Back in town!

Just before Christmas Lloyd from Red Coat called me to say that our bikes were safe and sound in a hangar close to Gatwick. Unfortunately we couldn’t pick them up until the new year as we were abroad visiting family over the christmas break. We did make our way to the Red Coat hangar on a bleak January Monday morning and were welcomed by Lloyd’s helpful staff who showed us to our bikes and relieved us of the modest sum of £1400. If you consider that our 2 bikes were kept in a hangar for 6 weeks, made safe to fly, loaded on a plane, flown 6 hours, unloaded, parked at Gatwick, picked up and driven to Red Coat offices, I dare say it’s a cheap price!

The first thing we did was to put the mirrors back on and rewire the batteries which had been neutralised for the transport. We then filled in our tanks with the two 5L jerrycans we had brought with us and tried to start the bikes. Louise’s started straight away, as if it hadn’t been sitting empty and neglected in Africa for 6 weeks. Mine, on the other hand, didn’t make a sound. I was expecting that the cheap Chinese battery I had bought in Tan Tan would not last long and it hadn’t. To be fair, it had performed flawlessly between Tan Tan and Banjul so I couldn’t complain. The 6 weeks wait did kill it though. Lloyd and his staff were very helpful in trying to jump start it and push starting but it was obvious that I needed a new battery. Luckily enough there was a motorcycle dealer a few hundred meters away so I jumped on the back of Louise’s bike and we purchased a brand new, quality, Yuasa battery. After all, my F650 deserved a treat. She obviously appreciated the gesture and fired up instantly. It was a great feeling to be back on the bikes, in our yellow and pink hi-viz. I was again surprised at how good these BMWs are. So easy to work on and the level of comfort they provide for a 650cc single is incredible.

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The ride home through London traffic was a piece of cake after having dealt with Dakar! It felt really bleak and grey though and I felt nostalgia for the craziness and the explosions of colours and smells we’d experience on our trip through northern Africa. This did reinforce my belief that motorcycle travel is singular in that it enables the rider to experience the outdoors while having fun and covering good distance. I was also reinforced in my conviction that motorcycle “adventure” is easy. The biggest hurdle is to take the decision to leave. The bike, if it’s in decent shape, will take you where you want to go. No need to worry about it too much; you’ll always find a way to reach your destination and will meet many kind and colourful people on the way. You will also learn a lot and build a wealth of personal experiences which you will never regret.

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Welcome to Africa (23 October)

With the bikes sorted we made our plans to head south and make up for lost time. Destination Granada. Out of Madrid the roads started to become more interesting. Eventhough the wind was still strong and biting the sight of olive plantations along the road gave us the satisfaction that we were indeed making progress towards warmer climes. We then crossed the Sierra Nevada with its stunning snow covered mountain tops and arrived at our campsite for the night. We received a very warm welcome and were told that, had we arrived an hour earlier, there would’ve been paella for us…

We were glad we are carrying earplugs with us because the site was much closer to the busy road than we had expected!

Granada to Algeciras was a real high; the first part reminded us of the morning of our ride in California with Walt and Cindy Hastings as we could feel a Mediterranean air but were surrounded by low fog. This was followed by a 50km stretch in him drizzle until we came down the mountains and approached Malaga.

Here the weather became hot and the vistas opened up to a majestic Mediterranean Sea bathed in sun and populated by sailing boats. We both cheered in our intercoms; we had made it to the Mediterranean! Not a great achievement if you are used to driving down with the family for the summer but it was a real milestone for us on our 650cc bikes we commute to work with!

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We had planned to cross straight to Tangier but the ferry timetable dictated that we should land in Ceuta; the Spanish enclave on the Moroccan side. We had been warned of the touts who make the crossing a nightmare but frankly, with a big smile some jokes and a determined air we managed to be left in peace. I think that looking Moroccan helped too! In fact, the first thing I was asked when we got the bikes through customs was whether I am Moroccan; a question I was asked a 100 times during my last visit and have already been asked a dozen times in the last couple of days.

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Once I told the customs official “tonight in Chefchaouen and then all the way to The Gambia” he smiled, waved us through and wished us a safe voyage.

That’s where Africa began! As soon as we were on Moroccan soil things changed rapidly. The roadsides were populated by people selling everything and anything. Cars were mostly old Mercedes Benz 240 which had probably spent their youths as taxis in Germany but were now on a second or third life. Repair and reuse. People changed too, faces were darker, women wore veils and men robes. We also saw hundreds of sheep and goats whose days were clearly numbered (its Eid on Friday) and a few donkeys who probably wishes their end was nearer. Speaking of fauna, Louise spotted a camel! I didn’t though and am pretty upset with that; I usually spot things first…

So after a long day on the saddle we finally made it to the Rif mountains and the beautiful blue city of Chefchaouen. We found a guard for our bikes, Abdul, and our hostel for the next two nights, Riad Baraka. Funnily enough, as we were speaking to Joe, the owner, he told us that he gets adventure bikers now and then and asked us if we’d heard of “Tim Cullis who wrote a great review about this place which has increased business ever since. I over-heard him speak of Morocco and there’s no doubt this guy is an expert”.

So here we are, enjoying Chefchaouen for two nights. Unfortunately we have to go to Rabat tomorrow for a day or two to get our Mauritanian visas. We’ll take the small picturesque routes but it does mean that we’ll have to miss Tim’s recommended route to Fez.

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Africa or bust!

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.

First impressions

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.