Adventure travel did not start with motorcycling, although motorcycling could be said to have started with adventure travel. The very first internal-combustion powered motorcycle had its proving ride on the 18th of November 1885, from Cannstatt to Unterturkheim in Germany with Gottlieb Daimler’s son Paul at the tiller. The seat caught fire on the ride, and Paul noted that the bike’s training wheels did more to make the ride difficult than they did to help.
I rode a replica of the Daimler bike somewhat more recently and I agree with Paul. The training wheels were a pain. Every time one of them touched down, the bike would be wrenched over in its direction and I had to haul the tiller back the other way. Even on the fairly smooth bitumen surface on which I rode the replica, this was annoying. I can only imagine what it would have been like on cobblestones. Never mind the effect of the seat catching fire. It may have been this ride that turned him bald.
Whatever – Paul’s ride would definitely have been an adventure so it’s reasonable to call him the first (motorized) adventure rider. Sadly, the ride was enough to put him off motorcycles. He dedicated himself to cars for the rest of his career. Then again, if the seat on my first bike had caught fire I might have been inclined to do the same. He did design a rather adventurous armored car like a proto-tank.
The Age of Adventure is generally considered to have run from 1865, with the end of the American Civil War, to 1939, with the beginning of World War 2. Evelyn Waugh wrote extensively about the latter part of this period, and extracts from his writings make up the book ‘When the Going Was Good’, a phrase that is meant both literally and ironically. It was good when you could travel without a lot of paperwork; it was not so good when you were just about being drained of your blood by African mosquitoes. But either way, it was a popular time for adventures.
Two-wheeled adventure travel began in this period, but it did not start with motorcycles. As far as I can work out, nobody attempted such a thing aboard a draisine, the ‘vehicle’ often called a hobby-horse in English. It was a kind of early bicycle without pedals, pushed by the feet. Invented by German Baron Karl von Drais in 1817, these at least initially lacked any kind of brake, so I suppose any ride down a sufficiently steep hill would have been an adventure.
The earliest successful bicycle ride around the world for which I can find credible information was by a journalist called Thomas Stevens, who set off from San Francisco in 1884 and spent two years on the road. Annie Londonderry matched him ten years later and was soon followed by Sir John Foster Fraser and two friends who rode through 17 countries on their way around the globe. So the concept of an around-the-world ride was not new in 1912, when another journalist, Carl Stearns Clancy, climbed aboard his 934cc Henderson Four in Dublin. After 29,000km he arrived in New York, the first person to round the globe on a motorcycle.
There have been many riders who emulated Clancy, including quite a few women. Among the deservedly better-known is Anne-France Dautheville, who followed up trips from Europe to Asia on a 750cc Moto Guzzi with a full-on around-the-worlds ride on a Kawasaki 125 in 1973. She is remarkably modest and insightful about her exploits. “There had always been traveling women, but they had been exceptional women,” she says. “I am a normal woman. I am not exceptional at all. I’m not especially courageous, I’m not especially strong … it was the first time an average person could do all these things.”
Her last comment is the critically important one. An average person could, indeed “do these things” by the 1970s. I rode a bicycle part of the way and caught a hippie-trail bus for the rest from London to Penang in 1971, and rode a Honda XL250 from Sydney to Dublin and then on to Sydney through the US to circumnavigate the globe between 1978 and 1980. And I’m as average as they come. Maybe better looking than average, but that is very much a matter of opinion, mainly mine and possibly Mrs Bear’s. Certainly I’m not especially courageous. It only took one encounter with someone pointing a rifle at me to discover that.
But that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, I thought I would suggest two books which will give you very different views of global circumnavigations on motorcycles, and fill out the story. The earlier one is ‘One Man Caravan’ by Robert Edison Fulton, Jr. It describes his journey in 1932. The other is ‘Jupiter’s Travels’ by Ted Simon about his travels in the late 1970s, when I was on the road as well. Read both, and wonder at the fates that brought such different people to the same endeavor.