Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 29 January 2010

Martin the Bicycle

Several people have asked whether our bikes will have names. The answer is yes. Liz's steed is yet to be christened officially (watch this space), but mine will go by the name of Martin. This is for two reasons: first, rather grandly, after José de San Martín, national hero of Argentina, an 18th-century general and the main leader of the southern part of South America's struggle for independence from Spain. But more importantly - and more relevantly - it is in honour of Martin the Donkey.

My paternal grandfather, who would be celebrating his 106th birthday in February, was nothing if not an adventurer. Among his journals was the story of his 1926 trip through North Africa. On arriving there, he found that the camel he had aspired to as an authentic North African travel companion would be way too expensive (around £50) for his meagre budget. Instead, he opted for Martin. The following are a few snippets from his musings:

"Donkeys turned out to be scarce in La Calle so I agreed to go on to Tabarka, a bit further along the Coast. We went round to M. Lelouche to book our seats in his bus. We arrived in Tabarka and found a room in a tiny hotel. It was a little fishing port and stormy weather gave it a desolate look. Ragged grey clouds scudded over the sky and four or five ranks of great white-crested waves rolled in, booming against the quay and throwing clouds of spray into the air. We hurried back into the shelter of the hotel. I spoke to the patron about my plan and on his advice commissioned a young waiter to go to an Arab village in the hills behind us to find me a suitable donkey.

The 'bon bourricaud' was led in early next morning by his owner, who sold it to me for £8, of which I heard later that commission to the waiter amounted to £4! The owner spoke very highly of it! Could it walk long distances? Certainly it could walk as far as myself and then as far again. As for food and drink, he would find that for himself, though I might perhaps give him a little barley from time to time. He could carry at least 100 lbs (probably it was 100 kilos = 220lbs), moreover I could ride on him myself as well. Finally the waiter, no doubt rustling the commission in his pocket, daubed the final gilt on the lily: "S'il tombe de l'eau dessus, ca ne fait rien". Poor Martin, for that was his name, stood demurely beside me, blushing donkey grey!

And so I went about the little town buying bread, dates and barley, and bags to put them all in; and people watched me and murmured about the folly of a tourist who wanted to go to Tunis but who would not take the obvious way, la machine (the railway). The little Arab shoe-shiner from the hotel trotted barefooted beside me, croaking with delight at my preparations and talking ceaselessly.

The late owner was there helping to load Martin, so was the proprietor of the hotel and the white-aproned waiter and of course the little shoeshine boy. Finally loading was completed and, armed with a stick, there being no carrots, we took off - strictly in the aeroplane sense. To be precise we aimed a series of jabs at a point just above Martin’s tail; I was assured that Arab donkeys had, over the centuries, developed an insensitive area above the tail and that therefore the encouraging jab with the stick should be accompanied by a cry which sounded like "irrrritz".

As a result of our collective efforts Martin condescended to saunter slowly out of the yard and up the street. A few puzzled faces appeared, puzzled because foreigners visiting Tabarka usually arrived in a large Renault and left very soon after in a cloud of dust."

There seem to be an uncanny number of parallels between our two kinds of preparation - not least the priority of food and the weight of the load both Martins are forced to lug. Grandpa and Martin developed a bond that I can only hope for with our bikes. By the end of the trip, they had grown very fond of each other:

"...Back in the machine shed the fire glowed invitingly. Martin slept at my feet and the night fled by.

I had meant to reach Mateur today but misread the map by about 12 miles. Rather than struggle on such a long way I found the narrow gauge railway at a station called Jelta. A few empty trucks lay in a siding. No one seemed to be around so I decided to sleep in a truck and hope to be away before the station-master arrived next morning. Unfortunately I could not persuade Martin into my truck, so he spent the night on the platform.

Next morning we were off and away early covering the 12 miles to Mateur in about five hours. Martin sensed that the journey was nearly over and fairly sped along the easy flat track. At Mateur I fed him, stroked his silky nose and, feeling disloyal and positively treacherous, sold him to an Arab in the market."


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