Planning

It’s Blue Monday, the most depressing day of the year – according to a slighty shonky equation developed by the lovely Andy Green for a PR client more than 20 years ago.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter how many po-faced comment pieces get written debunking the claim, we still embrace it because it feels true. The dog days of January are bloody awful, especially for bikers. I know a few hardy souls are out and about and looking forward to the Dragon Rally but I have an arthritic dog and no heated grips and we are confined to barracks until it warms up a bit.

And that’s not good for my mental health. I’ve had a bit of a cry today already because I am so very tired of it all,  of the feeling of being on edge like I’ve broken my NHS specs at school and am dragging myself home for the bollocking. I’ve lived like this for twenty years and it’s getting too much. At least the Wingman is pleased to see me and doesn’t shout at me for being careless.

How can a biker best beat Blue Monday? With some planning – the anticipation of remote roads and blue skies. OK, maybe that’s a bit optimistic as I’m planning a trip to the Outer Hebrides!

I used to love planning a Big Trip – back in my married days I did all the work for our trips to Cuba and Syria – but the next two blokes I was involved with said planning was uptight and you should just go with the flow.

I don’t need to make them happy any more. I need to make me happy.  And I say that planning is half the fun.

So I am planning my trip, all the way to Lewis. The Wingman and I shall be going there in June, in a sidecar outfit. If he’s not up to it we will go in the 2CV which will be a different kind of adventure. But I think he will be fine.

I have been to Orkney and Shetland and Skye but not further west, to An t-Eilean Fada. I’m a little bit daunted as I am out of practice with long runs – but the Wingman and I took the Lomax to Sanday, just 500 miles from the Arctic Circle. We have nothing to fear. Small steps add up to long journeys.

My first challenge is to pick my ferries, as I’m told you need to book these in advance. Once these are pinned down the rest will fall into place. I’m watching lots of subtitled programmes on BBC Alba and have already got the stones at Callanish on the list.  Tips and advice welcome as ever!

 

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Advent Calendar finale – the three wise men!

We three kings of Orient are,
One on a motorbike, one in a car,
One on a scooter,
Blowing his hooter,
Following yonder star.

The Sound of Music is on the telly, I’ve had smoked salmon for breakfast and there were two hundred people in Sainsbury’s this morning at 6am – it must be Christmas Eve, and time to open the last door in the Advent Calendar of overlanders!

I’ve been swithering all month about who should be at the top of the tree (is that mixing my festive metaphors? Maybe a bit) and in the end I decided it couldn’t just be one writer.

Get out the gold, frankincense and myrrh (it’s a balm! What does he want a bomb for?) because it’s time to bring on the Three Wise Men. Only one of them has a beard and I’m not sure if any of them has ridden a camel, but they have all travelled afar, and returned to inspire the rest of us to give it a go.

Yes – it’s Ted Simon, Sam Manicom, and Austin Vince.

I’ve chosen them not just for their fantastic books but because each has done so much to encourage other riders to follow in their wheeltracks, whether on a Mini Mondo tour of the Pyrenees, as a Jupiter’s Traveller, with the offer of a stay in Ted’s own home for help recounting the journey after its end, or through talks and tours with ready advice and help in person and online.

I’m afraid I don’t have a copy of Mondo Enduro to include in the photo as it was lent to me by @BiviBag_ADV to distract me during one of my periodic episodes of putting a bomb under my life to see if the pieces would fall into something that worked better – the book did the job but it’s still to early to tell on the life changes.

I’ve seen Mondo described as “the last great analogue adventure” and I think that’s a brilliant summary. It must be difficult for people who’ve grown up in this connected world to imagine how it was possible to travel without mobile phones to keep in touch with each other, internet access in the palm of your hand, and social media to share the journey as it unfolds. Read Austin’s book and find out!

Sam’s three books take you along with him on his travels but that’s only the starting point for all the ways he encourages other riders. He probably won’t remember me nervously sidling up to him at the Ace Cafe and asking for tips about riding in Australia, but he took a few minutes to share some advice, and I bought a copy of Under Asian Skies only to discover that his experience of Australia started with a crash, which was a little daunting! I hope it won’t embarrass Sam if I say that I really look up to him for his determination to be positive in all situations and his incredible kindness.

And Ted Simon – for better or worse! – taught me that riding a motorcycle wasn’t about how fast I could go but about what I saw on the way, and what I found out about myself and the world I’m riding in.

Happy Christmas!

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Day 23 of Advent – Christmas Eve Eve! Four women.

“The chance kindness of strangers is seen by a fortunate few, and we were fortunate enough to find it, again and again.”

Books don’t just take us to new places. They give us a chance to see the world through someone else’s eyes. And for that reason I wanted to include some non-UK/US writers, who travel with a whole other set of cultural baggage, in this advent calendar.

And I really wanted to read something by a rider from India, a country which is often presented in overland literature as a challenge to be overcome rather than somewhere with its own thriving motorcycle scene.

Twitter introduced me the brilliant Bikerni, the all-female motorcycle club who ride for the joy of it and also to empower women, and from Urvashi Patole’s tweets I heard about last year’s four-woman expedition from India to the Mekong, taking in six countries and 17,000km in just 56 days.

Two books have been written about the trip – one by Jai Bharathi, the expedition leader, writing in her mother tongue of Telugu, and this one, by Piya Bahadur, in English with a regular infusion of Hindi slang.

Like The Perfect Vehicle, or even Zen, this is more a meditation on what the trip meant to Piya than a straightforward travelogue. Like many women, she lacked confidence in her riding skills and was unsure about committing to the whole ride – until with helpful bluntness her teenage daughter called her out: “are you afraid you can’t do it?”

“I realised how the world we dwell in is so small and how easy it is to create echo chambers. The challenge really is to embrace the unknown and the unfamiliar.”

Piya finds the ride liberating, encouraging, and thought-provoking, and her book brings us along with her. There’s so much in it that I recognise in my own riding life – even they way that at her lowest points it’s other bikers that provide encouragement and support – not just the other women on the expedition but bikers from the places they are riding through who come forward to support the travellers. At the end of a particularly challenging day with another 3 hours of riding ahead, “meeting the headlights of riders from Imphal on the dark highway was a relief and the rest of the ride was rejuvenating. It was a warm welcome to Manipur indeed, not by a gang of motorcyclists, but by a brotherhood of bikers united by their love for the road.”

It’s a joyful book and I have really enjoyed reading it.

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Day 22 of Advent – Around the World With Motorcycle and Camera

“Something had to be done. It was not to be stood any longer. There was no thrill in our work. Murder, reports of mental hospitals, Miss Leg, Miss Stocking, Miss Universe, and so on. It just couldn’t be borne any longer.

“That’s the reason for the wish to get out of it. There is more beauty than badness on this earth, in spite of sensational news, conferences, fears, atomic bombs!”

Not the snappiest of titles but an accurate summary of the book! Now this is another little bit of a cheat because I actually haven’t got very far into this one yet – it’s my Christmas present to myself because it’s quite rare and so was quite a lot of money, and our intrepid travellers have only made it to Persia at the point of writing (though I did skip ahead a bit for review purposes!)

It’s another time-travel special – Eitel and Rolf Lange set out from Germany in 1953, just eight years after the end of World War 2, on their “Green Elephant” – a 600cc Zundapp and sidecar.

Eitel was a press photographer before the war and though with peace came a return to his profession – “Rebuilding, Siamese twins, weddings of princes, jails and so on” – he had a long-held dream to make a world trip once in his life, and announced one morning to his son and his wife that it was time to make it reality, to go and see the world for themselves.

Eitel has a dry sense of humour and a deadpan writing style. He doesn’t shy away from the possible challenge faced by two Germans travelling through post-war Europe – on the need to hurry through Italy and Greece, he writes “for Germans [these countries] meant a memory of the travelling agency ‘Adolf Hitler’ which had forced thousands to die here.”

The trip takes Eitel and Rolf to Japan where they visit Hiroshima and talk to survivors of the atomic bomb. That part of the book is truly extraordinary and very moving. Eitel describes their meeting with the mayor of Hiroshima who tells them: “World politics should be made from here. From a big hall with a big window, so all the big people could see what our age of science can bring upon us, if we do not understand how to live together.”

For me this book is a glimpse at a time that is glossed over in our histories. We like to celebrate the end of the war, and maybe we’ll think of the Japanese civilians who were killed in a new and horrible way, and we nod to agree with the argument that this was necessary to prevent further bloodshed. Rolf and Eitel are travelling through a world trying to rebuild itself and trying to find better ways of living together. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the book and I know it will give me lots to think about.

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Day 21 of Advent – Bullet up the Grand Trunk Road

“In India I hadn’t worried too much about the bike being stolen. The Bullet has the reputation of being a ‘hard man’s bike’ – the kind of person who wouldn’t just report its theft to the police but would use his underworld connections to trace the culprit and carry out a little private retribution.”

Slightly delayed by over-enthusiastic eggnog consumption yesterday, but hey – that’s a very festive excuse!

My theory of overland adventure books is that we like some because we like the writer and the sense they create that we’re one of their gang, on the road with them for every twist and turn, sinking into the fesh-fresh or being swooped up into the care of friendly locals. And others are worth reading because of the story they tell or the experience of having eyes opened to another culture.

I’m putting Bullet up the Grand Trunk Road in the second group. Jonathan Gregson is a “proper” travel writer – it’s his day job and was before he started this trip. He was sufficiently well-connected that he could phone the MD of Royal Enfield in India and blag a bike for the journey. It’s not so easy to warm to him, though in his first few days with the bike he manages to drop it and to run out of fuel at his grand departure, which I certainly do relate to…

As well as a ride up the Grand Trunk Road from Calcutta to the Khyber Pass, the book is an exploration of the history of Partition and all the violence that political decision has led to – violence which is back in the news now. So it’s not the most cheerful of reads, but I think an important one. It also fulfils Ted Simon’s first rule of motorcycle travel – go somewhere and tell the rest of us what it is like.

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Day 20 of Advent – it’s all gone a bit pear

“If there’s hot water I’ll start with a shower and get something to eat in the hotel’s restaurant. If not, I’ll load up the bike, set off and pick something up at a roadside cafe. Stomach problems, usually.”

I’ve come to the countryside to drink beer with the MZ Riders Club but they’ve already left for the pub and it’s too dark to go and chase them. In other problems I forgot to pick up my clothes bag so I don’t have any clean underpants. Weirdly this has been one of the scenarios envisaged by Scots Gaelic Duolingo, which I have now been studying for 15 days – Chan eil drathais orm. Who knew it would come in so handy already!

With all the disasters compounded by the Wingman trying to jump out of the van and face planting on the wet grass because it’s too high for him, I’m very glad to have something else to focus on!

So with just 5 days to go until Christmas, behind the door today we have Simon Roberts, who, like Neal Peart, set off on his big trip to find some peace after the horribly early death of his wife.

Simon tells the highs and lows of his journey not only in self-deprecating prose but also in a series of comic-book-style panels, which really help this book stand out from the crowd.

Because this is modern times and overlanding is no longer the preserve of the courier looking for new adventures or the odd journalist testing himself against the world Simon meets and re-meets a large number of fellow motorcyclists as he journeys towards Kathmandu, and also his mother for a coach trip to the Taj Mahal. I know it’s a big world but I hope overlanding doesn’t become the equivalent of queue of people roped together and heading for the top of Everest. Not before I’ve had a go, anyway.

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Day 19 of Advent – it looks just like Scotland

“I headed off to a map shop in Primrose Hill with Clara, my eldest daughter. I bought a very basic world map, spread it out on a pool table in my basement, and indulged in a bit of daydreaming.”

It’s time to talk about Long Way Round, and its sequel Long Way Down.

It seems to have become fashionable to scoff at Ewan and Charlie, tarring them as spoilt rich boys fulfilling their dreams on someone else’s dollar and with a support crew and a security detail. Real overlanders eat Supernoodles for a year and moonlight down the docks to fatten up their bank accounts sufficiently to afford a third-class ticket to Siberia, don’t you know?

Bollocks.

If you’ve got the status and connections to get top-class support for your round-the-world adventure, why wouldn’t you? As Ewan explains in the Long Way Round book, he had to get the maximum miles in the minimum time so it made sense to get help with the planning and the paperwork. They still had to ride every mile (more or less.) They used the trip to raise the profile of Unicef, the charity looking out for many of the world’s most vulnerable children.

And they put a different face of motorcycling on prime-time British TV.

What bikers were on telly before 2003? American Chopper. Teams of greasy genuises building machines out of carefully seeded parts on Scrapheap Challenge. Boon’s mate. The Two Fat Ladies. John Noakes doing some trials riding. Endless bloody road safety adverts with bikers ending up mashed into windscreens or under trucks. As far as the public were concerned, we were a fatal disease.

Then that nice chap from Star Wars and his mate with the famous dad took us with them on a tour of the world.

They fell off, they got petrol in their eyes, they were shown up every now and again by Claudio on his Mongolian scooter but overall they had a whale of a time, and they inspired a lot of new riders and adventurers – including the fantastic Billy @biketruck.

The Long Way Up is under way at the moment and has all been kept fairly hush-hush, but I’m lookig forward to watching it (as long as it’s on council telly) and dusting off my Long Way Round bingo card, the rules of which in 2007 included “every time Ewan declares the landscape to look “just like Scotland;” any time Charley declares something to be “brilliant” or “amazing;” and of course, any time Ewan drops his bike because his legs are too short.”

Ted Simon may be the godfather of round-the-world riding but these guys brought the gospel to a new generation.

 

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Advent Day 18 – “But madam, who rides the motorcycle?”

Lots of people will say Ted Simon, or Sam Manicom or Austin Vince, first gave them the inspiration to do a Big Trip.

Now, some tyre tracks to follow in might well be the first step – but what comes next? What do you actually need to do to get your bike rolling onto a ferry pointed towards Tangier?

These days there’s a whole industry devoted to turning travel dreams into reality. You can go to an Overland Event, you can go to a HUBB weekend, you can subscribe to Adventure Bike Rider magazine or head to a million and one online forums.

It was more difficult in the 90s, when my edition of The Adventure Motorbiking Handbook was published. Facebook wasn’t even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, not least because he was 13 when I bought this book. In 1997 it will be at least another 12 months before anyone can Google anything.

As a result “The Internet” is in 10th place in Chris’s list of places to get information behind “Travel Clubs and Organisations” and “Newspapers and Periodicals” (and two places ahead of “Germany” which makes me laugh.)

He advises:-

“….it’s hoped to set up an Adventure Motorbiking Website in conjunction with this book which might develop into a forum specialising in the interests of adventurous biker heading overland. Dial up the address on the back cover to see if it worked out.”

(Yes, Young People – we used to “Dial up” websites. Watch Matthew Broderick hacking the Pentagon in War Games for an illustration!)

So all the information that these days comes through the airwaves onto your phone screen was instead printed out onto mashed up trees in a handy pocket-sized volume that you could read in the bath or on the underground.

It’s one of the two books Lois Pryce buys in the run-up to her first adventure and it’s also famously the bible Ewan and Charley relied on when planning Long Way Round.

My favourite two things about it?

On page 5 there’s a large box that says “DON’T GO.” (Advice I sadly seem to have taken to heart)

And page 117 kicks off a chapter by Nicki McCormick looking at some of the particular challenges women overlanders can face, with some advice that applies to everyday life just as much as travelling:

“your perception of yourself affects other people’s perception of you.”

There’ll be an 8th edition published in 2020, which I might have to buy to find out whether Germany has cracked the top 10. And I also recommend Chris’s book about his years despatch riding in 1980s London. There’s a clear connection between despatch riding and successful adventure travel but I’m more puzzled about why so many couriers turn out to be brilliant writers.

 

 

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Advent Day 17 – Lois on the Loose

“Rolling off a boat on a motorcycle into a foreign land is one of the most exciting experiences I know. No matter where it is in the world: freewheeling down the ramp, the metallic clank that marks your arrival, and your first glimpse of a strange land.”

As with Dan Walsh, I’ve been putting off writing today’s post. Not for fear of embarassing fangirl gushing, but because when I reveal the true depths of my jealousy you will all think far less of me.

I’ve met Mr Lois Pryce, otherwise known as Austin Vince, and he has been kind, and witty, and even managed not to take umbrage at the Wingman hecking his talk at the Overland Winter Warmer.

I haven’t met Lois, and that’s probably a good thing as I’m likely to fall to my knees weeping, rending my garments, and crying “that was supposed to be my life.”

Let’s examine the evidence:-

striking hair colour – ✓

tedious office job – ✓

plays unusual musical instrument – ✓

enrolled in Spanish classes to help with travelling – ✓

When, in preparation for her trip, Lois goes to the bookshop to buy Jupiter’s Travels and the Adventure Motorcycle Handbook, she asks if there are any equivalent books by female travellers. No, they say.

Now there are many. But Lois was first. Not me. Because although we have lots of things in common, she had the courage to go and I didn’t.

Lois on the Loose is a brilliant, fun read with a gobsmacking moment of ingratitude towards the end (from someone else, not from our author!) and it ends on a high note. And just as Lois predicts in her final thoughts, things did indeed “work out just fine” for her.

I’m still jealous though.

 

 

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Advent Day 16 – Ghost Rider

“I had tried the Hermit mode, now it was time to try the Gypsy mode. I tried not to think of what I would do if that didn’t work.”

Yesterday I quoted Dan Walsh – “Anyone can, but not everyone needs to.”

Neil Peart absolutely needed to.  If the start of this story was made into a film you’d think it well over the top. That a man can lose his daughter, his wife and finally his dog and keep breathing is an achievement in itself. Peart decides that merely existing is not enough and he needs to take to the road in search of a reason to live.

I like Rush, mainly because one of the better student bands when I was at uni did a mean cover of Spirit of Radio, but I wouldn’t call myself a fan. In the spirit of journalistic inquiry I checked in with the biggest Rush fan I know to ask whether fandom added any further layers of appreciation to the book.

He said “the book is more about grief, and terrible loss, than either Rush or biking. But he does capture a lot of the solitary peace that biking brings me.

“By detaching you, riding somehow gives your brain space to work things out in the background. And I think that was what it did for him. It took him 55,000 miles.”

It’s a long time since I read this and it’s not a book I come back to often in the same way that I come back to Zen or to Che. I think it’s partly the point made by @keepof4worlds above –  it’s a book about grief and sometimes it feels just so very intrusive, to be peering into a soul bereft, even if you have been invited to.

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