This story was written by me in 2009 at the confident but still mostly clueless age of 27. It was published in Bike SA Magazine (yes, a printed magazine – remember those?) and received a lot of compliments. This served to make me yet more confident and probably more clueless than before, but I rather like it. It tells the story about my father Simon and me travelling from London to the MotoGP race at Donington Park. Keep in mind, while reading this, that 2009 was a long time ago and the world was different place. There was no Brexit, COVID and Zuma was freshly in power and was yet to sell the country to the Guptas. At the time, the intro to this piece posed the question – why do people want to move to England?
Yes, there is less crime in the UK. Yes, there is a more stable economy. Yes, there is …… well …… nothing else really.
The problems with living in the UK are numerous. It all starts with the moving process because you have to move into a damp basement which is about the same size as the average South African garage and costs as much as Lesotho. The only positive aspect is the fact that none of your South African furniture will fit into this new English hampster cage so you can sell it all to help pay for your new abode.
Many stern women with short hair and high riding jeans will now be saying that at least you can walk the streets safely. Well, yes, you can.
But you won’t want to.
This is because the temperature outside will be -30º C, and if it isn’t cold it is pouring with rain. How is that more pleasant than sitting in your South African garden furniture behind your electric fencing?
Next, the stern ladies will be telling me about the public transport and how brilliant it is. The English public transport system consists of a series of overcrowded underground coffins that buzz all over the place waiting for terrorists to blow them up.
The London Underground works like this: Walk from your hampster cage to the station. If you manage to get there without dying of hypothermia or drowning, then you must wait in a queue to buy your ticket. Then you have to wait in a queue to go through the turnstiles. Then you have to walk in a huge sheep-like crowd up escalators, down escalators, along tunnels, past terrorists and down more escalators until you are about three kilometres below the ground where no one can hear you scream. You then wait for five or so minutes in what looks suspiciously like a large underground tomb before a giant worm-like coffin comes rolling along. To you, it may look full, but this doesn’t stop all 20 000 people waiting on the concourse trying to board anyway. You end up standing in the same amount of space normally reserved for nanotechnology, and, with your lungs compressed by the weight of people, you cannot breathe. But this is a good thing, as your face will, by then, be firmly planted in a hairy Eastern European’s armpit. When the coffin eventually starts bulging with the strain, the doors close and it sets off.
And not terribly quickly either. With the ear torturing racket they make, combined with the close proximity to the sidewalls of the tunnel, it may appear as though you are doing Mach 4. But this isn’t the case, I assure you. And to make matters worse, the coffin has to stop for two minutes every two minutes to cram more passengers into the already impossibly small spaces left. Here in South Africa, driving to work every morning, even by car, takes me 8 minutes. But I calculated that if Joburg had an underground train system like London, and I went to work via this system, it would take me approximately 25 minutes to do the trip. With considerably more diseases.
So the UK seems like a fairly dismal place that should be removed from all maps in case anyone else gets hurt.
Well, no actually. Believe it or not, it can be fun.
The first step is to not move there. A simple holiday of a week should be more than adequate. The second step is not to go near the underground coffins, because they are horrid. Rather turn to the greatest invention ever conceived by man or, possibly, God – the motorcycle. Then, lastly, plan your trip for around July sometime because it isn’t too Arctic then, and because looking at old castles and churches and bridges sounds like a novel touristy thing to do but, let’s be honest, they are nothing but damp dreary old buildings. There’s a better plan. In July, England hosts the MotoGP…
The real trip started when Simon and I walked into a small motorcycle shop, situated near the Docklands in southeast London. The premises was smaller than even the average English family home – about the size of an ant farm – and filled with so many helmets, gloves, jackets and strange Chinese motorcycles with misspelled English words on them that, even with the huge shopfront windows, sunlight still lost the war to dinginess.
Behind a small overloaded desk sat a thin elderly man that looked as though he had lived the flowers-in-my-hair life to the fullest. He looked up and greeted us with the jolly merriment that only the English can muster.
We had rented a Honda VFR800 and a Suzuki GSX-750F for the weekend – for the worth-it price of £225 we could pick the bikes up on Friday morning and bring them back late on Monday afternoon. Included in the price the flower-haired gent also happily supplied us some full-faced helmets, riding jackets, rain suits and even some bungee straps so we could tie on our luggage. With us kitted up, and all tied on, we set off.
The British round of the MotoGP was hosted at Donington Raceway, which is near the town of Derby, some 200 km north of London up the M1 motorway. But before we could do any motorway rushes, we first needed to leave London.
London, in physical size, is probably smaller than Greater Johannesburg. But the thing is that there is a good four times the population living there, which means that everything is heavily compacted, much like chicken pens for chickens that do not have the privilege of laying free-range eggs. It’s not that the traffic is heavy, it’s more that the going is slow. The roads are smaller, there are many more robots (called traffic lights in England – people look at you oddly when you say robots), more turnings and the ever-infuriating bus lane.
A few years ago, a very unpopular chap named Ken Livingstone became Mayor of London and decided that one lane in every double-laned road should become bus lanes dedicated solely to his giant red buses. The idea was that, because buses now had more access, everyone would stop driving cars and use those rather.
It wasn’t to be.
Now, on every two-laned road, there is one empty lane with an odd bus coming past now and then, and another lane jam-packed with annoyed car drivers.
Bikes are allowed to use certain bus lanes, but not too many. This means that bikes have to cram in with the cars, and this is a problem because the roads are narrow and there isn’t too much lane-splitting space.
This, combined with an unfathomable road network, means that our fast exit out of London was somewhat of a debacle. Still, it was massively more pleasant than the Underground. The old stone pavements, the quaint old brick houses that extend almost onto the street, the novel cafés and little roadside shops, and even the twisty road network made the experience a joyful one. Even when we were lost and we had to squeeze through tight gaps in the traffic, the world of biking was a good place to be.
Once we were out of London we made it onto the famous M25. The M25 is London’s ring road. It is a massive three-lane motorway that circles the whole of London, and, at rush hour, it is renowned for being the world’s largest parking lot.
Thankfully, on this warm summer morning, there were no such issues and things moved like clock work. The air under the deep blue sky was warm and moist and scented of the lush greenery that surrounded us, and, again, the world of biking was a good place to be.
After a few miles along the M25 we turned north onto the M1, which is also a massive three-laned motorway that runs right up into Scotland. The tar is dark, well marked out and absolutely smooth.
It is a busy road – there is always masses of traffic along it – but the big difference is that this traffic moves. At one stage we were sitting in the fast lane doing 85 mph (140 km/h) and there were cars coming up behind us and flashing for us to move. Eventually, at around 100 mph (160 km/h), we started fitting in. In the middle lane the traffic does around 85 (140km/hr), and the trucks and things in the slow lane are doing about 75, even on uphills. And this is taking into account the fact that the speed limit is 70 mph.
It is an incredible spectacle to witness – the freeway is full, there are cars running head-to-tail perpetually, yet they are all moving in high-speed unison.
In South Africa, with traffic volumes like that, the flow would be somewhere around 80 km/h. But it is easy to see why it all works in England. The drivers are all competent and considerate. A motorcycle can safely travel between traffic without the worry of some idiot changing lanes suddenly. People indicate in due time, look carefully and then slowly and methodically make the change.
Also, slow drivers stick to the slow lane in England. Have you ever noticed in South Africa how slow drivers have a tendency to sit in the middle lane? They think that the slow lane is only for trucks and that, because they are not in the fast lane, all is well doing 80km/hr in the middle lane. But, in reality, what ends up happening is that the slow lane becomes empty – except for the odd truck driving pitifully at 60 km/h – the middle lane is semi-full of idiots driving 80 km/h thinking they are doing their part for society and the fast lane is jammed up with angry people trying to get past the idiots in the middle lane at a grudging 90 km/h.
Then there are the speed cameras. In England these cameras are called “safety cameras” and they work like this: a municipality has to pinpoint danger places in its region where there have been at least four speed-related deaths. That municipality will then write to the department of traffic to apply for a speed camera, giving good justification as to why they need it. Once the department of transport has approved it the municipality goes about getting up the camera, which is mounted permanently in that spot and has to be contained in a huge, clearly visible box, and the area of road that that camera is monitoring has to be marked with white lines so that motorists know where they need to slow down. You might be thinking that this all sounds like a futile effort, but no, it isn’t. You see, the point is that that area of road is dangerous to speed on, so what they are actually doing is forcing drivers to slow down and thereby avoiding anything nasty happening, hence they are called “safety cameras” and, as the chief traffic officer said once, “if you get nicked, it’s your own stupid fault.”
So the trip up the M1 was a joy, with us only stopping once at a “service”. A service is the British term for an Ultra City that we have here in South Africa, except their services make our Ultra Cities look somewhat less ultra. They are almost full-on shopping centres with coffee shops, arcades, WHSmiths (a bit like CNA), sweet shops and even a small casino. Oh, and you can fill up with petrol also.
After a quick snack, we were on our way again, and before long we made it to junction 23 to Derby – in England, each turn-off is called a junction and has a junction number which makes finding your way phenomenally easy. Instead of looking for a sign saying Potchefstroom/Pof Adder/Derby, you just look for junction 23, like it says on the map.
From the junction, it was a ten-odd mile country ride to the track.
Donington Park sits in the heart of the rolling countryside of Leicestershire, near the Donington Airport. It is a spectacal to behold – the ribbon of tar traverses the rolling green hills that form natural amphitheaters where thousands of adoring fans merry the day away.
The sound of screaming MotoGP bikes echos off the hills as masters of their art perform their magic.
People say that watching the race on TV is better than seeing the real thing. Yes, in much the same way that playing Flight Simulator is the same as flying an F-15 or hiring a prostitute is the same as true love.
There is a feeling of awe-inspiring electricity that emits from watching MotoGP bikes live.
To know that here, right in front of you, are the greatest riders in the world on the greatest motorcycles in the world doing what they do best is truly spine-tingling. Watching these machines of men riding to the absolute limit of physics, yet at the same time being so content and hitting each mark with pinpoint accuracy is beyond amazing. You don’t get that feeling from the TV. Every human needs to see MotoGP live at least once before they die; otherwise, their lives were dismal and meaningless.
We parked our bikes and spent the afternoon watching the different practice sessions, then we headed for the hotel in Derby.
The ride was about 30 miles or so of luscious country road. The scenery was all spectacular with varying degrees of green, the air was cool and thick, and the roads were just incredible. England is filled with these narrow “B” roads that tangle themselves in the hills, farms and small villages that litter the countryside. Riding them makes you feel as though you are John McGuiness bravely taking on the TT course as you twist through the narrow lanes. After a few mildly confusing miles, we made it to the hotel for a relaxed evening.
On Sunday the race started with ominous clouds looming overhead, and was plagued with intermittent bursts of drizzle. If you had watched the race on TV you would have seen that the riders all battled the conditions on dry tyres with Rossi falling and remounting to finish fifth, Colin Edwards coming from 13th on the first lap to finish 2nd and Andrea Dovizioso taking his first win.
After the race, and with darkness looming, we remounted the bikes to make our way back to London. Because of the immense traffic leaving the circuit, the local traffic enforcement had rerouted everyone through a series of convoluted country roads before reaching the motorway. At one stage, while we were splitting through the endless lines of cars, two scooters came hauling up behind us. We let them pass and had a good time following their crazy antics through the tight traffic before they eventually took a side road through police barricade, passed the protesting policemen and sped off. The funny thing was that both those scooters were ridden by small athletic young men who had turned out of the pits, and both scooters were in San Carlo Gresini Honda colours. Could they have been MotoGP stars Toni Elias and Alex De Angelis…?
The police had put out detour signs that guided our way nicely until the signs suddenly stopped. We rode on disconsolately for a few miles until we reached a large roundabout with six roads heading off in different directions, and no direction boards to tell us anything. At that stage the black clouds overhead had finished their warm-up stretching and were now pouring at full pace.
We sat for a while pondering our next move when Simon spotted a man standing on the other side of the roundabout, so we rode around to ask him. The man was old, very old, and had an almost weedy way about him. He stood alone with his bicycle, and all that could be seen of him was his sharp wrinkly nose that stuck out from his bright yellow raincoat. As we approached, his ancient eyes looked up in alarm at us. Suddenly a thought crossed my mind – here, in the middle of nowhere, is an old man standing by himself in the middle of the rain looking suspiciously like he prefers to be alone. At any cost.
Just as a scene from Leicestershire Chainsaw Massacre looked imminent, Simon, with all the tact he could muster, went straight up to our assassin and jovially asked him for directions to the M1 motorway. The old man paused, just long enough to look menacing, then suddenly his sullen eyes sparkled and his mouth smiled a host of yellow-brown teeth.
“Yeah, of course” he said with a thick British accent. He reached into his raincoat and produced a road map covered with plastic. “I was just standing out here to help poor souls who had lost their way. Where did you say you wanted to go?”
It poured with rain the whole way to London, yet, strangely enough, the British motorists seemed completely unperturbed by this. In South Africa, if there is even the slightest hint of drizzle, drivers automatically panic and start travelling at 20 km/h. In England, it is as though the rain is a driving force that spurs motorists on. At one stage we were doing 100mph (160 km/h) in the fast lane and the traffic around us was doing likewise. It was insane, a three-laned road filled with cars all moving like a single animal at 30 mph above the speed limit in the rain.
This poses an interesting question – why, if speeding is the absolute killer that our government claims it is, why does England have a far lower death rate than us? They travel much faster than us yet there are far fewer deaths on their roads. Could it be that speeding does not kill? Could it be that because England has competent drivers and cars that are actually roadworthy, and roads that have proper markings and no pedestrians running across roads in the middle of the night, they can drive fast? It’s only a thought.
We made it back into London a little after nightfall, and spent the next day touring London, looking at the sites and visiting the various places of fame. And we didn’t go near a coffin – London is so much better on bikes. That afternoon we took the bikes back to the bike store.
And the next day we had to catch a coffin to the airport.