Trolling around San Francisco in 2005, I spotted a pair of young men tinkering with vintage mopeds on a sidewalk, in front of a garage stuffed with a lot more mopeds.  Clearly, the moped trend I’d been reading about had arrived, so I stopped to investigate.  Graham Loft talked about starting the first moped gang in SF, the Creatures of the Loin, and invited me along on one of their rides, with my vintage bikes.  A few weeks later, we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands, a pack of furry kids on mopeds and me aboard my 1928 Sunbeam TT 90.   Unlikely bedfellows, but a fun afternoon, which we repeated once more.

Zach Levenberg and Graham Loft at Alice’s Restaurant on Jan. 6, 2007, as the start of their trip. [Paul d’Orleans]
Later that year, Graham announced he was planning to ride his Puch Maxi to South America!  I admired the audacity of youth, and rode my Sunbeam to meet him and his co-adventurer, Zach Levenberg, at Alice’s Restaurant on a chilly January morning in 2007.  The pair kept a blog about their trip, which has vanished into the ether, and I lost contact with Graham until this year, when we reconnected via The Vintagent’s Instagram feed, and I asked him if he’d share the remarkable story.  He published a book after the trip (available here), but there’s little but photos to tell the story of this crazy journey.  Here’s the preface of ‘Moped to South America’ (2007, Colorwheel Press):

The cover of their book Moped to South America: Zach and Graham in Colombia after a difficult stretch. [Graham Loft]
“Moped to South America?

This is the story of neither fame nor fortune.  It isn’t a tale of heroes, although we did meet a few along the way.  This is a story of two young men who set out on a quest to accomplish something no one thought possible – a moped trip to South America.

The Idea of the trip began more of a joke than anything else.  ‘Hey, we’ve ridden our mopeds to Los Angeles and Seattle before (500 and 900 mile trips, respectively); why don’t we ride to Mexico”  “Well, if we’re in Mexico, why don’t we just ride to South America?”  And so the journey was born…ten willing participants, cut down to two brave souls when it came time to hit the road.  Zach Levenberg and Graham Loft – to the southern trip of South America.

Moped trips aren’t an easy feat, to say the least.  This was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, and cycling across the Himalayas is no easy thing either.  This being Zach’s first trip, I can’t imagine what was going through his head – mine felt like it was about to explode on a number of occasions.

Five months rolled by like an eternity of mopeding.  At an average speed of 30mph – peaking out at 40 – your body becomes tired and frail.  Your mind becomes your home and riding becomes your life.  Surviving just happens, and the path traveled begins to feel like a dream.  The destination is always great, but for Zach and I, what we found along the way is what will always be with us.”

A pair of Puch Maxis on Jurado island, Colombia, when the travelers were stranded for weeks. [Graham Loft]
Bike Specs:

-Two vintage pedal-start 1979 Puch Maxis

– Single speed, two-stroke engines

– 50cc and 65cc cylinders

– Biturbo performance exhaust

– Five star mag rims

– Way too many spare parts and luggage

– And some serious pedals for those hills.”

Camping in Arizona on the first leg of their trip. [Graham Loft]

An Interview with Graham Loft:

Paul d’Orleans (PDO):  It’s so cool to to be back in touch after 15 years, and be reminded of this incredible adventure. Your book is beautiful, really.

Graham Loft (GL):  We only printed five hundred copies of that book, they sold out pretty quick. That was 2007 and one of my friends published the book; he was running a small publishing company in the time. He recently sent three boxes of ‘bad’ copies that weren’t colored quite right. So that’s what you got.  I’m glad those re-emerged, I thought I would never see that book again.  All that stuff was shot on real film and and video. A lot of it is cross-processed slide film and to make color negatives. So, it’s before Instagram filters, you made your own filter in the film age.

PDO: So I assume all the square format was your twin lens reflex camera?  Film is so beautiful, even if the color is strange.  So, I did not see you after your journey; you guys started off from Alice’s and we didn’t talk for 15 years.

GL:  Did you see my blog? We did a live, updated Blog, the whole time we did that journey.

PDO:  I did see that. Is that site still up?

GL:  I tried to find it, but I think it’s gone.  At one point when we had like a hundred copies of the book left, I printed the blog as a Zine and attached it with all the books sales.  I don’t know what happened to that; it’s been a long time.  I do still have all the original hard drives but they’re clicking really bad, so I only turn them on when I need to.  I just I recently backed them up after you asked me for images.

Cousins across the border: a converted moped cart in Hermilloso, Mexico. [Graham Loft]
PDO:  I learned a lot reading your book, and you mentioned two previous trips (to LA and Seattle) that gave you the confidence to undertake the longer journey. How did you prepare? What did you carry with you? I mean, you were on the same kind of moped so you could share parts.

GL:  We rode the exact same bikes. Same wheels, same engines, everything was the same. So we could just carry a lot of parts. Our front panniers were just full of parts, just everything; full bottom end rebuild, cranks, clutches clutch springs, anything you might need.  Our back bags had our tent and sleeping stuff and clothes, but we’d really brought very little clothes.  I still try to replicate how little stuff I brought on that trip when I do dirt bike trips nowadays, and I can’t do it, I just I overpack. I don’t know how I brought one pair of pants on that 6 month journey. It was crazy but we just figured like six months of traveling, we’re going to have to  buy stuff when we need, right?

PDO: Or you can do like my buddy Sean, who rode his ’36 Knucklehead chopper across the country in three weeks, and never changed his clothes.

GL: On my motorcycle trips now I end up wearing the same thing, unless it gets wet or something.  Anyway, on the back panniers we had these fold-out wire bicycle baskets. You can fold them in and we’ll go flat to the bike or you pull them out for your groceries or something. We thought those were great because when we were going to have to get on boats, we could kind of collapse the bikes and make them smaller.  We carried a two and half gallon gas can and in the other one seven or eight bottles of Motul 2-stroke oil.  That’s what we ran. We had all our 2-stroke oil for the trip with us, as you can’t buy good oil on the road. With the baskets and panniers we had a pretty wide wide load.  For a moped.

Zach’s bike packed to the gills, with panniers on the front and rear of the Puchs, and on the back rack. [Graham Loft]
PDO: Yeah, I’m sure that’s still half the width of a Harley-Davidson touring rig!

GL: Yeah! We did have one shipment of parts along the way, I can’t remember if it was Guatemala or Panama? My Dad sent a big package of stuff, because by the time we got out of the US we had already blasted through our parts. Zach had already rebuilt his motor a few times, and we went right through stuff like piston rings. Our first stop before we dropped into Mexico was Arizona. There was another moped gang there, so we stopped as our last little spot to see if we need anything else. The whole way from SF to Arizona, my motor was rattling. It’s making this nasty sound which I didn’t like, so I rebuilt my motor. And then I didn’t touch it the whole rest of the trip. It was kind of crazy.  I like to do things right the first time, so I just rebuilt my motor even though it was still running, and that crankshaft lasted. Zach, on the other hand, had a lot of problems with his motor. I felt really bad.

Snake Lips

PDO:  Well, that’s how you hope things are going to go, right?   Were you ever really stuck anywhere? Did your bikes ever leave you kind of in the middle of nowhere?

GL:  We got screwed pretty bad crossing from Panama to Colombia. [Note: the notorious Darién Gap]. We met a guy who we later called Snake Lips, who had this younger guy with him to trick people into getting into his boat.  He said, ‘yeah I can give you a ride to Colombia for this amount of money.’  He dropped us onto a strange little Island right off the coast of the Darien Gap, just dropped us there. And we asked, okay is this Columbia? This is an island!  He said, yeah it’s an island in Colombia. He said there should be other boats coming through that can take us to the mainland.  We got stuck there for three weeks, it was a little military Island and there was one store on it that sold Coca-Cola, potatoes and eggs. We didn’t have any real money on us, a little bit but not quite enough. Snake Lips had a little house he said we could stay in as he wasn’t going to be there, but it was totally infested with bats! They were just flying all over the place!  So after three weeks, maybe a little longer, the first boat that we’d seen came through. It was a big cargo boat carrying fuel and supplies, and didn’t take passengers because it’s carrying fuel and all kinds of combustibles.

A boy with a bat on Jurado island in Colombia. [Graham Loft]
I didn’t speak Spanish but Zach did: he was only eighteen, and just graduated high school. So he kind of weaseled us onto that boat by talking the captain into it, after the captain found out what happened to us. If you look in the book, there’s a section about Jurado, that’s the island we were stuck on.  But that boat was torture, we were on that tanker a good week and half and it would just stop in every little town, picking up logs and stuff. We were like, oh my god, now we’re stuck on a boat!  But the crew was being cool, they were feeding us. I don’t know if the fish they were catching was inedible, but they were literally feeding us bowls of rice with fish-heads.  Were they messing with us? I don’t know.  At one stop, the police came on on board and found us, and kicked us off the boat, and fined the captain for having us on there. And then the captain wouldn’t give us our bikes. He’s like, ‘I’m keeping these until you pay me my money. I’ll meet you in Cali. Colombia.’  So we had all our gear, these four bike panniers, and we’re stuck on another Island. Luckily, that island had a small airport with little two-seater planes.  So we went every single day to the airport, until we convinced a pilot to let us on an airplane.  He walked us to an ATM when we got to the mainland, to give him money. It was just a huge ordeal, it ended up being four plus weeks of just getting from Panama to Colombia.

But we did save a little bit of money.

Once we got on that plane, they took us to Medellin, which is in northern Colombia.  From there, we had to take a bus all the way down to Cali, which was a whole ‘nother three-day journey, and when we actually got to Cali  we had to find the right boat.  That meant visually locating the boat that we were trying to find, then find the crew of that boat and get our bikes back.  That was a fucking journey in itself, that would turn some people off of travel entirely. But at that point what are you going to do, turn around?

Zach with a sloth on Jurado island. [Graham Loft]
PDO: Did you have any issues with the FARC in Colombia?

GL: Ah, the rebels. A lot of people on our way down to South America warned us not to go to Columbia. We would get robbed or killed and all that stuff. But Columbia was the most beautiful part of the trip.  We didn’t feel like we were ever in trouble. We certainly weren’t going to try to ride the Darién Gap. I think I think you can ride it now, right?

PDO:  People say they’ve ridden across it, but that’s a misnomer because half the time you’re just dragging a bike with a winch up a muddy slope. I mean, you cannot actually ride the Darien Gap. It’s not possible. You can take a motorcycle through it – and people have –  but it involves more canoeing and winching than being vertical on a two-wheeler. I actually know a lot of guys from Panama in the Velocette Owners Club, there’s like ten guys who either grew up in or did military time in Panama who still have British bikes because that’s they rode there in the Sixties.  They tell incredible stories of riding bikes to the USA, but Darién Gap has always been impossible.

On the 10-day cargo boat journey from Jurado to the mainland of Columbia. [Graham French]
GL:  Yeah, I think we determined in the end like it would have been better for us to ride to the Caribbean, and leave from that side, take a boat North to Medellin –  which we ended up in anyway. Most motorcyclists used that route, but we didn’t want to ride all those extra miles. We were trying to stay on the coast and not ride too high in the mountains because our bikes just wouldn’t with all that gear on them.

PDO: Some of your videos look like you’re jamming right along.

GL: If it was flat or downhill, yes. Guatemala was the worst because even the coastal route takes you up in the mountains, and we’d have to hold onto trucks, like skaters. I mean we’re like Full Throttle and pedaling the bike. I’m pretty sure my knee problems these days came from pedaling in weird ways.  Dirt bikers would grab our hands and drag us up these big mountains, or we’d grab onto trucks that were going super slow as long as we could hold on.  Ideally, we just used our pedals like a kick-start; you just start with the pedals and then we’re good to go. Yeah, but not in South America, you’re in high elevation some points. So, we definitely used the pedals.

PDO: Did anybody give you a hard time? Like for riding a moped on these highways or was that not the issue at all?

GL: No not at all. The only issue we’d run into was at border crossings. Mopeds don’t have much paperwork in the US. You basically register them once in their lifetime and they’re good, right?  At every border crossing they wanted all this paperwork from us and we wouldn’t have it.  We actually had our original registration card but they don’t they just don’t look like anything normal – it’s like a bicycle registration card. It doesn’t look legit. To get through the border could be a huge hassle. Luckily Zachary spoke Spanish.

PDO: I’m sure he became fluent by the end of the journey.

GL: It would be cool to talk to him as we probably have very different viewpoints of the trip.  He was in a world of hell working on his bike and rebuilding it constantly, and doing all the translating. Whereas I was just photographing everything and riding, usually I was a mile ahead and he would break down; he just broke down so frequently. I didn’t always stop with him; he’d fix his bike and be gone for like an hour and I’d blast ahead to find something cool, and be taking photos on the side of the road and he’d be so in the zone he’d pass right by. I remember a few times at these cool monuments off the side of the road, like, in Peru or something, right? Like kind of wave him down like, hey, I’m over here!  He was just fried. I’d have to go chase him, but it’s not like on a motorcycle where you could raise your speed, we can’t, so if he’s just going his constant 30 miles an hour and he’s an hour ahead, I’m still going to be an hour behind.

Zach repairing his Puch, again. Somewhere in Chile. [Graham Loft]
PDO: Did you guys ever lose each other?

GL:  I’m not sure we ever spent a night apart. We were always right there with each other. We figured it out.

PDO: It must have been interesting at times, although you were pretty conspicuous.

GL: Yeah, we were definitely a spectacle, anywhere we went. People were like, what the heck?  Our hands were always just black, full of grease, and our long hair and whatnot.  Do you remember those really baggy pants called Genkos?  At one point Zach’s pants turned into Genkos, they ripped and kind of bell-bottomed on both legs and he just rode like that, it was hilarious. We just looked like Goofy and Goofy.

PDO: Somebody told me that you actually didn’t ride all the way to Ushuia, but it looks like from the book that you did make it?

Mano del Desierto monument on the Panamerica Highway in the Atacama Desert of Chile. [Graham Loft]
GL:  Yeah, this is an interesting story.  When we got to Argentina, I had some relationship problems come up back home, that kind of made me lose my mind, you know? I was in my twenties! I actually packed up all my shit up flew back home with my bike. Zach continued on the trip, but when he got to Ushuaia, he got robbed and they stole everything.  Luckily when I left, I took all our footage with me, my cameras and everything, but Zach took the video camera and filmed that last part of the trip.  But they stole the camera, and all his footage – they stole everything. So, early the next year, we actually packed our bikes up and flew back down to where we left off in Argentina, and finished the trip together.  That was pretty important after being on the road for six months together. You know, I was super bummed after he finished it by himself, but we made the joint decision when I left; he was going to finish the video and stuff but after he got after he got robbed it was kind of just like, wow we got to go back.

PDO:  How cool is that?   Did you fly home with your bikes or what happened to them?

GL:  I don’t know if you get away with these days but we took a bike box from la mountain bike shop and broke our bikes down. Like 100% – and just called them mountain bikes. We took the engines off and drained everything, wiped it as clean as we could and wrapped them in a million pounds of Saran Wrap to really seal it in.  We brought all that stuff on the plane with like packed bags.

Zach charging uphill in Peru, with the sea in the distance. [Graham Loft]
PDO:  Crazy, I’ve done that too! I bought a 1902 Clément in Paris, and got quotes of thousands of dollars to get it home, and thought, screw that, this is a Bicycle. I put the the chassis in a bicycle box and bought a hard suitcase for the engine. It cost $75 in excess baggage fees for the bicycle box.

So, what about the movie?

GL: When we got back, the big Moped Army scene was happening, and we would go to these moped rallies, in all these different states. I got a rough cut of a video done and we premiered it at the Kalamazoo moped rally in Kalamazoo Michigan. And it was a godawful cut. I mean, I don’t think my wife’s been able to get through it.  There’s so much the film could be, but I was really into film photography and then I just got busy and it just kept getting pushed off and I never got around to it. So, right now, there’s still a two-hour cut, it’s not done, I forget where it goes – it might just end at Chile or Argentina.

PDO:  You really need to finish it!   Are you still friends with Zach?

GL:  Totally. Yeah. I think the only way that we are still friends is because he was so young and he put up with my shit.

PDO: Yeah, exactly. And to travel that long with someone is crazy, especially in arduous circumstances.

A glacier in the Andes. [Graham Loft]
GL: Yeah, we also we slept in one tent together. Two wheels, slept in the same tent every night.

PDO: Oh my god.

GL: I would never do that now, but at that time, we just didn’t have space in our bikes, so we had to downsize.

PDO:  Have you been back to South America since?

GL: No, just Mexico

PDO:  Last question: how did the trip change you?

GL: Well, actually, since I was 18 I’ve been traveling on bicycles. I rode with my friend Benji across China and Tibet and Nepal. I spent time overseas for a year at a time, I’ve always been into traveling. So this was just kind of another trip, something exciting and fun and adventurous to do, you know?  We both definitely learned a lot about ourselves on the moped trip, how much you can take.  I’d done a couple of trips but it was Zack’s first big trip in his life.  It was my third big trip; I’d been in the shit a few times, you know, with a few notches on my belt.

PDO: Especially if you’re traveling in a foreign country, and not one especially friendly to Americans.

GL: Yeah, not everybody likes Americans.  I’ve been arrested in China, and spent time in a hotel with guards outside my door. They didn’t put me in a jail, but put us in a hotel with guards outside.

Still friends after all these years.  The boys at the start of their journey, in Southern California. [Graham Loft]

For more remarkable stories of long-distance overland travel, check our ADV:Overland hashtag, and our exhibit at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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