Not content with riding the 1600 miles to the Elefant Rally and back, I had decided that it would be interesting to travel to North Wales for the annual Dragon Rally, which is held on the following weekend.
We arrived back home on the Wednesday evening, which gave us a few days respite to catch up on the news that in our absence London and most of the rest of the country had been brought to a standstill by some of the heaviest snowfalls in many years.
Milky decided against the trip, I guess he’d had enough snowy rallying for one year. So it was that Raff and I set out alone on the Saturday morning and headed up the A5 towards Wales. The first Dragon was set up by the Conwy Motorcycle Club in 1962 as an alternative to the Elefant for those that couldn’t, wouldn’t or just plain didn’t want to, travel all the way to Bavaria for a bit of sub-zero camping fun.
The format is quite interesting, it’s a one night only event and once you’ve paid your dues, they send you a receipt. This is followed up sometime later by a letter detailing where the checkpoint is for that year. You ride to the checkpoint, where your receipt is stamped and this allows you access to the site. It’s only at this point that they tell you where the Rally is being held. This year they were expecting heavy rain – which is hardly any great surprise for North Wales – so the event was to be held at the racetrack site on Anglesey.
Whilst riding up through Wales towards Snowdonia, I look over to my left and do a double take. I’m looking at a field covered in snow, in which are standing a herd of Buffalo! I grew up in the 70’s and as such, was one of the cowboy and Indian generation. Western films were all the rage and here was a scene straight out of those movies. I expected at any moment, to see a tribe of Indians sweeping down from the distant hills in pursuit of their favourite quarry. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this didn’t happen, but the Buffalo were definitely there. Raff was unable to corroborate this vision, so for a while I did fear for my own sanity, which was already somewhat tenuous, given my current and recent escapades.
The trip was rather more enjoyable, not only due to the relatively clement weather conditions, but also because the roads we’d taken on our trip north and west were a lot more fun than miles of unrelenting Autobahns filled with trucks. The directions to the checkpoint were less than comprehensive, but we managed to find the layby filled with bikes and a small caravan with relative ease; where my ticket was stamped. There was a great variety of bikes and outfits taking a break there, a group of Armstrongs looking particularly purposeful. Raff’s ticket was already on site in the hands of a character known as Sad Mike. We called him but he was on the beer already, so we had to ride down to the site, collect the ticket, return to get it stamped and then ride back to the site again. (During all this toing and froing, we witnessed some truly sad folks who showed up on their bikes, had their ticket stamped, went to the site to collect their badges and rally paraphernalia, then rode off again immediately, which didn’t really strike me as being in the true spirit of the event!) After pitching our beloved Quechua tent (it really does take about 4 seconds!) on what I have to say was really marvellously flat, un-frozen ground, it’s amazing how you learn to appreciate the simple things when you’ve been denied them for a while we went to collect our goody bags and complimentary soup. This is a great welcome to the Rally, the bags contain chocolate bars, a badge, a sticker, a slate coaster and a miniature bottle of whisky; superb! As an added treat, the elderly lady who served up the soup did a really good job of taking the piss out of everyone, she was entirely without mercy and had a wicked sense of humour.
We wander off to find Sad Mike, who takes us over to his camp and shows us his topbox, which has hollowed out foam in the manner of a camera case, but he has filled it with bottles of spirits, glasses, coffee and mugs. I do like a man who comes prepared, he’d even brought his South American butler, Miguel, with him. We’re sitting around swapping stories and generally get into the spirit of things when a man wanders up and asks to borrow a lighter for his stove. As he approaches I recognise him. It’s Tarka, a fellow Ural rider, not an otter, whom I last saw 1,800m up a dirt track in the Italian Alps a couple of years ago on the Stella Alpina rally! Tarka has two Ural outfits, which might seem a tad excessive, but he’s deeply passionate about them, as many owners are, so why not have two? I’ve never heard of anyone owning two Ford Mondeos, but it’s quite a common phenomenon in the world of biking, isn’t it? But anyway, I digress, this is a large part of why I enjoy bike rallies so much; they are all about meeting new people and catching up with old friends, then trying to work out when you last saw each other and at which event. Other people enjoy their rally in different ways, in certain cases this can involve showing their nipples to each other (blokes only, behave, it’s February and the Welsh ladies aren’t that crazy), pulling faces and generally hamming it up. But the one thing that unites all rallies that I’ve ever been to, is the all-round good natured bonhomie that surrounds these events, there is never any trouble at all, aside from that caused by misadventure of course. Everyone leaves all their things in their tents, or around their bikes yet there are never any problems with theft. The only time I come back from a rally without something, is when I’ve lost it and more often than not, somebody else will find it and send it to me. Many people have asked me why I would want to ride hundreds or even thousands of miles to go camping in the snow with a bunch of bikers, I still don’t have a good answer, I guess you either want to, or you don’t. Let’s face it, if you go camping in the UK in the summer, the chances are you’re going to get rained on a fair bit and for preference, I’d rather have snow and cold than rain and humidity; being wet and having wet bike kit in a tent is no fun at all. People say they don’t understand, I say that they don’t need to. I’m never going to climb a mountain or swim the channel, I very much doubt I’ll ever run a marathon (are they called snickers these days?) so maybe it’s the way I measure my mettle, who knows?
Wandering around the site looking at the machinery that people have arrived upon is also part of the attraction; I collect ideas for future projects and just simply marvel at people’s inventiveness. You’ll see bikes at rallies that are incredible feats of engineering and an amazingly diverse range of machinery that you just wouldn’t get at the regular weekend bike haunts. Not for here the rows and rows of identical, immaculate GSXRs, CBRs, R1s and Ninjas (although there was a rather large contingent of the ever present GS BMWs). Of course, as a sidecar fan, these events hold a special interest for me, since a combination is obviously the best method of travel in these conditions and what better way can there be of carrying your camping gear than on an outfit? Did I mention that my new Quechua tent fits perfectly onto a Ural sidecar rack? Consequently there are plenty of these otherwise unusual vehicles present to fire my imagination as I gaze upon them admiringly. One such machine was based on a BMW engine and had been entirely custom built, with a tubular space frame for the bike and the sidecar. It had travelled from Germany and although I’d not seen it at the Elefant, I’m sure it must have been there. I hung about for a while in the hope of having a chat with the owner, but I never did spot him (or her?).
After a thoroughly entertaining evening we retired to the tents and fortunately suffered none of the airbed disasters that had plagued us in Germany, with the happy result that we managed a reasonable night’s sleep. Wandering about in search of morning coffee we were accosted by two vaguely familiar figures, who were somewhat disturbed by their nipple showing escapades of the prior evening. We packed up in the fine morning sunshine and headed off for home, keeping one eye out for Buffalo on the way. We stopped in Snowdonia to admire the spectacle of a frozen lake covered in snow, which was a truly beautiful sight. The long ride home reinforced our exhaustion after what had been a seriously tiring few weeks involving a lot of riding, an acute lack of sleep and a general excess of merry making (if such a thing is possible!?). Many people would describe both of these events as extreme, but after the Elefant, the trip to North Wales seemed like a stroll in the park, especially given the kind of excellent on site facilities in Anglesey that persuaded most people to spend the majority of their time in the bar. It was a bit like going to the pub, but the pub is very far away so instead of returning home, you camp in the pub car park with all your mates and everyone else that was in the pub.
The difference was also marked by the almost civilised behaviour of the rally goers at the Dragon; no life threatening drunken riding here, no fireworks either, just good old fashioned fun. I’m not sure which I prefer, there was something appealing about the lawless Elefant and by comparison, time spent at the Dragon left me wondering whether we have travelled too far down the road to civilisation in this country. At times it almost felt as though the attendees were playing at life, rather than really engaging with it wholeheartedly, free of the chains that bind us to our modern lives. I suspect that when I attend the summer rallies in England, I’ll have a different opinion, as my contrast will then be between my regular life at home in 21st Century London and time spent in a field with comparatively mad kindred spirits.
No sign of the Buffalo on the way home by the way!