Phoenix to Tuscon, Arizona-camping in the desert 14th-19th April 2016

We spent 3 days camping in the desert at two locations in Arizona. First at the Lost Dutchman State Park near Phoenix. This is right next to Superstition Mountain, so called because of the rumours, going back more than 100 years, of gold in them there hills. Gold has never been found. The Lost Dutchman apparently got lost searching for it.

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The area was beautiful, especially as the sun was setting.

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It was only 15 minutes ride from the outskirts of Phoenix and we were able to visit the cinema to see Midnight Special. If you have not seen it, I thought it was a very good film. Not life changing but it kept me enthralled the whole time.

We moved on to a very remote location called Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This is only 7 miles from the Mexican border at Lukeville and it felt strange being so close to Mexico again.

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We passed through a tiny town called Ajo (garlic in Spanish) but decided to wait till the final town of Why before getting food supplies. Big mistake as Why had only one gas station and nothing else. We decided to ride on to the campground and found it to be very remote and beautiful but we still had no food. We headed to Lukeville at the border, 5 miles away. There was again only a gas station but we did manage to get ice cold Heineken and Doritos and (oddly) cups of instant oats (the perfect camping breakfast for vegans). No dinner though, they only had Spam and Pot Noodles.

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After a few beers, we dipped into the food bag and came out with some red lentils and half a bag of wholewheat fusilli. An odd dinner seasoned with some Cajun spice mix but enough to soak up the beer.

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We soaked up the beautiful, desert atmosphere. It was very reminiscent of Baja California. Many of the saguaro cacti are in flower. You can see the buds in the silhouette below.

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On the way into the campground there is a sign that says “Illegal immigration and smuggling takes place in this area. If you see anything suspicious report it to the Visitor Centre”. No wonder the campground was half empty. On the way back to Tucson, we encountered three road blocks/check points manned by scary looking US agents and about ten different patrol vehicles, hiding in the bushes (it was like an episode of Breaking Bad). We saw nothing like this when we crossed at El Paso a month ago but this area is much more remote and perfect for smuggling. We were glad we had decided to move on.

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Today we begin the long journey east. We plan to be in Dallas for Saturday, in time for the Everton v Man. Utd. FA Cup semi-final, being played at Wembley. We have 1000 miles to cover before then. We will go via Roswell, New Mexico.We will spend 3 days in Dallas before heading towards New Orleans. We wanted to see Santa Fe and Taos but it is too cold up there for us and we also need to make progress and zig zagging north to south when you want to go east, slows you down. We will be sad to leave the desert but we only have 4 more weeks before the bike goes off to the shippers and we need to get to the Deep South and see something new.

 

 

Moab, Utah to Phoenix, Arizona via Flagstaff 10-16 April 2016

On our last day in Moab we decided to forgo Arches National Park, as it just seemed so congested when we rode past and instead we went on a fabulous ride on Highway 128 to Cisco. This is one of the most stunning valley rides I have ever experienced.

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We had the road almost entirely to ourselves. The red rock landscapes just went on and on as we followed the river through the valley.

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We thought we would stop for a coffee at Cisco at the end of the ride. We were shocked to arrive and and find it was a ghost town.

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There are many of these scattered across the country but I have never come across one quite like this.

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It was a major water stop for steam trains in the past and then became abandoned following the building of the interstate highway nearby which bypassed the town.

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It was pretty spooky with rotting cars lying around. We had the feeling a few people still lived there and did not want to risk getting off the bike to wander around.

We rode from Moab via Page to Flagstaff, Arizona. It is much colder up in the mountains and we got caught in a full on hailstorm on our way into the town. We loved it there and ended up staying in a motel in the centre of town for three nights. We got lots of work done (I am up to 45,000 words!), enjoyed the local health food supermarket and had a couple of trips out-one for beers and burgers and the other to Lowell Observatory. This is one of the most famous observatories in the world, where Pluto was discovered. We waited for a clear night and were treated to views of the moon through a small telescope and views of Jupiter through the huge, historical Clark telescope. We could see four of Jupiter’s moons and brown stripes on the white surface of the planet. Very cool. We saw a skunk on the way back.

We rode to the famous meteor crater nearby. This is apparently the finest preserved meteor crater in the world. The meteor hit about 50,000 years ago and created a hole a mile across.

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Research taking place here has enhanced understanding of meteor craters across the whole solar system. Although this is in the middle of nowhere, the visitors centre is really state of the art.

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We had an amazing ride down off the mountain into Sedona from Flagstaff. Oak Creek Canyon is really very special. The atmosphere in the canyon was amazing. It reminded me of the atmosphere at Big Sur.

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It was wonderful to be back in pine tree country after a week in the desert. The air smelt amazing. We saw a coyote cross the road in front of us.

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The red rocks of Sedona are extraordinary but I really felt the town that they have built and the widened road to serve the tourist industry were  big turn offs.

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We stayed away from the main tourist area and stayed instead in the Verde Valley on a nice campsite. We got raided by racoons in the night who ate EVERYTHING, including a whole, raw, sweet potato and a pound bag of ground almonds. Lesson learned.

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We had a great ride out to Jerome. This was once a thriving copper mining town and then became a ghost town around the 1950s. Fortunately, it has recently experienced a revival being adopted by artists and other bohemian folk and is now a popular tourist attraction. We were lucky that we arrived early in the morning and avoided the crowds which were building up as we left.

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We rode through the nearby Mingus mountains, enjoying the winding roads and we both agreed it was the first “real ride” we had experienced in months. There were a lot of other bikers around, mostly on Harleys and the area seems to be a popular bikers meet point.

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After two nights in the Verde Valley, we left for the Lost Dutchman State Park, east of Phoenix. I must admit that I thought the ride and campsite would be humdrum. I could not have been more wrong.

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The whole route was stunning; mountainous and green at first and then mountainous and desert with huge saguaro cacti everywhere-very reminiscent of Baja California. It was very windy though, making the air dusty and riding and camping a challenge.I was kept awake last night by the coyotes howling but the bird song this morning was wonderful. The desert is so green and full of wildlife at this time of the year.

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We are now enjoying a second day on the campsite. I will share some photos of the site next time as it is extraordinary. We will head back to the Mexican border tomorrow to Organ Pipe Cactus National Park. We have come full circle in the last month since we arrived in the USA. Once we leave Arizona made week, we will then start heading east to New Mexico. The USA really is the gift that keeps on giving.

Moab, Utah 3-7th April 2016

For the last few days we have been staying in Moab, Utah. This is at the heart of red rock country and the base for visits to Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. The best thing about Utah at this time of the year is that, while the skies are blue and daytime temperatures warm (ish), you are surrounded by views of snowy mountains. We loved the ride here as the mountains got closer and closer.

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Despite what you hear, Utah has bars and they are open on Sundays. We tested this and met a very nice barmaid who has moved here for the outdoor sports (like most people here).

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Everyone here looks very fit and the place is full of rock climbing and mountain biking shops, as well as places that rent all terrain vehicles (like a cross between a quad bike and a jeep). The Americans love their outdoors like no other nation I have experienced. Yesterday, we went for an amazing visit to Canyonlands National Park.

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This is the least visited national park in Utah but has views better than the Grand Canyon. It was really, very beautiful. It was also pretty quiet.SAMSUNG CSC

We had some views to ourselves.

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Dave enjoyed scrambling up rocks.

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And sitting on the edge (he then went home and played with his train set).

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There are steep, dirt roads here that were trails used by native Americans and then used by drovers. It would be great to have a 4X4 to get to the valley bottom and look up at the canyons from below. You can drive from one side to the other.

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It is still pretty chilly on the bike, even though it is really sunny so thermal underwear and down jackets under the leathers are still necessary (Michelin Man style), which makes hiking quite tricky.

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We managed to walk a mile. It would be nice to camp closer and walk from the tent but the campgrounds in the park are booked until the end of June. On a clear day, you can see for 100 miles apparently.

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Nearby is Dead Horse Point. This is where the final scene of Thelma and Louise was filmed. There is a narrow road about one car wide, where they used to corral the horses into the “point” which is now a car park. They would then choose which horses they wanted and leave the rest to die (!). Hence the name. If you have already been to Canyonlands, then I would not recommend paying the extra to go to Dead Horse. It is just a different and less impressive view of the same canyon system. We were not tempted to drive off the edge.

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We will be here till Saturday. Tomorrow we will visit Arches National Park and do a short hike and we then head to Sedona in Arizona, where we hope to spend a few days before heading to New Mexico. We booked our flights to Hong Kong this week, for July 24th. I have also been working slowly on the thesis. I hope to be up to 40,000 words by the end of the week. We have 6 weeks left of the trip but time seems to have slowed down for us and each day is a gift.

Palm Springs to Monument Valley via Grand Canyon 26th-31st March 2016

We have had such a great few days, marred only by terrible internet that has made it impossible to post to the blog about all the amazing things we have seen. We came down off the mountain in Idyllwild just in time before the snow came in.

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There was very low cloud on the way down but the desert is never far away and it warmed up pretty quickly.

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I love that about this area you can go sand to snow in less than an hour.

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We had a great day in Palm Springs looking at modernist architecture, drinking beer and eating Vietnamese food. We saw the house where Elvis and Priscilla spent their honeymoon.

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It took us two days to ride to the Grand Canyon. It ranged from fairly chilly to very cold. Actual daytime temperatures ranged from about 4-14 celsius but there is a wind chill of minus 15 on a bike travelling at 60mph so we have really felt it as we do not have winter bike gear. We have also ridden across a lot of very exposed landscapes at a pretty steady 2000m altitude. On the first day we rode through Joshua Tree National Park.

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It was  amazing but the empty vistas outside the park were just as beautiful in my opinion.

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Our visit was short because of the cold but I would like to return here when it is warmer.

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We spent the rest of the day riding slog the old Route 66. I thought Wyoming was vast and empty but there really is nothing in this corner of the California high desert.

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We camped overnight at Needles, CA where locals drive a 30 mile round trip to the supermarket. The campsite had great facilities bit was right on the highway and even Dave complained about the noise and fumes.

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There was an amazing sunset (no photoshop).

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The next day was much colder. I was riding with thermal underwear top and bottom, fleece trousers and a down jacket under my leathers plus a hat under my helmet and tow pairs of gloves and I was still frozen to the bone. It started to snow as we waited in the queue at the Grand Canyon National Park. You know you are near hyperthermia when you start to tremble badly. Fortunately our room at the lodge had a bathtub and excellent heating and we managed to warm through. We spent the evening drinking craft beer (yuk) and eating pizza.

It was no problem for us to get up for sunrise as we are early risers and we were awake and raring to go by 4.30am. We walked along the rim for a couple of miles at dawn expecting to find crowds. There were none.

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Very few people seem to get up to watch the sunrise ever the canyon (at least at this time of the year when it is minus 4).

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It was wonderful.

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Later on we rode out of the park via  the Desert View entrance win the east and were treated to some amazing sights.

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We did not even have to get off the bike for some of them. We also saw elk and mule deer.

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The ride across Navajo land to Monument Valley was again vast and fascinating as the landscapes changed constantly. We stopped at an old trading post for lunch. I balked at paying $400 for a Navajo blanket.We arrived in Monument Valley on the border with Utah to thick cloud, again freezing cold. SAMSUNG CSC

 

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We stayed at Gouldings Lodge. This is a former trading post on Navajo land run by the Navajo and with amazing views across to the tribal park of Monument Valley. The trading post was set up by Mr. Goulding in the 1920s and in the 1950s he wrote to John Ford, the film Director with some photos of the area and invited him to make a film there. The area was used for making many, very famous films, including Stagecoach and She War a Yellow Ribbon, both with John Wayne. There is a great little museum that displays many fascinating photos from the time and you can see the cabin that was used on set by one of John Wayne’s characters.

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We were assigned an odd little room next to the car wash.

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In the morning, we were treated to some wonderful views as we rode out of the area.

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Although it was cold, the stunning blue skies and amazing scenery kept us cheerful. Including snowy peaks in the distance.

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We are now in Moab, Utah for a few days of exploration in the red rock landscape and on empty roads.

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California-Los Angeles and Back to Camping-21st-26th March 2016

Our main goal on leaving Arizona and arriving back in California was to retrieve the tent and other equipment and get back to camping as soon as possible. We spent our first night in California in Indio, near Palm Springs in the California desert. It was a pretty uneventful stay in an Airbnb, marked by more gorgeous weather and a visit to Trader Joe’s grocery store to shop for some long awaited home cooked food. On leaving the next morning for a short drive up Interstate Highway 10 we were shocked to be caught in the middle of a dust storm.

SAMSUNG CSCThis is not the worst dust storm we have encountered. Back in 1997, in Iran, we could not see more than 10 metres ahead but we were the only vehicle on the road and it was much more scary this time, being blown across the path of trucks in a three lane highway. Later on we were reintroduced to the terrible traffic in LA. Fortunately, we were going the other way. It was interesting to note that the electric train/tram goes down the central reservation, allowing train passengers to feel extra smug as they look out at the car drivers stuck in a traffic jam.

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We left our camping gear with the parents of a colleague and friend from Berlin, Heather, who live in Pasadena (which is part of the LA conurbation, East of the city, near the mountains). We booked into a Airbnb nearby in Eagle Rock and enjoyed a lovely couple of days there. We have not experienced many walkable neighbourhoods in the US so far. “Shops nearby” usually means 10-15 minutes drive but Eagle Rock really was walkable and within 7 minutes our room we had a supermarket, cafes and restaurants and…a motorcycle shop that sold tyres to fit the Triumph. We invested in two more new tyres for the bike,  a decent hair cut for me-the first for more than 5 months- and a pair of new bike gloves for Dave, as his old ones wore out.

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New Gloves

Our Airbnb was in one of those typical Spanish-style LA homes, like you see in the films.

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We had a lovely visit with Sandy, Heather’s mom, to collect our things. It was great to chat for a couple of hours and see where Heather grew up. This is a stunning neighbourhood and somewhere I would love to live.

SAMSUNG CSCThe tent zips had failed on us before we left for Mexico, back in October and we knew we needed to repair them. We were quite chuffed that having unpicked the zips, removed the zip sliders and replaced them with new ones, the zips were like new. This meant we were able to head out straight for our favourite USA campsite in Idyllwild, the last campsite we stayed at in October before we left.

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The campsite is a 6,200 feet and so we had to be sure we could stay warm. We invested in a pair of fleece trouser each (sexy, not) and hoped that with the thermal underwear, down jackets and sleeping bags this would be enough to stop us from freezing and keep us camping. You can see us modelling our new trousers below.

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The ride up to Idyllwild was the best riding we have done for months and months. Winding, smooth roads, beautiful temperature and great scenery. It felt so good to be back.

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After I had finished stitching up the tent.

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SAMSUNG CSCAnd we celebrated with a couple of beers (European beers). As you can see we are the only people mad enough to camp in a tent in March and the campsite was empty (bliss).

camping beerI love this campsite because you have great facilities like a lodge with Wifi and a laundry but it still feels like a wilderness, right on top of the mountain.

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I have never see pine cones this big anywhere in Europe. The squirrels are even bigger but there are no bears here, only rattlesnakes and tarantulas (apparently).

SAMSUNG CSCSo we have spent a couple of days, trying to stay warm (mostly successfully), pottering on the campsite and in the village, doing some work on the thesis and on the bike. The bike has some new brake pads but we are still grappling with how to get all of the camping gear on (how did we manage it before?)

SAMSUNG CSCWe are both extremely relaxed and happy with a lot to look forward to. We have decided not to go to Vegas as it is too expensive. We are heading to Palm Springs to see Elvis’s honeymoon house and other modernist architecture. We then have a lodge booked in the Grand Canyon National Park for 30th March. After this we head to Utah for Monument Valley, Canyonlands and Arches National Park.

Back in the USA 17-21 March 2016

The goal was to be back in the USA in time to celebrate Dave’s birthday and we made it. We set off super early to the border, having checked the waiting times, online, at each bridge going from Juarez to El Paso. We had a bit of a shock when, after passing through immigration to exit Mexico, we were informed that the correct office to cancel our bike permit was 30km away on the road to Chihuahua! We should have done it on our way to Juarez. So few overlanders come in this direction that it was impossible to find out the correct procedures, even after hours of research on the internet. So we lost our deposit and may risk not being able to ever bring a vehicle into Mexico again (well not in Dave’s name anyway). We decided to forget about it and focus on getting into the USA.

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The internet said the wait was 15 minutes at the Zaragoza crossing and it was pretty accurate. There were hundreds of cars, but with 6 lanes open, we were soon at the front of the line. Almost everyone who crosses here is either a US or Mexican citizen so the immigration and customs officers were a little bemused to see us. They were very friendly and welcoming and walked us through the whole process. At the immigration centre, where we were taken to complete the paperwork, we jumped the queue, much to our embarrassment as about 20 Mexican people in front of us waited patiently. The whole thing took about 90 minutes.

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We were so relieved to be allowed back in and to be able to relax after several days (or weeks depending on your perspective) in less safe places. Northern Mexico seems pretty developed compared to Central America but it does not prepare you for the level of development in the USA. There are just so many cars and shopping malls and restaurants and everything everywhere. It can feel a little overwhelming.

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We were once again in the middle of a classic US road trip, riding through miles of emptiness.

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Staying in old school, mom and pop motels.

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And enjoying the crazy place names so now you know where to find him).

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We spent 2 nights in Tucson, Arizona at an Airbnb. We celebrated Dave’s birthday with a cinema trip to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, followed by a visit to the Pima Air and Space Museum. There were literally hundreds of planes. They all looked the same after a couple of hours (at least to me they did). Dave loved it though. He had his picture taken with a WW2 bomber.

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And the Top Gun plane.

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And a helicopter used in the Vietnam War, similar to that featured in Apocalypse Now.

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The guide was ex military and there were a few ex military personnel on the tour with us. Although they spoke quite neutrally about the “kills” achieved by some planes and “successful missions”, I felt uncomfortable and I know Dave did too. US society seems so much more militarised than we are used to. I guess because they have been at war pretty much constantly since WW2 and they have troops risking their lives on a constant basis. We both felt it was appropriate to keep our mouths shut and only voice disquiet to each other.

There were also some motorbikes at the museum on special display courtesy of Vietnam Vets who I guess must have shipped them home. Urals made in Russia are still quite commonly seen in Vietnam and available for rental. That would be a crazy trip and easily doable from Hong Kong. I am not sure I fancy sitting in the sidecar though.

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Arizona is a crazy desert place and we enjoyed Tucson. We will return here in a couple of weeks with the camping gear.

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So we are now en route to Pasadena, L.A., to collect our camping stuff from Heather’s parents, who have been looking after it for us. We have spent a lot of time on Interstate Highway 10 in the last few days. It is not bad as far as motorways go. It is free (not like in Mexico) and the views across the desert really don’t seem to get boring.

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We have seen many “snowbirds” in their RVs on the highway and have also had a few strike up conversation with us. I have every admiration for these retired folk who spend the winter in the warmer climes of the southern USA in their huge camper vans, some the size of coaches. Some are even permanently mobile, spending the year in different parts of the country. What a great way of life. It is quite common to see them towing a car, so they can use it to get around to the shops and sites, but we saw one today towing both a car and carrying a Harley. I can see this in our future (not with a Harley though, obviously. It would be a Triumph).

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The weather at this time of the year is amazing. Just the right temperature for motorcycling and endless, clear blue skies. In the next couple of weeks we will spend some time camping in California and then head to the Grand Canyon via Las Vegas. We will probably go up to Monument Valley in Utah but it is a bit cold up there so we have to keep an eye on the weather as we do not want to be caught in snow. It is really great to be back in the USA. To have access to great food and supermarkets. To be able to communicate freely with people in English and to have so many great places to visit.

 

 

 

 

 

Last Day in Mexico-16th March 2016

So we have finally arrived at the Mexico-US border. We first arrived in Mexico in October and spent 2 months here, later returning for another 10 days. It is not enough time to scratch the surface of this stunning country. I will do an overview later but first some pics of our last day riding through the desert.

SAMSUNG CSCWe were thrilled to have another stunning morning, with deep, blue skies and an open road. It has been pretty remote the last two days, even by Mexico standards. Not the kind of place that you want to break down.

SAMSUNG CSCWe diverted to Ciudad Juarez, rather than ride the extra two hours to Agua Prieta. Although Juarez had a very bad reputation between 2008-12, with over 3,000 murders a year (!) things have improved here , due to the presence of the military in such vast numbers.

SAMSUNG CSCSAMSUNG CSCThere is a much better infrastructure than the smaller border towns. Most of the hotels and malls here service Mexicans applying for visas to the USA. Getting our own paperwork in order has made for a stressful day. We have been waiting for the vehicle insurance to arrive for the bike and digging out other documents that we have not seen in months. We also have to have copies of onward flights tickets from the USA.  It is always nerve wracking entering the US, as immigration officials have total discretion as to whether they let you in. So fingers crossed for tomorrow.

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So back to Mexico. This is country I have long wanted to visit. I have not been disappointed. It is sad that the country is so marred by drug related crime and violence and the “war on drugs”, meaning that we were not able to go to all of the places we might have enjoyed most. Getting deep into the mountains, controlled by the cartels, where marijuana and opium is grown, can be risky, especially if you are caught out after dark and tourists have been murdered recently when driving at night in remote areas. Although we have a policy never to ride at night, this has meant we have had to be careful about where we go, which is a real shame. Having said that, there is more than enough to keep you busy for months, if not years here. It is certainly somewhere I would live, if the security situation improved.

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So the highlights have been …well Baja California is still high on the list of the best things I have ever done.

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The colonial cities have been another highlight. If I had to choose just one, it would be Guanajuato, second would be Oaxaca, third Zacatecas and fourth San Miguel Allende. There are many others. The Spanish knew how to build cities. They are all so different and so spectacular and really do match  those that I love so much in Spain like Salamanca, Segovia and Granada.

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We loved the Pacific coastal town of Zipolite, with its easy vibe and beach bars.

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And we have loved the northern deserts.

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I hope we come back to Mexico.  The country is vast with an enormous amount to offer.The time has gone too quickly.

 

 

10-14th March 2016- Crossing Mexico

It has been 3 weeks since we left Panama City. The time has gone very fast and we have ridden 17 days out of the last 22. We have crossed 14 borders so far on the trip and we only have one left. We are just 2 days ride from the USA border at Agua Prieta, Arizona.

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Returning to Mexico has been wonderful. Getting in was a little tough as the Guatemalans did not want us to leave. When we arrived at the Guatemalan side of the border, they told us we did not have the correct papers to bring the bike into the country (even though they allowed us in twice). We were left to wait for over an hour, staring at the window of the customs office, while everyone went to lunch and wondering what would happen.

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We wondered if we could just leave without having the bike stamped out as we do not wish to return with this bike in the future. The answer in retrospect is yes, we could have done that and no-one would have been any the wiser. However, we ended up paying a bribe to the customs offer of about $12 and hey presto, we were out. The Mexico side is a lot more professional, fortunately, but you have to leave a bond on your credit card of about $200, which is returned when you take the bike out of the country.

We ended up at a hotel on a retail park for our second night, where there was a cinema. We went to see Deadpool and had the whole cinema to ourselves.

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We then spent 2 days in the wonderful city of Oaxaca. We shopped at the market for veg and pottered about. Mexico has so many extraordinary colonial cities, each with its own style and atmosphere. It was very cloudy and rained a bit and we did not manage to get out with the camera so no pics. We had to wrap up really warm as we headed to Puebla and then to Guanajuato. We saw some snow on the top of the volcanoes as we left Puebla. It was too cold to take my gloves off to take photos. We enjoyed the stunning, deep blue skies and the huge open spaces. It was a worthwhile trade for the colder weather. Such a change from the stifling humidity of Central America.

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We had a great ride on some lovely mountain roads en route to Oaxaca where we enjoyed the bends.

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After Guanajuato the landscape becomes semi-arid and reminiscent of Wyoming or Texas.

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The roads are mostly excellent and very fast, although not cheap as you pay tolls, and we have covered a lot of ground each day ,with only brief stops for fuel or to check the football results. Yes Everton are through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.

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We spent a wonderful evening and morning in Zacatecas, another stunning colonial city and one of my favourites. This is deep in cartel country and not somewhere frequented by many tourists, which is a shame but it meant we had it all to ourselves.

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I enjoyed an amazing early morning walk through the town with my camera. It was pretty empty except for the road sweepers and the temperature was only 2 degrees celsius. At 2500m you get a bit more puffed out when walking uphill than usual.

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I was on the doorstep of Starbucks when it opened and walked back through the deserted streets to the hotel with two big cups of tea. Starbucks is the only place you can get real tea here in Mexico, the kind you can stand your spoon up in, courtesy of the biggest teabag known to man and proper boiling water (not boiled and left to go cold or just tepid). Essential before a long day on the road.

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We are now in Torreon and heading for Chihuahua tomorrow and the border the day after. We are seeing a lot of police and military on the roads, as we approach the US border, usually in open backed trucks with big (sometimes mounted) guns and there are quite a few checkpoints. Fortunately, the preoccupation with the cartel means that no-one is interested in us and the roads are excellent. We seem to be able to ride as fast as we like (safely of course) without being stopped. In Nicaragua we were stopped frequently for crossing the hard white line when overtaking (although never ticketed) and in Costa Rica we had to ride at a snail’s pace to avoid the $600 fine. We were ticketed in both Panama and the USA and in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras the roads were just too poor to make haste, so we are enjoying the freedom of the road before we get back to the US.

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We are very excited to get back to the USA and to our tent but also a bit nervous about the border crossing, in case they don’t let us in. I am trying to get all of the paperwork in order, including our onward tickets to Hong Kong and proof of shipping for the bike, as well as the insurance and roadside recovery. Our next report should be from Arizona, fingers crossed.

 

 

Leaving Central America-overview 15th December-5th March

We have been in Central America for almost three months and tomorrow we leave to return to Mexico (which is not part of Central America but instead part of North America). We have covered about 4000 miles and managed to take 3 separate weeks off plus a few more stints of 3-4 days in one place, so the pace has been slower. These are my overriding impressions of the region having traveled through all 7 countries (some faster than others).

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We arrived in Belize back in December for just two nights. We had a great night in a bungalow right on the beach. Unable to access the islands (cayes) that the country is famous for, because of the bike, we saw a different side of the country to most tourists. We were shocked by how poor it is in the north. Nothing seems to have been built since the British left. People seem to have nothing but they are very warm and friendly. It was great to be in an English speaking country.

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Next was Guatemala, which we visited twice (as we did all countries except Belize and Panama). We both loved it here. We started in Tikal in the northern jungle. We visited the famous Mayan ruin. It was OK but I would not go back. Mayan ruins are not as impressive or ancient as those in Egypt, which I have visited many times. We then rode across the highlands. We got wet and cold and we saw some lovely mountain scenery and some wonderfully atmospheric Mayan villages, where women still wear traditional dress. We stayed at Lake Atitlan for Christmas. This lake encircled by volcanoes is very special and somewhere I would return. We stayed in the colonial city of Antigua, twice. We loved it there. We also saw the El Fuego volcano erupting at nighttime and we celebrated New Year’s Eve in the main square with new friends. We were shocked by the number of big guns seen everywhere in Guatemala and the stories of locals being robbed at gunpoint. Even the corner shop seems to have an armed guard. This is a real shame. We enjoyed the cooler climate of Guatemala. We found Guatemala more expensive than we expected. Much more so than southern Mexico.

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We hightailed it through El Salvador and Honduras twice due to security fears. The capital cities of each have the highest murder rates in the world. In the cities and towns, these countries look just like the rest of Central America but I would not want to be caught on the road at night. We spent a total of 4 hours in Honduras and paid $80 in border fees for the privilege. Crossing two borders in one day (twice) is hard work but doable. We don’t regret not having stayed longer.

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Nicaragua is a place to fall in love with. The socialist politics appeal to us. Yes the people are poor-you see a lot of horse and bullock drawn carts in the countryside but everywhere is clean and homes seem well built and people are well dressed. They grow a lot of fruit and veg as well as coffee and people look well fed. There is a slower pace of life there and the weather is very hot. The people are cheerful and welcoming. We felt very comfortable there. We spent time in the northern highlands and also quite a number of days in Granada, as well as a couple of days neat the capital Managua, to do bike business, and two nights is Leon. Granada was one of my favourite places of the trip so far-a place to fall in love with and return to. The grand architecture with an unmistakable, languid, Central America feel was really intoxicating. We loved the local food here. Breakfast each day was gallo pinto (fried rice and red beans) and fried plantain (like an unripe banana). We never got tired of eating it. Nicaragua was cheapest country in the region, from our perspective, but still not as cheap as southern Mexico.

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We spent almost a month in Costa Rica all together. We travelled to three of the four corners, northern and southern Pacific coast and southern Caribbean coast and into the highlands. The highlights for me were the unspoiled Pacific beaches (which Dave found a little too unspoiled) and the wildlife. I had a mental list of the wildlife I wanted to see and with the exception of a sloth (which Dave saw when I was not with him-damn) I saw everything I wanted, without having to hire a guide or trek into the jungle. Most was seen from my chair on my porch or from the back of the bike. I saw many hummingbirds; iguanas; howler and capuchin monkeys; a jungle rat; pelicans; scarlet macaws; coatimundis; green parakeets; toucans; huge blue butterflies and many, many other bird species. My favorites included watching two hummingbirds mate (yes really, they do it on the ground); watching tiny capuchin monkeys negotiating their path through the trees in my garden and seeing over twenty scarlet macaws in one tree. I also loved walking along empty beaches, watching surfers at sunset, bathing in tidal pools and watching the sunrise over the ocean every morning for a week, from my bed.

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Costa Rica is more expensive than elsewhere in the region. Petrol costs double what it does in neighbouring countries. Imported food is horribly expensive-US$7 for a large bag of crisps (chips)-but is you buy local and cook for yourself or eat in local cafes called sodas, it is still fairly reasonable. There are some stunning places to stay, both on the coast and in the hills and most seem to be run by expats from the USA; Germany or Switzerland. Although we were excited to ride in the highlands, roads can be quite congested with traffic and we did not really enjoy the riding much. Along the coast, it is very hot and humid and it does feel at times that you cannot escape the heat. Air conditioning is very expensive to run. For this reason, I am not sure I could live there.

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By the time we reached Panama, we had a case of travel fatigue. Moving on constantly can be quite wearing and sometimes you lose your enthusiasm. This is what happened here. We ended up speeding through the country to get to Panama City (resulting in a speeding fine and a flat tyre). We spent 10 days in Panama City where we did very little except recharge our batteries, before we headed back. We ate well in Panama City and did a little shopping and also went to the cinema. Eating out was pretty expensive. Most places in Central America add tax and a 10% tip to the bill so the bill is always more than you think it will be. I am sure Panama has a lot to offer but we were not in the right mood to explore it. The heat/humidity was a factor here plus the fact that travel is always via the mind-numbingly boring PanAmerican Highway, with secondary roads taking you into the hills or to the coast. We visited a couple of hill towns, including the famous Boquete-we were underwhelmed.

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Other highlights of Central America-sipping coconut juice at the side of the road from a pipa fria (chilled coconut); learning how to really enjoy a hammock; grappling with so many weird currencies like Quetzales, Cordobos, Colones (which we called cojones) and Balboas (clearly name after Rocky); enjoying so many different beers Gall0 (literally Cock beer), Tona, Imperial, Atlas and Belkin (Tona in Nicaragua was our favourite). Speaking terrible Spanish has been enjoyable -Dave still does not know the difference between veinte (20) and treinte (30) and I have more than once asked for cocaine instead of a coconut -and this will continue for another week or so in Mexico.

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So Mexico here we come. We are very excited to be back in Mexico and heading north to the USA. We have decided not to go back via Baja California, as we had planned but to explore the northern highlands of the mainland around the Copper Canyon and then cross the US border into Arizona. We should be in Tuscon or Phoenix in about 2 weeks.

 

 

12th-22nd February 2016-Panama City

We have been in Panama City for the last 10 days, having crossed Panama very quickly to arrive here. Panama is very hot. The locals say it is always like this. The PanAmerican Highway is also very featureless so you have to try to make the effort to get off it if you want anything other than a mind and bum numbing ride. We did not really manage this much as we were keen to make it to Panama City. As it turns out, this was a good move as about 40km outside of Panama City we had a flat tyre.

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On further inspection we discovered a complete tyre failure, with the tyre having split badly. This has probably been caused by hitting too many potholes too hard. It is a good job it did not happen in the middle of nowhere. We stood at the side of the busy main road for about 30 minutes trying to flag down taxis and police cars, unsuccessfully. Eventually, and very luckily, a wonderful group of young road workers stopped in their tiny truck. After some deliberation it was decided they would load the bike onto the truck and take us to a nearby tyre vendor.

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I just stood back and let the guys take the strain. They then let me sit up front, while they all squeezed onto the back seat and Dave sat with the bike.

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Not surprisingly, we could not find anyone who stocked a tyre that would fit our bike, despite our lovely guys driving Dave around to find one, while I waited with the bike and the first tyre man, a lovely young guy from Colombia.

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The tyre man replaced the tube and patched the tear and we trundled along the hard shoulder into Panama City at about 20mph hoping it would hold which it did.

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On the way, we crossed the Panama Canal which was pretty momentous.

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We were very grateful to everyone who helped us out. When we ran out of fuel in California, no one stopped, not even other bikers so this reflects the people of Panama in a very good light (or those in the USA in a bad light).

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We had booked the lovely, new Holiday Inn Express for three nights and luxuriated in the facilities, including a brand new, empty gym two doors from our room, a massive bathroom and silent air con. We ate Thai food and stocked up on cartons of hummus.We were unable to source a tyre anywhere so ordered one from the USA and booked into a nearby, cheaper hotel for another week, while we waited for the tyre to arrive. Then out of the blue one of the local motorcycle dealers emailed to say they had a tyre! Dave got it fitted but as we had already paid for a week in the hotel we decided to stay. We have spent the week working on the thesis and other work related things, working out in the gym and not much else except a visit to the cinema to see The Revenant, which we very much enjoyed-oh and doing laundry in an actual washing machine. We have slept a lot, eaten a lot of tofu and hummus (which we have missed in the last few weeks), got a bit fitter and got up to 35,000 words on the thesis (only 15,000 left). We have also booked flights to Hong Kong at the end of May for a transition visit, paid for by my school.

So the return journey begins. We plan to cross Panama and Costa Rica in 4 days and then spend a couple of days mopping up on things we missed in Nicaragua, before hightailing it across Honduras and El Salvador and in Guatemala. It will take a month to get back to California. We are very excited.

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