Nathan Millward, a British motorcycle traveler, journalist, and author, is at it again. After traveling from Sydney to London on his Honda CT110 with a milk crate for luggage, then riding across the US, Nathan has settled down back in England – but not entirely. Currently, Nathan is organizing low-key motorcycle tours called The Garbage Run where he’s inviting people to just get out there and ride, regardless of what motorcycles they own or how much experience they have.
To find out more, I chatted with Nathan about the philosophy of the Garbage Runs, motorcycling, and adventuring.
– Nathan, you’re a moto traveler, journalist, author, editor, speaker…and now, a tour guide. How come, and what’s the best part about it?
I guess I’ve just stumbled into all of it, really! The ride back from Australia to England on the 105cc Aussie post bike is what got me started, but there was no intention behind that other than to get out into the world on a motorcycle and hopefully get to the other end in one piece. Before the trip, I’d been working casually as a car journalist in Australia and so when I got back from the trip I naturally got in touch with a few bike magazines to see if I could make a few pounds by writing a story.
Even ten years ago when I did that first trip the adventure travel market wasn’t so crowded with stories, and magazines actually had a decent budget to pay for a story. I think I got £800 for a six page story in Top Gear magazine, which is unheard of now! During the ride home from Australia I also, by the most amazing luck, picked up a book deal with an Australian publisher. I’d written a short article about my trip so far – I think I’d made it to India – for the Sydney Morning Herald and the commissioning editor at HarperColins read the story and offered me a contract to write a book within a few days. I think I got a $12,000 advance which by amazing chance pretty much paid for the entire trip. But otherwise it was all on credit cards to that point.
The book got published in Australia, but not worldwide, so I got my international rights back and self-published it for the rest of the world as well as self-publishing my second book about the US trip on that same postie bike. So that’s how I got into editing and publishing. Then, when I got back from the America trip I got offered a job at Adventure Bike Rider magazine, which I turned editor of after about four months of being there. I only lasted another 12 months before getting the sack for just not seeing eye to eye with the publisher. I’d made good contacts by then and went freelance, and did an average job of making a living out of that, but freelance writing for the magazines I found frustrating as you’re pitching and chasing story ideas and I just wasn’t driven enough.
Fortunately, at the beginning of 2017, I decided I wanted to get out and do a short trip on the postie bike that I’d ridden from Sydney to London. I was married with a mortgage by this time, so the 1300 miles or so from Land’s End to John o’Groats – an iconic British road route – was about as far as I could manage. I put off doing that trip a few times, I just kept finding excuses, so I put it out on Facebook and just said ‘if anyone wants to do it then meet me down at Land’s End on this date and in eight days we’ll ride to the top of Scotland. Small bike preferably.’ Thirty people were waiting at Land’s End and over the next 8 days we all had a great trip riding up the country on the back roads and from that the Garbage Run was born. It was named that just because on that first run we were all on what some might say were rubbish bikes.
So really, I’ve arrived at this point by a mix of desperation and failure, but also if you don’t make a very good employee then you just have to adapt and be creative in trying to make a living, but it can get tiring after a while. The Garbage Run tours have given me more stability than I’ve ever known, thankfully.
– Do you still travel solo, on a postie bike?
No, I don’t ride the bike much now other than for work, which is a bit sad but I like being at home with my family – we have a 7 month old boy – so taking off on a solo trip now just doesn’t hold any appeal. Realistically, if I turn a wheel on a bike it has to be earning me money. So I still do some bike testing for some of the magazines, so I’ll be out on the bike for that, and obviously I’m out on the bike researching routes and guiding Garbage Runs, but all my miles are work miles, apart from the odd time I’ll go out for a trail ride near home. That might sound sad or overly commercial, but for the time being I’ve got nothing to gain from riding solo for pleasure. I’d rather be at home with my family.
– How was the Garbage Run project born?
As I said, just completely by chance. I did that first run for anyone who wanted to join me and there was some good feedback from it. One of the guys said you should charge, so a few months later I ran another one and charged £175 which included all the camping and hostels. I didn’t take much but it was a toe in the water. The next year I did two more Land’s End to John o’Groats run, another one via Ireland, another short tour around Devon and Cornwall and the big one that year was guiding 11 riders coast to coast across the USA on their own bikes having facilitated the air freighting of them from the UK. 2019 I was on the road even longer, with tours of Ireland, another Land’s End to John o’Groats run, then two big ones, Garbage Run Australia and the other Bulgaria or Bust.
For the Australia one I bought nine Honda CT110s from the same shop just outside of Brisbane as I’d got mine from, then took 8 riders coast to coast through the outback all the way to Perth. That was a steep learning curve as I had one rider break their leg and another their arm. But I had a back up van and satellite phone so thankfully all were evacuated safely. I offer quite a relaxed riding experience. I say they’re semi-guided rather than full on guided trips – basically I don’t hand-hold people – but at the same time my major concern is safety of the group. I’m insured and do first aid training to make sure if things do go wrong I’m best prepared. It’s a big responsibility taking a group on a trip – and even legally the buck stops with you – so I take it seriously and want to make sure people come back in one piece. But motorcycling is a dangerous pursuit and it’s just about making sure people know that.
The Bulgaria or Bust trip was a good one (at least I think). That involved land freighting 13 customer bikes out to Bulgaria and spending two weeks riding back after we all flew out to meet the bikes. The route was flexible, but it allowed us to ride Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and back up through the Alps in a more relaxed manner than if we’d ridden there and back.
I guess with any tour you’re just trying to help people put themselves in a position that they otherwise might not have found themselves in if they hadn’t come on your tour. And so being at the top of the Alps with a dozen new friends they met a week before is a big part of that. I find most people just want a rewarding experience. They want to feel challenged. They want to go on an adventure. Most of the people are busy people. They don’t always have the time or know where to start planning their own trip. Some just don’t have anyone to ride with. So they pay me a bit of money and I sort that part out for them. Some people shit on the idea of paying to go on a guided tour and shit on those that go on them, but if it’s the difference between them doing a trip or not doing a trip, then who cares.
Take the Irish trip I run; it’s 8 days following the coastline, we stay at some cool campsites and ride the best roads and I arrange for everyone to have high tea at Father Ted’s house. Obviously they could organize all that themselves, but sometimes it’s easier to let someone else do it.
– On your site, you said Garbage Run simply means “the organic beatnik nature of adventure” – could you expand on that a little?
Ha. I was probably drunk when I wrote that. I guess there’s always been a romantic notion of travel, and a lot of that comes from the often chaotic nature of travel. I’m a chaotic person by default. I do not offer a regimented organised tour. I run a tour in the way that reflects me and my approach to travel. For example when we cross America I don’t book the accommodation in advance. I don’t have a route set in stone. We freewheel it, we make it up as we go along based on weather or repairs or just group preference. And equally, if anyone wants to go off and ride on their own for a few days then they can do, then rejoin the group somewhere down the line. So I guess it means that every trip is different, and every rider is free to make every trip their own. And by doing that I think what I’m helping is the building of confidence in the riders so that they can develop as riders and travellers. I love repeat business, but at the same time, I’d like to think I help give people the confidence to say, ‘you know what, this bike travelling thing is easy, I’ll go off on my own next year.’ And that’s great. I like that.
– What kind of riders show up on your Garbage Run tours?
Anyone really, and depending on the trip they come on any bike. On a Land’s End to John o’Groats trip I might have someone on a Honda C90 and someone on a R1200 GS and everything in between. The way I run the trip allows each rider to ride the same route and stay at the same campsites and see the same things but they’re able to make their own pace and if they want, even ride together. Motorcycling is too divisive. I like that I get people on anything. I struggle to get female riders as I think they’re put off by the macho nature of group trips and motorcycle riding. The women I do get I generally find are really good riders and just get on with it. It makes no difference to them or to me or to the rest of the group. I’ve also had a few transgender riders and again, no problem to them or within the group. The cohesiveness of my groups – despite them being strangers – is what I think is the defining nature of what I offer. I take people experienced and inexperienced. I take old and young. I take mopeds and grand tourers. And to be honest I’ve met some amazing people from it and some of my closest friends now are Garbage Runners. I guess ultimately, the kind of riders I get on my tours are just those that want to get out and ride. And we go riding.
– When I asked one of the Garbage Run participants about what was the best part, they said, “connection”. Do you feel we lack connection in today’s ADV world? How can we have more of it?
Yeah, there’s far too much arguing and peacock-ing in the adventure market. I get bored of it. People arguing about bikes and kit and tyres. Who cares. But I think a lot of it comes down to the broad definition of adventure motorcycling. It encompasses everything from trail riding on enduro machines to going around the world on a moped. People are bound to disagree. But stuff like the GS hating or the snobbery that some bikes bring is just off putting to anyone new to the world of adventure motorcycling, which is a shame, but I guess just one of those things. Ultimately, as long as you’re out there riding a bike then who cares what you’re riding. I don’t think you could do much to change it to be honest. It’s just human nature.
– How many Garbage Runs have you done in the past three years? And where do you think this adventure will take you next?
I’ve done about 20 ‘Garbage Runs’ in one form or another, from the big country crossing trips to beginner off road weekends and three day Cornish Coastal Adventures. I’ve probably taken about 300 riders in total and am always looking at new places to take people. I guess fundamentally that place has to interest me and be somewhere I want to take people. It also has to be economically viable. I was supposed to be running another coast to coast USA trip this year for 13 customers in August but that’s been canned due to Coronavirus. That’s a sad one as the riders all had their flights booked and were dead keen for the trip. Now it’s postponed to 2021. Next year I’d also like to run a Iceland Garbage Run and maybe one to Europe for first time riders to Europe.
After that Australian Garbage Run I also shipped the 9 bikes back to the UK and run UK tours on those postie bikes, so that’s something I need to try and grow going forward, but with Coronavirus so much is up in the air. Maybe for the near future I’ll be running trips closer to home. But that’s okay. Half of the point of Garbage Run is the belief that you can have an adventure in your own back yard and not have to despair for years on end. To be honest, some people struggle to get a weekend off, let alone a week or a month.
-What would you advise to anyone thinking of setting up a tour company?
– What do you think the ADV world is going to look like post-Corona? What would you like to see more of?
Sadly, I think it’s impossible to tell. It could be all back to normal by September or it could drag on for years. Clearly it’s a self indulgent pastime, or business, to want to ride a motorcycle in a foreign country. It’s certainly not a God given right. So no doubt we’ll evolve and adapt as the situation develops. But I think for too long people have got hung up on the big far off adventures, missing the point that there’s some amazing riding to be had in your own country. That’s largely why I came up with the Land’s End to John o’croats run in the first place. I’d been around the world on a bike, which is great, but it’s not a sustainable thing to do, or even desirable for many. But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t have a great adventure on a bike in the time you do have available. And if people choose to come with me then that’s great, but equally I’m happy to share the routes I take for those who don’t.