Romanian Joyride

Romania 02 – 31/08

It took a while to see this, and now we do: the Zaïre crossing was the pivotal event that springboarded us to the next level. Sharing our various memories of Zaïre and of what happened after that with Alper in Curtea de Argeş, we realised that the whole experience continues to simmer on.

Wait wait… Did I say Alper was in Romania with us?Wasn’t him the German dude who joined us on a race across Congo Brazaville last December? Hell, yeah, he is back in our life, and boy, are we glad! First, I’ll give you a recap of what he’d been up to since we split. It was December 2011, and me, Ana and the four Vidals from Toulouse were stuck in Kinshasa, while Alper and his then-girlfriend were sharing our faith, but in Matadi. There was no way any of us would be allowed to enter Angola overland, and we had all the same big decision to make. Give up, fly over, or push forward on routes that aren’t on any map. Do or die. Each of the three teams had a different set up, different strengths and weaknesses and different objectives, but we all ended up choosing the same way out. Alper and Esther left first, and based on their initial SMS we decided to take a different route, which in the end proved even more treacherous. The Germans suffered a lot, so did the Toyo. They crossed in a little under four weeks, breaking the suspension just on the finish line. Then in Namibia disaster hit: Esther was taken down by malaria and kidney failure, which abruptly ended their adventure. After accompanying Esther home, Alper returned to sell the Toyo, not before driving it all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope. Here is their story in Motorrad magazine.

Back in Germany, they got back to work. Alper is a motorcycling tour guide. If you are a biker and want to head out to the best roads of Europe and Turkey, he’s your guy. Twice a year Alper takes his clients across Romania, so we jumped at the opportunity to get together. Exiting Bucharest I was filling up the tank with Romanian petrol (well… that’s a bit of a stretch, it was just a Romanian gas station) for the first time in quite a heck of a while. The price of petrol: 1,40 Euro/l. Ouch!

My Tenere was thirsty and it showed. As soon as the horizon opened, the race was on. We were meeting Alper in Curtea in a couple of hours. When we saw the KTM 690 Enduro we felt a tingle in the heart: the gang was reunited!

We had Romanian wine with pork steak, while the garage reeked of pickled cabbage. That’s what Romanian folk does with cabbage in autumn, making our neighbours suspect the biological war has started. No matter how many things we had to chat about, there was one word that kept creeping into our conversation: CONGO.

It had been the most difficult mental and physical challenge of our lives. It demanded everything. Weatherwise it was no joke: downpours, cotton mud, pockets of swampy water under layers of moving sand. Wearing the same damp muddy clothes and sleeping in a wet tent day in and day out. Most of the day was usually spent with orientation and assessing the terrain. When we were still reasonably sane. Once fatigue and stress took over, we become disorganized, less focused. We started to make mistakes. Then it was digging and operating whatever tool we could harvest to extract us from random swamps, trenches and holes. Finding food was a bit challenging. We subsisted on fruit & veg, insects, scavenged corn or nothing at all for parts of the journey, which was fine with us, but less fine for the kids. We bought pasta and rice three or four times and bread about 5 times during those 4 weeks. I remember the feasts we had in Mbuji Mayi and Kamina: it was not the nutrition, it was the diversity that lacked and that we were cheering back into our lives. But even though we have all described the trip on our respective blogs as ‘horrible’ and ‘crazy’, we enjoyed stretching our limits to new extremes. Congo made us stronger, more focused, albeit less prone to luxuriate in the modern amenities of ‘civilization’. Since Zambia there have been no more bug eating, no more digging for hours in swamps, no more sleeping in rainstorms. Ok, except for that weird Sudan storm, which maybe a brainiac out there could sometime explain to us. Is it crazy then that the two of us and Alper were still talking Congo hours past midnight?

Eight months ago our party of six adult and two kids had had an intimate encounter with the unseen Africa. All of us travellers secretly believed that the Wizard of that Oz could free us from our pole of prejudice, remove that routine rust, encourage us to disregard limits, help us rediscover our heart and our courage. We found indeed many adventures and overcame many obstacles on our journey together, just as we did on our separate ways, but most of all we found the Congolese, these special breed of people we knew next to nothing about. The Congolese are volcanic, resilient, relentless, and once you’ve showered in this, you’re hooked. Eight months after returning from the African Land of Oz, we realised that the two of us and Alper are obsessed with our memories of it.

In the morning we said our goodbyes till next next time.We had a simple plan to make the best of our day: ride the Transfagarasan, arguably one of the best drives in Europe.

Hairpins, pine forests, naked rock, maybe a waterfall, a spring or a glacier lake. The staple on this infamous road built in the 70s. But there’s more to Transfagarasan than the call of the bends.

When I was a kid that’s where I was spending most holidays. I remember climbing it on new year’s eves, loaded with pots of Romanian dishes, snow up to my waist. It was crazy, it was fun. Me and Ana also have a thing with Transfagarasan, where we would escape during our busy years. There’s this small waterfall we love, the weekends we would come braai, the full-throttle drives we pulled just for the sake of it, the sparrow-infested lake at the 166 m high dam. That’s where we started our climb, taking a right turn off the tar, into the forest.

We had left Bucharest without a map, with just a rough idea of how we would cut across, and chased this barren peak we would occasionally spot through the pines. We gave up control to the journey and let experiences materialize.

Then we met this team of overlanders. They didn’t appear to own a GPS either.

We crossed into bear country.

The bears had finished harvesting the season’s berries, which can be clearly seen in the photo below. That means that in spite of the overzealous poachers, our bears are still hanging in there.

You’d never see me without a smile on my face on these empty roads. The smell of pine leaves and wild herbs crushed under the wheels give a soul tingling joy.

Like that.

And like that.

Or like that.

But a man’s gotta take a break at some point…

Especially before a climb

When the slope jumped the 45 degrees limit, my tires gave up and I needed a different bike for the task. Next time!

The mountain doesn’t only feed the soul, it also quenches the thirst. We stopped by a spring where a trailer had been parked. The owner must have been out with work. Our city-folk tendencies for inequity, waste and abuse of finite resources always seem vulgar in the face of such humble set-ups. We drank our water in the sun, thankful to the anonymous host and enjoyed being alive.

It was almost lunch time, so we turned back to Transfagarasan. The climb never fails to deliver. It’s not a road you can easily summarize, except to say you’ll invariably want seconds.

At 2040 m altitude there’s a glacier lake and a chalet. In winter it is only accessible from Brasov, but as the sun was up we enjoyed our meal on the terrace. Fresh trout, tripe soup, apple pie… Romanian stuff. Nothing too fancy, but if cooked with fresh ingredients and love, can be a welcome discovery. So if you’ve seen the Top Gear episode and you’ve perused the magazines, here’s another reason why you should not exclude Romania from your to-ride-list. Of course give us a shout out, ‘cause even if we’re not around, we can assist with a friendly couch and more.

Lots have changed within the year. There’s a heap of tourist activities being developed and the denizens and their traditional produce stalls have multiplied. Smoked bacon, sausages, cheeses, preserves etc. And no, this article has not been sponsored by the inept Romanian ministry of tourism.

Worrying a bit about the potential boom of the industry and of how it could bring down the charm of Transfagarasan – still a lonely road in my book – we started the descent back.

Nothing beats the views, the smell of wind threatening to take you down, the open valley where cloudscapes conglomerate. I’ve driven this road in all seasons and I think early June is best, when snow caps aren’t yet melted and the waterfalls are in full swing.

We took a peek at the abandoned mine

We stopped by our ‘place’, the Goat Falls. The sheep were being herded home by the handsomest canine militia.

It was a long ride to Bucharest, but we were glad to have such a tangible target to aim at. Home is a place of great meaning, where we can rest and where we can be near to people we care about. We have been away in the wilds of Africa for many months, we’ve seen a lot of amazing places and met many incredibly kind people. And now, after recharging with nature, we are hungry for more.