Tuesday, 16 March 2010

no matter where you go....

Sunday 14th March
We’re finally beginning to feel like the end is really approaching and i find myself thinking and reflecting on what’s been rather than what lays ahead. As we sat in one of the last little roadside shacks drinking sweet black tea on the owners threadbare little sofa, i had said to Danny that we’d miss these crazy little places and the complete lack of spoken English. Everyone was different and an individual experience. As we’d driven up into Europe and through Hungary and Austria, each stop was at a faceless service station, manned by robotic staff with less personality that Marvin the Paranoid Android. These service stations are like MacDonalds without the personality and we really did miss our tea shacks. In an odd way, i was even missing the crummy roads, potholes and loose gravel. They were challenging but brought variety and interest. When you’re on your 12th consecutive day of travelling for 15 hours, smooth roads might mean fast progress but the boredom is not your friend at 80mph. It’s too easy to become complacent and your mind drifts, losing concentration. I even found myself working out statistics today to keep my mind focussed: 16 days for 17 countries which included 23 hours of border crossings, 31 hours of ferry crossings, 15 hours of blogging, about 75 fuel stops and 1600 litres of fuel – hell! I must have been bored as I’m turning into Duane Dibley with brains!

Our continuing approach of talking to everyone who’ll listen continues to pay dividends. At one of the bland faceless service stations, we were still an object of some fascination, even to the sophisticated Europeans – one driver who’d just filled up with petrol almost walked into the edge of the car as he craned his neck for a better look. As he drove off, he wound down his passenger window and took a picture with his phone as he drove off. We twigged him and waved and he got all shy and put his foot down. All he had to do was say hi and we’d have had our picture taken with him. Still the Japanese tourists more than made up for it. You can always guarantee that Japanese tourists love a photo, no matter how inane or boring everyone else might think it was. So after I’d watched Japanese tourist #1 very carefully taking a picture of the grassy bank between us and the motorway, Danny started chatting to #2 another and within minutes we had sisters, mum, dad and i think several aunties and grandma all having their picture taken with us and the bikes. Priceless!

In terms of our riding, these last handful of days are really a means to an end. We’re spending long hours hunched over the tank bags, gripping the handlebars tightly as we try to minimise the areas of our bodies that are exposed to the icy blast of the sub-zero temperatures on the road. In my case, being a little bigger than the average bear, ;this hunching doesn’t really have much effect other than to make me look deformed giant Quasimodo. If it was summer time, we wouldn’t be worrying about ice on the rods, the horrendous cross winds or the driving sleet and we would be able to enjoy these last few days of riding a bit more.

Monday 15th March
As Ice Cube said, “Today was a good day”. We blasted off from Nurnberg and headed towards Holland. It was still cold and we had to look out for the mini avalanches falling off of the lorries as we roared past them. I was a mite cautious as I had turned the TV on in the morning (Like you do) and watched the news even though I couldn’t understand a word of German. But you didn’t have to be a Bio Chemist to work out that people had died in road accidents due to the harsh weather we had personally experienced the previous day. There was a possibility of a phone-in with Chris Moyles so we had to stop at 8.30am in case the phone rang... it didn’t so we cracked on. We have been somewhat invisible to the media during our trip even though all the luvvies have finished their Sport Relief duties and await their publicity ‘Shag-in’ on the live TV show, we are still out there ‘keeping it real’ and don’t mind if we are ignored because we have had a magnificently tough humbling experience, with no frills and no Pa’s wiping our a***s for us. What you see is what you get and we’ve seen the real world that is inhabited by real people who have welcomed us into their lives because they realised that we were simply performing an unselfish act that might just go towards helping someone have a better life, even if it’s only for one day.

Anyway! We got to Bavaria and as usual wherever there are mountains you will find Snow, winds, ice, treacherous roads and a seriously pissed off black man. We then reached Holland which was, well, Hollandy and then on to Belgium, who seem to be stuck in middle of being Dutch, German of French. Finally we were nearing our destination, Calais. The sun was shining brightly and we were hammering down the final stretch. We passed a convoy of military vehicles with blue lights flashing all over the place. They were surrounding a big lorry suspiciously placed in the middle. I think they were probably taking President Sarkosky and his Mrs for a dirty weekend at a secret location.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Here's a pic of the guy who helped us woith the tyre change. A cross betwen lurch and Jonathan pryce! See what we mean.....

Friday 12th March
Mornings have fallen into a neat little routine by now. This is mainly due to the fact that Danny and alarm clocks mix like oil and water. It simply doesn’t happen. As my alarm clock works just as well on the continent as the UK it is left to me to conduct the daily wake up call for Msr DD-J. Nevertheless, i was still fully loaded and ready to rock and roll by the time by team mate joined me in the first of our cold early morning starts. It was balaclavas at dawn and the prospect of 500 miles enthralling us. Not. The thought of throwing my leg over the saddle for the early morning stint is about as much fun as the anticipation of rubbing your backside with coarse grade sandpaper while simultaneously applying tourniquets to your lower limbs until the lack of blood leaves you numb.

Just as I was relishing the prospect of a event free morning, i realised that the familiar twinkle of Danny’s Tranny front headlamp was missing from my mirrors. Slowing down the 10mph on a motorway is never a pleasant prospect but the thought of riding back against the traffic (which i had done in Egypt but that’s about par for the course for them) was a worse one. Danny appeared in short order but travelling at a significantly reduced pace. Another kilometre or so further and we pulled into the service station. ‘You OK?’. ‘Yes, mate, but the front end started weaving which was why i slowed down’. Danny jumped off the bike and was checking the forks when i noticed his rear wheel rim was somewhat nearer the tarmac than it should have. ‘Give the back tyre a kick mate, looks a bit flat?’ as we all know, kicking the tyre will always tell you if there is a problem. On this occasion there was – our first flat!
My initial reaction was relief that a. it was jhis rear tyre that had gone, not the front, b. that he was still with me and not pancaked across the Turkish motorway and that c. We had practised changing tyres with Honda 3 weeks before. As luck would have it, we’d stopped opposite a tyre place but we were determined to sort this ourselves. Which we did with the able help of one of the many attendants and the not so able support of every other bugger that stopped and stared or pointed. Had they never seen two Englishmen changing a tyre on a well loaded tranny before? A mere ninety minutes, 2 cups of coffee, one repositioned set of brakepads and not very much swearing later, it was done. We felt properly self-sufficient as we had dealt with one of our biggest fears without so much as a single ‘oh, crap, what now?’.

Thinking ourselves to be so very clever, we set off, now just 2 hours behind schedule. Our border crossing from Turkey into Bulgaria was significantly shorter than all the north African and Middle Eastern chaotic affairs and we were anticipating a reasonably early stop near Sofia.

If you were to ask almost any biker what their least favourite biking conditions would be, they might say ‘Rain, ice, snow, other fast vehicles and the dark.’ As we came over the brow of hill south of Sofia, we got all of them slammed into our faces like an icy sledgehammer. Within 5 minutes, we were trying to ride through a driving blizzard with artics flashing their lights like they didn’t understand our genuinely terrifying position. We ended up on the hard shoulder riding with our hazards on. I was contemplating simply stopping and pitching the tent. Unfortunately, out tents would have been within striking range of the aforementioned lorries and we couldn’t risk it. We pushed on along the hard shoulder with the snow and ice beating our faces. Then, like a lighthouse appearing out of the murk, a sign for Services with motel came up in the feeble light cast by the bikes into the blizzard. I’m not a religious man, but i do believe i uttered a few short one thanks to the great motor biking god of the adventure travellers. I said a few more choice words as we crawled up the icy covered slip road but we safe. Time: 1030 pm.

Saturday 13th March
I woke up looking like Ricky Hatton’s uglier brother after a whooping from Floyd Mayweather. Eyes swollen and my body racked with pain caused by a room that was being heated by an electric heater that I had fallen asleep with. My sinuses were shot. I looked out of the window and I nearly cried. When I opened it, I did. It was about below eight. Scott, Peary, Ranulph Feinnes or the nutty Brian blessed would have been seen dead out in this. But we were going to ride 550 miles it and before I could say
“Mummy”, There was Graham, punctual as ever knocking on my door ever so politely, “Downstairs in half an hour?”. “Ok”. In my mind cussing his very existence. We get down stairs and before I can say, “Sunny side up”, we’re out the door. Whatever possesses a man to go out in Arctic conditions without as much as a cup of tea? I think he has a massive bet going on with the travel agent who organized this trip, yes. The very same one who said it couldn’t be done. Anyway I sulk over the motorway bridge with G’ and the bikes are at the top of what is now an icy ski jump ramp. We loaded up and gingerly inched down this hill... bobsleigh run, to the motorway. I think the only way we got down was through divine intervention and once in motion the wind was like Phil Taylor throwing darts in your face through the helmet visor from three paces. On we trekked, freezing water intermittently rearing its ugly head on the road trying to catch us out. Once through Sophia where our journey should have begun, we passed through the eastern side of the alps where it was so bitter it felt like the inside of our kits felt like they were littered with razor blades. Man it was cutting! My hands and feet no longer existed and I can tell you, on an empty stomach I was ready to kill. All the way down all I could see were thing that made me want to quit from fear, ‘slippery road’ signs, a burned out juggernaut, abandoned cars and snow everywhere. At last we arrived at the Serbian border which we sailed through. I warmed my frozen hands next to the engine and they froze back the moment we rode off. Graham had a eureka moment and reluctantly stopped for breakfast at a petrol station. There was a cop car parked outside and an old Kawasaki GPZ 1000 RX which 20 years ago was the dogs bollocks but now looked like the dogs dinner. We were welcomed a lot better than the Belgian eatery the night before. One cop ate food whilst the other one looked like he was looking at porn on the net. Both had guns so we pretended not to notice them. We ordered coffee, which I had three and these cheesy, sausage rolly things that looked like the beanstalk ogre’s fingers from the hand that he picks his nose with. Needless to say I didn’t finish mine but G’ ‘The Burger King’ took the glaze off the plate. We hit the road again feeling a bit better. The weather got warmer and the roads safer and faster. We made good time, that was until we got to a toll booth before the Hungarian border. Big G’ had no cash money, well none that anyone would accept anyway. Whatever you do in this world do not travel with Bulgarian money because nobody will take it. The toll guys visa machine wasn’t working and we were stuck. I never spoke and just lay my head forward on the tank and warmed my hands. I couldn’t even be bothered to ogle the blond who went through driving a rather large BMW. Still no joy with the machine. One of the guys told us to turn around and just squeeze through the gap between the barrier and the wall. Graham pondered. The guy reassured him. “ All the Serb guys on bikes do it”. I smelt trouble. We turned around and went steaming towards the toll. A car was at the raised barrier and Graham roared through it which triggered it to come down missing my head by inches. I was pissed. We got about a mile down the road overtaking cars over the double unbroken central lines only seeing the Serb cop standing by his car when it was too late. I had visions of this guy kicking the crap out of us in a cell for ‘international crimes’ committed by ‘The same Brits who let our people get slaughtered during the Kosovan war’. I was even more pissed. G’ made us stop at a petrol station as we needed gas. It must have been owned by a cockney because it was called ‘Elp’, (Euro Lux Petrol) which is exactly what we would have needed if that cop caught up with us. We filled up and went in to pay. Walking out I noticed a bag of sweets called ‘Negro’. This was getting silly. I bought three packs to embarrass my white friends when I give them as Xmas presents and we went to eat. We zoomed down to the Hungarian border and passed through painlessly and in what seemed like a relatively short time (Two hours) we arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel where not only did G’ get his Bulgarian money changed but we were looked after like real guests as we took advantage of the steam room where we let the carbon monoxide, soot and the smell of fear ooze out of our blocked pores.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Apologies for the short blog. Time to write is at a minimum as we are fast tracking through Syria and Turkey.

Craq Des Chevaliers - apparently the oldest castle in the world - here we ran into a set for a $6m Syrian TV series about Antony and Cleopatra.

The Yamaha in the deepest hotel basement - will explain all another time.....

Tuesday 9th March (continued)
Our border crossing into Syria (after Libya and Egypt) would be like comparing Harrods with Happy Shopper. Better organised, better looking, more light, less rat droppings in the offices and very importantly, far less pong. Surely it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man to put all your different offices in a logical row – maybe even with numbers and clear signs. Instead, the Libyan and particularly the Egyptian border authorities have turned make busy, jobs worth, paperwork and red tape into a priceless art form. Self-important, unfriendly and on the take describes many of the officials we came across. If it wasn’t for the Tourist Police who genuinely wanted to help and do the best by us, i don’t how any new visitor with a motor would know where to start. So back, to the Syrian border. The marked improvements made the whole experience far less stressful and thankfully about 3 hours shorter. However, our happiness was short lived as we approached the yellow smog enshrouded melee that is Amman. We had just about got used to city driving techniques common to this neck of the woods but combine it with thick, choking smog and we were well on the road to killer headaches. Danny was about to get off and give up for an hour but we pushed on through.

Today also rewarded us with more of the spectacular scenery from sandy mountains to more rolling desert. And, I’m getting a biker’s tan – from the upper lip to just below the eyes and nicely topped off with a cheery tipped nose.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Graham and Danny make friends with the local traffic cops!
Sunday 7th
Sunday we were leaving Cairo to go to Taba heights. I was a bit emotional at breakfast. I won’t go into the details but Egypt is very close to me and the Mrs’ hearts. Let’s just say that ashes have been scattered on the River Nile at sunset by us from a boat some 5 years ago. I spoke to her that evening and she told me that she was having lunch with our friend Caroline from our local church and coincidently had become emotional too. It probably looked to the other guests at the hotel that me and Graham were having a lovers tiff, what with me dabbing my eyes with a napkin while he looked on serenely. There were loads of African people having a conference on Science and Technology. They were the brains from all over the motherland getting together to “Make loads of important decisions that nobody takes any notice of”, as one of the delegates joked. I have never seen so many black geeks before and it was good to see them trying to make a troubled continent work better for the good of all of us. We were given a wonderful send off and we headed off to the Sinai Desert to get casseroled. Luckily I had brought all the fruit with us that the hotel manager had placed in our room the day before and even though Graham had some to, he always likes to travel light so he left his behind.

Once I started cutting into my mouth watering supplies with the ratchet knife that our Libyan guide, Salem, had given to me as a keepsake there was no way Graham wasn’t going to want to indulge... and he did. We saw what looked like Obi One Kenobi tending to his sheep in the distance and wondered what anyone would be doing out here. He was probably saying to himself that the two dopy limeys over there are probably going to be found dehydrated and sunburned a couple of miles down the road with handkerchiefs tied round their heads. We took photos and some footage and headed off to a spectacular descent through a carving in some mountains that took your breath away. It was now offensively dark and I was now just offensive (Under my helmet of course) Graham’s throttle was stuck on full (purposely) and I was fearing for my life he had that look in his eye that said “I’m getting there by hook or by crook”. I wanted to just get there, even if it took all night. All of a sudden, rubber was burning in front of me. I couldn’t see it but I could smell it. Graham’s bike was snaking and I thought he was riding off the end of a cliff. In the blink of an eye all road markings had disappeared and so did my valor. When I got up to Graham he looked like Casper the Ghost. I nearly said “I knew that was going to happen!” but I was too tired and we still had a long way to go. We pushed on, well Graham did I was hanging back as I knew my bike couldn’t fly and the road we were on didn’t look like no normal road. I noticed what looked like a power station and hung back a bit more. I could see up ahead was some sort of checkpoint. A soldier approached with two nervous colleagues, kaleshni and Kov. He had rolled up on one of the Israeli borders which we had been trying to avoid like the plague as not only were carrying British passports that could be used in an assassination but If the Arab countries we were due to visit found out that we had been fraternizing with the Israelis they would not have let us in to their countries. With his gun semi levelled with a nervous grip the soldier pointed Graham in the right direction. Good job I wasn’t in the lead, eh? When we got to the final checkpoint before Taba a flash border policeman checked us out Graham went first and when he’d done with me he rushed me of with a, “Go Danny, Go”, well me being so tired, I’ve only knocked over his little wooden table that he writes on. He picks it up and repeats, “Go Danny,Go. I kid you not.

More to come...

Tuesday 9th March

Our morning was another early job but this time after less than 4 hour’s sleep. We pushed our pasty faces into the lids and rapidly exited Aqaba straight up into the 1200m high desert plateau. Jordan is like a breath of the proverbial after the dirt and dinge of Egypt. The roads are better and everything just has a cleaner feel to it. The comment from our Italian ‘uber overlander’ that the middle east ‘is no more problem’ was so true. Or so we thought.... my enthusiasm with the better roads and the total lack of respect for any road rules that we had started to pick up on in Egypt was giving me a little Mad Max syndrome. I should have learned my lesson after i passed one policemen loaded up with speed trap gun and got away with it. The second time was not so lucky. I was duly taken the unmarked police car and told in no uncertain terms ‘Speed, you, violation, speed 110km, you 128km!’ whoops. I was desperately hoping that i would walk away with the bike and not find myself in the clank with a dozen dodgy arab crims but just got a swift £15 fine. Of course, any official process must have a ream of paperwork to go with it and this was no exception. Whilst waiting, i turned on my ‘winningist, please don’t take away my motorbike sir’ smile. I got about as warm a response as Max Mosely at McLaren headquarters. Not to be beaten at the first try, as i walked away, i asked using the now familiar hand signals, if i could see the radar speed trap. Danny and i ended up both speed trapping approaching lorries and as if that wasn;t a big enough turn around, one of the plain clothes coppers asked Danny ‘You, work, movies!’ He’d recognised him even with his crash helmet and balaclava on. So in the space of ten minutes we went from speeding fine to pictures with the coppers – didn’t let me off the fine though!

More to come...

Monday, 8 March 2010

First of all, a few apologies. We are getting very intermittent interweb access and v little writing time. For now, we’ve skipped Thursday but here’s a couple more days....

Friday 5th March
Today can only be summarised with two words. Generosity and Openness – you’ll see what I mean....
Our day starts are slowly getting quicker and more timely. We were away as dawn broke and headed straight out into the desert. Our guide reliably informed us that
Just to put the speed at which we crossed Libya into context, our travel advisor who biked this route last year took 5 days to cross Libya. We did it in just under 2. And that in a country which by reputation would lock you and throw away the key as soon as look at you for breaking any rules or law. However, everything we have seen is the opposite to the stereotype. Here’s a great example: we tipped up at a gas station for a bit of go juice and the filler guy topped up both the bikes. I saw just over 5 Dinar on the pump and offered him the note. He started getting a bit agitated and guide was over to us like a track dog to sort it out. The Arabic was flowing fast and furious with hands getting raised along with the voices. This would have been funny (actually it was quite funny) apart from the fact that the gas attendant was six feet tall and built like wrestler whilst our guide was 5 foot 5 tops. Someone must have obviously suggested seeing the boss because a sleepy faced bloke appeared out of one of the rooms with manky looking mattresses on the floor to mediate. In the end he just waved us off but a few hundred yards down the road was a police check point. Always with these check points, it’s the plain clothed guy with obligatory Rayban Aviators who is the Boss. He jumps in the motor with the guide after a quick tete a tete and zooms back to the gas station leaving us with the geeky looking uniform at the side of the road. Uniform starts trying to explain by means of his wrists crossed each other that Boss was off to arrest the gas attendant! He got off with a warning but the moral of the story was the embarrassment on our guide’s face about what had transpired. He was genuinely mortified that guests to his country would be treated this way.

The majority of the morning’s ride was taken up with a 373 km ride along a dead straight road which cuts across the north east corner of Libya, saving us a few kms of coastal road. This straight highway takes you through the desert towards Tobruck (means top rock) and was apparently built original by Rommel’s German forces in the second world war to allow him access to the coast. We saw what we thought was the original track running alongside our tarmac but it’s my historical notions and images were shattered when i found out it was only where the government had laid a huge water pipe!

It was with some sadness that we said goodbye to Salem at the border with Egypt and we were on our again. His parting gift was to walk us through the exit procedures - the usual range of bored looking officials in the most minging, dimly lit and foul smelling rooms. We were meant to receive 115 Dinar back for each of the returned number plates but 14 Dinar found its way into the pockets of the police. More embarrassed looks from our guide.

It was then onto the Egyptian border where we were assigned a Tourist Policeman who walked us through the whole process – about 3 hours. He didn’t speak English but there were plenty there who did. It was at the border itself that we had our first of the incredible Egyptian hospitality that was to come. Getting a little peckish, we were guided to a squre serving hatch in one of the building walls where snack bars and drinks were being served. Danny was sniffing as he thought he could smell his favourite snack, soup. Once they realised we were after real food, the family running the snack shack shared their own food with us and refused any form of payment. I have read other overland adventure books where they talk about the biggest generosity seems to come from those who have the least and we were really starting to see it. It continued when we were invited to drink with one of the gas station attendants and his pal. Danny even managed to blag a cup of tea from one of the traffic police who stopped us at a road block.

We were determined to spend at least one night under canvass so we pushed on from the border into the night, finally stopping about 30km east of Marsa Matrough in Egypt. The tents were duly set up in the headlights of the bikes, about 30 yards from the edge of the road. We saw a torch wobbling towards us. My immediate reaction was to think we’d be thrown off the little makeshift campsite but that just about as far away from the truth as you could. With no English whatsoever, we were invited back to the Bedouin’s house for sleep and food as he thought we’d be too cold in the tents. Caught between not wanting to offend him and our desire to camp we stood and negotiated for 30 minutes with him. His mate arrived and joined in the silent hand gesture conversation. Finally, an older guy arrived (these people were all arriving in trucks and pickups straight off the dual carriageway) who we discovered was the Boss and owned all the land around us. Now, if we had been almost anywhere in the UK and you pitched up on the edge of a farmer’s land, you’d be greeted with a shotgun and hoofed of a toute vitesse. We spent 2 ½ hours in the company of these generous people without exchanging any more than word of English.

Saturday 6th March

Before I get into any of the continuingly amazing events that this day has seen fit to bestow on us, i have a theory to share on the rules of Cairo traffic. There are only three rules. Rule 1. For any given width of road, there are a number of lanes provided for traffic between the dashed white lines. In addition, the white lines can be used as additional lanes for any vehicle which cannot make its way between them, even though they are only 3 inches wide. Rule 2. Indicators are for decoration only. Rule 3. Pavements are waste of money and expense, therefore are not built and pedestrians may cross any number of lanes at will, with particular use being made of multi-lane junctions by large slow moving groups of veiled women carrying small children and babies. Simples.

Our morning consisted of a reasonable 300 mile drive to Cairo and a surprisingly easy route straight into the Giza Pyramids. We could write a whole chapter on them alone but one story is worth mention. We were determined not to get hussled by the camel guys and were brushing them off politely. One did stop and offer to take a picture of Danny with the camel, which became sitting on the camel, which became the camel standing up and eventually we were were both up there with the camel guy filming our blog!` all the time he was saying ‘no money, no money, you happy, me happy’. He wasn;t too happy when we firts refused to pay him though. Still, he was could sell ice to Eskimos and he did get a few EP from us.

Our hotel sent a taxi for us to follow to their location. Driving through Cairo was subject to the rules above and the drivers themselves can only be described as Stig on speed but without the skill or judgement necessary to make safe manoeuvres.

We have been fortunate enough to be sponsored by a great hotel. Arriving at the InterContinental Citystars hotel was like being the Ambassador only without the Ferero Roche. We were led in by the Limo which had collected us from the Pyramids and had to wait for security to check us in, lowering the ambassadorial residence like barrier pillars into the ground before the sniffer dog checked out the Trannies for drugs or explosive materials – not sure which. The Harley Davidson Club of Egypt were invited to the IC and a barbecue in our honour. We were genuinely treated like celebs and it made an unbelievable contrast to the previous night in the desert.

Sunday 7th March

I think I’ve become deeply and emotionally scarred by Egyptian driving – i keep feeling the need to talk about it and express my theories. As it happens, this particular theory has proven to be exactly right. Because of the sponsor filming that we needed to do this morning and the heavy traffic getting out of Cairo, we ended up riding for a couple of hours across the final eastern Crossing the Sinai desert today and it struck me that all the drivers we came across were putting their lights on full as they approached us – of course this might allow them to see us because it left us totally blind driving across a foreign desert with the very real possibility of camels next to the road. This was confirmed later as we found out that Egyptian drivers prefer to drive with their lights off for the most part to conserve their batteries. They only put the lights up when they see others approaching.

More to follow...

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Mon, Tues, Wed - Tunisia and Libya

Monday, 1st March

Today is our first with a true deadline. Got to be in Genoa for 3pm to catch the ferry to Tunis. Our route by necessity took us through the Alps – which in the ski season is a significant concern! I had visions of attempting mountain roads which would turn out to be shut and we’d find ourselves with no easy route into Italy. However, we had more immediate concerns as the Transalps have a pretty limited fuel range with the full loads (only about 120 miles) and I had got lazy on the French auto routes where there was fuel very 40km. We were following the A roads up to 1250m for the Mont Blanc tunnel with the fuel gauge going crazy as we were on vapour only, but I took comfort from the Garmin which said we had fuel just on the other side of the tunnel. The tunnel itself started with a blast of warm air that was so humid it immediately steamed up my visor and wing mirrors. With my rose tinted glasses on I thought we might go through the tunnel into warmer air but we were not so lucky. I still haven’t worked out where that hot humid air could have come from as when we exited the tunnel, we were greeted by six foot snow drifts either side of the road and black ice across the entrance to the petrol station.

Despite the snow all around us, the roads were completely clear and we made good progress out of the Alps into Italy, only to be met by an almost impenetrable wall of freezing fog. We actually found ourselves colder once we were away from the mountains and snow we were in them. We slogged on through it and hit the outskirts of Genoa about 2.30pm, following the signs for the ferry port. Genoa ferry port. Now there is a navigation challenge. For anyone who has driven to Dover or Portsmouth ferry port with their lovely clear neon signs and helpful staff telling you clearly where to go to find your ferry, think of the complete opposite. A total spaghetti junction of roads with few clear signs, an Italian customs officer trying to explain in exasperated French where to go and security guys who just shrug their shoulders when you asked for the Tunis ferry. It’s all part of the great adventure travelling tapestry and as I told myself, this was the easy bit. The Red Sea ferry and north African border crossings would be far more challenging – no trepidation on my part at all then!

It would seem that the local customs and police also assume everyone knows how the system works – only a helpful German helped us to understand that there was a police stamp required on our paperwork before we would be allowed to board the boat. The ferry itself was no different. All the announcements were in Arabic and French (Tunisia’s primary and secondary languages) but no English. Only Rached (our new Tunisian best friend) explained that there would be a small pile of paperwork to be filled out and stamped in the ferry. I got our first taste of what was to come from border guards as the Tunisian customs official looked at the Transalp V5s, which had the Keeper detailed as Honda Motor Europe, then at my passport, back and forth, back and forth. ‘Why different. Why different?’ the golden letter from Honda was duly produced explaining that the bikes were on loan and we were safely certified and stamped ready for disembarking on Tuesday. ‘Rached’? Who the hell is ‘Rached’. Our new best Tunisian friend is who. He came over and chatted to us whilst we were waiting at the port and we met again on board over some grub. An hour later and we had been invited to stay with his family in southern Tunisia and for us to follow him all the way down there. It almost sounded too good to be true and when he asked if could buy a bed in one our cabins it suddenly seemed like it was! To my eternal shame, my gut reaction was to distrust his motives. And yet, he was friendly and very helpful with other people on the ferry and staying with his family tomorrow evening will add a whole new aspect to the challenge.

We woke up yesterday morning (on time) and got the bikes loaded up... It was freezing! Whilst having breakfast I noticed a portly gentleman listening to ‘The loud Brits’ talking shop. I looked over and he said, “No, carry on. I haven’t heard an English accent for a while”. He was a Scotsman who had been living in Switzerland for ten years. He worked for a lift company and had relocated due to his work. Married to an English girl, he took great pleasure in taking the Mick’ out of her whenever the two countries met at sports. “If we don’t beat them there are always plenty of countries who are willing to do the job for us”. And let’s face it , they generally do. We told him that after 540 miles we only met one other motorcyclist who was German, dressed like a Hells Angel and had his son with him in a side car. His reply was, “Well, he’s German and they wear uniforms”. He also said that it’s typical that they would spoil a motorbike by attaching a side car to it. He made his exit wishing us luck. Nice Guy, he was cutting with a pleasant attitude, but I couldn’t help wondering how he was going to described me and ‘The big guy’ to his mates in the bar which he was obviously going to visit that night. I guess we’ll never know. We hacked on our merry way to Genoa. The first leg was really fun. Then the Alps appeared in the distance... I could see snow... and lots of it. The sight was amazing. The only other experience I’d had of them was flying over them on the way to do a show with Nick Heyward the pop star from back in the day. He hated flying and when we got over the Alps the most vicious turbulence was pitching the plane up and down about a 1000 feet at a time. Nick’s fingers of his right hand were imbedded firmly into the foam of the armrest and the fingers of his left hand firmly in my right arm. Needless to say, it made me a nervous wreck and now I was having flashbacks. Once up in the Alps I saw people descending with skis! This could only mean one thing. There was more snow than I had originally thought. Snow and bikes don’t mix. Add cold to that and you have my worst nightmare. Everything up there had about five feet of snow sitting on top of it. Cars, trees, petrol pumps, even people! We were low on fuel so took a slight detour to a little town to fill up. We took some photos where I did a little ‘soft shoe’ whilst Graham thought it would be funny to sit on a massive throne of ice that had formed on one of the pumps. When he tried to get up he fell backwards and filled his pants with snow. He then uttered the words, “Don’t worry it’s all downhill from here”... Bikes... snow... ice... downhill... actor... S***! Anyway we got down alive and my elation was only short lived. Every two minutes we would go from tunnel to daylight, tunnel to daylight, I was going stir crazy. Then at last we arrived at Mont Blanc which is called that for reasons I’ve just explained. The tunnel there blows warm air into your face that immediately steamed up my visor, mirrors and most importantly my body. We were like two kids in a cake shop. At last Mediterranean warm climate... NOT! As we proceeded we were greeted with FREEZING FOG! And now my bike had started spluttering! I told Graham to keep an eye on me as RAC at this critical moment only meant, ‘Runny A*** Climate’, to me. Every time I got to 90mph my ‘Tranny’ started doing a Salsa. We decided to stop at the next petrol station. Filled up the bikes with fuel and our bodies with pasta. Half an hour later we had defrosted and the weather had brightened up. The next leg was quite enjoyable as my ‘Tranny’ had magically righted itself. I promised not to bring it up ever as to not tempt fate. We’ve got a desert to get through. We arrived in Genoa with three hours to spare. No one seemed to know what time or where our ferry was departing from. Once we found the place all we could do is wait. We called home and generally chatted to the locals, well, a German kid (not in uniform) who was so prepared for his two week trip, It made Graham’s immaculate planning look shoddy. This guy had all his paperwork in a nice plastic folder, knew all the protocol, had his girlfriend doing the driving (in his pristine VW Transporter with luggage box on the back) his Cannon HD camcorder that went nicely with her Cannon stills camera with snazzy lens and of course, his confident (but not arrogant) Michael Schumacher smile that made me think, “What the f*** am I putting myself through all this s*** for?” Then I remembered... CHARITY! I rolled my dribbling tongue back into my extremely jealous head and decided against quitting our trip and asking him for a lift.

Once we had loaded our stuff onto the ferry, Had a shower (which was the best I’d had thus far) we hung out with a Guy named Rashed who at the dock had told us that our Sat Nav route was longer and more boring than the preferred route chosen by the Germans and the Swiss when travelling from France to Italy. He has invited us to change out plans and come stay with him and his family on an island off the south coast of Tunisia. I means us not having to camp that night so I was the first one to raise my hand like a little precocious school kid. It means a longer ride that night but a shorter ride to Libya. The receptionist on the boat called Donia said that I looked like a Tunisian friend of hers. I know. They all say that. Donia could only be described as what Jamaicans would say is a ‘Hot Gyal’. She showed us photos of her partying in Dubai with all her ‘Hot Gyal’ mates, mostly with their lils on show via very skimpy clothing. She somehow still remained professional whilst doing the facebook thing, showing us photos and booking us in. Graham told her I was an actor and she wanted to take a photo with me, to which I gladly obliged. She is now my friend on facebook. We had dinner and a couple of beers to loosen up the muscles.

Tuesday, 2nd March
[Danny and Graham]
Tuesday morning found us eating breakfast with new Tunisian best pal Rashed and exchanging pleasantries with our waiter, Jalel, who thought he looked like Bruce Willis. Jalel thought Danny was a dead ringer for Will Smith and Graham his was worst nightmare as he was the only one who declared himself atheist - Jalel couldn’t understand why someone would have no religion. He tried the five minute conversion on Graham but we couldn’t understand why an Algerian born in Sicily took life so seriously! It turns out that he didn’t actually pray to Mecca five times a day and thought that the Pakistani muslins were dangerous. What a character – he’d have made a great stand up from the word go when he asked us why we were eating with the poor people in the ‘buffet’ section.

We were expecting an easy path through customs as Tunisia is meant to be the most European of the all the north African countries. We should have been so lucky! As we rolled to a standstill at the customs point, there were obviously several different levels of official. The least official and most shifty looking was very helpful with getting our paperwork in order – then he asked for a bung. We refused and maybe that’s were the problems started? The next and far more official looking guy walked over and asked in very good English for any ‘radio walky talky’ and GPS. Being a polite Englishman, i obliged and they were all carted off along with our passports. Ten minutes later he was back with a shorter, fatter version of himself in tow who seemed to be a higher level and he declared that the radios were ‘interdit’ and must be taken and left at another building. Meanwhile the suave young German had sailed through was only a cursory inspection. A two hour sweat filled circus of walking to and from the ‘other building’ ensued with me having to beg in very poor French to be allowed to keep the radios and GPS. I had to settle to keep the GPS and leave the radios from our intercoms there. I was given a very official receipt so the i could collect them on our way back - even when i explained that we were not coming back the helpful official just said ‘not my problem’. Beware all travellers to Tunisia of the officious customs men and their desire to keep your walky talky and GPS – ours will be on ebay.com soon I’m sure. They’ll probably be snapped up the suave German!

Finally we were through customs and on our way to Rached’s island, 450km away. It should have been a 4-5 hour journey. Leaving as we did at about 6pm, we should have been there about 11. Try 4am – bad traffic, worse roads, food stop at an authentic roadside shack and an island ferry meant we got to Rashed’s dad’s house just before the birds started singing. In fact, we did hear cockerels crowing as we were unloading the bikes. Only one bed was available which Danny took as the senior member of the duo. Graham’s bed was a row of settee cushions two foot wide. They were luxury.

Wednesday, 3rd March
[Danny and Graham]
We were due to meet our Libyan guide this afternoon and were waiting on a call from him to confirm a time to meet at the border. Meanwhile, Danny had got up and walked around the house in his t-shirt, base layer tights and motorbike boots to be greeted by the sight of 3 Tunisian builders and Rashed’s dad. Rashed’s dad gave us the tour of his house – the fresh rainwater well (yes we did try it and it was amazing), the new veranda, the olives, vegetable patch and so on. He even made us traditional Tunisian tea just as Rashed came back with breakfast. You could not want to meet nicer people in complete contrast to the customs. What is it about short fat men in uniforms drunk with power. We were still waiting our guide to call – his number was ringing unobtainable. He called around 1030 and we confidently predicted our arrival at the border for 1230. We arrived at the border at 2 with our guide sounding a little impatient. Border papers took a couple of hours with the support of our guide – next to impossible without his help for sure. By the time we had eaten on the Libyan side of the border, there was only an hour of daylight. We had 300km to ride which took us through Tripoli.

Tripoli was an absolute nightmare. Driving in Libya is like swimming with hungry sharks. Some of these cars couldn’t pass for cars never mind an MOT. Everyone wanted to be in the same lane at the same time. The only problem was that they were all full but someone always came out of nowhere and just crowbared themselves into a non-existent gap usually causing a major panic to all the foreigners, namely us! We were already half scared to death before we got there because everyone kept telling us it was Dangerous, we’ll be kidnapped and end up in one of the Colonel’s (Gaddafi) Chicken Party Buckets. People were driving talking on their mobile phones whilst eating their evening meal with kids not only with no kiddy seats and no seat belts but standing up in the car looking out at the two Aliens riding through town on funny horses. Renaming films came to mind. Wacky-Backy Races. Cannon and Ball Runs and Death Race 2010. Some geezer would nearly kill you, wave, look you strait in the eye with that friendly smile that says, “Get the f*** out of the way Infidel”. One thing about the Libyans is that they wear their hearts on their sleeve. (ours were back in the UK).
They have no road signs in English so you they have you right where they want you... LOST! We think they just enjoy ribbing us and couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the Mosques had twin towers. But we have had nothing but a warm welcome from everyone we have met.

Apart from the life threatening hell ride through Tripoli, we had only one other drama on route the hotel. I (Graham) suddenly felt the bike tipping to one side and thought we’d need the tyre changing training from Honda. But as cars were beeping like mad, i checked the back of the bike ad felt something significant was amiss. I had lost a 20 litre jerry can off the top of pannier – and it was full! I was checking mirrors rapido for balls of fire and chasing cops but all i saw was Danny’s lights – obviously i’d not hit him with my improvised road depth charge. We stopped for check the rest of the luggage whilst our guide went back to search for the jerrycan. Almost immediately a car load of locals stopped and we thought we might become kidnapping statistics but as with everyone we met, all they wanted to do was offer help. The jerrycan was not recovered so something else will need to be acquired tomorrow.

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Sunday 28th Feb
Rain, rain go away come again another day! Driving rain and strong winds: not the most auspicious start but then again what can we expect starting the first European leg of our challenge in the depths of winter. The bad outlook was not helped by a phone/alarm/time zone confusion which had me outside packing up the bike thinking I was very clever and early when in truth I was an hour late and Danny had been too polite to knock on my door. Still, we were away by a very reasonable first day time and off into the grey murk. However, within an hour, the temperature was bearable, there was a hint of sun and the music on the iPod was chasing the ‘missing the family for 2 weeks’ blues away. Happy days were short lived though. I have ridden in some strong winds in the UK from time to time. I’d even say that some of them were a little scary. However, today brought a whole new meaning to the need for clean underwear. A solid 5 hours of barely controlled weaving and central reservation avoidance was the worst road wind knows either of us have ever encountered. It’ll be neck aches in the morning. We did come through the first 540 mile day – we even met a guy who knows Craig from his local! Currently sat writing the blog in the gloriously green and red Ibis Geneva – lucky us!
Saturday 27th Feb
After waking up on Saturday morning to the sound of torrential rain on the morning I was to meet Graham Hoskins at the Ace Cafe bike show at the Alexander palace to head off on a 7000 mile journey around the Med. We are taking in 14 countries in 15 days and I was not in any way enthusiastic about hacking down the North Circular Rd. But I did. And got soaked. My phone got waterlogged and stopped working. I was meant to be doing a Radio interview with DJ Elaine for Colourful radio, which I missed. My Mrs and kids were there as were Graham’s. We were introduced on stage by Mark Wilsmore from Ace Cafe. Then it was time for the big send off. After I sat on the most perfect bike ever for me, The Black Jaguar low rider. We set off.... to Victoria to get our passports which were at the Visa Agent because the Algerian Consul didn’t sign the visa in time for the trip. So the first drama had reared it’s ugly head and now we had to bypass Algeria and get a ferry to Tunisia. We were now on our way to the Channel tunnel. We arrived in Calais about 6 o’clock and Got our heads down. Waking up was like the end of a nightmare. I got all my time back to front and what was meant to be a rendezvous at even at the bike turned into heart failure. I looked out of the window and one of the bikes was gone! It was also crapping it down. Thank the lord Graham had moved his bike out of the rain and under the canopy whilst I was dribbling on my pillow dreaming of a Caribbean holiday. I went to rescue my bike and to my horror found my bank card lying in a big puddle in the car park. It was the shape of the things to come that day.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Honda Institute - Thursday 11th Feb

As we've never ridden these particular bikes before and we'll be riding without the benefit of make-up trucks or indeed support vehicles of any kind, it made good sense to get some expert advice from the Honda team themselves. We simply couldn't risk standing on the roadside in the middle of the Sinai desert scratching our sunburnt foreheads because we didn't know how to get a tyre off or where to find the air filter!

So we managed to earn ourselves an invite to that most elusive of treasures, the Honda Institute Press workshop. Here is where you will find a mind boggling array of mechanical wonders from Fireblades to Mugen Civics.

Matt (the Master Technician) showed where to find some of the more obvious parts like air filter, battery, throttle and cluth cable point etc. i have no doubt that we'd eventually have worked them out for ourselves but the thought of having to do so in a sandstorm with a deadline looming over fills me with cold fear so better to be prepared! We're riding with inner tubes rather than tubeless tyres as they are easier to repair on the roadside. Changing tyres was a real psychological barrier for me because for 25 years I've alway taken my motorbike wheels to the shop to get the tyres changed - now I know that we'll be able to deal with any tyre shaped problem. And thanks to Chris Scott's Adventure Motorcycling Handbook for the side-stand bead breaking trick!

Thursday, 11 February 2010

MCN Bike Show, Thursday 4th February

[Graham, 4th Feb]

I'm a regular visitor to the MCN Bike show but this year was very different. We were off to Excel to promote the ‘Iron Butts’ Challenge and to find many more supporters! And what a day it was. After a good look at all the latest shiny machinery, trendy clothing and ‘must have’ gadgets, I was joined by Danny in the afternoon to get to work on our contacts. With our best networking faces on, we worked our way round the show and our ranks of supporters were swelled by MCE Insurance, REV’IT! and Draggin Jeans to name just a couple.

What became apparent very quickly at the Show was the incredible popularity of both the ‘Red Dwarf’ cult TV series and Danny himself, known predominantly for his characters ‘the Cat’ and Duane Dibley. We couldn’t move ten feet without another enthusiastic fan asking for an autograph or a photo. It’s heart warming to meet fans that have followed the series since the late 1980’s to this day.

We also met with a load of young and old hands from the industry – everyone from the young biking maestro Bradley Smith, to the head of BSB, Stuart Higgs. It would not have been possible to find a more friendly and supportive bunch. Even the legendary photographer ‘Mad Dog’ Keith Martin has agreed to take an action photo of Danny with our Honda Transalps, to auction after the challenge.

Finally, we had ourselves photographed for MCN and interviewed for bikechannel.com – look at the last 2 minutes of this clip http://link.brightcove.com/services/player/bcpid16829166001?bclid=0&bctid=65123549001.

Follow our blogging next week as we visit Honda for some hands-on mechanical training.