“Have you read that book about the old bloke riding a vintage bike half-way around the world?” – I’d been asked several variations of the same question, at least a dozen times, by people I’d met while travelling down the Eastern sea-board of Australia. I had to admit I hadn’t, but the more I heard the more I wanted to.
Out of the blue, while visiting Hobart at the south of that vast country, friends of a friend gave me a copy of Ron Fellowes book “No Room For Watermelons” and I started to devour it straight away. It gives a fascinating account of his truly epic trip, made in 2012, aboard a four-horsepower (although Ron says he was convinced two of the horses were sleeping), four-cylinder, pedal-assisted motorcycle he’d restored himself.
Built in 1910 by the FN company in Belgium, this bike was one of many that had been sold by agents in Australia and Ron’s own country of New Zealand where it was well-used before Ron was introduced to it; long-forgotten in an abandoned sawmill, slowly deteriorating, gradually losing component parts until not much more than the engine and its cradle remained. Nevertheless Ron set about restoring the FN, firmly convinced he’d be riding it back to its birth-place in Belgium. In the meantime, four decades of work, family, other projects and life in general took his attention. By the time he set-off the bike was 102 years-old and Ron was no spring chicken either – at age 68 not many people would contemplate a journey like this.
Electing to avoid island hopping through Australasia and SE Asia, he balked at the costs and complexity of shipping the bike into India, so flew it to Kathmandu instead. His account of arriving in Nepal to begin the journey brought back some happy memories for me; apparently my own first experience of riding in that teeming Himalayan city was less daunting than his, but then again I was on an Enfield with five times the power and two effective brakes. Similarly vivid are his descriptions of riding among the colourful, manic, friendly and generous people of India. Yet, coming so early in this unlikely odyssey, the often crowded and broken roads there proved to be a hugely challenging environment for the fragile and as-yet unproven centenarian bike. As it happened, just two years before Ron set off, another FN had completed the ‘Peking to Paris’ motor event so Ron didn’t doubt that his would be capable of similar endurance.
Further along the road Ron found that the ordinary people of Pakistan, Iran and Turkey defied news-media portrayals of their societies, although at times the crowds of people who materialised at the scene of every breakdown or rest-break, no matter how remote or apparently deserted the location, could be as disruptive and infuriating as the endemic officialdom that slowed progress along the way.
This is neither a rose-tinted travel tale, nor a contrived adventure saga full of faux-suspense. While examples of friendship and assistance marked almost every day ridden through the supposed trouble-spots of Asia, the Middle East and Eastern Europe, there was real risk and immediate danger along the way; not just from the usual hazards common to all highways but also from sandstorms, landslides and floods, robbery and close proximity to terrorism. One of many passages in the book that struck a chord with me captured the common-sense, matter-of-fact attitude to the world that I’ve encountered while travelling in Ron’s native New Zealand and his adopted home Australia:
“Yes there are bullies and thieves, but they are just as often found in boardrooms, offices and schools as on the the highways of Iran and the backroads of Turkey.”
This proved to be a genuinely epic undertaking for both the rider and the machine. Whether grinding along endlessly flat featureless deserts, paddling through river crossings, struggling through traffic-snarled cities or tacking, pedalling and pushing up steep mountain passes before careering down again (the FN was built without a front brake, so Ron had to rely more on the soles of his boots and sheer good luck to survive some of the descents!) they faced it all.
As you might expect, the daily maintenance of a delicately intricate veteran motorcycle involves more than just a glance at the oil level and tyre-pressures; engine valves, bicycle-strength wheel spokes and bearings, as well as components most of todays riders have never heard of, all required pre-ride attention. Add to that occasionally having to completely dismantle the engine by the side of the road, and you start to appreciate Ron’s tenacity in just keeping “Effie” (as he came to call her) pointing toward their goal.
Some of the statistics are startling: 120 replacement spokes and 20 replacement valve springs along with numerous repairs and expert bodges along the 14,606 kms travelled through 15 countries over 33 weeks. Given the scale and ambition of this particular endeavour it’s tempting to compare Ron’s feat with those of the earliest pioneers of long-distance motorcycling. After all, Ron’s trip coincided with the centenary of Carl Stearns Clancy’s ten-month circumnavigation of the globe aboard a Henderson four-cylinder motorcycle. But let’s not fall into that trap – Ron certainly doesn’t; he makes it plain that without the benefit of tarmac (even when broken) almost every mile of the way, mobile phones and access to the internet, air-travel and freighting, his dreams would have gone unfulfilled.
Ron’s wife Lynne – also an experienced long-distance motorcycle traveller – played an essential role in the journey itself, not simply as the interlocutor of his story. For while the bike could barely carry its rider and the bare essentials for travel, Lynne was there at every stage of the journey solving all manner of routine and emergency logistical problems both in person at various points along the way and, more-often-than-not, from thousands of miles away.
The book itself is typical of independently published books in the genre, in that it has been produced with thoughtfulness and integrity but would have greatly benefitted from more attention to some basic details. An ample supply of photos throughout serve to illustrate the reality being conveyed in the narrative, although their power might have been even greater but for the often bland and erratic captions.
The writing style is accessible if somewhat inconsistent, initially a little too detached but growing on the reader as the chapters roll by. So much so that barely had this remarkable man:machine duo reached India than I was hooked by some particularly vibrant descriptions. Unfortunately, as the book gathers pace so too it seems do the typos.
Even if you’re the kind of reader that gets distracted by fairly regular failings in proof-reading and typesetting, then do try to put them to one side and read on with the assurance that the underlying story and the way that it is told will certainly make it worth your while.
Review by Nich Brown
240 pages images throughout £18.00
Published by High Horse Books, Australia (2015)