The Iron Butts tour continues with Red Dwarf actor Danny “The Cat” John-Jules and Graham Hoskins well on course to take in 14 countries in 15 days to raise as much money as possible for Sport Relief.
The journey, backed by leading bike insurance broker Carole Nash, has been described as “as tough as the Dakar Rally” by Dakar veteran Nick Plumb and already, the pair has been racing against the clock through the Alps in ski season, worrying over fuel in Mont Blanc, contenting with customs officials in Tunisia and trying to dodge the traffic in Tripoli. Still, the journey continues and you can still donate to the cause by clicking here.
Graham’s Blog: Monday 1 March
Today is our first with a true deadline. We had to be in Genoa for 3pm to catch the ferry to Tunis and our route, by necessity, took us through the Alps – which in the ski season is a significant concern!
I had visions of attempting mountain roads which would turn out to be shut and we’d find ourselves with no easy route into Italy. However, we had more immediate concerns as the Transalps have a pretty limited fuel range with the full loads (only about 120 miles) and I had got lazy on the French auto routes where there were fuel stations every 40km. We were following the A roads up to 1250m for the Mont Blanc tunnel with the fuel gauge going crazy as we were on vapour only, but I took comfort from the Garmin which said we had fuel just on the other side of the tunnel.
The tunnel itself started with a blast of warm air that was so humid it immediately steamed up my visor and wing mirrors. With my rose tinted glasses on I thought we might go through the tunnel into warmer air but we were not so lucky. I still haven’t worked out where that hot humid air could have come from as when we exited the tunnel as we were greeted by six foot snow drifts either side of the road and black ice across the entrance to the petrol station.
Despite the snow all around us, the roads were completely clear and we made good progress out of the Alps into Italy, only to be met by an almost impenetrable wall of freezing fog. We actually found ourselves colder once we were away from the mountains and snow than we were in them. We slogged on through it and hit the outskirts of Genoa about 2.30pm, following the signs for the ferry port.
Genoa ferry port. Now there is a navigation challenge. For anyone who has driven to Dover or Portsmouth ferry port with their lovely clear neon signs and helpful staff telling you clearly where to go to find your ferry, think of the complete opposite. A total spaghetti junction of roads with few clear signs, an Italian customs officer trying to explain in exasperated French where to go and security guys who just shrug their shoulders when you asked for the Tunis ferry. It’s all part of the great adventure travelling tapestry and as I told myself, this was the easy bit. The Red Sea ferry and North African border crossings would be far more challenging – no trepidation on my part at all then!
It would seem that the local customs and police also assume everyone knows how the system works – only a helpful German helped us to understand that there was a police stamp required on our paperwork before we would be allowed to board the boat. The ferry itself was no different. All the announcements were in Arabic and French (Tunisia’s primary and secondary languages) but no English. Only Rached (our new Tunisian best friend) explained that there would be a small pile of paperwork to be filled out and stamped in the ferry. I got our first taste of what was to come from border guards as the Tunisian customs official looked at the Transalp V5s, which had the Keeper detailed as Honda Motor Europe, then at my passport, back and forth, back and forth. ‘Why different. Why different?’ the golden letter from Honda was duly produced explaining that the bikes were on loan and we were safely certified and stamped ready for disembarking on Tuesday.
‘Rached’? Who the hell is ‘Rached’. Our new best Tunisian friend is who. He came over and chatted to us whilst we were waiting at the port and we met again on board over some grub. An hour later and we had been invited to stay with his family in southern Tunisia and for us to follow him all the way down there. It almost sounded too good to be true and when he asked if could buy a bed in one our cabins it suddenly seemed like it was! To my eternal shame, my gut reaction was to distrust his motives. And yet, he was friendly and very helpful with other people on the ferry and staying with his family tomorrow evening will add a whole new aspect to the challenge.
Danny’s Blog: Monday 1 March
We woke up yesterday morning (on time) and got the bikes loaded up… It was freezing!
Whilst having breakfast I noticed a portly gentleman listening to ‘The loud Brits’ talking shop. I looked over and he said, “No, carry on. I haven’t heard an English accent for a while”. He was a Scotsman who had been living in Switzerland for ten years. He worked for a lift company and had relocated due to his work. Married to an English girl, he took great pleasure in taking the Mick’ out of her whenever the two countries met at sports. “If we don’t beat them there are always plenty of countries who are willing to do the job for us”. And let’s face it, they generally do.
We told him that after 540 miles we only met one other motorcyclist who was German, dressed like a Hells Angel and had his son with him in a side car. His reply was, “Well, he’s German and they wear uniforms”. He also said that it’s typical that they would spoil a motorbike by attaching a side car to it. He made his exit wishing us luck. Nice Guy, he was cutting with a pleasant attitude, but I couldn’t help wondering how he was going to described me and ‘The big guy’ to his mates in the bar which he was obviously going to visit that night. I guess we’ll never know.
We hacked on our merry way to Genoa. The first leg was really fun. Then the Alps appeared in the distance… I could see snow… and lots of it. The sight was amazing. The only other experience I’d had of them was flying over them on the way to do a show with Nick Heyward, the pop star from back in the day. He hated flying and when we got over the Alps the most vicious turbulence was pitching the plane up and down about 1,000 feet at a time. Nick’s fingers of his right hand were imbedded firmly into the foam of the armrest and the fingers of his left hand firmly in my right arm. Needless to say, it made me a nervous wreck and now I was having flashbacks.
Once up in the Alps I saw people descending with skis! This could only mean one thing. There was more snow than I had originally thought. Snow and bikes don’t mix. Add cold to that and you have my worst nightmare. Everything up there had about five feet of snow sitting on top of it. Cars, trees, petrol pumps, even people! We were low on fuel so took a slight detour to a little town to fill up. We took some photos where I did a little ‘soft shoe’ whilst Graham thought it would be funny to sit on a massive throne of ice that had formed on one of the pumps. When he tried to get up he fell backwards and filled his pants with snow. He then uttered the words, “Don’t worry it’s all downhill from here”… Bikes… snow… ice… downhill… actor… S***! Anyway we got down alive and my elation was only short lived.
Every two minutes we would go from tunnel to daylight, tunnel to daylight, I was going stir crazy. Then at last we arrived at Mont Blanc which is called that for reasons I’ve just explained. The tunnel there blows warm air into your face that immediately steamed up my visor, mirrors and most importantly my body. We were like two kids in a cake shop.
At last Mediterranean warm climate… NOT! As we proceeded we were greeted with FREEZING FOG! And now my bike had started spluttering! I told Graham to keep an eye on me as RAC at this critical moment only meant, ‘Runny A*** Climate’, to me. Every time I got to 90mph my ‘Tranny’ started doing a Salsa. We decided to stop at the next petrol station, fill up the bikes with fuel and our bodies with pasta. Half an hour later we had defrosted and the weather had brightened up.
The next leg was quite enjoyable as my ‘Tranny’ had magically righted itself. I promised not to bring it up ever as to not tempt fate. We’ve got a desert to get through. We arrived in Genoa with three hours to spare. No one seemed to know what time or where our ferry was departing from and once we had found the place, all we could do was wait.
We called home and generally chatted to the locals, well, a German kid (not in uniform) who was so prepared for his two week trip that It made Graham’s immaculate planning look shoddy. This guy had all his paperwork in a nice plastic folder, knew all the protocol, had his girlfriend doing the driving (in his pristine VW Transporter with luggage box on the back) his Cannon HD camcorder that went nicely with her Cannon stills camera with snazzy lens and of course, his confident (but not arrogant) Michael Schumacher smile that made me think, “What the f*** am I putting myself through all this s*** for?” Then I remembered… CHARITY! I rolled my dribbling tongue back into my extremely jealous head and decided against quitting our trip and asking him for a lift.
Once we had loaded our stuff onto the ferry, we had a shower (which was the best I’d had thus far) and hung out with a Guy named Rashed who at the dock had told us that our Sat Nav route was longer and more boring than the preferred route chosen by the Germans and the Swiss when travelling from France to Italy. He has invited us to change out plans and come stay with him and his family on an island off the south coast of Tunisia. It meant us not having to camp that night so I was the first one to raise my hand like a little precocious school kid. It means a longer ride that night but a shorter ride to Libya.
The receptionist on the boat called Donia said that I looked like a Tunisian friend of hers. I know, they all say that. Donia could only be described as what Jamaicans would say is a ‘Hot Gyal’. She showed us photos of her partying in Dubai with all her ‘Hot Gyal’ mates, mostly with their lils on show via very skimpy clothing. She somehow still remained professional whilst doing the Facebook thing, showing us photos and booking us in. Graham told her I was an actor and she wanted to take a photo with me, to which I gladly obliged. She is now my friend on Facebook. We had dinner and a couple of beers to loosen up the muscles.
Danny and Graham’s Blog: Tuesday 2 March
Tuesday morning found us eating breakfast with new Tunisian best pal Rashed and exchanging pleasantries with our waiter, Jalel, who thought he looked like Bruce Willis. Jalel thought Danny was a dead ringer for Will Smith and Graham his was worst nightmare as he was the only one who declared himself atheist – Jalel couldn’t understand why someone would have no religion. He tried the five minute conversion on Graham but we couldn’t understand why an Algerian born in Sicily took life so seriously. What a character – he’d have made a great stand up from the word go when he asked us why we were eating with the poor people in the ‘buffet’ section.
We were expecting an easy path through customs as Tunisia is meant to be the most European of the all the North African countries. We should have been so lucky!
As we rolled to a standstill at the customs point, there were obviously several different levels of official. The least official and most shifty looking was very helpful with getting our paperwork in order – then he asked for a bung. We refused and maybe that’s where the problems started? The next and far more official looking guy walked over and asked in very good English for any “radio walky talky” and GPS. Being a polite Englishman, I obliged and they were all carted off along with our passports. Ten minutes later he was back with a shorter, fatter version of himself in tow who seemed to be a higher level and he declared that the radios weren’t allowed and must be taken and left at another building. Meanwhile the suave young German had sailed through was only a cursory inspection.
A two hour sweat filled circus of walking to and from the ‘other building’ ensued with me having to beg, in very poor French, to be allowed to keep the radios and GPS. I had to settle to keep the GPS and leave the radios from our intercoms there. I was given a very official receipt so the I could collect them on our way back – even when i explained that we were not coming back the helpful official just said “not my problem”. Beware all travellers to Tunisia of the officious customs men and their desire to keep your walky talky and GPS – ours will be on ebay soon I’m sure. They’ll probably be snapped up by the suave German!
Finally we were through customs and on our way to Rached’s island, 450km away. It should have been a 4-5 hour journey. Leaving as we did at about 6pm, we should have been there about 11. Try 4am – bad traffic, worse roads, food stop at an authentic roadside shack and an island ferry meant we got to Rashed’s dad’s house just before the birds started singing. In fact, we did hear cockerels crowing as we were unloading the bikes. Only one bed was available which Danny took as the senior member of the duo. Graham’s bed was a row of settee cushions two foot wide. They were luxury.
Danny and Graham’s Blog: Wednesday 3 March
We were due to meet our Libyan guide this afternoon and were waiting on a call from him to confirm a time to meet at the border. Meanwhile, Danny had got up and walked around the house in his t-shirt, base layer tights and motorbike boots to be greeted by the sight of 3 Tunisian builders and Rashed’s dad.
Rashed’s dad gave us the tour of his house – the fresh rainwater well (yes we did try it and it was amazing), the new veranda, the olives, vegetable patch and so on. He even made us traditional Tunisian tea just as Rashed came back with breakfast. You could not want to meet nicer people – they were in complete contrast to the customs. What is it about short fat men in uniforms drunk with power? We were still waiting for our guide to call – his number was ringing unobtainable. He called around 10:30 and we confidently predicted our arrival at the border for 12:30. We arrived at the border at 2:00 with our guide sounding a little impatient. Border papers took a couple of hours with the support of our guide – next to impossible without his help for sure. By the time we had eaten on the Libyan side of the border, there was only an hour of daylight. We had 300km to ride which took us through Tripoli.
Tripoli was an absolute nightmare. Driving in Libya is like swimming with hungry sharks. Some of these cars couldn’t pass for cars never mind an MOT. Everyone wanted to be in the same lane at the same time. The only problem was that they were all full but someone always came out of nowhere and just forced themselves into a non-existent gap, usually causing a major panic to all the foreigners, namely us! We were already half scared to death before we got there because everyone kept telling us it was dangerous, that we’ll be kidnapped and end up in one of the Colonel’s (Gaddafi) Chicken Party Buckets. People were driving, talking on their mobile phones whilst eating their evening meal with kids, not only with no kiddy seats and no seat belts but standing up in the car, looking out at the two Aliens riding through town on funny horses. Renaming films came to mind; “Wacky-Backy Races. Cannon and Ball Runs and Death Race 2010″. Some geezer would nearly kill you, wave, look you strait in the eye with that friendly smile that says, “Get the f*** out of the way Infidel”. One thing about the Libyans is that they wear their hearts on their sleeve (whilst ours were back in the UK).
They have no road signs in English so you they have you right where they want you… LOST! We think they just enjoy ribbing us and couldn’t help but notice that a lot of the Mosques had twin towers. But we have had nothing but a warm welcome from everyone we have met.
Apart from the life threatening hell ride through Tripoli, we had only one other drama on route the hotel. I (Graham) suddenly felt the bike tipping to one side and thought we’d need the tyre changing training from Honda. But as cars were beeping like mad, I checked the back of the bike ad felt something significant was amiss. I had lost a 20 litre jerry can off the top of pannier – and it was full! I was checking mirrors rapido for balls of fire and chasing cops but all I saw was Danny’s lights – obviously I’d not hit him with my improvised road depth charge. We stopped for check the rest of the luggage whilst our guide went back to search for the jerrycan. Almost immediately a car load of locals stopped and we thought we might become kidnapping statistics but as with everyone we met, all they wanted to do was offer help. The jerrycan was not recovered so something else will need to be acquired tomorrow.