Invercargill to Dufftown – A “wee adventure” on an XT500C
A single bloke riding a single cylinder bike in search of the perfect single malt. Sounds like a recipe for adventure indeed. For one CJMG member, this hair-brained idea (no doubt hatched over a dram or two) became a reality encompassing both lifetime highlights and deep despair. Roger soon found that taking a wrong turn in a South East Asian forest is infinitely more challenging than missing the turn-off on State Highway 1.
Roger left little old Invercargill at the tender age of 29 and embarked on a 19 month odyssey (February 1986 – September 1987). The trusty XT500 took him through lands most of us only see on the evening news as places to be avoided. Along the way he challenged himself personally, fell off, saw amazing things, repaired the bike, fell off and ultimately achieved what most bikers just dream about – a solo, 58,000 km bike ride across the globe. Luckily for us, Roger kept a diary and took photos along the way and he now offers us an insight to this adventure across three chapters. Check out the forest, the snow and the sand – all of which the XT took in its stride:
I’ve always been partial to a dram (or two) of single malt. The Glenfiddich distillery was in Dufftown, Scotland. The XT had been parked up for a while and really needed a good run, so a plan was hatched. We would ride overland as much as the wet bits allowed, from Invercargill to Dufftown.
The XT500 still pristine, not long after purchase in 1976.
I had bought the XT new from Noel McCutcheon in 1976. It had served duty as road commuter between Invercargill and Dunedin, enduro racer for a couple of seasons and trusty trail bike. It was easy to ride, reliable and that loping, low compression engine would run on the crappiest fuel, all day long. After some long hours of preparation at a friendly sheet metal shop, The Machine was born.
It was February ’86 when I headed off on the XT for the wee adventure. Invercargill to Christchurch and Sydney to Darwin was a good shake down over familiar territory before placing The Machine in the cargo hold of a DC9 flight from Darwin to Bali. At Tuban airport, they just pushed the bike out the cargo door to drop on the tarmac – bugger! The uniformed dude at customs wanted a 100,000Rp ‘guarantee’ before releasing The Machine – he assured me I would get it back when I left Indonesia, just a few thousand k’s down the road – yeah right. So I sat outside his office for most of the day until he got tired of me and finally signed the Carnet like he was supposed to.
Legian and Kuta are full of the, ‘I’ve been to Bali’ crowd, noisy westerners and hustling locals. DT100’s are the predominant transport with Binters (Kawasaki KE125’s) at the performance end of the market. The inland hill country and northern beaches around Singaraja make a relaxing and beautiful contrast. I took a ferry at Gilimanuk for the short crossing to Java. Surabaya is my first experience of riding in a large Asian city – six lane roads carrying eight lanes of traffic. Survival at intersections required a sharp eye, quick responses and a calm manner. To get across them though demanded full throttle in second, pushing the horn button through the switch block and as much bluff as one could muster. I was at a distinct disadvantage however as shouting in a full face helmet had little effect.
Do some of the touristy things like the Sultans’ Palace in Yogyakarta which could house 20,000 people within its walls; Borobudur built by Buddhist devotees in the 9th century (but only rediscovered in 1814, overgrown by jungle) and the competing Hindu temples down the road at Prambanan. Mail stop at Jakarta then on to Merak for the ferry to Sumatra.
Paperwork problems again at the ferry but rescued by an official who speaks reasonable English and is just busting to practice it. He gets tickets sorted for me and then gives me a shopping bag full of jasmine tea tatra-pacs and is offended that I offer to pay for them. Many times during my travels I would be humbled by the hospitality and friendliness from complete strangers.
Pleased I had chosen a trail bike and pleased I didn’t meet this truck on the road to Baturaja, Sumatra.
The ‘roads’ in Sumatra are not great, with pot holes that full grown trucks could get lost in. When the holes get impassable they are filled with rocks. Not trashy gravel sized stuff, huge bloody boulders the size of basketballs. Can’t decide which is worse, empty pot holes or filled in pot holes. The new Trans-Sumatra Highway from Palembang to Padang would have been the sensible choice but I had an off road bike and wanted adventure so took the little travelled west coast road – fools who try to be heroes! Made a couple more mistakes: Baturaja to Bengkulu looks like 200km on the map (250 tops) but it takes twelve hours to cover the winding up-hill, down-dale 500km. I run out of cash, petrol and daylight. This was to happen reasonably regularly during the trip. Bengkulu is amazing and the hospitality is overwhelming. In one day I am invited to six different homes and offered food and drink while being quizzed about my country and travels. They just love to practice their English. The further north you travel in Indonesia the hotter the food gets. I swear some of the dishes would blister exhaust paint.
A minor quirk to rural motoring in Indonesia is animals – lots of them and often on the roads. Goats are pretty predictable, the mangey dogs can usually be discouraged with a flaying boot but the pigs fly out of the undergrowth like intercept missiles. Water buffalo move for no one and the chooks never know which way to run. They invariably get it wrong then frantically claw spin at the last minute to avoid becoming pâté.
Ever wondered where all the old BSA’s went? A few hundred ended up in Pematangsiantar. Just about everything that moves in this place is (or is bolted to) a BSA. Some are tidy, others downright ratty – all of them somehow still running.
Finally Medan and back to big city pollution and paper work for the roll-on-roll-off ferry to Penang, Malaysia. The ferry had been operating for four years but strangely The Machine was the first motorcycle and only the second vehicle to have ever make the voyage. So why then is it a roll-on-roll-off ferry? Ah, the trucks loaded with veges for Malaysia drive on, unload and then drive off. Working out fares and paperwork takes the best part of a day. Formalities on arrival in Malaysia are facilitated by a nice gentleman from the shipping company so The Machine and I are first off the boat. Next stop Georgetown where the mix of Chinese, Indian and Malaya influences make for a gastronomic delight.
Took my first and last Asian bus ride, to the butterfly farm. Terrifying! The driver had amnesia when needing to change gears and was determined to set a land speed record on the winding coastal road. Some people travel the world like this?
I head up the Malay peninsula on highway standard roads, no longer plagued by the bandit and insurgency activity of earlier years. The 20km of no-mans land between Malaysia and Thailand has shrunk to 500m so that’s a good sign. Thai border control tell me I have two weeks in Thailand. But I already have a 30 day visa – “that’s right 30 days for you and two weeks for the motorcycle”! The logistical problems this presented took a little while to sort out – they advised the two weeks for the motorcycle could be extended at HQ in Bangkok. The road north is good and flanked by rubber tree plantations, which reminds me of the need for an oil change. Stop at a small village and get some Castrol HD40. Local motorcycle enthusiasts watch as I drain the oil from the ol’ girls bowels then pour the new oil into the main frame tube by the headstock – they ain’t seen anything like The Machine.
This is where our tyres used to come from. And first tantalizing glimpse of The Machine
I stay a few days in Phuket which is a bit of a tourist ghetto. There’s the fly-in-fly-out set in the posh hotels and then the down market set (like me) in basic thatch bungalows on the beach. It rains the entire time I’m there – thatch roofs and monsoons do not go well together. On the road again, Highway 4 to Bangkok is better than most roads in Oz. Arriving in the capital is a real experience. Overcrowding, pollution, heat, noise, smells – the place is buzzing. Don’t stay in the Banglamphu area – it’s full of freaky travellers with glazed eyeballs. I settle for Friends Guest House in a quiet lane that is walking distance from the Royal Palace. The hot wheels in Bangkok are Kawasaki’s AR125’s – hundreds of them screaming around, many exuding more than a whiff of racing fuel. Lots to see and do in Bangkok and when it gets a bit hectic you can retreat into one of the 400 wats for some peace and tranquillity.
200km north of Bangkok and the traffic all but disappears. The run up to Chiang Mai highlights a couple of growing irritations. The Machine is starting to use a tad too much oil and she should be pulling higher gearing. I have a larger front sprocket but have been waiting for the Izumi O-ring chain fitted in Darwin to stretch a little (the rear axle is as far forward as it can go). However, after 7,500km there is not even a hint of wear. A couple of hours with a Wiltshire round file bought from a local hardware store has the second problem solved. New rings might have to wait until Singapore though.
In Chiang Mai I felt duty bound to try the local tipple so ordered a Mekong whisky with my evening meal. Thought I would get a shot glass but out came a tumbler and a small bottle – full! The first couple of glasses were a little raspy but you would be surprised how much it mellowed as the evening progressed. At A$2 for the meal and the whiskey – it had to be the cheapest jet fuel going. I do some hillside tracks in northern Thailand visiting some of the colourful tribal villages. The Machine is in its element.
Off the beaten track west of Pai, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Back south to Bangkok and hear on the BBC news that Prem has dismissed the Commander-in-chief of the Army. Next thing the boys get the tanks out and start cruising around the capital to indicate their displeasure. Time to head back to Malaysia.
Pottering down the coast road to Kuantan, I head inland to Jerantut aiming for Kula Lipis. Thought I would take a short cut, get off the beaten track and explore unmapped jungle. Should be a piece of cake; use the sun as a compass. Starts off ok but then none of the tracks are going in the right direction. Couple of hours later and after riding in circles it is pretty clear I’m lost. Don’t have a bloody clue where I am or which way is out. Eventually stumble across a small village. The resident motorcycle ace will guide me back to the track for US$20! This is negotiated down to a tank of fuel for his ER100 and we’re off.
Abd Karim Bin Ibrahim and his mate guiding me out of the Malaysian jungle.
Eventually on the right track going in the right direction, Abd Karim Bin Ibrahim bids me farewell. A little later it started to rain. First a little then a lot. The track started to get muddy – a little at first, then a lot. This mud was like cement! The Machine finally grinds to a halt, both wheels packed solid and the rear wheel refusing to turn – even when slipping the clutch in first gear. It takes a good hour to claw enough compacted clay away and, of course, it’s getting dark again. Flick the light switch on and the high beam indicator lamp glows for the merest of moments – just long enough to blow every bulb on the bike. I come across a railway line – saviour! Ever tried riding a motorcycle between railway lines when its pitch black, raining and you’re hungry and tired? Sometimes you can have just a little bit too much adventure. Just as I’m about to curl up, sodden and fatigued beside The Machine, this guy appears from nowhere (he probably heard me crying). He invites me to his home half a kilometre back down the track. A large family in a humble dwelling, their hospitality is overwhelming. Stuffed with food I sleep like the proverbial log. It’s another days ride before I get to Kuala Lipis but hell it beats the long way round.
Eventually in Singapore I take the first hot shower in months, enjoy the luxury of drinking tap water and find the local Yamaha distributor who will kindly let me use their immaculate workshop to service The Machine and fit new rings. The Machine is then crated for shipping to Calcutta…