A CALL TO ARMS
2013: Austin Vince has a new film, Mondo Sahara. It is, he says, a call to arms, with this he wants to right what he says are many wrongs. And it will be his final, arguably his most definitive, statement.
Austin Vince didn’t look like Austin Vince. Sure he was wearing the trademark overalls, there was the globe-circling Suzuki DR350 parked nearby and with the legend Mondo Enduro hung over the e-z-up awning (we were at the recent Adventure Bike Festival in Llandovery, Wales) it was almost certain this was the real Vince. I reviewed the photos on the back of the camera: these were portraits of another man, I concluded. I showed them to Vince.
‘They don’t look like you, do they?’ I said.
‘Maybe if I do my trademark jump in the air?’ he suggested.
‘Lets give it a try.’
First go I had Austin Vince captured.
Austin Vince isn’t Austin Vince unless he’s gooning, it transpires.
In fact, in preparing to interview Austin Vince, my very first question to put to him had been, ‘is it tiring work playing Austin Vince?’ I had a notion the gooning and tomfoolery was something of an act, well, not an act but something like an alter-ego – the public face of Austin Vince. The real Austin Vince I reasoned had to be someone more akin to you or I. After all, the Austin Vince of Mondo Enduro surely wouldn’t be permitted to teach Maths to high school students (more is the pity). Drama perhaps, but not one of the three Rs.
As it turned out I didn’t need to ask the question, for Vince conducted the entire interview as himself, and while he was at times animated and humorous, it was evident from the very start that I was talking to the Vince behind the Vince behind the Mondo. To be the goon-Vince clearly is, as I had thought, too exhausting to be a permanent state. And, curiously, in being in the presence of the real Vince I found myself immediately liking him, there was a warmth and a depth to him that is overwhelmingly, well, friendly.
Now there is a very slim chance you may not know Austin Vince or the whole Mondo phenomenon. So best a quick explainer. In 1995 seven British chums (that’s probably the best description) set off on a round-the-world motorcycle trip. Something like 440 days later three of them completed the trip, in the company of a fourth associate who had joined the trip for the last third. The trip was made exclusively on Suzuki DR350 trail bikes and in the subsequent book and film it was evident that the Mondo modus was something of rough-and-ready approach to travel. Sleeping rough, with minimal equipment, and rider apparel boiling down to open-face helmets, leather jackets and army boots. With ponchos for rainy days. The book writing and the film making was a bit rough-and-ready too, albeit peppered with comedic set-pieces. Mondo Enduro certainly made an impact and for the first time motorcycle adventure travel had a zany side – to add to the human, the serious, the hippy and the techy. At this time we didn’t have the celebrity, nor the package holiday types.
Five years later Mondo rode again, now as Terra Circa, as Vince and team rode east again across Russia, seeking to bridge the Zilov Gap – a roadless section of the route to the seaports of Vladivostok and Magadan – that had, technically, defeated the Mondo Enduro team (they resorted to hobo-ing on a goods train on their first circumnavigation). The team this time succeeded, and completed a second circumnavigation by riding across the USA west-to-east on their way back to London (in Mondo Enduro the team rode the three great landmasses – Eurasia, the Americas and Africa). No book this time, but the filming was expanded to make a six-part TV series that aired on Men & Motors in Britain. Mondo also grew in the public consciousness internationally as Discovery Channel exposed the uniquely British madcap style of motorcycle adventuring to the entire world.
Terra Circa was over a decade ago now but Vince has kept busy; the expansion and reach of the internet has given Mondo its own open-all-hours home and through his own merchandising and a little improvisation you can now attire yourself quite faithfully to the Mondo style. Vince has also found additional television work in front of and behind the camera, and there’s been the guest appearances at various travel expos (as the adventure market has grown) not to mention his own national film show and talk tour – which has also evolved an off-shoot in Vince’s Adventure Film Festival which now shows annually in the UK, the USA and Australia. Notwithstanding – and this points to the limited commerciality of the Mondo cult – Vince has remained a teacher by trade. It’s the teaching that pays the bills.
So the return bit: this year we have a new Mondo film, Mondo Sahara, released as a DVD shortly before last Christmas, although there had been public showings in Britain beforehand. Mondo Sahara is Vince updating Mondo – sort of, the new seven-man team are using 15-year-old Honda XR400s – and given world circumnavigations are pretty time consuming and costly, this one focusses on a smaller, yet bigger, challenge: an unsupported 1200 mile transit across empty Saharan desert. For the first time it’s an Anglo-American team, too, with Joe McManus, Pablo Gustavson and Eric Soule representing the States. Well that’s the basis of the film, there’s much more to it than that, as we’ll let Vince (and the film itself) explain. But that’s the news – Mondo is back, and it’s going to be interesting to see if it can maintain the public interest into what will be a third decade. Cultural references that were 15 years old at the time of Mondo Enduro are now 35 years old. Will today’s public still care?
“Mondo Sahara is my final work, completing the trilogy – I’m taking my lead from Sergio Leone here – in terms of proper big films,” explains Vince. “And Mondo Sahara is absolutely a call to arms. Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa were a subliminal call to arms and in those films we set out to show easy it is.”
We’re jumping in at the deep end here, to be fair. Probably an hour into the interview, and in a moment you’ll see Vince on full-throttle, not as you’d first meet him. You see, we don’t want to bury the hook here, it’s like this: between Terra Circa and Mondo Sahara lies the Long Way Round (LWR) and the whole Ewan-and-Charlie thing (and subsequent Charlie-only things). And chances are, without LWR there would be no Mondo Sahara.
“So there was Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa – and then the Long Way Round happened, and everything that those guys have done since. And fundamentally I was shocked on those productions that they thought it was okay to lie – to make it look more difficult than it was. Especially given that they’d seen our films and we were advising them and told them it was a walk in the park. At our advice sessions we told them they didn’t need our advice, and all of our meaningful advice was really about this little gap in the road in Siberia (the Zilov Gap), that was the bit we knew they would hit.
“So when LWR came out I watched it avidly, and I knew from my own experience where they were almost the whole time, there were even shots from Mondo Enduro and Terra Circa that they reshot in LWR. I was amazed that they had created this complete falsehood of it being dangerous, difficult. They obviously gave the impression it was expensive, too, by obviously spending so much money – so how could any normal person think ‘oooh I’ll do that’? So I was incredibly upset that they’d got us involved in it and that was what they’d served up. And knowing in full knowledge that if you’ve got one of the most handsome, famous men in the world then there’s no way it’s going to be little side project that no one would know about. Everyones’ eyes were on that project and I think it’s not the least bit unreasonable to say they had a responsibility to tell the truth.
“Obviously I’m a person who set his stall out to encourage others to have this (motorcycle adventure) experience as well, so when LWR comes along and, I think, completely undid every single bit of good work I’ve done to get people going then I’m upset. And of course because of their immeasurable celebrity muscle – and because Ewan is so handsome and has such a beautiful voice – when Ewan says we need to do hostage training we believe him. We don’t think he’s a weirdo or a bit odd, you think that is what’s needed.
“So here I am this third time and I want the bulk of the biking community to snap out of the LWR myth and realise that was bollocks, it’s not true and you don’t want to emulate or be like that at all. I’m saying to the viewer, that I’m absolutely determined for you to realise how easy this stuff is and now I’m going to show you. In the earlier films it wasn’t as in your face as that. Now it is.”
That reads like a fundamentalist rant but given that Vince most probably operates from his kitchen table on his house boat – he essentially remains the amateur – then we should be able to understand his fervour. LWR delivered a message with all the clout that movie stardom and considerable media backing allows – and in Vince’s view the message was not true. You don’t need giant motorcycles, back-up 4x4s, fixers, agents and an international comms unit to travel the earth. And to be fair to Ewan and Charlie – not all of this was apparent to Vince either, in the early days leading up to Mondo Enduro back in 1995.
“We spent the two-and-a-half years planning. We were like children planning what it would be like to run a chain of hotels – we didn’t have any idea, if we’d filmed those planning meetings you’d fall about laughing. The things we thought we’d need to make contingencies for… It was pathetic. We didn’t have a a single book to reference, so we just kept re-reading Te Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, we didn’t know anything!”
The breakthrough came just six months before the off.
“There was an event called the Adventure Travel Show at Olympia (in London) so my brother and I went along. We found there a travelers’ bookstore from Notting Hill – we were looking for guide books on Russia only there wasn’t any. Instead, on their shelf we found what can best described as a student’s spiral-bound sixth form project, simply called ‘desert biking’ with a picture of motorcycle on it, by Chris Scott. It was about 40 pages long and home made. God know how many copies there are in the world, a dozen? We bought it immediately, it was an amazing book, for us like walking into Aladdin’s Cave – here for the first time seemed to be a person who knew anything about anything.
“So we tracked Chris down, took him out to dinner and asked him, what do we need to know? We thought then that the most likely outcome for the trip was we’d totally muck it up, we were doomed to fail. We never thought this project was straightforward, all we were doing was making a proper meal of it, flapping like old women, making a mountain of every molehill. All of our planning was totally ridiculous, we were wrong on almost everything we thought of. All Chris said was, ‘you’ll be fine, there’s nothing to it, all you guys want to do is ride along a load of roads isn’t it?’ We’d say surely we’ll need two of this, two of that – and he was saying ‘relax, it’ll be fine’.”
Before Mondo Enduro, Vince and his brother Gerald had been on two motorcycle journeys, both times two-up on a Yamaha FJ1200 (Vince had been set to ride his own ’69 Triumph Trophy, but as is the way, it broke down before both trips). On the first trip, to Morocco, they met dust-encrusted Germans returning from the desert on big trailies, “whatever they’d been doing you could tell it was a hell of a lot more exciting than what we were doing”. On the second trip – to Eastern Europe – they’d met two more Germans on Cagiva Elephants and had been impressed with the ease the bikes rode, both on road and track. Off-roading at that time, Vince concedes, terrified them.
“So for Mondo Enduro we’d all assumed we’d be buying Africa Twins or Teneres. But then Gerald read this story of this army guy who had ridden London-to-Kenya on a Suzuki DR350 and the big thing that struck Gerald about the article was the bike’s simplicity, light weight and phenomenal fuel economy. So we pooled £200 each, all eight of us, and bought a single DR350 which my brother took charge of and rode around for a couple of weeks. I went to see him with it, down in Bournemouth where he lived, and asked him what it was like. He said I’ll show you, and we went into his back garden and there on the mudguard were these stickers ‘M1’ (each of the Mondo bikes would wear similar identifiers) – and he said this is it, this is what we are taking.”
Mondo Enduro was there from the beginning, for want of alternative creations.
“So we came up with the name. Mondo Enduro – Mondo, the world, Enduro because it ended in ‘o’, it was onomatopoeic. I know for a fact none of us knew what an enduro was but it sounded dirt bikey, so it sounded sensible.
“At home, I have all the other names we brainstormed. The only other real contender we had was Global Getaway… I don’t know who’s idea it was that the project would have a name – I think it was mine – but we figured if it had a name we could trick people into thinking it wasn’t a holiday and it was something bigger than that, a project or a phenomenon. Huge irony being it turned into just that, simply a case of lads enjoying themselves.”
So the name was there from the start, but the Mondo way as we recognise today wasn’t so readily planned. Rather arrived at, after a time. And for those of us rather intimidated by the notion of RTW travel, Vince’s recollections of the start will bring us some cheer.
“I’ll ever forget the first three days, going across France. We were going to a wedding of my mate in Nice. He arranged his wedding to coincide with our ride, and I was his best man. So we set off and I had no idea just how big France was. We’d previously crossed it on the motorways, on a sportsbike – we’d ridden from Munich to England in one day, 650 miles at 120mph! On these 350s, with seven us… Well actually we couldn’t get the two miles across London from Mill Hill to Brent Cross as a group, the guys were unbelievably timid in the traffic. Truth was we’d not done a single preparatory ride and we couldn’t ride as a bunch. As well, everything was falling off, luggage burning, no one knew where anything was, we had group equipment but no one knew who had what – it was a total farce. It took us an hour just to get to Hammersmith, it was unbearable.
“Getting through France took forever. The guys left their money belts on the cross-channel ferry (we were late for the ferry), it was chaos. I assumed we’d be rough camping – I’d done it in the Army and was doing lots of it with the school trips – but everyone wanted to stay in campsites. We were supposed to be self-catering but the saucepans we had could barely cook enough for two people. We didn’t have enough food – it went on and on and on. Totally rubbish! By the time we got to Northern Italy we were all totally exhausted.”
Travel changes us, and most certainly it changed the Mondo team. Certain things might have been in place in the beginning – and we can probably include the character of Austin Vince in that, he’s the Vince we know today from the very beginning – but other Mondo elements came with time.
“With Mondo Enduro, because it was long enough, everything changed; all the tents went, by the finish all had gone, there were just tarps, everyone was in full leathers, open face helmets, wearing army boots with jeans on the outside, and we ended up with a look. All the hard luggage had also gone. When we started only two of the seven bikes had soft luggage, everyone else had Givi panniers. So it evolved enormously. Like Chas Penty who started with a full face Shoei helmet – he ditched it in America and from a charity shop bought a 1970s gold glitter helmet, it looked so much better. We started with waterproof clothes, we finished with ponchos. With Terra Circa, five years later, we started, style wise, where Mondo Enduro left off – six of us, six ponchos, six tarps, everyone in full leathers.”
We jumped into this interview in the middle of something of a war zone – the construct of the unlikely happy band of amateurs that is Mondo pitched against the Hollywood daredevils that is LWR. Standing back, you can strike a balance – you’d have to be a pretty one-eyed to suggest Ewan-and-Charlie haven’t made an impact and without a doubt they have inspired many to give The Big Trip a go. They’ve certainly connected to an audience that arguably Mondo would never have reached – for zany, quirky and low-budget doesn’t do it for a lot of people. And equally we shouldn’t over-estimate the reach of Mondo. Like it or not, LWR has reached almost every man on every street in the Western world, where Mondo, frankly, hasn’t. It’s reached many, but not all. Those of us it has reached often treasure it, and will for all our days, but we are a minority.
So Vince is the little guy stood before the racing juggernaut. Mondo is arguably adventure’s counter-culture. and Vince, to all intents, is the adventure anti-Christ (especially to many of those with commercial concerns). But if David, stood before Goliath, ever needed a golden bullet (forget the slingshot) then Vince comes armed with that.
“I have a manifesto, although when we did Mondo Enduro in no way had I articulated these ideas. It’s like this, there’s a famous picture of somebody – there’s no need for names – a picture of a bloke on a rocky knoll, he’s got a big bike, it’s colossal, it’s got big panniers on it, he’s wearing the twat suit (aka adventure-specific suit), he’s wearing a certain helmet with clip-on camera on the side of it and dark sunglasses. And it looks, to me, like a production still from Judge Dredd. Not like a guy who’s come to have an exchange of cultures with you. It’s a guy who’s come to fucking arrest you, he’s come to fuck you up. And I can’t see how anybody can think that look – it’s so dark and menacing – is what we should be presenting to the poorest people in the world when you go to their countries. I don’t think it’s too much to expect to show some empathy. You are so privileged, you’re doing something they’ll never ever do, and not because they haven’t worked hard, or don’t deserve it. You are an ambassador not only for motorcycling, or your nation, you are an ambassador for the West, for the developed world.
“The whole language of the styling – and I’m sure the likes of Herbert at Touratech didn’t sit down and think ‘lets make everyone look like robocop’, I’m sure he never meant that, but he has – needs to change. If I hypnotized Herbert and said okay I run the company now, then I’d say the general look needs to be changed. In Mondo Sahara I wanted it that we should look like normal people and the bikes had to be – to quote Ted Simon – of a human scale.
“I’ve guess I’ve changed so much, I’d never have been thinking like that when I was 28, never have thought this was my responsibility to be like this. I’ve been in a lot of foreign countries in the developing world. You turn the corner and GS guy turns up. On one level you have to give him a lot of credit, because he’s out there, but you look at him and you think oh my god, what are you thinking? I find it excruciating. Maybe I’m imagining the whole thing. Maybe those people aren’t scary, only I think they are.”
Austin Vince suggests Mondo Sahara is his curtain call, at least in terms of his personal adventures with celluloid. Vince might have referenced Sergio Leone (famed director of spaghetti westerns) but there’s that other Austin – Austin Powers – who also stopped after a trilogy. To some degree there’s more than a bit of Powers in Vince, maybe not the swank or the fast cars, but Vince too is to some degree, if not trapped, then still in love with the 60s and 70s Brit scene – and the culture of that time too. And to his credit he’s stuck, through the decades with those values. Like Powers, Vince apes and goons the real hipster, but like Ted Simons there are human values underscoring the whole story.
“I’d be done a huge disservice if I come across as angry about the Long Way Round. I’m hugely enthusiastic about adventure motorcycling and it’s changed my life. I’ve found something really cool, and I want everyone else to drink from that cup, I don’t want to hog it to myself. I don’t make films saying look what I’ve done, don’t try this at home, I’m the opposite, I want everyone to do this.
“Mondo Sahara is not about us, it’s about you that’s watching. I don’t want you to be entertained by it – well, you will be actually – it’s not made for entertainment, it’s a proper fucking sermon but a fun sermon and a sermon you should hear and act on.”