NICK SANDERS

2014: Round the world adventurer Nick Sanders opened a motorcyclists’ ‘expedition centre’ in deepest Wales. Keen to know what it was all about we went along to the first weekend it operated for paying guests...

IT'S IMPORTANT to define just what Nick Sanders’ Expedition Centre is. Only it’s easier to explain what it is not. It’s not an adventure school – do not come here to learn how to ride your GS better, or how to pack panniers effectively or indeed to discuss which bike is best for you. Such facilities already exist and Nick Sanders sees no reason to create another. Neither is this necessarily some kind of advanced base camp. Nick does hold a fair collection of resources in all manner of maps, books and films, but if you ask him to recommend any particular reading matter he’ll respond with an almost curt, “anything by me”!

So just what is it? Put in his own words, the explanation goes something like this:

“I moved to Mid Wales 15 years ago, with my three children and ex-wife,” he explains (Nick’s a Mancunian by birth and upbringing). “It took me a long time to settle into living here and to realise how beautiful it was – more than beautiful, magnificent. Wales is one of the undiscovered secrets of the whole British Isles. So then I realised I have these untapped resources at my disposal; the rides around here are as good as any I’ve done anywhere in the world.

“Also, there are a lot of people who already teach people a lot of things, things I can’t do. But I can teach people how to get into the right mindset to become an adventurer because that’s an acquired understanding and obviously I have that intuitively and I pass it on almost automatically.”

So, it’s a destination in itself, a place to go and ride. And a chance to spend a little time with one of the UK’s most prolific motorcycle adventurers. Keep that in mind.

ONE OF A KIND

Nick Sanders is, of course, one of a kind – okay, actually not the only one of his type, but of the kind that is the quintessential British explorer. Yes, an adventurer in the mould only made on these isles – borderline bonkers, but actually pretty inspired and when the chips come down, very very effective.

In his youth Nick was a national-level racing cyclist. As a young adult racing on the Continent he pursued it all the way to semi-pro status. But somewhere along the journey – Nick hints he didn’t concur with the, er, artificial performance enhancing strategies of the time – he fell out of the scene. He was still a madly competitive type all the same and looking for an alternative channel for his energies he hit upon the idea of cycling the world. In what is typical of Nick, he managed to encapsulate his first challenge within a readily digestible format for the media, giving the trip a Jules Verne hook – around the world in 80 days.

Nick later cycled across the Sahara too (and back!), oh, plus the length of the Andes, not to mention riding to the source of the White Nile. And tucked away another cycle circumnavigation for good measure. His motorcycling adventures started later with a round-the-world trip riding a Royal Enfield. And after that – clearly enjoying the hard way to do anything – he took two canal longboats, lashed together to make some weird kind of a catamaran – across the channel, through the waterways of Europe and down to the Black Sea. He sunk one of the longboats 50-foot to the bottom of the Danube but got it re-floated and made it back to Blighty.

The motorcycle circumnavigations sound a bit piffling after that lot. But Nick’s never made his trips easy and for reasons only known to his inner-psyche (not necessarily to his conscious self) he’s made a race of circumnavigation. He first took the record of quickest circling at 31 days (for a while concurrently holding the cycle and motorcycle records) but has since whittled that time down to 19 days. Like us, you might ask just what he saw of the world motoring along as he did for hours on end, riding – of all things – a Yamaha R1 (coming from a cycle racing background he found the ergonomics quite acceptable). But actually, when you get to speak to Nick, you find he’s quite the thinker, and it’s not necessarily the world he’s wrangling with, it’s himself.

So Nick’s not by any means an off-road rider (and he doesn’t put himself out there as one), but his style is very closely related. Tearing around the world with nothing more than a passport (and visas) a pair of leathers, a credit card, tooth brush (and some dental floss) and apparently wearing just the one pair of underpants is as hardcore as you can imagine. Nick would sit well in a motocross paddock as well, for he has a similar demeanour to an MXGP star – almost purposefully awkward with the press and focused to the point of selfishness. 

THE EXPEDITION CENTRE

A visit to the Expedition Centre, which is situated in deepest Powys (central Wales) currently stands as a weekend two night, two-and-a-bit day format. Clients (although maybe we should call them guests) arrive early on a Friday, leaving lunchtime on a Sunday. Currently Nick can accommodate up to 12 at a time. There is no set agenda and Nick likes to canvas his guests for their wishes. Not that he’ll necessarily concur with their wishes. This is the Nick Sanders way, he’s not one to pander to the public – not even to paying guests – so be ready to find yourself challenged. Nick, on his own website, confesses to his hosting style being a bit Fawlty Towers and if you arrive with that in mind then you’ll be well-prepared. Go with it and you’ll find yourself enjoying yourself more than you might imagine.

Riding is the main activity and Nick is keen to introduce the spectacular local ‘white roads’ (that’s an OS map reference for the smallest of B roads) to his visitors. And they are spectacular, he’s right, although it’ll help to have a blue sky day to really appreciate them at their best.

There is off-roading available too, and here Nick defers to his collaborator Tony Williams. Tony’s a local lad, through and through, with a good knowledge of local trails. He’s also an experienced instructor, something he demonstrated with a couple of off-road novices on the weekend we attended; Tony did an excellent job of imparting the base skills. Particularly Matt, who had wobbled along the track to the Expedition Centre somewhat nervously – and seated – returned, standing with elbows up looking like a trail regular and certainly exhilarated by the knowledge he’d gained. Tony’s a typically accomplished Welsh trail and enduro rider, used to guiding, so whatever your level he can accommodate you. The centre also has a small fleet of Yamaha XT660s available to hire at a very reasonable rate, so there’s no excuse even if you’re currently without a bike.

The evenings are based around the dinner table within the main building – a newly built barn specially designed for the job, compete with professional-standard kitchen, 32-seat cinema, mezzanine area for relaxing and reading, and of course the main dining area (open plan onto the kitchen with everyone eating together).

The cuisine, by Nick’s partner Caroline (Dr Caroline Taylor that is, she’s a GP by profession), is a fusion of Welsh traditional and fine dining that will far exceed anyone’s anticipations. The two nights’ meals were simply outstanding.  And of course the dining table is the best place for discussion. Again, don’t go asking Nick banal questions such as ‘metal panniers or soft bags?’ (unless you enjoy short, pointed rebuffs) – and anyway Nick’s the wrong guy to ask, he’s not one to use either! However, get Nick onto a more juicy travel related subject, up a few cerebral levels, and he’ll open up nicely. And anytime Nick tails off – he may become bored – then Caroline, who’s accompanied Nick on many of his ends-of-the-earth guided tours, ably steps in.

The sleeping accommodation is separate, there being a choice of ‘glamping’ (that’s glamour-camping) options situated on Nick’s land, starting with an authentic Mongolian yurt, through wood cabins (all with wood-burning stoves) to a Unimog truck and trailer brilliantly converted. Each is uniquely furnished – be it Mongolian, American, Moroccan etc – the theme being each represents a memorable place Nick has visited and takes tours to. Given this is Wales, though, for eleven out of twelve months you’re probably well advised to stoke up the wood burners just to keep the chill off! Also know that there’s just the one washroom facility to share between the group (in the main barn), which is a wet room with loo. For those that do get caught short in the night you’ll find a po (you know, chamber pot) under each bed – although blokes being blokes chances are you’ll lurch off in the dark toward the nearest bushes instead.

CHALLENGE YOURSELF

Like we said, Nick’s plan for these weekends is not for them to be a never-ending Q&A session on everything adventure, on everything Nick’s ever done. There are now countless books Nick’s written that’ll help you there – a figure north of 20 we think (he’s as prolific with his writing and filming as he is his riding). And Nick’s right, he has an acquired understanding for adventure, but you will need to wheedle it out of him, it’ll not quite be automatic as he infers. But that’s not a bad thing – it’s exactly this kind of challenge to ordinary communication that you’ll encounter if you take on a proper overlanding experience. Look upon Nick as one of those sticky border guards you’ve got to win over!

“But the core value of this project isn’t the off-road, it’s the small lanes on-road riding with me,” says Nick not so much in his defence but to be as clear as he can as to what the weekend does and doesn’t offer. And we have to say, it’s amazing value at that: guided tours in the locality, guided off-roading if you prefer for a few quid more, a glamping experience and fine dining for two nights all for around £200. That's awesome value. As for the rest, well that’s your mission, find a way to charm Nick and he’ll open up. There is a suggestion he’s even a little shy, so be ready to ask to see his films in his theatre because again there’s almost this sense of modesty that stops him automatically suggesting it himself. 

So, what we expected from a weekend at the Expedition Centre and what we got was two different things. But that was no bad thing. Nick is a unique personality, a deep thinker, a driven man, but he’s not egotistical. You’ll find he values family and open mindedness. His personality is quirky – off-set, it must be said, by the ever-attentive and practical Caroline – and at some point Nick will challenge your thinking, maybe even your own sense of self. It’ll be a fascinating weekend – and honestly how often do you get a chance to spend a weekend with someone like Nick, a true world adventurer? But you’ll have to be quick – for there’s limited availability. Yep, typically Nick:

“I’m only operating these weekends for maximum three to four months a year,” he says with certainty. “The rest of the time I’m doing other things.”

Too true he is!

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