Middle Earth.

It’s a name we give to this curious collection of countries. The ones that swoop around the Black Sea. With the exception of Iran, of course, which stands off on its own. But Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova, the Ukraine, Moldova…. that clutch of ex-Soviet satellite states.

Middle Earth. Nah, we didn’t expect to find hobbits here. But, we didn’t expect to find goblins either. And, we did! At the Goblin Rally.

The biggest motorbike rally around. For a 17th consecutive year. It lands in our laps in Odessa. Goblins rev, pop, spin and squeal in, from the faraway corners of Middle Earth. Bikers from the Ukraine, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Romania. And Belarus! And Latvia! And Russia proper! And Trans-Dniester, more proper than Russia proper … but more about that renegade republic later.

They suck us in, like bees to honey. Harry sees bikes he’s never seen before. I hear of places I’ve never heard of before. Some goblins are pro-Russia, others are pro-EU. Few speak English. Some wives do!

Our home, South Africa, blows their minds. A quick sum, a lot of license, and we claim; “We have ridden 69,000 kilometres to get here!”

!69 ’f-cking’ thousand kilometres!

It spreads like wild fire. Suddenly everybody speaks English!

!69 ’f-cking’ thousand kilometres!

Paper cup! Vodka! Salute!

!69 ’f-cking’ thousand kilometres!

Paper cup! Vodka! Salute!

!69 ’f-cking’ thousand kilometres!

Paper cup! Vodka! Salute!

Harry & I need to hide.

We find a delicious Georgian dish; Khachapuri. A crusty molten bread. Stringy with cheeses and runny with egg. Straight out of the oven.

We return, to the Goblins, with heartburn.

And the town is red. It’s mischief time.

A mass ride. The perfect venue for a wedding. Doughnuts and slow races. Prizes for everything, and for nothing. Kick-boxing. Champions! A child, a woman, a man, parade around the ring. Hard rock. Fireworks! Trike bikes scream onto the stage. A shopping trolley swings in tow. Heavy Metal. Pole dancing. Collapse.

Mid-morning and tents still quake with snoring.

We proudly last for 2 nights and a day.

And then, it’s time to go home.  The Goblins head back to their corners of Middle Earth. And we head back to South Africa.

Oh my, Middle Earth. Scary histories. Messy politics. Plain pleasures.

Here, chimneys still smoke. And shepherds herd their flocks along the roadside. Here cities are a hodgepodge of old and new. And you open a stall without a permit.  Here you sit in a public square without paying for an expensive cappuccino. And a family spends a whole day in a sunny park. Here a young couple runs in ordinary tennis shoes. And this proverb rules; ‘Smiling for no reason, is a sign of stupidity”. So, here, that rare smile …. Is the most beautiful thing in the world.

But more than anything, here, most people are almost middle class. Those few oligarchs aside. Communism, it seems, leaves an easier legacy than colonialism and apartheid. An up-and-coming middle class. Something we desperately wish for home, South Africa, too.

Thank you, Goblins. We have had the time of our lives in Middle Earth!


The Goblins congregate for the Rally in a small village called Prodmash, along the Black Sea, near Odessa.
Some Goblins stay at the curious Pavlovs Hotel …
… owned and managed by an equally curious Matriarch and her ladies in waiting.
But most Goblins camp …
… and it really is a family affair.
Some real old-timers, like this guy from Georgia, has attended all 17 years.
Some real old-timers … this is an Ikobpobeue.
And some serious custom-made bikes too ….
And once the tram ….
… clears the tracks ….
… the bikes cross and the mass ride begins.
Just check out these toolbox panniers … and speakers.
And these slightly upmarket Ducati toolbox panniers.
The mass ride ends in the city centre of Odessa.
It is a rare day off for these ponies.
And why not. It is a beautiful back drop for a wedding ….
Back at the campsite …. things get cosy.
… here I am propelled into the air by a mighty Goblin.
We are pounded by these … from all sides.
… and find solace in the traditional Georgian dish, khachapuri, at the restaurant of the Matriarch. It is worth the heartburn, definitely.
Not to be out-done, the Matriarch and her Pavlovs Hotel is putting on its own Extravaganza.
We head back to the Goblins and the night continues with … a mechanic from Armenia.
A teacher from Belarus.
A well rally-ed man from Bulgaria.
And our adorable joker in the pack.
Competitions. Start calmly with the slow races.
Onto kickboxing. After warm up rounds …
The children fight as parents and younger siblings look on.
Then the ladies. Look at those boyfriends scrutinising technique.
Ahh, but only one can take the title for the Goblin Rally 2018.
A line-up, of Ukrainian rock bands, follows …. nationalist, head banging stuff.
Some Goblins roar their trikes on stage ….
…. while others hurtle around in a shopping cart.
This pole-dancing cage seems like a safe haven …
They rock till long after Harry & I drop. The next morning everybody heads home happily ….


It’s a long way home; Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Czechia, Germany and then a plane back to South Africa.

But first, a last snippet of Middle Earth. Trans-Dniester!

We follow fellow Goblins on bikes with odd number plates to a crazy place in the world. A narrow strip of land between the Ukraine and Moldova, just across the Dniester River. It’s a separatist region that breaks away from Moldova after a fierce war in 1992. Not recognised by any country in the world. Except by the 3 other un-recognised states of Abkhazia, Artsakh and South Ossetia! It declares it is not Moldovan! It declares it’s love for Mother Russia! But Russia doesn’t say yes and doesn’t say no.

More Russian, than Russia. A leap back in time; to Soviet times.

Trans-Dniester, half a million people on 4000 sq.km. It has its own government, parliament, constitution, flag and anthem. And its own military, police, postal system, currency and vehicle registrations. And its own very thorny border post.


This is the recognised border post between Ukraine and Moldova. You get stamped out and in. BUT you cannot go anywhere until …
… you get a Migration Card from the Trans-Dniester Authority. See the little red roofed building in the corner, that is where you get it.
Here is the Migration Card for Harry. Valid for 24 hours only.
From here on, cars and bikes sport their very own License Plates.
And we need to find a money changer to get Trans-Dniester currency so we can pay for food and accommodation. Plastic money, we swear. Feels more like Casino chips.
The capital city of Trans-Dniester, Tiraspol, screams of Soviet heritage and Russian dreams ….
The Russian Flag is as common as the Trans-Dniester Flag.
Typical scenes along the main road ….
The city centre also speaks very movingly about its devastating war in 1990 to 1992 to obtain independence from Moldova ….
…. an independence that Moldova and the world at large does not recognise.
The foyer of our hotel, one of the best in town.
Up the lift ….
… and down the corridor, we go …
… to our room which has a TV that dates back to Soviet times and does not work anymore.
Our radio screams 1980 Summer Olympics.
And Harry has to fix the switches before we can turn on the lights.
These wall hangings ….
… and a Lenin portrait tower over a cosy lounge. You will notice we have managed to stock up on liquid essentials.
And as the sun sets, from our balcony, we watch this Party Boat filled with youngTrans-Dniesterians go up and down the river.
The next day, we are about to leave Trans-Dniester …. through this border post …
… but before we get there we are apprehended by Trans-Dniester customs officials for not having travel insurance (apparently an old trick). Harry gets us out of that Hobbit-style.
And there, on the otherside of this Trans-Dniester border post is …. no Moldovan border post. Why should there be, Moldova says they do not exist.


Trans-Dniester. So obscure! Now you see it. Now you don’t. Did it slip into the Black Sea? Or disappear into a Black Hole of History?

No, it’s right here in Middle Earth. I promise, Harry has those plastic coins in his pocket!