Hogging the sunlight on a Harley-Davidson trip in Musandam
Big, lazy and unashamedly old fashioned. Grunts a lot. Would do you some serious damage if one fell on you. Against all the odds, still around making trouble - I could fill this entire page with a list of all the attributes I personally share with Harley-Davidson's motorcycles. Perhaps that's why I have such love for them and can see past their obvious imperfections. They're the only form of two-wheeled transport that interests me and, for that reason alone, I'm often subjected to a barrage of abuse from biker friends. I don't care. Because quite unlike me, Harley-Davidsons are cool.
It's probably worth mentioning now that I'm not a biker. I don't have the slightest interest in sports motorcycles and probably never will; and there are numerous reasons for this. They terrify me due to the insane power they produce, the riding position is hunkered down and means you can't really see your surroundings (not that you'd be able to take in the view once the throttle is opened), they're uncomfortable and, most of all, they offer practically zero chance of survival if you come off at anything like a high speed. They don't call riders of these things "organ donors" in the UK for nothing.
Having moved to the UAE 12 months ago, almost to the day, and having seen the way people drive out here, my plan to actually buy a Harley-Davidson and ride one in the more temperate months was shelved. Permanently. Yet I knew this time would eventually come; the time for me to face my fears and get back on a bike. At least in this part of the world it's unlikely I'll come a cropper on a sodden drain cover in the middle of the road while I'm leaning into a corner. It's time to get back on a Hog and head for some of the loveliest roads that exist in the Middle East. A rumble to Oman is on the cards.
Only one problem: my lack of experience will be entirely evident to the other journalists who will no doubt be irritated to the point of distraction by my snail-like pace and lack of commitment in the twisty mountain sections. No matter, I've been given my orders and I pack a rucksack with enough clothes for two days away from home. The weather is getting a bit hot but I'm not cutting back on the safety gear; I still have to battle my way through early morning Dubai traffic and, short of having a protective force field surrounding my torso, I couldn't be any more prepared for a road trip. I'm struggling to walk, I'm so layered.
I've been to Oman a number of times but never to the Musandam Peninsula, and never on two wheels as part of a roaming gang. I'm dreading the journey and eagerly looking forward to it in equal measure and, when I convene at Harley HQ in Dubai, at least the other hacks seem genuinely friendly. Still, when I catch sight of the bike with my name on it, my heart sinks. It's a Fat Bob. Fat Bob, meet fat Kev. The only Harley I've spent any quality time riding has been an 883 Iron - Fat Bob has way more poke than that little Sportster. Things could get messy.
Introductions over and my luggage slung in the back of the support van, I climb onto Bob and try to re-familiarise myself with the controls (not that there are many). I press the starter and the famous, flatulent V-twin erupts at almost exactly the same moment all the others do. We're in an underground car park and the noise, even with my helmet and earplugs in place, is physical. Already I feel elated, for this is one of the main draws for me to Harley-Davidson as a company: noise, glorious noise.
I'm told we'll be riding in a staggered formation while on roads with more than one carriageway and, revving Fat Bob, I follow our leader. Within a couple of minutes we're joining the E11. It's hot, even at this early hour, but I'm comfortable and, as the kilometres roll by, my training comes flooding back to me. I find myself performing "lifesavers" (taking a final glance over my shoulder before making the slightest move) without even thinking about it. By the time we reach the first fuel stop, I'm back in love with Harley-Davidson and Fat Bob has become a real good friend of mine.
Described, accurately so, as the "Norway of Arabia", Khasab, on the Musandam Peninsula, is an extraordinarily beautiful region where enveloping vertiginous mountainsides plunge almost vertically into fjords of inky blackness. And it's barely a couple of hours away from Dubai. Why have I left it so long to visit? The route is Harley heaven - with unfolding scenery that can only be described as epic, at least once we've left behind the dusty, windswept expanses of Ras Al Khaimah.
Border control dealt with, I swap bikes for a new model - the Fatboy Slim or something. Actually, it's called the Softail Slim and, for me, it's the coolest of the bunch. With only minimal brightwork, this is blacker than the ace of spades and looks just like something Marlon Brando could have ridden in The Wild One. Its seat is low, almost ridiculously so, but it feels absolutely right and when I open the taps, it surges forward on a seemingly unstoppable wave of muscly torque, all the while tingling my scalp with its booming exhaust note. With a displacement of 1.7L, this is a big old lump and it's proudly on display. It's basically a whacking great air-cooled engine on wheels, back to basics in impeccable style.
The road that snakes around the stunning coast of northern Oman is relatively new and entirely bereft of potholes and other imperfections that can make a biker wish he'd taken the car. The heat of the afternoon sun on the flawless tarmac enables the fat tyres to gain purchase aplenty, which, in turn, allows me to lean in further while taking the hairpin corners. It might sound elemental to you, but I'm still pretty new at this. Still, when I start scraping the pegs, I can't help feeling like progress is being made here. It's a small but significant achievement.
As the pack spreads out, I start to ponder on what makes this kind of experience so special and, for me at least, the real appeal lies in the fact that I can take in my surroundings and feel more at one with them. On a superbike I'd be face down and missing this incredible landscape - what would be the point of that?
Far too quickly we reach our hotel, where we change and head out for a dhow cruise with dolphins and billions of scary-looking jellyfish for company in water that's the clearest I've ever seen. It's a different way to take in the scenery and, to be honest, you couldn't see these sights from anything other than a boat. But I'm itching to get back on a Harley. I'll have to wait until tomorrow for that.
As morning breaks, I join the others and arrange to take the Fat Boy (as opposed to Bob). Made famous as the bike of choice for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2, it's almost become a brand in its own right. Immediately I like it - comfortable, big and with bags of lazy, low-down power, it's possibly the archetypal Harley-Davidson. It's surprisingly easy to power through the tight bends and once again I get my lean on. Like a boss, as the kids say these days.
The fresh coast air smells wonderful, my lungs taking in as much as possible before we reach the arid landscapes of the UAE, where I know we'll be beaten by strong winds whipping up dense clouds of abrasive sand. As we power on, the peace and tranquillity of this special country is destroyed by the sound of rolling thunder. The wildlife might be scurrying for cover but I doubt any of the humans will be complaining. It's music to my ears, anyway.
Reaching the border crossing once again, I beg and plead my way onto the Slim. It's the one I'd have if it was my money on the table and I manage to keep it for the rest of the trip, the route taking in Dibba, Al Aqua, Fujairah, Kalba and Wadi Al Helou. The weather is harsh, often beyond belief, with every exposed millimetre of my skin unceremoniously sandblasted as we roar across the desert highways. The beauty here is a savage one, totally different to the scenery in Oman but no less impressive. This is the landscape that Harley-Davidsons are meant for - it's their natural habitat. I'm still far from being a natural rider, however. I find it difficult to relax my limbs, constantly fearing the worst, and my back is starting to twinge after a long, full day in the saddle.
Yet, as the gobsmacking skyline of Dubai eventually fills my dusty visor and I once again join Sheikh Zayed Road, I'm far more confident than I was when I left the city yesterday morning. I've made friends along the way, I've tried out and been bowled over by some big bruiser bikes that the hard-core two-wheeled fraternity would rather spit on that sit on. I've had an amazing couple of days.
If you don't get it, that's OK. They don't do it for everyone, I know that full well. But only a Harley-Davidson could make me feel the way I do when I eventually remove my helmet and peel off my jacket and gloves. I'll be making this trip again, as soon as summer is over, and I reckon I'll be leaving the car at home. As much as I love being on four wheels, these big bikes do something no car is able to replicate: they turn the open road into an adventure.