Monday, August 02, 2010

Book Review: Around the World on a Motorcycle

Here's another book review of a book I received from, a travelogue made by two Hungarian men, during the "epidemic of world travel efforts" in Europe in the late 1920s.  Note, all text in italics are quotes from the book,

Zoltan Sulkowsky and Gyula Bartha are the young men of this story and they're joined in Paris (where they buy the Harley Davidson motorcycle and sidecar that was their steed) by Mimmy, an artist with a similar wanderlust as Zoltan and Gyula.  

The idea to ride around the world is born on a park bench in Milan after fruitless efforts to find "real work" there.  Influenced by some of the varying clientele in the local Hungarian Club/ Mr Rosenfield's little pub, the germ of the idea came about due to:  The club was also the favorite meeting place of a curious, bohemian caste of young men who took nothing in life seriously, a special breed of globetrotters.  They wandered from country to country, city to city, or simply the streets of Milan and made their money by selling their own photographs and samples of their correspondence.

Their travels start in Paris and make it down to Africa, riding west to east along the top end of that continent and end up in Egypt as a trio.  At this point however, they return to Hungary by way of Turkey due to logistics and travel restrictions and to drop off Mimmy who was ailing from sickness and couldn't continue traveling with them.

scanned photo from the book

The pair of adventurers continue onward, now with a German Sheperd for company through the subcontinent of India, alas their poor dog, Hadji,  does not make it past India and they're forced to continue on without it into the far east.

There are not a lot of pictures illustrating their travels, in fact, it was not till about this point in the book that I realized their sidecar was now mounted "English style" with it running on the tug's left side.  To make up for it though, Zoltan is very descriptive in his written descriptions of their rides through the varying countries, the encounters with people along the way and their observations of life in each country.  I found it quite interesting to compare their impressions of the political/social/cultural life in each country and compare it against what I've learned or know of the same.

Australia is the next stop after the Indian subcontinent and here they spent quite a portion of the book going on about the "sameness" of Australian homes and towns, the sometimes unbearable attitude exhibited by the Aussies that their country was the best, or that their particular city was the greatest.  Oh, and they managed to ride through the continent without once seeing a kangaroo apparently!

 photo scanned from book

Another ongoing theme is there seeking out and getting acquainted with fellow Hungarians as they ride about the world, seemingly never failing to find one or two and sometimes many expatriates.  Along with seeking fellow countrymen, they also kept their eyes open for wild game to hunt!  Their prize animal ended up being a large tiger in Java which they shot at night by aiming at the reflections of its eyes in the light of their motorcycle's headlight.

Their travels through the rest of Asia become vignettes of their glimpses into each culture they ride through.  They survive and encounter with bandits in China, admire Korean cleanliness, visit Siam while it was still named Siam and finally undergo "slight disappointment" in Japan.

 photo scanned from book

photo scanned from book

Japan is their last Asian country, from there it's a long boat ride to the United States which they travel through at the beginning of the Great Depression.  Their views and observations of life during the Depression and during the Prohibition Era were quite enlightening to me as a history major.  Still, they ride through most of the car-navigable portions of the US, seeing the major sights and cities but all in the space of a few pages in the book.

Mexico came and went across a few pages, the notable mentions being terrible roads and learning to survive on tortillas and beans.  The sight of their motorcycle always drew crowds as it was the first one the rural Mexicans had apparently seen.  They later elect to visit Cuba and after overcoming some border control "issues", manage to ride around Cuba during its heydays as a hot tourist destination for Americans and others.

They bypassed the Central American countries by taking a boat from Cuba to Panama.  Just as well I think since this was way before the concept of the Pan-American Highway was even thought of!  It's not exactly great roadways today, it would have been a pure slogging struggle for them during the early 1930s!

Our hardy pair and their dog spent quite a few days touring the Panama Canal and the surrounding areas.  They apparently were not impressed with the deportment of US soldiers and sailors in the local Panamanian towns when off duty.  Zoltan does go into a couple of pages worth of details on how ships are transported through the canal, so if you've ever wondered.....

Ongoing wars during the early thirties between South American countries dictated their entry point into the South American continent, and traveling south without the modern aid of GPS or heck, accurate maps would prove quite the challenge.  There were apparently, no national roadways, no national maps and the local folks did not wander far from their homes. Roads were basically trails to be negotiated via donkey or horse, not cars!

 photo scanned from book

They finish off their ride through six continents, 68 countries and over 170,000 Kilometers in a period of eight years.  Their final days speeding their way homeward to Hungary, racking up the last few European countries along the way.  Theirs was truly an epic journey, done in a long bygone era where the present resources and comforts available to modern world riders did not exist.

 photo scanned from book

A very nice read for Harley Davidson owners to take pride on, for world rider wannabes like me to ponder on, for travelogue fans with a historical bent to learn on, a book just about for anyone with a lust for travel down paths least traveled or on modes unusual.

Note: If you end up getting this book in part due to this review, let the folks at know will you?


Chris Luhman said...

Reminds me of "One Man Caravan" He rode a Douglas twin around the world in the 1930s.

PS: Did you get permission to scan the photos? I'd hate to see you get into a bind for copywright issues.

Charlie6 said...

Hi Chris, re the scans, I checked with the folks at and so long as I attribute, they thought it was OK, after all it's to promote the book.

RE One Man Caravan, these guys did it before he did. I reviewed that book here.

Robert E. Fulton Jr, who wrote "One Man Caravan" followed up his book with a movie of the film footage he show while riding around the world: LINK

cheers and thanks for your comments.


Gary France said...

Wow, that really is a great way to see the world. Doing it back then must have been a real challenge, both mechanically and in the facilities available to them along the way. Just cell phone, no GPS, no mobile internet to find hotels - what a great way to do it!