Journey's End

Soca village 350 1
The Pleasures of Slovenia
Slovenia certainly had something (shame about the incomprehensible language). After the large, flat expanses of western Romania and Hungary the scenery became interesting again. Forests and meadows of rich green - some at extraordinarily precarious angles on steep mountainsides – were dotted with old wooden barns and small villages. The Julian Alps at the Austrian and Italian border were spectacular, peaks of bare granite rising up almost vertically from the valleys. And the miniature capital city of Ljubljana straight out of a fairy tale - dominated by its castle high above, the Ljubljanica River at its base winding through the ancient centre of beautiful old streets.

What followed was an intense, varied and highly enjoyable three-day holiday, kicked off by a police escort to Vila Veselova (best hostel on the trip) when I first arrived in town and asked directions. After meeting up with friends Mick and Patricia and feasting on very satisfying local fare, and wine, in the small hours of the morning I was given a guided tour of this charming capital by two friendly citizens met at one of the many outdoor bars strung along the river (one fascinating piece of information I learned was Ljubljana has the only bridge in the world with trees growing on it!).

Predjama Castle
Castle 535 1

Walking to Croatia
The following day involved a four hour scramble up a steep forested hill in the south of Slovenia in a fierce electrical storm getting soaked to the skin (and at the summit walking a few metres into Croatia); 'pigging' out on wild boar we'd spotted being roast on a spit at a roadside restaurant, washed down with Cevejek, the - supposedly rough - local wine; then hip-swaying and grooving until very late to a Cuban/Croatian salsa band outdoors in a spotlit medieval mansion.

The next day was exhilarating fun, six or seven hours of what has to be the best road riding in Europe, Manca, my host, on the back of the bike as it was put though its paces (and responded admirably now without luggage), the road zig-zagging above us to the dramatic Vrsic Pass in the Julian Alps, and returning down the spectacularly scenic Soca valley back to Ljubljana; taking a train a kilometre into Postojna cave, like a computer graphics generated Disneyland; the atmospherically located 16thC Predjama Castle (pictured above) dramatically cut into a 400 ft cliff, lolling on the grass in the sun, transported to medieval times, a knight returning home after months away campaigning (then we watched enthralled as a rider swung himself up onto a very spirited, snorting black horse. A magnificent creature.
Piran arch 350L 1
He was issuing instructions to someone as the horse pulled and pranced under him before he gave the animal its head and, frothing at the mouth, it took off in front of us at a gallop from a standing start, thundering up the hill its head held high). We finished off that day on Slovenia's short bit of coastline, in the little port of Piran - crammed with picturesque narrow streets of Venetian Gothic architecture - where I was able to take a dip in the Adriatic.

Manca had told me earlier that day that her partner had been killed seven years previously climbing in the Himalayas. In the evening on the drive back to Ljubljana, she translated the news on the radio that eleven climbers had just perished on K2 in Pakistan, including an Irishman Gerard McDonnell.

Tent Etiquette
Much as the distractions of Slovenia tempted, it was time to continue. The route took me north over the Julian Alps to Klagenfurt in Austria, from where I put the head down and rode through the drizzly day for the German border.

Karst cave system of Postojna cave
Organ pipes 300L 1
'Tent' is the name of a campsite in Munich, not too far from the centre. At €11 for the night it was cheaper than Budapest (although not as attractive), with a good value cafeteria and free internet. With the age group around late teens I did feel a little like someone's dad. In the morning I tried to ignore from the tent adjacent, the sound of female moaning usually associated with sensual pleasure in extremis. I left them to it and went off in search of breakfast, and spent time on the internet. When I returned nearly an hour later the throaty groans, a little louder, indicated they were still at it! My God, I thought to myself with not a slight bit of envy, have they no shame. Then a woman – fully clothed - emerged from the tent, addressing her partner inside with the same moans and grunts… using sign language. I laughed. I had been totally fooled.

Becoming Legal
Back in Egypt I had started making enquiries about bike insurance once in Europe. Unfortunately a recommended broker who undertook to arrange it online let me down, which meant that since Turkey I had been travelling without insurance (my strategy if challenged - through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovenia and Austria - was to produce the Turkish insurance and claim it covered me in Europe). ADAC is the German equivalent of the Automobile Association and, finding my way to one of their offices in downtown Munchen, with huge relief I paid over my €22 per month for their policy and rode away legal once more. And they threw in a few excellent roadmaps to get me to the north of France, the first decent ones I had since Addis Abeba (the rest being either photocopies or guide book maps. Oh, and the magnificent crush/tear/water-proof Riesse map of Turkey pressed on me by Roland in Damascus).

Triglav, Slovenia's highest peak.
Triglav 535 1

I Love France
Wishing to visit London en route, the shortest route, and most economical with no motorway charges, would have been through Germany and Belgium. However Brittany Ferries had kindly offered me passage on any of their routes to the UK which meant traversing the north of France to Caen in Normandy. While not a very direct route I wasn't averse to the prospect as I have a soft spot for visiting France. A long motorway ride brought me through Bavaria and into France by Strasbourg and as evening fell it was time to decide where to stop for the night. At a fuel stop, I asked about accommodation options, hoping for a recommendation, as in “Ahh yes, there's a charming, traditional Lorraine village down the road you just have to visit, with a cheap B&B.” But the middle aged lady behind the till wasn't much help. I recognised the name of Verdun from the map and asked about it. A look of confusion crossed the cashier's face. “Ehmm (or the French equivalent)… there's nothing there. It’s where the Maginot Line was, in the war. That's all.” My ignorance. Ok then, what about Metz not far away, a place of which I knew absolutely nothing but presumed to be a northern French industrial city to be avoided. “Yes, there are hotels there,” she responded without much enthusiasm.

I got lucky. Not only is Metz a beautiful, atmospheric and delightful city, the municipal campsite is very attractive set on the banks of the Moselle in the centre. And was only €7! Despite not having left Munich til lunchtime, it had been a long day, and after pitching my tent and then a shower, I was looking forward to treating myself. I was in France approaching the end of my journey. So it was with excitement I wandered into the old centre of this lovely French city, pedestrianised small streets crammed with tables and chairs, with the prospect of eating and drinking in Europe's home of quality food and wine.

Metz 300L 1
I stopped for a beer in an attractive looking café. The barman looked a fairy switched on character, mid thirties, beret, scrubby beard and portly, so I told him what I was looking for - interesting food, and a selection of wine by the glass. “I know just the place,” he responded giving me directions to Le Trapontin, where I enjoyed a glass of the nicest Riesling I've ever tasted (Zellberg by Julian Meyer). I was very happy with myself, hugely enjoying the experience sitting in the square under the floodlit, imposing Cathedral tasting various wines along with great Lorraine food. And finishing off with a few cognacs back at the bar, where I was greeted with an expectant smile, “Well?”
I love France.

The grey weather that had accompanied me the most part since I crossed into Europe from Istanbul, turned nasty in northern France. Eerily dark, a massive electrical storm broke, pretty quickly turning the motorway into a river. All around me articulated trucks continued to trundle past parting the waves, leaving me to cut through their wake. The visor was fogging up and streaked with rain making visibility wretched. These were not comfortable riding conditions on a bike. The first overpass I came to was a satisfactory shelter until the deluge passed over.

Bikers Travelling
Spotting a sign for Calais 130 kms, I made the decision there and then to make a bolt for it rather than continue another four or five hours in poor weather across to Caen, and so it was that evening I found myself on the ferry from Calais to Dover. While waiting at the port, I met a few other bikers, all travelling separately. Wilhelm, a tall bulky character in his early thirties, well groomed in top of the range riding gear, was on a new BMW GS1200. He actually worked as technical support for Sales in BMW and had arrived after riding the whole way from Munich that day! On hearing of my journey he was keen to have a look at the bike, and was impressed at its state. Also waiting to board was a slight, wiry Englishman in his late forties (I didn't get his name) with a midlands accent, who declared he was “secretary of the UK BMW owners club”, and was returning on his year old BMW F800 – a recent model - from putting it through its paces at the Nurbergring, the infamous race track in Germany that is open to the public. “Let me tell you”, he smiled. “I really put the bike through its paces. Pushed it hard, redlining it and it responded to everything. I am so impressed with this engine.” I told him of the Welshman I’d met at the top of the Vrsic Pass in Slovenia on his new F800GS, who’d sold his 1200GS on eBay and was very happy with his choice.

The third musketeer and the other end of the scale from the two other 'high tech' riders was straggly haired, battered, unfashionable looking Londoner Simon Rose, returning from a few weeks touring in Europe on his battered, unfashionable looking Moto Guzzi. Simon pointed out to me disembarking at Dover in the dark, my taillight was out and offered to follow behind me the couple of hours back to London. Which was very generous as my cruising speed of 100 kph was significantly less than his. Things were fine for a while until flashes from cars coming up behind us were confusing me, and after half an hour we pulled into the first fuel station. Simon's taillight was also gone! That was some coincidence. We managed to buy a couple of bulbs luckily off an AA van stopping for fuel, sorted the problem, and continued to London, Simon roaring off ahead.

London, and An Old Africa Hand
And so it was I eventually arrived in London after midnight, pulling up outside South African friends' very comfortable terraced house in Clapham - a bunch of coloured balloons tied to the gate in welcome!

Street in Venetian influenced Piran, Slovenia
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Back in the English-speaking world it was all so familiar. Yet strolling through the busy streets the following day, everyone going about their London business, I felt as a stranger apart from it all, looking in from the outside. One of my visits was to Exodus the travel company and a previous employer, and a catch-up chat with operations manager, Phil Normington, a veteran of a decade on the road back in the early days of over landing. The organization had changed since I was there, becoming increasingly successful with more up market, shorter activity based holidays.

My boss when I was in Exodus, 'Uncle Phil' was seen by some as fairly strict, an old school expedition leader when bringing a truck through Africa in the seventies was a lot more of an 'expedition' than it is today. Phil had a store of war stories about his time in Africa and was delighted to recall countries I had been through - such as Sudan, one of his favourites. We compared notes on the incredible hospitality of the Sudanese, my crossing of the Nubian Desert and his experiences getting a truckload of passengers, dangerously low on food and water, through South Sudan. A roadblock of Sudanese cattle rustlers who were “stark naked” except for their automatic weapons, was one memory. "We drove as fast as we could and told everyone in the back to lie on the floor."

We swapped muddy Congo stories, agreed
that desert road in northern Kenya may be overrated, and discussed the bike's performance - Phil also rides a bike - and on and on. I'm sure the other - younger - 'travel executives' in the open plan office didn't know what to make of these tales. As we shook hands departing Phil congratulated me again, remarking it was good to see there were still people around attempting the type of adventure I'd undertaken. Coming from him, that was gratifying.

Church on hill 300L 1
Revisiting The Monastery
After being welcomed and looked after so well in London it was time for the final push across Britain to the ferry and the completion of the trip. But before that, there was a necessary visit I had to make. Leaving Kilkenny over a year and half ago, my first port of call was to Holy Cross Abbey, the Cistercian monastery where my aunt is a nun in that contemplative order. The small community there had given me a lovely send off back then, and it was important to me to complete the circle as it were. The closer I got to the monastery in South Wales, the more the memories of departing came back. It was hard to believe that it was only just over a year and half ago.

What kind of a conceit was this undertaking?
So much had happened since leaving here at 4 am in the dark of a December morning in the rain and high winds on my way down to Plymouth and the ferry. I had been filled with excitement and anticipation, but also trepidation. What kind of a conceit was this undertaking? Had I any idea what I was letting myself in for heading down the largely untravelled west coast of Africa hoping to get to Cape Town?

No. I was affecting a role of 'a guy whose planning to motorbike through Africa' because that is what I was proposing to do. Yet on what grounds? Basically, someone who wasn't a 'biker' and certainly not an off-road, enduro rider; who has demonstrated little mechanical interest (not completely stupid so learned what I had to); who tends toward a cavalier approach to preparation and thoroughness (complete opposite to my dad); who displayed perhaps at times a slightly naive attitude to risk; who meant to learn navigation by compass properly (have an idea from long ago, but can't remember); who rode three quarters of the way around the continent before learning how to use his GPS given him by BMW (it was fine the arrow just showing me what direction I was going! Otherwise there was always someone about to try and ask directions), I could go on.

Riding through Europe - on the last leg of the whole thing - I had been reflecting on the journey, what I had managed to do. And realised the amusing thing is that someone who is not a practiced 'adventurer', or risk taker, or particularly courageous, managed - on his own - to ride a motorbike from Kilkenny down the west coast of Africa to Cape Town, and back up the other side. Living on my wits at times, and certainly an amount of 'chancing my arm'. Bike and rider returned in one piece, and there is a web site account. And most of all -
it was a great adventure!

I knew I was profoundly grateful for my good fortune that things didn't go wrong the many chances they could have; my good fortune to have had the opportunity to undertake the trip; and much appreciated the help from others both before and during it. (A report on the equipment and gear I used, as well as various services offered, is the next - and final - update with comments on performance.)

Nuns 350 1
The End
It was lovely to see my aunt again, and receive a warm welcome from the others in the community. The few days spent in the quiet surrounds of the convent with little in the way of distractions was a useful way to acclimatize and get my bearings. This was the end of living over a year and a half on the road. No more hot sun, continuous destinations, exotic cultures, waking up in a different place every morning, packing the bike and moving on. No more constant change – a dangerously intoxicating lifestyle. My primary daily concerns tended to be the basics of food, shelter and travel. Everything I needed was carried with me on the bike (how ancillary all my ‘stuff’ in boxes at home). I would miss the uncertainties, the anxieties about the bike or route ahead, and – more – I would miss the satisfactions of overcoming them. Above all I would miss the challenge, the sense of mission, to get my bike and me around Africa and back home. Now it was over.

It was with a feeling of nostalgia I rode the bike for the last day on my journey, the next adventure – non-travel - awaiting. As a guest of the nice people in Irish Ferries, I rode onto the
Isle of Inishmore in Pembroke and off four hours later in Rosslare, onto the land of Ireland to be greeted by my brother and parents waiting for me. Welcome home.