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

 

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Dog Days of Autumn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

CU in the NT!

I was standing at the roadhouse bar waiting my turn to get a drink when the girlfriend of the guy in front of me came up behind us, her arrival announced by the sound of her knuckles dragging along the floor. The place was stuffed with Territorians replete with beards and bellies, black singlets and inky tattoos… and that was just the women. God it looked rough! “Giddus a beer ya cant,” she shouted to her beloved. “Comin’n a minute love,” he replied. Another typical Sunday afternoon in the Humpty Doo Hotel, where locals come from far and wide to banter one another and listen to the music laid on by a three piece band knocking out some cracking sounds, little bits of everything from Clapton to Floyd. Out front a line-up of graceful Harleys, old American pick-ups and Australian Utes filled the dusty parking lot.

The use of the ‘C’ world, even in today’s society, is generally quite shocking. At home it is surely the nuclear swearword in our lexicon of profanities; to call someone a c**t is a last resort / ultimate insult before violence erupts, yet here it was being casually used in witty banter, outback style. We’d found swearing in the Northern Territories to be almost endemic; the sign for the loos in another roadhouse literally read ‘Shithouse ->’. But even I took a double take on a bumper sticker that read ‘CU in the NT’ – text write for ‘see you in the Northern Territories’ with ‘in’ written over ‘the’ in a very small font such that from a distance the two words are invisible. A few days later strolling the streets of Darwin there was a shop selling this same logo emblazoned on everything from mugs and mouse-mats to baseball caps and car stickers… It seems they are proud of swearing up here.

Our arrival in Darwin almost ended in disaster. Our short red-eye flight from Bali landed us in Oz at 5:30am to find that the car rental desk was shut until 7:30am. We were both shattered when we wandered off, keys in hand to collect the car at a remote parking lot. The sun was up so I went to grab my sunnies, stashed in my camera bag, when I realised that said bag with my Canon EOS 6D camera and snazzy ‘professional series’ lens was missing. I had plonked it on top of our baggage trolley at the hire desk and now it was gone! I quickly retraced our steps to the desk but there was neither knowledge nor sight of the bag. We were directed to a security desk to see if it had been handed in and our stomachs were writhing pits of dread at the prospect of losing such a fine and expensive camera that, at this point in our travels, would have been simply irreplaceable. Even worse we pondered the notion that it had somehow been stolen; we couldn’t remember being distracted or any contact with persons unknown but we were both gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, so who knows? The security desk hadn’t seen any camera bags handed in and we were arranging contact details in case it turned up when another guy walked in and said “someone here lose a camera?” We could have kissed him! The bag had fallen off the trolley, unnoticed in our knackered state on our way to the carpark and an employee found it minutes later and handed it in at a different location.

Australia as an overlanding travel destination is mega-expensive, especially as a follow on from months of budget travel in SE Asia.  The cheapest hotels in Darwin come in at over $100 a night for a minimal standard private room so our first mission was to acquire a set of camping gear. We had soon abandoned our own camping gear back in Europe as we couldn’t see the need for it in Asia, where decent rooms were cheap and bountiful. Luckily Darwin had a couple of really good outdoor stores and we soon had a decent budget tent with sleeping mats and bags. We camped at a beautiful site up at Lee Point and had a few days exploring the coast around Darwin while we waited for the bikes to clear customs. Darwin was an unexpectedly delightful place and the simplicity of communicating with people in our mother tongue once again was a pure joy. An immediate impression of Australia is that it is a delightful explosion of birdlife. All through SE Asia and Indonesia, birds were remarkable mainly by their absence. Even in Komodo we saw but a single seabird perched on an isolated rock and the captain of the boat took a shot at it with an imaginary rifle, suggesting the likely demise of the little birdie’s friends. Now we had the constant companionship of darting little black and white Pee-Wees, scrawny looking Ibis, both white and pink varieties of noisy Cockatoos and beautiful Lemon-Masked Lapwings. Overhead Black Kites graced our campsite dinners with daring swoops and grass-cutter fly-pasts.

We met up with Gail, who had lingered in Dili and booked to have the dreaded quarantine inspection completed for our three bikes. We also had new tyres ordered from Richard Cross at Alicross, a highly recommended and competent motorcycle repair shop in Darwin, so soon we would be ready for roads south. But first that inspection… Initially we were told we were on a ‘gas’ hold… For a horrible moment I thought that my dodgy fuel pump had started leaking again and the container was contaminated with gasoline but it turned out that we were on a ‘GAS’ hold; actually the acronym for Giant African Snail. In the 19th century, when the Europeans were exploring the islands of the Pacific, they left pigs on each island they visited. The pigs would forage and prosper, thus ensuring a supply of fresh meat for the next ship to arrive. The Japanese did something similar but they left Giant African Snails as their food supply. When the quarantine guy explained this to us we chuckled; seriously? A giant snail? What possible risk could that be? Not exactly hard to see or to catch are they? He disappeared and returned with a plaster model of one (see photogallery)… It was huge! About the size of a shoebox and I reckon there was the equivalent of a large T-bone worth of meat curled up inside! “One of these can eat its way through 29 head of lettuce in a night,” he explained. “But worse than that each one can carry up to 20,000 eggs and once dispersed the eggs lie dormant for two to three years so you see, the risk of an invasion isn’t to be taken that lightly.” It transpired that Timor is a high risk for giant snails so every container is placed in a salt ring and then inspected for snails / eggs before release.

Luckily there was no snail contamination and within a few days the bikes were cleared and ready for inspection. We completed the necessary paperwork and paid the remainder of the shipping fees and then met the inspector at the bonded storage facility. It was great to see our treasured bikes again, released from the container and all gleaming, all ready to go. Then the inspector got to work… A little hmming and haaaing… Front mudguards looked good, engine good too – no oil or grease. “You did a pretty good job cleaning these… looks good,” he went on and our hopes soared. Then the rear mudguard… “Oh, oh what’s this… hmmmm, looks like mud.” I was quickly down under the rear guard and he pointed two miniscule spots of dried earth on some screw recesses, same place on both bikes. I can only imagine that when we’d cleaned the bikes they stayed wet and remained invisible when we checked them in Timor. “Seriously?” I enquired and explained how we’d spent a week cleaning everything in Dili. Same on Gail’s bike… some tar with something organic stuck to it under the front guard… “Can’t let these pass, no way” he said and that was that – we had failed quarantine.

We tried to reason with the inspector; as the amounts were so miniscule couldn’t we simply scrape it off, bag it and then burn the bag? But there was no way; he’d write up the inspection report and the bikes would have to be cleaned by an authorised cleaner.   Enter now a nightmare of uncertainty and running costs… It took nearly a week to clear this inspection. The bikes had to be trucked to an approved cleaning agent, where the offending material was removed and bio-disposed of. It cost us $725 (Australian) for both bikes! I know there was a set of requirements and we did fail to meet them, by some meager margin, but what made me really angry was that the same guy then released all of our baggage from the bikes without inspection. It contained camping and hiking gear, tools and riding kit, all of which has had over two years of outdoor exposure and he wasn’t interested in it! It was all there on the same bikes that had just failed his inspection yet he let us unpack it and go. It seems this inspection is a lottery as some Indian friends shipped Bali to Melbourne and inspection consisted of a quick look at the tyres before a pass and release. I’m sure as our inspector drove off I saw a sticker on the back of his car that read ‘CU in the NT’…

It was in the middle of all of this that we met a fairy godfather in the shape of Dave Wright, a local overlander who occasionally hosts fellow travellers at his spread just outside Darwin. Gail had contacted him through an online forum and we were all invited for a superb Aussie Barbeque at his place, which turned into an invite to stay. Dave was a big Koala Bear of a fella (if Koala Bears grow to over 6’ 2’’), a gentle giant with a range of bike experience and stories from riding in the Americas to pit crewing at the Isle of Man TT. With the bikes released and new tyres fitted by Richard, he helped us fettle them for the journey ahead, repositioning handlebars (remedy for some tennis elbow I’d been suffering) and repairing our clutch and brake levers (the lever pins and bushes were badly worn). He also made sure we had adequate capacity for carrying water, which was something we’d not taken too seriously up to now.

Dave took us to some weekend bear racing at the Hidden Valley circuit in Darwin. As with GAS, this was another acronym; BEAR standing for British, European and American (bike) Racing. I’ve not been to a bike race for years and the meet was small and somewhat informal so we could drift in and around the pits and see the teams in action. Stars of the show were a pair of beautifully rebuilt Laverda Jotas from the late 1970’s from Redax Laverda in Brisbane resplendent in their orange race trim with gleaming polished alloy casings. With the racing finished for the day, they were started up and a couple of riders took them on a demo ride around the track proving them to be even more beautiful in sound and motion.

We finished our splendid day out at the Humpty Doo Hotel, foot tapping to the music over a few suds and bantering with the locals. Looking around I thought ‘if you were parachuted straight from home into the middle of this lot, you might find it somewhat a tad intimidating’ but today they were the end of our road to date; another magnificent palace full of lively people, colourful in action, colourful with their language and all having a good time. We looked at each other and thought, ‘at this moment in time there’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather be!’ The bikes are finally released and ready…  Australia awaits…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link:  Welcome to Oz!

 

 

 

 

The End of Islam! (End of Asia Pt 2)

The 1am ferry arrival in Kupang, capital city of Indonesian West Timor was remarkable not only for the lateness of the hour but also in that it marked the end of our nautical ventures in Indonesia. We wobbled off the stern ramp bleary eyed into pitch darkness to find our bed for the night. It took a couple of days to organise mandatory Visa Authorisation Letters for Timor L’Este at the consulate in town but other than that Kupang and West Timor held little of interest. The north coast had some fine sandy beaches but those around the city were badly polluted with discarded plastics and we’d been warned that the same beaches are also stalking grounds for saltwater crocodiles so even a paddle was a risky proposition.

A day’s ride into the hinterland of this last part of Indonesia delivered us to the small town of Atambua and a one-night stop before the border crossing. The road was reasonable with some fine panoramic views along the way but we felt a growing sadness that we would soon lose the bikes for several weeks once they were cleaned, packed and sent to Australia. The realisation also dawned that once we crossed the border, we would enter Timor L’Este, a predominantly Christian nation and our travels through the magnificent lands of Mohammed would be at an end. The call to prayer has been a constant feature since we entered Turkey almost two years ago and I have to say that we have been heartily welcomed everywhere we have travelled in these Islamic nations. Whenever the subject was raised, we encountered nothing but abhorrence for the terrorist actions of extremist groups like ISIS. It seems their major success has been nothing more than to create a worldly mistrust against all of Islam, which is ultimately undeserved and tragic. Our travels testify for this; we have travelled these lands at all times feeling safe, welcome and always found help on hand when we needed it from some of the kindest people on the planet. It is the end of Islam in our travels for now but we leave with a treasury of beautiful memories of beautiful people, cultures and traditions. It is also the end of babble and exotic cuisine. No more foreign tongues for a while once we enter the land of Oz, no more wondering what that weird sounding dish is on the menu nor assault on the taste buds when it turns out (mostly!) to be yet another unknown delight. Yes, we will miss this hubble and bubble of travel as we exchange it for more familiar surroundings. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to negotiate our exit from Timor L’Este…

Timor L’Este, to be honest, rated low in our expectations when reviewing the list of countries to visit on this trip. It has a reputation for being vastly more expensive than Indonesia with less bang for your buck yielding mediocre accommodation at inflated prices (all paid for in US Dollars, the local currency) coupled with poor facilities and infrastructure, yet it is the jumping off point for shipping to Darwin, Australia. The border crossing was casual and easy with the right pieces of paper and the final morning ride to Dili, the capital, took us along a spectacular swathe of blue ocean road. First impressions were not great, especially when we checked into the dismal and dank Dili Homestay. At $40 a night, this was over twice what we’d been paying for vastly superior accommodation in Indonesia. Initially we had tried to book for two weeks to arrange our shipping but the owner, a scraggy Australian expat named Meg, failed to answer our booking enquiries so we cautiously booked for one night via Booking.com. We had to postpone our arrival by one day, due to a delay in getting the Visa Authorisation letter and emailed her to let her know. “OK” was the response. A couple of yappy dogs snapped at our heels when we arrived in the dusty courtyard and followed Meg into the dim recess of our ‘deluxe’ bedroom… a dark, mosquito infested pit. The remote bathroom was described as ‘rustic’, which we learned is a term applied round here for ‘filthy’. Meg complained that her kids no longer visited from Oz and that she was just recovering from a recent bout of Dengue fever. Timor L’Este is rated as a high-risk area for the disease and the property was festooned with anti-mosquito sprays, smoke-coils and electric bats. It all added up to a horrific dose of culture shock, spiced with a whiff of rip-off and the unhealthy prospect of a tropical disease thrown in. Luckily we had a Plan ‘B’ in the form of the Casa Do Sandalo, a small apartment in the grounds of the Mexican Consulate. We made a tentative two-week booking and rode out that afternoon to check it out. It was a little piece of heaven; a beautiful apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom and patio area for the same price. A no-brainer as to where we would be staying for the duration in Dili.

We honoured the Booking.com reservation and stayed the one night with Meg but in the morning she was clearly miffed that we were leaving. A breakfast of stale rolls and jam was flung on the table before us, as she made a desperate bid to undercut the Casa but we explained that she needed to do something about the mosquitos, the toilet and the general state of the place. We paid up for the night and as we were leaving she suddenly presented us with a second bill for delaying the original booking! It capped off a horrible experience in one of the worst accommodations of the entire trip and needless to say we declined the payment. Fortunately this nasty introduction to Dili was short lived as we met Ivan and Andre, our lovely hosts at the Casa. Those words ‘mi casa es su casa’ never rang truer and the welcome was completed with a complimentary bottle of fine Portuguese wine and a bowl of fruit.

And so on to the shipping… A lovely lady called Lenor at ANL advised that our container would be ready for packing in five days so we were immediately immersed in a hectic schedule to get everything cleaned and ready. Australia, being an island with unique endemic species, is very alert against incoming bio-security risks, having suffered massively at the influx of such foreigners as rabbit infestations and more recently cane toads, introduced to eat cane beetles. Unfortunately the wrong species of cane toad was introduced, one that couldn’t jump high enough to catch the cane beetles, yet possessed a toxic skin coating that poisoned anything that tried to eat it causing massive damage to indigenous predator populations. Consequently there are strict quarantine requirements on all goods coming into the country and vehicles in particular must be immaculately clean, with no mud nor dirt, grime nor grease permitted. This includes all areas; wheels, tyres, up under the mudguards, in and around the engine. The same requirement also applies to all personal effects; tools, riding gear and footwear, hiking and camping kit; it all had to be meticulously clean and we spent a couple of days at the Casa with everything emptied out and scrubbed.

Enter another overlanding hero; the charming and vivacious Antonio Fortuna. Antonio runs the Ford Entrepost dealership in Dili and happily permits overlanders the use of his workshop facility to clean their bikes for shipping. This includes the use of a power wash and a compressed air line for drying and blasting off the muck. We spent two and a half days with Antonio and his crew, who assisted us in cleaning the bikes. Wheels were removed and we disassembled the bodywork and headlight fairing to get at all the underlying dust. Mudguards were scrubbed and all baked-on oil and dirt gradually dissolved from the engines and wheels such that the bikes shone with a brilliant gleam. We were horrified to note that the ANL loading yard was a huge white dust bowl and could imagine our newly cleaned bikes getting into a right state as we rode across this to gain access to the container. “No problem!” said Antonio who quickly organised trucking the bikes to the container so they stayed clean. The only payment requested for this sterling help was a signed framed photograph of our bikes to add to his collection. What service and what a star!

At ANL we met Gail Baillargeon, a smiling big John Wayne of an American on a BMW 1200GS Adventure, who was four years into his round the world trip and would also ship his bike in the container with us. We spent the rest of our time in Dili exploring the city by day and enjoying the comforts of the Casa in the evening where we cooked up a few boozy dinners with Gail and Jason Kind, the English cyclist we mentioned in the last post. Wandering the streets of Dili, we learned a little of the history of Timor L’Este, one of the newest countries in the world. The country had been a far-flung colony since the 16th century when the Portuguese took possession, attracted by the trade in sandalwood, which grows there. By the mid-1970’s, Portugal suffered an internal collapse as the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar ended by military coup. The new democratic regime struggled to sustain its colonies in places like Angola, Mozambique and Timor, which were all pressing for independence.   On 28 November 1975, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) declared the territory’s independence and the Portuguese withdrew.

The problem was that FRETILIN, at that time, followed Marxist-Leninist leanings and the prospect of another communist enclave in SE Asia horrified the western world. The US at the time was at the end of the disastrous war in Vietnam so it was with some relief that the president of Indonesia offered to take care of the problem… Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and quickly occupied the country marking the start of a horrific guerilla war that would fester over the next twenty years. Once again on this trip we found ourselves walking the sorry scenes of a genocide that occurred in our own lifetime yet was scarcely reported on the news back home. An estimated quarter to one third of the entire population of East Timor perished in a series of battles, massacres, round-ups and starvations as Indonesia sought to tighten their grip on the country. By 1999 the United Nations intervened, resulting in a referendum, which conclusively showed that the people wanted independence. Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and in May 2002, Timor L’Este was officially recognised as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.

We visited the resistance museum, which told the story of the long struggle for independence but, walking the streets, it is clear to see that something awful happened here just by looking at the people. Over 60% of the population is under 24-years of age, highlighting the fact that an entire generation has disappeared. There is a sorrow in the eyes of folk here and we sensed that there is a generation of youth deprived of the benefit of elders (casualties from the war) to guide them through growing up. We heard various tales of a gang culture and corruption is rife in all echelons of civil life. There is little industry, just farming and fishing and the presence of the UN, with the adoption of the US Dollar, seems to have inflated prices as previously noted so everything is expensive and the temptation to progress by criminal means is tempting. With the setting of the sun, the streets of Dili quickly emptied. Buses and taxis disappeared and for the first time on this journey we felt a little uneasy in the city and were glad of the security of the high walls surrounding our Casa.

Our three bikes were shuffled into place and securely strapped down and the container was delivered to Dili Port. From there they would travel to Singapore and on finally to Darwin, where we would collect them in just under three weeks time. We flew to Bali to sit out the rest of their transit in a beautiful little apartment in Sanur. It gave us time to rest and contemplate the next leg of this wonderful journey; the ride through Australia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 2