Update - 'the British Tour'
07/07/06 19:16

Just returned from very successful 10 day visit to Wales and England. The trip started with the ferry to Pembroke and first stop was a visit to my aunt in the nearby enclosed Cistercian monastery for a couple of days. Great to see her and the other nuns, as usual a real tonic to visit.

Suitably calmed, it was on to the Brecon hills for my two day BMW Off Road Skills course. Everything I had read and heard about this course was positive, and I recognised it would be an important part of my preparations. I was fortunate to get a place as, despite the course not being inexpensive, there was a waiting list of 200.

At the registration there was a mixed bunch of us. I was only one of three who’d arrived on their bikes surprisingly (and the only one camping - the others booked into local hostelries). Most of the twenty odd participants were, if the parked cars and accents were any indication, fairly comfortably off middle class English lads. And it was all lads - seemingly females a rare presence in the ‘macho’ bike world (something about too much testosterone and competitiveness apparently). Linley Pavey, one of the organisers affirms the ‘female only’ courses work very well, particularly when the male partners aren’t around to correct them.

In the bright cheeriness and smart chat, the anticipation seemed mixed with a slight though noticeable edginess among us. Was everyone else more experienced and accomplished than me? Most were equipped with fairly expensive riding gear and the age group was certainly weighted towards thirties and forties - surely these fellas were very experienced, ‘real’ bikers? Reminding myself I was here to learn what I could for my mission, I relaxed a bit .

After being introduced to our bikes - mostly F650 Dakars - we set off in an 18 strong group for the 4,000 acre enduro park in the hills, which was to be our classroom. Simon Pavey, a down to earth Australian who together with his wife Linley runs the show, is a six time Paris Dakar race competitor, and while his skills were obviously expert what really impressed was his teaching ability - constantly encouraging and building up confidence with light humour. Tony, Simon’s off sider, is a wiry fit looking Londoner in his fifties, extensively travelled on his bike (most recently a solo 4 month return trip to Mali through the Sahara on his F650 Dakar). These guys were good.

Over the following two days, baking in our protective gear and helmets in the strong sun, we were put through the paces - starting with how best to pick up the bike! From there it was slow balancing manoeuvres and clutch and throttle control, progressing onto controlled rear wheel locking, front wheel locking (scary), and emergency stops on gravel. Slowly this was building our skill levels, familiarity and ultimately confidence. We were split then into smaller groups according to ability, the advanced group being taken by Simon Pavey for a trail ride. This is where we started to put into practice what we learned! Despite, or maybe because of, the relentless pace, stifling heat, risk, and full concentration, it was exhilarating. We hammered the bikes over varied terrain - rutted forest tracks some barely wide enough for the bikes, steep inclines, humps, ditches, mud pools, and of course loads of loose gravel. The following day we learned more techniques - descents, controlled momentum, bike recovery up a hill and of course further challenging trail riding. We had four casualties: shattered elbow, broken collar bone, and two sprains. I count myself lucky I wasn’t one of them, coming off a few times, once at some speed mistakenly trying to change ruts and involuntarily taking a closer inspection of the forest - fortunately a sprained toe and curled front brake lever the extent of the damage. I had, wisely in retrospect, elected to hire sturdy motocross boots - recommended by the instructors.

Charlie Boorman and Ewan McGregor, of 'Long Way Round' fame, had been on the site just the previous day, being trained by Simon for their next filmed trip from the UK to Cape Town down the East coast of Africa, starting next year. At one stage Ewan and his bike apparently parted spectacularly in mid air, though unfortunately the camera had just stopped filming! He was shaken but uninjured. The trip (not the training exercise) is to be called the 'Long Way Down'.

Over the two days the bonhomie developed among our group - all challenged and pushed, all in the same boat. And what a magnificent two days - energy drained, riding gear and helmet sodden with gallons of sweat, a huge amount learned and confidence gained, and the best fun I’ve had standing up! As I was leaving, Simon (right) slipped me a gift of a centre stand for my Dakar. I was touched.

Continued through the lovely Brecon hills to Hollybush campsite before Hay-on-Wye. Warm evening sun, tent pitched in a forest by the river (- What’s the river we’re camping near? - Wye. - Well, I’d like to know! -Wye!..), real ale and imaginative food. What luck! Next day I was picking through some of the thirty bookshops of Hay. Passing the first window I noted some titles at random: 'A History of the Passport', 'The Assassins - Islamic Cult' and 'Autobiography of Nobby Stiles', and understood the appeal of the 'town of books' - you could probably find any subject you wanted here! Trying to firmly discriminate in my choices I still ended up a dozen books to the good leaving, all vitally important for trip preparation it seemed, and it could have been a lot more. What a draw for bookshop addicts, particularly remaindered and second hand. Books that is.

So on through the Cotswolds and into London through the evening traffic surprisingly comfortably, to friends in Clapham. And a visit to my old employers Exodus in nearby Balham the next day. Starting with an overland truck trip to Asia in the seventies, they have been taken over a few times in recent years and now are a major player in the activity based holiday market. Overland truck trips have all but disappeared from their brochure. A warm reception, old memories and stories revived - I’m sure mistaken identity in some of them - of trips in Asia and South America, before we got out the Africa maps. Poring over them Steve Nattrass, Phil Normington and Paul Goldstein were full of information on various parts of the continent, promising to forward me a list of contacts on my route that could be a great help.

The third stage of my ‘British tour’ brought me up the M1 motorway to Derbyshire, in a strong headwind where I discovered one of the limitations to my F650 Dakar. Its relative lightness, smaller engine and higher centre of gravity weren't well suited to riding at motorway speed with the wind buffeting the bike. It didn’t feel solid enough. But that's OK, that's not why I selected it. My destination was the Horizons Unlimited overland biking weekend near the town of Ripley. I was looking forward to this event, being a regular visitor to the website which provides a huge range of information on long distance traveling by motorbike - everything from suggested bike modifications, trip reports and tyre recommendations to current border difficulties, visa requirements and medical risks.

Hundreds of fellow bikers were there, bikes and tents spread over a few acres. Gradually it dawned on me these folks weren’t your stereotype ragged, rough biker type. There was a preponderance of the larger BMW bikes with expensive pannier racks and travel modifications, and the latest in tent technology too. I had little idea some of these 2 or 3 man tents could set you back €600+. The atmosphere could only be described as friendly and welcoming, with most folks there to either hang out and catch up with fellow travellers, or - my objective - to attend the talks and to learn as much as possible.

As well as a number of very humorously offered presentations on various trips - South America and Morocco appear to be popular destinations - there was an extraordinary 10 day endurance event in Finland terrifically presented by David Lomax, talks on GPS navigation systems, filming your trip, basic bike preparation, 1st Aid on the road, the hilarious ‘Phil and Danny’s Roadkill Cookout’, even a panel discussion on ‘How to get someone of the opposite sex to go with you’, which I unfortunately missed. My gratitude to an old Sahara hand Bertrand Sargisson, who also has an F650 Dakar and spent quite some time with me marking my card - invaluable and reassuring. During the weekend a few of us managed a ‘ride out’ through the beautiful nearby Peak District, including some fun off road tracks (at which off course I now felt confident). Riding through the scenery I really wondered why the British bothered with motoring holidays in the likes of Ireland and Tuscany with this beauty on their doorsteps.

I was to note this again on the road towards my last destination, the Centre for Alternative Technology in west Wales. The purpose in visiting was to equip myself a little better with information for countries visited on my upcoming journey. Near Corris, an old slate mining village among forest clad hills, the CAT centre is set up as a model demonstrating various forms of renewable energy and alternative building practices. It also has an extensive bookshop on those subjects.

At this stage my head was full to bursting with all the information over the ten days, and it was with a slight weariness and satisfaction I made my way up the lovely coast of Wales to the ferry at Holyhead.