The track, maintained by roaming cattle, had long since dissolved into coarse scrubland as I made for the outcrop that I would call home for the night. I was getting the hang of camping in the wild, knowing now that the key was to settle well before the sun touched the horizon. There was still warmth in the evening air and, with a bar of soap in hand, I crouched over a pan of water and washed away the day’s patina.
I was thankful that I had brought a camp chair, even though I had never heard mention of such luxuries in the expedition accounts I had grown up reading. I imagined the explorers looking at the scene from the shelves of the adventure section with a wry smile and sharp jibe to hand. I faced west, towards the setting sun. To my right was my stove; to my left, the supplies I had bought in a small town that I’d passed through earlier that afternoon. I could still make it out, down in the valley below. I was hungry. Tonight I planned to cook, and started to chop an onion. I always start with an onion.
After eating, I went through my evening routine, which I had begun to find surprisingly comforting: stowing my kit so that I could set off early to catch the morning light, putting my keys in a safe place, plotting the day’s route on the map, an entry into my journal. This was the first time that I’d managed all of this before the world around me was engulfed in darkness, the first time I wasn’t so exhausted that all I could think of was my pillow. I was deep in the Gerês National Park in Northern Portugal. There was no-one around me for miles and, for what felt like the first time since leaving England a week before, I had time to think.
I rewound the miles and sifted through the events that had led me to this outcrop. Of course, there had been hurdles. Losing my wallet, cash and bank cards on the third day was the biggest, but those stresses were now in the past. I was surrounded by incredible natural beauty, had found a rhythm and looked forward to the weeks of exploring ahead. A large part of me couldn’t have asked for more, but in spite of this, I had a niggling feeling that something was missing. At first I dismissed it. But as the evening wore on, the thorn dug deeper and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I stepped further back into my memories, searching for the catalyst that set me on this path and an answer to these unexpected thoughts.
I was surrounded by incredible natural beauty, had found a rhythm and looked forward to the weeks of exploring ahead. A large part of me couldn’t have asked for more, but in spite of this, I had a niggling feeling that something was missing.
Long before the first step is taken, every trip starts with a spark. A reason to go. It could be a passage in a novel, a lyric in a song, a snatched conversation or half-forgotten folk tale.
Long before the first step is taken, every trip starts with a spark. A reason to go. It could be a passage in a novel, a lyric in a song, a snatched conversation or half-forgotten folk tale. The guise in which an idea presents itself is as varied as its effect. Sometimes it will make you rethink a plan, sometimes you act on an idea immediately; others are seeds only to be harvested in due course.
For me, on this trip, it was a photograph. Or, in fact, the feeling one photograph gave me. I had found a picture of the Bardenas Reales desert: a barren, lunar landscape that over millions of years has been sculpted into abstract forms, burnt dry by the blasting heat of Central Spain. Aside from its beauty to me, the attraction of this place was that it was within my reach. I didn’t need specialist training or a deep wallet. I could load my bike, kick the engine and within days go to a place that I thought I would only ever experience in the pages of a magazine. Using this photograph as a measure, I scoured Europe for places that fired my imagination in the same way, and traced a 4,000-mile line linking the untouched corners of the continent. If there were any secrets, this was my chance to find them.
Months after returning, when I was able to look back and see how the time I spent on the road had ebbed and flowed, I could start to understand that evening on the outcrop. I had made my plans based on what I had seen, immersing myself in the images that I found; picturing myself following an off-road track to secluded lakes or feeling the sharp, cold air as I passed through the shadow of a mountain. The trip I had planned was about the place. I wanted to be self sufficient and detached; to live outside of the daily routines and to pass unnoticed.
What I hadn’t expected was that I was anything but what I set out to be. The custom motorcycle I was riding was, mechanically, not far removed from a bike made in the seventies. For better or worse it has character, which meant at times it needed far more coaxing than modern counterparts. Rarely was it as simple as turning a key. This trip was the first time that I’d lived off the back of the bike for any length of time and the first chance I’d had to cover any real distance. Along the way, things went wrong and it was in these moments that I looked for help.
Sometimes that help would be physical, sometimes a conversation, and other times, it would be far more subtle – an inquisitive wave from a passing motorcyclist, the comforting good faith implied by an honesty box. I didn’t have a companion to share or discuss my experiences with and so my camera became the conduit through which I engaged with what I saw. I was so caught up in the process of documenting the changing landscapes that, over time, I began to consider the encounters with people less important. Unexpectedly, and in spite of all that I saw, the memories of the people I met along the way are those that shine the brightest.
One that has had a far more profound impact than I could have conceived at the time was on the northern side of the Verdon Gorge in a campsite of sorts. Having stayed in a few during my trip, I could feel that there was something different about this one. There were no barriers at the entrance. No reception or allotted plots. On arrival, travellers could pitch their tents wherever they chose. The site was basic. There was no electricity. The shower was operated by a pull-chain, the water warm when the sun heated the pipes. Even though it was simple, everyone took care of that campsite as if it were their own. I didn’t see a single piece of litter. The communal sinks were always spotless. There was a shared understanding, which everyone respected and enjoyed. In the evening, the old gentleman who ran the site visited to collect money from those who stayed. It would have been easy to avoid him but no-one did. There was something very special about that man, about that place; I could feel his presence, his beliefs and character before I met him. For some reason, I didn’t ask his name.
I now think that I understand what was missing, that evening on the outcrop. In the build-up to leaving, I had become so engrossed in the idea of what I thought I would feel in those remote corners, that there was a disconnect with what I actually felt. So much so that, by not matching my expectations, the beautiful landscapes felt incomplete. I didn’t set out to meet people; the encounters I had were by-products of the bigger search, so I didn’t bring any preformed ideas to these moments. I accepted them for what they were. Maybe, for this reason, they were more real – and in a way, people have since overshadowed place to become the milestones of this trip.
Happiest when living off the back of his bike and exploring the World on two wheels; from his London studio, Ashley Watson designs the motorcycle clothing and equipment he needs for his next trip. He documents the places he passes and the things he sees through his two other passions, photographs and writing.