Friday, 16 March 2012

Chapters 1 and 2


I have always been interested in adventure. Over the years I have climbed mountains, parachuted, had my private pilots licence, dived, sailed and done various adventurous pursuits (with various degrees of success I might add!). Motorcycling has been one of the later activities. Why motorcycles?  Firstly it is all a bit easier on the body as one gets a little bit older. This is of course on the assumption that one does not inadvertently part company suddenly with said machine!  Secondly, it does also require a bit of brain power - intellect you might say if that does not sound snobby. There is also, to me, an element of "man and machine" about motorcycling. Then if that is not enough justification in itself there is  the scenery and the absorption into the landscape you are passing through. On a bike you see much much more than in a car, bus or train. You are aware of nuances in the landscape, you smell the smells and you become more than just a tourist traveller. You are in the landscape rather than just observing it. Then there is the pleasure of planning and of planning well done.  Finally, and if that is not enough,  then there is the special allure of a long distance bike expedition. Thus are the reasons for this story and this little adventure.

How did this "ice to ice' story come about? Well the real genesis probably was at the wedding of my friend Ken's daughter, Frances, in Wellington about 5 years ago.  It's a good story. You see I got talking to Ken outside the church just before the wedding was due to start to take his mind off the nervousness of the day. Motorcycles seemed to be a good topic. We quickly got passed the inevitable "What are you riding now? "question and on more serious detail. "Have you ever thought of riding around Australia?" said Ken. "Well, yes" I said and then before all the qualifiers and ifs and buts and maybes came to my lips Ken was tapped on the shoulder and told the bride was about to arrive. The die was cast. Frances, it is all your fault. Now if you had been the traditionally late bride......

Now fast forward three years. It is Hanmer Springs in January 2010. I am meeting up with Ken and some of his Wellington riding friends who are having an annual trip through the Molesworth and Rainbow Valleys. Ken's job on that particular trip is camp mother. He is very good at it I might add but that is another story! The main purpose of the meet up was to start detailed planning for the round Australia trip to start in May of that year. It was crunch time! During the meal and over a few beers on the first night we got talking, as you do, about long distant bike trips in exotic and strange lands. A far away look came into my eyes. "I would like to do a trip right down though the Americas  some time" I bravely volunteered as one is prone to do to a group of blokes after a days riding, a full belly and a few beers. There was a brief silence, then came the comment  "Well, perhaps you had better do Australia first and that should get it out of your system."

                                                     My mate Ken on the Australia trip.

So hi, ho, on that basis it was a case of off to Australia we go!  From May to August 2010 Ken and I travelled 23,000km around Australia by motorbike. We went right around the outside and up into the Red Centre. What a great trip and my goodness what a big country! We had a ball. However towards the end it was apparent there was a problem a'coming down the tracks towards us. You see, dear reader, the object of going round Australia was to get this ridiculous idea out of our system that geriatric old fellas should do long distance bike rides. But it was all backfiring on us (to pinch a motorcycling phrase).  Instead of getting it out of out system we were getting it in our system! Long distance riding was becoming addictive! And even worse there was no known addiction therapy available  for this malady. How serious it was becoming was apparent in our final parting remarks in the car park of Hubbard Foods. As Ken saddled up to head south for the final leg I went to say as my last words "great trip, mate" as he prepared to depart but the words came strangely out of my lips as "until next time, mate." And lo and behold, would you believe, at exactly the same time the exact same words came out of Ken's mouth . The die was cast. The rest would be just detail.

WHY "ICE TO ICE?"                                                                     Tripping around Australia

Why not?  As mentioned the idea was to 'do' the Americas. So what exactly does that mean? Well, I think if you are going to do something you might as well do it properly. This truism, I think, has served me well for the making of breakfast cereals so it should apply to motorcycle rides also. However the Americas, unlike Australia, are not exactly round so 'around' seemed out of the question. But, allowing for a few zig zags and diversions, the full monty Americas are long from top to tail, 45,000km long in fact! So hence the idea of 'ice to ice' i.e dipping one's toe in the Arctic ocean at Prudhoe Bay and then the next time (without taking ones socks off!) dipping one's toe in the Antarctic ocean at the end of South America. This is virtually as close as you can ride or drive to both the North Pole and the South Pole as far as I know.

This is always the fun bit!. On some of my not so good adventures in the past this has been the best bit and it has all turned to custard from there! However that will not be the case with this trip. I repeat, this will not be the case with.......... !!!!
It was obvious that on a trip of this magnitude some serious planning would be required.  First up it was apparent that two gringos travelling through Central and South America on motorcycles should learn to speak some Spanish.  So over the last few months there has been a lot of "Holas" as an aged brain rises to the challenge of a new language. I cannot quite trill the Spanish "r's" yet but we are getting there and I can now, with great pride, ask for a table for two on the second floor ( and even next to the window please!). This of course will be very useful for tricky border crossings in Latin America. "Please officer, can I have a table for two.........  " And no, dear readers, the rest of this blog will not be in Spanish, muchas gracias!

And then there is the question of 'steads'  What bike to take? After a bit of research it became apparent it is best to buy the bikes here and ship them under the 'carnet system'. Apparently you can have problems in South America if you have a US or Canadian purchased bike with a New Zealand passport. Why, I do not know. However the other advantage of buying bikes here is that we could fit them up with attachments such as panniers etc the way we wanted them. And the final bit of rationalising this way was that we could get 5,000 - 10,000km on the clocks before departure to iron out any problems with the bikes prior to departure.

Brand spanking new and ready to roll! 
So what sort of bikes (I hear you cry!)?  Well, I went into Experience BMW here in Auckland to buy a new R1200GS and came out with a brand spanking new R1200GSA. As you do of course when you are on the receiving end of super salesman Henry Plowright of Experience BMW. Experience is exactly the right word for Henry! However in all fairness to my super salesman friend it was an irresistible offer and I am one very happy camper with my GSA. I could bore you for hours over the exact details of the justification for the extra money for a GSA. Suffice however to say I have very long legs which are ideal for the GSA and I find the GSA more stable and easier to ride with my "biker's moll" on the back.   There will be more about the bikers moll and "moll n'me" later on in this blog. .

By the way I should add that "BMWR1200GSA REG AIHSA" as seen above  is now simply called "Mella". Why Mella you may well ask. 'Cause she is Yella ( in colour that is). That's why.

Diana and I on the highest road in the Himalayas 
 India near Leh  - 2010

Planning involves training and test runs. So in November Diana and I saddled up with full camping gear, clothes, food etc. i.e the maximum loading of the type we will have in America. Then we headed off up the gravel winding roads of the Coromandel with the idea of camping off the bike for the night,
On the way it started drizzling just as we passed a motel sign. "No point getting the tent wet" we quickly rationalised. So next day, we went to the top of the peninsula, put up the tent next to the motorbike, took some photos, repacked the tent and headed back to Auckland. Yes, lessons were learned. We learned how to put up the tent up both inside out and back to front although we cleverly managed to avoid erecting it upside down!! I got the feel for handling the bike fully laden on the gravel roads. We learned what was needed and what was not in the way of luggage.  I packed a bottle of wine instead of a plastic container of engine oil and got away with the substitution. Yes, we could certainly taste the   difference! The trip gave me confidence that I (or more importantly "we")  could handle it all. The only difference surely would the fact that there would be bears(north) and llamas(south) crossing the road in the Americas!                                                       

           Parts of trips can sometimes get tiring            
However one day and night does not a long distance rider make ( with due apologies to William !). So early on the morning of January 3rd this year  Diana and I saddled up the stead again with full gear and headed down the 1500km to Queenstown. Me, bike and moll all went well. Then 10 days later it was up to the top of the South Island again to meet up with Ken and Shirley and to go up to French Pass and Bulwer. Again it was testing the combination of bike, pillion passenger, gravel roads, full loads and camping. Then to finish off the testing (testing is    such fun!) it was off to meet up with Ken's friends from Wellington on their annual trip again from Picton down the charming Molesworth valley to  Hanmer then up the more rugged Rainbow Valley (4 wheel drive only road) to St Arnaud. This was a total of about 300km riding on relatively rough gravel roads. Again an enjoyable time was had by me and moll and a full pass mark to man, (woman!), and machine. Or should I say a full pass mark for man and two women.

As I finish this introduction it is just over 3 months to start date The next posting will give                details of our planned route, dates and times and some of the more finer planning details. Hasta luego amigos.

                                                      Now, just exactly where is Alaska?

                                                           CHAPTER  2

Now that we are in countdown mode it is time to get serious and think about matters such as -

 It is a fair question that I get asked often. What are a couple of people of our age ( I am 65 ) doing riding motorbikes in strange and exotic lands?  Should we not be out purchasing comfortable "easy boy" rocking chairs  complete with extendable footrests and of course don't forget the buying of the slippers!  Ah, but you see dear readers, we are of course in the first wave of baby boomers coming through the system of life and suddenly the ground rules are now all very different! So that is the attitude question explained!. But still, what about the safety aspect?

 Well I have always been very interested in the question of safety for a number of reasons. Let me explain. Firstly I have always been interested in the difference between real and perceived risk and the wide gulf that exists between the two.  And of course real risk is not always less than perceived risk - sometimes it is in fact greater! Car driving is probably the best example of this. However my interest is always on actual risk and the ways to reduce it and to actively manage it.

In spite of all the training !
In the case of motorcycling I believe that with the right combination of training, preparation and attitude the real risk is lowered to a more than acceptable level of risk. Of course living  in itself is not risk free. However, correctly managed, the risk of motorcycling is, in my opinion,  lower than some of the things we do on a day to day basis. Some of my approach to risk management has been developed from my association with the Outward Bound movement, some has come from my mountaineering days and, interestingly enough, some has come from  my flying days.  Then business is also largely largely about managing risk, albeit mostly financial risk, but the principles are largely the same.

So what are the key principles then? The first ones come from my flying days.  One is taught in flying that the moment you turn the key on you consciously go int a higher state of alertness and you stay like that until the ignition is turned off. It is as if you have hard wired your brain into the ignition system and one is part of the other. Do you ever do that with a car?  Then another lesson from flying is the daily evaluation of technique. On every ride I  try to make a mental  note of any errors I might have made, even the very small ones. Yes, I am not perfect, although please do not tell my good wife that! Then, sometimes after the ride, usually in the evenings when one is relaxed, one runs over the errors and notes what to avoid next time. In other words it is about systematic and self critical evaluation and feedback loops.

Many of the other safety things are more obvious. I always try to avoid riding at nights where possible. Of course it is not always possible and again it depends on circumstances. I avoid commuting in cities on the bike wherever possible.

Defensive driving is another obvious one -  always assuming any car is going to crash through a Give Way or Compulsory Stop. Constantly watching and evaluating road surfaces is a given. In particular looking at things like dark patches on a road that might indicate diesel spills. You would be surprised how often they happen on roads! In Australia we always went slow in the mornings and were on high alert for kangaroos taking their morning constitutionals and we got good at picking up signs of road kill on the sides of the road.

Roads are not always dry nor rivers  paved as we found out in Australia
Then there is training. I have not done much formal training and should do more. However there are ways that you can train yourself by extending yourself without pushing the boundaries.  Watching and riding with others and watching their good points ( and their mistakes!) is always helpful. Talks over a beer at the end of the day are particularly helpful!

 There are safety techniques specific to this adventure. Learning some basic some Spanish is driven by safety considerations as much as anything else.  Reading  blogsites of those who have done  similar trips these days is a must. In purist terms you could call  it rigorous research!   Gear selection is important and it will be the best gear thanks. Fortunately biking gear is not as hyped as much as hiking or camping gear and biker evaluations are pretty honest and can be fairly brutal ! Fitness is an important safety consideration for alertness reasons and also injury minimisation. Yes I am now specifically getting fit!

Finally, as if that is all not enough and you are feeling overwhelmed by all of this,  then there is the question of riding with a companion on another bike. On long distance touring (and this was borne out in our round Australia trip) I think there are advantages in having two bikes as two riders provide checks and balances on each others reasoning. This is perhaps more important than you might think. There are plenty of examples of solo long distance riders making the wrong calls with tyres, weather, fatigue or just riding technique. Remember it only takes one pilot to fly a modern jet, the main purpose of the other pilot ( apart from making those inane announcements) is to provide checks and balances on reasoning and judgement. It is called cockpit management. And on the question of cockpit management there is, for me, the added benefit of ones good wife on the back!  Now that is in itself a ginormous  incentive in itself to ride safe and of course a built in feedback loop if there was ever one! "Yes dear, that was a bear we just run over!"

That is no way to treat a lady
It is hard to be funny and lighthearted about matters of safety and I hope this section is not too heavy! Safety should be "not too heavy and not too light" - just like a bowl of decent breakfast cereal  However with all of this under my belt I can look you in the eye and say that in light of all of this "Moll and Me" are quite happy with the risk/reward equation and we are planning on this trip and other adventures with the  aim of adding to our years,not subtracting from them !

Now here comes the interesting bit ! Here is the grand plan. The bikes are due to be shipped in late May (2012 that is!) and we are shipping them to Vancouver. Then late June we fly over, clear the bikes and then , with the Johnny Horton song  "North to Alaska" ringing thru our music systems we take Johnny's  advice and do just that! Talking of "North to Alaska" I do note however that the old gold miner in the song was actually heading to Nome. Perhaps he was just getting it confused with " Home Sweet Home".

In July it is up through Canada and Alaska, then down through Alaska and Canada! In August it is about slowly zig zagging down through the US of A. Early September will have us through Mexico. Note to self, must replace " North to Alaska" with the song " South of the Border" at this point of the journey! Then it is "Down Mexico way" through all those little ( and hopefully stable) Central America countries to Panama.

In Panama it goes without saying of course that  "a man must have a plan"! So after crossing the Darien gap ( by plane or sea) in early October it is then down  through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru,Bolivia, also hopefully by then the "non chilly" Chile, and Argentina. Oh, how those country names roll off the tongue so casually!  We then plan to arrive Ushuaia by early December. I would like to then hop on an Antarctic boat and cross the other circle.  We will see. Then it is up to Buenos Aires ( as you do!), drop off the bikes for shipping home, and home for Christmas. As simple as that!

 We will be coming back home to New Zealand several times at least during this odyssey, the first time probably from Southern USA.  Family and business reasons dictate this. However good sized breaks are important I think to stop the trip turning into a marathon or endurance exercise. After all let us remind ourselves that it is about enjoyment!

And talking of marathons and in this case a possible lack of enjoyment I must tell you about a blogspot I read recently concerning an American motorcycle rider called Nick Sanders. Just to establish Nick's credentials you might be interested to know that he has  motorcycled around the world no less than 7 times, once in a record breaking 19 days! Anyway  recently Nick decided to have a go at the record for the shortest motorcycle time from Prudoe Bay to Ushuaia. This involved 26,000km by the very fastest and most direct route and covered 15 border crossings. He did it in 21days, 19hours ( I do not know how many minutes or seconds!). That is averaging well over 1000km per day! The last 50km into Ushuaia were in a snowstorm and he arrived in Ushuaia at 4.30 a.m in the morning. He missed the record of 21 days 2 hours held by another American, Dick Fisk. He was actually ahead by 8 hours with the last 297km to go but got held up by an Argentinian border crossing that closed from 10.00p.m. to 9.00a.m.. However if that was not enough here is the ultimate.  Would you believe he then turned round to do the return trip record, arriving Prudoe Bay some 23 days later and thus nailing this record!  Suffice to say our 6 months for a one way trip will be a positively pedestrian ambling ramble in the park by comparison!

I can't write about this yet as we have not done it yet! However you will be relieved to know, dear reader, that detailed descriptions will be avoided. Do you really want to know how many pairs of underpants I am taking or what type?  Here is a titillating little secret, they are Icebreaker (with super comfort gusset!) and red and black! However that is the end of the riveting detail.  The next blog posting should have us well on the way to leaving New Zealand. Until then.........