Fire, wind and new year

After the expensive exit from Georgia I entered Azerbaijan through a border crossing on the foothills of the Caucasus. The weather had been beautiful, but the day would soon come to an end … the overstaying-issue took a few hours longer than expected. The Azeri officials were rather efficient and didn’t make a big fuzz out of me traveling without the proper vehicle documents. What intrigued them much more was a sticker of the Armenian flag on my motorbike, aligned with all the other countries Harry and I had crossed so far.

I was called to the first window: passport control. ‘Where have you been? Which countries?’ and so I started off in Holland, pointing my finger on the imaginary map I drew up in the air, summing up the countries but I was quickly interrupted. ‘Armenia?’ . ‘Yes, also Armenia’ I confirmed. A third official appeared at the window in front of me. ‘Armenia?’ as if he wanted me to confess to him in person as well … ‘yes’ I tried to say as neutral as I could. ‘Where? Which places?’ Each town I mentioned was written on a list. ‘Why?’ The tone was getting a little sharper. ‘Tourist’ I replied brief and clear. ‘Why so much time?’ … I’m not sure what they want to hear now. ‘Only once’ I try. ‘No! 2 weeks!’ An intriguing glance … I try to turn the tide by smiling, saying: ‘in Azerbaijan I’ll stay 1 month!’ The distraction-tric works and they start entering my data in their system. I’m being called back again to my bike, where some men are still discussing about the stickers. ‘Where’s the Azerbaijan flag?’ they ask. ‘Still in my bag. I will put it on there, as soon as I’m actually in the country’ I respond. They tell me to take off all my luggage and put it through the X-ray machine. Normally I try to skip this exercise by opening the bags and pulling out some stuff, but this doesn’t seem to be the right moment for insubordinate behavior.

All is ok. Just a few more pieces of paper, paying at another terminal to get
motorbike insurance, and off I go. By the time I enter Azerbaijan darkness is setting in. I don’t like to ride in the dark. But even less looking for a wild camp spot in the dark, let along right along the border. And so I carry on until a simple hotel some 30 km further.

Azerbaijan

Starting the day in a new country, a few things occur to me quite quickly. First of all: the amount of police force on the street. Serious looking men, fully equipped with ‘corrective tools’ for disobedient citizens. The fur hats (which make them look like they just walked away from a Russian film set) are they only warm and friendly part to their appearance. With screaming whistles they don’t only tell someone across the street that he can’t park there; it also reinforces the signal: ‘don’t mess with the authorities!’. I keep a close look at my speedometer and do my best to be a good girl checking all the regulatory boxes. All that has been recorded on the 1 million CCTV cameras that I’ve spotted (and probably another 2 million that I didn’t see) throughout the country … big brother is watching you!

Second what I notice, is the optic similarity between the local currency – Manat – and the Euro. Why this is, remains a mystery to me throughout my visit. The bank notes as well as the coins have exactly the same colors, print theme, font, and sizes as the Euro – but different value (2 Manat for approximately 1 Euro).

It appears to me when I look for some local food, which is extremely cheap … and tasty! There’s the third observation: Azerbaijan reminds me a lot of Turkey. Facial expressions and physical appearance of the people; products in the supermarket; street food; signs and signals along the road and also the language hold great similarities between the two countries. The population being predominantly Muslim, women’s dress code seems little restrictive and the minarets are a lot less imposing. I miss the calling for prayers through creaking speakers, but enjoy the fresh döner, ayran and smoked dried cheese just like I did in Turkey.

Karvanseray – where ancient traders on the Silk Route would sell their goods and stay overnight

The old town of Shäki makes a convenient stop; the old caravanserray literally brings me back to the Silk Route – finally it sinks in, that I’m back on the road again. The 18th century built palace of the Khans is worth a visit: the sun shining through the numerous small pieces of colored glas in a wooden latticework without the use of nails or screws is a lovely sight. Mosaic on the outside, with a majestic big old plane trees and a pond with plastic flowers in front of the building; an Albanian church, some over-excited stray dogs and a cat jumping into the open window of an old Lada parked up round up my day with a smile.

Big smile

After too much tarmac, I accidentally reach a nice stretch of dirt road. The child in me instantly awakes; Harry is acting like a young boy and we’re having the best time since we’re back together. The track leads along the mountains and then across them. I’m looking for a place to lay down for the night, but the wind is picking up. I can’t find any shelter in the barren, empty landscape. And so I continue – again longer than desired. But with a big smile – looking forward to all the dirt roads that are awaiting me this year!

Reliving Patagonia

The wind turns brutal; almost blows me off my bike as I enter the city. Luckily I gained some practice in Patagonia before, but it’s no fun. Storm and rain force me to stay in Baku for a few days, where it turns out to be new year: Novrus. Not one day, but five. Offices, shops, museums all closed, but great atmosphere among the crowds celebrating also the arrival of spring time. Patches of grass everywhere, with nuts that you can pick from; music to which children and adults spontaneously start to perform their traditional dances; local delicacies and snacks all provide a much more lively way to tap into this country.

Azerbaijan has oil – and that’s no secret. I’m amazed by the oil mills in the middle of urban areas; in some places like Yanar Dag gas comes straight out of the earth. It’s naturally burning non-stop, although diminishing over the recent years. Ateshgah – a fire temple where Zoroastrians used to worship the 7 holes with natural, eternal fire. Until the petroleum plants and pipelines arrived …

Soon you can read all about the molested Armenian-flag, and how I ended up playing table tennis with an Azeri champion here.


When I entered Georgia for the 3rd time, late October 2018, I asked the authorities at the border how long I could stay. ‘One year’ they said – perfect. That would leave all options open for me to stay here during the winter months i.e. to work in a ski area, or to move elsewhere and leave my bike behind until springtime. Circumstances made me decide for the latter and I was extremely lucky to have Guesthouse Vertigo offering me to host Harry while I was away. Shortly after my return, early March 2019, I moved on to cross the border to Azerbaijan. My passport was checked – again and again –  I tried to explain the coming and going stamps in my passport, one with vehicle, the other without … but that wasn’t the issue. One of the officials took my documents inside the office; I was told to park the bike and to wait. That didn’t sound too good.

Especially since I didn’t carry my official documents for the motorbike; the vehicle registration card must have stayed behind in Holland somehow together with some other important pieces of paper that disappeared from the radar. I just tried my luck to cross with copies … the worst they could do was sending me back, right? Then I would just ask my family to send me a new vehicle document … the worst scenario couldn’t be too bad, right? I sticked to my plan – Harry was really mine after all, so it shouldn’t be an issue to move on with him and the copied documents … True. That wasn’t too much of a problem. What caused the tumult was exceeding the maximum period of 90 days that my bike was allowed to stay in Georgia. 90 days??? Yes, 90 days. After that, you pay a fine. 50 Lari per day. But not more than a maximum of 1000 Lari. The paperwork was being drawn up for me to pay the 1000 Lari (appr. 350 Euros) … No way! Yes, these are the rules – Georgian law. What about the one year? That was for me, not for the bike. I requested the relevant laws to be handed to me in English; buying me time to think and come up with an idea how to avoid paying this fine … but there was no escape. If I wouldn’t pay, I could exit the country but Harry had to stay behind. So there was no other choice than to take my loss, and learn my lesson. An expensive lesson! On a 500 Euro budget per month, 350 Euro is a lot of money: 70% of my monthly budget gone in a day … without even knowing if I would be able to cross into Azerbaijan without my original documents!

Georgia has been a true highlight of my trip, but this just felt like a kick in the back. Sure, it was my mistake: I should have read all the laws and rules when getting here, and before leaving my bike behind. Yes, they had all the right to charge me this fine. But still, it makes me leave with a bitter taste after so many sweet experiences in this country.

Bye bye beautiful Georgia!

I’m homeless. Officially since I closed the door of the last place I lived, August 2016. But it didn’t feel like that; I considered my tent to be my home – my sweet little mobile home: every day in a different place. I loved it!

Until something started to bother me. Despite being outdoors, in the woods, on the beach, up in the mountains – anywhere really – I still felt like my little cocoon was cutting me off from the outside world as soon as I closed the zippers. And so I started to sleep outside, next to my tent. Questioned myself if it made sense to carry a tent at all, if I preferred to sleep under the stars anyway … I talked to a few other travelers about the idea of continuing my trip with only a bivy bag and a simple tarp; they called me crazy.

They said I would regret it. That I was taking it to the extremes.

I disagreed, but I asked: Why? Because you need a tent.

What for? Just so, they said.

Reconsideration time

I started to doubt my idea. Maybe we all need a house, a tent in my case. But I strongly felt my desire to see what animals are visiting me at night … to feel the first touch of sunlight on my face in the morning … to notice the temperature drop just before sunrise and the breeze that comes with it … The desire to literally sleep under the stars. Simple as that.

Despite my high appreciation of other travelers and friends, I didn’t take their advise. I listened to my urge to experience the ultimate sense of freedom. And so I declared myself homeless.

The right decision

Sending back my tent from Georgia to The Netherlands would cost me over 150 Euros. It’s too good to leave behind but crazy expensive to send it by mail. Knowing it was a long shot, I asked around on social media if someone happened to travel back to Europe, and was willing to take back my tent for me. When Jur den Hamer replied with a ‘sure, no problem!’ I knew that it was the right decision. Not only that; I felt once again the incredible sense of solidarity among travelers. Someone who doesn’t know me at all spontaneously offers me his help … and I don’t have a single doubt that everything will be alright. Jur is driving his car back from Australia to The Netherlands – take a look at his trip here. In the short chat to arrange pick up etc. it turns out that both his beloved one and his daughter are involved in the same work as I am. The population of humanitarian workers, focusing on social inclusion isn’t that large, so it’s an exciting thought to find connections in Australia and New Zealand.

Thanks Jur, I truly appreciate you helping me out!

Enjoy the final stretch of your journey – looking forward to find out what’s next!

Getting back to my bike after an unexpectedly long and heavy winter was somehow surreal. Harry was just standing there, exactly as I left him behind … just as if nothing had happened. After quickly checking on his general condition I gave it a go.

As a loyal travel companion the motor started without any complicated procedures. Hearing the purring sound that’s been buzzing in my ears over the last 33.000 km got on to me; let alone the exciting thought that this would be the music guiding me all the way to Vladivostok!

 

Putting on my suit and boots, my helmet with its familiar smell and fit, felt like coming home.

Like stepping back into my world, back on my own path, moving on to doing what suits me best: meandering through the unknown.

The most frightening idea to many: not knowing what is to come, not knowing what the day will bring, not knowing where to sleep at night is exactly what comforts me. And vice versa: what is considered the most normal thing in the world to many others, would freak me out: the obligation to work and pay of the mortgage, children depending and relying on you, trusting the millions of other people around you not to be crazy enough to start randomly shooting at by passers whenever they feel like it… It all comes down to what you’re used to; to your reference framework; to your perception.

I am nothing different – I just live a little different than the majority. I know I’m not the only one. There are plenty of others roaming around with a similar mindset. I’m looking forward to another season, to the next chapter, to the upcoming stretch towards Vladivostok – to the imposing nature that’s awaiting me, and to meeting extraordinary people along the way. It’s still very early in the season; I haven’t seen any other overland travelers so far, but they will start to appear with the temperature rising over the coming weeks and months.

In June 2018 my application for a 3-days transit visa was declined. It was the best thing that could happen to me!

Rather than just passing through Georgia, into Russia and on towards Vladivostok, I slowed down and took the opportunity to spend a bit more time in Georgia. One of the best decisions of my trip so far … thanks Russia, for not taking me in!

 

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The most frequently asked question by far regarding long-term travelling is: ‘how do you do that? Financially speaking…’. Here’s how I manage to stay on the road, without the security of having a job and income.

The trick is straightforward: save more and spend less. Travelling for me is a way of life; it comes with choices. Since decades I’ve chosen not to spend money on make-up, the latest fashion, stylish furniture or expensive holiday destination; I was always dedicated to saving money for this type of freedom. Also during my travels, I am very selective with my expenditures as to make my money last longer.

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South America

My motorcycle journey started off as a trip through South America. In September 2016 I set off together with Tom – both on a CCM GP450 Adventure. After traveling 24,000 km through Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia, and a tiny little bit of Brasil we decided to both continue on our own: after changing motorbikes I set course towards Vladivostok.

Tom was interviewed about his South America trpip by Valle (Valle on Tour) last year; it came online recently. His story and the footage give an impression of the first part of my journey – the interview can be found here.

When searching for a hibernation location for this winter, I would have thought anywhere possible except Holland. And so I ended up in Holland…

Over the last 15 years, I’ve been wandering around the world; the intention to move back to the Netherlands steadily declining with time passing by. However, I agreed with myself, if there comes a time when my parents need my support, the world can wait. I’ll do whatever I can to take care of them like they once took care of me. That time came, and so I did what I thought I should do. Not in the slightest way was I prepared for what was to come.

Mid November, still in Georgia, I received a phone call that my father was hospitalized with what seemed like a stroke. Coincidentally  I would fly to the Netherlands for a motorbike fair 2 days after. Just when I arrived in the hospital, so did the suspected diagnosis of a brain tumor. Exactly 8 weeks later my father passed away.

I was lucky to spend most of that time with my dad and his wife; I postponed my return flight to Tbilisi and decided to stay as long as my support was appreciated. It turned out to be the most precious time I’ve ever had with my father. We naturally made the best of it, knowing that time was running out … just not knowing how fast exactly. He told me stories like he never did before; showed me pictures that I had never seen. I sat down and listened. Enjoyed getting to know him in a different way than the past 40 years. Was the tumor in his head causing him to behave differently than he used to be? Or did he just sense that it was now or never? I’m glad that I used the time when we still had some. I’m glad that I chose to stay, when I shouldn’t have gone away.

Although my father never showed himself overly enthusiastic about me living my life rather different from the ordinary (let alone his little girl traveling by motorbike for who knows how long!) at last he seemed to start to better understand my choices. In his last days he urged me to move on and to write a book one day.

I assured him: I will.

All this just made me wonder … aren’t we all running out of time? We are! We just don’t know how fast. Why do we wait for death knocking on our doors to become so much aware of the limited time we’ve been given? My father passed away, but we are still here. Do we need any more reason to live life to the fullest? To add our personal touch to the world? To express ourselves without fear, without shame, without doubt? To make sure we won’t have any regrets when our time’s suddenly up?

It all comes down to those 2 words – spoken by many, but lived by few:

Carpe Diem.

During the winter months I am representing Mosko Moto (the manufacturer of my luggage system) at several motorbike fairs throughout the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and England. Although I’d prefer to be outside riding, with the fresh air through my helmet and the world passing by like a real-time movie, meeting other travelers and sharing my experiences with the Mosko gear, is a good second-best.

It’s always great seeing people stopping by at our small booth and realize time after time how small a world we are… Here’s an example of the many ‘Fair(y) tales’ – from the Intermot in Cologne (October 2018): 

3 guys are talking to Roel Bremmers about the Mosko Moto Reckless 80 luggage system at our booth on the Cologne Intermot. One of them has a CRF 250, so I’m asked over to share my experiences and set-up. We have a great chat, and the second guy asks how the bags would fit on a Yamaha Ténéré 660. I jump to my telephone, and look for the pictures of Peter Paes who just made a trip to Norway with a friend. ‘Hey, I know that bike! ‘ is the immediate response. ‘It belongs to a Dutch guy, Peter! He had a problem, saw my YouTube videos and contacted me for advice. I recognize the shed in the background and everything! ‘…

Wow, it’s a small world, isn’t it? 

But the story gets even better…

I ask him for his name, and he hands me his business card. It shows the Driftix logo on the back; he’s the founder of a motorbike riders platform that I recently joined. It takes only seconds to find out that the same guy and I have been in contact a few months ago, when the Driftix app was blocked by Google from out of Georgia (the issue was solved within a couple of hours)! The third guy is witnessing all these purely coincidental connections and his wonderment is visible – he’s setting up the bikers platform in Poland. We are still chatting and sharing our passion for bikes and bags, when another genuine traveler whom I happened to meet in Spain last year, and came to catch up at the Mosko Moto booth, puts me a piece of paper in my hand as he moves on to visit the fair. On it is his address – he has a football field sized garden available for travelers to put up their tent. Thanks for stopping by, Patrick O’Connor! Great to see you again, and hope to run into you in Bulgaria next.

Our little booth turned into a meeting point for Discover Overland visitors, presenters and others who regretfully missed out.

It’s been a long week, and I’m looking forward to be back on my bike in a few days’ time. But fair(y) tales like these, and seeing more and more people appreciating the Mosko stuff surely made it worth a detour!

After a full year of traveling through Southern and Eastern Europe, the Balkan countries and into Eurasia, winter is now approaching. In the midst of the summer heat I decided to dedicate the 3rd and upcoming year of my journey to a project: with Solob-STOP I will combine my professional background of trainer in development and humanitarian context with the solo-motorcycle adventure to Vladivostok.

Preparations are in full swing!

The winter months offer the opportunity to update my equipment and website, to consolidate collaborations and to treat my loyal travel companion ‘Harry’ with some deserved maintenance.

As soon as King Winter leaves gorgeous Georgia, I’ll saddle up again and move on!

Check out the preliminary route for 2019.

News on this exciting project will be shared here and on Facebook 

A weekend filled with presentations, workshops, demonstrations, and panel discussions around the topic of overland traveling: the second Discover Overland weekend was a great succes!

Being briefly back in the Netherlands, it was an absolute joy to be surrounded by a diverse group of like-minded people: fellow travelers or those who’re on the jump to head off, meeting old friends again and making new ones.

 

From morning gym sessions, to self-built camper vans … from road side first aid tips, to motorcycle tyre repair demonstrations … it was there to discover right at the Dutch/Belgian border!

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705 km … 3 days … that’s all I asked for.

I applied for a 3 days’ transit visa to cross over from Georgia to Kazakhstan via Russia. I did the paperwork, collected all the desired documents, put on my best smile and made it to the Swiss embassy in Tbilisi. Yes: the Swiss – neutral as ever – are hosting the Russian delegation in Georgia, since the two neighboring countries are not on very good terms with each other. My first attempt was nothing more than an exploration round: I drove past the building twice, thinking ‘it can’t be here’ while the notorious crowds of people on the streets were absent. It turned out to be a holiday … and the next 2 days as well. Ok, bad luck.

In the second attempt I followed the instructions of fellow travelers who’d previously gone through it: try to attract the guards’ attention and show them your Dutch passport. They’ll let you through: don’t ask why, just take your chance. And so I did. But the time I spent inside the building hardly exceeding the time outside … Read more

Are you small, and do you enjoy adventure riding?

Then you’d better like pink!

My gloves were a lucky shot; I bought them back in 2016 as ‘temporary’ until I would find something decent. But they turned out to be very comfortable and I used them for over 25.000 km in Europe and South America. Until they were done. I started looking for a replacing pair, but never found something quite like them. And so I kept going – for another 18.000 km. Until they fell apart. I fixed them with Gorilla tape, but the heat made the glue melt down … I visited several shops along the way, but there was always only one option in my size (if any at all!): pink ones.

Not just pink-ish – no… real pink! Pink-Panther pink…

So…time has come to live up to my words ‘I don’t care how it looks, as long as it protects me’. As from today you can see me approaching from a distance: it’s not just pink, but fluorescent pink! Read more

 
‘You must be Lobke’…

I guess it was the second day in Georgia, not far from Tsalka, when we stopped for a roadside lunch. We: Philip and I. We met a week before, when I decided to wait at a gas station for the thunderstorm to pass and a motorbike traveller turned up, came towards me without a single bit of hesitation: ‘You must be Lobke’… Yes, that’s right. It turned out to be Philipe, who started his Silkroad4.0 trip a few weeks before. Read more

After more than a decade of working in medical rehabilitation of people injured by conflict or disaster, I allowed myself some time to explore also the nice and peaceful places in the world. By motorbike, free from any contractual commitments. But it would be a waste of my skills and knowledge not to use my professional experience when reaching places that could benefit from it. And so, last month in Turkey I reached out to the Syrian border for a temporary assignment with an international humanitarian organisation.

Perfect timing

Antonella, a former colleague and super-supporter of my journey, dropped me a message about the assignment without even knowing that I had just entered Turkey the day before: an international NGO was looking for a consultant to assess the rehabilitation services along the Turkish-Syrian border and to compile a proposal for future interventions. The job seamlessly matched with my professional profile and the matter was rather urgent – and so I set course to the head-office in Ankara in order to prepare my field visit to the border area. For a couple of weeks I traded my tent for a room, nature for city, and I parked Harry with the promise of a full maintenance treatment after I’d finish the job. Read more