BAM and the Road of Bones with Kudu Expeditions 2012
Im from the Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Australia and I just completed the Ulaanbaator to Magadan section via the BAM and the Road of Bones with Kudu Expeditions.
I have been dreaming of doing this trip now for 8 years ever since seeing the Long Way Round. Dreamt of seeing Lake Baikal, river crossings, Tomtot, the Road of Bones and of course reaching Magadan.
It was absolutely a dream come true.
I would have never been able to do this trip if it wasn't for Jeff and the Kudu team. Im 31 years old and simply dont have the time or knowledge to do it by myself.
I will be forever grateful to Jeff and Team for their guidance and assistance in getting me to Magadan in one piece. It wasn't easy, and many things went wrong as they do when you are on an expedition. I will give a full account below, warts and all, with the common complaints and so on - I do so reluctantly as to focus on such trivial matters detracts from the whole idea of doing this trip. Its an adventure and we all definitely had that!
I made it to Magadan, and I will admit that I shed a tear in my helmet as we arrived. Partly relief that it was finally done but moreso elation as i contemplated what we had all just achieved. What a great trip, thanks to Lorraine, Ceasar, Khairul, Gareth, Phil,Jeff and Neil - What a great bunch to do the trip with. wouldn't change a thing (except I would bring waterproof socks next time, and an umbrella!).
For those considering doing the trip here is some more detail as well as some of the issues we encountered. Most points i think are common sense and most complaints/issues are trivial but I raise them so others can consider whether this is for you.
1) Schedule and Riding days
There is a schedule. People have flights booked for the other end so sticking to the schedule is a necessary evil of doing a group expedition like this. This does mean you have to ride when perhaps you don't feel like it, and cannot stop for a day in each city you pass.
With that said, the group feedback was a rest day in Moscow is a must and I know Jeff is going to do is best to incorporate that for next year.
If there are delays for breakdowns, borders, river crossings etc then this time does need to be made up so does result in some occasional long riding days. The normal day is on the bike at 8 and camp by 6. The longest day we did was on bike by 7am hotel by 11pm (although i think the others had a longer day in Kazakhstan after issues with the border crossing) but that was unusual and just something we had to do to stay on track. Some were not happy with this of course and that is fair. It was really tough.
2) Support Vehicle
Toyota Landcruiser - perfect for the job. There was the odd day where it became more about getting the 4x4 through an obstacle than the bikes (eg, rail bridge crossings). Again, in my view that is a necessary evil if you don't want to carry all your gear and spares.
3) The food and hotels
I have read complaints above about the food and hotels. The fact is the food is always going to be better than you could carry yourself on your own bike due to space restrictions, And in any event was perfectly acceptable. Generally we would cook pasta or rice with sachet meals such as bologainse or tandoori chicken. But mainly tinned and sachet food.
We all took turns to cook in pairs which meant one out of 4 nights you would make dinner and breakfast.
Hotels were fine, comfortable, hot water most of the time and wifi (this is Russia so hot water is not guaranteed!). After 5 nights straight camping to have a toilet, take a shower and a comfy mattress was all i cared about. But honestly, the hotels were fine and I would say the best of what is available. Just remember, as you go east the hotels get progressively worse.
4) Broken chairs and water
There were issues with the water situation and camping chairs which virtually got destroyed on the BAM. The BAM was horrendously difficult and so effectively the water containers bounced around until eventually they died.
This is the first time I believe a touring company has gone through the BAM and I believe KUDU is the only one to offer this route. I'm already assured these issues will be solved for next year with 'BAM' proof containers and proper compartments. In any event we were never without water and ultimately, in my view, one of those things that can happen on an expedition.
Camping Hygiene could have been better with better washing facilities. I know this will be sorted next year and already raised with Kudu.
6) Other customers/riders
This is a difficult one. Our team of riders was absolutely fantastic and we all got in there to help each other out when stuck, dropped bike, river crossings and so on. Everyone on the team was fantastic and we all got on really well.
I have heard stories of previous years where there wasn't this team spirit - where if someone fell over everyone else would just sit on their bikes and wait for the support guys to help them.
Therefore the team aspect is going to be a bit of a lucky dip. You are probably guaranteed to get at least one who thinks they know everything, who wants everything done their way and so on (and if you don't it's probably you!).
7) General issues
Fact, things went wrong. There was a visa issue in Mongolia which delayed us 4-5 days. Visa company stuffed up one of the crews visas. Nothing Kudu could do about that except perhaps leave without that crew member, which is what we ultimately did. In hindsight we should have not waited at all but hindsight is 20/20 as they say and you cannot fault someone for making a call in a difficult situation.
Couldn't pass a bridge on the BAM so had to put bikes and 4x4 on train to get passed it. This cost us 2 days I think but the stay in this small little town turned out to be a highlight. Every cloud has a silver lining as they say. And hey, even Ewan and Charley had to catch a train for a section.
We arrived 3 days late into Magadan. Primarily because of the initial visa issue. This for most of us meant changing flights which cost some of us money - or leaving the trip early in Yakutsk as one member did to ensure home on time. I didn't like spending the extra money of course but I wasn't going to give up and leave early. I think missing the deadline will be unlikely in future trips but it's always possible so perhaps give yourselves a few spare days in Magadan just in case. Magadan is really quite a nice city so you will not be bored.
8) The Owner, Jeff Kill
I have read comments about Jeff as being unhelpful, treating the customers poorly and perhaps putting profit before customer satisfaction. I plainly just didnt see that.
Everyone on our team got on really well with Jeff. Jeff is the first up every morning, and last one to bed - for 2 straight months. Personalities will always clash in any environment but to say he is unhelpful or rude is simply unfair.
Nice guy, capable, right person for the job. But remember, he is doing the same trip you are so dont expect a yes sir no sir attitude from him for 2 months. Treat the Kudu team as part of the team, not as employees or your personal servants and you won't have a problem. You are all in this together.
I also found him very generous. We met a Ukraine biker on the road who had lost his tent off the back of his bike. Jeff gave him one of our spares, 200gbp worth. He also lent one of our riders a GPS for the next few months as she completes the rest of her solo journey. Paid for dinner in Magadan as well which was not cheap.
In my view, and perhaps it's a bit of a cleche, but ultimately the trip will be what you make of it. You can decide to get hung up on every little thing that goes wrong and have a bad time. Or you can relax, enjoy your teammates company, the riding and remember where you are and what you are doing.
There were times when i was pissed off. Sick of camping, sick of the rain, sick of the mosquitoes, bad roads, homesick and longing for some tarmac. But the trip is achievable by anyone - hell i just did it and had no prior off road riding experience at all. But don't think it's a walk in the park.
It will be harder than you expect in ways you never expected.
My biggest fear is that others will be put off by the previous poster from 2011, as I almost was. I almost didn't achieve this dream because some guy before me had an issue with the food, riding days and so on. I am so thankful that I contacted Kudu despite this and can now say I have completed both the BAM and Road of Bones.
To anyone out there considering this trip, do it! But remember, you paid for an adventure. Dont complain when that is exactly what you get