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Before the European Tour 2019 - October 2018 to April 2019

31st October 2018: A Halloween Scare

The second time they woke me it felt like I'd been hit in the ribs with a sledgehammer. Why do they not just let me sleep? I thought as I stared at the square fluorescent light above my head. Then I saw them, several of them gathered round my bed looking concerned. That's when I realized what had just happened. I was in Oldham Royal Hospital's Accident and Emergency department and they'd just administered the second shock from the defibrillator. No wonder they looked concerned. I felt fine, apart from the pain in my ribs, and was now wide awake. A few mundane questions from the consultant and they started to relax as it was obvious I was back-in-the-room. Not long afterwards I was wheeled outside and into the back of an ambulance accompanied by the consultant and off we went, blue lights flashing and sirens blaring. I stared out at the blue sky through the sky-light and the thought hit me hard. This was likely to mess up my plans to guide the Globebusters motorcycle expedition from London to Tokyo next April. Bugger.

On arriving at Manchester Royal Infirmary I was wheeled into the critical coronary care unit and the consultant from Oldham handed me over to another doctor who was overseeing the drips I was being fitted with. I asked what they were for and was told one was just fluids to stop me dehydrating and the other an anti-coagulant to help keep my blood from clotting and blocking me up again. Within a few minutes I was struggling to swallow, and realized my tongue was very swollen — I'd probably bitten it during the second shock — so they removed the anti-coagulant to stop the bleeding inside my tongue. Then I was taken into theatre where I had an angioplasty — a small tube inserted in my radial artery in my wrist and up into my heart — by a consultant cardiologist. He located the problem, a clot had blocked the stent I'd had fitted after my heart attack in 2012, and removed it, then inserted another stent. He showed me the before and after images and it was no wonder I'd had a problem, the artery supplying blood to the muscle of my heart had been completely cut off.

My symptoms that started in the gym, where I was having a gentle workout something I'd done many times before without issue, were initially a slight dizziness as though I was about to pass out. The dizziness was accompanied by the sensation of my vision closing in, and a heaviness in my left arm, both symptoms I recognized from my 1st heart attack and so I'd requested the ambulance. When the paramedics first arrived they did an ECG, which was normal, and took my blood pressure, which was very low. By the time they transferred me to the ambulance, the aspirin I'd taken, and resting on the floor with my legs raised, had done the job and my blood pressure was normal. What happened in A&E was therefore unexpected, as I was totally fine until I was given a GTN spray (glyceryl trinitrate) which I suspect opened my blood vessels sufficiently to allow the clot, which was reducing blood supply, to move and completely cut off the supply, leading to my heart going arrhythmic and so not pumping blood round my body. Known as a Cardiac Arrest, this is different to a heart attack as it causes the patient to become unconscious (with a heart attack the patient is conscious) and is very serious — CPR is required and a shock from a defibrillator necessary to shock the heart back into rhythm before the patient dies from lack of oxygen.

Once out of theatre I was transferred to the Acute Cardiac Care ward and into a bed. I felt just fine, but then I'd felt fine before the GTN spray. The only problem I had was a very swollen tongue and a pain in the ribs from the horse that kicked me. Or that's how it felt. Now my mind had time to contemplate what had happened. I had three concerns.

As it transpired, Tracy cut her holiday short when I told her I was in hospital and would be for 3-4 days. I kept the full details of what happened from her for now, telling only that I'd had another heart attack and so had had another stent fitted. I didn't want her worrying and when I could tell her face to face I did, that way she could see I was fine. I was discharged from hospital and home before she got back, and resting as I'd been told to do, determined to follow all the medical advice to maximise chances of a speedy recovery.

Nothing much happened for a few weeks, except I read lots of books, and on 12th December I had another echocardiogram. I had been told when I was discharged from hospital that there were signs that my heart had been compromised during the incident, and that my left ventricular ejection fraction (a measure of the percentage of the blood drawn in from the lungs that's then pumped round the body) was low — 30% - 40% - when a normal range is 50% - 70%. I had been quite short of breath as a consequence, but this had improved significantly in the weeks since my discharge, so I was expecting the latest echo to show a good improvement. Unfortunately, it didn't, with my LVEF being measured at just 35% - 45%. That meant that the damage to my heart muscle hadn't repaired itself as well this time, probably due to the severity of the blockage and subsequent arrest. With reduced heart function, travel to altitude was going to be a no-no.

So it was necessary to withdraw from guiding the Globebusters trip, a decision that was mutual as they had concluded that I probably wouldn't be fit and had already planned for that eventuality. Which left me with a big hole in my plans. I was still recovering, but in no doubt that I'd be fit enough to travel as long as I didn't try anything too extreme (like spending 4 weeks at high altitude on the Tibetan plateau!). I also had to let Andrew and Darryl know that I wouldn't be able to guide them, and to encourage them to do the trip anyway, and to share their experiences with me.

With my plans derailed, I now had to come up with an alternative. So I did, and tomorrow I will take the first tangible step towards my new plan. I'm collecting a new bike, on which which I will be riding on a 3-month solo road trip round both Eastern and Northern Europe, details of which I'll post as we get closer to my intended departure date at the end of April.

Tune is again soon to find out all about my new bike and my plans. And wish me good luck in not having them derailed this time!

12th March 2019: A new bike and some more training

The entry below describes the last major event in my eventful life, when I had a slight hiccup with my health. Since then I've been quite busy resting and recuperating, with a weekly Cardiac Rehabilitation session at Oldham Royal Infirmary. These are rather enjoyable sessions of exercise in the company of physiotherapists and a cardiac nurse and I'm delighted to report that I'm doing very well. I exercise to a level appropriate to a gentleman of a certain age with a heart condition, getting my heart rate up to around 120bpm for around half and hour then after a warm-down am allowed back home again. In between sessions I've been trying to get out walking with a friend and am thoroughly enjoying the exercise, although in the last couple of weeks we've missed the walks as he's injured his knee!

There have also been some developments on the new adventure front. Most important of which has been that I've taken delivery of my new bike - a BMW R1250GS Rallye TE with the adventure sports suspension. I collected it on 1st March (along with my friend, Anne, who also picked up her identical but lowered model) and then did 600 miles over the weekend running it in. Once it had been serviced, I fitted all the extras I deemed necessary to create my ideal adventure-touring bike. These are:

Fitting this little lot took a full (long) day, but once fitted the bike is ready to head off on an adventure. The following weekend gave me chance to fit the panniers and go for a ride, as it was time for some Tour-Guide and First Aid training with my friends at Globebusters.

This was held at their new HQ in Chesterfield, so I rode down on the Thursday and met up with the rest of the team that were staying at the Ibis in town. The 2-day Tour Guide training was as interesting as ever, the first day spent recapping on running a tour, roles and responsibilities of the crew and the processes and procedures we follow. The second day was spent reviewing the processes for dealing with more serious incidents, something that I hope I don't have to deal with for real but at least I'm well-prepared just in case. The Sunday and Monday were reserved for 2 days of Outdoor First Aid, which is tailored for us by the trainer and covers everything from minor cuts and bruises right through to... well, let's just say that I hope I never have to use my training for real!

Now that I'm back home again I'm preparing for a few Enhanced Rider Scheme training sessions later this week and early next as well as reviewing plans for my trip to Europe. More details to follow in subsequent posts!

8th April 2019: Wild Camping in Wales

Now that my new bike is run in and ready for adventure, I thought it would be a good idea to have a short shakedown trip to make sure I'd got everything sorted prior to departure on my big European adventure at the end of the month.

So I packed up the bike and headed off to Wales for a night Wild Camping in the middle of nowhere. The ride down was just what I needed to help get my head back in traveller mode, with plenty of saddle time as I meandered along lots of small country lanes towards North Wales. I stopped for a brew and pasty at the Ponderosa Café, along with hundreds of other bikers (it was Sunday, after all). Several more narrow lanes later and I stopped a second time for a coffee in Betws-y-Coed, which my sister informs me my mother called Bettsie's Colon!

By the time I left there it was already late afternoon and after a ride around Bala Lake, I decided to head to the spot I'd selected to camp, having studied Google Earth some night's before. I'd chosen a road that headed into the hills and then a second, single-track, road that was a dead-end with nothing apparently around it. Once on the first road, things got interesting as I arrived at a farm house and a gate across the road. Undeterred, and because there were no signs proclaiming this to be a private road (it did mention it was farm-land), I opened the gate, pushed my bike through and then closed the gate behind me. Half expecting an irate Welsh farmer to appear carrying a shotgun and shouting Ewch oddi ar fy nhir! (Welsh for Get off my land!), I continued on un-shot. To another gate, at which I repeated the open-push-close process and continued. To another gate. And Another. I have to admit, at some point, I lost count so I don't know how many gates I had to pass through, but the weather was good and the views spectacular, so I wasn't complaining.

Not long before I reached my dead-end turn-off, I noticed a big red sign to my left that I could have sworn said Danger Explosives!. Reasoning that I must have been mistaken, and that if not, there would be other signs, I continued further along the one-track road. Then I spotted another, smaller, sign to my right, so stopped to have a proper look. It read (thankfully in English as well as Welsh) Access Prohibited - Due to unexploded munitions. Which made me wonder if I'd already strayed into the Balkans as I was in a country that didn't speak English and there were unexploded god-knows-what just off the road! I also thought it might be prudent to reconsider wild camping.

But not one to shirk an adventure, I continued along the road, reasoning that anything unexploded wouldn't be underneath the tarmac, and if it was, then the road-roller would have set it off before my bike arrived. A short distance later I arrived at the turn-off onto the dead-end road my Google searching had found, but there, right before me, was a perfect camping spot by a stream. And there was evidence of previous campers as there were the remains of a fire pit. Reasoning that if there were unexploded bombs here, the previous campers would have left more trace than a few burnt embers, I decided to make camp here instead. Having not seen a single person or vehicle for the past hour, I also felt it was suitably secluded for my in the middle of nowhere fantasies.

With the tent pitched I set about rustling up a brew and some food and hit my first snag. Despite my meticulous planning, I'd neglected to pack a cup, plate or bowl. So a brew was out of the question, but dinner wasn't, as I'd learnt to eat direct from the pan on previous ill-prepared camping trips. My dinner of choice for a first-night camping is an old favourite - Hot Tuna - a recipe I devised many years ago when single and short on foodstuffs, and it's basically a spicy Bolognese sauce with tinned tuna instead of beef and some dried chillies to liven it up. As usualy it was very good, and eating it out of my new pans seemed a fine way to cristen them. Sadly, I'd also forgotten to pack any alcohol, but that was deliberate, as I hardly drink at all these days. (stop sniggering at the back!).

With dinner done and the pots washed and put away I wandered around my new kingdom taking lots of photographs and basically enjoying the peace and quiet as well as the solitude. When it started to go dark I crawled inside the tent and fell asleep to the sound of the stream, only to be woken an hour or so later by a strange rustling sound. A moment's investigation revealed the wind had picked up and it was the tent rustling and not some strange wild Welsh animal (or event the sheep and their newborn lambs I'd seen earlier). After a fitful nigth I woke just after 6am to a misty morning, and still full from the previous evening's meal, decided to break camp and head towards home in search of a big breakfast and a pot of tea. Hoping to find a café on the way home, I was bitterly disappointed, even the café at J & S Accessories being closed. So I arrived home hungry but content after a very enjoyable mini-adventure, and with a list of things I need to change before departing on a much longer trip in just over 3 week's time - not least of which is to remember to pack a cup!

21st April 2019: Revealing the new adventure

Yesterday the trip I was supposed to be guiding before my heart problem departed from the Ace Café in London. I wanted to be there to say Goodbye to my friends who are on the trip and to wish everyone well, but also to put it behind me as pulling out of a trip I really wanted to do had been quite difficult. I know that due to the weakened state of my heart muscle following the issue in October last year (see blog below for full gory details!), I could not contemplate travelling at altitude on the Tibetan plateau which is a key feature of the ride from London to Beijing. That gave me no real choice but to withdraw, but that felt like betrayal to both Andrew and Darryl who had booked on the trip partly because they knew I was guiding it. So it was that I rode down to London on Good Friday to meet up with another friend, Simon, and stay over at his house so I could be at the Ace for breakfast and the send-off.

The group had assembled at the Crowne Plaza hotel nearby the previous evening but the start of the trip proper involves a big send off from the iconic Ace Café. This fantastic venue is, as every petrol-head knows, was a major biker hangout in the 50's and 60's but closed in 1969, and was brought back to life in 1997 and now is a mecca for bikers. Located just off the North Circular road, it's an ideal location to launch an epic motorcycle expedition. With the London-Beijing expedition also heading to the Ace's sister café in Beijing, the trip is also known as the Ace to Ace. Finally, the Ace serves up a great British breakfast, which is a prefect way to start any adventure!

By the time Simon and I had completed a little scenic ride through London and over Tower Bridge and arrived at the Ace, the group had assembled and were busy tucking in to their brekkie. There were other people on the trip I knew too, with Kevin and Kalok - who rode with me in Colombia in 2015 and came on our first Scottish Advanced Riding Training Tour there also. I had chance to catch up with Andrew and Darryl too, a well as chatting to several other people I knew from other trips. The nervous energy in those about to depart was tangible and very familiar, and I couldn't help but wish that I was getting ready for the off too. But not one to dwell on such things (too long!), I concentrated on making sure I had spoken to everyone I knew before the time for departure came. The send-off is a big affair, with the 20 bikes lined up in front of the café and the local mayor and Queen's Representative in attendance for some photos. The sense that the guys (and gals) are about to do something extraordinary is intensified as the departure time arrives and they ride out of the car park en-masse to cheers and waves from family, friends and strangers who've attended to see them off.

And with that, they were gone, leaving me feeling a little lost, knowing that had it not been for my heart, I'd be leaving with them at the start of an epic 12-week, 14,000-mile journey...

But as I say, I'm not one to dwell on what could have been, and ever since I knew I couldn't go with them I've been busy planning an alternative adventure. So it's now time to reveal what that is and to focus on getting ready for my own departure a week on Tuesday. Whilst I won't have the mayor waving a union flag as I leave, I will be setting off on a 12-week journey of over 12,000 miles!

My Adventure - A loop round Europe

When I realised I wouldn't be able to go on the Ace-to-Ace trip the first thing I did was get out an old map and take a good look to try and decide where I should go as an alternative. I had geared myself up to a big motorcycle trip, on the 10th anniversary of the TransAM expedition that changed my life, and I was determined to do one. With the map out I looked at Europe and drew an imaginary line from home, down to Turkey, around the Black Sea and then up to the very top, Nordkapp, and back down and home. That looked like a big adventure, so the next thing to do was plot a route and start investigating it. As I'm fairly computer literate, I prefer to do my planning using my laptop, so using a mapping program, I plotted a basic route as above and then started checking the Foreign Office website for information on where I'd be going. That's when I hit the first problem. The route around the Black Sea would take me through Georgia, into Russia then into the Ukraine. The FCO travel advice has Advise against all travel markers for all of the border between Georgia and Russia, as well as most of the border between Russia and Ukraine and the eastern part of Ukraine. This would not mean I couldn't go there, but if I did I would be uninsured and unable to get help should I find myself in trouble. All of which meant these areas were a no-go for my trip. Armed with that information I modified the route to loop-back in Turkey, cutting out Georgia and Russia but adding in some other interesting countries including Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova.

To cut a long story short, I've spent quite a while researching and planning my new adventure and it looks like this:

I'll be camping most of the time, except for Turkey when Tracy will be with me, and will be posting a blog here as and when I can. I'm very excited and a little apprehensive about taking on a long solo journey, but it is something I've thought about doing many times, so I'm committed to giving it a go. Over the next few weeks I'll post a couple of blogs to cover the preparation and packing - which is a challenge due to the amount of camping gear I need to take to be self-sufficient and able to take advantage of wild camping opportunities!

26th April 2019: How to pack for a 3-month motorcycle camping trip...

One of the questions I frequently get asked by people planning their first foreign motorcycle trip is How do you pack everything you need?. My answer is usually Get everything out, then take half of it away, then take another half away and you're good to go!. But it's not actually as easy as that as the photos below demonstrate! The main problem with packing for a long motorcycle trip is deciding on what you actually NEED to take, which is often a lot less than you might think, especially where clothes are concerned. If you look at the first picture below, you will see that all my clothes, for 3-months away, are packed in the black bag on the left. Almost everything else is camping gear!

So let's look at what I'm packing in a bit more detail.

First up, clothing. I like to wear clean clothes, particularly underwear and socks, every day, so that's a total of 4 pairs of each. I could easily reduce this to 3 pairs (one clean, one to wear, one to wash) but they pack small and the extra pair means I don't have to wash and dry them every day. This allows for days when it rains a lot and I can't get them dry! I take a similar number of non-cotton T-shirts (cotton will get smelly quickly and takes too long to dry), plus a couple of long-sleeved non-cotton T-shirts that allow for layering if it's chilly. A single Craghoppers long-sleeved trekking shirt is for best, and for when I need to wear a collar to get in somewhere and also means I can have a change from T-shirts if I want. Trousers are trekking-style cargo pants and I take a couple of pairs. A fleece and down-jacket give me options for when it's cold and can be worn under my bike gear too. Finally, a pair of swimming shorts and that's it, apart from footwear.

Footwear is always a problem as they're bulky. As I intend to do a fair bit of walking whilst taking in the sights, I need a pair of trekking shoes. I also take a pair of sandals to give my feet a breather as otherwise they'd be a mess having been in bike boots or trekking shoes all the time! These won't fit in the black bag so go in the roll-bag on the bike's seat.

So that's clothing. In addition I need my wash-bag containing the usual toiletries - but small bottles only as they can be replaced en-route easily. Sadly as a consequence of my recent heart problem I also need to take a lot of medication - I take 5 tablets in the morning and 2 at night - and need to carry a full 3-months worth with me. These came in boxes from the pharmacy and would easily have filled half the black bag had I left them like that! So I've taken the blister-packs out of the boxes and fastened them with elastic bands, together with the prescription label from the box. These are in a plastic bag and are still bulky - see above the yellow wash bag in the image below. At least these will reduce in size the further into my trip I go, making room for fridge magnets!

Then there's my personal stuff - my camera and lens, small tripod, laptop and charger, Kindle e-reader (loaded with books including travel guides), spare glasses, sunglasses, cap and warm hat, suncream and wet-wipes. And a set of maps, of course, to allow me to plan and adapt my route as I go. Finally, my rucksack for carrying gear when I'm out exploring away from the bike.

For a hotel-based trip, that would be it. Sounds a lot but it would all comfortably fit in the bikes 2 panniers and tank-bag with some room to spare.

But as I'm camping and also wild-camping, I need to take a lot more stuff. I've got my camping gear - tent, sleeping bag and liner, Thermarest, towels; my cooking stuff - 2 stoves, pan set, cooking knife and chopping board, plate, collapsible bowl, cup, utensils, etc; my food supplies - herbs and spices, cooking oil, soy sauce, pasta, rice, teabags and sugar; plus a small camping table and my luxury item - a small Trekology camping chair (the black bag behind my shoes). This lot fills the smaller of the 2 panniers plus most of the roll bag!

In terms of bike gear, as well as my Klim Badlands riding suit, Shoei neotec helmet, Sidi Adventure boots and my riding gloves (I'm taking 3 pairs, one hot-weather pair, one summer pair and one thick winter pair), there's my Keis electric vest and a spare visor (I take one clear and one dark tint). I also ride with earplugs to protect my hearing. I'm also packing a bike cover, cable lock and disc lock for security. And there's Zippy, my mascot, who'll be attached to the bike before departure!

Finally, in case of breakdowns I take a toolkit that contains only those tools I need in order to remove body panels to get access to the battery, remove wheels and perform basic servicing/repairs. These are in an Enduristan tool roll which is a clever bit of kit with a magnetised panel to (hopefully) prevent me losing screws at the roadside. I've been using it for every job on my bike for the past month or so to ensure the tools I need are in it. In addition to the tool roll, I also have my puncture repair kit (Stop-N-Go tyre plug it and compressor) and a jump-start pack on the bike. All of which I hope I don't need, but are just in case, although for most of this trip I also have BMW Emergency Assist and European Breakdown Insurance!

It's a lot of stuff to carry, and I will probably still discover that I could have done without some of it, but after years of travelling, I think I've got it down to the minimum I'm comfortable with! The challenge now is not to spend the remaining 3 days before I leave thinking of things I should add just in case!

29th April 2019: Preparing to Coddiwomple

It's almost time for me to depart on what will be a 3-month coddiwomple. For those not familiar with this great word, it is slang meaning To travel purposefully toward an as-yet unknown destination. Now it has to be said that I have a number of destinations in mind for my latest adventure, but as with all such undertakings, the reality of where I end up is likely to be somewhat different, so to all intents and purposes, that counts as a good old coddiwomple in my book!

Today is my last day at home and the usual pre-adventure procrastinations are in full flow. I've packed and re-packed my bags, loaded and unloaded the bike, updated my packing list and done lots of other irrelevant tasks that give the impression I'm getting ready to go. I've told everyone who will listen, and even those who won't, that I'm excited to be getting going. Only that's not the only emotion I'm feeling. As is often the case when I commit myself to doing something that will take me out of my comfort zone, as the time to begin gets closer, I question my wisdom in being so quick to challenge myself. It would be so much easier to just call the whole thing off and stay at home with my lovely wife and to enjoy a simple existence of watching series 3-5 of Line of Duty (the ones we've not yet seen). However, I know that deep down I have to keep setting myself little challenges and doing things that make life a bit more interesting. So tomorrow morning I'll load the bike up and set off, and let the journey take me wherever I end up going, and return with some more stories to bore anyone who will listen (and those who won't). You can follow my journey here. I'll be posting updates as often as I can.

Let the coddiwompling begin...

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