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 

Advertisements

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

 

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

 

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 Asia! (Part 1)

Our days in Asia were slowly but surely running out whilst up ahead, Australia beckoned. Ahead of us lay a thrilling a volcano-lined road that threaded the island of Flores to reach the small port of Larantuka. From there a twice weekly ferry ran to Kupang in West Timor, where we could ride overland to reach Dili, capital of East Timor and ship the bikes on to Oz; alternatively we could backtrack all the way to Bali to find a shipper there. For several weeks we had been gathering quotes from various agencies and to be honest none of them looked either attractive or reliable. SDV offered the most logical choice; a container ship direct from Dili to Darwin supposedly taking only three days. Yet four riders who we’d met at HU had waited over 5-weeks for their bikes and faced horrible frustrations and delays, topped with escalating charges, throughout the entire process so we saw nothing there to recommend their services. We also obtained a reasonable quote from a company in Bali but an online search revealed more dissatisfied customers with costs eventually doubling the quotation price. To be honest, we didn’t really want to backtrack either. Our bikes are once again showing signs of wear and tear from the ride through Indonesia, with rear tyres now shot and needing immediate replacement in Australia. That left us with ANL. They sail the triangular Darwin-DiliSingapore route, which takes a little longer than the more direct route but they came with several good overlander recommendations and it meant we could continue on to explore the two islands of Flores and Timor and, of course, reach the end of Asia!

In Labuan Bajo, the comfie Surya hotel proved to be one of those nodal points in travel where you meet, mingle and part with friends old and new. We bade farewell to Tom and Phil, who were headed back west and met up with Thomas Brandt, a young German rider from Rostock, also headed west on his KTM 690 and Jason Kind, a stubbled, bean-pole of an English cyclist from Hastings who had covered a lot of the same ground as us using pedal power.   We have met quite a few cyclists and find a lot in common with them as fellow travellers; like us they carry a little self-sufficient world on two wheels and are fully exposed to the elements with the added encumbrance of powering their journey using their own legs, yielding a journey travelled at a much slower speed but with the advantage that they will see so much more. It’s not a mode of transport I would personally consider for the same reason I’ll never model dresses on a catwalk; I just don’t have the legs for it…

The ride through the island of Flores proved to be simply spectacular. The road from Labuan Bajo climbed up and into a mountainous hinterland, a sinuous slash of sexy tarmac that occasionally dropped into plains of rice-fields before coiling off once more into highland territory rendered breathtakingly beautiful by blasts of bamboo forest. We stopped at a little Warung (local café / food vendor) for some lunch, in the seaside town of Borong, where we met Jason pedaling along, enjoying a stretch of straight and level road. It had taken him four-days to cycle what we covered that morning and his legs were feeling it.

Our target for the day was the mountain town of Bawang and the ride just got better and better as we left coastal plains and climbed high into cloud forested mountains. Now and again the cloud would drift apart, offering sneaky-peaks of nearby volcanoes or treetop terrain running all the way to crystal blue waters back at the coast. We were both feeling fairly cold by the time we pulled into town to find our preferred hotel fully booked and a couple of alternatives asking lofty prices for mediocre accommodation. We were rescued by the Hotel Korina where we met Brian, Brad and Shorty, a trio of Aussies from Tasmania touring the island on rented motorcycles who became first date beer-buddies and then a bunch of good friends after a few lively evenings in the bar.

The landscape had definitely been changing as we rode east through Indonesia. I started reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago.’ Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, co-publishing papers on the subject with Darwin. Wallace had travelled previously in the Amazon but famously made a number of startling observations about the bio-geographic diversity in the Malay Archipelago where he travelled between 1854 and 1862, including the definition of what became known as the Wallace Line. This line identifies and associates the wildlife and plants on the island of Bali and everything west of there with Asiatic origins, whilst everything on the island of Lombok and onwards east has a pronounced Australian origin. It is quite fantastic as the two islands are only 22-miles apart and it was the bird life that gave him his first clues to the delineation. In Bali he found species of woodpecker, kingfisher and pheasant, birds that are endemic to Asia from India to Indonesia all the way east to Bali and Borneo, while across the Lombok Strait he suddenly found himself in the world of the cockatoo and the eucalyptus. Amazingly the birds have failed to migrate across this short stretch of water loosely suggesting that the islands down to Bali were previously connected to the Asiatic landmass and therefore populated by flora and fauna from that point of origin, whereas the lands to the east of Lombok have obvious associations with Australia.

The traditional village of Bena, a short ride from Bawang, felt like neither Asia nor Australia. The road fooled around the base of the pointy-coned volcano of Inerie that provided an otherworldly backdrop to the morning.   The twisting single-track ribbon took us on through more majestic cathedrals of bamboo and by the time we arrived at the village our bodies were fully sated with joyous endorphins that can only be delivered by slowly riding a motorcycle through a stunning landscape. We abandoned the bikes at a small carpark and walked the short trail into Bena itself. That location, with the ever present backdrop of Inerie, one moment all skirted by cloud, the next all lifted to reveal its splendorous peak, reminded us we were right up against an active volcano, a smoking gun capable of instant obliteration. We mooched through the tall thatched-roof village houses, sited around an elongated common of dirt all ringed by a dry-stone wall. In the centre henges of tall burial stones stood, somewhat Neolithic in appearance and here and there marked with the sign of the cross; folks on Flores are predominantly Christian. It was still early in the morning and there was an air of peace and tranquility about the place. A few women fretted at their looms making scarves and wraps for tourists. The detailing on the wooden house frames showed images of horses and boats and here there horned animal skulls adorned the façade. It all felt a bit weird, as we seemed to be so far from plains or sea in this Conan-Doyle-Lost-World-complete-with-smouldering-volcano-on-your-doorstep. Or maybe we had drifted on to a stage set from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, a place inhabited surely by the Riders of the Rohan, but again that incongruity with never a harness nor horse in sight. Whatever; it was magical.

Another day, another ride… More cloud forest dropped us into the high mountains and Moni, where we hoped to visit Kelimutu National Park and its three-cratered volcano. We got absolutely drenched on the last few miles into Moni itself as the hide-and-seek game we’d played with the rain that morning finally ended in defeat as the heavens opened on a mud-drenched road. “Nearly there so hardly worth stopping to don the wetsuits” proved to be the wrong tactic for todays play with the weather and we looked like we’d dressed in blotting paper as we pulled into the Sylvestre homestay. The weather really socked in for the next day with the main street outside looking more navigable by boat than bike so we settled in for a soggy siege and hoped the weather would clear to allow us access to the mountain. Our plight was alleviated somewhat by Sylvestres, which proved to be a little haven for sleeps complemented by brilliant eats at the nearby Mopi’s restaurant.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful and the corrugated roofs over the town were jewelled silver from the rain of yesterday as we set off on the two bikes to ascend Kelimutu. We had been warned that the first mile or two were slathered in mud from a recent landslide. It proved to be as bad as it sounded with heavy earth-moving machinery on site to try and clear the way, although this seemed to principally involve spreading the mud everywhere. With our worn rear tyres, this was not fun although they did hold better than anticipated and we were soon through and riding high on the mountain albeit with one eye on the weather as bands of low cloud suggested more rain was not so far away. At the summit we were rewarded after a brief hike with cloud-shrouded views of the three craters. Each lake is a different colour, the reason for which is unknown; the acid-filled lakes are inert and dead and the only plausible explanation seems to be that the chemistry of each lake changes from time to time resulting in colour changes. Two of the lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Youth) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and were reported as being green and red respectively. Today both appeared as slightly differing shades of turquoise. The third lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of the Old People) was supposed to be blue but had assumed a horrid dark brown colour. Local legend has it that the spirits of the recently deceased travel to the lakes and are greeted by gatekeepers who judge and consign them to one of the lakes depending on their age and how well they behaved when alive with all the baddies sent to the Bewitched lake. I really hoped I did not perish on the mountain today; by the end of our visit, my spirit was totally confused by which lake was which and what colour they were supposed to be.

We left the rains and Moni for a ride to the north coast of the island, spending a few days in one last decent hotel in Maumere, marking time for a few days until the Friday boat on to Timor. A final ride took us to Larantuka where we checked in to the Lestori hotel, basic and clean but one of the noisiest places we’ve stayed on the entire trip. Bass undertones and horrid treble screeches emanated from a nearby karaoke that ran all night and was still going strong at 6am. To this cacophony add one rooster, staked to a pole just outside our door who cock-a-doodle-doo’d the whole night through, a pet/cage bird with a sort of piercing wolf-whistle and to cap it all the guys in the room next door were up a 4am taking a slosh in a bucket shower and vociferously clearing their throats in a rasping noise that sounded like a heavy box being dragged across a wooden floor.

We made our way bleary-eyed to the ferry where we crashed out on the upper deck as she finally set sail an hour late at 1pm. It was the weekend before the end of Ramadan and a time when Moslems all over the world head for home to celebrate Eid. Consequently the boat was packed and we’d been advised to grab a bunk below decks before the ship left harbour. This was ill advice as the bunks were all stacked together and the compartment more resembled some horrid slave-ship with bodies crammed into every nook, space and cranny, totally devoid of any idea of personal space. We camped out on the upper deck, happy for some open space and a healthy jollop of fresh air to relish the spectacular views of Flores as it sank slowly under the horizon in our wake. Mid-way, Dolphins and flying fish frolicked around our vessel as she plodded across the vast ocean to take us safely if somewhat late into Timor and the end of Asia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 1 – Flores

Profile of an Adventurer: HU Indonesia 2017…

We left Bromo with a spring in our step, revitalised and full of marvel at yet another of these surprises that our wonderful planet lays on from time to time. Our final halt in East Java was at the ferry port of Ketapang, which doubled as our base to explore yet another volcano; Ijen Crater. This entailed a 1am pick up to drive up into the mountains for a guided 3am hike along the crater trail to catch the sunrise. Ijen is famous as one of only two places on the planet where you can witness a very peculiar and somewhat eerie blue sulphur-light, visible only in the pre-dawn hours (the other is in Iceland). The volcano also hosts an active sulphur mine and the stench is so bad that the guides issue you with gas masks for when the wind blows up from the crater. The lights failed to live up to the hype as recent activity had closed off access to the crater itself and although we did see the blue lights, they looked like someone waving a torch at you in the dark from the far end of a foggy football stadium.   The crater lake itself was clad with a drape of thick cloud which lifted but momentarily in the dawn, offering ghostly views of this ghastly slash in the landscape. We found a perch in the early dawn to watch the sulphur miners begin their day’s work, climbing down into the crater area to chip out chunks of the yellow rock. There was a hierarchy to their travail with the older more experienced miners licensed to barrow their spoils down the mountain, whilst the new-starters had to port hefty loads on their bare backs, an immensely physical and time consuming graft for which they are paid a pittance.

An hour on the ferry took us to Bali, most renowned isle of the entire Indonesian archipelago and perhaps the very notion of an ultra-exotic tropical paradise. The ride along the north coast was pretty enough but the climb over the mountains to reach the pretty ville of Ubud proved to be a chore as we negotiated a never-ending column of excruciatingly slow buses and trucks on winding lanes and suddenly we were back in the congestion of West Java. We did find homely accommodation in Ubud and Mags signed up for a fortnight of classes at the famous Yoga Barn, while I spent some time fettling the bikes, in particular finally repairing a leaking fuel pump on my bike. The Starbucks in Ubud is probably one of the prettiest in the world. Word has it that the royal family of Ubud developed a taste for their brew and consequently they are the only big multi-national fast food outlet to be granted a license to operate in town. Their premises overlook a palatial Lotus garden where you can sip your latte whilst watching devotees make their daily offerings.

It took very little to persuade us to swop Bali for less congested Lombok, via a 5-hour ferry ride and we immediately relished the slower pace of life there.   We abandoned the bikes in Senggigi for a weekend on the promised tropical paradise islet of Gili Air for a spot of snorkeling. Even better was the snorkeling on the small islets off Sekotong, in southwest Lombok, where the reef is a lot less damaged by the idiotic practice of dynamite fishing practiced around Gili Air. Every dip became a beautiful immersion into a universe of tropical fish all competing with one another for the most garish colour scheme. Gili Kedis was memorable as the smallest island we’ve ever been on, literally a few palm trees and a small hut seemingly made of driftwood selling cold drinks and snacks, an idyllic spot to be ‘Robinson Crusoed’ for a few hours.

One of things I love most about this kind of travel is how your day can start out as one thing and then transform into something completely different… We had to travel into Mataram, capital of Lombok, for another visa extension involving a lot of form filling and hanging around in a government office. We took a walk outside to grab a coffee from a little street vendor and were invited by a bunch of customers to join them at a table. Engang resembled a slightly shorter and younger Morgan Freeman but with the same big grin and gravelly voice as the famous American actor. We sat a while chatting about our trip and he in turn told us about the delights of his vegetable garden and how he loved to work the land. “So what are you doing in the city?” we asked. “Oh the garden is just a hobby,” he replied. “I work over there, in the school.” He pointed to a squat lime-green coloured building, which had thousands of scooters and small motorcycles parked out front. “I am a teacher; English,” he explained. That day Engangs class gained two impromptu class assistants as we were introduced to a room full of 14 and 15-year olds and regaled them for half an hour with stories from our life on the road. It was an immensely rewarding experience and emphasised how the best thing you can give to children is neither money nor material things; it is your time.

All too soon we were on another ferry, this time from Lombok to the next island in the chain, Sumbawa, for a remarkable event; the first ever ‘Horizons Unlimited’ rally to be held in Indonesia. For non-overlanders, ‘Horizons Unlimited’ or ‘HU’ is an online resource for those of us with a passion for seeing the world on motorcycles. It dates back to 1997 when two Canadians, Grant and Susan Johnson, had just completed an epic round the world trip on their bike. At the end of their ride, they had amassed an enormous amount of information on overlanding by bike, everything from preparing for the ride to vaccination requirements to shipping your bike between continents to customs formalities at various borders. They decided to share this data in hope of inspiring and assisting others considering trips of their own and so HU was born! Back then, the Internet was an up and coming thing and an ideal platform for what has become a two-wheel overland resource as others added their experiences until today it is the first port of call for all queries on overlanding by bike.

There is another side to HU and that is the rallies. What started out as a few friends gathering in someone’s garden to talk about travels on their bikes over a beer and a barbeque has grown into national events with the HU meeting in the UK regularly attracting hundreds of overlanders. The events have grown to include a range of presentations where riders can share their experiences and practical skills from the road and the invitation has been extended to other overlanders from cyclists and 4-wheelers to kayakers and boat travellers. When we heard that Indonesia was planning it’s first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting we decided it would be one not to miss…

The event was organised by Jeffrey Polnaja, the first Indonesian to ride around the world on a motorcycle and the location was the Kencana Beach Resort on the island of Sumbawa next in the archipelago after Lombok. It would be a happy collision of riders from the west heading east with those from the east heading west, all leveled by a great bunch of local riders seeking inspiration and knowledge of the world beyond. People had ridden in from Austria, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and of course from all over Indonesia. A smattering of Americans flew in too along with the guest of honour, the redoubtable Ted Simon, author of the superlative motorcycle travel book; Jupiters Travels, a man who could rightly claim the title of granddaddy to all of this. It was an outstanding weekend. Aside from the travellers presentations we had a traditional welcoming ceremony involving the Mayor of Sumbawa Besar and splendid local dance troop, all very colourful and wherein the male visitors were honoured by the gift of a local headdress. The setting was just divine too especially at dawn and dusk when Maggie ran her first ever ‘Beach Yoga.

So who are these overlanders, these perhaps perceived unbalanced individuals who shun ‘normal life’ to take to the road? A bunch of rich kids / silver-beard retirees on the latest sixteen grand BMW 1200GS Adventure bikes, armoured for the road with all the catalog accessories costing almost as much again as the bare bike and sporting thousand pound Gore-Tex jackets? That’s certainly what the marketing folk would have you believe you need to tackle this ‘lifestyle’ but bear in mind all they are interested in is selling you an image and it’s something they do very well as these days the ‘adventure bike market’ is one of the largest sectors in the motorcycle industry. To answer this question it’s better if I introduce you to some of the riders we met at the event so, in no particular order, please meet…

Noortje Nijkamp (Nora) and Johannes Weissborn (JJ), from Den Haag, Holland and Vienna, Austria respectively are a delightful young couple brought together by a life on the road and have been riding from home in Europe to reach Bali and the end of their trip, with a final diversion to Sumbawa for HU. Nora has a 650 Suzuki V-Strom and JJ has a KTM 950. Nora has compiled an amazing V-Blog of her trip and I can heartily recommend perusing the fantastic episodes on Adventurism TV, her very own YouTube channel.

Mike and Shannon Mills (www.smboilerworks.com), a lively couple from Seattle, USA on Suzuki DR650s also at the end of their trip, which has taken them over the past three years through the Americas, across Europe and Asia and down to Jakarta where they will ship back to the Americas. They are proof that overlanding on a motorcycle holds part of the secret of eternal youth…

Blasius Ediprana, a charming young man from Bandung, Java, Indonesia, called into HU in the middle of a two and a half month tour of the Indonesian islands on his Indian Pulsar 150cc bike.

Andy Dukes from UK. It has taken us almost two years to reach this point of our travels. Andy did the same journey in three months on his BMW F800GS! His mission is to ride around the world while competing in a series of marathons, one on each continent. He flew in to be at HU for the first few days and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to run in the marathon there, a brutal event given the high temperatures and humidity; finished it too in less than 4.5 hours! Check out Andy’s blog at www.themarathonride.com.

Faizal Sukree from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew in for the event and is an accomplished motorcyclist who has completed an epic round the world ride on his BMW F800GS.

Kevin Bärtschi, a gentle young man from Frutigen, Switzerland, riding his KTM 690 to Australia.  Check out Kevin’s travels (for German readers) at @knastbrostravel

Joe Hambrook, a Park Ranger from New Zealand, has spent the past year riding towards home from the UK on his Suzuki DR650. Click here for Joe’s Blog.

Phil Stubbs from Essex, UK, who we met in my last post, was also here on his locally procured 225cc Yamaha Scorpio enjoying his slow ride round Indonesia.

Silvia Walti and Thomas Gentsch are riding their respective Yamaha XT660 and BMW F800GS from home in Zurich, Switzerland to Australia. We already met in KL at Sonny’s Cycles, then again in Bali and have been comparing notes on our routes ever since. Click here to access Silvia and Thomas Blog (for German readers)

Iif Brillianto from Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia came to HU on his 250cc Suzuki cruiser. Like Blasius above Iif is currently touring his homeland and popped in to say hello.

Nicole Stavro Espinosa from California, USA flew in to present her slideshow on a recent trip in East Africa. She is currently planning a RTW in a Ural sidecar outfit so she can bring her two kids along.

Josh Johnson from Darwin, Australia. Another ‘starter’, Josh is in the early days of his trip to circle the globe on his Honda Africa Twin.

Anita Yusof from Ipoh, Malaysia. Anita was the first Malaysian woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. Her bike? A 150cc Yamaha, which proved to be a fitting mount for her Global Dream Ride.

Jeff de Wispelaere flew in from Denver, Colorado, USA especially to be at this inaugural HU Indonesia, which held a special place in his heart as his family came from here.

Steve Campbell, originally from Victoria, Australia arrived on his Kawasaki KLX150 from his current base in Lombok to regale us in the evenings with highly entertaining tales of his overlanding through Asia back in the 1970’s.

And on to three young lads…Liam Della from Perth Australia (gone-postal.com), Matt Booth from Yorkshire, England (@OilyRagAdventures) and Tom Curtis from London, England (www.tomcurtis.world). All three are set on riding their individual 1970’s vintage Honda CT110’s (better known to the outside world as 110cc Australian ‘Postie bikes’ a derivative of the ubiquitous Honda C50 / 70 / 90 family) from Australia / New Zealand to the UK. They started out independently and then met along the way to converge on HU. Their bikes are fitted with homemade panniers / saddlebags and riding kit consists of a motley selection of outdoor gear / hiking boots and flip-flops but it all has a function, it all works and these riders are living proof that you don’t need a huge budget and top of the range machines /gear to be an adventure motorcyclist.  In fact this last statement can probably be applied to most of the riders here, where smaller / older machines seem to be the preference, bikes that are simple and easily repairable on the road. The key message here is it doesn’t matter what you ride, just get out and do it!

Almost last (but not least), our gallant host Jeffrey Polnaja. Jeffrey spent 9 years riding 820,000km just about everywhere you can around planet Earth on his BMW 1150GS – check out www.rideforpeace.net. With HU Indonesia 2017 he simply wanted to extend the wonderful hospitality he had partaken on his travels to fellow overlanders in his home country. Aided by his beautiful wife Maya and young daughter Kirana, they hosted a superb event that will forever linger as a highlight in the lives it touched over the four days in Sumbawa. On behalf of everyone who attended, thank you!

At the end of the event a crowd of us took a boat for a day trip to the spectacular island of Moyo. This is a real backwater of Indonesia offering two precious commodities; real desert-island beauty coupled with remote privacy attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Diana as a holiday retreat. On landing we rented a fleet of motor scooter taxis to take us on an adventure ride to the beautiful waterfalls at Mato Jito and later took a hike to the falls at Diwu mba’I where we were entertained by the local kids diving in off a rope swing. Paradise just got better that day.

I will finish now with one final introduction to another of the local riders we met at HU. Raditya Eka, from Bandung, Java, arrived on his Harley Davidson and entertained us with well made videos of his various rides through Indonesia. I can think of no better way of signing off for this time than the following video compiled by Eka covering HU Indonesia 2017. Enjoy! Please click here to view: Eka’s HU Video

In addition to the various links above, there are two photo galleries for this post that can be accessed by clicking the following links:

  1. Ijen, Bali and Lombok
  2. Horizons Unlimited, Indonesia 2017

 

Wild Sumatran Roads: The Ride to Java…

Bukit Lawang and its Orangutan; all-round piece of pretty poetical paradise. We found excellent accommodation here in the home of Hans, a German, who had self-built a series of beautiful little lodges complete with hammocks out front. A fascinating man, every encounter yielded a bounty of stories about life in Indonesia. In 2004 he had found a little Eden for his family in a secluded cove just outside Bandar Aceh, part of a little beach community. On Boxing Day 2004 he’d just had breakfast on his veranda, overlooking the ocean, when suddenly the sea disappeared. The tide simply went out as if the ocean was draining down some huge plughole someplace way off the coast. He grabbed his wife and daughter and they fled for high ground warning neighbouring villagers to do the same. He watched in horror as instead the locals ran to the beach; the outgoing seas had left little pools full of stranded fish and people were running to take advantage of the unexpected bounty. Of course the sea was coming back, not as an incoming tide but as a Tsunami. Hans and his family reached high ground but his home and everything in it along with the entire community he’d lived in was completely destroyed. The wave came as a rolling wall, an incredible 30m (100ft) high and swept all before it leaving some 200,000 dead and missing and another half million displaced persons like Hans.   They eventually made it back to his wife’s family in Medan and subsequently rebuilt their lives, moving to Bukit Lawang.

Our travels in Indonesia were teaching us we had a long way to go on bad roads to get through the big islands of Sumatra and then Java. Retracing the route back to Berastagi, we rode around the northwest crater rim of Lake Toba for a one-nighter in Parapat. The mountain road to the South and East was one of the worst of the trip. Grandly titled as the ‘Trans-Sumatran Highway’ again this was B-road hell with sections through towns and villages badly mangled or muddy and everything delayed by slow moving trucks that seemed barely capable of 20mph on the downhill. Now and again all progress was by a toppled truck that had been loaded high, then slipped a wheel into a ditch and turned turtle. Yet the poor roads were amply compensated by the lush mountain scenery all around and paddyfield foregrounds populated by barelegged farmers sporting coolie hats. The idyll was rendered complete by occasional flocks of white egrets flitting across the scene and it was on this road that we finally crossed the equator, our first ever road crossing from north to south.

On to the Southern Hemisphere then, where our first stop was Bukittingi, a bustling little market-town with a huge canyon right on its doorstep. Bukittingi was also the Japanese HQ during their occupation in WW2 and we explored tunnels built by slave labour overlooking the canyon. Another day and a ride out to see the spectacular Harau Valley billed as the ‘Indonesian Yosemite’, not so grand maybe but stunning all the same. Beyond Harau lay Kelok 9, an insane highway construction into the mountains full of racetrack-width elevated hairpins, bridges and super highway so incongruous with the roads in the rest of Sumatra. Riding it was like a drive-it-yourself rollercoaster; a thrilling, grin-guaranteed run quite unlike any other road in the world and a definite must for all bikers.

From Bukittingi we set forth into more mountain country bypassing another stupendous volcanic crater lake to reach the city of Sungai Penuh. It was not to be. Just beyond the lake we took a short break at a gas station. On restarting, Maggie heard an audible pop and her bike died, the battery clearly suffering some traumatic incident. On inspection its case had blistered and distorted and a trip around the village shops on the back of a petrol-attendants scooter failed to yield a replacement. It is very touching, looking back on these mishaps, at how people just stopped what they were doing, took an interest in our problem and then mucked in to help. As it happened there was a battery shop across the road. The guy there reckoned that our AGM battery (a sealed, maintenance free unit) had dried out. He broke the seal and reactivated the battery with some acid and put it on charge for a couple of hours allowing us to become a roadside attraction as folk came from near and far to have a photograph with the crazy motards! Another beautiful aspect of travelling in Indonesia is the many encounters with children. They are all keen to practice their English and approach us with a respectful request to do so. It’s a beautiful way to engage with kids as we learn about where they live, their hopes, their aspirations and a small way for us to pay back the hospitality and kindness we have had thrust upon us in Indonesia.

With the battery recharged we limped on to Padang, a city on the coast and spent the next day in a fruitless search for a replacement. The problem is our bikes use a fairly heavy-duty battery compared to local machines.   Our motorcycles have 650cc single cylinders, which require a hefty charge to turn them over in the mornings, and we could find nothing suitable in the city even with a local helper tagging along. In the end the reactivated battery seemed to be holding a charge, although its capacity and performance was clearly compromised, so we figured the bike would run OK once started. In this manner we limped through the remaining 900-miles of Sumatra, reaching the mountain town of Sungai Penuh and then another spectacular mountain ride to Bengkulu along the southern coast. These days were fraught with occasional bad road sections on a sick bike and we decided to keep going with no stops for coffee or lunch lest we get stranded in the middle of nowhere with an expired battery. Each day the battery died a little more until finally, on reaching the surf camps of Krui, jump leads were required to get her started. That final ride took us on a snake of a road over jungle-crested ridges and into the city of Bandar Lampung where the battery finally expired outside the Kurnai Perdana hotel.

A lesson learned on the road is that ‘Rescuers’ come in all shapes and forms. We asked at reception if they could call a few shops we’d found on the Internet to source a battery. Dali, a young bellhop, volunteered to take me around on the back of his scooter and, in the third shop, we final found a battery that would fit. It had a slightly lower performance rating but we figured this would only be a problem for cold starts or if the bike was left standing, neither of which are a concern in our current environment. Once fitted, the bike fired up like a nymphomaniac on HRT with big smiles all around the hotel crew who had gathered to watch the resurrection.

And so it was time to leave the stunning island of Sumatra. We boarded the RORO ferry to Java with a somewhat heavy heart and plonked ourselves down on the open deck to enjoy a cooling sea breeze and the savour the volcanic peaks of Sumatra as they receded into the distance and into our past… Our reverie was interrupted by a summons to the bridge where a bunch of smiling officers and engineers bade us enter… “Would you like to drive the boat for a bit?” they asked as the captain vacated his seat allowing Maggie to take the helm. As you can imagine, we rode off the ferry to begin the next leg of this journey with crazy loon smiles on our faces.

Java is the powerhouse of Indonesia. Appreciably smaller than Sumatra, Java contains over 60% of the population of all of Indonesia and that makes it the most densely populated island on the planet! We had been in contact with Jeffrey Polnaja, organiser of the first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia due to take place this May and where we are proud to present a slideshow or two on our travels. Jeffrey had advised avoiding the north and central roads across Java, as they are one huge logjam, especially around the capital city of Jakarta. Our first stop was the city of Bogor a mere 95 miles from the ferry, yet it took us nearly six-hours to cover this. Part of the route was mangled backroads, one of those ‘GPS shortcuts’ that utterly failed to account for the road conditions and had us slipping and sliding through chocolate-mud highstreets choked with traffic. Then we reached Bogor, a place we soon termed ‘Bugger’ for it’s traffic, where it took us over an hour and a half to cover the last eleven-miles, inch-worming through the dense gridlock. There wasn’t even room for filtering as every avenue was choked with a colloid suspension of small bikes. We read later that, with a population of several hundred thousand people residing in an area of about 20 km2, central Bogor is one of the most densely populated areas in the entire planet! It all made for tiresome riding, as progress was slow with constantly kicking up and down lower gears and arms aching from overuse of clutch and brake. To be fair the driving is mostly respectful and folk generally give way and show courtesy to one another so we never really felt threatened from other road users. Had this been India, it would simply have been carnage.

For all the traffic mayhem, Bogor was a pleasant city and a refreshing change from Wild Sumatra. In colonial times the city was named Buitenzorg (literally “without a care” in Dutch!) and served as the summer residence of the Governor-General of Dutch East Indies. There is a huge botanical garden in the centre that made for an amiable days’ stroll off the bikes. We took Jeffrey’s advice and cut through tea covered mountains to the coast, where we had been granted kind use of a splendid beach villa for a few days at the little fishing resort of Runcabuaya. This was just what we needed as our bikes and kit had taken something of a battering on the coastal ride south through Sumatra where everything had been covered in a film of sticky salt-spray that bonded with dust, dirt and diesel particles to make it all thoroughly filthy and a tad smelly to boot if I’m honest. We temporarily transformed the villa into a gypsy encampment with fluttering laundry flapping in the ocean breeze. The bikes too had a thorough cleaning and it was during this process that I discovered first a broken pannier frame bolt on my bike and then, more seriously, a broken spoke in the front wheel of Maggie’s bike; the roads in Indonesia were certainly taking their toll on our trusty machines. The bolt was replaced with a spare from the small stock we carry but the spoke was more troublesome as BMW use spokes, that feed straight through the wheel hub, whereas most other bikes have a bent attachment so finding a replacement would be a challenge. It also explained the wobble that had set in to the steering at 40mph on Maggie’s bike.

Runcabuaya was a great place to eat seafood from a plate-sized BBQ Raya fish to an order of Udang (prawns), which turned into a plate full of mouth-watering small red lobsters, split lengthwise to expose a soft, juicy forkable flesh all served in a savoury sweet and sour sauce (a steal too @£6 for two!). Our next destination was the ancient Buddhist temple complex at the imposing sounding town of Borobodur but our attempt to reach there led to one of the most scary rides of the entire trip to date… We left the haven of our lovely beach villa for a lively ride along the coast on improving roads. We saw Chinese, lift-type, fishing nets along the river estuaries and more of the verdant paddyfields lined with coconut palms that would give Ireland a run for its money in any ‘forty shades of green’ competition. We covered over half the distance in good time, with just under a hundred miles to complete in the afternoon, when it all went horribly wrong. First another GPS shortcut had us riding a dried out mud-track that was like a half-plowed minefield with bomb-blast potholes and concerns about that front wheel with the busted spoke. It was only four miles but seemed to take an eternity until we were back on solid ground. Then we hit the roadworks…

There was a tailback of maybe twenty or so cars and trucks and we followed some small bikes, filtering to the front where we were presented with a lane of completely dug up road section alongside another lane comprising a new section of raised concrete road. There was nothing coming so we followed a procession of scooters up onto the new highway. In hindsight this is perhaps the stupidest thing I have ever done on a motorcycle. It was all very well for a kilometer or so until we met a few cars coming the other way. With our fat-ass panniers we slowed down and the cars moved over so we easily passed one another. Then a minibus and a small truck; again we were able to pass but now the margin for manoeuvre was smaller. Still we were nearly there but you can imagine the horror as I heard the roar of a hefty diesel and a belch of thick black smoke that announced the oncoming arrival of a huge blue lorry. I stopped as close to the edge of the road as I could as he moved over and started to pass. My offside pannier was hanging over the edge of the road, now become a precipice and my left foot was down such that I could feel the side of the drop with my sole.

Contact! He nudged my right-side pannier with his side-rails pushing the bike over. The raised concrete section was about two feet above ground level so if I toppled over now I had a long way to fall with the bike coming down on top of me and probably breaking an arm / shoulder if not my neck! I shouted at the driver and he stopped as I managed to tease the bike forwards to eventually get by, only to see another truck looming ahead. Fortunately there was an earthen ramp down off the section and I made my escape. I jumped off the bike, adrenaline flushing though my body, in time to see Maggie now in contact with the first lorry. I don’t know how she did it but she dismounted and with the help of some locals was propping the bike up against the side of the lorry, which was in firm contact and ready to topple the bike; had she stayed in the saddle it would have been the end of her! I ran back and together we managed to manhandle the bike along the side of the lorry and then off the road altogether. Five minutes later the traffic cleared and we were able to finish the section without further hazard. The local people who lived along the road were lovely, inviting us into their homes for tea after surviving our mishap!

In hindsight it was clearly a stupid thing to do but traffic control was lacking; they just assumed any bike could squeeze on by. To cap it all, the sky up ahead bruised to black and we rode on into a deluge of super monsoon that drove almost everything off the road. We donned waterproofs but it rained with such intensity we could barely see more than a few yards ahead. After a few miles we spied the warm glowing lights of a roadside hotel and abandoned the day to the weather. Borobodur could wait…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: On to Java

 

 

One Year on the Road…

“Time flies by when you’re having fun” and ne’er a truer word spoken.  It is 5th July 2016 and we have now been on the road for an entire year. In that time we have covered almost 20,000 miles, passed through nineteen different countries and crossed three major sea crossings (English Channel, Straits of Hormuz and the Arabian Sea) and all of this has delivered us safely to the beautiful country of Thailand.

11 - At the Orange Temple (8 of 9)

Both bikes are holding up well. They are both fourteen years old now with over 80,000 miles on the clock and feel just as good as when they were new. There have been a few minor niggles but nothing unexpected or too major and for the first time ever on our motorcycle travels we’ve suffered a few punctures. Yet all of these little failure episodes lead to rich, unplanned encounters and strange locations that would be missed had it all gone according to plan. Our kit has mostly held up well with one or two notable exceptions, chiefly Maggie’s crash helmet; a ‘Schuberth C3 Woman.’ Maggie was attracted to the flip-front helmet as the shell is specifically made to fit a woman’s head and the helmet is light and seemed comfortable. However the Schuberth has simply fallen apart over the last 12 months due to a combination of poor materials and bad design. We are desperate to replace it in either Bangkok or Singapore… In contrast one item that has been outstanding and worthy of mention is my ‘RST Pro Series Adventure 2 Jacket’. This was a low budget item (British designed) that I came across when perusing much more expensive Rukka kit at three times the price (I discarded the latter as I could only find dark coloured jackets, which would be a nightmare to wear in hot climes). The RST is modular with removable thermal and waterproof linings. I suspect it might need additional thermal layers in really cold climates and can’t really vouch for the waterproof layer, as I haven’t used it (in any case I have a one-piece overall wetsuit for use in the rain). Where the RST wins is in its amazing array of mesh panels in chest, all the way down the arms and across the shoulders that really work in the heat providing much needed airflow.

Since our Pan-American trip, twelve years ago, there are a number of significant changes in what we are carrying on the bikes. Back then we had half a pannier full of books, from hefty guidebooks to leisure material, plus an armful of maps. This is all gone, the books replaced by Kindle and iPad with an unlimited amount of reading material available. We still use paper maps but these are acquired and given away on a country-by-country basis and mostly useful for ‘big-picture’ planning. Instead we have our Garmin GPS (using free open source maps) and the superb Maps.me app (also free) for local navigation.

Our year on the road has been an incredible journey that has taken us through yet more of the most amazing places on the planet. One of the delights of travel is that at home you can plan and read about something foreign, be it mountain or river, castle or palace, savoury dish or sandwich. You build up a sketchy outline in your mind of what you think it might really be like. Then when you actually roll up on location that outline can be beautifully filled in, completed with every resplendent texture and colour, taste and odour, sound and vision (this is all enhanced even more when you roll up on a motorcycle).

Mirror Pool with the Famous Dome...

Thus we have come to behold such natural wonders as the Transfăgărășan Pass in Romania, Pamukkale and Cappadocia in Turkey, the beautiful desert wastelands of Rajasthan and the spectacular Himalayan foothills around Darjeeling. Add to this a smattering of astonishing man made marvels, both ancient and modern, such as Spis castle in Slovakia, The Burj Khalifa in Dubai, The Taj Mahal and the Amber Palace in India, the temples of Bagan in Myanmar and Angkor Wat in Cambodia and our favourite so far on this trip; Hampi in India. Then there has been the food assault… from the simple but utterly delicious Masala Dosa, for a breakfast in India that will sustain you all day, to mashing up a Dizi in Iran; a delicious runny meat and vegetable stew served in a sort of mortar and pestle. It is eaten by grinding the contents to a paste, then pouring off the liquor to eat separately with freshly baked flatbread. There is a dish that needs serious nap afterwards.

The impact of our travels on body and mind has all been beneficial. I have lost almost one stone in weight. I have a hiatus hernia that required daily meds back in the UK. I’ve stopped taking these, attributable in part to the weight loss but also to the more active lifestyle and probably a healthier diet. We have found once again that our life is so much simpler without a lot of stuff in it. All the material things we stashed away before leaving home are forgotten and unmissed and everything on our bikes has a use and a purpose. If it doesn’t it gets discarded, as it is so obviously not contributing to the journey.

This has been our first time travelling through Asia and our ride has taken us through a large swathe of the Islamic world from Istanbul via Iran to India. On the way we never met any hatred or hostility, only smiling faces and warm hospitality from graceful people keen to show us tolerance and understanding and willing us success in our travels. Then on through the lands of Shiva and the Buddha with ever more spectacular landscapes, temples and dishes to tempt the palette. Always we are beneficiaries of that hospitality to travellers.

Sunrise

We left the UK in hot sunny weather and the thermometer has rarely dipped below 30°C on this great ride east. It’s been mostly dry too, even now in South East Asia where we were expecting the Monsoon to interrupt play. Sadly I think this is all part of our witnessing the start of one of the next challenges for the world, one that could lead to major ecological disaster; Water. We have passed drought-stricken lands from Iran, across India and now here in Cambodia where they are having their worst drought in over a decade and lush green paddy fields are reduced to shallow mud patch. In India, levels of the Ganges are reported to be down by a staggering 25% this year with a disastrous impact and hundreds of farmers making headline news after committing suicide as a consequence of crop failure. When last years crop failed many borrowed money from racketeers to tide them over a bad period, but successive crop failures have led them to the point where they can no longer afford to repay the loans. One story even told of a guy selling one of his kidneys to gangsters just to raise loan interest payments. Overpopulation is really telling on water usage to the point where the actual water table and underground aquifers are disappearing, features that geologists reckon will take centuries to recover. It is something we take for granted yet life will be impossible in these areas without water.

Another big change since our Pan-American ride is the impact of Smart phones and I already mentioned the usefulness of apps such as Maps.me in helping us find our way around new places. But sadly it seems that the world is retreating into these devices and the number of times we’ve looked around little cafes and restaurants to see whole tables, whether families or groups of friends, all sitting in isolation peering into these soulless, life-sucking windows. Even worse, the selfie-stick; the Wand of Hedonism, the Ego-Stick and potential key to your very own ‘Darwin Award’ in a year when more people have died taking ‘selfies’ than have been killed by sharks. We have seen people get all dressed up to go to some amazing area of outstanding natural beauty with the prime mission; to take their own photograph there. We have been horrified at the sight of a bunch of young tourists at Choueng Ek, the infamous Cambodian ‘Killing Fields’ genocide memorial outside Phnom Penh, a solemn place where thousands of people were taken for brutal execution and their first thought was to take a smiling selfie!

Maybe this is all a sign that Maggie and I are getting older but then in Darjeeling, on a visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre we read the following quotation from the Dalai Llama entitled ‘The Paradox of our Age’:

 “We have bigger houses and smaller families

More conveniences, but less time;

We have degrees but less sense;

More knowledge but less judgment;

More experts, but more problems.

More medicine, but less healthiness.

 We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but we have trouble crossing the street to meet our new neighbor.

We have built more computers to hold more information to produce more copies than ever, but have less communication.

 We’ve become long on quantity but short on quality.  

These are times of fast foods and slow digestion;

Tall men and short character;

Steep profits and shallow relationships.

 It is a time when there is much in the window and nothing in the storeroom”.

It's not all garbage...  here is a bit of trackside agriculture.

This strikes so many chords with what we are experiencing as we go about our travels in this world yet, moan as I may about selfies and smart phones, our planet is still a wondrous place and 99% of the people who inhabit it are beautiful. We are still on the road and still savouring the spice of life as a pair of nomads. Coming next is the ride through southern Thailand, then Malaysia, Indonesia and eventually Australia and New Zealand. We hope you will stay with us for the ride…

Laid Back in Laos

Land-locked Laos; just a long streak of a country full of jungly mountains in the north running to flat-ish paddy-field plains to the south, all bordered to the west by the Mekong river that forms a natural frontier with Thailand and Cambodia. The ‘Lao People’s Democratic Republic’, to give the nation its full title, is also one of the last five remaining communist nations, the others being China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea. Like other land-locked nations in less developed parts of the globe, Laos has been doomed to relative poverty and corruption. It also has the dubious title as one of the most bombed places on earth, the consequence of unparalleled US interdictions during the Vietnam War over thirty years ago.

On the face of it Laos didn’t seem to have much to offer as a travel destination. Even their tourist board slogan ‘simply beautiful…’ seemed a bit of a muted effort to entice tourists. Having previously travelled through older communist / socialist states, Yugoslavia (before the break up) and Algeria, it was noticeable how government interference in day to day life made those places seem dreary by stifling ambition and innovation in an attempt to ‘level out’ society with the exception of the hypocrites at the top who set the rules and then ignore them. Still we were ready for a change and, as we well know, travelling with low expectation is never a bad thing…

We exited Thailand via the most northerly border crossing with Laos at Chiang Khong via an impressive modern customs terminal where we were all stamped up and escorted over the bridge across the Mekong to the equally impressive Laos customs terminal at Houey Xai. It cost $35 each for a visa on arrival and then a friendly customs guy quickly processed our vehicle carnets and we were in. The first few days provided a steady diet of marvelous mountain roads, every bit as stunning as the Mae Hong Song loop had been in Thailand but this time the roads were a kind of Laotian lullaby that slowed down not only our riding but even our breathing and general pace of life, all fitting stuff as it delivered us into the gentle embrace of Luang Prabang. ‘Sai-ba-dee’ said Mr Thang, the young receptionist at the Villa Maha Sok, welcoming us with the traditional Laotian greeting before showing us to our cool room. Luang Prabang is Laos’ second city and cultural capital, yet it felt more like a small French provincial town nestled on a peninsula at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. The city has been fittingly declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a mix on the Mekong of Buddhist Temples and French colonial dwellings all just a stroll away down heady-scented, flower festooned lanes.

We enrolled for a day of cookery lessons that started with a mooch ‘round the market to stock up on ingredients followed by an afternoon on the wok to cook both lunch and dinner. A sedate river cruise took us to see some old caves at Pak-O and a short ride on the bikes deposited us at the utterly delectable Kuang-Si waterfalls, far and away the prettiest waterfalls on the planet. Here we hiked through the glorious nest of cascades and swam in turquoise waters, sampling our first piscine foot pedicure into the bargain. Luang Prabang could easily run for the title of ‘most laid back place on the planet’ and we easily found new excuses not to leave. Even as I sit here and write this I can feel its draw, enticing me back…

It has helped that we are travelling off-season so, although there have been one or two rain-showers, there are no crowds and accommodation comes at bargain rates with easy availability. However darker clouds loomed on our horizon as we received news of militant hill-tribes being involved in a number of shootings directly on our route south on Highway 13, the main road from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, the Laotian capital.   In March this year a bus came under automatic weapons fire, being hit 27 times, killing one Chinese tourist and wounding another 6. Then, in the previous week, a Laotian army captain was shot dead in an ambush against the military sent in to quell the trouble. Nine of the attackers were also killed in the ensuing firefight. Asking around it seems that the hill tribes are upset about land grants from government officials to Chinese immigrants; upset enough to take this drastic action. We pondered the map and the only alternatives to travelling this main road were to either backtrack all the way into Thailand and miss the rest of Laos or take to mountain trails into the heart of hill-tribe country; probably not a wise move. In the end we decided to continue with some assurance from the military presence in the area to keep the road open. If we were turned back at one of their roadblocks then so be it.

In the event, had we turned back, we would have missed one of the most awesome motorcycling roads on the planet. With switch-backs and chicanes, S-bends and U-bends, hairpins and dog-legs this was a road that cambered and careered all over a jungle-rendered mountain ridgeline that took us high up onto the clouds. We passed through tumble down villages that periodically lined the road, humble hooch shacks made from rattan and bamboo and our only interaction all day was returning the maniac smiles and waves from the hordes of grubby urchins as we passed. Our destination was the backpacker town of Vang Vieng and what a beautiful setting for the end of this magnificent day on the road as sugar loaf hanging-mountains lined the valley, a serration of backdrop guaranteed to make the jaw drop.

But then the town itself and what utter horror after the sweet florid backstreets of Luang Prabang! Vang Vieng; a tourist ‘Deadwood’, a wild-west town with chewed up muddy streets lined with backpacker hostels, lean-tos and saloons. The lovely mountain views were now obliterated by new-build, high-rise complexes rendered in foul concrete, all shooting up their re-bar’d upperworks clawing the very sky. Here was unrestrained tourism gone crazy, the opposite end of the spectrum to Luang Prabang. We stayed for a day, sampled some of the bad food on offer and found nothing here to dispel our initial impressions of the town. An afternoon hike into the nearby mountains provided some compensation and, with the view of Vang Vieng firmly at our back, it led us into some truly spectacular country.

Vientiane, our next stop, is the administrative capital and we found it a place of somewhat moderate charm. We spent a relaxing weekend exploring the city on a pair of bicycles from the hotel. Once again the abundance of flowers were providing an assault on both scent and vision. I had my eye to the camera to capture a beautiful five-petaled white blossom when the bush spoke to me… “Frangipani” it said. “Oh err…” I replied somewhat startled. “Frangipani. It’s the name of that flower. Did you know it’s the national flower of Laos? Beautiful isn’t it?” I turned to discover that I wasn’t going potty after all and that Mags was chatting with Ruth, a lively backpacker who had just enlightened us with the identification of this beautiful flower. And so a delightful friendship began, founded in in the peaceful aroma of flora. Over a lively dinner that evening we learned how Ruth and her husband Ian have been on the road for nearly a year, trekking in the Himalayas and through China. She has a fair pen for a blog too as you will see if you visit their travel site at the following link: Ian & Ruths blog

Laos the country, we were finding, is a fantastic travel destination. However we were detecting a slight air of indifference from the Laotian people who seemed somewhat sullen in their demeanour. Don’t get me wrong, we are most definitely not attention seekers but we have grown accustomed to a certain level of interest in our endeavour especially when rolling into town on a pair of never-seen-before bright yellow motorcycles. This normally encourages a lively level of engagement and it’s one of the reasons we love motorcycle travel, as the bikes themselves are such great icebreakers when you arrive at a new destination. Yet even without the bikes, in many service scenarios in shops or restaurants, there is an evident air here of ‘couldn’t care less’ from staff that continually raises the question ‘do you really want my business?’ We have heard the same opinion expressed by other travellers in Laos. Perhaps, given the country’s recent history, there is a mistrust of all foreigners? In both Luang Prabang (UXO Visitor Centre) and Vientiane (COPE exhibition) we learned more about that history and its tragic consequences.

During the Vietnam War, the Ho-Chi Minh Trail was established through eastern Laos. This infamous North Vietnamese supply route was used to move materiel from North Vietnam under the cover of jungle trails through neutral territory and deliver this to the Viet Cong rebels fighting insurgency operations in South Vietnam. The US decided something had to be done to halt the traffic and set about obliterating the trail. Both North Vietnam and the US denied they had any involvement or personnel in Laos. Consequently, there were no ‘rules of engagement’ to restrict the US operations that were applicable to operations against North Vietnam where they were anxious to appear as liberators so ‘no bombing temples’ etc. Instead Laos was carpet-bombed with more ordinance than was dropped during the entire Second World War.

The statistics made for grim reading. Between 1964 and 1973 more than 2-million tons of ordinance were dropped in over half a million sorties by US air power. A significant proportion of the munitions dropped were cluster type weapons, a sort of aerial shotgun that delivered sub-munitions (known as ‘bombies’) designed to saturate entire areas with anti-personnel mines that would later explode on contact with enemy troops moving through the area. Despite all efforts, the trail kept moving and so the missions continued and the bombing escalated. At one stage even detergents were dropped to make the mud slimier to restrict movement.

Some of the larger individual cluster weapons contained up to 600 ‘bombies’ and, of these, an estimated 78-million failed to explode and have remained dormant where they were dropped. Add to this dud artillery / mortar rounds and conventional unexploded aerial bombs and there is a horrific amount of live ammo or ‘UXO’ (Un-eXploded Ordinance) just waiting for contact to detonate. Around 200 people are killed each year. The victims are mostly innocents, from kids who pick up an appealing little cluster bomb that looks like a funny metal pineapple to farmers trying to work land that has already been seeded with a lethal crop. There are also casualties from folk trying to dismantle unexploded bombs for salvage, a lucrative proposal in impoverished Laos where a single 700-pound bomb can yield around $200 in scrap metal, a huge windfall when you consider the average annual income here is an estimated $1200.

Cluster bombs are a legacy from the Cold War, designed for use against the mass armies of the Soviet Union should they ever try and steamroll across Western Europe but they have sadly gained their main deployment in Laos and neighbouring Cambodia as a counter-insurgency weapon. Laos has initiated the ‘Convention on Cluster Munitions’, an international treaty prohibiting the use, transfer and stockpile of cluster bombs. It has been adopted by over 100 nations since its launch in 2008 but sadly the main proponents of cluster weapons, USA, Israel, Russia and China have not signed up.

We had a pleasant ride south through the Laotian lowlands with a pleasant day scrambling over the Khmer ruins at Wat Phou (pronounced ‘Poo’), a spectacular curtain-raiser for Angkor Wat just down the road in Cambodia. Our final halt in Laos was on the island of Don Khong in the ‘Si Phan Don’ region, land of the ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the mighty Mekong spreads into an area 14-kilometres wide looking, from the air, like a huge tray of brittle toffee that has been dropped on the ground to crackle and splinter into millions of little channels. The power of the Mekong is perhaps at its most spectacular at the Li-Phi Falls where it cascades through a myriad of spectacular broken ground on its journey south.

This is the land of Laid-Back Laos were days simply went by in a series of east bank sunrises and west bank sunsets on the Mekong made all the more pleasurable over a brace of Lao-Lao whisky cocktails. Laos has been a delightful surprise; in the balance it is a charming and magical travel destination and a place we are finding so hard to leave…

The photogallery for this posting is available by clicking the following link: Laos