He has an amazing life to look back on, but that’s not enough for Peter Mounsey, who aims to beat his own land speed record on a 78-year-old motorbike on the salt flats of South Australia.
Rising to a challenge is what keeps this remarkably fit, agile and super sharp nonagenarian getting up every morning – usually at 6am – to tinker with his ancient Velocette motorcycle, rebuild a vintage Mini Cooper, help out neighbours or tend his acreage property.
But this year, his ambitions have been frustrated by Covid-19.
Last year he broke his own record by reaching more than 90 miles per hour (the official recording is in imperial measurements) on his Velocette and this year he was primed to hit 100mph. Before coronavirus thwarted the record attempt.
“I’ve done 94mph on it and I had it all ready to go this year and it was cancelled,” he says.
For a man who states his ambition is to reach 100 years of age, it sounds like a risky and terrifying prospect – hunched over an ageing bike in full-suit safety gear and goggles going flat strap along a blinding white salt lake.
But Peter rejects the suggestion he might feel scared.
“No, no, you’re heading straight, it’s all strictly controlled. It’s wonderful. I’m apprehensive but I really like it,” he says.
What does scare him is riding a motorbike on the open road. “It’s too dangerous,” he says without even a hint of irony.
Motorcycle speed records are but one string in Peter’s very full bow. Celebrated in ABC news archives as the “million mile man” with a million nautical miles to his name, he is a master mariner who has sailed around the world twice.
He has also successfully competed in short and single-handed ocean races.
And, simply because he could and because his late wife Lesley was keen on horses, he took up horse riding at the venerable age of 70 to compete in endurance rides.
Born in Windsor in New South Wales, with a twin brother Don who is an accomplished artist in England, Peter’s life of adventure began at the tender age of 14 in 1942, when he went to sea in the merchant service during World War II.
He spent two years as a deck boy, feted for his excellent eyesight in spotting Japanese craft.
“I saw seven ships torpedoed on the east coast here,” he says matter-of-factly and scoffs at the idea he may have felt scared.
“Who’s scared when you’re 14.”
Some of that bravado may have been inherited from his English father, John Mounsey, who fought in World War I, and was shot clean through his torso while ducking down in a bomb crater as he snuck up on a German sniper.
John thought he had shot the sniper but it turned out he was only foxing and when John pressed forward, he was taken down.
Fellow soldiers found him when they were collecting bodies and at first thought he was dead. He was taken to hospital, patched up and later married Peter’s mum, a nurse.
The couple moved to New Zealand and later to Melbourne where John joined the Australian Air Force and ended up a squadron leader.
Peter remembers going to 14 different schools as a lad and admits he wasn’t much of a scholar: “I was more interested in chasing girls and I loved the sea life.”
After the war, Peter joined the North Coast Steamship Company, and with his natural aptitude for sailing was encouraged to get his officer’s rating.
He went to a nautical school in Sydney for six months, got his second mate’s ticket and climbed on up the ladder until he gained his Master’s papers at 25.
With saltwater always running through his veins, his yacht racing career began in the early 1950s when he was asked to navigate for a Sydney-Hobart race. He ended up doing nine such races over the years.
“I’m a navigator. I like ocean racing and I taught a lot of the early blokes celestial navigation,” he says.
His most prestigious yacht race was the 31-day Melbourne to Osaka two-handed ocean race and he also has completed three solo races from New Zealand, winning one.
He has sailed across the Tasman Sea 32 times in small boats.
He has run huge offshore rig barges from Melbourne to the Persian Gulf and Singapore, skippered big tugs in Sydney Harbour and made private yacht deliveries all over the world as a sea captain with his own business Ocean and Coastal Deliveries.
Peter says he has been lucky in life, in that whatever venture he has tried he has ended up with the best mentors, and that has helped with his success. He says he prefers independent sports where you can do your own training without worrying about others – such as his venture into endurance riding later in life.
He’s done the Tom Quilty twice and 20 years ago came second in the Queensland endurance state championships.
Most of these rides are 162km, so they are not for the faint-hearted.
Peter says simply: “I like conquering new challenges.”
One of those challenges was meeting and marrying his lifetime sweetheart Lesley, who he met during YWCA and YMCA get-togethers in Sydney when they were teenagers. They were inseparable and together they sailed around the world on their yacht Larapinta from the early 1950s to 1962.
In 1953, they were the first Australian couple to sail around the world.
Peter has a gallery of photographs from dozens of far-flung destinations.
They were married for 64 years, until Lesley died five years ago at the age of 86 after suffering a stroke. Peter was bereft.
“I still miss her like hell,” he says.
Peter and Lesley moved from Sydney to Queensland 37 years ago.
The Velocette record attempts began after he became friends with Stuart Hooper, an engineer and a motorcycle speed freak.
Peter watched Stuart reach 193.06 mph on his modified 1959 Velocette on the salt flats of South Australia’s Lake Gairdner.
It was the fastest ever speed on a single cylinder engine motorcycle. His immediate reaction was “I can do this” and his new adventures on land began.
Stuart acquired the Velocette for him and rebuilt it with Peter’s help – although Peter has rebuilt his prized Mini Cooper himself.
While disappointed that this year’s Dry Lakes Racing Association’s annual Speed Week had to be cancelled, Peter says he’s hoping it will be on again in 2021.
“I’m slowing down, it comes with old age, but I still feel very confident about it. Out there I wanted to do 90 (the first time) which is my age and I did 88mph and she did get the shakes,” he says.
“Next time I went flat chat and I knew it was a good run and the others had their thumbs up and I did (almost) 94. I had it wide open. Now I just need another 6mph.”
The speed runs are recorded by laser beams on a one-mile track over an average of two runs.
But Peter hasn’t given up his seafaring ways in his quest for land speed. He still sails with a friend to Lord Howe island from Sydney every November – a five-day trip of 430km.
And he likes keeping fit, working out three times a week on a home gym set up on his patio overlooking the river and soaring trees he planted 20 years ago.
“I’m not a health fanatic but I eat well – lots of fresh food,” he says.
He is also a keen home chef and often invites neighbours for meals.
But the lure of adventure still burns brightly, even after travelling the world.
“We (with Lesley) did most of Australia except the Kimberley,” he says.
“Now I want a 70-year-old bride so I can go to the Kimberley and spend a year going around Australia,” he says with a mischievous grin.
But his heart will always lie with the sea.
“I’d like to live to be 100 and die at sea,” he says.