From lawyer to travel writer
At 26-years-old, David McGonigal left his job in insurance law behind to ride a motorcycle around the world for four years. Some 20 years later, he'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 Pokhara, 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 as if in the front row of a cinema 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. All of a sudden I greedily wanted to see and experience it all.
I decided to make travel my life.
How did I make travel writing 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.”
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 threatening 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 life on the road. When I came home years later, I found nothing much had changed. But over those 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. I wrote books that sold very well and supported my travel. Experiencing life from a motorcycle, not behind glass, it was easy to have a love affair with the world.
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.
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. 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 across to the Arctic Sea – and I smile.
More from the Summit Journal...
How does nature help your health?
From your brain to your body, getting outdoors has untold benefits.
The trick to sequencing DNA in the back of a Land Rover
Adventure Sponsorship winners Mobile Malaria tell the story of fighting malaria in the 21st century.
Selfies or silence? Technology's place in the wild
Does technology help or hinder our time outdoors?
Lessons learned from life on the road
What does cycling across two continents teach you?
Kayaking one of the world's longest navigable rivers
One woman’s journey across the Slovenian Mountain Trail
What one woman discovered when solo hiking in the clouds.
What we can learn from polar exploration
Polar exploration is still an epic journey – but there are new reasons to explore.