How many of us can remember the exact day that changed our lives? For Slovenian Benka Pulko, it was January 7th, 1997, when she made up her mind to ride a motorcycle around the world. The fact that she was a new motorcyclist with less than 650 kilometres ‘under her belt’ didn’t bother her at all; what was important was to realise her dream and live her life to the full.
Just over five months later, Benka started a journey on a BMW F 650 that would become legendary among the motorcycle community. Five and a half years later, after seven continents, 73 countries, 180,062 kilometres, two Guinness World Records, 35,000 photographs, 19 tyre changes and one hospital stay, Benka returned home – exactly 2,000 days after she had set off.
Benka’s book about her travels became a best seller in her home market and an English language version is currently in production. With this in mind, Benka reflects on her fantastic journey in the hope that other riders are encouraged to ‘get on their bikes’ and live their dreams.
Born in a small, Slovenian town with an unpronounceable name (Ptuj) Benka has distinguished herself on four counts: she succeeded in accomplishing the longest solo motorcycle ride ever undertaken by a woman in both distance and duration. She was the first person to ride to all seven continents while motorcycling around the world, and was also the first woman to ride across Saudi Arabia alone on a motorcycle.
Her exotic travels began, naturally enough, in Slovenia on June 19th, 1997 when she took off on a journey that would make her a local hero and win her international recognition. Although she acknowledges having been crazy about motorcycles for 15 years prior to her round-the-world trip, she had, in reality, only ridden for a month before embarking on her adventure.
“I’d been in love with motorcycles for as long as I could remember but was brought up in a poor communist country where bikes were seldom seen. As a teenager I worked whole summers picking strawberries, hops or working in a factory but was never able to earn enough money to buy one. When I was 16 my father bought a moped but never let me ride it. It was then that I swore to myself to have a motorcycle one day. With having the idea of riding around the world, everything fell into the place – and getting that red BMW F 650 was a dream come true.”
Having virtually no experience on two wheels did little to deter Benka from her plans: “650 kilometres may not sound a lot but it was enough to understand how to use a throttle and apply the brakes. Looking around a bit revealed that most of the long distance riders were loyal to one single brand (BMW). That was a useful hint and choosing the F 650 was easy. I needed something well balanced – neither too heavy nor too tall – enduro styled, reliable and durable. It turned out to be a brilliant choice and all I can say is that if I was to do the same journey again, I would take the same type of motorcycle.”
“The preparation period was the craziest time of my life,” she said. “Endless phone calls, applications, knocking on doors, pleading and convincing people that I had something that would interest and benefit them, too. There were rejections and disappointments too, but without valleys there can be no mountains. An estimate of my spending between gasoline, photographic equipment, film and developing, shipping, food, accommodation, services, tyres, airfares and other things was roughly $53,000 (US). Without helping hands, open hearts, welcoming people, sponsors and donators, this cost would have been much higher.”
During her journey, Benka’s favourite memories include the incredible raw, natural beauty of Africa, the pleasure in discovering Japan and New Zealand, and the visceral high of encountering Antarctica. “Each country visited had something special, outstanding and memorable. The friendliest nations were the Serbs and Iranians. Sadly human judgements in accordance with the political confrontations and prejudiced media reports have painted a different picture. In my humble opinion they were the warmest nations I have encountered in my entire life.”
Great experiences were many and include landing in Antarctica, being part of Hillary Clinton’s birthday celebrations, diving with the sharks, riding under the glow of the northern lights and travelling through forbidden Saudi Arabia, to mention only a few. As for Benka’s worst experience on the road it had to be the Indian traffic. “This was the horror of horrors. It’s extremely hard to describe it to someone who has never been there how bad things are. There are no traffic rules whatsoever. I had never had an accident before but had three in one single day of riding in India. I hope I never have to ride in India again.”
Contrary to popular belief and good news for any female rider contemplating global travel is the fact that Benka encountered no disadvantages to being a woman 'alone' on the road. “Of course, it would have been easier to pee on the side of the road if I was a man but other than that it was great being a woman. When people saw me looking for a room, food, or spare parts, they often took me in because they were worried for my safety because of their personal fears. I remember on one of the remote Canadian islands women were fighting over who would feed me and offer me a bed in exchange for some Slovene recipes and travel stories. It was great to be a female traveller.”
The international BMW community was an additional source of great relief and companionship to Benka throughout her journey. “I found lovely people among BMW riders. We always had much to share, so much to learn from each other and to talk about. We all belonged to one big, dedicated family. This loyalty was one of the nicest group experiences from this journey. I am proud to be a member of the BMW family and on top of that, the network of motorcycle enthusiasts and riding clubs is fantastic. The knowledge among those people is an amazing base of support and I benefited greatly from the BMW network.”
Five and a half years after she left to begin her amazing journey, Benka returned to a hero’s welcome in her hometown of Ptuj. Within a year, Around the World Following the Sun was published and the coffee table edition became the Slovenian book of the year in 2003. In the same period, Benka also had the honour of being chosen as the Slovenian woman of the year in recognition of her achievements.
Since then, she has hardly stood still. There have been 14 solo photo expeditions, numerous engagements as a motivational speaker (more than 25,000 people have seen her presentations) and many assignments for various magazines and newspapers. An agreement has also been signed with Slovene national TV for Benka to host a series of motorcycle touring shows.
At the moment though, she is busy launching a humanitarian project called Believe in Yourself & Kickstart the World, aimed at raising awareness for women’s education. At the same time she is working on a second book as well as the English edition of the first one. The red BMW F 650 has had a slightly easier life. It has been put into retirement in the Slovenian Motorcycle Museum.
In a few short years, Benka has achieved more than many people will in a whole lifetime. And all this from a desire to see what was ‘around the next corner’. Her advice for anyone thinking about leaving the safety of their daily routines and the security of a regular job would be to live their lives now rather than later, when it could be too late. “I would advise anyone thinking of giving up their jobs to ride around the world to quit today and live their dream tomorrow. Seize the moment and do not waste your life. It is like a poison. While you may be thinking of the first change in your life I can’t stop contemplating where my next adventure is going to take me.”