1 April 2007 by Duncan Mills
A true pioneer when he first travelled around the world on a Triumph motorcycle in the 1970s, Ted Simon decided to recreate his apocryphal journey twenty-five years later. It was 2001 and he was a 69-years young. His initial journey, a four-year odyssey covering 78,000 miles and more than 50 countries, formed the backbone for his bestselling travelogue, Jupiter’s Travels. He’d been imprisoned in Brazil, crossed the Sudanese desert, spent time in a Californian commune and seen wars, revolutions and natural disasters through his own eyes.
But above all, on that epic voyage across the continents, he’d met wonderful people .He still wondered about them, contemplated what had happened to them and to the exotic countries he’d passed through a quarter of a century before. Describing his almost mythical journey, Jupiter’s Travels became a number one bestseller in the late 1970s, and is still widely regarded as one of the greatest motorcycle books ever written. Modern day motorcycle adventurers Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman, for instance, regard Simon - and his book - as the inspiration for their own trans-globe journey for their TV series The Long Way Round.
There are plenty more who view him in the same way - some kind of motorcycling Godfather. Meeting him at his publishers in London I find him relaxed and charming, instantly amiable and more than happy to chat about his remarkable life. Now in his seventies, he still sports a RAF style moustache, and while his hair is greyer these days, he could easily pass for a good deal younger. He lives in California, but has been in the UK for a while publicising his latest book, Dreaming Of Jupiter. It recounts the second round-the-world journey, which took two and-a-half years to complete.
"I don’t know where I got the confidence from," he admits. "I’ve never been a physically strong person. When I started that first journey I could do seven push-ups before I fell on my face. When I started this last one I could only do one." Yet he is living proof that age should be no barrier to having adventures, even when things don’t run smoothly. On the latest journey, while driving along mug-clogged roads in Kenya he had the first of two serious accidents, trapping his leg under his bike pannier. "For the first time in my life I hear the loud snap of a bone breaking," he recalls in the book.
"Then I’m on my side in the soft mud with the full weight of the bike pressing down on my boot." Later on, he suffered a broken collarbone in Colombia. But while that might have convinced many people to give up, Simon took these events in his stride. "Both the accidents were really good accidents," he says with a smile, "in that they led to very good things. I met people I wouldn’t have otherwise. As always, the interruptions really are the journey." Reflecting on his travels, Simon recognizes that his journeys have given him a highly personal perspective on the world.
Amazingly, he’d never previously ridden before setting off on this trip. Travelling by motorbike exposed him to the landscape, helped him meet people, opened up experiences and rewarded him with genuine hospitality. But the second time round he wasn’t the phenomenon he’d once been. "Just being on a bike wasn’t all that interesting any more," he explains. "They were used to seeing people coming through. The old concept of hospitality for somebody just passing through is not so strong. "When I first went round I was always received as an individual.
People treated me as a traveller, just as a traveller, not particularly British. This time, because of the way information has travelled into every nook and cranny, people were much more inclined to see me as a representative of something." As he travelled, Simon began to realize that while many of the same global concerns existed as they had in the 1970s - terrorism, population, pollution and so on - their scale had magnified. "Right from the word go there was this underlying sadness over so much having disappeared, and not being able to say that what had replaced it was of comparable value. "You can’t see the quid pro quo. All you see is just the pressure of population. It’s enormous, and it’s so visible.
Received as an individual. People treated me as a traveller, just as a traveller, not particularly British. This time, because of the way information has travelled into every nook and cranny, people were much more inclined to see me as a representative of something." As he travelled, Simon began to realize that while many of the same global concerns existed as they had in the 1970s - terrorism, population, pollution and so on - their scale had magnified. "Right from the word go there was this underlying sadness over so much having disappeared, and not being able to say that what had replaced it was of comparable value. "You can’t see the quid pro quo. All you see is just the pressure of population. It’s enormous, and it’s so visible.
His experiences in South America had a similar taste of melancholy. Although many countries were in a better shape than 25 years ago, he felt that the people didn’t recognise this themselves. "This is the paradox that we face," he says. "Being marginally better off has also made them more aware of where they stand in relation to the rest of the world. So they see themselves now as actually being worse off than they were before. "Now they’ve lost whatever comforts there were in having a traditional culture that maintained their respect regardless of their material circumstances." But he also recognised that it wasn’t just the non-Western world that had changed since his first journey. "I was shocked by the ignorance that the West has, or the leaders of the West have, of the conditions in the world at large.
I’m talking particularly about America. "The idea that the whole world can be put in such jeopardy by a handful of neocons and crazy acolytes - that was all shocking. How extraordinary that the most powerful country in the world is populated by people that have no idea what’s going on and what they’re doing to anybody."
Reflecting on the 1970s, we take a look at some photographs from that older trip. He picks out the places as if it were yesterday. "That’s Palermo in Sicily," he says. "That’s the Turkana in Kenya. That’s in Goa." Some of these places have changed, and not always for the better, as Simon saw on the second trip. Yet he remains an optimist. "The great moments for me were meeting people that I had seen on the first trip and discovering it had had such a significance for them, which really amazed me. "To discover that 28 years later that not only did they remember me, but tears came to their eyes. That was an incredible thing and it made the whole experience of the first journey seem so much more valuable. I began to believe my own story."