After being stuck in Vienna far longer than expected whilst we tried to finalise settling down, the opportunity to return to London and ride the bike home finally presented itself. Unfortunately Moni decided that she wasn’t able to spare the time to join me, so our original plans of heading north through Belgium, The Netherlands and Northern Germany to catch up with her friends there were made null and void. I decided however to make the most of the opportunity and return to The Alps where I could enjoy the mountain riding – this time without a pillion. It also gave me the chance to catch up with another friend from Beijing, Becs, who’d moved back to Geneva a few years ago.
With a tight timeline and The Alps firmly in my sight, my trip across France was again nothing more than a commute. I considered stopping in Paris for the night, but the thought of navigating the bike through one of Europe’s biggest cities just to say “I’ve done it” didn’t really enthuse me, so I steered clear. And so in two days, stopping for nothing but food and fuel, I made it to Geneva.
It was fantastic to see Becs again and she wasted no time in showing me some of Geneva’s eating and drinking highlights – we hadn’t seen each other in four years, and enjoying beers on Lake Geneva really emphasised the cultural differences to Beijing. But The Alps were a stone’s throw away so the following morning I set off to put myself in their midst.
I’d marked a few mountain passes on the map, the first being the Grimsel Pass. After giving the bike a good flogging I stopped at the damn wall of Lake Grimsel to take a break and a photo or two. There were motorbikes everywhere, but one stood out: a brand new R1200GS fully loaded, complete with a spare set of heavy duty tyres. Of course, when you see a big bike in an Asian country it’s not at all unusual to see a spare set of tyres on it. But in Western Europe big bikes and motorcycle workshops are in abundance, so I knew this bloke was heading somewhere different. Turns out he’d noticed the “AUS” sticker next to my number plate and we immediately knew we were on bigger journeys than the other bikers tearing up and down the passes.
Ewen was only four days into his trip around the world (check out his blog goinground.me) – he’d left from Cologne in Germany and was planning to spend two years on the road. Heading in the opposite direction to that which we had come, he was enroute to Australia, after which he was planning to skip across to The Americas. After the small talk we realised that we were heading in the same direction for the day and both wanted to smash a few more passes. So with no good reason not to, we decided to ride together.
And smash the mountain passes we did. From Grimsel we next took on the Furka Pass, and that in turn led us to the Gotthard Pass. The Gotthard Pass took us in the wrong direction, but we decided to ride it anyway as that would give us a good excuse to do it all over again in reverse. This is where it all went horribly wrong.
Spurred on by another rider who was undoubtedly on a more powerful bike than I, I was giving the Old Girl everything she had to keep up as we zig-zagged back up the pass. I wrapped the throttle on after coming out of a hairpin and the bike revved in turn – but there was no power to the wheel. Trying again, the engine screamed, but forward momentum escaped me. Needless to say I was a touch disappointed that here, on the first day of what I’d hoped would be several in The Alps, my bike was going nowhere.
Eventually Ewen came back, realising that I was no longer in his rear vision mirror. He graciously offered his help to try and sort it out with me but I refused: we’d only met two hours before, and four days into his journey he didn’t need to be burdened with a bloke on broken bike. And besides, after riding more than 30,000kms across the world I was pretty sure I could sort something out on my own. So I bid him good luck and farewell, and proceeded to push my bike in the opposite direction.
The wonderful thing about breaking down near the top of a mountain pass in the European Alps is that you’ve got a long way to get to the bottom. I rolled the Old Girl no less than 5kms (at quite a pace too) before the hill flattened out and I rolled to a stop. The nearest campground was still 10kms away so I turned her over to see what might happen. Applying the throttle very gently I was able to get some momentum, but if I pushed it any harder than 4000RPM the power disappeared. So ever so gently I eased towards the camp site.
The timing was painfully ironic – I was only 1000kms away from finishing the journey for good, and yet here I was stuck in the middle of Switzerland with a bike that couldn’t ride any faster than an electric wheelchair. Suspecting the clutch to be the cause of my woes, I posted on the Advrider forum to see what others more knowledgable than me thought of the situation. The night’s campsite set me back $45AUD so I wasn’t really enthusiastic about getting the bike repaired in Switzerland; the clutch after all is one of the most time consuming jobs to do on a BMW. I really just wanted to know if people thought I could make it back to Vienna.
I woke the following morning to a multitude of replies to my post on the forum – the internet really is an incredible thing! There were two possible scenarios put forward: firstly as I suspected, my clutch was spent; secondly it could be that the drive shaft was turning inside itself, causing the loss of power. It was proposed that if it was the clutch I might be able make it to Vienna; if it was the drive shaft the bike was going home on a truck.
I pulled the starter motor off the side of the bike to take a look at the clutch, which to my untrained eyes looked fine – no fluid to be seen which could cause slippage. But without the means to inspect the driveshaft myself, I resolved to try riding 80kms to the nearest BMW dealership to see what they had to say on the matter. I decided their opinion would determine my course of action – providing of course that I made it there at all.
After perhaps the slowest, most nervous 80kms I’d ever ridden I arrived just 30 minutes before closing time. The head mechanic took the bike for a quick spin and upon his return he announced through a thick Swiss-German accent “it’s really bad”. Well, no surprises there.
He suspected it was the clutch and quoted approximately 2000 Swiss Francs for the labour to repair it – near enough to $3000AUD – which is almost what the bike itself is worth. This was all the motivation I needed to jump straight back on the bike and try my luck to Vienna. The first goal was just to get out of Switzerland; if it did come to the point that I needed to call a truck, my wallet desperately wanted to be making that phone call from Germany or Austria – not Switzerland. It was already 6pm, and I had 200kms to ride before the next border – Europe never felt so big! By 10PM I found a campsite just over the Austrian border. No more than two minutes passed after I’d set up my tent before the heavens opened. What a day.
The heavens were still wide open when I woke the following morning – it was pissing down. This was to be my last day on the bike, and what a way to start it. I packed the sopping wet tent in the pouring rain and proceeded to get sopping wet in the process. Over breakfast I checked the map: 650kms to Vienna. Then I checked the weather forecast: rain all day, all the way to Vienna.
And so my last day on the bike was spent riding on the shoulder of the autobahn on a busted bike for ten hours in the non-stop pouring rain. Seriously, it didn’t let up even for five minutes. It was the most depressing day I’ve ever spent on a motorcycle. Of course, the silver lining was that the bike made it to Vienna without further incident, and I’m seriously thankful the journey didn’t end on the back of a truck.
When I did finally step off the bike every inch of me was soaked through – my supposedly waterproof gear was saturated; water squished out of my boots as I walked; my camera and passport were damp inside my waterproof tank bag wrapped in it’s waterproof rain cover; the GoPro on the handlebars sat in a small pool of water inside its waterproof case. Under these circumstances it was difficult to appreciate what I’d just finished: 34,119kms from one corner of the globe to another.
As stereotypical as it may sound, it was Ewan McGregor and Charlie Borman’s “Long Way Round” that originally inspired me to ride a motorcycle. Their journey was presented as a stylised adventure and it’s popularity spawned a new category of motorcycling complete with motorcycles to go with it: Adventure Motorcycling. Subconsciously it was they who planted the seed for Drew and I more than ten years ago. Commercial hype aside, our our journey was very similar – an adventure. And how lucky I was to share it with my best mate Drew, with my wife Monica joining me at times along the way.
But now, several weeks after the journey’s completion I’m left not with a sense of adventure, but an overwhelming sense of privilege. Privilege that I had the opportunity and the means to complete such an epic adventure. I had health, financial means and freedom from responsibilities like children and mortgages – not to mention an understanding wife! However these privileges I was aware of even before we departed.
As the journey progressed I became acutely aware of a different sort of privilege – the privilege of circumstance. This adventure didn’t require extraordinarily hard work, nor did I have to make extraordinary sacrifices to achieve it; I’m just an ordinary guy living an otherwise ordinary life. But I was born into a life immeasurably more privileged than so many other people. It’s very difficult to perceive this as you go about normal life, especially living in the city that for the sixth year running has been ranked as the world’s most liveable.
It becomes painfully obvious however as you travel through developing countries with little wealth or prosperity. When you’re approached at traffic lights by emancipated child-beggars. As you overtake a family of five travelling together on a 100cc scooter. When you stop at road works and watch women laying tar by hand. When you see rubble piled up on street corners twelve months after an earthquake. When you pass men sitting together in the back of a pickup holding machine guns. When you see buildings pockmarked with bullet holes. After seeing these things, you realise that you really do live a privileged life.
As we travelled through Australia, nobody looked twice at us on our adventure motorcycles. Nor did we score a second glance from anybody beyond Turkey. But in developing countries people showed us real interest – we were different. The interest I’m sure was genuine, but fundamentally it was not us that they were interested in. They were interested in a life that was foreign to them, a life that in their realms of possibility could never be possible – we were exposing them to something that previously had only ever existed on TV or an illegally copied DVD. We were unreal to them.
And it is this that I am left with: how truly privileged I am to have completed such a journey. For Drew and I it’s been the adventure of a lifetime, and I hope from behind your computer or smartphone you’ve enjoyed coming along for the ride.
With our sincerest thanks,
Drew & James – The Blokes on Spokes