Travelling the world’s Belfasts by motorbike

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean Drysdale in Belfast, Mpumalanga, South Africa

By Niall Glynn

BBC News NI

If you ask most people how long it would take to travel to all the places called Belfast in the world, they’d probably say not very long.

After all, how many Belfasts could there be?

Well, it turns out other than the original, and most famous Belfast, there are at least 24 others – and one man has made it his mission to visit them all.

What’s more, he’s doing it on a motorbike built in the 1970s.

Glengormley man Sean Drysdale has already completed the first part of his quest, travelling from Belfast, South Africa, back to Northern Ireland.

In the spring, he plans to visit the Belfasts of North America – all 19 of them.

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,The journey back took him through many countries, including Kenya

Sean, a retired doctor, first had the idea when he visited South Africa in 1982 and became aware of the town of Belfast, Mpumalanga.

“It took me 40 years to basically find the time to do it,” he said.

Where are the world’s Belfasts?

“So I did that trip [South Africa to Northern Ireland] in 2019-2020 and then it just occurred to me that there were other Belfasts about and thought to myself that would make an interesting ride to just go to them all.

“There’s two in Canada, 17 in the States and then there’s one each in New Zealand, Australia and Jamaica.”

His 2024 trip will take the 66-year-old on a “serpentine journey”, starting in Canada, where he’ll go from Prince Edward Island to Ontario.

Then he’ll cross the border into the US and visit (deep breath) Maine, Pennsylvania, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Nevada, California before finishing up in Washington state.

The plan is to do it all in six months, from April to October.

“I’m not planning on just getting on the bike and seeing how quickly I can get there,” he said.

“I travel at a leisurely pace and there’s a destination – I’m not trying to catch a train or anything.

“The idea’s to do it all on the same bike, this is a bike that I’ve owned since 1978 and I rebuilt it before I did the Africa trip

“Apart from the challenge of the trip, I think it will be interesting to see how all these places came to be called Belfast.”

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean said some of the best parts of his African journey were stopping at the side of the road and camping in the middle of nowhere

Sean has visited cities in the US before, but this road trip will take him to much more remote places.

“I think it’ll be quite an eye-opener because a lot of these places will be in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll get to see, I suppose, the real United States as opposed to the Hollywood version,” he said.

It would be fair to say the same about his African trip.

It started in Zimbabwe, where Sean was working, then took in South Africa’s Belfast, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan before he travelled to Saudi Arabia.

His original plan was to travel through Iran to Turkey and then through Europe, but that changed when he broke his foot in Sudan.

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean bought his Honda 750 motorbike in 1978

“In the end I just turned left and went up through Saudi into Jordan, then I couldn’t get any further north so I had to go into Israel,” he said.

“Took a boat from Israel to Italy – a cargo boat but they took passengers.

“So I put the bike on the boat and rode up through Italy with Covid hot on my heels.”

He booked AirBnbs and occasionally hotels, couch surfed and sometimes used a tent he had brought with him.

“Just drove off the road a bit, pitched my tent and camped in the middle of nowhere which was great, arguably some of the best bits of it,” he said.

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean met up with a Saudi bikers group during his time in the country

Sean said the most surprising leg of the journey was Saudi Arabia, where he was put in touch with a man who was active in a bikers group.

“From there on I was sort of taken under their wing, introduced to different people and passed from one group to another,” Sean said.

“When I was travelling around the country they’d send me from one town and arrange for me to meet up with people at the next town who would look after me down there.”

Sean Drsydale
Image caption,Sean sampling Saudi Arabian culture

He also had an encounter with royalty.

“By accident I ended up in this place I thought I was supposed to be spending the night and it turned out to be a sort of regional administrative headquarters,” he said

“They introduced me to a prince, a member of the royal family, who was the regional director or governor.

“They put me up in a five-star hotel for http://tahapaun.com/ three days and he insisted that I travel round with him on one of his days out – went to some of the meetings he was attending and various ceremonies and stuff – then sent me on my way days later.”

He said throughout his journey “the willingness of people to help was just amazing” including paying for his fuel when they heard his story.

“One time I fell off going down a very bad road in Tanzania,” he said.

“The trucks that were following me stopped to make sure I was all right.”

When the bike wouldn’t start, they loaded it onto the back of a trailer, took him to the next town where he could get spend the night and get the bike going again.

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean said the interest people showed in his journey and their willingness to help him was amazing

He recalled a similar experience in Sudan when his bike broke down, and a man stopped to help him push it to a nearby compound where he spent the night.

“The next day they arranged a truck to take me to the next town and sort things out there.”

After travelling up through Europe he returned to Northern Ireland during the first Covid lockdown.

“I think it was at about Newry, I was riding along and it suddenly just dawned on me that I had actually done it, something I’d been thinking about for nearly 40 years,” he said.

“Then I got into Belfast, which was deserted.

“I wasn’t really expected a big crowd clapping me as I rode along Donegall Place, but it was sort of ‘right, well that’s it now and how do I get a picture’.”

Sean Drysdale
Image caption,Sean has readied his bike for the next stage of his quest in North America

Preparations are already under way for the North American trip, including contacting an online forum for the Honda 750 motorbike he’s owned since 1978.

“It should be interesting travelling through and trying to meet up with some of these guys en route – some of them want to travel part of the route with me,” he said.

“The big question will be what do I do once I get to the west coast – do I keep going west or do I make another plan?”

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