In a time when it was highly unusual for women to even ride or repair motorcycles, Elspeth not only carved her name into the history books by blazing her own trail, but she was almost entirely self-sufficient throughout the duration of this perilous two year peregrination.
I first heard of Elspeth and her story through my brother. He has a knack for finding interesting historical undertakings where watches tend to be involved. That quality, combined with Elspeth’s willingness to share photographs and information made for a story that I was eager to tell. As with the majority of stories I write, the watch is a single (albeit intriguing) thread in an intricate tapestry. I hope to expand upon her adventure and the significance of what exactly was accomplished by a young woman from England with the grit to take on the world.
In the early 1980’s, Elspeth had spent a considerable amount of seat-time on her 1974 BMW R 60/6 boxer-engine two cylinder motorbike. In fact, she rode it over 10,000 miles in just the first two years of ownership. For the modern equivalent of $1800, she had invested a great deal to bankroll this bike and was clearly determined to get a solid return on her investment. What better way than to travel the world on two wheels? While bartending to raise money to fund this epic undertaking, Elspeth dedicated herself to learning all aspects of the BMW R 60. She could tear down and rebuild the bike on her own, and became mechanically adept enough to tackle any mechanical or electrical issues that could arise while alone on the road.
Preparation for the trip meant having a watch that fit the specific criteria necessary for a ‘round the world motorbike expedition in 1982. What might these requirements be, you ask? According to Elspeth, she needed something water resistant. In the event of rain, swimming, showering, the watch had to be able to remain on-wrist. Wearing the watch for the entirety of the trip greatly reduced the likelihood of theft, which proved to be a real threat throughout her travels. The final criterion was that it had to be automatic in order to ensure that there was no need for a battery change mid-trek. For Elspeth, this do-it-all timepiece came in the form of a Seiko 4205-0140 manufactured in June, 1982, just four months before her trip began. This 34mm black-dial dive watch was rated to 150m of water resistance and featured an automatic movement, making it perfectly suited for the rigors that lay ahead.
In talking with Elspeth, she has no recollection of actually purchasing the Seiko, but it did all that she asked of it throughout the trip. It turns out that, for her, time became less of a necessity than an awareness of the date. Where a general concept of “time of day” was determined by sunrise and sunset, there were certain date-specific appointments that had to be met. From snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, to visiting Everest base camp and Annapurna Pass, this unassuming little dive watch saw more in two years than many see in a lifetime.
This walkabout began in none other than “The Big Apple” itself, New York City. The first leg of the journey meant shipping the bike to the US, traveling north to Canada, South to Mexico, then up to the City of Angels. From Los Angeles, Elspeth shipped her trusty BMW to Sydney while she took a detour to New Zealand to explore on foot before reconnecting with the motorbike in Australia. After arriving in the land down under, Elspeth was convinced to build lockable storage for her bike by a fellow overlander. This large storage sat proudly on the back of the beemer, and was crafted from aluminum. This choice of metal resulted in a (relatively) light addition that could easily be fixed on the fly with a rivet gun. An unfortunate pothole in Queensland catapulted Elspeth to her first injury of the trip; a mild concussion that resulted in a two week hospitalization. Undaunted by this trauma, her BMW was shipped to Singapore while she explored Indonesia.
Do you remember the concern of theft that I mentioned earlier? As fate would have it, this occurred in Singapore. All of Elspeth’s belongings, along with her passport, travel visas, and motorcycle registration were pilfered, leading to a six week delay while these critical documents were replaced. While headed south to place the bike on a boat from Penang to Madras, Elspeth was involved in accident number two. While following a truck, a dog ran from behind got caught under the wheels of the BMW. This canine catastrophe caused both Elspeth and her trusty steed to collide with a tree. Miraculously, she and the BMW both proved to be unbelievably tough, and after a short recovery they were on the road again, this time headed to India.
From Calcutta to Kathmandu, Elspeth explored most of India alone, though she was able to meet up with her parents (who had traveled from England) for the first time in two years. She then crossed into Pakistan, followed by post-revolution Iran. According to Elspeth, while in Iran, she kept her well-worn Bell helmet on at virtually all times to serve as her “bhurka” of sorts. Though sick with hepatitis, she managed to cross the expanse of Iran in under seven days. In Eastern Turkey, she spent weeks gaining back her strength and tending to her bike to finish out the trip through Greece and across Europe.
In the span of slightly more than two years, Elspeth and her bike accomplished a great deal, and I dare say it was a feat that is grossly underappreciated both now, and certainly at the time. Having logged over 35,000 miles, she displayed undaunted courage in the face of adversity. Her level of resolve was so immense that no obstacle proved too much to overcome. Be it theft, illness, injury, mechanical failure, blistering heat, hypothermic cold, or the constant awareness of being a young woman traveling solo through unknown and sometimes unfriendly locations, Elspeth remained steadfast and unfazed. While the wristwatch is merely a footnote on such a compelling tale, I cannot help but think there is no better timepiece to have made the journey with Elspeth. Seiko divers are durable, capable, and a tangible representation of the “form follows function” mentality, which is why they are seen throughout history on the wrists of soldiers, astronauts, Antarctic scientists, and overland motorcyclists.
I want to thank Elspeth for her time and willingness to share details regarding this incredible pursuit. If you enjoyed the article and would like to learn more about this fascinating odyssey, check out Elspeth’s website and pick up her book Lone Rider: The First British Woman to Motorcycle Around the World.
Originally published on The Wristorian used with permission. Photography credit: Elspeth Beard.
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