Two Aussie blokes riding their BMW R1150GSs from Australia to Europe

Month: June 2016

Central Europe – a change of lineup and a change of mindset

It was a strange feeling saying goodbye to Drew after literally spending every waking minute together for the last four months. We’d travelled so far, met so many people and experienced so much; together. Of course, the practical part of me (which a lot of people would argue is the most dominant) knew from the beginning that this moment was coming. But that didn’t make it any easier to say farewell.

What did make it easier though was the knowledge that for me, the journey wasn’t over yet. After spending a few weeks in Vienna making preparations for our residency it was out with the old, in with the new and back on the road again. Like it or not Drew has been replaced by Moni, my wife, and two up we’re now making our way across Europe.

This change in personnel has also marked a significant change in attitude for the journey. You can’t channel Casey Stoner when you’re two up, not if you want to stay married that is. Road selection hasn’t been about how many bends it has or how high it’s altitude is, and certainly not whether there’s any dirt we can hit. It has become a delicate balance of practicality; how quickly will we reach our destination vs how much will we enjoy the time on the bike.

And despite the change in personnel, I can’t help but recognise there’s been a shift in the journey that’s totally out of my hands. We’re no longer ‘adventure motorcyclists’ because if we’re totally honest, we’re no longer on an adventure. Travel through Europe is blissfully easy; people follow the rules, road quality is magnificent, food is fantastic, infrastructure functions in a functional fashion, you don’t have to factor four hours to cross a border and you can sit down on the toilet and use paper instead of your hands to clean up after yourself. We’re tourists and we’re on holiday, we just happen to be doing it on a motorcycle.

And we're on the road

And we’re on the road

This transition from adventurer to tourist has been apparent in the way other people interact with us too – previously our motorcycles would attract attention, and when asked what our purpose was people would clearly struggle to comprehend just what was wrong with us.

You can't be sure your tank's really full unless 50 people confirm that it's full

You can’t be sure your tank’s really full unless 50 people confirm that it’s full

Now we don’t stand out in the crowd – nobody seems to notice us riding a bike that’s 13 years old and not straight off the factory floor like most of the other bikes we see (and gee BMW must be doing alright for themselves at the moment). I suspect that most people think the ‘AUS’ on the back of my bike stands for Austria instead of Australia as even fellow motorcyclists don’t engage in conversation with us – it’s all just so normal.

Waiting to board the ferry to Sardinia - we lined up with 10 other bikes, and none of them even said hello

Waiting to board the ferry to Sardinia – we lined up with 10 other bikes, and none of them even said hello

And so it’s with this new line up and mindset that Moni and I have made it two thousand kilometres further west of Vienna. I had organised to spend a week on the Italian island of Sardinia for Moni’s Christmas present, so it was in the south-west direction that I pointed the handlebars. We ate breakfast in Graz, Austria, had lunch in Ljubljana, Slovenia, before arriving in eastern Italy for dinner.

Good to know how far several of our destinations are - overlooking Graz, Austria

Good to know how far several of our destinations are – overlooking Graz, Austria

We’d decided to skip Venice enroute, as we knew we couldn’t take the bike there. The thought of finding somewhere to leave the bike and then unloading all of our luggage didn’t really appeal so we scraped it from the list. Of course, we still needed to find somewhere to stay for the night, and purely by coincidence we found ourselves in a caravan park almost directly opposite The Floating City. When checking in, the receptionist showed us the map of the park and pointed to the bus stop out the front, saying “this is where the bus departs to Venice, and it will take you there in ten minutes”. I looked at Moni and said “dinner in Venice then?”, and before we knew it we were on the bus. What a delightfully pleasant surprise too – we spent two hours walking through the city enjoying the atmosphere before we found somewhere to eat.

The next morning it was off to the Tuscan capital of Florence. The road into Florence crossed a mountain range which made for some cracking motorcycling, even though we were two up. The sound of performance sport bikes echoed through the hills as we descended into Florence – the Italians do enjoy their motorcycling! After another casual stroll through the old town we obliged our palettes by indulging in some more quality Italian food and wine.

We were taking the ferry to Sardinia from Livorno which is 25kms from the infamous Pisa, and it would have been quite rude of us not to pay a visit.

After a night on Livorno’s coast where we watched kite surfers with envy, we rose stupidly early to catch the ferry to Sardinia. Our destination was Stintino on the far north western corner, where we did absolutely nothing but eat, drink and laze on the beach for a week!

All good things must come to an end as they say, but our next firm destination was to be St. Gallen in Switzerland more than a week later. On a whim we decided to spend that week making our way north through France’s answer to Sardinia; Corsica. I don’t even know where to start with Corsica – it’s like Tasmania on steroids, in the middle of the mediterranean! It has mountains over 2500 metres high, picture perfect beaches, world class hiking trails, surfing, kite surfing, diving, sailing – the list goes on. Oh, and did I mention the motorcycling? The place is a motorcyclist’s wet dream and for Drew’s sake I’m sorry to say that it beats Romania for the number one motorcycling destination we’ve travelled through yet. And to top it all off the food is to die for – fantastic locally produced cured meats, cheese, wine and beer make for very happy tourists.

Unfortunately St. Gallen was calling and so it was back on the bike to get back on the boat to begin our mad-dash through Europe to catch up with the dozen or so friends we have dotted in all corners of the continent. It’s tough, but somebody’s gotta do it…

Budapest to Vienna – the end of the road after 26,250kms

Very happy with ourselves as we stepped off the bikes in the heart of Vienna

Very happy with ourselves as we stepped off the bikes in the heart of Vienna

And that’s a wrap folks! For me this epic adventure has finally come to an end, I promised Sophie I would be home for her birthday and although I have missed it by one day I will make her birthday party. I feel naked without my motorcycle, my life as I know it is in a 27kg bag and my bike will eventually make it home by ship, thankfully James and Monica can look after it until then.

What a bike! Brigitta's 17 years old with 170,000kms on her clock and she's taken me 26,250kms across 14 countries without a hitch

What a bike! Brigitta’s 17 years old with 170,000kms on her clock and she’s taken me 26,250kms across 14 countries without a hitch

All 27kgs of my life's possessions for the last 4 months, wrapped up in a $4 gypsy bag

All 27kgs of my life’s possessions for the last 4 months, wrapped up in a $4 gypsy bag

Vienna, Austria (Monica’s home city) was the catalyst for this trip and what a beautiful city it is! Always coming in a very close second to the world’s most liveable city, Melbourne. After spending six wonderful days in Romania I only had three full days to take in Vienna, but with Monica to show me around I feel like I know it and can’t wait to visit again with Sophie. We have many friends and family who now reside in Europe so I can see many trips to come.

The red wine consumed last night has brought on some emotional reflection of our journey. What we accomplished in four months on our motorcycles will only take a jet plane 22 hours. Looking out the window of the plane I can almost pinpoint our journey overland. I’m dressed in my new clothes from Zara in Vienna, upon purchase I noticed it was made in Pakistan and it took me back to the road, riding past huge textile factories producing items for the western world to consume but I’m sure none of the other patrons were thinking what I was…

For us Pakistan has a very different meaning than most

For us Pakistan has a very different meaning than most

Blokes on Spokes was a motorcycle adventure but underneath our desire to ride around the world there was much more to the journey. James and Monica had made a massive decision to leave Melbourne and start anew in Vienna. For myself it was an opportunity to remove myself from our all consuming business and busy life in Melbourne. My business partner Nick and I have been working extremely hard on our business for the past 12 years and I am the first to acknowledge that it has taken a toll on our health and well being. Four months ago I left Melbourne a worn soul: I was searching for something other than the 8-5 slog and have to admit I was concerned that our journey would provoke even further frustration of my work/life balance. In fact it had the opposite effect. The whole experience has been so humbling that I now only feel guilt of how fortunate my life is. I am returning to Australia a new man. I had lost my way in a Western world driven by money and success and forgotten about the most important things in life. Family, love and health come first and everything else second from now on. We left Melbourne in search of good roads, scenery and adventure but I’m returning with no lasting memory of the riding but only of the kindness of people. I am also returning a more focussed businessman; wealth is an absolute privilege in this world and I am lucky enough to have the support and ability to increase it for the future of my children and family.

I cannot thank James enough for the support over the last few years, not only was he my best man at our wedding he was also the brainchild behind our adventure. Months of preparation leading up to our rushed departure proved vital to our success and I will be forever grateful.

Jimmy, on the streets of Malaysia. It takes two to tango, and I wouldn't have made it without his help

Jimmy, on the streets of Malaysia. It takes two to tango, and I wouldn’t have made it without his help

Eastern Europe – Bulgaria to Budapest – 26,000kms

We’d not researched anything about Bulgaria – originally planning to simply transit the country enroute to Romania. This would have been more than achievable, as Google Maps suggests that the 650kms from Istanbul to Bucharest can be done in a little over 8 hours, which has become normal day of riding for us. But a day or two out we thought we should at least stop for the night – after all, when were we likely to visit Bulgaria again? And so it was with blissful ignorance that we crossed the border of Turkey and Bulgaria and officially entered the European Union and our third continent.

People often say how remarkable it is that landscapes and culture seem to change instantly as you cross a border, and we couldn’t agree more. Suckers for the seaside, we took the most scenic route down to the Black Sea and were amazed at the solitude of the place – during our first 100kms in the country we saw only two or three other vehicles. The road was literally overgrown with greenery, a stark contrast to the arid landscapes that we’d grown accustomed to over recent weeks.

Drew, inspecting some minor road damage to see if we can make it through

Drew, inspecting some minor road damage to see if we can make it through

It’s incredible to think that only 26 years ago, communism was the norm in this part of the world – communist era infrastructure can still be seen in their buildings, buses and trams and road maintenance. We didn’t spend nearly enough time to get a solid appreciation of the way of life, but people do seem to have moved along way forward from communist rule.

Passing through the streets of country Bulgaria

Passing through the streets of country Bulgaria

It was also strange to see Cyrillic script printed everywhere – thankfully we had our GPS, otherwise we might not have managed to navigate our way across. After spending our last night on the sea as two Blokes we saddled up and enjoyed a fantastic day’s riding as we pushed towards our commitments in Bucharest.

Back on the highway en route to Bucharest

Back on the highway en route to Bucharest

My wife’s family is Romanian and our sponsor Remedia is also based there, as such Romania was always an important stop on our itinerary. Valentin, my father in law, was watching our progress on our Spot Tracker and met us on our way into Bucharest – we were almost run off the road as he enthusiastically waved us down! He escorted directly to a Bavarian Beer Haus where we caught up over sausages, sauerkraut, and erm, beer. But it wasn’t all about food and drink and our attention quickly turned to more responsible matters.

Making a short presentation of our journey for the staff at Remedia

Making a short presentation of our journey for the staff at Remedia

We were invited to share stories about our journey with the staff at Remedia, and this was followed by an interview for the Romanian television station Antenna3.

Turning heads and cameras

Turning heads and cameras

Not wanting to stop there though, we also made a short presentation at Automobile Bavaria Otopeni, who in return very graciously gave the bikes a much needed service. Emanuel and the team were fantastic to deal with and gave the bikes far more attention than they deserved – if you’re in Romania and on a BMW that needs some TLC, you can’t go wrong to pay them a visit. Really!

"More intensity!"

“More intensity!”

These photos make our bikes look far more glamorous than they actually are...

These photos make our bikes look far more glamorous than they actually are…

...look closely at Drew's indicator!

…look closely at Drew’s indicator!

We did take the time to soak up some of the things Bucharest had to offer which included a walking tour of the city and a visit to the communist dictator Ceaușescu’s palatial residence. It was quite incredible to walk through this simple but opulent home, knowing that whilst occupied, people outside it’s walls were starving.

Ceaușescu began his rule as a popular leader and initially Romania prospered under his stewardship.  His public condemnation of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 by other communist nations won favour in the US. This led to Romania’s membership in the International Monetary Fund from whom he proceeded to borrow a staggering $13 billion. The debts got out of hand, and determined to reign things in Ceaușescu decided to export everything. Needless to say when you export everything (and don’t import anything) people are going to run out of things to eat, and the once popular leader became the most hated man in the country. Remarkably though, just weeks before he was overthrown and executed, the debt was fully paid off – Romania remains the only country in the world to have achieved this.

With our media commitments behind us and our thirst for recent history quenched we got back on the bikes for Drew’s final leg to Vienna. During our trip planning one of the only roads we’d marked as a ‘must ride’ was the Transfagarasan, which crosses the Carpathian Mountains and was famously declared “the best road in the world” by Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson. With a declaration like that, we’d be fools not to include it on our way west, right? Needless to say we were pretty heartbroken when we found out the road was officially closed still for the winter (yep, we were there in May!) and wouldn’t open until June. We met fellow overlander Florea Ionut (aka Jon, from Into The World) at Automobile Bavaria, and he mentioned that we might have more luck with the Transalpina. Sure, it hadn’t featured on a TV show, but we were assured it was no less spectacular. And that was all we needed; after a fantastic home cooked breakfast provided by our outstanding hosts in Bucharest we were back on the road again.

Our farewell breakfast - there was hardly any food and our stomachs were growling all day

Our farewell breakfast – there was hardly any food and our stomachs were growling all day

And blow me down if Jeremy wasn’t barking up the right tree when talking about Romanian roads. Un-f&^king-believable! We didn’t even make it all the way over the Transalpina either, because it was still covered with a metre of snow! But we had bloody sensational time trying.

We had so much fun in fact, that the following day we decided to try our luck from the other direction, knowing full well that we’d eventually hit the snowline again – we didn’t care, we just loved every kilometre on the roads of the Carpathians. Gorgeous green mountains, fantastic tarmaced roads, picture perfect villages and fantastic (and affordable) food made Romania our favourite country so far for motorcycling. If you like motorcycling, you will love Romania!

But all good things must come to an end as they say, and we needed to continue towards Hungary. My bike was determined to stay in Romania however. The morning of our last day a strange noise was coming from my bike’s alternator belt, and at times like these, it’s always comforting to travel with a bloke like Drew.

Drew, hard at work at my alternator belt

Drew, hard at work at my alternator belt

Initially planned as another transit country, we squeezed a night in Budapest in as our last hurrah as two Blokes – the following day would see us ride into Vienna where I’d be reunited with my wife, and Drew would depart to Australia to reunited with his. A vibrant city with incredibly rich culture and history, ironically we were both so tired from abusing our motorcycles in Romania that our last ‘big night out’ finished at around 9:30PM. History and culture came a boring second place to sleep.

And so, with mixed feelings of achievement and sadness, the two of us saddled our bikes in Budapest for our final ride together on this epic adventure…

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