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Sri Lanka’s Hill Country

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In December 2008, I had my worst accident in over 30 years of riding. It’s been a long, slow climb back to something that resembles normalcy. In almost a year and a half, I’ve experienced more hospital stays and doctor’s appointments to than I care to remember. Now, with the healing almost complete, I was itching to get back out there and enjoy life.

I had originally hoped to fly to Italy to rejoin team orson for a long overdue reunion, but alas, the Icelandic volcano had other plans. I had to come up with Plan B in a hurry. I decided that it was best to get as far away from the volcano as possible, lest I get stranded in some airport. I cast my eyes eastward to the island nation of Sri Lanka. The Tamil rebels had recently given up their decades old separatist struggle, so now seemed like a good time to visit. post haste, I purchased air fare and made bike hire arrangements over the internet.

After a 5 hour flight, I landed at Colombo, the capital city on the west coast of the island. The bike hire guy arranged to have a driver waiting for me, and before long I was at the bike shop. The air was thick with humidity along with the corresponding tropical temperatures. There must still be some tension, as I spotted pairs of armed soldiers at most intersections in Colombo. As the island’s roads are mostly two-laned with lots of traffic, a Honda XR-250 was deemed sufficient for my needs.

After taking care of the pleasantries and paperwork, I was soon on my way, heading north armed with only a map and a camera. Within the first few kilometers, I had missed my turn, so business as usual 😀 A few stops for directions and I was back on the righteous path.

Even luke warm, coconut juice hits the spot on a hot day.
Coconut milk

A word about the traffic. I have experienced riding in Goa, so I assumed I knew what riding in South Asia was all about. I didn’t know Jack. Sri Lankan traffic “goes to 11”. As in India, might makes right, with trucks and buses ruling the roads with iron fisted authority. Motorcycles are somewhat lower in the pecking order, somewhere down there with the rikshaws and pedestrians. Drivers had no qualms about pulling out to pass, even with oncoming traffic bearing down. It was the wildest game of chicken I’d ever seen. As such, I occupied the 6 inches of tarmac closest to the shoulder, and at least on one occasion, I took to the dirt apron to avoid becoming a hood ornament :crazy: No one batted an eyelash at such shenanigans as it was just the way things are done.

The tuk-tuks were the worst. Little, three-wheeled vespa taxi cabs. These guys were insane, making U-turns without looking or pulling out into oncoming traffic. Besides that, they were so slow, they always had a string of cars waiting to pass, leading to impatient drivers to make dangerous passes.

May is the beginning of the wet season, and by mid-afternoon, the skies had begun to darken. Before long, the showers came. I sought refuge in a roadside Buddhist mini-shrine with a few other local bikers.

Rain delay
Rain delay

Maybe it was because I hadn’t ridden in so long, but the XR’s saddle felt like a rock. If the XR was the last bike left in the world, I would give up riding. It wuz that hard.

Fortunately, the showers didn’t last long and I was back on the road to Kurunegala. There was a giant, golden Buddha on a hill top, but I couldn’t get close enough to get a good picture. I continued on to Habarana, my stop for the night. I found my hotel just before dark and enjoyed a hot shower along with adult beverages and dinner.

The next day, I would begin the climb into the hill country. Along the way, I passed several elephant safaris.
Elephant safari

When I stopped to snap this picture, a tout ran out and insisted that I must ride the elephants. I was equally insistent, that I must reach Kandy before the afternoon rains 😀 Most Sri Lankans I encountered were gracious hosts. As in India, if you flash them a big smile, you are almost always repaid in kind. I passed several police checkpoints, but they seemed uninterested in foreign tourists.

I made my way to Sigiriya, a World Heritage site. Sigiriya holds the ruins of an ancient fortress built atop a rock of hardened magma.
Sigiriya

Another giant Buddha near Sigiriya
Giant Buddha

Many people don’t realize that South Asian culture is even older than that of ancient Egypt. With my bad hip, I was unable to make the climb to the top of Sigiriya, and was back on the road, climbing towards Kandy, the capital city of the hill country.

Numerous roadside stalls sold all manner of coconuts, bananas, mangos, papayas and other fruit I didn’t recognise.
Fruit stall

Giant trees stretched outwards in all directions offering copious amounts of shade
Shade tree

I didn’t quite make it to Kandy in time before the afternoon rains, so once again, I sought shelter, this time in a bus stop. After about an hour delay, I continued towards Kandy, with traffic getting progressively worse. By the time I made it to the city limits, traffic was pandemonium. I just wanted to get to my hotel and take a hot shower. Looking down, I happen to notice the key was missing from the ignition 😮 Now I had to be extra careful not to stall the bike before I reached the hotel.

After some searching, I finally located my hotel and called the bike shop. Amazingly, someone had already found the keys and called his number on the key fob. As I was too tired to backtrack, I made arrangements for a driver to go retrieve the keys for me.

The view from the hotel room overlooking the river
Kandy

They tell me that the film “Bridge Over The River Kwai” was filmed somewhere in the Sri Lankan hill country.

The following morning, I headed out towards the town of Nuwara Eliya, a former British colonial enclave surrounded by tea plantations. The traffic in Kandy was still terrible, and it took me 45 minutes just to negotiate my way out of town. Once I got away from town, traffic lightened up considerably and I was actuall able to strafe some twisties. The thought of a bus passing on a blind corner kept me from getting too frisky.

The road to Nuwara Eliya
Road to Nuwara Eliya

I decided to take a different way back to Kandy
Backroad

Seeing an elderly man walking on the scorching hot pavement in his barefeet reminded me of what a soft piece of milquetoast I am.
Backroads

More giant shade trees
Giant shade trees

Hill country views. Some trees were blooming fiery, red flowers
Red flowers

Terraces and drying laundry
Terraces

Another hill country vista. Even on these narrow backroads, you would still encounter the malevolent buses
Hill country vista

Another river crossing
River crossing

Back in Kandy. Kandy had a nice town lake with a walkway and park benches. Families were out enjoying the weekend.
Town lake

After 2 nights in Kandy, it was time to return the bike to Colombo. I left Kandy and made my way down towards the coast.

Low country images
Low country

I came upon a woman with 2 porcupines. I asked if they were good eating, but she said no. They seemed docile enough, but I wasn’t gonna stick my hand in front of their faces to see what would happen.
Porcupines

Leaving the hill country, the terrain changed from terraced tea plants to rice paddies
Rice paddies

One of the dreaded tuk-tuks approaches in the distance, searching to create some form of mayhem
Tuk tuk

After getting lost one more time, I ended up having to call the bike shop, and he came and rescued me. All in all, I managed to survive the crazy traffic and rainshowers to have an enjoyable time.

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Goa, India

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March ’05

With the sunny beaches of Goa just across the Arabian Sea, I made this my target for a quickie visit. I arranged for the rental of a bike via the internet and upon my arrival in Goa, my hosts were waiting for me at the airport. A one hour trip through a maze of Goan roads led us to the home base. A sort of biker’s country club for Europeans visiting Goa.

Now, mind you, while in Goa, there’s a wide variety of two wheelers you can choose from. there’s the modern Honda Hero single cylinder as well as a Yamaha single cylinder bike. A plethora of scooters or mopeds to choose from. But, if you’re going to maintain your biker credo in Goa, anyone who is anyone at all will choose the Royal Enfield Bullet (pictured below). Yes, the mighty Bombay Busa…the Bangalore Bandit…the Goan Gixer…the…well, you get the picture. This is the two wheeled weapon of choice in the Indian sub-continent. With 24 raw, earth pawing horsepower at its disposal, other two wheelers quiver in fear in its presence. Nothing else even comes close for maintaining that all important cache of cool amongst the rabble. Its exhaust note alone announces to other two wheelers to move aside, here comes a *real* bike.

Unfortunately, its fearsome influence ends with the two wheeled set…for in India…might makes right. The bigger you are, the bigger the chunk of pavement you’re entitled to. Where in the states and Europe, ultra powerful sportbikes dice and slice through traffic, here, the roles are reversed. Trucks and buses rule the asphalt with a heavy hand, often times occupying the center of the road leaving cars, bikes and rikshaws to scurry for the shoulders for whatever morsel of road remains. The big rigs aren’t shy about taking what they assume to be rightfully theirs. As such, you ride extremely defensively. As soon as you see a lumbering juggernaut bearing down on you, you immediately assume the submissive “paws in the air” posture by diving for the 6 inches of asphalt left for you on the shoulder. As the behemoth roars by you whisper a silent,”thank you Mr. truck driver for not impaling me on you front grill”, then you continue on your journey

My first day was just a half day so, I spent it learning some of the main streets around Goa then, I headed to the beach! The temperature was a balmy 80 degrees and humid. The water temperature was perfect! Not to warm not too cold. Just right. While lying on a lounge chair, gazing askance at topless European women, I found I had too easily succumbed to Goa’s relaxed charms.

Dealing with a new set of traffic rules was just part of it. The Enfield sports right foot shifting and left foot braking. On top of that, the shifting pattern is one up, three down. Just like the latest GP bikes then :biggrin Now, imagine trying to learn this new shifting and braking system while in a foreign land. I’m not the most prolific writer when it comes to painting a picture with words to describe something. The only thing that I can imagine that would come close to describing the experience is that, it was like trying to ride a bike on Pluto while wearing full scuba gear. It felt that awkward. Many times I would stab at the rear brake only to discover, to my horror, that I had just shifted up two gears rather than slow myself down. Other times, I would be pawing at the shiftlever, trying to find neutral, only to look down and see my foot uselessly trying to toe up the brake lever :rolleye What was euphimistically termed the front brake was actually a front deccelerator. It didn’t actually stop your forward progress, it merely slowed you down before impact with whatever you were slowing down for. You soon found out that the rear drum brake was your lifeline. If only I could remember to stop stomping on the gear shifter in panic stops.

Oh, yah. Then remember you gotta drive on the left. Mercifully, with the poor road conditions and the harried traffic situation described above, I never got going too fast. A sense of pride & accomplishment overcame me whenever I reached 3rd gear. Selecting 4th gear teleported you into an unchartered dimension. A realm where angels feared to tread…inhabited by mad dogs and even madder Englishmen waiting to accost any unassuming newbie biker brave enough to enter their domain.

While all this bike and traffic learning was going on, I was also travelling. On the second day, I rode to far northern Goa to see Fort Tiracol. Originally built by a local ruler, it was taken over by the Portuguese when they colonized this coast in the 16th century. The beaches in northern Goa are less crowded than in south Goa making things a whole lot more pleasant. All the roads in Goa were single lane width asphalt. Center stripe? Hah! Shirley you jest!

Here is a pic from Fort Tiracol.

Coming back from Fort Tiracol, I stopped to take a picture of local fishermen fishing in the Tiracol River. The shadowy figure in the foreground is a street urchin who tried to strong arm me into giving up a few Rupees.

Waiting for the ferry to cross the Tiracol river. As the ferry approached the landing, the captain made a stab at the landing but, the river current dragged the boat on by, nescessitating a second attempt 🙂 I don’t know why I was laughing. I was about to put my life in his hands. We boarded and prepared for the journey but, the boat crew walked off to the nearby snack kiosk for a break. So much for a schedule. When they came back on board, I noticed that one crewman took his position down below to resume bailing. Always comforting to know they have someone assigned to bailing duties. Thankfully, it was but a five minute journey to the other side.

A Hindu shrine/temple on the way back from Fort Tiracol. Goa is crawling with westerners on all manner of two wheeled conveyances so, I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb when I stopped to take pictures.

After a long hot day fighting my way thru Indian traffic, I found myself lured back to the beaches again for a swim and a late lunch. I didn’t have a bad meal the whole time I was there. Excellent seafood currys would burn the roof of my head off. Even the biryani rice set my head to smoldering. Good stuff.

The road along the Mandovi River. There were billions and billions of palm trees in Goa. They must have been invented here.

Approaching Candolim Beach. This is about the typical width of a Goan road. Even the main roads were this wide. Now imagine trucks, buses, cars, cows, rikshaws and a billion scooters.

Another Hindu mini shrine.

Goa is nestled between the Arabian Sea to the west and the western Ghats mountains to the east. Naturally, I assumed if there’s mountains, there must be curves so, off I went in search of some twisties. My destination was an “eco-resort” type place nestled up high in the mountains.

Here’s a picture from high in the western Ghats. When I say high, I mean they rise something like 2500′. The traffic lessened substantially as I left the coast, allowing me to enjoy myself in the curves. I still had to be on the lookout for the occassional pot hole while monkeys chastized me from the trees.

Looking down on a water reservoir during the climb into the Ghats.

The Ghats were a nice change but, the eco-resort was a little to tranquil for my liking. I soon found myself wishing I was back on the beach. After a day exploring the mountains, I headed back to the coast.

Here’s a river crossing coming down from the Ghats.

Another aspect of riding in India was all the animals. Cows and oxen were left to roam freely, many snoozing along the roadside, oblivious to the roaring traffic or even on some beaches right in amongst the sunbathing tourists. Also dogs, pigs and occasional monkeys…all with an innate sense of how traffic operates. I never saw one road kill the whole time I was there. They seemed well versed in the ways of traffic. I took a bit of pride that I managed to motivate one sleepy dog to his feet with my Enfield backfiring under decceleration. The monkeys were camera shy. Never hanging around if I tried to stop and take a picture. Prolly cuz they’re hunted for food? Dunno. The monkeys had limbs out of proportion with their bodies. If you stood on their toes and held their hands overhead, they’d prolly measure close to 6 feet!

I forgot to mention the tea! I’ve read that the thing Indians living in the west miss the most about India is being able to enjoy real tea. Now, I’m a huge coffee lover. Grew up drinking the stuff…the darker & stronger, the better it is. However, I could quit coffee cold turkey if I could have the tea they drink in India. They had this variety called masala tea that they brewed with ground ginger in it. Mmmmm It was dark and strong like a cup of coffee and the ginger gave it a spiciness that tingled and cooled your throat as it went down. Absolutely tasty stuff

The bike I rented was a 2004 model Enfield Bullet. Surprisingly, it lacked a front disk brake that I jealously observed on some other Enfields. I saw all different types of modified Enfields. Bobbed, chopped, even a home made enduro Enfield. I didn’t see any cafe racer Enfields though. Probably due to the fact that the state of the roads doesn’t really allow enough speed for the aerodynamics to kick in

Here is a bobbed version I saw on the side of the road.

The Enfield, though not very fast, was a blast to ride. It reeks 1950’s bike credo. As I mentioned before, the brakes weren’t GP caliber. Oh, sure…if you squeezed the brake lever long enough, eventually, you’d come to a stop. Pouring on the coals by grabbing a handful of throttle elicited an “inna minute” response. It took it’s time getting up to speed. It seemed happiest chugging along at about 55 / 60 mph. The exhaust note was old school..a very cool sounding thump thump. I can see why they called them “one lungers”. There’s an ethereal human-like quality to a single cylinder bike. Maybe it’s because the steady thumping exhaust note so closely mimics the beating of a human heart. Laboring up a hill made it seem even more like a living being. As I said, considering the road & traffic conditions, it was probably a good thing I couldn’t go very fast.

the people were super friendly and eager to please. In fact, sometimes a bit TOO eager. Sometimes, I’d stop to ask directions and even before I could ask where it is I wanted to go, they would already be pointing somewhere. I soon developed a system where I’d ask 3 times. If 2 of the 3 responses matched, that’s the way I’d go 🙂

After one last dip in the sea, it was time to turn the bike back in and head for the airport. One week was much too short. I can see why the hippies found this place to their liking. It’s so laid back and the natives are so friendly, it’s easy to see why so many have stayed. I saw many Willie Nelson aged hippies who must have come here 30 years ago and just never went home. A charming place that’s just like, totally groovy. I can see myself going back. I met a Dutch couple who had just finished a 6 week tour of southern India on an Enfield. The German I rented the bike from, moves up to northern India during the monsoon season and runs tours of the Himalayas. Sounds tempting 🙂

One last shot of another Hindu temple.

Northern Thailand

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February ’06

I apologize for the inferior quality photographs. The team orson photographer had the camera set on the indoor light setting. How the guy manages to keep his job is beyond me 🙂

We landed in the northern summer retreat of Chiang Mai, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Tai and founded in 1296 AD. Escaping the airport throngs we made our way through the back alleys of town to the street that we had heard was home to many bike rental shops.

There were all types of bikes to rent, from scooters to a BMW GS even though there is supposed to be a 250cc limit on bikes in Thailand. I settled on a Yamaha 225 Enduro since I imagined the roads would be in less than pristine shape. For my first day, I would do a short loop from Chiang Mai west to Samoeng then loop back east to my hotel in Mae Rim.

The mountains around Chiang Mai are old and rounded and reminded me a lot of the Smokey Mountains. I made a short off road excursion to visit a Hmong village. The Hmong are mostly farmers. The men wear traditional skirts though, they looked like they were pretty serious so I wasn’t gonna call them a sissy or nuthin.

Route to the Hmong village.

The road continued to climb, giving me some mountain vistas.

Heading back east towards Mae Rim, I came upon an elephant/tourist safari place.

The mahoot had taken his charge down to the river for his daily bath. I don’t speak Thai so, I don’t know what was being said but, i could make some assumptions. The elephant walked into the knee deep water then turned to face the mahoot who began commanding him to lay down in the water. The elephant seemed in no mood to oblige. Being as it’s February, I imagined the water to be a wee bit nippy.

Lie down….lie down…lie down…lie down….lie down. This went on for what seemed like 5 minutes. Lie down….lie down….lie DOWN! The elephant let out a whistle/squeel through his trunk which I translated to mean,”dude, the water is COLD!”

The mahoot continued his monotonous command….lie down…lie down…finally, he raised his hooked stick thing and waded into the water towards the behemoth. The elephant let out an all mighty roar that stood the hairs up on the back of my neck. This I translated to mean,”you do NOT want to mess with me, dude!” I think the mahoot had the same understanding as I did as he quickly retreated to the riverbank.

He continued to try to get the beast to lie down for a few more minutes. After a bit, he seemed to say,”to heck with it!” and started walking away. The pachyderm duly followed him, probably snickering to himself with some satisfaction that he had won this latest battle of wills.

Me thinks the mahoot / big fella relationship is a tenuous one at best 😀

On the second day, I would make the journey to the northern town of Pai, just a few kilometers from the Burmese border. The infamous Golden Triangle. The road to Pai was an important trading route in the old days but the road today is still torturous with some 2000 curves in about 130 miles. The little Yamaha had its work cut out for it. It would be heaven if the pavement was in good condition but, that wasn’t the case. Still, the light weight of the lil Yammie proved to be a blessing as wrestling a liter bike through this madness would have left me a mindless puddle of goo.

West of Mae Ting just before the curves started, I came upon this flower draped hut. The smell of verdant flora was almost overpowering in places.

Then the fun started. The lil Yam was chugging a bit on the uphills but on the downhills, it was like a mountain bike on steroids. I’ll put it this way, I didn’t get passed all day. By Buddha, just give me a KTM Duke and I’ll convert. Heck, I may even come back in my next life as a Buddhist!

Just after lunch, I reached Pai. Pai is the starting point for hikers and rafters heading into the Golden Triangle never to be heard from again. Ok, I made the last bit up. It has a bit of a hippie colony atmosphere to it. Here, villagers cultivate their rice paddies.

After a nice lunch at a riverside restaurant, I made my way back to Mae Rim. Unfortunately, as there are few roads in this area, I had to backtrack the 2000 curves once again. I wasn’t complaining though as the little Yammie proved to be an adept curve straffer!

I woke up on the third day feeling out of sorts. It seems as though I had eaten something that didn’t agree with me. A mild case of food poisoning. I lay in bed trying to convince myself to hit the road, that I would feel better, but the body wouldn’t move. Finally around mid-afternoon, I managed to drag myself to the hotel hot tub to try to boil away the bad blood cells. Later I lounged around the pool like a perfeshunul tourist, even sipping mango smoothies to stay in character.

By the next morning, I was feeling well enough to have a breakfast of chicken congee and salted duck eggs. This being the final day, I would tackle the fearsome Doi Inthanon, the highest peak in Thailand at 8,208′ above sea level.

Actually, the road wasn’t so fearsome as the road to Pai. Being as it was a National Park, its road was rather well paved. A walk in the park then. There were Buddhist temples every where you looked. They were quite elaborate and ornate. Here is a big one right outside the Doi Inthanon National Park.

Here is a view inside the park. You can see this portion of road was rather good. The mountains kinda resemble the Smokeys, huh.

After some huffing and puffing, the mighty Yammie achieved the summit!

Reluctantly, I made my way downhill and back to Chiang Mai to return the bike. I found traffic conditions to be quite reasonable compared to Saudi Arabia and India. The Thai people are a pleasure to be around. They go through their daily rituals with a smile on their faces, always seeing the bright side of things.

The natural beauty was stunning as well. I could see myself chucking it all in and becoming one of those Birkenstock wearin’, tie-dyed draped expats who give up everything to live in a paradise.

Cyprus

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November ’04…

Motoring east along the south coast of Cyprus near where the Goddess Aphrodite supposedly was born.

Heading inland into the Troodos mountains. The inland mountains reach a heigth of around 3000′ making it a wee bit chilly in November.

I traveled to the northwest end of the island to the rugged Akamas peninsula. The DR came in handy here as the pavement ended. I followed the jeep trail for a while but, with no cell phone or a flat repair kit, disgression became the better part of valor and I turned around.

I turned around and headed eastward along the northern coast. The road following the coast was a rather boring section of “s” curves and I had almost decided to turn around. I’m glad I didn’t! The road soon climbed into the mountains and began to resemble California Highway 1. Not quite as good but, not too shabby! It continued like this for about 30 km until I came upon the UN buffer zone between the Turkish controlled northern area & the Greek portion. A stern faced Greek Cypriot soldier making “turn around” motions with his hand indicated that my fun was at an end…BUT, I got to retrace my route on that fabulous coastal road! Exhibit A.

The same road along the northern coast. A domed roof identifies the church as a Greek Orthodox chapel on the shore.

Heading back to my hotel close to sunset…on the south coast of the island.

On my last day, I headed to a hilltop monastery I’d seen from the coast. No women visitors were allowed here but, the monks did grow their own wine.

Picture of the Hellacious roa…err…I mean, the heavenly road leading up to the monastery. Praise da lord and pass the Castrol

Last shot…heading down out of the mountains back to the coast to return the bike. The Big DR performed admirably on the pavement. The big single could have used a little more oomph but, it was still big fun in the twisties. Using this bike has me salivating at the thought of what a big 650 KTM Duke must be like. My only regret was that, I only had time to sample but a small portion of the roads on this neat island.

Written by orsonstravels

March 4, 2009 at 3:42 pm

New Zealand

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December 2001

I rented a BMW 1150RT from the nice folks at http://www.gotournz.com. Started the trip in Auckland but due to camera malfunction, my pictures from the North Island didn’t turn out 😦 From Auckland I headed south to the hot springs of Rotorua then along the remote east coast to Te Araroa. I liked it there. Very quiet. Then down south through gisbourne then the wine country around Napier.

On Christmas day, I was wondering if I would find any restaurants open for lunch. I needn’t have worried. As I passed through a small town, I saw a sign that said “Tea room OPEN”. I pulled in and boy, I’m glad I did. They had a Christmas feast laid out. Tables and tables of food groaning under the weight of all that succulence. Ham, turkey, roast beef…you name it. And all the fixings. Another table for desserts alone. Needless to say, I waddled out to my bike.

The following day is Boxing Day and in New Zealand, that means the Boxing Day Races at the Cemetery Circuit in Wanganui. This is considered the Isle of Man TT of the southern hemisphere as it has a long and storied history since at least the early sixties, maybe more. Racers such as Randy Mamola and Graeme Crosby raced there on city streets that cut through the city’s cemetery, hence the name. The circuit is nowhere near as long as the Isle of Man as it takes the riders maybe 1 minute to complete a lap. Excellent atmosphere. Everything is low key in New Zealand harkening back to earlier times.

After the races, I made my way to Wellington to catch the ferry to the South Island. Wellington is the capital of New Zealand and like San Francisco, it’s one of those places where you find yourself thinking,”Yah, I could live here easily.”

The ferry arrived on the South Island a couple of hours before dark. Here is a picture of Marlborough Sound…

I found my hotel just south of Blenheim in the heart of wine country. The next day, I headed for the west coast at Westport before turning north to Karamea where the road ends. I stayed at a comfy cabin and explored the remote coast.

From there, I proceded south along the west coast of the island on Highway 6. They consider this the Pacific Coast Highway of New Zealand and rightly so. It’s a beautiful stretch of road.

I stayed the night at a bed & breakfast just south of Greymouth. The next day, I continued south on Highway 6 to the Franz Joseph Glacier. I was gonna take a helicopter ride but the weather didn’t cooperate.

After the town of Haast, the road turns inland towards Queenstown through some impressive mountains. Here is the Beemer resting in the Haast Pass.

The road along Lake Wanaka is enjoyable and scenic

Near Queenstown along Lake Wakatipu, showers threaten

Stayed the night in Queenstown before continuing south to Milford Sound. Half way to the South Pole…

Penguin crossing…

Milford Sound has been compared to the fjords of Norway and I’d have to agree. Rain or shine the views are spectacular. When it’s raining you get spectacular waterfalls and when it’s nice you get unparalleled views.

From Milford Sound, I ventured to the southern tip of the island to the city of Invercargill before turning north back to Queenstown but not before I froze my butt off through some highlands.

On towards Mount Cook, the highest peak on the South Island and where Sir Edmund Hillary cut his teeth before conquering Mount Everest.

Near Mount Cook.

From there, I raced up the east coast back to the bike’s home base in Nelson..and…that’s about it. 🙂

Zanzibar

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Once again I managed to escape the yoke of the grindstone and head off to sunny shores, this time to the ancient trading post of Zanzibar off the east coast of Africa.

Zanzibar is an island of contrasts. It is one of the poorest places I’ve visited, yet it also has one of the richest cultures I’ve experienced, with influences from cultures all across the Indian Ocean. After a short flight from Dar Es Salaam, I landed at Zanzibar’s airport. It was a bit disconcerting as I descended the stairs to a tarmac that was almost in total darkness. I thought to myself, this must be what it was like during the raid on Entebe. I smelled the scent of wood fires burning. I liked this place.

A quick taxi ride got me to my hotel in the old quarter of the city named Stone Town, a World Heritage site. Stone Town displays Zanzibar’s Arabic influence in its exotic architecture.

Stone Town alley

As an ancient trading post, Zanzibar was subjected to influences from Arabia, India, Malaysia and even China. While the Roman Empire was covering the Mediterranean with trading outposts, Indian Ocean cultures were doing the same all around its shores. Most notable was the Arabic influence, as Zanzibar came to be ruled by the Sultan of Oman.

Arabic influences seen in the elaborately carved doorways

Freddie Mercury was born in Stone Town and lived there until the revolution of 1964 overthrew the Sultanate and chased his family to England. After the revolution, the new government chased out most of the Arabic merchant community and allowed the poor to take over the lavish homes in Stone Town. Unfortunately, the poor didn’t have the funds to maintain the buildings which led to overwhelming decay. Steps are currently being taken to salvage Stone Town but the country is poor and restoration is lagging. Stone Town’s alleyways are too narrow for cars limiting them to pedestrian and moped traffic.

School girls trade secrets in a Stone Town alley

An old man exits another exquisitely carved doorway

After sleeping the sleep of the dead, I got up the next morning and located a place that rented motorbikes. The guy showed up at the hotel on a Vespa and asked me if I wanted a scooter or a “boom boom”. I said boom boom 😀 He left for a bit and returned with a Yamaha dirt bike of some sort which I deemed worthy. I then asked him to take me to an ATM so I could pay him, so he hopped on and I hopped on behind him. What followed was one of the scariest thrill rides I’ve ever been on. I’ve ridden the Isle of Man on Mad Sunday and I’ve ridden in Italian city traffic….neither comes close to the experience of riding bitch behind a Zanzibarian local, flailing the bike through narrow alleyways, shooing pedestrians aside with a relentless beep-beep-beeping of his horn 🙂

Yes…we rode through this…

We somehow reached an ATM without taking out any pedestrians. After paying him his money, he offered me some last minute instructions. “Very important…the horn button”, pressing it for emphasis, BEEP BEEP. “Very important”, he reiterated. I nodded my understanding. “And use the back brake. The front brake may make you lose the front end”. Uhmmm….hokeyyy 🙂 :thumbsup: With those last words, I headed out into traffic. Zanzibar is one of those silly places that insist that driving on the wrong side of the road is a perfectly natural thing to do, so I dutifully fell in with the rest of traffic.

One of the wider roads in Stone Town

My first experience was trying to find gas. I pulled into a service station where the attendant said “No petrol”. What do you mean no petrol?? Finally I noticed the signs over the pumps. They all read DIESEL. I had pulled into a diesel station…not a gas station…D’oh! I asked for directions to a gas station, but when I got there, the attendant said,”No petrol. Maybe this afternoon”. D’oh! A little further down the road, I found another station with a line forming. Aha! A line means gas. There were 2 lines on each side of the pump. Mopeds taking the inside lane, with cars and trucks taking the outside lane. After about 30 minutes, I had reached the front of the line and received my allotment.

Lining up for petrol. The tanker truck in the background had just discharged its load.

Heading towards the north end of the island, I stopped to take a picture of this government building. I’m not sure what it was but, I liked its design. I hadn’t noticed the beaming local until after I had taken the picture. Just about all of the locals were friendly with ready smiles.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a road map, so I would have to rely on the memory of a Zanzibar map I had seen on the internet a few days earlier. Like Sir Shackleton making his way to South Georgia Island, I would have to rely on dead reckoning. I headed north, trying to keep the west coast to my left hand side. Most of the roads on the island were flat and straight, so they weren’t the best for curve strafing.

Zanzibar seemed to have an inordinate amount of police check points. It was an hour and a half trip to the north end of the island, and I must have gone through 4 check points, each one wanting to see some identification and a driver’s liscence, asking where I was going, etc. Some were pleasant, others were less than pleasant. In the end, they all let me go on my merry way.

I turned off the main road in a vein attempt to find the beach but alas, it dead ended

I must have taken a wrong turn because I ended up going in a circle and coming through the same check point I had been through an hour earlier. So much for my dead reckoning talent. The policeman just shook his head and laughed. I eventually made it to the north end of the island.

Fishing boats stranded at low tide

I found a seaside restaurant and enjoyed a fresh seafood meal. Octopus with a coconut sauce and mango chutney with sweet yams and Arabic bread

I made my way back to my hotel in Stone town in time for cocktail hour. The hotel had a nice veranda bar on the roof that offered a nice view of the old quarter.

The following morning, I repeated the gas ritual and then made my way to the eastern side of the island.

Zanzibar is known as the Spice Island as it produces most of its income from growing cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon. the center of the island is where most of the plantations are. The island seems to have a fairly high rate of unemployment, as everywhere I went, I saw large groups of men sitting around in an idle mode. No one seemed to be starving though. Most people seemed to walk or ride bicycles. A few had mopeds or motorcycles, and even fewer had cars. Traffic away from population centers was minimal.

Returning to Stone Town, I took some time to explore some more. Where did western culture go wrong? When it comes to architecture, the organic beauty of Islamic architecture leaves the west in its dust.

The view from my hotel window.

The hotel roof

More intricately carved door ways

Fishing boats along the Stone Town beachfront.

A heckuva ferry ramp…although there aren’t any tire tracks in the sand, so maybe they were just picking up foot passengers.

The sun setting on my last day in Zanzibar. Many fishingmen used these small, fast sailing boats to haul in their catches.

Western Cape, South Africa

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February ’04

A South African friend in Saudi invited me to come visit so, I said sure! While there, I rented a BMW 1150 GS & took a quickie tour of the Western Cape Province. You really don’t get the feeling you’re in the “real” Africa while near Cape Town. It’s been so thouroghly colonized by the British that, the feeling is more of being in Australia than Africa. Not that that’s a bad thing. Just different. After a day spent exploring Capetown, I headed towards the wine growing region around Worcester in an early morning fog. In my continuing quest to find a Highway that can top California’s Highway 1, I headed out east along the coast from Cape Town.

Here are some shots of the coastal road from Gordon’s Bay to Rooiels. It has some dramatic coastline. If Highway 1 is a 10, I’d rate this road a solid 8.75, losing out only because its so short in comparison. Scenery-wise, it’s pretty darn nice!

After a nice lunch in the former whaling town of Hermanus, I headed inland towards Worcester. Lots of mountains! Most of the roads were fast sweepers. I’d guess the 80% of the corners I encountered on the trip, I never had to touch the brakes

Here is a shot at the end of the day, near my night’s stay at a wine estate in the Nuy Valley

On the second day, I’d stay in the Nuy Valley again, exploring the mountain passes. The further inland I went, the more barren it became. Here is a picture for those who like those long straight roads. For the amount of mountains I saw, the road engineers laid them out with a minimum of tight twisties. Like I said before, it seemed 80% of the corners were fast sweepers. On the second day, I rode over 7 passes. Not like your passes in the Alps or the Rockies but, nice to ride over

Here are some pictures approaching the Du Toits Kloof Pass. There’s a new tunnel now for woosies but the real fun is on the old road. They have signs warning you not to feed the baboons. Apparently they can get pretty agressive when there’s hand outs to be had. I came across a group & tried to stop for a photo op but, they scattered as if I had the plague.

On the third day, I would head farther inland to the town of Oudtshoorn, the “ostrich capital of the world”. They have more ostriches than people. This section reminded me of southern Arizona. I saw 4 other touring bikes on this stretch, all of them on BMW GSs. I also 3 cops but, they didn’t even flinch as I went by at about 80 mph

The fourth day I headed back to Cape Town. I went through some nice wine growing regions & even some mountain passes with pine trees. I wanted to hit the same stretch of coastal road while the sun was shining so, I rode it again in the opposite direction.

Robinson Pass between Oudtshoorn and Mossel Bay…lotta fun on this road.

Heading back towards Cape Town on the coast…

My last day with the bike, I headed down to the Cape of Good Hope. Even though it was a Saturday, it seemed as if I had the roads to myself. This is one of those “edge of the continent” places I get so attracted to. It kinda reminded me of Point Reyes. Here is the road going down the west side of the cape along the Indian Ocean.

The end of the road. I saw some ostriches down here too. They were right along the beach road. I slowed & let the bike coast. They were startled by the sound of the engine & took off running alongside me. For a few seconds I was recreating in a bizarro sort of way, that scene in Easy Rider where the horses galloped alongside the bikes 🙂

Here’s a shot of the end of the continent, the Cape of Good Hope looking south towards Antarctica

The Cape of Good Hope.

Ostriches in stealth mode sneaking up on the GS near the Cape…

From the Cape of Good Hope, I ended my trip by taking the fabulous Chapmans Peak Drive along the Atlantic side of the cape. What a dramatic stretch of coastline! Too bad it was so short. Still, it was a wonderful end to the journey.

I was never out of sight of mountains for the duration of my short trip. What surprised me was that, for all the mountains, there were relatively few tight twisty roads like in California or the Blue Ridge Mountains. I did manage to find a few mountain passes that were tight & twisty but, for the most part, the roads I travelled were fast sweepers. I can only guess that the mountains are spaced far apart, allowing road engineers to bypass the steep parts.

That said, South Africa is a large country, roughly twice the size of Texas so, I hardly got to see but a small portion of it. I’m sure there are many excellent roads I didn’t get to ride. All told, I made about 2500 km / 1600 miles in 4 & a half days.

The weather can be described as mediterranean. Quite mild. For being the middle of summer down there, I was surprised at how mild it was, only about 80 degrees during the day. I was expecting Texas like heat.

The people were very friendly, everyone waved…kids, adults…even teenagers. I passed a highway crew tidying up a roadside rest area & gave them a wave. Immediately 10 hands shot up into the air as if shot out of cannons, waving back at me. Try getting that reaction in the states or Europe 🙂 Rather than saying,”you’re welcome”, a thank you would elicit a charming,”It’s my pleasure”.

Here is one last picture of Chapmans Peak Drive…