Eighteen months. That’s how long it’d been since I last travelled by myself. Since I flew from Houston to London via—and somehow this was cheapest—Istanbul. I tried to remember how it’d felt on a dim reflection of that last connecting flight: across western Europe through the evening and over Turkey to wake up in the dawn hours in hotel room on the island of Cyprus.
I’d been looking to holiday somewhere warm, with beaches, mountains and cheap motorbike rental. What I woke up to was a tired place: bars with un-nostalgically nineties themes, all inclusive hotels and tanned grandparents.
I went to collect my rental, a 1999 Suzuki DR350. The tyres were four-fifths gone and the chain was lubricated with generous dollops of bearing grease. It was still a better proposition than staying where I was. Riding out of town I discovered that the speedo and odometer didn’t work. The 37,667km on the clock were just the start.
Notice the helpful reminder (in German) to drive on the left
At 30˚C it was a full 15˚C warmer than the drizzle of a London commute that I was dressed for. I pointed the bike toward the relative cool of the mountains. Without a working odometer it was hard to keep track of how far I’d gone and how much petrol I’d used. The bike sensed my paranoia and tricked me into thinking it needed switching to reserve. Somehow, without a common language, I negotiated the purchase of 5L of petrol from the owner of a roadside café.
I went higher up into the mountains and later into the day. I took the three step programme to finding a camp spot: turn off the main road onto a smaller road, off the smaller road onto a track, then pull over somewhere out of sight.
The sun set at 6:30pm. I laid down and layered up: the sleeping bag that had kept me warm in the Spanish Pyrenées, the bivvy bag I’d sewn and first used to keep the midges off in Scotland and the tarp that had kept me dry when it’d rain all night in New Zealand.
The equipment was just as functional as the day I’d stored it away in the cupboard, but eighteen months of storage had left my solo travel abilities diminished. Ever since getting off the flight I’d pitched and yawed from anxious to elated; in bed I rolled from my left side to my right, worried about the week ahead. It was dark for twelve hours. I didn’t sleep until long after the heat of the day had given itself up to the night.
I’d been thinking too far ahead. The pleasure of long-term travel is having to operate one day at a time. On a short trip, like this one, the end is always in sight. So your brain tries to slot places and activities into each of the coming days. It’s trying to allay the fear of missing something, some imagined enjoyment. But it only makes the unimagined enjoyment pass more quickly.
I needed to squash that planning reflex, to mentally reset. The nights were too long to camp again, which meant a hotel. But I didn’t want to plan that. Instead I would ride until I found somewhere I liked enough to stay.
I came down from the mountains to the coast at Pomos. From there I rode out to the Akamas Peninsula, the wildest, westernmost part of Cyprus.
The DR350 doesn’t like to be ridden fast off road—comparatively my WR250R just wants you to lean back a bit, pin it and let the suspension do its work. The more I rode it though, and the rockier and more precarious the tracks got, the more I appreciated its dependable character and (for a dirt bike) comfortable seat.
The nearest town was Polis. I thought I’d look there for accommodation. On the way I stopped in a village to eat. It was the place I didn’t know I’d been hoping for; a slightly ragged but unspoiled collection of buildings assembled on a hill overlooking the coast.
The only tourists were hikers who’d been out exploring the peninsula, ragged also, from the heat. And on the shaded terrace of a café, eating souvlaki and thumbing my phone to find a place to stay, was me: probably the most ragged-looking of all in the village of Neo Chorio.
I was the only guest in the apartments that I found. Cyprus is a quiet place in the off-season. I swam, read, and wandered around the village.
That evening I Googled for similar places. A fishing village called Kato Pyrgos sounded good and I booked a hotel room there. The only remaining uncertainties were the route and what I’d see on it.
From Neo Chorio I returned to the Akamas Peninsula. I followed its southern, sandier coast back towards where I’d started the trip in Paphos. Cyprus is small enough that you could ride anywhere in half a day. Unlike other motorbike trips I’ve been on the route didn’t need to be so direct, nor the distances so committed.
With the broken speedo I didn’t know how far I had gone. It felt like there was less pressure to rack up the kilometers. Looking retrospectively at the map, this post covers about 130km.
I went back through Polis, round the Chrysochou Bay and through Pomos. Past there the road started climbing around the Kokkina Enclave, where I first encountered the border.
I was in the south of the island. The north has been occupied by Turkey, without international recognition, since the 1974 invasion. Between the two is a demilitarized zone maintained by the United Nations. A clear north/south divide, except at Kokkina, which is a few square kilometers of Turkish-occupied Cyprus surrounded on three sides by the south and on the fourth the sea.
The mountains abutted the coast. The road cut and followed their contour lines, rising to some spectacular views. But it was hard to miss the occasional UN 4×4—heretofore a fixture only of television news—driving the opposite way. Or the Greek base in the woods at the road’s highest point, stemming the path of anyone trying to come up the valley. Or the distant hilltop outposts flying the Turkish and Northern-Republican flags. And the road itself: a twisting, smoothly-surfaced navigation around the geopolitical complexity.
I came down to the coast at Kato Pyrgos. I found my hotel, a balconied, four storey edifice set on the harbour. It felt like it might have been very busy in the summer, or perhaps in the 1970s. I unloaded my gear and had some food. The wife-and-husband proprietors were unhurriedly doing the service and cooking respectively. It was a quiet and peaceful place, cut off and preserved by the border and the mountains.
I was interested in seeing more of the border. The next morning I booked another hotel in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, with enough time to spend the majority of the day there.
The road out of Kato Pyrgos went into the mountains to avoid the occupied area. On it I met a group of three touring riders, the only others I’d seen on the whole trip. One of them spoke pretty good English. I told him that the road equalled any I’d ridden in the Alps. He translated what I’d said into Greek and his friend gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
I don’t think I was exaggerating, but I’ve only ridden the Alps on sports bikes. The DR350 is underpowered. It doesn’t appreciate any change of input once leaned over. This only made things more fun. I was confidently loading up the suspension into corners with the front brake and holding it there with the throttle until the exit. Or confidently enough to get to the edges of the no-name, almost-bald tyres anyway.
Riding into Nicosia wasn’t as hectic as I’d imagined. It’s about the size of Reading. I arrived at the hotel with the whole of the afternoon free to explore on foot.
It felt like a place where history had happened. The Turkish invasion and the present day are as far apart as World War II and the year I was born.
It’s still happening though. There’s a west/east Berlin-style checkpoint in the city centre. Yet a few doors down there are people sitting outside cafés with music playing. There are soldiers manning sandbagged positions with machine guns, alongside brand new houses with elaborately-shaped swimming pools and gated driveways. And at the bottom of the garden a North Korea/South Korea-style demilitarized zone.
In the suburbs the zone was a few hundred meters wide, barren and bulldozed. In the city centre it was only a block across. Other than the dilapidation and barbed wire it looked unchanged since the 1970s. It was a geological feature on a historical scale. A vein of time and space where people weren’t, consigned to the layers of history by mutual agreement. And all around the accrual and erosion of life went pleasantly on.
I left Nicosia going south, then turned to the west and into the mountains for the last time. I had until that evening to return the bike.
It was the longest day of riding on the trip but also the easiest. The practicalities were now routine: how far I could go on however many litres of petrol, how much water I needed to carry and where might be good to eat. I knew how the roads were signed and how people drove. It seemed a shame to have to stop.
At the same time, I was glad. I’d made something of the trip. But to worry otherwise—as I had at first—is a strange and privileged concern. Is it really an accomplishment to spend £600ish on a week’s holiday and actually enjoy it?
Being in Paphos again was a reminder that enjoyment is optional.
I had two nights in a hotel before my flight. Unlike the other places I’d stayed there were quite a few guests. All of them were British. Most were retired. The town catered to them, with its offers of full English breakfasts, sport via satellite, and ‘beer o’clock’.
There’s another divide in Cyprus and it’s between the areas where British people go and those they don’t. I was glad that I had crossed it.
Where my trip had been full of uncertainty, theirs were the opposite, circumscribed but certain. And some of them were at the hotel reception booking the same for next year.
At the end of my first motorbike trip I wrote
To have known is enough: it means it is possible to know again, of some other place, at some other time, tremendous and impermanent.
Cyprus is one of those other places now, and now is that other time.
Sometimes, in queues at airports, I pat my pocket to make sure my passport hasn’t fallen out. Adventure is the same in a funny way. Every now and then, you have to check it’s still there.