Two National Seniors members from Melbourne spent 19 months exploring Europe on their motor bike. They shared recollections of the many roads well-travelled with editor Lynda Schekoske.
It comes as no surprise to learn that Jo and John Spencer are fans of Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, who is as well known for his epic motorcycle journeys around the world as he is for his movie credits.
Their retirement journey easily rivals that of McGregor and his mate Charley Boorman from London to New York, which inspired the television documentary Long Way Round.
But their odyssey took them from the northern tip of Norway to the underground cities and fairy chimney rock formations of Turkey’s Cappadocia region, and countless places in between.
They had no specific plan – apart from landing themselves and their Suzuki 650 V-Strom in Athens in 2015 and the hope of being able to spend the six months of winter in the Polish capital of Warsaw.
They left Australia with no itinerary, no accommodation bookings, and minimal luggage, but armed with a great sense of adventure, “plenty of smiles”, a desire to see what was around the next corner, and a willingness to learn the magic words of “hello, goodbye and thank you” in every country they visited.
Those simple phrases worked a charm: the Spencers were welcomed warmly in all 40 of the countries they visited and made many new and lasting friendships along the way.
“People were so friendly and we had so many invitations to stay, which we took up,” Jo said. “Our kids would be horrified at some of the things we did and places we went. People would say ‘come’ and we would – but you’d get a feeling if it was safe or not.
“We met such lovely people and now have a network of friends around Europe.
“In the Ukraine, people were so surprised to learn that we’d travelled all the way from Australia, and so unused to tourists, they would put their hand over their heart and thank us for visiting their country.”
Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, Greece, Estonia, Germany, Kosovo, Serbia and Slovakia were also on their list of countries visited, along with Czechia, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta and Moldova, and dozens more.
The many photographs (just some of the 64,000 shots captured during their trip) and entries on their blog jnjspencertravels.com reveal the highlights. Among them the spectacular snow-capped heights of Switzerland’s Matterhorn and the Jungfraujoch, known as the Top of Europe, which they reached aboard the historic cogwheel train.
Captured, too, is the high-speed action of the legendary Isle of Man TT, where competitors’ bikes regularly become airborne on the normally quiet country and village roads and Jo and John met enthusiasts from around the globe.
Germany’s most popular tourist route, the Romantic Road, delivers the medieval walled village of Rothenburg, that perches atop a plateau overlooking the Tauber River.
The inspiration for Walt Disney’s Pinocchio film, it was spared by from destruction at the end of World War II because of its unique beauty.
John is pictured at the famous Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, with a floral wreath in honour of his grandfather, Reg Holloway, who fought with the Australian infantry 3rd Pioneer Battalion during World War I.
In another tribute to their ancestors, John and Jo visited the Scottish town of Tobermory, capital of the Isle of Mull, from where Jo’s great, great, great grandfather was transported to the New South Wales penal colony for stealing 15 guineas.
So enraptured were the Spencers by the winter wonderland of Warsaw, they are planning to return in early 2018. It will be their first holiday in many years that hasn’t involved taking their own wheels.
“In January, we’ll pop over to Poland for a couple of months to catch up with all our friends. We love the winter there,” John said, “even though it means leaving the bike in the garage. The temperatures get down to minus 20, the rivers freeze over, and people skate and fish on the ice. But we love it.”
John’s other love affair - with dirt, adventure and road riding - began more than 40 years ago, when he helped found the Koo Wee Rup and District Motorcycle Club, south-east of Melbourne, Victoria. While Jo’s enthusiasm is as strong, it does not extend to taking the controls – she is happy on the pillion seat where her comfort level is such that she’s even been known to take the occasional nap.
Jo, a former emergency department nurse and occupational health professional, and John, who supervised lab testing at the Holden Lang Lang Proving Ground for 45 years before retiring, had toured New Zealand and Europe several times by motorbike before their recent 19-month odyssey.
During the trip, Jo was only called on to use her nursing skills twice: first in Norway where she gave first aid to a cyclist who’d come off his push bike; and once to John, on a bumpy back lane in Ireland.
“We were on the west coast and It was a cold, wet day, as Ireland usually is,” John said. “There was a lot of water on one side of the track but as I put the bike over the hump in the middle, we went down.
“In the process, the mirror clocked me on the nose. There wasn’t a mark on the bike but Jo had to clean my face up.”
The couple are already planning another motorcycle marathon. Mid next year they will lap Australia, starting in Melbourne and heading west to Western Australia before heading north along the coastline, then across to Darwin. That’s about as far as the five-month itinerary has developed.
Their final words of advice to would-be travellers, especially retirees?
“Just do it now, keep it simple, and don’t overpack,” Jo said.
This article by Lynda Schekoske originally appeared in the September/October/November 2017 edition of 50 something magazine.