Once or twice a year, a group of friends and I get together to do a motorcycle tour. Usually these trips are in Southern Africa and feature some dusty, wild, off-road riding. Occasionally though, we venture abroad — from the far-flung bucket-list destinations of bike devotees such as Route 66 in the US, to hallowed riding haunts like Scotland and the Isle of Man. Most recently we added Spain and France, through the picturesque Pyrenees mountain range, to the list. Devout walkers do the Camino de Santiago across the corners of Europe, but this is our pilgrimage.
Our bike group is diverse — we all come from different backgrounds in the UK, South Africa and Australia. Five of the South Africans immigrated from England and Scotland in the late ’70s and have been firm friends for almost 40 years. We “outsiders” have known the group for a couple of decades. We’re bound by our love of motorcycles, the freedom of open roads, and sandy tracks. We’re a brotherhood — even with our own low-key wave, which is simply a drop of the left hand.
When we talk about it, we realise that it was our longing for independence and freedom in our teenage years that sparked this love. Without fail, we all rode 50 cc motorcycles in our youth. Remember the Yamaha DT, RZ 50, the Honda MT and MBX 50 cc? Ours was not an unusual story. All across the country, similar scenes were playing out. On weekend nights we’d congregate at central points, sending out scouts to find out where the parties were. They’d report back to the group and we gangs of adolescent bikers would head for the action.
We’re a lot older, but our toys are still the same. They may have bigger engines and the latest gadgets, but riding a bike still gives us all the same feeling and, I suppose, now we can properly indulge in our love and passion for these iron horses.
Seeing the world from a motorcycle is the most exhilarating experience. Because you’ve got to concentrate, you witness and feel a lot more than in a car. As the old biking adage goes, “Driving a car is like watching a movie. Riding a bike is like being an actor in one.” And it’s true — the whole world comes alive. From the scents in the air to the charge of adrenaline that courses through your veins, you get a whole new appreciation for the beauty and variety of our planet. There’s a big difference between riding comfortably inside a vehicle and being propelled upon it, holding on while surging forward. The acceleration of a motorcycle is twice as intense as it is in a car, and it yields a deep appreciation and respect for the raw power of the machine between your legs. Some love to ride at speed, others like the camaraderie, and others still, the freedom of the open road and getting to places a car simply cannot go.
HEADING FOR THE HILLS
Which brings us to this year’s trip to Spain and France, riding predominantly in the Pyrenees. We collected our hired motorcycles in Barcelona and ventured almost immediately into the mountains, winding through thick forests. Out of the city and off the highway, the adventure began.
Riding around Scotland’s iconic North Coast 500 route last year was spectacular, but it hadn’t prepared me for the absolute majesty and beauty of taking on the twisting, turning roads of the European mountain range.
The road quality is like nothing I’ve ever experienced (the EU’s funds are obviously going to good use). Well-built roads through the mountains make for corners worthy of the MotoGP. They’re every motorcyclist’s dream, giving you the sense — and the adrenaline to boot — that you belong on the professional circuit.
Crossing over into France, me on my BMW 1250 GS, we tackled some of the legendary Tour de France Pyrenees mountain stages like the Col d’Aspin, Col du Soulor, Col du Tourmalet, and Col de Peyresourde. This was a particular dream of mine, having been an avid watcher of the tour since 1990, when Greg LeMond took the yellow jersey. Far from the serene scenes of the bike race on television, it made me realise just how hair-raising those downhill bends can be — and we didn’t even reach the speeds that the cyclists do!
We rode from lowlands to highlands, stopping at villages, all with their own unique characters. The scents of pine and wood chippings at 2,115m above sea level on the Col du Tourmalet are crisp and clean in contrast to the valleys below, where the smells of working farms are prevalent. You also feel the drastic change in temperatures: from 30°C in the valleys to 4°C at the top of some of the climbs.
We saw wild goats on hillsides and sheep being herded through towns, and slowed for alpacas. We were tired after a day of concentrating on a bike, but in the evenings we’d head out for local tapas — Portuguese cod, anchovies and jamón. The local beer and wine were, understandably, popular with the guys too. In the French village of Laruns, we started the day with astonishingly good fresh baguettes and local cheese.
As our latest tour wraps up, we start planning the next. It will most likely be a return to Southern Africa, from dusty Botswana though the Makgadikgadi Pan and then into Zambia. Or maybe a tour to Japan with its spectacular scenery and even better roads.
• Bonamour is the CEO of the Tiso Blackstar Group, of which Wanted is a publication.
• From the July edition of Wanted 2019.