Easy riders do it their way
Let’s make it clear from the start. Lee and Paul O’Connor are not your stereotypical “bikies” they just happen to love the freedom of motorcycle riding, especially when it can be combined with a love of travel.
“Motorcycle tragics” is how they describe themselves.
Both learnt to ride as teenagers when “it was the poor man’s form of transport” and they were living in New Zealand. Then marriage and four children intervened until the recession we had to have in the early 1990s.
“Tax rules on company cars changed and Paul decided it was time to get a bike again,” Lee says. “I rode on the back with him a few times but I couldn’t do it. I had to have my own.”
Just over a decade ago, with their children leading their own lives, they become truly addicted and began to take short two to three week trips in Australia, a tent in the saddlebags.
It started with southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales but soon turned into Melbourne and Tasmania. Long distance travel had them hooked.
Then, in 2013, Paul, a mining engineer, was working as a FIFO in Kuala Lumpur. Bored with sitting in an office, he began looking for motorbike rides in Malaysia and came up with a group that did tours.
Lee, an artist, joined him and for seven days they rode around the Malay Peninsula in company. One in the group asked if they would like to join them on an overland trip to the TT races at the Isle of Man. And that was that.
“It was a random, on the spot decision that we would go but in the end, nobody else did except us,” Lee says. “It took 18 months of planning and the timing was right as the mining industry had really slowed, so we could get the time off.”
So, in April 2015, with their four children having stepped into adulthood and 40 years of marriage behind them, the O’Connors rode out of the suburbs and into a 13-month escapade that took them 80,000km through 40 countries around the globe. Paul was 60 and Lee 58.
Their two KTM SMT-990 motorcycles were flown to Kuala Lumpur and they set off north through Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and to China where it was necessary to have a guide across the Silk Road to the “Stans”, Iran and Turkey and into Europe.
From there it was across to Spain and a ferry to Plymouth in England and then a flight to Halifax in Nova Scotia.
They rode across Canada to Vancouver and then turned south through Central America and into South America, finally leaving from Santiago to arrive back in Brisbane in May 2016.
“It was an endless summer,” Lee says. “Paul planned it all so we didn’t have to worry about the cold. We stayed in hotels in Asia where it’s cheap and started camping in Turkey and then in Europe. We were not tourists but took the road less travelled. We avoided the big cities but rode 20 alpine passes.”
They would ride for five days and then take a day or two off, although Lee says it only takes three days to “get a worn-in bum”.
They didn’t go to the Isle of Man in the end. It didn’t fit with their schedule and would have meant rushing.
Highlights were China and Peru and the lowlight was in Mexico when Lee came off her bike and it fell on top of her, pinning her leg.
“There were roadworks and it had poured rain all night so it was like soup,” she says. “I was in front at the time so had to wait for Paul to come along. My ankle was crushed. It was a pivotal moment.”
They had to deviate to pick up parts and it slowed them down but they “slogged on” through Central and South America to Peru, finding it hard to adapt back to Third World travel.
“We were also getting travel weary so we struggled in Mexico,” Lee says. “We were able to continue but it was just tougher.”
The hardest ride was on the rough roads of Tajikistan and there’s no doubt that riding a bike gives quite a different perspective of a sandstorm in the Gobi Desert, but Lee puts it this way: “In a car, it’s like being at the movies watching it through a screen. On a bike, you are in the movie”.
She blogged the journey and since settling back at home, says it feels like they have “taken a giant chill pill”.
They have written a book about their adventures, We Did It Our Way chronicling the journey with anecdotes and lots of photographs “so the armchair traveller can come along for the ride” but it also provides the budgets, mileages, the best roads and tips and tricks for all the people wanting to know “how can we do it”.
It’s a hard journey to match but at the end of the month Lee and Paul, now semi-retired, are off again, this time for a more sedate trip around New Zealand for five months.
“The kids are really proud of us,” Lee says.