Review in The Observer – Mike Carter, 2007

‘Every separation gives a foretaste of death – and every reunion a foretaste of resurrection.’ I’m pretty sure that Schopenhauer never rode a motorcycle, but those sentiments could easily be applied to Ted Simon and his epic revisiting of a round-the-world journey he did in 1973.

Then, a 42-year-old nascent biker, he set off on an old Triumph with a flying jacket and a hunger for adventure. Four years later, 64,000 miles and 45 countries later, he returned, wrote the classic Jupiter’s Travels and became an exalted poster boy for the restless and armchair Don Quixotes everywhere.

Simon’s life since has been framed by that journey. So there is almost an inevitability that, in his late sixties we find him once more getting astride a motorbike – this time a huge, comfortable BMW – and heading off into the unknown: “To see if I could recapture in some way the person I was then – this man who became for some an almost mythical figure. There are thousands who dream if doing what Jupiter did. Why shouldn’t I?”

We follow him through Europe into north Africa, retracing his original route. Along the way he looks for the characters who’d been cast in his first trip; the need for reunions seems great. Unsurprisingly he finds them gone, or, more often, dead Sometimes he finds a link to them, only to learn of lives blighted by misfortune and dreams unfulfilled.

Simon’s second journey is, unlike his first, affected by technology. Now obliged to meet up with a film crew and equipped with a mobile phone and laptop, his weekly duties involved filing for his website, writing a newspaper column and responding to emails from fans offering accommodation. ‘It was a shock to realise how much I had changed. I had become a creature of communication’, he writes. ‘Where was that man, that Jupiter, who once sat contentedly by the roadside in India, confident that somehow, someone would bring help and usher in a new adventure?

In this regard the anonymity and serendipity integral to Jupiter’s Travels  have been destroyed by the very acts of its existence and celebrity, something Simon readily acknowledges. At one stage he rages with himself for staying in a smart hotel when his younger self would have just ‘slung a hammock under a tree?’

Attempting to find more spontaneous connections, he encounters an ambivalence and a suspicion of strangers that he cannot recall was there in the seventies. In Sudan, at a roadside tea house he notices how the local people stare aggressively at him, ‘whereas 27 years earlier, they would have respected me and stared at the bike … and [back then] as a foreign traveler I was never able to pay for my tea, but this time there was no such automatic generosity. In these mundane ways we are all becoming alike.’

In Kenya, the isolation and constant battering his ageing body is taking start to bite and its clear that his cherished memories of a quarter century ago are being slowly, irrevocably violated. Exhausted and in the middle of a vast plain, he hits a patch of mud and his bike topples over, ‘For the first time in my life I hear the sound of a bone breaking. He writes, ‘I put my right foot down, only to see it flop over uselessly.’

But the disaster proves a godsend for his jaded soul; a brief reunion with ‘Jupiter’. Picked up by a passing motorist he is taken to a nearby hospital, patched up, then, before being transferred to Nairobi, he spends the night with the men of the Kikuyu tribe at their homestead, feasting on a goat killed in his honour. ‘These are the serendipities you don’t forget,’ he says, somewhat restored. In Africa things always seemed to work out.’

On to the Cape, then a flight to Rio. In the first book South America was where the dashing adventurer had lived out his playboy fantasies. But now he was back wearing the cloak of invisibility of the old. ‘A man of 70 is never going to be looked at in the same light as a man of 43,’ he says, ruefully. ‘I was all too aware of my fading powers.’

Then there are all the observations of the then and the now viewed from the saddle; there’s the fallout from 9/11 and the start of the Bush foreign adventure, the denuded landscapes where once forests stood, the epidemic rise of gambling, the ubiquity of advertising, the small towns that have burgeoned into vast, ugly urban sprawls, the homogeneity of the architecture, the decline of the railways and the voracious road building. The spirit of Don Quixote lingers in Simon, but the blows come think and fast.

‘I regret that my son will never be able to dance with the Turkana as I once did, and that China has lost its mystery, that it is possible to travel from one end of Africa to the other without seeing a wild animal that isn’t protected, and that the empty beaches I once loved are full,’ he writes towards the end. ‘I regret that our culture has become so powerful that it has made all the others slaves or tributaries to it, even though it is my culture.’ The fact that all this has happened in a quarter of a century makes it more shocking.

If the book’s conclusions are depressing the writing is anything but. It is at times sparse; at others gloriously luminescent, but it is always self-deprecating. Simon’s physical power are diminishing, but his writing just gets better.  The wonderful portraits of the people he encounters, often redolent of Bruce Chatwin, are sometimes so enticing that, were this a movie, you’d swear they were a plant for later on. But we never see or hear from them again and this, I suppose is the essence of the journey

The cover of the original book featured a self-portrait of Ted Simon, tanned, straddling his Triumph in some desert somewhere, handsome in his flying jacket, with the world at his feet. The bike, the man and the adventure are utterly indivisible. It is an image that inspired countless others, including me, to follow in his tracks. That image occupies the back of Dreaming of Jupiter. On the cover, the BMW is riderless and a photo of the septuagenarian Ted Simon – the man who dreamt of doing what Jupiter did – floats above, removed, like an apparition.