Elspeth Beard: Two wheel pioneer

Around the world on two wheels

One October morning in 1982, 23-year-old Elspeth Beard left London, her family and friends – and her nascent career as an architect – behind. In an age before email, smartphones, GPS, comprehensive maps and social media, she embarked on a journey around the world armed with just a tent, some savings, her wits – and an eight-year-old BMW motorbike with more than 40,000 miles on the clock.

Over the course of almost three years on the road, she would ride through war zones and some of the most inhospitable spaces on earth, overcoming extreme hardship, several accidents, dysentery, hepatitis, and brushes with implacable bureaucrats. On her way to becoming the first British woman to circumnavigate the globe by bike, she discovered a resourcefulness that would define the rest of her life.

“I learned to ride on Salisbury Plain when I was a teenager,” she says. “I enjoyed the sense of freedom I got with a motorbike.

“As a family we’d travelled a lot, so the idea of seeing the world was very much part of my upbringing. When I got the BMW [a 600cc R60/6] in 1979 I started doing longer journeys – up to Scotland and back, then across America.”

Britain in the early 1980s was a place of riots and revolutionary ferment as Margaret Thatcher’s radically charged Conservative Government enforced transformative economic change to combat a deep recession. In January 1982 unemployment passed the three-million mark for the first time since the 1930s. For any young person searching for a vocation it was a bleak time indeed.

I wanted to see the world but I wasn’t sure I could do it. It probably wasn’t until I crossed back into Europe more than two years later that I thought, ‘I’m actually going to do it’.

“I’d been studying architecture, but about three months before my finals in 1982 I had a relationship end quite abruptly, so I was feeling pretty miserable and I did terribly in my exams,” says Elspeth. “At that time there were very few jobs available and I couldn’t really decide whether architecture was for me any more. It was one of those stages in life you go through where you don’t know if you’ve chosen the right path.

“So I just wanted to escape.”

Elspeth’s already well-worn BMW was perfectly suited for the journey ahead. Crude and old-fashioned even when launched in 1974, the R60/6 was simple and tough from its air-cooled twin-cylinder 600cc ‘boxer’ engine down to its cable-operated drum brakes.

Having ridden across America the previous year, Elspeth headed west to begin on familiar ground, shipping her bike to New York and then riding up to Niagara Falls before the onset of winter made the north inhospitable for motorcyclists. From the Canadian border she headed south to New Orleans, then roughly westward, seldom travelling in straight lines; hers wasn’t a journey concerned with ticking boxes or reaching the end as soon as possible.

“Although I had this ultimate goal of riding around the world, I did it stage by stage,” she says. “I wanted to see the world but I wasn’t sure I could do it. It probably wasn’t until I crossed back into Europe more than two years later that I thought, ‘I’m actually going to do it.’

“I knew I had nowhere near enough money – I’d saved £2500 from working in a pub – but I thought that if I could make it to an English-speaking Commonwealth country I could find a job. I knew I would need more [money], but I had no idea how much. In those days there weren’t any reference books you could go and look at, because nobody had ever done it before.”

The world was a bigger and less well-charted place back then, with fewer of the conveniences we take for granted today. Elspeth had to carry her savings with her in the form of traveller’s cheques, and many border crossings were touch-and-go affairs for both Elspeth and her bike, which needed spot-on paperwork to stay out of the clutches of suspicious customs officials.

Indeed, Elspeth’s largely improvised itinerary would become entangled in the cold and inflexible web of bureaucracy more than once. Without a little bit of luck, her journey might have come to a disappointingly inconsequential termination on the opposite side of the world.

“I visited four or five Australian consulates all across America and into New Zealand, and they wouldn’t give me a work permit,” she says. “The system was set up for people just travelling across Australia and doing casual jobs. When they realised that I wanted to work as an architect for six months or so, they turned me down every time.

“Finally, I was in the Australian consulate in Auckland and the guy behind the desk was a motorcyclist. We talked about what I was trying to do, and then he just took my passport, stamped it and handed it back. It’s amazing how these things happen in life.”

Elspeth worked two jobs in Sydney, in an architectural practice by day and in a pub by night. On the recommendation of a fellow long-distance motorcyclist she made her own panniers for the BMW in aluminium. The strength and security they offered would be sorely tested on the onward leg of the journey.

“After six months I moved on,” she says. “It’s nice to be moving, but it’s also nice to stay in one place because you’re not having to deal with the survival aspect of life on the road. I made a lot of friends and I found it hard to leave. I always found it difficult to move on if I’d stayed anywhere for a period of time. But once I was on the road again I was fine.”

Crossing the Australian outback in daily temperatures spiking past 50C proved far more challenging than Elspeth had expected. For all its vast emptiness, the terrain demanded constant concentration – on the pockmarked road surface, on wandering wildlife, and on the thunderous processions of road trains that shattered the sense of isolation.

One day she cartwheeled the bike and lay concussed by the roadside until two other motorcyclists arrived on the scene.

“Had they not found me, I might not be here now,” she says. “I was in a bad state and it was literally in the middle of nowhere – the ambulance had to travel 180 miles to pick me up.

I’d imagined Australia would be easy – just riding into the sunset. But that part of the journey was absolute hell.”

Zig-zagging through Asia proved far more enjoyable even though Elspeth spent much of her time lost. She headed towards India through Singapore, Sumatra and Thailand, working out her route from map fragments on tourist leaflets. That part of her journey would furnish both an object lesson in the generosity of strangers and an introduction to unusual cuisine.

Finding the land border to Myanmar (then called Burma) closed, Elspeth had to retrace her path all the way to Penang, where she could take a boat to Chennai (then called Madras) instead. For the first time in months she had to hurry, because the sailings were weeks rather than days apart, and in her haste she ran over a stray dog and crashed, breaking a toe and damaging the BMW.

“I stayed with a Thai family for five days while I recovered and fixed the bike,” she says. “They were very kind. The dog had vanished and I thought it had managed to hobble away. It was only when I was leaving and went into their kitchen to say goodbye that I saw what was left of it on the table. We’d been eating it for the past week.”

After the sea passage, Elspeth roved around India alone, even going as far north as the Himalayas, before hooking up with a Dutch motorcyclist and moving westward. But getting out of India would prove as fraught as reaching it in the first place; the route out through Pakistan led through the Punjab, an area theoretically out of bounds after the massacre in the Golden Temple of Amritsar and the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The riders bluffed their way through a ravaged hinterland of tanks and armed roadblocks, only to be turned away by a border official.

“He sent us 500 miles back to Delhi, through the Punjab, to get a permit to enter the Punjab,” says Elspeth. “We spent five weeks trying to get hold of this permit, and it turned out they didn’t exist. So we just tried our luck – rode back through the Punjab, waving at the tanks and soldiers, and at the border I handed over my passport. My police registration form – a completely different bit of paperwork – fell out and they thought that was the permit.”

In Pakistan they encountered refugees from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and they were unable to linger in Iran because it was at war with neighbouring Iraq. Their visa entitled them to stay for just seven days, and Elspeth had contracted hepatitis and was struggling to stand, let alone ride.

“I didn’t feel unsafe, it was just that the atmosphere felt quite tense,” she says. “You had to be careful, obviously. You felt that the people wanted to be hospitable but they were afraid because secret policemen were everywhere. So you’d be shooed out of a restaurant and then five minutes later they’d invite you in through the back door for a free meal with the family.

“We overstayed our visa by a day and there was trouble at the border with Turkey. But I think they decided it was more trouble to put us in prison than to let us go.”

If Hollywood were to make a movie about Elspeth’s exploits – and there has been interest from those quarters – the conventions of cinematic narrative would dictate a rapturous tickertape homecoming and a neatly wrapped happily ever after. In truth her journey had a peculiar coda; friends and family were simply unable to relate to her adventures in places they might only have seen on Whicker’s World.

Elspeth got on with her life, packed her photographs in a box and completed her architectural studies. Shortly afterwards she acquired a derelict water tower in Godalming and threw herself into renovating that rather than planning further expeditions.

“I struggled when I got back,” she says. “I had nobody I could talk to about what I’d done. It was so far removed from what anyone could comprehend. It actually isolated me – I pretty much buried myself in a basement for three months.

“Life on the road was intense. You really live every minute of every day, trying to survive and keep the bike going. When you’re not having to do that any more it’s difficult to adjust.”

Elspeth’s story remained in abeyance for nearly three decades before a journalist was tipped off about it. BMW, having hit the marketing motherlode in the mid-2000s through their involvement in the televised travels of actors Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor, also took a keen interest. Elspeth has now written a book about her adventure – ‘Lone Rider’ – and doesn’t rule out the possibility of going on another one. And she has the perfect piece of equipment in her garage (although she has long since thrown away her hand-built luggage).

“Have I still got the bike? Abso-bloody-lutely! I’d never part with her…”