April 07, 2014
Told in the collective first person, jointly from Stu and Janell Clarke's perspective.
Narrated Audio Blog
We had said a fond farewell to Dallas, our home for the previous three weeks. The departure was not quite as we planned and were thankful for no great send off. The checkout from the hotel was midday, we handed over our room keys at 12:01pm but then spent the next three hours in the hotel car park loading up the bikes. It wasn't the plan of course, we had hoped to be on the road at midday to take the scenic four hour ride to Austin, the capital of Texas, set up camp and explore the city the next day.
Loading the bikes was an epic task and it was also the first time we'd done it, so we were throwing out excess stuff that didn't fit, repacking, throwing out more stuff and then repacking again. When we were finally ready to ride we realised our communication and map systems were not working. Everything had passed the pre-flight checks the day before. With the sun quickly setting and determined not to check back in to the hotel we had no time to muck around so we jumped on Interstate 35 headed south.
This is not an ideal route for adventure riders travelling at 60 mph (100 km/hour). Trucks and Trailers were passing us at around 85 mph (140km/hour). A few cars slowed down beside Stu to grab a happy snap of the 'dog on a bike' then returned to their original speed. We were only riding for two hours when it started getting dark so we pulled into a motel on the side of the motorway.
The blaring sound of sirens outside our motel window unsettled us as we hopped into bed but could not keep us awake after the activities of the day and we quickly drifted off. A good night's sleep and a good coffee first thing in the morning improved our perspective of the situation and there was once again excitement in the air. With the rushing around and drama of the previous day we hadn't taken the time to realise that the journey was really starting now, no turning back! With a better idea of the direction of travel we were on the road at 11am.
Austin was a very pretty city and it still had the feel of winter although there were signs of Spring returning to the trees, with little sprouts of bright green emerging amongst the brown mesh of tree branches. It's quite easy to imagine the place in full bloom and how bright it would be.
We only stopped for a late lunch then were back on the road. Destination, the K.O.A. camping ground in San Antonio. The forecast was rain but we were lucky it was still dry when we arrived so we were able to set up the tent with our queen size inflatable mattress. The rain came shortly after but being stuck in the tent gave us a chance to reflect on some of the highlights of the last three weeks. We made some wonderful friends in Dallas. Most of the time had been spent kitting up and preparing for the trip but we'd had some fun as well including seeing our first ice hockey match – Dallas Stars vs Calgary Flames – at the American Airlines Centre, checking out Downtown Dallas including the famous JFK assassination site and experiencing some comic relief at Backdoor Comedy.
The next day it was still raining, the universe was wasting no time in testing our fortitude. We three sat lined up in our tent, our first real day of camping with the rain pouring out of the heavens above us. While we had spent many a holiday back home camping and enduring such conditions, it had always been with a trusty car to pile into and drive to the nearest shopping centre or pub. The only (sometimes) unfortunate aspect of motorbikes is that you cannot escape the elements so we had decided to sit and wait it out.
More time to reflect. With the few miles we'd put on our motorbikes we were so far really happy with the choices we'd made including our Touratech auxiliary fuel tanks which added an extra 22L to each bike, the Touratech seats that provide some added cushioning for longer rides and the Touratech Zega Pro 45L panniers which only just held all our stuff. In addition to the Touratech accessories, we had ourselves installed a 240V inverter for the purpose of inflating our queen size blow up mattress and recharging IT equipment. For those of you that think a queen size mattress is an unnecessary extravagance on a trip such as this, let us assure you that a good night's sleep is paramount to safe riding.
Day three and it was still raining. We decided to slowly pack up the tent in the torrential San Antonio rain. Our next destination was only an hour away in a little town called Dilley so we might as well get there, riding in the rain for an hour wouldn't be too bad. Our intention was to stay a few days with Hank of Motohank, a friend of a friend from Dallas. We were advised that Hank had extensive experience with adventure motorbike travel through South America and as a bonus for us, was also a BMW Motorcycle Tech with over 20 years experience. Our short stay extended to a very fruitful two weeks.
Hank and his Mum (Olivia) were so kind to put up with the three of us and all our stuff and made us feel quite at home. Hank had a good look over our bikes and recommended replacing the shocks with the heavy duty Tourtech shocks to handle the bumpy roads ahead of us. One of the main advantages of the Tourtech shock is that it can be repaired, we decided that it would be best for us if we could patch up our bikes on the go and avoid situations where we are stuck waiting for new parts to be posted.
We had to wait for the parts and installation which gave us time to visit the old Missions in San Antonio, ride the much talked about Hill Country and pick Hank's brains about what to expect, what tools and spares to bring and how to reduce our load. Hank culled our tools to the bare essentials, quite rightly pointing out that if we got in real trouble, we'll always find a truck to put the bikes on and have it driven to the nearest mechanic where we can borrow tools or just get them to do the work for a reasonable price while we enjoy the locally brewed beers. He also took a look at our clothes recommending light weight materials that dry easily and ordered us Touratech Pannier Liners for our clothes insisting it would make life easier. We can now confidently say that the liners make life much easier when transfering our necessities to and from a hotel room; the liners just slip in and out of the panniers and after a hard days ride, this can make all the difference.
Into our second week in Dilley, Jochen from Germany arrived, also en route to Brazil for the world cup. Jochen was an old friend of Hanks and arranged the purchase of a yellow 1150 BMW through consignment for his trip. It was great to see two friends reunited, reminiscing their shared experiences, discussing BMW's and the riding highlights of the America's. Having all these travellers around seemed to give Hank the travel bug, and he quickly offered to ride with us into Mexico to help with the border crossing and introduce us to Mexico. Hank allowed 3 days to be away from the shop, and on a sunny Wednesday morning, we all set off.
The border crossing was far easier than expected, having someone with border crossing experience and who spoke Spanish was more than helpful. We rotated seamlessly through the various counters of the Aduana (customs) to get paperwork completed and stamped and luckily there was no queue so the process was speedy.The biggest surprise though was that no attention was paid to Skyla! We got the required stamps for our passports and the bikes and when we enquired about Skyla, they just said to make sure we had her vaccination record and with the required paperwork we could proceed. Many checkpoints later we still hadn't been asked to show this paperwork and never were!!
It was a spoon-fed experience for us but for those unfamiliar with the process, the dramas are usually related to long queues, language barriers and incorrect documentation for the vehicle. Please don't underestimate the importance of having the necessary and accurate paperwork! Interestingly, you are only allowed one vehicle permit per person which is why it was important that Stu's bike be registered in his name and Janell's bike in hers.
The roads in Mexico were not at all as bad as we had imagined. We'd been given mixed reviews of what to expect, but to be honest, all the negative comments were from people that had not ventured beyond the border themselves. You do need to concentrate a little more than you would in Australia or the US as not every hazard is signposted (including the Mexican speed bumps) and sharp curves often don't have crash barriers, even if the drop is a couple of hundred meters to certain death.
Our initial route was to head directly towards Monterrey, Mexico's 3rd largest city. Due to time constraints, we opted to drive through the city rather than taking a bypass and this was an experience in itself. Hank instructed us to remain very close, he said he wanted us to be able to touch each other the whole time. This was a constant combination of high speed merges with centimetres to spare, fast acceleration and braking, entering fast speed traffic with split second gaps, changing multiple lanes quickly to make short-notice turns, and trying not to lose anyone along the way. Thankfully we all got through to the other side without issue.
Our first night in Mexico was in the small town of Santiago, a short scenic ride south of Monterrey. The route had us riding through the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range with some very awe inspiring riding. We ascended and descended a mountain which had some challenging sections of road making Janell quite nervous. When we finally settled for the night the first thing on Janell's mind was an icy cold beer and a hot shower to loosen up the muscles and relax before bed. The four of us shared a cabin with dinner provided. While dinner was being prepared we took the opportunity to walk to the nearby shops to grab some beers and take photo's of the mountain surrounding and local architecture. Before long we were back in the cabin eating authentic Mexican food and drinking Corona's.
Janell was nervous from the moment she woke up. We had been told all about the road leading to Real de Catorce (Real) and riding within the town and with every personal recount we heard and every mile we got closer to the infamous town, the more anxious she became. Its hard to describe to people who haven't experienced the polished cobblestone roads but even on an adventure bike, stopping or stalling a bike can so easily result in a fall. This is exaggerating a bit but for a novice rider, its kind of like riding on rounded ice cubes the size of tennis balls and as Janell can only touch the ground on tippy toes, the advice provided was don't stop!
The four of us had a good start to the day, leaving Santiago around 9am with a beautiful sunny blue sky. We headed through the mountain range and found a little town for us to stop for breakfast. We were invited into the home of a local family where they cooked us a typical breakfast of beans and veggies with tortillas on the side and home brewed black coffee. Yum!! It felt like such an honour to be sitting at their dinner table watching them cook in the fire stove.
Back on the road with full bellies we soon departed the mountain range and re-entered the motorway. We all picked up our speed but as soon as we reached 70mph, Janell's bike began to wobble. Over comms, we discussed the obvious wobble and backed off the speed but after several miles, pulled over to check out the problem. The guys inspected the bike and deduced that the weight on the back of the bike, and lack of weight on the front of the bike, was causing the nose to lift at high speeds resulting in the wobble. We pulled into a gas station and filled up the long range fuel tanks to help even the weight distribution and continued at a slightly slower speed and this seemed to work a treat. A few miles from the Real turn off Hank had us pull in to a gas station to fill up, regroup and make sure we had enough money. The Mexican currency is the Peso and was about 13:1 against the Australian Dollars. All fuel stations in Mexico, called PEMEX, are owned by the government and on any given day the price will be the same everywhere across the country.
We grabbed a couple of pictures of the mountain we were about to climb then faced the road, travelling at around 35 – 45 mph and standing on the pegs made the trip quite comfortable. We all made it to the entrance of the tunnel, paid our 20 Pesos and before we knew it we had arrived. The bikes mounted on the footpath outside the hotel, we took more photo's as proof more than anything then checked in to the hotel.
Real de Catorce, or simply Real, is an old silver mining town which was all but abandoned during the Mexican Revolution and was now gaining popularity as a tourist destination due to its rustic buildings and authentic culture. The roads into Real and throughout are all cobblestone and from a riding perspective very challenging. When cobblestone roads age, the sand between erode leaving polished rounded rocks of varying sizes that can be as slippery as ice. Add this to the fact that Real is on the side of a mountain with steep roads and you end up with some difficult riding conditions.
Real is like going back in time; buckets of washing water thrown over the street, men on horseback, women and children selling local handy crafts at every turn. Walking along the streets the buildings haven't changed but if you sneak a peak inside some of them, you'll be surprised to find cappuccino machines, modern décor and EFTPOS in some of the stores (if the reception is good you can pay by card). Real also introduced us to rooftop relaxation. At home, the roof is a place people rarely visit and often forget about but standing on the rooftop of our hotel with a glass of red wine and the sun setting behind the mountain you can see washing, children playing and pets sleeping.
The town itself was lovely, old buildings converted into hotels and shops, deteriorating on the outside but completely renovated on the inside. We took a leisurely 2 hour horse ride to one of the mines and learnt of the history dating back to 1700 and the decline of the silver value. Being at nearly 3,000m, the atmosphere was thin, with the beating midday sun we all got our share of sunburn, even with hat and sunscreen. We stayed in Real for 2 nights during which time Hank headed back to Dilley to return to his shop and work. On the morning we left, we also said farewell to Jochen, who decided to stay another night, we knew it wouldn't be long before we run into him again.
The ride out of Real was very eventful, both of us took a fall on the steep cobblestone roads. Luckily there was only minor damage to the bikes and the three of us were fine, Skyla came out of her Pillion Pooch wagging her tail as if to say lets do it again. With the bikes safely at the bottom of the mountain, we headed off for our next adventure, San Miguel.
We spent only two nights in Real but really could have easily spent another. We said 'goodbye' to Hank in Real de Catorce and 'see you soon' to Jochen who was following a similar path to us to Brazil for the World Cup. But for us this was where the adventure would begin, we'd have to fend for ourselves for the first time.
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