Encounter: Billy Ward

issue #24

There’s no shortage of colourful characters in the world of motorcycle travel. Some inspire with their thoughtful insight and curiosity, some with their remarkable riding ability and resourcefulness, while others entertain through sheer strength of personality and their passion for life. Few people qualify on all those counts, but Billy Ward is one of them.

Over the past year or so alone, Billy has ridden something like 25,000 miles around Southern Africa and South America on a Triumph 800 XCX. But when I last saw him at an event in June, his natural talent as a raconteur was captivating audiences with the story of a quite different kind of journey – through a Middle Eastern war zone.

In the spring of 2017, when a military coalition was still engaged in the battle to retake Mosul from ISIL, Billy joined Claudio von Planta (of ‘Long Way Round’ fame) on an exploratory trip into Iraqi Kurdistan. Their idea was to recce the region with a view to potential guided tours in a more peaceful future, and to make a documentary film about the impact of the conflict on the people caught up in it. They went in search of adventure, and they certainly found it.

Kurdish officials organised the loan of a pair of Honda VFR 800 ‘Traffic Police’ bikes, still fitted with blues ‘n’ twos and luggage, which Billy and Claudio rode to the frontline near Mosul. Along the way they witnessed the sad destruction still very much in evidence in the villages surrounding the city, and met many refugees fleeing from the violence. They stayed with civilian Kurdish families and Peshmerga fighters, and learned about the troubled history of the Kurds since the population’s division between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria after the First World War.

Billy is a vocal advocate of the philosophy that life is best measured by the value of experience rather than material gain. When he talks about the journey, his admiration for the warmth, hospitality and resilience of the Kurdish people is enthusiastic and emotional. As is his compassion for their plight. “Our legacy, if we have one, should be our understanding,” he says. Watch ‘A Kurdish Movie’ on Vimeo to broaden your own.

If you swapped his bike for a tall ship with a star to sail by, and whisked Billy back to once-upon-a-romanticised-time in the West Indies, he’d make a fine swashbuckling pirate. Synonymous with daring exploits into uncharted waters, laughing in the face of certain danger, and a reputation for never saying no, 300 years ago the name ‘Mad Billy Whitebeard’ might’ve been whispered with awe in dark corners of Nassau’s most disreputable taverns.

Oh yeah!

It’s true that he can come across as a cheeky rascal, a charmer, a lovable rogue, and may well be all (or none) of those things, but there’s far more to Billy than first impressions of the tall man from Liverpool might deceive you into believing.

After leaving Northumbria University with a degree in Social and Market Research, he embarked on a career based around the application of information technology in education and international corporations. Then at the beginning of 2005, as ‘Long Way Round’ was airing on British TV screens for the first time, he launched his ‘Biketruck’ business to help adventure motorcyclists access Eastern Europe and North Africa. Biketruck has stuck as his nom de plume ever since.

That new venture led to Billy’s association with Charley Boorman, for whom he acts as stage show promoter and producer, and motorcycle tour manager. He’s also worked with the likes of comedian Ross Noble, and TV chefs the Hairy Bikers. On top of all that, his professional expertise includes film production and risk management in hostile environments.

As much as motorcycle travel is the common thread connecting many aspects of Billy’s eclectic life, in recent years his passion for Africa and its wildlife has flourished alongside it. He’s now a qualified Field Guide and needs little encouragement to share tall tales of elephant encounters in the bush. But home is important to him too, and this year he’s leaving his adopted Newcastle to return to his family’s roots in Ireland.

Words: Iain Harper