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Five great hacks to make your motorbike tour hassle free.

Five great hacks to make your motorbike tour hassle free.

Top boxes, tank bags, extra lights and similar all have their special place in the adventure motorcycling scene and serve their purpose well. There are hundreds of online reviews about riding gear, luggage, cushioned seats and the latest tyre technology, all claiming to make our lives easier on the road.  Of course we’re free to pick and choose and spend our cash as we like. However, there are some simple, very affordable extras (some self made) that can make a huge difference to the comfort and quality of our rides especially on longer tours. A few may be obvious to some bikers, others perhaps not so much. Here are five I’ve learned to appreciate.

1. Tank cargo net.

 A normal cargo net (sold in most biker stores), stretched over the tank area just in front of the seat is good for storing gloves, sun glasses, small cameras, maps, pens,  hats, bit’s of paper, selfie sticks, any official document needed for upcoming border crossings, ferry tickets and so on. A cargo net on the tank area secures most stuff you generally want to keep handy both on the go and on a break at a standstill. A cargo net literally turns the tank space into a sort of dashboard and in many cases is just as good if not better than a bulky tank bag. A cargo net is cheap, practical and only needs three anchoring points on either side of the bike to be stretched into place in a few seconds. Easily removed as well.

Tank Cargo Net
Tank Cargo Net benefits.

2. Colour coded stuff bags

Ever had to rummage through your panniers for what seems like an eternity to find that extra layer of clothing or those paracetamols you need? Worse still, have you had to ask someone else to do it for you?

We all have a method for organising kit on our bikes and most will agree that finding the ideal set up is a constant work in progress with adjustments, great and small, constantly being tried out. Colour coded stuff bags are a great way organising our kit inside panniers. Stuff bags are reasonably tough, lightweight and cheap when bough in a set. They come in different sizes and fortunately in different colours too.  Think of them as separate files each distinguished by their own colour. To each colour corresponds different contents so, say… red for first aid and medication, grey for clean clothing, green for laundry, blue for chargers, cables, memory cards, batteries and so on. It all helps, especially when looking for stuff in the dark with just the tired beam of a flash light as an aid. 

Coloured Stuff Bags
Coloured Stuff Bags for filing your kit

3. Salame tool kit bag

There are toolkit bags galore to choose from on the internet, some of which are specially designed for adventure biking. There are zip bags, roll bags, fold bags with velcro, straps and plastic buckles.  However, in most cases once filled with tools these designs end up being overly bulky and difficult to carry.  The question is pretty obvious: do you really need padded packaging, pickles and zips fasteners for your spanners? No, probably not.

Salami tool kit bag closed
Salami tool kit bag closed

A cheap storing solution for sockets, drivers and wrenches is the salame tool kit bag, made out of a recycled piece of inner tube (car tyre) around 40cm in length. It’ll pretty much hold everything you need for the road: sockets, spanner’s, allen keys, ratchet wrench, all of it. The ends of the tube can be sealed by rolling, folding and then wrapping the lips with bands of extra tyre tube or strong elastic bands. The salami bag compacts the size of stored tools to a minimum, holds them securely and prevents them from rattling around. It’s light, tough, water resistant (almost water proof), cheap and easily replaceable. What more could you ask for?

Salami tool kit bag
Salami tool kit bag

4. Extra power socket.

Really a no brainier in todays gadget obsessed world. Smartphones, iPads, and other devices need to be charged to keep in touch with loved ones, picture taking and for those essential apps that aid us on our tours.  Most bikes these days come from the manufacturer with at least one cigarette lighter style power socket available, but these 12V outlets are often only powered up when the ignition is engaged. It’s good to have a plug that is permanently live and accessible say, under your seat for example. Some simple wiring from the bike battery with a fuse will do the trick.  Of course a USB adapter is also essential.

5. Large side stand foot print. 

Another important, often overlooked improvement that can make a real difference to a motorbike trip is the size of the side stand foot or ground pad. A bigger pad on the kick stand will prevent the same from digging into soft ground, and stop a bike from toppling over with luggage, accessories and perhaps an unsuspecting pillion as well.  Mud, sand, ice, even asphalt on a hot day need side stands with big foot prints in order to keep a heavy machine propped up. A bigger foot print makes parking a bike an easy, safe, care free ordeal and all it takes is a piece of hard plastic or piece of metal and some good fastening to make the difference. There are even ready-made kits available for certain bike models known to have poor side stand designs. Do not underestimate the advantages of a decent foot print.

Bike and desert 2
Large foot print at work!
Larger side stand foot print
Larger side stand foot print

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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The Golden Bolder of Burma.

The Golden Bolder of Burma.

Getting into Myanmar on a motorcycle is no easy feat. Current laws in Burma make it a bit of an obstacle for overlanders who intend to cross on their vehicles regardless of whether these be fully equipped 4 x 4 trucks or simple  pushbikes, it makes no difference. Myanmar requires careful planning and thought but that’s not to say that it can’t be done. To cross the country legally as of 2016, requires engaging the services of a certified Burmese tour operator. For a fee an operator will provide the paperwork for an “approved route”, an English speaking guide and a government official to lead a travelling party from entry border to exit. Guest houses, hotel bookings and guided tours to attractions are usually included in the package.

For any long distance biker this situation sounds like bliss as the normal inconveniences of looking for budget accommodation, camping spots, figuring out an itinerary and deciding what to visit or not are taken away and landed squarely on the tour operator’s lap. Suddenly, once you’re in the hands of a guide, you’re looked after, pampered and fed which for a short while feels great. All that needs to be done is ride, enjoy the road and the scenery of what until not so many years ago was one of the most reclusive countries in the world.

However, guides and government reps come at a cost and Myanmar’s bill is a hefty one. A seven to ten day road trip through Burma adds up to thousands of US dollars. It therefore makes sense to team up with other travellers and spread the expense of the tour amongst a larger party. Clearly, the bigger the group the cheaper it becomes for everyone involved.

I met a number of bikers on my road trip across Asia, many of whom intended to ride through Myanmar at some point in their itinerary. So,  when my turn to leave India arrived I was part of a team of seven keen overland bikers like myself, geared up and ready to meet our Burmese guide just beyond the India Myanmar border in Moreh (Manipur).

Biker Posse in Moreh, ready to cross the border
My Biker Posse in Moreh, ready to cross the border into Burma. Lucy , my bike on the far right (I took the picture).

One week to cross all of Myanmar on dusty roads and broken tracks, covering an average of around 300km per day was perhaps too fast and left little time to experience Burma’s culture and allure. The few things that I did get a chance to see and appreciate were certainly noteworthy though, like the Golden Rock for example, in Mon State not far from the Andaman Sea, west of Yangon. Bellow is an extract from my travel diary…

In Need of a Rest

We parked our motorbikes in front of the guest house on the outskirts of Kinpun with a sigh of relief. Three days on the uneven roads of Myanmar under the Asian sun had exhausted us and the signs of fatigue were clear. We brushed the dirt off our faces, turned off our engines and shuffled together around Fabian still shaken after his collision with a drunken scooter rider a little earlier in the day. Fabian was limping noticeably, he had a badly bruised foot and was clearly in pain. Luckily, his prized Royal Enfield diesel machine (yes, a diesel motorbike) showed no signs of any damage from the clash.

Perhaps it was just as well we’d made it to the foot of the Kelasa hills that evening, to one of the holiest places of buddhism in Burma. I think we all tacitly acknowledged that it was time for a rest, some peace and quiet away from the roads, fuel stops, road side cafes and riding, even if it was for just few hours.

Mount Kyaiktiyo

Mount Kyaiktiyo is home to the Golden Rock of Myanmar, an iconic landmark that attracts hundreds of devout Buddhist pilgrims and tourists every day. Perched at a height of 1,100m (3,600 ft), it consist of a roundish granite bolder perhaps 15m in diameter (50ft), that seems precariously balanced on the ridge of a steep escarpment. The main feature of the rock is the fact that it’s entirely coated in a layer of gold leaf that glistens brightly in the sun. The a gold coating is meticulously maintained (and guarded) by the local monks whilst extra precious metal is added to the rock every day by hundreds of worshippers, who queue and paste gold foil stickers on the mass as a sign of homage.

But of course, it’s not the actual rock that’s worshipped by the faithful. Balanced on top of the the golden bolder lies a 7m (20 ft) tall Stupa (small shrine) that contains relics, locks of hair, that supposedly belonged to none other than the great Buddha himself. It’s these relics that call the faithful to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Pick up trucks with padded benches
Pick up trucks with padded benches on their beds were used as a shuttle service to the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo

We discovered that the climb from the base of Mount Kyaiktiyo to its holy summit was a long and unappealing hike on an uneven trail. Tired as we were from our long ride that day we opted for whatever public transport we could find for our Golden Rock tour. In the end, we followed the locals and did as they did: pile into the back of a truck and then hold on for the rollercoaster ride on a narrow mountain track to the top of the Kyaiktiyo.

The views from Kyaiktiyo were stunning. Once more Myanmar revealed how exceptionally green it was with lush undisturbed valleys stretching far towards the horizon. I admired the sight with touch of wonder hoping that what I saw would survive so called “development” unavoidably on it’s way Myanmar.

Green Burma
View of the green valleys from the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo

The feeling of calm, the pleasant views and the cool mountain air were soothing and relaxing, it was what I had hoped for and needed after the long rides of the previous days. No doubt it had the same effect on my travel buddies whom I noticed were lost in gazes their own.

From the truck stop we strolled on a paved path towards the Rock and its shrine. Around us, there were no other western tourists that day. Most prominent of all were “holy men” of some kind, priests perhaps or worshipers deep in prayer. One elderly monk with a crimson robe and tall hat muttered words of a mantra and took painstakingly short, slow steps towards the shrine ahead.

Holy Man
Most prominent of all were  “holy men” of some kind, priests perhaps or worshipers in prayer.

The Golden Rock

Another turn on the path and the Golden Rock suddenly appeared majestically in the distance, glowing in the sun, bulging from the backdrop of a dark blue cloudless sky.
There was a small procession of people, queuing to get within arm’s length of the Rock’s surface and I decided to hurry on to see if I could join the queue myself. First though, being so close to holy relics, I was required to remove all footwear as is the customary in places of buddhist worship. Then, for a couple of dollars, I bought a strip of sticky gold leaf foil from a stall and silently joined the line.

Only men are permitted to within touching distance of the Golden Rock for reasons not even the locals know. Women are relegated to a small prayer area 10m (30ft) away from its surface.

As I got closer to the granite mass I noticed to my astonishment that it really was precariously balanced on its perch without any obvious added anchoring to protect it from the drop below. Bizarrely there was a sizeable gap underneath the rock that you could see straight through. I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen to Buddha’s sacred relics in the event of even just a minor earthquake.

The Golden Rock with my overland travel buddies.
The Golden Rock with my overland travel buddies.

My turn finally came and I respectfully stuck my gold leaf sticker alongside tens of worshipers doing exactly the same thing. I wished the rock and the contents of its shrine a long and safe life for the benefit of the many pilgrims that visited the place every day.

Was it worth it?

I found the Golden Rock of Mount Kyaiktiyo an interesting tour and certainly worth a visit. Like most of Myanmar it’s still a relatively unknown attraction to mass tourism and the place holds a lot of authenticity.
There are holy men and women, monks and pilgrims on the path to the shrine, some of whom appear lost in thought and prayer. This creates a dose of real mysticism which is harder and harder to find these days anywhere in the world. Of course on the path to the shrine there are also stalls selling food, refreshments and souvenirs for those so inclined but these don’t seem to interfere with the general character of the place. I’m glad I went and would recommend a trip to the Rock to those who intend to visit Burma.

Back on the Road

As we all climbed back onto our motorbikes the following day for the push to the Thai border, there were smiles on everyone’s faces. Even Fabian was feeling refreshed. It almost seemed as though there was some healing power in that golden lump of granite we visited the day before, or maybe it was the holy relics that did the trick, who knows?

Meal at the side of the road
Meal by the side of the road

An ominous warning
An ominous warning that can be found at the passport office as you enter Burma at Moreh. 

For overlanders heading towards Myanmar either from Thailand or India I can say that I was very pleased with the “Motor Customised Tour” arranged for my posse of motorcycle adventurers by :

Burma Senses Travel and Tours

www.BurmaSenses.com

Tel: +84 4 6273 2655

In particular  Miss Win Aung worked tirelessly to put the members of our group together, help us out with visas and permits. It all fell into place in the end and although we all opted for a quick crossing of country we didn’t miss out on the main attractions including Bagan, Mandalay and Naypyidaw. Burma is beautiful and exciting.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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Blowpipe Kelabit wannabe.

Blowpipe Kelabit wannabe.

I finally  reached a Kelabit long house after a week long hike in the Sarawak jungle. My guide told me that the plan was to rest and continue the trek the following day.

Looking forward to the luxury of a mattress that night I took off my muddy boots and laid down my rug sack at the entrance of the Kelabit house dwelling whilst an elderly local stood and stared at me with a smile. He approached and spoke while my guide translated his words.

“We’re going out hunting tonight” he said hesitantly. “We’ll leave just after sun set. You can come along if you wish but you should try to make yourself useful”.

I didn’t quite know what he meant as he shuffle to the far end of the long house to pick up what looked like some sort of a spear. “Here’s a blowpipe”, he said as he handed  the pole over to me. “I’ll show you how to use it,  but you need to practice this afternoon”.

“A trek in the forest after dark, hunting with the locals, using a blowpipe, what could possibly go wrong?” I thought to myself. It sounded too good an experience to miss.

Forest Canopy from the plane

Sarawak forest canopy seen from my flight to the Bario highlands.

The Kelabit

The Kelabit are an indigenous people, native to the highlands of Bario, Sarawak (northern Borneo), not far from the border with Brunei. Up until a few decades ago this ethnic group lived in almost total isolation, shielded from the outside world by what used to be thick, impenetrable jungle.

First “real contact” with the Kelabit communities occurred during the second world war when a number able men from their community were trained by the Australians to fight the Japanese occupying forces.  Then, during the fifties and sixties it was the turn of the missionaries from the western world who reached the Kelabit communities to converted the, with success, to Christianity.  In more recent years, rampant timber and palm oil industries have devoured most (if not all ) the jungle that separated the Bario Highlands from the coastal areas of Borneo and put an end to Kelabit isolation.

A Kelabit Elder
A Kelabit Elder

Traditionally Kelabit hamlets thrive around the “long house”. These are wooden constructions home to extended family groups of tens of individuals generally dedicated to farming, hunting and fishing. According to a 2012 census the size of the Kelabit community stands currently at around six thousand however, many Kelabits no longer live in their native highland area. A considerable portion of the community have relocated to the urban centres of Miri, Bintulu, Sibu and further still.

Kelabit Lady with traditional pendants
Kelabit Lady with traditional pendants

Traditional Kelabit heritage calls for striking body adornments. The most notable of these are tattoos on arms and legs (mostly for for the ladies) and heavy pendants, worn by both sexes, that can stretch ear lobes to well below shoulder hight.

Target Practice

I struggled to figure out how to handle the blowpipe I was given that day. Luckily the Kelabit elder I had spoken to earlier gave me a demonstration of what to do.

He held the blowpipe in one hand and briskly placed a wooden dart into the hollow with the other. Some 20 to 25 meters away in front of the long house entrance was a a worn cardboard target pinned to a tree. My teacher inhaled deeply, brought the pipe to his lips and squinted as he took aim holding the pipe steady. Then suddenly his cheeks puffed up like two small balloons an with a single burst of the lungs the dart shot out from the end of the pole faster than the eye could see.  It hit the target, punctured the bark on the tree behind it and half buried itself in the wood with a dry knock. I could tell that what I had witnessed was a fatal stab delivered with surgical precision.

I was impressed.  My tutor knew what he was doing and had made sure I was aware of the standards I needed to match.  As he handed the blowpipe back to me I felt perplexed wondering how I could possibly hope to reach mastery in the space of an afternoon.

I spent the following hours on a quest to gain a minimum of blowpipe competence. My initial efforts were pathetic, my darts travelled no further than a few feet from where I stood and then twirled to the ground lamely. They were hardly lethal shots.

Blowpipe practice
Blowpipe practice

I persisted though and gradually improved. My wooden little arrows started to travel further and further although none made it close to the cardboard target on the tree. In the end I had shot several dozen darts into oblivion, gained some sore cheek muscles and risked passing out to hyperventilation. It was not going well, but I put my best efforts into the practice session hoping not to disappoint anyone later in the evening.

The Hunting Posse

As the sun came down that evening a small party of five men gathered in front of the long house ready for the hunt. I joined them with my guide, my weapon in hand and a fist full of darts ready for use.

My hunting pals looked at me bemused.

“What are you doing with that thing?” asked a hunter pointing to my blowpipe. I felt confused, what did he mean?

“ I’ve been practicing all afternoon” I replied.

Another Kelabit gentleman
Another Kelabit gentleman

Everyone sniggered

“You wont need that” he replied.

“That’s just a toy for tourists” said another.

“We use shot guns for hunting” said a third as he revealed a two barrel shooter from under his cape.

I’m sure the ensuing laughter that erupted from my friends could be clearly heard  echoing across the Kelabit highlands that evening. The joke was squarely on me and my naivety.

I took it all with a smile, nonchalantly placed the pipe and darts back in the long house and joined the the hunting party again this time armed with nothing more than a flashlight. The chuckling however, continued long after we all disappeared in the bush.

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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Georgetown, Penang

Georgetown, Penang

It sometimes feels as though there’s a drive, not to mention unspoken competition, between the larger cities of the world to create iconic architecture and flaunt this as a symbol of local pride. Some older historic towns of the world have always had options available for this. Rome for example has the Coliseum, Barcellona has the Sagrada Familia,  Paris perhaps the Eiffel Tower and Moscow always shows off  St. Basil’s’ Cathedral.

In recent years some extraordinary feats of engineering have been completed in the Middle and Far East and there are currently some very stunning modern icons of architecture to be added to the list above. The Burg Khalifa in Dubai, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, the Taipei 101 building in Taiwan and the Shard (a real abomination)  in London are just some examples of the latest arrivals. They all seem to add a touch of extra glamour to the cities they belong to, and certainly promote tourism greatly. It remains to be seen though how many will withstand the test of time.

Kids on a Bike.
Children a bike, street art in Penang

In it’s own small way, colonial Georgetown on the island of Penang in Malaysia has found a clever (and certainly less costly) way to promote itself and attract masses of younger tourists.  Steering away from colossal works of architecture, Georgetown has placed itself firmly on the tourist trail by embracing stylish street art as a way of embellishing its narrow alleys and fading building facades. For this it employed several talented street artists from around the globe and encouraged them to use the town as a canvas.  The results are fascinating to say the least.

The Oarsman
Some interesting wall art here with “The Oarsman”.

One young artist in particular, Ernest Zacharevic from Lithuania, set the standards very high back in 2012 with some clever and engaging work. Ernest’s  “Kids on a Bicycle” and “Boy on a Chair” murals are eye catching, good examples of the artist’s creative style and are favourites with the visiting crowds around town.

Boy on a chair
This scene looks so realistic it’s hard not to stop and stare.

The murals in Georgetown have proven to be a huge success. Teams of backpackers fill the town’s many guest houses and spend days roaming the narrow streets seeking out the bigger than life paintings. There are mapped itineraries to follow, with or without a guide, available at every hostel to make sure nothing is missed of what there is to see. A walk around town admiring the murals can take several hours, but it’s definitely worth the effort.

Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.
Night life, in the George Town area of Penang.

Of course there’s night life in Georgetown as well especially around the Love Lane area. Plenty of bars and clubs here with live bands, music and cheap beer to enjoy.

I liked  Georgetown and it’s street art a lot. It has a friendly and relaxed vibe which was exactly what I needed at the time of my visit.

The Biker
My favourite! Always help a biker in need…

Penang was also my departure point for Sumatra, Indonesia.  Lucy (my motorbike) was ferried across the Malacca Strait on two day voyage on board the Setia Jaya, a well known cargo vessel that has ferried the machines of hundreds of overland bikers throughout the years.

Setia Jaya
At the harbour in Penang waiting to load Lucy (my bike) on the Setia Jaya,

I was separated from my beloved motorbike as it travelled to Indonesia for no less than 5 days. No damage, no mishaps, all good!

Setia Jaya docks in Penang
The Setia Jaya cargo freighter that has been used by hundreds of overland bikers to ferry their machines from Malaysia to Sumatra in Indonesia.
Hair, trees and birds
Hair, trees and birds

Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.

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Route around the Dolomites

Route around the Dolomites

The Dolomites in Italy are definitely one of the most scenic areas of the Alps. They offer spectacular views, heaps of outdoor adventure, an interesting mix of Italo-Germanic culture and of course, some of the finest motorcycle rides one could hope for.

But where to start? Where to go so as to not miss out on the world class scenery and attractions? Below is a motorcycle tour of the Dolomites that spans from the town of Trento close to lake Garda, east towards Belluno and then north to the border with Austria. It continues back to Bolzano and the Adige Valley from where the Brenner Pass can be reached within a couple of hours heading north or lake Garda and Verona, south.  

The route reflects the loop I followed over the course of a week and includes the better known beauty spots of the Dolomite range, or at least, the ones not to be missed. There are suggestions for camp sites, cheap accommodation and where to snack without spending a fortune.

The loop can take anything from four to seven days or even longer depending on just how much of a leisurely pace you choose. It’s tempting to stay longer than a day at any of the lake side camp sites available or perhaps even try some hiking over a weekend.  The weather can play it’s part in lengthening or shortening the tour as well. Showers and thunderstorms are a constant in the Dolomites and next to sudden rain fall will dampen the spirits of even the keenest of bikers without wet weather gear.

Any time between May to October is ideal for a tour in the Dolomites although I personally recommend the months of May and June as the best time of all. This is when the guest houses and camp sites offer the better deals, the roads are less congested by holiday makers and the days are long, warm and dry enough. However, that’s not to say that the months between July and October should be avoided but come early autumn it’s not unheard of for early snow to make an appearance with the closure of some of the higher mountain passes.

Day One 

Two of the most likely scenarios at the start of the tour are that you’ve either spent some time on Lake Garda or you’ve just made it to Trento via the Brenner Pass from Austria. In either case Trento is starting point of the itinerary.

Trento offers some interesting sites such as the a medieval cathedral (Duomo del Buonconsiglio) and a modern interactive science museum known as Muse for those with an interest in technology. However, for relaxing views and a first taste of alpine lakeside bliss it’s best to head straight to the laghi (lakes) of Caldonazzo and Levico found just beyond the entrance to Val Sugana (Sugana valley) along Strada Statale (State Road) SS47. 

The two lakes are juxtaposed side by side, separated by a mountainous spur know as the Colle Di Tenna. Both tarns are framed by well manicured lawns, pine trees and peaceful (albeit pricey) campsites that offer level grass pitches by the water’s edge. Don’t expect to spend anything less than 30€ for the privilege though and keep in mind that wild camping is illegal anywhere in the area.

Levico is the quieter of the two lakes and possibly the most attractive as well.  It doesn’t have a rail track running on its southern rim which is something that mildly disturbs the peace around Caldonazzo. A night spent snoozing on either of the lake’s grassy banks plus a dip in the fresh water is guaranteed to wash away all exhaustion from the hot Italian  sun.

Lake Levico
Lake Levico, perfect place to cool off.

Plenty of eateries in the area offer local cheeses and salami to try out. A cheaper option of course is always pizza. Cappuccinos and croissants are readily available for breakfast at any bar by the water.

If there’s time to spare after arriving at Levico then a 30km ride north to the Piramidi di Segonzano (the Segonzano Pyramids) is worth the effort. Here you’ll find a set of towering pinnacles, each about ten metres or so high, similar to the “Fairy Chimnieys” of Cappadocia in Turkey. Anyone with an interest in geology or landscape photography will find Segonzano interesting if not inspiring, revues however, are mixed.

Day Two

After a morning spent cooling off at lake Levico (or Caldonazzo) some real motorcycle riding thrills await further east along the SS47 past the villages of Roncegno, Telve and into the Calamento Valley (Val di Calamento). Here, a narrow mountain road winds uphill under the shade of pinewood forests towards Passo Manghen (2047m), the first mountain pass of our tour. Rocky dolomite outcrops appear at every switchback on the road, wildlife (deer) can be spotted if you’re lucky in the woods. It’s handy bear in mind that this part of the southern Dolomites has a reputation for being particularly wet with lots of rain (or snow), so appropriate riding gear should be kept handy.

The views become more and more impressive as you ride closer to the Manghen pass but on an overcast, grey day it’s not uncommon  for mist to obscure the landscape. Watch out for other bikers in the fog but most of all beware of cyclists that carry no lighting at all and can appear suddenly, unannounced like ghosts on the side of the road. Some will be riding their bicycles, others, exhausted, will more likely be pushing them and gasping for breath.

At every pass on the Dolomites there is at least one so called “rifugio” i.e. a restaurant/guest house with hot drinks, hot meals, beer, wine and a log fire if temperatures are low. There are usually rooms for over night stays as well but accommodation is not always cheap. A hot chocolate, I find, is a good excuse for a stop to check out a rifugio especially if you’ve been drenched by the rain.

Passo Manghen
Passo Manghen with it’s inviting rifugio.

After Passo Manghen, the twisties continue all the way down into Val Candino where the mountain road joins SS48 towards the towns of Cavalese and Predazzo. Further on, SS50 leads to Passo Rolle.

Passo Rolle is one of the great well known passes of the Dolomites with spectacular views of the “Pale Di San Martino” massif. Huge, jagged dolomite cliff faces make the Pale an impressive sight to behold and best admired in the evening as the sun sinks low on the horizon. This is when cliff faces reflect the sun’s rays and turn into astonishing shades of pink, yellow and crimson. Great photo opportunities here for those with camera skills. 

Passo Rolle
Passo Rolle and a glimpsed of the Pale di San Martino in the background.

Accommodation at Passo Rolle is costly and always in high demand. A cheaper alternative for the night is to head a little further north to Passo Valles where a warm clean room and shelterred parking for motorbikes is available for around 30€ at “Rifugio Capanna”. Staff are friendly, food is good, breakfast is included in the price and there’s a massive St. Bernard dog called Anton that charms and befriends all guests.

Rifugio Capanna
Rifugio Capanna, a good place to stay.

Day Three

A hot breakfast at Rifugio Capanna (Passo Valles) and then back on the road again heading towards Falcade and Agordo on SS203. 

Agordo offers an excellent excuse for a second breakfast or extra coffee stop. Piazza della Libertà is picturesque and a good place to indulge in a little people watching while sitting outside with the locals at one of the bars in the square. 

Just beyond Agordo there are signposts for Passo Duran along SS347. The route to the pass is narrow but well maintained and there are persistent views en route of the Moiazza massif (3000m) and Mount Civetta (3220m). 

Passo Duran might appear a little underwhelming but rifugio Cesare Tome is a good place for lunch if you skipped the earlier stop in Agordo. The rifugio is a popular biker stop and it’s not unusual to find the parking area congested with machines with Austrian and German plates.

The road to Passo Duran
Scenery on the road to Passo Duran

Further north east along SS347 comes Passo Cibiana. Passo Cibiana offers some interesting views of the Sassolungo massif, but the best part of SS347 awaits after the pass. The final stretches of this road, just before the intersection with SS51 and the Caldonazzo main road, are amazing. There are a set of  switchbacks here on the final climb to the mentioned intersection that are worth a stop to admire.  The road coils and seems to almost fall on top of itself as it spirals uphill. Switch back after switchback the the road rests on little more than a slither of  a rocky perch. The setting is beautiful the engineering remarkable.

SS51 leads to lake Pieve di Cadore, an ineteresting artificial damn built in the 1950s. Camping Columbia on the far side of the water (opposite the main road) is clean, quiet and offers peaceful pitches for around 15€ per night. 

Further north from Lake Cadore there’s the rather bland Passo S. Antonio that leads on to Passo di Monte Croce di Comelico. Here, the imposing cliff faces of the Croda Rossa offer a first glimpse of the “Sexten” Dolomite complex. Best viewed at dawn the cliff faces look to the east and are smothered in dim grey blue light in the later hours of the day. There’s plenty of camping space just beyond the Comelico pass at the aptly named “Camping Sexten” (open all the year round). The camp site offers a spa, tree houses, a swimming pool and a restaurant with local dishes to enjoy. There’s always space for a biker, even at the height of the season. Management allowed me to pitch my tent next to the swimming pool for a night.

Day 4 

Best to get an early start from the Sexten camp site and return to the Comelico pass for excellent coffee and croissants served at the local rifugio. Then, it’s back along the SS52 to Val Pusteria and the busy E66 route to Brunico (Bruneck).  After Dobbiacco the route turns off to Lago di Braies (Lake Braies), one of the most beautiful and photographed lakes of the Dolomites. 

Lake Bries is simply stunning. The waters are turquoise, calm and reflect the huge Dolomite cliffs of Croda di Becco towering in the background at just under 3000m. There are wooden rowing boats for hire for those who want to indulge in some exercise and there’s an interesting two hour path that loops the lake, well worth the effort in my opinion.

Lago di Braies
Beautiful lake Braies

August is the height of the tourist season and there can be crowds that flock to the area occasionally turning lake Braies into a bit of a tourist trap. The best way to avoided the masses is to get to the lake earlier in the day (perhaps 8am) before the tourist busses park their herds of holiday makers by the water’s edge. It’s also cooler earlier in the day which makes hiking  the lakeside path a little less harsh.

Lake Braies needs at least two to three hours to be enjoyed. Swimming is allowed but the water is surprisingly cold and not many challenge their resilience beyond a knee deep wade. There’s history here too with the local rifugio being used  briefly as a POW detention centre for higher ranking opposers to Nazi occupation during WW2.   

Once satisfied with lake Braies it’s back eastwards on the E55 towards the border with Austria. Just before  Dobbiaco there’s a turn to the right onto SS51 and the Leandro valley that leads to Cortina d’Ampezzo. 

SS51 is a busy route with trucks, busses and caravans to contend with. Don’t be tempted to stop at any of the road side eateries on this stretch of road as prices are extortionately high for anything more than Ceaser salad and a glass of water.  Watch out for the turn off onto SS48b (for Lago di Misurina) which can be easily missed. Before reaching lake Misurina there are sign posts for the “Strada Panoramica”, the route that leads to the Tre Cime di Lavaredo (Three Peaks of Lavaredo). The road is open from May until mid October and exerts a hefty toll for all vehicles, no less than 20€ (as of 2018) for motorbikes. The Strada Panoramica it’s roughly 7km long, it’s meticulously maintained and although the toll is steep I personally recommend paying the cash and enjoying the short ride all the way to the Cime. The views on the final stretch are like no other in all the Dolomites and will almost certainly be remembered as the main highlight of the tour.

The car park at the end of the road sits at the foot of the imposing “Cima Ovest” (western peak) which hides the remaining Cima Piccola (Little Peak) and Cima Grande (Big Peak) from view. 

Cima Ovest  dominates the vista towards north entirely but the views away towards south on the Cadini and Marmarole Group heights are spectacular. Rifugio Auronzo next to the car park serves hot meals in self service style and the vistas from the rifugio terrace are some of the best available.  

Rifugio Auronzo
Rifugio Auronzo, starting point for the Cime di Lavaredo hike

If you fancy some hiking then Sentiero 101 (Path 101) aka “Giro delle Tre Cime”, is an easy stroll  that from Rifugio Auronzo that leads to Rifugio Lavaredo, Rifugio Locatelli and back again to Auronzo.  It can take anything from three to five hours to complete on a good cloud free day but allows for some impressive photography of the Lavaredo peaks and some cool mountain air. The path can be crowded on any August day, be warned. 

Back on the bike along the Strada Panoramica, Lake Misurina is next on the itinerary.  Stunning views once more along lake’s water edge with the Serapis massif imposing itself in the background. Lots of road side stops here to enjoy the scenery and a snack.

Lake Misurina
Lake Misurina

Cortina d’Ampezzo is expensive and exclusive. Prices for a lodging soar to way beyond 100€ a night at the cheapest of guest houses and motels. It’s best to book well in advance for the better deals if you intend to stay here otherwise push on beyond. 

East of Cortina lies Passo Giau, one of the most acclaimed and better known passes of the Dolomites and an all time favourite within the biking community. To reach it head east away from Cortina along SS48 and then take the turning onto SS638. No doubt there will be a steady procession of motorcyclists heading for the well known pass at any time during the hours of daylight so simply tagging along with the posse is often all that needs to be done to reach the pass. 

The road to the Giau is amazing especially towards the evening as sunset approaches. There are  towering dolomite cliffs to admire all around that include: Pale di San Martino, the Marmolada peaks, the Sella Group, the  Tofane massif, the Sexten Dolomites and the Cristallo Group elevations.

The pass itself is placed at the foot of some rocky outcrops known as the Towers of Nuvolau (2.574 m) and Averau (2.647 m) that are pretty impressive on their own. There’s plenty of parking space in front of the Berghotel but occasionally at weekends it’s becomes so crowded with machines from all over Europe (and beyond) that finding a space to park a bike can be challenging. 

Passo Giau
Passo Giau with it’s Nuvolau and Averau peaks.

The Berghotel is an excellent stop for a coffee or a snack. At sun set photographers flock to the grassy meadows around the Nuvolau and Averau peaks to capture some of the landscapes magic. These days it’s not unusual to see the odd drone or two hovering as well.

Accommodation in this area is tough to find and there are no camp sites in the area either. Wild camping is strictly forbidden but asking for permission to pitch up a tent in sombody’s back yard/field/land, not too far from the pass, can yield pleasant surprises, weather and temperature permitting. Failing that, the nearest camp sites are a 30 minute ride south to Alleghe, or along the SS251 towards Forni di Zoldo.

Day 5

From Passo Giau our itinerary leads on to Passo Falzarego and Passo Valparola both on SS244. The track to Passo Falzarego is a typical alpine road with plenty of switchbacks to enjoy. Watch out for the locals on sports bikes who know the roads like the back of their hands, some of whom are well versed in sliding around corners to the ultimate limit of their Pirelli tyres.

Passo Falzarego emerges from the pine wooded road with a stunning rocky ridge as a backdrop known as the Lagazuoi peak. There is a cable car here that takes visitors to the top of the craggy mountain and I noticed a hefty queue of hikers waiting for a lift to the top. The area around Lagazuoi is known for some particularly violent clashes that took place here during the  First World War between Austrian and Italian forces. Between the Falzarego and Valparola passes there’s a restored Austrian fort (Forte Tre Sassi) that now hosts a very interesting museum displaying  artefacts from recovered from the trenches dug and defended locally during the Great War.  It’s definately worth a visit for the few Euros the ticket costs. 

The descent to Passo Valparola is once more stunningly beautiful with a views of the Sella and Puez Group dolomite ranges all around. The route on SS243 leads to the Gardena Pass, definitely my favourite pass of the Dolomites.

Passo Gardena is renowned as much as Passo Giau and Rolle not so much for the rifugio nor the switchbacks that lead to the pass but for the the majestic vistas of the Sella Group Massifs that can be admired. Also, heading West into Gardena valley along  SS243, the carves into the foot of a towering rocky escarpment, an engineering marvel and a  spectacle both to ride and to behold from a distance. Perhaps this stretch of the itinerary is the most worthy contender for the title of “most awe inspiring road” of the Dolomites. 

The road from Passo Gardena
The road from Passo Gardena

Further on along the SS243, at the junction with SS242 the route makes turn south towards Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi and the Marmolada glacier. 

Passo Sella is quaint and quiet. The three peaks that frame the rifugio and the pass are known as the Sassolungo (tallest), Cinque Dita (middle) and Punta Grohmann. A small biker bar with a dedicated bike park makes a perfect stop to sip on a cappuccino or grab a meal and admire the views from a table. 

In recent years (2017-2018) there’s been an attempt to limit traffic to the Sella Pass on week days. No more than 350 vehicles per day are allowed from Mondays to Fridays between the months of July and August. The rule is fiercely contested by the locals who thrive on tourism and it remains to be seen if attempts to limit traffic will continue in the future. 

Passo Pordoi seems a little bleak after riding through Giau, Gardena and indeed the Sella Passes but should not be overlooked for the interesting views it still offers. Passo Campolongo is only a short ride after Pordoi and is equally enchanting.

Bike park at Passo Sella
Bike park at Passo Sella

Further south on to SS641 we head for the the heights of the Marmolada range and a glimpse of what little remains of the Marmolada glacier. The road has a few short tunnels and plagued by road works (as of 2018). From the Lake Fedaia there are some misty views of the Marmolada massif (3342m) to be admired but not much of the the great ice plough can be seen at all. A testament to global warming some might say.

The road that leads up to Marmolada continues East towards Caprile and Passo Giau. However, our route at this stage leads back down from lake Fedaia on SS641 to Val di Fassa and then south to any of the many roads that lead to the Adige valley via Bolzano. The highway to Lake Garda or Verona is always a better choice than heading north to the Brenner Pass.

Verona, Italy
Stunning Verona. Beautiful Roman town close to Lake Garda.

 

View of Lake Garda
View of Lake Garda from Riva

 It’s possible to spend less than 100€ day on a tour as described above. A full tank of fuel of around 16 litres costs anything between 20€ and 25€, cheap panini can replace a restaurant meal and camp sites can be found for less than 20€ per night.

Make sure to pack waterproof riding gear but equally bring along some sun block for when the sun is shining…..enjoy!

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