In the last 29 years, Drs. Neil and Lyanne Riley have sought adventure in 31 countries, on nine trips, on five continents — two people on one motorcycle. They have been detained in Russia, bungee jumped in New Zealand and went on safari in Africa, and when they speak of the trips they have taken, they frame them in terms of the people they met and the culture they experienced before landmarks and history.
Neil and Lyanne met on a racquetball court. Both had a passion for cycles — hers with pedals and his with a motor — and when they married in 1986, those passions merged. Now at 71 and 65, respectively, the semi-retired dentist and newly retired speech pathologist are looking for their next trip.
“I love to ride motorcycles,” Neil says. Around Columbia, he rides a BMW R1200 GS. “That’s a thrill for me.”
Of the nine trips they’ve taken, three in particular rise to the top: the Black Sea 2008, southern Africa in 2000 and the Baltic Sea in 2014. The trip through the countries around the Black Sea was one of the first of its kind in that area of the world, while Africa and the Baltic Sea were special for other reasons.
On roads through Turkey, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania and Russia, the Black Sea trip proved more difficult as first trips go. Border crossings and paperwork complicated what is not normally such a challenging process. In fact, it was the paperwork that got them detained when they crossed into Russia — you have to have an international motorcycle drivers’ license. For that trip, on Neil’s license, the American Automobile Association that issued his forgot to stamp the motorcycle section, which the Russians picked up on and then held the group at length in a detention area.
“It was a little nerve wracking because we didn’t know what they were going to do,” Neil says. “Basically, they wanted money.” The guide gave the officials $100 and the group was on its way, but on the road, Russian authorities kept stopping them, raising anxiety that they might be held up again.
Detention isn’t the only experience that makes that trip memorable, though. “That was the trip we had our one and only wreck,” Lyanne mentions, “after all these years of riding together.”
“You had bring that up,” Neil says with a quiet moan.
“He’s a very good rider, by the way. He raced motorcycles when he was younger, so he knows how to drive in anything like sand, gravel, dirt, all that mud,” Lyanne explains. “We got into this little town in Turkey, and Neil turns to me and says, ‘Isn’t it nice that we are on pavement again?’” It was about that time they rounded a corner and came upon unavoidable gravel on the road. His next words were, “We’re going down.” As wrecks go, it could have been worse. Though the bike was totaled, they weren’t hurt too badly, save the torn PCL in Lyanne’s right knee.
“The police came out immediately to help and got me into the police station. They served us tea,” Lyanne remembers.
“Gave me a breathalyzer test,” Neil adds with a scoff.
Detention and wrecks aside, people have made the biggest impression on the Rileys, not only in Turkey but elsewhere.
“We’ve been to a lot of poor countries. Chile, Peru, Morocco the same thing,” Neil says. “And those are the ones that have the most meaning. It really humbles you to see that and to see people who are happy with so little. You go to New Zealand, which is very similar to the U.S. as far as standard of living, and Europe, but to go to Third World countries, that’s a much richer experience. To go around the Black Sea to Turkey and Moldova, Ukraine … they’re really struggling. I think it’s almost the poorer the country, the more impact it has on you because you can go to a lot of places where it’s just like being here.”
Their Black Sea trip was chronicled in BMW Motorcycle Owners of America’s member magazine, On. Neil’s firsthand account of their unique trip appeared in the May 2010 issue. The magazine is where Neil and Lyanne often come across their trip ideas, like their trip through the southern African countries of South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
As memorable as the Black Sea trip was, “for me, there’s no contest,” Lyanne says. “It’s Africa.” The wildlife there captured her imagination. “You go along and all of a sudden you see a field of giraffes. I mean a field of them!” she says using her hands to help illustrate the magnitude of it, “like if you’d see a field of deer. We left Francistown in Botswana and they said, ‘Look out for elephants on the road.’”
The Africa trip is also the only motorcycling tour on which they have taken one of their three children. Brett Riley was 11 when they went, and although he did not ride a bike (he rode in the support vehicle), the trip impacted him deeply.
“Not too many kids get to experience what I got to experience,” he says. “One of the reasons that I love the outdoors in general is just the people that we met and the simplicity of that sort of lifestyle…I’d only seen that kind of thing on TV growing up, and I think to a certain extent didn’t realize how real that was for so many people.”
In Africa, there were obstacles as well. Plans were changed for the Zimbabwe leg due to violence against tourists occurring there at the time, and their guide, a former member of Special Forces, was able to steer them clear of danger.
On most of their trips, guides made the difference, from being aware of local laws to speaking the necessary languages. The Rileys haven’t taken a trip without one, except for the trip around the Baltic Sea. The Baltic Sea was incredible from a historical standpoint, with the old cities, World War II and Holocaust history, Neil says. It was made more special in that it was planned by Austrian friends they met on their trip through the Chile and Peru.
“No doubt about it, they seek out those types of trips, those types of experiences where they get to learn about the people there more than anything,” Brett says. “Almost every time they come back from a trip, they have made lifelong friends.”
The Good With The Not So Bad
While the Rileys talk about these three trips at length, they frequently intertwine experiences from their other trips into the tales. “Once you’re there, it’s hard to say what’s better because they all have their own thing,” Neil says. Overall, “there weren’t a lot of negatives on these [trips].”
Appreciating the fact they like to experience new places differently has been something the Rileys have done since their honeymoon in Hawaii. Lyanne is the type to go to museums and take tours, where Neil would rather play golf. This has served them well. When the opportunity to bungee jump in New Zealand presented itself, Neil was reluctant, but Lyanne was enthusiastic. In the end, they jumped together.
Food is also an area that could be intimidating; however, Neil and Lyanne are both quick to say everything they have tried abroad has been decent. “It’s all a part of the experience,” she says, “but honestly the food was pretty good most places.”
From warthog and emu in Africa to guinea pig in Peru, they are accustomed to eating like a native. “In Africa, they served this bowl of what they called mopane worms, and so I ate some of those,” Lyanne says. As she tries to describe what they were like, she struggles to get it right. “Well, it was just like a … well if you didn’t know what it was…it was crunchy.”
While the next trip has yet to be planned, it is something they are already thinking about. China is intriguing as well as Cambodia and Vietnam. Neil spent time in Korea serving as an Army dentist during the Vietnam War and would love to go back—if it were not so far away.
While they would like the destination to be new to them, there is one aspect of the trip that will be like all of the others. They’ll bring little gifts along for each person they meet, especially children: toothbrushes.
“It’s a bit of an icebreaker,” Neil says. “It’s kind of a connection, and it’s easy.”
“It’s a fun thing to do to get people to talk and to…” Lyanne says trailing off. Neil finishes her sentence. “Smile.”