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
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.
Sri Lanka –a tropical island off the south coast of Indian and famous for Ceylon tea, Tamil Tigers and Arthur C Clarke. A lot of people who have visited have been singing its praises, but what’s it like to explore on a motorcycle?
Picking the slightly out of season period of early July, Fanny and I flew on the surprisingly good value Sri Lankan Airlines from Hong Kong to Colombo, and then took a taxi from the airport to a colonial style house that Fanny had booked on the outskirts of the Capital.
Our motorcycle route… mostly the south west, south and central highlands ….still a few places to visit in the future.
Yasmine’s house on the outskirts of Colombo
Yep… all to ourselves.
My new friend … guarding the pool
Sri Lankan breakfast
Fanny and our lovely host, Yasmine
Lush tropical gardens
OK…. so enough holiday snaps of Rupert and Fanny idling about and stuffing their faces … for now!
What about the motorcycles?
We searched online and found a place renting out scooters not too far from the airport and we arranged to hire two Honda XR 250 Bajas… an iconic bike and one I have seen being ridden very successfully in remote parts of Africa.
Austin Vince would no doubt approve because its a small 250cc Honda and I can see the logic for having such a bike for a long expedition. I think they look like classic adventure bikes, and I really like the two big headlights and gold wheel rims.
The Honda XLR 250 Baja … our choice for the Sri Lanka trip
The actual bikes we hired… the pictures not doing justice to what dogs they really were.
I hired a modern Honda XR 250 for a tour of Thailand a few years back and it was in good condition, well looked after, and everything worked. I really liked it.
These bikes were not in good condition, but they were reasonably cheap at US$21 per day. I was assured they were road worthy, although it was obvious that if you actually owned either of them you would have to spend hours in the garage with a full list of repairs and maintenance to do.
Fanny’s bike was slightly lower in the seat than mine, in slightly better condition, but the handlebars had slipped in the triple clamps and were a few degrees out which is something I find incredibly irritating.
Fanny on the other hand didn’t seem to mind…. after all she had ridden across the whole of Africa on a KTM 990 Adventure that had “out of true” handle bars after she crashed her motorcycle spectacularly in the remote deserts of Namibia.
To start the the Baja required a contortionist effort to pull up a broken toggle above the carburetor and engage the “choke”. The bike simply would not start without doing so. With practice I got used to this, but it meant I started the day rolling around on the floor and getting my hands covered in oil and grime. Not a big deal, but annoying nonetheless.
After a good nights rest we took a tut tut scooter taxi from Yasmine’s house all the way up to Negombo in the north where the bike shop was located. It was further than we thought and took a couple of hours, but it did give us a chance to look around and alerted us to the atrocious traffic conditions in and around Colombo, and indeed across Sri Lanka.
I smashed the opaque yellow plastic obscuring the digital display… so I could see the speedo and odometer. It didn’t seem to distract from the overall run down look of the bike. The black bungee held my iPhone in place so I could follow the GPS. It worked “OK”
Fanny collecting her bike from the shop.
We were told by the owner of the shop that we must both get Sri Lankan driving permits and that could take a few days.
Or….. we could risk it and deal with the police as and when?
OK, we’ll do that.
We wanted to get on and I was confident I could handle the local rozzers, who seemed to be nice British Colonial types, like I used to be. How hard could it be?
I handed over a deposit and Fanny paid for for 13 days bike hire and we got going along a back lane route I set around the outskirts of Colombo back to Yasmine’s house on the east of the city, in a vain attempt to avoid the heavy traffic.
I was a bit nervous that Fanny had not been riding much over the last year or so, but she quickly got back into it and we both navigated and weaved through the appallingly bad traffic with no problems at all. In fact, the Honda Baja seemed perfect for Fanny. I had to remind myself that this is a woman who has ridden around the world on every surface and in every condition Planet Earth has to offer. Fanny is perfectly fine.
I had downloaded an iPhone App called “Sygic” and also the maps for Sri Lanka. This meant that unlike Google or Baidu Maps we could navigate without having to be online. Much like digital cameras put Kodak out of business, these new GPS apps are a free alternative to a Garmin or Tom Tom GPS.
I also bought a Sri Lankan 4G Sim card with internet access for 2 weeks at next to nothing and despite my reservations that there must be a catch, it worked perfectly for the whole trip and the signal coverage was pretty good. I was able to use the online maps as well and tether my phone to Fanny’s iPhone so she had internet access the whole time as well. Isn’t technology great?
The only issue was that the bracket I bought in China to hold the iPhone onto the handlebars? It was still on the kitchen table in Hong Kong!
Like many occasions on our motorcycle adventures we came up with a work around and I used some bungees and strapped the iPhone onto the dash over the instrument panel that I couldn’t see anyway because the plastic was now opaque yellow.
Fortunately there was a USB power socket that I could power up the iPhone battery … otherwise it would only last a few hours with the bluetooth or GPS activated. I did have to turn off the headlights as the electrics and battery were a bit dodgy.
Normally you cannot turn off motorcycle headlights, as its a safety feature, but we were in Asia and safety comes second to practicality and so the owners had fitted an on/off switch to save power.
Anyway, bikes and navigation sorted, ready to go.
Fanny is a really good bike rider and the Honda 250 was perfect for her.
Blue helmet, blue tinted glasses and headlights on full beam to “try” and scare the locals … all good.
My Honda Baja had a particularly uncomfortable seat so I bought a seat cover! A toilet seat cover to be accurate. Nice.
During the trip I carried all the luggage and used my Givi water proof panniers that I had bought in the UK, and our waterproof North Face day sacks. We were traveling light… just how we like it. I think we could have gone even lighter, although not much. We wore our light weight motorcycle jackets for protection from sun and because they have a bit of armour inside. Perfect.
After about 50 kilometers in the saddle I came to the indisputable conclusion that my bike had the most uncomfortable seat I have ever sat on. Where was my black sheep skin cover when I needed it? Ah yes….on the kitchen table in Hong Kong with the iPhone bracket. Ta Ma De !
So, I made an emergency purchase (30 UK pence) of a rather lovely toilet seat cover, that whilst not being anywhere near as comfortable as a sheep skin, was Ho Gwoh Mo (better than nothing).
It did mean we had to stop quite often so I could get off the bike and walk about, or stand on the foot pegs for the blood to start flowing into my aging numb bum. Also, it was very hot and quite humid so we needed to stop and take a drink. I have learned from past experience that dehydration creeps up on you quickly on biking expeditions and so water discipline is vital, even if you are not thirsty.
Bikes parked outside our room at Yasmine’s place in Colombo
All ready to go …..but first more tea …. my passport says I’m British and it is Ceylon after all!
Off we go…. a nice anti clockwise trip around southern Sri Lanka
Not something you see everyday
And coming to a grinding stop …. less than 50 kilometers into the trip to get carburetor jets cleaned by side of road. And a piece of wood wedged in to stop the plastic panniers melting on the exhaust. See we have done this before!!
The route out of Colombo and onto the coastal road to Galle, about 170 kilometers away, was like many we had done in third world cities where the locals drive badly and the police don’t care.
Slow and steady wins the race, keep away from nutters, animals and moving lumps of metal, and shout a lot. The shouting is actually pointless, but makes me feel better. Even fanny does it now in various languages.
Our host Yasmine had warned us that the driving could be interesting, and that the arch deacons of terrible driving were the buses. My goodness, how right she was.
There were two types of bus… a blue one with a man hanging out the door waving his arms and shouting a lot, and a silver one with lots of chrome and lights … but without a man hanging out the door.
They are both awful, but the blue bus particularly so.
I don’t know what the Sinhalese or Tamil is for, ‘get out the friggin’ way… we’re coming through’, but I guess that was what the “hanging out man” was employed to scream at everyone as the bus continually cut everyone up.
It was difficult to get really road raged at Sri Lankan drivers whatever road genocide they seemed to be up to because they were so damned friendly and smiled all the time.
There was quite a lot of Indian style wobbly head, arms waving, and shouting things like ‘What for you kicking my dog calling him fuck off‘ … but in a very friendly and smiley way that immediately dampened any annoyance and made me laugh…even as they attempted to impale us on their front bumpers.
For Fanny? Nothing unusual… just like a normal day riding in Shanghai. I think she was enjoying it!
About half way down the coastal road my bike stopped and I could see petrol pouring out of the carburetor and dripping straight onto the red hot engine. Holy shit?
After standing well back, scratching my chin and thinking aloud, ‘that’s not good’ over and over again a crowd gathered. After a general consultation with most of Sri Lanka in several languages I didn’t understand, it was opined that the jets were blocked.
We were told that for about 500 Sri Lankan Rupees (a quid or so) any street side mechanic, of which there seemed to be many, could fix it …and that’s what happened. Bike sorted…off we go again.
My bike was not a good specimen of motorcycle. It was 1990s purply blue in colour with those daft graphics they used in those days, and everything was in poor condition. The clutch, the brakes, the engine, the suspension, the bearings, the tyres, every cable, the bodywork, the pegs, the levers, controls, hand grips, ….. everything. I had to keep saying to myself, ‘its still going and its not mine’, ‘its still going and in 10, 9, 8, etc… days I will never see it again’.
Fanny on the other hand seemed to really like her bike with its non perpendicular handlebars and bent levers. ‘How’s your bike?’, I would ask her all the time.
‘Fine’, came back the answer every time.
As far as Fanny is concerned, she rarely gets upset by anything… all part of life’s rich tapestry is her mantra. If it goes… all is fine.
I did, however, have to rescue her a few times at traffic intersections when her bike stalled and she couldn’t get it started again. These Hondas will only start in neutral, not as KTMs and most other bikes will do with the clutch engaged in any gear. The gears were so clunky and stiff to click up and down, and with no green neutral indicator working, it required some serious manual labour and bikers tradecraft to locate neutral and get going again.
The Baja engine is a single piston 250cc, has a simple carburetor, the frame is quite big in size, and to be honest more than fast enough for everywhere we went to in Sri Lanka. Its just they were both in such a shabby state that I thought mine was going to break down all the time. It also sounded awful…just like a motorcycle about to break down… but it didn’t.
One of the reasons for the noise was that the drive chains were bone dry and hadn’t been oiled, ever.
We were explicitly told not to oil the chains, the reason given that they had ‘O’ rings that would get damaged by oil. Of course, this was nonsense.
I was unable to tune out the dreadful noise my bike was making as its crunched, screeched and scraped along and so as soon as I could I put both the bikes and ourselves out of our misery and doused both chains in oil. Lots of it.
I don’t think elephants or human females should have to wear body covers and masks. A very bling burka nonetheless.
Sri Lanka … a colourful surprise around every corner
Demonstration …. “Elephant lives matter”.
A bit of gravel
A quid to fix the carburetor and clean the jets
The Baja is a great bike. Good engine. Some strange quirks, though. For instance the engine oil is poured into a filler in the bike frame near the handle bars… never seen that before.
Arriving in the Old Fort at Galle on southern coast.
Street dancing procession… very lively, colourful and loud!
One of many temples we saw here and there.
Fanny and her silver XR Baja
We arrived in Galle by late afternoon and rode around looking at the ancient walled fort, built by the Dutch many centuries ago.
When we got there it was packed with tourists, many from China who were doing the things Chinese seem to do everywhere. Posing for photographs in borrowed traditional clothing, doing ‘V’ signs (??) and repeatedly jumping in the air to get that “joyous jumping in the air” picture to put on Weibo (Chinese Facebook). One person does it… they all do it.
We thought of booking a place in Galle, but the few rooms we saw were a bit grim and expensive and so Fanny found a really nice hotel about 10 kilometers out of town that had a seafood restaurant serving the Sri Lankan specialty of chili mangrove crabs.
A very very happy Fanny indeed.
Lots of churches
Pretty streets and historic buildings in old Galle
Exploring the walled fort
After Galle we headed along the south coast road to Dickwella. Not the greatest name I have ever heard for a place, but as it turned out it was a small coastal town with a beautiful beach in a secluded horseshoe bay. Fanny again did her research magic and booked us into a boutique hotel called “Salt”.
Here we idled about, swam in the sea, read books, Fanny had some body massages, we ambled about on the beach and along trails, ate every hour, and drank continuously.
The rooms at Salt were very tastefully designed with open to the elements bathrooms and semi open bedrooms, in the sense they only had three walls. Quite a few mosquitoes so the fan and mosquito net was really needed. Sort of luxury camping.
On the top floor was an open plan lounge/bar that served very tasty meals and drinks by very attentive and friendly staff. Simple and stylish. Web link below.
I am not much of a beach person, nor is Fanny, but we can say this is one of the best beach locations we have ever been to and we will definitely go back for a short break in the future, provided that the commercial developers don’t ruin it.
We discovered the Indian 傻逼 who got me fired from my job in Hong Kong a decade or so ago was building a resort in Dickwella to add to his collection of Monopoly board hotels around the World. Would I like to send him a message, Fanny asked me? No I friggin’ wouldn’t.
Dickwella…. Horseshoe Bay
Fanny starts her transition from a light skinned person to a very dark person within 48 hours. I on the other hand went from light pink with red spots to dark pink with red patches.
For some bizarre reason … the dogs found me and followed me around for the whole stay. To Fanny’s amazement this always happens where ever we go…from China to Asia to Africa. I had a pack of pugs follow me for 3 days across Sichuan and Yunnan once. Pugs!
Warm sea, blue skies, the sound of breeze in palm trees, a book, a hammock, shade and beer…. Idling 101.
Tea, fresh local fruit and buffalo curd… nice
Breakfast looking at us
A particularly gormless expression … That’s me .. not the dog.
Ms Fang enjoying herself
Yes… I have barely moved
Like Thailand 30 years ago
We ran into a 3 meter snake on the road. I was jumping around and screaming like a 3 year old girl as it slithered over my flipflops. The snake didn’t seem to care.
Time to get going again after a relaxing beachy thing and head to Yala…. a large National Park in the south of Sri Lanka
‘That will be two bananas for guarding the bikes’
Wild coastline near Yala… reminds me of Overberg in South Africa where we have a house
The pool at our place in Yala
Going for a drive in Yala Nature Reserve… lots of elephants and a few leopards
Even on the beach
Packed his truck for the seaside
Huts we lived in on beach near Yala
On the way to Yala National Park we ran into a police road block. As we approached a police officer noticed us and he raised his arm, and so thinking on my feet, or my numb bum more accurately, I employed Rupert’s police avoidance technique and waved enthusiastically back at him and smiled inanely.
As we passed the rather astounded and clearly flustered officer I allowed Fanny to pull up along side me and instructed her, ‘Don’t stop’ and we sped up somewhat as I plotted an escape along less obvious roads to Yala. I never pay bribes.
We found a pretty swanky apartment right on the beach next to the main gate of the national park, again found by Fanny using online accommodation apps like Expedia and Air BnB. Always much cheaper to book online and you can check the reviews.
I did some investigation near the entrance of the game park and found some local boys who would give us a safari tour in a game viewer at a fraction of the cost being offered by the hotel.
Having been to Kafue, South Luangwa, Chobe, Okavango Delta, Masai Mara, Etoshe, Kruger, Serengeti, Lake Charla, Ngorogoro Crater, Kilimajaro, etc… we were prepared to be a bit underwhelmed, but to our delight the park was really good.
Yala is mainly famous for leopards and Asian elephants. Alas, we didn’t get close enough to see any leopards, but there were lots of elephants that for some reason in my mind I thought would be more even tempered than their African cousins.
Much to my absolute delight, and I have to say one of the funniest things I have ever seen, we spotted an elephant ambling along on a beautiful beach. This was too much of a photo opportunity to miss and a bus load of Fujian and Zhejiang peasants (Fanny assured me they were from their appearance and accents) rushed up to the elephant and started snapping away and making a lot of noise.
The elephant clearly took exception to these ivory and rhino horn smuggling 傻逼 and let out a roar that would put its African cousins to shame. It then started chasing after the Chinese whose little legs couldn’t move quick enough in the sand.
Cameras and selfie sticks went flying as they ran away in panic to their bus. The local tour guides rushed into action to shoo the elephant away as I was wiping tears from my eyes. This is too good. I couldn’t help myself as I told one group of thuggish looking Fujian “xiang ba lao” dog eaters that it was karma for all the environmental plunder and ivory smuggling they inflicted on the planet.
They looked absolutely crest-fallen…. not least for being laughed at by a Chinese speaking European.
The safari got even better as the sun started to fade and we saw other animals emerge from the bush and many beautiful indigenous birds. What could be better…. Chinese being chased by elephants and seeing a beautiful green Sri Lankan Bee-eater swooping the skies catching, bees, I guess.
Yala beach house
Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis) , perched on twig in forest, Yala West National Park, Sri Lanka
Visit by a monitor lizard while we were having lunch
Bit of lunch and time to move on to the mountains
One of many waterfalls we see as we climb up to over 2000 meters into the central mountains
Stopping off for coffee in a place called Ella in the hills. It was full of the hippy traveling types that you always encounter in certain parts of Asia. Lots of banana pancakes, lardy pretend effnic food, body piercings, tattoos, Bob Marley on the stereo and more baggy bright hippy uniforms than you can shake a stick at. Not my cup of tea. Nor fanny’s … so we move on!
Not a bad view …Ramboda
View from our hotel room window in Ramboda
Looks like the Lake District in England.. or Wales perhaps. It is raining after all.
Long hike up the hill in the rain to the Mackwood tea plantations
The ride from the hot sunny south coast of Sri Lanka to the cool misty mountainous interior couldn’t have been more dramatic. Within a few hours we rode up nearly 3000 meters, and the temperature dropped from 35 degrees to about 14 degrees….and it started raining. All in 200 kilometers. Some of the time in thick cloud as we rode up and down the twisty roads surrounded by lush green tea plantations.
We stayed at a hotel in Ramboda perched on the hillside with spectacular views of waterfalls and valleys.
The food in the hotel was the usual tourist buffet fodder and so we explored the local villages and ate authentic local dhal, roti, pol sambol, rice noodles, veggies and curries. As usual we had to persuade the waiters and shop owners that we wanted the real deal, not the tourist slop. ‘Are you sure?’, they would always ask. ‘Absolutely… don’t spare the chili and spice and leave the heads on’.
One of our greatest joys traveling around the world is eating local authentic food and its one of the reasons I would struggle living back in Blighty again. I know I always make a fuss about western food being so bad, but with rare exceptions it usually is. The vast majority of my countrymen treat mealtimes like some unpleasant chore and feel guilty for being hungry. They make one concession to healthy eating… the salad.
By contrast, eating in Asia is a joyous occasion and Asians treat food very seriously. With the exception of the Philippines (yes, you know its true), food across the whole of the Asia Pacific is exciting and delicious. I have tried to educate my western friends and relatives about the merits of authentic Asian cuisine but they usually respond with exaggerated theatrics, glaring accusingly at their huang hua yu and yelling, ‘Its looking at me’, or ‘I ate a chili –I can’t breathe’.
This all said, I would like to point out to my sister Amanda, and her daughter Sally, that my disdain for western food does not apply to cake…. or pudding. Heaven forbid.
We explored the local tea plantations and at one place called Mackwood we saw how the tea was made and sampled a few cups of rosie leaf, with chocolate cake. There was a flow diagram on the wall of the factory that explained the eight stages of tea production and I am almost sure its the same chart Ms Hingorani, my school teacher at the Holy Rosary Primary School, used in a lesson about tea manufacture some 45 years ago. Maybe there are somethings that never need to change.
We had taken a tut tut scooter taxi up the mountain as it was a fair hike and raining hard, but on the way back we decided to spend the whole afternoon hiking 15 kms back to the hotel through the tea plantations and alongside the waterfalls. Very interesting.
The following day we decided to ride to Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka and have a look at the temples and Buddhist relics and then ride along the country lanes back to Colombo. Our advise to anyone wanting to do a motorcycle ride in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else for that matter, is to set the route to all the “B” roads or less. This can be done on some GPS navigation programs in the route menu, but its better to plan the route ahead by setting way-points to avoid congested and hectic main roads. You see more and its much more enjoyable.
The bikes were still ticking along OK, although no more comfortable, but they had done the job and so far nothing had crashed into us, despite a few close shaves. As we took a break I asked Fanny what she wanted to do for the next few days. She said she wanted to return the bikes and go back to Yasmine’s house and relax.
Wow… just what I wanted to do too.
We telephoned Yasmine and she had a couple from Canada in the guest house we had stayed in previously, but she said we could stay in a spare room in the main house…a beautiful room like the rest of her house. Very stylish and tasteful.
The bike shop we hired the Hondas from were less than accommodating and said, ‘a contract is a contract’, and they would not return the balance of the rental. Really? Yes, really. After so many years I should have realized what these types are like. Always friendly when taking your money… not so much if you ask for it back. Suan le ba?
So, the rest of the few days we had in Sri Lanka we relaxed in the peaceful gardens of Yasmine’s home and explored around Colombo, eating chili crabs and mooching around the shops and back streets.
Sri Lanka is a great place. Very friendly people, some absolute gems of places to see, tropical sunny weather, lots of elephants, cheap and excellent food.
Would we do it on a motorbike again? Perhaps not. But thanks to the British Empire and its talented Victorian engineers if we ever came back to Sri Lanka we will get around like the locals….. by train.
Nice view from the bog.
Goodbye Bajas… you made it…just
My riding partner
Back at Yasmines with Kumari, our excellent chef. Thanks Kumari.
Oh go on… another meal!
Bit of warm rain from the monsoon that was affecting the west of Sri Lanka and India
I have no idea what Fanny is doing. Sitting on a throne?
Colombo … will not look the same in 5 years for sure.
Wandering around Colombo
Sundowner in the sky lounge of a hotel in Colombo
Our last sunset in Sri Lanka … for now
Next Chapter ….. Colorado and Utah BDR on a Honda Africa Twin
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.
This video doesn’t exist
Briefings, bikes, rain, chocolate bars and lots of mud
This video doesn’t exist
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.
Not dropped it yet…but I will later
That’s what it looks like underneath
Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud
There is definitely something missing on that bike!
Waiting in turn to roar up a hill … steeper than it looks.
Below are a few videos from Youtube of the very muddy course I was on in Wales.
BTW- I am on Bike #17 with number plate index RX16 KXV – black boots and DPM style Arai Helmet.
Great fun… and many thanks to Steve for taking, editing, narrating and publishing the video.
Well all good things come to an end until you start more good things. I really enjoyed the course and made some good friends. Importantly, the Africa Twin was all I hoped it to be and more. I am sure Fanny will love riding it too and we have it penciled in for the next big one, unless the new KTM 800 Adventure steals a lead.
In fact, I will be riding one fairly soon along the BDR in Utah and Colorado with my friend, John Drury, although I am not sure if the US Africa Twins have traction control. We will see.
Well since I was in Wales and the rain had stopped briefly I decided to go on a ride…a ride to Touratech in South Wales in fact to have a look at all their toys.
When I arrived at Touratech in a place beginning with a Y and no vowels I asked where the Africa Twin was with all the Touratech add-ons? I was told all their bikes had been taken to the Horizons Unlimited gathering near Hereford and so that’s where I went next.
A great ride as always across Wales and when I arrived at the HUBB meeting I could see the usual swarm of adventure and touring motorcycles, a few stalls and a noticeably middle aged crowd. I had not booked a place, but a very nice lady signed me in at 60 quid for one nights camping in a wet field! Britain, huh?
Oh well, I did manage to meet the Dakar legend, Nick Plumb in the flesh and so it was worth it.
Nick Plumb’s BMW Dakar bike…. Amazing
Meeting the legendary Dakar rider Nick Plumb.
A Touratech’ed up Africa Twin … I should coco.
I also saw Alex Jackson from Kaapstad tours, and some other commercial motorcycle tour operators who had their stalls set up and were doing their marketing thing. I expect its a tough old life trying to sell motorcycle tours to independent minded motorcycle adventurers. A bit like selling ice to Eskimos I suppose.
I was bouncing around telling Alex and his “aw wight aw wight inch yaa” business partner I had met Nick Plumb and was waxing lyrical about how he had completed the Dakar ….twice, and featured on the Charlie Boorman “Race to Dakar” TV Series.
He didn’t seem impressed. How can you not be impressed?
To me completing the Dakar on a rally motorcycle is the all time achievement …second only to walking on the moon. I would love to do it myself and have the utmost respect for anyone who has and I was truly honoured to meet Nick Plumb.
Horizons Unlimited is a strange and wonderful gathering of rather odd people. There are a few “Round The World” motorcycling legends sharing their stories, some interesting presentations for budding adventurers, some very nice motorcycles to look at, and most importantly a bar.
For the large part though, its like a village hall lawn bowls committee meeting, except with leather tassels and smelling faintly of damp nylon and exhaust fumes.
My sixty quid a night wet camping patch… really?
Well.. lets call it “checking my kit” for my Colorado and Utah BDR expedition in September, although I don’t think I need any more practice putting up a tent.
I only went in as I bought some raffles tickets. Did I win anything? An Austin Vince mug? A Sam Manicom book? A Charlie Boorman video? A years supply of teabags? Nope. Zip.
This was my last jolly on my KTM 990 SMT as I decided to sell it to my mate, Nick Dobson who has been looking after it in England for the last three years. It is always sad to say goodbye to a bike, and it has been a truly awesome bike.
One of the deciding factors to part company with a UK plated bike was that I lost my temper with Bennetts, the British firm I insure my bike with as I (Nick actually) missed the automatic renewal date by three days and so they said I have to go through the whole rigmarole of getting a new quote ….and pay a premium of a hundred quid (72%) a year more than the previous year despite no accidents or incidents.
The complete moron I spoke to on the telephone from Bennetts said he must ask me all the questions again. ALL OF THEM. And in his annoying regional accent and Millennial grammar.
I said he must be joking, but he insisted he must ask the questions without interruption, despite the obvious “jobs worthy” ridiculousness of the whole thing.
He was half way through his, ‘I MUST finish the question….have you had any… blah blah blah?’ when I told him quite descriptively what he could do with his quote … and hung up.
That was annoying, I thought, I will have to sell my bike now.
In actual fact, I had pretty much decided to sell my bike as riding it for just two weeks out of fifty-two really isn’t a good reason to keep a motorcycle in the UK, and I was starting to go through one of my “England’s a real dump” episodes which was bolstered by a combination of the awful weather, the awful traffic jams, the truly awful food, having to look at fat orange people with tattoos and piercings, Nick’s mum scaring the crap out of me … AND …a particularly disturbing and unpleasant visit to Starbucks in Pevensy in East Sussex.
They were all signs from the Soul of the Universe to sell my KTM and move on .
Nick! Can I borrow your bike?
One of the reasons I booked a ticket to England was that Ducati had informed me I was shortlisted to ride their new Ducati Multistrada 1200 Enduro on a leg of their Globetrotter round the world marketing trip and invited me to go to Florence for a final selection. Therefore, I headed to the UK to pick up my bike as I had planned an interesting ride through Europe to Italy.
Having purchased my air-ticket I was told by Ducati they thought I was too young and handsome to ride their motorcycle and so I was unceremoniously “cut” from the event. A bit harsh I thought, but on reflection the whole thing sounded like a bit of a faff.
I had Sri Lanka and USA biking expeditions coming up, and this Ducati marketing thing was more costly and inconvenient than I initially anticipated and so I wasn’t too disappointed.
I suspect Ducati have messed up a bit. Seven contented adventure riders, and at the same time 4993 really “pissed off” adventure riders who are probably evaluating buying a Honda Africa twin now. Must have learned their marketing skills from KTM!!
Not a Ducati
As I had finished the Honda Africa Twin off road course and had no reason or desire to hang about in the UK I decided to go back home to Hong Kong, but I couldn’t change my ticket without a costly surcharge.
As none of my relatives like me very much and I had nowhere really to go, I had to find a place to stay for a few days. I had my tent but it was still raining a lot and in England its really difficult to camp as everywhere is private or off limits. Luckily, I found a Lapland style wooden hut in the middle of Dorset … in fact in the garden of April Cottage near Harman’s Cross.
My sort of place. Run by a super chap called Peter from Switzerland and his lovely wife, Joanna, it was a great place to stay, write up some reports for work, and explore the Purbeck Way and Dorset coastline, even in the rain.
Sleeping on reindeer skins in a Lapland wooden hut in Dorset.
My sister’s house in Poole.
My pretty niece Sophia in Poole…
And my other pretty but slightly bonkers niece, Jessie
On one of my runs near Swanage
I believe Botox works wonders although how can you improve on perfection.
And went for a run along Purbeck Way
The best meal I had in the UK… thanks to Peter & Joanna Burri at April Cottage/Lapland Lodge in Harmans Cross, Dorset. Highly recommended.
My home at Lapland Lodge… along with the Africa Twin Course in Wales .. the best bits of my trip to UK.
My sort of place.
Joined by a hoss and its rider whilst doing one of my runs near Corfe Castle in Dorset.
A ride on the steam train back from Swanage to Corfe Castle
I am allergic to # 15 – “English food”
I do respect enthusiasts who go to huge efforts to restore British heritage, like this steam train which runs between Swanage and Corfe Castle.
A380 back to Hong Kong
Next Chapter (s) ……Riding Honda CRF250 Baja motorcycles in Sri Lanka and Riding a Honda Africa Twin across the BDR in Colorado and Utah, USA
So what do two adventure bikers do for their Christmas holidays?
Of course, go on another motorcycle adventure, this time to Vietnam and Cambodia.
Flying directly into Phnom Penh from Hong Kong was expensive and so we decided to fly into Hanoi first, have a look around and then take a local flight to Cambodia where we would pick up a Honda Africa Twin and spend two weeks over the holidays touring the country, and perhaps include a few days relaxing on the southern coast.
I have been to Ho Chi Minh a few times, but neither Fanny or I had been to Hanoi and we had been planning to go there for some time. Originally our plan was to ride from Hanoi to Hai Phong, inspired by the famous “Top Gear Special”, but we didn’t really have enough time to do a big trip in both Vietnam and Cambodia. Also, Fanny was recovering from ACL reconstruction surgery to her knee and she did not want to ride a bike herself, and so we decided to spend the majority of our time in Cambodia as we could share a larger adventure motorbike. It seems Vietnam only hires out small scooters and mopeds, which are perfectly OK for scooting about the city, but a bit challenging for an countrywide tour in a few days.
Hanoi is a really interesting and bustling city with French and Chinese style architecture reflecting its rather complicated heritage. We liked it very much. There are tens of thousands of scooters riding about in a seemingly chaotic manner, but after a while you realize, despite universal none adherence to any traffic laws whatsoever, that carnage, death and destruction is actually quite rare. In fact, everyone just manages to avoid colliding into everyone else.
Crossing the road on foot does take a leap of faith, if not courage, and yet the bikes and cars just seem to slide by, dodge and side step you, employing well practiced collision avoidance techniques. Accidents do happen of course, and like their Thai neighbours the Vietnamese take enormous pleasure in publishing the graphic images of squashed and smashed up human being in newspapers and specialist magazines. Everyone’s got to have a hobby I suppose.
Finding accommodation in Hanoi was easy and we stayed at a superb hotel in the old town called Oriental Suites. A colonial looking and very well managed mid sized hotel right in the heart of the old town. Great coffee and very obsequious staff… just how we like it.
We decide to hire a scooter to get around and explore the city and at first were given a “last thing you’ll ever ride” piece of junk clearly belonging to one of the hotel staff. After an 18.5 second test drive I returned and gave the hotel manager a full and frank appraisal of his “Vamporetta” or whatever it was. The traffic was bad enough in Hanoi, but without any brakes, steering bearings gone, and an engine that stalled all the time… I don’t think so. So, we were given one of the ubiquitous Honda 110 mopeds and it was perfectly fine and off we went.
We found lots of great restaurants, cafes, noodle shops, and market stalls, most of which were selling a huge array of Christmas decorations and junk nobody really needs in life. The street food was very good and it seems the Vietnamese, like the southern Chinese they share a border, will eat absolutely anything. There were a lot of roasted pooches looking rather sad for themselves in heated glass display cases at various street hawker stalls. Evidently, the locals are perfectly aware that their taste in cuisine isn’t appreciated by the vast majority of tourists, including many Chinese from the more civilized cities and northern provinces, and so they were sensitive to people like Fanny and I taking pictures of poached pug and char grilled collie. But we did anyway.
Hanoi, along with the same parts of China that regularly eat dog, i.e. Guangxi and Guangdong, are also the markets for rhino horn although I never saw any evidence of this devastating trade in endangered animal parts. Not surprising since gram for gram rhino horn its more valuable than gold. Wont last for long though as there wont be a rhino left on the planet within a generation.
Anyway, we explored the back streets, drank lots of excellent coffee, went to a small lake with the wreckage of a downed B52 bomber still in it, and really enjoyed our visit to the Hanoi War Museum that was full of US warplanes and helicopters, as well as large displays of medieval warfare techniques and home made weapons used against the French troops during the 1950s. Despite nearly everyone being half the size of Fanny, the Vietnamese seem like very tough people… they certainly have a high tolerance for discomfort and hardship.
A day or so later we took a Vietnamese flight via Vientiane in Laos to Phnom Penh and breezed through immigration very quickly as we had applied for our visas in advance. We avoided the taxis and hired a “tut tut” on the main highway to take us to our hotel, the Grande Palaise, near the central market.
An amazing looking colonial hotel in keeping with its name, but the devils in the detail and its seems Cambodian attention to detail and good grouting is en par with that in Hong Kong. The hotel had been converted from an old colonial cinema and it was also clear that they had done a pretty crap job of it. The electric was shocking, the plumbing was appalling, and the bed was lumpy. Judging by the expression on the faces of two snooty looking French guests at breakfast the next morning we were not the only people to think so.
The next day we navigated around a seemingly endless motorcade of Vietnamese and Cambodian officials in blacked out limos, army trucks and police officers in SUVs as they raced back and forth across the city. Cars and pedestrians alike were forced to stop by hundreds of police officers as this officialdom went about what ever it was doing. Eventually there was a window of opportunity to move about and we got another tut tut to our motorcycle hire shop.
The Bike Shop is run by a Frenchman and his Cambodian partner and we rented a decent looking, but rather old 2001 Honda Transalp 650. I was a bit disappointed that the Africa Twin 750 we had booked online had been given to a French couple, but in the end the Transalp was absolutely faultless and was to prove the ideal bike for some very demanding riding later on. I really grew to like the Transalp.
We had intended to ride south to the coastal resort town of Kep, but decided instead to ride north west towards Siem Reap where the world heritage temples of Angkor Wat are located. For those not familiar with Cambodia, and that included me before this trip, there is a huge lake in the middle of the country and you have no choice but to ride around it. No bridges span it and during the rainy season it expands greatly in size and pretty much the whole country is under water.
As it was late December we were traveling in the dry season and so we rode along unsurfaced, potholed and dusty construction roads for several hundred kilometers to Kampong Thom. The Honda, although 14 years old, was extremely well maintained and I could tell from the briefing about checking oil, general maintenance and spare parts that the company we hired it from really looked after their bikes and cared about them. We were also given soft panniers and I have to say if ever I ride around the world or do a significant motorcycle adventure again I will use some sort of soft pannier system rather than the hugely expensive aluminum square “Touratech” boxes we had on our KTMs for our ride through Africa and Europe.
Because the roads and traffic were so bad we didn’t make the progress we thought we’d make. Also, I was by now really fed up riding on a so called national highway made of holes, dirt and more holes with thick dust being thrown up by trucks and speeding SUVs and so at Kampong Thom we turned off the highway and headed north towards Preah Vihear where we were told there were some interesting temples in the hills at the northern border with Thailand and Laos.
A great decision. The roads were now virtually empty, the scenery was very rural and beautiful, and the road surface was excellent. After about 40 kilometers we saw a sign indicating that there was a resort nearby and since it was getting late and we were tired we headed off along a narrow road through endless fields full of cows, water buffalo and horses and between expanses of rainforest and large deciduous trees. At around 6pm the light faded noticeably and we had still been unable to find the “resort”, but we did find the ruins of an ancient temple complex. Quite a sight to find in the middle of a forest as the sun was going down.
There was no one around except for a young man on a scooter by a small wooden booth. We stopped to ask him about the “resort”. ‘This is it”, he told us in perfect English. Huh! Apparently the resort was the ruins of the stunning Khmer temples and there was, in fact, no “hotel with a swimming pool and a restaurant” type resort that Fanny and I had envisaged in our minds.
We had no tent, no sleeping bags and actually very little in the way of luggage at all. Certainly no food. Neither of us were too fussed. It wasn’t raining, the temperature was a perfect 24 degrees and we could perhaps kip with the ghosts in one of the many thousand year old ruins.
‘You can stay at a homestay’, the young man told us. ‘No problem’.
Apparently for 6 dollars for the two of us we could stay at a local home, and that is what we did. But first, food hunting. We were told there was a village nearby and we could find something to eat. Result.
We rode into a charming little farming village and found a small stall selling a very limited selection of local food, including something that looked like papaya salad with dried river prawns. As we drew up on the Honda the whole village stopped and stared at us as if we had landed in a flying saucer. The lady owner looked us up and down and we were covered from head to toe in red dust. I was wearing shorts and my light weight motorcycle jacket and my legs were absolutely caked in filth.
Would I like a shower? Yes, I would and so I was taken into the cow paddock behind the restaurant where there was a well, a plastic bowl, a hand pump, and a bar of soap right in the middle of the field.
I looked around pondering whether I should just wash my hands and face or have a full shower, and if so am I expected to stand in the field stark bollock naked or wear a sarong or something? I started stripping off and nobody seemed to take any notice and so I had a proper wash and then wandered back to the restaurant absolutely refreshed and in great spirits.
‘You gotta have a shower’, I told Fanny, as I described the washing facilities, ‘ Its great’.
I chatted as best I could with the owner and her extended family while Fanny had a more modest shower in a field in the middle of Cambodia. Fanny came back all refreshed and tucked into some rather chewy and gamey prawns, and I decided that dinner would be a fried egg and three bottles of Angkor beer.
After we left the restaurant, bade our farewells and were riding through the pitch blackness of where ever it was, I suddenly realized that all the farm houses looked exactly the same and could not remember which was the one we agreed we would stay in. They were all virtually identical wooden structures on stilts and it was pitch dark except for a few lights that were powered by small electric generators or oil lamps. Luckily Fanny came to the rescue and remembered that the only distinguishing feature was that “our” farm house had two doors on the outside bog. And indeed it did.
We parked the Transalp under the farm house, right next to the young man who introduced the homestay in the first place, who was resting in a hammock. Aha! It was his families house. We were shown up the wooden stairs, found our little space on the wooden floor with two mats covered by a mosquito net, lit a candle and settled down.
I had bought a Cambodian sim card for US$5 at the airport the day before and it had unlimited 4G internet connection for one month, and low and behold it actually worked and so Fanny and I did some research and realized that we were in the middle of the pre-Angkorian temple complex called Sambor Pre Kuk.
I slept absolutely soundly and very comfortably. It was pretty much like camping. I woke up as the sun was rising thanks to several hundred cockerels and the rest of the farm yard dawn chorus engaging in a rendition of “Old MacDonald had a farm”. We had a quick wash from a bucket, a warm up by the fire and then packed our few things up.
Would we like to see the temples? Yes please. Our young saviour who found us somewhere to stay and guarded our bike over night was also the ticket issuing official to the temple complex. US$5 dollars later we were riding along sand tracks through an 8th century world heritage site with not another soul in sight. The morning light streaming through the tree canopy gave the temple ruins a surreal appearance and we spent several hours exploring. Simply amazing.
We then continued north to Preah Vihear through a truly idyllic rural setting. It was like taking a ride in a time machine and going back several hundred years to a purely agricultural pre-industrial era. Like an oriental version of Constable’s Hay Wain painting, there were beautiful trees and flowers, paddy fields with oxen pulling wooden ploughs, farm labourers toiling in the fields, strange looking long legged white cows with frilly necks, water buffalo wallowing in paddies, and typical Asian skinny mongrel dogs skulking about.
As we got further north the topography became more hilly, but not particularly mountainous as we thought it would. Again we found more amazing Khmer temple ruins, but we were a bit templed out and wanted to press on to Siem Reap and find a place to rest and so we headed south west along very rural and narrow roads. None very direct. Fanny was navigating from the pillion seat using my Samsung phone and a map app, but like parts of west China we rode through the maps were clearly not very accurate.
We did a lot of riding that day and I had the beginnings of a sore bottom, as did Fanny. In fact, riding pillion is more tiring on your lower back and bum than actually riding because you are not supported by the handlebars. The scenery and riding was amazing, but the Honda Transalp seat was not the most comfortable I have ever sat on. I had forgotten to bring my sheep skin seat cover and was regretting it.
We approached Angkor Wat from the north along very rural roads, and for about 5 kilometers actually rode along a very narrow canal embankment, through local villages and then suddenly we were inside the Angkor Wat complex via a rather unorthodox route.
Wow! Templed out or not, fond of history or not, this is a spectacular place to see and experience. On par with the Taj Mahal and Giza pyramids, the symmetry and beauty of these Cambodian temples is astonishing. As with the other man made wonders of the world, Angkor Wat is something most people are familiar with and yet its a strange feeling to actually see the buildings in the flesh, so to speak. The scale was larger than I was expecting and there were a lot more temple complexes, statues and structures. Whilst we could ride right up to many of the ruins and structures, the actual Angkor Wat is surrounded by a huge symmetrical square moat and you can only get to it by crossing a foot bridge.
Not as old as the temples we had seen so far, its undoubtedly the most spectacular. Originally Hindu and later Buddhist, its supposed to be the largest religious complex in the world and like the pyramids, and indeed Stonehenge, the architectural skill and engineering involved in its construction is almost inconceivable.
We had started early that day and we were feeling tired, but the early evening light and amazing architecture was mesmerizing. As expected there were a lot of tourists from all over the world which contrasted with the virtual empty temples we had seen earlier in the day.
After seeing as much as we could, we rode a few kilometers south into the busy city of Siem Reap and found a very pleasant hotel to stay in called Horizons Cambodia. Given it was one of best B&Bs in the town and it was peak season we were lucky to just rock up and find a vacancy. In fact. they also gave us a really nice suite and allowed us to park our motorcycle in the garden behind locked gates. A result.
It was Christmas Eve and we wandered into the old part of the town and found a very decent restaurant serving local delicious local food. My bum was still really sore and I could barely sit down, but what a great day.
The next morning we had a big choice to make. As there is a huge expanse of water called Tonle Sap Lake just south of Siem Reap and right in the middle of the country, we could either go clockwise around it, ride the truly awful national highway again back to Phnom Penh and then further on to the south coast, or take a much longer anti clockwise ride around the lake towards Battambang and then south across the Cardamon Mountains towards Koh Kong on the south west coast of Cambodia. This is very near to Koh Chang in Thailand which I toured a few months earlier (previous chapter).
Fanny and I wanted to see the Cardamon mountains as they are off the tourist route, remote, and home to some of the last expanses of Asian rainforest. However it would take two to three days, I was not sure where we would stay, and we would probably have to ride on gravel tracks and trails.
I prefer to stand up on foot pegs when riding off road, partly because of balance and centre of gravity, and partly to take the load off my bum. With a pillion rider you have to sit down all the time, and for the pillion rider they are also going to have a rough old ride balancing on the back seat. Fanny was game on anyway, and so we set off west towards the western border with Thailand and by lunchtime swung around the lake and were heading south east towards Battambang.
Whilst filling with petrol at a gas station and studying the map I realized that going forward navigation was going to be a bit tricky. We were told by locals there were some new gravel roads built by Chinese contractors to serve hydro electric dams up in the mountains, but these were not marked on our maps. In fact, as far as this remote south western part of Cambodia was concerned none of the maps reconciled at all.
Oh well, go for it.
As we turned off a fairly busy highway between Battambang and Posat we still had about five hours of daylight left. Within a few kilometers, the road narrowed and we were on a single trail just elevated above the paddy fields and within fifteen kilometers it turned into the classic gravel type track we were very familiar with in southern Africa.
I could see a range of medium sized mountains in the distance and knew that there were several peaks around two thousand meters in height that we would have to navigate around. I was estimating that as the crow flies we had about 250 kilometers to reach Koh Kang, but the roads indicated on both our hard and soft copy maps meandered about and often faded out completely. I know logically that locals over the years would move between villages and there should be some sort of access, even if only using small tracks.
As we rode along Fanny suddenly told me that our position on the cellphone map indicated we were in the middle of a field, and yet we were still on the road. Strange. We had similar problems in remote locations in Sudan and Egypt from time to time, but then we were using a GPS with loaded maps, rather than a cellphone that uploaded maps from the 3G internet signal.
We carried on for a while, but we were going more and more off course, or so it appeared. After a while I doubled back to the point it deviated and could see no sign of another road and so we turned around yet again and carried on again. After about 40 minutes we arrived at a small village where I could see a cell phone repeater mast on a nearby hill. However, the Samsung still showed we were in the middle of nowhere and our hard copy map tended to indicate we had gone too far west.
Time to ask someone, but we were really struggling with the language and through repeated attempts I realized the locals would just nod and shake there heads, point in any direction and agree to anything you said just to get rid of you and save face. I am pretty sure “I don’t know” is not in a Cambodian’s vocabulary.
Eventually someone pointed to a road that by the position of the sun seemed to be heading south and that to my mind was all the corroboration I needed and so we started riding down an increasingly narrow and eroded trail. Within half an hour the road turned into an obstacle course of rocks, deeply rutted hardened mud and occasional ponds and swollen streams. I was sweating profusely as we battled along for an hour, making what I guess was less than 10 kilometers in progress. The track went up, down, left, right, through jungles, over ridges and across streets and rivers. Often the vegetation was so think, or a branch so low I would have to get off the bike and walk it through while ducking.
We stopped for a water break, looked around, studied my lying maps, and then I looked at Fanny for some feedback. I was a bit concerned she was not enjoying her “Christmas Day lost in the jungle adventure”, but actually she was in pretty good spirits and seemed to be enjoying herself. Of course, as an adventure rider I do not like to say that I am lost, rather I am not where I thought I should be. Nevertheless I hadn’t a fucking clue where we were.
Occasionally the track or river bed was so bad that Fanny had to get off and walk as a tackled some particularly rutted patches or wade the bike through a river or stream, or worse a river that I didn’t know what the depth actually was. I have to say that the Transalp was superb though…. handling like a modern 250 enduro. I was a bit nervous that I was giving the 14 year old veteran too much of a work out as the long suspension fattened out and the belly pan scraped over logs and rocks. But it seemed fine, the engine, gear box, clutch all purring along doing what its meant to do. Only the suspension was showing its age, but then it was carrying two big chunky humans over a surface that resembled a trials bike course.
A one stage there was a dark and particularly still expanse of water in the jungle where the trail suddenly just stopped and so we got off and prodded around a bit, trying to gauge how deep the water was. The dark pond seemed to continued into the darkness of the jungle and I couldn’t see the other side from where we were.
With no other vehicles to observe going through the water Fanny decided to get off and take a jungle trek around and I took a leap of faith and plunged into the water and sludge and to my relief emerged out the other side. I was a bit alarmed to catch sight of a large snake dashing for safety as I hurtled towards it. If I lost momentum the bike would undoubtedly fall over and get stuck in the sludge, so out my way Sid, I’m coming through.
Trucks clearly used the trail, possibly as a short cut, or maybe there was no other way through. I just couldn’t tell. But during the recent rainy season the trucks had carved out two to three foot deep troughs in the mud that had now hardened and were like an obstacle course and quite difficult to ride across. Often there was no sign of consensus for the two wheeled traffic and the motorcycle tracks weaved about and went in all directions.
I don’t drop my bike often but on one particularly nasty stretch I hesitated on a high ridge with Fanny on the back and as there was a four foot drop on either side there was nowhere to put my feet and so I called out to Fanny that we were going over and in very slow motion that is exactly what happened. Fanny jumped off, but I didn’t want to damage the hired Honda and so it fell on top of me. No Alpinestar enduro boots, no enduro gear.. just shorts and trainers and so I was pinned into the hardened mud with 200kg of motorcycle on top of me. It hurt a bit but I was basically uninjured and the bike was completely undamaged having had a soft landing.
Adventure bikers will know that once pinned under a heavy adventure bike its near on impossible to get it off. However, Fanny has a black belt in picking up motorbikes and despite the uneven surface she lifted the bike sufficiently for me to wriggle out from underneath it. Once free we could easily right the bike, push it to a place we could get back on again and carry on.
It was a stupid fall caused because I was faffing about and because I was tired near the end of a very long day of riding. Riding off road is a head game and requires being focused, being balanced, using proper throttle control and riding assertively. If you lose momentum on a slope or uneven ground you will fall down. If the front wheel washes out or don’t use proper throttle to keep up a forward momentum you will fall down. And if you are wearing shorts and trainers instead of enduro boots and riding gear, you stand a good chance of hurting yourself.
We crossed a few more rivers and I was starting to think we had bitten off a bit more than we could chew. On one tricky and very rutted section Fanny said she would prefer to get off and walk and so I powered the very capable Honda along the twisty and ploughed up trail, until the surface improved a bit and there were less streams to cross and then waited for Fanny. After a while I decided to park up the bike and hike back the way I came to find her and share some water.
As I was hiking back I could hear the unmistakeable whine of a 100cc moped and then I saw it appear out of the murkiness of the jungle canopy, with an old man riding and Fanny waving and laughing on the back. As it approached I noticed the old man only had one leg.
‘I have been rescued by a real biker who knows what he’s doing’, Fanny said laughing. Well you can’t argue with that.
We thanked to old man who then he soldiered on into the jungle again and we watched until the putt putt sound of the moped disappeared. I am quite sure he knew the route much better than me, but was humbled by his riding skill and endurance, especially given the fact that he had only one leg and was about 70 years old.
We had spent a good deal of the afternoon battling along the trail and did seem to be getting nearer to a visible cross roads near the Pursat River that looked like it might be habitable and we might find somewhere to stay. And then almost suddenly we were in pitch blackness. For some strange reason that only Cambodian’s will understand, you are not allowed to put your headlights on while riding in the daytime. This safety feature is reserved only of the government. In most parts of the world the headlights on a motorcycle are always on… for safety so you can be seen. Not so in Cambodia and so now it was officially dark I could turn them on.
Riding in the dark is not so bad, you can see the road clearly enough, you just can’t seen anything else. After a while we came off the trail and joined a more substantial gravel track and within about 30 kilometers we were at the cross road marked on the map which in reality was a roundabout with a statue of an elephant in the middle. Not only did we find a hotel, but also a pretty decent roadside restaurant.
The hotel wasn’t very nice, but it was cheap, had a sort of shower thing, and we could ride the bike into the hotel building and park it outside our room. Again we were filthy, but after a scrub down and some food were out for the count.