A short video of an amazing long weekend discovering South Wales
With 3 days to go I can report that we are 95% ready to go! We’ve had a rehearsal of packing and it all fits in our four 36 litres panniers. Personally I wish they weighed a little less; each of my panniers weighs in at 8kg. To be fair, I am quite proud that all my possessions fit into one pannier. The other has a tent in it! So not bad.
Weather forecast for the next few days isn’t great. Can you believe that the prediction for Madrid the day we’ll get there is 15C with rain!? Is that even legal in Spain?
With 10 days left before we head out South it was time to have our bikes checked over one last time by a professional. Although we trust our bikes it makes sense to have full confidence in them. We do like to get our hands dirty, as a matter of fact we serviced the bikes a few weeks back but we’re not qualified enough to check valve clearances…
So off we were, bright and early to bring the bikes to our local mechanic, Chas Bikes in Kennington. Chas runs his bike garage with a philosophy we really appreciate. He will always make sure his mechanics don’t do unnecessary work but will also give good, balanced advice on what needs to be done. He’s also keen to help and has shown a lot of interest in our trip. This morning Louise got him chatting a bit and it turns out he’s had his share of adventures himself; he was born in Africa and lived there for many years, working at some point as a ranger in Idi Amin’s Uganda. He also drove a car all the way to Beijing!
Louise shared her family’s history in Uganda and promised to bring back pictures of elephants in Murchison Falls, where Chas had worked on an elephant conservation project 30 years ago.
As we arrived at the garage though my bike died on me… same as last night in pouring rain. The problem is a short-circuit which made the fuse blow, not a big deal but it needs to be sorted out. I suspect it has something to do with the amateur wiring I’ve done to link the auxiliary power point… mea culpa.
This is the reason I chose a BMW F650 for our trip to the Gambia…
Anyone who dreams of faraway travels on a motorcycle will be familiar with Horizons Unlimited; the website set up by Susan and Grant Johnson for adventure bikers to share their stories. It is a real goldmine; from tips on how to pack light to intelligence about border crossings, everything you need to know is recorded there somewhere. I find that I visit the site at least once a day and I wonder how many hours of labour were “wasted” on it by office-bound professionals like me…
But once a year what you read on your computer screen becomes reality for a weekend when travellers meet in Ripley to inspire each other and make new friends. The 2012 edition was the first Louise and I participated in and we excitedly packed our panniers on the Thursday night in view of a “nice” ride to Ripley along the scenic M1. We were wound up because, in addition to the good times ahead, this would be our first day’s ride on our new motorcycles with most of the kit we will be taking to West Africa. A good opportunity to find out what works and what can be improved (see below).
Our ride up was accompanied by an unusual appearance of the sun; you know, that big ball of fire we last saw in April…yes that… until we entered the village of Ripley where we felt the first drops of what would become a very wet weekend. We were greeted by the very welcoming team of volunteers and quickly made our way to the campsite to pitch our tent before the downpour and then headed to our first seminar. The programme for the weekend was excellent; the only regret was that there were so many sessions we wanted to attend but so little time to do them all. We did make the most of those we went to and I particularly enjoyed Dave Lomax’s session “Overweight is Under Prepared”. It is unbelievable how light Dave travels; the sum of his possessions (clothing, medical kit, toolkit, tent, etc etc) all fit into a Giant Loop bag which he throws on the back of his Suzuki DRZ…that’s probably the size of only one of my panniers! Dave takes things to the extreme (he’s the first to admit it), going as far as drilling holes into his toothbrush to save weight. But he is a great source of inspiration for all of us. I have to admit that I now make it a personal challenge to travel as light as possible. We all love gadgets and that’s usually the reason why we overload our bikes, but travelling light and a love for gadgets are not incompatible. I would argue the contrary actually; adding the “lightweight” factor in our search for cool farkles makes it more interesting to find a solution that is both lightweight and multipurpose.
In preparation to the time we will spend in Morocco we attended Tim Cullis’ session. We are lucky enough to know Tim personally and he’s already given us his time to help us prepare our trip but his session was extremely interesting. Tim is a reference when it comes to riding in Morocco and I would suggest that anyone who likes adventure travel should read his website Morocco Knowledgebase. Morocco is unbelievably beautiful and welcoming and it also happens to be relatively close to the UK, so it is a big favourite. I have travelled through Morocco for 10 days in a Land Cruiser a few years ago but Tim’s presentation of all the different regions supported by pictures and videos proved there is so much more to see.
Ripley 2012 was a great opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. We caught up with Alex Jackson from Kaapstad Motorcyle Adventure tours. We first met Alex at the Adventure Travel Film Festival last year and within minutes we were looking at a map of South Africa and taking notes of all the routes to ride, places to stay at and t people to meet. There’s no doubt that our trip was made unforgettable thanks to his knowledge. Alex told us fascinating stories of his last trip including him spotting tracks of an elusive small wild cat on the Prince Albert Pass. Alex is a ranger and is training to get his field guide qualification (bushcraft) soon so that he can take his clients to the bush for some wildlife spotting after having guided them on the best motorcycle roads in the country. Talk about a complete package! We also met a great Dutch couple, Els and Merijn, who have travelled on two bikes through Africa and Asia. They had really entertaining stories to tell and were very inventive; they had a built their aluminium panniers themselves using “old” traffic signs and did a great job too; but they had a few insights to share, the best being that they had to dull their panniers because they were much too reflective! Els’ Transalp is something to be seen; she had it decorated by artists in Pakistan who covered it in a mosaic of tiny stickers to make it look like the decorated trucks of that country. We also had the pleasure to talk with the legendary Sam Manicom whose books I highly recommend and the incredibly funny Ed March who rides the world on his C90 and has the time of his life. Ed told a funny story of being handed an orange from a truck while riding in Iran, he explained how difficult it is to do but after seeing him riding while playing a synthesizer (!?) I’m confident he was up for the job!
We had a great time in Ripley and the 2 months worth of rain that fell on us did nothing to dampen our spirits. We are looking forward to next year and feel even more eager to depart on our trip to Banjul. Thanks need to be given to the Horizons Unlimited community which we are very happy to be part of. See you on the road!
Things I learnt during the weekend:
– My bike handled terribly on the way up and I quickly realised that, unlike my Nomad 1600, the F650 is sensitive to how you load it. I rearranged my cases, putting the heavy gear at the front of the panniers so as to be close to the middle of the bike and that improved things. I also realised that I had to do something about the suspension, it was set very high (9cm taller in the back than Louise’s bike). So I dropped it by 4 centimetres and it handles much better.
– Carry a mini bicycle pump. Dave Lomax’s tip; they’re small and light and if they can pump 100psi into your bicycle tyre, they can handle the 40psi of your motorcycle. Mine fits nicely under my seat.
– A tea towel will do. Another tip from Dave; no need to carry a bulky towel to dry yourself; tea towels fold to nothing and will do the trick (to be confirmed).
– A two-man tent is a bit small for two adults. My head and feet touched the canvas and I found it difficult to get in or out. I bought a Vango Sigma 300+ three man tent with two doors and patios, it folds down to only a little more than the 2 man tent. It does weigh a little more but I’ll compensate that by drilling holes in Louise’s toothbrush…
– It pays dividend to get a quality sleeping bag and a silk liner. Mine is a Blacks Ledge 400 and I’m very happy with it. It folds down very small and kept me (too) warm when the outside temperature was about 8 Celsius.
A video insight of the weekend edited by Louise and me:
Today we booked our one way ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Santander! Departure date 31 October; destination: Banjul, the Gambia!
It feels like a milestone in the preparation for our 5 weeks trip down to the Gambia through Spain, Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal. Committing to a departure date really brings home the reality of it all. However, it’s not our first step. In the last couple of months we’ve been budgeting for the trip, we met with expert Morocco adventure biker Tim Cullis for tips, sold our beloved chrome-laden bikes and bought two dual sports.
It was a sad day when my Nomad 1600 was picked up by a lucky eBayer; Chris showed up with his brother in law and quite frankly, the happiness and enthusiasm that radiated through his smile when he saw his new acquisition made my heartbreak much more bearable. The Nomad was going to a good home. Same for the W650; it sold in a matter of hours and it went to a great home too. Mark and his dad, a retired lorry engineer, picked it up during the Jubilee weekend and from our discussions I knew the bike would be well cared for.
So that left us bike-less. Or should I say we were now on the market for new toys. As I explained in the previous post we were looking for two F650 Funduros. From my research I knew that it was a very competent bike which should be ideal for the trip we had planned. It is also a model that can be snatched up quite cheap second-hand if you shop around cleverly. My requirements, to avoid any nasty surprise, was that the bikes should have no more than 25k miles on them, have a full service history and preferably recent tyres.
Our new mounts
Our first acquisition was my bike. I found a nice silver F650 from 2000 with full service history, new bearings, recent tyres and only 20K on the clock. It also had a new Hagon rear shock and was located about 3 miles away from home. The second was a red, 1996 model with full service history, Givi high screen, lower suspension, 26k miles and brand new Metzeler Tourance tyres. Having shopped cleverly (read “stealth ebay bidding”) we managed to get both bikes for roughly the price we sold the W650 for. Not a bad deal.
The only problem with Louise’s bike (other than having “PEE” in its registration) was that is was situated in the Peak District, some 170 miles from home. That didn’t discourage us though, the effort required to pick it up would be offset by the reassuring knowledge that we had bought a good bike. The trek back to London was indeed a real effort though. We rode 2 up for about 5 hours, most of it on the boring M1, with showers and a very strong side wind; Horrible riding conditions but it gave us the opportunity to get some good first impressions of the bike.
First off, the F650 is not comfortable for pillions. Not at all. It was no surprise that I was cramped with my long legs but Louise, who has spent quite a few miles on the back seat of bikes (albeit big cruisers), was quickly in pain, her knees seized and she suffered cramps in her legs and a stiff back.
On the other hand, the rider’s position is great! The “sit-up-and-pray” type of position, with the wide handlebars makes for a very natural and comfortable set up. We also noticed that the bike, despite its diminutive 48bhp, is great on highways. First of all the riding position gives the rider a lot of control and great field of vision; the bike is very stable at 70mph and the engine loves being in the 3500-4000rpm range, where it is at 70mph in 5th gear. I was also impressed by the lack of vibrations at highway speeds; I didn’t expect such comfort from a 650cc single cylinder.
Another thing I noticed was how much more stable Louise’s bike was compared to mine; it was so much more composed in corners and in the rain that I thought maybe there was something wrong with mine. I quickly pinned it down to the difference in tyres. My bike was equipped with Bridgestone Trail-Wings which some have coined the “Death-Wings”, while Louise had the much acclaimed Metzeler Tourance tyres. Wow, what a difference! So much so that I quickly ditched my Death-Wings and replaced them with Tourances.
So far we are both very happy to have chosen the F650 Funduro. We still have to take them on long distance trips but our first impressions are really good. We have managed to find a bike that is comfortable for both of us, is well built and promises to be more than adequate on gravel roads in addition to being a good solo touring machine.
Bits, Bobs and Gadgets
Naturally we couldn’t keep the bikes as they were. We had to add some bits necessary for a long touring trip but also some gadgets to make the bikes more practical.
The first additions were panniers. There are endless discussions on the web about the best type of panniers for an overland trip. Basically the discussion revolves around the following questions; which is the most robust in case of a crash and which is the safest against theft? The options are aluminium, plastic or soft textile panniers. We decided to go for second hand Givi Monokey plastic ones. The reasons behind our choice were that we didn’t want to spend more than £1000 per set on aluminium panniers and we felt that textiles panniers might be too vulnerable to the occasional thief walking around with a pair of scissors in his hands. We chose to go with Givi plastic panniers because they have a proven reputation for toughness and longevity and in case they cracked in a fall we could always repair them with some gaffer tape or super glue. The price with mounting hardware was also about 8 times cheaper than aluminium panniers so the decision was pretty simple. Time will tell if it was a good decision but I am pretty confident that they will be more than adequate for the mild off-roading we will do on this trip.
Second were heated grips for Louise. My bike came with factory installed heated grips which I am very happy about. It’s my first bike with them and I will definitely have them on all my future bikes. As I explained in a previous post, heated grips are a godsend in cold weather. The heat keeps your hands cold and radiate through your arms… I even suspect that if you have good blood circulation the heat can reach all the way up to your shoulders and prevent them from seizing. We bought the same Roxter heated grips which we had installed on the W650. They are a bit longer than the stock grips which means that I’ll have to do a bit of DIY in order to fit the bar end weights back on.
Any serious touring bike must have some gadgets on it. One that I am particularly fond of, eventhough I hardly every use, is a power supply. I’ve installed a fused all-weather USB plug on my bike. The USB is actually a very versatile plug as it seems that all our electronic devices (intercom, camera, iPhone etc) can be charged with a USB cable. On Louise’s bike I installed a 12V waterproof cigarette lighter power socket. With this we’ll be able run any device which can be plugged into a car’s power socket. I’m thinking in particular of a 12V tyre inflator pump which will come handy to keep the right pressure in our tyres but also when we have a puncture.
We are taking the bike to the Horizons Unlimited meeting in Ripley next week and that will give us a good first run with the bike laden with our camping equipment. We’ll also have 3 days to meet as many adventure riders as possible and get all the tips and recommendations we can hope for for our trip.