Open road: Park Long Way Down

Published: 08:04AM Jun 4th, 2010
By: Web Editor

I had to wave Kevin off from the Ace Café last weekend. He’s leading the Silk Road Expedition to Beijing. The plan was for me to travel down to Istanbul with everyone and then head back to Wales.

Open road: Park Long Way Down

Tiffany Coates stops for a quick chat with a local during one of her massive rides

As it happened, the volcanic ash played havoc with the outward flight arrangements of our team to Argentina for the start of the High Andes. I cancelled Istanbul, raced back to South Wales early and spoke with all the riders about alternative travel plans to Buenos Aires, via Madrid, they all got there!

But the question is, why was I only going as far as Istanbul? As regular readers will know, both Kevin and I researched the London to Beijing route last year. It was a spectacular, adventurous, awe inspiring ride. But it was hard. For me personally, it was the toughest ride I have ever done. It exhausted me mentally and physically and I lost a stone in weight by the time I got to Beijing. I needed help along the way. Help to get my bike through swollen rivers, help to push it across ice sheets, help to be guided down snow-packed peaks.

Even with the help, the effort needed on my part was massive. Effort to keep going despite the cold, despite altitude, despite the lack of normal modern comforts – hot water, flushing toilets, a bed, despite extreme riding conditions which I had never encountered before, despite incomprehensible languages and bizarre calorific offerings. I was incredibly lucky. I had Kevin with me for emotional support and the absolute luxury of our support vehicle and Jeff, 'The Van Man', who was there to physically push me through and pick me up when the snow and mud got the better of me. It was hard, but amazing, so don’t get me wrong, I would do it all again.

If you think that it’s a bit much to expect women motorcyclists to take off around the world without a male counterpart, think again. Ewan and Charley may have given you the impression that it is a rough and dangerous undertaking, suitable only for strong, hairy blokes, but out there exist some plucky women riders who have taken on the world, on their motorcycle, on their own or even with female pillion passengers! Do Benka Pulko, Theresa Wallach or Tiffany Coates spring to mind? If you want truly inspirational tales, park the Long Way Down DVD to one side and read about these women. - Julia Sanders

Girl power

It’s not always easy setting out on a long journey, whoever you are. Add in a motorcycle, unknown destinations, ditching a job and leaving behind disbelieving friends and family and it’s a wonder anyone manages to get away. And then you’re female and riding a bike (there’s only 10% of us that do that out of the whole motorcycling population). If you’re lucky your family and friends are supportive, but there will always be some that think you’re a bit mad and will persuade you not to go, with tales of doom and gloom. Feeding a fear of the unknown, hyping up threats to your security and telling you how lonely it will be, are probably the biggest factors that prevent many women not venturing out. And, truth be told, a large number of men too.

That’s why it is so inspirational to find stories of female motorcyclists who over the years have bucked the trend and struck forth irrespective. I don’t hold out what they have done is necessarily any better than their male counterparts, but just in number alone, they are significantly more unusual and often have had to overcome some obstacles and fears that fellas just don’t have to deal with.

Effie & Avis Hotchkiss (USA)

1915 – New York to San Francisco, USA. The first woman to ride a motorcycle across the USA was a young lady from New York.  Merely 20 years old and a bank clerk no less, Effie Hotchkiss bought herself a 1915 three-speed V-twin Harley-Davidson from a small family inheritance. Her intention was to ride from Brooklyn, New York to San Francisco, California.

As her mother refused to let her go alone, the motorcycle was rigged with a sidecar, so that she could accompany her daughter.  Even today, that would be an unusual travelling duo! The journey took around two months and having arrived in San Francisco, the pair headed back east, including crossing the deserts of Nevada and Utah, and the cities of Reno, Salt Lake City, Omaha, Davenport, Chicago, and Milwaukee.

Effie wasn’t the first motorcyclist to have achieved this journey. This acclaim belongs to George Wyman, who, some 12 years before, became the first motorcyclist to make a transcontinental trip across America, which started in San Francisco on 16 May, took 50 days, and ended in New York City on 6 July.

But to set Effie’s journey in the context of its time makes it remarkable, both in its context of attitude to women, who did not yet even have the right to vote, and by the nature of the difficulty of the terrain and facilities – there were no paved roads from one side of the country to the other. Reports from the Harley-Davidson Dealer magazine at the time showed that the women faced 'bad roads, heat, cold, rain, floods, and all such things with a shrug of their shoulders'.

Theresa Wallach & Florence Blenkiron (UK) 1934-1935: London, UK to Capetown,
South Africa (and back). Theresa, together with her companion, Florence Blenkiron, travelled from London to Capetown from December 1934 to July 1935, using a Panther Model 100, with a Watsonian sidecar and trailer, christened 'The Venture'. Even before this trip, both women had been at the forefront of female motorcycling in the UK, being avid racers; Florence was the first woman to break the magical 100mph on a motorcycle. Both met at an 'All-Comers Handicap Race' in 1933 and shared a mutual enthusiasm for motorcycling. When Florence wanted to go to South Africa to see family, Theresa suggested they both go by motorcycle, after all “we have nothing to lose except our heads to the head-hunters”. For Theresa, Africa had always held a fascination – her father was a member of the Royal Geographic Society and is credited with being the first person to map certain West African territories in 1901, so you could say adventuring was in her blood.

The itinerary is one that I have not seen undertaken (in full) in modern times. Partly as some of the territories it passes through are utterly lawless and carry FCO warnings against travel – you won’t find the Central African Republic or Chad on many people’s itineraries these days.  Partly because decent roads remain elusive. Having said that, Peter and Kay Forwood’s world travels include an impressive motorcycle journey though, traversing Africa, achieving north to south by the eastern side and then south to north by the western side, between 1999 and 2001, (but avoiding Algeria). Lois Pryce (read on) rode through Algeria and Niger, broadly following the same route to begin with, but then continued south on the west coast.

Back in 1934, the countries on the ladies’ route were under colonial rule and the accounts of the journey, particularly passing through the Sahara are fascinating. Each colonial fort radioed ahead to the ladies’ next destination, allowing them set time to make it or else a breakdown contract would be implemented and giving them strict conditions to travel including how much water and fuel they had to carry. The whole journey is documented by Theresa Wallach in her personal account 'The Rugged Road', which is available from www.amazon.co.uk

Having arrived in Capetown, there seems to be some undocumented bad feeling between both ladies, as Florence then continued alone on a return leg north through Africa and back to London.

Elspeth Beard (UK) 1980-1983: around the world. A quarter of a century ago, Elspeth set off on a journey which led her to become the first British woman to ride solo around the world. Elspeth used a 1974 R 60/6 flat-twin, which she tested out on rides to Scotland and Ireland before heading into mainland Europe.

“After this trip I was convinced I wanted to try and ride around the world,” said Elspeth. “It sounds daft now but 29 years ago I didn't even know whether it was possible to do or not. As I couldn't find anyone to go with me I decided to go alone, thinking I might meet people along the way.”

At the age of 24, she then shipped her bike out to New York and rode through the USA and Canada, before heading south to Mexico, before finishing in Los Angeles. “I wanted to start off going through civilised countries so if I changed my mind it would be easy to ship myself and the bike back home.” From here, her bike was shipped to Australia, where she spent some time working to earn more money to fund her journey. After spending a couple of weeks in hospital (a bad crash in Queensland), she headed to Perth and another shipping leg to Singapore, where she explored the Thai-Malaysia peninsula before being forced to get another boat to India (Burma – or Myanmar as now known – blocked her way). “Every day was a challenge, just to keep myself and my bike together. I found having to deal with absolutely everything on my own really hard work. Loneliness and solitude also took some getting used to.” From India, she visited Nepal, onto Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and then back across to Europe.

Elspeth found travelling as a solo woman a help. “Locals did not see me as a threat firstly being single and then being a woman. They would ask me to stay almost as if they felt they were protecting me and keeping me safe! It was also assumed I was male until I took my helmet off so in really tricky places (like Iran), I would keep my helmet on all day and only take it off when I got into my hotel room at night.”

Elspeth returned to the UK after some three years on the road and 48,000 miles later. So any advice to would be female adventurers? “It’s easier to do than you think, the hardest thing is actually leaving! Once you're on the road you will wonder what you were so worried about!”

Tiffany Coates (UK) 1997-2000 Around the World; 2002-03 Trans Americas; 2009 Central Asia, Mongolia, Siberia and Japan. Tiffany set off in 1997 on her first motorcycle adventure, only two months after passing her motorcycle test! “It was literally a spur of the moment idea with my best friend, Becky, that became reality. We’d come up with the idea of travelling to India and then it somehow mushroomed into a 'Let’s ride to India' plan. Neither of us had a bike. In fact, neither of us had a licence or had even ridden a bike before.” That first journey didn’t stop in India but continued on to Australia and back home to the UK via Africa, arriving home in 2000. It would seem that Tiffany and Becky had taken to riding like the proverbial duck to water! Or maybe not...

“Our lack of riding experience and ability was our biggest challenge. We dropped the bike a lot during those first months on the road, even the tarmac roads of Western Europe found us dropping Thelma (her 1992 BMW R80GS) twice a day. We were terrified of going off-road, which held us back until there were no roads and then we just had to go for it.”

Since then she has kept herself busy on the adventure front. Within a couple of years, Tiffany (without Becky) was back on the road. “I was well and truly bitten by the bike travel bug and wanted more. Meanwhile, Becky met and settled down with the man of her dreams.”

In 2002/03, Tiffany rode solo from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina and then north through Brazil and the Amazon. “Being a woman can have many advantages, including invites into family homes that are often out of bounds to men; the flutter of eyelashes will get me across tricky border crossings more effectively than masculine brawn. However, it is double-edged and there have been far too many instances where I’ve been told the chief needs to personally interview me and then had to put up with long one-sided conversations with a man who’s a bit power crazy and has one thing on his mind.  The lack of public toilet facilities combined with being female is always an obstacle too! Although in Iran, my chador was an effective portaloo tent in the desert crossings!”

Being a woman also helped out when Tiffany had to do an on the spot repair to her headlight fixings. “All I needed was two pieces of wire, but where was I going to find two pieces of wire in the middle of the desert? Suddenly I had a brainwave, grabbed my penknife from my tankbag, pulled up my T-shirt and slashed the sides of my bra. Ten minutes later and I was on my way once more, the underwires turned out to be perfect for the repair.”

Tiffany’s adventures took a halt when in June 2007, she was diagnosed with Adult Stills disease. For over a year she was on immune suppressing drugs and for months she was unable to walk and confined to a wheelchair. “My recovery was painful and slow, for a long time I thought I’d never be able to ride again.” It was 12 months before she even sat on her motorbike. “But the dream of travelling once more helped to pull me through and 10 months after I first got back on Thelma I was on the road once more, this time heading to Mongolia.”

In fact Tiffany did not stop in Mongolia! She carried on through Siberia to Vladivostok, finishing in Japan (2009). Notably all these major bike adventures have been with the same bike, Thelma, currently stored in the USA ready for a ride up to Nova Scotia this summer. And there are still plans for future biking adventures. “I’ve now crossed every continent, some of them more than once, and there always seems to be somewhere else that I want to visit. At some point, I would love to go to Madagascar.”

And Tiffany’s advice for taking to the road? “I’m a true believer in saying just go for it, whatever you’d like to do, give it a try, there are always more regrets over things you haven’t tried than those you have. The hardest part is saying goodbye and leaving, being on the road is the easy part.” If you’d like to find out more about Tiffany, log on to her website www.tiffanystravels.co.uk

Lois Pryce (UK) 2003 Trans Americas; 2006-07 Trans Africa. So what prompted our next female adventurer to take to the road? “The motivation behind my first big trip was nothing more exciting than having a boring office job and wanting to get the hell out! I had itchy feet and a freshly minted motorcycle licence – a heady combination!”
What’s unusual about Lois’s trip is probably the choice of bike. It’s not that often that you get someone completing a long distance ride on a smaller bike – Lois went for a Yamaha XT225 Serow.  Her reasoning being it was light enough to wriggle free from and pick up, as well as being economical; many others will choose a BMW F650GS or similar.

Lois’s first trip was 10 months riding the Trans Americas. “My decision about my route was based on cost and a desire to see the Americas. I'm a big fan of the USA, vintage Americana and old American music so I wanted to include the US in my trip, so I thought, well, I might as well carry on south into Latin America – it sounded exotic and fun, so why not? Then I decided I might as well do the whole continent, top to tip.”

It sounds straight forward enough – so was it? “The biggest challenge was probably getting over my own fears but once I was on the road, I soon realised that those fears were totally unfounded and that there was nothing to be afraid of.” Being a woman on her own didn’t cause an issue, “In Latin America it was mostly helpful as the men are very chivalrous and can't bear to see a woman getting her hands dirty!” But don’t be fooled, Lois, like the others before her, is a dab hand at sorting out her own mechanical problems on the road. And another similarity? Clearly she was bitten by the bug! “After I came back, I started planning my next one, which was London to Cape Town, crossing the Sahara, and riding through the Congo and Angola. It was much tougher than the Americas trip, but a hundred times more exciting. Africa is amazing!”

It’s clear that Lois thrives on her adventures, so what would she say to other women setting out?  “Don't let anyone put you off! You must ignore the naysayers and doom merchants. The world is a largely safe and wonderful place full of good people, and the best way to see it is by motorcycle. Go for it!”

Not only riding the world, Lois is writing the word, sharing her travels through two books, 'Lois on the Loose' and 'Red Tape and White Knuckles'.You can get these from www.amazon.co.uk and if you want to keep up to date with what Lois is up to check her website www.loisontheloose.com

Cynthia Milton 2004-2007; around the world. Cynthia travelled through 39 countries on all continents on a BMW R80GS, (albeit Antarctica was without her bike!), until an accident in South Africa, where she smashed her wrist and ended it there. Still three years around the world is a pretty good result for (dare I say) our oldest woman solo adventurer. “I’ve been riding so long it all fades into the distant past – only two years to my 40th anniversary.”

Cynthia started her two-wheeled travels when she was a student in the early 70s and went to Poland on a Honda 50 step-thru. “I was young and green and in my salad days. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Cynthia’s around the world journey was kick-started by bad news. “In the space of nine months my father died, my boyfriend dumped me and I was made redundant. So I thought, 'Sod it, I'm nearly 50, I'll never get the chance again'."

Cynthia’s travels took her east to Vladivostok, onto Japan before heading to Bangkok and South East Asia, at the time of the tsunami, which unsurprisingly, caused delays to her onward journey to Australia. From Australia she headed to South America and in between a couple of crashes (one in Ecuador and one in Chile), a boat trip to Antarctica and a slow boat up the Amazon, she shipped her bike from Colombia to Panama and rode north to the USA and Canada. From here she shipped to South Africa, where the trip came to a sudden end.

For those of you who know Cynthia, you’ll not be surprised at whether she found being a solo female traveller a problem. Of course not! “Being a middle-aged woman means men talk to your face and not your chest. And when stopped by an official, I take off my helmet to display the (very) grey hair, and it's 'Omigod, I've stopped my mum'. And I was very nicely chatted up by border officials (various) on a middle-aged-friendly-having-a-laugh basis.” I get the impression she would love to be back on the road again, but the reality is “I need to finish paying for the last one.”
And her words of wisdom to the rest of you – “carpe diem” and Dame Freya Stark – "There's nothing to be afraid of."

It’s been a pleasure to touch the surface of some of these extraordinary journeys. They by no means represent any definitive list of female motorcycle journeys, (see below for a few more to check out), but I personally have found them refreshing and inspirational. Some started out with no motorcycle experience at all; others with plenty. Some travelled truly into the absolute unknown; others into their personal unknowns.

There are similar themes – about facing your fears, which for women travelling alone is especially more acute, and about the trust in the positive side human nature. So maybe, no matter male or female, their stories could be the tipping point you need to set out on your long journey, whatever or wherever it may be.

Some other female motorcycle journeys to inspire Jo-Ann Smith (Canada) travelled the Americas solo between 2002-05 on her BMW F650, having already travelled in Mexico in 1989 on her Honda XL600R.

Benka Pulko (Solvenia) who holds a Guinness World Record for her solo motorcycle travels around the world between 1997-2002, www.benkapulko.com, has been recognised by her country as 'Woman of the Year' in 2003 and now uses her travel experience to benefit others through charitable work.

Doris Weidemann (Germany) has travelled solo since 1996 in a number of different rides on all continents around the world. On her latest journey, she rode to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in winter, meeting up with fellow traveller Sjaark Lucassen en route.

Doris Maron (Canada) – This 58-year-old mother of three and grandmother of five voyaged from Fairbanks (Alaska), to Kathmandu (Nepal) and from Oslo (Norway) to La Paz, (Bolivia) from 2001 to 2004. Check out www.untamedspirit.net
Alisa Clickenger (USA) – Currently riding Trans Americas solo in aid of the Gynecologic Cancer Foundation. See www.motoadventuregal.com

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