Jupiter's Travels review at last

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Ted Simon is generally credited as starting off the whole adventure motorcycling industry and certainly the making a record of it. Jupiter's Travels was published in 1979 by Penguin. As it says on the cover, Ted Simon spent four years travelling the world on a Triumph motorcycle. He was a journalist employed and supported on the trip by the Sunday Times newspaper. He left London on 6th October 1973 for what turned out to be a journey of 63,000 miles. This was the same day, he notes, that the Yom Kippur war started, inauspicious but signalling the way his journey and the book criss-crosses with world politics of the period. Ted Simon writes with interest and insight into the cultures and lives that he comes across and becomes involved in across Europe, Africa, the Americas, Australia and Asia. He is politically and personally astute and inquiring. He also writes movingly about the inner life. Its my opinion that though very many books have subsequently been written about this kind of world-encompassing adventure, no one has come near to Ted Simon's account.

He has written a number of books since this, Riding Home (or Riding High as it is sometimes called) includes further reflections on the same journey. But he has written about other travels, notably his 're-run' of the original trip done 28 years later, starting in 2001 when Ted was 69. All the details can be found on his website and its possible to order his books and video from there too.

Nick Plumb's Adventure Riding Basics DVD part 1, released 2013

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I bought this DVD from Nick Plumb himself, unassumingly serving at the Touratech stand at the MCN Motorcycle show at the Excel Centre in London in February 2013.

The cover says it's the first in a series of three DVDs about off road riding and they get more advanced as they progress – I assume.

This one opens with a very short interview with Nick where he talks a little about growing up. He says he thinks his father was a biker but he's not sure because, sadly, he left the family when Nick was 4 years old. His first experience of riding involved, he says, a brick wall. After hearing about his Dakar credentials, and that Touratech UK is a family business, we then move onto 'lesson one'. What I really like about this DVD, as an unconfident absolute hesitant beginner, is that he starts where I am. He speaks to my fear! By acknowledging that its possible to feel intimidated by the bulk of heavy adventure bikes even when just trying to park them or get on and off, he bridges a huge gulf. At the outset he shows you the simplest work with the bike, getting it on and off the centre stand, finding the bike's balance point and moving around it holding it with one hand or one finger and then getting on and off it with the stands up and the bike just on its balance point. Also he shows how to push the bike along in gear while walking beside it. Of all the foundational techniques he demonstrates, I've found these really amazing for getting confidence with a bulky bike. At one point the bike crashes onto the floor – a great opportunity to demonstrate how to pick it up.

From then on the techniques get progressively difficult, as you would expect but I like the way he includes dealing with difficulties, so he acknowledges that things might not go smoothly and that the effect is that you can get more tired and stressed than you need on an already tiring ride. For example he shows that if you stall the bike climbing a steep hill, you need do absolutely nothing. The bike will simply stop and won't roll back down because the engine has stopped. He shows you how to recover from this position.

The DVD is split into short sections covering particular skills and techniques. His style is engaging. There is no swagger and everything is shown very carefully, usually repeated in slow motion or from another angle. The DVD isn't highly scripted but Nick is obviously really keen to communicate what he knows. He uses a number of nice new adventure bikes including a Ducati Multistrada, a Yamaha Super Tenere (the one he drops in the Touratech carpark) alongside a BMW 1200gsa and a couple of others. I wonder who owns them.

I would really recommend spending the reasonable £20 for this DVD, especially for beginners with large adventure bikes. Its available from Touratech here.

'Her light-hearted account almost disguises the grit' Red Tape and White Knuckles: One woman's motorcycle adventure through Africa: Lois Pryce, 2008, Century Books

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There are always two ways to react to motorcycle travel books: one is to the journey itself – usually awe inspiring in some way – and the other is to the writing. Lois Pryce's second book about motorcycle travel (I haven't read the first one yet) is a nicely written, easy-to-read contribution to this genre. But it tells a tale of almost unimaginable nerve and endurance across some of the most difficult terrain and politically frightening countries you could think of. In our patriarchal world men not only take centre-stage but manage to convince most people that the male way of being in the world is some kind of norm. For example, Ted Simon's accounts of riding around the world seem to be the story of a person's adventures rather than specifically of a man's. But Lois Pryce's books remind us that riding a motorbike, like most things in life, is gendered: in Muslim Algeria the man pumping petrol into her motorbike looks away from her and does not acknowledge her greeting once he realises this is a woman out in public, in other places she has to pretend that it's a man and not her who is riding the bike in order to be given permission to travel, and in the Congo when she is stuck on the back of a train for a day with her strapped-down bike and surrounded by stoned Congolese soldiers touting Kalashnikovs the defining feature of this astonishingly tense passage is to do with gender – and power.

Lois is not afraid to be critical and poke fun at some of the tedious characters she encounters or travels with (she mentions the fantasy of parts of the German motorcycle industry to have the world full of identically dressed middle aged men advancing on bikes – in some latter day colonialist aspiration) but she also writes movingly about some of the positive and generous spirited people she meets in war-ravaged countries like Angola, some she considers her 'guardian angels'. The middle chapters, mainly dealing with the Congolese and Angolan parts of the journey are genuinely scary and had my pulse racing.

Overall the style is light and humour is never far away. We don't get the personal introspection nor the lingering political and social analysis of Ted Simon, so the book feels less serious than some but Lois is skilled at telling the story and the ending, which in this kind of book always runs the danger of anti-climax, is moving. Strangely, Lois is still in deep shit in an Angolan mine field and you notice there are hardly any pages left. Uneventful Namibia and South Africa get just a dozen or so pages.

As Ted Simon's book jacket comment, used as the title of this review, points out the book and the journey are in some ways at odds with each other, though not in any problematic way. As the jacket says elsewhere, the author is equipped with formidable strength of character and an immense passion for life. I'm not the first to say this, but it is a good read. Having finished it, I do wonder why the seriousness was kept at bay so much. I would have thought that an experience like this gave any author the right to offer some more extended reflections on life, humanity and the puzzle of the drive behind this kind of undertaking.

Charley Boorman - Race to Dakar (DVD)

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I saved buying this DVD till the evenings had got darker and my son finally left home leaving me to the guilty pleasures of watching motorcycle vids in the empty house. Overall, this is a powerful documentary. The Dakar is not for the faint hearted and you have to take your hat off to anyone who dares enter it, Charley Boorman included. The characters are nearly all men in this and they pretty much conform to a stereotype of driven, inarticulate (there is a huge amount of effing and blinding), self-obsessed and in the early episodes this gets annoying; for example how they seem ready to blame eachother when things don't go to plan. But when they are in their element - actually roughing it on the race - they become more likable and admirable. The series is well edited, it keeps up the tension (without the stupid staged 'fallings out' of the Long Way documentaries) and the end is very moving. If you like this kind of stuff, you will love it. (I've recently copied it to my iPhone for those late evening winter train journies home after work).

Riding with Rilke: Reflections on Motorcycles and Books (Paperback) by Ted Bishop

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This had to be the book for me: written by someone with a love for bikes and literature (like me) - and the snippets I had read on the net were excellent: 'It wasn't a mid life crisis that got me on the road, but mid life money' (well something close to that). This book has lovely aspects - that self-deprecating, unassuming Canadian tone (it reminds me of the (now defunct - whatever happened to it?) One Wheel Drive people on YouTube), some insights into the personal politics of major literary archives, some fascinating information about T E Lawrence, some nice moments of humour. However, somewhere in the book Ted says he is looking for a way to link biking and literature but he can't find it. And for me this is the book's weakness - his sometimes laboured attempt to find suprising connections between these two worlds and sensibilities. And trying to wind these two together seemed to result in a book that did niether very well. I also had the feeling that there wasn't quite enough material for a book and that Ted had dived into some subsequent research to fill out various parts (mind you, knowing that 11 North Americans are killed every year in incidents involving vending machines is priceless). For me the nicest part is near the end when the author hobbles back after breaking his back in two places in a bike accident. We're prepared for the ultimate anti-climax - that he decides never to get on a bike again - but instead in a couple of sentences we see him reunited with the beauty of his Ducati Monster - and of course he has to ride it home from the mechanics - and at over 100mph.

The Road Gets Better from Here: A Novice Rides Solo From the Ring of Fire to the Cradle of Civilisation (Perfect Paperback) by Adrian Scott

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This is probably the best motorcycle travel book I have read. It manages this impressive feat in a number of ways. First, the story it tells is one of incredible toughness - both physical and mental on the part of the author - in the face of a bad accident on day one. The worst start any biking traveller could imagine. Less than ten pages in and the narrator is eating a mess of his mangled food, mixed with gravel, nursing a broken ankle by the side of a deserted road on the easternmost tip of Russia.

What follows is three months of usually gruelling riding. Also moving is the sense of humanity we get at just about every turn of the journey. Scott is taken in by incredibly generous and hospitable folk throughout, people who have unimaginably tough lives, living on very little by Western standards, with almost unbearable occupations, but who share what they have with him - and with real pride and nobility (usually).

Adrian Scott's writing is impeccable. He must have spent hours each day with his notebooks. He describes, for example, the nuances of changes in facial structure of the people he meets as he journies westward across Asia. His accounts of architecture, particularly of his extended stay in Samarkand, are vivid and detailed. He is a traveller who has done extensive research before he left (or maybe he added it afterwards - I doubt it somehow) and his book gives us detailed but readable political and social histories of many of the newly independent countries he visits. He also seems to have taken the trouble to learn some Russian in preparation. His intelligent but deeply-felt engagement with the cultures and individuals he comes across puts this writing in a different class to some other authors who seem to have gathered a few superficial impressions more for merchandising reasons than to do justice to where they have been.

But the book has some oddities. First, we are told nothing about the traveller/writer. Even by the end of the story, we don't know why he undertook his journey, what he did before he left - was he a journalist, an academic, a traveller - or how he got home? We are given absolutely no information apart from the fact that he is unnaturally tall. (As evidence of this, a small cover photo appears to show his head wedged against a ceiling somewhere.) And for the biker reader, he assiduously avoids telling us the model or make of his bike though we get plenty of fascinating detail about his relationship with his much patched together vehicle. From one of the photographs you can make out it's a Kawasaki. And the photographs, as well as the map of the journey (the Silk Road plus) are very low quality, though strangely this adds to the believability of his story. They are often very moving, showing people in pretty grim circumstances.

So what did he do next? I have no idea. Web searches turn up nothing and the book doesn't seem to have nurtured a cult following though in my mind it deserves to, no less than Ted Simon's first book (OK, Ted did it thirty years before). In fact this possibly cheaply produced book (it could have done with some editing - its full of typos) is refreshingly free of celebrity endorsements. For anyone interested in travelling, biking or Asia, this is an absolute must read.

Adapted from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Road-Gets-Better-Here/dp/1602641862/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1299273939&sr=8-6

Uneasy Rider: Travels Through a Mid-life Crisis (Paperback) by Mike Carter

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It was partly good reviews on the Amazon site (though I returned in early 2011 and found a great many very negative reviews) that made me buy this book and partly a holiday to Croatia in 2008 (one of the places visted by the author). The holiday and the travelling (sleeping on benches at Gatwick on the way to Split) turned out to be tedious, in fact a holiday from hell for a number of reasons I won't go into so the book became a trusted and fond travel companion.

Others have said they laughed out loud at this book and I did too - at about 2am at Gatwick for example. I think the funniest parts are where the going is toughest - in Finland where we hear about the seductions of the Leprosy museum (or was that in Norway?) At first I was uneasy (to coin a phrase) at the mid-life stuff because it created one of those all-too-easy-to identify-with personas that in some ways can be unhelpful (like grumpy old men) but as we hear, near the end of the book, about another reason why the author visited some of these countries and some of these locations, I found myself very moved. I wouldn't be suprised if many readers of this book have experienced some of the same life events as the author and can identify with the desire to revisit locations that have, to put it simply, bad memories.

I really recommend this book. It is intelligent and hugely funny in places and has redoubled my determination to take my bike to some (definately not all - Albania for instance) of the countries visited by Mike Carter.

Many reviewers on Amazon call the author a big headed bufoon whose trip and bike was paid for by the Observer newspaper (how do they know that?). I don't agree (well, I can't comment about who paid for the trip because I don't know). If you get into the zone of his self-deprecating but not entirely original humour, the book is really enjoyable. Some reviewers complain that he's not 'a proper biker' which begs the question of when can you call someone riding a motobike a biker. Some have suggested that he made up half or even all of it. I do doubt that but I must say I did wonder whether he embellished quite a few of the encounters he recounts. But the geography is real and I've used it as a reference for my upcoming trip around Norway - the highlight will be the trip to the Leprosy museum. I just hope its raining when I get there.

Bearback - the world overland by Dr Pat Garrod (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Bearback-Overland-Dr-Pat-Garrod/dp/1848765142/ref=cm_cr_pr_pb_i)

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Bearback, not to be confused with bearbacking which is entirely different, is a 519 page account of a 100,000 mile journey around the world two up on an ageing BMW – a 1991 R100GS with a 43.5 litre fuel tank (10L more that the current 1200GS). Its one of a pleasingly growing number of bike-travel books. They are all different. Some are undeniably well-written, like Ted Simon’s first book which probably spawned the genre – as well as the activity. Some are banal, though with a certain humour and there are all points between. Low cost publishing standards seem to characterise some of this sub-genre with sometimes poor proof reading and low quality reproductions.

When this example arrived in the post I was daunted by its size, then annoyed by the cheesy photographs on the dust cover then irritated that the publishers need to tell us this is not just any Pat Garrod but Doctor Pat who is the author, as if this is a pseudo-medical self-help book written by a crank who happens to be a doctor and the publishers are looking for some spurious respectability. So you will see that I found myself negatively disposed towards this and starting to regret ordering it before I opened the cover.

Some of this type of book provide the reader with a back story so we quickly find out who the author is and something about why they tacked the journey. Others don’t. With this one we get the author’s personal philosophy and his urge to travel but the rest we gradually find out. For example its rather disconcerting, after our pulse is already racing in the early dramas recounted in Africa to read that the author and his partner had already ridden their ‘bear’ across that continent some years before. Its also disorientating to learn, somewhere in the same continent, that this journey started in 1998 yet the book was published in 2010. Dr Pat is also not alone as are the authors of many of these books and in fact it’s the solitude and openness to contact with people along the route that is often a strong part of these narratives. Pat (you see how friendly I am getting with him now) has his partner (female – I told you this book is not about bearbacking) riding pillion. Until we get used to this she is a rather ghostly presence, speaking sometimes (but not very often) though referred to constantly. However, once we’ve made these adjustments we can settle down to the gripping story. And gripping this account is. In the early stages in Africa they have their possessions stolen. Its easy to feel their panic and anger. Then their beloved machine breaks down in a variety of possibly catastrophic ways demanding ingenuity on the part of the author and some heavy handed efforts of some of the mechanics along the way. I lost count of the number of new drive shafts the skilful Pat fitted. There are also accounts of riding in incredibly tough terrains and in terrible weather.

This is a big book for a big journey and its separated into (in my mind at least) Africa, South America (North America is a blur), Australia, the Far East, the Indian subcontinent, then Europe. At the end of each section I expected the book to run out of steam – but it never did – which is an astonishing achievement.

Unlike my current favourite bike-travel book ‘The Road Gets Better from Here: A Novice Rides Solo From the Ring of Fire to the Cradle of Civilisation’ (Perfect Paperback) by Adrian Scott, Pat seems more interested in flora and fauna than in the human cultures he’s travelling through. That may not be true but there is a loving attention to describing the beauties of nature that is not turned, in my reading, onto the people that are met along the way. Or rather, we are given some very engaging sketches of people met but they are fleeting. In Scott’s book I can’t help but be very moved by his immense generosity of spirit as he recounts the way he’s taken in and looked after by people in incredibly poor and harsh situations. There is something very uplifting about Scott’s book that I don’t find in Bearback. In fact there are frequent unattractive outbursts of smugness directed first toward regular tourists who are bussed to various tropical beauty spots in air conditioned vehicles, take some pictures at the behest of a guide, then pile back in and drive off. Then other overland bikers also get the smug treatment. He describes one couple’s bike – which incidentally took this couple to Australia from the UK – as ‘pristine’. ‘There’s travelling overland and there’s travelling overland’, he says. I think that the British excel at this square-jawed moral highground-taking and I found it a turn off whenever it appeared, as it did with a certain regularity. Also, while I am dishing out the criticism, we also get some heavily stereotypical views of Muslim countries (or some of them): the women all seem to be hidden at home (presumably unhappily) while the men grope and make innuendos toward the now Mrs Pat (they get married in mid-journey). Of course I can’t deny that they witnessed this but as Wittgenstein said ‘there are no facts only interpretations’. (Or was that Groucho Marx? – it wouldn’t have been Karl Marx. He would be more likely to say the opposite).

So, some aspects of this book I felt let it down, nevertheless it is a real achievement (I begin to understand why it was so long in the writing). It is impeccably written and highly engaging. The story is one of hugely impressive nerve and courage and there is plenty of talk about bits of the bike if you like that kind of thing. If you are in for the long haul (so to speak) I’d recommend this book, especially if you love Africa and its nature. But if you are more interested in human relationships and haven’t read Adrian Scott, then read that first.

Adapted from: http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/0091923263/ref=cm_cr_pr_link_3?ie=UTF8&showViewpoints=0&pageNumber=3&sortBy=bySubmissionDateDescending

Mondo Enduro - two kinds of Funny

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Review of Mondo Enduro DVD There’s something funny about Mondo Enduro – in both senses. The funny peculiar bit is to do with chronology. I wouldn’t mind betting that most viewers come to this DVD by way of the far more popular and highly marketed Long Way Round/Down and then perhaps Ted Simon books. That’s peculiar because the Mondo trippers rode their journey nearly 10 years before Ewan and Charlie, over some of the same ground yet, unless I am mistaken, E&C don’t refer to Mondo Enduro once and, I assume have never heard of it. So there is a strange kind of reversal of time going on here. The other peculiar thing to do with time is the Mondo team’s own, perhaps deliberate, messing with time, style and genre. Made in the 1990s, the DVD often looks like it was filmed in the 1960s and the team are 60s leather-clad rockers (who somehow manage to have The Who stickers on something (so they are part-Mods). Some of the soundtrack music also has that sixties sound to it. This makes the film quite hard to place in time. But as one reviewer has remarked, timing was everything and the Mondo trip slots into that small gap between the fall of the Iron Curtain and the rise of the War Against Terror so that Asia was probably safer and more accessible than at any other time in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Now the other kind of funny. Is this film funny? Well, yes, sort of. It has that typical biker self-deprecating humour throughout. Its also quite geeky with regular spoof interviews and pretend documentary cameos that require careful tuning in to find funny – rather than painful. There is also a kind of visual humour. There is something incredibly funny (almost Pythonesque) about the sight of seven identically clad riders on seven identical bikes in a line across the horizon, sometimes with seven trails of dust rising behind them. The reference is, of course, to westerns like The Magnificent Seven (also from 1960) which must be intentional – mustn’t it?

Now, the obvious Long Way/Enduro comparison: Long Way Round has its tough moments but the Mondo Enduro team seemed to really sink to depths of squalor, hardship, breakdown and actual injury that Ewan and Charlie never approached. In spite of all of this (for example days sheltering under a semi-derelict bridge from the rain) they seem to never lose their humour. By comparison, we get large helpings of Prima Dona flouncing about in the Long Way movies and complaint about – well its not even clear what the complaints are about sometimes. I hate to make the obvious point but this comparison does show E&C in a bad light. Mondo Enduro has become a cult. You almost wonder whether it was conceived as such from the start. Mad Polish bikers seem to make up much of the Mondo cult. Finally, some of the Mondo ‘boys’ are from Pinner (in Middlesex) just down the road from where I grew up in Ruislip – the real suburbs. This says a lot – but I’m not sure what - maybe it explains some of the humour.

Recommendation: with its cult status and a high level of expectation, I found the DVD a little disappointing and disappointingly short. The voice over commentary from our Vince was also irritating by the end, but its not expensive and I’m completely happy to support this lot with royalties. And Vince is married to Lois Pryce - fancy that.

A collection of these reviews along with full details of the books and links to order them is at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/cdp/member-reviews/A1Y5193Z70H0UR/ref=cm_cr_pr_auth_rev?ie=UTF8&sort_by=MostRecentReview