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In 1997 I travelled to Europe to fulfill a lifelong dream, to ride a motorcycle through the Swiss Alps. This is the story of that journey.

While I admit it's not really a race story, this is finally a place to publish my account of the journey, which I wrote while on the road.

Greg Bennett.


 

              ALPINE  ODYSSEY    by  Greg Bennett.

 

          The Australian winter was really getting me down. As per usual, it seemed that all the fine weather was occurring during the week and every weekend was wet. My regular ride, a '94 Kawasaki ZX9R had been holed up in my garage for weeks and I was beginning to think I'd polish a hole in it before too long and besides, I really needed a break from work.

 

    Being the end of the financial year I was looking forward to a particularly good income tax return cheque and was seriously considering fulfilling an almost life-long dream, to ride the Swiss Alps by motorcycle.

     So, come late August I found myself flying out of Sydney, bound for England, bursting in anticipation of miles and miles of great, twisty mountain roads. After a stopover in Indonesia of what seemed like 24 hours even though it was "only" 11, I landed at Gatwick Airport, getting the shock of my life as I stepped outside....... 30 (Celsius, 86° Fahrenheit ) heat and incredible humidity to top it off !

     I immediately headed south by train to Brands Hatch raceway, I had two cylinders off my '79 Yamaha TZ 350 in need of re-chroming and this was the place to get it done. Having been unable to shower for 36 hours I decided that I had to find a  "Bed and Breakfast" .......  FAST  ! Eventually I booked in to a really good one called" The Druids" which is a beautiful, stately old home, right beside the track which is run by a lovely lady named Jane. This place is highly recommended, Jane cooks an awesome breakfast !

     The following morning I set off, once again by train, for the Midlands. A friend of mine in Australia had arranged for me to borrow a '95 Kawasaki  GPZ 500 for my journey through Europe. Quite a difference from the ZX9R I was used to, but the right price (free) saw no complaints from me!

     After an overnight visit with friends in Stratford Upon Avon, Shakespeare's hometown, I rode the the little GPZ across England to the east coast and caught the overnight "party" ferry over to Esbjerg, Denmark. On the way over I met two great Danish bikers, Willi and Claus, who had been touring Britain/Scotland on their ZX9R's so we had a lot to talk about!

     Following my arrival in Denmark the next few hours were spent travelling down the highway to Hamburg, Germany, to visit a friend. I spent a week in Hamburg and had a ball in this fascinating city with Suse and her friends.

Picture: Klaus, "Kebab" and Willi in the Solrod MC clubhouse bar-room.

     Friday morning I packed my gear and rode back up to Denmark, encountering rain for the last half of the trip, my new Danish mates had invited me up for a party and to spend the weekend with them and their club mates , " Solrod Motorcycle Club". I had a brilliant time in Denmark that  weekend and also visited another friend, Anette, in Copenhagen. Denmark is a pretty country, very rural with farms all over the place and the most amazing high-tech windmills to generate power dotting the landscape almost everywhere you look. The land is very flat so there are no major rivers to build hydro- electric plants on, another bummer (for bikers) is the lack of mountains and the twisting roads that accompany them! Yes, don't go to Denmark looking for miles of winding roads, you'll be disappointed, just take in the history, scenery, and brilliant friendly people and you'll be wishing you could go back, like I am!

Picture: Dachau Concentration Camp. (Now a memorial to the Holocaust victims).

     Monday morning I was back on the bike, travelling down through Germany, at first avoiding the Autobahns, then realising the boredom these superhighways offered far outweighed the frustration of being lost trying to find your way out of some large German town you've never seen before! On the way through Germany I visited the old Dachau concentration camp near Nuremburg and also Hitler's "Eagles Nest" in Bavaria, both fascinating yet strangely eerie places not to be missed in my opinion. I had seen the Eagles Nest on a number of documentaries on TV in Australia before I left, there was no way I was going to Europe without seeing it.

     So, it was back on the little GPZ and a continuation of my journey through Germany, following the Deutsch Alpinestrasse ( German Alpine Road) across the bottom of the country to Bregenz. From there I took the highway down through Lichtenstein to Chur,Switzerland and from here my real story begins.

   The Swiss Alps.

     My first morning in Switzerland saw fine weather and 20° Celcius at 8am as I left Chur and headed for Tiefencastle, intending to ride the Albulapass. Imagine my delight after making a wrong turn which turned out to be a lovely little twisty road to a small town called Cunter. The return trip was as good as the run up this road, sweeping bends and my first real taste of Swiss tunnels, there were plenty more of both to come! I found the correct turnoff and soon found myself heading up the brilliant, scenic Albulapass with it's glorious green hills and valleys, though I was a little worried about running out of fuel and was riding steadily to try and conserve my supply. So I pulled up at "Naz" and checked the tank of the GPZ ( no fuel gauge), figuring I had about 35 km  to go to the next service station.  No problem, there was at least enough petrol to go 2 or 3 times that distance so I upped the pace to a more enjoyable velocity!

 Picture: Berchesgaden in Bavaria, southern Germany. This whole region is absolutely magnificent.

     So far this road had been quite rough in places, though enjoyable nonetheless, passing through classic European country towns with houses lining the streets 3.5 - 4.5m  apart, obviously built before cars and trucks were invented! Stop almost anywhere between towns and close your eyes and about all you'll hear is wind and cowbells, and all you'll smell is clean air and cow manure!

     Passing the summit of Albula (2321m) the road surface was improving, but the bike felt like it was not happy at this altitude, hesitating and coughing a little at times.

     The scenery around Albula is incredible, rocks and small streams everywhere resembling some weird almost lunar landscape at times, or a large, disused quarry. The "downhill" side of this run for me was even better, the road surface had improved a lot, nowhere near as bumpy. You could ride faster and really enjoy it.

     A quick refuelling stop in St Moritz saw me heading out immediately for the Majola Pass which was so far no more than an exciting squiggly line on my map to me.  The area around St Moritz is amazing.  Beautiful forests and lakes abound.  Its easy to see why a lot of wealthy people choose to live there.

     The run up to the Majola Pass was a nice cruise through enjoyable sweepers.  On reaching the summit of Majola (1830m) I stopped at the pub for a short break and was pleased to see a lot of bikes parked around it.  This was scratching territory!   I walked across the road to a large rocky outcrop which is used as a lookout and looking over to the left I couldn't help but smile. Switchback after switchback all the way down a steep hill and great sweepers at it's base heading off out of sight into the wooded valley below.  I raced back across the road to the bike and could not get my gear on quick enough!  I found it necessary to ride this pass five times that day in succession!  It's that good.  The only downer with it is that on all but two of my passes I was held up by a bus or truck.  Very frustrating.

     Within 45 minutes of leaving Majola Pass I was crossing the boarder into Italy and could immediately see a change in architecture.  The Swiss seem very similar to Germans in the way they present their homes.  The northern Italians seemed less concerned about outward appearances of their houses, most were a drab grey/brown colour externally, but quite nice nonetheless in their own sort of way. I have since been told that the Local Councils over there don't allow the people to paint them any other colour, to preserve the heritage of the area.

     The next pass I enjoyed was the Spluga Pass out of Chiavenna, Italy.  This road is a long series of constant, tight corners and tunnels.  Some of these tunnels are quite long and dark, seeing through them with my sunglasses on was quite a challenge at times!  After the Swiss checkpoint near the summit (2113m) the road surface changes to near perfection and the most amazing collection of switchbacks awaits, zig-zagging down a hill that's steep, but not in the extreme. 

     There were bikes everywhere in this Alpine summer playground, from sportsbikes to tourers to enduro type mounts.  A nice touch when riding in Europe is that all bikers wave to each other, regardless of what they are riding.  This was a pleasant change for me from Australia where 99% of Harley riders think they are above waving to someone else, as we all know.  Ridiculous when you think about it ,isn't it?

     Continuing on towards San Bernadino the road opened up to a little more sports-riding like curves though still a little tight and unfamiliar for really fast work.  St Bernadino saw me stop for a much needed drink and snack.  It was about here that it actually hit me how lucky I was to be here fulfilling a long-term dream of mine, on a borrowed bike, with great weather, I decided to document my trip and started taking notes and listing the photos taken.

     Next on the agenda was my ascent of the amazing San Bernadino Pass.  The initial climb on this road I found to be very similar to the zig-zagging switchbacks I had come down on the Spluga Pass earlier that day only lined with trees and stone walls this time as opposed to the open, grassy road I had enjoyed only an hour or so before. 

     San Bernadino is possibly the best bike road I have ever ridden, period.  The pass twists it's way up a rocky mountain with tight 180 turns and a near perfect surface. To be honest the seemingly never-ending 180° turns started to get a little monotonous towards the peak of this run (2055m) but after this the shape of the road changed for the better.  I encountered corners of varying radii,  camber and inclination which made an extremely enjoyable ride.  A very interesting piece of bitumen that I highly recommend, in fact I'd have to say it's a "must do" road for motorcyclists.

     Late in the afternoon, in drizzling rain I located a nice little camping ground in Claro, not far from Bellinzona, set up camp and prepared myself for the St Gottard Pass.  Claro is situated in a deep valley and all night I could hear gunshots in the hills, but  I never actually found out who it was doing the shooting, I assume it was hunters spotlighting their nocturnal prey.

     I awoke in the morning to the sound of thunder and lay in the tent wondering whether to "bite the bullet" and pack up, or just lay in the tent and see what the weather did. After  five or ten minutes I had made my decision and  packed my camping gear on to the bike when the rain started.  I couldn't help but wish at this stage that I'd just stayed in the tent until the storm cleared.  But anyway, I put my riding gear on and headed off into the mountains, convinced it was going to be a wet run up the pass.   Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered sunshine and a relatively dry road surface just a few miles into the run.  The mountainous areas of Europe experience incredible changes in weather over very short periods of time, unlike most of Australia.

     St. Gottard Pass is paved almost all the way up from the "Italian" side with millions upon millions of 3'' x 3" paving stones. The surface of this road is a marvel in itself ! I figured prisoners must have built it because you surely couldn't pay anyone enough money to do the work for a living ! Still, a good time was had by all despite the unpredictability grip wise of this twisting, snake of a road.

     Things were beginning to cool down considerably by the time I reached the summit (2110m). This was the coldest I had been on the entire trip so far and I estimated that with the wind - chill factor it must have been down around 8° C, coolish but not unbearably so.

     St. Gottard is a very tourist oriented place, as is almost any feature of the Alps I guess! Here, in the middle of nowhere were shops, a restaurant, large souvenir shop, and even a Post Office. I stopped there for a short break to thaw out and to read my map but soon found out I couldn't work out  which direction I was supposed to go, my map seemed different to the actual situation. A friendly German BMW rider came to the rescue and I was soon on my way down through the fast sweepers towards Andermatt and a badly needed tank of fuel for the bike.

     The temperature was a lot more bearable down in Andermatt, after 20 minutes or so I was heading southwest toward the Furkapass. The Furkapass winds it's way through a lush, green, classic Alpine valley with, once again, a near perfect road surface ( no paving stones here ! ) . This road is more the scratcher's type, definately to my liking, even though I was severely handicapped by the little GPZ's lack of grunt and suspension damping. Unfortunately there was thick fog covering the top half of this initial run up the Furka which reduced the fun factor considerably for me. On reaching the summit (2430m) I pulled up for a short break and was delighted to see my next destination, the Grimselpass, winding it's way up yet another huge, rocky mountain.

     At this stage my body was warm in my leather suit but my neck was freezing, earlier in the day I had been unable to find my woolen neckwarmer, this time I looked harder and found it, thank God! A quick snack in the almost ghost town of Gletsch and I was on my way, a little more comfortably now, the temperature had risen a bit.

Once again I had found an incredible motorcycling road. The Grimselpass is right up there with the best of them, what a pity it was foggy near the summit (2165m) and wet on the other side. I was forced to pull up at Handegg to clean my visor and sunglasses as visibility had become so limited it was dangerous riding at even slow speeds and besides, I had almost overshot a few corners and thought "enough is enough". Prevention is better than cure !

     Continuing on for a while I decided to set up a base camp in this area so I didn't have to lug all my gear around with me, I intended spending the next day or so enjoying these roads. The classic Swiss town of Inertkirchen was my choice, it has a gas station which takes Visacard, a Tourist information centre/ money exchange, a Post Office and a couple of restaurants as well.

      I pitched my tent, unloaded my gear, and couldn't resist going for a quick squirt up the nearby Sustenpass, just like a kid waking up early on Xmas morning to open his presents! Unfortunately I struck thick fog halfway up this excellent road, decided I wasn't really having fun at all and headed back to base camp to spend a difficult, frustrating, lazy afternoon in Inertkirchen. Chatting with a friendly Dutch lady at the campsite I was pleased when she informed me that the weather report said fine conditions for the next three days. I hoped they were right!

     Waking on Monday morning I was confronted with glorious blue sky and just a hint of light cloud. Perfect! The weathermen had been right for once! Sustenpass here I come!

     The Sustenpass is another great scratching road with not as many stop-start 180° turns as on some of the other roads I had been riding. The terrain on this run varies from lush green pastures to beautiful pine forests and spectacular snowcapped rocky mountains with the occasional  glacier thrown in for good measure. I'd never seen anything like it, it was absolutely awesome.

     Once again I stopped in quiet, pretty Gletsch to thaw out with a cup of tea, it had been quite cold up until now. Heading off after a half hour break was even more enjoyable as the temperature had risen to a very comfortable level of around 20° Celcius, and there seemed to be a lot more motorcycles on the road now.

     After doing a loop of the Grimsel, Furka and Sustenpasses I was forced to wait in Inertkirchen for the Money Exchange to open, I was painfully low on funds, and besides, this break was a good opportunity to mail ten or so postcards home to family and friends which was something I had been meaning to do for days.

     Within an hour or so I was back on the road, this time riding a loop of the Susten, Furka and Grimselpasses in the opposite direction to my morning run. I arrived back at Inertkirchen at 6pm, showered, rested and ate in one of the local restaurants.

 

     Come morning I was packed up and heading off back up the Sustenpass by 8am, steering the GPZ north toward Altdorf, intending to ride the Klausenpass near the town. I was enjoying a nice gas-station restaurant breakfast when I glanced outside and saw two guys picking my bike up off the ground. I raced outside, not at all impressed with what I had seen. These guys unfortunately spoke even less English than I German, so communication was a real problem.

      Eventually I worked out that the one riding the FJ1200 had pulled up beside the GPZ and slipped as he got off to park it, dropping his bike onto mine. Incredibly the only damage to the GPZ was a broken R/H mirror, my "Gearsack" soft pannier had luckily saved the rear end and muffler.  We exchanged details and using my English/German dictionary, I deciphered that they wanted me to get a quote and send a copy of it to them in Germany, a real hassle as far as I was concerned. Luckily I was able to glue the mirror back together satisfactorily later, luckily for that German guy that is! He's probably still waiting for a letter from Australia!

     I was so annoyed, it wasn't my bike for a start and until now my trip had been incident free. All I wanted to do was get as far away from there as quickly as possible, so I got back onto the highway and just rode, missing the Klausenpass in protest! What a way to finish off a near perfect journey through the Swiss Alps....... and it wasn't even my fault.

     So I continued on my way north to Baden, Waldshut and finally set up camp in beautiful, but tourist packed Titisee in southern Germany. Titisee is a picturesque lake situated in a classic European forest, well worth a visit if you don't mind tourists. I do mind them and I admit my hypocracy! By this time my upper back and neck were giving me hell, a legacy of too many nights in a row sleeping on the ground after long hours in the saddle, but what could I do except soldier on?

    

From Titisee I headed up through Germany, taking in such sights as the Hockenheim racetrack and the incredible, 23km long Nurbergering, doing a lap of the latter on my bike! Definately one of the highlights of my trip.

    

A few days later I was back in southern England staying with friends. Exhausted, living on credit, but supremely satisfied after fulfilling a long time ambition of mine, to ride some of the best motorcycling roads in the world, in the Swiss Alps.

 

 

 Ex-Kork Ballington (I think) Kawasaki KR500 at Sammy Miller's Motorcycle Museum in southern England. ( The Webmaster looking a bit worse for wear. Too many party nights in a row !! )

       

   Travel Tips

 

     . If you like the sound of this trip just do it. It's easy, believe me. (You guys in Europe have no excuse !!)

     . Learn a little basic German and/or take an English/German dictionary with you, it helps, though you can get by without bothering since so many people in Europe speak English..

     . Have a PIN. number for your credit card. I had no end of trouble at times trying to find the right bank to give me money with my card without  a PIN. number.

     . Take travellers cheques as backup.

     . Don't forget your wet weather gear, as well as a first aid kit, which is law on the Continent.

     . Take an air mattress to sleep on. I wish I did.

     . Buy suitable electrical adaptors for your small appliances before you go and check their voltages. Generally, everywhere in Europe they run on 240 volts.

     . Be prepared for the price of fuel and other things. I nearly fell over at times!

     . Don't worry about radar cameras, they are set up to take your photo from the front, so I was told. No worries on a bike with no front numberplate!

     . Get travel insurance before you go and bike insurance on a monthly payment basis when you pick up your bike. You generally have to pay it two months in advance, so as soon as you are leaving to come home cancel it in writing.

          Thank You's:

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      03/23/08 07:13 AM +1000    

  Greg Bennett 2002.