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160cc wanderlust

Cambridge MBA alumnus Kirk Wilson (MBA 2007) was riding high in his career, but shifted gears with a 20,000-mile motorcycle ride around South America. He’s now published a book about it.

The Salar de Uyuni salt flats.
Kirk Wilson.
Kirk Wilson

Cambridge Judge Business School alumnus Kirk Wilson (MBA 2007) was riding high in his career as Executive Director of the China Britain Business Council, based in Beijing, leading a team of 120 professionals to improve Britain’s commercial relations with China. Yet despite living what he calls “the full diplomatic lifestyle” of meeting government leaders, hosting embassy receptions and speaking on live television to audiences of up to 100 million people, he sought a change from office life.

So Kirk in 2017 became an independent consultant on international trade to gain more control over his work-life balance. He took a two-month motorcycle tour of Europe in 2018, and that wanderlust “escalated” earlier this year into a six-month marathon, riding a fuel-efficient, and tiny, 160cc motorcycle across 10 South American countries – carrying only a backpack. He kept a diary of this adventure, which he has just turned into a book called Twenty Thousand Miles Through South America.

We caught up with Kirk about the highs and lows of his trip, including a mini-MBA reunion in Chile.

South American open road.

It wasn’t my intention to make a splash about the journey. I’m usually a very private person and don’t have Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. I took on these challenges purely for the life experience. But as I rode through Venezuela, a country that was experiencing an economic and political crisis, I realised that it was a story others might want to read.

The highpoint was without any doubt the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia, the world’s largest salt flat. For a few days each year, just after rainfall, it turns into an infinite mirror and the experience was otherworldly. There were many difficult days as well, such as riding in sub-zero temperatures on very high mountain roads and then descending into plus 40 degrees in the deserts. But the low point came after a tough few days working through water and petrol shortages in Venezuela, when I heard that the border with Colombia was closed and thought that my journey was over just a few hundred kilometres short of a complete circuit. I did make it over the border and I explain in the book how, but it was a dangerous and unpleasant experience and not something that I can recommend.

My advice to other travellers attempting such a journey is to keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Beyond that, get health insurance and all-terrain tyres if you’re going by motorbike

Kirk Wilson, Rodrigo Ceballos, Andres Illanes & Victor Szecowka
with fellow MBAs Rodrigo Ceballos, Andres Illanes & Victor Szecowka

The Cambridge Judge network came in handy. Making good friends from around the world is an incredible benefit of the MBA, and in the back of my mind, wherever I went in South America, I always knew that there was someone I could call for advice if I really needed it. In Santiago, Chile, we had a mini-reunion at the home of one multi-talented alumni who cooked a sumptuous barbeque complete with local wines.

I’m now back to work as a consultant. But I’m already planning my next even more environmentally friendly adventure for 2020: I’m buying a small boat and will set off from Spain in the summer, working remotely from aboard as I make my way across the Mediterranean sea.

Kirk is interested in hearing from…

…anyone who’d like to hear more about the journey.