HER STORY | Heather Ellis

HER STORY | Heather Ellis

Her Story. A series of blog posts telling the stories of 'women who ride' from all corners of the globe. We hope that by sharing these stories we can help encourage other women to build their confidence, learn from others and inspire others.

This month we have a story from author and adventurer Heather Ellis. Heather is a very accomplished woman in both career and in life and I am sure once you read Heather's story you will agree that she is an inspiration to all women.

We hope you enjoy her story.

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Hi, my name is Heather Ellis. I’m the author of the travel memoir, Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa (Nero/Black Inc. 2016). It is based on my motorcycle ride on a Yamaha TT600 through Africa riding 42,000 kilometres through nineteen countries from February 1993 to July 1994. I’m now 52 and live in Healesville with my three boys aged twelve and twins aged nine, at the base of the Australian Yarra Ranges where some of the world’s best motorcycling roads are right on my door step. My latest motorcycle is a Triumph Thruxton 900cc. Once fitted with Öhlins suspension, it is a dream bike that’s perfect through the twisties as well as in city traffic.

I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was eight years old when my parents moved us to Ingomar, my uncle and aunt’s sheep station in South Australia. While my parents mined opal near Coober Pedy, my brother and I and our four cousins literally lived on our Honda Z50 mini bikes. We would park our bikes outside the station’s little school, and rather than play tiggy during lunch breaks, we’d be riding around the home paddock. And during shearing season, we’d be mustering sheep. Those early years riding through scrub and sand were the perfect training ground, as twenty years later I encountered these same conditions in Africa.

After Ingomar, we moved to the east coast and I swapped motorcycles for a horse (just for a few years). At 17, when I finished high school, I moved to the Northern Territory, to Jabiru on the fringe of Kakadu National Park, to join my parents as my father worked at the Ranger uranium mine. Instead of a car, I bought a Honda 185XL. The local policeman, mates with my dad, issued my motorcycle licence on the spot. A motorcycle was the perfect vehicle to explore Kakadu.

Two years later, cashed up from the mine, I backpacked around Europe, Israel and Egypt. I returned to the uranium mine with the intention of earning the money to do it all again, but landed a great job as a radiation safety technician. I bought a Yamaha 250XT, and spent weekends exploring Kakadu’s hidden gorges. Six years later, as I approached thirty, I felt restless and earned for more - earned for more meaning beyond life in a small mining town.

It was understandable then that I was destined to have one of those light bulb moments. It was a Sunday afternoon at a backyard barbeque when I blurted out to friends: ‘wouldn’t it be great to travel Africa by motorcycle. While I’d ridden motorcycles, on and off, for most of my life, I’d never travelled on one other than weekend camping trips in Kakadu. I had no mechanical skills having always had my dad, my brother and later, mechanically-minded boyfriends, maintain and fix my bikes. It was this lack of knowledge that caused me the most fear about my trip in those early days of planning. But the idea to travel Africa by motorcycle, was one that gripped my very soul and nothing would deter me, not even the barrage of doubts from friends and work mates from the mine. From my travels though, I soon learnt the basics of motorcycle mechanics and today service all my own bikes.

I bought a new Yamaha TT600. It was completely unsuitable for me as I couldn’t touch the ground and had to have a good amount of foam cut from the seat. I solved the problem of ‘numb bum’ by placing an inflated wine cask bladder under the sheep skin I’d tied to the seat. When I needed to touch the ground, I de-inflate it. This was before the gel seat pads that we have today! My TT was a kick start, but with automatic decompression I soon mastered the art of starting this beast. And it proved to be the perfect bike for Africa as its single cylinder big bore engine had more than enough grunt to carry me and my gear up over mountain roads, through mud and sand and over rocks on roads that resembled goat tracks. With a dry weight of 120kg, it was also light enough, once I’d off-loaded my luggage, to cross rivers in a canoe or be hoisted up on top of a truck or train. I also fitted a 21 litre Acerbis petrol tank which, depending on quality of fuel, gave me a range of 450 kilometres.

My TT600 was the very last of the pure enduro models and before KTM, the TT600 was the bike of choice for the Paris Dakar. With its deep, almost primeval sound that says power and strength, this bike became my companion, my loyal friend, my protector and it never failed me. Realistically, I should have chosen a smaller, lighter bike. The TT350 had nearly the same power as the 600 but would have been much easier to ride. But I didn’t question my choice, because the TT600 felt right just as the idea to ride a motorcycle across Africa felt right.

Soon after that ‘light bulb’ moment, things started to fall in place. A series of coincidences occurred: I was given a dog-eared copy of Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels, which details his four-year motorcycle ride around the world. This was 1992, just before the internet took off, so Ted’s book was my only source of information about motorcycle travel. Today, there are websites, blogs, glossy magazines and many books dedicated to motorcycle travel. A few days later, a German motorcycle traveller who had recently ridden through Africa turned up on my door step and shared valuable advice. And on the day I bought the TT600, right there on the shop floor was a set of custom-made thick leather panniers and frame that with a few minor adjustments, fitted the TT perfectly. The panniers and frame had belonged to a Swiss motorcycle traveller who had just finished his ride around Australia. In my state of high euphoria about my impending adventure, I saw all this as a ‘sign’. It was the beginning of something magical that was to unfold as my journey progressed.

But this didn’t mean that I was free of niggling doubts. I still worried about what would happen if the bike broke down or I had an accident or I’d encounter some other disaster equally bad or worse. So it was with a sense of relief that two months before departure on Sunday, 7 February 1993 (a year almost to the day of that ‘light-bulb’ moment), that I had a travelling companion. He also worked at the uranium mine and even though we hardly knew each other, I thought our common desire to travel Africa would make us suitable travelling partners. Not so, and after five tension-filled months, we parted ways in Nairobi, Kenya. After that I was on my own and that is when this trip really began.

On my first day travelling alone in Kenya, I ended up taking a wrong turn on my way to the Maasai Mara Game Reserve and rode into a luxury safari camp. I rode in on a mud road just on dark and as the TT600 had a six-volt headlight, which is no better than a torch light, I couldn’t ride back out. I couldn’t sleep in my tent as there are no fences keeping the lions inside the reserve and I couldn’t afford to pay for a luxury banda. But help arrived and I was given somewhere to sleep and a hot meal. As motorcycles are not permitted in game reserves in most parts of Africa, the next morning I parked at the entrance and was soon invited to join a Spanish tourist group on a two-day game drive of the Maasai Mara. A few days later, at Lake Naivasha, I met a Japanese girl riding a very overloaded Suzuki FX200. It was her very first day of travelling alone in Africa and just like me in those early days, was so very unsure of herself. After a few days exploring the area, we both felt so much more confident when we each continued our own journeys – she to the south and I to the north.

Later that afternoon, I had my first puncture. Before my trip, fixing a flat was something I’d practised over and over again but that was months ago. I was miles from anywhere, in the middle of scrubland and it was almost dark, but I needn’t have worried as two Samburu warriors armed with spears appeared out of nowhere. Again help arrived in the form of the kindness of strangers. I have heard of so many travellers having similar experiences of help arriving just at that very point when they need it the most.

When you travel alone, there are no distractions and I believe when this happens, you begin to search for meaning in how events unfold. As my journey progressed, I began to search for meaning in the coincidences and chance encounters that came my way with frequent, almost daily, regularity. I soon began to accept these, which only fed my positive attitude. Because no harm ever came to me, I did not expect it to. Without another to ask: ‘should I go this way or that way, do this or that’, I relied on my intuition to help me make all my decisions. There was none of the influence from our western society, to put doubts in my head to say this was not real and so my intuition was allowed to develop and I learnt to trust in it. But this is not to say that I always made the right decisions. I was riding to Lake Turkana, an alkaline lake, which is surrounded by inhospitable desert and scrubland. My intention was to see the fossils of our early ancestors. I wanted to stand on that very spot where we all came from. But to do so, I was advised to take a guide and we negotiated a fee of US$150 which he would waiver if I took a short detour to search for sapphires. No more than 50 kilometres, he said, but it was an eight-day adventure that left us dehydrated and weak from hunger, until we reached the lake and were rescued by Turkana fisherman.

After surviving that experience, I questioned what I was doing in Africa risking my life. I questioned should I go home, but the moment I thought about doing that, I could not give up. My only thought was an overwhelming sense of expectation for my journey and what I would discover. I rode on through Uganda and across Zaire, one of the most difficult to travel and lawless countries on the planet. And while I encountered many challenges, wild and remote places, and extraordinary people on what became an odyssey across Africa, I was embraced by all. Given help when I needed it, food because I was hungry and a place to sleep because I was tired (I always preferred my tent than the mud and cow dung hut that would be offered). This was ubuntu. And became the title for my book as it encompassed the very essence of my journey.

I first came across the word ubuntu in South Africa. It is a word from the Bantu tribe. I heard it from a young African woman at a hostel in Cape Town. She was athletic and strong, with short black dreadlocks. ‘White woman, why you travel Africa?’ she’d asked me. Her voice demanded my attention, as if it were the voice of one who rallies others to fight, and I thought she may have something to do with the anti-apartheid movement. ‘I felt drawn here,’ I replied. ‘There is a kind of humanness to Africa that we don’t have in the West.’ But my reply seemed inadequate and incomprehensible, even to me. ‘Ubuntu,’ she’d smiled knowingly. ‘You will find the way of ubuntu as you travel Africa. The African people will help you. This is ubuntu. This is what we want the whites to understand. We can help each other and together we can make South Africa great. But it is very difficult,’ she’d said. It was April 1993, and apartheid was ending in South Africa. Ubuntu became a word of peace used by the anti-apartheid movement lead by Nelson Mandela. I later read that ubuntu also means the universal bond that connects all of humanity as one. Many cultures have their own word that means the same thing.

After Africa, I found myself in London, where I worked for 12 months as a motorcycle courier. I’d been told by the British motorcycle travellers I’d met in Africa, that good money could be made and I needed to top up my travelling funds for the ride home. This ride, the second-leg of my world motorcycle journey, was through Europe, along the Silk Road through Central Asia and by train through China, to Vietnam. It will be detailed in the sequel, Fallen Girl, which I’m now writing.

Motorcycle couriering was also part of the journey that kept me and the TT, as it affectionately became known, together. Some people give names to their motorcycles, but I must say, the TT is above this sort of frivolity (his opinion, not mine!).  I was always an off-road rider until I worked as a motorcycle courier and became a ‘road warrior’. The TT was in its element as I could jump it up over traffic islands, easily filter through the narrowest of gaps as its handlebars were above the side mirrors of most vehicles. But riding 500 kilometres most days, five days a week through gridlock traffic as well as my own neglect from falling down the ‘rabbit hole’ of London’s underworld, soon killed the TT (all this is detailed in the sequel, which leads on from the ‘twist’ revealed in my first book, Ubuntu). While the TT was being rebuilt for the ride home, I bought a 1984 Moto Guzzi V50 for £400. I love this bike dearly: it’s a quick and nimble thing through traffic as well as on mountain roads. I later shipped it back to Australia and today my V50 sits in my shed alongside my old friend, the TT.

It was in London that I gained my stripes as a motorcyclist: where I learnt skills that have carried me so far on the road today. My advice to novice riders is: with speed, know your limitations; maintain constant awareness; extend your peripheral vision; never assume drivers will see you; be extra vigilant at danger spots like intersections and keep clear zones; learn the ‘art of filtering’ because that space between cars is safer than sitting in traffic where you will be rear ended while some driver is texting, eating, putting on makeup or picking their nose. Traffic lights, in particular are very dangerous. Stop on or near the white line between cars at the front and never take off without looking left and right. On mountain roads, never assume a vehicle or some crazy ‘go fast’ motorcyclist won’t be on your side of the road as you take that bend. Take care in wet weather and always wear protective clothing even if popping down the shops. I could go on and on, but the main thing that will keep you safe on the road is experience. The more you ride, the better you get and the more in tune with the ‘art of motorcycling’ you become.

I’m passionate about motorcycling. It’s great fun. I’m a member of several motorcycle clubs and groups, which is a great way to meet like-minded people - yes, we are a tribe. And a great way to get around not only for a weekend ride, but also to commute. In Victoria, we are lucky enough to have footpath parking so there’s no parking fees, and the occasional parking fine that comes with a car. This passion for motorcycling lead me to become a member of the Victorian Government’s Motorcycle Expert Advisory Panel. I’ve been a member of this group in its previous form as the Motorcycle Advisory Group for four years. During this time, we’ve advised on the introduction of filtering; opened up the Hoddle Street bus lane to motorcyclists and we’re pushing for more. We’ve advised on the new motorcycle graduated licensing system; pushed for targeted road maintenance on popular motorcycling roads; and an overhaul of how motorcycle crash data is collected. Advised on motorcycle road safety advertising and protective clothing plus other areas that all aim to make motorcycling safer. Our aim is to also change public perception of motorcycling from one of "Temporary Australians" to one of being part of the solution to traffic congestion. We have had a number of successes and there are more to come. If you have any ideas or concerns you’d like raised at MEAP meetings, please contact me via www.heather-ellis.com. If you want to get involved politically, you can also join the motorcycle road safety lobby group, the IRG at www.facebook.com/IndependentRidersGroup/

Motorcycling is growing at a rapid rate, 22 percent from 2010 to 2015, which is nearly double the growth rate of vehicles at 12 per cent. In Australia, there’s more than a million of us and every year more join our tribe. And a growing number of these riders are heading off to explore our amazing planet by motorcycle. Not just from Australia, but all over the world. The Germans have always been big on motorcycle travel and apparently, the Israelis are taking to it in droves. As Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, writes: ‘You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.’

Riding a motorcycle also gives a sense of euphoria that lingers long after the ride is over. Motorcycling makes us happy, a fact, I read somewhere, that’s been proven by a group of Japanese researchers. And travelling by motorcycle takes us to another place where things happen that can’t be explained, yet are real.

Everything that I ‘awakened’ to through my motorcycle travels has never left me and that journey continues. Today, I enjoy riding my Thruxton and V50 through the Yarra Ranges with like-minded friends or weaving through city traffic like a salmon swimming upstream as I go about my business. Tomorrow, (in about ten years when my boys are grown), I’ll dust off my beloved TT, and we’ll take on the Americas for the third-leg of our world motorcycle journey. But already there are mutterings from my boys: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to travel by motorcycle’. Yes, it is!

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Ubuntu: One Woman’s Motorcycle Odyssey Across Africa is published by Nero/Black Inc. (April 2016) and is available in all book stores and online for $29.99. You can also purchase a signed copy, and read more about Heather, at heather-ellis.com

Heather will be speaking about her book at the Australian Moto GP (TAC Spokes marque) on Friday, 21 October 2016 and at the Melbourne Moto Expo - 25 to 27 November 2016.

Thank you to Heather for sharing her story and if you would like to share your story with us simply go to the Contact Page of the website and fill in the form and we will gladly be in touch.



  • jane

    Every town was the same, meet someone have a beer have goat stew, have great hospitality. Did it reallly happen like this? Too much beer drinking drugs and irresposibility. Too many stupid, risks to health. It was still an interesting view on travelling but not to be recommended

  • Leon terry Heale

    Heather. Couldn’t put Ubuntu down and finished it 4 days later. A library acquisition. In my late 70s , I’m an avid armchair traveller. Really admired your resilience, resolution and fortitude , particularly taking on further international undertakings. Do you suppose you received the ’ sympathy ticket’ due to being a young, attractive and engaging woman in those lawless parts of Africa ? Just asking ?

  • Dennis Burton

    Hi Heather,I read the article on the silk road in a m/c mag.I’m in Kuranda,Cairns 68y.o.got me Suzuki dl650xt 2 years ago.Your stories are incredible!Made me feel as if I’m not really alive.!Did you ever come off?!UBUNTU LOVE YOU.

  • scott

    Hello heather.

    What an inspiring story. I love the fact that you rode that big bore tt600 for so long and for so far. I have a ttr600 and am very attached to it as you are with yours. They do become a part of you i think. Great story. Thanks.

    All the best

  • suzi mould

    Fantastic inspiring story…. cant wait to read the book! …. and do my own ride in Africa!
    Thanx for sharing.

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