It’s mid-summer in Romania and I’m about to die.
Bob & Viv Goddard face untold hazards ‘Beyond Bucharest’
Storm force winds are shrieking between the lampposts and lashing me with horizontal rain-bullets as I struggle to control my heavily-laden Honda over broken cobbles. I’m on my way into Bucharest city centre and wishing I was anywhere else.
Surrounded by suicidally-impatient drivers who are nudging my bike with their bumpers, and dodging un-fenced road works trenches full of swirling brown floodwater, I think things can’t get any worse. Then I see they most definitely can…
The car ahead of me rears into the air, crashes down and slithers sideways as it hits some obstacle in the road. Now I can see what it is: glistening steel tram-tracks cross the road at 45 degrees. These rails stand a full six-inches above the road surface.
“My God!” I whimper, “They can’t expect us to ride over those?”
Realising there’s no alternative, I stand up on the footrests just as a bell rings beside me. A quick glance to my left confirms my worst fears. It’s a tram. It’s going to cross the road at the same instant I hit its tracks. There’s no time to stop. I’m going to die.
There are moments in life when one has to make a snap decision. I crack open the Varadero’s throttle and the big V-twin surges forward. Turning my bike at the last moment to hit the wet steel at near right angles, we lurch, bump and crash over first one, then two slippery rails.
Miraculously I’m still on the bike, still upright and the tram has missed me. Phew! Then I remember my wife Viv, riding her Honda Transalp right behind me. Omygod!
I twist to look over my shoulder just in time to see her bouncing her bike over the rails only feet in front of the advancing tram. By some miracle we both made it.
Many others weren’t so lucky. Next day, as we watched the TV news from a flood-bound hotel in neighbouring Bulgaria, we discovered the nightmare storm had washed away houses, roads and bridges. Cars, lorries, buses and pedestrians had been swept away in the biblical deluge. In all 62 people were killed by the floods, falling trees or lightning. Thousands more were left homeless.
What on earth were we – a pair of dithery grandparents – doing riding through all this on our bikes? Were we mad?
The answer was obviously YES. But we were mad with a motive. We had set off from home in Norfolk to visit the overseas projects of UK children’s charity EveryChild and, hopefully, raise some publicity for their good works in the process.
Inspired by Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman’s Long Way Round trip when they visited Unicef operations in Eastern Europe, we figured we could do something similar, but without the TV crew, fixers, medics and support vehicles. We knew we would take in 12 countries along the way and clock up something like 5000 miles, but we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for.
We started in scorchingly hot conditions – it was the summer that thousands of Parisians died of heatstroke – and when the weather finally broke it did so with a vengeance. We had visited several EveryChild facilities in western Romania, done interviews with the local media and were heading for Bulgaria when all hell let loose. Frankly, the roads and the driving were so bad here, they didn’t need the storm of the century to make them insanely dangerous. These were just some of the hazards:
1) Tyre grooves:
On Romania’s tired, beaten-up old roads, the heavy lorries lean towards the verge due to the camber of the road and their overloaded chassis. The result is a tyre groove near the centreline of the road and a much deeper one near the road edge, where the combination of tyre-trench and displaced tarmac sometimes creates a ridge over half a metre high.
These are often a metre or more across and up to half a metre deep. Fail to spot and dodge these in time and you can puncture tyres, break wheels, damage suspension and snap motorbike frames and luggage carriers, not to mention being pitched off your bike.
These are not potholes but can be just as deadly. These are where the substructure of the road – maybe an underlying drain or culvert – has collapsed, leaving an almost invisible hollow where the road has dropped. Hit these at anything above jogging speed and the suspension fires you out of the saddle, shortening your spine in the process.
4) Horse poo:
A novel hazard that you don’t see much on British roads, but with lots of horses and carts in Romania, there are frequent piles of steaming horse droppings, made even more interesting to ride over when heavy rain turns it into a slimy slurry.
5) Slick tar:
Not only road repairs, but whole sections of road, especially in bends, are polished glass-smooth by vehicle tyres and lack of road maintenance. In the wet these are treacherously slippery.
Romanian trucks have leaky tanks and faulty filler caps. But with their own oil wells in the south of the country, this is of no concern to the truckers who spread slippery diesel oil over the roads. In the dry this is dodgy, but in the wet the combination of oil lying over a film of water is deadly, especially in bends.
7) Road signs:
Those that haven’t fallen over, been driven into or rusted away have usually been shot to pieces. For some reason, everyone with a gun seems to find road signs irresistible for target practice, the satisfying ‘clang’ of a wounded road sign must make up for the absence of hunted-out wildlife, perhaps?
But you can’t spend too long looking out for road signs or you’ll hit a dog. Romania has packs of feral dogs running along the verge beside you, barking maniacally and threatening to throw themselves under your wheels any second.
Despite all of the above, by far the greatest hazard on Romanian roads were the other road users. In the space of two hours we counted four accidents – still fresh and warm.
The first was a chap who had spun off on a wet bend – one of the smooth tar hazards – and had smashed his car to a pulp around a tree.
The second was a bus with the front stoved in, the driver and another man trying to pull the glass out and restart the engine, so that the poor passengers could be delivered to their destinations. What had mangled the front of the bus was long gone, but it looked like the back end of a lorry, judging by the damage.
The third was a major crunch between a lorry and a car, the latter having no engine or front wheels left. This one was sufficiently serious for the police to be in attendance and a sheet-covered shape on the verge looked ominously like a body.
The fourth was at traffic lights, a shunt with three vehicles involved, their drivers all shouting and arguing with each other instead of moving their vehicles so that others might pass. Fortunately we were narrow enough to squeeze past before the fists started flying.
These were challenge enough, but when the storm of the century broke just as we got caught up in the manic city traffic of Bucharest, we both thought we would never make it out alive. Miraculously we survived, reached Veliko Tarnovo in Bulgaria and spent a couple of days drying out and recovering.
Eventually the flood waters receded enough for us to continue to southern Bulgaria and complete our mission. After more charity visits and an appearance on Bulgarian national television, we allowed ourselves a couple of days R&R on the Black Sea coast before the long ride home. Surely nothing could go wrong now?
Shortly after crossing over the Danube and back into Romania, a second storm brought renewed flooding and misery for those who were washed out of their homes along the route we had to travel. A long day of treacherous riding through mud, rubble and falling rocks left us so exhausted we settled for the only non-flooded guesthouse we could find.
This roadside trucker’s halt was even rougher than the dodgy hotels we’d stayed in elsewhere on the trip, but we were too tired to care. We were thankful for a room, despite live wires protruding from the walls, outrageous plumbing and a bed with no mattress, just a few odd cushions scattered over the springs.
The two young waitresses in the café downstairs made us welcome as we munched our way through the limited menu. We snatched what sleep we could as guests arrived and left at all hours of the night and when we stumbled down for breakfast next morning we were surprised to see the same two girls still on duty. We were 200 miles down the road before the penny dropped and we realised we’d just spent the night in a brothel!
The full story of this ridiculous journey – hairy, scary and often hilarious – is in the book of our travels: ‘Beyond Bucharest’. Come and meet us at the HU 10th Annual UK Travellers Meeting in Ripley from June 24-27, 2010. We will be giving a presentation (possibly two!) and signing books. Hope to see you there…
YouTube - Beyond Bucharest: Motorcycle Adventure Travel, Romania & Bulgaria