PPS… (Post-trip Perspective… oh! and some Stats)

Well we have been back ‘home’ now for about a month and are starting to look back on our trip with a little perspective and seeing it for the first time as a complete entity.  To be honest we entered this period with some slight dread, as many overlanders will tell you about the post-trip blues when suddenly the world stops, all notion of onward travel ceases and you are faced with the reality of having spent the pot of gold that paid for the trip just past and the necessary adjustments needed to get back into some sort of employment and more ‘mainstream’ / ‘normal life’ whatever that may be.  On top of the you are trying to assimilate everything that happened on the road in a world where most folk have no idea of what you have just been through…

We didn’t really experience too much of this on our previous Pan-American trip. We returned to Northern Ireland, where we spent some time living with Maggie’s mum.  We also had a little money inherited from when my own mother passed away plus a small income from the rent from our own house in England so we had something of a cushioned landing.  At home things were more or less as they had been when we left, so it was just a question of deciding what we wanted to do next.  Eventually we drifted back to work when we felt ready, having written our two Pan-American travel books.  This time it is very different.  The trip itself has been over twice as long as the Pan-American (38 months against 15 months) and cost a lot more so there is a more pressing need to find employment. Additionally, we are coming home to a country much changed by International events; namely Brexit.

Brexit had a massive and immediate impact on our travels and it happened on day 355 of our trip, which lasted 1164 days in total.  Immediately, the pound fell by around 10% overnight on the decision that Britain would leave the EU. Simply put, when we next went to get £100 worth of local currency from the ATM it was suddenly costing us £110!  We calculated that, had the pound retained its pre-Brexit exchange rate, we could have stayed on the road for another 80-days (or at least come home with a better bank balance at the end).  In work too Brexit has had a huge impact.  I worked for Airbus, in their space division and when I left in 2015 the UK sites had a massive workload, most of it European and I just assumed there would be no problem in slotting right back in to the next programme to come along, as we were always looking for skilled people. Now, post-Brexit, it seems that European space programmes are simply no longer being awarded to Britain and the workload is suffering.

Consequently, these circumstances have made us consider working and living elsewhere.  I started looking for employment back in June and was successful in attracting interest from firms in Holland and Germany.  I had two really good video interviews by Skype (hence the haircuts in the last post) and these were to be followed up by face-to-face interviews on site in each country upon our return.  We landed in Gatwick on a Tuesday morning and on Wednesday I flew to Holland for the Dutch interview in Delft on the Thursday.  The following Monday I had a UK interview in Surrey and then flew to Bremen for the German interview.  So our homecoming was somewhat busy to say the least.  Before declaring the outcome of this here are some facts and figures from our journey…

THE STATS!

 We don’t really have a detailed cost breakdown for the trip but here are some statistics that may be of interest to anyone thinking of a similar trip. We had been slowly planning this trip since the end of the Pan-American ride in 2006.  It was funded by some savings accrued over that time + a monthly income from a rented property in the UK.

 THE TRIP

 Duration:  3 years, 2 months and 6 days (1164 days in total).

Distance Travelled: 51,000 miles.  Note: on average, for every day riding, we spent three days off the bikes allowing us to really explore our changing environment.

 Number of countries visited: 26; England, France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, UAE (Dubai), India, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, East Timor, Australia (including Tasmania), New Zealand and finally Canada.

 Favourite Country: hard one this… toss up between India and Indonesia all based on the colour, aromas and vibrancy of both places.

 Most Memorable Moments:

Every day was truly memorable but a few occasions really stand out…

The Burmese New Year Thingyan Water Festival, the biggest water-pistol fight on the planet.  See post – Magnificent Myanmar (or Burma in old money…)

Helping to cook and serve 5000 Biryanis in Singapore with ‘Free Food For All Charity’.  See post: Singapore feeding the Five Thousand

Meeting an Orang-u-tan in Sumatra.  See post Wild Sumatran Roads

Riding our bikes inside the crater of the volcano at Bromo in Java.  See post And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…”

HU 2017 Indonesia on Sumbawa.  See post Profile of an Adventurer; HU 2017

The spectacular wildlife encounters in Komodo National Park, Indonesia. See post Way of the Dragon!

Worst Moment:Seeing the little girl die in India.  See post Tragedy on the Road East…

 Scariest Moment:  Trying to pass an oncoming truck in roadworks on an elevated highway in Java with millimeters between the side of the truck and a broken neck had he nudged us over the edge. See post Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

 Top 10 Most Beautiful Places that made us go ‘Wow!!!’ (in no particular order and click on each entry to see the relevant photogallery)

Pamukkale (Turkey)

Cappadocia (Turkey)

Tomb of Safi-ad-Din (Iran)

Hampi (India)

Amber Fortress (Rajasthan – India)

Ko Phi Phi Island (Thailand)

Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia)

Bromo Volcano (Indonesia)

Whitehaven Beach (Australia)

Milford Sound (New Zealand)

What We Loved Most: 

 Every day, being able to make the world what we wanted it to be: At home you are bound by the responsibilities of holding down a job and running a house.  Your life is dictated by a fairly rigid timetable of events centred round this and it is further encumbered by a plethora of material things that need care and looking after.  On the road life is minimal and stripped to the basics leaving us the ability to order our lives as we saw fit.  Don’t like a place? Just move on.  Carrying something that isn’t contributing towards the trip? Just give it away. Life is soon pared down to the basics, leaving a lot of time to focus on the things that make you happy and the garnering of beautiful encounters, experiences and meeting simply wonderful people.

 What We Disliked Most: 

 Shipping the bikes: Every time it is different… a different set of documents required, a different set of costs and most of it beyond your control. We hated being separated from the bikes and worrying that something might happen to delay their arrival at the next destination. On a similar note we also hated any protracted dealings with Customs.  The entry into Singapore was perhaps one of the most stressy days of the trip (see…

BIKES: 2 x 2002 model BMW F650GS

Note: for details of the bikes themselves please see the reference section here: The Bikes

 Norm’s Bike – KP52 VTO– covered 51,004 miles on this round the world trip.  Total mileage at the end of the trip: 116,407

What went wrong?:

1 x waterpump & head gasket replaced @ 105,000 miles.  I suspect the head gasket didn’t need to be replaced. I had water in the engine oil but no weep from the special weep hole that indicates waterpump failure.  The head gasket was replaced but in the subsequent pressure test the waterpump was found to be leaking so it too was replaced. I suspect that it was the cause of the water leak all along.

1 x Radiator cap – was sticking and caused over-pressuring of the burp tank when the engine was hot in Darjeeling.  Swapped caps, which confirmed the cap was faulty on both bikes.

1 x leaking fuel pump.  This was the bane of my life for many months on the trip.  A bit of an unusual one, where one of the feedthroughs on the electrical wires that power the pump had overheated causing the rubber seal to yield and allowing petrol to leak via the feedthrough in the top of the plastic fuel pump.  I tried every glue, paint, sealant, putty under the sun to fix the leak and every time the petrol dissolved the fix (I suspect that there is a lot of ethanol / additives in some of the fuels we were using) and the pump leaked again.   As the leak was in the pump, which is mounted on the top of the fuel tank, it was only a problem when the tank was full, but this meant that I couldn’t fill the bike at night in readiness for an early morning start on a full tank of gas.  Eventually I sourced a replacement second hand pump in Brisbane, Australia and that was the end of the problem.

1 x Speedo PCB capacitor replaced – known problem on the F650 that I’d lived with for quite a while, causing the instruments to flicker when cold/damp. Fixed by Wayne Toll in NZ who was aware of the problem and had the parts.

1 x front wheel bearing set replaced due to wear & tear.

2 x Batteries – started with a Motobatt that lasted from May 2013 for 62,000 miles. Replaced with another Motobatt in NZ due to failing performance / start problems.

1 x mystery fail to start attributed to a dodgy relay that was replaced.

Maggie’s Bike – KG02 FUU– covered 50,439 miles on this round the world trip. Total mileage at the end of the trip: 113,710.

What went wrong?:

3 x waterpumps replaced @ 75,000, 85,000 and 109,000 miles.  Not really sure why this bike chewed waterpumps. The third one was attributed to use of a radiator sealant that had fine metal particles in it.  Although they fixed a leaky rad, the little metallic particles also worked their way into the waterpump seals and destroyed them.

1 x Radiator cap – as per the other bike – went shortly after the first one was fixed – good job we ordered two caps!

1 x front wheel bearing set replaced due to wear & tear.

1 x broken wheel spoke (front) – replaced by a custom-made part from Retro Classic Cycles, Yogyakarta, Indonesia .

3 x Batteries – started with a Motobatt that lasted from May 2013 for 30,000 miles.  This died (dried out) in Sumatra, Indonesia and was replaced by a local ‘Gold Shine’ 12N10-3B lead-acid battery, which lasted for 12,300 miles and died on arrival in NZ.  Replaced with another Motobatt.

Service items:

13 x Oil & Filter changes

2x Air Filter changes

2 x Spark Plug changes

3 x Chain & Sprocket kits.

5 x sets brake pads.

5 x Front tyres:

  • 1 x Bridgestone Battlewing – Home – Dubai.
  • 2 x Metzeler Karoo 3’s – Dubai – Chiang Mai (Thailand), then 2ndtyre on to Darwin
  • 2 x Heidenau K60 Scouts – Darwin – Christchurch (NZ), then 2ndtyre on to home

8 x Rear tyres:

  • 1 x Bridgestone Battlewing – Home – Dubai.
  • 1 x Metzeler Karoo 3 – Dubai – Jaipur (India)
  • 1 x Vee Rubber – Jaipur – Chiang Mai
  • 2 x Metzeler Karoo 3 – Chiang Mai (Thailand) – Singapore, then 2ndtyre on to Darwin
  • 3 x Heidenau K60 Scouts – Darwin – Melbourne, then 2ndtyre on to Christchurch (NZ), then 3rdtyre on home.

No real complaints about the road performance / grip of any of the tyres we used.  The Karoo 3’s have a dreadfully short life (about 5000 miles on the rear) as did the Vee Rubber, a Thai tyre and the only replacement we could get in India.

In summary the two bikes were superb.  Great performance (will cruise at 60 – 70 mph all day), economy (60 – 70mpg) with no major breakdowns and nearly all of the problems listed above were simply due to age / wear and tear.

3) ACCOMMODATION

 Accommodation is one of the biggest costs of any trip and here is a breakdown of our accommodation by the number of nights spent at each type of shelter…

Type No. Nights Comments
B&B / Hotel / Apartment (paid) 649 Out of Europe and all the way through Asia.
Camping (paid) 239 We left our camping kit at home in Europe and procured camping kit in Australia for use through there, New Zealand and Canada, where other accommodations are astronomically expensive.
Tour (paid) 25 We were required to join guided tours through both Iran and Myanmar, which included accommodation as part of the overall package.
Family & Friends (free) 142 All the wonderful people who hosted us at their homes across the world, from cousins and friends from home who live overseas to people who followed our website and kindly offered us shelter and hospitality along the way.
Workaway / House-Sitting (free) 109 Workaway / House-Sitting was where we worked or house-sat in exchange for free accommodation and sometimes food.

Add websites

Total = 1164

Taking the total of the paid and free nights accommodation (less the tours), our average spend on accommodation worked out at £17.80 per night.

4) HEALTH & FOOD

In general we both enjoyed improved health throughout the trip and had zero colds / flu for the duration.  I lost a little weight as we find we don’t snack so much when travelling, which is also a more physical activity so you are burning up the calories every day.  I suffer from a Hiatus Hernia and found I was able to reduce my medications for this again due to a more active lifestyle (and not drinking so much wine!).

We had one major health scare when I found a lump in my groin in Thailand. We had fantastic treatment at the local hospital in Chiang Mai, where I was promptly examined and scanned.  It was traced to a side effect from taking Malaria tablets, which can cause inflammation of glands and lymph nodes. We decided to abandon the tablets and worked on preventing bites instead by using insect repellant / mosquito nets / wearing long sleeves etc.

To be honest insects proved to be but a minor inconvenience in Asia. There are a lot of flies in Australia and we got eaten alive by sandflies in Queensland.  However the worst country of the entire trip for insects was Canada, where we provided free breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper, with snacks in between, to just about every winged critter from coast to coast.

We had zero gastric problems / food poisoning etc, over the entire trip!  The food from end to end was awesome! We really enjoyed eating / trying the local food and although we didn’t camp through Asia we did carry our kitchen kit so cooked where possible, when staying in apartment style rooms, using local ingredients.  In India we went vegetarian for the entire 4.5 months except in Kerala and Goa where we also had seafood.

5) THE FUTURE

Everything is now back in the UK.  The bikes are MOT’d, taxed and insured and we have enjoyed a wonderful round of catching up with friends and family both in Stevenage and back home in Belfast, where we had a wonderful reunion with my wee sister Gina, her hubby Robert, my nephew Ryan and niece Becky.  We missed everyone terribly and it was great to come home and feel the love!

So the interviews are all concluded and, with great deliberation, we are opening a new chapter in our journey through this life as we move next to northern Germany to start a new life in Bremen.

Thank you all for following us and watch this space for what happens next…

There is no specific photogallery for this post but I have updated the photogallery page with a favourite snapshot to lead you into each gallery, indexing the entire  trip from start to finish.  Click here to see everything… Photogallery 

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THE LAST POST! – Mounties Cut My Hair! (it must be nearly time to go home)…

In today’s post I want to talk about the important overlander subject of hairdressing and impart some of the lessons learned over our time on the road. Let’s be frank… getting your hair cut on the road is a bit like Russian Roulette only with the scissors.  You have sourced a local barbershop on Google or by chance.  ‘I’d like a number three round the back and sides and leave it a bit longer on the top. Oh! And comb it back.’  All very well at home but when you don’t even speak the same language in some hot, sweaty, backwater town then chaos of the coiffurous kind is sure to follow.  So here are a few brief tips and tales from my own experience…

  • Never, ever, let anyone cut your hair if they have the tip of their tongue sticking out the side of their mouth. Bit of a tricky one this, as generally the tongue will not protrude until they start the actual cut but it is a dead giveaway that they do not practice their profession that often.  I had this happen in a barbershop in Belfast when I went in for an emergency cut before a funeral.  Maybe I shouldn’t have ignored the signs when the old boy who ran the shop said ‘Oh goody! A customer!” when I entered his empty domain.  Result: my head garnered the appearance of a semi-shorn coconut and I got some funny looks at the funeral.
  • The worst haircut I ever had was in West Timor. Keen young lad in a wooden shack, the inside walls festooned with magazine tear-outs showing stylish men’s cuts but he had the proper chair, wash basin and all the scissors, combs and squirty things you expect to see in a hair-cutting establishment.  He spoke no English, nor I Bahasa, but once I was seated he produced a glossy magazine and showed me a photograph of a young African man with one of those high fade haircuts, where the back and sides of the head are totally shaven leaving a thick discus-shaped mat of hair up top like a flat wooly beer-mat.  Funnily enough I declined, at which point his broad grin faded as he commenced to give me the more traditional cut I asked for. He may as well have performed the exercise with a knife and fork and the result was what may well be termed an inverted ‘bird’s nest’ as there were tufts and bits sticking out all over the place.
  • Indians are the best barbers. They are lightening quick masters of the scissors and you’re no sooner in the chair than you’re out.  I had several haircuts on this trip by Indian barbers, both in India and in Malaysia and they had me looking like some slick Tom Cruise… well for a day or so anyway.
  • The difference between a good haircut and a bad one?… About two weeks as that’s how long it takes my bonce to sprout once more into it’s usual unruly mop.

We are now into the twilight days of our travels.  The reason for the latest haircut was that I have been job hunting to secure some meaningful employment once we return home. My efforts had been rewarded with a series of Skype-video interviews with a number of firms in various locations in Europe to be conducted from quiet spots in campgrounds at ungodly hours of the morning.  I had a second interview with a firm in Bremen, Germany, back at Martina’s Air B&B in Great Village and figured I could make myself as presentable as possible in three-year old clothing that has been around the globe but I definitely needed to do something with the hair. From our campsite in Dartford, near Halifax, I Googled for ‘local barbers’ and found a place, not far from the site, called ‘Thorntons 56 Barbershop’.  I called; he had an appointment free that afternoon, so I whizzed round to the address only to find myself in a leafy suburb lined with rather splendid houses.  I pulled up at the immaculately lawned address and there on the wall by the front door was a stripy barbershop pole confirming I was indeed at the correct place. And so I met Greg who led me down to his basement, converted into an old-time barbershop.  I took my seat, my eyes drawn to shelves festooned with ranks of brightly labeled pomades, powders and hair tonics and in the ensuing conversation from the chair I learned that these were all natural products, imported from Holland.  Greg was a retired member of the RCMP – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  He had been cutting hair as a hobby since he was 16-years old and since retirement he’d opened up this little shop at home… When you set out on an extended journey such as ours, you naturally think of all sorts of things that might happen to you while you are on the road.  But never in my wildest imaginings could I have foreseen that I would sit down one day to have my hair cut by a Mountie!  And what a pro!  One of the best haircuts ever along with a fair bit of chair chat and banter as I learned about his life as a cop in exchange for a few fables from the road.

From Halifax we completed our tour of Nova Scotia by riding across the peninsular to the northern shore, where a delightful day threaded us through the beautiful Annapolis Valley.  Great motorcycling as late summer sunlight splintered through the tree canopy, dappling the empty road as our two trusty mounts purred along towards our destination; Yarmouth at the west end of the peninsular.  Another day’s ride completed our lap of Nova Scotia as we rode along the Atlantic Coast to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Lunenberg.  Looking at the map of Nova Scotia you would expect this route to be spectacular as it chases a littoral infused with bays, creeks and inlets but the tree-lined road was set well back from the sea offering views of pretty much bugger all for most of the day.  The saving grace was a few days spent mooching the streets of lovely Lunenberg with its chorus of colonial streets lined with pretty dwellings in primary and pastel colours and the odd magnificent church dotted here and there. A place to wander the waterfront and take in the fishing boats, expensive yachts and the splendid four-masted sailing ships all lined up in their snug berths.

With our days on the road well and truly numbered, we packed up in the knowledge that everyday from here on in would be taking us back towards Toronto and the end of it all.  A final detour took us out to Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province some 140-miles long by around 40 miles wide.  There are two points of access to the island; a ferry at the south/east end and an eight-mile long bridge at the north/west end.  It is free either way to get over to the island; you only pay when you leave. We should have paid closer attention to the road map which looks like a piece of graph paper overlaid on the island outline, denoting a flat, featureless place, with boring, yawn-inducing, straight roads cutting a grid through mostly pastoral lands full of potato and onion crops (PEI grows around 25% of all Canada’s potato crop. Charlottetown, the capital was a pretty place with a claim to fame as the birthplace of Canadian Federation in 1864. A storyboard by the waterfront told how a meeting was initially set up by the provinces of New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia to create a Maritime federation. Representatives from the other provinces heard about it and decided to send their own representatives but unfortunately the timing coincided with the arrival of a large circus in town that had already taken up every available hotel and accommodation.  The Canadian provinces arrived on board the SS Queen Victoriawhere lavish entertainment was laid on for everyone at the conference; the drink flowed and some excellent fare appeared on the tables.  Everyone had such a good time that they thought “Hey! why not make it a Canada-wide federation?”  How lovely that the notion of nationhood should be born over a few wee drinks!

In Charlottetown we were flooded out of our tent courtesy of a biblical deluge of Atlantic rain that fortunately only lasted for one day. Compensation followed on the following day with a beautiful beach walk up at Greenwich on the north coast.  Then it was time to leave the island via that 8-mile long Confederation Bridge, which in winter is the longest bridge in the world to span a frozen river.  Back in New Brunswick we had a serene day at Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy witnessing the highest tides on the planet.  Arriving in early morning we saw the rocks at high tide at around 10:30 am.  Then over the course of the day some 160-billion tonnes of water ebbs and flows mixing with silt from mudflats in the bay to create a huge chocolate coloured river.  By 4pm the tide had dropped by some 46-feet (14 metres) to low-tide allowing us to stroll along a series of little beaches populated by huge flowerpot stacks of brown rock, all topped with a bad haircut of scrubby pine trees.

The weather held good for us as we left New Brunswick, chasing the St John River on more of Canada’s great motorcycling roads.  We made it back into Quebec Province for a relaxing day at the pretty St Lawrence-side town of Trois Pistoles before taking another ferry to cross the mighty river for a short ride to a campsite called ‘Paradis Marin’.  A number of Québécois had recommended we stop at this riverside stop to see whales and dolphins off the rocks and it didn’t disappoint.  The north shore of the St Lawrence was magnificent and had us wishing for a little more time so we could fully explore it but the top half of our three year hour-glass was sadly almost empty and we had to press on towards the end.

A series of rides through Quebec to Montreal led us back into Ontario. When we arrived in Canada we were kindly hosted by Jeff and Lois at Kelowna and now our last couple of stops were with Frank and Sonia (the lovely overlander crowd we met at Meat Cove in Nova Scotia) in their beautiful home at Rigaud, last stop in Quebec and then Judy and Joseph up in Barrie Ontario, another couple of motorcyclists who had been tracking our progress online and had kindly offered us a bed and a dinner. We couldn’t think of a finer way to end our days on the road than in such splendid company.

The final 100km ride in glowing autumn sunshine dropped us down into Mississauga and the end of the road.  This busy city near Toronto was convenient to the airport, where the bikes would be flown home with Air Canada to Heathrow followed by us a day later.  We stayed in a delightful Air BnB run by Fernando, a charming Portuguese guy who had a condo in a new-build high-rise offering splendid views over Toronto and the full run of his apartment and kitchen.  We cleaned the bikes one last time and handed them over to the excellent care of Air Canada Cargo.  Next morning they were gone, flown home to London.  The trip was over.

1165 days on the road – just over three years and two months since we closed the back door in our house in Stevenage and set off to points south and east. 51,000 miles through twenty-five very different countries later and we are heading home!  Our bikes, that pair of yellow BMW F650GS, 2002 models, have been simply magnificent. Both have clocked up around 115,000 miles now and have carried us safely around the world with only the occasional murmur.

These days on our round the world trip have been some of the best times of our lives and we return home richer in spirit, feeling fulfilled and grateful that we have had the opportunity to see so much of our lovely planet and the wonderful people and animals who inhabit it. It’s been a ride! It’s been a blast! So thank you to the cast of millions who aided and abetted, egged-on and encouraged us along the way!

Everyone from family, friends and the faithful who followed every blog to the just plain curious who approached us at every stop to enquire what we were doing and then wished us well for the onward journey.

Thank you too to everyone who opened their doors and put a roof over our heads, inviting us to share their little paradises. To the hotel staff and campground hosts who hosted us along the way, to the gas-station attendants ferrymen and shippers who kept us moving in the right direction, to the waiters and cooks who fed us, to the mechanics and fellow bikers who pulled us out of trouble when we needed help; THANK YOU ALL!

Before I go I’d like to leave you with one final story…  You have read in these pages of our wanderings around the globe.  Hopefully you have been entertained and perhaps you are a little in awe of our achievement, but whatever we do in the world of mankind, it is nothing compared to what goes on in the natural world.  Take the story of a little bird we came across in New Brunswick; the Semipalmated Sandpiper. These tiny little waders breed in Alaska and, unusually in the world of birds, they abandon their chicks within a few weeks of hatching to fly south for the winter to South America. At the point of departure, the chicks are still are unable to fly and are simply abandoned to roam their grassy Tundra nest sites.  The parents first fly south to Hopewell Rocks on the Bay of Fundy where those nutrient rich chocolate waters and mud flats make ideal breeding grounds for all manner of tiny crustaceans.  The Sandpipers stop off for a good feed here, doubling their body mass in two weeks, before continuing on to the coast of Suriname off South America.  They fly by a direct route over the Atlantic Ocean covering some 2500 miles (4000 kilometers) in less than 60 hours! In spring, they return to the breeding grounds in Alaska to start the entire cycle again.  Even more incredible is the story of the abandoned chicks who, having taught themselves how to fly, now set off south to meet their returning parents at the Bay of Fundy.

If you enjoyed following our progress as we chased our dreams around the planet, then the one thing we would hope for is that we have inspired you to do the same; to get out there and pursue your own dreams, whatever they may be. As the old cliché says “Life is not a dress-rehearsal”.  So we head home now to start the next chapter in our lives and as one adventure ends so a new one begins… Watch this space…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: The Last Post: Leaving Canada

 

Double Disaster in Halifax!

From Quebec we set out for a rather pretty ride along the southern shore of the mighty St Lawrence River, one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares.  The Tourist information services in Canada provide excellent local maps and Quebec Province was exceptional in that it had special itineraries for motorcyclists with recommended places to visit and stay along the way.  The roads we followed today were part of the Route des Navigateursand the pretty villages harked back to Northern France with a distinct Breton / Norman feel and charm, as that was where the original settlers in these parts mostly came from.

Soon we were passing into the Maritimes; the Canadian Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.  When North America was colonised by the Europeans, this part was mainly settled by the French and was known as Acadia.  When France surrendered her North American colonies to Britain (see last post) the inhabitants suddenly found themselves subjects of the King of England.  A few years later when war once again broke out between France and England the British authorities, anxious about so many Acadians living in their colony, imposed an oath of allegiance to the crown.  The Acadians refused, whereupon the decision was made to evict them by force if necessary and a new wave of immigrants arrived from Scotland, England and Ireland.  The Acadians were subsequently uprooted and either sent home to France or shipped off to French possessions in the Caribbean and Louisiana, this latter displacement giving rise to the term ‘Cajun’ – a local corruption of ‘Acadian’.  The move proved not to be permanent and when a few years later peace was resumed between France and England, many families returned to the Maritimes and their descendants live there today.

Our introduction to the Maritimes was the coast road through New Brunswick to reach Nova Scotia, known as the Route des Acadians.  There was little to detain us here and we were keen to get up to explore Cape Breton Island, home to a famous route known as the Cabot Trail.  As a change from camping we booked a one-night stop at an Air B&B at a small place called ‘Great Village’ near Truro where our hostess Martina, a lovely lady and fellow traveller, gave us free rein over kitchen and house.  With fellow guests, Christin and Martin from Berlin and gorgeous Labrador doggies Kiwi and Mango, we spent a memorable evening sat in the garden talking about respective travels and life on the road. Martina’s place proved to be a great little traveller’s nook and a place we vowed to return.

Cape Breton Island marks the northernmost extremities of Nova Scotia and two things drew us there…  First was Louisbourg, site of a vast French fortification that in its day defended the approaches to the St Lawrence and access to the colonial hub of Quebec. Then there was that Cabot Trail – a couple of hundred miles circuit around the northern headlands of these beautiful islands that promised some great motorcycling in the sunshine.  We crossed to Cape Breton from the mainland via the Canso Causeway and set up a base camp at Bras d’Or riding part of the beautiful Cabot Trail to get there.  A short ride next day took us to see Louisbourg…

In the early 1700’s, the British held Newfoundland to the north of the St. Lawrence and New England to the south like two gigantic pincers poised to cut the lifeline between New France and the mother country. In between the French held Cape Breton Island where they built an enormous fortress at Louisbourg to guard the seaward approach to the St Lawrence. The new fortress was named in honor of Louis XIV, who was determined to expand the settlements in Acadia and was built in the classical ‘star-shape’ design by Vauban, the most famous military designer and engineer of the age.  Comprising stone walls ten-feet thick and thirty-feet high the impregnable fortification was surrounded by a moat eighty-feet wide with embrasures for nearly 150 cannons.  In its day it was the mightiest fortification in all of North America and believed to be impregnable.

The site was impressive; a spit of land guarding a vast natural anchorage that could shelter the largest of fleets in the world at that time making a perfect base for any French foray against the British New World colonies.  By the 1740s, Louisbourg was a garrison town of some 4,000 inhabitants yet, for all its imposing bulk and enormous cost, the French lost interest in cultivating or developing the area. The population consisted largely of fishermen, garrison soldiers and their families, and smugglers who preyed on New England shipping making it a bit of a pirate haven.  In 1744 Britain and France were once again at war and the governor of Louisbourg, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Duquesnel, launched pre-emptive strikes against British settlements in Nova Scotia.  In response, a rag-tag army of New England colonists set forth from Boston to confront the mighty fortress.  Like Singapore in the twentieth century, the defenders expected an assault to come from the sea and were somewhat alarmed when the colonists failed to oblige, instead landing along the coast and soon commanding higher ground that overlooked the fortress.  Having captured outlying batteries, they turned these fearsome weapons against their previous owners who were by now besieged.  In a short time the French struck their colours, surrendering the fortress.  They did gain terms agreed to march out with arms intact but regardless, this was a disaster for France and a spectacular triumph for the new American colonies.

Then in 1748 a European peace accord gave the fortress back to France in exchange for Madras in India!  A few years later it was back to war and Louisbourg was an obvious key target in British strategy.  This time it was British regulars led by a cautious but brilliant general named Amherst.  Tactics employed were a repeat of the American success and were executed by a striking young officer named Wolfe who would later take Quebec to end for all time French ambitions in the far north.  The strike was bold and audacious but once the British were ashore there was only one outcome – another inglorious, but this time final, surrender. It was a tremendous victory in its day. Captured French flags were taken to London and hung in St. Paul’s Cathedral and Prime Minister Pitt had a special Louisbourg medal struck for the victorious soldiers.  In America the colonies celebrated with firework displays and celebrations on the streets.  Following this second defeat, the fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers in 1760 to prevent the town and port from being used in the future by the French, should any peace process return Cape Breton Island to France.

In the early 1960’s the Canadian Government undertook a reconstruction of one quarter of the town and fortifications to recreate 1740s Louisbourg. As with Fort William in my previous blog, visiting Louisbourg is a step back in history brought to life by re-enactors in period dress representing everything from ordinary townsfolk to garrison marines with vivid displays relating the story of life in the fortress all those years ago and also the story of its reconstruction.  We spent a beautiful day wandering the streets within the fortress walls, watching demonstrations of musketry and artillery shoots by the re-enactors.  A ‘thief’ was brought forth and taken to the town stocks for ridicule and public punishment and it all made for great entertainment.

We learned how life in the army at that time was harsh and severe. Tempted by the promise of guaranteed salary and gain in the New World, recruits soon learned upon arrival that from these salaries they had to pay for their food and upkeep so the only way to live was to borrow from their officers, a regime that was nothing short of slavery.  Small wonder that morale was low and, when the time came to fight, these men were not so keen to give up their lives.  We had a fabulous day here but I felt that the museum, such as it is, was missing one vital piece; there was absolutely nothing about the decline and fall of the fortress, merely a one-line mention that it succumbed to two sieges.  The stories of these battles make for tremendous reading for anyone with any sort of interest in military history, yet it was all simply ignored.  Political correctness? I don’t know, but the story is a vital piece of North American history showing how not only how the French lost North America but also highlighting the increasing independence and prowess of the British colonists there.

In the last post I mentioned how a motorcycle breakdown gained us a recommendation to visit a place called Meat Cove up north on the Cabot Trail and this was our next destination.  Yet another tale of misfortune on the road leading to treasured recommendation and insight into one of the most beautiful places in all of Canada.  A short slalom of a gravel road led us along cliff tops offering dramatic panoramas out over the sea, before dropping us into the cove and out again climbing to the campsite where we pitched our tent right on the cliff edge to look back on that most beautiful scenery.  Meat Cove was named by early European settlers who found a plentiful abundance of moose, bear and deer in the area, yet they came primarily for the animal hides and antlers rather than the meat, which was discarded to give the cove its name.  Our neighbours were a friendly entourage of Quebecois 4WD owners who, after we had a curious mooch around their rigs, were soon sharing wine and campfires for a cosy evening in this wild and rugged place.  Thanks to Frank, Max, Pierre and their friends and families for a memorable evening.

We rode the Cabot Trail south now, down to Cheticamp, the local Acadian pronunciation ‘shittycamp’ raising a schoolboy snigger or two.  It was a glorious diddly-dee dragon’s tail of a road that zigzagged left and right, up and down, roller-coastering alongside a jeweled sea that stretched off to someplace over the horizon.  One of those roads to slap a grin on your chops especially as this beautiful weather continued. These Cape Breton Islands are deeply infused with Celtic tradition be it Breton or Scots-Irish and we continued on down the St Lawrence coast following the Ceilidh Trail.  Back over that Canso Causeway and then chasing Nova Scotia’s wild Atlantic coast all the way to Halifax and one of the worlds great ports.

Halifax was famous during the two world wars as the North American point of departure for the many convoys that kept Britain alive during dark times and a walk along the waterfront allowed us to visit memorials to the fallen in both the Canadian Navy and Merchant Navy from those times. It was also the scene of two famous maritime disasters, happening within a few years of each other in the early twentieth century.  First was the loss of the Titanic, built in our hometown of Belfast.  The ship sank a few hundred miles off the Newfoundland coast and once the magnitude of the disaster became known a small fleet of vessels set sail from Halifax to help recover any possible survivors.  From the two and a half thousand souls who set sail, over 1500 would perish and when the ships from arrived the survivors had already been picked up by the Carpathia who was in the vicinity when Titanic sank.  All that was left was to collect the bodies floating in their life jackets in that cold, cold sea.  The ships knew this and carried a consignment of coffins and pig iron to weigh down some who would be buried at sea in a canvas shroud.

Standing on the waterfront one could imagine the awful scene in 1912 as the Halifax ships returned to port to discharged this dreadful cargo of corpses. The bodies were taken to the local ice-rink, which was used as a morgue.  The Coroner John Henry Barnstead, implemented a system for each body allocating a unique number, an ID card that noted any distinguishing marks and finally a little cotton bag to contain any personal effects found on the bodies. Over the years this system has been used to identify victims from these remnants.  The dead are all buried in Halifax and we visited two of the cemeteries Mount Olivet, were Catholics were interred and Fairview Lawn where the Protestants lie.  It was a moving experience and we spent a few hours reading some of the stories of the dead. Like Body number 12 – unknown female. A box of pills were found on her body, traced to a pharmacy in Ireland and so the identity of Margaret Rice was revealed.  She was a widow returning to the US with her 5 sons aged two to ten years old.  All of the children perished.  Most harrowing was the story of a two-year-old boy, who for years was simply unknown.  When no one came forward to claim the little body, the crew of the ship that found him, the Mackay-Bennett, took care of the funeral arrangements and paid for a tombstone.  Initially it was believed that the child was possibly of Swedish descent but in 2010, 95 years after the disaster, DNA testing was able to identify the child as Sidney Goodwin from Wiltshire.

A few years later in 1917, Halifax was scene of another disaster when a seemingly innocuous collision between two merchant ships in the harbour resulted in the largest man-made explosion on the planet up until the dropping of the Atomic bombs in 1945.  Early on the morning of 6thDecember the Norwegian vessel SS Imo, a charity ship carrying relief supplies for Belgian refugees collided a French cargo ship SS Mont-Blanc, an old ship loaded to the gunwales with high explosives, in an area known as ‘the Narrows’, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbour to Bedford Basin.  The collision wasn’t that remarkable until a consequent fire on board the French ship ignited her cargo, causing a large explosion that devastated Halifax. Over 1600 buildings were destroyed and approximately 2,000 people were killed with an estimated 9,000 others injured by the blast, which contained the equivalent energy of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT.  And so Halifax faced yet another massive morbid clean up operation with the coroner Arthur S. Barnstead employing the same system used by his father to identify the victims on Titanic.  A visit to the Maritime Museum was well worthwhile as it contains the stories of this double disaster and many artifacts from those terrible times including some of the little cotton bags with body ID cards and personal effects from the victims.

From our base at the campsite in Dartmouth, across the river from Halifax, we explored more of this beautiful coastline including a day out to the spectacular Peggy’s Cove and one of the most picturesque villages in all of Canada. Sited amongst a huge glacial boulder field that runs off into the ocean the little fishing village has a smattering of quaint fishermen’s dwellings that run down to the sea where there is an equally pretty lighthouse standing guardian over the rocky shores.  We sampled lobster rolls and scrambled along the rocky shoreline before retuning to our mounts to be chased home by a wicked (but thankfully rare) rainstorm.

Nova Scotia has been magnificent but the grains that run through the sandglass of our days on the road are now down to a fine trickle, as our September finale looms ever nearer.  There is a little more of Nova Scotia to see and then Prince Edward Island before we really do head for home, but there are still one or two marvels to enjoy before that sad time comes…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Nova Scotia

 

Bonjour-Hi! (from Quebec)

Thunder Bay marked our arrival at the Great Lakes.  In the next week or so we would skirt the Canadian shores of both Lake Superior and Lake Huron, vast stretches of water that ran off south to the US.  These lands brought us into areas that were hotly disputed between France and Britain for most of the 18thcentury as both colonies stretched further from their east-coast landing sites and on into the American continent.  The reconstructed Fort William in Thunder Bay was a great place to soak in some period atmosphere of life on the frontier. French Voyageursjourneyed for months on end into the wilds of the west to trade baubles for beaver fur, which was in huge demand in Europe where it was used to make felt for the hat trade.  At the end of each foray into the wilds, they met traders from the east and bartered their goods in the fort, which became a huge caravanserai, an event known as the Rendezvous.  For a few weeks, the place turned into one big party town as deals were made and folk let off steam after their sojourns in the wilderness. Fort William was an outpost of the North West Company whose rivals, the Hudson’s Bay Company had an outpost not far away at Red River that threatened the livelihood of the Nor’Westers.

On arriving at the fort, a couple in period dress met us at the gate and enquired as to what year it was?  When we said “2018…?”, we were assured that we were indeed mistaken as it is in fact 1816. So began a day of reenactment of events centred round a recent battle whereby the Hudson’s Bay Red River colony had been attacked and the Battle of Seven Oaks fought.  The Nor’Westers included a lot of Metis, descendants of early French settlers who had intermarried with local tribes to the extent that they are recognised as one of the three indigenous peoples in Canada today (the others being the Inuit and the First Nation tribes like the Hurons, Iroquois etc).  We met some of them and other characters from the period as we walked around the Fort, where all the talk was of the recent battle and the likely consequences.  Although victorious at the battle, the North West Company was soon subsumed into the larger Hudson’s Bay group, who would become the world’s largest landowner holding over 15% of the entire North American continent.  They still trade today in Canada as a chain of department stores.

The Fort William experience was very well done and made for an entertaining and informative day out.  In contrast our ride on to the east continued as a monotone stretch of tree-lined road with very little of interest to see and with around a thousand miles left to ride until we reached Ottawa. Even the Great Lakes offered disappointing vistas with nary a Corniche or Riviera in sight, just blast-along straight roads through more trees that went on forever. Riding along, I passed some of the time speculating that the natives probably had thousands of words for describing trees, like the Inuit have for types of snow.  The weather was mostly kind with long sunny days.  We had one day of foul weather when we ran into a huge storm cell that spewed forth a rightful deluge that flooded the road and had us scuttling for an early halt into the comfort of a motel room.  After three years on the road our waterproof clothing is more Andrex than Goretex having long ago given up any interest in water repellence and we approached the receptionist like a pair of drowned rats, sodden to the skin and dripping little puddles all over her nice clean foyer.  Good old Canadian hospitality ignored our sorry state and welcomed us with a smile, a hot coffee and a nice clean room that we soon turned into a Chinese laundry to get everything dry.

The ennui of the trans-Canadian haul was enlivened the following day by a sick bike.  We left the motel under clear skies and set off to ride to Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Huron.  After about 80 miles we refueled and, on setting back out on the road, Maggie’s bike started surging and stalling.  We immediately suspected dodgy petrol, or perhaps water in the petrol from yesterday’s downpour, although it was strange that my bike was unaffected.  We limped about 100 miles to a place called Wawa, where we topped off the tank with a higher-grade fuel. Thinking our problem was now sorted, the bike stalled again outside of town and this time she just plain refused to start.  I rode off to book into a campsite a few miles down the road and Maggie waited…  A lovely guy called Steve showed up on a KLR 650 and gave her a fuel additive to displace any water as he’d had a similar problem once before.  I returned in time to thank him and loaded all the kit off Maggie’s bike onto my own to get us to the campsite (this meeting would have a beautiful consequence as Steve insisted that when we get to Nova Scotia we must head to a place called Meat Cove and camp on the cliff-tops there, but more on that next time…).  Now we were faced with a sick-bike haul & push for a couple of miles to reach the campsite.  There was a big downhill section that I reckoned would cover half the distance but for the rest it was looking like time to get sweaty… In desperation I tried the bike one more time; she suddenly fired up, so I quickly jumped aboard and rode her coughing and spluttering all the way to the site. Anticipating a head-scratching afternoon stripping down fuel injectors and cleaning out fuel lines, I was delighted to quickly discover a broken side-stand switch, the cause of all our grief!  The little locking tab had come undone and the switch was making an intermittent contact, causing the bike to surge and stall; a quick fix and a huge relief that it wasn’t something more serious.

And so we finally made it into Ottawa, the Canadian capital city.   Not a place I knew a lot about but I suspected it was one of those made up capitals, like Canberra in Australia – put in some neutral middle ground between English Toronto and French Quebec.  So, entering with minimal expectations and looking to pass on through after a day or so, we found a delightful, stylish city in a beautiful location at the confluence of two major rivers.  The site of the Canadian capital was selected by Queen Victoria who, looking at a map of the area, plonked her finger at an obscure spot on the map, picking a small lumber town in the middle of nowhere and said ‘Jasus Albert, sure thon spot there’ll do nicely’ (or she would have said, had she been Irish).  There was a massive disagreement by local politicians and the Governor General wrote that he was being exiled to the wilderness.  But the Queen’s mind was made up and was not for negotiation and soon a massive city grew up on the site, which turned out to be an ideal location.

On a quiet Sunday we parked up the bikes in downtown to stroll around the tomb of the unknown warrior, the Parliament buildings and through the city into the Byward Market area, a bustling, bubbling mix of art, craft and veggie marketstalls.  The greeting in the shops and stalls was a lovely lilting ‘Bonjour-Hi!” denoting that this is the capital of a country that speaks two major languages.  The World Cup Final was on; France v’s Croatia (the games showed live here during the late-morning / early afternoon) and a festoon of tricolours showed the local sympathy and jazzed up the place even more.  We spent another day in Ottawa at the splendid Canadian Museum of History, where we learned the story of Canada from the early beginnings of the First Nation people, the arrival of the Europeans, the war between the British and the French for North America and the subsequent history of the provinces that make up Canada as we know it today including the more recent attempts of the Québécois to secede from the nation, which fortunately for Canada were unsuccessful.

The strife between the British and French in North America is an interesting story.  Both countries established colonies in the New World, the French around Quebec and the British in New England.  The French were mainly content to send explorers out into the wilds, the Voyageurs, with an emphasis on trade and barter for the lucrative furs for markets back home while the British went more or less straight into land clearance and settlement but with everyone pushing west all the while.  By the latter part of the 18thCentury the French were moving down the great rivers into the American hinterlands and, realising the need to stop British expansion to the west, planned to build a series of fortress / trading posts down the rivers, essentially fencing off any further British forays across the continent.  That, plus the eternal conflict between the two nations at home, spilled into war, which the French ultimately lost when General Wolfe captured their colonial capital at Quebec in 1757.  The struggle for North America ended formally at the Treaty of Paris on November 3rd, 1762 whereby France agreed to surrender Canada and all of its former North American territories east of the Mississippi River to Britain, except New Orleans. France also regained most of the sugar islands in the Caribbean that had been seized by Britain during the war.

The French colonists had remained staunchly loyal to France, merely seeing themselves as Frenchmen on trading missions overseas whereas the British colonists, by the virtue that they were clearing lands for new settlement, soon began to see themselves as ‘Americans’ and started demanding more control of their lives from London’s interference and taxation.  Of course it all led to revolution and independence, the Americans aided and abetted by French ships and troops keen for revenge after their recent reversals on the continent.  These plans soon backfired as the victorious French troops returned home after the USA was birthed, imbued with the fervour of liberté et égalité and the French Revolution was born, resulting in the downfall of the monarchy.

From Ottawa, a day’s ride took us on into Quebec province, where we took a little river ferry from Hudson to Oka and moved from New World America to Old World France, the houses in Oka having a decidedly northern French style to them.  It didn’t last too long as we were soon on a superfast highway that dropped us right into the vast metropolis of Montreal.  The GPS decided that the fastest route was straight through the maelstrom of motorways that slice and dice the city, which of course was anything but fast and more of a slow crawl through a shock of traffic on mangled road surfaces to boot. But the reward at the end of the day was a great little roost called ‘Camping De la Joie’ just outside Quebec City.

The campsite ran a shuttle service into town so we had a beautiful day strolling inside the walls of old Quebec, a myriad of narrow cobblestone streets lined with houses and dwellings all with a decidedly Gallic façade.  A boardwalk by the sumptuous Fairmont Chateau Hotel gave excellent views over the mighty St Lawrence River and our promenade was enlivened by colourful street entertainers and musicians.  We looked out over the Plains of Abraham, scene of Wolfe’s decisive battle and now a landscape garden.  We blew the expenses on a nice lunch sampling local Poutine, a dish of chipped potatoes and shredded duck served with cheese curds in a rich gravy sauce in a shady estaminet and all too soon it was time for the shuttle back to the campsite.  It felt like a day off the bikes, a mini-holiday full of culture in this most beautiful of North American cities.  For sure the days of our trip are now numbered but before it all ends there is one final area to explore; the Maritimes…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Bonjour, Hi!

 

Canadian Love Bite

I’m lying on the bed enjoying the soft cool evening breeze, the mistress elegantly poised on the pillow beside me eyeing me up for some fun.  Mags was off doing her yoga and I’d picked her up in a casual walk through the local park.  She is in a playful mood tonight with a gleam of something wicked in her eye.  She moves slightly to take me in her embrace, gently nuzzling up to my ear, teasing me with a line of ever so soft kisses.  Moving down to my neck she does her thing, humming sweetly as she sets to work…  Later, I walk into the room and Maggie is waiting for me.  “What on earth is that on your neck????” I reach to my neck and feel the lump; my first Canadian love-bite, round, red and swollen.   Bloody mosquitos!  To make matters worse our baggage arrived with Vancouver with a customs label telling us it had been opened for inspection and something called an ‘LAB’ removed & destroyed.  Well I now know that ‘LAB’ stands for ‘Lead-Acid-Battery’ and it took us a few days to realise what was missing; Mozgrim! Our mini, death-to-all-mosquitos, quest-weapon, electrocution-bat that we bought in Thailand and one of the best bits of travel kit ever!  It transformed the horror of being wakened in the night by the buzzing of a mozzie in your ear to sheer joy of hunting it down with a deadly weapon and the satisfying sizzle as the little swine gets fried.  Now we are about to traverse the vastness of Canada at the peak of the mosquito season and we are weaponless.

So here’s a wee game for you…  Take a glass of wine and set yourself down in a comfy chair, then throw the wine up in the air and try to catch it all back in the glass without spilling any of it over your lap…  We got to play this game involuntarily on the Air New Zealand flight from Auckland to Vancouver when our Boeing 777 hit a patch of ‘CAT’ (Clear-Air Turbulence).  We’d just eaten dinner and the crew came round with the wine refills.  We smiled like Cheshire cats and were just about to lick to top of the cream when the plane suddenly dropped from under us. This left the wine suspended in mid-air and us desperately trying to recapture it before it ended up all over the place.  The ‘fasten seat-belts’ sign pinged on and the aircrew hurriedly shuffled the food trolleys to a secure location as the plane took convulsions as we hit more air pockets.  To make matters worse, the airhostess who came on over the tannoy to explain what was happening sounded decidedly nervy and afraid!  I’d hate to have seen what it all looked like from the outside as the plane hit these evil elevators in the sky.  Luckily it only lasted about twenty minutes; twenty very silent minutes, when you could have heard a pin drop, as 300 passengers (and at least one airhostess) sweated the turbulence, trusting that the design engineers at Boeing had got their calculations correct and the plane would withstand this terrific buffeting.  On the plus side we managed to quaff the wine between plummets with very little spillage.

We landed in Vancouver before we took off, having departed Auckland at 8pm on Sunday evening and landed at 2pm earlier that same afternoon due to having crossed the International Date Line and gone back in time. Vancouver is one of those nodal cities that has featured prominently in our travels.  It was our first ever landfall on the North American landmass way back in 1992 when we flew a Honda Goldwing here from London and rode coast-to-coast via the Grand Canyon, flying home from Toronto. In 2006 it was the city where our Pan-American trip ended as we packed and shipped the two BMW’s home, having accomplished our ride from Chile to Alaska.  Now the same BMW’s would arrive from New Zealand and it would be the jump off for the last leg of our round-the-world trip.

We suffered some pretty bad jet lag for the first few days and luckily we hadn’t much to do, as the bikes were not due to arrive until later in the week.  We watched them on an online maritime tracker as they progressed from Auckland to Fiji, to Hawaii and now to Vancouver.  Having left New Zealand in the early days of the antipodean winter, it was a delight to land in spring with warmer temperatures and decent weather on the forecast.  You can imagine our delight when the single budget room we’d booked on Air BnB turned out to be a small apartment, complete with kitchen and access to laundry facilities, a real bonus on the road.  It was located in a tree-lined avenue off Victoria Drive in the east of the city, a mainly Chinese suburb full of friendly and very welcoming people. The main drag was lined with a superb selection of Asian grocery stores granting us access to a medley of amazing ingredients at what seemed ridiculously low prices after our stint in New Zealand, where we reckoned grocery shopping was about 20 – 30% more expensive than anywhere we’ve ever been.  We mooched the streets of Downtown and enjoyed revisiting the waterfront, and harbour areas.  It was a delight too to reacquaint ourselves with the culinary oasis that is Granville Market.  Good to catch up with a few friends too – Mike and Shannon Mills travelled up from Seattle to see us and we had a nice dinner with Taff Thatcher and his wife Sharon.

Sadly, on this visit we encountered a darker side to Vancouver. The No.20 bus into Downtown took us along a main east-west thoroughfare called Hastings Street, a place deserving the moniker of ‘Desolation Row’ if ever there was one.  Here the pavements were lined with the human detritus of Canadian society; homeless tramps, winos and beggars, druggies and down & outs… young and old, male and female all of them living on the street.  For several minutes we traversed through maybe a mile or more of scabrid ranks of these grey, rejected people.  We were stunned and shocked by the numbers, more than we have ever seen in one place in any city.  The bus fell silent as the procession continued on through to Downtown and back to the rest of the world.  These vignettes were complete with snapshots of action too… drugs being dealt; small coin exchanged for small wads of paper wrapped misery… people burning resinous substances on little pieces of foil for a fix… lost souls curled up in fetal positions or sat haunched on the pavement rocking back and forth, red-rimmed eyes glazed, fixed in chemically induced thousand-yard stares. Some help is there.  Along the phalanx of grimy facades, where every door and window was secured with metal bars and monster locks, we picked out missions, churches and charities trying to help but it looked like small lifeboat relief in an ocean of misery.  Chatting to locals it seemed like a repeat of an old story in Western Society these days with a mix of ludicrous property prices and rents in the city forcing young people onto the streets with no prospects and little hope. We learned too that the government has closed down institutions releasing inmates for a dose of ‘care in the community’, which mostly isn’t there but, hey-ho, someone has saved a few dollars.  The vulnerable fall prey to dealers in misery and places like Hasting Street surely thrive.  Then, only a few blocks away, we enter a glass and concrete jungle of swank high-rises in streets prowled by Lamborghinis and Ferraris and the other side of Vancouver. The imbalance is phenomenal to behold.

A major panic just before the bikes arrived!…  We checked in New Zealand before shipping and had lined up some motorcycle insurance cover for our time in Canada through a US based company called Dairyland who have been underwriting insurance policies for foreign travellers and their vehicles for years. We’ve all had a flurry of these emails over data protection and what information organisations hold about you, following new Euro GDPR legislation. It seems that Dairyland looked at their systems with respect to the legislation and decided that compliance was all too complicated so they simply pulled out of the market!  For two weeks we emailed, phoned and visited insurance companies but no one was interested unless we were US or Canadian residents.   Eventually we walked in to a local broker near the corner of the street where our Air BnB was located and a delightful lady called Prem sorted it all out for us, arranging BC registration and insurance cover for a reasonable price.

Then the bikes finally arrived, thankfully all in one piece and it was time to get back on the road…  We had already explored the west of Canada during our Pan-American trip (see www.panamericanadventure.com) so our plan was to head up to Whistler before heading across the mountains towards Banff and from there set off to cross the vast plains of Canada to reach the Great Lakes, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia.  The road out from Vancouver to Whistler and beyond is known as the ‘Sea-to-Sky Highway’ and what a beautiful starter for any country as it hugs the Pacific coastline before turning into a twisting ramp, ascending some 1500m to Canadian Valhalla with lofty white peaks all around. While we were waiting we had two invites to stay with complete strangers on opposite sides of Canada.  Jeff and Lois Gunn live in Kelowna, BC and Judy Bull is in Barrie, Ontario and they have all been following our progress via the website and extended these rather kind invitations to sample some great Canadian hospitality.  Kelowna was on our way to Banff and we had a lovely weekend with Jeff and Lois, who took us to sample some of the local wineries in the Okanangan Valley.  They are simply keen travellers themselves and were happy to open their house to us for a night in exchange for a few tales from the road.

We spent a few days at beautiful Banff in the same Tunnel Mountain campsite we’d used on the Pan-American and we felt a moment of nostalgia as we crossed tracks with that previous journey. We hiked down into the Bow River valley, set in an amphitheatre of humungous granite walls, on a path that eventually threaded back around into town.  The landscape was so vast we felt like a pair of leprechauns entering an arena built for giants.  From Banff we left the mountains to start the ride across Canada on Highway 1, the Trans Canadian Highway.  We skirted Calgary, still up at 1000m altitude, so cool enough to warrant riding in all our cold climate clothing.  The plains slope down to around 200m as we reached the Great Lakes via one-night stops in Medicine Hat, Regina, Winnipeg and Thunder Bay.  The landscape varied between grassy fields and the odd yellow field of rapeseed, all of it flat and exceedingly monotonous. As we approached Winnipeg the weather livened things up in the form of vast thunder cells that draped across our horizon like a drab bullfighters cloak.  One minute we’d be charging straight for a great grey curtain of rain and the next the road would veer away and Olé!; we’d evade a good soaking only to turn back into it all 5 minutes later in a rather entertaining game of hide and seek.  We did escape the rain that day but the weather had its revenge early next morning.  4:30am… both of us fast asleep in the tent… two things happened within a split second of each other.  First someone sneaked into the tent and detonated an billion lumens of camera flash right into our eyes.  A split second later, there was a god-almighty thunderclap right over the tent that jolted us bolt upright with hearts racing as we’d no idea what had happened…  Then spit, splat, splosh as a deluge of a downpour commenced to the soundtrack and special effects of a most vicious thunder and lightning storm.

On the road to Thunder Bay we left the prairies and entered a smashed green landscape of pine forest and little Prussian Blue lakes that sparkled in the sun.  We stopped at a chip van in Kenora “World Famous since 1957” according to the sign. 1957 was probably the last time they changed the oil in their fryer, as the chips on offer were decidedly soggy and brown.  At Thunder Bay we finally reached Lake Superior and took a few days to explore the area.  We visited nearby Kakabeka Falls, a mighty deluge of clear brown water like the issue from a huge soda stream.  There is something serene and magical about the rush of a huge volume of water pouring out and over a precipice.  We read the legend of Greenmantle, daughter of a local Ojibwa Chief, much renowned for her beauty.  She was captured by rival Sioux Indians and taken off to their camp where she was forced to betray the location of her own tribe.  She offered to betray her people and led the Sioux in a surprise canoe raid down the Kaministiquia River.  Then as the Sioux readied for their attack, she sped off down the river.  Furious and angry they chased her only to paddle themselves into faster waters.  At the last minute Greenmantle averted her own canoe to the river bank and watched as the enemy raiders entered the falls…  She then ran to sound the alarm but the invaders were all but destroyed by the mighty cataract of the Kakabeka.  A footnote gave a different ending where Greenmantle herself was killed going over the falls although the outcome for the poor Sioux was just the same. Legend says her spirit can still be seen as a bright and beautiful rainbow at the lip of the falls, while down below in the violent maelstrom of churning waters, the death cries of the Sioux can be clearly heard.

For all the ennui of the roads in this part of the trip it has been magical. The Canadians are wonderful hosts and the daily routine of breaking camp, riding all day, finding a site for the next night and a warm and tasty supper to end the day has been a delight. I’ve been visited too by different mistresses every night… Occasionally just the one, but mostly in groups as they nibble and tease and leave me covered in lumps…  Canada Eh?

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Canadian Love Bite

 

Dog Days of Autumn

I brace myself and walk into the room where Eric Cartman and Winston Churchill have been patiently waiting for my arrival.  They come at me both at once, heads down and aiming for my legs… This is not some weird dream; I’m about to be ‘pugged.’  Cartman (a.k.a Baxter) is the heavyweight senior pup and has first strike, shuffling up to my shin and rubbing his nose right in, snuffling and making little whimpering noises that can be roughly translated as ‘get your bitch-ass into the kitchen and get me some pie!’  Churchill (a.k.a Benny) is not far behind, rounding on my other leg for a good cuddle in what has become our usual morning greeting. It is the end of our days in New Zealand and we are spending them in a newfound vocation as professional pet-minders and house sitters…

It is now more than 1000 days since we left home, fast approaching three years on the road.  Back home folk are looking forward to the arrival of spring but here in New Zealand it is a weird sort of autumn.  While imported deciduous trees play the game, gloriously transforming through their traffic-light green-yellow-red-thru-naked routine, native tree ferns and cycads remain profusely evergreen. The hillsides are festooned with impressive stands of invasive Pampas Grass, looking like quivers of arrows stood ready for some South Seas Agincourt.  An abundance of jelly-tot flowers line the grass verges making it feel more like spring but nighttime temperatures say otherwise.  Luckily in these chillier days we have no more camping for a while in our new occupation.

In a journey of this magnitude, traveling around the world, the journey itself has a certain ‘fixed price’ element.  To see all of the highlights along the way, we need to ride a certain distance through each country, which requires petrol, accommodation and food. There are servicing costs for the bikes to cover consumables such as tyres, oil, chains etc and administration costs to cover visas, health insurance and vehicle insurance (where required).  Finally there are several major sea crossings that require packing, shipment and flights. Add some contingency for emergencies and you can derive a budget for the trip.  Work hard, save your pennies, load-up the bikes and off you go! However the duration of any trip can be greatly extended by ‘punctuating’ the schedule; halts where expenses are reduced to food and accommodation and if you can get free accommodation then these costs become very low indeed.  We already spent four-months in Malaysia and Singapore, waiting for weather to clear up ahead in Indonesia / Northern Australia, doing ‘Workaways’, where we were given a free bed and some free food in return for doing 5-hours work, 5 days a week.  Our personal expenditure over this period was negligible and we obtained a fantastic travel experience living with local people and gaining beautiful insights into their culture, cuisine and way of life.  Another option is ‘House-Sitting’: looking after someone’s home and sometimes their pets while they are off travelling themselves. There are a number of websites marrying hosts and would be house-sitters or, if you are lucky, you might even have some family or friends in far-away places offering the same opportunity. Such was our first experience in New Zealand when fellow travellers, Ruth and Ian who we met in Laos, offered us their home in Wellington for a month while they holidayed in the UK.

‘Windy Welly’ proved to be one of our favourite cities in all of New Zealand.  From our cosy home-sit we spent a couple of weeks mooching the winding, hilly streets that led down to a delightful waterfront area where we visited the spectacular Gallipoli exhibition at the Te Papa Museum.  Having visited the Turkish battlefield earlier in this trip and read quite a few books on the battle, our expectations were no more than a mildly different view of the campaign based on the Kiwi perspective. But ‘Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War’ was quite something else.  Focused on six differing Kiwi stories from the campaign, each participant was represented by a vignette of one or more figurines frozen at a specific moment in the campaign.  Each of the exhibits was exquisitely rendered, fully lifelike in expression and countenance down to hairs and freckles, sweat and grime.  The detail of the uniforms, webbing and brass buttons was outstanding and the environment for each setting, be it mud and dirt, the chaos of action and battle or reflection afterwards at what had just happened fully captured your attention and drew you in to what really happened during those dreadful times.  What was most spectacular of all was that each of the figurines was rendered on a scale of 2.4 : 1 so that they appeared as giants.  It was all executed by the people at Weta Workshops, who specialise in models and effects for films such as ‘Lord of the Rings’.  I will never forget entering the exhibit not knowing any of this and being greeted by the giant representation of Captain Westmacott as he was on the day of the landings… shot in the right arm not long after disembarking, clutching his service Webley revolver in his left hand as he crawled up the track that led to the front, determined to do his duty and take as many enemy soldiers with him to the grave.  His war lasted only one day.  He was evacuated but eventually lost his right arm and spent the rest of his life reflecting on that one day.  He was a watercolour painter and eventually taught himself to paint all over again with his remaining (left) hand.  This and the other images from the exhibit have affected and moved both of us like no other narrative of those dreadful times.  I hope the exhibition will eventually tour, as it is outstanding both in execution and in communicating a message that we really need to pay attention to these days.

The Te Papa Museum is next to Chaffers Marina on the waterfront, which turned out to be the home of Chris and Ina, a couple of fellow round-the-world motorcyclists (Kiwi and German) who we met by pure chance in a gas station in the South Island.  We had exchanged contact details and joined them on their boat for a breezy day sailing around the harbour and chewing the fat about life on the road.  Once again it is amazing, looking back, at how quickly you can make great friendships on the road and we both hope our paths will cross again someday.

Our days in the land of the Kiwi are now numbered and we are indeed in the autumn of our days on the road.  From our cosy home we began to organise the final leg of our trip.  We arranged shipping the bikes on to Canada and tidied them up for departure.  We also booked our final homebound flights to the UK (it is a condition of travel to Canada that tourists must have an onward / return ticket) so we even have an end date now of 10thSeptember.  We also made some of our last motorcycle trips in New Zealand, with a spectacular day ride out and over the Rimutaka Crossing and on to Wairarapa and a short mooch around the little vino-centric town of Martinborough.  Bidding farewell to Wellington we rode to Auckland, decent weather allowing a very scenic ride over the Tongariro Crossing to Lake Taupo.  The town planners of Lake Taupo need a good boot up the backside as they have allowed the foreshore of a pretty lakeside town to be spoiled by a frontage of horrid fast-food joints – Subway, KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut – none of whom strike me as being particularly Kiwi and not what I want to see when I visit a pretty place.  Still it was a good base to hike out to the thunderous chute known as the Huka Falls. And so on to Auckland, where the bikes were crated for shipment to Vancouver, a journey that will take 25 days. Thanks again to everyone at GT Logistics (the shipper we used to bring the bikes over from Australia) for making the process simple and smooth.

We rented a car and explored the delights of the Coromandel peninsular, definitely one of the highlights of the North Island and not to be missed.  Calm autumn days, strolling delectable beaches culminating in a visit to another of New Zealand’s highlights; the beautiful rock formations and islands of Cathedral Cove.  But we needed an additional ‘punctuation’ in our schedule to mark time while the bikes are at sea so we signed up to www.kiwihousesitters.co.nzwhere we were accepted to take care of a 5-bedroom beach house on the Bay of Plenty in the role of house-sitters looking after the pair of aforementioned octogenarian Pugs, not a role either of us ever envisioned as part of a round the world motorcycle ride…

Now I’ll be honest, the notion of looking after a dog in someone’s home while they are away is not a bad one to entertain.  Maybe look after a nice collie dog or a Labrador or even a scruffy mutt that will chase sticks and add delight to any walk… but a pair of Pugs? We called Paora, the homeowner and chatted.  The dogs, Baxter and Benny were both twelve years old, so 84 in human years.  They didn’t need walked as Benny was on heart tablets and also taking antibiotics for a chest infection he’d picked up. Baxter was just horribly overweight and both suffered from poor eyesight.  All we had to do was feed them twice a day, let them out on the lawn to do their business and then clean up after. We didn’t even have to walk them!  We did a little homework… Pugs are a brachycephalicbreed, where the shape of the skull is shorter than typical for other dogs, a feature that has been exaggerated over the years by breeders.  Pugs have some level of elongated palate, which interferes with breathing.  Brachycephalic dogs also have shallow eye sockets and can suffer from proptosis, where their bulging eyes can pop out without much force.  We read with horror that this can even happen during normal play or horsing around. Apparently if you’re quick you can pop the eye back in but… this was starting to sound like an awful lot of responsibility!  In the end we decided that if we just did as Paora asked, we’d probably be safe enough but none of what we read was really doing anything to endear the breed to us.

We turned up at the house on Pukehina Beach to find a gracious home in a beautiful location.  Paora was taking his grandkids to Disneyworld in LA and he quickly showed us the ropes around the house and gave us a run down on the doggy maintenance.  Next morning he was gone and we were home alone with Baxter and Benny for the next two weeks…  Benny looked decidedly under the weather and we were a little concerned that he might fret once Paora had gone but, dogs being dogs, once they realised who was putting the chow down every day they soon warmed to us.  One other thing I knew about Pugs is that they are lap dogs; a small breed suited to plonking themselves on your lap.  What I didn’t appreciate is that they really do love this and the first time I sat on the sofa Benny ran over to me like a small child demanding to be picked up.  I lifted him onto the sofa where he snuggled up on my legs and demanded to be stroked.  This and the early morning greetings soon won our hearts and we’d been well and truly ‘pugged’.

The house faced directly onto the beach and the Pugs were used to being left alone during the day (when Paora went to work) so we had lovely long walks on the golden sands, returning for idyllic dinners in this little corner of paradise.  We visited nearby Taranga and ascended Mount Manganui, a rump of a volcano, while out to sea we could see clouds of steam rise from the very active volcano on nearby White Island.  We made a short hike to visit the waterfalls at Kaiata and in the evening tracked the progress of our bikes online as their ship made its way to Vancouver via Fiji and Honolulu.  All too soon we were tidying up and packing for Paora’s return and our own flights to Canada.  Our first stint at House-Sitting was a grand success.  It was hugely rewarding to leave two very happy little Pugs (breathing normally, with all eyes intact) and a tidy home and our eternal gratitude for this wonderful opportunity to Paora (who also had a great time in LA).

Our final day in New Zealand was a 150-mile drive back to Auckland for the evening flights to Vancouver undertaken in some of the filthiest wet weather of the entire trip to date as it lashed down for most of the journey. The grey dank day reflected our mood a little as we are genuinely sad to be leaving these islands.  We met a lot of great people here and saw a lot of amazing sights but the road must go on and we are also looking forward to that final leg; the ride across Canada and then home.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Dog Days of Autumn

 

The End of the World

Yellow roundel… Number 35… Red streamliner bodywork like a ‘50’s sci-fi movie prop for some guided missile…  1920 Scout…. The legend ‘Offerings to the God of Speed’writ large across a cabinet full of twisted metal, everything from thrown con-rods to melted pistons… ‘Munro Special’.  We can only be in one place on the planet; Invercargill, home of Burt Munro made famous to the wide world through Anthony Hopkins portrayal of the man in that great movie “The World’s Fastest Indian”.  Not just a movie about motorcycles; it’s the story of a man’s passion to chase his dreams and doing so in his senior years.  Burt hand-built and raced-tuned his old 1920’s Indian motorcycle and took it to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, to attempt a world speed record.  He is seen initially as something of a joke when he unveils his home made contraption and presents it to the race scrutineers for permission to run it through a speed trial.  He is permitted to make one test-run, more out of pity and… well watch it for yourselves and see what happens!  One for all the family that’ll tug on every heartstring!

But today we’re not watching the bike on the big screen but in real life. Burt passed away in 1978 and his workshop and collection of bikes are now on display at E. Hayes Hardware Store in Invercargill.  It’s a hard place to describe… think of a local hardware store selling everything from paint and sealant to nails, nuts and bolts, with a mix of home and kitchenware, gifts and souvenirs and even a camping section. It’s a fairly big old shop but scattered throughout all of the hardware is a somewhat incongruous collection of vintage cars and motorcycles including the Burt Munro bikes; his original Indian, various replicas made for the movie and an old AJS he also used to obtain speed records.  There’s something for everyone in this emporium of delight and we spent hours mooching the aisles, ogling the bikes and chatting to the engaging staff over a complimentary coffee.

Invercargill was our base for a ride south to Bluff and the end of the South Island by road in New Zealand.  The wind felt a little blustery that morning, as we left the campsite for the short ride to the end of the world.  Once out of the confines of the city we gained exposure to some vicious, wicked winds, fully intent on knocking us off the bikes. From a crescendo of chop slaps about the head, like a bad-cop interrogation, to full on body blows that slammed broadside into the bikes, pummeling us brutally across the road first one way and then the other.  It was a horrible ride and we arrived at Stirling Point blown red in the cheeks and fully adrenalized by the trial.  Thankfully the wind desisted and the famous signpost proclaimed that the spot we were standing on was exactly 18,958 km from London.  White capped waves crashed on the rocks below and out on the horizon grey sea met bleak sky, smudged in places like an overdone watercolour. We took some photographs to mark the occasion and were in turn photographed by a smiley Korean family who were amazed by our journey to get here.  They left us to contemplate the fact that, right here on this spot, we were probably as far away from our point of origin as it is possible to get on the planet on our bikes. Not only that but from this point on, every mile turned would slowly take us back towards home…

Invercargill presented another link with home in the form of the Bill Richardson Transport Worldand Motorcycle Mecca.  The Richardson family hailed from Drummaul in County Antrim, Northern Ireland and came to the area as farming immigrants in the late 1800’s. With increasing mechanization in the twentieth century the family drifted into the transport business and in later years Bill Richardson began collecting old trucks, cars and motorcycles eventually acquiring an enormous private collection now housed in the aforementioned museums.  If you are thinking by now dreary sheds filled with dusty charabancs and crusty wagons then think again.  Both museums were deserving of the appellation ‘best in class’ with every vehicle beautifully restored and presented. We spent an entire day here and loved the fact that all of the exhibits were freely accessible, relying on trust for you not to touch anything, thus allowing one to peruse the exhibits from every angle and appreciate every line.  Attention to detail was magnificent down to the very toilets and each WC was themed around some aspect of motorized life.

To start the ride back north, we took to some fine motorcycling roads through the Caitlin Hill country.  Along the way we were met and escorted by Wayne Poll, another F650 aficionado, who had kindly offered to host us with his delightful family in Dunedin.  Wayne’s wife Greer and daughter Eden had a roast chicken dinner waiting and after this we settled in to a warm evening of some of the finest Kiwi hospitality.  We spent the following morning repairing the printed circuit board on the instrument cluster of my bike.  There is a known fault whereby a capacitor fails causing the speedo and rev-counter to flicker wildly and the digital odometer display start tumbling madly. Everything eventually settles down once the component warms up but it is annoying and Wayne had offered to fix it for me. In addition to helping wayward travellers, Wayne also organises the annual TT2000 event; a 2000-km, 48-hour motorcycle endurance ride (https://www.tt2000.org).  How would you fancy a weekend riding 2000-km around a series of checkpoints in the South Island on mix of sealed and gravel roads?  Entrants are given a T-Shirt and must photograph their bike with the shirt at each stop.  Points are awarded depending on ease of access in gaining each checkpoint.  It’s not a race and riders are expected to cover the ground while observing the legal speed limits.  You can ride the route anyway you please and select as many of the checkpoints as targets as you like.  The event was started over ten years ago by Kiwi Mike Hyde, author of the Twisted Throttleseries of books on motorcycle overlanding and touring.  Sadly Mike passed away in 2015 and Wayne stepped up to ensure the continuity of the event.  He does an amazing job too by all accounts and it was a privilege to meet him.

From Dunedin we road north on a short days ride to Oamaru, a lovely little coastal town that doesn’t seem to figure much on the tourist itinerary. Our next planned stop had been the mountain town of Twizel, base for exploring Mount Cook, but foul weather was at play making it unwise to continue in that direction for now.  Oamaru still oozed with that ‘end-of-the-world’ feel to it; the town even has it’s own penguin colony and the harbour is where the Terra Novamade landfall on the return from the fatal South Pole expedition, bringing first news to the world that Scott and his entire party had perished in the 1912 attempt on the pole.  There is a splendid Victorian quarter, complete with the outstanding ‘Adventure Book shop’, specialising in polar exploration and mountaineering books. The shop is home to a movie replica of the ‘James Caird’, the lifeboat that Sir Ernest Shackleton and five companions used in 1916 in the southern Atlantic Ocean to escape from Elephant Island to reach South Georgia, an epic 800-mile (1,300 km) trip and still regarded as one of the greatest small-boat journeys ever undertaken. We mooched the Grainstore Gallery, a wonderful jumble of a place set in a lofty old Victorian grain store.  The place resembled a fateful collision between museum, working art studio and gallery of Victoriana, the cavernous interior festooned with heads, faces and eyes of everything from saints and angels, demons and demi-gods to jokers, jesters and penguins all beautifully executed in a range of styles and fashions.

Final showpiece for Oamaru was ‘Steampunk HQ.’   ‘Steampunk’ is a science-fiction genre, projecting a future in which electricity never fully developed as a technology allowing for a world dominated by extrapolated steam powered mechanical devices and machines. Steampunk HQis a jaw dropping contraptuary; a collection of such relics and artifacts and quite unique and unlike anything else we’ve experienced on our travels. We visited the HQ with fellow overlanders, Martin Strebel and Xenia Sägesser, from Switzerland on their pair of XT660’s.  We spent a pleasant few days dining and chatting together in the campsite as we waited for better weather to move in.  They eventually rode on north to Christchurch while we headed west to Twizel and that appointment with Mount Cook and from museums and fine hosts to more of that spectacular New Zealand outdoor life.

Teal coloured lakeland competed with snow capped mountain in attracting the eye, all of it slightly otherworldly.  It felt remote and inaccessible and vestiges of the recent bad weather made for sci-fi skies filled with lenticular clouds and a highway-to-hell sunrise each and every day.  We tramped up the Hooker Valley to see Mount Cook itself, the weather veiling New Zealand’s highest peak with gossamer wisps of cloud that parted occasionally for tantalising glimpses of lofty granite summit iced with snow.  On the day we left Twizel, bad weather was forecast with heavy rain and high winds so an early alarm had us up, packed and ready to leave for 8am.  It was a day spent riding in escape-and-evasion mode, ever looking over our left shoulders at a huge bruise of a weather-front that seemed to be chasing us and obliterating everything in its path along the way.  The sky dominated the scenery, filled with smoke marbled clouds that seemed to herald the end of the world.   It was dangerous as our eyes kept drifting away from the road, ever drawn upwards to marvel at the Cistine ceiling of clouds above, at once monstrous and magnificent, beautiful and beastly and seemingly in possession of a life of their own. Who knows, maybe it was all camouflage for a Steampunk invasion, the clouds filled with gothic beings from another planet travelling in their zeppelins, aiming vaporizing death-rays at our bikes as we rode along?  I am glad to report that our evasion attempts were successful and we reached our destination warm and dry, once again awed by the beauty of the world in which we live.

We had new tyres fitted (possibly the last of the trip?) by Kiwi Motorcycle Rentals (https://www.citymotorcyclerentals.com), who are the NZ importer for Heidenau tyres.  We spent a morning in the company of Andrea and Alan who really went out of their way to look after us and we left with a very high opinion of their business, especially the attention to detail and customer care. The new tyres were run in on a ride up to Hanmer Springs where we spent Easter doing a spot of gentle hiking in warm settled weather before riding on to Westport back on the stormy west coast. Here we visited the Pancake Rocks at Punakaiki and spent a day slaloming on the coast road rendered wild and windy by the weather, although it thankfully remained dry.

Our penultimate stop on the South Island was up in Takaka with Joe Hambrook, a Kiwi ‘round-the-wordler’ who we met, on his way home, at Horizons Unlimited in Indonesia.  Takaka is up on Golden Bay in the very northwest corner of the island and is something of a little paradise.  Our initial plan had been to come here first on arrival in the South Island but the weather intervened when Cyclone Gita destroyed the only access road over Takaka Hill, a huge landslide taking out multiple sections of the road and closing it for ten days.  It had only recently re-opened, with traffic escorted at fixed times in each direction by a convoy system, so we had a good look at the clean up operation and could appreciate first-hand the damage done by the foul weather.  Joe was born here and works today as a Park Ranger for the DOC (Dept of Conservation) and he laid on some excellent days out to Wharariki Beach and Abel Tasman National Park. It was an immensely pleasurable experience and indeed a privilege to walk the land with such a local expert.

A final ride took us on a series of twisty roads under luxurious cobalt skies through the Marlborough Sounds area back to Picton, both gateway and now exit to this South Island paradise.  On the ferry back to Wellington we contemplated how we very nearly skipped this ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ due to the difficulties and expenses of getting here.  It has been one of the highlights of our entire trip and a place we will be very sad to leave, as one day soon we surely must…

There are two photogalleries for this post that may be accessed by clicking the following links:

New Zealand, To the End of the World.

Invercargill: The Museums

 

The Beautiful South…

The ferry from Wellington to Picton, gateway to the South Island of New Zealand, was like no other sea crossing in the world.  The boat left early in the afternoon and sailed out from the calm waters afforded by the lee shores of Wellington harbour.  The city shone like a little jewel, stacked buildings lining an amphitheatre of hills as we bade farewell to the North Island. Then out into the Cook Strait, a mere 14-miles (22-km) across, yet considered to be one of the most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water in the world.  Immediately, deep midnight blue seas began cresting and frothing into a furious spume of whitecaps as the wind escalated into a fury.  We’ve ridden in some wicked crosswinds and felt the effect as the bikes get knocked around; it was something else to stand on the top deck of a 20,000-ton ferry and experience the entire ship getting slapped hither and thither as we crabbed our way across the strait.  We stood in awe as the sheer bluffs of the South Island hove into view, feeling slightly alarmed as the ship seemed to be steered straight for the sheer wall of rock ahead.  And then, as if it were all some colossal moving stage set, the cliffs parted to permit entry to the stupendous sights of Queen Charlotte Sound.  The wind desisted, the engines rumbled at a slow tick-over and we drifted silently up serene waters to reach our destination.

Picton; what a glorious reception to a new island…  Within minutes of parking up at the campsite, Gary and Jane, a pair of retired coppers from Essex thrust a couple of chilled beers into our mitts.  By the time we’d had a natter and got our gear set up it was too late to cook so we implemented our tried and trusted Plan ‘B’, developed with much consideration as a contingency for such emergencies: blow the expenses; wander the streets and find the Irish Bar.  A plethora of gold-on-black Guinness Harps and vivid green shamrocks drew us towards a fine looking place, the signage proclaiming the establishment as “Seumus’s Irish Bar – Purveyors of Fine Beverages – Drinking Consultants.”  Live music on tap too, not the diddly-dee mind, but a young solo guitarist rendering a mix of fine covers amongst a smattering of his own original work.  We ordered beer and food and snared the last free table in the buzzing hostelry.  Moments later a couple approached us and requested in a beautiful Irish lilt, if it was not too much trouble, could they possibly share the last two free seats at our table?

Ann and Liam hailed from Limerick, where Ann was a retired schoolteacher from an all-girls school she referred to as ‘hormone house’ and Liam had also retired from a life as a sales rep for C&C, the Irish lemonade company. On their first visit to New Zealand they attained refugee status, having arrived in Christchurch the day before the big earthquake struck.  They lost everything; luggage, ID, money and were wandering around in the clothes they were wearing.  They forever hold the New Zealand people in high esteem as people took them in and looked after them until they could replace their lost belongings.  Their son subsequently married a Kiwi lass and they were over for a visit.  In all this time chatting, it seemed that our food order had gone astray.  At an interval between songs the singer noticed our plight and left the stage to enquire at the kitchen.  It turned out that the order had been taken at the bar but not sent through to the kitchen.  The staff were mortified and we were immediately plied with a round of free drinks!  The food finally arrived and was just fantastic and well worth the wait. The music continued and the craic was good.  To cap it all Liam disappeared to the bar and returned with a house specialty; a ‘Baileys and Whisky Slushy’ for a final toast to a splendid evening.  And so our trip ends here as we took up residency at this fine establishment, set in such luscious surroundings.  I mean why would you need to go on?  It soooo very nearly came to that I can tell you!

However it was not to be… Two things led to our eviction from paradise in Picton.  Firstly, the gremlins returned to play on my bike.  She had lost coolant over the past few weeks and I couldn’t find the leak. I checked the waterpump, which had proved troublesome in the past on Maggie’s bike, but there was no sign of any seepage around the inspection hole.  I’d checked the oil tank, in case the head gasket had gone, but the oil looked clean every time I looked with no sign of contamination… up until this morning that is. When I checked, it was now topped with a fine head of white mousse suggesting that the gremlins had also visited Seumus’s Irish Bar and the little buggers had been plying the bike with Guinness (or more accurately; the head gasket had indeed blown).  The second and slightly more worrying concern for eviction was that the remnants of cyclone ‘Gita’ were on their way, forecast to howl through the Cook Strait and cause considerable damage to land and property in it’s path.  We ordered a head gasket from Avon City Motorcycles in Christchurch and decided to flee there to sit out the storm and sort out the bike.

The following days felt like we were being stalked by the storm.  It ravaged the west coast and came through the Straits as forecast, blocking the single road to Takaka in the north west of the island and closing the coast road behind us from Picton to Christchurch with massive landslides.  Not only that but the forecast predicted that, having passed through the Cook Strait, the severe weather would run out to sea and then head back to deliver a rabbit punch to the Christchurch area.  A ‘state of emergency’ was formally declared in the city.  All unnecessary travel was advised against. In the event the city was lashed by a bit of rain that would have been unremarkable had we not had all the weather warnings and we sat it out while waiting for the bike to be repaired.  In the event Avon City did a splendid job, replacing the head gasket and also the waterpump, which failed under a pressure test.

With the bike gremlins evicted we set off to ride across the South Island to the stormy west coast, taking advantage of a window of some settled weather. The day’s journey took us on another of motorcyclings greatest rides; Arthurs Pass a rollercoaster of a road that slashed across the midriff of the south island. The road ascended across arable plains into a heartland of fabulous mountains sporting the first snowy peaks of the late summer season.  It then shot through a rapture of river valleys to deposit us on the West Coast and the wreck of a campsite at Rapahoe, just north of Greymouth.  I say ‘wreck’ because Gita had been in to play causing high seas to inundate the camping greens replacing luscious lawns with a scree of grey sand and pebble.  The site had been an old school house and they’d had to excavate the camping areas with a bulldozer.  We felt sorry for the owners who’d run the site for 40-years to see all their effort ruined so badly in a single twenty-four hour period.

From Rapahoe, roads took us south to visit the marvelous Franz Josef Glacier, where a day hike led us up a valley festooned with waterfalls and deposited us at the leading edge of the glacier stub.  The glacier has been in gradual retreat and only a hundred years ago the entire valley where we walked today had been buried in ice.  Normally folk visit the twin glaciers of Franz Josef and the Fox in the adjacent valley, but ‘Gita’ had visited first and closed the access road to the Fox Glacier with another landslide.  We rode on up the vast Haast Valley to escape more rainy forecasts and fled to Wanaka via a pair of sublimely beautiful Lakes Wanaka and Hawea. In Wanaka we caught up for a night in the bar and some dinner with my work colleague, Kevin Blackett and his wife Diane, on holiday to visit their daughter who is a doctor in Christchurch. Over dinner we discussed the lovely peculiarities of Kiwi English and how they love to mangle vowels…  Thus you can have ‘fush and chups’ here for your tea. ‘Tint Pigs’ are not slightly shaded ovines but the things we use to peg our tent down.  Kevin made me spew my beer when he asked had I heard about ‘Dick Oil!’ “It’s advertised on the radio… seriously.  All the men use it here.”  Turns out it is a wonderful Kiwi pronunciation of an oil used to weather proof your ‘deck’and other outdoor carpentry!

One of those useless statistics I remember learning at school is that the population of New Zealand has more sheep than people.  I can confirm that, while this is still true, these days there are more camper-vans than sheep.  From Wanaka down to Queenstown and on to Te Anua, gateway to Milford Sound, we were in ‘NZ tourist central’.  In Queenstown the site was crammed with people to the point where our guy ropes actually crossed with those of the adjacent tents and this all in their shoulder season.  But it is breathtaking country, hence the popularity; high snow-capped mountains draped in those long white clouds that the islands are named for and dreamy lakes offered up glorious vistas as we entered what were perhaps the finest days of all our travels in NZ. Autumn weather stayed kind as we hiked around Wanaka, rode out to Glenorchy and then that road to Milford Sound…

Milford Sound is a proper fjord, a glacial valley that has retreated and been inundated by the sea.  We had booked a lunchtime cruise on the sound itself giving us a lazy morning to slowly head up the 70-miles from our campsite base at Te Anua. The ride itself was spectacular, chasing mercury-silvered lakes up broad valleys and into a fortress vault full of mountains with seemingly no way through. We met a Kea, one of New Zealand’s native parrots.  Having parked at one of the little viewpoints along the way to take some photographs, a large jade-coloured bird came hopping across the carpark, straight to the bikes where he perched on my back seat, presumably scrounging for some grub.  Keas are the world’s largest parrot and are possessed of a base intelligence and curiosity that can make them very destructive with a penchant for shredding windscreen wipers and rubbery bits on parked cars.  Kiwi motorcyclists had warned us to watch them around the bike, as they will investigate everything from exposed wiring looms to seams in seat covers and wreak devastation.  This is achieved by means of one of the wickedest looking beaks I ever saw on a bird. It was massive, shining black like a sacrificial obsidian blade.  Fortunately his curiosity was short lived and he moved on but we decided to try and avoid parking anywhere where they are present.

Our road led us up a blind draw, with only a slab wall of mountain looming ahead and no obvious route to the sea.  The mystery was solved when we arrived at a magical Ali-Baba gateway that cut straight through the mountain; the Homer Tunnel.  The tunnel felt like we’d been blindfolded while someone whispered in our ear, “Big surprise coming up… if you think the ride so far has been amazing then you ain’t seen nothing yet!…. Just a little bit further now… wait for it… wait for it… Tah-Dah!!!”  We exited the tunnel into bright sunshine and dropped down to the sea on a loopy road, surrounded by a majesty of mountains that rendered scenery surely unequalled in few places on this planet.  This was wow-wow-wow stuff that had us jabbering over the intercom like we’d just won the jackpot on the lottery.  At Milford Sound our cruise boat waited to take us up the fjord into a wonderland of cascades and waterfalls and… well, I’ll let the photogallery take over here… As an old comedian once said “and there’s more!” but that will have to wait until next time.  For now just enjoy those photos…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, The Beautiful South.

 

Journey through the North Island

I’m completely blind. I can’t see a thing, stumbling along, my feet shuffling as I take tiny tenuous steps and edge my way forward in the darkness. We take our five senses for granted until deprived of one of them and then it’s a whole new ballgame; mildly terrifying too and all of this over a wee bird. Other senses try to compensate. I listen keenly for other footsteps and I can both smell and taste the mulchy wetness of the rainforest around me. I reach out to touch Maggie for reassurance; she was right there in front of me seconds ago but she’s gone, moved on. I feel like I’m going to fall forwards. To steady myself I crane my neck skywards to glimpse the heavens but primeval rainforest canopy has shredded the velvet cloth only granting bejeweled tatters here and there, none of it enough to make a familiar constellation. I am even abandoned by the moon, although for our purpose tonight that’s supposed to be a good thing. I look to the ground and am astounded to see that parts of the sky have fallen here and there, blue flames of starlight shining out of the murk and then I realise that it’s only glowworms doing their thing. Up ahead a low glimmer of red light and silhouettes suddenly dance out of the darkness. It’s enough to let me follow the path, catch up with the group and continue the hunt for the elusive Kiwi.

We are in the Kauri Rain Forest north of Auckland on a night safari to find the famous bird of New Zealand. Bob, our guide, leads with an infrared lamp, our only hope of illuminating this nocturnal prey. Expectations had been managed beforehand as Bob explained that only 3% of New Zealanders have actually seen one in the wild. At the sight of any white light, they’ll be gone long before we can get anywhere near and likewise with any noise and strong smells. In fact anything unfamiliar will send them on a speedy flight to their burrows. Totally flightless, they forage in the night probing the forest floor with their long proboscis beak for grubs and insects. Unlike normal birds, which are hollow boned to aid flight, Kiwis have weighty marrow in their bones to further bind them to the ground. Their unique skeleton has all of their organs suspended from the backbone in a tummy cavity supported by a diaphragm with no sternum bones so they are easily damaged when roughly handled by predators like dogs and cats. They smell like puppy dogs too, so are easy prey for any hound who can dispatch up to 30 birds in a night. They reached endangered status as they only lay one or two eggs a year in their burrow, which is easily pilfered by foreign predators such as stoats, rats and even hedgehogs for a feast on whopping Kiwi eggs which are about 20% of the size of the adult that laid them. That makes for the biggest egg in proportion to its body size of any bird in the world. For comparison, the kiwi is about the same size as a domestic chicken yet its eggs that are about six times the size of a chicken egg. Baby Kiwis spend only a few days with their parents after hatching, feeding on their egg remnants before being driven off by the adults, who are very territorial. This means that over a range of land the senior birds are at the centre of the colony, with younger birds driven to the outskirts, where they are vulnerable prey. Fortunately all of this has been recognised by conservationists so Kiwi habitat is well protected and numbers are on the increase.

Back on the trail there was no sight of the wee buggers. We heard both males and females calling way off in the dark but it seemed that would be our lot for tonight. Still the sensory deprivation on the 2km trail was a novel experience and we did see those marvelous glowworms and a somewhat incongruous long-tailed eel, another native unique to New Zealand, living in a little brook up in this forest, quite a way from the sea. We wound up back at the carpark resigned to mild disappointment when Bob illuminated a stretch of grass and there on the tree line a little fellow, looking like Captain Caveman with his arms folded behind his back, was probing the leaf mulch with his big nose for dinner. It was an amazing sight, nay a privilege and one that awed every one of us. Even the wildlife in New Zealand was utterly magical.

In the last post I described the wonderful serendipity you get when traveling and things go wrong. It seems our misfortune with the bike was to bring us more delicious encounters. Bypassing Auckland we headed south to Rotorua to visit the thermal features there. When my bike had broken down in the north we had a kind offer of help from Lindsay Goodwin and his son Dave, who live in Taupiri near Hamilton, to check the bike over on their computer with a GS-911 diagnostic tool. Although the bike was now repaired and running well, it seemed like a good idea to perform this simple check in case any sensors or electronics were on the blink so we called by their shop where the bike was efficiently checked and given the all clear. The rest of a sunny afternoon was spent chewing the fat on bikes and travel with Lindsay, Dave and one of their friends, Des O’Sullivan, who regaled us with tales from his time in Mongolia. We learned too that Des had a somewhat strange collection of vehicles and were invited that evening to visit his ‘shed’. Now you might be expecting me to relate next how he had a shed full of old British bikes; Nortons, Matchless, AJS etc or even a shed full of splendid American muscle cars but it was none of the above; Des has a collection of tanks! Next thing we were staring down the business end of a 120mm rifled cannon on the other end of which was a Berlin Brigade Chieftain Tank, resplendent in its blocky urban paint scheme.   In the corner sat a squat, mean looking WW2 era M41 Walker Bulldog. Several eastern-bloc armoured personnel carriers, a few trucks and other light armoured vehicles completed the collection and a great day was topped by a superb evening clambering over these monsters.

With a farewell to the guys who also kindly hosted us for the evening we had a pleasant days ride on to Rotorua, one of New Zealand’s top attractions with its famous fields of geysers, hot springs and other geothermal features. We visited the thermal park at Te Puia and I have to say we both found it a little underwhelming; perhaps we had been spoiled by having previously visited the insuperable thermals at Yellowstone. The hefty $69 per person admission fee made it a pricey excursion; at roughly $2 NZD to the pound that cost around seventy quid for both of us to enter. We had a grey day for our visit, which rendered a dullish tint of gloom to the setting of boiling grey mudflats. A horrid looking hotel spa had been built as a blot on the skyline giving the park the air of a back lot in Chernobyl. The saving grace was the Maori cultural experience, where we were entreated to a Haka welcoming ceremony followed by a splendid song and dance performance.

From Rotorua we took a short ride into the mountains to visit Waimangu volcanic rift valley, one of the youngest geothermal features in the world. On 10th June 1886 the Tarawera Volcano erupted, blowing the side off the mountain and opening a huge valley, which quickly filled to form several lakes and geothermal features including the largest hot spring in the world. Prior to the eruption, the area was already a tourist beauty spot and hosted a series of famous pink and white terraces, hailed in their day as the eighth wonder of the world as well as the world’s largest geyser. All of this was destroyed during the eruption, which killed 153 people and buried three nearby villages along with the famous terraces. It was quite a beautiful walk but again there was a hefty admission fee of $38 per head just to walk some tracks (this does include a bus ride back from the end of the trail but it would have been nice to decline this for a cheaper admission as we didn’t use it).

We decided against any further expensive excursions from Rotorua, a decision aided by the fact that the weather was now seriously impacting our activities. The remnants of a tropical storm washed in and we encountered heavy rain that drenched our little campsite over the next three days. We ensconced ourselves in the camp kitchen to utilize the time to write and edit photographs but the forecast showed no change to the wet weather and in the end we abandoned the central highlands and plans to walk to Tongariro Gap near Lake Taupo. We managed to pack the contents of our little tent and keep them dry but the outer skin was a soggy mess and we just rolled it into a bin bag and strapped it to the back of the bike. In over two and a half years on the road this was the first day we have had to set out to ride in seriously wet weather, in high country too. We had 150 miles to cover to get down to the east coast and the little town of Hastings and a promise of shelter in the form of a cheap motel.

The ride was anything but dreary in spite of a day so dreich and drizzled. The roads were pretty good allowing us to maintain a decent speed as we passed through miles of mountainous pine forest and dropped into a fantastic twisting descent that gradually lost the rain with the altitude. By the time we reached Hastings the sun was out and about. We unpacked the soggy luggage off the bikes and watched the steam rise as it warmed in the afternoon sun. We poured the tent outer from its bin bag and I swore there were actual fish in the deluge. We draped it over a hedge and within an hour or so it was dry.

Hastings was a little gem and it sparkled justly in the sun next day. It was largely destroyed in the 1930’s by an earthquake and was rebuilt in an art-deco style that was all the rage at that time. It made for a quaint and curious little town to while away a morning and plan our next steps. We already had a kindly offer to house-sit for some friends in Wellington for a month from the middle of April so that, plus the poor weather, decided us to abandon all further travels in the North Island and head south. Another splendid day’s ride took us to the beautiful city of Wellington, where our friends Ruth and Ian took us out for a somewhat unusual and brilliant St. Valentines Day evening at the local zoo. There we had a romantic picnic and a mooch around the animal enclosures. In the morning we bade our farewells and rode to the inter-island ferry that would take us on to Picton, the South Island and a whole new chapter of astounding places and what would prove to be some of the highlights of the entire trip.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, Journey through the North Island.

 

South Seas Serendipity…

The bus dropped us off with our bags at the downtown stop at 7am on a Saturday morning. We’d flown in on a very cramped Jetstar flight from Melbourne for a visa run, planning to spend four nights in the city. Once off the bus, the piquant smell of stale piss assailed our nostrils as Friday-night partygoers had evidently relieved themselves en masse on the streets. Our initial impressions were further dented at the sight of an inebriated man actually pissing in the street, urinating at a tree rather than up against it, wobbling around with his penis in his hand spaying the pavement and doing that weird ‘dance of the drunks’ with one foot firmly planted, the other stomping on invisible frogs that were scattered all around and only he could see. We moved on to quickly find our shoebox hotel and were relieved when the friendly receptionist informed us we could have the room immediately and not have to wait until 2pm, the official check-in time. Not exactly the kind of image you’d conjure up at the mention of ‘New Zealand’ as a travel destination. You tend to think more of snowy peaks and pinnacles rather than pissheads and pricks but thankfully it was not an image that would endure and was quickly replaced by more pleasant associations with these islands. Welcome to Auckland! Our four days flew by and, in spite of the odd blustery shower, we had a good look around exploring the quaint harbour area and taking a ferry trip over to Devonport.

Still, it was not certain that we would make it to New Zealand with the bikes. Fast approaching two and a half years on the road, our finances we starting to feel the strain. We had some alarming quotes to ship the bikes there from Oz and also had to consider onward shipment to the Americas to get home… Finally a more sensible quote arrived from specialist vehicle shipper GT Logistics, recommended by our buddy Tom Curtis from HU Indonesia. In fact they proved to be the best shipper we have used to date, responding promptly and efficiently to all our communications and everything happened like they said it would with no nasty surprises. New Zealand was back on the Itinerary!

Our third Christmas on the road was spent in the fold of our lovely family in Melbourne. Having returned from Tasmania, the plan was to have a lazy, relaxing run up to Christmas and then have a leisurely time preparing the bikes for shipping sometime in January. This was quickly turned on its head when GT requested we deliver the bikes to the Port of Melbourne before 30th December. A frantic week ensued, dismantling and cleaning the bikes, wary lest we fail another quarantine inspection. The bikes travelled to Auckland by RoRo ferry (so no expensive crating) and the only fly in the ointment was that we couldn’t send any luggage with them, only empty unlocked panniers. However we managed to secure some cheap flights with Air New Zealand that came with a generous baggage allowance and a couple of cheap kit bags from K-Mart sorted that problem.   Suddenly, amid a frantic rush to say goodbyes to family and friends in Melbourne, our time in Australia was all over. We had good news before we left too… GT are an accredited MPI Inspection facility (NZ Quarantine) and they had inspected and cleared the bikes so they would be ready for collection when we arrived.

Our cheap tent that we’d paid $70 AUD, from the Australian outdoor chain Anaconda, was a slight concern, as you must declare all camping and outdoor equipment for inspection on arrival in NZ. We cleaned the tent and had another look at the poles, which were bent causing the tent to lose shape. We called in to see Anaconda, thinking we could at least replace the poles but they gave us a new tent, an upgraded model for a few extra dollars. This was great news as we could present NZ Quarantine with a brand new, unused tent. In the end the arrivals procedure in Auckland was all very straightforward and we were out of the airport in about half an hour and off to the nearby Ramarama campsite.

With the bikes released we had to do a ‘Warranty of Fitness’ check and pay for road registration. This was again straightforward but the check found a dodgy wheel bearing on my front wheel. Given that we’d just replaced Maggie’s in Tasmania, we had the bearing changed by MR Motorcycles in Pukehohe, another great bike shop that gave us fantastic service. When we went back to Vehicle Inspection to get the work checked, we met a fellow overlander Kerry Davison who kindly treated us to a delicious and memorable lamb shank dinner and would prove a useful contact in the land of the Kiwi. From our base at Ramarama we planned our route to explore the northerly extremes of the north island. Question was did we go Waimauku, Waipu, Whangarai, Waitangi, Whangaroa to reach Whatuwhiwhi or should we go via Kawakawa, Kaikohe, Kerikeri and Kaitaia? Yes, we were in for a shower of fun with vowels here, which, coming from ‘Norn Iron’ where we flatten the things, didn’t bode well when asking for directions or telling people where we’d been.

Aside from unpronounceable place names the ride north was simply beautiful on roads lined with millions of little yellow flowers through rolling hill country, real ‘shire’ land and it’s no surprise that the Hobbiton movie set is based on the North Island. New Zealand is another motorcyclist’s paradise. About the same size as the UK, where we share our living space with a whopping 65 million people, the population here is a tiny 4.5 million, with 1.5 million living around Auckland, the biggest city, so once free of the metropolis we reached another new nirvana on this trip. We spent a few days at Paihai and Russell on the beautiful Bay of Islands, enjoying a spot of ‘Tramping’ (as Kiwi’s call hiking) along the coast. Then more idyllic roads deposited us in Whatuwhiwhi (the ‘Wh’ sound is pronounced ‘f’ so it’s ‘Fatufifi’, which makes it less of a mouthful) our base for a ride up to Cape Reinga, the extreme tip of the North Island reached by a winding causeway route and the ride to the tip punctuated by blustery winds that gave the bikes a good slapping but kept us on our toes. The Cape itself was very beautiful, the place where the Tasman Sea meets the vastness of the Pacific Ocean in a swirl of eddies and currents. We also visited the immense sand dunes at Te Paki and had a tramp in the soft stuff with views over nearby 90-Mile Beach.

We were all set for a leisurely ride down the west coast to visit the thermal features in Rotorua and possibly tramp the Tongariro Crossing near Lake Taupo. From there we planned to abandon the rest of the North Island and go directly for the south to see the wonders there before the summer ran out. We’d do the rest of the North Island on our way back to Auckland, our point of final departure from NZ. But the fates had other things in store for us… Some of the best times in our travels have been born out of apparent catastrophe, when the wheels came off the wagon and we were pitched headlong into an unanticipated bout of problem solving, nearly always laced with rich encounters with wonderful strangers and with some utterly unexpected but delicious outcomes. Looking back afterwards you can see a sort of lovely serendipity in it all, where the series of unplanned and apparently unconnected events string together to ultimately enrich the overall travel experience in ways you couldn’t possibly plan or foresee.

We packed up and parted the great little campsite at Whatuwhiwhi, where we’d made friends with staff, neighbours and local residents. They’re a friendly lot the Kiwis and, as we were soon to find, a rather caring lot too. With a short backwards wave, we set out on the day’s ride climbing up the steep hill from the campsite. About 2km down the road, I opened the throttle and my bike suddenly died with a bubba-bubba-bubba-pop! I pulled in the clutch and freewheeled to a halt at the bottom of a dip in the road. She refused to restart to the point where I gave up lest I flatten the battery. It felt like she was being starved of fuel so I unpacked the bike and set to performing a roadside investigation that revealed I had a spark, a working fuel pump that was delivering petrol but somehow no go in the bike. We ferried all the kit back to the campsite and then pushed the bike out of the dip to freewheel down the hill, where again she refused to even bump start. We spent an afternoon swapping components with Maggie’s bike but couldn’t find the problem.

Enter ‘Blackie’; a weather-scorched, wiry Kiwi retiree sporting a drover’s hat, who lives here permanently in an old bus that proudly sports the route destination ‘DILIGAF.’ Turns out he’s a fellow motorcyclist too and wandered over to see if he could help. He advised that the nearest support would be in Kaitaia and recommended ‘Kaitaia Auto Electrics’ to get the wiring and components checked out. We called in to see the owner, Chris Broughton, who explained he was up to his neck in work but agreed to let us use a corner of his workshop to strip the bike and then he’d be on call to check out various items on request. Getting the bike there was no problem as Blackie had already organised a trailer to take us over the following morning.

Leaving Whatuwhiwhi for the second time was really sad as the staff and fellow campers had all been over to see if they could help to the point where it felt a little like home. Blackie trailered the bike to the shop and then took Maggie on to nearby Ahipura with our luggage to the campsite there, as it was closer to the shop. We spent the rest of the day running diagnostics and it wasn’t until the afternoon that we found a dodgy relay in the electrics. With a new relay fitted, the bike started but was running rough, which we attributed to a low-charged battery. After an overnight charge she started up but was surging and stalling at any sort of high revs and we now decided that it was a possible fuel contamination issue. We said farewell to Chris and his crew at the Auto Electrics shop, a real gentleman who had helped us get back on the road.

At the new campsite, we dismantled the fuel delivery system and cleaned a lot of dirt in the throttle body assembly, which probably wasn’t helping things and settled down for the night in our tent. We awoke in the early hours to the pitter-patter of raindrops that soon escalated into a heavy downpour. Morning came with no respite to the wet weather other than the fact that our little emplacement was slowly filling into a nice pond. We’d also left some little ventilation flaps open allowing our new tent to leak somewhat! We ran to the camp kitchen and, over a late breakfast, decided things were getting too soggy for further camping so we booked into a little cabin on site. We worriedly observed our new tents performance in the bad weather as the wind administered a good slapping while it floated in its little pond, moored there seemingly by the tent pegs. It didn’t seem any more robust than the old tent we’d used in Australia. While these tents were fine in calm / dry weather it was clear that we would suffer badly in this tent in any kind of wind / wet weather, which New Zealand would most certainly have on tap for the future…

That evening we met our cabin neighbours, two lovely English roses, Em & Em (Emily and Emma) from Nottingham and shared a wine or two on the porch while we chatted about our respective travels. They were on an eleven-month trip through Asia, Australia, NZ and their next stop was South America. Like us the girls had declined camping in the foul weather. We told them the story of our cheapo Australian tent, its bendy tent-poles and the likelihood of it surviving any bad weather in NZ. “Why don’t you take ours?” said Em… “Yes!” agreed Em, “We leave New Zealand next week and aren’t planning on camping in South America. We need to dump the tent anyway so it would be great to see it go to a good home.” And so we acquired a rather splendid Vango Pulsar 300 tent thanks to this lovely act of charity from Em2.

Sitting now writing this up in the camp kitchen at another site further south, it is lashing outside as I ponder these twists of fate. When the bike stalled and refused to restart it seemed such a catastrophe as a pleasant day of riding and sightseeing turned into a dismal retreat and what proved to be a fruitless effort to find any fault. But then meeting delightful new friends in Blackie and Chris, the move to Ahipura, meeting a pair of angels in Em and Em and acquiring our new canvas; none of that would have happened had the day gone to plan. I look across to see our new home, a little green tent, a magnificent outpost standing there stalwart against the rain and it raises a smile that everything inside is safe and dry as this story comes to an end for now.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: New Zealand, the Far North.