Along for the Ride
Bernd Tesch's Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen
April 2006

Insert photo of us crossing water here 

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  I haven't written much about traveling by motorcycle in Europe - I've left that to Stefan, as I'm just along for the ride. But I thought maybe it was time to share some views from the back seat in a little more depth.

Stefan and I officially inaugurated the 2006 motorcycle riding season by taking a turn on his newly-purchased Honda African Twin in early April on the Nürburgring. ALL of the track, not the newer short part the F1 drivers use now. I was making all sorts of joyful noises -- which couldn't be heard, ofcourse, over the noise of thousands of bikes, and through my helmet... It was wonderful , but a little scary for me, even at our somewhat slow speed -- the turns and hills come out of no where, and come again and again for 20 kilometers. Most everyone rode safely, and nothing like at the break-neck speeds they usually do on Nürburgring. There were a lot of women riders, which I always like to see. When we went by the F1 part of the track, there was a training going on with F1-looking cars (but it wasn't F1 -- I do know enough about cars to know that).

This is an annual event at Nürburgring, which is preceded by a little motorcycle safety carnival in one of the parking lots of the race track, and a Catholic and Protestant prayer service. There were probably 4,000 bikes this year. It was a blast to be in, but I bet it's fun just to watch as well. Unless you are one of the many car drivers who has to wait on the road for all the motorcycles to pass to and from the track...

We followed this trip up a few weeks later with our first camping trip together, and my first bike rally: we went to the Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen (literally, motorcycle distance trip encounter), an annual gathering for people who travel internationally by motorcycle. It's held in Belgium, and organized by Bernd Tesch:

Globetrotter. Survival-Trainer. Professional Motorcycle Adventurer. Reise-Schriftsteller (travel author). Journalist. Hersteller von Alu Boxen/Träger (manufacturer of aluminium boxes/carries). Dipl.-Ing (university graduate).

There were more than 250 people, and 99% of the riders were on dual sport motorcycles. All but about 30 people were German, and for about half of the attendees, this was their first Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen (that included us). This was the 28th annual event.

I wasn't sure what to expect. My parents road a Honda Goldwing and went to a Gold Wing Road Riders Association meeting in 1995; they described a very tame, family-friendly event. By contrast, my oldest brother rides a Harley, and has attended Bike Week in Daytona and Little Sturgis (in Kentucky) and, well, "family-friendly" is definitely not the way those events have been described to me. The Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen turned out to be about my speed, so to speak: very friendly, down-to-earth people who had wonderful stories about where they had been on their bikes and where they were going, a lovely little private campsite in the hills outside of Malmedy, Belgium, good food, lots to drink (very cheap, good beer), and a very laid-back attitude. These are people who like to take journeys, meet new people and see new things. The primary objective isn't to party and get laid (although, even with a ratio of men to women of around 20 to 1, I think that last activity did, indeed, happen to a few lucky dudes). The objective is to get together with like-minded travelers, and get some tips to use on the road (or off of it, as the case may be).


 

It took us just over three hours to get there, and the ride was lovely. We didn't take autobahn, but we didn't take the best winding road out of Germanyeither, as it would have taken too long. On a steep switchback, Stefan pointed out a house that used to be the offices for the border between Germany and Belgium. The country borders are so hard to see now -- there's rarely even a sign letting you know you're entering another country. We got a little lost in Malmedy, but eventually got through okay, and at last, hit the driveway to the campsite. I could see people sitting on a hillside in the distance, and wondered what was up. As we approached, Stefan said, "Are you ready for your first water crossing?" And then I saw the very wide, shallow stream we were about to cross -- all the people were sitting there to watch the bikes go through it. I considered it a kind of test to prove one's riding chops. Glad all I had to do was sit there. There was a small bridge off to the side, for those who needed to wimp out. Stefan drove through it just fine. We then took the short, muddy trail to the site, where we were met by the famous Bernd Tesch, in a car on his way to get more firewood. He told us to set up camp, and to "pack in tight" because there would be a lot of people, and to be sure to get something to eat. When he realized I was American, he immediately asked, "You didn't vote for that Bush guy, did you?" I answered with an emphatic NO. And, in case you are wondering, in Europe, most people are way too polite to ask you that point blank right off the bat -- they usually wait until they've known you for quite a while before they ask about your politics. Ofcourse, in my case, I usually mouth off soon after you meet me, leaving you no doubt of where I stand on a whole variety of issues.

We arrived between 6 and 7 p.m. -- if you go, you definitely don't want to arrive later than 7 in the evening, as you may not get a very good site otherwise. Plus, it you want plenty of sunlight to set up, eat, and then to take a walk about the site to see the other bikes and talk to other bikers -- and let them talk to you about your bike. Stefan has added maps on his boxes to show where he's traveled by motorbike, and people really liked looking at them. A group came over at one point and a woman asked to sit on Stefan's bike, as she's thinking of upgrading to an Africa Twin, if she can handle something so big (I surely couldn't). That's what the atmosphere is like -- people just walk up and start talking, usually about your bike, your equipment, where you are from, or where you've been (as most people have their boxes covered in country stickers, it's easy to tell).

   
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The campsite is a meadow in the Ardenne mountains. There's a small neighborhood and another campsite nearby, but the meadow is completely isolated by both the river and a line of trees, and the whole area is surrounded by mountains. There were three portable toilets, the stream for water (but only if you have a water filter), and plenty of pork, beef and beer for supper both nights. As luck would have it, we ended up in one of the last spaces near the outer rim of the camping circle (the best place to be). We also ended up right next to a guy from Israel, on a very well-worn Africa Twin. He'd driven up from South Africa, and was stopping at the Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen as part of his own world tour. He had amazing stories -- about dealing with self-appointed African "police," about trying to get into Morocco, about a couple from Texas he hooked up with in Namibia and who he thought were the funniest people ever, and on and on. He also now does a really good imitation of a Southern accent, because of the Texans, which we used frequently, much to the confusion of people around us.

The vast majority of attendees were German. There were a few people from Austria, a few people from Great Britain, a guy from Ireland, some people from Switzerland... I even met a guy from Poland. No one from Italy, Luxembourg or Belgium, which I found quite surprising. I know most of this because, on the second day, we all drove back to Germany to a restaurant (more on that later) where Bernd does a welcome speech to start things off, and then asks for people from various countries to stand up. Everyone applauded the Israeli guy for coming from so far (he pretty much was the belle of the ball for the entire weekend).

And then Bernd ask for anyone from the USA to stand up. And so I did, performed my little wave to the crowd, and then Bernd switched to English and said, "And when I ask her if she voted for that man for President, she said no, so let's all give her a hand for that!" And my vote against Bush got applauded by about 200 European bikers.

The welcoming speech is followed by several presentations by various bikers -- which many people don't stay for, particularly if the weather is good. We stayed for the first presentation -- actually, Stefan watched while I read -- then we headed out on the bike to tour a little of the area, as it was too beautiful to be stuck inside for too long. The area is just lovely, and I highly recommend it for touring. The seat on Stefan's Africa Twin is not original, and I've heard I should be oh-so-greatful for this. All I know is that this new seat is way-comfortable. It was while riding around this area that I finally saw pigs in Europe, the first time in the more than five years that I've lived here -- Europeans may eat megatons of them, but they keep them completely out-of-sight in mega-intensive multi-level indoor facilities, which just doesn't sound healthy to me... The whole area was mostly pastures, with tiny towns and winding roads and not many traffic lights.

After a while we headed back to the restaurant for the last presentation, about a German couple's trip through the middle and far east, and then to Australia. Ulrike Teutrine, the female part of the couple, did the presentation, and she did a great job, mixing in very practical information as well as insights into what it's like to be a woman on such a trip, two things that are often missing in such presentations. They got to go to Bam, in Iran, pre-Earthquake, and their pictures were stunning -- what a loss to all humanity it is to not have most of the buildings of Bam anymore. Stefan translated the parts I didn't understand (which were a lot). I was disappointed that I didn't see her later, because I really wanted to talk to her. Afterwards, about 40 riders followed Bernd back to our campsite in Belgium -- not sure why more didn't participate, as I think poker runs are so much fun.

Honda -- and the Africa Twin in particular -- were very well represented at the gathering. Surprisingly, there was only one guy on a Honda Dominator, the bike that Stefan has used for all of his international trips -- and will use again for his trip in May through Austria, Italy, Greece, Albania, Serbia Montenegro, Bosnia Hercegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia, then back through Austria to Germany. Stefan's not taking the Twin out of fear that it will get stolen. He'll sell the Dominator after the trip... if he still has it... yes, I'm worried it will get stolen. He's going to countries where you MUST keep an eye on your bike at ALL times. If you stay at a hotel, you have to have your bike in a locked garage or even in the hotel lobby overnight. He's got some motorcycle travel guidebooks he's been reading, and on the one for Greece, the cover has the author's bike, an Africa Twin, but later, the pictures are of him on a BMW -- as Stefan read, he found out that was because the Twin was stolen overnight during the trip, and the BMW was a rental. At the Moto-FERNREISE-Treffen, some people had horror stories about Eastern Europe, and some said they had no problems whatsoever. Bad things can happen anywhere, ofcourse. But I'm still nervous. Plus, I love that hearty Dominator -- I'm going to really miss it when it's gone, for sentimental reasons. That bike is why I met Stefan... it took me on my first motorcycle trip, through Norway...

We lucked out regarding the weather all weekend, for the most part: it rained for just five, intense minutes Friday night, and the rest of the time was dry (which apparently is a rarity at this particular gathering). But Saturday night was below freezing. The fire in the middle of the campsite was built more for show than heat, and unless you were right on top of it, you got no warmth. At about 11, I was too cold to be enjoying myself, so I went back to the tent. I put on almost all of the clothes I had brought, then crawled into my summer sleeping bag, where I lay shivering. But there was a very funny moment as I lay there: the day before, I had told Stefan I was so glad never to have heard a stereo at all in the campsite, as the stereotype of a motorcycle rally is the song "Born to Be Wild" playing loud enough to bother anyone in a five mile radius. Saturday night, there were two guys with guitars, playing simple songs, and various people would sing along if they knew the words. At around midnight, after a LOT of beer, the two troubadours broke into -- guess what song? I think I laughed out loud. It was so funny.

Next time we go, I'm going to bring my cold weather sleeping bag, a winter hat, gloves, and more long underwear. If you go, definitely bring a rain poncho or jacket, to use around the campsite. And something to sit on.

I found enough people to talk to in English, so I was never bored, but I regret not talking to even just one of the women motorcycle riders, to get inspiration to become one myself. I'll never be able to handle an Africa Twin, and I'm such a scardy cat, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to ride fast enough to keep up with Stefan (I hate curves), or strong enough to ford even the smallest of streams. But I do love riding, and it would make it so much easier for us to travel together, farther, and get to camp along the way. And I loooove camping. I've even thought about buying a motorcycle with a sidecar, so Albi could come with us (grin). But I can't lie: I really love sitting on the back of the bike, particularly the Africa Twin with this new seat, just grooving along, zoning out, not making any decisions, just enjoying the ride...

Anyway, there was only one really bad moment -- the Prümmer Sporthotel. It's a hotel and restaurant in Monschau-Höfen, Germany, where the presentations for the rally are held. They had a buffet for lunch. We paid and got in line for food. But there wasn't much food -- most of the food trays were empty. We figured we'd just grab what we could for now, then come back to properly fill our plates when there was more food again. After all, it was a BUFFET. Well, surprise, it was a once-time-visit-only buffet, and the management's answer to us not getting our proper share? "Your bad luck." Said with complete rudeness. She was insulting. I was FURIOUS. They should have at least let us fill our plates properly OR given us a refund. Instead, they ripped us off. And apparently, we weren't the only ones this happened to. So, I strongly encourage you NOT to go to the dreadful Prümmer Sporthotel, and if you find yourself there for an event, bring your OWN food or eat at one of the many restaurants you will pass on your way to or from there.

Sunday, everyone took their time in packing up and leaving. Bernd made the rounds, handing out free bread rolls. We had picked up some yummy Belgian cheese in Malmedy the previous day, and ate that and some even yummier Belgian bread for breakfast. Stefan's boxes make fantastic tables. Stefan finally sold a copy of his book, just before we started to pack up. It was obviously going to be a gorgeous day for our ride back. We loaded up, said our goodbyes, and headed out. There wasn't a crowd watching at the stream this time, and there should have been, because the water had gotten much deeper in the night.

On the way back, Stefan drove through Luxembourg, and I think I can now say I've really been there -- I've never counted the times before, when we just stopped for cheap gas and cigarettes. At one point, we were riding along a little country road, along a little river (turned out to be the Our), and Stefan said, "that's Germany over there on the other side of the river." I never knew when we actually were in Germany. We were back in Belgium at one point, to stop for coffee, but everyone was speaking Germany, and most of the store signs were in German as well. After we were back in Germany, and as we got closer to our home, Stefan decided to drive by Nürburgring, to see if the track was open to the public. It was. You pay a fee, and you can drive whatever you want to out on the track, as fast as you want to go. No, we did not do that. I will never do that. We just wanted to watch. There are lots of sports cars, both individual drivers and clubs (there was a group from the Netherlands that particular Sunday), lots of racing bikes, and even some family cars, complete with families. Most of the cars and motorcycles absolutely fly around the track, faster than I've ever seen a car go in-person. It's terrifying and thrilling to watch. But then some pokey dude comes along in the family van, and you just know all the other drivers hate him. I cannot believe that at least one person doesn't die doing this every year. It was fun to listen to all of the different languages and accents of the people around us -- it's definitely an international attraction.

And then we came home, and Albi rejoiced.

So, that's how we've kicked off the 2006 riding season. In less than two weeks, Stefan heads out on his latest trip, his last on his Honda Dominator. I'll meet up with him in Naples for a long weekend in the middle of May. More on that later...

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