Encounter: Elspeth Beard

Anyone who’s had the pleasure of visiting Elspeth Beard’s Victorian water tower will leave with no doubt in their mind that she is a determined and single-minded woman. Very few people would have had the nerve to buy at auction a cracked, derelict 1898 edifice with no planning permission, inhabited only by pigeons and half-filled with their excrement, let alone the vision to see that it could be turned into a unique and awe-inspiring home. The fact that she overcame innumerable problems, from hostile neighbours and impossible health and safety requirements, to climbing ladders while pregnant and the departure of her partner, all while holding down a full-time job as an architect thirty miles away, just makes her achievement all the more impressive, especially since it took seven years to achieve.

However, while the outside of the building is adorned with several well-deserved architectural awards, the inside is decorated with a series of black and white photos telling the story of a very different struggle and adventure which pre-dates the saga of the water tower. When she was still a young student of architecture Elspeth became the first Englishwoman to ride a motorcycle around the world. She achieved this feat nearly thirty years ago, long before anyone had SatNavs and GPS, internet, email, mobile phones or iPods, and she did it mostly alone.

The bike she used was a second-hand 1974 BMW R60/6 flat twin, bought for £900 in 1980, a substantial sum at the time, especially for a machine that already had 30,000 miles on the clock, although it did come with a neat handlebar fairing and rorty Dunstall decibel silencers. Elspeth used the 600 BMW for her first long solo rides; from her home in London to Scotland and then to Ireland, before venturing to mainland Europe and Corsica, racking up over 10,000 miles in her first two years of ownership.

By the autumn of 1982, Elspeth was ready for ‘The Big One’. Altogether, she managed to save £2000 towards paying for her round the world adventure.

By now the bike had done 40,000 miles, so she did some preventive maintenance and preparation before departing and besides, as she recalls, “I wanted to have experience of taking my bike apart in the comfort of my own garage, rather than doing it for the first time at the side of the road”. She stripped the heads, fitted new rocker bearings and lowered the compression by fitting an extra gasket under each barrel, so that the bike would run on the lowest grade of petrol. She fitted new tyres and inner tubes and changed all the oils and filters but also took the precaution of fitting a new battery and a complete set of cables. To carry her luggage she simply used a tank bag, throw-over panniers and a thin nylon ‘sausage bag’ strapped on the back of the saddle with bungee cords.

She began her journey in New York, having shipped the bike there for £175 and flown herself for £99. That was cheap compared to the cost of a carnet for the bike, which was a further £1500, and still didn’t include cover for Iran. “It would have cost an extra £3000 just for Iran so I thought I’d worry about that later. My dad actually lent me the £1500 for the carnet, which was pretty good of him, considering that my mum was dead against the whole trip and had threatened to have nothing to do with me if I went, in a desperate attempt to dissuade me from going.”

From the Big Apple Elspeth rode up to Canada, then down Mexico way before reaching Los Angeles with another 5,000 miles under the Beemer’s wheels. From LA she shipped the bike to Sydney, but stopped off to see New Zealand on foot while the bike was in transit, and was joined there by Chris, her non-biking boyfriend, who stayed on to pick fruit. Her plan was to spend several months in Australia getting work experience in an architect’s office but for that she needed a work permit, which proved problematic, to say the least. She’d originally applied for one before leaving England but was obliged to continue the process via several different Australian offices across the USA.

“The Australian bureaucrats were a real pain in the arse about it . . . for some reason they refused me a work visa so I said ‘OK, give me a tourist visa’. In LA they stamped my passport saying it was being considered and said ‘You can pick up your visa in New Zealand’. But when I got to New Zealand they said. . . ‘No, you can’t have any visa at all because we know you want to work’. . . and the bike was already en route to Sydney!”

“I made a last-ditch attempt at the Australian High Commission in Auckland. I made enough fuss to get to see someone important and when I walked into his room wearing my leather jacket he said ‘Do you ride a bike?’ And when I said yes, he said, ‘So do I!’ It turned out he had some old Brit bike and when I explained what I was trying to do he said ‘Give me your passport’ and he just stamped it. Problem solved!”

Having finally got in to Australia, complete with work permit, Elspeth spent seven months working in a Sydney architectural practice and living in a garage, replenishing her diminished funds. She spent weeks constructing her own bespoke, lockable, top box-cum-panniers out of folded and riveted sheet aluminium, inspired by the extraordinary bike of a guy called John Todd. Todd’s old Earles-forked R60 BMW not only had a similar pannier arrangement at the back, but another set across and beside his fuel tank and a very angular home-made fairing, also in aluminium.

Elspeth recalls, “I built the lockable panniers because I was worried about things getting nicked in Asia.”

With some more comfortable flat handlebars fitted and her wallet restored to health, she renewed her travels, starting with a thorough exploration of Australia and with her first big accident on a dirt road near Townsville, Queensland. The R60 cart-wheeled and she was left badly concussed, but mercifully with no broken bones. She still has the heavyweight Bell ‘bone dome’ helmet which she’s convinced saved her life (and which she carried on wearing for the rest of the trip!). She doesn’t remember much about the accident itself though. “I’d met up with two English blokes, Tom and Ewan, travelling on one bike, and we were all heading inland for the Caernarvon Gorge, but they were miles behind me when I had the accident. When they arrived, they found me trying to pull my bike out of a ditch, but I was seriously concussed. Apparently I kept saying, ‘Where’s my money, where’s my passport?’ Then they’d reassure me that it was all there, and then I’d say it again, over and over, like a stuck record. The ambulance came 190 miles from Townsville to pick me up, and a local farmer took my bike and all my belongings to his farm.”

Elspeth spent two weeks recovering in hospital and then, shaken but undaunted, she got a lift out to the farm and spent a further two weeks repairing the bike. Her home-made boxes were all smashed and the handlebars and forks were bent. Despite this, she rode the R60 the 190 miles back to a BMW dealership in Townsville.

There she had the forks straightened, replaced the bent ‘bars with some high-rise ones, fitted new mirrors and some other bits and pieces. Finally, a month after the accident, Elspeth left Townsville on her bike for the second time and rode north up the east coast of Oz, then through the outback to Alice Springs and Uluru.

While she was at Alice Springs there was the biggest deluge of rain for twelve years, which turned the then-notorious South Road to Adelaide into one long, impassable bog. (At that time it was still a 500-mile dirt road of ‘bulldust’). She tried to ride it but the bike simply sank into the mud up to the rear axle and had to be repeatedly dug out. Eventually a truck driver, who put the bike into the back of his ‘road-train’, rescued her and they spent the next six days covering the 500 miles together.

“We had to dig the truck out four or five times a day. It was a two-trailer road train and the bike was in the rear trailer. The driver said that in twenty-five years of driving from Darwin to Adelaide he had never seen it so bad. He took me down to Coober Peedy where they mine opals and all live underground because it’s so hot. It was 52°C when we arrived.”

After a couple of days sweltering in Coober Peedy, Elspeth set out across the Nullarbor desert, heading west towards Perth. While still a couple of hundred miles from her destination, in the middle of nowhere, she was alarmed to see smoke rising from behind the headlight and as she brought the bike to a rapid halt she realised that it was on fire.

“I wasn’t sure whether to run in case the bike exploded, or to try to put out the fire” she recalls. “I tried to put it out by beating it with a cloth, but without much success”. Fortunately, the fire extinguished itself after a few heart-stopping minutes but the entire front section of her wiring loom, from the battery to the headlight, ignition and alternator was completely melted.

In a twist of fate too far-fetched to write as fiction, she could just make out a sign down the road that read, ‘Auto Electrician’. The only electrical specialist within 100 miles, just a workshop and the house behind where the owner lived with his girlfriend. Turned out his name was John and he was originally from Wales.

Elspeth ended up staying with the pair for two weeks while she and John painstakingly constructed a new wiring loom using the electrical diagram in the Haynes manual that she’d carried with her from England. In an unusual change from the original specification, every wire on the bike ended up either brown or black, but afterwards it no longer suffered from the dodgy switchgear that had plagued her from the time she bought it and which she had already re-soldered several times. And the R60 still has that brown and black wiring to this day. One thing she couldn’t do anything about was the worn-out ignition switch on the side of the headlight – she had to hold the key in place with a rubber band otherwise the bike would cut out while she rode.

Having safely reached Perth, on the west coast, Elspeth found she had a couple of weeks to kill before the next boat to Singapore was due. She used the time to visit several places of interest in and around the city, having first removed her humungous home-made boxes and left them at a Perth youth hostel. It was on one of these sight-seeing forays, out to a forest in a National Park, that she found herself stranded in a campsite one morning when her bike refused to start. She persuaded a group of local lads to load the R60 into the back of their Holden covered pick-up and they took her safely back to Perth, where she was able to get a new set of coils, and restore the beast to health.

Elspeth then loaded the BMW onto a boat to Singapore and used the ‘shipping time’ to explore Bali, Java and Sumatra having been rejoined by Chris, who had finished picking fruit in New Zealand. They reached Singapore via Malaysia and were exploring the island city-state when they became victims of a classic case of theft.

“We were in a food hall, where they have all kinds of food stalls around the sides, and seats and tables in the middle. It was really hot and I said to Chris, “I’ve got to take off my money-belt, it’s so uncomfortable”. He said, ‘Put it in my bag, it will be fine’. We were sitting at a table, with his leather satchel on the floor between us, when there was a commotion next to us and two guys started fighting. We turned round to see what was going on and when we looked back, the bag was gone.

We’d been really security conscious all the way through Indonesia and Malaysia, but Singapore felt safe and civilised, and we foolishly let our guard down. I’m sure it was a staged fight, with a third accomplice just waiting for us to be distracted.”

The theft of the bag was a complete disaster, because they both lost all their valuables: money, passports, and in Elspeth’s case, the visas for all the countries she’d yet to visit and her driving licence. She also lost the documents relating to her bike, including the shipping paperwork, but thankfully, not the all-important carnet. She’d even lost both of her ignition keys, because she’d removed the spare, (which had been hidden on the bike), when the BMW was shipped. The bike itself was still in Singapore customs!

She’d only planned to stay in Singapore for a few days but ended up being stuck there for six weeks, laboriously replacing her documents. “Fortunately most of my money was in travellers’ cheques and I had the reference numbers separate from my stolen money belt. American Express were really helpful; they gave an emergency advance of $100 but they couldn’t refund us the rest until we had replaced our passports, because we didn’t have any proper ID.” Even finding somewhere to get suitable new passport photographs was quite a task, but finally armed with the required pictures and a police report of the theft, it took about ten days to get new passports. Elspeth was able to set about replacing her essential visas for the countries she’d yet to visit, “That was a complete pain, because it took several days to get every visa; you had to leave your passport at each embassy while they did the business, and of course, they all cost money I hadn’t budgeted for.”

Replacing the bike’s registration document and ignition keys, and her driving licence, took even longer. “I had to phone DVLA and DVLC from the main telephone exchange in Singapore and they sent new documents to my London address which my parents then posted to American Express in Singapore. Having completed the forms, they had to be airmailed back to Swansea, the replacement documents then again posted to London and forwarded on to Singapore.

Having finally the replaced the registration document, with chassis number, Elspeth was able to contact BMW in Munich to get another ignition key. To their great credit, BMW duly supplied a perfect replacement key. She also had to replace all the stolen shipping documents by contacting the agent in Perth, because without them she didn’t even know where to look for the bike, which was still in the Singapore docks.

“We ended up sleeping on the floor of a new block of flats, where two storeys had been converted for putting up western back-packers. There was no bed, no breakfast and no air conditioning. It was pretty grim… I always seemed to be dripping in sweat except for about three minutes after taking a shower. We walked everywhere all day long in the sweltering heat to save money. Singapore was a pretty soul-less place and the unplanned time I spent there seemed like a terrible waste of my limited resources.”

After this enforced sojourn in the island state, Elspeth waved goodbye to Chris, her non-biking boyfriend, and resumed her travelling on two wheels, alone again with the BMW. She rode north across Malaysia and stopped long enough in Kuala Lumpur to be interviewed by a local journalist from The New Straits Times. The journalist, Foong Peto, described her in breathless terms with more than a hint of hyperbole: “Her huge BMW looks intimidating to the non-biking enthusiast, but isn’t to her. With one swing of those long, powerful legs, the lanky, blonde, adventurer mounts the ‘monster’ easily. She used to zoom around London at the neck-breaking speed of 130 to 150kph but has since slowed down to a gentler 80 to 85kph so that she can complete her journey in one piece” (NST, 23/3/84).

She continued north up the Burma-Thai peninsula to Bangkok and far beyond. However, the simplest navigation was difficult because nearly all the road signs were written only in the Thai alphabet; they used the same numbers as us for the distances, but that was it. “First I had to get hold of a road map which had all the place names written in both Latin alphabet and Thai, then, when I came to a road sign, I had to match the squiggles on the sign with the squiggles on the map, next to the Latin script version that I could actually read.”

She rode right to the north of Thailand, to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the famous Golden Triangle. This area was notorious for its drugs and bandits, and Elspeth had been strongly advised to give it a miss, but she found the people there to be extremely friendly and helpful, for which she soon had cause to be grateful.

While in the north, she noticed that the BMW’s red generator light was staying on, indicating there was something wrong with the charging system. She stopped the bike and was sitting on the kerb, studying the wiring diagram in the Haynes manual, when a slightly dishevelled middle-aged Thai gentleman stopped and asked, in sign language, what the problem was. Not speaking a word of Thai, Elspeth demonstrated by showing him the telltale red light. He motioned for her to follow him and, with some trepidation, she did. It soon turned out she had nothing to fear – this dishevelled fellow turned out to be the owner of an alternator factory just around the corner!

Elspeth recalls, “We sat for several hours with his three mechanics, getting to the source of the problem. We finally worked out that there was a fault in the diode plate, so they unsoldered it to get the whole thing apart then re-soldered a new diode into place. And hey presto, it worked! And they didn’t charge me a penny… but I bought them all beer.”

It was not possible to ride overland from Thailand to India because the land borders into Burma (between them) were closed. So Elspeth headed back south into Malaysia to load the bike onto a boat from Penang to Madras, on India’s east coast. While still in Thailand, riding the dangerous main road down the peninsula, she had her second big crash of the trip when a dog ran out from behind a truck and went right under her wheels.

Elspeth emerged from the wreckage battered and bruised but once again, miraculously unbroken. The bike, however, needed more treatment…

“I picked myself up and rushed to my bike to see it wedged against a tree in a ditch. My heart sank, as the first thing that crossed my mind was being unable to get to the boat to India on time. I tried to pull it out of the ditch and was pulling the front wheel to try and straighten it out. The boxes were ripped off their bracket at the back and fairly bent. People rushed out from the nearby farm to help. It was only then that I noticed how badly my hand was hurt. I also smashed up my foot, mainly my big toe. My trousers were torn but my leather jacket saved my arms and shoulders, and I was wearing my helmet. I rushed around looking for bits that had been knocked off. A dust cap for the swinging arm had come off and knowing that it would be impossible to replace, I rummaged through the long grass for ten minutes until I found it.

“The woman of the farm rushed off for alcohol and something antiseptic which she poured all over my hands and the scratches on my legs and knees. Everyone tried to stop me from moving but I wanted to inspect the bike. Apart from dents in the silencers and tank, the smashed headlight and scratches everywhere, there wasn’t too much damage. The worst thing was the exhaust pipe, which came out of the cylinder at such an acute angle I knew I would be losing compression.

“There was also oil coming out of the cylinder base, which had taken the full impact. There was a hive of activity while a car was arranged to take me a mile down the road into the village where I saw a nurse who spoke no English, but she wrote ‘tetanus’ to which I nodded. She bandaged my hand up and sent me off. I paid nothing.”

Elspeth also found a friendly bike shop with tools and a vice. “I rode the bike back into the village and it was OK, although a fair amount of oil was coming from the base of the cylinder. I arrived at the bike shop and was immediately surrounded by the entire village who watched me for hours. They were fascinated, and the women seemed to show pride in what I was doing.”

Elspeth spent several days recuperating in the care of the impoverished Thai family into whose farm she had crashed… “They didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak Thai, but we communicated with sign language and they were incredibly kind. In the evening we all sat on the wooden floor watching a huge colour television but there was no other furniture. When the programmes ended everyone simply lay down to sleep on a thin piece of foam. I had aches and pains and the mosquitoes were terrible.”

It was only on the final day of her stay that she discovered the remains of the dog she’d run over – in the kitchen. “We’d already eaten half of it!”

When she first left the farm, riding was difficult, painful and slow due to her injuries, but Elspeth made her way down the peninsula to the border with Malaysia. The accident meant she missed the boat to India, so she waited three weeks for the next one, travelling back to Kuala Lumpur, where she found the only place in Malaysia that could supply an 18 inch rear tyre.

Arriving back in Penang two days before the boat was due to sail, Elspeth faced a mountain of bureaucracy. She was told to provide no fewer than 18 copies of one form, with no carbon paper to help, let alone a photocopier. In the event, the boat was three days late, which was just as well as she spent most of that time going between incompetent jobsworths, trying to find the right person to stamp her carnet, when half of the bureaucrats were on the island of Penang and the other half were based in the customs HQ on the mainland.

The voyage to India took five days and conditions were grim even in second class, out of the four. “I made friends with an Indian family travelling first class and discovered their conditions were much better and not much more expensive than second class; I really wished that I’d paid the extra.” She did however benefit from her new-found friends when they kindly offered to put her up in Madras for the few days it took to get the bike out of Indian customs. “They even sent me to the docks in their chauffeur driven, Indian-built Ambassador car.” Getting herself into the country was more straightforward; at that time British passport holders were automatically granted a stay of 48 years!

Once re-united with her bike, Elspeth realised the accumulation of delays had left her with an impossible schedule to make a long-arranged rendezvous with her parents in Nepal. She decided to save some time by taking the bike on the train for the thousand miles from Madras (Chennai) up India’s east coast to the teeming city of Calcutta (Kolkata) in Bengal.

The train wasn’t fast, but it chugged on through the night, so saved a lot of time overall. Then Elspeth had another brush with bureaucracy. “When I got to Calcutta, the station staff treated the bike as if I was trying to bring it into the country without clearing customs even though I’d spent days in Madras doing just that. In the end, I just walked it out of the station through the pedestrian exit and rode off.”

Finding the road for Kathmandu was harder than anticipated. “There were no road signs in Calcutta, so I looked for the river crossing and headed north. The main road was barely wide enough for two cars, let alone trucks, which were nose-to-tail for miles in both directions. It wasn’t worth trying to overtake, so I crawled along for miles choking on the exhaust fumes.”

Traffic thinned as she got further from civilisation but as Elspeth stopped in each village; “The bike would quickly be surrounded by boys and men, amazed by the size of the machine and one would inevitably point at the twin cylinders and say ‘double engine, double engine!’ Then the inaccurate phrase would be repeated throughout the crowd. When she remounted and pressed the button to fire the beast into life, there would be a gasp of amazement followed by ‘selfy-start!’

Navigation wasn’t easy either with only one map, Bartholomew’s No.15 World Travel Map, which covered the whole of the sub-continent. “I came to rely on the old British milestones to confirm that I was on the right road. There was no point asking the locals because many had the infuriating habit of telling me the wrong thing rather than admitting that they didn’t know the answer.”

She made it to Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, to meet her parents, as planned. They’d flown from England to see her for the first time in nearly two years and were shocked by how skinny she was. But she was to become much thinner, falling victim to giardia in Nepal, then dysentery in India and finally to hepatitis in Pakistan…

In Kathmandu Elspeth met a Dutchman, Robert Albregts, also on a BMW, an R80/7. He’d heard about her months earlier when he was travelling in Australia but fate had only enabled them to meet because he’d subsequently spent three miserable months languishing in a South Indian hospital, having been knocked off his bike by a truck. They got on very well, but as Elspeth had already planned to go trekking in the Himalayas, they agreed to meet up in India a couple of months later.

To alleviate handling problems, she had some racks fitted just above the bike’s horizontal cylinders, on which to carry her tools, moving the weight forward. The new racks cost £2 and were welded by a child who looked no more than ten.

From Nepal, she headed south to the holy Hindu city of Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges, then west to Agra, (site of the Taj Mahal) where, as arranged, she met Robert on his R80. They travelled around Rajasthan for several days before heading back up north into the Himalayas, this time to the Indian province of Ladakh. Its capital, Leh, is over 10,000 feet above sea level. On the way, Elspeth had a very unsettling experience when she hit a child who lurched into her path just outside a village. Fortunately the little girl was not badly hurt and Elspeth managed to stay on the bike, but was soon surrounded by irate villagers. She was certain the child’s father had deliberately pushed her into the bike’s path in an attempt to get some money, but felt she had no option but to pay something. In the end she stumped up 20 rupees, (about £2) and she and Robert were able to resume their journey.

It was while in Kashmir, in June 1984, that they heard the shocking news about the storming of the Golden Temple of Amritsar by the Indian army. At least a thousand died within the temple compound as heavily armed Sikh fanatics repelled successive army attacks for two days before finally succumbing to tanks and artillery on the third. Sikh soldiers mutinied throughout India and in the aftermath the whole of the Punjab region, the Sikh homeland, was sealed off, closed to all foreign tourists and a new special permit was required to enter.

Unfortunately, with India-Pakistan relations strained since partition in 1948, there was only one crossing between the two countries, and the Indian side was in the Punjab, near Amritsar. At the time, the only overland route to Europe was via Pakistan.

“We decided to try to cross the frontier straight away. We managed to get into the Punjab simply by zig-zagging through all the road blocks and actually reached the Indian side of the Pakistan border. We got right into ‘no man’s land’ only to be turned back by the Indian bureaucrats and told to go to Amritsar through the Punjab to get a permit to enter the Punjab!”

They argued to no avail, but Amritsar was less than twenty miles back up the Grand Trunk Road so eventually they got back on their bikes. However, in Amritsar the local officials told them to go all the way to Delhi to get the necessary pass, and that was nearly three hundred miles away, which in 1984 took several days.

They resolved to have another go at the border but after several days of waiting for shifts to change and new officials to come on duty, they realised that there was nothing for it but to go to New Delhi, leaving Elspeth’s R60 at the border to save on petrol costs.

Unfortunately, the bureaucrats in New Delhi had not yet actually organised the permits which the politicians had decreed were necessary to enter the Punjab and which the border guards insisted on seeing!

A growing band of frustrated westerners found themselves in a Kafka-esque situation, spending weeks trying to obtain permits that didn’t exist. In the end, concerns about her bike and the sheer futility of dealing with the bureaucrats in New Delhi led Elspeth to take matters into her own hands. She created her own ‘Punjab Permit’, using as the basis of her forgery, the document that she had been issued when she came back into India from Nepal. “It was an official-looking piece of paper, complete with photograph and passport numbers, so I doctored it for the Punjab instead of India as a whole.”

She and Robert then rode the 300 miles back to the border and were relieved to find the trusty R60 safe and sound. They held their breath as they showed the spurious ‘Punjab Permit’ to the Indian border guards secure in the knowledge that since no official permit even existed yet, they could not know what a ‘pukka’ permit actually looked like.

Both passports were duly stamped and Robert and Elspeth were directed to another building to get their all-important carnets stamped. “We walked away slowly and calmly, half-expecting to be called back at any moment.” They were finally able to ride the 50 yards into Pakistan with a great sigh of relief, hugging and whooping with joy as soon as they were out of sight. That was on September 4th 1984 and it was not a moment too soon, because on October 31st Mrs Gandhi, the Indian Prime Minister, was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards and thousands of innocent Sikhs were slaughtered in angry reprisals.

Traffic heading for Europe had been diverted from the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan in favour of a southern route to Iran for five years by this time, but there was still no road worthy of the name across the Baluchistan desert, and they just had to follow the telegraph poles through the barren land. They couldn’t hang about because their visas for Iran were about to expire due to the delay exiting India. It was tough going on the well-worn road bikes, both in need of a service and fresh tyres. Elspeth too needed rest and recuperation; when she’d left England in 1982, she’d weighed a healthy 140lbs; now, two years later, after sickness, accidents and stress, she was an emaciated 90lbs.

They managed to reach the Iranian border before the entry visas ran out, but there was another hurdle to overcome before they could cross the frontier. Elspeth had decided not to put Iran on her carnet when she left England because it would have tripled the cost. She hoped to bluff her way in regardless, but the border official refused entry. After the experience of fabricating the dodgy ‘Punjab Permit’ though, she was a seasoned forger and soon came up with a simple solution. “I just found someone with a typewriter and simply added IRAN to the list of countries on the Carnet. Luckily it was the last country I needed a carnet for, so the new word didn’t look out of place at the end of the list, and I just smudged it up a bit to blend in. Then we went back to the border post when there was a different person on duty, and he let us in.”

Once into the Islamic Republic of Iran, there was another problem. The Iranians only gave them seven days to cover the whole length of the country to the Turkish border and Elspeth was now so ill with hepatitis that she could barely stand, let alone ride. Her bike wasn’t in the best of health either; the rear brake was rendered ineffective by a leaking oil seal and her clutch was slipping. On the plus side, the superbly maintained tarmac roads were the best she’d seen in the entire trip, but they only had time for one ‘tourist’ stop; to see the famous blue mosque in Isfahan. Elspeth wore her battered Bell helmet most of the time, even off the bike, as she had done through most of Pakistan. It acted as an un-official burkha in a land ruled by the Ayatollah. “Most people just assumed I was a man anyway.”

They arrived at the Turkish frontier a day late, which upset the Iranian border officials. “They shouted a lot and threatened us with prison, but soon realised that we might cause them a lot of grief and it was easier to just let us through.” In Turkey they could relax for the first time since Delhi and Elspeth recovered her health and made some repairs to her bike.

Recharged, the journey through Greece and across Europe to the UK was a relative doddle, apart from the notorious and memorial-strewn ‘Death Highway’ across Yugoslavia, where oncoming, overtaking trucks ran them off the road on a regular basis. Once out of Yugoslavia, their last struggle was against the European winter, for which they were ill-prepared. “We made hand muffs out of plastic bags and wire and stuffed our leather jackets with newspaper but we were so cold.” They were also ill-equipped to cope with the snow crossing the Alps, so were extremely grateful to a little Turkish chap with a Luton van who carried them over the highest passes with their bikes in the back.

Elspeth stayed with Robert at his home near Utrecht for a couple of weeks before returning to Blighty, for Christmas 1984.

The final sting in the tale was the crossing from Calais to Dover; a huge storm blew up and she was stuck on the ferry for over 20 hours. “We were trapped in Dover West docks for most of that time where the foot passengers managed to get off, but we needed to get to the Eastern docks to unload the vehicles and then, to top it all, one of the engines broke down. With irate passengers, the captain decided to ‘give it a go’ as he said over the PA. The ferry lurched all over the place as we sailed out of the harbour and I thought for a moment that after everything I’d been through I was going to lose my bike within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. It was the middle of the night when we disembarked and the ride to London took forever. Finally home at 5am I let myself in with the door key I’d carried around the world.”

In due course, she rebuilt the engine herself and still has the bike in running order today. u

Elspeth uses a 1998 R80GS now, but also has a Yamaha Serow and a Beta 350 for serious trail riding. In 2002 she went around the world again as back-up driver for adventurer extraordinaire Nick Sanders, when he led 23 riders around the globe in three months. She found herself driving a truck flat out for 18 hours and a thousand miles in a single day and rode several of the bikes when their owners were incapacitated.

Words by Paul Blezard


This article was first published in two parts in Issues 3 and 4 of Overland magazine.