Simon Gandolfi photographed by Levon Biss
Why would an apparently sane, slightly deaf Englishman in his 80th year, with an idyllic cottage in Herefordshire, five grown-up children, seven grandchildren, a wife nearly 30 years his junior, and an ‘inconvenient’ heart condition that has brought him close to death twice since his early sixties, set out to motorcycle around the world on a Honda 125?
‘My wife gets very bored with me hanging about,’ he explains. ‘I owe it to a much younger partner to get out from under her feet. I don’t have a right to be old and to be looked after. And I suspect that my sons find me an embarrassment. I am often mistaken for their granddad.
‘I suppose it’s an attempt to prove to myself and my family that I can hack it, and to show others of my age that solo travel remains possible and is an enlivening experience.’
Simon will celebrate his 80th birthday next February somewhere in Thailand, almost certainly astride what he calls his ‘pizza delivery bike’ on a dusty road stretching into the far horizon. He will be wearing a battered old blue motorcycle suit and his trusty Church’s shoes. (‘I was brought up to believe that you should always wear good shoes. These are 28 years old.’)
His choice of motorcycle is unusual. Why not a bigger, more comfortable and more powerful machine? ‘If a bandit sees an old fool coming along on a small bike wearing a dustbin liner and a pair of old shoes, he’s going to think you’re not worth much,’ he points out. ‘Also it does 120 miles to the gallon, you can pick it up when you fall off, and you can get spare parts anywhere in the world.’
The author of ten novels and four travel books, including Old Man on a Bike, he scoffs at the thought of an itinerary. ‘Sorry, I don’t do timetables. I just turn up.’ Simon has been turning up since he started the first of his three marathon bike rides seven years ago, when he rode more than 16,000 miles from Mexico to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. If he succeeds in this latest venture, he’ll be the oldest biker to have ridden around the world.
He was born in England in 1933, and sent to the Catholic boarding school Ampleforth aged six. ‘I was educated by Basil (later Cardinal) Hume and he was the first person I met who actually had an “aura”. I’ve been fascinated by people ever since, and I actively seek out the company of those who interest and stimulate me. You meet a lot of them travelling, which is another reason why I do it,’ he says. ‘I simply love meeting people.’
He left school at 16 and found himself in a succession of adventurous occupations – a sort of latter-day British Hemingway. In fact, although he insists otherwise, it almost seems as if he deliberately set out to live as colourful a life as possible in order to provide material for his subsequent books. (‘It just happened.’) At various times he has been a farmer in South Africa, a soldier, a merchant seaman, a crocodile hunter, a charter yacht skipper, an Ibizan hedonist (‘can’t remember much of that…’), but it is as a writer and traveller that he has found his true vocation. After living in Cuba, he journeyed through the Somali and Ogaden deserts for the UN, and he rode with the Mujahideen through Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.
Does he find it dull staying at home? ‘On the contrary. Travel makes you value home,’ he insists. ‘I’m often asked which country I like most, and I always give the same answer. The view from my garden in Herefordshire is as good as you can find anywhere in the world, especially from the back of a ride-on mower. I love mowing. It’s much better than being on a bike.’
But his fondness for his homeland does not preclude him from stating (and writing) firmly held opinions about Britain’s global status. ‘Many of us really don’t realise what people think about us. Well, I’ll tell you. They think of us as a vassal state (of the USA). We’re sullied by it. I find it very hard that I am unable to defend my country. But I get asked the same question a lot when I’m travelling in the so-called Third World. “What is happening to your country?” they ask. I know I’m a bit of a Blimp, but I look at the mess in Iraq and things like Abu Ghraib, and I get so angry about our Government’s complicity.’
His evident anger evokes an oddly endearing mental image of him fuming away about Britain’s ‘nation-building exploits’ as he putters across continents on his modest little bike.
‘One hates one’s own voice and having to listen to yourself fulminate for 19 hours or so on the road can get very tiresome,’ he admits. But his outrage is just as palpable here in the London hotel where we meet for a very English high tea and an equally English deconstruction of our political masters.
‘Do you speak Spanish?’ he asks suddenly, in his distinctively cut-glass accent. ‘It’s impossible to remain angry in Spanish. Indeed, even though I’m very English, I feel much happier speaking anything other than my mother tongue. Here I open my mouth and people assume that I vote Tory. I don’t. But the joy of speaking other languages is not being judged by your accent. To be honest, I’m a much nicer person in French or Spanish.’
He found his fluency in the latter particularly helpful when he had one of a series of accidents riding through South America. At the start of the second stage of his journey from Tierra del Fuego to New York, his leg was badly broken when he was hit by a truck as his bike was slithering around on snow and ice on the Chile/Argentina border. He slaps the same leg cheerfully as he points out that in fact he was hit by three trucks (the offending vehicle was carrying two others).
He guffaws at the memory. After recuperation in Tierra del Fuego, he set off again with his crutches strapped to the bike, meeting nothing but kindness, generosity and compassion at every point along his journey through two continents.
What precautions, if any, will he take on his next great adventure? ‘Stick to reasonable roads, avoid anything called “The Road of Death” and treat everybody with the same courtesy and respect you’d like to be shown yourself,’ he replies. ‘The only thing that worries me is the ATM eating my plastic.’
His route isn’t set in stone, although he plans to start and end in Delhi, initially heading through south east Asia. How long will it take him? ‘Depends how many accidents I have,’ he replies blithely, adding that it shouldn’t take more than a year, including accidents. And what are his plans when he returns from his epic 25,000 mile-plus journey on his pizza bike?
‘Apart from mowing?’ he asks. ‘One day I plan to get my full motorcycle licence. But to be truthful, I don’t even like bikes.’
Follow simon on www.simongandolfi.com
Old Man on a Bike (The Friday Project, £8.99) is available at a discount from sagabookshop.co.uk.
Getting on your bike and getting your exploits into print is the thing to do. These are some of the best motorcycling sagas around
Touching the World
Cathy Birchall and Bernard Smith
The extraordinary story of Cathy Birchall, a blind woman who, with companion Bernard Smith, set off on an 18-year-old BMW R100 motorcycle to become the first blind person to circle the world by bike. (Panther Publishing, £12.99). Buy this book at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
One man, 27 countries, 20,000 miles, and he’s left his map behind. What’s more, Mike had never ridden a bike before he took off. (Ebury Press, £7.99). Buy this book at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
Long Way Round
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman
Two actors ride around the world, with a camera crew and support unit in close attendance. (Sphere, £9.99). Buy this book at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
Lois on the Loose
One secret ‘biker babe’, one motorcycle, 20,000 miles across the Americas. (Arrow, £8.99). Buy this book at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
Short Way Up
Five thousand solo miles on a Fifties Ariel through Southern Africa as Steve qualifies for his bus pass. (Haynes, £19.99). Buy this book at a discount from Saga Bookshop.
This interview originally appeared in Saga Magazine. For more fascinating articles like this, delivered direct to your doorstep each month, subscribe today.