Nine years ago, Aussies Janell and Stu set off to explore the globe on two wheels. In that time, they have clocked up over 200,000 kms and a growing family of rescue dogs. Janell chats to us about their adventures and how she wouldn’t have it any other way…
Q: Janell, let’s start at the beginning. What age were you when you began riding?
At the tender age of 23, I took the plunge and got my motorcycle license in Sydney. Living in Lane Cove at the time and returning to university after an 18-month hiatus, I found myself faced with the daunting prospect of spending up to four hours a day on public transport to get to UNSW Kensington campus. Thankfully, my husband, Stu had a solution; why not ditch the dreary commute and hop on a motorbike instead? With his encouragement, I began my two-wheeled journey on my brother-in-law’s 50cc scooter, and immediately fell in love with the freedom and fun that came with it. However, it didn’t take long for me to realise that I wanted something more powerful, so I upgraded to a Yamaha Virago 250cc. While it wasn’t a particularly loud bike, I did enjoy the rumble of the engine when I rode through the Sydney Harbour tunnel. I’ve been hooked on the thrill of riding ever since.
Q: How has motorcycling brought you and your partner, Stu closer together?
Stu and I lived almost separate lives before we embarked on our trip. Stu was in the Navy and often away from home so I kept myself busy with work, soccer, study, friends and family. Even the weeks before we departed Australia we hardly saw each other with our time taken up selling our stuff and sorting out paperwork. Everything changed the moment our feet landed in Texas where we were now in each other’s pockets and making decisions together, every hour of every day. It will come as no surprise that there was a certain amount of discord in the first few months as we adjusted to our new life. Adventure riding threw us together in a way that has allowed us to break free from routine, depend on each other, work together to overcome challenges and experience the world in a way that’s truly unique. We feel incredibly lucky to be able to share that with each other. From the rugged terrain of South America to the bustling streets of Bangkok, we’ve travelled far and wide on our motorcycles, forging unforgettable memories and deepening our connection with each passing mile.
Q: What models are you and Stu currently riding and how do they suit moto-adventuring?
I have a 2006 BMW F650GS and Stu has the 2012 G50GS. They are fairly light bikes with a dry weight of 175 kg, they have a reasonable clearance for off-road riding and they have just enough mod-cons to make them safe and comfortable without overcomplicating things. To be honest it was a little bit of pot luck but we have been able to solve most breakdowns on the side of the road with minimal hassle. And because the bikes are almost identical mechanically, we only needed to learn how to fix one of them and bring along minimal spares. We purchased these bikes second-hand in Texas, and they’ve been our faithful companions for the past nine years, carrying us through 107 countries and over 200,000km of unforgettable adventures.
Q: As “The Pack Track”, your global motorcycle tour kicked off in 2014; how did this come about?
On our very first date way back in 2004, Stu and I first shared our love of travel and adventure. We dreamed of backpacking our way around the world, but life had other plans for us. In 2006, we adopted Skyla, a beautiful dog from Woden pound, and she quickly became the centre of our world. For years, we spent our holidays exploring Australia in our trusty Nissan Patrol, with Skyla along for the ride. But the desire to see more of the world never faded, and we continued to talk about embarking on a big trip. However, I was hesitant to leave Skyla behind, and we couldn’t imagine travelling without her. One boozy ANZAC Day in Sydney in 2011, we made a pact to hit the road and bring Skyla with us when Stu’s return of service to the Navy was complete. We knew that travelling with our 4WD would be too expensive, so we started exploring other options, eventually landing on the idea of motorcycle travel. It wasn’t easy figuring out how to take Skyla with us, but we were determined to make it work. And now, years later, we couldn’t be happier that we did.
Q: How were you able to finance your worldwide travels?
Financing a round-the-world trip is no small feat, but we managed to make it happen through a combination of careful saving, smart investments, and a bit of entrepreneurship. For starters, we made a conscious decision not to buy a house in Australia, instead opting to rent and put our money towards travel. We also saved aggressively in the years leading up to our trip, cutting back on expenses and prioritising travel above all else. A later addition has been starting a small business, selling our very own motorcycle dog carrier the Pillion Pooch. We came up with the idea for our motorcycle dog carrier in Australia in preparation for the trip but received a lot of positive feedback and realised there was a market for people who wanted to do the same thing as us with their dogs. We started the business while on the road and it has been a challenge but we’re very proud of our product and it supplements the travel a little. In addition to our business, we’ve also worked odd jobs and picked up work along the way, particularly during our time in the UK. It hasn’t always been easy, but we’ve found creative ways to make it work.
Q: Adventuring the far reaches of virtually every continent has its challenges, let alone on two wheels. However, organising logistics such as passports for dogs is on another level! How do you prepare for life on the road with your canine companions?
We often have chats and video calls with people from all over the world planning to travel with their dogs. The first point I make is not to worry about food, vets, accommodation etc; that will all work out in each country, just don’t be in a rush and always buy a sim card so you have internet to search online. The daily life travelling with a dog is very rewarding and not difficult if you have your own transport. The challenge or sometimes the unknown is the border crossings. In general – and this applies to motorcycles and dogs – it’s much easier to enter/leave a country via a land border than it is to via a port or airport. If you fly with a dog then the airline often wants a certificate from a department of agriculture or quarantine centre verifying all your dogs vaccinations and the airline may require a health certificate stating that the pet is fit and healthy to fly. It has been our experience that at land borders they look at the rabies vaccination date and if that’s okay then we’re through.
We travelled the America’s first and from memory, we had to complete paperwork for our dog entering Panama and then moving between Chile and Argentina. From the America’s we sailed to Europe where we very quickly got our dogs EU Pet Passports. These are great and so long as you keep the vaccinations up-to-date you can come and go from the EU without any problems. We have continued to use our EU Pet passports travelling Africa, Central Asia and now South-East Asia. It would be great if there was an international passport for pets officially recognised around the world like a human passport, perhaps one day in the future.
Q: How has travelling with rescue dogs enriched your adventures?
I love dogs more than anything and can’t imagine ever living without my four legged friends. They are loyal and inspiring companions and willing to go the extra mile to be by my side. What more could you want in a travelling companion? They never complain, they jump out of bed excited every morning and somehow soften the gap with strangers allowing people to approach to strike up a conversation who otherwise wouldn’t. Border crossings can be amusing, like the time a border officer in Burkina Faso asked for the dogs’ documents and laughed at the sight of their passport photos in their pet passports that he nearly fell off his seat. I could definitely see the funny side, the Officer explained that he didn’t even have a passport himself and was looking at a dog more travelled than most humans. My dogs have given my adventure and my life meaning, they are a constant reminder of what is important and how precious our time is. I do very normal things every day because of my dogs, like dog walking, food shopping and visits to the vet and as a result, we’ve been mistaken for locals and treated with the kind of warmth and hospitality that is hard to come by when you’re just passing through as a tourist.
Early in our travels we moved very quickly but over the years we have come to really appreciate a slower pace of travel which is more suited to our dogs. We often stop in places out of season for a week or sometimes a month and go to the same cafe for breakfast, walk the same route with our girls, stop at the same bar for a beer and really get to know and feel a place rather than rushing around the tourist attractions. This slower pace allows us to watch, learn and converse with the locals to see what life is like in each of these countries. Travelling with my dogs has been a true gift, enriching my life in countless ways and reminding me of what really matters in life. All my girls are very different. Weeti is strong and quiet, Shadow is loud and proud, Azra is just a bundle of laughs because she’s still very young. They make me laugh all the time and feel loved which is important when you are far from home.
Q: You and Stu have trekked 107 countries on two wheels with canine friends in tow. Which three places have been your top riding destinations, and why?
Mexico is a loud, colourful country with so much to offer motorcyclists. There are stunning mountains to pass, beautiful coastlines, deserts and ancient ruins. There isn’t a single thing I don’t like about Mexico. It’s very affordable with lively people and excellent food, not-to-mention my favourite drink, Margaritas!
Turkey is also incredibly beautiful with mountains and coastal roads. It is another large country to explore but it has something very special going on…the people protect and carefor the street dogs and cats like nowhere else in the world, something that really resonates with me. There is something for everyone in Turkey with fascinating history learning about the Ottoman empire, bustling markets, modern cities, motorcycle clubs, stunning architecture and friendly people who prefer to sit and enjoy a tea or coffee than get a takeaway.
Mongolia is like being on another planet. The landscape, the weather and the way of life is so very different to anywhere else in the world. It is a very special country and I would go back with my motorcycle and my dogs in a heartbeat to explore it more both on road and off-road. All you need is a tent and a few days of food and off you go with your motorcycle wherever you want.
Q: We get there can be bumps in the road and you have visited some pretty far-flung locations. Have there been any misadventures you’d rather forget?
There have been many misadventures but nothing I want to forget. I would say that one of my many flaws is that I can overthink situations and needlessly worry so more something wish I could change. The problem with worrying is that it takes over, takes your energy and stops you from enjoying the moments life has offered. For example, last year we rode the Pamir Highway. It is a legendary route that traverses through the mountainous terrain of Tajikistan and is considered to be one of the world’s highest-altitude highways, reaching over 4,600 metres in some parts. During the soviet era it was a serviced road that connected Dushanbe to Osh in Kyrgyzstan but conflict between the two nations has resulted in a closed border for many years and the road has deteriorated to a very challenging and rugged ride. We read online that it might be possible to do the Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border crossing. In the town of Khorog we dedicated three days to gaining permissions from the Tajikistan military and through a Kyrgyzstan tour guide, permissions from both the Kyrgyzstan military and tourist board to pass through the border with our motorcycles and our dogs.
We set off from Khorog to the border with really no idea if this would work and the prospect of having to return the whole way along the Pamir Highway to Dushanbe if it failed and probably miss our window to reach Mongolia because it was already October. The ride from Khorog to the border is absolutely stunning and there is nobody there. I should have relished this ride but I was so worried about the border and missing Mongolia that I didn’t let myself fully immerse in the experience like Stu did. In the end we crossed the border, we were the first tourists in over three years to do it and it was an incredibly proud moment for us but overshadowed by all my worries. And to be honest, after eight years I should have known better because if you don’t take one road then you take another and still forge incredible memories. Fortunately, I can savour our achievements looking back on that ride but I do wish I’d taken the time to relax and enjoy whatever the outcome was going to be.
Q: If you could give one key piece of advice to a motorcyclist preparing to travel abroad, what would it be?
The most important lesson I have learnt about travelling is not to plan too much. Even if you have a very short trip, if you plan everything and give yourself deadlines then there’s not much wiggle room for adventure, mistakes and the unexpected to happen. I think the point of travel, and particularly on a motorcycle where you really have the freedom to go anywhere, is to be away from routine, structure and predictability. Its okay to know absolutely nothing about where you are going when you travel because you will learn and in a very hands-on way so you never forget. Oh, and of course take your dog!
Q: The Pack Track website has a nifty Route Optimiser tool. Did you develop this?
Stu is the brains in our relationship. He developed the route optimiser which is just a coding exercise for solving the travelling salesman problem. You can enter as many locations as you like and then run the script and it calculates the optimum route to minimise travel distance between all the points. It’s mostly useful in a city if we’re on foot with a bunch of places we want to visit in one day and we’re taking the dogs (walking slowly). We have occasionally used it to compare travel distances around cities in Europe because the cost of fuel is quite expensive and we are always trying to keep our costs to a minimum.
Q: Congratulations on your first two publications, “The Pack Track Unleashed” and “The Pack Track Stowaways”. How can people get their hands on a copy?
Thank you very much! We’re actually running a Kickstarter campaign to get these books off the ground. We would appreciate any support people can offer from sharing the campaign with friends and family right through to pre-ordering an eBook, soft or hard cover copy. You need to sign up to the Kickstarter platform and then have a credit card handy to back our project: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thepacktrack/books1-2