When the 10th annual BMW Motorrad Days festival opens in southern Germany on July 2, its participants will have travelled far and wide from countries across Europe. Few of them will have journeyed as far as Michael Martin, however. After dedicating the past three decades to exploring the world’s most hostile deserts, the Munich-based photographer and geographer now spends two thirds of his time on the road – working on his latest project, Planet Desert, and presenting his photographs to audiences around the world.
Michael returns to BMW Motorrad Days this summer to present his slideshow, 30 Years Adventure, after a six-month lecture tour around Germany, Austria, the UK, Japan and Canada. “It’s a two-and-a-half hour show about my travels and personal experiences over the past 30 years,” he says.
For 19 of those 30 years, his favorite mode of transport has been BMW motorcycles. During the 1980s he travelled throughout the Sahara by car, but by 1991, the security situation in the region had worsened due to civil war. “I decided to go to eastern and southern Africa, but it didn’t seem very adventurous to do it in a four-wheel drive vehicle. I wanted a new challenge. On a motorcycle I would experience Africa, not through a windscreen, but in a more direct way.”
BMW was an obvious choice, not least because the manufacturer is based in Michael’s home city. “The brand is famous for manufacturing tough, solid, high-quality bikes, and for its support,” he says. After a few phone calls to the marketing department, Michael was given three R100GS models for three months.
“I was lucky; the marketing guy was really interested in my idea for the project, which was to travel from Kenya to Cape Town.” And that was the start of this successful partnership. Since then, Michael has ridden thousands of kilometres on BMW motorcycles. The R1100GS took him on a tour of the sources of the River Nile, and the R1150GS was used for his last project, Deserts of the Earth, in which he travelled throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, North and South America, and Australia.
For his latest project, Planet Desert, Michael has chosen the R1200GS Adventure. His aim is to compare dry deserts with ice and volcano deserts in the Arctic regions, with 20-25 visits planned over the next three years. It began last August, with a trip to Iceland, and will continue in May with a journey across northern Canada and Siberia, then to the Sahara in the autumn. It has the potential to be his toughest challenge yet: “Icy conditions and deserts are not easy for bikers, because there are no existing tracks or roads,” says Michael.
Although there will be obvious differences between the dry and ice deserts, Michael is expecting to find some similarities between the two extremes. “The experiences as a photographer will be similar, with wide open spaces, blue skies, no people or vegetation,” he says. “But I love the idea of contrast, the differences between icebergs and sand dunes,” he says.
Differences in terrain and temperature aren’t expected to affect the performance of the R1200GS Adventure. “I’ve never had any problems with the bikes – I’ve travelled in 50˚C and they don’t overheat, and in temperatures of -25˚C without any spare parts,” he says.
The advantages of travelling by motorcycle extend much further than the machine’s technical capabilities, however. It not only allows him to experience more of the elements and the landscape of each country, but it has also brought him closer to the people. “A motorcycle is an ideal bridge to the locals,” he says. “It’s a perfect starting point for conversations, whether you are dealing with an American petrol pump attendant or a Chinese policeman.”
Two wheels are also a useful distraction from the substantial amount of camera equipment that Michael and his companions have to transport. This has been particularly important in countries such as Iran, China or Turkmenistan, where visitors are rarely allowed to take photographs or make films.
“If we met police, security or military officials, they didn’t ask about our papers, or where we were going,” says Michael, “they were only interested in our motorcycles. In Kenya, the most common question was, ‘how many cc?’ The police in Mali looked surprised at the speedometer: 240 kilometres an hour? And in India, we were most often simply asked, ‘how much?’
One of the main plus points for Michael is the sense of achievement he feels at the end of each day, when he parks up his motorcycle and prepares to sleep under the stars. “It’s one of the best feelings to glide along in the desert, to make the one and only track, and maybe for a couple of minutes to really get on the gas!”
When he returns home from his epic adventures, Michael enjoys spending time with his two children in Munich and in the great outdoors of Upper Bavaria. “It’s the most beautiful part of Germany, with mountains, lakes and nature,” says Michael. And luckily for the thousands of visitors to BMW Motorrad Days, it’s also where they’ll find Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
If you’ve not had a chance to see one of Michael Martin’s slideshow presentations, make sure you visit him at BMW Motorrad Days. These fantastic presentations have been the inspiration and starting point of many people’s own adventures. He’ll be joining the team in Garmisch on Friday and Saturday afternoons in the US-Lodge, where his fantastic pictures can be seen in all their glory on a giant screen. He’ll also be selling books and DVDs of his travels in the ’30 Years of GS’ exhibition. Don’t miss it.