THE FINISH LINE

Route: Portsmouth – London, Lap of Honour around Scotland

Days Riding: 3 + 15

Trip Duration: 1 year 2 months 14 days

Distance ridden: 215 km (Portsmouth – London) + 343 km (Scotland)

Total Distance: 16, 861 km

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A rough outline of our route. Created using Google Maps. Circles do NOT represent campsites (there would be many many more if they did!).

So here we reach the end of our journey. 1 year, 2 months and 14 days. 16,861 km peddled across 21 countries with some 20 punctures. Tears came to Tim’s eyes as he emailed his parents at the ferry terminal in Caen, expressing his gratitude for the support Rob and Julie have given us on our trip. Het was similarly teary. We sat on the ferry from Caen to Portsmouth, feeling at once overwhelmed with emotion, but also strangely empty. It was nearly over. The destination that had kept us going for so long was finally (and almost literally) in sight.

Emotions aside, we joked as the ferry approached England and the sky slowly greyed over and rain began to fall as a slow, soaking drizzle. Typical English weather, we mused. The ferry docked and we trundled off on the tandem and headed in the direction of arrivals, hoping that we would find Het’s mum, Sarah, and aunt Bim, who had planned to meet us and ride with us to London. Feeling somewhat foolish for not having agreed on an exact place to meet, we rolled out of the car park wondering how we would find them, when a figure in a fluorescent jacket started jumping up and down, waving madly. Our faces lit up with smiles as Sarah and Bim approached us, like two figures out of a dream. In the glorious surrounds of a ferry terminal traffic gateway we hugged, laughed and felt bleary eyed. Sarah loved the surprise of the tandem adding to the excitement of the whole situation!

Wired with exhaustion from our 216km marathon the previous day, a cheap 5 hours sleep the night before and being charged with the emotions of having made it to England, it seemed only natural to head for the nearest pub for lunch. Hearty food, warm, flat traditional English ale and lots of excited talk took us into the mid afternoon, when we realised we actually had 50km to ride to our destination for the day! Better get cracking.

Sarah and Bim filled up our panniers with their clothes to weigh us down for fear that we’d be zooming ahead of them. Het’s energy levels are certainly inspired from her mother, who along with Bim, are two of the most energetic 50-somethings we know. They kept a pace with us whilst maintaining full conversation – Sarah had evidently kept her fitness from her cycle touring days in her 20s.

It felt strange to be in a country where we spoke the same language as the locals. Small interactions like paying the publican for lunch were seamless, no extra energy required to make yourself understood, no body language needed to bolster the meaning of your message. Additionally, no extra effort required to hear the messages being communicated to you – which on one occasion we lamented. Two road cyclists heading at break neck speed down the hill we merry four were climbing up, Bim blissfully riding in the middle of the road narrating a story. “Get out of the BLOODY WAY!” the MAMIL yelled (For those who haven’t heard this term before, MAMIL is an acronym for Middle-Aged Men In Lycra). We all burst out laughing and wished him a happy ride!

Our first evening was spent in the village Avington with an old school friend of Het’s mother, also named Sarah. Her father bought the house at Avington when he moved to England from the British West Indies after their independence. Looking to buy a village cottage, the real estate agent also informed him that the old convent was going for the same price, as houses of this size were considered liabilities and financially unfeasible to upkeep. He bought the big house and made it his life project to restore it to the impeccable state its in today. It seemed fitting to have our first night in England, and the first night out of the tent for good, sleeping in a four-poster bed in a 900 year old mansion.

Day two in England saw us ride through beautiful little villages around Hampshire and Berkshire. Het navigated on the back of the tandem, finally (we joked) finding a way to make herself useful on this steed. Typical winding English roads, up over little crests and down into brick and wooden beamed villages, blackberries lining the way, heavy with fruit. Crondall was our half way point, where The Plume of Feathers, a quintessential village pub, awaited us. This time opting for cider, we sat outside in the sun, enjoying the beauty of those rare sunny summer days.

Sunningdale was our home for the evening, where Het’s great aunt and uncle live. She spent four months living there on her gap year, when she worked for a term at their grandchildren’s primary school. Getting to work was one of the first times she used a bicycle to commute. Slightly bragging about this to Tim as we passed the school, she suggested it was probably a 10km ride each way. Cycle computers don’t lie. One kilometer, then two, and we were almost in Sunningdale.

“They live on the other side of town, I swear, it was definitely 6km at least!”

A measly 3.5km clocked and we had arrived at the driveway. Obviously her cycling fitness had improved significantly since then, and what clearly felt like a much longer ride at the time, was a mere warm up these days.

Het’s grandmother, Sally, and aunt Caroline were there to greet us with champagne in hand. It was great for Tim to finally meet Sally, who gave us the impetus to ride to England. Back in Iran, an amazing friend we made, Vahid, had left such an impression on us, and represented so much of the generosity we had received, that Het gave him her bike. Sally generously bought Het a new one, sending it over there with Het’s parents when they came to meet us in Tehran. It was because of this transaction that we decided to ride all the way to England. A Soma Saga bicycle, named Sally, was united with its benefactress and three generations (daughter, mother and grandmother) were together.

Third day on the road with Bim and Sarah, we were headed for Westminster Bridge, which we somewhat briefly decided would be the finishing line of our 16,861 km adventure. We rode through the Windsor Great Park, past the castle and all its tourists, stopping for an icecream, again in the blissful sunshine, before battling the dense roads of outer London. Thankfully, we managed to stick mostly to canal tow-paths, following the Google Maps cycle layer, that flawless navigation tool… unmarked styles and sets of stairs are clearly part and parcel of the average Englishman’s cycling trials as Google included them in our route into the capital city. Clearly they’re still working on the “vintage steel framed tandem bike weighing 25kg” layer…

As the sun dipped low we approached the chaos that is cycling in London in peak hour. Tim’s concentration levels were at an all time high, and Het tried to remain calm in her position of complete abandon on the back. Bim and Sarah reminisced on life in London when they were younger, as we cycled through Fulham, Kensington and Hyde Park.

In another surreal moment, we stood on the pavement under the houses of parliament, Big Ben towering above us as tourists bustled by, one of them even stopping to take a photo of our funny shaped bicycle! Laura and her boyfriend Ryan, great friends from home, had come to meet us on the bridge, sharing in this momentous occasion. We hugged, teared up, and let the world pass us by for a time that seemed hard to measure.

We made it. Couldn’t have done it without you. You were what got me through the tough times. What a thing to share.

A Scottish Lap of Honour

Finish line crossed, there was a party awaiting us that weekend, at Bim and Patrick’s house in Hertfordshire. 60 members of Het’s family descended from all over the country, and we felt a little overwhelmed at being in such a crowd after over a year of solitude! Yet it was a wonderful thing to be surrounded by familiar faces, many of whom had followed us on the journey via the blog. One of the overarching themes of the trip was the importance of family that unites people all over the world, so it was great to be welcomed off the road by loving family members.

After a few days enjoying Het’s English family, we took a train up to Scotland to meet Tim’s best mate Harry, who had flown over to spend a few weeks riding around the Scottish highlands in what we called our ‘lap of honour.’ We rode from Inverness to the Isle of Skye, along to Fort William under Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in Scotland, and then down to Glasgow. It was the perfect way to begin to digest the journey we had been on for the past year.

There were lots of incredibly fun and stupid moments, the king of which probably involved pushing our loaded bikes for 12 kilometres along a boggy, rocky hiking trail in the pouring rain with an 80km/hr wind at our backs. Het’s mood gradually darkened, and the low point was reached when she dropped her bike and sheared off her right brake lever, thanks to a badly placed rock. After the required amount of quiet time, we eventually saw the irony that the most serious injury the bicycles had sustained through the whole trip was in a highly developed country right at the end of the tour. Riding with Haz was also great as we were able to once again share our passion of the outdoors, for living simply and naturally, for stargazing and for going slowly.

And with the end of the riding in Scotland, we felt the road slowly dissipate, as we gently realized that our nomadic way of living was, for the time being, coming to an end. There are so many things that life on the road gave to us. So many lessons it imparted to us, sometimes forceful, sometimes gentle, but always constant. Distilling these learnings into a piece of prose will take time, and so we leave you this last note on the goings on of the road. The pedaling has ended, but we still strongly feel the impact of what we’ve been through. We will come back at some point with a message from the calm place of reflection with meditations on what has been, unquestionably, the most intense and most rewarding year of our lives.

For now, thank you for reading, for being a part of our journey and supporting us. We feel deeply grateful for all that we have experienced.

Love, Tim and Het.

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Suisse, Deutschland, France

Route: St. Gallen, Switzerland – Caen, France, via Germany

Days riding: 23

Trip Duration: 1 year 1 month 10 days

Distance ridden: 2,118 km

Total Distance: 16,150 km

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After crossing another border, we entered the Swiss lands of manicured mountains and tidy towns, arriving in the German speaking town of St Gallen where an old family friend of Het’s live. We spent three days resting from the mountain passes of the Austrian Alps and caught up on years of news. Sabrina and Matty had both spent time in Australia, so we enjoyed the familiar faces of old friends and shared memories. Swiss cheese and famous cinnamon cake were consumed amongst the laughter and cries of their beautiful baby Luc.

Sabrina’s father is a mad keen cyclist and he excitedly put forward the idea of riding together to Zurich, where we also had friends to stay with. Little did we know that this wiry 60 year old would be racing ahead of us on his Porsche-designed pinion-geared touring bike, making us seriously question whether 15,000km of riding had actually made us any fitter. In record time we completed the 110km ride along mountain ridges, passing cows with oversized bells and men in lederhosen. We dropped into the populated valley near Lake Zurich, over the spectacular Ricken pass, arriving just in time for afternoon tea and then a huge dinner with Sabine and Thomas, old friends of Het’s father.

After another few days being spoilt by friends, we headed North towards the German border, stopping by the famous Rhine Falls in Neuhausen, on the Swiss side of the Rhine river. The Germanic houses began to become more and more ubiquitous as we passed through small villages near the German border near Shauffhausen on the 9th August and entering the Black Forest.

The Black Forest covers a vast area of South Western Germany sitting on the northern foothills of the Alps. We knew that the name corresponded to the state of darkness one finds oneself in upon entering the depths of the forest, so we thought it might be slightly darker than a regular forest. The first night in Germany, we were glad to find this beautiful spot by a little creek.

We noticed when we arrived that it was indeed dark, but it was not until the midnight call to nature arose that Het fully appreciated the accuracy of the name of the forest, when she promptly walked straight into a tree upon exiting the tent!

We rode through small forest roads passing by picturesque villages such as Hinterzarten, where dinkelbröt, a dense brown bread, and apfel strudel filled the shelves of the local bakeries.

We passed an incredible paragliding hotspot at one of the highest points in the Black Forest in Kandel, with amazing views of gliders hovering above the Rhine valley that divides Germany and France. After a 30km descent in the afternoon, we camped at the Kuhbach Church. Arriving at the church almost by accident, we were impressed to find out that a structure has existed at this site for some 1300 years, long ago belonging to German monks living simple lives in the surrounding forest. The church has been renovated over the years, but remains true to its original form, looking more akin to a wooden cabin than a place of worship.

On August 12 we crossed the French border, meaning Het’s French communication skills would finally be drawn upon. However, Tim’s German did not become obsolete immediately. Strasbourg is the capital of the Alsace region in France, a hotly contested land over the years, which endured many periods of German occupation. The two languages remain in use today, symbolising the city’s turbulent past. Estelle and Christophe were our lovely Warm Showers hosts here for a couple of days, and their son Simon made a great effort to make us feel welcomed too, offering Tim his spare fireman’s helmet and teaching him how to work the water hose. We enjoyed hearing stories of their bike travels as a family and admired the cargo bike that Estelle rode to the market with her pregnant belly!

Gorging on croissants for breakfast, baguettes and fromage for lunch, we wandered around the historical city and lapped up the beautiful summer sun. The Strasbourg street festival had coincided with our visit, so one evening we danced along to a moving electronic beat and art display.

Leaving Strasbourg, heading for the Vosges mountain range, we followed the Route des Vignobles, a cycle path that winds its ways through the vineyards and picturesque villages of Alsace. We then joined the Route des Crêtes, a famous road that passes through the Vosges mountains, so we pedalled along for the section with the most impressive Cols for us to climb up, despite heading south east, in the direction of Switzerland…

A couple of lovely random interactions buoyed our faith in human kindness along the way. The first was just as we had pulled into a quiet little clearing near the side of the road in the Vosges to set up camp. A German couple in their self-converted Ford Transit Campervan invited us into their lovely little home for boiled potatoes, salad and wine to share stories of life on the road. In the morning we gave them a slack line lesson in return before parting ways with smiles on our faces.

Next day we headed back in our usual North Westerly direction after La Bresse, and were accompanied for a short time by Jetske, from Sweden. She was heading for Asia and was just starting her cycle tour after spending some time volunteering on a farm in France.

By this stage we had been informed by Het’s mum that she would like to meet us on the shores of Portsmouth to ride the final leg of the journey with us to London, so with another time constraint we had to start watching distances and directions and take a fairly straight line to the Northern shores of France.

Looking for a final Warm Showers experience we contacted Christophe from a beautiful village in Burgundy, Recey-sur-Ource, and made this our next rest day destination about 150km away.

These two days ride were some of our wettest yet, as the weather unexpectedly turned sour. It’s at times like these that you are reminded just how vulnerable you are to the weather as a cycle tourist. There really is no escaping it when you’re living outdoors and spending all day in the elements.

The afternoon before arriving in Recey we were so wet and the rain seemed as if it were here for eternity. On one occasion we sheltered in the only building nearby which was a pretty basic public toilet. The service man arrived at just this moment to inspect the building and empty bins, and he looked down on the two soaked rats sitting by their muddy bicycles sympathetically. We watched cars drive past with their dry passengers relaxing inside and were envious.

These low moments are not without reward. As sure as day follows night, sun follows rain and the sunshine was all the more sweet after such a soggy couple of days. We spread out all our belongings in a town park and gorged on more French patisserie indulgences. Simple joys like this really lift our mood.

INTERLUDE: TANDEM ADVENTURE

Worthy of a separate blog post entirely, but seeing as we’re already so behind in writing this we’ll jot down this mad little 400km detour back to the Alps…

Christophe was another outstanding person in our journey who we instantly connected with. An artisan carpenter by trade, he set up his workshop in a 400-year old building in the village, creating beautiful wooden furniture for Parisian clients. We whiled away a long weekend with him and his friends hanging out at their serene block of land in the forest which they’ve set up as a commune with 12 members. We drank lots of fabulous regional wine, ate organic bread from one of the members, goats cheese from another and plentiful home baked tarts from foraged fruit. We danced around the fire in the old barn, one friend played an antique wind up accordion, another strummed guitar and sang songs about environmental protection.

Christophe once rode a tandem bicycle across Chile with his girlfriend, and when he spoke of his adventures with tears of happiness in his eyes, we were moved. We jokingly said wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could also ride on a tandem? Before long the joke was no longer fictitious, and we were looking at ads for second hand tandems made by the same company “Follis.” (Note the word closely relates to folle, coming from the French word for crazy. Fitting).

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We hitchhiked down to Grenoble, back in the Alps once more, and bought this beautiful vintage bicycle from a charity for the blind and vision impaired who use tandems to give the joy of cycling to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to experience it. We named the tandem Christophe and set off to ride back to Recey, now very conscious of how little time remained before we were due to meet Het’s mum in approximately two weeks.

Off to a little bit of a rough start, with 6 punctures in 15 kilometres, we were feeling somewhat daunted by what we had undertaken. When 5pm came around and we had made a measly 30km, the remaining 600km to reach the northern shores seemed ridiculous. This truly was a folly.

As so often is the case, something good comes from a troubling time. We were once again stationary, road-side, fixing yet another puncture, in the late afternoon sun of 35 degrees. Nathalie, a bubbly, excited French woman rescued us from the heat and offered us the shade of her garden to fix the bike. Before long we were celebrating 6 o’clock with a Kronenburg and apéro and she was curious about where we were going to sleep.

Being conscious of our elderly steed, we had opted to take just two panniers and no tent, and had arranged to stay with hosts along the way. The only trouble was we had banked on making 100km that day. Nathalie realised our predicament and immediately offered to accommodate us, leaving us feeling like the rescued homeless. After a vivacious evening of more wine, cheese and laughter with Nathalie’s partner and children of the same age as us, we collapsed into bed feeling truly grateful for our saviours. Next day we took our troublesome wheel to a bike shop to repair the rotten rim tape, which only took us 7 punctures to notice… apparently a year on a bike isn’t enough to learn these things! Then, back on the road with more delicious food from our hosts to sustain us. Things were looking up.

We made it to Lyon that day to stay with a friend from Australia, and had a lovely evening talking in thick Aussie accents. Next day we clocked 100km to reach a beautiful Warm Showers host in a village near Maçon set amongst vineyards and rock faces. We enjoyed Cecile and Mattheiu’s company so much that we decided to take an unplanned rest day with them, meeting their friends from Germany and climbing up to the rocky cliff above their home. Feeling more confident on our two-man bicycle, we pushed a record breaking 210km back to Recey on the third days ride. We too, had fallen in love with the joys of riding a tandem, just as Christophe had predicted.

So, back in Recey we had three bicycles to get to England. Quite a conundrum. We considered leaving the two single bikes at Christophe’s house to come back and collect after we’d arrived in London. Arriving by tandem in England would be a great surprise for Het’s mum, who rode a tandem across America when she was in her twenties. We decided on this, and looking at the time that remained, thought we had just enough time to pass by the forest at Fontainebleau for a bit of rock climbing.

Amazingly, the day before we left Recey we received a message from Het’s cousin from England informing us that he too had planned to visit the Fontainebleau forest at exactly the same time. Quelle chance! Not only would it be more fun to climb together, but he could solve the three-bikes-two-riders riddle and offered to take them back to the UK for us. Things always work out in the end, we mused.

So after leap frogging the three bikes 220km from Recey to Fontainebleau we had a wonderful two days bouldering with Chris and four of his mates from uni.

Due on the 10th at Portsmouth, UK, we now had just two days to ride the 300km to Le Havre, which we’d been telling everyone was the port of departure for the ferry tickets we had booked a few weeks back…

Right, 150km each day, no problems. First day post climbing our shoulders and arms were feeling the strain of being used once again after a year’s break slumped on a bicycle. 85km was all we could manage before a lovely forest called for us to lay down in its dappled shade. It’ll be a big day tomorrow, we mused, but not to worry, we’ve almost finished riding so we’ll push through!

Day two. Going well. 4pm and only another 60km to go, with the speedo reading 100km. Let’s check the tickets on the phone and write down the reservation number so if the battery dies, we’ll be sorted.

“Tim, it says we’re leaving from Caen, not Le Havre.”

“No, that’s wrong, check again Het, that must be the old ticket we reserved and cancelled. We changed it to Le Havre, remember?”

“Ye-ah… only there is only one ticket here, and it says Caen.”

“Caen? Show me.” (looks at phone in silence)

“…Where is Caen?” (unfolds paper map). Damn, another 50km west of where we are.

The person at the front of the tandem has to direct the person at the back as to when to get on the bike. “Get on.” Said the pilot. We rode in silence for quite a while.

We rode into the dark, arriving at 1:30am on the shores of the ferry port, completely exhausted, after 216km on this 1980s machine. A fisherman approached us and looked concerned for us, “vous cherchez un endroit pour dormir?” yes, we most definitely are looking for a place to sleep, Het exasperated. You needn’t worry about the dangers of the night, he informed us, his fishing partner used to be a security guard, and they were here for the night, so would stay on guard for us! Merci beaucoup. We pitched right next to where they stood, right next to the footpath, 100% visible, and collapsed.

5 hours later we woke with the sun to catch this damned ferry from Caen. In a pretty groggy state we stood on the stern of the huge metal ship and watched the port disappear on the horizon. Aside from island hopping with Tim’s parents in June, the first time we had left land in almost 14 months. Physical exhaustion mixed with the poignancy of almost having arrived at our final destination made for a pretty moving ferry ride. We sat still, with tears in our eyes and reflected.

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Austro-Hungarian Escapade 

Route: Budapest, Hungary – St. Gallen, Switzerland via Austria

Days riding: 18

Trip Duration: ONE WHOLE YEAR!

km ridden: 1,219

Total km: 14,032

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After two weeks of volunteering on the camp in rural Hungary we were missing our life on the road and the bicycles were gathering dust. The camp gave us a great insight into Hungarian culture and some of the challenges that the Roma people, known for their ‘gypsie’ lifestyle, face and how mainstream Hungarians view them. Liebi, Het’s friend who was organising the camp provided us with great beers (Belgian, of course, given his origins) and we spent a pleasant last night in Budapest eating Israeli food in the Jewish quarter before he too left the country, and we pedalled on.

True to form we eased back into the cycle touring life and made a modest 35km after wandering the city in the morning. We cycled out of Budapest on the Danube cycle route before taking a detour through the Danube Bend National Park, missing the supermarket before closing time. A simple dinner of rice and lentils was had in the dappled shade of the poplar forest we squatted in for the night.

Two days of riding along the Danube saw us unexpectedly cross into Slovakia as we were continued along the infamous EuroVelo network of bicycle paths. The signs are sometimes sparse so it’s easy to digress from the route. We did however see clear signs pointing to a bridge over the river where the network continued, so without really thinking about it we crossed into Slovakia. No passport checks, no customs buildings, we marvelled at the ease of the Schengen zone and contemplated a future where the whole world could one day operate with the same openness and trust.

We continued to follow the Danube and scenery remained basically the same, only the people on this side of the river spoke a different language. We hadn’t loaded the offline map of Slovakia, but were able to follow EuroVelo signs towards Bratislava, the capital of this country we were unexpectedly visiting. We spent a lovely evening riverside in a sandy camp spot which couldn’t have been better. Cool breeze from the big blue river flowing by, willow branches blowing gently through the cloudless and starlit night sky. It’s nights like these that we feel like the richest people in the world.

Another full day’s ride along the EuroVelo in Slovakia where the bike path again passes through farmers fields, along dirt tracks by the river and some more kosher paved paths. The weather was punishingly hot, so much for a European summer we thought, with temperatures frequently exceeding 40 degrees around midday. We cooled off in the icy waters of the Danube at lunch each day, as huge cargo ferries passed by, making bow waves lap on the banks.

We met Victoria and Maria, a mother and daughter combination who had been farming next to the Danube all their lives. They were moving hay bales with a little hand pushed cart in the midday heat and we were all dripping with sweat and decided to take a break to discuss the changing level of the Danube in broken English, French and German. The main message we understood was that the spates of the Danube were getting bigger and bigger due to rising temperatures creating more runoff from the alps.

From Bratislava to Vienna there is a “bike highway” we were told, so we headed towards the capital of Bratislava hoping to follow the signs all the way. Before long we found ourselves definitely not following anything anymore except random signs that had a bike on them.. Sometimes hopping up onto pavements by the sides of massive four lane highways. We battled blind like this with no map loaded on the phone for this country, of which we had no intentions of passing through. Of course, given our some 12 months on the road together and perfect symbiosis not a terse word was exchanged….

Successfully through the city thanks to Het’s terrific innate sense of direction (hah) we finally found the EuroVelo path in the early afternoon and hot footed it to Vienna where we had a friend waiting for us.

On July 13 at 10:30pm we trundled in after 130km in the saddle. From here we would be joined by Isabel, one of our first guests through Warmshowers back home. One day as tourists in the city visiting Hundertwasser house, a multicultural festival of foods and a bike shop for some little repairs, and we continued west.

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From Vienna the Donau Radweg really goes up a notch, and with that many many users enjoy this ready made bike travelling infrastructure. Parent and child combos, zippy Lycra clad racers, luxury cycle tourists on fancy e-bikes with shiny new bags and a few specks of dirty faced, shiny eyed long distance travellers who we had a knack of spotting. We chatted to a couple from Hong Kong who had been on the road for 5 years.

After a 100km of this easy going flat riding the Alps were calling so we headed away from the river and towards the hills. Near St Leonard the evening was approaching fast and we were in the middle of a very agricultural area, not the best for wild camping. Turning down a little road in the direction of a nearby forest we were greeted by a kindly man in his 40s who seemed perplexed by this group of loaded bikers. Upon enquiring he told us that yes, it is a private road, that yes we could indeed camp in the forest if we liked, but perhaps it would be better to sleep in his yard instead? A lovely evening of beers, showers and good conversation on religious conflict after he informed us about the military coup in Turkey, which had happened since we left Vienna. Always refreshing to hear news directly from people, and not being so connected to visual media in all its forms. We thought a lot about our friends in Turkey as we pedalled on, saddened at how this will inevitably change people’s views about the beautiful country that Turkey is.

We parted ways after a delicious breakfast Isabel, Frank’s wife served us. “How you call into the forest, comes back to you” said Frank, to explain that the positive energy we put out is the reason we have such beautiful encounters.

We entered the foothills to the alps this day and passed through many villages with gingerbread-like houses for a couple of days before reaching Hollestein where the hills began to resemble mountains proper and the cool air bespoke a new climatic region. We marvelled at the bike networks in this country, in each major valley there was either a dedicated bike lane or a series of minor roads for us to follow with excellent signage. It represents how numerous cyclists are and how much respect they command from the government in this area of the world.

The full moon lit our campsite just outside of Liezen, the last stop before a rest day in Schladming. Each time the full moon nears it marks another month on the road for us, and this time we were celebrating a full year on the road, which was hard to believe. In many ways it feels like a lot longer due to the wealth of experiences and encounters we’ve been gifted yet at the same time it has flown by.

In Shladming we took a rest day with our wonderful Warmshowers hosts Christian and Andrea and their smiling two children. We enjoyed hanging with them in their vegan and organic cafe, ‘Artisan’, and just being a part of their peaceful way of life, drinking oat milk lattés and listening to stories of their travels by bike with their two kids in a trailer and on the child seat. As always, the generosity of strangers fills us with hope and happiness, just one example of how the shared or gift economy is alive and well.

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We continued riding along the Enns river valley before passing over into the next valley heading directly west, along the Salzach river, again replete with great cycling infrastructure. Another positive about riding through often forested valleys in the alps were the fresh raspberries everywhere! The three of us would stop each afternoon to pick and eat our fill for our cereal next morning. Three days riding in this manner brought us to the most challenging pass we rode together, Gerlospass at 1500m, and very steep. A lunch spot overlooking a glacier gently melting in the hot sun was a pretty awesome reward.

The pass took us into the Inn valley, where the river Inn carves out a 500km section of the alps. One day’s ride along the river and we reached Innsbruck and our next Warmshowers hosts, a group of students: outdoor lovers, music listeners and players,   skiers, climbers, hikers, slack-liners… Pretty much our Austrian counterparts. Unsurprisingly we took a long interlude here. Unfortunately this meant the end of our travels with Isabel who had to travel on ahead of us as she had a deadline back in Belgium. Sad to see her go, we parted ways grateful to be able to share two weeks on the road together.

We spent four lovely days with Theresa and Tim and many friends of theirs, enjoying being with similar folk and in one place for a while, both things which we miss most after being away for a year. Keen climbers, they took us to some epic sport climbing spots only known to locals. At the first, a group of 8 of us, including a dad and baby combo, watched a storm approach and then drench us in a steep valley. The second was along the craggy valley wall of the Inn, with hundreds of pitches overlooking the wide green pastures and forests in the shining light of the afternoon. We soaked up the vibes of great people, ancient playgrounds to challenge ourselves with and laughed a lot.

Feeling the pull of the road once more we left our friends with certainty we would meet again soon. We travelled another 50km along the Inn before seeking a smaller valley to test and reward us with more passes, less cars and fewer inhabitants. The next three days we found all this, riding up a 15% incline to 1900m, then down again, up another four or five passes as we wound slowly westward to Rankweil before crossing into Switzerland.

These three days really cemented all the reasons why we ride in more remote areas and often through the mountains. We camped in pristine forests where not a sign of mankind could be heard, woke to the sounds of rain falling gently on the pine needles over our tent and the coos of birds in their dawn chorus. We got thoroughly soaked ascending over Furkajoch pass (1800m) but hardly noticed due to these epic surrounds.

We’ll leave it there for now, more to come on our exploits in the German speaking lands of Switzerland and Germany!

The Balkans: Fast lane to Hungary

Route: Athens, Greece – Paszto, Hungary

Days riding: 13

km ridden: 1628

Total km: 12,813

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This section of riding was preceded with a luxious three week holiday courtesy of Tim’s parents. We spent a week enjoying another low-impact form of travel, that be sailing a catamaran from Athens to the small island of Poros and back again. Het had never sailed before, so enjoyed learning the ropes, or “sheets, halyards and lines” as they call them in the sailing vernacular, from Tim and family. We were also joined by Tim’s brother Nick who was very handy on the motor when coming into port. He also had with him his drone, which brought us these incredible photos of our stunning surrounds.

For the remaining two weeks we were treated to a beautiful tour of the Greek islands by ferry, visiting Santorini, Naxos, Mykonos and Milos. Some of the highlights for us were witnessing the quintessentially laid back island lifestyle of the locals, the fascinating culture of unfit Englishmen on their annual Greek island holiday (usually spotted in the star-fish position beside the pool  with budgy smugglers and tanning oil), exploring Ancient Greek archeological sites and enjoying the luxury of not having to worry about where we were sleeping every night. It was a delight to spend so much time catching up on news from home, enjoying Tim’s mum’s appreciation of young Greek men and Tim’s dad’s supreme organisation skills which made the whole holiday virtually decision free. Huge thank you for our beautiful holiday!

Hitting the road on Monday, June 6th was somewhat of a shock to the system. The weeks of dietary indulgence and beach-dwelling were felt strongly by both team members, so we eased in first day making a whopping 25km after a train ride north to pick up our route from near Larissa. There was no time for adjustment the next day, as we were on a strict time schedule to arrive in north-east Hungary in two weeks to volunteer on a kids camp a friend of Het’s had organised. Our ambitious route through North-West Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia and Hungary meant we had to average 90km per day.

Northern Greece was somewhat surprisingly, very mountainous, so we didn’t make our average distance on the first two full days’ ride… Despite or perhaps because of that, we enjoyed a beautiful camp spot underneath the majesty of Meteora’s crags and sun-kissed sheer drops. The next day we climbed up into pine forested wilderness where few cars passed as we rode through ski fields lying dormant in the hot weather. Sheep grazed the alpine plains which were alive with  wild flowers and electric green grass. We found a camp spot amongst damp ferns under towering pine trees and sheltered in the tent as the mozzies descended.

Following the same spectacular road next day we were faced with an unexpected challenge, Katara pass, at roughly 2200m. After climbing all morning we dragged our sore legs up to the top of the knoll and enjoyed the view with our favourite vice, strong black coffee. A euphoric descent of 1500 vertical metres sweeping through terracotta tiled rooves amongst sheer peaks finely covered in summer grass was ample reward for the hard work.

Soon enough the speedometer neared 100km as we rolled into Zitsa to stay with Anna and Kostas, Warmshowers hosts who we had been pretty excited about for a while. For the last 50km the major reason for this excitement was that Kostas is the village baker and he generously gave us full reign over the baked goods on display as we walked in to greet him. We relaxed for a day in the village, which was spent watching Kostas at work in the morning, walking with Anna and her new born baby and picking mulberries from the village trees. The slow paced lifestyle made us talk of life after the bikes and trying to find a similar rhythm.

Gifted with panniers full of bread we headed up the mountains towards Albania, crossing the border just after lunch. Apparently the last relative of Het’s to visit Albania fled on a fishing boat during the war, so we felt glad for the peaceful state of the country as we entered. Despite this, there are concrete bunkers littered throughout the country which speak of a more troubled time during the Cold War where Albania was ancillory to Soviet military prowess. Known for being the poorest country in Europe, the general pattern of countries getting wealthier the further West we travelled was somewhat put on hold. There’s a healthy mafia running in Albania and we were told the prevalence of petrol stations, many of which stand abandoned, were a common money laundering scheme, but they were great for us as they provided shelter from the rain on several occasions.

Albania is also famed for its beautiful rugged scenery, mountains aboundand with them come some of the best or worst, depending on your perspective, roads to cycle. Unfortunately due to our time limitations, we were restricted to taking mostly main roads, however on our fourth and last full day in the country we tumbled down this beauty.

The first two days were somewhat lacking in out-of-the-ordinary events and these days unfolded somewhat monotonously, so we thought we’d summarise the ordinary day… This was inspired after reading a similar summary from our friends Luke and Flo, who have just finished a ride from NZ to England.

8am, tent getting to a temperature that is inhospitable to falling back into another sleep cycle after the body alarm clock waking. Morning pee. Tim, on breakfast duty (this switched to whoever has more energy in the mornings at the time), boils enough water for coffee, and full thermos for second coffee midmorning, and prepares muesli and fruit (foraged for that day by one of the many wild fruit trees we pass). Het packs tent and possessions. Morning ablutions, have to ration toilet paper as stocks are low. On bikes by 9:30, ride for 2hrs, pretty busy road, and noisy so little conversation. 11:30 second coffee and biscuits in a abandoned petrol station. Ride for another hour, getting hungry by 1 – eat lunch: bread with tomato, cucumber and some vegemite Tim’s parents gifted us in Greece. Ride for another 2hours, then snack on dried fruit and peanuts road side. All being equal it’s not later than 6 by now and we only need to make another 20km before the search for a home begins, hidden, flat and with shade from morning sun (followed a big river most of the way in Albania, so a relatively easy task). 7pm, dump bikes, wash in river. T sets up tent, H cooks (again energy dependent, but H had more evening energy for this stretch). Bed by 9. Repeat.

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That said, Albania did provide some novelty, and we came across two things we hadn’t seen in a while – cycle tourists by the several each day, our favourites being a Dutch couple on matching vintage touring bikes purchased 20 odd years back at our age. Also – big storms. Second night we were kept awake by huge claps of thunder and lightning, surely crashing down right on top of our bicycles and melting them into a smouldering pile of metal. Not to mention the water gently soaking all our belongings.

Bikes intact we plodded north towards lake Shkoder where we took a few back roads, which we were glad for. As is always the case, small roads lead to memorable experiences. After a treacherous descent down a creek-bed-road (marked as sealed on our map), in a remote hilly area, two kids dinking each other on a bike appeared and looked pretty surprised to see us. Not as surprised as we were to hear the kid shout “ice cream ice cream”; given there were no large towns in sight we were sure our ears had deceived us. Then around the corner came a motorbike fitted with a musical horn on the front and esky on the back. Four tutti fruity plastic cups of joy please!

That evening we had planned to camp by the lake but the green area marked as forest on our map turned out to be a very green but swampy bog (more on swampy bogs later). Night fell and we couldn’t find a wild camp spot, so we forked out 10€ for a campsite and a hot shower at a camp ground next to the lake. As the heavens opened we were glad to be safe on the mown lawn and not in earlier said bog. That is until we awoke at 6am to 5cm of water inside the tent! The spot we had chosen in our tired state in the dark was in fact in a clear depression, which we were now sinking into the bottom of. Wet again.

After all morning drying out, showering and Tim practicing his German with Paula, our 5yo neighbour,  we headed to Montenegro.

In a country smaller than Tasmania we decided two days would suffice, or rather, would have to for the 200km route through the country to Bosnia. Things were on the up, it didn’t rain for our passage through and we had two wonderful interactions with Montenegrins… And both in the one day. We thought the first represented the style that Montenegro has to really do whatever the hell they want despite their surrounds; Montenegro decided to use the Euro in the early 2000s despite not being a member of the Eurozone, which followed the country’s adoption of the German Deutschmark, because they also thought that was a good idea.

The group of men we met after sweating up a windy road to visit a famous old monastery, decided that despite it being before lunchtime, we must drink at least 5 rakei (home made alcohol from whatever fruit you have growing in your garden, of at least 50% strength (read paint-stripper)) before we were allowed to continue. In all seriousness – this was ordered to Hetty by our huge “pro-Serbia” shaved head host who went by the name Mr Russian. She didn’t argue. Although somehow she did manage to get away with explaining the concept of vegetarianism when a giant plate of dried pork was presented to her. We declined the kind offer of waiting another 4hrs until the pig roasting on the spit in the garden was ready, not only for said vegetarianism, but mostly the near mortal levels of intoxication that were bound to be reached, as they indicated the store room nearby was filled to the rafters with such liquid. As we merrily rolled out of the yard we pondered our friends back in Iran, my what a different place.

We were accompanied on our bikes by Milosh, a young guy from Podgorica on a mountain bike who was also stopped by Mr Russian and force fed rake before we all escaped together. He convinced us to ride the 3km of switch backs up to the Ostrog monastery which was well worth it, even the views of the valley below were ample reward on top of the stunning building carved into the white Rock on a sheer cliff face.

If luck does come in threes, today was a fine example, as later in the day after struggling through a mid afternoon hangover, we stood at a cross roads contemplating which border to take to Bosnia. We asked a kind faced man in his garden if the smaller of the two were open. Accompanying his answer came the offer of a Montenegrin coffee, rakei, food and place to sleep, and by now his beautiful wife, two sons and daughter had all appeared to beckon us in. We couldn’t believe our fortune, and in the spirit of the day accepted gladly. We were fed a home cooked meal of dark-orange yoked eggs from their chickens, home baked bread and veggies from the garden along with more rakei, Apple again, and still as harsh on the throat. Come morning we were bade farewell with a full bottle of rakei, a Montenegrin flag to wave at the border guards and well rested limbs from the comfort of a home stay. The warmth and generosity of strangers never ceases to amaze us and it warms us to the core that this culture exists in every country we have been in.

We cycled another big day of 90 or so kilometres through beautiful mountains and valleys to get to Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bosnia or BiH), with one of the most unexpectedly spectacular stretches of road we’ve travelled thus far. The mountains are carved up by a dramatically steep valley with a perfectly transparent blue river flowing down it. The road travels along the river but, impossibly, manages to hold onto the rocky edge above the banks where it has been constructed. We cycled through the more than 20 rough cut tunnels that make way for the road and thought this deserved a mention on the best-roads-to-cycle-in-the-world coffee table book.

As we crossed the border into Bosnia we were abruptly confused. “Republican Srbska” read a huge sign as we cleared the gate where our passports were stamped. Shit, have we ridden to Serbia somehow instead? The guard reassured us we hadn’t but that this was a region in BiH. As we later learnt, after the war between the Serbians and Bosniaks ended, the largely Christian Bosnian-Serbs were given areas to the north and south of the country, while the Muslim Bosniaks occupy mostly the central areas of BiH. For a country sadly known for the horrors of genocide and war, we found much beauty both natural and man made in our short time here and will focus on those aspects of the country, you can read about unexploded land mines else where.

We camped our first evening by the great Tara river about 100km from Sarajevo where we would take our second rest day for this stretch.  We followed he Tara river upstream for the first 40 km before heading over a small pass where we stopped under a shady tree for lunch before heading down into Sarajevo along side the Zeljeznica river gently flowing downstream. In Sarajevo we treated ourselves to two nights at the Dr’s Hostel who offer discounts to long distance cycle tourists as the manager explained that she likes the stories of cyclists to boost the vibe in the hostel, which we were pretty chuffed to hear. That night we did find ourselves enjoying the company of fellow travellers and telling a few tales of the road to a captive audience.

After a day of being tourists learning a lot about the complex history of the city, and resting our legs for a day it was time to push out the next four days ride to the camp. The morning we left we were sure to indulge again in several börek, a filo pastry filled with spinach, potato or cheese and baked to a crisp golden brown, brought to the Balkans by the Ottomans, and in our opinion, perfected by them (sorry Turkish friends reading this).

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Two days ride to the border with Croatia and along fairly major roads, we rode quickly through some very industrial cities in the north. We stood amazed in Zenitsa, as a huge metal grabbing machine lifted scrap metal into a truck body and crushed it down to make space for more, while a steel factory in the background made anew what was being discarded. Whilst the fumes and scenery didn’t particularly inspire, they prompted good conversation as we bumped down a dirt slip lane for 15 or so kms to find a lovely river side camp spot for the night.

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The hospitality gods sent us another gift next day as we neared the Croatian border after a long day of 100km along busy roads and some heated discussions about directions. We had decided to pitch the tent next to a little church in a village as we were in farm land and felt this was the easiest option. After asking the neighbouring house if they thought the orthodox Christians would approve our request, we were given a neatly mown patch of grass in their back garden and an evening of delicious home cooked food and conversation in German, with Tim translating for Het. Having passed the last mosque earlier that day and riding back into the Republika Srbska region, the prominent Christian motive in our hosts home spoke of a country still deeply divided along religious lines perhaps further emphasised by some disapproving comments about Islamic fundamentalism.

Next morning we entered further into the Christian lands of Eastern Europe and were waved into Croatia at the flash of an EU passport, the days of hours-long border crossings long gone. We had decided to make a dash for Hungry and ride the 130 odd kilometres in one hit, giving Croatia a meagre 8 hours of our time. For this Croatia gave us not a whole lot in return, healthy fields of corn, wheat and vegetables interspersed with neat villages with manicured gardens and people going about their day.

At the border with Hungary the guards nearing the ends of their shifts seemed wholly nonplused at our having ridden the/a length of the country in one day, and waved us through as the sun began to dip below the horizon. The speedometer neared 140km and Het’s competitive nature began to overcome her. Hets mother cycled the length of America at a solitary age and made a record of 100 miles in a day, or 161km, which she had challenged Het to beat. Knowing it wasn’t likely that we would push ourselves perhaps quite so much as we had today, she convinced Tim on into the twilight to break the record. At 160km the moods hadn’t quite obtained euphoric record-breaking heights as it became clear there were no camp spots by the Danube near Mohacs where we joined the great blue river. We settled for a slightly muddy poplar forest and the speedo read 166; exhausted but very smug (at least for Het) we collapsed after a snack on nuts and fruit.

We would love to tell you the next morning we slept in until 10, wandered down the track to find a rustic river side cafe serving up fair trade coffee and home baked muffins and that of course we weren’t rudely awoken at 5am by water flooded in the tent to the depth of 5cm, of course we wouldn’t spend the morning in silence in a park whilst our soaked gear dried out…

The best thing is that it hadn’t even rained the night before – this was self inflicted – we were camped next to one of the Danube channels which had risen over night. And we thought riding in Europe would be easy!

That said, we did treat ourselves to a cruisy day, with our end distance greatly shortened by the previous record breaking day, we took several breaks from the punishing over 40 degrees heat and rode 60km. Mid afternoon we passed a beautiful little billabong whose cool waters were a welcomed relief, so much so we decided to end the riding early and enjoy this picturesque spot where a few other summer campers had set up.

With roughly 250km left we decided to arrive a day early in Paszto, where the camp would be, so as to have a days rest before camp activities began. We had picked up the Euro Velo 6, a bike path that travels along the Danube all the way from its head waters in Germany down to Bulgaria, apparently. In Hungary it’s more like a bike route, with some signs missing, some sections along a bumpy grass track and lots of thick gravel in between. We tried to following until eventually giving up and taking some inland roads that were faster and required less navigation. We decided to see Budapest after the camp, and headed north east after Solt, making a straight line to Pazsto where warm showers, soft beds and great company awaited. Liebi, the friend of Het’s who was running the camp,  opened the door to his apartment to two very sweaty, red faced cyclists.He ushered us in and put two huge bowls of pasta in front of us and he and Het caught up on two years of long distance friendship. We made it!

The Odyssey – from Istanbul to Athens

16 April – 9 May

Total Distance: 1486km

Days riding: 19

 Our route to Athens from Istanbul took us through 1486km of beautiful green hills, azure coastlines and friendly locals out and about enjoying the sunshine. Spring was in full bloom on the Aegean coast where we spent a large portion of our ride, and swimming became a common lunchtime activity. The weather was kind to us with long hours of sunlight making for a very pleasant ride from these two great cities.

Leaving Istanbul was a slightly stressful experience, as there is basically no way to cycle out of the huge city without riding along the D100 Highway at some point. A three-lane traffic-laden artery, it is no friend to the cyclist with fumes, trucks and massive amounts of heat radiating off the black tarmac. We rode swiftly through this section and were soon convinced to take a more circuitous and quieter route after Tekirdag.

As always, the small roads proved rewarding. The Marmara Sea showed off her several islands during the day and was lit up with ships at night. We undulated along her coast before heading inland not far from Gallipoli.

One evening the moon was shining brightly as we sat on the sand and looked out at the quiet sea pondering the fishing method of some nets set up just by the shore. Interrupting our conversation, a strange light shone down on us from up on the road. Our stomachs sank as we anticipated some kind of two-legged disturbance, most probably leading to our eviction from our little home for the evening. Much to our delight, the two men who wandered down to the shore were the owners of the nets and were happy to satiate our curiosity about their fishing technique. One fisherman put on his full body gators and waded into the water splashing a plastic tub on the water to scare the fish into the net set about 50m away from him. Fortunately for the fish, the near full moon with its evening glow had already spooked the fish into deeper water as the transparent shallows leave them feeling exposed. After the disappointed fishermen came back to shore we sat together on the sand discussing Turkish politics, religion and the delights of sleeping outside with little shared verbal language, but lots of body language. The fishermen insisted we take their catch from earlier in the day to fuel our ride for the morrow, which we respectfully declined.

Our last evening in Turkey was spent in a little pine forest near Ipsala just after we stopped to fill water bottles at a roadside café where, in quintessential Turkish fashion, we were offered our last Turkish coffee. The call to prayer echoed through the clear night sky and we contemplated our time in Asia and the Middle East and what lay ahead for us in Europe.

The speedometer clicked over 10,000km almost exactly as we crossed the border into Greece. We treated ourselves to espressos in a very hip café in Alexandropolis with electronic beats, free wifi and tattoed women in singlets kissing their boyfriends. We ain’t in Kansas anymore Dorothy.

Istanbul is considered the end of the Silk Route, so after almost nine months we bade this ancient trade path farewell. Here, we picked up another awesome ancient route, the Via Egnatia. An ancient Roman road, in antiquity the route connected Rome to Istanbul. Finished in 120BC the road is no longer useable for any non-ambulant traveller but it has been signposted in sections in Greece and just for fun, we rode through a hilly bush section through sheep herding country just to say we’d ridden along it.

Near Kavala, after six days of riding we decided to take a rest day in a beautiful forest we’d spotted next to the beach. In a blessing from the cycle tourist gods, we were provided with three other two-wheeled companions for our rest day – two Swiss cycle tourists on their way to Central Asia and one Frenchman who crossed our paths in the early afternoon. We spent a merry time exchanging notes for the roads ahead, stories of our travels over a few beers and a sizeable campfire whilst the seagulls sang in the background.

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We rode through beautiful rolling hills around Xanthes and Kavala as we headed westward toward Thessaloniki. On the outskirts of major cities we saw several refugee camps, some official, others informal, housing Syrian refugees who have crossed into Greece from Turkey. It was confronting to cycle past whole families living in tents, something that we were also doing, but for very different reasons.

Greece’s economy is so weak that many of its citizens are battling unemployment and those who are lucky to receive a pension struggle to make ends meet as the price of living continues to climb with the increased austerity measures involving higher taxes, household levvys and a shrinking pensions. The influx of Syrian refugees has put more pressure on the already frail economic situation and Syrians are receiving very little financial support and have to rely on the benevolence of NGOs and the charity of individuals.

One lovely act of kindness towards Syrians that we witnessed was outside a large supermarket near Sithonia. Het was on bike-watch duty and was waiting whilst Tim shopped, when an old man came out of the sliding doors with two heavy bags of shopping. He plonked them down seemingly in the middle of the car park and motioned to Het to mind them whilst he went to move his scooter. He disappeared, and before Het could leap up to stop them, three stray dogs had run up to the bags and one of them cocked his leg right on top of the shopping! Dismayed, she shooed them off just before the man reappeared and she apologized profusely for failing him. Wholly unperturbed by the yellowing urine the man proceeded to call the dogs back to him, by name! He rummaged in the bag and pulled out a bag of cat food, “is good also for dogs, is same food really” and he poured three piles of fish pellets out for the dogs. Next, a young Syrian girl approached him, knowingly, and he gave her a familiar smile and packet of biscuits. All that remained in the bag was some iced tea, which he loaded onto the foot of his scooter, all the while smiling and laughing and telling Het all about the 15 cats he has living at home. As if this weren’t eventful enough, the scooter announced its presence by autonomously falling over with a loud crash. Again, in the most laid-back manner, he didn’t rush to pick it up, and motioned to Het, who was frantically picking up the scooter, that his stand was out of action. Tim emerged from the supermarket to see Het giggling to herself as the man hopped on the scooter and bode us farewell.

Whilst many people have complained to us of the presence of refugees in Greece, the extra strain they put on the economy and the discomfort they feel towards the children begging in the streets, on so many occasions we witnessed the above kind of heartening generosity of shoppers outside supermarkets.

On a lighter note, as we approached the “three fingers” of Greece, we decided to take a 150km detour. This section of coastline has three strips of land jutting south into the Aegean Sea in the shape of three fingers. April was coming to a close and we were a little ahead of our schedule to meet Tim’s parents in Athens by the 13th of May, so we spent three glorious days riding along the cerulean coast line of Sithonia, the second “finger.” The sun was thoroughly beaming down on us now, and we were feeling the urge to shelter in the shade during the hot middle hours of the day, more often than not this coincided with a swim in the crystal clear sea. The snowy days of Turkey and Iran felt like eons ago.

We arrived in Thessaloniki for the Greek Orthodox Easter Passover weekend and were welcomed by Clara, a friend of the French cyclist we had met back in Kavala. A student of philology and able to speak French, Greek, Ancient Greek and English she had many wonderful insights into Greek culture and language evolution. She lived with two self-identifying “anarchists”, who were filled with lots of stories and strong opinions about Greece’s financial situation. We were lucky to be invited to a traditional Orthodox lunch with a friend of Clara’s where we ate red eggs, drank red wine and had a hilarious Greek grandmother laugh at how we vegetarians only eat grass, as she continuously passed us the salad!

After a few days rest we hit the road again; next stop Athens. The route we’d panned to take would lead us right past the foot of Mt Olympus through a beautiful mountainous region. We left on Easter Monday around midday, and were pretty soon in search of a bakery for lunch. As is the case the world over, religious holidays mean shut up shops and abandoned streets, so at 3pm we were giving up hope…

We rolled into Chalastra, a small village, dead quiet, soaked with the falling rain, and saw a lively gathering at a motorcycle club. Pitying us in our wet clothes, they invited their fellow two-wheeled friends in to share in the Easter festivities, with wine and beer a plenty. We were given honorary membership caps and stickers for our bikes as we admired the burly men’s tattoos and cut off denim jackets.

Next day we hit the scenic route and turned onto a wonderfully quiet road that wound through the green craggy hillside near Mt Olympus, Greece’s tallest mountain. At 2917m, the peak is only visible on a clear day from the road. Unfortunately the clouds were low, obscuring the peak when we passed, but we still soaked up the scenery and quiet surrounds. On the climb up, whilst taking a short break a car stopped to give us two punnets of fresh strawberries because the donor, a kind lady, felt that we must have been “really suffering with the climb!” She conceded that we were probably in our element, and right she was. We camped in a beautiful grassy meadow near the pass, and watched the sun set on the mountain flowers. This has to be cycle touring at its best, we thought.

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After reaching Larissa we were more limited with the roads we could take to Athens. It’s illegal (and enforced) to cycle on the motor way (which we found out after a test 10km stretch where Het was sternly told off by a road traffic officer), so the smaller highway was our pathway for the remaining three days’ ride. Whilst the road provided slightly less scenic riding per se, the eventful beast that is cycle touring, gave us some pleasant interactions.

As we reached Larissa a huge storm was chasing our tail, replete with thunder, lightning and heavy black clouds. We raced into town and took shelter in one of the many fancy cafés as the heavens opened and gave our bikes a good rinse. We trundled off into twilight skies a little concerned that we were coming into a big city without a place to stay. As luck would have it, we passed an overgrown park that would camouflage our tent just perfectly for the night. That evening we joked about getting caught early the next morning by workers on mowers coming to restore the park and fell asleep with this thought in our mind. Ha. Wouldn’t that be funny. This park was obviously disused and abandoned…

The next morning we woke slowly and leisurely enjoyed breakfast while our tent sat drying from the dew. As we sipped on our second coffee Tim heard a noise and poked his head above the overgrown grass. Yikes! Sure enough, our joke of the previous night had come true! Fifty metres away was a tractor moving at speed toward us with a mower attached behind. Time to move on. Quickly.

A full day’s ride along busy roads battling frustratingly strong head winds, we camped at a beautiful hilltop bushy spot just shy of a herder’s manger. Of late we’ve been noticing that our cycling pace is so similar that the weight of the tent (2-3kg) slows whoever is carrying it, so we compensate for this by the other person taking the head wind.

Next morning it was a steep climb up to the rural town Domokos, where we rewarded ourselves with a kilogram of chocolate biscuits at the town bakery. The baker was inquiring of our travels and offered us some rakeh (the local pine-liqueur that also doubles as paint stripper), but at 10am we thought better of it. We did accept his tour of the bakery and adjoining flour mill – which had been out of action due to the economic crisis, he slurred. The drunken baker then proceeded to ask for a job on Het’s folk’s farm back in Australia, and also informed us that he wanted a pet kangaroo. We could make one of these wishes partly come to fruition, and so we produced a little kangaroo shirt pinfor him, having started to carry small gifts like this for such occasions. He was so pleased he disappeared back into the bakery and emerged with another kilo of biscuits! Fair trade! We descended into Lamia and found a beautiful creek to pitch the tent next to.

The climb out of Lamia next day took us from sea level to 1000m in 15km via a series of switch backs at a very civilized incline. At the top of the pass we spotted six trucks pulled over with TIR licence plates on the back. Feeling a pang of solidarity at these friends of the road, we pulled in and called “merhaba!” They had stopped for the traditional Turkish breakfast feast after their morning drive from Istanbul. We all laughed when we said it had taken us three weeks cover the distance they do in just one day! They invited us to share bread, freshly baked in Istanbul that morning, jam, olives and cheese and of course, the ubiquitous chai in the lovely little glasses. We all hit the road together and they blew their horns merrily as they passed us.

We rode the remaining 100km in one stretch to Athens, passing fields of solar panels, large sections of wheat and vegetable crops with huge tractors and irrigation systems. Incredibly, 20 km from Athens we were still in unpopulated countryside, up in the hills that hug the city and provide the most beautiful sweeping vista as you enter the compact city.

Our warm showers hosts Stelios and Christos welcomed us into their beautiful home in the north east of the city. We had a couple of days to enjoy visits to their community garden, jamming sessions at home on the keys, guitar and various drums from all over the world and delicious vegan food. They are kindly minding the donkeys whilst we take a three-week holiday around the Greek islands with Tim’s family. Just to make you jealous, we’re currently writing this from a white washed balcony replete with blue ceramic pots, overlooking a calm Aegean sea in Santorini. More on that soon…

Iran – Istanbul Part 2: Black Sea in a (hazel)nut Shell!

After two days rest we hit the road again, this time glad for the somewhat relaxed roads ahead. We rode the thousand odd kilometers to Istanbul wholly along the coastal roads, which perhaps sounds like a Sunday doddle; however, in Turkey, roads can be deceiving…

 The first few days certainly were in paradise. We delighted in the warmer weather, the distinct signs of spring and musical dawn choruses of birds twittering through the thin walls of the tent. The availability of cheap hazelnuts – the prime produce of the area was an exciting new food item. We had hazelnuts on our porridge, hazelnut spread on our bread and raw nuts by the handful, often with chai from friendly locals.

 With the warmer weather came more precipitation, which is perhaps the second thing the Black Sea is famous for, after hazelnuts. It absolutely bucketed down on a few occasions, the longest stretch lasting for four days. We always find the rain impressive from the comfort of our waterproof tent, but slightly less so from the exposure of our saddles.

 Around half way along the Black Sea we had a rest with a lovely Warm Showers host in Gerze. Yalçin lived in an incredible 150 year-old wooden seaside mansion that was filled with trinkets from all over Turkey. A deeply philosophical man, we had some really nice discussions sitting next to his warm pot-belly fire at night while musing at the antics of his two hilarious cats.

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After Gerze the rain subsided, but we faced a new beast; the coastal road from Sinop to Ereğli. There is a reason the major road heads inland after Sinop. The coastal road, stunning as it was, was quite literally a roller coaster ride. We would ride from cliff top down to river-meets-the-sea tiny lovely village, back up to cliff top and down again. Repeat the process at least a dozen times a day, and that was our ride for around 10 days. Fortunately, this was tempered by the remote sylvan surrounds and some of the best wild camping spots thus far.

There was a funny moment when a train track appeared on our GPS and we thought, great! The road must finally flatten out – train’s can’t go up steep inclines right? Right we were. They didn’t go up steep inclines, they followed the neatly constructed tunnels through the hills that were made for them, but not the lowly road traffic. On we climbed, laughing at our stupidity.

As expected, during this section we passed some lovely little spots very much secluded from the populous coastal cities. The stunning scenery made all the tough riding worth it. Our favourite place was the picturesque lighthouse at Inceburun, the northernmost point on the Turkish Black Sea coast. The friendly buxom owner of the lighthouse welcomed us to her magical little spot of seaside real estate and motioned for us to pitch the tent in the rhythmic shadow of the lighthouse beam. We spent the evening contemplating the history and culture surrounding ship transport; in a world that has become so digital it’s neat to see that something as old and simple as a lighthouse is still used to protect ships from shoreline hazards.

We left the lighthouse by a tiny forest track marked on our GPS which was a fun 20 or so kilometres of very much off-road touring. A keen hunter welcomed us into his farmhouse for chai and we were awe-struck at the size of the wild pigs that were roaming in the forests we rode through. He gave us some farm eggs for the road, which he boiled, knowing they wouldn’t last a second on the stony track we bumped down.

Another delight of this region was the ready availability of the local Turkish brew, Efes. At 6TL a pop (around $AU3) due the government’s hefty alcohol tax (which some point to as a sign of the increasing Islamification of Turkey) we didn’t indulge too often. For good reason as well… After travelling in some pretty remote countries in Central Asia and the dry Islamic Republic of Iran our tolerance levels were pretty weak. There was an almost disastrous consequence one evening as we looked on at a beautiful sunset near Amasra. Het was feeling particularly giddy after downing her rations and launched into cooking dinner with gusto. This resulted in her failing to set up the petrol stove correctly, and instead of pre-heating the stove with a few mL of petrol as usual, she failed to instal the cap correctly and the few mL of petrol squirted directly into her left eye! Luckily Tim’s science laboratory training kicked into action and no harm was done. Perhaps one beer between two would do us next time!

Further down the road in Eregli we had another lovely Warm Showers stay, where we rested our tired legs from the consistent climbs of probably 1000m each day along the coastal road. Gurbuz and his family spoiled us with delicious food and a tour of the Eregli caves that date back to the 5th Century when Romans were forced to practice Christianity under ground in this Islamic land.

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From Eregli it was a smooth, but still hilly ride to Istanbul. We had a lovely couple of days exploring the remote coves near Kefken with another WS host where we had our first proper swim of the year! When we left Kefken, Tim had the great misfortune of having a bee fly into his mouth while riding. Understandably, the bee was quite surprised at finding itself inside the panting mouth of a human and decided the best way to respond was to attack! The sting lodged in Tim’s lip and proved quite difficult to remove, so he had to endure a few days of swollen face and lip. Let this be a reminder; try and ride with your mouth closed when insects are around.

Riding into Istanbul was somewhat surreal. After almost 10,000km in the saddle we reached our first major milestone. The city, whilst being famed for being a melting pot of Eastern and Western cultures, we felt, was much more a final frontier of the West. We explored arty laneways akin to those northside in Melbourne, browsed in overpriced vintage shops and felt somewhat overwhelmed by the heavy consumer culture we’ve been isolated from since we left Australia.

We spoiled ourselves to a few days in a rented apartment near Taxim square to celebrate reaching Istanbul. The joy of having our very own little house for even just a few days was wonderful. We also spent a few days with some lovely French girls Solene and Mathilde, who we met back in Tehran at a Couchsurfer’s place. Solene is actually part French, part Turkish and part Chilean! She identifies strongly with Turkish culture, so we had some very interesting discussions about the future of Turkey as the gateway between the historically unstable Middle East and Europe.

After 8 days sitting stationary, our bikes were calling out to us. We put them merrily on a ferry and crossed from the Asian Continent to the European Continent and rode out of Istanbul along the coast of the Marmara Sea. Four days later we write to you from Alexandropolis, Greece where today we passed our 10,000km mark and have entered Europe! Bring on the European summer…

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We reached 10,000km just after crossing into Greece! It feels like a long way, but at the same not very far at all…

 

Iran – Istanbul, Part 1: Anatolian Plateau

01 March – 13 April
Part 1: 01 March – 17 March
Part 2: 17 March – 13 April

Route: Maku – Istanbul, see TrackMyTour

Days Riding: 33
Km Ridden: 1981km
Total km: 9699km

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On the first day of spring we crossed the border into Turkey and bid farewell to Iran. Paying no heed to such arbitrary lines, the landscape around us remained arid and starkly beautiful and the weather paid little attention to the passing of the season. The next five and a half weeks we traversed Turkey, and we write this from the glorious Istanbul. Geographically our route was split into two very diverse regions, the first half along the Anatolian plateau through the predominately Kurdish and rural regions of Turkey, and the second half along the Black Sea coast where we descended from the snowy plains of central turkey and into the flushing green hues of spring.

We had a mostly uneventful border crossing, except for a highly amusing tussle with a group of Iranians trying to carry cartons and cartons of cigarettes from Iran to Turkey. These would-be entrepreneurs approached us and every other innocent crosser and shoved the goods into our hands with a sly wink, hoping that we’d agree to act as their mules. When we refused to partake in the transaction, one cunning man simply plonked the bag onto the back of Het’s bike, convinced that he’d out smarted us… Needless to say we crossed easily into Turkey sans cigarettes. Het somewhat ceremoniously removed her hijab and was pleased to be riding unencumbered once again.

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Our first night in Turkey was spent camped under the majestic Mt Ararat. At 5,137m she is Turkey’s tallest mountain, despite it having been fought over for centuries by the Iranians and Armenians. The peak has often been implicated in human disagreements; currently, the ongoing conflict between the Turkish government and the pro-Kurdish factions has resulted in the closure of the park, so unless you want to evade the Turkish military it’s forbidden to summit Mt Ararat.

In summary the conflict goes a bit like this. Kurds inhabit the whole western border region of Iran between Turkey and Iraq, and in Northern Syria. They are a distinct ethnic group and are thought to have descended originally from the Medes people in Iran. Some Kurds desire an independent Kurdish state, which the Turkish government vehemently opposes. Others happily identify as Turkish people, but want to be officially recognised as an ethnic minority, which the government is also against. The outlawed terrorist organization the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), operating in Eastern Turkey, Iraq and Syria is the major pro-Kurdish force and has recently taken to terrorist activities to advance its cause since peace talks collapsed in July 2015. Their latest attack killed 38 in Ankara whilst we were cycling along the Black Sea coast.

Whilst the region has been declared a war zone by some, the areas we rode through were on the peripheries of the conflict and were safe enough to ride through. The conflict only impacted us through the increased military presence in the region, there are lots of heavily guarded military check points and armed soldiers sending a strong message of power and control from the Turkish government.

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The nights were still below freezing but the days began to bring bright sunshine that gave some welcome relief to our skin. We were a little uneasy camping in the remote mountain areas in this region, as we had heard that there were PKK camps around the mountains, so we camped mostly to road houses and petrol stations where we were greeted with the ubiquitous offering of chai and scintillating conversation in our non-existent Turkish.

One evening  while still in the Kurdish area, we were looking for a place to camp when a kind gentleman in a van insisted we follow him up a muddy track to his village, Kalebaşi. After slipping and sliding up the village track we were welcomed by his wife and daughter who served us an array of foods and chai before silently disappearing to the kitchen. We spent the evening at the homes of the local school teachers who had been sent to this remote village on placement following their studies in Turkey’s major cities in the West. The culture here was as foreign to them as us, and they listed many challenges to their work such as gender inequality and familial duties. These circumstances often mean that girls are pulled out of school at 13 to work in the home or to soon be married. As you might imagine this is a far cry from the liberal, highly educated backgrounds of their teachers. Cultural norms required Tim to sleep in the male teacher’s house and Het in the women’s, which was the first evening we’ve spent apart since we left Australia!

The road for the next few days carried us through various valleys in the Erzurum region. This gave us a beautiful ride along the Aras Nehri river near Horasan. If not for the Jandarma (a kind of rural riot police) presence this was a beautifully quiet region with breathtaking bare hills enveloping us in shades of baked orange and crimson. Around Erzurum the valley joins a much larger expansive plateau where head winds blew cold snowy air in our faces. North and west of Erzurum the region is less politically tense (there are fewer Kurdish people) and the wild camping options were plentiful and merry. We spent a lovely day relaxing on a hill near the small village of Pirnakaban after eight days straight riding from the border. It was here that we took our first outside wash since Pakistan, though bathing in a stream was still quite a cold affair in early March!

After Erzurum we rode in a more North Westerly direction, having decided to cross over to the Black Sea to get some warmer weather; frankly, we were getting sick of living in our puffer jackets. This meant crossing the Pontic Mountains which sit at around 4000m. The road takes you over two passes of above 2000m if you take the route through Bayburt and Alujra, which is the quieter road. So whilst we were heading for the warmer weather, the worst was yet to come…

The first pass, Kop Geçidi, went smoothly enough. Our map indicated an elevation of 2900m but at 2400m there was a handsome sign indicating this was the top of the pass. We dismounted, went for a stroll up a very snowy hill to a monument to the fallen soldiers of WWI and WWII. We met some students on their way to a skiing holiday (this should have perhaps been cause for concern in hindsight). They were from Giresun, the first town on the Black Sea that we’d reach in around a week. They offered us a place to stay which gave us great motivation for the next few days’ ride.

We descended into some lovely countryside where trees started to appear more frequently, which meant lovely camp fires at night to cheer up the chilly evenings. On one sunny day we met a straggly young street pup who looked up at us with beady, helpless eyes as we stopped for a drink. Our hearts crumbled and we gave her the last of some cheese we’d been carrying for a few days. In a state of semi-delirium from the warm weather and heavy exercise we actually discussed her fate for a good 20 minutes; would we take her with us or not?

Finally, our rational brains prevailed and we had to speedily ride away from our brief canine companion so she wouldn’t unnecessarily expend energy trying to keep up with her new pack in vain.

The second pass was soon upon us. So, feeling confident from the relative ease of the previous pass, we opted for the very minor road marked on our map. We delighted in the first 40 kilometres of the pristine mountain road, rolling craggy hills leading to pine forested slopes. Not a soul in sight except for some sleepy villages awakening from their winter hibernation in their wood cabins next to the turquoise snow melt streams running by their organic vegetable gardens.

One other soul, this time a rather concerned bus driver, stopped us on the road and adjured us to go no further; there was snow, it would be cold, and well, it was just a very terrible idea to continue, was what we gleaned from his insistances. These familiar words were frequently directed our way throughout our 5000km through Central Asia and Iran so, as per usual, we nodded, thanked him for his well-meaning advice, but not to worry, we are professionals with great big sleeping bags. On we rode.

This is where the skiing holidayers should have also been a warning sign. Soon after an ominous, recently installed yellow triangle sign with words that looked distinctly like “GO no further” the road became carpeted in thick, spring snow. As doggedly determined as we are, we pushed on! “That’s gotta be the top up there, and then it will be downhill which will be an easy push to more beautiful mountain roads leading to the Black Sea! We must not turn back!” You see where this is going. We slogged, sweated, removed t-shirts on our way to the “top” where we realised that the mountain gods had played a cruel joke on us. Before us lay a completely white landscape, the road signs peaked out from beneath 4m of snow and then disappeared completely into what could have been the skiing holiday destination for our friends from Giresun. You Shall Not Pass.

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The very beginning of the push. While it was still mildly amusing, and we had the energy to take photos.

With our tails firmly lodged between our legs, we obeyed the laws of nature and back tracked the 40km to the major road that would lead us to the Black Sea. It was still a stunning ride over a 2200m pass that was dusted with snow at the top. People gave us concerned looks as we plugged away uphill, red faced and steamy breathed.

The descent was one of our favourites thus far. The first 1000m was through fairyland-like wild pine forest dusted with a fresh 10cm of snow. Once below the snow line, spring was upon us. The first flushes of the season appeared, with beautiful tiny leaves sprouting from the greenery around us. We rested up in Giresun with our lovely friends from the road, Rukiye & Timuchin who looked after us with the omnipresent hospitality we have been so lucky to receive.

Finally, we had made it to an area where the temperature wouldn’t drop below freezing in the night time! We breathed a sigh of relief, and slyly shifted some of our winter clothes to the bottom of our panniers. Part 2, coming soon!

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