"I had to learn how to ride a motorcycle in the desert first."

Interview with desert expert Michael Martin

Geographer Michael Martin has been travelling across deserts on a GS for 30 years.

Now he's on tour presenting his "Planet Desert" project. In an interview with BMW Motorrad, he talks about the dangers of the desert, his experiences with his motorcycle and his plans for the future.

Travelling the desert on two wheels is a challenge.

Michael, you've been reporting on your trips in the desert for over 30 years. Why are you so interested in deserts?

I just feel good in the desert. Deserts have fascinated me since I was 17.

You often ride your GS in the desert. Why do you take a motorcycle and not a car?

The GS is the perfect bike for the desert because it's an extremely rugged motorcycle. It might be heavy, but it can also carry a lot of weight. When I'm on a bike I'm more in touch with the scenery and people, not to mention smells, temperatures and shifting winds. That's something every motorcyclist knows.

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You have to get inventive in the desert: Carving out parts with a machete.

You often say that locals welcome you with open arms when you're on a motorcycle. Why do you think that is?

"In the desert, the motorcycle is a real catalyst for meeting people. In India, Africa or South America, people are extremely interested motorcycles so it sparks conversations. But you also get a lot of attention when you show up in a village totally exhausted on a heavily loaded bike. The locals know that you've travelled a long way. In Uganda I had a problem with my bike after hitting a bulge in the road. A lorry driver pulled over and carved me a new part with his machete. That kind of thing only happens when you're on a motorcycle.

On how many expeditions have you ridden a BMW Motorrad bike?

On how many expeditions have you ridden a BMW Motorrad bike?

Do you modify your bike?

I've always liked stock bikes. I don't like to change a lot on a bike, especially since the GS is an excellent, tough bike right out of the box.

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Michael Martin took his first trip to the desert at the age of 17.

What is driving through the desert on a motorcycle like?

I had to learn how to ride a motorcycle in the desert first. That's because it can be very dangerous. There is a greater risk of falling in the desert. I can only recommend wearing back protection, good shoes and a decent helmet. Because there are no helicopters to rescue you in the desert. I did have my falls, but didn't seriously injure myself. It took a while to learn how to drive on sand or dirt tracks.

Which accessories do you have for your motorcycle?

The essential ones are luggage boxes, a large tank – like the one on the R 1200 GS Adventure – a GPS device with a holder, studded tyres and mudguards to shield against rocks. I also have a ceramic clutch. So getting out of mud holes isn't a problem.

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How did you manage to drive the motorcycle in sandy deserts?
By now I can drive well on sand with the GS. At the beginning sand was a particular challenge for me. Manoeuvring a 400-kilo motorcycle through the sand requires a lot of courage and very good driving skills.
Do you have any advice for motorcyclists who want to ride in the desert after seeing your project?
First, you have to pick the right time of year. In the Southern Hemisphere I like to ride during our summertime because it's wintertime in the Southern Hemisphere. You also have to pay attention to the security situation. Also, use your daylight hours for riding. I like to pitch my tent or take photos at the beginning or end of the day.
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Bundle up: Temperatures of minus 50 Celsius are not uncommon in polar deserts.

You've been exposed to extreme temperatures from minus 50 to 50 degrees Celsius on your trips. How does your equipment perform at these temperatures?

Motorcycles and cameras are much more rugged these days. I can truly say that the GS runs smoothly in temperatures of minus 50 to 50 degrees Celsius. Modern cameras can also withstand such temperatures. In the old days, film would break inside the camera or batteries would go bad. Those things are no longer a problem. However, extreme temperatures push the human body to its limits. Your body dehydrates when you're riding in the heat with the wind against you. You have to carry clean water with you and sometimes you might have to drink as much as nine litres day. In cold places you might be directly exposed to temperatures of minus 40 or minus 60 degrees on your motorcycle. That's when I wear heated underwear, gloves and shoe inserts. A GS battery is incredibly tolerant of external power sources and has no problem coping.

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It pays to wake up early: polar bears at Michael Martin's tent.

Can you plan an entire desert expedition?

There's simply no way you can plan a whole desert trip with every overnight stop. In the morning I often won't know where I'm going to end up in the evening.

Have your travels changed the way you see your home country?

Yes, especially the way I see things that are often taken for granted, such as a fair legal system, freedom of the press and our healthcare system. But there are also things that I miss in Germany. Like family unity, hospitality and appreciation of tradition. That's been lost in Germany and many people live alone.

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I've been in many dangerous situations on my trips; only afterwards did I realise how lucky I had been.
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Michael Martin

Michael Martin gives presentations about his desert experiences when he returns home.

Do you miss anything about Germany when you're away on your long trips?

Of course I miss my family and comforts like having a hot shower. But you appreciate those things all the more when you've had to do without them. I think that contrasts are the secret to a fulfilled life, and I've definitely had enough contrasts.

How does it feel to return to Germany after your expeditions?

It's not that big of a deal for me since I'm never away for years at a time. Modern forms of communication like the Internet and satellite phones are a big help too.

Are you planning a new project yet? If so, what is it?

I will spend the next few years concentrating on my shows. But in 2018 I will be able to think about a new project – and would very happily go on another adventure with my motorcycle.

Thank you for this interview, Michael.

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