Unkovich’s business card states ‘Motorcycle Tour Leader,
Author and Cartographer’, which even now seems fairly
unbelievable for the big Aussie. However the card is correct and
despite much adversity, David Unkovich remains one of the
world’s optimistic souls, a characteristic that runs through
the world’s motorcycling fraternity. You’ll never keep a
good ‘bikie’ down! (Well, at least not for long!)
David was born in Perth, Western Australia.
His father was a ‘truckie’, that indomitable breed of
transport drivers that will drive for days to traverse the
sun-burned land down-under, his mother left at home to bring up
the kids (David and his four younger brothers) but was devoted
to their father as much as to the children themselves.
For David, the best time was sitting in their
old FJ Holden car (an Australian automobile icon) with Mum, Dad
and his brothers, driving across the Australian desert, the
Nullarbor Plain. “It was great fun being on the road,” said
David. A pattern was already emerging in the young man.
When he finished school he went to work for a
government department, as was the way of the day. Secure job for
one’s future was the concept. David joined the Customs
Department and enjoyed travelling to different ports of call
around the coastline of Western Australia. But the idyllic easy
life was to be shattered.
He was 20 years old and had a horrific
motorcycle accident. Unconscious for three weeks, on a life
support system, he was not expected to live. He had 14 fractures
throughout his body and had lost the use of his left arm through
nerve and tendon damage. Even if he survived, the future was at
But survive he did and rejected the medical
advice to have the useless left arm amputated. He worked hard
until he began to get some movement back. He had to wear a
sprung splint to raise his hand, but it was enough to allow him
to operate the clutch. He was back in the saddle! “They used
to call me ‘The Claw’ with this metal thing on the end of my
arm,” said David laughing.
But while he was now mobile, another problem
arose. Intractable arthritis. It was so bad that he had to
attend for regular injections to try and stop the swelling in
the joints - and the pain. He was told to go on an invalid
pension, but he would not accept it. He was still only 20 years
However, by the time he was 24, it was all
too much. He was not fit enough to work full-time and he became
invalided out of government service. He had no real plans, but
decided to have a look at Asia. Bali was his first stop where he
used to play chess with the local Balinese, but soon discovered
that he could not beat them. From there it was to Koh Samui,
where in those days there were only six bungalows on the beach.
And then to Bangkok.
It was here in the capital that his life
changed. “I fell in love. You know the old story,” said
David. With his wife he came up to Chiang Mai. He then
rediscovered motorcycles, rented one out and began to ride out
into the countryside. The pattern was becoming clearer.
They settled in Chiang Mai and opened up a
second-hand bookstore. It was 1984, but George Orwell’s book
with that title did not really mean much for David Unkovich.
While his wife ran the bookshop, David was riding the trails
from Chiang Mai. He kept notes about the roads in the region and
soon was recognized as the authority in this area.
Those notes eventually became a book that was
published in 1988. “It was a proper guide book,” said David,
“and was the first English language book done by the publisher
Three years later he published another
covering the Mae Hong Son loop. Without realizing it, the biker
was becoming an author. He started to learn what could be
accomplished on the computer, in between riding further and
further afield, keeping more and more notes.
Another seven years later he published a
Motorcycling Guide to the Golden Triangle, “And there’s an
update coming,” said David. By this time he was an
acknowledged world expert as far as the roads and trails in the
North were concerned, so it should not have come as any surprise
that he was contacted by a world map publisher, asking for his
help in the region, with the idea being a comprehensive map of
From his original simple lines showing
distances between point A and point B, he was now into producing
bona fide maps, with a bona fide mapmaker. Life was changing.
The next big change came when the mapmakers
folded their company, but David could see that there was a need
for good maps, so taught himself how to draw maps on the
computer, fitting in all the coordinates that he recorded from
his motorcycle, now fitted with a GPS system.
He also became his own marketing man, by the
simple expedient of asking shopkeepers what maps people wanted.
He knew there was a niche, and now he knew the products needed -
and what is more, he could produce them. In this way, David
Unkovich has produced the best road map of Laos. For a young man
who looked as if he had lost the way, he was now charting the
way for future generations!
David loves life in the North. “You don’t
have to be locked into a 9-5 job. I like the place because you
can do constructive and productive things. So many guys get
sucked into sitting in bars,” said the motorcycling
However, David’s hobby is still motorcycling, currently on
the trails with a BMW F650, or on his old Honda. “I figured I
wanted to be a traveller. I guess that’s where I’ve ended
up!” You certainly have, David.