In July 2012, Dom Harris flew from Brisbane, Australia to Anchorage, Alaska and bought a motorbike. Seven months of riding later he arrived at the most southern city in the world; Ushuaia, Argentina.
“When you are travelling solo, sometimes you’ve got to have a few one-man parties”, says Dom Harris about his adventures through North and South America.
The 31 year-old recently completed a seven month motorcycle trip from Alaska in United States to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina and another few thousands kilometres back up north to pack the bike away in storage in Montevideo, Uruguay.
In total, the Geoscientist covered 42,000 km in 16 different countries.
The trip isn’t for the faint-hearted. From dealing with grizzly bears in Canada and Alaska to being run off the road by aggressive drivers on desert roads in Peru, Harris speaks of the trip with a steely determination which helped him on the lonely road.
“Yeah, you get kind of used to being soaked in sweat one minute and drowned in rain the next”, says the Brisbane native of dealing with tropical weather in Central America and Mexico.
During one storm, it changed from raining down hard pieces of ice to heavy winds which had the potential to blow you off a motorcycle, then lightning, thunderstorms and finally a sandstorm. “It’s a necessary evil”, he says.
Not that the trip was a lonely one. Far from it. Harris is quick to point out the friendly nature of everyone he encountered, singling out the Colombians as the friendliest people he met. People bought him lunch, shared beers and one couple from Brazil, when the Australian had difficulties using ATM machines in Chile, funded him for four days until they crossed the border into Argentina.
He holds out special praise though for fellow bikers. “It’s like a brotherhood. Immediately you become best friends with anyone that rides a bike”. Parts of the journey in Alaska, Colombia, Chile and Argentina he rode with fellow bikers.
During the lonelier days, he didn’t need much to get him through. “A photo of the family and a few trinkets of good luck from friends was all I brought”. At the end of a long day riding, some of which lasted up to 14 hours, “you simply want to map out the next day, shower if possible, eat and go to sleep”.
The trip didn’t follow any definitive line south from Alaska. Rather he looped, dog-legged and zig-zagged his way across the Americas where his love of geology, natural environments and archeology motivated his next move whether it be south, north, east or west.
Before starting his trip, he knew two things. That there was a narrow window of summer to traverse Alaska’s Arctic Circle and, also, a narrow summer period in Patagonia in February meaning he had to make it there by then or else he might never make it to Ushuaia. Everything in between was fair game.
In the United States, he rode through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas taking in a host of national parks and he beams when speaking about America’s geological masterpieces.
You get the feeling what motivated him during any difficult days was his passion for geology and having an innate confidence in his own survival instincts..
During the trip, Harris had three major crashes; in Alaska, Ecuador and the scariest in Guatemala. On a muddy corner, the 31 year-old lost control and headed straight for an oncoming truck. In that split second, he dumped the bike on its side, jumped off and the motorcycle slid towards the vehicle.
The bike stopped one metre before the truck, while Harris struggled up. Both were largely unscathed.
Hardly his only lucky escape. After letting off steam during one of his one-man parties in the Peruvian desert, Harris woke up, finished the last of his water and promptly vomited it all back up with the help of the night’s excesses. Danger zone. He needed water soon, but didn’t know where the nearest gas station was.
Dehydrated and hungover, he rode for one hour and came across a station. Crisis averted.
The motorcycle-enthusiast camped for about 50% of his journey, but was careful of his surroundings each day. “You need to know you won’t be disturbed during the night”.
In Alaska and Canada, it’s necessary to take precautions with your food on account of bears. One time, Harris had his food in a locked pelican case, left the camp and when he returned found his case upended and covered in bear slobber. “I was lucky I hadn’t been there”, he says relieved.
Even some dangers he was less aware of. He only found out afterwards he passed through five of the ten most dangerous cities in the world. San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa in Honduras and Juarez, Torreon and Chihuahua in Mexico all feature on the world’s danger list.
Despite this, as well as passing through one of the most dangerous border crossing in the world at Juarez, Mexico and driving through narco trafficking routes in Colombia, nothing happened. “No. No dramas.”
In the Darien jungle in Panama, he got hassled at numerous military checkpoints that messed with his head. “You start imagining scenes of someone jumping out, but you are just trying to scare yourself”. But that was the worst of it.
Over the 42,000 km he identified one strip of Chile as the most gorgeous. “The Carretera Austral (otherwise known as route 7) in Patagonia was the most consistently picturesque. In Alaska or Columbia, you might get a day or maybe a half-day, but on the Carretera, it was seven days of scenic beauty”.
Since then, Harris is pursuing his passion, geology, full-time. He has moved to Bucaramanga, Colombia where he’s currently brushing up on his Spanish and looking for a job in geology. “Yeah it’s the place to be right now”, he says. He plans to stay for at least two years.
But you get the feeling by the glint in his eyes when he speaks of riding past herds of bison in British Columbia or how he loves to “feel the freedom of the mountains” that the motorbike isn’t staying locked up in storage in Montevideo for long.