World Motorcycle Tour: Postcards from the Road, Number 1 - Getting Out of Australia

This article was written as my farewell to my column in the travel pages of the Sydney Morning Herald

Travel writing is a very strange occupation. Like airline pilots - and long distance truck drivers - we live two lives. Much of the time we are living out of a suitcase in exotic destinations; for the rest of the year we're at home, dealing with bills and trying to find time away from the word processor to mow the lawn and catch up with friends.

Unlike truckers, travel writers are feted wherever we go. Some of my colleagues wouldn't know how to get from the airport to the hotel if there wasn't a limo waiting. I know of one who cried when another writer was given a five star hotel suite that was larger than hers. And I suspect that more than one travel editor defines "adventure travel" as any resort that has only two daiquiris on the cocktail list.

Few hotels want to host a travel writer for more than two nights so we spend just enough time in each destination to see the sights, talk to some people and perhaps take a few photographs before heading for the airport and the next destination. At this pace, a week in the USA is regarded as a long trip and 10 days in Europe is a lifetime.

After a dozen years working as a Sydney-based travel writer, I found I was increasingly jealous of backpackers I met overseas. By the time they had settled into a new city and were ready to start exploring, I would be back home, staring at the computer screen and wondering if the whole trip was a dream.

Two years ago, a friend asked where I had been lately. I ran through a list of locales and it was only later that I realised I'd forgotten visiting Prague two weeks earlier. That's when Lynn, my wife [at the time], and I decided it was time to plan a journey, rather than an endless series of trips.

After a lapse of two decades we have renewed our YHA memberships and bought new sleeping bags and a tent. Despite the knowledge that this trip will rarely be five star, it has been many years since I was so excited about hitting the road.

Of course, the route and method of transport add to the excitement. We are planning on taking two years to ride motorcycles around the world, visiting every continent and time zone. That will be the first time it has been done - Antarctica is invariably the missing continent. When we leave Sydney next week on the new Air New Zealand route to South America we spend a week in Easter Island before flying on to Santiago, Chile where we pick up the bikes. Then it's ever southward to Tierra del Fuego to connect with the ship that will take us (with our bikes) to Antarctica. Early next year we start the long haul north to Alaska then across America and the Atlantic to Europe. After wintering over in north Africa, we hope to come home through Moscow, Central Asia and China - but that particular itinerary depends on the politics of Russia 18 months from now.

The fun part of the planning has been studying maps and guides and devising a rough route and schedule. We are both keen on being flexible enough to stop for a week or so any place we like.

Selecting motorcycles was a challenge. That was especially true because we sold our last bike 10 years ago to buy the house. Fortunately, an old friend, Geoff Sim of City Coast Motorcycles in Wollongong stayed patient when we asked questions with an historical slant like "Do they make wet weather gear that doesn't leak, yet?", "where did all the mid-sized shaft-drive bikes go?" and "is that really the price?".

I went around the world on a Yamaha RD350 20 years ago and vowed that "next time, I'll do it on a more comfortable bike". I will be: my new bike is a BMW R1100RT with cassette radio, heated handlebar grips, anti-lock brakes, a fairing that keeps me dry when it rains - even hot air vents that I'm sure I'll appreciate in Antarctica.

Lynn's bike was a greater problem. After years riding pillion she declared that "I won't see the whole world over your shoulder" and enrolled in a learner rider program. Her difficulty was that motorcycle manufacturers are so caught up in devising ever-brighter colour scheme that they appear to have forgotten that it's a good idea if the rider's feet reach the ground. Finally she settled on a Yamaha SRV250 that is low and light enough for her to feel comfortable, yet has enough performance for long distance touring.

A larger difficulty was unravelling ourselves from life in Sydney. When I took off on a similar trip in my twenties all I had to do was announce to work I was leaving, suggest to my girlfriend that she may not be seeing so much of me in future and head for the airport. When I returned four years later I asked my mother why she hadn't cried. She said "You said you'd just be gone until you ran out of money - I thought you'd be back in a few weeks." This time, she simply rolled her eyes when we announced another ride around the world and listened with quiet resignation to our ambitious itinerary.

But now we have a house, careers and all the detritus of growing old over 15 years in one place. There are all the records, and the CDs that took their place, walls full of books, and a garage full of the evidence of a hundred enthusiasms from skiing to lapidary. More importantly, there are the friends we now see frequently but won't see for the next two years. And their children who will be much older upon our return.

I had a last photographic assignment down the south coast a few weeks ago. As I rode through mist-filled eucalypt forests I realised that I will greatly miss the Australian bush and beaches and the casual lifestyle we take for granted.

Organising the trip wasn't difficult. It slowly took shape in the course of a thousand telephone calls (and I won't be sad to go overseas away from Australia's new eight digit phone numbers). John Goodwin at the NRMA readily arranged our carnets that are, in effect, our motorcycles' passports. Our "frequent traveller" insurance becomes invalid if we stay out of the country for more than three months so AFTA formulated another policy for two years of constant travel. There were credit cards and registration to renew, an address to change, a phone to divert, and a house to pack and let.

The bikes have been fitted with bike-to-bike radios and mine has GPS navigation. Then I must pack the Macintosh laptop computer that is going to be our communication line to the Herald and the world through modem and e-mail.

As I write this, we are waiting for friends to arrive for our farewell party. I suspect most are coming to make sure the trip that we have been talking about for two years is really about to start. Now I regret we didn't catch up more often in the past few years.

I have been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm shown by so many people for what we are doing. That's not just Australian Geographic sponsoring us and the Herald saying it will publish my reports from the road. It extends to telephonists at American Express who want to join us and senior executives in the travel industy who take me aside to detail their motorcycling days.

The groundswell I've observed seems to suggest that baby boomers are ready to hit the hippy trail again, bequeathing Sydney and the work ethic to Generation X. Over the coming months I'll let you know if Kathmandu's Freak Street, Istanbul's Pudding Shop and London's Earls Court is ready for the rush.