In Around the World on a Motorcycle, Zoltán Sulkowsky documents a daring voyage made by two Hungarian globe-trotters starting in 1928, one of the first successful and surprisingly little-known circumnavigation attempts on motorbike. Zoltán Sulkowsky and his friend Gyula Bartha, two motorized Magellans, spent years discovering for themselves, and for future readers, our world during the deceptive lull between the two World Wars. To celebrate their accomplishments we are sharing excerpts of their story with our readers over the next few weeks.
“We’re going to need that book after all,” said one cyclist to the other, sighing. “All right, but pour in a little more gas first,” answered the other, his voice unsure. Two sweaty young men, clad in sportsman’s gear, bustled around a huge motorcycle with a sidecar parked at the edge of the road. This would have been a familiar scene to anyone used to European roads in the summer, when the power of the sun draws hundreds upon hundreds of cyclists into the open air, or else, business matters force travelers of all sorts into cars or onto motorcycles. Nevertheless, the sight was slightly unusual on the roads of Sicily, where donkeys are the preferred, if not the only, mode of transportation.
The heat was merciless, and not a dusty leaf stirred on the few visible trees, seeing as there was not even a breath of a breeze to speak of. It took long minutes for the dust to settle after every donkey-riding traveler passed by. The few words had been spoken in Hungarian, and it’s time for me to reveal that I was one of the sweaty young men standing there. Such helplessness is embarrassing, but I cannot tell a lie; our bike had broken down, and we had no idea what on earth could have gone wrong. We’d scanned the whole machine for anything out of place but had discovered nothing. The tires hadn’t deflated; heck, even the horn was working well. And still, our motorcycle refused to start up. Our last, desperate hope that we had merely run out of gas had just been dashed. There’s not much chance of a friendly automobile coming to our rescue on the dusty road somewhere between Marsala and Trapani. I am entirely familiar with the mechanisms of the motorcycle, down to its nuts and bolts. I had learned the names of all the parts while still in college, I knew rpms and pistons, but I had no idea what to do when the engine shut down.
And so we consulted our book, troubleshooting systematically, part by part and line by line, and still, we found nothing out of the ordinary. Then we gave the bike a push, desperately: nothing. Two helpful amici, wearing long scarves despite the blazing heat, pushed with us: still nothing, and then… “Grazie Signori,” we cried. “Niente, buon viaggio!” Our motorbike was a beautiful sight after all, bearing on itself signs of past and future miles. The shiny sidecar was decorated with three or four badges from various biker clubs; its comfortable, springy seats were an inviting sight. The presence of a passenger seat behind the driver’s seat made even the casual observer suspect there must have been a third traveler. Considerable time had passed; the sun was setting behind the hills when our cries of joy were peppered by the healthy hum of the engine. And it dawned on us what had been wrong all along. In all the heat and haste of the Sicilian noon, the poor engine had refused to start without the switching on of the electric current. In other words, the key had turned without turning anything. The third passenger suddenly appeared upon hearing the engine rev. Our companion was a blonde young woman with smiling eyes, bursting with energy and joie de vivre. She soon disappeared for the second time in the cloud of dust that accompanied our thankfully functioning bike.
Who were these travelers and where were they headed? It was the year 1928, when Marsala aristocrats weren’t too proud to indulge their curiosity alongside their donkey-riding compatriots in Sicily, where the passing of every foreign motorbike was a social event. The bike was a two-cylinder American motorbike, a Harley-Davidson. The sidecar was severely oversized, and at any given moment the passenger sitting inside was wedged in by mountains of suitcases and packages. The other two travelers rode the bike proper. As I mentioned before, one of the passengers was myself, while the other was my loyal companion, Gyula Bartha. The young woman in the sidecar was Mimmy, a Hungarian painter, to whom foreign travel was no novelty. We were three travelers, united in our youth, world views, social and economic status, even in our varying moods and great enthusiasm. As evidenced by the scene described above, we were also sorely inexperienced in motor sports, though we sought to hide this sad fact from lookers-on. The adventure of the engine that would not start was the first real “danger” we had faced on the road. And where on earth did our destination lie, you may wonder. It could hardly have been Trapani, and not even Palermo seemed highly likely. To the casual observer, the direction in which we were headed made little or no sense, unless our plan was to wander about Italy aimlessly. Our excursion, however, was a much more serious affair than outsiders could have suspected, outsiders who envied us the prospect of a pleasant journey through a few foreign countries, the exhilaration of summer travel, the speed, the redness in the face, and then the enthusiastic sitting down to a well-deserved dinner after having put hundreds of kilometers behind us.
Our lot was enviable indeed, travel for the sake of travel past an endless stream of new faces and new cities, and the beauty of nature our constant companion. But how far could a little company like this go before it was turned back by… what, the sea? Lack of time? Of money? Perhaps satisfaction with having already accomplished enough, creeping boredom or responsibilities at home? My two companions and I, however, imagined we would rise above all these dangers. Our determination was louder and stronger even than the hum of our engine as we sped along, and it was fed with the fuel of enthusiasm and gritty determination. The three Hungarian cyclists were letting the lousy Sicilian roads shake the living daylights out of them in the name of a noble cause—that of traveling around the world on a motorcycle! Although many people had merely laughed and shrugged it off, our plan was on its way to becoming realized. The roads had not shaken our enthusiasm, our determination was exemplary, and “incidents” like the one above were few and far between. Around the world on a motorbike! 50-60 countries to explore! Across five continents! It had taken so long for the idea to mature in our brains.
We had filled numerous days with feverish plans, so many maps with our unintelligible scrawls, and had anxiously scanned the pages of several volumes of encyclopedias before getting started. We had calculated the odds, measured the length of the entire trip, bought all the necessary supplies (or at least, all we thought was necessary) and made up our minds to stick with our plans for the four long years their realization would require, because we hoped to be home after four long years, at the very most. And we were off. At the time of our forced stop somewhere on the dusty roads of Sicily, we had been on the road for just a few weeks and were intensely proud that we were in the third foreign country already.
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