Weekly Local Biography

  David Unkovich

David 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 best doubtful.

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 of age.

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 in Bangkok.”

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 the area.

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 philosopher!

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.