On 6th October 1973, Ted Simon left London on a 500cc Triumph to ride the world. Five years and 64,000 miles later he had amassed the material for the most famous overland book in the English language. ‘Jupiter’s Travels’ became a best seller and is still in print along with many of Ted’s other books on a wide-range of subjects from Grand-Prix racing to people power.
Looking back over the forty years since his wheels started turning, Ted remembers thinking people mad when they asked “… why are you doing this?” It was self-evident he says; “I was going to see the world. It was curiosity, there was no spiritual dimension to the original purpose of my journey and yet that became the most valuable aspect. So now I do try to persuade people to travel for self-discovery.”
At the age of 69, Ted borrowed a bike (having donated his Triumph to the Coventry Transport Museum) and retraced his wheel-tracks to see if he could find some of the people and places from his first RTW journey. Some individuals were still there and remembered him, some places were still there but much changed as you can read in ‘Dreaming of Jupiter’. Ted says “People’s connection with the world has been lost. I wonder if the plethora of images that comes from the internet relegates people’s understanding of the world to some alien reality – there’s no engagement, just distraction. Population explosion and communication mean people are no longer able to find satisfaction in what they have.”
Ted’s perspective on geo-political change reaches further back than 1973 however. A refugee from Hitler’s Germany, he has spent much of his adult life based in one or other of the two proto-revolutionary societies: France and the USA. Of France he says “There’s still a lot of space and I love the ambience and the people. They know the importance of lunch and of having children at the table. They understand the importance of keeping their culture alive.” Of his adopted homeland he says “America’s remoteness, size and vast natural resources give the Americans a sense of having achieved greatness through intrinsic virtue, but it’s mostly been through plundering other people’s wealth.”
What might appear to be an uncomfortable admixture of both conservative and radical views is perhaps better seen as the expression of a deep-seated rationality and humanity that transcends current geo-politics. Asked what advice he would give the world at large, Ted gets straight to the crux: “Stop using religion as an excuse for violence.”
More recently, this theme of connecting with the past through an honest, open style of writing resulted in ‘Rolling Through the Isles’, Ted’s account of ten weeks riding around Britain in 2010, revisiting places he has known. “The book was just an excuse to reminisce and give voice to some of my prejudices and thoughts” he says but, as with his other works, what you will find between the covers is a genuine interest in people and change, told with an authentic love for story-telling.
With the help of friends in the overlanding community, the Ted Simon Foundation was established in 2011 to help adventure travellers share their experiences with the world, through writing, filming, etc. But for Ted the future seems far from certain “People don’t understand about stories: perhaps they don’t read anymore, or they get swamped by rubbish. Facebook is ruining everything. It’s a struggle, even with some of the promising new writers the Foundation works with.”
Ted says he has no new major projects in mind other than enjoying visiting people and using the bike as much as possible – when not tending his garden in rural California, where he’s lived for much of the last 30 years “I’m not much of a gardener…” he says, “… but I enjoy the work”.
This article was first published in Issue 6 of Overland magazine.