This couple set off on a motorbike world tour with their beloved dog. Then tragedy struck

CNN  — 

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.”

Ultimate road trip

Australian couple Janell and Stu Clarke are riding around the world on motorcycles with three rescue dogs.

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.”

Canine on board

The Clarke's beloved dog Skyla, seen with Stu in Belize back in 2014, passed away a few months into their trip.

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.

New outlook

The pair, who have been on the road for nearly ten years, picked up disabled dog Weetie in Venezuela in 2014.

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.

Expanding brood

The Clarkes' second rescue dog, Shadow, joined their group in 2015 and they found their third, Azra, in Turkey in 2021.

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.”