"Twisting and turning through the equatorial jungle, the paved road climbs to the Cameron Highlands--high plantation country, everything under the sun grows up here. I stop for Nasi Goreng, a fried-rice dish, at a small roadside restaurant where native music is playing on the stereo. Old tape comes out, new tape goes in. Volume goes up. 'Boogie Fever' accompanies my lunch."
--Terry Mentzer, Motorcyclist Magazine, November 1978
Over the course of 207 days in 1977 and 1978, Terry Mentzer circumnavigated the globe on a Honda XL250.
"The urge for adventure got pretty strong" right around that time, he said.
Mentzer was 37 years old and in transition--he'd been on the road working in the industrial insurance industry for more than a decade and had plans to settle down. Looking back, Mentzer said he was generally a happy person but he had fallen victim to a corporate life that was overly common--a life that, to some extent, lacked fulfillment.
Somewhere along the way he decided the best way to overcome his angst and to reclaim a sense of self was to take on an uncharted experience that would define his worldview for the rest of his life.
Traveling solo on his Honda, he passed through Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan just a few months before Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the shah in revolution and a maelstrom of instability spanning three wars and countless conflicts settled in. Over the course of his pilgrimage he tangoed with sheiks and warlords, socialites and paupers.
Mentzer returned to life in Idaho a changed man, with a firsthand appreciation for the diversity and complexity of a changing world and a new outlook for himself.
"It took a while to digest," Mentzer said recently about his journey. "Months, if not years, went by before I was able to incorporate the trip into my mindset."
I grew up hearing the story since Mentzer is my father, and almost 35 years after his trip it's my turn.
On June 8, I returned from the first leg of my own around-the-world tour, tackling the wilds of Australia on a Kawasaki KLR 650. With obligations on the home front, my voyage--unlike my father's--will be completed in several pieces over the next year. Like him, however, the journey will take a while to incorporate into my mindset.
I began my trip in Sydney, visiting family and preparing for the long ride ahead. From there I pushed north to Brisbane, where I collected my bike after a nearly two-month-long shipping delay. I hopped along Australia's densely populated east coast for the better part of a week in an unforgiving downpour, passing quickly through coastal towns like Rockhampton, Townsville, Mackay and Cairns, as well as Queensland's northern beaches.
Unfortunately, the downpour wasn't the worst of what should have been the easiest part of the trip. The bike broke down on three occasions because of bad gas and the fact that the carburetion/fuel system had been left to rot thanks to the delay with the freight forwarder in Los Angeles.
I had the bike repaired in Cairns and took a few days to reboot before heading into the Outback. At Trinity Kawasaki, I met of Steve Humphries and Dennis Wheeler from Perth. They were on their way home after nearly a month of riding dirt tracks across Australia's remote interior--southwest to northeast and back. We met for dinner that evening and decided to ride together for a day.
"It's probably about 6,500 km each way. We love the dirt," said Humphries of their cape-to-cape ride.
In yet another relentless tropical rain pounding, we traversed the kangaroo carcass-laden Savannah Way from the rolling green hinterlands of Atherton all the way to the grassy plains of Normanton.
It's one of the most-interesting stretches of road on Earth. At first glance, it is difficult to make a comparison to any other piece of transportation infrastructure out there. The nearly 500-mile span from Atherton to Normanton services no more than a few thousand residents in a handful of remote towns, which raises the question, why bother to pave it at all?
For me, the answer seemed to be that this route is more of an extension of the Australian way of life than traditional thoroughfare. It serves as a reminder of what Australia used to be and provides access to the recreational and historical elements that make up a fair portion of the national identity.
After a night camping in the Outback--and finally out of the unseasonably wet weather of the past two weeks--I pushed southwest solo to the middle-of-nowhere mining hub of Mount Isa. Lead, silver, copper, zinc--you name it, they dig for it there.
I shared a five-bed dorm at the Traveler's Haven hostel with a group of 20-something Taiwanese mine workers who were less than thrilled about their Australian experience. They were assigned to this unlikely destination to maintain their work visas and save enough money to travel after they were finished.
The next morning, I headed into some truly remote country--west to the Outback oasis of Tennant Creek.
Along some of the lengthier straight stretches, I began to imagine what it must have been like for my dad to ride across the Nullarbor Plain, which translates to "no trees," 35 years earlier. How lonely and isolated that must have seemed on his Honda 250.
Tennant Creek is a gritty oasis and one of the few overland stopping points to Alice Springs and the legendary Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock). The streets were uncomfortably quiet and empty except for a few campers fueling up.
I stashed my gear at the Traveler's Rest Hostel in the west end of town and spent some time with owner-manager Tony and his friend Bill.
Tony originally planned for a three-month visit to Tennant Creek but 20 years later had yet to leave.
"This is the bush. We like to keep it simple," said Tony of his modest-but-functional operation. At 74 he still drives down to the Greyhound station most mornings at 2 a.m. to collect exhausted tourists overnighting on their way to Uluru. The man has some excellent stories about life in the Outback.
Bill is a British ex-pat who headed out on an around-the-world trip many years ago after growing up in Suffolk and living in London for a stint. Sick of the hustle, he never made it any further than the Outback.
"I knew I wanted to live here the minute I arrived," Bill said. He now works and lives between Tennant Creek and the super-remote surrounding Aboriginal lands.
This country seems to have that effect on people--it captures them immediately with its promise of seclusion and physical challenges in the most authentic sense imaginable. And there is no easy way out of this unforgiving land. If you decide you don't want to be there anymore, you'd better have a bush plane or chopper or a reliable land vehicle, as well as tremendous patience and several days to burn.
The next day, I shifted north to Daly Waters for a taste of Australian history. The isolated pub and cattle station was home to the first international airport in the Land Down Under--the result of the strategic placement of a WWII American military base. The pub is richly adorned with mementos from visitors past and historical artifacts that showed the most complete representation of Australia's progression over the last 80 years. The 10,000-foot airstrip up the road looks incredibly out of place until you get the background story.
A leisurely 350-mile ride the next day and I was in Darwin, my gateway to Southeast Asia. With monsoon season picking up in Thailand and Malaysia, and shipping time frames not working to my advantage, I elected to store the KLR in Darwin until December, when the weather clears.
Now back in Boise, and with about 20 percent of the total trip accounted for, I have begun to reflect on the experiences my father would have had on his journey. It is nice to finally have some empathy for an experience I long considered too exotic to ever fully appreciate. Another 12,000 miles and I reckon it will all make sense.