Red Tape and White Knuckles: One woman’s motorcycle adventure through Africa: Lois Pryce, 2008, Century Books

‘Her light-hearted account almost disguises the grit’ There are always two reactions to motorcycle travel books: one is to the journey itself – usually awe inspiring in some way – and the other is to the writing. Lois Pryce’s second book about motorcycle travel (I haven’t read the first one yet) is a nicely written, easy-to-read contribution to this genre. But it tells a tale of almost unimaginable nerve and endurance across some of the most difficult terrain and politically frightening countries you could think of.

In our patriarchal world men not only take centre-stage but manage to convince most people that the male way of being in the world is some kind of norm. For example, Ted Simon’s accounts of riding around the world seem, mostly, to be the story of a person’s adventures rather than specifically of a man’s. But Lois Pryce’s books remind us that riding a motorbike, like everything in life, is gendered: in Muslim Algeria the man pumping petrol into her motorbike looks away from her and does not acknowledge her greeting once he realises this is a woman out in public, in other places she has to pretend that it’s a man and not her who is riding the bike in order to be given permission to travel, and in the Congo when she is stuck on the back of a train for a whole day with her strapped-down bike and surrounded by stoned Congolese soldiers touting Kalashnikovs the defining feature of this astonishingly tense passage is to do with gender – and power.

Lois is not afraid to be critical and poke fun at some of the tedious characters she encounters or travels with (she mentions the fantasy of parts of the German motorcycle industry to have the world full of identically dressed middle aged men advancing on bikes – in some latter day colonialist aspiration) but she also writes movingly about some of the positive and generous spirited people she meets in war-ravaged countries like Angola, some she considers her ‘guardian angels’. The middle chapters, mainly dealing with the Congolese and Angolan parts of the journey are genuinely scary and had my pulse racing.

Overall the style is light and humour is never far away. We don’t get the personal introspection nor the lingering political and social analysis of Ted Simon, so the book feels less serious than some but Lois is skilled at telling the story and the ending, which in this kind of book always runs the danger of anti-climax, is moving. Strangely, Lois is still in deep shit in an Angolan mine field and you notice there are hardly any pages left. Uneventful Namibia and South Africa get just a dozen or so pages.

As Ted Simon’s book jacket comment, used above to introduce this review, points out the book and the journey are in some ways at odds with each other, though not in any problematic way. As the jacket says elsewhere, the author is equipped with formidable strength of character and an immense passion for life. I’m not the first to say this, but it is a good read. Having finished it, I do wonder why the seriousness was kept at bay so much. I would have thought that an experience like this gave any author the right to offer some more extended reflections on life, humanity and the puzzle of the drive behind this kind of undertaking. Its available second hand from Abe Books here.