Trans-Portugal Trail

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This blog post was copied from – the blog I maintained between 2015 and 2018 with Lena, my now ex-wife who I was travelling with at the time. I have no intention of going through the old posts to update them – the past is what it is and doesn’t change.  Apologies if some of the context seems a little strange as a result!

We made it.  Portugal.  North East to South West using as few paved roads as we could.  I try and avoid the use of the word “Adventure” on this blog; I don’t like the misuse the ad-men have subjected it to but this trip certainly was one.  New challenges, check.  Crashes, check.  Mechanical problems, check.  Hospital, check.  River crossings and crazy terrain, check.  Proof that you don’t need to travel halfway across the world to have an interesting trip.  Check.  Reader be warned – this post is going to be a long one.

We were joined by (perhaps more accurately; we joined) the unstoppable James Carter on his XT600e.  James was the man with the plan and having met him at HUBB France the previous year I knew he’d be a good companion; it was Lena I was worried about.  When she first heard about the trip she avowedly didn’t want to come; then she suddenly changed her mind and we scheduled it for the early summer holidays.  Lena’s total distance travelled off-road prior to this trip can be measured in double digits; as it turns out she did great.

This trip was the first run for “Werner” our new two-motorcycle trailer.  I couldn’t use the whole weekend to travel due to a wedding so I hauled the bikes over to Porto over one Sunday and three evenings.  I did have some reservations about hauling ~400Kg of bikes and trailer with a 1.6 eco-diesel; using a trailer hitch I installed myself but aside from drinking a little oil the car did a sterling job.  Oh.  Jobs.  Yes, speaking of jobs… I lost mine on the Thursday afternoon; a nice little dose of pre-holiday stress.  I had a new one lined up shortly afterwards; but my heart was pumping that afternoon!

Day One Fails and Trails (80km)

After a mistake involving GPS co-ordinates led us an hour in the wrong direction (who knew there were so many different formats!) we got to Braganca late at night, met James and settled in for our last sleep in a real bed before hitting the trails on Saturday morning.  No such luck.

While getting the bikes off of the trailer that morning we noticed that Lena’s bike was covered in oil; checking the levels it wasn’t even reaching the dipstick.  With no obvious cause for the leak out came the tools; off came the air/battery box and James and I traced it to one of the long bolts which keeps the top of the engine on.  Last time I take the “easy” route and let BMW do the tricky part of a major service on that bike; definitely going to get the tools and do it myself next time.

The leak being fixed we needed oil.  Did I bring any with me?  No.  Do petrol stations in rural Portugal carry motorcycle oil?  No.  Do motorcycle dealerships in rural Portugal stock motorcycle oil?  Yes.  Do they sell it?  Heck no.  A helpful chap who could have won a grand-prix based on the way he drove his seven seater showed us the way from a petrol station to a back-street bike garage who sold us some oil.  In it went, in it stayed.  So, time to hit the trails!

We’d taken the decision to try out the Trans-Euro Trail route to the North of Braganca; we had a little extra time due to my job situation.  The trail was lovely and a fairly easy break-in for Lena (aside from some overheating caused by having left her thermal liners in) but James, who had the GPX track, found himself repeatedly led the wrong track.  Later diagnosis of the problem proved that he’d downloaded a simplified version of the track; on the ground the end result was getting totally stuck and retreating to a campsite in Braganca.

Day Two Chunderstruck (0km)

We had a reasonable night’s sleep at the campsite; despite a creeping uneasy feeling in my gut.  Upon waking that uneasy feeling rapidly became stomach cramps.  Which became rapid evacuation out of both ends.  Which became shakes and chronic dizziness.  Whatever it was my body disagreed with, regardless of how much it ejected, I never seemed to get better and when I couldn’t stand; couldn’t feel my arms and legs and felt like death itself I asked Lena and James to get me a taxi to the hospital.  They hooked me up to a few drips and within a few hours I was healthy as can be.

We checked into a hotel that night; leaving James at the campsite.  Gimonde was a beautiful little town; we took a stroll along the river, went for a swim and looked for dinner.  Looked.  The only place open had haunches of meat hanging on every wall and they scoffed when the word “vegetarian” was mentioned.  The motos were out of the question on safety grounds.  So we made some awful pasta and got some sleep.

Day Three Soggy Boots (120km)

Up bright and early; feeling healthy.  We got our gear together and headed out to the bikes.  Lena’s bike wouldn’t start.  At all.  Battery drained down to nothing.  No problem; I have the jump battery in my tank bag… or do I?  I’d given it to James to charge his phone at the campsite!  After a little rage-session from me and a good push from some locals I had it bump started and we were underway.  At last.

Due to my big swanky GPS we switched to me riding up front with James bringing up the rear and started to make progress.  We hit the intended trails and made our way south; the going was good and the trails were enjoyable – Lena was a little slow but picking up speed all the time.  We had a 3-course “Plato de Dia” at a little rural restaurant for the princely sum of 7 euros each and headed on for an exciting afternoon.

We were making our way down a track which zig-zagged into a valley when James stopped; his rear tyre was flat.  He was into the repair like a shot and; despite my offer of a nice box-fresh tube in under an hour a tube he had previously repaired with a bicycle repair kit was installed.

On the way down the valley I’d already noticed a very substantial river and not noticed any kind of bridge.  Sure enough once we got to the bottom the only way over it was through it.  Lena later estimated this river crossing as being “about 6m”.  It was more like 40.  By the time all three bikes were across I it felt like 40 rather than 6.  My bike at least was able to keep running; it was slow going feet-down stuff but with James’ help I made it over.  James was up next; his bike can’t swim and had to be hauled through once the water got deep.  Lena’s bike can swim; but after a few stalls we decided not to provoke it’s electrical demons and just hauled that across as well.  Bikes all stayed upright; I fell on my ass in the river.  Yay!

After the crossing Lena found a burst of speed and was charging up the hills at quite a pace; by the time we set up camp and I cooked up some pasta we’d covered a respectable 120km and very little tarmac.  My guts were settled.  We were wild camping.  The trip was on!

Day Four Dust Bowl (225km)

We were making progress; helped by the trail regularly hitting stretches of tarmac – but we needed the kilometers.  We had a fairly uneventful morning; some nice simple trails and a good pizza for lunch.  In the afternoon things got a little more interesting; we got lost in a confusing and recently bulldozed dust-bowl; it was hot as hell, no air flowing at all and so dusty we could barely see.  Or they could barely see.  I was ok up front.  We had to turn around and retrace our steps a few times – utterly exhausting; I was huffing and puffing like I’d ran a marathon.

After that we hit some wide, fast, dusty trails – with Lena getting up to 80kmph at points.  She also managed to get to some surprising places; having managed to ride up the side of the road onto a rather high verge (If you’d have asked me to get up there I’d have seriously questioned if I could!) and crash directly into a thorn bush on a perfectly normal corner.  At this point my advice about not bringing huge plastic top-boxes on off-road trips came back to haunt us; Lena’s topbox popped off at the front, hinged at the back and smashed her number plate light off!

It was a long, exhausting day but we had time at the campsite at the end of the day for a brief swim, a much needed shower and a toasted sandwich for dinner.  Success.

Day Five Savanna (250km)

250km in one day; if we could genuinely claim it was all off-road mileage we’d be just about ready for rallying.  But not today; the trail took in quite a lot of road; just a notch over half of the total distance.

Riding in our usual formation; with Mr Gadget (me) up front and Lena in the middle we managed to loose Mr Unstoppable.  Somehow we (we, in this case being Lena – I was navigating) failed to notice that we had lost James when crossing two large; open cow-fields which required a detour into the field itself to avoid the cows.  We stopped to open a gate; no James.  We waited; no James.  I went back up the trail 5km.  No James.  Once I got back to Lena my phone rang and we’d apparently lost the poor chap some 8km back, by the side of the road.  That tube that was repaired with a bicycle puncture repair kit – it failed.

The trails were mostly fairly straightforward going today; aside from one mad hill-climb that left my arms in bits – it was a narrow, over-grown single track that took a straight line up a river valley; steep, rocky and laced with whip-like branches that made you glad of the body armour.  Utterly thrilling to ride and again I was seriously impressed by the fearlessness of our novice rider.

We spent the night by a lake in complete isolation; surrounded by natural beauty, the chance for a swim and I even knocked up some rather fine spicy chorizo pasta.  I learned that you can’t carry eggs on a dirtbike.  Messy.  Lena managed to leave James completely shocked by stripping off on arrival and taking a dip in the lake; always entertaining to see a Brit show his prudishness!

Day Six Home away from Home (300km)

We woke up to a beautiful sunrise by the lake; eager to carry on but beginning to feel the fatigue from so many days on the road.  We broke camp; had breakfast (no eggs, boo!) and carried on south – lots of groves of trees to ride through today; largely flat land and beautiful in it’s way – but I was beginning to miss my mountains!

Lena managed to have a fairly spectacular crash on a very normal corner; the bike just slid out from under her – it was her turn for a little moment of fury.  She stormed off into the trees; gear being stripped off as she went and came back a few minutes later “absolutely fine”.  You know that kind of absolutely fine.  The kind of absolutely fine that women are when they’re not anything like fine.  Some tears, some hugs and a few minutes to calm down got us back on the road – but this was fatigue taking it’s toll.  After lunch I had to insist that we get on the highway and get to James’ house in the Algarve; which had been our goal for the day anyway.  Lena wanted to continue on the trails but we had too far to go and she wasn’t safe on the bike any more.  Dedication is great; broken bones – not so much.

A real meal, a shower, a proper bed and wonderful hospitality from James’ Mum and Grandmother was enough to get us refreshed and ready to face the final part of the trail.

Day Seven Sagres, Sand and Success (120km)

After a proper breakfast at a proper table we headed to Monshique; the highest point in the Algarve.  Somehow starting the trails at the highest point in the area didn’t trigger any alarms; considering that Lena and I both pretty awful at riding downhill.  This was steep downhill.  Very steep.  With river gulleys, rocks and all manner of nasty terrain.  James was repeatedly cursed.

Of course, Captain Unstoppable (James) switched to his Super Tenere for this final part of the trail.  Showing up our deficient skills even more starkly.  As he was yomping elegantly down the slippery slopes on his giant twin Lena and I were crawling slowly down; we made it but I increased my drop-score from 1 to 3.  Grr.

The Algarve is very (very) up and down; James knew this trail from Monshique to Sagres and it was certainly the most challenging section of the trip so far; not least because we finally had to deal with sand, in which James finally dropped his bike!  Yay!  Unfortunately Lena’s starting problems came back to haunt us here; after her first fall in the sand the bike wouldn’t start; we tried to carry on normally but there were more drops and the battery died – requiring the jump battery.  With 15km of sand to go to Sagres we needed a better plan – that plan was for Lena to keep the revs high; her feet down and to power on through the sand like some kind of sand-sledge.  Occasionally boosted by two hot, sweaty assistants hauling it out of holes – it worked.

After some calories were burned we made it.  North East Portugal to South West.  Mission accomplished.  We asked a group of R1200 riders if they’d be kind enough to take a group photo; they were too busy polishing their Touratech header-pipe protectors or something.  Two fellow travellers; although not of the two wheeled persuasion were kind enough to take some snaps for us.  Time to head back to James’ house for another lovely meal and to switch into tourist mode for the rest of the trip, while we made our way back to the car.

The ride up the coast was largely uneventful; and I’ve decided to focus on the trail in this post – we saw the major cities on the way up and stayed in some beautiful places.  Lena managed to get an “eggy” wheel; which to those of us who don’t speak Lena means a puncture.  We did this tyre change the easy way – we were 500m from a tyre yard at the time.  Our stay at Ecoaldeia de Janas was pretty special; it’s what I would describe as a hippy commune with a mission – they’re trying to turn the village next door into an “Eco Village”.  They’ve got some farmland on the go; they make their own beers and ciders and have recently built a restaurant in the square in town where they prepare their own produce; great food and interesting people.  Plus mead.  Mead is good.  We went surfing; which we were awful at.  We had some charming AirBnB hosts in delightful places. The coast of Portugal is windy but wonderful – the towns, beaches and national parks are quiet and the food is great – it’s no undiscovered coastline but it’s definitely not buzzing with tourists.

You can find GPX files for the proposed route, actual route (TET ATTEMPT and PT1-4) for download here.

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