December 2016: London, England – Mark Holmes is devastated at losing his wife to cancer.
January 2018: The Red Centre of the Australian outback – Mark Holmes is learning to forage for wild fig and bush plum and source water from small pools at the base of trees with Anangu Aborigine Leroy. The trick is to look out for birds circling overhead.
There are, as Mark revealed in part one of his journey, always little reminders of Sue, his wife, but the love and friendship of strangers is helping him put things into perspective. Brief encounters in the strangest places are the life-affirming stuff of motorcycle rides, insists the 2015 Rocket X rider. Like the woman who smiled at him in the middle of the blazing outback at a petrol station who he met again at a layby.
“I explained why I was in the middle of nowhere and she told me that after a long and happy marriage, her husband had also passed away. She described it as ‘very inconvenient of him’.”
Mark’s mission was to share his passion for Triumph, spread the anti-smoking message in memory of his wife and find out more about the world and its inhabitants. So what better way to end the first phase of his journey than hanging around with monkeys at the stunning Angkor Wat – the inspiration for Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book?
King of the swingers
Being on a motorcycle means you can get to places like Angkor Wat that aren’t easily accessible unless you join an organised trip, which interferes with the freedom of it all for me.
Singing along with King Louie the ape as he swung through ancient ruins covered by the jungle’s roots and branches entertained me as a child and still does today, so it was incredible to find that this place actually exists.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s jewel, is depicted on the national flag and despite the four million visitors a year that swarm here, it is 400 acres of heaven for children and motorcycle riders alike.
It was built by the Khmer king Suryavarman II in the early 12th century to worship the Hindu god Vishnu but gradually became a Buddhist temple by the end of the century. As often happens with kingdoms, arguments followed, neighbours invaded, the empire collapsed and the jungle swallowed it.
Fast forward 500 years to the 20th century and the world started to uncover it again. The Cambodian Civil War and other interferences interrupted the recovery between 1970 and the late 1980s. That makes it all the more remarkable that so much of it remains in such great condition.
I needed to turn my life upside down and to venture out into a world I had previously only seen on film, to make myself vulnerable to its idiosyncrasies. I headed to another temple, Ta Prohm, which certainly helped me with that because it is guaranteed to always makes visitors smile, whether you’re a fan of Lara Croft, Indiana Jones or The Jungle Book.
Kuala Lumpar, Singapore and Jakarta at speed
As much as Angkor Wat stimulated me to the limit for its history, culture, architecture and craftsmanship, too much cultural input can make appreciation difficult. So the vibe of modern cities beckoned.
Kuala Lumpur surprised me. I stayed right in the centre and found it packed full of modern urban life. The city feels very successful. In fact, the whole of Malaysia feels successful.
I think this place may have had an eye on Singapore. The city state is booming. Historically, it traded goods through the ports, between east and west, and now complements that with a trade in information. Money basically. The central business district looks and feels like it should be in the world’s top 10.
Riders be warned: Indonesia’s capital Jakarta doesn’t feel like Kuala Lumpur or Singapore and the traffic is the main problem. It’s the world’s largest city without a public transport network. Congestion, air pollution, filth and inability to move efficiently blight the city, yet there is a successful vibe here. The Asian Games, starting here in August 2018, means the construction of the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and LRT (Light Rail Transit), but in the meantime everyone is on the roads, including five million motorcycles.
Australia and The Tyranny of Distance
In his 1966 book, The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey explains how Australia’s destiny has been shaped by its remoteness. The book’s name is now liberally applied to describe the vast distances between almost anywhere in this colossal land mass.
For motorcyclists, and especially those with a bike like mine that’s itching to eat up the miles, it’s an utterly fascinating destination that’s perfect for riding.
Heading out west from Brisbane, the suburban sprawl peters out rapidly to be replaced by farming activities congregated around road intersections or rail tracks.
The long-legged, stocky and well-fleeced merino sheep are the breed of choice here, with the larger stations dominated by beef cattle, but kangaroos line the roads in the dry season to lick early-morning moisture from the bitumen. The unfortunate consequence is that they leap in any direction and frequently into oncoming traffic. Local cars have ‘roo bars’ fitted, but motorcyclists are given stern warnings.
Some sections are heavily littered with their carcasses and those of emus and wandering cattle, while dead possums, wombats, boar and the odd koala add to my macabre fascination for road-kill.
New friends in strange places
The Red Centre of Australia spans three states (and a territory) and it’s there that I met Leroy, who showed me how to find water from small pools at the base of trees with roots in cracks in the rock.
Visiting Uluru, or Ayers Rock, was the main reason for my journey through the outback. A huge sandstone rock that looks very red at sunrise and sunset, it is also considered sacred by the Anangu, traditional owners of the region.
With so few people in the outback – the nearest large town is Alice Springs, 450km away – those people I did meet welcomed the opportunity of conversation.
When I wanted loneliness I rode back through the southern edge of the outback through South Australia’s vast wineries. Each one felt like grape farming on a massive scale, far surpassing the size of anything in Europe.
Don’t let anyone tell you the outback is empty. That couldn’t be further from the truth and I can’t wait to go back one day. The prospect of becoming a nomad is very appealing.
Read the next part of Mark’s story.