On the road to the olives


Giles and Annie retrace their epic motorbike journey, riding 8,500 miles on the 30-year-old bikes to discover the challenges facing the olive oil industry

Giles and Annie Henschel’s pair of BMW R100 GSs on the first road trip 30 years ago

“We got married in 1992, when we were living on a houseboat near Hampton Court. We both wanted to take a gap year out of our careers, so we sold everything we could and bought two motorbikes (BMW R100 GSs). We travelled through Spain, up the coast to France, Italy, Greece… It was during the Yugoslav war, so we had to adjust our route to go through Turkey, Syria – an utterly amazing country to be in 1993. Into Jordan, Israel, back into Jordan, Egypt, all the way down the Nile into Sudan, through the Western Desert into Libya – where we got arrested and deported twice – and then bumped our way back to the UK and ended in a bedsit, flat broke, in Southampton.”
When Giles Henschel, managing director of Olives Et Al, was The BV’s Dorset Island Discs castaway in 2022, he described the year-long road trip with his wife Annie which was the inspiration for what became their life’s business. At the end of last year Olives Et Al turned 30, and the couple wondered what to do to mark the occasion: ‘The obvious thing, of course, was a repeat of the original trip, using the original bikes,’ says Giles. ‘And then suddenly, as that idea took hold, this whole spectrum of climate change just made it all the more important that we do it.’

Giles and Annie on their wedding day on the bikes

Out of oil
The olive oil industry has been making headlines over the last few months, as customers have questioned the prices in the shops doubling in a year.
‘Our small jars of olives were retailing at £4.50 – they’re now £9.95,’ agrees Giles. ‘I know a lot of people feel it must be profiteering (sadly I don’t see a Ferrari in our car park) but the raw price is just astronomical. I have never known anything like it – never, not in 30-odd years. We’ve had to re-configure our entire product range, withdrawing some products completely and entirely re-working others.
‘To all intents and purposes Europe has run out of olive oil this year. We know whole areas in Tuscany that didn’t even bother harvesting in the autumn. In a good year, they all harvest their own trees. In a poor year, they have they what call an amici harvest, a friend’s harvest, where they collaborate and pick each other’s, put it all together and share it out equally.
‘In 2023, they didn’t even bother with an amici harvest.
‘Halkidiki, in Greece, had a 90 per cent reduction in crop – that’s 90 per cent fewer olives than in a good year. As a result, prices of olives have more than doubled as a raw ingredient. Where we were paying £3.10 a kilo last year, we’re paying £7 this year. And there are no contracts, either; we cannot fix the price of our extra virgin olive oil with even the biggest importers. You have to buy at the price on the day. It really is pretty serious.’

The 2024 Operation Watertight II planning is old school – a big map, pins and red string. The map sits on top of Giles and Annie’s original map from 1993, littered with their pencil marks and notes made en route.

The problem was last year’s weather. An olive tree loves a really long hot summer, then a bit of rain, harvest and a short, sharp and cool winter to rest and reset. Last year, a very warm winter was followed by one of the worst droughts and heat waves on record. When the olive trees were blossoming in April, the temperature was 40º – and the blossoms were just scorched off. After the fruit sets in May and June, a long, hot summer helps them slowly ripen. But the temperatures were just too hot for the few fruit that did manage to hang on.
The signs for 2024 harvest aren’t good either – this winter hasn’t been cool enough or wet enough for things to recover.
‘There are around 11 million hectares of olive plantations around the world,’ says Giles. ‘And every single hectare absorbs four and a half tons of carbon dioxide, every single year.
‘It’s the world’s largest man-made forest – when you see an olive tree, it’s only there because it’s been planted by someone. Those serried ranks that you see in Spain or Greece or Turkey, they’ve all been planted by an individual, and an individual still goes to them every single year and tends them, prunes them and looks after them.
‘It’s a very, very precious resource. For every litre of olive oil that is produced, 10kg of CO2 is taken out of the atmosphere.
We need more of them, but the problem is they take a hell of a long time to grow. Plus they need water – and of course there isn’t enough water.
‘And the other industry-wide problem – and it’s one affecting more than just the olive industry, actually – is a labour shortage. Younger generations just aren’t as keen to work on the land as their forebears.

Giles and Annie today, with their BMW R100 GSs

Operation Watertight II
‘So we started with the loose idea of recreating our first route. We’d called our first trip Operation Watertight, as we had intended to look at pollution and water rights across the region. We couldn’t raise the funding or the access to achieve what we wanted first time round, and Operation Watertight II is a fitting way to continue what we started almost 32 years ago. Like us, the bikes are 30 years older and, like us, needed a bit of an overhaul to make them ready for the road again! Some bikers came through and stopped at the HQ Deli in Stur for a coffee and a bite and we got chatting about the road trip plans. One of them went on and told BMW in Falmouth what we were doing. We couldn’t believe it when BMW then got in touch and said “Please bring the bikes to us, we’d love to have them here and get them ready for the trip – these are really historic machines.” They’ve honestly been amazing and we can’t thank them enough.
‘They are still the perfect bikes for a long road trip – incredibly robust, very resilient and completely analogue, so there’s no microchips, electronics or heavily mined minerals. The bikes are slightly different, but we deliberately made sure the engines and mechanics are identical. If ever we were in a situation where both of them didn’t work, we can cannibalise to get one running.
‘This time, we’re sticking to Europe because we’ve only got a 90 days tourist visa (thanks Brexit!). So we’re going across France, the top of northern Italy, through Slovenia into Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, down into Greece, Greek islands, down and all the way around the Peloponnese, over to an island called Evia, then right the way up to Thessaloniki. Across the top of Greece, over to Italy, down into Sicily, all the way around Sicily then up to Naples.
‘From Naples we’re sticking to the west coast, around the armpit down into France, to Spain, all the way down and then over into Portugal, back to Spain and home from Bilbao.
‘It’s about 8,500 miles.

On the road from Bahariya to Siwa Oasis, Western Desert
Annie and the bikes in the Byzantine city of Rasefeh, Syria – November 1992

We have questions
‘Basically, we know if we spoke to a politician, or a climate theorist or a university lecturer, they would give us their own view of the state of the industry. And we want to know what’s happening on the ground, see if we can find some commonality of experience. So this time round we’re specifically planning our route around olive oil producers, olive growers and farmers. ‘We’ll be speaking to at least two farmers every single day on the trip, as well as our own suppliers, asking them what it’s really like. How are they really finding it? What are they doing about it? How can things change? And then we want to share the Sicilian farmer’s opinion with the Spanish farmers, and the Spanish answers with the Croatians, the Montenegrins, the Albanians …
‘For a long time, experts thought the olive tree had been around for about 6,000 years – and for about 6,000 years man has been cultivating it. Recently, fossilised remains of olive trees have been discovered in South Africa, dating back around 96,000 years. They are very resilient, they will find a way – and we need to do whatever we can in order to preserve them and protect them. It’s such a valuable crop for the planet, it simply cannot be allowed to just be wiped out.’

Annie riding across Wadi Rum, Jordan
  • to follow Operation Watertight II and keep up with the latest from Giles and Annie’s trip, you can find updates on Olives Et Al’s website here


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