Their shared love of travel was one of the main topics of conversation during their first date back in 2004.
But other than a “couple of cruises,” Janell and Stu Clarke, both from Australia, had barely traveled beyond their home country nearly a decade later.
Once Janell got her motorbike license in 2009, after some gentle persuasion from longtime rider Stu, they began taking motorcycle trips throughout Australia with their dog Skyla, and were keen to broaden their horizons.
“I’d kind of attempted to go backpacking when I was 18, but I was far too young,” says Stu, who previously worked as an engineer in the Australian navy. “It was always something that I really wanted to do. I was waiting until my obligation with the navy had ended.”
When he left the navy in 2014, the couple, who have been married since 2009, decided that, not only was it finally time to get out there and see the world, they would see it all “in one go.”
According to Janell and Stu, one of the main reasons they chose to take an extended trip was due to the cost of flights to and from Australia.
“We figured as soon as you get out of Australia, it’s best to just be gone for as long as you can afford to be,” explains Stu. “Because it’s so expensive to leave Australia.”
While they initially intended to travel for six months, this was extended to 18 months, and then two years while they were making plans.
There was one small problem. Neither could bear the thought of leaving Skyla behind for that long.
When the couple looked into the possibility of taking her with them, they soon realized that it “wasn’t as impossible as others had led us to believe” and began making preparations for a world tour with their pooch in tow.
“It [the planning] was all around Skyla,” explains Stu. “We had the import permits completed for her to enter every country that we intended to go to. We wanted to make sure she was completely covered.”
But as their epic motorcycle journey drew closer, the Clarkes were left devastated when their beloved pet was diagnosed with cancer.
While this was undoubtedly a major setback, Skyla received chemotherapy and underwent a bone marrow transplant and was eventually deemed healthy enough to go on the trip.
“While the odds were against her, we had every reason to believe she could go on to live a full, happy, healthy life,” says Janell, a civil engineer.
In February 2014, they flew from Australia to Dallas, Texas, where they would begin their trip.
The couple purchased two motorbikes, Janell went for a 2006 BMW F650GS, while Stu opted for a 2012 G650GS, while in Texas.
“Bikes are expensive in Australia,” explains Janell. “And then you have the cost of the shipping. So it just made sense to buy the bikes when we were starting our trip.”
They set off on their brand new bikes in March, with Skyla traveling alongside them comfortably in a motorcycle dog carrier they’d designed themselves to suit her needs.
“She was our number one concern,” adds Janell. “Our main focus before we left was making sure that she was going to be comfortable.”
As they rode towards Mexico, Janell and Stu tried to put the stress of Skyla’s illness behind them and focus on the mammoth journey ahead.
However, a little while after they crossed the border into Mexico, they learned that Skyla’s cancer had returned, and little could be done this time.
“Then, our only option was chemotherapy drugs and spending as much time with her and giving her the best quality of life we could,” explains Janell.
They continued on across Mexico into Central America, riding through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where they crossed the border over to Panama.
Once they reached Panama, they took a ferry to South America to avoid having to put Skyla in a crate for a flight. As they entered the continent, Skyla’s condition worsened, and the pair prepared themselves for the inevitable.
“We were surrounded by people who were trying their best to help us and care for Skyla,” says Janell. “But we just really felt a long way from home at that point. It was a difficult time.”
When Skyla passed away in Venezuela on September 10, 2014, the couple were so devastated that they considered packing up and returning to Australia.
“I just wanted to go home,” admits Janell. “It just felt like it was all over. I was really, really in a bad place.”
They decided to take some time out, and went on a hiking trip up the table-top mountains in Venezuela to “get away from everything” and give themselves some time to reflect.
“All we had to do was carry our bags and hike and not think too much,” adds Janell. “It was a really good way to grieve.”
Once the hike was over, they took a few more weeks off to process things, before ultimately deciding to keep going.
However, their perspective had changed completely by then, and Janell and Stu, who have been chronicling their travels on their website, The Pack Track, vowed to approach the rest of the trip in a very different way.
“After we lost Skyla, we decided that we would slow down,” says Stu. “We would concentrate on our relationship – because that [Skyla’s cancer] had been really hard on our relationship – and we wouldn’t have an end date for the trip.”
Shortly before they left Venezuela, the couple returned to visit the vet who had treated Skyla during her final days and asked if they could meet Weeti, a mixed breed, whose blood had been given to their pet during a transfusion.
“When we said, ‘Hello’ to her, the vet said, ‘Would you like to adopt her? And we said, ‘Yes,’” Janell says of their decision to take on the disabled dog. “We didn’t put any thought into that, which was a little crazy.”
From Venezuela, they continued on through South America, “riding all the way to the bottom.” While passing through Colombia in August 2015, they picked up their second rescue dog, Shadow.
“She stepped out onto the road in front of me,” says Stu. “I got around her, but the car behind me went straight over the top of her.”
When he went back to check on her, Stu realized that the dog was still alive, and asked around to try to find out if she had an owner.
After learning that she was apparently part of a group of strays, Stu and Janell put the injured dog with Weeti in their dog carrier, and rode on to Bogota, where they took her to see a vet.
Although they’d initially planned to try to re-home Shadow, a miniature pinscher, in the Colombian capital, the pair were informed that this was unlikely due to the amount of strays there, and she “wouldn’t stand much of a chance” if they left her behind.
“She’s so tiny,” says Janell. “So we were just like, ‘Well, we’re already traveling with one dog. To add one tiny little dog wouldn’t be too bad.”
When they reached Ecuador a few months later, they returned to the US, treating themselves to a luxury cruise to the UK on board Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 (QM2,) the only ship in the world that allows pets to cruise with their owners.
After a seven-day journey to UK city Southampton, they got back on their bikes, rode to mainland Europe and eventually sailed over to Morocco, before making their way to West Africa, and riding down to the bottom of South Africa.
“Africa was very challenging for us,” admits Stu. “We really did struggle as we were doing it. But looking back, it’s one of our highlights.”
The couple then rode to Egypt, where they shipped their bikes back to the UK and made their way to collect them.
But after spending a few months touring Europe in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Stu and Janell were forced to stay in one place.
“We were stuck in Portugal until June or July,” says Stu. “It wasn’t awful at all. But it really did slow us down.”
Once restrictions began to lift, they were able to get on the move again, and spent months “bouncing around Europe,” avoiding big cities as much as they could due to the infectious disease, which was still rising at rapid rates in various countries throughout the world.
After another trip back to the UK when “things got worse with Covid,” they headed to Eastern Europe.
The Clarkes picked up their third rescue dog, Azra, also a mixed breed, when she ran out in the road in front of them while they were riding through Turkey in December 2021.
“I walked to the village with her to see if anyone recognized her, or if there was a mum around,” Janell explains.
When they were once again unable to find an owner, the couple asked a local farmer if he would take the puppy, but he was unwilling.
Rather than leave the canine “by the side of the road,” they opted to ride to the next city and take her to a rescue center.
However, they say they were told the puppy had a highly contagious virus, and the vet treating her was only willing to continue if they adopted her.
Now, after setting off from Australia with one dog, Janell and Stu are preparing to finish their trip almost 10 years later with three entirely different dogs.
“They’re all black, and they’re all girls,” notes Janell, before admitting that taking on a puppy has been challenging.
“We’ve never had a puppy,” she adds. “They change so much as they grow up. And they’re so needy and energetic.”
They had to remain in Turkey for around three months in order to get all of the necessary paperwork to travel onwards with Azra.
“Having dogs slows us down,” explains Janell. “You have to think about their welfare. We can push ourselves, but it’s not fair to push them. So you have to slow down a bit.”
Aside from having to move at a slightly slower pace, traveling with three dogs can cause issues when it comes to place to stay, and there are various activities they’ve been unable to do, such as go to museums.
“You’re thinking about them all the time,” says Stu. “You’re thinking about them going to the toilet, stopping for water.
“Whether the accommodation is pet friendly, and if the rooms that we’re staying in are comfortable for them. That’s also there.”
The couple stress that they never feel like they’re missing out on anything by traveling with their “girls.”
In fact, having Weeti, Shadow and Azra along for the ride has brought them a huge sense of comfort, particularly now they’ve been on the road for so long.
“When just the two of us go out, and we leave them in a hotel room. We come back and open the door, and it’s just like coming home,” says Stu. “Three wagging tails waiting to see us.”
The couple launched a small business selling their redesigned dog motorcycle carrier, the Pillion Pooch, aimed at small to medium sized dogs, a few years ago.
Now nearing the end of their nearly decade long trip, Janell and Stu, who were in South East Asia at the time of writing, have traveled 240,000 kilometers (150,000 miles) and rode through 108 countries.
The couple are currently getting ready to ship their bikes to the US, where they’ll spend a few months getting the documentation together and going through the necessary channels that will allow them to re-enter Australia in early 2024 with their dogs.
Unfortunately, the rules around bringing pets into Australia have changed since they’ve been away, so Weeti, Shadow and Azra will need to spend 30 days in quarantine, rather than 10 days, which was the requirement before March.
They deliberately chose to fly from the US so that they and their pets would be able to travel directly to Australia.
Although Janell and Stu, who hope to write a series of books about their travels in the future, say they have no definite plans beyond that point, there’s one thing they’re determined to do once they’re back Down Under.
“We want to tour Australia, because we’ve never done that on motorbikes,” says Janell. “I think it’d be a nice way to finish the trip.
“To do a tour around our own country with the girls on the bikes and then retire. Retire the bikes and retire the girls.”