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 

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

 

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

 

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.

 

Tales from Tasmania

The huge slab of a ship glided up to the pier as if guided on mystic rails the name ‘Spirit of Tasmania’ writ large along the hull, white on orange, sliding across our field of view like a giant autocue. Just when it looked like a massive collision was imminent the ship magically stopped dead and berthed against the dock with the slightest of bumps. We waited patiently with a couple of Harley dudes for the bow to open, the returning traffic to disgorge and then we entered the bowels of the leviathan. We were finally on our way to Tasmania…

The ferry took all night to plow across the thankfully calm Bass Straits towards our island destination. For those of us affected by Brexit, Tasmania is about the same size as Ireland. If you’re not affected by Brexit, then it’s about the same size as Switzerland or for our American buddies, it’s about the size of West Virginia. ‘Tassie’ has a relatively miniscule population (half a million compared with nearly four million in Ireland for example). Throw in a myriad of small and winding roads, some marvelous mountain scenery with even more of those stunning Aussie beaches and it is a right little paradise. The first chink of light was shed on all of this when we met three Tassie blokes Shorty, Brian and Brad on their motorcycle tour of Flores, Indonesia who implored us to come see them on the island. That plus numerous ‘must-see’ recommendations as we travelled through mainland Oz made it a hard one to pass.

The ‘Spirit’ glided into Devonport at 7am on a Sunday morning and our first views were a beach of creamy sand backing onto a verdant slash of isle that sloped upwards to some far-away lofty peaks that disappeared into a low slung ceiling of dank grey cloud, promising paradise with a puddle or two in the coming weeks. We were quickly on the road following GPS directions to Brian’s house where a welcoming breakfast had been arranged. The roads were deserted on the somewhat chill morning and the rain from the previous night was drying out leaving the place feeling fresh like it had just been spring-cleaned for our arrival. We were whizzing along a dual carriageway, waving to one or two bikes that were headed for the ferry back to the mainland, when Mags came over the intercom… “There’s a really friendly biker just rode up alongside me with a big friendly grin. He’s waving like mad!” I looked in the rear view mirror to see the scene just as she described it and then the penny dropped for both of us… It was Shorty, out to meet and greet!

Shorty Halfacre stands about 5’ 2”, is slightly ruddy-faced, bald with a big bushy white beard. When travelling in India, the kids called him ‘Ali Baba’ and now, as Christmas approached, I reckon he would have made a good, if somewhat diminutive, Father Christmas. It was the smile you see, a clear and broad beacon that you just met a kindly soul. He caught up with me and beckoned that we follow him home. Now following my description above, you’re probably holding an image of a friendly mountain dwarf so it will come as no surprise to learn that Shorty worked all his life as a mining engineer and is an explosives expert to boot. He still holds all the relevant pyro licenses to conduct firework displays at events like the Hobart Speedway. We arrived at a small cottage nestled in the woods not far from the coast and what proved to be the most beautiful place we have stayed at yet in this round the world journey. We dismounted the bikes and approached a hidden garden half expecting to see six other ‘Shortys’ and a Snow White who looks after them. If this fairytale setting lacked all seven dwarves, it certainly had a lovely lady waiting at the garden gate with a smile to match her partners; and so we met Maureen who bade us a warm welcome and showed us around their little paradise…

The house graced a small headland overlooking the Blythe River on the north coast of the island. Shorty dabbled in metal sculptures and these together with an assortment of Buddhas scattered amongst the greenery to give the place the air of a most serene retreat. There was a smaller dwelling set to one side, a little self-contained bungalow that was our home for the next week.   We quickly unpacked and drove on for a reunion with Brian and his wife Karen, who had that massive breakfast on the go. They’d had friends staying for the weekend and set a few extra places at the table, thus continuing the warmest welcome we’ve had in any place. Tasmania may be a small island but its inhabitants surely possess some big hearts.

With fine hospitality on tap for the next week we set out to explore the Northern parts of the island with a ride out to Stanley to see the ‘Nut’, the sheer-sided remains of an ancient volcanic plug whose summit was accessed by a chairlift to reveal spectacular views over the town and beyond. Fine weather ensured that our visit to Cradle Mountain returned a splendid all day hike around Dove Lake with wow-wow-wow views across the mountainous hinterlands.   We rode out with Shorty, Brian and Maureen to visit Sheffield a small town famous for its wonderful gable-end murals depicting aspects of Tasman life. Should you ever find yourself in these parts, I’d recommend a visit to ‘World of Marbles’. What looks like an emporium selling small glass balls for kiddies to play with, is also host to a fine ‘contraptuary.’ What a lovely word to describe a collection of amazing contraptions and machines; everything from mechanical toys to elaborate and sometimes huge, stainless steel ball-race machines festooned with pendulums, seesaws and other mechanical devices. Please check out their website at www.worldofmarbles.com.au and, trust me, it’s not to be missed!

Aside from these destinations, the rides were spectacular in their own right down narrow lanes that chased creeks and brooks through forest clad mountains, the dark recesses sometimes illuminated by flak-bursts of Foxglove. Suddenly the trees disappear and you burst onto a hillside covered in fields of bright pink poppies grown for the pharmaceutical trade. The poppies alternated with fields of tiny white daisy-like Pyrethrum, a natural insecticide, that also make a useful companion plant as they naturally repel insects from any veggie or ornamental flower garden. I could draw a line under Tasmania here and say we scrapped our plans to ride around the island and instead stayed put to relish the hospitality heaped upon us by Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen. Garden BBQ’s with game on every menu; Brian is a keen hunter and chef to boot and he kept us supplied with succulent venison steaks and delicious kangaroo burgers and meatballs. Great company and lots of laughs all lubricated by local beer and a drop or two of the red stuff. But the island beckoned and we prised ourselves away from paradise to explore this latest two wheeled wonderland.

The weather is Tassie is dominated by its location, set square in the path of the ‘Roaring Forties’. These strong westerly winds are found between the latitudes of 40° and 50° South and are generated by the combined effects of hot air being displaced from the Equator towards the cold Antarctic, the rotation of the planet and the scarcity of landmasses to serve as windbreaks with only the southern tip of South America and the islands of New Zealand and Tasmania in their path. Consequently the wind can rip along at quite a pace and the westerly shores of Tasmania get quite a battering with a reputation for some grim weather. Consequently this side of the island remains wild, remote and sparsely populated.

The weather lived up to its reputation as we rode towards Strahan (pronounced ‘strawn’). The road was deserted as we left the north coast and crossed a mountain-wilderness-hinterland that took us around Plimsoll Lake and dropped out of the skies into Queenstown, a quaint little town set against the maw of an ugly opencast mine. We stopped several times to don extra layers and ended up in waterproofs as rain arrived, blown in sideways by the aforementioned wind. Thankfully it eased, allowing us to get the tent up but later we looked on in horror to see the tent almost double over when the wind returned, learning in the process that the fibreglass tent poles in our cheapo $70 tent were deformed.   From Strahan we rode across the Central Highlands, stopping off to look at Lake St Clair and to visit ‘The Wall’ – a wilderness art installation of huge Huon pine panels, intricately carved to depict aspects of life in these Highland parts. Sculptor Greg Duncan estimates it will take him around ten years to complete. In a quote from his website: “The idea for The Wall is quite a simple one. I’m carving a series of 100 panels. Each panel is one metre wide and three metres high. The panels will be placed back-to-back. So, by the time I finish, I’ll have created a wall 50 metres long with carvings on both sides – 100 metres all up.” Photography was not permitted so I have included a link here to the website as the work in progress is simply outstanding and something we’ve never seen equaled anywhere else in the world. Have a look at www.thewalltasmania.com.au

Our days ride ended at a delightful riverside campsite at New Norfolk just outside the island capital of Hobart. Campsites in Oz are full of ‘grey-nomads’, a bunch of retirees who have taken to the road in campervans and trailer-tents to explore their delightful homeland. With few responsibilities (no mortgage, kids are grown up and left the coop, etc) they have the time to take in the country at their leisure and are consequently a great source when it comes to gleaning what to see and do in an area. A typical example was a lady called Anne, who Maggie met while clearing up some dinner dishes… “You the loons on the motorcycles?” she asked and then went on to run down motorcycling in general… how two wheels are inherently unstable and only a crazy idiot would venture forth on such a contraption and so on. But then she enquired into what we’d been up to in Tassie and started a flood of recommendations of things to do and see, including one that we took up; an excursion out to look at the Russell Falls. Our ride out ran through some breathtaking rolling countryside on a sinuous road that wound up into some serious rain forest. Then a short hike through an emerald Jurassic world of palm, fern and cycad, which parted to reveal curtain upon curtain of little jewel-screen cascades descending from on high. Quite possibly the most beautiful little waterfall we’ve come across yet in all our travels.

Maggie’s bike was now approaching the 100k-mile marker and decided to make the occasion memorable by scrunching the front wheel bearing. We phoned BMW in Hobart who informed us replacement bearings were available on overnight order from Melbourne, so initially all seemed well. I asked if there were any additional parts required, seals etc, which proved to be the case. However the seals were not in stock and would have to be ordered from Europe with a 4 to 5 week delivery estimate! We called in person to the dealer, a large ‘white-tile and stainless-steel’ clinical showroom that sold both cars and bikes. We asked the spares manager if there was any way they could help, maybe sourcing the bearings and seals locally? Would it be possible to speak to one of the mechanics for help or an idea as to what was involved in their replacement? It was a brick wall… we’d have to wait however long for the parts, it was not permitted to talk to any of the mechanics and if we wanted BMW to do the work, we’d have to wait until the New Year, which was about a month away! We felt pretty appalled and badly let down to think that we had ridden two of BMW’s products for over 100,000 miles and halfway round the world only to be turned away when we needed help. Luckily better service was on tap at ‘Motorworks’, a local KTM & Triumph dealer who ordered a replacement bearing kit overnight and replaced the defective items in ten minutes the next morning.

Up next, two of Tassie’s top tourist attractions; an avant-garde art collection and a prison museum. One would be absolutely fascinating and the other, one of the most miserable and depressing places we’ve been on our travels. First up MONA; the Museum of Old and New Art, the largest privately funded museum in Australia. Founder David Walsh was a professional gambler who turned his winnings into an extensive art gallery set in a beautiful modern building sited on an old winery just outside Hobart. The car park was packed and we rode around for about ten minutes until we eventually found a small slot to leave the bikes. The place is a bit of an iceberg in that very little of it is visible from the entrance, where non-Tasmanians are fleeced to the tune of $20 a head to enter a series of subterranean vaults that house the exhibits. Your $20 also rents you an ‘O’ device; a snazzy interactive ‘I-pod’ that contains descriptions of all the exhibits and even records your visit so you can download and revisit later on your computer at home.

All good so far and we entered the crypt full of enthusiasm, descending a spiral staircase to the lowest of the three levels and then working our way back to the surface. We wandered the galleries in silence, navigating through our little ’O’s. A few exhibits caught our eye; 365 weather drawings by Russian artist Viktor Kulikov. Every day at 9am on the dot, Viktor take his coloured pencils and draws the view outside his apartment in Nizhny Novgorod. Perhaps the concept was more catching than the execution but the idea was novel. Ditto a collection of dinosaurs made from cable ties but then it all went downhill from there. Dark and dreary rooms full of depictions of war, chaos and moral bankruptcy. Walsh himself describes the museum as a “subversive adult Disneyland.” Take an exhibit like the Victorian Kitten’s tea party, by Walter Potter, a diorama of a long table set in garden, where about thirty kittens are having a picnic. They are all dressed in little suits and riding bicycles, having tea, etc and it’s all very good until the macabre realisation hits you that real stuffed kittens were used to make the work at which point it becomes a little sickening… or how about the long-wall collection of 77 individual porcelain casts of women’s vaginas, entitled C***ts…and other Conversations? It was all very dark and the few acoustic exhibitions added a monotonic dirge to the background. I looked at Mags and said, “Are you getting any of this?” She shook her head but we agreed to persevere to see it all. It was all so dreary and depressing, vulgar and crude; even the ‘O’ had a button on it called ‘Art W**k’ with a little pink ‘spitting penis’ icon that led into a discussion on each particular piece. In a so-called leading art gallery… really? Emerging into the light we both felt awful, really sad and depressed, like our trip to the pointless vaults had sucked the very life out of us.

You might think a trip to see some old prison relics would hardly offer an antidote to such misery but our day at Port Arthur was just that. First some great riding as we left Hobart behind and took to the lanes once again down onto the Tasman peninsular. We visited some spectacular coast along here at the Devil’s Kitchen and the Tasman Arch. Port Arthur campsite was a wildlife wonderland full of wallabies and parrots that animated every evening. As to the prison itself, we expected to spend an hour or so padding around some old brick ruins. We wound up spending an entire day at the complex, learning about penal systems and reform back in the days when the UK shipped its undesirables ‘down under’. Back in the 1800’s the law deemed seven-year old children to be old enough to be tried for their crimes as a man. At eight they could be hung and at nine they could be deported to the colonies, thus removing the bad apples from society. On arrival in Australia convicts were mostly put to work clearing the land, building the early settlements, the hard labour deemed an appropriate remedy for their misdemeanors. Hardened cases who reoffended in Oz were then sent on to Port Arthur, a prison with no walls at the extremity of the Tasman Peninsular. Access in those days was by boat only; the surrounding bush was all but impenetrable so there was nowhere to run. Even if you made it through the dense bush up the peninsular, the narrow stretch of land at Eaglehawk Neck was guarded by a dog-line of ferocious mastiffs with no way past.

By the mid-1800’s prison reform was high on the agenda. Quakers in the US had reckoned that hard labour alone was an insufficient deterrent and an alternative system was proposed; solitary confinement where the offender would contemplate his wrongdoings in silence and isolation, denied access to all reading material bar the word of god. A ‘Separate Prison’, based on Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and Pentonville in London, was built at Port Arthur in 1853. Inmates were issued on arrival with a prison uniform, had their name taken from them and were allocated a number by which they would thereafter be known. A list of several hundred rules was read out, the gist of which was that they would serve their term in a solitary cell, where they would spend 23-hours a day contemplating their lot in life. For one-hour they were led to an exercise yard, when they had to wear a hood for the duration of the exercise period and were not permitted to talk to any other prisoners or guards. Even in the prison church the pews had little flap doors so that you could see neither the person to your left nor right, only the preacher out front in his pulpit. Today this whole regime of silence and isolation seems utterly barbaric. Mental cruelty has much more lasting effects than physical punishment and it simply turned most of those processed into lunatics. In fact a lunatic asylum was eventually built at Port Arthur to treat the wreckage of those who had passed through the system.

The prison site provided a fascinating window into those hard times. Undoubtedly many of those incarcerated deserved to be there, murderers, serial thieves, rapists and the like. But the museum detailed some of the other inmates sentenced to transportation for stealing a spoon, or in one case a child who stole a toy. Australians used to be understandably ashamed if they had convict ancestors but today many are proud as these were the men who, through their hard labour, cleared the land allowing the early settlements to take root and thrive. There is a certain kudos to having jail-mate roots, however one Tasmanian confessed to have been shocked to learn on checking into his own genealogy that an ancestor had been sentenced to ‘transportation to the colonies’ for the crime of ‘having carnal knowledge of a horse that was not a mare.’ So, had it been a stallion, that would have been perfectly permissible then?

The curtains to this stage that had been Tasmania were drawing to a close and what a splendid performance it had all been. The encore was a trip to Coles Bay and a hike to the overview above to drop-dead gorgeous sands of Wineglass Bay. Once again I’ll let the photos do the talking on that one. We rode back for a final evening in the good company of our Tassie friends saddened by the fact that we were leaving these fine people, Shorty and Maureen, Brian and Karen and just wishing this wonderful place was just a little closer to home…

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

 

 

Making Melbourne

In the early sixties my uncle Jackie and aunt Betty immigrated to Australia. Back then Australia had launched a major drive to expand its population, offering ‘Assisted Passages’ to UK nationals for only £10 spawning an influx of ‘ten quid tourists’. My uncle served in the Royal Navy during WW2, winning a DSM at Normandy. After the war he returned to Belfast and found employment at Shorts Brothers aircraft factory. He raised a young family but found life unsettling especially against a constant threat of lay-offs and factory closures so decided to move to Australia. In those days such migrations were like a death in the family and wakes were often held for the departing. While the ‘Assisted Passage’ made immigration affordable, a return was prohibitively expensive in both time and money, so there was a silent understanding that when people left they would probably be gone for good so in many ways it felt like a funeral event.

I was around three years old when they left so I have no memories of my Aunt and Uncle or of my three cousins John, Anne and Denise. Yet their memory lived on and I grew up having this war-hero uncle who had travelled to the other side of the world, a powerful image for any child’s imagination. I loved maps and often finger-traced the lines their voyage would have taken around the world in my atlas. I pondered their route; did they go through the Suez Canal or round Cape Horn? Did they see the pyramids, ride on a camel? Did they stop off at exotic islands like Madagascar and Zanzibar or did they go straight to India and sample the crowded markets in Bombay. Then sailing on through the spice islands of Indonesia, braving earthquakes and volcanoes to reach the Land of Oz… and here I believe are the incipient seeds of my own wanderlust. As I grew older I vowed that one day I should undertake the same journey only I planned to do it by land. The family settled in Melbourne where they did very well indeed. Sadly Uncle Jackie has since passed, as has Aunt Betty earlier this year, but my cousins are all still there. All roads now led south to Melbourne and ‘Making Melbourne’ would be a dream come true.

For the most part we followed the coast, spending a few days at Noosa Heads National Park. It was a school holiday period and Noosa itself was somewhat overcrowded and touristy but the hike out to Hell’s Gate and views along the expanse of Sunshine Beach stretching forever off over the horizon made it worthwhile putting up with the crowds. From Noosa we rode south towards Brisbane, where we would be meeting some more recent immigrants from home; my mate Stevie Anderson, who left Belfast over twenty years ago, and his wife Ruth with their two kids Ewan and Charlie. We approached Brisbane late on a Friday afternoon and were horrified when the GPS took us off the highway and into the city centre before we realised what was happening… We girded our loins for a nightmare pell-mell of big-city traffic, the Friday rush hour just getting going, to make our way through and south of the city to reach Ruth and Stevie. It came as a pleasant surprise to find we’d chosen a public holiday so the city was eerily deserted and we rode straight through the ghostly streets with minimal delay. This was but a prelude to a lovely weekend, meeting Ruth and the kids for the first time and the twenty years since we’d last seen Stevie were reduced to what seemed like a short moment in time, surely the sign of a special and lasting friendship.

Goodbye Brisbane, farewell Queensland, hello New South Wales as we journeyed on down the Sunshine Coast, where we found some of the traffic we’d missed in Brisbane. Our beautiful beaches described in the last post were still there but now they were horribly obscured by mile after mile of high-rise concrete and steel, casino and resort, that seemed to run forever and all progress was wracked painful by endless traffic lights that promised nothing but tedium all the way to Sydney. Fortunately help was at hand from some Facebook friends, Jules and Andy Buckland, who have been following our progress and recommended some timely diversions that led us away from the coast and on to some of the finest motorcycling roads on the planet…

Our first stop was Walcha, reached via a cracking road called Thunderbolt’s Way that led us up into the Northern Tablelands region of New South Wales. Thunderbolt’s Way is named after a local 19th century bushranger-cum-folk legend, Frederick Ward, who went by the moniker Captain Thunderbolt in his career as a notorious highwayman and outlaw. Frederick was born in 1835, the youngest of ten children to a convict father and grew up around Windsor, where he started work at eleven years of age and gained a reputation as a useful horse breaker. After a few years, he expanded his career into rustling but the gang he was involved with was busted when they tried to sell some stolen horses at auction. Ward received a ten-year sentence of hard labour and was sent to the Cockatoo Island penal establishment. After four-years he was released under a ‘Ticket of Leave’, a government system whereby a convict could be released on a sort of bail provided he behaved himself.

He found employment as a horse wrangler at another station but misfortune seemed to dog his life.   He had a relationship with a lady called Mary Ann Bugg, who was then living with another ex-convict and she found herself pregnant with his child. The couple travelled to her father’s farm to have the baby but unfortunately this was in breach of his ‘Ticket of Leave’ conditions, an event further compounded by the fact that he was found riding a stolen horse. So Ward was sent back to Cockatoo Island to serve the remaining six-years of his original sentence, with an additional three-years added for the stolen horse.

After a short time he managed to escape from the island, swimming across to the mainland whereupon he set off on a trail of highway hold-ups and it was in this period that he bestowed the title “Captain Thunderbolt” on himself. One can only imagine the hardships endured in that life as he joined with other felons to prey on the innocent. He was shot in the back of his left knee in a shootout with troopers during one robbery in 1863 and various accomplices were gunned down as the authorities tried to hunt them down. Eventually he was cornered, shot and killed after robbing a band of travellers, at an untimely 35 years of age, at a place called Kentucky Creek near Uralla. Still he has a highway named after him today…

Leaving the coast near Grafton, at first we climbed a long twisty treat through dense forest mountain that was a joy to ride given we were the sole occupants of the road. The road led us to the tablelands where we travelled through the small town of Armidale, a sign at the entrance proclaiming it as ‘Australia’s Highest City’ at 1050m. By afternoon we were speeding on across flat undulating farmland that ran off to a dreamy campsite in Walcha. The only downside was that with this slight elevation we were starting to experience cooler evenings in the tent. On from Walcha, the Thunderbolt left the tablelands to spiral along the Hunter Valley and drop us into Gloucester and on via the Putty Road (another iconic motorcycling road in these parts named after a river this time) into pretty Windsor, where we found another idyllic campsite called Percy’s Place, set inside a huge U-Bend of the Hawkesbury River. Had this been England, I’m sure there would have been a stately home atop the slight rise above the river. In fact with all the English place names and rolling rural landscapes you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually back in England; that is until you suddenly come upon an incongruous prehistoric Cycad in a hedgerow or a dead kangaroo that instantly kills the illusion.

From Windsor we rode on to Sydney to stay with Jules and Andy, who proved to be impeccable hosts. More fine motorcycling followed as we took a Saturday ride out to Berowra Waters, catching the ferry there and riding a stunning series of S-bends that slalomed to a lofty café called Pie in the Sky for lunch. The afternoons ride continued on to the coast at Brooklyn, a picturesque little harbour-town and then back home via another snake of a road that ran through Galston Gorge. Once again the road has led us to another fine doorstep and underlines the old chestnut that there is no such thing as strangers, only friends you have yet to meet.

Before quitting Sydney we met up with another motorcycle hero, at least for those of us riding F650’s; Wayne Carruthers. Wayne is the author of the website www.crossroadz.com.au a resource for all things technical relating to the bikes and he first contacted me way back in 2007 after our Pan-American trip with a query regarding a nasty number of instances of fork failures on the pre-03 model F650GS (for full story see www.panamericanadventure.com/reference/bmw-f650gs-bikes/). Although our meeting was brief it was still great to catch up face-to-face with Wayne and thank him for the tireless effort he has put into his website.

From Sydney, more spectacular motorcycling roads beckoned back on the coast through the very beautiful Royal National Park. This took us down to Berry, a quaint little town full of ‘I saw you coming’ gift-shops and on to Eden, a former whaling station. At the local museum we learned how the whalers had a special relationship with the local Orcas, demonstrating once again how clever and cunning these killers can be. When a pod of big whales (Blue or Right whales) appeared in the vicinity, on their annual migration path, the Orcas would come close to the harbour and cry out an alarm. The whalers would scramble their boats, rowing out to where the rest of the Orca pack had rounded up the big whales. There were tales of Orcas actually towing whaler boats out to the hunt. The large whales were too big for the Orcas to successfully attack alone so they used the whalers to do it for them. As their reward, once the whales had been harpooned and dissected, the Orcas would be fed the tongues and brains of the kill. It seems this relationship had lasted for hundreds of years, the new colonists apparently picking it up from Aborigines in the area.

And so on to making it to Melbourne and that family reunion. The last miles towards that dream come true were slowly turning under our wheels made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that our rear tyres, replaced in Darwin, were now well and truly squared off by all that long distance highway riding making for some awkward squirming in the bends. Added to that, the thermometer was plunging as we travelled further south with several nights under canvas at a shivering 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. And then the final ride, a short day of only 160 miles but what a lovely feeling as I input my cousin John’s address into the GPS! The day was pleasant with blue skies spotted with white cotton-ball clouds. We seemed to fly across the East Gippsland plains and on into rolling hill country, the road positively frolicking through lush landscapes of green grass and cereal crops. Then a descent down to the coast and another red-letter occasion to mark this special day.

My bike, KP52 VTO, finally racked up 100,000 miles, the first bike I’ve owned to do this. I know it’s only a number but symbolically as a traveller to take your bike around the clock is a significant achievement and to do it on today of all days made it doubly delicious. I thought back over the fifteen years I’ve owned this bike and all the magnificent places we’ve been. I pulled over to take some photographs of the clock at 99,999 miles and then another mile up the road and…’0’. Mags pulled over and dismounted to give me a big celebratory hug and KP a wee pet on the tank. An hour later we stopped again outside the gates of John’s house…

It is essential in life to have dreams, big and small, important never to give up on them and one of the most rewarding experiences is to one day pursue them such that they become reality (make this promise to yourself every day). They give life so much form and direction and one of the most glorious occasions imaginable is the day when dreams come true… Today was that day as our trusty little steeds carried us across the finish line and the realisation dawned that there was an end to this particular dreamtime; we’d finally made it to Melbourne.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Making Melbourne