2017 The Sahara

Campsite extremes

So having made it to Martil I followed the signs for the campsite. The roads to Martil were lovely and smooth with only two Police checkpoints along the way. I must get insurance I remembered. My fixer had suggested Martil as a closer stopping point than Tatouan. He said the campsite was fine and they have a beach. They certainly do have a beach, not quite golden sands but certainly very picturesque, the street is wide and lined by cafes and resteraunts. I turned right towards the campsite and instantly into an area that looked a cross between a derelict housing estate and a building site. I wasn’t sure. I was less sure as I turned into the campsite. It looked like a gravel parking lot, but there were a few tatty old tents and a British registered VW campervan. I quickly used the loos which were clean. By the time I got back to my car the owner was there. He assured me it was safe to leave the car whilst I went to the beach as he has security. It would cost about £8. That was all fine and I went to town to locate a WiFi signal and resteraunt. I didn’t bother with the local dish as I’m pretty sure the further south I go the less the choices will be. So pizza, cake and a coffee capable of waking the dead, just what I needed before bed. I walked the seafront thoroughly enjoying the Friday night atmosphere of families enjoying a walk in the mild evening air. I wanted to get a SIM card as using my phone would be too expensive. There was nowhere but it was a great walk.

Back at the campsite it was dark and still warm, I wasnt really in the mood to put the tent up in the dark on the gravel flooring. So I reclined the car seat and climbed in. I must have been tired as the next time I woke it was to the unmistakable sound of the Imam calling morning prayer. It was 6am and far to early for me to pray but I did say a thankyou for getting me this far. A morning coffee and post the last blog before I was ready to set sail again. The owner of the campsite asked if I had a tent. I do but I didn’t use it. He dropped the price to £5. 

I checked the car over before setting off for Tetouan and then the road to Chefchaouen. I got slightly lost and ended up going through Tetouan. Each set of lights or give way sign there was a different beggar pleading for cash. I actually didn’t have any, but it did mean having the central locking on and windows only slightly open. Eventually clear of the town I started to head up into the mountains, the little car with less horse power than one actual horse didn’t get into fourth much, let alone fifth, but was being very good on hay consumption. I followed lorries that bellowed smoke like you wouldn’t believe and cars alike. All overloaded for the steep roads. I did wonder where Morocco stands on global warming and if they have a congestion charge? Every car without fault has some form of accident damage. I was getting very precious about Dubless. In town you needed eyes everywhere to not collide with cars and people alike, now on the hills they didnt care where they went for overtakes. Hauling past lorries, busses and anything else that was in their way and at any location. “Oh I’m heading towards a blind hairpin on a mountains edge, now would be a great time to overtake this VW and three busses”!  At Zinat I stopped by fruit at a stall, I picked up two apples. When I got back to the car I was swamped by children with all manner of goods to sell, none of it, any use to me or even slightly desirable. I made it clear as I pushed my way back to the car that I wouldnt be buying today. Once in the drivers seat one little chap had wedged himself so the door wouldn’t close, hands out begging. I had to push him away. I still didn’t have spare money. As I drove off I was left wondering what right do I have to push these people away, but I can’t give to them all and there isn’t a system to choose who get hangouts and who don’t. I may have no money but look what I do have. If their bike broke down they couldn’t just summons up a new car to carry on the journey. It was a thoroughly difficult situation and I didn’t like it. I had read a book ‘There are no fat people in Morocco’ by Lawrence Bransby and he had a similar issue. I recommend his book, if you are planning a trip here, its far better than my ramblings (Plus he actually did it on a bike). On that subject it is quite true that in a car you see the picture but on a bike you live it. I dearly wanted to be on a bike far more than I thought. Two days ago I just wanted to be in Africa. 

1. If your coach overheads drive with the engine cover open!

Soon enough I climbed the steepest hill yet to Chefchaouen. The campsite was at the very top of the road. I pulled in and met the owner who promptly showed me round and gave me directions to the old town. The campsite Azlam was very nice and appeared packed with overland vehicles, motorhomes and of course adventure bikes. The town of  Chefchaouen was one place I had on my list of must visits. I know little about it other than nearly all the buildings in the old medina are painted blue. I decided to walk down. The steps down were a short walk away and no sooner than I left the campsite I was approached by a guy wanting to show me round for just a few Dirham. I didn’t need a guide and telling me his family worked the campsite didn’t help, nor did trying to get me to walk the wrong way. Having offloaded him I walked down the steps, it was a long way and I ached. The town is built on the side of a mountain and everywhere you go is by steps or stairs. I had a coffee and accompanying Orange juice as I wrote the days blog. Then climbed the strength sapping hill back to base camp. I spoke to the owner and told him I had not managed to get insurance yet. He informed me that I must get it before moving on, as the road check, on the spot fines were very big. It had been a pure oversight and now it was going to cost me more time because it was already late on Saturday and the commercial district did not open on Sunday. I was staying until Monday. There are worse places to be stuck for sure.

I strolled back to my car and noticed that the VW camper I had shared the site with the previous night was also here. I introduced myself to Ian. He was travelling alone to Marrakech where he was going to meet his daughter for a holiday together. I relayed my plight and we sat together drinking his coffee.He had spoken to two Harley Davidson riders whonhad told him they met me at Hostel Rio Grande. Ian has a Harley of his own and is a knowledgable chap with many contacts. I told him about the insurance thing and suddenly he was in the same predicament. He had not got cover for here either. Ian is a very nice guy, also just trying out his first prolonged trip abroad in his motorhome. He was thoroughly enjoying it. We spoke about where to go next and he suggested he would travel to Ketama I pointed out that the area was the biggest cannabis growing area in the world and it was not unknown for unaware travellers to be robbed. I believe it is very rare but knowing the luck I was having……..  So back in the 1950’s there was a revolt in the Rif mountain area and as a result of that the government withdrew all aid to the area. Cannabis was once grown across Morocco but due to international pressure the rest of Morocco has stopped, but Ketama remains very poor due to the sanctions and they produce what they can, which is a lot. Obviously the actual farmers dont make so much money and the area remains poor, so incidents of the uninitiated traveller being pulled over and having their valuables removed is known. Anyway for all you pot heads, the regeon is in the Rif mountains and that’s where the term ‘Riffa’ comes from. 

I got back to my tent and climbed in fairly tired from mountaineering. As I laid down the bed collapsed. I got up reconstructed it but the plastic retainers couldn’t cope with my weight on the very slight slope. I plugged in my iPod turned the volume up and fell asleep with aluminium poles digging into my side. 

Me, Shep and Dubless hit the road

I should have slept well that night as the week-long delay was over and I could now get on with a holiday, even if it needed to be ammended. I couldn’t sleep, I now had a whole new set of issues to deal with. Insure the car, tax the car and even though I had the old V5 log book there were no papers to actually say the car was mine. Frank had completed the V5 transaction online and printed out the e-mail confirmation of transfer so that was handy. I had read that Moroccan officials were very particular about the vehicle documents being in order. That’s right people ‘Morrocan officials’, me, Shep and Dubless were going to Africa. Well we were certainly going to give it a good try. On the way back the previous night I had stopped to enquire about ferry prices at one of the many booths along the way selling ‘cheap’ tickets’. It was going to cost about £250 return with Dubless. There was no point in buying at that time as Dubless had been mine for only ten miles and I didn’t want to commit. Plus a friend, Mark, had written that he had purchased his ticket at the ferry port with ease. It was now getting light so I went to check that Dubless has managed to spend the night without wetting himself, the ground was dry, all four tyres were still holding air and all his fluids looked good. The engine started as it should and ticked over quietly. I checked the spare, its always a good sign when the spare is good and the original tool kit is in pristene condition. Ok that’s it book a ferry, tell the landlord you are moving out and beg him to look after you bike for a while. It was all good and DJ was going to stay under cover out of sight. It was time to pack, I put all the things I wanted to take on one bed and all the things I could leave behind on the other. When it was all laid out I wondered how DJ had ever pulled such a huge amount of stuff with me plonked on top as well

Their is an old add age about adventure bike travel it says lay out everything you want to take and put your money with it, now halve the stuff to take and double the money. That was certainly coming true on this trip.

I searched for ferry tickets and ‘aferry.com’ came up trumps with a two way ticket for just £152. Things were looking up. I was packed and ready to go, I needed air in the tyres and some fuel, although I had repeatedly drained fuel from DJ into a small bottle and transferred the 20L into the car. Well the bike wasn’t going to need it anytime soon. I set off down the slope from Rio Grande Hostal and out onto the road, with heightened senses I listened for any knock, rumble of clunk. There were none. I stopped to fuel up, they had no air for the tyres. To the ferry port without issue, this is going well I thought. At 4.30pm I boarded the ferry but not before having to show the ticket lady that I wasn’t actually carrying a dog. On the ferry I carried Shep upside down to the boot and closed it down. I didn’t want anyone thinking I’d left a dog in the car, so they could smash windows to stop the poor thing overheating. It was a high speed ferry and as such you couldn’t go outside, which was a blessing because it got very rough. Just past the end of Gibralter you could indeed see the mountains of Africa and within an hour we docked. As I drove off I was flagged down to be one of three cars searched by customs. The two cars in front, both with roofracks were full with plastic bags containing all sorts of merchandise presumably for resale in Morocco. In due course I was called forward, female officers checked all my tech in the front and opened the boot with a yelp as she discovered Shep. I had to make him roll over to prove he was a fake pet. Honestly this isn’t the fun idear I had originally thought it would be.

But finally, a week late, in a different vehicle, with a lot less money in my pocket and a totally different adventure to the one I had expected I rolled out of port and into Africa. Only it wasn’t! The port of Cueta is on the African mainland but is in fact still Spanish. Official Africa was 3 miles away and through immigration control.

The roads were much like those in Spain and the signs easy to follow. Now if you think customs at Heathrow is a palace, try Cueta. The queue was short but slow moving and there were fixers everywhere. Fixers are people who will aid you through the process for a few pounds. I had wanted to get by without one but shortly a skinny, tardy looking guy turned up at the window with papers in his hand. “I get you through, no cost”. I showed him that I had papers and I would be ok. He was rather persistent, to which an older shorter man came over and berated the youngster sending him away. This chap was calm and collected and he showed me his ID card. “I work here to help visitors” he said “Not like these others”. He said he would assist me through customs and passport control as it was my first visit. We chatted as the queue moved forward. He was Berber by birth and had moved here to work. Then he said “Do you think the ID helps?” At that point it dawned on me he was just another fixer with an ID which could have told me he was an animal welfare officer for all I knew. Lets hope he’s not Ive got an upside down dog in the boot. At passport control he handed my papers to the guy who stamped it and returned it. I then had to park the car and go to a Police office to get a visitor number, which involved filling in another form away from the office and returning. Then the car documents needed to be checked at another window. They were not ok. In anticipation of this I had contacted Frank from the ferry saying he needed to send me a note saying he had sold me the car and it was legally mine. However here at passport control there is no signal and I have no clue if the paperwork has arrived or if it would even help. I’m going to have to blag it. Between me and my helper I convinced the man in the booth the car was mine. I then had to chase after a senior officer to get his authority to enter, literally chase him round as he tried to ignore me. The fixer doing his best to get me through as well. Once that was stamped it was back to the booth where all my documents were input on a computer, even the chassis and engine number. Then Inhad to get two more stamps from two more fleeing officers and go back to the booth to be allowed in. My fixer had been great and probably worked harder for that entry than he anticipated. He then offered to take me on a week’s guided tour, seeing all the great places in Morocco. Well that’s every kind mate but I’m on an adventure on my own and you stink, get a bath and here’s £10 for getting me through. His reply “twenty would be better”. Our business concluded it was time to actually enter Africa.

  1. The beach at Milta, Africa
  2. There’s 20L in that tank I’m not leaving it
  3. Coffee to keep you awake forever
  4. These 130 pieces of paper contain all my details for the many police checkpoints, however they also say I’m on a motorbike!!!
  5. Shep loves the car
  6. Too much kit
  7. Last night’s campsite.

And how long will that take?

I had a lay in, nothing to do, no tech to slave over. It was going to be a good day. Showered and spruced up it was getting to mid morning and the clouds were lifting, I’m going out, I’m just going to go and see what I can find to look at. Then the phone rang, yeah I kid you not, an actual phone call. “Hello?”  “Hi I’m Frank, you want to see the Rav4”. “Yes I really want to see the Rav4”. “And I would love to show you it today, but the clutch has gone, I mean I can get it fixed if you want to wait”. Frank must have heard the slap as my forehead struck my palm “And how long will that take?”. However all was not lost as Frank had another UK car. A Volkswagen Polo, for around the same money. If I could get to Sabillinas today I could view it a full 24hrs earlier than expected. “I’m on my way Frank”.

I knew Sabillinas was towards Estapona, but where the hell do I get the bus? Easy I will bus into Algeciras and then bus to Estapona. All very easy. I was sat on the bus to Algeciras when Frank called again to ask how I was getting to him. He laughed when I told him, “You are going the wrong way”. He went on to say that he could have picked me up. Anyway he would pick me up from Estapona. At Algeciras I boarded a bus that travelled right back past my hotel and on to La Linea and then onto Estapona. I dived into McDonalds as I had not eaten that day and shortly after Frank turned up. Frank is Dutch by birth and had spent 20years in America buying, selling and exporting classic cars. Anyone who knows me will know my inherent distrust of car dealers. But Frank was a nice guy and he drove better than any Spaniard. He told me how he had decided to come back from the States and set up in Spain because the weather is so much better than The Netherlands. He wanted to start refurbishing houses but it was 2007 and the property market had collapsed. He tried a few times but money was eaten up and not much was made. He had to start making money again and for the time being at least he deals in a few cars. He lives in a gated community, bloody car dealers! But in fairness it was a nice place and so far no hard sell. Alejandro turned up and was pleased to finally meet me. We all had a good long chat. had another day to waste before I may or may not hear from Alejandro’s partner.

The car did look quite good, despite no badge on the front and a dent in the rear offside door. I crawled all over it and had a test drive. I couldn’t really fault it. Let’s face it the car has 60,000 miles with one owner from new and an MOT until next July, it should be ok its a VW or ‘dub’ to those in the know and they are bullet proof, just what people say about the XR400!. So there I was stood at the side of the road contemplating the various options. I could spend the £450 and get the bike recovered, buy a mechanically sound mountain bike and go to Morocco fairly cheap, or I could buy the car and go home with the bike in the back stripped down, sell the car once home and I’ve hopefully not lost too much money. At this point my phone bleeped and it was my sister saying she had a quote to pick up the bike and deliver it home this week for just £400. It’s an omen! So I bought the car.

As we climbed the hill out of Sabillinas I was trying to think of a name for the car with no badge. Then it struck me ‘Dubless Badger’ and just like its name sake, World War 2 veteran flying ace Douglas Badar, this little car with its 1.2 eco friendly, planet saving 3 cylinder engine, also had absolutely no legs! As my dad used to say “It couldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding”. But if it had even a hint of the determination shown by all troops in service around the world, it would get us home safe, and why not its German!

Back at the hotel I took another look round it. Even the spare tyre was good with the original tool kit. The engine was still dry and the oil still on the dip stick. The water levels and fluids all seemed ok. I could relax, tomorrow would be a new stress free day. 

Don’t forget your passport

Don’t forget your passport I said as I left and locked the room. Walked away and prepared to head to another country. No you didn’t miss a blog, I was actually leaving, but fear not I’d be back. 

I had woken up and checked the phone, no news from Rav4. There was news from my sister, who was having a worse time of it than me without leaving Hampshire. Both her and her husband are in hospital through different illnesses. Should I go home to try and help? It would make decissions here easier! I would wait until the day was over and decide then. But for now I was going to Gibralter, the small British rock tagged on the end of Spain. It’s been a hotly contested piece of land over the years and Spain still want it back. It is said to have been of strategic importance in the past as it creates a gateway to the Med. Now it is more hotly contested because of its affluence. Vitor had given me bus details via whatsapp and I was off to La Linea by bus and then a short walk into Gibralter. The phone chimed and it was Rav man, or Alejandro to give him his real name, on WhatsApp. He speaks little English and so it was back to Google translate. Long story short the car is available to view on Friday, he will get his partner to call Thursday to arrange a viewing. I didn’t care, I was set to go, I opened the door and the word “Really!” Snapped sarcastically from my lips. It was bloody raining. Other than hot weather riding gear I have shorts, T-shirts and an all in one waterproof thermal bike suit. Stuff it I’m going. In time it stopped and I was heartened that even if I couldn’t make Morocco I could see it from the top of the rock, well you could if it weren’t shrouded in cloud.

Burger King supplied breakfast and I was set to walk for the day. Through passport control to leave Spain and through passport control to enter Britain. Then bizarrely you walk down the high street, across the airport runway and back onto the high street. I loved that, proper plane geek me. WOW no kidding this place is just one big rock fortress, full of tunnels and caves all utilised to make defences and an underground hospital. From as early as the 1700’s we have been building our very own castles. There is a cable car to the top and I took that. It was misty and cloudy but the views were still good. At the top a very abrupt introduction to the macaque monkeys that inhabit the upper rock, as a huge male sat on the railings jumped clean over my head, across the drop next to me and onto railings on the far side. A woman screamed and I rolled my eyes, inside I wondered if that monkey knew just how many pairs of pants I have for this trip! Having escaped the cable car landing point there were monkeys all over the place. Actually they are quite cool and tend not to bother visitors unless you are carrying a plastic bag as they associate that with food. Lucky I didn’t make that bin liner raincoat after all. I walked up to the highest point O’Haras battery where a huge 204 ton gun emplacement stares out over the gateway to the Med. The gun has a 28 ton barrel and each shell weighs 700kg. It can fire the entire width of the Med and a further mile inland into Morocco. I couldn’t fit in the barrel! 

I then walked down to the Windsor bridge, I never realised Barbera was so highly thought of. Its a suspension bridge across a gap between two mountainous hills, ah now I know why they called it the Windsor bridge. It wasn’t quite the thrill seekers experience they advertised it as but made for some great views, Oh matron!

Back to the cafe for much my needed water and to watch the shop owners play chase the monkey out. Then back up to the top and cable car down. I had seen a bike shop on the way in and had browsed the tax free bikes. Now I went in again to actually consider buying one. It would have been a steal for the sales rep as I was in just the right mood to buy a bike and ride off. However the salesman had gone out for an hour and no one else was in the mood to sell. I was given a card and told to call the next day. I walked the old city with its wonderful colonial buildings to Casemates Square, where they used to hang traitors and invaders alike, now the only criminals there are the restaurant owners. I had a nice meal before walking back to the airport, whoohoo a plane had landed and I may see one take off. I mean the best bit was you could watch from the side of the road which was about 30m from the runway. 

Back in Spain I rode the bus home and arrived back in a far better state of mind. There was light at the end of the tunnel, although the tunnel was slightly longer than I expected. 

The Wonder Web

Today my phone was still to scared to leave the room, although in fairness I do have to stand outside to get WiFi sometimes. That’s the luxury of being the furthest place from reception. Today I was going to have to work the tech. I started by calling Tesco mobile to discuss my phone. They sent new settings to help it overcome it’s problems. That didn’t work.

Choutos contacted me on Taptalk to say he would set up a WhatsApp group with his friends in Algeciras so we could work on getting the bike sorted. Shortly the group Rescate XR400 (Rescue XR400) started up. Choutos’s real name is Vitor. He has friends Paco and Ezequiel. All were keen to help. I soon had the phone number of a guy to repair it. Again he spoke no English but I had an email address. So write the email on message pad, cut and paste to Google translate. Cut and paste the translation to the email and send. Repeat the whole thing in reverse when the reply arrives. Meantime Paco suggests I buy his bike, a Honda VT 250. When it was sold in the UK they got a terrible reputation for engine failures. (Yeah coz i need more of that) Paco’s bike was much newer than any I had seen in UK but still had the same engine. He sent me pictures via a link to a ‘freeads’ type site. My phone even translated the ads for me. I soon learned how to change the settings and search bikes close to me. Meantime the chat group continued and the emails went back and forth. The mechanic was happy to do the work and estimated 5 to 7 days as Honda want 3 days to deliver the parts. He also said about £400 in labour costs. Not unrealistic, as no other option had come close to that. Whatever happens I have to buy the parts sometime, so that is money added to every solution. The only difference is, back home I can do it slowly as funds become available. Also at home I don’t have to buy genuine Honda parts. Anyway the wait was on for both Honda main service agent and MQ-Tech to come up with prices.

I needed food and a break from tech. I walked to the local pub and ordered chicken, egg, chips and fried chillies. Why wouldn’t you? It all tastes good washed down with ice cold beer in the sun. It was good to be away from the room and stress of the search.

Refreshed and back at the hotel, the phone felt safe enough to reconnect. I was having a ball looking at bikes and I found one. Not cheap but a fun little bike less than a year old. I called but the number did not connect. I went to reception and asked the kind lady to call. She did and after some discussion she told me the bike was 100km away. The seller was also concerned to sell to a non resident. Back on the web I found various bits of info on buying bikes in Spain. I went back to WhatsApp and the guys said there may be some issues. I may need a Solicitor to buy a bike as a non resident and that’s the same for cars. It’s gotta be English registered. Then I started getting ads for English cars from the WhatsApp gang, some like the Aston Martin DB9 were no good, I’d never get the bike in that! And the Range Rover wasn’t my colour, but the Rav4 and at a push The BMW saloon would do. The Beemer was cheaper but on speaking to the guy he couldn’t sell it until the end of October. The Rav4 was the one, I called, no answer. I sent a WhatsApp message and sat back to wait. Moments later the phone pinged. It was servico Honda saying he had requested prices from Honda. I’m no better off for that.

I emailed MQ-tech again and he replied with an estimate for the bits from Honda. It was about £1200, even then I noticed the crank case wasn’t on the list. It’s almost more economic to just walk away from the bike, but I quite like it and I can see back home it will be much cheaper to rebuild.

From then on it was just a case of waiting for the Rav4 guy to call. He didn’t.

What day is it?

I’m losing track of the days. Today is Tuesday and I am writing about Monday, but now its Wednesday because I was so busy on Tuesday. My head hurts from all the logistics I have had to try and deal with. It’s probably best to look at the options and then worry about the expense. I could get the bike repaired and carry on. Only I don’t know any garages, mechanics or even where the bike shops are. To the rescue come Horizons Unlimited. I use there web site a lot as it covers all aspects of adventure overlanding. I put up a question and within a few hours or so I was in contact with a guy via Tap Talk

However   whilst that was in the making I looked at option 2. I could ship the bike home and repair it. I could rent a van, put the bike in it and get it home. I searched for van hire but there were none available in my area. The nearest would be Hertz and they want £1000 to take a van one way to UK. OK I’ll strip the bike down, put it in a hire car, rebuild it in Santander, drop the hire care there, push it on the ferry, push it off in UK and get it collected from Portsmouth. I called Brittany Ferries who were very helpful with changing dates but pointed out you cannot push a bike on and off the ferry, it has to be on a recovery truck. The recovery truck want £600 for putting you on and taking you off the ferry. OK I’ll do a one way car hire to France where a friend can store the bike until I can get back for it. One way car hire is £700 or £400 if I return it plus fuel and a train ticket back. OK I’ll get a man and van to do it, however after searching for hours the internet has failed to locate one leaving anytime soon. OK I’ll go on eBay.es and see what I can buy. WHOOP joy of joys as I find a UK registered car for £350 with three days to go. It’s a Ford Focus with 56000miles and two owners. I call the dealer who will sell it to me for £600. I can take the bike home, sell the car and still have some time to myself. Oh yes the car is on the other side of Spain so I book a train, 11hrs setting off tonight, oh wait its a bus ticket. I call to confirm the car has a current MOT, it doesn’t, nor has it had either a UK one or Spanish equivalent for 3 years. OK I’ll put the bike on a train to France and make my way home from there, only you cannot put motorcycles on a train in Spain. I’ll buy a Spanish car, however they are all crazy money. I need to eat, I make my way to the local shops and on hearing English voices I stop at a bar and introduce myself to several guys. Nick and his mates love the pictures of the bikes desperate state and even have some suggestions, one of the guys is a mechanic here and will make enquiries. Nick has mates who are car dealers and may assist. Things are looking up. Having filled my face with cake and fizzy drinks I got back to the hotel and continued messing around on the net trying to resolve my issues. I fired off a few emails and then decided to head to town and see what I could sort out there.

In the middle of all this stress and honestly quite low times my only little bit of fun is that the saddle adorning my room floor makes the cleaner jump every time she comes in. I’ve named it Shep, my fake pet. I’m so getting googly eyes and a nose for it.

By now I am in contact via Tap Talk with a guy called ‘Choutos’, he is a friend of a friend on H.U. and he lives in San Roque. Only it transpires he doesn’t, he now lives in Austria, but he knows people and can assist somewhat. He suggests contacting ‘Rotorrmotar’. They are excellent mechanics, very capable of an engine rebuild. In the mean time I have caught the bus to town. £1.20 for a 5 mile journey on a clean, air conditioned mini bus with plush seating. Why does that not happen back home? On getting to town I find my phone is agrophobic and no longer wants to leave the safety of wifi. So now I have to WiFi hop around town. Standing in doorways to get signal and making my way towards my destination with out mapping until I stumble accross another WiFi spot. Anyway I called Motorotar. They had already seen the pics and were quite impressed, however they are very busy and cannot assist. They give me the number of another mechanic. I call him but he doesn’t speak any English. OK I have time so let’s map out and WiFi hop round the bike shops. The first two are about 2miles apart. It’s hot and although they love the pictures neither can help, in fact one isn’t even a bike shop. So I flag down a taxi and in my increasingly growing Spanish vocabulary I ask him to take me to a motorcycle mechanic. He drops me at a Yamaha dealer, they in turn indicate with a flapping arm that Honda is up the road. In fairness the flapping arm was aided by a scrap of paper with GC Racing written on it and an address. Well it looked like an address to me only no one else thought it did. Eventually a guy in a plumbing shop gave me a better idear of where I was headed and then a bicycle shop followed by a Repsol petrol station, a few random dog walkers and hey presto up a back street with a tiny Honda flag was Honda official servico. The guy was great and very positive that he could get the job done. He asked me to e-mail him the frame number and some pictures so he could price the job, at last progress. I walked to McDonald’s and had a veritable feast of hot spicy mexican burger. There was a kids party going on and if I closed my eyes, smelt the spices and ate, it could almost be a Moroccan souk only without the snakes. After that I walked back to the bus station, it was a long walk and I was knackered. The bus depot was empty, I had to get a taxi. I don’t mind the opulence of taxi travel but I do mind having to pay and give turn by turn directions. No tip for you Mrs taxi driver 

I crashed into bed mentally and physically exhausted.

A day of ups and downs but eventually……….

So I reached the Rio Grande to find the entrance was up a short but very steep hill. I just didn’t have the energy. I parked DJ and walked to the reception. The guy spoke no English but we managed to sort out my booking and I was shown to my room. The Rio Grande is a lovely place with about 20 individual apartments. Mine was furthest away of course, but inside there were two single beds, a bathroom with bath and a balcony at the rear. I started to ferry items from the bike to the room and in 4 trips I was ready to bring the bike up. Every part of me was already aching but this was quite literally the last push. I got a third of the way up and stopped, braced myself and did the second third. I had completed the steep bit, now just a gentle climb and flat bit to my room. I was so hot and sweaty the only thing to do was take a shower. 

Refreshed but aching I went to the bike and began to take bits off. I needed to know what the problems were before I could make any decissions. The saddle and side panels first, placed in the room. The fuel tank with 19.8litres of the 20 I put in still inside it. That had to go on the balcony. Then I started looking at the engine.  The rocker adjusting caps removed the valves and rockers looked ok, but its a small access hole and making any judgement at that stage would be fool hardy. The rocker cover had to come off. It’s a bit fiddley with just a pocket multi tool and basic tools, however I had packed a quarter inch socket set, well a ratchet and some sockets. 8mm was the order of the day and I had one. Having undone just one bolt the ratched broke and was then very temperamental about working. Infact it took a lot of effort to hold the ratchet together and undo the bolts of which there were 8. The cover didn’t budge. I recalled having watched a video about stripping the engine and YouTube supplied the answer, the American guy in his pristene Snap-On workshop with immaculate tools said “and don’t ya’ll forget this gnarley little 12mm critter at the top”. I had indeed forgotten that very critter and I didn’t have a spanner to fit. Back to the reception where between us we came to the conclusion that, either he didn’t have a socket set or he was just ripping into me for laughs. Back at the bike I found that I did have the spanner and yay it worked. The cover off, it all looked good. The cam bearings looked free and no signs of overheating. 

I needed food and it was getting late. A quick stroll to the shops and I had hot dogs, beans and a French stick, time to break out the camping stove and dine al fresco on the balcony with the very hot, highly flammable fuel tank for company. I wrote the blog whilst most of it was still fresh in my mind and settled down for the night. It was a tough day but had ended well enough, I love hot dogs!

I slept well and was up and ready by 9am. Firstly I need to drain the oil. Being eco-friendly I drained it into my saucepan, using the plastic cup from the room as a funnel. In fairness I could have drained the oil into the cup there was so little of it. Next to get the exhaust off and then the headers. Exhaust came off fine. The headers are the two pipes that go into the engine. Notoriously difficult to remove. Honda had fitted 12mm nuts onto studs in the head. They were very rusty. My 12mm spanner was having none of it, the nuts were not only rusty but worn. A 10mm wouldn’t fit and a 12mm was lose. I tried packing the spanner with tin foil but that didn’t work. I needed a socket set. I was considering walking to town to buy a set when the owner of the place turned up to investigate why my tv remote doesn’t work. Not really an issue for me as its all Spanish anyway. Now he speaks English and I asked if the shops would be open. He replied, for food yes but not bike spares. When I mentioned tools he informed me he has a socket set and I was welcome to borrow it. Moments later a cheap 3/8 socket set looked like the finest Snap On kit. There was an 11mm socket and it undid the studs. Then the head bolts, unfortunately the bolts were very tight and I appear to have broken the ratchet from the owner’s kit. I pulled the head off, what greeted me was the sight of a piston that wasn’t flat as it should be but canted at an angle. That’s not good I thought. However if its just the piston and barrel I could get the parts shipped. I needed to get the barrel off. Six bolts later the barrel slid off. Jesus!!!! It was a mess. But still its only a piston, well half a piston and the barrel. My mind mulled it over, the piston has broken up and dropped into the engine, most of it has been mashed into tiny bits but there is still half a piston ring in there somewhere. I could turn it upside down and literally hose it out until all the debris fell out, but for now I need to get the piston off. The piston has a small circlip holding it onto the small end (the engine). That clip took nearly an hour to remove, even then the piston wouldn’t come off. I looked into the engine and saw a big lump of metal stuck beside the counterbalance gears. I used pliers,screwdrivers and multi tool to try and prize it free. It was not coming out. OK just add that to the list. I then decided to remove the left hand engine cover to check the stator (electrical gubbins). At this time I had been working non stop for 5 hours and it was getting hot. The bike looked super light though. I pulled the engine cover off and checked the electrics, all seemed good. Yay good news, I looked at the front end to see if I could access that pesky bit of metal and instantly saw engine armageddon. The crank case was split. I wasn’t completely sure so I took photographs and inspected them to make sure it wasn’t a casting mark, it wasn’t. To rebuild that is a complete engine apart job, down to individual components and that’s not possible with a multi tool, an odd array of spanners and a crappy, but gratefully received, socket set. 

Okay photo’s are not in order but I will explain best I can.

1. The bike as she looks right now.

2. What’s left of the piston

3. Whats left of the engine after a days work

4. A crack in the base of the cylinder

5. The view that greeted me when I lifted the head off, piston canted and crumbling

6. The crank case cracked by debris caught between gears and the casing. Engine Armageddon.

7. Don’t all hotel rooms have engine bits on the dining table?

So that’s it, no trip to Africa this time but the adventure isn’t over yet.

In the words of Michael Caine, Hang on, I’ve got a plan………

Then there was a bang!

I woke today at about 8 am. Steve and Ken had already left, there was another person asleep. I got myself ready, but was aware that the batteries would not be charged for the day. As I pondered this one of the Spanish girls came into the room from the bathroom. Well I guess from the bathroom as she had ‘the girls’ out. I suspect its nothing unusual and I certainly wasn’t going to complain. She stood chatting to me with the twins and I admired them, as you would. Anyway that came to an end when I suggested a selfie!

I quickly loaded the bike and as I was running on empty I headed for McDonald’s where I had several coffees and a cheeky grin on my face. From there it was a short few hours to my next hotel, the Hostel Rio Grande. It was recommended by a friend who stayed recently and said it was a kind of last place before getting the ferry to Africa and many travellers stay there. The bike purred along and I made sure I was constantly drinking water, feeling the day before was probably down to heat stroke. I was paying attention to the purr of the engine and the way it changes at the increasingly steep hills but still manages to pull better than most cars, when there was a bang! Momentarily the bike lost power and my heart sank. Almost instantly she kicked back in and carried on. In my mind I said, don’t worry its a Honda. After all they didn’t even put a tool kit on the XR400, so confident were they with its mechanical prowess. 

It started getting cold at 2100ft up the mountains prior to Malaga. I wondered how many people had looked down on this area as they flew over on a package deal to Malaga. It was quite awesome and I have to say people have trouble understanding the vastness of the universe, I have trouble with the vastness of our planet. I can see for miles and miles, mountains and rivers and the roads that cut through them. This is a tiny corner of the world and its huge. Anyway I was happily contemplating this as I started to drop into Malaga and onto the coast road. It is package holiday heaven or hell depending who you are. I stopped to take a picture of me and DJ at the coast, next to a shop selling inflatable everything and offering pedallo rides. Back on the road I was pleased not to be one of the herded package holiday makers. The place was crammed with high rise buildings, casinos and tacky shops. Everything is Rio Grande, Playa del or similar. However having said all that I do quite like a lay on the beach and all that tat I talk about. Its just not this time. This time is about adventure and striving to test myself a bit more. I stopped for fuel and saw it was about 60km to Algeceras. A red bull and sandwhich later I was back on it getting away from the holiday resorts and gliding towards my next location, ironically called the Rio Grande! 

I checked the batteries and saw my phone had 4% left. Hmm I’ll not concern it with putting in the final destination just yet, I’ll let it build some power. The solar charger had given up trying to charge anything and the bike charger was painfully slow. The spare rechargeable batteries are in the luggage hidden away. Its ok I can charge everything later. Roundabout after roundabout the bike whisked through them. As I climbed a non too steep hill I suddenly felt a drop in power, I pulled in the clutch and the engine cut out, glancing over my shoulder as I went towards the kerb I saw smoke! Stopping safely I got off the bike and looked round it, nothing obvious. I felt the engine and it was hot but the frame was not. The oil in this bike is stored in the frame where it cools, but it doesn’t cool that much. I took out the dipstick and there was no oil showing. I gently prodded the kickstart and she turned over. It was time to get busy. I unpacked the luggage so I could get to the tool kit. Then I started to look for the rechargeable batteries. I searched all the bags but they weren’t there. I was trying to think where I had put them but drew a blank only being able to picture them on my bed waiting to be packed. OK well you’ll just have to get on with it. I took off most of my riding kit and donned the sun hat, took the plug out. It looked ok and had a spark, I replaced it anyway. I listened as I turned her over gently but there was nothing much to hear, could it be dodgy fuel? I kicked her over proper, nothing, then again and this time I heard the death rattle of a bearing deep inside the engine. DJ had partially seized. There was no way she would start and trying would just wear me out. At that moment I had a thought, those batteries are in the small bag you haven’t looked in yet. Sure enough they were and soon the phone was suckling on power. Now I’ve read many travel books and heard many people talk about travels and one thing that always comes up is that when all hope is lost someone on a moped turns up and knows someone who can help. I waited ages! No bloody moped. So I put in my destination and great joy I was only 7km from my hotel. Seven kilometres I can do that in an hour, pushing a heavy bike and gear. Again no saviour, just a hot long push. Sometimes there were downhill moments and I managed to sit on the bike as it coasted. One time as I jumped on I knocked it into gear, the resultant grinding and crunching told me it was serious. 

Plains and no planes

It wasn’t an early start but it was before 10am that I got DJ from the garage. My morning ritual involves firstly ensuring I am clean and ready to go, then coffee followed by a tech check. Any emails, messages etc, is the spot tracker on and tracking, is the nav monitor on the phone turned on. Has the route loaded to google maps. Are all the batteries charged and cables stowed away. The charger, as useless as it is, is packed and a final check of the room. Then to the garage to get the bike loaded. Clearly staff at Hotel H2 have never seen me get the bike ready because half way through the garage door shut. As luck would have it there is an emergency handle and even better it is not linked directly to an alarm. I set off looking for one last glimpse of the castle. I didn’t bother deviating to find it as I knew there were plenty more to see. It was colder today and at first I even contemplated putting another jacket on. I began to ride up into the mountain on the same road as last night’s excursion to gypsyland. The miles ticked off and the heat started to build. The roads, an endless ribbon of smooth tarmac twisting its way through the rugged baron landscape. I had loaded the destination as Ciudad Real Airport and that was three and a half hours away. The bike was happy at a steady 60mph and we effortlessly rode the glorious winding route. Soon enough it was clear that the sweeping bends, climbs and descents were coming to an end as the plains of Spain opened up before me. Mostly flat and straight they are just laborious riding. On a sports bike you’d stick your head down and give it a fist full, I tried honestly I tried. At 70mph I thought DJ may throw a con rod so we wound it back and settled in for the long haul. The sat nav said follow this road for 110km, as that came to an end it said continue on this road for 93km. Eventually, sick of Olive plantations and arrow straight roads, the countdown was on and Ciudad Real was getting closer. I began to wonder if the choice of location for an airport was not the best as I was clearly in the centre of the town. Stopping to check it appeared that I miss typed the location and had indeed requested the centre of town. Another 37km of reasonably straight road and I was starting to wonder again, but then a sign ‘Aerpeurto’.

You have to be wondering what my interest is in this place. I first saw it on an episode of Top Gear and wanted to visit it. I’m a huge plane and airport geek. So here’s the story. Constructed in the early 2000’s it was to be an international hub for Spain’s booming economy. It is located about 1 hour from Madrid and has the high speed railway passing very close to it. It opened in 2009 at a cost of €100 million and closed in 2012. There are many theories as to why, including the whole thing being an insurance scam. Currently it has no owner but there are reports of it having been sold for as little as £10,000. Also there is rumour that a Chinese consortium may buy it as a Euro hub for all their import goods. For now though it stands empty, like a ghost town. Empty car parks, terminals and conveyor belts. To stand there alone is quite a weird sensation. It really is like a scene from a movie apocalypse. You cannot get air side as it is still closed off, so a 60+ mph blast down the mile long runway was out of the question, but in fairness we had done that all day. But I did have a right laugh riding in places that, done in terminal 3 at Heathrow, would have you staring down the pointy end of an MP5 with an angry short man at the other end. What else do you do when you have a whole airport to yourself? I ate my lunch and chuckled at my abandoned rucksack leaning against terminal 1’s entrance door. Eventually I attracted the attention of security and had to put my clothes back on. It was time to get back on the road and head for Cordoba. 

The previous night I had looked at camp sites and saw the only one was the one I used last year, which was expensive. Back to those Booking.com people. I got a room in a hostel in the old part of town for €11. It was another few hours riding to get there but I was a happy chap. Riding into Cordoba I realised I know nothing of this city. Well I know there is a move in Red Bull X Fighters called the Cordoba flip and Seat once produced a car with the same name but no more.

I got to Cordoba reasonably early and quickly found the hostel. I booked in and was shown to my shared room on the sixth floor. There were no lifts and I had already decided the bike and I are too heavy. I was seriously worn out by the time I lugged my kit upstairs. I met an Australian back packer. Steve was on week five of a three month trip round Europe. He had done Ireland, UK and was now starting Spain. He liked Ireland but said nothing of the UK, only that it was colder and wetter than he thought. I grabbed a shower and came back to the room to meet two charming Spanish girls, both mid 20’s, who were also starting a European vacation. I went to park the bike in secure parking, but at €15 it was more than I was paying for my room so she was wrapped in her invisibility cloak and locked to a bin in a nearby street.

On returning to the dorm’ I met another Ozzy, Ken was at least 10 years older than me and had lived in Oz for 39 years having left UK for a holiday and never came back. Everyone liked the sound of my trip best and then we all went our separate ways for the night. I walked the town and saw castles, bridges, more castles and a mosque called Mosquita. Its unusual feature is that it has a Christian Cathederal inside the Mosque. There was a roman bridge across the river Guadalquivir leading to a castle. It was all very pretty (pics to follow).

Making my way back to the square nearest my hostel, it was filling up. Being Friday the place was busy with families enjoying the warm evening. I liked that families all go out together, children as young as 4 through to early teens enjoying time with their parents. The older teens still embraced the family aspect but also went off in groups huddled round their phones. I found a small Italian pizza parlour and sat down to enjoy pizza, cheesey bread and a bottle of water. As I ate I recalled that lunch was cheese based and now both courses were cheese. I resolved to eat more fruit. I then resolved to have a beer or two. Now quite why I did this I don’t know, I don’t drink much anymore and it was a hot night. I had already taken headache tablets, but none the less beer seemed a good idea. I remained in the square writing this very blog. Well, not all of it as its now at least 24 hours later. Anyway I enjoyed people watching and had an ice cream before checking the bike was still in place and headed back. As I climbed the endless hostel stairs my head was pounding and my stomach churning. I went straight to the bathroom where I was promptly sick. A veritable cheese fest emitted from my stomach, lubricated by beer and ice cream. Then I collapsed on the bathroom floor before having another shower and going to bed. I think most hostels expect that!

Castles and a near miss

I’ve had worse views from a hotel window.

So a great start as I honestly expected to be charged for the room on leaving but it was not to be. The bike started first kick, which is unheard of for an XR400. I made the decision not to go the direct motorway route as the bike cruises at 55mph and pushes on to 65mph, but I don’t want to be pushing on. I have an app on the phone called Scenic and it literally takes you the scenic route, so that was todays plan. I entered Cuidad Airport as my destination and saw that it was going to be 10hrs by ‘scenic’. I suspected it would be a long day especially as the app is a massive drain on phone battery. I had a charger on the bike and a solar back up. I set off and within 3 minutes the route was blocked by a market in the town. 30 minutes later I was still trying to escape the tight streets of Reinosa. However, once done I was treated to mile after mile of twisting roads through magnificent scenic hills and onto the flatter plains. Very quickly I was warned that the battery was low and I connected the solar charger to try and boost it somewhat.


(I was only going from the dot top right to where the line drops off the bottom, what hope in the desert?)

Before I left the hotel I had a coffee, my Spanish is not so good and a cappuccino was translated into a sticky tar like coffee with cinnamon on top. It wasn’t quite what I wanted. Some hours later I needed another, but being off the beaten track there are no fast food outlets or locals who can speak English. It’s my own fault for doing nothing to improve my linguistic skills. So a small village cafe was the place for lunch and I started with a cappuccino. What turned up was a barely warm hot chocolate. I didn’t bother with food.

Now I will tell you this, they love a castle the Spanish. I suspect that will be something to do with the many invasions, civil wars and other disputes throughout the ages. In fact there are over 2500 still standing, thats some turbulent past they’ve had. The upside is that I was treated to some great views along the way. The day was warming and I could see this tiny castle, on a prominent hill, from miles away. As I got closer I decided to stop there for a bite and a look round.

It’s the one at the bottom left. The Enriquez family built the castle in 1420 on the grounds of another castle destroyed in a heated dispute. They then rebuilt it again in 1538 after a revolt, gotta be doubting your choice of location or defences at that point surely. That’s the history lesson over. I sat in the empty square of the empty town and ate my flatbread and warm cheese. I drank from the fountain and set off again. The hours that followed were a great, just me on biking heaven roads without the sight of anyone else for miles. At about 6 pm I was beginning to ache and as I entered the town of Avila, north west of Madrid I was ready to find a campsite. Only one showed up on the map and it was 30 minutes away. Okay its 30 minutes but the road looked good. I rode through Avila and saw their very impressive and huge castle. Then I spent those 30 minutes riding through gorgeous mountain roads to the campsite. It was down a dusty track. Then I caught site of it. It was fenced off with barbed wire and had a collection of old motorbikes and dogs, or dags as the travellers back home call them. It was little more than a gypsy camp and it was locked down. No one came to see what I wanted and I wasnt so sure I wanted to raise anyone. Aching and somewhat unhappy I set off back to Avila. I rode the same winding roads, cornering swiftly, the bike pulled well up the hills. I suspect my mind was more occupied with finding somewhere to stay and getting off the saddle because after about 5km I was heading towards a slight right hander when a car came round it straight towards me. Suddenly it dawned on me I had ridden the whole way on the wrong side of the road. A quick lane change and I still had time to see the whites of the eyes of the woman who was a little upset to find me blocking her way. I made it back to Avila in one piece. Booking.com located a cheap motel and in minutes I was in a room with the bike garages for the night. I freshener up and walked into the town. Lids supplied the food and drink for tea as well as some supplies for tomorrow. Then I set off to find that impressive castle. I kid you not, I walked for an hour and couldn’t find the monstrous castle. I was feeling pretty tired so headed back to the motel.

I’ve covered 320 miles today, refuelled once and had one near death experience. Tomorrow I am headed for Cuidad Real Airport and then on to Cordoba.