Category: Journey


Dear Family, Friends and fellow riders,

We’ve some news that we’d like to share with you. As you may know, early last year I popped the question to Arja and she accepted! Last October as financés we left on our trip around the Mediterranean Sea and through North Africa, it was an immensely warm and fascinating experience. The joy of our ride and the need to keep warm returning to Europe in winter brought abouts, as per chance, the most incredible of journey’s we will experience yet. Yes we are expecting a little Gullvik/Bosshard quite soon! If we include our little meander of a ride from Australia to Norway in 2009 we have now covered a total of over 80,000kms of testing, bumpy and at times rough roads in the saddle together. Well it is time to hang up the gloves so to speak, and give the Riding2up blog a break for a little while at least, or until we can find room for a 3rd! It has been a long road full of challenges and obstacles and well in truth it’s not over yet, but rather just a change in direction. In light of this extraordinary event we have decided to tie the knot here in Switzerland by having a small family wedding celebration ahead of the birth of our child due end August. We would love to be able to share this very special event with you, but alas it will be small, intimate and understated. We will nevertheless look forward to celebrating in spirit with you and hopefully in person together some time down the track. We are extremely delighted and couldn’t be happier at this evolution in our lives. So far although very busy, Arja has been doing very well. I won’t say any more, albeit to tell you that we don’t know the sex, it will be a surprise!

For those of you perhaps inclined to send us something, please don’t, we have everything we need. Our motto, less is more, simple is better, is under strain already as we struggle with the accumulation of a lot of unnecessary belongings. Although parents far and wide I’m sure will tell us that accumulation of stuff is simply unavoidable.

With this I wish you our warm regards and look forward to sharing with you our new adventures.

Please keep in touch.

Pascal & Arja

Happy new parents to be, embrassing life to the fullest extent.

The dirty side of Morocco

Recovered from our freezing evening in the icebox and keen to find sustenance we headed out of our hotel in Sefrou in search of breakfast. On the main road there was a coffee bar with a handful of locals drinking coffee and reading the paper, so we sat down and asked if they had food. As is often the case, local businesses depend on one another, so it wasn’t a big surprise to see our waiter go next door presumably to order breakfast and to send someone else out to buy bread. Our breakfast of coffee and omelette drenched in olive oil and floating a top was a square piece of white cheese was not delicious but gave us the strength to explore the Medina of Sefrou. Barely a few metres in the town centre and there was the usual sight of rubbish heaped up on the sides of the road.

Rubbish Choked stream

The oued, or stream running through the middle of Sefrou town choked with rubbish

Time and time again it is depressing to see the polluted waterways of towns choked full of rubbish and resembling a rubbish tip more than a brook or stream as it should. Whatever the reason for such polluting whether it’s a lack of waste collection, education, governmental policies or lack of policing, the laziness and utter disrespect for ones very own environment is appalling and disgusting, depressing and aggravating all at once.

Sefou Medina

Entry gate to the Sefrou Medina

Back on Francois and barely 200m down the road and I got a wasp sting right on the middle of my neck on my Adam’s Apple. Pulling over in a rush annoyed from the sting, I got Arja to look if there was a barb left from the sting. Nothing visible to her, I was increasingly irritated and could do nothing but apply a little Benadryl itch relief and keep riding.

We rode past the beautiful High Atlas mountains and through the Gorge du Ziz, illuminated by the evening light they were a stunning deep red. Before the town of Ar-Rachidia and behind some hills we found a secluded spot to pitch our tent on relatively flat ground despite all the rocks. Although there was a distinct lack of vegetation there was a small dried up brook that had some shrubs along it so I went in search of some sticks to make a fire. A little way up the riverbed was a small acacia tree with a dead branch, this along with a few sticks and kindling would make up enough firewood for a small fire. We set up camp as the sun set over the distant mountains. We were alone and the silence was a welcome relief from the traffic noise and the hustle and bustle of town.

Wild Camping

Wild camping on stones north of Errachidia

Piste to the dunes

From our wild camp spot on stones we rode into Errachidia (also spelt Ar-Rachidia) for breakfast of milk coffee and chocolate buns, without chocolate. After our breakfast we went in search of an internet cafe, as indicated by our waiter there was one around the corner, although closed it had free WiFi so we connected to it on our tablet and checked our emails and Pascal tried to order some parts from a BMW dealer in Granada Spain. The email bounced so he sent it again to another address in hope it would make it to the right person. From Ar-Rachidia we continued south to Erfoud and stocked up on water and food for our detour to Merzouga. Out of Erfoud east and across the oued we followed the tarmac road until about halfway to Merzouga when the road ended turning into piste, a mix of dirt and gravel with sand traps every so often. There were multiple tracks going in every direction so we followed the main one towards the dunes in the distance. At the base of the dunes we came across a handful of desert hotels advertising themselves as Berber Auberges. We resolved after a cup of tea with the owner of one to stay the night at Auberge de Berbers, half-pension, beside the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi.

Piste to Merzouga

Heading towards Erg Chebi (sand dunes) and Merzouga near the Algerian Border

For our evening activity we went on a camel (dromedary) ride into the dunes for a sunset view over the plains and towards the High Atlas mountains. The view was splendid but didn’t quite compare to the seclusion of Algeria or the pristine uninterrupted dunes there either.

Erg Chebbi Sunset

Sunset from Erg Chebbi over the High Atlas mountains

On our return down the dunes but before mounting the camel our camel trainer put on the sell bringing out his little bag of treasures, so-called fossil stones carved and polished into different shapes. The souvenirs were all much the same and none of them interested either of us and we were a bit annoyed at the sales pitch, but that is Morocco, a well oiled tourist trap just sitting in wait to take all your money. At the end of our hour wander the camel trainer asked for a tip. I refused his offer seeing nothing in his work that merited a tip of any description.

For dinner we had a salad of cooked carrots, potatoes, raw cucumber, tomatoes, red onion and black olives covered in a paprika and olive oil dressing. Since it had been quite a while since we had any vegetables or salad, we devoured the entrée leaving only a little room for the chicken tagine that followed. Dubious about chicken from half board hotels in remote locations I started to eat around the chicken but secretly craving meat I tucked into a small piece. It tasted fine, although that’s exactly what I had said the previous times and it wasn’t. I took my chances and decided to live dangerously, and ate all the chicken even though it was a little burnt from the base of the tagine. With dinner down and our tummies happy we headed to our room for a romantic evening by candle light.

Erg Chebbi Dunes

Palm trees on the edge of the Erg Chebbi Dunes

Pains of travelling as a couple

The following day we headed into the town of Merzouga following the dunes until they joined up to the main asphalt road. From Merzouga we headed to Tinejdad and Tinrghir and the gorges of Todra. We spent the night in the newly built maison d’hote called Mogador Ait Idir on the way north from Boulmaine Babes towards the gorges. The host was very warm and welcoming and we had dinner with the family altogether in their living room watching Moroccan television. The room was comfortable although quite cold and the showers were heated by a wood furnace so the hot water took a couple of hours to heat up properly. All the vegetables and produce was either from their garden or sourced locally. I thought to myself that we are definitely in the rustic and self-reliant part of the Atlas here. The owner had a large garage that was mostly unused except for grain storage and served as secure off-street parking for the night.

The gorge of Tinerhir

Just after visiting the gorges of Dades we had an argument about whether to continue and take the dirt track north through the Atlas mountains to Imilchil or not. Arja was right, even if the road was open we wouldn’t make it in one day. She wanted to go around via Skoura and then to Demnate. I was obstinate and knowing our time in Morocco was coming slowly to a close felt that it may be our last opportunity to ride off-road and Arja was standing in the way of that. Of course none of that was true and Arja looking out for our best interests was the sensible one, well until she threatened to smash the video camera and jump from the moving bike.

Boumaine Dades

Oasis village of Boumaine Dades

Just at the very moment I stopped Francois to let Arja off and appease her in order to avoid doing something stupid, another big bike pulled up. It was an American named Jim on a hired F800GS from Marakesh. We got chatting and we exchanged contact details and he took a photo of us before heading off in opposite directions. We made up and agreed that the most sensible route was to ride from Dades to Skoura and over the Atlas mountains to Demnate. It took the best part of what daylight was left arriving in Ouzoud at 17h30 as the sun disappeared behind the horizon. On the way we marked a significant milestone, 80,000kms on the odometer.

80000kms

80000kms – Time to celebrate!

It was an intensely beautiful sunset ride on the sweeping and meandering road towards Ouzoud. By far this road was the most pleasurable that we had ridden in Morocco as there was very little traffic and the road and weather conditions were almost perfect. Without a doubt the benefits well and truly out way the pains of travelling as a couple. Its times like these that make travelling together and being able to share such wonderful experiences that remind us of how lucky we really are.

Landslides

Plenty of landslides all along the road to Demnate through the High Atlas mountains

Mountainscape

Stunning mountain vistas throughout the High Atlas.

After check-in at the Kasbah Auberge  on the hill just before town we unloaded Francois and headed into the centre of Ouzoud to be hounded by the touts for souvenirs, parking, hotels and food. We waited for quite some time before our dinner of meatball tagine arrived and when it did, we were disappointed. It wasn’t anything special but we were hungry so ate and then went back to our accommodation with a grey and white rabbit and our own bungalow by the swimming pool.

Kasbah Delights

The following morning our breakfast by the pool had Arja’s taste buds watering for more. The hot bread and Moroccan crêpe, resembling more an Indian chapatis than a crêpe was hot and delicious, the coffee was even strong, unlike what we had tasted up to now. I guess that is the advantage of having French owners. The day started out dry but overcast, we rode back through the centre of Ouzoud and straight past the cascades without even stopping because we didn’t want to deal with the touts and rather fancied racking up some kilometres before the weather turned as we had a long ride ahead to Fes. Over the middle Atlas we continued on our way north towards Fes.

Tagine

Moroccan Lamb Tagine

Not knowing the first thing about Fes or having any directions, we kept riding into the traffic and lights until we arrived at what we thought was close to the centre of Fes new town. We were hopelessly lost and we couldn’t find any placemarks and the only hotel we found didn’t have parking and was far too expensive. Luckily my persistence when asking for a discount attracted the attention of a junior consiege who asked if we wanted a cheaper hotel. We said yes and he suggested calling his friend who would show us the hotel. The price sounded right so we accepted, after all one could only try. Drinking a mint tea and chatting in English while we waited for his friend to arrive, Arja was a little uneasy and let me know by worried glances. The freelance tourist guide and translator arrived by a little red taxi and led us to the outskirts of Fes-el-bal. We were uncertain where we would end up, and had no idea where we were going or what was in store, but we felt good about this and to be honest we didn’t have much choice but to trust in someone and he had an honest face. After about 20mins of swerving through heavy traffic we passed through the gate of the Medina and down to a parking spot under a mosque. I went to visit the guesthouse in the medina while Arja waited with Francois and our gear. After about twenty metres down an alley the guide and the owner of the hotel disappeared into a dark passageway. I had to bend and duck through the passage which went for 15m then a left turn and a narrow opening to a dead-end where there was an unmarked wooden door that opened with a creak. Past the door and the restored Dar (family home smaller than a Riad) unveiled all its glory with a magnificent central foyer come courtyard decorated in mosaics and hand crafted wooden shutters. It was beautiful and we were lucky to have the opportunity to find this guesthouse.

The next day our freelance tourist guide and translator arrived for a walking tour through the Medina of Fes, which is a real labyrinth. From the Kairouan mosque to the Tanneries we dodged, trod, twisted, ducked and meandered around the small and unmarked lanes and passages leading from one souk to another. Textiles and tapestries, legumes and leather goods, riads and mosques, Fes certainly has it all.

Fes Tanneries

Fes Tanneries

Riad

Courtyard of the Intercultural Riad in Fes

Rif Rif Rain Rain

We left Fes shortly after breakfast in a light drizzle of rain and the weather only got worse on the way to Chefchouan as we passed over the Rif mountains. If we thought that the weather might clear as we passed to higher altitude then we couldn’t have been more mistaken. The clouds came down to meet us and soon the wet roads turned muddy and extremely slippery, the rainy vision turned to white mist as we ascended into heavy fog. Our warm dry hands gradually soaked by continual rain soon got colder and colder, until my hands, crisped, were grasping to the hand grips frozen solid. The cold penetrated through us and the fog strained our vision and gave us headaches, uncomfortable is an understatement however the need to find a dry and warm place drove us on. The visibility was zero, I literally couldn’t see more than ten metres in front and the fog had obscured my rearview mirrors. The only way I knew we wouldn’t run off the road and hit a tree was because I was following the tail lights of the car in front. What seemed like an eternity of battling the cold and poor visibility was dragged on by the traffic in the towns we passed through, for it was market day. We didn’t even stop for lunch, we rode on towards Chefchoaun at times praying for a break in the dense fog. Finally the weather began to clear and as the fog gradually disappeared so did the headache that came with it. We were now descending towards the valley and even the rain eased somewhat as if to welcome us and let us see the  most remarkable landscape that had until now been hidden from sight.

Our evening was spent wandering around Chefchouan by night under the dim street lights that illuminated the blue washed walls and cobblestone streets of the medina.

Chefchouan by night

Chefchouan by night

Blue Washed

Typical of Chefchouan, blue and white washed stone houses

Leaving Chefchouan wouldn’t have been so bad if our gloves and helmets weren’t soaked through from the day before. To make the gloves more bearable to wear and easier to put on I heated them on the engine for a few minutes whilst we donned on our rain suits. Struggling with the damp gear we finally got on Francois and headed off to Tangier through the miserable weather, which cleared a little and for the last 50 kms from Tetouan to Tangier was fast and pleasant on the new two lane highway.

At Tangier port the prices for the 35min ferry crossing to Tarifa in Spain were very expensive, the first quote for the two of us and Francois was 980MAD. I asked another agent and it was the same so I asked for alternatives, the guy mentioned that Acciona has a boat to Algerciras from the new port for two-thirds of the price to Tarifa, what he failed to mention was that it was 45km from Tangier and our boat would leave in just over an hour. That was too tight in my opinion so when confronted with this new tid-bit of info brought to our attention by the police officers at the entry to Tangier old port, we headed straight back to the agent and asked to have our tickets changed. We had paid 625MAD and the agent asked for and extra 55 Dirhams to change the tickets. Somehow we were still 300 Dirhams less than the original quoted price of 980 for the same passage to Tarifa but I wasn’t about to say anything, then Arja started to kick-up a stink thinking that I was paying a lot more for the tickets to be changed. All I wanted was to grab our passports, tickets and customs form and go as surreptitiously as possible.

We made our way to the port after I explained to Arja that it was a good deal and once she had double checked the ticket details we headed towards the departure gate. It was also rushed and quick that we hadn’t the least amount of time to reflect on our past month in North Africa. To be honest it has been very different to what we expected, obviously travelling with our own vehicle has contributed immeasurably to our experiences and where and how we travelled but by and large we have been very fortunate and lucky with the people we encountered and the hospitality we’ve been shown.

Compared to Algeria, Libya or Egypt, today Morocco is definitely the cheaper and easier adventure alternative. Given the difficulties with obtaining tourist visas recently for Algeria, the troubles in Egypt and civil war in Libya, Morocco will without a doubt gain from the others loss. Morocco is simple, easy and has all the major conveniences of just about any European country. In fact picture yourself in a modern metropolis then add olive skin tones, a dash of colour, dirty it up with some foul smelling rubbish, add sand, camels, medinas full of oriental handicrafts and touts, perfumes and spices et voilà, you have Morocco, a kind of wonderland of North Africa.

Nador Ferry

Pascal on the Almeria to Nador Ferry enjoying sunset over the Mediterranean

Back to the Maghreb

At times it feels like we live on a boat. The combined time thus far on the 8 ferry passages is an astounding 62 hours and we still have another, albeit shorter ferry to return to Spain.

Moroccan customs was quite straight forward at Nador. The tardiness of our arrival at 11:45pm meant there were little or no hawkers to annoy us. With the entry cards filled in I went to the passport control to get my passport stamped, directed by several locals. After that I was instructed to enter a small office in the same building to obtain the ‘carte grise’ or Moroccan registration certificate for Francois. At the desk I told them in all honesty that I didn’t have 3rd party insurance (greencard) that was valid for Morocco, this created a little fuss because the insurance broker was not open after 6pm. We were let into the country without insurance but told either to come back the following morning to the port and purchase the insurance or to purchase it in Nador town. The police office said “Talk to no one else about insurance and just go through customs and leave, no one will trouble you.” He was right, a quick check of our passports and we were out of the port and under the amber street lights heading to Nador town centre where we had booked a hotel for the night.

Under the cloak of darkness we navigated our way with surprising precision to hotel Mediterranee one block from the lake and quite close to the centre of Nador and 10km from the port. The desk clerk agreed to allow us to park Francois in the hotel entry foyer so long as I was up by 6am to move Francois back out onto the street so the owner wouldn’t know. I agreed, and set my alarm and then it was off to bed.

The following morning we had breakfast and after a slow start we left Nador around mid-day. But before setting out I felt that it would be better to have 3rd party insurance so we went looking for the only insurer in Nador that would organise a policy to cover us. Just off Ave Mohammed V on Ave Hassan on the lake side of the road was a blue door leading up to the insurance bureau on the 1st floor. If it wasn’t for a street vendor I may never have found the place. The bureau an agency of BCMA was able to provide the insurance valid for 1 month at an exorbitant cost of ~96Euros! More expensive than the whole of europe for the same period incredibly. Well the lesson here is, get your insurance at home, it’ll definitely work out much cheaper.

Chankar Homestay

From Nador to Taza and in direction of Merhraoua we headed south looking for an adventure (as if we weren’t already on one) and well it came knocking as if per chance. As we ascended the twisting road behind Taza up the Middle Atlas mountains we began to feel like we were back in the Maghreb, with mosques, goats, beggars, potholed roads and children selling tubs full of wild berries completing the picture.

Local Kids Selling Wildberries

Local Kids Selling Wildberries

The day was getting late and darkness began to fall a lot sooner than we anticipated. We began scanning around for somewhere to camp. There were a few options but as there were villagers moving their flock of sheep nearby we decided to continue. Not far up the road we came into a small village, called Ain Ouda where we saw a brand new sign saying ‘Gite de Merhraoua’ just off the roadside. No sooner had we stopped, local children ran up to see what we were. Off the bike we asked about the Gite, which is a small house built for local tourism, the children said the owner was coming. Surely enough moments later the owner arrived from across the field to inform us that the Gite was closed and he didn’t have the key. We asked a few more questions. Was there another village with a hotel in the area? Could we camp near the village? The owner said that the nearest hotel was in Taza, back where we came from and that they couldn’t let us camp as they wanted to invite us to stay with them. It was late, we had little or no food, and worst of all it looked like it might just rain, how could we refuse. Evidently we were very thankful and out of a combination of need and politeness we accepted graciously. The local kids didn’t hesitate when I offered them a seat on Francois. The guest room was simple with nothing but a coffee table and some mats on the floor in one corner. This was the only part of the living quarters except the lavatory and entry that we saw. Our host Mr Chankar first served us tea and we sat a talked about his family and his living and the village and politics until his brothers one by one came in to join us after their days work was over. All the conversation was in slow spoken French quite easy for Arja to follow. We were very glad to have a shelter and food for the night and to pass the night with the farmer and his family, it certainly provided insight into how the average family lives in these parts and it isn’t lavishly.

Moroccan Host Family

Our Moroccan host family

From Ain Ouda we continued south over the Jbel Boulblane and in the direction of Douyblane. At Merhraoua we stopped for a drink and to ask for information about the pass Tizi-bou-Zabel at 2400m and whether there was snow or if it was open. We got conflicting information so decided to try anyway and continue to see if the pass is open. On the way there was little or no traffic, only locals on their way to a openair market at 1600m. The Market was quite incredible, full of mountain people who came from far and wide to the gathering to trade produce of various sorts. It was a truly amazing experience as the majority of locals came by foot with their mule or donkey laden with produce. The mountain setting, surrounded by snow-capped peaks and barren ground was right out of a national geographic magazine.

Openair Market

Openair market in the Jebel Mountains of the middle Atlas.

We continued until the fork in the road for the pass which we missed and first headed down the road only realising we missed the turn when the road began to descend faster so we turned back to see if the Tizi-bou-Zabel pass was open. About 500m from the top the road was closed, covered with 50cm of snow, we had no choice but to turn back and follow the road down to Ribat-el-Kheyr then El Menzel and finally Sefou. The scenery of the Jbel Boulblane was reminiscent of the high alpine wilderness of the Himalayas, cold, dry and extremely harsh terrain, incredible that anyone could make a living off the land. It’s not the kind of place where we would want to break down.

In Sefou, tired, cold and hungry we headed straight for the first hotel skipping any tourism, even if it was still early evening. In need of a shower and dry clothes we went about hanging out our wet stuff that we’d washed in Spain but still hadn’t dried. The hotel room was clean but freezing and with no hot water until 7pm and no heating we opted for the warmth of the bed and woollen blankets. A short nap ensued and it was already 8pm, the hot water took a while to come through and thank goodness it did as I was shivering uncontrollably in the icy cold shower. It certainly is a luxury to have a hot shower at any time of day or night and we really did appreciate being warm and clean. So much so that we stayed in our hotel room and cooked dinner ourselves having a quiet night in our icebox with Pascal’s never to be repeated pasta risotto with ‘la vache qui rit’.

Blocked by snow

Where to now? The pass over the Atlas mountains was already closed

Warning: This post contains explict content and images that may offend some readers.

Algerian Border Crossing

Leaving Tunisia at Hazoua we simply filled in a disembarkation card upon arrival at the Tunisian border post, and our passports were duly stamped by a police officer. We were then directed to the customs desk in the same building. The customs officer noted down our date and place of arrival and departure, and asked no further questions. It took all of five minutes to exit Tunisia. They didn’t even ask any questions as to whether or not we had a visa for Algeria, although it is more than likely the police officer saw our Algerian visas as he flicked through the pages of our passports.

Roaming Camels

Roaming Camels

After a short ride across no-mans land and a quick photo of roaming camels by the road, we arrived at the Algerian border police post. I’m unsure if they were Tunisian or Algerian camels, either way their paperwork wasn’t in order or else they would’ve already crossed over. As we rolled up to the border post, we noticed a large number of cars about 20 or 30 already parked and knew we were in for a decent wait. First of all we were asked to complete a white entry card (carte d’entrée) with our personal details and a fiche d’entrée in green for the motorcycle.

Pascal exchanged friendly banter with the police officer, who also asked if we had a guide and where we were going, in particular if we were going to the south of Algeria. He checked our motorcycle registration papers, however he wanted our guide to arrive before he processed our paperwork. He tried to telephone our guide but of course no answer, and it was already half an hour after our scheduled rendez-vous at 9 am. Pascal went in search of our guide, and as the only white man in a fluro yellow t-shirt and grubby motorcycle gear he’s not hard to miss. We certainly should have asked for our guides mobile number to ensure that he is easily contactable. Luckily, we were only waiting in the shade for 10 minutes when Mohamed from Tanzerouft travel agency arrived and took care of the formalities. He had driven over 3000kms from the south to meet us at the Taleb Labri border near the Algerian town of El Oued. Mohamed was called inside the building and we are not sure as to the exact exchanges that took place, but it all took approximately 1 hour and photocopies were made of our passports and several copies of our trip itinerary and personal details were made.

We waited outside with the flies in the shade and snacked on biscuits, and fielded questions from curious onlookers. Before our guide returned, Pascal was directed to the next building along to obtain a TPD (Titre de Passage en Douaine) form to complete for the motorcycle. Pascal duly completed the forms that were barely legible having been photocopied repeatedly and now extremely faded. Increasingly tired of the wait and very hungry, I was short with Arja who wanted to take photos of the completed forms but was taking her time.

Arja: He gets stressed out far to easily by tedious beaurocratic procedures. Meanwhile, I successfully got to level 32 on space bubbles!

street kids

Street kids curious about the bike came up to have a closer look

Pascal: I went to the customs desk to get the additional forms for our motorcycle and to declare the amount of money we wish to exchange. The customs officers were friendly just as the police but preferred to speak English. Once the TPD was filled in I handed it back talking and learning a few words of arabic in the process from my improvised teachers. Once our guide returned, I had to go back with the guide to the customs office with our stamped passports. The customs officer went outside with us to check the motorbike and asked questions as to our luggage, such as what the sleeping mats were. The customs officers, new in their role, insisted on me taking everything off the bike except the hard luggage. As I was doing this, little to my knowledge, Arja was being quizzed on whether we had a GPS. Unwittingly she hinted that our tablet had a GPS but also needed a wireless internet connection to function. The over eager customs officers pounced on the word GPS just as I was coming back with the bags from the bike. It took some careful explaining using Arja as a scape-goat and the intervention of a senior colleague to make the customs officers understand that it wasn’t a GPS device but rather a big mobile phone. The only thing remaining was to exchange some Euros for Algerian Dinars and purchase 3rd party insurance for Francois. The insurance was 1400DZD valid for one month.

Approx three hours later, we were finally back on Francois with nothing but the open road ahead.

Welcome to Algeria

Welcome to Algeria

A quick stop in Oued el alennda to pick up supplies and some fresh lamb to go with couscous, for tonight’s camping dinner.

Restocking food and water in El Oued

Restocking food and water in El Oued

On our very first night in Algeria we found ourselves camping off the road in the dunes; who would’ve thought it would be such an adventure! Half way between Oum ez Zebed and Touggourt we stopped to take a path over the dunes to find a campsite in the sand for the night.

My first time in sand dunes

As Arja rightly pointed out, it was my first time in the sand dunes, although not altogether my first time on sand as we were on the beach in Italy. But as I was soon to find out the flat sands of the beach are very different to the undulating sand dunes broken up by tufts of grass. Had my first experience been on wide open sand dunes with no vegetation, then it may have been better, or at least a little easier, like driving on an empty highway versus a busy street with traffic when learning to drive a car. The dunes busy with vegetation provided obstacles that were difficult to negotiate at minimum speed on sand which is about 40-50kph. With the tyres let down to 15psi front and rear but with tank panniers and rear panniers still on I leapt on Francois all but ready after a long day to tackle the loose soft white sand of Touggourt.

From the road it was easy to get speed up and the first 200m went well standing up on the footpegs but as I had to negotiate the knolls, pick my line well ahead, and keep up a fast pace to stop myself from getting bogged whilst also reading the sand all at the same time, I started to slow and with the throttle rolled off just a little the front wheel dug knee-deep into the soft sand, almost throwing me over the front as it brought Francois to a rapid halt. To get out of the sand bog, I laid Francois over on his side to let the sand fill back in the wheel tracks. This was only effective to a point as I still had the panniers on and it wasn’t possible to get Francois flat on his side. Back up and on Francois I started him up in second gear letting the clutch out all the way and keeping the revs up enough to keep him from stalling. Sand was flying high and the metzeler tourances were struggling to grab in the sand, only as the tyres started to translate to forward movement was it possible to sit and lift my feet up. When starting in sand, the bike is creating deep grooves and steering is virtually impossible, only once enough speed and momentum is gained does the bike lift up and ride, sort of float on the sand, and one can begin to steer. It was just before I had reached the point of being able to steer, or more correctly, to change direction with my weight when I realised I was headed straight for a big mound of grass and sand.

Crash in Dunes

Smashing through the windscreen, Francois on his side after ploughing through a grassy mound of sand."What did you do to Francois?"

The mound came closer and closer until the unavoidable happened, I hit the big tuft of grass and sand. I was expecting the worst, bike and all we were flung over the first mound with a thump only to be greeted with another mound just as big glaring right at me head-on. Barely holding on the sudden halt of Francois ploughing into the second mound was too much and my momentum carried me forward, and I went head-over-heals smashing through the wind shield and landing on the other side of the sandy mound shoulder first. My descent from grace was all-in-all relatively soft as I immediately rose to turn and see Francois in a less than elegant position on his left hand side with the windshield in pieces and the right rear vision mirror bent and dislodged.

Recording the aftermath

Keen to document and record my accident I tried signalling to Arja and Mohamed to come back. As they were already well ahead of me by this stage they took a little while to turn around and drive back. Without a doubt it was a wise decision not to have attempted riding on sand with Arja as passenger. I sincerely doubt that we would have made it more than 20m if we tried.

I was angry but mostly disappointed that I had crashed, and pumped with adrenalin I was keen to jump back on Francois and try again. However, I held back the urge instead deciding to wait and document the ‘off’. The effect of the adrenalin meant it took a while until I calmed down enough to think and feel the effects of the impact fully, as Arja, Mohamed and Ali our driver pulled up I began to assess the damage. What I could see was a twisted rear vision mirror and broken windshield, what we heard when I got Francois upright and started him up again was like a broken or missing exhaust. The loud gutteral splatter sounded like the exhaust had been damaged, dislodged due to the noise. When I accelerated there was no power and Francois struggled almost stalling during harder acceleration and all the time blurting a deafening roar of pain. This wasn’t good. What have I done. Why did I ride on sand. What was I thinking!?

Starting sick Francois

It didn’t take long until we found the problem. The throttle body and air-intake had been dislodged allowing unfiltered air and god knows how much sand and dirt directly into the engine chamber. As soon as we saw this I got out my tools and went to work to re-seat the throttle body to the engine head. Still on a high I impatiently tried to fix the problem and bent the circular retaining clip holding the throttle body on. Damn it!

With a bit of tweaking and fiddling I could fix the bent clip and the throttle assembly and mustered up the courage to try again, but this time without any luggage whatsoever.

Riding on to our camping spot behind the bigger dunes I think I started to get a feeling for the sand. Exhausted I sat on the sand with Arja as our guides cooked dinner over the campfire. Beautiful night sky with a crescent moon and countless stars. It was only at this point that I had relaxed enough to feel that I was sore from the crash. Firstly my shoulder and neck from the impact and my upper thigh, presumably from the windshield and lastly my chest where I had my keys on a lanyard around my neck. Due to the fall the keys had dug into my chest and caused a few minor lacerations and bleeding. All considered a small price to pay for what could’ve been a lot worse.

Preparing Tea

Sore and bruised but not beaten, enjoying mint tea as we prepare to camp in the dunes

Impromptu service in Touggourt

From our campsite in the dunes we continued to Touggourt about 20kms to perform an oil change due to the accident in the sand having opened up the air intake at the throttle body. As I had started the bike with the throttle body dislodged I thought it prudent, almost essential to change the oil as there would’ve been a lot of unfiltered air with sand entering the engine directly, hopefully most of it was ejected cleanly via the exhaust but better to take the preventative measure now than wreak havoc later. It was great to have Ali and Mohamed as they could easily find a garage and ask if we could do the oil change there rather than by the roadside in the dust and dirt. Just next door was a shop selling oil and tyres, I bought four litres of 5W40 engine oil for 2200dinars. I was carrying a spare oil filter and all the tools necessary to do the job so i got to work. Meanwhile Mohamed and Ali were doing some maintenance on their pickup and buying new tyres.

The service took the best part of an hour interrupted only by chit-chat with the mechanic keen to know more about our bike and where we had travelled. From Touggourt to Guerrara, an oasis town, for lunch of chicken, stewed vegetables and french fries. There are married women in town who are only able to show one eye when outside on the street, and look like they simply rolled out of bed with the bed sheets on and went shopping. It is a strict sect of Islam and the women alternate the eye shown to avoid weakened eyesight. Bizarre what men can get away with! The medina of Guerrara certainly looked worth exploring but we unfortunately have many kms to do and too little time.

Camping in Ahmed’s Oasis

The day was long and when we finally arrived at our campsite in amongst date palms we were tired and hungry. The owner of the oasis showed us the way in, through the gate, past the truck stop restaurant, in between the palm throngs and through the mud created from irrigation. His makeshift house of one room with ensuite, if you could call it that, was a mess, piled with junk and out back an animal coup with plenty of live mutton and goat. At the back of the restaurant a cook was preparing goats heads for a broth of sorts. To prepare them he first needed to remove the hair from the face and head of the decapitated goats. To do this he used a blow torch burning low with a yellow flame, this singed and burnt the hairs without cooking or burning the skin. The very distinctive smell of burnt hair stunk out the entire area but didn’t do much for the flies!

Goat heads

Restauranteur preparing goat heads for a stew

For dinner Mohamed brought a try of lentils and lamb chops and chips to our outdoor lounge room under the date palms. The lounge room was just a rug laid on the red sandy soil with a small fire for making tea.

We left Oued Toulid and Ahmed’s oasis at about 10am. We were 195kms north of El Meneea, also know as El Golea on the N1 heading south. The terrain has kept changing gradually, with slight changes every passing kilometre. At first the sand was a light yellow-beige with undulating plains of rocky terrain interspersed by tufts of bracken and thickets with the odd eucalyptus or palm. As we passed through small enclaves in the desert we noticed a lot of building going on, all in the typical reinforced cement pillars then the walls are built with very fragile clay bricks filling in the gaps between the pillars spaced at 2-3m intervals and rendered with cement and painted to hold it altogether.

Over one hill and into the next shallow basin we rode, onwards deeper and deeper into the Sahara and further south towards El Meneea and eventually Ain Sallah. The shallow basins at first coloured by light yellow sand and dark grey rocks, a few kilometres across and a matter of 20 or so metres deep began to give way to more sandy soil until the sand overtook the rocks and with the exception of a few flat spots the rest of the landscape was covered in small dunes and shrubs.

We stopped just outside of El Meneea at a truck stop for petrol and lunch. As this was the last petrol station until Ain Salah we also took an extra 10 litres of 96 unleaded petrol in a jerry can in case we couldn’t make the 393km + 15km stretch with one tank.

Authentic Sahara Experience

South of Ghardaia and all the way to Niger, is the real Sahara, ever-changing desert terrain and unforgiving. With the countless years of experience accumulated by our guides from hundreds of trips between Mali, Niger and Algeria we knew we were in good hands. So I lent on the knowledge and experiences of Mohamed to help guide me on how to read the sand dunes and picking the best line to avoid the soft sand. Dinner was a specialty of the desert, sand cooked bread resembling damper and then broken up in small pieces and mixed with stewed vegetables.

Desert campsite

Desert camp fire

The choice of campsite was made, and we climbed up the highest dune to get a view of the sunset. There is something comforting about having warm sand between the toes and fresh air that made us feel nostalgic towards the beaches in Australia, so much so that we were half expecting to see the ocean over the next sand dune. It’s funny how the mind works sometimes.

Endless dunes

Endless dunes of the Sahara

Ontop of the Dune

Conquered the Sand Dunes, Pascal & Francois celebrate

From the red dunes 300kms north of Ain Salah we rode 200kms south over an enormous plateau of red earth and black volcanic looking rocks. To the locals the plateau and its black stones is known as the black desert.

Lunch stop

Lunch under an Acacia tree

Lunch under the acacia tree surrounded by 7 billion stones and a million flies chewing on maccaroni and sand. The wind picked up and every breath felt like we were inhaling spoonfulls of sand.

A last dash through the wind and desert and we made it on one tank the whole 404kms to Ain Salah. I couldn’t help but mull over in my mind different ‘what if’ scenarios as we ran through the reserve tank and then some 30 odd kilometres past the indicated ‘empty’ tank warning. What if we didn’t have a guide carrying extra fuel…

As we descended from the plateau, the flat arid treeless plain fell away into a gorge and opened out into a new basin leaving a few hills with a flat plateau height top resembling a canyon and pinnacles shrouded in sand and fallen rock. The town of Ain Salah, is surrounded by sand dunes and the ever encroaching sand often takes over parts of the town and from every street we could see at the end a sand dune.

Street of Ain Salah

Typical street of Ain Salah with sand dunes at the end

At Mohamed’s home we felt very welcome but craving some western creature comforts after four days of no showers or running water, we were not only out of clean clothes but we really did smell and just out of personal hygiene we needed a shower and we wanted to relax a little. As warm and welcoming as Mohamed and his family were we both secretly wanted, needed, some space and alone time. We first checked with Mohamed that it wouldn’t be a problem to move about town by ourselves. He confirmed it wasn’t a problem and that no one would stop us. So we decided to go to a hotel, much to the disappointment of his wife who was busy preparing dinner. We agreed to thus check-in to our hotel and return at 8pm for dinner.

Bonne fête! We partook in the traditional sacrificial slaughter of two goats just after our breakfast at 9am the day of Eid. The sacrifice of the animals was very unceremonious in all, but the ordeal of butchering two goats in the front yard on sand was performed with minimal fuss with the guidance of an experienced hand. Mohamed had a bet on with his friend to see who would be the first to prepare the Boulfaf, a delicacy found in Algeria and Morocco is usually eaten for breakfast. It is the cooked liver of the goat or sheep wrapped in the layer of fatty tissue surrounding the abdominal cavity of the animal then then placed on skewers and lightly grilled over the wood fire. Boulfaf is served hot and doesn’t by any stretch of the imagination look appetising, well not to either of us in any case. As Arja doesn’t eat meat, the four large pieces were all for me. Still feeling unwell from the chicken the evening before, I really had to force myself to eat the Boulfaf. It wasn’t very special and as I don’t particularly like liver, even on a good day I would’ve found it difficult to swallow.

Fresh Chicken

Cutting the neck of a chicken, offered to us for lunch.

Slaughtered goats

Slaughtered goats

Algerian Boulfaf

Preparation of the Algerian Boulfaf, liver wrapped in caul fat, the abdominal lining.

Caul

Caul the fat used in the preparation of Boulfaf

Tripe with chips, oh how delicious full of grit and very fatty. Coke never tasted so good, and I’ve never had so much in all my life, a god send, to help us wash down the tripe and cure or thirst if only temporarily. The trouble is we can’t leave until we’ve eaten!

I’m not sure if it was the tripe but even before I was going from bad to worse, it is beyond me how Mohamed was seemingly immune to the effects of the chicken, either that or he was doing a great job of hiding his discomfort. Back at the hotel my fever became unbearable, it may have something to do with the ground water I drank at lunch. What between the TV, my cold sweats and all the aches and pains, our decision not to return the Mohamed’s home for dinner was in my best interests. Especially given the 1400kms on bad roads we needed to cover in order to make our ferry in two and a half days leaving from Gazhouet.

I don’t know how Arja managed to put up with me between all the moaning, my demands and constant complaints. Perhaps the true test of a relationship is when we are ill, outside our comfort zone and in a foreign and inhospitable place. But whatever it is the truth is you do whatever you need to get through and we certainly need each other, it’s a cliché but we do pull together in tough times. Let’s be reasonable, it’s only food poisoning, travellers diarrhea, so given a little time it will pass, hopefully sooner rather than later.

We rose at the crack of dawn dispite my lack of sleep and queasy stomach to make haste north in direction Ghardaia. Forteen hundred kilometres lay between us and the coast then there were the police checkpoints located at entry and exit to every town and at major intersections. Not to mention all the speed bumps more like hitting a curb, forcing us to slow to a maximum speed of 15km/h. Two full days of riding and we rode into Tlemcen in the dark and looking for a hotel in peak hour traffic. Only 70kms for the following morning over the mountains and some very nice twisty roads and we arrived at the port. We said our goodbyes and proceeded to enter the port only to be turned away as we didn’t have authorisation to enter. A visit to the secretary of the captain of the port authorities and a long wait to get our boarding tickets due to computer system being down and finally we could enter the port.

Leaving Algeria by boat

Now on the boat to Spain and it is leaving 1hr and 41 minutes after scheduled departure.Why by boat? Well for the simple fact that the land border with Morocco is closed and has been for the best part of 30 years. So we are obliged to take the boat to Spain before descending into Morocco, ridiculous isn’t it.

Ghazaouet port

The port of Ghazaouet, preparing to leave for Spain

It is very strange when complete strangers chase you down to give you an Algerian keyring as a present or when you stop to buy food and a man standing on the sidewalk gave us a handmade truck in a bottle. The man who gave us the keyring had been talking to Arja earlier and thought that we didn’t have a flag sticker for Algeria on our bike so went out especially in search of a sticker for our panniers. We passed him on the way to the port after we got our boarding passes, finally, as the system was down and we had to wait for over an hour. Arja didn’t recognise him but it was the same man coming back in his car after searching high and low for a sticker and turning up with a keyring instead. The man going the other way in his car was sounding his horn at us and shaking what looked like keys at us. We both thought he was signalling that we had lost some keys, but a quick check and it wasn’t that so perhaps it was Monsieur Ben Freed who was organised to look after us by the secretary of the port captain of Ghazahouet from the port authority.

Once we had our boarding pass from Trasmediterranea we were allowed to enter the port and go to the police check and customs. As with entry we also needed a form (read entry/exit card) each and one for Francois looking decidedly adventurous, loaded up and dirty. We completed the forms whilst being ushered forward jumping the queues and eating pizza that we had just picked up before to fill the lunchtime void in our stomachs. Everyone was very polite and the customs officers were especially friendly. At the passport check I handed in both passports with the exit cards filled in however it wasn’t to the liking of the police officer who rechecked them 3 times each and decided to rewrite Arja’s name and several other bits of information that were there already. My writing is not especially messy and the cards were written neatly so it was the police officer just taking especially long and being thorough. After our passports were stamped out we moved on to the customs inspection. They requested our TPD (Titre de Passage en Douaine) I showed them the typed form with a stamp for the customs at Taleb Larbi border and they refused saying that there was another form. I said no, that it was the only form apart from our insurance papers. They finally took the form when I showed them the stamp and the customs officer went to confer with a colleague. Perhaps they had not seen this form from the Taleb Larbi customs before. In any case, it was the last formality and we were through into the holding docks until our boat arrived and we were allowed board.

If you are not familiar with the terrain of Greece, Italy and Sicily then you may be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t so many mountains. Well I’m here to tell you different. Greece from head to toe is just mountains. Italy, well you can count the plains on one hand, and Sicily, the bends and tunnels never cease. This is coming from an Aussie who has spent the past two years in Switzerland riding the alps. So rest assured, if you are not a highway cruiser, then the back roads will be full of the still very authentic rural and rustic Mediterranean experience. Enough said. Since Pelopennese, the southern part of mainland Greece, where we spent several nights camping and the other part thereof drenched from head to toe and freezing from the torrential rains and flash flooding combined with single digit temperatures. So it’s no wonder why we took the ferry from Patra to Brindisi, in search of better weather. The only trouble is that to escape bad weather on a ship we had to go through it. And even the upgrade to a four berth cabin didn’t help. The turbulence, the creaking, the jostling, the clanging and the deep gutteral moans the Ionian Queen made as she crested and dived through the waves along the route to Italy was more than enough to keep one of us awake worrying about Francois below deck and whether we were about to re-enact the titanic, albeit on a much smaller scale…  Dawn broke and we saw land but Arja wasn’t happy until her feet were steadfast on the solid ground, and we were safely back on Francois. The only issue was that Italian customs needed to inspect the whole boat, what with 50+ trucks onboard, that took a while! Finally once off the boat, we waved farewell to our Italian duo from Roma also riding two-up on a GS, and we headed off in the wrong direction. I told you we should’ve keep following them, they know where they’re going, yells Arja through the intercom. Of course she was right, I was wrong and we did a u-turn on the freeway entry and back tracked the wrong way up the entry ramp all in true Italian style, afterall anything is permitted so long as you don’t get caught! This IS Italy, bienvenuti.

Sunset on the beach in Calabria, Francois gets a taste for sand and pebbles - Fully loaded too!

If the gusts of wind hurling us from side to side on the freeway didn’t get us, then the lunatic Italian drivers, screaming along the freeway at some ungodly pace did. It’s not often that I am caught unawares by drivers but in Italy it happens far too often for my comfort.

Next on the road was Ostuni, and if you have never heard of it then it’s probably because it’s more famous cousin, Alberobello boasting the Trulli houses overshadows this otherwise exquisite and gorgeous whitewashed town. It so happens that we rode on into town just as a parade was going on. Of course until this point we have been oblivious to all news and current events going on around us, including the riots in Rome, Mt Etna erupting and flooding in Catania. But we’re ignorant and we like^ it that way.

Onwards and upwards along the tight twisting back roads of Puglia we rode until Alberobello and the Trulli houses. But these weirdly constructed houses, reminding me of the Indian cow patty stacks were still used and lived in. Bizarre but true. The only thing to top off southern Italy would be some troglodytes, an exploding volcano and making Sicilian TV. Well guess what! Oh damn, there I go again blowing the story before I’ve even begun to tell it. Well it’s pointless saying this now but if you want the details then you’ll have to just keep reading.

By now you should know that I don’t write pace notes or keep a detailed roadbook of each and every turn and how many kilometres to this turnoff and to that road and so on, so for me to start now would be a waste of our time and we wouldn’t be enjoying our travelling, it would become too much hard work, and well I’m all about riding and experiences of new cultures and languages. If you’re not happy, then write me a letter. By the way did you check out our location map which is updated in realtime? I know it’s not perfect but it’s a start and yes there are some bugs…

So from Trulli we went to Sassi, the town known until the ’50’s as the malaria cesspit of Italy. The people had no electricity, sewerage or running water and were living in relative squalour. So a visit to the troglodyte dwellings of the Italian poverty from yesteryear was on the cards. The careful route planning was all prepared by my trusty and beloved co-pilot, all down to a tea. However it would be stupid to ignore ‘official’ hawkers seeking out tourists to sell them some accommodation or a guide to visit Matera, the modern town above the Sassi underworld and the caverns built into solid rock. We did our own tour by foot but upon our return to Francois, the offer of accommodation in a Sassi B&B cave sounded too good to pass up, so we were led astray to a cave room, right out of the Flintstones, complete with a shower embedded into the stone. All this for a mere 40 euros, well who are we to say no when it started at 80. We were tired and hungry and it was late, we caved, pun intended.

The next day was slow going from Puglia over the mountains via the smallest of small mountain roads to Calabria. It was slow, rough and at times felt endless, and we didn’t cover more than 300kms. Truly, the steep uphill blind hair-pin (switch-back) corners were a lot to handle, add the full weight of Francois and throw in some gravel to the mix and then add an earthquake to destroy the road and you’re starting to paint a picture. Then there are the Italians, cutting corners, herding goats and sheep and parking their cars in the middle of blind corners, to catch the unwary. After ten hours on the bike we were exhausted yet again and we bargained for our hotel room having circled three towns just to find all the camping sites closed, as hard as we could. The trouble with travelling quickly is that you need to adjust the budget accordingly, it’s fine to say let’s wild camp, but if you don’t have food and water and as we can’t carry much, it’s not always possible. So far this trip we have stayed in the same place only twice and now it’s the end of our twentieth day on the road. But before we found our hotel, we dabbled with the idea of sleeping on the beach, and almost did as the sandy detour with Francois was not far off being stuck in the soft dirty silicon.

Idyllic waters and the headland of Tropea Calabria

With our deadline for the ferry to Tunis looming over us, we decided to cut short our visit of Calabria and make straight for the ferry to Sicily. Only the day before in Sassi, an american couple had told us about Mt Etna recently erupting, and well, we didn’t believe them, so we decided to see it for ourselves. It turns out that Mt Etna did have a little spit and spew out some gases and ash but nothing serious.

Mount Etna 3329m spitting out ash and gases

On our way down from Mount Etna, we got lost and ended up in the town of Adrano on our way to Enna where we are staying tonight. As I was confused and wanted to check the map, I pulled Francois up by the reigns right smack bang in front of the Castle and directly opposite the town hall. Just at that very moment the Liberal party member Pietro and his journalist and camera-man walked out of the Municipal building and saw a sight for sore eyes and spotted an opportunity. That was us, two sunburnt, lost tourists with a big yellow motorcycle speaking not a word of Italian between them. Not to be camera shy, I accepted the request to tell all Sicilians how wonderful Ardarno, umm, Adrano is and what a beautiful castle they have, all on camera. So to all our Sicilian fans and to the greater Italian public that no doubt watches Sicilian regional TV of Adrano, we salut you and say G’day Mate!

Oh and for our efforts, the party member for the liberals gave us a clay mask of the devil, no we’re serious, photo will come soon, I promise.

Footnotes

^ Perhaps it is a bit tongue in cheek, but the truth of media is that it’s rarely telling the whole story, and if you were brought up to know that lying by omission is still a lie then by induction media are doing that, in portions that are just believable enough if you don’t know better or if you’re not really sure where the accounts are coming from.

If you can look past the poor roads, badly polluted country side and you manage to scratch the surface of this land dealt a rough hand from the Ottomans, persecuted by the Italians, and abandoned by the Chinese, then you will love the beauty and contrast of Albania, Shqiperia as it is known to the locals.

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Day 1, Saturday, 1st october

The alps to the Alpi apuane and Tuscany

We find ourselves now in the evocative region of Tuscany and the stunning mountain range of the Alpi and really what a change from Switzerland. The landscape went through such dramatic variations as we passed from the valley of the Rhone over the Alps then in the northern plains of Italy which are so hot and dry. Our route eminated the route that my parents took 30 years ago, almost day for day. It’s not the first time we will cover the tracks of my parents on this voyage of discovery through north Africa. But we leave them now as they took the boat from Genova and our trip now takes us deep into the tuscan hillside. We arrived at the Mediterranean sea just at the height of Livorno, following the autoroute until Aulla the gateway into the Alpi Apuane and northern Tuscany. We meandered our way to Bagni di Lucca and up to our pre-booked B&B at Cocciglia. Our hosts were waiting for us with big smiles at the entry to town, it was a good feeling to have arrived after what was a long eleven hour day and 648kms. The town was picutersque but tiny and our hosts insisted that we park Francois up the narrow laneway and in front of the house, with some careful manouvering he was tucked away for the night.

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Day 2, Sunday 2nd Oct

We rose for an early morning walk before breakfast to explore the tiny village and surrounds of Cocciglia, with only 14 inhabitants year long. The walk certainly brought on our appetite and the home made bread at our B&B was delicious. We left Cocciglia in the direction of Pistoia. By mid morning the Sunday traffic was already quite heavy and we knew it would be slow going to Firenze. Luckily we were going in the opposite direction to the Italian weekenders leaving the city life and heading for the hills. We used our newest gadgets, a GPS equiped Google Android tablet and 3G WIFI dongle to navigate into Firenze with unexpected ease. Our setup is also tracking our every move as we wander and meander our way through Southern Europe to North Africa.

In the center of Firenze we parked just a stones throw from Piazza del Duomo and locked up or helmets and the front tank panniers with the bicycle lock taking our valuables with us as we continued our tourism by foot. There would seem to be almost no ugly or uninteresting part to Italy, everywhere you look is one amazing sight after another buildings full of history and character. Without a doubt the Ponte Vecchio is the most famous bridge in Italy and rightly so.

Firenze to Chianti wine region, Greve in Chianti, Montevarchi, Arezzo, to the Parco di Livarno.

Campsite was closed so we headed to the top of the park where therwas some flat ground more suited to camping. Although the wild pigs and hooligans in their cars perturbed our tranquility which otherwise was a superb location with a crescent moon and a clear night and a sky filled with stars.

Day 3, Monday 3rd October

We woke to the gentle rustle of wind in the trees and a lot of relief knowing that dawn had come after a restless nights sleep. The morning on top of parco national di Livarno was fresh but with the promise of hot and dry day ahead. The telling factor was not just the bright orange sun but the lack of dew and especially the lack of condensation on the inside of our tent.

We decided to break camp and head straight into town and look for breakfast and coffee. Down the hillside we stopped for a picture of the Church we passed on the day before, a church  on the pillgrimage route of St Jacques de Compstelle.

We stopped in Castiglion Fiorentina at a busy little patisserie where locals were having their morning coffee standing at the counter. Our breakfast of coffee and pasteries was enough to get us going, we hopped back on Francois and headed for Cortona. Admittedly the whole region of which we know very little, and especially the less visited parts of Tuscany are amazing. Towns like Cortona, Gubbio and Greve in Chianti certainly warrant a less rushed visit, however our goal is to make our ferry for Greece and ultimately the Sahara.

We kept on whilst the going was good and as there was a lot less traffic on the minor roads the riding was most pleasurable.

At the checkin for our ferry to Igoumenista we met Dave, from UK on a BMW 1150GS, Mark from Switzerland on an Africa Twin and Lori also from the UK on a Yamaha Tenere all on their way to South Africa. On the boat we caught up with the trio and shared some of our experiences and talked through their travel plans. It is always nice to meet like minded souls on the road, it’s a kinship or brotherhood, not to be sexist but there is a kind of mateship even if we are complete strangers otherwise, brought together by a common interest.

The first thing we did onboard the ferry was get our 4 berth dorm and have a shower. The heat below deck coming from the engine room created a sauna like parking and we were both dripping with sweat.

Day 4, Tuesday 4 October

We disembarked at Igoumenitsa to the dawn of yet another beautiful day, greeted by a deep red sky over the Ionian coastline. Exiting the international port we said goodbye to our acquaintance, Stefan from St Gallen in Switzerland who was riding a Honda Firestorm equiped with an enormous rear one-piece saddle bag. The short ride to the domestic port of Igoumenitsa was already hot, making our riding gear stick to our skin.

We headed straight for the old town of Corfu and parked next to the fort towering over the city and a local food market selling fruit, vegetables and that mornings catch of fresh fish. I feel the true way to meet locals and gain a sense of a town or village is at the markets where they shop. The most marking thing so far of Greece are that almost no one wears a helmet. And even fewer are wearing any kind of protective clothing, perhaps understandable given the heat and inconvenience of it but this just demonstrates the lack of policing in Greece.

My first impressions of Corfu are much like any Mediterranean fortified town, the old town isn’t especially interesting but has a certain holiday feel about it, what with all the tourist shops and scooters. Leaving Corfu I was surprised to see eucalyptus trees along the roadside, the smell of the gums made me immediately homesick and all I felt like doing was sitting under the shade of the glorious trees chewing on their leaves like a Koala.

We left the island’s metropolis for the peace and quiet of the north-west. Barely out of town several motorcyclists overtook us at speed on the mountain roads, none of them had any helmet and not so much as a pair of sunglasses to protect their eyes.

Our swim in the sea at agios georgios beach was divine providing the much needed respite from the heat and humidity. After our bathing in the salty waters we went in search of a supermarket and a camping spot. Instead we found a sensatioal sunset on top of the hill in Afionas. Where we decided to spend the night.

To save a little we cooked our own dinner of Pork marinated Corfu style and a salmon steak to accompany our Greek salad and tzatsiki.

Wednesday 5th October

Beautiful breakfast of fruit salad and thick creamy yoghurt with honey and some unannounced intruders that decided to take a bath in Arja’s honey. The youghurt, which was more like the french fromage blanc, had a scoop of honey in the middle and looked a bit like a minature bird bath, or perhaps thought the wasp. The inscense brought out by the owner helped but these wasps (not wogs) were not to be deterred.

On our morning stroll through the Town of Afionas we noticed a high proportion of foreign land owners, which seems to be very much the trend and often they are the ones bringing in money that helps to restore old delapidated buildings and towns. On our way back to our accommodation at Porto Timoni we decided to have a rest day and stay a second night to relax, do our washing and go swimming. Of course the location and scenery had a lot to do with the decision but mostly we wanted to have a romantic and intimate weekend, just us and no riding, afterall we are in sorts turning a page, what with Arja having left her job, it’s a time to celebrate.

Walk down to the beach of Porto Timoni followed by a siesta and later some detailed route planning up into Albania.

Quite naturally a beer on the terrace restaurant led to a delicious meal from the family run restaurant of the same name as our accommodation.

Day 6, Thursday 6th October

Breakfast consisted of freshly squeezed orange juice, assorted fresh fruits, filtered coffee, honey youghurt and of course the annoying wasps… On our way out of Alfionas we headed to the north coast and the mountain village of Perithia. From there we took a dirt road that joined Petalia.

Hilltop lookout of Pantokratos which dominated the whole island with its telecommunications towers and baren brown hillside dotted with the odd shrub. Keen to make Albania we decided to skip the rest of Corfu and make straight for the port to catch our ferry back to mainland Greece.

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Whoa-oa-oa! I feel good, I knew that I would, now. So good, so good, I got you (come on, sing it with me!)

I’ve quit my job, packed my belongings and vacated my studio, redirected all my mail and moved back to Nyon to live with my gorgeous, albeit stressed-out, fiancé. My true love is back in my arms and it’s for good!

The past year we have spent living apart has been difficult for the both of us but now the road ahead is auspiciously bright and promising. Whilst everything seems to be happening at once, the seductive nature of travel and life on the road keeps us focused on the horizon.

True to the saying there is no rest for the wicked, we’ll fall straight back into spending 24hrs a day together, 7 days a week for 2 months on the road. This evening we’ve been busy packing, washing, mending, emptying and defrosting the fridge and generally ensuring our apartment won’t fall into a state of disrepair while we’re away.

It may come as a surprise to many but it will come as a huge relief for us to be back on the road with Francois. On the road, we have the chance to live more simply with no more possessions than we can carry, and surrendering ourselves to chance.

We have adventure waiting tomorrow – that’s all we need.

Even though our trip has had a rough outline for almost a year now, the detailed planning hasn’t really been possible until just several weeks ago. Why not? Well, if you’ve followed the news in Europe, North Africa and the Middle-East then you’d know that according to reports, the region is in turmoil^. This has made our planning extremely difficult to say the least. Our original plan was to ride the western Mediterranean through Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia then back to Europe via Italy or France. With the closure of borders to Syria and Libya and the cancellation of the ferry service from Alexandria, Egypt to Venice, Italy, this route was made virtually impossible (not to mention that visas for Syria are currently not being issued). The added headache regarding how to return from Egypt to Europe due to the cancellation of the passenger ferry meant that the only other option was to fly back and freight Francois, requiring significant time and paperwork.

Our backup route would take us to the western side of the Mediterranean, including Morocco and Tunisia. Less than two months ago we didn’t even begin to consider Algeria as an option. At first we thought it would be imppossible as no one we knew had travelled through Algeria in over a decade. Then when we realised it might be possible, we found out that there were almost no ferries running from Algeria outside of the peak summer season to mainland Europe, and what with the border between Algeria and Morocco being closed for the past 30+ years, we were short on time and solutions. Persistence and a lot of research has paid off; we are now almost set for Algeria, just waiting nervously for confirmation of our visas.

New route through North Africa

Route around the Mediterranean Sea

Route around the Mediterranean Sea

Visas

One of the least well known countries in North Africa would have to be Algeria. Having only recently come out of a 20 year long civil war and still not entirely open to tourism, it is no wonder why Algeria struggles to attract attention when it is overshadowed by Morocco to the west and Tunisia to the east as favoured tourist destinations by Europeans for decades. So why do we want to go? Well the answer is easy, because we want an adventure of course! But truly, we don’t know much about Algeria, it’s not even on the tourist map and the only people we know that have been to Algeria were there more than a decade ago. So given it’s not a tourist destination, it’s also not the easiest of places to self-drive with our own vehicle, and so wisely we have enlisted the help of a recommended travel agency based in Southern Algeria to accompany us and provide us with vital local knowledge and expertise. The visa requirements for Algeria are quite strict and without the support of an accredited travel agency, we would need to obtain a certificate of accommodation (Certificat d’hebergement) for every night we are in Algeria, we would also have needed a letter of invitation (Lettre d’Invitation) to accompany our visa applications. This still doesn’t guarantee that we would be issued with visas, so we went with the Travel Agency in order to have some credibility for our visa applications ensuring they would be taken seriously.

As of today, Arja has received her visa, however I am still waiting for mine. It’s only 4 days until we leave and I am pretty anxious about getting my passport back. The visa, and my passport, is still with the Algerian Consulate here in Geneva and is the missing link in our North African adventure and without it, we will have put off a lot of planning and to prepare a plan C, just in case. Now that we are so close and it looks like we will be going through Algeria,  it is very exciting and I have butterflies in my stomach and I can’t sleep at night. Who would’ve thought that a little piece of paper could put us on such a knife’s edge.

As for the other countries, Tunisia and Morocco there is not need for a visa, so that makes it a lot simpler. Although that said, the day after we arrive in Tunis, there will be elections and judging by previous unrest resulting in strict curfews these elections may prove to be more than just a nuisance.

Equipment & Preparation

We are essentially undertaking an expedition into the Sahara and like any adventure into remote arid desert regions respect for our environment is paramount to our success and also to our survival. We have made several, albeit small but important changes, to ensure we are adapted to the climate and conditions of the Sahara and the Atlas Mountains. The temperatures are likely to fall below 0° degrees Celsius at night and may range up to or even above 30° during the day. Water and carrying enough has always been a difficultly especially when we are already fully laden and packed to the brim. The addition of tank panniers at the front of the bike will help with carrying extra supplies and water, if Arja doesn’t fill them with baklava and other sugery sweets behind my back! We will need to change to desert going tyres and regularly check our air filter to ensure it is clean. All of which will count when we’re lost knee deep in Saharan Quicksand.

We’ve done it before, so why the anxiety?

Well it’s simple, each trip is different, our trusty stead is not new any more, he has clocked up over 70,000kms and with recent issues† we are still a bit apprehensive about Francois’ mechanical and electrical state. We are also going through some very troubled regions. Together with the unpredictable nature of motorcycle travel, and our limited window of leave, we are trying to fit in a lot in a short amount of time. But most of all I can’t leave without my passport that is still with the Algerian Consulate in Geneva, pending issue of my tourist visa!!

Footnotes

^ The following are sample reports of turmoil in the regions from Europe, to the Middle-East and North Africa; Arab Spring, Greek Riots, Spanish Protests, Libyan Civil War, Egyptian Revolt – Mubarak, Syrian Revolution, Tunisian Reform.

† Fuel Pump Controller failed for the second time, closely followed by the battery and the ABS unit. We also had to replace the rear brake disc that was out of spec. During the ABS unit replacement, the BMW dealer also performed two recalls on Francois. All in all we should be set, but it’s never a certainty. Of course, having all these issues happen whilst at home are so much better than on the road leaving us stranded.

A story within a story

It’s a human story – the founding of a friendship

It is usually true that one story hides another and in this case it’s very much the case. The original one starts in Turkey back in 2009 on our Sydney to Oslo adventure. It was a clear autumn morning and the skies were blue announcing fine riding weather. As we typically did, we took down in two lots our gear from our hotel room in central Istanbul, first our gear that packs into our panniers then returning to our room to collect our valuables, riding gear and checking that we hadn’t left behind any of our affairs. On the way out, we checked out and made a break taking advantage of the lack of Sunday morning traffic to navigate out of Istanbul in direction west-north-west towards Greece. Although looking extremely clear earlier, the weather was starting to turn with strong gusts of wind sweeping us across our lane on the freeway and grabbing our helmets, trying to flick us off Francois. The gusts were so strong we could lean against the wall of air while riding. Then all of a sudden Francois began to stutter, at 120km/h*, like he was running out of fuel. I had to slow and pull over to the emergency lane as Francois began to stall at 100km/h creating a potentially dangerous situation. Clutch in, rolling down the freeway I just want to make it another kilometre to the rest stop coming up. Changing down to forth gear and letting the clutch our to restart Francois, he coughed and splattered and failed to respond. Now my mind was flying through all the possibilities, battery, fuel, impossible because we had more than half a tank, then what?? Bad batch of fuel perhaps. With the hazard lights on we started to roll into the freeway rest stop. Now I was almost certain that we had a fuel pump failure. Indeed I had just a matter of days earlier been reading about this known problem. And yes all the symptoms seemed to fit. Off the bike, there was no buzz from the fuel pump that typically pumps fuel as the contact is switched on. The battery was fine, lights and starter motor turned over just nothing else. So I proceeded to check my box of tricks for a piece of wire to act as a jumper to bypass the Fuel Pump Controller. With only one piece of wire I had to cut and strip it to create a jumper for both wires… the first problem; there were three wires! Which ones do I need to jump… ok no big deal I’ll just look at my smart phone which has  the wiring diagram, to figure it out. I change over the memory card and realise immediately that was the memory card that had a virus and was erased back in India. So now I need internet connection to search for the details. Unfortunately, there was no hope of finding the internet on the side of the freeway some 70kms from Istanbul, we were surrounded by fields of wheat and sunflowers and the truck stop had a very understocked grocery store which also served the odd hungry customer with a small restaurant. It was so windy even the metal garbage cans that weren’t attached began rolling around pushed by the wind. My attempts to bypass the Fuel Pump Controller (aka FPC) were in vein, all I managed to do was drain the battery by creating a short. Now with no hope of fixing Francois, there was no option but to call for help.

Breakdown in Turkey

Loading Francois onto the tow truck

After about a three hour wait our tow-truck showed up and gave us a lift back to Istanbul and the BMW dealer. As is was Sunday and getting late, we decided to head back into town and make the most of being without Francois, to stay in an inner city budget hotel which didn’t have any parking but was close to the Galata Tower and main pedestrian strip. We were determined to turn this breakdown into an opportunity and not let it ruin our trip. In each problem or breakdown is an opportunity waiting to be explored. The next day I returned to the BMW dealer and Arja explored central Istanbul. Whilst waiting for the dealer to open another traveller on a GS, by the same make and colour as Francois pulled up. He had a lot of stickers on his bike and was obviously from Spain with the capital ‘e’ on his number plate giving his nationality away. I said hello and began to chat, the rest is history, well it is the story actually. That Spanish motorcyclist was none other than Miquel Silvestre who had just come from Central Asia and was heading to Syria and Jordan. Since our encounter in Istanbul we have keep close contact and have helped each other out on several occasions. Miquel introduced us to several of his media contacts and hosted us in Madrid during our visit in March 2011.

GS Riders Pascal & Miquel having a cold one in Istanbul

One of Miquel’s contacts was the media agency that is now responsible for BMW internationally and it secured us an interview with a very kind and friendly person (who of course we can’t mention here). Nonetheless our story has been since published by various English motorcycle press. For that and for your time and collaboration we’d like to say thank you.

Our full story by BMW can be read here

Interview by BMW – Riding2up (PDF)

BMW Motorrad International

We’ll add links to other sites that publish our story as well. If you find one, please let us know or just post a comment here.

Extreme Couples – Arja Pascal & Francois

Footnotes

* The maximum permitted speed for motorcycles on all roads in Turkey is 70km/h. This antiquated law doesn’t take into account larger cyclinder motorcycles. It is one of the biggest political issues for motorcyclists in Turkey. Even though the speed limit is restricted for all motorcycles to 70km/h they are still permitted on freeways, curious really. The reality is that motorcycles as other vehicles are not controlled for speed regularly on freeways in Turkey so this higher speed, keeping up with other traffic, is generally tolerated. Needless to say that it would be far more dangerous travelling at 70km/h on a freeway with cars travelling at 120k/h or faster.

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