Back Down To Earth With a Bang Continue reading “Greece ~ Part II ~ Life & Death in Athens”
We crossed from Albania into Greece at dusk.
The first sign that greeted us was a large No Camping sign.
We ignored it and found a beautiful camp spot on a small secluded pebble beach as the sun set over the water.
The next day we cycled along the coast which already seemed a shade less beautiful than in Albania. By the end of the first day we were missing the friendliness of the Albanian people.
Everything suddenly felt far more European. Inhabitants, expectant of tourists in all parts of the country, were friendly enough but not excited to see us or our bicycles. Smiling and waving was not common practice. We tried to keep it up for a while but soon tired of the non-responsiveness.
Our journey through coastal and mainland Greece was not particularly remarkable or enjoyable. We were both very tired and the Holy Grail was awaiting us in Athens. It was ever present in our minds. It hastened our speed, straightened our route and dulled our interest in our surroundings.
A surprise treat really cheered us up when a woman called Sarah contacted us through Instagram to ask if she could take us out for lunch. She thought what we were doing was that exciting! We were very flattered and arranged to meet her in Preveza. She was also coming to Greece to volunteer for a refugee charity.
We managed to find each other in a restaurant near the harbour and had a wonderful lunch that was a very welcome change from our usual cheese in bread situation. We felt very luckily and like complete imposters to be treated so generously by a complete stranger! She soon didn’t feel like a stranger at all and we left on the promise that we would try to meet again in Georgia, come the following May.
Another real highlight was Kefalonia.
We cycled to an island, Lefkada, only attached to the mainland by a long road. When we reached the port of Nydri we discovered there was only one ferry still running, once weekly. So we waited two days for the weekly ferry to Kefalonia, as we were so off-season.
We caught the early morning ferry and on it we met two other British cycle tourists, Matt and Katy. They were a really lovely couple and told us we should go to a cafe and patisserie with them once we landed on the island. It had been recommended by a Greek friend of Katy’s who had been since she was a child and raved about their Banoffee pie (Haydn’s favourite).
We arrived at 11am to the beautiful, quiet, tiny harbour of Fiskardo. It looked like a movie set, it was so picturesque. Different pastel coloured, low lying buildings and small boats bobbing on the clearest blue water. We sat talking, bedazzled, munching delicious treats with our new friends. It felt like we had accidentally stumbled into someone else’s holiday and we got to pretend we were normal tourists for an hour.
Remembering the three days we spent cycling on Kefalonia is like a flashback to a beautiful dream. It was a very special place. The air smelt of warmed wild thyme and the light was clear and brilliantly bright. It illuminated everything in a special clarity that seemed other worldly. The sea had a lustrous sparkle like a huge jewel. We headed inland, to cross the island, and there we found ourselves amongst some of the largest and oldest olive trees we had ever seen. Whole groves on the island were hundreds of years old and stood like ancient tribes people, knotted together on the hills and in the valleys. Huge herds of goats wandered freely. Many had bells around their necks so the herd moved together as a harmony of chimes across the landscape.
It was an island from a fairy tale.
We wanted to live on Kefalonia and never leave but the pull of our goal was too much and we took the boat back to the mainland.
Cycling on the mainland towards Athens is a dull blur in my mind. A forgettable, plain expanse, compared to the gemstone that was Kefalonia.
Coming into Athens
We woke at 6am and unzipped the tent to find the sea crashing and the tide much closer in than we had expected. Quickly we packed everything away and onto the decking of the abandoned beach bar that we had camped almost underneath to shelter from the storm the night before.
The deshevelled building seperated us and the large white stoney beach from the small park and busy road behind. We both laughed about how ironic it would have been if we’d been washed away on our last night camping before Athens.
We managed to get on the road early and hoped desperately that the dark skies rolling in were something to do with the toxic smell filling the air not another huge storm coming. The smell became more and more unbearable. We both used our buffs to cover our noses and mouths. It was cloying and chemical and getting more an more intese as we cycled further down the long, busy road. We kept having to pull over to cough, eyes watering and stinging – hating having to breath in hard after each splutter. When we could hardly take it anymore, we realised what was making this awful smell.
We cycled past signs warning that no photography was to be taken in the area and then an enormous factory grew up out of the ground beside the road. It looked like it was falling apart. Ancient. Held together by huge, disintegrating sheets of metal. But the thunderous noises from inside and the thick black smoke pouring from the high chimneys indicated it was still very much in business.
We got to the end of the factory after about fifteen minutes of cycling as fast as we could (and breathing as little as we could) down one, long straight road. At the end was a building with newer looking corrigated iron on the exteriour and a huge sign near the entrance read ‘Hellenic Petroleum’ in bold letters. It was a petroleum refinery. Jheez, do they smell good for the environment. We were very happy to wave goodbye to the refinery and see the beautiful coastline again.
Then the packs of wild dogs in each village became the challenge. We both nearly fell off multiple times, into the road, swerving out of the way as the mad dogs ran across the lanes of fast moving cars to snap at our ankles.
Gradually the clouds rolling in became darker and darker until it almost looked like dusk at 2pm. I checked my phone and was alarmed to see an ‘Orange Weather Warning’ for thunder and lightening storms and flash flooding. It said the warning began from 2pm. Just at that moment I felt the first few raindrops. When was the weather ever this accurate?
Within seconds the downpour was so hard we had to abandon the bikes out in the rain and shelter in a bus stop for an enforced lunch break.
It got harder and harder, until I thought it might tear down the bus shelter. Rain thrashing at my legs and feet while sat on the metal bench. The thunder had such bone rattling might, I nearly dropped my sandwich each time it boomed. Lightning scarred the dark sky in frequent crackles.
The sandwiches were soggy and we were shivering in a matter of seconds.
Once the miserable lunch had been eaten, we sat very hopefully ‘waiting out’ the torrential rain. We soon knew that we were kidding ourselves and that we were going to have to keep going and just accept the idea of getting very, very wet.
We also realised later, completely drenched, that we had no option but to cycle on the motorway into Athens. Luckily, due to the rain, the traffic was nearly at a standstill.
The rain was Biblical.
The road had turned into a river. We moved past trucks and cars at a snails pace with the mud water up to our knees. Water gushing through our shoes. The deep flowing water meant we were blind to the potholes in the road and kept repeatedly crashing down into them. Suddenly the front wheel would lunge down a foot or so and I would fight just to stay upright.
Throughout most of the day, especially the ridiculous motorway part, I somehow managed to maintain my sanity and actually found myself in fits of giggles cycling behind Haydn. It felt so unbelievable that I was really doing this at all. I felt distanced from the discomfort and felt strangely able to see the situation from above in all its hilarity and absurdity.
At one point I got quite hysterical while cycling along the hard shoulder of the motorway, which isn’t very practical I can tell you. Haydn turned around, thinking I was crying. When he saw me, he shouted in surprise, ‘Why are you laughing?!’ All I could wheeze through my cackling was, ‘This is so funny!’
Finally, with the rain still pouring down on us, we arrived into outskirts of Athens.
Immediately in front of me I saw an exact replica of my little vintage Nissan Micra from home. I posed for a drenched, triumphant photo in front of it. It was like we hadn’t really cycled anywhere at all.
We made our way into the city and found our blessed Air B&B flat.
It was there that I had the best bath of my life.
I don’t know if it was the endorphins, or the relief, or the pride but that evening I felt like I was floating. I couldn’t stop grinning.
We had made it to Athens by bicycle! My legs had cycled me there!
I went to sleep that night in a bed that felt like clouds, feeling super human and on top of the world.
Post for Athens coming soon …
As soon as we came into Albania we got sick.
We stayed in a tiny fairy cabin, just big enough to house a double bed, hidden in a miniature woodland, on an elaborate campsite. We had to stay there for five nights while all the food and energy we tried to absorb into our tired bodies was ejected several times a day.
During the days of reading and sleeping and trying to keep our insides inside, we decided to travel the entire coastal length of Albania.
We had heard that the northern coast left a lot to be desired but that the southern coast was wild and spectacular.
So rather than head into the northern mountains and work our way down, we thought we would try to hug the coast for the whole length and see the country transform around us.
The first change we noticed between Montenegro and Albania was how friendly everyone was. By the end of the first few days our arms and cheeks ached with how much smiling and waving we were doing. People seemed genuinely thrilled that two such obvious tourists, travelling by cumbersome bicycle, were in their part of the country.
In one tiny village we stopped at the only shop to get a cold drink and an old man passed by. He shook us both eagerly by the hand and then hurriedly disappeared. He reappeared a few minutes later holding a bowl and two spoons. He had brought us a kind of sweet porridge from home and wanted us to eat it. It was very bizarre but so kind!
Another big difference was the feeling of being transported to an earlier time when people lived in a much simpler way and still used horse and cart.
Often we would pass carts carrying huge loads of just a singular variety of vegetable. We passed an old man with what looked like a bulging, orange, spiny monster in the back. The colour was so radiant it took me a while to work out what it was.
It turned out to be the most carrots I’d ever seen.
Roads Getting Rough
Another big change was the quality of the roads. There quickly appeared to be three categories of road in flat, northern Albania. Good quality tarmac on the fast, busy roads with the majority of the traffic. Potholed, crumbling, gravel roads that went on forever in endless straight lines, connecting small towns to one another. And our least favourite; lumpy tracks made of large rocks that tractors and anyone brave enough could try to navigate.
The change in road quality meant we had to start choosing our routes wisely. But this was far easier said than done as from a map or our navigation device you cannot always determine road quality. The size of the road is the main clue and even that can be deceiving. We realised that even the most promising of roads in Albania could abruptly stop and continue as an unpaved dirt track.
We spent a few frustrating days in the north pushing our bikes over what seemed like an endless stretch of undulating, rocky ground. Sometimes when the road suddenly dissolved and became unrideable, we learnt to quit while we were ahead and admit it was too ridiculous. Sometimes turning around and going back on yourself is the last thing you want to do but could save you hours, if not days, of struggle.
True to common myth, the northern coast from Durëss to Valorë had been betrayed and slain by tourism. The natural coastline looked demolished and hidden underneath human architecture and ironically the industry that sought to capitalise upon its beauty had eaten it hungrily.
But from Valorë onwards the beauty began.
Let The Beauty Begin
From Valorë, to Sarandë in the very south, the coastline took on a whole knew guise. Quite suddenly the urban tourist sprawl disappeared and the views of mountains and sea began to emerge as incredibly beautiful.
The gradients of the roads also shifted with the morphing aesthetic. The coastal mountain road became steadily steeper until sometimes it was laughably vertical. We were told later that some gradients along it were over 25%. Which, if you can’t quite picture that, feels like trying to bench press a mini, frozen in the upward thrust, for most of the day.
However this seriously tiring shift in gradient didn’t seem to dampen our spirits. The road was very quiet and very few cars passed us. We felt like lone explorers of this wild and uncharted land. For the first time on the trip we felt totally in our element. The joy of this made us fall madly and deeply in love with our surroundings.
Tiny picturesque villages perched on the cliffs above the bright turquoise expanse of ocean. The colour of the sea like nothing I had ever seen before. Different bands and hues of blue. It was completely breathtaking.
The severe inclines made us stop frequently for short rests and every time we would study how the scenery had somehow become more outstanding.
Out of Season
Being October, it was also very out of tourist season when we travelled along the central-to-southern Albanian coastline.
When we did come into contact with other people, they looked very surprised to see us. It was a real novelty to turn up to a place created for tourists and being the only ones there. Most shops and hotels were closed or closing for the year. This made buying food tricky but we managed.
At one point we arrived at a long beach strewn with iconic thatch umbrella shades. Behind the beach were a string of hotels, all closed for winter season. There was no one around and as we were cycling along I spotted a single shower on the beach. We had been wild camping for days. I felt sticky and gross. I decided to shrug off my Britishness along with my clothes and had a gorgeous, shameless shower on the beach. Luckily no crowds suddenly appeared. It was blissful to be so alone in this beautiful place.
Unfortunately it’s never all naked showers on the beach.
Before beginning the trip, I had not spent a great deal of time imagining what I would find most difficult on the road. When I had considered it, I had assumed it would be something physical, like aches and pains, fear of trucks or getting completely lost in the wilderness. Something I didn’t think about much was the treatment of animals.
Albania was the first country where it really hit me – hard.
We were at a street market in the north and I was being hugely overcharged for some bananas. I was wondering whether to haggle with the cheeky vendor but I was distracted by a noise and just handed him the money.
I could hear what sounded like a strangled baby cry of distress. I turned around to try to locate the noise but couldn’t work it out for a few minutes. I couldn’t see a baby where the sound was coming from. I looked around. Where was it coming from?
A man was stood in the road carrying a heavy looking white bag, the kind you might put potatoes in. Then I saw where the noise was coming from. I could see the form of a crumpled young pig, the squashed side of its head and snout and its small trotters pressed uncomfortably against the tight fabric. It was screaming and screaming. Hanging there in the bag, unable to move.
The man holding the bag with the pig inside of it looked completely unfazed by the situation. It had been chucked in a bag and was obviously terrified and unable to move or free itself. I just stood and stared in amazement and horror at this scene. I couldn’t quite believe it. The noise made my skin crawl – the man looked completely oblivious like he was carrying a bag of vegetables and not a living, screaming creature. I found the whole thing very disturbing and had to get out of there as quickly as possible. We left the market before we had all the things we needed.
Later that same day, we saw a boy of about ten years old, riding alone on a wooden cart strapped to a donkey – he had a stick and he was beating and beating the donkey. Every few seconds another bash would come down on the donkeys back.
As we cycled past I looked at the donkey – I’d never seen a more broken animal. Hair worn off in patches all over its back – eyes down at the road – thin and tired and beaten. It couldn’t have run any faster no matter how hard the boy hit him. The boy had stopped hitting the donkey just as we cycled past, knowing he was being observed, so I didn’t have the chance to tell him to stop. I felt this rage boiling up inside me. How dare humans treat animals like this. How dare we take such cruel advantage of these gentle creatures.
We have seen so many dogs in tiny cages, left to live out their days alone – just there to bark. Or tied up by short lengths of rope or chain to a wall or a steak in the ground. Out in the sun with no water near by, no shade, no company. Such a miserable existence for a pack animal.
We’ve seen so many dogs and cats by the side of the road, dead and bloated with fur pealed back and flies and insects eating at sunburnt flesh. We’ve seen young children throwing rocks at timid, stray dogs, which I can only assume is learnt behaviour.
One evening a kind man let us camp in his field and his two sweet little dogs were interested in us as we were setting up the tent and cooking dinner. We tried to stroke them but they were quite afraid of us. I gave them each a small piece of bread and they gradually learnt we could be trusted and let us stroke them. The smaller one was still skittish and scared of us if we made any quick movements.
When our food was nearly ready the farmer came over to say goodnight and seeing that the dogs were still near us he shouted at them and then kicked one of them away. Now I could see why the dogs had been so timid with us. We said ‘no no we don’t mind them – we like dogs!’ He just said they were stupid. I wonder why people have animals at all if they will treat them so badly.
He asked us to come up to the house in the morning for coffee. He had a wonderful family who welcomed us in and gave us everything for showers and breakfast and coffee even though we had already eaten. They were nursing a sick woman in an adjacent room to the kitchen. These were such kind and caring people. How could people be so kind to other humans and so brutal to other creatures?
There is a disconnect somewhere. A drawing down of a shutter. An opportunity to release frustration and aggression on a living thing that can’t speak up or retaliate. A strange, crooked reasoning.
We’ve seen cows tangled in the ropes that tether them to a small section of field or in huddled together in concrete enclosures, knee deep in their own excrement. Some cows are left to roam around but with their neck tied to their front leg with a very short piece of rope, making them walk in a painful, uncomfortable limp. It must be to ensure they cannot travel far but seems a very stupid, cruel way of managing that.
I was reading an incredible book while in Albania, which spoke of this subject I was so disturbed by. The book was, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Yuval Noah Harari explains that as we transformed from being hunter gatherers at the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, we began to see that animals could be more useful to us if they could be domesticated, dominated and exploited. He writes,
‘Today the world contains about a billion cattle and more than 25 billion chickens. […] The domestication of animals was founded on a series of brutal practices that only became crueler with the passing of the centuries. […] In order to turn bulls, horses, donkeys and camels into obedient fraught animals, their natural instincts and social ties had to be broken, their aggression and sexuality contained, and their freedom of movement curtailed. Farmers developed techniques such as locking animals inside pens and cages, bridling them with harnesses and leashes, training them with whips and cattle prods, and mutilating them. […] The lives of some domesticated animals could be quite good. Sheep raised for wool, pet dogs and cats […] enjoyed comfortable conditions. Shepherds and farmers throughout history showed affection for their animals and have taken great care of them, just as slaveholders felt affection and concern for their slaves.’
The realisation of widespread, brutal treatment of owned animals around the world was devastating. I often sat on the side of the road and wept in Albania for all the animals that we use and abuse for our own desires. If we want something and we can get it from an animal we will and it doesn’t matter how we get it. The animal can’t answer back. It’s often too gentle or broken to even fight back. We beat it until it does what we want and when it can’t or won’t give anymore, we dispose of it. This has been our history with animals for thousands of years.
It dawned on me that these were not just animals involved in the meat and dairy industry. These were just domesticated animals. Any that could be tamed and bridled and forced to work for us or just there for our own amusement. It was like a frosted layer had been peeled away from my eyes and suddenly I saw it everywhere in plain sight. We treat animals like slaves.
I had no idea I would be quite so enraged and appalled by how humans treat other feeling creatures on our planet. I was so naïve and so sheltered from this kind of abuse in England as the general maltreatment of animals goes on behind closed doors. I assumed it was only cruel people who were cruel to animals. Whereas in Albania it was just the way of life and it was out, for all to see, all the time.
I made a pact with myself on the curb that I would show every bit of kindness I possibly could to every creature I came across. It felt like a stupid pact. However, it’s main objective was so that I didn’t feel so hopeless about our own species.
Waking Up To A Visitor
That opportunity came about very quickly.
We were camping on a beautiful, long, dune protected beach, called Borsh beach. It was very out of season when we were there so it wasn’t a problem to camp in front of the dunes. It was a perfect spot. I remember waking up, not long after dawn, to the gentle sound of a bell jingling outside the tent. In my sleepy daze I was puzzled. I unzipped the door to find right outside, a beautiful, grey horse with a bell around its neck. It practically said good-morning! His nose stretched down towards me. He gave me a tentative sniff and sussed me out. For a while I just sat there in happy, enraptured silence. The horse sniffed around and nibbled at bits of grass that had poked their way through the sand.
Then I remembered Haydn. I whispered and nudged him wake. He opened one eye and then suddenly both and sat straight up. His face still crumpled from sleep but lit up in delight.
I realised I could put my pact into practice immediately and scrabbled around for some carrots.
I slowly moved out of the tent and when he realised I was friendly, he ate the chunks of carrot from my hand.
It was the first small step but it felt wonderful.
Shock of Plastic Pollution
A far less magical awakening in Albania was to the waste.
The entire country seems to struggle with waste management. Bins stood overflowing and litter was strewn almost everywhere you could imagine.
One night wild camping on a beach we had an encounter with a sweet old fisherman. He made a fire for us to sit by and seemed very friendly. We woke in the morning to find he had left all his plastic waste behind exactly where he had been sitting the night before. Plastic cups, tubs for bait, several plastic bottles, cutlery. All just left there like he had vanished into thin air.
We walked down the length of this small but popular beach. We found unquantifiable amounts of plastic waste. Our jaws dropped. We were in a National Park, a supposedly protected area! It was very upsetting to so evidently our human effect on the natural environment and our complete disregard for maintaining and respecting the natural world. We seem incapable of seeing the impact we have upon the earth until it is too late and our damaging mark is done. Why is this? Now, more than ever in the history of humankind our seeming advancements in technology, throw-away culture and carelessness with waste, form a toxic combination for the natural world.
The human population is now producing nearly 300 million tons of plastic every year, half of which is for single use.
Seeing the Albanian coast in all its wild, raw beauty and seeing the scale of the plastic pollution that infected its shores nationally, from north to south, was a very sobering observation for me.
More than 8million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. The problem is global and we are all responsible.
Even if a plastic bag doesn’t end up in a dolphin or turtles oesophagus it will begin degrading in the ocean and the tiny particles that result are altering the delicate environmental balance of the oceans. Aquatic life digest these particles which can cause great harm internally.
Every minute that a disposable plastic cup is made – it will be here on planet earth to see the next 500 years of our human history unfold. I hope it witnesses a realisation and a drastic reduction in plastic use, but that is up to us, today.
The only solution is to stop using plastic wherever possible in our daily lives, no matter how much we want to kid ourselves that it will be recycled. There is a strong chance that it won’t.
It might just end up washing up on the shore of a beautiful Albanian beach.
Despite the sadness of animal cruelty and the shocking scale of plastic pollution, Albania had been our favourite country of the trip to cycle so far. The friendliness of the people and the scruffy, anything-goes attitude was a welcome change from the familiar, orderly European feel.
Albania had dissolved layers of my naïveté about the world and turned me from a silly cycling tourist into a cycling Animal-Eco-Warrior!
The Bay of Kotor
Montenegro was a flying visit and a very dramatic one as it turns out.
Haydn and I had climbed high up into the Bosnian mountains to reach the border crossing. Soon after we had crossed into Montenegro, our seventh country, we started descending from 1000m all the way down to the Bay of Kotor.
By 4pm we had just reached the bottom of all the very steep, endless switchbacks down the mountainside and found a little bar by the roadside to stop and have a drink and a rest for a minute. I had just sent a message to Pablo to say that we would love to see him again if we happened to cross over and at that exact moment, there he was! Cycling down the road towards us! I jumped up from where I was sitting and shouted out to him.
He came over to sit with us and said he had a Warmshowers booked for that night. He asked if we wanted to come with him. We had already had a big day’s cycle, climbing into the mountains and coming all the way down again. We were both very tired and had thought of just finding a nearby campsite and taking it easy for the rest of the day. Haydn and I looked at each other. It seemed so lucky that we had just bumped into Pablo and the profile of the Warmshowers host was an English ex-pat, a young teacher called Rebecca, who had moved to Kotor Bay. We thought perhaps all of those things were good omens and felt encouraged to join Pablo seeing as he was here and the offer of a free bed and a possible new English friend was on the table.
So I sent a message to ask if we could stay with Rebecca too and we decided to join him until we heard an answer from her. We could find a campsite along the way as a backup option if she said no.
We cycled around the bay as the sky grew dimmer and dimmer and the lights of shops and bars and restaurant illuminated around us. We jumped on a ferry just in time to cross the bay and stood for a moment panting on board the slow moving boat. The water had turned into gently waving two-tone silk. Undulating steely grey sheets lapping over tones of sunset peach and lilac. High arching mountains, encasing the bay, lay behind the water. I didn’t know if it was my exhaustion or the light but none of it looked real. It was so refreshing to suddenly be on a different form of transport. But I only had a few moments to admire the beautiful sight and then it was over.
We cycled on – another 13 km to go. Even the dusk light was fading now. We saw a campsite, if you can call it a campsite. Some scrubby grass underneath low grape vines. We paused and looked at the handwritten sign. We had heard nothing from Rebecca so felt unsure what to do. We debated whether Haydn and I should just stay here as we were putting too much pressure on the host saying yes. A man shouted down to us from a balcony, while extending all his fingers, ‘10 euros each!’ He pointed at us individually. He made me feel like I was 10 euros. To be honest I felt like less that 10 euros in that moment. I felt like about 5 cents. 5 cents of energy left to give to the day. 20 euros for me and Haydn to camp there on that man’s front lawn with what looked like no facilities. I wasn’t convinced and I didn’t like that man’s approach. I shook my head. We kept cycling.
By now we also had no signal so I couldn’t use my internet. Pablo managed to find some free wifi by the road and I checked the message, still no reply from Rebecca. It was all getting a bit tense now. It was dark. The road was narrow, the driving and overtaking was death defying. We put on all out lights. At that moment I had wished I had more than my front and rear light and reflective strips on my bike and bags. I would have happily dressed up as a Christmas tree. I could feel my body, all my muscles telling me to stop now. But we hadn’t seen any more campsites.
It was getting completely dark now and we were not used to cycling at night on busy, unknown roads. I kept smashing my front wheel into huge potholes and nearly crumpling off my bike with exhaustion. Each knock, bashing more energy out of me. We didn’t pass another campsite. We were running out of options fast. We got the corner where we had to turn off the road around the bay and head up into the hills to get to Rebecca’s house. That’s when I started praying. I just repeated, ‘Please let us stay, please let us stay, please let us stay’ over and over again in my head, or outloud, I can’t remember which. I didn’t know what we would do if she said no. Would we beg her? Would I cry? Would we just search for a patch of ground in the dark or start knocking on doors at this time. My old friends exhaustion and anxiety were beginning to grow wonderfully together again. Like flour and yeast making an expanding dough ball in my stomach.
We started the uphill climbing through poorly lit lanes that snaked up the mountain. Then the dogs began their onslaught. There were so many of them here! All barking at us and running out at us from the darkness into the road. The day was quickly dissolving into a nightmare now. I tried to keep my mind focused on pushing my body on. But sometimes my thoughts would slip away from me, it felt like I was slipping outside my own body to watch what was happening from above myself. Watching this strange, awful farce play out. I was so tired now I didn’t know if I would ever get to the hosts house and I didn’t know how my body was still moving a working under my command.
A bend in the uphill road came where lots of houses where crunched together and a huge snarling dog ran out at me. Baring its white teeth and leaping forwards. In a few seconds in would be on me. I grabbed my trusty can of Old Spice and sprayed towards its face. It immediately retreated but the plume of spray lifted in the wind and carried straight back to Pablo just behind me who started coughing and spluttering.
We finally got to a completely unlit lane. It was so steep I could pretty much press my nose up against the gravel while standing. Following Pablo’s instructions we looked for a painted red rock that signified the 72 steps up to Rebecca’s house. Yes you read right. 72 steps. When Pablo had mentioned these steps earlier I think I had adopted my Grandpa’s wonderful habit for selective hearing. 72 steps – I didn’t want to imagine what that was going to look like.
It was pitch black. We couldn’t see this damn red rock anywhere. We pushed our bikes halfway up the almost verticle hill. Then I asked Haydn to put a head torch on and look from the bottom of the hill up to where we were for this said red rock. I had seen the beginning of some very narrow, jagged steps that dissapeard sharply into blackness near the bottom of the hill. But overtaken by tiredness and wishing with all my might that they were not the steps up to her house, I only thought to mention them now.
Haydn went to the bottom of the hill and shouted up to us that he had found a very slightly tinged red rock. And yep, those were the stairs we had to now negotiate with our three incredibly laden bicycles. Atleast then to my absolute ecstasy I received a message from Rebecca saying it was fine for us to stay. Praise Zeus. Just as we had arrived. So atleast I could shed the anxiety about where we could sleep that night and it was just these steps from hell barring the way between me and a wonderfully comfortable imaginary sofa! We took everything off the bicycles and we carried them up the 72 homemade, jagged, unlit steps to her house. I carried as many bags as I could with my wobbly, exhausted limbs, making a few trips up and down. When all the bags were finally up, Haydn did the heroic act of carrying both of our bikes up one after the other. I think if I had tried the bike lifting stunt by that point I would have tumbled down the hill, bike and jelly body, and just resolved to sleep there for the night.
We walked into her house and were greated by a friendly smiling face, a tiny puppy and a gorgeously comforting English accent! Very happy, I slumped onto the sofa. I was completely spent.
We somehow had a fun evening where Pablo, Haydn and I cooked Rebecca a dinner of fresh gnocchi and sauce and drank too much of her cheap Montenegrin wine over interesting conversations. I don’t know where we found the energy.
The next morning we got up slowly and delighted in cups of real Yorkshire Tea that she had brought back from England! Mmmmm. A proper brew. We all felt reluctant to leave as we had such bad exhaustion hangovers and we knew the next section of cycling was going to be very tough. The road we were going to take looked like someone had sribbled on the map. But unfortunately it wasn’t a scribble, it was a road. A road with 25 neat switchbacks, one after the other, zigzagging up the mountainside. So with the scribble road in our minds we sipped our tea and read the imported Sunday Times with a savouring slowness.
Rebecca’s house was comfy and warm and there was a tiny puppy to look after. How could we leave?! It was very tempting to ask her if we could stay longer. But at the same time we had really pushed our luck asking to stay so late the night before and we really didn’t want to push it any more by asking to stay another night. So we packed up slowly and by midday we were carrying all our bags and bicycles back down the 72 steps.
Switchbacks and Snow
We began accending the switchbacks. The road slowly zig-zagged up the mountain in long, almost horizontal lines before the sharp bends and continued incline. The gradient was gentle enough so if you kept a steady, slow pace going it was managable. We climbed and climbed and the views got better and better with every turn. We stopped to eat lunch after only an hour of climbing but the view was already spectacular. We could now see the huge mountains encircling and forcing up out of the flat turquoise water of the bay. It really was one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen.
When we had reached 800m we could see the sea in the distance over the mountain tops that we had climbed higher than. The ocean in the distance was lit up dazzlingly by the sun and disfigured by cloud shadows. It looked like an impressionist painting. Waving shapes of coloured light and darkness. It felt almost impossible looking down to where we had been that morning, that we had climbed so high. A delicious, swelling sense of pride was growing in me for what my legs could do. It was exciting. Looking back at our days work made me feel strong and powerful. This was a new feeling. High on endurance.
We got to the top as the sun was soon to set. Finding the only building up there was a small hotel and cafe we stopped to take a picture and make a plan.
We decided on a two pronged approach to finding somewhere to set up camp that night. Haydn and Pablo went to explore up a small lane to see if there was somewhere for us up there. And I tried to ask in the hotel if there was somewhere nearby we could camp or how expensive the hotel was as a last resort. My ulterior motive for staying near the cafe being that I was desperate for a cuppa. It was already getting very cold up so high and the dusk light was setting in. But when I gleefully slid inside the warm, softly lit room, the waiter came over to say they had just closed and briskly shoved me out the door. So I sat and watched the cloudy sunset. It was spectacular from up so high but it soon began to cloud over more heavily and then the rain began.
Haydn and Pablo had been gone quite some time now and I was beginning to worry about where they were and what had happened. I tried to ring Pablo but it kept cutting off. I waited and waited. I was starting to spin stories in my head and just while I was imagining a whole gang of Montenegran shepard bandits mugging them I heard Haydn’s voice shouting from the lane. ‘Molly! Molly!’ He came running down the lane. ‘We found a great place to camp and we met this lovely family who have invited us in!’
We were welcomed in by a kind Serbian family, a young father, mother and son, who had spotted Haydn and Pablo setting up camp in the rain. We had finished sorting our gear and then went up to their small house above the field where our tents were. It was a very small but cosy space that they were renovating into a holiday home. The little boy of about eight was dancing shyly in front of the TV set in his pyjamas. The new Dirty Dancing film was playing with the sound low. I really wanted to just veg out and watch it with him. It’d been ages since I’d watched a film. But it’s important to talk to kind people who let you into their houses when they are offering you shelter and you probably stink like hell. They offered us their own produce of olives, bread, tomato, fried vegetables and fried chicken. Then out came the homemade Rakia. It tasted like gasoline. I had to mix mine with fruit juice as I couldn’t stop pulling a terrible face while drinking it.
The father asked if any of us played instruments. Pablo went to get his ukulele and started playing some music that we could all sing along with. I tried to keep very quiet and just enjoy Pablo playing but Hayd’s chirped up that I played uke and then everyone insisted that I played something. I said no for a while until it became quite evident that they were not going to stop asking. Everyone filmed me. It was very intimidating but the Rakia helped numb my nerves. We drank and played and talked some more.
When we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer we said our thank you’s and goodnights and stumbled down the little, slippery path to our tents. I think we were all slightly oblivious to the weather due to our Rakia consumption but I did notice it was very cold. We somehow cobbled together a more substantial dinner, shivering from the doorways of our tents. All three of us squeezed into our bigger tent to eat. Then we said goodnight with a hiccup and a shiver and Pablo jumped back into his tent and we were all asleep in seconds.
I woke up in the pitch black to Haydn shouting at me with a head torch on. I was confused, it was like his mouth was moving and the tent was caving in but the sound was on mute. I sat up and put my hand down into a puddle of freezing cold water. I looked around, eyes squinting. There was water everywhere. The tent floor had turned into one big, ice-cold puddle. The tent was swaying about like we were flying. The wind was so strong it was pushing half of the tent down onto Haydn, who was trying to push it back with one hand. Water was spitting in through the billowing window even though it had been shut when we had gone to sleep. I felt like I was still in a dream. Then I remembered I had earplugs in. I took one out. The world came rushing into reality on one side. The wind was deafening. I wanted to put the earplug back in again. God. What was going on. I pulled the other earplug out and heard Pablo’s voice from a few meters away, Hey guys! Guys! How you doing? You guys wet too? I think I go up to the abandoned building ‘cus I’m very wet now.
I pulled on my rain coat and head torch and got out of the tent to try to work out what was happening. I came out into a freezing, whirling, storm. It was pissing down ice rain or snow or sleet I couldn’t tell what. The wind was battering our tents so much they looked like they were about to take off. They were leaning and dancing under the pressure of the winds strange contortions. I looked at Pablo. He was completely drenched from head-to-toe, stood there in his shorts and t-shirt, shiverring. He had a big smile on his face for a second and it made me feel like everything would be OK. He had been on the road for ten months, through all extreme weathers, I trusted his judgement implicitly. He shouted over the wind that he was going to go up the hill to a building he had seen. He said he was going to take all of his stuff with him so it didn’t get damaged by the storm. Really?! I said. You’re going to take all your stuff up the hill in this?! But he’d already disappeared back into his small one man tent. I was amazed it was still in one piece, doors flapping madly.
I told Haydn we had to move. We grabbed our wet sleeping stuff and the stove to make tea. We struggled to walk up the path towards the abandoned building as the wind was so strong and then we realised we were now in a snow blizzard. Deep slushy snow was forming on the ground. This was crazy. Earlier that day, lower down, it had been warm sunshine. We had been cycling in shorts and t-shirts. Now it was sleeting! I was drenched in seconds and very cold.
The abandoned building was right next door to the house of the kind Serbian family. Haydn knocked on their door, it was late but we thought it would be better to let them know what was going on. I stood in the doorway of the abandoned building just praying he would say we could stay in their house but I remembered how tiny the house was and there were three of us. Big, wet, strange people. The door opened, I saw Haydn explaining that we would have to shelter in the building next door and that it was snowing. There was a short conversation and the door was closed again. He came back over, I looked up into his cold, wet face for some good news. He lowered his eyes and walked past me. He mumbled that he couldn’t ask, their house was too small, we wouldn’t fit in there and the man hadn’t offered.
We cleared the rubble from the floor and moved some breeze blocks, wooden planks and oil drums out of the way so we could lay the tarpaulin down as a ground mat. We immediately lit our two burners. We were all soaked and freezing cold. We could see our breath in front of us. The abandoned building had no doors or windows and the wind was whistling in. But atleast we could get dry in there.
Pablo went back out into the storm several times to get the rest of his stuff. Neither Haydn or I could face going back out into the dark snow blizzard and decided to hope our very technical MSR tent was going to live up to its price tag and survive the storm. We made some hot tea and tried to get warm and dry. But this was easier said than done when we had left our clothes bags back down where the tent was and were both too tired and delirious to really consider going back all the way to get them. But I did. I trudged all the way back to the tent and grappled with the swaying tent and the bags. Finally we managed to get into warmer clothes. Stupidly I only changed the clothes on the top half of my body, I felt it was better to keep my damp leggings on as they were the warmest thing I had and I thought my body would dry them out overnight. I woke up when there was light behind the open windows of the building, feeling like the cold had seeped into my bones while I was sleeping. I looked down at the tent from the window, it was still being battered by the wind. I said to Haydn I thought we should go and take it down as it had already had such a thrashing. He woke up to find his inflatable roll mat had a puncture and he had been sleeping on the concrete floor. I couldn’t help laughing. This was a true disaster.
When it was finally a reasonable hour we went over to knock on the door of the Serbian family. I sat practically on top of their electric heater but couldn’t get properly warm. I thought I would warm up soon with cycling. We packed up and left, all quiet and cold. We were aiming for Podgorica. Pablo had a friend to meet there at 4pm.
It was a long, tough morning cycle. I had thought we were near the top of this section of climbing but it was still 15km to the top of mountain. Which isn’t much on flat but the roads were ruined by thick mud and gravel. We slid and slipped and fell off and swore. The unpaved roads had all been churned up by huge trucks that were shifting earth, making a new road that cut through the hillside. To add to the frustration of the road, every few minutes a huge tourist coach would pass, squelching through the mud and flicking big clumps at us. People inside the coaches with cameras would film us or wave furiously or laugh and point. I tried to keep my head down and stay calm, to avoid loosing my temper which was already fraying at the edges. It was very tiring and it seemed to go on forever.
We finally reached the top. I wish in that moment I had had the energy to appreciate the view and my thighs but all I could think about was that I was cold. I felt numb to the beauty and the achievement. I felt quite numb all over actually.
Coming back down the other side of the mountain I was just getting colder and colder. I couldn’t stop shivering. But it was worse than that. I could feel this stange other feeling seeping in. A dull slowness was spreading through my body and a confusion was clouding my mind. I knew that these were bad signs. I hadn’t properly dried out since the night before and was sweating to get up the construction site hills, now I was free-wheeling downhill and loosing heat very fast. It felt like my core flame was slowly being extinguished and everything was starting to get very strange. I pulled over and shouted for Hayds to stop. I started to cry uncontrollably and all I could mumble was that I didn’t feel right, I didn’t know if I could cycle and I was very cold.
Haydn looked at me with a furrowed brow. He pulled the buff down from over my nose and mouth. I could see something change in his eyes. He looked scared. He went over to Pablo and I thought I overheard him say, Her lips have gone blue, really blue. It started to dawn on me what was happening.
I was already wearing all my warm clothes. Haydn gave me his insulated jacket to put ontop and Pablo gave me his insulated jacket too and his shell-trousers. I couldn’t stop shiverring and I felt like I was slowing down more every minute. Hayds told me to do some star jumps so I tried to. My body felt heavy and unresponsive. It was a horrible feeling. I was telling it to do star jumpsuit but it wasn’t really doing what I was asking it to. I knelt down and cried. I didn’t know if I could keep cycling. A terrible weakness was taking over my body. I tried to explain this to Haydn but I couldn’t think of the right words to explain what was happening.
The road was just a sweeping downhill mountain road. There was nothing around us. Just the road and us. He shoved half a Snickers in my mouth and then I realised I couldn’t chew it. My jaw had turned into a soft plaything like a puppy’s, it had no tension or strength. It seemed to take an age to chew a small bit and swallow.
We had to try to cycle to the next town to get me warmer. But it was downhill. Haydn told me to pedal even going downhill to keep myself warmer but I could feel it was making me loose my balance. I was starting to find it very difficult to keep myself steady on the bike. It was a horrible feeling, going down hill a bit faster than I could manage with my unresponsive hands on the breaks and using all my concentration just to stay upright on the bike. It felt like time had slowed down just when I wanted it to speed up. Down and down we went. Bend after bend.
Some buildings finally emerged around us and we pulled over near a shop. It took all my concentration to get off my bike and not fall over. I lent it up against a wall and then knelt down next to it, trying to support myself with my hands on the ground. Everything was very slow now. I could feel I was crying again. My face was wet. Hayds came over and said something but I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Words were not holding the same currency. They were just dull noise. He pulled me up and tried to get me to stand but my legs went from beneath me as if they were no longer part of my body. Instructions from my brain weren’t working anymore. It felt like my body was shutting down in slow motion. I could hear voices and shouting around me but I couldn’t react, I couldn’t process the situation. I was just crying. I was in control of nothing. My body whole body had gone dead now and I couldn’t move my limbs. I could feel Haydn pick me up and carry me somewhere. I felt like a child again. I felt like I was a dying child. A sacrifice to the ice gods.
Haydn carried my limp body into a nearby restaurant. Luckily it had lots of radiators. He slumped me on a chair next to one and held me up. I don’t remember the next little while.
I came round to a steaming cup being pressed into my chin and the smell of berries. Someone was trying to feed me hot tea. I tried the normal movement of lifting my arm to hold the mug for myself but it didn’t respond. I tried to open my mouth and swallow small sips. Swallowing wasn’t really working either.
It took me around two hours to come back to life. After lots of hot berry teas and taking some of the layers off, which I had been very reluctant to apparently.
I became slowly aware of what had happened and looked at the kind faces of a man and his daughter who had helped me. It was his restaurant. Luckily the restaurant was empty apart from the family. I looked down at my feet and there was a pair of worn, thick woollen socks on them. They were not a pair I had seen before. The man pointed to the socks and then to his chest. He sat smoking looking anxiously at me. He kept bringing more tea and saying to his daughter that he wanted to move me to by a fire somewhere else. His daughter was asking Haydn questions in very good English. Haydn asked if there was somewhere we might be able to stay near by. She thought for a moment and said no there wasn’t. My heart sank.
When I could finally work my legs again, the man took me into where him and some friends were making Rakia from grapes. Big copper spheres with roaring fires at the bottom. He sat me right next to one of them. And gave me a shot of Rakia. I soon realised all the old men making the Rakia were completely sloshed on the stuff. They had a shot every few minutes and kept offering Pablo, Haydn and I more and more. I took a tiny sip of mine and recoiled. I was still blurry all round the edges and I felt very fragile. I definitely didn’t need that exaggerated by serious booze.
In my post-hypothermic daze I agreed to continue the cycle to the city of Podgorica. Haydn said we couldn’t stay anywhere nearby, Pablo had to meet a friend at 4pm and we had already organised a Warmshowers host in the capital for that night. There were so many reasons to leave and I didn’t have the brain or will power to argue. I just thanked the kind people profusely and we left. The man didn’t even let me give his socks back.
That 35km to the city was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life so far. There were so many hills. It was a really busy, horribly narrow duel carriageway. Cars came dangerously close to us and at a terrifying speed. We witnessed some of the worst driving we had seen yet.
I felt like a cooked cabbage. Limp and anaemic and lacking everything.
Hayd’s lost his shit at one point when a big black shiny jeep rushed past him within arms reach at breakneck speed. He stood screaming and swearing, red faced, the car long gone.
We finally got to the outskirts of the city at dusk and said goodbye to Pablo who was staying in a hostel with his friend. My mind reeled at the thought that somehow now we had to find wifi, look up where the host was in this new city, get directions, follow them without getting lost and then be in a state to meet the people who were kind enough to have us to stay.
After another 2 hours we finally made it to the host’s house. And that was only because we were approached by a woman in the road who said she was our host, gave us complex directions and told us where the keys would be.
We arrived to a dark, empty, semi-detached house in a strange, half-built neighbourhood.
By now we were both totally shattered.
We let ourselves in and brought our bikes and baggage inside.
I slumped on the sofa in the unlit living room of someone else’s space. A swilling mix of triumph and sadness at being destroyed by the day but making it here to this sofa alive.
I had the hilarious thought in that moment that I had fallen unconscious from hypothermia earlier that day and here I was, I had made it. Made it to a stranger’s lightless, quiet house on the outskirts of a city I knew nothing about and had no connection to. Maybe it was perfect. Maybe it was just the right end to that day. But where were the trumpets and the party poppers?
In my head I suppose.
Post for Albania coming soon …
Bosnia & Herzegovina
We had vaguely decided to travel through Bosnia in a relatively straight line from our southerly entry point. This plan changed not long after we had entered the country.
We turned a corner into a big supermarket car park. The first big shop we had seen for days. Near the entrance we were greeted by the sight of two equally laden touring bicycles with matching pannier bags to ours. A woman was sat on the floor outside the supermarket in cycling shorts and we introduced ourselves. We discovered that Becky and her boyfriend Scott, both from Manchester, had been cycling through Europe for 5 months, the same amount of time as us.
We asked if we could tag along with them for a while as we had no set plan and they sounded like they had some idea of fun things to see and do in this new and mysterious country. They had done their research! Which we soon realised was a fantastic idea.
We followed them to their apartment for the night and camped in the small garden. We cooked together and spoke late into the evening of equipment and countries seen and routes travelled. The following morning we went to the Kravica Waterfalls for an early morning freezing swim and a coffee. Haydn and I kept thanking Scott and Becky for letting us join them as we would never have seen the striking beauty of that place if it weren’t for meeting them. They had taught us a great lesson already!
After the blissful morning escapade feeling like genuine tourists, we set off with Scott and Becky for a hot, dusty days cycle to Mostar.
It was a dusk by the time we were cycling through the grey smoky streets of Mostar.
The sound of hundreds of nervous twittering birds coming in to roost for the night filled the air. They swooped and snipped into the trees around us that lined the streets. The trees were shivering alive with them.
I could feel in the air that this was a strange and magical place.
Most of the buildings that lined the roads were sat deformed, like bullet wounded faces. Punctured and pot marked with ammunition. There was a sadness, a brokenness that pervaded. The buildings were artefacts of definite, recent human destruction. Violence was heavy in the air, it was written on the walls in scrawled graffiti, bombed deep into the potholes in the roads and tearing at the crumbling buildings.
Very small children sat on the pavement in tattered, dirty clothes. A little boy held his hands out to us – at first as a wave hello, then swiftly cupped into an outstretched begging hand.
An old woman sat like a pile of blankets in an empty carpark with the company of a mangy, skeletal dog. Lengths of material wrapped all around her legs and shoulders like layers of bandages.
Rubbish was everywhere. Piles of it strewn over the ground beside the road. A large silver bin in a lay-by was overflowing and spilling out in a wide circle, like a giant waste shrine. A small dog was there scavenging with all her young pups, rifling through the junk for scraps to eat. They all looked up at us as we cycled past. Twelve hungry eyes looking up at us.
I had never seen anywhere like this before.
We cycled out of Mostar to reach the Warmshowers host that had accepted all of us. It had been a long hot day and a tough into-a-head-wind cycle. The four of us cycled in a line in the dark for two hours on the edge of a very busy, narrow and dangerous road with poor lighting. We tried to divert off this road and pushed our tired bodies uphill into a shanty town looking area of shack like buildings, rubbish and stray dogs.
By this time I was praying for a lovely host who welcomed us into their home, let us wash, fed our tired little faces and put us to bed. What a dream that would be!
We cycled passed the moonlit silhouette of an enormous landfill site that was filled to its capacity, jutting high into the sky. The darkness was slowly being pierced by the bright glow of the first pin prick stars.
From the darkness a smiling figure with a black scarf on his head emerged on a bicycle. He stopped and asked us in a Spanish accent if we were going to Bambi’s place. To my surprise Scott and Becky replied that we were. Images rushed through my mind of what a man called Bambi would look like. The man in the black scarf said to follow him and he would lead us there.
We finally arrived at 9pm, exhausted, at the hosts turning. We thanked our guide in the black scarf and he disappeared and we pushed our bikes down a long potholed track. The track opened out onto a field between vineyards on either side. There was a large polytunnel to the left and something that resembled an industrial fridge in front of us. I couldn’t see a house anywhere or even a building. A man and woman were working with power tools on some wood, with only the light of head torches to guide them.
The man came over as we approached and introduced himself as Bambi. He was very tall and had a kind, open face. We all shook his hand and smiled at him, I felt barely able to utter my own name I was so tired.
He pointed to an area of grass where two tents already stood and said we could go over there and set up. My heart sank but I tried not to show it. All I wanted was to eat my body weight in carbohydrate and then sleep for a long time in the warm.
We donned our head torches and set up the tent in the dark. It was freezing so we made a fire and sat huddled around it, eyes glazed at the prospect of now having to make dinner.
We decided to collaborate to make pasta and sauce as we thought it might speed up the process. Becky and I chopped with frozen fingers, Haydn and Scott got the burners going and stirred the bubbling pots. The Spanish speaking man in the back headscarf reappeared with food and a small kettle and asked if we wanted Rosemary tea. He was staying at Bambi’s too. He was from Chile and had been on his bicycle journey for 10 months, his name was Pablo. We all fell in love with him straight away and asked him to recount tales from his travels so far.
Bambi apologised for not joining us but said he had to finish what he was working on. Him and his companion kept working on their wooden project late into the night.
The next morning Haydn and I hitchhiked into Mostar for the day. The driver was a man with long grey curly hair tied back into a pony tail. His wife in the passenger seat was stylishly dressed in black with a neat dark bob and her ears, neck and fingers were adorned with beautiful jewellery. Both of them were smoking as we told them about what we were doing and they told us about Bosnian politics. Somehow the man got onto taking about Nigel Farrage and how much he liked him. The conversation quickly came to a standstill as Haydn and I weren’t sure how to recover from that one. The wounds from Brexit still fresh and sore.
Mostar was as strange as it was beautiful. It was as rich in culture and destroyed by culture as I had first imagined from our dusk lit snippet the night before. We wondered around the narrow streets feeling very claustrophobic amongst throngs of other tourists. Some of them payed toned, tanned men in tiny black speedos to jump from the famous curving bridge. The Stari Most, a beautiful feat of engineering, stands 24meters above the fast flowing Neretva River. The call to prayer echoed from the minarets and made us feel as if we had already reached Asia.
The Ciro Trail
Becky and Scott had researched a cycle route called The Ciro Trail which we decided to begin together the following day. We also managed to convince Pablo join us so there were five of us scraggly vagabonds on the road together!
Bambi kindly gave us some of his home grown produce to take with us on the trail and told us of his initiative to turn the disused plot of land into a self-sustainability project with the help of volunteers who stayed on his land.
The Ciro Trail was 160km of recently established trail that connected Mostar with Dubrovnik through the Bosnian wilderness. It mainly consisted of a long line of connected, simple gravel roads cutting into a stunning, surrealist landscape.
We spent a lot of the ride talking with each other in pairs, cycling side by side with one of the pack leading at the front. We asked each other questions of past journeys and past lives, dodging the large, green bodies of Preying Mantis that littered our path.
Metre long black snakes sunning themselves on the hot gravel darted into the undergrowth as we approached.
Haydn played music from our speaker and there was a real sense of adventurous camaraderie between us all. We were explorers in this strange and unknown land. Bosnia was new to all of us.
By dusk we were looking for a nature spot to place three tents for the night. We suddenly realised that this was more difficult that we had expected. Sneaking one tent in somewhere behind a bush is never too taxing but three is a little harder to hide.
We went through a strange secluded village. There was a large, open field next to some polytunnels. It was far from ideal but we were running out of options. Pablo and I cycled down a small track to ask in the closest house if we could camp in the field for the night. A toothless man came outside and shook his head, waving us away.
Two teenage boys waved us over as if they might help us and when Haydn got close, laughed at him and gave him the finger. Charming.
We continued our search.
We found a boggy, dissuaded field, hidden from the road outside the town and decided to camp there for the night. We woke early and set off again.
The landscape was incredible. Beautiful mountains rose up high into the pale blue sky and then appeared to be cut off by a levelling, completely flat valley below. It looked unreal, like the imagined beauty of a film set. Like a painting from memory rather than geographical reality.
Some areas seemed completely wild and left to nature. A few times we all stopped to look at the view and realised there was a huge fly tipping area in amongst the beauty.
We cycled up mountain sides and down again to find whole deserted villages – trees emerging from roofs. Stood abandoned and crumbling in the small valleys between two large hills. Perhaps the inhabitants had fled during the war and never returned.
We cycled past many signs on the side of the trail warning us about unexploded land mines.
By early evening we reached a large hotel that stood alone on the trail. We were all very hot and thirsty. On discovering that it would be €50 per person to stay in the luxury of a room, Becky and I fluttered our eyelashes and asked if it would be possible to camp on the unkept lawn to the right of the hotel. He looked at us with stern eyes and said no. So we sat and had a big cold drink to consider our options and the landmines. Then the manager returned and said with a huge smile, yes we could camp on the lawn for free and he would send a member of staff to mow the grass for us! What a change of heart!
End of the Trail
We filled up our bottles in the hotel and profusely thanked the owner for letting us camp. Then we set off for our last day of cycling as five.
The landscape maintained its wonder and mystery as we cycled the most beautiful section of the trail. It was a very hot day. There is something very painful about being incredibly thirsty and going to take a big glug of water to find it tastes disgusting. None of us had tested the water from the hotel. It definitely wasn’t good to drink. I became dehydrated very quickly, not wanting to drink anything other than small sips from the cloudy water in my bottle.
Whilst cycling up a very steep winding hillside that day I felt something slipping while pedalling. Something wasn’t right with my bike. We pulled in and inspected the new wheel. We soon realised they had sold us a dud.
There was no cap in place to secure the hub and ball bearings inside. Without that cap the whole wheel was at risk from falling to pieces and being unusable. We couldn’t believe they had missed such a vital part from the brand new wheel that I had paid €50 for! We wedged it as well as we could and tried to secure it with gaffa tape. I tried to stay very calm and just prayed it would stay together long enough to ask a more knowledgable bike mechanic for advice.
We parted ways where the trail forked. One road to Trebinje and the other to Debrovnik. We shared big hugs goodbye and said we would all meet again. It felt sad to part after such a good time shared but I felt sure we would meet again one day.
Leaving Trebinje – Goodbye Bosnia
We stayed in a small, very cheap apartment in Trebinje for two nights to rest and plan our journey out of Bosnia.
We didn’t want to rush out of our apartment when we left, so we enjoyed our morning, relaxing and drinking tea and eating eggs. Unfortunately this inevitably meant that we were leaving towards the hottest part of the day. Leaving into this gradual increase on the temperature dial can be stressful but we had made that decision so now we had to deal with the consequences. We were on the outskirts of the town by midday and then faced a very punishing 500m vertical climb in only 6km.
Soon the sun was scorching our backs on the exposed road.
It was a very long road that we could see far in front of us bending around to the right and scarring a diagonal line into the mountainside. These kind of uphill roads are the worst mentally as you can see the torture before it happens. If you never know when the hill is going to peak, the hope is always there for it to end around the next corner. But if you can see a huge uphill line stretching steeply into the distance it’s hard to keep your game face on and not just crumble into a lay by for a mega tantrum.
This hill-road out of Trebinje, was the kind that trucks, old and new, would painfully whine up in first gear.
Climbing big hills on a push bike with 35 kilograms of gear has been one of the biggest mental challenges of my patience and perseverance to date. You have to learn to breathe into the gradient. Feel like you are absorbing the ridiculous steepness into your being with ease and let the hill know, gently but firmly that you will not be giving up. That you are not going anywhere other than up. No matter how long it takes, you will be there until the top. Yet, this cannot be a fight. If you fight, you will hate the hill and the hill will hurt you.
Acceptance and calm perseverance is the only way. You have to breathe into the burning of your hamstrings, abs and calves. Into the painful slowness of the endless climb. Into each determined, relentless pump of the left leg and then the right. Each revolution being a triumph. A slow heroic act in stages. Sometimes it definitely doesn’t look like that from the outside, wobbling and sweating, breathing like an asthmatic donkey. But you have to try to feel it on the inside. Just looking at the small patch of road in front that is slipping underneath your tyres. That is all you need, over and over again. It’s the work going on inside the mind that is most important, keeping the sense of victory alive.
The heat and the climb made Haydn and I increasingly faint until we had to pull in and lie hunched on the ground in the measly shade that our two bicycles provided. This was a landscape bare of trees.
Below us lay a huge fly tipping waste site and the smell was thick in the air. I felt the urge to lick the sweat of my top lip and forearms for salt. We drank water with conscious cautiousness, the intimidating barrenness of the landscape blaring at us.
In that moment my mind was completely blank. Lungs gulping at the air, feeling like my whole body had turned into one giant heart beat. I felt like the animal pulse of the earth. Here was my purpose. To breathe. A realisation seared into me. This was the feeling of being alive. So alive you can think of nothing else.
A car revved slowly up the slope in front of us and two people gawped at us from inside, they beeped showing support and cheered out of the open windows.
Post for Montenegro coming soon …
There was a feeling as we cycled out of the city on a Triestine truck-packed road that we were ready to shed the European civilisation we knew too well. Ready to shrug off traffic-jammed-megga-polluted roads and dive headfirst into the unknown. We were ready for the wild. Or as close to wild as the Balkans could provide.
We cycled up the very steep streets of small villages on the outskirts of the city. The last of eastern Italy disappearing under our wheels. Up and out over the rim of the bowl that Trieste sits at the base of.
Cycling up from sea level is never usually easy but the two hours it took us to cycle out of Trieste were more exquisitely ridiculous than we had experienced before. A few times both of us had to dismount and push our weighty steeds up what felt like the side of a building. Using all our might, arms crunched uncomfortably and backs stretched straight out. Pushing horizontally forward, jaws clenched, staring down at the cobbles, unable to appreciate the quaint beauty of these bastard vertical villages.
Unfortunately we were only in Slovenia for all of about two hours and then after a couple of check points, crossed over into Croatia. Later we learnt to feel very frustrated by that decision. Every other cyclist and their dog, which we encountered from Croatia onwards, said that Slovenia was cycle-touring heaven! The beauty, the wilderness, the roads, the friendly people, the brilliant camping. The list went on and on. And as we left behind the sniff we’d had of Slovenia to enter Croatia, our wheels first revolved through a country in which wild camping is actually illegal. Gulp.
That day cycling through three different countries felt like moving through a long forested doorway. We had travelled through the porthole. We had entered Narnia and were very happy about it too.
That first night we camped not long after the Croatian border on a craggy hillside covered with big rocks and thick wild grasses. Dark clouds had rolled in and low rumbles of a brewing storm rippled through the wide sky. We followed a rocky old farm path off to the right and suddenly realised how alone we were. Very few cars passed on the road back behind us but we still shrank behind the low bushes for cover when one did. Not wanting to look suspiciously like two people who might be about to set up a tent. Despite this it was a wonderful feeling, the knowledge that the two of us were nearly completely alone in a wild landscape. It was like when having been at a party for hours you suddenly realise that you have a moment to yourself, a content solitude, to just sit and look at the stars.
The next morning we set off very early, still feeling that unspoken nudge of anxiety about the illegality of wild camping. The day was heavy and much colder than we had been used to in the past weeks. The same dark grey sky was there to greet us when we emerged from our tent, as had been there when we set it up the night before.
We cycled through wilderness for the entire day. Just the road, the scraggy-rock hillsides, the forests and us. Big magic lies in being alone in the wild. This was my first long drink of that magic on the journey so far.
The Curious Incident of the Bears in the Nighttime
The second night we camped in the Croatian wilderness we were welcomed in style by some surprisingly terrifying noises.
At sunset we cycled up away from the road that we had been following all day. We took a narrow road uphill that cut through the wide scraggy-spike-bush and rock-punctured hillside. The light was fading rapidly and we needed to find a place to set-up. We left our bikes on the side of the narrow road and wondered into the thorny maze of bushes and rocks. Not an ideal camp ground but the best option we had. We both ventured into this strange scrubland in search of a flat, tent-sized patch of ground, preferably invisible from the road. We walked around and around, keeping one eye out for the bikes and one out for each other all the time. Attempting not to get snagged by the lethal spike bushes. Most of the bushes longest tendrils were not much taller than head height but it was a strange environment that evoked the nightmare of being lost in a spiky maze forever. Finally we found a place that was just about passable. We tried to push the bikes towards the spot and around the assault course of undulating ground, rocks and bushes but our bags or bodies kept getting caught on the thorns and wheels stuck at awkward angles. So we took all of the bags off the bikes and carried them to the spot, each time trying to find the least spiky route to get there. As I set the tent up, Haydn pushed his bike and then mine to our camp-spot with great difficulty and many expletives.
We had just managed to set everything up and zip ourselves in for the night as the light faded from the grey sky and it began to spit with rain.
Then it began to pour.
We heard the electrifying howl of wolves through the rain.
By now we knew the familiar howl of dogs at dusk. This was different. We looked at each other, nervous but thrilled. That was a real sign of the wild.
We listened to the rain ease off as we both sat snuggled up in our sleeping bags, reading. Then a noise in the distance caught my attention. It was a fast, seamless, rhythmic drumming. A sound you feel in your chest. Powerful, quick compounding of earth. It was far off but coming closer. I couldn’t work out what it was. Then I sat up. It was horses. It was a herd of wild horses.
I remembered back to a few hours earlier when I had seen dung all around the thorny maze paths surrounding our tent. Suddenly I realised which animal that dung belonged to with this sound drumming through my chest and getting louder and louder.
I turned to Hayds. What do we do? They’re getting closer. They’re galloping. Do you think they’ll see our tent? Should we get out?
The hooves were getting louder and louder, closer and closer every second. Soon they would be on us. Funnily enough in that moment of panic I wasn’t worrying so much about how mangled our bodies would be after a herd of wild horses had trampled us. I was thinking about our poor flimsy tent, our little home. It wouldn’t stand a chance.
The drumming was so loud now they could only be meters away. They were nearly on us. We both shouted out and clutched each other, putting our arms over our heads in a feeble attempt to protect ourselves and each other.
They thrummed past the outside of the tent. Right next to us.
We stayed in our curled up positions for a minute and then slowly, embarrassedly untangled ourselves.
When we were just drifting off to sleep later that same evening we heard another noise. I sat up on my elbows and froze. I sucked my breath in sharply and held it. That was a noise I had never heard in nature before. My whole body was a mass of goose bumps. It was the strangled raw call of a bear. It couldn’t have been anything else. Half grunt, half roar. Then moments later a slightly different tone called back. We were listening to two bears having a conversation. It was unbelievable.
I immediately fumbled for my phone and looked up if there were bears in Croatia. The Internet told me that,
There are three kinds of large wild beasts/animals living in Croatia – wolf (Canis lupus), lynx (lynx lynx) and bear (Ursus arctos). Wolf and lynx have been protected by law since 1995, while bear still remains hunted and legally killed as a part of hunting tourism.
So it was bears. My mind raced from how far away they were, to again how thin the tent was and then rested on what we’d eaten for dinner. I had eaten tomato pasta and cheese but Haydn had mixed a whole tin of tuna in with his and the tin was still sitting just outside the tent. I jumped to wash the tin out and bury it deep inside our small rubbish bag. We decided it was best to leave the whole bin bag hanging from a nearby tree so that if a bear came, he could rummage through that and hopefully not our tent.
Discovering that hunting bears is still seen as a sport in Croatia and encouraged as a tourist activity shocked me. While cycling we saw many watches and hunting hides. I was tempted to practice my hand at a spot of arson but it was so rainy, I wouldn’t have stood a chance. It makes me so upset and disturbed that people still hunt such glorious beasts with no justification other than amusement and the grotesque photograph of them smiling over a huge splayed out, bullet riddled carcass. Where is the glory in that?
I was so moved and felt so honoured just to hear their call.
Why can’t that be enough for everyone?
Thunder & Lightning
We descended towards Rijeka the next day. By the time we reached Rijeka (a city NOT made for cycling) it was pouring with rain and we decided to find a hostel to shelter in for the night.
We found a funny one on a main road that was on the third floor of a tall apartment building. Haydn ran up to check that we could leave our bikes somewhere safe inside. We locked them up in the large entrance area and lugged all our gear up the three flights of stairs.
It was a small and stylishly themed black, white and red hostel. We were shown where we could sleep in separate bunks and store our many bags, cook food and take a shower.
It always seems that it’s only once you’re inside a clean, well decorated, sophisticated seeming establishment that you notice quite how disgusting you are. Let’s just say it was really, really good to have a shower. I think layers of me literally washed away down the plug whole. Never to be seen again.
We sat down on the communal sofa once we were washed and dressed. A young German man was sat there with a big bandage on his left leg. We asked what had happened and it turned out that he had been cycle-touring like us. His sat-nav device had led him through private farmland and he had been badly bitten by a dog. He had to cancel his six week long planned trip and fly straight back home, as the bite was so bad he could no longer cycle. Haydn and I sat in anxious silence for a moment. This dog situation was real. They could be really dangerous.
They were all out there, being trained to be guards and chained up and mistreated and we were cycling around everyday on the most renowned dog aggravation device – the bicycle. Brilliant.
We stayed at the hostel for a few nights as the rain just continued to pour down. So far Croatia had welcomed us with rain, rain and more rain. Along with the rain there were ‘orange’ thunderstorm weather warnings and flash flood warnings on the news. So we decided to delay trying to cycle out of Rijeka and avoid camping in this mad weather.
There was no one we really connected with at the hostel and we were too tired to make a huge effort to get to know people. As rude as that sounds, we weren’t feeling much fun or much like chatting. It was during one of the evenings at the hostel that we realised how much we missed our friends. The simplicity of just calling a friend and going out for a drink to catch up was not possible now and it’s always what you can’t have that you miss the most with these horrid little contrary human brains.
We sat on the top step of the dark central spiral staircase of the hostel building. It was a Saturday night. We rang some friends in Berlin who were luckily all together. We wanted to pretend to ourselves that we were having fun so we drank beers and smoked a few unsatisfying cigarettes, feeling lonely and pretty tired but cheered by seeing familiar faces and trying to talk, in spite of our frazzled minds and the very intermittent Wi-Fi.
We managed to escape from that hostel in Rijeka in a dry weather window.
Leaving Rijeka smelt like tuna and cigarette smoke.
It rained some more.
Pedalling But Not Moving
I discovered while pedalling up a very large hill that I had an issues with my bicycle. I was pedalling hard uphill and I felt something slip. My feet were moving the pedals round and round but the movement was not pushing the bike forwards. I was staying stationary and then I was slowly sliding backwards. I had that wobbly feeling that you get in the base of your stomach. Like when a lift jumps downwards too quickly. That sinking, butterflies, lurching feeling. I jumped off and shouted out to Hayds that something was wrong. We stopped and he pedalled around for a while on my bike. Nothing seemed wrong to him. It was pretending to be fine in his care like a vindictive child. Great. We set off again and it pretended to be fine for a while until we reached another incline on a scraggy hillside path and again I pedalled into thin air and nothing happed. No traction.
I described it again to Haydn and we could only assume that my old rear hub was disintegrating and sometimes the ball-bearings were slipping out of place causing the pedals to have no effect on the back wheel. It jumped between being fine and being useless.
Oh dear. We needed to get a new rear hub, probably a whole new back wheel as soon as possible. It was really just a case of praying and blind faith.
It’s going to get me to the next biggest town, it will, it will.
At some point that day the clouds did part and we got a gorgeous blue sky, perhaps it was consolation for my sick bike.
Scariest Dog in the World so Far
Cycling along a forest path listening to a Grayson Perry podcast and day dreaming about painting and making things. Something we both missed.
I shouted out something stupid like: ‘Isn’t it quiet!’ or ‘Finally no cars!’ or something to that effect and then heard a vicious snarling bark coming from somewhere below us. It was the bark of a very big dog. And it sounded very angry. A man shouted a command at the dog in Croatian and we heard fast movement. Earth and leaves being moved. We were still pedalling forwards but in seconds a gigantic dog was chasing just behind us. Barking and snarling and foaming at the mouth. It looked insane. With an enormous white-grey matted body and electric blue fixated eyes. I shouted and put my legs up onto the top tube of my frame. I just wanted my legs as far away from that crazy, probably rabies infected dog, as physically possible. Ironically this now meant that said dog was gaining on me. Haydn screamed at me to keep pedalling. I looked back and saw how close the dog was. I threw my legs down and my body forward, pedalling as fast as I could. My legs burning, bum off the seat. Even faster than when I had tried to beat Haydn in a race once. Thank god it wasn’t uphill. Thank the sweet beard of Zeus it wasn’t uphill. Or the dog would have won.
Neither of us looked back for a while, streaming fast along the silent road.
When we knew we had definitely outrun it. We stopped panting on a big rock looking out over a staggering view. I couldn’t even see it. I felt so angry and scared that this would ruin the trip for me. We would never know when an insane rabid dog was around the corner and we had no idea how to defend ourselves.
I sat on that rock in silence. A swell of something rising inside me. I had to have a weapon. I had to have a way to protect myself. I had to educate myself.
Running out of Food
Soon after the dangerous dog incident we came across another problem. The mountain wilderness of northern Croatia was very beautiful but we hadn’t planned for there being so few villages and so few shops. We were down to our emergency dried soup sachets and a few strands of spaghetti. The wild was exciting but also held new challenges for us that we actually weren’t at all prepared for. We finally reached a town later than afternoon but all the food shops were closed. We went into a small café and asked why the shops were all closed. It was a Sunday. And that is why it’s a good idea to keep track of the days of the week, even when you’re off adventuring in the hills of the Balkans.
Senj to Gospic
From Senj to Gospic was one of the wettest cycles of our trip so far. I had never been more soaked to the bone in my whole life. Every inch of me was sodden and by lunchtime it felt like my skin and my clothes were indivisible –all one cold, saggy, soaking mass. The rain was so heavy and so persistent that it felt like we were on a film set, stuck in a rain scene, which leads to a dramatic flood.
The rain had been so persistent all day that we decided at about 3pm to stop in a small town and find a hostel nearby. We found a cheap place on Google maps called Magsik Hostel, which was apparently on the high street. We followed the directions to the pin on the high-street but there was no hostel to be found. We cycled round and round getting more and more confused.
We ventured into a café, shivering so much it was hard to speak. We asked for directions. The barman was very kind and offered us towels to dry ourselves with. He gave us free hot drinks and his friend told us that the Google pin was wrong and that the hostel was actually 10km away. We tried to warm up but with no success so decided to go to Lidl to replenish our dwindling food stores and then do the last 10km once we’d eaten something.
Walking around Lidl, our shoes that felt like those goldfish bags you get at the funfair.
While squishing around Lidl I bought my secret dog defence weapon! We were looking for pepper spray but surprisingly Lidl didn’t stock it, so I went for a red can of Old Spice deodorant instead. I gripped my new weapon into the phone claw mounted on my handlebars. It fit perfectly and was as accessible as it could be for the lightening fast grab-spray action I needed it for.
We had read up on dog management for cyclist and the veterans said that the best thing you can do is stop cycling, dismount the bike and act like you mean business. If you keep cycling they’ll keep chasing. This sounded like logical advice but in all honestly the last thing I had felt like doing with our last, very frightening dog chase, was getting off my bicycle and standing face to face, or shin to tooth, with that beast. So I decided, as a back up, I would get an aerosol spray to dissuade an advancing hound from getting too close. It wasn’t long until I needed to use it …
That 10km cycle was one of the longest 10km of the cycle so far. The rain felt like it was filling me up. Making my body heavy and slow. My muscles were cold and exhausted. Out of the distant rain ahead I could see the lights of a car overtaking on our side of the road. But there was a solid line of fast moving traffic to the left. I couldn’t quite work out what the driver was doing. Surely they weren’t going to overtake all these cars at once and with us cycling head on towards them on the right side of the road. The driver didn’t seem to be slowing down or pulling back into their lane. The car was getting closer and closer. Could they not see all our bike lights through the rain? Suddenly Hayds screamed out for me to get off the road. He swerved into a ditch on the right of the road and I smashed into the back of him. The car whipped past still on our side of the road. Haydn shouted out at the car, already in the distance. If we had stayed cycling where we were he would have hit us head on. I looked down. My front right pannier bag was hanging off. Fuck.
The Hostel Majsic, in Otočac, was a very strange establishment. We arrived at the building, which stood alone, on a very straight, long road. We walked inside the main door. It was dimly lit and around a low semicircle bar, fifteen men sat smoking and watching a raised television. The interior furnishings were like a 40’s casino and looked like they hadn’t been renovated since then either. The air was thick with smoke and the brooding silence of the men felt quite threatening. Lots of them were wearing full army camo outfits with haircuts to match. Maybe these were the men who shoot bears. They all sat drinking bottles of beer at 4pm on a weekday. It felt like they had been drinking for a while. The very thin, pale receptionist showed us to our room. It consisted of two single beds, a tiny television, an ashtray and a tiny en-suite bathroom with a shower, toilet and sink. The ceiling was lined with a faded pink glittery paper. It was pretty basic and odd but I was just overjoyed to be out of the rain.
We realised that we had to sort my rear hub out. So we tried to hatch a plan. I luckily spotted a picture of a friend of my parents pop up on Instagram. The location said she was in, Vlore, Croatia. So I immediately sent her a message to explain that we were only 80km away from Vlore and would she like to meet up with us somewhere.
She invited us to stay with her and her husband Jim, in Split for two days at the end of their Croatian swimming holiday.
On the way to Split from Knin we passed Lake Peruća. We turned a bend and suddenly a colour I had never seen in nature before was seeping out before me. Down way below the road held in the dip of the land was an azure blue lake so bright and deep in colour that it looked artificial. We had to keep pausing on the narrow, dangerous road, as it was such a mesmerizing spectacle we didn’t want to rush past it too quickly.
Near Knin we passed through a landscape that looked like it was straight out of an old Western. With wide desert like plains and rising majestically out of them were high, flat topped mountains. It felt very surreal cycling through a landscape that I would never have imagined to be in Croatia.
After a few more days of up and down over some hillier ranges we made the decent to Split. It was a busy road and the gradient was so steep that sometimes I was quite scared that I couldn’t break with the weight of the bike and myself with just four little, old-fashioned, rubber pads. I tried not to descend too quickly with my brakes firmly held down but a few times the cramp in my fingers spasmed and I nearly swerved out of control.
We arrived at Ruth and Jim’s holiday apartment, in the centre of Split, in time for lunch. We were disgusting. Sweat was pouring off us and we probably smelt awful after days of not washing properly. Ruth and Jim were very polite not to mention this and it was such a treat to be greeted by two familiar, beaming faces. They bundled us in the shower and we sat and ate. The apartment was a small slice of heaven and they very kindly let us sleep on the sofa bed. We had two days of lake swimming and exploring the city and being treated like heroic explorers. Two days spent being the kind of tourists we didn’t usually get to be! Treated to delicious food and in wonderful company. The blissful weekend slipped by very quickly.
There was a real fiasco getting my rear hub fixed. But after traipsing around the city all day we finally found a bike shop which sold us a new rear wheel which Haydn fitted in the basement of the bike shop. It felt painful to pay £50 for a new wheel but I didn’t have a choice, if I wanted to keep cycling. At least Haydn knew how to do the labour so I didn’t pay for that too.
We said heartfelt and very thankful goodbyes to Jim and Ruth who had brightened us up endlessly. Travelling further along the coast and then back up into the mountains after a town called Omis.
Outside this town, we spent a very wakeful, panic-stricken night by a seemingly deserted river, in what turned out to be the local dogging spot or drug pick-up point. Car after car came and sat with blaring music and lights on not far from our tent. They came and went all through the night. Until one pickup truck came and the lights were turned off and a man got out with a head torch on. He walked over to the tent and looked at it for a while. He then walked over to a small building behind us and unlocked a door. We could hear him rattling chains around inside. Haydn was frozen, eyes glued to the tiny mesh gap of the window, unable to see anything from this angle. We were both completely silent and terrified. What was this guy doing at 3am? The man walked back over to the tent, chains jingling, illuminating us in our vulnerability. He walked back over to his car and threw the chains in the back and drove away. We both sighed with relief but couldn’t go back to sleep.
For the next few days we headed parallel to the coast, straight towards the boarder with Bosnia.
We were not sad to be leaving Croatia – it hadn’t treated us particularly well overall, with the endless rain and dangerous animals and even more dangerous drivers. It had been a time of learning. And we would find that we would need all of that knowledge and more for the next part of the journey. We were ready for Bosnia.
Please donate to H.R. here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity/
OR buy us a beer and help keep us on the road: www.cycleforlove.com/buy-us-a-beer/
Trusty Old Spice
The lovely Ruth & Jim
Time for Italia
Our cycling introduction to Italy was far from divine.
We had cycled all day out of the mountains. For the last few hours we had been on a very long-and-skinny, straight-and-busy road where cars drove faster and closer to us than ever before. Often resulting in us shouting out in shock and swerving awkwardly to a stop. We arrived, sweaty and exhausted at a roadside campsite and were shown to a gravel pitch that looked like a parking space for a smart car. We were immediately asked for 25 euros (showers not included) by a man who just seemed to be walking around but was – he assured us – the owner. It all felt very odd. There was a strange tingling in the air that seems to alert you to the likelihood of being taken for a ride.
Everyone seemed to be a permanent resident of the campsite. The caravan population sat inside their ‘temporary’ homes, wheels buried long ago into the ground, gnomes placed carefully in the tiny front gardens, enclosed by miniature white picket fences. It was all very odd. I felt very out-of-place. Welcomed only by twitching curtains and suspicious glances.
Once the tent was set up we went to pay our 50 cents for a shower – which would end up being all of three minutes long and ice-cold for the first two. The ‘Reception’, which was clearly written on the front door of a house on the grounds of the ‘campsite’, opened into a family kitchen full of women busily preparing food. They all turned and glared at us with narrowed eyes – the intruders. We apologised and waited outside. Odder and odder. We left first thing in the morning.
That is the funny thing I began to learn about cycle touring while in Italy. You don’t research somewhere, book it, get on a plane, experience it and fly back. You cycle in some sort of line, a long incision across a country. You have to take a path through a country to continue the journey and that unavoidably includes all the gritty, boring, ugly bits that most tourists pay not to see. And more importantly you just have to accept this or you end up spending your time being either very angry or very sad about what you’ve stupidly chosen to do.
The trip was becoming a huge lesson in accepting my environment no matter how desirable or undesirable that environment was. Sure you can do some research, choose which roads you take and how long you stay in certain places (money depending) but most of the time you just end up picking a vague direction and going for it. You have to cycle through whatever that country may hold. Sometimes ‘through’ being the operative word.
A good example of this was Turin. We hadn’t really planned on going to this fairly industrial city but my derailleur (despite Jean-Michelle’s best efforts) was making cycling very challenging for me. I can tell you it’s not a nice feeling, cycling up a steep incline, trying to change gear to ease the leg strain and nothing happening. Then when the mechanism does try to randomly crunch into gear later – the chain flings off – leaving you pedalling desperately into thin air and slipping backwards.
Luckily, a lovely Columbian couple from Couchsurfing accepted our request to stay. Maria, Filipe and their friend Carlos. We immediately felt completely welcome and they said we could have showers and wash our clothes. Turin wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
We were both exhausted. We still hadn’t had a proper rest since before tackling the Alps and we were really feeling the consequences. Time in Briancon had been amazing but it had been far from relaxing.
Our deep tiredness was eased by how lovely our hosts were. They cooked gorgeous traditional Columbian food of rice, bean stew and fried plantain with salt. So delicious!
They said they would like to show us some of Turin. All I wanted to do was lie down in a dark room for two days and have some one occasionally massage my legs and feed me. But unfortunately this would have been a strange request for our hosts so we agreed to cycle around the city with them. They took us up to the top of a big hill (yes … a very big hill) to see the view of Turin, remarkable mainly for the fact that it is the flattest city I have ever seen. Maybe my exhaustion was tainting the view.
I hadn’t been giving my body any love or time to rest and not surprisingly woke up on the floor of their apartment at 4 o’clock in the morning with an agonising burning in my bladder. I ran to the toilet and pissed blood. I had developed really bad cystitis (a woman’s bane on the bike) very quickly. We went to the pharmacy as soon as it opened the following morning and got some strong medication. I explained to our hosts that I wasn’t very well and really needed a day to rest if that was OK with them. They were very sweet and kind to me. Maria rang her mother in Columbia and asked for the recipe for a special parsley tea that she made to help with my pain and to flush out my system. They even offered Haydn and I their bedroom to sleep and rest for the whole day and night.
The next day we had to go into town to try to fix my bike. The first bike shop we went to was closed permanently. The second one was closed but would open again in a few hours so we walked around for while, my bladder throbbing.
Thinking it was time for a treat we went to a café that had come up on my phone as being a vegan place. We realised when we walked in that it was absolutely full of cats. On the floors, on the chairs, lying on the tables next to the cutlery. I’ve never been a huge fan of cats ever since one nearly blinded me with a claw when I was a toddler. But walking into that café, I was so exhausted and in pain, that I was not really very surprised by this bizarre spectacle. Everything was turning into a surreal disaster anyway so a cat café seemed to befit the day quite well.
We shuffled over to a table with the smallest cat population, ordered some food and sat in sad silence waiting for it to come. An enormous plasma television loomed over our table with an animal rescue channel playing on mute. A giant dog loomed over us on the screen, panting with its massive, wet, pink tongue lolling out. A woman was furiously rubbing the dog.
The food finally arrived after a long wait.
It was unbelievably awful. We sat quietly for a while picking and then turned to each other and our eyes said everything. I just sat a cried into my bland bowl of rice and limp vegetables. I felt like I was the food in front of me. This was all turning into a bit of a nightmare.
The tiredness was so deep and so overwhelming. I had no idea how people did this kind of trip long-term. The novelty of the experience had worn off weeks ago and we had both reached burnout. Nothing was fun anymore and everything was hard work. We had been cycling for about two months solidly since leaving Calais and had barely rested at all. I had no idea where or how we could rest for long enough to begin teasing out these knots of fatigue.
Later, a kind bike mechanic tried to bend my derailleur back as best he could and said I would need to buy a new one as soon as possible. He didn’t have the replacement and would have to order it in – which could take up to a week. That was too long. We thanked him and cycled back to the flat.
The next morning we said our hugely grateful goodbyes to Maria and Filipe and left.
We decided to cycle from Turin to a campsite on the edge of Lake Viverone, 65km north-east. We thought perhaps we could rest there for a while.
It somehow ended up being one of the most epic cycle days of the trip so far. The roads were endlessly long and busy leaving the city. The heat just seemed to build and build oppressively; the air was thick and heavy. I had to work really hard to keep my spirits up. Having to abruptly pull off the road, run a few meters into the scrubland and try not to shout out in pain while peeing.
We cycled past a petrol station that afternoon and saw the numbers 43 next to the symbol for degrees Celsius. I looked open-mouthed for a minute. It was 5 o’clock in the afternoon and it was 43 degrees. We had been cycling hard next to this horribly busy road all day in 40+ degree heat. What were we doing?! I sat down for a minute. I felt like scrambled egg and not in a good way.
I knew we were just stumbling through this experience. Not knowing how to learn from our mistakes but suffering terribly from them. I think we were actually too tired to make good decisions and function like rational human beings anymore.
We looked at the map and our sat-nav, the lake didn’t look far away now. An hour later and we had both fully reached our limit. We had no energy left to give to the day. I fell off a few times coming down this very rocky, rudimentary path. My bike fell on top of me and I instantly got the searing pain-squeeze of needing to wee. I just half pulled down my shorts with one hand and peed with my bike still on top of me. It was all getting a very sad and pathetic. After about half an hour of pushing our bikes (as the rocks had gotten too big to cycle) we realised that this horrid rock road had been wrong all along. We could see that the lake was behind us through a large dense forest. That was it. Haydn screamed and I melted onto the floor and sobbed. How had this happened again? How? We were trying so hard to get this right and we just kept failing. We kept coming back to this point; both of us hating this so fiercely due to our own decisions. It was so painfully humiliating.
A pick-up truck drove past and Haydn flagged it down while I sobbed into my knees. The man spoke no English and we spoke no Italian but Haydn said – Camping! Please help us!
The man looked over at me and nodded. He helped load our bags and bikes into the back of his truck. I deliriously wiped the tears from my face and shook his hand, saying ‘Grazie mille’ over and over. Luckily these were the only Italian words I knew so far. He drove us for about 20 minutes along a thin rocky track that went up a huge, steep hill and then came out onto a road that snaked around the lake and finally got to the campsite. We thanked the man profusely and tumbled out of his truck.
We shakily walked our bikes to the reception and asked for a pitch for the night. The middle-aged woman looked at me as blankly as a frying pan and said – Sorry, we are full.
I sat down on the nearest chair and the tears just welled up again and didn’t stop until her slightly more compassionate husband said he would find a space for us.
We set up the tent on a tiny patch of grass between the white walls of two permanent caravans. The air a thick fog of mosquitoes. Sweat dripping off both of us even after a cold shower.
It was by this lake that we realised our exhaustion had gotten to a ridiculous and crushing level. Any hope of us continuing to enjoy this experience was impossible while being this tired. We had to have a rest. A big rest. Otherwise all the fun and adventure would be sucked out of it. And then all your basically doing is a hell-load of exercise and crying.
Big Rest in Biella
Oh beautiful Biella and beautiful Air B&B – you nurtured my weary body and mind back from the brink.
We looked for a place not too far from the dreaded mozzie infested lake of Viverone and found a sweet little cheap apartment to stay 25km north in Biella.
The very kind, old owner of the apartment, a gentle giant called Valerio, let us stay for two extra nights for a reduced price just because he liked us and saw how tired we were. Five whole days of heaven. We had our own perfect, little kitchen to use. There was a fridge! Clean towels that didn’t smell like grub and bag. A double bed with cool clean white linen. A shower. A sofa. All these simple yet deliciously luxurious things that we forget are so special. We had a whole new appreciation for these things now that we were living the day-to-day lives of trampy nomad adventure cyclists. We were both so happy to be in that small, solid, space and revel in all the pleasures of easy, domestic living.
Leaving Biella was really hard.
Those five days had been so precious and so deeply needed that it was hard to even consider loading the bikes back up again and going out into that hot, harsh, unpredictable world. But we couldn’t stay in Biella forever.
The day we left Biella we made a promise that we were going to try to take it easy. But that was much easier said that done. We cycled along a very busy, narrow road the entire day and then found a wild camp spot in the early evening that seemed fine. But lo and behold the dreaded mozzies came on like a plague again. Buzzing around our faces and exposed limbs while we tried to throw the tent up. I dove straight in to escape, my whole body flaming and itchy and sticky with sweat and bites. It is a very big challenge to maintain a feeling of wellbeing when you are extremely physically uncomfortable and know there is really nothing you can do to make it better. I just lay down and tried not to move to cool down. Deep breathing can be a life saver.
Haydn heroically cooked dinner outside and we went glumly to bed.
I was woken up by the feeling water dripping on my face and body. I could hear Haydn swearing and rustling around outside the tent somewhere. It was pitch-black. I called out – Are you OK, what’s going on?
I could just about hear him answer over the rustling – The one fucking night we don’t put the flysheet on, the one fucking night!
Then I realised what was going on. It had been so hot that we had decided to try not putting the waterproof outer layer of the tent on. We had just put up the internal part of the tent, that is really just a glorified mozzie net and waterproof base with a pole skeleton to hold it up.
At 3 o’clock in the morning it had started to rain. To absolutely pour.
Haydn put the flysheet over the tent in the pitch black, torrential rain, being savaged by mosquitoes. When he finally managed to clamber back into the tent like a big slippery seal, I realised he was completely naked. What a hero.
Time For New Tactics
We thought it was time to try something new. We had remembered Alexis’ advice. If you are struggling – ask people for help. It’s just having the balls to ask in the first place.
So that following day we tried it. We got into a village at the time that we had done enough cycling for the day and decided to ask to camp in someone’s garden. I had written an Italian translation onto a piece of paper, explaining what we were doing and asking if it would be alright to camp for one night in their garden.
We saw a man with a lovely large lawn and a fancy car. We asked him for some water and while he was filling it up Haydn and me passed the translation between us like a hot potato deciding who should ask him. When he came back outside, I shyly showed him the piece of paper, with a smile. He read it and looked over at his lovely flat, manicured lawn, then back at us. He shook his head. No, no, but there is a golf course up there – he pointed up the hill. A golf course! What a strange recommendation.
We thanked him and cycled back into the centre of the town to ask someone else. Alexis had told us not to be put off by rejection. So we tried again.
I sheepishly cycled up to two old Italian women and showed them the note. They read it intently and then smiled and patted me warmly. They explained in fast Italian that they didn’t have gardens. At least I think that was what they said. Then they went on to say a whole load of other stuff very fast that I was completely unable to follow. They gesticulated wildly, trying to make us understand. It was very sweet but very pointless. After a while we thanked them and cycled off in the direction they insisted that we went for a still unknown reason. Then we spotted a woman stood by a gate looking at her phone with lots of dogs at her feet. I cycled up to her and she smiled at me warmly. I showed her the note. She read it and immediately said – YES! You can have a room!
Our magic piece of paper had worked! And it had brought us to Glorious Gloria.
She immediately made us feel very welcome. Showed us to a private double room to stay in. Gave us towels for a shower and brought out a big plastic bottle of frozen, homemade sangria. We sat and talked and defrosted the sangria, surrounded by her huge menagerie of animals. A dark storm stirred up the sky. Soon the rain was pouring down and we thanked Gloria for saving us from another night out in the wild.
Gloria’s daughter Beatrice came home later that evening and Gloria fed us all homemade paella, wine and ice cream. After, we all sat around to watch Game of Thrones like a family. It was enchanting to be welcomed so wholeheartedly into someone else’s space after just showing them a piece of paper.
We slept very well that night. In the morning when we left, Gloria and I both had a little tear in our eye. Such kindness. What a strong, yet fleeting connection.
After that we had many more wonderful experiences of generosity after asking for help. A lovely couple, Elisa and Emmond, let us stay in their holiday home while they went out for the night, bringing us coffee and biscuits in the morning. A kind farmer and his family invited us in to stay in a huge old-fashioned guest suite full of dusty relics including an ancient off-key piano. We ended up not sleeping in our tent for five nights in a row.
We decided if we were travelling across northern Italy it would be stupid to miss all the beautiful lakes that rest between the mountains there.
We arrived in Como and felt very out-of-place. It was very swanky and heaving with traffic and tourists. We felt about as trampy as you can – eating our lunch of stale bread and cucumber on the pavement by a roundabout.
Over that trampy lunch we made a snap decision and agreed to avoid Como altogether and head straight up into the mountains. It was hard work getting up into the Italian Alps but very quickly became quieter, cooler and much prettier.
We were planning on wild camping but soon realised that might be harder than we had imagined. The road snaked up into the mountains. To the left of the road, the mountain raised steeply upwards and to the right the road sheared away down the mountainside. All flatter areas where populated by small towns with little space for secretive camping.
We looked on the Warmshowers app and saw that there was a host in a village not far away. We sent a message. It was already two o’clock in the afternoon. Very late notice. We prayed that they would be the kind of person who had their phone right by them and would reply straight away. We cycled on and found a café to sit and wait in. No reply. I tried to call. No answer. We wondered what we should do. The house was only ten minutes away but we thought it would be too rude to just show up and ring the bell. We sipped our drinks slowly. Listening to the old Italian locals seated around us. I tried to call again. Nothing. We finished our drinks and I said – Let’s just go for it, they can always say no. It wasn’t too late, so if they said no, we could still cycle on and hopefully find somewhere to camp.
We arrived at the door and rang the buzzer. A woman’s voice spoke out from the machine in Italian and I did my best to convey who we were without babbling. It felt very strange to turn up at someone’s house and ask if you can stay, right there and then. I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest with embarrassment.
A very slight woman with a long floral skirt and paisley cardigan came skipping out towards the gate. She had a wild mass of frizzy grey hair like a floating cloud that she had tried to tame at the end with loose plaits. She said excitedly in perfect English – So are you the French couple? The ones I was expecting on Tuesday?
We explained that we weren’t, we were very sorry for just turning up and that we had tried to call and message her. She looked intensely at us and then with a huge beaming smile, opened the gate further and ushered us in.
Marieke and her eighteen-year-old son Emmanuel were two of the kindest and most gently welcoming people we had met so far. They sat us in the garden where a wonderful mixture of animals lived. They brought us drinks and fruit and said we could just relax with them for a few days. I felt like we had accidentally come to heaven. The steep, beautiful mountainside was visible, high into the sky from the small, perfectly kept garden. The chickens and cats and guinea pigs, a rabbit, a tortoise, all wondered around happily.
We asked if there was anything we could do to help. At first she said no and then gradually as we spoke she mentioned the tree against the hedge at the back, right of the garden. Half of it had died. Haydn said – I can sort that, I was a gardener for a while. Do you have the tools?
We got to work with hand saws and Haydn cut the dead half of the small tree down. I dissected the branches into small lengths for the fire as we went. In a couple of hours it was done and the wood was sorted neatly into baskets. I felt less guilty imposing ourselves on these lovely people once we had done something noticeable to help.
Emmanuel taught us how to make jewellery with resin and found objects. We went for a walk and gathered little flowers and leaves and beautiful-dead beetles with shells like the sheen of petrol on tarmac. We sat around late into the evening, all wearing head torches, arranging little natural objects into moulds, small crystals and metal fillings and then sealing them in with resin. We both went to bed very happy.
I came downstairs in the morning to Marieke translating a music book from Italian into English. I put my hand on her arm and asked as bravely as I could if perhaps we could stay one more night as my period had started and I was suffering with cramps. I felt so limp and tired and weak. The idea of cycling off again up the mountain roads felt so cruel to my aching body. She smiled and said we could stay as long as we liked. I felt my body singing with relief as I gave her a huge hug and climbed back up their funny ladder staircase and crawled back into bed to cradle my belly.
We stayed for three nights in the end and felt a pull of sadness when we left.
It was such an honour to meet these beautiful people. These eccentric, charming characters along our path.
We came down out of the mountains to skirt along the edge of Lake Lecco.
Lake Lecco was very different to Como. It had a gentler, family vibe, which we were very enchanted by. It was also quite spectacularly beautiful. We spent a few nights camping around the edge of the lake in different campsites, whose one-night prices made us gulp. Unfortunately sometimes we really had no other option when there is nowhere else you can possibly do a sneaky wild camp. Mainly when somewhere is just very far from being ‘wild’ and is being fully enjoyed by a massive amount of human life. We had no choice but to ignore the price tag and enjoy the incredible views from our spot.
Italian Alps – Finally Getting the Whole Wild Camping Thing
We came very steeply up and away from Lake Lecco into the Italian Alps. It was very hard on the old thighs but the views became more and more dazzling every hour. We had climbed all day and as it got to about five o’clock we came across a field that sloped upwards. Haydn went to investigate and came back down saying there was a perfect spot higher up but we would have to get up there. We took all the bags off the bikes and carried everything up separately. The only flat spot in the field was up high, protected by an old ruin and hedges. I set up the tent while Hayds went back down on a light, bag-less bike to find some water. I sat there looking at the view and filled up with this huge feeling of pride and excitement. This was what it was all about. This was the magic of being a wildling, of roaming around and finding secret places with rich treasures for the eyes and food for the soul. Later Haydn and I watched as a dark storm rolled into the valley below. I had never felt like I was above a storm, looking down at it. It was like watching theatre. We were both transfixed and smiling from ear to ear. This was what we had been searching for. This was why we were doing this.
The plan was to meet up with my family for the last week of August and beginning of September in Italy. They wanted a holiday and my Mum had found this amazing ‘Agriturismo’ place where they specialised in vegan/vegetarian food and organic wine and oil. We arranged to meet on the 28th August in a place called Solferino, south of Lake Garda.
What a strange and wonderful feeling it was to hold and be held by my Mum and sister and Dad again. The bond of whole life knowing and shared excitement at us getting this far – with the legs they had always known and yet had never been challenged like this before!
What a surreal and enormous lifestyle change that holiday was. In one day we had transformed from trampy nomad cyclist to holidaying tourist.
I felt almost embarrassed by how luxurious and heavenly this new environment was. How were our lives allowed to be quite so easy and delicious again? When so many others in Calais that we had met and fed and spoken with, so many people all over the world would never experience this. It had never felt so obviously unfair before.
Gliding in the clear water of the pool, eating the most exquisite food, laughing about ridiculous parts of journey so far. Slumping so readily into that gorgeous comfort of family that want to love and look after you. I felt painfully lucky and had moments of feeling ashamed of that luck. I had done nothing to deserve it. No matter how far I had cycled, no matter how uncomfortable it might have been, this kind of luxury now felt unjust. And yet, this was just what a treat was for my family. Before I had been blissfully oblivious to my extreme fortune. But now the blinkers were off and just as I could have moments of heavenly forgetfulness, sometimes a crashing sense of the rest of the world would fill me and make me distant.
The days slipped by so easily and then before I knew it, an intense anxiety set in about setting off again. My family left a day before we did and the spacious, luxurious apartment felt so strange and empty without them there. I shed a few tears when hugging them goodbye and that was the beginning of a two-day torrent. I just kept braking down crying. My anxiety felt enormous like it filled my whole body and my skin felt paper-thin, only just containing it and concealing it beneath the surface. My eyes became red and puffy from anxious sobbing. Haydn did his best to console me. I felt completely incapable of keeping myself together. I hadn’t really explained to my family quite how hard it had been for most of the time so far and how many times I thought I couldn’t carry on. All that had been left unspoken was coming out now in my floods.
As Haydn had predicted, I felt better once we had left. The anxiety mellowed once we had gotten out and were focused on our day-to-day lives on the road again. I was teaching myself over and over that even when you think you can’t – you CAN just keep keeping on.
I had never thought I was very strong. I had always known I was a very sensitive person to the world, outside and in, but I had assumed in the past that this meant I was a weak and fragile person. For a lot of my life so far, I had been. But leaving the beautiful gates that hid away that beautiful place where we had stayed with my family, that was the last time I cried with the thought that I was too weak to continue. That was the last time I doubted myself and what I was capable of. That was the shedding of a skin.
We cycled long days through the flatlands between Solferino and Trieste. It was a dull and hot comedown from the time spent with my family but we were both feeling strong enough not to complain about it. We felt the profoundness of our fortune and we weren’t going to be caught thinking otherwise for a second.
We stayed with a beautiful family in Trieste, our last stop in Italy. The husband, Alejandro, worked integrating and supporting refugees in Trieste. His wife, Irini had worked with refugees and was now a translator. They had a tiny, happy, very cute baby called Ines-Sophia. They had a tiny apartment but were hugely generous, relaxed people and we instantly fell in love with them. We happily would have stayed with them for a week but the wildness of the Balkans was calling.
Looking back from where I sit now, our time spent in Italy was a huge learning experience for us both. This country pushed us both to the outermost borders of our endurance limits and hammered home the extreme fortune that we are blessed with but have done nothing to deserve. Italy was a big surprise to us. We had visions of sailing through Italy, eating delicious food, getting a lovely golden tan and camping wherever we fancied in the cypress studded countryside. But it had not been like that at all. The beginning of Italy was when I thought I was going to quit. To pack it all on a plane and put two fingers up to the window as I flew home and away from the painful life we had found on the road. I am so grateful that I stayed. And strangely glad it was as hard as it was. It was a profound time of learning for me.
People say that you can be educated in the University of Life.
Italy was that for me.
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Briançon – we discovered – is a beautiful city nestled in the French Alps, very close to the border with Italy. The mountains surround you there like a fortress and the people who live there tend to embody the fearless outdoorsiness of wild mountain goats.
We had sent out a request a few days earlier on our cycling app, Warm Showers, to stay with a fellow cyclist and adventurer called Romain Auclair. He responded with the surprising news that he would also be leaving to cycle to New Zealand on that coming Sunday. We were gob-smacked. He said we could come and stay with him at his parents house as he had left his own place to save money before the trip.
We had a whirlwind – wonderful time from the moment we arrived. As soon as Romain heard that we were struggling with the derailleur on my bike (as it had been bent), he invited his friend Jean-Michelle over. Jean-Michelle, a small and very sprightly man, immediately began doing a thorough once over of my entire bike. I was overwhelmed. We had just arrived at a strangers house and someone was tinkering and fixing and rectifying my whole bike. Incredible.
We all sat down to dinner later, after I had to awkwardly explain to Romain that I was vegetarian and could only eat the sauce and couscous of his all day slow-cook lamb tagine. Painful. I sometimes wonder if it’s best to just announce my vegetarianism straight after my name. ‘Hi, I’m Molly, nice to meet you and I’m vegetarian.’ Might seem a bit odd perhaps … or a bit preachy … I need to come up with a plan as the world is only going to get more meaty the further East we get.
Anyway, Romain was very understanding and his parents were gorgeous people and made us feel very at home. That evening, after dinner, Romain drove us over to introduce us to the Hickey family and their guests. They were a hugely generous, vivacious English/French family and we thought the world of all of them from the get go. We all shared stories late into the night while drinking delicious wine and eating ice cream. I felt like we had accidentally stumbled into a parallel universe where we could experience all the things in life that we hadn’t been getting any of while on the bikes.
On the second day, Romain asked us if we wanted to go climbing. Haydn and I had mentioned that we loved bouldering in London. Which for those of you who don’t know, means climbing without a harness or ropes, using moulded holds on artificial walls that are never really high enough for you to fall and seriously hurt yourself. Oh, and the whole flooring of those climbing gyms is made of giant crash mats. Even when I had gotten quite good at monkeying around, I would sometimes get butterflies in my belly at the top of the not-so-tall climbing walls. But I never told anyone that I thought perhaps I was scared of heights and that somehow made it seem less important.
Romain drove us for about 30 minutes out of Briançon and when we parked and he said – So this is Via Ferrata. I assumed that was the name of the place, not of a type of harnessed, white knuckled, eyeball popping, cliff scaling. He pulled three harnesses out of the boot.
We walked very uphill for another 30 minutes, on a narrow rough path zigzagging up a steep hillside between dry, exotic looking trees. I was out of breath in seconds and could feel my poor over-used hamstrings and calves screaming at me – What the hell are you doing! Lie down right now!
Anxiety began brewing as we walked higher and higher. Knots where being tied in my intestines. What were we going to be climbing up here?
Dom, a lovely member of the Hickey clan and his two pilot friends, Tom and Tom, had come for this outing too. Tom, Tom and Dom all laughed about having drunk too much the night before and seemed very relaxed about the whole situation, so I tried to absorb some of their nonchalance.
We came to a flatter area where the path stopped and I looked directly at what we were about to climb. My heart pounded and my head span as I looked upwards at a completely vertical rock face. I couldn’t even see the top. Just flat, straight rock that disappeared into sky.
I felt like bottling it. I quickly thought through all my escape options. I could say – Sorry I don’t feel well – I’m going to wait in the car at the bottom … for a few hours … until you guys are done. Oh god. Very boring. Maybe just run screaming down the hill. Before I could think of any other options everyone else was pretty much ready to start. I fumbled around with my harness.
Romain quickly realised I had no idea what I was doing and showed me through how to attach the harness to the safety wires drilled into the rock. He said to use my previous climbing knowledge and know that if I use the harness right it will keep me safe if I fall. I asked him if there were hand-holds the whole way up and he shook his head. No, there are just these metal rings coming out of the rock where the rock is flat and where there is climbable rock there are no holds. Don’t undo both clips at the same time – undo one – clip it onto the next section of safety wire and then move the other clip across. And try not to fall. Just use the clips right and you won’t die.
His words were ringing in my ears as we began to climb, one after the other, up the cliff. Attaching our harnesses with the carabiners onto the safety wire and using the metal hand-holds to pull ourselves up. Oh god, oh god. I tried to pretend I was really relaxed about it, most of all to try to convince myself not to freak out.
We got very high, very quickly. I don’t know if this much adrenaline had ever been flowing through my system. I felt a razor-sharp awareness take over me, the kind that electrifies you with extreme focus when you think you might die any second.
I tried not to look down. But it was like telling a child not to ‘press the red button’. I glimpsed down between my feet. About 50 meters of vertical rock slid away beneath me and then jagged rocks and trees sat far beneath. Another adrenaline shot was injected into my bloodstream. I was really high up. And the higher up we climbed the windier it got. My arms started to tremble slightly. I didn’t look down after that. Two hours and a few near death experiences later, we reached the top.
I felt elated. On top of the world – literally. I had conquered my fear and managed to focus my mind and body enough to get to the top of the climb. I couldn’t really believe it.
Later we were invited to a barbecue at the Hickey’s place. Some friends of Romain’s drove us there and we arrived at an incredible house that looked out at the mountains and over the valley.
We had a wonderful, giddy night of conversations, sumptuous alcohols and endless-divine food. We did feel slightly like imposters as Romain was having his own leaving do at his house so he wasn’t there with us, as our vital social bridge, but hey ho we were getting used to feeling like lemons. The Hickey’s were very generous people and all brilliant company so they made us feel very welcome.
Late that night, I looked out at the spectacular view from the elegant sweeping balcony of their palatial house. It suddenly occurred to me that I felt slightly out-of-place amongst all the abundant luxury of the evening. I felt guilty and over indulgent and almost ashamed that I was allowed to enjoy these extravagances and other people were living such a tough existence. The rawness of how unfair the world is hit me. It was like a doorway had now been opened in my mind that couldn’t be pushed shut again whenever it was convenient.
Working in Calais had made me so sharply aware of my extreme fortune due to my place of birth and comfortable upbringing in a peaceful and safe place. I had done nothing to deserve any of these things, when I was not yet an idea, but they have shaped me and will continue to shape my life. I have come to realise that it is hugely thanks to this random hand of chance, that I can choose to cycle around the world and that the thought of it even entered my mind as a possibility.
That night was the first time I realised I had become an outsider to the life I was accustomed to. A life of enormous luxury compared to so many. I have realised that it is so valuable to step outside of our ‘normality’ as it is only from there that we can gain some kind of perspective. I feel the swell of gratitude growing in me everyday spent on the road. How very lucky I was and am.
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Into the Alps
After a few days in Grenoble to prepare ourselves we set off into the Alps.
The first very steep gradient we faced was on a busy main road. It was the only road, the one we would be on for the two-day climb, so we had to grit and bear it. Cars and trucks rushed past. I felt my slight and feeble body. I felt my cumbersome, awkward, wheeled steed underneath me, heavier than ever.
I could feel my thighs quaking like two jellies under this kind of pressure. They hadn’t worked like this yet. They hadn’t had to push and pump, over and over, carrying the weight of my body, my bike and my bags uphill like this before. This was the defining moment – thighs of jelly were going to be painfully transformed and hardened.
We had never cycled as slowly as we did for the time that it took to climb the 2058 meters to Col du Lautaret. We were forced to take a new approach, adopt a new kind of patience and perseverance. To add to this, at the end of the first day we both had food poisoning, turning us inside out and fogging our minds. So after one days rest, we had to face the second day of climbing to the top feeling more wobbly than ever. The bikes had never felt so close to our heaving chests. We had never wanted to abandon all our worldly goods so much before. Our possessions now directly equalled our pain.
However, the pain soon became justified. The endless climbing was gradually revealing a spectacular landscape that I had never experienced before. Slowly, all around us, after each bend in the road, the mountains were growing around us. Revealing themselves in all their glory.
The mountains made me shrink in size. I was suddenly a tiny, almost invisible, speck of a human. A minuscule creature brimming with a huge delight and deep gratitude to be among these giants. To be in the presence of the mountains was to know ones place in the grand game of life and know ones scale in the enormity and grandeur of its landscape. The mountains made me feel like nothing but a humble worshiper of the earth. This was new.
Ascending and descending the majestic mountains of the French Alps was a metamorphic process for me. I began the ascent unsure of myself and my physical capabilities. Doubtful. I began afraid and in awe of the challenge ahead. I came rocketing down from those mountains, on the terrifying switchbacks, still in awe of the beauty and harshness of the landscape but filled with a new feeling of myself. A new, swelling pride in my body and my determination. My tenacity had been set alight in that landscape.
I have learnt during my time on planet earth so far that I have a heart of jelly. I used to think I was mainly made of jelly actually. I feel things very deeply and intensely and have no moat or castle walls to protect this softness and fragility from the outside world. I still have and will always have a tender heart of jelly. But at least now, I can truly say, I own a pair of steel-like thighs.
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So we stupidly decided to cycle to Grenoble, late in the day, after a stunning but very exhausting hike up into the mountains to the West of Le Bourget du Lac with Alexis’ family.
Haydn and I still felt a deep awkwardness about staying in other people space, and not wanting to over-stay our welcome, we said we would set off on the seventy-five kilometre cycle at 4pm. Alexis was hitchhiking back to Grenoble, where he lived and studied, that evening. We didn’t want to be the two hangers-on in his parents home without him there. So even though our muscles were aching and our limbs were wobbling we packed up our bikes and set off towards Grenoble.
It was not surprising really that sixty kilometres and four hours later I was sat on the curb blubbering. It felt like this had happened too many times now. I was bored of sitting on curbs sobbing with exhaustion – it wasn’t what I wanted this experience to be – a painfully repetitive record of feeling physically destroyed and pathetic – literally having nothing left to give. I looked up at Haydn, who had also reached his limit for the day and said – Maybe I’m just not cut out for this. Maybe I’m too sensitive and weak and just not strong enough for this life. Maybe you have to be superwoman to live like this, maybe you need to have endless energy and positivity and physical and mental determination that I just can’t grasp. Maybe I’m just too soft?
We sat there on the side of the road, with the fag butts and bottle caps, questioning the whole project we had begun. We had suddenly lost all faith in ourselves. It was quickly disintegrating along with our willpower and energy. It all just seemed too big and too difficult. The enormity of the whole thing was crashing in on me. I wanted to be a different person. A braver, stronger, fitter person. A person who could do this without crumbling.
We knew we had made a mistake setting off so late but it felt like more than that. It felt like we weren’t learning quickly enough and our desire to be polite and fit in with other people’s plans (which you have to do to some extent) was overriding our instincts of what we were physically capable of. We argued and cried and shouted for a while.
Then we both went very quiet and after a time of quietness we both picked up our bodies, exhausted, hungry and deflated and carried them on to Grenoble.
We arrived at 10pm. Alexis greeted us with his wonderful warmth and asked why we were questioning ourselves so much. We sat on the pavement outside his flat. I lay on the ground and looked up at the bright stars through gaps in the thick grey clouds.
Alexis reflected on his cycle travels with his parents when he was little and explained that of course you have to make mistakes to learn. To learn about your own capabilities and about this kind of life. He told us to not be so hard on ourselves and that if we really wanted this, we would learn and grow into the people we wanted to be. He gave us a beer, a shower, fed us vegetarian lasagne, and let us crash out on a bed in the living room. What a hero.
We had a gorgeous few days in Grenoble. We met Alexis’ housemates and friends who were all hugely intelligent and charming. On the last night we went out for a beer and stumbled upon a big crowd listening to psychedelic live music in a park. I had a familiar, swelling feeling of electricity in my body. I realised in that moment how much I had missed moving my body, not for exercise or cycling, but for music and movement itself. It was bliss just dancing and forgetting everything for a while. The world melted away around me. I realised then the true importance of dance. People of all ages should be able to dance and feel free of all worries and plans for a time. To just listen, completely absorbed, moment to moment, in letting the music change and shape the body into a responsive instrument. Not just flesh and blood but alive in sound.
Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity/
After buying some mini mustards we decided this area of France just wasn’t doing it for us. It was burning holes in our pockets and the flat agricultural land wasn’t making up for the fast disappearing, hard-saved cash. We wanted to see a new landscape. We needed to see a landscape that justified this strange new life we were living. We got a train 240km from Dijon to Chambéry.
I sat and stared out of the window for a long time. It was so satisfying to watch the uninspiring scenery flying past on the other side of the glass. This wonderful machine was shooting us through the landscape that we were so bored of. It was disappearing behind us now and now and now. Sat comfortable in a French train seat. Eating a morning croissant. A train had never felt so fast before. Never felt so luxurious.
A few days earlier we had sent a request to stay with a guy, Alexis, in Grenoble. He explained that he wasn’t there at that time but suggested that we come and stay with him at his parents house not far from Grenoble, in Le Bourget-du-Lac. He explained that his Mother and Father were cycle tourists and that they had just come back from their most recent (yes, this was not the only one!) world tour from their home in Eastern France to Japan. We were amazed. What an incredible coincidence. Could these be the cycle touring parents we had dreamed of?
Alexis came to meet us at the train station in Chambéry. From the first warm handshake, I knew we were going to get on. Sometimes the openness and kindness of certain people just emanates from them, like a good-human-glow.
We squeezed all the bags and bikes into the back of the family car and he drove us to his house. We ate a wonderful lunch, sat outside under the shade of a fig tree. We met his older sister, Mylise, who had been a national runner but due to an injury had changed course into studying environmentally friendly engineering. Alexis was studying medicine and was an accomplished uni-cyclist and slackliner in his spare time. His parents, Bridgette and Nicholas, told us that they had done three world bike tours. One when they were in their twenties through Europe and Africa. One when all the children were small but old enough to ride on the back of a parent-led tandem or on their own small bike. And the most recent one, to Japan, they had only returned a few months ago. We were sat at the table, jaws on the floor. Woooow. What an incredible family. And we hadn’t even met his younger brother, he was probably a neuroscientist or an astronaut or a famous musician or something.
We asked them all the questions we had been burning to find answers to. It was so interesting to meet a family in which the concept of cycling to New Zealand was not strange or scary, just another venture out into the world like so many they had done before. It turned a light on in my head about taking a new approach. A more relaxed, less anxious approach that could change everything.
Later Alexis took us to the edge of Lac du Bourget. A vast and beautiful lake. He set up a very advanced slack line between two pontoons, crossing over the deep water. Haydn stripped off and watched Alexis perch on the top of a white pole over the water. He began walking across, making it look easy, arms waving above his head to counterweight his body. I lay my towel on the ground and took in the scene. Haydn tried over and over again. Walking a little way, falling in to the water, clambering back up the metal poles of the pontoon to try again. I was very happy to observe this spectacle and not participate. I felt the tiredness heavy in my limbs. We stayed there until the sun set and the water shimmered deep indigo.
In this moment a wonderful feeling washed over me. I felt far from home and amazed at what series of events and coincidences had happened to mean that I was here right now but as if there was nowhere else in the world I should be.
A magical and mysterious rightness of being.
Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity/
The Tour de France was quite a spectacle. A kind of strange, cycling-entertainment interlude in our week off the bikes to wait for Haydn’s arm to feel better.
The bright hot high street of Chatillion-sur-Seine came alive with people who seemed hungry for free amusement.
Young people who seemed to have taken a large dose of cocaine were strapped onto strange vehicles that had been made into huge three-dimensional advertising campaigns. The vans looked like they were straight out of a cartoon.
A leg of ham car, a giant size box of McCain’s chips gliding down the road, a chicken van, a car that was just an enormous tyre, Vittel water bottle cars. They all drove past and threw tiny, customised plastic bits of tat to the eager crowd. The crowd was colourful. It looked like everyone had made an effort for today. It was a day people had waited for. I picked up a little key-ring from the balcony of the hotel where I was watching from. One of the enthusiastic distributors had managed to get one up here with a dramatic arm gesture. It had a small, puffy plastic logo of an estate agents on it. Why did anyone want this stuff? Grown men and women were grabbing, squabbling over the freebies on the streets. Children clawing at each other. Mothers clutching large shopping bags in which they would stash their hoardings. What would people do with it all when they got home? I couldn’t get my head around it. . I could see Haydn down on the street photographing the crowd. Wanting to record this bizarre event in pictures.
A meat advertising van drove past and a woman in fully branded outfit and cap threw miniature wrapped pepperonis to the crowd. They screamed and cheered wildly. Wow. I really didn’t expect it to be like this. Some of the vans drove really fast and the distributors didn’t look enthused at all unloading their tat in handfuls to the crowd, looking board while their bodies swayed with the movement of the vehicle around the curve of the round about. A sea of hands reaching up to the sky, to the distributors, pleading for something to be thrown their way. It was all very surreal.
Then the advertising vans became less and less frequent in their parade down the street. Everyone grew quiet and began to get out sandwiches and snacks. They knew the routine. They had enough time for lunch now before the leading group of cyclists would be in sight. I sipped my drink and watched the crowds. In twenty minutes the first whoops and shouts were heard. People flooded back onto the balcony of the hotel and the crowds in the street below were jumping and buzzing again. I could feel myself getting excited now too. It was infectious. The first three cyclist rounded the curve of the high street and the crowds flanking the road went wild. Children, old men and women, teenagers and parents all shouting encouragement and jumping up and down with excitement. The three cyclists were pumping up and down over their slick bicycles. Stood up on their pedals – meaty thighs glistening – faces serious. Male athletes with coloured lycra bodies. They seemed oblivious to the screaming crowds. Just powering forwards and cycling on. They passed by in seconds, within a steady head movement left to right. The crowd still cheering when they’d passed. We all waited for the peloton to arrive. Waited. Another strange clam descended in between three storms of excitement. A single child screamed, probably overwhelmed by the tension and madness of the strange event. Then it came – the big group was visible sweeping up the road. Lots of bodies tightly packed, moving like a herd of gracefully linked animals. Moving as one. The crowed bellowed louder. They swept past and then fanned out into two sections to loop the roundabout at the top of the road.
And just like that, they were gone. It was over. Everyone packed up their things and left. The high street was empty again, with just a few scattered freebies on the pavement to show for what had been.
Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity/
We were stuck in the pretty average town of Chatillon-sur-Seine (just north of Dijon) for a whole week. Which might not sound long to you, reader, but when you’re actually just waiting for seven days with not much else to do, except read, eat, sleep and be mindful, it feels like a pretty long time.
Rewind a few days and we had cycled 100km and then 85km in two days which for us at that stage was a lot. The following day we had tried to make things easier for ourselves by cycling less but slept in as we were so tired which meant we set off in the heat of mid-morning. Big mistake. We decided we would wild camp so we didn’t have the stress of trying to get to a campsite that evening but stumbled across a very wild, basic looking campsite by lunchtime and decided that was enough for us as we were very tired. The campsite owner was a funny little man, whose reception, office and small library was all inside his rusty old white van.
The air of this wild little campsite was alive with mosquitoes as there was a wide, still lake at the bottom. I had an almost completely sleepless night, tossing and turning, very sweaty and my whole body on fire with bites. We knew we should have just dealt with the mozzies and stayed an extra day to rest but the thought was so unappealing and our minds were so frazzled by the heat and lack of sleep that we packed up and left the following morning. I was fantasizing about somewhere cooler and more comfortable for a proper rest, a rest that didn’t involve our tent, a rest that somehow excluded this huge heat. All I could think about was a large, clean, white linen bed. So simple, so endlessly inviting. It was the holy grail in my mind, when I thought of it angels began to sing. I had to get there, I had to get in it. I had to lie in it and be as clean as it.
We cycled very wearily to Chatillion-sur-Seine, which was not very far away, but all uphill.
When we got there, we collapsed into the first café/restaurant we found and gulped down a huge jug of water while still sweating profusely. God it was embarrassing to be around people who had obviously washed that morning and not then had to poo behind a roadside hedge and cycle uphill for an hour and a half carrying 40 kilos and catch half of France’s insect population on your suncreamed arms and shins. I felt so utterly and completely grimey. I had never felt so highly aware and appalled by my own appearance and smell. I was amazed people didn’t stare more. We must have been quite a sight.
We looked online to find a cheap Air B&B in the town or a cheap hotel. Ended up sat in a scrubby little park for ages waiting for the apparently “instant book” apartment to be available. We were waiting on the host to respond and answer our prayers. She didn’t. I rang Air B&B. They said there had been a fault on the website and that the place wasn’t available. But he gave me a voucher for $20 on my next booking. I clenched my teeth and thanked the very upbeat Australian Air B&B guy for his help. The sun had moved across the sky. We quickly checked the hotels we had been considering on my phone. No! Suddenly they were all booked! WHAT! I quickly checked the more expensive ones – nope – all booked. WHAT? HOW? We decided to cycle to a few of them and check if they could squeeze us in. We thought we would be lucky. I stumbled just getting my leg back over the bike again. Fuck – I was so exhausted.
I was having a struggle coordinating my brain and my body. They were not communicating well – they were having a stand-off. My brain was high on adrenaline and espresso – knowing we had to find somewhere to rest as quickly as possible. My body was not responding in the same way – it felt like a dead weight, like a deaf, heavy bag of sand. Not rested, not happy, not wanting to get back on the bicycle. I could feel my body shouting NO, I’ve had ENOUGH! My body was having a tantrum, turning to jelly, the sand was being let out of the bag, my energy draining away, every second, through the soles of my feet. I had to gather myself up. Like a mother would a child. Cradle myself and say – not long now – we’ll find somewhere to rest. Not much further – then you can rest.
We cycled from hotel to hotel. All booked. The Tour de France was coming through the town in a few days. Oh amazing! Maybe we could see it! Wait no – fuck, fuck, fuck – that means everywhere will be booked up! I got to the point where I just had to get off the bike, shaking and slump in the shade for a while. Head rested on knees. Haydn could see I was crumbling. He valiantly cycled off to try to find somewhere – anywhere. He returned breathless saying there was a really dodgy looking place for 50 euros a night. I sat for a while with my head in my hands. We couldn’t afford that – but if we just stayed one night … The heat and exhaustion swimming through my mind, fuddeling my tracks of thoughts. Making them swim in circles, round and round, shouting demands for sleep, food, water, more sleep. I clapped my hands together. OK – I don’t think we have another option. Let’s go.
We cycled there and after much cyclical and completely beffudling, language barred, conversations with the owner we collapsed into a room that looked remarkably like a room in a shabby hospital. Not what I had fantasized about at all but remarkably apt for our current state.
Unfortunately it was about to get even more apt.
Somehow in the night, in the bed that was shaped like a spoon, Haydn managed to trap a nerve in his shoulder.
He woke in agonising, searing pain and it took me a while to realise what was going on. We realised a few hours later with no improvement that we were in a bit of a pickle. I couldn’t move all our bags and the bikes on my own, up the huge hill to the nearest campsite. My body was still having a tantrum and I had to respect it. I didn’t really have a choice.
So we had to stay in the hotel for longer. Very expensive for a spoon bed in a hospital room.
After one more day and night of rest the demands of my unhappy body were getting quieter. I moved everything to the campsite at the top of the hill. I felt like Superwoman. I cycled my bike with all its luggage up the 20% gradient, spoke to the receptionist to say I would be leaving my bike in his care for fifteen minutes and then I ran back down the hill and pushed Haydn’s loaded bike up too. Haydn walked beside me with his arm in a homemade sling. The quicker he healed the quicker we could get on the road again, so I had to do everything for a while. We had to stay at the campsite until his arm was fully healed as life on the road is so demanding of physical fitness and ability.
We knew we wanted to speed through these agricultural flatlands of France that we weren’t really enjoying.
It was becoming expensive and it didn’t really feel different enough from the landscape of home. We were hungering after a new landscape, after a view that made this effort worthwhile. A view that made the nomad spirit come alive with wonder for the world and treat the eyes and heart with a taste of the wildness to come.
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We were in northern France, still north of Paris. Heading towards Arras. These were the lands of endless wheat and barley.
We had felt for a while that we just weren’t getting it. We kept asking ourselves consequential, intimidating questions like – Are we the right people to do this kind of project? Can we really enjoy this lifestyle or are we just not tough enough? Why do we keep getting to the point where Haydn is screaming off into the woods and I’m sat on the curb weeping with exhaustion? Surely this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be?
We definitely felt like right moron softies most of the time. Making a fantastic mess of this cycle touring malarkey.
We were finding it very difficult and strange to cycle at all with so much weight. We suspected (and had been told by a human-scales at a bike shop) that we were each carrying between 35 and 40 kilos. The heat was like an ever-present, dangerous animal that we had to try to negotiate with everyday. We weren’t sleeping well most nights, no matter how tired we were, as our tent was so humid and sticky. It all just seemed like a lot of very hard work and not enough fun.
This was the awkward, painful time of learning. Learning how to live a new life.
We were trying our best to stay calm and persistent but everyday felt like a gigantic effort. Most poignantly in the mornings and evenings. I think it was a routine neither of us immediately cherished. To wake up at the crack of dawn, eat and drink something bleary-eyed, pack down the tent and put everything you own back on to the bikes. Then usually you realise you have forgotten something you need in the bottom of a bag, take everything out again – find the blasted, forgotten thing and then re-pack everything back in again, perhaps repeat this rigmarole a few more times. Then finally after a hell load of faffing; set off.
The setting off part was often my favourite time of day. Especially, I might add, if it was a downhill or flat road to start the day. The events of the day and night before tend to melt away as the morning breeze fills your lungs and strokes past your face and body. A golden moment. A gorgeous temperature. A perfect instant of apprehension and excitement about what this day might bring. It might be the best day yet for some presently unknown reason. A multitude of different, ripe possibilities all ahead and waiting. Hovering in the ether. The feeling of moving onwards, forwards. A deep feeling of freedom and anticipation.
But this was a very fleeting feeling. An ephemeral, precious joy.
We wanted some kind, all-knowing, all-experienced cycle touring parents to be waiting at the gates of the next campsite, or around the next bend in the road. To take us under their wings and explain how wrong we had gotten it so far and how we could make it so much easier for ourselves if only we knew these few simple rules …
But they didn’t seem to materialise around the next corner so we had to continue to make mistakes and find our own way … the hard way.
We had been having enormous ups and downs. Huge highs where we felt like we were finally getting the hang of it and then massive lows, dribbling on the side of the road when we realised that we definitely weren’t. We would both have a meltdown about every few days and then with a big cry and a chat have an epiphany about our latest plan of action.
These are the things we discovered:
We were not getting enough rest – day or night. Cycling too much with not enough breaks or rest days. We needed to learn to pace ourselves – stop rushing from place to place – and missing all the good bits!
We were not eating the right fuel to feed these cycling machines (our bodies). We had been eating lots of carbohydrates and sugars and not enough vitamins and minerals. We had to make sure we had enough energy to cook a good feast in the evening to support our bodies. We needed veg, veg, fruit, a big sprinkling of salt for all that was being sweated out and then some more veg.
Feeling the pressure to wild camp every night to save money was not doing us any good in this part of the world. We learnt that we didn’t have to wild camp all the time. There are parts of the world that make wild camping very difficult and stressful. Having a campsite for the end of the day can be a really good goal and when it is extremely hot, having a shower at the end of a very long sweaty day can be the difference between loving what you’re doing and absolutely hating it.
Positivity is the key. If you expect the Earth and its people to provide you with what you need, you will be far more receptive to finding it for yourself.
We tried our best to apply these findings to our daily lives on the road but this was far easier said than done.
However we did seem to finally be finding our cycle touring legs (and minds) very gradually. Mistake by mistake, day by day, week by week.
We had cycled a long, hot but productive day on the road and were thinking about where we might be able to set up camp for the night. It was getting towards 5pm and we were on a fairly busy road linking one small agricultural town to another. We decided to explore a densely forested area, straight off the road, just outside the town of Bouvigny-Boyeffles. We left our bikes for a moment and wondered up the steep path. The trees were thin and tightly packed and we soon realised the steep gradient of the hillside would make camping impossible.
When we came back down the path a tall, muscular, bald man was waiting for us. He had pulled over in his car, the door left ajar, and was approaching Haydn – the man said – Are you looking for somewhere to stay? Haydn looked at the man and then at me – what should he reply? What was this mans agenda? Was he the owner of the land? Haydn replied – Yes we are actually. The man replied immediately – You can stay at my house if you like – I have a nice flat bit of garden you can camp on. Come on you can follow me in my car, it’s just back down the hill and into the little town, not far at all. Haydn started to speak but the man was already walking back to his car.
I looked at Haydn, he looked at me, he said – What do you reckon? Good idea or bad idea?
I thought for a second. I looked at the man. The back of his head, his posture, his walk. Trying to analyse him. Our time in Calais had filled me with such a glowing hope for human beings. I said – I think we have to trust people until proven otherwise.
Also our other options were looking pretty dire so I was hoping this was a kind angel sent to save us from a night wild camping in a lay-by. I was just hoping that this kind of trust would have a happy ending so I could relay it as an example story to ease my dear mother and father into the idea of us staying with complete strangers we’d met on the road.
We followed his car back down the hill and into the village. When we pulled into his driveway a smiling woman, two smiling children and an excitedly wriggling dog greeted us. Dominique (we learnt was the name of this Angel man) introduced us to his family. His wife Maria; a wonderfully warm Spanish woman. His son Louis, of about 13. His daughter Celia who was perhaps 10 and the dog, Jina.
Dominique walked us down to the end of their garden and showed us where we could put our tent. He suggested we could sleep in their campervan if we preferred. We said the tent was fine but thanked him all the same and began to set up our tent with the sweet little dog playfully running around our legs.
Maria came and offered us a shower in the house, she said she was cooking tortilla and asked if we would like to eat with them. OH we had been brought to heaven! I was going to trust scary looking bald men from now on – without hesitation!
We had a gorgeous evening with many broken, interesting conversations (mainly thanks to Dominique’s very good English and google translate) trying to find out about each other, lots of laughter, delicious food and then a long session of basketball with the two kids after dinner.
We went to bed feeling so lucky to have been found by this wonderful family. Maybe this was the way of things to come? Perhaps we needed to consider approaching people and just asking outright to camp in their gardens. Surely the likelihood of people asking us was minute but somehow it had happened! What a kind man and what a gorgeous family. They had reassured us again that people could be so generous and caring to total strangers and that perhaps we should be a little less timid in reaching out ourselves and asking for help when we need it.
The question was – did we have the nerve?
Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity/
When we left Calais, we were emotionally and physically exhausted.
Love has a tendency of doing this to you, as I’m sure you know.
When we left Calais a heat wave blistered northern France.
Cycling was intensely hot, incredibly tiring and deeply stressful for a myriad of reasons.
I will just relay the events of one particular day to give you a taster.
I call it:
‘Disaster Day Dans Le Soleil’
We woke up at 5am in a campsite to eat a banana and some biscuits. 24 degrees. We packed down the tent slowly in the fog of sleep and watched as the sun rose over the horizon and the heat began to burn the dew of the morning away.
We set off at around 8.30am, following a rough path next to a canal. By 10am we were drenched with sweat. It was pushing 30 degrees. The sun was on our side of the canal and the luxurious shade was on the other side of the water. When we came to a bridge we decided to swap sides to try to get our hot bodies into that blissful looking darkness.
The path looked a little rougher but we didn’t think too much of that at the time.
The shade was attractive enough not to notice.
An hour later and it was 35 degrees and we appeared to be in a very narrow, dense jungle. We were pushing our bikes and it was taking all our effort just to move them forward through all the thick vegetation. This vegetation mainly consisted of waist-high, two foot wide plants with plump, waxy leaves that stuck out horizontally. These exotic, strange-looking plants grew right in the centre of the rock path. There was also the joys of huge quantities of stinging nettles and head-high sticky grasses. On one side of us was dense forest leading god-knows-where and on the other side was the canal, looking more enticing by the minute. But as we slowly trudged further and further down the jungle path we began realising our surroundings were fantastically infested with all number of biting insects. They seemed to be attracted by our sweat. We had come too far to go back. We didn’t think we could even turn our bikes around with so little room. It was taking all our strength and patience just to push the bikes forwards and frequently slap our bodies wherever we felt a sting. We had to keep going.
The heat seemed enormous and overwhelming, constantly growing in intensity.
We finally passed through the jungle path after much swearing at plants and insects. The path then turned into a new kind of hell without a bridge in sight. The ground, now with no plants to bind it, had turned to a sort of smooth, white clay. It was the slipperiest stuff I had ever encountered on a bike. I fell over – bike and all – three times. Each time grazing a different part of my body with pedals or cassette. One time I had to grip onto the wooden bank to avoid falling straight into the canal.
We finally got off the hell path and found a small village at midday. We picked up the usual bread, cheese, avocado and tomatoes. I was already getting very tired of this diet. We found a park and ate joylessly in the shade for a while, inspecting our bites and rashes. I lay down and looked up at the trees moving against the flat blue sky. Haydn said maybe we should carry on if we were going to get to where we had planned. I tried to stifle the tears back that I could feel bubbling in my chest. I really, desperately did not want to get back on the bike. We tried to leave and set off cycling again but once we were back to the main road I just sat on the curb and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I was just hating it. It was so hot I felt completely delirious. So did Haydn. All I wanted to do was sleep. We went back to the shade of the park where we had eaten lunch and decided to sleep there longer until it got a bit cooler. From here it just got hilarious.
I woke up from sleep desperate for a wee and quickly scanned around for anywhere I could go. There were a big group of young Polish men hanging around a bench near by so I stumbled up still half asleep and grabbed my Sheewee. I tried to hide behind a tree, fumbling around, still feeling like I was in a dream. I got the angle of the Sheewee wrong and completely soaked my cycling shorts with piss. I felt so humiliated and suddenly intensely angry about this whole experience being such a disaster and how much I was hating today and wondering why on earth I was putting myself through this. It felt like a strange nightmare or a punishment. A very hot, extended, self-propelled punishment. A punishment that I had worked my ass off for two years to scrimp and save the money for. What by the great beard of Zeus was I doing here in this mangy park in some obscure, beyond average town in northern France with mild heat stroke, covered in insect bites and wearing soaking wet piss shorts!
I lay on the ground and my chest started heaving with sobs. What are we doing Hayds? I kept asking him through my sobs – Why are we doing this? He rubbed my back and just said one word. One word that made all this mess, all our efforts and mistakes and pain and discomfort seem to have a purpose;
Please donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity
All I can really do is tell you to go. Go to Calais. Go to that warehouse and get stuck in, in whatever way you can. It’s hard work but that is the real richness of it. There is a good reason for working so hard – perhaps the best reason you have ever had.
Don’t think about it for too long. Don’t question whether you can be bothered or have the money to get the ferry, or whether it’ll fit in with your plans. Just go. Meet all the volunteers there, meet the old ones and the young ones, the ones staying for a weekend or a week or the ones that have made their lives there and have no plans to leave. I guarantee you will fall in love with one of them, if not accidentally all of them. Meet the people who run it, day in – day out, quietly, with determination of titanium and with so much love it can’t help being gloriously infectious.
Go meet those people – they will meet your best expectations of human beings and human doings.
Donate here: www.cycleforlove.com/our-charity
It is very difficult to start this section – it feels almost impossible to describe and sum up my time working in Calais into a neat little blog post. It wasn’t a neat or little experience. It was one of the most intense and engaging experiences of my life to date.
I wish I could write in great detail about all the organisations collaborating at the Calais warehouse. There are many and they are all brilliant at what they do. However, during our time in Calais, Haydn and I, were mainly working for RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen). This is the organisation that feeds all the displaced people in Calais, in different locations, around the clock, every single day without fail. While I was working at the warehouse the number of daily meals being prepared and distributed rose from 1,300 to 2000.
We initially thought we would stay at the warehouse for one week, we ended up staying for one month and a half.
But on my first day at the warehouse I was clueless to this and just walked up to the food preparation tables where the music was thumping and offered my hands up to the work.
An hour into onions and it was the conversations across the tables that took my mind away from systematic cutting and peeling and onto what a mind-alteringly incredible place this was. Every person that I spoke to had an openess and a compassion about them that delighted and enchanted me. Here we were, all these strangers doing a fairly mundane task and everyone wanted to find out about the person next to them with the same curiosity, humbleness and generosity of spirit. It sounds so simple but the quality of the human beings at that warehouse in Calais is really something else. And on my first day at the prep table, I had only seen the tip of the iceberg.
I couldn’t help looking up from my onions to the kitchen area, where a line of vast stainless steel pots sat bubbling away on top of burners. The chefs seemed to be stirring what was in the pots with huge metal paddles, a metre long or more. I saw people soaking and then washing huge quantities of rice in the corner. They looked like they were sieving for precious metals with huge sieves to strain the liquid away. But I would soon learn it was each grain of rice that was precious – this was the key – the daily staple. The special saving grain.
Those in the kitchen seemed to be the people who knew what they were doing. The longterm volunteers who knew the true grit of this fight to feed those in need. It was they who were the integral cogs in the wonderous RCK machine. I could see the strain and dedication and enormous love it took, to keep this process running everyday, revolving and turning out the enormous daily quantities of delicious, nutritious food.
It wasn’t too long before me and Haydn were the inexperienced cogs in the kitchen. But we learnt as quickly as we could and after a week or two of shadowing the long-termers we were making rice. From working out vast quantities, to soaking, to washing, to choosing and tempering huge amounts of wonderful spices in giant pans, getting timings and temperatures right, fluffing the rice with huge plastic paddles and dishing the steaming hot rice with plastic plates into industrial gastros for distribution. This was and is done by one or two longer term volunteers – twice a day – every day. And that’s just the rice! There is also a vast amount of delicious curry and salad to be prepared and distributed every day.
Just to give you an idea, while we were there, 200kg of rice was being cooked and distributed everyday. That’s 1400kg every week. And 6,000kg every month. That means that just while Haydn and I were at the warehouse, give or take a few grains, 9,000kg of rice was cooked and distributed.
RCK is a constant production line, all day, everyday. In the morning you cook for that days lunch and prepare for the evening meal and in the afternoon you’re preparing food for the following day. Round and round the cycle goes. So many loving hands needed to keep the constant process going.
The love seems to burn even stronger and brighter when resistance is offered and the most severe resistance to RCK’s enormous efforts comes from the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite), or for anyone who hasn’t encountered them (lucky you); privately hired intimidation services. The CRS in Calais are funded by the UK. Go figure.
While we were in Calais, at a normal lunchtime distribution on a scorching hot day, the CRS, armed with guns, tear gas and pepper spray, physically stopped us (hippies in aprons) from giving out either food or water to homeless people who had experienced some of the worst that the world can throw at anyone. Even writing this sentence now baffles me. Read it again.
There came a point after about one month working for RCK where I felt I wanted to explore other areas of the warehouse and try to offer some of my other skills to the place. I did a big mural on some wooden clothes hoppers that a friend and I had built. I helped the incredible every-job handyman with some basic carpentry and his eternal attempts to keep rodents out of the stored food. I sorted clothes and blankets and met the wonderful donations warehouse fairies. Every new job brought with it a new set of connections, smiles and stories with fantastic, committed, selfless people.
All of these different experiences had huge highs and lows and gradually became intensely tiring, day after day. But it’s the people at the warehouse that keep you coming back again and again. I came to the warehouse completely naive, thinking I was setting off on a big cycle to raise money for a grass-roots charity that had a warehouse in Calais. When leaving, I had to tear myself away from that warehouse and the people there, streaming with uncontrollable tears. I had fallen so in love with a new family of people who had filled a crevasse in my experience of the world. A crevasse I hadn’t known was there. I had met a family of people who loved the world and all that was in it just as much as I did. People who had enough massive love and dedication in themselves to offer something completely selfless and enormous, day in – day out. I had always thought that perhaps I didn’t have one, but here, I had found my tribe.
Please donate to RCK and help them to keep doing the incredible work they do everyday – refugeecommunitykitchen.com/donate-money/
We arrived at the warehouse on 5th May 2017.
We walked through the back streets of the Calais industrial zone with the four other volunteers from Sylvie’s and arrived at two tall, evergreen hedges with a high metal gate tucked into the middle. Fabio pushed open the gate and we all walked into the vast concrete courtyard space. Beyond the courtyard was the enormous, solid, oblong shape of the warehouse with a small square mouth opening in the centre. I looked around at the ramshackle buildings that formed the office spaces in the courtyard. One that stood out was made of wood panels of assorted size and shape, all painted bright yellow, seemingly for a sense of joyful overall cohesion. There were welcome signs written in colourful chalk on various blackboards. Mismatched tables and chairs collected in large groups – as if in conversation – were dotted around outside the offices. Plastic stools, canvas deck chairs, swiveling office chairs, long wooden benches, regal old upholstered armchairs, the lot. All out in all weathers. This place reminded me of some of my kitchens from university days in London. I felt at home already.
I was welcomed into one of the offices by Sarah – a gorgeous French ball of laughter – and was asked to read a form. It was to clarify I was in control of my person and anything that happened to me during the time working here was completely my responsibility. I asked Sarah with an eyebrow – what could possibly happen to me? She just smiled and told me to sign.
She walked with me into the warehouse and I tried to digest this overwhelming first impression while listening to what she was saying. This space was HUGE.
To the right was the inbuilt toilet block, the tea and coffee area with a long wooden table, offering breakfast pastries. Behind this was the infamous warehouse Charity Shop, full of ridiculous donations and mad-wonderous delights. I glimpsed full-length blue ball gowns, wet suits and multicoloured silk shirts. Straight in front of me was another square mouth opening into an adjoining warehouse behind. Sarah told me this was where all the donations were processed and housed until distributed. To the left of me was a large white inbuilt box that formed a changing room. Further right, flanking the walls and jutting into the space, were high stacked metal shelves holding huge quantities of rice, pulses, packaged foods and spices. At the very furthest left end of warehouse was the hub of the Refugee Community Kitchen. People were already gathering together around the metal prep tables, dressed in chefs blacks and gently bobbing to the loud bassy music that was thumping through the kitchen speakers.
Lots of people were walking around, getting tea and coffee, hugging, talking, joking, rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
I felt like I was at a festival. A kind of festival I had never been to before.
WOW. How to even begin …
I’ll just have to start at the beginning and see how this comes out …
Me and Haydn arrived at 11 o’clock at night at the front door of Sylvie’s house in Calais. After emailing the Help Refugees volunteers and asking for where to stay they suggested Sylvie’s place. We had cycled through the empty Calais streets at night – high residential tower block after tower block on either side of the road. I felt embarrassed it was so late and realised in this moment, stood on this doorstep, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Not of Sylvie, not of her house, or the warehouse where people worked, or of any people here and what they were doing day-to-day. We knocked on the door. It opened and stood there was a very petite, middle-aged woman with short grey hair and a wonderfully kind smile. She shook both our hands and then asked us quietly in perfect English to walk around to the back of the house with our bikes as the front door ‘didn’t work’. She then closed the door that seemed to work perfectly. We found out about that mystery later.
We pushed our bikes in through the back door and into her utility room come garage that was filled with recycling and bikes and household clutter. Sylvie gave us both a big hug. You know that feeling you get when you can just tell someone is a good egg? You don’t have to have any evidence – you just know. Sylvie was a good egg – a really good one – I could feel it. She looked at us seriously and said – Well done for coming here. Her earnestness was heart-warming but also made me anxious. What was this place going to be like?
She welcomed us into her small, chic kitchen and introduced us to the other volunteers staying with her. They were four young people, about our age, sat around the kitchen table. Rose, David, Fabio and Jack. An English-Parisian, a New Yorker, an Italian and an Alaskan. They were a wonderful bunch and we got talking to them straight away. I felt like we’d just walked into the best hostel I’d ever been to. We went to put our bags upstairs and when walking past the living room we saw two young children, a little girl and her older brother, sat on the sofa. Sylvie said for them to come and meet us and they shot up off the sofa and came to shake our hands. These were her children. This woman was brilliant.
We left the house at 8.30am the following morning after an evening of long, in-depth conversation around the table. As we were locking up I asked David, the lovely man from New York, why we had to shut all the electronic blinds and use the back door to leave. He explained that the local residents were so disapproving of Sylvie having volunteers to stay, that she had to take every precaution to avoid direct harassment and property damage. One of those was for us (the demon volunteers) to always use the back door so that hopefully only the neighbours directly behind her house would see us coming and going. He explained that people had already attempted to break the windows a few times and someone had made a gash with a crowbar on the electric blinds in front of the living-room. Could the inhabitants of Calais really be that against us volunteering our time to help some people in need?
Oh how naïve I was.
Jean lead us back to the first room for a simple 1940’s war-time breakfast of French baguette, jam and black coffee in deep china bowls. While we ate he showed us the contents of a folder with plastic sleeves containing black and white photographs and text extracts from war-time newspapers. We tried to understand what he was saying through all our fragments of broken language and an elaborate array of hand gestures. He explained the history of Saint Marie-du-Mont during the war and how the German soldiers had used the house as a base and shot with huge guns, from the fields outside the house, all the way onto the beaches 7.5 kilometres away.
After we had finished eating, he closed the book with a slam and said something quickly to Pascale in French, which I couldn’t quite grasp. Pascale translated – Would you like a tour of the village in the war Jeep? I looked at Haydn, he looked at me. This was getting better and better.
Outside, Jean led us to one of the old farm buildings. Inside, at the back, in the corner was a large shape. Jean briskly threw a green tarpaulin and camouflage netting up in the air. Hidden underneath was a boxy, iconic green, WWII Land Rover. It had no doors, a canvas roof and a gun holder instead of a dash-board. Jean jumped in and started up the very loud, spitting engine. We hopped in too, Haydn in the back, me in the front. Jean explained that he found the truck online and drove it back from Belgium a few years ago in December, when it was -18 degrees. The windscreen kept freezing over and because the windscreen wipers were broken he had to keep scraping it with his hand while driving. I looked across at him – his grin brimming over again. He looked like the kind of guy who might do a thing like that.
We trundled out of the gate and down the narrow country lanes of Holdy that led to Saint Marie-du-Mont. Getting faster and faster until we were hurtling along. Jean drove right in the middle of the road and would swerve out the way just in time when cars came towards us on the other side of the road. It was brilliant seeing the mystified, slightly miffed looks on the passing drivers faces. I think Jean was giving us the real experience of driving in a vehicle of status on an important mission. All the other cars had to move out of the way for us – they just weren’t in on the role play. I was really starting to like him and his madness – his excitement was infectious.
We drove around the village stopping at various points where Jean would explain details of how attacks and buildings had played a part in the bigger story of the war. When we were heading back towards the house, Jean swerved and drove up a bank into a field and stopped the truck. He opened up the plastic folder again and flicked to a page with an A4 black and white image inside. The image was of the field we were in. To the right of where Jean had stopped the car was a ditch and a high hedge that looked identical to the photograph. Nothing had changed at all. Except in the image, the ditch was filled with limp, heavy bodies that were dressed in the uniforms of the side they had died for. It was a very strange feeling – as if I could have stepped out of the truck and walked straight over to the ditch and seen them all lying there, lifeless, in front of me. I could have knelt and reached out and touched a hand – probably a young hand – a hand my own age – and held it for a moment – across time – across gender and generations and nationality – just one human hand holding another. To say sorry for our huge, undeniable history of violence and sorry for the paradox that the deaths of so many were for the sake of a peaceful future – my peaceful future.
In the morning we woke up feeling relieved that the night was over. The human brain can do remarkable things in the dark – turning somersaults and coming up with wild and terrifying tales just because the brightness on the world has been turned down.
We got dressed and went downstairs to where Jean was waiting for us. He seemed somehow dressed up, looking like he had made an effort for us, in his black leather jacket and long blue scarf and flat cap.
He greeted us with a beaming smile and said excitedly – Breakfast in the museum! He strode out of the front door. Pascale opened the kitchen door to our right, which seemed synonymous now with the barking dogs, and slipped outside with a pot of coffee. She gestured for us to follow Jean.
We went outside into the morning, overcast light. Several meters away from the front door on the left, Jean opened another door into the house. We followed him through this door and the sound of an urgent voice from a 1940’s war transmission radio broadcast greeted our ears. I was completely amazed at what was before me.
Inside this room there was a long wooden table running down the center, set up with old-fashioned breakfast crockery. The wooden clad walls were covered with World War II posters, war-time gadgets and memorabilia. A large antique radio played the war transmission that then faded into crackling 1940’s music. There were two large inset windows at the back of the room where life-sized mannequins were posed to create two separate scenes. Inside the left window a man dressed like a 1940’s German soldier was listening in to a radio transmission through an intricate machine of switches and wires. Behind the right window two civilians, a man and a woman, stood in conversation with another German soldier who sat at a desk with a map. He even had authentic 1940’s cigarettes and matches by his right hand! Jean explained that this civilian couple were the husband and wife who owned the house when it was occupied by German soldiers during the war. We stood gobsmacked, and asked him – have you made all of this? He nodded, his eyes flashed – There is more!
He led us back outside and walked further down the exterior wall of the house. The last door on the left was a rickety wooden one. He unlocked this and inside was a perfectly restored WWII motorbike and lots of various antique weapons along the walls. He pointed up a narrow, wooden ladder-type staircase and nodded. Upstairs he had meticulously recreated the soldiers mess room which they had made for themselves in the attic space of the house. There were two bunk beds with mannequin soldiers inside. One was reading a war-time paper and the other smoking an old fashioned filter-less cigarette. Another sat in the corner at a small wooden table playing a game with a deck of age yellowed cards. An ancient looking wood burner sat up against the wall and a slit-throat razor and foaming brush sat on top of it. Little hooks on the low lintels held war-time binoculars, knives and gadgets I had never seen before. I was so impressed. I looked down to my right and on a small ledge coming out from the wall was a very authentic looking, slightly dusty hand grenade. I pointed at it and met eyes with Jean – Don’t touch – he said with a dangerous, twinkly look. I slowly recoiled my hand and put it safely back in my pocket.
Later, Pascale invited us to come and eat dinner with her as we hadn’t managed to buy any food for ourselves and everything was closed due to one of the many French bank holidays in May. We sat around the table and Pascale announced that soon her ‘friend’ who lived with her would be back and would be eating with us. A short while after, we heard a car pull up which set the dogs off barking again. A short, very stocky man with a shaven head and one very bloodshot eye came through the kitchen door and pushed the dogs away. Jean. He was holding three baguettes and a bag full of cheeses. He shook both of our hands very heartily.
After some introductions and a bit more stilted conversation, he got up and turned on the tiny T.V. in the corner of the room. He flicked through the channels until he settled on one related to the upcoming French election. He watched for a bit and then came back over to the table to talk politics. I had a gut feeling this might not go very well. He asked us about Brexit and UK politics and we said our opinions gently and understand what he was saying. He tore off a big chunk of bread with his hands and gesticulated with it as a prop. He tore off a chunk with his teeth and chewed as Pascale tried to translate. There seemed to be a good section of the conversation lost in translation and at one point Jean stood up quite abruptly and left the room. We didn’t see him again that evening.
Pascale tried to lighten the mood by showing us pictures of her children, cats and other animals on her i-pad. Two beautiful blonde haired daughters who had fledged the nest. Pascale explained sadly that this region of France was too quiet and boring for them and their young families so now they lived far away. She showed us a picture of a giant rabbit with huge floppy ears and a mane of light grey fur. She said that she had adored it but one morning found it dead in its hutch. We both agreed that there is always a strain on the hearts of animals that have been bred so large. Then we looked down into our laps.
She seemed to find great love and companionship in her animals, this warmed me to her greatly. She took some of the bread left from dinner and went over to the kitchen window. She called outside in a kind of coo – kind of whistle. Molly, the skittish dog, shot off to cower at the back of the kitchen. Soon we could hear the loud honking of the geese approaching. They came right up underneath the window, just their beaks visible, reaching up against the evening rain. They honked louder and louder in between swallowing pieces of bread as she hand fed them tenderly. She turned around and for the first time I saw her break into a smile – You can’t feed that one by hand – she pointed at one of the tallest beaks – He bites!
When the bread was gone she spoke softly to the geese and then shut the window. She asked us if we would like to eat our breakfast in the kitchen or in the museum. Me and Haydn looked at each other in amusement and bewilderment. The Museum? Well – I said – I think that would be too good to miss, wouldn’t it Hayds, breakfast in a museum! We’ve never done that before.
We both climbed the wide staircase to bed feeling quite ill at ease. Worried that we had somehow offended Jean in our political miscommunication. The house felt huge and mysterious, having only seen the kitchen and our bedroom upstairs. What was in the rest of the house? Such an enormous building for just two people. So many closed, locked doors and narrow corridors. We locked our bedroom door that night and lowered the electronic, metal blinds.
Franck pulled up in front of an old fashioned, swing farm gate. There was a field to the left that appeared disused and overgrown with some kind of WWII reconstruction in the corner. There were the recognisable shapes of the static anti-tank (Czech Hedgehogs) D-Day beach barricades and a small hut made out of wood and corrugated iron. Hammered into the hut were some large wooden hand painted signs reading some angry (presumably) German words. In the pouring rain this arrangement appeared very strange and gloomy. Who were we about to meet?
Franck nodded to say this was the place. We all got out and unloaded our bikes and bags from the back of the van. We walked them under the shelter of some of the disused farm buildings set away from the house. Inside there were naked dismembered bodies of mannequins strewn all over the floor, lots of camouflage netting and what looked like sections of old car parts and machines who had definitely seen better days. As we walked further in I heard a loud hissing. I followed the noise and peered over the top of a low gate, mid-way down the small barn. There were three, very large, very angry looking geese staring back at me. They all had big, plump bodies sat on top of their rough straw nests and long, stretched, straight necks holding up their tiny little heads, all with their beaks open, little tongues quivering, aniseed ball eyes. I’ve never been a big fan of territorial geese and these ones were HUGE.
As we waved goodbye to Franck, in the pouring rain, I felt this sudden urge to run up to him and throw my arms around his neck and say – Take us with you Franck! Please! Don’t leave us here! We can sleep in your vegetable beds! Please! Don’t leave us with the geese!
Michele and Franck were our Couchsurfing couple from heaven. After our day of interminable rain we arrived in Saint Marie-du-Mont at 6pm. We knocked on a tall plain looking door. It was just off the provincial town’s main cobbled roundabout encircling a beautiful church. The door opened and behind it was a petite, kind faced, middle aged woman. She smiled sympathetically at our drenched bodies and pointed to another door of the house that faced the street, which imminently opened too. Behind this door was a short, stocky, middle aged man with very sparkly eyes. He opened the two French windows and gestured for us to bring our soaking wet bikes and bodies into their home.
They bundled us shivering into their downstairs shower room with two clean, fluffy towels. Oh what joy.
Strange that after an entire day of battling with inescapable water the glorious remedy for this should be more water but with a temperature gauge that you can control.
After such a hard day my anxiety simmered up again in the the prospect of having to really test my schoolgirl French and attempt to be an engaged and helpful house guest. Couchsurfing brings together people who are relaxed and trusting enough to open their homes to strangers for free and people who are sociable enough to be comfortable in a strangers home. I think this combination only works well, when the Couchsurfer is willing to make some efforts to repay the host for their generosity in whatever small ways seem appropriate. Unwritten rule No.1.
Somehow me and Haydn managed to make fractured conversation for about an hour. Conversation aided by bountiful gesticulation, Michele’s very good English and my less good French. Then there was mention of dinner and we must have been very bad at containing our excitement because both Michele and Franck laughed at our expressions of excitement. We had barely eaten throughout our gruelling day and were both ravenous but you can’t just walk into a host’s home and demand food; unwritten rule No.2.
We helped to prepare the food and then ate a delicious dinner in a number of small courses.
Fresh bread, a beautiful tomato salad with tomatoes from their garden that tasted like distilled red sun and walnuts grown by Franck’s friend. The next course was cauliflower cheese with a wonderful green salad, also from their garden. We spoke about gardening and the joy of growing your own produce. We told them how I had worked in a garden centre and loved to grow plants and vegetables and how Haydn had worked as a gardener in Dorset for over a year. This love of gardening, a golden point to connection between us all. Then we had a course of cheese and biscuits and after that was natural yoghurt and an incredible compote that Franck had made himself. All topped off by the most delicate and intense orange tea. WOW. What a culinary experience. Delicious simplicity encapsulated.
We went to bed feeling very lucky.
We spent the whole next day with Michele and Franck. In the morning we walked to the near by brasserie and bought some beautiful French miniature tarts and pastries for the house. I bought a tiny orange rose and wax flower posy from a woman sat inside a tatty white van, parked on the edge of the central cobbled roundabout. I gave this to Michele as a tiny present and gave the pastries to Franck, a small offering for their generosity. We had another glorious meal with them at lunch as the rain hammered on their conservatory roof. Franck offered to take us to our next place to stay in his van. We had booked an Air B&B just outside of the small town for one night in hope that by the following day the rain might have cleared.
I felt a genuine pang of sadness as we said goodbye to Michele in the pouring rain and bundled our bikes into the back of Franck’s van, tying the door closed with string. Me and Haydn crammed onto the front seat and the three of us trundled off down some winding country lanes away from Saint Marie-du-Mont. I had to pull my left knee up to my chest every time Franck needed to change gear. I couldn’t stop smiling for that ten minute journey – what kind and generous people we had met already! I knew they were out here in the world but the reality of meeting such brilliant human beings was only just dawning on me.
We set off from Cherbourg on our bikes on a very rainy French morning.
After some heartfelt and tearful goodbyes with Haydn’s mum and stepdad, we cycled into the drenched Sunday streets. We had been so eager to set off but we paid for our impatience in freezing limbs and soaking clothes within the first 20 minutes. When you live outdoors and that outdoors is cold, rain takes on a new meaning. It’s not just an annoyance, it really starts to feel like a danger. Like a danger only escapable with shelter. By twelve o’clock, both hunched underneath a huge tree, shivering and eating cold quiches bought earlier from a boulangerie, I realised that my raincoat was certainly not as invincible as I had hoped.
Our aim was to get to a house in Saint Marie-du-Mont, 50km away, owned by a Couchsurfing couple – Michele and Franck – that had offered to take us in for a night.
Four hours (and many hills) later it was still raining heavily and we were struggling to keep up morale. We seemed an eternity away and the exhaustion was really setting in. I could feel my limbs getting heavier and heavier, kilometre after kilometre. This was a new kind of endurance I had never experienced before. There had nearly always been a safe option before, a get out of jail free card. If it was too wet or too cold I could always just get safe and dry somehow, somewhere. But we were in the middle of nowhere with only cows and birds for company.
We stopped in a lay-by beside the country road and both slumped onto the ground. If we didn’t carry on until we got to the house we would have to set up camp in a field somewhere off the road. Remember that it is still pouring with rain. We would have to try to get dry and warm, considering we had most of our warm clothes on already and they were drenched. We would also not have dinner as we hadn’t passed any shops and had no extra food with us due to our Couchsurfing plans. That was the decider for me. There was no way after a day like that I was going to settle for no dinner. I had to grip on hard and reach down harder into the larder I didn’t know I had.
By five o’clock in the evening and the grey sky looking heavier than ever my mental state was violently shifting from Viking worrier woman to gibbering wreck. It was as if I couldn’t decide weather I had to give up and let myself rest or carry on to reap the bigger reward of house comforts. I had begun to not feel the rain anymore which was very strange – it was just part of me and my environment.
I knew I had already crossed my limit a while ago and now I didn’t know what I was running on – something new – some hidden reserves. We got to a corner where Haydn, also past his limit, thought we might have gone wrong a few kilometres back. My chest caved inwards and I realised I was sobbing, the rain and my tears all the same. He held my head up and he said we hadn’t gone wrong it was just the satnav playing up – the house was really close. It took all my effort to step back onto the pedals in that moment. But cycling down that last road that led into the little French village I felt an extraordinary feeling that I had never felt before. A feeling like I was completely unstoppable and no human, or element, or barrier could deter me. It was like the pure energy of determination defying everything else I had ever known to be real.
We cycled from the New Forest to Chichester and from there we crossed the Channel in Haydn’s mum (Debs) and stepdad’s (Martin) Moody 47 foot centre cockpit sailing boat, called Tamarind. This was to be my first long journey by boat.
We woke up at 5am and set off just before 6am after a quick cuppa and some final checks for the boat. It was so beautiful gliding out of the marina with the sun slowly rising over the buildings on the bank.
Out in the open ocean I felt very small and humbled by the vastness and power of the sea. It was so exciting to be out in the middle of a landscape that is so alien to me.
The wind wasn’t strong enough and kept changing direction so we couldn’t unfurl the main sail for long and we had to use the motor. When the sail was out though, I could see what a joy it is to use the wind to your advantage and move over the water with just the natural elements and some clever human engineering. What a way to travel!
It definitely takes some getting used to – the feeling of being in constant motion side to side – up and down. I could handle the up and down quite well but the side to side was quite bizarre – I’m not sure human beings are very well designed for that movement ….
Luckily the sun was shining so we could all sit out in the cockpit – seeing the horizon is the true key to not feeling too queasy. So once I had managed a snooze on-board the mighty Tamarind, I awoke with my sea legs and stomach being better adjusted. It was mesmerizing watching the water flow by and when the sun would dip behind a cloud the water would suddenly look like mercury – not a liquid but a dark silvery-grey moving solid mass. It was wonderful.
Well into the 12 hour crossing, Martin spotted two porpoises perfect dorsal fins gliding through the water not far from the boat. I nearly jumped overboard with excitement! Haydn grabbed me by the coat and pulled me back into my seat and we watched, thrilled, leaning over the cockpit but soon they were gone.
I spent the rest of the journey calling out ‘Porpoises? Porpoises? Come back Porpoises!’ and scanning the water – desperate for another sighting – the teasing far off waves imitating their fins.
Awakening to the dawn chorus all around our little tent, was like nothing else I have ever experienced. Every bird in the New Forest must have been singing a song. What a sound to open your ears and eyes to. A gentle orchestra that builds to a richness of sound only achieved by meaty, skilled jazz bands.
Unzipping the tent we were greeted by shafts of sunlight streaming through the giant pencil trees. I felt like a borrower. Not only in size but of this time – I felt like I was secretly living my ancestors life for this morning – we had gone back in time and only we knew.
On ground level, delicate shivering ferns littered the floor and the long, bare, silhouetted tree trunks lead the eye skyward to their canopy of glowing yellow foliage. The morning sun just touching the tops of the trees and illuminating them like a dappled golden sky.
How can stillness feel to roaringly alive?
Our first and second day of cycling were so beautiful – blessed with sun and wind on our backs. The second day entering the New Forest was like entering a new country. The traditionally thick, high hedgerows and thin country lanes of Dorset slowly dropped away into a vast and expansive new landscape, where a snaking road wove around the rolling, low-lying hills . The dark marshlands were littered with bright gorse hedges and wild horses, deer and donkeys with their young, grazed completely unaffected by human presence. I expected this kind of scenery when we got to New Zealand but not in our own country.
On our second night, after two beautiful days cycling, we decided to wild camp in the New Forest. We saw a campsite on the map and knew we needed more water to cook dinner and keep us hydrated so we explored an area of dense forest nearby. As we entered the thick woodland dusk was just beginning to descend and we could make out by the lack of untrodden paths that this was not a well-known walkway. As we walked deeper into the trees with our bikes and all our gear Haydn was just ahead of me. All of a sudden he froze.
Naturally I did the same – looking ahead wide-eyed, limbs like a stick man – Haydn brought his finger up to his mouth and then pointed to a clearing through the trees further ahead. He looked very excited. He put the stand down on his bike and began creeping forwards. I couldn’t see the clearing from where I was, so I secured my bike and began to move forwards. A few paces forward and I could see the form of something huge and opalescent white between the tall tree trunks. I stood completely still – it was a massive white stag. The stag was also completely still – his proud head raised to sniff the air, his twisting antlers cutting high pale shaped into the dark forest behind.
Then I realised he was surrounded by a harem of soft brown does. They were all completely motionless. That moment felt like magic. We were all paused in our amazement of each other, a moment of held breath and wide eyes while the silent forest sat calmly holding us – just tiny evening flies and dust particles catching the evening light.
So we set off.
The journey out starts here, but rewind three months and I am working three jobs and Haydn two.
The trip still seemed like a distant dream that we were constructing together through conversations and accumulating equipment, jabs and route planning.
Rewind one month from now and all of our time was being sucked into the last stretch of an ongoing and dedicated search – for hours, days even – scrolling endlessly on the internet, page after page – turning into frowning, cross eyed slouchers – decision after decision to be made. How should I know which water purification device to choose? I’ve never cycled across the world before! So much time investigating the perfect (as high quality and as compact and as weightless and as cheap as possible) pieces of kit to keep us alive and happy on the road. What an achievement this process in itself was – I would like two high quality, medals that are the size and cost of 20 pence please. Compiling our survival components and fitting them into 8 small bags that we ourselves would carry, like snails or hermit crabs across the land and sea.
Packages delivered to the house in droves. The lovely local postie giving a questioning brow raise more than once, while handing over an armful of neat carboard boxes – with our names printed on them – day after day.
Goodbyes at sunrise and lunchtimes and under starlit skies.
Long hugs that were somehow holding onto that expected distance and earnest words of advice from well travelled adults and tears of love pressing into each others clothes. Who knows who we will come back as, perhaps we won’t return the same as the ‘us’ that left. So many beautiful people to miss but so grateful to know them.
All this hugeness distilled and condensed into two squawks of pure joy and apprehension, cycling down a country lane, away from home and out and onwards and forwards – into the unknown.
May the revolutions begin.