Long Distance Travel Planning – Part II

Story by Paddy Tyson// Photos by Paddy Tyson
August 1 2012
Motorcycle crossing the border

Last issue, Paddy explained that all you need is a buddy or two, a few beers and a map to get started planning the big trip. This issue he gets a bit more serious, because your trip might be over before it starts if your wheels don’t show up or if you get sick in a foreign country.

I am always surprised that more people ask me about shipping my bike than who ask about vaccinations or staying healthy on the road. Perhaps there is romance attached to shipping – seeing images of a motorcycle swinging from a crane as it’s lifted onto a trawler in some foreign port certainly increases the desire to live the dream – but if you don’t look after your health, you won’t be going anywhere. For that reason alone I should, of course, begin by discussing the health concerns of travelling in foreign lands. But I won’t.

Shipping is more fun because it’s unlikely to kill you, even though bureaucracy and shipping agents at international borders can certainly create major headaches. I’ll break this into a few separate parts, but you must remember the golden rules: relax, smile and be prepared for things to take longer than you ever imagined. The advice is the same for crossing a land border.

Carnet de Passages

Mexican Street SignI assume you’ve got your passport, but your bike needs a way to get through borders too. A Carnet de Passages en Douane (“carnay” for those of you who don’t speak French) is an internationally recognized, temporary importation document/booklet that is valid for 12 months, and you can apply for one at your local CAA office or online at caa.ca (just click on the Travel tab and you’ll see “Carnet” on the left). But what’s it for?

Whether you arrive by road, sea or air, all governments are concerned that if you were ever to sell your bike while in their country, they wouldn’t be able to tax you and take their cut of the deal. Every country levies tariffs or taxes on foreign goods and services, so if you were to ride your $2000 KLR 650 to Denmark, for example, and suddenly realize it’s worth twice as much, even with a blown rear shock, bald tires, rattly cam-chain and oil leak, you may be tempted to sell it and jump on a bus instead. The Danish government wouldn’t see any of the massive rate of tax they like to place on imported bikes, and that wouldn’t be fair.

The number of pages a Carnet contains depends on the number of countries you are going to visit – a page per country. Each page is perforated into thirds. One third collects the all-important rubber stamps that you keep, one third is taken at border point of entry and one is taken at point of exit.

Entering HondurasBasically, at some point in the future, the customs and excise department will realize that your bike has entered and then left their country, and they will be happy. If, however, they only have the “entry” bit of your Carnet and suspect that you may have sold your bike, they will get in touch with the issuing authority (CAA) and demand loads of money in tax. Which brings us neatly on to cost.

You pay a basic fee of around $650, and then you also have to lodge an amount of money dependent on the value of your machine and the countries you hope to visit. Luckily for you, the CAA have a really simple price calculator on their website, so you can work out how much you need to spend. Now don’t be downhearted – you get much of the money back when you return the motorcycle to Canada, and there are companies that will sell you a bond guaranteeing the big deposit. You may now realize just how valuable a Carnet is, and why you really don’t want to lose it.

You’ll notice how expensive this will become if you buy a big shiny new motorcycle. Apart from the rough roads I mentioned in the previous issue, you can see why small and cheap motorcycles make sense for global discovery The good news for you is that Canadians don’t need a Carnet for Central America, and you can get around most of South America without one too, if the border guards are friendly and you remember to smile when you take out your pack of Marlboros.
Mexico is special in that you will be required to pay a few hundred dollars on your credit card in lieu of a Carnet, and this is returned when you exit the country.

Shipping Bureaucracy

Apart from your Carnet, the other shipping document you don’t want to lose, whether you ship by air or sea, is your international bill of lading. Your bill of lading turns your motorcycle into a piece of freight, which will then be recognized by the hundreds of bureaucrats whose job is to make you feel inferior and to move stuff around the globe.

Remember that all shipping agents require what seems like hundreds of copies of every piece of paper you’ve ever seen that has your name on, or your bike’s registration number. If in doubt, get more copies before you enter the office. International shipping and customs offices do not contain photocopiers, and don’t for a moment point to the Xerox machine in the corner. It’s a figment of your imagination. Welcome to bureaucracy.

What does exist just about everywhere is an administration charge. If you have been quoted an all-in price to ship your machine somewhere, just remember that “all-in” means there are other fees on top. Perhaps up to 15% more. These are for the dockside handlers (stevedores), the local port fees, perhaps local government fees, local shipping agent fees and warehousing fees. These hurt the most, because you have to leave your machine in quarantine until all the paperwork is done. This could be a day or a month, depending on the political/economic/vacation situation in the country of arrival.

I had to leave my bike on the docks in Sydney, Australia, for an extra four days before someone from the Ministry of Agriculture was available to inspect it for any dirt. Many island nations are scared of introducing foreign bugs, and rightly so. I’d spent a whole day in New Zealand cleaning every inch of my 500 single. I had no idea if it would be allowed into the country when the inspector finally arrived. He opened the warehouse door, and we could see my ride caught in a shaft of sunlight a hundred metres away. It was my first glimpse of her for two weeks.

From the doorway the man from the Ministry said, “Is your bike red?” I confirmed it was. He put a tick in a box and said “G’day mate, welcome to Australia.” Then I paid the storage fees.

Sea or Air Freight?

If you are going to fly yourself across an ocean, how should your bike travel? Well, how much time and money have you got? If you fly your bike, it will definitely cost more, but will travel quickly and may arrive just a day after you, which is very convenient. You’ll have to crate the machine, and prices for air freight fluctuate wildly because you will be charged by volume as well as weight. That means you’ll need to make the box as small as possible, removing wheels (and air from the tires), forks, screens, handlebars, etc., as well as battery and fuel, of course. Then you must transport the crate to the airport, which may be easy in your home country, but what do you do if the airport is 30 km outside Bangkok or Moscow where your hotel is, and you don’t have a truck or speak the language? Even if the airline will let you rebuild your motorcycle in the warehouse, there’s the question of fuel, an air pump for the tires and the inevitable charge for crate disposal.
Shipping by sea requires very little preparation. If you aren’t in a rush, you could arrange for your bike to go in a container with lots of other freight and hope that it won’t be damaged when it arrives a month or two later (the container will generally be sent when it is full). On the other hand, you could ride to the docks for a “roll on, roll off” service, rather like a ferry. I almost always use a company called Wallenius Wilhelmsen for this service because they ship only vehicles, own their own boats and have their own offices at every port they visit. This includes Halifax and Vancouver.

Theoretically, that cuts down the possibility for administrative confusion, and when my motorcycle arrives at the other end, it is simply ridden off the ship and is good to go. My most recent shipping experience was for my Americas trip, when I paid $425 to move the bike from Panama to Southampton in the United Kingdom. It took just over two weeks. The same company took the bike from Southampton to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and that cost $1200 for a six-day voyage. Go figure!

Other Border Paperwork

This includes your personal immigration paperwork, your visas, inoculation certificates, and so on. Remember that cool mornings are best, but when you’ve ridden to a land border, make sure you already have your visa unless you know you can get it at the border – which you often can. For up-to-date information on this and everything else, visit horizonsunlimited.com, a fantastic source run by Canadians Grant and Susan Johnson.

Visas cost money, but be grateful you were born north of the border. It’s a geo-political thing, but Canada is famous for starting the UN Peacekeepers, not starting wars, so the Yanks often pay more.

There may be a couple of dollars charged here and there for the bike, to buy temporary road permits, or for the half-hearted spray of disinfectant on your wheels. You may even be told you need to buy insurance for the bike. This is probably worth about as much as the paper and ink it’s made of (rarely the $20 you pay), but it will smooth your passage at police checkpoints.

At every land border you will be inundated with “helpers” who, for maybe $10, will do all of the running around for you. If your language skills are good enough, then ten bucks saved is another tank of gas, so you’ll want to do the paperwork yourself. This isn’t bribery, but for these helpers, it’s their job, and they may only “win” one foreigner a day. They’ll use that money to feed a family, so bear it in mind.

Your Health

Proof that you are free of yellow fever is perhaps the most common health document you’ll need to produce at a border, but please don’t think that is the only vaccination you’ll need to travel. Many of the diseases that kill thousands of people every year will kill you without prejudice, and perhaps the most common is malaria. Don’t leave it to trust, or believe that because mosquitoes don’t kill you in Manitoba, they won’t kill you in Malawi. They carry various malaria viruses, many of which will lie dormant in your body for months before attempting to annihilate you in various gruesome ways. Take a full course of anti-malarial tablets, and that means continuing to take them for a few weeks after you’ve left the affected area.

The Public Health Agency of Canada, phac-aspc.gc.ca, has advice on what diseases are prevalent where and what vaccinations you need to get before travelling. Remember, it may take up to three months to complete courses of vaccines before you leave home. They aren’t all a simple injection. My favourite information site, because it’s so easy to use, is travelturtle.co.uk. Even though it’s British, it’ll help you get a quick overview of what’s important.

If that all sounds scary, don’t let it put you off; it’s not a huge inconvenience if you want to explore this beautiful world. As for food and personal hygiene, I’d advise you to try and let your body get used to some of the bugs out there. If you don’t, you may starve. I don’t drink unbottled water, but I am prepared to brush my teeth under what comes out of the taps. If you are in a country where there are no taps, boil everything.

To be on the safe side, never ask for ice in any drink, and skip the salad, as you don’t know where it’s been washed – but if you don’t slowly build up your immune system, you will not be able to enjoy the trip and you will seriously curtail the culinary experience you can have. Local menus are part of what makes the culture of a country, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world (apart from chillies), although I won’t pretend that chewing chicken guts in the Philippines or snacking on locusts in Mexico was particularly fun.

If you are shopping in markets to cook for yourself, then you may end up becoming a vegetarian. Fresh meat really doesn’t travel well in a tank bag if it’s 40°C, but you could carry a fishing rod and camp by the water.

Some Final Points to Keep in Mind

Protect yourself by thinking about what you are doing, just like when you ride.

Do spend time looking for health insurance that will get you home in the worst-case scenario, and make sure the small print will permit you to ride a motorcycle. Most don’t.

Do get an international driving licence from the CAA.
Do buy a good mozzie net and USE IT!
Do smile every time you see a uniform or a gun.
Do remember to have a great time. You are part of a tiny percentage of the global population blessed with an ability to travel, and you are with your motorcycle. What could be better?


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