Elspeth Beard is one of a select band of bold women to ride a motorcycle around the world, and she was the first Englishwoman to do so. She achieved this feat a quarter of a century ago, in the days before sat-nav, internet, email and mobile phones. The bike she chose for the trip was a used 1974 BMW R 60/6 flat-twin, for which she paid 900 ($1800) in 1980 – a substantial sum at the time, especially for a machine that already had 30,000 miles on the clock.
Elspeth used the bike for her first long solo rides to Scotland and to Ireland, then to mainland Europe and Corsica, racking up over 10,000 miles in her first two years of ownership. Then it was time for `The Big One’. Aged 24, Elspeth had finished the first three years of her architectural studies (it’s a seven year training) and saved more than 1000 ($1900) working behind the bar at her local pub in Marylebone, central London in preparation for her round the world adventure.
She started the first stage of her journey in New York: “It cost 175 ($340) to send the bike and 99 ($197) for my own air fare,” she recalls. From the Big Apple she rode up to Canada, then down Mexico way before reaching Los Angeles with another 5,000 miles under the Beemer’s wheels. From LA she shipped the bike to Sydney, but stopped off to see New Zealand on foot while the bike was in transit.
Elspeth then spent seven months working in a Sydney architectural practice and living in a garage, gaining experience and replenishing her diminished funds. She spent weeks constructing her own lockable, top-box and panniers out of folded and riveted sheet aluminium before setting off on her travels once more. She rode all over Australia, and had her first big accident on a dirt road near Townsville, in Queensland. The R 60 cart-wheeled and she was left badly concussed, but mercifully with no broken bones. She still has the Bell `bone dome’ helmet that she’s convinced saved her life (and which she carried on wearing for the rest of the trip!).
Shaken but undaunted, Elspeth spent two weeks in hospital before continuing north up the east coast of Oz then through the outback to Ayers Rock, and finally across the Nullabor Plain to Perth, on the west coast. There, she loaded the BMW onto a boat to Singapore and explored Indonesia while the bike was afloat.
In Singapore she had a disaster of a different kind, when all her valuables were stolen, including her passport with all the visas in it for the countries she’d yet to visit, and the registration and shipping documents for her bike. After an enforced six week sojourn in the island state replacing all the lost documents she rode up the Thai-Malaysian peninsular to Bangkok and beyond to Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle.
With the overland route to India (via Burma) out of bounds she headed back south to load the bike onto a boat from Penang to Madras. On the way she had her second and final big crash when a dog ran under her wheels from behind a truck, on the dangerous main road south. The bike hit a tree and Elspeth was once again battered and bruised but miraculously unbroken. She spent two weeks recuperating in the care of the impoverished Thai family into whose garden she had crashed! “They didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of Thai, but we communicated with sign language,” she said.
The Thais were fascinated by the rivet gun with which she repaired her battered panniers and Elspeth was surprised to find half the remains of the dog she’d hit in the family kitchen, having already unknowingly eaten the other half! “I understood why they were happy to look after me – I’d provided them with food for a fortnight!” Elspeth also repaired the R 60’s damaged engine herself: “I took the cylinder off, straightened the bent studs as best I could and packed the cylinder base with gaskets and goo to get enough compression back”. The accident meant she missed the boat to Madras she’d been hoping to catch but she simply caught the next one.
Once in India, she rode up to Calcutta then on to Kathmandu where her parents flew out from England to see her for the first time in nearly two years. They were shocked by how skinny she looked, but she was to get a whole lot skinnier as she fell victim to both hepatitis and dysentery. It was in Kathmandu that Elspeth met a Dutchman on another Boxer BMW with whom she eventually rode back to Europe, but before that she did a trek in the Himalayas and explored much of India on her bike alone.
Getting out of India proved to be a nightmare. The storming of the Sikhs’ Golden Temple in Amritsar (close to the border with Pakistan) had recently taken place, followed by the assassination of Mrs Gandhi (the Indian Prime Minister) by her own Sikh bodyguard. In the aftermath, the whole of the Punjab region was sealed off and a special permit was required to get into it. The only open overland route west, via Pakistan, was through the Punjab but the Indian bureaucrats in New Delhi had not got around to actually organising the necessary permits which the politicians had decreed were now necessary. A growing band of frustrated westerners found themselves in a Kafka-esque situation whereby they spent weeks on end trying to obtain a permit which did not yet exist! In the end, Elspeth got completely fed up and simply forged herself the necessary permit. Since no official permit even existed yet, the border guards did not know what a `proper’ permit was meant to look like, and she finally made it across the border into Pakistan with a great sigh of relief.
Having safely crossed Pakistan, (mostly on dirt roads) Elspeth and Robert arrived in post-revolution Iran with just seven days to cross the country from one end to the other. This was helped by the superbly maintained tarmac on the main roads, but hindered by the fact that Elspeth was so ill with hepatitis that she could barely stand, let alone ride. Her rear (drum) brake was rendered ineffective due to a leaking oil seal and her clutch had also stopped working, for want of a spring that would have cost just a few pence to replace, if only she could get one. Elspeth’s battered Bell helmet acted as an unofficial `burkha’ which she kept on most of the time, even when off the bike (“most people just assumed I was a man”) and she and the Dutchman made it to the Turkish frontier with just hours to spare before their Iranian visas ran out.
Elspeth spent some time in Eastern Turkey recovering her strength and repairing her trusty R 60. When she’d left England as a tall, strong and healthy young woman she’d weighed over 65 kg (143 lbs) – by the time she got to Turkey, she weighed barely 41 (90). With her own personal battery metaphorically recharged, the journey back through Greece and across Europe to the UK was relatively simple, apart from the notoriously dangerous `Highway of Death’ across Yugoslavia. “It was just a two-lane tarmac road with dirt on either side and you’d constantly have a truck overtaking another truck coming towards you, using all the road so you just had to get off onto the dirt. Sometimes they would be three abreast, using the dirt on both sides and then you’d just have to get right off into the ditch. The road was littered with crosses and flowers in commemoration of dead travellers.”
By the time she got back to her native London Elspeth had been away for three years and added 48,000 miles to her R60’s odometer, so it now read 88,000. She stripped and completely rebuilt the engine herself and still has the bike in running order today. Tragically, she threw out her unique, home-made aluminium panniers when she moved out of London (long before Touratech, Metal Mule and BMW themselves offered hard alloy luggage) but her own version was much more practical, if a little less pretty!
Elspeth still rides bikes and has owned a succession of BMWs. After a flirtation with an R 1100 GS a few years ago she returned to an `air-head’ when she bought a 1998 R 80 GS Basic – the last of the breed – in 2001, which she still uses as her everyday bike. She found the R 1100 GS a bit too heavy for her liking, although she has since been tempted by the new and lighter R 1200 GS. Elspeth also has an immaculate 1973 R75/5 and a lightweight Yamaha Serow for serious trail riding.
Elspeth has been to both Europe and Morocco on her R 80 GS and in 2002 went around the world again as back-up driver for adventurer Nick Sanders when he took 23 riders around the globe in three months. Elspeth often found herself driving a truck for 18 hours and a 930 miles in a single day, and also had to ride a variety of bikes on different occasions when their owners fell off and hurt themselves.
When she returned from her round the world trip in the mid-80s, Elspeth Beard completed her architectural studies and spent seven years transforming a completely derelict Victorian water tower into a unique and beautiful home, while working full time in London and bringing up a son on her own. Initially working from the water tower, she gradually established her own architectural practice and now has many awards to her credit. Her work has been featured on various television programmes and in countless magazines. She has even had two Japanese TV documentaries devoted to her life and work. And no wonder; she’s quite a woman.