Running the gauntlet on the road to Calais

Published: 16 August 2016

“If you want to get through safely, don’t travel at night.” That was the advice imparted to me at Passport Control by a UK Border Agent as I left France in the dark early hours of Monday morning. It wasn’t casually offered, he was responding to my probably still ashen face, and my attempt at a diffusingly jovial “It’s all going on out on the approach road tonight,” comment as I was processed through passport control.

But there was nothing jovial about the experience. What now feels like a ghoulish aberration in the night was unfortunately very real.

The road was deserted as I approached the Eurotunnel terminal at Calais at around 4am, no lights ahead, and none behind on either carriageway. I was riding at the speed limit, in no rush knowing that I was an hour early for the next available crossing. What happened next left my muscles pulsing with adrenaline for an hour afterwards.

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Out of the darkness there was suddenly fire by the central reservation. With no traffic in either direction I knew an accident wasn’t to blame, and suddenly the simmering unease I’d felt at passing through in the darkness came sharply to the front of my mind. The next couple of seconds – it can’t have been longer – passed with impressively lucid definition.

As my attention went to the fire and the instant belief that it was an intentional act, the 1290’s headlamp suddenly picked out a dark ridge across the road, from central reservation to the barrier the other side. I couldn’t tell what it was just yet, but a fraction of a second later it gained enough definition to be a clear ridge of hay. It looked like a large speed hump, and I had no idea what was the other side – or under the hay. But I knew I was alone on the road, and very vulnerable on a bike. The fire only started when I was around 50 metres from it, which meant whoever set it was still there. I couldn’t usefully second-guess the motivation (to disrupt traffic flow – to get people to stop for, well, whatever reason – or to cause an accident?), but I knew there were two reasons why I only had one option open to me. The first was that the obstacle was already very close – I could scrub off a lot of speed, but I was going to hit it regardless, and hitting it on the brakes would almost certainly result in a crash. The second was that I wasn’t at all keen on the unknown ramifications of stopping.

With the knowledge that I was hitting it either way, I very consciously moved my weight back and opened the throttle with no real certainty of what I was about to hit. The impact was hard enough that my thumbs still hurt from the bars whacking into my hands, but having briefly taken off and landed again I was relieved to still be upright – that felt like a good result at this point. I was now off the throttle, but I wasn’t going to stop. Dropping my speed to around 60kmh, my brain was racing to rationalise what had just happened. Behind me the fire was now widespread, and the KTM felt suddenly odd beneath me. But I still wasn’t stopping. I got a warning message on the GT’s dash to say that the cornering lights had failed, and scrolling through the menu revealed that the rear tyre pressure sensor wasn’t giving a reading either. I started to fear a punctured tyre, but while everything felt odd, nothing felt broken.

Only a short distance further on, I rounded a right-hander to a sea of brake lights and police. I should have felt relieved, but being forced to stop – albeit with the police there – was making me very nervous. I suddenly felt extremely exposed sat on the bike. I had no choice though, filtering halted by the tightly packed vehicles, and the road ahead blocked by branches dragged onto the carriageway. I pulled in between a lorry and a motorhome, and killed the engine. Once I’d stopped I was immediately aware of smoke. Looking down it was clear that I’d dragged a sizeable sheaf of hay with me, jammed around the bellypan and exhausts, which was now smouldering. Fearful that it might ignite I had no choice other than to get off the bike and pull it all free. As we waited for the police to clear enough debris from the road for us to continue I was conscious that nothing else had arrived behind us, so presumably the cars I’d passed over previous miles had been forced to stop at the obstacle I’d hit. With the way ahead clear of the biggest debris, we all edged over remnants of broken branches and cautiously carried on, before shortly being stopped again as the police battled to clear another barricade of branches from the carriageway. In all three instances I never saw a single person on the carriageway – other than the police.

Once through to the nearly deserted terminal everything was suddenly normal, and only the border agent’s words of advice stood out as a new part of the experience. I pulled into the deserted holding lane and stopped at the barrier, still trying to get my head round what had just happened.

While there’s a fairly simple and matter of fact answer to that, it’s still galling. There’s no damage to the GT – cornering lights and TPS having all reset themselves – and none to me. I could second-guess the motivations all day, and achieve nothing – but I know that I feel angry about what the outcome could have been. It could so easily have been catastrophic for me and my family – and if I’d hit the second or third blockades, there would have been no chance of avoiding a crash. I also feel stupid that while I was aware of a few terrible incidents on the road in recent months, I was completely unaware of this near-nightly game that gets played out on the tarmac between the migrants/refugees and the police (an internet search reveals many incidents).

I’m not writing this to either vilify or defend anyone – but to hopefully make others who may be riding or driving through the terminal aware that danger does lurk in the darkness on the road to Calais. When I travelled south two days earlier – in the daytime – I’d seen no hint of problems at all, giving me a very false sense of security.

If you’re passing through the terminal soon, I hope you’ll remember the border agent’s words and not ignore the potential threat (as I probably would have). I can vouch for the value of his advice, and feel very lucky to have come through the experience with nothing more lasting than a sense of unease – and a single strand of hay that was still wrapped around the footrest when I got home.

 

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