It had been far too long. Too long since my last big mile day on a bike, too long since I had ridden in foreign lands and way too long waiting for this trip to come about.
In 2005 my friend, Jim, invited me to go with him and his friend Mick, to the Altes Elefantentreffen, the Old elephant rally, held on a campsite near the Nurburgring. Even as badly prepared as I was for the cold, it was a fun and eventful weekend.
In 2006 we went to the 50th anniversary of the Elefantentreffen in Thurmansbang, a town nestling in southern Germany not far from either the Austrian or Czech Republic borders. I was slightly better prepared this time and it was just as well that I was. About a dozen other British bikes had joined us en-route and on the second morning of our ride there, one of our small groups thermometers was showing -17C. When we arrived at the site the snow was chest height and overnight the temperature dropped to -25C. Despite what some may see as a hardship I really enjoyed it. The roads had been clear of snow and mostly clear of ice. I loved wandering along the parked bikes admiring some people's ingenuity in how they had modified their bikes to cope with extreme weather, but also to help keep them warm on the long ride there. The clothing options of some, the cobbled together sleeping arrangements of others, and somebody somehow had managed to get a copper bath big enough for four people to the site. They had set it up with a small fire underneath, their very own hot tub out in the sticks complete with a rubber duck!
They had come from all over Europe. I saw back patches from Poland and Belarus, number plates from Spain and Holland and there was an ancient Moto Guzzi Ercole from Italy, half bike, half pick up truck. We spoke to its owner and he told us the top speed was 42 mph and it had done that speed most of the way from Italy!
On our way home we discussed doing other winter rallies in Norway; the Primus, the Krystall and the mythical Primus Borealis which I can find no information on, but is supposedly held well north of the Arctic Circle. We agreed we would go to the Krystall in 2007. But the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.
Over the intervening years we all lost touch, were reunited, had our own financial mishaps, house moves etc etc. but through it all I always hoped I'd be able to get myself to the Krystall Rally.
It was in 2016 that everything began to come together and I was able to make definite plans toward going. Meanwhile Jim had a bad fall at work and taken such a bang to his noggin that he had had to surrender his licence. We did discuss me getting a sidecar for him to come along but in the end he decided not to.
I came across THE bike for the trip, a very low mileage, excellent condition BMW F650GS Dakar, a bike I'd always liked the look of and in September that year I bought it. Unfortunately I had temporarily forgotten that I was now in a relationship in which I needed to consult my other half on major purchases. It did not go down well .... at all.
Over the coming months the bike had a few unnecessary bits removed and quite a few additions made, all with this trip in mind. The standard exhaust was replaced with an aftermarket item and on one little jaunt, it blew its removable baffle out, resulting in a sound like thunder .... and so I named him 'Taranis' after the Pagan God of Thunder.
I asked everyone I knew if they wanted to come along, but it seems none of my riding friends have a sense of adventure/are daft enough. There would be just three of us then, my trusty adventuring elephant friend Ernest, Taranis the bike, and yours truly.
I agonised over which tyres would be best, what size tyre studs I should take and a million and one other things. I had plans to do some long rides in the colder months on the approach to my trip to acclimatise to sitting in the saddle for long periods and riding in the cold but due to various commitments this never came about. The time was booked off work and before I knew it it was time to set off.
Sunday evening and a nice steady 60 mile ride to Hull for the ferry to Rotterdam. No dramas, except I hadn't even managed to try out all the riding kit I was riding in, all at the same time, which I only realised as I was putting it all on. It all went together perfectly though, even the heavy sheepskin lined gore-tex hunting boots I was using had enough feel on the brake and gear levers.
Monday morning, awoken by the ships tannoy. Damn, I had intended to be up earlier but had forgotten to reset my clock before bed .... as I said at the start it had been too long since I had done any of this. Off the boat down the ramp and away we go ... keep right, look left. Good grief, what had they done to this place. I don't recall ever having passed through the Europort and Rotterdam before. Storage tanks, silos and industrial chimneys spewing out fumes and stink for as far as the eye could see in every direction, and I really don't think those few wind turbines along the road side, as impressive as their size is, are really going to help that much. Get me out of here Mr Garmin. Ahh, yes my sat nav ...... an ancient model that has taken me reliably all over Britain, and even helped me on trips to France and Spain was given the lightest of refreshes for this trip with the addition of a very cheap but, what proved to be, highly effective waterproof holder and an SD card for The Nordics.
I had the thrill of managing to order my lunch in German. As far as culinary delights go I think German food gets a bad press. Personally I love German food, it's tasty and there's usually plenty of meat. Proper man food! All was going well until Hamburg. I was posted to Germany for 3 years with the British Army as a driver, so I know exactly how the autobahn system works and never got lost in all those 3 years. All you need is a list of the major towns/cities that you are passing near and follow the signs for those. So why I chose to follow my sat navs directions to come off the autobahn is a mystery. As I followed one or two other turnings it gave me, it's mapping seemed to just run out like it didn't have full European mapping at all. What followed was 40 minutes of me riding around what must have been one of the unsightliest industrial areas of Hamburg trying to get back to the autobahn system. I passed under and over it a few times before eventually finding an entry ramp. Hurrah! I was even heading in the right direction.
I had accommodation booked that night, in a small B&B in Puttgarden, a small town on the opposite side of Germany to where I had started my ride that morning. When I had booked it I imagined it to be a small town that had grown up around the ferry port. I should have done a bit more research because I couldn't have been more wrong. I arrived at around 6pm. It had snowed a little during the last few miles and the temperature had fallen from around +2°C to -2°C. I had covered about 450 miles and I was tired and hungry. I was given my keys, told where my room was and asked if I would require breakfast, all in the time it took you to read that sentence. The owner disappeared and left me to it. So much for the warm and pleasant welcome the reviews had promised. Although the room was nice and clean and the shower was powerful and hot enough to bring a little energy back to my weary bones, it was time for food so I set off walking.
The small cluster of houses where my B&B was located was just that. No shops or cafes or anything of that nature to be found. I had seen a large hotel as I'd turned off the main road a couple of hundred yards away. As I walked closer I noticed a sign proclaiming the restaurant to be open 24 hours. Great! I walked in and felt confident enough with my German to ask where the restaurant was "it's only for guests" came the curt reply. "Your sign says it's open 24 hours", "only for guests". "Is there anywhere else I might get something to eat?" "No". Charmed I'm sure. I walked further toward the ferry port in the hope there might be a garage or a transport cafe, nope, nothing. So Puttgarden consists of a tiny cluster of houses, a large hotel and a small ferry terminal. Bugger. I went to bed hungry.
Tuesday morning was a bright, crisp and beautiful day, although the blue skies price was -5°C.
Luggage on the bike, breakfast munched and a very short ride to buy a ticket and wait for the ferry. I was so emotional today, I really couldn't put my finger on why. I think it was a blend of fatigue from the previous day, excitement and anxiety at what was to come and the realisation that I was right in the middle of this adventure that I had dreamed of for so many years.
The Scandlines ferry arrived and at €42 for a 45 minute ride it was obvious that Scand stood for scandalous. So there I was in a country I had never been to before and which I knew very little about and the only word of its language I knew was 'Tak', thanks. I had some miles to do to reach that nights destination - Gothenburg. So I got on with getting on.
The bike, as a single cylinder machine, wasn't ideally suited to big motorway mileage but it wasn't doing too bad a job. At 70mph it was getting nearly 70mpg, meaning with just 17 litres of fuel in the tank I was reaching 180 miles before the fuel light, and usually only putting 13 or 14 litres in to fill it back up again. The vibes weren't too bad and the aftermarket screen I'd fitted meant almost zero buffeting and much reduced wind noise over the standard screen.
Time was knocking on so I decided, as I have every intention of visiting Copenhagen in future that coffee with the famous mermaid could wait, and having looked at Google Maps there were far too many roadworks to be dealing with. I could well do without getting lost in another city. The quickest way to Gothenburg, where my hotel was booked, was via Helsingborg/Helsingore and another ferry. So the idea of riding over the Øresund Bridge, which links Denmark and Sweden was dumped too. Getting fuel in Denmark proved to be a hassle, guess how much you want, go pay for it, get a code ...... three times over I did this. I was beginning to think I was really thick. Finally an attendant came and tried and told me the pump was broken. Argh! Technology is great in the right place but why make life difficult, fill up, go pay, it's not hard, and has worked for decades. Still, onward to the aforementioned ferry.
€55 this time for just a twenty minute ride (on an even more Scandalous lines boat) across to Sweden and a lovely friendly greeting from the customs man, who seemed genuinely interested in where I was going and was really chatty, telling me about his bikes and how he didn't ride in winter. He told me the roads would be clear to Gothenburg at least and wished me well on my travels. I had forgotten that I was first off the ferry and was holding everyone up while I'd been having my first conversation in Sweden. I have two Swedish Facebook friends who have been helping me to learn a few words of Swedish so I at least knew how to say 'jag tycker om att kora motorcykel' I like to ride motorcycles and 'Nalle puh' Winnie the Pooh, whilst in Sweden, which was a relief.
There were some truly beautiful views on the motorway ride to the hotel but the weather was turning grey. Fortunately the hotel I'd booked in Gothenburg was easy to find, and walking from the car park to the entrance I had a brief chat with another friendly Swede asking me how I was finding riding the bike in the cold. A friendly, informative greeting from the receptionist who told me I could park my bike under the canopy at the entrance and that they would keep an eye on it overnight. Perfect, I had been in Sweden just a few short hours and I was wondering why I had never been here before.
Wednesday, one of my Swedish friends messaged me the National Roads Authorities report on the state of the roads for that day and told me to look out for a dish in Norway called Hakkebiff, a truckers favourite. Whilst my other Swedish friend, was more succinct with his advice 'stay out of that rotten country it's full of greedy people'. So yet more motorway miles beckoned, but later in the day I would be off the motorway and onto what looked to be some much more interesting roads. And so it proved to be. Almost immediately on entering Norway it seemed to get colder and within a few miles the snow was much deeper at the side of the road. My phrases in the local lingo were much reduced too .... 'takk for maten' thanks for the food, but I still knew that most useful of phrases though 'Ole Brumm' Winnie the Pooh.
When I was planning this part of the trip I had two choices, stick to the major route and approach from the east or take the more interesting route from the west. I read a comment on a forum from someone who had attended the rally in the past, that it was far more scenic approaching from the west, and a look at a map confirmed this would be the case, so this is the route I took.
As soon as I was off the E6 and onto what appeared to be equivalent to one of our A roads all those motorway miles became a distant memory. The sun had come out, the snow at the side of the roads was deep, intensifying the beauty of the views that appeared. There were tunnels so long that when I popped out of them I was way too warm and was glad to be back out in the frigid cooling air, all this and I had to actually ride the bike not just sit holding the throttle open. After two and a half days of monotony it was so exhilarating and on it went through Drammen and Kongsberg. On leaving Kongsberg, heading toward Lampeland, I began to get a real sense that I was heading into Norway proper, into the countryside.
There was a lot of snow at the roadside but thankfully the road remained clear, houses became very thinly spread and before long I arrived at the small town of Lampeland where I had booked a room for the night.
I arrived at Lampeland Hotel mid afternoon, had a hot shower, grabbed a bite to eat and wondered whether to put in the tyre studs I had with me. I was almost certain that I would need them at some point before I got to the Rally and I was just a little over 100 miles away now, but although the snow here was several feet deep at the side of the road and on the roofs of the houses, the road was still clear. I didn't know how they would be on bare tarmac, although I knew to expect less grip. I'd leave them until I needed them.
In the morning, despite my excitement, I allowed myself the luxury of a small lay in. I had ridden pretty hard these last three days, covering the distance between the UK and Oslo and it had almost all been on motorways. I was eager to get there and much as I had enjoyed the ride I was beginning to feel the fatigue and was ready for some time off the bike. Having said that I was still on the road just after 9AM. I had only been riding for 20 minutes when I rounded a corner and the black road suddenly ended and in its place a white one appeared, bugger. Off the bike, panniers raided, a drill driver and small box of studs in hand.
It took an hour and a half to install about 300 studs, in which time only 20 or so vehicles had passed. Two had stopped to ask if everything was OK. Repack the panniers, spark up, look around and take it all in, something I hadn't done enough of on this journey. It was a proper winter wonderland, tall snow covered pine trees through which I could see a frozen river, everything was white, pristine looking and so quiet.
Back to it and those studs definitely added extra grip, but I wouldn't describe them as amazing. I still had the occasional minor slip or slide and I was only plodding along now at about 30mph, a bit slower when the road surface looked dodgy or a tight bend loomed. Despite this it was a lot of fun. I kept a close watch on my mirrors so I could pull over and let any traffic pass. I rode alongside the frozen river and passed over it a couple of times, the wind was picking up a little and it had started to gently snow. After quite some time I reached the small town of Rodberg and as I passed through, the road began to climb up a steep hill and near the top I began to lose traction and struggled up the last few yards and stopped to catch my breath at the top. As I released the clutch to set off again, the back wheel lost traction and the bike began to fall over to the left, I didn't pull the clutch in fast enough and the bike fell over onto its side. Bugger, that was a first for me, I'll be ready for that next time.
Setting off much more gingerly this time I worked my way back up to a slightly slower speed as the wind really was getting quite strong now. I passed a campsite and homes with snowmobiles parked outside. The road had been climbing ever so slightly with every mile, but now it climbed much more steeply ahead and I rounded a hairpin bend and another, round a less severe bend and it levelled out. I could see there was a barrier across the road with a van covered in reflective stickers and flashing beacons on top. Double bugger! It was obvious the road was closed, and I was just 40 miles away according to my sat nav.
A man got out of the van and his English was good enough for him to explain that further on the wind and snow were so bad that you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. He told me that if I went back to Rodberg I could take an alternative road that didn't climb quite so high and was open. I thanked him and began the journey back the way I had come. The wind speed seemed to be really picking up now, and riding had stopped being fun. Between gusts of wind I was trying to work out where the day had gone, how much daylight I had left and what to do for the best. An open section of road came up, I had been trying to aim for the section of my lane that cars hadn't travelled on so much as it seemed to offer more grip, but this section, I could see, was just a sheet of compacted snow and ice. A sudden strong gust of wind and the bike was no longer beneath me, it was on its side and we slid down the road quite a way before coming to a stop. I hit the kill switch, scrambled to my feet and picked the bike up for the second time that day, I was thankful that this bike was quite light, and I had only been trundling along at 25 mph.
The left side pannier had come off and opened and before I could make a lunge for it a plastic bag containing my clean underwear blew 30 yards across a field, and seemed to wedge itself against a fence. A car came along seconds later and stopped, made sure I was OK and continued on his way. I worked out what I thought was the best route to my pants and took a step into the snow and immediately sank up to my waist. Just to confirm I wasn't going to be able to rescue my underwear, the wind dislodged it and blew it right across a huge field, and eventually out of sight ..... within seconds. I would just have to smell.
Back on the bike and even more slowly and carefully onward. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity I was dropping down the hill back into Rodberg, the Hotel would be on my left and I had almost decided that it would be best just to call it a day and stay there. I began my turn into the car park and the bike slipped from under me again, I had now more than doubled my entire riding careers 'getting off a bike while it's still moving' tally in a day! A passerby came to my aid and helped pick the bike up. I sat on it, fired it up, and tried to get it the few yards into the car park. No wonder I had fallen off here, even though the snow was quite deep it was just a sheet of ice underneath and I struggled to move the bike at all, but eventually managed to get it where I wanted and parked. I had no problems getting a room. After a hot cup of tea and a warm in the hotel, just out of interest I walked the short distance to the junction that would have provided the alternative route. The climb may not have been as long but it was considerably steeper. Back to the hotel to ponder options over another cuppa.
It was true to say I was disappointed, I had been expecting to be at the Rally now, but whilst I had expected light snow, as per the forecast, I hadn't expected a near blizzard. Before I say this next sentence I feel I must state that I do love bikes and riding them, but I had been riding mine for up to 8 hours a day for the last 4 days and the novelty was wearing thin, and fatigue was weighing heavy. I needed some time off the bike. The snow continued to fall all evening and my anxiety levels crept up as I began to wonder if I might get stranded there for days. Try as I might I could not sleep that night. Before daylight I was dusting 8 - 9 inches of snow off the bike and loading up. The Hotel receptionist told me that last year they'd had just 2 inches of snow all year, so if I'd come this way I would have got there without problems. I managed to force down a waffle for breakfast, went back outside and finished digging my bike out of the snow.
It had been 100 miles since my last fill up so I did the sensible thing and crossed the road to the garage and filled up. Due to sloping roads meeting each other at odd angles and the fact I had come off here yesterday this was what had kept my anxiety levels up overnight. As it turned out it was not nearly as bad as I had imagined.
5 litres was all I could squeeze into the tank, so creeping along I was getting almost 100mpg. The weather was almost benevolence itself, no wind, no snow, it looked like the sun might even make an appearance. As more snow was forecast on the Sunday, I really didn't fancy my chances of getting back to Oslo from the rally, that and the fact that I needed a break, I had decided that I would not make a further attempt at getting to the rally. The plan was to ride back toward Oslo, get somewhere close and find a hotel room and relax until Sunday, when I had a ferry booked to Frederikshavn in Denmark. I had allowed just 3 days to get back home and this would cut out quite a lot of riding.
My anxiety had been partially at least, unfounded. Whilst the road was definitely worse than the previous day, as my tensions began to slip away with the miles, it became enjoyable again.
I was retracing my route, now able to see views I had missed the previous day as visibility was much improved. The sun did actually come out and eventually a remote petrol station came into view. For the first time on this adventure I did not feel the need to rush to make mileage, and I really enjoyed the short stop, drinking in not just the coffee but the scenery too.
The snow continued on the road until I was well past Lampeland, but eventually it began to clear to patches of snow and tarmac and then, blissfully, pure clear tarmac. I continued riding on the studs and they were providing a lot more grip on tarmac than I had expected.
I was getting quite close to Oslo, and not wanting to pay Capital city prices I followed the signs for a motel and service station, and secured myself a room there for 2 nights. The restaurant on site was good, but like all these places had been in Norway, excruciatingly expensive. I don't think I paid any less than £15 for any meal while I was in the country. I was beginning to think my Swedish friend had a good point.
The next day I made the most of the breakfast included with the price of the room, and took myself off for a leisurely stroll for the morning, and in the afternoon I adjusted the bikes chain, gave it a thorough check over, removed the tyre studs and botched an indicator back together with Gaffa tape, that had broken during one of my falls.
Sunday, and I had just 30 miles to ride to get to the ferry port. The Norwegian weather had not finished with me yet though. It had snowed overnight, and the E18 main dual carriageway into Oslo already had a good covering of snow. I made the most of breakfast again and packed up as quickly as I could. The snow hadn't been forecast this early and I had hoped to be almost at the port before it arrived. I did have one piece of luck that morning, as I was joining the main carriageway 2 snowploughs abreast of each other went by so the traffic was forced to drive at a pace I was comfortable with in these conditions. The snow must have been different from the type falling 2 days previously, by some quirk of aerodynamics it was being sucked up under the bottom of the visor (no chin bar as I was wearing an open face helmet) and landing on the inside and it was beginning to obscure my vision. This went on long enough that I had to do something about it. Just in the nick of time a garage appeared where I could wipe my visor clean again.
As I entered the city the snow got deeper due to there being so little traffic here. I got to the ferry port and bought myself a parking ticket, as requested by a sign, and placing it between the screen and dashboard, made my way into the terminal building to get warm and dry again.
Norway had one final parting gift. When I returned to my bike a few hours later my ticket had gone, to be replaced by a notice telling me I had been fined for not buying a ticket. I now fully agreed with my Swedish friend.
Rolling off the ferry in Denmark the next morning it was tipping down with rain, but the sun came out just after I'd finished getting a good soaking. It turned into a beautiful day, the further west I rode the brighter the sun seemed to shine, encouraging me to keep just keep riding. When I finished that day I had done just under 500 miles, leaving me just 160 miles to do the following day to the ferry and home.
So I never made it to the Krystall Rally, and some have asked if I would attempt it again. The way I see it, I may not have the sticker but I have photos and great memories of some of the most exciting motorcycling I have ever done. I got within 40 miles which is nearer than some have done, and if not for the weather being so extreme I would have done it. It was an extremely expensive trip, and an extremely long ride. While I wanted to ride the whole way there I wouldn't want to do it that way again, it was all motorway which became tedious. I think if I were to attempt it again I would ride to Kiel and take the ferry to Oslo to keep the miles down, and once in Norway I'd probably stick to the main roads as much as possible, rather than taking more scenic routes, if I were to have another go .........