Around the world with The Bear – Part One
The King of Every Kingdom
Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
Thinking about going for a good, long ride? Around the world perhaps? The Bear did it 40 years ago, and now you can follow his journey here, in the first of a 35-part series we are running on MCNews.com.au.
Father Time gives and takes
The serial you are about to read (assuming you stay the course), is the first book I ever wrote. It covers the same trip that I described in monthly episodes in the now sadly defunct Two Wheels magazine but it’s not the same. I’ve had a chance to think about it a bit…
The ride described was a genuine adventure; we didn’t know what would happen, because we didn’t know what awaited us. The trip was also almost totally irresponsible. I say ‘almost’ because we did get the recommended inoculations and carried hypodermics and drugs to be administered in Kabul.
But we had no insurance – not for the bikes and not for ourselves. In this age when nobody leaves home without a policy guaranteeing that they will be flown home in Business Class if they get a hangnail, that must seem rather incredible. And we went wherever we wanted to go, irrespective of advice to the contrary. But we did it because we were pretty sure that we would be able to look after ourselves. As it turned out we were right.
We met many wonderful people and few nasty ones. I firmly believe that, just as you get out of your life what you put into it, so you find the people in your life whom you are expecting. That’s not always true, mind you, and the people I’m thinking about here will know who they are. Some people are simply shits, and no amount of positive thinking will overcome that.
Many folks along the way told us that they desperately wanted to do something like what we’d done, but were held back by… oh, jobs, family, all the circumstances that nail people down. I guess it was probably too late for them; if you’re going to go off and be irresponsible it’s best to do it before you have a family and a career. But maybe it can be done after you have a family and a career, too; I’m harbouring some thoughts along those lines as I write this. I am, after all, only 72.
I have done a lot of travelling by motorcycle since the ride described here, and I love it just as much as I did when I set out on this my first real trip, with Charlie on our brace of Honda XL250s. These days it’s my job to take motorcycle trips, and to write about them – mainly for the publication I part-own, Australian Motorcyclist Magazine. I hope my love of motorcycling comes through in the things I write.
On those many rides I have discovered that people are much the same everywhere, no matter what the country or social standing. Worse luck.
In the time between this trip and now, I have launched four motorcycle magazines; edited another; and written for the likes of The Bulletin, The Australian, Playboy, the Sydney Morning Herald and The Sun Herald as well as numerous other publications in Australia, the USA, Britain, Germany and New Zealand.
Along the way I edited a beer magazine for a while; tough job – but someone had to do it, as they say. My liver bears the scars of that time to this day. I am proud of my contribution to the founding of the Ulysses Club, and equally proud of the Bear Army, an organisation for some of my motorcyclist friends. ‘Busy, busy, busy’ as Bokonon says.
Let me clear up one thing. The ‘J’ in front of my name is not an affectation. In these days of official ‘oversight’, everything has to be consistent, and that includes your name. My real first name is Joerg; I don’t use it because hardly anyone can pronounce it.
Instead I use one of my middle names. But if I turn up anywhere remotely official as ‘Peter’, the powers that be don’t believe that I’m me. So I have to have that initial there. Forgive me. I am not really pretentious. Well, not that pretentious, anyway…
See you on the road. Say hello if you see me.
Today, which is to say as we approach 2020, around the world motorcycle rides are not particularly rare. You can even join a tour group and do it in stages, or all in one go. Things were a little different forty years ago.
For a start there was far less information available. In retrospect, that was a good thing; we might have done things differently if we’d known what awaited us, and not had as much fun. As it was, the ride could not have been much better. Mind you, it could have been a lot easier…
Many things have changed in the past forty years. For one thing, I don’t seem to be able to run as fast or as far as I used to. But as Father Time has taken away, he has also given – I don’t want to run as far or as fast as I used to. And the international scene has changed both for the better and the worse.
I don’t think I would ride through Afghanistan these days, and not just because I’d find it harder to run. You can’t outrun a bullet. Likewise, I suspect that Iran would be a tougher nut – although I would still trust to the basic kindness of its people. And Burma is now open, a near-miracle.
To tell you the truth, though, I think I would take a different route entirely, from Thailand to China via Laos, then to Kazakhstan, Russia, Georgia, Armenia and into Turkey that way.
I haven’t been to many of those places, you see. New people, new roads, new sights…
But let’s meet the protagonists of this trip. The year is 1977, and the place is inner Sydney suburb Rozelle, and Charlie and I were doing something we were quite good at – namely drinking.
Have a drink…
Charlie and I were comfortable. With generous glasses of something alcoholic in our hands we were lying back in overstuffed armchairs in Charlie’s living-room. It was very late, the party had been over for quite a while, and we were talking in the desultory way you do at such times.
Both of us were at loose ends. Charlie had nearly finished his thesis for a PhD in botany, disclosing the private life of an obscure little wild flower; I was heartily sick of working in an advertising agency. We were both in our very early thirties. The talk revolved around alternatives, our bikes, booze . . . and suddenly it all came together in my mind. Or maybe in Charlie’s… ‘Why don’t we ride over to Ireland and visit the Guinness brewery?’
Our touring experience at this stage was fairly limited. Charlie had covered some amazing distances on his old Honda XL250, true, but it had been rallying rather than touring. My long-distance runs had been to get somewhere: opening the old WLA Harley up and pointing it at Melbourne, or perhaps my mother’s place in Ballina, hardly counts as touring.
Although there had been one memorable trip…
My friend Campbell owned an eleven-year-old BMW R60 and we were going to the Intervarsity Jazz Convention in Armidale in northern NSW on it. Seeing that we had a bit of extra time, we thought we’d have a look at Queensland on the way. The first few hundred miles went quite well despite persistent overheating on the part of the bike.
On the north coast of New South Wales we had our first flat tyre: the tube was butyl, but we didn’t know that and fixed it the way you would a rubber one. Naturally, the patch came off again. Flat tyre number two.
We bought a new tube, but could only get one that was slightly too small: that lasted a day. The next tube was the right size, but by now the tyre was so badly split inside that it chewed the new tube up. Eleven flat tyres, three new tubes and one new tyre in three days, not to mention the steamroller that nearly ran the bike over in Yeppoon, was the final score.
It wasn’t all like that, of course. We had some marvellous times in the little pubs and enjoyed the scenery and the riding. We enjoyed the jazz, too, when we finally made it to Armidale – but not the ride home; the bike seemed to have lost an enormous amount of power. When Campbell stripped it down after our return it wasn’t hard to see why.
There were hardly any rings left: that overheating must have done a bit of damage. Not exactly the most brilliant background for a bike tour around the world. We had by this stage decided that we might as well go on around the world, coming home via America. After all, once the bikes were loaded up…
The choice of bikes wasn’t difficult once we sat down and listed our requirements. We wanted single cylinder bikes, for simplicity and lightness: a single is easier to look after, to tune and to repair on the road, and when you have to ship the bike, be it by air or sea, the lighter it is the cheaper it is. Trail bikes, dual-purpose on-off road machines, seemed indicated for ruggedness. Some of the roads in Asia, and not only in Asia, don’t deserve the name and road bikes can be a little flimsy. In addition, trail bikes cope with mud and rivers much better.
The bikes would have to be Japanese. It’s bad enough trying to buy spares for fairly common bikes, but just imagine trying to find a clutch cable for a Malaguti in Rawalpindi. Neither of us liked two-strokes so the choice was simple— Yamaha XT500s or Honda XL250s.
These days the choice is much wider, but in 1977 the only other four-stroke trail bikes around were tiddlers. I wasn’t about to attempt the Afghani desert on a 125cc machine, so we settled for XLs, partly because Charlie already had one. I had little trouble finding another in good condition and at a reasonable price. Our friendly bike shop stripped the bikes down and checked them over: both bikes were found to have worn camshafts, and these were replaced, unnecessarily, as it turned out. Apparently XL camshafts wear to a certain point and then wear no further.
We bought some plastic panniers that looked reasonably waterproof. Jim Traeger, a friend of mine, a rider from way back and a descendant of the man who built the Flying Doctor’s pedal wireless sets, made up strong cage-style steel carriers for them. These would double as crash bars, and they also carried one-gallon containers, originally filled with reagents, donated by a friend who worked in a hospital.
One was designated for spare fuel and one for water. Plastic enduro tanks replaced the tiny metal fuel tanks on the bikes and we fitted larger rear sprockets for easier cruising. Charlie was given some aluminium tank boxes as a farewell present from the Botany Department at Sydney University.
These had holes cut out of their bases which fitted over the filler holes in the tanks and were secured by the petrol cap. It meant unpacking them every time we filled up with petrol, but with the lids of the boxes locked, the tanks were effectively locked also. Unfortunately the electrical system of the XL wouldn’t support better lights and air horns, so we had to make do with the inadequate originals.
Then came the hard decisions. What to take? We packed a large and comprehensive first-aid box containing antihistamines, antibiotics and pills against malaria and stomach bugs, antiseptic, burn creams and bandages. In my experience you rarely use this yourself, but it comes in handy for people you meet along the way.
Spares for the bikes filled half a pannier; they included cables, bulbs, electrical bits and pieces, chains, liquid gasket and WD40. Our toolkits were augmented by a set of sockets and an impact driver.
We would take a tent and camp until Perth, then send the tent back and use hotels and hostels for the rest of the trip. That sort of accommodation is cheap and convenient – and relatively safe – in the developing world.
We bought wet weather gear, yachting clothes in my case, because I wanted the stuff to be light. Charlie bought heavyweight working gear: he was right, of course. His gear lasted the whole trip; mine failed me badly. Completely, really.
Up next in Part Two the boys get started with the trip from Sydney to Perth before leaving the mainland…
If The Bear’s travels gets the itch going in you check out Get Routed‘s options for shipping your motorcycle to Europe.