06 December 2010

Response Call-Out: Lincoln

With the earliest winter snowfall for seventeen years, it was only a matter of time before the Northants 4x4 Response Team was called in to action. I've been a volunteer responder for quite a while now, but this was the first time I was called-out: to assist the Yorkshire & Lincolnshire team in Lincoln.

Heavy snow and sub-zero temperatures had left many roads in a treacherous condition, especially in rural areas where they were all but impassable without four-wheel drive. Responders from groups all over the country went to help out, especially those from areas less affected by the wintery weather such as Northants.

The call came on Sunday morning, so after a quick check that everything was in order in the Freelander I set off up the A1 to Lincoln hospital which was the operations centre for the area. The further north I went, the more snow there was in fields - despite a brief thaw over the weekend (which brought rain, which fell on icy roads making them even more icy than before). Arriving at the hospital I found the controller, who had come from Norfolk, and I was duly dispatched to the nearby village of Nettleham to collect a Sue Ryder nurse and take her to do her evening house-calls.

Roads in the village were icy but passable with care, although some houses with long driveways were a bit more of a challenge as were those in hillier areas. Finding houses in the dark, in snow and ice wasn't always easy, but with the aid of my big torch we could light-up the house numbers without having to brave the cold outside the car. We made a dozen or more visits before I dropped off the nurse at her home.

During the visits I waited in the car, listening to the radio and wishing I'd thought to bring something to read. I'd stopped at a couple of petrol stations on the way up in the hope of finding a Land Rover or motorbike magazine, but I can only assume other responders had got there first because the selection was very poor. In one petrol station the magazine section consisted of only a top-shelf, which while it would have helped to pass the time, didn't seem all that appropriate!

By 21.30 I was finished and stopped for some hot food before meeting up with the rest of the Northants team at a nearby hotel. Two of us were heading home while the other two were staying overnight to assist on Monday. The A1 is very quiet around midnight on a freezing cold Sunday night, and after a non-stop journey I arrived home in the early hours of Monday; exceedingly tired but pleased to have been able to help out.

Some of the RT's calls are exciting and adventurous, but many are far more mundane. Either way, they're just as important and without our assistance a lot of elderly and vulnerable people would not have received their visits and been left cold and lonely.

29 November 2010

The Inevitable

I knew that it was likely to happen sooner or later - one of the Land Rovers broke down and needed recovery.

It was the Discovery that let me down yesterday. It had been a little poorly since using it to tow the bikes to Wales for the Cambrian Rally, when it developed a nasty vibration when under load - accelerating, going uphill etc. I thought it was a problem with the transfer box caused when I made a mess of changing from low range to high range, but it turned out to be a badly worn universal joint (UJ) on the front prop shaft. It's possible that my ham-handed gear change was the final straw for it, or it could be coincidence. That's a much easier repair than replacing the transfer box - which friends from Northants 4x4 has offered to help me with.

Setting off home with a nice smooth transmission, I didn't get far. Within a mile or so the engine stalled, the ignition lights came on briefly, and I rolled to a halt at the side of the road. Turning the key in the ignition had no effect - no ignition lights, the engine didn't turn over, nothing. The non-engine electrics worked fine: hazard lights, interior lights, clock etc. but they weren't going to get me home.

Turning again to my N44 friends, the cavalry soon arrived but they couldn't breathe life in to it either.

Time to call RAC - I've paid for their recovery service for times like this, so let's see what they can do! Not a lot is the answer. After fifteen minutes on hold I got through and was informed that it would be
four hours before they could attend. Yes, four hours... An hour and a half later I got another call saying it would be another three hours... At least I had a car to sit in, even if it was unheated, and I wasn't sat on the curb as I would have been on the bike.

Plan B: Tow the Discovery home behind another Land Rover... Which is what we did. I've towed a few times, but never been towed before and it was an interesting experience. There's something slightly eery about trundling along with no engine noise, just the roar of the Defender in front and a bit of wind noise - and by this time it was dark too.

It took a while, but we made it home. I was a bit surprised that the speedo still worked, although it's a mechanical one not electronic so perhaps not all that surprising! What didn't work so well were the brakes and steering. With no engine power there was no power steering and no brake servo to assist either. And when the windscreen mists up you don't have a blower to clear it, nor can you open the windows.

I think I preferred having a mechanical fault because at least the car was mobile whereas now it's not going anywhere. My suspicion is that the immobiliser has died so that's going to be first on the list of things to look at, and hopefully remove.

So as one fault is fixed, another one occurs - but I guess that's the charm of driving an older Land Rover...


15 November 2010

New Arrival

There's a new addition to the fleet - a 1993 Land Rover Discovery:

Previously owned by a friend, it comes with a very comprehensive history, has been converted to run on vegetable oil and has a remote control winch on the front. Despite having 144k miles on the clock it runs beautifully and I'm looking forward to learning what to do with two gear levers as well as taking it to places too risky for the Freelander.

Now to find a source of used veg. oil...

Abingdon 4x4 Festival 2010

The last weekend of September saw the annual Abingdon 4x4 Festival take place at Dalton Barracks in Oxfordshire. This is an annual event and raises money for local charities. This year, owing to the Cadwell Track Day being the Thursday and Friday immediately before, I arrived at lunchtime on Saturday direct from Cadwell.

The first challenge on arrival was finding my friends who were already there: Bobby with his Defender 90 and Robin with his Discovery. Before I'd even parked I'd found Bobby's 90, but it was parked and unattended. I was at this point I realised that I didn't have mobile phone numbers for either Bobby or Robin - memo to self: plan further ahead next time!

With the power of my iPhone, Facebook and e-mails we were soon in contact and, after pitching my tent, met up for my first lap of the course. First impressions were that it was a more technical course than in previous years - "technical" is a wonderful euphemism meaning bloody hard!

Before you're allowed on the course you have to have your vehicle scrutineered to make sure everything in it is secure and not going to fly around the cabin - this includes the battery in the engine bay. This is why tent-pitching came first!

Dalton Barrack's off road course is used by the army for driver training and has a range of features for the festival's Clerk of the Course to choose from. As in previous years there were "easy" and "hard" routes in many places, although the distinction wasn't always obvious with some of the "hard" bits being fairly easy - so much so I happily went that way in the Freelander - but the truly "hard" bits were just that, and there's no way I'd risk damaging the Freelander by attempting them.

The centre-piece of the course is the Mud Run, which is a deep, muddy water-filled channel much too deep for the Freelander, but that's not to say the Freelander didn't get the chance to have a swim. The course drops down in to a large pond, before the hard route splits off towards the Mud Run. The water level in it varied over the course of the weekend, with it being topped up periodically by water bowser.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

With the recent rain, parts of the course were very slippery and on some of the steeper climbs lots of people struggled to get to the top, including some seriously modified 4x4s which demonstrated it's as much about driver technique as vehicle specification. I'm pleased to report that in most cases the Freelander made it to the top - to the surprise of some of the marshals!

As Bobby was only at the show on the Saturday, I left the Freelander and climbed aboard his 90. For the first lap we went the easy route again, and the difference between the two cars was very noticeable, especially in terms of the ride with the Defender making even the smoother sections of the course feel much more dramatic. The limited turning circle of the 90 meant taking a couple of shunts at some of the tighter parts of the course, as did most people - the Clerk of the Course drives a Freelander 2: I'll say no more!

On the tallest, steepest and, that weekend, the most slippery climb we ground to a halt and rolled back. And again. And again. So we were directed around it - and we weren't the only ones by a long-shot as it continued to defeat 4x4s of all kinds.

For a second lap, Robin joined us in the forward-facing passenger seat in the back and this time Bobby decided to raise the stakes and opted for some of the harder sections. All went well until we branched off towards the Mud Run. Having got the hang of a using a heavier foot to get up the slopes, on particularly short, sharp climb over a ridge, Bobby forgot to lift-off at the top and we hurtled down the other side a bit too fast (understatement!). Fortunately no harm done, although how Robin had avoided going head first through the roof I don't know!

From there to the Mud Run, and after some advice from the marshal we took the plunge. The advice was spot on and we made it through where many had failed. Although in keeping with Land Rover tradition in such things, we did have wet feet. By now Bobby was on a roll, and even the highest, steepest mound couldn't stop us this time!

And that was the end of Saturday. Robin and I finished setting up camp and prepared some food as the temperature fell. Sitting out on a cold, clear night was not unpleasant but a warm caravan would have been nicer. It kept the beer (milk and orange juice) cold at least. Turning in for the night I checked the weather app on the iPhone for Didcot and it said 8°C: Brrr!

As the night went on it got colder and colder and I can tell you that my sleeping bag is a bit snug when you're wearing several layers, including a coat, inside a fleece liner. And I was still chilly...

After breakfast Robin and I made plans: a solo lap each in our respective Land Rovers, then we'd have a lift around in the other's Land Rover, then swap and drive each other's. That went well until half-way round the first lap when one of Robin's Discovery's rear shock absorbers broke, allowing the spring to pop-out and foul the rear wheel - it was the smell of burning rubber that gave it away. We discovered later that the mounting for the rear anti-roll bad had also sheared. Thanks to our neighbours in the camp site Robin was able to drive home that evening, very carefully.

So that left us with the Freelander, but the Freelander's time was nigh too and while following a Nissan Pathfinder around the course a lingering smell of diesel pervaded - we hoped from the Nissan, which had beached itself on a couple of humps. Sadly it wasn't, as subsequent investigations showed a burst fuel line where it runs under the suspension in the front wheel arch.

I didn't know about the fuel leak until after I got home, so we carried on lapping the course, being slightly more adventurous with the hard sections (although on one lap I was prevented from attempting the highest, steepest mound by the marshals, despite having already cleared on previous laps!). The video from this year's show on the official web site shows one of the climbs and a number of vehicles trying several times, and in some cases failing, to get over it. My Freelander features in the video, with it going straight over in one shot - very satisfying. [Link]

Right at the end of the course, Beds, Herts & Cambs Land Rover Club were manning a see-saw. In return for a £1 donation you could have a go at driving over it. Last year I'd made a right meal of it and was wary of it this year. On my first attempt I went straight over - gently up the slope to the balance point, stopping, tipping and rolling gently off. On the second attempt I didn't make as good a job of it when I stopped too soon, and in trying to start up the slope again the unmistakable smell of a burning clutch was all too apparent. After that, I decided to give the see-saw a miss to let the clutch recover.

On the Sunday I decided to try something a bit different and entered the twist-off challenge. I lined up in the area with a couple of purpose-built challenge trucks, a Series II, a SEAT Ibiza (yes, really) and a few other vehicles including a mobility scooter. When it was my turn, the commentator noted that my Freelander was modified, and sitting higher than standard - I was impressed because he hadn't been briefed. For those that don't know, a twist-off is a competition to find the vehicle with the greatest amount of suspension articulation. You drive up a single wheel-width ramp until you lose traction - diff locks etc. must not be engaged. Going forwards I didn't do all that well, but going backwards I did rather better - so much so I didn't realise that my rear wheel was dangling in mid-air. Unfortunately that's considered cheating... And probably not entirely safe either.

© Abingdon 4x4 Festival

I'm looking forward to next year's show already, but which Land Rover will I take...?

11 November 2010

Cambrian Rally 2010

After a disappointing performance in the Beacons Rally I was determined to do better at the Cambrian. It's also organised by WTRA, but the course is less technical. The start / finish was near Lyn Brianne reservoir, and the weather was just about perfect: cold but sunny.

Unfortunately neither Mark or Craig could make this one, but I wasn't alone as Gareth came to do his first rally on his 950 Adventure. I decided I deserved a bit of a break and left the 990 Adventure at home and used my 250 EXC Racing instead - the first time I've used it in over a year.

Instead of camping, we decided that a B&B was a better option this time, and we found a very comfortable room at the Castle Coaching Inn in Trecastle. After checking in on Friday evening we headed in to Llandovery to meet with our fellow forum riders, Team Bravo Two-Zero - AKA Rob, Gav & Shep in the chippy. And then in the pub - lovely beer, shame I had to drive!

Saturday morning dawned cold: there was ice on the seats of the bikes. The road up to the reservoir was narrow, twisty, and it took a lot longer than we expected - even once we'd arrived at the grid reference supplied, it was another twenty minutes to the start!

Taking advantage of the Land Rover we parked on a handy piece of verge, unloaded, and went to get scrutineered and signed-on. Our start time wasn't until almost 11.30 so we had plenty of time to drink coffee, chat and generally get organised.

Once on the start-line, the clock ticked over to our set time and off we went, Gareth leading. There were two special tests, and we were to complete two laps on Saturday, with the first one an untimed sighting lap.

The first liaison was along some sweeping forest fire-roads, through a timber yard and down on to the famous Strata Florida. The water level was fairly low, but there were still some deep puddles to ford (up to the front mud-guard on the 250), not to mention some tricky sections with loose rocks and a couple of rocky steps.

From there it was a short road-ride up a 25% gradient to Test One - where were arrived over half an hour early because they'd allowed too much time for the first liaison. While we were waiting we chatted to our fellow riders, I drained large volumes of water from my boots, and we gradually shuffled forwards to the start-line.

Rallies work to a timetable, and you are given a time for your start, stage one, stage two, refuel etc. but the time allowed to the first section was far too generous - and the pedantic marshals wouldn't let anyone start until the allotted time.

Despite it being untimed there's always the urge to keep going, and the first test was a fairly fast mix of fire tracks with a few more technical sections of bog and narrow rutted tracks. There were better ruts to pick, and I didn't get them right by any means!

From the first stage there was a longer road ride to the second test, which was not dissimilar to the first, but on generally tighter, steeper trails making it a bit slower. I did better on the second than the first, possibly due to having a smaller bike.

by Michael Davies

The two section tests were more technical than the liaisons, but not especially difficult, so I'd have been fine on the 990 after all.

On the second lap I was rattling along when I spotted a bike off the side of the track, a good twelve foot down the embankment. A black bike. A KTM 950. Gareth.

With the help of another rider, and a couple of marshals when they arrived, we got the bike back on to the track with no harm done. Gareth had over-cooked the corner and gone a bit wide, kept it on the edge, got on the straight, through he'd gotten away with it, then went over the edge...

Next day the route was reversed, with an earlier start time.

Gareth and I rode up to the start line where we switched off and awaited the nod. When it duly came, Gareth roared off down the road, and I didn't. The 250 refused to fire despite having carried me to the start. After a while the battery was flat, so I tried using the kick-start. That didn't work either, and my leg felt like it was going to fall off. Thankfully a bystander, with a fresh leg, stepped in and I was off.

This way round there was a lengthy road-ride to start with before the two timed stages, which were exactly the same as the day before albeit in reverse. And with less waiting.

Gareth and I managed to stay together most of the day - Gareth was a bit quicker on one stage, I was quicker on the other. The only real excitement was a chap who got a bit out of shape on a bend, almost caught it before veering off the track in to the hillside - and amazing managed to find a storm culvert, probably a metre cubed, which stopped him dead. We got a thumbs up, and left him to it - there were marshals close behind us.

At one point on the third and final lap I nipped past Gareth on a 'technical' section where his 950 needed more care, and thought he was behind me as I trundled along. Some time later, I looked over my shoulder and there was nobody there... So I stopped and waited. No Gareth.

I stopped at the next radio check-point and asked if he'd been seen recently. While I was there, a call went out for an ambulance, and I started to worry a bit...

It turns out he'd had a puncture shortly after I'd passed him, and he'd stopped to fix it - I knew nothing about it, and obviously couldn't go back.

By mid-afternoon we'd all finished, packed away and set off for home - I'd finished! And not last either. Shame they decided not to give finisher awards this year :-\

So next year I'll be taking the 250 to the Beacons and the 990 to the Cambrian. Who knows, I might do some of the others too.

18 October 2010

Coming soon...

I've had a busy couple of months, and there's a lot to write about:
  • Cadwell Track Day
  • Abingdon 4x4 Festival
  • New Land Rover
  • Cambrian Rally
When I get some time, I'll add the stories to the 'blog.

Cambrian Rally 2010 - Preview

_MG_2785, originally uploaded by ysbytymike.
Following my DNF at the Beacons Rally, I tried again at the Cambrian Rally - and I was caught on camera!

Full report to follow later.

07 September 2010

The Blitz

Today is the 70th anniversary of the first bombs falling on London in what became known as The Blitz. In the words Winston Churchill used just a few months earlier: "Never in the field of conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few".

A Spitfire outside St Paul's Cathedral today.

To all who those gave their all, the fire-fighters, nurses, ambulance men, boy scouts and, of course, The Few: thank you.

24 August 2010

Beacons Rally 2010

This weekend I was in Wales for the second Beacons Rally, near Llandovery.

There were a number of us from the KTM Forum competing, and three of us from the east were going so we used Mark's horsebox to transport the three bikes: my 990 Adventure, Craig's 950 Superenduro and Mark's 690 Enduro.

My plan was simple: go through to Wales Friday afternoon, settle in B&B, have a meal, couple of beers and an early night.

Unfortunately Mark was arranging the accommodation as well as the transport, so we ended up camping at Llandovery Rugby Club.

Now I don't mind camping, but when there's a severe weather warning in force for heavy rain, and you're going to be out in it all day, the appeal of camping does tend to wane a bit.

Still, we got through to Llandovery about 19.00, set up camp (in the rain), chatted to our neighbours (who were also competing), then headed in to the Kings Head for some food and a Cwrw or two.

I slept surprisingly well, and next morning we headed off in to the forest to set up shop in the paddock. The start time was fairly civilised, and it had even stopped raining. Mark, Craig and I signed in promptly at 09.00 after our bikes having been given a fairly cursory examination. I was 107, and with the bike duly adorned with race numbers  it was time for breakfast from the burger van.

I was a bit nervous, but not as much as I thought I would be - although this photo, taken just after someone described a "technical" section of the route, might suggest otherwise

Photo by John Mullen

My start time was 11.36 with Mark, and Craig was a minute later. I didn't get off to the best start: you have to wait with the engine off, then when you get the signal you can start your engine and ride away. Of course I had to turn off the ABS after starting the engine, and then I stalled it and had to repeat it all again - all in all, I made a right pigs ear of it.

Picture by Mark (Dibdob on the the KTM Forum)

The rally was to be three laps, each of 30 miles and containing two special stages which were timed. The liaison sections aren't timed, but you have a reporting time at each stage, plus the refuelling point between laps. Get behind by an hour and you're eliminated.

To break us in gently, the first couple of miles were gravel fire-roads, and we kept a reasonable pace. The 990 is a heavy beast, and the gentle weave from the back-end reminded me not to push it too hard!

Before we started we'd been trying to decide on the best attire for the event. When it rains, I normally wear a jacket but knowing it was going to be hard work I opted for just a MX shirt (over my armour and the rest, of course). Within a matter of moments we were soaked through, but not cold!

The course wound its way through the forest with plenty of fire-roads, narrow muddy tracks, steep descents through woods (so wooded that headlights were essential - unfortunately Craig had stuck his race-number over the headlight...!), puddles, climbs, sheep-tracks through bracken and gorse... you get the idea.

Photo by Keith Davies

Each of the special stages had a set of traffic lights at the beginning, and you lined up and set off one at a time when the light went green - although a few people seemed to have trouble with this concept much to the annoyance of the marshal :)

Being the timed section most people were keen to make progress, despite the first lap being a sighting lap and therefore untimed. The first section was fairly straightforward with more of the same that we'd already ridden through with a couple of steep embankments to negotiate, and a narrow plank bridge just before the end of it.

Leaving the section there were two possible routes: one via a very boggy, narrow section with a couple of rock-steps, and the other a short fire-track to the beginning of the stage two. The marshal suggested that, being on a big bike, I might like to take the alternative route - and from the reports received later I'm very glad I did.

Stage two was to be my undoing. After an intimidating looking bog, which wasn't really a problem, there was a narrow rutted-climb with gravel over slate. Slate is slippery when wet, and with the not-all-that-knobbly tyres on the 990 I made heavy weather of it. A ridge in the rut stopped me dead halfway up, and the gravel and wet slate meant I couldn't get started again.

Thankfully people behind me helped me out (they had to - I was blocking the course!) and after what seemed like an age I made it to the top. Exhausted.

The rest of the lap was fairly uneventful, although one stretch had some very deep puddles and one in particular was taped off so we had to go around it through a very soft, tree-rooted section where everyone was getting stuck and falling off; me included. One chap decided to "cheat" and go through the puddle - he came to an abrupt halt with just his handlebars above water.

Photo by Claire Newland

Back in the paddock I was exhausted, with another two laps to go! Red Bull, cereal bar, banana, go!

Lap two started much the same as the first, although the trails were a bit more churned up and on one particularly greasy climb I slithered sideways in to the undergrowth and fell off. If I dropped the bike once I must have dropped it a dozen times and by the time I got to the second stage I was fit to drop.

My plan was to be more committed and hopefully get up in one go. No, didn't happen despite help from other riders. After picking the bike up four or five times on the hill I threw in the towel and tucked myself out of harms way to let the fast riders (who were about to lap me) come through.

I was pretty much trapped, unable to get up the hill and of course I couldn't go against the direction of travel. After half an hour or so a marshal rode past and stopped to help - he rode out of the section and back to the start of it, waited for a break in the flow and stop the stage so that I could ride out backwards. All I had to do was turn the bike around to be ready for him - easy in theory, but I barely had the strength to hold the bike up never mind turn it around!

Between us we got the bike round and then I attempted to steer back through the bog and out on to the fire-track. He then offered to lead me back to the start of stage one so I could get in a third lap...!

Somehow I made it back to the paddock and pretty much collapsed in to a chair. Craig had run out of steam after the first lap and was on had with a much needed bottle of Lucozade!

That left Mark in the running, and by the time I was back he was on his third lap.

With the rain still pouring down, we packed up ready for Mark's return, then headed back to the rugby club for a hot shower and the hog roast provided by the organisers (rather a meagre affair, sadly). After sampling the 'beer' in the clubhouse we headed once more to the Kings Head for food and proper beer.

I was in two minds about riding on Sunday, Craig wasn't going to and Mark was still in the running. I decided to wait until I got to the paddock before making a decision - one that was made very quickly when I failed to hold up my own bike in the trailer while we were unloading. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was very weak...

At least the weather was smiling on us, and the course started to dry out as the riders set off in the opposite direction. The marshal who rescued me said I should give it a go because the climb I got stuck on was now a descent - but I knew how slippery some of the descents had been the day before which were now climbs!

Most people in the paddock are friendly, so I kept myself busy taking photos (once my camera dried out) and chatting with our neighbours as well as acting as pit crew for the other forum guys still riding and, of course, Mark.

By late afternoon all the riders were in, Mark had collected his finisher's trophy, I had sunburn, we loaded up the trailer and headed home - all of us tired, aching but happy, and vowing to have a go at the Cambrian Rally later in the year. In my case, probably on the 250 instead of the 990!

Mark celebrating with a cup of coffee

For a rally billed as being suitable for the bigger bikes it was a lot tougher than expected. Many were saying it was harder than the Hafren, although that was no doubt in part due to the weather. If it had been dry it would have been a different matter and I'm sure I would have been able to complete the two days.

Now to start cleaning and repairing the 990...

...and there's the Cambrian in October!

14 July 2010

Swiss Adventure Rally 2010 - Part 2

Sunday felt not quite as hot as Saturday had been, and after breakfast the course opened again so we took to the trail. With so many bikes passing through, some of the rougher bits had been smoothed out while some of the smoother bits were getting a bit rougher.

Photo by Marc von Weissenfluh

My bike still wasn’t behaving itself despite trying a few things to work around the problem by adjusting throttle cables, checking the throttle-cam was properly installed etc., but I persevered for a few laps before deciding I’d had enough – and we had a long ride ahead of us.

By lunchtime most people had struck their tents, packed their luggage and headed off. We looked around for Marc, but he’d had to run a couple of errands that morning so we set off hoping that we could find his house from the GPS route he’d sent me earlier.

Leaving the venue was much easier than arriving, and we were soon on the main road towards Porrentruy where we stopped for fuel. The Swiss like their unattended filling stations, and we set about deciphering the instructions on the payment machine because, unlike pay-at-the-pump systems in the UK, there isn’t a card reader on each pump. It seemed simple enough: insert card, machine switches to English, asks you for the pump number, your PIN and then returns your card. You then fill up, replace the nozzle, put in your card again for a receipt. Simples. Unless you’re me, in which case it will stop after dispensing about a cupful of unleaded for no obvious reason .

Anyway, with both bikes fully fuelled (I just tried again and it worked perfectly) we began following the route to Interlaken. It was a scenic route, due to taken several hours and take us through the mountains and some interesting scenery. Something that nearly caught us out was the signage for the Swiss Motorways: they’re green, not blue. Swiss Motorways are all toll roads, but instead of paying per use you must buy a sticker, a vignette (not, as I accidentally typed elsewhere, vinaigrette), in advance that costs 40Ch and lasts all year. Failure to display leads to a fine of 100Ch, plus the cost of a vignette. As we were only going to be in Switzerland for the weekend it seemed a bit excessive to buy one for just two days, so we had to stick to the national roads – which have blue signs.

Thus slightly confused, we pulled up on the edge of a roundabout to check our maps.

We’d not been stopped for long when a white van drew up – in a stroke of luck it was Marc on his way back to the rally site. He soon pointed us in the right direction, explained the signage and we were on our way to Biel.

I was using my Garmin Zumo GPS receiver for navigation, and it appears that the roads on its internal map are not as accurate as they might be. In the first village was came to the main road through it was closed, so we took a diversion and the Zumo recalculated the route – and took us in to a domestic cul-de-sac.

It was to be the first of many wrong turns, missed junctions and general faffing about as I tried to get to grips with the Swiss road system – particularly junctions that are well disguised and look as though they could be driveways.

We spent so much time riding around in circles that a chap came out of his house and started waving his arms around at us. Obviously we’d outstayed our welcome there and it was time to move on.

The roads were, in the main, interesting and well-surfaced with more hairpin bends in an afternoon that I think I’ve ever done before. A couple of times on the journey we passed mud-spattered KTMs which had obviously been to the Adventure Weekend, and we exchanged friendly waves.

Arriving in a small town we spotted a selection of bikes, including a BMW GS, parked in the square and decided that it was lunchtime. We had coffee and a large cheese “sandwich” each, which was an open sandwich with pickled onions and gherkins on top. When the bill arrived the total was given in both Swiss Francs and Euro, and through the combined exchange rates amongst the Pound, Euro and Franc, it was best value for us to pay in Euro – although when the waitress spotted a brightly-coloured Swiss note in my wallet she refused to accept payment in Euro and insisted that I pay in Francs.

Part of the original route we were given included a stretch of Motorway, so we had been given an alternative route between Aarberg and Worb. Sensing I was close to the Motorway, and seeing an “Ausfahrt” sign, we took the slip-road and found ourselves on the edge of a moderately large town.

The road was a fairly major route, but the town was congested with traffic and it took us a while to work our way through it. Riding up the hill out of the town, after an interesting route through some very narrow roads in a housing estate, there was the first suggestion of rain and, more importantly, a red light on my dashboard and a flashing temperature gauge: engine overheating.

Pulling in to a lay-by to let it cool, I checked the coolant level and looked for any obvious problems, but it seemed to be caused simply by the mud from the weekend’s riding clogging the radiator fins. Leaving the bike to stand for a while the light eventually went out and the gauge stopped flashing.

Setting off again, it soon started to rain. And I mean rain. I haven’t seen rain that heavy for a long time. Within a matter of minutes, gutters were full, the road was awash and we were soaked to the skin. I’m sure I even saw a chap loading animals, two-by-two, in to a large boat…

If you’re a motorcyclist you’ll know that uncomfortable feeling as the rain starts to seep in: the trickle of water down your neck, the chilly feeling as your boots fill up with water, and the distinctly uncomfortable feeling as your outer layer gradually submits to the rain and the water starting to collect where you’re sitting.

Thankfully it wasn’t cold, so we kept going – we couldn’t get any wetter, and hanging around wasn’t going to get us any closer to Interlaken.

Eventually the rain eased off and finally stopped as we turned off the main routes once more and headed up in to the mountains. The scenery, what we could see of it in the mist, was spectacular and we stopped a couple of times to stretch legs and take photos.

Arriving in a small village the Zumo told me to turn right, and I missed the turning because, once again, it didn’t look like a road. Turning around we trundled along the narrow road and eventually came to a gravel track with a forbidding looking sign (in German) which neither of us could translate – but the Zumo was insistent that it was the correct route, so we rode on. It took us first to a farm where the track disappeared, and to another couple of dead-ends before bringing us out on to a surfaced road again on the other side of the hill.

These roads were single-track, twisty and very wet and greasy from being under the trees. We followed the Zumo’s directions until I noticed that there was an odd double-ended arrow on the screen… Obviously we’d missed one of the ‘via’ points on the route, and the Zumo was taking us back to visit it before re-tracing our steps again – although thankfully not over the hill again.

I don’t think I’ve been as appreciative of a proper main road for a long time as I was that day, and we started to make better progress – although there were still a few missed turnings, U-turns and odd routes along the way.

At long last we were overlooking the lake, and the road wound its way down to the shoreline. The roads were quiet as most sensible people were indoors because the weather was still pretty miserable and it was getting late on a Sunday evening.

The road followed the shoreline, winding around the bottom of the cliffs with occasional tunnels – one of them on a bend, complete with a line of metal inspection covers down the centre of the lane to make it all the more interesting (tyres + rain + metal cover = slides). It was just after 19.00 when we arrived in Interlaken and made our way across town to Marc’s house.

When we arrived we were ushered in to the cellar to change in to some dry clothes and hang our riding kit up to dry before being given a warm welcome by Marc, his wife Geraldine and their son David. We’d been given a shopping list of British food to bring with us, and Geraldine was very pleased to have a fresh supply of butter, Cadbury chocolate (chocolate to Switzerland? Coals to Newcastle?), cheddar cheese and tinned peas (for a poetic interlude!).

We tucked in to a very welcome meal of pasta bolognaise and a couple of beers before Marc took us out to a bar in the centre of town: Hooters. For those who aren’t familiar with the tacky, yet unrefined features of a Hooters bar, I’ll let you do your own research. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it was well after midnight when we left, and fell in to bed.

Next morning, when we finally surfaced it was after 10.00. Monday’s plan was to begin the journey home, crossing Switzerland through the mountains and to spend the night in a hotel somewhere in France. Marc had plotted a route for us, again avoiding Swiss Motorways, so after stopping to refuel we set off in a generally north-west direction.

The first part of the journey was around the edge of the lake, the same road we’d done the day before, although this time it was a Monday morning and it was a lot busier. Roadworks meant a diversion through a busy town centre, and after crawling through it in the hot weather my bike was overheating again.

We let it cool, and then we set off looking for a bike shop because Nick needed some chain lube because his chain was squeaking a bit. We stopped at a couple of likely looking bike shops but they were closed. We’d half expected this because the shops are open on Saturdays they take Monday off instead so they can still have a two-day weekend. We did find a place in the end: a bicycle repair shop with a mountain of rough-looking push-bikes outside, and a cluttered… well, I think it was once a showroom. We explained with sign-language what we were after, and the chap appeared with a promising-looking spray can: Hmm, brake cleaner isn’t quite what we had in mind… Second time lucky though, and Nick had a squeak-free chain.

Turning up in to the mountains, it was a relief to get away from the traffic, and with the better weather we enjoyed a good view over the lake to the mountains beyond. With our late start, it was now getting on for lunchtime so we stopped at a supermarket in a village to have a bite to eat.

When we set off again, I was getting more in tune with the Swiss road system and there were a lot fewer U-turns – although at one point I did manage to do a complete loop and go through a village twice.

The roads were even better than the ones we’d done the day before: well surfaced, wide, quiet and with some amazing twists and turns. Even on a 990 Adventure with knobbly tyres and luggage it was fun, so on a road bike it must be fantastic. The oddest road of the day was a steep, single-track road up a hillside that must have been a 1:3, which just popped out on to to another road at a blind junction. I wouldn’t have liked to have met anything coming the other way because setting off up such a steep gradient would be a challenge.

As we neared the border the roads became busier, and we got stuck in a column of camper-vans. The bends in the road and the solid white lines meant overtaking was tricky – and I was mindful of my error of judgement on the trip down. Having hopped past, we then came up behind a combine harvester…

Crossing the border, this time on a more major route so there was a proper border post, the quality of the road decreased and the traffic levels increased. We were heading to Besançon, which is handy for the Autoroute and would give us a good start for the long haul back to Calais. Some sections were dual carriageway, but much of it was single. The French seem to be getting keen on speed cameras, which are not always obvious but at least they do put up signs only where there are actual cameras, but we made good progress and arrived in Besançon around 18.00.

Never having been there before, and knowing French hotels can be of variable quality, I turned to the Zumo’s list of hotels with the intention of finding something cheap. The Etap Hotel seemed a promising choice and it was cheap, clean and handy for the station (not that we needed the station): 55€ for a room (double-bed with single bunk above it) and breakfast, and the room even had air conditioning.

For dinner we decided to forgo the restaurant beside the hotel and went in to the town centre where we looked at a variety of cafés before choosing one in the square, near the fountain, for an entrecote steak and chips followed by three scoops of proper French ice-cream (banana, apple sorbet and strawberry – which was supposed to be raspberry).

Next morning we had breakfast then loaded up the bikes, which we’d parked in the station car park opposite the hotel. It was an underground car park, and the fee was 5.50€ each for a space in the dedicated bike parking bay beside the attendent’s office. Just as we were about to ride off, a Renault Scenic reversed out of a space nearby and hit one of the car park’s signs, shattering the car’s back window. It was quite an impressive feat with broken glass everywhere. The driver got out to survey the damage and the attendant looked most nonplussed as she came to check the damage to her car park.

I had a feeling that this might take some time, and we just wanted to get away. There was a walkway from where we were to the exit barrier, and Nick nipped down it on his bike. I couldn’t follow because I was too wide, but I was able to sneak around by the entrance barrier and get to the exit that way.

With just a stop for fuel en route to the Autoroute, we were on our way north. This time we managed to get our fuel stops organised, and we filled up every 100 miles or so at service areas. The weather was much cooler which made the trip a lot less tiring this time, and the roads were quiet too. The only minor mishap was when Nick got stuck at an automated péage lane that didn’t like bikes.

Arriving early for our booked crossing back through the tunnel we were able to get on an earlier train and arrived back in England around 16.00 for the ride back home – which meant tackling the M25 in the rush-hour. There was a bit of a queue for the Dartford Crossing, but only for a minute or two, and I was home shortly after 18.00 having done 1500 miles over the weekend.

It was a superb weekend. Thank you to Marc for the original invitation and for his hospitality, the Swiss KTM Adventure Club for making us so welcome, and to Nick for putting up with my sometimes errant sense of direction.

I’m looking forward to next year’s meeting already!

12 July 2010

Swiss Adventure Rally 2010 - Part 1

When an invitation to join the Swiss KTM Club’s Adventure Rally appeared on the UK KTM Forum it seemed an ideal way to spend a weekend, meeting other KTM riders and visit a country that I’d not been to for many years.

Quite a few people expressed interest in going, but in the end just two of us, Nick on a 950 Super Enduro and Gordon (me) on a 990 Adventure, made the journey. The plan was to cross the channel through the tunnel, then ride down through France and across the Swiss border to the village of Bure [Boor] on the western edge of Switzerland, where the Swiss KTM Club had borrowed the Swiss Army’s tank training ground. There are very few opportunities to ride off road in Switzerland, so this was something not to be missed.

On Thursday evening, 1 July, I rode from Cambridgeshire down to Nick’s house near Ashford, and just twenty minutes from Channel Tunnel Shuttle terminal at Cheriton, Kent. For once the M25 was flowing freely, despite an accident on the Dartford bridge, and I got there in around two hours.

Next morning we made an early start to catch the 07.50 shuttle. I’ve never been on the shuttle before, although I have used the Eurostar passenger trains through the tunnel, so I was looking forward to the experience. Heading towards the M20 there was a tail-back of traffic with very little movement. As we drew closer (filtering is tricky on the 990 with its panniers fitted because of the width) we could see lots of blue flashing lights, Police officers directing traffic, and an accident at the top of one of the slip-roads closing the roundabout. Hmm…

The only thing we could do was to head up the Motorway to the next junction, turn around and ride back, although by this time we were getting a bit tight for time. Fortunately the terminal is linked directly from the Motorway, and we rolled up to the check-in kiosk and were issued with our boarding passes – but the 07.50 had closed so we’d have to wait for the next one.

Riding through the maze of terminal roads, through security, British and French passport control, we arrived at the boarding queues with a handful of other bikes and lots of cars. Boarding is controlled automatically with traffic lights and barriers for each of the lanes, and before too long the barrier for our queue lifted, the light went green, so we were on the 07.50 after all – result!

If you haven’t been on the shuttle, then it’s best described as basic. The idea is that you sit in your car for the half-hour crossing, but obviously that doesn’t work on a bike. Bikes are loaded in to the double-deck carriages, in single file, and at a slight angle to the carriage. They are not secured in any way but the journey is fairly smooth and the bikes just rocked gently whilst we perched on the handrail that runs the length of the carriage. There are no facilities onboard other than a toilet, not even seats or a coffee machine, so it’s not exactly relaxing but it is quick.

Arriving in France there are no formalities to complete so you roll straight off the train and on to the Autoroute. There’s a petrol station at the exit of the terminal, and with hindsight I ought to have topped up. Nick had a full tank, and I’d filled up before leaving home, but I’d already done 100 miles with a 170 mile range…

It was a recurring event, having to leave the Autoroute to find petrol. At least it was a Friday so the village filling stations were open for business, but this did mean more tolls as we left and re-entered the Autoroute. Nick’s Super Enduro has a range of about 100 miles, so we had to make fairly regular stops.

The temperature was steadily climbing and by mid afternoon it was, according to a sign outside a pharmacy, 37°C. At each stop we bought a cold drink and tried to find some shade, but it was getting increasingly unpleasant, and I was thinking how nice it would have been to have the air conditioning of the Land Rover if I’d towed the bike down – but it wouldn’t have been the same.

Autoroutes are fast, but very dull. The speed limit is 130kph (85mph), so we made good progress. Leaving the Autoroute we took to normal single carriageway roads, which were reasonably busy.

It was on this road that the early start, the heat and general tiredness nearly got the better of me. Pulling out to overtake a couple of lorries on a long straight stretch, I failed to spot the black car emerging from the heat haze in a slight dip in the road. Thankfully the big KTM has good brakes, and I was able to tuck myself back in between the lorries, but it was a much closer call than I’d have liked.
We crossed the border in to Switzerland on a minor road, and then tried to find the meeting point. If there’s one thing that the Swiss like it’s road signs, and every route we took seemed to have a “no vehicles” sign blocking our way. Eventually we found a road that lead in the right direction, with no prohibition signs – and we ended up in someone’s garden… Apparently it happens quite a lot, but thankfully the lady of the house spoke English and was able to point us in the right direction.

Of course it turns out that our first attempt was pretty much spot-on, and if we’d ignored the sign, which is to stop unauthorised traffic driving on the training ground, we would have been at the meeting point in a matter of minutes!

We added our bikes to those already parked; a good selection of 620, 640, 950 and 990 Adventures, a couple of 950 Super Enduros and some interlopers in the shape of BMW GSs, a Cagiva Elephant and a Honda Africa Twin.

The camping area was a short walk away down a flight of steps, so we unloaded our kit, found a promising bit of space, and set about pitching our tents. It was really, really warm, and we were both sweltering. The insects had plenty of energy though, including a large horsefly that took a fancy to my back.

That done, we headed to the open-sided building that was serving as a clubhouse for the weekend, bought some drinks and found Marc, who’d put the original invite on the forum. He had brought his air conditioned caravan with him, and very kindly offered the two spare bunks in it to Nick and me.

Everyone we met was very friendly and welcoming, and most were amazed that we’d ridden so far (580 Km) in one day – and to be honest, I didn’t quite believe it either! We chatted about the journey, trips we’d been on, plans for future trips, compared bikes and all the usual things that bikers talk about when they meet. Some people were interested in our plastic number plates, because Swiss and German plates are metal and plastic ones aren’t allowed, and the yellow UK plates were an easy giveaway as to which were the British bikes.

Dinner was duly served, spaghetti bolognaise, and we were all given a briefing on the rules and timetable for the weekend, with a translation from our new friends who realised our German was just about non-existent!

The evening’s entertainment was a video / slide-show of a recent trip to Poland, which looked to have been great fun and quite challenging owing to the amount of rain and flooding they’d had to contend with. Luckily pictures speak a thousand words!

Next morning we woke up to an equally hot day. After breakfast, a typical continental affair with cheese, cold meat, bread, jam, fruit juice and coffee, we took to the track. There were two sessions on Saturday, 09.00 to 12.00, and 14.00 to 17.00.

The idea was that a guide would lead the way for your first lap to get an idea of where the course went, then you could do as many laps as you wanted (although it was recommended that you didn’t ride alone). Marc, Nick and I set off, and with the dry weather the course was very dusty – so much so that I had to hang back to see where I was going, and duly lost the other two. At least the course was well marked, so it wasn’t hard to follow, and I eventually caught up with them at the finish.

Picture by Marc von Weissenfluh

The course was a mixture of wide, fast tracks, narrow wooded sections, tight turns, loose slopes and other features, and was about five and a half miles in length. Despite the heat, there were a number of puddles around the course, and one in particular looked small and innocent enough on the inside of a curve after a flat-topped hump, but was deep and very muddy – hence the state of my bike!

Lunch time came, and we returned to the clubhouse for a tasty meal of ham (think gammon steak), potatoes gratin and salad. The heat had taken the edge off my appetite, but it was certainly needed after the morning’s exertions.

With plenty of lunchtime left, people found shady spots to rest. I got the Therma-rest out of my tent, and had a lie-down on a grassy embankment in the shade of the clubhouse and went to sleep…

Woken by the sound of revving engines, it was time for part two.

After its Moroccan trip, my bike was in need of a service and it duly went off to the dealer. For some reason, certain 990 Adventures suffer from a surging throttle, which makes delicate throttle adjustments very difficult. Unfortunately, despite my bike having been surge-free for the previous couple of years after some attention from the dealer, the Swiss course revealed that my surging problem had returned. This made the slower parts of the course very difficult, and at one point an inopportune surge saw me leave the course instead of taking the right-hand bend – fortunately without harm to me or the bike. Even on the faster sections, rolling off the throttle and rolling on again smoothly was impossible, and it lead to a nodding-donkey effect on the rider.

Mid-afternoon I decided to call it a day. Arrangements had been made to use the showers at the army base’s gym, so in groups of ten or so we piled in to the back of one of the organiser’s pick-up truck and were driven the few kilometres to the barracks. En route we passed the place we’d originally arrived at, and had turned away from having found the no vehicles sign – we’ll know for next time.

The shower was very welcome, but with the heat and humidity, we just about needed another one before we were even back at the camp site.

Dinner that night was roast chicken with potatoes gratin, washed down by Swiss beer and was delicious. The evening’s entertainment was another slide-show of a trip from the south of Africa to the north, along with the trials and tribulations encountered such as crashing your Cagiva and breaking your bike’s instruments, headlights, fairing and GPS receiver right at the beginning of the trip. The ingenuity of how they fixed it all was impressive – or at least it seemed that way from the photos.

Those of us sitting outside were treated to an impressive lightning display, complete with purple storm clouds, and we were hoping that the storm would pass over and help to clear the air as well as keep down the dust. It missed us completely.

Sunday was a morning-only session, and after that we would be riding to Interlaken via the scenic route.

To be continued…

09 July 2010

The Big Adventure - Part 9

And so to the highlight of our trip: the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. After breakfast we left our luggage at the hotel and set off towards the dunes, which where visible in the distance from our hotel, looking for a place away from the various hotels in the area. Distance can be deceptive, and the dunes were a few miles away but it was pleasant ride across the gravelly nothingness.

It's easy to understand why people go to see the dunes because they're just what many people think the desert is like – golden, shifting sands like in the Fry's Turkish Delight TV advert.

Photo by Gareth Jones

Taking 200Kg of bike, even unladen, in to soft sand isn't for the faint-hearted and it wasn't long before the sand claimed its first victim of many. We were a bit surprised when a young lad appeared and began setting out a display of fossils and the like in the apparent hope that we might buy something from him – the entrepreneurial approach was at least optimistic, but we didn't really have any interest in them and didn't buy anything. But to be fair, we didn't get any hassle from him either.

Gareth was determined to get further in to the dunes, and between us we managed to get his bike over the first dune and in to the valley beyond.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Mark H and I got stuck a few more times, Jason had a play and Mark L stayed on solid ground.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Before too long the appeal of the dunes started to fade, and the realisation that perhaps the big Adventures weren't the ideal tool for the job. So we set off back to the hotel with the intention of doing as little as possible, but not before Gareth had decided to walk to the highest dune we could see, and investigate a camel on the way.

The hotel didn't serve lunch, so we set-to with our camping stoves and used some of our own supplies on the patio behind our room. We also took the opportunity to do some laundry, the various luggage straps making an impromptu washing line.

It was a very humid day, much like a British summer day but a lot hotter, so we retired to the pool for a swim, and for some quality lazy time: reading, dozing and listening to iPods. The water in the pool was cold, but once you were in it was very refreshing. I'm not a keen swimmer, but even I did a good few lengths. We'd watched the hotel staff cleaning the pool that morning, and the long grass behind it being cut by a group of ladies, by hand. It looked like they were taking the grass away with them, although what they would do with it we don't know. There were being provided with the traditional silver pot of tea though.

That evening we again gathered for pre-dinner drinks before taking our place in the open-air dining room. The wind had got up, it was a warm wind and thankfully it got rid of the worst of the flies. For most of the trip we didn't have any real problem with flies, mosquitoes etc., but for some reason there were dozens of them around the hotel. In our room we had the air conditioning on and this seemed to put them off, but they were everywhere when we were out and about.

On the menu that night was a dish of chicken and potatoes, and it was obviously the chef's night off because it was the poor relation of the previous night's delicious tagine. Even the desserts were sub-standard with the cheeseboard being particularly meagre after the generous portions of the night before – or perhaps they knew they didn't need to impress us because we were leaving anyway?

In many ways this was the end of our tour – we were turning for home, we were retracing our steps and nothing would be particularly “new” any more. With a slightly gloomy air we turned in for the night.

Next morning we loaded up the bikes and set off towards the Todra Gorge, which runs pretty much parallel to the Dades Gorge. Leaving the hotel I was at the back of the ride and spotted a mini tornado not far from the road. If you look closely you can see the column of dust:

We were riding up the N13, which runs most of the way down Morocco from north to south, traffic was light and the surface was pretty good. Turning off the N13 to head west we again were crossing a lot of nothing, but there were a variety of lay-bys and other places for tourists to stop to have a closer look.

Spotting a handy group (herd?) of camels we set off on foot to take photos (the novelty of camels never did wear off).

Looking back towards the bikes, despite being parked on a well surfaced road they looked a bit lost in all the open space:

The Todra Gorge is closer to civilisation and consequently was even busier than the Dades had been. Lots of tourists, touts, stalls selling souvenirs, 4x4s and the like. The road was in the process of being rebuilt having been washed away, and there's film footage on YouTube (see below) that shows an intrepid biker riding through the flowing water in 2009. It was nicely shaded though, and a pleasant enough place to have a break.

We'd been given details of a campsite further up the gorge, and the plan was to camp there overnight. Unfortunately, as usual, we couldn't find the actual place so we improvised. On the way up the gorge we'd stopped by somewhere that might or might not have been the campsite, and were immediately besieged by kids wanting sweets, Dirham etc., and wanting us to stay there. Their clamouring was so persistent that none of us felt inclined to stick around any longer than necessary.

We carried on up the gorge, looking for somewhere suitable to pitch our tents. This isn’t an easy task in such a rocky area, but at last we spotted a suitable site on the side of a dried-up river bed. It was still quite visible from the road, but from there we could see a more secluded spot a little further up the riverbed that was out of site of the road. The ground was soft and reasonably flat, so we decided to stay.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

With the tents up and the stoves on the go heating water we were pretty comfortable; and it was a lot cooler than it had been in the desert! As I’ve said before, you’re never alone in Morocco, and it wasn’t long before we had a visit from a young shepherd. He stood and looked at us for a few minutes, then disappeared again.

Dinner was prepared from our long-life, boil-in-the-bag meals (beef stew with dumplings for me), and we enjoyed the last of the evening sun by exploring further up the river before watching another beautiful sunset.

Next morning we were woken by the sound of cowbells and the bleating of sheep as the shepherd from the previous evening drove his flock straight through the camp. It was a bit of a rude awakening, but no harm done.

Photo by Gareth Jones

After breakfast we packed up and returned to the road. The road up from the Todra Gorge had been recently surfaced, was deserted and had some spectacular views.

I can also offer a ‘tip-of-the-day’ at this point: make sure your pannier lid is closed before riding away – especially if it’s the one with all your paperwork in it. Fortunately nothing fell out, but I did feel a bit of an idiot!

The road wound up in to the mountains, and on one corner with a particularly impressive view we encountered a pair of British riders who were heading south on smaller trail bikes: one on a Honda the other a Suzuki. We chatted with them for a while, exchanging trail-notes before setting off in opposite directions, their adventure still to come.

We’d decided that rather than extend our journey home for the sake of it, we’d get on and head back to Spain a couple of days early to allow some rest and relaxation before flying home (ash cloud not withstanding). Our destination was Midelt, and the same hotel we’d stayed at on the way out, and where Gareth and I caught up with the others two week previous.

Our route took us back to Imilchil, and through the town of El Rich [El Reesh]. The roads through the mountain wound along the valleys with flowing bends that were great to ride, with the odd village and junction to break it up.

On the edge of Imilchil there was a small group of children waiting at a road junction. They did the usual scrounging for sweets, Dirham etc. from us, but by this stage we didn’t have much left. I was at the back of the ride, and one young chap got a little too close and was caught by my pannier as I pulled away. I only know this because in the mirror I saw someone doubled over at the side of the road, put two-and-two together and assume it was the chap who been tapping me on the leg while I’d been stopped. Perhaps he’ll stand a bit further back from bikes next time…

Lunch was due to be in El Rich, but after being mobbed at the petrol station on the outskirts (to the point where the staff at the filling station were chasing the kids away), and not seeing anywhere all that appealing in the town itself we decided to press on.

Instead we stopped on the edge of Midelt and watched a chap on a locally registered Yamaha R1 ride backwards and forwards. Posing bikers on sports-bikes are the same the world over – except for the lack of race rep. leathers, which would be far too hot.

In the centre of Midelt they were rebuilding a bridge across the river, so there was a diversionary route signposted – although Mark L who was leading had other ideas and we plunged in to a maze of narrow residential streets. Encountering a a small square with several roads leading in different directions, and with no sign of Mark ahead, we could only guess which way he’d gone, and fortunately we got it right. Quite what the residents must have made of us, I don’t know!

Arriving at the bridge, the only option was to ride across the parallel footbridge, which was wide enough (just) for a fully laden Adventure. We were split up by oncoming pedestrians, and someone on a moped who’d had the same idea as us, so when we got to the other side (cue joke about why did the biker cross the bridge…!) the advance party was nowhere to be seen. Recognising where we were from the outward journey, close to the start of the Cirque du Jaffar, we set off in hot pursuit and caught them up.

Arriving in the familiar courtyard of Kazar Timney, we were soon making ourselves comfortable in the same rooms we’d had before. But there was a surprise in store: after the disruption of the dust cloud and talk of riding back to the UK, Mark H decided that was what he was going to do – ride up through Spain and France, and get the ferry back to the UK. The last we saw of him was the back of his bike disappearing in a cloud of dust, in a northerly direction.

Dinner that night was our last tagine of the trip, chicken and lemon, and a few drinks. It was much warmer than it had been on our previous visit, and we were grateful for the air conditioning in the room. We also played with the satellite TV in the room, but could only find what might be euphemistically termed adult channels – which was certainly a surprise in a Muslim country (or perhaps it was to cater for the western audience?).

In the other room, the electrics were keeping us entertained where one switch turned on the light, another made it flicker, and a third reversed the whole lot while turning on the bathroom light. I suppose that Joseph Lucas, AKA The Prince of Darkness, needed to do something after he retired from the automotive industry.

Outside I got talking a Danish couple who were staying in their caravan. Their two sons race KTM bikes in Denmark, and he was interested in our big KTMs, where we’d taken them and how we’d got on with them.

Tomorrow’s plan was to get to the hotel in Chefchaouen that they’d stayed in while Gareth and I were stuck in Spain. The route took us through Meknes, and it was absolute chaos. Roadworks were in progress on the main four-lane road through it, so the traffic just crossed the central reservation and used both sides of the road. Police officers were blowing whistles and waving their arms, and nobody was taking any notice. With the traffic being as heavy as it was, filtering wasn’t an option but eventually we made it though almost unscathed: somehow Gareth managed to collide with a wheelbarrow, adding some fresh dents to his pannier and getting a very dark look from the workers.

We also decided it was time to do some souvenir shopping, so we made a couple of stops to look at various pretty stones, fossils, tagines and other trinkets. Mark L and Gareth decided to take home a tagine (dish) each, which lead to the challenge of fitting them securely on to their bikes:

"Is that a tagine in your pocket, or shall we do a very old joke?"

I opted for miniature versions that had been carved out of stone, and a small ceramic one that might be just about big enough to do a couple of olives in. We rode past the Danish couple on one of the steeper hills, and they stopped for another brief chat when we’d pulled in to look at some stalls in a lay-by.

At one point we had to pull over when Gareth got stung by a wasp, and a group of children came over to see us and scrounge sweets etc. They also found the throttle on my bike, and I was able to divert their attention from begging to revving. Another motorist, heading in the opposite direction, stopped to remonstrate with them – I don’t know if it was because they were “pestering” us, or whether he knew them or something else, but the kids ran off as soon as he got out of his car.

Arriving at the hotel on the edge of Chefchaouen, it was busy with people watching a football match on a large TV in the non-alcoholic “bar”. It was the most formal hotel we’d stayed in, with passports required at check-in, and the rooms were small but comfortable (although the light in the shower didn’t work in the room Jason and I shared). We sat down with a drink (coffee or Cola) and watched the game, and apart from the absence of alcohol we could have been in a sports bar almost anywhere.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

Unfortunately that's where the good bits ended. The hotel didn’t serve food, either an evening meal or breakfast, there was one gents toilet for all the rooms, and it was broken, a pack of dogs across the road from hotel were barking all night and kept us awake all night – so none of us were at our best the following morning for the last push to the border at Sebta.

It felt a very long way, but it was only a couple of hours to the border and we arrived about 10.00 to begin the process of leaving Morocco and exporting our bikes. Thanks to a text message from Mark H the previous evening, we knew pretty much what we had to do, and we took it in turns to go to the window to get our exit stamps and to hand in another section of our D16 vehicle forms. We’d also intended to change our remaining Dirham in to Euro, but as it was a Sunday the exchange offices appeared to be closed.

In the confusion of vehicles and people, the other three managed to get ahead, and by the time I got back to my bike to go to the frontier proper, they were already en route to Spain. Crossing back in the EU was just like any other EU crossing when you’re an EU resident – they didn’t even glance at our passports and just waved us straight through.

Owing to the time difference, it was now Noon, and Gareth and I needed to get ferry tickets for the same company at Jason and Mark L. There are plenty of shops offering tickets for all three companies, and we found one just near the port and duly bought tickets for the next Baleària crossing at 14.15. Mark L, forgetting the time difference, wondered what we could do in Ceuta for four hours, when it was only going to be two – and with check-in time it was really only an hour and a half!

Having not eaten since lunch the previous day, we spotted a drive-through McDonalds and decided that was probably the simplest option. Great in theory, but although it had a drive-through it didn’t have a car park… We eventually found a spot to park (well, it was more abandon than park) by the aquarium just a short walk away, and we duly tucked in to Spanish chicken burgers, chips and Coke while watch the world, and the incoming Malaga to Ceuta helicopter, pass by.

Despite it being a domestic ferry to Algeciras, security was pretty tight at the port, with passport checks and a sniffer dog watching the passing traffic. The security is almost certainly to prevent illegal immigrants who’ve managed to sneak in to the Spanish enclave from getting an easy passage to Europe.

The boat was a much more modern then the one Gareth and I had been on when going the other way, and was a mono-hull fast ferry instead of a catamaran. Taking the travelator up from the car deck I headed for the lounge with leather seats and a sea view – but the others had a different idea and headed to the café.

Photo by Mark Littlewood

When we arrived in Algeciras we’d made a rough plan to find a camp-site for the next two nights before our flight home (we’d still no idea whether it was cancelled or not). Our destination was Ronda, which I thought was in Wales but isn’t (well there’s a Rhonda in Wales), and we set off from the port on to the Autovia. Through a combination of heavy traffic and reduced speed limits we got split up, only to see the other three disappear down a slip-road as I was in the middle lane… Bother.

Still, we got back on track and took the road up in to the mountains. I can see why the area is popular with bikers for the roads were very twisty, generally well surfaced, and fairly quiet. We found a camp site on the edge of Ronda that seemed very upmarket, with a swimming pool, lots of grassy pitches and lots of rules – including no groups! Undeterred, we went in to reception and they were happy to show us the various options. They had a number of self-catering chalets available, with twin-beds and en-suite facilities for the reasonable sum of 60€ per chalet – so we took two. I was very relieved that we wouldn’t be in a tent again and looked forward to a good sleep.

The café was very busy with people enjoying the last of their weekend, and we joined them drinking a cold beer or two in the evening sun. There was also food available, and by this time we couldn’t really be bothered to go anywhere else, so we tucked in to a reasonably tasty, if slightly pricey, meal.

With nothing planned for the next day, I decided to head back over to Redtread Honda in Cómpeta to say hello, thank them for their help and let them know how we’d got on. It’s easy to forget relative distances, and it was a little over two hours later that I arrived in Cómpeta but not before having a slightly unnerving moment when I spotted the Police speed-check just as I was passing a slow moving van. I was definitely over the speed limit, but the officers just waved me on my way – phew!

That evening was pretty much a repeat of Sunday evening, with more beers on the terrace, and a not-quite-as-good but still-a-bit-pricey meal at the café.

Our last day dawned, and we had one last ride from Ronda to La Viñuela where Transport Tony was going to meet us to load the bikes for the return journey. It turned out that the route was almost identical to the route I’d taken to Cómpeta the previous day – except that the lure of Morocco was such that Mark L, who was leading, set off west along the Autovía del Mediterráneo back towards Algeciras instead of east towards Tony and home!

The views from Tony’s house were amazing, and after sorting out and loading our bikes and luggage, Hazel, Tony’s wife, very kindly fed and watered us while we enjoyed the view over the mountains and lake.

Eventually it was time to make for the airport, and Tony kindly gave us a lift. Mark, Gareth and I were off to Gatwick and Jason to Manchester. Malaga airport has had a lot of work done to it since my last visit, and while it’s still in progress there’s a lot of walking back and forwards between check-in in Terminal 2, the new security search area everyone has to use in Terminal 3 and the easyJet boarding gate back in Terminal 2 – at the far end of it.

Knowing how to play the easyJet game, we stationed ourselves at the front of the boarding queue and were the first non-priority passengers on the aircraft, an Airbus A320, and sat as close to the front as we could get. After a peaceful flight back to Gatwick we were almost first off the aircraft, straight through passport control and baggage reclaim (we’d only taken hand luggage), and after some brief good-byes I met Andrew and Gayle outside who’d very kindly offered to pick me up and drive me home.

So that was it: Our Moroccan adventure was over and we were back in the real world with some fantastic memories.

…where can we go next?