Oxford, Sept 2018. Overland Event at the end of August 2018, in Hill End camp near Oxford, was inspiring and mundane in equal proportions. Inspiring because it brought together the largest gathering of long-distance motorcycle travellers I have seen, and mundane because in other respects it was a normal, if rather enjoyable, motorcycle club camping weekend.
The celebrities (in the biker world) included my all-time hero Ted Simon, author of Jupiter’s Travels and the original widely publicised two-wheel traveller, who circumnavigated the world in 1974 on an ordinary Triumph 500 motorcycle. The now rather battered-looking Triumph was on display, together with the BMW R80GS that he chose for his ill-fated second round-the-world (RTW) attempt.
That second adventure had to be cut short when he broke his leg at the age of 64. Considering the hair-raising tales we were treated to from the other intrepid RTW travellers at the gathering, there seemed surprisingly few permanent injuries resulting.
So were these men and women superhuman in some way? No. They were nearly all quite ordinary people who at some point in their lives decided either that nine-to-five was too boring, or reached a point where they had to do something completely different to break out of a personal rut.
And neither did they appear what you would call ‘bikers’ in the conventional sense. Greek Stergios Gogos began his journey when, frustrated by endless austerity, in his native land, he decided to sell everything he owned and buy a Vespa 200 scooter. Thus equipped, he set out across Africa. Along the way he acquired fellow-traveller Alexandra, who subsequently became his long-term partner on the trip.
Stergios and Alexandra made an entertaining double act as they regaled us with their stories. He was repeatedly forced to halt his tale while Alexandra corrected him, much to the amusement of the audience. It was all rather reminiscent of that old favourite song ‘I remember it well’, with Maurice Chevalier.
Speaker Jacqui Furneaux was another inspiring traveller. After a traumatic divorce, she abandoned her nursing job in 2000, bought a classic Royal Enfield Bullet 500cc motorcycle and set off for seven years to explore 20 countries. Her prevailing theme? Don’t bother about planning to the nth degree – just go. ‘Sometimes life is better without a plan’, was her conclusion. See pic.
There were many more speakers and stories – enough for three days of back-to-back presentations, and too much for me to take in at one go. Elspeth Beard for example, the first British woman to travel solo round the globe by motorcycle. Setting out in 1982 on a standard BMW R60, not exactly noted for being a high-powered machine, she gave a new generation hope in the possibility of a different life path.
Or more recently Kane Avellano, who left South Shields (UK) on his Triumph Bonneville to cover 35 countries, eventually being recognised by Guinness World Records in 2017 as the “Youngest Person to Circumnavigate the World by Motorcycle” after his 32,000-mile journey. He also raised over £2,000 for Unicef. See: https://www.facebook.com/GuinnessWorldRecords/videos/1465506586863757/
Between them, these intrepid travellers presented a remarkable compilation of stories covering (mostly) solo travel around the world. Tales that showed a blend of initiative, imagination and outright derring-do on two wheels. None of them had the support vehicles relied on by other more high-profile travellers; they simply went out and did it.
The obstacles they faced in the process often appeared formidable, especially so to confirmed armchair travellers like myself. Picture the Gogos’ Vespa scooter drowning in a sea of mud – in fact a main road in the centre of the Congo, where the usual transport is by military trucks with wheels as tall as a man. The Vespa eventually got hoisted on the back. Their story was recently published in a new book, Rice & Dirt.
Inspiration … and practical ideas
The beaten, battered and sometimes rather bent machines on display in the central marquee were a remarkable contrast to those that had delivered the audience. For the most part, these bikes were well-polished and obviously loved items of personal transport.
Which is where the other half of the event kicked in. Inspiring tales of travel encounters were all very well, but few of us might be able, or even willing, to drop everything and ride round the world. However everyone was interested in products that could make it more comfortable or safer doing so.
For example the Helite motorcyclist airbag systems on display from lovelifeandride.com/. Still new and hideously expensive, but reckoned by some to be a future standard requirement in personal protective clothing.
Or the motorcycle-seat covers offered by Cool Covers (coolcovers.co.uk/), at first glance a simple mesh cover for the seat. But according to the representative, an essential aid to heat distribution when riding in hot climates.
One novel idea was the thermal vest from Exotogg (exotogg.com/), an inflatable waistcoat that, with a few breaths, could provide insulation for riding in climates varying from average European warm to North-Cape cold.
Test rides on the new Royal Enfield Himalayan 400cc single (from www.cooperbmotorcycles.co.uk/) were also popular, being sold out by the end of Friday afternoon. I tried the machine and was impressed, noting only the slight lack of impact from the throttle, which I suppose is not really surprising from a bike designed for traffic on the Indian subcontinent.
Social side important
Like all such events, the social side of Overland 2018 was an important draw. The Hill End site (www.hill-end.org/) was the perfect venue, offering spacious camping, hot showers, a cafe and, for the occasion, a well-stocked bar (Hill End is a worthy Oxfordshire charity, normally focussed on furthering outdoor education for school groups).
Most of the participants clearly enjoyed themselves, managing to drink the bar dry on the Friday night and thus forcing an emergency restocking on Saturday. The site even had a sizeable camp fire, always a magnet on a camping weekend. As I remarked to the man who was generously passing delicate chocolate cakes around the camp-fire circle, “there’s nothing quite like eating fairy-cakes round the fire at a biker meet”.
© Philip Hunt, 2018.