Update 11th December 2006
Malaga, S Spain.

hughgrove1

The journey has started after all the dreaming, planning, preparation - and delays. The weather had been blowing up the preceding weeks, hadn’t settled, and on the Saturday morning of departure the ferry from Rosslare was cancelled. After the intensity of the build up to my imminent leavetaking, this felt ….like a lifting of pressure. The rush was off. It was decided to go ahead with the farewell in Kilkenny as the mayor and some press, along with various well wishers would be there, so I did a makeshift pack, rode into town and did the official ‘farewell’ from the steps of the City Hall. A few friends were to accompany me by bike to Rosslare, and the arrangement was made that we’d go as far as Thomastown, a half hour down the road, where I would swing off and come back home! I felt honoured to be led on the first part of my journey by a 1958 BSA Matchless built in Ghana on which Ian Hamilton, who had brewed Guinness in Nigeria for years, had ridden home to Ireland.

I spent the next 24 hours house bound as the fierce storm raging made it unsafe to ride. This was a blessing in disguise, allowing me to properly make my final arrangements, and pass a final night in my empty house with the winds howling outside. Eventually on the Monday morning, my dad a lone figure waving from the pier, I left Rosslare for Wales and to the Cistercian abbey where my aunt lived. I got a great welcome.

Holy Cross abbey is a small community of Cistercian nuns. As in the Catholic church generally, falling vocations has been a phenomenon which has meant the monastery had some difficulty sustaining itself with an increasing average age. Recently however, there seems to have been an increase in interest in the monastic life. Possibly a slight loosening of the strict rules has made the life a little more accessible, or that there will always be those in society who are drawn to the contemplative life no matter how seemingly anachronistic in our modern times.
nuns

The community had known I was to visit on my way through, and there was an air of excitement concerning my plans. Understanding that the enclosed life of the largely silent Cistercians was strictly regulated, with seven daily offices, starting at 3am, along with their regular chores, my concern was of disrupting the routine with my presence. I was reassured amongst much laughter there was no such thing as a ‘regular’ day in there, the joke being “next week we’ll settle into our normal routine” as they still await the “next week”. The previous morning, mass had been disrupted by the call for all to help usher back cattle that had strayed out onto the road! I was invited to give a brief outline to the community of my journey and after over an hour’s question and answer session in the parlour - the route, why I was going, what I was taking with me, where would I sleep - they filed outside to give my bike the once over. It was inspiring to hear the level of curiosity and interest.

Relaxing there, my first night ‘on the road’, I felt a pleasing mixture of excitement along with a familiarity and comfort being in this calming place once again. My aunt and the others made a fuss of me, the Abbess insisting on cooking a steak for my dinner. I was horrified at the suggestion, knowing the diet of the community was vegetarian with very simple (though tasty) fare. But when it became clear it was important to them, I accepted gracefully and enjoyed probably my last good sirloin for a while. It was delicious.

With the adverse weather, my sailing options from England had now changed. AT Ferries kindly offered me a ticket on their Thursday sailing to Spain, but fortunately there was a Wednesday Brittany Ferries sailing weather permitting. At 5 am, after the small community of nuns had blessed me and my bike for the journey, I set off in the dark and a strong wind under an auspiciously full moon. This wind was to buffet me all the way to southern Spain!
plymouth

The naval training port of Plymouth is in the south east of England, and has a long maritime history. I was somewhat unimpressed until stuck in morning rush hour traffic I looked up to see a magnificent architecturally fanned backdrop to the imposing ruins of the cathedral. It really was an impressive feature to the main street. Spontaneously I pulled the bike onto a traffic island to take a snapshot, then wound my way around the city to the port. Two hours early! So this was it, a sense of the real journey starting, once I’d left the familiarity of England. Queuing to board, a few fellow passengers came over to chat, their interest piqued by the bike with its panniers and two enduro spare tyres strapped on.

After checking in and been given my complimentary cabin (courtesy of Brittany Ferries) I made for the cafetaria for a lunch I suspected was better eaten before things got too rocky. The Bay of Biscay has an unpleasant reputation at the best of times, and I wasn’t looking forward to the crossing in today’s winds. I fell into company with two friendly couples on bikes heading to a holiday house in Almeria for the week. Mark and Dave, a traffic cop and a builder, with their respective partners Vickie and Brigit, were from Somerset. They had been delayed leaving home – “the girls weren’t ready” - and were riding at 90-100 mph down the motorway to make up time. Dave the cop deliberately stayed behind Mark. In the event of being caught for speeding, he’d flash his badge and confide he was after Dave to have a word about his speed! Mark was a 35 year old boy - always ready with a mischievous grin or humorous anecdote! He proudly showed me a video on his mobile phone, with loud crashing sound, of his men pushing a huge built-in freezer out of a second floor window onto the street below, because “how else could we get it out?” They had cleared the street first. For that same job he proudly showed photos of replica Terracotta Warriors which he’d sourced for the Chinese restaurant. They looked the real thing, very impressive illuminated in cabinets at the restaurant entrance. “How much would you say?” I hadn’t a clue. Apparently 2000 each. “But through the internet I found a place in Belgium that sells returns! Got them for 600!” Returns? It appears some models can have slight flaws. Mark’s specimens on closer inspection had one leg shorter than the other, giving the effect of leaning conspiratorially towards the passing customer. After lunch the two women drifted off, with Mark sniggering, “don’t tell me the girls are getting a bit green on us, are they?” I admitted to feeling a little smug as my sister in law had given me some travel sickness pills anticipating the bad weather!

By evening as we had rounded the coast of Brittany, things were very quiet on board, most passengers probably taking to their bunks as the most comfortable place to ride out the pitching and tossing. Deciding to check out what was on in the two cinemas, my choice was made for me by the large splash of someone’s dinner decorating the second row of one, and I sat down in the second cinema along with a few other souls to watch Michael Douglas in some plot to kill the president. It was very comfortable, and a pleasant distraction, before I headed for an early night reading ‘Race to Dakar’ by Charley Boorman, an indulgence I bought the day before leaving for this very situation. It was of particular interest to read about Charley’s preparation and participation with Simon Pavey, the instructor from the BMW Off Road Skills course in Wales. I had fond memories of that two day course, and had to concur with the author’s high regard for Simon.

The next morning, breakfast was a quiet affair. Brigit joined me later at my table and tucked into her fry with relish, laughing at her efforts to have a shower in the rough conditions, and at my account of being tossed from side to side in the bunk all night. Vickie, then Mark and Dave turned up after a while, looking a little sheepish. They’d given up an intention the previous evening to have a few beers, and none of them had had a comfortable night with the yawing and heaving of the boat. The two lads were quite a bit subdued!

The city of Santander in a beautiful natural setting on the northern Spanish coast is a popular beach destination in the summer. Arriving into it late on a drizzly, windy winter afternoon I could think only of getting on my way. My intention was to find the national road to Burgos, as opposed to the more obvious but less direct motorway and this I thought would be a good opportunity to try my navigational system, the GPS, in a foreign city environment. Once I managed to actually get out of the labarynthine docks, it soon became obvious unfortunately the software was out of date, when I was directed up blocked off or non existent streets. (This was to happen the following day in Madrid as well, bringing me on a little tour of the city before I got back onto the ring road again.) Updating the software hadn’t been high up the list of priorities before departing.

The couple of hours to Burgos was over the Picos de Europa on a spectacularly scenic road, despite the poor weather. From lush, green fields, deciduous woodland, streams and winding bends perfect for biking, the landscape took a more ‘west of Ireland look’ with poor highlands and stone walls; then to a completely different, barren spaghetti Western aspect with little pueblos tucked below the mesa, in canyons carved by the river Ebro, huge columns of weathered rock in rows like rotten teeth. It was evening, and it took little imagination to dispel the rain and wind, yellow and orange sun setting on the sandstone cliff faces.

The cathedral city of Burgos was a major stop on the walking pilgrimage I’d done across Spain the previous year. However there was no inclination to reminisce fondly as with the darkness, the riding became more of a challenge. The drizzle made it difficult to see clearly out the visor, and transiting the cutthroat evening traffic (no respect here for transcontinental motorcyclists!) was an ordeal with the bright headlights reflecting off the dirtied visor making guesswork a major part of the riding. An hour or more down the road with the high winds increasing the difficulty, I decided to call it quits and checked into a roadside hotel. Twenty euros for a comfortable en suite room and nine for a three course menu with wine and coffee, was a pleasant surprise.

Unfortunately the weather the next morning wasn’t looking any better - a look out the window to see a heavy chain swinging in the wind, and then to notice the hotel doors barricaded with a table to stop them blowing open didn’t bode well. I was aiming to get down to the south to where friends had flown over for a final send off (or rather to make sure I really did head off to Africa and not hole up in Malaga for the winter sending back fictitious reports!). Sitting it out in a motel on the side of the motorway was not an appealing option.

The following hour and a half to Madrid was no fun. A strong wind from the west (“Peligro - viento lateral!” warned the motorway sign) kept up a barrage of ambushes as the road forged through rough hills and ravines - blasting me broadside and necessitating a drop in speed to 40mph at times. I began to get a little more accustomed to anticipating the blasts from the lie of the upcoming land against the direction of the road. There were certain ‘moments’ of adrenalin rush, as the bike was nearly lifted across a lane. Fortunately it was a national holiday, which meant the traffic was a lot lighter, with very few trucks.

South of Madrid it brightened up, and the flatter landscape and bigger horizons allowed ample notice of belts of low dark clouds, and of the sunshine on the other side. With the landscape change the wind, if not much reduced, at least was constant. The bike was at an angle against it, now a little less unstable, and I was enjoying the ride a bit more, with overtaking trucks less of a hazard. After the plains of La Mancha, the land of tilting windmills, it was into Andalucia, through olive trees dotted as far as the eye could see over the poor hilly landscape. Veering west past Granada sitting under the snowy Sierra Nevada, was the last stretch. Despite the headwind, it was a pleasant ride, with a magnificent few miles of sweeping bends dropping the road down to Malaga and the milder coast. I had made it in about eight hours. It was my longest experience in the saddle by far, and to my pleasant surprise - manageable. It seems that about two hours is when the shifting starts, the need to take the weight off the buttocks, various positional combinations used to ease the pressure. Just running the original fuel tank gave a range of approx 270 kms, conveniently time to stretch the legs and ease the bum.
stupa

A special pleasure at reaching Paul’s holiday house further down the coast was the incongruously located giant Buddhist stupa overlooking the sea. And I gave acknowledgement and thanks for a successful arrival to the southern edge of Europe.