!
But I 100% agree that you don’t need much, and once you do one trip like this, it completely changes the whole way you go about your next trip. I think that as much as Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman were great entertainment, they created this wrong view of what motorcycle travelling is about.
Alastair: In what way?
Archie: The preparation, the cost. Everyone now assumes you have to buy the best motorbike and gear. The motorbike I bought to go across Africa cost me £750 and the rest of the gear was second hand off eBay. It really is quite accessible.
Alastair: I remember in that TV Ewan McGregor series, when BMW or whoever it was pulled out of sponsoring them, there was a ludicrous bit of millionaire Ewan saying, “oh no! we haven’t got sponsored. We can’t go!” I think that’s given people the impression that, if you want to do a big journey, you have to get sponsored.
Archie: Yeah, and they had their own special garage and support crews and SAS survival training and stuff. It made me laugh a bit.
Alastair: Having motorbiked through Africa yourself, do you not think that you need a backup crew and SAS training?
Archie: Not at all, when you take an old motorbike, you’re going to break down. And when you break down, it sort of changes the path of where you’re going that day to somewhere unknown. I like that. We just kept being picked up by friendly locals in the garage who then gave us a place to stay. I think we met more people through breaking down than we would have if we hadn’t broken down. So that’s another fun part of not taking something too good!
Alastair: One thing that strikes me immediately talking to you is that you seem to be quite happy with the uncertainty and the unknown. You’ve realised that that’s what leads to the best bit of adventures. But I think that’s the biggest thing that stops most people doing it. Do you agree?
Archie: If you knew what was going to happen, I don’t think it would be quite the adventure.
Alastair: You have motorbiked down Africa, you’ve cycled through the Congo. Both of which, I suspect, lots of people would be very daunted by the uncertainties of. If someone was considering motorbiking through Africa, what would you say to them, in terms of giving them confidence?
Archie: I would say you cant prepare for everything, so don’t get caught up with planning every detail. Just get a light simple bike, shove your bag on the back and head south or east. That’s all I would say, and check out www.horizonsunlimited.com/hubb, a great online community for people heading overland.
Alastair: But what if things go horribly, disastrously wrong?
Archie: It’s amazing how things work out when they go wrong. We owe so much to the kindness of strangers who helped us out. We’ve been arrested in Iran, broken a collarbone in the Sahara, and Charlie got malaria and typhoid in the Congo. Had it not been for the friendliness of the locals, we would have never finished these trips.
Just go for it, keep a smile, and everything will work out.
Alastair: I think that’s brilliant advice but for someone who is nervous, they’ll find it very hard to believe. Hopefully if they read enough of these interviews, they’ll realise that everyone says the same thing. Also virtually no one I’ve interviewed this year has been a very remarkable person. They’ve all been, no offence, just normal people…
Archie: Yeah, I don’t think you need to have any particular skill set! You just need to be open-minded, and always have a smile! With that attitude I think you can go anywhere and do anything.
Alastair: When you think back now on your motorbike journey through Africa, what’s your general impression of the trip?
Archie: Having done it with two of my best friends from school it was great to share it with them. Seeing incredible places you’d didn’t know exist, meeting people who just want to welcome you into their home. Every day you meet amazing people who want to show you where to go, help you out.
It’s funny, because the instant I got back to London after the journey some guy tried to threaten us, and I thought, “Not once in my whole trip across Africa did anyone threaten me,” but after four hours back in London, I’d already had one incident.
Alastair: I think preconceptions are a massive issue with people who are aspiring to adventure, but not committing.
Archie: I agree, it can be hard not get caught up in preconceptions especially when the media mainly focuses on the bad stories within a country.
Alastair: I have to say I have preconceptions about DRC. I love Africa, I’ve travelled there a lot, but the prospects of doing what you did in the DRC scares me.
Archie: At one point I definely was worried about what i had got myself into! One of those things you’ve mentioned on your list of things you should do is tell a friend you’re gonna do something and then that pressures you into doing it. So I think when both me and Charlie decided on the plan, it was – “Right, I can’t back out of this, so we’re going to have to go for it.”
I think preconception is a hard one because of what the media portrays. If you Google “Congo”, all you see is the current issues in the East. They don’t talk about the rest of the country where there is no fighting, and where everyone is just trying to live a normal life.
Alastair: So you then headed off and did this journey through the DRC, by bike, and a bit on canoe, and a bit on public transport, on top of lorries and things with long-term traveller Charlie Walker. Can you compare and contrast travelling by motorbike and bicycle?
Archie: Actually this is one of the main reasons I wanted to do this trip, I wanted to experience traveling in another way. I kept trying to persuade Charlie to get a motorbike, but he was absolutely adamant he would never get one!
For the cycling, what I loved was the slow speed through towns and villages and also meeting people. You’re way more approachable on a bicycle, people are less intimidated, and they also think you’re absolutely mad, cycling these distances.
Some found it hard understand the idea that a white man would go on a bicycle, when they only normally see them in Land Cruisers. They kept thinking we were looking for diamonds and minerals. I don’t think De Beers would send two guys on bicycles with a wooden canoe to go into Africa to look for diamonds!
Then there’s the whole simplicity side of it, and I enjoyed the physical challenge, and the mental challenge. It was great, and the reward at the end of a long day, that feeling that you’ve done 100 kilometres, and you sit down and cook the same meal that you’ve had for the last three months. And it tastes better than it did the day before. I love that!
Having been on a motorbike for the past year, I didn’t realise how uncomfortable a bicycle was. I defiitnely missed the suspension of the motorbike! I had bought my bicycle for £96 in Lusaka – it was the best one I could get hold of, and it really wasn’t kitted out to be holding my gear. Everything kept falling off, and I would get so furious on the bumps.
And the motorbike, I just love motorbikes!
Alastair: Was it nice to go slow or frustrating?
Archie: I think both. It took me a while to get my head round the pace of cycling especially on the long stretches. With the motorbike I enjoy it because you can explore a bit more, go off route, take bigger risks, go and get lost, and know that it’s not going to take you a week to get back again! I think at the end of the day that might be what I love more about the motorbike. It’s hard, I don’t think you can really compare them directly, I think they both offer two completely different ways of travelling.
Alastair: Your photos are amazing, so raw. They’re absolutely brilliant, really good. I’ve been to lots of Africa, and they really brought back so many memories for me of the wonderful side of Africa. That gorgeous smell of dust at sunset, but also the total crazy frustrations of the place as well!
Archie: Yeah, that trip was crazy. We must have pushed our bikes more than we cycled. Then we took to the river and I definitely felt, “My nine lives are gone. This is going to end badly at some point.” We both agreed and got off the river but Charlie’s bike broke so we thought, “Oh, let’s get on a truck, that will be an easy ride to Kinshasa…” This was one the maddest experiences of my life, sat on the roof of a truck, nothing to hold onto and dodging branches along roads that barely exist!
I would fully recommend it as an experience just to go and ride one these trucks for four days. I don’t think there’s anything in the world like that from a travelling point of view. I would certainly rate it as one of the most interesting moments, yet one of the worst moments I’ve ever had.
Alastair: Stuff like that is so important to do to help us get perspective on our normal life, isn’t it? To compare life in Britain, the hassles we have getting to work, and how we complain, compared to what those people do on a daily basis…
Archie: It’s amazing. I was complaining all the time, just thinking “when is this going to end!?” But the kids just sit there happily, being bumped around, not bothered at all that they’ve got four days sitting in the same spot. That’s life for them.
Alastair: When you were in the Congo, what camera gear did you have?
Archie: I’ve got a 5D Mark II with a 24-105 lens and a 50mm 1.4. and a GoPro too.
Alastair: Were you not tempted to film with the 5D?
Archie: Before every trip, I get so excited about the idea of filming, but in the end I really respect someone, on a long journey, to be able to keep the energy to film. I barely had the energy to cycle let alone try and construct a movie!
Alastair: That’s a good, honest answer. Were either your motorbike trip or the bicycle trip done in order to take photos or just for the hell of it?
Archie: Always just for the hell of it! But taking photos is a big part of it for me. I love taking photos and trying to tell a story through them that I can share with friends and family.
Alastair: Did you / do you have any commercial plans for your travels?
Archie: No, but if someone wants to pay me to go somewhere, I’m game!
Alastair: Is it possible to earn money being a “travel photographer” these days?
Archie: It’s definitely hard: there’s so many people taking great photos these days. I think if you have something different to show you can earn a small bit.
My final question is if I was to give you a £1000, what would you go and do with it? It can be from your front door in Cape Town. It could be from your front door in Britain. Whatever.
Archie: Okay. As I’ve got a massive passion for travelling by motorbikes, I’d go to Northern India, the Himalayas, and rent an old Royal Enfield from Delhi and maybe spend a month on amazing loop you can do up to Leh and across to Srinigar. You are driving along the roof of the world, 5000m high. You’ve got a cliff at one side and if you get it wrong, you’re off the edge. It’s got to be one of my favourite places in the world.
The Enfield is a great bike. They’re classic. They look awesome. They’re so easy to ride. and everyone knows how to fix an Enfield out there. You don’t have to worry.
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!