Ever fancied riding round the world on your motorcycle, but don’t know where to start? This five-day Mini Mondo adventure lead by Austin Vince could be the perfect start point.
Insidebikes’ Marc Potter grabs a Honda CRF250L, roughs it with some trail riding and wild camping for five days on a proper motorcycle boys’ own adventure trip.
If you’ve ever wandered around Motorcycle Live and saw a man in Honda-badged, stripy overalls, and a Davida helmet, riding a Honda CRF250L motorcycle that looks like it has done a million miles? You know, the one on the Honda stand last year with a handmade toast rack as a pannier guard, a piece of wood as a pannier mount, and a load of tippexed Kriega bags hanging off the front? If so, then you’ll probably know British adventure traveller Austin Vince.
If you haven’t met him, then you’re in for a treat.
Austin Vince is the eccentric antithesis of motorcycling royalty like Charley Boorman. Where CB’s tours stay in luxury hotels and choose big adventure bikes, Austin takes a more basic approach.
Both are fantastic ambassadors for adventure motorcycling, (and both happen to be mates of mine), but Austin is much more of a low budget DIY adventurer, preferring sleeping under a tarpaulin to a real bed, even when perfectly good hotels are available.
He’s the wide-eyed, white haired, former maths teacher, who has dedicated his life to showing people how to have low budget adventures.
If you’ve ever dreamed of riding round the world, but don’t have the budget, the skills to survive, or the time, then Austin is the man to speak to, and Mini Mondo is the way to start.
In an age of Africa Twins, big 1000cc plus adventure bikes, and every other bloke riding a BMW R1200GS looking like they’ve been on an adventure, when actually they’ve just been to Tesco, Austin’s steed of choice is a lightly modified Honda CRF250L.
It’s a workhorse, trail style commuter bike turned adventure bike with the addition of some handguards, a tooth smaller front sprocket, so it can climb up the worst the Pyrenees has to offer, and a set of Michelin AC-10 off-road tyres. And that’s it. Everything else is standard, and Austin has done 8000 miles on it in the last year or so, using the mighty 24bhp to its full potential.
In his career so far, he has ridden around the world twice, runs the Adventure Travel Film Festival with his adventurer wife Lois Pryce, and is very much of the opinion that ‘less is more’ when it comes to travelling on a motorcycle. He’s well-known for expeditions including Terra Circa and Mondo Enduro. And we’re heading off into the wilds of the Catalan Pyrenees with him for five days.
DAY ONE: Mini Mondo Miles: 48, total, 48.
Which is why as I sit round a camp fire in a gully in the woods, watching chicken breasts sizzling gently on a barbecue grill over a camp fire, Austin Vince and the rest of the assembled Mini Mondo gents are drinking €1.09 litre cartons of Spanish wine Don Simon, and Austin is telling yet another story of derring do.
David Rogers from Honda and I (David is here with to shoot a video of the trip to showcase at Motorcycle Live) are wondering whether or not staying up until 2.30am drinking last night at the hotel was our best plan ever.
We’re here for Mini Mondo – a five-day, low budget travel experience with Austin as lead guide, his friend Dai Jones as second guide. Nobody in the world knows the motorcycle trails around the Pyrenees as well as Austin does, so he figured he’d share some of his knowledge with like-minded riders who would pay £949 for the pleasure.
For that money, you get yourself to the town of Oliana in Catalonia, in the Pyrenees, on your own trail ready weapon, anything from a Honda CRF250L to an adventure bike will do, but you must be an experienced trail rider who is used to handling your own bike off-road.
As well as the aforementioned guides, a night in the extremely bike-friendly Le Petit hotel at the end of the trip, all your food and drink (except for drink at the hotel on the last night), and all the kit you need to cook with on the road is included. Each night, the team pile off the trail down to the nearest town, fill up on food and water, cheap booze, and then take it in turns to cook for each other.
Which is where I find myself now. We’re already well into day one and sat round the fire after a panic camp set-up before the promised rain comes. Dark clouds were forming as we travelled to our camp spot some 2000 metres up, so made a hasty exit to a meadow area, surrounded by a forest, just off the road. My little CRF250L was feeling the strain of a big hill climb when fully laden with my kit for a week, plus beers and food for a group of nine people. Three of us are on CRF250Ls, Dai, Tom and Dom are on KTM 690s, and there’s also a couple of BMW F800GSs, and a Triumph Tiger 800 XC with some lads from Lincolnshire.
This trip may include 8-10 hours a day of trail riding, and you need to be a good trail rider to get on with it, but it all centres of being a team. In many ways, it’s the craziest team building project you’ve ever been on, just without the pretence and corporate hob-nobbing around the dinner table afterwards.
Everyone has a job to do on this trip; from washing up to cooking for the team, making beds, or writing a diary of the day to read out japes and jokes from the day round the fire.
It’s all about team work, and getting among it. There’s no space for slackers, or day dreamers. We’re very much in it all together. Which is how I manage to put up beds for people I’ve never met until five hours earlier, sleep under a camo tarp with Nick from Lincolnshire, and ride the first afternoon on trails with two guys, Don Longman from Kriega on his KTM 690, and Tom McGrath, an airline pilot over from Abu Dhabi.
After a night under a tarp so cold that there’s frost on the seat of my trusty Honda CRF250L, and being woken up by Nick with a cup of tea (he was on brew duty on the rota), Austin climbs out of his sleeping bag and comes over: “Have you heard the news? The Lincolnshire three are leaving.”
Apparently, John, who was on Mini Mondo to celebrate his 50th birthday has been suffering from a bad back, and his compadres, Nick and Dean have decided they will quit Mini Mondo and ride back to Lincolnshire rather than carry on the adventure.
DAY TWO: Mini Mondo miles 88, total: 136 miles
We’ve only brought one change of clothes, a sleeping bag, and enough room to carry the team’s kit, so packing up doesn’t take long, but feels like forever after a night in the cold. But it’s so nice to shake the daily grind, go off-grid, sleep in your clothes, and then after a fry up of bacon and eggs and a poop in the woods, you get on your bike and hit the trails. It’s about as anti-establishment as you can get.
As Austin says: “we leave no trace, take only photos, and leave only turds.”
We’re now a smaller, more elite force of just six riders, rather than nine, So the rota goes out of the window and instead of riding in two groups, we ride as a six. KTM vs Honda.
After an hour, I realise we haven’t been on a road since last night, and tuck in behind David and Dai.
Dai rides fast, runs training schools in the Pyrenees, and knows this part of the world almost as well as our round the world adventurer friend.
Rogers, who an hour ago was bleating that he may not be able to keep up, is riding like a demon, punishing the little CRF250L.
We ride past stunning vistas, villages perched on cliff tops and stop for a drink at a village where Dai befriends a dog, desperate for the eggs and garlic butter we’re despatching in the village bin.
My clever new Kriega rackless luggage comes loose as it has been badly fitted by me, but Kriega director Dom is on hand for inane questions and sorts it for me. He also gives me a lesson on tightening straps.
We continue, and it feels like something is inside my helmet. I may have only not washed for a day, but already wildlife is nesting in my Bell helmet. There’s a massive spider in my hair, so I’m not going mad after all. It walks off merrily.
A five-mile section of whoops and jumps sees the KTM boys, Dom and Tom, doing their best David Knight impressions. My bungeed on dry bag full of Tupperware boxes for food delivery, makes a bid for freedom after one of the jumps, sets on fire and locks itself under the rear wheel. My Alpinestars jacket escaped relatively free, and Austin’s precious Tupperware is safe, but my dry bag is toast.
We ride more, stop for some filming, and tackle a dirt hill climb that sees Dai fry his KTM’s clutch and the CRFs take it in their stride. Thankfully, that smaller sprocket means the goat-like humbler CRF250L will get up pretty much anything.
The rolling countryside changes to take on a view that’s more like Utah, in fact, the follow-up to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was filmed here. We climb high, up to a bothy that was used for miners, and make camp. It feels odd already to be in a building, even if the windows are made from polythene, and there’s graffiti all over the walls. It’s home.
We get on the wood collection, Austin making use of the CRF’s panniers for dried out wood, Dai and Dom get on the cooking to a dish of barbecued paprika chicken and vegetables with Estrella Galicia beer and a few cartons of Don Simon wine. We settle in for the night. We’ve been away for two days, but already lifelong friendships are forming, trail riding, cooking, and working for each other does that quicker than any other trip I’ve ever been on.
We may be sleeping rough, wild camping, whatever you want to call it, but we’re in the mountains, riding some of the best trails in Europe, and eating like kings. Who wants more than that?
DAY THREE: Mini Mondo daily miles: 51, total 187
Rogers and I are on brew duty, gently waking up the team after a night in a warm, dry refuge. After a brew and breakfast, Austin announces: “I thought it was a fart, but I’ve sh** myself.”
Much to the amusement of the Mondo Six. It’s just one example of camaraderie on the Mini Mondo tour. He hadn’t, as it goes.
We pack up, a sluggish process deciding what kit can fit where, with everything from Austin’s larder – a wooden box featuring olive oil, herbs, stock cubes, and salt and pepper grinder – to the barbecue grill, any leftover food, and your own sleeping kit needed to be packed up.
After a breakfast at altitude, a look round a miner’s retreat built in 1902 and designed by Gaudi himself, and a ten-minute ride further up the hills for a spectacular 360-degree view of the Catalan Pyrenees we crack on.
There’s plenty of puddles to amuse ourselves on the easy, flowing trail, through pine tree forest, past wild horses, and meadows.
David gets carried away in one of the puddles, where I’ve stopped for a photo, and bails off the side of the CRF250L. He’s fine, and the bike is unmarked. It’s very funny though.
The next corner sees us cutting branches off a fallen down tree, blocking our path.
After retreating to a sunny café where you suddenly feel like a zombie from The Walking Dead riding into town, compared to freshly washed locals sitting in the sun, we ride the most miles on road so far – 28 km of twisting, perfectly surfaced hard surface road called the C-26. We make some rapid progress, and the surface feels weird under the knobbly Michelin AC-10 tyres fitted to my CRF250 after three days on the loose, rocky trails.
We make progress to a shady river, and take our clothes off and pile into the icy river for the first wash in three days and a clean set of clothing.
Hitting the trail again we use an abandoned trail, stealthily pass a farmhouse that takes issue with motorcycles trail riding, even though it’s completely legal. We wind our way through trail after trail, up difficult ascents, stand up for rocky descents and enjoy what most of us really came here for, our collective skills becoming more and more honed as we become one with our Hondas and KTMs.
Tonight’s camp is a disused, ruined farm house with an open, crumbling barn as sleeping quarters, and an open area for cooking, as David and I get on with chicken chorizo and pasta.
There’s good banter, plenty of stories and the usual craziness that comes with a night out with Austin Vince and Dai Jones. But nobody was brave enough to sleep in the house itself, complete with furniture and the occasional doll’s head, opting for a night under 5000 stars instead of a five-star hotel, with wolves (okay, dogs) howling in the distance.
DAY FOUR: Mini Mondo daily miles: 51, total 238 miles
We awake with Dai on brew duty and further sharing his hospitality with the group by delivering a bacon, egg and cheese fry up. What a guy. There are few luxuries on Mini Mondo, but being awoken by a giant Bristolian saying: ‘one lump or two’, is a special treat after three nights in a sleeping bag.
We cleared camp, questioned Dom some more on the design of buckles for Kriega’s brilliant luggage system and sluggishly made our way to the next trail, right at the end of the driveway of our night’s accommodation.
We’re further south now, and where we are, wherever we are, is warmer, dustier, and we could actually be in Africa.
We cut through dusty trails as two groups, the KTMs, and the Hondas, the Hondas stopping for filming duties, the KTMs taking the long route as we cut back on the road to catch-up with Dai, Tom and Dom making rapid progress off-road on the 690s.
In the afternoon, the trail gets harder. Much harder. Cliff edges with 1000 feet drops are a little reminder that there is no back-up on Mini Mondo, no vans, no medics, just us, our bikes and the wilderness, exactly as it would be on a round the world trip.
Apart from a little off by Tom on his KTM, and David’s moment in a puddle, we’ve had it fairly easy over the last few days, with some great riders, and some demanding trails that are no match for the skills of the Mondo team. But today is different.
We opted for a new trail to ride, a trail never ridden by Dai and Austin before.
As the route gets steeper, erosion and neglect meant that dinosaur egg size boulders lined the steep climbs and caused the Honda and KTMs to bounce around like a motorcycle version of Buckaroo.
With plenty of team work, lots of burnt clutch plates, tyres scrabbling for traction, and plenty of sweat, we got to the top, but it was by far the hardest part of the whole trip.
Dom, who had clearly been keeping up with his cardio, and I, head back to help Tom and David climb the ascent, before tackling, the long, long descent past dragon’s teeth rocks and farmhouses with million dollar views on the edge of cliffs.
The fear of camping at altitude because of frost versus our three season sleeping bags means we find a riverside paradise with a private beach, icy blue river, and then sit back, light a fire and watch in awe as Tom and David cook up a storm fit for any five-star restaurant. A feast of steak, homemade garlic butter and chips, all from one pan and a barbecue over a wild fire. Amazing.
DAY FIVE: Mini Mondo miles: 87, total miles: 325
Trials stages are not what you need after a night on a beach, but getting past boulders and out of the beach was much harder than getting the bikes in. We head for the nearest town of Berger and fire-up the coffees, fill up with fuel for the last time and make our way back north towards the start point in Oliana for another full day of trails ahead of us.
Before we’re finished, Dai takes a tumble about a mile from the finish line, and we get soaked with a three-hour road ride because visibility is too bad to head into the mountains.
There’s a definite feeling of relief that we’re headed back to normality, but also a lot of sadness. We’ve seen some spectacular riding, made some friends for life, and despite some faults with workman like suspension, I’ve fallen for the low-revving, goat nature of the go anywhere CRF250L. So much so, that I have arranged to buy it.
Getting off grid, stepping away from your phone and learning to live properly in the wild are skills that will stay with me for life. It feels weird to go back into a building, sleep in a bed, order a beer in the bar that somebody else serves you, and turn a light switch on.
If you ever fancied riding round the world, then give Mini Mondo a go first. You won’t regret it, and it will change your life.
Go and create your own Mini Mondo story, you’ve not lived unless you’ve lived under a tarp.
Fancy doing Mini Mondo next year? Austin Vince is the man to get in touch with, it costs £949. Contact Austin at: http://www.austinvince.com
Note: Massive thanks to David Rogers at Honda, Austin Vince, Dai Jones, Dom at Kriega and Tom McGrath for dragging me through this.