Around the world with The Bear – Part 17

The King of Every Kingdom
Around the world on a very small motorcycle

With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming


Last time we left The Bear and Annie after they arrived in Marseilles in France with their XS1100 along with fellow Aussies Neil and Millie, and now they explore some more and head to Biarritz.


There were no laptops back in the day, and I discovered that even portable typewriters are heavy. Too heavy for spoked Suzuki wheels at least….

A major sort-out followed and we sent three large, heavy parcels back home. My typewriter went – sadly missed; I hate writing longhand.

Then we loaded most of the remaining heavy gear aboard the XS which hardly seemed to feel the difference. We were all breathing more easily as we buzzed off along the coast, over the classy motorway bridge at Martigues and on to Arles for an excellent lunch.

It is difficult to imagine how such flat countryside can be so beautiful, but the Camargue, with its waterways, stands of golden reeds and herds of white horses, looked lovely. With the mistral at our backs, we drifted through the meadows and occasional stands of umbrella pine down to Les Saintes Maries with its little chapel that attracts thousands of Gypsy pilgrims every year.

The town centre still felt quite medieval with its winding alleys and little shops, but a huge modern holiday development all around rather spoils it.

In the sandy campsite we did a little more maintenance work on the bikes and I couldn’t understand why it was impossible to get the rear brake disc of the XS back between the calipers after I had replaced the pads. Lots of headscratching later, it occurred to me that I’d refilled the brake fluid reservoir as well. Sure enough, I’d put in too much fluid. The spokes on the GS seemed to be holding. We tapped them every day now.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part
Morning in Toulouse. The fog was icy and thick, and never lifted.

There was still aggravation in our little party as personalities clashed, and Annie and I took the opportunity to spend a couple of evenings by ourselves in a comfortable bar by the harbour, drinking kir and gazing into the fire. The bar mascot, a dachshund, kept us company. He had a very simple way of indicating that the fire was getting too low—he would crawl right up into the brick fireplace and look out mournfully.

We moved camp after some days of this rather heavily touristed environment; our new home was ‘La Refuge’, a tiny place in the town of Vias. On the way, Neil once more puzzled the locals by asking where the war was when he meant the railway station. His rather good French always seemed to fail him when he had to differentiate between ‘gare’ and ‘guerre’.

We also met a young German woman on a Honda 400/4, who calmly informed us that she was going down to The Gambia to sell her bike. Carrying very little gear, she had been freezing in her leathers for the last three days. We gave her some lunch and wished her luck.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part
A bit of a wander along one of the canal towpaths in France.

Vias proved to be exactly what we needed – it was just a small wine and tourist village in the off season. With friendly people and the ‘Cafe de France’, where we became such good customers that the patron started buying us drinks, the place was cosy. If truth be known the free drinks were a result of his being unable to tell the difference between Australia and New Zealand. Every time we walked in he would burst into a big grin and say admiringly, “Ah, les All Blacks!”

We had a couple of barbecues on the beach and generally took it easy. Our bail bond insurance for Spain didn’t start for another eight days. I also had new tyres, Metzelers, fitted to the XS at the Honda shop in Beziers.

The rear wheel nearly reduced their mechanics to tears, and it took them three times as long as they’d quoted to replace the tyre. They swore they would never touch another XS 1100. I still don’t know why; I’ve replaced a rear tyre on that bike myself and it gave me very little trouble.

Feeling more relaxed, we continued to Biarritz via Toulouse. A sunny morning and pleasant lunch at the very beautiful mediaeval town of Carcassonne were followed by a freezing, impenetrable fog just outside Toulouse. With our heated handlebar grips, electric GloGloves and Motomod Alaskan suits we weren’t exactly cold—but we still couldn’t see. A campsite loomed out of the fog just in time.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part
We replaced a couple of dozen spokes by the side of the road.

Our flysheets were frozen stiff the next morning, and we had to thaw them out in the toilet block before we could fold them. The fog was still just as dense as the night before. We crept through Toulouse, visibility a few metres. To this day I have no idea what the place looks like.

An hour later, the fog lifted and we had the sunniest day of the trip so far. Our run that day through the hills of Gascony was nothing short of idyllic. This was the home of cassoulet, Armagnac and foie gras, substantial chalets peering out of the little copses, and the snowy slopes of the Pyrenees blinking away on the horizon.

I kept seeing signs all day advertising ‘Chiens Bergers Allemandes’ and my mind kept twisting the translation to German Dogburgers, possibly competition for the American fast food chains. They were only selling German Shepherds, of course.

In a little village just before our camp at St Sever, we passed a small church called Notre Dame du Rugby. Now that’s taking sports to heart.

St Sever is on the edge of the Gironde and lies peacefully in a wooded valley. Our petrol stove was acting up, giving only a low flame when it would burn at all. We consoled ourselves with a few drinks in the bar/tobacconist/newsagents/shop in the village. Even this out-of-the-way place had an electronic amusement machine, featuring little clowns breaking balloons. I was interested to see that the last ‘human’ score had been twenty, while the clowns by themselves often racked up 30-35. Clever little electronic clowns….

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part
But France in autumn is certainly not always cold and wet.

It was cold again that night, but not unpleasant, and the next day we were nearly at Biarritz when the back wheel of the GS collapsed once more. Oh dear.

We located a Suzuki shop in Bayonne, but they claimed they couldn’t help until the next day. When we pointed out that this meant our sleeping by the side of the road, they gave us the name of another shop in Biarritz. After much pleading, the chap there agreed to rebuild the wheel for us, but he didn’t think there were any heavier spokes available. We had to face facts. There was little point in laying out more money when the spokes would only break again. We had to buy a cast wheel.

After an elaborate series of phone calls, our friend in the bike shop arranged for the other shop to stay open for us and to accept traveller’s cheques. Neil raced back to Bayonne, bought the wheel, raced back to Biarritz, had it fitted with our wheel bearings, tyre and tube; and we put the wheel back on the bike.

Around the world with The Bear Peter Thoeming Part
Hmm, this wheel appears to have disintegrated…

By now it was nearly 10 pm, and we had a great deal of trouble finding an open campground. Tempers flared. When we did find a site, we agreed that we must talk our frictions out.

Annie and I spent a relaxing day in Biarritz, where we picked up mail and had a picnic out on the beachfront rocks. Then we all got together for our bit of group therapy in one of the local bars. It emerged that Annie and I didn’t really think that Millie could cope with this kind of travelling, and that she found me too bossy and overbearing.

We thought she complained and niggled too much; she thought we didn’t listen to her enough. We adjourned after a bit of healthy self-criticism, and things did improve quite noticeably for a while.


Spain is next, and we discovered that Australian passports can be less than useless there.

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