The Great Motor Women : Part Two – Elspeth Beard

Following on from his excellent – and ongoing – series The Great Motor Men, AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham continues on his tour of the great motoring women.

Here, in the second part, he recalls the two-wheeled adventurer, Elspeth Beard.

For AROnline this a bit of wild one! However, I’m happy to justify the choice on the basis that Elspeth is a ‘Motoring Women’ (albeit on two wheels, not four) and she has certainly ‘motored’ more than the writer or possibly anyone else reading this.

Elspeth has also done something that not many guys would do. Saying goodbye to your family at 23 may not be a first, but saying goodbye and heading off on a 35,000-mile trip around the world on an eight-year-old BMW by yourself, is shall we say; ‘not normal’.

The trip took two and a half years, and she experienced some traumatic events that left her scarred for life. She later ran her own architecture company and lived in a converted water tower.

The writer is fascinated by the ‘drive’ required not only to dream, plan, and actually accomplish such feats as this – but that drive required her to ignore all of the doubting Thomases: the family and friends who try to convince you that you are absolutely mad and should give the whole thing up.

Individuality rules

Elspeth had the advantage of coming from a family who practiced ‘individuality’ to a great extent. Her father didn’t care what anyone thought of him or his ideas and, despite being very cautious with money (there was a lock on the ‘phone at home!) he at one time owned seventeen Rolls-Royces.

An ex-Roedean pupil, she later attended a sixth form college in South Kensington to secure some A levels. During this period, a couple of friends showed Elspeth how to change gear and generally ride a motorcycle. A week later she’d affixed some L plates to a Yamaha YB100 and rode it to college. Within a week or so, she was travelling down to Brighton to see her grandmother and recognised the potential for unlimited travel. Plans to ride around the world were loosely outlined within a few weeks of this first trip.

The little Yamaha was soon replaced by a Honda 250 and whilst her boyfriend Mike didn’t own a bike; he did ride pillion. This was not common in the 1970s – biking was very much a male-dominated culture.

The Honda was soon replaced with a BMW R60/6 and the non-bike riding boyfriend was exchanged for a biker.

The European tester

A tour of Europe with another friend riding his Norton Commando gave Elspeth great experience of what it was like to sit in the saddle for hours and hours. A further trip in the US riding a BMW R75/5 racked up more bike miles and more experience.

Having completed her final year at university and finding herself with a degree in architecture, the time had come for some serious work on ‘the trip of a lifetime’. Following the ‘good old’ Haynes Manual, Elspeth stripped the BMW R60/6 and rebuilt it – so that she knew exactly how it all worked. (The R75/5 had been left in the US).

Despite lots of misgivings – lots of doubts and fears – Elspeth eventually left Heathrow bound for New York, to start this extraordinary journey.

Once on US soil and once the bike had finally arrived, she rode a couple of hundred miles to Birmingham.  She wondered if everyone she was going to meet, would be quite so unfriendly! There was a bit of a ‘thing’ going on about a girl on a bike.

As anyone who has driven in the US will tell you – it’s a wonderful country, but the roads from state to state can get a bit boring – and, sitting on a bike for two hundred and seventy miles of almost dead straight road, can get very tiring.

Elspeth’s first experience of American motels wasn’t too endearing either. A guy showed her where the nearest motel was – and then expected sex for his troubles. A ‘knight in shining armour’ rescued her – and expected sex for his efforts too!

Harley hogs!

In the Arizona desert a motorcycle gang tried to give her some grief. Only the speed and nimbleness of the BMW – over what Elspeth called their ‘ugly choppers’ and ‘Harley Davidson hogs’ – saved the day!

After travelling on through California she began to think of the next step: Sydney.

Getting the paperwork accepted to get her and the bike into Australia was a minefield.  At one point the bike was already on its way to Sydney but for three days Elspeth could not get clearance to travel. Eventually, she got to New Zealand and there she hoped to get the bike sent from Sydney.

Finally, circumstances made it better to see New Zealand and then go to Australia and re-unite with the bike. It had cost $600 just to collect the bike from the docks! Elspeth now had $50 to her name.

Bad day!

A short-term job offer came up in an architectural firm, but her employer decided that, despite her experience and degree, she was only good for menial duties. He also decided against paying her. At the same time her flat was burgled, and a dust cart ran over her bike! Desperate for somewhere to live and keep the bike safe, she rented a garage and lived in that.

Repairing the bike herself and, after working two jobs, Elspeth managed to save $1,600 and set off on the next leg. The route would be via Queensland to Townsville and then Mount Isa, and then through the Northern Territory to Alice Springs and Ayers Rock. After this came 1,500 miles to Perth – the whole leg amounting to just over 5000 miles.

On this sector, Elspeth learnt a lot about Road Trains. They can be up to 150 feet long and have four trailers. They stop for nothing and she soon realised that whether going her way or coming towards her – the only thing to do was stop and let them pass. The roads in Queensland were atrocious with huge potholes often more than a foot deep.

The small white room

At one point and teaming up with two young guys on their bikes, Elspeth remembers riding ahead – and then woke up in a small white room! She had hit one of the potholes and the bike had somersaulted over her several times. Following a few days in hospital, she found herself standing beside the wreck of her bike.

Once again, a rebuild was necessary before she continued across the Outback. Here, Elspeth was faced with extraordinary situations; like small and dusty ‘one horse’ towns that had very enforceable rules about parking a bike with the tail pointing to the curb – on penalty of a serious fine!

Rivers had to be negotiated with water up to her knees, but the BMW coped well. Some roads were a total battle – like the one from Charters Towers to Mount Isa – 500 miles of corrugated and dusty lanes in 40-degree heat; to arrive at a town dominated by a vast mineral mine. Roadworks vied with the flies as to which could be most annoying. Accommodation proved to be mostly shelters of breeze blocks and corrugated iron; surrounded by old car wrecks and dogs.

Strange bedfellow

Waking up one morning to something slightly uncomfortable under her, she discovered a snake had crept into her bed during the night.

When the weather changed to full-on rain, the roads became lethal. Road Trains past her at 70mph and the roads were essentially shallow rivers. Six inches of rain fell in one night and the roads from Alice Springs became three feet deep of sticky mud.  Even the truckers that rescued her bike, had to be rescued. Later on, a stretch of road was straight for ninety miles. People who fell sleep and spun their vehicles had to wait till sunset to know which way they’d been travelling.

Staying in Australia for almost a year allowed Elspeth to get involved in a project to build 270 houses and this provided enough cash – she hoped – to get all the way home.

Moving on, in Singapore, she discovered why an entire house was so cheap to stay for the night: the bed covers literally moved with bed bugs and mosquitoes.

There were great times of course, snorkelling and swimming and exploring all these different countries. It was not all disaster and there were a lot of good friendships and laughs. But when her bag got stolen with all her belongings in it – including her passport, cash, travellers’ cheques and the bike key – keeping positive and focused became an issue. It took weeks to prove who she was and get her documents ready to travel again.

Dog food

When a dog ran out in front of her bike, the resulting crash seriously damaged the bike more than Elspeth – but again time evaporated away whilst repairs were undertaken. The owners of the dog kindly provided her accommodation for a week during which she ate well. It was only on the last day that she realised the where the meat had come from…

In India a family invited her to stay and whilst the family was downstairs watching TV, the man of the house attempted to get the ‘rent’ and Elspeth had to decline the offer.

Don’t stop!

Just outside Jodhpur a young girl ran into the road and Elspeth’s bike came into contact with her. Before the trip a lot of people had warned her about ‘tricks’ like this in India.

Undoubtedly money was the name of the game and she was told to never ever stop if you hit someone. But looking in her mirror Elspeth had seen the little girl lying in the road. She turned the bike around and rode back but, bending down to attend to her, she was suddenly accosted by the father who’d been with the child: ‘Rupee! Rupee’ he had insisted. Elspeth rounded on him, asking why he was not more concerned about his daughter than with money. The man got louder and louder, now joined by umpteen villagers all firmly backing his case.

Finally, a military jeep turned up and the officer kindly informed Elspeth it would be best to give the man 20 rupees – or the village people were unlikely to let her leave in one piece. Once she was comfortable that the girl had only minor injuries, she paid and left.

Who needs a playboy!

In Punjab, at a border, officialdom was moving smoothly with the usual $10 bribe but then Elspeth was asked for ‘Playboy’. When she declared she hadn’t got a copy of the magazine, suddenly another form – a permit of some kind – was needed. The man insisted she needed the permit, and she would have to get it from a certain Official. When she eventually met that individual, he said. “Why do you need a permit to get into Punjab when you are already in Punjab?” Waiting to see this visiting Official had taken three days!

Elspeth had often become so frustrated with getting the right form completed, that on occasions she ignored the need, and simply rode through the checkpoint. There had often been some shouting, but nothing more serious than that. However, getting out of India proved to be a thorny business and did take several days of form filling.

Staying at Kerman on her way from Iran to Istanbul, accommodation was extraordinary. Because of the situation with ‘Westerners’, she had to cover her face and not be seen either arriving or leaving the hotel. Clandestine efforts were needed for her to even get to a shop. Eventually, the hotel manager hoisted her out into a back ally and slammed the door behind her.

In one hotel, after asking for directions to the WC, she was shown through a door into a large yard. Every foot or so were piles of solid waste separated by rivers of urine from the hundreds of people before her. The stench was unbearable.

Many more adventures followed Elspeth and her sometime travelling companions but, after two and a half years, she was back in London. The icing on the cake should have been a good article in the Motor Cycle News, but the journalist was not the best. He produced a very disappointing piece that gave out all the wrong messages about a ‘little rich girl’ living the dream. In reality, the fact that her family were quite wealthy had absolutely no impact on the trip and it was certainly no dream!

Elspeth was the first woman to ride a motorcycle around the world and her book Lone Rider tells it all. The writer was privileged to hear her speak at Brooklands. An amazing woman indeed!  If you only read one book this year, make it this one.

2 Comments

  1. I’m not sure about the 70 MPH road trains in Australia. At one time they had up to five trailers – I’ve a slide of a Shell road train with five tanker trailers – that was a lot of fuel. By the late 1970s, the road trains were normally limited to three trailers. The bit about them giving way to nothing is spot on; not just motor bikes but anything smaller gets out of the way, especially on dirt roads.

  2. Nice story, Martyn!

    Road train regulations in Australia vary from state to state, as is the case with many other laws and regulations, which can be a bit of a trap for the unwary traveller. Generally speaking, on public roads, road trains are limited to a length of 175 foot and a maximum weight of 200 tonnes, though the usual weight limit is 136 tonnes. On private roads – and there are many on the vast sheep/cattle stations – it is legal to have up to five trailers. In the town where I live in West Australia, three-trailer road trains are a regular sight on the North West Coastal Highway.

    Nationally, the general speed limit in rural areas is 110 kph (68 mph) – though only 100 kph (62 mph in Victoria and slightly higher (110 kph) on certain highways in that state. On sections of the Stuart Highway in the Northern Territory the limit is now 130 kph (81 mph), having previously been unrestricted. From a driver’s perspective, the low allowable speeds, combined with long open roads (the longest straight section is 145.6 km on the Eyre Highway, in outback WA) and a paucity of traffic make for considerable driver fatigue, brought about by the seeming sameness of the bush and a consequent lack of sustained concentration. In actuality the bush is constantly changing, but the changes tend to be incremental, rather than dramatic, so it requires awareness to notice them.

    Distances are vast here; one cattle station – the 23,677 sq km Anna Creek Station in SA – has an area greater than Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire combined! Drive the 3,420 km from Melbourne to Perth, which I have done many times (including trailering the race car across to compete in the National titles), and you will cover over 400 km more distance than if driving London to Tel Aviv…

    In remote areas, car drivers and motorcyclists are wise if they avoid travelling an hour either side of sunset and sunrise, as kangaroos are most active at that time. Should you be unfortunate enough to hit one at speed, they can destroy the vehicle. If travelling westwards on the Nullabor to Perth, it’s best to pull up for the night at around 4.00 pm, as after that the sun’s angle means that you can’t see the sides of the road and therefore won’t be able to spot kangaroo or emu in time to avoid them. Don’t try to brake and swerve at the same time; because of frontal weight transfer you’ll roll the car. ‘Roos are very unpredictable; I’ve had one jump head-on into my stationary vehicle!

    As in any country, drive for the local conditions and (post-covid!) visitors to Australia will remember the wonderful experience forever. Enjoy!

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