How it all began
The idea of doing this journey again began to form a few years ago, but for a while I doubted that it would ever happen. It seemed much more difficult to make the break this time around. There was so much more to leave behind, things I couldn’t quite abandon as I did 27 years ago.
In some ways of course it was easier. For one thing I didn’t have to learn how to ride a motorcycle. But support was more difficult to come by at first, because it is not such an unusual thing to do these days. And that is rather ironic, since my own book is partly responsible for the increased global traffic.
Nevertheless, slowly, the money worked itself out. Iwas being paid by a newspaper here, and a magazine there, and sales of my books helped too, but best of all, money came from good-hearted enthusiastic people who wanted to see the journey happen, and wanted to read about it as I travelled.
I asked all the people on my list if they would be willing to pay $5 a month for this. That was a lot to ask, but enough of them said Yes to make me believe that this site could make a real difference to my survival. So this becamea viewer-suppported site.
The pounds and dollars added up. What did I need (what does any person need) to do this thing? Some money, and a bike. Not to mention various intangible qualities, mostly but not entirely good. I think I have the money. I do have the bike. As for those other, elusive attributes, I had them once, I hope I have them still.
For months I was very uncertain about which bike to take. In 1973 it was simple. Today there are so many possibilities, and everybody has a different opinion. Should it be a Triumph again? I had been riding a new Tiger for a couple of years and I liked it a lot, but it was heavy, top heavy, not a bike you want to be picking up too often, and when I remembered Sudan and Ethiopia I thought, Maybe not.
Well then, the new Triumph twin? For symbolic reasons I suppose that would have been the one. It was closer to the old tradition, with a lot of what’s best about the new bikes. And it was at least 50lbs lighter than the Tiger. But Triumph in the UK didn’t want to talk about it. Why ? I don’t know. Perhaps they didn’t think it was ready for a trip like this. It certainly wasn’t built for the desert. But then, neither was the old Tiger I took in ’73. Whatever their reasons, they never bothered to tell me. Rude, but conclusive.
Meanwhile, something better came along. A beautifully fitted out R80 GS, late model, with 1000cc pots, and barely run in.
CW Motorcycles in Dorchester, UK, put it together, with Ohlins shocks, panniers from Bernd Tesch, and an Acerbis tank. The tyres were by Avon, just as they were in the Seventies, but the tyres themselves are so much more developed. These were the new Distanzia dual-purpose tyres, and I soon experienced the difference it makes to have all this new equipment.
When I rode out from London to go around the world in 1973 I was fully prepared, somewhere along the way, to lose my life. Nobody to my knowledge had made such a journey before (it turns out I was wrong about that. A few people had) and I thought it would be as dangerous as it was exciting.
In fact, thanks to some near misses, I got away almost scot-free, and the years since have come as a bonus. I could have gone on travelling. That would have been the easiest thing to do, but I thought I had tasted the best of it, and was afraid to have it go stale. Life took a very different turn during the following years, as I went through the pleasures and pains of the more normal existence that I had wished on myself, marriage, home -building, a child, and then sadly, separation and divorce
Memories of distant places were a powerful presence. It was unimagineable that I wouldn’t see them again, but there were so many places , far too many for me to re-visit in a casual way, so I suffered their absence as best I could and got on with my life as a writer and father and the other things I do more or less well.
Then motorcycles began to play a bigger part in my life again. I rode the new Tiger around America, recovering that Centaurian feeling of being one with the steed. With my family dispersed I began thinking more and more of that journey I made so long ago (the seventies do seem so far away) and the idea of repeating it came often to my mind, but the thought of what I would have to do to raise the money and the support hampered my enthusiasm.
I live, by choice, in an isolated community, and have little contact with the traditional sources of sponsorship. These days, motorcyclists travel around the world with increasing frequency, and having to sell myself was a miserable prospect. Then, literally out of the blue (since that is the United Nations colour) I got a call from Geneva. Some UN volunteers wanted to ride bikes around the world to celebrate the Year of the Volunteer. Could I assist them, support them, bless them on the their journey.
Sure thing, I said. But even better, how about if I come along. It seemed a perfect solution. I do the blessing, they do the heavy lifting. For a while it went well. I was much better at selling them than selling myself, and pretty soon I had made the mental shift from thinking about doing it, to being actually prepared to do it. And then, to cut a tortuous story short, the financial rug was pulled from under them. But it was too late to save me from my conversion. I was commited. I would go anyway. And I was very happy to discover that a lot of other people thought I should go, and were making concrete gestures of help.
To my great surprise I found myself, at the age of 69, still perfectly fit and apparently capable of making that journey again. I had the privilege of being able to revisit a great number of places and people in this world, many in remote and disputed areas, and seeing them through the same pair of eyes across a quarter century of extraordinary change.
How would I measure the changes? Sometimes one can go to the same place twice in a very short period of time and have profoundly different impressions and experiences. How would I compensate for these purely subjective variations? Well, the best I could was to reproduce, as exactly as possible, my mode of arrival. Being on the bike, I thought, would impose the same perspective, and this is important. We all know how different a place can seem when arrived at by train, say, as opposed to by car.
How I was perceived then, as a stranger riding in on a bike, was a big part of the story too, another reason why it is important to return in the same way.
But for the most part the changes are too obvious to miss, as I try to track down the people with whom I had such intense, though short-lived relationships. I began by reading my own book, and the notebooks I kept, with new and urgent interest. I was fizzing with excitement at the prospect of those coming encounters.
Quite soon I found out what had become of the great passion and grandiose projects of Signor Zanfini in Roggiano, Italy; what El Kabaria is like today, and what became of that bubble of Edwardian mannerisms that was Madame Mellasse’s hotel in Alexandria. Would there still be a school in the Atbara desert, and if so how would they view the pictures I took of them 27 years ago? Had the tea house, Khor el Fil, become a cyber cafe? Would I again be staying at the Curry Pot Inn on the road to Mombasa, and would there be a bar girl still alive after all the years of AIDS?
On and on it went.
Now the journey is over. You can judge for yourself how successful it was.
Thanks again for visiting. Wander through these pages. You’ll find interesting ideas, and good things to read. If you don’t know who I am, let this web site introduce us. I look forward to knowing you too.