Crossing half the world
Crossing half the world on a motorcycle crept cheekily into my mind while lounged lazily on a good friends couch in Casablanca, Morocco. Gazing at images of the Karakoram highway. The Pamir. The silk road. The Himalayas. Cappadocia. The temples of Burma (Myanmar). The south east islands of asia…
Questions began burning themselves in my head – how was crossing half the world possible in all these places between London and home (Sydney, Australia)? How had people done it before? Was crossing half the world even possible overlanding? Do pigs fly in the bright blue sky? How many cows does it take to jump an imaginary fence? I thought crossing half the world was just a ‘buy a bike and go’ kind of deal. So I sourced Trumpet, a gorgeous 2014 Triumph Tiger 800 XC in London for a great price. And then…
Paperwork. Mounds of it. Bill gates couldn’t have afforded all the paperwork I was having to go through, just kickstart the whole idea of crossing half the world. Insurances. Carnet’s. Emails. International driving permits. Phone calls. Visa applications. More Emails. Vehicle registration and taxes. Reading blogs. Reading forums. More Emails. Sourcing riding gear… Crossing half the world was already becoming a tough opposition and I hadn’t even gotten off the couch!
Being an Australian in England and trying to source insurance just for the uk was like squeezing blood out of a rock. A rock inside a rock who only wanted to give me insurance for £4000. And money grows on trees does it? Somehow I found an answer to all these hurdles and managed to get over them, with the assistance of some very helpful friends (thanks Will, Piers and HUBB). It had taken me 6 weeks to get things sorted after departing Casablanca – a reasonable feat considering I thought it impossible to get everything done in such a short time.
The idea of crossing half the world had sprung to mind after touring Morocco for 2 months on a brand new GS700 (courtesy of the good folks at Wheels of Morocco). I couldn’t fathom spending another 6-12 months travelling without a motorcycle after that. Completely sick of long coach rides, security checks and queues at the airport, as well as restrictions on where and how I could get places… It felt immeasurably wrong to not be seeing the world from the saddle of an iron horse. I have friends who have toured some beautiful places across the world… I read books that everyday people had written of their truly adventurous journeys through the world on their motorcycles and dreamt of the day I would set out and have my own adventure. That day came on a thursday at 6.45am, on the 14th of July, 2016, in Streatham Common, London.
I’d been preparing as much as I could. Packed and repacked. I’d always forget something so I’d have to go back to the shops in Covent Garden to get anything else I needed. Cable ties. Memory cards. Lens cleaners. WD-40. AAA batteries. Toothpaste. Maps. The list was never ending, there was always something else I ‘needed’. I wasn’t ready, but I was sick of waiting and just wanted to go. How are you supposed to prepare for crossing half the world on a motorcycle? So that morning, that very perfect, blue exciting morning, I hopped on Trumpet and rode off towards the dover ferry.
Wondering if I was going to be let into France without an international drivers permit (IDP) since it was still being couriered from Australia, I got to the border check at the port of Dover a little concerned – and then surprised as the border guard just waved me through. Sweet! The morning was going well. Copping a lecture from the overly serious traffic controller for not wearing a helmet up the ramp to the ferry, I left trumpet in the hands the lovely gentlemen on the ferry tied down Trumpet to the ferry deck. Time for breakfast!
I landed at Calais and my plan of crossing half the world had officially begun. Heading slightly inland to the east to get some farm action in, France was beautiful for the 2 hours I was there – cute little villages every few kilometres, flowers in full bloom hanging off every spare windowsill. The houses were beaten up, in a vast array of discoloured colours and beautiful to hum past on three cylinders. Some houses reeked of the 1800s. If you really want an idea, just refer to your childhood fairy tale books. Cobblestoned roads set a classic tone as I whistled my way through the small villages. Old men don’t seem to like wearing shirts there for some reason though, not sure what the story is there. Love of a bit of shirtless action, the french.
It didn’t take long to get into Belgium, where again, I stuck to rural roads, I was already sick of motorways and speed cameras. The roads in the farming areas of north-western belgium were tiny, barely big enough for a car, and sometimes it felt just big enough for a motorcycle! Trumpet motored along happily, whistling at the montrous cows while I puzzled over their massive size (seriously, I can’t help but think Belgian cows are gym junkies, they are massive powerhouses, muscles rippling and sinew popping out clearer then mount everest). Again, it wasn’t long before I entered the Netherlands – 4 countries in just as many hours!
Netherlands seems to be strange place to visit on a motorcycle right? There’s no amazing roads, or hills, just lots of flat land, windmills, dykes and farms. I was headed to Rotterdam to see an old friend who I’d hitchhiked with in southern Morocco – Soufiane! We’d had some interesting adventures together in the north African country, so figured I’d stop by and say hello on the way home. After mazing through green and yellow dutch farms and gawking at hundreds of different windmills, I headed through Zeeland (western Netherlands) to catch some dutch ocean air before setting my sights on Rotterdam. It didn’t take long to arrive in town, avoiding a chance meeting with a dutch policeman on a BMW GS. As I parked up on the street, a shout came from above. Looking up, a grinning head poked itself out from the window, asking me if I was thirsty! Time to rekindle some old memories over a beer or two.
Switching vehicles the next day, I jumped onto a pretend motorcycle – a pedal bike. After almost crashing twice cycling around Rotterdam with Soufiane, I finally regained some kind of control over the tiny thing and wobbled down the road for pancakes and Suriname rolls. As usual, I did everything wrong and spilt satay all down my front. On the way back, I also managed to earn myself a lecture from Soufiane about not riding a bicycle the dutch way. Why they are so particular about riding a bicycle I’ll never know, just pedal right? I had endured enough of this bicycle lark by then – I was here to ride motorcycles not pedal bicycles! If I wasn’t going to ride then by foot it was – every other vehicle just seems so untrustworthy! Picking up a chain and lock, drybag and chainlube from the bike shop. Looking at my routing for the following day, into the ardennes it was going to be! With that in mind, I got another tour, midnight this time, from Soufiane on the legendary 30km/h scooter. It wasn’t a motorcycle, but hell, it actually was kind of fun.
Leaving Soufianne and Abdul behind in Rotterdam, I took the road to the ardennes in Belgium. On the way through I stopped by a charming place (covered in tourists, so I guess the ambience was not what it once was) called Kinderdijk, where I went for a morning walk. Kinderdijk is situated amongst the many windmills on the waterways, next to De Lek, the river that runs through the heart of Rotterdam. Picking up my free coffee, I sucked it down happily, listening to people talk about Pokemon Go. That was my cue to get on the move to Maastricht, in the far south of Holland, the gateway to Liege.
After a lunch of bananas and oranges in Maastricht, I looped around Liege and headed straight for the Ardennes – a forest located in south-east Belgium, where much heavy fighting took place in world war 2. The forest was thick, green and prevented the sun from making a prune out of me. Passing through Spa (next to the franchorchamps racetrack) the road began to really open up. Between every village was a curvy stretch of road, shadowed by long, green leaved, limbre branches. I finally got to give Trumpet a good rev, and get her singing. She responded eagerly, just as hungry as me for a squirt through the twisties. After enjoying a good run, I checked the time and decided it was time to call it a day and set up camp.
Conveniently enough, a free campground was located just outside Durbuy, one of many inside the Ardennes. I pitched up for the night, got cooking some eggplant and potatoes, and slept until 1am when some really thoughtful camper decided it would be a good time to shout loudly and train his dog for an hour. I fell back asleep relatively quickly, and was gone by 8am the next morning.
I cruised through the remainder of the leg of the ardennes in Belgium before passing into Luxembourg’s part of the forest. If it was green and good in Belgium, it was a step up in Luxembourg. Thick, lush forest was spread throughout the hills, with the occasional piece of farmland breaking up the timber giants. And the road. Oh the road was a delight, it was as if someone had glued my tires to the road and smacked my hairy hindquarters. Crossing half the world was kicking butt!
Ace riding continued all the way through the green Ardennes into the east of france, where I rode through national parks and farmland on the rural roads to Strasbourg. I gave myself more of a challenge then I meant to on the narrow, tight roads tracing through eastern france. I was having a heck of a goodtime even if all the old french men still weren’t wearing shirts. In fact, at this point I was a little envious, I was sweating buckets in my riding suit, even with the vented areas wide open. May I join you in your shirtlessness, gentlemen?
In Strausbourg I ate the most salami of my life (yes, sorry mate, that was me Ferdinand). I also got lucky enough to spend two days with Ferdinand, whom I’d known from a very heavy winter in Göteborg, Sweden. He was most kind to offer me a bed to sleep in, and – you guessed it, another bicycle tour! I almost rode perfectly this time, except for braking for a patrol car with 4 policemen in there, who were kind enough to signal me to go first, but I couldn’t work out the pedals, so I just gave them the go ahead. They laughed, I laughed, so did some local bystanders as well. Glad I can still be an entertaining entity during my adventures.
Strausbourg is quite a beautiful city, only a few kilometres from the German border. The old town is separated from the bigger city by a vein of water that completely surrounds the old ‘island’ city. Quite alot of the old city has been preserved, as it was spared much bombing during the second world war. Timber houses lean agaisnt each other, like a pair of drunks leaving the pub. It’s a strangely poetic place, that really comes alive at night, fairy lights twinkle overhead in the old quarter, as patrons enjoy the outdoor restaurants on the curvy, cobbstoned streets. Quite a beautiful place, I could easily have kicked back for a few more days, but hey, this crossing half the world thing needs to be attended to!
Bidding farewell to Ferdinand in the early morning, it was now back on the road to the next place, to a place I’d been dreaming about forever it seemed. I took the A35 to Basel (north Switzerland), before bypassing Basel on the outer and heading straight for the richly nature adorned farming hills between Basel and Lucerne. Back on the small farming roads, passing through miniscule swiss villages, it all felt quite familiar until the hills began to get more dramatic in their drops, and the road began to twist wildly in strange directions. Trees littered the hills amongst the yellow farming properties, and the riding was good, smooth roads for the most part, all to myself.
The afternoon took me through Lucerne, where I refueled before I began to reach the beginning of the swiss mountains. The Alps. The scenery was stunning – the water was a clear icy blue, surrounded by the beginning of the snowcapped swiss alps. The occasional speedboat cruised through the clean, sparkling lake, while locals lounged about at the tiny local beaches resting on the waters edge. I watched them, a little enviously, as I was sweating like a fat old fella under my gear from the roasting sun.
Passing through Flüelen (a small town outside Lucerne), I took the turn off from Wassen and was headed for Sustenpass. Excitement flooded my bones – here was the best riding yet. Curve after lovely curve sprung out in one of the northernmost swiss passes, my sights set on the snowcapped peaks ahead of me. Wow it felt to be good to be back in the mountains again, a feeling of familiarity and homeliness came flooding back. After leaving the Atlas mountains behind in Morocco, I hadn’t really felt the same until now. The journey for me, was now really just beginning.
Passing an unlucky fellow who had been pulled over for speeding up the pass, I winced at the thought of a swiss fine – friends had warned me about the huge fines in Switzerland. The guy was driving an Audi, so I guess a few hundred francs wouldn’t have been much more then an inconvenience. I climbed higher on the curvacious road, really basking in the familiarity of high reaching mountains again. After exiting through the pass tunnel, I was out and on top – and the view was stellar to say the least. Snow capped mountains stood off amongst each other, with small lakes hiding amongst the rocky giants. Many bikes were parked outside the lodge/restaurant on top, and while they all socialised I went looking for a camping spot.
After walking up another hundred metres or so, I found the perfect little nook on the edge of a mountain overlooking the pass with an amazing view, sheltered from the wind. I dumped my gear, went back to Trumpet, unloaded her and set up camp, cooking a broccoli salad and finishing off with fruit and tea. Might i note, while I was eating vegies and fruit in Switzerland, they were mind-numbingly expensive. It was a perfect day of riding, camping and astonishing views of the swiss alps.
Waking up early in time to see the sun rise, I ate my breakfast of fruit and peanuts, packed up camp and headed for the next route I had planned out – onto Grimselpass and the south! The riding out of Sustenpass was amazing, the roads nice and clean, a great variation of bends, not just a bunch of switchbacks all the way down. I’m not quite sure how to describe the feeling you get when you come down from one mountain pass, only to see the next pass right in front of you. When you’re out there, wind rushing past you as you tackle each new curve, and you know you’re about to climb another epic pass, it’s ecstasy. Well for me it is anyway.
Grimselpass was a different kind of spectacular. Well each pass was really. After grimselpass and the switchbacks heading through, it was then onto Furkapass, Oberalppass and the via alps road to San bernadino. While riding down off Furkapass, another gentleman on a triumph the same model as mine went to overtake me on a corner, took it too wide and came hurtling off the road down into a steep 3 metre ditch. After bouncing a few times, the poor fella crashed right into a small creek. He’d ended up a few metres ahead of his bike and not moving. Brakes on, I parked up and rushed over to see if the gentleman was ok.
As I crested the ditch, the bike was lying in various parts, panniers many metres away from each other, the front of the bike had sheared right off and the key had even snapped in the ignition. It was a right mess. Luckily, the said gentlemen was moving, although in shock, and I couldn’t really communicate with everyone as they were all speaking german. I managed to speak to one nice fellow in english who had things under control, and with our fellow rider now standing up and chain smoking, there wasn’t much more I could do. Glad he was ok, it was time for me to hit the saddle.
Along the via alps, I was gifted continual views of mother natures perfect designs. Alpine forests lined up in ranks, like huge green armies of trees defending their mountainous terrain. It really was a sight to see – and then I got through San Bernadino pass. No matter how many passes you see, they are all uniquely beautiful in their own way. Cresting the top of San Bernadino, a small lake was the first thing that came to view. Just beyond that flat layer, the view of the whole valley of San Bernardino broke out and I felt a rush of emotions. I was back on the road, back in the mountains… back to where I belong. Crossing half the world had begun!
Stay tuned for more next week folks!