Ponte Building

Client: Al Jazeera ©

Ponte Building in the inner CBD of Johannesburg

Exploring Isle of Wight on the back of a Royal Enfield.

A fresh spring breeze infused with the smell of the English Channel, rolling Hunter S. Thompson quotes, gushing adrenalin, mad frenzy of euphoria, the unadulterated feeling of freedom – an adventure-cup pouring over the brim…

These are the scatterings of my brain while thumping along on my single cylinder Royal Enfield exploring the “Military Road” on the Isle of Wight.

cornel van heerden photography photographer royal enfield caferacer motorcycle isle of wight 50

I’ve never before experienced the thrill of getting off a ship at a port in a foreign country, with no plans and three days to do it in. Quickly I realised that I’m not a traveller or tourist. No! I am an adventurer! I wasn’t only travelling from one place to another, knowing what is waiting there for me and how much it would cost. Rather, I was looking at the finish line, miles away, totally engrossed in what I want to achieve. Everything between me and my goal was an unknown stranger I wanted to meet.  I was scared witless, hoping I could pull this off!


I did not have any form of planning or bookings – nothing to hold me back.


I’ve been to England before with my wife; I’ve seen and experienced what London has to offer. This time around I was in the Great Colony – alone and throwing caution to the wind. So, besides London, what is there to do in England? I’ve read quite a lot about Isle of Wight – the largest island of England, located south of the mainland in the English Channel – and one day after an exceptionally good night’s rest I woke to the idea of exploring this island from the back of a motorcycle. From that day, come rain or snow, that’s exactly what I wanted to do.

So, there I was in Southampton. Take a break to calm myself and get a coffee at a Pret a Manger – my UK tradition.  I use their Wi-Fi to have a look at the map. There are two locations for ferries to Isle of Wight – Lymington, west of my location and Portsmouth to the east. Lymington looks beautiful; but I choose Portsmouth, because it looks more populated, so I reason that I’m more likely to find a decent bike rental place. I buy a train ticket to Portsmouth, you can buy the ferry ride as part of the ticket. I do that. I feel chuffed with myself – first leg of my adventure and it’s going great! The train ride is extra sweet.


I arrive at Ryde Pier Head with my luggage and gear (I couldn’t travel light because I was there for business prior to my adventure). I’m ready to start adventuring when I see a guy with a motorcycle helmet, having a smoke break. When I start to explain my adventure, his face lights up and I know that he would help any way possible. I enjoy talking to people, especially locals and they are usually very willing to help.

Good news and bad news situation: With his help I find a relatively cheap B&B close to the Pier. It’s a beautiful house on top of a hill with an amazing view down to the Pier and next to a big, old church. The church caught my attention on the ferry, because it’s very prominent feature in the outline of the island.

Bad news: He phones some friends and they conclude that one can’t hire motorcycles on the island unless you’d settle for a scooter… I have to take the ferry back to the mainland and hire a bike there. Then I have to transport the bike over on another, bigger goods ferry.

This was a very big setback; my first. Would I take the easy route, hire a scooter and traverse the island on the Chihuahua of motorcycles? Or would I take the lesser travelled much harder route to my idealistic finish line?


Follow the dream!

Now that I have accommodation for the first night and a place to store my luggage, I use the Wi-Fi to search for a motorcycle to hire. The Pier-guy was correct – will have to hire from the mainland. Now, like with the Chihuahua-situation I am not going to be thrilled with just any old motorcycle!

I want… no, I nééd a bike with character and guts; a rolling stone willing to go where the road takes us!


When you think about it, there is really only one bike for a job like this… Royal Enfield! So with that in mind I started searching for one to hire and found a very nice bike shop in Chichester… nearly 2 hours away.

At that stage you have to ask yourself if you are committed and believe me, I did! Many times! But I put my head down and went for it! Phoning from a pay phone, the owner Peter answered and from the start he was extremely friendly and it felt like I was talking to someone from back home. This calmed me and I kind of just knew this was what I needed to do.


To get to the Royal Enfield, this was my journey: A ferry ride from Ryde to Portsmouth followed by a train from Portsmouth to Chichester and once there, a taxi to the bike shop. (Knowing full well that when I bring the Enfield back, in two days, I will have to reverse this process to get me back to Ryde to pick up my luggage. I didn’t care.) I was drunk on adventure-adrenalin!


Peter, just as friendly face to face as over the phone, told me he took delivery of a Royal Enfield Continental GT that very morning and that it only has 23 miles on the clock! I was going to explore Isle of Wight on a flaming red, virgin Enfield! The amazement was soon replaced with a feeling of utter apprehensiveness – I have never before driven in another country! Getting on the bike with sweaty palms, I remember my wife telling me we should, till we die, continue to do things that scare and challenge us. What is life if you don’t do things that challenge you in every way? Fight through and on the other side you will know how it feels to live your life! As luck would have it, I was riding in peak traffic and although still scared, I was delirious with excitement and bravado! Finally I was on the road… doing what I came to do!

Navigating through traffic on the A27 towards Portsmouth, I needed to find the ferry to take me over to Isle of Wight. There I bought a round trip ticket for me to come back on Friday. At the ferry I meet a man.

Standing next to his big Harley Davidson, he remarks: “Beautiful bike you have there! Is that an Enfield? I didn’t know they still make them! When I was younger I rode one and loved it! How is this one?”

Nigel lives on Isle of Wight. He has a grey beard and leather jacket. Nigel is one of those “older men” that is still in very good shape and his eyes reveals that he loves living. He takes a map from the back of his Harley and hands it to me. “For your trip!” He takes out his iPad and starts to show me what Isle of Wight has to offer. I get the feeling that although he lives on the island he envies my trip and would like to come along, but he is meeting friends that night. He insists on escorting me to Ryde as the ferry that we are one, docks quite a distance from it. As a parting gift he advises “If there is one thing you should do, it’s the Military Road! You won’t be sorry.” Military Road is the stretch of tar from the south of the island to the west, where you will find The Needles. It’s meant to be, because The Needles is a must see for me!


It’s late when I get back to the B&B so I park the Enfield and start to settle in. In the lounge there are two elderly gentleman playing draughts. “We are here for a draughts championship, you should come and watch tomorrow! We are only practicing now.” They say this barely looking up from their draughts board. The next day I’m there and it feels like the twilight zone; The championship is in the back of a small bar/club. There are about 30 very players of different ages, but very passionate about their draughts. Its dead quiet and I whisper-ask to the guy on stage permission to take some photographs. The only audible sound is the sound that the timer makes when players tap it to indicate it’s the next players turn. I take some frames and let them be.


The island is beautiful! Long, wide beaches. People feeding graceful white swans at a lake. The Hovercraft delivering new island-goers. Beautiful colonial architecture (think South Africa’s Simons Town on a much grander scale). Clean roads. Beautiful green parks. Spring blossoming.


I head south. First Sandown, then Shanklin, then Ventnor… My trusty royal steed eating up the tarmac while I smile in amazement at the beauty of the English countryside. Beautiful rolling hills and vibrant yellow rape seed fields contrast the black tar road. Somewhere here I must’ve gotten drunk on the euphoria, because the names on the road signs sound less and less familiar. I realise I might be a tad lost. I see a sign for Carisbrooke Castle and obviously I follow it, because on this trip I’m a “Yes Man”!

Wow! What a beautiful castle! Dating back to the early 12th Century, the Carisbrooke Castle is the island’s only medieval castle and was built by William FitzOsbern, the Island’s first Norman lord, to defend against the potentially hostile local population. Who would think that getting lost would lead to a huge highlight to the adventure?

I had taken a huge unintended detour to the centre of the island and ended quite far north. After getting directions from a local walking his dogs at the castle, I hit the road again towards The Needles. The Needles is a row of three distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea off the west of Isle of Wight and is home to the Needles Lighthouse. The shops and chairlift were already closed, because of my late arrival, so I took the very steep stairs to the pebble beach below. What a beautiful sight! Standing on a pebble beach for the first time in my life, the Needles right in front of me and the white chalky cliffs to my left and not a single soul to be seen or heard left me quite emotional and content.


Heading back to Ventnor where I would spend my last night I rode on one the most beautiful roads I’ve ever had the privilege to experience. I was riding on the Military Road that Nigel told me about. With the sun setting at my back untouched countryside on my left and huge cliffs on my right. My senses sharpened to every smell, sound and movement to a state of absolute cognizance.

Nigel Cook is his name… Nigel and his Harley Davidson had been blessed by Pope Francis in 2013 when he travelled to Vatican City. In a very similar manner Nigel blessed me with the Military Road. Adventure is about the people you meet on your journey as much as the experiences you have.