Until a few months ago I was just an ordinary bloke, getting on in years, who sometimes rode a bike and tried to find time to tend his garden. Then, quite suddenly, I became a Foundation, the CEO of a world-wide initiative to tell it as it is. I’m still reeling from the shock.
What distinguished Jupiter’s Travels from most motorcycle adventure sagas was the attention that it paid to what was going on around me as I travelled.
The Ted Simon Foundation (I still blush a little when I say it) is dedicated to promoting that kind of travel.
It’s not good enough to travel through the world obsessed with your own little moments of triumph and despair. Individual explorers have a great role to play in comprehending what is going on in the world, and communicating their observations. These personal observations, to my mind, are at least as useful as any media reporting that’s done these days.
The foundation will be launched alongside my old bike in Coventry on October 6th.
Read about it here.
I’ve been on a two-week motorcycle tour of New Zealand, and the first thing to say is that riding with groups is not something I do. Normally I ride alone, I figure out the route, find places to stay, deal with the problems, bump into people (figuratively speaking, usually) and write about it.
This can be demanding and tiring and productive. It’s not always fun, but for me it’s the best way to experience a country and its people.
On the top of the bottom of the world
So what got me involved with a caravan of seventeen people, two guides, a baggage train and a route planner?
Well, I was enticed by flattery. John Rains and Alison Fitzgerald are the creators of a mud house and a motorcycle rental business in Christchurch, and they’ve been running tours for ever.
They call themselves Te Waipounamou – it’s a Maori phrase – on the principle that if you can work your way around the syllables you’ve probably got what it takes to ride around New Zealand.
A fine pub with fine people. The table and bench are made of Monterey Cypress, and I want to grow some on my place. Sitting on the bench is John Rains
Hoping to get enough people down there in these difficult times, John and his American pal Fred Rau came up with the startling idea that if I would take part in a “Ted Simon Tour”, they would come. I didn’t share their faith but, Wow,just suppose they were right, woudn’t that be a kick. Anyway I said, Sure.
Well, they did come, enough of them at least to make it work, so I had to overcome my life-long disdain for cycling in flocks and console myself with the thought that I need never do it again. And I probably won’t, but that’s because I can’t imagine another tour coming anywhere near this one for sheer enjoyment and expertise. It was amazingly pleasant.
Not everyone makes it round the bend. A local lad is commemorated.
Of course John starts with the advantage of living in a country designed by God for motorcyclists. There are gravel roads if you want them, but his tour – all two thousand miles of it – is on sealed surfaces so well maintained that there is hardly ever a need to look down on them. And some of these roads, swooping around the mountains, have a curvaceous sensuality that comes pretty close to making love.
These islands also seem to be populated by people with a natural affinity for bikes and bikers – remember Burt Monro? Time and again vehicles ahead of me pulled over with a smile to let me through.
Intriguing! Why the difference?
There’s a museum near Wanaka, in the South Island, where they record the deeds of New Zealand’s fighter pilots and I learned that, per capita, the Kiwi’s have notched up more kills than any other nation. Strangely, I wasn’t surprised, and I’ve been letting my mind wander over the faces of the people I’ve seen during these two weeks.
Like Australia, and parts of the USA, the population is distributed quite thinly, so flying to places has a great attraction. In fact a New Zealander actually got a machine into the air some months before the Wright brothers but, with a characteristic aversion to showing off, never pressed his claim.
One of the nights on this tour was set aside for “farm stays.” I and four others were put up on a farm by the owners, Shona and Bay Delautour, an elderly couple of about my own age, obviously well-to-do but still interested enough in life to invite travelers for the pleasure of meeting new faces.
Bay is a tall, thin, vigorous gentleman who drove us around the farm in the evening, talking to his sheep and describing projects he had in mind. He promised to say goodbye in the morning, but I was down too late and he had already flown off somewhere.
I had noticed his plane the night before; a small, rather dusty white object, stowed nonchalantly in a shed by the house as you would an old car.
Apparently he uses it two or three times a week.
I imagine there must be hundreds, if not thousands of men like Bay sprinkled about these islands who take to the air as easily as I would jump on a bike, and it is equally easy to imagine that in 1939, when the mother country was being threatened by those nasty Nazis, a lot of them might have said, “Let’s get over there and have a go.”
Of course there were adventurous volunteers from all over – Canada, Australia, Africa, to name just a few – but something gave these Kiwis the cold-blooded courage to be top aces up there in the skies of Europe?
It seems to flow naturally from their temperament. Kiwi’s are cool, really cool.
In the six weeks I’ve spent on their islands I can’t remember a voice raised in passion or bombast. Perhaps there’s too much natural beauty around to be upset for long, but more probably it’s a strain of the old British stiff-upper-lip that has survived there, far from the corruption of the motherland.
Unbridled displays of emotion are frowned upon, and if there’s any swagger in a Kiwi I have yet to detect it.
They have irony instead, and somehow irony strikes me as being really useful in the cockpit of a Spitfire or a Hurricane.
Not that all New Zealanders are modest heroes. They have their share of villains, no doubt, but even the crime strikes me as picaresque and quirky.
This is the only country where I’ve heard of a house being stolen – literally, taken away. And while I sat outside a bakery in Nelson at closing time, the owner came out to take down a large gilded wooden pretzel hanging from the awning. “Otherwise,” she explained, “it’d be gone by morning.”
There’s a club for “mature” riders down under, called Ulysses. I’m a natural, of course, and a bunch of them came out to ride with me.
I have to write about the people because trying to convey the beauty of the country is a mug’s game.
There are only so many words to use and pretty soon there’d be none left. Of course there are other countries with glorious, awe-inspiring sights but what New Zealand offers is all of it, bunched together, with quite unparalleled accessibility.
John Rains runs a tour that encompasses, in only two weeks, glaciers and rain forests, stupendous mountains, transparent blue-water lakes, heart-stopping views, bucolic landscapes, gamboling lambs, rocks twisted into the most fantastic shapes, wild ocean shores, fabulous water falls, old English pubs, weird birds, and rivers that make you want to be a trout.
All of this on roads that cause a biker’s heart to sing with joy.
Yet every night I slept in fine hotels and ate in great style – need I mention the wine? – except for that one night on Shona’s farm when she outdid them all with her delicious ratatouille.
As for the people I rode with, I just wish we’d had a spectacular murder to solve, because Agatha Christie herself could not have assembled a better cast.
There was the improbably mild oculist from the West Country, the phlegmatic couple from the North riding a flaming Ducati and obviously concealing fiery passions, the spare military gent from Pensylvania hinting broadly at a secret past of skullduggery and intrigue, the bluff and genial Alaskan entrepreneur (capable of who knows what ruthlessness), the meticulous German with the slightly sinister accent, and so on.
Actually a mysterious crime was committed, and when the perpetrator was revealed she was the last person any of us would have suspected.
The key to big Wayne Grega’s luggage disappeared on the dockside, and only after a dogged investigation was it discovered in the pocket of Voni Glaves, a famous and fashionable southern belle who affected total innocence with a blush to match her red riding boots.
And then, remarkably, she tried the same trick again, which makes one wonder what vital microfilms or blueprints the seemingly innocent Wayne was trafficking.
Well, we were not short of amusement, but for me the most dramatic revelation was the riding itself.
John gave me a Suzuki V-strom to ride. I was expecting a BMW and at first I was disconcerted. I had it a couple of days before the tour, riding north on my own, and getting used to it.
There’s a famous toilet up there at Kawakawa (yes, really, a toilet) decorated by an Austrian artist called Hundertwasser which I really wanted to see, but for some reason I couldn’t find it and got stuck in a cul-de-sac.
Trying to manoeuvre my way out on a slope I learned that the V-strom stalls unexpectedly at low revs, and with nowhere to put my foot we tumbled over. After much huffing and puffing, and feeling foolish as one does, I got it off the ground and lost my urge for toiletry. And that, so far, is the only complaint I have about the V-strom.
It turned out to be the best bike I’ve ridden in ages. The handling reminds me of my old Triumph, and now I am well on my way to acquiring one here in the states.
The beauty of this tour was that for the first time in my biking life I had nothing else to do but ride for the fun of it, and I am almost ashamed to admit that on none of my long journeys around the world did I enjoy riding as much as I did on this trip.
I learned a lot riding behind John on his Speed Triple. He is poetry in motion, and without being distracted by plans, routes, borders, languages, and local customs (all of which I normally find fascinating) I really got into riding those curves.
So, great time, great people, great experience. I even had good conversation with two Republicans, although it’s well-known that I am politically somewhere to the left of Trotsky. Biking trumps politics. Hurrah!
The Hundertwasser Toilet : A suitable venue for a Tea Party Convention?
PHOTO COURTESY WIKIPEDIA
PS: At the recent Tea Party Convention one of it’s principal leaders said we should stop bandying about words like Socialism. He said it has a strict ideological meaning, and President Obama is ideologically a Socialist. My dictionary (as if I needed one) defines Socialism as: “A theory or policy of social organization which advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, land, capital, property, etc by the community as a whole and their administration and distribution in the interests of all.” Anyone who thinks Obama is a Socialist is too daft to be invited to anybody’s tea party, not even by the Mad Hatter herself.
Six weeks after the accident I described above I made my way to Germany on the bike and then, by air, to England. A doctor friend had suggested earlier that it would be a good idea to get a CT scan, just in case, so in London I wandered into the ER of a big London hospital, and it turned out that I had a bigger problem than I had realised. The hospital was part of the British National Health Service. I am not writing a medical journal but, because of the debate raging in the USA about Health Reform, what SHOULD be of general interest is the treatment I received. Horror stories from health services around the world are bandied about regularly and the NHS probably gets more than its fair share, so this account is as honest as I can make it.
I waited in the reception area for about twenty minutes. Then a nurse asked me some preliminary questions and I was shown to a cubicle.
I waited a little longer and then explained the history of the accident to one or two young men who came and went. Within two hours of my arrival my brain was scanned, twice, the second time after an injection. Almost immediately – and to my great surprise – I was admitted and put to bed in a clean, airy ward with five other men and my blood pressure, temperature, blood oxygen, reflexes and eye movements were monitored every four hours.
The next day I was shown the scan, with its ugly dark slug of blood down the inside of my skull and told I had a subdural haematoma. Evidently I had had most of this for weeks, but there was a little fresh blood probably due to my flying from Germany to England.
The blood was squeezing my brain into a space where it shouldn’t be and, incidentally, was probably the cause of waves of embarrassing incontinence that were plaguing me. They said they were trying to get me across to another hospital nearby that specialized in neurosurgery but there was a shortage of beds.
Had there been any sign of deterioration I would have been shifted immediately but my condition appeared stable and they were hoping not to have to drill through my skull. The consultant on the ward was very sympathetic. The nurses and the rest of the staff were friendly and efficient, as far as I could tell, and always ready to listen. The food was good (there were choices) and there was optional TV, radio and internet by each bed. In fact mine didn’t work, but had I cared I am sure I could have got it fixed.
I had been there for five days when the neurosurgeon came over for a visit. He talked very easily and openly, with no sense of self-importance, and gave me plenty of time to gather my thoughts. He said there was no point in my staying in bed and sent me home to become an outpatient.
He said there was every likelihood that the problem would take care of itself and they would do another scan to confirm this.
Now, five weeks later, they scanned me again, and everything is working out well. Everything is back to normal, I can fly again, and friends say that I seem to be making a lot more sense these days.
I hadn’t been in any western hospital for sixty years and was deeply impressed. Perhaps those who make frequent visits would find things to complain about, but not me. So there it is: One survivor’s tale of the dreaded national health service.
We all have accidents of one kind or another from time to time and I’m not claiming that there is anything particularly riveting about this one, other than that it happened in Ukraine. verge on either side. Here and there people at the roadside sell mushrooms or other things gathered from the woods.
On July 23rd I was on my way to Poland, expecting to arrive in England by the 28th to start work on my next book. I was about 10 km from the border and in no hurry, enjoying the journey, and the weather, and riding quite slowly. The speed limit here is 70 kilometres an hour and I was probably below even that.
All I have now is a vague memory of having to take avoiding action. The next thing I knew I was lying on a grass verge, with my helmet off, and my motorcycle lying a few feet away on its side.
A man with a concerned expression was near me. At some point police arrived, but I don’t know how soon.
The first thing I remember is telephoning my friend, Lida, whom I had left an hour before in Lviv, and then passing the phone to the man at my side. After a bit he gave back the phone and she told me what he had said. He had been driving from the border and saw that there had been an accident. He had stopped and seen me lying there, and apparently he had taken off my helmet although I had no memory of it.
I had hit another man on a smaller motorcycle. This other man was not hurt much, just grazes and bruises. His bike suffered very little damage and his helmet, which must have been of poor quality, had a hole in it.
I had absolutely no idea how all this had happened. My left arm was hurt, but I didn’t know then that a bone had been fractured. I was too confused to know that I had suffered from concussion. Only much later was I surprised to realize that my memory before and after the accident had been wiped clean.
There was more communication, this time with police, with Lida translating, but I didn’t learn much. She told me she would come to the scene. Then an ambulance arrived with a cheerful female doctor and her assistant to take me to a hospital in a nearby town called Javoriv.
I think they wrapped something round my arm, and at the hospital they did an X-ray. They asked me for some money to pay for the petrol and then some more to pay for a sling.
Both amounts were very small, and I was happy to pay them. Nothing else was asked of me, but after a while they put me back in the ambulance and took me on a long and very bumpy ride of about 100 kilometres, first to one hospital and then to another in the big city of Lviv.
I heard later that because I was a foreigner they didn’t want to take responsibility for me at a small local hospital, but I don’t think the ride did me much good.
While I was being driven around the countryside, Lida made her way to the scene of the accident, and made sure that all my belongings were taken off the bike before the police took it away to their station in Javoriv.
At the third hospital they examined the X-ray and eventually put my arm in plaster, and while they were doing this Lida arrived in a taxi with all my stuff.
They were going to let me go, but then another doctor came in to check out my reflexes and eye movements. Evidently they were concerned that I might have suffered some other injury, but at no time did anyone ask me to tell them what had happened before or after the accident, so they seemed to have no idea that I had suffered concussion.
A police lieutenant, whose name is Oleg, came to the hospital to interrogate me and asked me what had happened.
“It is strange that you don’t remember the other motorcyclist,” he remarked, through Lida. Even then I didn’t quite understand that I was suffering from amnesia.
Only later, when I realized that I had no memory of anyone taking off my helmet – which is not an easy thing to do – did I understand that I had lost my memory of the minutes before and after the accident.
Before she left the scene, Lida talked to the police and the other motorcyclist (whom I will call Mr. X). He appeared to have suffered very little damage and after hearing his account the police said they thought I had caused the accident.
They suggested to Lida that maybe he would like to have some money from me instead of making it a legal matter, and he agreed with her to just deal with it as two people, himself and me. She also remembers him saying, very clearly, that he had not seen me before I hit him.
Meanwhile, in my confused state I was trying to explain to myself how this accident could have happened.
Lieutenant Oleg said that I had crossed from one side of the street to the other far side before hitting Mr. X. It is inconceivable that I would do this without a reason. It seemed to me that I must have been trying to avoid some sudden hazard.
According to the police, who tried to reconstruct it, the accident happened at a place where one minor road came in from the right and then, almost immediately, another small road led off to the left. Mr. X was turning left into this second road when he was hit.
I thought maybe a car had come suddenly out from the right and forced me over to the left just as Mr. X was turning, but the police (who treated me very pleasantly throughout) said there was no evidence of another car. Of course there were no other witnesses.
Only much later did I hear that the police were accusing me of rashly overtaking Mr. X at the crossroads, which was a traffic offence. Well, knowing how I was riding at the time I knew this was impossible, and it was only then that I realized what must have happened.
Motorcyclists are rare in Ukraine, and usually ride near the edge of the road. Having been properly trained, I usually ride closer to the crown of the road for maximum visibility and I am sure that Mr. X, unaware of me, turned left across my path, forcing me over to the left where I eventually hit him.
By the time I had sorted this out it was much too late to do anything about it. The police had made their up their minds. So if any of you are contemplating having an accident in Ukraine, be sure to get your story straight at the outset.
I got good advice from two lawyers who happen to be in Lida’s family and they told me to pay the fine and get out.
If I tried to defend my case, they said, I could be there for many months as the paperwork went back and forth. So, four weeks after the accident I sat before the examining magistrate, admitted my guilt, and paid the 340 Hrievnas which, fortunately for me, only amounted to $40.
She was a pretty magistrate in a very pretty, frilly silk dress, but her blue eyes were cool and smart, and I think she suspected that things weren’t quite what they seemed.
I am disappointed with myself. I should have anticipated that the other guy would do something stupid. After all, that’s how I’ve survived so far. It’s my mantra: Whatever happens on the bike, it’s my fault. Mr. X wanted some money from me, and at the beginning I would have given him some because he’s not well off, but he hung on and later he embroidered his evidence, and when I was sure it was his fault and not mine I felt less generous.
The arm is pretty much OK after six weeks. The effects of the concussion lingered longer than I expected. Even now I’m not sure I’m through with it. The bike suffered superficial damage, mostly to Al Jesse’s boxes and supports, and it’s in a local workshop. I hope to be on my way in a week or so, but my plans are all to hell, and the book project will have to wait although I hope to have a couple of weeks in the UK before I fly home.
And yet the interruption has provided a priceless bonus.
Living with Lida in this tiny village on the edge of a small town I have felt myself slowly becoming part of it.
I don’t speak Ukrainian, but I can say “Dobre den”, and “Proshen” and a few other words. There are about seven near neighbours and it seems that the men are all called Igor and the women are all called Iryna, but I can tell them apart, and they are all nice to me. Even the woman in the corner store no longer scowls.
I’ve got used to taking my shoes off in the house, and taking an unusual amount of care with my appearance outside because these are a surprisingly formal people. And of course I have become even closer to Lida on her home ground. So, the journey continues . . .