Sunday, 4 March 2018

Travel Tales: Med Madness

The XZ550 had provided literally only hours of amusement before the contraption took to the garage. Many a time I was forced to take out the Mini battery and place it on the pillion seat before visiting a friend who lived less than three miles away.

However. before I had a chance to revive the 550, visions of far off lands overwhelmed me as I boarded a contraption in a similar state to the XZ, equipped to take 270 odd pillions, flown by a crazed assortment of Algerians to destinations only sought out by those with a severe lack of grey matter.

After several days of acclimatization, myself. Wooly and L-S emerged from the back streets of Algiers riding an assortment of home crafted two wheelers of too diverse a nature to give a name to, which would hopefully take us 6000 miles around the Mediterranean during the next three months.

Setif, our first destination was little more than a collection of cow sheds supported by the abundance of small fruit stalls. The only motorised vehicles to be seen were Renaults imported from France at highly inflated prices and clockwork Tomos and Peugeot mopeds pieced together and kept going by French dissidents who had chosen to remain in the country after the Algerian revolution.

Fear struck through us as we pondered whether or not we would have to learn Arabic. A language comparable to Braille for the limbless - virtually impossible. However, knowing of past French colonialism meant recall of hazy French lessons and purchase of a Frog dictionary solved that particular problem. Our journey continued eastward towards Constantine, dreaming constantly of a pair of knobblies as tyre changing had become a persistent agony, averaging a blow out every 3 hours.

Little effort was made to drive on the right side of the road as cars were few and far between. However, by the time we arrived in Tunisia our initial impression of the road users had changed somewhat, as on several occasions we had been forced off the road by huge Tunisian beer swilling lorry drivers only intent on delivering their cargo.

The roads were little more than tractor tracks, and as the socialist government was in such a state of disarray, the only map we had been able to get hold of was one which had been printed during the occupation of Algeria by the French. Riding became increasingly difficult as the roads deteriorated into gravel pits. Bikes generally were scarce, in almost one week the largest bike spotted was a three wheeler fitted with two 50cc engines. This truly reflected upon the limited intellect of the indigenous populace as to the best of their knowledge a GSXR1100 could simply be constructed by strapping 22 Tomos engines together!

Similarly, girls were scarce, the majority of them hidden under drapery known as sheets, as defined by their religion. Fuel consumption was averaging about 45mpg, but this could not be verified as tanks were filled up on a regular basis to avoid running out of petrol, as petrol stations were few and far apart.

We were warned about carrying fuel as a Land Rover with several days supply of petrol in plastic containers had blown up. Constantine, the largest settlement we had come across so far, was another urban sprawl cut off from the rest of the country by the huge rock foundations which surround the city. it was only when we were entering the city that I knew there was more to Algeria than initially meets the eye.

For before my gaze was an XZ550 in a similar condition to the one which had spent most of its working life as I'd known it in my garage. It seemed fit to see it in a country that persisted so hard to strive forward but had failed dismally. Bikes from here onwards were a rare and uncommon experience only ridden by those who indulged in the more sinister side of life or by the countless Europeans, in particular the Germans who would pass by on Teneres, Suzuki Dakars and those most fortunate few who rode BMW 1000GS twins.

Tunisia was on the verge of being westernised and was unfortunately showing all the tell-tale signs of the European race, something we had strived hard to leave behind. Theft, rudeness and begging which had played no part in the Algerian culture was only kept at bay by the swiftness with which we tried to leave the country.

The ferry port seemed the place to hang out, providing an assortment of high tech machinery as well as the odd Commando and BSA. However, the riders kept much to themselves, except one German declaring himself as a hardened desert biker, and an English dentist who went on and on about his LC days.

After three days of waiting for a ferry, having been propositioned and only narrowly missing a dodgy night with someone of the same sex, we were told that our passports had not been correctly stamped at the border and we would have to ride all the way back there. Furious swearing followed and we only retreated just in time to avoid being locked up. We left the British embassy to sort out the mess - the next week was spent in a grotty hotel and travelling down the tourist coast, infested by fat pampered American children only happy to lay amidst the heavily littered beach.

Much pleasure was found in visiting the Souk in Tunis where at least some tradition still remained. The night life was not to be missed... although bars closed at about eleven, intoxicating fluids and other dubious substances could be easily bought from dodgy hideaways.

If one was not partial to such things, and didn’t wish to spend the rest of one’s life in a rat infested jail, then the cinema was a safer bet - at least I thought so. until an Algerian turd burglar took a fancy to myself and friends, resulting in a quick exit to the Africano, a hotel for the grossly rich and affluent. We were thrown out almost before we'd crossed the threshold.

The following week, another ferry happened to be passing which was hailed down and stopped with due speed and boarded, but only after further mind blowing complications with the hostile Tunisian porkers who by now were seeing the funny side of it and were all too happy to delay our departure for as long as possible.

Sicily came and went within a week, providing beautiful scenery but lacking seriously in the two wheel variety of vehicles. Here we were accompanied by a sex starved German whose pastime was to make passes at local Italian girls during wedding receptions, raising his hands to the sky and announcing how much he would like to fuck them all.

ltaly, supposedly the land of Guzzis, Dukes and Laverdas, was full of Honda 50s, ridden by laid back, greased up poseurs, who if not trying to impress us on their scooters would be doing their best to aggravate us, which seemed to come naturally to the majority of them. The Amalfi Drive, probably the most beautiful region on the west coast of Italy, gave way to a host of holiday makers buying extortionately priced gimmicky replicas of the tower of Pisa and an VW van full of long haired English Frank Zappa fans.

We had so far covered over 2000km without having any problems with the bikes, except for the fact that my panniers had at some stage become fully acquainted with my rear wheel and deposited tubes of suntan lotion, pirate tapes and various souvenirs along the whole of the West Coast.

The evening was whiled away servicing the bikes and drinking several bottles of wine. We woke to the monotone buzz of the Piaggio vans and the hussle of the small market villages. We moved on quickly to a small village just 40km south of Rome where we encountered the first batch of motorcycles that couldn’t be mistaken for sewing machines. Here we introduced ourselves to an elderly Italian mechanic who was gentrifying a Guzzi 500 Single, identical to the one that featured in a past NEC bike show. He expected to sell it for about £2000. The rest of ltaly casually floated past, occasionally raising an eyelid to momentarily catch the rear end of a Z1300 or Le Mans , roaring by.

The southern French coast was the land of monster bikes and the odd scooter, but generally the smaller bikes were 750s. We either made friends with English runaways or were bought drinks by aged French war heroes who fascinated themselves by relaying their life history to us in a most monotonous manner, only bettered by those fascinated by the dulcet tones of The Smiths and Rick Astley. After three days the novelty of being in France were off and a boat was booked for Algiers. The crossing saw the previous day's food being given back to mother nature, whilst polite conversation was attempted with several people of the opposite sex who were on motorcycles.

Unwanted luggage and the bikes were left with a representative of the British Embassy, as we prepared to board another death trap which would take us over the Atlas mountains where the rocky desert stretched from its southern slopes way down past Tamanrasset, to sandy planes and hopefully our destination, Locus. After hitching across the desert, various disturbing adventures and running out of money we found ourselves back in town and after selling the bikes, we were on the plane, accompanied by the same assortment of crazed, intoxicated Algerians and Arabs.

The flight home was relatively peaceful compared to the events of the last three months and although we were relieved to have got back without suffering any major disasters there was also an understandable feeling of disappointment - a longing to do it all again! On returning home, much to my displeasure, I found the XZ550 hadn’t been stolen, as I had hoped, and that it would take the next three months before I realised that I would never get the confounded contraption running. Any offers will be warmly welcomed...

Harry Busby

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