I’ve now completed three overseas motorcycle “adventure” tours, and after each I’ve been left impressed as to just how well the bikes provided have been suited to their respective environments. The first tour was through Kashmir and the Indian Himalayas on a Royal Enfield (which handled snow drifts, scree slopes, river beds and “freeways” with equal aplomb – see Bike Torque September 2005). The second was through Turkey on a Suzuki V-Strom (which revelled on the excellent tarmac to the degree I was fined substantially for speeding – see Bike Torque October 2007). And in July I completed a circuit of Timor Leste on Honda Mega Pro.
Basically the Mega Pro is a 160cc four stroke single, with a four speed gear box, and disc brake front/drum brake rear. They are a street bike, made in Indonesia, and so prolific in Timor Leste that you can buy common parts for them at the local “general store”.
Not that we used the Mega Pros as “street bikes”, since the “highways” of Timor Leste (TL) included some of the most challenging roads that I (as a freeway/tourer rider) have ridden. The bikes coped with river crossings, deep mud bogs, steep rocky descents, narrow washouts, kilometres of teeth rattling corrugations, pot holes that were deserving of their own post codes, and unavoidable trenches that threatened to buckle wheels. They ran from wave lapped beaches to cloud engulfed high mountain passes, on petrol poured by “bowser attendants” from drink bottles and strained through cloth filters. They ducked and weaved through wandering livestock and avoided incident with the overloaded passenger trucks and convoys of charging United Nations vehicles. There were of course good stretches, and evidence of considerable foreign aid (particularly from the Japanese) being put into bridge and road building, but at times the packhorses we came across seemed much better suited to the terrain.
Some of the seeming traffic chaos was given a new perspective, when a TL posted AFP officer (and absentee truffle farmer from Burra) advised towards the end of the trip, that the road rule was to “give way to the left” – woops !!
Yet apart from the odd minor tumble (not, thankfully, by me) the only real issues were punctures. The robust yet light weigh construction of the bikes and the small engine sizes were ideal to the task, giving a cruising speed of about 60 kmph: where any faster would have been dangerous; any heavier tedious; and any less nimble risky amongst the obstructions, trucks, livestock and UN 4WDs. Even those in the tour group more accustomed to powerful off-road mounts seemed satisfied with the Mega Pro’s capabilities and performance, and their grins were testament to them enjoying the ride.
Having indicated that I found the riding challenging, that didn’t seem to be the case for the locals – who were carrying whole families and huge loads on similar bikes with apparent ease. They earned my admiration, but not just for their riding skills – they are a nice people and as a near neighbour are deserving of much greater consideration, respect, and generosity of spirit from our politicians (past and present). The country still bears the scars of its violent recent history, but they are trying hard with their limited resources.
As a tour it was well worth doing, and organised much the same as the others I’ve undertaken: experienced tour leader; local guide/mechanic; backup vehicle; all inclusive of accommodation, bike hire, food and petrol. Good initiatives were the provision of tank bags, large format daily tour maps, phrase books, and mobile phones. Not five star, but comfortable and with plenty to eat (including some memorable feasts). The coffee and beer were excellent – the Portuguese reds sometimes a little rough. Cigarettes were less than $2 per packet; bananas $1 a bunch.
If you’re interested in more detail speak to me or check out www.timoradventures.com.au. The company is Melbourne based, and the proprietor/tour leader (Dave Carlos) has infectious enthusiasm for both the country and the ride. The Wikipedia entry on Timor Leste gives a good account of the country. While the DFAT SmartTraveller advice is “to exercise a high degree of caution”, I personally felt a lot safer wandering the streets of Dili than I did in Port Moresby.
It is worthy of mention that Dave is a talented musician (blues harmonica; recorder) and his impromptu performances at lunch stops etc, and the donation of instruments to an isolated school, generated considerable joy and goodwill.
Combined with a few days in Darwin, the tour was a great break from a bleak Canberra winter. Do it – you deserve it. You may even feel you did some good.
p.s. I’m living proof that you don’t have to be young and fit to complete the tour