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The Ride from Berlin to Cyprus 1996 to make a Point

Personal account of the trip to Cyprus in August 1996 by David French

(I was the Only American Biker on this Adventure. I hope to add my photos to this story - Michael Coan)
One simple account cannot really do justice to event like the run to Cyprus, as there are just too many interleaving aspects. Bear in mind that the following is not meant to be a complete work, just some collected personal impressions. Hindsight is 20:20 so don't make judgements of people based on the dim reflection of reality below. With the volume of incidents this run is bound to have repercussions for months yet.
--- IDEA ---
The whole lark started in February when the Cyprus Motorcycle Federation (CMF) joined the Federation of European Motorcyclists (FEM) at our first meeting of 1996. Most of the questions prior to their admittance focussed on their political neutrality and aimed to clearly establish their allegiances.
With the questions satisfactorily answered the CMF were welcomed in as full members. Prior to this we had successfully assisted them on a number of legislative issues on their island.
The following day the CMF broached their plans for a demonstration run from Berlin to Cyprus to highlight the denial of freedom of movement being suffered by Greek Cypriots and more specifically by Greek Cypriot motorcyclists. Our support both in organizing and in publicly supporting this event was requested. Wary of ignorantly charging into an unknown political situation we expressed initial support and agreed to look into it further.
For participating riders as opposed to their organizations the plan boiled down to an expenses-paid trip from Berlin to Nicosia and back. Big skeptical grins abounded but while still gathered in Brussels a few basic proposals as to entry criteria for the quota of provisionally ten riders from each of the fifteen countries were put forward. This covered the necessary membership of a riders' rights group, a minimum engine capacity of 500cc and basic mechanical and technical experience.
--- PREPARATION ---
Over the coming weeks our general secretary sounded out the opinions around the European Parliament on what was going on in the Mediterranean and basically found that the "Cyprus problem" is something that needs some sort of resolution and that we were on a politically safe issue. The various relationships between each of Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and the EU are currently being spotlighted by the desires of Cyprus and Turkey to join the rest of Union.
With general agreement to go ahead. Michael Grimes was suggested by the FEM secretary and taken on by the CMF as a paid co-ordinator with three months to get the event organized. Michael's acquaintance with the FEM stemmed from previous work in Peter Beazley's office. (Note; Peter Beazley is a retired British MEP who worked with us against the power limit proposals). Reservations were expressed at the time but weren't taken on board. A gut reaction of some rider's rights people was that a non-rider shouldn't be put forward for such a position. Taken literally this could arguably be seen as racist but in truth simply said that the necessary qualifications and experience were likely to be lacking. Being American emphasized the difference, of course.
Once appointed Michael headed off on a reconnaissance mission with a Dictaphone in one hand and a steering wheel in the other. Eastern Europe naturally took quite a while and a quick tour of Cyprus was included as well. On his return each of the national co-ordinators were given a list of documents required from the participating riders as soon as possible. Proof of insurance, vehicle ownership, passport and so on.
Visas for Serbia were obtained by the individuals themselves and this caused a serious amount of hassle as the former part of Yugoslavia doesn't have as many embassies or as much experience in treating people as citizens as it should. Passports had to be sent in the post and in some cases couriered to avoid postal strikes.
Numerous faxes and phone calls were required to get this much done and of course to check if any of the other countries which we would be passing through would require us to have visas. This had to be done on a national basis as some countries have a neat little reciprocal system whereby the amount they charge you to get a visa for their country is the same as the amount your country would charge their citizens for entry. Usual travel arrangements such as health insurance, breakdown cover, currency and so on added to the fun. Still slightly skeptical many of us planned and budgeted so as not to be dependent on the financial side of the run working out.
It's not completely clear at this stage when the decision was made and in retrospect it probably wasn't made and went to default. The chosen route was far from the easiest and to go through the countries that had been planned was either a mark of rigid determination or patent myopia.
Four of us from Ireland were to go on the run. Each of us had ridden long distances in foreign countries before and we'd all traveled together at some stage or other. The final group was comprised of John O'Brien from Thomond MCC in Limerick, Fiona Cormican of Black Widows Ireland, Aoife Ni Cheallachain from the Black Widows and myself. The chosen bikes were a VT700 Honda custom for John, a KZ1000LTD borrowed by Fiona, an XJ750 Maxim for Aoife and an original GSXR1100. Nothing particularly new or valuable but we'd all had our bikes thoroughly looked at before heading off.
--- GETTING TO START ---
John left a couple of days before the rest of us to meet some friends on the continent. Aoife, Fiona and I caught the ferry in Rosslare on July 29th after a very quick 195km cross-country trip. After a quick look at the map in the on-board bar the usual timetable for ferry crossings was followed.
Next morning we gained a few hours due to the use of Cherbourg instead of Le Havre and after stopping in for breakfast at Isigny went off to look at Omaha beach and some D-day memorials. Everyone should stop in and see this place at least once. The endless lines of white crosses starkly point out the extent of the sacrifices made and how much we should be grateful for.
Another 434km and we found a campsite at Arras for the night of the 30th. Besides the campsite the town was deadly quiet even at 10pm. No hope of finding anything at that ungodly hour.
Next day was mostly mileage (600km). Leaving Northern France we crossed portions of Belgium and Holland pausing only to refuel. A nice little town called Gutersloh near Hannover provided a hostel when our search for a campsite proved fruitless. The hostel worked out near the price of a German campsite anyway and if there was any financial difference the joy of not unpacking the gear made it worthwhile.
The pub search yielded a deserted small family restaurant close by where we were befriended by Jesse the Kurd. Jesse's limited English didn't prevent him conveying the drama of his friends (the owners) recent lives (there was a funeral there somewhere). Having got a rough sketch of Jesse's own life also we then had to follow him to this other pub which we just had to see (apparently). Eventually this other place came into view in the middle of a park and we suddenly understood why out section of town looked so quiet. Everyone awake was obviously down here partying happily.
Having seen the place and spent a while with Jesse and his friends we made our excuses and left for the hostel remembering that if we ever found such a quiet town there could possibly be a really neat party going on somewhere in it.
Aug 1st dawned and we headed off for Berlin. Autobahns are all very well but it really doesn't matter what speed the police will allow you to travel if the road traffic is permanently heavy anyway. By complete coincidence we were just about to leave a petrol stop 100km outside Berlin when Aoife looked over and realized that the biker pulling in that looked like John actually was John.
Having no riding experience of Berlin whatsoever all the credit for us finding the rendezvous goes to the set of directions sent to us by Michael.
We found the hotel, wandered in and eventually located someone who actually might know something. Having arrived about 20 minutes late the rooms were gone so we dumped our gear on the floor of a big room with a dozen other people and went to see what was happening. Michael described the group scheme he'd worked out which involved putting riders together by bike type. This didn't meet with approval as it split us up and meant we couldn't drive together. Despite protestations it didn't seem to be up for discussion. An opening press conference was set for eight so after finding the complimentary food we went for a wander towards the pub and relaxed for a while with some of the other nationalities. Phil Halsley, Jenny and Ben Hayday from the UK and some other nationalities soon appeared. At this stage Ben had just completed some serious looking engine work which involved laying his new TDM flat on the ground and sleeping beside it.
Not having a decent microphone hampered the press conference slightly but not quite as much as the language barrier. George Hadjnicostas (the leader of CMF) spoke of the aims of the run, a Kuhle Wampe representative who had organized the Berlin end of things welcomed us to her country and Michael went through some schedule details. All things considered the press conference looked very rough and ready and did not instill a whole load of confidence.
When the group arrangements were expanded on we were surprised to see how the marshalling was to be done. Each of the five groups would have a leader and two marshals. In the event of a breakdown one of these marshals would inform the front of the entire run which would then slow down. The breakdown truck would then collect the rider and bike and a marshal would zoom up front to speed the run up again. Sounded nice in theory but anyone with experience of bike convoys saw that it just would not work like that. A side effect of this grouping arrangement was that we would be in regular contact with the other participating nationalities although given the way we were mixed we were lucky if the whole group could be addressed in one language.
The overall breakdown of nationalities for the run was twenty one Cypriots, fourteen Portuguese, eleven Italians, seven from the UK, six French, five Irish, four Dutch, three Slovenians, one Belgian, seven Finns, eight Germans, some Austrians and two Americans. This worked out at about eighty-seven bikes and one hundred people.
TV cameras abounded and a few of us did brief interviews before the whole conference dissolved into myriad separate meetings and discussions. Our section eventually moved back across the road before bedtime.
--- LAUNCH ---
Up early, breakfast laid on and we were soon on the bikes and waiting. My group, (sports bikes) were thankfully supposed to bring up the rear so a roll call of number plates and a general instruction to keep to the rear of the run was sufficient. Ten o'clock came and went and the police showed up in their matching green leathers. Movement eventually happened and we were off through Berlin to the Brandenburg gates. Here we stopped, took loads of photos, amused the tourists and listened to an MEP wish us luck. Berlin looked great and in those surroundings it was difficult to imagine the famous gates as they would have been only a few years ago when the city was divided.
With our schedule still slipping we passed through the gates and of course missed no end of great photos because it's difficult to ride and take pictures simultaneously. East Berlin has done a lot of catching up and it's history wasn't immediately obvious.
Just outside the city we pulled into a large truck stop and stayed there for hours. A couple of riders had got lost when looking for petrol, then we had a change of police escort, then there was some other unplanned confusion and then Terry Rook's Moto Guzzi decided not to start.
Once we got going again it was like driving through a country-sized building site. Every motorway and building in the former East Germany was under construction. This whole effort must have run up truly massive expense.
Getting out on the open road it was obvious the group was new to driving together. Quite a few riders did not seem to grasp that they should stick to their position in the group and not keep swapping about like a herd of 125cc racers in the opening lap. The group scheme didn't seem to help at all.
Soon we were in open countryside and our first petrol stop was required. The plan was basically that the petrol pumps would be manned and riders would simply drive up, get a tankfull and move on, leaving the entire lot on one bill. This would have worked except for some problems which resulted in every fuel stop turning into at least a one-hour session. Problem one was that not all petrol stops take credit cards or are likely to allow a big fuel bill to be run up. One hundred bikes stopping roughly every eighty miles equals quite a lot of petrol. Problem two revolved around not getting enough fuel pumps which meant long narrow queues.
Problem three was that many people insisted that their bike required either leaded or unleaded fuel and would instantly expire were it to get a whiff of the wrong flavour juice. With the exception of the lone GTS1000 and anything else with a catalytic converter (which requires unleaded) every bike on the run would have run on either fuel. Every Japanese motorcycle and nearly everything else built since the mid 70s has been designed to run unleaded. Leaded petrol won't kill them off either. The grade of the petrol naturally affects some of the engine's performances but it wasn't the grade that people were concerned about. Insensitive I might be but my mid-80s Suzuki had no discernible performance difference with any petrol and would tear about equally happily with regular unleaded as four star leaded.
Problem four was that paying the bill took ages as the credit card had to be checked out and various signatories stay behind to sort it. Unfortunately those same signatories would not stay behind which resulting in the run often sitting about for twenty minutes or half an hour wondering when we could move again.
Delays early in the morning had botched lunch but we were soon at the border into the Czech Republic (Miklof). As our first step outside the European Union this marked the start of the exotic part of the run. General horseplay, singing and dancing for photo shoots at the sign for the Czech Republic, at the border and in the border crossing itself. Border guards stamped passports just for souvenir purposes and this border was unlike any other. Within days the very sight of a border crossing was enough to put us to sleep.
Logically enough the breakdown van was supposed to travel where it would be able to spot breakdowns. This meant the back of the run, but unfortunately our co-ordinator was either driving or riding as a passenger in it also. For some reason the back-up van sometimes seemed to have disappeared totally off the back of the run only to reappear at the front hours later. To add to the fun there were actually two back-up vans but one wasn't really a back-up van for the run but rather for the Portuguese riders. In fairness the 'Portuguese van' as it was known was probably the most useful of the pair and Jewow (or however he spells it) was a paragon of helpfulness and efficiency when it came to looking after bikes and in some cases the rider as well.
The Czech border was one occasion where the breakdown van seemed to be completely gone, but we eventually regrouped and moved on. What was clear at this stage however was that there was absolutely no chain of command or defined roles. Everyone seemed to be in charge when things were going right but no-one seemed to have any authority when problems appeared.
When we got moving again we had miles of leafy downhill switchbacks which kept everyone awake. The change from Germany's construction-site atmosphere was very welcome. Having descended we emerged in a small town not far from the border. Unlike most other towns I know this one consisted solely of bars (at least for the first half). Judging by the people standing outside, these bars were also solely populated by women in mini-skirts and high heels. It was a credit to the balance of the motorcycles that someone didn't drive into the scenery. Even the women among our number were amazed by the voluptuousness on display. Maybe it was just a mirage but I am now convinced that the real Pamela Anderson lives in a little Czech village just south of the former East Germany and the one on TV is only a cheap copy. The massive welcome we received seemed to fade slightly as the locals realized that the one hundred plus bikes and riders weren't going to stop.
A petrol stop was required soon after but didn't take long. With the afternoon slipping by we headed for Praha (Prague) and completed a 400km day. Once into Praha we stopped at the hotel but immediately restarted and went onto the party which had been arranged for us by the Czech Riders. The party took place in a clubhouse / bikeshop and was complete with a rockabilly band, dancing locals and some food and drink laid on.
Ready to head back to the hotel I heard of a meeting to resolve some difficulties and as an FEM delegate decided to attend along with Fiona. This impromptu meeting was cancelled and then held after all but in reality degenerated into an open-table discussion aimed at defusing frustrations. Very little was actually decided on but it became exceedingly clear that no-one was completely in charge and that we need a meeting in the morning when heads were clear.
With heavy rain outside the next morning's meeting laid down a few guidelines which by virtue of the fact that the meeting was delaying the start time were being broken even as they were being made. Nationalities decided to travel together and abandon the group scheme along with the old marshalling scheme. Briefings were to take place every morning giving out details of the days travel and meeting place in the evening in case of individuals getting lost.
Various other plans involving staggered fuel stops for bikes of different capacities were thankfully scrapped but the idea of lane discipline and riding properly in a group were beginning to sink in. The owner of the shop where the party was held showed up and provided a spares service and much useful advice as to the route, service stations which accepted cards and what marshalling would be required.
With a few of us volunteering as marshals we left for the centre of Praha for a quick photo op and distribution of leaflets explaining to the public what we were at. Directing traffic in Praha was a definite challenge and one irate bus-driver came very close to writing off the bike and myself.
Soon we were back on the road and already behind schedule for the press conference held in Vienna. Rain bucketed down as we raced through a country I was beginning to like less and less. Even the natives didn't seem that friendly (bikers excepted). It was at this point I was impressed by the skill of the riders. With the lead bike doing roughly 100kph to try and return to schedule many of the rearward bikes were travelling much faster just to keep up, and all this in the pouring rain.
Three of us continued to marshal the run and this generally consisted of blocking off motorway on-ramps to stop cars careering into the middle of the group and forcing riders to start overtaking. Just as in Praha this was a serious challenge to start with as with everything on the wrong side of the road it would be very easy to stop traffic and be hit by something from behind.
Between the three of us (Stefan Lasocki, a French rider and myself) we soon had a simple scheme for marshalling worked out. Whether Stefan was being totally reckless or very skillful was a point of debate later but it was clear that his style of Periphique-riding was not compatible with everyone else. This led to some close shaves but no incidents.
The day's first petrol stop led to some hilarious scenes of Cypriots trying to cope with heavy rain. Apparently three hundred days of the year are sunny in Cyprus and I doubt the remainder are anything like the non-stop deluge we faced in the Czech Republic. Although our raingear wasn't one hundred percent effective at least most of us northern Europeans had brought some. I'll never forget the mental image of one guy with plastic bags taped around his shins while trying to dry his shoes with an air-line.
Our next petrol stop wasn't supposed to be a stop at all but resulted from a communication breakdown at the head of the group. Once stopped though it took ages for the group to get going again and unfortunately it did so in bunches with the leaders departed before everyone realized where they'd gone.
Like a complete fool I decided to keep on marshalling with the result that I found myself in charge of about thirty non-English speaking riders somewhere in the middle of the Czech Republic with no real clue as to what route everyone else had taken. A handful of extra marshals dropped off at the intersections along the route would have solved the problem but that was too much to hope for.
Knowing that Vienna was our intermediate destination but with the name Gilava stuck in my head since the morning I led them off and the poor eejits followed. Our sorry bunch went confidently off and after a ten mile detour we were soon in Gilava. Not wanting to disappoint their innocent faith I took a left turn in what I took to be the direction for Vienna and drove off into the rain as fast as I dared go with a following group. It was probably more laziness in not having to think for themselves in the presence of me as a scapegoat rather than any faith in Irishmen knowing their way around Eastern Europe but they all kept up. Miles later we spotted the rest of the bikers in a small country petrol station and I was never so relieved in my life. We would probably have made Vienna safely enough but if we had crossed the border at the wrong place it would have caused major hold-up and confusion.
Sodden with rain at this stage the general motorcyclist sense of fun took over and urged on by the example of the girls there were soon nearly a hundred bikers jumping up and down like pogo sticks while clapping their hands to keep warm.
Figuring we couldn't be too far from the border at this stage and hearing that it was a straight road all the way Mike Coan and myself struck out on our own. Mike's GTS1000 performed well in the wet and soon we passed the Portuguese van which had gone on ahead to alert the border to our arrival.
Once through the border without any problems I elected to travel along with the van towards Vienna. When crossing the no-man's land near Zrojna on the edge of Austria a biker suddenly runs over and of course it turned out to be one of the Riding Ducks of Vienna. Assuring him that the main bunch were close behind I belted off towards the capital. Half an hour of belting along later and with the van nowhere to be seen in the deluge I pulled in deciding that I'd probably passed it in a layby somewhere. Vienna is a relatively easy city to navigate but it helps a lot to know where you're supposed to be going. Twenty minutes later I was theorizing that they might have decided to bypass Vienna and go straight for Hungary as the press conference was well and truly missed by now.
Thankfully the run appeared and we cruised into the city and into the restaurant carpark for a very late lunch (approx. 6pm). the lift, which is extremely quick, totally confused one of our bunch who thought she was only going up one or two floors. Not very well acquainted with lifts at the best of times the 160m trip up the central tower of a revolving restaurant produced mixed looks of amazement and terror.
The floor of the Donautrom restaurant completes a revolution once every twenty minutes giving a stunning panoramic view of Vienna. A side effect (first noticed by John) is that the bar itself (which is in the central tower) looks like it's coming around to you every twenty minutes.
Regardless of being drenched at this stage we enjoyed the meal and appreciated the work put in by Edwin of MAG Austria and by the Riding Ducks, particularly Elfi Schwartz. It was unfortunate the press conference at three was missed.
Throughout the run we had riders joining in as we passed their home countries and Austria was no exception. Here we also said goodbye to one of our photographers who had to catch a train back to Amsterdam.
Back on the bikes we drove to the UN building to deliver a petition and give some more opportunities for TV pictures. Our freedom of movement issue is covered in the UN recommendations for the Cyprus problem but unfortunately we were way outside office hours at this stage so there weren't many UN heads around.
Soon we were heading for the border again and with very little rain the marshalling task was much easier, in fact the freedom to go hurtling along a guaranteed empty fast lane in order to get ahead of the crowd to the next exit made the job enjoyable. A pity there weren't a handful more of us though.
One fuel stop later and we were soon approaching the border in the dark and facing the first real border hassles. To speed things up we were using a crossing normally used only by commercial traffic wishing to bypass the tourist queues. With two border offices (only a few hundred metres apart) it seemed our paperwork had been misplaced. An hour or more of this fluting about with numerous theories and rumours as to what the problem was and we were suddenly all allowed through an open barrier without so much as a passport stamp.
With very little traffic and dark country roads there was little need for marshalling at this stage so I searched in vain for our Irish contingent who were now travelling as a group along with 'Group 6' formed during a session in Praha. Eventually I got word that they had broken down and had a breakdown van with them.
Not far from the border we came through a toll gate which for some reason had to leave us through one at a time and delayed us again. Our stop for the night was the Hotel Raba in Gyor which is just inside the Hungarian border and very comfortable as well. Just after we arrived the breakdown truck complete with the Irish crowd and a few others showed up. The problem had been caused by the front sprocket on Fiona's borrowed KZ1000LTD deciding that it should get off and go closer to the rear. The chain which was in fairly worn condition anyway surprisingly wasn't the cause of the problem, rather a serious of incorrect fittings put on with the sprocket by either the owner or a misguided mechanic.
More down to Fiona's skill in riding the bike than any inherent stability in KZ1000LTDs she had avoided a fall and stayed upright despite a solidly locked back wheel. Luckily John and Aoife behind her had been on awake and avoided what would have been a messy pile-up in the dark.
In jumping off, the sprocket had solidly wedged itself into the frame and unable to do much with it in the dark it was put off till the morning where if the worst came to the worst the local breakdown cover would sort it out.
After all the stopping and starting we had only covered 450km and were arriving into the hotel after midnight despite a start around 10am. Down at the bar we figured that even if the bike took the morning to sort out we'd still comfortably get to the following day's destination so long as we could find out what it was.
Next morning (Aug 4th) yet another meeting took place and in an effort to get things moving one of the English people by the name of Alastair Mills, helped by Harold Verra of Belgium identified themselves as general spokespersons with the idea being they would liaise with Michael and the Cypriots as a sort of central point of reference which would always be with the crowd.
Fixing a bike often turns into a spectator sport with every self-appointed expert for miles chiming in with their own nugget of wisdom. Having a pretty but increasingly exasperated girl as owner of the bike only compounded the problem and soon the bike and anyone doing anything to it was in danger of being smothered by morons recommending that the chain should be oiled and that the wheels ought to go around.
One particularly helpful chap whose English was completely non-existent turned out to be the saviour of the day. With the good sense to completely ignore the surrounding crowd and at times the bike's owner as well he successfully removed the miraculously undamaged sprocket after disconnecting the suspension. This completed, he conveyed that the sprocket had been on wrongly anyway and proceeded to put it right. Ally turned out to be an Austrian bike mechanic and traveled with a full toolkit in a specially made rack on his bike.
At this stage the crowd had moved on for Budapest, Slightly behind schedule but with a clear dry day and a good rest. Thankful for the excuse to stay back from the group it wasn't that we were completely confident of being able to manage fine on our own it was just that we figured the chances with the group were little better. An omen that we could be right appeared in the shape of Phil Halsley from London arriving with his co-driver Jenny to collect one of the chief organisers passports which had been forgotten at the hotel.
Ally decided to travel with us and along with Ben Hayday (our honorary Irishman in Group 6) we agreed a formation and headed on for Sveged. A press conference in Budapest had been planned but being so long after the rest of the group and not particularly enthusiastic about navigating the Hungarian capital we decided to try and go straight through the city and onto the night's accommodation only 300km away.
This plan worked really well and with clear open roads and an uncomplicated route we were soon travelling along nicely. McDonald's provided lunch and a temporary break from reality.
More surreal than McDonald's were the numerous female hitchhikers, it seemed that the more remote you get the more scantily dressed and brightly coloured people you find. The rest of the Hungarian scenery was fairly impressive as well.
Further down the road the KZ1000 began to act strangely and we pulled in to check it out. Like a mathematician that invokes first principles to solve every problem Ally's rigorous approach to bike fixing involved taking nothing for granted and checking each of the fundamentals. To cut a long story short the bike was stripped down, put back together and narrowly avoided being rejetted on the roadside.
With the bike running better after all the attention we got back on the road an hour or two later and having found an unmapped ringroad for Budapest made excellent time to the hotel in Sveged. With beer and food extremely cheap we were happily set up when the road-weary main group arrived. We'd apparently bypassed them in Budapest.
Macdonald's was closed so the main group were forced to eat at the unprepared hotel/campsite as well which naturally soon ran out of food. Nevertheless a major party got going and for the first time everyone had the time and inclination to kick back and enjoy themselves.
Before the major party got going a few items were talked about by the FEM people present and there were some reservations as to what had taken place at the press conference in Budapest. A resolution to again make clear that there would be no hint of any issue other than freedom of movement was made but it was to be the following evening before we could find the person who spoke to the press on behalf of the Cypriots to sort it out.
Tensions were running high with some delegations who were getting fed up of the low level of organization and experience being displayed. For large clubs and rider's rights people more than anyone else the mistakes being made were elementary and made worse by a perceived unwillingness of the leaders to either learn from what was happening or to pay heed to anyone with more experience. Several groups were prepared to pull out at this stage due to the disorganization and the feeling that the run could be turning into something political.
The complexity of the political situation on Cyprus is immense and certainly equals and possibly surpasses the numerous twists and turns of Northern Ireland. Rebecca, one of the elected CMF people, interestingly described some of what was going on from her perspective as a someone with British roots.
Partying proceeded late into the night aided by the emergence of the perfect song for a group without a common language. The words sound something like Ba-da ba-doom, ba-doom; ba-doom ba-doom, ba-day-ra; and that's it. It probably originally came from the Portuguese but soon everyone was singing along happily.
--- DIFFICULTIES ---
Next morning we for once had breakfast and drove a short distance to the filling station on the Serbian border for 11am; and there we stayed. A supermarket down the road provided an opportunity to get rid of Hungarian money and a way to pass the time. Difficulties were taking place at the border and numerous reasons why this was so were circulated.
Various roll-calls of the bikes were made and everyone stayed closeby in case of sudden movement. Attention spans are only so long though and soon people were sleeping in the sun and wandering about. Ben made a interesting discovery among the local flora and spent a happy hour or more harvesting and processing some of the naturally occurring plantlife. With papers instead of rolling papyrus the project eventually came to fruition but by his own admission the effect was probably more placebo than anything else.
This went on and on and eventually at 4pm with no end of negotiations in sight a decision was made to go with plan B instead. Instead of going through Serbia and Macedonia we would do Rumania and Bulgaria instead. Plan B sounded perfectly OK but had only tiny snag and that was that it was only thought of a few hours before it was announced. There would be no prior organization whatsoever supporting us for the few days it would take us to get to Greece. (Cynics might comment there had been little of that anyway and it couldn't make much difference).
It later transpired that the Serbian border crossing had not been adequately arranged and procedures not clarified sufficiently. Of course a general shadiness about the whole area didn't help either. They had been asking us for approximately 250 dollars each to cover something like road tax and insurance cover. Our transit visas were fine but it later emerged that some of the non-Europeans didn't have these visas anyway.
Off to the nearby Rumanian border we went and found stage one of the process quite simple. This left us in a no-man's land between the two countries. Again the arrangements took hours and hours and passports had to be collected and examined. At this stage it was easier for the fifth Irish passport holder on the trip to join in with us. Noreen had started from England on a XJ600S Diversion but from the border onwards stayed with the rest of us. Hungarian money couldn't be changed at the border so only harder currency could be used to buy the Rumanian leys.
As the sun began to set a few hours later we got going again and with a full police escort came into a small city. Endless concrete apartment blocks, horrendous road surfaces and kids everywhere characterized the place. Still recovering from the evils of its former rulers the marks on the country of what was once a powerful dictatorship were very obvious.
Darkness had fallen by the time we left the town and the roads could only be described as life-threatening. It wasn't so much the potholes or natural erosion which all Irish are used to coping with anyway, it was the ongoing efforts to do roadwork which proved most dangerous. Signs of roadwork happening up ahead were non-existent and there's wasn't a roadside marking or reflector to be seen. With no white lines and pitch black tar in total darkness it's amazing someone didn't come off sooner. A massive ditch with a three or four foot drop sometimes ran alongside the road and occasionally on both sides. Work on the lane going the other way had left a ledge of up to three or four inches running along the centre of the road.
It was this ledge that proved the downfall of one of the Cypriots and his GSX1100. Thankfully there was minimal damage to him or his bike and there was space in the breakdown van to keep the problem till daylight dawned anyway.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled in for petrol but being Rumania there was very little in the way of lighting and we all stood about in the dark eating bars of chocolate and looking at the stars. It wasn't only us who found the roads a problem as some other traveler had managed to put his car off the road right by the petrol station. Our police escort were dead pleased with us when a crowd went over and simply lifted the stricken vehicle back onto the road.
Off again for an unknown destination the run slowed down a little and finally at around midnight pulled into a deserted-looking courtyard in a town called Timisoara. Rooms were in short supply so we doubled up with half of us taking floors. The building was something which the police used themselves and wasn't a hotel as such. Any hotel where you had to climb through windows to get to such a basic room wouldn't have had much of a future anyway.
Bread, cheese and some meat which had been bought at the border and carried in the van was laid out for a buffet and around one or two o'clock everyone was ready for bed after a day where we'd barely covered 200km (200 miles) but taken thirteen hours to do so. Mapreading showed that to have any hope of getting back on schedule we'd need to be up at five the next morning. Three or four hours sleep seemed a bit short and then it dawned on John that we'd lost an hour in crossing to Rumania. Sure enough the police watches were an hour ahead of ours. Half the crowd had gone to bed ignorant of this fact and with instructions to get up at five so the logical thing was to stick to our own watches and sort it out the next day. Naturally this news spread like Chinese whispers so half the unfortunates ended up waking an hour before the five o'clock kick off.
Next morning our bikes were all still present as the police had stayed up all night keeping watch over them. It was suggested someone should stay up and watch the watchers but I reckon the alarmed bikes would have confounded them anyway. Besides if they really wanted the bikes, there was little we could do against armed policemen. Paranoid feelings dispelled in the morning gloom and the Italian contingent decided to take off separately and avoid the hassle of travelling with the rest of us.
Without any chance of getting breakfast we all left soon after five (a bit nearer six though) and were extremely well escorted by numerous police. Every joining road seemed to be closed off and the police were simply everywhere. Such a strong police presence had brought out every local in our path and we felt like royalty with everyone waving and clapping at the spectacle. Hours of this treatment provoked mixed feelings in our group. Some were feeling embarrassed that these simple rural uneducated people might be thinking we were some kind of heroes and others wondered if the police presence was causing such a show of welcome to us foreigners. Personally I feel the people weren't half as naive as they are taken for and were simply enjoying the excitement of a rare parade of fancy machinery.
In daylight and in the centre of the country the roads were completely up to Irish standards and with a lack of traffic made for some great riding. With the police escort we daren't stop and photograph the countryside which in many places was beautifully unspoiled and scenic.
Realizing at one stage that the rest of the Irish contingent weren't with us any longer Aoife, Noreen and I went back about 20km to find them. The problem had turned out to be minor and had afflicted the TDM rather than the usual suspect. Fiona took the opportunity to dump her mainstand anyway as it was perilously close to breaking the chain due to the rough surfaces. Even as we speak some Rumanian native has probably given it a second life as a wheelbarrow stand or suchlike.
Accidentally splitting from the group gave us an excellent opportunity to belt along on our own again although the police help was allowing the run to make better time than nearly anywhere else on the trip. Navigating was simple as there were incredibly few tarred roads and not many options when it came to going towards the planned crossing at Kalafat.
Evidence of the respect and fear these people have for the forces of law and order was clear on the road. Traffic laws probably weren't enforced very much judging by speeds and general road manners but many cars on seeing what probably looked to them like an official vehicle with headlights immediately ducked into the verge and stopped. Would that an overtaking GSXR had such an effect in Ireland.
We caught the group at the perfect moment just as they were in a combined food and fuel stop and in time for both. Suggestions that nationalities should eat and leave for the border to speed things up went unheeded but wouldn't have helped anyway as we were to discover later.
One chicken sandwich and a load of tea and cokes later we were moving for the border and passing through some heavily industrialized areas. Waste and pollution were evident in many of these places. If developed properly Rumania could be an extremely attractive holiday destination. As it is it's a very beautiful country suffering from the past behavior of some very un-beautiful leaders.
With spell-binding efficiency and a very definite attitude towards cars, people or anything else which obstructed their mission the Rumanian police got us to the border and out of their territory. Whether their good-humour and friendly faces were due to our willing speed or simply came naturally was a matter of debate, anyway they enjoyed themselves and we enjoyed Rumania.
More so than any other country we'd seen so far Rumania looked different and was different. It was hard to believe we were still in Europe and still in 1996.
Even the forewarned border crossing was a doddle taking something near twenty minutes or half an hour to leave the country. A short wait, perhaps an hour, was needed as we had just missed the ferry which the Italians were on. Ally took advantage of this time to renew his knowledge of disc brakes and quickly had a small queue of bikes in line for his services.
It was a festive crowd which boarded the ferry to get us across the Danube and in the heat a few decided to cool down in the water at the far side of the raft-like ferry. Not seeing the point in just splashing water onto himself like everyone else, one mental defective jumped in fully clothed. This might have made sense in shallower still water but with a current like the Danube he was soon a few yards downstream and swimming upstream had no effect. A lifebuoy made it out to him but with no attached rope it looked like he'd just bought a one way ticket to somewhere much further down the riverbank (like the sea). Plenty photos were taken and the captain alerted some boat downriver to do something. By this time he'd managed to swim toward the shore and came running back to tremendous applause.
Crossing the Danube was simple with the only risk being sunburn. Landing in the no-man's land before entering Bulgaria was slightly less than simple due to the ferry off-ramp but surprisingly none of us fell off, although I was convinced at one stage that there would be a very upside-down blue Suzuki sliding backwards into the famous blue river.
From here we went up to the crossing and waited and waited. Several sweltering hours later it became obvious there was some sort of problem. False starts multiplied and around half past seven, after maybe six hours waiting and drinking water and coke from the duty free (to wash down a dry bread roll each) there was a briefing.
Our misguided leaders were still refusing to face reality and were attempting to raise enthusiasm for us all to go to Thessaloniki that same night. In reality there was maybe five hundred kilometres of unknown territory between us and Thessaloniki and given that we'd never covered that distance in a full day, let alone starting out at eight pm there was slim chance we'd make the planned party by sun-up let alone any reasonable hour of the early morning. To top it all there were a few drops of rain.
Fearing that this sort of immature macho behavior was going to result in people pushing themselves too hard and getting injured in the process I decided to address the crowd and put forward the alternative of staying in Sofia and that I for one would not go beyond the Bulgarian capital which was about sixty kilometres away. Anyone wishing to do likewise could give their name to me or either of the Irish girls who'd opted to do the same and some sort of arrangement would be made.
I don't doubt that maybe as much as eighty or ninety percent of the crowd could have done the trip individually or perhaps in small groups. It was even possible ,although extremely unlikely, that the whole convoy could drive direct to Thessaloniki. What was totally incomprehensible however was the idea that we'd get there to meet the Greek party.
Gradually this dawned on the crowd and within an hour the majority of the convoy were on our list for Sofia although the leaders still refused to accept the fact that they'd lost a day and that they couldn't avoid losing face with the Greeks and others waiting for us by pushing the riders even further.
Around nine we were given visas allowing a one night stop and left through the border. With a police escort we were taken along roads which were up to Rumanian nightime standards to a petrol station where the petrol prices looked like they were set specially for our supposedly large wallets. Part of the problem at the border may have been our refusal to hand over wads of cash or pallets of duty-free.
More police followed us and at this stage, near midnight, people were getting a mite tired and hungry when we left the petrol station for Sofia which on the map was quite close.
What happened next was like some sort of never-ending waking nightmare which marked the lowest point in the entire trip.
Without neither currency or knowledge of the local alphabet we were totally at the mercy of the police and didn't really trust them. Rumours of so-called police acting as bandits (or was it vice-versa) had already circulated and there was no way of knowing what was going on.
The police led us for miles and no matter how far we went we never seemed to be closer to the capital. We went up back roads, climbed mountains and occasionally crossed bridges over motorways which were obviously bigger than the roads we were on. Unsure of what was happening everyone was intent on staying together.
Wet roads and tired riders led to inevitable tumbles and soon these were unsettling everyone's nerves. Occasionally the group would stop for no apparent reason with no one seemingly in charge. The police themselves were only speaking in their own language so communication was at an all time low.
Endless starts and stops with an increasingly suspiciously acting police force in an unknown area were taking their toll as well as the fact that everyone had been up since five am and some longer with very little to eat and a lot of hot sun.
With some people very close to falling asleep, it emerged later that quite a few had actually started to hallucinate. The steady convoy driving where all you could really see was an hypnotic line of tailights wasn't really helping either. John admitted to being convinced that the green break-down van behind him was in front and driving towards him while Ben couldn't shake the sight of some of us sitting backwards on our bikes and facing him while we rode. Fiona say shapes of people crawling out of the sides of the road and Aoife at one stage could only see a green tunnel of trees which she was driving through. It turned out that these bizarre sights were widespread and explain why many of the group were set on just resting where we stopped until daybreak.
This reached a crescendo when it appeared that we were circling the capital endlessly. The crowd were again refusing to budge and the police were repeating their usual chorus of '10km more, 10km more'.
Many of these stops later turned out to have been forced on the police by our leaders who were getting more and more worried for their safety. Bulgaria is aligned with Turkey and as such probably see Greek Cypriots as rather unwanted people. Sitting in your safe chair it might all seem daft but if I was a Greek Cypriot being led up back roads and given the runabout by a few policemen I'd be considerably less than happy with the situation as well.
Eventually we seemed to have reached an impasse and our leaders refused to move. This was about 4am and there was no way we could sleep on a motorway. In a dim light we saw an approaching military truck and the rumoured policemen's threats that they'd bring the army to move us along looked true after all. Another military truck followed on and soon we were watching an entire convoy pass on the other side of the motorway.
At this point one of our leaders simply cracked under pressure and started to rave 'they'll kill us all'. He was soon bundled off to the van and wasn't seen for a while.
About then we went up to talk to the police who still insisted we were only 10km from this hotel. They accepted Fiona's suggestion that the Slovenian chap who understood them and who they could understand should go with them in the car and see the hotel. When they came back he could reassure us that it was there and we then promised we would go to it.
Having something happening raised our spirits if nothing else although the 'leaders' were surprisingly absent at this stage and didn't seem to like this new idea very much.
The army personnel carriers reappeared on our side of the motorway and once we'd moved our bikes out of the off-ramp went right on by us. They were army trucks alright but most probably in civilian use and likely as confused by our presence as we were worried at theirs.
Surprisingly the police gave Fiona use of the loud hailer fitted to their car when she asked in English and as she suspected they probably understood a lot more English than they would speak.
This plan worked a treat and when the Slovenian (Bogdan from the Bears) came back Fiona announced to the crowd that the hotel did exist, that the Irish were following the police to it, that they were welcome to follow and that not being stupid we knew what we were doing.
Not completely sure that we did know what we were at, we got the crowd moving anyway and ignored the 'leaders' who wanted to stay behind. Maybe ten kilometres away after crossing a few junctions we drove through a police roadblock and had a momentary flicker of fear that we'd been duped. We hadn't though and as dawn broke we pulled into the carpark of a very quiet hotel in Bulgaria.
Even at this hour many people refused to accept that this was a hotel and that the police hadn't been leading us into a trap. Despite rumours to the contrary there were rooms although not quite enough. At this stage everyone was ready to sleep by their bikes on the tarmac anyway. What rooms there were came up to Western standards for good hotels. With a nodding agreement to arise at nine thirty or ten we crashed out around seven o'clock after five hundred and seventy kilometres and a hard day.
Next morning (about two hours later) and a basic breakfast and petrol fill-up beside the hotel we got going sometime well after eleven despite waking before ten. Some of our leaders had reappeared at this stage and unfortunately didn't have the grace to thank Fiona or anyone else for their efforts the previous night. Even at this juncture the same chap who wanted us all to go to Thessaloniki the night before wouldn't accept the evidence of the map before him and insisted we were only one hundred and fifty kilometres from the border and we could make it by a certain time instead of the two hundred and thirty which it turned out to be.
In contrast with the previous day in Bulgaria the ride to the Greek border was quiet and uneventful except for one potentially nasty accident. One of the bikes skidded on oil when going through a tunnel and in the sudden darkness, probably compounded by sunglasses, one of the other bikes ran into it. Thankfully there were no really serious injuries, just some road rash and cartilage and ligaments problems.
What actually happened in Bulgaria is a bit of an open question. Certainly our avoidance of paying bribes at the border or any other stage didn't help but the police were definitely misleading us with their route to Sofia. They could have been under orders to keep us out of any major population centres and they were probably entrusted to keep track of us and not leave us off free to roam the land. Many thought the plan was to escort us straight to the Greek border non-stop but the route taken didn't fit in with this. On the other hand our crowd weren't exactly co-operative and the few policemen were severely outnumbered and could not have managed had we all simply split off as nearly happened by accident at one point. Were I a Bulgarian policeman kept up till all hours by a bunch of unhelpful and occasionally abusive foreigners I'd have been much less civil than they were.
We somehow lagged behind on the way out of Bulgaria and got to the border just after the rest. We stopped to talk to some tourists who had heard of us and our run on the news.
--- BACK TO CIVILISATION ---
The border crossing was simple and although I'd never ridden a bike in Greece before it felt like home to be back in any part of the European Union, where my passport could be trusted to work immediately, the currency stable and the country safe. A petrol stop followed the border and we conspired to lag behind and celebrate the freedom by travelling on our own for a bit. By now the 'us' now included Cypriot Yiannos Varsoshotis (sp?) with his Goldwing and Michael as his passenger as well as the usual crew of Ben, Chris, John, Aoife, Noreen and Fiona.
Having lost a day the 'leaders' were planning to make it up by travelling to Vollos where there was a camping party which was to have been a short day's ride from Thessaloniki.
According to Yiannos the Greek helmet law is generally not enforced and no sooner was that heard than helmets were being stowed under overstretched cargo-nets and bungees. Greece has radically different scenery to its northern neighbour and soon we were barreling along empty, open, dependably well-surfaced roads reveling in the pure freedom and release from Bulgaria.
Miles of beautiful scenery and we eventually reached Thessaloniki and saw the Mediterranean. The main group were just about to leave after a quick snack but we decided to grab a proper bite to eat before going any further.
Never had I seen such slippery dry roads as the ones in the centre of Thessaloniki. A black mirror-finish was everywhere and after some heart-stopping front-wheel slides I slowed a lot. With Yiannos as our guide and interpreter we had a good meal and then went to the base of the Moto Club of Thessaloniki to get some bike bits. One thing led to another and soon we were decided on stopping at a nearby hostel rather than tackling the two hundred kilometre trip that night. In retrospect it was the right thing to do although at the time I was chafing at the endless delays and the fact that we'd only covered three hundred kilometres.
A hostel which we ended up sharing with the Portuguese people worked out extremely well and after a trip to the nearby bar we got to sleep extremely easily. At this stage the weather was warm enough to just lie down on a mattress on the hotel balcony and nod off.
Bright and early the next morning we loaded up and headed off for Piraus and the ferry to Cyprus. We had about five hundred and fifty kilometres to cover but we had all day to do it and we were on our own. To keep the crowd going the official line had been that we had to meet the ferry at midday. In reality it wasn't leaving till seven.
The joy of travelling around freely still hadn't worn off and on open roads and without a speed enforcer to be seen we repeatedly careered off as fast as we could just for the sheer undeniable pleasure in doing so. With ear-to-ear grins we covered loads of miles, risked terminal sunburn to our scalps and enjoyed ourselves tremendously.
Petrol stops were taken care of by Yiannos with John's help. John liked Greece so much he decided he was going to convert almost five hundred quid into drachma, or else the machine decided for him. These needed to be offloaded so he became our banker for the day. With the increasing heat outdoors, the air-conditioned hospitality at the petrol stations was much appreciated.
Having past Vollos where we knew the main group were still getting ready to leave their campsite having arrived at some ridiculously late hour the previous night we pulled in beside a beach and went straight for the Mediterranean. Floating around in the practically lukewarm sea, avoiding sea-urchins and sharp rocks I figured that so far this was close to being a completely perfect day. A quick snack across the road and we got back on the road. A few groups of bikes had passed us but the big group had not. What we didn't know at this stage was that the run had split into numerous small groups heading for the ferry on their own.
Somewhere further down the road we realized that half our crew had fallen behind and looking for any excuse to tear about on my own I went back. Being motorway this involved finding a cross-over about five miles away. Sometime later I found the bunch proceeding slowly up the motorway nursing a lock-wired chain on the KZ1000.
Another motorway U turn about twenty miles away brought out the first and absolutely only problem suffered by the GSXR on the entire trip. Air had somehow entered the hydraulic clutch system replacing fluid which had somehow vanished. Being at the back of the group, behind the breakdown van and with a ferry to catch the picture wasn't too rosy and repeated jerky stalls were followed by frantic clutch-pumping to get some little bit of pressure. Rolling with the help of the on-ramp and with only open-motorway ahead the travelling was simple, it was just the starting which posed difficulties.
No DOT-4 clutch fluid at the next petrol station saw me continue on, leaving a few of our crew resting in the shade. Again no DOT-4 and a roadside clutch-bleeding took place. With people following me up and a small amount of spare fluid packed thanks to a mechanic with foresight it was time to learn how to 'bleed' a clutch. It must be a simpler task than expected because five minutes later gear-changing was again possible. Far from the way it should be but enough to get to the boat at Piraeus.
A police escort had showed up at this stage and when our resting colleagues joined us we zoomed on down expecting to be the last on the boat, if we made it at all. We did make it of course and after some quay-side confusion boarded. Unlike most other ferries this one insisted on parking vehicles all over the place and in opposite directions. Incredible hassle and queues surrounding the boarding procedure and we had to had in our passports for the time we were on board. No explanation for this suspect procedure was given and the ferry staff were not our favourite people.
At the port we were joined by around fifty Greek motorcyclists. No cabins had been arranged so we all ended up sleeping on deck after an evening spent in the cafeteria, relaxing in the boat's disco and lounging about outside. We'd covered 545km which put our last day up near the top of the list for distance covered.
Next morning we lazed around watching the sun-drenched Greek islands float by and enjoying the effortless travel. The afternoon saw an unexpected two-hour stopover in Rhodes where we walked around a well-developed tourist trap. There's probably more to the island than a walled port and wellington-shaped beerglasses but it was beyond our limited walking range.
Another meeting discussing flags, items to be thought about when we got to Cyprus and so on happened in the evening and then it became more of the same, cafeteria, disco and then out on deck. Luckily for us there was absolutely no hint of rain, mist or dew.
--- A HERO'S WELCOME ---
Another completely bright and sunny day dawned and after thirty six hours on board we finally got to go downstairs in the afternoon and untie the bikes. Leaving the boat was chaotic but a welcoming crowd suddenly cheered everyone up. Flowers were thrust upon us by a big crowd of onlookers right at the off-ramp. Disheveled motorcyclists gripped offered carnations or whatever they were in their teeth while trying to keep their moving bikes upright.
Soon we were ushered into the main terminus building and witnessed a full-size press conference which included Simon Milward (FEM secretary) who had flown down directly. Much of the conference wasn't in English and complete with the Greek signs went slightly over our heads.
Want didn't go completely over our heads was the coverage in the English language newspapers in the small shops. Various reports mentioned Turkish reaction to the planned demonstration and promises of retribution if the green line were to be breached. In a tabloid like fashion there were also reports of a group of Turkish extremist thugs called the 'Grey Wolves' having entered occupied Cyprus to repel any demonstrators.
Confusion reigned for the next hour or so while we filled forms and queued and filled more forms and queued some more for insurance and other bits required to ride our bikes around Cyprus. National flags were provided and we formed up to ride out of Limassol with numerous national emblems flying.
What happened next was unreal. Massive crowds of emotional people lined the streets for miles. Music played on large PA systems and an air of great festivity was everywhere. It was as if we were some kind of liberators coming to free the country. Bikes overheated in the enforced slow pace and local motorcyclists with no idea of how to behave in a convoy of bikes came close to being killed for their incompetence. Somehow a petrol stop was organized in this melee and again we were off at walking pace through the throng. Water bottles were offered by the crowd and gratefully accepted.
Finally free we stopped in a lay-by out of town where big heaps of prepared sandwiches and cold drinks awaited us in the shade. Frantic allocation of hotel-rooms and general confusion reigned in the backrooms while bemused Europeans enjoyed the food out front.
Somehow the list was agreed on and we split off into groups for the various hotels. Some were staying in Limassol, some hotels in Nicosia and some in Larnaca. Grouping was sensibly by nationality with the majority spread over three hotels in Nicosia. Yiannos who had led us through Greece lives in Nicosia and led our contingent 90km inland. With daylight beginning to fade, the Cypriot landscape en-route looked like an oven-baked version of Greece. Many sections are close to desert and dusty brown rather than green is the norm.
Soon the Europe's last divided city came into view and we were checked in at the Hotel Cleopatra and told to be ready for the barbeque later. Clean, air-conditioned hotel rooms were never so welcome. Grime from the last four countries was washed away and with the few remaining clean clothes on we taxied off to another celebration.
After plates of delicious local food we had an award ceremony. All the attending countries got plaques. Traditional dancing and entertainment completed the hospitality and the trestle tables were occupied by a very happy international crowd.
Michael, one of the Greek Cypriots who had been on the run gave us a lift back to the hotel later on and described how his home had been taken over and he had been there for four days before getting back to the free part of Cyprus and rebuilding his life from scratch as a refugee.
Still restless, we had to check out the hotel pool and hang around some more before finally accepting the fact that we had successfully reached Cyprus and going to sleep.
--- DEMO & RE-DEMO ---
Next morning we were up early and ready for the demonstration. One group was meeting in Dherynia and the ride along the green line seemed to be the plan. A large stadium marked the meeting place for people around Nicosia and we went there as a group to find thousands of Cypriot motorcyclists waiting for the off.
Very little leadership of any kind was evident and for a long time but it was obvious something serious was going on. As the sun beat down we looked for shade and passed time throwing stones at cans and avoiding sunstroke. Reports of Turkish troop movements were filtering through on radios and being translated for us. Some said that the Turks were on the point of threatening to invade further if the so-called border was breached by demonstrators.
Eventually everyone was asked to enter the stadium, presumably so the crowd could be easily addressed. Tension appeared to be rising rapidly and even though we had no idea what was going on it looked like getting dangerously packed and close to becoming a very undesirable place to be. Rather than enter the centre of the stadium we went off to make sure we knew where the exits were.
Soon the crowd poured out of the stadium and we went back towards our bikes for another while. Judging by the behavior of many 'motorcyclists' we tended to believe what we'd heard about all available mopeds and motorcycles being rented out. Our organisers soon instructed is to move our bikes to one side as the people at the back of the crowd were beginning to drive to the front and were skirting around the police roadblock.
With our bikes out of the road and the understanding that the official run was called off we watched the disgruntled mob head for the border in a completely disorganized fashion.
Everything was looking increasingly awkward and the organisers of the run led us back to spend the afternoon in our respective hotels out of harm's way. We later learned that the commotion at the stadium had been caused by accusations of treason and cowardice towards the leader of the Cypriot Motorcycle Federation, George Hadjnicostas.
At three thirty an FEM meeting was called at one of the hotels in Nicosia to see what could be done with the situation.
The events of the day were summed up by Thomas Kakadiaris from Greece and we found out that George had been requested that morning to cancel the run by both the Cypriot president and by the UN. Not enough police were present to stop the crowd moving to the border but the majority were turned back by UN troops. Turkish army movement was confirmed but there was little further information.
With everyone up to date a proposal from Simon centred around a peaceful run restricted by lack of advance publicity to the European motorcyclists and leaving out the locals. The Ledrapallas checkpoint in Nicosia was agreed on as the best place to hold this symbolic gesture. Ledrapallas is comparable to the 'Checkpoint Charlie' crossing point at the old Berlin Wall and is controlled by the UN. Furthermore it is approached by narrow streets and would be much easier to secure than an open border area.
At half four we had agreed on the proposal and were hoping to get the demo going that same day. To do this we first had to go to the police headquarters where we were met by a representative of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Having fully explained the situation she listened to our plan and responded to the request for advice and assistance. Her full co-operation and sympathy was with us.
Around this point we learnt of a death in Dherynia and also of fifteen wounded. We requested that the official press release should have a note added mentioning that the European motorcyclists on the island were alright. The Minister for Justice also came into our meeting and was sympathetic.
Details of what we were going to do were eventually trashed out and basically it involved a mass ride to the green line, followed by a delegation proceeding on foot through the buffer zone and onto the Turkish border to request on behalf of everyone at the other side, specifically including the Greek Cypriots, if we would be allowed to pass freely. It was agreed that we weren't signing anything which would recognize the occupied area as a valid state but that our request was purely apolitical and we were only asking to pass.
Having been approved by the police force this idea was relayed to the UN who agreed but requested a list of names and nationalities for the delegation who would walk across. This list was sent to the UN at 5.45 and was back within three quarters of an hour. Apparently there was a group in constant session to deal with the rapidly changing situation.
With limited time and hurried on by the police we went back to the Excelsior hotel, rounded up our national groups and explained the situation extremely quickly. Preferring to wear a neutral T-shirt rather than the partisan but clean one I swapped for a pink Dublin one.
The run to the border was quick and business-like. After some hanging about while the situation was worked out by the UN, our delegation was allowed through the barbed wire and welcomed by the troops who seemed to be mostly Australian although there was a fellow from Cavan serving there as well.
Ledrapallas was a large plush hotel in Nicosia before the invasion and although the heavy street fighting had left it visibly pockmarked it was serving well as a UN accommodation base. The 'corridor' in the buffer zone had a very palpable and unsettling atmosphere. We chatted for a while with the guards as we signed our names at the middle of the buffer zone. For some reason the group of thirteen had to be suddenly split in two sections to approach the Turkish border and the designated spokesperson was left behind.
When the first group disappeared from sight behind a wall escorted by armed UN guards we heard loud shouts and chanting from the Turkish side. This orchestrated crowd could be welcoming us or promising to kill us and we couldn't tell the difference.
A few minutes later the escort returned for us and we marched off to see what was up. On the other side the crowd had been held at a distance and a line of police with fill riot gear stood facing us behind the barbed wire. It was immediately obvious that the people on this side were very unlike the people at the side we had come from. Stirred up by loudspeakers and chanting intelligibly I was hoping that we were absolutely certain our request for free passage on behalf of our group and the Greek Cypriots would be refused. Our meeting had discussed what would happen if they suddenly agreed to let us through but with that enthusiastic crowd at a decent distance I wasn't anxious to put it to the test.
We met up with the first group who had suddenly needed a spokesperson and thankfully it contained someone up to the job. It was then agreed that Alastair should continue the dialogue already started rather than introducing a new person.
Up to the barbed wire and Alastair asked for free passage. Surprisingly they were prepared to allow us in on completion of an application form which didn't necessarily include our recognizing the occupied area as legitimate. When asked about the free passage for Greek Cypriots the desired negative answer was given after a few futile attempts to cloud the issue by leading us into a political discussion. Alastair stuck to his point though and politely thanked the border guards for their time. We posed for a quick photo shoot for the benefit of the Turkish media, took one last look at the border and walked back through the buffer zone and into free Cyprus to the welcome cheers of our group.
An impromptu press conference was then given by Alastair, Riccardo and Thomas (Greek translation) and we had yet another photo shoot. Glad to be able to walk over to my bike and drink even more Coke we all milled about for a while. Camera crews wandered through the crowd and took numerous interviews.
Before leaving we had a minute's silence in memory of the young Greek Cypriot who had been beaten to death at the border earlier on. Our police escort then took us back to the hotel and away from the rolling TV cameras.
We had plenty to talk about around the pool that night.
--- EXPLORATION ---
The original arrangement with the demo was that the riders attending would be paid a sum which would cover travelling back to Berlin. This was a bit more complex and Simon, Jurgen from Kuhle Wampe and I spent the next day and a half getting that money despite various problems and difficulties. That evening a big Greek meal was laid on and tired from the day's haggling I got a welcome early night.
Next day saw the dispensing of the cash and with that complete I took the rest of the day off to catch up with the sightseeing done by the rest the previous day. After the constant necessary diplomacy it was great to spend time tearing about on my own.
Yiannos took us all out for a meal that night at an outdoor cafe in the old part of the city. An English pub owner then gave us the run of his bar to the delight of our group. With all the press attention and our easy recognisability as foreign motorcyclists we were treated extremely well by the public all week. On one occasion a little old lady in a shop came out with a free bandanna because she'd seen us wearing them on TV. All the newspapers had constant coverage and we constantly saw ourselves and people we knew on TV, in papers and even a magazine.
Next morning a small mixed nationality group of us went off scuba-diving which for most of us was a first. An amazing experience.
The afternoon saw more pool lounging as the midday heat wasn't suited to taking a group out motorcycling around the island. Later in the afternoon I wandered off to the mountains west of Nicosia and spent a happy few of hours enjoying the very different scenery, picturesque villages and winding roads. At one stage I wandered off down some backroads looking for an ostrich farm. Stopping to take some photographs in a complete wilderness area I heard what sounded like gunshots and some shouting in the distance. I never did find that ostrich farm.
We were again taken out for a meal and this time we were actually on the border. The wall at the bottom of the table marked the edge of free Cyprus with a Turkish flag visible over the barbed wire at the far side.
Next morning we had planned to explore some more of the island but with increasing sunshine it dwindled to Terry Rook from Gibralter and myself, the rest having more sense. As soon as I stood outside the hotel the police wanted to know what our plans were and advised against taking a group to the buffer zone to drop in on the Irish stationed there. Another death had taken place after the funeral of the man killed on Sunday and tension was running high. On Cypriot advice we had avoided attending the funeral the previous day.CNN and the local news were continually showing the footage of the actual shooting. An unarmed man had started to climb a flagpole to take down a Turkish flag and was simply shot by what looked more than one gunman from the other side.
Leaving the rest behind our trip took us first to Larnaca where Terry checked on the scuba-diving people about another dive and the photos from the previous day. Rather than hang around I went up to Pyla to see this example of Turkish and Greek Cypriots living side by side and to meet the Irish troops.
Photographs or flags aren't allowed in this part of the buffer zone so my tricolor had to be taped up. Half the village appeared to be shut and of course it was the Greek Cypriot side closed to mark the funeral of the man killed on Sunday.
Right in the middle of town there is a UN building with a Garda Siochana crest over the door. On enquiring about the two Irish soldiers injured I was told that they were actually British and doing fine in hospital. With a load of Australian UN forces buzzing about there was a lot happening inside the UN building in complete contrast to the square outside. After chatting for a while I went off for a litre of Cokes to wait for Terry.
From here we struck out for Paphos on the opposite side of the island and in the midday heat we had to stop within an hour for more water. Three litres later we got going again. The key to surviving the heat was to drink gallons of water and soft drinks whether you felt thirsty or not. Running around on bikes without helmets or jackets meant we were losing a lot of liquid very quickly. Temperatures were passing the mid 40s Celsius, somewhere around 115 in Fahrenheit. Humidity was quite low so the heat was quite bearable once people got used to it and stayed in the shade around noon.
Long twisting mountainous roads swooped along the coast offering panoramic views of beaches and cliffs. Terry stopped off after a while to rest so I went on. Paphos eventually appeared and like Agia Napa on the other side of the island is in two halves. The manufactured touristy half and the old city. Although the original plan for the day meant going up to the Baths of Aphrodite in a wilderness area about fifty miles away I had to turn back between Paphos and Polis as nightime driving is difficult and unsafe without some clear glasses or a helmet visor.
Back in Larnaca I found the hotel stayed at by the Portuguese and rang Nicosia to see what the rest were doing. A farewell beach party was planned for the evening in Larnaca and everyone was checking out of the Cleopatra to stay in Larnaca for the evening. It didn't take long to get back and pack the stuff and soon we were all down at the beach party saying goodbye to the rest of the group who were catching the ferry to Greece the following morning.
With the party over around midnight we went to another beach where it looked like we could be sitting around for a few more hours. Tired after the days travel I checked back into the Cleopatra in Nicosia for the night.
--- EXPORT/IMPORT ---
Next morning armed with directions for Yiannos's place I met the rest of the gang again. Later in the night they had found a hotel in Larnaca. Our day was spent arranging airline tickets and watching a film in Yiannos's apartment while the travel agent made inquiries.
That night we checked into the hotel apartment in Larnaca where the Portuguese had stayed and spent a good evening playing pool.
The following day was spent getting the bikes loaded up for air transport. Our hosts were extremely helpful and on account of being almost national heroes by now we got very good rates on transporting the bikes. Unfortunately petrol had to be taken out and batteries disconnected before loading. Aerosols and pressurized items like puncture kits couldn't be carried according to airline regulations so Yiannos ended up with an armful of chain lube for his shaftdrive and more puncture repair kits than he knew what to do with.
Essentially the bikes were parked on wheeled pallets each capable of carrying four normal length bikes ( John's had to be put lengthwise on the pallet with two others). After being strapped in with the luggage and helmets attached a cargo net fifty times bigger than the ones we use on the back of our bikes kept everything in place.
Our tolerance for bureaucratic paperwork was much higher by now than it would have been at the start of the trip and even though the whole thing took almost a day we just accepted and got on with it.
Yiannos arranged some apartments in the Famagusta area and we got a chance to look across the buffer zone at the derelict resort city. An eerie ghostly quality surrounded the deserted city which was separated from us by a narrow strip of no man's land which was probably landminded. Famagusta had been a top resort city before the occupation in 1974 but hadn't been lived in by anyone since then.
After a trip to the beach we headed into Agia Napa for a meal and a night out in the tourist quarter to see how the other half live. Hedonistic is probably the best word for it, with pounding discos, crowds of northern Europeans and a pervasive nightclub atmosphere even outdoors. The gap between our journey and the touristy package deal which these people were paying for became even more obvious. Each to their own I guess.
Another evening playing pool and demolishing local cocktails ended with everyone heading back to the apartments to sit around and talk.
Our last day was spent between the airport and Agia Napa, lounging about in a beach side bar before checking in and coming back for snacks. Finally we had to say goodbye to Yiannos, Erme and Andy and get on the plane to Heathrow where we compared notes on the trip.
A few short hours later and we were getting off the plane. Noreen and Ben live in London so we split into two groups after getting the tube and then taxied home.
All of the following day was spent getting the bikes out of customs which was partially explained by our not getting to Heathrow until nearly 4pm for some reason. Complications revolved around the fact that the bikes were coming from outside the European Union and some sort of mix-up about us importing new bikes as opposed to simply transporting our own used property. Thanks to a friend of Noreen's in the freight shipping business we were reunited with our bikes that evening and went back to the houses for another night in London.
The following morning the girls left early for the ferry to Ireland and the rest of us met up for a last photo. John planned to stay around the UK and attend the Ogri rally the following weekend. Ben headed home and Noreen led Chris and myself to the road west.
--- CONCLUSION ---
There is much more to this story that the bare facts and itinerary above. The epic quality of the trip overshadowed the more mundane occurrences that would usually make a holiday memorable. Between all the border crossings and newsworthy stories we had our fair share of blazing rows, holiday romances, minor disasters and hilarious incidents.
In addition there is plenty of scope for discussion of the rights and wrongs of the political situation and for apportioning of praise and blame for the many decisions that had to be made during the trip and the months leading up to it. I'll leave all that for elsewhere.
With the free time at the end of the holiday when we got to see some more of the island I fell in love with the place. Scenic open roads, proper speed limits, an unenforced helmet law, a sun-drenched climate and a laid back culture make Greece and Cyprus motorcycling heaven. Definitely a place to go back to, although next time I might take the easy route and travel via Italy..
--- THE END ---
Copyright
David French ,
3/Sept/96.