A soul infected by wanderlust has but a single cure.
Thirty-five years ago, Elspeth Beard came down with a serious case. At the age of 23, Beard, a Londoner, decided to ride around the world. She outfitted her 1974 BMW R60/6 with soft panniers, a tank bag, and an extra bag lashed to the pillion seat, then shipped her motorcycle to New York City. From there, she became an intercontinental rider, seeing considerably more of the world than most of us will ever dream of.
During her trip, she suffered mechanical breakdowns, as one would expect. She survived two wrecks, hepatitis, dysentery, and a robbery that left her without valuables or a passport. When Elspeth returned to England two years later in 1984, she’d racked up 35,000 miles on her bike. She disassembled it to pieces, and rebuilt it totally.
Elspeth just finished a book chronicling her trip that will be published next summer. She agreed to an interview with Common Tread with thoughts about riding, about motorcycles, and about traveling. Her story is larger than life, and her zeal for motorcycling is plainly apparent. Take a moment to enjoy some of her photos — how many people have photos of their bike in so many interesting landscapes?
L: What's your upcoming book about?
EB: My book starts with my early years riding bikes when I was 16 and my gradual progression until I bought my BMW R60/6 in 1980. Then, I cover my round-the-world journey. As you know, at the age of 23, brokenhearted and disillusioned with architecture, I ventured off to ride my bike around the world solo. The book chronicles that journey. It took me two and a half years. I covered 35,000 miles riding through North America, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Europe. This all happened in the age before email, the internet, mobile phones, satnavs, medivacs and in some parts of the world, reliable maps.
I rode through post-revolutionary Iran during the war with Iraq, survived life-threatening illnesses and numerous accidents. I witnessed civil uprisings forcing me to fake my documents and had to fend off physical threats, sexual attacks, biker gangs, and corrupt police convinced I was trafficking drugs. I fell in and out of love three times. The book then brings readers up to date with where I am now in my life and the effect the trip had on me. I have not decided on a title yet. The manuscript is finished and the book should be published next June or July.
L: What sort of bikes do you love? What do you hate?
EB: I have to admit to being a bit of a BMW fan, especially the older ones. I have my old R60/6 which I did my ‘round-the-world trip on and also a BMW R80GS Basic. The engines are so simple and fully accessible, so working on them and maintaining them is easy. Being a flat twin, the center of gravity is low to the ground, you don’t feel the weight of the bike so much. They are very practical and understated, which I also like.
At the other end of the spectrum is the Harley-Davidson, which to me has always seemed to be flash and brash and all about the image.
L: How has adventure-touring changed since you started doing this? Do you find it convenient that huge aluminum panniers like the ones you built can be bought, or does it lower the barrier to entry and make the average hardcore touring rider a little softer?
EB: I think things are certainly easier. The bikes are more reliable, with any imaginable accessory available. The riding gear is far superior and safer, which I think is good. However, the biggest change is the information available now and the fact you can find out about everything anywhere and all with just a click [of a mouse button]. This has transformed the way people travel, because it takes away the fear of the unknown and provides a degree of comfort. I think it encourages more people to take to the road, which is a good thing, but I can’t help feeling that something has been lost. Knowing what’s around the next corner and being able to plan everything to the last detail takes away the unknown and uncertainty and ultimately the adventure.
The journey is not about sitting on your bike for four to five hours a day. It’s the experiences you encounter, the breakdowns, the accidents, getting lost, and the people you meet and the bizarre situations you find yourself in when the unexpected happens. With so much technology and information out there, these experiences are minimized and there’s a danger that the journey is no longer an adventure, but simply becomes a series of days just riding a bike.
L: What things did you think about when you were on the bike? That's a lot of time alone. Your mind must have wandered quite a bit.
EB: I thought about all sorts of things. I would often talk to my bike, cajoling her with promises of an oil change or a clean air filter if she got me over a mountain pass or to a particular destination. I would always be working out petrol consumption, planning my route for the next couple of days, working out mileage, what things I needed to fix on my bike, etc. I was also suffering from a broken heart when I left the UK, so my thoughts would often focus on this and I would think of family and friends back home.
L: Did you ever get lonely? How discouraged were you when you ran into setbacks like losing all your documents in India?
EB: I did get very lonely. I didn’t mind it so much when I was on my bike, but not having anyone to talk to when I stopped did make me feel very alone. I had numerous setbacks: cart-wheeling my bike in Australia, having all my money and documents stolen in Singapore, getting dysentery and hepatitis, battling my way out of India — the list is endless. I don’t know why, but I was so determined nothing was going to stop me. Whatever happened to me and however bleak the situation seemed, I somehow always managed to pick myself up, dust myself down and carry on — failure was not an option.
I had absolutely no idea at the time that I was the first British woman to ride around the world. In fact, I only found this out about 10 years ago, so this had nothing to do with my motivation. Having been treated poorly by the motorcycling press before I left (they all just laughed at me), and with most of my friends and family thinking I’d be back in a month, I was determined to achieve my goal, proving to myself and everyone else that I could do it. In the end, when I got home it seemed that no one was interested or had ever really cared about what I was doing. Life, eh? It always manages to bring you to your senses.
L: Do you have plans to do something similar in the future?
EB: I have never stopped traveling! Since my return in 1984, I have traveled extensively around South America, Africa, and Australia. I also rode a Royal Enfield from Nepal into Tibet in 1998. In 2003, I guided 23 motorcyclists around the world. We covered 33,000 miles in three months as part of the Nick Sanders World Challenge.
I must say, I wish this interview could have spanned more than a few questions. I could have picked Elspeth's brain for quite a while. I'm eager to score my copy of the book when it comes out, and I imagine a few other Common Tread readers will join me. There are some souls in this world who were meant to roam, and of those, some slake their thirst for exploration on two-wheeled machinery. The drudgery and mundanity of daily life seems to vanish for those people when they’re atop a bike. They never seem to convey their emotions fully, but their words hint at the joy they’ve experienced. Their vigor is both irresistible and inspirational for many.
Elspeth’s one of those.