Red Heart

HMAS Courage, the latest addition to the proud Royal Australian Navy, finally cornered the pirate-vessel up the Todd River after a long and harrowing sea-chase. It is amazing we still have piracy in these modern times and every modern navy is pledged to action wherever their presence is discovered.   The hunt was on and the modern frigate closed up for action as weapons officers armed guns and missile systems, ready for the final showdown. In comparison, the pirate resembled nothing more than a shoddy collection of lo-tech sticks and string yet they were determined not to give in without a fight. You can imagine the horror onboard Courage as they rounded a bend in the river to confront not one but two adversaries… As weapons trained on the pirate ship a second sail appeared out of the mist; a fully armed Viking longship intent on raising hell with all comers.

No, not a computer game, but the finale of the Henley on Todd Regatta, held every year on the Todd River, Alice Springs, a place about as far as you can get from the sea as anywhere on the planet. Now in its 56th year (same age as me!) the regatta is another of those fine Australian institutions where something fundamental, such as a total lack of water in a river, will not deter the execution of as a fine boating event as ever took place. The Regatta has only ever been cancelled once in 1996 due to water in the river from unseasonal rain. The day started with a splendid street parade – a sort of entry of the gladiators and then with crews and spectators gathered along the river we had a welcome address from the Commodore, fresh from the deck of his moored up HQ, the infamous paddle steamer “Pistil Dawn”. The day was packed with a full programme ranging from yacht racing to rowing fours and there was even a yellow submarine. The races were highly entertaining, the lightweight ‘vessels’ being simply picked up and propelled by leg power along the sandy bed to round the buoy and sail back to the start-line. Other events included sand shoveling, tug-of-war, a ‘budgie smuggler’s’ race for blokes in tight fitting Speedo’s and a series of foot races for the little nippers so everyone could join in. It all culminated in that grand finale; the spectacular shoot out between the three local Rotary Clubs who had constructed splendid motorised battleboats, complete with powder-blasting pyrotechnics and water cannon. The winner was decided by the highest decibel recorded for the loudest applause from the audience: the Vikings carried the day due to a mix of splendid costumery and a slight edge on the level of madness generated compared to the pirate and navy boats.

It was with a degree of sadness that we packed the bikes to leave Dave Wright’s place and Darwin. Staying with Dave had been a superb introduction to Australia but we were fully primed and ready for the road. We started with a short ride to Litchfield National Park and the fabulous Wangi Falls, a huge waterhole fed by twin spouts of the falls, all surrounded by a simple paradise of lush tropical vegetation. It was our first taste of the real Outback; bush country life alternating between dusty danders along winding trails in the heat and delicious dips at the cascades. The area is festooned with termite mounds; everything from spectacular cathedral mounds, built over centuries, to marvelous magnetic termite mounds. These two dimensional structures are built by a translucent species of mite that is sensitive to heat exposure so they build across a north-south axis to minimize the solar heat effects. An info-board told how scientists messed around with the magnetic field to deliberately offset the north-south polarity on one mound; the termites simply adjusted the building to follow what they thought was the correct polarity.

Having spent the last eighteen months riding in Asia, with congested narrow winding roads, sometimes in deplorable condition and where journeys were reckoned in time taken rather than the actual distance to cover, it was something of a relief to find ourselves in wide open spaces barreling down roads straight as a rifle with nothing in sight for miles bar the odd roadhouse. Riding was adjusted to keep an eye on those distances as there isn’t much in between and fuel / water stops have to be given some thought. It is very relaxed riding with few threats; little in the way of traffic, other then the odd road-train nor obstruction or even bends to think about. We turned off the intercom to save battery life and also because, in this environment, there was little to comment on. This condition induces a certain state of meditative nirvana, with the mind just churning along to the tune of the bike in the wind, where thoughts can tumble like weeds and be allowed to drift carelessly off until we no longer had a care in the world. And every night under canvas, skies darkened velvety black by 7pm, brilliantly jeweled by a billion stars and the light dusting trail of the Milky Way. If it’s black by night then the days are an outrage colour from the azure blue of the sky to the ruddy rouge desert as we lunged ever on into the red heart of Oz. Suddenly a city; Alice Springs, something of an oasis after many long days of desert overlanding and hick-town overnight. Even better there’s that Regatta on at the weekend so first class entertainment before we plunge on to see the Red Heart itself; Uluru.

Uluru is, first and foremost, simply and utterly magnificent. Crossing the flat, barren landscapes suddenly these red outcrops spring up on the horizon like surfacing submarines. First Mount Conner on the road into the National Park, then Uluru itself and finally the spectacle of the Olgas. To be honest I was prepared to be underwhelmed as it all just seemed like red rocks in the desert – albeit very big ones; what could be amazing about that? Yet walking the 11km perimeter track around Uluru presented an ever-changing spectacle of light, colour and texture, all radiating redness against that brilliant blue sky. Up close Uluru looks like the shot-peened carapace of an upturned vessel, maybe even one that crashed from another planet, with smooth lines that have melted and flowed straight into the surrounding desert. This up-turned hull even resounded with a hollow metallic ring as we tested its surface with a rap from our knuckles. In other sections the face appeared to have been machined away by Mother Nature to reveal inclusions that resembled cross-sectioned channels of a huge monolithic brain.

Another day, another hike: Kata Tjuta or the Olgas – a nearby collection of red rocks appearing as a series of huge but distinct boulders on the horizon accessible via the Valley of the Winds hiking trail that reduced us to a pair of leprechauns treading some fantastic sci-fi kingdom. The entrance to the trail was guarded by a huge formation that looked like a beached and ossified Russian submarine. The 7.4 km path then meandered through and amongst the big rocks and again that natural display of sol et lumiere had necks craning in every direction to take it all in. There is something of a sense of enrichment or even empowerment to be gained from wandering in wondrous terrain. It blanches both soul and spirit and leaves one feeling incredibly humble and uplifted.

The Red Heart had one more thrill in store as we mounted up to head back north and east towards the coast; Kings Canyon. A 100-mile spur road took us to a splendid little campground, our base for a few days exploring an entirely different take on the red-rock of these heartlands. Here a river had made some impressive cuttings into blushed salmon terrain that, from the air, resembled a huge tray-bake, where wind and water had invaded the cross-cuts to erode the ‘bakes’ into a fantastic series of beehive-shaped monticules. The rim-trail was one of the best day hikes of the entire trip starting with a steep and torturous ascent up a series of natural stairs, softly coloured like honeycomb, to attain the rim and then a couple of hours meandering through a landscape of pure wonder. At the far end a man-made stairway descended back to the canyon for a side trip to visit the aptly named Garden of Eden, ending in a watering hole lined with splendid tropical plants and feathered with yet more examples of bewildering Australian birdlife.

Our visit to the Australian heartland was marred, if only slightly, by two incidents of thievery, one a mindless act of theft, the second an attempted theft that resulted in a beautiful wildlife encounter. The first was at Uluru resort campground where some scumbag stole our lightweight travel towels from the laundry lines. These items were 15-years old and had given faithful service through all of our big trips. Even although they were a little faded and washed-out we were saddened that someone had decided to appropriate them for their own use and it has made us watchful over the rest of our gear, something we’ve not really had to do for a long time.  The second incident was at Kings Canyon, where we left a bag of rubbish in the porch of our tent after lunch. We were lying reading with the tent doors open when a little doggy head reached round and attempted to snatch the rubbish bag. It was our first encounter up close with an Australian dingo.

The heartlands proved to be extremely cold at night as the desert readily yielded up the heat of the day. Add to that 500 metres of altitude and nighttime temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Our summer tent and sleeping bags were barely adequate and we found ourselves rummaging in amongst thermal kit for the first time in ages. Days to get in and now days to get out as we retraced the ride back to Alice Springs and on up to Tennant Creek, where the road ran east to Townsville on the coast. This took us through hundreds of miles of empty flat landscape to the mining town of Mount Isa, which proved to be more of a ‘mine and a town’; with the town but a slight appendage to the huge ‘Mount Isa Mines’, one of the most productive single mines in the world for lead, silver, copper and zinc extraction. Then on through a surrogate Surrey of places with names like Richmond, Croydon and Hughenden.

The chain and sprocket kits on the bikes were now showing signs of terminal decline. We managed to find one replacement kit in Alice Springs and fitted it to Maggie’s bike (thanks to the fantastic help from all the folks at Desert Edge Motorcycles) but now, nearing the coast, the chain on my bike was on really on its last legs. We finally made it to Townsville and the delightful Rowes Bay Beachfront campsite, a much-needed stop to sort out that chain and plan our tour of Australia’s East Coast. In the site we met two local retirees, Terry and Kay, who had travelled all of ten minutes from home in their camper van after winning a two-night stay in the park in a local raffle. They immediately took us under their wing, inviting us to spend a night at their beautiful homestay and directing us to R.H.D. Classic Supplies and Services to get that chain sorted.

Pulling in to the little industrial unit we found ourselves in a yard full of Harleys and wondering had we come to the wrong place. We’d just taken our helmets off when we were greeted by a lovely lady with a ready smile who instantly bade us a hearty welcome… “Wow you guys have come a long way! What can we do for you?” …and so we met Spanner, proprietress of RHD. We explained that we needed a chain and sprocket kit for my bike. She apologised that the best she could do was tomorrow after getting the kit by express airmail… and me thinking we could be stuck here for a week or so ordering parts in. Next day the parts were there as promised and a little corner was cleared for us in the busy workshop, so the chain could be fitted to the bike. I can think of no better way to wind up this post than with expressing a hearty thanks to mechanics Lance and Bruce and of course Spanner for the sterling service, help and welcome we received at RHD. Now I wish I could be treated like this in more bike shops back home, no longer feeling like a walking wallet just in for an extraction. We left Townsville once again under smooth transmission, ready now for that coast!

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






Georgia; a Tale of Mountains, Monsters and Maja’s Apartment

On our Pan-American trip we could cover several hundred miles in a day, because basically there are a lot of wide open spaces and a long way between points of interest. To date, on this Ride East, we’re lucky if we cover more than a hundred miles between stops; there is just so much crammed into these amazing countries we are travelling through.

From the derelict villas of Tskaltubo, we set off on the next leg of our journey through Georgia to visit Borjomi National Park. We took the main east-west highway as far as a crazy pell-mell of a roundabout in Kashuri. The driving remained atrocious with drivers expecting us to get onto the hard shoulder to let them by and then getting really irritated when we declined, flashing headlights, sounding horns and so on. To yield would have resulted in us getting driven off the road altogether so we held our line until it was safe to permit an overtake.

Off the main highway the road took us into mountain country, chasing a broad river hack deep into the terrain. Borjomi was another jewel in Georgia. A spa town made famous by the Russian Romanovs who patronized it to the extent of building a palace here as a summer retreat. In places it felt like Matlock Bath, with everywhere overlooked by tree-covered, steep canyon walls and rocky outcrops. You can still bathe in the hot sulphur springs, as the Tsar and his entourage did and Borjomi water is bottled and sold across the world as a healthy, invigorating mineral water. It certainly has a bite to it unlike any other bottled water we’ve come across.

We spent a glorious sunny day following a well-marked adventure hiking trail that ran through a somewhat disheveled amusement park at one end of the town, then led us past the Tsars sulphur-springs, to a hot clamber up and out of the valley for beautiful views back down over the town and the surrounding mountains. For the whole day we wandered alone, both of us silently pondering our contentment with the world at the moment.

We used Borjomi as a base to strike out for the town of Gori, birthplace of Josef Stalin. The humble cobblers house where he was born has been enshrined in a marble columned vault set in a small park in the city centre, which also contains Stalin’s personal railway carriage and a museum dedicated to Georgia’s most prominent son.

But first some lunch… Leaving the bikes, we wandered off on a lap of the park perimeter looking for a bite to eat. There were one or two snack bars but they were full and looked a tad unappetising. An old taxi driver with weathered, leathered face and drooping silver moustache had been observing us. “You two motosyklistas? You want coffee? Something to eat?” he asked perceptively. He then locked up his cab and led us away from the park to an amazing underground restaurant, where we had one of the best lunches of the trip to date dining on beef kebab and a plate of Khinkali; deliciously juicy Georgian dumplings stuffed with a choice of herby meat, mushroom, potato or cheese fillings. We washed this down with some cream soda lemonade. Georgian bottled lemonades are quite simply the best and most refreshing soft drinks on the planet!

The Stalin museum; a collection of dimly lit rooms containing mostly black & white photographs, a few paintings, some documents and letters and one or two artifacts outlining the life of JS. It charted his rise from humble beginnings in the enshrined cobblers house outside, through dismissal from a seminary (it didn’t explain why) and his evolution into reactionary politics showing his multiple arrests and banishments in Tsarist Russia. Suddenly he is at Lenin’s side through the revolution and then he has taken over as grand-supremo on Lenin’s death. Ultimately he leads Russia to victory in the Great Patriotic War, his crowning achievement, and then in 1953 the man is dead and we enter a small room in the museum where his death mask holds centre and you have to walk around it to exit into a few remaining galleries mostly containing gifts to the great leader from other countries around the world.

Outside we asked ourselves “have we really just walked round a museum dedicated to one of history’s all-time-greatest-mass-murderers?” No mention of the mechanics of his climb to power, ruthless disposal of all opposition, murder of millions through forced collectivisation of the kulaks and let’s not forget the military purges that decapitated the Red Army to the point where the German invasion was a pushover that took four years of brutal combat to counter and eventually win through. Then there was his disastrous personal life. His first wife committed suicide and during the war Stalin refused to exchange captured German General Von Paulus, who had surrendered at Stalingrad, for his son who was a prisoner of the Germans and subsequently died in captivity. Finally his daughter who upon his death defected to the US denouncing her father and all his actions. After his death the Soviets decided maybe he wasn’t such a great man after all and had his body removed from the Lenin Mausoleum.

The entire museum was a somewhat sanitised view of a monsters life but then again it was a similar story a few years ago when we visited Graceland and found no mention of the King’s substance abuse or his road to ruin. I know, I know; Elvis was in the long run a good guy and maybe this is a poor comparison but I’m just saying how both places are celebrating the rise of a local son. With Elvis his legacy is all around; he is the acknowledged ‘King of Rock and Roll’ and he had a huge influence on probably everything we listen to in modern music today. In Stalin’s case, a scant look around outside said more about his legacy; Georgia departed from the Soviet Union upon its break-up and is now eager to join both EU and NATO. Walking around the park we found a couple of seedy looking strip-clubs and an ATM. At the ATM I withdrew some cash… the ATM paid out in US Dollars.

Our last stop in Georgia was the capital Tbilisi. We pre-booked 5 nights in the city centre ‘Sololaki Guest Apartment’, which offered private parking for the bikes. GPS took us directly into the city and straight to the door; or should I say the place where there had once been a door. We pulled up at the rather grand portico of a huge and crumbling apartment block. I say grand but that was perhaps a reflection of former days… Now the front doors were missing revealing an unlit interior hosting a broken stairway, the floor all covered in a thick layer of dust and cigarette butts. We called the owners and a few minutes later the caretaker, a lovely lady beaming smiles called ‘Maja’ appeared to let us in. The stairs led to a courtyard that was at the same time crumbling and overgrown and we were shown to a scratch-paint door. After some fumbling with a key to unlock the portal we were introduced to our home for the next five nights; a suite of enormous rooms, two of which hosted sagging double beds, another with a decrepit four-ring gas cooker and refrigerator of equal vintage and a cavernous living room that was furnished with a good few dozen empty wine bottles (all tastefully arranged, to which we would certainly add a few more…) and a suite of disparate chairs and sofas.

The owner was clearly an artist and the place was littered with works of their art along with dozens of Georgian books and magazines. Busted ancient window frames had been hung around the walls like empty picture frames and another wall was host to the remnants of a broken dining chair. Empty corners were populated by entire branches lopped off some hapless tree, but I guess they filled a space. Finally there were the bathroom facilities. At the back of the kitchen a doorway led to a small compartment that contained in turn, a wash-hand basin, a bath and a washing machine. The latter was modern but the first two were of a similar vintage to the kitchen hardware. We later noticed that the washing machine was plumbed into the bathroom plumbing and drained via the bath! And so to the toilet; the WC was literally in a closet. What we thought was a floor to ceiling cupboard actually had mostly dummy doors but one was functioning and this opened to reveal the loo!

We looked at each other and first thoughts were an incredulous ”what the hell?” As we studied the high ceilinged rooms of what had obviously at one time been a grand residence, a quick scan around told us that the place was clean, not smelly and its location, just off the city centre, would suit us fine. Further the bikes were stabled at Maja’s round the corner, out of sight in a private courtyard. The place had a tremendous sense of ease and peacefulness about it and it proved to be a great fitness retreat. Maggie found the solitude of the enormous front bedroom, illuminated by tree-filtered, early morning sunlight, to be one of the most sweet and inspiring locations she’d ever known for practicing her yoga.

Parking up the bikes with Maja, we noticed a Yamaha Tenere parked outside one of the residences. The racket of our arrival into the small courtyard brought us an introduction to a fine young gentleman named Kosta, owner of the Yamaha. We spent a beery evening in a local pub, where he entertained us with tales of life in Georgia from the Soviet era, through independence and on to the civil war, with Russian tanks on the street corners as recently as 2008. They were, for us, unimaginable times; the collapse of the Soviet Union, the disappearance of regular money and wages, massive and sudden unemployment while factories closed and everyone tried to figure out what was going on. Then the rise of criminal elements, ever ready to exploit the situation and take control of basic commodities and movement of people around the city. Add to this the opportunity for the South Ossetian / Abkhazians to split from Georgia and they were chaotic times indeed. In one harrowing tale Kosta told us how his father and uncle were captured in their car by gangsters and taken to the local cemetery for execution. Shallow graves were prepared and they only avoided death through the fact that they happened to share the same surname as another well-known criminal (they lost the car mind).

Our visit to Tbilisi was certainly memorable. It’s a great wee city in that you can hoof it around most of the attractions in a day or so. Add to that fantastic food, great beer and wine to die for and it’s a must see place. But time was moving on; we had an appointment to be at the Iranian border in just under a fortnight’s time. But before that another treasure awaited; Armenia…

The photogallery for this Blog Post is at ‘Georgia Part 2′

King of the Mountains, King of the Birds…

In one day we changed countries from the Czech Republic, everything flat and rolling, to the delightful mountain wonderland that is Slovakia. We also moved from our proletarian apartment in Olomouc to a small and rather pleasant castle in the delightful sounding Slovakian town of Poprad. The ride East took us to higher and higher elevations with a wonderful, twisty 900m pass marking the border between to the two recent divorcee nations. It was a ‘Velvet Revolution’ that saw the end of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, so called because it happened peacefully and then a ‘Velvet Divorce’ when the two component nations went their separate ways in 1993, again mutually agreed for political reasons. These days both are member states within the EU so there was no real border to cross.

Miles before we arrived in Poprad, the High Tatra mountains hove into view as one of the most impressive backdrops we’ve seen to any city. Like Torres del Paine in Chile, these mountains seem to be a self-contained little blob of beauty just plopped on the face of the landscape and are jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Apartment “Zámoček Staré Časy” would be our home for the next few days, our base to explore the area and we were delighted when we turned up to find a miniature castle. The combined living / sleeping area was superb and included a full size Foosball machine that we tried our best to wear out. We had two prime reasons for selecting Poprad as our base. The first was to hike the Suchá Belá gorge located in the magnificent Slovenský Raj (Slovak Paradise) National Park. The second; to visit Spiš Castle, one of the largest in Central Europe.

Slovenský Raj is an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Western Carpathian Mountains comprising a network of eroded Karst limestone that has created a labyrinth of gorges, canyons and ravines all strewn with a mess of rivers, waterfalls and sinkholes. Suchá Belá is one such ravine and we parked up in the visitor car-park at the wonderfully hobbity sounding village of Podlesok. Heading south, we were confronted by a wall of dense spruce forest and somewhere within lay the start of our trail. The day’s hike was a 13km circuit and it was in the first third of this that most of the excitement lay.

Initially we followed a trickling riverbed of chopped white limestone up into a dark ravine that quickly resembled an Ent-like elephant’s graveyard for huge spruce trees. Their lodge-pole corpses had piled into the ravine giving it an eerie atmosphere as we clambered over and under dead tree-trunks on our way up the little gorge. This part involves an ascent of several hundred metres to gain a 900m high ridge and the fun really starts when we began to ascend a number of waterfalls. The park-rangers have installed a series of wooden catwalks to gain access over the more broken beds of the ravine and these then lead to metal rungs and ladders that climb alongside the falls. All-in-all the two hour ascent of Suchá Belá was a spectacular experience; the catwalks are ultra slippery and broken in places and the ladder ascents were of the ‘bloody-hell; don’t look down!’ variety… This is all compounded by the fact that you are on a one-way trail so you have to keep going; there is no going back. Think you’ve conquered the tallest ladder you’ve ever been on in your life, well guess what’s round the corner?

It all left us feeling like we were Kings of the Mountains. At the top we had a congratulatory big hug and looked forward to our picnic before tackling the rest of the trail, which proved to be a more gradual descent down foresty pathways. We’d stopped to congratulate a Slovak family who had also just conquered the gorge when I noticed something thrashing about on the path near our feet. It proved to be a little bird and he was blissfully having a bath in one of the little rivulets running down the path. Smaller than a Wren, he had a mottled olive/black plumage with a vivid orange Mohican-strip along the crest of his head and was totally oblivious to our presence in his bath. And so we met Regulus ignicapilla; King of the Birds.

In ancient Greece there are tales of a contest amongst birds to see who should be their king. They agreed that, as flight was the main talent of all true birds, their ‘King’ should naturally be the bird who could fly the highest (apparently penguins, ostriches and dodos didn’t get a look-in). On the appointed day all of the birds gathered in a meadow and the contest began.   As expected the little birds; sparrows, starlings and the like, try as they might, quickly dropped away. Next the medium-sized birds, the crows, magpies and falcons also faltered until one huge Bald Eagle pulled away from the flock and soared high above the rest. Already he could see his wingspan representing whole nations on their flags and coins and so on he flew until, utterly exhausted by his massive effort, he now looked back to Earth and spied every other bird below him. At that point he felt something moving in his feathers; it was a little Firecrest, surely one of the tiniest of birds. He’d hitched a ride and when the eagle could go no higher the Firecrest spread his tiny wings to win the contest. Thus he was awarded his golden crown, which he wears to this very day and his Latin name; Regulus ignicapilla. Our ascent had been honoured by his presence.

If Suchá Belá was a magnificent trail then Spiš Castle was surely one of the most magnificent castles we’ve ever beheld, festooned with turrets, battlements and more ‘castly’ things you could ever want. Sat on another of these rocky Karst outcrops it was built in the 12th century as a bulwark against Mongol invaders from the East. The castle is located in a plain ringed with mountains and has a fantastic aspect; on approach from any direction it is superbly imposing but sadly it is in ruins after being destroyed by a fire in the 1700’s.

It is with a heavy heart that we had to leave Slovakia. It has been a real treasure and one of our favourite European destinations from all of our travels over the years. Given that it is only a few days ride from the UK we will be sure to be back but for now we must ride south and into Romania.

For related photo-gallery please view ‘Spectacular Slovakia