In May 2017 I hiked the Offa’s Dyke route from Prestatyn in north Wales to Chepstow down in the south. It was a hard old slog carrying all my kit and free camping along the way, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite the blisters and sore feet and vowed to do another walk in England one day.
So, in May 2018 I flew back to the UK and was lucky to enjoy some bright and sunny weather as I yomped the “Coast to Coast” that stretches from the west coast of the Lake District (St. Bees) to the east coast (Robin Hood’s Bay), crossing the Lakes, Yorkshire Dales and North Yorkshire Moors.
The start at St.Bees… begins with a walk around the coast and then east up into the Lake District
Traveling from London via Carlisle on a very slow train, I arrived in St Bees at about 5 pm, and had 16 miles of hiking ahead of me across farmlands in pleasant evening sunshine to get to my first camp in the gardens of the Fox and Hounds at Ennerdale Bridge… and the first of several steak and ale pies.
I was using my new Tarptent Moment DW single man tent and a Hyke and Byke Eolus 800 goose down fill sleeping bag I ordered from the USA to keep weight to a minimum. I suffered somewhat on the Offa’s Dyke and I made a concerted effort to reduce backpack weight by 10 Kgs.
Later on when absolutely howling and pretty chilly up in the North Yorkshire Moors I used a silk bag liner for extra warmth, but for now I was comfortable.
Setting sun behind me and heading east into the glorious Lake District
My first camping site — in the garden of the Fox and Hounds Pub at Ennerdale Bridge
The next day I was up at 5.00 am, partly because of the eight hour time difference between the UK and Hong Kong, and partly because it was already light. By 6.00 am I was packed up, looking east, and heading towards Ennerdale Water.
I planned to walk 23 miles across the hills and valleys to Grasmere… and I did… including an extra 3 miles detour up and down a roller coaster ridge route, as recommended by a local hiker who told me, “the view is better”.
Possibly. My feet thought otherwise.
Early morning at Ennerdale Water
Walking along the south side of the lake, that included a rather interesting rock scramble!
Following the lake shoreline path… but at this part I have scramble up some rocks high above the lake
Quite a steep bit of rock climbing, but not for very long before the path resumed
Back lower down walking along the lake shore
Looking back across Ennerdale Water
Resting up for a while and taking stock of the scenery
Lots of crystal clear streams and rivers
I often filtered and drank the water directly from the waterfalls
And back up again
Am I to climb up there? — according to the route map, yes
Still climbing… lots of water … which is why its called the Lake District
Down the other side
A welcome sight … a rest, a wash in the river, and a pot of Yorkshire tea.
That’ll be the path then
A glimpse of another lake at the end of another valley
A very embarrassed and exhausted man lugging his bicycle up a very remote and boggy mountain.
Although it was the second day, I had been hiking for less than 24 hours and had made about 37 miles when I came across a spartan and remote youth hostel called, “Blacksail”. It was being managed and looked after by a young couple and I was able to buy a hot drink and a piece of cake. Just before leaving I double checked on directions ahead as my friend Kieran Hale (former RHKP and keen hiker) said that at this point it was easy to walk off on the wrong trail. (Thanks for all the tips and advise, Kieran).
Following his advise I took the less obvious left hand path and started a climb, not dissimilar to climbing Sunset Peak on Lantau Island where I live, possibly not as high, perhaps 600-700 meters, and much cooler, with the Hong Kong snakes and kites replaced by English sheep and buzzards.
As I was climbing I bumped into a hardy looking fellow dressed in old style hiking kit with a face that had been exposed to the Cumbrian wind and rain, rather than computer monitors and fluorescent lighting. As I approached him he was laughing and cackling and pointing up the hill to a solitary figure that was making hard work of lugging a mountain bike up the steep path.
He couldn’t help himself laughing, but also expressed concern that the “idiot” was going to kill himself. Looking up at the struggling figure he said, ‘Keep an eye on that one… he’s got lost… he thinks this is a bridle path’.
I consulted my map, and in fairness it did say “bridle path”. That said I assumed the bridle belonged to a mule or a donkey!
The old Cumbrian continued, ‘He is in even more trouble when he gets to the top…its just bog for miles and miles…no way he can ride that bike’.
I waved goodbye to the hardly hiker and quickly caught up with the hapless cyclist dressed in finest black lycra and lugging the sort of bicycle you would buy in a supermarket like Asda, certainly not one of those expensive downhill jobs I see back home on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.
He was in a right state, huffing and puffing, and had obviously rehearsed the, ‘Don’t laugh’, when he greeted me.
I walked with him and kept him company as he struggled with his bicycle up the rocky steep trail and when we got to the top felt really sorry for him when it became clear that the plateau was an endless and very soggy “bog”. Bog and nothing but peat bog for miles. Fair play to him, he struggled on, navigating across fast streams and occasionally going knee deep into pools of deep black peat, and struggling to haul his machine out covered in mud.
I had been told by the “local” chap earlier on that the valley route to Grasmere was very wet and that if I had time I should continue to climb and follow the high ridge route, which I did, and which at the end of 20 odd miles of hiking I could have done without. It was like a roller coast, up and down steep climbs, with Grasmere in the distance seemingly getting no nearer, and if anything, further and further away.
Anyway, I eventually reached the end of the ridge in the early evening and scrambled down the steep scree path and into Grasmere, which I instantly took a dislike to. Its a pretty enough place, but seemed far to touristy and expensive. I decided I would push on even though it was late, but first I needed some food and hauled myself and hiking kit into a pub for beer and nosh.
Smile or a grimace… pain or joy?
You take the low road and I’ll take the high
Lamb shank and a pint of local bitter after a long day of hiking. There is nothing better than really earning your food.
Aerial shot of Grasmere
After dinner, it started to drizzle and so I hiked out of Grasmere and headed for the hills where I found myself a free camping spot next to a sheep hut half way up the mountain. As I was setting up my tent the weather deteriorated and really start to rain. Inside my tent it was doing a good job and I was inside my sleeping bag and asleep in no time.
It rained and howled all night, but by sunrise it was blue, sunny, crisp. As I was packing up my tent I could see the first of the B&B hikers with their day packs starting out along the C2C route.
I caught up with a gaggle of hikers and exchanged pleasantries. Surprisingly, there were many Americans and Australians doing the hike. It seemed the coast to coast is a lot more famous than the Offa’s Dyke hike. Why? No idea. I can safety say having now completed both that they are superb hikes of pretty much the same length and difficulty. I was, however, better equipped for the coast to coast and carrying about 10 kilograms less kit and that made a huge difference.
The majority of hikers I encountered were middle aged, completing just a few sections at a time, or were hopping from Bed & Breakfast to another, with a transport company carrying all their possessions. Like the Offa’s Dyke, some were even transported to the start of the section each day. Most were taking it very seriously indeed and had planned ahead for many months.
I was walking a lot further than most of my fellow hikers each day, mainly because I started earlier and carried on walking into the evening, whereas most hikers finished about 4 – 5.00 pm at a designated pub or bed & breakfast.
I normally stopped walking about 9.00 pm just before it started to get dark and pitched my tent on any flat dry grass, although on a few occasions I stopped earlier if I wanted to pitch the tent in their pub beer garden or in an adjacent field. I always had a couple of pints of local bitter with my evening meal, which was usually pub food, although in the remote areas I cooked up and ate whatever I had in the rucksack, usually noodles or fruit and nuts. I tried to avoid sweets and chocolate this time, as I was trying to cut down on bad carbs just before sleeping.
Strangely enough, the real ale was the best food to have in the evenings as it not only re-hydrated me, but is settling on the stomach after a long day of hiking and proper real ale is full of vitamins and minerals. I’m sticking with this story.
Whilst drinking and eating in the pubs with the other hikers it abundantly clear to them from my back pack and the state of me that I was a solo free camper and many would ask where I had started, where I was going, where I came from, what I did for a living, my plans, etc?
Those who know me, know these are not easy questions to answer.
A rambling answer, if I could be bothered and in the mood would include Hong Kong, South Africa, Shanghai, England, Staffordshire, Bournemouth, Royal Hong Kong Police, China, investigation, security, global adventuring, motorcycling, paragliding, etc. I think most people I encountered thought I was making it all up.
What was clear to me, though, was that most people I met along my various hikes lead relatively boring lives. Or perhaps I lead a very interesting one.
My campsite outside Grasmere
A sunny, blue and fresh morning after a night of heavy rain and gales.
A tarn … check your “O” level geography
Pretty in pink …. I think by the Psychedelic Furs from the 80s
Coffee time by a stream.
Sandwiches — the cornerstone of a British diet …
40 grams of snowflake flavoured lard . Where are Walkers salt & vinegar crisps nowadays? Anyway, best hidden in a cheese and pickle sandwich
A skinny decaf soya mocha macchiato? Sorry its black coffee or black coffee.. made with pond water and ewes urine. It’ll catch on eventually.
Around midday I would normally take a 20-30 minutes break in a picturesque spot with a stream, get a brew on, eat some fruit, nuts, noodles or a village post office sandwich, enjoy all the wildlife and watch the world go by.
The joy of this hike has been the total immersion in “nature”. Birds, insects, wild animals, domestic creatures, and especially butterflies. I loved them all.
The natural beauty of the English countryside is remarkable. All too often I would stumble as I gazed around me at the scenery and wildlife. I was lucky to see fox cubs peering out of their den, lapwings arching and swooping above the moorlands, grayling swimming in a crystal clear steams, and soaring buzzards.
NH4NO3? A little bit too near Bradfordstan for my liking
A policy that would go down splendidly in Mui Wo
I pushed on through to Gelridding and Patterdale and up into the hills again. I was navigating using a dedicated Coast to Coast strip map that did not have as much detail as an OS map, but was much lighter, and if you concentrated and read it correctly, more than good enough.
The Coast to Coast is not as well sign posted as the Offa’s Dyke that has the “acorn” symbol at nearly every junction and stile. As such, I made mistakes, or perhaps wasn’t paying attention, and doing so led to my biggest diversion off the C2C route, but a diversion I would gladly do again because it led me to a beautiful valley where I pitched my tent in total isolation (except for the werewolves and goblins).
I walked down the valley, realised it trended north and not east, and had obviously drifted off the path by several miles. No problems. I pitched my tent, settled in for the night, and retraced my steps the next day.
My trusty home… Tarptent DW Moment
Drying off the early morning dew in the warm sunshine.
Breakfast = porridge oats, blueberries (“idiot berries” Fanny and I call them as they are supposed to ward off dementia), brazil nuts (supposed to make you happy) and a mug of tea (really does make me happy). Perfick
Looking back at my campsite as I retraced my steps back to where drifted off at the top of the mountain. The water in the distance to the north is Ullswater. Not where I should have be heading.
Hiking back up the valley
Back on track and the tarn with an island in the middle clear on my map. I should have been paying more attention. I start a few miles of jogging in penance.
I was thinking that the island in the middle of the tarn would have made a great camping spot. Ah well, next time.
Stunning scenery. Heading to Haweswater Reservoir and further on to Shap
Following the trail down towards Haweswater Reservoir. Again I took another wrong turn that routed me over the top of several peaks instead of around them. As I caught up yet again with hikers I had overtaken hours before I tried to pretend that is where I had wanted to go.
Walking 5 miles along the shore of Haweswater
Refreshing waterfall and pool to cool down in … or at least a 5 minute soak. I will spare you a picture of my feet!
What’s in Thomas’ Honest Box?
Oh glory be… thankfully the honesty box of goodies and the 5 tonnes of ammonium nitrate were well away from Bradford or Oldham. Just saying!
The scenery changing as I leave the Lakes and head eastwards towards the Dales
Crossing many beautiful streams
open the gate .. close the gate
Having got myself back on track I had a long hike ahead of me across classic Lake District highlands, across valleys, rivers, streams and along the shoreline of lakes towards Shap and Kirkby Steven that marked the end of the Lake District, and the start of the second phase of the coast to coast across the Yorkshire Dales. I yet again veered off the real Coast to Coast path and climbed several peaks that I assumed were included in the hike. Only when I came across hikers I had overtaken several hours before did I realise I might be making a tough hike tougher that I should. Still, nice views from the top.
The weather was pretty much perfect for hiking. My feet, which always let me down on long distance hikes due to being the wrong shape for a human being, had settled into an almost tolerable level of discomfort, if not, pain. I got in the habit of taking off my boots at lunch, soaking them in the streams and lakes, and taping up the blisters, or where blisters were starting to form around the toes and heel.
As I approached the outskirts of some hamlets I was delighted to come across “honesty boxes” full of soft drinks, beer, sweets and cakes, that were very welcome.
3 and a half days to Shap
An orchid perhaps
I am assured by a fellow hiker, who I would wager is a teacher of some sort, that these are indeed orchids.
Lovely and green
Crossing over the M6 motorway
Looking back west towards Kirkby Steven and beyond
After a long evening hike I reached the Nine Standards. Ahead lies deep peat bog that I navigate across in the late evening until I find a dry spot to pitch my tent.
The light is fading and the ground is very soggy… will push on for another hour.
An evening hike across the top of the moors … using the cairns (carefully arranged piles of stones) to navigate as path was missing
Lots of deep and soggy bogs to jump across (or land in).
A run down scout hut in the middle of nowhere. I had to laugh at some graffiti carved in the wood that said, ‘Wainwright is a c**t’
Home for the night… quite remote for the UK
As dry as it gets up here.
A bizarre farm where I bought a can of lemonade and was served by the caste of “Lord of the Flies”. Apparently, the dozen or so children who live there with their hippy parents were featured on a UK TV show called “Country File”
A nice easy going route?
A few long stretches of tarmac road .. tough on the soles of the feet I find
Pretty waterfalls in the Dales
Bumped into a fellow “free camping” hiker in Keld. He was doing the Pennine Way with his little four legged friends. One of the passionate walking types I met along the way.
Some yurts that you can rent and stay in near Keld … a very nice location.
Lots of bridges to cross
Climbing up into the hills and a few contour paths on very steep slopes.
Steep sides and narrow paths
Some arty agricultural sculpture… and my rucksack
Stopped for lunch in Reeth and managed to watch Chelsea beat Man U in the FA Cup
I camped in this field by the River Swale and this ewe and her lambs stayed with me all night… not worried by people. In fact, it seemed quite relaxed with me. Maybe it was hand reared.
Occasionally an encounter with aliens. It does have a very strange face!!!
Not quite half way.
Free camping next to the River Swale
Somethings never change … everything stops for the milk lorry
Yorkshire Dales villages and farms – very pretty
Bunting out for the Royal Wedding
Lots of pheasants and ground birds in the fields
No… I don’t have any milk
A gate along the C2C path…. better go through it… I am English after all
A Triumph Stag … not moving of course.
Into Richmond … more than halfway now
A Green Z1000 SX
A black Z1000 SX
Lovely little dog sitting outside a shop in Richmond
Leaving Richmond and heading towards Ingleby Arncliffe… 20 odd miles away
Following the river for many miles through woods and farmland
England’s wild flowers are always beautiful
Wild garlic… very aromatic.
Still following the river, and glad to be out of the direct sunshine as I have an afternoon/evening sunburn (sets in the west…everyday) on back of my legs and arms.
Rape seed fields
Crossing bridges and walking through woods
Some welcome shade from the sun…. can’t believe I said this about England
Long flat trails through farmland and meadows
OK, but is it a friendly bull, or should I start running now?
Passing through Bolton on Swale
Day 7 – on way to Ingleby
Tulips …….Stopping by Kiplin Hall for afternoon tea and a carb loading cake
Some lovely homes in Yorkshire … I particularly like the Morris Minor next to the Porche
Afternoon tea at Kiplin Hall… very welcome.
Danby Wiske – a stopping point for some hikers… but not for me… I am pushing on to Ingleby
But I do stop for a pint
A CAMERA pub too…. wonderful real ales. I resist temptation and just have a pint … or was it two?
A normal enough stile to cross over… but it wasn’t!!! The rats were laughing and talking to me. They were.
The Yorkshire Dales was my favourite part of the Coast to Coast hike. Why? I guess I have traveled all around the world and seen many mountainous places (Tibet, Alps, Himalayas, Pyrenees, US Rockies, Lesotho, Table Mountain, Sunset Peak, Mt Kilimanjaro and Mt Kenya etc). I have also been to and hiked through the Lake District many times and so, as beautiful as they are, there was nothing really surprising.
The Yorkshire Dales, however were superb. I guess because they are so quintessentially English. Rolling green hills, secret blue bell woods, butterflies and birds, babbling crystal clear streams, and chocolate box “pretty” villages. I was also blessed with glorious weather and that made all the difference. It was very enjoyable indeed.
No sigh of the Slaughtered Lamb pub high up in the Yorkshire Moors.
Crossing several railways lines
Heading back to moorland again
Long trails across moorland
Reaching Ingleby Arncliffe where I camped in the beer garden of the Blue Bell Pub
The beginning of North Yorkshire Moors section and my final 2 days of hiking. I camped in the beer garden of the Blue Bell Public House … ate good food and drank very decent beer. It was however quite cold and damp during night in my tent and it starting to rain the next day
After camping in the beer garden I manage to get a hot breakfast before climbing up into the North Yorkshire Moors
Ahhh! Not much to see. A white out.
Miles and miles of this….!
It is now officially “chilly” and damp. Strong winds.
Wrapped up in all I have … but quite adequate if all the zips are done up. Not much of a view though
My only companion — a moor grouse
I never saw it….
A truly terrible night in the tent in the garden of the Lion Pub (highest in UK). Although I was warm in my sleeping bag and silk liner the noise of the wind and the tent flapping and thrashing about was unbearable. Even with ear plugs in. I also developed a nagging cough that developed into a full blown chest infection that lingered for weeks afterwards until I found some antibiotics.
Its grin and bear it time as I settle in for the last long stretch across windy moors to Robin Hood’s Bay nearly 30 miles away.
Grouse trying to distract me from its nest
Down off the moors into the pretty town of Glaisdale and then climbing back up into the moors for the final section
I stopped here for a sandwich and a brew. Interesting toll sign on this Yorkshire building by the river
33% incline for 2 miles —-Oh Joy!
The last section of my map book … nearly the end
Robin Hood’s Bay in the distance
Following the coastal path for a few miles between Whitby and RHB
And I made it. Nine Days.
The North Yorkshire Moors? What can I say?
Cold, blowy, damp and I wasn’t feeling that great as I developed a chest infection. Visibility was poor, but I did see an amusing red grouse chasing me and making funny noises… and I shall remember that more than anything.
However, there was a big dampener put on the whole hike when I reached Robin Hood’s Bay.
I should have been celebrating, but I was presented with an unnecessary logistical headache when I should have been preparing for a motorcycle ride across Europe with Fanny and getting early medical attention for an annoying chest infection.
I called Fanny in Hong Kong to let her know I had completed the hike in nine days and what my plans were for the next few days.
She said, in her nonplussed way (sic), ‘ There is no ink in the printer ….. and your brother called me and said Marie (his wife) doesn’t want you to stay at their house any more’ !!!!
Huh? No ink in the printer?
And what am I supposed to have done now?
‘You antagonized her, and you can’t stay anymore… I don’t want to get involved…. how come there is no printer ink?’
I was seriously perplexed. Antagonized?
‘Apparently you said English women are ugly’, Fanny added
‘I have said English women are ugly for over 35 years… that is why I am with you, my pinko commie 宝贝’
Fanny continued, ‘ I’ll talk to you later, take care, don’t cause anymore trouble’, and then she hung up.
As I was sitting having my “celebratory” pints of Wainwright Ale in the Bay Hotel in Robin Hood’s Bay I was racking my brain to:
1) actually remember saying anything about fat ugly English women (after all its a universal truth and I have nothing more to add); and
2) work out the logistics for retrieving two motorcycles that are sitting in my brother’s garage in Wimborne with all my damp stuff.
And then it became clear.
Marie (aka the ayatollah) absolutely hates my mother. The ayatollah and our mother have never got on and been at each others throats for decades, so much so that she banned my brother, their children and their grandchildren from seeing her.
The back story is that before the hike my brother and I drove up to Staffordshire where we were brought up to see our ailing mother, and while we were there had a superb time (I thought), meeting school friends, regaling old stories, and drinking and eating in the local pubs. No mention was made of my female preferences and the next day my brother dropped me off at Stafford train station and I traveled up to the Lake District to start the hike.
I can only assume when Simon got home he was interrogated by the ayatollah and caved in, ‘ Yes Ma’am, its true, I had a wonderful time, saw my mother, had a few beers, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t hit me, my brother made me do it’
So, having been evicted, with my personal possessions thrown into a damp garage in Dorset, I now had to spend many hundred pounds and several days recovering all my “stuff”. Its been a logistical pain in the arse and so I have no intention to write about it, nor describe further.
Anyway, I have learned my lesson, if you have nothing nice to say don’t say anything at all, and never trust a woman with thin lips.
So, after a marathon relay across the south of England all the motorbikes are now safely in a garage in Bexhill on Sea, where they will be cared for by my friend Nick, who having spent a great deal of his time in Hong Kong, also shares my views on the attractiveness of English women, their tattoos, nose rings and cellulite, but is wise enough not to say anything to one!
What next then?
Well, Fanny is arriving in England in June and we will ride our motorcycles across Europe to visit my friend Mike in Amandola in Italy, and also call by Fanny’s company HQ in Basel, Switzerland (a new BBT chapter).
But in the meantime, I am off to ride a scooter across Sicily.
A few Wainwright ales in the pub by the sea and then make my way to Whitby where I had booked a B&B for the last night.
You know you are in Yorkshire when there are whippets in the pub.
Stand and Deliver – Whitby
No fish… I blame the French and the EU
A very welcome hot shower, comfy sleep and delicious egg and bacon breakfast at my B&B in Whitby . I now had a long train journey back to Poole to retrieve the motorcycles… one by one and ride them to Bexhill before I head to Sicily.
Train journey home with Peter Hook from Joy Division and New Order
After a very long journey and no where to stay I book into a B&B in Poole… which I arrived at very late and then a taxi at the “approved” time to retrieve the KTM whilst the ayatollah was out having her claws trimmed. I then had to do it all again a day or so later to retrieve Fanny’s Kawasaki.
Nick and I riding again
Second trip back to Poole to collect Fanny’s Kawasaki and ride it along the A272 back to east Sussex. Just as well I like trains and riding bikes.
The best and worst awards for our motorcycle expedition across Africa, Europe and Asia.
Whilst the two of us are in agreement, we realize that many may disagree and so we welcome any comments.
MOST ENJOYABLE COUNTRY AWARD
AFRICA – TANZANIA
Tanzania just eclipses Kenya, Namibia and South Africa as our favourite country in Africa. Good infrastructure, decent roads, amazing scenery, friendly people, and abundant wildlife.
the snow capped peaks of Kilimanjaro;
the glorious plains and wildlife of the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater;
spicy and exotic Zanzibar;
our second favourite African city, Dar Es Salaam (Cape Town being our first);
a thoroughly enjoyable stay in Tanga on the east coast;
and our all time favourite camping spot on our whole trip, Lake Charla.
Riding towards Ngorogoro Crater
Snow peaked mountains in Tanzania
Lake Charla … elephants at the water hole
Taking a ride on a Dhow in Zanzibar
Lake Charla with foothills of Kilimajaro in the background…
EUROPE – SCOTLAND(to be more precise West Scotland on a sunny day)
Many people are already aware of the amazing places to see in Turkey, Austria, Italy, Spain, France, Greece etc…and we were privileged to do the European grand tour and take in many of the sights.
Italy was absolutely fascinating, superb architecture, rich history, good food and wine, but not the easiest place to motorcycle in due to local driving conditions. . Good, but not great.
France was our biggest surprise. It is Britain’s next door neighbour and often maligned by Americans for being, well French, and by the English for old rivalries and wars over the centuries. However, we found it to be a stunning country and a motorcycling heaven. The Alps, Provence, the Southern coast, Loire valley, the wine-lands of Burgundy, pretty Brittany, the battle fields of Normandy and the many charming villages and towns we rode through. So much to see and we were treated very well by everyone we met… even by the Gendarmes.
However, taking the best motorcycling country in Europe award is Scotland…. especially western Scotland (see UK revisited chapter).
Pretty Scottish villages on west coast. An incredibly beautiful part of the world
Due to the Gulf Stream that course up the west of the British Isles some parts of northern Scotland that are not far from the Arctic Circle are quite mild. It is, however, safe to say that the weather isn’t always as glorious and when I was there and can be decidedly wet and blowy.
Its gets even more like Tibet … mountains and big hairy things in the road.
WORST COUNTRY AWARD
There were no countries we did not enjoy to one degree or another.
Ethiopia, undoubtedly rich in history and resplendent in natural beauty is a bit of a tragedy on the human side.
The country, especially the cities seems to have been left to rot and stagnate. Ethiopians, a handsome lot as people go, appeared to be incredibly needy and nearly always had their hand out stretched begging for money. They often leaped out at us or grabbed our arms whilst shouting… ‘You, You, You…Money, Money, Money’.
It was tiresome, annoying and ever so slightly sad.
Meeting fellow bikers heading south at Ethiopian/ Sudan border
The former and now derelict train station in Addis Ababa
Cute little things .. but they always had their hand outstretched begging for money
Fanny surrounded by little friends in north west Ethiopia
Having been robbed blind by FTI Consulting, I need to earn a crust somehow… so when in Ethiopia do as the Ethiopians do…
CHINA is a country on a continental scale and by far the most varied and diverse country we went to.
There were impressive and well planned super cities like Chengdu, Nanchang, Beijing and Shanghai, and prettier tourist towns like Lijiang, Yangshuo and Dali. We also rode through some of the most charming and idyllic countryside I have ever seen. Some rural areas have remained as they have been for centuries, despite the rapid pace of development going on around them.
But in China there are also some of the worst and most polluted places I have ever seen. Environmental plunder, architectural vandalism, motoring misery and pitiful squalour on an unprecedented scale. Quite a shock.
Some of the second and third tier Chinese cities were absolute shockers. Polluted and crowded beyond belief, bad roads and atrocious traffic jams, ridiculously bad urban planning and blighted by hideous buildings as far as the eye could see. Hong Kong and China seem to have a fatal attraction with adorning the outsides of their ugly concrete boxes with cheap toilet tiles.
Whether fascinating or depressing; ugly or stunningly beautiful; our experience riding over 13,000 kilometers through China was hugely rewarding and something we will never forget.
BIGGEST SURPRISE AWARD – SUDAN.
Sudan was our biggest surprise and we thoroughly recommend visiting.
It was a complete re-write of everything I had previously thought about its people and their culture. The kindness, politeness and gentleness of many of the people we met was incredible and we are very grateful to the hospitality extended to Fanny and I by many of the people we encountered.
That said, a cold beer in the scorching heat would be nice, as would a bacon sarnie with HP sauce, but I guess you can’t have everything. Treat it as a liver detox!
Kindness and hospitality given to Fanny and I in the middle of the Nubian desert in Sudan. Its strange that those with so little always offered us so much … and the converse!
Long sand roads .. and scorching heat in Sudan
Very friendly people
Replacing the starter relay in the middle of the Nubian desert in 50+ degrees heat.
Our kind host Mohammed and his children on banks of the River Nile in Sudan
Fanny with the guys who helped us repair her bike
Yes… there are pyramids in Sudan too
Pyramids in Sudan
We never really had any very bad experiences.
We managed to cross Africa without being eaten by wild animals, without having to pay a bribe, without being infected by deadly diseases, nor kidnapped by pirates or Jihadi nutters.
Our KTM 990 Adventure motorcycles have been superb, a joy to ride and very reliable.
The vast majority of people we encountered on the expedition have been wonderful and treated us very well… the only exception being a few excitable types in Ethiopia who threw stones at us or lashed out as we were riding by with whips and sticks. Most of the border crossings and tourist locations attracted annoying touts, “shiftas” and fraudsters who were keen to relieve us of the few possessions we had. They were all unsuccessful.
A particular low was early on in the expedition when Fanny lost control of her motorcycle in the Namib Desert and came off at speed.
Fortunately, Fanny and her KTM motorcycle are a tough team and in no time were back together charging through the desert, albeit with a few scrapes and bruises.
In Europe our experience in Switzerland was not great, Fanny got arrested for involvement in an accident that wasn’t her fault, everything always seemed to be closed, everything was expensive, and we could hardly describe the Swiss as the friendliest people we met on our 53,800 kilometer ride around the world.
That said Switzerland is a very pretty country and we enjoyed riding through the Alps and up and down the many meandering passes.
In China/Asia I think the worst experience was just outside Chongqing City when a traffic official threw a traffic cone at Fanny while she was riding on the highway and knocked her off her bike. Anywhere else in the world this would be considered a serious criminal offence and front page news, but in China abuse of power by the authorities is common place and the “people” can’t do much about it. Fanny was injured slightly and very upset by the incident, but she managed to get back on her motorcycle and carry on.
Not being allowed to ride in certain Chinese cities and on most of the Chinese highway network is also pretty annoying and downright unnecessary in modern China on a modern motorcycle.
Apart from these incidents, and of course me getting stopped by the police at every single road block in Tibet, we had a really great adventure in China and had the chance to see places that very few people even know about, let alone visit.
USA? Its a continent sized and a very well developed country that most non-Americans will know well enough through the ubiquitous TV shows and movies. Big, amazing wilderness, beautiful scenery, wealthy, but with a dark and sinister underbelly, especially in the inner cities.
To to be honest we still have a lot of riding to be done and places to see in the USA.
So far we have explored Washington, Oregon, Montana, California, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado in the west, and New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Ohio in the east. The south and the center remains to be explored.
From what I’ve seen of the rest of world, America sits in the middle ground. Its easy to get around, everything is super convenient, there is not a great deal of culture or history, the roads are far too straight and dull, and its not as “great” as Americans think it is. Nothing really interesting, and nothing really bad, except the food which is on the whole….a mixture of sugar and lard with a sprig of rocket.
I am afraid to so that Fanny doesn’t like America, but then she is a pinko commie!
South America? That remains an adventure for the future.
A fuzzy unfocused picture of one of the officials who threw a traffic cone at Fanny and knocked her off her motorcycle. My hands were shaking with rage but I resisted the urge to administer some summary justice and so we got back on our motorcycles and carried on.
These police in Hubei were very friendly and kind… in fact with a couple of exceptions that we write about in the diary, the authorities in China treated us well.
BEST CITY AWARD
AFRICA – DAR ES SALAAM
When riding a motorcycle through Africa the last places you really want to see are the cities. The joy of riding through Africa is the beautiful countryside, meeting its people, and enjoying the amazing African flora and fauna. However, if pressed to pick an African city I would say Dar Es Salaam because it is a very interesting and lively city, friendly people, good food, and one of the few cities in Africa I could live in outside South Africa. Traffic is quite bad though, but nothing two bikers from Shanghai can’t handle.
A dhow in Zanzibar
Having a coffee in a street in Zanzibar
Dar es Salem from the ferry
EUROPE – Istanbul
It is a difficult call to decide on the best city award for Europe. We enjoyed many. Lucca, Rome, Florence and Pompei in Italy; Saint Lo in France; St. Sebastian in the Basque Country; Barcelona in Spain; Saltzburg and Vienna in Austria; and Old Town Rhodes in Greece. We thoroughly enjoyed them all.
However, if we are pushed to choose one then Istanbul takes the award. Its got it all… great food, wonderful art, kind friendly people, fascinating history, amazing architecture, the east meets west straits between Black Sea and Marmara Sea, and yet its very much a first world city, things work and it feels very welcoming and exciting to be there.
Fanny wandering along the streets of Taksin in Istanbul… a super city.
Enjoying the cafes of Istanbul
ASIA/China – LHASA (followed by CHENGDU)
I am not even going to consult Fanny because she will say Shanghai. It’s like asking a panda what its favourite food is. I thought our ride through China was absolutely fascinating. There are hundreds of cities in China with populations over a million people… many are over 20 million and therefore bigger than many countries in the world.
Each city is diverse with the richest and poorest, ugliest and prettiest and tastiest and revolting all in one place. Cities to mention are Beijing where I went to university and have a special fondness for, colourful and spicy Chengdu in Sichuan (and prettiest women!), exotic Dali in Yunnan, the amazing “Red City” of Nanchang in Jiangxi, so called because its the home of the “red” revolution.
However, our ride through Tibet is probably one of the highlights and so therefore Lhasa, its provincial capital stands out as the best city to see in respect to scenery, architecture, history and “never seen before” general interest.
Me outside the most sacred temple in Lhasa
Fanny and I high up on the Tibet/Qinghai Plateau… the world’s highest.
Just outside Lhasa in Tibet
Fanny and Si Ba (a Lama friend we made on the road) walking down the high street in Lhasa
Africa – Addis Ababa …
We were looking forward to Addis Ababa, a name that conjured up exotic images formed from school days for me. However, when we got there we found it to be a complete karsi. The decrepit and forlorn looking train station from a bygone era pretty much sums up Addis Ababa ‘s decline into squalour and poverty.
Bus station in Addis Ababa
Again corruption and inability to use a condom are to blame. Aggressive touts, annoying kids, unfriendly and hostile looking soldiers and policeman, and crumbling and decaying infrastructure. Its a big disappointment.
Fortunately we found refuge in a little oasis in the middle of this complete dog nest called “Wim’s Holland House”. Not the greatest backpackers in Africa, but the Dutch owner, Wim runs a decent hostel that serves more than the Ethiopian staple dish of Tibis and sour pancakes and has a well stocked English pub-like bar that serves draft St.George’s beer.
ASIA – CHINA
China is basically a large continent and currently going through the biggest phase of development any country has been through…ever, and so some of its second and third tier cities (or lower) can easily qualify for worst, ugliest, most polluted, most corrupt, most congested, unhealthiest city anywhere on the planet.
Take your pick.
Many people in China and Taiwan throw rubbish and pollutants into the rivers, streams, or just outside their homes ….anywhere except a rubbish bin. Its extremely depressing and disturbing. Hidden industrial pollution is off the scale.
A lot of China looks like this… a dusty, muddy, grey construction site on the cheap.
An articulated lorry on its side in a dusty China street… quite normal
EUROPE – LUTON … Picking a worst city in Europe is a difficult one.
Athens promised so much and delivered so little. We did wander around to see the sights of Ancient Greece, but the modern day city was depressing and the economic gloom palpable.
The city of my birth, London, is a mixed bag. A disappointment on many levels, can no longer be considered “English”, but still an iconic and interesting city if you focus on the positives such as history, art and culture.
However, if I have to pick a candidate for worst city in Europe then I am going to say Luton or Slough in the United Kingdom.
Sorry Luton and Slough…… someone has to come last …..and you made no effort not to.
WORST FLEAS, TICKS & LICE – ETHIOPIA
The mangey cats and dogs throughout Ethiopia are covered in them, as are most of the carpets, furniture and bedding. The lush grassland, especially after the rainy season is also home to ticks. As we were camping we had to remove quite a few of these little blood suckers that somehow found their way into various nooks and “fannys”.
“No” Best Flea Award….unsurprisingly!
BEST DRIVING STANDARD AWARDS –
Africa …South Africa (Western Cape)
Europe … Germany
China … umm? Let’s say Hong Kong … the standard is so incredibly poor.
Asia … Japan
WORST DRIVING AWARDS –
Europe …. Italy
The World …. everywhere in China, followed very closely by Egypt and Bangkok in Thailand which is dangerous on a bike.
Sri Lanka … driving standard is also pretty ropey … but at least its slow.
Tanzanian bus and truck drivers could take some kind of bad driving award judging by how many we saw overtaking dangerously or wrecked by the side of the road, but Egypt takes the “worst driving” award in Africa by a mile.
They are absolute shockers. Maybe its because everyone is too busy shouting into their mobile phones all the time, or perhaps because everyone employs millimetre collision avoidance techniques, sometimes with success and sometimes without. I saw a taxi mount a curb as the driver attempted to tackle a roundabout with one arm twisted around the wheel and the other holding a phone to his ear.
Rather than put his mobile phone down and use both arms to turn the wheel he preferred to carry on talking, veer off the road and mow down some pedestrians.
Me and my KTM at the Great Pyramids
Tahrir Square, in cairo with the government building we had to go to in order to extend our visas at the top left hand side. The Spring revolution was in full swing when we arrived in Cairo and so it was an interesting time.
BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION –
We have a difference of opinion due to our different levels of riding experience. Fanny goes for Tanzania for the same reasons (above) as for best country and I go for Namibia, to my mind the most awesome motorcycling country… anywhere.
Challenging, technical in parts, mind blowing scenery and importantly very few people and other vehicles. Its got sand, gravel, rocks, hills, deserts, salt pans, seascape, bush, wild animals, birds and fresh air…. AND no road blocks, no speed bumps, no police and no speed cameras. I also really liked the Nubian deserts of Sudan. Clean, beautiful and spectacular.
Fanny cruising along the gravel roads in the Namib desert
Left or right? Freedom to do whatever.
BEST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION _ EUROPE …. Western Scotland (in the sun) followed by France
Scotland was a big surprise. In Jubilee year, 2012 when Fanny and I arrived in the UK we planned to ride to Scotland, but the weather was absolutely atrocious. A year later during what everyone was calling “The Summer of 2013” the weather was absolutely glorious and western Scotland gave me some of the best riding I have ever experienced. Not to take anything away from Scotland, my KTM 990 Supermoto T I was riding was one of best motorcycles I have ever ridden. I have to say it was an awesome ride and Great Britain was truly “great”.
This is what motorcycling is all about. Peace, fresh air, beautiful scenery and in the seat of perhaps the best road bike I have ever ridden… the
ASIA …. Tibetand Cardomom mountains in Cambodia
Who, being given the chance, is not going to vote Tibet as one of the best motorcycling destinations on the planet? Not me.
Also, Cardomom mountains in Cambodia are very interesting and enjoyable on a bike.
Cardomom Mountains in Cambodia
Yak 1000 Adventure
USA – Valley of Gods, Utah
The best adventure motorcycling I have come across so far in the USA is probably the unearthly Valley of Gods in southern Utah. I have ridden all over the USA on various machines over the year, but there is still a lot for me to see and explore and so there may be better places, but the Valley of Gods, although quite small is a superb ride.
Valley of Gods on Honda Africa Twin (BDR Utah)
WORST MOTORCYCLING LOCATION AWARDS
All African and Chinese inner cities (except Cape Town and Windhoek)
Riding through any of the African Capital cities was tiresome, annoying, stressful and decidedly dangerous… in particular Cairo, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. It was no problem technically for either of us, we come from Shanghai after all where the traffic is atrocious and ride our bicycles everyday, but the appalling driving standards, poor urban planning and ever increasing traffic volume made riding less fun than it should be.
Whilst we rode on appalling roads and surfaces, such as the road from Marsabit to Moyale in north Kenya, they presented the sort of challenges bikers relish and we confronted and overcame them with a huge sense of 成就感 and enjoyment.
Worst Motorcycling Experience in Europe … again the inner cities of Italy and England spring to mind…. but no where near as bad as China or Egypt.
In England the speed cameras ruin motorcycling and in Italy the narrow medieval roads through the towns, and aggressive and poor driving standard by Italians make riding a bit stressful, but not too bad.
In London, there are feral “non indigenous” teenagers who ride scooters, terrorize people, and steal with impunity because the police do nothing. These thugs also spray acid into people’s faces from squeezy bottles or attack people with hammers and angle grinders ….and get away with it because the ethnic majority have voted for treacherous politicians like Khan and Abbott who support these hooligans because they think the indigenous English deserve it.
The police, courts and authorities are stuck between a rock and a hard place and so they are largely impotent. They stick to arresting soft targets like 1970s DJs, non contentious traffic offences and local middle class people for Orwellian “thoughtcrimes”.
When I was a police officer in London in the 1980s it was urban chaos then, lots of race riots, inner city anomie, and quite dangerous. However, you did your job, your colleagues and bosses supported you, and you got promoted or advanced to more interesting jobs based on merit and ability. Now in politically correct and easily offended Britain its the opposite and so basically the police have given up and much of London is a “no go” ghetto.
By comparison, when we were riding in north Kenya, borders with Somalia, east Ethiopia, central and north Sinai and the western Sahara ISIS were just starting to take hold and there was a real possibility of running into a pickup truck of crazy Islamists. However, there were lots of armed police and army, local Bedouins were friendly and helpful, we were on fast powerful motorcycles, able and allowed to defend and look after ourselves, and so the odds were even.
Our advice is don’t ride into London. Ride around it, or park outside and take public transport into the tourist areas, see the changing of the guard, the museums, art galleries, theaters, cafes and shops and then get out as quick as possible.
In fact, best to avoid all English cities and head to the beautiful Cotswolds, Peak District, Devon and Cornwall, the Jurassic coast, the Fens, the Lake District, Scotland or Wales and a nice rural pub.
1. Lake Charla – Tanzania – What a gem. perfect climate, stunning views of Mount Kilimanjaro, hundreds of elephants, Colobus monkeys, unspoiled bush, a spectacular volcanic crater lake, great bar, friendly hosts, and of course the famous roasted goat dinner.
2. Makuzi – Malawi.Peaceful paradise on the shores of Lake Malawi.
3. Mountain Rock – Kenya. A lush enjoyable grassy campsite next to a trout filled river on the equator in the foothills of Mount Kenya.
Europe ….Scotland no camp sites in the whole of Europe were on the same scale of the three above in Africa. Camping in Europe, regardless of whether its next to stunning scenery like Mont Blanc or near a historical town like Lucca in Italy has a whiff of concentration camp about it. France has simple and clean municipal campsites that were great value. Italy had some decent places but they were expensive. Wales was quite good. England just doesn’t have any and the few there are are awful, with a few exceptions. Our worst experience on the whole expedition was at Crystal Palace in London where we were interrogated and abused by gestapo like camp wardens. Hobson’s choice because London is so expensive, in fact the most expensive anywhere, and so camping was the only alternative to paying over 100 pounds for a small room for a night.
Scotland however has no trespass laws and so provided you show respect for the owners property and leave the site in the condition you found it in you can free camp where you like. Its also a gloriously pretty and interesting country and so the best European camping award easily goes to Scotland, followed by France and Wales.
North west point of Scotland at 11pm in the evening.
Camping on Skye
China – Nan Tso (Tibet).
China is a great country to back pack across (I have done it) and as such has great youth hostels and cheap accommodation in all cities and towns. As for camping, China is, on the whole, a safe country (apart from driving standards). However, despite its enormous size there is not a great deal of spare land that is not farmed on or developed… until you get into the remote western provinces of Xizang (Tibet), Xinjiang and Qinghai. We were very fortunate to camp in two stunning locations.
One with Lamas on the banks of a river in the Himalayas and another in the middle of Tibet at over 5000 meters next to the shores of Tibet’s most sacred lake, Nam Tso with 7,000 meter + peaks surrounding us.
USA – Needles, Utah
Campsites in the USA are basic by African and European standards. They are clean, tidy, averagely cheap, have friendly elderly attendants, but usually lack ablutions and the facilities you get in continental European campsites and most African lodges.
Apart from free camping, which I did a lot and prefer, the best organised campsite I found was at Needles in Utah, just south of Moab. In other States the campsites are pretty gruesome, far too expensive and generally geared towards caravans and RVs, and so free camping with a tent is the best option, and easy to do.
Camping across the USA
Free camping is best
Free camping Utah
Camping with lamas in east Tibet
Camping on the shores of Nam Tso, Tibet
WORST CAMPSITES .
We never stayed at any really bad campsites. To our mind the simpler the better and there should be more like the good ones we saw in Africa. Whilst Sudan allows free camping, Egypt is heavily controlled by the military and police and our attempts to free camp were fruitless. We were chased off seemingly remote places in the desert and along the Red Sea by police, army and security people.
Being unable to camp in certain places, we did stay in some rather ropey (because they were cheap) hotels in Sudan and Ethiopia but you get what you pay for and we didn’t pay very much. The Kilpatra hotel in Wadi Halfa had the worst lavatory and shower outside China… a true shocker.
Of course, Europe is the land of the caravan. Rarely seen in Africa or Asia, these boxes on wheels are seen everywhere in western Europe, blocking the country lanes and oblivious or uncaring to the traffic mayhem they cause around them. To a biker they are annoying enough, but we can whizz pass them more often than not. To another car driver stuck behind one on a road in Cornwall I hate to think.
No wonder they are targets of Top Gear persecution and derision. Once they eventually get to their “beauty spot” they position themselves cheek by jowl and then the occupants immediately position themselves outside on deckchairs, guarding their plot with disapproving territorial expressions on their faces.
Actually, these caravan clubers are not a bad bunch when you get to know them and are often passionate about their caravaning lifestyles and can wax lyrical about chemical toilets and lace curtains.
I have to say caravaners, with their impressive tea making facilities and well stocked biscuit tins, who brew up on the hour every hour are always welcome next to our tent.
BEST FOOD AWARD
Africa …. Egypt
Apart from the Chinese food we had in various places, Egypt probably just surpasses South Africa as the country with the best food in Africa. Fresh seafood, spicy curries, kebabs and falafel, roti, dates, fruit, salads, tasty bread… and good beer.
Lots of great street food in Egypt and Sudan
Back streets of Cairo
Lunch in Hurgharda
The food in Sudan is also pretty good and the Nile fish breakfast in Wadi Halfa is a special treat, especially with Bedouin coffee or tea. Again icy fruit juices are a specialty and very welcome when the temperature is scorching hot.
Europe … Turkey
The best food we ate in Europe was in Turkey. This was a big surprise as we don’t think either of us have been to a Turkish restaurant in our lives. Whilst in Istanbul and Mersin we were treated to some excellent local feasts by our new Turkish friends. The street food was also cheap and delicious, a bit like in Egypt.
Further along through Europe we had delicious cakes and pastries, especially in Austria, Italy and France, but the classic Italian and French fine cuisine famous throughout the World was not available to us because of the cost. I am sure its delicious, its just we couldn’t afford any.
We were fortunate to be in Italy during Easter and were treated to a delicious traditional Italian lunch with our friends Nick and Paola and her family near Rome. We also had some great home cooking with family and friends while we were in England and Wales.
I know there is good food about in Britain, but can you find it when you are hungry, or afford to eat decently in, say, London? No. Ubiquitous sandwich shops, junk food, petrol station food, and processed food is the tourists’ lot. Best you can get is a good cardiac arrest “fry up” breakfast at a roadside lay-by or fish and chips for dinner.
Even the so called ethnic food we had in the UK, like Indian or Thai was awful. So, unless you are lucky to be invited to eat at a “Master Chef” finalists’ house, have relatives and friends who are good cooks or win the lottery and have the chance to try out a Michelin starred restaurant you are going to be disappointed on the food front in the UK.
We met many tourists, especially Chinese who were on the verge of tour group mutiny in the UK because they disliked the food so much.
A wonderful lunch (into dinner) among the citrus groves at a superb restaurant in Mersin, Turkey. With our very kind hosts Metin and Sylvia who run the local KTM garage。
China – overall winner by a long way…..
Nothing beats the food in China for variety, freshness, health, flavour, texture, low cost, accessibility, colour, exoticness, pure joy and of course taste. Spicy Hunan and Sichuan, sweet and sour Shanghainese, salty and savoury Dong Bei, roasted meat from Xinjiang and seafood from Guangdong …..and it goes on with each province and each region within a province having their own specialties and traditions .
We all need food and everywhere we went in the world the people took pride in their local cuisine, but to our mind nothing beats Chinese food.
We and 1.4 billion others think so anyway..
Best Chinese Restaurant outside China – Xiao Long (Laughing Dragon) – Livingstone, Zambia. On par with the Sichuan and Hunan food we have in China, but I suspect only if you insist on the genuine stuff… in Mandarin ….and have a Chinese companion who does a thorough inspection of the kitchen, the ingredients and interrogates all the staff.
Worst Chinese Restaurant outside China– The Panda – Mosi, Tanzania (The lovely girl, Cheng Yuan Yuan, who was left in charge of the restaurant while the owner went back to China admitted she couldn’t cook and neither could the chef). In the end one of the Chinese guests went in the kitchen and cooked a few dishes which we shared.
Sichuan street food
Its exotic and specialties appeared on street corners and by the side of fields as we rode across the country . Here chatting with locals selling lianzi (lotus seeds) next to huge fields of lianhua (lotus)
WORST FOOD AWARDS
Worst food in Africa – Malawi
The lakeside resorts run by foreignors had pretty good food, but unless you like eating a diet consisting of 99% cassava (which has the nutritional value and taste of a flip flop) you will starve in the rest of the country as indeed a lot of the people are doing. There is no excuse for this as Malawi has fresh water, untapped natural resources and shares nearly the same geology and agricultural potential as Tanzania which grows coffee, tea, fruit and vegetables in abundance.
The problem, as with too many places in Africa, lies with the government who are greedy, corrupt and incompetent …and the people who put up with such tyrants who keep them in the stone age.
The other crop that grows pretty freely in Malawi is marijuana , so if you like you can spend your days in Malawi stoned out of your skull in a blue haze, however when you get the munchies don’t expect to see much in the fridge.
Worst food in Europe – the UK.If you have the money, or live with an excellent cook you will eat as well as anywhere in the world.
However for any visitor to the UK the food on the street is pretty dire. The healthy option, if so inclined, is a salad with a bit of meat or fish in a plastic box. Still hungry? .. of course you are … so a tub of lard for pudding. You can tell by the unhealty disposition and obesity of most English people that there is little nutrition in many peoples diet.
In England the day starts off well with a variety of decent breakfasts and then goes downhill thereon.
Worst food in China – Tibet. If we are to be picky, a diet that consists of a thousand ways to eat yak and yak’s milk might be pushing the limits… so local Tibetan food, whilst pretty OK, is at bottom of of the list as there is some amazing food to be eaten in every province across China.
All this being said the upside of increasing migration of more Han Chinese into Tibet is that good food from other provinces can be found in the main cities in Tibet. Is that a good or a bad thing?
Its a good thing when you’re hungry.
Also, I have to mention the province of Guangxi and Chinese provinces bordering Laos and Vietnam for their fondness for dog, rat, pangolin, civet cat, and other furry, feathered and scaly creatures and their insides… nope…. not my cup of nai cha, nor Fanny’s.
BEST BEER AWARDS
Africa – Namibia – Windhoek beer.
Europe – English bitter (in particular Marston’s Pedigree from BurtonUpon Trent)
Marston’s Pedigree – from Burton on Trent
China – Tsingdao beer 青岛啤酒）
Tsing Dao from Qingdao, China
WORST BEER AWARDS – of course there is no worst beer award, but perhaps Sudan should get a mention for not allowing beer at all. In fact the punishment for any alcohol possession in Sudan is 40 lashes.
BEST GAME PARK AWARDS–
1. Masai Mara (Kenya) (in late August)
We had an awesome time in Masai Mara. Great guides, reasonable entry fees (compared to Tanzania), and when we were there the great wildebeest migration was in residence and stretched across the grassy plains as far as the eye could see. It was true Lion King country and we had a terrific motorcycle ride to get there along cattle tracks and through Masai villages.
2. South Luangwa (Zambia).
South Luangwa National Park is possibly one of the prettiest and diverse game reserves in Africa. Certainly one of my favourite. Unfortunately, while I was there the last rhino had been poached in collusion with corrupt security guards who for their evil part were paid a fraction of what the horns were eventually sold for in Asia.
Whilst the 150 kilometer road from Chipata to the national park was too technical for Fanny at that particular stage of our expedition (not now of course), I had been there on a previous motorcycle trip across Africa and on the way bumped into the Long Way Down TV show motorcycles on their way to Lusaka. They had also decided against going to Luangwa because the road was too tough for Mr. and Mrs. McGregor, although easy for Charlie Boorman and the cameraman, Claudio I expect, who turned out to be decent guys and true motorcycle enthusiasts.
With the help of my Zambian cousin I managed to ride right into the game park along a locally used two track sand road and ride right up to many of the African animals and through the stunning bush of the Valley, but trying to keep a decent distance from creatures that might like a KTM sandwich. However, I inadvertently rode into a herd elephants and was mock charged by a young male which was quite exciting. They do not like the sound or sight of motorcycles at all, especially with loud Akropovik exhausts.
BEST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD
Ras Mohammed, Dahab and Sharm El Sheikh, Sinai, Egypt.
I do not care for diving particularly having been put off when I did a CT selection course when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police, but due to putting down roots in Dahab by the beautiful Red Sea I had little to do while Fanny was windsurfing and so I have now completed the PADI open water and advanced scuba course with H2O Divers.
Dahab is 90 Kms away from Sharm El Sheikh in the Gulf of Aqaba (Red Sea) and enjoys amazing marine life and is a very popular destination for kite surfing, wind surfing and diving. As well as scuba diving with an aqua lung, I also learnt to free dive and practised nearly everyday at the famous Blue Hole, or just off the coral reefs at Eel Garden, The Caves or Lighthouse. Amazing places. Fanny on the other hand learnt to windsurf in the lagoon with Planet Windsurf and is now a very competent sailor.
The Red Sea in Egypt, especially along the Sinai peninsular is absolutely spectacular. I have been fortunate to have traveled around most of South East Asia, but the Red Sea is to my mind better. Crystal clear warm waters, amazing tropical fish and coral reefs and pretty decent infrastructure to support it all. The Sinai desert mountains create an awesome backdrop to the coastal towns of Nuweiba, Taba and especially Dahab, and the desert itself is quite possibly the prettiest in the world, especially at sunset and sunrise. That said, the whole tourism thing could be done so so much better, but then the Egyptian tourist industry is reeling from the Arab Spring revolution, the world economic downturn and the negative effects of blowing up tourists with fire-bombs.
WORST DIVING & SNORKELING AWARD
Any open water in East or South China. Polluted and disgusting.
BEST MOUNTAINS & VALLEYS –
Africa – Ethiopia and Lesotho
Whilst we thought Ethiopia was spoiled a bit by some of its annoying stone throwing feral inhabitants and decaying cities, it does have spectacular natural beauty with mountains, rivers, pastures, lakes and valleys that looks a bit like those in Switzerland, Scotland or Austria. The roads are also for the large part extremely good, although as I have said often crowded with people and animals.
Lesotho, which is bordered completely by South Africa, is also a very mountainous country and is an excellent place to visit, albeit a bit chilly to ride through in winter.
Ethiopia’s proximity to some very dodgy African countries, short visa restrictions and some very wet weather while we were there prevented us from exploring the amazing Danakil depression and Afar region in the east of the country which are said to be spectacular.
Not many regrets on the expedition, but not venturing to this amazing part of the world that features in the January 2012 edition of National Geographic magazine.
We did go to Lalibela to see the rock hewn churches, and they were fairly interesting. But unless you are an archaeologist or Christian pilgrim you’d be better off visiting Salisbury Cathedral, and indeed any Norman church in England as they are older, far more impressive and have less fleas. The ride there was fun though and took us “off road” for a few hundred kilometers through valleys and across rivers and streams.
Europe – you are probably going the expect me to say The Alps, Pyrenees or the Dolomites, maybe the Brecon Beacons or Snowdonia in Wales and indeed they are spectacular, but I am going to have to pick the mountains and valleys I enjoyed riding through the most and so I will say The Highlands of Scotland.
West coast of Scotland
China – is a very mountainous part of the world and along our 13,000 kilometer ride through the middle kingdom we navigated over, around and often through many mountain ranges. Chinese history is steeped in legend about mountains and have been the subject of pilgrimages by emperors and philosophers throughout the ages. We were lucky to see some of the wuyue 五岳 – sacred five and the Buddhist and Taoist fours. But for me and Fanny seeing (and riding through) the greatest mountain range on the planet with the highest peaks, the Himalayas was one of the highlights of the expedition.
These are the mountains that turn the Yellow River … yellow
Tibet and the Himalayas from space
The Himalayas… what can you say?
BEST BORDER CROSSING –
Africa – South Africa. Quite simply modern, efficient, quick and fair.
Europe – all easy
China – no border crossings.. although riding through the road blocks in Tibet was “interesting”.
WORST BORDER CROSSING
1st Egypt and 2nd Sudan.
The opposite of modern, efficient, quick, or fair. The further north in Africa we went the worse the border crossings became.
LEAST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS
Africa – Botswana
Europe – Austria
Asia – Singapore (its not going to be China is it?)
MOST CORRUPT COUNTRY AWARDS
Africa – Egypt
Europe – Italy
Asia – China
Most countries we went through in Africa could very fairly be described as corrupt. Some more than others. Unfortunately, there are countries we simply couldn’t risk traveling through because they are so corrupt and dangerous, such as the DRC, Chad, Nigeria etc.. Even the famous Dakar Rally no longer races through the Sahara to Dakar and has moved to Argentina and Chile in South America.
An anecdote from our first day in Egypt:
Having spent considerable time and parted with a huge amount of cash at customs and immigration at the Egyptian border in Aswan, we were stopped 50 meters away at a road block, the first of hundreds, by a policeman with an AK47 variant of assault rifle who looked us up and down and asked, ‘Where you come from?’
Me (clearly thinking this is stupid question at the Egypt/Sudan border) ‘ Sudan’
Policeman ‘What in bag?’
Me ‘ Our things’
Policeman ‘ Open up’
Me ‘OK’…. ‘It’ll take a bit of time… hang on a bit’
As I was getting off my bike to open the panniers the policeman said ‘ Ah.. no need, haha… anything nice for me?’
Me ‘ I don’t pay bribes’ (eye to eye), and continued, ‘Actually I used to be a policeman and think policemen like you are an insult to the cloth, you make the job of honest, conscientious policemen more difficult and more dangerous’ rant rant…
Policeman (grinning like an imbecile and waving me on) ‘ haha .. you can go’
Policeman to Fanny ‘Where you come from?’
Policeman to Fanny ‘ You got present for me?’
I turned around and shouted ‘ HEY! – I TOLD YOU’
Policeman ‘Haha.. OK you go’ and so we went.
On each occasion the authorities even suggested a bribe I stood my ground or played my “I used to be a policeman” trump card and they all gave up.
Some of Fanny’s friends, a Chinese expedition starting from South Africa and riding Jin Chiang motorcycle and side-cars, gave up in Tanzania after running out of money, spirit and heart after paying bribe after bribe and being messed about at every single border crossing.
I guess the Africans thought that Chinese are accustomed to paying bribes. Maybe they are, and maybe they are also as fed up as everyone else.
NOISIEST COUNTRY AWARDS – Sudan followed by China and Egypt.
Sudan is a strictly Islamic country and so requires its Muslim population to pray five times a day among other noisy rituals. The density of mosques and minarets in Sudan is very high and the call to prayers starts at 4-5 am which is rather early and without doubt a very loud wake -up alarm call where ever you are.
I vaguely remember bell ringing on Sunday mornings from the church in the village, Abbots Bromley, I grew up in England, and even that annoyed me after a few peels.
As a Roaming Catholic of the lapsed kind I am a firm believer that anyone can believe in what they like provided it causes no harm to others, but object to people inflicting their superstitions, religion and beliefs on other people.
My helpful suggestion that calls to prayer be made using mobile phones on vibrate mode was not met enthusiastically by anyone I met, nor was the suggestion that “All Things Bright and Beautiful” might be more cheerful.
There are 1.4 billion Chinese, the streets are crowded, and they absolutely love noise and any excuse to make some is welcomed and encouraged.
Megaphones, public announcements, promotions, advertisements, car horns, traffic, construction noise, warning signals, conversations, music, talking in restaurants etc etc… DO IT LOUDLY!. T
There are four tones in Mandarin and to make sure the other person understands clearly its best to SHOUT. In Cantonese there are nine tones and so the Hong Kongers SHOUT EVEN LOUDER ……..AAAH MAAAA. 噪音太大。！！！！
MOST PEACEFUL COUNTRY AWARD – Namibia
To the motorcyclists who like a bit of technical off road riding, stunning scenery, quiet roads, good camping sites, African animals and birds, decent petrol and getting close to unspoiled nature then Namibia is the country to go and disturb the peace with your Akropovik or Leo Vince exhausts!
A long way from anywhere…. The Skeleton Coast, Namibia
Hiking along the entire Offas Dyke in one go was unfinished business for me. I attempted it from South to North a few years back and was defeated.
As they say in certain circles, proper planning prevents piss poor performance, and I had not planned properly. Poor mental preparation, poor research, and very poor kit, especially my ill-fitting boots and tortuous rucksack. All of which meant I came to an agonising halt no more than half way along.
Offa’s Dyke Path is a 177 mile (285 Km) long walking trail. It is named after, and often follows, the spectacular Dyke King Offa ordered to be constructed in the 8th century, probably to divide his Kingdom of Mercia from rival kingdoms in what is now Wales
The Trail, which was opened in the summer of 1971, links Sedbury Cliffs near Chepstow on the banks of the Severn estuary with the coastal town of Prestatyn on the shores of the Irish sea. It passes through no less than eight different counties and crosses the border between England and Wales over 20 times. The Trail explores the tranquil Marches (as the border region is known) and passes through the Brecon Beacons National Park on the spectacular Hatterrall Ridge. In addition it links no less than three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the Wye Valley, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Range / Dee Valley.
In May 2017 I returned, but this time started from the north of Wales at Prestatyn.
I had arranged to meet Kevin and Simon, with whom I worked in Arthur Andersen’s Fraud Services Unit in London back in the late 1990s, all of us being former UK policemen, and very keen on hiking and the great outdoors.
Simon was also in my intake at the training school in Wong Chuk Hang when we joined the Royal Hong Kong Police together in February 1987. Later he was my boss at Arthur Andersen where I first met Kevin, and with whom I worked very closely on numerous fraud investigations and assignments.
Simon and Kevin had only planned to walk a section or two, do 7-10 miles each day, carry light day packs and stay in comfortable B&Bs along the way. They planned to leap frog their cars with their luggage between these B&Bs.
I, on the other hand, was determined to yomp the whole 177 + miles, carry 25 kilograms of camping gear and supplies in my backpack, free camp along the way, and attempt between 20 and 30 miles each day.
Since they were all Labour supporting football hooligan grim northerners I was not going to let them forget this southern poof called Rupert was going to do it the “proper” way. Of course, with all this banter that meant the pressure was on me to actually finish it this time.
Start of hike with the lads … and 7 kgs heavier than when I finished 10 days later
Prestatyn and Kevin…. day 1
A memorable section of the Offa’s Dyke
Offa’s Dyke – fascinating history and outstanding natural beauty
If you are in a group its much more sociable… but the pace can be frustrating slow. Great to see the guys and chat.
strange creatures…. a pink human, an alpaca and a huge turkey
The Offa’s Dyke Path
As I live in Hong Kong my journey to the start of the hike was a lot longer than theirs, although you wouldn’t have known it given all their northern whining and gnashing of gums about their arduous car rides and the traffic conditions along the roads between North Wales and Derbyshire.
For me, my trip started with a bus ride from Mui Wo to the airport on Lantau Island, an Emirates flight to Heathrow via Dubai, and an underground train ride with the rush hour commuters to Covent Garden tube station in central London, where I knew I could buy a few more camping supplies that I didn’t have or couldn’t carry by air, such as a cooking gas canister, a fleece (I left mine in South Africa), and a waterproof cover for my new Osprey Atmos 65 rucksack that Fanny bought me off Amazon. I had already bought a new pair of North Face Hedgehog hiking boots that proved to be excellent.
After getting the things I needed, I then hiked across London in the rain to Euston train station, where I caught a surprisingly comfortable and remarkably cheap railway ride via Chester to Prestatyn.
As my hiking companions were still “en route” I immediately found a pub in town and started my Welsh beer appreciation survey and some “carb loading”.
Total journey about 40 hours door to door.
The northern boys had booked into a hotel next to the sea, no doubt because Pontins in Rhyll was full, and it was the only the place in town that would allow them to keep their coal in the bath, I am guessing!
Knowing that I would need a shower and a good rest after a long journey I had booked an AirBnB room in a private house located right at the start the hike at 25 quid a night. A very nice room, comfy bed, including a superb hiking breakfast of tea, toast, porridge and honey at 6 am, prepared by my very kind host, Anne.
From then on I was free camping.
As I hadn’t seen Simon and Kevin, nor Kevin’s wife, Denise for many years we had some catching up to do in the beer garden at their hotel. We were joined by a buddy of Simon’s from his Greater Manchester Police days called Andrew who was also a very keen hiker. Andrew also had the only decent OS maps in the group and by the looks of it the best hiking kit. By comparison, Kevin looked like he was popping down to the corner shop in his train spotter’s anorak and was carrying a well used supermarket plastic bag with his sandwiches inside.
I had decided against carrying any maps as the whole Offa’s Dyke requires six large OS maps in total which is far too much paper to lug, especially as the hike is pretty well sign posted. That said I did get lost on a few occasions, with several off piste excursions that added many miles to my already stressed feet. A map wouldn’t have helped anyway because I always think I know better, and rarely refer to one until well after I have got myself well and truly lost.
As is often the case nowadays, given that I have to work for food like everyone else, our evening was disturbed by a long call from one of my clients’ lawyers asking me to “do stuff” and amend documentation for a project I had started in China and France.
No worries, I had prepared myself with an EE network 4G Sim card that I bought when I arrived at Heathrow (EE being the best coverage for the Offa’s Dyke, so I read somewhere) and tethered my iPhone to various devices that I lug about so I can do my work anywhere in the world. Isn’t technology great? Although perhaps not the greatest idea to draft a legal contract after three pints of local brew, but there you are.
The next day I was up before 4.00 a.m., my body clock still tuned to Hong Kong time. I had to wait 6 hours before the cast of the “Last of the Summer Wine” had got their shit together before we set off, and even after that, and no more than 500 yards into the hike Simon had to run back to his car because he forgot something.
Simon has a PhD in “faffing about and forgetting stuff” and I cannot think of a day we have spent together, from leadership training in the wilds of Hong Kong, to investigating Holocaust Victims dormant accounts in Zurich when he has not had to double back on his tracks and retrieve something, contact lenses or an item of clothing being the usual suspects!
I had already collected my de rigeur pebble from the Irish Sea beach that I intended to deposit at Sedbury mud flats on the south coast of Wales, and we trundled off, calling by M&S Food in town to buy the sort of stuff that English and Welsh people shouldn’t eat, unless they burn through 5000 calories a day, which is pretty much what I consumed each day. Even with this high consumption of lard, sugar, crisps, sandwiches and beer I still managed to lose 7 kilograms by the time I completed the hike.
Not long after hiking up the first hill we meet a guy, perhaps a decade younger than any of us, with a seriously professional backpack and he looked absolutely “exhausted”. Covered in sweat, quite tanned, thin and just an hour or so from completing the entire hike in 11 days. I couldn’t help but notice that his backpack looked a lot lighter than mine.
Further along we bumped into a lively middle aged couple heading north and found out they had been walking the Offa’s Dyke over the last couple of weeks, carrying light day packs and staying in pre-booked B&Bs along the way. They told us about their route, how enjoyable the hike was, and that most of the B&Bs they stayed at also picked them up and dropped them off along the Dyke so they didn’t have to walk further than they needed.
Both of these encounters with fellow “Dykees” caused me to reflect on what I was doing, and for my walking companions to gloat that they were doing this hike the “enjoyable and sensible” way.
We walked together, Andrew stopping every ten minutes or so to consult his map, allow Kevin to catch up, garner collective approval we were heading in the correct direction, and then start walking again.
By mid afternoon, Kevin, Simon and later Andrew peeled off to walk to their bed and breakfast, and I continued to my a very nice camping site at Bodfari where I set up my tent and then wandered off to a very swanky pub called the Dinorben Arms and waited for the others.
Inevitably, and after 2 pints of Old Weasel, I received a message from Simon that they had booked a table at the crowded and very popular pub for dinner at 9 pm. It was 6 pm! No way I would last that long and so I ate on my own and repaired to my tent, read three lines of my book, and was out for the count.
As the others called it a day I am left with my shadow and all the great outdoors for company
A brew of tea or coffee along the way
Following more or less the border between England and Wales
Blessed with great weather….late Spring is a perfect time
The Offa’s Dyke is easy to navigate as its very well sign posted with the “Acorn” marker. England on your left and Wales on your right.
Camping in a pub beer garden
A welcome stop for tea and cakes … had been a hard section
Another lovely section and great weather
One of joys of these British hikes is stopping off at pubs and sampling the ales
And tea shops … a particularly delicious Damson crumble
Not a great deal left… and the bowl would have been licked if I wasn’t been observed by the village biddies
Nearly always followed by bullocks when I crossed their fields … reminds me of my childhood.
Path always changing … from woods, to hills, river valleys,to pasture
Half way along … Osprey rucksack doing a good job
Meadows full of wild flowers
Lots of sheep and ponies….and the odd alpaca
Canals and rivers
Lots of magical woods
Charming border town of Knighton and the Offa’s Dyke Centre
A discussion with King Offa about the route
Still on track
Often on my own
slight altercation with a bramble bush
I got my tent packed up the next day, made my coffee and porridge, and was ready to get going just after dawn. Clearly the “Derby and Joan knitting circle” were all still in their pits and so I left them a message that, just as we had planned, I was setting off on my own and wished them all well.
To make my 20-30 miles a day I had to walk for longer and perhaps slightly quicker and so I was on my todd for the remainder of the hike. They later told me they pulled the plug on their hike at the end of day 2 and went home. Apparently these retired northerners had other important commitments. Simon’s day pass from the Ayatollah (a.k.a Mrs. B) had expired and he had a Bridge appointment at the weekend! As for Kevin? Who knows?
So, I carried on and eventually completed the hike in 8 days, plus a much needed rest day in the very charming border town, Knighton where I camped in a farmers field next to a river, wandered about, caught up on the grim UK news, sat about in charming tearooms and local pubs, bought new “gel” insoles for my boots, and visited the Offa’s Dyke Centre
Of course I was not the only person walking along the Offa’s Dyke during those sunny days in May and I encountered various types of hikers along the trail.
There were those who I knew full well would get no further than where they were heading that day; elderly couples who had been ticking off sections of the trail over many years; fresh faced looking B&B hikers with day packs skipping merrily along, grizzled old men like Gandolf the Wizard who seemed to be in no hurry and were taking the hike in their stride; a young chap whose mother was following him in her car, collecting him at night, dropping him off in the morning and feeding him along the way (don’t knock it… at least he was doing something active); and I think a total of eight other nutters like me doing the whole trail with full camping gear and various aches, pains and blisters.
Two of the latter kind I met in a pub near the camp site at Llandegla, and who had broken the back of the hike with only another couple of days to finish. Really funny and amusing guys, and yes you guessed it, former police officers…. from Dorset!! Maybe we former “plods” really do miss walking the beat or something?
It was indeed a very tough and arduous hike, very hilly, my feet went through various levels of pain and torture I could barely tolerate, and worse, as a keen biker I had to endured the engine sounds and joie de vivre of an assortment of motorcycles whizzing along the wonderful Welsh roads. Occasionally I would encounter a group of bikers on their racing machines at various road sections and they would always wave at me, or perhaps they were laughing?
I did of course feel a huge sense of accomplishment in completing the hike and it was a big boost to my mind, body and soul. The Offa’s Dyke passes through stunningly beautiful countryside. It was invigorating to breathe the fresh air, admire the glorious wild flowers and greenery, and amble through fields full of Britain’s best livestock and wildlife. I was lucky with the weather, which for the large part was sunny and fresh. The evenings, mostly spent in the country pubs where I could eat and drink to my heart’s delight and yarn with the locals, were an absolute joy.
So, what next? A hike along the Coast to Coast? The Pennine Way? Appalachian Trail? Perhaps one day soon. But for now the next adventure on the calendar is back on a motorcycle where I plan to ride across Xizang, Xinjiang, Mongolia and Kazakhstan this autumn.
Getting near the end of the 177 mile hike
Typical camping spot. My North face two man tent a tad heavy and replaced the next year for the Coast to Coast hike with the lighter one man Tarptent Moment
The Backcountry Discovery Routes (“BDR”) are off road trails and dirt roads that have been charted by adventure motorcycle enthusiasts across America’s most iconic and beautiful States.
The Utah BDR is a 871 mile long route of sand trails and gravel roads passing through locations such as Moab, Valley of the Gods, the Abajo and La Sal Mountain Ranges, Nine Mile Canyon, and the northern Wasatch Mountains.
The Colorado BDR starts at Four Corners (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado) and takes riders across high elevation trails, mountain passes and along the lush valleys of the Colorado River through a number of iconic locations such as Telluride, San Juan Mountains, Continental Divide, Collegiate Range, Northern Rocky Mountains and Leadville.
In 2015 I had planned to ride the Colorado BDR on a KTM 1190 Adventure R, but a sudden bout of serious illness prevented me from doing so. I have to say it was a rough old time and I was drawn to the “light”on a couple of occasions. But I survived.
Rescheduled to September 2016, the new Honda CRF 1000 L Africa Twin was now available in the USA and so I booked one of those from a bike hire shop in Boulder, Colorado. I planned to not only ride along the Colorado BDR, but also the Utah BDR.
My better half, the lovely Fanny, was not available to join me on this America trip as she had better things to do, and so I was to ride with my friend, John, who would be riding his Yamaha 1200 Super Tenere from his home in California.
So, task number one, get to Boulder, which I could see from the map was, and still is just north of Denver in Colorado.
A cheap ticket with United Airlines meant I only had a baggage allowance of 23 Kgs to carry all my motorcycling and camping gear. The only solution was to wear some of my heavy biking kit, including my enduro motorcycle boots through the various airports and onto my flights.
I did get quite a few strange looks as I clomped aboard, but not as many as when I walked on board a flight with a paraglider on my back a few years back!
Inevitably, I suppose, the flight was long and miserable. The in-flight fodder was served to its human captives with the grace and finesse of forking out silage to cows, but edible with huge dollops of Tabasco sauce that I somehow smuggled through the security checks. Unlike Asian airlines, United Airlines has no in-flight entertainment, and I had forgotten to bring a book!
I sat in the rearmost seat among a group of very excitable Chinese from Fujian or Guangxi who spent the entire flight arguing, shouting, jumping up and down, trashing the lavatory, swapping seats and coughing up their lungs.
After decades living in China I have become almost immune to this peasant like chaos and I did my best to block them out with good quality earplugs, and as much red wine as my geriatric stewardess would serve me.
On arrival at San Francisco airport I fought my way through US customs and the lovely TSA and legged it in my motorcycle boots and all my clobber from one side of the airport to the other and got my connecting flight to Denver by the skin of my teeth.
As I settled into my seat and peered out of the aeroplane window at the expanse of desert and mountains below my mood immediately improved and I was positively excited about what lay ahead.
Somewhere down there were the routes I was going to ride over the coming weeks.
By the miracles of longitude and a spherical Earth I arrived in Denver before I took off in Hong Kong. My body clock deceived by bright sunshine and blue skies.
I took a shuttle bus directly to House of Motorrad in Boulder and in the early evening of the long good Friday introduced myself to the owner, Benjamin with whom I had been corresponding by email for months.
As I entered the shop I saw a grey coloured Honda Africa Twin.
Yes, apparently in the land of red, white and blue Honda have decided to export a dull looking grey bike, instead of the iconic red, white and blue Africa Twins that they export elsewhere in the world. Why? No idea… its all Japanese to me.
But it wasn’t the colour that grabbed my attention. It was the tyres. They were 100% smooth treaded road tyres, the ones I guess the bikes were exported to America with, AND totally unsuitable for the BDR routes that lay ahead.
I quickly checked my email history with Ben and saw quite clearly that I had asked many many many times for Metzler Karoo 3s or Continental TKC 80s to be fitted. I would also have been happy with a pair of Dunlop D606 or Pirelli MT21s. Seriously?
I raised the issue with Ben and he informed me that the tyres were ‘good enough’.
Hackles prickling on the back of my neck.
I explained in a John Cleese type way that they were indeed ‘not good enough’, but I got the immediate impression that this yank thought this limey pom didn’t know what he was talking about, nor cared.
‘Where you going, anyway?’, he inquired without real interest.
‘Well, as I explained in my emails, the Colorado BDR…I am meeting a friend in Park City tomorrow’.
‘Yes, we are doing the Utah BDR as well’.
I could see the immediate alarm and uncertainty on Ben’s face, and to cut a long story short he explained it was impossible to ride a motorcycle like the Africa Twin on the BDR, and in any case he would have to charge me an additional US$421 to change the tyres, and repeated many times that I would be liable for the first US$1500 of any scratch, nick, dink or damage, however minor, to the bike.
I was disappointed, tired and jet-lagged and in my despondency easily persuaded to rent a very nice KTM 690 Enduro instead. It had the right tyres on at least, and I do like this motorcycle very much, so I agreed and took it.
Without further ado the shop closed, everyone disappeared and I was left outside in a car park trying to strap all my kit onto a very slim and tall enduro bike ….and failing miserably. Just not enough luggage space.
Now it was dark, I had been awake for 2 days, I couldn’t afford (nor wanted) to pay US$200 for a grotty motel room in Boulder and so I decided to ride into the wilderness and find a spot to camp. I had declined the extra expense of renting a Garmin GPS at US$10 a day and so I used the Sygic maps app on my iPhone to navigate. Given all the great map apps on smartphones GPS’ are like betamax video recorders nowadays,
I had not got a chance to buy a US SIM card for my mobile phone due to all the rushing about and so I went in search of one of those in the various stores and malls around Boulder. This took longer than I expected as Americans are unused to open cellphones and foreigners asking for “pay as you go” GSM SIM cards.
After fitting the SIM card I immediately received a string of WhatsApp messages from John who was preparing to ride from his home in Walnut Creek in California to Park City in Utah and after a ping pong conversation it was clear he was not happy about my choice of motorcycle and strongly suggested I return the KTM and get the Honda Africa Twin as originally planned…. and stop a being stingy git and fork out the extra money for a set of proper tyres.
As John was technically my client and responsible for paying me to sort out the shit his company had got itself into my lack of money was technically his fault for not paying me enough. There is logic there somewhere if you look hard enough!!
I was now fading from tiredness and so I rode about 10 miles out of Boulder with all my luggage piled precariously high on the back seat of the KTM. After riding into a more rural area I spotted the dark silhouettes of some people sitting by a fire on some farmland and asked them if I could pitch my tent in their field.
‘Sure, buddy’, came the reply from some shadowy figure, ‘mind out for those cactus …and the rattlers!’
Cactus and rattle snakes were the least of my worries, and in a very well rehearsed procedure my tent was up, the ground mat blown up, and sleeping bag unraveled. In seconds I had squeezed into my maggot and was out for the count, lying heaven knows where and with what?
I woke up as the the sky was turning from purple, to red, and finally orange.
As the sun peered out above an unfamiliar horizon I was already packed up and set my course for the ubiquitous American diner, Dennys for my favourite US breakfast of eggs and spinach, and a quart or two of black coffee.
By now I had not washed in nearly three days and men have certain body parts that will start to rot if not attended to. Luckily Denny’s had a bathroom, it was very early, very few customers (if any), and so I took advantage of a strategically low hand basin. All in the pursuit of cleanliness and hygiene, I should add. At least I didn’t dry my nuts in the hand dryer, like Hong Kong men do in changing rooms! As pragmatic as it is, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Now fed, watered, rested and “cleaned” I could appraise the situation a little better, and in the light of day I decided to follow John’s instructions and return the KTM, incur the extra costs and get more suitable tyres fitted on the Honda, re-pack everything and head across Colorado to Utah.
I was waiting in the car park of House of Motorrad when Ben arrived and told him that I had changed my mind. On careful reflection I would revert to original plan and would indeed be taking the Africa Twin ….and I would like a set of off road tyres fitted.
Ben showed me a pair of Mitas E07 tyres that I am not too familiar with. They looked like dual sport 30/70 types. Not ideal, and certainly not the TKC80s or Karoo 3 tyres I really wanted, and indeed the BDR route ahead required.
But no choice… ho gwoh mo… as they say in Hong Kong.
Ben also decided that he wanted to fit more robust SW Motech engine bars as he had firmly decided in his mind that I will drop the bike and the SW Motech engine bars were definitely better than the standard Honda ones, which to be honest are rather cosmetic and more suited to holding on extra lights and other weekend warrior stuff than doing what it says on the box… protecting the engine.
It was Saturday morning and he said I would have to wait until five other rental bikes had been prepared for other customers, just to rile me I suspect. I had a long ride ahead, but I realised there is no point arguing in a position of weakness… its always counterproductive.
As I had a few hours, in fact all morning to whittle away, I laid out and inspected all my kit in the car park, dumped my big traveling bag with a last minute selection of things I was sure I didn’t need with Ben, prepared the KTM 690 Enduro and took it for an explore around Boulder.
I rode around Boulder, explored a few hill roads in the outskirts, chatted with some bikers here and there, drank more coffee than I needed, bought some camping supplies from a huge superstore called REI, bought Johnny Rotten’s autobiography, “Anger is an Energy” from a very well stocked Barnes and Noble store, looked around some motorcycle shops at their new bikes, and got verbally berated by a middle aged woman at a set of traffic lights for an alleged “wheelie” incident.
I know from past experience that finding a good cup of tea in America is like finding an American who can point to Shanghai on a map. The vast majority of supermarkets and cafes sell god awful teas flavoured with spices, herbs and fruit extracts, use luke warm water, and suspend the “tea-ish” bag thing above the water from a tampon string.
Having been to America many times before I was well prepared for this culture shock and in addition to Tabasco sauce to make American food more edible had brought with me copious amounts of Yorkshire Gold teabags.
Whilst whittling away my time in a Starbucks coffeeshop I asked if I could use my own tea?
‘LIKE, TOADALLY, LIKE, NO, LIKE’, was the answer given by the barista. I was then given a patronising lecture and told it was against their insurance policy or something.
‘Oh! …OK… how about a mug of boiling water?’, I inquired.
‘OKaaay, like, I gess so, like’.
I returned to The House of Motorrad about 1:00 pm and the Africa Twin was ready. It looked absolutely superb. Ben had done a brilliant job fitting it out with quality after market accessories necessary for true adventure riding.
These included: Altrider belly plate (effective); SW Motech engine bars and luggage racks (well designed); Wolfman soft panniers and tank bag (superb); Barkbuster enduro handguards (strong); and Doubletake mirrors (clever)
As I was strapping down all my kit onto the excellent luggage rack in the configuration I have used for years I was given another lecture by Ben with the main theme being if I drop the bike — which he assured me in no uncertain terms I will — don’t come back.
His attitude and the threat of forking out US$1500 had reinforced in my brain one thing, and one thing only … DON’T DROP THE FUCKING BIKE. It became my mantra, and in a way sort of dampened the trip because it clipped my wings and sapped my confidence.
One problem remained, and it was a glaring one. I didn’t like the tyres.
I know from experience riding this Africa Twin offroad on Metzler Karoo 3 tyres in Wales, and indeed riding my KTM 990 Adventure and other bikes around the world on various tyre combinations along extremely challenging roads in the Rift Valley in north west Kenya, the Sahara desert, Nubian desert in Sudan, Kalahari in Botawana, Namib desert in Namibia, Baviaanskloof in South Africa, Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya, Sinai in Egypt, Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, Gobi desert in Mongolia, Tibet, Gansu and Qinghai in west China, Simpson desert in Australia, Alps and Dolomites in Europe, blah blah blah (you get my drift), that the motorcycle I ride and my ability to ride it is capable enough… provided I decide how the bike is set up and don’t get railroaded and bullied into bad decisions.
Anyway, it was what it was, nothing more I could do, and I was itching to get going.
I worked out how far I could travel in the remaining hours and set a course largely along Highway 40 to a place up in the Colorado Rockies called Steamboat Springs where I planned to camp and the following day continue to the Hilton Hotel in Park City, Utah for a rendezvous at 12 noon with John and his Yamaha.
As I roared off towards the mountains I immediately found the Honda Africa Twin to be a very comfortable touring bike indeed. It cornered really really well and I would put its cornering ability as one of the best adventure bikes I have ever ridden.
It has a super smooth engine and gear box. The riding position is perfect, both sitting down on the seat and standing up on the pegs. Later, I would ride for over seven hours almost continuously up on the pegs and was very comfortable and balanced. Sounded nice too. Just right.
The only niggle, and its a well documented niggle, is that Honda have decided to swap the positioning of the indicator switch and the horn which means that old farts like me who have been riding for decades will be unable to naturally find, and cancel the indicators, and instead press the tinny sounding horn …..every single time. Its annoying, and when performing turns in busy traffic, possibly even dangerous. Even after a fortnight I was still having to look down to find the wretched indicator switch.
At 94 BHP the Honda is not a super powerful bike, and being about 230 kilograms + 35 kilograms of kit + 19 kilograms of fuel + 93 kilograms of Rupert its power to weight ratio is not as good as say, a KTM 1190 Adventure R, but this belied its true ability as a very high performing and capable adventure bike.
The only time I could have done with a bit more power was when I was overtaking, but I was often doing 100+ mph on the open highways and easily overtook the RVs and monster trucks that occupy the Colorado landscape. When not overtaking, I cruised very comfortably at 85 mph on the single lane highways across the Rockies.
It was Saturday afternoon and as I ascended the mountains outside Denver the roads were congested with recreational vehicles and people enjoying outdoor pursuits. SUVs were adorned with kayaks, bicycles, dirt bikes, and all sorts of camping equipment.
The Harley Davidson weekend warriors were out in droves, most wearing silly bandannas, grey goatie beards, an assortment of leather waistcoats, unnecessary chains, chrome bling, daft trousers and professing allegiance to some warrior gang or Big 4 accounting firm.
As I rode along I must have encountered thousands of other motorcycles. In America bikers passing each other in different directions greet each other by saluting with their left arm outstretched and pointing at the floor, as opposed to a nonchalant sideways nod that we Brits give.
I did accidentally wander into a “Terminator” type pub later on in the trip that had rows of Harley’s outside. Inside was a true gang of something or another that looked me up and down and dismissed me as one of them “new fangled adventure riders” and a foreign one to boot.
I greeted them all as I entered and they collectively sort of nodded and grunted something and got on with what they were doing. By that time near the end of the trip I was covered in red dust, smelled vile, had shaven my head, grown a grey beard, had evil patchy sunburn, and blood shot red eyes. I decided not to provoke them by asking for “A Flock of Seagulls” or the “Pet Shop Boys” on the jukebox.
Anyway, anyway, riding across the Rockies I had altered my course somewhat along the way to escape the droves of RVs and eventually got on some of the high mountain roads with very little traffic, passing through small towns and sprawling commercial parks, and eventually pulled into the very touristy ski resort of Steamboat Springs.
I rode around for a while and looked for camping sites, but all I found were truly awful RV parks with all the charm and attraction of some sort of Soviet gulag concentration camp. And very expensive. Like the RV parks from the alien comedy “Paul”.
Nope. Not for me.
So now what?
“When in doubt buy beer” and so I stocked up on some pretty decent craft IPA I saw being sold at the side of the road and decided to push on as the light was fading and stopped about 20 miles further on at a isolated bar I saw glowing in the dark.
As soon as I walked in I became the centre of attention, largely, I suspect because everyone inside was a local, and I obviously wasn’t.
I met a very friendly bunch of people and was fed with a huge pork rib sandwich (I was indeed quite hungry), bought me some beers, made conversation that was largely making excuses for Donald Trump, and directed me to a nearby campsite, warning me to go very slowly and carefully at night because of elks and deer leaping into the road, and reinforced this warning with some graphic horror stories of destructive encounters between wildlife and vehicles over the years.
An enjoyable, relaxing, and quintessentially American evening after a very long journey. Good fun. Good people.
I took the risk of a close encounter of the elk-Honda kind and eventually camped up just off the road in the dark and woke up and packed up while it was still dark… and bitterly cold. My tent and ground sheet were covered in ice, and my water bottles frozen solid.
I had ummed and aahed about bringing my huge North Face expedition sleeping bag that we used when Fanny and I rode across China and camped high up in the Himalayas in Tibet a few years previously. A top of the range sleeping bag, rather bulky, but not that heavy, and with some effort can be squeezed quite tight into a compression bag.
Bringing it was a very good decision as it turned out because in the weeks ahead the nights would be pretty darned cold in both the deserts of Utah and up high in the 10,000 foot plus mountains of Colorado.
I also had a North Face tent and a top of the range ThermaRest sleeping mat that is actually more comfortable than a bed. I have to say I slept brilliantly the whole trip.
Very early the next morning I got up, made coffee, had some porridge and was off riding again before the sun came up. I love camping and in the coming weeks I would just set up camp where ever I could, preferably in a wood next to a stream, or creek as Americans call them.
Throughout the morning I rode high up along mountain passes, next to numerous stretches of high altitude lakes and reservoirs which were full of speed boats, kayaks, water skiers and other recreational activities. The hillsides were ablaze with the colours of Fall. All very pretty.
I arrived in Park City at noon as planned and checked into the rather ghastly Hilton Hotel where I was to meet John. The reception staff were a bit snobby, and the rooms were characterless and rather gloomy. Not my thing at all, but hey.
John had already booked a twin room for us to share so that we could get a good night’s rest before we started the BDR ride the next day. Whilst killing time I made the mistake of turning on the television and was immediately reminded that American TV is awful. Mostly commercials, nothing to watch, gravitating to the lowest denominator, and painfully annoying.
Anyway, I had better things to do than watching annoying drug commercials and sports I don’t understand. Drinking beer, for instance.
It wasnt long before John arrived on his Yamaha having crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats from his home in Walnut Creek, some 900 miles away. A long old ride indeed.
That evening John treated me to a very delicious steak dinner and a good bottle of wine, as he had promised. We had made a bet two years ago about losing weight and I won. John maintains that cutting out internal organs to lose weight is cheating, but a bet’s a bet.
I had known John for a few years and we first met when I was employed by his Silicon Valley company to investigate a nasty kidnapping and murder case at one of their factories in Malaysia. Suffice to say, confidentiality precludes saying any more, but we discovered we shared the same interest in motorcycling. John maintains a collection of various types of motorcycle and pedal bikes which he is very competent and experienced at riding, from touring, trail, dirt to track. I guess you would describe him as a successful and wealthy American, with a very comfortable lifestyle…and lot’s of man toys.
I haven’t shared a room with anyone except my other half for decades, and during the night I had to put in earplugs due to the terrible noise John made while he slept. My goodness what a dreadful racket!
In the morning when John woke up, he stared at me alarmingly and said, ‘Shit, you are a fucking noisy sleeper’.
So that was it. Camping from now on, with tents spread sufficiently far apart!
I had made the assumption that John had downloaded all the GPS way points for the Utah and Colorado BDR routes into his Garmin, and he had. I think its best to just have one person in charge of navigation and as its John’s home turf and he had a proper Garmin GPS, that responsibility fell to him.
The problem was we were traveling north to south in Utah and the BDR GPS way points, of which there are hundreds, were now the wrong way round. It doesn’t bode well when you immediately go the wrong way as you set out on an expedition? And we did.
The Utah BDR does run along a few tar roads, but mostly follows gravel and sand tracks that wind through stunning countryside, idyllic rural scenery, mountain trails and impressive deserts. The sort of places that the average person won’t come across.
There is a lot of debate as to whether the “Back Country Discovery Routes” are 100% suitable for large adventure bikes, like John’s Yamaha Super Tenere, KTM 990/1290s Adventures, BMW R 1200 GS, and Honda CRF 1000 L like I was riding …. OR … more suited to smaller enduro and dirt bikes with 450cc and 250cc engines…and lighter luggage.
We shall see, won’t we?
The GPS way points showed the turn off points and we quickly found our first turn off just outside Park City and the only indication of the track was a post with a number written on it. To confuse things the route numbers would often change without meeting another trail or any obvious change in direction.
Immediately, one got the feeling of being remote and off the beaten track. This first section was of hard packed gravel roads that meandered left and right, up and down, and through hills covered in pine, deciduous trees, and the famous Aspens that covered the hills in a blanket of greens, browns, reds, oranges and yellows.
The autumn temperature during the day was very comfortable, in fact, pretty much perfect. John was leading and riding at a much slower pace than I am used to, but I got in the rhythm and thoroughly enjoyed drifting through valleys, across streams, through woods, past impressive ranches, and over hills and rocky outcrops. This is what its all about and I was really enjoying myself.
So far the Utah BDR was quite easy, very enjoyable, and incredibly picturesque.
By the end of the day, the scenery was becoming less wooded and increasingly open rocky desert. As the sun was fading we found our first campsite just off the track up a hill and settled into our respective spaces. As we chatted about a great day’s riding and what lay ahead I got the impression John was anxious about the cold in the mountains of Colorado and that he was inclined towards staying in motels and lodges.
I, on the other hand, wanted to camp the whole way. I was well prepared for camping and unlike John, didn’t have the cash to fork out on hotels. While we were chatting I also shared one of my phobias, and one I had no intention of confronting.
I have developed over the years an absolute fear of lightening and will not under any circumstance place myself in a situation in which there is any risk of being caught exposed during a storm. Not least that the ground turns to claggy mud through the heavy rain, the lack of visibility, and general dangerous riding conditions.
No, for me the risk of being struck by a bolt in open desert, or above the tree line in the mountains in the late afternoon is all too real.
This fear of lightening really took hold in the deserts of Namibia during the rainy season back in 2000s when I was caught in a storm with lightening crashing around me. On my KTM 990 Adventure I was the highest object from horizon to horizon and sitting on the only lump of metal. Terrifying!
On one occasion while camping near Windhoek a small tree a few meters from my tent got struck by a bolt of lightening in a relentless and frightening storm, and that was that. Even in Hong Kong on the island I live the lightening seems intent on finding its mark and a tree outside our apartment has been hit several times.
I knew that in the Rockies several people had been killed by lightening during August and general advise was that afternoon storms were to be avoided. However, when I checked the forecast for the coming day it predicted lightening in the desert we were traveling across and as an avid micro-meteorologist from my paragliding activities, an “A” level in Geography, and sufferer of “astrophobia” I can recognise every cloud in the sky and forecast exactly whats lies ahead.
We set off rather late the next day after faffing about having a long breakfast at a diner and getting petrol and water. Soon after John pulled off the tar road and started riding along a rather technical and challenging section of trails.
This cannot be the route I thought to myself as we crashed and skidded along. There is no way we will complete even 30 miles in a day. Eventually we came across a really steep rocky section and John wisely decided to turn around, go back, and bypass this section.
As we rode back the way we came to the gravel road I was certain in my mind he had taken a wrong route. There is no way “this” was a section of the BDR aimed at duel purpose motorcycles. It was challenging enough for a mountain goat.
After about 15 minutes I pulled alongside John and got him to stop. ‘I am sure that wasn’t a section of BDR… we must have gone past the turning… let’s go back’, I pleaded.
And we did and quickly found the correct turning and a long gravel track disappearing off into a wide expanse of desert.
We followed this track for an hour or so and then John made a sequence of wrong turns with us going every wrong way and even up into the mountains where there was a high altitude communication station. Again we came to cliffs and steep sections and whilst doing so the sky was increasingly turning black. I could see the cells of cumulus nimbus and lightening started grounding all around us, and it started raining, a lot.
I stopped next to a rocky outcrop and contemplated camping up until the storm passed. The weather forecast for the next 5 days was sunny sunny sunny. Why risk being exposed in the desert in a storm? There is no Faraday cage effect on a motorcycle!
We scouted the area and found a few suitable campsites. As we were sheltering from a vicious gust front I was sitting next to a mound of rocks and I just glanced to my left and could clearly see the face of a snake about 10 cms away from mine. Was it a snake? A forked tongue suddenly darted out and that cleared up any uncertainty. Fook me!
John was more worried about the rattlesnake nest we were sitting in than the lightening. I was undecided.
As a storm cell moved across the desert valley beneath us a maintenance truck from the communication station drew up along side John and they had a conversation.
John shouted over, ‘There is a campsite down by the canyon wall about 3 miles away’.
I thought about this and decided we could make a dash down the mountain and across the desert valley where the lightening had been ground striking and find the campsite where we could settle down and wait out the storm.
I did not hang about and belted down the wet mud track, found the junction we should have taken 3 hours previously and hoofed it down the muddy track. My Honda with its Mitas tyres was fine on muddy gravel and I charged along at 60-70 mph, lest the next storm cell explode above my head.
After about 5 miles there was no sign of this alleged campsite.
A few miles further along we found an isolated municipal information station with shelters and I thought it was a suitable place to pitch our tents under and perhaps camp overnight. I could see another huge black cloud reaching up into the stratosphere and flashing from internal cloud to cloud explosions of lightening.
‘I am staying here’, I told John.
John was not having any of it and said he was pushing on to a town 30 miles away where he could find a motel.
I looked ahead and the storm was huge and it was clearly developing and raining heavily. I had checked the weather forecast and it predicted heavy storms all night.
‘Nope, you go, I’m staying here’, I insisted. ‘I will meet you at Green River in the morning’ and with that John rode off in the direction of the storm.
I was left in the middle of the desert with at least a partial concrete shelter above my head as I watched the storm drift northwards across the huge expanse of desert valley. I reflected that it was not a good idea to part company with John, but I was not going to be coerced against my better judgement to ride into the eye of a storm. Even though we got lost many times we were ahead of schedule due to making progress along long sections the previous day, and it was already late afternoon.
I did a little bit of a recce of the immediate area and found some very nice campsite above a spectacular canyon and watched the lightening show in the far distance. Its crazy to ride into that, I thought, not least flash floods in canyons and the sand road turning into a gooey quagmire.
After about two hours the storm cell had indeed drifted northwards. There were some other cells to my west, but east towards Green River had cleared somewhat and so in the interest of not losing John, and perhaps digging him out of the mud, I decided to make a run towards Green River.
The sun was low and the route took me through a truly spectacular rose coloured canyon that was glowing orange pink due to the setting sun. I was also riding at my normal comfortable pace, skimming across ruts and corrugations, sliding the back round corners. What a joy!
The sandy track meandered through a steep sided canyon and for the first time that afternoon I was really enjoying myself, not least I was motoring at a fair lick and the Honda was riding beautifully. This is more like it.
Better than my KTM 990 Adventure? A bit, perhaps. Smoother and more comfortable to ride. Better than my KTM 1190 Adventure R? Perhaps not. My 1190 is over 50BHP more powerful and suspension is definitely more robust off road. That said they are all outstanding motorcycles.
No more than 30 minutes since I started I came across a river bridge and saw John standing by the side of the road. He had set up his tent under a burnt out tree that on one fateful day had been struck by lightening.
‘You didn’t go far’, I challenged him.
We caught up and I decided to set up my tent in the same spot, but away from the trees. We cooked up some freeze dried camping food from Rei that I thought was pretty good, and got a brew on. For the second night we realised we had forgotten to buy any beer. Oh well, Yorkshire Gold it is.
As the sun went down we were treated to an absolutely spectacular lightening storm that exploded all around us and thundered through the canyon. It then started to rain and the lightening started striking the cross shaped valley we were in.
I eyed a reasonably clean and simple municipal concrete ablution block not far away and told John, ‘I am bringing my stuff in there… its going to pour tonight and camping in a river bed under trees that have nearly all been struck by lightening during a storm isn’t the greatest idea’. And off I went and set up my ground mat and sleeping bag inside the “heads”.
A slightly turdy disinfectant smell, but tolerable, and more importantly, safe and dry.
Soon after John joined me and placed his entire one man tent and contents inside the small concrete structure. We set up our camping chairs just outside to watch one of the greatest shows on Earth. The storm lasted until 5.30 am and the flashes and bangs were amplified by the cauldron shape of the canyon we were in. Quite amazing.
After porridge and coffee the next morning we packed up and carried on to Green River, passing across desert sandy tracks until we reached the busy Highway 70 that routed us into the city. We refueled again, the idea being we always keep our tanks filled up when we see the opportunity. This is something Fanny and I always did on our expeditions, especially in Africa and Asia where fuel availability is very much less certain than in America or Europe.
The Honda Africa Twin has a 5 gallon tank and petrol costs between US$2.10 – 3.50 a gallon in the US depending how remote the fuel station is. Usually it was about US$2.70 for 91 Octane fuel.
I had worked out that while riding on the trails and tracks in mostly 2nd and 3rd gear I was getting about 57 miles to the gallon which is pretty good. This went down to 46 miles per gallon when I was hoofing it above 80 mph. Not bad.
It meant I had a safe range of about 230 miles on a tank. John’s Super Tenere had a 6 gallon tank and was making less mpg than me and so effectively we had the same range.
After Green Point we continued on the BDR towards Moab where we planned to stay that evening. Again we got lost a few times on gravely sand type trails but they were manageable. John then turned onto more rocky and steep trails that wound up through the hills. At this point I was having doubts we were actually on the correct trail. There were steep sandy inclines, deep ruts, large rocks and lots of twists.
For the first time on the trip the limitations of my tyres became apparent, accentuating the weight of my bike. My front was all over the place and I was constantly rescuing the bike from slides. My brain was filled with DON’T DROP THE BIKE and I think this was affecting my confidence. I kept thinking what’s the point of this risky technical riding when we can see the same things and yet take a more manageable gravel track.
John seemed fine and was clearly very used to riding his big beast on such sandy rutted surfaces. He was a very good technical off road rider.
I was riding a lot slower than I liked and I was also making mistakes. I was not riding well. Was it the bike? Just one of those days? Lack of confidence? All I think, but lack of confidence is the greatest risk and definitely affects riding performance.
I was getting sufficient traction on the back tyre, but the front was sliding away in the deep sand sections and being knocked sideways by large rocks, none of it helped by following in John’s dust wake.
My head was down instead of up, I was paddling when I should be standing up on the pegs, my elbows had come down. I was doing it all wrong. Off road riding and sand riding is a head game and my brain was on strike.
I caught up with John and told him I was struggling a bit on the sand and he said, ‘This is Utah, man, its going to be all sand from now on’.
I continued following and was OKish when I increased my speed and got in the flow, but when I followed at someone else’s pace I was making all sort of adjustments to stay upright. I kept changing between 1st gear and 2nd gear when I should have stayed in a smooth 2nd or 3rd the whole time.
Then it happened. I was immediately behind John and I lost my track and in order not to drop the bike I went off piste and down a vertical section and into a sand pit. I wrestled to keep the bike upright but I was on a steep slope with an even steeper drop to my right. I was frozen… unable to move.
I waited to regain my composure.
Losing the whole bike and not just US$1500 dollars was flashing through my mind, but more importantly than that I was determined to return the bike in pristine condition to make a point to “Doubting Benjamin”.
I couldn’t even get off the bike without risking it toppling sideways and so I waited for John to come back and help me.
I waited and I waited.
Is he coming back? Evidently not.
I would have to get out of this situation by myself, and so I gently allowed the bike to lean again the uphill side of the sand on the left pannier and hand guard and squeeze out my trapped leg from underneath the bike. Not so easy, but I did it. The slope was steep and sandy and so I had no worries about about any scratches in soft sand if I dropped it slowly.
Now I could get off the bike and appraise the situation. I clambered up to the trail I came off and surveyed the scenery. Still no John. Surely he would realise I am not behind him and come back and help.
I tried to ride the bike up without sitting on it like I did on the Honda course in Wales when we all practiced U-turns on steep slopes. However, the back wheel was sliding and the front burying itself further into the sand. There was no option. I had to get all the luggage off, haul it all back up to the trail and then try and ride the unladen bike back up the steep slope.
And that is what I did.
With all the luggage unloaded and having had a bit a breather, and to be honest in a rather agitated mood, I aggressively rode the bike back up the slope like a 125 trial bike, put all the luggage back on and carried on.
‘Good old Honda… crap tyres’, I was muttering to myself.
Further along the rocky trail I saw John’s bike, and then I saw John laughing and smoking a cigarette. As I drew up alongside I shouted, ‘Why didn’t you come back and help? I went off the track!!!’.
I can’t really remember what John said, something about walking back quarter of a mile and giving up, but by then the red mist had truly filled my helmet and I was not a happy camper. Any further chat with John would not go well and so I decided to leave him there, smoking his cigarette and grinning like a Chesire Cat.
I sped off at a ridiculously fast pace. Strangely, the bike was suddenly in its element as I zipped across the trail. My faffing about attitude had melted away and I was back in the groove. It was like being in any dangerous or risky situation I have been in, and I have been in a few. If you are aggressively euphoric (if there is such a state of mind), you are no longer timid.
Pretty soon afterwards I came to the end of the trail and to a T-junction with a tar road in front.
I waited a while, looked over my shoulder, waited a bit more. No John. So I thought I will turn right, pull over and wait a while. Still no John.
Of course, I had not planned the route, that was John’s job, but as it happened I had got myself onto Route 128 that runs along side the Colorado River and through Castle Valley towards Route 191 that passes through Moab.
After riding for another hour along the Colorado River I wasn’t sure what to do and was getting a bit tired from all the riding and manhandling the Honda in the sand and so I thought about camping up. I had calmed down by now, but had now lost John and had no signal on the phone. I was regretting stomping off.
Alongside the Colorado River seemed to be lots of camp sites, but like many in Utah and Colorado you have to pay a fee for a plot of ground with no facilities. What’s the point? I can camp anywhere else with no facilities for free and so I carried on into Moab to check it out and have a rest. I also thought in the urban area I might get a signal on my phone and a message from John.
Moab was not what I was expecting. Very very touristy and a centre for outdoor activities and adventure sports in the vicinity. Far too many dull lardy looking people in RVs and “born to be mild” types on Harleys for my liking and so after stocking up on supplies and checking messages and internet I carried on south and found a more remote camping site near a stunning lookout point called “The Needles”.
I assumed John was going to book into a bed and breakfast somewhere near Moab, but I wanted to camp and this was one of most beautiful camping spots I have ever been to. I would rest up and try and contact John, but at the same time plan the route ahead in case things don’t work out. He knews we are going to connect up on the Colorado BDR and no doubt I would run into him or make contact.
As I was riding and navigating on my own now, I downloaded and configured the BDR GPS way points onto my iPhone from a program called Rever when I was in Moab, and bought paper maps of Utah and Colorado upon which I plotted the various routes and way points. Not as good as the Butler BDR maps John had, but good enough to orientate myself.
As I mentioned, my camping setup was near on perfect, and so it should be after living in a tent for years on end during various expeditions. I had enough freeze dried camping food for the entire trip and to be honest, America isn’t like Africa. There is a 7/11, Taco something, Denny’s, coffee shop, supermarket, and petrol station around every corner, and you can drink water straight out of the tap, or even out of a creek if you need to.
I spoke to Fanny on Facetime. There was 14 hours between us so conversations were in the evening or first thing in the morning, if indeed I had a signal.
‘Where’s John?’ Came the first question.
‘Oh um, I lost him, we went our separate ways’, I answered trying to evade the issue.
‘AAAAAIIIIYAAAA!’, came the inevitable reply, ‘I KNEW you wouldn’t last more than THREE DAYS, typical, you are a 孤独狼’
That’s for sure.
Its perhaps now I should give some impressions of America, or at least the State of Utah.
I was now in the land of Cowboys and Indians and Coyote Road Runner. The scenery is spectacular to be sure, but the culture? Well there isn’t any to be brutally honest. Anything remotely “old” or “historic” is exaggerated to beyond the point of disappointment. You have the natural scenery and that’s it. Having said that, nature and the landscape is indeed truly spectacular.
The food? I am going to be controversial given I am English and come from a country with some of the worst food (especially in 1960s and 70s), but I will just say American food is edible, although a bit unexciting.
I found I liked two things while in America… scrambled eggs with spinach, and super spicy hot buffalo wings. I don’t care for pizza, hamburgers, taco things, hotdogs, or sandwiches. I’ll eat them, but then I’ll eat anything. I found a cat skull in my hotpot in China once, and since I had paid for it, and so had moggy, I ate it. It didn’t taste like chicken if that’s what you are wondering!
In America any so called foreign or ethnic food is Americanised to the point of ? … well to the point it bears no resemblance or taste to what it purports to be. Sugar dominates the menu. The petrol stations are full of lard and sugar and everything is supersized. Seriously! Who drinks a bucket of soda for breakfast? Well I can tell you, a lot of people.
Whilst queuing in a coffee shop, or “waiting in line” as they say in America, I noticed that the locals ordered really strange drinks. I heard one lady ask for a mocha chokka something with organic almond milk. Huh? When I asked for a black coffee the Millennial shop assistant looked at me as if I had asked to sleep with her dog!
America and England? Divided by a common language for sure.
Animals? Didn’t see as many as I hoped. Small dogs, ground squirrels, and big dogs. I was hoping to see a bear, but never did. I did see some deer and antelope in the mountains… but I also saw hundreds and hundreds of hunters, dressed up like southern hick characters in Honey Boo Boo Child and tearing about the place on ATVs (quad bikes to you and me) with gun racks on the front.
Trees dominate the mountain landscape of Utah and Colorado, in particular the glorious Aspens with all their colourful leaves as they transitioned through the autumn into winter. The unspoiled crystal clear rivers and streams that run through the valleys are very picturesque, the mountains are impressive, and the deserts and canyons are spectacular.
Having seen a lot of the world, I feel the best of America is what the Soul of the Universe put there in the first place. If, however, your goals of a motorcycle adventure include amazing food, interesting cultures, historical sites, diverse flora and fauna… go to Africa or Asia or Mexico!
The saddest part of my trip was when I entered the Navajo indigenous “reserve” and saw the native Americans wandering aimlessly about. Its very sad.
But its the same all over the world where nomadic proud people like Australian Aborigines, South African Bushmen, Canadian Inuit or Mongolian herdsmen are hauled out of their free existence and involuntarily assimilated into the modern western way of things.
Among all my childhood memories from growing up in the 1960s in England the imagery of a proud Apache or Sioux on a bare backed horse in full warrior regalia in the wilds of America stood out as truly “magnificent”. When we played Cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be an Indian. They’re the coolest ones aren’t they.
Now… these bewildered folk are living in abandoned cars and sucking on quarts of Doctor Pepper, or staggering about, pissed out of their minds in an attempt to find a better reality.
Anomie by any measure.
The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a more positive frame of mind. In the light of day I found myself in a truly beautiful bit of the desert in southern Utah. I was not completely alone, either. I had pitched my tent in a small camping area on the side of a steep canyon and as I was preparing my breakfast of porridge and coffee some other campers wandered over to say hello.
I always think when you travel alone you meet more people. They see you on your own and feel more inclined to approach and chat than when you are in a group or with someone else.
The exception to this is when I travel with Fanny. She was extremely popular on our travels. A lovely, kind, gregarious, super smart and unusually loud Shanghai woman. Throw a huge adventure motorcycle into the equation and she is always going to attract a lot of attention.
Me? Just another grey balding middle aged “gammon” having a mid life crisis as snowflakes like to describe me. However, it was my Honda Africa Twin that attracted all the attention, and all sorts of bikers, and indeed other travelers would come up to me and chat, and many would ask for my impressions of my motorcycle, which I have to say were very favourable.
I understood at the time of this expedition that the Africa Twin was very hard to come by in the US and a surprising number of bikers I met were on a waiting list to own one, and so inevitably they wanted to know who I was, and what I was up to?
Not an easy one. I am English, live in Hong Kong, and also in Shanghai, and in UK and in South Africa where I have homes.
Where did I start my journey? England, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Boulder.
When did you start your journey? Thirty years ago, ten years ago, June 2010, last week. I am quite sure people went away rather confused. I certainly was.
During the morning of the first day on my own I spent time planning the route ahead and intended, as much as possible, to stick to the BDRs, but also wanted to factor in a few detours to see some interesting sites along the way.
Each day setting up camp and packing up was very quick due to being very well rehearsed and having a good luggage system. The Wolfman soft panniers were very spacious and very easy to load up. In each was a yellow dry bag that I could pull out, fill up with whatever and push back into the sturdy soft pannier and strap down securely.
I had food, water and cooking equipment in one pannier; biking kit, camping chair and tools in the other; and all my camping gear and spare clothes in a yellow North Face dufflebag, the same one that I have used all over the world. I strapped this very securely across the SW Motech luggage rack with bungees. I also brought my black sheepskin seat cover, but rarely used it as the Honda seat is super comfortable, more so than any of my KTMs.
I had a small Wolfman tank bag in which I kept camera equipment, maps, chargers and cables; and my valuables were kept in secret pockets in my Rev’It riding gear that I kept with me. I would have preferred a larger tank bag with a bigger map pocket on the top, but I was very impressed with the Wolfman soft panniers and these will definitely be added to my “perfect adventure bike” kit list.
I rode a few miles to a touristy look out point called “The Needles” with panoramic views over the huge expanse of Canyonlands and the meandering Colorado River. I then went to look at some arches in a government controlled park that was teeming with tourists and a popular destination for Harleys and other touring bikes. When I got there I could not see why this area was singled out as a location of special interest, and I was certainly not going to pay US$25 to see what I could see all around me for free.
I found a small store and petrol station near the national park, and despite a slightly more expensive price and only serving 85 Octane “gas” I topped up my tank and set a cross country course to pick up the BDR and continue towards Duchesne, Price, Horse Mountain, Twin peaks, Bluff, Mexican Hat and the highlight of the trip, Valley of the Gods.
I turned right off the tarmac and for the next few days I didn’t see a tarmac road again. I rode across gravel and light sand trails that were perfect for the Africa Twin and never saw anyone for most of the day until I started riding up into the mountains and bumped into a husband and wife couple on Suzuki 250s who were on holiday from New York and kept their bikes nearby.
They were a bit surprised to see such a big motorcycle in dirt bike territory and warned me to be careful as the hunting season had started and hunting parties were tearing about on ATVs and camped up in various places.
I was now in thick woodland on single track mud trails high above the surrounding expanse of hot desert. Very enjoyable riding and quite cool in temperature.
My maps showed a few tracks, but there were in reality hundreds of unmarked trails crisscrossing in all directions. Occasionally I came across beautiful deer and antelope as they bounded out of the forest and froze startled in front of me.
Not long later, I would come across the persecutors of the local wildlife, dressed head to toe in Honey Boo Boo “make merika great again” camouflage clothing and tearing about on ATVs, or camped with 4×4 trucks in openings in the wood. I chatted with a few, disguising the animosity I feel towards hunters, and they seemed normal enough people, but I couldn’t understand what the attraction in shooting animals could be. No one in America, especially with expensive trucks and ATVs, is starving, nor needs to live off the land. I cannot for the life of me imagine killing one unless I was in a survival situation.
Don’t get it. Don’t want to get it.
I rode up and down trails in this range of mountains, often crossing streams and dry sandy river beds. Occasionally, I would ride along long sections of sand, some of it deep and the limitations of my tyres and the weight of my bike would become all too apparent.
The scenery became quite remote and as the sun was fading I realized I was probably not on the trail I thought I was and had drifted west, rather than east as intended towards a town called Blanding.
No worries. There were lots of wonderful places to set up camp besides little rivers, and streams and suitable to build a fire without burning down the forest. I was on my own in the wilderness and my mind drifted towards the prospect that my food might attract bears. In fact, I had seen a few signs warning about this. There were also mountain lions and people told me there were lots of them. I guess like leopards in Africa, the chances of encountering one would be rare. Despite an encounter with a creature that might like to eat me, I really wanted to see a bear or mountain lion.
That night the sky was completely clear, and there had recently been a full moon and so it was still quite bright in my isolated and peaceful camping spot. There was a lot of wood to make a fire, the water in the stream was crystal clear and tasted pure.
I cooked up some camping food that was pretty good, especially with some dollops of Tobasco, and drank a huge can of Mexican low alcohol beer. Apparently in Utah, for some daft religious reasons, you can only get low alcohol beer. Really? During our last conversation, I don’t remember the Soul of the Universe mentioning what the alcohol content of beer should be, nor which hand I should wipe my arse with, for that matter.
For entertainment I had my Johnny Rotten autobiography and I managed only a few pages before I fell asleep.
I woke up slightly alarmed in the middle of the night due to some scuffling noises and found the source of this noise to be a few deer outside my tent. They didn’t seem too bothered by me and I was quite happy they were about. As there was no rain and it was not freezing I had left the outer cover of the tent off and could see the stars through the the flysheet. This is what its all about. Riding all day in beautiful surroundings on a superb motorcycle and camping under the stars with a fire in the woods. Bliss.
The next day I was up and packed quickly and plotted a route along the remainder of the Utah BDR to Four Corners, but wanted to include a few more sights such at Monument Valley, the one with the Wile Coyote scenery and huge sandstone buttes, and also Mexican Hat and of course the switchback escarpment twisties of Route 261 down to the Valley of the Gods.
A very enjoyable days riding in which somehow or another I managed to ride a total of 485 miles, much of it off road. Considering the BDR is 850 miles long, that is quite a bit of a diversion on the last day of the Utah section.
Both Mexican Hat and Monument Valley were impressive, but there were a lot of tourists and that sort of blunted the impact. Valley of the Gods, however, was the highlight of the whole trip. Not a long section of off road riding, but passing through scenery that lived up to its name. Almost unearthly.
As I was riding up on the pegs on the bright red dirt through a helter skelter of amazing rock structures, arches, spires and buttes I came across a solitary open top white sports car with a well dressed couple who waved excitedly at me. The lady was jumping up and down on her seat whilst filming me and the scenery as they drove passed. The driver was beaming a very wide smile, and looked remarkably like David Hasslehoff
Only in America, I thought.
I had seen Four Corners monument in the TV series, “Breaking Bad” and thought I might as well take a look. On the way I passed by some rather scruffy Navajo Nation settlements, dominated by the trophies of the poor… broken down cars, discarded household goods and tatty trailers.
I refueled at a Navajo petrol station that was also a ten pin bowling center and burger bar. I didn’t play bowls, but I did have a burger. Afterwards as I struggled to digest the lump of meat I wished I had eaten the bowling ball or bowled the burger.
I have never really seen native Indians in the flesh so to speak, or at least in large numbers, and I was surprised how Asian they looked. Maybe the Chinese did discover America first, or their ancestors migrated across the Baring Straits.
When I got to Four Corners I was rather taken aback that I would have to pay to see what is essentially a man made and rather unexciting monument. Arizona meets New Mexico meets Utah meets Colorado.
Seen, done, off riding again in 10 seconds.
As I was riding in the early evening towards Cortez on what is essentially the first leg of the Colorado BDR, I could see a strange structure on my right hand side. What the hell is that?
As I got nearer I realized this was not a structure, it was some sort of volcano or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” like mountain.
I have got to take a look at that, I said out loud in my helmet.
I found out its called Ship Rock.
Wikipedia describes it as:
Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock” ) is a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico, United States. Its peak elevation is 7,177 feet (2,187.5 m) above sea level. It lies about 10.75 miles (17.30 km) southwest of the town of Shiprock, which is named for the peak.
I rode 20 miles away from my planned route to Cortez to take a closer look and it is truly surreal. It really stands out from the surrounding area and has sort of radial arms stretching out like hands of a clock. Experts say it is the erosional remnant of the throat of a volcano. No wonder the Navajo revere and protect it.
I couldn’t hang about, nor was I allowed to as the Navajo Nation restrict people like me camping in the vicinity, so I continued to Cortez and was pleasantly surprised when I got there that it was a really nice town with lots of restaurants, bars and motels.
I went into one of the bars and had some spicy buffalo wings and a beer, and was entertained by some very talented and entertaining musicians. Before I knew it it was late and I had no chance to find a campsite and so I checked into the cheapest motel in town, one that smelt of curry like a corner shop in England in the 1970s.
The motel was a bit depressing, not well maintained, and as soon as I was washed up I decided to go out again and explore. I went into another bar just down the road and watched a superb one man band called Hurricane Jake (https://www.facebook.com/HurricaneJakesOneManBand/).
He was really good but there were only a few people around and I think I was one third of his entire audience. Later I found out there was a “Blues and Brews” festival in Telluride, that was where all the people had gone, and that was actually where I panned to be the next day.
Again in the interests of escaping Vindaloo Motel I went to some late night supermarkets and stocked up on fruit and veggies, and took the opportunity to fuel up my bike at the “gas station” across the road.
As I did so I bumped into two young Norwegian lads, Christian Mørck Røde and Peter Saxhaug Solnør on “adventured up” Kawasaki 650 KLRs.
I like KLRs…Fanny and I have one in Hong Kong
They were riding from Alaska to Argentina and had called their expedition, Chasing Borders (www.chasingborders.com). It was great to meet such excited and positive explorers and I was full of admiration, and dare I say, a touch of envy.
The next day I followed the BDR route to the ski resort of Telluride, mostly along gravel tracks alongside a stream called Beaver Creek.
Again, I came across lots of hunting camps and shared the track with ATVs and occasionally horses and cattle. I encountered very few other motorcycles up in the mountains and I could feel that it was decidedly cooler. The Mitas E07 tyres were OK, but I could feel the back slipping again on the steeper slopes.
I got to Telluride earlier than I expected and it was absolutely packed with people. There were hundreds of motorcycles, RVs, SUVs and camper vans in the pretty town. Telluride appeared to be an upmarket ski resort, it was very warm and sunny when I arrived, and the throngs of festival goers were in a party mood.
I rode up to the gates of the “Blues and Brews” festival ground and was told that there was no room for camping. I also noticed that admission was US$250!!! Well that ruled that out, but I wasn’t too disappointed because I heard there were bands and lots of lively activity in the bars and restaurants in other parts of Telluride that evening.
While riding about I saw a black Yamaha Super Tenere in the street and thought it might be John and that we had caught up. But on closer inspection it wasn’t. In fact, it belonged to a young lad from Oregon who was doing an “Ironbutt” ride across America. That means he rides up to 1000 miles a day, up to 14 hours a day. Tough old stuff.
We got chatting and decided to team up and find a camping site for the evening that would allow us to get back to Telluride in the evening and have a few beers.
We found a campsite up in the mountains about 8 miles away from Telluride. It was a government one and so we would have to pay 15 dollars, but the plot was very big and we could share the cost. Furthermore, the camp “guards” (there always seem to be a retired elderly couple whose job is to collect fees at municipal camp sites) told us we could use the cable car from a nearby upmarket ski resort down to the Telluride valley for free, and after setting up camp that is what we did.
A very lively evening where we sampled the local ales and listened to some great bands. By 8 pm, however, I was seriously fading. All I had had was a couple of craft IPAs and some salad and chicken wings, but I was seriously whacked, made my excuses and took the cable car back up the mountain and then back to the campsite.
It was extremely cold during the night as my tent was pitched at 12,000 feet in the Rockies in Autumn, but I was out for the count, despite another visit by some deer and elk in the night.
The next day I was up bright and early. I had the steepest and highest sections of the Colorado BDR ahead of me and was slightly anxious about what lay ahead, bearing in mind what Ben had been warning.
Whilst I did not strictly adhere to the Utah BDR, I did ride on enough sand to prove the tyres on my Africa Twin were limited. I have zipped up and down Sani pass in Lesotho on my fully laden KTM 990 Adventure, up and down Mushroom Farm pass in Malawi and all sorts of challenging roads in the Rift Valley in the north west of Kenya, and indeed around the world. How hard could it be?
I aimed towards the small mountain village of Ophir and then towards the pass. There were signs warning the route was only suitable for 4x4s, and indicating that when wet the road was impassable.
The Ophir Pass is rocky and has a steep scree slope on the right hand side as you go up. I had seen pictures of it, but in reality it is steeper than it looks. I stopped half way up to take a picture.
As I got back on my bike it started slipping backwards. Heck! I turned on the engine and engaged 1st gear and the back just spun and the bike started going backwards faster. The rocks were fairly large and recent rains had washed out the gravel leaving large slippy boulders, gullies and very uneven rubble.
It seemed I had a rock jamming my front wheel and my back wheel was just skidding and squirming left and right. This ain’t good!
I tried out all four settings of the Honda’s traction control, which can be activated very easily using a button on the left hand grip, even on the go, but my heavy bike was still slipping backwards.
If I continued what I was doing I was going to be sliding backwards into the ski resort I just came from, if indeed I stayed upright which was highly unlikely. Dropping the bike on these sharp rocks would undoubtedly lead to significant damage and so I quickly decided that the only way to get going again was to unload all my luggage and let some of the air out of my tyres… although on these steep rocks that would risk tyre slippage and potentially ripping the valve out of the inner tube.
I was in full bike gear and perched on a steep scree slope, but I managed to get the dry bags out of the Wolfman panniers and get the North Face bag off. I then had to carry them further up the mountain and then go back down to get the bike.
After sliding back down the scree slope to my bike I removed the rocks in front of the front tyre and gouged out a sort of smooth path to get going. I got back on the bike and engaged traction control setting #1 and gradually the bike got going again.
The secret to riding such a big bike on such a surface is obviously having the correct tyres, and in this case the knobblier the better. But more importantly it means going smoothly, preferably in second gear, and keeping up momentum, and that requires confidence and a modicum of skill, but most importantly, confidence.
I had been seriously huffing and puffing due all the exertion at high altitude but gradually got in the flow and decided as I had momentum not to stop to collect my luggage which lay ahead on a surface that was still steep and rocky.
The only slight hiccup came when I had to perform a 180 switch back turn on the very loose gravel and exposed rocks, and I just about managed the tricky turn as my back tyre squirreled about due to lack of traction, the very awkward camber and, to be honest, my poor riding.
I pushed on up the mountain and on a more gentle inclined parked up the bike and ambled down the slope to get my stuff. This was going to be exhausting.
Not long after starting to hike down the mountain trail I saw a 4×4 SUV with two elderly ladies in the front seat crawling up the mountain pass I had just come. As it drew up along side me a Scandinavian sounding lady in the driving seat leaned out and told me they had collected my luggage. Apparently they had been following me from a distance and seen me struggling. That was nice of them.
I hopped into the back of the SUV and gushed my appreciation for “rescuing” me and my stuff. The driver was from Finland and was touring around Colorado with her American friend. Ophir Pass was obviously an easy route for a woman from the land of rally and F1 drivers, but they told me that at their hotel the previous evening that the locals had warned the pass had been washed out badly by recent bad weather and had yet to be graded.
This was at the limits of my heavy laden bike and Mitas tyres, but I am quite sure the Africa Twin would have zipped up on a pair of Metzler Karoo 3s, and with perhaps less luggage and a more confident rider. In fact on my KTM it would have been a breeze as I have ridden up Sani Pass in Lesotho several times and along entire Baviaanskloof in South Africa on my 1190 Adv R with TKC 80s and full luggage. In fact, ridden up tougher roads in Himalayas on a Chinese made CF Moto 650 with road tyres!!!
Stop faffing about Utley.
I expressed my thanks to the ladies at the top of the pass, reloaded my bike and rode down a less steep tar and gravel road on the other side. At the bottom of the slope I came to a T junctions at Million Dollar Highway.
I had two BDR options to Lake City: the more direct route eastwards across the mountain ridges of Animas Fork; or north eastwards via Ouray across Sunshine Mountain. I chose the latter and it was a good choice, a fairly easy off road ride through stunning scenery.
Like much of the Utah BDR, there was a little bit of tarmac in between long sections of twisty steep gravel roads and high altitude passes. I rode reasonably quickly and learned my lesson about keeping up momentum. Yet again, I found myself cursing the tyres and reflecting on the fact that riding a rental bike has its limitations. The only alternative is buying a bike and then selling it after the expedition, which is OK for longer expeditions, but not really feasible for rides of less than a month.
It was still quite early and I pushed on through a place called Cathedral along pretty good gravel tracks, twisty mountain tracks, valleys with beautiful steams and lakes and by late afternoon I had made ridden a fair old distance and made it all the way to Taylor Park Reservoir which had a Trading Post where I could get fuel, a coffee and refill my water bottles.
As I arrived I could see quite a few mid sized dirt and enduro bikes in the car park and went into a restaurant where there were a couple of riders eating some food. I introduced myself and got chatting with two chaps a little older than myself who had been riding more challenging trails than I was.
They knew the area pretty well and advised me which routes I could take. They also decided to treat me to the restaurant specialty of home made apple pie and ice cream that I have to say was delicious and very welcome.
One of the guys was at least 70 years old and riding a stripped down and modified DR 650 in full enduro battle mode. He was camped up with his riding buddy in what he described as a state of the art camper van, or should I say recreational vehicle. The sort that is super luxurious and better equipped and more comfortable than most people’s homes. He told me it had a trailer on the back on which he transported an assortment of off road and touring motorcycles.
Now that’s the way to do it… if you’re rich. With Donald Trump type modesty he assured me he was indeed very rich … and so I didn’t feel so guilty accepting his apple pie.
I thought about camping up in Taylor Park, but I knew Cottonwood Pass was nearby and I could ride over it towards Buena Vista and perhaps camp along the way. I heard at the Traders gas station that the road is OK in the dry and that there were dozens of free camping sites along the Cottonwood Creek near Rainbow Lake.
After struggling up Ophir Pass I was not too enthused with the prospect of an evening battle against gravity, but as it turned out Cottonwood Pass was easy and very enjoyable to ride. Great views, wide hard packed gravel going up and a tar road going down on the other side.
As I drifted down the tar road towards Buena Vista I could see lots of campsite and so I pulled into one of them which was heavily wooded, next to a beautiful creek, and a site that actually obscured quite a few campers who were pitched up already.
I pulled up next to a couple who were riding a KTM 1290 Super Adventure. Attempts to strike up a conversation were dampened by a shrew faced woman with thin mean lips, blonde dyed hair, a really irritating “Fox News” accent, and a thoroughly unpleasant disposition. No idea what was going on there, but I left them to it, and set up my camp further along the river, got some trance music flashing away on my blue tooth iZoom speaker, and got some food and beer going.
I was right next to the creek and again I had nocturnal visits from various deer, elk and ground squirrels. Occasionally, I could hear the shrill nasal tones of “Fox News” woman carried on the wind, arguing about something, and thought KTM man had one of his few chances for eternal peace, happiness, and a garage full of any motorcycle he liked.
Go on man, do it, its your last chance. Bad things often happen in the wilderness. Blame it on the bears, I will gladly go witness!
I might have managed a chapter of John Lydon before I was out for the count. Another very comfortable and enjoyable camp in the great outdoors.
As I was camped in a valley, the sun didn’t appear until an hour after sunrise and so I took my time making breakfast and charting the route ahead. I wanted to have a coffee in Buena Vista and deviate somewhat off the BDR to see Aspen, a high end ski resort that features in the original “Dumb and Dumber” movie and a destination during winter for the more wealthy skier.
As it turned out I had camped not that far away from Buena Vista which was quite a nice little town. I refueled, had some coffee and internet catch up in a very nice coffee shop, and was tempted to a delicious and extremely large muffin.
I chatted to a few locals and then picked up the BDR to Leadville and doubled backed to Twin Peaks and onto Aspen through endless forests of stunning Aspens that were by now every colour of the rainbow. The last colour they go through is a bright translucent golden yellow before they fall off in early winter. I was here at the right time for sure.
Perfect riding in stunning scenery.
When I rode into Aspen I found it to be very upmarket indeed, but it did have a rather confusing one way system in between top end shops and restaurants. Reminded me of Carmel in California. Rich and a bit snobby.
By chance, I found Aspen’s only Australian coffee shop and parked next to an orange 2007 KTM 990 Adventure, almost identical to Fanny’s “bigbiketrip” one.
I got the impression as I walked into the coffeeshop that I was not entirely welcome. People in their smart casual clothes actually recoiled as I got near. Indeed I was a sight, and no doubt I smelled quite bad too. The server was a typical snobby Millennial type with a curt manner and unattractive disposition. So, I sat outside with my coffee and chatted with Fanny on WeChat.
I reflected on the fact that I was near the end of my trip. The time had passed quickly and I never heard from John again. Not sure if he continued with the ride northwards through Colorado or went back to California when he was at the nearest point in Southern Utah and through Eureka or Reno back to Walnut Creek.
Very much later I did hear about John from Fanny and heard he followed up with his threat to leave his missus and retire to his beautiful cabin in Truckee, near the ski resorts and mountain lakes. Well played, Sir.
John, come to South Africa for a ride. I will lend you my 1190 Adv R and I will ride Fanny’s 790 Adv R and you can do some proper riding. I promise to last until day 4!
Anyway, after coffee and some welcome suggestions from the owner of the KTM 990 Adv, I picked up the BDR via Meredith and Basalt and rode alongside a stunning trout fishing river, which meandered and sparkled down from the mountains.
There were lots of fly fisherman in their waders flicking their flys into the babbling crystal clear waters. What a lovely way to spend a day. I stopped to watch them in their magical surroundings and made a mental note that this might be a nice way to whittle away some of my twilight years.
I found the turnoff route up over the mountains to a town called, Eagle. I was supposed to ride to Gypsum but made a wrong turn that took me over quite challenging gravel and extremely rutted hard packed mud.
Impassable in wet weather, the tops of the mud ruts were very high which meant I had to ride carefully along the crests like a gymnast on a balance beam. I came across a hunter on an ATV and he said he was also having a rough time of it, but not as much as some bikers he saw further down the track.
In no time I came across this group of motorcyclists on an assortment of adventure bikes, and without exception they were all on their sides or stuck in the ruts. I was up on the pegs in second gear as I weaved and skimmed across the steep mud crests and waved enthusiastically as I passed them.
I couldn’t stop and couldn’t take a pictures or indeed any video. Doing so would mean putting my foot down and I would certainly fall into the deep ruts and the bike would topple over, as indeed the gaggle of adventure bikes had clearly done already.
As I rode by at a fair old lick I felt stupidly superior and had to check myself, because as we all know, pride comes before a fall.
I was enjoying my ride, and particularly this section which was quite technical, but surprisingly similar to the roads I did in Wales during the Honda off road course a few months earlier, albeit a lot drier. With these tyres, sand and steep rocky scree were my enemy. However, on loose gravel and hard packed mud the E07s were no problem at all and I guess this is why there are such varied reviews and appraisals of these Mitas tyres.
I eventually descended down from the tricky mountain trails and onto the tar road between Eagle and Gypsum. I then had a few hours riding following gravel trails alongside the Colorado River through the valleys up towards Steamboat Springs.
Arriving just south of Steamboat Springs I had no intention of going any further north towards Wyoming as I wanted to finish my trip with a blast up Pikes Peak. I recently watched a video clip of the famous road racing biker, Guy Martin cahooning up the hill climb course on a bike he built himself, and I wanted to see it.
It was now dark and so I decided to set up camp near a Lake called Catamount and ride back down south along Highway 40 the next day towards Colorado Springs. I had already been to Steamboat Springs and I knew it was quite touristy, with few options to free camp and so this was as north as I was going.
It was quite exposed and a bit windy next to the large expanse of water high up in the Rockies, but comfortable inside my sleeping bag. I may have been camping illegally as there are regulations about camping near water sources, and so I packed up and got going early and made good progress towards Pikes Peak the next day which I thought would be a fitting end to my trip.
I arrived about midday after some fast road riding along Highway 40 and 70. I could see the summit of Pikes Peak from quite far away and made a wrong turn, as my batteries had all died on all my various electrical devices. I could no longer charge anything up using the 12v socket on my bike because the power cable had broken.
Also, as I was riding the wrong way in the foothills of Pikes Peak something stung me on my exposed neck which caused a nasty red welt that lasted for several weeks. It was unusually painful for an insect sting and I have no idea what it was, but it caused me to stop for half an hour as it affected my eyesight, made everything blurry and made me feel nauseous. Very strange.
As the initial sharp pain subsided I decided to carry on and found the correct route and rode up the twisty road to the top of Pike Peak. I paid a small entrance fee and unfortunately the weather was not as clear as it had been over the previous week, but a brilliant view nonetheless.
At the top I met some other bikers and a multitude of tourists who had ridden in a train to the summit.
The summit is quite interesting but its the ride which is more fun and so I rode back down the mountain and towards Colorado Springs.
I now had to get ready to return the bike and get my flight back to Hong Kong. I still had 3 days to go and found an urban camping site not too far from the airport in the suburbs of Denver on AirBnB.
In the pictures and description on AirBnB the place I booked looked great, but when I got into Denver and navigated through the atrocious rush hour traffic and towards my destination, I found myself on a road called Colfax Avenue, and it became ever more depressing and run down the further I followed it. In fact, the neighbourhood was quite revolting and I recognized drug addicts, prostitutes, and predatory lowlifes shuffling along and lurking on the street corners.
I pulled up in a street of run down bungalows that without exception had an assortment of broken down cars, washing machines and former household appliances sprawled out in their front yards. The street would actually be quite nice if they cleared up their mess, but then it would also be quite nice if these lowlifes did something productive and stopped taking drugs.
What is this? Taxi Driver 1979? I could almost imagine the saxophone tune and the Robert DeNiro character narrating his impressions and feelings whilst driving through this twilight zone.
As I was contemplating doing a runner and abandoning the money I had already spent making a booking, my AirBnB host appeared out of nowhere and welcomed me. She was also not what I was expecting and appeared to be as high as a kite. She did her best to pretend not to be stoned and advised me to ride down the back ally and park my bike next to the chained wire fence at the back of her garden. In the garden I could see a tent and fairy lights all over the garden. It seemed very out of place!
Oh well, all part of the grand scheme of things… let’s get on with it.
After unpacking and doing my best to secure my belongings in an area where most of the zombies walking around would very much like to relieve me of them, I went in search of food.
A big mistake.
As a former policeman I recognised the area as a particularly unsafe place to be after dark. As the only person on the streets of, let’s say, an Anglo Saxon and sober disposition, I decided to err on the side of caution and foxtrot oscar. Let’s not forget I was in a country that celebrates shooting each other and in a States where you can legally buy cannabis and illegally buy anything else. Law and order may exist in Aspen a hundred miles away, but it was like some post apocalyptic nightmare in this part of Denver.
So, I backtracked to my tent, cooked up some freeze dried beans and chili, made a mug of tea, had a very welcome shower in the house, chatted with my host’s very nice elderly mother, and settled down to sleep with a few chapters of my book.
I was up before it was light, the bike was still where I parked it (hurray!) and rode 40 odd miles to Boulder to return the motorcycle, which I am proud to report was in the same condition I received it. Again I arrived early and so I had breakfast at Denny’s Diner and was publicly reprimanded by an obnoxious, loud and obese waiter because my motorcycle was parked in a car parking spot, and not a motorcycle parking spot.
‘Where’s the motorcycle parking spot?, I asked rather irritably
‘There ain’t one, man, MOVE IT’
‘Then it will stay where it fucking is’, I replied slowly and quietly in my English accent, ‘ Please may I have a menu’.
Suitably subdued the waiter sidled off, came back in his own time and dropped a menu on my table.
Never a good idea to upset your waiter as they are serving your food, but I had had enough of rude sanctimonious yanks pontificating to me about… well …. about everything to be honest. I had met some really nice, friendly and interesting people on my trip in America, but I had also met some really obnoxious and arrogant ones too, perhaps too many.
Breakfast of eggs and spinach did arrive…..eventually.
Inevitably I never got a coffee refill, and inevitably the only tip the fat waitergot was “no carbs after 5 pm!”
The day was going well so far, wasn’t it?
At spot on 10 am, as planned, I returned the Africa Twin to Ben, pleased that it was undamaged and hadn’t been dropped, and especially pleased that I didn’t have to pay any bike damage penalty.
It had been a great bike and was perhaps the best adventure motorcycle at that time. Given all the gnashing of gums and fuss Ben made when I collected the bike two weeks previously, I should have got a Dick Dastardly and Muttley medal for completing two BDRs on a fully loaded up Honda Africa Twin, with the wrong tyres, and returned it without a scratch.
He played it down of course, but I had made my point. Amen!
My flight back to Hong Kong was the next morning and so I decided to spend the remainder of the day wandering around Boulder, rather than return any earlier than I possibly could to Zombieland.
After patrolling up and down Pearl Street and hanging about in pretentious coffee shops and bars I took the very efficient Regional Transport District (“RTD”) bus back to Denver, and at the central station took a connecting bus to Colfax, all for a few dollars.
I sat on the bus among a group of African-American and Hispanic ladies on their way back from work and we had a really good chat. As the only Anglo Saxon on the bus I stood out a bit to be sure. The female bus driver was very funny and unusually animated and I was getting quizzed from all around me.
It was rather surreal describing my travels, especially around Africa to an audience of predominantly African Americans. I was concerned I was boring them all, but they genuinely seemed fascinated and kept prompting me for more. The lady sitting next to me said she really wanted to visit Africa, but expressed concern it was dangerous. As I looked out of the bus window at Colfax Avenue I assured her it was considerably less dangerous than where we were.
I had a very comfortable and peaceful night in my ghetto campsite and early the next day took an Uber taxi with my cheerful and friendly driver, Charles, to Denver International airport.
I had not booked an Uber taxi before, and it cost a third of the price of the regular cabs. Much to my amusement I could track my cab on the iPhone app as it approached and could see a biography of the driver and description of the car. Isn’t technology great?
After being back in Hong Kong for a few days, and recovering from my jet lag, I reflected on my “small bike trip” in the USA.
The Honda Africa Twin is a great adventure motorcycle, the Utah and Colorado scenery is truly magnificent, everything is clean and tidy, the air is unpolluted and fresh, the autumn weather was perfect, most people were kind and friendly, and it was super fun riding across all the desert tracks and mountain trails.
With all our KTMs now sold, and perhaps a few expeditions on the horizon, we have been taking a serious look at the new Honda Africa Twin.
The new Honda CRF1000L Africa Twin.
The old Honda XRV 750 Africa Twin
A Royal Hong Kong Police Honda CBX 750 leaving Happy Valley Police Station, similar to the one I rode everyday as Senior Inspector Operations Hong Kong Island in mid 1990s. A truly awful posting as I had no interest handing out traffic tickets, or mopping up blood and guts at accidents… but I did get to play around on a bike all day.
I briefly had a Honda Africa Twin in the early 1990s when I was in the Royal Hong Kong police, but I have to say I didn’t care for it that much. It was just too lethargic and dull.
Besides, I already rode a slow and heavy Honda for up to seven hours every day as a traffic cop and didn’t need another one.
In those days I was a bit of a speed freak and so I quickly replaced the Africa Twin with a Yamaha 1200 Vmax upon which I cahooned about Hong Kong as fast as I could.
My attempts to go faster were helped with a Kawasaki ZXR 750, the ridiculously quick Suzuki GSX 1300 R Hayabusa, a Honda CBR 900 RR Fireblade, and of course my maddest bike ever, a tuned up “racing spec” Yamaha YZF-R1.
With all these fast racing bikes, leaping off cliffs with my paraglider, insane Mrs Utley, and Yip Kai Foon and his triads all trying to kill me, I am surprised I am still around.
Later when I got into long distance motorcycle expeditions I was fortunate to get hold of a superb KTM 990 Adventure, and stuck with KTM for over a decade, with a few Kawasaki KLRs here and there.
Now, the Honda Africa Twin is back and on paper it ticks all the boxes. It is certainly getting glowing reviews from the increasing band of owners.
I rather optimistically chose to go to the UK in June, hoping that the weather would be kind and that the two sunny days of a British summer would coincide with my visit back to the mother-ship. Also, I planned to go to Florence… but I’ll explain that later.
I flew from Hong Kong to Gatwick via Dubai, and then suffered the dreadfully unreliable and painfully slow Southern Railways train to Bexhill on the south coast where I picked up my KTM 990 SMT. After doing some work (yes, I do some occasionally) I then booked my place on the next available course in Wales, and then after finishing a work report I rode to Merthyr Tydfil.
I brought my tent and sleeping bag as I planned to camp, but as soon as I crossed the Severn River the skys turned grey and it just never stopped raining and so I threw in the towel and checked into the designated hotel where I met some of the other riders who were joining the Honda Adventure course.
There are three levels of off road course offered by the Honda Centre in Wales and each lasts two days and takes place in the forests and trails within the beautiful Brecon Beacons National park.
The new Africa Twin comes in two forms and we got a chance to try both. The most radical version being the DCT (automatic gearbox with sequential gear changing paddle on the left hand-grip ) and also the more usual 6 speed manual gearbox version with a clutch that purists like myself feel more inclined to ride. All the UK bikes come with ABS and three levels of traction control.
A flock of Africa Twins lined up outside the Honda Centre in Merthyr Tydfil.
My bike, #17 for two days. As they say, the best off road vehicle is someone else’s.
Briefings, bikes, rain, chocolate bars and lots of mud
Our playground…. Nice.
I call this “taking a picture of myself and my bike”.
Yes… I like this bike.
So how did it handle? How does it compare with the KTM 990 Adventure R and KTM 1190 Adventure R?
Very simply, I liked the Africa Twin so much I will get one.
In the UK the Africa Twin comes in black/grey; white/red/blue; and red/white/black. All look good and the black/grey actually looks better in the flesh than in the pictures. However, the gold wheels and classic rally look on the white/red/blue probably sway this particular colour scheme for me.
With 232Kgs and only 94 BHP the Africa twin’s power to weight ratio is not that special, however I found the bike to be very nimble and more than fast enough. In fact, its weight is deceptive and it handled like a much smaller enduro bike off road, and like a good touring bike on the tarmac. Even with a big 21 inch front it corners round the bends extremely well. A lot of R&D has gone into its design, it has a very low center of gravity and is extremely well balanced.
Its also a very comfortable bike, the seat is just right for me and can be adjusted, the handle bars and riding position couldn’t be better. And the exhaust note ? yep…not bad at all given all the EU restrictions on modern motorcycles.
I threw it around in the mud and trails pretty competently after I got the hang of adjusting the traction control and ABS whilst on the hoof. The only time you are aware of the weight is when you are going down steep wet slippy slopes and even then I had no problems. In the mud, water and gravel it charges around like a smaller enduro bike giving the rider bags of confidence. And its a lot of fun.
Could I see myself riding one around the world on every surface Planet Earth has to offer?
The red one … with the DCT
So, what was the DCT bike like?
At first a bit strange, not least because there is no clutch. The rev and go “Honda 90″ feel quickly disappears when you open up the throttle and it charges off over the rocks and mud pools like a Dakar Rally bike. Clucking Bell!
Allegedly, the automatic gearbox can change gear more efficiently than Guy Martin or Valentino Rossi and I strained my ears to hear the gears actually change, but all I noticed was the indicator on the display flicking up through the numbers. There are various settings to alter at what engine revs the gears actually change …”sports” “road” etc.
On the manual version bike I rarely got out of 2nd gear, occasionally 3rd, on the Welsh trails, but I noticed that the DCT bike quickly went through the gears up to 6th. A bit strange to be in 6th at a relatively slow speed off road, but seemed to work.
There is a sequential gear shift paddle like on high performance sports cars if you want to manually change gears. Suffice to say, I got used to it reasonably quickly, and against my initial reservations, I thought it was actually pretty good. The DCT will certainly improve most people’s riding ability.
Usual layout, although I kept pressing the horn instead of canceling the indicators. Even after two days I was still honking people when I completed a turn.