A mudbath before Greece

The road east from Milan to the coast is flat, industrial and dull,

and the monotony of the straight road is only broken by the occasional big city, like Bologna. Once we got there, the signposts that had spent the last hundred miles telling us repeatedly that, yes, we should still be going straight ahead, suddenly decided to disappear and leave us to figure out the maze of one way streets for ourselves. Great. Finding spots to camp was proving tricky too. The little industrial towns tended to merge together with no stretches of farmland in between and we occasionally ended up riding off the main road and just taking junctions at random, relying on luck rather than anything else to find a spot to sleep before it got too dark. It’s worked out so far though, and we usually ended up in a little grove somewhere, nestled between some olive trees.

 My bike’s just coming up to 23,000 miles, so she’s sort of entering her teenage years, and it shows. It’s sometimes hard to get her going in the morning, I’m buying her crazy expensive parts (not that she’s grateful), and most worryingly; now she’s started smoking. Firing up the bike one cold morning, and a cloud started rising up between the handlebars. It looks like coolant is dripping on to the exhaust pipe from…..somewhere. It isn’t coming from any of the obvious places, and it seems to be intermittent so for now I think I’ll just keep an eye on it. Back in the saddle, and the dull industrial road had finally hit the coast and given way to some twisty, hilly riding through little resort towns, and the occasional tantalising glimpse of the shimmering sea.

All too quickly though we ended up heading south and away from the coast instead of hugging the heel of Italy, and I jumped off the bike to have a look at the map. A fairly pointless exercise, since at the scale we’ve got, you can’t see much apart from the bigger roads and towns, but it did look like we might be on the wrong road. Rather than head all the way back to the fork where we had missed our turn, I figured we could just follow a small road that cut across the railway and be back en route without too much trouble. As it turns out I’ve never been more wrong. The track quickly deteriorated ’till it was nothing more than a series of potholes, filled with water from a nearby industrial plant. There was no way of telling how deep each one would be, and the best course of action was to pick a line, close your eyes and gun it. As we neared the railway line, the track suddenly opened out into a little yard… and that was it. Obviously not the best choice then. I stopped the bike to have another look at the map, just as Maria pulled up behind me dripping from head to toe in brown water! I guess her fording hadn’t gone as well as mine. Boots full of water and looking like a Jackson Pollock painting, she was not a happy bunny, neither was icebear; image

and when I broke it to her that we’d have to go back the way we’d come, somehow that didn’t cheer her up. Not much choice though so we climbed back on and started working our way back towards the main road.This time I wasn’t so lucky. I hit one of the potholes at the wrong angle, and a wave of water surged up over my windscreen, soaking me and my tank bag, and showering my visor with brown flecks. I put the bike in neutral, climbed off, and turned around to give Maria full view and proof that I’d suffered as much as her. I was just in time to see her hit a pothole, bottom out and over-correct, flying off the road and diving nose first into a three foot ditch!

She was fine, and we managed to wrestle the bike upright, though still nose downward and facing out into a muddy field.

We unloaded and took the panniers off, then I climbed on and opened the throttle while Maria pushed from behind, and eventually we caught traction and I shot off into the muddy field, slipping and fighting with the bike till I was back ’round and facing the road, though still with a three foot ditch and a big plastic pipe to surmount. After what felt like an hour spent wedging bits of wood under the back wheel, rocking and revving, then digging the sunken bike back out after another failed attempt, we decided our best bet would be towing. We wrapped a ratchet strap round my pannier handles and lashed it to the fallen bike’s handle bars. Maria started to inch forward on my bike and I gunned hers for all I was worth (hoping that I’d be able to stop on time once I found grip, and wouldn’t repay her for rear ending me the week before). A lot of smoke and a lot of noise but gradually I felt the bike lifting over the pipe and then we were out!

That was fun! We were both exhausted and thirsty from our efforts, and Maria was still sodden and cold, so our next stop was a roadside cafe where we treated ourselves to a beer, toasted our ruggedness, and found a place to camp.

The next day we woke up amongst sheep

and enjoyed the rest of the heel of Italy and its awesome twisty roads!

My bike was in full teenager mode again and whenever I pulled off from a junction there was a very worrying screeching sound coming from somewhere underneath me. I pulled over in a small village square to look her over, but again I couldn’t see any obvious cause. There was nothing hanging loose and touching the ground or the wheels, the chain and sprockets were both clear, and runnning the bike in first gear on the centre stand wasn’t giving us any answers either. I didn’t have much choice but to add it to the growing list of things to keep an eye on and just keep going. We’d decided that we were going to push on through Puglia past its little round white houses

and try to catch the 8pm ferry that night and it was going to be tight, so we couldn’t afford many more stops. We arrived in Brindisi with just enough time to buy tickets and queue up in the loading bay with the only other biker – a Fin who’d bought his Africa Twin new in ’99 and put 350,000km on it since then in Europe and Africa. We smoked and swapped stories for a half an hour, then boarded the ferry and stashed the bikes in an out of the way corner before getting settled in for beers and whatever dinner we could cobble together from the panniers. At around midnight we rolled out our sleeping bags at the back of a small lounge room and lay down for the night, listening to the rattle and ping of the slot machines next door.

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