Nevermind’s adventurous Matt Natonewski; a long way from your average CEO
IT’S A fantasy shared by many of us: quit the ‘real job’ and turn motorcycling into a career instead of a hobby.
It can be done, of course. You could resign from your current job and become a motorbike postie. Or you could become a salesman. Or a parts interpreter. A motorcycle cop. A courier. Do an apprenticeship and become a mechanic. Launch a bike-related website and wait for the big bucks to start rolling in.
But while such jobs might get you within touching distance of a bike every day, none of them captures the heart and soul of motorcycling. They don’t take you down a mysterious bumpy road. They don’t take you exploring the world, with your handlebars pointed at the horizon, preferably with a like-minded soul or two up ahead or just behind.
Four years ago, Matt Natonewski had an epiphany that would change the direction of his life. He was an environmental scientist, working in Perth’s St George’s Terrace for one of the biggest companies in the world — the American oil and gas company, Chevron.
“I was at work one day and suddenly realised that I hated my job,” he told The Bike Shed Times. “In fact, it occurred to me that I’d hated every job I’d ever had. I packed up my desk, headed home, and never went back.”
Even if you’ve never heard of Matt, there’s a fair chance you have heard of Nevermind Adventure, particularly if you’ve pondered taking a bike tour in India, Nepal, or the Himalayas.
Matt is the man who created Nevermind.
Actually, ‘created’ isn’t the right word. It conjures up an image of a carefully-laid plan; a meeting room with a whiteboard, a marketing guy and an accountant.
screen-shot-2016-10-26-at-5-18-12-pmNevermind Adventure seems the product of an organic evolution, born from an adventurous streak, a determination to pursue a dream, and a stubborn refusal to accept mundanity as the daily norm. All that, and a childhood exploring Australian rainforests, with friends on trail bikes.
The day he walked out of Chevron’s Australian headquarters, Matt Natonewski did not have a plan.
“My wife, Anna, didn’t take it very well,” he recalls now. “She told me that if we lost the house, she was leaving me.”
In some ways, Matt’s journey to international motorcycle adventure tour operator started the day he had his Chevron ‘meltdown’. But like all of us, Matt is the product of a much longer story. So let’s back up.
Matt’s grandfather, Frank, and his nine siblings were in Poland in the thick of the Second World War. He was captured and incarcerated but escaped from his concentration camp. His brothers and sisters were not so lucky. None of them survived the war.
Frank spent some time working for the American Government before being sent to Australia as a refugee. He was working in the forestry industry somewhere in high country around Orbost, east of Melbourne, when he met Stella Zeromski. Stella’s background was very similar to Frank’s: Belorussian/Polish ancestry, incarcerated in a concentration camp during the war, and ending up in Australia.
They married and moved to Geelong, settling into Australian life. Frank made a living in the cement industry.
Fast-forward to 1978, and Matt was born into what he describes as a “fairly standard working-class Australian childhood”.
“My parents, Peter and Jan, were into bikes,” he says.
“I spent my childhood surrounded by Honda Fours, Laverdas, Triumphs and Harleys.
“I was lucky to live on the outskirts of Geelong. There was lots of open space to ride bikes. My first was a Yamaha GT80. My father taught me and my brother Adam to ride when I was about 10. I was hooked. I soon moved on to a Yamaha MX100 and bikes became my life.”
Those early days must have made a deep impression. Little did pre-teen Matt realise he was laying down a track for what would become a lifelong obsession.
“The freedom and exhilaration of being able to explore the environment on two wheels was like a drug,” he says.
“And it still is.
“At 14, I progressed to a Suzuki ER185 and started to explore the Otway Rainforests, sometime for days on end on my own, just exploring the old logging trails and discovering great camping spots.”
“All my friends and cousins started to ride as well and, by early high school, we had a fairly large riding group to terrorise the neighbourhood — nothing overly illegal, just hooning around the local properties and being chased by the cops.”
Those teenage years on trail bikes couldn’t last forever, of course. At the age of 15, the wheels started to fall off Matt’s charmed existence.
“First, I lost my beloved DR250. A spark found its way into the fuel tank, and the bike caught fire and was completely destroyed.
“Then my parents separated. I became rebellious and a bit of a pain, but I completed high school, held down a job with McDonalds, and remained connected with my other pastime, the local Army Cadets.
“I reached the rank of Sergeant while studying full time and working every spare hour at McDonalds to earn money to pay for bikes and bike-related stuff. I was all set for a career in the Army. Or at least, I thought I was.”
But things didn’t go according to plan. Matt ‘failed’ the psychological exam. He sat it again. And failed again.
“I tried a few times, unsuccessfully, but stayed with McDonald’s. At 18 I was manager of my local McDonalds, and bought my first house.
“But about a year later I had my first melt-down. I quit McDonalds, sold my house and bought a one-way ticket to Johannesburg.”
Just like that. At age 19. No plan. No contingency. Just a burning desire for a change of scenery. And an adventure.
“I spent two years in Africa, hitch-hiking around South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique,” Matt says.
“I did a lot of surfing and had a few adventures, as you might expect. At one stage a friend and I were managing a hostel in Cape Town and, one particular night, there was some trouble. When the police showed up, lots of questions were asked. They discovered I was working without a visa, and I was ordered to leave the country.”
Matt headed to Europe to earn some money and then to Asia, mostly to do some more surfing.
“From there I found my way to Perth for a year then back to Victoria, to Deakin University, where I got my degree in Environmental Science.”
Along the way, Matt became friends with Victorian architect/builder, Peter Lockyer.
“Peter had visited India many times and had developed a strong affinity with the people of Agra,” Matt says.
“He started a primary school near the Taj Mahal for young kids from underprivileged backgrounds. He got me interested, and I made a few trips as well. I had no idea how important those trips would turn out to be. The Taj Ganj Welcome School is still operating and I visit whenever I can.”
It was also in Victoria that Matt met the woman who would become his wife. Anna Grgurevic was also a Geelong local. Like Matt, she had been exploring the world — travelling Europe solo for a few years before returning home to settle down to a quiet life.
Enter Matt and his 20-year-old rust bucket Suzuki DR600, kick start and all.
“I invited Anna on a biking date to Lorne,” Matt recalls. “We shared a love of travel, music and bikes. We’ve been married 14 years now and those shared passions still drive our lives.”
“Once we finished uni, we moved to Finland where I worked as a researcher. Then it was back to Australia to work in various roles in the WA resources industry.”
Which brings us back to that 2012 meltdown.
“Once I left Chevron, I had no job and no real desire to get one, so I just started selling things,” Matt says. “Even my surfboards went out the door, which was pretty drastic.
“I spent a fair bit of time surfing, tinkering with bikes, some yoga and meditation. But before long, I ran out of things to sell. So I started busking — playing my guitar on the streets of Fremantle.”
A critical turning point came from an unlikely source — a conversation with a friend about an Indian leather handbag.
“On one of my trips to India I had bought some hand-made leather goods,” he said.
“A friend noticed this man-bag and told me I should get more of them, and start selling them. Anna and I managed to pull together $1000, bought as much stock as we could from people we knew in India, hired a stall at the Fremantle Markets and sold the whole lot, quite quickly. We were obviously onto something.”
Another passing comment from a friend opened up the next chapter.
“I was preparing for another trip to India, and planning to do some camping and exploring on a Royal Enfield while I was there. A customer at the Markets said that sounded really cool, and it would be great if I could take some people with me.
“It sounded like a pretty good idea. So we put together an A3 poster, pinned it up at the stall in the Markets, and soon had a full group signed up.
“So this time, the trip to India actually made money instead of costing money. The motorbike trips were only intended to raise some cash so we could buy more leather goods. But it wasn’t long before the trips became the dominant part of the business. We ran four trips that first year. This year we’ll run 20.”
Nevermind still operates a stall in the Fremantle Markets and has recently opened a store in Geelong.
“The new store is selling adventure tours and leather goods, of course,” Matt says “but we’re also selling Royal Enfields. We’re only stocking half a dozen bikes or so, some new and some second-hand. They’re perfect for our tours, but they’re also just great bikes. Simple, robust, reliable, no-nonsense. We might build that side of the business and eventually become a Royal Enfield dealer. Maybe.
“We’re also considering expanding our tour locations. We’re already planning to move into Pakistan, but I like the idea of running some tours in Poland. Bulgaria. Romania. Maybe central Asia and North Africa.”
Clearly, Matt hasn’t lost his taste for adventure.
And what of that decision, back in 2012, to walk out of his ‘real job’.
“No regrets,” Matt says. “I’m the happiest person in the world now. Honestly. I love what I do. Our tours allow people to just unplug for a couple of weeks. Leave the mobile phone at home. Sometimes when I see some people return, they’re not just rested. They come back different people. It’s quite a trip.”