Thursday, August 30, 2012

Baja California, Wet feet, Best diving, Loreto, La Paz, Visa run.

At the moment I am waiting in line at the immigration office in La Paz, 800 miles from the US border. I had not got a permit/visa to cross into the main land from Baja, which is not a problem in Northern Baja California, but apparently I have been an illegal alien for the last few days. The perfectly polite official started saying I would have to return to the nearest visa place, which would have been a bit of a 2 day bore, but then said he could give me a 30 day visa here and that would be enough for my plans, so fingers crossed.
Such has been my state of mind since entering Mexico, that the potential slog back up the peninsular to get the visa, presented no great anxiety.

I left you last in San Filipe in 100+ degrees. From there the road south along the coast was very good for the first 70 miles, then it turned to gravel and sand for the last 50. It was also heavily corrugated in places, a very uncomfortable surface. It is tough on the bike and tiring to ride over. I got about half way when I stopped for a break only to notice that there was a crack on the frame that cradled the engine. It was in the same place that it had bust before in India nearly a year ago. It had not completely gone, so I roped it all together and rode at a slower pace, praying it would hold till I hit the tarmac.
This was a brave hitchhiker...he needed a 10 mile lift that took us 30 mins...

The road..a better stretch

Beautiful hot desert all around
The break
It was about 5 pm at that stage and I happened across Coco's Corner. Coco is a great character who came to this remote and pretty hostile patch of land 20 years ago and just stayed. He had just had one leg amputated at the knee as a result of poor circulation. He built a shelter and made a living selling drinks to occasional passers by. 10 years ago the other leg had to go, which held him back not a moment, carrying on evolving this patch of land into a harbour of eccentricity. Defunct TVs painted yellow and put up on poles, loo seats on pans arranged a round a meeting table, tin cans arranged along strings for 100s of yards to name just a few 'sculptures'. It was topped by a staggeringly large collection of ladies' knickers and bras that he had pinned up all over the ceiling. Apparently it has become a custom that these were volunteered and thought an honour to be asked to contribute to the collection. He had his charm for sure.
The bra and knicker trophy ceiling


The night's shelter

  He insisted that I should not risk driving the next 2 hours as the road got rougher before the tarmac, and it was pretty late. He pointed at a bed frame that was under the original shelter. He threw some blankets over the springs, showed me the old caravan that is now the bucket and scoop wash room, and then bid me good night, saying he goes to sleep at night fall and wakes at dawn. I cooked a quick supper and retired. There was a big wind, thunder and lightening all night which had me awake half of it, but the biggest fright was when one of his blooming cats jumped on me just when sleep had finally come. Poor thing probably had just as much a fright as I lashed out in wild and blind defense.

An early start had me at some welders a couple hours later and they saw the frame right and strengthened in an hour or so.
Back to full strength, with an extra plate to strengthen that seemingly vulnerable part
  I pottered about the pacific coast for a couple of days, but it had become overcast, with torrential falls of rain much to my surprise. One of my planned stops had been at San Ignacio, a central peninsular town in a valley of palm trees. There had been a flash flood, and the road was blocked into the centre of town along with the one south that I planned to take the next day. Along with other stranded travellers a local motel enjoyed a bonza evenings trade.
 It did not seem to have rained over night so I went down to the river and saw a few 4x4s crossing ok. So I though I could. A minute later Batty and I were stalled in the middle of the river with water nearly up to the tops of the wheels. It was a silly idea and I should have paid more attention to the route to take, but more importantly I had not anticipated the water been thrown up in such amounts that it filled the too low engine air intake. Luckily there were a couple of chaps wading across and they helped me push her back to the dry. It was good to have entertained the long queues of impatient drivers for a moment. The road to the centre of the town was passable luckily and I spent the day drying out and adjusting the air filter cover so that I could go through 2 feet of water with ease.

Shot by a wet footed photographer
Loreto has turned out to be a bit of a star town for me. Mainly because I had 2 amazing days diving there. It started well as I bumped into the 5 Italian girls that I had met at the flood motel, they are all a bit younger than me and on a 2 week driving holiday in Baja. We had a quick catch up, but they left the next day with promises to meet up further south.
 Dolphin Diving was a little down the road from my guesthouse and by chance I went down there at 8am the next day to see if there were any chance of a dive. Luckily for me Raphael was just loading the boat to take John out, and they hung on 10 minutes so I could join them.

 John has many years diving experience and having retired after a career in environmental journalist, both in Thailand and his native Oregon, now spends a month in Baja each summer, fishing and diving, often with Raphael. His particular quest nowadays is to find different Nudibaranchs, colour full marine snail that are a fascination to him. The good thing about these sorts of missions are what else you see along the way, sea lions, turtles, whales, monster lobster and every fish in the aquarium, just magic.
Pelicans everywhere
Our lunch spot, Daniel (driver), Raphael, and John
These chaps came along for the dive...and showing us what they could do underwater that we could not...I wish I had had a underwater camera to capture their grace and agility.
 The next day the plan was to go to an island, Santa Cantalena, that neither Raphael or John had been to. The reason no one had been there was that it was 4 hours away in the middle of the Sea of Cortez, so we had to leave at 5.30 in the morning. John had a hunch about it for Nudibaranchs. I was just delighted to have been around for the trip. It turned into a fabulous day and a standout on the whole journey. Alas only 1 Nudibaranch was found, but we all had such an exciting time in a beautiful deserted place, that few had been to. For me it was like diving for the first time out of the class room, and when we went into a submerged cave and the wave action suddenly changed picking John up and whisking him out of sight, it certainly had the pulse racing. Then he floated back down to us, upside down, motionless and no bubbles I was fearing the worst. Then he winked and smiled....the brute.
John discussing Nudibaranchs with Rafael at 6am

Sun rising as we set out for Santa Cantalena
This is a huge whale spotting area, but mainly in the winter months...we were lucky and had this companion for a camera was never on when she/he this the best I got
The Island coast line
Hardly anyone ever comes here, and this was thought to be a very fine example of this type of Cactus.
John and I had had supper together the night before and I enjoyed his company a great deal. Because it is very topical, I asked him what his thoughts were on the US presidential elections. I was not expecting it but fascinated to hear him talk about the impossibility of voting for Obama again with Guantánamo Bay still open, the 'execution' of Bin Laden without trial, and the drones controlled by pilots in the US vaporising people in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Loreto mission at sunset.
Loreto Centre
On the road to Santa Juarez. I should have seen many more of the abundant cave paintings on Baja, and these are probably the poorest examples.
The mission at Santa Juarez, the first mission in Baja, and a pilgrimage is made every year here from all over Mexico.

It doesn't look it, but behind Batty is a very steep hill, which I had to run along beside her whilst slipping the clutch to get up...first time since the Himalayas

Ended up staying about 4 happy nights at the Hotel Yeneka, La Paz. The owner, Manuel, is a great artist and the hotel is one huge artwork
Dinner at last with my Italian girl friends in La Paz
This is a handshake with Yuri, who helped me a great deal with my visa issues...a fellow biker, who had just come back from a 16000 mile run to Alaska and back. He owns a travel agency called Viaje Perla in La Paz...although he did everything he could to not sell me a plane ticket. A very fine man
Each room in Yeneka...was themed. This one was fun.
Damien, from Brussels, was staying at the hotel and we had a great couple of nights out...very good company

In the end I had to go back to Tijuana on the US border to get the took 5 minutes at the airport....

It seemed like a good idea to get Batty serviced a bit whilst there, and Yuri gave me the name of Gabriell, a Hungarian bike mechanic. Gabriell is a very generous man and went to great lengths to see me right...along with his sister Maria who lives in Miami....we had an open Skype line to improve communications. Also the with Scuzme ('Excuse me' his chat up line that became his nickname) his pal who ran us around the town getting parts and stopping at off licenses to get more beer to keep the heat of the day at bay. I lost count but I think it was about 12 pints in about 4 hours.
Gabriell just before setting off for the ferry to the mainland port of Mazatlan. After oil changes, new fork seals, breakpads, wheel bearings etc.

I met Rob on the ferry. He had ridden across to Japan from York and then to Alaska and now on his way south like me. He left a bit after me last year. His blog is . He wild camps every night and is on a budget of less than £10 a day.....makes me feel very soft core. Good and interesting company. Funnily enough he had been told to look out for me by diver John, who he had bumped into at Loreto.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Good bye Jack, California, Disney, Grand Canyon,

There are places in the Atlas that have sparked one's imagination, and for me the Californian Baja Peninsula has long been one of them. What is apparently the second-largest peninsula in the world that runs 800 miles down beside Mexico, has intrigued me by having both Pacific ocean on one side and inland sea the other.  I am here now and I think my imagination has done a poor job of this extraordinary part of the world. In a couple of weeks time I will have moved over to the mainland and will report on my findings.

Not long after my last post I received the saddest e-mail that I can remember getting. It was from Veronica, Jack's wife, saying that he had very sadly died. It was about a week after I had left their home, which made it all the more unbelievable as he was in such good spirits and about to leave for a US business trip. Jack was a huge star to me and his hand of friendship, know-how, can-do attitude, and great company will remain with me for ever. To others who have known this wonderful man it will be a true blow and my condolences to Veronica and the rest of the family are most profound. Jack was internationally known and respected in the sports fishing world and here is a link to an obituary that I think expresses his contribution and how he will be missed. .
Jack Erskine, RIP my new and godsent friend .
A few weeks on from when I last wrote, I look back and realise that I had worn pretty thin and all the delights that my journey presented were not really being appreciating properly. It's probably perhaps inevitable after a prolonged trip that one goes through stages of inert feelings and questions about carrying on etc. I was lucky because Cass and Jazzy flew over from Edinburgh and over the course of a two-week, 2300 mile Californian road trip I feel fully restored and I'm so looking forward to South America.

However before Californian fun, there was a party in New York State that Arjun and Maxine had...poor picture, sorry, but the bar Arjun is manning hints at the game plan. A real bonus was that Darius and his son Kyan, who had looked after me so well in Hyderabad, were fellow house guests and we enjoyed a very fine night of it.
Cass and her family I have known since childhood and Jazzy is her daughter and my goddaughter. They had left Archie and Harry holding the fort at home whilst the girls came over and joined the adventure. It hadn't been particularly planned, but the notion of a road trip in a camper van had been an idea, so off we struck in a camper van from which is run by a charming Australian called Nick in San Francisco.
As luck would have it I found a travel book from a publisher called Moon, almost exactly describing the trip we had vaguely planned, which made life much simpler and all the more interesting.

I haven't planned to write much about the 2 weeks, as it was a holiday, however Cass is a great photographer and thought it would be appropriate to share a few photos from our travels.

We called it "The Consumption Tour". Not only did we drive a gas gusseler, we ate far too much (which my belt is telling me), we also saw parts of America that typifies human mass consumption beit at Hearst Castle, DisneyLand, LA, or Vegas at it's greatest. We also enjoyed huge amounts of jaw dropping natural beauty on a world class scale, very friendly folk....all amazed that we were not in London for the Olympics.....
Hearst Castle at San Simeon on the 101 road between San Fransisco and LA (photo from their website)

Hearst Castle Pool. David Niven wrote about spending weekends here as a guest of it's owner and builder William Randolph Hearst. It was designed by architect Julia Morgan between 1919 and 1947 for the newspaper magnate, who died in 1951

One of the best guided tours I have been on, showing many of the treasures bought from Spain after WW1
Beautiful coastline
First time behind the wheel...Disneyland

Spot the wimps
Grand Canyon

Las the Hard Rock Cafe
Death Valley, hottest place on earth, 190ft below sea level and 120 degrees

Sierra Nevada range
Over Mono Lake

After a picnic supper by Mono Lake
Back in SF, the end of a very happy and stimulating fortnight.

 Goodbyes can be hell, and waving my 2 companions off was a hard one.

 For many years the idea of having the Olympic Games in my home city, in my lifetime, was a dream. When we won the selection I was when I find myself thousands of miles away watching what has to be one of the finest events ever, and with my fellow countrymen putting on one of the most creative and entertaining opening ceremonies, and furthermore to achieve extraordinary sporting goals, I feel rather dumbfounded by not being there. That said numerous people that we have spoken to have praise what Britain has done and I'm sure that the positive consequences will be profound and long-lasting for the British. I don't think I have ever felt so proud to be in that number, albeit absent.

I biked hard for the next 3 days down to Mexico. I stopped in San Diego to get a couple of spare parts from the great guys at Rocket motorcycles who then kindly helped me tighten up the few bits and pieces on Batty.  I may have made a bit of a mistake crossing into Mexico as I was waved straight through without any passport stamping etc, as was every other vehicle it seemed. I guess I'll find out when I leave.

I have spent a couple of days by the beach in a place called San Felipe on the east coast of the peninsula. It is 100° and too hot really to go out. That said the beer is cold, the tacos tasty and have enjoyed a night out with a fellow camper, Peter, who has an RV (large Recreational Vehicle...more like a 40 foot yacht on wheels).  It has also been an opportunity to do  some more Spanish lessons on my iphone audio thingy. My brain seems to be completely nonabsorbent, and it will take many months before enjoying any form of conversation. I was put on to the idea of taking some Spanish lessons in Guatemala, which I will do for couple of weeks when I get there…… Maybe a pretty Señorita in front of a blackboard will engage my grey cells more?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cairns to Vancouver to Seattle. 4th Engine!!!

I am writing from a small town in Oregon called Eugene. This wasn't a planned stop, but Batty, by dint of her owner's failings, has cracked a crankcase and I am awaiting a new engine. Number 4.

I last wrote from Queensland and had a couple of relaxed days north of Cairns with some scuba-diving on the Great Barrier Reef thrown in. This was very much one of my boxes to tick, or my bucket list as I regularly hear it termed here. As it turns out although an amazing place to dive, I went in a boat with 40 other divers, and although the safety and equipment were all very much of a high standard, one felt like a number and it was not the joy of diving with a small group that I had enjoyed before.
On a Ferry crossing into the Daintree reserve north of Cairns  that sees the Great Barrier Reef blend in with the Rainforest...a beautiful area

This is sugar cane area, And there are literally hundreds and hundreds of miles of sugarcane as one drives in Queensland. they use about 10% ethanol in petrol, so the migration to contemporary fuel is beginning.

 Looking down on Port Douglas, where I went diving from

 an amazingly beautiful road that hugs the ocean, rainforest one side, the Great Barrier Reef the other.

Back in Cairns my ever enthusiastic and generous hosts Jack and Veronica, let me get started stripping down the engine, with the plan to rebuild it. This we did and before long I was putting it back together again having harnessed all of Jack's good friends and contacts to expedite the process. I don't cry very often, but when I broke the final cylinder head nut off I have to admit to some wailing and blubbing. Luckily my mechanical angels descended and what with Max's know-how and strength, followed by Steve's kit and his own formidable know-how the day was rescued.
 Jack and Dan

 Max drilling out the broken head bolt, he was just about to go off on a hunting expedition with his bow and arrows. I tried to pull it back, but such was the strength of the bow, I could hardly move it. He goes deep into the bush for weeks at a time living off the land in pursuit of Buffalo and Deer.

 Steve, who had worked on the crank, turned up to see the bike, only to find the engine out and a broken head bolt.

It always takes a few days to organise the bike's shipment but I was lucky to find a very good shipper called Ellen of TLC International, who not only $500 less than the nearest other quote, but were a joy to work with.

Australia has been a bit of a mix for me. On the one hand I have met and reacquainted with nothing but the finest examples of the human condition, and enjoyed hospitality and help beyond any dream of expectation. However Batty was not reliable and I am sure I limited my adventures by sticking to pretty populated areas and thus missing out on some of the famous outback and probably the true flavours of the country. I have been making up for it by reading any few Neville Shute stories which romanticized a time from the 1950s. The other lingering feeling I had was that it is much more of a nanny state than I would have ever imagined. It took a while to realise it, and I'm probably saying this from a narrow perspective that doesn't reflect the total. That said every few miles on the road there are huge signs, ordering you to do that or to do this or you will die, every bar has huge signs with the house rules, no one ever walks a cross an empty road if the signs telling you not to. There are probably many other examples, but I was rather surprised. Maybe right from the word go there were lots of rules being made to manage the convict population, and it became a very much accepted way of people management?

Vancouver turned out to be a 30 hour trip, not uncomfortable or particularly tiring, but when I was selected from the passport queue to be taken in for special questioning by the border police for 2 hours, it made to feel like a most unwelcome criminal as they delves through every element of my luggage and private life.

It was pouring with rain for the 5 days I was in Vancouver waiting for the bikes to clear. Most of that time I spent in bed suffering from a bug caught on the plane. Plans to visit friends of friends did not materialise and I wanted to head south as quickly as I could.

Kathryn Rathke lives in Seattle with her husband Barry, and is a staggeringly brilliant illustrator. Kathryn has been with the agency for some 5 or 6 years and has visited us in the UK, so meeting up with her was a joy. It coincided with a party they were throwing for their wedding anniversary and 4 July.
 The burning of an effigy of George III on Independence Day. It was all done very much tongue in cheek. Which combined with mocking of much of the American nationalistic foreign policy mindset, gave this visiting Brit an alternative view of Americans from that which we see from their politicians etc. I'm sure it is a minority but it does offer a more worldly perspective.

Kathryn and Barry

Kathryn on Batty, outside her lovely home, where I stayed for one very comfortable and jolly evening

Part of the Rathke tour included the world class public library. Breath takinking architecture, both in and out

Kathryn very sportingly came on the back of Batty for a local trip around where they live and introduced me to a Seattle that was unique in terms of any tourist guide.
Brian and Shirley Hardy., amazingly they were staying at the same motel as I in Seattle, they had just driven up from South America, and were a great source of information. Great company and far too fleeting a meeting.
 I enjoyed half a day at the Boeing flight Museum. Here is a replica of the Wright Brother 1st powered plane

Kati and Jens,,  another around the world couple who turned up at the motel...what a meeting place
It was on the trip south from there that I 1st noticed an oil leak, I could not spot a casuse at that stage, but an hour or 2 later there was a great deal more. Then I started noticing that some of the crankcase bolts were missing. I tightened up what I could but it soon became apparent that I was in trouble again. A foolhardy 60 mile journey to Eugene, where the nearest engine agent was, put the lid on the life of this engine. Hindsight is a marvelous thing but oh how I wish I hadn't been taking the engine apart all the time to try and make the vegetable oil experiment work. Not only has it been a huge absorber of time, frustration and worries, it has been very expensive. The saving grace has of course been those that I have met on the way as a result.
Oregon coastline from Route 101...stunning road, even if one is worried about oil leaks and the like
From here I am going to San Francisco where I am going to fly across to New York to spend a few days with Stacey in the office, catch up with a few friends before returning for a 2 week campervan trip around California with my old and young pals Cass and Jazzy, who are flying over from Scotland.