Twenty-five years ago Canadian Rene Cormier was a biology student travelling and studying in Kenya when he saw three overloaded BMW motorcycles packed for overland adventure. The daydreams began—to travel by motorbike one day.
“I think I had some pretty remarkable foresight at that time!” he says. “I was sitting in a van with a bunch of other kids so this idea of having freedom and more mobility than we had was quite appealing back then.”
Since then, Cormier has taken full advantage of the mobile, liberated form of travel he was introduced to that day. In 2003, departing from Vancouver, B.C., he rode a BMW F650GS Dakar around the world, taking in North, Central and South America, much of Africa and parts of Asia. In 2008, he rode into Vancouver after travelling 154,000 kilometres and through 41 countries.
“That style of travelling still, I think, offers the best way to see a new place,” he said.
It’s not just the ability to connect with his environment that makes motorcycle travel satisfying to Cormier, it’s also the risk and reward factor.
“The risk makes the reward very sweet.”
Meeting the world traveller in person
It’s the evening of January 19, 2017, and Cormier is talking to me at the Vancouver BMW Ducati dealership after a standing-room-only trip talk that focused on his round-the-world journey. The room was so full that those who hadn’t grabbed a seat on a chair or couch were sitting on the motorcycles moved to the edges of the showroom. He touched on the best-selling book he wrote about the experience, The University of Gravel Roads, and his current job—running a motorcycle touring company.
Riders packed the Vancouver BMW Ducati dealership for Rene Cormier's presentation on January 19, 2017. — Trevor Marc Hughes photo
Renedian Adventures takes customers through much of southern Africa. A few years ago, Cormier began tours through Mongolia. Business has been so good that he is branching out into South America in 2018.
He tells me about how spontaneity and the unexpected features so prominently in his journeys.
“I think the vulnerability aspect on a motorcycle is part of the reason why the days are so wonderful,” he explained. “You don’t know how anything works, especially in a country which doesn’t use English as a language. You don’t know how the fuel stops work or the border crossings work. It’s a constant stream of new experiences. That can be mentally exhausting at times.”
Cormier does know from experience that after a while travellers build up a thick skin to these unknowns, and that’s when travel becomes more fun through a sense of accomplishment. Getting through borders, riding new roads and pushing through challenges put smiles on the faces of those who travel with him. He says those travellers that accompany him on journeys in Africa will pull into their lodge accommodation and sometimes bump into bus tourists they’ve seen during the course of a day on the road.
In 2010, The University of Gravel Roads by Rene Cormier was awarded the bronze medal in category of Travel Essay at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. — Trevor Marc Hughes photo
“We’ve seen the same stuff as the bus tourists,” he said, “but we’ve smelt the dust, we’ve got the weather in our face, we’re getting splatted by bugs. I can’t help but think, not in a superior kind of way, that we’ve earned our beer at the end of the day. On the motorcycle it’s a bit harder work but a bigger payoff!”
Just do it
If you’ve ever thought of heading off on a motorcycle journey, whether to tour the world or your province, Cormier tells me from his experience that there is never a right time.
“There are so many reasons not to do a trip like this,” he said. “Trying to establish a career, trying to pay off a house early, trying to bring kids into the world—but the list for going is even longer than that. That first kilometre is such a doozy to get underway.”
By that he means the preparation needed, from sorting out work situations to family relationships, can be daunting. But he insists there will never be a perfect time to go.
“One of the reasons that people tell themselves that they cannot go is that they don’t think they have the right bike or they don’t think they have enough money, they don’t think their language skills are good enough,” he said. “Those are all stumbling blocks. There isn’t a good time to go. You just must go.”
Planning a long distance motorcycle trip
On his solo round-the-world trip, Cormier would plan four to six months ahead of time. He would check out the upcoming countries he expected to ride through. But after that, he would be unsure as to where he would be.
“Along the way you’ll meet a rider who suggests visiting this town, there’s a beautiful mountain path,” he described. “You take that path and all your planning has gone away.”
One aspect of planning a long-term motorcycle adventure that isn’t possible on the road is doing in-depth research into a country’s history. When on the road daily there isn’t the time, he said. He would learn on the fly.
“My knowledge of each individual country was a bit less travelling through it than if I were coming home for six months and travelling for six months,” he admitted. “I travelled the way I could, with the limited money that I had.”
Cormier insists there’s no right or wrong way to travel around the world by motorcycle. An online list of UNESCO World Heritage sites would create a loose framework for his solo motorcycle adventure. Also, whether stepping in a ger in Mongolia for tea or a stopping for a break in a village in Botswana, he found time was a more valuable currency than money.
Rene Cormier talks to Brett Cella at Vancouver BMW Ducati. — Trevor Marc Hughes photo
A balancing act
Cormier may have become familiar with the day-by-day existence of a solo motorcycle traveller, but now that he runs his own motorcycle touring company, I asked Cormier about leading a tour for a large group of people.
“It is a dream job. The funny thing is that it has gotten so big that I have to give away the dream job bits of guiding groups,” Cormier said with some regret. “I’ve guided every group up to this year."
Rene Cormier outlines one of Renedian Adventures tours. — Trevor Marc Hughes photo
He says it isn’t easy giving up the yearly experience of being paid to ride new motorcycles, stay in nice hotels, socialize and talk motorcycles, but the demand and scale of Renedian Adventures, as well as having young children of his own, have changed things.
“There’s not enough of me to go around,” he said. “Plus the family needs some time too.”
In 2016, he brought his one-year-old and four-year-old sons and his wife to Mongolia, Africa and Argentina.
With all the world travel and family responsibilities come a need to balance things more. But Cormier tells me he’ll still be enjoying what international motorcycle travel has to offer.
“It’s a hell of a gig,” he said with a smile. “It’s funny to think of this thing we created nine years ago, running under its own steam and people coming back for their third and fourth tours with us. It makes me feel wonderful that it has taken off.”