A review of “Dreaming of Jupiter” by Ted Simon.

Summary: 25 years after he first set off around the world on a bike, Ted Simon goes off at the age of 70 to do it all again, this time on a BMW. But the result is still a Triumph. 

Dreaming of Jupiter is a must read for anyone who has read Jupiter’s Travels (I reviewed it here), Ted Simon’s classic account of how he spent 4 years going around the world on a motorbike in the mid-1970s. In large part this later book takes its prompts from the earlier one by trying to answer the essential question: just how much has the world changed in the intervening time?

This time around Simon had family ties to bear in mind, so instead of 4 years, this second journey took a ‘mere’ 2 and half. That’s still no mean feat at any stage of life, but at 70 that’s still noteworthy.

The main difference between this book and its predecessor is that it has a far brisker and more businesslike tone to it. It’s inevitable that if you’re going somewhere again for a second time, then you’re going to want to find out what’s remained the same, whether your memories still bear any resemblance to the reality, and whether any of the people you met first time around are still where you encountered them first time around and still  remember you. The desire to answer questions like these give the book a sort of spine and plenty of ‘drive’ as it were.

While the narrative never becomes unbalanced by the inevitable jaded views in the face of irrevocable and inevitable change, there are points where Simon readily admits that his disappointment overwhelmed him. In Phuket in Thailand, for example, his memories of the paradise it was in the 70’s jarred terribly with the sight of the crowded and commercialised resort it has become. Bureaucracy is another complaint he has compared to the relatively straightforward nature of crossing borders back in the 70s (although this was never that simple in all cases if the original book is anything to go by). Sitting in an Indian customs office trying to arrange for his bike to be airfreighted to Turkey, Simon admits to wanting the journey over right there and then, so ground down was he by the endless form filling and buck passing.

These remain isolated moments, though. As with his account of the first journey, Simon concentrates on the stand-out experiences that he had along the way, and these seem to have been overwhelmingly good. Above all there are a number of very warm and heartening descriptions of meeting up again with people he’d met the first time around, a good number of whom it seems were inspired by their meeting with this inspirational stranger on a motorbike.

There are of course also plenty of new people he meets along the way second time around, many of whom enter the picture when Simon is in need of help. Modern BMW’s are no more immune than their 70’s Triumph counterparts to the hammering that the varied roads of the world can dish out, and there are the familiar accounts of difficulties with the bike and the terrain. For good measure Simon also managed to break bones on two separate occasions on his second trip.

To re-enforce the notion of perhaps the most significant way the world has changed politically in the intervening decades, as recurring motif towards the end of the book sees Simon describe watching the TV at some of the places he stops towards the end of the trip, watching CNN chart the build up to the second Bush/ Blair driven invasion of Iraq.

The final chapter and the epilogue of this book is well worth pondering in detail, in order to get the thoughts and reflections of this well-travelled, urbane and wise man. In Simon’;s case, travel undoubtedly seems to have broadened the mind, but it has narrowed his focus as to what ails the mankind and the planet. Overall he seems to be saying that as a race we seem to lurch from one disaster to another and seem collectively determined to reach the final end which is our own (and the planet’s) oblivion.

But- and it remains a very big but- he retains faith in the goodness and essential helpfulness of people, as shown in the many good and kind people he has met on both journeys around the world.

On a lighter note, I can confirm that this book is every bit as dangerous as Jupiter’s Travels, in that it will make you want to go out and get a motorbike licence if you haven;’t got one already, just in case you ever get chance to travel in Jupiter’s tyre tracks.

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Ted Simon’s Triumph. A Review of “Jupiter’s Travels” by Ted Simon

Jupiter’s Travels, about Ted Simon’s round the world motorbike journey over four years in the early-mid 70’s, is a justly famous and widely-read book.

As Simon has discovered over the years (documented in, among other places, the opening pages of his follow up book from the early 2000’s, Dreaming of Jupiter) the original book not only proved to be very popular among armchair travellers, but also inspired scores of people to get out of the house, get on their bikes and see the world for themselves. I count myself through circumstances as very much in the former armchair category at present, but who knows? I’m still younger than Simon was when he made his first journey (he was in the his early 40’s) and I’ve always fancied owning a Triumph. The idea of seeing more of the world has always appealed. Mind you, I bet the wife and kids would have a lot to say about it if I suddenly upped sticks and took four years to go around the world like Simon did.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times and with no dependents to keep him at home, Simon set off from England in an uncertain frame of mind, unsure as to whether he was doing the right thing or was just plain mad. These moments of doubt and self questioning are beautifully captured in the book’s opening, along with the more practical parts, which are no less interesting,  about how he learned to ride a motorbike (he was a total novice rider when the idea for the journey occurred to him) and from there started gathering the equipment together for his marathon trek.

His journey through Europe and down through Italy is dealt with in relatively few pages, and it’s when he hits Africa that the prose starts to flow and the vista well and truly opens up. I have read Jupiter’s Travels twice before, and every time I have been utterly captivated by Simon’s descriptions of his passage through that Continent. This is a great book overall, but for me I think it reaches its peak early on. Of particular interest are his descriptions of trying to negotiate roads which aren’t really roads at all, and at times seem like they’d struggle to deserve the description of dirt track. It’s at times like these I got the clearest sense of what a stupendous undertaking this journey (and all others like this) was and is. It really was Simon and his Triumph Tiger out on their own, against the world. If either of them failed then, at certain times in certain places such as out in the desert, it really would have been the end of both of them.

Say what you like about the supposed shortcomings of British workmanship, but that stalwart Triumph is one of the stars of this book. Simon’s relationship with it is clearly one based on respect, although as is to be expected the book is peppered with scenes in garages or stuck on the roadside while various running repairs or even full-scale overhauls are performed. But the bike not only survived but served with distinction, and currently resides in the Coventry Transport Museum (see here for more info).

A curious thing has happened every time I have read this book. After the wonderful sense of freedom and momentum built up when reading of his successful crossing of Africa, the tone changes the moment after crossing the Atlantic that Simon lands in Fortaleza, Brazil. It’s not that the writing flags, but because of the almost total contrast with what has gone before, the narrative does hit a sticky patch of sorts for the simple reason that it was while in Brazil (then under military rule) that Simon was held for a time in police custody. He describes his sense at the time of how much like touch-and-go it seemed as to whether he’d ever be released or not. In the end he made it out, to enjoy a spell of r and r in Rio which is described in detail, after which his way though the rest of Brazil and Argentina is glossed over somewhat. The narrative then goes on to focus in detail on his journey back up the central and eastern parts of South America through the Andes, much of which he made in the company of two Frenchmen who had their own four-wheeled transport.

Central America and then the USA follow, where Simon made a long stop at a kind of commune in Northern California. Once in Australia we get some of the most interesting and perceptive descriptions of people. Simon makes no bones of the fact that he arrived Down Under with a head full of preconceptions and stereotypes about the kind of folk he’d find there, but these are largely dispelled by the interesting assortment of people he encountered, and there are some keenly observed character sketches of the truckers among whom he spent an enforced spell while waiting for the floodwaters of swollen rivers to subside while heading up the East Coast.

After Australia comes the far east, and the centrepiece of this section of Jupiter’s Travels are his travels in India, again a time of fateful encounters and much spiritual rumination about his own nature, and the nature of his journey. One thing that struck me when I first read this book more than ten years ago, and which still strikes me when I read it, is that it could be some time yet before the journey he made overland from Pakistan back into Turkey can be made so relatively safely again. Of course there are ways and means even today, but in some ways the World was a more certain place back then.

Packed full of insight, colourful characters, a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world and a general joie de vivre, I highly recommend Jupiter’s Travels. You don’t have to be a member of the Triumph Owners’ Club or a long distance motorbiker to enjoy it, but be warned: reading the book could well turn you into either one or the other, and possibly both.