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Saturday, 23 September 2017

Under African Skies, pt3

On the drive to the World Heritage site of Lake Nakuru, we saw the Great Rift Valley for the first time and it's overwhelming. Unless you happen to be a Creationist, it's regarded as the Cradle of Mankind where the oldest traces of our ancestors have been found.   It's some 6000 km long and runs approximately from Lebanon/Jordan/Israel through to Mozambique.  Almost impossible to get your head round the vastness.

A valley on an epic scale

Our first view of the Great Rift Valley - surprisingly green at this point

En route, we crossed the equator and stopped for a tug of war across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres!  The coloured buckets below were full of water and for some coins, the locals would apparently demonstrate that when poured through a funnel, the water would rotate in different directions either side of the nominal centre line.  We weren't that anxious to part with our money! 

North vs South tug o' war!

People-watching on the main highway was a pleasant diversion and just like south-east Asia, motorcycles are strictly cheap utility vehicles as opposed for fun.  We saw all sorts of precarious loads on them and the photo below is by no means the worst example.  In this case, two fully laden milk churns for the local village and a massive plastic bag full of something unidentifiable must have made the handling quite interesting.  Being an IAM Observer, it's nigh-on impossible to stop analysing other people's riding and driving habits.  Jennie hates driving whilst I'm in the car because she reckons that she can read my body language!  Anyway, I digress.  I'd been casually watching our guide Ole behind the wheel and was quite impressed with his road positioning and overtakes which indicated a good degree of situational awareness. Turns out that when he worked for British Petroleum in Kenya a few years ago, they put him through an advanced defensive driving course and it certainly showed.  Didn't mention any of this to Jennie on account of not wanting to be called a sad bastard, followed by the obligatory eye-rolling and sighs.

Well, that's one way to pop easy wheelies!

Just before turning off for the long dirt road drive to Lake Nakuru, we stopped at a roadside stall that featured crafts by local artisans.  They were beautifully made and really cheap after the expected haggling.  We eventually settled for a stylised wooden giraffe and a print of Maasai girls on cotton fabric which we're going to get framed.

Ooh, what long legs you have!

Seven Gorgeous Maasai Girls

On reaching Nakuru National Park, it was much more like my idea of Africa with grassy plains, interspersed with trees and some water.  There were iconic African animals everywhere, although we still had to encounter big cats.

Baby baboon hitching a ride

Hyenas chilling in the late afternoon sun

Coming out of the treeline, we encountered a couple of rhinos which steadfastly ignored us.  Whilst poaching still goes on from time to time in Kenya and Tanzania, summary justice meted out by armed park rangers and increased penalties has significantly reduced the incidence.  A lot of work is now going on with Chinese authorities in particular to curb demand by a series of initiatives. 

Tandem eating. What an absolute privilege to see them in their natural state

Zebra were everywhere and were often found with Wildebeest.  Apparently, it's a sort of symbiotic relationship where zebras have acute eyesight and Wildebeest have great hearing and smell.

Does my butt look big in these stripes??

Our first sighting of giraffes in the distance

Pink flamingos on the lake edge

Next, it's on to Maasai Mara, the highlight of the Kenyan leg of the safari!

Under African Skies, pt 2

Doha airport (Hamad International) is a staggering place and the business class lounge was more like a 5 star hotel with exquisite seating and as much free food and drink as it's humanly possible to tuck away!  We merely settled for a light breakfast as pigging out early in the morning didn't appeal one bit!

A quiet corner of the business lounge - talk about opulence!

Check-in for Kenya was rapid and efficient, if not somewhat bizarre.  One of the first questions we were asked was whether we had plastic bags in our possession!  Apparently, Kenya had banned plastic bags a few days beforehand because of a major plastic waste problem and we had to dispose of the various bags we had for wrapping dirty clothes and shoes.  Visions of the Plastic Bag Police at the border throwing us in jail after finding a small zip-lock bag hiding in one of the many recesses of our luggage!

Our plane for the 6 hour flight to Nairobi was a new Boeing Dreamliner and was really classy with coloured mood lighting and individual seating modules.  The windows also went opaque in different colours once in the air.  I can only assume that it was some electrostatic effect to replace the need for shutters.  The seats also converted to full beds and had in-built vibrating pads to stop various parts of the anatomy from going to sleep! Or maybe some other purpose entirely.....

Madame looking totally at home

Arrival in Nairobi was a shock to the system after the luxury of the flight.  A chaotic arrivals hall saw us queuing (an inappropriate word if ever there was one) for over 90 minutes to get through immigration. However, the hotel driver had waited patiently outside and soon we were on our way to the hotel in the city.  It soon became apparent why there was a plastic bag ban.  The city approaches were over-run with plastic and paper blowing everywhere and it was filthy - not the best start to the holiday of a lifetime.  However, the city centre was markedly better and the Sarova Panafric hotel was excellent. Later that evening we met the other 4 members of the safari, all Australians, and we hit it off instantly.  Likewise with our guide, Ole, who was a Maasai tribesman in traditional clothing - really impressive.  More on that later.  Another interesting fact..... in both Kenya and Tanzania, virtually no-one smokes!

Early next morning, we headed for Aberdare National Park, a 1300 acre wildlife park in a long wheelbase Toyota Land Cruiser with a pop top for viewing in relative safety.  Toyota have this market totally stitched up as they are apparently bulletproof compared with other brands.  On the main highway, it was interesting to people-watch and see what was happening around us.  Private motorcycles are often used as local taxis to help bring in income as the unemployment rate is around 40%.  The one in the photo had a sort of  elongated umbrella attached to help keep off the rain!  Most of the bikes were Chinese and one might assume that the cheaper than Japanese purchase price was soon offset by the cost of breakdowns! 

Air conditioned local taxi.  Helmets strictly optional!

All sorts of local enterprises flourished along the main road.  The photo below shows beds which were being manufactured on the spot.  Must say that the standard of workmanship was exceedingly high.  Presumably aimed at wealthier Kenyans.

Beds R Us, Kenya style

Roadside fruit and veggie stalls.  Sweeping the roadside dirt seemed a bit pointless!

The first night was spent at the Aberdare Country Club which is a throwback to colonial days and a stepping-off point to the park itself - all very genteel.  Nothing really nasty in the grounds, just various antelope species and a troop of baboons in the distance so it was a gentle introduction.

Aberdare Country Club.  Slumming it (not)

The next day saw us enter the park proper with strict instructions not to leave the vehicle without say-so as there were things with claws, teeth and horns waiting to make a snack of us.  Note the altitude on the sign below.  Much of our stay in Kenya, and Tanzania come to that; was at similar altitudes or higher. This kept the  temperatures to a pleasant high 20's C or early 30's.  The thinner air was noticeable for the first few days with any reasonable exertion.

Warning notice - everything kills you in this park!

The vehicle of choice - long wheelbase Toyota Land Cruiser

Our Maasai guide Ole - one super-cool dude who was right on top of his game

First encounter was with a single male buffalo.  Apparently, these feisty loners from outside the big herds are the ones to watch out for.  They pretend they're not interested in you until it's too late to run and then you're kebab meat on one of their horns.  The one below wasn't interested in taking on the Land Cruiser.

Would you like to come and pat me?  I'm very friendly.  Yeah, right!

Wild boar - pig ugly

Ever had the feeling that something is watching you?

This region doesn't fit my mental impression of Africa with its vast, arid plains.  Its altitude and location means that it's covered with trees and bushes.  Not really jungle but a lot of vegetation and it's a bit disorientating.  There are a few big cats but we don't see them as they live at an even higher altitude where there's a handy food source of some type of antelope.

That evening, we stayed in park accommodation called the Ark.  The main feature was a waterhole adjacent to it with floodlights so we could watch the animals coming down to drink at night.  In the late afternoon, food was also put out for the birds and what a profusion of colours there was.

The Ark


More birdlife

Antelope and baboons at the waterhole in daylight

Elephants coming to the waterhole at dusk

Some of the wild animals actually interacted with humans.  Every night, a family of Genet cats which are similar in size to a domestic cat would ascend the spiral staircase outside the kitchen for meat scraps. They're only given a small amount to stop dependence.  Gorgeous creatures.  The photo I took isn't particularly sharp as I didn't want to scare them by using flash.

 The beautiful Genet

Leaving the park the next day,  we spotted some hyena cubs by the roadside which took no notice of us whatsoever. Clearly, Mum wasn't far away and we left them to their own devices.  The interesting thing is that in the national parks, very few of the creatures that live there have had adverse encounters with humans because of the strong protection laws so they take little notice of our presence, at least inside vehicles.  Outside, we'd be just another source of protein!

Hyena cubs by the roadside

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Under African Skies, pt 1

I'd better start with an apology for pinching the title of Paul Simon's wonderful song but it's an accurate reflection of what Jennie and I have just been up to.

We always head off somewhere to celebrate our wedding anniversaries and celebrating 45 years of marriage required something a bit special, as does our forthcoming 70th birthdays!  Cruising the north west coast of Australia and exploring the inland wilderness of that region was an early possibility, as was self-driving the magnificent national parks in Utah and Arizona.  However, we managed to find something which fitted the bill perfectly - a safari for just 6 people through Tanzania and Kenya in a 4x4 - pure magic!!  Errr.... I did initially suggest a new bike (a 765 Street Triple) as my half of the celebrations but it was suggested that my health could suddenly take a turn for the worse.

However, getting there from NZ is a bit of a nightmare.  The options were several plane changes and waiting around at various airports, or face the world's longest non-stop commercial flight at 18-odd hours from Auckland to Doha in Qatar, then a 6 hour hop to Nairobi.  Facing a solid 18 hours in cattle class would be a killer so we decided that as part of the special celebrations, it would be business class, decent shuteye and hit the ground running (well almost).  Haven't travelled business class since retiring so being pampered is a rare treat!  Fortunately, we have a terrific travel agent who makes the whole organising business a totally painless process.

Well, travelling business class on long haul was definitely the way to go.  Apart from the excellent food and all the pampering, converting the seats to full beds meant that we were able to get around 7 hours good shuteye and not feel like zombies when we arrived.
Boeing 777-200 LR business cabin. Room to stretch out - could get used to this!

Adding to the experience was the express processing for business class passengers - out of the airport in about 20 minutes from landing.  We were met by a hotel chauffeur with a top of the range Lexus saloon.  As soon as Jennie saw the flash car, she whispered, "We're not going to have a repeat of Thailand, are we?" Regular readers may remember that incident but for those who don't, it's HERE .
Having received the warning shot across the bows, I behaved like we did this sort of stuff all the time and received approving looks from the CEO.

Whilst still in NZ, we had booked a desert trip in a 4x4 but weren't really sure what to expect.  The first surprise was when our driver arrived at the hotel to pick us up.  Close to 7ft tall, he was an imposing character but softly spoken with an excellent sense of humour.

Seriously tall timber!

The 4x4 was a fully-spec'd Toyota Land Cruiser with a 5.3 litre V8 and an impressive amount of grunt.  On the drive out to the desert which took close to an hour, it was a good opportunity to find out a bit about Qatar from a local.  Like many Middle Eastern countries, it's run by a royal family and is seriously rich based on an oil economy and its spin-offs. However, what impressed us was that the rulers are clearly aware that reliance on oil is a strictly temporary arrangement in the scale of time.  They've embarked on a project called National Vision 2030 to develop an integrated approach to economic, social, technological and environmental harmony.  Progress is already evident with massive spending on getting the infrastructure right to support long term growth.  There are world-class roads and support networks being built everywhere to cope with sustained growth although it seems weird at present with very little traffic on them.

Rush hour in Qatar

Roads to nowhere, but all part of a long term plan

There were signs of the oil and gas industry everywhere with flare stacks sticking out of the desert. The sky was a strange colour in a lot of places but we reckon it was caused by the wind picking up fine sand from the desert and partially blocking out the sun.

Sand, oil and gas everywhere!

Eventually, we reached the seriously big dunes and joined up with 3 other vehicles from the tour company.  Whilst they were dropping tyre pressures to cope with the sand, Jennie and I hopped outside to take in the views.  Crikey, that was a shock!  45 degrees C (113F) and windy.  Very easy to see how short survival time would be without proper measures.

White robes make a lot of sense in these temperatures!

The 4x4 drivers are extremely experienced and skilled which is just as well as this was no granny tour! Absolutely exhilarating would be an understatement as we were really flying and sliding all over the place.  On one flat stretch, I saw the speedo touching 140 km/hr which ain't bad on sand!

And off we go at speed......

Stopping at the crest of one massive dune, I thought we were stopping to admire the view but we were merely lining up to plunge down a frighteningly steep angle for several hundred feet - talk about an adrenaline rush!!!

Oh shiiiit.......

Making it down safely - our turn next!

We also stopped at what they called the Inland Sea where marching dunes had completely cut off the sea, forming a huge saltwater lake.  It looked surreal with the sand going straight into the water.

Part of the inland sea

Wilting tourists blocking the view

Fair screaming along - watch out for the dropoff!

A quick break at a desert camp - pretty opulent tents!

Heading back in a different direction, we came across several people hang gliding the dunes which provided perfect lift.  Guess they were used to the heat and wind!

Hang gliders launching off the dunes

A really great start to our holiday.  Apart from the dune-bashing thrill, it's always a wonderful experience to see other countries and cultures for the first time.  Qatar was a delightful surprise and we were really impressed with their plans for the future when oil revenue starts to dry up.

Right, into Africa in the next instalment!

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Trouble in Paradise

A while back, I made a post about the proactive measures being taken by the NZTA, the country's national highways agency to make one of the country's great motorcycling roads, the Coromandel Loop; safer for motorcyclists by involving them in the decision-making.  That post is HERE .  I then made a subsequent post with photos showing the damage to the Thames-Coromandel section of the Loop from some particularly nasty storms and this is the link: HERE .

Since then, there have been more temporary road closures caused by short duration heavy rains.  The problem is that the storms earlier in the year seriously weakened both the soil bond on the rock cliff faces and even opened cracks in the rock structures.  The result of this is that every time it rains, there's a good chance that previously weakened rocks, trees and clay are going to come down onto the road in many places and the road will be closed for several hours whilst the landslips are cleared. There is another route off the Coromandel Peninsula but from where we live, it adds between 1 - 1 1/2 hours to any journey so the normal preference is to stay home and wait for the road to be cleared unless the trip is absolutely necessary.

Big boulder fall near Thames
(source: Stuff news website)

Not what you want falling on your head whilst riding
(source: Stuff news website)

However, even with the coast road open, there's currently another hazard for motorcyclists.  The clean-up crews are still in fire-fighting mode getting rid of the slips and other materials which come off the cliff faces and haven't had time for any proper remedial work.  The normal drainage channels at the bottom of the cliffs have become blocked with silt.  What this means is that rainwater picks up clay from the cliffs and floods straight across the road in numerous places, often round blind bends. Wet clay has bugger-all grip and even with traction control on the most sensitive setting and care being exercised, I've had a few puckering moments in the trouser region.  Even when it's dry, the clay granules still present a potential sliding hazard.

What this means is that for riders, most of the initiatives which the NZTA roading authority was initiating on behalf of riders is pretty much on the back burner until a semblance of normality returns to this stretch of road which is likely to be months away.  No big deal in the scheme of things and no point in getting worked up about Mother Nature.  In the meantime, residents of the area can get regular updates of road closure status to their phones on an almost hourly basis or log directly onto the NZTA website to avoid getting turned around.  

Typical live on-line road hazard map for the Coromandel Peninsula

The inconvenience to motorcyclists is exceedingly small in the scale of things. The impact on local businesses which rely on tourist trade in particular are enormous when faced with road closures. Here's a link to a video and article which appeared today on a news website concerning the impact on business: LINK .  Sadly, events like this affects the economy of the whole region.  

Let's just hope that we get a decent run of fine weather as spring arrives and everyone can get back to normal for the main tourist season, as well as making my commute for IAM coaching to be a whole lot more pleasurable.  Getting clay off the bike after every ride is also getting a bit tedious!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Metzler Roadtec 01 end of life review

Regular readers of this blog will know the history of the tyres I’ve had on the GSX-S 1000 from previous posts.  By way of a brief recap, the OEM Dunlop D214 pure sport tyres were horrid things for road use in NZ where it’s eminently possible to get 4 seasons in one day.  Grip in warm, dry conditions was fine but when it was cooler and damp, they were bastards (to use a technical term). Hard to get enough heat in them in those circumstances for decent grip and I didn’t trust them.  Also bearing in mind that I was breaking the bike in during this period, a rear tyre life of 3700 km to a completely ruined state was pretty underwhelming.  It was also potentially bankrupting considering that I generally cover about 20,000 km/yr.

The replacement set of choice were the Michelin PR4's, having used them on my Street Triple and having found them a brilliant all-round tyre with exceptional wet weather grip properties. They even survived a track day without complaining too much.  A 55 profile tyre was chosen as opposed to the OEM 50 profile in the hope of getting a quicker turn-in and it worked – much easier to change line in twisty conditions.  Approximate rear tyre life was an entirely acceptable 12,500 km and both hoops retained a reasonable profile and decent handling throughout.  Photos and a more detailed account can be found HERE .  It goes without saying that tyre life is governed by many factors...... road characteristics (surface, temperature, ratio of twists and straights etc), total loaded weight, riding style and many more aspects.  However, life comparisons between tyres in my case are valid because I travel the same type of roads, most of my riding is tied up with advanced roadcraft coaching and I don't commute.

I would have happily replaced them with another set but the relatively newly-released Metzler Roadtec 01’s had been launched to critical acclaim by motorcycling journalists. Like the PR4, wet weather performance was reputed to be outstanding.  No harm in giving them a try so I purchased a set, also 55 profile.

 New Metzler Roadtec 01 tyres

The first ride on new tyres is always a cautious one to bed them in but also because the handling feels very sensitive after running on older tyres.  However, on subsequent rides, the 01's felt slightly quicker turning in than the PR4's and the front end felt marginally more planted. It may be due to the 01 front tyre not having transverse sipes like the PR4 but in any event, the difference is pretty small. My impression is that the Roadtec 01 has a slightly sportier feel than the PR4 but again, it's not a massive difference.

In the wet, I haven't noticed any difference in grip between the PR4 and the Roadtec 01, they are both terrific in both wet conditions and dry public roads.  Under rigorous measurement with a better rider than me, there may well be a difference between the two brands but for my standard of riding and end use, they are both totally fit for purpose in terms of grip and feel.

So what about life?  I've just racked up 11000 km and the centre of the rear tyre is close to the legal minimum of 1.5 mm. The front has a lot more depth but they will both be replaced within the next 1000 km.  That means that life is near as dammit the same as the PR4's.  I ran the same cold pressures at 39-40 psi rear and 36 psi front for both brands.

The rear hoop has retained its shape pretty well as the photos below show.  Not having a significant central flat spot must be in part due to riding on mainly twisty roads with no commuting.

Rear Metzler Roadtec 01 @11000 km

Rear Metzler Roadtec 01 @ 11000 km (45 degree angle view)

The profile of the front tyre is interesting as it has lost its shape, particularly in the last couple of thousand km, with significant "flats" towards the edges.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to the twisty roads in our region which I mentioned earlier and the amount of countersteering employed when riding at a reasonable pace.  I wouldn't have a clue whether carcass construction to give a bigger footprint when leaned over has any bearing on the wear pattern (see below).  Also, the leading edge of each rain groove is higher than the rear edge but doesn't seem to affect the handling. It doesn't show in the photos. It just looks odd. Not really classic cupping. 

Wear profile of front Metzler Roadtec 01 @ 11000km

Front Metzler Roadtec 01 @11000 km
Arrow shows the area of flattening around the circumference

In summary, I'd be perfectly happy to fit either the PR4 or Roadtec 01 but will be going with the 01's again to build up a bit more comparative experience with them.  Both fantastic tyres for the all-weather riding I do and both exceed the 10,000 km minimum life that I mentally set for my particular use,

Tyre prices in NZ tend to be higher than in bigger countries because of the shipping costs, economies of scale and relative lack of competition. Current prices vary a bit between dealers but the fitted price for a pair of standard load rating Metzler Roadtec 01's (120x70 -17 front and 190x55-17 rear is around NZD640/USD460/AUD603.  Michelin PR4's for the same size are around NZD605/USD425/AUD570 .  Does the price difference matter to me?  Not really that important, tyres are such an important safety factor that skimping simply isn't worth it.