AS the sun beats down from a blue, cloudless sky Laurence Rew and Sam Edwards cannot help grinning at each other as they kick their shiny 110cc Australian postal service mopeds into action.
In front of them, to the north, are the sort of things they have read or dreamt about: the dusty, arid outback; freezing mountain streams; dense, steamy jungles; craggy vertiginous tracks that seem to take them to the top of the world.
Miles and miles of endless and often not so easy-riding without really having a clue what they will run into around the next bend.
It will take a while – seven months as it turns out. From Ocean Beach, Perth in Western Australia all the way to Swindon… on regulation red postie bikes. Seventeen countries, more than 20,000 miles.
“It seems like years ago now,” says Laurence, 24, in the kitchen of the family home in Wanborough. “I am finding it hard to get back to normal. Every day was a fresh adventure. We had no idea what was going to happen next.”
Laurence, a carpenter who has lived in Wanborough all his life, met Sam, an auto mechanic from Shropshire, in Perth. After two years in Australia Laurence’s visa was about to run out. Sam, 27, was set to return to the UK after seven months.
Sam says: “We got to chatting about options for going home together. Laurence had this great idea. He had read this book, you see.”
In The Long Way Home, Nathan Millward tells how in 2008 he rode from Sydney to London on an Australian postal bike. Laurence is convinced: “We can do that, no worries.”
They order their three year-old bikes from a specialist Aussie dealer. The said machines arrive kitted out with two side panniers for extra luggage and a second tank. Laurence christens his Tinkerbell.
With signs attached to the rear bearing the legend “England Postie Adventure,” they set off from the beach-side suburb of Cottesloe on a glorious summer’s day in December last year.
It is a dry and dusty 15-day slog to Darwin before some island hopping – East and West Timor, Flores, Sumbawa, Lombok, Bali, Java, Sumatra – takes them through Indonesia, into Malaysia and then Thailand.
Says Sam: “There was no specific route from Oz to England. Our only map was a Lonely Planet given to us in East Timor.”
A funny thing happens to Laurence in Indonesia. A male policeman takes an instant fancy to him. “It was the first time we got pulled over by the police,” he says. “He started blowing me kisses and winking at me. He insisted that Sam take some pictures of him and me together. Sam was enjoying it – he was purposely taking a long time getting the camera into focus.”
Laurence also falls off Tinkerbell but manages to avoid breaking bones.
In Thailand they unwittingly run into the lunacy that is the nation’s annual water festival. “The whole country is involved in one big water fight,” says Laurence.
“You have to keep stopping at water festival check-points where rows of people chuck ice cold water over you. This lasts for days. All the shops close. It’s fun but it’s chaos.”
The thrill of Cambodia is followed with a solitary hour in Vietnam, courtesy of an inebriated border guard.
The incident is related on the pair’s Facebook site, Long Way Home, which garners more than 400 friends.
“Well guys, we are now in Laos after an hour arguing to get the bikes into Vietnam. Eventually a drunken Vietnamese customs official says ‘bu**er off, you’re not bringing those mean machines into Vietnam. Go, go…”
They try to win back their £60 Vietnamese visa money at a Cambodian casino. “We put it on the red – and the winner is black. We could only laugh.”
Bureaucracy is increasingly tying our intrepid easy riders in red tape. “Can we come into your beautiful country?” they ask officials at the Thai-Burmese border. Yes, of course. But you will be escorted by car all the way and you will pay the escort’s petrol, food and accommodation.
“No way can we afford it,” they agree. They ride back to Bangkok and catch a plane to Nepal.
And now it gets breathtaking. From Kathmandu into India, the Himalayas beckon. Snowy peaked sights of awesome beauty. “Unbelievable,” says Laurence.
They are 17,480ft above sea-level (about the same height as Base Camp Everest) on the Manali to Leh highway.
Perfect timing; the highway – closed for around eight months a year – now opens.
“We’d been sitting in Delhi waiting for this,” says Laurence.
Within days they shoot from the 40 degrees plus of Delhi’s sweltering muggy heat to the snow of Leh. At a dizzying 18,380ft their groaning mopeds crawl to Khardung La Top, the world’s highest motorable road.
At one stage the duo come across a mirror lake and its accompanying mountain – leaving them absolutely no option but to skinny-dip.
“It was five degrees”, recalls Laurence, almost shivering at the memory.
The boys scampering in their birthday suits makes a good photo which promptly appears on the Long Way Home Facebook site.
But they come crashing down to earth courtesy of the Pakistani Embassy in Delhi. If they can’t go through Pakistan the Long Way Home will hit the buffers. Endless days of form filling and hoop-jumping results in impassive shakes of the head from unimpressed, uninterested Pakistani officials.
“You have to keep your temper, you have to keep smiling,” says Laurence. On the back-packers grapevine they hear an encouraging rumour: the Pakistani Embassy in Bangkok is much friendlier. Sam flies to Thailand with both passports. After much pleading and persuasion he triumphantly returns several days later with a couple of priceless visas.
At last, they make for Pakistan and something strange happens – absolutely nothing.
“We were expecting all sorts of hassle at the border,” recalls Laurence. But they sail through customs and for a couple of days, wheel across the country before they are picked up by police.
It is an armed escort from there on. They stay at secure compounds or police stations. They are never far from an armed policeman or soldier. “We couldn’t go off the beaten track at all. Armed guards were there all the time.
“There’s always the threat of being kidnapped, or even shot, as happened to three hikers shortly before.”
It is a similar story in Iran but Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, the UK and Swindon – it is easy riding, at least in a political sense.
Tinkerbell breaks down in Turkey. “Laurence was towed along the motorway at 40kmph to Istanbul,” grins Sam. But overall the duo’s modest mopeds prove to be of surprisingly stern stuff, each suffering only half-a-dozen or so punctures The pals from Perth have pretty much cycled (OK, with some boat rides and a short flight) from one end of the planet to the other: 33,000km – or 20,505 miles. The cost? Around £13,000 each.
But there is a problem. “How the hell are we going to top that,” they wonder.
Two-thirds of the time Laurence and Sam live either under canvas or beneath the stars.
Tents largely suffice in the humidity of South Asia.
In Laos they invest in a couple of hammocks, head off the highway and find some lush, verdant forest in which to hang them.
Other times they get their heads down in assorted hostels and boarding houses.
The pair sample local dishes from many regions but in India they succumb to a violent dose of food poisoning.
“I can’t remember what we ate but it kicked in for about three days,” says Laurence. Sam, meanwhile, is amused at Laurence’s addiction to chocolate and fake Red Bull which he acquires at every fuel stop.