Original title: Murphy’s Law • Story: Peter Whitaker • Photos: Peter and Julie Murphy
At the time (1953) BSA trumpeted Kevin Murphy’s achievement as the first motorcycle journey from the Colonies to England.
Not that it was completely uncharted territory, but it was a bloody long way between Brisbane and Ballaugh. Nonetheless Kevin Murphy believed his Golden Flash was made for the job though BSA was hardly enthusiastic. “Whilst we do not desire to discourage you” they wrote “we would point out your proposed trip to the Isle of Man on your A10 Golden Flash B.S.A. Motor Cycle would be somewhat of a formidable nature.” Several long winded paragraphs later the BSA Export Manager Mr. W. L. Rawson was less than encouraging “Possibly, you may wish to give thought to either taking a ship to Italy, and from there either proceeding through France and from thence to England, or via Canada, or the United States. In either case, a fairly long sea voyage would have to be undertaken, but we do think that the comparative comfort of proceeding by either of the above routes, would be far better than the hazards, frustrations and disappointments, to say nothing of possible danger by proceeding by the route outlined in your letter.”
Intent on being a spectator at the Isle of Man TT Murphy was by then already halfway to Sydney on his well prepared mount but was stopped in his tracks by the need to put up a bond of 250 quid for a carnet – a decidedly unforeseen expense. Dad, or more likely Mum, came to the rescue with a money order and aptly it was April Fool’s Day 1953 when Murphy found himself in Adelaide 2500 km from home. He’d originally intended to save a few bob by riding to Fremantle but it being Easter the highly devout waterside workers had refused to see his machine safely aboard the ‘SS Stratheden’.
Two weeks after sailing from Adelaide Murphy disembarked in Columbo and almost terminated his journey on the spot with a 75 mph low-side, becoming instantly aware that the mossy concrete roads in the tropics were a far cry from the dusty plains of the outback. Slippery, greasy and oily are the descriptions that litter Murphy’s diary; along with the complaint that nowhere was to be found a straight longer than a quarter mile as he traversed what was to become the hippie trail barely a decade later, caught the ferry to Talaimannar and began his journey through India.
Thanks to the Brits the roads became a little more trafficable though Murphy seldom saw much other than bullock carts, elephants, goats, pigs and hundreds of rapacious monkeys; one of whom he was certain stole his tool roll and eating implements. Unseasonal rain also slowed progress and Murphy added surviving a tornado to his wordly experiences. With a couple of frame fractures the Flash was proving quite flexible over the lumpy, slippery pavement and a dispirited Murphy experienced many close shaves with livestock. However sometimes Murphy’s Law can be favourable, such as when he met an English Doctor who was so taken by the sense of adventure, he wanted nothing more than to experience the BSA first hand. Murphy was more than happy to oblige, spending the last 120 miles into Bombay relaxing in the good Doctor’s sedan de ville in the company of the lovely Anglo-Indian nurses – Hazel and Gladys. Naturally a few beers and dinner followed. It was also in Bombay the ever-helpful BSA agents replaced the Flash’s mirrors and other breakages, thoroughly serviced the machine and supplied Murphy with new tools, plugs and other expendables.
Though not on his direct route, Murphy had included Delhi on his itinerary and following the main rail line across the vast plains at first proved expedient; that is until the rail line disappeared into a tunnel beneath the hills leaving Murphy faced with the long steep climbs and treacherous descents negotiating the infamous ‘ghats’. The temperature of 114°F was only one of the factors to cause the front tyre to blow. Murphy re-sleeved the tyre and also replaced the chain with his spare – all the time worrying about the availability of further spares once he departed India.
A month after embarking in Adelaide he rode into Agra and whilst viewing the magnificence of the Taj Mahal reflected on his journey thus far and, by all accounts, the horror stretches to come. However it was in Agra that he chanced meeting adventurous Indian lad Maahir Rajkwinar who had successfully negotiated a return journey through Iran to Czechoslovakia on his Panther 350. Maahir’s tales encouraged Murphy no end even though the Pakhtunistan border wars and the prelude to the CIA coup d’état in Iran had forced him to change plans and book passage from Karachi to Basra. At the time King Faisal still ruled Iraq and the despot Adib al-Shishakli controlled the route north. For a brief window in time there was no ordnance to dodge whilst weaving along the dodgy roads.
The English translation of ‘kutcha’ is; imperfect, makeshift, ramshackle or second rate. Across the Great Indian Desert and Pakistan’s Thar Desert the kutcha roads are merely theoretical. And where they do exist it’s largely because the barrages diverting water from the mighty Indus River create a network of dead end drainage ditches. Murphy’s pace slowed considerably often averaging no more than ten miles an hour, causing sleepless nights in railway stations, concern over his diminishing cash reserve, lack of fuel, deteriorating rubber and looming deadline for the voyage to Basra. It’s only to be expected that another spill almost sent Murphy spare. Just short of Karachi, totally out of cash, he’d had to scam a couple of bottles of fuel. Then whilst he was distracted by the increasing amount of canvas visible on his front tyre a severe gust of wind sent him hurtling down the hardpack. Once again most of the damage was superficial – gear lever, footrest, bars and twisted forks – and easily fixed once he reached Karachi; though Murphy wasn’t in the best frame of mind when it cost more to embark the Flash than himself – though both were travelling deck cargo. Perhaps Murphy’s severely bruised thigh and bout of dysentery tainted his outlook but in these times it would be politically incorrect to repeat his comments on the state of the vessel, the surliness of its crew or the cleanliness of his fellow passengers, let alone the cuisine or ablution arrangements; circumstances which saw him quick to disembark at Basra.
Murphy had few remaining Travellers Cheques and when the opportunity arose to carry a pillion to share costs he jumped at it; besides a bloke by the name of Abdul Rasul Inamdari was bound to come in handy when asking directions to Ad-Diwaniya. Less convenient was the added weight compounded by the need to carry an additional four gallons of fuel. No surprise then that the 400 miles to Baghdad took 24 hours, much of it spent pushing the overladen Flash through the loose desert sand. A not surprising need for maintenance in Baghdad whilst juggling the bureaucratic visa requirements for Jordan, Syria and Lebanon followed before taking on the 1000 km Syrian Desert, once a land of marauding Arabs and now much the same; with but one small village in the wasteland between Baghdad and Damascus.
Now with new tyres, a totally reconditioned frame courtesy of the Baghdad blacksmiths, panel beaten guards plus re-welded pegs and levers, Murphy and Abdul set out for that waypoint in the centre of the Syrian desert. Hampered consistently by dust storms which completely obliterated the otherwise ill-defined thoroughfare it took three attempts to reach As-Sukhnah and a further day before they crossed the verdant hills of Lebanon and caught their first sight of the Mediterranean.
Now thoroughly enjoying his first taste of civilisation, the wide smooth roads and the hospitality of Abdul’s many acquaintances it became easy to tarry, however the month of May was rapidly coming to an end and Murphy was determined not to fail in his mission to reach the Isle of Man in time for the TT. And, once they’d crossed into Turkey, there were at least fairly made roads to follow, even though Murphy’s descriptions range from awful for the flatter sections to atrocious for the tracks across the mountains. They pressed on through Ankara and by the end of May had taken the ferry across the Bosphorous and were officially in Europe. From this point Murphy’s notes become as frenetic as a Women’s Weekly tour itinerary; Edirine, Alexandropolis, Salonika, Belgrade, Trieste and Milan.
Murphy then relates “they got cracking” through the Mont Cenis Pass and across France. It was bloody cold even at high noon but they were delighted not to sight another scorched palm or dark cypress, instead revelling at the sight of tended green pastures bisected by smooth bitumen roads. Even more delightful was the quay at Dunkirk from which, on the night of June 9, they began the last of the three voyages “which perforce break the continuity of road travel between Australia and the Home Country.” It appears that BSA had alerted ‘Motor Cycling’ magazine about Murphy’s adventures for he provided a vivid account of his odyssey in return for joining ‘Motor Cycling’s’ excursion to see – particularly in Murphy’s case – the performance of Dominion riders in what proved to be a dramatic TT race week. On the other hand the popular press sympathised with Murphy that he’d ridden over twelve thousand miles in nine weeks only to miss the Coronation of Lizzie 2 by a week – a fact hardly likely to have perturbed Murphy with his Hibernian roots! Murphy, like BSA, went along with the furphy and no doubt his outgoing nature, ability to play the game in addition to being acknowledged as the first man to ride home to the Mother Country from the Colonies, scored him a position as a mechanic with BSA – even though he’d received his Articles as a carpenter.
During his two-year sojourn with BSA Murphy spent much of his time managing the quasi unofficial racing efforts of Kiwi expat Maurie Lowe on the European circuit – often doubling as second rider in the long-distance events. And during the 1954/55 seasons he also managed to completely restore the transcontinental Flash to its former glory (including a new speedo/odometer). To fulfil the conditions of the carnet he was obliged to send the machine back to Australia where his Mum, seizing the opportunity to recoup the bond money advanced before Murphy left Sydney, immediately flogged the unit – one owner, now overseas, surplus to requirements. Murphy wasn’t unduly disturbed by this state of affairs for, along the way, he’d managed to acquire many surplus BSA parts; enough in fact to build both a new 500 Golden Flash and a 350 Gold Star when he returned down under in late 1955. The next few years were spent travelling up and down the east coast with close mate Keith Edwards racing both machines extensively. And whilst no superstar Murphy eked out a living with consistent high placings at circuits such as Mt Druitt, Lowood, Hume Weir and Mildura – one of the highlights being his third place to luminaries Kel Carruthers and Trevor Pound in the 1957 Junior Clubmans ‘A’ event at Bathurst.
Kevin Murphy, the father of Peter and Julie passed away on October 15, 2011 but was pleased his adventure was to be recorded in the annals of Australia’s remarkable motorcycling heritage.