A tale of adventurous travellers and travel adventures
Lee and Paul O’Connor have written a book, aptly titled We Did It Our Way. In this book they tell the wonderful story of their travel adventures – one year on motorcycles, travelling 80,000km through 40 countries.
Now I must explain here that Paul and Lee are not bikies, or itinerant workers, or any other preconceived image you might have of motorcycle riding travellers. He’s an engineer; she’s an artist. They owned a well known art gallery and Lee taught art in Brisbane for years. Together they have 4 (now adult) children and have been married for 42 years.
So how did these travel adventures on motorcycles come about?
Lee and Paul both grew up in rural NZ. They met in Auckland while Paul was studying to be an engineer. Lee was only 20 when they were married and travelled to Australia by cruise ship, a big adventure at that time. They bought a combi and explored Australia, then Paul got an engineering job in Gladstone. For four years they lived in regional Queensland. This enabled them to save and in 1983 they embarked on their first round-the-world holiday. Their travel adventures at this time included the Trans-Siberian railway and driving across the USA.
Impacted by the market crash of 1987
Back in New Zealand, with four children and a successful construction business, life was pretty busy by 1987. But the stock market crash that year was disastrous to their business. They emigrated to Australia and Paul worked predominantly in fly-in-fly-out jobs for years as they re-established themselves financially.
Their love affair with motorcycles went back to their early days together, when riding some sort of motorcycle was a common transport for university students in Auckland. Over the years they both owned motorcycles and always enjoyed having travel adventures with friends.
In 2013 Paul went to work in Malaysia and although he was working very long hours he got to know a group of keen motorcycle travellers. Their plan was to undertake a group ride through China to the UK.
Lee and Paul loved the idea, bought new bikes and made plans to travel. But when the group changed plans and postponed their journey, the O’Connors decided to do the trip on their own.
Adventurous travel requires a carefully planned itinerary and logistics
Nobody took their plans very seriously until they actually set a date and told people that they were going to ride their bikes around the world.
They flew their bikes to Malaysia, then rode through Thailand and Laos to get to China. China required all travellers to have a guide. To comply they organised to be met at the border by a guide and small tour group, travelling with three other riders so that they could share the costs through China. Travelling through the “Stans”, in particular, required a lot of red tape, but Paul had organised all that in advance. When they parted company with their fellow travellers they rode through Iran to London. Their motorbikes were flown from London to Nova Scotia and they rode coast to coast across Canada. Then they went down through the USA to Mexico, Central America and South America
Lee and Paul loved their travel adventures in China. The people they met were wonderful and Lee said the local food was ‘out of the park’. Their guide was a bit of a foodie, as Lee is, and he introduced them to food from all 56 of the minority groups that are in China. The scenery was magnificent and so varied. At one stage they even rode through a sandstorm in the Gobi desert. They saw the ‘proper’ Great Wall, not the part of the Great Wall that most tourists get to see. Their greatest highlight in China was a lake that they saw just before they left the country. Even their well travelled guide had never been to this lake before.
When they left Tucson to go to Mexico they encountered a long area of road works. It had been raining heavily and it was a quagmire. They didn’t know how long it would go on for. Lee felt she couldn’t manage it safely but there was no going back so she got back on the bike and kept going. Not long after, a car came around the corner and she ended up pinned under the aluminium pannier of a 220 kilogram motorbike. People drove past, afraid of being stuck in the mud. Fortunately, Paul was behind her at this stage and was able to lift the bike off her. It was a serious injury requiring an X-ray, which meant an ambulance to the border of the USA and then another ambulance to the hospital.
But what to do with the bikes?
Paul somehow managed to get the bikes securely locked in a jail cell at the local police station, on the promise that he would come back and collect the motorbikes and pay $500 USD for storage.
Lee’s ankle was not broken but was still damaged when they left 10 days later. She found it very difficult to use the brake. Riding became painful and tiring. That time was the lowest point for their holiday. Her leg was painful and she was exhausted at the end of every day because of the pain. They were dealing constantly with third world conditions. Both of them were very tired from travelling for so long and were not enjoying themselves. They had discussed that this might happen and had agreed to go home if it became too much. But Lee said they are both resilient and stubborn people who didn’t want to give up. They are now very glad that they did keep going.
The dangerous elements of adventurous travel
Traveling near Iraq
After leaving China they traveled through the west of Iran and were only 12 kilometres from Iraq. The military presence there was very obvious, sometimes off in the distance, sometimes suddenly appearing near them. And yet they didn’t feel threatened.
Turkey refugee camps
Travelling through Turkey they were very close to refugee camps. They saw what was going on there, but fortunately they were not endangered in any way.
In Colombia they were warned about a particular road that was known as a drug highway, with a definite high level of danger. There was strong military presence on the road and again they didn’t encounter any problems.
In fact the place that they felt most unsafe was in the north of Mexico where drug running is rife and guns everywhere. As Lee said, riding your bike behind a truck where everybody has their guns pointed out of the truck is very unnerving. They lived to tell the tale!
How many summers do you have left?
Paul was recently asked “How do you come down from that?” They both feel that you really don’t ever come down from such an adventure. It changes you forever, and you never see things quite the same way.
Now they are on a mission to jam everything into the next 10 years. They feel that between the ages of 65 and 75 you really need to make a list of what you want to do. 65 to 70 they see as being the absolute crucial period for doing the big adventures and then from 70 to 75 doing the other things that you want to do. So of course I asked what they were going to do in their retirement
Covid-19 has stopped the O’Connors planned motorcycle adventure through Italy and Greece this year, so it may be rescheduled to 2021. They’re definitely planning a month riding through Africa and are looking forward to returning to the USA again because of the outstanding motorcycle routes. Walks in Tasmania are high on their agenda, and they’ve already purchased a camper and kayaks to enhance this next part of their very active life. There’s no stopping these adventurous travellers.
We wish them many more adventures and look forward to reading We Did It Our Way which is available from their website BikesnBeers.
Paul and Lee enjoy speaking for clubs and events, often taking their bikes along as props. Don’t hesitate to contact them if this would interest your group. You can message Lee on 0411 692 788.