The First British Woman to Motorcycle Round-the-World
Elspeth Beard’s epic 35,000-mile, two-year ride is the stuff of legends. No modern-day technology or support, solo and only 23 years old – here’s Elspeth’s incredible story…
Preparing for a round-the-world motorcycle ride in 1982
I learnt as much as I could about my 1974 BMW R60/6 before I left. I bought a Haynes manual and set about stripping down parts of the engine and getting a basic understanding of how it all worked. My bike was eight years old and had already done 45,000 miles. I replaced all the cables, bought a new battery, changed all the oils and put new tyres on. I also took the cylinder heads off to fit an extra base gasket in order to lower the compression. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I had been told by a friendly mechanic at the BMW shop that this would be a good idea.
My riding gear was fairly basic compared to today’s standards. I had an old 1973 full-face Bell helmet, my Lewis Leathers leather jacket and boots and a pair Belstaff oiled cotton over trousers. I wore the same gear for the entire trip.
My luggage consisted of ‘throw over’ soft panniers, a tank bag and a nylon bag I just strapped on the back seat. This luggage got me to Sydney where I decided that I needed something more secure. Aluminium luggage did not exist then so I set about making my own. The panniers and top box consisted of aluminium sheets wrapped around and riveted on to aluminium angle, all the joints were then siliconed to make the whole ensemble waterproof. They were light, lockable, easily repairable and relatively cheap to make….perfect!
Guide books were just starting to be published. I had nothing for the USA or New Zealand, so I just went to places I had heard of. I’d try and find tourist information offices to find out what there was to see, and of course I would ask the locals.
I just got visas as I went along as I never knew when I would have to change my plans. With little or no information available, it was almost impossible to plan very far ahead. For example, when I arrived in India I would talk to as many people as I could to find out about the roads and political situation in Pakistan. If this sounded okay, I would apply for a visa, if not I would start investigating shipping my bike from India to somewhere in Africa, my plans had to be fluid.
Friends, family and sponsorship
My parents showed little or no interest in my trip. Having worked in Accident & Emergency, my mother hated motorbikes and did her utmost to stop me; she even threatened to disinherit me. But my parents’ resistance only made me more determined. In fairness to my mother, she didn’t comprehend anything that was unconventional and her apparent lack of interest was probably her way of dealing with my trip. Like any good mother, she worried about her children and in her view my life had taken a wrong turn.
I think most of my friends and family thought I’d be back in a month, no-one really believed I would ever do it. I wouldn’t describe it as negativity but I did feel as if it was all considered as a bit of a joke.
I did contact the bike press before I left hoping to get interest and possibly some support. I sent a photograph of myself on my bike and offered to write and send back articles for publication. I think their response says it all…….
Brecon said he’d write this letter but he can’t ‘cos his tongues jammed his typewriter.
Julian asks if you’ve got a eight feet tall husband who’s also a karate expert?
Mike Clements has already formed the Elspeth Beard Appreciation Society and wants to know where in the world you’re going to be so he can get there first.
Me? I’d like to offer you sponsorship around the world but I think that’d be a waste and a shame for London.
Life on the road
There were many difficult times, accidents, illnesses, dealing with mindless bureaucracy, riding through countries at war. I think I found riding across Australia physically the hardest and riding through India mentally very challenging. But through it all, I felt like an explorer venturing out into the unknown world.
Solo female traveller
I think the advantage I had back then was that when I was on the bike wearing all my gear no-one ever thought it might be a woman, so I felt fairly safe. In some countries when I got off my bike, I would keep my helmet on whenever I could and the assumption was that I was male, but of course this was not always possible and I did attract a fair amount of unwelcome attention. I’m not sure things are better today, just different.
In some of the less developed countries, I felt that they were so astonished to see a woman riding a bike bigger than they ever imagined even existed, it stopped them in their tracks. They looked at me in awe not quite believing what they were seeing and in an odd way I think this gave me an aura which sort of protected me. This of course has now all disappeared with travelling being so much more a part of people’s lives.
Letters from home
Things were very different back then; I would only pick up mail every 3-4 months from prearranged post offices along the way. Friends and family would write to the main post office in Delhi or wherever up until a certain date and I would then collect the mail. When I started travelling and was in the USA, New Zealand and Australia, I would try to call home (from a call box) every 3-4 weeks but after this I only collected mail every 3-4 months. Working out where to collect mail was not easy as it meant that you had to have a route planned, which in some parts of the world was almost impossible. I generally kept it simple and stuck to Poste Restante in capital cities as I knew there would be a good chance I would have to pass through them at some point.
My bike was not an off-road adventure bike as these didn’t exist, but I think it’s possible to ride any bike anywhere if you have to. It just comes down to the speed and comfort you have, the important thing was to have a simple bike that I could fix myself anywhere on the side of the road. I had never ridden off-road before I left the UK and my first encounter with dirt roads was the outback in Australia.
Motorcycle garages didn’t really exist in the majority of the countries, so I carried all my own spare parts and fixed my bike myself.
But saying all this, I do think it was a golden age and I consider myself very lucky to have travelled when I did. Bikes (well, BMWs anyway) were reliable, still simple, not full of electronics and easy to fix on the side of the road and technology had not taken over our lives.
Although technology is great in many ways, I can’t help feeling that some of the ‘adventure’ has been lost. Not having a safety net, knowing that you have to deal with any problems and that feeling of being totally alone, you become very self reliant which sets you up for life.
My maps were very basic; I had one map for the entire Indian subcontinent, Pakistan and Iran which resembled a school atlas with a few red lines showing the main roads. This was my only map for almost a year; I guarded it with my life! In Thailand most of the road signs were only written in Thai script so I spent 4 days in Bangkok trying to find a map with the places written in Thai and English. I spent a lot of the time getting lost, following the sun, asking locals for directions or just riding in a certain direction until I arrived somewhere when I would ask where I was.
I carried a Pentax K1000 camera which was great, basic and robust and used 35mm rolls of film. I only had 36 exposures on each roll so every frame was very precious. I would get the film developed where I could along the way and send the photos home. I would always post the prints home first and when I heard that they had arrived I would send the negatives. You could only buy film in certain countries so you had to plan very carefully. Before I left Singapore, I bought nine rolls of film (which I calculated gave me 345 photos for India, Nepal, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey) as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get any more until I arrived in Europe. Trying to buy film that wasn’t years out of date or hadn’t been sitting in the sun in some shop window was also extremely difficult.
The two years I spent on the road completely changed my life and made me the person I am today. For me I think it was the fact I had succeeded and survived against all the odds, I came back a changed person, I was not afraid of anything. I learnt so much about myself as I had been tested to my limits and this gave me confidence. I learnt to think out of the box and be imaginative and resourceful, qualities that I have applied to my life and work ever since.
It has really only been with the passing of time that I have realised how my journey has shaped the rest of my life. The process of writing my book made me look back and realise all the invaluable life skills I learnt.
I think one of the hardest things is to leave. It’s easy to convince yourself that it’s not the right time for whatever reason. I always used to procrastinate even during my journey, when I had stopped somewhere for a period of time, I would find it difficult to move on. It’s never easy taking yourself away from what you are familiar with and out of your comfort zone but unless you do you will never grow and learn about yourself. Get out there, it’s important in life to face and overcome your fears.
To any women considering travelling alone I would encourage them to put aside their fears, it’s worth remembering that the majority of people you will meet along the way will be kind, helpful, friendly and welcoming.
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11 thoughts on “The First British Woman to Motorcycle Round the World”
This story is an inspiration and has made my day. I’ve heard of Elspeth’s adventures before and it’s so nice to read an article from her like this.
Phenomenal! What an incredible journey and traveller. Well done. Definitely going to order the book now.
I loved this article. More like this please! Elspeth is an amazing woman, thank you so much for adding this to your site.
What a lady, the panniers are pretty impressive and quite the accomplished architect as well.
I’ve been working my way through all of these travel stories every morning over coffee and this one is my favourite. It’s one thing for people to travel today with all the comforts and securities and safety nets behind us. It’s a complete other story to do it back then with none of that like Elspeth Beard did. This is proper courage.
An amazing woman by all means. I still have to read her book (just bought it), but on the basis of these series of interviews and some articles she strikes me not only as a woman with tremendous courage but also as a really smart person. Just to give one example; she disassembled her BMW completely before the trip in order to make sure that all the vulnerable parts were in order. There is one picture of her her out there where she stands next to the poor bare frame of the BMW. She also fixed the bike herself while riding and took it apart again when she came back to fix it. Respect! Now Robert Pirsig of course is the advocate of motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for engaged riding and living. But this woman is the embodiment of that. Robert and Elsbeth: I just imagine them talking about this. Robert perhaps with more philosophical vigor, but Elspeth with more technical skill and insight. For sure! And then, after good and intense conversation, they ride off, both in their own particular directions… Damn there is enough material for a great novel here 😉 Or a film, why not?
Wonderful adventure. I’m a Royal Enfield rider and I’m in Australia. At 69 Im not about to undertake such a trip but I admire your courage .I will buy, and look forward to reading your book Elspeth. Regards Bill
I love motorcycle adventure riding. I’ve done a few trips in my day but nothing as exiting and awe inspiring as this. I’m 63 years of age snd I still often ride. Procostination has become my master. I will however live your adventure through my eyes when I read your book. You are truly an inspirational and a somewhat enviable character. Bully for you , you showed us all.
Hi Derek, what a lovely comment!
I’m sure you going to love Elspeth’s book – it’s a brilliant read.
All the best 🙂
What an amazing woman. Just ordered the book.
Hi Ally! Thanks for commenting!
Ah that’s brilliant you’ve ordered the book. I’m sure you’ll love it, it’s a great read 🙂