. . . and saw more Lenins and Stalins than you could shake a stick at.
The son of the current mayor of this town decided to do an 'Up Yours' to the Soviet repression of the Baltic states in general and Lithuania in particular. So he's collected lots of statues of Lenin, Stalin and other Soviet luminaries and erected them in the forest at Grutos Park, about 5km from here. You walk through the forest and there are glades containing the statues and busts, together with pix of their original location and biographical details. All the while, patriotic Soviet music blares out from watchtowers, interspersed with 40s and 50s dance music. The chap pokes fun at all of them. Apparently there are a number of people opposed to what he's done, so there's one glade containing small wooden busts of them in caricature.
I decided to stay here another night as it's such a nice place, the weather is gorgeous, the beer is cheap and I have plenty of time to get to the Russian border next Friday.
Had an interesting chat with a Swedish chap last night over pizza and a decent Chianti - his company (www.expleo.net) makes 'hard parts' for BMW, Audi, Merc, Volvo and so on and he's trying to establish a factory in Lithuania but having rather a hard time.
NB no USB port on this machine that I can find so the Lenin pic will have to wait.
And for the GPS anoraks, the Leninhenge is at
N 54 deg 01,517
E 24 deg 04,812
And yes, Phil is right, I missed the 1 so it's 1300 miles, but I did explain about the strange keyboard. I can't get the 'at' sign from any combination of keys so I had to cut and paste it. Still, not as difficult as the Farsi version of Netscape I had to contend with in Tehran. Oh, and I'm now 2 hours ahead of you. Looking at the map, there'll be some rather bizarre things in Russia: the time zone boundaries are very wiggly, so at one point I go back and hour then forward again, and at another place I go forward an hour and then again 100 km later. Hey, jetlag on an ancient G/S.
I'd forgotten what a 486 PC running Win98 was like. But this is Riga.
When I tried to find the centre of Europe this morning it all went a bit pear-shaped, really. I tried to find the A14, I really did, and I followed the signs until they disappeared. And according to the sun I was going in more or less the right direction. But I wasn't. So I found a road which claimed to go left across country to the place I wanted. And across country I went. A few bits of the 43kms were tarmacked, to be fair, but most wasn't. All good practice, I suppose, but the big tank and tankbag don't do anything for one's stance.
Anyway, made it in the end, and if I hadn't left my GPS in the bike in the next-door courtyard I'd be able to tell you where it is. Got some nice pix, though.
So, back to Vilnius (more disappearing roadsigns) and on to Riga. The Via Baltica. Very grand name, and for the first 70 miles or so it's a nice dual carriageway with lots of little chefs. Mind you, the motel on the airfield (working) surrounded by relics of the Red Air Force made it all worthwhile. A fairly rusty MiG21, and L29 Interceptor and a CY15 (if any of that means anything to anyone), plus the odd
helicoptor (and I mean odd).
So now in Riga which has a dearth of hotel rooms. I have a decent one for tonight but I'm not sure about tomorrow or Thursday.
Small world: met a German chap last night who had to visit a dental equipment firm in Newbury and was extremely pissed off with the Stakis at Chieveley Services. He was very grateful for the list of decent places I gave him as he's there again next week.
Different universe: still free internet access (OK despite 486/Win98). They obviously haven't twigged, but I'm not going to argue.
Border guards: still grumpy.
Bikes: I've only seen rocketships and cruisers. About 2 of each. Although there was a fairly laden Pan 2-up today going south but I couldn't see the registration.
Language: Most people have a bit of English. The Latvian girl I met in Poland reckoned Polish was impossible. But when the Poles borrow a word they stick a Y on the end, which makes it Polish, so you can understand bits here and there. The Lithuanian word for beer is alus, and the currency is pronounced leeta which gives rise to confusion when the barmaid says "three leeta" and you say "but I only had one".
Talking of which . . .
Road signs are a nearly-extinct species in Latvia. Those that do exist are a) very small, and b) only at the turning. They therefore actually mean "Go 10 km up the road to find somewhere safe to do a U and come back again, you dopey cow".
There is a certain amount of disconnection between maps and reality, as well. Having successfully escaped from the centre of Riga on to the ring road (also involving a U as the slip road on to the ring road in the correct direction was closed) I duly found the exit for Ogre (being the first town on the road to Moscow). According to tthe map this should have been the A6, but was in fact the P-5. After 17km of reasonable going to Ogre (charming little place) the road deteriorated to what can only be described (as it rightly was) as a P-class road. A
dirt track with horrible adverse cambers and mad locals slithering round the bends at silly speeds.
After a few km it was no better, and there was no indication that any improvement would appear in the 200km to the border (if indeed the border crossing is actually open on that road).
Back to the ring road (not-bad single carriageway with very few road signs) and turned north towards Tallinn to take the A2 north-east. This road takes in 20km of Estonia before entering Russia on the road to St.Petersburg. At both the Estonian borders the guards demanded my V5 and checked engine and frame numbers. I suspect therefore that this route is used to take stolen vehicles out of the EU into Russia.
We read some of the horror stories about land crossings into Russia, so it was with trepidation I rode the hundred yards away from the EU.
At the gate into Russia my worst fears were confirmed. The light turned red and the gate closed. Ah. Then the resident roadmenders began to resurface a 2m strip across the road just inside the gate. We in the queue relaxed, lit ciggies and tried to look as though we had all day (the only way to behave at a border). To be fair, the men only took about 20 minutes.
The light turned green and gate opened. the 'first man' (who checks you have appropriate papers) was a woman, and when satisfied sent me over to the various glass windows one has to visit on such occasions.
The entire complement of border officials yesterday consisted of rather jolly ladies of around my age. They filled in all the forms for me so all I had to do was sign them. They wanted to know all about the trip. My destination was a bit vague, so the border chief (a large lady in civvies) was consulted. She decided we should put Japan as my destination. Insurance and road tax was 20 quid (dispensed by an avuncular gentleman who wanted to know all about the bike). The customs inspection, performed by a friendly blonde bombshell, consisted of a quick look at the tent in one pannier and my clothes bag in the topbox. Nothing about money, GPSs or anything (all of which I'd hidden inside the bike itself before leaving Riga). And all the time they were practising their English and German on me. It practically became a coffee morning, and the chaps behind me in the queue looked
increasingly worried - I don't think they'd witnessed anything quite like it before.
I've crossed a few borders in my time but this one has to be the most enjoyable (and surreal) ever.
So off I went rejoicing into the largest country on earth.
The Russians are very good at the headlight-flash-warning-of-speed-trap, but I still got caught bang to rights - 87 in a 60 (I genuinely thought it was a 90). So I did my mad Englishwoman act (it worked in America) and had my wrist smacked by a very nice young traffic cop and sent on my way.
So here I am, 2500 miles and 3 time zones from home. I have just one day here (have to go to Moscow tomorrow) but I've been here a couple of times before and spent days in the Hermitage and seeing all the other wonderful sights in this city so I shan't feel guilty about not doing the tourist thing too much today. Anyway, I'm a bit tired after yesterday's ups and downs (430 miles doesn't sound much, but this isn't western Europe) and need to chill out a bit.
More from Moscow on Monday - a good 500 miles from here, and although the roads are called M10, M20 and so on the Russians have a different definition of motorway. 65mph or so is as fast as you want to go, and you need eyes in the back of your head. Good surfaces are good, the rest goes from reasonable to suspension-testing. And what's a dual carriageway? There's also the boredom factor. The roads are dead straight for miles with forest either side - a foretaste of the taiga through Siberia and more reason to duck out and take a train for the
3000km stretch between Ulan Ude and Khabarovsk.
The "Rossiya", the M10 from St.Petersburg the 450 miles to Moscow, is the flagship route of Russia. It took me 12 hours.
It ranges from billiard-table to dire. Having found it (by dint of guessing that if I turned south on to Nevsky Propekt that would probably be it) I was pleasantly surprised for the first 10km or so - dual carriageway, decent surface. Then at the Novgorod turning it went to the other end of the scale. Narrow single carriageway, appalling surface, frequent suspension service establishments. And it started raining.
There were occasional good bits, but speed couldn't pick up as these were still in roadworks. New bits had absolutely no road markings (but as everyone drives where they bloody well want to that wasn't too much of an issue). Slightly older bits had three lanes - remember the old Left Side, Right Side, Suicide?
The bits in between - well, they'd tried but it wasn't quite right. The intention was clearly to have a crawler lane on the uphill sections (hurrah, no longer flatter than Norfolk), but the line painters hadn't been told this so they simply alternated on the basis that each direction should have an overtaking opportunity from time to time. This resulted in more or less slipping the clutch on uphill bits behind belching Kamaz trucks, and trying to overtake as many as possible downhill. After about 30 miles they got it right and normal progress was possible for a while, until a new painting crew took over who didn't know the score.
Crossed the Volga for the first time at Tver.
Stopped by the DPS (traffic cops) again. This time it was one for their normal checkpoints (every 30-40km) where they pull randomly (but all decrepit Kamaz trucks). The nice young man waved his baton at the road and talked a lot. "Anglyiski" I said. "Ah". "Deutsch?" I enquired. He indicated 'small' with his fingers. So we looked at one another for a moment. Then he waved his baton at the road. "Do svedanya". "Spassiba. Do svedanya" I said and rode carefully away.
Russian isn't really all that difficult once you get the hang of transliteration, as a lot of the words are quite recognisable. For instance, PECTOPAH = RESTORAN, MAPKET = MARKET, MOCKBA = MOSKVA and so on.
Doing the sightseeing today a bit. Staying at the Rossiya 50m from Red Square (fairly cheap hotel although pretty decent - only 3000 rooms). Interesting to see the changes since I was here in 1979 and 1986. No red flags on the Kremlin, for a start. They still don't have the hang of soft loo paper in the hotels, though.
From tomorrow I have to ride pretty well every day, but luckily not as far as yesterday, and emails may become a little rarer.
It took me two-and-a-half hours to get out of Moscow on Tuesday morning. Absolutely no roadsigns, and two maps which didn't join up so I rather floundered in the gap.
Oh, yes, and the one-way systems such that I could see exactly where I wanted to go but had to do an enormous loop and cross the river by another bridge completely (usually in the gap between my maps - and see later about buying roadmaps here).
When I finally made it on to the M5 'Ural' towards Chelyabinsk, the first sign confirming this was not until around 20 out of the city centre. After about 50 miles the dual carriagway ended at a T-junction on the A107, with absolutely no clue as to which way to turn. As always the map was no help. I turned left, on the premise that this was to the nearest town and I could ask. After about a mile was a crossroads, and I turned thankfully on to the M5 again.
Buying petrol is fun:
1. Find a garage with at least 92 octane, and preferably 95.
2. Estimate amount to fill tank (in my case miles/10 + 5 litres).
3. Write amount and desired octane on small piece of paper, remembering to use a Cyrillic L.
4. Shove piece of paper through small hole in blacked-out window, from behind which issues a stream of what sounds like Russian invective.
5. Receive paper back with incomprehensible annotation.
6. Cross out 95 and add 92.
7. Shove piece of paper back through hole.
8. Receive paper with amount written on it.
9. Shove appropriate notes through hole.
10. Receive change and receipt.
11. Give receipt to pump man who then fills tank.
Now, tell me how you buy a map, oil, other requisites from a petrol station like that?
It took me 8 hours to do the 300 miles from Penza to Samara yesterday. This includes an hour trying to find the hotel I wanted on the bank of the Volga (great river, crap hotel). A helpful policeman pointed me in the appropriate direction, which turned out to be a fair approximation to an enduro race special stage complete with BIG dusty whoops, only with decrepit Ladas charging in all directions and me on a quarter of a ton of misbehaving bike and wearing winter gear in a temperature of around 28 degrees C.
It's now becoming clear that to do more than 300 miles a day on these roads isn't sensible (Lonely Planet says 300km, so I must be Well 'Ard), and consequently I'm afraid I'm going to have to do far more train than I'd envisaged as I have 6000 miles to go in 20 days which I don't think I can do. Add into this equation the odd day off, like today to fix the bike's misbehaviour (tappets, mainly, which takes ages because of having to remove Ernie's wonderful crashbars) and do general checks and maintenance, and I've no chance of getting out of Russia before my visa, or the bike's, expires.
So, I'll ride to Ufa tomorrow (another hour ahead), then Yekaterinburg on Saturday. Yekaterinburg is a major rail junction on the TransSib, so I've a good chance of getting me and the bike on to it to Irkurtsk. I can then ride to Ulan Ude around Lake Baikal, then take the train to Khabarovsk and ride the last 760km to Vladivostok.
Sorry to disappoint you chaps and all that, but if the Russians had given me a reasonable length of visa in the first place . . .
Anyhow, Samara's rather nice. The hotel is very Soviet (no hot water, get what you're given for breakfast) but my room has a stunning view over the Volga and the car park attendant appeared to be perfectly happy for me to start dismantling the bike in front of his hut this morning.
Along the Naberezhnaya (promenade) is a sort of wooded park, and there are tented beer gardens here with wood-fired BBQs going. In the evening the place is full, each tent with a different flavour of live of piped music but mostly souding very traditional (i.e. not pop music). People dance, drink and eat. At 11pm I was still comfortable in a T-shirt. And there's no light pollution (mainly because most of the street lights don't work).
Another thing occurred to me about the border crossing thing - they can't check money in and out because ATMs dispense a choice of roubles or dollars, and a receipt isn't compulsory; I mean, how would they know what you started with and what you'd topped it up with?
DPS (traffic police) story: got randomly pulled again. Same as before, but looked at my driving licence upside down. Later I'd stopped for a ciggy after a particularly unpleasant stretch, and was joined by a pair of DPS setting up a random random checkpoint (as oppposed to the usual static random type). Very jolly, looking over the bike, finding out where I was going - the Horizons Unlimited sticker is very useful for that. Oh, and of course they support Chelsea.
On Thursday afternoon, the chores having been done, I paddled in the Volga and sunbathed on the beach all afternoon - well, I'm on holiday, aren't I?
So on Friday morning I set off for Ufa. ABout 40 miles down the road I had that awful wibbly-wobbly feeling from the back tyre and managed to stop. Flat as a very flat thing indeed. Managaed to cross the road to a wide gravelly area where I could spread out a bit. Removed luggage, propped rear of bike on pannier, removed wheel, removed tyre, removed tube. 3-inch rip, so not even the stuff-beginning-with-U-that-we're-not-allowed-to-mention could deal with it.
I retrieved my new, out-of-the-box Micheline Airstop spare from under the carrier and proceeded to fit it. The final 8 inches of the tyre wouldn't go on and I'm not heavy enough to make any difference by jumping on it. So I flagged down a truck and idicated to t he 2 chaps that I needed some jumping. They understood immediately, and from then on I could do nothing. Seated tyre, attempted to pump up. No dice. Distinct sound of escaping air. Oh no, not pinched? No. Tyre off, tube off, three holes. I scream. They smile. Out with the puncture repair kit, apply patches. Pump up. Seems OK. Refit. Wheel in. "Go to Samara" they say as they drive away. Norarf.
So I rode slowly back down the road, hoping to get to civilization before a) dark and b) the tyre went flat again. A Ukrainian Hells Angel overtook me on a Yamaha 1100 V-twin cruiser and pulled me in. I think his name's Orange, but can't be sure. I explained the problem (pretty easy with sign language, that one). He produced bike mags and we went through to try to find a bike shop in Samara. The Honda advert claimed one, but it turned out to be a car dealership when we rang. We rode together slowly, and he stopped at a couple of truck tyre places to see if anyone had any ideas. Nada.
Eventually he had to go (Saratov, visa running out) so I continued. As I entered Samara there was a big Yamaha sign at the side of the road. I stopped and wrote down the address and phone no. A chap loitering at the side of the road came over to see what I was doing, then pointed down a ramp to the right. The Yamaha dealer - or, actually, a Renault dealer who does bikes on the side. I rode down and didn't need to explain - the hiss of air from the rear was explanation enough.
They had me ride the bike round to the workshop. I was given coffee and somewhere to wash (I was absolutely filthy), a chap went off in a car to get 2 tubes, the back wheel came out, the damaged tube was mended properly (so now I have 2 spares) and I just stood back and chatted to the boss (I assume - suit, tie, sending people running around) who had a few words of English.
By this time it was 4:30, and it had been a very hot day. Boss gave me bill: 160 roubles for the tubes and 140 for fuel to get them. No labour. That's a total of 6 quid.
I needed a hotel (NOT the Volga - I needed a hot shower). Boss pulled a Ninja out of the showroom and led me through Samara, wearing just his suit - no hat or gloves. We did filtering and all sorts, but he knew what he was doing.
So I ended up at the Marriott Renaissance - a bit expensive but just the ticket. Boss didn't have time to stay for a drink, so I gave him a big kiss and away he went. The security guards' eyes were popping out of their heads.
I'm now in Yekaterinburg, in an internet cafe literally next door to the house where the Tsar and his family were murdered in 1918. Tomorrow I have to go and do battle with the ticket office at the station to get me and the bike on to the train. I may be here some time. It's a nice town, though, with plenty of interesting stuff to look at.
Whilst siphoning fuel out of my tank yesterday morning in the hotel car park (as you do) I was accosted by a policeman and one of the MVD men with bulging left armpits who've been infesting the hotel for the last couple of days.
They wanted me to move the bike right away from the hotel because the conference centre next door is hosting an exhibition of Faberge stuff, opening night yesterday evening, lots of VIPS expected, massive police presence etc. Naturally, I refused. They eventually let me hide the bike in a little corner by hotel reception.
I met Zhanna at the station at ten to three, where we were scheduled to meet Oleg at three. Oleg finally turned up at four. He and Zhanna seemed to talk for rather a long time, but eventually I was told to ride the bike into the compound and into the baggage shed. Oleg wrote a receipt (of sorts) and I handed over 7000 roubles (about 140 pounds). No guarantees, but the bike might have been on last night's train, or maybe tonight's. He supposed to be ringing Konstantin to confirm time and dat of arrival in Vladivostok. This whole performance has taken four days. The rules are that your baggage can weigh up to 75kg; you can have three packages of 75kg, but not one of 225kg. A cargo train can take anything up to three weeks to get to Vladivostok from here, so that's not really an option.
Getting me to Vladivostok is the next thing. There was no space on last night's train, and I can't find out if there's space on tomorrow night's until 6 hours before it arrives from Moscow. All stations and trains (except local ones) run on Moscow time, so the 23:30 train actually leaves Yekaterinburg at 01:30. The clocks at the station are on Moscow time, as are all signs (especially those saying Position Closed). I may have to fly instead, which would be a shame, but Oleg was insistent that I be there before the bike arrives. You have to bear in mind that the distance we're talking about is the same as that from London to New York.
At least the enforced stay here has helped to sort the nasty cold I caught in the Urals (that'll do, Piercy). Although this is the edge of Siberia the weather has been very warm - T-shirt day yesterday, and although it's raining today it's still no more than cool.
Was invited to a party last night at a Tex-Mex restaurant. Very interesting time talking with Russian girls about all sorts of things, and Evgeny (who I met the other day and turned up at the party) has promised to help if visa things get silly (he runs a big business conference organising company here).
Eggs. Thought I'd better have a look, so popped next door this morning. Very heavy security - I even had to empty my pockets and leave the contents in a numbered bag. I think they may have had suspicions about me because although I dutifully tagged on to the (mandatory) conducted tour I sort of lagged and did my own thing because there was no point in listening to a Russian commentary and anyway the exhibits had English captions. The collection was that from the Kremlin in Moscow. The Wow factor was pretty much off the scale.
Lots of people have asked me (including some Russians) whether I'm worried about the rumours of bandits, muggings, thefts, hijackings, dishonest policemen and so on.
Quite honestly, the only threat to life and limb (apart from the drivers, who make the Italians look like amateurs) I've come across is the bureaucracy, which can rapidly make one lose the will to live.
The policemen are unfailingly polite, and always let me off with a smacked wrist; the rather sinister-looking Russian youths on the streets at night help old ladies across the road and open doors for me; when I'd overestimated the amount of fuel I needed at a petrol station the cashier behind the blanked-out window emerged and came into the adjoining cafe to give me a refund; the hotel in Yekaterinburg insisted on giving me a discount because of the extra time I had to spend here because of the above-mentioned bureaucracy; and I could go on.
Where have all the sparrows gone? They're here. I've seen no more than a dozen pigeons siince I've been here, but the entire country is overrun with sparrows. In the cities they're very tame, perching on cafe tables waiting for crumbs and taking baths in puddles on the pavements.
I cracked looking like a local early on. Even carrying a camera doesn't mean you're not Russian, but the clincher is a placky carrier bag. Maybe it's a hangover from the Communist days when everyone carried a 'perhaps' bag in case they found a shop with something on the shelves. Absolutely everyone carries a hand- or shoulder-bag (men included) and a plastic carrier bag, with mandatory surgically-attached phone for teenagers.
The rules for booking a berth on the 'Rossiya' (train no.2 from Moscow to Vladivostok) seem arcane in the extreme. It's a 'passing' train, so you can't just go to an agent or the station and book. Sometimes you can secure a berth three days in advance; sometimes eight hours; sometimes one hour. Last night I went to the station at 11pm hoping to get a berth on the no.2 leaving at 1:30am. Yet another deranged harridan yelling "Nyet", of course. The whole thing seems to be down to luck and whether you can find the train conductor to offer a bribe. It's too late now as the next no.2 isn't until tomorrow night, so I'm flying (with which airline I've no idea) tonight on the redeye.
The bike is allegedly on train no.904, in the tender care of Tatiana and Sergei (whose mobile phone numbers I have but which may be useless as they probably don't speak any English). This should arrive in Vladivostok a week today at 4:30am Moscow time which, I think, is 11:30am local time.
Maps. They are available. Except a road map for the bit of road which now exists between Chita and Khabarovsk, opened by Putin about six months ago. Even road maps of the rest of the country are pretty hard to come by. There's a specialist map shop up the road which appears to be pretty well stocked, but even there the concept of a road map appears alien. Interestingly, nearly all the 'country' maps I've seen of the Russian Federation are in conic projection rather than Mercator.
This means that the country looks its real size and you get a crick in your neck trying to read the names. Perhaps if the Americans showed their country in conic projection they'd have a less-inflated idea of its importance.
TV. Lots of English programmes overdubbed (Prime Suspect, Midsomer Murders, wildlife stuff), the maddest of which is Top Gear (picture Jeremy Clarkson overdubbed with a Russian monotone). The adverts are hilarious; some are familiar, some are tacky, and many wouldn't be allowed in Western Europe. You can't believe the snake oil being flogged here. They do, however, appear to have a ban on tobacco and spirits advertising on the box. The news and weather is pretty good and more-or-less comprehensible.
Location: Reception desk, Hotel Vladivostok, Vladivostok
Time: 10am, Tuesday 28th September (knackered, after appalling 10-hour night flight, including an hour or so in a transit 'lounge' at Irkutsk, on Air Vladivostok's oldest Tu154)
Dramatis Personae: Me (C); Receptionist (R)
C: I'd like a single room for a week, please.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: OK, then. A twin or a double.
R: We do not have double rooms.
C: OK then. A twin.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: I'll have a twin, then.
R: We do not have single rooms.
C: Is there a problem with a single person in a twin room?
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: That's OK - I have two arms and two legs.
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: Let's start again. How much is a room?
R: (shows 1190 roubles on a calculator)
C: OK. I'll pay for 6 nights now (produces plastic).
R: We do not have a bellboy.
C: Here's my passport. I'll go and get my bags from the taxi.
C: There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
Irena is the only person in the entire world who knows how to transport a motorcycle and its British rider from Vladivotok to Japan (recently taken over from Diana, who used to hold that distinction).
My worry is that not only is she far too confident but things have so far gone far too smoothly.
Russia doesn't have molehills; it only has mountains. When you ask for help with something only slightly out of the ordinary, the standard response (unless you've had the misfortune to approach a deranged harridan) is "That may be a problem".
Irena calmly informed me that the bike probably arriving only three hours before the boat sails will be fine. I go to her office at the Morskoy Vokzal (Marine Station) on Monday at 9am to do the customs stuff (at least I have all the paperwork about my person), and she reckoned the fact that I have a proper carnet will smooth things no end in getting the bike out of Russia (which is not a signatory to the international carnet convention thingy). Then at 11am the bike, allegedly, will arrive at the Boezd Vokzal (train station) next door and I should be able to ride it directly round to the ship, where it will be craned aboard (I don't think I'll watch that bit). At 12 I go back to the office to do the immigration stuff. At 2 the boat sails; it's 42 hours to Fushimi/Toyama in Japan. Not all that expensive, either: $210 for me, $100 for the bike and $100 service fee to Irena (and if she's right about how it will work she'll be worth every rouble). Incidentally, unlike the old days, prices are often quoted in dollars but payment is required (and preferred) in roubles; the rouble is pretty stable these days.
And a note to the whingers: in order to get here before visa expiry and in time to catch the boat I'd have had to ride 400-500 miles a day, every day, leaving no leeway for punctures, breakdowns, the odd meal, beer or kip, or anything else. And this way I've seen a lot of Vladivostok (including but not limited to the house where Yul Brynner was born and brought up), enjoyed the sun, had the laundry done (including the restoration of my riding suit from brown to its pretty grey/yellow/white); and gaped at the effects of the tail-end of the hurricane today on the tall ship anchored in the bay.
Stalina took me to her school yesterday, with a couple of her friends. It's traditional here for ex-pupils to go back to their schools, once they've left, with gifts for their teachers.
Inside, the school was light, airy, and full of plants. The teachers were all lovely, and seemed more like aunties than teachers. The gym mistress looked like every gym mistress you've ever seen.
Outside, the paint was peeling and the building looked almost abandoned; but as I said to Stalinka, it's what happens inside that matters, and anyway if you're inside you can't see the outside.
It was a wonderful morning.
(with apologies to Dostoevsky, but I've just read Crime and Punishment as I've been that bored I'd have cleaned the bike if I had one).
Having already bought my ticket for the boat, but not yet for the bike, I decided (fortuitously, it seems) that it might be wise for me to investigate the station and find out train schedules (if there be such) and the whereabouts of the baggage facility; I had been enjoined, whilst in Yekaterinburg, to make strenuous efforts to meet the train and specifically the appropriate wagon, tended by Sergei and Tatiana.
On entering the concourse (small though it was, although well-furnished with comfortable leather seats) I noticed what appeared to my inexpert eye to be Arrivals and Departures boards; and on consulting my ever-present oracle (as purveyed by the inestimable Messrs. Lonely Planet) I discerned the one to the left-hand side of the central pillar to be that for the Arrivals.
Imagine, therefore, my consternation when I read, at the lower part of the board, the legend '904' (being the train number), together with a start point of Moscow and an arrival at the local time of 16:38. I was, at first, mystified; then turned to my notebook and made certain calculations. I had been informed in Yekaterinburg that the train aforementioned was to arrive in Vladivostok at the Moscow time of 4am, that being 11am local time (which information had misled me into purchasing my passage on the ship and making arrangements for expediting the machine through the Customs House); so my perception at that moment was that either a mistake had been made or that the train had been delayed for an as yet unknown reason.
My grasp of the local language being but faint, I ventured to send a text message to Stalina (of whom you have heard me speak), asking her to communicate at her earliest convenience in order for me to avoid the disgrace of a public hysterical episode. The lady thus contacted me and I explained the reason for my extreme discomfiture; she joined me at my lodgings, and after failure to establish by telephone the true course of events, we sallied forth to the station and to the 'Information Desk'.
Stalina there found that the Arrival time was correct, and was 16:38 every day of the year. I could then only surmise that my machine must be destined to arrive on the morrow (Monday) at the specified time. This, of course set all my plans into disarray, as the ship to the Eastern Land was to set sail at 14:00.
I thanked my saviouress profusely (my penance is to provide a lecture about my travels to the young pupils in her erstwhile place of education and edification) and retired to my lodgings in order to make my preparations for the morrow.
There I asked for an extension of my stay until Saturday, but they could not promise me accommodation until noon the next day.
On Monday morning I betook myself to the Marine Station and there met, as arranged, Irena; I explained my problem and that I was as yet unsure of the exact arrangements. She exhorted me to retain what humour I had left: "This is Russia" she said, smiling; and I laughed (for what else could I do?).
Irena intimated that as the Monday ship was no longer a possibility due to my precarious circumstances, I should see her the next morning at 10am and arrange to board the smaller ship on Saturday. This, of course, means that my official permit to remain in this country must be extended.
I quickly went to the station and established that the train would arrive at its appointed time, and at which platform it would arrive. I repaired to my lodgings and persuaded them that I could stay at least another three days (after which I may be able to persuade them of more), thus obviating the need for me to make numerous calls of other landladies for accommodation and of moving my goods and chattels thereto.
At 16:38 the train slowly drew into the platform on which I waited; yet such a long train was it that the wagons extended far beyond the platform to a narrow glass-strewn path alongside the track. I walked slowly along the train, studying the wagon numbers (mine was 82750) as I went. Suddenly I was accosted by a grubby youth who murmured 'mototsickel, mototsickel'; in truth, I think he may have recognised the apparel which I had donned that morning with the faint but still-existent hope that my machine would today be back in my hands.
The distance from the wagon to the ground was about four feet; and the path was narrow. However, having made use of wooden pallets and the hands of six men, my machine eventually set its wheels on the path; and with the lubrication (well-deserved, in my estimation) of a few thousand roubles, those hands willingly pushed the machine along the path and over several obstacles until it was properly on the platform.
I had my machine.
Girls: The girls in Vladivostok are all around a size 6, at least 5'10" tall, with legs well beyond their armpits. And pretty. If any of you chaps ever consider coming here you'll have to have a slave tagging along with a mop and bucket to swab the ground behind you.
The only thing is this: if the fashion scale goes from Sloane Square at 1 to Newcastle at 10, with Essex somehwhere in the region of 7, Vladivostok is around 25. As Nicola (NZ woman around my age who arrived yesterday) said, they all look as though they were out clubbing last night and haven't been home yet. And the shoes - precipitous heels and unreasonably long pointed toes; some of them can barely totter, especially up the hills (see below).
Fitness: This town is like a baby Genoa, built on hills and cliffs around a huge bay and enormous natural harbour (the Amursky Gulf and Golden Horn Bay). In fact the 10-storey hotel across the road and down the hill has both its bottom and top floors at ground level. So I've been getting very fit, because there isn't a yard of flatness anywhere, not even along the promenade.
Visa extensions: Every bit as excruciating as I'd been led to believe. Three days, lots of queuing at different windows and in different offices, photocopying, translations, two visits to the bank, all the usual stuff (plus lots of climbing up and down hills). The Russians do queuing, and there are obviously rules but I've absolutely no idea what they are. And why does an immigration office dispensing visas for foreign nationals have all its notices and information in Russian only?
But I finally have the magic piece of paper allowing me to stay in the country until the ship sails on Saturday.
Beer: Good, and I especially like Baltika 3.
Vodka: What do you think?
Oh, and I sang for my supper at School No.13 yesterday morning: talks (both more or less the same) to two classes of 16-year-olds. Their English mistress Tatiana was very complimentary and said I was easy to understand because I speak with received pronunciation (her phrase) and that they find Americans and Australians very difficult. The kids spoke excellent English and asked very interesting questions. I rather enjoyed myself. It makes me more puzzled as to why it's so difficult to find a Russian who'll admit to speaking English. Perhaps it's shyness, but it's a bleeding nuisance at times.
Well,I made it.
The MV Antonina Nezhdanova sailed from Vladivostok on Saturday at around 6:30pm local. We had dinner at around 7:30, and at 8 she stopped and dropped anchor in the Amursky Gulf. No clue what was going on, but lots of Russians yacking into mobiles. Turns out there was a typhoon the captain )wisely, in my view wanted to miss, especially as the ship is a complete rustbucket (although perfectly OK inside) and considerably smaller than anything going across the English Channel (it's 500 miles to Japan). So we stayed there all night, and I was woken at 6 on Sunday morning by the anchor chain and the engines starting.
Bad sailors should skip this bit. It was a HEAVY sea. At lunchtime on Sunday there were only 12 of us to eat out of around 150 (max passengers is 200). Marina the barmaid was so impressed I was calmly sitting in the bar and reading that she gave me free beer and coffee. Several times the bows were out of the water and came down with a terrific bang. I reckoned the bike was OK because this ship brings 150 cars/vans/bikes back to Vladivostok every time, so they know how to secure everything (in the event the only damage appears to be a detached exhaust pipe, which took 2 mins to fix). The ship was doing around 11 knots most of the time according to the GPS.
One advantage of being a lone foreign woman was that I got a cabin to myself; and not only was it an outside cabin but the porthole opened so I had fresh air. Not very much water came in. And the crew came and spoke to me , the Japanese chap and the two Swedes in English to tell us everything because the announcements were in Russian. All pretty good, really.
So we were delayed - should have been in Fushiki/Toyama on Monday morning, but we eventually arrived this morning (Tuesday) having spent the night at anchor in the roads. It's taken most of the day to do the Customs thing with the bike, but I'm now in a hotel in Toyama. The Customs thing involved taking a taxi 30km into Toyama (total cost GBP100) to the Jap Auto Fed office for Carnet authorisation, then back again to the shipping agent, then to the dock. I've done so much bowing today I think my back might give out.
I was supposed to pay the Captain $90 to ship the bike, but he refused payment. A result there, then. My phone can't pick up a network here so I have to assault Vodafone (they assured me it would work). And all the keys on this keyboard are in the wrong place.
Petrol's fairly cheap (cheaper than UK, anyway). Beer isn't too bad.
Small world: according to Horizons Unlimited the lady in Vlad who arranges bikes on boats is Diana. It isn't any more, it's Irena (who's also very helpful). But on Saturday, between doing Customes and Immigration, I killed a couple of hours at my favourite cafe. An American chap arrived with a Russian lady and we got chatting. The Russian lady was the aforementioned Diana, and she remembered the Mondo Enduro/Terra Circa boys and othe RTWers. I told her she's famous and gave her the website URL.
I've bought a road atlas of Japan (from JAF) which is very detailed (1:200,000) but all in Katakana. So homework tomorrow is writing the Romaji names in it next to all the places I want to go. Luckily a lot of road signs are in Romaji as well, and roads are numbered which helps. Otherwise I'll be back with the Fukawi tribe, just like in Libya.
Went to the barber this morning. Once they'd got over their surprise at having a Western female customer I was positively pampered. Had a no.3, and the barber was meticulous with the cutthroat razor on my neck and around my ears. Hot towels and absolutely no hairs down the back of my neck to irritate me for the rest of the day. And it all cost less than a standard at Melvyn's in Thatcham.
It's raining, although warm. I think it rains a lot here; there are umbrella-vending machines (the currently fashionable colour is white) and most establishments have umbrella stands at their entrance - like bicycles, they don't appear to go walkies. The middle-aged receptionist at the hotel keeps running out after me trying to make me use one, and was terribly worried about the bike, wanting to put it under cover.
Japan has been a culture shock. I didn't really know what to expect, but it's even more different than I had any idea of. The thing about going overland is that things change gradually - western Europe merges into eastern Europe, which merges into Russia. But the Russian Far East is very Western, and the 500 miles separating it from Japan is an enormous gulf; I'm in a different world entirely. The overwhelming impression is of immense courtesy and meticulousness.
Take being a pedestrian. Pedestrian crossings abound. At major junctions there's a countdown timer so you know how long you'll have to wait. Other crossings have bird calls. I haven't quite fathomed it yet, but I think you stop during the cuckoo and go at the other chirruping thing - but there's the usual red or green man signal as well. If there's no traffic control you just cross, and even a tram will stop for you. No-one blocks junctions, and if you're crossing a side street vehicles turning in or out just wait without any signs of impatience. No-one seems to be in a hurry, either; I imagine the big cities are somewhat different, but Toyama's a decent size - industrial city with a population of around 350,000.
I'm going to Kanazawa tomorrow. There's one of the best gardens in Japan, a Honda family museum (they were connected with the ruling clan a century or so ago), and other interesting stuff about the samurai, gold-leaf manufacture and ceramics.
Nice sunny pootle for 40 miles along Route 8 from Toyama.
The exhaust was still blowing from the joint which parted company on the voyage from Vladivostok, so as I entered Kanazawa I stopped at a Kawasaki dealer and showed them the problem (no English spoken but a blowing exhaust is a blowing exhaust in any language). The bike went straight into the workshop, and within 10 minutes was fixed at a cost of about a fiver. They were most impressed by the patent BMW exhaust ring wrench, and even supplied two replacement cable ties to fix it back on to the panner frame again. Can't see all that happening in Britain.
This is a pretty large city (pop. half a million). It's interesting how the old and new are right next to each other. Immediately behind the hotel, which is on a main drag, is the old Samurai quarter with its narrow alleys and traditionally-built houses and gardens. Beautiful. Had a wander around this afternoon.
Turns out I need a quad-band phone for Japan (tri-band is old hat) so I shan't bother - my phone works perfectly well everywhere else, and I can always use a public phone if I need one. There are ISDN phone boxes on every corner where you can plug in a laptop if you want. Amazing.
Predictably, all the museums are closed on Thursdays (and anyway it's raining heavily) so I'll do them tomorrow. Then it's off to Hiroshima on Saturday via whatever place I stop at. The JAF road atlas is spectacularly unenlightening due to my complete ignorance of Katakana.
I'm learning a few words of Japanese already but I keep getting mixed up with Russian. I'll no sooner get to grips with this than I'll have to start on Thai. Oh well.
The original one, that is, established 8:15 am August 6, 1945:
N 34 deg 23.699
E 132 deg 27.254
Had a lovely ride yesterday. Started down Route 157 from Kanazawa through the Hakusan National Park (wiggly and lots of tunnels) which looked like a great biking road. Sure anough, there was a gathering at a cafe by a dam, so I stopped and joined in. Even did the "There's a nice view, let's take a pic of it with all of us standing in front of it so you can't see it" thing (think I'm turning native).
Joined the expressway at Fukui. It's expensive, but the alternative was 350 miles of urban road through the Osaka/Kyoto/Kobe conurbation with death by traffic-light.
Japan has lots of great biking roads, all of which are completely spoilt by a) blanket 80km limit, b) most vehicles doing no more than 50km, and c) very little overtaking opportunity. Having said that, the scenery's fabulous so pootling is no great disappointment.
The Peace Memorial Museum here is to the bomb as the Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie museum is to the Berlin Wall. Simple, graphic, harrowing. Today's Sunday, and there are many groups of schoolchildren here, clearly doing 'projects'; it won't be forgotten (in Japan, anyway), and the overwhelming message is that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. There's an eternal flame; well, the hope is that it's not eternal really because it will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth is destroyed.
Can you believe a country where there are ciggy/beer/soft drink vending machines on every corner and the public loos are electronic, and absolutely nothing is vandalised? Re the electronic loos - the control panel buttons have pretty graphic legends regarding the spray functions. The one in my current hotel room doesn't even have a heated seat (it's a cheap hotel).
And it was the bit I needed to find my way out of Hiroshima.
Went on a boat trip yesterday (despite the Antonina Nezhdanova experience) to Miyajima, one of the islands in the Inland Sea. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site (you can do six of those before breakfast in most places in Japan). There are gangs of deer rampaging through the streets (never mind the monkeys - macaques, I think) but otherwise a lovely place a bit reminiscent (in a very Japanese way) of Portmeirion. Usual fabulous views - took the two-stage cable-car ride up the 530m Mt.Misen, passing the stockpot which has been going (allegedly) for 1200 years.
Typhoon No.23 (Tokage to his friends) has changed course and instead of hitting Taiwan it's heading this way, so today we have torrential rain (although not much wind; quiet at the back there). Never mind, it's still warm and according to the forecast it'll all fizzle out in a day or two. Mind you, that's according to the European Mid-Range Weather Forecasting Centre at Reading, so I'm not putting my faith in it. I know where those chaps drink.
I could write a book about finding my way through strange cities in the Friday evening rush hour using meaningless maps.
Anyway, I'm here now, staying will Will Penrice's father-in-law Peter. As luck would have it there's a BMW dealer 200m up the road and this afternoon they did my oil change and checked the bike over, which has saved me a lot of getting mucky.
Now sorting shipping to Thailand (said BMW dealer can provide a crate), and when that's done will go walkabout through other bits of Japan.
Sat out the typhoon in Hiroshima for a couple of days (it was a bad one), then went to Himeji (magnificent castle) on Thursday. Next week I'll be camping at Mt.Fuji and visiting Sapporo and Osaka.
Household names: I've so far been either to or through Toyota, Yokohama, Yaesu, Sanyo and Kawasaki. No, I didn't know half of them were places either. There are probably others I haven't come across yet.
At roadworks, unlike the Turks who have cardboard cutout police cars, the Japanese have plastic policemen waving lighted red batons.
Been having a lovely day out in the sun in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. I've been to the top of the tallest building in Japan in the fastest lift in the world - to go up 69 floors it reaches 70 m/s (which equates to 45km/h). Makes one's ears pop, I can tell you. The view would have been stonking but unfortunately it was very hazy so it was just stunning. Never mind, eh. The south pier was designed by a British architect (dunno who) and looks like a seagull folding its wings; difficult to explain, really, but there's probably a pic on the web somewhere you can go and look at. It's pretty funky. I've been hit by the Monday thing again - everywhere in the world, all the really interesting musems and things are closed on Mondays. I must remember that and take Mondays off in future.
This is probably the most dangerous country I've been to so far. The typhoon (no.23) was pretty awful (billions of $ damage and 35-ish dead), but Saturday's earthquake in Niigata was catastrophic. Even the Japanese are feeling rather battered by all this, and they're used to it. I expect you've been seeing news reports about it.
On the plus side, Japan isn't nearly as expensive as I'd been led to believe. Even in Tokyo, beer is around the same price as in the UK, and last night I ate in the revolving Sky Lounge restaurant by the main railway station for a lot less than you'd pay in London (or even in Newbury, come to that). It was only the 15th floor but still a brilliant view of Tokyo by night in the hour and a half it took to make a complete revolution. Wonderful.
We certainly felt Wednesday's 'quake. Not bad enough to spill the coffee, but it rattled pots and the ceiling lights swung for a few minutes. Glad I wasn't riding at the time.
In fact, if I hadn't consumed so much of Peter's firewater on Tuesday evening I probably would have been. Japan is feeling a bit battered - first Typhoon Tokage devastating the south, now the two earthquakes. The death toll isn't massive (but still too much) and there are thousands of injured and tens of thousands homeless. I'm definitely paying more attention to earthquake drill now - what do do, where to go, where the torch is in the hotel room, all that stuff.
Anyway, Peter's been totally wonderful with helping me to arrange shipping the bike to Bangkok. Mr. Asaumi at Nippon Express speaks excellent English and is very helpful, but no-one else involved speaks any and Peter's done all sorts of deals for me in Japanese. The BMW dealer up the road is giving me a crate in which a K1200LT was delivered, and a local company is taking it to the warehouse for me on Monday. I'll be there on Monday to crate the bike (there's a first time for everything), then I have to go back on Tuesday to do Customs and pay everyone. It's going to work out at around 170 quid altogether, which seems pretty reasonable.
The bike will be on a ship on Thursday (Wed is a public holiday here) and will arrive at Bangkok port on Nov 19. I then have to uncrate it and do the Customs thing with the Thais (which will cost more money but by all accounts not very much).
Meanwhile I'll fly to Bangkok (maybe via Taipei) and be getting very unsober with my cousins in celebration of my half-century, and sorting visas for Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Talking of which, if anyone fancies a winter break and can get a cheap flight, the drinks are on me. I'll email around as soon as I know which hotel the bash will be in - it's on November 16th.
Back to Mt. Fuji. Off the Wow-scale. I was luckier than a very lucky person indeed, as a) there was a nice dusting of snow, and b) there wasn't a cloud in the sky (although cold, but never mind, the roads are heated. Really).
Has a cracking ride around the lakes north of Fuji-san. Fantastic benderies, with a surface so good even the ancient G/S (now called Paddington as a result of the TransSib adventure) felt like it was on rails. Amazing view around every bend - must have used an entire film. As soon as I can do a bit of uploading I'll post a pic or two. Which reminds me, I succumbed to a decent digital camera in Tokyo. Produce your passport and sign bits of paper and you get stuff tax-free with English manuals. So, the latest Panasonic with Leica lens, 4x optical zoom, loadsa features (A/V, O/P to TV, yadayadayada). And a 256Mb memory card cost around half what a 64Mb one costs in the UK (ye gods are we ripped off).
If you haven't got bored with GPSs yet - I almost always update the group front page with the latest position, and tonight I'm in Nara which is the ancient capital, at the position on the group homepage. Tomorrow I'll be a good girl and do all the temples and shrines (no less than eight Unesco World Heritage Sites within a mile of where I'm sitting).
The space bar on a Japanese keyboard is very short (on this keyboard it's two-and-a-half ordinary keys wide), and you're ever so slightly inaccurate you end up typing in Kanji or something and can't get out of it and have to close the browser and start all over again. Grrrrr.
The following is a first-timer's take on Japan. I'm sure there's wrong ends of wrong sticks in there somewhere, but as always I can only speak as I find.
What the Japanese do really well
Trains: fast, cheap, punctual, frequent, clean, incredibly easy to navigate even for a foreigner. Without question the best way to get around. And stations have multi-storey bicycle/motorcycle parks.
Food: tasty, varied, cheap, plentiful (except after 6pm in rural areas, when you have to make do with a rather bland sandwich from Lawson Station or a 7-11).
Hotels: Western or mixed Japanese/Western 4-star averages around GBP60 a night, and if there are no single rooms they always give me a discount for single occupancy.
Loos (public and otherwise): heated seats are like heated handlebars - once you've experienced them you never want to be without. I've got used to the autoflush, but the jury's still out on the spray function and blow-dry.
Firewater: boy, does that stuff creep up on you. Probably why I didn't wake up until 10 this morning. It's made from potatoes but is definitely a cut above poteen. Only around 30% alcohol but you wouldn't believe what it does to you.
Facilities for the disabled: everything has Braille, from pavements (really, and very clever and simple) to beer cans. Wheelchair access and loos everywhere.
Courtesy: raised to an art form. Even the policeman who stops traffic to let you out on to the main road bows as you ride round him. Filling the bike with fuel involves all sorts of contortions to return bows whilst sitting on the bike with a full tankbag in front of you and trying to reach around it to get the fuel cap back on again.
What the Japanese don't do very well
Navigation aids: they could never have invented the GPS - it makes navigation too easy. Even with a 1:200,000 road atlas (Japanese) and a bilingual two-sheet map to crib from, the combination of abstruse road naming and ambiguous road signs makes navigation a nightmare. Even the locals confess to getting lost all the time.
Addresses: addresses in Japan are of the form x-y-z
Umbrellas: if it looks like it might rain, up go the umbrellas. Everyone, absolutely everyone, totes a brolly. Although I'm of fairly average height for a Westerner, I'm a little taller than most Japanese, so I'm lucky I still have eyes (good job I wear specs); but I feel a bit like a voodoo doll when it rains.
Road design: instead of roundabouts there are traffic lights everywhere. Even on a quiet rural road, if there's a side turning there are traffic lights. They stick to their phasing as there are no induction loops or anything. If they junked 75% of the traffic lights on these islands and installed mini-roundabouts instead the roads would appear empty at a stroke.
My next-door-neighbour-from-hell has resubmitted the appalling planning application to which I objected 6 months ago and which was rejected out of hand by the planning officer without it even going to the committee. He probably thinks that I can't object from here. Ha!
Jobsworth: had to laugh when I turned up at the Nippon Express warehouse at Tokyo docks. There was the usual uniformed jobsworth waving a magic wand, who was positively shrilling incomprehensibly at me to park over there and no way was I riding the bike into his warehouse. Sorry, pal, and I'm bigger than you. He was positively incandescent.
Left turns: big intersections are generally no left turn (driving is allegedly on the right here), but there's a neat exception for the hundreds of thousands of scooters. They sit at the lights well to the right, and when they (the lights, that is) go green they veer to the right and turn so they're at the front of the traffic waiting in the other direction; there's even a painted box on the road for them. Both sides of absolutely every street are lined with scooters, all parked on the pavement in neat rows.
Handlebar muffs: OK, it's November, but the temperature is in the high 80s and 90s, and the humdity's pretty high too. I can't believe the number of scooters wearing handlebar muffs, never mind people walking around in woollies. How on earth do they manage if the temperature gets as low as, say 70?
There I was just before midnight, minding my own business, in bed, watching Beetlejuice (subtitled thank heavens) and the earth moved yet again.
Now, I'm in a cheap hotel, on the 4th floor, and the Taiwanese don't seem to be as organised as the Japanese on earthquakes. As plaster from the ceiling fell onto the bed I scuttled, starkers, under the desk. I have to say it was pretty scary. It probably didn't last more than a few seconds but it seemed like forever and I'm not used to this sort of thing (yet). It was a magnitude 6.3 just off the coast near where I am (Hualien, halfway down the east coast of Taiwan).
On a brighter note, I managed ham and eggs this morning with chopsticks. The toast was probably cheating, though.
Had a lovely day out to Taroko Gorge, which you've probably never heard of but which is Taiwan's No.1 tourist attraction. It's a 500m-deep marble gorge through the mountains in the centre of the island, and absolutely spectacular. My day-trip companions in the minibus were two Taiwanese girls and Jurgen the German, who works in Hiroshima, with his Japanese girlfriend Miro. Now, Japanese and Mandarin (which is spoken in Taiwan) use more or less the same character set, but the words are completely different (if you follow me), so Miro and the Taiwanese were conversing in English as their only common language. Not only that, but had to ask if they were Japanese or Chinese - if they can't tell the difference between themselves, what chance do we have?
So, back to Taipei tomorrow, then off to Bangkok on Thursday.
Went to see Fahrenheit 9/11 last night. The audience included (but was probably not limited to) Thais, Americans, Germans, Chinese and British. It was subtitled in Thai, which meant the Thais got to understand what the Iraqis were saying as well.
Interestingly (or, perhaps, unsurprisingly) everyone laughed in the same places, and when one American muttered loudly "Asshole" at one of Dubya's solecisms the whole place fell around. Then I went back to the hotel and watched the Bush/Blair double act and footage of the Falluja battle.
The temperature here is in the high 20s/low 30s, which would be OK but for the fact that the humidity is appalling. Unless you move very slowly indeed you are drenched with sweat within five minutes of going outside.
It looks as though I'll have no trouble buying engine oil here in the normal way. It was a bit tricky in Japan - they didn't seem to have the concept of "oil to go". When I filled up at a petrol station I asked for a litre of oil. Blank looks. I pointed at a large drum of Shell Helix. "Ah". An oil can was produced. "No, I want to take some away with me". More blank looks. A small container of two-stroke oil was produced. "Er, not exactly, but we'e getting there". Eventually the Yen dropped and I was given a choice of oils so I went for the 10-40. It came in a cardboard carton, like milk or orange juice. And there's absolutely nowhere to jettison unused/used oil or the containers. Japan is very hot on recycling and that sort of stuff, but if there's no facility even at a petrol station to dump things like that the system will be abused (and is, no doubt). I eventually persuaded a local
mechanicky sort of place to dispose of the taped-up carton containing the unused oil for me.
Internet cafes in Taiwan aren't. That is to say, they are places where kids can go to play internet (I assume) games. If you want to do anything remotely sensible, like print something or retrieve pix from a camera, you're stuffed.
Anyway, my cousins will be arriving here on Monday, and as luck would have it I'm in a hotel about 50 yards from theirs (picked it out of the hat at the airport when I arrived). Not only that, but there's secure parking for when I get the bike back. Talking of which, the latest information is that I can go and get it on Thursday.
The temperature was 37C here on Sunday, which wouldn't have been so bad had not the humidity been 80%. It's cooled down a bit now, but I think it's going to be pretty horrible riding in bike kit.
Talking of which, I went out to the warehouse at Lat Krabang this morning to sort out what happens on Thursday/Friday and what paperwork the Customs people need. Nightmare. And I managed to hail The Taxi Driver Who Can't Read A Map. Found the warehouse in the end after a magical mystery tour involving a bit of off-roading, canals, cart tracks and so on.
You know how the temperature control in cars starts with a blue bit and ends with a red bit? They don't here. Blue all the way.
Having observed Bangkok traffic from taxis and as a pedestrian, I think there'll be no problem. The traffic's mad, certainly, but there are so many bikes that other vehicles are very bike-aware and use their mirrors all the time (shock, horror). They positively expect bikes to be filtering down all sides of the traffic and act accordingly. I'll find out for real on Friday whether this is actually true or not.
There are motorcycle taxis - mainly rather pretty little Jap bikes which look like pared-down and very modernised scooters/step-thrus; I'll upload pix in a day or so. The riders wear orange dayglo vests and carry a spare helmet for the passenger (who usually doesn't bother, and anyway rides sidesaddle). It's easy to spot the good m/c taxi riders - they're the ones who are still alive.
Car taxis are very cheap - 30km back from the warehouse this morning was less than 3 quid; and we're not talking decrepit here either. Most cabs are newish Toyotas and the like, with a meter (optional), aircon, no problems. And extremely plentiful.
At the warehouse, Mrs Jundi told me what's required (another 30 quid for various charges like warehousing, weighing (astonishingly, it weighs 370kg) and so on) and then enquired as to what arrangements I'd made to transport the bike away.
"I'm going to ride it".
"Eh? Do you have a licence?"
"Er, yes, I mean, I've more or less ridden the thing here from England".
"But, but, but, are you used to riding a bike?".
"Um, well, yes, I think so; I've been doing it for over 30 years."
I'm sure she won't believe it till she sees it.
And then, when I arrived back at the hotel at lunchtime, the reception staff broke into 'Happy Birthday' cos they'd seen my registration form. It was lovely.
So tonight I'm going out for dinner with my cousins Julia and Jonathan
and Julia's husband Alex (who'd better not wear a kilt this time).
Raise a glass to me at 2pm UK time which will be 9pm Bangkok time.
My cousins Julia, Jon and Alex with me (right, and yes, I have legs - they stop the bike falling over when I stop) on my 50th Birthday Bash
Any entomologists out there? Why are there no flies here? There's food being cooked absolutely everywhere at all times down every street and alleyway, and I swear I've not seen one single fly since I've been here. Come to think of it, there were none in Japan or Taiwan either.
I have Vietnamese and Lao visas - very easy compared with getting them in the UK. This is my first experience of getting visas outside the UK; on previous trips I've bought them in London before leaving as the trips were temporally circumscribed. Nothing much in the way of queues (which surprised me rather) and they're much cheaper and very easy. The Cambodia one is a bit more complicated and I won't get that until Wednesday. The Lao one came with a warning that tourists are not allowed in Vientiane between Nov 22 and Dec 1 because of the Asean summit (shortage of beds, apparently) so I've modified my itinerary accordingly. There's also the issue of which border crossings are possible between Laos and Vietnam; two, maybe, which difficulty is compounded by the almost complete lack of paved roads in Laos.
I'm being entertained to dinner tonight by the BMW Club of Thailand in the person of Tan and couple of his chums. They're being really helpful. As of this morning I have (I believe) all the paperwork to retrieve the bike and get it through Customs tomorrow morning. Tan and Peera have volunteered to help me with the Customs thing (me having no Thai except please and both genders of thank you) which is jolly decent of them, and not only that but they have a Club bash on Saturday night to which I'm invited; so I think the rest of my time in Thailand will be more than a little interesting. There's a big bike rally in Chiang Mai on Dec 10/11 but due to visa/border/Vientiane restrictions I probably can't make it. I'm sure there'll be others.
The phone thing gets a bit scary. You know how your phone tells you the local dialling code as you move around the UK, and gives you a reasonable idea of where you are in other countries? When I was at the Nippon Express offices this morning the phone actually told me which building I was in. Most of the time it just says the street.
So, big smiles tomorrow when I get the bike back (I hope) and I'll let you know what the riding's like.
I´ve had a wonderful wlecome from the BMW Club of Thailand. They took me out for dinner last night, and tomorrow is their annual bash to which I´m invited. Not only that, but they´re having a Club outing to Laos next weekend for a few days and have insisted I join them, which fits in brilliantly with my plans.
Got the bike back this afternoon - five hours of paperwork then frenetic crate destruction and bike reassembly with the help of a forklift truck. Everyone was very helpful; the Customs lady, once convinced this was a temporary import, produced a complete set of copies of Simon McCarthy's paperwork from which to crib, and very impressed when I exclaimed "he's a friend" (bit of an exaggeration - I've met him twice). And the other Customs officers wanted to see my website, and gave me a cribsheet for he difference between Bangkok Thai and Chiang Mai Thai. I had to reciprocate by explaining how to pronounce various English words.
So, back on the road.
Riding in Bangkok traffic is more or less as I'd surmised - no problem at all. It looks chaotic but as almost all the car/van drivers use mirrors and indicators, and positively expect bikes to filtering both sides of them, it's a doddle.
I went to Kanchanaburi, which is the town on the river Khwae near the famous bridge. Stayed in a stunning hotel called Bamboo House; it's right by the river, and the rooms are bamboo rafts floating on the river or en-suite bamboo huts on stilts on the lawn beside the river, about 200 yds from the bridge. Totally idyllic (there was cold beer as well), and all for 200 baht a night (that's less than 3 quid).
The bridge itself has been turned into a theme park; tacky isn't the word. And I had another scary mobile phone moment as it announced 'River Kwai Bridge' at me. Is nowhere safe?
On Thursday I rode nearly 500 miles up to Chiang Mai. At one of my stops I was engaged in conversation by a lady Scout (I nearly put lady Boy Scout, but given where I am you might have got the wrong idea) who was terribly excited about me riding a bike from England and demanding the name of the website so she could show it to her boys.
It was the weekend where the Thais celebrate the November full moon by floating lotus-shaped lights on the river, setting off fireworks and releasing thousands of home-made miniature hot-air balloons - a stunning sight at night.
Then on to Phitsanulok where I'm staying in the Youth Hostel. They've certainly changed a bit since I were a lad; lounging in a hammock in a teak house roofed with banana leaves, surrounded by lush vegetation and downing at least one cold beer.
A little light bike maintenance at Phitsanulok
Paradise, for 200 baht a night. I could stand a lot of this. On the way here I rode what must qualify as one of the World's Great Biking Roads - 100 miles of highway 11 from Lampang southwards through the mountains. Brilliant benderies, stunning scenery, superb surface; the sort of road that makes you want to turn
round and ride it all over again.
I'm slowly wending my way south-east towards Ubon, near where I'll be meeting the chaps from the BMW Club of Thailand on Saturday before setting off on our tour of Laos.
The roads in Thailand are generally excellent, even the white roads. Road signs mostly have destinations in Roman as well as Thai (thank goodness). Riding here is great; and British drivers could learn a thing or two from the Thais about using mirrors and indicators.
The banyan tree near Phimai is huge. There are winding paths through the roots, and lots of shady places to picnic under the canopy. I have no idea how old the tree is, but it's certainly the biggest single plant I've ever seen.
I find it amazing that in Britain even a moderate-sized town has no broadband available, and yet a small place in the back of beyond in Thailand has three internet cafes, all with high-speed broadband. The cost is generally 20-30 baht an hour (that's about 30-45p), although the one I'm sitting in now in Surin charges 15 baht.
I'm staying at Pirom's House, a nice little teak guesthouse near the town centre.
problem. Very relaxed.
I was stopped at a checkpoint yesterday (they're usually too busy scraping their jaws off the tarmac to stop me). The nice young policeman asked "Where you from?". "England". He squeaked and patted my arm. "You go". The world (so far) seems to be full of nice young policemen.
Tomorrow I'll be meeting the chaps from the BMW Club of Thailand at a place east of Ubon, and on Sunday we go to Laos for a few days. Not many roads in Laos, and what there are have a pretty awful reputation.
The sealed roads in Laos (both of them) are very good; yesterday five of us blared 500 miles from Pakse, via Savannakhet, to Vientiane and had a lovely ride.
The rest of the roads are mainly dirt tracks, but very well maintained so it's possible to do 50-ish between villages (providing there's no-one in front - too much dust).
Laos is a lovely country. Very unspoiled. Tan said it's like Thailand was 20 years ago. It produces the best coffee in the world, and as you ride through the countryside you smell wafts of roasting beans from time to time.
BMW Club of Thailand foregather for the Laos trip
I had a great few days riding with the Thailand BMW Club chaps. We met near the border at Chong Mek, crossed over, then rode down south to see some spectacular rapids on the Mekong. This involved a lot of dirt road and a ferry. Said ferry was one of those flat affairs, with very dodgy wooden planking. We had to ride up a plank to get on it, and getting off was horrible - a baulk of timber to bridge between the deck and the soft sandy beach, then a soft sandy slope up for a couple of hundred yards until the dirt road started in the village. Great fun on a fully-loaded bike. I managed to stay upright (just) albeit rather inelegantly.
The company was 14, mostly on BMWs and multinational: mysef (British); an American, a Frenchman and two Serbs (all Bangkok residents); three Singaporeans (who'd ridden up to join us and for Chiang Mai Bike Week); and the rest Thai. Of the BMWs, 4 x 1200GS, 1 x 80G/S (mine), 1 x 100GSPD (American chap), 1 x F650GS (Bangkok BMW dealer) and the rest 1100/1150GSs.
Yesterday most of the chaps dropped back into Thailand at Savannakhet, and the Frenchman, American, two of the Singaporeans and myself made it up to Vientiane. We arrived late (8:30) and Bertrand hadd arranged with his friend Olivier to meet us at a great French restaurant near the Arc du Triomphe; we were taken straight in and treated to a superb meal with plenty of Merlot (Olivier wouldn't let us pay). It then transpired that we were to stay at Olivier's house last night so we didn't have to find hotels or anything. This morning Bertrand and the others set off back to Thailand over the Friendship Bridge, and Olivier gave me a house key and told me I'm welcome to stay as long as I want. The hospitality here is unbelievable.
So, this morning I was able to do some bike maintenance (and wash some of the bright orange dust off it). The indicator brackets I ordered have already arrived with Bruce in Bangkok (thank you Moto-Bins), which is just as well because they're now both broken and the stalks secured to the brushguards with cable ties and gaffer tape. Although the bike is still smoking due to the stuck crankcase breather it's not using too much oil, and it appears to have no objection to 85 octane fuel. After the first dirt road day the nut/bolt fixing the front left bottom pannier frame had disappeared, but I replaced them and since then nothing else seems to have chaken loose. The BMW agent from Bangkok was with us and we've done a deal whereby when I get back there I can use their workshop to service and repair the bike in return for showing them how to service an airhead.
Oh yes, the snake. That was at Pirom's House in Surin. I saw the cat apparently having a bit of a go at another - I coiuld see what looked like a paw swiping from behind the chessboard leaning against the house. The paw turned out to be a snake, and as no-one could identify whether it was venomous or not we had to kill it (harder than it sounds) with a garden hoe.
I'm riding the bike around Vientiane in a T-shirt, and no gloves or lid. The max traffic speed here is about 25mph, and it's mostly slower. Saves a lot of carrying stuff around as well.
Vientiane is technically a city, but it's a small town really - smaller than Reading; population 133,000. Not surprising it was closed for the Asean summit. Everyone knows everyone else. The entire town knows that I'm the Englishwoman on a bike who's staying with Olivier (he employs 600 people at his factory).
Yesterday morning I met a Dutchman on a Yamaha TDM850. he came the southerly route through Iran and Pakistan, and we exchanged stories about the desert fuel dump in Pakistan, at Dalbandin between the Iranian border and Quetta. Then a bit later I was riding along and heard hooting behind me. It was a Belgian on a BMW R1100R. He's Thierry, who's the Chef de Mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Laos; and, of course, he knows Olivier. He competed in (and finished) the Paris-Dakar in 1989 riding for the Honda team on an Africa Twin.
The further I get from home the smaller the world becomes.
Spent the last two nights at Phonsavan, which is in the middle of the Plain of Jars, which is also more or less in the middle of the saturation bombing by the US during their rather better publicised exercise next door in Vietnam.
While there I decided to have a go at getting through the border to Vietnam - the closest crossing was only 140km away at Nan Cam. So off I went yesterday morning and arrived at around 11am. The Lao border chap said there was no point doing me until around 1:30 as Vietnam didn't open until 2. So I was duly done at 1:30 and pootled off to Vietnam. Great fun where the trucks had churned everything in the rainy season and it's now hardened into - well, use your imagination. *I* got into Vietnam OK, but unfortunately the bike's too big. They've reinstated the requirement for a special permit for a bike over 150cc, which is only obtainable in Hanoi. Bugger. So I retrieved my passport and motocrossed back to the Lao border to throw myself on their mercy (exit stamp in passport and single-entry visa cancelled). No probs - exit stamp annulled and visa uncancelled (shades of Bulgaria in 1996).
Did think I might be able to have a go at one or both of the other possible border crossings, but today I bumped into Paolo and Massi (Italians) on an R1100GS who'd tried the same thing and had no luck. They're doing RTW in the opposite direction to me, and say I'll love Bolivia.
So, it's on to Plan C; can't get to Cambodia from Laos with the bike (the only crossing is pedestrians only), so I have to go back into Thailand and take the only possible crossing from there, then back into Thailand again. Heigh-ho.
Half a banana tree
Eight-year-old monk on a day-glo pink fairy cycle
Lunch, I imagine, as I've seen none (in Japan it was mostly chipmunks with the occasional monkey).
* Enormous poinsettia bushes rampaging over the mountains.
* The little chef where they'd poured me a small glass of cold beer before I'd even got off the bike.
* Christmas tree and tinsel in the bar on the verandah overlooking the Mekong river.
* Wonderful log fire in the hotel at Phonsavan (bloody cold up in the mountains).
* Taking care where I go behind a tree by the road due to the prevalence of UXO (unexploded ordnance - a child a week is killed by it around here).
* Met Fred the Dutchman again in Luang Prabang as well as a nice young couple I'd met at the youth hostel in Phitsanulok.
Made it to Siem Reap today (Cambodia) which is where Angkor Wat is.
It's about 95 miles from the Thai border along National Highway 6.
The first 30 miles consists of a series of large and fairly deep potholes, each ringed with a sliver of crumbling tarmac. I followed the moped in front as he seemd to know where he was going, and on the premise that if he could do that route so could I.
The next 43 miles (see how accurate I can be when I try) consisted of no tarmac, lots of variously-sized sharp stones and rocks, with the occasional nice soft sandy up and down on and off a bridge made of rickety planks. The locals in both ordinary cars and 4x4s are in training for the Dakar, as are some of the trucks and buses. It is illegal to ride with headlights on in Cambodia, especially at night, but most people ignore that rule so that they have a chance of being seen through the dust clouds. How I got here without a puncture or three is nothing short of miraculous (or it could be those Russian inner tubes). It was a three-shower day so I've run out of towels - I do wish the hotels wouldn't provide white ones; it's very embarrassing.
The last 22 miles was sealed and I was able to get into top gear, although the corrugated surface prevented progress at much more than 30mph.
So I'm taking the day off tomorrow to do sightseeing
I'm back in Bangkok again, and this afternoon Sonja took me to Bumrungrad. I'll tell you about that later.
Yesterday I managed the ride from Phnom Penh to Bangkok in around 12 hours. It's only about 450 miles and a border crossing, but more than 10% of it was unsealed road and worse. I rang Bruce when I'd crossed the border and filled the tank (fuel is an horrendous price in Cambodia - nearly $1 a litre; and the pumps are calibrated in US dollars rather than riels) and we arranged a place I could find in Bangkok to meet from where he'd come out and lead me to his and Sonja's apartment. Which is what happened; and not only that but he had Bombay Sapphire. Who says there are no such people as angels?
The Angkor temples at Siem Reap are pretty much off the 'WOW' scale, especially Angkor Wat itself. I hired a nice young man called Siul for the day (well, I would, wouldn't I?) who conducted me around in his tuk-tuk (in Cambodia this is a two-seat articulated trailer attached to the back of a 100cc moped). It's fortunate that Cambodia doesn't have a Health and Safety Executive, as there's absolutely no way any tourists would be allowed anywhere near any of this stuff in the UK or most of Europe.
Actually, Bumrungrad is a hospital (but the name got you going for a couple of ticks, didn't it?). When I woke up this morning my left foot was numb and my left leg felt a bit strange, so I thought I'd slept on it oddly. The foot remained numb and leg remained strange. So, Sonja took me to Bumrungrad. You know that thing where they test your reflexes by hitting you just under the kneecap with a hammer? Always works, doesn't it? Not on my left leg it doesn't; right foot flies up as per normal, left leg sits there and sulks. Neurological, trapped nerve or something. So, vitamins, some other pills I'm about to check out on the web, no riding, see quack again in a week (unless it gets worse before). Have to admit I've never been to a hospital with valet parking before, and they have monitors in the Starbucks so you can see if it's your turn.
I'm begining to feel like the Rain God in the Hitchhiker's Guide. Quakes and other disasters seem to be following me around. The tally so far is four quakes and two typhoons.
This one was felt a little in Bangkok (they evacuated the 64-floor Banyan Tree Hotel amongst others), but I slept through it (it happened around 8:30am and it *was* Boxing Day).
However, there is devastation over a huge area, as you've probably gathered. I'm rearranging my route a little as there's no point my going anywhere near Phuket, obviously, and there are many places further south I'll have to avoid - roads have been washed away and that sort of thing. We sat here yesterday all day watching BBC World Service TV (the Asian service) which had full coverage, and as more and morereports came in it became almost unbelievable.
Went for my new tyres this morning, and even in Bangkok there's a kind of shellshock at the catastrophe. A pair of Dunlop D605s, an inner tube, and fitting cost around 50 quid - would have been more than twice that in the UK. Oh, and that included a cup of tea and a Bridgestone T-shirt.
An APB went out on the ex-pat grapevine this morning for English/French/German-speaking people to look after tourists brought to BKK, whether injured, bereaved, orphaned or whatever.
So Sonja and I went and registered ourselves, then went off to the Red Cross to give blood.
Blood donations: there isn't a culture of that in Thailand, but an appeal went out in the Bangkok Post. So Sonja and I went down to the Red Cross today; it was amazing.
Hundreds of people - Thais, ex-pat Westerners, tourists, all queueing to give blood. The Thais were being lectured in the queues by the Westerners about having a good breakfast before donating (many were fainting, because of unfamiliarity and from shock); a couple of Thai film stars came along with their bodyguards and film crews, but that's good because it was on the local news and encouraged more locals to donate. The response was terrific.
We've watched the BBC World Service with growing horror. On Boxing Day morning we felt nothing here in Bangkok, although those in the high-rise blocks certainly felt the earthquake. I turned on the BBC at around 2pm (six hours after the initial quake) and was horrified. And it's become worse hour on hour and day on day.
From a personal and totally selfish point of view it means I have to stick around here for a while (how dreadful) as my only route is south - Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra.
But it's good to be able to help out, if only on a rather trivial basis. If I were in the UK I could throw a credit card at it and feel good. Here, one needs to be able to do a bit more than that, and I'm fortunate that I can.
With apologies to John Scott Heinecke (nice guy with R100GS), I include here his email to me today: "Hope you still in BKK. I am down in Phuket helping with disaster. It is a nightmare and a mess. I will send you an update later."
This thing is affecting absolutely everyone. Even the rich. Even the powerful. The King's grandson died. The family who owns the Peninsula Hotel (no you can't afford it) is missing. Speak to anyone here and they know someone, or there's a family member, or . . .
I'm extremely lucky that I'm staying with a great family who seem to be very unwilling to let me go and are begging me to abuse their hospitality. And I've made great friends with Taptim the maid.
So, looks like my plans for domination of the universe have been scuppered yet again.
According to the chaps in Singapore, all the Indonesian ferries have been suspended both from there and from KL. Which is a bit of a bummer as Sumatra would have been my first equator crossing and I really, really wanted to do it on land.
Monkeys in a Thai National Park
The upshot is that the only way I can currently get to Australia is by sea- or air-freighting the bike either from KL or SGP. I have some decent recent info in the from Horizons Unlimited, so my preference is air from SGP. We'll see how it pans out.
Meanwhile, I'll probably leave BKK in the next few days and head south towards Malaysia (if Bruce and Sonja will unchain me, that is).
A wonderful feature of the traffic lights at some of the intersections here in Bangkok is the countdown timer. Nice to know how long you have to get through that green light ahead. But the timers work on red as well (possibly because the phasing can be up to four minutes). You can imagine the result.
Had a slight conundrum when I donated my armful of blood. I had to fill in the usual form (not much different from the UK one), and one of the questions was "Have you been to a malaria area in the last 3 months?". Hang about, Thailand *is* a malaria area. What's all this about? Apparently Bangkok is not regarded as a malaria area. "Have you been bitten by a mosquito?" What do you think? Mossies everybloodywhere. I took advice and ticked the No boxes.
Oh, and thanks for the oil advice - I thought it was probably perfectly OK, but I like to check when I come across something outwith my experience. Interestingly, lots of locals use straight 40 or 50 grade in their engines - no need for multigrade here, really; on a cool midwinter's day like today the temperature can drop as low as 25.
I have to tell you a story about Bruce and Sonja (the people I'm staying with). They're American and have lived in Bangkok for ten years, and before that in various exotic places around the world. They had a summer biking holiday in Wales a couple of years ago, and took their bike gear with them to wear. They have wonderful 'airflow' suits which are basically made of holes with armour attached, and jolly comfortable in this climate. And wondered why they were freezing.
So this morning I reassembled the three-dimensional jigsaw of my panniers and remounted them and the topbox on the bike. All I have to do now is retrieve my laundry from Taptim (not as easy as it sounds - she'll insist on ironing everything, which will then get horribly creased when squashed into the drybag).
Tomorrow I head south towards Malaysia and Singapore. It's not far, really: 1500km to KL and another 300 to Singapore (plus a reportedly excruciating border crossing). I'll not be going directly, of course, as there's stuff I want to see on the way, but the roads are good and I can take my time.
I'm awfully impressed with Malaysia.
I've checked in to the Marriott in Kuala Lumpur, and the security card for the hotel car park is specifically for motorcycles and designed to hang on the handlebars or mirror stalk.
On the motorway, there's a sign showing an umbrella and a bike by most bridges and in some other places. This means you are officially allowed to come on to the hard shoulder and behind the bridge support to either shelter or get into your wetties. There's a small gap in the Armco for this purpose, and hard standing provided. In the absence of a bridge there are shelters.
There's no toll for bikes, of course, and a neat little go-round is provided at each toll plaza.
Petrol is around 20p a litre.
Roads are rather Spanish, driving verges on the Italian, and it's odd to ride through tropical jungle where the wildlife drowns out the noise of your tappets.
Instead of being pasted on to the ceiling, the arrow pointing to Mecca is discreetly taped inside a drwaer, and prayer mats are available from Reception.
As I rode down through Thailand (route 4 is the only road) I passed through the narrowest part - just under 11km from the east coast to the Myanmar border. I passed lots of Red Cross trucks, and there was a positive jam of them at the Phulet/Krabi turnoff; and there were still more further south, heading for Phnangna and Malaysia en route to Indonesia.
A number of people have mentioned that thay thought it was rather in bad taste for people to continue their holidays, surfing and sunbathing on Phuket island. Well, what would you do? You've just started your holiday, you can't go home as flights are full of injured and bereaved, you can't do much to help as you'll only get in the way of the professionals; so, sit in a hotel room feeling sorry for yourself, or carry on your holiday? As well as that, the only income most of the
locals have in the affected areas is from the tourists, and if you don't spend your money there they're going to be even worse off than they are already.
Thurs 6th - Bang Saphan N11 12.506 E099 32.372
Fri 7th - Hat Yai N07 00.405 E100 28.177
Sat 8th - Tanah Rata N04 28.260 E101 22.753 altitude 4721ft
Sun 9th - Kuala Lumpur
Last night at Tanah Rata in the Cameron Highlands was great. The road winds for 30 miles, rising from sea level to nearly 5000 feet, through tropical rainforest and, higher up, the tea plantations. Stunning ride there and back (notwithstanding the fact that it was pissing with rain yesterday afternoon). Another one to add to the list of the WGBRs.
And as you approach KL on the motorway, you come over the crest of a hill and there are the Petronas Towers in front of you. Screech to halt, pic.
Melaka (or Malacca) is a charming little place. There's loads of British, Dutch and Portguese colonial stuff, and I'm staying in a guest house in Chinatown, which is full of old shophouses and temples.
Up the hill is the ruin of St.Paul's Church, where St.Francis Xavier used to preach and where he was buried for nine months before being exhumed and taken to Goa.
The average humidity here is 82%, which basically means that as soon as you go outside your shirt is sticking to you and you end up as a puddle on the pavement.
The bustling port of Melaka
The Singaporean chaps have advised that 10am on Saturday morning is a very good time to cross the causeway to Singapore, so I'll go to Johor tomorrow and stay a couple of nights there. Still looking like I'll have to airfreight to Oz direct.
Great sadness to hear of the death of Fabrizio Meoni on the Dakar. But my chum Charlie Rauseo is still hanging in there and running 70th overall (he's the guy whose bike I had in my workshop before last year's Dakar).
Half of Malaysia was blacked out yesterday for around three hours. Great fun when I arrived in Johor Bahru - no traffic lights (just policemen with whistles) and the hotel chaotic.
I hadn't realised how narrow the straits are - it's less than half a mile across the causeway. I'll be taking the second link tomorrow (west of here) - the SGP guys say it's much easier because the tolls are much higher so most people use the original causeway. Of course, bikes don't pay tolls. Looks like I'll have to try to get the mandatory insurance today, otherwise tomorrow will be even more of a nightmare than promised. Insurance? Don't think I've had that since Russia.
Malaysia and SGP have UK-type 3-pin plugs and sockets; all the hotels I've been in have provided adapters in the rooms for RoW plugs, which I've never seen in a UK hotel (or never looked, anyway).
Petrol is about 20p a litre here; it's subsidised, and they're trying to cut down on smuggling because they don't see why foreigners should have the benefit of the subsidy. I'll just keep my head down and pay cash.
1. Check into hotel in Johor Bahru (JB).
2. Take taxi to insurance office, which has moved.
3. Fill in even more interminable form than usual and give them money.
4. Be told that because of yesterday's blackout the computers have been down and there's a backlog of work and they can't issue the certificate until tomorrow morning.
6. Claim that you will incur serious bodily harm from Singaporean motorcyclists if the paperwork isn't in order tomorrow morning.
7. Get vague promise of a certificate at 3pm this aftenoon.
8. Spend ages finding a taxi back to the hotel.
9. Watch the Dakar.
10. Ring insurance office and confirm certificate is available.
11. Get taxi to insurance office to get certificate, and ensure it (the taxi) waits (on a double yellow line).
12. Take said taxi to Singapore taxi stand.
13. Negotiate price to the Singapore AA office and return.
14. Go to Singapore AA.
15. Hand over:
Insurance policy and certificate
Carnet de Passage
UK Driving licence
International Driving Permit
Completed interminable form
A promise (cross my heart and hope to die) that I'll go back with the Bill of Lading from the shipping company
16. Receive in exchange:
International Circulation Permit
Er . . . that's it
17. Resume taxi mack to Malaysia.
17. Walk to hotel from Singapore taxi stand.
18. Consume several large G+Ts.
19. Affix ICP to inside of screen. Crookedly. Next to Russian one.
PS And it *still* took two hours to get from Malaysia to Singapore, despite completely correct paperwork and a very helpful Customs official. But I had company as four members of the BMW Club of Singapore came across to escort me on to their premises, so to speak.
Tomorrow morning I'll ride the bike into a container at the port, and in theory I can collect it in Darwin on February 2nd. All very painless.
The BMW Club here are very friendly and helpful. Ai Ling invited me round to her flat so I could upload more pix on her broadband link, and it turns out we have exactly the same tastes in music. We've also been to the Singapore Swimming Club (she's a member) which is frightfully colonial and all that.
Riding in SGP is great. Although you can't actually go very far before you fall into the sea, at least it makes it impossible to get completely lost, and some of the roads in the parks around the reservoirs are pretty nice (so long as you avoid the monkeys). I've gone native, of course. I wear helmet and gloves, but to be honest the thought of wearing much more than a T-shirt in this heat and humidity practically makes me faint on the spot. The one-way system is rather impenetrable, but you can always find your way around in the end. The only fly in the ointment really is the Electronic Road Pricing (ERP); all vehicles (including bikes) have a unit which accepts your Autopass card, and when you pass under a gantry on the way into the city centre between certain hours the money is automatically deducted from the card. I don't have one of these gadgets - just the card which I top up at any 7-Eleven to pay my S$4 a day to use the roads in general. This means I can't go into the city centre on the bike and have to be a bit careful which bit of one-way system I'm on, but isn't really too onerous.
Yesterday morning I nipped over to the hotel across the road (it's a couple of rungs up the ladder from mine) to make a couple of photocopies and send faxes. The Desk Manager enquired as to the terms at my (then) current hotel, then offered me a much better room at the same price and including breakfast. So this morning I checked out of the Sloane Court and checked into the Garden. I've never been poached by an hotel before.
Shipping the bike to Oz has been remarkably painless so far. I rang Angie Ong at Megastar Shipping to tell her I was on my way, and when I got there she already had the paperwork ready.
Two days later I went to the PSA office to get my security pass, then on to the godown on the dock. Got the carnet stamped, then rode into the warehouse, strapped riding kit on to the seat and collected the delivery note. No crating or anything. Back to the shipper to get the Bill of Lading and pay. The bill was basically in USD (hurrah), and I paid in S$ so it worked out at about 200 pounds (just have to pay about 25 pounds for wharfeage in Darwin). Simple.
Apparently the Aussies are paranoid about phytosanitary arrangements (look it up), so I've jetwashed the bike so it's cleaner than it's been since I left the UK. I suspect they'll still insist on steamcleaning, though. We'll see.
Anyway, the ship (the Venture, which looks a bit of a rustbucket) is due in Darwin on Feb 2nd.
Went for a lovely rideout the other evening - Ai Ling was on her Ducati Monster, and Martha (who's in the SGP National Rowing Team) was on her Suzuki DR650. We had a great ride around the jungly countryside bits of the island - did nearly 100 miles, if you can believe that (SGP is considerably smaller than the IoM).
Around 11pm Martha started feeling a little chilly and put a long-sleeved shirt on, so I offered her my heated vest. She tried it on and was completely gobsmacked. Well, it never gets below 20C here. Ever. Your reflective riding kit is decorative stuff embroidered on a nice cotton twill short-sleeved shirt (or maybe long-sleeved for late at night).
Singapore is surprisingly green. There's even a fair chunk of primary rainforest here, and places where you have to avoid the monkeys. Within the City itself there's a lot of green - it's certainly not a concrete jungle, whatever it may look like from photos.
Ai Ling's flat is under the flight path to the air force base, and currently there's a constant stream of C130s and similar planes coming in with aid which is then redistributed to smaller planes to take to Sumatra. The flat is also across the road from the BMW dealer :-)
Saw an advert on the MRT train: "Nearly 4 houses are broken into every day". Apart from incredulity at this apparently almost invisible crime rate, I have to ask what they class as fractionally broken into.
Steve Davies (BMW R1150RT - silver, of course) and his wife took me out on the town on Saturday night. Had a great time, culminating in one of the hookers on Orchard Road (I think, but can't remember clearly) propositioning Steve and me as she thought I was a bloke. Well, I *was* wearing one of my very floppy T-shirts and had just had a No.2 haircut. She took a lot of convincing, and I ended up having to lift my shirt for her. Said hooker, Steve, Jenny and I were practically rolling on the ground in agony we were laughing so much. You had to be there,
Treated myself to a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. Expensive, of course, but these things have to be done and someone has to do them.
I've learnt a bit about getting cheap flights, as well. In the process of sorting out a flight to Darwin to meet the bike, I consulted both human travel agents and the web. Most of them came up with the same solutions:
a) Direct with Qantas for S$1800
b) Indirect with Singapore/Garuda (incorporating 8 hours overnight in the transit lounge at either Bali or Jakarta or a mixture of both) for around S$700
c) Indirect with Royal Brunei (incorporating 8 hours overnight in the transit lounge at Brunei) for around S$700
Hmmmmm, have you ever spent the night in a transit lounge? Let alone one with absolutely no facilities, never mind a chair. There were other suggestions, like going via KL (there's a shuttle from here to there, and the bus is pretty good).
So I went to the Qantas website and found a completely different direct flight for S$1200, which is still a lot for a five-and-a-half-hour flight but more tolerable than the other alternatives.
Tomorrow night I'm singing for my supper at the Clubhouse (which just happens to be on the premises of Performance Motors which is the BMW dealer here). So I spent yesterday morning at Ai Ling's flat sorting the pix on to one of those USB pluggy things, and I've bought a world map and scrawled on it with marker pen. Hope there's some beer.
Then I fly to Darwin on Thursday night after spending a night at Raffles (there go my savings).
Singapore has been the most expensive country so far - everything except taxis and public transport costs much more than anywhere else, including Japan. Having said that, a perfectly OK hotel room + breakfast can be had for around 30 quid a night (like at the one which poached me).
This part of the Northern Territory is called Top End (which accounts for the name of my motel, as that's definitely not a description of its facilities).
Look at a map of Australia, and locate the NT; it's the big bit in the middle of the top half. The largest-scale road map you need is 1:3.5M, which shows absolutely every road and track on a sheet of A4. The entire population is no more than 200,000, of which just 71,000 live in/around Darwin. Darwin is around the size of Thatcham, and is a rather charming little seaside town.
I'm amazed that here is my first encounter with Tobruk Mice (apparently it's that time of year). Let me explain: when John first saw a 3-inch cockroach in Tobruk he thought it was a mouse as he reckoned it was impossible for such a beast to grow that big. Well, the first thing I saw in my bathroom was a 2-incher, so the second thing I did was acquire my own personal can of roach spray. Works, too. Actually, it's not a bad hotel really, and as it's the low season (The Wet) it's empty.
A far cry from my last night in Singapore - I indulged myself and spent a night at Raffles - well, it's one of the most famous hotels in the world, so it had done be done, didn't it? You really, really don't want to know the size of the bill. There are no rooms, only suites: dining room, parlour, bedroom, dressing room and bathroom. Oh, and a bellpush in every room to summon your personal valet (a very nice young man). The radio is a Bose Wave; the cold-water flask and ice bucket are solid silver; a pot of tea or coffee arrives about three minutes after you order at any time of day or night and is complimentary (as are the roses and enormous bowl of fruit). It was, well, rather nice really.
I've been informed by the shipper that the ship is due in on Wednesday, but I probably won't be able to get at the bike until Thursday or even Friday (bum); and then it's the paperwork for Customs and registration, and Quarantine which may be more difficult. The Aussies are paranoid about organic stuff coming in - I even had to declare my Digestives at the airport, and although I jet-washed the bike in Singapore they'll probably insist on it being steam-cleaned.
[Them] Hello. Nice bike.
[Me] Hello. Yup. You're British, aren't you?
[Them] Yup. Driving around Oz. Flying back home tomorrow. Where are you
[Me] Near Newbury.
[Them] So are we. Woolton Hill.
Turns out we all drink at the farm as well. Unbloodybelievable. So not only are they taking my next parcel back with them to drop off at Don and Pauline's, they've done a video of me to show to the chaps at the farm as well. As you've probably gathered, I have the bike back.
Quarantine is murder. I spent most of yesterday at the docks, and had two inspections. I knew up front that it was going to be vicious, but I didn't expect having to strip every piece of gaffer tape off the bike, retrieving dead leaves from the bottom of the toolbox, scraping sand out of the ends of my tent poles, junking of the paper air filter I was keeping 'just in case', complete emptying of all the luggage, removal of back wheel to jetwash the brake drum (I could go on but you'd lose the will to live).
Anyway, all sorted now, new gaffer tape applied, panniers repacked, and ready to set off for Alice tomorrow. And it's pissing with rain (absolute heaven).
I've been learning lots of new vocabulary. Schooners, stubbies, pokies, all sorts of things. The only disappointment is that Sellotape is no longer called Durex but has been renamed Sellotape.
Road Hazards (the Quick and the Dead)
Skeletons (usually dead and never very quick)
Road trains are reputed to be rather vicious but I´ve had no trouble, really. Think of a British-standard artic but with three or four trailer units instead of only one (there's a max length of 53.5m). They tend to travel at around 110km/h so are easily overtakeable - you can see anything coming in the other direction at least five miles away.
The Stuart Highway runs for 2000 miles from Darwin south to Adelaide, bisecting the continent and going through the middle of the Outback. Most of it is comparable to the average British B-road in terms of width and surface (of which more later). Roadhouses dot its length, on average 100km apart, although there's a 250km gap between Coober Pedy and Woomera as the road goes through the Prohibited Area. A roadhouse usually consists of a petrol station with a cafe and bar attached, a campsite of sorts and some basic motel accommodation. In this territory it's wise to plan your stops carefully.
There's a great bike dealer in Alice (agents for BMW, KTM and the Japs) who fitted a new pair of Trail Wings. But, I hear you say, you had new tyres in Bangkok. So I did. But Aussie roads are topped by a particularly abrasive species of tarmac (so the bike people said) which not only wears your tyres square very quickly but causes them to disintegrate at an alarming rate. I was almost on canvas by the time I got to Alice. I also had a bit of welding done (the spotlight bracket which broke on my third day out and has been irritating the hell out of me for months), and they insisted I use their tools to do the bits of furtling I wanted. Jolly nice chaps.
Then I went out into the desert to see a big orange rock.
I've arrived in Adelaide, which I hadn't intended, but what the hell. Nice campsite, anyway. From here I plan to wander up the Barossa Valley and visit some of the wineries, so don't expect anything very coherent from me for the next week or so.
Oh, and Robert M Pirsig was quite right, really (although many of us slated him at the time). Which is why I just *knew* it was the left-hand exhaust valve, and only that one.
The Australians have three obsessions: booze, gambling, and how wonderful they are.
Bottle shops abound, often the drive-through variety; as do pubs (of course) and booze seems to be available on a much wider basis than I've ever seen before.
A big crowd-puller into the pubs are the pokies. These are, apparently, a sort of one-armed bandit on which you play poker. Many pubs have entire rooms set aside for these. As well as having the pokies, many pubs also double as betting shops, complete with TV monitors showing the races and the odds. This can get a little annoying (for me) at times as there's a new law that 50% of pub indoor space must be non-smoking; so they make the gambling bit the smoking bit, which rather buggers up the quiet drink and read the newspaper thing.
I had a close encounter with (I think) a wombat in Wagga Wagga. There I was, sitting outside my tent having a nightcap (Jacob's Creek Shiraz is about 4 quid a bottle) and I saw what I thought was the silhouette of the campsite cat. I made the usual noises (I speak cat) and the shadow approached timidly. Next thing I know, a pair of large round brown eyes are looking up at me. Not a cat, then. Rather sweet, though, and very friendly.
Talking of campsites, a conversation I had early on, in the Kakadu:
[Them] Do you want a cover?
[Me] Er, beg your pardon?
[Them] Do you want a cover? It's going to rain tonight.
[Me] Thanks all the same, but the bike's used to getting wet.
[Them] No, not for the bike, for the tent.
[Me] Er, sorry, not with you.
[Them] It's going to rain, and you'll get wet.
[Me] I don't think so, not unless we're talking 6 inches in an hour or something. I mean, tents *are* waterproof enough for most normal conditions, and my sleeping bag's waterproof as well.
[Them] Your tent's waterproof? Blimey, this we have to see.
So they did. Quite a lot of oohing and aahing. Hmmmmmm.
Oh yes, the bike. Well, called at the BMW dealer in Sydney - very helpful chap called Andrew Kelly (the spit of Rory McGrath and an R90S owner) at Tom Byrne M/C welcomed me, sat me at his computer and telephone, with a coffee, to contact shippers and things, couldn't have done more. And the nice young man at the shipping company is also being very helpful - apparently the price will vary depending on whether the flight goes via the US or Europe. Best not to delve to deeply into that one, I think.
I expect you remember my fitting a new gearbox before I left, having done a cost/benefit analysis and deciding I'd rather it was Mr.BMW's problem if anything happened? And having to learn "My gearbox has exploded" in 23 different languages? Well . . .
. . . it started misbehaving in the usual manner a couple of weeks ago, and on Tuesday I decided enough was enough. So it's going in to the dealer on Saturday for a checkup; Cooper's have (I hope) faxed the original paperwork over as proof of date of purchase; the above-mentioned Andrew is confident there's a box at BMW Aus in Melbourne; and I'm keeping my fingers crossed.
And last night I went to Tosca at the Opera House. It was stunning, as is the building. Cheryl Barker singing Vissi d'Arte was spine-tingling. And John MacMasters' Scarpia very scary - the rape attempt was particularly good. And, being here, there are enough bars to prevent the usual scrimmages you get in Europe in the intervals, not to mention terraces overlooking the harbour with amazing views of the Bridge and everything lit up.
I always thought Bondi Beach was this huge expanse of white sand full of beautiful people and bordered by enormous surf.
I went there yesterday to have a look. It's a sort of bijou Bude but without the cream teas. It's really small - most disappointing.
Mind you, I had a lovely ride around the general vicinity of Sydney, and there are some stonking views to be had over the harbour. I took the opportunity to have a ride over the bridge as well, although not as fast as Mark Webber on Sunday (I expect you read about that fiasco).
I think I told you I'm at a campsite on Botany Bay. I went for a ride around the bay to the National Park. Very nice, and hardly spoilt at all by a) the Caltex oil refinery in the middle of it, and b) the final approach to the airport directly overhead. Quite like the New Forest, really.
The gearbox. Well, considered opinion of the experienced mechanic who took the bike for a ride the other day is that the clutch splines have dried out a bit, and he doesn't think there's anything else wrong. As we'd have to take out the box to regrease, he reckoned there'd be nothing to lose by taking the end off the box and checking it out. Trouble is, they can't do it till Monday even if I take the box out myself.
So I've now gone to plan B. Bike gets crated on Friday morning and collected by the shipper in the afternoon. It'll be on a flight over the weekend. Meanwhile, I'll arrange with the dealer in Santiago to have a look at things for me when I get there. We'll see.
Easter Island belongs to Chile.
For about 50 years, from around 1900 until 1953, it was leased to Williamson Balfour & Co. Williamson Balfour & Co are the BMW concessionaires in Chile. They are owned by Inchcape, who also own (amongst others) Cooper Reading, my local BMW dealer. I have shares in Inchcape. So it would be rude not to go there on my way to Santiago, wouldn't it?
The bike will, allegedly, be crated tomorrow morning and collected by the shipper in the afternoon. I blame the Oz Police, because it's the late delivery of one of their new bikes which has caused the delay. Never mind - it's been nice weather and I've had some decent rides around various National Parks and the Blue Mountains.
Some of the TV here is a bit strange. As well as reruns of Dr Who (I'm not scared of the cybermen any more) they have home improvement programmes which include items such as "How to stop cockatiels eating your furniture". Adverts range from the hilariously un-PC to the intelligence-insulting stuff we're all used to.
People encounters have encompassed everything from the very friendly Welshman in the traffic jam who recognised the Newbury phone number on my numberplate to the unreconstructed male person in the Outback who asked "Does being bisexual give you any problem while travelling?"; to which my answer was, of course, "I've no idea - why don't you ask a bisexual?"
Nearly screamed this morning - the crate hadn't arrived, so crating is delayed till tomorrow. Luckily the shipping people are being very cool about it all.
I think Easter Island may be out as a stopover place. I spent most of yesterday afternoon at a flight consolidator (considered to the Oz's best) attempting to make some sense out of the schedules. Actually, my proposed itinerary was easy compared with the poor chap next to me who wanted to fly to Vladivostok, then LA, then back to Sydney. Non e possibile.
It transpires that the cheapest way to do Sydney/Easter Is/Santiago is via Israel (8 hours in the transit lounge at Tel Aviv) and takes a total of 35 hours; go figure that one out on a map of the world. The next best route takes in 3 nights in Tahiti and a fair time in the transit lounge at LA. So, as there are 2 flights a week from Santiago to Easter Island anyway it looks easiest although not cheapest to do it
The next challenge was a flight from here direct to Santiago; well, I say direct, but the shortest route (16 hours) is via Auckland (only one-and-a-half hours in the transit lounge). Leaves here 10:15 on Saturday morning and arrives two hours later - it crosses the dateline so you gain 14 hours, and I'll then be 3 hours behind you instead of 11 hours ahead. For A$300 less I could have had a 35-hour series of flights more or less as above, but I really, really couldn't face that. And the shipper reckons there's a fair chance of the bike being on the same plane, which would be great. The chap at the flight place was extremely helpful, and is not only dropping off my ticket at the campsite for me but has also made sure my ticket is a movable feast - that way if there are any more crating delays I can take a later flight without penalty.
I'm really looking forward to Chile and Argentina; they both sound fantastic places where the superiority of the campsites is in inverse proportion to the state of the roads (especially in Patagonia). Tim Rawson, are you out there? Why are there so many places in Patagonia called Rawson? Any relation? The Welsh towns sound rather fun as well.
Far be it from me to tempt anything approximating fate, but I think it's sorted.
We crated yesterday (jettison fuel, oil, battery; remove front wheel, mudguard and screen; remove top box and saddle and replace them the ther way around; reduce tyre pressures; strap evrything down; nail coffin lid down).
Today I went over to the warehouse for the Customs inspection and had to unload EVERYTHING which meant un-nailing the coffin lid and de-jigsawing all the carefully-packed bits and pieces. The officer then complained that the panniers and topbox aren't mentioned on the carnet under "Additional Equipment" although this a) has never been the case before and b) the issuing authorities regard such items as part of the bike and thus do not need to be specified. This is the most detailed Customs inspection I've *ever* had. The shipper was really furious and
phoned the Customs HQ in Canberra to complain, bless him.
So, the Hazardous Cargo certificate has been signed (visions of savage bikes rampaging around the cargo hold in the middle of the Pacific), and I go back tomorrow to get the Bill of Lading and give them an arm and a leg. The bike *will* be on the same plane as me on Saturday morning, hurrah.
Why are all the taxi drivers in Sydney Lebanese?
I already like Chile. It´s a sort of Spain with attitude. Smoking is compulsory, and a bottle of very decent Cabernet Sauvignon can cost as much as, ooh, thirty bob.
I think I´m now GMT -4 hours. The confusion has occurred because when telling us local time on landing yesterday lunchtime they omitted to mention that the clocks went back last night, so I was an hour early for breakfast this morning.
The Andes are rather spectacular, even from here, and I´m really looking forward to riding around on them. It´s still T-shirt weather here, but it´ll cool down as I go south and upwards into the mountains.
So, it´s the fourth continent and the 19th country. I´ve ridden around 17,000 miles and actually travelled around 32,500 miles if you include the sea and air interludes.
The next challenge is bike retrieval and reassembly. I´ve yet to establish whether the bike really is here - can´t do that till tomorrow morning. But I think I´ve managed to arrange a battery from the BMW dealer, who claims to have four of them in stock. Very helpful people, and the general manager´s PA speaks excellent English. The bike person didn´t, so I showed him a pic of the bike, and a pic of the bike crated in Sydney, then drew a pic of a battery, and he understood immediately what I was on about. Just like the Cambodian lady at the little chef on the way to Phnom Penh - I pointed at two eggs, mimed whisking them, then mimed frying with appropriate sound effects. Five minutes later I was served an excellent omelette. Anyway, it´s another use for a digital camera.
Chile is an RC country, and there is no divorce law.
So on the immigration card the options under Marital Status were limited to Single/Married/Widowed. I ticked Widowed on the grounds that a) technically it's true, and b) I might have an easier time of immigration than when I entered Oz. And so it was - sailed through in a third of the time of anyone else with no nonsense about return tickets or anything. I´ll have to try that one again.
My driver is an elderly Croat called Mario who speaks a very little English and about the same amount of Italian and German as I do, so we get on like a house on fire, and he´s helping me with my extremely meagre Spanish (which will no doubt improve on this continent until I get confused by Portuguese in Brazil). I´m having to use a driver as although the Metro (in common with most other capital cities) is clean, efficient, cheap etc. it doesn´t go as far as the airport in the west or the BMW dealer in the east, and the buses are completely impenetrable. A very fetching young man called Alejandro at the dealer has sorted me a battery, which I collected this afternoon fully charged. Mark Christmas, the nice young man at the shipping agent in Sydney, very kindly texted me to confirm that the bike has indeed arrived, and a helpful lady called Ninoschka rang me from LAN Chile cargo to explain the procedure I´ll have to go through tomorrow when I go to get the bike. Mario is going to lend me a jerrycan for the petrol and is all primed to sort me with that and the engine oil on the way to the airport tomorrow.
Before having my well-earned pint of Greene King IPA yesterday I was very virtuous. I took the Metro into the city centre at Plaza de Armas and did museums and things. I got a double whammy with the museums. As is the case in most places (as I´ve explained in previous epistles) they´re closed on Mondays (so I couldn´t have done them today anyway), and not only that but they´re free on Sundays. I sat outside a pavement cafe on the square for lunch, just like Quadri´s on the Piazza San Marco but without the sneering waiters, and watched the fat and very well-behaved pigeons politely taking turns with the olives. And then an Italian-registered camper turned up and parked illegally (naturally), its sides inviting written messages; and a special place was reserved for comments about Fabrizio Meoni. Turns out the guy is an enduro nut. He and his wife came here via the Middle East and for some obscure reason doubled back and shipped the van from Istanbul.
So, tomorrow is a busy day doing paperwork, paying out more money, and reassembling the bike, preferably in the reverse order of disassembly. Alejandro offered to have the bike picked up and reassembled in the workshop for $220, and I accepted with alacrity but then had to decline as they can´t even collect it until Friday and I probably wouldn´t get it back in one piece until next Monday. Never mind, I´ve nothing much better to do. At least I´ll have somewhere to do the clutch splines.
Names here are rather bizarre - mostly along the lines of the above-mentioned and ubiquitous gentleman. Banco Edwards (part of the Chile national bank), Gladys the receptionist (and I´m not even in Patagonia yet), Browne´s Pharmacy down the road. Apparently it gets quite unreal once one´s in the depths of Patagonia with the inhabitants of some small towns (like Trelew and Donafon) speaking Welsh almost to the exclusion of Spanish. At least I know what Araf means and what an Ysgol is.
I knew it was all going far too smoothly.
When I collected the battery yesterday afternoon I said "It's too big" and they said "No, it's the right one" so I thought I must be mistaken.
This morning Mario picked me up at 9 and we went to the airport. Warehouse office first to get the Airway Bill ($10); Customs to have bike verified (checking frame and engine numbers); on to the airport circular bus to go to the Customs office on the airside of International Arrivals (not much Security apart from two sniffer dogs having a go at the entire luggage of a couple of elderly nuns) to obtain the temporary import permit (they use the carnet merely as a cribsheet); back to the warehouse to pay for the dangerous cargo/storage/etc. stuff (35,000 pesos); and there's the bike.
So, they ripped off the packaging and dismantled the crate and I proceeded to reassemble a la Haynes, having despatched Mario to collect fuel and oil. He arrived back bearing these items and the battery, which, of course, is too big. Phoned Alejandro at the BMW dealer and reaffirmed by belief in the oversizeness of the battery, gave him the chassis number, and he said he´d double-check for me and ring back. He didn´t, so after half an hour I tried to phone Alejandro and every other number I had for the dealer but all numbers resulted in some sort of recorded message. Heigh-ho. But I managed to improve the shining hour by using my jump leads to connect the battery to the bike anyway so I could use my little 12v compressor to reinflate the tyres.
Eventually we all gave up, and a very helpful supervisor type called Pablo produced an English-speaking sidekick called Francisco, and between us we arranged that I would leave the bike there at no charge and they´d lock the luggage and stuff in the secure cage (which they insisted I inspect), and return tomorrow with the correct battery.
So, off we went back to the other side of Santiago. On the way I had a totally brilliant idea and rang John, who has an identical bike and was on his way home from work. So when he got home he texted the exact dimensions of his battery to me. Hurrah, I was right, it's 7.5cm wide, not 12cm. And as I walked into the dealer they solemnly pointed at a battery of the correct size sitting on the reception desk. Phew. They didn´t argue, and I just paid the balance - it's more expensive because a) it's smaller, and b) it's one of those nice gel ones with no
maintenance and that you can turn upside down (which is sensible if you're me). So they're charging it overnight, and tomorrow Mario will collect me at 9 again and we'll do our lovely circular tour of Santiago again.
Incidentally, Mario was astounded that at no time did anyone demand any dosh from me except the perfectly legitimate and properly invoiced shipping charges. Although he was also pretty astounded by the labyrinthine procedure, which I assured him was par for the course.
Oh, and the subject line. It appears to be the name of a menswear shop just around the corner.
Got the bike back. Mario took me to the dealer first thing to collect the correct battery, charged overnight. Back to the airport, shoehorned battery in, connected everything up, put my clothes off, signed the last bits of paper and off I went into Santiago.
During the day the traffic is moderately dense (especially the women in Chelsea Tractors) and fairly placid in an Italian sort of way. Then suddenly, at around 7:30pm, the density trebles and it all goes *completely* bonkers. The main drag (Avenida Libertador Bernardo O´Higgins) has 10 lanes, five each side. Three on each side are theoretically reserved for buses but this doesn´t seem to be enforced. The divider between the three bus lanes and the other two is a series of concrete blocks about 6 inches high which, although painted yellow, are less than visible and seriously need to be avoided.
Although Chileño driving is very polite, the parking leaves a little to be desired
This is the first country since Russia where I´ve had to ride on the right (apart from Laos and Cambodia where one´s road positioning was pretty flexible). People don´t seem to realise how much of the world apart from the UK still drives on the left - on my route it´s been Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia.
So, having made sure the bike´s OK I returned to the hotel and beetled off to a pavement cafe for a spot of lunch. I´m a pretty careful soul, but clearly not careful enough as I managed to have my bag stolen. So that´s all the credit cards (the two I normally stash in the bike I´d removed for shipping and hadn´t replaced); passport (that´s the worst as it´s my most precious historical document); phone; digital camera (luckily the only pix I´ve not uploaded aren´t really that interesting); driving licence (but I have an International Permit);
various odds and sods worthless to anyone else. So, Credit Card Sentinel have stopped all the cards, chums in the UK are trying to persuade Vodafone to stop the phone, I have dollars stashed in the bike so I do at least have money until I can sort something in the morning, and I have a crime number from the Carabineros. I go to the British Embassy in the morning to get a new passport (there´s a photocopy in the bike and I have a bunch of appropriate photos with me).
All this means I´m here in Santiago UFN as I have to wait for the passport and for the replacement plastic to arrive from the UK - they get sent to my substitute address, my friends Don and Pauline, who will FedEx them out to me.
As I said, the only thing which *really* pisses me off is the passport - no use to anyone else but has lots of interesting stamps and annotations from the various countries I´ve been through on this and previous trips. Utterly irreplaceable.
Having spent half the night on the blower to Amex (a most painful and circuitous procedure involving calls to the UK, Germany and the US, and a final conference call between the lot of us) I managed to obtain $684-worth of pesos at the Western Union office this morning.
Predictably I got the Jobsworth. Refused to listen to anything I said until I gave him a passport. I tried to explain that it´d been stolen and that Amex had arranged things so I wouldn´t have to produce it (ID numbers, Q&A things, weird remitter name etc.). I eventually persuaded him to ring them, filled in the form, and he grudgingly handed over the dosh.
Did a little light bike dismantling and retrieved my stash of emergency US$ from inside the headlight housing so I´ve been able to pay the hotel. If only I hadn´t been so lazy yesterday, and got up off my bum to replace the spare plastic inside the airbox on the bike (loads of space in there for all sorts of stuff).
Beetled off to the embassy to sort a passport. Jolly helpful and friendly, all helped by the fact that I had about my person a photocopy of the original passport, a couple of pix from the shedload I´ve been lugging around (monopolised the booth in Sainsburys for an hour one day before I left), the police crime report, and wore a BMW bike T-shirt. For, lo and behold, half the staff are bikers, and they´re fast-tracking me for no extra charge so I can collect the new passport tomorrow morning instead of next month. I´ll have to go to immigration and get it stamped, of course, otherwise they won´t let me out (not that I´d mind as I rather like it here).
New plastic will eventually wing its way to me via Don and Pauline, and Pauline´s even sorting a replacement Yellow Fever certificate for me (the doctor´s surgery doesn´t have email).
The great thing about hotel buffet breakfasts is that you can make yourself a packed lunch.
Pootled up into the mountains today. Santiago sits at around 2,000ft; I´m staying fairly centrally, and five miles up the road the city stops abruptly; you fork right on to a country lane which starts rising rapidly; and it only takes another half hour to get right out of the city and up to 7,000ft. Around 25km further and you're at nearly 10,000ft and the road stops, about 5 miles from the Argentine border. The road´s not bad, but deteriorates the higher you get in addition to the frequent landslides. This makes the very steep hairpins, some of which have adverse cambers and no safety barriers, awfully interesting.
There are ski resorts up there but they´re closed at this time of year as the snow line starts at around 12,000ft; hence the packed lunch. If anyone´s interested, I went to El Colorado, La Parva, and Valle Nevado. Next to no traffic either, which I found a little strange as I would have thought the fact that there´s nothing up there except peace and quiet and stunning scenery would be attractive to people wanting to go somewhere on a nice sunny Saturday. There were quite a lot of mountain bikers (all friendly), and I saw a few dirt bikes on the back of 4x4s but none being ridden. I don´t know about the legality or otherwise of trail riding here, but as the pavements (and just about everything else) in the city seem fair game to all including the carabineros (looks like an enduro paddock outside the local police station some evenings) I can´t imagine there´s much problem.
I´ve had to recalibrate my Wow-scale. So, the Andes just here are at about 5 on the 1-to-10 scale, allowing me some leeway in both directions. I´m afraid there´ll be no more pix uploaded for a while, unless I can persuade the little Kodak camera that Charlie Rauseo gave me to function properly and not eat AAs. Obviously I still have the Nikon SLR, but you´ll have to wait till I get back for those pix (transparencies, and put on to CD at process time). Of course, if the insurance pays out I´ll probably buy another Panasonic like the one that was nicked.
I´m not usually terribly good on flora and fauna, but some things are unmistakable. Today I saw condors gliding and circling on the thermals. They are truly enormous, and you can see them just twitching the feathers at the wingtips to manoeuvre. They just seem to hang there, so slowly are they moving.
Some of you don't know how much of a sad git I am. All will now be revealed.
Anyway, Don and Pauline have been ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT. They´ve FedEx´d new plastic to me (so I´ve now been able to pay the hotel) and are doing the same for my new phone and the rest of the cards. So I´ve had to promise to lick their bikes clean when I get back.
When I buy a bag (of any sort) it gets named after the place where I bought it. So the bag (holdall sort of thing) I bought in hong Kong in 1986 was called my Hong Kong bag, and when it expired in Aleppo in 1996 it was replaced by the Aleppo bag. A Damascus bag was subsequently acquired (in 1998), then an Isfahan bag (in 1990, in order to transport a Persian carpet back to the UK which in its turn knackered my rear suspension), both of which are extant (in storage in Newbury). So, my St.Petersburg bag (shoulder bag sort of thing), which was stolen here, has been replaced with a Santiago bag.
I haven´t mentioned manhole covers have I? Er, well, that started in Libya in 1996. Another story, really. More sad-gittery.
Had another great ride yesterday to see Aconcagua (highest mountain in the Americas). The road goes north then east from Santiago, through the foothills and up the Rio Aconcagua valley to Los Andes (dusty little town), then east up the pass to Argentina. At nearly the highest part (around 10,000 feet) is Portillo, a *very* exclusive ski resort (more or less closed at present). I went a little further, as far as the border with Argentina at the entrance of the Cristo Redentor tunnel, and the scenery was, well, more recalibration of the wow-scale. This is one of only three good roads across the Andes between Chile and Argentina, so is a major truck route. The climb is amazing, the air the clearest I´ve seen for ages, and the trucks aren´t underpowered so you never get stuck behind anything doing 2mph. Totally cracking ride.
Several buses today have borne fresh-sprayed grafitti along the lines of ´Adios Juan Pablo II´.
Given that it´s also Sunday I´m amazed anything´s open.
Left Santiago yesterday morning and stayed at Temuco last night. Lovely riding day. I´m now at Puerto Montt and should be able to get the ferry tomorrow night to go to Chaitén. It´s that or go the long way round which involves at least three ferries and plenty of dirt road. And it´s foggy, raining and cold (think October in the UK). At least the radiators in the hotel are the sort you can lay your gloves and trousers on.
Non-foodies and vegetarians look away for the next para.
Steaks are stupendous. My chums in the UK know what a pain I am with fillet; has to be perfect, and very blue. Astonishingly, in Chile a blue steak is ´al Inglese´, which is difficult to believe as getting a blue steak in Britain is a struggle. So in any restaurant at all you can have a blue 12oz fillet with loads of salad (consists of avocado, huge toms, finely-sliced runner beans, rocket, corn, other stuff) with a bottle of very smooth merlot shiraz (Terra Andina is good) for, ooh, around a fiver. Awful, isn´t it?
I´m bit at sea over mileage now as the figures were in the stolen notebook. However, I know I´d done around 17,000 miles to Sydney, and I´ve done about 1,000 bumbling around Sydney and Santiago, so I´m restarting the clock at 18,000.
Great to be back on the road again.
Caught the overnight boat (cargo ship which takes passengers) from Puerto Montt to Chaitén, it takes 10 hours, left an hour late after much messing around, so arrived at 9 this morning.
While hanging around on the dock I fell into conversation with Arturo and his girlfriend (his surname´s Ellis as his dad´s British). Turns out his brother used to live in Thatcham, less than a mile from where I live.
I set off immediately, hoping to reach Coyahique this evening. Fat chance.
The Carretera Austral (Ruta 7, more or less the continuation of the Via PanAmericana) is one of Pinochet´s legacies (photos will be in the next batch). It starts beautifully, with around ten miles of decent tarmac. Then the sign we all dread: Fin De Pavimiento 200m. So the next 250 miles are going to be this (on average) badly-maintained fire road, are they? Super, especially as it´s raining.
I was burbling gently past some cows, which were well in to the side of the road, when one decided to have a go. I think it came off worst, as I found some blood on the footrest and it ain´t mine. I more or less stayed the right way up - good job there´s pretty well no traffic.
Carried on burbling, then I was flagged down by a sort of ranger type in a serious-looking 4x4. He spoke slowly and loudly so I´d understand. About 2km ahead there was a major landslide. I´d have to stop, but he said it would take a maximum of four hours to clear. Super. I rode to the landslide, dismounted and lit a ciggy. Another 4x4 arrived and invited me to sit inside (dry and warm). Then Arturo arrived, and we all had a brew-up. One or two other 4x4s also stopped, and eventually a digger sort of thing arrived and started attacking the large rocks and upside-down trees. It was all pretty efficient really, and the whole thing was cleared (more or less) in two hours, so we were away soon after 12. At this point I´d covered just 45 miles of the 250 I needed to do today.
The rain increased, that penetrating sort, not torrential but managing to get up and under all the GoreTex and stuff. And you know how impossible it is to get your gloves back on once the water has wicked up inside them because you couldn´t tuck the cuffs up your sleeves properly because you can´t when you have one glove already on and the other hand´s wet . . .
So, I stopped at a place called La Junta (marked as a fuel stop on the map), filled up, and of course no way could I get my gloves back on. Thought of trying my summer gloves, but by this time it was half-past two with only about three hours of daylight left, and I was starting to feel my bits with the heaving I´d been doing. I mean, when 300kg of bike starts slithering down an adverse camber towards a precipice it´s quite hard work persuading it to change direction.
As luck would have it, there´s a jolly nice wooden hotel here ( has been draped over radiators all over the place - in fact, the hotel owner insisted on this and a big pot of coffee and a sandwich before he´d do anything about checking me in properly. That´s hospitality.
I spent a couple of nights at La Junta as it was pissing with rain. Left and set off down the Carretera Austral for the 200km to Coihaique (or Coyhaique depending on who´s spelling you see).
After about 50km I came round a bend (carefully on the loose scree) and there was a row of a dozen big trailies - 2 1150GSs, 4 F650GSs, a Transalp and a bunch of Yamaha XTs, together with a 4x4 pickup. It was a group of Dutch and Belgians doing an adventure trail holiday, on bikes hired in Santiago.
So, of course, I stopped, and we all did the Ooh Aah stuff. I asked if I might ride with them to Coihaique (hereinafter known as CQ) and they readily agreed. Just as well, really, as at one point there was a nice big muddy puddle and I succumbed to the inevitable (I have a very close relationship with muddy puddles, generally of the upside-down variety).
So we had a lovely ride to CQ, and there was a room available in their very nice hotel just the other side of the river from the town. At dinner and during the post-prandials I enquired whether, for a consideration, I might join them as that way I could ride the route it was not possible to do on my own. They voted unanimously in my favour so I became one of the group.
Next day (Friday) we set off for the border (about 30 miles), did the out-of-Chile thing, rode a mile up the track to Argentina and did the into-Argentina thing while scoffing buns and coffee (oh, the advantages of a backup truck).
After this the rule was to ride at our own speeds, but regroup every 30km, and the truck to be sweeper. The track was reasonable gravel track, but with heaped gravel in betwen the tyre tracks. It was also very windy as we´re now east of the Andes and on the Patagonian plain. I was running nicely at around 50mph; a gust of wind caught me and forced me on to one of the heaped gravel bits; the bike went into a bad weave which I couldn´t control, and of course slowing down is absolutely not an option. There then loomed a sort of stone parapet at the side of the road, and the bike was heading for it; I really couldn´t do anything about it so I hit it. I remember hearing my collarbone break, and then I was on my back on the ground facing back the way I´d come and the bike was behind me. I was pretty scared at first as I couldn´t breathe - this was presumably because the punctured lung deflated suddenly and the other one was taken by surprise. But I
tried to breathe slowly and it got a bit better.
One of the Dutch (Ron, I think) ran over and asked if I was OK, so I said No. We established that my legs were OK, and I´d already managed to open the front of my helmet (a System 4). They managed to get me to my feet, and gently remove my helmet as we were by then fairly sure my neck was OK as I could turn my head no problem.
They put me in the truck, and even found my specs which had flown off but not broken. Skip the truck driver took me back to the Argy border with Roberto the local guide on his 1150GS and did the exit stuff for me, then down the road back to the Chilean border where they got me out and sat me inside the office next to the stove. I was feeling pretty second-hand by then. Skip took my keys and Carnet and said he´d go back for the bike, get it out of Argentina and back into Chile for me. Meanwhile the Carabineros put me in their pickup and took me to the local clinic where a male nurse checked me over, inserted a drip and put me on oxygen. He very carefully listened all over with his stethoscope - there were all sorts of strange noises and he was clearly pretty worried. I gather from Francisco that they were considering sending the helicopter for me, but eventually a Paramedic ambulance came out from CQ and they brought me to the hospital here. It´s the only one for over 600 miles. This whole thing took about 6 hours.
Once in the ER I was checked by Dr. Hernandez (Francisco) who speaks excellent English, so I was able to explain what happened and where I hurt. Had the usual X-rays and stuff, and they took me to a room and helped me get the rest of my bike kit off. I had to stay on the drip and oxygen overnight. They were checking everything once an hour, and I had to explain that my blood pressure is normally this low (110/60) although at one point it dropped to around 95/50 which is a bit low even for me.
On Saturday Francisco looked at me again and said he thought they could no nothing much more and that I was clearly pretty healthy and that they would discharge me. That´s when they discovered that I was in fact on my own (they thought I was part of the Dutch group). So Francisco said he wasn´t happy about me being alone in a hotel, rang his wife Fabiola, and insisted I come and stay with him.
So here I am with four broken ribs and a broken collarbone. They are all lovely people. I was even taken to a BBQ party on Saturday night. Fabiola has been brilliant, taking me round to do the necessary paperwork and see the orthopod (who says 4 not 3 broken ribs).
Last night the bike arrived back from the border courtesy of Patricio and his pickup (I had to go to a notary to do an authorisation), and this morning we went to the Customs office and retrieved the Carnet and the panniers and top box. Everything is there - even my bunch of keys. It´s fantastic, and the Chileans have been so helpful. The Customs Director came and chatted to me about it all and asked if I was happy with their service; blimey, what do you think?
I´ve just sent Phil a few pix of the damage I´ve been able to photo so far - front wheel/disc is history, forks extremely bent; headlight intact, in fact most stuff intact, even indicators and plastic numberplate. The boxes have suffered a bit (see pix) but Patricio is convinced they are repairable.
When I get a chance I´ll do a full assessment, but for now it´s looking good.
I´m completely overwhelmed by the messages and your willingness to help out; the only snag, of course, is that now I HAVE to finish this ride, don´t I? And I will if I possibly can.
Amazing people. Everything is in the process of being sorted, up to and including a new frame. And I´ve ordered a new screen and tankbag in the UK to be sent direct to Phil to go in the crate.
Many, many thanks to Phil the Boxer Man for all the organisification he´s doing for me. I must owe him several crates of Paddy´s by now (incidentally, it was on optic in the bar in Phnom Penh).
And I had a call from Gustavo Johnson in Bogota (Colombia) who´s the main man for BMW in S America. He´s very good-looking - he sent me pix of himself with his bikes (he has a yellow 1200GS) and his Land Rover Defender 110. How about that for coincidences? He´s going to help with getting new tyres for me from Santiago.
I´m still feeling very bruised and second-hand. The ribs seem to be healing nicely, but it´s the collarbone which will take the time. Hurts a lot. Very difficult to get out of bed and to get dressed and undressed. But the local Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot/Shiraz medicines are a great help :-) especially as the good ones can cost as much as two quid a bottle :-)). Won´t be able to claim them on the insurance, though, despite being prescribed by a doctor.
It appears I´m a bit of a local hero around here.
One of the orderlies at the hospital is the wife of the Customs man at the border who looked after the wreck until Patricio collected it for me, and apparently they get so fed up with treating tourists with twisted ankles and broken fingernails that I was the biggest excitement since they finished the road to the airport. Francisco has a bit of a reputation for refusing to speak English or French to a tourist unless they´re really hurt. I´m flattered.
Anyone living here who has an ordinary car is just showing off. It means they have it just for getting around town, because if you want to go further than that you have to have a 4x4. Everywhere is within walking distance here - if you drive it takes twice as long as most of the roads are one-way because they´re so narrow and everyone drives the aforementioned 4x4s. The central square (the Plaza de Armas, as everywhere else in Chile) is actually pentagonal, which is confusing because there are 10 roads leading from it.
Anyway, looks like Jess fancies a working holiday in Patagonia, which is really helpful as it means we can do the bulk of the dismantling before Reg and the bits arrive, and we can sort any gotchas if I´ve missed any broken bits.
So, I´m still feeling rather sore and have to move carefully, but consumption of plenty of medicinal fluid is helping.
The problem of getting out of Coyhaique was finally solved by Fabiola (and she wanted rid of me, of course).
She rang Luis, who runs a dairy truck empty to Puerto Chacabuco and thence on the boat to Puerto Montt. So, having explained that I couldn´t actually ride the bike to the truck because of the snow and ice, She arranged for Patricio (who, you may remember, brought the wreck back from the border) to come with his pickup and two rather nice strong young men to take the bike and boxes to the big truck.
Patricio used to do motocross so understands all about tying bikes down. Anyway, we found Luis and his truck; and we have to get the bike in backwards from the bed of the pickup, a height difference of at least a couple of feet. But now we had four nice strong young men, and Patricio understood about the sumpguard so everything went OK.
Next we found that the only tie-down points were on the ceiling. Hmmm. Patricio to the rescue again. We used the straps to hang the bike from the ceiling. It was in gear, and the front tyre was on the floor with the suspension almost completely uncompressed. Kooked OK to me providing Luisdidn´t do too much over-enthusiastic cornering (doubtful, given the conditions).
Patricio refused to take any money as he was so impressed by the rebuild, having had an intimate relationship with the wreck. I took a couple of litres of decent pisco round to him in the evening.
Next job was to get a flight; easy enough, Sky, 40-odd quid.
Airport closed. There´s no ILS (VFR only), so if there´s fog or low cloud there are no flights in so no flights out, mainly because of the proximity of a) large chunks of Andes and b) the Argentinian border (actually the airport eastern perimiter fence).
But Francisco made me go anyway just in case, and he was right (but only just).
So here I am in Puerto Montt, and I´ve just had a text from Fabiola to say that Luis is arriving in a couple of hours, hurrah.
But don´t mention pecs right now. The physio (lifting pudding bottles) went fine, but they kept getting lighter. But I´d still rather have a full bottle in front of me than a full frontal lobotomy.
I nearly lost my Swiss Army knife at the airport because I completely forgot about putting it in my checked baggage. So I put it inside my helmet inside my little backpack. They spotted my ´waiter´s friend´ (which I´d also forgotten about) and confiscated that, but the knife survived. Phew.
The boat finally arrived at 7 last night. The port is very disorganised, and no-one knows anything. But eventually Luis came and collected me from the gate and took me into the bowels of the cargo ship where the bike was already standing on the deck.
Of course, it wouldn´t start. So I stood around being gassed by the trucks and looked forlorn, and eventually a couple of the crew helped me get the bike up the greasy wet steel ramps on to the dockside (I was getting in the way by then).
A couple of truckers waiting to board were hanging around, and they helped me try to bump start, but no dice. By this time the battery was down to starter relay clicking mode, so having indicated that I possessed a pair of jump leads they pushed the bike to one of the trucks and we connected it up. Still no go. Check for sparks. None, and plugs looking a bit second-hand anyway (they were OK in Coyhaique) so we cleaned the lead terminals where they go into the coil and put new plugs in and hey presto.
The one who insisted on doing the work asked if he could have a ride around the dock, so of course I said yes. He clearly rather enjoyed himself.
So I´m off northwards this morning. HURRAH.
Mario the Croatian driver was ever so pleased to see me and gave me a big hug. And the hotel have put me in one of the best rooms for the same price as before.
Ye gods, the difference 1300 miles north makes. I´ve been walking round in a T-shirt today, and the snowline is at around 5000 feet instead of sea-level. The bike´s going great, but I´ve had to do a few of those bedding-down tweaks you always need after the first few hundred miles. And I managed to get hold of a rivet gun and rivets to fix the VIN plate to the new frame. Shhh.
When you enter Chile you get 90 days (or thereabouts - sometimes it´s 3 months). Now, my time´s nearly up, so I´ve needed to extend both my immigration permit and the bike temporary import papers (Chile doesn´t recognise the carnet). So, this morning I went to the appropriate office and organised my Amplicación de Turismo, a surprisingly painless process apart from the $100 fee and the sudden lunge you have to make when your number comes up as the chap at the indicated window gives no more than 3 seconds before pressing the button again for the next number.
Next to Customs. No way, José. Or rather, all too mucho difficult even though the chaps at the border rather helpfully wrote an explanatory note on the existing papers about the accident. Bugger.
So tomorrow I head north. The problem is this:
a) All passes over the Andes north of here (except the one to La Paz) are over 10,000 feet (and one or two are as high as 15,000).
b) Only two are paved: the one to La Paz and the Cristo Redentor (to Mendoza in Argentina. In my present state I´m not going to attempt unpaved roads, especially in snow.
c) The Cristo Redentor, about 50 miles north of here, is closed due to heavy snow.
d) La Paz is not currently a recommended holiday destination, even by my standards (hey, Beirut, south Waziristan, you name it).
So it looks as though I´ll not be able to get to Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay unless by some miracle the situation in Bolivia improves. And because I can´t cross to Argentina I have to ride hell-for-leather to Peru (and get there by next Thursday), which is over 2000km from here with plenty to see on the way. Ho hum. But if I ride fastish (and the PanAmericana is actually a very good road) I should get to see the really interesting things properly, like the Atacama Desert.
Rode the 10 miles from Arica to the border yesterday morning. On the way I passed one of those "must have" road signs - "Bolivia: turn right, Peru: straight on".
I thought things were looking rather deserted, and there was no queue at the border; it's the only one between Chile and Peru and is on the PanAmericana, so one would expect there to be at least some traffic.
I parked up and approached the Immigration Control window.
"Ah, you are English. There is a problem."
"The border is closed today"
"There is trouble on the Peruvian side - rioting, rock-throwing, that sort of thing, and the border is closed"
"Why? Political or what?"
"OK, so what do I do now?"
"Just go back to Arica and wait"
"Er, I know my entry permit is OK but there is a problem with my motorcycle papers and I need to extend them if I'm to stay as they expire tomorrow"
"OK, no problem, come with me"
So we went to see the nice Customs man and explained the situation. The solution was pretty simple, really. Customs and Immigration signed and stamped me out of Chile; I then did a U-turn from the "Out" side to the "In" side through the indicated narrow gap in the barrier while the nice young man telephoned to the other side, where it took all of 10 minutes for me to be signed and stamped in again for a further 90 days, and new temporary import documents issued for the bike. Job done. It then took another half hour to get out of the border because I was surrounded by officials wanting to know all about my trip. Well, they had nothing else to do.
They reckoned the border might be open again tomorrow, and have given me their phone number so I can ring and check.
Meanwhile, I'm sitting on a beach beside a pool, under palm and rubber trees, sipping pisco sour and wondering whether there's a conspiracy to stop me from leaving Chile. Fabiola says the temperature is -17 in Coyhaique (worst winter they've had in five years, and my plane was more or less the last out for a week), so I won't be going there again for a while, but I've suggested she come up here instead.
It was like this, you see.
On Friday the border situation was still not entirely clear, so I decided to stay an extra day (and this is a very nice place). I went to tell Reception and they asked if I minded changing to a different room, offering one of the rather nice bungalows on the beach instead, so I accepted.
Turns out that it was because the President and All His Men were booked in, which would explain the thousands of soldiers rehearsing ceremonial stuff on the main road along the shore on Thursday afternoon. And the presence of quite a lot of largish chaps in reasonable suits with bulges under their left armpits.
Anyway, I went and parked the bike outside the bungalow, upon which I heard the unmistakable sound of a boxer engine. José and Maria arrived on a pretty yellow 1200GS and parked beside the bungalow next door.
Of course, we started chatting. They´re from Viña del Mar, which is on the coast just north of Valparaiso, and are having a biking holiday (as you do). They were going to Putre yesterday and invited me to join them, so I did.
Putre is a small village about halfway along the road to Bolivia, at about 12,000 feet in the High Andes. I rejetted so the bike wouldn´t run out of breath, but unfortunately I couldn´t do the same for myself. Even with the smaller jets the reduction in power was significant. Interestingly, the 1200 suffered despite the electronics, and this morning when we left neither bike was very happy to start.
On the way along the road lives a middle-aged hippy in what can only be described as a dwelling. It´s constructed out of the dead trunks of candelabra cacti and an old railway carriage. He serves excellent coca tea (and yes, that is what you think it is). He also provides all his own power - the stove is solar powered, the computer runs off a wind generator, and he´s had backing from the local German consulate for constructing all his renewable energy resources (superb setup involving solar cells, inverters, huge batteries and so on). He used to live in London in the early 70s so we had quite a long chat about that, and other things.
So I´m back in Arica, as are José and Maria. I´m trying for Peru again tomorrow morning, and they´re going to Tacna (in Peru) by train instead of on the bike, as the latest info is that anything Chilean-registered will be a problem but I´ll be OK so long as I cover up the Chilean flag sticker on my topbox.
I don´t know how depleted the oxygen is at 16,000 feet (that´s 4850 metres to you youngsters) but it´s certainly a bit of a struggle to ingest enough.
Although I´m in winter riding kit (+ heated grips) I´m still in open-face and goggles, and I´ve found that keeping my mouth open as I ride effectively supercharges the breathing. I´m fine while I´m riding, but as soon as I stop . . .
The ride from Moquegua at 5,000 ft to the Altiplano at 16,000 was a spectacular winding road through amazing landscapes. Once up there the road straightens and allows the top speed of 60mph. The rejetting has worked well, but at that height the power redustion is more than 50% according to the figures I have.
I´m now in Puno, on Lake Titicaca, down at 12,500 (3830m) and although the bike´s running rich that´s probably just as well as there´s only 84-octane fuel available in this neck of the woods.
I met a Swiss couple at the top in a Landy LWB TD5, and they were having trouble as well. They´re doing RTW in the opposite direction - shipped to NY and drove down through N America to here.
I´ve had to recalibrate the Wow Scale a few times, and am running out of superlatives, and so to make everything easier I´ll use asterisks and you can insert your own.
The road from Puno to Cuzco started quite ordinarily and then became more and more * as it rose to 13,000 feet before dropping down to Cuzco at 11,500 feet. A couple of bikes coming the other way screeched to a halt. It was Ed (US) and his Spanish wife Elisa, both riding, I think, Hondas; they´re doing S America before returning to Arizona. So we hunkered down beside the road to shelter from the wind and had a brew-up, watching a cow lady trying to keep her charges from investigating the bikes too closely. They told me about a great Dutch-run campsite at Cuzco and gave me the GPS reference.
Further on the roadblocks started (Ed forgot to warn me about these). The natives are protesting about the high price of road tax and petrol (it´s about 50p a litre here, which is pretty expensive in relation to the average income). The roadblocks consist of larges rocks and broken glass spread across the road, usually in villages but sometimes in between. I encountered around a dozen of these altogether; they were all quite friendly, because as a foreigner they know it´s not my problem, and the longest I had to wait before being let through was half an hour. At one of them I thought there was a riot going on, but it turned out to be a rather enthusiastic football game, and when someone scored a goal (I think) they moved a couple of rocks and let me through.
So I arrived in Cuzco towards sunset, having ridden through the most *, * scenery along the valley. I managed to navigate through the town, the only hiccup being when attempting to enter Suecia from Plaza de Armas: a police car got in the way and I had both wheels locked slithering backwards downhill on the incredibly slippery cobbles.
I managed to get to the top of the hill on a road no wider than an alleyway and back on to tarmac again. I´d managed to pass the track to the campsite (there´s no sign) when a KTM coming the other way stopped. It was Stuart, who led me to the campsite, and whose first question was "Are you the woman who crashed in Argentina?" Turns out he´d met the Dutch bikers the day after the crash, and had been trying to find out where I was so he could bring me some grapes.
Cuzco is obviously the place to be. Camping on the site are Stuart and Sharon, both on Yamaha XT500s; Dereck (with a broken wrist) on a (now-unbent) KTM 640; Nick and Jill on a BMW R100GS; and me. Quite a Brit gethering. And we all go together for post-prandials at the Norton Rats Pub on Plaza de Armas, run by Jeff who´s a great chap and, unsurprisingly, a Norton owner. They´re all very impressed by the repaired bike.
Five British-registered bikes at Cuzco
As most of you are British I´ll just mention the weather. It´s a bit like the Sahara in winter - well below freezing overnight, so there´s heavy frost on the tents and bikes in the mornings, then after sunrise the temperature quickly climbs to somewhere in the 80s. The only snag is that as the air´s so thin even I´m in danger of burning so I have to cover up by midday.
Today I´m at Machu Picchu. It´s totally * * * * * * * * and *.
Still haven´t found Paddington, although Algernon and Winnie-the-Pooh have been trying awfully hard.
Peru is, otherwise, stuffed to the gills with RTWers and other long-distancers, both on bikes and in 4x4s. I met a German couple on Africa Twins a couple of days ago on my way from Cuzco to Abancay, and three German cyclists yesterday as we Wowed at the sunset on the drop 12,000 feet down from the Andes to Nazca.
Peruvian driving is an endearing mixture of Iranian and Chilean - like the Iranians, they have two speeds (stop and flat out) but this is tempered by a Chilean-like courtesy. And the roads can be a little odd, as the paved surface will suddenly give way to dusty, bumpy dirt at the entrance to a town (like Puquio yesterday) and just as suddenly resume at the end of town (tends to be the opposite way round in other places). This coupled with the vague or non-existent road signs makes life pretty interesting at times.
The road from Cuzco to Nazca has to be one of the World´s Great Biking Roads, both from the point of view of the riding itself and of the scenery.
The day from Cuzco to Abancay was only 120 miles (it´s 60 crow miles - very winding) but took most of the day due to big rockfalls and a bridge which they´re in the middle of building.
From Abancay to Nazca was 300 miles (160 crow) and I didn´t arrive till after sunset. Thank heavens for the auxiliary lights I fitted. But if I´d been earlier I´d have missed the stunning sunset. The two big passes rise to 15,000 feet and necessitate numerous photo stops.
I was doing a bit of essential maintenance this morning in the hotel car park and was interrupted by an American on a Harley with his Peruvian wife. They live in Lima and have insisted I use their workshop for the bike if I need to when I get there (may be a chance to do the timing chain). And then there was a Peruvian family whose papa was very complimentary about my Spanish. It´s improving - I can even understand taxi drivers now and have sensible conversations with people.
Unfortunately the shoulder isn´t improving that much. It had a bit of a battering in the last couple of days´ riding, and if you look carefully at the pix you can see it´s sagging lower than my left shoulder (I´ve checked in the mirror as well). But I´m here for a couple of days so it´ll get a rest. I´ll just have to see how it goes.
I spent most of this morning listening to a pair of shamans (Juan and Vladimir, whose day jobs are as electronics engineers) describing the solar and lunar ceremonies and what they hoped to achieve for a couple of guests here.
Here is Vilcabamba, a small Ecuadorian village in the Andes on the edge of the Amazonian cloud forest. It's gorgeous. The desert finally ended after 3,000 miles near Tumbes, 15 miles south of the border (which was the usual bear garden as the actual border is in the middle of a very crowded market).
Rather wild and very friendly Ecuadorian nuns
Ecuador is the original banana republic, and as you probably know is still at it because the president decamped to Brazil a couple of months ago. There are no road signs, so finding anywhere is somewhat challenging as the roads bear little relation to the map I have (a Nelles, which are usually pretty reliable). Not sure if a local one would be much better, though.
The currency is the USD which makes life easy, and the cost of living is hardly anything, which makes life even easier.
I'm heading for Quito (22km south of the equator) and will need to do some serious surgery on the bike; not sure of the exact problem, but it may well be something like a burnt-out exhaust valve in the RH cylinder head. We'll see.
Ecuador can be very confusing, aside from the road signs.
What we (in the UK) call the Ground Floor they sometimes call the Piso Bajo (or PB) and sometimes the 1st floor. When there's a PB the 1st floor is the 1st floor, and if not it's the 2nd floor. So if you're on what you think is the 1st floor but are directed to the 1st floor you may have to go up one floor or down one floor or stay where you are, depending on the kind of building you're in. Alles klar?
When I rode into Guayaquil yesterday afternoon I made the usual stop at the side of the street where I could see (hurrah) street signs so as to orient myself. A man emerged from a workshop and thrust a small glass of cold beer into my hand, showed me where I was on my map and sent me off in the right direction. The valet parking regime at the hotel was a bit flummoxed, but they compromised by sending me off to follow the hotel minibus to the parking garage from where it brought me back again. The bike appears to have a man with a machine pistol all to itself.
Most people don't wear helmets on bikes here (even the police, and especially the lady cops on the big Suzuki fours). So instead of signs on bank doors requesting helmet removal they request that you leave your firearm with the security guard. Sounds fair to me.
Still, walking around is very pleasant, and I had a lovely morning wandering through the little park by the hotel, where you can wish the iguanas and turtles good day, and then along the waterfront. Very civilized.
Eric the Equatorian Iguana
Where the roads are good they're very good, and the rest are not terribly good at all.
This means that in a six-hour ride (which is about as much as the shoulder will take without screaming at me) I can manage maybe 250 miles at best. A couple of times I've been down to 150 miles or less. But I'll be having a bit of a rest now, which may help.
The ride from Riobamba is up Volcano Alley, never dropping below 10,000 feet and sometimes up to 15,000 (yup, altitude sickness again). I made the mistake of riding from sea level at Guayaquil to Riobamba at 10,000 in one day so had the inevitable sleepless night; however, with the ride from there to Quito (also 10,000) I've acclimatised rather more rapidly than I did in Peru.
This is winter, which unfortunately means (relatively) low cloud, so instead of the promised spectacular views of the volcanoes I only saw their bottoms; the scenery's pretty good, though. Having ridden for several hundred miles through paddy fields and banana plantations (and been crop-dusted for my pains as the planes don't switch off over roads) I ascended up into the Andes again through tropical jungle-type shrubbery and out on to the high plains, which are clearly very fertile. Even as high as 13,000 feet there are fields of crops like maize and potatoes.
A word about spuds: there are many varieties available on this continent, any of which have tons more flavour than any of the anaemic "standardised" crap we get in the UK. Don't know their names, but I'm sure some must be available from speciality places.
People are STILL asking if what I'm doing is dangerous; well, so far it's the planet and the scenery that's been the danger. That and the delays caused by bike cops stopping me for a chat, and it would be rude to refuse. South America is overall a very polite place, one has to wish absolutely everyone Buenos dias/tardes/noches at all times; this includes but is not limited to the total stranger in the hotel lift, the petrol pump attendant, the man sweeping the street, the aforementioned bike cop, and everyone else in the world.
My respect for Kevin and Julia Sanders' record for riding the Panamericana is doubling daily. For instance, in small towns the road in is generally the road out, so you go straight through. In larger towns the road out bears no relation to the road in, and there are no signs, and sometimes no road surface. The intricate planning they had to do is astounding, as to get the record they couldn't afford to spend half an hour trying to find their way out of labyrinthine one-way systems.
So now I'm back to being a proper tourist. When I arrived in Quito yesterday I went straight to the BMW dealer to throw myself on their mercy. And Hallelujah, despite being a 'shiny' dealer their head bike chap, Augusto, is one of the old school and positively drooled over the Old Lady. So first thing this morning I delivered her into their capable hands and they'll have a list of parts for me by Monday afternoon. Not only that but because by their own admission there are absolutely no parts available in the entire continent they're happy for me to source them (I've bribed Phil H yet again) and have them FedExed out. Ooh, and they even pay for the taxi back to the hotel and everything. I have a date with Augusto tomorrow evening for a drink - he speaks good English and wants to hear all about the trip.
The buses here are a hoot.
They're frequent and very cheap, and extremely fast - I've already learned to keep well out of their way when on foot or on the bike as they give way to nothing and go flat out.
You have to lurk near (never, ever, at) a bus stop, then leap at the door of the bus you think may be going your way. There's a conductor who takes (not much) money but not in return for a ticket, and who usefully tells you that "This bus doesn't go there" or "You should have got off at the last stop".
The trolley buses (troles) aren't nearly so much fun because you know where they're going, but they're still very fast and have a flat fare of 25c.
Ecuatorian girls all wear tight, brightly-coloured polyester tops; quite an eyeful for the chaps sometimes. Unfortunately, many of them also wear very tight hipster jeans, which coupled with an big bum and a beer belly overhanging the "waist"-band constitute rather more of an eyeful than one really wants first thing in the morning.
I took the bus to El Mitad del Mundo on Friday to do a bit of equator crossing. Jolly interesting day out. I'm still not sure about this bathwater thing, but the weight thing postulated by Newton is certainly true.
The earth bulges at the equator; this was first established by a Frenchman called Condamine in the 18th century, here in Ecuador. In fact, it bulges so much that the summit of a local volcano is actually further from the centre of the earth than that of Everest, despite being around 8,000 feet lower.
Newton's umpteenth Law states that the force of gravity decreases in inverse proportion to the square of distance; thus the further you are from the centre of the earth the less you weigh.
So there's a weighing machine on the equator which prints out your weight at Lat. 0 deg 0' 0", and which apparently can be up to 10 pounds less than elsewhere on the planet. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when my ticket showed that I weighed 25 pounds less than I did in Newbury. This might also account for the fact that my grey cargo trousers keep falling down.
All of which reminds me of another altitude lesson I've learned in the Andes. When ascending to anything over 12,000 feet, make certain you've screwed the lid on your deodorant very tightly, as the ball pops out and it makes a terrible mess.
Most of the taxis here are fairly respectable.
The Ecuadorian government has used tax incentives to persuade people to get rid of the old VW Beetles (most of which seem to have leaked intop northern Peru) and buy something a little more modern. Despite this there are still some real sheds around; one I took yesterday had a completely smashed windscreen which must have severely limited the driver´s view.
Behind the BMW dealer´s workshops is a parking area surrounding a small football pitch. So when the fire alarm went off we all trooped on to the pitch, where a bonfire had been built of pallets, tyres and carpet. Augusto (who´s the site fire warden) proceeded to throw petrol on the pile, and the officer from the local fire station lit the fire and distributed a selection of rather decrepit-looking dry powder extinguishers to the assembled staff for them to have a go at putting out the fire. Great fun for all, especially as a) the rather black smoke started drifting over the adjacent airport runway, and b) a real fire then started (nothing to do with ours) the other side of the paintshop and apparently actually on the airport itself.
Anyway, despite this being Latin America the cylinder heads really did arrive on Thursday afternoon. The total for replacing all four valve guides, both exhaust valve seats and grinding in all four valves was a little less than $40; I suspect the bill would have been very much higher in Europe.
Yesterday, as young Carlitos was doing the tappets, the security guard summoned me to the gate where a pair of total strangers were waiting, and if you go here:
you can read the tale as related by Dale and Sandy.
And oh she's lovely. Complete top-end rebuild so she's like new; crack in silencer welded; and I fixed all sorts of little things which had been irritating me for ages but never got around to.
I can't believe the bill though; including everything (a bit of welding on the silencer, a jolly good clean, and all the usual suspects) it was just over $200. If you ever need work done on your BeeEm in Ecuador, Alvarez Barba are the people to go to; ask for Augusto Begnini (Mr.Fixit).
I'm now having rather naughty thoughts. As it's now getting towards spring/summer down south, and I've only seen the extreme left-hand side of this continent, I think I may go south again and see all the bits I missed because the weather was so crap by the time I got back on the road again after the crash. That means I may well spend another 6 months in South America.
Anyway, it'd be nice to visit Francisco and Fabiola and everyone in Coyhaique again.
I need to do a bit of sanity checking with maps and stuff, so I'll be staying in Quito for another couple of days while I decide exactly what I'll do and where I'll go. Meanwhile I'll give Dale and Sandy a hand with their crated 100GS which they can allegedly retrieve from the airport today.
Yet another extraordinary coincidence yesterday.
You should first be aware that the Old Dear has a charging system problem. Why it couldn't happen in Quito only the architect of Sod's Law knows. Anyway, when I got to Riobamba the voltmeter had bottomed out and the engine died as I rolled into the hotel car park; the ignition system needs at least 8V to function. Miraculously they were able to lend me a charger, and meanwhile I swapped and tested charging system components, came to no real conclusion and hoped for the best.
I arrived in Cuenca yesterday having minimized on the use of lights, the voltmeter showing I'd only dropped about a volt in 170 (hard, lots of unpaved) miles and four hours. So far so good. Checked into hotel for two nights to give me furtling space - bike parked under a tree in a locked garden.
Having consulted the Yellow Pages I found the block wherein reside all the auto accessory shops, almost none of which had a charger I could buy and had no idea why anyone would want one. The last (of course) place I tried was the biggest; Genaro the owner speaks excellent English and was incredibly helpful, making phone calls and sending people running all over the place. He has a BMW F650GS, naturally.
Giving up, he rang his son Paul who came round and also speaks excellent English, rides a bike, and is an electronics engineer. He offered to build a charger for me, but took me to investigate other options at a couple of electronis shops (sort of Maplins and Radiospares rolled into one). At the second try we found a small low-powered (0.5A) charger and the chap (Leopoldo) also had a couple of
cheap inverters for converting the local 110V to 220V. So overnight he rewired the inverters to convert 220V to 110V so I can use the charger anywhere and soldered big crocs on to the charger output. Sorted. What chaps. And the hotel came up with an extension lead to plug the bike in because it's more or less impossible to remove the battery without dropping the rear suspension unit.
Anyway, the coincidence is that Genaro and Paul knew the late Simon Milward (he of MAG, FEMA etc.). When Simon was here his KTM frame was welded by Paul, and he stayed at Gennaro's house while he tried to sort a local team to use bikes to take medicine and stuff to locals who live in the mountains where there are only goat tracks.
Not knowing who has what kind of pet out there, I've so far held off mentioning roast cuy, a S American delicacy. In the evenings they're roasted on spits over BBQs in the street, and most restaurants have them on the menu. Tastes a bit chickeny, like a lot of unusual protein-source mammals. Just thought you'd like to know that.
I was heading for Peru tomorrow on the assumption that the bustling market at the border won't be; discretion has set in, though, so I'll try to make Guayaquil where there's the other Ecuadorian BMW dealer. With luck they can recheck the charging and decided whether the fault really is in the alternator stator, which of course is the only part for which I don't have a spare. Double duh.
Had a stonking ride from Cuenca to Guayaquil yesterday.
On the premise that the road through the Parque Nacional El Cajas must be largely paved as the buses only take 3 hours for the trip (both my maps show it as unpaved), I turned due west. The park rises to 13,000ft and looks like a cross between the Highlands and Snowdonia, although the shrubbery and wildlife are somewhat different. As I descended the other side towards the coast I could see the top of the cloud forest. Ouch, can't use lights because of lack of charging. At 3,000ft I entered the forest - no pix as visibility was fairly zilch and one patch of thick mist looks much like another. At the same time the tarmac disappeared so I had the deep joy of going downhill on wet muddy sandy gravelly hairpins without being able to see where I was going (much) while the mad bus drivers squelched past as close as they could.
Once at sea level the mist disappeared and the tarmac reappeared, hurrah.
Anyway, I dropped the bike off at Ecuavia this morning to have the oil changed (it's due after the rebuild), the charging system fixed and the apparent air leak sorted (lots of popping and banging on the overrun - might be timing, of course). At the price they charge for labour here (about $12 an hour) I'd rather let someone else have the grief. Jolly friendly people although not much English spoken. Having said that, my grasp of Spanish bike tech lingo is now fairly decent (cambio de aceite, sistema de carga non funcionar, that sort of thing) so we managed.
I was so lucky. Because the charging problem wasn't fixed I had to come back to Guayaquil from Machala, so I wasn't in Peru in the immediate vicinity of the epicentre of last night's Richter 7 earthquake. All it did was just shake my G&T around a bit.
It turns out that both my regulators were duds (Law of Sod, clause 35), as established by the local Bosch agent, who astonishingly was able to supply a replacement. So tomorrow I can really go back to Peru at last (please, please).
The policemen here are rather glamorous, especially the ladies, and very helpful. Two chaps in flak jackets happily jumpstarted the bike for me in Machala from their shiny new Land Cruiser. They're mostly armed with machine pistols, unlike the numerous security guards whose weapon of choice is a very short-barrelled pump-action shotgun. I'll call you Sir, then, shall I?
Road block protest near Machala, Ecuador
It's all go here. I encountered the contestants for World Banana Queen at my hotel in Machala; Miss Colombia won, according to this morning's paper, but I have to question why there were contestants from Germany and Canada, which to my knowledge aren't banana-growing countries.
It´s definitely worth riding some roads twice, once in each direction. The road south from Chimbote to Lima goes through some stunning desert culminating in a climb and then descent over the biggest dunes you´ve ever seen.
The terrain changes fairly suddenly at the border between Ecuador and Peru. In Ecuador it´s wall-to-wall banana plantations with mangrove swamps on the coast, then when you reach Tumbes (the first place of any size in Peru and where Pizarro landed) there´s a couple of token plantations and then unremitting desert. There are some superb white sandy beaches, miles and miles of them, with sporadic settlements, but mainly the desert is the beach and the Panamericana cuts straight through; there was a very strong wind off the Pacific this week which made the riding tiring and delivered a free facial exfoliation.
There was some sort of protest about health services going on near Machala on my way out of Ecuador. The road was blocked with the usual rocks and burning tyres, and I had to squeeze through around two miles of stationary trucks and buses to get to the block itself.
Naturally there were plenty of police and soldiers hanging around watching, and they very kindly persuaded the protesters that as I was a stray English tourist I should be let through and, no, not have my tyres slashed while I threaded through a very narrow gap they allowed me.
The hotel in Chimbote was a hoot - very dreary and cavernous, and it was perfectly clear that the presence of any guests was extremely detrimental to the smooth running of the establishment. Made Basil Fawlty look positively hospitable. The advantages were the price (low), the view (local fishing fleet anchored off shore) and very secure parking. I nearly got the waiter to smile once, I think.
I´ve managed to lose the Coyhaique sticker on the pannier. That means I have to go back and get another one. Fabiola will kill me.
Isn't it fortunate that I decided to turn south? If I hadn't I'd now be somewhere in the general vicinity of Guatemala/southern Mexico where the roads have either been washed away by the floods or destroyed by the earthquake.
I've had a great ride down through Peru on the PanAm. Desert and more desert, and the last 350-mile stretch from Nazca to Arequipa was simply stunning. The road hugs the coast, and at times is more or less on the beach. The snag was the strong wind off the Pacific (which has been blowing all the way down. At one point the sand was a couple of inches deep right across the road, so I was trying to stay upright on a road I couldn't see with 40-ton trucks steaming past in both directions from time to time.
The desert is the road is the beach - PanAmericana south of Nazca
So now I'm in Arequipa, the White City (nothing whatever to do with either greyhounds or Auntie Beeb). It's a rather beautiful colonial town 8,000 feet up on volcano and canyon country; in fact the two deepest canyons in the world are very near here - over 3,000 metres deep, so I'll be doing a little side trip to take a look.
But I have time to spare; the aforementioned sand isn't that nice fine soft Sahara stuff - oh no. It's coarse and gritty, and gets in everywhere especially when it's being forced in by the wind. Specifically, a large amount entered through the vents in the front engine cover, where the alternator resides. And guess what? It's wrecked both the stator and the rotor. So I have to stay here while the sainted MotoBins send me replacements, which they can't do till Monday. The learned lesson is that when in that sort of environment again I'll tape over the vents temporarily.
I've been having a hilarious time with hotels.
The one I'm based at has nice secure, shady parking for the bike (well away from The Alpaca Gang), but occasionally fills up with coachloads of Saga Louts. So they chuck me out for a night while perfectly happy to store my luggage and the bike.
When it happened last week I managed to coincide with the two-day trip out to the Colca canyon and Cruz del Condor; tonight I'm in a nice little place opposite the Monasterio Santa Catalina. Everything's within walking distance in this town, and anyway there are thousands of taxis. They're mostly little Daewoo Ticos (forerunner to the Matiz, I believe) which happily absorb 4 passengers and zip around at high speed very cheaply.
The monastery is amazing. It only opened to the public in 1970, I suspect mainly because the need the money to effect the ongoing earthquake repairs. It's a village within a town, completely enclosed, and it still accommodates Dominican nuns (a closed order).
I got trapped on the way to lunch yesterday. I'd forgotten about El Señor de los Milagros, silly me. When I was riding down from Ecuador I kept coming across groups of pilgrims dressed in purple dragging large crosses on little wheels at the side of the PanAmericana. This is all to do with the aforementioned Señor, whose feast day is on October 18th. More than that I'm not sure of, not being an RC, but it's a big one.
Anyway, there I was heading for one of the nice little restaurants on Calle San Francisco; the road was closed by the glamorous police, and various devotional designs and legends had been laid on the cobbles using sand, chalk and flower petals. The procession was forming outside the Church of San Francisco, loads of people in purple - some in formal robes, others in street clothes but also purple as far as they could manage, huge flower arrangements, and the most dirgelike, tuneless music I've ever heard.
Interestingly, while countries like the UK are busy devolving power to the regions, here in Peru there's a referendum soon on whether to join various provinces together for economic efficiency. And in the presidential elections next year the ex-pres Fujimori is definitely a favourite of the indigenous peoples and farmers as he apparently did good stuff for them towards the end of his previous term of office.
There was an interesting article in the local paper this morning about
When I was in Ecuador the locals told me (not without some pride) that Ecuador is the second most corrupt country in the world. Apparently (on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is the least corrupt) Iceland, Finland and NZ top the league with a score of better than 9.5. South America averages 3.5 (Africa is 2.9). And within S America Colombia scores a bit over 3, Peru 4.5, Uruguay 5.9 and Chile 7.3 It
doesn't mention the rest, but do the sums yourself.
Yes of course I've read the Other Diaries. Not seen the film as it was released in Oz just as I was leaving.
It's very interesting to see how little has changed in the last 50 years - the roads, Chilean hospitality, maté (coca tea). There are places where I *know* I've photographed stuff Che saw. I'm heartened that neither he nor Alberto had any better a relationship with mud than I do. Shame the bike broke down even more often than mine, though.
And, of course, I gather the continent is about to be invaded by film crews following Ewan and Charlie and Jude while they do the bits they missed the last time. With a bit of luck I can stay ahead of them so they can pick me up next time I fall off.
A rather bizarre question I was asked last week:
"Who does your scheduling?"
Turns out the guy thought I had someone ahead of me to sort routes, hotels etc. When I explained I had maps and guide books he was nonplussed.
"But how can you do that?"
I sort of gave up at that point.
My new alternator has dropped into a black hole. Parcel Farce (UK) swear it´s in Peru; SerPost (Peru) swear it´s not. So another one is being sent, this time by FedEx or DHL, I know not which yet.
So I´m here for another few days. The upside is that there´s a local Garmin man who´s attempting to get me a complete South America basemap to download, plus a USB power/data cable, and right next door to him is the enduro man who´ll have a pair of Pirelli MT21s for me on Friday. I was going to get new tyres in Santiago, but they´ll be a lot cheaper here (Antonio says max USD100 the pair including fitting).
And then I can go to Bolivia.
Although footie is very popular, the real National Sport is protest marches and demonstrations. Especially if they can persuade the riot police to attend in their beat-up troop carrier with the extremely cracked windscreen. Today's was an anti-Fujimori do - pix on Phil's site when he has a moment.
So, the second alternator arrived yesterday; and after I spent all of five minutes fitting it, the yard at the back of the hotel reverberated with the sweet sound of a revving engine and the cheers of the hotel staff as they saw the needle on the voltmeter swing to the right. The third one should sould arrive tomorrow (I paid more dollars into the bank this morning).
Hallelujah and Hurrah.
Had a cracking ride up over the altiplano to Juliaca, then along Lake Titicaca through Puno to the border at Desaguedero.
Just about every policeman I passed flagged me down for a chat; and I think I´ve had more offers of marriage in Peru than the rest of my life put together.
The border was the usual beargarden (busy market, mud etc.), made tolerable by the very friendly chaps at the Central Customs office (had to go there in a tricycle taxi) and the equally friendly Bolivian truckers who insisted I jump the queue as my paperwork was minimal compared with theirs. The downside was the bribe to the border customs man (only a couple of quid, but never nice) which was allegedly a fee but disappeared into his shirt pocket. And, of course, the ´last man´ at the end of the village; the immigration man was OK, but the man checking the bike papers demanded more money - I pretended not to understand and claimed I only had Peruvian soles (absolutely true, except for the dollars).
On the road the Bolivian police at the checkpoints were nearly as friendly as the Peruvians, and at the toll booth the guy decided that my lack of understanding, lack of bolivianos and the hassle of getting at any money anyway negated any discernible advantage so let me through gratis (with the police looking on).
I have no idea how I managed to get into the centre of La Paz and find a hotel with parking. All pure luck - dark, no map, no road signs.
Anyway, today´s my birthday (all together now), a fact which didn´t escape the staff at the hotel in Arica, as they gave me leaving/birthday prezzies (they clock your DOB at checkin). The bar staff gave me a nice Arequipa T-shirt, and the reception staff a rather smart embroidered hotel polo shirt. the bellboys contributed stickers for the bike, and the maintenance guys cleaned it for me. And I thought I was supposed to be tipping them mightily for all their help.
Oh, and the thing they never tell you at border posts is the time. So if you forget to look at a clock you can end up in a bit of a pickle. For the record, I´m now only 4 hours behind GMT.
Six days, 2,000 miles and three border crossings from Arequipa; and thanks for the birthday wishes. Now in Argentina and only three hours behind GMT.
A Typical Day (yesterday actually)
Up at sparrow´s (still in Chile), cup of instant while checking with BBC/CNN that Bush hasn´t declared war on this country or the next. Do tappets (a bit major because of having to drop Ernie´s Mega Crashbars) and rejet/readjust carbs for sea-level. Spot of brekky while telling stories to nice German lady motel owner. Fuel up, ride 350 miles to Mendoza (Argentina); in the course of which I have to ooh and aah at a knackered Suzuki camchain produced by a chap at a rest stop, climb to 10,000 feet to do border crossing in middle of Andes, escape from trucker threatening me with baseball bat, find hotel in Mendoza with secure parking, hot shower (36 degrees this side of the Andes), cold beer, legendary Argentinian steak, bed to sleep for 12 hours.
The Border Crossing Scale
Ranges from 0 (e.g. Europe, barely noticeable) to 10 (e.g. Egypt, Australia, at least all day, complicated, expensive, very hot/cold).
Bolivia-Chile: 1 (included marriage offer from widowed Chilean Customs chief and a stunning setting 16,000 feet up on the altiplano by a lake with pink flamingos beside a snow-capped volcano)
Chile-Argentina: 2 (extremely well sorted, despite stretching for 30km from start to finish; didn´t even have to get off the bike)
Bolivia/Chile border at 16,000 feet
More About Height
1. It appears the acclimatisation is partly "sticky" in that even if you return to sea-level the effects when one returns to altitude are not as severe.
2. Coffee is on the hot side of warm as water boils at around 80 degrees. A blue steak will be more or less cold.
3. I had a swig from my standard 500ml placky water bottle at 16,000 feet, upon which the bottle was around half full. Three hours later at sea level the bottle was more than 3/4 full because it had squashed. So I still don´t understand about tyres: at sea level the rear is at 36psi relative to the pressure at sea level, so it must be at a higher relative pressure at high altitude, mustn´t it? Never was very good at sums.
"How do you keep so fit, just sitting on a motorbike all day?"
"No idea, madam. I put it down to my strict diet regime of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol."
There are two types of road in Argentina - paved and unpaved.
There are two types of paved road - excellent and awful.
There are three types of pothole on the awful paved roads - pothole, POTHOLE, and "Where'd that truck go?"
The unpaved roads are ripio - gravel.
There are two types of gravel - large ball-bearings and small ball-bearings. Both are slithery and lethal with the strong blustery wind (which is what did for me back in April). Sometimes the ripio has been graded, which means that the ball-bearings are spread evenly across the width of the road to a depth of up to two inches. So one prays for an ungraded section so that one can ride in a compacted tyre track. However, this means appalling corrugations and bits falling off the bike regularly. It also wreaks havoc with my shoulder.
Yesterday it took me six hours to ride the 108 miles from Rio Mayo in Argentina to Coyhaique, all on ripio. The border crossing only took about half an hour altogether as the officials on both sides had nothing else to do (they get an average of three vehicles a day). What bliss to get to the Chilean side where the dirt is nicely compacted and there's NO GRAVEL.
And what a welcome from Francisco and Fabiola, not to mention Hortensia (the maid) who immediately sat me down in front of a huge bowl of warming stew.
So I have to do a few repairs (courtesy of the aforementioned Argentinian ripio), and a major service as I've now done over 30,000 miles. I managed to get a new pair of tyres fitted the other day when I was passing through San Rafael on the way from Mendoza to Zapala, so they should be OK for a while now.
I've taken the liberty of a small detour northwards before turning south again; there's a Horizons Unlimited Travellers' Meeting near Viedma next weekend, and as I missed the Mexico meet I'd like to go and maybe join up with others heading south to Ushuaia.
Talking of which, half the world is on its way there - just yesterday I met John and Olwyn from Kings Heath in their camper van at one stop, and six chaps in three 1950's Austin Healeys rumbled in as I was having a sarnie at another stop. I reckon around Christmas there'll be more foreign-registered vehicles in Ushuaia than locals. Should be a good party.
Let me explain about roads here, and how lonely they can be. Let's take a major route: imagine riding/driving up the A1 from London to Edinburgh. Around half the route is paved, some of which is pretty good and the rest dire. The rest is varying degrees of ripio ball-bearing. There may be anything up to two petrol stations, one of which adjoins a (derelict) cafe. It's possible there's a small town, but it's more likely to be some way away from the main road. Oh, and you'll see maybe 20 other vehicles during the ride. The wind is unremitting and it's almost impossible to find anywhere sheltered to stop.
When I finally escaped (again) from Coyhaique I had a wonderful send-off. Having managed to book the ferry (around seven quid all in for the two-and-a-half-hour crossing) so there was no excuse for being kept in captivity any longer, as it was a holiday on Thursday the family piled into the Nissan Patrol Shed and we barrelled down together to Puerto Ingeniero Ibañez on Lago General Carrera (Lago Buenos Aires if you're this side of the border). While picnicking on the quayside, blow me down if Patricia and the girls and Rodrigo and Pauline arrived, also for a picnic. I reckon they were really making certain I was actually leaving this time. But it was great to have them all there waving to me as the "ferry" sailed.
Once on the other side at Chile Chico it was about 10km of ripio to the border, where formalities on both sides amounted to all of ten minutes, and the Argentinian customs chap recommended the hotel they stay at in Los Antiguos, which is at the border and Argentina's cherry capital. And the next day it was glorious virgin tarmac all the 230 miles across the pampas and through the oilfields to the deep turqoise Atlantic Ocean.
Today I'm in Trelew, although as it's Sunday everything's closed and the population go to chapel; but I should be able to get myself a Welsh tea with proper Welsh cakes this afternoon and I'll report back on how they compare with the ones Yoshi's mum makes.
As I rode across the isthmus to Peninsula Valdés to see the killer whales I saw in the distance the unmistakeable form of a wheelless bike and a man doing a little light inner-tube wrestling.
It was Patrick, Swiss, Honda 400 trailie. So I gave him a hand and we rode together to the campsite at Puerto Pirámides where we met Adriano, Italy, Africa Twin. There followed a couple of days of chilling out by/on the beach with a little light eating and not-so-light drinking. Adriano's on a time limit so left for Ushuaia on the second day, and Patrick has to get back for work in Bahia in Brazil.
So I continued north to Viedma for the Horizons do. Well, furtle up my bits with an exhaust spanner, I rode on to the campsite and there were no less than seven UK-registered BMWs, including a 1200GS and a 100GS outfit looking like a grown-up Wasp outfit. The rest of the gathering were variously US, Mexican, Australian and Argentinian on a variety of machinery.
On the Sunday rideout we went to see the sealions, then to a farm (lots of ripio) for a lamb asado. That's where they split the body down the breastbone and spreadeagle it on huge spits over a wood fire. Fabulous. Anyway, the farm was owned by Julian (also a motorcyclist), and he handed out fresh sheepskins to anyone who wanted one. I think I ate part of the animal mine is from. He cut them more or less to size for our saddles with a fearsomely sharp knife and explained how to prepare them with soaking and salt and soap.
Everyone had ripio stories similar to mine, and I was rather relieved to find that far from being a wimp and a girly even the rufty-tufties like Martin and Alan (R1150GS each, from Marlow) had decided life's too short and are avoiding it where remotely possible, even if it means big detours.
So I'm back in Trelew, and riding south with Bev and Fritz on their 100GS and Nick on his 1200GS. We'll probably spend Crimble in Rio Gallegos and be at the end of the world for New Year (along with everyone else). Our sheepskins are drying out in the hotel car park.
The Strait of Magellan is awesome. The little roro ferry crosses Primera Angostura from Punta Delgada in about half an hour for less than 4 quid, surrounded by frolicking sealions and penguins.
Tierra del Fuego is also awesome, starting out as desolate pampa and becoming mor mountainous and green as you go south. Much of the road is ripio, but mostly the Chilean kind which is much easier than the Argentinian. South of Rio Gallegos (on the mainland) you have to cross from Argentina to Chile, then the Magellan Strait, then back into Argentina 50 miles north of Rio Grande on the Atlantic coast of Tierra del Fuego. The seafront at Rio Grande is lined with Heroes of the Malvinas memorials - this was a major air and naval base during the war.
The first sight of the Beagle Channel is off the scale.
And if you stopped every time you saw another big bike going north or south you'd never get anywhere. The most notable encounter was with Michel Marek the Mad Pole (first words "You must be the English lady" as he'd met the Austin Healey mob in Ushuaia).
So, I've finally made it to El Fin del Mundo after a ride of 33,167 miles in 16 months. And it was worth every mile.
For the first time in my life I've had to buy sunscreen due to the lack of ozone over Antarctica.
But it turns out that my bike kit is more or less appropriate clothing, according to the packing list, so I don't have to buy anything extra (they have a supply of rubber waders on board the ship).
If you're interested, you can read all about the cruise at http://www.antarpply.com/public_html/index.html.
Anyway, the campsite is full of Swiss and French in Landies, plus a few Germans and a nice pair of Colombian kids. Fernando and Patricia are going to look after the bike for me while I'm away. And a word about the lupins: Patagonia is full of them, rampaging all over the place. They're mostly purple and white on the western side and red and pink in the east; presumably something to do with soil acidity like hydrangeas. There's also a fair population of fuchsias and gorse bushes.
You may be interested to know that an old Routemaster is alive and well serving the city tour route here. I gather they've been junked in the UK, but there are plenty in the rest of the world, and they just won't lie down and die.
The M/V Ushuaia is an ex-oceanographic survey ship with ice-breaking capabilities, and takes 65 passengers.
The hull at the bows is six inches thick with ribs every eight inches. Its top speed is 15 knots and cruising speed is 12 knots. But through the ice it creeps at 5 knots. The shore trips are in Zodiacs, with mostly "wet" landings, necessitating wellies and as much waterproof clothing as you can manage. My BMW suit proves to be excellent Antarctic wear, with only the addition of wellies, hat and lifejacket.
Antarctic Big Rules
1. Leave NOTHING behind except footprints (and then only where unavoidable).
2. Take NOTHING away except photographs and memories.
We cross the Drake Passage, through the Southern Ocean, from Cape Horn to the South Shetland Islands off the Antarctic Peninsula. The swell is only two metres, so we cruise at 10 knots. There are albatrosses and petrels wheeling off the stern. We see our first iceberg, twice the size of the ship. Icebergs are almost never white; they range from deep blue to a jewel-like turquoise. And the water is so clear you can see clearly the 80% of their bulk beneath the water.
We anchor off Livingston Island (S 62 47.604 W060 33.700) and pile into the Zodiacs at 6am. There are Chinstrap penguin rookeries with the occasional Macaroni interloper; Macaroni penguins look completely bonkers - I mean, what's all that about? Look at them here (I couldn't get a digital pic, sorry).
After lunch it's off to Deception Island. This is an historic place and an active volcano. It was a British base (Base B) during WWII, and then British Antarctic Survey. We see Gentoo penguins (my favourite) and skuas feeding on krill on the shore. We have a teatime dip in the warm Antarctic waters rising from the volcano.
To Port Lockroy (S 64 41.418 W063 02.303) on Goudier Island to visit the old BAS base and which is now a museum and post office; then to Jougla Point for more penguins and elephant seals.
Penguins can usually be heard and smelt before they are seen; penguin poo is pink and very smelly, and they make a lot of noise (especially the Chinstraps).
Elephant seals break wind noisily and frequently from both ends (and it's sometimes difficult to tell which end is which).
After lunch we call at a US station, Palmer Base (S 64 46.259 W064 03.563) . All very American and squeaky clean, of course. Then across the bay to Torguenson Rookery to see the Adelie penguins. We watch an Antarctic skua steal an egg from one of the mothers; it takes the egg to a patch of snow where it can be made stable, then the mate joins it to break the shell and eat the contents. When they finish and fly off in search of pudding we lay a pen beside the remains to show scale and photograph them.
Antarctic animals have no fear of humans; in fact they are rather curious, wondering what these rather large and brightly-coloured creatures are. You can sit on the ground and before long be approached by a two-foot-high penguin who comes almost within arm's reach. Even sheathbills will approach that close.
At this latitude there's no darkness. The sun rises soon after 3am and doesn't set until nearly midnight. The moon doesn't set at all. The sunset tonight had everyone (including crew, kitchen staff and engineers) on deck until past midnight.
We anchor off Galindez Island (S 65 14.957 W064 13.624). This is the furthest south we go as the Ice Captain isn't happy about the pack ice.We are about 60 miles north of the Polar Circle here.
There is a Ukrainian base here, Vernadsky Station - another ex-BAS place. The Ukrainians are barking and have an unhealthy interest in ladies' underwear. They distill their own vodka from potato peelings (perfectly legal here), the price of which is $1 or a signed bra. I sacrifice some underwear (we've been forewarned) and with a "nazdrovie" knock back the first shot in one. Jolly nice it is too, and impresses the residents no end. We all agree we'd rather be stationed here than with the Americans. despite all their mod cons.
During lunch we start threading our way through the bergs and growlers in the Lemaire Channel, the Ice Captain switching eyes from binoculars to depth sounder to radar. There is an open bridge policy, and to be able to join the crew on the bridge at times like this is fascinating; they always find the time to explain and demonstrate the equipment. But in the Lemaire there is total silence from the passengers on the bridge as we crane to watch the ice in front of us and then round to the instrument displays. A deathly hush descends as we inch through the 300-metre gap at just 5 knots.
The water is so clear and still and cold that the reflections are perfect.
We anchor again, this time in Paradise Harbour. The Zodiac drivers take us on a cruise, close to bergs, stopping for photos, past calving glaciers, cutting the engines and drifting in the silence.
Back on the ship we're waiting for the last two Zodiacs to return, one containing the survival gear. Every time we go ashore there is a cargo of tents and survival equipment in the scout Zodiac, just in case of problems. No-one enlarged on these, but one can imagine. Sudden shout from the bridge; "whales to starboard". We look, and there is a Minke playing around the ship; word spreads and soon every last person on the ship is on deck with a camera. The whale nudges one of the Zodiacs, rolls over to show its white belly, turns and swims right under the
ship and surfaces on the other side. The show lasts for nearly an hour before the Captain decides he really must start the engines and get going.
We are at Neko Harbour (S 64 50.943 W062 32.415) on the mainland of the Antarctic Peninsula. The Gentoo penguins have clearly-defined highways from their rookeries to the sea, with what appears to be a largely one-way system. Four of us sit and watch a glacier calving, preceded by the thunder of icefalls and followed by miniature tsunamis along the shore.
We watch the leopard seals eyeing the penguins hungrily as we return to the ship for a barbecue lunch on deck. The temperature is -5C.
At Cuverville Island I sit and watch the Gentoos clambering around me on the rocks, not noticing the rising tide. I'm lucky - one of the guides spots me and finds me a way through not-too-deep water and along the edge of the rookery.
The Argentinian base "Camara" is on Half Moon Island (S 62 35.455 W059 54.242). We see more Chinstraps and Gentoos and are entertained by the rather fetching Argentinian sailors.
At Aitcho Island there is thick fog. The Ice Captain ventures to within 400 metres of the shore, but although we can hear and smell the penguins there is nothing to be seen. Eventually we have to give up and retire to the bar for an Antarctic Mythical Creatures competition. Our team, a cosmopolitan bunch of middle-aged drinkers, comes last; but we have great fun.
We arrived in Ushuaia this morning after a smooth and speedy crossing. One of the campsite cats has discovered that my sheepskin seat cover provides a comfortable vantage point from which to survey her domain, and has apparently done so since I left.
The pix are arriving (slowly) with Phil and can be seen here. If you ever, ever get the
chance, go to Antarctica.
Had a lovely ride north from Ushuaia with Rupert on Saturday morning, up to the border at San Sebastian. On the Argentinian side was a gaggle of trailies ridden by Finns and Americans, being led by none other than Roberto, the Chilean chap who was so helpful getting me and the wreck to Coyhaique after the Crash. So it was nice to be able to thank him properly and give him a hug and a kiss.
This is where the tarmac ends. So, on to the Chilean side, do the paperwork and have a cuppa before the 100-mile hack to Porvenir to get the ferry across the Magellan Strait to Punta Arenas. Chilean dirt is pretty decent - hard-packed and not too much gravel except on the bends. We were able to do 50-60mph much of the time, which also helps iron out the corrugations.
About 45 miles in we slowed down a bit as there was more gravel; and then suddenly there was what can only be described as a 30-yard-long 6-inch-deep gravel pit. Rupert got across OK, so I reckoned I'd be all right. Er, wrong. Nearly made it, but got totally crossed-up at the last minute and binned it. Erewegoagain.
Rupert had seen what happened in his mirror and had been frantically waving to try to slow me down a bit, but I'd been concentrating on the gravel and hadn't seen him.
Anyway, there I lay, thinking ribs and collarbone, both of which had borne the brunt yet again. As we all know, if you damage a body part it for ever after wears a sign saying "Hit Me". After about ten minutes a pickup stopped, and Rupert explained so the chap hurtled off to Porvenir, 50 miles away, to send an ambulance. Only two other vehicles passed in the two hours we waited, during which time Rupert sorted the bike a bit and picked up bits which had gone flying.
When the ambulance arrived it was all the usual stuff, upon which the carabineros arrived from the border:
[Policeman, in Spanish] What was the cause of the accident?
[Me] El ripio.
[Policeman] Si, claro.
The doctor at the hospital positively boggled at the X-ray of my shoulder, although I'd explained that I broke it last April. It is, it has to be said, rather a mess and it's not surprising it's been giving me grief. Anyway, nothing's broken, only rather bruised, so after night in the hospital we decamped to the hotel, me clutching my painkillers.
Rupert (who speaks pretty good Spanish) had had a fruitful discussion with the border police about the bike, and although they insisted on taking it back to the border they agreed to get it to Porvenir on Monday. So on Monday morning we went first to the police station where I was welcomed by name and my health asked after, after which they explained we just had to go round to the Fiscal who were was sorting everything out. They said the bike would be arriving around 1pm and that they'd ring us. So at 2pm we ambled back; there was the bike, thank heavens, and I only had to sign a release and it was mine. At no time would anyone take any money - I tried to pay the hospital and failed, and the Fiscal and police didn't seem to want anything for transporting the bike all over the countryside, even though it had clearly damaged their pickup as there's more than a little carabineros green paint adhering to various sticky-out bits.
We removed the luggage and Rupert pushed and coasted the bike to the hotel while one of the Fiscal chaps brought the boxes in a pickup, pausing only to give me a hug and a kiss.
It appears I'm a bit of a celebrity; on Sunday night there was a bunch of birdwatchers in the hotel led by a chap from Suffolk, and the Chilean with got all excited and started talking about some newspaper article. I denied any knowledge, but he produced the paper and sure enough there was an article about the accident giving all the gory details (clearly there are no rules here about extracting information from police or doctors) and a photo of me emerging from the X-ray room in a wheelchair. So much for keeping it quiet.
Porvenir has a population of 4,000, and even here in the internet caff in a back street they knew who I was. Blimey.
So Phil Hawksley is yet again sorting some parts for me - it's mostly plastic bits as there's no major damage - and I'll just bum around till they arrive. I'll have to nip across to Punta Arenas for couple of days to get money (can't get any here) and see a dentist, but that's easy and will while away the time a bit. I've some more pix, too, especially as Rupert was kind enough to use my camera to take pix of me lying down for a rest in the middle of the road.
You just have to love this place, and this country (in case you've forgotten I'm back in Chile for the seventh time).
Porvenir, on Tierra del Fuego, is a town of some 5,000 souls. It covers about a square mile - you can walk from one end of town to the other in around 15 minutes. The main drags are paved but otherwise all roads are dirt, except for the 5km to the port where the ferry leaves for the two-and-a-half-hour voyage to Punta Arenas on the other side of the Magellan Strait. There is one internet caff - mind you, it's the latest kit, WinXP and broadband, and very friendly and helpful. There is free internet at the library, but you have to book and anyway the police use it all the time. The only bank takes Mastercard but nothing else, and won't change Argentinian pesos, which is a bit limiting as due to the cockup last year in Santiago I only have Visa and Amex.
Last night I went back to see Dr.Ruiz for a checkup. He agrees that the headache will take a couple of weeks to fade completely. He pulled my arm around a bit and visibly winced at the crunching noises. "It's not good". "It wasn't terribly good before" I said. He laughed, and laughed even more when I showed him the pix of the bike, and me lying down in the road. He's given me a prescription for catering quantities of industrial-strength anti-inflammatories to keep me going once I'm
riding again, and instructions to get the bone straightened properly when I get home. I didn't tell him how long that might be in case he got fierce.
The airline office is a small, unsigned wooden kiosk in the park by the beach. The sales clerk is a rather doddery old boy who can't be more than about 75. I bought a return ticket to Punta Arenas (30 quid including transfers). This morning the minibus picked me up at ten to eight, the old boy wearing his bus conductor's hat. We drove 5km down a dirt road to the airfield where the old boy donned his check-in clerk's hat, and everyone said their Buen' dias. The 9-seater Cessna 402C landed, unloaded the day's post, and I climbed in with the other three passengers, greeting the pilot and co-pilot as we scrambled round them.
The runway is dirt, of course - you don't half get a lot of road noise from the tyres. Cruising altitude is 900m for the 15-minute hop across the strait to Punta Arenas airport (where the RAF were stationed during the little disagreement in 1982). The only other plane there was a military-spec UN-registered Ilyushin 76.
So here I am in the Big City - internet caffs, more banks (with Visa ATMs, thank heavens) than you can shake a stick at; truly a Great Metrollops. I'm going back to Porvenir on Monday afternoon; Sergio and Ernestina, who run the hotel and cook for me, are cool about everything and have been looking after me wonderfully. They understand about the bank thing and are perfectly happy to look after my stuff and The Old Dear.
My father used to wear what my big brother and I called Spinnaker Trousers.
We'd got to Brighton for the afternoon after Dad had finished at the bank on Sauturday, and it would usually be cold and windy. We'd walk along the prom and Dad's trousers would be flapping in the wind like sails. We children tried to disown him.
I wear the Spinnaker Trousers in this family now (especially as I'm one of the grown-ups). The Patagonian wind is blowing a houllie. I could barely walk to the plane at Punta Arenas yesterday afternoon, and I swear it took off in a hundred yards; landing was interesting. And this pair of trousers is three sizes too big for me now.
Despite that, and because I've not much better to do except stare at orange walls in the rather dreary hotel, I'm going back to Punta Arenas (literally Sandy Point) on Thursday to get what I hope is a bit of a giggle from the Queen Mary 2 docking at about 8 the next morning. Should be quite a sight, actually - the largest liner in the world sailing up the Magellan Strait.
Punta Arenas is an historic place for many reasons. For instance, the hotel I stayed in is next door to the post office where Captain Scott posted 400 letters back to England to say he'd returned safely from his first expedition.
Back in Porvenir I've realised it's probably about as near the arse-end of the universe as I've ever been. The hotel food is more or less edible (and sawing at it with my knife at least provides some physio), there's no gin, I've no idea when (or if) the bike parts will arrive, I'm thankful the new pills seem to be working, and I have several cunning plans for escaping, some of which involve riding the bike out and some of which don't. There are two TV channels, one of which majors on the Chilean version of Big Brother (and is just as tedious in Spanish as it is in English). I've run out of books to read and all I could find in Punta Arenas were travel guides and wildlife books - you know, the sort which arrange everything by species and assume you know what you're looking at so you can look it up, grrrrrrrrrrrrrr. I may be reduced to going out for walks with my bins hanging round my neck. At least the BMW Antarctic Suit is earning its keep in dealing with the cold, rain and wind.
The Queen Mary 2 is a really beautiful vessel. I was able to do a direct comparison between her and the Regal Princess, a rather smaller and considerably less classy ship in port at the same time.
The QM2, of course, sports the correct livery of blue hull, white superstructure, and red funnel with those very narrow black horizontal lines. And by heaven she's big. Unfortunately I missed seeing her steam up the strait as I had to get the morning flight, but the sight of her moored in the port more than made up for that.
With both ships being in at once the town was overrun with more than 3,000 cruise passengers, and one side of the Plaza de Armas was coned off for the coaches (many of the poor dears were unable to walk the half mile from the pier to the town centre).
She's gone now, threading up the fjords to Puerto Montt, then to Valparaiso and finally Los Angeles in California.
Anyway, things are looking up. I was down to my last book ("South", by Ernest Shackleton - a cracking account of the Endurance expedition) but I found a little bookshop here in Punta Arenas which has a shelf of previously-enjoyed paperbacks in English; or did until I raided the shelf. And I went to the post office this morning and two very helful gentlemen checked the parcel tracking number and opined that my parts will arrive in Porvenir on Monday evening (they were confirmed as being in Santiago last Thursday). I suspect they may even be in the nose hold of the little Cessna I'm flying back on. I'll keep everything crossed.
Tomorrow I'm going on an excursion to Fuerte Bulnes and Puerto Hambre. Jolly interesting historical places, as Francisco said.
The pilot and I are chums now I'm a regular, so this morning I got a kiss and the co-pilot's seat for the flight from Porvenir to Punta Arenas.
Let me explain.
I went to the post office in Porvenir yesterday, to be told that I can only pay the import duty in Punta Arenas. Now, the usual thing is that they give you the bank account number and you pay in locally then fax the receipt through, upon which the parcel is released. Not here. So having missed yesterday afternoon's flight I came over this morning, went to the post office, then to the customs office. And for once I managed to persuade them not to charge duty as the bike's being exported again. Back to the post office where they released the parcel to me; it's supposed to be delivered to me in Porvenir, but once I had my hands on it I decided that I was better off keeping it in my sight.
Now, of course, I can't go back until tomorrow night as both this afternoon's and tomorrow morning's flights are full. Never mind, I'm spending most of today with Horacio who's been very helpful.
Let me introduce you to Horacio. He has six fully-Tourateched R1150GSs in his garage, and is starting an adventure tour company called Moto Adventure Rider (http://www.motoadventurerider.com). We met by chance, and as a quid pro quo I've translated the English part of his website into better English (I believe) as he understands the need for it to be as good as possible. We met by accident at the internet caff when he asked me if "Adventures and Rentals" is correct English as he wants to add these words to his company sticker. He's coming across to Porvenir on his bike to help me do the biz to The Old Dear.
So, a day's work (or less) to sort the bike, then pray my shoulder's good enough. My neck's still stiff so I can't do rear observations to the right (it's literally a pain in the neck), but I'll Do My Best.
Horacio was wonderful (such a nice young man).
He came over to Porvenir on his bike and having stayed the night helped me reconstruct the bike and did quite a lot of heaving to straighten pannier frames and panniers; then we beetled off back to the ferry and had a horrible 3-hour crossing back to Punta Arenas. It was only a 1-metre swell, but it's a small boat and although the bikes were roped to the side mine was threatening to over-centre on the sidestand. I found a baulk of timber, and while being soaked with seawater managed to insert it between the side of the topbox and the bulkhead so that the rope was preventing the bike falling to the right and the timber prevented it overcentering and smashing against the bulkhead. Nightmare.
Anyway, we arrived around 10pm, Horacio found me a decent hotel and we had well-earned G&Ts and dinner. I was knackered.
This morning Horacio turned up again as I was checking out and insisted on making sure the bike was still OK, and seeing me off. I think he felt really sorry for me having to stay in Porvenir for so long; either that or he wanted to make sure I really was leaving Punta Arenas and Chile.
So I'm back in Argentina (can't remember how many times that makes) and will be retracing my route back up Ruta 3 (on the east coast) to Viedma, where I'll see Oscar, do a service and get new tyres fitted.
I've started the right-wrist-stripe again. All riders get this. For some reason your right cuff rides up a little and you end up with a brown stripe around your right wrist from the sun.
And I have to remove the sheep from the seat if the car park has a guard dog. Generally the dog wants either to eat the sheep or shag it. Dunno why, as it's already getting pretty disreputable. It really is very comfortable, though, even when it's hot.
Actually, lots of the animals here are rather interesting. I've seen lots of guanaco and ñandu, a few armadillos, various unidentifiable and flattish dead things being eaten by birds with which I'm unfamiliar, peregrine falcons stomping around hungrily, and rather strange large black beetles legging it across the road from time to time. They're quite large - you can spot them a hundred yards away. The ñandu are funny creatures. The chicks - if you can call them that as they're three or four feet tall - are looked after en masse by one of the dads while the rest of the dads and the mums go off foraging. They hang around at the side of the road looking for stray motorcyclists to leap out in front of.
So, yesterday was 440 miles, from Rio Gallegos to Caleta Olivia. A great ride. The wind was generally behind me, the bike's going really well (moving average for the day was 60mph), both fuel stops were there (Piedra Buena and Tres Cerros). I know the distance is right as I did it southwards with GPS. Mind you, it's pretty boring, as the pampa/steppe makes Norfolk look positively mountainous. A lovely ride, though, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Today I rode 282 miles from Caleta Olivia to Trelew (oh no, not Welsh cakes again). It was horrible. The legendary Patagonian wind was doing its worst, mostly from the left. No wonder the tyres wear strangely as you're hardly ever upright on a perfectly straight road. Every time a truck passes in the other direction, flashing and waving in the usual friendly fashion, you hunker down to mimimise cross-section, and still have your goggles and specs nearly blown off as you wrestle with the bike to keep it vaguely in a straight line and generally on the right side of the road. The temperature rose to 37C. On the approach to Trelew the oil pressure warning light kept coming on at low engine speeds (< 2000 rpm). Trelew is death by traffic light (felt just like Thatcham) so I kept the revs up to keep the oil pressure up. I knew the oil level was OK (I check that and the tyres every day), so it must have been the heat. The bottle of water on the pannier lid went from very cold to scalding in one hour, as I found to my cost when I stopped and poured some over my head. Ouch. I decided I'd better a) let the engine cool down a bit and b) buy some oil. The first two petrol stations in Trelew were closed, but then I arrived at a crossroads full of car dealers. On the fourth attempt the Renault dealer supplied a 4l container of 15/40. Good enough (I had to explain it's not a bike, it's a BMW, the engine oil doesn't bathe the clutch and gearbox as well, it's really a car, you know, all that stuff) so I waited a little longer, put about half a litre in and checked the level. Looked high to me, but there you are.
By this time I'm soaked. I've had to walk around in my suit carrying my helmet in this heat. So I went to find the hotel I was in before, mainly because I know it's secure shady parking and I know where it is. And as many such horrible days do, it ended well because the receptionist remembered me from two months ago so I didn't have to check in and could ride straight into the garage and then go straight up to my room. And have a hot shower and a cold Quilmes. And then come and tell you lot all about it.
I've had a wonderful find. Castrol GTX is newly available here in SAE25W60 grade. Bloody wonderful.
Oscar and Nancy have been wonderful. They found me a hotel room (Viedma is full at this time of year), and The Old Dear is comfortably ensconced in Oscar's workshop. Oscar has straightened the topbox and welded the pannier frame, so the only other thing is to have the right-hand panner repaired (yet again). Did loads of stuff yesterday like oil/filter change, tappets etc. in extremely comfortable surroundings, lubricated by a rather decent Malbec (not sure of the grade).
Chino (Africa Twin, Ecuador) is around, as is Balam (KLR, Mexico) and various other local bods with and without BMs, including an ex-police R60/5 in jolly nice nick. Not to mention that lovely Julian who gave me the dead sheep. Claudio at the casa de cambio recognised the Horizons Unlimited logo so I got a slightly better rate for my left-over Chilean pesos - he has several bikes, according to Oscar.
Chino has quizzed me very closely about road states in Patagonia and marked up his map - another guy with bad experiences on ripio.
I've also managed to organise myself a new GPS in Buenos Aires - the more-or-less latest upgrade of the Map76 I have (for the anoraks, I'm getting a Map76CS as the CSx isn't available in Argentina yet). Roger's suggestion that I prise open the dead thing and see what can be done has hit a bit of a brick wall as it so far refuses to yield up its secrets. I may have to resort to a Brummagem screwdriver. Still, I can't make it any deader than it already is.
The only thing I haven't yet arranged is a new System 4 (or similar) helmet, as the BMW dealer in B.A. has yet to honour me with a reply to my eamil enquiry. I'd really like a 4 (or Evo or 5) for the convertability - I mostly ride open-face with goggles, as you may have seen in the pix, but it's nice to have the full-face option for filthy weather.
The only other thing I have to organise is tyres, and Oscar knows exactly where I can get Metzelers or Pirellis so that isn't a problem. I'm rather disappointed that the back tyre has only lasted about 5,000 miles, but the combination of appalling ripio and the very straight roads really does tyres in.
The River Plate is rather brown and big - the ordinary ferry takes three hours to do the direct crossing to Colonia in Uruguay, and the Seacat takes an hour (which is what I did); the Argentinians think the Seacat is very expensive, but an hour's crossing for less than 40 quid isn't half bad by European standards.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect in Uruguay, but my first impressions are good (empty) roads and signs, and friendliness. The driving is very polite (even by European standards), and there's a phone number displayed to ring for free breakdown help.
The countryside is almost classic rolling English, with the exception of palm trees and other large ferny-type shrubbery.
The first toll stop I arrived at had no signs to say bikes were free or showing a go-round (as is often the case in other countries); so as I approached the booth the woman waved me back. By that time it was too late. A fierce policeman came over.
"You have to go back and around the side."
"I can't. The road is covered in diesel and the bike is very heavy."
"No, you must go back."
So I sit down on the kerb.
"YOU HAVE TO GO BACK. YOU CAN'T COME THROUGH."
"Look, I can't unless you help me. I'm happy to pay the toll if that makes things easier."
"No, bikes are free, you can't pay the toll. You must go back."
This went on for a bit, but finally they all agreed that I could pay the toll and go through the barrier instead. Well, U$2 instead of trying to push the bike backwards on a puddle of diesel and then threading through a bypass about an inch wider than my crashbars seemed a good deal to me.
I stayed in Fray Bentos last night after having a look at the old British-owned meat packing plant, which in its time was the largest in the world. No-one in this part of the world understands why British people of a certain age want to go there for a look. It's a bit difficult to explain about the post-war shortages and that we all grew
up with Fray Bentos corned beef and tinned steak-and-kidney pies (almost my staple diet as a student).
Fray Bentos itself is a very small, delightful town, but rather sidelined now even with the (currently blockaded) international bridge across the Rio Uruguay to Argentina as the bridge is at the end of a separate road spur and the town is bypassed.
Just as everyone has ripio stories and "how long I had to wait in some god-forsaken place for parts to get through Customs" stories, there are also "corrupt barsteward cops in Entre Rios province" stories.
I crossed the border from Uruguay back into Argentina at the Salto/Concordia causeway. For once there is actually a combined border complex on the Argentinian side, minimising the amount of runing around between offices you have to do.
Having had my passport duly stamped out of Uruguay and into Argentina, and surrendered my temporary import papers for the bike, I went to the Customs guy. All he did was give me a small scrap of paper with a stamp on it. Now, this being the umpteenth time I've entered Argentina I know there's more to it than that, but he insisted not. I went back outside to where most of the border officials were clustered around the bike (it was a slow day), and intimated to another Customs guy that I needed the big bit of paper, and he agreed. So we went back inside and I decoded my V5 for him to enter the appropriate details. As usual I checked he'd written them down correctly (no point taking chances, especially as I had 60 miles of Entre Rios to ride before escaping into the next province).
Off I went rejoicing, stopped for coffee and fuel, kept to speed limit (which meant I was more or less the slowest vehicle around), enjoying the ride.
About a mile before the provincial border there was a police checkpoint. I stopped, and the policeman demanded I dismount and produce my papers. He homed in straight away on the bottom left-hand corner of the bike document, where date of entry is written, almost as though he knew it would be wrong. And, of course, it was; it was today's date, not yesterday's as it should have been.
So we go inside, upon which I decided to reduce my grasp of Spanish by at least two-thirds. That way I understood much more than they thought but could feign loads of ignorance.
I suggested they ring the border. After all, it was only an hour and a half before and they were sure to remember me. The cop phoned (or pretended to phone) the border. No, they didn't remember me (hardly credible in the circs). So, the fine is U$150, including the charge for changing the date on the paperwork. No, I don't get a receipt - Customs will send a receipt and a refund to my home address within 30 days (oh really). No, they won't stamp and/or initial the alteration on the paperwork to show it's official.
Thank heavens I'd pulled some dollars from a magic hole a couple of days before, otherwise I'd have been in even deeper doo-doo. I imagine the two cops get $50 each and the Customs man gets the other $50.
The Argentinian government publishes a form, in both Spanish and English, on its website for the reporting of just such an incident. They are trying very hard to combat corruption, as are all S.American countries. So this form will be completed and returned.
On the bright side, once I'd crossed into the next province the police stops were back to normal - Where are you going, Where are you from, Jolly good, Off you go.
Anyway, I'm in Corrientes, which is a very historic city and the setting for Graham Greene's 'The Honorary Consul'. It's hot and very humid; and last night there was the most severe storm with torrential rain, and the tornado only just missed the town.
I'd heard differing stories about Paraguay - some positive and some negative.
However, what I and others have noticed is that everyone in S. America is rude about the country immediately to the north. For instance, the Argentinians warn you about Bolivia, the Chileans about Peru, the Peruvians about the Ecuatorians, and so on. So I don't really take a lot of notice.
Paraguay is actually quite isolated; there's one crossing to Bolivia, up a dirt road, one to Brazil, and three to Argentina. The major one is close to the capital Asunción, across the Rio Paraguay from Clorinda in Argentina, and famous for fierce Customs checks.
At the last police checkpoint in Argentina before the border yesterday, the nice lady policeman warned me about Paraguay. Me, I keep an open mind unless *all* the stories I've heard agree.
I arrived in dusty litle Clorinda, the border town, at around 2pm on Sunday afternoon in blazing heat. It was closed (the town, not the border).
When the signs ran out (as they so often do) I continued straight on but decided the border probably wasn't up this cart track. I retraced (thanks, GPS) and found that from this direction the signs resumed to the Centro Fronterizo. And Paraguayan trucks were a bit of a giveaway as well.
What appeared to be the border post before the bridge turned out to be the one for the Paraguay out/Argentina in direction, and I was sent across the bridge to the Paraguayan side to complete the paperwork for both countries. I was the only customer.
All the officials couldn't have been more friendly and helpful, and I even got a decent rate changing my Argentinian pesos for Guaranis. They loved Algernon (they always do), and we had a bit of a tea party in the end.
When I finally extracted myself from their embraces I took it easy for a bit then tramped on a bit (visions of showers and cold beers), and not having got my eye in for Paraguayan police checkpoints only just stopped in time. Potential Oh Dear stuff.
Cop ambles to the bike. You were going too fast. Um, yes, sorry, so exactly what is the limit around here? At which point he, like so many other policeman I've met, realised he'd stopped his mum and wasn't inclined to be nasty to her, especially on a hot Sunday afternoon. OK, the limit's 80, you must take care. And he smacked my wrist (literally) and sent me off to Asunción.
From afar, Asunción looks like other capital cities: high-rises growing out of a flat plain beside water. When one actually gets there the truth becomes apparent. Sure, it's not as small as Vientiane (see emails passim) but I'd estimate it's around the size of Reading. Not big.
I rode along the completely deserted waterfront accompanied by a chap around my age on a venerable Jawa with his 11-ish-year-old daughter on the back, exchanging waves and thumbs-ups. When I reached the dock gates I stopped, having nowhere further to go, and prepared to do a Uey. Jawa-man pulls up; can I help? Sure, I'm looking for a hotel. No problems, you want the Aspen Aparthotel, not expensive, locked garage for the bike, city centre, follow me.
So I did, and it was exactly as he said, and a jolly fine place it is too.
Maybe I'll meet some nasty Paraguayans later, but for the moment I rest my case.
Ooh, and by the way, they didn't tell me at the border about the time difference (as usual) so I'm now 4 hours behind GMT.
Brazilian drivers are really letting the side down.
For a start, they use mirrors and indicators, and not only that but they mostly stick to speed limits and pull back over after overtaking. What´s all that about, then?
I´m gradually getting to grips with Brazilian Portuguese; a lot of words are more or less the same as Spanish, although the pronunciation is often very different. But whoever described Portuguese as being a beautiful-sounding language must have cloth ears - it sounds exactly like a tape being played backwards and is almost completely incomprehensible.
Before I left the UK I said I wanted to visit Rio, but I never really believed I´d make it. So it was one of those pinch-myself moments as I rode into the city, past the Sugar Loaf, and Corcovado topped by the statue of Christ the Redeemer, then along the seafront of Copacabana to Ipanema where I´m staying.
There are miles of sandy beach, kept really clean by the council as there´s very little tide. There´s a wide cycle and jogging track beside the beach, and on Sundays the seaward side of the dual carriageway is closed to traffic to allow walkers, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists and other non-motorised traffic to take their constitutionals. And, of course, it being Sunday, I took a stroll, bought a copy of the Sunday paper, and retired to the pub for a lunchtime pint or two of surprisingly decent Guinness and the first chicken tikka masala I´ve had for nineteen months. Gorgeous.
My laundry´s being done (you should see the state of my riding suit) and with luck I´ll be leaving here on Wednesday, heading towards Brasilia.
When I was at primary school we did a ´project´ about Brasilia, as it had just been finished and become the new Brazilian capital. I´d always wanted to see the reality, and now I have.
It´s a fascinating city, architecturally and geographically. But the one thing that Niemeyer forgot was that people have legs. So although traffic moves smoothly and there´s plenty of parking, it´s really difficult to walk anywhere. When I tried to walk to the cathedral I found the pavement stopped short at a dual carriageway and I had to do all sorts of strange road- and grass-crossing and stuff to actually get there. That´s when I found that the locals have created their own ´people highways´ (a bit like the penguin highways in the Antarctic) - there are paths worn across the greenswards, all very neat and disciplined but there nonetheless, going to and coming from where people actually want to go as opposed to where the planners think they ought to go. In fact, the council has clearly rolled over for this as a few of the paths have actually been paved for part of their lengths.
Yesterday I had one of *those* days. Knowing I had to ride nearly 900km from Barreiras to Bahia, I set off at sparrow´s to maximise the 12 hours of daylight. The ride took me 13 hours in the end.
About 90% of the route was paved. Ish. The rest was rather Cambodian. Still, it was easy to spot the dodgy bits - a large cloud of red dust through which I could discern a bunch of trucks milling around apparently aimlessly. Time to get up on the pegs again. It was even more fun when the mega thunderstorms broke, as although there was then no dust the visibility was no better. When I finally emerged on to asphalt again after each mudbath it was still a bit of a trials course, as the road was so potholed and the holes so deep that even the big 18-wheelers were doing about 5 miles an hour and winding around all over the place to avoid them. I was soaked to the skin (it´s too warm for Goretex) but at least I wasn´t cold, and you can´t get wetter than wet. Getting the suit washed in Rio was a waste of time, though.
I finally reached the ring road at Feira de Santana at dusk, in yet another thunderstorm, and turned on to the dual carriageway down to Bahia. The trucks and buses immediately sped up to around 70, so I surmised that it was probably safe to do the same as I couldn´t see anything by this time. In fact I ended up without goggles and specs as the only way to make anything out. Riding in the dark anywhere outside Europe is aways a nightmare as there are no catseyes and even if there are road markings they´re never reflective, so unless you have extremely good lights it can be pretty difficult to see where the road is, even in good weather conditions. In last night´s conditions it was impossible, so I glued myself to the back of a truck doing around a speed at which I was comfortable, and finally made it not only to Bahia but to a decent hotel on the seafront who´ve insisted the bike is parked on the marble right outside the main doors to Reception.
A note about decent hotels: as I´ve said before, I think, they can actually be cheaper than cheapies, and even if not they can be extremely good value. For example, in Brasilia I squelched into reception at a posh place; "It´s nearly the weekend so a room´s half-price. And we like you and are impressed so you can have a 12th-floor corner suite with a balcony on two sides and a stonking view of the city for that price", the price being around UK B&B level. And here in Bahia, the same sort of deal.
I have some more long days to do (Brazil is *very* big), but have to have a rest afterwards as the little man sitting on my shoulder with the red-hot dagger starts getting restless after about two hours´ riding, and at the end of 13 hours yesterday was clearly very, very angry.
A note for non-British chaps about ´little chefs´. Little Chef is an extensive chain of roadside diners in the UK.
That´s how far and how long.
I´m in Fortaleza, which is more civilised a place than some. Being Easter weekend has meant slightly rearranged plans, but even so I´ve managed a new back tyre and a major service.
The Metzeler I had fitted in Viedma only lasted 5,000 miles (so don´t bother with Metzeler Saharas), and in addition had a couple of chunks missing which appeared due to delamination of the tread from the carcase; having said that, it´s been severely challenged at times. So yesterday morning I hailed a cab (the rain was of the pressure-washer variety) and asked the driver to take me to bike shops for a new tyre. Excellent chap, made it his mission. So we found Big Motos, who had a decent selection of appropriate tyres. "Go and get the bike and we´ll fit it" they said; usually you take the tyre and bike to one of the many tyre repair/fitting establishments.
So I took the taxi back to the hotel, and then followed it back to Big Motos. "Any chance of an oil change?" I asked (again, normally one goes to a specialist establishment, available at most petrol stations). "Sure, no problem". So I was escorted around the corner to get EP90 from the nearest petrol station while the tyre was fitted; and a couple of bright young mechanics did an excellent and careful job of changing all the oils (refilling with Mobil´s best) and the filter. Being a Honda/Yamaha place they´d never worked on a BMW before and were very interested in everything about it, even having a good peruse of my trusty Haynes manual to find out more about it.
I took the opportunity of fitting new NGK plugs and caps, as well, and the entire bill was around 50 quid. Jolly nice helpful chaps, and the even gave me a company T-shirt.
Motels are funny here - very specialised. All are rather discreet, situated behind high walls and electronic gates, with extremely hidden and secure parking. Many of their names aren´t suitable for a family publication and leave little to the imagination, and the staff boggle a little when I ask for a room for an entire night, especially as I´m on my own. The beds are electrically operated, which is nice, but I´m still not sure about the ceiling mirrors. Room service is good, though. One I saw had a sign saying "Now also a hotel".
It gets worse.
Yesterday I rode 575 miles in 16 hours, from Teresina to Belém where I´m getting a boat to Manaus (5 days) because the only alternative is 500 miles of mud.
The road surface varied from excellent to Not There. It started OK - the first couple of hundred miles were great, so I stopped for a glass of the excellent (if rather sweet) and free coffee at a little chef, and a petrol infusion. Then suddenly the road surface completely disappeared. It having rained rather a lot there was no warning dust cloud, and the usual milling of 18-wheelers and buses through the mud and around holes of truck-swallowing dimensions started. I´m really glad I learned muddy ruts in Berkshire, as this would have been an extremely steep learning curve.
Being a one-track vehicle it´s often much easier for a bike to get through in these conditions, and I managed a fair amount of overtaking despite nearly being forced into the roadside ditch on more than one occasion by one of the aforesaid milling leviathans. The trouble with standing on the pegs is that the ergonomics of the bike are set up for sitting, so the bars are really too low and it puts a lot of extra stress on the shoulder.
Occasionally there was a half-mile stretch of decent but potholed tarmac, but the mud soon started again; I was lucky it didn´t start raining just then. After about 70 miles of this I stopped at a posto (petrol station with snack bar, tyre man, autoelectric man etc) for a rest and to glug loads of water. I asked how long the conditions went on for (it was 2pm, so only 4 hours of daylight left to get the 260-odd miles to Belém). I had some difficulty understanding what the chaps were saying, but then my saviour appeared in the guise of the local military policemen, who spoke Spanish. He gave me very precise indications of the state of the road from there onwards (and he was very accurate as it turned out) and reassured me that by the time it got dark I´d be on decent asphalt again.
So I heaved myself back on to the bike, having checked stuff over (lots of suspension-bottoming, and the fork seals are comprehensively blown), negotiated the next 30 miles of not-too-bad and well-graded dirt (that was a relief), then the 10 miles of awful to Santa Luiza where the good stuff started again. There were still big potholes and the occasional washout, but it was all much better. And the rain held off until now - it would have been impossible on the really bad bits.
At sunset (6pm) I stopped for more sweet coffee and debated whether to go on or try to find somewhere to sleep. I´ll go on. I stopped at the next police post and asked where the nearest hotel or motel was. He instantly answered "120km towards Belém". OK, so I have to go on. Then a couple of trucks came along, so I attached myself to the little convoy - thing is, they slow down lots for potholes, speed humps and nasty bits, so I knew that even if I couldn´t see anything that I was probably pretty safe. In fact, once the lead truck realised I wasn´t going to overtake and was hanging on his tail for grim life, he was great at indicating and stuff so I had plenty of warning of what was coming up.
Eventually the truck pulled off and I was on my own, but then a Golf overtook. I gave it some wellie and tagged along at around 65mph. Like the trucker, he tried to get me to overtake, so I switched off the auxiliary lights and he seemed to understand what I was up to and was happy about it. I stayed with him for about 80 miles until he, too turned off. On my own again, but by this time it was clear that I was back on excellent and there was unlikely to be any Not There. And the road was clean so markings were visible. And the rain had stopped and the sky had cleared.
So I continued happily to Belém, the major port on the Amazon delta, and found a hotel just before 11pm, extremely filthy and tired and more or less unable to move my right arm. But I didn´t fall off even once.
Everything´s damp, whether from sweat or rain or both, and won´t dry out because nothing does here. I started yesterday´s ride in damp clothes and finished likewise. You get used to it, honest.
Yesterday a nice taxi driver called Eduardo took me to the docks and helped immensely in sorting my passage to Manaus.
The boat leaves tomorrow at 6pm (allegedly) but, of course, tomorrow´s a public holiday (when isn´t it?) so I had to deliver the bike to the docks this afternoon for loading.
Loading consisted of being threatened with having to ride up a narrow wobbly seesaw gangplank on to the cargo deck. I indicated with a world-class gurn that I wasn´t even going to attempt it, as I´d no intention of a) dumping the bike into the Amazon before I really needed to or b) finding my self shooting across the very narrow deck and off the other side and doing a).
So the chaps relented and for a consideration they heaved the bike on for me and parked it to my satisfaction. It´s a bit like the situation with the Trans-Siberian railway, i.e. no visible paperwork, except that at least I´m on the same boat and can keep an eye on things. I have a piece of paper saying (I think) I´ve paid for the bike´s carriage but no receipt or anything. Hey, this is Brazil.
It´s allegedly five days to Manaus but I haven´t been given any arrival details (que sera sera); so don´t expect any more communication from me for a while.
I´ll do my best with rain forest pix and stuff, but the zoom button on the little digital has died which is a little limiting. I´ve also had to buy a new short lens for the big Nikon as the original 28-80 was irreparably damaged in my Tierra del Fuego incident; the only replacement I could find was a slightly second-hand 35-70 at a very helpful place in Rio, which is a bit of a bummer, but I´ll live with it.
"When does the boat get to Manaus?"
"Wednesday. Or Thursday. Maybe Friday."
The n/m Onze de Maio sails an hour late, which probably counts as early in Brazil. Sleeping accommodation is bring-your-own hammock. Steerage passengers share the engine/cargo deck, most of the rest eat and sleep on the middle deck, and the lucky few are on the top deck with the bridge, the bar and general hanging out.
In the morning I wield the Bangkok kettle to maintain my caffeine level. Small dugouts piloted by eight-year-olds skim across the river and attach themselves to the boat using grappling hooks, and the kids clamber aboard to sell shrimps and fruit.
Toucans flit among the trees; there are egrets, sometimes riding the backs of water-buffalo; ordinary-looking sparrows and finches; carrion-eaters like vultures; bird-sized flying insects; huge dragonflies; and pink dolphins.
The settlements along the riverbank all have satellite dishes and churches, as well as schools. Everywhere people turn and wave, and the kids race in their canoes to ride the swell of the wake. One of the larger boats is called Princesa Dayana.
Many of us pass the time playing canasta and dominoes. Diego and Andreas are the Colombians I saw riding Honda 125s on the road between Fortaleza and Belém. We join forces as they want to learn English and they speak more Portuguese than I, and of course we talk bikes a lot. Gonzalo from Santiago and Daniel from Novi Sad join in as they're both motorcyclists as well. When the boat stops at Itacoatiara the police come on board with a sniffer dog. I blame my boots, which I've locked in the topbox; all three of us have to completely unload our bikes and itemise absolutely everything to the police. Normally I like black labradors, and actually this one is rather sweet in his uniform, especially when he refuses point blank to descend the companion ladder to the cargo deck and has to be carried in the arms of a rather sheepish-looking copper. All rather a pain, though.
Then later the peripatetic chiropractic comes up to the top deck and gives my joints a jolly good seeing-to, after which a well-earned cachaça hits the spot. Tonight's canasta session involves British, Brazilian, Israeli, Colombian, Chilean, Peruvian, German and Serb, and gets into three-pack territory.
We dock in Manaus in the early hours of Thursday. Up at six to throw luggage on to the dock and manhandle bikes up from the cargo deck. We help Simoãa and her scary mum with their bags, including their new duck sitting happily in his very own plastic carrier bag.
And then I ride past the astonishing Opera House, and find I've managed to arrive in the middle of the annual Amazonas Opera Festival; so on Sunday I'm seeing Verdi's Otello. What a treat.
I crossed the equator back into the northern hemisphere yesterday.
I was amused to find that the US government (the satellites) and the Brazilian government (the sign) agree exactly on the position of the equator on BR174, the road from Manaus to Venezuela. As I inched to a halt to bring up all the zeroes on the GPS I stopped on the line at the small monument beside the road.
BR174 is paved and in mostly decent condition all the 500 miles from Manaus to Boa Vista; the exception is the 70-mile stretch through the Waimiri Indian Reserve. When the road was built in the '70s the Waimiri killed more than 200 soldiers with poisoned arrows because they were adamantly against the road-building. Consequently not much maintenance goes on there, and there are signs warning against stopping or getting out of your vehicle, and against photography. Not sure where this leaves a motorcyclist, but I managed one photo and decamped rapidly rather than risk a poison dart.
Probably the most astonishing thing about the Teatro Amazonas (Manaus Opera House) is that despite it being 1,000 miles from anywhere, there being only one paved road (to Venezuela), and it taking five days to get there by boat (making flying the only sensible option), every performance is a sell-out. My observation was that most of the audience were locals, with only a sprinkling of foreign tourists. I had to make do with a restricted-view seat for Otello (a whole 3 quid), but the performance and production were terrific. The singers were good but not really A-list except for the title role, sung by that rather wonderful Welshman Dennis O'Neill. In all a fairly surreal experience, and one I wouldn't have dreamed of missing.
Anyway, last night I arrived in Boa Vista and this morning I toddled along to the Venezuelan consulate to get my immigration permit. Diego and Andreas were there, and as Colombians they need visas and have to pay for the privilege. In contrast, all I had to do was fill in a simple form and supply originals and copies of passport, Brazilian immigration papers and Yellow Fever certificate, and 20 minutes later the friendly lady handed me my permit. So I'm off to Venezuela tomorrow, probably in company with the Colombian lads.
Venezuelans are a cheery, friendly bunch; the roads vary from reasonable to superb; best unleaded is around tuppence-ha'penny a litre.
roncal 10 from the Brazilian border at Santa Elena, heading north along the border with Guyana the 400 miles to Cuidad Guayana on the Orinoco, must qualify as a WGBR (World's Great Biking Road) - sweeping benderies, perfect surface, no traffic, no police, wonderful ups and downs, and allegedly excellent scenery but I couldn't see it as the torrential rain limited visibility somewhat. I'm now totally fed up with being wet, and spent two nights at Ciudad Guayana in an effort to dry things out a bit. I also wanted to book a flight over the Angel Falls (total drop nearly a kilometre) but due to the persistent low cloud and rain the flying people said no chance for at least a week. Never mind.
I've ridden up to the Caribbean coast for a couple of days, as although I'm not really a beach person the idea of spending an afternoon lying on a Caribbean beach is rather attractive, and I probably ought to do it while I'm here. Unfortunately it looks as though the little ferry from Güiata to Port of Spain is still suspended so I won't be going to Trinidad.
Politically speaking this has been in interesting time to be in South America. Changes of government, the Fujimori fiasco, Spongebob Squarepants doing a runner from Ecuador, Chavez thumbing his nose at Bush, Brazil doing deals with China (and Paraguay with Taiwan) - and all the while the US's increasingly futile attempts to perpetuate the Monroe Doctrine. All great fun.
Venezuela can be a little Iranian - it has fuel coming out of its ears, the fuel is very cheap (by global standards), but petrol stations can be hard to find.
When I left the border town the only petrol station was closed; I therefore stopped at the next one, 60 miles up the road (in torrential rain, of course). The delivery tanker was in. "OK," I thought, "shouldn´t be long." Wrong. The chaps were in the process of repairing the electric pump which transfers the fuel from the tanker to the storage tanks.
"How far's the next petrol station?"
Umm, not sure about that.
So I waited. And waited. And got chatting to the rest of the crowd who'd turned up. Turned into a picnic party. Coffee was provided by someone or other, Juan insisted I help myself to bread and sandwich spread from his van, and a nice government lady illegally swapped a few dollars for some bolívares (I'd not been able to change anything at the border).
It took two hours in the end, which rather ate into my hours of daylight for getting to Ciudad Guayana, not only in terms of seeing where I was going but also because there's a curfew on bikes in Venezuela. Having said that, much traffic law here seems to be purely theoretical. Red lights certainly are: I'm now very used to sailing through red lights along with everyone else. This isn't as mad as it sounds, though: most intersections have left-turn filter lights which go green while the straight-on lights are red; so if there's nothing coming towards you in the left-turn lane it appears to be at least normal (if not permitted) to simply go across on red.
And there's money. Venezuela is like Japan in this respect, in that magic holes (ATMs) don't accept foreign-issued cards. So you have to go into a bank, queue for hours (well, not really), have your photo taken, do the paperwork . . . it's straightforward but rather long-winded.
I'm in Caracas (drying out again) and planning my route south-west to Bogotá. Not that easy at the moment, because the huge amounts of rain have caused landslides and washed away bridges and roads, and there are reports of FARC livening things up a bit on the Colombian border.
As they say, "Es la vida."
Had another of those days yesterday.
Up at sparrow's, and followed the directions of the parking chap to get out of Maracaibo. An hour later I finally managed to get out on to the road north, thanks to a helpful truck driver at the BP station.
As with most countries, police checkpoints proliferate the nearer the border yout get, and at one on the 60-mile ride north the policeman tried to tell me that the road to the frontier was the little one to my left. Not likely. Don't know if he was trying to have a laugh, but even my navigation's better than that (city escapes notwithstanding).
Anyhow, when I reached the border the Venezuelan formalities were pretty simple, as was getting into Colombia; me, that is, not the bike. I went to DIAN (the customs service) to do the bike paperwork. It was now 10:30, 35 degrees and extremely humid. No-one to do the paperwork. "Ten minutes" I'm told.
Three-quarters of an hour later the lady arrives. Much shuffling of carbon paper while a soldier casually leaves his AK47 (or whatever) on the chair next to me and makes photocopies of the appropriate bits of paper. Then the forms are filled in. Next problem. The chief who needs to countersign the forms is in Maicao (five miles away) and isn't coming to the border today. All I have to do is take the papers to Maicao, find the Police Command Post and Major Cerano, get his signature, then return to the border so they have their copy. I know border towns - absolute bear gardens and I don't fancy my chances of finding either the Command Post or the Major. But I really, really need to have the paperwork correct. Then a very nice Venezuelan chap (Carlos) who also needs signatures says he knows where the place is and I can follow him there; not only that but he's giving a couple of soldiers a lift there. So off we go, having the usual tollbooth game (you have to go round the side, I can't go backwards, but, I'll pay the toll, Oh, OK) on the way. And sure enough we dive into the middle of the beargarden on dirt streets. Carlos and nice young soldier #1 take my papers and go in while I sit outside chatting to nice young soldier #2, and five minutes later I have my signed paperwork and Carlos is happy to take my copies back to the border as he has to go back there anyway. Hurrah.
So I was now running rather late, with 400 miles to Cartagena and only seven hours of daylight left.
Colombian roads are really good (when they haven't been washed away) so I was able to make pretty good time. What really helped was that there was a fairly heavy army presence all the way along the road (thus reducing my chances of being shot at by FARC) who have also appropriated most of the police checkpoints, so I only had to stop once for a document check. There was only a quarter of an hour of torrential rain (albeit more than enough to be soaked through) and I managed to get to Cartagena just as it got dark.
OK, so I'm lost again. I stopped at a petrol station (er . . . BP again) to consult maps, and a nice young man asked (in English) if I needed help. So I explained which hotel I wanted, and asked him to flag a cab for me to follow; he did so, and not only that but went in the taxi as well, and ferried money between me and the driver when we arrived as I wasn't in a position to get off the bike.
Cartagena is absolutely beautiful; the old and extremely impressive city walls were built after Sir Francis Drake laid siege to and nearly destroyed the city. My hotel is in a 17th-century monastery which has been wonderfully restored. Like Venezuela, many people speak English, often self-taught (and many have bemoaned the fact that the BBC World Service no longer broadcasts to South America). Both countries also claim zero illiteracy; you see hoardings saying "Now everyone can read this message". I don't know how true this is. Oh, and BP was front-page news in today's Sunday paper.
If you read the Foreign Office's Advice to Travellers about Colombia you'd probably think twice about coming here.
The first part of the ride to Medellìn was great - friendly locals at petrol and coffee stops, no rain, decent road. Then I was stopped at an army checkpoint.
A young soldier insisted he wanted to search the panniers. I couldn't get off the bike where I was because of the adverse camber, so he smilingly gestured me backwards apparently to a place I could get the sidestand down. Still smiling, he waved me further until the back wheel disappeared into a ditch and the bike and I fell over.
I crawled out from under, went right up to him and said "You're a complete shit. How dare you treat a grandmother like that." Then I slapped his face, he dropped his gun, and all the onlookers applauded (including the other soldiers).
I went on my way rejoicing.
When I arrived in Medellìn (soaked to the skin and in the dark, as usual) I found the customary mad feeder-road-and-impenetrable-one-way-system arrangement and got completely lost (again as usual). I was stopped at the side of a feeder road consulting maps by penlight and a pair of nice young heavily-armed policemen arrived on a Suzuki 650 trailie. I explained where I wanted to go, and after a little radio discussion they said "Siganos" which means "Follow us." And they led me at a perfectly reasonable speed to the hotel I wanted in the city centre. We had nice chats when we stopped for traffic lights (they do that here). And when we got to the hotel I gave them both a hug and a kiss. The hotel staff were boggling - I don't think they'd seen that before.
Apparently I'm supposed to tell the Embassy I'm here, but they don't answer the phone so I can't.
You may remember I met a couple of Colombian motorcyclists on the boat from Belem to Manuasand again in Boa Vista - this is them: Diego and Andras.
Publimotos is a magazine and TV program here about bikes, and they want to interview me, so I'll be on Colombian telly - how about that?
Colombia is still amazing me with its friendliness and hospitality - more stories than you can shake a stick at.
I'll be here in Bogotá for a couple of weeks (so you may get a bit bored) as I need to do major bike work and arrange shipping to Panama City. This continent is very hard on machinery. I've yet to meet anyone who hasn't had major problems of some sort. Rupert's more or less wrecked his bike (he's still in Ecuador), but then he clearly has some sort of death-wish.
The BMW chap here (Gustavo Johnson) is being incredibly helpful, and a fellow 1200GS owner, Pedro, is taking me out for lunch in 20 minutes. Yes, I'm reduced to accepting invitations from people I meet online.
Anyway, how can you be afraid of a country full of garden centres?
Everyone in Colombia is amazingly friendly and helpful, and very aware of their country's reputation in the rest of the world.
When they ask what I expected I give the usual list of drug barons, shootings, kidnappings and so on, and they know that's the perception, but they're working really hard to make all visitors really welcome. When I came into Bogotá (dark, raining) I was trying to follow a raving lunatic taxi driver to a hotel (beds are scarce here as it's the business seasonm whatever that is) and other motorcyclists kept engaging me in conversation when we were stuck and I had to keep saying "Love to chat but I'm trying to follow this raving lunatic taxi."
The Old Dear is in the workshop at Autogermana, who are the main BMW importers for South America. Henry speaks excellent English and did the motorcycle engineering course at Merton College (I remember Tim Stevens starting that in the '70s). My sidekick is Alejandro, who's a very fetching young man and an excellent machanic. Edgar, the workshop boss, speaks hardly any English and has a great sense of humour. Most days I go round the corner with them for lunch - 3-course set meal for around thirty bob. The list of things to fix seems to be never-ending - I've been tolerating all sorts of minor niggles and have the opportunity to get everything perfect while I'm here, and the chaps are bending over backwards to help. Major welding and patching has been done to the right-hand pannier and topbox, and a new topbox mount is being fabricated. Another chap appeared today to re-helicoil the threads for the rocker cover centre studs, both of which have been missing for at least 10,000 miles. Incidentally, I've now ridden nearly 45,000, 20,000 of them in South America.
Rupert turned up on Friday evening (he knew where I was staying). We spent most of Saturday being interviewed for the telly and a bike magazine (video will allegedly be sent to me), then on Sunday Pedro and Juanita and their son and his girlfriend took us to an antiques market and then to lunch. Pedro knows absolutely everyone (he directs TV commercials) and has given both me and Rupert loads of contacts. Tomorrow (possibly) Pedro's taking me to a GPS place where I can upload detailed Central America maps to my GPS. Beats having to follow raving lunatic taxi drivers.
Yesterday Rupert and I took a day off and did tourist - the Gold Museum, a spot of lunch, then up the cablecar to Montserrate to get a stonking view out over the city. He went off to Medellín this morning after taking his leave from the chaps at Autogermana who'd done some repairs to his bike (he *will* keep chucking it down the road and setting fire to it). It's been really good having someone to swap tall stories with and consume copious quantities of Irish Red at the Red Lion.
Looks like I'll be here for a while longer; my parts are allegedly arriving on Tuesday (Monday's a holiday), and part of my deal with Autogermana is to demo the bike to a bunch of technicians from all over South America who'll be here early next week as no-one here (of course) knows anything at all about the old boxers. And I have to do another TV interview once the bike's rideable again.
This weekend will be interesting as there's a presidential election on Sunday and the city has been filling with military. The other afternoon Rupert's bike died on the way home, young Alejandro came out in a taxi to see what he could do, and produced a really loud backfire. Everything suddenly went quiet and three soldiers closed in on us. They quickly understood what had happened but still hung around until the trailer arrived to take the bike back to the dealer. It was just a frayed wire to the crankshaft position sensor so an easy repair.
Anyroadup, don't believe everything you read in the papers or see on the telly. Even if it's me being interviewed.
You may remember the nightmare of addresses in Japan, which are vague in the extreme and where even the posties* don't really know which building is which.
Reminder: All my pix are here.
The centre of Caracas has its own conundrum. None of the streets have names, or even numbers. Instead, the street corners are named, and an address will be expressed as in between two corners. Aargh.
Bogotá has yet a different scheme. All the streets are numbered (and some have names as well). Calles run E-W, numbered from south to north, and Carreras run N-S, numbered from east to west; which sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Ha, gotcha. Addresses of individual buildings are a little more challenging.
For instance, my hotel has the address Calle 106 14-49. Aha, you may think, it runs from number 14 to number 49 on Calle 106. You have the Calle 106 bit right, but the 14-49 bit means it's 49 metres from Carrera 14 in the direction of Carrera 15. Obviously it's all a bit approximate, but even locals and taxi drivers have difficulty sometimes. And everything's complicated by Diagonals and Transversals, and as street signs are minimal even really strict counting doesn't necessarily work too well as it's occasionally difficult to distinguish between a street and a building site.
They repealed the helmet law in Colombia some time ago; by which I mean that they allowed motorcyclists to wear helmets. But it went further. All motorcyclists have to wear a bib with their registration number front and back in big reflective characters. The number must also be on the back of their crash helmets (and those of their pillions). Often they don't bother, and it doesn't seem too strictly enforced. I asked a motorcyclist about it the other day, as he had several bikes, and he said you either have to have a helmet or two for each bike, or arrange some sort of removeable sticker you can transfer from one to t'other. Nightmare. Still, if you can afford more than one bike you can afford more than one helmet, I suppose. A standard 1200GS like mine is double the price here, and the guy I spoke to (Andreas) had the new 12GS Adventure so must be loaded.
The fun gets even better this weekend for the election. Not only are the streets absolutely crawling with soldiers and armed police, but I've just had an email from Rupert in Cartagena to say that no bikes are allowed on the streets at all this weekend there, which has caused him some accommodation problems; here in Bogotá no pillions are permitted, so unless a bike can be found for me I can't go on any of the rideouts. Even worse, no booze can be sold between last night (Friday) and Tuesday morning. Don't worry, I've checked that the hotel has a sufficient supply of my medicine.
The reason for all this is that a few years ago there were many ride-by shootings, both criminal and political, so they banned helmets to provide a better chance of identification. Then on safety grounds they repealed that law but insisted on the provisions I described above. And the same fear is the reason for the ban on bikes and/or pillions this weekend.
Hope you all had a good Bank Holiday weekend, but bet it's not as much fun as here.
* Non-Brits: a postie is a postman.
I knew it was all suspiciously easy.
It took longer to get to the shipping agent at the airport than it did to arrange the shipping (which took as much as ten minutes).
So The Old Dear will fly to Panama next Thursday - I ride to the agent, do loads of paperwork, spend ages in Customs doing more paperwork and turning everything out of the panniers yet again (no doubt I'll have to do that in Panama as well, given from where she's flying), disconnect the battery and that'll be it. That's the theory, anyway, and previous reports bear this out.
The interesting thing is that it'll cost very little more to fly the bike than it will me.
The complication is that I'll actually have to go to an airline office to buy a ticket for me. I can't buy an e-ticket locally on the web with a foreign-issued card (unless I'm part of a tour group, aaargh), and can only buy a paper ticket elsewhere to be posted to my home address, which isn't a lot of use really. Es la vida.
The Old Dear is wearing an enormous smile.
Reminder: All my pix are here.
Pedro and Juanita collected me from the hotel yesterday afternoon, on their Virago (the 12GS is in Buenos Aires), and took me to Villa de Lleyva. This is a beautifully-maintained colonial village founded in 1572, to the north of Bogotá. We arrived 8-ish and checked in to a lovely little hotel in one of the colonial mansions, then walked around the village to the strains of a local folk band.
This morning, after another walk around the village, which is really, really beautiful, we rode down one of Colombia's WGBRs* over yet another 10,000-foot pass amid very Italianate scenery to Zipaquirá (I´ll have to vist the Salt Cathedral another day as there wasn't time today), thence back to Bogotá.
It's hard to say whether my smile was bigger than The Old Dear's or vice versa. She's absolutely romping. And it's such a treat having front suspension which works properly - hasn't done that since somewhere in Brazil, and it certainly made the dirt sections very much easier (especially as I'd left the boxes at the hotel in Bogotá). The only rattles are the usual familiar ones (has anyone ever worked out
why the forks on these things clonk?) and she's smooth as silk, handling brilliantly, all that good stuff.
Last night and this morning we talked at length about the astonishingly close historical relationship between Britain and Colombia (and indeed South America in general). The more I find out the more amazing it becomes, going back 400 years.
* World's Great Biking Road
The Old Dear has lost weight as well. She weighed in at 292kg on the warehouse scales in Bogotá, bless her.
The whole shipping procedure is completely different every time one does it. The Bogotá-Panamá procedure is as follows:
1. Arrive at the cargo terminal at 9am.
2. Get the chaps to find a couple of pallets because the two sets of steps up to the warehouse floor are really too steep otherwise.
3. Pretend I'm an ace motocrosser, and get a round of applause when I manage it without falling off or hitting anything.
4. Ride her on to the scales.
5. Ride out on to airside, negotiate around the nosewheel of an inconveniently-parked 747, and into the bonded warehouse.
6. Disconnect battery and drain tank; move mirrors and screen out of harm's way.
7. Have a cig and a breather; wash hands (again).
8. Clutching airwaybill, import documents, passport and any other bits of paper which come to hand, trek across the bog between the two access road carriageways to the customs office.
9. Return across bog with nice young man from customs to check the frame number and receive sundry signatures and stamps on various bits of paper.
10. Trek in the other direction to the Police with ditto bits of paper for more stamps.
11. Trek back to bonded warehouse for antinarcotics inspection.
12. Unload all three boxes completely.
13. Reload all three boxes and manage to fit everything back in again (always a miracle).
14. Receive yet more stamps and signatures.
15. Proudly present all stamped and signed bits of paper to Carolina, who in turn presents me with the invoice - $351.26, which seems a bargain.
16. Get taxi to air terminal and chill out in the VIP lounge for a couple of hours with free beer.
17. Fly to Panamá.
Yesterday morning I went to the cargo terminal at Tocumen airport here in Panamá to do the entire procedure in reverse. Except that there was a quarantine inspection instead of antinarcotics. But, like Bogotá, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful. They get three or four bikes through a week so are used to it - this is more or less the only sensible way to jump the Colombia-Panamá border unless you want to be shot or kidnapped.
When I got to the lounge in the airport I even had to remove all the armour from my riding jacket for inspection. They weren't very sure about the helmet but it was in a zipped bag so that satisfied them, more or less. I did at least remember to put the Swiss Army knife in my tankbag as it was checked baggage.
Oh, and the screen got broken, which is odd as the only cargo the plane was carrying other than The Old Dear was flowers. And remind me to tell you all about Alfredo the gay Nicaraguan - such a nice boy.
Yesterday I went to see the Miraflores Locks on the Panama Canal.
Some of the statistics are stunning. The enormous container ships which can fit are categorised as "Panamax", which means they go through the locks with just 60cm clearance each side. Needless to say, they go rather slowly and carefully.
And this morning we removed the oil pump from The Old Dear and ordered a new one. Not a word, OK?
And the palindrome: "A man, a plan, a canal - Panama!"
Sigh. Can't be avoided. The amazingly elongated yells of GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL (I timed one at 32 seconds) reverberate through the streets and shopping malls - there are tellies absolutely everywhere.
Most Panamanians support either Argentina or Brazil (and some apparently both, presumably to maximise piss-up opportunities); and according to some of the expats I've met here, a Brazil-Argentina final will probably start WWIII right here in South America as they really, really hate each other.
I've pointed out on a few occasions that our team is actually called David Beckham (of whom I'd never heard until I asked John who this bloke was whose face was all over the souks in Iran in 2000) and thus we have little chance of making it any further; but the locals seem convinced we have a chance.
Anyway, we (that is Luis, Hector and I) now have all the bits (and information) we need for the bike so reassembly proceeds apace. We're still a bit flummoxed, though, as the big-end and main bearings appear to be perfectly OK despite the rather appalling damage to the oil pump. We've replaced the big-ends, anyway, as they're easy and cheap. As an incidental, one of the rocker needle bearing cages waqs starting to disintegrate (no bits actually missing though), thanks heavens) so I had loads of fun with a 20-ton press removing the old ones and fitting the new ones. We'll just have to see what the pressure gauge says when it's all back together again.
There's been some pretty extraordinary weather here, by the way: a couple of really, really heavy hailstorms (golf ball sized hailstones) in a temperature in the high 20s C is more than a little bizarre. Trees uprooted, roofs flying around, flooding (but the street drainage, in common with much of South America, is totally inadequate) and multitudes of wrecked brollies.
So I may be on t he road again after the weekend, although I've had an invitation to a beach villa at Playa Coronado so may be a little delayed :-)
Incidentally, a few people have asked why we (The Old Dear and I) flew here from Bogotà, as on some maps there appears to be a road from Colombia to Panamà. Well, there isn't. There's a 100-mile gap in the Via Panamericana, known as the Darien Gap, across the border and through the jungle. There isn't really even a track. There's certainly no border post. And most people who attempt the crossing are shot, kidnapped, or both. So call me a wet and a weed, but I decided to do it the way most others do - the customs chap in Bogotà said he clears three or four bikes a *week* for the flight to Panamà. There may be Peaks in Darien for all I know, but the kids in the Swallows and Amazons books never elaborated.
So, on Friday The Old Dear had her new underneaths fitted and everything put back together again. She started instantly, of course.
The oil light still comes on at idle, but quite honestly I think I'll simply ignore it now. We can't find any reason for it, it's been happening for over 10,000 miles, and there appears to be no resultant damage.
But . . . there is an Unpleasant Noise at mid-range. The sort of Unpleasant Noise which can develop into an Expensive Noise.
So this morning Luis and I wielded his Amazing Electronic Stethoscope to try to locate exactly from where the Noise is emanating. We have decided it's from the top end on the right hand side, so tomorrow the Poor Old Thing will have to suffer the indignity of hetting undressed again. With luck it'll be something simple.
In the end I have several options:
1. Do nothing and hope it all goes away and nothing horrible happens in her insides. This could result in being stranded somewhere far less salubrious than here, which is rather nice. (If this were Porvenir I'd probably be completely barking by now.)
2. Fix everything as far as possible, irrespective of time and expense, up to and including the bottom end. Possible but tedious.
3. Give up and go home. Except that I don't have one and have to give two months' notice to the tenants. And I don't want to anyway.
4. Stay here. Or Ecuador. Or Argentina. Or Colombia. Or Laos. Choosing a country in which to live is a bit like the choice between a Land Rover and a Land Cruiser: the Landy with your heart and the Cruiser with your head. Argentina is the head choice; the others from the heart.
I'm sure you've all been aware that one the things which has kept me going on this journey is those for whom I'm doing it. By which I mean those who'll never have the chance.
One of those people was Joyce Brown. Before I left, she and her husband Arthur told me that I had to bear the responsibility of doing it for them; only half in jest (both of them can be pretty fierce). At the time, Joyce was receiving chemotherapy for lymphoma.
I've been in regular contact with Arthur; indeed, in the last few days he's been telling me about the arrangements he and Joyce have been making for her eventual funeral. And today I heard that Joyce passed away in the early hours of this morning.
Her last motorcycle ride will be on a fine motorcycle outfit, escorted by members of the Mercia Section of the BMW Club.
I hope Joyce enjoyed my stories.
The bike having been taken to a workshop the other side of the city to have an extremely recalcitrant big-end bolt extracted, I slept badly because I woke up in the middle of the night convinced that when I refitted the gearbox I forgot to remove the flywheel-jamming tool (which is small and black and thus doesn't exactly leap to the eye). I take such things extremely calmly these days. (And remember all my pix are here.)
I'll rewind a bit here.
John built an Amazing Crate, and it was flown to me containing Reggie's spare bottom (crankcase, crankshaft, camshaft, sundries). This is because we still couldn't solve the oil pressure problem. Phil the Boxerman thinks it's probably that the rear main bearing has a broken locating pin and has rotated in its housing, thus blocking the oilway. Who knows?
Anyway, much grunting and cursing as I swapped good parts out of my engine to Reggie's (oil pump/pickup/filters, timing chain, starter motor, all that good stuff) finally refitting the rebuilt engine and gearbox on Monday.
I then proceeded to remove the conrods - it's easier with the engine in due to the amount of heaving needed. Out came two bolts and a conrod (much heaving), out came one bolt from the other conrod. The last bolt absolutely wouldn't (heat, cold, big hammer, bigger hammer, you know the sort of thing). The aforementioned workshop drilled it out completely, thank heavens.
So yesterday the bike was back first thing and I refitted the conrods from my engine, with new bearings (the right size this time). Pistons, barrels, heads, yada yada, timed it up, checked tappets. Started straight away, of course. Bit of a test ride around the block, gorgeous, but the battery's definitely DED. So they charged up a new one overnight for me to fit this morning, and everything's completely hunky-dory (until the next time).
Just as I was having a coffee and ciggie to recover from paying the bill, Hubert turned up on his R100GS outfit with Marcus (Swiss) on his R100GS, so we had a bit of a coffee morning while Marcus changed his brake pads, then rode off for lunch at a Greek restaurant up the road.
While I was furtling a bit this morning in the workshop one of the suits came and handed a mobile phone to me - it turned out to be a chap called Glen Duncan who's heard about me from Ted and Lucy who are the BMW owners who live at Playa Coronada up the PanAmericana from here (the ones who've invited me to visit on my way through, if you remember). He's from Vermont, travelling with a friend in a camper van.
Anyway, looks like I'm back on the road again. I won't be leaving for a
few days as there are places I want to visit as day trips on the bike,
and I have to see the dealer (Bavarian Motors) on Monday as they're
arranging the return of my engine to Reggie in The Amazing Crate. And
there's laundry (didn't want to wash the working duds until I'd
finished getting them filthy). And stuff. Not to mention my Second
Anniversary next Wednesday (all invited, drinkies at El Pavo Real from
Ah, yes, the flywheel-locking tool. And yes, I'd left it in there.
Managed to extract it, though, without removing anything; and any
airhead owner will know what a pain THAT was.
I hadn't ridden a horse for ten years, and that was just a jaunt around the pyramids with a proper syce. So when Lucy said she'd arranged a docile horse for me for a morning ride I was a little trepidatious but reckoned I'd manage as long as someone told me what to do.
Honey appeared as advertised, but as soon as I mounted she went bonkers and refused to to much other than go round in circles at almost a canter (referred to as "a fast walk"). So the stable boy took over, and she went even more frisky. He calmed her down a little and I remounted and attempted to follow Lucy to the grass area. It sort of worked, although steering was a little dodgy. She still refused to go slowly, though. But far and away was the best bit was doing backwards. Honey took it into her head to go down a narrow fenced path between two compounds and without an exit. No room to turn around. So Lucy yelled instructions at me for making the animal go backwards out into the field again. And it worked! Astonishing. Absolutely no trouble at all. Apparently backwards is one of the more difficult manouevres, and Lucy and Jody more than forgave me for my complete incompetence in forwards and steering (not to mention stopping - brakes were worse than the bike).
So many thanks to Lucy for her hospitality (including eggs and bacon for breakfast) at her gorgeous house at Playa Coronado - it's just a shame I missed Ted by a few hours as he had to go to New York.
I left for David on the Interamericana (which is what they call the PanAm once you cross the Canal) and everything was going nicely. A bit of oil on my right boot gave me a moment of concern, but a little oil goes a long way and it appeared to emanate from the breather so not apparently a problem. Having got to David early afternoon I decided that it might be nicer to spend the night at Boquete, further up into the mountains of the continental divide. So, of course, it started raining. Then suddenly my back wheel started behaving as though on ice and I barely stayed upright, then the oil light came on suddenly so I cut the engine and managed to slither to a halt on the forecourt of a small supermarket.
The engine oil was pouring out on to the ground and the drain plug was missing. Don't anyone dare say a word, OK? I know I did it up tight - I even torqued it (which I never normally do and thus was probably the mistake).
As any fule kno, the gearbox filler plug is identical to the engine drain, so I did a swap, plugging the filler temporarily with a bunch of tissues (with the bike on the sidestand the level is above the filler). In the supermarket I was able to buy appropriate oil, a funnel, and a pair of cheap thick-soled flip-flops.
I refilled the engine, then butchered one of the flip-flops to make a plug for the gearbox. It screwed in nicely with pliers, and seems to work a treat (so far). And I managed all this in pelting rain. I walked back to see if I could find the missing plug, following the trail of oil, but no chance.
When I got to Boquete (charming little place) there was not a room to be had, so I returned to David. On the way there had appeared an army checkpoint, stopping all vehicles and questioning the drivers. I have no idea why, because when they stopped me me said "You're English. Welcome to Panamá" and sent me on my way.
It's half an hour from David to the border, which has the reputation of being rather a bear garden so I'd decided to do it a) first thing in the morning and b) on a Sunday. Good move. Very uncrowded, and the market wasn't bustling. Formalities were fairly straightforward, especially as I acquired Mummy's Little Helper in the form of a Panamanian ten-year-old, who knew exactly what to do and where to go. There was a $1 exit tax from Panamá, and a bit of a kerfuffle when it transpired that the customs people at Tocumen airport failed to register the bike in my passport, but other than that no probs.
On the Costa Rican side it was immigration, then fumigation ($2.50) where luckily I was allowed to dismount rather than be soaked in foul-smelling disinfectant. Then to customs where I was immediately at home because of the Horizons Unlimited sticker on the window. Lots of paperwork as usual, facilitated by the chap knowing the proper codes for United Kingdom and BMW from memory (that tells you something). And I have insurance for the first time since Australia ($13 for 30 days). No clocks, of course, but I'd sneakily established that I was going back an hour, which makes me seven hours behind the UK. I'm also back in phoneland, with no less than two networks to choose from.
The road was pretty good most of the way to San José, with only a few rather Brazilian patches. Got stopped for speeding but let off with a smacked wrist. There are lots of pólice checkpoints where they just check papers. One small problem is that I only have an International Driving Permit as the UK licence disappeared in Santiago when I was robbed. But as it has a photo and a certain amount of water damage so it's not obvious it expired at the end of August 2005 they seem satisfied. It was very hot.
As I rode up into the mountains, guess what? Yup, started chucking it down. This road is probably a WGBR but with the total lack of visibility and the low cloud, plus wet road, it was difficult to tell. By the time I got to the top of the pass at 10,000 feet I was perishing and very grateful for the heated grips. On the way down I stopped at a police-checkpoint-with-cafe (not stupid, the plods here) and had a large mug of extremely good coffee to warm me up a bit.
All the houses in the rural areas are very spick-and-span, with immaculate gardens full of local and colourful shrubbery. There's a general air of prosperity and pride, even though by our standards the people are poor. And, of course, they're all very friendly.
So today I'll find the dealer and do a "first service" which you're supposed to do at 600 miles after a rebuild, and if I'm lucky get a proper gearbox filler plug.
I spent last night at the foot of an active volcano. It's called Volcán Arenal, near San Carlos de Fortuna, northwest of San José.
At night the summit glows bright red, and glowing ash and rocks are hurled out, coming most of the way down the mountain. A spectacular sight with the full moon. As a consequence, trips up to the main viewing platform are out of the question at the moment because they don't want to kill any more tourists. There are no pix to show you, either, as my little digicam doesn't do the equivalent of ASA1600 with a huge aperture, which I imagine would be the only way to photograph it.
Costa Rica is probably the most beautiful country I've been to so far. It's as though it's designed and maintained by a Master Gardener. Even the rampant rain and cloud forest vegetation seems to have a certain discipline in terms of variety and colour schemes, shapes and sizes. The inhabitants themselves clearly take a great pride in their country, which is clean and tidy, and all the houses with beautifully-maintained gardens. The roads are good, too; I've not seen any vehicle with tyre-inflators fitted--from Brazil southwards all buses and 18-wheelers have inflators on all their wheels, which give some indication of road quality (or lack of).
The hours differ madly from elsewhere in South America as well. San José was buzzing, with busy streets, from 6:30am every morning, then completely quiet and deserted by 10pm in the evening. Bit of a contrast from Argentina where it was unusual to find a restaurant which opened before 9pm. Here they close at 10pm.
One sits very still indeed when being approached by a large Nicaraguan gentleman wielding a cut-throat razor.
But he did a splendid job of defluffing my hair. I have to say it's absolutely NO FUN at all having a stinking cold in a temperature of 35 degrees in 95% humidity, but I pass the time but hunting for a bar which has not only gin but also tonic. One of my more difficult challenges so far.
Nicaragua is very different from Costa Rica. The first thing you notice is that it's much poorer, although the same pride is evident. I'm in Granada on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, and which is a beautiful if somewhat undermaintained colonial town. There's a wonderful market very reminiscent of the ones in the Middle East, and all the lady stall-holders wear frilly aprons. The Friday night rush-hour on the main drag consisted of a couple of cars, lots of bicycles and trail bikes, a couple of tuk-tuks (haven't seen any of those since Peru) and a few horse-drawn landau taxi sort of things. Like Costa Rica, everything starts and finishes early - the bar in the hotel was about ready to close at 10pm last night. I saw in the paper this morning that the government is changing the time zone on October 1st, which will save them an enormous amount of electricity. It was a bit strange coming north and west across a border but going one hour forward in time instead of backward.
The barman/waiter in my hotel is the spit of the chap in the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek (in the Bekaa Valley so now probably rubble) although somewhat more cheerful. In common with many other places, The Old Dear is so hidden away that it may be difficult for me to find her again. I just hope the hotel staff remember where they made me stash her.
ATMs are a bit of a pain as they'll only let you have 500 córdobas at once, as a single almost unchangeable note, and worth about 15 quid. So you have to stand there and do three or four transactions to get enough to pay for things like fuel and hotels as you go. At least the magic holes are the insert-and-withdraw type so your card can't be swallowed whole.
The border was well-sorted, though. I had (and needed) a Mummy's Little Helper on the Costa Rican side, but the Nicaraguan side was all in one place with step-by-step instructions in both Spanish and English. And I was extremely chuffed when one of the officials asked if I was from somewhere in S America and was surprised when I said I was English. Apparently I speak decent-ish Spanish with a sort of Argentinian accent. Wow. Especially after Fabiola kept having a go at me about my awful Spanish. Having said that, everyone else on this continent reckons Chilean Spanish is unintelligible (so there). I've definitely found that as you come north, people seem to speak more clearly (if not more slowly), but that might just be familiarity on my part.
I was intending to leave León this morning, but have been trapped (yet again) by the start of the Independence Day celebrations.
Most of Central America celebrates September 15 as Independence Day, when they finally managed to get rid of the Spanish. Sometimes the English and Dutch get sniped at as well, as we were in Granada on Saturday. So this morning, just as I was about to get my togs on, the street outside became extremely closed for three hours for processions of schoolchildren with marching drum bands. I couldn't have left even if I'd been able to get at the bike.
So I'm spending another night in what is actually a rather charming colonial town and Nicaragua's second city, boasting Central America's largest (and possibly most decrepit) cathedral. Large is a relative adjective here. When I managed to bypass Managua yesterday (more by luck than judgement) it was clearly yet another capital city around the size of Reading. León is about Newbury-sized, which at least makes it easy to walk around all the interesting places.
The main road from Managua to León, the one the buses take, isn't bad. You don't even have to slow down for the unpaved bits, as they're good hard dirt with no more potholes than the paved sections, so it's just a case of up on the pegs and keep going. There were one or two muddy patches, and I wouldn't want to do it in the rain if there were much traffic around; the only small worry was the sharp-looking rocks, which induce puncture paranoia.
When I finally managed to find the post office to send some postcards (which may or may not arrive) it was, again, more by luck than judgement. I knew where it was in theory, but there was no way to recognise it - just another tatty little hole-in-the-wall, but with a very-armed guard smoking a ciggy just inside the entrance, and hand-written signs on the two letterbox slits in the gloomy interior.
Addresses here, as in Costa Rica, are rather abstruse. In San José the official address of the bike dealer was "50 metres west of the lighting factory which was demolished ten years ago". Not even a street name. No wonder my first taxi driver had a bit of difficulty finding it. Here, addresses often give a street name, but no number. So the hotel in Granada was "at the end of calle Zapalda, in front of the church of Guadelupe" (and thus an easier place to find than most).
Nicaragua produces some of the best coffee in the world, but unless you ask nicely you get Nescrapé. Unbleedingbelievable. Maybe I should go back to Costa Rica. It's more or less impossible to get G&T (the G's available but there's a distinct dearth of T), but the beer's pretty good. The food is veering towards Mexican the further north I get - refried beans have made their first appearance on menus, and the filled tortillas are really good. Good job I like Mexican food as that'll be all there is for a few weeks.
And since you ask, the cold's improving, thanks.
Do you remember I said a while back that everyone in South America warns you about the country to the north? So the Chileans say Peru is dangerous, the Argentinians say Paraguay is dangerous, and they all say Venezuela and Colombia are dangerous.
Well, there I was having afternoon coffee at a little chef in Nicaragua with Dione and Leigh, an English couple on a pair of Yamahas heading south, and they say that everyone in North and Central America warns you about the country to the south. So the Americans think you'll die in Mexico, the Mexicans say you'll die in Guatemala, and so on.
Of course, none of this is really true, otherwise Colombia and Panamá would be really, really dangerous and full of abandoned motorcycles. Mind you, both Dione and I have suffered the nasty flu-type bug that's been racketing around this neck of the woods.
I encountered my first border corruption stunt crossing from Nicaragua into Honduras (apart from the appalling Entre Rios policemen in Argentina). Getting in and out of Nicaragua was a breeze, with plenty of Mummy's Little Helpers and friendly officials. Honduras, though. oh dear. I ended up paying out more than $50, with official receipts for less than $10. But there's little one can do. The hand-written vehicle permit had an alteration where the woman initially wrote the registration number wrongly. I asked for a replacement "clean" permit. That would cost $100. I don't think so. She did at least change the P to a B, but there should be a J instead of a Y. I risked it.
Naturally, at one of the police checkpoints they decided to check everything (thank heavens they couldn't find the engine number because, of course, it's now wrong). And they didn't like the alterations on the permit. I suddenly lost all my Spanish and lapsed into Spanglish. I told a sorry tale of being ripped off for $100 at the border, and how the officials refused to let me be with the bike while they did the paperwork, and so on and so forth. The guy obviously wanted his palm crossed with a wad of greenbacks, but I just wasn't going to do it. Eventually he gave up - a couple of overladen trucks came along and they probably afforded richer pickings.
Once in Honduras everything was fine - the usual friendly locals, decent roads, all that stuff. After Tegucigalpa I pottered along to Copán Ruinas and the Mayan city, just inside the border with Guatemala. The place was entirely full, it being Independence Day weekend, which wasn't too much of a problem for me as this charming cobbled colonial town was a nightmare to ride through. In common with most of the Spanish towns, the cobbles are big, rounded, and shiny, the hills are steep, and wrestling 300kg of bike on the narrow streets at very slow speeds behind incompetent Chelsea tractor drivers is very high risk indeed. Every time you have to stop the ground's in a different place, on the hills you start slithering either backwards or forwards with both wheels locked because there's 'gerall traction, you get the picture. So I headed back out of town to a posh sort of place full of the richer sort of locals, where they could accommodate me for one night (I really wanted two, but there you go).
So, up at sparrow's to take the hotel shuttle to the ruins and back to the hotel in time for the noon checkout. Eight miles to the border, knowing I'm going to get hassle and anticipating a fraught afternoon.
Not a bit of it. All very friendly and sensible. I noted that on the Honduran side there was posted a list of legitimate fees for people and vehicles entering the country (in English as well as Spanish), and a phone number and address to contact in the case of corruption attempts. All very different from Los Manos where I entered. And the Guatemalan side was just as nice, and the customs man indicated to his minions that I needn't be searched (thus allowing me to pass the queue of Chelsea Tractors being turned inside out). Good result.
Today I'm in Quetzaltenango, doing laundry, tightening bolts, all that sort of thing, and tomorrow I'll head for Mexico. Probably.
Riding around the Yucatán peninsula has been interesting, and not only for the Mayan ruins at places like Palenque and Chichen Itza.
The province of Chiapas is Zapatista territory (motto "The Government Obeys Us") and there are warnings of 'trouble' even on the main road. Once in Quintana Roo the local police display big handpainted billboards showing which roads are in good, OK and bad condition, which is helpful although so far the roads have been uniformly pretty good.
I had a lovely swim in a cenote at the foot of a cascade, called Misol-Ha; this is where they filmed Predator and is very jungly (and noisy due to the howler monkeys).
In the interests of completeness, and my curiosity, I decided to pay a visit to one of Britain's erstwhile far-flung Imperial outposts, to whit, Belize (formerly British Honduras).
What a sweet little country it is too, about the size of Wales or Lebanon. Although Belmopan is theoretically the capital, just about everyone ignores it in favour of Belize City, which is around the size of Newbury but without the tall buildings. They've been busy celebrating 25 years of independence so it all looks quite festive, and the whole place is rather jolly.
I've been talking to locals because I wanted to find out what they really think about Michael Ashcroft, who still owns about 20% of the place (including the telecoms company, the main bank, and the hotel I'm in). I was pleasantly surprised to find they quite like him - apparently he does a lot of good stuff and doesn't throw his weight around. In fact, I missed him by a day as he was here opening a new orphanage he's financed.
The official language is English, and the banknotes bear a picture of Her Majesty. And it was such a treat at the border not to have to decode my V5 for the bike import documents once I'd convinced the customs chap I really was English and not German (they get a lot of Germans on bikes here), and to have all the signs in English first. It's quite difficult to remember to use English instead of Spanish, although inevitably many of the people speak some Spanish as well.
When I left Belize I headed to Villahermosa. It was a nice ride through the jungle, but inevitably, come the afternoon, the rain started. Visibility down to 100 yds and instantly soaked to the skin.
I passed two petrol stations, both closed due to lack of fuel. A digression here: the Mexican oil company Pemex has a monopoly on petrol/diesel sales, so petrol stations, although privately owned because they're franchised, are rather few and far between.
When I was nearly on vapour I stopped at Emiliano Zapata (yes, named after him) where the petrol station was not only open but, predictably, busy. Having replenished the tank (40 litres into a 43-litre tank) I hung around having a ciggy and a coffee, upon which I was accosted by a chap who spoke English. This turned out to be Santi, a Spanish guy who owns this and a few other petrol stations (and a few Repsol ones in Spain). He's also a motorcyclist (it's a Harley, but it still counts).
Santi persuaded me not to press on the 80 miles to Villahermosa (it was now 6pm with only an hour of daylight left) as there are roadworks with diversions over gravel, sand and mud. He was very proud of having built some very nice motel-style rooms and having a 24-hour restaurant, as well as a bar containing a small swimnming pool. So he installed me in a room and The Old Dear in his garage (next to his silver Audi Quattro), and he and his Mexican girlfriend Merla entertained me to dinner and many beers. In fact, Santi refused totally to charge me for anything and made sure dinner, beer, the room and my breakfast went on his bill. What a lovely chap. He's aiming to do round-the-world one day as well.
So the next day I found out how right he was about the roadworks, and made it around Mexico City (there's no ring road as such) to Teotihuacán to see the Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. When Phil posts the pix you'll probably be as grateful as I am that they're the last Mayan ruins I'm visiting, impressive though they are. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third-largest pyramid in the world after the Great Pyramid of Cheops at Giza and another one here in Mexico, which I'm not visiting. It's huge, and all built without metal tools or wheels. The view of it on Google Earth is pretty cool, too. Zoom down on N 19deg 41'33.01 W098deg 50'37.57.
It's always great to see old friends again, especially when they plonk a pint of Bombay Sapphire and tonic in your hand before you've even got your kit off.
Bruce (Grove, ex-colleague from Sun-IMP) lives in a gorgeous house on the outskirts of Austin (Texas), complete with cat and a garage big enough for several bikes (he has a Triumph at the moment).
Entering the US was fun. As I stopped at the Mexican border post at Ojinaga I realised my sidestand was hanging off. It's mounted on the rear engine mounting stud, and the nut had disappeared somewhere along the way. So I found a lamp-post to lean the bike against, kicked the stud back through properly, and tightened a cable-tie around the thread to stop it moving until I can do it properly. Meanwhile the customs man checked the bike out of Mexico, and all I had to do was cross the Rio Grande.
Big queue on the bridge. So I did the usual passing to the front, dumped the bike outside immigration and went inside. There was no clue as to queuing procedure or what paperwork was required, and most of the signs were in Spanish. Eventually I caught the eye of the sole immigration officer. Waving my UK passport I convinced him I wasn't either American or Mexican, and he grumpíly gave me the the green visa waiver form to fill in, the same one you get when you fly in. But he had to brighten up in the end because he kept addressing me in Spanish and having to apologise.
So I went back to the bike and merged into the queue of cars and trucks waiting to enter the US. There's no temporary import paperwork for the bike, but they're supposed to put your registration number into their computer system. Except that it can't cope with the number/letter format of British plates. So the guy gave up in the end. So I'm here but the bike isn't. Hope that doesn't cause a problem when I leave.
When I arrived in Creel for the Horizons Unlimited do the Dead Sheep was clearly past its best. It never got tanned, and I could never quite bring myself to pee on it. Oh well, never mind. But a nice chap from Guadalajara appeared and gave me Dead Sheep II, this time properly tanned and likely to last much longer. In fact I spent the whole week being completely spoiled by lots of US and Canadian riders; other than them and the Mexicans, the only foreigners were me, Lars from Norway on a 100GS outfit, and three British lads who turned up on Friday on a couple of F650s and (I think) a Transalp, all of them heading south.
I sang for my supper with some presentations, which were quite fun as people actually laughed at my jokes and asked sensible questions. The interesting thing was that of around 100 bikes, more than half were 1200GSs and half the rest were KLRs or KLXs. Only a couple of other airhead boxers, one being an original 1981 R80G/S like mine and actually the property of the rider's mum. Oh, and an immaculate Cossack Ural outfit.
There were even a couple of guys who recognised my name from the Chris Scott book (The Adventure Motorcycling Handbook) and asked me to autograph them. It was nice for me as well as I left the UK before the latest edition was published, so although there's a copy waiting for me at home I hadn't seen my words/pix in print before.
So, for the record, that's 50,828 (riding) miles, 2 years 47 days, 6 continents and 36 countries. And Rotary Clubs and geraniums are still top of the ubiquities list.
Well, I did warn you before I left.
Lone Star BMW in Austin are really, really helpful. Having bought a few bits and pieces there yesterday, I returned today for a pair of tyres and a few odds and sods.
A rather sad Josh came out of the workshop. They're not happy about the output shaft bearings, which, if you can remember that far back, is why I fitted a brand-new gearbox before I left Blighty.
Upshot is I'm here for another week. They've ordered the bits and will do the job as soon as they arrive, bless them (servicing for customers has a three-week wait).
I could risk it, and the box might last all the way home, but as the last lap is Africa I don't think it would be sensible, and in any case I know the kind of damage that can result if one of those bearings collapses suddenly. So I might as well get it sorted while I'm somewhere sensible; and Austin is pretty sensible.
On the bright side, I have the bike over the weekend, and tomorrow is Club night (tyre-kicking and tall stories) and Jay, who I met in Creel, is taking me to dinner at a good Italian restaurant.
Last Tuesday I went to Lone Star and bought bits and pieces to sort what I thought the minor-ish problems were.
On Wednesday I went back and had new tyres fitted. Having asked for 90/90 front and 110 or 120/90 rear and agreed to Pirelli Scorpions (as they had them in stock) I had them fitted, which is when they opined that I might have a gearbox problem. When I rode back to Bruce's place I thought she was a bit tall (had to plan my stops rather carefully) but attributed it to new tyres, lack of luggage, and the new dead sheep.
When I had trouble wheeling the bike around and heard mice, I investigated and found that the rear tyre was actually a 140 which is too fat and not only contacts the swinging arm/shaft housing, but hits the inside of the rear mudguard on big bumps. So I sort of mentioned this when I returned on Thursday for the Club night and to find out if/when the required parts would arrive.
Big apologies. "We'll replace the tyres with Trail Wings when you bring the bike in on Tuesday, no charge to you." (Monday is their day off, and Trail Wings are my fave.) Fine.
You know about the puncture and falling off (again).
I dropped in a couple of times this week. Yesterday - "Finished tomorrow." Brill.
Went round this afternoon. Josh was in Homer Simpson mode. Turns out that the noises they thought they heard from the gearbox were entirely due to the rear tyre being too big and rubbing on stuff, which at that point they hadn't realised, and in fact nothing's wrong. "Doh". Abject apologies for making me wait for parts which weren't actually required. Meanwhile they'd done all the stuff I wanted (rear main oil seal, pushrod tube seals, Trail Wings, new screen, pannier frame welding (again), full service etc.) and said I could probably pick her up around 6.
Rang in and Randy said "Aargh, electrical problems, we don't know what you've done to the electrics, aargh" so I went back in a taxi with my kit (being a hopeful soul). It was simply a couple of wires dislodged from the ignition switch inside the front cowling when I fell off, so that was easy. And everything else was done. Can't tell you. They even found a new indicator for me (there's only so much you can do with a broken one of those using gaffer tape).
And because of the hassle and everything they refused to charge me for the labour. I argued the toss because they'd been really helpful and fitted me in around their proper customers, but Josh insisted and even gave me a couple of T-shirts, which are rather good ones. In fact they bent so far over backwards I thought my luck was in.
So if you have a BMW or a Triumph and are anywhere near Austin, Texas, go to Lone Star because the coffee's really, really good. And Ardys Kellerman is usually hanging around somewhere - she's 74 and done the Iron Butt several times in recent years. Has a few stories to tell.
BTW, the puncture was a teeny-weeny staple-type thingy. Unbelievable.
PS to non-motorcyclists. The Iron Butt is a US-type thing where masochists do 11,000 miles in 11 days. Often with a dead sheep to sit on.
I've been learning all sorts of new stuff - the day before yesterday I fitted and wired a new bilge pump and float valve, and yesterday I was initiated into the mysteries of the kind of stuff you need when refitting a boat, during a mega shopping expedition with Stuart. We've fitted a new loo and shower, lots of electrickery, a mega sound system with speakers inside and out, new navigation kit, all sorts of stuff.
This is all because Dave Liddell (old friend and ex-employer) invited me to spend a few days aboard his RTW-capable racing trimaran, moored at Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf (of Mexico) coast, a little north of Corpus Christi.
Pelican John has been teaching Stuart how to do celestial navigation (using a plastic sextant); Jeff and Tom fitted a new forestay; and we declare the day over by walking to Shorty's for a well-earned beer or three. The Old Dear is parked on the dock by the boat, and attracts greater attention. The boat is currently called 'Unconditional Love', but is being renamed 'Aransas', which means 'Lost Souls' in Indian.
This morning we went for a bit of a sail, which was brill with a two-metre swell and having to avoid large tankers and things. We were accompanied by schools of dolphins and flights of pelicans, all of whom hang around in the marina a lot as well, in the company of blue cranes and the marina cats. Whenever the shrimp boat next door comes back the boss pelican hops up to watch the unloading in the hope of a freebie, and when he flies off the cats have a go as well.
I'll be here a few more days as I'm waiting for my new bank card to arrive, and anyway I really can't miss the beltsander racing on Saturday night at The Gaff (where Vanessa makes excellent pizzas). In fact, Stuart and I are considering competing as David's flying back to London tomorrow and we can bunk off work a bit.
I've been learning all sorts of new stuff - the day before yesterday I fitted and wired a new bilge pump and float valve, and yesterday I was initiated into the mysteries of the kind of stuff you need when refitting a boat, during a mega shopping expedition with Stuart. We've fitted a new loo and shower, lots of electrickery, a mega sound system with speakers inside and out, new navigation kit, all sorts of stuff.
This is all because Dave Liddell (old friend and ex-employer) invited me to spend a few days aboard his RTW-capable racing trimaran, moored at Port Aransas on the Texas Gulf (of Mexico) coast, a little north of Corpus Christi.
Pelican John has been teaching Stuart how to do celestial navigation (using a plastic sextant); Jeff and Tom fitted a new forestay; and we declare the day over by walking to Shorty's for a well-earned beer or three. The Old Dear is parked on the dock by the boat, and attracts greater attention. The boat is currently called 'Unconditional Love', but is being renamed 'Aransas', which means 'Lost Souls' in Indian.
This morning we went for a bit of a sail, which was brill with a two-metre swell and having to avoid large tankers and things. We were accompanied by schools of dolphins and flights of pelicans, all of whom hang around in the marina a lot as well, in the company of blue cranes and the marina cats. Whenever the shrimp boat next door comes back the boss pelican hops up to watch the unloading in the hope of a freebie, and when he flies off the cats have a go as well.
I'll be here a few more days as I'm waiting for my new bank card to arrive, and anyway I really can't miss the beltsander racing on Saturday night at The Gaff (where Vanessa makes excellent pizzas). In fact, Stuart and I are considering competing as David's flying back to London tomorrow and we can bunk off work a bit.
Unconditional Love' (aka 'Aransas') is a 37-foot ocean-going racing trimaran designed by Ian Farrier (http://www.f-boat.com).
In the last ten days I've learned an enormous amount about boats, and especially how they need to be prepared and how things should be done. I've previously sailed nothing bigger than a National 16, but just sailing a little way on one of these is fantastic. I've watched those sailing programmes on the telly (Ellen McArthur should be knighted) but to do little stuff when shouted at appropriately AND IT WORKS (like winchy things with the mainsail halyard, although not awfully well) is really, really satisfying. I've done a lot of electrical stuff , drilled holes (refused to do that to the hull because I don't want it to be my fault), screwed stuff on, sorted out wiring for the compass light, bilges, and navigation hardware (with help from Dave who has a brain the size of a planet but is in Thailand at present), and generally tried to earn my keep.
This is not a gin-palace (the shower still doesn't work awfully well, but we're getting a new pump tomorrow, and we have a loo now), but roomier than it looks, and pretty comfortable really. I mean, I'm sitting in the saloon at 9pm,writing this on my laptop while connected to the rest of the world via wifi (dunno where from but it's there) with a bottle of a rather nice Chilean Carmenere in front of me, with
Saint-Saens VERY LOUD on the stereo.
Stuart has tried to persuade me to sail to St.Lucia (or it may be Venezuela, he probably doesn't know either) on her with him (there's a safe place for the bike here in Port Aransas) but that would be a bit complicated as I only have one page left in my passport - the one I got in Santiago after the robbery - and need a new one before I go anywhere with big entry/exit stamps. Anyway, we'd probably kill each other before we got there.
So, with a bit of luck my new magic hole card will arrive tomorrow (thanks, Pauline), then all I have to do is make sure the strained muscle in my left arm is up to it (no idea what I did to it, but there you are), and I can head for New Mexico and Area 51 and all that stuff.
Ah, the beltsander racing. Totally bonkers. Great fun. Try http://www.gotothegaff.com
This island, Mustang Island, is host to just two Brits, myself and Stuart. There is only one town - Port Aransas, population 3370 - which is quite possibly the friendliest place on the planet.
The locals are also rather amused that we're both patrons of the Port Medical Center. Stuart had a buried splinter of steel in his foot and had to have it dug out (I tried and failed, but in my defence my concentration was affected by the screaming), and yesterday morning I finally gave up on my hurty bits and went to see what they thought was wrong with my left arm and shoulder, which have been rather painful for around 10 days.
I explained the symptoms and was examined thoroughly by the nice Dr. Novotny (family originated in Bohemia in the Czech Republic), then X-rayed. He thinks the bash on my shoulder when I fell off near Austin started things off, then I annoyed it further by heaving on stuff on the boat. The joint looks sort of wrong and there's a lot of inflammation. So the arm's in a sling for a few days and I have industrial-strength anti-inflammatories and painkillers.
Trouble is, the X-rays showed some strange stuff in the humerus, so they've been sent to a radiologist for an opinion. There's a sort of jumble of snail-trail marks, as though someone's gone berserk with an etching tool. Very strange. So apart from not being able to ride I have to hang around for a few days for the opinion and a diagnosis.
Interestingly, the doc seemed to have no problem with my diet regime (in common with Francisco in Coyhaique), and my soon-to-be-patented method of combined pain relief and physio for damaged shoulders - you remember, pulling the cork, lifting the bottle, pouring the Merlot/Cabernet/Malbec (und so weiter). He reckoned if it works for me it works for him.
I've moved off the boat for now, into a very nice motel round the corner, so I can walk to the boat and to Shorty's. The decorator comes in on Friday, anyway; nice Aussie lady called Reba, who's going to do out the heads and other bits and pieces, so it'll be full of dust and fairly uninhabitable.
We still need to install the new chartplotter, and small-worldery has kicked in. The Raymarine kit we've bought has not-very-good manuals, as you probably gathered, and one of the chaps on this list is Steve Hart with whom I worked at Sun. He's now contracting, and working for Raymarine, so can do some decoding for us if we get totally stuck. It's all to do with interfacing the Chartplotter, the Garmin GPS and a laptop, together with other gizmos, so isn't exactly straightforward.
Gosh it's fun.
You'll never have heard of Port Aransas, I'm sure, but I could definitely live here. Everyone is immediately friendly and helpful (much like most of the world, really), and it's so small everyone knows everyone else, and who we are, and where to go for stuff and who to see for things. The ferry is lovely, and right next to the marina; it comes over from Aransas Pass (it's only about a hundred yards across the water) incessantly, and is free. Yesterday an ambulance appeared and as it approached the ferry the few cars which had driven on were hurriedly reversed off, the ambulance drove on, and the ferry left almost instantly. You only have to wait about five minutes for the next ferry anyway.
By the way, thanks for the birthday wishes - 52 today and a bit if a do tonight at Shorty's.
Both the the boat and I have been slung.
(Photos are HERE).
Stuart motored to the boatyard at Aransas Pass yesterday, manoeuvred it into the dock, the slings went underneath her and she's now out of the water. So we've removed the daggerboard and steering gear for repair, Reba is filling, sanding and decorating, and we're getting on with some other stuff. It's very strange being on a boat six feet above dry land.
Internet access is a bit problematical here - there are no internet caffs as everyone has a computer, so I have to go down the road and find a wifi signal. Luckily there are plenty but they're often rather weak. Corpus Christi is installing a city-wide wifi network for everyone to use - how cool is that?
Shorty's isn't a liquor bar; they only sell beer and wine, but you can take your own firewater and buy mixers to go with it. I had a great birthday party there, and now have even more T-shirts to send home, including a Shorty's one signed by all the regulars.
Anyway, thought I should tell you this: it appears there's a bit of a problem with my left humerus. The radiologist has tentatively diagnosed an extensive infarct, which is a blockage of the blood vessels in the bone, and which is causing necrosis. I have to have a CT scan (in Corpus Christi) which can't happen until Monday or Tuesday because of Thanksgiving. I have not the foggiest idea of the implications except that it's a potential showstopper. I mean, dead bone can't be resuscitated, can it? The doc is great and admits he's never seen this before and isn't sure of any possible prognosis other than it's non-trivial. I'll just have to wait and see. And at least I'm not in Porvenir.
George said yesterday that my head looks like a campfire that's gone out. I rather liked that.
George is a friend of Pelican John, and they're constructing the nets between the bowsprit and the outriggers, complete with the Caribbean Dunny. This is a hole at one corner, Crew, For The Use Of. Oh, just use your imagination, OK?
Pelican John came round on Sunday evening with his guitar and entertained us all. He's very good. Stuart will be providing a video, which is definitely worth watching and listening to.
Jim and I had a long chat last week about bikes. He's an HD rider, of course (large, black leather, fringes, all that), but had no problem with me and The Old Dear. Jolly nice chap
Miss Rose is 80 and owns Shorty's. On Saturday night there was a street dance, and she arrived on the back of Jim's Harley, which was decked with red, white and blue ribbons.
On Sunday afternoon one of Jim's friends went round to see him and found him dead in his chair. There'll be one hell of a wake.
Jim is the manager of West Marine, where we're buying most of the kit for the boat. Another lovely guy, and as we see each other almost every morning he reckons I should just move in. It's only 20 miles from here (all the way to Corpus Christi), and I love driving the F150 pickup - Stuart rented it because he's gone native, and both of us are fully-paid-up rednecks now, and anyway we need it to cart stuff around.
Jeff is a magician. He knows all about boats, climbs up masts a lot, and has gorgeous legs. His invariable response to anything is "O-key-dokey."
And there's Janie our lovely landlady, Dennis (the Menace) at the marina, Steven the nice young doctor, Tessa the Mad Aussie and her husband Jim, Reba the boatcleaner, Jesse the odd-job man with the ulcer . . .
On Friday I had the privilege of launching 'Aransas', saying the time-honoured words and christening her hull with the appropriate liquid.
She's looking gorgeous now, with her polished hull and the new anti-fouling paint. All sorts of electronic gear has been acquired, and we think we can get it all up and running today, including the radar. I have a lot more wiring to do - so far nothing's gone bang after my ministrations, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed. It's all a matter of interpreting the Raymarine 'instructions' correctly.
Stuart's friend Ian has arrived, and between them they've persuaded me that it's a good idea to sail to Cancún and maybe Belize with them, probably Wednesday or Thursday depending on the weather (which is foul at the moment) and then fly back. Thing is, a) if I stay here I'll be bored until I can ride again, b) Ian's a doc and has had a play with my shoulder and has plans to do things to it for me, and c) it seems like a good idea.
So I've been kitted out with wetties and deck shoes, and Janie the landlady will look after The Old Dear till I get back.
I could quite get used to this sailing lark; it's a bit like the trip overall really - the good days more than make up for the really bad ones.
I only had to wear the wellies once, but that was for 36 hours including sleeping (plus full wetties and lifejacket). It's taken five days to sail the thousand miles from Port Aransas to Cancùn in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula.
We sailed from Port Aransas on Friday afternoon, and made good speed in 12-foot seas and rain. Ian was seasick almost straight away. Stuart felt bad but didn't actually throw up. I couldn't see what all the fuss was about myself. The chaps became increasingly convinced that I was seasick really but just very good at hiding it. But I slept like a baby in full wetty gear between the three-hour watches through the night and had no problems at all. I was the only one for breakfast on Saturday morning. We do watches at three hours, and at night we have a kitchen timer so if we're on autopilot you set it to ping every 15 minutes in case you fall asleep.
We had a small problemette on Sunday soon after we found some decent wind and unfurled the screecher: the halyard snapped at the masthead, and I had to learn fast how to keep us into the wind while Ian and Stuart retrieved it and reconnected it to the spinnaker halyard instead. It was just after this that Ian was getting the new sailbags out of the forward locker and found it full of water.
We unloaded everything into the head and hand-pumped the water out into the bilge. So far so good. Stuart investigated and thought it was probably a leak into the forward watertight compartment, transferring from there into the locker. We rigged up the handpump with a length of waste hose and pumped all the water we could find out into the bilges, dried everything off and tidied up.
At around 6 on Monday morning Ian was steering us through a rather nasty
rainsquall and 20-foot seas (with which the autopilot couldn't cope) while I kept watch on the radar scope. Stuart woke up to take over, upon which Ian noticed about six inches of water swilling around in the forward cabin. At this point the forward watertight was completely full and was overflowing via the locker under the forward berth and thence out into the passage beside the head. OK, so.
Ian (who should have been going off watch then) returned to the helm while Stuart and I stripped down to shreddies and set to work. We threw everything into the head, rigged up a spare bilge pump to a length of aluminium bar, attached four sections of waste hose with gaffer tape, and wired it to one of the batteries with several feet of cable and crocodile clips. With this jury-rig we emptied an estimated 200 litres of water into the bilge. Working on the hypothesis that the leak emanated from one of the bowsprit bolts, we furled and lowered the screecher, folded it and strapped it down on the starboard trampoline. This, as you can imagine, lightened the bows considerably and made the ride somewhat less bumpy. We celebrated with a cuppa, the squall having abated by this time, and while the chaps sorted themselves out I retaped the hoses, secured the wiring and generally tidied up. What appeared to have happened is that one of the bowsprit bolts had worked loose and started a leak, exacerbated by the force of the screecher halyard break (the screecher furler being on the bowsprit). The rest of the day was exceedingly uneventful, being spent mostly on deck in the sun in
minimal clothing with the autopilot taking care of things for us.
It was Ian's birthday on Tuesday, and to celebrate he cooked a great curry after we had another day in the sun, albeit not at great speed. We even caught a dolphin fish (no relation to dolphins) on the line strung out aft, but Stuart took too long reeling it in and it escaped. We have pix to prove it, though.
Tuesday night was spent avoiding fishing boats (the first ships we'd seen since leaving Texas apart from the odd tanker or bulk carrier), and on Wednesday morning the sky was clear again and all looked good. Ish.
First, Ian noticed that the fishing line was trapped somewhere. Of course, it was the sail drive because no-one remembered to reel the line in before starting the engine when we had to do a bit of motoring to a) tack and b) charge the batteries a bit. An aside here - on a boat this size and with the distances being covered tacking happens at most once a day unless the winds are very changeable; and we have solar cells but the radar takes a fair bit of juice, and of course there's our evening movie show on the flat screen telly (Apocalypse Now last night).
Anyway, I was back on the wheel while Ian donned the snorkel and investigated the fishing line, finally disentangling and cutting it from the sail drive. During this process he noted that the bowsprit was now hanging off the bow and should probably be removed before anything else fell apart. An hour or so later the bowsprit had been removed, everything tidied, and we were back under sail and under control.
Around lunchtime we encountered small fishing boats, 50 miles off shore along the northern coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The 30-footers shepherded small one-man dinghies dotted around the ocean, and we threaded our way through while the fishermen waved cheerily back at us.
Of course, life's never that simple. Ian and I were on watch that evening, and things were a bit quiet. We passed a couple of fishing boats, which turned on their lights when they saw us approaching - they were too small to register on the radar which meant we had to peer a lot through the gloom. The wind dropped and dropped, and Ian decided he needed to reef the mainsail. So I did things with winches and things while he heaved on other things, then did some steering. Only the wind wind dropped even further, necessitating starting the engine. This was going to be a challenge, because earlier we'd established that there was a problem with not only the throttle but the gear linkage, and gear changing and throttle control had to be done at the gearbox instead of the binnacle. As a precursor Ian decided we'd better drop the main altogether (we'd already dropped the jib) but were a bit hampered by the broken lazyjack, and which resulted in me steering in a tent formed by the dropped sail. And the autopilot was refusing to cooperate so I had to steer without the option. So eventually we woke Stuart as it takes two to do the mainsail in those circumstances and without the autopilot I was needed at the wheel. At around midnight we'd got sorted, but it had taken four hours altogether. I went for a bit of a lie-down.
By this time I've learned the naming of parts, can keep our head into the wind in the dark in a heavy swell, can man sheets, halyards and winches with equal facility, hauling them in the correct direction and securing everything that needs securing. And, of course, radar and other instrument interpretation and knowing when I can handle things and when to wake one of the chaps. I've been entrusted with solo watches and done three tanker encounters single-handed now - not all that difficult, and the radio officers appear all to speak English which makes things
easier. In fact, Stuart reckons that with the ocean miles I'll have done and the stuff I've had to do, I'd need only a few hours of instruction and a bit of navigation to do the RYA Coastal Yachtmaster certificate. He must be joking. The chaps were decent enough to give me lifelines longer than theirs, in fact long enough that I could stay connected to the cockpit and still get at the galley to do a brew-up. Wasn't that gallant of them?
But in between the exciting bits we've been accompanied by schools of dolphins and shoals of flying fish - I can't believe how far they can fly above the water. The occasional seabird drops in and lands on a trampoline to beg for ginger bikkies. And when there's enough wind and sun and we're sailing on autopilot we can lounge around looking at sea and sky and listening to very loud Bach organ music because the neighbours don't complain when you're 200 miles from land.
When I'm alone on watch in the middle of the night I sit in the cockpit
watching the masthead lights swinging gently against the starfield as the moon rises off the port bow; it's difficult to believe there's a whole world out there.
Stuart and Ian have admitted lying to me.
They thought I might throw a wobbly if I knew the seas were really 20 feet instead of only 12. Wobbly? Moi? Having far too good a time. Incidentally, the boat is "dry" in that absolutely no booze is allowed on board; frankly we were all too knackered to want anything other than catering quantities of industrial-strength coffee anyway.
Photos will be available before too long, I hope.
Anyway, having rather limped into port on Isla Mujeres, across the bay from Cancùn, we found that the bijou marina was part of the petrol station on the main drag, and separated from it by the bar/restaurant. So, we can more or less step straight from the boat into the bar.
The Port Captain was having a lunchtime cerveza so the paperwork was sorted pretty quickly and we decamped to a cheapo hotel, and thence to a rather better one after a couple of nights, which although still suffering the effects of Hurricane Wilma has fewer cockroaches, and balconies with a great sea view east over the Caribbean.
So tomorrow we motor round to the boatyard to take her out of the water (again) and effect repairs.
Meanwhile I visited the very friendly Consulate in Cancùn and have sent my full (although only 18-month-old) passport to the Embassy in Mexico City, who have said they'll try to get my new one to me by Crimbo.
So, dear readers, I'm afraid you're in for a rather boring time as I seem to be stuck without a passport on a Caribbean island.
A few days ago we'd finished repairs for the day and were imbibing a well-earned beer or three when a young backpacker couple approached enquiring about the boat and whether there was any chance of crewing to somewhere interesting.
Pictures and maps are HERE.
Katya is from Leipzig and is an industrial engineering graduate, and Augustas is a Lithuanian software engineer. They met in Spain, and their common language is English - obviously. I mean, no-one speaks Lithuanian except Lithuanians.
So they accompanied us to the boatyard where Aransas was yet again subjected to the indignity of being lifted out of the water and placed (very gently, by the Mexicans) on blocks. They took up residence on the boat and are working really, really hard; they ask about everything and are learning lots, just as I did when I started in Port Aransas. We gave them a Christmas present of a couple of nights in a decent hotel. We call them The Children to differentiate them from The Kids, who are Stuart's and arrived today.
The boatyard is next to a very expensive hotel with a marina, and as "residents" of the boatyard we get to use the pool and bar; the breakfasts are great. Alan and his Rumanian wife Alex have a big catamaran in the marina, and Alan and Stuart have a couple of acquaintances in common; Alan has a "skipper" (who isn't really as he can't sail and doesn't know anything about the boat) called Carl. He's the personification of Dobby; really, it's indescribable.
Anyway, Stuart and I have sorted out a few electrical problems on the cat (mainly involving me, being small, grovelling around inside one of the engine compartments trying to rewire one of the alternators and removing/bypassing the dead regulator), in return for which Alan invited us for Crimble lunch at the other expensive hotel yesterday; and jolly fine it was too. Alan can drink for England and is a very generous host.
So, we've refitted the bowsprit with new mounting brackets, the forestay is back up so I can go up the mast, without it falling over, to fit the new screecher halyard and jackstay. We have a proper climbing harness for this, as well as a bosun's chair which apparently is less comfortable. I've been doing more electrical stuff - new forward-looking sonar transponder and instrument head, new autopilot instrument (calibration was a nightmare, especially when I nearly knocked out Augustas testing the rudder whilst grovelling around inside the depths of the locker beside the chart table), trying to make sense of the battery monitor and solar panel controller readouts (still not really managed either of those as the manuals are the usual).
My new passport still isn't on the horizon (or the DHL tracking website), and although Stuart's trying to persuade me to sail to Cuba and points south (awfully tempting) I'll be flying back to Port Aransas as soon as the paperwork arrives as the shoulder's a lot better (enough to ride shortish days, I reckon) because, after all, I'm on a bike trip, not a boat trip. I think.
Stuart: "What's wrong with this b****y outboard?"
Me: "It's a two-stroke."
Stuart: "What's wrong with this b****y outboard?"
Me: "It's a two-stroke."
Stuart: "What's wrong with this b****y outboard?"
Me: "It's a two-stroke."
Stuart: "Wow aren't four-stroke aircooled outboards light and easy to start!"
All the work's been done. I've been up that 60-foot mast four times. Katya and Gustavas have made everything really tidy. The electrics and electronics all work more or less as they should (and it'll be my fault if they don't). All the leaks and broken bits have been fixed. Aransas is ready for anything.
You remember Santi, the Spanish chap who sorted me a bed for the night down south when I came back from Belize? Well, he was here in Cancùn when we arrived, and came over to the island with his girlfriend for dinner with us. It was great to able to do a proper thank-you to someone who'd helped me out.
I'm not usually a great fish-eater, but I've been converted. First there was the stuffed flounder in Port Aransas, then the barbecued barracuda that Alan caught, then Santi came over on Saturday and took me for lunch - wonderful stuffed grouper on the beach.
So this morning "Aransas" sailed for Havana and I sailed to Cancùn and got my new passport. And tomorrow I'm flying back to Port Aransas and The Old Dear. Santi's picking me up from the ferry to take me to the airport tomorrow lunchtime, Jeff is picking me up at Corpus Christi tomorrow evening, bless him, I'm getting my old room back at The Captain's Quarters, and Janie will be glad to get the space back in her lockup.
11:00 Isla Mujeres: Taxi to port.
12:15 Ferry to Cancún. 15 minutes late.
12:40 Arrive Gran Puerto.
13:20 Arrive airport and join check-in queue.
14:30 Check in and proceed directly to departure gate.
14:55 Surrender water bottle.
15:30 Take off 10 minutes late.
17:45 Arrive Houston. No food on plane. Airport has more defibrillators than loos.
Collect two checked bags, customs and immigration, surrender two bags for onward flight.
Have a bite to eat and buy more water.
Discover that I have to go through security again each time I want to go outside for a cig. This involves dumping toothpaste, water, and anything else remotely washkit-related. Remove shoes, fleece, laptop, phone . . .
16:45 Arrive at designated departure gate.
17:10 Discover flight now leaving from different departure gate several hundred yards away. No announcements or info, found out because a couple of other passengers were in same boat. Run.
17:20 Arrive new departure gate at scheduled take-off time. Flight delayed due to lack of captain and freezing rain.
21:20 Board plane.
Luckily sleeping bag in hand luggage as perishing cold. No water but get a glass. No food on plane.
00:00 Ring Jeff and tell him to go home. Continental at Corpus Christi tell him ETA 01:15, but he goes home anyway.
00:30 Captain arrives with paperwork.
01:00 Start taxiing around to join de-icing queue.
03:10 Leave de-icing queue because crew are out of working time under FAA rules.
03:30 Arrive at third departure gate, get off plane and get boarding pass for 07:30 flight.
All food/drink outlets closed until 06:00.
06:00 Coffee. Lots. Only food available is McDonalds or doughnuts. Not that hungry.
07:00 Board plane at fourth departure gate. Tool around airport for an hour to be de-iced.
08:35 Take off.
09:20 Arrive Corpus Christi. Hurrah.
One item of luggage missing, in common with around 10 other passengers. Can't imagine why, other than the four different departure gates involved at Houston. It's the tankbag, containing cameras, phone/iPod/camera chargers and sundry leads, bike docs, binoculars . . .
Jeff comes to the rescue and takes me for large plate of bacon, eggs and hash browns.
Noon Arrive at The Captain's Quarters to great welcome.
Take shower key back to harbourmaster (it's had a bit of a holiday).
Get missing bag back.
The temperature dipped down below 40F as I arrived yesterday, passing piles of snow at the side of the road. This morning the temperature dipped to 20F (that's -5C). So tomorrow on my way to Albuquerque I'll definitely be wearing the heated weskit. The usual winter climate in this region is described as mild. Yeah, right.
Pictures and maps are HERE.
There are strangenesses here. There is just one taxi in this moderate-sized town. There are no buses. There are alien eyes everywhere.
In fact, the longer I'm in the US the odder and more old-fashioned it seems. Apparently you have to pay extra to use text messaging on your mobile phone. I've had to buy my own Ethernet cable due to the scarcity of wifi and internet caffs. A brown sign at the side of the road says "Historical Marker" but without stopping you'll never find out to what it refers. Most bars only sell beer and wine. Campsites are miles from anywhere and have no loos or showers. Road number signs and speed limit signs are almost identical, causing occasional confusion. Having said that, speed limits are fairly liberal (so far - Texas and New Mexico) with 80mph on interstates and 70 on minor roads.
So I'm here finding out the Truth. Here is Roswell.
After a not terribly interesting time in Roswell I went and stayed with Dan in Los Lunas, a few miles south of Albuquerque. It snowed. And New Mexico licensing laws are even more arcane than those of Texas.
On the way I passed Bingham, which consists of two emporia selling 'trinitite', which is a glassy substance to be found around ten miles to the south on the site of Trinity, where the first atomic bomb was detonated. It seemed fitting, as I'd passed through Hiroshima on my way here.
Today I passed the Very Large Array. This set of radio telescopes featured in the film 'Contact' and is involved in SETI - the search of extraterrestrial intelligence.
I was heading for Flagstaff, but after riding through the first of several snow flurries and stopping for a coffee at Quemado, the Sheriff advised me that a severe storm was on its way and to head south to Phoenix.
Before I'd even reached the Arizona state line the snow thickened. I turned back and made it to the motel in Quemado just before the snow started coming down heavily. Dunno how long I'll be here.
I didn't tell you about another character I met in Port Aransas. Ron lives on his boat there for six months every winter, and drives around town in his immaculate 1954 Bentley. It's gorgeous.
I saw groundhogs in Texas, but that was a while ago.
None here today (apart from the usual film on the telly), and there was more snow overnight. The snowploughs came through again at breakfast time during a discussion about resurrecting the moonshine still hanging from the ceiling of the diner.
The reason for no booze here is that when the last bar closed because the owner died, the son sold the liquor licence out of the county and the law is that it can't be bought back into the county. So amidst the decisions on which chickens to buy mail order, someone is being dispatched to the nearest Wally World (50 miles away in Arizona) to buy cases of peaches with which to concoct something. I doubt Jimmy the Sheriff will argue.
In Texas, any given parking area contains at least 90% pickups, the rest being ordinary cars and RVs towing cars or 4x4s. Here, the proportion of pickups is about the same, the remaining 10% being largely tractors. The ATM is broken and awaiting parts, but plastic is accepted (of course) and there doesn't seem to be a problem with adding breakfast and dinner to the motel bill. Just as well, as I'm here for another night.
It's Groundhog Day.
I finally made my escape from Quemado despite a temperature of 20F, and made it to Arizona without falling off on any ice or snow, of which there was plenty still around despite the snowploughs.
Pictures and maps are HERE.
Once in Arizona I discovered a new brand of cigs called 'Montego Austin'; one assumes they don't have the historical baggage we have.
A couple of days and I was in San Diego, and after a gentle day riding around went north to stay the night with Tony and Sharon (who've been on this list for round 18 months). Poor Tony dropped his 1150GS on his foot in Mexico a week ago and has to have pins and plates on Friday. The scenario was rather similar to my Colombian soldier episode, only he didn't have enough Spanish to argue and the inevitable happened. So the GS, the Harley and the Ducati will remain unused for a while (what a nice playroom he has).
Anyway, I dithered about going to LA and finally decided I might as well so wimbled gently northwards. Most unfortunately there was a thick fog (probably combined with the famous smog) and 'gerall was visible - even the Hollywood sign was more or less obscured. But I rode up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards, which, amazingly, resemble rather dreary suburban high streets more than anything else. The only redeeming features are exotica like the Chinese Theatre. Very disappointing. The western end of Sunset is where celebs past and present have houses, and may be the only road in the US with bends. My tyres are wearing very square.
So I headed north-east on Ventura and bits of Route 66, then out into the Mojave Desert. The shoulder being a little angry slowed me a bit and I stopped for the night in a small town called Victorville. The hotel manageress got really excited so this morning I was descended upon by the local press with still and video cameras, resulting in a bit of a race on I-15 between me and the camera car. Great fun.
And at last I'm here in Sin City, staying, of course, at Caesar's Palace (not nearly as expensive as you'd think). Huge fun at the valet parking stand, where they finally decided I should park in the secure staff parking garage by the Pepsi machine. Elton John's on tonight but the tickets are horrendous so I won't do that. But I could be tempted by either Cirque du Soleil or (horrors but think of my age) Barry Manilow.
And yes, it's just as tacky as you'd think, although the Great Pyramid, the Eiffel Tower and all that stuff seem strangely bijou. I'll have a wander around town tomorrow to see the full horror - walking isn't illegal here and in fact appears to be positively encouraged judging by the number of pedestrian bridges over the Strip, not to mention the hotel rooms being about three miles from Reception. The receptionist asked about my favourite countries, and was so pleased when I mentioned Panama that she arranged a deal on the room while we exchanged reminiscences about places around where I stayed, and she used to live, in Panama City.
Sometimes things just work out brilliantly.
My alternator rotor died 50 miles short of California BMW, to where I was heading anyway. So down to sidelight for the duration, in pelting rain, but no having to stop for map consultations as I knew exactly where I was going, for a change. It's a bit weird being somewhere familiar after so long in totally strange surroundings.
Bless 'em, they helped me swap in the one I've been lugging around since Arequipa (Peru, remember?), and had a new pair of GS gloves for me in my size (predictably loads cheaper than in the UK).
What nice people they are. I'm taking The Old Dear back on Wednesday for an oil change and and check-over - they'll even give me a courtesy bike for the day as well.
Loads of old friends to see here, and not only that but Alec Muffett arrives tomorrow for a week. He's on this list and accompanied me on the first 20 miles or so of this trip back in 2004.
Then next weekend I'm aiming for an Airheads Rendezvous at Furnace Creek in Death Valley.
Non-Beemer peeps - Airheads are the old air-cooled boxers like The Old Dear, and the newer oil-cooled ones (like my 1200GS) are known as Oilheads. Surprisingly.
Had a great time at the Airheads Rendezvous in Death Valley at the weekend. It was one of those unorganised dos - camping space booked, but just turn up and do your own thing. Unlike British rallies the beer was free, although I went prepared having stashed a couple of bottles of Chilean Carmenere about my person.
The ride was spectacular, but hard on the frozen shoulder as it was nearly 600 miles because I did the pretty route. Getting the tent up was a bit of a trial in the dark and largely one-handed, but the erection survived mainly due to the lack of wind and rain and my foresight in tying it to a tree instead of guying it properly.
This shoulder (like the other one used to be) is a bloody nuisance. I've done a bit of research on this frozen thing, and there's an excellent and rather too accurate description at http://www.patient.co.uk/showdoc/23069093/ which hasn't cheered me up in the least. On the bright side the broken one is holding up well now, having got used to its new configuration.
There were 130 bikes at Furnace Creek, at least half of which actually were airheads, including around half a dozen 80G/Ss like The Old Dear. Lots of mods were apparent, engendering large quantites of esoteric explanations and discussions. One of the owners was Dutch, who invited me to stay a couple of nights at his apartment in Hollywood; so I did. He used to be an actor, which explains his domicile, and now does all sorts of other things; like photography using a Sigma camera (which utilises a unique form of digital capture - see http://www.sigma-photo.com/cameras/) with old Russian lenses to obtain remarkable results.
I'm back in Mountain View/Palo Alto for a couple of days now after riding up from LA on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH, Highway 1). It was cold enough to wear a sweatshirt and fleece with the heated grips on. It gets colder from here on northwards. I'll have to take it fairly slowly because of a) the shoulder and b) the weather, which has had much of the US under several feet of snow. Well, the bits without the tornadoes, anyway.
I stopped for fuel at a small town and again was told of bad conditions to the south. I thought I'd try anyway as I could always turn round again. But I didn't have to, thank heavens - there was only torrential rain for the rest of the way - and am back in Mountain View to dry out, warm up and rest the shoulder.
Anyone who did Latin O-level remembers the Elks and Bison chapter in Caesar's Gallic Wars Book VI. According to Caesar, the elks have no knee joints, so in order to go to sleep an elk will prop itself against a tree. The crafty Gauls come along and saw halfway through the tree trunk so that when an elk leans against it the tree and the elk fall over and neither can get up again. Then the crafty Gauls come back, kill the elk, cook it and eat it.
Anyway, it was when the carpet of hailstones reached around an inch in depth that I decided to turn south again. Stopping wasn't possible without falling over, but luckily the road was wide and empty enough to do a gentle U-turn and retrace my tyre track.
I'd made it to about 60 miles short of the Oregon state line and was clearly not going any further. I managed as far south as Laytonville, through hail and snow, and when I was about to refuel a chap told me that there were blizzard conditions further south and I should stay put. So I did.
North was clearly out. So were east and west, with chains mandated for any lateral roads.
This morning the temperature was 30F, and there was snow mixed with hail. I headed south anyway, through patches of blizzard. This is US101, which is major-ish and thus has enough traffic to keep things sensible after the ploughs have been through.
Meanwhile, I had the opportunity to observe a herd of wild elks, and to drive through the trunk of an ancient redwood; it's called the Drive-Thru Tree. I saw a picture of that in an encyclopaedia when I was about eight years old.
Now, you know me and plans. However, a brief consultation with the Weather Channel has decided me. I'm continuing south, will dip into Mexico and back at some point so I can get another 90 days (the Dept. of Homeland Security no longer allows extensions), and head through the currently rather overactive tornado belt to the Carolinas. How's that sound?
Despite my domiciliary proximity to the capital, I never managed to ride The Old Dear across London Bridge.
In the middle of a desert.
You remember that shot in the opening credits of 'Dallas' apparently shot from an aircraft racing across the prairie towards the futuristic-looking glass skyscrapers of the city?
Well, that's exactly what it looks like. Stunning. Of course, when you find somewhere safe to stop for a photo there are power lines in the way. One of those Immutable Laws Of The Universe.
The surprise is that the city centre (the skyscraper bit) is very bijou - can't be more than a couple of square miles at most. And 'gerall traffic even in the rush-hour. Made it easy to troll around looking for stuff to see, like the grassy knoll.
That end of Texas is very Norfolk, but gradually becomes more Staffordshire-after-heavy-rain as you pass into Louisiana and the bayous. And I thought Texans and Geordies were incomprehensible until I heard the Louisiana patois.
I'm not sure whether it's incompetence, deliberacy, or simply having better things to do, but all the 'Hurricane Evacuation Route' signs point towards New Orleans. Eerie, especially when they're planted beside acres of stripped and leaning trees.
Tomorrow's my day off - I've ridden 3,500 miles and every day for the past fortnight, I've found a reasonable hotel with secure parking within walking distance of what remains of the French Quarter of New Orleans, so I can put on my tourist trousers and go walkabout.
The USS New Orleans was moored just up the road - it's just been commissioned and is an extraordinary sight.
Most of the bars and restaurants have new floors and furniture, of course, and there are few signs of the Katrina disaster. Except, of course, the T-shirts bearing inscriptions along the lines of "Official FEMA Evacuation Strategy - Run Bitch Run". There is the occasional derelict building, and there are bits missing from some of the hotels (including mine).
I was introduced to La Petite Jolie, a charming young albino python who took a distinct fancy to me; she resides at the Voodoo Museum which contains a fascinating history of voodoo and has an extremely knowledgeable curator/owner. I have, of course, been dredging up my schoolgirl French as a surprising number of locals only speak the previously-mentioned impenetrable patois or French (or claim to, anyway).
The Quarter is full of art galleries, bars, and restaurants; there's plenty of art relating to Katrina, much of it ironic, some critical of the Government and FEMA (with good reason), and some just celebrating the fact that they're still here despite the catastrophe. The French Colonial architecture, most of it very freshly painted, is lovely, with ornate cast balustrades and fencing, beautifully-carved woodwork and some surviving polished wood floors.
It was after I was caught up in the St.Patrick's Day Practice March (in readiness for next Friday) that I'm afraid things became a little fuzzy.
I'm now a fully-fledged Pirate of the Conch Republic. After nearly a week as a slave I was initiated in a ceremony which involved a certain amount of drinking, and other stuff I'm not allowed to tell you about. The slavery bit was mainly cleaning Stan's mirrors and wielding the whizzer with appropriate ingredients to provide endless margaritas.
I was at the Pirate Rally on Sugarloaf Key, around 20 miles from US Highway 1 Mile 0 on Key West. A good gathering. You don't have to ride a BMW but it clearly helps. I was only there because when I arrived in Jacksonville I discovered (with Phil's help) that Stan was 500 miles south. So off I went.
A bunch of us designated a driver and went down to Key West on Saturday evening to see the sunset and join in the St.Patrick's Day revels. Mad.
Today I toured the Kennedy Space Centre. I always knew the VAB (Vehicle Assembly Building) was big, but it looks huge from six miles away. The view of it from my motel is from ten miles away and it still looks ginormous.
The tour includes launch pads 39A and 39B - think Apollos and shuttles, as well as loads of other stuff. The site is in a large wildlife preserve, with alligators, bald eagles, manatees and loads of different birds. In fact, most things are enclosed in alligator-proof fencing, and a couple of weeks ago one of the launch pads had to be closed down for two hours while they removed an alligator which had managed to get over a ten-foot fence which wasn't the gator-proof variety.
As you probably know, shuttle Atlantis has had to go back to the VAB for repairs, and the mobile launch pad on which the crawler transports the spacecraft to the pad is still at pad A from the previous launch as the crawler was supposed to be taking that back after the Atlantis launch. The 'road' from the VAB to the pads is mainly gravel, rather ripio-like, and still bears the imprint of the crawler tracks.
So I'm now on Plan [fill in your preferred letter here]. Atlantis is due to launch probably in late April. So after staying a few days with Stan in Jacksonville (major service time) I'll head north and try to make it to Canada by mid-April, when I have to be out of the US. I can then come back, get another 90 days' entry stamp (if the Dept. of Total Obscurity doesn't object) and come back down here for the launch. There are a couple of bike meets in June here in the US (BMWMOA and HU), then it'll be back to Jacksonville to do the shipping thing.
Or not, of course.
I've been having a cracking time here in Jacksonville with Phil's chum Stan.
Brill house with enormous amounts of garage and workshop space, loads of bikes, and the van and a Mini which Stan lets me drive. What a treat to drive a car with a manual gearbox again; splendid little car. And Ayree the Australian Shepherd plus a couple of moggies.
Meanwhile I've been doing all sorts of fiddly stuff to the bike - riveting (again) and sealing the panniers with 5200 (lesson learned from the sailing episode), sorting various oil leaks, performing a major service; and Stan's having my bent crash bar straightened (at last – a legacy from The Crash).
So I've been investigating my airfreighting options to Africa. And I think I've found the perfect people and a very nice young man called Andy who's extremely helpful. Thing is, you may remember that when I came into the US from Mexico the customs chap couldn't enter my registration number of his computer and didn't give me any paperwork for The Old Dear, making her an illegal immigrant. This, of course, creates a slight problem with re-exporting as the US Customs require all sorts of papers that I don't have.
And then, as we were talking, the solution came to me. Of course, I have to leg it to Canada at some point in the next three weeks in order to come back for another 90 days. So when I re-enter the US I will INSIST on proper paperwork for the bike, which should be a damn sight easier as the border crossings are likely to be a little more civilized and less chaotic than at the Mexican end. Problem (I hope) solved.
So here we are on Plan S (I think): finish sorting the bike and get thrown out by Stan, meander vaguely northwards (the weather's improving a lot up there now), see a bit of Canada (although I've been warned to be wary of fierce Canucks), come back for three or four gatherings in the general vicinity of North Carolina in mid-June (Horizons Unlimited, Airheads, BMWRA etc.), find a BMW dealer with a crate I can have, and get ourselves off to Cape Town around mid-July.
I'm afraid I was rather disappointed by the Everglades. Think Norfolk Broads, only warmer and with added alligators.
The Americans are claiming the credit for forcing Iran to release the prisoners. Naturally. And if you don't believe that, the other story is that the British grovelled and let the side down. Of course.
I also thought you should know that it's a really, really bad idea to let fire ants get inside your helmet.
Anyway, Stan took me to Stan's last Saturday to return the bearing extraction tool and get the bit you always forget when you order the new bearings. Stan extracted the spindle from the bottom yoke and said we should to get the orientation right when refitting because of the lock, but Stan pointed out that I no longer have a lock due to a road malfunction in Patagonia. Stan expressed surprise that the bearings had only lasted since then, upon which Stan explained the conditions obtaining in that neck of the woods and after that Stan seemed happy enough.
I'm on the RAC's radar, in the person of Paul Gowen who deals with such things, to sort out a new carnet for me, and I'll be calling in at the BMW dealer in Atlanta on my way through to make sure they keep a relatively-undamaged crate for me when I come back; the shipper flies from Atlanta (via JFK) to Cape Town with BA (still almost my favourite airline) so that seems a sensible course of action. Not something for which I'm particularly famous, but I have my moments.
Nine days left and counting; the nearest border is two hard or three reasonable days away. And, of course, it's started snowing around there again. Deep joy.
I managed the escape to Canada: 1200 miles in three days from Florida, and no snow; just loads of rain and bloody cold. But at least there was some scenery to look at once I entered the Carolinas and Virginias. Got a bit delayed by a magical mystery tour in Ohio (thanks Garmin) which was picturesque but chugging along slipping the clutch in first gear behind an Amish horse-and-buggy with double yellow no-overtaking lines for several miles when busting for a pee and nowhere to stop isn't really my idea of a nice ride in the country.
True to form, there was absolutely no immigration/customs bit in Detroit, so I paid the toll to cross the bridge to the Canadian, organised (at least as much as Mexico who are very very organised), friendly side, where the nice immigration man even took my green card and put it on a pile to be sent back to the US (they get fierce if they don't get it back and can refuse you re-entry).
The joke is that no-one on the US side checked my passport, so in fact as long as I was leaving by a land border such as this I could have overstayed as long as I wanted instead of worrying about getting out by Monday and risking deportation and refusal of re-entry (easy to lose the green card thingy). And judging by what I saw at the US side of the bridge, it'd be a challenge getting yourself and your bike stamped into the US. The whole system is complete bedsocks.
So that's 62,633 riding miles, 37 countries, 6 continents, 2 years 227 days. And I'm not even fifty-two-and-a-half yet. What on earth am I going to do when I grow up? And before anyone else gets in there, _IF_ I grow up. Nah nah nah-nah nah.
Only in America:
Do you buy booze and cigs at the drugstore/pharmacy.
Could there be a chain of fast-food joints called Fatburger.
Is it impossible to walk 200 yards from your motel to the nearest shop except on the road because they don't have pavements (sidewalks).
Are most of the TV ads for all-you-can-eat diets and heart drugs (and pacemakers).
Do gas stations advertise the fact that they have diesel (it's rarer than LPG in Europe except for the dump pumps for trucks which, clearly, are a bit, well, robust, for a car. Not that Americans have cars, of course. They all have these enormous SUV things. They need them. They have to shop at Wal-Mart.)
Is 24mpg (30mpg Imperial) regarded as excellent.
Does the self-scan checkout have Spanish as the default language (obviously excepting in Spain and Latin America). (Mind you, I seem to remember English being the default there once or twice.)
Are motels located miles from anywhere to eat or drink (and no taxis or buses either) because EVERYONE has a car, don't they, and doesn't mind driving another twenty miles down the road after a bloody long day? And that far from what passes for civilisation, what passes for a pizza won't get delivered.
Is the standard of driving so appalling (possibly excepting Iran where the lunacy is a bit off the scale but the country is otherwise totally harmless. Oh, and Bolivian and Equatorian bus drivers, who are raving lunatics).
Are the road signs so clear. Phew. Well, apart from most of Europe, obviously.
Is international TV news devoted exclusively to places there are US troops, so currently restricted to Eye-rak. Rest of the world? Is there one? Never heard of it.
And now I've been rude about them they probably won't let me back in. But despite their paranoia I have to say that's it's really, really easy to get into the US without papers or anything. Just do a land border. They haven't a clue; I had to go and find an immigration bod when I entered from Mexico and tell him what to do and which forms I needed to fill in. If I hadn't I'd have simply ridden through in the same queue as everyone else; you remember, the one where I asked the customs guy to sort paperwork for The Old Dear and who couldn't even get her number into the computer so gave up and waved me through. Same by sea. So long as you enter and leave by land or sea you can get away with anything. So much for the Department of Total Obscurity, oops, Homeland Security. Just don't try to fly there except in bare feet. Well, I think they allow socks.
The Canadians are really friendly, and you can taste the food because it's half the size of the US portions but the same price so you get extra flavour instead. Stan told me to be wary of the fierce Canucks, so I will, but hey, he's an Amurrican (his words, not mine, honest).
Been a long day. G'night
I was always aware that the shoe company Bata was vaguely east European. There was a branch in our high street when I was a kid, and they were famed for their sturdy leather sandals. I confess I thought they were Polish, but they're actually Czech, and now Canadian, and huge. I've seen branches in almost every country I've been to.
I spent this afternoon in the wonderful Bata Shoe Museum here in Toronto. Totally fascinating, with footwear dating back 5,000 years. And there were links to a lot of my trip so far; for instance, sandals excavated from the pre-Inca ruins I visited at Chan Chan near Trujillo in Peru. They run a design competition every year, and this year the winner was a young lady from De Montfort University in Leicester.
Yesterday I ascended the CN Tower, which is the tallest building in the world (over 1,800 feet - more than half the height of Snowdon (or should that be a multiple of Nelson's Columns?)). The lower observation platform (over 1,100 feet) has a glass floor section - not advised for those affected by vertigo. The highest observation platform is at nearly 1,500 feet, and was swaying a bit yesterday; not a patch on 60 feet up a mast in a climbing harness, though.
Anyway, I'm off to Montréal tomorrow, where I gather it's a hell of a sight easier to buy une bouteille de vin (must be the French influence).
Spring has arrived, all of a sudden. Montreal was at around 22C, which made the great piles of snow all over the place seem rather surreal.
And I've sussed the Canadian accent: it's quite subtle - sort of vaguely Scottish/Irish in that the 'ow' diphthong is pronounced 'oh'. For instance, 'aboat' for 'about' and 'oat' for 'out'. You have to listen quite hard, though.
So after some cogitation I decided to get myself on to the TransCanadienne and head west, more or less to see how far I can get.
After a snack stop west of Ottawa I was thoroughly enjoying the ride in glorious afternoon sunshine when there was a sort of bang and a graunchy noise, and the rear wheel tried to lock, which isn't ideal at around 75mph.
So clutch in, which didn't help much, and ground, literally, to a halt.
There is a particular, nasty, smell to over-hot EP90; the white smoke is a bit of a giveaway, too. I appeared to have a box-full of neutrals.
Put my helmet on the ground next to the rear wheel (standard N American distress signal) and practised swearing in ten major languages. A Vulcan stopped, and a nice chap called Rod took my details and went off home to ring for help, if possible from the BMW dealer in Ottawa. He came back having found the dealer and alerted them but unable to track down an available breakdown truck. While we were pondering, a police cruiser stopped and the nice young man telephoned Dwaine in Renfrew, who was out within 20 minutes.
Motor Sports World in Ottawa hung around to wait until we arrived at around 6pm and helped us get The Old Dear off the truck. She wasn't very cooperative, as the gearbox is either full of neutrals or has all the gears engaged at once depending on what you're trying to do. We discussed things a bit, and they reckoned 63,000 miles isn't bad for a gearbox really. I suppose so; after all they've been known to self-destruct at anything from 5 to 100,000 miles, or even never. I have one at home which lasted 90,000.
Thing is, when I changed the oil at Stan's place the old oil looked perfect - clean and absolutely no sign of water - and the magnetic drain plug had no more than the normal amount of swarf adhering to it. There have been no symptoms (like clicking when you wheel the bike backwards); no warning at all, in fact.
So now you know why I put the new gearbox in before I left home. So that it could explode somewhere civilised. And, of course, having bypassed Ottawa I've paid the price and have to be a tourist here for a few days.
Anyone know where I can get an exchange reconditioned box on this continent?
Finally tracked down a reliably-reconditioned gearbox in Ohio, which allegedly will arrive on Thursday. I'll be putting a new clutch plate in at the same time - ha'p'orth of tar and all that. Thanks to all who came up with suggestions and weblinks.
The squirrels here are black, and there's practically no traffic.
Ottawa is a little like Vientiane - about the size of Reading, which is extraordinary given that it's the capital of the second-largest country in the world. In the rush-hour there may be as many as three cars stopped at a red traffic light. It's a rather beautiful city.
It appears my gearbox is fine, despite the classic symptoms. The shaft has broken, which is highly unusual; the whole reason for having a non-Paralever model is that the shafts don't (usually) break. Sigh. Yet again I get a hitherto-unknown or rare fault. It's comforting to be able to swear in ten major languages.
I sorted the overcharging problem; as Phil surmised, it was the rather elderly wiring loom connecting the alternator, regulator, diode board and starter. So I constructed a new one and all is now well. I mean, I didn't mind having to switch all the lights on, but sometimes had to fire up the heated grips to keep the voltage down to a sensible level, which was a bit of a trial in Florida temperatures. I even fitted a high-wattage headlight bulb.
The licensing laws are even more arcane here than in the US. The only place one can buy Bombay Sapphire is a government liquor store; here it's the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), who also stock a decent selection of South American wine. But one has to then find a supermarket to get the tonic and limes.
At least my plastic works here for buying fuel, unlike the US where foreign-issued cards frequently don't work. And I've had to turn my brain over to kilometres and litres, which are generally more familiar; in the US I found myself converting from US gallons to litres to Imperial gallons to calculate fuel consumption and pricing, which is good for mental arithmetic but makes my brain hurt.
Do you remember that BBC programme years ago with James Burke, called 'Connections'? You know, the chap who was the sainted Raymond Baxter's straight man on 'Tomorrow's World'?
Well, there's a branch of Hakim Optical opposite my motel.
"Gosh, that's interesting" I hear you say.
Not so fast; cast your mind back to My Caribbean Adventure, and a stupendous floating gin palace in the marina on Isla Mujeres. It was owned by that jolly nice Iranian chap Hakim, aka Sir Karim Hakimi, who is not only a motorcyclist but owns a chain of giglamps emporia here in Canada. The one and the same. There's a thing. There's always something with a link to something else in this trip.
And due to one's clothing's propensity to disintegration, from the bottom:
Sandals from Las Vegas
Socks from Chile (a gift from Fabiola - Winnie-the-Pooh, of course)
Trousers from Brazil
Knickers from Texas
T-shirt from Mexico
Shirt from Tokyo
Not to mention consumption of a frame, front suspension, a front wheel and brake disc, an engine bottom, a driveshaft, nine pairs of tyres, two GPSs, three windscreens, a mirror, a crash helmet, a pair each of summer and winter gloves, a tankbag, a dead sheep, a set each of valves/seats/guides, piston rings and rocker shaft bearings, but only one headlight and stop/tail bulb; around 8,000 litres of fuel, about 400 litres of engine oil (never mind transmission and fork oil), quite a lot of wine, and a modicum of Bombay Sapphire.
Anyone who says they can do this on the cheap is riding round a completely different planet.
So, the new shaft arrived, and (eventually - lack of appropriate special tool, I gather) was fitted this morning. The UJ on the old one was a complete mess. Anyway, having recovered from the shock, stashed the spare clutch plate I'd ordered just-in-case, and ridden back to the motel, I was doing a little light luggage rearrangement. "I'll just have a little check over things" I thought; "Can't be too careful".
There's a big rubber boot covering the join where the gearbox output flange is bolted to the shaft. There's a socking great split in it, on the top. I cannot believe the mechanic, sorry, technican, didn't notice it. Possibly he did and thought I wouldn't. One very fierce phone call to the dealer later and they're having one couriered to arrive tomorrow morning. I'll have to fit it myself as they're booked solid, but I'm past caring.
I stayed at Wawa. Can't believe that.
(Remember, pix are here.)
The western part of Ontario is stonking. The TransCanadian winds its way through forests and beside lakes. Brilliant. Then you get to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Almost as boring as Texas. Prairie, flatter than Norfolk, featureless, windy, dead straight roads, Patagonia is more interesting, and not only in the Confucian sense.
But when one of my ignition leads gave out ten miles from Moose Jaw, I plodded on one cylinder to the petrol station and the owner opened the huge workshop door and helped me push The Old Dear inside out of the rain so I could construct a new lead and get going again. Lovely chap, kept giving me coffee and cigs. And I'd stopped earlier, just out of Regina, for a broken Harley, and the guy was gobsmacked because everyone else (including the local H-D dealer) had passed him by. Broken drivebelt. Chums on way so OK, but he was ever so effusive in his thanks that I'd stopped.
I always ask for Senior Discount - worth at least 10%, and I've only been asked for proof of age once. I imagine the grey hair is fairly convincing. There are definite advantages etc. etc.
There was a man from Truro at Wawa. Usual conversation "British numberplate, where are you from, how did you get here" etc. Nice chap.
But the Canadian radio journalist said "Obviously, you shipped the bike here." Er, no, actually. No shipping since that little flight over the Darién Gap. "Where's that?" etc.
Forest fire in Ontario. Helicopter carrying buckets of water. Apparently it had spread from Minnesota or somewhere (geography's a bit hazy, omigod I'm not turning into an American am I?).
So, in Medicine Hat tonight and on into the Rockies tomorrow where I hope to bump into Don and Pauline and their daughter and son-in-law, somewhere near Lake Louise but I'm not sure. A bit knackered 'cos I've done over 2,000 miles since leaving Ottawa on Thursday afternoon.
Been a long way this week.
Left Canada on Wednesday morning with the 11th pair of tyres and an oil change (thanks to SouthWest Motorrad in Kelowna, lovely people). Did battle with US Customs and Immigration. I was the first alien of the day so they had to reboot their computers. After much consultation they still can't give me temporary import paperwork for The Old Dear, so I'll have to do it by the seat of my pants to get her out. It all took an hour so was nearly like a proper border crossing.
Got snowed and hailed on in Montana, but the scenery was spectacular. I missed Idaho 'cos I blinked. Wyoming was nicer weather (not much rain and not quite as cold), completed with a Close Encounter of the Umpteenth Kind. Saw four Dead White Males in South Dakota. And now I'm in Iowa. That's only 1630 miles in the last four days, but the shoulders get to me. Only one time zone to go to Florida and the shuttle launch on June 8th. Memo to self: ring Stan to check that my ticket's arrived.
"That's a British numberplate."
Chap from Birmingham, goldsmith, living in Kelowna (BC), with jewellery shop. Very interested in my Peshawar/Singapore earrings.
"Do you know about Horizons Unlimited?"
"See the back of my helmet."
Chap hosting HU meet in Canada later this year at Toad Rock, encountered at a petrol station in Kaslo.
All the inland ferries in Canada are free - the one from Kootenay Bay to Balfour is five miles and half an hour, and the longest free one in the world, apparently. The coffee's good, too.
Oh, and I had a great couple of days with Don and Pauline, and Dana (their daughter) and Alan and sprogs, at Kootenay Lake in the Rockies in BC. Don and Pauline live 200 yards from me in Thatcham, are also BMW owners, and are in the process of emigrating to Canada. Sensible people. I favour Argentina myself; the weather and wine's better.
What the USA does really well:
- Beds (fantastic)
- Road signs (generally superb)
- Abstruse licensing laws (more impenetrable than South American one-way systems)
- Patriotism (although gets a little wearing at times)
- Getting really, really close to interesting stuff without having to leave your vehicle (saves time if you're on a tight schedule and wetness if it's pissing, but I could do without the obligatory McDonald's drive-thru on the way)
- Strange nomenclature (e.g. our biscuit is their cookie; their biscuit is our scone; gas may be petrol or it may be propane, or both, who knows)
They're up in arms about the sky-high price of fuel (again, still) but it's only around 40p a litre ($3/USgal) which is the global average in my experience. They regard 30mpUSg (=UK 36mpg) as really good consumption. They'll get the plot in the end, no doubt.
Gosh, I'm excited.
The latest update shows near-perfect conditions at Cape Canaveral for the Shuttle Launch in 12 hours' time.
When you get a ticket it's for a specific launch, irrespective of date. So I bought a ticket in March not knowing when the launch would be, on the premise that if I couldn't be here Stan would bite my hand off to use it. But I've been really, really lucky. I've dreamt of watching a rocket take off from the Cape for nearly 50 years.
When I was at the Cape in March and did the 'Up Close' tour they told us that anyone closer than three miles away from the launch pad would probably be killed by the shock wave, so the viewing site is six miles away. If I manage a pic or two there'll only be a dot, I'm afraid.
So I'm about to leave for the Cape (I have to be there at one o'clock with my special pass). Stan has lent me his lovely Mini Cooper S (British Racing Green and huge fun), and I'll be back early tomorrow to pick up the bike and shoot up to the BMWRA (BMW Riders' Association) Rally at the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina, where Stan and Phil the Boxerman have promised to reserve a tent pitch for me close to the margarita supply.
First you see a brilliant light on a trail of white smoke rising above the trees.
Then a few seconds later you hear the incredibly loud roar of the engines.
Then you feel the shock wave rattling your clothes, and the ground shaking.
We could even see the fuel tanks being jettisoned and falling back to Earth.
Atlantis was in orbit before I'd even legged it back to the car.
The Wow Scale has been recalibrated again.
Photos are here.
I've been working. No, really.
At the Horizons Unlimited Travellers' Meeting in North Carolina I ended up doing around three hours of presentation plus loads of Q&A, and still haven't got my voice back properly. The Old Dear did her bit as well acting as a model example of how to set up the bike's ergonomics properly.
I spent the previous three days with Phil the Boxerman at Charlie's farm in Virginia, in the Appalachians close to the Tennessee border. What a nice chap, and such a treat eating proper food from the garden and steak from his own cattle. Not to mention just sitting on the porch beside a mound of cats and kittens, watching the woodpeckers and humming birds.
The it was a swift dash across the state to the Airheads' Gathering of the Clans, where Phil did a proper job on my rear main oil seal as a tech session, beautifully sited in the campsite bar (which also means I owe him another case of Paddy's).
Now I'm back at Stan's place in Florida, doing the shipping paperwork and other mundane stuff like sending parcels home - don't think I'll be needing the winter kit for a while, really. The RAC are FedExing my Carnet, spare parts for 'stock' should arrive today, Amazon are sending the Lonely Planet for South Africa together with the complete Blackadder as a thank-you to Stan. Then as soon as all that's sorted it's off to Atlanta to be crated again (hopefully the last time) and to do battle with impenetrable airline baggage rules.
Yesterday was fun - third crating experience, different yet again from the previous two. Had to do a bit more dismantling this time than previously as the crate is a tad smaller, but it all jigsawed in satisfactorily in the end.
The only Hazardous Cargo stuff I had to do was to let down the tyres a bit, make sure the tank was less than a quarter full, and disconnect the battery. This is because she's going on a cargo flight instead of a passenger flight, probably via Washington.
Blue Moon Cycle in Atlanta provided the crate, lifting device and nice young man to help, and two hours later we'd finished. With luck The Old Dear is now in a bonded warehouse at the airport and will be winging her way to Johannesburg within a day or two. Nothing will happen today, of course, as it's Independence Day and everything's closed. So with a bit of luck I can fly on Friday, probably via Dakar (the alternatives are Washington or Paris CDG, aargh). In fact, if you plot a Great Circle from Atlanta to Jo'burg, Dakar is almost exactly on the route.
I wish I hadn't sent my Winnie-the-Pooh hot-water bottle home - it's freezing here at night, and there were three inches of snow last week.
I'm back into serious oeno-research mode again, and find that a perfectly drinkable dry red costs less than a fiver for a 1.5-litre bottle. Which is nice.
As you may have surmised, I'm in South Africa (Johannesburg), which makes it seven continents (so that's all of them) and 38 countries, and now just two hours ahead of GMT. First impressions are of a friendly place, with everyone introducing themselves by name with a sunny smile (like Alfred the taxi driver), mirroring South American courtesy.
The challenges now are paperwork for The Old Dear, who allegedly flew to JFK yesterday and should arrive here on Thursday, and to re-learn riding on the left. I've spent more than two years on the wrong side of the road, and am having difficulty getting to grips with everything being the other way around. By sheer luck I've managed to pick a hotel a mile from a big BMW dealer, which will make it easy to get herself checked over and fit new tyres before I get on the road again. I like to do that after uncrating just in case I've missed something - you can't beat a jaundiced eye to spot nasties.
The Old Dear missed her flight connection in Luxemburg (I think she did it deliberately in order to have a bit of a gallivant) so didn't arrive until a week later than scheduled - James Cargo knocked 10% off the bill for the hassle, bless them. Roddy's a good chap (and a biker).
The agent in Jo'burg, Junaid dealt with Customs and even stayed late on Friday night so I could uncrate and ride away.
Then yesterday morning I beetled round to the BMW dealer to see if my tyres had arrived. Not only had they, but they fitted them straight away (that's the 13th pair). I couldn't believe the bill - 70 quid for a pair of Trailwings, fitted, including new inner tubes, and at a BeeEm dealer. Blimey.
The driving here is of the Italian persuasion, so riding back from the airport in the dark in a distinct dearth of streetlighting and on the wrong side of the road was quite stimulating.
So I'm off to Lesotho tomorrow, and my first 'proper' border crossing since last October (Mexico/US). Last I heard Ewan and Charlie were in Uganda, so I reckon I've a good chance of avoiding them.
I hope none of you have floated away. The flooding is the major item on the domestic news broadcasts here.
And for your delectation and delight, and for a giggle:
The Cape Times (Cape Town)
"I have promised to keep his identity confidential,' said Jack Maxim, a spokeswoman for the Sandton Sun Hotel, Johannesburg , "but I can confirm that he is no longer in our employment". "We asked him to clean the lifts and he spent four days on the job. When I asked him why, he replied; ' Well, there are forty of them, two on each floor, and sometimes some of them aren't there.' Eventually, we realised that he thought each floor had a different lift, and he'd cleaned the same two twelve times. "We had to let him go. It seemed best all round. I
understand he is now working for Woolworths."
The Star (Johannesburg)
"The situation is absolutely under control," Transport Minister Ephraim Magagula told the Swaziland parliament in Mbabane . "Our nation's merchant navy is perfectly safe. We just don't know where it is, that's all." Replying to an MP's question, Minister Magagula admitted that the landlocked country had completely lost track of its only ship, the Swazimar: "We believe it is in a sea somewhere. At one time, we sent a team of men to look for it, but there was a problem with drink and they failed to find it, and so, technically, yes, we've lost it a bit. But I categorically reject all suggestions of incompetence on the part of this government. The Swazimar is a big ship painted in the sort of nice bright colours you can see at night. Mark my words, it will turn up. The right honourable gentleman opposite is a very naughty man, and he will laugh on the other side of his face when my ship comes in."
At the tollbooth there were a couple of bikes in front of me. Naturally, a ciggie stop was in order after paying the toll.
"We're going to the Dragon Rally down the road."
"Can I come too, please?"
"'Course you can."
So I went to the Dragon Rally not in Wales with snow. Christo, Victor, Quintin and all the others made me very welcome, dispensed large amounts of cold beer (Windhoek - jolly nice) and generally looked after me. Obviously, there was a man from Torquay as well (Chris). I even won the long-distance award (which was cheating really).
The Kingdom of Lesotho is a fine place. Like Laos it has three paved roads and dirt roads in good nick. Spectacular scenery, friendly people, highly recommended. Phone boxes are tin huts with 'Public Phone' in brightly-painted letters.
When I came back into SA the border chap looked at The Old Dear. "Can I have a ride?"
I looked him up and down.
"Nah, your legs are too short."
Collapse of stout official.
Ladysmith and Rorke's Drift were interesting, of course, and General Buller's Rest Lodge in Ladysmith can be recommended for an overnight stay or two.
The pair of us limped from East London to Port Elizabeth today. Me because crossing the Transkei yesterday was in a brutal crosswind of Patagonian proportions requiring a lot of heaving just to keep vaguely somewhere on the road, and She because not only has the oil leak got worse again but the charging system (yet again) went intermittent. It's also bloody cold.
We arrived in Port Elizabeth very close to the BMW dealer, and stopped in a car park to investigate. Chap in a 4x4 stopped next to me. Nigel, has an R1150GS, took me to the dealer, and is coming round for a G&T tonight. The dealer is brill. No mechanic who knows airheads (as usual), but they let me use a lift and general workshop facilities, providing help and excellent coffee where necessary. They even insisted on a nice 735 with a William to take me to an hotel (and Will will pick me up again tomorrow morning).
Robots are traffic lights. I kept seeing 'ROBOT' painted on the road and it took me ages to suss it. Doh.
Everyone here in SA is so friendly and helpful.
I've had dozens of offers of meets and beds from bikers all over the place, and the dealer here in Port Elizabeth (Continental Cars) was brilliant.
(Remember pix are here.)
They instantly gave me a lift in the workshop so I could work on the bike. They supplied help where needed, drivers to take me around, a loan bike (on which, most embarrassingly, I managed to drain the battery), found a lovely old boy who did a splendid job of repairing an alternator rotor and BOTH stators for the princely sum of about 70 quid, and a total clean of She. And then refused to charge me despite my waving of plastic under their noses.
Nigel took me to Addo Elephant Park on Wednesday, where we saw heffalumps, kudu, warthogs, and zebras, then I was whisked off to the Syndicate Bike Club meet in the evening to drink lots of beer and kick tyres.
So I have a repaired alternator, and have resealed the right-hand cylinder base and fitted new pushrod tube seals. If that doesn't stop the leak I'm stumped. There's nowhere else the oil can be coming from except the breather (there was a modicum of oil in the airbox). So I may just have to put up with it. Es la vida, as they say.
There's a couple of fronts coming in (I can see one out of the window) so my ride down the Garden Route is likely to be a bit wet. In a couple of days I'll be in Cape Town and the start of the Cape-to-Cairo leg.
It was all rather silly, really.
I stopped for a photo, and did what almost every motorcyclist has done at least once.
It was gravel. Having stopped, I put my feet down, and my left one slipped and I and the bike fell over. It's just that I caught my wrist awkwardly.
A couple of chaps in a bakkie (pick-up) stopped and helped me pick up the bike. I just thought I'd sprained the wrist. Had a ciggie, then got back on the bike and carried on. It hurt a lot, but at least one can do clutchless changes easily. Stopping meant gauging the moment and simply stalling at the appropriate moment. Starting meant using my right hand to put my fingers around the clutch lever then pulling the right-hand bar back with my left arm rigid, and screwing up my eyes as I let the clutch out.
It was 200 miles up the road that I saw the first red H sign at the turn-off for Springbok, and that for Annie's B+B which instructed me to follow the H, so that was easy. I managed to time myself at the robot (traffic light) so I didn't have to stop, and ground to a halt in the B+B car park. I got off the bike and more or less collapsed in a heap. The owner is Pet, who has been magic. She gave me a big mug of coffee, then sent me round to the hospital. They strapped me up and told me to come back in the morning for an X-ray.
There were no rooms available so I slept at Pet's flat. Thursday morning I went back to the hospital and was filmed.
"It's a Colles fracture. We see a lot of these in older women."
"Are you calling me an older woman?"
"Er, well, anyway, report back to the operating theatre at noon so we can reduce it, and don't eat or drink anything."
So I did, and didn't.
After being sedated, manipulated and plastered, they had one of the security guards walk me back safely round the corner, where Pet revived me with a large G+T.
The shippers have been great, and Pet found a local guy who's taken the bike to Cape Town to the agent there, from where it will be on a ship to arrive in (probably) Felixstowe in a couple of weeks or so.
Getting me to the Cape is a little more difficult - no air taxi, and I don't fancy the overnight chicken bus or a crowded minibus taxi in my state. But Pet's found a lady driving to Stellenbosch tomorrow morning who'll take me, and I can get a private taxi from there. I'll need to find a hospital and get a fibreglass cast - this plaster weighs a ton and is extremely uncomfortable.
The hospital seemed unable to charge me for anything but the X-rays, so I'm making a donation if I can catch Matron in her office. Cecilia the theatre nurse (a motorcyclist) came to see me at Annie's and is arranging that for me.
Reg and Mo are in Poland until the end of next week, so I'll fly back then and stay until I can get back into my house in November. And Des and Marina in Velddrif have said that when I come back to do the Cape-to-Cairo leg I must start from their house. Marina's an artist, and I've asked her to paint me and The Old Dear.
It will happen - just not at the moment, I'm afraid. I'm just pissed off that I haven't been able to do the whole circumnavigation in one hit, as was the intention. But at least I've managed to visit all seven continents, which in itself is an achievement. And 39 countries, 12 pairs of tyres, 8,000 litres of petrol, three GPSs, 74,000 miles, three years, six broken bones, a language, the ability to swear and say thank-you in around a dozen others, and made loads of new friends in many countries and most continents (all of them if you count the penguins).
But I couldn't have done any of it without the help and encouragement of you lot. It's been a privilege. Thanks is not enough.
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