(of something said or written) be poorly received. “Jenkins’ book has gone over like a lead balloon”
In Part 1 I shared the experiences from my first trip (Malaysia to UK, AKA ‘Operation Lead Balloon #1’) and how I came to love travelling by Honda C90.
It finished with me at a crossroads; do I go back to work, or do I continue the pursuit of fun? Alas, fun requires at least a modicum of cash, so I went back to work. However, my employer had only given me a three-month contract and this was how ‘Operation Lead Balloon #2’ was conceived.
Operation Lead Balloon #2 – Elefantentreffen via the Arctic
Every winter I go to a motorcycle rally in the south of Germany called Elefantentreffen. It’s held on the last weekend of January — because statistically that’s when it’s the coldest — and it’s absolute chaos.
Every year between 5,000 and 10,000 bikers find this un-signposted event in the German hills. Everybody camps in snow, they are drunk, there are fireworks, air-raid sirens, naked motorbike riding. If civilized society hates it, it can be found at Elefantentreffen.
But I wanted to add a little more adventure to this tip, so I fired up Google maps to see what route I could do that included the south of Germany. And for some reason I came up with the map you see below. Yes, I decided to ride through the Arctic Circle, in winter.
This is the danger of computer-based maps. I thought I’d only decided to travel a mere 5 cm of the screen to the top of Norway. What I’d actually decided upon was a 7,000 km trip with 3,000 km of that on ice and snow. Since three months of work was not enough to save up to pay for hotels, it was also going to be a camping trip.
With a solid plan formed, I then commenced ‘Operation Tell Mum’. My Mum took it surprisingly well, and luckily she raised me well enough to know that I’ll probably be all right, and worrying won’t change anything.
I tried to prepare and research for the trip, but all the Internet told me was that I was going to die. So I asked Facebook … and it worked! Dirtpunk.co.uk sponsored me a $1,000 sleeping bag with a survival limit of -82C, and a good friend of mine, Stace Martin, sponsored me an Exped 9cm down filled sleeping mat rated to -38C.
With these two things, I had my backup plan – no matter what weather hit me, I would be warm. Even if my tent failed, I’d be okay. This was particularly useful to me, as when I pulled out my 10-year-old $200 Coleman tent, I discovered that it now had a hole in the roof, gnawed by a hungry mouse while in storage.
I started the trip on road tires, before a good friend, Anssi Markkanen, bought me some motocross tires for the snow. When I wiped out on ice in the car park of motorcycle shop, they gave me an old spiked front tire they had gathering dust in the back of their warehouse….wicked 🙂
With massive traction on the front wheel, and the ability to do awesome power slides on the rear, we carried on northwards and chipped away at the miles with each day’s ride. Progress can be slow when the days are short, and trying to get out of a sleeping bag when it’s -25C in the tent takes a long time. The upside however is that going to the toilet at -25C is amazingly fast.
Eventually though we made it to the northernmost tip of Norway: Nordkapp. This is an amazing place. It’s so far north that trees don’t grow and in the winter it’s an endless sea of white.
Our time there was brief due to needing to be escorted by snow-ploughs. The winds are so strong and unpredictable that the roads can completely disappear 5 minutes after ploughing. So I jumped on my faithful steed once again and we started the journey south.
By the time I’d spent four weeks on ice and snow, I’d come to really enjoy it. To some this sounds crazy because they imagine it’s such hard work, but there are a lot of things that sub-zero temperatures make easy.
- You don’t need to carry water. Everything is covered in 1 metre of sterile snow.
- Nothing gets dirty. After all, there’s no dirt.
- Your clothes stay dry. It’s impossible to rain.
- Food never goes bad. I carried a steak on the bike for 3 weeks and it never defrosted.
- You can’t get fat. I was eating 4,000+ calories a day and still lost weight.
- Camping is free. My favourite quote was “You’re 1 metre above the ground, I can’t charge you for camping, you’re technically flying”
There are of course some downsides, but when you treat them as challenges, they can be greatly rewarding. For example if you want a drink in the morning, you have to store it in your sleeping bag overnight or it’ll freeze. And the satisfaction of drinking the only liquid for miles around because of your forethought makes it taste nicer than anything you’ve ever bought from a shop.
I really appreciated the rewards the Arctic gave me. From tying knots in string using pliers because it was too cold to use my fingers, to trying to keep my cameras warm enough to function. Everyday presented a new puzzle, and with it, a new sense of satisfaction when I solved it.
I loved every frozen second of that trip. For me it was the essence of life purified, I was constantly aware that I was alive and I was doing something, I was being challenged in every aspect of my entire day.
After my Malaysia trip I thought I’d discovered what life was about: fun. But now I’d beaten the cold, I learnt that my life needed to be challenging AND fun. I knew I’d ride on ice and snow again some day (***cough*** Canada in winter ***cough***), but in the meantime I needed another trip to satisfy my lust for challenge and adventure …
Operation Lead Balloon #3 – Mongolia C90 tour group
At a Horizons Unlimited motorcycle rally in England, some friends and I were talking about the ever-increasing number of motorcycle tour companies, and the rather hefty prices they charge. Once we were suitably drunk we determined to put the world to rights, and decided to make a change for the better, or stupid (I still haven’t worked it out myself).
But rather than charge $20,000 dollars like the other tour companies do, I’d charge $800 and recommend $7,000 spending money.
How could I do this? The answer of course is by using the power of the C90. I didn’t need to charge them to take back-up bikes, a mechanic or spare ABS computers. I took some spare pistons ($10 off E-bay), and a selection of hammers to fit them with. I would let everyone look after themselves, but should they get a puncture or want help checking into a Mongolian hotel, I would be there if they needed me.
I would basically be an $800 personal safety net and mechanic for two months.
The plan was set – I made a rudimentary page on my website with a map in Microsoft paint to show the intended route and waited to see who would sign up.
The answer was seven, which I decided that was a good group size, so I stopped accepting applications and started putting all the final pieces together. Although I would technically make a small loss, when something feels right, I feel it’s not worth chasing money for the sake of it.
The age range of the group was amazing. The oldest (Graham) was 74! And the youngest (Austen) was just 19. The rest were in their 60s, 40s, 30s and 20s. I’m sure a tour company lending out a 240 kg ’Adventure’ bike to a 74-year-old would be very worried, but luckily Graham was on his 82 kg, $500 Honda C90, so I had no worries at all.
We slowly wobbled our way through Mongolia, Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, France and finally England. We made it safe and sound except for two cracked ribs; one in a crash in the Gobi desert, and the other pole dancing in Poland (don’t ask).
I loved every second of the trip and was once again happy that I’d scored another victory for the small bike. After all, if someone as disorganized as me can lead seven(ish) riders back from Mongolia, then they must make travel easy.
Operation Company – a kindred spirit
Now, I’d achieved many things by this point, but I hadn’t achieved a girlfriend. Some say it’s because of my rubbish facial hair, or because I tell the story of soiling myself over a very large pot-hole in India far too often. But I hope the real reason was that I’d stopped looking for a girl similar to myself (I mean with a sense of adventure, not the soiling bit).
Now luckily I attended another Horizons Unlimited rally, and even luckier still, there was a girl there who had given up trying to find a man similar to herself. This girl was Rachel Lasham, and she was there to get information to help plan her solo trip from Alaska to Argentina.
The rest is history, but it involved beer, a motorcycle crash and me landing on top of her (actually happened). Luckily for me, Rachel had decided that her trip would no longer be a solo one, and invited me along. She’d also realized that I couldn’t leave little 90 behind … and that her initial choice of a KLR650 was a bit too heavy and expensive.
Six months after we met I had given her a rather special Christmas present. And we all know what bike she chose to take instead.
And that folks, is the final piece of the puzzle. You now know why there are two of us, why we’re in North America, and why we’re on C90s. With any luck you’ve understood all the chaos and when you read the upcoming first chapter of “Ed’s March across Canada”, you’ll know the back-story, and how much carnage to expect.
I also hope I’ve explained why I love travelling on a C90 so much. Some people think it’s so I can brag about being tough enough to ride an unsuitable bike around the world. But the truth is it’s actually the opposite. It’s the cheapest and friendliest and easiest way there is.
The only downside is that doing 80 km/h can force you to enjoy the scenery and appreciate where you are. Which if you ask me is actually another upside. After all, if you want to get somewhere fast and not truly experience the journey, then catch a plane instead.
This is Ed March signing off. See you next time … in Alaska!