PASSPORT

“I CIRCUMNAVIGATED A HUGE, FROZEN LAKE IN SIBERIA ON A WWII-ERA MOTORCYCLE”

I ’ve had quite a few adventures now, including driving from London to Mongolia and back in a £150 car, so I’m always looking to push myself.

MATT PRIOR

I’d been wanting to do something pioneering in an unusual environment when a company called The Adventurists got in touch to say they were looking for people to try out something on a remote, frozen lake in Russia. It was a circumnavigation of Lake Baikal on a World War II-era motorbike, a ride that would be just short of 2,000km. No one had ever done it before. I said I’d give it a go.

I’m based in Hong Kong and was able to get a direct flight to Irkutsk at the south-west edge of the lake. There I met the local contact, had a look at the bikes, and started wondering what I’d let myself in for. There were seven teams of two people each, and I was paired up with an Australian army colonel named Dennis.

The bikes were Russian Urals, WWII-era motorcycles – the most inappropriate vehicle you can imagine. When we first started ours it caught fire; it had no brakes, no lights, it was a piece of junk. Luckily, they weren’t very fast, so we mostly got a bit wet if we came off.

The first day we all stuck together because it was a bit unknown. It was definitely strange riding on the ice. I kept thinking about news footage you see of people going out on a frozen pond and it not being thick enough and they fall through... Then that first night on the ice we had an earthquake.

We’d been told it was a seismic area and susceptible to earthquakes, and just after the Sun had gone down the whole area started shaking, including the mountains that surrounded the lake. We all just looked at each other with a look of ‘What do we do?’. Even if we’d wanted to get off the ice, we couldn’t, because the banks were so steep. There was nothing we could do, so we just went to sleep and hoped that any aftershocks wouldn’t take us under. When we woke the next morning we could see that there were cracks in the ice and that water had seeped through. We didn’t hang around.

Camping on a frozen lake was something I’d never done before. We should have had something called ice-screws to secure the tents down, but we didn’t and had to improvise. The winds were incredibly bad during the night, so we’d basically held the tent down with the bike. We had some good kit, though: inflatable mattresses, -40˚C sleeping bags and an arctic tent. What was strange was having a fire on the lake. We would grab wood from the forests at the edge, build a base out of it, put more wood on top, add some fuel from the bike and set it alight. Because the ice is up to metre thick, it didn’t melt through.

The lake is so big it’s almost like a sea, and they have what they call ‘ride-ups’, which are like tectonic plates on the ice that are always moving and colliding. When they hit each other it forms a ridge, and whenever we came across one of these we’d have to stop, build a little ramp out of snow and ice and then take a running jump over it with the bike at full throttle.

It took two-and-a-bit weeks to circumnavigate the lake and it was absolutely exhausting. The feedback I gave to the adventure company was that people would need proper kit but it was certainly good fun. I’d been smiling all the way round. The next thing I want do is in Africa. I can’t say more at the moment, but it’ll be a big one. I’ve done a few countries over there, but for me it really is the untouched continent. I can’t wait to explore it.

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