Book Review: Lone Rider by Elspeth Beard
Elspeth Beard was the first English woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. In Lone Rider, written 30 years later, she recounts an epic journey that would defeat many a man.
Open disclosure: This review, though entirely unbiased, would like to encourage more women, not just men, to take up motorcycle touring. Adventures like Elspeth Beard’s are often seen as the preserve of ‘the guys’. As Elspeth proves in her book, they needn’t be.
In many ways, Lone Rider is a tale of frustration. With men, humankind, employment, India, poorly surfaced roads, time, cultural ignorance, with the journey itself. It’s a lot for a then 23-year-old to take on.
Thankfully there is a hero: a nine-year-old BMW R60/6; rugged, dependable even in extreme situations and, best of all, capable of carrying a woman over great distances without complaint.
Our hero, actually a heroine in that touching way that all vehicles are somehow feminine, takes its rider from New York, across North America before being shipped over to Australia. After a pause to build up some funds working in Sydney, bike and rider cross the ‘Lucky Country’ before they are split – the bike to be shipped to Singapore, the rider to trek through Bali, Java and Sumatra before being reunited to take on Malaysia. Thailand and Nepal follow, before the long journey through India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and back through Europe to her hometown, London.
Along the way, Elspeth Beard stays on an island inhabited by cannibals, is knocked unconscious in an accident, is held ransom by mindless bureaucracy, suffers a terrible theft, catches hepatitis and finds herself atop a burning motorbike. Yet, rarely does this remarkable woman talk about giving up.
The journey itself took place in 1982 when Beard was still studying to become the successful architect she is today. That it took another 30-odd years to write and publish is down to the pig-ignorance of motorcycle magazine editors at the time, who treated her request to write her story, even just in article form, with disdain. Their loss.
Elspeth Beard is an extraordinary character. There are battles, mostly with bureaucracy – I lost count of the number of times she was refused entry to Australia or denied the correct passport stamp from India. She has to fight illness and injury, including a time when an accident involving a dog in Thailand has an unexpected consequence.
She also bats away unwanted advances. A lesser person may have struggled with the male attitudes that were present in many of the countries she travelled through at the time. She copes well, too, with the inevitable crippling poverty she finds in many of the countries she visits.
Despite this toughness, there is a clear vulnerability. She misses her family throughout. And she is troubled by not being true to a man who loves her.
Lone Rider is a beautifully written book, full of the things the adventure reader thirsts for, the descriptions of travel in another land. Page after page revels in the minutiae of life on the road, of the differences in people and places.
These include the cultural desert that is 1980’s Outback Australia, the mind-bending bureaucratic self-preservation of the Indian sub-continent and, rarely covered before, the struggle that Iran undertakes as it transitions from a westernised society to the ultra-orthodox ideology of a then newly-installed Ayatollah Khomeini.
Towards the end of the journey, travelling with a new love as a companion, the differences between these different places and cultures and her own very comfortable central London family home are seemingly a bit too much. Once safely through Turkey, a very different country back then, she is desperate to speed through Europe proper, covering the vast mileages between Greece, Yugoslavia, Austria, German and back to Britain in just a few pages.
Take nothing away from her though. By this point, she has been on the road for two years. She has witnessed a lot, she has experienced a lot, and it is quite remarkable that she comes home in one piece (the bike somewhat less so).
All of which means, as well as our hero BMW, there is another heroine: Elspeth. Having not met her I cannot say if she sees this in herself. But to take on the world, at that time, on two wheels, is a brave move and it should inspire anyone, not just women, to try similar journeys in today’s much easier to navigate times.
Get yourself sorted:
Buy Lone Rider, by Elspeth Beard, on Amazon.