Bonkers. And even that might be polishing the truth.
There are nuns (Are they naked? There was a rumor…), priests, Playboy Bunnies, Turkish gangsters, and bank robbers.
There are orphans, war victims, and widows.
There are motorcycles, miles of road, and destinations that change lives.
In the end, this story connects continents, causes and people in ways that cannot be captured in a typical story structure. There is nothing typical here. So, let’s just go with bonkers and pick a spot to start.
A Broken Motorcycle, An Old Friend, And the Middle East
We have to dive into Neale’s life somewhere, so let’s start with a motorcycle. All the best stories start with a motorcycle.
As a youth growing up in England, Neale Bayly bought an Italian Laverda 1200 Mirage. He loved that bike. But at some point, he “killed it.” (As one does.) When he finally got around to rebuilding it, he decided to write about the process. Those stories ended up on Facebook, where an old buddy, Simon Newton, found them and invited Neale to visit him in the Middle East.
Simon, it turns out, was the royal photographer for the King of Sharjah and now runs the Xposure International Photography exhibition. (At one point in his career, Simon ran casinos in Bucharest, Romania for a Turkish gangster out of Istanbul. “Bodyguards, hookers, mafia, crazy shit,” according to Neale. “Simon had been kidnapped by Russians at one point.” Neale’s friends are also bonkers, apparently.)
While visiting Simon at Xposure, Neale met some of the world’s top photographers. Note: Chance encounters are the currency of Neale’s life.
Case in point: “So, there I was, sitting in a hotel in Sharjah in the Middle East across from the National Geographic photographer who took the ‘Afghan Girl’ picture, Steve McCurry, James Nachtaway and the Stephen Wilkes, when I got a call from one of the nuns I work with in Peru.” (We’ll come back to the nun. And Peru.)
More importantly, Neale also met some conflict journalists, including a man named Kiran Ridley. (Remember that name.) Through all of these chance encounters, Neale realized that he could combine several of his passions into something of a career: motorcycle journalist and adventure traveler.
Motorcycle Journalist and Adventure Traveler
Prior to this Middle East moment, Neale already knew that he loved to write, and he loved to travel.
“I left school at the age of 15 and, in 1986, I rode from Florida to Alaska on an old Honda. In 1997, I rode around Australia. In 1995, I rode from Guatemala to Peru on a $300 Kawasaki and, in ‘96, I rode 17,500 miles through 23 countries to the four corners of Europe. I am a voracious pen-and-ink writer. I also love taking pictures. When I got to southern Europe, I was thinking about going to Africa. But I was tired of being the guy at the bar with the cool pictures of cool places, and completely broke. I thought, ‘Someone should pay me to travel around the world to take pictures and tell stories!’”
Serendipitously, it was about this time that Neale went to a technology course to learn to type and work with computers when he saw a magazine story about a charity motorcycle ride across the Himalayas of Northern India. The story proved to Neale that riding and writing could be combined into a good way to live a good life.
Since that time, Neale has traveled around the globe, written stories for over a hundred publications worldwide, had dinner with Harrison Ford, taught two Playboy Bunnies to ride motorcycles, and ultimately landed a job as motorcycle editor at Speed TV where his show, “Trippin on Two
Wheels,” was airing.
Hang on to your handlebars, folks, because now things get really complicated as we go back in time.
There Was This Priest in Peru
Before we move on, we need to catch Neale in another chance encounter.
Remember that ride in 1995, when Neale rode from Guatemala to Peru. Well, it was here that he met a crazy Canadian Priest called Father Giovani.
“I spent two or three days with him and he told me his whole life story, all while we were riding motorcycles and traveling in Peru. It was just crazy,” says Neale. “In hindsight, I believe he was giving me a purpose. He was preparing me.”
Neale and Father Giovani became pen pals but, as you can imagine, Neale was sometimes hard to pin down.
“I didn’t notice when the letters stopped coming because of work, marriage and kids occupying my time,” says Neale. “Then, in 2005 or 2006, I got this letter from his sister, Maria Fitzgerald, saying that Father Giovani had been killed in Peru in 2001. I was gob smacked.”
Recalling Father Giovani’s work, Neale decided that he needed to raise money for the orphanage that Gio supported in Peru. So, he started working with Father Giovani’s sister.
“We put a medical mission together to bring medical supplies to the orphanage,” says Neale. “But I had this gnawing feeling that I wasn’t doing well enough. Not raising enough money. There was too much need and not enough money.”
Neale started a nonprofit called Wellspring International Outreach. The organization’s mission is to “bring aid and attention to the abandoned and at-risk children throughout the world.”
Fundraising for Wellspring was conducted through international group motorcycle rides that ended at destinations needing support, such as the orphanage in Peru. He paired these experiences with his television production skills to create a series of three one-hour shows called, “Neale Bayly Rides: Peru.” It aired on the Speed network in 2013.
Neale felt like he had figured out a “big grand vision” for his life: “My idea was that the TV show would springboard my idea to combine travel and philanthropy with adventure and giving.”
But then, it all fell apart. Neale discovered his partner in the TV production had a different idea of arithmetic and there was a chunk of money missing. This revelation was the beginning of many dark years for Neale. There were lawsuits, the loss of all his savings and investments, a broken femur, a failed relationship and, perhaps the cruelest blow, Neale couldn’t even write. He had a nasty case of writer’s block.
“If I had a dog, it would have run away,” Neale jokes now. “On top of that, I felt like I let the orphans down. I just kept failing and failing and failing and failing. Shit after shit after shit after shit.”
Throughout this time of desolation, Neale traveled without much focus.
“I went to a Sudanese Refugee camp in Uganda, traveled in Ethiopia, climbed Kilimanjaro, did a 100-mile mountain bike race in Arizona, rode motorcycles in the UK, Mexico, Vietnam, Ecuador, South Africa and Peru…. I just went bananas. But I still couldn’t write.”
“I believe I was subconsciously thinking, ‘Writing leads to TV and TV leads to getting fucked, so don’t write.’”
Get the Nuns in the Shower
Despite it all, Wellspring survived. It turns out that the motorcycle trips and the philanthropy proved to be a resilient concept, even without the attention that a television program could bring.
About the same time, Neale discovered that one of the nuns he had befriended in Peru, Sister Jiovanna, had been transferred to Kenya.
“So, I started going to Kenya to support her. I learned that for $80 you could buy a donkey. I ran a campaign to get the nuns a piece of ass.” (Neale pauses for laughter here.) “We bought them donkeys and goats. Then one day I realized that they didn’t have running water. I went on a mission to get the nuns in the shower. I joked that I wanted to get the nuns naked.” (Another pause for laughter.) “We raised a couple grand to get water for the nuns.”
If you’re wondering how Neale raises money when he’s sitting in the middle of Kenya, check out his social media channels. (See the bottom of this story.) This is true, grassroots fundraising.
Neale Heads to Ukraine
Neale was starting to get his mo-jo back, writing again, riding again, raising money again. Life was feeling just a bit better. Not great, but better.
Then Russia attacked Ukraine.
“I was sitting in the Middle East with Simon, Kiran and others watching the build up for days before it kicked off, right as I was traveling home,” says Neale. “I don’t want anything to do with politics. This is not about who is right and who is wrong. It’s about, how do you sit and watch innocent men, women and children get blown to bits and not do anything to help? I couldn’t. I had to do something.”
Enter Kiran Ridley. Remember the conflict journalists Neale met in the Middle East? Well, Kiran was now in Ukraine, having just completed an award-winning photography exhibition in Hong Kong on the pro-democracy riots.
Kiran called Neale and explained the incredible pressure he was under to tell the Ukrainian stories he was seeing, to stay safe, and to stay sane. He was riding a very dodgy Chinese motorcycle that was darn right dangerous, but necessary for navigating the 30-mile lines of refugees on the border with Poland.
“I really felt for Kiran,” says Neale. “He had a wife at home with 3-month-old twins. He was riddled with guilt that the Ukrainian people were suffering and he could leave but they couldn’t. But he was fearing for his life, freezing cold every day. The pressure he was under was enormous.”
That’s all Neale needed to hear. He started raising money and gear to head to Ukraine.
“I had two goals,” he explains. “I wanted to bring attention to what the journalists like Kiran are doing over there. None of us would know anything if not for the journalists. They are putting themselves at great risk to get the story out. Second, I wanted to give victims of the war in Ukraine the chance to talk to me in hopes that, if they can tell their stories, I could alleviate some of the pressure for them. I hoped to somehow ease their burden by allowing them to tell their story.”
After three months of planning, including military combat lifesaver training, securing international press passes, and buying a bulletproof vest and helmet, Neale headed to Munich.
“BMW agreed to supply us with two adventure motorcycles,” Neale says. “REV’IT provided protective, waterproof motorcycle gear and Arai new adventure helmets. We rode through Czechoslovakia, Poland and into Lviv in Western Ukraine.”
Neale was in the country with Kiran for three weeks, interviewing dozens of people.
Throughout the trip, Kiran and Neale gave cash from Neale’s fundraising efforts to many of the people they met along the way.
“We had cash with us and we gave quite a lot of money away on the trip. We would interview refugees, or people whose homes were just blown up, and we’d shake hands with them at the end and slip them $50 or $100.”
But they saved their big gift for a children’s hospital in Lviv.
In an article for RiderMagazine.com, Neale wrote, “There we met an 11-year-old boy named Leo, a refugee from Severodonetsk, where the constant bombing he had endured left him unable to walk. He had also just undergone surgery to remove a tumor on his leg. He and his mother told us their story of escape, and we were left speechless. Thanks to all the donors, we were able to leave a check for $10,000, and it felt like Leo really enjoyed hanging out with a film crew and a couple of dirty, hairy British journalists on motorcycles.”
After three weeks, Neale came home with lighter pockets, but he had gained something unexpected.
“Ukraine reignited my purpose,” he says. “I lost my way after the lawsuit. But now, my purpose is very simple. My goal is to help and bring attention to the underserved. I just want to do more good.”
But he confesses, “How I achieve this goal might be a bit bonkers.”
Another Chance Encounter
Recently, Neale found himself at the Overland Expo in Loveland, Colorado. He was invited there to speak, by a woman he had met during yet another chance encounter back in 2014 when he was on the Alaska Highway with a friend and his youngest son heading for the Arctic Circle. (“I tried to reach the Arctic Circle on a motorcycle that I bought in Florida in 1987 after living with a bank robber but didn’t make it.”) (Yeah.)
He and the woman, Azure O’Neil, stayed in touch. She even visited the orphanage in Peru. Fast forward to 2022, Azure contacted Neale to see if he’d like to speak about his motorcycle travels at the Expo.
“I’ve never heard anybody speak about me in such terms,” says Neale. “It knocked me out. She made me sound really cool.”
Neale got up and began speaking about his recent travels to Ukraine when Eva Rupert, the Moto Dinner organizer and host, started passing a hat for donations. Momentum grew, and Scott O’Sullivan founder of Rider Justice said he’d match all the donations made that night. The hat filled up and Scott matched it. By night’s end, Neale walked away with over $5,000 for Wellspring and the children’s hospital in Lviv.
“I couldn’t believe it! At one point, this really big muscular tattooed guy named Dumptruck comes walking up to me. I thought, ‘I’m gonna get my ass kicked.’ But he was crying! He gave me a huge hug. I have never felt like that before in my life. I was hugging Scott; he was hugging me. It was just amazing.”
The Middle Part
As you can imagine, it’s impossible to pin Neale down on what’s next in his life. He has no idea. A Peruvian nun might call. A buddy might need help escaping from Turkish prison. The open road may beckon… from Bangladesh.
“I get up and do something all day long and at night I go to bed. Between the morning and the night — the middle part – is never the same.”