Adventure motorcycling is all the rage at the moment, but one man rode the length of Africa down the West coast in the late 80s, before GPS, before Google maps and definitely before Ewan and Charlie. Then he rode back up the East coast. His book isn’t just about the adventure though, it's about coping with what life throws at you. By Jeremy Torr.
Singapore, 11 May 2016. Jonny Bealby was an aspiring rock musician who had found the love of his life, a potential record deal and a spot on TV. But then, tragically, his fiancée died in his arms on a trip to India, leaving him utterly devastated.
As a diversion he bought a motorbike, fitted an extra large petrol tank and set off from London to Cape Town, South Africa – then back. His journey took him months, covered thousands of kilometres and took in some very gritty places and people. Jungle bashing, coping with local militias, yet always falling (luckily) in with the better side of humanity when things got tough, Bealby by turns inspires and saddens with flashbacks to his dream girl.
But the memory of her, and the promise he made to her that he would keep following the moon takes him on a complete circumnavigation of Africa – and that at times makes you think he is trying unconsciously to put himself in mortal danger as a way out.
But luckily for him (and the reader) the bike kept going, the enormous variety of people he met kept giving him food and shelter, and he eventually made it back to England to catch up with a woman he had met for just three days in Algeria.
And married her. Admittedly, the marriage didn’t last that long, but it makes a great ending.
Probably the biggest appeal of this book is the way it doesn’t describe the journey. There is only one amazing sunset, not much at all about statuesque kings of the jungle, and only a few mentions of the astonishing power of nature in remote places. Astonishingly, there are no photographs, no website and just one very basic map. Instead of the usual “and here’s me in front of the world’s bluest waterfall/smallest horse/deepest gorge” photos, Bealby simply tells the story.
He gives some great insights into the people he meets, the constant surprise of being able to find a way round problems, and some basic homespun philosophy on the way life is both for lucky people and for the unlucky ones too.
His insights into people like himself who have all the trappings of civilisation yet have suffered greatly – and into the lives of people who live with death and disease and deprivation on an everyday basis but just get on with it - makes a really unusual read.
This book is not a giddy travelogue of ripping yarns and motorbike derring-do (although Bealby must have been pretty tough to have endured some of the more taxing sections of his ride) or an eye opening look at other cultures. It’s mostly about ordinary people and how they cope, and how sometimes a naïve belief in the underlying oneness of human nature can see you through the most trying of times.
If you want a how to do it route guide around Africa on a bike, don’t buy this book. If you want a book that helps explain why you should travel and meet other cultures, this is a good start.
Jonny Bealby turned his adventures into a career, and now runs a company called Wild Frontiers taking other people to less visited parts of the world.