It began with a bicycle trip around Cornwall as a teenager—now she’s motorcycled solo in Iran. That’s just how our Trailblazer Lois Pryce— writer, filmmaker and co-founder of the Adventure Travel Film Festival—rolls. The fast-wheeling adventurer is hard to chase down, but chase we did.
Working for the BBC’s record label might be a dream job for some, but for Lois Pryce, there just wasn’t enough excitement there to keep her in one place. “I spent most of my time wondering how I had washed up in this jargon-infested cubicle hell,” says the music-obsessed author.
Armed with a motorcycle license, and at the cusp of turning 30, Pryce wanted an adventure. She sold her vintage British motorcycle which she used to scoot around London—one she hadn’t even ridden outside the city—and bought a small trail bike, a Yamaha XT225. But Pryce didn’t just ride around the UK. No, she left her job to ride 20,000 miles from Alaska to Ushuaia at the tip of Argentina, and the southernmost town in the world.
Africa beckoned next, on a bigger motorcyle, and then a solo ride around Iran, a country which captured her heart and is the star of her third book, Revolutionary Ride. And together with fellow motorcycling adventurer and filmmaker Austin Vince (who also happens to be her husband), they launched the Adventure Travel Film Festival in London, Scotland and Australia.
We caught up with the roving rider to find out what made her decide to motorcycle across Iran, the biggest struggles of doing it solo, and her other surprising talent (hint: it involves playing an old-fashioned musical instrument).
Meera Dattani: When did you know you had a ‘thing’ for motorcycles? Any tips for scaredy-cats? I’ve sort-of mastered them, but I always felt I had no control, that they were too big and would bolt like a horse.
Lois Pryce: I don’t really have a ‘thing’ for motorcycles—I’m more interested in what you can do with them and the places and people they can take you to. I just thought riding a motorcycle looked like a fun thing to do. I certainly wasn’t a natural at riding—I was very wobbly to start with! So just keep persevering and don’t be put off by naysayers. And of course, avoid the mansplainers …
How do you go from riding a vintage British motorcyle around London to buying a Yamaha XT225, quitting your job, and planning a 20,000 mile-trip from Alaska to Ushuaia? Couldn’t you just try Europe first?
Ha! Well, in for a penny, in for a pound! I’ve always loved the USA and American music, literature, design, fashion, culture, you name it, particularly that of mid-century America and the West Coast. So I wanted to include the US on my trip and then I started looking at the map and thought, “Well, why not keep going…?” So I decided to ride to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip of South America.
You then embarked on a Sahara trip, crossing Congo and Angola and down to South Africa—for just four months and 10,500 miles, as you do! What are the challenges of doing it solo? And the perks? How much planning is involved in crossing so many borders especially through central Africa?
The admin and bureaucracy for traveling through Africa was colossal and a huge pain—but worth every moment. That journey was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, physically, mentally, emotionally, in every way essentially, but so exciting.
There’s never a dull moment in Africa. Solo travel is challenging in that everything is up to you, but that brings its own rewards. Part of the motivation for traveling solo on my first trip was the challenge of seeing if I could work it all by myself, if I could throw myself out into the world and live on my wits. I don’t feel the need to do so any more—I’ve probably got that out of my system now—but it’s nice to know I can pull it off.
Your latest book, Revolutionary Ride: On the road in search of the real Iran is set, as it says, in Iran. You’ve said, “If I’ve learned anything from my travels, it’s that a nation’s government and its people are entirely unconnected.” I love that and agree, but many travelers, even intrepid ones, may still feel unsure about Iran. How do you truly fight preconceptions?
Suffice to say, it’s the most interesting country I have ever visited—to the extent that it’s kind of ruined everywhere else for me. Now I go somewhere and think, ‘But it’s not Iran!’
I loved my time there. The people are wonderful … hospitable, great fun, kind, and fascinating conversationalists. Of course, there are elements of the culture that are difficult, especially for Western women, but you have to go with no preconceptions, and be ready to re-calibrate your mind!
What about the pickles, scrapes and ‘situations’ that came up on your travels? Can you pick out any stand-out moments—good, bad, scary, hilarious—but which are particularly memorable?
Yes! Two weeks into my first trip, I had my motorcycle impounded by the Mounties in the Yukon for not having Canadian insurance. Another time, I fended off an armed, stoned, drunk Congolese soldier who wanted to steal my chocolate biscuits. And I was once stranded in a flooded Angolan minefield during a biblical thunderstorm.
I also told the Revolutionary Guard to f**k off when they aggressively drove into me in Tehran—and immediately regretted it. And of course, the time I had to retrieve a piece of watermelon from my cleavage in front of a troop of soldiers at the Guatemalan border…
You could write a book just on those moments, it seems! So, is there one particular motorcyling trip you desperately want to do, but can’t because of logistics, politics, borders or complications?
I always want to return to Iran—I miss it a lot. I’ve been three times, but there’s so much more I’d like to see and it’s very difficult, if not impossible, for Brits to get visas to travel independently there at the moment. I’m fascinated by the Middle East generally so I guess a tour of that part of the world would be top of my list.
I often travel solo, and a lot of people ask me if it’s scary or why I do it. What would you say to anyone who’s nervous about an upcoming trip, or is considering it but isn’t quite sure? And if you get any hassle as a solo female traveler, how do you handle it?
I think you know at heart if you’re a solo traveler or not—some people just aren’t and that’s fine. I’ve had a few bits of hassle here and there, but the kindness, help and hospitality I have received far outweighs any unpleasant moments. You’ll find that most people want you to enjoy your time in their country and will do whatever they can to make that happen, especially if you’re a woman alone. Also, they don’t tend to see you as a target, but as someone who needs looking after.
You’ve just put on the seventh Adventure Travel Film Festival with your husband and fellow adventurer Austin Vince. How did you meet and where did the inspiration for the festival come from?
I met Austin in London before I went on my Alaska to Argentina trip. He’d ridden around the world some years before and a friend put us in touch so I could ask for his advice … And one thing led to another.
But I still had to do my trip alone, and he was insistent I go, so I came back ten months later and we got engaged then. We got married a year later, and then I went off to Africa. We both travel a lot—together and without each other—but we have a good understanding. We came up with the idea for the Adventure Travel Film Festival because Austin, as a filmmaker, gets sent loads of great films and one day, we were watching all these amazing adventures and thought we should create a platform so they’re seen by a wider audience. Seven years later, the festival takes place in London, Scotland and Australia and is getting bigger every year.
What are the main challenges of putting on the festival? Did you expect it to grow so popular? What do you look forward to the most about it?
It’s a massive amount of work. We now employ someone to run the day-to-day admin as it was taking over our lives! Just watching the submissions takes several weeks but it’s always exciting to see the films coming in.
Then, when the actual weekend comes around and everyone arrives excited, and there are hundreds of us all watching the movies on the big screen outdoors and we’re sitting around the campfire into the night, it’s all worthwhile. It’s created a lovely community of people who come back each year and it’s great to see strangers making friends with each other and even going on to plan adventures together.
You also play the banjo in the UK’s only all-girl bluegrass band, The Jolenes. How did that come about?
I always played music when I was at school (piano and cello), and I learned the banjo when I was a teenager. But then I got waylaid with other things—motorcycles, boats, traveling the world—but I’ve always loved bluegrass and American old-time country music so I got back into playing the banjo about 10 years ago and started The Jolenes with some friends. We’ve been going strong ever since. We’ve recorded an album and an EP, played at Glastonbury a couple of times, and toured in Europe including gigs at high-security prisons in Belgium!
How do you have the time do all of this? Are you a master juggler? Do you have a clone, a PA, a robot?
[Laughs] I have a policy of saying ‘yes’ to everything, but I do sometimes find myself tearing my hair out, or waking up somewhere wondering, ‘Where am I today?’ It would be my dream to have a personal assistant. All applications gratefully received!
Find out more about Lois Pryce and her new book Revolutionary Ride here.
More about the Adventure Travel Film Festival.