Over 30 years ago Elspeth Beard rode her motorcycle around the world, she crashed in Australia, fought hepatitis in Iran, forged permits in India and now she lives in a restored Victorian water tower, Bryn Davies speaks to her to find out more about her epic trip…
Elspeth Beard then and now
In the mid-eighties Elspeth Beard became the first British woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. Her trip started in the US after she had shipped her bike over from the UK. She rode her 1975 BMW R 60/6 flat-twin into Canada before heading south to Mexico where she sent the bike to New Zealand and later Australia.
After spending eight months working in an architect’s office in Sydney, while living in a garage with her bike, Elspeth once again hit the road having saved up enough money. The second leg of her ride took her across Australia, where she had a nasty fall and ended up in hospital for two weeks, up through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, India and Pakistan before reaching Iran and then making her way to Europe, finishing in the city where it all began, London.
Now, Elspeth is a highly decorated architect, living in an old 1898 Victorian water tower which she designed and restored all by herself (you may have seen it featured on various TV shows throughout the years). On a gloomy Sunday in November I took a ride down to Munstead Water Tower in Guildford to have a cup of tea and chat about her incredible ride that took place over 30 years ago.
The wall next to the front door is decorated with various architectural awards, and as I entered the building I could see that they were clearly deserved. There’s no lift in her seven story tower, and so after walking up four flights of stairs and running out of puff Elspeth showed me into the kitchen where she put the kettle on and we sat down. Surrounding us were mementos of her time on the road. “That was me on my first bike, my little Yamaha,” she tells me, scrolling though her old pictures on her tablet. “I must have been about 18 or 20? There was my first helmet. That was my second bike, my Honda 250. Me at the airport. That’s what my bike was like, you can see I’ve got the big five gallon tank on there. I left the fairing in the outback in Australia because I cartwheeled the bike and ended up smashing it up”.
Hanging off the back of one of the chairs was Elspeth’s old Lewis Leather jacket that she wore on her round the world ride. “I can still fit in it, it was quite tight for me then but it’s not bad after 30 years!” she said as she slipped into it while showing me the two badges she had pinned to the front. “That’s a Golly motorbike, probably shouldn’t have that any more, it’s not very PC,” she says while laughing. “I never rode without my jacket or helmet on but I wore cotton trousers that I bought in Oxfam in Sydney for about 20p! I’ve got all the gear now though,” she tells me as she reels off a list of four jackets, two pairs of BMW boots, heated gear and helmets.
It was amazing to look back on these personal pictures and possessions of hers. Elspeth was just 23 when she left on her round the world epic, back then it was almost unheard of for women to go riding anywhere, let alone to circumnavigate the globe, so she found that most people just simply ignored what she’d done. “For me, it was 30 years ago so it’s like it’s someone else’s life almost. After I got back and nobody was interested in what I’d done I just shoved everything into the back of the garage. I just kind of moved on with my life. I bought this water tower, spent seven years restoring it, I’ve got my own architectural practice. I just moved on and did other things.”
And if people didn’t ignore it they were simply rude or insulting. It was a stark reminder of how things used to be, and how attitudes have changed over the last few years. “I got a charming letter from a bike magazine. I had written to them and sent them a picture of me on my bike saying that I’m leaving on a round the world trip, I offered to write them articles and all I got back was an insulting letter. It shows what it was like 30 years ago, the way women were treated and the attitude towards us. I was so insulted and it was letters like that that made me more determined to do it.
“People just didn’t want to talk about it, even my friends didn’t because they couldn’t actually relate to it. Now people can because people travel a lot more, but in those days people didn’t really travel a lot, especially doing these kinds of trips. It was a bit like if Neil Armstrong came here and was talking about what it’s like to walk on the moon, you can’t relate to it because it’s so far away from your reference.”
Elspeth in Turkey
It was interesting to learn what it was that made a young aspiring architect want to get in the saddle and head off into the unknown. Often we hear tales of how broken hearts are the catalyst for adventure, but Elpseth had slightly different reasons. “I don’t know what made me want to do it, and I know that sounds a bit bizarre. I think there were probably several reasons, one of them being a personal one. I felt I needed to escape and get away. I’d finished my first three years of architecture and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to carry on and finish my course. It was a seven year course and your fourth year was supposed to be spent working in an office, then you’d go back and do another two years before again working in an office for the final year. I didn’t want to go and work in an office, so I thought well, if I am going to do my work experience I’d rather do it somewhere else, so I rode to Sydney and did my work experience in an office there!
“I was in Sydney for eight months and I had three jobs. Two pub jobs and the job in an architects office as well. I did the time and earned the money and it worked out well. I lived in a garage there with my bike, it was $20 a week so it was pretty cheap!’ It was also in Australia that Elspeth made her own aluminium top box and panniers, taking three months to build them.”
Travelling as a lone woman
“I always felt slightly more vulnerable”, she told me when asked whether she ever felt in danger being a woman travelling alone in foreign lands. “But when I was on my bike with my helmet, everybody assumed I was male anyway. It didn’t occur to anybody that I was a woman, especially in those days. In a lot of ways, because I was a woman and I was on my own, it was almost as if people wanted to protect me and let me stay with them, so in many ways it was an advantage. If you’re a woman people don’t really see you as a threat, you’re not going to attack or rob them, they seem to feel much more comfortable. That being said, I don’t know what it’s like for a bloke to travel though!
“There were times when I certainly felt a little bit uncomfortable. Muslim countries were very difficult to travel through. Every country has its own difficulties though. India I didn’t particularly like, but I never felt particularly threatened there. It was just constant staring of all the men and they would very rarely touch me. I just felt that sometimes the Muslim countries were a bit more aggressive and I never felt comfortable.
“I had everything stolen in Singapore. My passport, my money, my bike documents, all nicked. All my shipping documents as well and my bike was still in the docks. My bike keys, everything. I still had my clothes though. So I was stuck in Singapore for about six weeks just basically replacing everything, getting a new passport, new visas because my old passport had the visas in. I had to deal with the DVLA in Swansea as the shipping people wouldn’t release my bike without my registration documents. Dealing with the DVLA in this country is bad enough, let alone in bloody Singapore!” I ask Elspeth if she was glad that it happened, and whether anything good came from it, “No I’m not. Why would I be glad that happened? Nothing good came out of that.”
“There were certain events that happened, like when my bike caught fire. The wiring on my bike was shite anyway so I had to rewire virtually all of the bike else it would have caused me endless problems all the way back. So while it was a pain then, I had two weeks with this Welsh guy in the outback of Australia, I got drunk with all his mates and that kind of stuff. And I ended up getting my bike rewired because it turns out he was actually an auto-electrician in Wales! So there were certain events like that but getting my stuff stolen in Singapore, nothing good came out of that.”
A nasty accident in Aus
After she had spent eight months working in Sydney, Elspeth took off on the second leg of her journey. While riding through the outback in Australia she had a bad off which ended up hospitalising her for two weeks. “I can’t remember what happened when I came off in Aus. The whole of that day and the day before I never gained memory of. I think what happened was I went into a pot hole almost the size of my wheel. The back of the bike flipped and my top box was almost completely flattened, like an accordion. I had met this English guy called Tom who had bought a bike in Sydney and was riding around Australia. He had picked up a hitch-hiker and was riding about a mile behind me and found me on the road.
“The ambulance had to come about 180 miles to get me. Apparently I was trying to get back on my bike but everyone was trying to stop me. The next thing I remember is when I woke up in the hospital. That’s two days of my life that I have no recollection of. I was very lucky, I had concussion and a few scrapes, it was a very good job I was wearing a helmet, the doctor said it saved my life.”
The helmet that saved her life
“It’s the unexpected things that go wrong, that you have to deal with that make the adventure though. If you smooth all of them out and you make it all easy it’s just passing scenery and it’s just a bit boring.” And Elspeth’s time in India was anything but boring. In order to get out of the country she had to forge a permit after being sent on a wild goose chase by a border guard. “I met this Dutch guy, Robert, and he was on a BMW 800. We were up in Ladakh when all the trouble in the Punjab was brewing and we knew that when we came down again, the area was shut. We thought we’d give it a go and try and get to the border with Pakistan so we rode through all of Punjab with all these soldiers and road blocks. We didn’t stop, we just waved and pretended we didn’t know what the problem was.
Elspeth and Robert
“So we got to the border and out of India into no man’s land and this bloody idiot, because he knew that we weren’t allowed to ride where we had just ridden, said ‘no you can’t go through as you haven’t got a permit for the ride you just did through the Punjab’. So he sent us back to Dehli to get a permit, back through the Punjab to Dehli, to get a permit to enter the Punjab. That’s Indian logic for you.
“So we rode back to Dehli and after three weeks of being faffed around by bureaucrats we realised that this permit didn’t actually exist. They’d sent us to buildings that didn’t exist to see officials that weren’t ever there. I just woke up one day and said to Robert, ‘these permits don’t exist and the people at the border have never seen one, they don’t know what they look like’. So I just forged one! I put ‘permit’ at the top of some registration paper and when we got to the border the guard picked it up and went ‘ah! Permit!’ And that’s how I got out of India.
“It was a similar story in Iran where my carnet wasn’t valid for. In order to include Iran on my carnet they wanted a £4,500 deposit. I didn’t have the money so I thought I’d leave it and worry about it when I actually got there. In those days the carnet just had all the countries typed on to it so, you guessed it! I just typed it on! You’ve just got to think slightly out of the box, and it worked! Back then there was nothing that they could check it against.”
On returning to Europe
After riding through Iran in seven days it wasn’t long before Elspeth was on her way through Europe, an experience that wasn’t quite as she had expected. “The thing that struck me when I came through Europe was how miserable everyone was. In the other countries everyone was poor, they didn’t have very much but in general they were happy. Then you get to Europe and I think it was probably Germany where I noticed it most. You just had these people in their BMWs, their Porches, being really aggressive and angry. Really miserable.
“They had all this stuff but it wasn’t making them happy at all. Then you go out and there’s some woman in her shack with nothing but she’s as happy as anything. So, Europe was somewhere that I thought would be wonderful, but actually it wasn’t at all. Having gone through all these countries and seeing what we would perceive as poverty, you realise that we’re only looking at it in a materialistic way. They were fit, healthy, they had their families with them, they had a roof over their head. They lived in an amazing country with beautiful scenery, they didn’t have a car or a TV but what they didn’t know didn’t matter to them.”
Like all of us Elspeth suffered big time from the blues when she got home, having spent three years on the road it was a bit of a shock to go from riding through Pakistan to learning architecture in England once again. “I was seriously unhappy. I was so depressed. It took me about a year to get over it and I thought about going off on my bike again every day. And I sort of did. I was back for a short time, about three months, and then I thought ‘right, I’m going off again’. My plan was to go to Syria and Jordan, I got as far as Turkey and I just thought to myself ‘why am I doing this?’. The whole thing before that had driven me was riding my bike around the world, start here and go all the way round and come back and that’s what motivated me to do it. Somehow just aimlessly riding to Syria or Turkey seemed pointless.
“It was very difficult coming back, there was no one I could talk to who understood what I had done. I could see people when I was talking to them about riding my bike through Baluchistan and breaking down, they’d just be like ‘yawn’ and their eyes would glaze over within 30 seconds! On the road every day was an adventure and it was really intense, every minute of every day you’re just trying to survive, and then you come home and it’s all blurgh! Everything’s easy and there’s no excitement, no challenge, no nothing. I was just so depressed for months and months. It was really hard to come back, really difficult.”
After hearing Elspeth talk about how hard it was for her when she got back I wondered, would she do it again if she had the chance? “Not now. I mean, I’ve done lots of other travelling since. I’ve ridden Enfields in Tibet, gone round Peru, I’ve done bits of South America, bits of Africa. I’ve gone back to Australia three times and I’ve got my pilot’s licence. I’ve flown planes round Australia, Africa and bits of America, I helped Nick Sanders, I was his tour manager for three or four years so I used to help him on his mad trips. I was manager on his 2003 RTW trip when we took 23 motorcyclists around the world. Yeah, I’ve done lots of travelling since, but I wouldn’t have this whole thing of going ‘right, I’m going to start here and ride around the world and finish here’. I’m glad I did it when I did it.
“I do look back now and again though, more recently I got all my photographs out, all my old diaries and I hadn’t looked at them in years. It was just bizarre looking at all these pictures. It’s like looking at someone else’s album. I’m reading bits of my diary and there’s parts from me at the airport when I was leaving, wondering if I was going to be alright and whether I was doing the right thing. Thinking I would hate travelling and be back in three months time. I remember I started crying when I was writing it and you can see all my tear marks on the page.”
Before I met Elspeth Beard it was hard to find much information about her and her epic ride. Partly because she had moved on with her life and all memories of the trip had been pushed to the side. “I always meant to write a book about my ride, but I didn’t bother because nobody was interested so I just got on with other things in my life and just sort of forgot about it.”
After spending so long on the road Elspeth’s perception of life was entirely different than before she left. “The whole trip was completely life changing”, she told me. “I think it made me the way I am now, I haven’t really stopped doing things. I’m always doing stuff. I physically built this house,” she remarks as she gestures around the grand room we’re sat in. “It took me seven years to do it. I think doing a trip like that, where you manage to survive through pretty much anything that can be thrown at you, it gives you inner strength and I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do. I don’t think ‘can I do that or not?’ I think ‘I’m going to bloody do it!’. I think it makes you not afraid of anything, it gives you a lot of inner strength. I’m sure there are other ways that you can achieve that, but that’s how I did it.”
Before I left I asked her what it is that stops people from doing what they want to do, is it the money? “Well, I think what the problem is, is a lot of people make excuses for themselves, why they can’t go. Sorry, I shouldn’t say that, but the number of people I’ve heard saying ‘yeah I’m going to do that…oh but I can’t do it because of this. And, well, if you really want to bloody do it then just do it! It’ll never be the right time!”
ABR: If you could do it again, would you choose another bike?
Elspeth: No, I don’t think I would. I might have bought a GS if they’d been around then, but I bought my bike for £900 in 1979, y’know, it’s a special bike!
The original receipt from when she bought her bike
ABR: If you could own any bike, what would it be?
Elspeth: My GS Basic. I’m really, really happy with it. I like a bike I can fix and I understand. All these modern bikes are just too complicated for their own good. I owned a BMW 1150 and it was just too big and complicated.
ABR: Where was your favourite place on your RTW ride?
Elspeth: I loved Northern Thailand. I liked Ladakh, loved New Zealand, Pakistan I can’t judge as I only had two weeks to ride through it.
ABR: And your least favourite?
Elspeth: I hated India and Singapore. It was like 95C with 90% humidity, you just sweat all day and there’s nothing there but shops! Iran was tricky, I got hepititus riding through. I was given a seven day visa and at the time Iran was at war with Iraq so it was a little bit dodgy.
ABR: Where haven’t you been that you’d like to go?
Elspeth: Central America I’d really like to go to. There’s a huge chunk of Africa that I’d like to do as well, some on a bike, some on a plane, some in a Land Rover. Oh, I’m actually learning to fly a helicopter at the moment!
She’s circumnavigated the globe, but there are always more places to explore
ABR: How did you learn all your mechanical skills?
Elspeth: Haynes! Good old Haynes manuals. I always used to fix up my bikes, I think I put my Honda in to some bloody shop once for them to do something on it and it got treated fairly poorly and they did a really crappy job. So I was like well in future I’ll do it myself, so I bought a Haynes manual. And that was it really.
ABR: Did you have an inspiration for your trip?
Elspeth: No. I’d heard of Ted Simon and his book Jupiter’s Travels and I tried to read it. I got to chapter one and I just gave up. I think I was reading it for the wrong reasons. I was reading it to find out how to do it, Ted’s book was the only thing around about riding around the world at the time but, well, I’m not much of a reader anyway.
ABR: What research did you do before you left on your trip?
Elspeth: I didn’t do any.
ABR: How much money did you need to do your trip?
Elspeth: I left with two and a half thousand pounds and that got me to Australia. While working there I saved up $6,500 USD and that was the money that I used to get home, I came back with a thousand left which was pretty good. Mind you, I was Very Mean. I used to camp most nights.