From lawyer to travel writer

At 26-years-old, I left my job in insurance law behind to ride a motorcycle around the world for four years. Some 20 years later, I’d go on to set a world first as the first person to cover all seven continents and all 24 time zones on a motorbike.

These days I’m a travel writer, photographer and Antarctic Expedition Leader — and it all started because I wanted to clear my head after six years of law school.

Ditching the law

In the 1970s, I left the legal profession to ride an aging Yamaha RD350 around the world with my friend Trevor. The route was following the hippy trail; Singapore to London via Kathmandu and Afghanistan.

I’ll never forget the first morning after we rode into Pokara, Nepal. I was walking to the lodge’s open-air breakfast room and looked towards the Himalayas, but they were covered in cloud.

I expressed dismay to Trevor and he laconically replied “look higher”. I tilted my head back and soaring above the clouds were the peaks of the Annapurna range. I gasped. This trip revealed that the world was more exciting — and more accessible — than I could ever imagine. I greedily wanted to see and experience it all.

I decided to make travel my life.

On making it work

I once asked my mum why she didn’t cry when I flew out and she replied “I thought you’d run out of money and be home in a few months.”

I remember sleeping by the roadside in India with our hands threaded through the wheel spokes so the bikes wouldn’t be stolen as we slept.

David McGonigal

Trevor and I eked out our savings — eating at street stalls and sleeping rough. I remember sleeping by the roadside in India with our hands threaded through the wheel spokes so the bikes wouldn’t be stolen as we slept.

When I got to Canada I worked as a builder’s labourer delivering store credit cards, and I’d send articles home to Revs Motorcycle News about my motorcycling adventures. It could be tough work. I missed my family and friends. We used to exchange Christmas cassette tapes, and I only learned of my grandmother’s death two months after the event when I picked up mail at Poste Restante in Tehran.

Travel isn’t always smooth sailing. I was locked up in a prison cell in Central America when a border crossing closed. I had my resolve tested in the mountains of Afghanistan, when the muddy road was impassable, my bike’s clutch was fried, and a harsh winter was fast approaching. And just outside Moscow, a friend rode his motorcycle into the back of a truck. He was thrown 15 metres into the air. There’s no way he should have survived but, decades later, he’s apparently fine. Wollongong boys are tough.

But I loved my life on the road and the sheer intensity of a travelling life. When I came home years later, I found nothing much had changed. But over that four years I had collected a lifetime of experiences; including experience as a travel writer.

There was a golden age of travel writing when words and photos had real value. And I wrote books that sold very well. Experienced from a motorcycle, not behind glass, it was easy to have a love affair with the world.

A close encounter with a whale.
A close encounter with a whale.

Falling in love with Antarctica

IN 1995, I first went down to the Ross Sea to write a travel article for the Sydney Morning Herald and became infatuated with Antarctica. I have returned every year since, first as a photographic lecturer then a historian, then as Expedition Leader.

I always say that you want a holiday to leave a lifetime memory. In Antarctica, these come through at two to three a day.

On a voyage into Wilhelmina Bay, a place on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, you’ll often encounter humpback whales. In February 2017 I took the first Zodiac (an inflatable boat) over to where I’d seen some whales from the ship’s bridge. I thought they’d gone as I hadn’t seen them since I launched. I slowed in the right area and suddenly had a lunge-feeding Humpback so close to the rubber boat that his throat brushed the side. My passengers were beside themselves with excitement.

Maybe it’s a function of age, but I now get the most satisfaction helping others discover the world. I work as a polar Expedition Leader for One Ocean Expeditions and each voyage is carrying a million dollars’ worth of dreams.

It’s a true joy to say goodbye on the dock at the end of a voyage and see many passengers cry because that particular wondrous experience has ended.

A standard day in Antarctica
A standard day in Antarctica

On finding your own destination

A career these days is less a path and more a hop-step. The very brave will hit the road or start their own businesses anyway. And some crave security — if that’s you, try to find a secure job and stay in it till retirement.

But the great majority should regard your next unemployment as an opportunity to try something new: travel, get a job overseas, try a different career, start a business. If you discover that’s not you, seek employment again — but at least you’ll have experienced making your own way.

Travel has been my life and I’ve been fortunate to make a living from it. I’d probably be richer as a lawyer but I simply look at my experiences, from hitchhiking across Tibet when it first opened, to motorcycling Alaska’s Dalton Highway to the Arctic Sea – and smile.

David wore his Kathmandu boots to Antarctica more than 100 times. Thank to travellers like him, we can evolve our gear to last in some of the world's most challenging climates.