In June 1961 Singaporean scooterist Mark Ong rode together with Scotswoman Kim Vegter, from Singapore to London, on a pair of Lambrettas. While never intended as overland vehicles, many scooters have been put into service by global explorers, but only rarely have they been used as a means to migrate 14,000 miles across the planet to set up life in a new continent. In 2005 I was fortunate enough to interview Mark Ong before he passed away.
While stationed in Singapore with her husband, who worked for a shipping company, Kim Vegter established the Lambretta Club of Singapore. At the end of this East Asian ‘tour’ she decided to ride home. Kim asked Mark, who always wanted to live in England, if he wanted to ride with her.
The Lambretta importer for Singapore supplied two brand new machines: a TV175 for Kim and an Li150 for Mark. They duly modified them with a clever arrangement of hoops front and rear to support hammocks. A tarpaulin and extendable pole could be used as a roof in bad weather.
Each loaded scooter weighed over 230kgs including rider, but the simple Italian two-stroke engines coped well with the weight. As generations of travellers have proved, you rarely need to travel over 50mph if you want to enjoy your surroundings.
The pair crossed the Indian Ocean from Penang to Calcutta; during which Mark suffered three days of terrible sea-sickness. Arrival in India proved another shock to the system, with the realisation that not all of Britain’s former colonies ran as smoothly as Singapore. They hated corrupt Calcutta but slowly warmed to India by Agra.
In Delhi the pair visited the national Lambretta agent. He was so impressed with the camping system design that he offered to buy their prototypes so he could produce replicas. The deal allowed them enough funds to use hotels for the rest of the trip so they gladly accepted this chance to shed weight.
From India their route crossed into Pakistan where they noted how much cleaner and orderly the country was than India. Problems with the visa for Persia (Iran) at Quetta meant either a three week wait or an 800-mile detour back to Karachi. The mistake was trying to take a direct route to Karachi from the border; which meant riding on a pebble track through the sandy Sindh desert. Despite additional two-gallon cans, offering a 300-mile range, they still ran out of fuel. With no local currency they were stuck until a petrol station owner gave them fuel for free, thus cementing a fondness for the Pakistani people.
After riding back to Quetta, this time by the AA-advised route, the next obstacle was flood damage in Persia making the roads impassable. The solution was a two-day wait for a train which would take the pair and their scooters 400 miles to Zahedan. Mark found the Persians ‘friendly but inflexible’, but not nearly as odd as the Europeans they met in the cross-roads town of Zahedan. These included a lad from Kenya on a motorcycle, a British couple who’d been hitching for three years, and a whole raft of Germans, all of whom were skint.
The blistering heat of Iran meant riding only until 11am before finding a hotel. Sometimes they would move on again after 4pm until it fell dark.
Problems struck again in Tehran because their visas for Iraq had not arrived. The suggestion that they might be able to get visas at the border in Khorramshahr resulted in another 800-mile wild goose chase before returning to Tehran. The visa problem was solved by re-routing around the northern part of Iraq and direct into Turkey. When life throws up boulders the only sensible solution is to flow like water around them.
Lambrettas do not have a stellar reputation for reliability, but their Series 2 models were perhaps the best Innocenti ever produced. The worst mechanical failures of the trip came in Iran; a split air hose and a broken speedo cable on Kim’s 175, which they replaced from spares stock. Iran also saw Mark crash while avoiding his first jumpy camel.
As happens so often when travelling, interactions with locals and fellow travellers presented alternate paths to follow. In Ankara the pair met a Turkish family and Mark became so popular with the daughter that her father suggested they marry. The man also proposed that they visit the family farm in Izmir. Kim however thought that they’d done enough detours already; without adding a further 300-mile diversion in the name of romance.
Europe presented a completely different picture to the two voyagers. For Kim, every mile turned under the 10-inch tyres meant being closer to home, while for Mark it was the exact opposite. After riding across the Balkans via Bulgaria and Yugoslavia the pair stopped at the Innocenti factory in Milan. There their Lambrettas were fully serviced by the skeleton staff while the rest of the factory was on the traditional Italian August holiday.
From Italy onward, and with their scooters back in peak condition, there was no time for sightseeing. Mark and Kim covered over 600kms on the final dash to catch a ferry in Ostende; only to miss it by five minutes.
Once they arrived in Britain, Mark suddenly realised that the country he held in such high esteem was not what he anticipated. England was not populated entirely by the polite, civilised and well-educated Brits he met in the colonies. Instead he met his first ‘bad’ English people, and he seriously considered riding home. Once Kim rejoined her husband in Holland he was completely alone in a new country.
Mark’s former boss in Singapore persuaded him to give it a year. Eventually he grew accustomed to Britain and settled down in London to start a family. For Mark the trip was more than an epic two-wheeled journey – his Lambretta literally gave him a new life.
Mark Ong passed away in April 2006. We’d like to thank his daughter Naomi for permission to reproduce these images in Overland Magazine.
By coincidence, Singaporean scooter rider Juvena Huang is currently riding a Vespa to Europe on a trip named The Wandering Wasp.
This article first appeared in Issue 14 of Overland Magazine.