Newfoundland

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Newfoundland

Newfoundland
TERRA INCOGNITA

Only a few roads lead through lonely Newfoundland. The Frenchman Philippe Bovet took them under the small wheels of his Vespa scooter.

Philippe Bovet

04/19/1996

It’s the beginning of spring in Newfoundland. The last patches of snow are slowly melting in the first warming rays of the sun.

For six bitterly cold winter months my Vespa PX 200 was parked with friends in a garage in the island’s capital St. John’s. Now your tank gets the taste of petrol back, and the two-stroke engine starts working again with a sputter. A little later I leave the gorgeous old town, where the children play hockey in the middle of the street and where dogs and cats make themselves comfortable in front of simple and beautiful wooden houses. Since 1989 I have been traveling the North American continent on my scooter again and again. The individual stages took me many thousands of kilometers from Chicago to the Mexican border, and later to Quebec in eastern Canada. Today my last leg of my journey begins: Newfoundland and a detour to Labrador. I take the road to Terrenceville, where tomorrow a coastal ship to Port aux Basques will leave the lines. Most of the roads in Newfoundland are dead ends. Impossible to make a real tour over the “pebble”, as this island is called by its inhabitants, without using the coastal cargo ships, which are not actually ferries, but which accept a scooter on board. But it jumps all the way to the harbor Vespa between potholes and lurches terribly in the strong cross wind. As long as the trees form a protective tunnel around me, I am safe from the sudden gusts of wind. When I cross bridges, this protection disappears and the wind lashes me in the face. Always in second or third gear, with one eye on the rearview mirror and the other on the sloping trees, it takes me an hour and a half to walk 50 kilometers, my hands cramped around the handles and all my muscles on the alert to be prepared for any violent gust of wind In Terrenceville, Alice hosts the only Bed & Breakfast district of the village. Her husband and two sons make a living mainly from fishing and chopping wood. All four speak with accents that are difficult for a newbie like me to understand. The food also takes some getting used to, but is typical for people who live on this island: condensed milk, cured fish, cured beef, cabbage and potatoes, plus dry sailor’s biscuits that are dipped in a sauce. Wednesday, June 1, 7 a.m .: The coastal cargo ship docks. The four of us heave the scooter on board. The captain grins: “This is really the first time that we have transported a motorcycle.” The cargo ships are still vital for the people of the south coast of Newfoundland because there are no roads to most of the villages. You don’t have a car here, only boats. From the ferry terminal in Port aux Basques I make my way to Corner Brook. It’s raining. And it’s bitterly cold. In the toilets of a gas station I put on long johns and an extra sweater. Go on. Meanwhile it is snowing heavily, snowflakes stick to my visor. My fingers have to play the windshield wipers every ten seconds. Snow in june? Here the weather doesn’t follow a calendar. In Gander, at the other end of the island, 25 centimeters of fresh snow falls overnight. The whole island will talk about it for days. The Vespa drives up the northern peninsula. A forest of tall red pines stands out against a gray sky. In the background a bare mountain range, abraded by the last ice age. There are still patches of snow on the lost mountain tops. Two moose stroll along the roadside. A few houses around a small bay, a few fishing boats on the beach, that’s a village. I stop in front of a small cafe. A group of fishermen sit around wooden mini-tables. All discussions revolve around the current lobster prices. “Last week the price of the pound rose from 3.90 to 4.10 Canadian dollars, and today it has even climbed to 4.60”, shouts one of the fishermen, who has just heard the latest news on his radio, and whose furrowed face is now is covered by a meaningful smile. Later, further north, my engine makes strange noises. Some dirt is probably clogging the carburetor. I decide to clean it up in Hawke’s Bay, the next village. The large hardware store on the right appears to have a workshop. I stop, but Ken Kely is too busy to take care of me and my scooter. But I can use his workshop. I clean my swimmer chambers between snowmobiles in need of repair and four-wheeled motorcycles, so-called quads. My host has a typical job in the far north: he repairs, sells and lends out chainsaws, boat engines, stoves, gas refrigerators, raincoats, generator sets and much more. All fishermen and trappers from the area swear by him because he always has advice and can fix almost anything. On June 11th I reach the 52nd parallel. Here it becomes night at 11 p.m. and day again at 4 a.m. The weather is nice, but cold, because the wind comes from the northeast, from Greenland. On the other side of the bay, along the Labrador coast, impressive icebergs jut out of the sea. The road is nothing but a poor strip of asphalt, a thin dike that balances on a ground soaked with water, riddled with lakes and cut by rivers. This connecting route did not reach the west coast until the 1960s and was then paved ten years ago. Carburetor problems again. After a grueling incline, I stop to clean that devilish part again and to install a new gasoline filter. But the engine doesn’t reward my work. He just stops running. After a while I know what the problem is: The lack of compression when kicking off shows me that the piston must have a hole. I have the spare part with me, but it’s still 150 kilometers to St. Anthony, the next town. Even the first car stops. The nice guy behind the wheel is called Boyd and he explains that he just drives his fat, brand new pickup for a walk. He is a quiet guy who works as a fisherman with his brothers and father from May to September and otherwise lives in the woods as a lumberjack. He drops me off in St. Anthony late in the evening. And two days later the Vespa purrs almost as it did when we started our journey through the North American continent almost 20,000 kilometers ago. After a short ferry ride across the Belle Isle Canal, I reach Labrador. Childhood dreams come to life, Jack London emerges from memory. This bare earth, giving way like a sponge and moist, where winter temperatures drop to below minus 50 degrees Celsius and where it can snow in July, is part of an unadorned landscape. But the 31,000 inhabitants of Labrador appreciate this land and have always developed an extraordinary ability to adapt to the difficult environment. I’m lucky: In Labrador there are less than 200 kilometers of tarred roads, and that includes the next 100 kilometers between Blanc Sablon and Red Bay, a village with 300 inhabitants, after which the road finally ends. But the route is wonderful. The charming, narrow street runs past small bays and harbors. Then along a chain of lakes immersed in silence. Since last September, I’ve been the first guest at Red Bay’s only hotel. As in other villages, people are curious about the stranger passing through. Everyone saw the unusual vehicle in front of the hotel. As I head to the grocery store, everyone in the queue leaves me with a trivial excuse to hear me speak English, to guess where I’m from, to find out what I’m eating … A fast ferry will bring me back back to Newfoundland. After a few minutes of driving on the highway, an oncoming motorist suddenly made wild light signals and stopped in the middle of the road. It is a fisherman who had seen me in St. Anthony about a fortnight earlier. Like three weeks ago in Corner Brook: A fisherman from Maison d’Hiver drove upside down in reverse gear through a one-way street to wish me a good day. A few days later a young man spoke to me in Daniel’s Harbor because he had seen the Vespa that morning 200 kilometers further south. Newfoundland is a friendly village! Back in St. John’s, this city that is geographically closer to Europe than Vancouver. I’m bringing the Vespa back to Roy Bartlett’s garage for one final winter. What will be the difference between Newfoundland and Iceland, my next stage? Although both islands experience the same harsh winters and are whipped by the same Atlantic winds, Newfoundland is still America and Iceland is already Europe.

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