Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Travel Tales: Triumphant Travels

It was pouring with rain the day we left for Dover, more like the dead of night really, it being 2.30am. Did someone mention summer? I don’t know about July, it could just as well been January.

Even before we arrived at Dover we were soaked, luckily our waterproofs kept the worst off for a long time, otherwise I dread to imagine how bad it could have been. The M25 appeared quite busy with traffic, which surprised us at that hour of the morning. Wished they would give us more room, I kept muttering to myself as they sprayed us with constant filth, plus an empty Coke can which came hurtling at us from a passing coach.

But we arrived in Dover in good time and made our way to the front of the waiting vehicles. There were a group of gleaming Jap bikes waiting entrance to a different ship some way off - one owner fussing around with a yellow duster. A stark contrast to the Bonnie (I was on pillion), we had not yet crossed water and it was a grimy mess - Tom hadn’t cleaned it in ages on the principle that if it was touched something was bound to go wrong. Needless to say, the owners of the Jap jobs sniggered at us. It was about this time that we heard the familiar thud of another Brit - hear it we could, see it we could not. However, once on board the ferry, the machine turned out to be a Norton Dominator 88, a well restored fifties model that was ridden every day. The couple who owned it were on the way to Bavaria, a trip they had made on the Norton many, many times. I was delighted to see another Brit bike on the ferry, as the previous year when Tom and I went to Rome, a group of Jap bikers were astounded that we were attempting the trip on our Triumph "Rome - on that?" - they had shouted before breaking into fits of laughter.

Did someone say dry land? When we docked the heavens opened, it bounced off the cobblestones, great sighs rang out from our fellow passengers. Luckily, we were dressed for the awful weather but the couple on the Norton were not so fortunate, and after riding together for a few kilometres we finally went on ahead. It soon brightened up and so did our spirits as we rode through Brussels sight-seeing as we frantically looked for road signs. After we had passed the same Bank of Oman for the third time, I knew more than to ask what Tom was he up to - I rather thought that me telling him we’d gone around the centre of Brussels three times wouldn’t go down too well at that moment.

Then it happened, the thing I’d been expecting all along - blue smoke rose out of the bone dome before me and words that you don’t find in the dictionary filled the immediate atmosphere. My vivid imagination had us going around Brussels in circles for the three weeks duration of the hols.

Riding around in circles is pretty tiring work, we found a service area with ample parking and crashed out on the grass for half an hours kip. I was abruptly awoken by the feel of something quite alien being poked in. my left ear. This brought me to my feet in a state of hysteria, as my imagination in that split second ran wild. I don’t know who was more scared - me or the small child with a toy machine gun! Meanwhile, my better half carried on sleeping.

We finally exited Brussels, much to our relief, and spent the first night camped just outside March, a small but well run site. That evening as we settled down it began to rain but by morning it had ceased. Sunday, we rode through Luxembourg, with no problems, into Germany, camping that night at a municipal campsite at Karlsruhe. Here we pitched tent next to another English couple from Sunderland, who were both on Yamaha XJ600s covered in sponsor’s stickers. They had sold up everything, carrying all they possessed to Australia, a trip they hoped to make in nine months.

Their intention was to visit imprisioned British subjects along the way. The bloke was having terrible problems getting his Yam to charge, so they’d be lucky to get out of Germany. One up for British iron. The weather turned had again, very low cloud base and constant drizzle that depresses you after a short time. For a couple of days I hadn’t felt too well, with the constant dampness I was beginning to wish we’d stayed at home. Everything we touched was wet and to make it even more desperate we found it difficult to find somewhere to stop for the night in Austria as we hadn't seen a town or village for what seemed like an eternity. People tell me that Austria is a beautiful country. I would not know, for every day we spent in the country, both on the way and coming back, we had rain, fog and a terrible coldness.

That night we pitched our tent behind a service station with quite a number of other travellers. The clouds were only just above, it was eerie, in places they cut out the view of the road ahead - we knew mountains loomed above and around us, but not until morning were we able to see them finally, it was a remarkable and impressive sight.

The following day we rode hard and crossed the Austrian/Yugoslav border late in the morning. Trouble, as usual, at the border with our passports. Tom left me with the bike and was directed into the border control office to sort out the problem. Alone, a border guard demanded that I move the bike, impossible with so much luggage piled on board - I flatly refused, he became irate and l upped my voice to match his until I told him rather rudely where to go... seeing his gun, I smiled sweetly and hoped like hell he didn’t understand English.

Through the customs at last, it was late in the afternoon before we reached Porec. A number of years earlier we had visited there on one of those package tours and had a marvellous time. But staying in one of those lovely hotels, you only see what the Slav Tourist board want and think you should see; already, I had noticed a large difference. The campsite that night was appalling, and that was putting it mildly, we were disgusted an so must’ve been the other 25000 campers - and that’s no exaggeration! At nine that night, without any warning, they turned off all the water supply; the smell from toilets that couldn’t be flushed was soon overpowering. After the rains of the other countries, we’d arrived in Yugoslavia during one of the hottest summers on record - which was a kind of compensation. Late that evening, just as we’d settled down, we could hear someone messing about outside, but whoever it was got their just deserts as they set off the home-made alarm system fitted to the Triumph. The alarm is deafening and the flashing indicators make it look like Blackpool illuminations. Half the campsite were awoken, so we had to make a hasty exit at first light the next day.

The roads in Yugoslavia leave an awful lot to be desired. In some places they couldn’t even be called roads, just dirt tracks. Luckily, we never found ourselves on too many of them. We decided to head south from Porec. At Pazin we stopped for some shopping in a supermarket - one of the best we found - the majority don’t stock much at all, and tinned food is hard to obtain in many places.

It was a bright morning, not yet too hot, we sat down at the edge of the road next to the bike with some fresh orange juice and a packet of biscuits. We were enjoying our break in the centre of a pleasant town when two police men came along and moved us to the other side of the road, pointing to a large sign that meant absolutely nothing to us, but it probably accounted for the funny looks we had been given by some locals.

Still heading south, we passed through Yugoslavia’s largest sea port of Rijeka, an enormous place and very smelly. Eventually we found a rather pleasant campsite at Bakr, situated near the sea, where we stopped for three nights enjoying the change from riding every day. Here we met a Dutch couple, older than us, who kind of adopted us for some unknown reason and we found that we got along very well together.

One car ride we went on with them I’d rather forget, the man drove like a maniac through narrow mountain roads. My stomach wasn’t happy and even Tom’s knuckles were white at times. We also met a charming Swiss chap who was on a pushbike and was cycling to Malaya to find himself a wife - he was so proud of his pushbike that it shared his one man tent. Guess it takes all kinds.

Next, we headed for Plitvice and the National Parks. Some of the scenery on the way was astounding. We found an excellent site, the grounds of the park and the amenities couldn’t be faulted. Set in rolling hills, surrounded by lush greenery and a soft breeze that helped with the heat, we thought finding this spot a great bonus.

We met another English couple on a GTR1000. That night we got sloshed, some more than others I might add. They on whisky and Tom and I on brandy. Tom could not remember a thing about it the following morning.

Lunch-time, the beautiful weather broke and the heavens poured forth with all their might. For 24 hours we were caught in one constant thunderstorm. It never let up once. We suddenly knew why the undergrowth was such a lush green. It hurt to go out into the rain, its force was so strong. The following day it stopped just as suddenly as it had started. Everywhere was a sea of mud. We knew then that we would have to go back down south again, the heat was preferable to the awful weather.

The English couple had told us about a lovely little spot that they'd found by accident just off the Rijeka to Split road, so we decided to give it a try. Tom headed the Triumph in the direction of Senj then out to Jurjevo and about a mile after that was a tiny turn off, the road twisting down to the water. We had difficulty believing what we saw. It could only be described as a small oasis amidst a burning wasteland.

Fig trees hung everywhere, their juice falling onto the bike and tent. Fresh water springs served as excellent ice boxes for the beer. The sun burned down, we could believe the stories of the heat wave further south in nearby Greece which was killing so many people. Instead of cooling down it became hotter, until we hardly dared venture out of the shade of the fig trees during the day - it was far too hot to sunbathe. We couldn’t win, we either had rain and cold further north or baking heat that began to make us feel ill. Other trips we’d done we hadn’t met with these sharp contrasts in weather. The decision was a hard one, but in the end we opted to ride back north - Austria, to Vienna in an attempt to gain some education.

Our first stop after entering Austria again was at Hartberg, a charming town with the campsite in the centre, which meant we could wander around the town that evening in search of a decent bar - I have never known us drink so little whilst on holiday, apart from the night with the brandy. My poor liver felt like it too was having a holiday, that would never do.

All day it rained on and off, and that evening just as we settled down to sleep the heavens opened once again - thankfully we had pitched near the loos after a night on the beer. I felt so bloody sick when I awoke to the sound of rain on the tent. It had not let up all night, packing up the bike would be a sod. In fact, we put on our waterproofs over the leathers, and our crash hats on, before venturing outside that morning. The less we bared to the elements the better - we did receive some strange looks from the people camped, nearby in their dry caravans. I won’t repeat what I was thinking at that moment.

It rained for the remainder of the day. In Baden we enquired at the Tourist Office about campsites and they directed us up the road to Laxenberg where we camped in the castle grounds. Here we became friendly with a German on a Yam who towered above us, both over six foot.

The next day was Saturday when we planned to go into Vienna sightseeing and to visit the Natural History Museum, one of the largest in the world. We stayed there until overpowered by the smell of decay, and headed for lunch in a Chinese restaurant in a tiny back street right in the heart of Vienna - we’d been warned about the expense of Viennese fare. Looking dark and dingy from outside, it turned out to be the best Chinese food we’d ever tasted.

Feeling rosy after the meal and drink, we set off again to explore old Vienna. The architecture is stunning in places, and the horse drawn carriages give a feeling of antiquity as they appear at virtually ever street comer. Goods in the shopping centres were very expensive. Ducking down into a subway to cross a busy junction, we found a whole new mass of shops. Everything was fine until I decided to go to the loo.

I gaily rushed into what appeared an oldie worldie type of convenience and into one of the loo cubicles. The door jammed solid, refusing to move any further than half way. How odd. Into the next one I ambled and the same thing happened. Before I’d realised what horse had kicked me, this enormous female grabbed me by the arm and bodily pulled me out of the cubicle. Whilst I was trying to figure out what was happening, fists started flying, hitting me with a powerful force. The fists kept coming and at the same time I could feel the occasional pain in my legs. Then she began trying to insert her hands into my jacket pockets.

"Good God," I remember thinking only I could get mugged in Vienna, and by the bloody lavatory attendant. I knew I would never live this down. The previous year when we had taken the Triumph to Rome we’d trod some of the most shadiest and seediest of back streets and we were always treated with respect. Then we go to Vienna and bingo - whallop! It eventually emerged that you were supposed to pay before using the toilets. Although I can laugh about this episode now, at the time I felt rather shaken and consequently the remainder of the day was spoilt.

During the short ride from Vienna to Laxenberg strange noise began to emerge from the engine. Tom almost crashed a couple of times as he strained his neck in order to peer at the engine whilst riding at the same time. Several times, whilst his head was somewhere down near the engine, I had a few frights with oncoming traffic - it happens to be very unsettling indeed sitting pillion when the rider’s head disappears and all one can see is the traffic coming at you from the opposite direction, the bike is wandering across the road and there isn’t a darn thing you can do about it but thump the person in front of you, Which in my case didn’t go down too well.

Back at the cam site, Tom unpacked his store of tools which he had brought with him on the trip and set to work, It was beginning to darken overhead and we prayed the rain would hold off long enough for him to get the job in hand finished and the problem of the noise sorted out. The primary chain tensioner had broken, so improvisation had to be made. He carved up a small block of wood that he found lying around and inserted it in the casing to hold the tensioner in place. A bit Heath Robinson, but it did the job remarkably well. In fact, the bike is still running this way. Luckily, the rain held off until we’d packed our tools. The rain was so bad that we decided to head back home - we still had another week to go but neither of us could face any more of the awful bloody weather.

The Sunday we left it was so wet and the sky so black we knew we had made the right decision. We were on the outskirts of Vienna and we calculated if we rode hard enough we could be back in our own house on the Tuesday. From leaving Vienna to arriving near Oxford we encountered constant rain the entire journey, it was a sod of a ride.

We didn’t stop until mid-afternoon on the Sunday, when Tom pulled the bike to a halt in a pull-off area which was over hung with trees forming a natural canopy above us. We brewed up a steamy hot cuppa of tea and just as the kettle was coming to a boil our German friend turned up on his Yam. We thought we were wet, he couldn’t have been more wet if he’d just emerged from a river. We received more odd looks from car drivers, you could read their thoughts in their astonished faces.

That night we couldn’t find anywhere to stop, because of the atrocious weather conditions all the hotels and boarding places were full. From town to town we rode, no joy, the only one we did find that had vacancies were asking an arm and a leg. At around midnight we stopped to refuel, taking the opportunity to find dry, or should I say drier, socks. Our boots were running with water, our gloves, even though covered with waterproof mittens, had still managed to become soaked - my hands were dyed black for a week. God knows what people thought as we sat on a dry step in the garage forecourt with our towels and Johnson’s baby powder as we tried to get our feet as dry as possible before covering them with plastic bags and putting them back into soaking boots. Double pneumonia here we come.

There was nothing for it but to travel through the night, staying over at service cafes as long as we dared before travelling on to the next one. I think we had about 3 or 4 cups of tea in each one, leaving after only our long stay on their premises became too conspicuous. I don’t know about waterlogged, but we were definitely tea-logged. We rode all night, apart from these few stops, and then rode all the following day, stopping only to refuel and catch a quick bite to eat. By Monday afternoon we’d reached the town of March which had been our first stop the day we entered Belgium on the journey out.

We found an excellent supermarket and bought enough to have a good feast that night with a few bottles of wine to wash it down. We eventually crashed out about 8.30 that night, after leaving the outskirts of Vienna on the Sunday moming, rode without sleep through the remainder of Austria, into Germany, then on through Luxembourg and half way across Belgium.

Looking back, I honestly don’t know how we managed to ride so far without sleep in such awful conditions. Perhaps owners of Jap, German or Italian jobs will be saying so what. So what! You try doing it on a Triumph and being bloody deaf as a coot at the end of it and then say 'So What?'.

Tuesday morning we set off again, about 7.30am, still raining. We had to get to Ostend no later than 11am in order to catch the ferry. As we approached Brussels the rain stopped, but by the time we neared Ostend the rain reappeared with a vengeance. 

We were a few minutes late, but the ferry was still there, we couldn’t believe our luck. I can honestly say that the most memorable part of the trip was when the ferry company let us use our tickets a week early. Ten minutes later we were riding into the bowels of the vessel and dryness. We made it home to Oxford in the late afternoon, to a glorious hot and shining sun...

Pamela Myers

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