Europe is a dream to ride in.
Riding anywhere in Australia always seems to take forever. Given our continent is 5000km across and about 3500km from top to bottom and nearly 90% of the population lives near the coast it takes a long time to get anywhere to see any thing - unless you like deserts of course. Europe is the exact opposite. You can go through three counties with totally different cultures in a morning or take an hour to ride between totally different environments in a single country. And being a Euro bike fanatic there is a new machine to drool over or some rider to talk to around every corner.
Heading to the top of europe
Heading to the top of europe
I always wanted to ride a motorbike through Europe so I bit the bullet, took long service leave from my work and planned a 3 month trip starting in the UK. I assumed that getting my bike there would be a major hassle dash it was the exact opposite. A company in Australia regularly ships bikes to the UK via sea freight and after stuffing around with some paperwork the Beema was being strapped to a steel frame and loaded into a container with a bunch of other bikes. Most of the other riders shipping their bikes were heading to see the TT and Moto GPs but a couple were touring Europe like me.
Two months later and a long flight to Europe I found myself in a freight terminal in Eastern England picking up my beloved old BMW. It was simply a matter of paying some insurance money, pumping up the tires, reconnecting the battery, and riding out the gate. It was almost a surreal experience that suddenly I was riding in Europe.
For the next couple of days I rode through Southern England vs Sussex, Norfolk, and south eastern England. The narrow winding roads are a delight to ride but it's easy to get lost in the myriad of small roads, lanes and paths that crisscross the countryside. I passed through numerous tiny villages straight of of Elizabethan times dotted with white walled houses thatched roofs. Green farmlands and the ubiquitous English pub became second nature though encountering farm machinery and oncoming traffic in narrow lanes lined with stone walls was a bit harrowing at times. Give me the bush and kangaroos any day!
Catching The ferry from Felixstowe to the hook of Holland was very simple and I couldn't wait to hit the road in Europe proper. The ferry gets into to the Hook early in the morning and they wake you to the tune of 'Don't worry, be happy' which is a bit surreal. As customs officials waved me through the Dutch checkpoint Europe opened up to me.
I stayed with good friends near Amsterdam and they showed me around the surrounding countryside buy bicycle bracket which was a bit of a shock exclamation mark close bracket.
After a few days it was time to start heading north. The weather in Northern Norway appeared pretty intimidating with rain and snow. I considered heading south and taking a counter clockwise route as opposed to my original idea which was to head 20 cat at the start of the trip.
I headed off into the rain and fog hoping that the weather would improve but - surprise surprise - it didn't. The winds blasting off the north sea was utterly brutal and gusts blew me all over the road.
When I was a kid back in New Zealand, old soldiers would talk about the battle at Arnhem in Holland and the stand the famous British paratroopers 1st Airborne Division The Red Devils to take and hold the bridge against overwhelming German forces as part of the D Day landings. It was moving to finally see the battleground around the bridge in quiet leafy suburban streets and think of all the veterans, now long gone, quietly reminicing of the fight they had there. The museum shows how the battle played out and is well worth a visit.
The terrible losses suffered by both sides and brutal fighting was graphically illustrated by a British sniper 'score' scrawled on a piece of wallpaper preserved in the museum.
Leaving Holland I hit the autobahns through Hamburg towards the amazing Bridge network that takes you into Denmark. More pouring rain and driving winds. I was starting to doubt my decision to head north at this time of year.
Just outside Hamburg my Garmin GPS fell off my handlebars crashed and rattled along the road at over 100 kilometers an hour and survived much to my amazement. If anything else it's a hell of a tough unit!
Walking around Copenhagen was pure joy and even more fun was hiring a bicycle and using the amazing bicycle path network that connects the city. As everyone rides a bike you feel incredibly safe unlike riding in Sydney where everyone wants to kill you!
As I love bread and coffee Copenhagen was heaven. I spent an extroadenary amount of time sitting in cafes, drinking coffee and watching the world go past. Everyone seems tall, blonde, and somewhat gorgeous - bloody Danish!
The roads in Scandinavia fantastically well maintained and you can move fast if you want to. I also found much to my delight that motorcycles do not have to pay to use toll roads - brilliant!
I flew up the West coast of Sweden camping in beautiful forests on the way. Once you cross into Norway the real mountains begin. Local custom says that when you enter a tunnel in Norway you should sound your horn to tell the cave trolls that you are coming as a courtesy and sound it again when you leave to say thank you for a safe passage. Given the number of road tunnels you have to ride throughyou spend a hell of a lot of time on the horn!
Bergen is an interesting coastal town with a long history of trade in cod and other seafood right back to the time of the Vikings. It just so happened that I entered Norway on it's national day so thought people always dressed in traditional attire until a local put me straight. It is the capital of Western Norway and is the main city you pass through when heading north into the famous fjords.
Visiting the old port and taking in well preserved historical district is a must. Called Bryggen it is a world heritage site due to the brightly coloured log houses built by seafood companies that operated there from 1100 or so. Apparently the site has burned down and has been rebuilt several time with makes the building a time capsule of different architectural types over the ages.
Everything is made from timber and the insides of the buildings are tiny and dark, and with very low doorways as you soon figure out if you are tall. Clearly the Norwegians didn't have quite the number of tall genes the Swedes and Danes have!
Bergen is a great place to base yourself to explore the surrounding areas but for me - I just wanted to keep pushing north ...
Travelling north through the many tunnels and fjords was one of the most beautiful riding experiences I've had. The mountains have made Norwegians expert tunnel makers and you spend a lot of time underground. Some tunnels are modern while older ones in more remoter areas can be damp, dark affairs with potholes in the dark and slippery ready to catch you out. I quickly learned to approach tunnels slowly and take it easy especially with oncoming traffic. Some have roads even meet underground and going around roundabouts in the dark can be quite eerie.
One of the must-do bike roads in Europe is the Trollstigen which translates roughly as the 'Trolls Staircase' or 'Trolls Steps'. Opening in 1936 there are no less than eleven 180 degree hairpin bends in the road plunging down an impossibly steep gap in the mountains.
Sports riders were a plenty as they love tearing up and down the crazy steep winding road. The approach to the Trollstigen is through impossibly beautiful U shaped valleys which makes the road even more spectacular. It is closed in winter for obvious reasons (ie ten feet of snow).
I was blessed with beautiful riding weather as I wound my way north towards the northern part of Norway, Finmark and eventually my target - the top of Europe Nordkapp (North Cape). I had to stick to the main highway (the E6) but left and right roads headed off to towns in the myriad of fjords and islands - I swore I would come back here with more time.
The road was still fantastic but it was getting increasingly cold and I had to ride in shorter and shorter spells as I was freezing despite wearing seven layers of clothes. Petrol station staff were always bemused when this semi-frozen Australian came staggering through the door, hug the coffee machine trying to warm up.
The mountains and fjords and frozen lakes were unbelievably spectacular but stopping to take photos was impractical as I didn't want to take my gloves off in the freezing conditions!
About 450 km south of the large northern town of Narvik I finally hit the Arctic Circle. It felt completely surreal to see the sign and realize how fare north you are - and there is still a long way to go. Needless to say the visitor centre was full of chintzy souvenirs all saying permutations of 'I reached the Arctic Circle' blah blah...
The road north was a vertical cut down through 5 meters of snow. It was intimidating to start with but after a while you got used to riding with white walls each side of you. At one stage I looked up and a dog sled and musher were hurtling along the lip of the snow above me, the dogs in their element - bizzare!
Small huts dot the landscape where people cross country ski and hunt for moose in the frozen tundra.
I saw a couple of bike riders but not many. Still too cold for most riders but I met a bloke who had ridden a Ural with a sidecar across the top of Russia. He said it was minus 30 degrees on most days but his electrically heated suit had done its job. I couldn't have gone without heated hand grips - the cold penetrates everything when you include windchill at 110kmh. But the roads were excellent and I didn't encounter any of the dreaded 'black ice'.
One thing I noticed was massive tyre wear due to the rough surface of the road as they are designed for traction under snow / ice conditions and are ground up by steel lugged snow tyres. I would have to replace my brand new tyres fitted in Australia after only 6000km of use in Helsinki. The guy that replaced them laughed his head off after he saw what the northern roads had done to my nice soft dual sport rubber. Bugger!
Northern Norway was the scene of many battles in the Second World War and my father had been stationed in northern Norway for some time in 1945 which was hugely ironic as dad was transferred there from Iceland and he despised the cold!
Both the British and Germans invaded Norway in 1940, the brits successfully capturing Narvik until other military pressures forced them to withdraw.
The are many of monuments and excellent historical guided trails you can take to follow the various land sea, and air battles in and around Tromso and Narvik. The Germans had a large naval and air presence which they used to threaten British and Russian convoys in the North Sea. The numerous fjords were a perfect place for the Kriegsmarine to secrete their battleships and heavy cruisers.
I stopped where the battle ship Tirpitz was sunk near Tromso in November 1944 of all the men from all sides fighting in this freezing and quite desolate landscape. Madness.
After several days of riding I finally found myself at North Cape - 22 June 2014.
The last push to the cape was through a seven kilometer tunnel underneath the North Sea. I found it completely unnerving to ride under the freezing waters and kept looking into my rear vision mirrors expecting a tsunami of water rushing up behind me as in many a disaster movie.
The cape was beautiful but freezing as you would expect and I really didn't spend very long there as I was cold from the ride in. I was totally elated by my journey, finally getting to that point on the map I'd been looking at for so long.
It also took me awhile to figure out that there was no night time as we were in 24 hours of sunlight. Going to bed and waking up in full light was very strange.
There is not a lot in the town of Nordkapp to do so I just hung out talk in the sites and planned my trip south. It's a busy working port servicing maritime industries across the top of Norway and into Finland.
Each day enormous cruise ships stop there for a few hours to disgorge freight and tourists that are hauled in a fleet of buses up to the cape. Most were dressed in safari outfits with immaculate boots ready to assault K2 or trek through the Amazon but walking across the pier to the awaiting bus seemed to the about as wild as it got. Three hours later the ships were gone.
And so after three weeks of solid riding from Amsterdam I was at the freezing top of Europe.
Now all I had to do was to start heading south...