I don’t know anyone who isn’t fantasising about something they want to do when this pandemic is finally flattened—hopefully like a bug under a shoe. For me, a road trip is the light at the end of the tunnel of our lockdown. While I’m sitting indoors, cooped up like livestock, for good reason, all I can think about is an adventure set to the hearty thump of a motorcycle eager to stretch its legs.
Unfortunately it will be some time before most of us will be able to take off and rove the world on two wheels, even after we’re rid of COVID-19. There are careers to salvage, family to see, and lives to rebuild. Until then, living vicariously seems to be the name of the game, which is where motorcycle memoirs come in.
Motorcycle adventures are a sturdy pillar of the travel memoir pantheon: for over 100 years determined travellers have circumnavigated the globe this way. Be it Carl Stearns Clancy, a 21 year-old American who first circled the world on a motorcycle in 1913, or Cathy Birchall, the first blind person to ever travel pillion around the world on a bike. Some of these writers have been shot at, jailed, and suffered terrible injuries on their journeys, passing through regions that have not seen travellers due to decades of war. Others have driven into deserts that have never felt the touch of a motorcycle before, and jungles so thick and deep that insects blur the road like a thick fog. But all tell tales of escapades with the underlying message that this world of ours is a backyard of beauty that unifies all of us.
Actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman met while shooting a movie in Ireland. Charley walked up to Ewan in a pub called Casey’s, and the first thing he said was, “You ride bikes?”
“Yeah…yeah, I ride a ‘78 Motoguzzi,” Ewan responded. That moment led to a friendship that, eight years later, resulted in one of the best travel documentaries about motorbiking ever made, and a memoir written by the two charismatic riders. Over the course of the journey, spanning four months and 20,000 miles, the guys eat bulls’ testicles with Mongolian nomads and desperately try to escape Kazakhstani paparazzi, all while enjoying the ride of a lifetime on a couple of BMW R1150GSs.
For those that have long dreamt of undertaking a motorcycle trip, but don’t know the clutch from the carburetor, Jupiter’s Travels is the place to start. In 1973 a middle-aged English journalist decided to embark on one of the most ambitious motorcycle trips around the world—he didn’t even have a license to operate one and would later fail his first motorcycle driving test.
The battle-hardened journalist somehow got The Sunday Times to partially cover his expenses and Triumph to provide him with a 500cc T100 (a Tiger). He travelled 100s of thousands of miles, covering six continents and 45 countries. What ensues is a wild (Spoiler: he was briefly apprehended as a believed Israeli spy in Egypt) adventure that has not only become a bestseller, but also inspired Ewan McGrergor, who read this book on a Maldivian island, to take a similar trip.
The book has very little to do with motorcycle maintenance, and is fundamentally a philosophy book written by a man who has struggled with mental health issues. It began as the author’s reflections on a motorcycle trip he and his son Chris took from Minnesota to the Dakotas (in the book it is from Minnesota to California) as an essay he wrote in 1968, while he recovered from experimental treatments at a mental institution. It morphed into an 800,000 word magnum opus that is more of a philosophical exploration of Pirsig’s zen approach rather than your straightforward travel memoir. A testament to the unconventional nature of this novel is that it was rejected by a whooping 121 publishers before being taken on. It went on to sell over five million copies worldwide.
In the early sixties, Tim Severin, an Oxford undergraduate in geography, set out to recreate Marco Polo’s travels with a small group of friends. They called themselves the Marco Polo Route Project, taking the onus upon themselves to confirm the accuracy of the explorer’s famed expedition. The four companions start out on their journey from Venice on two BSA 650s with sidecars, donated to their project. Although they fail to complete the arduous journey, they manage to put paid to mysteries like Marco’s descriptions of “apples of paradise” and secret middle eastern hot springs, as well as ride through epic segments of Polo’s trail, such as the Valley of the Assassins.
Father and son duos make for great motorcycle travel memoirs, especially when they are both journalists and photographers. Eitel and his son Rolf Lange started their round-the-world trip in 1953, a bleak time for post-war Germany. Their choice of vehicle was a thunderous 600cc Zundapp outfitted with a sidecar. They passed through Italy and Istanbul on their way to India, from there they travelled to Hong Kong and Japan via boat, slowly working their way to the port of San Francisco to continue across the continental United States back on their bikes. This hard to find book features 114 stunning photographs and three maps. They returned, after travelling roughly 30,000 miles on land, and around 11,000 miles over sea, their journey on their bikes alone was well over the circumference of the world.
Towards the end of 1934, Theresa Wallach decided to help her friend get from England to South Africa. This would have been a difficult journey anyway you slice it in those days, but Wallach wanted to get it done on her Panther M100 motorcycle, a 600cc P&M, complete with a Watsonian sidecar and a trailer. This journey would test the mettle of any modern day motorcycle and rider, but in that day and age, a motorcycle ride across the Sahara hadn’t ever been accomplished. And to make matters worse, the mere thought of women whizzing around on motorcycles was not a popular one in 1930s England (Wallach hid her motorcycle from her family for quite some time before this journey). Unfettered, the ambitious team embarked on the 7,500 mile journey without a sextant or compass, which some would say was just plain suicidal.
Robert set out on a miraculous journey across Europe, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and India; from Indonesia to China, Japan, and the United States, sitting atop a bike with and extra fuel tank in the rear, and a 35 mm camera, suitcase, and sun helmet piled so high in front of the his towering windshield that it was a minor miracle he could see enough road to ride his bike. On a small scale, one might consider Robert the most successful gun smuggler in the early 1930s, for hidden between his skid plate and engine was a Smith and Wesson .32 revolver, wrapped in rags, which accompanied him for his entire journey: 40,000 miles, through 20 countries.
Robert soon realised that though he set out to study architecture, his camera increasingly focused more on the people he met across his journey and less on the structures. It’s not that seeing a 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian temple or the Temple of Borobudur, in Java didn’t move him, but those inanimate structures were nothing like playing backgammon with sticks and stones with an old Turish hermit in the mountains.
Robert is the only person on this list that travelled around the world for 18 months because somebody “called his bluff”. You’ll have to read the book to figure what that really means.
Note: Robert would later go on to design the world’s first flying car, the Airphibian, and the Skyhook aerial rescue system, which was used throughout the Cold War right up until the Gulf War and featured in the classic James Bond film Thunderball.
In 1928 two ambitious, young Hungarians set out to Paris to buy a used 1922 Harley Davidson J Model motorcycle and sidecar. Neither were well-versed in riding, but apparently that didn’t faze them. The journey of Sulkowski and his friend Gyula Bartha would last eight long years, across Europe, Africa, the Middle East, India, Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Japan, North and South America, and back to Europe.
Sulkowsky’s account is a master observance of where colonial rule dominated, and where it dissipated, bringing out the dichotomies of life across the East. He particularly points out the python-like gip the English had upon India at that time. Over the course of their travels their recognition grew with the number on their speedometer, and by the end of their journey, with their vehicles festooned with medals, they had met Herbert Hoover, Hamaguchi Osachi, Chiang Kai-Shek, Benito Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin, Bela Lugosi and Greta Garbo, among other prominent names.
Antonia explores the remnants and overgrowth of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a labyrinth of pathways that make up what is often referred to as, “one of the greatest feats of military engineering in history.” Antonia rides an old Honda Cub (in the author’s words, “a pimped Honda C90”) a tiny geared, scooter-like motorcycle whose Cub name is known to be the most manufactured motorcycle in the world till date. Along her two month journey she winds through Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia for over 2,000 miles, meeting everyone from former American fighter pilots to bomb disposal experts dealing with the vast number of unexploded bombs and landmines scattered across that section of Southeast Asia.
This book chronicles an impressive circumnavigation of the globe, conducted by partners Drs Pat and Ness Garrod, who rode ‘two-up’ for 100,000 miles over four years, across 64 countries and six continents. The majority of their travels were made on ‘the bear’, a R100GS, one of BMW’s finest machines that runs on two wheels. Be it riding in the Andes or the Arctic Circle, the tales of their travels are not only full of curiosity and insight, but brim with lessons in love and companionship.
This book really bends what one might expect from a motorcycle memoir. The author, Cathy Birchall, was blind. She rode pillion with her partner Bernard on a BMW r100 over 26,000 miles, five continents, and 31 countries. She is the first blind person to ever circumnavigate the world on a motorcycle. Her condition lends this read a quality that other stories in this genre are without; a sensory narrative that is not only unique, but able to capture so much that is lost upon other travellers. Even if you have no interest in motorcycles, this book offers so much more to enjoy.
Why is Sam Manicom’s travel memoir chronicling his trip from the English Channel Islands across the length of East Africa so impressive? In 1992, the shop manager decided that his life needed a little adventure at 34 while having a pint in a pub. After practicing on a 125cc bike to get his license in the British Channel Islands he purchased Libby—short for Liberty, because that’s what she gave him—a shiny 1992 BMW r80 GS. Manicom’s desire to travel through Africa stemmed from growing up in the then-Belgian Congo until he was ten. While West Africa was rife with war at the time, East Africa seemed a bit more feasible. His subsequent journey took him through 19 countries, perhaps making Manicom and some companions he met on the way the first foreigners to ride through Ethiopia and Sudan for decades. Over the course of his year-long journey he was shot at, jailed and roughed up in Tanzania, and knocked out in the Namibian desert where he suffered 17 bone fractures. Yet, when he arrived in Cape Town he was anything but deterred. His one year journey extended into an eight year espacade, leading to several other motorcycle memoirs.
Norwegian Helge Pedersen’s travel memoir is exceptional for many reasons, but one that stands out in particular is that he worked as he travelled, which not only enabled him to travel for a longer time, but also deeply anchor him in the places he visited: a stint in the safari business at Malawi Kasungu National Park, as well working on an Argentine cargo ship destined for South America, and a Norwegian freighter heading to Japan, to name a few.
His journey took place from 1982-1992, taking him over 250,000 miles (10 times the circumference of the world) and 77 countries. Another admirable aspect of his adventures are the stunning photographs he took and published in his book. His journey was not an easy one. He was placed under house arrest by the Somali military, imprisoned in North Yemen, and faced broken bones and infections in South America—but nothing like that could steer Pederson away from riding.
Che is a divisive figure, adored and hated by people throughout the world. But before his ascension to power in South America’s communist and guerilla outfits, he was merely an impressionable young man of 23 who set out to see the world and help some lepers, which is chronicled in The Motorcycle Diaries. Despite the name of the memoir, only the beginning of the journey is on a motorcycle, a beat-up Norton nicknamed la poderosa (the powerful one), shared between him and his travel companion, Alberto Granado Jiménez , a student of biochemistry. Curious and eager to help, Che leaves his homeland Argentina and documents the rampant poverty, inequality, and corruption he witnesses across his journey to Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Venezuela. No matter what you think of the man he became, there are few travel memoirs as distinctive as his.
Not many of these travelogue narratives end in a brutal beating, but Hunter S. Thompson never was much of a conformist. The book details his time spent in the sixties with the Hells Angels, where the author invited himself on a couple road trips along the West Coast. While in most other narratives of this subgenre we see solo and small group riders travel in relative peace, in this case we see the effect a roving gang of riders (some outlaws, some merely petrol-stained mechanics) has on communities, leading to bouts of bar fights, handcuffs, and incredulous drinking.
Heralded as the first motorcycle rider to travel around the world, The Gasoline Tramp is a compilation of Carl Stearns Clancy’s two journals and magazine articles detailing his journey. On a 1912 Henderson motorcycle a 21-year-old American boy travelled 18,000 miles on his iron horse, returning home 10 months later as a legend who saw worlds many of his countrymen couldn’t even fathom.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.