It sounds strange when we think of where we are. The crossing into another country in South East Asia. Even though the countries have rolled on by, we have never lost the excitement of crossing into somewhere new. Usually the event is commemorated, or noted, by Bernard saying “I’ve brought a bike to………” It may seem a small thing to many people but to us it is always exciting and if we lost this feeling then it would be time to go home. It isn’t time to go home.
As we roll past the border line with our coloured Thai stamps all over the paperwork we can feel all the familiar ‘crossing’ routines click into place; it is our 17th border and we are confident in what needs to be done. So well versed in the nuances and patience required we now just drift through the procedures with the minimum of fuss. It used to be so different but after 16 other borders (or 32 in and outs as we call it) you develop confidence in being to solve whatever comes your way when dealing with the bureaucracy, half of whose paperwork cannot be read.
The exit from the Thai side is not what we expected as we have heard stories of people being strip searched with their bike dismantled on the border as the great drug search was conducted. It’s a border where things can go wrong and it can make many people nervous. While we could have been carrying anything in, or on, the bike not a pannier was opened, not a question was asked. We have never really had any problems on all the borders we have crossed and everybody has been lovely where-ever we have rolled up. It hasn’t mattered whether it has been black uniformed Serbian guard or machine gun totting Pakistani one. We have come to believe people react to how YOU are. A smile can be infectious and an offered handshake has never been refused. Sometimes even a shared cigarette can solve a problem which, minutes earlier, seemed insurmountable. I leave that situation, however, to Bernard!
So it is we are at the Malaysia side for nearly two hours as we get all the pieces of paper stamped and counter stamped with lots of other brightly coloured inks; walking from window to window and office to office in the heat. We arrange only a month’s insurance for the bike as we have to get a move on. We need to get to Australia and so we are really just passing though Malaysia (so we thought). The local police issue us with a temporary import disc the size of a dinner plate which we couldn’t stick in the windshield as it is so big Bernard couldn’t see the road ahead; it is stuffed in the pannier with the insurance certificate for if the police stop us.
While it took us a couple of hours getting into Malaysia it would have been far longer if we were going the other way as the queues to get INTO Thailand are enormous! Coach loads and coach loads are parked up along the road and the form filling alone would have kept Parker pen refills in business for years.
We pass the long line of traffic going in the opposite direction as we set off towards a hotel recommended by the local tourist information which is about 8 kilometres away – we say ‘about’ as we have learned, in most countries, figures are very approximate! On reaching the distance we drive up and down, turn around and then drive the same roads in reverse, all with no luck. We did pull into a very nice school thinking it was where we are looking for before, eventually, finding the ‘T’ Hotel!
It is very basic and more of a hostel than anything but it all starts off well……..until………hordes of children descend on the hotel as part of a two family set up. We are in between the two family rooms and, with the number of children they have, it is very obvious their television was broken for most of their early married life! It quickly becomes budget hell in many ways and like something you would see on a wildly exaggerated sitcom. The children would have been swinging from the lights if they could have moved the ladders from the corner of the building to reach them. It was chaos, pure chaos.
We do our best to be philosophical as we wandered around the town – staying out of the chaos – searching for a glass of beer in an Islamic state and Bernard, at this point, decided we would be moving on pretty quick as not a single can could be found! We hunted every supermarket fridge before he gave up and went back to the hotel sulking. We retire for the night and my erstwhile companion reaches for his earplugs to block out the Simpson-like families before falling fast asleep while I hear every noise in the hard surfaced building.
One o’clock in the morning Bernard sat bolt upright in the bed and said:
“Is there a party going on?”
“I think it’s a revolution” I replied, “But then again” I continued “It could be a popular uprising and the natives are revolting?”
“Is that the sound of a ring pull of a can?” he mumbled and it’s amazing really how, for a sighted person, his hearing can be exceptionally good when required!
The noise and pandemonium has even penetrated his ear plugs – which usually overcome most things; he never goes anywhere without them – I’m sure he even uses them, sometimes, when I am talking to him.
The kids from hell are racing up and down the corridor exercising the full extent of their considerable lungs – are Malay kids well endowed in lung capacity? A question for all you biologists out there. Meanwhile amongst this tornado-like activity he hears the sound of a ring-pull!
Eventually Bernard gets dressed and goes to investigate the sounds of World War three and he finds about a dozen men laying around the reception area drinking beer while the helpful – Islamic – receptionist opens the tins of Heineken for them (which Bernard couldn’t find anywhere earlier!) He comes back muttering “Am I missing something about an Islamic country here?” He tells me of the pile of takeaways which have just been delivered. It is obvious they are in for the long haul as the empty tins mount up while the noodles go down with much hilarity and raucous laughter; the magic of Heineken works in the manner which is comforting to know in its universality.
After listening (like most people do even though we try not to!) at the noise for another half-hour we ponder about leaving and riding – for the first time – in the night (Rule 1 – “Don’t ride at night”). Bernard assures me the roads are fine and the traffic – if any – does have rules and so we will just trundle gently through the night before finding somewhere early to stop. So we get up and repack our few belongings and over the three trips to the bike to reload it (at 2am in the morning) all the men realise we are leaving and start to engage with us.
As we stand outside we are gathered around and they start to ask about the bike, the journey, where we have been; so enthusiastic as they all took pictures with their cameras and mobile phones. Picture after picture is taken as we pose with them climbing on and off the bike when Bernard indicated it was fine. They really did think we were just getting an early start to drive to Singapore and they were all so nice we didn’t like to tell them we were leaving because of them. Could this be a typical British response perhaps? Who knows.
It wasn’t – we don’t think – an overreaction. No sleep was possible (even with ear plugs) as the ‘festivities’ were obviously on for the night (by the amount of beer Bernard described). The young receptionist could not control the situation and the hotel surfaces were all hard tiled which bounced sound everywhere.
So we set off into the night – for the first time – with a dozen happy people waving us off.
Within ten minutes of setting off the generator light (which indicates how well the bike is charging) starts to glow red. At the same time the voltage meter shows no charge coming into the battery and even braking causes the meter to drop alarmingly lower than the 12v showing (which is pure battery power). Bernard drives for the next two hours trying to not touch the brakes and even turns off the Satellite System to conserve power. Talking through the intercom is eventually banned to save the precious battery voltage to run the essentials i.e. the engine and lights.
130 miles later (at 4.30am) the lights are running dangerously dim and it is obvious our night is done and we have to stop. Just in the nick of time a large service station appears and as we pull up to a halt the engine dies completely. Bertha has had enough and gone to sleep for a while. The battery is completely and utterly flat.
We drink coffee and decide what to do – which inevitably means getting spanners out and dismantling the bike right there. The head torch goes on and – like the usual magician – tools appear from all over the bike as the dismantling begins in the dark. The manual comes out, the petrol tank comes off and all the leads are checked over the next time period to reveal – nothing. The engine cover comes off to reveal alternators, stators and diodes and all their functions are described to me and the night air is full of the sounds of head-scratching and pages being turned in the manual. Gradually Bertha is laid bare right there in the car park as a crowd gathers to watch her dismemberment. They marvel at the mass of tools spread out on the floor and some of them wander off to get chairs so that they can sit comfortably watching as the process continues for two hours.
The top engine cover is taken off where, it seems, a lead runs from the charging system and, nothing. Meanwhile the mound of cigarettes mounts up to the point where it may block the road soon.
All the while as he puffs furiously, more and more chairs appear for the gathering crowd. When one person gets bored watching and they vacate their seat it is soon inhabited by another person. Bernard reads and re-reads the same pages of the manual over and over to himself until I know it by heart and can recite each paragraph word for word. Still nothing is clear even after a pile of bits are in a nice circle around Bertha.
Everything seems to point to the alternator itself but Bernard is not totally sure and, anyway, it is one part we do not have with us.
As daylight comes and the head torch is switched off the passing traffic increases as coaches pull in and disgorge their cargo of people eager to stretch their legs, use the toilet, get a coffee and all the other activities of motorway services on the road to Kuala Lumpur. They stand and watch. So many coaches arrive we will soon need traffic police to manage the crowd, so large has it become. The cafe staff, in the end, refuse to let people bring their chairs close to the entertainment as there will be nowhere for the actual patrons to sit!
As always many of the men know more than Bernard about fixing the bike and suggestions fly in a mixture of Malay and English. Bernard politely listens to everything and agrees with them. “Yes, it may be that but I have checked and it is not.” One young man – in between mouthfuls of noodles – makes several suggestions to which Bernard thanks him and tells him he has tried those things. The same young man suggests we ring the Malaysian equivalent of the Automobile Association (AA). He helpfully rings them for us although Bernard is sceptical about how much they will know about a 20 year old BMW motorcycle. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained and so he continues head scratching until they turn up.
It is at this point he discovers the starter will not even click when he presses the ignition button – thirty minutes later after checking all the leads in the starting circuit he discovers the bike is in gear. With some motorcycles – as a safety feature – the bike will not fire up if it is in gear. Moral of the story – don’t work on a bike when you are dog tired, been up all night, and your brain has gone foggy!
The Malay AA turn up and spend 30 minutes fondling all the shiny tools and marvelling at some of them while Bernard continues to work on the bike. In the end we jump start the bike (with Bernard’s jump leads) off their battery and they take the applause of the crowd as they – we think – tell everybody how they fixed the bike.
We find out there is a town (Kuala Kangsar) not far away and – with careful riding – we should be able to reach it, find a hotel, and continue to investigate the problem in more comfortable surroundings (without the massed crowds). Bertha rattles gently on her stand ticking over after she has been reassembled. All the tools disappear into the compartments and niches around the bike and we thank everybody for their help and assistance while Bernard uses multiple baby wipes to clean his hands. We set off to cover the 8kms to the town; which turns out to be 28kms away.
Everything unnecessary for life support (brakes, indicators etc.) are left alone and not used unless absolutely vital as we follow the signs for hotels in Kuala Kangsar; we cannot find any hotels on our route. With one last sigh Bertha gasps and dies again in the middle of the town and we wearily climb off in the massive heat of the day, tripping with sweat and very, very tired.
Bernard crosses the road and comes back to tell me the man he spoke to pointed down the road to a large white building and down another side street to another hotel! As we ponder we are approached by several people from a ‘private’ member’s club. They say the hotels ‘Are not clean’ and ‘not good hotels’ while suggesting, and give directions to, the ‘Resort’ about 1.5 miles away. We set off walking in full bike gear in over 100 degree heat and eventually squelch our way into the reception where we book for two nights before taking the long walk back to the bike. Our plan is to push it but we manage to get another jump start and ride the short distance; Bertha again dies on the hill down to the resort and we coast under a tree and step off gratefully. Little did we know it was to become our home for longer than we thought!
It is surrounded by spacious grounds and bordered with the Perak River which cuts through the town. The town itself is where The Sultan of Perak officially resides and Kuala Kangsar has been the royal seat since the 18th century.
The parking for Bertha is well off road and there is plenty of shade for another round of the – inevitable – diagnosis of Bertha’s internals; away from the glare of coach parties. We are so tired we fall into bed despite it being only mid-day and the sound of the air conditioner sooths us to sleep. Bernard is gone in seconds, about five before me.
Three hours later we wake up and grab some food in the restaurant which is like a ghost town and we wonder, not for the first time, if we are the only guests? We head for the bike and the next round of diagnostics – which still reveals no source of the problem. As we sit pondering Suliyati (the Head of Housekeeping) turns up and we spent time talking through the journey so far as she asks about how we ended up here.
She is so nice Bernard asks her where the Malay shops hide the beer as – from the previous evening – it is obvious it does exist. She offers to go and find some for him and he ponders – for a few seconds – before agreeing and asking for six cans (increased to eight when she prompts whether six will be enough?) He answers, in all innocence, we may well be here for a while and so eight would be better.
Suliyati disappears to begin the hunt and Bernard, suddenly, doesn’t think breaking down in Malaysia will be so bad. Unfortunately, for me, she does not think wine is available and, sadly, it is confirmed when she returns with the dull clunk of cans without the clink of glass to be heard. Over two hours later, with one can already gone, he admits defeat and retires to plan his next campaign by searching the internet for everything concerning charging systems on BMW motorcycles; ending up with a battery of tests to try tomorrow written into the back of the bike manual. He even rang his parts supplier in the UK for advice and we will have one more go at solving the problem in the morning before ringing England (eight hours behind us) to order a raft of parts.
The next morning comes with the heat and humidity of Malaysia and another round of mechanical searching and wire hunting. As Bernard rips out what little hair he has left I wash our clothes (which we have lived in for three days in the heat and sweat of Malaysia). Eventually, after much soul searching, he comes to the conclusion the fault lies with the alternator rotor and so we decide to order a whole new alternator along with a spare diode board as well; weeks later in Australia we found this to be a wise decision as the system stopped working again causing the cancellation of a radio interview. We get through to England and order the parts but we get little idea how long they will take to come through – anywhere between 5 days and three weeks! The days pass at the resort as we sit and wait for the parcel which will allow us to move on again.
The area is festooned with dock-tailed cats who wander all over the place and they make me jump as they suddenly start to rub against you leg as you sit eating. We feed them chips from our plate and this sends out a bugle call around the camp and they appear from everywhere – it is like a Hitchkokian film but instead of birds it is our feline friends. They sit on walls watching you, on trees, on cars, in the shade of bushes, all waiting for some indication food is in the offing in the shape of some small morsel. We end up with up to a dozen wandering around our legs under the table as we sit in the outdoor section of the restaurant eating. Waiting, always waiting.
Suliyati is, I think, somewhat taken with Bernard and she cannot do enough for him. I tease him about being her ‘Blue-eyed boy’ even though he has brown eyes. I can imagine him pulling his big innocent ‘little boy look’ as he asks “Are there any chairs for the veranda we could have?” Within ten minutes chairs and a small table have arrived. “Do you have a clothes maiden we could borrow to hang some of our clothes on?” Bang, a clothes maiden appears for our washed clothes. In the end – after several days – I ask him to see if a bottle of wine can be found somewhere and the next time we talked with her he waited before popping the question into the conversation.
“Suli” (as he started calling her before continuing) “my darling is dying of thirst. She is going to kill me if she doesn’t find some wine soon, do you think (I can imagine his eyes, flutter, flutter) it would be possible (flutter, flutter) to track down a bottle for her? (flutter, flutter)”
She laughs and agrees to go wine hunting and, lo-and-behold, as we sit messing with the bike (other electrical problems involving all the instrument lights which have died as well) she appears with a bottle of Australian. Life is complete again.
The restaurant at the resort is like something out of Fawlty Towers and the odds of a meal turning up are 50:50. On several occasions we sit waiting patiently for interminable periods before Bernard goes to check what’s happening; only to be met with blank expressions and apologies as somebody had forgotten the order (again).
Across the days we wander out and eat in small cafes while Muslim women fuss over the two of us as we eat spicy foods with our fingers as locals watch with open smiles and nods of ‘hello’.
We stand in-line in the post office to send cards to friends and family at home. The queue has a 140 in front of us before an ex-pat tells us people get the numbered ticket and then go shopping or to a cafe where they wile away the time in the shade. They return an hour or so later when they are somewhere nearer their number and so we do the same and, over an hour later, we post the cards to home.
We find a lovely little corner cafe where we spend many days eating as time passes and the parcel gets closer to arriving baring Bertha’s new internals.
We eat Malay foods, curries and exotic salads as the world passes us by and the Chinese New Year (Year of the Ox) is ushered in. The whole town is full of dancing dragons and we are invited into festivities by people we do not know as we walk down the main street of Kuala Kangsar. Plates of food are pressed into our hands – whether we need them or not as we pass by! People place small red envelopes into the Dragon’s mouth with money offerings.
Bernard takes me over to where one of the Dragons is ‘dancing’ and the two Dragon dancers in the costume do not understand I cannot see them but ‘the master of ceremonies’ understands and gets them to keep still while I explore their costume. My hands trace the elaborate head as the rear paws scratch behind the head’s ears and it feels like a big scary blue father Christmas all covered in fur and teeth and fangs.
Walking through the town people now wave and voices say ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you?’ as they are used to us wandering around.
School children in Islamic clothes shout greetings and we think the word has gone around about ‘The English couple’ or the ‘Blind woman’ in the schools; all the children greet us in their broken sentences. We wonder if all the English teachers are in their classes saying “…and if you see them in the town say “Hello, how are you” or “What is your name?” both greetings are common as we spend the days walking and talking.
Everybody smiles and waves while car drivers stop to let us cross the road, indicating “No problem, after you” and it is really helpful as Zebra crossings are scarce or non-existent. We walk the promenade under signs which show, “No Bikes, cars or canoodling” and the canoodling sign shows two people with their arms around each other and a big red line through the middle. We wander hand in hand past the teenagers sitting the regulation two foot apart in the innocence of their dates under the view of passing people.
Two of the days involve a vertical wall of water falling from the sky and the whole town stops and waits for it to pass; nothing moves on the streets and cars pull over and sit and wait. Bernard tells me you cannot see 10 foot in front of you such is the volume of water falling from the heavens. Each time it lasts about half-an-hour and then, suddenly, it stops. It doesn’t fade away, it just stops like a big tap has been turned off. Within seconds the sun blasts out from behind the clouds and turns everything into steam. You can breath, smell, and taste it in the air as everything is roasted and the water is burned away.
When we are not walking the streets of Kuala Kangsar we sit on our balcony and listen to the school children playing in the grounds which border our hotel and the chanting of their lessons which all occur outdoor. The children laugh so much and sound so happy and excited while Bernard tells me of his life in teaching.
He recalls being told there was “too much laughter in the classroom” along with the how pupils “cannot be learning properly”; of using music and cold drinks during lessons before somebody decided it actually was a good idea. It is obvious when listening to him he still misses the classroom; even if you are “in one room, all day, everyday.” He sounds wistful as he remembers how all the ‘fun’ disappeared as ‘education’ and ‘learning’ became replaced with ‘targets’, along with ‘tests and examination results’. Eventually he ‘gave up’ and left classroom teaching (in 2001), going to work for the Royal National Institute of Blind and Partially sighted people.
While we waited in Erzurum during the Iranian Visa fiasco it was obvious he was like a duck to water when he taught the students at the local college; creating an instant rapport with them while also creating a ‘buzz’ in the classroom; which happened throughout the day with different classes as he taught something he had never taught before.
We sit listening on our balcony as the children sing on microphones and we wonder if one of them will appear on ‘Malaysia’s Got Talent’ (called One In A Million here) and recall the first time they sang in public and we will be able to say “I was there!” One boy seems to dominate the stage and what he lacks in vocal talent he makes up in pure enthusiasm. We can picture the teachers trying to get the microphone from him while he hangs on grimly as proud parents say “That’s my son” in the way all parents beam at their children’s achievements.
The sounds of the Mosque are frequent and the call of the faithful to prayer reminds us of both Turkey and Pakistan. The sounds are very beautiful and haunting – it tugs at you when you get used to it. We can sit and listen in silence waiting for the final notes to fall away before talking again.
As we wait we start to arrange the next leap to Australia and we have to change direction as the intended destination is in the north (Darwin) but it turns out to be too expensive to ship there; plus it is flooded by the rains and crocodiles swim in the streets at the moment.
We get quotes from a shipper in Kuala Lumpur (KL) who want 2332£ just to fly the bike and we laugh at the price of £300 to build even a simple wooden crate (it cost under 80£ in Kathmandu and about the same in Turkey!) No longer are we the naive people we once were. We know they are trying it on and we hunt for another shipper in Malaysia to save us driving down to Singapore; with all the hassle to get ourselves and the bike into this tiny area just to fly out to Australia. Eventually we find details on how to complete everything ourselves in Kuala Lumpur and the decision is made; we fly to Perth from KL.
We set things in motion as Suliyati arrives clutching the precious parcel after five days of waiting and Bernard leaps up and down like an excited school child. Bertha will soon be singing again her sweet song of movement. He is so excited. The parcel is opened as he jumps the stairs two at a time by the sounds of it.
I now know the layout of the resort and can move around on my own after several days here and by the time I get to the bike the spanners are already in his hands. Bernard often laughs as the cats leap out of my way as I approach them; even if they appear to be asleep in the sun. We use the walkie-talkies we have with us and sometimes I sit upstairs as Bernard works on some aspect of the bike while I write and then he watches as I make my way across the grounds and laughs as the cats scatter in all directions as if to say “It’s that woman with her stick again, out the way boys!”
In all the excitement of fitting the new part he manages to sever all the ignition wires which get trapped in between the new alternator and the engine casing; cutting them all cleanly through as he tightens the new unit into place. Even this does not dampen his enthusiasm as he gets out his soldering iron, borrows the manager’s car, connects jump leads between the two and then fuses the wires back together; explaining it is something many people have done over the years! He presses the starter and Bertha growls into life and my companion hops up and down with happiness as the voltage meter shows full speed ahead!
Within seconds of us arriving at the bike over the preceding days a garden chair appears for me, brought by one of the staff and today is no different. People start to appear (Gardeners or cleaners or anybody else who is around) and a curious mixture of languages begins the communication process as the alternator was replaced. Bernard bins the faulty rotor once he stopped dancing, only to go back much later on to find it for a picture and it had disappeared. We imagine one of the staff polishing it and keeping it as a memento on their mantle piece – or it was weighed in for scrap! Obviously, we prefer the first explanation.
During our wait over the days we have arranged to visit an overland motorcycle meeting being held in Australia on 12th March. We take a chance we will be there by then and book two places for an ‘off the track’ small town called Mitta Mitta in Victoria where the meeting is to held. For many years Bernard has been visiting a Motorcycle Overlanders’ website (www.horizonsunlimited.com) and for as long as he can remember he has always wanted to go to a meeting while ‘on the road’. Now is his chance to tick this dream off and it means we have to be across Australia by the 12th to attend the meeting but we are confident it can be achieved.
During our final day in the town as we picked up ‘essential’ provisions it all seemed incredibly noisy and something felt ‘different’. Loud chanting fills the air and open back four-by-fours full of people wave flags as they drive up and down the streets with slogans coming from everywhere. The crowds part as we walk the route back to the centre and people step aside to let us by until the final people part to reveal two long lines of Malaysian Riot Police in full body armour, riot shields with batons drawn. We suddenly realise something, indeed, is very different as photographers all leap in front of us to take our pictures and camera crews turn their attention towards the two innocents abroad!
“ooops” comes from Bernard’s mouth as he realises things are a tad tense where we are standing!
Bernard “When we got to the front of the lines it was obvious we had stumbled onto something very, very tense. I looked at the line of riot police and gave them hand signals to ask “Is it ok to go though?” Many of the front line gave little smiles back at me and small hand signals indicated which way to go while a small gap appeared in the lines. It was quite funny really as our appearance seemed to take the sting out of the situation and the chanting declined as people watched us, with our bags of shopping, make our way through. As we exited the rear of the police cordon the chanting regained its volume and receded in the distance as we continued back to the resort. Somewhere on Malaysian television and in the papers are images of us clutching our bags wandering through this event. We found out later it was a political demonstration and over the coming weeks there was a great deal of unrest in Malaysia and this was to be the start of it in “The Royal Town of Kuala Kangsar”.
We find out later on the riot police had fired tear gas into the political supporters and there had been a succession of running battles with the people we had passed through as they made their way towards the Royal Palace; once Friday Prayers had finished! Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time!
We repack the bike the following day to leave Kuala Kangsar while all the riot police, whose lines we has passed through on the previous day, sit and lounge around the resort – police trucks are parked all over the verges and they sit on the grass and watch the multiple trips to and from Bertha. They are ‘on call’ should they be ‘needed’ Suliyati tells us although everything seems quiet now.
Suli and some of the staff gather for the farewells as we settle onto the bike while all the police wave as we pull out and back onto the road. As we pass through the town Bernard says “Farewell” to all the little shops (the Chinese Bike shop where he bought his bulbs and oil) along with the cafes we have come to know. He waves to the cafe people who serve the little tables on the side of the street and they all return the waves.
The sign posts to KL soon change to KLIA and everything is running well although Bernard stresses about how to find the hotel but we make great progress. It was at this point of stressing a road sign for the hotel appears like a magical beacon on the side of the road. It is as if somebody is looking after us after all the waiting and frustrations of the previous week. We follow them right to the entrance of the hotel where the security guard salutes, lifts the barrier, and we pull into the car park where staff rush to find a big parasol for Bertha – to shade her fevered brow from the truly awesome sun and heat.
We climb off the bike and within seconds the sweat is dripping as Malaysia is a wall of heat and humidity. You are drenched virtually instantly. The hotel itself has been converted from the dormitories of the workers who lived here and built the airport but the facilities are fine and it has everything we need; it is close to the airport and the cargo aspect of Malaysian Airlines whom Bertha will be flying with.
We spent the evening with a group of Belgium’s who are in Malaysia for the MotoGP racing at the Sepang circuit and they asked about the smallest details about what it is like to ride a motorcycle this far and alone. They expressed great envy as it is something each of them have always wanted to do; much like many other people we have met on the road so far.
The morning comes early as Bertha has to be scrupulously clean to enter Australia due to the rigid quarantine restrictions and we ride over to the local car wash and negotiate with the migrant Bangladeshi staff who operate it. Four men descend on Bertha and she is soon covered in soap and then scrubbed until she shines; nearly taking the paint off the frame! They return all the dusty grey trim back to black with liberal use of a polish which brings all the surfaces back to new looking pristine condition. Even the tyres are washed and look new by the time they have finished.
Over an hour later Bertha looks like she will pass muster for the Australian Authorities and everybody is delighted with the outcome as Bernard pays twice the asking price and handshakes occur all around before we drive back the few hundred yards to the hotel and Bertha’s parasol.
As we sit in the evening we are approached by a couple as Bertha has acted as our calling card again with everybody involved in the hotel (staff and guests). A woman joins us and regales us with her stories of buying Viagra for her husband in India and all it did was make him sick. He is obviously not amused at her telling the story and sits stony-faced as he listens from ten foot away on another table. She laughed as much as we did with the story as she went into minute details with two people she has only just met! I dread to think how much she would confide if she actually knew us!
The next morning we set off to find the cargo office and negotiate our way through multiple layers of security to gain entrance to the cargo depot. Bernard bluffed the security at one point when they asked if we had an appointment and he responded “We were told to bring the bike here to ship to Australia”. He neglected to tell them this was true on a web site blog rather than us having a personal invitation from the cargo people themselves; they let us through when we surrendered our passports in exchange for a very nice security tag – so I’m told.
The cargo office are not at all phased at turning up and asking about freighting Bertha to Perth and, after she had been driven onto a big scales and come in at 314 kg (partially unloaded) we get a price of £630 compared to the £2332 quote by the other company (who can still hear us laughing probably even from this distance).
We get a raft of paperwork and drive the bike to the customs office. It comes to a complete standstill when we turn up and everybody troops outside to have a look in the 40+ degree heat and humidity. They ask what is in the panniers and pick one to open which they only vaguely look in before filling out the paperwork back in the office. The whole back section empties into the front as six officers lean over the shoulder of one who manfully completes all the requisite forms with helpful suggestions from his colleagues. He asks Bernard on several occasions to point out various details he cannot read as they are in English on our paperwork.
We drive back to the cargo office with a sheaf of papers all filled in and load Bertha onto a hydraulic ramp where she is lifted up to warehouse level which, again, rapidly fills up as the Malaysian grapevine goes to work and people arrive from everywhere.
Bertha is wrapped like a big parcel in cling film to be loaded onto a pallet after her battery has been disconnected and a thump on the tank reveals she is carrying very little petrol (under a quarter tank allowed). Her tyres are let down to half pressure and she is ready to go. She flies tomorrow. It was that quick. So quick we haven’t even got a flight yet for ourselves! The cargo manager tells us he thinks it is ridiculous some airlines want to build crates for motorcycles and complains it is so slow, inefficient and unnecessary. It is very true. It really does slow everything down and seems a ponderous way of shipping a motorcycle.
The manager organises a lift for us and we get dropped off at KLIA once everything is completed and we begin hunting for our tickets.
Prices vary enormously and we settle on Air Asia who, suddenly, are full when Bernard points out I am blind. We think it may be the flight only has a certain number seats for disabled passengers but we did not need, or ask for, any special assistance and so we left puzzled. We retreat to get a coffee and ponder our options.
We can pay far more and fly tomorrow and save warehouse fees for Bertha on the Australian end?
We can pay less and fly days later but incur unknown warehouse costs for Bertha in Perth plus additional hotel fees?
In the end Bernard suggested we go to an agent – at the airport – and see if they can get tickets for Air Asia while not mentioning anything about disability; which is what we duly did and they found two tickets for the ‘full’ plane. We clutch our purchased tickets, find the shuttle bus back to the hotel, and buy another case to pack our belongings in for the flight in the morning.
Bernard stresses about how the ‘full’ plane became ‘not full’ and he is suspicious regarding ‘overbooking’ and so we take the 7am early bus to the airport to make sure of checking in for the 10am flight. As we wander through the airport looking for the check-in desk we suddenly find the departure is actually from another airport 20 minutes away; despite everybody telling us KLIA is the INTERNATIONAL departure airport. Sure enough, when Bernard checks the tickets it clearly states “Departing from Low Cost Terminal”. We leap into a taxi and take the journey but still arrive early and successfully check in after even having my white cane x-rayed through many layers of security. Once we have our boarding passes Bernard relaxes and calms down.
He describes to me the enormous amount of hand luggage people seem to take in the cabin once we board and one couple who bring three trolley cases, a laptop bag and a very, very large shoulder bag, while he was worried about the single backpack he was carrying; the one bought in Nepal for the trip down to the Chitwan National Park for Christmas. Despite all the signs saying ‘One piece of Hang luggage per passenger……’
He also points out, as he looked around, the plane which was ‘full’ should have been labelled ‘two-thirds full’?
The flight is five hours and it passes in the blink of an eye as we laugh our way through it and reflect on the journey so far. Perth is below us before we even realise the passage of time.
The plane banks hard left as we turn towards the runway and I wonder if any Indian passengers are tempted to bang on the side of the aircraft to let the pilot know it is ok to turn; as they do with overtaking in buses, on corners they cannot see around. Bernard chokes on his drink at this distant memory of so long ago made real here and now as we start the descent into Australia.
We feel happy we are nearly half-way around the world.
We are well behind time as we have lost 6 weeks due to Visa problems.
Both the pound and the Iranians have killed our budget but we are still satisfied; 12,000 miles give or take.
We have crossed Ireland, France, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand and Malaysia. And we are still laughing despite everything.
Or should that be, because of everything?
We have overcome problems, barriers, breakdowns, silly rules and everything encountered so far. We have done it alone and with no logistical support behind us – we have lived by our wits and ingenuity solving things as we have gone along.
The funny thing is, it is not hard to do.
Yes, there have been some very, very, hard times and we have argued when we have been tired, hungry or frightened and we have not been sure what to do; when we have been in 40+ heat all day and sipping water to make it last. Where the conditions have been extreme for a road bike and we have wondered how far we can go before we fall off. All through this time when we have squabbled it has never lasted long as I try to remember what Bernard told me before we left England:
“We will not be fighting with each other but with the conditions we are facing or with the fear we are feeling. It is never personal. Remember that”
We have done it alone and set our own timetable rather than being rigidly tied down to dates and places; meeting and spending time with many fantastic people, some of whom took us in and looked after us as we have passed through their lives. We have had tremendous experiences along the way; all of which are burned into our head and can never been taken away from us.
During the flight we reflected and talked through some of the things which used to bother us. Now they all seem so meaningless when I think of everything we have accomplished over the two years since we started planning this journey. All the small things which used to seem so big; the unnecessary clutter with which we fill our lives, surrounding ourselves with possessions, signs and symbols of who we are and everything we own.
There are few things we really need but some are fundamental to our emotional well-being; someone to trust your life with along with the support of your friends and family. These people who inhabit our lives give us time as we dare to dream of what some people think is impossible – as many said this journey would be. The importance of everyone around me is something I knew all along but now completely understand and appreciate more than ever when we are so far away. It is something Bernard and I have talked about as the miles built up over the months of the journey so far.
The wheels hit the ground on the runway with a gentle bump and the whole of Australia beckons before us.