Ted Simon talks to Peter Moore about his legendary motorcycle adventures and what he'd do differently if he was starting out today
In motorcycling circles Ted Simon is a legend. Back in 1973 he bought a Triumph Tiger and rode around the world. It took him four years and saw him visit 45 countries and clock over over 64,000 miles. His book about the journey, Jupiter's Travels, sold over 500,000 copies and has become a bible to aspiring motorcycle adventurers the world over.
Ted talked to Peter Moore about his adventures. And what he'd do differently if he was starting out today.
What is it about Jupiter’s Travels and that trip that has triggered such an amazing response?
At the time I wrote that book, it was not customary for people who did things like that to confess their fears, their emotions and their feelings. People used to write in a much more reserved and objective way. It was almost like it liberated something in people. Women readers, in particular, were really pleased that some bloke could admit that he was afraid and that he had various problems. It wasn’t all heroics.
In the end, however, I think what has made the book last as long as it did was that it was written with so much passion. I really put everything in it. It wasn’t just a job. And I think that that somehow manages to come through to people.
You never set yourself up as a motorcycle expert either. You were just like an everyman who just decided one day to jump on a motorbike and ride around the world.
That’s certainly true. I suspect that must have contributed a good deal as well.
You’re regarded as the Godfather of motorcycle adventurers. Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor brought you out to Mongolia to ride with them during their ‘Long Way Round’ adventure. What was that like?
Well, I got to see Mongolia! It was also an opportunity to meet them, particularly Ewan. I got on very well with Ewan. I thought he was a genuine person.
There’s a whole raft of motorcycle adventurers now who cite you as an inspiration.
It’s been very difficult for me to live with this reputation, mainly because I’m not very big on motorcycles in general. I don’t know all the numbers. I don’t know many bikes. I’m not very good on dirt and things like that.
So to have this reputation as the great forerunner of huge motorcycle adventures is difficult. But at the same time I did do it. And I did it at a time when hardly anyone else was doing it, so I can rest on my laurels, even if it is a bit uneasy.
On the second trip, Dreaming of Jupiter, you roughly follow the route of the first trip. What were the big differences between the two journeys?
Well, the biggest difference was that on the second trip I knew what I was in for! A lot of the excitement and anxiety of the first trip wasn’t there. It was more of a reportage.
If there was a challenge,it was was down to my age, I was 70 when I set off, and having to confront a world where there was so much more bureaucracy and officialdom brought on by 9/11. It is just so much harder for everyone to move around.
I knew that I’d find the world relatively choked up with people and pollution that wasn’t there on the first trip. The second trip was enjoyable not because the world was a happier and prettier place, but because it was still an adventure.
Didn’t you break your leg in Kenya?
I broke more bones on the second trip. In fact, I hadn’t broken a bone in my life before that second trip.
What do you think is the appeal of jumping on a motorcycle and riding around the world?
It's a really good way to get around and get involved with the world directly – to be close to it, to have a real exposure to people and conditions. What was really wonderful about that first trip was that nobody was doing it so I was a phenomenon. I was able to profit from that enormously.
You’d ride into a village and it would create a commotion.
Exactly! On the second trip there were already so many people doing it that there was nothing novel about it at all. But for somebody doing it for the first time it’s still a terrific way to go. It’s still a great adventure.
You’re still self-contained and you’re not cocooned from the outside world. More things are likely to go wrong on a bike. I needed help all over the place on both trips. That's the joy of it really. There’s nothing like breaking down to bring you closer to those around you. People are uniformly helpful.
So that’s a very good part of the bike experience. It would be a very boring trip if your motorcycle worked perfectly. I’m all for people going around the world on reconditioned rattle traps. Much more interesting!
You did the first trip on a Triumph Tiger, the second on a BMW R80GS. Which bike do you have the fondest memories of?
Oh, the Triumph! I don’t want to knock the BMW. The BMW as a motorcycle was terrific. It’s a very, very good bike and it's become the standard bike for this kind of trip. But it didn’t exist in 1973. The Triumph was a road bike, and it was small enough so that it didn’t dominate me.
You were saying how people were uniformly helpful when you were breaking down on the Triumph. Did you find that people were still like that on the second trip?
Yes. People are generally fine everywhere. The only people you’ve got to worry about are the ones in uniforms!
What advice would you give people setting off on a big motorcycle adventure?
Look for an interesting part of the world, possibly even go and get the bike there. Explore it carefully and slowly and avoid the standard, so-called ‘heroic’ trips like Alaska to Terra del Fuego. Use the bike in an intelligent way in really interesting parts of the world. Like the back country of Bolivia and parts of West Africa. There’s a good chance that you won’t run into too many other bikers.
If you are going to be going long distances and crossing continents, I’m beginning to think that the most intelligent way to do that is to sell the bike and buy another one on the other side. The business of humping bikes around on airplanes is just terrible now.
These days every motorcycle journey has to be blogged and tweeted. When you did your first trip you wrote articles for the Sunday Times, which I guess was a the equivalent of blogging in those days.
Yes. And they were very effective. Those pieces helped enormously. I have no doubt that if I hadn’t had that exposure in the Sunday Times the book wouldn’t have succeeded as well as it did.
I do worry that there’s something incredibly facile about blogging and and YouTubing and so on. Not very much thought goes on. In some ways that’s very much what the Ted Simon Foundation is about, trying to get people to more thought into their communicating instead of just talking about what they had for breakfast.
Tell us about the Ted Simon Foundation. Was that your idea?
No! It was a chap in England called Ian Harper and a fellow in New York called Chris Miles. Chris was the first one to contact me about it. He sent me an email asking me if I had a foundation. I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard. Why would I have a foundation? Foundations were for people who want to give away money.
According to the website, the Foundations aim is 'Exploration, Education, Comprehension'.
I thought it would be a very good idea to convince people to take their journeys more seriously and think of them as an offering to the world rather than for their own private education. There are so many people running around now but not many of them are contributing much.
You have a committee of travellers on the foundation. Do they help choose the recipients?
Not so much choose them as help the ones we have chosen. If they bring back stuff they want to publish or turn into movies or something like that, they got these people they can look to for help and advice.
So it’s a network of contacts and mentors?
Yes. Some of them might even go further than that. I’ve tried to help a few people with their writing. It helps people if you show them that you’re interested even if you’re not able to do anything very spectacular.
Let's talk about your new book Rolling through the Isles, where you travel around the UK. You chose a Piaggio MP3 hoping that having such an unusual bike would start conversations and open doors. Did it have that effect?
Nobody took a blind bit of notice! Nobody ever talked about it. But it was a really nice thing to ride. It was more forgiving. It was a bit more like a carriage than a bike.
It wasn't until you set your Tom Tom to ‘No Faster than 30 mph’ that you finally found the kind of remote B roads you were looking for. Did you expect that it would be that difficult to find those roads in Britain?
No! I was shocked to discover that a lot of the B roads are quite major arteries now. It's not just the motorways that were used heavily. A lot of the B roads were really very busy.
Is it difficult to have a motorcycle adventure in the UK? After all, the AA is only a phone call away should you break down. Can you have an adventure in the developing world?
The truth is you can have an adventure anywhere. You can have an adventure walking to the tube station if you’re in that frame of mind. The great thing about travelling to strange places is that you’ve never been there before so everything looks new. To the people who live there it is just everyday stuff.
In a way, you have to turn that on its head and imagine yourself in the UK as if you’d never been there and look at things as if you’d never seen them before. You could begin to see all sorts of things that you’d never notice. You can actually engage people if you approach them in the right way. It’s all to do with attitude, finding the right attitude to take and staying alert to what’s going on.
In this book you revisit places in the UK that proved important to you throughout your life.
Yes, it was a nice way to register all the changes in the UK and at the same time note that in many ways it hasn’t changed at all. It’s very pleasant to discover that there are aspects of England that are still the same.
What is the key to discovering this England?
Get off the main roads. And check out the canal system. If you get yourself on those canals you can find yourself in parts of England that are very much the same as they were in the 40s. The challenge is to get away from the runs that people are always on and into more remote places.
What about the national psyche? Did you notice any changes?
A lot of English people are feeling sorry for themselves and wondering where the magic has gone. But really, I don't think things have changed that much.
The riots started while I was writing about my trip, but there have always been riots in England. I remember reading about a huge uprising of apprentices at the end of the 19 century in London when big mobs of them swept around the streets. It all started because they were sick of eating salmon. The Thames was full of salmon and it was the cheapest food that the bosses could give their apprentices so they were fed boiled salmon morning, noon and night and they were sick of it. So stuff like this has been going on forever so it’s not really new.
You noted a couple of times the Health and Safety obsession. Is that something new or have the English always harboured an affinity with these kinds of obsessions?
I think it's universal. It’s certainly as much of an issue in the States as in the UK. It’s an overdose of bureaucracy. It’s very hard to operate on common sense in a society these days. Everything is sort of one-size-fits-all. All the laws and restrictions are made so that even the biggest idiot has to be saved from themselves. It’s literally a foolproof society and that’s very difficult to deal with.
You’re currently building a house in northern California. Is it finished?
It will never be finished! But it is quite comfortable. I just moved my 'museum' up on to the first floor. I was in a shop in a town not far from here where I saw this wonderful old glass cabinet. It turned out to have been built yesterday in China but it looks old. I bought it up here to the first floor just this afternoon with a friend. It’s quite heavy. I’ve already put into it the ostrich egg shell ornament and the knife and the stool and the spear and the things I brought back from the Turkana in ’95 and the books and the films are all going to go into it so it’ll be my little museum.
Will it be open to the public?
(Laughs uproariously) I’d have to pay them to come out here. Maybe some acolytes will come and revere it at some point.
Finally, what’s next? Are there any trips planned?
No. I’m going to prove that I can still ride a motorcycle in Europe this summer. But I don’t have any big trips planned. If somebody gives me a ticket to Shanghai I’ll go.
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