The Beautiful South…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bitten by Romania (Part 2)

What a sheer delight it was to be greeted each morning by the lovely smile of Leonard Soare, owner of the Pensiunea Piscul Soarelui, county councilor, President of the Mountain Community Iezer Muscel Association and one of the driving forces behind the twinning of this area with places like Lazio in Italy, Listowel in Kerry and indeed the aforementioned Downpatrick affiliation. ‘How you sleep my friends?’ he would ask in delightful slightly broken English. In this clear mountain air; like a log… Out on the covered patio, Marlene and the girls from the kitchen would appear to set us up with a hearty breakfast of coffee, omelet, freshly baked bread and home-made jams. After breakfast, we would contemplate the day ahead with Leonard under sunny blue Romanian skies…

To be honest we’d never really paid much attention to the notion of ‘twinning’ other than noticing the ‘twinned with’ declarations on entering towns around home and across Europe. According to the blurb, “A twinning is the meeting between two municipalities to act together within a European perspective, confronting problems and developing increasingly closer and friendlier ties between one another.” There are currently over 34,000 ‘twinnings’ in place across the EU and, listening to the tales of Leonard’s travels, they are a fantastic way to bring people together for cultural exchanges and a broader view of the world (for more information of Leonards perspective on this see his website, twinning.org)

For all the blue skies we had a slight cloud spoiling our fun in the form of a clunky chain on my bike. It already had a slight tight spot when I left home but, assessing this against its predicted service life, I reckoned it should have been good for a few more thousand miles. However in the past few days a clunking noise had set in to the back wheel and upon closer examination it looked like the rivet link was badly worn and I was wary of transmitting more damage to the gearbox or other running parts. The nearest city, Campulung, offered few services for motorcycles but Leonard made a few calls and found us a mechanic who could look at least at replacing the worn rivet link with my spare split-link.

Theo worked out of a little workshop at the rear of some ugly communist-era apartment blocks in Campulung. The workshop was packed from floor to ceiling with tools and old car engine parts. We split the chain and on closer examination found more damaged links. He disappeared for ten minutes, made a few calls and he announced that he had sourced a new chain. It proved to be an expensive purchase but then Theo had given up a whole morning to sort my bike. We had come here to ride the fantastic Transfăgărășan Pass and I really didn’t fancy risking it with a bodged chain.

Next morning we were up early and set off on bumpy, concrete-section, rural roads to Curtea de Arges and the start of the Transfăgărășan. We would ride it south to north and then circle back to the Pensiunea via the Bran Pass. The southern gates are guarded by the impressive fortress of Poienari high on the canyon top with associations to Vlad the Impaler and more Dracula lore. The road continued to ascend some pine-clad canyons via a series of fairly gentle switchbacks and bends ending in a tunnel ride at the end of which is the impressive dam at Lake Vidraru. We chased this long lake through more pine-forest taking care to avoid the folk picking raspberries at the roadside, which were abundant in the area. We gradually eased out of the canyon, leaving the trees behind, to be met by a sheer stone face of Carpathian mountain and a zigzag of a road to the top.

The Transfăgărășan Pass was constructed in the early 1970’s, following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union. Romanian dictator Ceaușescu saw the road as a military strategic necessity, giving him access across the mountains in the event of a Soviet invasion. It proved to be a bit of a folly, as the weather does a better job of preventing access to the pass than any military force ever could, but it was argued that the other trans-Carpathian routes followed river valleys and so could be easily blocked. It was estimated that the military construction teams used over six million kilograms of dynamite were used to blast out the passage and possibly several hundred conscripts lost their lives during the four-year construction of the pass.

On scaling the southern approach, it ends in a tunnel that then breaches the pass and spits you out at the beautiful bowl of Bâlea Lake, a glacial melt-pool at the top of the 2000-metre pass. At the top there is a small restaurant and dozens of food stalls and souvenir shacks. We pigged out on rotisseried roast chicken with spuds and then sauntered over to gawk at the amazing views over the mad spaghetti descent down the north side. Also at the top were lots of little cars from the UK all out for the Mongol Rally. The rules of this annual event are simple: (1) The car must be small and crap. (2) The teams are totally unsupported and (3) Teams need to raise at least £1000 for charity. They then drive all the way from London to Mongolia, where the cars are donated to charity or properly disposed of.

Our ride today was stupendous and we were blessed by beautiful weather all day. We read of the pass being described as one of the world’s most dangerous roads, which is all hype if you ask me. The road surface is poor in places but this is typical in Romania and nowhere did we feel like we were in danger of going over the edge or toppling to our doom down some deep canyon.

Back at the Pensiunea, Leonard greeted us with two ice-cold beers after a truly fantastic day’s motorcycling. Then dinner… The fare was from a simple menu but everything was delicious and once again homemade fare topped the bill. You can read in our ‘Food’ section of our encounter with Zakuska, a delightful aubergine and roast pepper paste that is simply to die for, all made of course by Lily, Leonards adorable wife. After dinner we took pleasure in the company of these two and whiled away the evenings in pleasant conversation. By the end of our stay this all led us to enquire as to whether Leonard had ever considered giving up ‘twinning’ and consider ‘adoption’ as a pastime. We both come fully house-trained…

Inevitably the call of the road beckoned and we set off south for Bulgaria. The ride took us down out of the mountains and across endless fields of sunflowers that ran unbroken all the way to the Danube. On empty roads it felt like the bikes had disappeared and we were on flying carpets over this sea of yellow smiley flowers; truly an adventure in yellow. We’d been badly bitten by Romania, fallen in love with the place and it’s people, be they sun-bleached farm-hands on mountain passes, who waved and smiled as we rode by, to the most hospitable of hosts in this amazing land.

You can see the associated photogallery for this blog post at Romania – Part 2

Bitten by Romania!

… Our extraction from Slovakia was a beautiful twisting mountain road that dropped us onto the scorched plains of Hungary. The road to Romania took us in a more or less straight line across red-hot skillet flatlands with temperatures hovering just below 40°C. Just across the border our first Romanian halt was the ‘Robinson Country Club’ in the city of Oradea where we had a novelty accommodation in the form of a little wooden cabin. Five of them were dotted around our own ‘private pool’ and it all cost little more than if we had camped. The first ‘surprise’ was the access road into the site; it ran parallel to a railway line had been completely dug up with a No-Entry sign barring the way. From here all roads ran up a steep hill and we had a nightmare trying to gain access to our lodgings, getting stuck at the top of one of these hills on fully loaded bikes in the sweltering heat, making a U-turn which only dumped us at the foot of the hill our way once again barred by an earthen ramp. In the end I rode over the ramp and we finally arrived at the ‘Country Club’ where our host, a young lad named Adam, made us very welcome.   We tried some ‘Mici’ (“small things”) for dinner – a traditional Romanian dish of grilled ground meat rolls made from a mixture of beef, lamb and pork and spices that was quite tasty.

The next day was spent hoofing around Oradea, finding succor from the heat sipping local made lemonade and lunching on savoury pastries in one of the cities fine delis. It’s a pretty city but there are roadworks everywhere; it seems Romania is on the up as infrastructure is put in place. By 3pm we were thoroughly hot and sweaty and decided to retire to the pool for a cooling soak. That’s when we found that our ‘private pool’ was also available for the local mafia and their molls. On arrival back at the Country Club the carpark was full of AMG Mercedes / flash BMWs and their owners had nabbed all the sun-loungers and were using the porches of all of the cabins to store their cigarettes / keys / mobile phones and items of clothing. We smiled; they returned stony frowns. We picked a path through their stretched legs and dumped our bits inside our cabin; they glared and tried to see inside. We retreated to the shady bar and sat supping a beer, asking Adam to explain who these thugs were? ‘Businessmen’ he said… “Are our bikes OK here?” we asked. “Don’t worry” said deadpan Adam, “none of them mess with my father…”

The wooden cabin was a bad idea in other ways. It was stifling hot so we slept with the window open and had night intruders in the form of mossies or so I thought. Each morning we woke with a few more bites. On the morning of our departure I saw what I thought was a sesame seed on the bed and flicked it. It was full of blood; we had been sleeping with bed bugs. An online search revealed this is a worsening phenomenon in the travel industry as DDT is banned in insecticides and laundries are now using low temperature washes, which eggs are able to survive. It seems it is affecting the hotel business the world over with outbreaks not only in low level hostels but also in flashier haunts like New York and London. Scratching our bites we left…

If Oradea was a poor introduction to Romania then things could only go up and indeed they did. Our next stop was the medieval city of Sighișoara, with its beautiful castle overlooking the Târnava Mare river in Transylvania. Also known as Schäßburg, the citadel was built by an army of imported German craftsmen and merchants known as the Transylvanian Saxons way back in the 12th century. They were invited to settle here by the King of Hungary, who was keen to exploit their skills in fortress construction. The entire city has something of a gossamer fairytale atmosphere to it and we spent a couple of days meandering its winding streets and visiting the castle. The German legacy is very much in evidence with shop names like Muller and Schmitt.

Sighișoara is also famous as the birthplace of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler), inspiration for Irishman Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula and consequently a beacon for tourist souvenirs around town. You can visit the house where he was born and buy all sorts of Dracula regalia from vampire teeth to Vlad T-Shirts. What is amazing is that Stoker never visited Eastern Europe and Vlad the Impaler has nothing really to do with vampires, he just had a bit of a reputation for not going to easy on his conquered enemies. After one victorious battle he reputedly created a forest by impaling 20,000 of the vanquished.

Later we would spend a day at Bran Castle, ‘Draculas Castle’, a place where Vlad himself has no dramatic historical links, yet the castle is one of the major tourist draws in Romania purely on this Dracula connection. The place was horribly overcrowded and, although the castle itself is quite pretty, it is small and was easily over-run by the coachloads of tourists. The Dracula phenomenon must be perplexing to many Romanians as they view this sensational horror story set in Transylvania, written by some bloke who’s never been there, a story that attained ultimate popularity when Hollywood put it on the silver screen to terrify audiences the world over. Some of the ‘anti-Dracula’ postings by the locals were quite witty as you can see in the photogallery.

After Sighișoara, the road continued south through rural landscapes and wound on through the Bran pass and some of the most beautiful alpine scenery on Earth. We’d come here to ride the legendary Transfăgărășan Pass, one of the most stunning rides on the planet. We checked into a small Pension and when I entered ‘Belfast’ as my place of birth on the registration form, the owner Leonard became ecstatic in the extension of his warm welcome… Turns out this place is ‘twinned’ with Downpatrick in Northern Ireland but that, as they say, is another story… to be continued…

 

For photographs see Gallery ‘ Romania Part 1’