Crossing the Nullarbor

We had been warned about the dragonflies, and here they were, swarms of them coming out of the desert, big fat and very very hard. Every time we stopped, enormous black crows would descend and pluck the mangled and juicy bodies from the motorbike.

We were riding across the Nullarbor Plain, the world’s largest single piece of limestone, comprising about 200,000 square kilometres of desert separating Western Australia from Southern Australia. There is only one road across, and the thousand-kilometre Eyre Highway has become a long-distance traveller’s icon. The story goes that, far from being the aboriginal name that you might expect, the word Nullarbor was coined by early explorers from the schoolboy Latin for ‘no trees’. This is something of a misnomer, because in fact this area forms part of the largest temperate forest in the world. It is a land of stark contrasts; red earth, bright green low-lying shrubs, and impressive glossy red gum trees, all stretching out forever beneath a vivid blue sky.

Look, no trees!
Look, no trees!

The logistics of living in such an arid environment preclude any kind of town on the Plain itself. There are a few hardy cattle stations out there, but along the road civilisation is represented by roadhouses strung out at intervals of 200 kilometres. Largely owned and operated by the major oil companies, they provide fuel for traffic and road trains and offer varying degrees of accommodation, food and camping.

Some are prosperous and well-appointed, others run down and a little squalid, but since 200 kilometres represents the maximum distance that the XJR 1300 can go on a single tank of fuel, we were obliged to stop at each and every one.

No trees here, either
No trees here, either

Although it was winter and there was a fresh wind blowing in from the Southern Ocean, there was still an appreciable heat haze on the road. Mirages and inversion layers were common, and it was often quite a few miles before you could figure out what it was that was coming towards you, or even if it was coming towards you at all. The prettiest mirage turned the whole of the road ahead into a perfect reflection of the blue sky overhead, so that it seemed that at any moment you might drop off the edge of the world.

All trailers are restricted by law to 100 km/h, and since just about everything from the road trains down to the smallest car and even some of the motorbikes are towing trailers, this means that the traffic, if you can call it that, moves at that same speed like discrete beads along a wire. Horizon to horizon, you might see one bead up ahead, and possibly one far behind, but that’s as congested as it gets. Going a little faster than this, we would slowly catch and pass each road train, but it was sometimes a long battle through the vortex of turbulence that could extend hundreds of metres behind each rig.

Road Train
Road Train

It is a point of pride for every Australian town, municipality or region to claim to be home to the largest, longest or oldest feature of Australia or, preferably, the world. If a particular region lacks any suitable natural features, then the locals will build something. Typical examples are The Big Trout, The Big Merino and The Big Banana. We have personally drunk beers in at least half a dozen Oldest Continually Licensed Premises In Australia.

The Nullarbor boasts not only The Longest Stretch of Straight Road in Australia (146.6 km) but also The Longest Golf Course in the World, which puzzled us a bit at first. All became clear when we realised that there was a tee and a hole at every roadhouse. The whole thing could be said to stretch out over more than 1100 km, but you have to drive for several hours down the highway to get to each tee. Of course there isn’t much in the way of green; the terrain is described as ‘natural ground’.

The plain viewed from a high scarp
The plain viewed from a high scarp

Along the road, the landscape remained largely flat but the flora changed regularly, presumably reflecting changes in the underlying hydrology. The underbrush remained hummocky and rarely exceeded a couple of feet in height, but the amount of bare earth between the bushes varied, and trees came and went above. In several places we passed entire forests of dead trees where presumably the water table had dropped temporarily out of reach. In most of these, new growth was now springing up from the bases of the trunks, so presumably the aquifer had since recovered.

The lack of water was a constant theme. With only a few inches of rainfall a year, most water is trucked in to the roadhouses at great expense. Showers are available at a price, but unless you rent a cabin you are expected to bring your own washing and drinking water with you.

Sign of the times
Sign of the times

A couple of days into the Nullarbor, we came across a road train parked in the bush and a hired motor home lying on its side. We stopped to see if we could help, but the road train driver, who had seen the accident and was now watching over the wreck, said that the occupants were fine and had got a lift out to the next roadhouse. On our arrival we heard that they had encountered a road train coming in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the road, and had lost control in their panic. We still don’t know how the roadhouse manager got it back on its four wheels, but evidently he did because it later drove in to the roadhouse car park with surprisingly little damage beyond some chamfered bodywork and busted windows.

They were lucky. You definitely don’t want to run into a fifty-metre road train.

Toy motorcycle
Toy motorcycle

There are warning signs along the road for all manner of creatures, from camels to cows and kangaroos to ostriches. I suspect that many of these signs are just there to please the tourists, because for the most part the wildlife sticks to the safety of the scrub, but we did encounter a pair of emus that had come up to scrape dew from the tarmac. Seeing them in their native habitat, we realised that their hummocky bodies blended perfectly with the scrub, and it was perfectly possible to miss seeing a couple of metre-high birds if they were standing still.

On another stretch of road, I noticed a fallen log and pulled out to avoid it, and then had to swerve again because it was in fact a very large snake crossing the road and spanning almost the entire lane. I managed to avoid it, and I hope it got across before the next road train came through.

Large black crows picked up bugs that had been squashed by passing traffic, or clustered around the occasional road kill. Where there was a fallen roo, the feasting birds would usually see us coming from miles away and would take to the air well in advance, but on one occasion the birds seemed reluctant to leave. As we got closer, we realised that this time they weren’t crows, but instead a whole family of wedge-tailed eagles. As they struggled to get airborne, one of them revealed a wingspan wider than the fully loaded bike. We later heard tell of a motorcyclist who was showing off a long scar in the top of his helmet from the claws of an eagle that hadn’t quite got enough altitude in time.

A dingo ate my sandwich
A dingo ate my sandwich

As we travelled further into the region, the cost of a room for the night rose dramatically. At Caiguna they wanted over $100 for a bed, but only $15 to use their camp ground (aka the open desert behind the rainwater tanks) so we set up the tent instead. We didn’t have sleeping bags, just a sheet and some felt blankets, and as luck would have it a cold front came through and the temperature dropped to three degrees, so it was bit chilly. Mind you, the stars were incredible.

The half-way point at Eucla
The half-way point at Eucla

After a few days, the roadhouses tended to blend together in our minds. Each had a pretty decent menu made up of frozen ingredients, jokey signs about tourists’ stupid questions, an endless supply of ‘I crossed the Nullarbor’ mugs, stickers and tea-towels, and – importantly – a well-stocked bar.

The cabins and camp sites were popular but we never had problems finding space. Once we’d watched the sunset there wasn’t much to do in the evening apart from go to the bar, and although we attended religiously every evening we were often surprised to find ourselves the only patrons. Most of the other travellers (road train drivers, grey nomads, the occasional motorcyclist) preferred to keep themselves to themselves.

A typical Nullarbor roadhouse
A typical Nullarbor roadhouse

We did get to talk to a few fellow-travellers. The road train drivers were working in shifts and trying to stay awake, moving goods and produce westwards and, usually, empty trailers eastwards. Sometimes they stacked the empty trailers up one on top of the other to save on tyre wear, and one driver explained how it was done. Apparently they back the first trailer up to a ramp, then reverse the second trailer up the ramp and on to first. Since they’re backing up a ramp, they can’t really see what they’re doing, and since all the trailers are the same size, there is zero tolerance for mistakes. Sometimes they miss and it falls off. We also heard about the fun they have moving mining machinery, because these stupendous machines are usually much wider than the low-loader trailer, with half of each tyre or track overhanging each side. Often the machine operator refuses to risk driving onto such a thin platform, and then it is up to the rig driver to fire up the unfamiliar million-dollar machine and ease it onto the trailer himself. Sometimes these fall off too.

The grey nomads were typically towing their caravans to warmer latitudes for the winter, and everybody else seemed to be driving Perth to Sydney as a sort of endurance feat; it is after all the complete width of the continent, passing through some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. We had passed a couple of lads on the road who were towing hand-carts on foot, but unfortunately there was no safe place to pull over for a chat. We did get to speak to a young student on a bicycle who said that he’d met them on the road and was a little jealous about how much food they were carrying, although apparently they were on a very tight budget and weren’t sure if they could afford to continue all the way to Sydney. The cyclist, a very pleasant chap, had decided to cycle across the continent on a whim.

Are we lost yet?
Are we lost yet?

The eastern stretch of the Eyre Highway runs along the cliff tops overlooking the Great Australian Bight. It was dusk when we passed the famous Bunda Cliffs, and the caravans were starting to circle and to jostle for prime sea-views. They always do this, but we could never figure out why, because they then seem to spend the rest of the night watching satellite television. We have considered doing a Grey Nomad trip ourselves (sort of a Brunette Nomad), and have even gone so far as to go to van shows and talk to caravan dealers. It had seemed to us that a caravan was very much like a yacht, and since we’d had such a ball sailing and meeting travelling yachties, we were keen to try the same thing on land. One of the great things about sailing in remote parts is that no matter how eccentric your fellow traveller, and whatever their walk or stage of life, they are almost always intelligent and interesting and, even if only for one evening, good company. Having attempted to similarly engage the caravanners on our travels, we had to admit that, by and large and with occasional exceptions, they were largely… not.

Bunda Cliffs at dusk
Bunda Cliffs at dusk

For the last day of our trip across the desert, incredibly, it rained. The roadhouses were full of celebrating station hands,
“How much did you get up at Kickatinalong?”
“Almost an inch!”
“Ah, good on yer mate. We had nearly half an inch at Dustbowlcreek.”

The road trains kicked up a heck of a spray, which made it essential to get past them but impossible to see if anything was coming the other way. Luckily the road train drivers are very aware of bikes – many are bikers themselves – and were very good about signalling when the road ahead was clear. We just kept the throttle open until we arrived at the quarantine checkpoint at Ceduna, officially the end of the Nullarbor and the start of the Eyre Peninsula.

The quarantine officer eyed our luggage and bright waterproofs with a jaundiced eye.
“Got any fruit?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, “no food at all”.
He stared broodily at Bronwyn, as if he suspected her of smuggling grapefruit under her jacket, then grudgingly nodded.
“Right, move along.”
We had crossed the Nullarbor.

Road warriors?
Road warriors?

A night in Norseman

The bush toward Kambalda is starkly beautiful, with the bright red of the soil contrasting with the luxurious and brilliant greens of the gum trees, low-growing scrub, and ground-hugging succulents. Whatever its size, each plant is surrounded by a circle of bare earth representing the area from which it is sucking precious water. No competing plant can gain a foothold inside this zone.

Red earth, green plants
Red earth, green plants

The land is largely flat and often salty, broken only by the small hummocks of laterite gossans, interesting geological features that form after iron is leached from the soil, forming a hard protective cap that prevents the underlying rock from being eroded away over the millennia.

Laterite cap near Kambada: Prosaically speaking, it's a naturally occurring heap of rusty iron.
Laterite cap near Kambada: Prosaically speaking, it’s a naturally occurring heap of rusty iron.

A little out of Kambalda there must have been a recent major change in the underlying hydrology, because for miles and miles all the trees had been reduced to bone-white sticks. I wondered if one of the many mines in this area had redirected some underground waterway into its workings, or if perhaps there had been a series of particularly dry seasons. Whatever the underlying cause, the water source seemed to have now returned, because a new layer of lush growth was springing from the base of each apparently dead tree trunk.

We will survive!
We will survive!

The road trains are longer out here; over fifty metres. If they’re coming toward you with a following wind, their bow wave can get quite uncomfortable. Nullarbor 27

Take care!
Take care!

We saw our first bit of road kill, but it was thoroughly tenderised and it wasn’t obvious what it had been. Certainly not a marsupial; maybe some kind of deer? Then we realised that there were feral goats grazing In the bush, some with horns as long as my arm. We also startled an escaped sheep, definitely of domestic vintage, but unusual in that it had retained a full tail, a very impressive sweeping arm with a fluffy pom-pom on the end.

The road goes ever on...
The road goes ever on…

The road went on, the earth became lighter in colour, but the signs to distant mines remained as prevalent as ever. We started to see what were apparently vast flats of soft mud, which ultimately joined together to form a feature called Cowan Lake which is mined for gypsum. I didn’t quite dare try to ride the motorcycle across the inviting flat surface, but clearly a number of cars had already been doing circle work and they hadn’t made much of a dent in the hard-baked clay pan.

Suddenly we were in Norseman, where a sign warned that it was 198 km to the next fuel stop (one full tank of fuel for us), and that water was scarce from now on so that we must be sure to fill up before continuing. I wanted to investigate an intermittent knocking from the bikes drive chain and there seemed to be plenty of motels to choose from, so we stopped for the night.

A motel in Norseman
A motel in Norseman

I quickly traced the knocking sound to the chain adjusters which had come loose. Fixing the problem meant loosening the rear wheel nut, and unfortunately some lazy mechanic seemed to have thrashed it on with a windy-gun instead of tightening it by hand. I hate it when they do that, as it makes roadside adjustments really difficult. Still, there were plenty of heavy rocks lying around, and by hitting it repeatedly I finally got it undone. We had booked in to the motel restaurant for dinner, and it was made quite clear that if we booked for seven, then weren’t expected to show up until seven. With an hour to kill we took a stroll around the town, which consisted mainly of a scattering of hundreds of small houses in various states of disrepair, all apparently servicing the Norseman gold mine.

The mine – and the town – have an interesting history, in that they were named after, and discovered by, a horse. The story goes that a prospector tied the horse to a tree by his brother’s tent for the night, and when he woke up he found that the horse was lame. Investigation revealed a large chunk of gold-bearing quartz lodged in Norseman’s hoof. The prospector and some friends got together and purchased the claim, and the town came into being on the site.

We wandered deeper into town, admiring the famous collection of galvanised iron camels built on the roundabout in the centre.

Galvo camels
Galvo camels

After a little more searching we finally located what seemed to be Norseman’s only pub, and met the locals. Both of them. One sat and drooled quietly onto the bar top, while another attempted repeatedly to engage us in conversation, which might have been interesting except that he had a habit of staring up into your eyes from close range, really foul breath, and a brain that seemed to be full of little more than whirring butterflies. Quickly finishing our beers, we scuttled back to the motel.

Since it was still too early for dinner, we decided to sit on the verandah of the restaurant and enjoy a pre-prandial bottle of wine. This suggestion caused great puzzlement to the waitress, who became fixated on the idea that we wanted to cancel our dinner reservation, but eventually we sorted it out and chose a bottle of elderly Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon that seemed oddly out of place in the otherwise standard selection of cheap table wines. The waitress struggled with the cork for a very long time, until I finally realised that she hadn’t even managed to get the point of the corkscrew into the wood, at which point I gently suggested that I give it a try. The bottle was thrust into my hands with alacrity, and I realised that all the others on the shelf were screw-caps. Possibly she had never before wielded a corkscrew in anger; I began to wonder just how long those bottles had been sitting there.

The wine turned out to be very good indeed, and we sat and chatted in the twilight until our food arrived. We hadn’t expected a great deal from the dinner, but even so we were still a bit surprised when my otherwise acceptable steak came with a big dollop of instant mash, and Bronwyn’s bruschetta came smothered in a slab of melted cheddar. Still, the wine was good and there was another bottle left, so I went and fetched it from behind the bar, snaffling the corkscrew on my way back to the table.

After dinner, we met Anne, our neighbour at the motel, who was travelling in the opposite direction to us. She had a bottle of white in her luggage, and we had a bottle of champagne in ours, so we got out some chairs and whiled away the rest of the evening on the verandah outside our cabins. We asked her what the road ahead of us held in store, and it turned out that her trip so far had been almost biblical, with plagues of mice, plagues of dragonflies, and a bushfire to contend with.

Out on the road next morning, we quickly found that Anne had been right about the dragonflies. Since they’re aquatic creatures, we weren’t entirely sure what they were doing out in the desert, but they slammed into the bike with dire regularity, to be picked off by cheeky crows whenever we stopped.

Have motorcycle, will travel
Have motorcycle, will travel
Norseman gold tailings
Norseman gold tailings

On the way out, we paused to gawk at the tailings heap from the still profitable gold mine, and then – watching out for flaming rodents – we rode on into the sunrise.


Golden Pipeline to Kalgoorlie

The Golden Pipeline
Living and working in Perth on the West coast of Australia, we had finally saved up enough money to get my motorbike shipped over from the East coast, where our good friend Elizabeth had been looking after it for over a year while we were off travelling. We were looking forward to using it to explore the remoter areas of our new home state.

The XJR’s arrival on the road train transporter exactly coincided with a lucrative job offer back on the East coast. We couldn’t bear the prospect of paying the road train to immediately take the bike back again, so we decided to ride East instead. Unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to get all the way to Brisbane before the start of our new contract, but we reckoned that in two weeks we could easily cross the famous Nullarbor Plain and get as far as Adelaide. We would then catch a plane for the short hop to Brisbane and ship the bike once again; prices from Adelaide to Brisbane are much lower than from Perth, because of the vast distances involved in crossing the Nullarbor.

We had intended to hit the road at lunchtime, but what with one thing and another (moving out of our Perth flat, cleaning it for the agent, shifting all our gear into storage, taking the removal van back to the hire shop) we didn’t get started until past three o’clock. Clearly it was going to be dark when we arrived at our first stop in the gold town of Kalgoorlie.

Loaded with camping gear and extra jerry cans of fuel and water, we began to make good time. Elizabeth had very kindly had the bike tuned before loading it onto the transporter in Sydney, and it was running very sweetly indeed. Although it had been years since our last motorcycle road trip, we quickly fell back into the old routine. With effectively only a single highway leading from Perth to Adelaide, we were in no danger of getting lost, but we did have to carefully plan our fuel stops. The big thirsty 1300cc engine sucked a lot of fuel, and so we could only go about 200 km on a tank, which broke the journey naturally into two-hour segments.

Ready to roll
Ready to roll

The Great Eastern Highway clambers up out of Perth and over the Darling Ranges before heading straight as an arrow across the Eastern Gold Fields to Kalgoorlie. Fuel was not a great problem on this first leg, with regular stops servicing road trains and commuting mine staff. Each petrol station doubled as a diner with varying degrees of home-cooked food. One might be a fish and chip shop, the next a traditional truckers diner, but the food was always good and the stops busy.

Once out of the Ranges, the terrain was completely flat, light woods giving way to unrelieved acres of grassland. The road was accompanied by two other man-made structures, the railway and the water pipeline. The Goldfields Pipeline is one of the engineering wonders of WA, running above ground for 530 kilometres and supplying precious water to Kalgoorlie and Boulder in the dry red interior. In the 1890s people in the burgeoning gold towns were dying from lack of water, and engineer C.Y. O’Connor spearheaded a campaign to build a pipeline from the coast. It was the longest pipeline project in the world, and needed a system of steam-driven pumping stations to force the water up over the intervening Darling Ranges. Although supported by the WA government, there was fierce opposition to what was regarded as an unfeasible waste of money. There is a story that on the the first test of the newly completed system, the engineer opened the taps, and… nothing happened. Mr O’Connor, exhausted from the stress, put a gun to his head and killed himself. The following day, the water completed its long journey and emerged from the pipe, and has been flowing ever since.

Pipeline and road trains
Pipeline and road trains

Most of the traffic in these parts consists of road trains, limited in length to 35 metres and 100 km/h and so are relatively easy to pass on the straight road, unless they are wide loads carrying mining machinery, in which case they take up most of the available space in both directions. These extra-large transporters are accompanied by groups of pilot vehicles which go ahead to warn oncoming traffic, and run interference from behind to prevent you from overtaking until the whole flotilla is ready.

Wide Load
Wide Load

There was a popular belief in Perth when we left that kangaroos were a big problem on this road at dusk, but we didn’t see a single road-kill corpse, so we took that with a large pinch of salt. We have lived in the Australian Capital Territory where the roadside can be lined with dead roos and wombats, and the stench of rotting bodies on a hot day can make you gag. The only living creature on this segment of the Great Eastern Highway was the occasional crow picking squashed bugs off the road.

As darkness fell, we ran into a swarm of bogon moths, big fat migratory insects that are regarded as a delicacy by some aboriginals. Caught in the headlights at 140 km/h, it is like heading into a swarm of soft bullets, swiftly covering your helmet visor in an impenetrable layer of sticky bug juice.

The day before we arrived, an earthquake hit the Kalgoorlie-Boulder metropolitan area, destroying much of Boulder’s historical centre, so we were a little unsure what we would find in its twin borough of Kalgoorlie. However the town seemed unscathed and business was continuing as usual and we checked into the Youth Hostel without any problems.
Most of the cheap accommodation is to be found opposite the town’s three brothels, some of which are museums by day while plying their more traditional trade after nightfall.

Questa Casa, oldest brothel in Australia
Questa Casa, oldest brothel in Australia

From there it was but a short step to the Exchange Hotel, where negligee-glad “skimpies” served us very welcome pints of frosty beverage. The skimpies are a bit of an institution in Kalgoorlie, pretty girls shipped in from outside to pull pints wearing nothing more than a continually changing set of underwear, to the appreciation of the almost exclusively male mining population. For a while there was a bit of an arms race between the pubs, until all the wait staff were going topless, but since then it has apparently settled down a bit. The girls themselves are happy and congenial, although often not enormously competent at bar work. If you want something other than a pint of cold, it is often best to approach one of the regular, more conventionally clad bar staff.

There is a lovely but little-known balcony upstairs at the Exchange, which looks out on the whole town of Kalgoorlie, and from which you can watch the parade of punters milling around the other pubs in the centre.

The Exchange Hotel
The Exchange Hotel

Everybody in Kalgoorlie is small-town friendly, and we soon ended up drinking with a mixed crowd of wiry mine engineers, Maori bouncers, and Aboriginal ne’er do wells. The night degraded appropriately into the usual debauchery; the Aboriginals started fighting each other and were ejected, and the skimpies knocked off work and joined us in the Palace Hotel across the road. Somewhere in the melee, Bronwyn’s handbag disappeared, but our kindly new friends made sure that we were alright for beers.

Back at the hostel we realised that the code for the combination lock at the entrance was stamped on the fob of our room key, which was in Bronwyn’s bag. I wandered around the outside of the building and eventually located a loose window which I managed to jemmy open so at least we were able to get inside, but no amount of fossicking with my library card was going to get us through the impressive lock into our room. Luckily there were some sofas scattered about in the corridor, so we passed out on those instead.

The morning brought a spare key and rain. We had breakfast at the excellent Kaoss Cafe in the central St Barbara Square, where the chef prepares all those out-of-style English dishes that you had forgotten about: bubble and squeak, liver and onions, mince on toast, and a host of others.

Breakfast in St Barbara Square
Breakfast in St Barbara Square

We strolled gently around town, interspersed with coffee and cake in an attempt to clear the mental fug. The rock museum at the Western Australian School of Mines is exactly what a museum should be. No shiny plastic and multimedia presentations here. The cabinets are scarred wood and glass and a little dusty, the exhibits labelled by hand on cardboard squares containing either a detailed technical explanation, a single terse word, or nothing at all, depending on the whim of the curator at the time.

The collection houses a representative sample of every rock, mineral and gemstone found in the Eastern Goldfields, with special prominence given to the different forms of ore that are so crucial to the wealth of Western Australia. This is not a museum for idle onlookers, this is a serious tool for the fledgling geologist. Pride of place, of course, goes to the models of the biggest gold nuggets found in the early days of the gold rush, some a foot or so across and containing a thousand or more ounces of gold and silver.

Tossing up whether to stay another night or ride off in the rain, we eventually paid a last visit to the Exchange Hotel to see whether they’d found Bronwyns hand bag (they hadn’t), mounted the bike and headed east.

Bright Postie gear didn't stop the rain
Bright Postie gear didn’t stop the rain

Kalgoorlie Super-Pit
On the way out of town is the Kalgoorlie Superpit, another of those technological marvels that are scattered around a state used to doing things big. Historically, gold here was mined by individual lease-holders digging shafts with little more than dynamite and a shovel, and in the early twentieth century the landscape was littered with derricks and processing sheds. Eventually there came a point where it was uneconomic for a man and a spade to dig any deeper, and entrepreneur and con-man Alan Bond came up with a plan to buy up every single mining lease and then dig an enormous pit to extract every last ounce of gold.

Bond’s business failed, but the block of mining leases was taken up by another company, KCGM, who went ahead and dug the biggest gold mine in the world. The pit is truly enormous, and aircraft landing at Kalgoorlie-Boulder Airfield now have to detour around it because it creates a huge hole in the atmosphere above. We had originally bought tickets for a tour of the mine, but this had been cancelled because of the earthquake, and we had been told that even the public viewing gallery on the top of the spoil heaps had been closed for safety reasons.

Bronwyn finds a bigger shovel
Bronwyn finds a bigger shovel

As we rolled past in a light drizzle we noticed that the gate was now open, so we rode up the hill and took a look. The mine, usually buzzing with enormous machines crawling in the stupendous space like ants, was eerily quiet, so presumably they were still running tests; we’d heard that they were going to dynamite some possibly unsafe areas that afternoon, so maybe that’s why most of the machinery had been removed. Despite the quiet, it was still a really impressive hole in the ground. Here and there up the pit wall were tiny caverns, representing the tunnels dug by the original miners, now exposed as the superpit expands downwards and outwards.

KCGM Superpit, Kalgoorlie
KCGM Superpit, Kalgoorlie. Look out for the enormous mining machinery at the bottom.

Back on the Goldfields Highway, it was only 300 km to Norseman, gateway to the Nullarbor. We stopped about half way in the mining village of Kambalda, partially to refuel but mainly to get some sugar as I was still having some trouble concentrating through my hangover. Next to the petrol station was the mining village itself, a community of tiny cabanas for the use of shift workers at the mine. The cabanas themselves were extremely small, with probably only space to sleep and bathe, but the site was pin-neat and equipped with a pool and a bar.

Kambalda miner's accommodation
Kambalda miner’s accommodation

At about this time, I discovered that there was a message on my telephone, from Bronwyn’s mobile. The staff at the Exchange had found her hand bag, complete with wallet, phone and money, and had rung the most recently used number in an attempt to get hold of her. In fact the bag had not been stolen at all, but had been picked up by an overzealous bouncer while we were looking the other way. We turned around and headed back, picked up the hand bag and, reasoning that it was (a) late, (b) still raining and (c) we already had a room key, returned to the Youth Hostel for another night. The Nullarbor could wait one more day.

A Postie in Perth

I came across a wonderful opportunity to train as a postman, which is a job that I have always thought that I would enjoy. For non-Australians, you need to know that postmen here do their rounds entirely by motorcycle, riding directly to each houses letterbox across lawns and kerbs and pavements. Its a subsistence-level position, but all you need to qualify is a clean motorcycle license and no criminal record, and you get to spend a lot of time outside making people happy.

I duly started the training course, which included two interesting days being introduced to the “postie bike”, which is made specially by Honda for Australia Post. At heart it is a CT130 step-through, but it has some interesting refinements, including side-stands on both sides, a hand brake, and a clutchless gear box that will idle in any gear. We had to pass a number of tests, including U-turns in deep sand and negotiating driveways, kerbs and foliage in order to access letterboxes in high and low positions.

There were ten of us in all, from a variety of backgrounds, but about half of us were grizzled veterans of some other business who were looking for a job that was more fun and involved less idiots. Following extensive weaving-in-and-out-of-the-cones, and after some slight problems mastering emergency stops using 1970s-style cable-and-drum brakes, we all passed the test.

Postie Unleashed!
Postie Unleashed!

The job itself is simple but fun. I arrive each day at 6 am and start to sort my letters into the 1200 or so addresses on my route. This can take anything from three to six hours, depending largely on whether it is a bill or magazine day for one or more companies. There are dozens off us packed into a large warehouse, all doing the same thing, and the jokes and ribaldry fly thick and fast.

Sorting Frame
Sorting Frame

Then I load my motorcycle with as many letters as it can carry, and put the rest of them in a van which will leave them at a drop somewhere on my route. Off I potter to my first drop, and then I follow the same route every day, getting slightly faster with every daily iteration.

Australian letter boxes are not typically attached to houses, they are mostly some kind of box or structure at the end of the garden, at least theoretically accessible by motorcycle. We are permitted to ride on the pavements and verges and, depending on where the builders (in their infinite wisdom) decided to put the darn thing, often find ourselves riding in deep sand, gravel, bark chippings, flower beds, freshly rolled lawns, and so forth. The idea is to not actually ride on peoples’ lawns if we can help it, but as often as not I find myself approaching a pristine turf of bowling-green calibre, in the very centre of which has been built a letter box. It’s summertime at the moment, and my bike treads lightly; it will be interesting to see what happens in the rain.

You’d think that there would be some regulation size or position for a letter box, but there is not. Unfortunately this means that a great many of them are completely unsuitable for the delivery of mail, whether by motorcycle or otherwise. Its not just the physical location, although some of them are built at ankle-height which makes for some interesting gymnastics. No, the real problem is that for some reason that is buried in history, the default slot size chosen by almost all builders is about one brick wide and a couple of millimetres shorter than the width of a standard business-letter envelope. By far the greater number of these small boxes are built into a wall, so there is little chance of ever fixing the problem.

Typical Perth letter boxes
Typical Perth letter boxes

The structure pictured here is typical of the breed (note also the excitingly random distribution of house numbers on this example).
It is actually impossible to post a standard letter through such a slot, without first folding it in half or screwing it up into a sort of tube. The slot is typically made of rough-cast brick or cement, and tears the edges off both the letter and your fingers as you push it through.
Imagine the fun that I have with A4 envelopes and glossy magazines! Especially when, as is usually the case, some bozo has come along the night before and has stuffed the whole thing full of advertising leaflets for cheap barbecue utensils.

Margaret River

A pleasant night at a vineyard B&B, and an equally pleasant morning chatting with the owner, a retired butcher, who cooked us some excellent sausages and answered all my presumably dumb questions about the rammed earth from which buildings hereabouts are constructed.

Heartbreak Trail

Looking around for another challenge after descending the Bicentennial Tree, I saw a roadsign that said something like “Heartbreak Trail blah blah prohibited blah blah dangerous”. This was obviously the direction that we needed to go.

Much of the soil in this area consists of marble-sized clay balls. The local construction method of ‘rammed earth’ involves mixing these balls with a little cement and pouring it into a form to build, well, just about anything. The thickness and air-gaps make for a good insulating layer, and the striking red colour blends into the equally ruddy landscape.

I was interested to know how these little red marbles felt under the wheels, so off we rode into the bush.

The GS performed admirably, and the riding position, which had been pretty uncomfortable on the road, started to make sense on the dirt. The marbles weren’t anywhere near as awkward as, say, dry sand, and we had a very pretty tour of some deep forest with pristine waterfalls. It was here that we discovered that the wind that blows off the Southern Ocean is so laden with salt that the rivers in this region are slightly saline. Possibly this is the reason that this is the area for catching marrons, billed as the third largest crayfish in the world.

Eventually the dirt petered out into tarmac, and we trundled along at a steady 140 through endless forests until, with some shock, we came out amongst crowds of tourists in the town of Margaret River.

Margaret River

There seemed to be more people in this tiny little one-horse town than we had seen in our entire time in Western Australia. Margaret River is not unlike many such attractions, in that there is no real reason to go there apart from the fact that everybody does. Most such towns have had to build something as an excuse, such as the Worlds Largest Prawn / Trout / Merino Sheep / Playable Guitar, but we looked in vain for anything resembling a Worlds Largest Drinkable Bottle of Wine. Instead, we picked up a few supplies, and headed to the Island Brook Estate Vineyard, where we had booked accommodation for the night.

The chalets at the vineyard were superb, set in complete privacy deep in old-growth forest, and surrounded by mature black boys* (*for non-Australians, a black boy is a kind of grassy palm (Xanthorrhoea) that is designed to be burned by bush fires at regular intervals)

After a very pleasant wine-tasting, we enjoyed drinking our purchases with barbecued steaks, on the deck under the stars.

A beautiful blue morning was heralded by the fluting of bush birds. The calls of these western lorikeets and cockatoos seemed much less raucous and more pleasant than those of their eastern counterparts (or maybe it was the wine). Under foot, the bush was alive with tiny flitting insectivores. It was perfect for a long walk before breakfast.

Mammoth Cave

Cave Road runs the entire length of the Margaret River peninsula, just a few vineyards away from the sea. It is named for the enormous caves at the southern end; Jewel Cave, Lake Cave, and Mammoth Cave. It can be hard to get a ticket to get in, but we managed a tour of Mammoth, so called because of its awesome size. Its a heavy tourist site, along prepared walkways with recorded guides on headphones, but well worth the visit.

These caves were not formed by the usual erosion of limestone, but instead by water trickling through sand dunes, forming a crusty cap over the underlying water table. The ceiling regularly collapses, which means that the floor is liberally scattered with the remains of overhead stalactites. All very impressive.

Canal Rocks

Further up Cave Road, a promontory of colourful gneiss has been eroded into a series of channels by the sea. These channels form a maze of rock walls, resulting in an impressive swirl of water as every incoming wave tries to force its way along the narrow canals. It is very unusual and quite beautiful.

Busselton Pier

After a hot but very interesting walk around Naturaliste Point, our tour of the peninsula ended at Busselton, which boasts The Longest Pier in The Southern Hemisphere. At almost 2km, the pier is the result of an arms-race between the need to service ore carriers, and the silting caused by the pier itself. The longer the pier got, the more it trapped sand and silted up, until finally the whole thing was destroyed by a cyclone.

Most of it has since been rebuilt, but parts of the old pier are still visible, particularly at the far end, where they have built a sort of reverse aquarium where you can climb down into a large tank and watch the fish go by. We gave that a miss, as we have scuba dived under many piers and the aquarium was pretty crowded, but the pier itself made a very pleasant walk.

For much of its length, the pier was lined with fishermen, some of whom were bringing up large cuttlefish which made an incredible inky mess. One nice touch was a line of memorial plaques to past residents who had, apparently, spent their lives fishing here.

We spent some time watching a large Chinese family who were reeling in lines and crab pots with such dedication that it looked as if they were provisioning their restaurant for the evening; perhaps they were, because there certainly seemed to be no shortage of fish.

The pier had a very pleasant feel to it. Apparently there used to be a train that ran for much of its length, but it seemed that it had broken down one time too many, and the warped and twisted tracks now just gave one more reason to keep careful watch of your step when the pier narrowed, as it occasionally did, to just a couple of metres wide.

Journey’s End

It was time to return our rented GS to Bike Round Oz, so we rode back to the Darling Range, thanked Mark effusively, and boarded a commuter train into Perth.

We’d thoroughly enjoyed all the wines that Margaret River had had to offer, but it was time for a change of beverage, so after dumping our gear into a convenient backpacker’s, we repaired to the Brass Monkey, where we addressed ourselves to the Matilda Bay ales from the comfort of deep leather armchairs. Tomorrow we would explore Perth, but tomorrow was another day.

From Cortina to Venice to Siena


Dropping out of the Grossglockner Pass down to Cortina, we successfully located a bank machine, and began looking for a hotel. Since I’d just made myself a millionaire – last chance before the coming of the Euro! – it seemed only sensible to stay at the best place in town. A Hotel de Poste valet fought for the privilege of being driven by Helga to the parking lot, while the manager ushered the bikes into the vaults beneath the hotel. The rooms’ jacuzzis eased away the aches of the day, and, through the window, the jagged peaks of the Dolomites rocked to the lights of an electric storm. All it needed was some Barolo and Chianti to end a perfect day.

Helga had become adept at picking superb biking roads from the map, and the next day she excelled herself. Patrick and I thrashed our bikes unmercifully, and soon, having regularly redlined in every gear, I began at last to regard the XJR as being fully run-in. After a mind-bending run down to Belluno, we got onto the autovia to Venice, riding in delta formation behind the Alfa, and making occasional forays into the distance whenever we felt the urge.

We weren’t actually heading for Venice itself, but for the Lido de Jesolo, a long thin peninsula that curves around to a point just short of the canal city. The promontary is one long beach packed with campsites, equipped with a regular ferry service into Venice itself, and we soon found ourselves a suitable berth in amongst a load of caravans.


The following morning saw us all crammed into the Spider for the short hop to the ferry, and we spent a pleasant morning ambling around the Venetian side-streets and back-alleys. The stripy-shirted gondola touts were out in force, and when we happened on a small fleet of particularly fine gondolas under the Rialto Bridge, we stopped and asked how long we got for our no doubt exorbitant fee. “Ah, said the gondoleer, we prefer-a not to think in-a terms of time. We think in-a terms of experience. You want-a the short trip, the medium trip, or the long trip?”

For 300,000 lire (about GBP 100), we took the long trip. Patrick and Helga were ensconced in some style on a padded throne, while JP and myself sprawled out at the sharp end. The man had promised to take us to corners where nobody else went, and we were somewhat surprised to find him true to his word. From the crowded main thoroughfares, where fleets of overladen gondolas jammed end-to-end with coachloads of tourists jostled for space with bargeloads of vegetables, we slipped smoothly into a maze of cathedral-silent canals backing onto old Venetian palaces, cruising the vivid green water and quietly wondering at things in hushed tones so as not to disturb the peace. It was quite a magical experience, and in the end the gondolier was right, we had no idea how long wed spent on the water, but all of it had been thoroughly enjoyable.

Back on land, the day was hotting up and the crowds were thickening. An hour-long queue snaked around the heat-bowl of San Marco on the way into the Doges Palace, so we jumped on a ferry bound for the Lido to see what was there. The answer appeared to be not much, but we had a fine time sitting at a streetside bar and watching the girls go by, until finally wending our way back to the ferry and to our sandy home.

On the beach was a bar restaurant which boasted an internet cafe, and since I was not only in the process of arranging an email mortgage but was also hoping for a job offer in the sun, I thought Id give it a go. Sitting only metres from the sand, I fired up the PC as the beautiful barmaid brought me the first beer of the night. This, I thought, is the life. But sadly, it was not to be. I couldn’t get a connection, whatever I tried. The barmaid poked heroically at it for a while, and then declared with pretty gestures that she’d have to call the expert. This worthy duly emerged, drying his hands, from the kitchen where he’d been washing dishes. He clicked on a few icons and then stood back, shaking his head. “Is-a the internet,” he explained, “sometimes it-a work, sometimes it-a not work. Try tomorrow?”


The following day saw us hammering down the autostrada towards Firenze. The truckers all loved the chick in the red sports car, and pumped their horns manfully, although they couldn’t quite work out what to make of the two powerful motorcycles hovering protectively by her back bumper. The sun was very bright and we were all wearing sunglasses, which became problematical in the frequent dimly lit tunnels, where all we could see were the faint disembodied glow-worms of tail-lights floating in the air before us. Still, we made it through alive, and at last Patrick guided us off into the wilderness toward Imprunetta, where he knew of an agrituristico where maybe we could get a room.

Theoretically, this is a kind of working farm where you can stay, but the Agriturismo Vecchio Borgo di Inalbi is a far cry from a farmhouse B&B. Exquisite little terracotta-tiled apartments are scattered amongst olive groves, the whole set in a chianti vinyard and supplied with a restaurant and swimming pools. Over dinner, we soon discovered that although the food and service, although passable, weren’t exactly cordon bleu, the wine was out of this world. Discarding the suggested carafes, we insisted on their best, a rich thick dark 1998 Chianti, which (to their evident delight) we proceeded to drink by the crate for the duration of our stay.

Tuscany is made for motorbikes. Stripped down to the barest minimum of protective clothing – the temperature was in the forties – Patrick and I howled around the local roads, grinning like maniacs, while Helga and JP lounged by the pool. Occasionally we’d stop in some tiny bar for a cooling ice tea or perfect Italian coffee, being politely ignored by unsmiling men nursing a plate of sausage and something in a small glass. In the towns and villages, children would point at the bikes. Strangely, they would dismiss the exotic but Italian-made Ducati, and would stare in awe at the XJR until they could make out the badge, upon which they would stare wonderingly at each other and breathlessly exclaim, “Yamaha!”


One evening we all visited nearby Siena, a marvellous maze of steeply sloping alleyways clustered about a vivid green-and-white striped cathedral and of course the huge bowl-shaped Piazza del Campo, the finish line for the bi-annual Palio, the famous bare-backed horse race through the town.

We arrived at the Piazza in twilight, just as the pavement cafes were lighting the candles, and we sat and watched the people taking an evening stroll or simply sitting and absorbing the atmosphere.

The chef of the back street restaurant that we chose had won the Palio in 1967, and such is the respect that this engenders that, when we asked, the waiters discuss it in hushed tones, beneath walls filled with pictures of his triumph.

They take the Palio seriously in Siena.

The Grossglockner Pass

Munich (Germany)

It all started in Munich. Helga, her young son Jean-Paul and I all drove to Patrick’s place in preparation for our week or so in Italy. Considering that we’d just spent six hours on the road, and were planning to spend much of the foreseeable future driving, Helga and JP did the sensible thing and went to bed. Come midnight, of course, Patrick and I were sitting under the Maximillian statue in downtown Munich, hoping that a friend would eventually turn up and show us where the party was at. Sure enough, at one in the morning he eventually decanted from a taxi and took us to a wonderful rave in what appeared to be an old school, where we danced and watched the girls until the sun came up.

Only then did we set off, a somewhat bizarre convoy of Patricks Ducati 748, my fully laden XJR 1200, and Helga and JP in Patrick’s recently restored Alfa Spider.

We were supposed to be doing the long haul to Venice, but what with all the fun we had burning around the mountains in the sun, and time out for an impromptu dip in the lake at Achsen, we decided to make for our familiar ski-resort of Zell am See instead.

Zell am See (Austria)

Patrick and I were having a fantastic ride, ranging ahead of the car and racing each other and everybody else up and down the mountains, pausing every now and then to catch our breath and wait for Helga to catch up. It was wonderful, and we arrived content but thirsty at a campsite close to Zell, where we were delighted to find that the bar was open.

Several beers later we got around to having some food, and then, just as we were getting stuck in to the post-prandial refreshment, we realised that (a) we didn’t have any Austrian cash, and (b) they didn’t accept Visa. No matter. Leaving the others at the table, Helga and I nipped into town in the Spider, where my cash card put the machine into such a flurry that it had to reboot. Warily we tried a second machine with Patrick’s card, which Helga happened to have with her, and luckily it behaved long enough to give us some Schillings. Hurrah! We set off for the campsite… only to realise that we were now thoroughly lost.

After about an hour of driving around in the dark, visiting several campsites on the way, we began to laugh at the thought of poor Patrick, sitting in the bar with JP, while I was cruising around in his sports car with his girl and his credit card. To put his mind at rest, we called his mobile… which began to ring quietly in his jacket in the boot of the car. We turned into yet another darkened campsite. The fuel began to run out. Fortunately, after some furious backtracking, we made it back to the correct site, to find JP entertaining the (now off-duty) waiter with his comic book while Patrick desperately searched the tents for spare change. All in all we were too exhausted to stay for the live band, and crept, embarrassed, to bed.

The next day we decided to take the famous Grossglockner Hochalpenstrasse into Italy, but before we got anywhere near it, we found ourselves inexplicably drawn to the ski rental store on the Kaprun glacier. It was blazing hot in the middle of summer, and the surface of the glacier was awash with slush, but it was simply such a ridiculous idea that we just had to go skiing.

By lunchtime, though, the glacier was so wet that it was like skiing a blancmange, so we handed back our ski equipment and set off once again for the Grossglockner.

Weirdly, although the toll booths accepted just about any form of cash, they didn’t take credit cards, so we had to part with almost all of our notes and coins in a medley of different currencies just to get onto the pass. However, it was well worth it; the road was great fun and the views excellent. We stopped for nothing, not even photographs, and coming down the other side, Patrick and I just let go and rode completely balls-out.

About half way down the switchback mountain road, I became aware of the smell of burning rubber. As I overtook the next half-dozen cars and slammed into yet another hairpin, I noticed that the smell was getting stronger and I began to wonder just how hot my brakes were getting. A couple more cars dropped by, and suddenly I could see smoke, and then began to grin because now I could see the flames, too. Id tucked in behind a large German family packed into an elderly Opel, and I crept forward to knock on the window. What? shouted the children in the back as neck and neck we negotiated the next curve. Your wheel’s on fire! I yelled, in German. And it was, too.

Much later, the mountains spat us out onto a beautiful section of freshly made road, running through forested foothills and valleys, rolling us eventually into the pretty Italian town of Cortina.


I got on my motorbike one sunny Thursday and headed for Oostende, a couple of hours’ ride from den Haag in Holland. The theory was that I’d meet up with Lisa who was bringing her bike over from England on the SeaCat, and we’d camp up in nearby Brugge and meet a dozen or so other bikers on Friday morning. We would all then head off for the annual MAG Eurodemo, which this year was to be held in Bonn.


I arrived in Oostende (severely sore: the road from Antwerp to Brugge is probably the worst piece of tarmac in Christendom) and parked up outside the ferry terminal, noting the serendipitous proximity of an al fresco alehouse complete with electric heaters to take the chill off the evening. Settled into a comfortable chair, glass in hand, I switched on my phone and received no less than four urgent messages from Lisa. Apparently the SeaCat had broken down (again; it does this with monotonous regularity) and the best that P&O could do was to put Lisa and all the other motorbikes onto a hovercraft which was bound for Calais, in another country and about an hour’s ride away.

By the time Lisa arrived in Oostende, the night was well advanced, but we managed to blag the last food from the kitchen, and discovered that the bar (the oldest in Oostende, so it claimed), had rooms to rent, so we settled in with a vengeance, deliberately ordering glasses of Kriek and Kwak because it sounded good when the waitress shouted it across the bar.

A Nut Loose in Bitburg

The next morning we completed a leisurely breakfast and then discovered that the SeaCat was still broken, so we abandoned the wait for our friends and set off for the Eurodemo campsite. This was only three hours away so we took it easy, but after looking around the town of Bitburg (which I wanted to visit simply because it made the beer that is named after it), I found that the front sprocket nut had vanished from my bike and the actual sprocket had fallen off, instantly turning the whole machine from a useful means of transportation into just so many motionless parts. It was getting on for closing time so I left Lisa to look after the pile of bits and rode her bike in search of repairs, on the basis that I speak German and she doesn’t.

A Mercedes garage pointed me in the direction of a Toyota garage (on the basis that they were as Japanese as the Yamaha and therefore probably had non-metric nuts), but on the way I stopped at a Suzuki Jeep garage where a bemused lady receptionist – the only person there – let me in to the workshops to see if I could find anything that looked useful, but sadly to no avail.

At the Toyota garage I met their mechanic, who was just going home, but after discovering that he didn’t have anything remotely like the sprocket nut that I was looking for he borrowed a car from the showroom and took me to a nearby Honda dealer. Sadly, no dice (Hondas don’t have sprocket nuts), but the Honda people reckoned that there was a motorcycle shop in a nearby town that might have one.

A phone call revealed that (a) they had one but (b) they were going home, but if I could be there in fifteen minutes then it was mine. Swiftly we returned to the Toyota garage, where I put Lisa’s bike back together (I’d taken it apart to show the mechanic what I needed) and headed out. It was about 20 miles and I had good directions, but sadly they did not include the roadworks diversion, so I didn’t get there in time. However, stuck to the door was a post-it directing me to the owner’s house, but he’d been looking out for me and showed up waving happily, and soon I was back on the road, complete with a new set of directions and a nice shiny new sprocket nut in my pocket.

Back at my own bike there was no sign of Lisa, but I got on with fitting the new nut, only to find that the spindle thread was too knackered to tighten the nut by hand. At about this time, Lisa emerged from a nearby pub with a large number of Germans who had discovered her asleep by the bike and, discovering our predicament, were ringing around their friends trying to find us a suitable nut. Finding that I now had a nut but no 32mm spanner (after all, who does?) they then phoned all their friends again and amazingly produced one with the requisite tool.

Sadly, however, the thread was too knackered even with the correct instrument, so Lisa went back to her beers and I scratched my head. At some point in the foregoing, Lisa had managed to get into telephone contact with our friends who had now arrived in Germany and were strangely enough just entering Bitburg themselves. Soon they all turned up too and scratched their collective head in the time-honoured manner until I gave up and did what I always do, to whit, cobbled something together out of a beer can and bits scavenged from the nearest bin. I figured that it would get me to the camp site, and I’d worry about sorting the thread out in the morning.

Off we set, following our friends who knew exactly where they were going. The Road to… Bonn? Time passed, and the roads became curiously mountainous with interesting hairpins. The altitude increased and we passed a road sign that looked suspiciously like a border sign for Luxembourg, and the guy we were following finally stopped and admitted that he’d been reading the map upside down and we were 180 degrees out of phase with our intended route…

My sorely abused chain had been getting slightly irritable on all these mountain curves, so I enquired of a passing local (who was attempting to pass rather quickly; it was after dark in a small village and there were lots of large rumbling motorcycles with large foreigners rumbling angrily to each other…) and discovered that there were no less than three camp sites within 500 metres, and two garages. Leaving the others to make their own way to Paris, Lisa and I stopped for the night and were so exhausted that we slept ’til midday.

Emerging to greet the day, we discovered that it was half-day closing and all the garages were shut. Enquiries pinned down a couple of open garages, especially a Hyundai garage in the next town. Again I caught the mechanic just as he was intending to go home, but he was happy to tighten up my new nut for me. Ten minutes later, after ever so carefully easing it on with the absolute minimum of force, we sat looking at yet another ruined nut. The thread on the spindle was just too knackered. The mechanic thought for a bit, then said that he was hungry and needed some lunch, but after that he would nip round his friend’s house and borrow a thread-cutter and meet me back at the garage (which had now closed for the weekend).

An hour later he returned, sans thread-cutter but with a hardened steel file, with which he proceeded to laboriously cut a new thread for me, by hand, using the in-gear, running, hoisted-up back wheel as a lathe. Well, I was impressed. Another hour, and I was back on the road again, leaving behind a considerable amount of gratitude and a fistful of beer money.

Vianden, Luxembourg

That night we discovered that the village that we were in was actually the outlying part of a town called Vianden, right in the heart of the Deutsch-Luxembergischer Naturpark and surely the most beautiful town in Luxembourg, set in a dammed gorge and overlooked by an impressive castle on an outcrop projecting from the tree line.

A pleasant walk up and down the main cobbled street soon revealed a plethora of flower-bedecked restaurants. Eventually we chose one of them (no mean feat!) and had an excellent meal, eventually weaving our somewhat inebriated way back over the river to the camp site. We stayed for another day too, taking the chairlift up the sides of the valley to look down on the castle, and going for madcap burns around the mountain roads, most of which seemed to be named after Victor Hugo, to whom memorials are ubiquitous, and one of which lead mysteriously through a large field of cannabis plants.

The following day, having fond memories of our last visit to the capital, we set off for Luxembourg city, which was every bit as beautiful as we remembered it. We spent an extremely pleasant day wandering around the warrens of switchback paths and tunnels that climb up and down the sides of the lush green gorge that splits the city. Definitely my favourite European city.

Almost a Full Meal in Hellenthal

After the success of our stay in one national park, we headed for another, the Deutsch-Belgischer. However, even though this too was quite beautiful, it did have a serious lack of camp sites. The only ones that we could find were rather dire caravan parks on the outskirts of unattractive modern towns, and we were looking for another Vianden. Later and later into the night we rode, until eventually, after a couple more caravan parks (all of whom had closed their gates at dusk) we encountered a tiny camp site on the outskirts of Hellenthal which was mysteriously deserted of staff and customers, but which sported a small green field and a clean and functioning toilet block.

We had spotted glimpses of a beautiful mediaeval village high above us as we descended into the valley, so after pitching the tent we climbed wearily back onto our bikes and set off again, desperate for something to eat. Luckily for us there was a small restaurant at the base of the town, so we climbed out of our waterproofs and stumbled in, to be greeted by an extremely friendly staff who gave the impression that they’d been sitting waiting all evening just for the pleasure of serving us.

About half way through the second course, when we had taken the edge off the worst of our hunger and were beginning to think in terms of making a night of it, it began to percolate through to our awareness that we hadn’t seen a single Visa symbol anywhere in the restaurant. Discreet enquiries revealed that they didn’t accept plastic of any sort, and although we had Belgian francs aplenty we were pretty low on Deutschmarks; we hadn’t intended to camp on this side of the border but had accidentally wandered across while searching for somewhere to stay. Luckily we had exactly enough German cash to pay for what we had already eaten plus a small tip, so we halted our meal, handed over everything we had, and departed rather abruptly into the night.

The next morning, after a pleasant night’s sleep, we still couldn’t find anybody to pay so we packed up and headed back up to the village, whose name I have forgotten but which began with an R.

All The Best Things Start With R

It turned out to be an ancient fortified town from the 1700s, virtually untouched since mediaeval times and extremely well kempt. All the houses were spotlessly white, all the graves in the graveyard were beautifully tended with burning candles, the church bells rang out merrily across the valley, and a hushed aura of history pervaded the air. We stayed for a long time, poking around behind houses and in the dungeons of the ruined castle, which curiously enough was being rebuilt by two cheerful men on a scaffold tower. They had built up to around thirty feet from the original foundations and showed no signs of stopping, and why would they? Perched on top of the world in the sunshine, the whole of Germany laid out in a patchwork below, they carefully laid stone upon ancient stone and rebuilt the past.

Riding to Utrecht

The time had come for me to leave my home country of England, and seek my fortune overseas. I secured a work contract in the mediaeval Dutch city of Utrecht, and – having no further ties – swung my leg over my motorcycle and headed for the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone.

The Channel Tunnel

The Chunnel train looked very French, big corrugated metal slab-sided carriages with tiny windows. I am the only biker in a queue of cars, and an official in a bright yellow jacket waved me to one side and continued to guide each car into one of two doors set into the side of the train, one leading to an upper deck and one to a lower. Every now and then he made twisting motions with both hands to indicate that a motorist should turn their lights off, but I can’t see why.

Evidently I will be the last vehicle to board. The official grins sympathetically as I put my feet up on the handlebars and lie back, watching the rain dripping off my visor. At the last moment another bike appears, a two-up British Kwak Harley-a-like, all chrome and leather. The official drags an orange trolley out of hiding and places it on the floor of the last carriage. It has widely spread arms that lie flat on either side to stop it from falling over, and two swivel-mounted cups that are meant to hold the tyre. The cruiser noses its front wheel into the first cup, and the official guides the other into place, neatly holding the entire bike upright. Within moments my own bike is similarly secured, and I look at it curiously, wondering how they are going to get it out again.

A pretty French blonde appears, similarly encased in bright yellow, and checks that we have left the bikes in gear. I wander off to find a toilet – the doors between the carriages have electronic locks controlled by illuminated orange buttons which take several seconds to unlock the manually-pushed doors – and before I know it we are moving. A number of public announcements are made in French and English, repeated in both languages on overhead illuminated scrolling signs. I strike up a conversation with the other bikers, who are travelling to Antwerp and thus in my direction. He was originally Flemish but now lives in England; his partner, a tiny dark girl with a big smile and curious marks on each cheek, was originally from South America. They warn me that there is no petrol for 60 miles after you get off the train, but I have ample in the tank. They plan to stop and eat at their usual place just outside Brugge, and I think that it might be worth staying with them for the company on the road.

Now in France, all the connecting doors between the carriages are opened and the vehicles roll out along the body of the train and out the front (where did the engine go?) into the drizzle. Unloading the bikes is very straightforward, as the trolleys just spit us out when they are rolled away. Nice design, top marks.

Riding through Belgium in the rain

Up the familiar coast road, following the Kwak, which puts on a good 130kph pace, about what I would have chosen myself, though it can’t have been much fun for them with their open-face helmets. At the border with Belgium, the rain began in earnest, and I was glad to have plastic gloves on underneath my leather ones. An hour later and my boots started to fill up with water, absorbed through the leather and goretex by the onslaught of the weather.The Brugge services eventually appear, and just as we are about to cut across the four lanes leading to the exit, there is a huge bang from the Kwak and orange flames shoot toward me from their exhaust. They have run out of petrol, and I slow quickly to push if need be, but by weaving from side to side they find some vapour in the pipes and make it into a service station.

We sit and chew steak and talk about this and that, and I muse that it doesn’t really matter which country I’m in, I dont even have to know or care because everybody takes Visa. But then I want to go to the toilet, and sheepishly have to borrow BFr10 because I havent got any change to placate the large dragon lady guarding the entrance.

Outside the windows of the cafe, the rain gets heavier. We fill up with fuel and say our goodbyes, because even though I’ll be following them for another hour to Antwerp, they will be turning off at their journeys end and I’ll still have another hour to go to get to Utrecht.

Riding through Holland in the rain

As I leave Belgium and pass the signs for the Netherlands, the rain eases off a little. I smile to myself, although my shoulders are now stiff and the rain has made its way through my silk scarf and it is chafing my neck. Just out of Utrecht I stop, ostensibly for petrol but in actual fact to consult the map, because I really haven’t a clue where I’m going. Once stopped, though, I realise that I’m really cold, and sit for several minutes just staring at the petrol pumps revelling in the lack of motion and the protection afforded by the canopy overhead. Presumably I am on camera somewhere because a puzzled-looking blond beard appears at the window of the kiosk, but a look of understanding crosses his face when I wave vaguely in a gesture indicating the heavens, the bike, and the general condition of the world in general.

Inside, I forced my crabbed fingers to forge some resemblance to my Visa signature, and the bearded angel asked, “Would you like a coffee?” Would I! A nice steaming freshly brewed black coffee to wrap my hands around while I consult the map. I didn’t have a street map of Utrecht, just a fuzzy aerial view downloaded from the Web and a Michelin map of the local area purchased on the way over. My only clue for orientation is a distinctively shaped spaghetti junction which I hope I can recognise from the ground, in the rain, in the dark.

As usual I find that trusting to luck and not getting worried about the fact that I don’t even have the phone number of the hotel pays off, and before long I’m chugging up Donderstraat to the converted apartment building that is the Hotel Ouwi.

First night in Utrecht

I stand for a while in a scalding shower and then wander into town at 8pm, marvelling at all the canals. The streets are full of young couples, and despite the somewhat labyrinthine nature of the dark alleyways that criss-cross the centre, I feel perfectly safe. The only place that makes me a little uneasy is a big shopping centre called Hoog Catherijne next to the train station, where there seem to be some unsavoury characters hanging out, although nobody bothers me. Eventually I find a cash machine and get some Guilders. On the way back to the hotel I look in through the windows of lots of bars and restaurants, and everybody seems to be having a good time, though I’m starting to feel lonely and don’t feel much like sitting on my own. However, the last one that I pass is a Firkin pub, complete with English-style beer pumps, and I can’t resist it and go in.The staff are friendly and I stay for a couple of pints, just watching people and listening to music (apparently the bitter is brewed in den Haag), until I get up for a final pee.

In the gents I meet a New Zealander called Brett, and one thing leads to another and I find myself wandering from bar to bar with him and his four Dutch friends, finally rolling into bed at about half past one. Breakfast comes with the room and is a nice mixture of continental breads, ham, cheese, a boiled egg and a yoghurt. The toast is curious because it has Good Morning branded into it, presumably by the toaster. After several hours of walking I discover the whereabouts of my new office, a mere 15 minutes walk away along tow-paths and through a little nature reserve. Everybody else is either cycling or jogging; from the looks that I get from passersby and car passengers, walking is a suspicious activity and people who indulge in it are probably up to no good. Note to self: must buy a bicycle.

Schwarzwald and Titisee

Motorcycling through Germany, we were headed for the Schwarzwald, or Black Forest. Rain threatened and we put on our waterproofs, but the promised precipitation never came, although the hills of the Schwarzwald faded into cloud ahead. On a small side-road near Baden-Baden we branched off into the woods and set up camp in a small glade. Since the midges were active, we set up a spare flysheet as an insect-proof porch and picnicked on pickled herrings and bratwurst, washed down with olives, gherkins, Mosel wine, and beer. It was a very comfortable night, despite the rather lumpy ground. There’s a lot to be said for camping by a babbling brook.

Baden-Baden appeared to have turned itself into a tourist trap. There was a bewildering array of signs pointing to hotels and car parks, but none pointing to useful things such as the Roman baths after which the town is named, so we escaped along a tourist road invitingly called the Schwarzwaldhochstrasse – the Black Forest High Road.

It got colder as we gained altitude, and the forest got very thick and dark (surprise surprise!). We took a short walk in the gloom to a nice little waterfall and back, and then after a series of winding roads with vistas over blue-shrouded hills, stopped for lunch at a crowded little cafe on the outskirts of Freudenstadt. Bypassing Freudenstadt we took another minor road into Triberg, full of tourists and cuckoo clocks. We couldn’t resist experiencing the immense roadside shop ‘The House of 1000 Clocks’, which as well as an incredible number of over-carved tourist timepieces also sold what looked like quality Vienna clocks at what seemed to be reasonable prices. It must be all the competition.

We had some trouble finding a campsite, but eventually struck lucky in the tourist resort of Titisee. While contemplating the enormous list of rules and regulations (“From your selected pitch you should be able to see only the number of your own pitch; Motor vehicles must be parked at right angles to the slope; We would not hesitate to remove lines attached to trees; Vehicular movement is prohibited between 13:00 and 14:30”), we met up with a group of four other bikers, and after a shower and some friendly beers we all set off into town for an evening’s entertainment.

After the restaurants had closed, we found our way into a nearby bierkeller, where I started on Diebel Altbier (Devil dark beer, which is supposed to be drunk in moderation) and the other guys got into the pils with schnapps chasers. The ladies were a little more circumspect, but it turned into a riot of an evening, and next morning I suffered for every drop of alcohol that I’d consumed.

We spent a slow morning rehydrating in Titisee, and then took a nice leisurely pedalo out across the lake followed by a medicinal Black Forest gateau.

That afternoon we headed up the Feldburg for some dramatic views across the brightly lit but incredibly dark forest, but the traffic was getting heavy again so we consulted our National Geographic tourist map and found that it recommended a minor road through Schonau toward Mullheim. This was excellent advice, as we were the only things moving on it, and it was a fantastic scratching road through often breathtaking scenery.

Eventually we looped back around through Freiburg (where we didn’t stop, although the latticework cathedral steeple looked interesting) and back to Titisee, planning to head south to the lake at Schluchsee, since we had noticed that where there’s a lake, there’s a campsite.

Indeed there was, but the tent part was packed so we kept on going until we found a hillside site with no lake but lots of space. As a sort of money-saving exercise (more from guilt than because we were actually short), and because we couldn’t cope with any more rich restaurant food, we fried up some sausages, apples, onions, gherkins, and spatzle (a local pasta). No beer for me, as my head was still hurting.

The back roads to Bonndorf and Singen were fantastic for biking, with loads of sweeping forest curves and hairpins, beautiful weather, and a lot of motorbikes. It must be pretty popular around here, as some villages had signs up banning motorcycles between 22:00 and 06:00.

Mosel and Rhine

A Breakdown in Belgium

We rolled off the boat at Calais into a beautiful sunny morning, and instantly turned northward intending a late breakfast in Brugge. However, the 130kph E40 soon got boring, so we turned off to take the parallel the coast road through De Panne and Nieuwpoort. At first it seemed like a good idea, and a much better way of starting a tour than hammering up the motorway. Even though the Belgian polders were as flat as ever, at least there were interesting dykes and canals to look at, and I was just congratulating myself on another successful long cut when we suddenly ran into Grockleville B.V., packed wall to wall with cars carrying tourists to enjoy a day sandwiched on the beach.

Rather than struggle up the beach zone, we turned back toward the E40, but almost immediately Lisa’s CBR dwindled in my rear-view mirrors and rolled to a stop by the roadside. Only one of the four cylinders was firing, which didn’t provide enough power to ride, so after checking for the usual faults I left Lisa with her bike and went off to find help. First I met a policeman, who directed me to an Audi garage, who directed me to a bicycle shop in Nieuwpoort, who directed me to a Honda dealer in Veurne. Miraculously, this shop was still open on a Saturday afternoon, but their tow-truck was ‘en panne’.

They were talking about ringing around some friends to see if they could find anybody with a trailer, but instead I borrowed a tow-rope and went back to the CBR, where Lisa was getting happily sunburnt by the roadside. My TDM towed her CBR without any problems, and the hard shoulder was wide and clear so we didn’t have to worry about traffic.

A few miles up the road, a police van did a U-turn to check us out, but they couldn’t work out whether what we were doing was illegal or not so, realising that we probably knew more about what we were doing than they did, they left us to it.

Fifteen minutes later we were installed in the bike shop in Veurne, where the nice man soon spotted that the fuel pump had failed. He didn’t have any new ones in stock, but he did have a lot of customers bikes in for repair, and we spent a merry time poking around in a load of crash-damaged frames looking for something that would fit. None of the CBRs had the right pump, and one off a Revere was the right design but had far smaller bores which suggested that we wouldn’t get a high enough flow rate for the CBR. Not to be defeated, the salesman opened up the showroom and pulled the pump out of a brand new Transalp that was standing in the window. A few minutes later, we were off.

Finally we rolled into the Brugge campsite, had a much-needed beer, and then set out on foot to have a look at the city. It is an attractive town, packed with narrow streets lined with gable-ended houses, and dominated by the clop-clop of horse-driven taxis and by the huge cathedral in the centre. The cathedral did not seem to be open to the public, but from the outside it had a vast presence, sprawling over a surprisingly wide area, an imposing brick-built edifice reminiscent of the monastery in ‘The Name of the Rose’. We sat in its shadow in a terrace cafe and ate an expensive but excellent dinner of ‘kroketten’, ‘moules’, and a local dish made from a mixture of fish in a creamy spinach sauce. All, of course, washed down with lashings of Belgian beer.

Crop Circles

The following day, after a leisurely start, we whipped around the Brussels ring-road and then, rather than stay on the boring motorway, took the quieter N4 toward Luxembourg. It was another beautiful day, and at a petrol stop we spent our few remaining francs on chocolate milkshakes and sat at the side of a cornfield to drink them. The corn had been recently cut, and the hay was lying in golden rows under the blazing sun. We sat and admired the scene, and then something strange started happening in the air in front of us. and swiftly a little dust-devil built itself up into a straw-filled whirlwind some twenty feet high. It had a footprint about four feet in diameter and acted like a big hoover, sucking up circles of hay and then moving on with the stalks whirling around inside the cone. It bumbled around the field at walking pace for a while, pausing now and again to leave mysterious crop circles in its wake, before heading up the bank onto the main road. A car passed through it without any noticeable effect, and then it was across the road and into some shrubbery, where it dropped its load of hay but we could still make out its progress by the swaying of the bushes on this otherwise still day.

Bemused, we got back onto the road, and for a while enjoyed a leisurely ride past the little high-gabled houses that formed the occasional village, punctuating the long flat plains of cabbages and potatoes that stretched to the flat horizon. Soon, however, the road degenerated into just another motorway, and I was glad when we were overtaken by a dozen Belgian bikers out on a run. They were really tanking it, but I snuck in behind the rear machine and we stayed with them all the way to Luxembourg.


As soon as we crossed the border, the nature of the countryside altered dramatically from flat crop land to tree-lined hillsides. About 25 miles from the city we turned off down a random side road, sat on a bridge for a while watching damselflies, and then drove along the small hilly lanes until we found a small camp site.

It was a tree-lined field with no visible signs of authority, but some French campers told us to pitch up and then go to a certain house in the village at 18:30 to book in. A kindly elderly lady in a small house stuffed with antiques accepted a small amount of French francs in lieu of the Belgian ones that we didn’t have, and told us that although there weren’t any restaurants locally, tonight was the night of the local village fete and we might be able to pick up something to eat there. We were starving, so we made our way up to the tented area where everybody seemed to be having a fun time, although we felt very much like outsiders intruding on somebody’s private party. Nevertheless, we stood and drooled by a family-run hot-dog stand while they animatedly discussed exactly how much ten French francs was in Belgian currency, which was all pretty academic as all we had were ten-franc pieces and we’d have happily given away everything we had for a chance at those succulent sausages.

Finally everybody was happy, and we were ceremoniously presented with our food, which we wolfed hurriedly while debating going through the whole thing again at the beer stand. Cowardice prevailed, and we returned to our bikes to see if we could find a restaurant that accepted Visa. A few miles up the road was ‘Le Martin Pecheur’, dominated by an impressive stained-glass window of its namesake, where we washed down an excellent meal with a terrific Mosel wine, very tasty and a far cry indeed from the sugar water sold to teenage girls in England.

Feeling that our wine trip had now truly begun, we finished off with an interesting variation on Liqueur Coffee, with the coffee sandwiched between a layer of cream above and a clear layer of spirit below, served in a tall glass and drunk through a straw. Very potent.

Luxembourg City

Another late start, a leisurely coffee, another beautiful morning. A gorgeous run through rolling forested hills dotted with small sculpted villages and friendly people, ending in the fantastic city of Luxembourg itself.

Based around an AD 693 fortress almost surrounded by a deep hairpin chasm, the city is intermingled with rich parkland and vertical cliffs. Many of the buildings are impressively spired, most are intricately moulded. Walking along the old fortress wall, we discovered the Bock Casements, the remnants of the original castle which was voluntarily destroyed by the city itself in an attempt to establish their neutrality. They had comprehensively razed the castle itself, but there wasn’t much they could do about the subterranean tunnels, so they just blocked them off. Now they were open to the public, and stuffed full of history.

During the last war, 35,000 people sheltered during air-raids, and prior to that many of the caverns had been used for imprisoning this or that Duke, or provided a home for this or that exiled monarch. Most of the main tunnels were sign-posted, but many were not only unsigned but also unlit, and with a torch you could meander deep underground. In fact, the whole underside of the city is riddled with tunnels, and it is easy to see how it gets its name of The Gibraltar of the North. We completed our circuit of the city wall, grabbed some supplies from a handy supermarket, and headed for Germany, the Mosel Valley, and the start of our holiday proper.

The Mosel Valley

Suddenly we had arrived, and were confronted with more grape vines than I had ever seen in my life. My first impression was of the sheer mono-crop dedication that characterises Spanish olive groves. My second was that all the camp sites were heavily commercial and packed with caravans. Camping areas must be at a premium where every other square inch of land, even down to the roadside verges, is cultivated with grape vines. However, along a quieter stretch of road and a little away from the river itself we came across a little camp site that consisted of a small field ringed with permanent caravans. No sooner had we set up the tent when strings of people wandered up and introduced themselves, tut-tutting at our equipment and lending us tables and chairs, until very shortly we got involved in a Mosel wine-drinking session from the camp site’s own cellars. The world seemed to be entirely populated with friendly fat retired Germans slowly drinking the summer nights away, and as the sun set into the haze over the vineyards, I reflected that there was very little wrong with that.

The next morning we returned all the furniture, said our goodbyes, and headed off once more into the sunshine. The villages and towns along the Mosel valley were a riot of colour, skilfully painted and gilded and carved and hung about with flower boxes stuffed with colourful blooms. In Traban Trarbach a storm blew up out of nowhere and we sheltered under a bridge until the worst of it had passed. The rest of the afternoon was duller weather-wise, but geographically beautiful. The storm appeared to be trapped in the valley, but the villages continued to be picturesque, linear populations facing each other across the broad expanse of the river, dotted with far more thin-steepled and onion-towered churches than can possibly be required, and backed by a quilted patchwork of vineyards studded with religious shrines, huge rock sundials, and hundreds of tiny figures lovingly tending the vines.

Eventually we entered Koblenz, and headed into the city intent on finding the confluence of the Mosel and the Rhine. We found it at a place called Deutsches Ecke, parked up and caught the sightseeing boat. The trip took an hour and travelled up each of the three arms of the t-shape where the rivers meet, surprisingly placidly, at a monument to the Kaiser. I say surprisingly, because the Rhine was flowing very fast indeed. The bow waves of the ubiquitous hundreds-of-feet-long Rhine barges threatened continually to swamp them as they forged their way upstream, and those coming downstream were greased lightning. These barges were immense, carrying all sorts of cargoes including coal, scrap metal and petroleum products, and sported mobile-home sized living accommodation fore and aft, with enough parking on board for a couple of cars too.

The Mosel had been occasionally punctuated by immense river locks for these craft, and often while one was coming through there would be another holding perfect station against the current below, waiting patiently for its turn, surrounded by a myriad tiny pleasure cruisers struggling against the fierce current, trying to stay close enough to nip in after the colossus when the locks opened.

The Rhine Valley

Once more on dry land, we were presented with a choice of two B-roads, one on either side, that headed south with the river. The B42 on the eastern bank ran through national parkland, so on the grounds that it might be less busy we took the western B9. The heavy traffic had become a bit of an issue for us, as even in the countryside it felt like we were driving through town, and as a side-effect it meant that the camp sites were literally packed tent-to-tent and caravan-to-caravan, not to mention satellite-dish-to-satellite-dish. So far, by judicious choice, we had been lucky with camp sites, and we wanted to keep it that way. The Rhine valley south of Koblenz sprouted more castles than we could shake a stick at, most of them apparently occupied, and although many of them were splendidly photogenic the roads were too narrow and busy to stop.

We only rode a short distance, just far enough to get fully clear of Koblenz, and then started looking for camp site signs that pointed away from, rather than toward the popular riverside locations, on the basis that these would probably be smaller and quieter. We ended up on a tiny strip of grass hacked out of a forested gully, with a little restaurant bar at one end. After a good meal, some beer, a walk in the woods and some more of yesterdays Mosel wine, we went to bed.

After a preprandial coffee at the camp site, we had a light breakfast in the picturesque town of St Goar, before continuing up the Rhine valley as far as Bingen. Here you enter the huge industrial complex of Mainz, Frankfurt, Darmstadt, Ludwigshafen and Mannheim, so we cheated and took the motorway to Heidelberg. Although it strictly isn’t in the Rhine valley at all, I had always wanted to go there and this seemed like a good excuse.

The old town was pretty enough, and after lunch we set off up the hill to see the castle. This proved to be particularly impressive, all pink stone, heraldic emblems and gilding, and had obviously been extensively restored, with work continuing apace. In the Great Hall beneath the castle were two enormous wine barrels, called Klein and Gross Fass; the latter at 220,000 litres is allegedly the biggest in the world. Certainly it is the only barrel that I have ever seen with steps leading up to a balcony on top, on which you could hold a fair-sized dinner party. We supped a commemorative glass of Heidelberg wine, and then hit the road for the Black Forest.

Coast to coast, by motorcycle, in the snow

The hail storm eased off, leaving a thick white layer of marbles that crunched into powder between the fat tyres and the cobblestones. It was early on Boxing day morning, and as I carefully eased my motorcycle over the slippery surface, cosy lights glimmered from the snug breakfast warmth of the Yorkshire cottages.

My pillion, Iain, and I were heading for the North Yorkshire moors. Once we got there, we intended to spend the few days between Christmas and the New Year crossing England from east to west in time for our annual New Years booze-up in the Lake District. We were, of course, fully aware that the Pennine passes are usually closed at that time of year, but if you’re trying to find adventure in your own country you may as well make it interesting.

Sutton Bank

The temperature dropped steadily as we approached the loom of Sutton Bank, westernmost outpost of the Hambletons, a range of hills between us and our chosen starting point of Whitby. A sudden squall of snow obliterated my vision, forming a thick veneer of ice on my helmet. Unable to open my visor for fear of getting snow on my glasses, I had to be content with riding one-handed while continuously scrubbing with my left hand. It was already cold enough for the snow to settle even on the wet road, and a succession of sharp bends between high hedgerows began to make life slightly interesting.

We made it as far as the base of Sutton Bank before I decided that not all of the frantically flashing and hooting oncoming car drivers could be delinquent hooligans, so I pulled over into a convenient snowdrift to take stock.

It was clearly snowing up on the Bank, but the clouds parted occasionally to reveal that something else was also going on up there. Short jigsaw visions of frantically flashing brake and hazard lights added up to the realisation that cars were getting about halfway up the Bank and then slowly sliding down backwards until they could get enough purchase to turn round and come back down.

We consulted the map, and pointed the Honda Revere back at the village. The new heading was a wide sweep around the southern flank of the Hambletons, and above us the weak midday sun picked metallic highlights from the dark cloud that had now settled permanently over Sutton Bank and its luckless motorists.

Wass Bank

We turned east under Wass Bank, and considered our options. We could either continue our sensible lowland detour, which would not take us far out of our way and which would avoid the Hambletons altogether, or we could chance the louring bulk of Wass Bank.

The gradient was fairly fierce, but clear of snow until the final thirty feet, where it became a steep ramp coated with a couple of inches of fresh powder. We rolled to a halt just below the snowline and squinted into the glare. Traffic signs indicated that there was a crossroads on the brow, but the thick woods on either side obscured our view of oncoming traffic.

I left Iain by the roadside and took a run-up, only at the last second deciding to stop at the top instead of barrelling blindly across the crossroads. Fighting to keep the steeply inclined machine level with the Give Way sign, my heart skipped as two Volvos scrunched past. Had I been alone I would have had to stay there until the snow melted. Fortunately, Iain was wearing hiking boots, and so once he had struggled up the slope himself, he was able to get enough traction to give me some sort of a push. Half way across the junction, the back wheel attempted to overtake the front, and I put my own foot down to steady the bike. Unfortunately, I was wearing flat-soled motorcycle boots, and on that slippery surface I may as well not have bothered.

With a nasty crunching sound, the Revere toppled over in the snow. Cursing the vagaries of the manufacturers of motorcycle clothing, we righted the now slightly battered bike and surveyed the damage. The hard plastic of the right hand pannier had cracked like an eggshell and a piece about four inches long was missing, but the box had maintained its integrity and nothing seemed to have fallen out. Iain went back to try and locate a white piece of plastic in the white snow, while I stood by the equally white bike trying to pretend to motorists that it was bright red and bore absolutely no resemblance to the snowbank against which it stood.

A couple of miles down the road was the town of Helmsley, so we stopped to buy some food cans, a can opener (my fifteenth, I think. Where do they all go?) and a black plastic bin liner to wrap around the pannier and stop our luggage from getting too wet, just in case it started to snow again.

And snow it did. As we rode down out of the hills and headed northward across the flat exposed moorland toward Whitby, a storm came up out of the west and threw everything it had. I had to lean the bike right over into the gale, virtually scraping the footpegs just to travel the dead straight road over Goathland Moor. The snow drove horizontally across the darkening landscape, my hands were going numb even protected by two pairs of gloves, and I was back to continually wiping my visor in order to snatch brief glimpses of the road. One day, I swore, I would buy a set of heated handlebar grips.

Strange Happenings in Whitby

Then as dusk finally fell, we entered Whitby, and the snow stopped. The town was, not surprisingly, deserted. We parked up in the shelter of some public toilets by a children’s paddling pool, and considered our next move. This was obviously just a lull in a storm that looked set to blow all night, so for the first time that day we used the logic that raises us above the apes. To shelter from a westerly storm, we reasoned, camp in the lee of an east-facing cliff.

Whitby sits on the east coast, separated from the sea by a vertical drop of some hundred feet or so, with a small tarmac footpath winding in a series of hairpins down to the beach. The path is exactly the same width as a fully laden Revere. We parked about a third of the way down, and erected the tent a few yards away vertically upwards on a convenient flat grassy shelf.
Soon, some hot food and cold beer later, we drifted off to sleep.

Nobody knew where we were, apart from a vague “on the bike north of Coventry”, and we certainly hadn’t planned to camp above the beach at Whitby; it had just turned out that way. So for me to be woken up a few hours later by someone standing outside my tent calling my name was utterly ridiculous. In bewilderment I poked my head out, to meet the eyes of an embarrassed policeman looking most uncomfortable balanced on the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm.

Mr.Reading?, he said. I tried my best to act cool. “Is there a problem, officer? No sir. Or at least, there wasn’t, but I think we’ve caused you one…”

Apparently, someone out for a midnight stroll down the beach in the rain had seen the white Honda perched on the path, and had reported it to the police. A constable was sent down, took the registration, failed to notice my camouflaged tent in the darkness, and rang Fenella in the small wee hours. “We don’t want to bother you, they’d said, but w’eve just found your boyfriend’s bike halfway down a cliff…”

After the hysterics had passed, they admitted that it was in fact parked and locked rather than crumpled and smouldering, and, with her teeth firmly clenched around a brandy bottle, she ordered them back to look for the tent, and then ring her back, or else.

The rest of the night was uneventful, and next morning we got up with the dawn (not as early as it sounds in late December), road into town and wandered up to the Abbey. The cold soon drove us back down, and a different policeman directed us toward a cafe and a fried breakfast, and after a suitable amount of huddling against a radiator we set off westwards over the North Yorkshire Moors.

Across the Moors

We had decided to take the plethora of minor roads that accompany the railway on its journey toward Middlesborough, and had chosen two potential routes, one that wandered out over the high moors, and another that stayed safely in the valley with the trains. We planned to go high in good weather, and stay low in bad, and there was plenty of scope for switching between the two as circumstances altered.

The morning was glorious, the roads dry and the bends evil: in short, perfect riding conditions. We admired the scenery around Egton, and paused at Glaisdale where road, rail and water routes cross in a picturesque crosshatching of bridges. We were just about to take our high road when the rain started up, so amazingly we took the sensible option and made our way down through the mass of roads around Castleton, pausing briefly at a vandalised sign before continuing westwards.

Almost immediately I was presented with a torrential ford crossing. Iain got off, and I tentatively selected low gear and eased gently out into the torrent. The water came over the hubs but I was delighted to find that the bike showed no tendency to float like a car, but just ploughed along the bottom and up the other side. Rather than stop on the immensely steep valley side I ran up to the top and waited for Iain, who had crossed over the footbridge.

The hill should have made me think, but I was extremely chuffed about the ford and the weather was clearing again. Five minutes later we were riding blind through a cloud under a deluge of icy water. Visibility was down to a few yards and the road was littered with soggy sheep. We werent as miserable as the sheep, for we knew from our map that we had only to cross this small ridge of high ground before the descent into Kildale. But the ridge went on, and on, and on, until we fetched up against a road junction that just had no right to be there.

There was a road sign, but it was unlit and we had to get off and trace the letters with our frozen fingers, and then huddle over the dull yellow glow of a headlamp that I was sure used to be a fiercely burning halogen. There was nothing wrong with the electrics, just a thick coating of ice particles that no amount of rubbing would shift. That page in my Ordnance Survey atlas is now warped beyond recognition, but we found out where we were, neatly sandwiched between two symbols that mean ‘viewpoint’, balanced right on the highest point of the moor.

It was time, once more, to turn around. I successfully negotiated the sodden sheep and then, out of the cloud and full of new-found confidence, burned down the hill toward the ford, braking at the last minute and contemptuously hitting it at about 20mph. At the other side I stopped and thoughtfully emptied the water out of my boots.

Once off the moors we stopped at a village called Stokesley for a pub lunch and to dry my socks. They had good beer, good food, and lots of drinkers who watched in polite amazement as we peeled off layers of damp clothing and stacked them in front of the fire. Inevitably, there was the man who used to ride a Vincent, and he reckoned that the A66 through the Pennines was now open. We lingered as long as we could, but we wanted to camp somewhere closer to the pass to give us time to get over as early as possible the next morning. We donned our gear and went back out into the rain.


Richmond, situated in the lowlands to the east of the Pennine passes, fitted the bill perfectly. All that remained was to find a place to sleep, and a few minutes drive soon revealed a wide grassy verge next to a quiet lay-by.

The next morning was unbelievably cold. The alloy of the tent-pegs was cold enough to burn, but we couldn’t grasp them through our gloves, so we ended up leaving the bike engine idling, pulling the pegs out barehanded, and returning to the bike every few minutes to jam our frozen fingers up the exhaust pipe. The stuff all fitted back in, but as I was locking the last pannier the key snapped off in the lock. It was that cold.

A welcome hot breakfast in Richmond, and some more radiator-huddling, saw us setting off on foot to explore the town. There was a lot to see, but we spent most time at the castle around which Richmond is built. The restored tower commands tremendous views, and the lady who sold us our tickets used to be a biker herself, and allowed us to bring the bike up from its two-hour parking zone and leave it in the castle grounds. Below the ruin is a wide brown river that tumbles over a small cataract of falls. I commented on its suitability for kayaking, and the local standing next to me responded, “Oh yes, its very popular. We lose one or two canoeists a year!”

Through the Pennine pass

And then we were off once more on a swift blast toward the Pennines and the infamous A66. The pass was, in fact, open, but the dales were deeply buried in snow and the traffic slowly moved nose to tail in one another’s tyre tracks. We passed the hotel where, until very recently, a group of guests and motorists had been trapped for a week without food, and then thankfully dropped down the other side to the tea shops of Appleby, and the fast winding run through Windermere and Ambleside to the warm welcome and hot showers of our hotel under the Langdale Pikes. The guest ales were settling in their barrels and the first arrivals were trickling in for the annual celebration of the end of the old year’s tales, and the beginning of the new.

Three Men on a Train: 6 – Zakynthos

Welcome to Zakynthos

The island of Zakynthos loomed out of the sea mist ahead, surrounded on all sides by seas of the most incredible shade of blue. As our ferry drew closer, we could make out the harbour of Zakynthos town, crouching down against the water front, nestled under the vertical craggy inland terrain.

We had no idea what to expect. As this was the half-way point of our Grand Tour, we had decided to rest for a week on one of the half-dozen Ionian islands, and had more or less randomly picked this one according to the timetables of the trains and ferries available to us.

We knew that the island was about ten miles across, and we had a vague plan of hiking over the centre to the other side, to see what adventures awaited us. We were footloose and fancy-free, and the world was our oyster.

Within seconds of disembarking, we were approached by a man who wanted to rent us a moped. A few yards later, somebody else asked us the same question. Behind him, several more salesmen were queueing up. Shaking our heads – we had barely set off on our hike, and none of us had ever ridden a motorcycle anyway – we made our way past the clamouring touts, our backpacks weighing heavily as the sun beat down on our heads. About a hundred yards further on, we gave in and rented three mopeds for the rest of the week.


The search for the perfect beach

The concept of twist-and-go was simple enough, but the little 50cc machines weren’t really designed to handle a strapping teenager with an enormous backpack. We’d only travelled a short distance up the road before I discovered that pushing mine to 28mph resulted in a loud “bang” and the ejection of a fair bit of oil. I stopped to have a look but couldn’t see any obvious damage and anyway it was still running, so I decided to ignore it. However, while we paused to examine it, Andrew’s moped stalled and wouldn’t start again.

A friendly man came out of his house and pointed knowledgeably at Andrew’s carburettor, then went indoors to phone our hire shop. While we sat on the road and waited to be rescued, the his whole family emerged and sat down with us. We couldn’t understand a word they said, and vice-versa, but they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.

After a while, the rental man showed up with a replacement machine, and we said goodbye to our new friends and putt-putted away to find a beach to sleep on. The first one wasn’t really what we were looking for, and then we got lost in the enjoyment of buzzing along deserted, winding country lanes, learning how to ride the little machines and occasionally “racing” the locals.

By now it was fully dark, and we found that the pitiful light from the tiny glow-worm lamps completely failed to allow us to distinguish between the sandy road surface and the sandy verges. While we paused to sort out a minor crash where Andrew had thought that the road went one way, and I had thought that it went another, an English couple showed up and gave us directions to a good camping beach. Straightening out our handlebars, we set off along a tortuously winding road resembling a quarry track bent into the shape of a stack of paper-clips.

Higher and higher we climbed, wondering why we were going up when surely a beach should be down, until the road degenerated into a pile of rocks on a hill crest. It seemed that it was indeed a quarry after all.

We turned around, and tried a different direction. The evening wore on, and we were getting saddle-sore and tired. Eventually, in a village called Orthonies, Andrew met some children who said that we could camp in the grounds of their school. Since it was all concrete, we couldn’t pitch a tent, so we simply lay down on the ground.

In the interests of saving weight, we had all three of us made some personal compromises when we packed for the trip. David, for instance, had left his boots at home and wore only trainers, something that he had regretted when tramping around Vienna. My concession had been to leave my big heavy sleeping bag at home, instead opting for an orange plastic survival bag. This was all very well on the floor of a train, but desperately cold on plain concrete, and I woke next morning frozen and soaked with condensation.

I lay in quiet dampness, thinking about nice warming Hungarian Cherry Brandy, until the local church started broadcasting its service over a loudspeaker, which woke the others and we had a second try at finding the perfect beach. To cut a long story short, we did eventually discover a perfect little cove near Askos, and went for a welcome cleansing swim in the crystal clear waters of the Mediterranean.

The kindness of strangers

The scenery on the island was beautiful and varied, ranging from terrace-farmed olives groves clambering up the sides of the blue-tinted mountains, to wide flat vineyards, ever-changing vistas against the backdrop of an azure sea.

But it wasn’t the physical beauty that impressed us most. Everywhere we went on this fabulous island, we were welcomed with friendliness, humour, and unthinking generosity. At one small shop, we put our meagre drachmas together and bought mackerel, biscuits, and fizzy drinks. An elderly customer came into the shop, saw our haul, and handed each of us a thick crust of sweet bread. Thanking her, and not wanting it to go stale, we decided to sit down outside the shop and eat our lunch there and then. We settled down in the road and realised that we needed some fruit, so popped back into the shop to get some grapes. The shopkeeper quietly and without fuss popped an extra loaf of bread into my bag.

We returned a few days later to get the deposit on our fizzy drink bottles and to stock up on biscuits, chocolates, and more drinks. The kindly shopkeeper once again donated a fresh loaf of bread to the cause, refusing any payment.

On another occasion, David had run out of fuel, so I headed off to Askos to get some. There was no fuel station in the usual sense, but by pointing at things I was directed to a private house where they gravely mixed oil and petrol in my empty orange-juice container and then waved their hands around excitedly when I tried to pay.

I returned to the others, we redistributed the available fuel, and then once all the bikes were running, we went back to the same house to fill our tanks. David – who speaks Italian – heard somebody conversing in that language and asked if there was somewhere that we could change English money into drachmas. It turned out that we’d have to go back to Zakynthos Town for that kind of service, but we were invited in for a coke and our Italian-speaking friend sketched out a deal where he gave us the bank exchange rate for our tenner, less a pound for his expenses, which made everybody happy.

And then there was the roadside restaurant where we stopped for a kebab, and somehow ended up with pork, salad, chips and wine. When we had paid our bill, and got our map out to plan our nightly search for a beach to sleep on, the kindly owner insisted that we camp for the night inside the restaurant.

Fire on the mountain

After an enjoyable day hacking around in the mountains and swimming in the sea, we found ourselves running low on petrol high up on a pass. Partly to conserve fuel, and partly just for the fun of it, we freewheeled down the mountain with the engines off for about six miles. Half way down, we noticed that a bush fire had started and was blazing fiercely along the hillside, so we made a note to report it if we ever saw anyone, because this was in the deserted southern end of the island and we hadn’t seen another soul all day.  We rolled to a stop outside a small dark cafe, and I went inside to see if I could sound the alert. There were a number of men drinking in the dark cave of the interior, and none of them understood what I was trying to tell them. Eventually I dragged the owner outside and pointed up at the thickening pall of smoke and the flicker of red flame that was advancing closer with every passing minute.

Now he got excited and rapped on the open door of the cafe, shouting at his customers, who came tumbling out blinking in the evening sun. After a swift discussion they tumbled back in, and then emerged once more carrying tables, chairs, table cloths, glasses, and finally a large carafe of retsina, and we all sat and drank and watched as the sun set behind the flames.

It was here that I drank my very first ouzo. I instantly became a fan, which the proprietors found entertaining. One thing led to another, and it seemed but an eye-blink before it was full dark and we started preparing to set up our tent on the nearby village green. Our new friends the cafe owners pointed out that they already had a tent pitched permanently there, and offered to lend it to us for the night. Thanking them profusely, we moved in and found that it was a trailer with double beds; complete luxury!

David’s nemesis

David has a thing about insects, and a particular hatred of wasps, against which no reasoned logic will prevail. While exploring the southern end of the island, we stopped at a waterfront cafe in Ormos Korioy where, sitting at an outside table, we ordered three large pork chops with trimmings.

It wasn’t long before a curious wasp appeared. It buzzed in a desultory fashion around our plates and was about to continue on its way to look for more waspy fare, when David started shouting and swatting at it. This made it more curious about what he was defending, and it became more insistent. By the time Andrew and I had finished our meals in unmolested comfort – apart from choking with laughter – David’s plate was surrounded by fifteen excited insects, with the man himself cursing loudly and bashing away at them with napkins and cutlery. In the end, he had to abandon his lunch to a sea of yellow bodies.

When it became time to pay, Andrew suddenly realised that he had left his money belt at our last swimming beach, so he and I rode off to retrieve it while David held the fort at the restaurant. Luckily the belt was still jammed into a rock crevice where he had left it. Andrew decided to celebrate with another swim, so I returned to a rather hungry David, who had calmed down somewhat now that his crawling plate had been cleared away by the bemused staff.

We ordered fizzy pop to pass the time until Andrew returned. As soon as David opened his bottle, a wasp arrived at full speed and with incredible precision dived straight down the neck. Giggling as David cursed, I managed to extricate it from the bottle with a straw. It walked around looking stunned, then shook off the sugary nectar and launched itself straight at David, who took off at a run. When Andrew arrived, I was speechless with laughter and David and his pursuer were starting their third circumnavigation of the restaurant.

Lumps, bumps, and pointy things

All of the bikes were by now looking a bit worse for wear. Mine had a soggy chain-tensioner and a tendency to rattle and spit oil. Andrew’s was difficult to start and so he tended to leave it running all day. David’s sucked fuel at an alarming rate, so that on three separate occasions he ran out and one of us had to go in search of supplies. Each of the machines also showed signs of being dropped, from bent controls to scratches to a smashed headlamp.

The damage was not just restricted to the machines. We were all new to motorcycling, and we were wearing oversized backpacks and riding underpowered mopeds in shorts and T-shirts on gravel roads. It’s not surprising that we endured a number of minor bumps and scrapes, and between us we sported a good selection of minor gravel rash on hands, arms and legs.

Having thoroughly explored the northern and southern corners of this triangular island, we proceeded eastward to the more populated areas near to Zakynthos Town. It was on a blind hairpin near Port Zorro that Andrew performed his most spectacular dismount, propelled face-first through the gravel by the full weight of his backpack.

Some friendly locals brought a bowl of water so that we could clean up his rather ugly gravel rash, but Andrew was not seriously injured and it was all a bit of a joke and a lucky escape until we found that he had forgotten to get inoculated for tetanus. We got directions to the nearest hospital, but when we got there we were told that we should have brought the serum with us, as they didn’t keep stocks on site. We could buy them at a chemist, but of course the chemists were now closed, so we headed up the mountain for the night.

In the morning we returned to Zakynthos Town, and Andrew popped into a chemist for some antibiotics and his tetanus jab. He came out carrying a small package and looking a bit perturbed, and it transpired that the assistant had given him a loaded syringe and mimed that he had to find somewhere quiet and stick it in his backside. Perhaps wisely declining all offers of help, Andrew disappeared behind some bushes and emerged a little later, slightly pale and shaky but with the job done.

A bit of spit and polish

It was just as well that we had returned to Zakynthos Town for Andrew’s medication, because my bike was now running very rough indeed and wouldn’t go faster than 12mph, and I reckoned there was very little life left in it. We parked as quietly as possible around the corner from the hire place, and strolled innocently past to sneak a look at the gleaming machines lined up outside the shop. Then we returned to our battered, dust-coated wrecks, with their fractured headlamps and bent pedals, leaking oil and petrol, and gave up wondering if anybody would notice the difference.

Andrew and David started hammering out some of their bent metal with rocks, while I went round wiping off the encrusted dirt and fluids with a pack of paper hankies that David had found in his backpack. Once we’d got the poor things looking as clean and straight as possible, Andrew – whose machine had fared the worst – gave his an extra shine with sun-tan oil, and we putt-putted gently around the corner to the rental shop.

The guy barely batted and eyelid, merely charging Andrew an extra fiver for his busted headlamp and bent pedal. We counted this as a favourable result, and went off to celebrate in town before the ferry office opened.