By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Contributor
Chad Rothacher owns the construction company RMR Group and has lived in Big Sky for 20 years. He enjoys the tranquility in the mountains and spends much of his time outdoors skiing or biking with his partner and their two kids. Of late he’s taken to yoga, a practice he picked up on a recent trip to Africa.
This trip, however, was not simply a flight to Kenya for a khaki safari. Rothacher rode his KTM 1190 motorcycle the length of the continent, an 8,000-mile solo journey from Egypt to South Africa. He returned to Big Sky on Dec. 11. Over the course of the seven-week excursion, he witnessed the world’s second largest continent firsthand, and the adventure reinforced his belief in self-experience.
“You have to go there in order to see it,” said Rothacher, who turned 44 on Nov. 6 in Ethiopia. “We all have a risk scale and you’re balancing risk and reward. I’m getting boots-on-the-ground real experience in these parts of the world that a lot of people don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable traveling to.”
This was not his first brush with adventure travel. In late spring 2012, Rothacher toured his bike around Mongolia for six weeks, and three years later traveled to Central Asia, riding 6,500 miles from Turkey to Kazakhstan. Thieves attacked and hunted Rothacher on that trip, and Mountain Outlaw magazine published the story, adapted from his blog, in 2016.
In an interview following the ordeal, Rothacher said the Central Asia adventure might be his last. But the taste of adrenaline is sweet. As the Hunter S. Thompson quote reads at the top of Rothacher’s blog page: “The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it, because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”
EBS tracked down Rothacher in Cape Town, South Africa, to learn about his time with Kenya’s Samburu tribe, and what he learned about the realities of terrorism, the kindness of strangers, and how an “entrepreneurial seizure” can spark an adventure.
Explore Big Sky: This is the third solo motorcycle trip you’ve taken to some far-flung areas of the world; some might call them dangerous. Why do you do it?
Chad Rothacher: I was looking for another trip that was going to be lengthy and that didn’t have the same danger factor as the last ones. I looked around the world and Africa kept coming to mind. I’d always wanted to travel here and I think on a fun factor and danger factor – I try to balance those – this one seemed to fit the bill. It’s not the Four Seasons in Hawaii. It’s not Tajikistan. So it’s somewhere in the middle.
EBS: What made this trip different from the others?
C.R.: This one was a real eye-opening experience to the social studies of different parts of Africa and I didn’t realize that at the time. I thought it was going to have a little higher danger factor and more challenging riding than it did. It certainly opened my eyes in a whole other way about what’s going on in Africa with the poverty split and the real terrorism problems in North Africa.
The first two trips are right up there with some of the lowest-density populations in the world and on this one I was constantly surrounded by people, really at every moment.
EBS: Was that disconcerting?
C.R.: Yeah, certainly. It started off not too bad and then it reached a high point in Ethiopia, and got pretty dangerous … I don’t think people were meaning harm, but you get that many people around and all of a sudden you get this mob mentality. It was a trip for the senses, that’s for sure.
EBS: You kept a personal journal on that first trip in Mongolia. What prompted you to keep an online blog for these last two journeys?
C.R.: On the first one I was fairly checked out, so nobody really knew where I was for a week or two at a time. That didn’t really sit well with family members, and even business-wise it was challenging. So I started on the Central Asia trip and got a little more connected on this trip, too.
EBS: Your Oct. 28 blog entry reads “Day one and I ran out of fuel.” What feeling do these words prompt in you: “No benzene.”
C.R.: Human trafficking. That was probably my biggest concern going into the trip. Human trafficking was at the forefront of my mind in North Africa, Sudan, Ethiopia. When I’m getting to the point where I’m struggling with fuel I’m just thinking, ‘Oh s—, I’m beside the road and this is where it goes bad.’ You always should be aware traveling that it’s not the first mistake you make, it’s the subsequent mistakes after that that usually get you in trouble.
EBS: According to your blog, six men with AK-47s in a blue pickup truck gave you a liter of fuel and tea. In central Egypt you had a semi-automatic rifle pointed at your chest, and just across the border Sudan was the friendliest country you visited. Did you experience a kind of paradox on this journey?
C.R.: Northern Egypt in the Cairo area is in the thick of it with terrorism right now. I mentioned in my [Oct. 28] blog that at one point a guy wanted to shoot me. He really did. He wanted to shoot the American. He was bummed when he got disciplined [by his superior officer]. They were probably thinking American spy; some guy out there by himself with camera equipment and a SAT phone and all this high-tech gear.
But then seven hours down the road I meet the Nubian people of southern Egypt and Central and North Sudan. And what I found was that the Nubians were just awesome. Man, what a great turning point getting out of central Egypt. And I got to sail up the River Nile. How cool is that?
EBS: What did you learn about the people of Africa that you didn’t expect?
C.R.: I look at North and Central Sudan, which has been cut off from U.S. financial aid for many years. They’re not living a Western civilized life, but their quality of life seems to be great. I could stop anywhere and get wood-fired bread out of the stone oven, and they were growing fruit and vegetables along the Nile so the people have learned to live a life of subsistence.
South Sudan and Ethiopia and northern Kenya are experiencing a tremendous
amount of financial aid, and what became apparent immediately was their reliance on that aid. So, instead of living by the river and growing vegetables and farming, they’ve moved up to the roadside. The villages now line the roads and people wait for the aid trucks to come by. I know it’s a huge debate but that does not seem to be a solution to solving that epidemic problem of poverty. You teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime. The real problem they’re facing is a lack of education.
EBS: When we spoke after your Central Asia trip you weren’t sure you’d take another solo motorcycle journey again. What made you decide to get back on the bike?
C.R.: Literally a switch went one day and I thought about doing a vehicle trip. As I started researching areas and getting a little more excited, I wanted to be on the bike again. It is such a different way to travel because you’re 100 percent connected to all elements: the sounds, the smells, the weather. You’re getting wet. I got wet a lot this trip. You’re hot. But you’re so much more exposed. I felt like it was calling, and then at some point there’s no turning back. Once you have that, what some people call an “entrepreneurial seizure,” it’s hard to get it out of your head.
EBS: It seems to me you’re getting at the heart of the matter: People travel to understand themselves and to gain a more comprehensive worldview. How important is it to escape your comfort zone and explore?
C.R.: People put a lot of stress on this type of adventure travel with the “danger factor.” The fact of the matter is, in Mongolia I wanted to see how the nomads were living. I really wanted to understand the Muslim community in Central Asia: Are they all terrorists? Hell no, they’re not. They are some great people. In Africa, I wanted to understand this, too. I wanted to put my eyes on it. And you have to go there in order to see it. Florida has its fun factor but I’m not learning anything from traveling to Miami. Some guy is happy on the green run up at the hill, and another guy isn’t happy unless he’s skiing off the top.