Tarantulas, guns and bobcats

“I’m off to Russia, going mountain climbing,” said Jo Morgan when I caught up with her last year.

I mulled on this afterwards. She seemed to be away for a good chunk of the time Gareth was campaigning for the General Election.

Coincidence? Mountain climbing? Bemused, I assumed she meant something relatively safe, like Helen Clark striding up Kilimanjaro. I forgot about it until Christmas when we caught up again. This time she was getting ready to go motorcycling.

“I was wanting to do West Africa,” says Jo. “We looked it up but there’s so many places that are politically unstable, so we thought no, not at the moment. We’ll start in Morocco. The motorbikes are on their way to Casablanca as we speak and we’ll get three weeks around Morocco exploring there. Good motor biking. Zigzags, tight corners, loose metal, and remote places that you can only get to by motorbike.

“Then we’ll go through to Portugal and Spain and zigzag through Europe. We’ll do Greece and Turkey and then get across to the Caucasus and hopefully leave our bikes parked up there until next summer. So that’s really a three month ride.”

I found the logistics of this fascinating.

What about safety, breakdowns, borders, visas?

Is it an organised tour? Jo explained it further.

“We started off in India about 2002, then South America. Initially with someone who organises these treks. Then we decided to do the Silk Road, which was far bigger.”

Now she and Gareth plan their own trips. Gareth with his spreadsheets and research.

“I’m more airy-fairy,” proclaims Jo. I doubt that.

Pragmatic and practical, intuitive and savvy. What dangers would one expect I wonder?

“The best word to learn in any language is ‘beautiful’,” says Jo. “Because when someone’s got a gun pointed at you, you try to find a child, reach down and put your arms around them - it totally defuses everything.

“The guy with the gun is standing there wondering why he has a gun pointed at you.

“I’ve had a snake on the road that I thought was a rope. I was going along really close to it and it came up like snakes do and lunged at me.”

Exciting. I’m guessing the road kill in some of these countries is a little different from what one would find in New Zealand. What was the largest she’d encountered?

“A bobcat. About dog size,” says Jo. “One place where we were going there were these crabs running down the road. I stopped to look at them and discovered they were tarantulas.

“They were everywhere.  

“One of the car drivers said in certain seasons it’s like crunching popcorn as you drive,” Jo recalls. “And the woman in the information centre - I said ‘do you know there are a lot of tarantulas around here?’ and she said ‘that’s why I’ve got the broom, some days I spend all day sweeping them out’.”  

Some countries require a bond before they can be crossed. This can be up to 10 times the value of the motorcycle, such as Iran.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Jo. “But you get it back.” Being UNICEF ambassadors provides Gareth and Jo with opportunities to go into places that tourists often don’t normally get to.

“Remote villages,” says Jo. “You see how they live, you may be planning to do some funding or assessing a place for UNICEF funding.”

“I was 15 when I had my first motorbike.

“After I married Gareth and was expecting Sam, I’d turn up for antenatal classes on my motorbike. One of the nurses took me aside and said ‘excuse me miss, how are you going to get here when the baby’s coming?’ and I just looked at the bike and she said ‘do you know how the baby gets out?’”  

She laughs out loud. On their motorcycle treks she’s clear about her role.

“I’m the linguist, medic and mechanic. Gareth is the captain and publicist. It’s interesting when you’ve got a good partnership.”

We get back to the mountain climbing. She started climbing when she was 58.

After Christmas she headed off to climb Mount Magellan. Did Gareth go too?

“You’ve got to be joking. He couldn’t do it.

“It’s very edgy. This is not trekking or tramping. This is crampons in, ice axe and sheer walls.”

It was a 14-hour climb starting at 1am from the main hut on Aoraki Mount Cook.

“You’ve constantly got rock fall and ice fall around you. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

“The last bit is really cool. You’re going along this little icy ridge of snow with one foot on each side. And thousands of metres down on each side. Wolfgang the guide and I have an arrangement. If he falls off to the right, then I need to fall off to the left.  The rope holds us in the middle and you save each other.

“There are 24 peaks in New Zealand over 3000m and I’ve done 22. Two to go. Then I can retire. The intention was to have them all done before I got my Gold Card but it’s not going to happen. Gold Card in August but climbing season won’t be until October now.”

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