The Road to Rotorua

Auckland, North Island, NZ. 22nd December 2014.

New Zealand has a State Highway system, with the numbers written on shields, rather like the US. SH1 is the ‘Mother Road’ in that it runs the whole length of NZ, north to south. Not quite in one fell swoop, there being a small matter of some water to cross between the two islands.
Leaving Auckland to head north took me onto the cross city motorway and eventually on to a tolled section. ‘Pay Online’ is the advice given by the signs. There are no toll booths although it is possible to stop in a service area and pay cash into a machine. This incurs a charge on top of the toll so I didn’t bother. When I later checked online to see what I owed my registration number got no response. I didn’t ask twice. Once I’d left the motorway behind the road became single carriageway with passing lanes on the hills. The speed limit is only 100kph and I was pleased to see that Kiwi drivers seem to be quite well behaved. My typical riding speed is about 90kph and this suited the road conditions well.

Haruru Falls, beside SH1.

Haruru Falls, beside SH1.

I had a pleasant ride up to Pukenui, a small town in Northland, which is the prosaic name given to the northern part of the north island. I had booked a hostel bed there, which turned out to be in a shared room in a late 19th C wooden building. It was sited next to the sea.
The terrain I rode through was quite varied although low key. Cattle farming and logging in the main. There was a big milk processing plant too. Where were all the sheep that NZ is so famous for? One thing for sure is that the countryside is very green and I saw plenty of the small, rolling hills of the type that could be seen in Hobbiton. The trees were a mixture of those that were familiar from Britain and those that definitely weren’t, confirming NZ’s reputation as a place that was comfortingly similar to home and yet excitingly different too. A good trick if you can pull it off. A diversion off the main road down to the coast at the Bay of Islands had also revealed some of the beauty that lay in wait for me in this naturally diverse country.
New Zealand in its current incarnation was formed from volcanic action coupled with the effects of subduction as the Pacific plate pushes its way under the Indo-Australian plate, giving rise (pun intended) to the Southern Alps. It used to be part of Australia until the two countries were pushed apart. The result is that the North Island is mostly volcanic and this shows in the nature of the land and its shape. Rolling hills, sometimes steep but not high, appear in front of me as I ride north, looking like round pyramids, row behind row behind row. The islands around the coast all came from volcanic action too. The warm and often wet climate in Northland encourages sub tropical plants which are green and lush. Although the climate is generally temperate, New Zealand has many micro climates meaning that variety is plentiful.

Terrific place to build a hostel.

Terrific place to build a hostel.

Having settled in to the hostel I went for a ride up to Cape Reinga, NZ’s most northerly point. It is from here that the Maori believe the spirits of the dead head out across the sea on their journey back to the Homeland of Hawaiki, from where they believe they originated. The Europeans took a more practical approach and marked it with a lighthouse.

North Cape lighthouse.

North Cape lighthouse.

Leaving there I took the road that went out to some giant sand dunes, where people could have fun with their sand boards. Riding past this took me across a ford and then along a sandy stream bed for about 3kms until I was able to turn south onto Ninety Mile Beach. Yes, a beach that was ninety miles long! I discovered later that this is a misnomer and the beach is really only sixty miles. Still worth an exclamation mark though. The incorrect name came about when the early settlers determined its length by how long it took to walk along it, a common way of measuring in those days. They forgot that walking in sand takes much longer than normal terrain, hence the overestimation. For my part I just aimed the bike down the damp beach, between the sand dunes and the sea, and blasted it. Fifty kilometres later I reached a point where I could get off it, still only half way along. Great fun!

Ride past the big dunes ...

Ride past the big dunes …

Down the stream for a while ...

Down the stream for a while …

Then just wind open the throttle. Amazing!

Then just wind open the throttle. Amazing!

Next day I headed back to Auckland but by a slightly different route.I wanted to ride down the west coast and visit a couple of sites so I headed off into the hills and valleys. This was my first look at rural New Zealand and I found it very different and yet quite familiar. Nice, twisty roads. Well surfaced with little traffic. The countryside was of rolling hills with sheep and cattle on them. Farmhouses looked to me more like holiday chalets than the images of solid stone edifices the word normally conjures up. They seemed to reflect the wealth of the owner in their size, condition and surrounding land. I’d already realised that brick built houses weren’t common. No surprise when there is a plentiful supply of wood, far more earthquake resistant than brick or stone. I learned over time that many houses are wood or steel framed with a variety of claddings to suit the owner’s taste and budget.

 

I like a nice little ferry.

I like a nice little ferry.

Further on I came to a ferry across a river, which I got onto just as the gates were closing. The guy operating it noticed the Wales sticker I’d stuck on my mudguard, given to me by my Welsh biker friend Gareth. He told me he was of Welsh origin which, may be why he refused to take the $5 dollar fare from me, offered to him as I rode off the boat. We Welsh stick together, bejaysus! I was entranced by some of the small towns and villages I rode through too. They had an air of timelessness about them, with their veranda fronted shops and wooden structures. They looked more like American small towns than anything else, often having diagonal parking spaces outside them, along wide main streets.

Quaint looking village general store.

Quaint looking village general store.

 

One of the things I wanted to see was the Giant Kauri Tree, situated in the Waipoua Forest. One of the last remaining native primeval forests, it contains many trees and plants that thrive in the combination of warmth and relative wetness, not found elsewhere in NZ. This tree, named Tane Mahuta by the Maoris, is anything between 1,250 and 2,500 years old, has a trunk girth of about 14 metres and an overall height of about 52 metres. All I know is I got a crick in my neck when trying to see the top. It’s big! There are many other large Kauri trees nearby and the wetness of the forest shows in the amount of giant ferns and wet moss that hangs off everything. In typical NZ style, access to the tree was via a wheelchair friendly walkway, well signposted and with approximate walking times on display. As time went by on my journey I found these times to be very pessimistic and I guessed they were based on a one legged man walking backwards – or something. Still, it was good to have the information.

Giant of a tree.

Giant of a tree.

Further on I stopped at a viewpoint overlooking one of the early European settlements, founded by missionaries. Not at all uncommon in the early days of settlement. The information board also gave information about some of the Maori beliefs and customs prevalent in this area at the time.

Some information on local Maori beliefs.

Some information on local Maori beliefs.

Back in Auckland I settled in to a hostel and enjoyed a conversation with one of my roomies, a young Canadian woman. She was taking a year out after finishing her degree in mechanical engineering and before joining the airforce, where she hoped to fly helicopters. She rides a Suzuki GS500 so we had a nice biker style chat, all about slow winter riding and fast summer bends. Those unexpected moments are one of the great things about hostel life.
It was now Christmas Eve so I headed south to Rotorua where I’d been invited to stay with some English friends. They’d been in NZ over seven years and had made a great success of their life here. Jeff was with the City of London police and is now a detective. Cate continues her work as a district nurse. Their two kids, twenty three and twenty two years old, have taken to the NZ lifestyle very easily and have done very well regarding education and work. Jeff said that immigrants tend to reach a ‘hump’ about two years in, where the newness has worn off and missing home increases. He and Cate reckon that provided they can get through that period, then new arrivals will be OK thereafter. That makes sense to me and I would think it applies to any migrant in any country. At least with NZ there’s no new language to learn.

Jeff, Cate and family. Thanks for a great Christmas guys!

Jeff, Cate and family. Thanks for a great Christmas guys!

Rotorua isn’t an expensive place to buy property and Jeff and Cate have a very nice house on an acre of land. Enough room to keep a few sheep and lambs. Fresh roast lamb and sheep to keep the grass short – in a word, idyllic! I had a great Christmas there, my first away from my family, and I’m very grateful to them for their hospitality. They even bought me a small present so that I would,’t feel left out on Christmas morning. Dinner was a large cooked ham rather than turkey, which tends not to fit in with the seasons here. On Boxing day we went to visit some English friends of theirs who have a boat. So we went down to one of the local lakes and had great fun ‘biscuiting’ (see photo) and relaxing in one of the thermally heated pools at the water’s edge.

Biscuiting. The aim is to get the occupant of the rubber ring in the water. I was soon wet!

Biscuiting. The aim is to get the occupant of the rubber ring in the water. I was soon wet!

Several parcels had arrived there for me, replacement gear for what was damaged on the Expressway in Japan, along with some things I’d asked to be sent from home. So I spent a happy few days, post Christmas, fitting new luggage etc, and sorting out this and that, ready for the next section of the trip. I had a ride planned that would take me out to the East Cape, where I was going to spend New Year. I also helped Jeff with a couple of jobs around the garden, which he’d been saving up for his days off. I took them all out for a meal one evening too, trying to repay their hospitality as much as I could. Jeff had put me in touch with Patterson’s Motorcycles, a local bike shop, and I’d been able to use their workshop to service Doris. I’d also ordered a couple of small parts at the local Suzuki dealer. One thing that was troubling me slightly was that the engine was getting a bit noisy. It sounded like valve gear or timing chain to me, although the people at the bike shop said it might be from the piston. Worrying, and something to keep an eye on.

Supplier of lamb chops? No, family pet now at Jeff and Cate's.

Supplier of lamb chops? No, family pet now at Jeff and Cate’s.

New Year.
The East Cape Lighthouse lies at NZ’s easternmost point and is at the end of a twenty kilometre gravel track. I’d already spent a night in a good campsite after leaving Jeff and Cate, so wasn’t too troubled when I found the one out on the cape had facilities that were limited to a field, a tap and a long drop toilet – a hole in the ground with a shed around it. None of that mattered as I had plans to commune with nature. I was next to the sea, it was summer and it was new year’s eve. So for the first time in my adult life I went to bed at 10pm and didn’t see in the new year. Instead I got up at 5am, rode down to the lighthouse and watched the first sunrise of 2015 spread itself across the sea in front of me. There were probably about twenty others there with me and we were the first in the Southern Hemisphere to see the first dawn of the new year.

The new year dawns, out at East Cape lighthouse.

The new year dawns, out at East Cape lighthouse.

Doris gets in on the act.

Doris gets in on the act.

At 178.5 degrees east the lighthouse is as close as we could get to the new dawn short of taking a trip out to a small island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A magical moment and far more enjoyable than singing Auld Lang Syne, at a party I wasn’t enjoying very much anyway, was ever likely to be. And then the day got even better.
I was chatting to a young couple on the campsite, Jason and his Japanese girlfriend Natomi, when the owner, a Maori named Len, came round and invited everyone on the campsite to a Hungi on his nearby farm. A Hungi is a traditional Maori meal, more of a feast really, where the food is steam cooked in a pit. Larval rocks are heated up, placed in the bottom of the put and then cuts of various meats are wrapped in tin foil and placed in wire baskets. These are wrapped in wet cloth and placed on top of the rocks. The pit is filled with earth and everything steam cooks over several hours.

Len opens up the cooking pit.

Len opens up the cooking pit.

Jason had been telling something of Maori culture, having worked as a consellor among Maori prisoners in NZ jails. He also showed me how to do a Hongi, which is the traditional Maori greeting among men. It involves grasping the other guy’s right hand, your left hand goes on his shoulder and you touch your nose and forehead against his, holding that position for a few seconds. During this time you will breathe each other’s breath meaning that you have exchanged the spirits of your ancestors. Now, you are far less likely to fight each other. Len Walker and his family were such nice people that I couldn’t imagine wanting to fight them anyway. Even so, they appreciated being greeted in the Maori style when we got to the farm. We watched the meat being dug out of the cooking pit, along with the sweet potato and other root vegetables that had been in there too. The food was as delicious, and as tender as you’d expect it to be, and we had a great time chatting with all of Len’s relatives and children. His kids live in Australia, common among the Maori it seems, and he tended to see them and his grandchildren about every five years. During this visit he was trying to persuade them to support his vision of using some of his farm buildings as holiday accommodation for home stay visitors.

Old Faithful.

Old Faithful.

A fascinating sight for me was his diesel powered generator, still chuntering away at fifty years old. Many Maori own such farms and are a key part of NZ’s population and its economic success. How does a man of Polynesian origin get to have a surname like Walker? Inter marriage is the reason. It seems that the earliest white visitors, who were mostly Sealers and Whalers, took Maori women as wives and slowly the practice spread, with mixed marriages becoming very common. Len told me he could claim to be either Maori or Scottish. I can safely say he looked nothing like a pale faced Celt! It’s reckoned that there’s no such thing as a pure blooded Maori left now, although I don’t know how true that actually is. However the culture is still strong.

A song from the women to welcome the guests.

A song from the women to welcome the guests.

Maori History.
The exact date of the earliest Polynesian emigration to Aotearoa (New Zealand) is uncertain but it was during the late 13th C. They had been gradually populating the more southern Pacific islands and eventually reached NZ’s south island. They survived off the land, finding NZ’s large population of flightless birds and plentiful seals an easy source of food. They had also brought with them a kind of sweet potato called Kumara as well as a breed of pig to supply meat. Fish and shellfish were plentiful too. By about 1500 they were settling in the north island and their numbers were growing. They developed a warlike tendency, and fought for land and resources. One of their most precious resources was Greenstone, a kind of Jade, which is only found in the south island. They used this to make tools and weapons.
Pakeha (White Europeans) began to arrive around 1780 to hunt seals and whales. This was the beginning of the European takeover of New Zealand. Maoris helped crew some of the ships, intermarried with some of the men and small settlements were formed. As the years went by missionaries arrived, successfully converting many Maoris to this European religion. They were happy to trade food and materials for muskets but less happy to find themselves dying from European diseases. From a peak of possibly 100,000 around 1800, the Maori population declined to less than 40,000 at the time of the 1871 census. In modern times the population is back to were it was.
As more Europeans arrived there were conflicts taking place between different groups of Maoris and between Maoris and Pakeha. The settlers asked the British government to intervene and eventually the Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the British government and over 500 Maori chiefs. Essentially it meant that they became British subjects, and retained property rights in return for accepting British sovereignty. The treaty was extended to the south island too, just in time to prevent some French settlers from claiming the island for France. It was a close run thing.

Roadside Maori style sculpture.

Roadside Maori style sculpture.

One of the problems with this treaty was that of interpretation and it took the next hundred years to resolve many of the problems it created. Some are still ongoing. However, the Maori were the first native population in any British colony to be given voting rights and they had four seats in the new parliament. There were a number of conflicts, some violent, between Maori and Pakeha but as time went by the two peoples became more integrated. Maori were recognised as owners of the land and were able to sell it to settlers. Their culture nearly disappeared during the early part of the 20th C, and they obviously suffered racism, but it has been revived and is now thriving. Some of the disputes about land rights are still being resolved. Unfortunately there is an element of criminality and gang warfare among small numbers of city based Maori, mostly related to the drugs trade. Jason told me that his work as a counsellor led him to believe that it was a loss of contact with their tribal roots that was partly to blame, along with a certain amount of deprivation and poor education.

Wharenui, a Maori communal meeting house.

Wharenui, a Maori communal meeting house.

For my part I had really enjoyed my first taste of Maori culture but it was time to move on. I headed further down the east coast to Gisbourne. En route, I called in to Toko Maru bay to see the old freezer works and wool store, and to Talaga Bay to check out the longest wharf in the southern hemisphere, at 600 metres. Both of these places told the story of the development of this young country.

Tokomaru Bay freezing works.

Tokomaru Bay freezing works.

Settlers became farmers but NZ had no internal road network. These places were built at the beginning of the 20th C. Animals and produce were brought to the coast by truck on local roads. The slaughtered meat was loaded into the new freezer ships and produce such as flax and wool into cargo ships. The long wharf made the loading process much faster and more efficient. Previously ships relied on surf boats to ferry the goods from the land to their safe anchor points, an operation fraught with danger and unreliability, especially in bad weather. From there the goods were taken to other ports in NZ but more often to their export markets in Australia and Europe. As time went by the NZ government extended the road network and by the 1950’s these facilities were no longer needed once the faster and cheaper trucks could do the work of the coastal ships. Such is progress and it was an interesting lesson on how newly settled countries are developed.

Talaga Bay wharf.

Talaga Bay wharf.

As I rode beside the coast I could easily see why the area is popular with holiday makers. There were many campsites along the beautiful coastline, many of them ‘free camps’, but the living units had to have their own toilet facilities with them. No good to a tent living biker then. Fortunately I was able to find hostel accommodation via the i-Site in Geraldine and booked in for four nights. It’s a nice town and the CBD had several shops that I’d seen elsewhere, but the majority were clearly local businesses – a good thing to see. The streets were nicely laid out and were well kept and decorated with flowers etc. Most shops had verandas at the front, something that was appreciated in the warm sunshine.

Park and Sell Corner. Not uncommon in NZ towns.

Park and Sell Corner. Not uncommon in NZ towns.

While riding down the coast I’d seen signs for Talaga Bay Beach Races, taking place on the Sunday of the post new year weekend. I decided to go to see what it was all about. But I was going to be cautious during my return visit. I’d had a run in with the police as I left the town the first time – a bit too rapidly for their liking. Fortunately I got away with a telling off although the policeman reckoned he had the power to transfer a speeding charge to the UK. Gulp!

Mystery Man.

Mystery Man.

I went for a walk up the hill near the town and found the famous statue of James Cook that looks nothing like him. A local brewery owner bought it from Australia and had it erected but historians told him it looked nothing like the man and even the uniform on it wasn’t British. Egg on face for him. Where it comes from or who it is nobody knows. While we’re on the subject it’s time to clear up a very common misunderstanding. Captain Cook never visited New Zealand, or Australia. At the time of these voyages he was a Lieutenant. He became a captain much later. And his ship was not named HMS Endeavour. It was HM Bark Endeavour. HMS Endeavour already existed at the time he named his ship. A Bark (from the French, Barque) has three masts but with less sail than a full rigged ship, so could operate with a smaller crew. So now you know!
The view across Poverty Bay was excellent and away in the distance I could see Young Nick’s Head, a series of cliffs named after Cook’s cabin boy. There was an observatory up there too, the most easterly in the southern hemisphere. The bay was Cook’s first landing point in NZ. He gave it that name because the hostility of the local Maoris prevented him from getting the supplies he needed.

A young street entertainer treats us to his Michael Jackson routine in Gisbourne.

A young street entertainer treats us to his Michael Jackson routine in Gisbourne.

Sunday arrived so I headed (carefully) back through Talaga Bay and out to the beach where the racing was taking place. This is a very popular annual event, evidenced by how busy it was. I tucked my bike into a corner of the car park and walked over the dune to find a place to sit. I’d missed the first couple of races but I still enjoyed watching the runners and riders beating a path along the beach. A strictly amateur affair, aimed at local people, farmers and other horse owners. Betting was allowed but only on one race at a time and the stake was fixed at $5. It was closer to a sweep stake really, you got whichever horse was next on the list. I lost, of course.

The horses warm up before their race.

The horses warm up before their race.

The racing was fun to watch, with a course that was laid out between the sea and the dunes, that was about 300 metres in length. It was great to see so many families enjoying the spectacle and the sunshine. All the profits go to local good causes within the town area, a very nice bit of localism.
I eventually left Gisbourne with a plan. My road atlas shows the gravel tracks and I had found one that would take me back to Rotorua via Lake Waikaremoana in the Urwera National Park. This is one of the north island’s prettiest lakes and there is a tramping trail around it, reckoned to be one of NZ’s nine ‘Great Walks’. Denoted as State Highway 38, the road included about 100kms of gravel and I was keen to test my skills (and luck). It was a beautiful day and the deep blue lake, as I slid and skidded round it, looked fantastic.

Lake Waikaremoana.

Lake Waikaremoana.

After the gravel came a really nice bend swinging road so the whole day was full of fun and challenges. By the time I reached Rotorua once more my biking appetite was sated and I was happy to settle in to a town centre hostel, full of friendly youngsters. Nearby was a fish and chip shop where I received my traditional style evening meal wrapped up the traditional way – in newspaper. Fantastic!

Perfect tradition.

Perfect tradition.

I hadn’t really had a chance to look round Rotorua while I’d been staying with Jeff and Cate so I spent the next few days exploring. The main feature of this town is the hot sulphur pools that can be found almost everywhere. It sits on a very active thermal area and it’s common to see steaming mud pools alongside the road. Until a volcanic eruption destroyed them in 1886, the town was famed for its terraces of pink and white coloured sulphur rock, which attracted many visitors who wanted to cure all their ills by sitting in the water.

Rotorua Spa building, now a museum.

Rotorua Spa building, now a museum.

At the beginning of the 20th C the new Ministry of Tourism decided to invest in the area and provided funds for the Great South Sea Spa. Rotorua is special in that it has both acid and alkaline waters, along with the boiling mud. They hoped to attract people from around the world to this far flung corner of the southern ocean. Although popular, the spa was never the international success hoped for and failed to attract the rich northern tourists that the NZ government hoped it would. The building itself was plagued with problems. The sulphuric acid rotted the pipes and the steam left black condensation marks all over the walls and ceilings while rotting them at the same time. Maintenance costs were very high. It was used as a recovery centre for WW1 & 2 troops.

 

By the 1960’s it had fallen into disrepair and the government were happy to give it to the town, along with a grant for repairs. It became a nightclub and restaurant, which kept the building in good repair. Eventually it became a museum and the Tudor style building now houses displays relating to the spa, Maori history and an art gallery. I joined a group tour

Hot mud bath. Good for the constitution.

Hot mud bath. Good for the constitution.

and our Irish guide told us the stories related to the building and the area. I spent an afternoon there and also the next morning. The ticket I bought enabled me to go back next morning to finish my tour – an excellent idea.

Old park buildings and native rees.

Old park buildings and native rees.

It is surrounded by Government Gardens, which has several old buildings such as the bandstand, and clubhouses for bowls and cricket. Built around the beginning of the 20th C, these look great and fit right in with the main Spa building and the fabulous looking native trees. There are also some thermal pools to wonder at and there is currently an exhibition of sculpture dedicated to the WW1 centenary.

Dedicated to NZ's WW1 troops.

Dedicated to NZ’s WW1 troops.

And again.

And again.

As well as being a tourist I also organised the purchase of a couple of items I needed for the bike and upped my worry level a notch as the engine was definitely getting noisier. I went back to Pattersons and spoke to Mark, the service manager. He agreed it was noisier than before and reckoned it could be the piston. I also got the mechanic at the Suzuki dealer to listen to it and he definitely thought it was the piston. I wasn’t convinced. For a start it wasn’t using any oil. The noise sounded to me like a very slack cam chain and it was fairly quiet while I was riding along, but becoming noisy at tick over. What to do? Neither shop in Rotorua could look at it for over a week. In the end I booked it into Red Barons, a Suzuki dealer in Wellington, for Wednesday next week. I was convinced it would be OK until I got there. I didn’t want to start pulling it apart myself just in case it was the piston. I just didn’t have the tools to do a job like that, especially not in the back yard of a hostel. I did decide to do some basic checks however, and adjusted the valve clearances and checked the function of the cam chain tensioner. All was OK. While at the Suzuki dealer I’d chatted to a Kiwi rider who used to work on a pig farm in Wales. His brother lives in Aus so he put me in touch with him. Another friendly face to visit when I get there. All this was going on while I was trying to locate an electrical fault. I’d come out of the shop and when I tried to start the bike – nothing! The fuse had blown so I stripped out various parts of the electrics and eventually the fault went away. I still don’t know what it was or how I cured it. I’m hoping it was just a mysterious short circuit that is now fixed, otherwise I know it’s going to come back to haunt me someday.

Tree huggers at work!

Tree huggers at work!

So, decision made, I left Rotorua to head for Napier, a town further down the coast. On the way I visited Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland. And it lives up to its name. There is a huge area of thermal pools, all with different colours of rock and water. There are caves, waterfalls and steaming mud holes too. They have made carefully laid out walkways so that visitors could see and smell all the different natural sights. Apart from them there seemed to have been no human interference. I was impressed, both with the natural wonders and their presentation. I was learning that Kiwi’s were very proud of their natural heritage and did their best to present it as unspoiled as possible.

Where all the heat comes from.

Where all the heat comes from.

Do not go swimming!!

Do not go swimming!!

Bubbling, boiling mud.

Bubbling, boiling mud.

Napier awaited. Destroyed by nature and rebuilt by man, there was definitely a story to discover there.

Arriving in the Antipodes

Seoul, South Korea. 13th December 2014.

Aaaah! Warm sunshine! Equators are such useful things. You leave a freezing cold city on one side of it and, after 12 hours or so, you emerge on the other into a different city, bathed in warm sunshine. Personally, I think there should be more of them. Of course it wasn’t quite that simple. Things never are. I had to get there first.

The journey from the hostel would have simple if I had done it the easy way and taken the bus, which I could catch on the main road, about ten minutes walk away. But no, I had to be a smart arse and decide, based on some leaflets I saw in the hostel, that the metro would be quicker and cheaper. It wasn’t. In fact, I might not have got to the airport in time if it hadn’t been for a kind woman who helped me out. I took the metro as far as the overground station, then I had to get a special airport train. At the train station I bought my ticket then tried to find the right platform. Despite being in English, the signs weren’t helping me. I knew the train left at 12.00 so I found a platform that had a train departing at that time but there was no mention of the airport on the info board. So I asked a young soldier for help but he didn’t speak English and appeared to be drunk anyway. I then asked a woman and I showed her my ticket. Definitely the wrong platform, she told me. So she led me up some stairs to an information desk but they directed us to a different one. Back out onto the main concourse, across the other side of it to the other desk, her pace increasing all the time and me struggling with my heavy bag to keep up. The second desk sent us down to a third place, almost running now. But finally I got to where I needed to be, thanks to my helpful new friend. I’m guessing she was catching the 12.00 train that I nearly got on and I really, really hope she made it back in time. So I got on the train and began to relax as it whisked me out across the city suburbs. All I had to do now was check in and get on the plane.

Oh no it wasn’t! (It was mid December and pantomime season was upon us.) I went up to the check in desk and was immediately asked for my ticket OUT of New Zealand. ‘Eh, what?’ I said. ‘I haven’t even got there yet and won’t be leaving for four months. Why on earth would I have a ticket out?’’Immigration rules,’ said the woman there. ‘You can’t get into New Zealand without having a ticket to leave and we can’t let you on the plane unless you do.’ Flummoxed is the word that springs to mind. She called her supervisor who showed me her book of rules which confirmed what I’d been told. I’d read on the NZ immigration website that UK citizens would get an automatic six month visa but I hadn’t spotted that rule. They suggested I went down to where all the travel agents have their shops and buy one. No choice really, so off I went with forty minutes left before check in closed. Down in the basement, after much walking up and down lugging my heavy bag, I finally found the corner where travel agents hide and drew a complete blank. They could sell me a ticket from Incheon Airport to anywhere in the world but not one out of NZ. It seems their systems just aren’t geared up for it. So now panic was starting to gently bubble until I got back upstairs and it dawned on me that with free wi-fi access in the airport all I had to do was go online and use one of the flight booking websites. Ebookers came to the rescue and a suitable flight from Auckland to London was secured. At the internet café I was able to print it off for free. Good service from them.

By now I was ten minutes past the check-in deadline but the desks were still open. The guy there didn’t even ask me for my exit ticket from NZ! He was far more concerned about the short period of time between landing and take off at Tokyo, where I had to change planes. ‘Why did you leave so little time between flights?’ he asked. ‘Nothing to do with me’ I said. ‘I booked it online and assumed that if they put together an itinerary it’s going to workout. They’re the experts, after all.’ So he assured me that my luggage was very unlikely to get onto the second plane and that I would have to run from one to the other. So I explained to him the concept of keeping his fingers crossed for me and he agreed to get his colleagues to do the same. And still he hadn’t asked for my exit ticket from NZ!

Our plane was thirty five minutes late taking off, held up by a late boarder. I could have given them some lessons in ‘making it happen’ if they’d asked me. As we neared Tokyo I asked the stewardess if I could sit up at the front, explaining my need to get off quickly. So I spent the last twenty minutes of the flight in a very nice business class seat, jealous of people who can afford such things. The guy sitting next to me had an even shorter time between flights, only fifteen minutes. He had the good sense to only have hand luggage though. When we landed there were two ‘meeters’ waiting for him, me and two other passengers who were on my plane too. They hadn’t bothered moving forward so I had to wait in the end anyway. Our meeter maid rushed us through the airport using corridors and doors that I’m guessing are normally for staff and aircrew. As we arrived at the check-in desk for the next flight I in the process of being paged. I felt ever so important. This time I was asked for my exit from NZ ticket so it was as well I had it. My boarding pass was reissued because the flight was running thirty minutes late. She assured me my luggage would be on the plane too. Perhaps my bag had a ‘meeter’ as well. So I got a much needed ‘calm my nerves’ cup of coffee and after some reflection reached the conclusion that, compared to air travel, digging a motorbike out of a sand dune in the Gobi desert is a walk in the park.

My kind hosts, Sue and Thommo.

My kind hosts, Sue and Thommo.

When I got to Auckland Sue and Thommo were there to meet me. They are friends from the UK who emigrated to NZ about seven years ago. Sue works in marketing for ANZ Bank and often has to jet off to various places. She was at the London Olympics. Thommo used to be an engineering manager at London Underground but got fed up with the working conditions. He now does the same job for Kiwi Rail and looks after the whole of the North Island. They have a nice house out at Half Moon Bay, one of the many suburbs that surround Auckland. I learnt that the thing for property buyers in NZ is to have a house with a deck, a barbecue and room to store the boat, sitting on a ‘quarter acre’. Property is far too expensive in Auckland to achieve the quarter acre but Sue and Thommo had all the rest. And a couple of cats. They seemed slightly put out by a visitor at first but we all got settled in together in the end.

Sue and Thommo's house, including a very large tree!

Sue and Thommo’s house, including a very large tree!

Doris wasn’t due in Auckland until Tuesday lunchtime so I had a couple of days where I could spend some time shopping and resting up. Top of the list was anew laptop. I was seriously fed up with my Sony Vaio, which had turned into a pile of poo. It was partly my fault because I managed to break the screen but more annoying was the constant messages from Sony support to stop using it because of the faulty battery. The keyboard had worn out prematurely too, with about seven letters now illegible. Shameful for such an expensive machine. I needed maps too and also a new jacket for chilly, showery days. The zip had failed on my other one in Korea.

The Ferry from Half Moon Bay the the CBD, well used by commuters from the suburbs.

The Ferry from Half Moon Bay the the CBD, well used by commuters from the suburbs.

A twenty minute walk took me down to the bay where a ferry runs across to the centre of the city, referred to in NZ as the Central Business District or CBD. Along the quayside from the pier where the ferry docked is an i-Site – tourist office to you and me. I was instantly impressed! There was a huge number of free maps, brochures, accommodation listings and so on. It immediately became clear that NZ is totally geared up for tourism. Inside was a section dedicated to DOC maps and information. The Department Of Conservation supplies an enormous amount of information for the outdoors enthusiast. They sell maps which have both roads and tracks on them but what surprised me was the information aimed specifically at motorhomes. This is a big industry in NZ and there are motorhome dump stations everywhere so that toilet waste can be emptied without needing to visit a camp site. Up on the remote tramping (hiking) trails the DOC has built small accommodation huts and tent only camp sites. NZ has nine ‘must do’ long distance tracks for the walking enthusiast and the infrastructure to support them is well organised. People are allowed to freecamp (wild camp, we’d say) unless restrictions have been imposed. Natural England please take note!

In the end I bought a road atlas which showed all this information and, of particular interest to me, which roads were unsealed i.e. with a gravel surface. Thirty years ago this would have been the case with most rural roads but these days they’re mostly out in the backwoods. I quickly realised that although there are many comforting similarities between Britain and NZ, in terms of size and population they bear no comparison. NZ is about half as big again as the UK but has a population of around 4.8 million. To put that in perspective, all of NZ’s people could live in half of London. Summer sunshine and big, empty spaces. I knew I was going to love this place. Cold, Korean mountains were fast becoming a distant memory.

Former Custom House, on the quayside.

Former Custom House, on the quayside.

So, 4.8 million people, with 1.4 million of them living in Auckland, meant that the city was busy. Although it’s not the capital it’s the biggest city which meant plenty of shops in the CBD. Two more items to get. First was a new laptop, which I found at J&B Hi-Fi. I nearly didn’t get it because of the young numpty who served me. I saw an HP Pavillion in there and the guy I spoke to said they had nine in stock. Being a wise shopper I went to the other supplier to compare but decided the first one was a better deal. When I went back the idiot I spoke to went out the back to get one then tried to tell me there were none in stock and gave me details of another branch were they had some. Not happy with that I got hold of the first guy I’d spoken to who went out the back and came back with one of the nine. I bought a nice protective case too as I didn’t want a broken screen on this one. Next I went to an outdoor supplier and got the jacket I needed at a sale price. I called in at the AA shop as well, looking for free maps or whatever they had. I was amazed to see that everything looked just like our AA, with an almost identical logo and car insurance, maps and travel items all for sale. They also act as government agents in that they deal with driving licence applications too. Good business and it brings plenty of people into the shops.

Civic Theatre, with a show guaranteed to remind me of home.

Civic Theatre, with a show guaranteed to remind me of home.

Back at base I relaxed and began the task of setting up my new laptop. It was so nice to look at a screen that wasn’t covered in a spider’s web of cracks. My bike was due to land next day so I planned to go and get it the day after. So Tuesday was spent relaxing, making plans and watching old editions of Morse, Midsomer Murders, Heartbeat and all the other programmes that the UK TV channel was good enough to show. I didn’t get as much done as I’d meant to! I was up early on Wednesday as I needed to get the 08.15 ferry. The next one was two hours later, much too late. Next to the ferry pier is the place where the Airport Express bus terminates so I hopped on one and said ‘Take me to my Doris.’ I didn’t really, I just asked how much it was – $16 for an hour long ride.

I got off at the Domestic Terminal and walked the short distance to Menzies warehouse where Cathay Pacific leaves its cargo. I really wasn’t sure what sort of a job this was going to be. I had three strands of officialdom to deal with. First was the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI). It’s the job of these fine people to prevent any stray organic material entering the country which might contaminate the islands. For example, I’d been in Japan. Have you ever heard of Japanese Knotweed? I f not, look it up. The ‘primary industries’ are Farming, Fishing and Forestry, by the way.

Next would be NZ Customs. They would want to see the MPI clearance certificate and my Carnet De Passage. Lastly would be Vehicle Testing NZ who would register the bike onto their system and check t over for safety. So far so sensible.

Front wheel goes in, MPI Inspector gets an easy view of her nice, clean undersides.

Front wheel goes in, MPI Inspector gets an easy view of her nice, clean undersides.

The helpful woman at Menzies knew of my bike and gave me the paperwork I needed. I walked around the corner to the Air NZ warehouse where the MPI had an office. I spoke to a guy there who said someone would be over when possible, it could be a couple of hours as they had a meeting going on. In the event a nice young guy came over within 30 minutes. I hadn’t even broken the crate open by then. So we did it between us and because I had to lay Doris down to put the front wheel back in he took the opportunity to check around, especially under the mudguards. Their big worry is of seeds being carried in. All was OK. He checked my riding boots and asked me if I had any others (I didn’t). And that was that. I paid the fee, collected the paperwork and set off to walk down to the customs office, a bit less than a kilometre down the road.

All approved and good to go.

All approved and good to go.

I didn’t have to wait long before a young woman took all my pieces of paper and carnet then disappeared out the back. It was about twenty minutes before she returned, all apologetic. She said she hadn’t done a carnet for a long time and needed some help. She also told me that everyone was jubilant because they’d had three successful drug busts at the airport that morning and the boss had treated them all to coffee and cake. I was happy for them. She took her share of my money and gave me the all important papers that were going to allow me to free Doris. A walk back to the warehouse was interrupted by heavy showers and a consequent visit to Subway. Once back there I paid more money and then Doris was mine once more. In the warehouse I got chatting to a guy, about my age, who used to ride British bikes when he was younger. I told him he should get another one and get back out there. He looked intrigued.

Last port of call was Vehicle Testing NZ (VTNZ) to get my Warrant Of Fitness (WOF), MOT to you and me. The woman at the warehouse had rung ahead so they were expecting me. She took some of the paperwork off me, and some money of course, and gave me my six months registration sticker, which had to be displayed on the bike. I stuck it on the inside of the screen. The cost of the ‘Reggo’ also includes an ACC fee. ACC stands for Accident Compensation Corporation and is a government scheme that pays any costs incurred as a result of any kind of injury. It will pay 80% of the injured persons normal wage and various other costs. This scheme means that injured people cannot make a claim for personal compensation. So the money I received for my broken leg, for example, would not have been paid in NZ. You can’t claim for ‘pain and suffering’. It’s quite simple, no such system exists under NZ law.

There’s arguments for and against a system like this but one thing it does mean is that there’s no compulsory vehicle insurance. It’s recommended you have insurance because a driver/rider can still be sued for damage to third party property, such as the car their stupidity damaged. The other great advantage is that Injury Lawyers 4U, and other parasites, have no hold on NZ culture. Isn’t that fantastic? Because NZ.s vehicle registration system only allows for six digits mine became T919AP. Next was the WOF, which was as thorough as the British one. And Doris failed! All of them were fair comment apart from when he failed the front tyre. As far as I was concerned it had plenty of tread on it but e managed to find a few worn down knobbles so he failed it. ‘You’ve got 28 days to bring it back for a retest’ he said. ‘Can I still ride it?’ I asked. ‘Of course’ said he. Fantastic! We were free!!!! The total cost of getting my bike out of captivity was $229. The WOF retest was free.

Chinese bikes are starting to look good.

Chinese bikes are starting to look good.

The next couple of days were spent on mechanicals. I had ordered a new chain and sprockets while I was still in Japan so I collected them. I popped into a cycle shop to buy a reflector and the guy gave me one for free. How kind! I found a shop that had a good selection of tyres and settled on a Michelin T65 Sirac, a semi trail tyre. They could also sell me a little LED light to illuminate my number plate. What a strange experience that shop was. The workshop was at the rear, down a slope but getting to it involved riding through the front door, across the showroom and down a slope. You then left via what I had thought was the workshop entrance. How odd. While I was there I bumped into Jordan, a guy who I’d met at VTNZ. He’s a Kiwi but has lived in England since he was fourteen. He was riding a very special Suzuki Intruder which he’d had built at a workshop in Kent. A different frame and lots of engine work. He was back for a visit and had decided to bring his bike with him. He’d already been pulled over twice and collected a ticket. When I’d first met him he had a friend with him, a guy who shipped bikes between NZ and UK for people who want to take a longer holiday and want their own bike. I didn’t think I’d ever need his services but I took one of his cards, just in case.

Seriously worn out sprocket. I feel ashamed.

Seriously worn out sprocket. I feel ashamed.

As mentioned, I had ordered a chain and sprockets and when I came to fit these I had a bit of a shock. I knew they were seriously worn out but I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found – three teeth missing off the front sprocket. The chain had several seized up links and the teeth on the rear sprocket were hooked right over. They had covered 40,000kms and probably wouldn’t have got that far if I hadn’t fitted a Tutoro automatic chain oiler kit, something which saves lazy riders, like me, from their own folly when they forget/don’t bother to oil the chain. I was amazed that it had all lasted so long and I was suddenly riding a much quieter, smoother bike than I had done for quite some time.

The last job was to get back to VTNZ, a branch closer to Sue and Thommo’s, where I got my WOF sticker for being a good boy and fixing everything nicely. It sat very nicely on the screen next to my Reggo. Less than a week in NZ and I’m getting pretty good with the colloquial terminology! On the way back to base I called in to a barber’s for a haircut. He’s an old Iranian guy who spoke very little English but he understood ‘A number two with a straight back please’ without any problem.

WOF and Reggo, side by side.

WOF and Reggo, side by side.

Saturday morning I got up feeling pleased at having had such a successful week. Until ……. Remember my backpack, the one that sometimes got left behind? Well, it seems that I’d done it again! When I was out on Friday I had it with me, now it was gone. I checked all around the house and the garage – no sign of it. The only conclusion could be that I’d left it at either VTNZ or the barber’s. I had to go out anyway so I went back to both places, but no sign of it. Bugger! Finally it had gone. Let’s be fair, I’d tried hard enough to lose it and this time I succeeded. Luckily I had emptied out pretty much everything apart from a couple of spare parts I’d had sent over from the UK for my chain oiler. They’d been on the floor of the garage until I decided to put them in the bag for safe keeping. Typical!

Some internet searching had located a bike clothing shop Called Moto Mart which sold RevIt riding gear, the same brand as mine. I needed to do something to sort out the damage to mine and replacing it seemed the only option. I’d looked at various other makes and none of them seemed up to the job. The problem was that RevIt gear was expensive in the first place and even more so in NZ. At Moto Mart I was served by Fern, a British girl from Cambridge, in NZ on a one year working visa. She’s a keen rider and has ridden in many countries, of ten with her Dad. She’s even worked as a tour guide for Royal Enfield riders in Nepal. In the end she sold me a waterproof, breathable over jacket as a compromise solution, along with a new pair of lightweight gloves, very much needed now. Best of all, she gave me contact details for a guy in Christchurch, Paul Delis, who she reckoned would be able to repair my damaged jacket and trousers. She even rang him up for me and we had a chat. It seemed that a money saving repair was now on the cards once I got down there. Well done Fern, and thanks for the offer of a floor to kip on  were I to need it.

Very nice Triumph Trident in the Moto Mart clothing store.

Very nice Triumph Trident in the Moto Mart clothing store.

Back at base I helped Thommo put up the gazebo that was needed for that afternoon’s barbecue, which was a very nice event. I met another UK émigré there, Sarah, who I knew from my social circle. She’d been in NZ for a few years and, having been a mechanic and MOT tester in England, now worked for VTNZ, training their testers. I had some enjoyable chats with native Kiwis too and was getting my ears in tune with the accent which, to be fair, isn’t too onerous. A relaxing Sunday followed and I made plans to head north for a few days before starting my journey southwards. I was very grateful to Sue and Thommo for the help and hospitality. I’d enjoyed Auckland and had felt it a worked well as a gentle introduction into the Kiwi lifestyle. Most importantly I had been able to undertake some very much needed maintenance. So with Doris and I in fine fettle, the open roads of New Zealand awaited.

Half Moon Bay harbour. Nice, if you can afford it.

Half Moon Bay harbour. Nice, if you can afford it.

Down South of the Border.

Donghae Port, South Korea. 6th December 2014.

The ferry crossing was rough. Tatiana had told me it nearly didn’t sail due to rough seas and the motion of the boat did nothing in the slightest to suggest she was exaggerating. I’m lucky in that I don’t suffer from seasickness but even so, I didn’t eat much that evening and I was was happy to have an early night and ride it out in a horizontal position.
Calm had descended by the time we reached the port at Donghae and the crew got me off the boat first so I could get through immigration quickly. The ferry was late and they wanted me to get my bike out of the hold as quickly as possible. Once on dry land the ferry agents got customs round and they checked the VIN on the bike, asked me what was in my panniers and that was that. Back in the office I paid the agents the customs security and (horrendous) road insurance fees and all was done. I was free to start my journey to Seoul, remembering to drive on the right. Luckily I commented to the agents that I was planning to take the Expressway and hoped the tolls weren’t too high. They didn’t quite show me the universal crossed arms sign of ‘Oh no you can’t,’ but they were quick to tell me that motorcycles weren’t allowed on Expressways in Korea. I was flabbergasted although they didn’t know the reason why. So I set my GPS for ‘shortest distance’ and headed for the hills. I had no paper maps for Korea. In my innocence I was just going to rely on the GPS and follow the signs, so hadn’t felt the need to get any. Now I was totally reliant on the GPS to get me there as I’d be on local roads with local signs.

A very well strapped down bike survived the rough crossing.

A very well strapped down bike survived the rough crossing.

At first I was riding main roads with single digit numbers. But as time went by, and I climbed further into the mountains, the GPS took me on a series of smaller roads with higher numbers, a sure sign of back roads discovery. And climb we did, well over 1,200 metres at times. It had been snowing in the last few days but the roads themselves were clear and also bone dry. So I enjoyed myself on the well surfaced roads, often with two lanes on the up slopes enabling me to tackle the bends with enthusiasm. Ultimately much more fun than a boring dual carriageway and obviously far cheaper. But it was freezing cold! I was wearing every bit of warm biking clothing I had and was just about managing to feel OK. At one point I rode though a village which had several snowboard supply shops along the street. Off to my left was a snowy slope with snowboarders having fun. A guy who was walking back from there stood with mouth agape as I rode past him, obviously unable to comprehend this alien activity taking place in front of his eyes. I just shivered, smiled at him and rode on.

Around lunchtime I happened upon a wooden building with ‘Cafe’ written on the side. I didn’t need any second bidding and pulled up, the ice on my riding gear crackling as I dismounted. OK, that last bit was an exaggeration but it felt cold enough for that to happen. The woman inside was asleep on her settee when I came through the door but soon enough organised a big mug of deep, black Joe, as Agent Coper would have said. There was no milk available. I declined her offer of food and she was kind enough to allow me to eat the sandwiches I’d bought for the boat journey. A second mug of coffee had me set up for the second stage of the journey. We talked a lot but neither of us understood a word the other said. When I paid I’m pretty sure she charged me less than the price on the menu. How kind of her.
I reached Seoul before dark and came across a fair bit of traffic. Korean drivers are far more assertive than their Japanese counterparts, I’m pleased to say. In Seoul they’re more like Russians at times. They’re happy to mix it, so as to make progress. The speed limits are higher too; 60kph in town and 80kph elsewhere. It didn’t take me too long to get to the hostel I’d booked. It was refreshingly easy to find the street. Korea has recently changed its street naming system and it works. The signs are in English too, and the supplementary number told me how many turnings along the street would be the small turning I needed. The address of the hostel reflected this. Horizons Unlimited led me to contact Seoul Joe who is the ‘go to guy’ in Korea for travelling bikers. He rides a Harley and has undertaken several journeys on it across Russia and around Europe. He usually sends people to this hostel and it was a good choice. It’s close to a university so there are plenty of small shops and cheap places to eat. The friendly, English speaking couple who own it put me in a room by myself although it was tiny and windowless. Still, it was going to be nice to have my own personal space for the next week. I was soon settled in and breakfast was included in the price. The hostel owners had found me a parking place outside a friend’s house where they felt the bike would be safe, so I could relax.

Meaningful street signs. Japan, please take note!

Meaningful street signs. Japan, please take note!

I’ve often met interesting people in hostels. Here I met a Dutch guy, Larry, who’s around my age. He went on a visit to Iceland when he was young and when he learnt that work in the fishing industry there would get him ten times what he was earning in Holland, he didn’t bother going home. Who could blame him? He’s worked all over the world but now he’s in Alaska and because they shut down for five months of the year he goes travelling. Meanwhile his Brazilian girlfriend goes home to see her family. They have a house in Portugal too, ready for retirement. We had some enjoyable chats, as well as with some of the other guests.
My next key task was to organise the transportation of Doris from Korea to Auckland. While I was still in Japan I had already contacted Wendy Choi, from Aero International, to get the ball rolling. If Seoul Joe is the ‘go to guy’ for advice and information then Wendy is the ‘go to girl’ for bike transportation. Her details also came from Horizons Unlimited. She already knew what I wanted and when by, all I needed to do was finalise arrangements. I was a bit nervous about it all as it was a major step into an area of organisation where I’d never been before. The big question for a task like this has to be sea or air? Sea is cheaper but will take far longer and you have little control over the date of arrival. Especially on such a journey as this one where a ship would visit many different ports en route and suffer delays and possible diversions. Air freight is dearer but you know when the bike will leave and when it will arrive as it’s booked onto a scheduled flight, albeit one just for freight. A simple choice. I wanted my bike to arrive in New Zealand at the same time as I did. After all, I had some summer sunshine to ride in and that just wouldn’t wait!
By now it was Tuesday and two things happened. I made contact with Joe and he said he’d pick me up at the hostel and take me to lunch. Great! Then I made contact with Wendy and she said she’d meet me that evening and we’d go for something to eat while we discussed business. That sounded good too.

Seen on the street near the hostel. Anything you could ever need.

Seen on the street near the hostel. Anything you could ever need.

Joe picked me up in his Porche Carrera and we went to a restaurant where he’s clearly well known. He’s a couple of years older than me and is a former financier. He’s retired now but has been supervising the building of a new house and is about to move in. On the way there we went to a couple of car wash places to see if they could clean my bike. This was an important job as New Zealand is very hot on imported vehicles being very clean. As an island they sensibly try to minimise risk from outside organisms being carried in. Doris was not clean a clean girl. The first place we tried didn’t want to do it as it was too cold. I’m not sure why that would have been a problem. The second place was more helpful and Joe arranged that I’d go down there next day for a steam clean.
Lunch was delicious. We’d barely sat down before soup arrived at the table followed by some breaded fish, breaded pork and breaded chicken. It came with a very tasty sauce, rice and some salad. Nothing too challenging for the western palate. He ordered us a small bottle of Sake which he gave to me to finish off. My protests were ignored. I took the opportunity to ask Joe about why bikes can’t use the Expressways. It’s a typical tale of prejudice and overuse of power. The first Expressway opened in 1972. In 1976 a government minister was being driven along it when he saw a motorcyclist weave his way through the traffic and he decided that was too dangerous. Within a few months he’d persuaded the government to introduce the ban. Utterly stupid! Joe said there had been regular protests ever since, including blocking the Expressways, and some people had gone to prison because of it. But so far, no sign of change. So the prejudiced actions of one man have prevented bikes using the safest roads ever since. How stupid.

Sensible use of two wheels on Seoul's busy streets.

Sensible use of two wheels on Seoul’s busy streets.

We went back to the hostel and had a coffee in the cafe below. We talked about his trips and compared notes on Russia and other places where we’d both ridden. He was puzzled as to why I was in Korea so late in the year, thinking I’d come from Vladivostok. When I explained that I’d come from Japan, and some of the things that had delayed me, he understood. He doesn’t travel any more because of family but he organises trips for others. He often directs people to this hostel so I took him upstairs to meet the owners who were pleased to see him. I’m very grateful to Joe for his help and kindness – and the very nice lunch!
Although cold, it was a nice sunny day so I decided to walk down to visit a couple of the cultural sites that Seoul offers. Changgyeonggung Palace is the smaller of the two and was built in the 15th C but many of the buildings were replicas, the originals having been destroyed by fire. Others were damaged when the Japanese invaded and annexed Korea in 1910. That was something I’d never heard of before.

Part of the Changgeongung complex.

Part of the Changgeongung complex.

The bigger palace, Changeokgung, was were the King and Queen used to live. It had suffered a similar fate to the other one but many of the buildings had been moved there from other sites when the originals had been destroyed. Not original then but good enough to become a Unesco World Heritage site. The general design of the buildings looked similar to many of those I’d seen in Japan and I suppose they were typically Far Eastern in design and construction. But there were two differences. The detail decoration was different, reflecting the different cultures, but most noticeably was the complete lack of priestly paraphernalia that tends to surround (plague?) the Japanese temples. That was the reason I suppose. These weren’t active religious buildings but historical sites. Still, it made a pleasant change to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Changeokgung Place main building.

Changeokgung Place main building.

The throne room in the palace.

The throne room in the palace.

Back at the hostel I spent some time organising my gear ready for transportation. I cleaned my camping gear in case it got inspected, discovering in the process that my sleeping bag was wet. So that went in the wash, along with some other things. Laundry was free here, a refreshing change form some places that want to charge you for everything. Wendy arrived at 19.30, as promised, and we went off to eat.
For the second time that day I was treated to a meal. Just as well really as I’d forgotten to bring my wallet out. Chinese style pork and noodles, eaten at one of the dozens of small eateries that fill the streets around the hostel. And just for once I was sitting in front of a woman who seemed to be impressed with my chopstick skills!
Wendy explained everything about the shipping to me. It was quite simple really. She’d already booked the bike onto a flight with Cathay Pacific, due to arrive in Auckland next Tuesday. I was due to arrive the Sunday before, so that worked out well. Preparing the bike for the flight was going to be straightforward. She’d arranged to have it crated up by a company that she uses regularly. Someone from there was to meet me outside a hotel near the airport and I would follow them to their premises. I would do whatever I could to get the bike as small as possible and they would deliver it to the warehouse once crated. Nice and straightforward. The cost would be unknown at that stage because it all depended on the size and weight of the crate. At this point it might have been tempting to worry about how that might work out but Wendy had a good reputation and she was clearly good at her job. I found nothing to fret about. She’d taken me to a coffee shop by now so we walked back to the hostel and agreed to meet Thursday evening by which time she’d have a final cost worked out. The only slight drawback was that I had to pay her either in cash or by bank transfer, no credit cards. There was no way for me to draw out enough cash so international bank transfer it would have to be.

Nice Trike!

Nice Trike!

Wednesday was clean up day. I got some cleaning gear off the hostel owners, brought my panniers down from the bike and sat outside giving them a good scrub down. They surely needed it! Later, I rode down to the car cleaning place Joe had found and they got stuck in with their steam cleaner and foamy soap. I particularly wanted all the grease and chain oil removed and I was very pleased with the job they did. It wasn’t cheap but effectiveness was more important. I didn’t want to have to do the same thing again before I was allowed to ride in New Zealand. Finally I booked myself a tourist trip for Friday out to the DMZ. More on that later.
I had to be at my rendezvous point by 09.30 on Thursday so I allowed an hour for the 35kms journey, not knowing how bad the Seoul rush hour would be. I needn’t have worried as it didn’t take long in the end. On the way there I was both amazed and amused by the antics of some of the riders of small bikes. They treat Seoul streets the same way that some cyclists treat those in London. They avoided jams by riding along the pavement, jumped red lights and I even saw one cross a junction by riding across the pedestrian crossing – while the pedestrians were using it! Nice and anarchic. I liked it! One of them was a scooter with home fitted outrigger wheels at the back, the rider not bothering with a crash helmet either, in common with many others. I suppose if you’re not actually on the road then it’s not needed.

Stripped down ready for crating.

Stripped down ready for crating.

Unlike the government, the parking attendant at the hotel was nice and helpful and directed me to a parking space on the forecourt. Right on time, the guy from the crating company turned up and I followed him to their premises. He directed me to a quiet corner where I could put into effect my size reduction plan. Off came the screen to reduce the height. Out came the front wheel and off came the front mudguard to reduce the length, with the added effect of reducing the height still further. I disconnected the clutch cable then removed the handlebars and turned them through 90 degrees. They measured Doris up and made a base to match her new length and width then they strapped her down to it with very heavy duty packing tape. Finally we packed all the parts, panniers, bags and riding gear in around her and they wrapped her up in cling film. And that, as they say, was that! They would build the sides and top of the crate onto the base later on but my work was done. One of the guys gave me a lift to the nearest station and I headed back into town, with very mixed feelings. Yes, I trusted Wendy and the guys at the crating company, they clearly knew what they were doing. But it was the first time in nearly eight months my best friend and faithful companion and I had been apart.

She looks like one of those Transformer toys. Just needs the sides and the top now.

She looks like one of those Transformer toys. Just needs the sides and the top now.

Wendy came round again at 19.30 and we went to a different restaurant. My treat this time and to prove it I even remembered my wallet! This place was similar to the one where Hiroshi worked. Each table had a barbecue in the middle of it and we were served marinated pork strips which we cooked on the grill. We were supplied with large scissors for cutting the meat into edible chunks as it cooked. The meal came with soup, rice, vegetables and some sauce. It tasted delicious but was a bit spicy. Wendy was laughing at my red and sweaty face. We were given steel chopsticks, common in Korea apparently and much easier to use than the plastic ones supplied at cheap eateries. About every fifteen minutes someone would come round and change the griddle because the cooking tended to leave plenty of carbon on there. Another really nice touch was that we were given bags in which to put our coats to protect hem from the smell of smoke. Afterwards we moved on to a coffee shop for coffee and cake. And, rare for Korea, I was able to get milk to go with my Americano.
Wendy said she was very impressed with how small I’d managed to get my bike. The smallest she’d ever known, in fact. For her part she said the crate weighed in at 281kgs but she’d declared it as being 300kgs. The reason? Because then the rate goes down from $9.40 to $8.20 per Kg. Sharp thinking on her part. We’d make a great team. The final price was £1880. It sounds a lot but I’d been expecting far more so was very pleased. Before I left home I’d mentally prepared myself for this kind of expense. It’s unavoidable and all I could do was minimise it. Job done!

Barbecue your meal at the table. Great Idea.

Barbecue your meal at the table. Great Idea.

Wendy and I chatted for a while. She’s forty years old and lives with her parents. Quite normal for single people in Korea it seems. She’s clearly good at her job and I suppose must be very dedicated to it. For my part I was grateful to her for her efficiency and hospitality. She’d earned a good reputation amongst other travellers and it was well deserved. I was curious why she was called Wendy and it seems that most Koreans who deal with Western companies will adopt a Western name for that purpose. She did tell what her proper name was but I have to confess I can’t remember it.
So now I was just another tourist rather than a motorcycle traveller. I was due to fly out on Saturday so for Friday I had booked a trip to the DMZ. The border with North Korea is about 50kms north of Seoul – too close for comfort in many ways. Usefully though, it meant a day trip to the DMZ was easy and not too expensive at around £80. That included an additional trip to the JSA and lunch too.

The Peace Bell up at the Dpra Observator.

The Peace Bell up at the Dpra Observator.

So what are all these initials about? Here’s the brief story. Over the centuries Korea had been under various influences, sometimes independent, other times heavily involved with the Chinese, Japanese or Russians. In the late 19th C China was pushed out, as was Russia after its defeat by Japan 1n 1904. In 1905 the Protectorate Treaty was signed and the peninsular became a protectorate of Japan. In 1910 Japan annexed Korea by means of an illegal treaty backed by force. That remained the case until the end of WW2. At that point Korea was divided in two at the 38th Parallel, with Russia controlling the north and The Allies, mainly the USA, the south. Fruitless attempts were made to create a national government and in 1948 two states were created, The People’s Republic of Korea (North) and The Republic of Korea (South). Sadly, the beginning of the Cold War prevented the creation of a unified country.

The bridge across the border.

The bridge across the border.

The North Korean government was never happy with the division and so invaded the south in 1950. South Korea had more or less demilitarised, and most American forces had left by then, so the Communists swept through the South, occupying almost all of the country. American led UN forces then joined the fight and over time the situation was almost reversed. Until, that is, the Communist Chinese joined in. In 1953 a ceasefire was agreed and the border between the two countries was once more set along the 38th Parallel. And that’s where things now stand. Officially the two countries are at war having never signed a peace agreement. Therefore the United Nations polices the south of the area known as the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which extends two kilometres each side of the border, and the North Koreans police the northern side. I don’t know how many people died in that war but I couldn’t help but think what a particular waste of life it was considering nothing was achieved by either side.

The bridge across the border.

The bridge across the border.

Today’s situation is well known, with hardline governments holding sway in both countries. There is now very little cooperation between North and South apart from in one way, which I’ll mention in a moment. The North, over the years, has constantly made threats against the South and still does. I had a few conversations with some South Koreans and asked them if they felt threatened by the attitude of the North. The answer was that although some did and some didn’t, the threat of invasion wasn’t something that affected their daily lives very much.
So the scene was set and I was collected from my hostel at 07.15 and taken to the coach nearby. After several other stops to collect passengers we headed north. We had been told to bring our passports with us and we had to show these at a checkpoint as we entered the DMZ. Once inside the zone we were taken to various places. Some were memorial sites others were places from where we could look across the DMZ into North Korea. In no particular order, here’s some of them.

Pleas for peace from South Koreans.

Pleas for peace from South Koreans.

 

Tongilchon (Unification Village) is located within the southern part of the DMZ. The residents here, as a reward for living, literally, under the North Korean flag, pay no tax and avoid military service, which is one year for all other South Koreans. The land is allocated to the residents by the government and the 162 families there apparently make a very good living as the land is very produvtive. North Korea also built a village in their part of the DMZ but it is a ghost village with nobody living in it. However they keep up the pretence by having lights that turn on and off automatically.in the houses.
The South Koreans erected a 100 metre tall flagpole so the North erected one that is 160 metres tall and carries a flag that is so big it weighs 250kgs.

Dorasan Station. Waiting for the first train from the north.

Dorasan Station. Waiting for the first train from the north.

Dorasan station is the last one on the line running north from Seoul and since the recent freezing of relations trains go no further. It is a tourist spot and you can get a pretend North Korean passport stamp there. This bright, shiny station sits there waiting for the day of reunification when it is hoped trains will be able to link to the existing systems through China, Mongolia,Russia, and eventually to Europe.

The hoped for trans Asia railway.

The hoped for trans Asia railway.

We were taken down into Tunnel Number Three for a look into what I thought was one of the weirdest places we visited. It seems that North Korea are constantly digging tunnels under the DMZ  to gain access for spies and with a view to invading the South. Four have been found so far and there may well be more. They’re not sure. The rather alarming thing about this one was that it’s big enough to allow 30,000 soldiers per hour to pass through it, along with small artillery pieces. Remember Seoul is only 50kms away and that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to know if South Koreans are worried about being invaded.
I mentioned the one remaining area of cooperation between North and South. This is Kaesong Industrial Region. It is operated as a collaborative economic development between the two countries and is located 10kms north of the DMZ. There is direct road and rail access to South Korea. It allows South Korean companies to employ cheap labour that is educated, skilled and fluent in Korean whilst providing the North with a valuable source of foreign currency. 53,000 North Koreans work for 123 South Korean companies and their $90 million wages are paid direct to the North Korean government. Although there have been occasional problems with access when relations have been rocky, and it was closed for a short period, it still works and we were able to see a long line of trucks and vans travelling from North to South across the Freedom Bridge.

Trucks cross the Freedom Bridge.

Trucks cross the Freedom Bridge.

We were shown a film describing how the current situation came about. At one time there was hope  that with Perstroika in Russia and the collapse of communism in Europe, the North and the South might enjoy some kind of reunification but it was never on the cards as far as the North was concerned. It might be tempting to see the North/South Korean situation in the same light as the East/West German one but there are many differences. Although the split evolved in a similar way after WW2 the fact that there was a war between them, and the passage of sixty years since the division, rather than twenty seven in the case of Germany, precludes any easy solution. But we can only hope.

Because I had also booked a trip to the Joint Security Area (JSA) at Panmunjom I was taken to a restaurant where I enjoyed a very nice Beef and Rice lunch. I enjoyed a conversation with a Japanese Kiwi too. Then we boarded another coach and were taken a little further to a very much stricter checkpoint. Here we had to show our passports and sign a form declaring that we’d be good boys and girls and obey all the rules. We were also agreeing that we understood we were entering a hostile area under military control and our safety could not be guaranteed. Blimey! On the assumption that there might be personnel from the North there too, we agreed not to point, make gestures or scoff in such a way that the North could use them as propaganda against the South. We were also forbidden to cross the line that divided South from North. Serious stuff!

The table where North and South meet.

The table where North and South meet.

The JSA, also known as the Truce Village, is the area where all meetings between the North and South take place. There are a series of buildings, the main one of which has a conference table in it, straddling the line of the border, and this was where we were allowed to go. Because there were no North Korean personnel around we were allowed to cross over the ‘border’ and I walked two metres into the North. An ordinary action in a very extraordinary place and a strange feeling after all the security build up. The military personnel were a mixture of Americans and South Koreans, all under the auspices of the United Nations. The Yanks were dressed in fatigues and looked relaxed. The Koreans were wearing very smart uniforms and stood stiffly in a modified Tae Kwon Do stance with solid facial expressions, clenched fists, and sunglasses. This is meant to intimidate the North Koreans. To join this unit they must be at least 17 cms tall, and have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do or Judo.

I am officially in North Korea at this point. The guard doesn't seem impressed.

I am officially in North Korea at this point. The guard doesn’t seem impressed.

We were allowed a certain period of time inside the building and then another limited time for taking photos from the outside. If anyone stepped over the lines which marked the edge of the tourist area they were very sharply told to move back. Ask me how I know.
On the way back we were shown the spot were two American soldiers were killed by North Korean troops while they were out cutting the branches off a tree. Up to that point the two sides had mixed freely within the DMZ but after that incident the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) was introduced and that is why there is a white line painted across the centre of the hut we were in, along with concrete slabs between the buildings. Cross at your peril!

Tae Kwon Do stance, ever alert.

Tae Kwon Do stance, ever alert.

Although the North Korean guard doesn't look too worried.

Although the North Korean guard doesn’t look too worried.

To someone like me who is interested in history, politics and current affairs, this day out ticked all the boxes. Albeit tinged with sadness about the situation between the two countries, it had been a great way to spend my last day in Korea.

Himeji and Hiroshima

Himeji, Japan. 3rd December 2014.

My time in Japan was drawing to a close. I’d booked the ferry that left on the 6th December and it was now the 3rd. I had one more major city to visit, Hiroshima.
Having left Yokkaichi, where Hiroshi lives, quite late I knew I wasn’t going to get there in one hit. I had identified a hostel in the town of Himeji but not booked it in case I didn’t reach there. My GPS took me off the tolled Expressway again and, once again found me the toll free one. Just as well because once I got back to Osaka and beyond all I kept doing was throwing money into toll machines or at toll collectors.

The ever present toll booths.

The ever present toll booths.

The price and the pain.

The price and the pain.

Eventually I came to Himeji and  my GPS took me into the street the hostel was in. A miracle! There was no-one there so I looked around for an alternative just in case. All I could find was a ‘love hotel’ so I went back to the hostel. By now there was another guy waiting there so I stuck around. Eventually the owner turned up, having been to collect his kids from school.

Himeji Castle.

Himeji Castle.

The town of Himeji has an old castle in it which dates back to the 14th C, although the present building is from the 17th C. I didn’t have to be out of the hostel until midday, plenty of time to pay a visit before I left.
It was, of course, raining next morning. Even so I walked the short distance to the castle only to find that the main tower was closed for renovation. Typical!

Period clothing.

Period clothing.

It’s a big place, with three moats inside and with substantial outer walls. A proper castle, just how I like them. The main building looks magnificent. It has five levels visible from the outside but inside are seven floors. It’s constructed from wood and is covered in white plaster. It really looks the part.
I was able to visit the outer building and a long corridor which linked it to the main keep. The corridor itself was part of the living quarters and had plenty of displays to look at. Mostly of period clothing and weapons, although there was an exhibition which explained the life of a Castle Lord and his wife. All very interesting and worth the time and effort.

Impressive.

Impressive.

Back at the hostel I got changed, packed my gear and set off. In the rain, of course. Once on the Expressway I settled down into the ride. After 70 kms I became very unsettled and I realised that  I’d left my backpack at the hostel. I daren’t tell you the words I used. So it was off the Expressway, turn round, back onto the Expressway and back to the hostel. I had a bit of lunch while I was there and set off once more, backpack on my back. Two and a half hours – wasted. One hundred and forty kilometres worth of fuel – wasted. Two thousand nine hundred Yen in tolls – wasted. It was galling to think that by the time I got back to the point where I realised I’d forgotten my backpack, I would have otherwise been in Hiroshima. One thing I’ve learned on this trip is no matter how far you ride it’s impossible to escape your own stupidity. It follows you around like a bad smell. The only small consolation was that it had stopped raining.
When I’d booked the hostel in Hiroshima they’d emailed me a confirmation and thoughtfully included their GPS coordinates. So I changed the ones that I’d worked out to theirs. Unfortunately they were wrong. I knew this as soon as I got to the area and the route took me up a steep hill along tiny, narrow streets. The hostel was near the station and no way in the world did trains come up this high! Fortunately I’d kept a note of the original ones so I re-entered them and they took me right to the door. Which, based on GPS experience so far, was a minor miracle in itself. Once booked in I generously offered the correct coordinates to the hostel staff.
Looking ahead a little, I got the GPS coordinates for Sakaiminato Ferry Port sorted out and checked the weather forecast for departure day, in two days time. Dry and cold in Hiroshima, cold and snowy at Sakaiminato. All seemed good.
Like all Japanese cities, Hiroshima has a good transport system, theirs being centered on trams and trains. The hostel staff gave me a map and explained it to me. My plan was to ride down to the bay and visit Miyojima Island then come back into the city to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. The hostel staff had explained how I could save a fair bit of money by getting a combined train and tram ticket which also included the ferry to the island. Not too expensive at 840 Yen (a little bit over £5).

Gateway to the shrine.

Gateway to the shrine.

Miyojima Island is chock full of places to visit and sights to see. There are two shrines, two temples, two pagodas, a museum, two parks and any amount of tourist shops. One of the main attractions is the O-torii Gate, which sits in the water guarding the approach to Itsukushima Shrine, the biggest on the island.
A ten minute ferry ride followed the thirty minute tram ride from the station near the hostel. I soon realised that the island is not just an offshore museum but a small town with houses, schools and deer. Deer? Yes, wild deer wander the streets and will happily eat your hat or handbag if you’re not careful. Feeding them is absolutely discouraged.

Itsukushima Shrine complex

Itsukushima Shrine complex

The island is beautiful, with many scenic walks to the outer areas. There is a mountain (large hill really) at one end which you can take a cable car up. Itsukushima Shrine sits on the waters edge and is designed so that as the tide comes in it looks as if it’s floating on the water. It was built in 593 but remodelled in 1168, making it easily the oldest building I’d visited in Japan. For once it seems there’s a building that didn’t get burnt down by a mad monk!

Some special visitors. A wedding ceremony.

Some special visitors. A wedding ceremony.

The two pagodas were great too. One was unusual in that the lower section is square and the upper part round. The other one is five storeys high and really looks the part. Next to it is a large, very old hall with open sides. It is a temple and has paintings hanging from the rafters which show mostly domestic scenes and people at play. Most looked very old although some were clearly recent.

Very splendid Pagoda.

Very splendid Pagoda.

Very old open sided temple.

Very old open sided temple.

I walked around for two hours, mixing with all the school kids that were visiting too. I really enjoyed it and reached the conclusion that it would have looked beautiful in the summer.

One of the paintings hanging inside the temple.

One of the paintings hanging inside the temple.

Traditional dress. Pretty as a picyure, but real enough.

Traditional dress. Pretty as a picture, but real enough.

 

Fortunately it seems to have been far enough away from the city centre to have been unaffected by the A bomb blast. Which leads me nicely to my second visit of the day.
Another tram ride took me back past my original station and closer to the city centre. I went to visit the Peace Memorial Park. This area is dedicated to the victims of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasak,i although most of the displays are about Hiroshima. The park contains various memorials and monuments although its largest feature is the Peace Memorial Museum. Of particular interest is the Atomic Bomb Dome, a building that was half destroyed by the blast and was left in that condition as a symbol of Hiroshima. Its message is to convey the horror of nuclear weapons and to appeal for world peace

The Atomic Bomb Dome.

The Atomic Bomb Dome.

A reminder about what happened. At 08.15 on 6th August 1945 the first Atomic bomb ever used in warfare exploded over Hiroshima. The effect was to almost level the entire city and to cause the deaths, by the end of that year, of 140,000 people. Although the bomb, dubbed ‘Little Boy’ because it was smaller than originally intended, carried around 50kgs of uranium 235, it needed the fission of less than 1kg to release the equivalent energy of 16,000 tons of high explosive and cause the devastation. The effects of the explosion were twofold. First was the extreme heat (one million degrees Celsius at the centre of the blast), second was the force of the blast. It was the combined effect of these two that caused the damage and most of the deaths. In the four months following, while the radiation levels were extremely high, the remainder of the victims mentioned above died. Thousands more died subsequently from radiation induced cancers and other diseases. The effects on the population are still present today.

Main memorial in the Peace Memorial Park

Main memorial in the Peace Memorial Park

So why did the US drop the bomb? They state it was to save the lives of US soldiers who were fighting the Japanese. An invasion was being considered and the US was also considering asking for help from the USSR. The third option was the bomb. The world entered the nuclear age that day.

We can only hope.

We can only hope.

I’m not going to comment on the rights and wrongs of that decision. What’s interesting is that the US had been developing atomic weapons since soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. They achieved a successful test in July 1945. They had been bombing Japanese cities for some time but having selected potential targets for an atomic bomb attack, bombing of those cities was prohibited. In the event of deciding to use the A bomb they wanted a ‘clean’ city so as to be able to assess its effects. They had selected four cities, each with an urban area of at least three miles. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the unlucky ones.

This was how it looked from the plane.

This was how it looked from the plane.

On my way into the park I stopped by a small street display put on by a guy who used to be a guide. There were three folders full of information about events leading up to the bombing, its effects and the aftermath. What interested me was how he quoted several military leaders of the time who said the bombing was unnecessary because not only was Japan pretty much beaten militarily but that Japan’s conditions for a surrender were ready to be put in place. This included the retention of the Emperor as the figurehead. The US would not have wanted to call on the Russians for assistance as they wanted to limit post war Soviet influence. In among his other theories was one which said that Roosevelt knew about the plans to bomb Pearl Harbour but decided to take no action because it would give him the excuse to join the war in Europe, something he had promised Churchill he would do as early as 1940. Fascinating! His website is: http://blog.livedoor.jp/mitokosei.

So, filled with conspiracy theories I headed across the park, stopping at various memorials en route to the museum. This is a building full of tragedy. All the displays were very informative, although there was little that wasn’t already known to me. However it was very evocative to see the photos and displays, read the stories and see the information. There were models of people to show the effects of the blast and many examples of clothes and personal possessions, showing how they had been affected. One exhibit was the front step of a building on which someone had been sitting at the time. They were vapourised, their black shadow burned into the stone.

Shadow of Death.

Shadow of Death.

Mounted on the wall was a model of each of the two bombs. Surprisingly small items considering the destruction they delivered.

Small Boy, big effect.

Small Boy, big effect.

After a while, looking at the exhibits started to get to me emotionally so I left. The museum and the rest of the park carried a simple message: such an event must never take place again. I concur. Japanese efforts are focussed on removing nuclear weapons from the world, something which I fully support. As they get ever smaller the chance of a terrorist group getting hold of one increases. When, not if, that happens then the theory of nuclear deterrence becomes meaningless.

Memorial to the children.

Memorial to the children.

Back at the hostel I gladly returned to more mundane matters and organised my gear ready for the ferry trip. Checking the weather revealed it would be dry but cold for the first part of the journey but rain and maybe sleet nearer to the port. Hiroshima and Sakaiminato are on opposite coasts, with mountains in between. I knew it wasn’t going to be a fun ride but there was no option. The ferry left at 18.00, I had to be at the port by 14.30at the latest to deal with customs and load the bike. If I missed that ferry the next one was a week later. That would mean I’d miss the plane I’d booked from Seoul to Auckland. No pressure then!

I wasn't expecting this!

I wasn’t expecting this!

Next morning I was on the road by 8am. Cold but dry, as forecast. That only lasted about 15kms. I came onto the Expressway to find it covered in SNOW! That most definitely was not forecast. The snow depth was about 10cms but the lanes were clear so I pressed on. At one point all traffic was directed into the services, but then allowed out again. I saw people getting their snow chains fitted and I guessed they’d done it to encourage that.

Snow chain fitting.

Snow chain fitting.

Here's why.

Here’s why.

I pressed on. There were a few sections were the snow hadn’t fully melted and I had a few ‘moments’ but was generally OK. At one point I was being followed by a police car but he turned off when the road cleared. Perhaps he was disappointed that he didn’t have any pieces to pick up. After a while the Expressway finished and I came onto a single lane, toll free through route, which was mostly OK. Therefore I will never know, nor understand, why the police directed everyone off this road and would only allow vehicles back on that had chains fitted. Needless to say, that excluded me. At this point it was sunny and relatively warm, with rivers of snow melt running down the road. I tried three times to get back on, at one point trying to explain that I had to get to a ferry. But no, they refused to let me use the safest road in the area and instead pushed me onto snow covered roads. I did my best to work out an alternative route and put some towns I would need to go through into the GPS. The guy who helped me pick up my bike when I dropped it the second time pointed me in the right direction and I set off on a journey I never want to repeat.

Plough me a clear road please!

Plough me a clear road please!

As I wandered around the snowy hills I could visualise the ferry sailing without me, and the subsequent consequences. I told myself off for having these negative thoughts as I needed to concentrate on getting there. If it hadn’t been for the relatively warm temperature I wouldn’t have got anywhere. At odd times I’d enter a snow free area and be thinking I’d cracked it. Then I’d climb up a hill back into the snow again. I’d ride through small villages where people would look up from their snow clearing work and gaze at me riding past, clearly thinking I was mad. They were probably right.

Sunny day, pretty scenery.

Sunny day, pretty scenery.

So I just pushed on, gradually getting through the small roads, some not even numbered. On a nice day I’d have really enjoyed such a mountain ride and at times I enjoyed this one. I pushed on when I could and slowed down when I had to. Apart from the one deeply snow blocked road I didn’t have to divert from my route and I was always heading in the right general direction. Eventually I came onto a well used road which brought me down off the mountain and out of the snow. At that point I knew I had cracked it!
I was aware that I’d be a bit late but even so I stopped about 15kms from the port to fill up with fuel, cheaper in Japan than Korea. I arrived outside the ferry office at 14.45, fifteen minutes late. As Tatianya saw me pull up she dashed out of the office to fetch the customs guys. I walked through the door, took off my crash helmet, knelt down and kissed the floor, much to the amusement of the guys in there. I’d made it!

Tatianya seems pleased to see me (go).

Tatianya seems pleased to see me (go).

The coffee was hot, the formalities swift

and before long I was riding Doris onto the boat deck. The deck hands got her thoroughly strapped down. It was going to be a rough crossing. In fact the ship almost didn’t sail. The sea had only just gone down enough to enable it to go ahead, Tataniya told me. I simply can’t imagine what my reaction would have been if the ferry hadn’t sailed after all. Is Hara-Kiri still an option in Japan?
As the ferry pulled away from its berth I stared at the departing lights remembering some of the fantastic times I’d had there. Beautiful places, amazing shrines and temples, fascinating cities but, of course, mostly the wonderful people Sae had enabled me to meet. Easily the best part of my Japanese experience.

Last sight of Japan, for now.

Last sight of Japan, for now.

As I left Japan Douglas Adams’ words from Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy seemed most relevant: Goodbye, and thanks for all the fish.