About 5 years ago I came across a video on Youtube of an Indian guy hand-painting the gold pinstripes onto the petrol tank of a Royal Enfield motorcycle. In a country where traditional skills often haven’t been mechanised: the skill, craftsmanship and mastery of the brush was something sincerely Indian and completely fascinating to watch.
India’s relationship with the British built Royal Enfield Bullet began in 1949 when the Indian Army ordered Royal Enfield Bullets for border patrol use. The bikes were imported in kit form from the UK and assembled in Chennai.
Before long Enfield India Ltd soon developed and opened a production factory completely independently under licence in Madras. The 1955, Indian built Royal Enfield Bullet model remained almost unchanged for years and the Madras plant produced over 20,000 Bullets annually.
The Bullet is now produced in Chennai and has the longest production run of any motorcycle having remained continuously in production since 1948. The Bullet marque is even older, and has passed 75 years of continuous production.
The company has now reached cult status within India and has begun to cash in on its celebrity as the Indian economy grows. Trendy outlets selling the Retro Street range of Bullets can also sell you colour coordinated helmets, leather jackets and knitwear to complete the look.
We are finally in the Islamic Republic of Iran and embarking on an amazing and unique documentary film project in collaboration with Director Farhad Soleymani and an Iranian TV channel. ‘View to Iran’ will follow our adventures here, aiming to dispel common misconceptions about the country and showing the real Iran. When Iranian TV heard about the project they wanted to interview us.
Within hours of crossing the border from Turkey into Georgia the landscape began to feel more ‘wild’. Gone was the previous week’s dismay of exploring a valley only to be met by industrial development; indiscriminate scarring of the rock sides for roads and mining and rubbish strewn everywhere.
We were determined to see the beauty of the Black Sea after our motoring of the Turkish coast was disappointing with persistent torrential rain and grey skies. Sadly, a heaving great highway scours the entire Eastern Turkish coastal length; an ugly, dirty, noisy (and in most parts impassable) barrier to the narrow beaches and waves beyond. In Georgia, we arrived back at the Black Sea again just south from the port city of Poti, on the edge of Kolkethi National Park.
Our camp that evening was in woodland next to a calm lagoon opposite an islet with the Black Sea beyond. As the sky flushed orange from a glorious sunset, Egrets and Herons paddled through the margins. The next morning, braving the onset of drizzle, we hired a speedboat and driver through the park office and sped across shallow Lake Paliastomi. Reaching the far side, past docile water buffalo grazing in the shallows, we manoeuvred into the mouth of the Pichori River. Motoring through reed-fringed backwaters, we passed wading birds in the Bulrushes and peatland swamps. We alighted briefly on land in the heart of the wetland relic forest, a chorus of frogs singing and wild horses padding warily through the trees. I was in binocular and field-guide-clutching wildlife geek heaven.
A staggering 40% of Georgia is still covered by pristine forest and nowhere does this feel more evident than Borjomi National Park. The protected area covers an impressive 850 km2 and is strictly safeguarded to the extent that no tracks, and consequently no vehicles, are allowed in the park.
We took the opportunity to swap wheels for walking, made easier by the comprehensive free hiking maps and permits to enter the park distributed by the park office and visitor centre. It was a very steep climb up muddy trails through the shady evergreen forest. We reached the snow line- the silence, isolation, crisp air and mist creating an atmosphere in which we felt we may stumble across one of the parks 90 native brown bears in every clearing. As the fog cleared, the panoramic views from the summit across the Lesser Caucasus and into the Likani valley below were breath-taking. Eagles soared level with our vantage point, dew-covered spring flowers doted the grass hillside and vibrant orchids poked from the mossy forest floor.
Our route towards Russia took us through another protected area, this time through the high mountain range of the Greater Caucasus and into Kazbegi National Park. A combination of high-altitude passes through forest, windswept alpine pastureland and rocky valleys produce magnificent scenery around every twist and turn of the dramatic roads and trails. The snow-covered peaks towered above us as we set up chilly camps alongside clear, gushing glacial rivers in remote high valleys. Wildlife here is well adapted to the harshness of the terrain but excitedly, within the first day, I had the pleasure of spotting several rarer bird species within the gorges and rocky Mountains.
The Georgian agency of protected areas successfully manage these wild places; wildlife protection quite rightly has priority with strict management of access and activities. Eco-tourism is well established yet minimal and without detracting from that ‘wilderness’ feel. Carefully implemented infrastructure along the trails includes visitor’s centres, marked trails, maps, camping areas, overnight shelters, campfire pits, springs and picnic spots. I have only talked about a few of the many protected reserves and parks in Georgia, 10 of which have developed marked trails. I was so impressed by how well they’ve achieved creating the balance of organised, well-designed, minimal eco-tourism development with genuine conservation.
A lasting memory of Armenia will be the warmth of the people we met there, we were welcomed so many times into people’s homes and spent many memorable hours sharing food, wine, cognac and oghi (the latter not so many memories of!).
On one misty morning, we set off from Kapan for a days adventuring with our new friend David in the mountains of southern Armenia’s Syunik province. We explored the villages and landscape of Shikagogh nature reserve, a beautiful, remote expanse of 100km2 of untouched forest. We stopped in tiny Tsav village and were welcomed by David’s brother in law and his family to join them for lunch. We were met with a feast of local specialities and homemade dishes including Zhingalov Khats baking on the hot metal of the wood-burning stove in the living room.
What was that bang?
At first it seemed like Bee-bee had just overheated and popped the top off the expansion bottle. We let her cool down and refilled the radiator. We tried to start the car but got nothing but a ‘clunk’. Andy thought the starter motor might be jammed, we rocked Bee-bee backwards and forwards (for sympathy and to hopefully un-jam the starter motor). A turn of the key and she sprang back to life in a huge cloud of white smoke. It was at this point that Andy declared that we’d probably blown the cylinder head and that water had leaked into one of the cylinders which became ‘hydrolocked’. We sloped on cautiously towards the next town in a cloud of white smoke.
Stuck in Kumluca
Frantically searching the Hilux Surf forum for advice on what he suspected, Andy declared he was “95% sure the Head gasket had blown”. Aside from a crash, this was one of the worst things that could happen to our car (mechanically and financially).
We had 48 hours to get us and a broken car 301.43 miles (485.10 km) to the Port of Tasucu where a non-refundable ferry was due to take us to Cyprus. As with every tragedy there are the heroes and villains; our hero was Alim the hotel manager’s son who spoke English, understood our predicament and arranged for some tow truck people to come in the morning. The unfortunate villain was the waiter in the restaurant who informed me they didn’t serve alcohol.
Tow Truck (Wheelin' and Dealin')
The final computer translation told them we were off to rob a bank. Ironically, when Alim took us to the cash point I sat in the back with a shotgun under my feet. I assume that was a normal item in a car here and he understood we were joking about the bank. I didn’t mention it.
Tow Truck 1 - Ugel the Rally Driver
Tow Truck 2 - Mustafa the Redbull Racer
We spent about 2 hours in a smoky (but warm) station office with a Turkish soap opera on TV in the corner. A car of oily youths arrived with a few ‘new’ alternator options and scrambled about systematically until the truck roared into life again. Mustafa necked 2 cans of Redbull. We were off.
We Drove All Night
17 Hours in Tasucu Port
We walked back into town (not daring to ask for a lift). During this time we must have set a local record for number of teas drank. We were exhausted and cold, we rooted at a friendly local café, ordering small dishes with lengthy interims to justify our temporary residence at their table.
When it eventually went dark we bussed our way back to the Port but were stopped at the customs gate where we spent another hour dozing in chairs with bored customs officials in their office. Eventually they let us have access to Bee-bee (if we ran through the port and no one saw us). We popped the tent subtly, sandwiched between rows of lorries and lay down for an hour.
All Aboard The Lady Su
Crossing the Cilician Sea
He beckoned us over to come up so we made our way through the ships corridors, stepping over piles of broken furniture and tools, up onto the ships bridge. Muhammed, the lone Captain, seemed to appreciate our company up on the bridge- he gave us bananas and told us that the boat had to be registered in Sierra Leone as it would never have passed strict Turkish health and safety regulations.
Docking in Girne
Across Aphrodites' Island
The devastating news was what we expected; the cylinder head was cracked in two places.
Greece is a huge country criss-crossed with a gravel road network of unpaved tracks covering 75,603km. 4x4 is by far the best way to discover some of its outstanding beauty and with a little planning you can hunker down behind the wheel and pretty much cross its entirety without using a paved road.
This network of roads is in constant need of repair and in the mountains landslides are common. Most of the driving is fairly moderate and unlikely to push your skills (or vehicle) to the limit. The occasional unexpected rainstorm can make conditions more challenging (fun) but generally most routes are drivable throughout the whole year (with the exception of some mountain areas).
The main reason for taking these routes is not solely for the driving, with just 11 million (compared to 64 million in the UK) people living in Greece you can experience some exceptional wild areas in relative solitude. Shamefully, new roads continue to be constructed with no respect for the natural environment.
Our first experience of Greece green-laning was a route from Arta to the Meteora, the main stretch of which followed the Acheloos River valley South-east of Mount Tzoumerka. Just like the other mountains of the Pindus range, the area is home to rare mammals like bears and wolves - although they tend to keep safe distances from human intruders. Sadly nearly 80 years after it was first proposed, the massively controversial greater Acheloos diversion scheme is well under way and has pretty much ruined the natural beauty of the area. Firs, black pines, maples and other trees envelop the road creating a riotous canopy of reds, yellows and greens; thankfully obscuring the atrocity of the river diversion scheme.
Our next off-road route looked like a scenic two-hour diversion on our rather ineffective 1:425.000 scale map. From the small village of Pouri, just north of Mount Pelion, we would take the ‘scenic’ green route down to the coast then head west towards Kerasia, just 16km away.
Having tried two alternative trails and deciding they were not ‘the one’ marked on our ‘map’ we stopped at the head of a third to ask for directions (N39°28’59.525” E23°5’50.226”). With our token gesture of a map in hand and some pretty flamboyant gesticulating we questioned two old locals if we could get through to Kerasia. In typically Greek style they entered into an animated debate before offering a relatively convoluted answer. We think the gist of which was that we could but the road was so bad we shouldn’t – we pointed at Bee-bee and shrugged our shoulders, at which point, they both shrugged their shoulders and walked off. Kerasia was only 16km away, if the road was too bad or blocked we’d just turnaround and drive back, right?
Two days later we emerged in Kerasia, muddied, tired, low on fuel but buzzing from our off-course off-roading. Our two-day adventure began when we decided to ignore the advice of the locals and drove off downhill towards the coast.
The track was rutted and well used. We passed a few local working 4x4’s coming the other direction, the drivers all smiled politely and waved back at us as we pulled over to let them pass. After a slow winding 600m descent with some stunning views we arrived at sea level at a tiny fishing bay (N39°30’23.725” E23°4’47.385”).
An immaculate little fisherman’s church on the bank of a small river poignantly marked the end of the well-used track and offered a potential safe haven to travellers wishing to venture beyond. We stopped for an opportune picnic before continuing into the unknown. The track continued up the other side of the valley and from this point became muddier, rougher and at times much steeper than we had experienced on our descent. Thankfully the ominous black clouds held off until we reached the summit. After a fairly slow 950m ascent, using instinct and a compass at every junction, we found ourselves at the top of a wooded plateau on the northern part of the Pelion Range.
Once we’d reached the highland it became apparently clear that the tracks here were used by logging trucks, unfortunately the heavy traffic (weight not frequency) meant the tracks were much muddier. After 5 hours driving, the afternoon turned to evening and it became apparent we weren’t going to make it to Kerasia before nightfall. We found a clearing in the woods and set up camp. Two hours after we’d gone to bed we were woken by two cars approaching through the forest. Two 4x4’s pulled up alongside our camp and a Greek family of 7 promptly exited the vehicles and approached our camp. Much to our surprise, it turns out we were not the only ones who were lost on the mountain.
The family were attempting to complete the same journey as us but in the opposite direction. We exchanged information about the road ahead; we were relieved to discover Kerasia was just 2 hours away.
In a twist of irony we told the family the same advice we received at the start of our journey; you could get through but the road was so bad you probably shouldn’t, we also told them Pouri was about 5 hours away… They shrugged their shoulders in disbelief and carried on regardless.
At sunrise our dark, foggy camp became a beautiful, autumnal woodland haven. We set off and completed the last few muddy miles, re-joining the tarmac for a spectacular descent from the mountains and back to the coast.
Back in 2012 we visited the National Centre for Contemporary Art in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, where we watched a film by Anri Sala called ‘Dammi I Colori’. This intriguing film documented former artist and Mayor of Tirana Edi Rama’s controversial project to inject a riotous array of colour into the countries Communist era buildings. Naively we knew very little else about Albania. In the film Tirana looked horrifically run down, incredibly depressing and fairly dangerous - leaving Emma and I with the feeling that it should be avoided.
Fast forward 2 years and we find ourselves at the Albanian border extremely excited at the prospect of visiting Tirana.
During early 2014 I began to read more about Albania as it became a potential stop on our new route. The countries recent history was fascinating.
After the Second World War the country became a Socialist Republic and was ruled from 1944, until his death in 1985, by Enver Hoxha. What was so shocking was Albania's self-isolationist policy and how it managed to exist in Europe during this period.
The Communist model borrowed from the Russians led to a political allegiance that was superseded in 1960 when the Russians demanded that a submarine base be set-up in Albanian territory. Bizarrely, Albania realigned itself towards Maoist China and the country experienced a Chinese-style cultural revolution; older administrators were transferred to remote areas and younger trainees placed in positions of power. The introduction of Collective Farming and a total ban on organised religion was also enforced.
The repressive political stance meant that tyrannical laws were enforced, people lived in fear of the secret police and private car ownership was banned. Until 1991 the total number of cars in Albania was only around 6000. Now the number of cars in the capital alone has increased to over 300,000 (3 in every 5 are stolen Mercedes from Western Europe).
When chairman Mao died in 1976 Albania’s unique relationship with China came to an end and the country was left completely isolated. The economy was left in tatters and food shortages became common.
The transitional period between Hoxha’s death in 1985 and the countries rebirth in 2000 saw much turmoil. The fall of communism in Albania, the last such event in Europe outside the USSR, started in December 1990 with student demonstrations. During this time most Albanians were unaware that the Berlin Wall had fallen the previous year!
During the Balkans war in the mid-1990s, Tirana experienced dramatic events such as the Albanian Rebellion that unfolded in 1997. The unrest was kick-started by failing fraudulent pyramid investment schemes endorsed by corrupt government officials. Eventually the country descended into national civil disorder and violence resulting in 2000 deaths and the government being toppled.
In 2000 Edi Rama became the mayor of Tirana. Rama entered office facing the challenges of corruption, a lack of citizen support, lawlessness and a miniscule budget. He also had the added pressure of working with European Union officials in the lead-up to Albania’s application to join the EU.
Rama, a former artist, national basketball player and writer began his term by implementing his ‘Clean and Green’ and ‘Return to Identity’ projects. Rama’s deceptively simple plan to cut crime, curb corruption and win the people over was completely unique.
The aim of Rama’s ‘Clean and Green’ project was to unite the residents of Tirana and to instill civic pride and a sense of security back to the city’s inhabitants. He planned to achieve this by reclaiming public spaces, demolishing illegal buildings around the River Lana and transforming the grey ‘Communist’ city into Europe’s most colourful capital.
Rama’s first step in reclaiming ownership of the city for the people was to paint the drab grey Communist concrete facades in vibrant colours and geometric patterns. This simple injection of colour became a focal point and the people reacted with discussion. Despite split opinions, is was the first time there was a sense of a shared public space and community.
"After communism and the events in 1997 people were lacking a sense of belonging to the country. There was a rage against everything that was a state building because it was perceived as property of the enemy… We are trying to make people understand that what is public is also yours."
Edi Rama quoted in "You've got to tear this old building down"
Throughout the 90’s hundreds of illegal kiosks and apartment buildings were constructed without planning on former public areas. Rama’s projects reclaimed public space by demolishing illegal buildings, which resulted in the production of 96,700 square metres of green land and parks. Within these spaces Rama planted nearly 55,000 trees, punctuating the grey of the city with lush green public areas.
The simple act of painting and planting wasn’t just an aesthetic change, it was a political act, which prompted social transformation and much debate. This simple rebirth and the signs of change revived the hope of the people by making them proud of their environment; crime fell, people dropped less litter and eventually a collective responsibility crept into peoples consciousness.
This painterly transformation didn’t resolve all the cities problems but it did begin to put the people first, it showed the citizens that they could have faith in their leaders once more. Despite the capitals development, Rama’s progressive efforts are not entirely understood or appreciated throughout the whole of Albania. Rama’s dramatic transformation of Tirana did however give birth to a rare breed of Balkan politician – one that drew positive interest from Western audiences.
His Twitter, Facebook and TED Talk internet presence make him a PR dream, this coupled with his proven track record meant he landed the country’s top executive position, prime minister, in 2013. He now faces the challenge of shifting the West’s perception of the country.
Some critics (mostly Rama’s political opposition) say that the facade of new Tirana is just that, a facade. Albania is still Europe’s poorest country and is plagued by drugs and arms trade, power-cuts, murders, corruption and organised crime. It may be true that not all of Albania’s ingrained problems can be solved with a lick of paint but it is certainly a good start in lifting Albania from its historical abyss.
Rama’s legacy and vibrant attitude has had, and continues to have, a lasting effect on the country. New buildings are equally as colourful as the old and not only has he restored civic pride, he has inadvertently created cultural tourism to help the countries economy. Albania completely fulfilled all my expectations and I can confirm that Edi Rama fulfilled his goal of creating the most colourful capital in Europe.
"Tirana has become the good news from Albania and has changed the image of the country. People that come here are surely surprised, because the stereotype is very strong, and is very different from the reality. And it's nice to see foreigners coming and being amazed, just amazed."
Edi Rama quoted in "You've got to tear this old building down"
It’s predominantly a German motorist tourist’s playground but if you have the time to drive the thousand miles necessary to reach Rijeka in Croatia you have a country of spectacular coastal roads to enjoy. Unfortunately this is only really an option for overlanders or travellers with an extended time period for their trip BUT an alternative is to hire a car from around €12 a day.
Our first stop was the inland National Park of Plitvice, a worthy diversion from the shimmering sea roads. 18km of wooden footbridges and walkways weave through the lakes, giving you a ducks-eye view of the magnificent waterfalls and cascades, close enough to leave splashes on your sunglasses.
Hitting the coast at Senj, we spent our first night Croatian coastal camping. Wow. The small, basic campsite was a tiny cove with just a few tree-shaded terraces. Only the bubbles of a few morning Scuba divers broke the mirror-like surface of the sea.
We headed South, the road clinging to the coast and traversing every curve and turn of the natural coastline. With the forested Velebit Mountains on our left side we cruised through quite, uninhabited stretches and sleepy fishing villages.
From Zadar south you enter the Dalmatian Coast where numerous verdant islands dot the offshore waters. From here onwards the wow factor moves up a notch, with every corner revealing another postcard picturesque view. A road atlas highlighting these roads in green as ‘scenic routes’ is an enormous understatement.
An inland diversion at Sibenik took us to Krka National Park, another stunning system of lakes, rivers and cascades. The area was made even more impressive by the recent heavy rains, creating thundering waterfalls with rainbows arched above.
Back on the shoreline we wound our away along the headland, never tiring of the endless ocean panorama shimmering in the sunlight. We arrived to the city of Split, the highlight of which is ‘Diocletian’s Palace’, one of the world’s most impressive Roman ruins. The palace is actually a fortified town, these days packed with tourists buzzing around museums, shops and restaurants. We climbed the towering, winding steps to the top of the Romanesque belfry of St Dominus’ Cathedral. From here you can enjoy a 360° vista of the city’s historic centre; a labyrinth topped with red roof tiles surrounded by church spires, modern environs and a busy Port.
No trip to Croatia would be complete without a voyage to or around some of the country’s 1,244 islands. A spontaneous hop on a boat about to leave Split Port and we were sailing into the sunset past pine-covered islands and through sea canals to the Island of Korcula. A peaceful, olive-covered haven of secluded coves and superb coastal drives.
A short ferry crossing from Korcula to Orebic and you are back on the mainland. The landscape adjacent to the coast has now become a rocky, mountainous ridge, descending sharply to the sea with just a ribbon of road cutting through the sheer rock sides.
We ended our Croatian journey in the elegant and ancient city of Dubrovnik, a must-see for its ancient city walls and marble streets.
Logistically, Croatia is well geared-up for tourism, particularly motorists thanks to the deluge of campervans. There are campsites everywhere, from fancy all-singing mega-sites, to makeshift pitches on beaches with just a tap and toilet.
Choose your timing wisely, arriving at the tail end of the season we witnessed tourists’ en-masse in several places, this burek-devouring plague dispersed by the middle of September when the still sunny country quietened dramatically.
Driving etiquette could be improved considerably; speeding is universal, tail-gating frustratingly common and basic courtesy is severely lacking. Don’t let that put you off- most of the smaller, coastal roads are much quieter than the main routes.
Our trip to the Adventure Travel Film Festival was seemingly rather inspiring. Over the last year we've shot hours and hours of (shakey) footage and despite making the odd VLOG we've never really got to grips with the 'ins and outs' of the editing software. All that is about to change. We're going to take more footage and make more films! This is a little edit of 3 months in Morocco squeezed into 2½ minutes.