29 September, 2006

Tuna in Tunis 3994miles

After a VERY wild eight-hour ferry crossing, which turned into ten hours, I reached Tunis at 22hrs00, as they say en français. An extremely efficient border and customs control saw me rolling through the crowded streets of Tunis at 22hr30. This is Ramadan but I suppose the place will normally come more to life at this time of night because of the heat during the day.

Last year at the Moroccan border with the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta, Dean, Gavin and I had no end of trouble with everyone wanting to 'help' us and we all the while paranoid about something going missing from the bikes during the mayhem. Then, because we were three, we could separate tasks, one to guard the bikes and so on.

In the highly regrettable way of treating everyone the same, I expected a very similar situation to occur here, another Arab country. Other than keeping vigilant and strapping everything to the bike in the most complicated way possible, I had little idea how I, alone, was going to cope.
I need not have worried. And I feel very badly having categorized two different countries in the same way, much like suggesting I'd get similar treatment from the Greeks as the Norwegians. There was plenty of paperwork to deal with but everyone was in uniform and - unusual for border guards - they SMILED! Not seen much of that for a while.

They kindly explained the way into town and I rode off. Ten minutes later I was in the middle of Tunis looking for the hotel. Of course I hadn't a clue where it was but all these people were hanging out of the windows of their cars shouting and smiling and laughing! Some sort of street or 'driving around laughing' party was going on! And I felt welcome, so I smiled and laughed back. Then I asked where the hotel was and they, sort of, told me. It took a few goes but I got there in the end. Sometimes in an unknown city you can flag down a taxi and get him/her to show you, paying the fare when you get there just as if you'd been inside the taxi. But not in Tunis. This taxi driver just showed me anyway, before I even got the chance to explain I'd be willing to pay! Then he roared off into the night. "Willcoming to you in Tunisee," he shouted and left me to the luxury of a big, proper, grown-up hotel! "Garage pour la moto monsieur? Certainment!" I understand them, they understand me!! BBC News 24 and an English-speaking film channel showing "Pirates of the Caribbean". Shower, remote-control, heaven, sleep! zzzzzzzzzzzzzz . . .

I packed up in the morning fully refreshed and headed (wobbled) off into the misty morning traffic. Got the oil changed at the garage. The man assured me it went into this 'sump' where the oil and water were separated. Hmmmm! Made the forecourt into a skidpan anyway which made leaving all the more exciting!
"I'll maybe just phone the man in London for confirmation. If there's a couple of days to spare, I'd love to see Carthage," I thought, passing a phone shop.

"Sorry Mr McMillan, I tried everything," an unbelieving ear heard while my jaw-bone increased tenfold in weight, "you can try the Libyan Embassy yourself now that you are in Tunis." No point in saying anything about how he's been reassuring me ever since Nuremberg that this was all going to be fine. No, that's an unnecessary waste of emotion. On, on. Back to the hotel. This is what it's all about, after all - dealing with problems. And it's just as well I didn't ride all the way down to the border 300miles away! I'd have had to come all the way back!

I'll spare you, dear reader, the pinball-like experiences of trying to satisfy the needs of the various Diplomatic Services, but while the Libyans take FIVE days to decide whether or not to let me through, the Algerians have already chosen to do without my company in their lovely nation. The graceless retreat via Marseilles then down through Morocco looks increasingly likely. But time . . ? Central African hard rain's a-gonna fall . . . and geography and politics, Democratic Republic of Congo is about as close as we can presently get to anarchy and chaos. I hear that children there with rifles love the challenge of a moving target. There's a boat from Ghana to South America. Then no Malawi, no Mozambique. Bright side - Ouagadougou, my favourite capital city, just because of its fantastic name. Of course, I've never been. Just as Mr Essex so famously said; 'every cloud's got a silver - linin' . . .

Meanwhile I've been invited by Mahmood to stay in the unoccupied room above his café if the hotel's too expensive. Maybe Walid and his lovely Ukrainian wife, Olga, will let me take them to dinner in repayment for all the help they've given me translating things into Arabic. I get to see Carthage and I can take a run down to look at (and maybe even camp in!) the Sahara. It's less than a day away. Play in the sand at last!!

26 September, 2006

. . . On the way to the forum! 3352miles

Later that day after posting the previous, I took a wee run in to see Pompeii. Titter ye not! Not far, about 20 miles from where I camped. After observing for a while, I learned! Here's how you do the Italian thing . . .
  1. Remove all panniers, luggage and sticky-out bits from your bike. This lessens weight and provides for much better breaking, acceleration and handling.
  2. Zoom along behind apparently moronic motorcyclist of similar size (Ducati Monster 600 was my tutor).
  3. Observe carefully, then let him go and try on your own so;
  4. Launch fearlessly into the overtaking manoeuvre.
  5. The car in front of you will slip to its right, giving you room. (Until you do this, it seems they have little idea their mirrors are there, but they must be constantly staring into them waiting for you to do exactly this).
  6. Oncoming traffic - no matter how big - will move to its right, providing an extra wee 'lane' for your bike.
  7. Slip through, sooking in the paint as you go, scrape a wee bit of paint off one or other vehicle to show to your mates later.
  8. Presto - you're a genuine Italian male!

Of course the whole thing comes down to selfishness. The alternative to this stupidity is that everyone follows the rules, more or less, and then everyone gets there quicker, not just the idiot who manages to stay alive after frightening the life out of everyone else on the road. But then I guess the Italians are used to such daftness. I was once a motorbike instructor and before that dispatched so I felt qualified to have a go. It was a little bit better but still tiresome. I even overtook one or two other bikes. But it really wasn't worth the grey hairs. Children beware - do NOT try this at home. Other traffic will not be ready and you will be splatted exactly like a fly.

Got new tyres in Naples without too much bother (anyone ever heard of Scotland Motorcycle wear? Check the sticker on the door) and Pompeii was huge. I'll need to go back!

Then, the next day, it took a horrible, scary hour to get back the 20 miles to the Autostrada. I decided, against my nature, to forego the wee coast road. Paid my 1Euro (grumbling about it being free in Scotland!) got onto the motorway and all was well. The boredom set in . . . had on the iPod and everything . . . but on the map in the tank bag in front of me there's this wee red line squiggling its way down the coast. I tried, honest I tried, but after about 40 miles of boredom . . .

I think if you're on a motorway then you're not really enjoying what you're doing. You want to be at your destination. But I was at my destination already, I was on the bike. And I was bored!! So at the next opportunity, I decided to give it a go. At first it was horrible, but then at a vague point somewhere south of Salermo, the traffic thinned out, the road surface became smooth, fellow motorcyclists even waved for the first time since the Dolomites! They were enjoying themselves. The road wound and wound along the coast and along through rolling, green hills, nobody but me on it! Then along the coast before heading back into the hills again. And then a tiny wee village with a snackeria on the sea front. The fine gentleman running the place made me a fresh pannini with a very strong, tasty coffee, and I sat on the beach soaking up the atmosphere. It was a lot like being at Kinghorn but with more people going past. An elderly gent with his grandson on the petrol tank of his bike (not at home either, kids!) patrolled up and down the promenade. Another guy was singing to himself on his bicycle. They waved and said hello to each other and even to me and I was tempted to live there forever!

But I left, smiling and happy, and the road improved further. So I concluded that Italy is fine, stick with it. There's a nightmare area on the west coast from about Pisa through Rome and Naples until Salermo but otherwise it's fine. Sicily is okay too. Lovely scenery, but it's 30 miles of 'High Street' if you don't take the motorway out of Messina. Still not too many people smiling though. All seem to be taking things very seriously indeed. I have seen bits of Africa in a better state of repair as well. It's a good preparation. It's very windy here in Trapani, but there's a funny guy running the Snoopy Bar (I knew they couldn't take themselves too seriously!) and he showed me a fine wee campsite. The boat's only once a week!

Portuguese is useful too. I couldn't have a proper conversation but I get enough to understand the gist of things. The man at Snoopy's said the languages were equal and he had no English. Nobody speaks much English.

Still no Libyan visa yet but I'll get the ferry tomorrow anyway and then trust!

23 September, 2006

Italy - o solo mio . . . 3307miles

Italy - beautiful country, fantastic scenery, fascinating history of course. I understand that you either love it or hate it here. Thoroughly recommended - but no further south than the Dolomites on a motorbike!!

It seems as if there is something lacking in the male Italian character. They have to prove their masculinity in ways other than those available to the rest of mankind. Manhood is measured by how much paint you can scrape off your car in the process of overtaking other vehicles, especially overladen motorcycles from Scotland, it would seem. I am also constantly amazed by the massive number of Italian men (it's always men - sorry) who are willing to risk lives (not just their own) and limbs on some crucial mission of mercy. Are so many of them on their way to Kofi Annan with the answer to the Middle East crisis? How can so many of their only children have been rushed to hospital and are at so many moments crying for their fathers, at death's door? Indicators? Lovely wee flashing things only to be used on straight roads when you have neither intention nor opportunity to turn anywhere. Mind and switch them off or turn the opposite way whenever there's a turnoff ahead.

And will someone please tell these guys that it is possible to slow your vehicle simply by easing your foot off the accelerator. It's not always necessary to slam on the brakes at the very last minute. This technique is reserved only for emergencies, when you haven't seen the person in front. Maybe it's because they were on the phone. Italian men seem honour bound to jump into the car and start driving whenever the phone rings. Like they can only take calls in the privacy of a really fast-moving car. How is it the designers and producers of some of the world's most beautiful motor vehicles (motorbikes as well) can be such poor users of them.

Not that I've seen any Lambourghinis or Ferraris. Italian roads would ruin them. Little development seems to have taken place in some areas since their forebears the Romans invented modern road-building. And little resurfacing either! Even I learned about cambers at Primary School!!

I have heard that Italians don't much like to travel and that they don't usually get further from home than a few kilometres. The trouble is that they must travel these few miles at breakneck speed, which is fine if you're only going six or seven kilometres. However, if you've just ridden a wobbly, overladen BMW 230 miles and are dreaming only of the shower at the campsite you haven't found yet, the last thing you need is some cocky wee lassie cutting you up in traffic. Yes, the lassies are fearless on the mopeds! But this isn't like Paris, where beautifully coiffeured and attired middle-aged ladies waft effortlessly past on their 80cc Peugeots, their spotless white skirts billowing gently in the breeze like unfurling sails. Oh no, not here. Everyone on Italian roads (save for other baffled, frightened tourists) wants, it seems, to kill (ME particularly!) and is fully willing to sacrifice themselves in the attempt. Madness. I commented on the signposting last time (three hours to get out of Rome!). Myself and several Polish truck drivers are quite frustrated by its lack!

Having said all that, the weather really is excellent, the food is great too. Just leave the driving to the Italians.

I've been assured that the Libyan visa will be waiting at the Tunisian border and that my guide will take me to the Egyptian border. I'm looking forward to that. I have to be there on the 28th.

Last evening I sent a few texts reporting whereabouts to several members of Friday Club & selfishly bemoaning the lack of good company. I then spent the rest of the evening in text conversations with several of them. So I had pretty good company after all! Only cost about a £10 - much less than an average round in the Ship! Thanks for that everyone! :-)

Off to have a look at Vesuvius and Pompeii, then down to Sicily tomorrow. Ferry to Tunis on Sunday night, I hope!

20 September, 2006

Across the Alps 2900miles

After five very relaxing and productive days in the accommodating hospitality of Nicky and Andreas, the bike looks fantastic, and I'm over the Alps and into Italy. The Dolomites are spectacular (as predicted by Rolf in Switzerland) and this may well be where I'll spend the rest of my spare time motorcycling in the future.
This bike just gets better looking as it ages!

Signposting isn't an Italian strength, however. Every approach to any town much bigger than Cardenden follows the same pattern;
  1. Approach with confidence seeing a sign to the place beyond you want to get to.
  2. Lose signposting immediately you're within the city limits.
  3. Ride around hopelessly for an hour vainly seeking signs to anywhere on the map.
  4. Irritate locals to within inches of their lives by stopping suddenly at every junction, staring around at the few available signs and scratching your helmet.
  5. Eventually (if it has its hat on) use the sun and the time to head in a vague direction and hope that the road doesn't wind round (which it always does!).

Seen two accidents in the two hours I've been in Livorno (no injuries). Children standing in the footwells of step-throughs. Motorcyclists and moped riders riding with helmets undone and nothing in the way of protective clothing. One girl in an excellent leather jacket but with sandals on, so if she comes off she'll live, but have no feet! The trick, I suppose, is not to come off! Not always easy.

Now being delayed by wait for confirmation of availability of Libyan visa. What to do? Head south in the hope it comes and enjoy Italy? Stay put and not 'waste' fuel? Head over to Morocco now? Decisions, decisions.

And a slight pang of guilt that there are no tourists around. Why? Because they are all working and I'm not! It still, while I'm in Europe, feels like a fantastic extended holiday. That makes it seem a bit frivolous and so I'm looking forward to getting into Africa and it becoming more challenging. Must go and phone the man in London . . .

14 September, 2006

Nürnberg BMW 2244miles

I've had three days of excellent motorcycling weather - clear blue skies, cool air, perfect visibility and a warm sun whenever I stopped to thaw out the bones. The cool air justified the warm clothing and all was well, neither too hot nor too cold.

In Poland it seems best to stop in TIV or Truck Stops. You get very good value for money and the staff are used to foreigners. However, take accommodation when you find it as I left it too late once and rode 100 miles in the dark until I found a too-expensive luxury business place full of huge people eating far too much for breakfast but not worrying about it since they were all on expenses. Not me, I was paying for everything myself! And it wasn't cheap, so naturally I filled my boots at the buffet breakfast along with the others! Could barely move afterwards, but it lasted well into the evening.

Their 'Business Suite' made me late for getting away since I spent so long on their computer answering very welcome news mails. Also the first time I've been able to get a photo from my camera directly onto a strange computer without any trouble (see photo of Grant, Hosie, Ewen and Piper Fraser at the match!).

A chance encounter with some unmarked Czech road works has stranded me in Nürnberg with a 'dinged' front wheel (irreparable, according to BMW of course) and waiting, till Monday, for spoked replacements (front and rear) at no small cost. I had planned to spend some money in Germany on a new helmet and some camping kit but . . ! However, I tried to buy these wheels before leaving the UK (I knew this would happen but thought it would be in Africa) and failed. So the money was 'there' or thereabouts! They should ensure no trouble, but in the event of them even becoming buckled, roadside technicians throughout the world have the technology and skills to rebuild them. Unlike these 'modern' cast items the bike now has which cannot be repaired, it seems even by BMW themselves!

Luckily my old chums Andreas and Nicky - as well as their highly entertaining two-year-old son Tobias - seem unfazed by my enforced extended stay. I'll do my best to see that this continues. Now I get to do a little of the tourist thing (shouldn't be too many opportunities) and maybe even properly relax.

The sun is shining and so it's off to the Biergarten (whatever that is - some sort of park? - I don't speak German!) with the family.

09 September, 2006

Vilnius, capital of Lithuania 1223miles

Just said goodbye to Ewen who organised an excellent four day break in Vilnius for himself, Hosie, Bob, Grant and myself. The Scotland football team managed to beat Lithuania 2-1. And I'm told it's the first time someone's ridden so far to come to a game - I may found the Tartan Army Motorcycle Display Team. Can you have a 'team' of one?

The official local reports say the Scots fans brought "colour and fun" to Vilnius. The reaction from the locals was always positive and wearing our kilts seemed to cheer them up! Vilnius itself is small but perfectly formed. The architecture is very ornate and attractive. The buildings in the Old Town centre are painted in pastel shades with white decorations round the windows and roofs. They reminded me of cakes, with the icing round the edges - so the Lithuanians seem to live in huge colourful cakes. Very pretty. I'd recommend anyone to put Vilnius on their list of weekend breaks to be had.

We stayed in an excellent B&B where the kind owner let me put the bike in his garage. After five days and 1200 miles it was in need of a little attention. A day of that and then I was able to join in the tourism.

The ride here was much the same as when I came two months ago. This part of Europe is quite flat and uninspiring. The iPod certainly helped keep me awake at times. However, there was an advantage in passing through places I'd seen before. Navigational mistakes from last time were not made and I remembered good parts. I stayed in the same hotel in Kevelaer in Germany as before and then had lunch at the same Pizza shop in Poland a few days later. The border guard happily stamped my passport as I came into Lithuania, beginning the collection.

Back on the road tomorrow, heading for Nuremburg in Germany and some friends who've offered me a bed. It should be a few days until I get there, back diagonally across Poland and then the Czech Republic. More news then.

A PS sent by Ewen which will interest/entertain;

Tartan Army Tales
Was speaking to Joan at work today (who we met in Vilnius). She was telling me the experiences of some friends of hers who were also in Vilnius....
On the way through town on the Weds night, there was a group of 5 or 6 footsoldiers who were approached by 3"dodgy" Russians/Lithuanians. The 'locals' were not a terribly friendly bunch and the encounter resulted in the locals pulling a knife on the Scots lads. A demand for money was the natural next step and a stand-off ensued. Relations were rather tense at this point, when the footsoldiers decided to utterly bemuse their assailants by launching into a highland fling...
This retaliation through dance was enough to defuse a very difficult situation, with the confused locals unable to respond, as they then proceeded to melt into the night - presumably to pick on someone other than kilted dancing-men!!
An outrageous but true encounter! One for the annals of T.A. history :)

Children please note - Scottish Country Dancing can get you out of all sorts of trouble!

04 September, 2006

Passage Down the Forth

Have final evening in pub, very mellow. Clare manages not to greet as she gives me the cocktail she's been promising since Friday (she's so emotional!:-). Get up in the morning, clean, tidy, pack bike. Have a delicious and leisurely lunch at McWhinnie's with chums, go and say cheerio to Ronnie, Nick and Julie at Craigencalt. A perfect day as the sun beats down. Reluctantly get on the bike and go to perform last-minute maintenance checks at Kev's garage (had to be some!), but they're simple and Kev helps lots. Ride off into the glorious sunshine, get on ferry. Sit there and realise the only thing I've forgotten can be easily remedied simply by just giving the keys to Ewen in Vilnius!

Relax - hmmm! It's been such a long time since I've done this! What is it I'm doing again? Why!?

Text from Ruth - 'put that beer down and get yourself on to the port side to wave at me!!' Eh? I haven't got a beer, I'm just sitting, relaxing in the sun. No sign of her, but wait - who's that on the road bridge? Was it Ruth? No response to text asking and I'm too shy to wave back in case it's not.

Andrew texts, he can see the boat from his train. Mo's waiting to wave. Ewen can see the ferry from his train. I can see his train going along between Aberdour and Burntisland. They're all at Nick and Julie's waiting to wave. Chris is even out in his boat!!! Madness! A flurry of texts - I can hardly see the view for reading them! I'm starting to . . . oh dear and I'm all alone, surrounded by uncaring strangers! Pathetic! Get hold of self!

With my binoculars, I can see Mo bouncing around like a mad thing outside her house. Now I can see Chris's boat, with my own flat in the background.

I can see figures on The Farr Balcony. A very welcome and strengthening text from Beverley. Chris asks me to wave for his camera. But the ferry's giving him too wide a berth. I'm filling up, waving and giggling and giggling and those nearby don't know why. Ronnie's waving from Tesco car park in Kirkcaldy. My last view of Kinghorn. It gets smaller and smaller behind the ferry.

Control, control and it's all over. Bar, glass of wine, relax - hmmmm . . .

Great send off guys. With chums like youse . . .

But the fear's immediately gone. Crazy thing these human emotions. The excitement's setting in. I've done it, I'm on the ferry and I've only forgotten to give Kev the garage keys!

Please take excellent care of one another. I can't wait to get this done and be home again, but it's all cool and I'm not going to rush it.

Special thanks to those who went a goodbye too far, and those who endured more than duty demanded. I think I've almost perfected my hugging technique! Need more with those taller than me though! Cheers for Friday night as well. If only I could remember more clearly! Blame the tequila! But no sorrow for singing - Karen the landlady seemed to like it!

Hope to see some of you out there!