Cars are people too

I’m not the kind of motorcyclist who thinks that cars are some kind of alien construct. I knew bikers like that in my youth, people who just didn’t drive, almost out of principle. But I like cars a lot, and I am hijacking this RoadRider blog post to mourn the passing of a rather special one.

My wife Peter and I lived in Dubai and Abu Dhabi for eight years. Cars are relatively cheap there, as is fuel, so we bought Peter a shiny new black Ford Mustang 5-litre V8 convertible in mid-2010. I loved driving it as much as she did, so later that year I got myself a four-year-old 2006 pale metallic green version, pictured here. Okay, being older it was a 4.6-litre V8 but it still stirred something within me every time I looked at it and every time I drove it.

That Mustang took me to work most days, when the desert heat was too much to make riding a bike a viable proposition. On cooler days we drove it with the roof down for that wind-in-the-hair feeling that you just don’t get on a bike, accompanied by that woofly V8 soundtrack and music from the excellent Shaker stereo. You didn’t have to go fast to enjoy the experience, but the ‘Stang would pick up its skirts and run if asked. The fact that its handling wasn’t up to modern European standards didn’t matter in a land of largely straight roads.

The car wasn’t without its problems. It started to make some grating noises from the rear end, announcing the need for two replacement half-shafts. Then the alternator died. I became on first-name terms with the booking clerk at the Ford main dealer in Dubai, where it was always serviced and repaired. He pointed out that as the car had been imported personally from the US by the previous owner any parts supplied for it would not be covered by guarantee, which seemed daft – all Mustangs were built on the same assembly line in America, regardless of where they were being shipped to. He was decent enough to ignore that rule, though, when the new alternator also failed after three months and they had to replace it again, which they did free of charge.

Other stuff went wrong, too. The engine just died in the middle of rush-hour traffic in Abu Dhabi one morning, signalling the initial alternator issue. Then the electric roof started to play up, needing manual assistance to get the left side up and on its way to the windscreen rail. The left-hand rear window needed a new lifting mechanism. The stereo started to retain CDs in the bowels of its six-disc storage unit. The AC needed regular re-gassing. A new battery was needed every two years – a common occurrence out there due to the heat. The roof fabric started to deteriorate, along with the leather on the driver’s seat.

Mustang 3 (2014_05_08 03_36_25 UTC)

But through it all I loved that car, probably more than any of the many I’ve owned over the years. It polished up beautifully and warmed the cockles of my heart with every drive. In eight years we put something like 60,000 miles on the clock, even though we had another car and several bikes to choose from. Eventually, though, the time came to leave the Middle East, which meant selling all the stuff we’d acquired over the years, and that’s not easy. The cars were the hardest to sell.

Peter’s black Mustang had long since been replaced by a V8 Jaguar XF, which had a warranty and service plan that made sense in our high-mileage existence, and we virtually had to give that away. There were just so many similar models on the market, all with far lower mileage. Despite lowering the price twice, we couldn’t get anyone interested in the Mustang. It had to stay behind, gathering dust and looking increasingly forlorn, to be used only on our infrequent trips back to the UAE.

I finally sold it a few weeks ago, the same day I cancelled my UAE mobile account, credit card and visa. I took it to one of those “we buy any car” places, knowing that I’d get nothing for it but just needing it to go somewhere. They checked it out online and found that it had been an insurance write-off in the US, then shipped to the UAE where the rules about fixing write-offs are less stringent. You’d never have known it had been written-off – it drove perfectly and delivered great motoring pleasure for eight years.

Now, with 100,000 miles on the clock and sounding like it would run for another 100,000, it fetched about £500 (2,500 dirhams). The scratches and dents it had picked up from five months in a Dubai car park will doubtless get painted over, someone will make a killing on the re-sale, and hopefully someone else will enjoy the pleasure of topless V8 motoring for a few more years. It even gave me a parting gift on its last journey to the acquiring dealer, coughing up the two CDs that had been firmly lodged in the entertainment system for months! Farewell, old friend.

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Some rides you just want to be over!

The omens were not good. I had 200 miles to ride and I was suffering from one of those colds that sucks the life out of you: shivers, fever, sore throat, cough. A day in bed with a good book and a hot toddy seemed a better idea than schlepping down the M6, M42, M40 and M25 from Manchester to Woking.

My wife Peter and I were in Manchester to attend the christening of our beautiful granddaughter Grace, which was a joyous occasion in itself and offered the chance to catch up with members of our far-flung family. That’s her brother William on the Valkyrie that very afternoon, a few hours before my cold hit; at least my enjoyment of the ceremony and party weren’t affected.

We planned to be in Woking (near London) the following evening to catch up with two close cousins. Two days later we were flying out of Heathrow to Jo’burg, so in theory we could have holed up in our tiny hotel room for 24 hours and still made it back in time for the flight, at least. A budget-priced Premier Inn hotel room has many merits, but the thought of spending a whole day and another night there in my condition was just too depressing for words.

I decided if I could make it to the petrol station across the road to fill up and get back again without falling over, then the trip back down south was on. The Valkyrie didn’t want to play ball, though: for the second time in two weeks the battery cried foul and wouldn’t start the beast. The writing was on the wall last summer in Germany, I guess, when the same thing happened – the result of the trickle charger being switched off more than on by an over-cautious minder during the bike’s long periods of downtime.

With a push from a passing hotel worker and my wife, I got the bike started, filled up and back to the hotel without mishap. Decision made: we ride. We stopped off to say goodbye to daughter Lizzie, who supplied all manner of cold and flu remedies, and headed for the M6 South – which was at a complete standstill.

They’ve been doing something drastic to the M6 around junctions 16-19 for at least three years, it seems, turning it into a so-called “smart motorway”. The road is reduced to narrow lanes and a 50-mph limit policed by “average speed cameras” (why Britain can’t afford above-average or even first-rate speed cameras is beyond me). The lanes are too narrow for lane-splitting, especially on a wide, Givi-equipped Valkyrie, so every trip to and from Manchester is a traffic nightmare on that stretch.

Happily, the jam cleared after about 10 minutes and we progressed at 50 mph for about 25 miles. At least it was sunny and warm, but even that went to hell when the temperature dropped and it started to rain around Birmingham. We made it to Woking in one piece in a slower-than-usual four hours 45 minutes, including a welcome lunch break on the M40. The M25, as ever, was at a virtual standstill from Heathrow around to junction 10, but I was sustained by the mental image of riding on to my cousin Tony’s driveway, hitting the kill switch, putting down the side-stand and just collapsing.
I took my wet gear off in the garage and made it as far as the bedroom, where I climbed into bed shivering and slept soundly for a couple of hours. Some rides you just want to be over, and this one finally was!

I missed the family get-together that evening but was well enough by Wednesday to wash and polish the Honda to its former glory and head to the airport for the 11-hour flight home. Peter, who had been attentive and supportive as ever during my man-flu, announced about an hour into the flight that she now had the same bug.

Still, we’d had a memorable and enjoyable visit, the Valkyrie thrilled as always (new battery to follow), and we’d seen some old friends and almost every member of our family in Europe. A few days of health misery seemed a small price to pay.

Renegade Samaritans to the rescue

Forty minutes before the plane was due to board, and 30 minutes from the airport, the plug in my rear tyre gave up. You get that sinking feeling, literally, as the rear end goes all squishy and you focus on getting the whole thing to the side of the road in one piece.

The urgent need was to get my wife Peter (pictured above in less stressful times) to George airport for the last flight of the day to Johannesburg; she had a connecting flight to Dubai that she couldn’t afford to miss. I was using the V-Strom on its brand new Mitas tyres, complete with the newly plugged rear, following its bolt-puncture incident just 24 km into its short life.

 

Our two-month-old bakkie (pick-up truck for those outside South Africa) was off the road: a woman pulled out of a side road and stopped right in front of me on a dual carriageway. I was fortunately sticking to the 60 km/h speed limit, so she wasn’t hurt; I merely felt the intense pain you get in your sternum when a seat belt does its job – but the bakkie would be off the road while the insurance industry did its thing.

The first thought after the tyre went flat was to have my wife take off her biking gear and stick a thumb out for a passing car. A police car heading the other way stopped and the female officer was very sympathetic, even offering to call her husband and see if he’d take Peter to the airport. He wasn’t answering his phone and, meantime, none of the seven or eight cars that sped past showed any sign of stopping.

Two bikers also sped past, wearing Renegades jackets, but a minute later reappeared from the opposite direction to see if they could help. I asked if they were heading to George, and they said yes. Would they take Peter to the airport? Of course! So she got her biking gear back on and sat on the back of a large black cruiser (I was too concerned that she should catch her flight to bother about the make, but I reckon it was a Harley clone from Honda or Yamaha). The other guy, on a Yamaha sports bike, took her heavy sailing bag and slung it over his shoulders like a rucksack, and they headed off. The clock was ticking; thank God for online check-in.

The cop gave me a card for a local breakdown service, and a guy with a bike trailer duly arrived within 20 minutes, loaded the stricken V-Strom and took me home again. Pricey, at R950, but you don’t have many options with a bike puncture, especially one this size.

Puncture

Peter made it with 25 minutes to spare, and I was back in front of the TV set in time to watch Ireland defeat Scotland on their way to winning the Six Nations Rugby Championship and the Grand Slam. (You have to be a rugby fan to appreciate that feat, and Irish to know why it means so much, but well done lads!)

So thanks to the two Renegades for proving to be Samaritans as well – you saved the day. As for plugs in motorcycle tyres, I’ve never been a fan. I’ve just ordered a new rear boot for the Suzuki, having set a new personal record for the distance covered on a new tyre: 75 km! Prices have shot up in the few short weeks since I last bought one, so between the tyres and the rescue I’m out R3,000, or about £200. Ouch!

 

Going all knobbly in my old age

It was just a few days before my 64th birthday when I finally went all knobbly. Not my knees, happily – not yet, anyway – but my tyres. I’ve been a road rider for most of my life, hence the name of this blog, and it’s what I love. Smooth, tarred roads sweeping through beautiful scenery do it for me. But it wasn’t always so.

I cut my biking teeth on an old Lambretta at the age of 13, riding around the trails and fields of the land that years later would become the Belfield campus of University College Dublin. I’d buy other old bikes at a breaker’s yard in Dublin’s Francis Street, get them out to Belfield and ride them on those self-same trails or the few internal concrete roads. It was my only option: riding on the road couldn’t be done legally for another three years.

After I turned 16, it was tar all the way, apart from a jaunt on a friend’s Montesa scrambler and trying out Yamaha’s XT500 on a couple of trail parks when it first came out. But down here in Plettenberg Bay, you have only two options for road-riding: you head east on the N2 towards Port Elizabeth or west towards Cape Town. Take to the dirt roads, however, and thousands of kilometres of other routes become instantly available.

So when the road-orientated tyres on my 10-year-old Suzuki V-Strom 1000 needed to be replaced, I went for Mitas knobblies, with a 50/50 on/off road tread. They felt great, right from the off, especially on the dirt road leading down to our house – until I picked up a large bolt in the rear tyre about 700 metres from our house on my way home from having them fitted! Top marks to BF Motorcycles in Knysna for coming to the rescue inside 30 minutes (great service, when you consider that they are 25 minutes away). The mechanic said the plug he inserted should last, but he couldn’t guarantee it as the hole was so large.

That apart, the new tyres feel superb on Tarmac and light-years better on dirt. I suspect the tyres they replaced were the factory originals, their rubber hardened by time and five years in the desert climate of Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

That was me sorted, but my wife has been hankering after a go-anywhere replacement for her old V-Strom 650. At 5 feet 4 inches, seat height narrowed her adventure bike choices somewhat. We found an almost-new V-Strom at a great price, but she said it felt top-heavy and the seat was higher than on her older model. Then we looked at a BMW F700GS, which seemed ideal in the seat height department but very expensive for a relatively low-powered bike.

What really get her interested, though, was the Triumph Tiger 800XC. We’d met a female fellow-traveller with one on the Eurotunnel train a couple of years back, and she swore by it. They even do a special 800XC Low, and we found one at the Triumph dealer in Edenvale, Johannesburg. It fit Mrs Peter like a glove, but sadly it was a rental bike and not for sale, and used ones are rare in South Africa.

I called around about 10 people selling Tiger 800XCs a couple of weeks ago, but they were either too expensive or already sold – mostly the latter. We were in Jo’burg for business for a few days and drove our bakkie the 1,300 km home, with one more bike to check out en route in Bloemfontein. Like all the others, it had the standard seat but looked good online.

It started to hail as we parked and dashed into Honda Wing Central – not too promising. But the bike was immaculate: three years old but it could have passed for brand new. It had an accessory sump guard and radiator guard, one owner, and 17,669 km on the clock. We hummed and hawed. The dealer adjusted the seat to the lower setting, but it was still a tad tall. We negotiated for a free Triumph accessory low seat, had the fork legs dropped a little in the yokes to help, paid the bill and rode out of the dealership an hour after entering.

I had the pleasure of riding the first leg to an overnight stop in Colesberg, and the bike was a revelation. It was so easy to ride, comfortable, surprisingly smooth and able to overtake at speed without dropping down a gear: just twist and go. It put a grin on my face, and on my wife’s the next morning when she rode the next leg.

Tiger Pete 2

These are great bikes. The tyres are also Mitas, also knobbly, and handle Tarmac with aplomb. I had to ride a few short sections of dirt, and the Triumph just felt completely at home there. We shared the riding the rest of the way home, feeling delighted with the new addition to the Rae collection. We’re still waiting for the new low seat, which should make the machine easier for Peter to manage. If not, we’ll go with a suspension lowering kit. Those dirt roads through the Karoo are beckoning.

Slow rain in the Tyrol

The last time I was in Austria on a bike was for the press launch of the BMW R45 and R65 in June 1978. I remember liking the bikes and loving the roads, though after all this time I have no idea where this took place; somewhere Alpine. My wife has long had Austria on her must-ride list, so spending four days there was one of the two main goals of our summer tour this year – the other was to hang out with family for a week in Tuscany.

The Tuscany side of the trip dictated the timing: the villa we wanted was too expensive for our pockets in the peak season, but it was both affordable and available for the last week in September. Our daughter Elizabeth and her husband James had taken walking holidays for two successive years in the KItzbuhel area and thoroughly recommended it, so that was our destination.

The plan had been to camp, but night tempertures were around 7 degrees, which made hotels seem a much more attractive option. My Internet-savvy wife is a great Airbnb fan, so she went online over breakfast in Bad Camberg and found us a decent-sounding ski-lodge apartment in the Tyrolean town of Oberau for a mere €30 a night. We’d hole up there for three nights and take day trips out into the mountains for a mixture of riding and hiking.

Torrential rain east of Munich kept us on the autobahn until we reached the Austrian border. I’m no huge fan of riding in the rain – I served my time over the years in the UK and Ireland – and motorways at least get you through it faster. The non-motorway roads in Austria were reasonably well surfaced, but the pace became quite slow. The area seems overrun with towns and villages, so you’re forever slowing down to meet a variety of speed limits that run 90 km/h, 80, 70, 60, 50, 40 and even 30!

Local drivers seem a little unsure of how to behave at roundabouts: three times in about two hours we entered a roundabout only to find the car on the road joining from the right shooting straight across in front of us. Maybe the Austrians envy the French their archaic priorité a droit rule and think that roundabouts are cool places to employ it.
We reached Oberau by late afternoon and were pleased to find we’d be upgraded to a nice one-bed apartment with mountain views.

However, the rain continued for the next two days, always steady, sometimes heavy. There seemed no point in riding, but we hiked some the area’s many trails. At one point, as we continued uphill on a steep mountain path, I noticed that the rain had suddenly taken on a mysterious, mesmerising slow-motion quality. I even said to Peter “oh, look at that – slow rain”! It took a few seconds for it to register that this, in fact, was snow! Not what one expects on a summer holiday, but the peaks next morning presented a stunning display with their fresh covering of white powder.

Austrian Tyrol

The rain and snow eventually moved away and we continued our ride to Italy. I’d known of the Brenner Pass for years but never traversed it. The much-acclaimed Grossglockner Pass was too far out of our way to make sense, so we opted for the Brenner. What a disappointment! There were some nice mountain roads en route, but nothing to write home about. Suddenly you find yourself in a town, the signs say Brenner, and that’s it! No sense of achievement, no really challenging twists and turns. If you’ve ridden decent Alpine passes like the Stelvio and the Great St Bernard, the Brenner is a big let-down.

We made up for it, though, once inside Italy. We set the Garmin for non-motorway routes and aimed for Tuscany, and within a few miles found ourselves on an increasingly narrow single-track road that pretty much ran through a few back gardens! At one point the tar gave way to a few yards of gravel but then resumed, putting us on the SS44 (or the SS508 – it was impossible to tell), which was a fabulous mountain road that kept us entertained for a while.  It was popular with motorcyclists, and this Porsche 918 Spyder driver.

Porsche 918 (2)We eventually rejoined the autostrada for the ride down to Florence, stopping at Modena (of Ferrari fame) for the night. Couldn’t find any signs for campsites, which was a shame because it was warmer now at lower altitude and we would have gladly camped. We asked a BMW rider for directions, found nothing, and then stopped at a few miserable-looking three-star hotels before finding one that seemed acceptable for a rather pricey €94, including breakfast. Heading for the highway next morning, we followed the on-ramp as it looped around on to the autostrada, and there found a sign for the campsite! C’est la vie…

 

In Bruges? Not today, thank you…

One of the cool things about 2017 for me is anniversaries: it’s 50 years since I started riding motorcycles (okay, it was a knackered old Lambretta Li150 scooter and so not technically a motorcycle, but that’s when the bug bit me and I’ve been riding ever since). My Suzuki TL1000S is 20 years old this year, the Ducati 1000 SportClassic is 10, as is my V-Strom, and the Valkyrie is 15 years old; only the Rune breaks the symmetry as it’s 13.

So here’s the thing: someone who’s been riding for 50 years and touring for 44 must know a thing or two about packing bikes, you’d think? I thought so too. I’ve had a particularly handy device called an Oxford Cargo Net since for ever – probably 15 years – but when I used it for a recent trip to Cape Town it had lost all its elasticity. So while visiting our daughter Charlotte, son-in-law Nikolas and grandsons Theo (that’s him on the Valkyrie, pre-trip) and Zak in south-east London I was delighted to find a new one in a nearby bike shop the day before we set off for our two-week tour of Europe.

We duly headed off first thing next morning for the Channel Tunnel, with the new cargo net holding our tubular waterproof bag to the top of our Kuryakyn tote bag. The net packaging said it was good for loads of up to 1 kg, and the bag was probably just under 2 kg – no problem, I thought. I’m sure I’ve used it for heavier loads in the past. I duly left my trusty but non-matching bungee cords at home and hit the M20 for the Tunnel terminus.

My mirrors showed me the tubular bag was moving slowly but steadily leftwards under the cargo net, so Peter kindly held it in place with her left hand while we rode through the heavy rain to catch our 08:20 train. We made good time, so Peter nipped into the terminal building and emerged with a pair of purple bungee cords which we used to secure the luggage properly. So much for 44 years of touring experience!

The Eurotunnel boarding process has always been fast, efficient and easy – but Passport Control these days is another matter. You used to be able to pass through almost on a nod with a European passport, while my wife’s South African document usually needed a quick visa search and a stamp. Not any more. It was bad last year and worse this year. The queue for the border check was moving so slowly that we missed our 08:20 train and had to take the next one, about 20 minutes later. On the way back in Calais, it was even more chaotic. I guess that’s the price we pay for security.

The rain had disappeared by the time we emerged into watery sunlight in Calais. The French have not been too diligent of late with their maintenance, and the road signs out of the port were in such a bad state that the road numbers were rusted beyond legibility. We eventually found the right exit and headed for our first overnight in Germany.

We’d both loved the movie In Bruges, a dark comedy-drama (highly recommended), and seeing that our route passed straight by the old city we figured a lunch stop there was called for. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with some daft “No Car Day”, which meant that all entrances to Bruges were blocked to normal traffic. Only pedestrians and bicycles were allowed in.

We tried a selection of different routes, to no avail, so with great reluctance had to skip Bruges and move on. I’ll never be a tree-hugger, and I am not convinced that global warming has much to do with the internal combustion engine, so I doubt that this token exercise in vehicle banning will have done any good for the people of Bruges – just inconvenienced tourists who would have spent money there. Shame.

We rode on dry roads in ever-increasing sunshine across Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, enjoying a largely traffic-free journey. The only glitch was being offered a rip-off exchange rate of £206 for €200 at some German autobahn service area, which we declined.

After about 450-odd miles on the road it seemed time to look for a campsite, although the air felt increasingly chilly so a three-star hotel was also on the menu. We found one in Bad Camberg for about €72, including breakfast. It wasn’t anything special but it was warm, dry, had lots of space for bike gear and out-of-sight, off-road parking. We both needed an end-of-day beer and so started a mini restaurant crawl that began in a tapas bar and ended up with superb pasta in the town’s Italian eatery. We wondered if we’d succumbed to the attractions of hotel touring too easily, but there wasn’t a campsite to be found – maybe we’d camp tomorrow night, weather permitting.

Is it just me, or is England boring by bike?

This year’s summer tour in Europe kicked off with a gentle trip up the east of England to visit our son James at university in Scotland, back via Manchester to visit our daughter Lizzie and her family and then on to London to visit our other UK-based daughter, Charlotte, and her family.

The family visits were enormous fun, but not much else stands out. Is it just me, or are large tracts of the English countryside just plain boring? Okay, we had a lot of ground to cover in five days, so we took the M1 for speed and convenience as far as Leeds, then headed east to Scarborough on the coast.

We’d booked into a Premier Inn for convenience. It cost £100 – clean and convenient, as always, but not cheap, although other hotels in the town were looking for £200, which is nonsense in the low season. I get regular emails from Premier Inn urging me to stay with them for £39, but that doesn’t seem to cut any ice in Scarborough.

We set off on foot in steady rain to explore the town, me in my Rukka jacket and helmet. It must have looked weird, but at least I was dry. Scarborough (main photo) is like so many English seaside towns, a picture of faded grandeur from a bygone era. It even has the obligatory seafront arcades, full of lights and naff games. This evening, there was only a single punter in the largest emporium, a woman of uncertain age pulling on the handle of a one-armed bandit.

IMG_9859

Amid the decay and the faded paintwork lay a pleasant hillside park. We walked through it, remarking how it was a bit overgrown and unloved-looking, then came across a beautiful so-called Italian Garden with manicured lawns, pretty flowers (many beds were empty, and signs said the plants had all been destroyed by deer), a water feature and a statue of Mercury. Impressive stuff, despite the heavy rain.

IMG_9846IMG_9847

We walked back along the waterside promenade, to be greeted by the sight of about six men in their late teens or early 20s, shooting up whatever one shoots up with needles on park benches at 7 pm in Scarborough. Not a great tourist attraction. Don’t the police care about this stuff?

The rain had passed on the following morning, and we followed the coast road to the nearby port of Whitby. We opted for a pavement table at a coffee shop, where the coffee was Maxwell House instant. Seriously? In 2017? We didn’t manage to finish the coffee, and headed off instead for Scotland.

I’m told the east of England has some great biking roads, but generally the A1 ain’t one of them. Apart from a few stretches where we could give the Valkyrie its head, and be rewarded with sweet exhaust music, it was boring and full of traffic. I’d read in Bike magazine about five great biking roads in the Yorkshire area, but they were all out of our way and only ran for about 10 miles, so it made no sense to make a detour for a few miles of bend-swinging.

Even the Yorkshire Moors were a bit of a disappointment. I’ve seen better bleak scenery (and more of it) and better riding roads in the west of Ireland. Maybe a more extended tour of the Moors would have changed my view, but we didn’t have the time or the inclination. It was bucketing with rain again, but obligingly the rain stopped as suddenly as it started and the sun came out, big-time, as we left the Moors, which helped.

Our destination was Stirling, half way between Edinburgh and Glasgow, but Peter wanted to see and travel across the new Forth Road Bridge, opened just a few days earlier by none other than Her Majesty The Queen. We found it all right, but so had hundreds if not thousands of motorists, and the queues either side were several miles long. I’m an inveterate lane-filterer, but the new (to us) Givi panniers on the Valkyrie made the bike feel a mile wide. The concentration needed to thread something that wide through lines of traffic, being deflected by cat’s eyes and thickly applied white lines, was immense.

Impressive bridge, nonetheless. We eventually made it across and back, got ripped off with high petrol prices on the motorway into Stirling, and spent a very pleasant two days exploring the Trossachs (of Loch Lomond fame) with James. Gloriously sunny on Saturday, raining steadily on Sunday – that’s Scotland for you.

More rain greeted us in Manchester, of course, but nothing could dampen our spirits as we got to meet our three-week-old granddaughter Grace, her almost-five-year-old brother William, her mum Lizzie and dad James. Then it was back on the motorway network to Surrey for a day’s laundry and bike wash before the next leg down to Italy. The M25, of course, was as clogged as ever, and again the wide Givis forced me to spend way too much time stuck in the traffic, but they were so convenient in general that I forgave them on that count.

 

Tolls and fuel make Europe pretty pricey

When did motorcycle touring get so horribly expensive? My wife and I just returned from a truly enjoyable 3,750-mile trip that took in England, Scotland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Italy – and I have no idea how much it cost. That’s not because I haven’t kept all the receipts (I have) but because I’m too scared! I don’t want to know.

Take petrol. The Valkyrie was returning a reasonable 43 mpg average on the England-Scotland leg, but probably dropped to the high 30s on the autobahns and autostradas. I started out paying £1.17 per litre, which seemed okay. But forking out £1.36 at a motorway service area made me wince – that’s a massive mark-up with which to sting the captive customer base on a motorway: I mean, where else can drivers or riders go?

That all paled into insignificance in Northern Italy when we were charged a cent short of €2 per litre, again on an autostrada with no other option. Given that the Continental Europeans seem to regard the pound/euro exchange rate as almost at parity, that price really hurt. It’s probably the most I’ve ever paid for petrol, anywhere.

The recent weakness of the pound was amply demonstrated when I tried to use my UK debit card to withdraw 200 euro from an ATM in Germany and the bank concerned tried to charge me £206 for the privilege! There was an option to let the banking system sort it out instead, so I went for that.

Then there’s motorway tolls. It was only last year that we rode the Valk to Rome and I don’t recall needing a second mortgage to cover the toll costs. This year we were under a degree of self-imposed time pressure, so we stuck to the autostrada and autoroute for the entire trip back from Florence to London, instead of choosing the backroads. The toll from Florence to Aosta was a staggering €55, the Mont Blanc Tunnel charged us €29, and the journey to Calais siphoned off God knows how much more.

Campsites and hotels have suddenly become expensive too. This trip was in late September, which is well and truly “out of season”, but the normally budget-priced Premier Inn charged us £100 for a night in Scarborough; the three-star hotel in Aosta cost €94 including breakfast; and even the campsite near Reims wanted €30, despite being almost empty and the bar and restaurant being closed for the winter.

The one ray of light in all this was the Airbnb my wife booked in Oberau in the Austrian Tyrol. We’d planned on camping if the weather was right, but it was only 6 or 7 degrees C and raining, so Peter got out her mobile and found us a ski lodge for just €30 a night. It came complete with king-size bed, en-suite shower room, kitchen and living and dining area – all for the same price as a patch of grass in France!

We had a thoroughly enjoyable trip, and I know that it could have been a lot cheaper if we’d camped every night and avoided the motorways. That would also cut about 30 or even 40 cents a litre from the fuel price, which would have helped a lot too. The current sterling/euro exchange rate didn’t help, either, and hopefully that too will return to a more normal rate once the Brexit jitters have settled down.

Oh – and a final gripe (well, almost final – I’m sure I have a few more tucked away somewhere): What on earth is Eurotunnel doing? I’ve used the service pretty much since its inception, and am a great fan. I even thought the fares at about £40-odd each way were reasonable. I changed our outward trip by 24 hours to spend more time with daughter Charlotte and our grandchildren in London, and that cost only £4.

However, we made such good time on our return from Tuscany that we arrived at Calais a day early and decided to head straight home. Ah no! You can’t do that! Well, not without paying an incremental £43! They tolerate someone arriving an hour or two early or late, but not a whole day. I’m sure it’s in the Ts and Cs, somewhere. Of course, we paid up, and, of course, the train wasn’t full. So that was £43 pure profit, greedy profit, exploitative profit, for Eurotunnel.

I have just given in to temptation and finally totted up the cost of this trip. I couldn’t help myself! It came to a  fraction under £2,500, including our share of a fabulous villa we rented for a family week in Tuscany. Not a fortune, perhaps, but it feels like a lot more than we’ve ever spent on a European bike trip before. Next year we’ll stay off the motorways, go earlier so we can camp more, and see if we can save a chunk of money.

 

Fire! What do you save first?

Plett sunset

We’ve all been party to at least one discussion around what precious object we’d save if fire ever threatened our homes. Pets usually get a favourable mention, then maybe photo albums, passports, laptops, cameras, whatever. Fortunately, most of us never have to do it for real.

I now know the answer, because I had to make the decision for real, and the answer is my Rune. My wife and I had spent a couple of hours one Tuesday a few weeks ago shifting three of our bikes to our remote, secure storage unit 15 minutes away. It’s one of about 30 lock-up single-car garages, located on a farm, surrounded by grassland, complete with sheep, geese and exotic birds. The whole place is surrounded by fencing, with an electric gate. Seemed like a good solution.

We were chatting to our neighbours the very next afternoon and they mentioned that they’d just been helping their relatives evacuate their house on the Airport Road in the face of the advancing bush fire. That’s when I recalled that they farm the relatives owned was right next to our new storage facility!

Our own house had miraculously escaped being burned to the ground in a bush fire back in February – a fire that destroyed three other homes in the area and laid waste to thousands of acres of open land. This new fire was being driven by gale-force winds and was now threatening the western outskirts of our town. Our own house was reasonably safe, whatever happened, because all the surrounding vegetation had been burnt away in the previous fire. But the bikes…!

We collected my riding gear and hot-footed it over to the storage units. The glow of the approaching fire was clearly visible, albeit maybe a few kilometres away. We considered the logistics of moving all three bikes to a place of greater safety, but that was going to be quite an exercise as darkness fell and the temperature dropped. The wind seemed to be keeping the fire on a parallel path to the storage units, not on a direct path towards it.

Move all three? Leave all three? Move one? We decided to move one, and that was the moment of truth: we saved the Rune. I rode it past neighbouring farms, past the airport, the eerie glow of the bush fire acting as a backlight in the gathering gloom, Peter following in the bakkie. We left it in the car port of an apartment we have in a nearby golf estate and decided to risk leaving the Ducati and the TL in the storage unit.

We called the next day to check that they had survived the night, but the phone line was permanently busy. So we drove over and were relieved to see the storage area had escaped the fire, although several houses in the area had not been so lucky. We breathed a sigh of relief and decided to leave all the bike where they were for a few days.

Two days later, the fire came back – a fierce, raging tsunami of a bush fire, driven by winds of up to 150 km/h. It would claim seven lives and more than 500 houses as it swept from the western side of the town of Sedgefield to Plettenberg Bay, 50 kilometres to the east. Sadly, Ian Barnard, one of the four volunteer firefighters who’d saved our own home back in February, was badly burned in the fire, and a colleague of his died. The whole incident was classified as a national disaster for South Africa.

We still couldn’t reach our storage company by phone (it turned out the phone lines had been burned down) and so drove out to see the damage for ourselves. It dark now and that was one eerie drive. The Airport Road looked normal to start with, then we could see the smouldering tree trunks on both sides of the road: entire forests had been burned down, pine plantations and indigenous trees both. A road sign still burned on the right; a direction board was being locked by flames around its edges on the left; there was no one in sight.

The landscape has been changed so much that we drove past the storage area in the dark, not recognising any of the usual landmarks. Fearful that it had all burned down, we turned around and stared into the gloom, and there they were: 25-30 garages, still standing, seemingly untouched. In our headlights we could see that the grass had been burnt black, right up to the edges of the garages. The fire had burned out a few feet from the storage units, as you can see in the photo; the object on the left is a burnt-out freight container.

Pinedene

The next morning showed the full extent of the devastation: entire farms destroyed, houses gutted, vegetation burnt to a crisp. I’m happy to say that all three bikes were unmarked (the TL and Ducati in storage, the Rune on the golf estate).

Rune at Saarinen 3

But there was no getting away from the tragic loss of life, the hundreds of lost – and in many cases uninsured – homes. These losses hung like a pall over a dozen communities along the coast. And, as I was to learn, one motorcycle enthusiast whose extraordinary, unique collection was garaged only 800 metres from my two machines, had lost everything.

Escape into the smooth blue yonder

Dusty dirt road 1

The other day I wrote about living down a dirt road in South Africa’s Western Cape and waiting for a rare visit from a road grader to make it passable for road bikes (the image above hardly does justice to the rutted, potholed surface). Rarely has something as prosaic as a grader brought so much joy, such eager anticipation – but today that’s exactly what it did to me. It signalled freedom, the first chance to escape in two weeks.

Earlier this year my wife Peter and I made Plettenberg Bay our home. We still spend part of the year in Dubai, part in London and part in Jo’ burg, but Plett (below) is now our base; it’s where we have all our stuff, all in one place for the first time in years.

IMAG0635_BURST002_COVER

Part of the pleasure in all this was to be the fact that most of my bikes are here, and now so were we. The fly in the ointment has been that dirt road. It’s used by ultra-heavy logging trucks and trailers, and they churn up the dirt surface into deep corrugations that are misery to navigate in anything other than a tough 4WD or on a proper off-road bike.

I’ve banged on about the damage the road has caused my bikes, and I’ll stop now, but even our Tonka-toy-tough Nissan bakkie has lost bits along the way; one neighbour had a shock absorber fall off his Land-Rover, another lost his exhaust pipe, and another has been pitched off the road in his Suzuki Jimny three times in a week because of this surface.

They grade the road maybe once every four or five weeks, and for perhaps the first 24 hours it becomes a usable dirt road. Then the trucks come and carve their contemptible corrugations all over again. So three of my bikes have had to stay in the garage pretty much full time since our move south, apart from a few joyous moments on the Day The Grader Came.

Well, today was such a day, so I abandoned all other plans, such as they were, and headed for the highway on first the TL, which has had the least road time of late, then the Ducati, and finally the Rune. The V-Strom has seen more regular use in all weathers since it seems best able to withstand the abuse, so there wasn’t the same compelling urge to ride it.

The weather was perfect: dry, sunny, clear blue skies, maybe 23 degrees C, with a cool breeze that swept through my mesh riding jacket and felt fresh and invigorating. The newly graded dirt was by no means perfect, but it was passable, and the Suzuki felt wonderful once out on the tarred main road: stable, smooth, grunty. Every time I ride the TL it reminds me what a superbly balanced package it is and why I fell in love with the breed the first time I rode one in Hong Kong (and bought it on the spot).

The SportClassic was next up, and I treated myself to a new route blessed with a mixture of smooth, fast bends and long straights – perfect Ducati country. The Termignoni racing exhaust filled the air with its music, and God was in his heaven. Even the light traffic seemed to melt away.

Finally, out came the Rune, and my grin went to its widest setting. I’ve sung this bike’s praises before, many times, probably ad nauseum, but it just feels so right. Then standard Gold Wing isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but its engine is a legend, and in its heightened state of Rune tune it combines utter turbine-like smoothness with a sporty near-wail and great throttle response. The riding position suits the bike so well, and it makes street-legal speeds of 100 to 120 km/h feel like fun. When the fancy takes you, just wind open the throttle in top and the bike thrusts forward.

The controls feel like they were designed by a top engineer at Rolls Royce, so smooth and precise are they in operation. The whole ensemble just works. It’s way off being perfect, mind: rear suspension is way too stiff, the riding position is not a long-distance charmer except for the ultra-tough, and the single seat prevents me from sharing the experience with my wife, or indeed anyone else. But the combination of the way it looks, the way it feels and the way it goes just adds up to one of the most superb bikes I’ve ever ridden. So by the time I trundled the Rune back homeward, I too was in heaven.

We’re looking into remedies for the road: getting heavy trucks banned on safety grounds, persuading the authorities to grade it more often, and investigating why the tarring has been postponed for four long years and whether it might be brought forward a bit. Some other road projects clearly jumped the queue, and I’m keen to know how and why.

I’m not hopeful, though, which is why I’ve just rented myself a secure lock-up storage garage 15 minutes from the house, on a farm, accessible via a tarred road and just a little stretch of short grass. The V-Strom will remain at the house to serve as a shuttle to the storage garage, and hopefully all four bikes will finally get ridden whenever the fancy takes me.