I've said it before and I'll say it again, Trailblazer guides take some beating.
— Adventure Travel
Tales from the Saddle (sample)
Early adventures with motorcycles
AMH may be celebrating a quarter of a century in print but Lois Pryce delves further back into the archives of the first motorcycle explorers to discover that once the ‘motor-bicycle’ became established, brave individuals soon saw the appeal of continent-spanning adventures.
With the recent arrival of adventure motorcycling into the mainstream, you might be forgiven for thinking that this two-wheeled globe-trotting is a 21st century phenomenon. Far from it. The irresistible combination of motorcycle plus wanderlust has been inspiring men and women to hit the road since the first machines appeared in the early 20th century. As far back as 1913 and certainly by the 1920s there are records of Europeans and Americans making long-distance, international journeys by ‘motor-bicycle’ or in sidecar combinations. But as is the nature of unrecorded adventures, many of these expeditions have slipped into obscurity, existing only as a faded newspaper clipping or a tattered sepia photo that crops up occasionally on the internet.
The savvier of these early motorcycle travellers had the good sense to record their adventures, usually in a book, but occasionally on grainy black-and-white film too. Luckily for us their stories live on and show us not only how different the experience was all those years ago, but often how similar too.
Here’s my selection of a few of the greatest adventure motorcycling pioneers, in whose tyre treads we follow…
Robert Fulton Junior – Around the world 1932-34
To motorcycle solo around the world aged twenty-three would be a major achievement for anyone today, But back in the 1930s, for American, Robert Fulton Jnr., his eighteen-month odyssey through twenty-two countries was merely the springboard for a remarkable life as an inventor, writer, photographer, painter and sculptor.
In 1932 Fulton was a young man fresh out of college, and like most chaps of his age, keen to make an impression with the ladies. Finding himself at a dinner party in London, when asked by an attractive female guest about his plans to sail back home to New York, he announced, somewhat rashly ‘Oh no! I’m going around the world on a motorcycle!’ This was probably not the first testosterone-fuelled declaration in the history of motorcycling and it certainly wasn’t the last, and if it hadn’t been overheard by a fellow dinner guest it may well have gone no further. Little did Fulton know that he was sharing the table with the head of Douglas Motor Works who interjected, ‘I say old chap, that sounds grand! We can furnish you with a machine for your journey.’ Fulton’s fate was sealed there and then, for as any budding adventurer knows, once you’ve mouthed off to all your friends, you have to go.
It was thus that Fulton found himself setting off on his very own One Man Caravan, the title of his marvellously entertaining book about his 40,000-mile ride. His route took him through a pre-war Europe, a Middle East still firmly under British control, an India seemingly destined to be British forever, the (then) Dutch East Indies, into pre-communist China, and finally to Japan before taking a steamship back to his native USA.
He makes it clear from the beginning that he wasn’t entirely sure how he got swept up in the whole plan, but his bluff having been called, he had no choice but to go along with it. However, the spirit of adventure was obviously smouldering in him somewhere, as he describes how the idea of this grand expedition began to gradually fire his imagination, ‘the lure of travel; a different road ever day, a different fireside every evening, beneath a different star every night.’
His romantic visions will resonate with anyone who’s pored over a map and dreamed of getting away from it all on their bike; these are the same urges that have inspired travellers through the ages and will continue to do so. Unfortunately for Robert Fulton, the same annoyances and obstructions were also just as prevalent then as they are today, most notably the finger-wagging pessimist who enjoys nothing more than to pour water on the sparks of a young buck’s dreams.
‘How does one go around the world from London, heading east?’ enquired Fulton to a ‘beefy-faced, hearty attaché’ of the Royal Automobile Club in London.
‘Too easy, my dear fellow’ came the reply, ‘One simply doesn’t!’ Fulton’s response illustrates the practical, can-do attitude that would serve him well on his adventure: ‘But surely, wherever there is man, there must be some sort of route?’ he countered.
It’s this approach to his journey, and to his frequent crashes, arrests and various other scrapes along the way that make Fulton’s story so engaging. His tribulations with both man and machine are treated with a warmth and wisdom and he’s not afraid to admit to his own weaknesses and misgivings. The book captures perfectly the agonies and ecstasies of what we now call adventure motorcycling while transporting the reader to a bygone age of colonial-era travel – exotic Baghdad, wild Waziristan, steamy Sumatra and primitive China. But for all the ups and downs of overland travel, it’s Fulton’s intense curiosity, insightfulness and humane approach to his fellow man that makes One Man Caravan such a refreshing read and the accompanying film, Twice Upon a Caravan, such a joy to watch.
Lois Pryce is a British travel writer who left her job at the BBC to hit the road and has never looked back. Her books about her motorcycle journeys have been published around the world in several languages and have inspired many female (and male!) riders to launch their own adventures. www.loisontheloose.com
- Contents list
- AMH history
- Choosing a motorcycle
- Life on the road
- Sample route outline (Peru and Bolivia)
- Tales from the Saddle (sample)
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