Icon: Helge Pedersen's Life Aboard A BMW GS

Thirty years on two wheels

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Helge Pedersen Archives

All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost-J.R.R. Tolkien

He sold everything that wouldn't fit on a motorcycle named Olga-the second 1981 BMW R80 GS exported to his native Norway-and left. No exalted goals. No idea when or even if he'd be back. Just curiosity and a willingness to learn whatever the world might have to teach him. If the 27-year-old riding away from Kristiansand in '82 had any idea what sort of lessons lay in store, he might never have left. How to commemorate being in China and Pakistan at the same time while riding alone without freezing to death, for instance, all without making Chinese border guards suspicious back when riding your motorcycle into their country officially would cost $50,000.

"My dream was to enter China," Pedersen says, "but at that time it was almost impossible to take a foreign-registered motorcycle into the communist country. I struggled for two days just to get to the border. My passport had been detained at a military post outside Gilgit, Pakistan, to make sure that I would not leave the country. It was still winter in the high Himalayas and the border was officially closed. I don't think those soldiers back at the post envisioned that I would be able to ride all the way up that steep pass through the snow and ice. I felt triumphant when I reached the border. On the way back, I made up a story about a mechanical breakdown to cover the extra riding time.

"Feeling good about my adventure, I took a chance and rode a little further, crossing the border and actually riding my bike in China. The place was abandoned. All I could see were some old tire tracks in the snow leading down the valley. In all the excitement, I didn't realize I had been riding downhill on a snow-covered road, but all of a sudden it hit me: I needed to turn around and ride back up the same steep hill. After letting some more air out of my tires to get better grip, I finally made it back to the border. It wasn't until then that I remembered to take a photo of the event. Camera stuck in the snow and self-timer activated, I posed with one foot on Olga and the other on the border post. That night it was so cold in my tent that all my water bottles froze solid."

More than 250,000 miles later, Helge had rolled through a total of 77 countries-including China. He'd ridden in a Kenyan army convoy for protection from Somali guerillas; watched Japan's Sakurajima Volcano erupt after pitching his little green tent; spent a day in a Yemeni jail while soldiers confirmed his existence; woke up with saltwater crocodiles in Australia's Kakadu National Park; became the first rider to enter South America via 80 miles of formerly impenetrable Panamanian jungle called the Darien Gap; and met the love of his life, a.k.a. his wife Karen, not far from his current home/office near Seattle.

Returning to Norway in September of '92, Helge recorded the journey for the rest of us in Ten Years on 2 Wheels, a book that has inspired at least as many people to follow in his tire tracks as 30 years of Olga's adventurous ancestors. Recently re-released after going out of print, the third edition is now available for $48 from www.touratech-usa.com. The moral of the story? Reading is fundamental, but adventure is an active verb, as in go have one of your own.

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