As mentioned at the end of “we nearly missed the boat”, by 2012 we were reaching a ‘fork’ in the adventure road that we had chosen to follow. The boat had taught us that we were capable of far more than our minds were often prepared to offer-up. Our recent walking and cycling escapades had been challenging but also very satisfying experiences. We finished each one feeling like we wanted to do more. It was in this new, broader mindset that I tested the ‘Ruth-waters’ with the suggestion of some offshore cycling. She was all for the offshore part as her wanderings out of New Zealand had been limited to our immediate South Pacific neighbourhood. I had wandered far and wide but a long time ago and the World was now a very different place. Plus, we were looking at experiences that were new and, planned and controlled by ourselves.
We decided to take the road that would lead us into these very different types of adventures and one that would eventually lead us away from our boating. From our experience, we knew that we could not do justice to both and one would be at the expense of the other.
Having enjoyed our Otago Rail Trail ride in 2012, I started searching for options for self-guided bike rides in other countries.
Europe seemed to offer the most opportunities for the type of adventure we were seeking, especially continental Europe, so we tossed around some thoughts on where we would like to visit. Holland sprung to Ruth’s mind because she understood that it was very flat, i.e., no hills to bike up. As she had never been to Europe she had no idea how hilly any of the countries were. This of course gave me a bit of an advantage in selling any ride to her.
While I had visited parts of France back in the 70’s; having reading “A year in Provence” by Peter Mayle (no relative) in the 80s, I was annoyed that I had not bothered visiting Provence and was keen to rectify the oversight. I also knew that it had it’s ‘up and downs’; I had seen Tour de France riders slogging up Mont Ventoux so maybe it was not for us.
I tend to be a little deluded as to my own capabilities and I knew that Ruth spluttered on anything other than a very gradual slope. The route notes for the tour that I was interested in, suggested that it was an ‘easy to moderate’ ride. It looked to be within our capabilities and I could not see references to Mont Ventoux in any of the itinerary notes. Burgundy or the Loire Valley were other areas that looked interesting and there was a lot of flat cycling on offer in Germany and Austria and even further east.
In the end I settled for a week cycling through Burgundy then a week cycling around Provence. Ruth’s daughter, Anna, had agreed to meet us in Paris following our rides and after a few days in the city of light, we would head to Italy via Switzerland. This addendum would add another four weeks to the trip.
We had discounted options to start in the UK and, a boat and bike option along the Danube river after Anna joined us. However, I was still keen on Germany and suggested to Ruth that as we were not heading to the UK we could fly into Frankfurt, catch a train south to Saarbrucken and then take a week to ride along along the Saar and Mosel rivers to Koblenz on the Rhine. Rivers run downhill so it would be a perfect way to ease the bodies into the biking groove for the tougher two weeks that would follow. Ruth, excited at the thought of an overseas trip, did not bother too much with the fine detail and signed onto “team senile’ for what would be our own personal Tour de France.
I came clean and mentioned that it would involve cycling around 750km and there may be a few hills in Provence but by the time we got to that last week we would be so fit that hills would no longer be an obstacle to her, by then, bulging leg muscles. She didn’t seem terribly convinced with my ‘easy as’ patter but the adventure in Europe trumped any doubts about the physical effort.
By mid 2012 we were ready to get into the detailed planning and organisation.
Why start planning so early? Well I had a bit of history here as well.
In 1975 at the innocent age of 23 I had headed off into the unknown for 12 months OE (overseas experience). I left NZ with an Australian colleague from my work. We had little in the way of a plan or money but plenty of enthusiasm. During that adventure so much of our time, and even more limited money, was wasted as we did things on the spur of the moment. While ‘on the road’ that approach introduced a lot of unnecessary angst to our days as we always had to find a place to sleep on arrival. In fairness to us, there was no Internet and we were traveling on ‘the smell of an oily rag’ which did tend to limit planning and options. The trip had also left a big impression on me and on how I would travel in the future, if I ever got the chance again. The three of us had purchased a second hand Mark II Cortina which proved to be very unreliable. Two of us were drivers although one an extremely reluctant driver so yours truly ended up behind the wheel for most of the 21,000km we covered over the five month road trip that took us through most of Europe and as far east as Asian Turkey. We camped in a very small tent when the weather permitted and used hostels, pensions or the car when it was bad. Our daily budget was pitiful and made worse by unscheduled and unrelenting car maintenance. Never again. I was going to: plan, have plenty of funds, avoid driving and eat and sleep well in any future trip.
Back to 2012. There was plenty to organise; flights to and from Europe were the starting point and once those were sorted we could start to fill in the bits in between. One of the advantages of self-guided biking is that you have total flexibility around dates but, we would be hitting Europe in mid August which was peak visitor season so booking well in advance was going to be advisable, especially for bikes and accommodation. Italy would not be so bad as our travels there would take place during mid September / early October.
We decided that once we got to Europe all of our travel would be at ground level: bikes, boats, local trains or buses. No planes, cars or group tours. We felt that staying at ground level would allow us to better experience a country than flying over it at 35,000ft. Doing it on our own would allow us to do what we wanted to. We would do all of our own bookings via the Internet.
I found a great web site on train travel worldwide, seat61.com. From that site I learned that bahn.com the German rail booking engine gave timetables for trains all over Europe. You could only book German trains through that site but from a planning point of view it was invaluable and they also had apps for your phone and tablet for use on the go.
We could catch a train to Saarbrucken from Frankfurt airport, it was a local train so bookings were not needed. We would then cycle 350km to Koblenz on the Rhine, catch a train to Dijon in France via Basel in Switzerland. We would then bike through Burgundy to Macon in the South where we could catch a further train to Avignon in Provence.
Our ride in Provence ended in Isle sur la Sourge, not that far from Avignon, we could catch another local train back to Avignon and then catch the train up to Paris. Train connections were going to be possible to Italy. We chose to go via Lucerne for two nights and then on through to Milan for two nights then Venice, across country to Cinque Terre which involved a transfer at Milan, then Florence via a transfer at Pisa, from Florence down to Chianciano Terme where we would get a bus transfer to Montepulciano before finally heading to Rome by train. We would fly to Melbourne from Rome to catch up with Ruth’s son, Mark, before returning to Auckland.
There is just one catch with train travel, some routes required bookings, which we were more comfortable with, but reservations did not open until 2 months before departure.
I learned that using online ticket agents is a waste of time and money. All rail companies offer English versions of their websites and booking was painless and quick. You generally just roll up to a railway station in that country and go to a ticket machine, enter your booking code, and the tickets get printed for you. I also found that getting in as early as possible allowed you to pick up some very good deals, well under the listed fare, on most routes.
Late in the planning process Ruth was convinced by her workmates that she should at least try to get across to London. I had offered a short excursion to the UK early in the research phase but it was rejected. How could we fit it in now? Well we had to get up to Paris from Avignon, why not get the train through to London for a few nights before returning to Paris to meet Anna. Some investigation revealed that we could catch the train in Avignon at 10am and be downing a pint in Kings Cross around 4pm. We had to get across Paris from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar to London. I could see that you could get the metro from one station to the other; ‘piece of cake’ but lets hope it is not a sticky cake.
Ruth’s 60th bash was in February 2013 and by that stage the trip planning was largely done and dusted. Just the trains left to book.
In March we headed across to the Hauraki Rail Trail, south of Auckland, to peddle a few km and start getting into the cycling groove again. We had traded our fold up bikes for the real deal so we clipped our shiny new hybrid bikes onto the bike rack and headed off.
The trail was very flat and immediately got the big tick from my team mate who threw in the unnecessary quip, “so this is what Provence will be like”? It was very hot which we later found out was the only thing the Hauraki Rail Trail would have in common with Provence, but we had a very enjoyable weekend.
The Karangahake Gorge was most impressive and on the last morning we ditched the bikes and walked up through the old mines and along the mining tracks high above the river.
The day before we had biked out across the very flat and featureless Hauraki Plains. As usual I was a bit behind Ruth, this is usually because I am messing around taking photos or trying to figure out where we are and where we should be. I biked around the corner to find Ruth stationery, feet on pedals but not moving. The problem was that both Ruth and the bike were lying horizontal to the road. A passing car full of ‘gents’ gave me a pitying look before no doubt heading off the recount the spectacle over a couple of pints.
This was not good, we did not need Ruth’s confidence being dented after a few miserly kilometres. I tried a casual comment like “testing some different riding styles are you” to try to pretend that she had not fallen off. She seemed a little stunned at where she was and how she had got there. A quick survey showed no visible damage to Ruth or the bike and Ruth’s only problem was confusion on how it happened. It seemed that she simply forgot to put her foot down when she stopped the bike. We put it down to a combination of a new bike, the heat and her advancing years.
We deemed the ride a great success and it helped to build the expectation for the upcoming ‘Le Tour’.
Winter set in and being the softies we are, we decided that it was far too cold to go outdoors on the bike. We got a bike stand that turned the bike into an exercycle by mounting the rear wheel onto a roller contraption. It ticked the mental rather than physical preparation box as it was not (remotely) as strenuous as the real thing. So, yet again, we were going to be physically unprepared for the upcoming 750km ride which started in our winter but of course, summer in Europe.
I completed the train bookings in June and our August departure date was soon upon us. Because we were still working, our available time off work was limited but we had managed to wrangle two months absence from our jobs. A combination of accumulated annual leave and some leave without pay. Accordingly, we did not want to waste time in getting to the start line in Saarbrucken. We would fly from Auckland through to Frankfurt via San Francisco (SF) where we needed to transfer flights.
We would fly Air New Zealand to SF and then Lufthansa to Frankfurt. We had 2h:30m for our SF transfer. The first flight was scheduled to leave Auckland at 7:30pm on Saturday night. At 9:30pm, we were finally boarding our now delayed flight and there was no way we were going to make our connection in SF. This was not the start we had hoped for.
The flight crew were optimistic that the flight captain could extract a few more knots out of the old 747 and we would be fine. He didn’t and we weren’t. As we walked from the plane in San Francisco we heard a final call going out to Passengers Cliff & Ruth Mail for flight... to Frankfurt.
Shortly before our arrival in SF the flight attendant had come to us with a post-it note with some secret code scribbled on it. “Take this to the United Airlines desk at the airport and they will issue you with tickets for their flight to Frankfurt leaving at 5:30pm”. We found the United desk but the post it note was as mysterious to them as it was to us. Because we did not have a booking with them they were not interested, the post-it note was not ‘legal tender’, “next please”.
We found a roving attendant and explained our predicament, I dug out our original Air New Zealand / Lufthansa flight documentation on the iPad and it appeared that combination could work. We had left our car at Auckland airport 17 hours earlier and we were starting to feel a little stale and a little frazzled.
We obviously got the last two seats on that United flight, they were awful and the sleep we desperately needed was not possible. We were thankful to see Frankfurt. Fortunately, USA regulations require transit passengers to collect their luggage and take it through pre-flight security screening. At least we had a good shot at seeing our bags when we went to the baggage carousel in Frankfurt, who knows where they would have been otherwise.
My original train connection to Saarbrucken was now impossible so I needed to work out when the next scheduled departure was. Fortunately we only had about an hour’s wait and after the 2 hour train ride we arrived in Saarbrucken. It was now over 30 hours since we locked the car at Auckland airport, Ruth just wanted a bed.
I suggested that a walk from the station to the hotel would do us good, get some ‘fresh’ air in the lungs. She was not convinced but followed me. I was using my offline map app to find our way but it did seem to be taking us on a bit of a scenic route. Ruth was not happy and even suggested that we were walking around in circles, “was I doing this deliberately”? At 6pm we were finally at the hotel, Ruth was staring at the bed with a determined but dreamy look on her face.
As team leader I needed to get her into peak condition quickly. “No we should not go to bed yet, let’s get our body clocks into the local time zone. There is a market down the road, let’s go and find something to eat before we turn in”. She was too tired to debate and so we ‘enjoyed’ our first night on The Continent.
Stage 1: Saarbrucken to Koblenz (Germany)
We had a ‘lay day’ before the start of Le Tour and enjoyed it wandering around Saarbrucken. The city is not on any tourist trail but it was a pleasant enough, the weather was warm but not hot and by the end of the day we were feeling pretty well adjusted to our new European summer environment. We needed to make an early start in the morning as we had a 53km ride, yet again, the longest ride of our lives, so far. The bikes were waiting for us in the hotel garage along with route notes and vouchers for our accommodation along the way. We did not need to meet with any people but simply got on the bikes and headed off.
As we were following the Saar river for most of the first two days, all we had to do was; find the river, figure out which way it was flowing, find the bike path and head off in the same direction as the river. How easy was that.
We managed all of those without a problem although Ruth took a little convincing that the river was flowing at all let alone in which direction.
The cycle path was paved and largely devoid of other cyclists, apart from the occasional commuter who we would throw a booming “guten morgen” at us and usually got a “morgen” back. We felt like Germans already. The air was crisp, despite it being high summer; we were pleased that we had been a little pessimistic with our weather expectations and had packed our wind and rain proof jackets.
The initial scenery was a mix of industrial landscapes, with a nuclear plant thrown in, but we soon found ourselves in increasingly pleasant rural surroundings. Unlike New Zealand, the countryside always seemed to have plenty of human habitation with the land looking intensely farmed.
To my relief, the “river runs downhill” statement held true for that first day’s ride. It was pleasant and very flat, ideal for breaking in the muscles. We enjoyed a cold beer at one of the many “pop-up bars that we passed as we cycled through the countryside, watched river traffic negotiate the locks and enjoyed the increasingly pretty countryside.
We kicked through our previous longest distance of 43km and added the extra 10km without noticing any physical effects. The paved track gave way to a rougher track when I took the first of what would be many wrong turns during ‘Le Tour’ but it was not a big deal. In many places you could ride the left or right bank, it just depended upon what places you thought were worth riding through. Given that we had no idea what was worth riding though, we often saw pretty villages on the other bank while our side of the river would be devoid of them.
Mettlach was our first destination. It appeared to be a ‘factory shop town’ for kitchenware. We thought it was a very pretty town enhanced by it’s location deep in the river valley but, given that it was the first pretty town we had seen, the ‘prettiness bar’ was set very low.
We were staying in a traditional inn for the night, next to a Church that had a pastor who was determined to remind his flock of the church’s presence every 30 minutes of the day (and it seemed night) when there would be an outbreak of very loud church bell ringing that became a rousing ‘dinging and donging’ on the hour. As we would find out during the next three weeks, bell ringing was something that was enthusiastically practiced in most of the towns and villages we passed through. It was not always appreciated by my team mate who unlike me could not ‘turn her digital ears off’ to block the noise.
The first thing that I usually did when we checked into accommodation was to start charging all of my technology; iPad, iPhone and camera, all were vital pieces of equipment as far as I was concerned.
The iPad contained offline copies of all our documentation, tickets, guide books, etc. The iPhone was critical for navigation and the camera, well, it was recording our efforts. When I looked through my gadget bag in Mettlach, the power adapter plug was missing, I had left it in Saarbrucken, plugged into the power socket. Ruth did phone the hotel on the ‘long shot’ that they would understand our predicament and send it to our next destination (Trier). They did not understand the language let alone the predicament I was in.
There was no problem buying crockery or other kitchen paraphernalia in Mettlach but power adapters for a NZ/Australian three pin plug were not items stocked. We would need to shop around in the next stop, Trier, which promised to be a larger settlement (the oldest in Germany), in fact a Roman outpost. Surely they did not have standardised European plugs in those days and an early trading post in power adapters had been passed down and expanded through the generations? I have to admit that I was a little downcast at this very basic blunder, pre-departure checks needed to be implemented. The battery life on the phone and iPad were already looking lacklustre and Trier was a reasonable sized city that we would need to navigate through, I would need to use my iPhone maps, for sure.
The lower Saar river was very pretty and we enjoyed the old town of Saarburg which made Mettlach look a little bland. This was such a different experience to New Zealand and being on the bikes took us to territory that we would simply miss if driving in a car, camper or sitting in a bus or train. It was another 50km (plus) ride to Trier, our first stop on the Mosel. We were already aware of the need to start early, in the cool of the day, and give ourselves plenty of time to stop, explore and enjoy many of the villages that we passed through. I figured that we averaged a maximum of 10km an hour when we included those many stops and this has become a bit of a ‘rule of thumb’ in determining how long it will take us to cycle from point to point.
Trier is the oldest city in Germany, with well-preserved Roman ruins. We had to ride well into the city and then detour out to the outskirts to our overnight accommodation. It was the first real test of my ability to follow written, turn by turn, navigation instructions while cycling. The results were not encouraging.
When we finally found our lodgings, Ruth’s eyes, as usual, immediately settled on the bed but I had another mission in mind, finding a power adapter. The receptionist told me that there was an electronics store in a mall a couple or three kilometres from the hotel. Over a late lunch in the Bier Garten I offered Ruth the opportunity of joining me or staying. After my navigation efforts of the last hour, she indicated that she did not trust me to find my way to the front door and at that stage she did not want to be stranded in Germany for the remainder of her life. So the team headed off for some supplementary exercise. We eventually found the store and purchased the last adapter that they had, I was extremely relieved. Ruth was also relieved that she could finally stop this madness and get some rest.
Well that would have to wait, the city looked interesting, a little touristy, but we spent the rest of the daylight hours exploring it further before eventually trudging back off to the hotel for that well-earned rest.
Well I flunked the navigation test in a big way the next morning.
Earlier on, while cycling through Trier, my rear reflector had fallen off. Ruth saw this happen and in attempt to retrieve it had fallen off her bike. I had gotten into the habit of looking around as regularly as the terrain allowed, when cycling ahead of Ruth, not something she always practiced when in front. However, when I stopped at some traffic lights there was no Ruth to be seen so I turned and started retracing my route. I found her not too far along the cycle path looking a bit stormy but otherwise unhurt. A kind German gent had come to her rescue and she was now talking about Germans in far more respectful tones than she referred to me.
Just out of Trier I had a very senior moment with the route instructions. We had not got to the cycle path (or the river) and at one particular decision point there were road works that were not helpful in trying to work out which option was the correct one. Each option that we took lead us in a circle back to the same spot and as we passed the road workers for the fourth time I was concerned that one may step out and hit me with his shovel in order to relieve Ruth of the plonker. Finally, we saw two cyclists emerge from a path that we had felt could not possibly be ‘The Path’ but they were kitted out for a long ride so we headed off in the direction they had come from and after a few hundred meters we had that “ah” moment as the expected landmarks materialised.
By now we were in a very defined river valley with vineyards stretching up the valley on both sides of the Mosel. It was very pleasant riding with riverside towns and villages becoming increasingly pretty. The only negative was that along some narrow gorge like stretches the path was essentially the shoulder of the road. While that may not normally be a big deal, these were only available on one side of the road which often involved riding in the opposite direction to the oncoming cars. I did not find this aspect of the ride particularly comforting.
Piesport was our overnight destination and appeared to be the ‘capital’ of this Riesling wine region. It was certainly not a touristy village and the main vehicular traffic seemed to be the specialised tractors used for keeping the vines tidy. We wandered through the village and found a little café where we could enjoy a glass of the local Riesling and a bite to eat. The wine was cheap, the large glasses were filled to the brim and it was good.
We sat, imbibed and watched the locals arrive on their tractors and order what looked like pint glasses of the stuff. As I watched some of them mount their tractors and head off, after downing many ‘glasses’ of the vintage, I was pleased that we were walking rather than riding our bikes. I suspected cyclists wobbling along the road could have suffered a similar fate to possums on New Zealand roads.
When we decided to move on, Ruth’s legs were a little ‘jelly like’. Basically, Ruth only needs to sniff a glass of alcohol for it to affect her. Drinking a very full glass of Riesling was probably not the best option for her after our long ride but, she had got carried away by the moment, ‘when in Rome...’ I walked her around the village until she started to steady a bit before dropping her back to her beloved bed for some much earned rest.
The scenery for the rest of the trip continued to impress us, especially the towns which we found very distracting from a time aspect. Half-timbered houses, good food and wine and plenty of interesting shops for Ruth to explore resulted in slow progress but, that is the whole purpose of slower travel, you get to experience a country rather than whizz through it.
Many of the towns had double handled names such as Traben-Trarbach or Bernkastel-Kues. These names seemed to be the result of bridges being built across the Mosel that joined the previous separate towns, on the opposing banks, into one larger entity.
As we progressed along the ride I noticed that I was starting to have trouble keeping pace with Ruth. Once we had finished with one town she was eager to speed to the next one to see what delights it held. She was also starting to adopt a slight German accent and her conversations and indicated that she may now actually be thinking of immigrating. She could probably claim asylum status based on the stories she was spinning of my team leadership capabilities.
Before we knew it, the last day was upon us. It dawned cloudy and very humid with the threat of rain. We got a little intermittent moisture but it was mild and we had certainly ridden in much wetter conditions back in Otago.
The ride would take us from Cochem to Koblenz, where the Mosel joined the Rhine. It was a long ride and en-route we wanted to visit Berg Eltz which was reputed to be one of the best preserved castles in Germany. Most of the castles we had seen along the river were in ruins as a result of this area being a regular battleground between the French and Germans. Since the end of World War 2 the inhabitants had finally been given the chance to actually establish some sort of national identity whereas in the centuries preceding it they would regularly wake to find that their nationality had suddenly changed to either French or German. Prior to our departure we had read a very interesting book on the regions we would ride through called ‘Wine and War’; it gave us a good insight into some of the history of the wine growing regions we would be passing through and the trials that War bought with it.
Berg Eltz had seemed to avoid that destruction and had been in the same family for many centuries. I smelled a fence sitting Duke or Count who would go with the military flow in order to preserve his domain intact.
A short video on Stage 1
Berg Eltz was located out of the Mosel valley which meant that we needed to leave our bikes in a town called Moselkem and walk to the Castle. As we cycled into the outskirts of a village I spied a sign which showed symbols of people walking to a Castle. We must be in Moselkem! We secured the bikes to a tree and set off for what I had estimated to be a 90 minute round trip to the Berg. We followed a road, which, seemed odd, as the guide book had said there was a river walk to the Berg. Eventually we came to a forest walk that looked a little more promising and shortly afterwards, spotted the Castle through the trees. The walk had taken longer than the anticipated 45 minutes one way.
When we got to the Castle we found that we could only view the interior if we took a guided tour. The English translation version did not leave for another 30 minutes and given our rapidly disintegrating time schedule, we decided to join the German speaking tour departing at that moment. We nodded and laughed when others did but did not give our identity away by being silly enough to ask questions in English.
As we left the Castle I spotted the river track back to Moselkem and off we set. 45 minutes later we arrived in Moselkem, the bikes were not to be seen, in fact, this did not even look like the Moselkem where we left our bikes. I pulled out the phone and looked at the offline maps. Oh darn, we must have left the bikes in Muden, about 5km further back along the river. This news was not going to win me any leadership awards from my team mate, in fact my best approach was to probably resign my leadership role on the spot. She muttered some profanities but took it all pretty well, we saw the funny side of it but I have to say that it was not exactly the ‘icing on the cake’ for what was already a strenuous day.
We finally got to Deutsches Eck at the confluence of the Mosel and Rhine rivers at 5pm. Sleep came easy that night, the end of stage one of Le Tour, 350km plus a lot of walking. We loved it, Ruth was absolutely in love with: the whole cycling down rivers thing, Germany, German people, Riesling, the beds, bring on stage 2.
There were a couple of casualties, one was a niggling doubt about my ability to handle these damned turn by turn instructions when we got off the cycle paths, the other was, surprise, surprise, my sunglasses which had lost one of the ‘temples’. I was getting strange looks when I donned my reconfigured sunnies, not to mention having trouble keeping them on.
Stage two started in Dijon, France. To get to Dijon we were catching a Deutsch Bahn(DB) train to Basel, Switzerland, where we would change to a high speed TGV train to Dijon. We had about an hour for our train transfer in Basel. The transfer would be tight, as the information that I had read on Basel train station was a little confusing, there seemed to be three countries involved, Germany, France and Switzerland with several stations. I was sure that our arrival and departure was from the same station.
Our train was a little late arriving in Koblenz but nothing too serious, these DB trains are meant to ‘fly’ and the company was renowned for punctuality. We got on board to find that a German couple had claimed our window seats that I had specifically reserved for what I hoped would be an interesting trip through the Rhine Gorge. But, they were big windows and we could still see fine, it was not an issue worthy of upsetting the locals.
As we trundled along, at a pace much slower than I was expecting, there were constant announcements over the public address system but only in German. Probably just telling us about the sights we were passing, lots of castles and barges battling the river currents.
We should have been arriving in Basel around 1:30pm but we had still not passed through several of the nearby towns. As 2pm ticked over and there was still no sign of Basel, I started to consider what plan B might be, the chances of us making the TGV connection were looking slimmer by the minute. Suddenly, the outskirts of what must be Basel appeared; we had a chance but we were going to have to be smart about our approach to getting to the other train. Getting off the train and jumping up and down yelling in English, “where is the TGV train to Dijon” was probably not going to work.
At 2:15pm the train was slowing for what we assumed must be our stop, everyone was getting off, it was the terminus. I grabbed our bags, remembered to grab Ruth and we headed for the exit. We needed to be first off, I looked out the window, my heart sank as I realised how big the station was. As we hit the platform I spied steps up to what looked like the main terminal area, we ran for them and at the top found a ‘train status’ monitor. A quick scan revealed a train heading to Dijon in a few minutes we raced off using the platform identification system to ensure that we were heading in the right direction. We got to the platform just as the train appeared, we had made it.
Stage 2: Dijon to Macon (Burgundy-France)
I always allow at least a day in our start destination lest we have problems such as missing a train connection. We were staying at an old coach inn in Dijon and when we saw it we did rather expect to be visited by a few of the old inhabitants during the night. It looked very 16th century. The ‘receptionist’, who we assumed to be the owner, looked as though she had been running the place since those times but, once we broke the ice so to speak, she warmed to us and gave us a key to a room. This was not quite the same standard we had grown accustomed to in Germany but it was ok.
Ruth indulged in a little early Christmas shopping picking up some European late summer bargains for our coming Antipodean summer that, would be getting underway by the time we arrived back in New Zealand. Finding sunglasses that were suitable for riding, was more challenging than I would have expected in cycling mad France. I found some, not quite what I was looking for but the process of purchasing them seemed unduly bureaucratic. I actually had to fill out paper work, hey I am only buying sunglasses, not a weapons cache. Maybe they spotted the bulging thigh and calf muscles and had decided that I was scouting the 2014 Tour De France route. They just wanted my autograph!
We had grabbed some lunch in a touristy cafe near the former residence of the Duke of Burgundy. Probably not our wisest choice but Ruth decided to shoot for the recommended local specialty. It is enough to say that after that experience she has since been far more choosy with regard to ‘local specialties’ in any of our destinations.
By the time we got back to ‘The Inn” her stomach was starting to settle down; it was also time to pick up the bikes.
This cycle hire company actually sent a real person to hand us our cycles and touring notes. My heart sank when I saw the instructions, we would be lucky to find our way out of Dijon let alone find the Cote du Nuits. My heart sank a little further when I got on my bike in the morning, the front wheel was not at all aligned to the handle bars, if I pointed the bike in one direction I headed off in another. However, every cloud..., that issue would become a favourite excuse that I would try to use to explain the improbably high number of wrong turns that I led our little peloton along.
When I had first investigated Dijon I had taken particular note of the population. It was a smaller sized city (in European terms) which I translated as; one that was hopefully not to difficult or dangerous to exit on a bicycle. Well how wrong I was to base difficulty of exit on on population statistics. Our distances for each day of stage 2 were very modest compared to stage 1 and, pre-ride, I was concerned as to how we would kill time until our check-in at each nights accommodation. No problem; as mid morning approached we were still trying to find the outskirts of Dijon and had probably already covered twice the scheduled distance for the entire day. Our target was Vougeot, about 20km South of Dijon but, Dijon wanted to keep us.
I had not perfected the art of reading instructions while riding nor, did my brain have the ability to memorise them, the result was many stops. The sidebar above has the instructions for the first 900m, all seven of them.
We did finally find the Dijon city limits and immediately found ourselves cycling along quiet country lanes bordered by vineyards. We were in Grand Cruz country, passing through villages with names like; Gevrey Chamberlain, Morey St Denis, Marsannay la Cote, Chambolle Musigny, all unpronounceable, especially given my rudimentary
abilities with the French language, and, all completely deserted, where was everyone?
The kilometres peeled away once we hit the country lanes; less stopping to figure out the next turn, more time on the bike and then suddenly we were in Vougeot. Surprisingly early given the diabolical start.
We found our accommodation but it was so different to our digs in Dijon that we thought we must have stopped at the wrong place. A note pinned to the door told us that the owner was out watching the vines at present. We tried ringing the bell as advised but he must have been deep in the vines, we would try later.
Owners of smaller establishments missing upon arrival would happen from time to time and we would often tether the bikes up to something and head off for a walk around the town or village. In this case, a very deserted village. Where would we eat? if you planted it into a Western movie you would have tumble weeds blowing down the only street.
The owner eventually found his way back from the vines and was a very pleasant gent. Bonus, he spoke English. He immediately won a whole lot more brownie points by telling us they could serve a platter and bottle of local wine on the sunny patio that looked out across the vineyards to Chateau Clos de Vougeot. As we sat on the patio, imbibed on the local plonk and nibbled on some very pleasant food, the stress of my first day of Stage II melted away.
My German power adapter and charging board did not agree with the local wiring and when I plugged it in there was a bang and our power was ‘disparu’. We advised the kind gent that there was a power problem on our floor (it had taken out the lights in the hall as well) when we left, hoping that it was as simple as a fuse having blown.
Our ride today looked less complicated from an instructions aspect so we dawdled, stopping at the Chateaux which dated back to the 12th Century. The ride was through the Cote du Nuits ending in Beaune, it was to be one of the prettier rides we had while in France, lovely little (deserted) villages with Church bells ringing frantically (why?), the odd person tending the immaculate vines, clear blue skies, about an hours worth of riding, a perfect day? Well no, the instructions required continued referencing and we struck three new issues, unnamed Rues,‘Route Barre’ and our first sizeable hill. It appeared that the French were not particularly vigilant in
maintaining rural signage which resulted in us trying to decide which of the multiple, unnamed, choices on offer, was actually Rue du Lavoie or Pl.du Cratere Saint-Georges/Rue Julie Godemet. Route Barre, by the signage blocking the route, meant we could not bike down it and this tended to throw you off the scent of the route detailed in the guide book.
When we hit a long and steady hill, Ruth discovered that the gears on her bike were in a sorry state and the only way she could get up any hills was to walk them. My downloaded maps on the iPhone became our godsend. As we biked along and failed to see the noted landmarks (usually a crucifix) we would decide that we had wandered of the ideal track. I would then hastily rework a route using the App, that would get us back to our track or alternatively, to our intended destination by another route. This alternate form of navigation would be used a lot during the rest of our cycling in France. The one hour ride turned into four hours; needless to say, we did not arrive in Beaune early,
Most of the paths we were riding along were narrow lanes of varying surface quality that serviced the vineyards. These were largely deserted but, the odd vehicles that did appear, were all driven by frustrated Formula One racing drivers who drove their little Renault Vans at speed. We learned to get well off the lane when we saw one approaching.
Beaune, unlike all of the other places we had peddled through, was full of tourists. It appeared that this had a few attractions, one being the Hospices de Beaune and of course the vineyards of the Cote du Nuits that we had just biked through and, the Cote du Beaune that we would bike through the next day. We are not wine buffs but the names of the villages that we biked through all sounded familiar; Pommard, Volnay, Puligny Montrachet, to name a few.
By the end of day three the surroundings were; less grape vines and more pastoral farms. Our stop for the night was in the countryside in an area called Chassy le Camp or Camp Romain. We were staying in a hotel that looked to be a getaway exclusively used by the French and certainly fluent French was the only language that seemed to be acceptable, our version of French was totally unacceptable. The weather had been getting steadily warmer since our start back in Sarrbrucken and this third day of stage 2 was by far the warmest of Le Tour but, storm clouds were building and, by evening, electrical storms accompanied by very heavy rain had set in.
The next morning, as we dropped our bags off at reception, the thunder started to rumble again, accompanied by torrential rain. The receptionist who had not understood English the previous day, seemed to forget herself and told us in very understandable English that we were crazy. She was of course correct and as we extracted our bikes from the garage God agreed by letting a massive clap of thunder loose together with rain of appropriate biblical proportions.
Reading the damn instructions in the dry was hard enough but in rain the patience started to wear thin, not to mention my ongoing difficulty in trying to interpret them (correctly). At one stage, while congratulating myself on having gone 500m without getting lost, we rounded the corner to find an intersection of five roads, none with a sign post! We were not even sure if we were on the ‘Rue’ we were meant to be on because we could not find a road sign. The phone again saved the day. The Rue signage, when it existed, was often placed in a position where you had to flip a coin as to which Rue it referred too; I usually took the wrong option.
However, we arrived at the correct destination, Madam Moulin, a 14th century building just out of Givry. We were impressed but, alas, a little early, so we needed to try and locate the hosts and see if our room was available or whether we needed to kill some time by biking off on an excursion. That option had became more viable as the storm clouds had now cleared and the sun had returned.
Ruth went off to investigate and came back a little flustered. The front door was locked and knocking drew no response. She had found a side door where the signage indicated that it was probably the office. The door was open so she knocked and entered. She finally met the Madame of the house who was, to put it politely, quite hostile about Ruth’s intrusion. She took a dislike to us, probably considered us thieving colonials and her hostility continued through the stay.
We noted in the guest book comments that an Australian couple had suffered a similar fate to ours, maybe they had set the tone for antipodeans. However, her partner seemed to go out of his way to compensate, the place was impressive and, as we were in the countryside. We ate in-house and enjoyed a pleasant evening sharing some nice wine with a German family who were heading home from their holiday on the Riviera.
On reading the notes for the next day’s ride, I spotted, with a great deal of joy, that it was largely to take place along dedicated cycle paths. Great, no confusing instructions to worry about so I duly ignored them.
I led the peloton out through the gate of Madam Moulin and onto the path. First up; we needed to detour into Givry, about 2km away to get some supplies for the ride, then we had to head back past Madam Moulin to really get underway for the day. After about 10km that had been set at a blistering pace by Ruth, we came to a place called Saint Remy. While we were talking about the fact that this was probably where the Brandy of the same name originated, I recanted, in my mind, the notes for the trip to Cluny. I could not recall Saint Remy being one of the towns we were meant to pass through. I yelled out to Ruth to stop so that I could consult the touring notes and the map. Oh dear! wrong way. How could I break the news to Ruth, I had never seen her pumping the pedals so enthusiastically as during the morning’s ride, probably in an effort to get away from the Madame as fast as she could.
This was a stupid mistake of mine, bought on by my belief that the day would be easy. I had to fall on my ‘leadership sword’ and immediately passed all responsibility to Ruth. She was none too impressed with our 24km detour but becoming leader did mollify her a teeny bit.
It was a great day’s riding, we saw Chateaux, lovely rolling countryside, medieval towns and by lunch time I had regained the leadership role after Ruth lead us off in the wrong direction and accepted that maybe I was not the complete navigational plonker she had taken me to be. I had felt that her assessment of me was fair but was not going to admit that in the current circumstances. The day was a kind of tie, although her error was pretty insignificant.
By mid-day on our last day, we had finished our ride in the Southern Burgundy city of Macon. We were scheduled to catch the train to Avignon in Provence the next morning and, fortunately, one of the two railway stations in town was close to our accommodation, we just hoped that it was the right station. The other station was about a 10km taxi ride and I thought that our departure point was this latter one. On collecting our tickets at the station across the road, I was relieved to find that departure was from that same station, great!, just a hassle free walk across the road in the morning.
Well the next morning dawned to the sound of thunder accompanied by torrential rain. Despite our rain jackets, we got soaked on our 200m dash to the station. I looked at the departures board and there were no trains destined for Avignon and none that had a number corresponding to the number on our ticket. Not good, if we were at the wrong station there was no way we could get to the right one before the train departed. I walked up to the information counter hoping that I would be understood. I showed my ticket, pointed at the train number and pointed to the departures board shrugging my shoulders and muttered something in a rather whiny Franco-Kiwi-English accent. The very nice gent replied in English that I should ignore the number displayed on my ticket and that the train destination shown as, Nice, on the board, was the one we needed to embark on.
The platforms have diagrams that show where you need to be standing to ensure that you actually get onto the train before it rolls out of the station. They don’t hang around and you don’t want to be at the wrong end of the train which results in you lugging your luggage through all of the ‘cars’ to get to your allocated seat. Our designated position was on the uncovered part, a significant distance from the shelter; thank goodness the rain had stopped. As we got to our embarkation zone the rain returned and the train arrival had enough of a delay to ensure our second drenching of the morning. As we squelched into our seats we agreed that the 250km (plus a lot more) of Stage 2 had been far more challenging than stage one but, in it’s own often frustrating way, very enjoyable. I could not help thinking what Stage 3 may hold as it was always going to be the most challenging. Physically, stages one and two had been ‘no sweat’ and, as expected, these warm ups had turned us both into fine-tuned peddling machines. Well, so I thought.
As the train blitzed it’s way through the mountains, at over 300km per hour, into the South of France the clouds magically parted, the sun shone and the temperatures rose; Provence was already living up to it’s reputation. When we disembarked, the heat was very pronounced, especially after the air-conditioned comfort of the train. The bus from the TGV station into town was a people mover, with passengers and luggage cramming in, standing only for the bulk of us, nobody wanted to wait in the heat for the next bus some 20 minutes later. There did not appear to be any air-conditioning and by the time we melted out onto the street in Avignon, the air outside of the bus was actually feeling cool and, even better, it was sans body odour.
The next day was another ‘rest day’ and allowed us to enjoy the sights of this old Papal city that is situated on the banks of the Rhone river. It also gave us our first taste of ‘Le Mistral’ wind which frequents this part of France. The heat, clouds of dust and ‘body moving’ wind gusts made us thankful that we were not on the bikes that day. Let’s hope that Le Mistral only visits every now and then and this encounter was it’s quota for the next week.
Our ride out of Avignon the next morning started along streets crowded with motorised transport but, despite that, we actually got out of the city quickly and were soon in the countryside, alas, on the wrong road. After consulting my iPhone maps we got back on track and had a relatively trouble free 44km ride to our accommodation in the village of Fontvielle. Unlike stages one and two of Le Tour, stage three would be ridden as a series of circular rides out of two base camps, Fontvielle in The Alpilles region and Isle Sur La Sourge that was our base for the Vaucluse and Luberon regions. Our base for the next three nights was a very pleasant boutique Hotel that housed about a dozen guests. Evening meals were served outdoors on a terrace and the food was exquisite. The cheese selection was amazing but I found out that one needs to show a little restraint when eating soft cheeses, they can make for an interesting ride the next day, especially challenging when you have no idea where the next toilet may be.
Our first circular ride would take us around and across The Alpilles. Ruth questioned me on what they were, she sensed trouble as she felt that the ALP part of the word probably meant elevation higher than her little legs were built to peddle up. Unfortunately the maps in the guide book were topographical which meant that it was plain to any competent map reader that she was right. Maps were not a strength of Ruth’s, it was detail she did not feel she needed to bother herself with and when I showed her any map I always made sure that our destination appeared on the bottom part of the map to make it look as though it was downhill. The squiggly line that represented our route on that day did in fact cross the mountains. I reassured Ruth that they were not real mountains, more like what we would call hills in New Zealand. She muttered something about having seen plenty of HIGH hills in New Zealand.
The day dawned clear and warm, it would get hot so it was best that we got underway early. In Mausaane-les-Alpilles, why did all the towns have to have that hilly sounding appendage?, Ruth was delighted to find all sorts of enchanting shops and fell in love with a very unique necklace. Now a little closer, I could see that the ‘hills’ were going to be our biggest physical challenge so far on Le Tour, in fact, while not of Southern Alp proportions, their appearance was menacing looking. Best that I get a few ‘brownie points’ in the bank before we hit the slopes. So Ruth got her necklace and cycled out of town in a very chirpy mood which lasted for about 5km and then the road started to head towards the sky, in real Le Tour fashion. Before long she had dismounted and was walking. As we can only go as fast as our slowest rider, I dismounted and walked as well. To be truthful, I was finding the slope a little challenging as well and was happy to push the bike for a few kilometres.
Le Baux de Provence was on the top of this hill, in fact we would learn that most of the towns we were scheduled to bike through were built on the top of hills. By the time we got to the top there was a definite feeling of mutiny in the air but showing my leadership qualities I squashed these sentiments by pointing out that it was all downhill from here. My cause was helped by the town being something of a ‘Ruth Mecca’ and she was determined to punish me by visiting every one of the shops in it. Despite lingering for some time, we were soon back on the saddle heading up hill again, how did that happen? Ruth was bleating about my lies regarding it being all down hill from here and given the slope of the road I could not argue with her. A couple of hot and sweaty kilometres on, the gradient finally levelled. I had ridden on and was waiting for Ruth to catch up, when she finally pushed her bike into view I pointed excitedly at the road ahead which disappeared DOWN the hill. At 5pm, cold beer in hand, under the plane trees in the Fontvielle town square, the digital temperature readout on the pharmacy (they all have a temperature reading) displayed 34c. It was not a long ride but it had been our toughest to date. Ruth’s insistent interrogation on how hilly the rest of the stage was, coupled with the hot sun, a beer or two, exhaustion getting me close to breaking but I held off and did not confess that they were probably all going to be like this.
The next day, a shortish, FLAT ride to Arles rewarded Ruth with a visit to the large Saturday street market and me with a great deal of relief. The ride back was very hot and we spent the rest of the day lazing in and around the pool. I was so hot that I dived straight into the pool. The sound of the water gurgling past my ears was much louder than usual, oh no!, in my haste to cool off I had forgotten to take my hearing aids off. I exploded out of the pool almost landing on my feet poolside. Ruth was startled, it was the fastest she had seen me move during stage 3. My sensitive and expensive, digital ears were not so chuffed. Fortunately the hot dry atmosphere was ideal for getting unwanted moisture out of hearing aids and when I popped them on later, they still seemed to work, well at least for now. The day had been just the tonic Ruth needed before our slog, the next day, across the Durance plains to Isle Sur La Sourge. I emphasised ‘plains’ when giving Ruth the briefing for the next day and she was relieved that we would bike around the Alpilles rather than over them.
As we headed across to the terrace for breakfast I could not help but notice that there was a gale blowing, it was our ‘friend’ Le Mistral, which meant a head wind all the way to Isle Sur La Sourge (LSLS). We battled the wind to St Remy De Provence for a refuelling stop of pastries and coffee. A famous resident had been Van Gough who I recall had gone a bit insane, it had probably been Le Mistral, after about 10km we were already starting to feel a little unhinged.
We battled on against the wind until we struck another ‘route barre’ sign which be both knew would mess real badly with our navigation. There were crowds of people heading somewhere so we dismounted and wheeled the bikes along in pursuit. It was a festival in the town, we could hear a lot of noise heading towards us and we were soon in the midst of a parade where horses appeared to be the centrepiece. There were whip crackers, traditional dress and by the end of the parade, mountains of horse poo on the street which made for a messy and smelly exit from town.
Apart from peddling onto an autoroute (motorway) at one stage the rest of the ride was uneventful but exhausting into the head wind which had persisted throughout the ride and into the evening. Dinner was; al fresco, canal side, very pleasant, but keeping your salad from blowing into the canal was virtually impossible as Le Mistral continued to batter us through the evening. I understood that Le Mistral could be cited as a mitigating factor in homicide committed in the area. When I mentioned that to Ruth her eyes lit up in a way that did not make me feel comfortable. I hastily suggested that if it was windy in the morning we would cancel our ride. The route notes had comments like “getting your legs warmed”, “perched villages” and “there is quite a bit of climbing today” which given Ruth’s obvious “Van Gough” state of mind I left out of our briefing.
Ruth flung back the curtains, scanned the area to see how much the trees were bending and moaned; the wind had dropped. The route notes were very accurate and we spent a lot of time walking the bikes up the hills or, as I was almost conceding, mountains. Mt Ventoux was a constant back drop all day and it was a kid of pathetic defence whenever Ruth gave me dark looks, “well at least I am not dragging you up there”. The scenery was great, the perched villages fantastic but invariably perched atop a steep hill. When I reached what surely the highest point of our many hill climbs I dismounted and took a video of Ruth puffing her way past, she muttered some disparaging comments and then freewheeled down the other side and out of sight. I followed, continuing to take my video to put some altitude perspective on the previous clip of Ruth. The gradient had got quite significant and suddenly my touring notes fell off the bike, I applied the brakes and realised that I had done so a little aggressively and without taking into account the slope. The rear wheel, seat and me headed over the handle bars. The road surface was very unfriendly and started to rip chunks of flesh from various parts of my body but after a few expletives my brain engaged and suggested that it was not healthy to lie in the middle of a French road, especially given the speed at which many Frenchmen like to drive along them.
Ruth was so annoyed at all of these unexpected hills that she had ridden on without the navigator. When her brain engaged and suggested that she could get lost if she kept doing this, she decided to stop and wait for me. When I failed to show, she got really annoyed at the thought of having to ride back up that damned MOUNTAIN or even worse, finding that I had turned off on the correct route (or more likely the wrong route). By the time I finally arrived, streaming blood along the road, she was over the whole Provence, hilltop village, Le Mistral experience. I was greeted with “what took you so long” said in a tone that indicated that what was left of my miserable life was about to be extinguished. I told that her revenge had been extracted and pointed to the mutilated body.
It is good to travel with your own personal nurse and after a much earned break she had put Humpty Dumpty together again. I was a little stiff but a medicinal beer in Saumane, yet another hilltop village, helped me to regain my confidence. When you get thrown off a horse the best thing to do is get straight back on again. My not-so-great day ended with an encounter with a blackberry bush which saw the shedding of yet more of my dwindling supply of blood. It would not go down as the best day’s cycling of my brief career. However, it provides a chuckle for both ourselves and others when the tale is recounted.
Well we had made it to the last day of Le Tour which was also going to be the biggest; a 63km grand tour of the hilltop villages of The Luberon. There were the usual tour notes that implied another strenuous day was in the offering, “the effort put forth during your climbs will be rewarded...” The temperature was forecast to be 37c so it was going to be one hell of a finish, well it could end up feeling like hell in those temperatures. We could not wimp out on the last day so it would have to be a very early start to cover as many kilometres as we could before the afternoon heat set in.
The sun was not up when we left and I had not biked more that 100 meters when the bike suddenly felt very unresponsive. Had my fall inflicted some damage, no, I had a flat rear tyre. I pumped it up and rode on a little further before it again deflated. I was going to have to undertake a pit stop. Well it just so happens that I had never taken off a rear bike wheel, you know, the one with all the gears attached to it. As I tried to recall the video I had watched about replacing a rear wheel tube, I realised that I must have suffered some brain damage in my fall. What had seemed easy when I had watched, suddenly seemed awfully complicated. Somehow I got the wheel off, replaced the tube and got it back on again, with a screw to spare. I could not find a home for it, the bike seemed to be functioning ok so off we pedalled but an hour of our precious cool-weather biking time had been lost.
Our ride out was to the village of Roussillon. The notes were right, it was a slog out there but we were ‘rewarded’ with a very pretty hilltop town, well worth the effort. While at Roussillon I pointed to Gordes in the hazy distance, Ruth squinted and yelped “what, that speck up that flaming mountain”. “The haze makes it look much further away than it really is, and most of the ride from here is downhill”, I responded. The problem with downhill sections is that they don’t last anywhere as long as it takes to ride, or in our case, walk up the hill. Before long we were again slogging uphill toward Gordes which now seemed to be almost vertically above us. The promised 37c was no longer a promise and after wheeling the bikes up the now near vertical slope I valiantly turned to Ruth and waved the white flag. It had been the first time in many days that she had shown any affection towards me. The day had been brutal, our water supplies were running out and so we decided to take a ‘short cut’ back to LSLS. We had given it our best shot and reasoned that there was no way that any of the remaining hill top villages could be better that Roussillon or any of the others we had now puffed our way up. And so the remainder of the last day of Le Tour evaporated in the Provencal heat along with most of our hydration.
We had done it, close to 800km of cycling over three weeks at the ages of 60 and 61, Ruth was six months younger than me and really had no excuses for the grumbling about distances. Ten years earlier, a walk of 3km was something we had considered impressive. There were times when we questioned our sanity but while enjoying a Rose by the canal that evening we agreed that it had been an amazing experience, we had really gotten up close and personal, in my case too close, with the countryside and experienced places most visitors, at best, may view through a glass window as they zoom by in their air-conditioned rental or bus. Despite the challenges we were keen to do more and were now even more aware of the need to do it while the body was still able.
Despite the challenges in France, we had finished our ‘Tour de France’ on a high. We agreed that cycling was a great way to experience the countryside. It was undertaken at a speed that allowed us to actually experience our surroundings but fast enough to cover a reasonable distance. It should be part of any of our future travel plans, although Ruth was insistent on it only being over flat terrain.
The train trip through to London was fast and efficient and we got to see a large part of France at ground level rather than from 10,000m. Our transit from Gare du Lyon to Gare du Nord was relatively easy and we were in London before the evening commuter crush.
We had ditched the bikes for walking shoes with London being a warm up for the four weeks that were to follow.
After two very hurried days in London we headed back across The Channel, checked into our Paris apartment and then headed out to Charles De Gaulle airport to meet Ruth’s daughter, Anna.
The weather had taken a turn for the worse in London and that early autumn weather followed us. Heavy rain showers dogged us during our stays in Paris and Lucerne in Switzerland where cooler temperatures were thrown in for good mix. We hoped that it would still be warm further south in Italy.
We felt more like tourists for the next four weeks, doing more touristy things. Although, in Italy, we had organised coastal and hilltop village experiences that were more about living like locals than seeing sites. Ruth found herself in ‘ shopping heaven’ in places like Venice and our spare luggage space started to rapidly disappear at the same rate as my arm muscles started to bulge from all the effort of hauling the bags on and off trains and along busy streets.
Our train travel was efficient but I again learned that I needed to allow more time with connections. We had traveled from Venice on the Adriatic Coast to Monterosso on the Mediterranean coast via Milan, where we needed to change trains. I had opted for a shorter 40 minutes transfer in Milan. Our train departed Venice on time but then inexplicably stopped several times on route, in the middle of the countryside! As the train trundled into Milan we only had about 10 minutes before our outward train was due to depart. Fortunately, we knew the layout of Milan railway station but, not the platform for our outbound train. We devised a plan; Anna was to charge on ahead with the sole purpose of identifying the platform. We would follow with luggage, as fast as we could. We were to find out that manoeuvring bags through a crowded platform, at speed, is challenging. The strategy worked and we were ensconced in our seats with a couple of minutes to spare.
To get to Montepulciano, our hilltop experience, we needed to catch a local bus from Chiusi to Montepulciano. I foolishly advised the team to disembark too early and we had to drag our bags up a lot of steps into the town. Had I gone to the terminus, there were lifts to take you up part of the way and the option of catching small buses into the heart of the town, that was largely off limits to cars. Strangely enough, hill towns require some effort to reach.
Our Italian experience was a contrast to the earlier cycling. We were suddenly exposed to the masses of tourists that flood cities like Venice, Florence and Rome. You feel that you do need to see these places but we got more enjoyment out of the smaller towns where mass tourism is, at worst, something that afflicts them for brief periods during the day as bus tours disgorge the hordes into their confined spaces. In the more famous cities, that crush is more pronounced and constant.
We had experienced little of this during our cycling. Tourism industries the world over ‘sell’ the sites and mass transport (cruises, bus tours) delivers the mobs. These sites are an easy sell to most people looking to travel, especially the older set (such as us). Selling experiences is probably much harder, the numbers are lower and it is harder to make the bucks. I am not talking about the bungee jump or helicopter ride but just walking through villages where people are going about their lives uninterrupted by hordes of visitors. As a traveler, it is those moments that we remember and, to experience them, we needed to organise them ourselves so that they were our personal experiences rather than something we shared with a lot of other fellow travellers. We decided that was our style which should not have come as a surprise, that was what we had always enjoyed with our boat. You can probably experience sites and things just as well and certainly much cheaper, by looking at pictures or videos of them. Probably better, as you are not being jostled by thousands of others.
Our flight back to New Zealand departed from Rome. We were headed to Melbourne with two connections along the way; one in Dubai and one in Singapore. The flight arrived in Melbourne around 8am and by the time we cleared immigration and made our way into the city it was still too earlier to check into our apartment. We were exhausted and when we finally did check in, we slept for the rest of the day. This was not a great idea but at the time we did not care about great ideas. After two nights in Melbourne we flew back to NZ finally arriving at our beds at 1am. We were staying with Ruth’s mother who tapped on our door at about 9am to tell us that she had guests arriving for lunch and more arriving for dinner. I was scheduled to get into work the following day, the exhaustion continued through the week. This home bound trip only reinforced our resolve to break any future long haul flights.
It was a challenge going back to work after such a long break. That challenge was made worse by the fact that the Company was in the throws of yet more change. A new CEO was in the offering and with that came yet more grand ‘new’ plans to save the legacy media from the curse of the Internet. Unfortunately, the grand new plans looked remarkably similar to the four previous grand plans that had proceeded it over the 14 years of digital mayhem that I had experienced. The problem was; that each time the grand plan failed to deliver the desired results the CEO and their handful of anointed disciples would choose to ‘pursue personal interests’ and move on. There was a lot of fluidity with digital staff and with no shortage of other job offers, the valuable members of the team who had digital experience would very quickly become disillusioned with this never ending changing of the guard and would move onto their next opportunity with another company. So, with the arrival of each new ‘saviour’, there would be only a few survivors from the previous grand plan who could question the sanity of retrying failed strategies. The ones who did survive (myself) were largely written off as part of the problem, we did not do it right last time, and our advice was ignored.
I had been in the business of working on this ‘lost cause’ for too long. The stress of the long hours, frustration of going over the same failed ground again and again and my general disillusionment with corporate life was taking its toll on my health. I had developed an irregular heart beat and Ruth was facing high blood pressure as she found her job increasingly stressful. Financially, we did not quite feel ready to cut the day jobs but we needed to set an imminent exit strategy in place. It was time to revisit our plans.
On our return to NZ we also found out that a brother-in-law, who we saw regularly, was dying of cancer. He had seemed fine when we left but was dead within a few weeks of our return. This was another sober reminder that we do not hold all the strings relative to our eventual demise. Carpe Diem!
During the summer of 2014 we started to consider those future options and the one thing that we both agreed upon was that our boating time had probably reached its conclusion. The travels of 2013 had whetted our appetite for more adventure but, as always, financial choices had to be made, we could not afford to have both a boat and travel. The decision was easy, we had done everything we wanted to do with ‘Agnes’. However, selling her could be problematic as the market for cruising boats had been in the doldrums since the Global Financial Crisis. I had been following that market over the last year and several of Agnes’s ‘stable mates’ had been for sale for most of the year. Realistically, if we wanted to hold out for the top dollar, we probably had to be prepared to have her on the market for some time, potentially years.
We had managed to squeeze a 10-day biking and walking adventure into the end of the 2013/14 summer. We had four days of biking sections of the Hawkes Bay bike trails followed by three days hiking on a sheep and cattle station in the rugged Poverty Bay region of the North Island. We had stayed in converted farm buildings at night and followed the trail across the steep hills during the day. It was a hike with a difference and we met a group of four women in their seventies who were on one of their regular hikes. An inspiring group who had us re-assessing our potential active years. It was a lot of fun and of course hard work getting up those hills. But we both used walking poles and with lighter footwear, did not experience the issues we had back on Great Barrier Island in 2012.
I had been following the travel blog of a recently retired American couple Joe and Beth Volk, who were now travelling full time. They had left a comment on my blog and I signed up to get email updates when they published new posts on their own blog. I had checked into the blog following receipt of an email update indicating that they were in New Zealand and, dropped them a note suggesting that we meet up if they were going to be in the North. They responded advising that they were going to be spending about three weeks in a place called Whangaparaoa (did we know it?) and that they were arriving in early March. We agreed to meet for dinner on our return from our planned East Coast excursion. The strategy was to meet, have dinner, and if we could still tolerate one another after the dinner, we would take them for a lightening road trip of the north over an extended weekend.
We hit it off at dinner and enjoyed their company and the stories of their travels to date. The only dampener was a Tropical Cyclone that was bearing down on the North of the country which looked as though it could blow our plans away. In the end we decided to go anyway, the storm should blow through quickly but it would probably mean that at least one day the weekend would be a washout.
They were a very inspiring couple and we had a great time. We managed to give them an outing on Agnes and the weather was on its best behaviour by the time we took a rather long drive back to Auckland. We spent some time together the following weekend and dropped them out to the airport for their onwards trip to Australia on route to Tanzania, Crete, Madeira, Portugal and Spain before returning back to the USA late in 2014 by which time they would have been on the road for two years. They had sold most of their possessions and did not intend to stop traveling until 2020 when they would take up their pre-booked occupancy in a retirement village.
Our meeting with Joe and Beth galvanised us into action. Within a few weeks we had put Agnes on the market, and started looking at timelines for quitting our jobs. The 12-month timeline for selling Agnes meant that we were probably looking at 2015 as being the earliest we would quit.
I put a very attractive price on both the boat and our marina berth offering a ‘package deal’ to anyone who would take both. Within a few weeks we had a sale which meant that we could start setting some plans ‘in concrete’.
One thing we were agreed upon was that we would head away for an extended period of travel immediately upon finishing our jobs. Make a clean break by getting away from any possible temptation to take on another job. The first idea was a trip of twelve months’ duration starting at the beginning of 2016. In my ‘spare time’, I started researching destinations and costs. That plan meant another 18 months in the jobs which would be a struggle, particularly for Cliff. While the extra income we could earn over those 18 months was going to be important to undertaking 12 months of travel, was battling on in the jobs worth it?
Having made the decision to leave, motivation to stay became a challenge, particularly in the face of further upheaval at Cliff’s work. In the end, I suggested to Ruth that we opt for a shorter post-jobs-trip and finish our jobs in June 2015 which was by then, less than 12 months away.
Our primary focus was to be the UK. I had reviewed a range of walks and we settled on a 10 day, 164km walk through the Cotswolds that offered a village to village styled walk, very different from what we could experience in NZ and we would ‘bolt-on’ a 6 day cycle around Cornwall although I did have some misgivings about the terrain, it would be hilly but how bad could they be? We wanted to visit Ireland and Scotland and had some side trips to Devon and the Lakes District to distract us in between. All up, we would be spending close to eight weeks in the British Isles.
We knew that we did not want a non-stop long haul flight all the way to the UK and decided that this time we would spend a few days in San Francisco, maybe bike the bridge while we were there. Then we started to get a little carried away and decided to add a one week cycle from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Bruges in Belgium. We could catch the train from Bruges through to London so why not stop off for four days in Paris and check out the many parts of Paris we never got to see in 2013, especially taking Ruth out to Versailles.
Because we plan at least a year ahead, I could monitor the weather conditions that we would expect at that time of the year. The British Isles did not look that summery so we decided to add another five weeks exploring the Greek Islands, why not make it a route that ended in Istanbul in Turkey and we could then get our outbound flight from there rather than having to head back to Athens where there were limited choices for flying further East.
In the meantime, Ruth’s son announced that he was going to get married in Melbourne, probably in late November. My plans at this stage had us ready to head back south from Istanbul around mid-October. Why not extend our trip a little further and just fly into Melbourne from wherever for the wedding. There was one little hitch with that plan, the date was unlikely to be settled upon for some time.
I started planning to visit Vietnam and Cambodia and tacked these onto the trip plus probably extending the Australian leg to include the Great Ocean road from Melbourne to Adelaide and finishing with a fling in Sydney which Ruth had never visited.
We skipped across to Melbourne in the Spring of 2014 to see Mark’s new wine bar in Malvern and then in January 2015 took two of the grandchildren camping in the Coromandel region of New Zealand. Apart from these breaks and our regular visits to Kerikeri, that last year in our jobs ground by at an agonisingly slow pace. Added into the mix, Ruth’s 91 year old mother was struggling with her health. She had the previous year flown to Vancouver for a visit but as our departure date neared, she seemed to get worse. Because we lived close, Ruth had naturally been the primary support to her mum. She need to engage other family members to take a more active role in our absence. We had talked about this over the recent years and agreed that we could not put our lives on hold because of the potential for a crisis. Ruth’s mum could easily live for another 10 years by which time we would be getting beyond our ability for ‘active’ adventure. This trip would go ahead but we did need to have a ‘plan b’ should what seemed increasingly likely, happen before we left or while we were away.
We both handed in notice on our jobs. I had to give three months which, while giving my employers plenty of time to sort out their continuity strategy, was a period of seat warming from my perspective.
When it finally came time to walk out the door, the process was one of utter joy. There were no misgivings or doubts. We disposed of our meagre possessions from our Auckland rental flat, said what we fared may be a final farewell to Ruth’s mum and jumped in the car and headed off to start the rest of our lives.
After a week in Kerikeri ‘settling’ into our cottage, giving the garden a good haircut and then mothballing everything for our six month absence, we were ready to hit the road on on our biggest adventure yet.
This was going to be a test on many fronts. We were going to be pretty much the only company for each other, 24x7, for the next six months. That was quite a change from only seeing each other for a brief spell each evening and at weekends. Added to that, we were going to be in quite foreign environments with language and cultural challenges that we would have to deal with, something that you would normally look to your tour organiser or guide to handle. For us, challenging as it was going to be, that would be a large part of the adventure, to experience the difference.
We had a lot of bookings to manage which meant that there was plenty of scope for problems, both preventable and unplanned. 48 transport bookings that covered: air (13), boat (10), Car rentals (6), train (12), bicycle (7), bus (1) and bag transfers while walking (1). 44 Accommodation bookings which were a combination of AirBnB and hotels and, a few sundry activities that we had decided to book before we left. Some of the transport bookings needed to be finalised as we went along as reservations only opened a month or two before travel dates. There were also transfers from airports, ports and railway stations to be organised prior to arrival at destinations. While we hoped that there would be no hitches, we knew from experience that delays, cancellations and other frustrations were likely to be encountered along the way. It is just part of the package when you are travelling.
Where we can, we will walk and haul our bags rather than catch taxis, buses or trains for transits from transport hubs to accommodation. As such, our luggage is stripped back to absolute necessities. In reality, luggage should not increase in volume relative to the time you are away. We were departing with less luggage than we had for our 10 weeks of travel in 2013. We each had a 60 litre hybrid bag (wheels and shoulder straps) with packing cells to keep our clothing organised and to reduce packing time / trying to find stuff. Our departure weights were 12kg for each bag and our carry on bags were day packs for our hiking and biking. They were largely empty, just a few basics for the flight plus our technology such as phones, iPad and camera.
At mid-day, 20 June 2015, we left Kerikeri airport, the smallest airport during our travels, for the 30 minute hop to Auckland where we connected with our International flight to San Francisco. We had plenty of time to kill at Auckland but a farewell visit from the family, check-in and people-watching meant the time passed by quickly. Furthermore, unlike 2013, the flight departed on time and at 7:15pm we were away, on our biggest adventure yet.
I keep forgetting to use topographic maps when determining the effort to walk from A to B. Our accommodation in San Francisco was in the Russian Hill area which was around 2km from the B.A.R.T station at Embarcadero and, in between, there were a few hills. I had convinced Ruth that the fresh air and leg-stretch was just what e needed after a long flight and we should walk. She agreed but started to question both the distance and our mode of transport once we encountered our first hill. I have to concede that with the hills and bags in tow the distance did feel like about 5km rather than 2.
That walk set the tone for our brief stay in the city and most other destinations along our journey. On our first full day we got through 22km of walking and saw a fair chunk of the inner city. On the second day we picked up some rental bikes and rode out to Tiburon in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge, a ride of 35km. Despite being summer, it was cold and misty for most of the trip. The sun finally made an appearance as we neared Tiburon but the temperature stayed stubbornly low.
I had a very stiff neck as a result of the long flight from Auckland and the pillows at our accommodation were not helping. We find that it takes a little time for the body to become more adaptable so some initial ‘teething’ issues can be experienced. The actual effort of cycling was ok but looking back to see if Ruth was still behind me was not a happy experience. I had developed a thumping headache by the time we reached Tiburon and I was miserable.
Given that we would often be in remote areas and undertaking physical activity, there is increased scope for injury and the need to deal with it immediately, Ruth had packed a mobile pharmacy. But it was early in the trip and we had forgotten to pack our smaller ‘emergency’ day pack and needed to track down a Drug Store in Tiburon. This was the first of many ‘pharmacy’ adventures in different countries and we have learned about what you can and cannot get across the counter, and of course, the cost, which varied from next-to-nothing to bring-gold-bars.
While our stay in San Francisco was brief, it was long enough to shake off some of those early travel issues, such as stiff necks, jet lag, pedestrian transfers, day packing and of course reality checking budgeting skills.
One of the things that never fails to amaze us when flying is how disorganised some people can be.
We tend to be over cautious and allow ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport. Better to arrive early than be stuck in traffic somewhere as your flight leaves without you. We arrived at San Francisco airport before the checkin was open and wandered over as soon as it opened. We prefer to ditch our bigger bags as soon as we can.
There were two groups of travellers in front of us in the queue. The first was a lady with a mountain of luggage and a couple of young children in tow. She did not have a booking and her husband was MIA. She was a little distraught when she learned that she could not obtain a ticket at the check-in. The attendant, who was luckily rested and fresh, went above and beyond the call of duty. He took her off to the appropriate part of the terminal where she would hopefully acquire some tickets. The next couple looked as though they were fresh graduates heading off for their European gap-year experience. Given the volume of luggage they had, we thought that they were checking in an entire basketball team but, it was just them. Check-in number 2 and the attendant was starting to now look a little jaded. It appeared that their assumption was: that many of the bags were going to be ‘cabin bags’. Well, unless the overhead lockers on KLM flights were significantly larger that other airlines, that was simply not going to happen. The couple proceeded to repack their bags at the counter, one large suitcase was opened and it’s entire contents spilled out - 1 very large bed pillow (After my recent experience, I appreciated the reason for but not the practicality, of carrying such an item). After much stuffing around, a couple of cases were obviously going to be jettisoned, they were finally processed and 40 minutes after joining the queue, we spent a couple of minutes at the counter and headed on our way. This type of nonsense was common place at virtually every checkin during that trip and subsequent ones. come-on people get your shit together! A later domestic flight from Edinburgh to London left us gobsmacked as we watched not one but several people attempt to board the plane without having checked in, either online or at the counter. I thought blood was going to be spilled that day.
Eleven hours later we disembarked in the early morning at Schiphol B’ Airport in Amsterdam.
A train into the city was deemed the best transfer option but we needed to use a card to purchase the tickets. For whatever reason, the machines did not like our cards. After a bit of messing around we got it sorted and were soon dragging our bags along the canals of the city. Upon arrival at our AirBnB we were pleased that we had acquired the hybrid bags. The old and narrow house in Amsterdam had suicidal access. The only way to get the bags up and down the near vertical steps was on the back.
Cliff was again suffering camera problems. His repaired Fuji Film X10 that had failed to see the distance in 2013, completely gave up in Amsterdam. The only redeeming factor was that at least it happened early in the trip and in a location where I should be able to source a suitable replacement. It is not that I lacked any ability to record our progress. I had received a GoPro Hero 4 as a departing gift from work, mainly as a result of the spectacular iPhone video that I had posted of my demise during the 2013 Provence bike ride. The YouTube link had been shared around the office, with much hilarity. However, I did not feel that the GoPro was going to do justice to the trip, I needed a good replacement for those more creative shots - or maybe I was just being a ‘camera snob’. While my faith in FujiFilm cameras had now been shaken on two occasions I did not want to spend a lot of time trying to learn how to use a new camera. I read a number of reviews on the X30 and, despite having the same lens-control as my old (new) ‘dog’, it looked pretty impressive. So we set off one morning to find a camera shop where I could get a new camera. It did not take too long to find a salesman who agreed with my assessment and they made the easiest sale of their life. Amsterdam was a great place to get to know your new camera.
Cycling from Amsterdam to Bruges
Amsterdam was the start point for our second cycling adventure of the trip, a bike n barge trip from Amsterdam to Bruges. We would be joining around 30 other people which for us was something of a new adventure itself but I am told we should mix things up a little from time to time.
Biking with the group was not what we had intended for this particular ride but, for various reasons, that was what we ended up with. It reinforced all my prejudices as to why I would not normally do that. But, at the same time, we actually enjoyed the company of the rest of the group. Useless cyclists (and by our own actions we have set those credentials very low) many of them may have been but we had a lot of fun on the barge along the way and even during the rides.
Ruth loved the riding, it was flat and she could ‘pass-up’ on cycling on the day that the temperature was forecast to reach record levels (37c). We rode along at a mostly, nearly-pedestrian pace which also suited her.
Jo and Patsy from Canada were our table mates and we had a lot of fun with them. It happened to be my birthday during the trip and they ensured that it was celebrated with a suitable degree of embarrassmenton my part. Generally, the week long adventure from Amsterdam to Bruges was given a high mark in terms of fun and enjoyment.
It started out with a shakedown ride of around 20km. Well it certainly shook out most of the non-riders who very quickly realised that they had neither the skills or basic levels of fitness to ride any distances, flat or not. Jack, our guide, suggested that they just enjoy the boat trip and forget about cycling. They did.
The remainder of the group split into two pelotons. A large group of German friends went off on their own while the remaining group, a rabble of English speakers from all corners of the World, made up the rest. After pleasant temperatures for the first three days, unusually hot temperatures decided to grip Western Europe and Jack was far from enthusiastic about riding at all as the temperatures soared into the mid 30c range. However, many of the ‘rest’ were Australians who were not perturbed by such temperatures. As we hit Ghent in Belgium, the digital temperature readouts were displaying a record 37c.
After two nights in Bruges which included an excursion out to the coast, that part of our adventure was over and we were boarding our train for Brussels on route to Paris.
Brussels, well, the less said the better. Paris, and in particular, the Le Marais district we stayed in, was great. It was as if we had never visited the city before.They were still suffering from the same heatwave we had been experiencing through The Belgium which made the sleeping a tad difficult without air conditioning. However, the whole AirBnb experience in Paris was exactly as we hoped. We felt like Parisians even though our language skills ‘outed’ us us as Anglo Saxons.
London was again a place to spend a few days on the way to somewhere else. We managed to get Ruth to the changing of the Horse Guards that she missed in 2013 and spend a lot of time burning up the pavements and parks as we explored the city on foot. We even got to see the Wimbledon Woman’s tennis final - live - well on a big screen that we stumbled upon somewhere in Marylebone.
A cycle around Cornwall
As we chugged out of London (these UK trains did not do high speed) for our cycling around Cornwall the sun and summer temperatures were left behind and by the time we hit the South West Country it was dull and drizzling and would largely remain so for the next seven weeks.
The scene in Bodmin reminded me of winter back in New Zealand, the hotel we were staying at reminded me of the 1980s John Cleese comedy, Fawlty Towers. It was as if we had struck Basil himself at the reception. He did not have a booking in our name, he had one for Cliff & Ruth Mall. “That will be us” we proclaimed but he was not having any of that. He did not make mistakes and even though our first names were, by coincidence, exactly the same as those of the Malls, there was no way we were going to get that room, just in case the Malls actually materialised later in the day. He did suggest that we could be Bob and Penny Webster, let’s face it, colonials probably could not remember what their names are, mongrels the lot of em. The debate seemed to become a little pointless when he told us he would take us to a room. But, before he did that, he needed payment. “We have already paid” we hissed through our clenched teeth. The subject matter of our previous conversation was immediately deemed redundant as he pulled out a booking email with our names correctly spelt and displayed on it. Shaking the printed email in our faces he blurted “where does it say paid on this?”. He could hear the Wimbledon tennis final progressing on the TV in the next room and seemed to decide that watching the tennis was more interesting than dealing with argumentative convicts so he shrugged his shoulders and took us up to a room. We decided to have dinner in the hotel that night. It was Sunday and apart from the pub, there did not seem to be too many other options. Our waitress turned out to be ‘Basils’ wife who also had very similar mannerisms to her TV twin, Sybil. She apologised for Basil’s behaviour stressing that he could be a bit ‘funny’ at times. As we departed the next morning, Sybil was sipping a glass of red wine, probably in order to give her the strength to face Basil.
Our first day of riding was to supposed to ultimately take us to a seaside town called Mevagissey but between Bodmin and Mevagissey there was a good deal of frustration and hills to overcome. Ruth was not feeling great which is not how you want Ruth to be when there are hills to be biked up. As a result, most of the hills were walked up but as we had discovered in Provence, it takes a lot longer to walk up the hills than it does to race down the other side.
The turn for turn instructions were just as confusing as the ones that had driven me crazy in France in 2013. After spending most of the day battling them and failing (code for getting lost) we realised, well I did but I suspect Ruth knew all along but was just punishing me, that all of the roads we were biking along actually had cycle trail markers on them. Duh, ditch the instructions and look for the markers. We did, and the rest of the trip was relatively frustration free from a navigation perspective.
I was adamant that we had to start the next day by going back DOWN into the village. Ruth was not so sure but pretty much threatened to kill me if I was wrong as she was still not in peak health. I was wrong and we had to push our bikes back up the hill past the bed and breakfast where we had started. I suggested that it was a good warm-up for the day’s riding but she had heard that sort of nonsense before, in Givry two years earlier. She was to get ‘satisfaction’ later in the day.
The ride was very challenging. It was not that the hills were particularly high, they just never ended and while the countryside was very pretty, it somehow did not completely compensate for the effort. It was dull, drizzling from time to time and we decided that every cow in Cornwall used the very narrow country lanes we rode along, as their toilet. By the time we arrived in Truro we were exhausted.
We were riding along a wet and very busy cobblestone road when I decided that I needed to pull over and determine how far we were from our hotel. I spotted a likely stopping place and moved the body and bike towards it. The body kept going but the bike didn’t as it slipped into a ridge at the edge of the road and headed off in a different direction to me. It was a hard bikxit. It was so spectacular that cars stopped to see if I was ok. Of course I was ok, I had got up, I was breathing, I was not in hysterics and there weren’t any bones protruding through what was left of my clothing. My rain jacket was definitely no longer good-to-go and there did appear to be blood oozing through the shredded material. Maybe a little hysteria was warranted.
Ruth’s immediate thoughts were, “great, we will have to call the rest of this godforsaken ride off”. She was also expressing relief that the rental bike had not been damaged and only belatedly showed any mild concern about my wellbeing, probably when she saw my tattered blood covered jacket.
We wheeled the bikes to the door of our hotel which I had nearly crashed into (yes it was that close) and I headed off to reception to check-in. The receptionist gave me a strange look and once we got into the room I understood why. I looked like a dirty, shabby beaten-up down-and-outer. I am surprised they did not call security to ‘show me the door’.
Once in the room, we cut what was left of the jacket off and could see that my elbow had taken the weight of the fall and was not looking too chipper. Ruth moved into ‘nurse mode’ and ordered plenty of ice which she insisted that I keep my rapidly inflating limb on until the threat of frost bite kicked in. She probably saved the day and the rest of the ride. God can be cruel.
I recovered (my shiny new camera didn’t), and despite suffering a bit of pain from the jarring as we bumped our way along the cow effluent corroded lanes, I was alright. Ruth had perked up and was managing to ride most of the way up the hills and our improving spirit was helped as the sun started to shine for the first time. As we headed from Newquay to Padstow we decided that we had finally conquered the hills and the despite having the highest elevation of the ride, we stayed on the seats for most of the journey. Harbour side digs in a very crowded Padstow capped a great day. The last day’s ride back to Bodmin was a doddle with Ruth leading the peloton for the entire ride. We blasted past other riders walking their bikes up the now slight inclines and were back in Bodmin well before the earliest check-in time. ‘Basil and Sybil’ were like long lost buddies and graciously let us into our room ahead of schedule - well Sybil did, we did not see Basil during this second visit.
It seemed like an eternity since we had booked our AirBnB in the tiny Devon town of Thorverton. The idea was to soak up a bit of the Devon countryside between our Cornwall bike ride and our 10 day walk of The Cotswold Way.
To get to Thorverton from Bodmin we needed to catch a train to Exeter (about a 90 minute train ride) where we had a rental car waiting. I had failed to unravel the mysteries around getting a booked seat on the train, something that I had never had a problem with, when booking many rail trips on the continent. This was unfortunate as our travel day coincided with a bank holiday and all of the seats were booked and the schedule of trains heading towards Exeter was limited. So we dragged our bags onto the train and found the only available space in the area between two of the cars, along with a lot of other unfortunates who were unable to secure a seat. As we trundled out of Plymouth our little space had become ‘sardine’ territory. I managed to catch a glimpse of Ruth who had her nose squeezed into a taller gents armpit, she looked close to fainting. I was trying to keep the two bags under control as I had them stacked on top of each other, theoretically to allow people to pass by but no person was going get through the crush of people that were sharing our mobile digs.
The relief at seeing a platform with ‘Exeter’ displayed on it was immense. We finally saw the advantage of our ‘seating’, we could be first off the train.
A taxi ride delivered us to the rental depot and we rigged up our maps.me app in our portable holder attached to the windscreen. After a quick encounter with Sainsbury’s we were whizzing down country lanes so narrow that when an oncoming car was met it became a standoff as to who reversed back up to the nearest farm gate in order to have enough road width to pass. Our ‘trusty’ maps app was working out the shortest route which was not necessarily the quickest. We would eventually figure out it’s little game as we crawled along deserted roads between the Lake District and Edinburgh some 6 weeks later.
Our converted stable in Thorverton was even better than we expected and we were soon discovering the delights of the Devonshire countryside in summer. Our six days passed all too quickly but not before we managed to get some training walks in for our upcoming 10 day hike along the 164km Cotswold Way.
Our departure day from Thorverton was going to be a challenge. We had to find our way to Oxford where we would dispose of the rental and catch a train to Morton-in-Marsh where we would hopefully catch a bus to Chipping Campden.
Cliff called a team meeting to make sure we would be organised, we had some tight(ish) connections to make. I pulled together a list of key landmarks that the navigator (Ruth) needed to look for. We were not going to give old maps.me free reign this time.
Our planning paid off, we found all the required roads, the only hitch was getting onto the A34 from the A303 which had a complex roundabout. We twice took the wrong option and ended up going back down the A303 heading in the direction that we had come from. Fortunately there was an off ramp about a mile along which allowed us to have the other two attempts. After the second botched attempt we stopped and studied the interchange on the map and worked out where we were making our bad choice.
Oxford was crawling with tourists and we couldn’t wait for the train to get us out of the place. This time we managed to secure seats but on arrival at Morton-in-Marsh there was no signs of a bus. We asked a taxi driver the cost to drop us at Chipping Campden - it was not going to bust the budget and he gave us a potted history of the area on the way.
The Cotswold Way
The walk started in gung-ho fashion, Jane King (a former colleague from APN days) joined us for the first day and was able to observe some of my wayward map reading abilities first hand. However, the little slip-up that first day was our only major effort at getting too lost (in reasonable weather conditions) during the walk.
Part of the problem that first day was that we were busy chatting and missed a marker. When we decided that we had not seen any way marks for a while, a quick check on the GPS indicated that we had not strayed into Wales or Scotland and were still heading in the right direction.
We had plenty of time to fit in a ploughman's lunch in Broadway and stop and chat to a number of the locals on the path (most of whom had been to New Zealand).
The trail was always changing, We walked through the middle of wheat, corn and maize fields, across sheep, dairy and horse paddocks and of course through the many villages and towns that dot the area. Our hope that this woulds be totally different to the hiking in NZ was not misplaced.
The weather gods decided that the rain and mist dished up in Cornwall was a bit patsy and delivered more meaningful inclement weather on two of the first four days of the walk. On Day 2 we awoke to light rain which steadily deteriorated to driving rain, wind and low cloud. Unfortunately, day two was also the day on which we reached the highest point on the Cotswolds Walk. Our timing was very poor and we reached this highest point as the storm unleashed it’s full fury.
Visibility reduced to almost zero, the temperature dropped to mid winter levels and all of our landmarks and way marks disappeared from visibility. The countryside opened into grassland with tracks all over the place as we found ourselves on a golf course come “common” called Cleeve Hill. Apparently there were spectacular views to be had of Cheltenham race course of “Grand National” fame.
Most other walkers seemed to have disappeared (sensible ones who caught taxis) and we only occasionally spotted a local in the gloom hurrying along to get in front of a warm fire. We did ask a passing runner if we were headed the right way but he gave an incoherent answer which was understandable given that he looked as if he was about to expire from exposure.
The bed and breakfast that we were scheduled to stay at was “off-trail”, in the countryside, somewhere out in the mist and rain. We knew we had to take a turn off the track (if we were on the right one) but the only “track” that headed in the anticipated direction of the bed and breakfast looked more like an open drain.
We rang the accommodation to see if they may be able to help.
“Where are you?”
“um we have no idea”
“look for the pylons”
“um I can hardly see the phone”
“mmm well you can’t be too far away”
“um thats good, hang on, someone is coming we will ask them” (end of phone call)
“hi, do you know where we are?”
“no we have been walking for eight hours and have no idea of where we are”
“mmm, don’t suppose there was a road at the top of the drain you just walked down?”
“thanks, good luck”
We found the bed and breakfast after sloshing up what was apparently an old historic pathway (rather than a drain), walked down the road, then up a long driveway, we would not have cared if the place had been an unconverted barn.
The owners were very nice, Paul and Helen of Upper Hill Farm. After an hour to thaw out we were dropped into a nearby Cheltenham pub which was thankfully very warm. We dad a very enjoyable pub dinner with two of the other BnB guests.
Fortunately, we were staying in the same BnB the next night which gave us an opportunity to dry out a lot of very wet gear. The next day we completed our scheduled walk (in much better conditions) and Paul collected us at the end of the day and drove us back to the accommodation, a very nice service.
That night we were dropped at another pub for dinner in nearby Brockhampton. As we approached the premises, it sounded as though Santa and his sleigh were in town. When we got inside, the source of the crazed bell ringing was revealed, it was heaving with Morris Dancers. The scene did not look good for coordinated Morris dancing, pints were being sunk at an unbelievable rate, I had visions of terrible injuries as they failed to get stick on stick during the “sword dance”. It was a lot of fun, I had joked to Jane on the first day that I was disappointed not to have seen Morris Dancers in action.
Day three, you guessed it, the rain and cold returned and this time Ruth showed little interest in walking. Paul said he would drop us anywhere we liked but he did balk at Ruth’s suggestion of somewhere in the South of France. We compromised and decided to drop the most exposed 9km off the first part of our walk in the hope that the weather may improve for the second half. As it turned out, the 17km we chose to walk was largely through woods with the tall beech trees protecting us from the wind and rain raging above us.
We walked over Coopers Hill which is used for the annual cheese rolling contest. Conditions were so bad that any cheese rolling training had been cancelled, we had to imagine the scene of people and rounds of cheese tumbling down the steep hill.
The weather did improve to passing showers and the 10 days passed very quickly.The walk, despite the several rather wet days, was well worth the effort, we saw a reasonable chunk of England at a pace that at times allowed us to have an in-depth study of how snails move.
We loved the friendliness of the locals we met along the way, often out in the middle of nowhere. The older woman backpacking her groceries across a steep hill from a nearby town to the village she lived in because she enjoyed the view. The Irish lady walking her dog in the hills, told us, amongst other things, that she had left Ireland in her youth because her parents wanted to spend money giving her a fancy university education. She had taught nurses how to communicate and was excited to find someone (us) who were not walking along looking at our phones thus giving her the opportunity to talk to us. We had to fess up that we do often look at our phone, it is necessary to find out where we are. We immediately proved our point by pointing at a nearby city and saying that we were headed to Bath. “Thats Bristol, Bath is on the other side of the hill” she said waving her arm at what appeared to be a far off place.
The many villages we passed through or near with quaint names like; Old Sodbury, Chipping Sodbury, Sodbury, Cold Ashton, Wotton-Under-Edge, Waterly Bottom, Pennsylvania, to name a few. Pub meals (nothing much else available), that ranged from standard fish and chips or sausages to more sophisticated offerings. Usually more than adequate but like all food in the UK, expensive.
In addition to the variety of farmland we crossed we also walked through peoples backyards, a racecourse and of course the city streets of Bath where Ruth strolled along with her walking poles looking like a miniature version of Livingstone or Stanley. However, the sight of shops got her eyes twinkling and put an energy into her step that I had not seen for most of the walk.
As if to give us the ‘middle finger’, on the final day we were greeted with clear blue sky and a 4c starting temperature. It warmed up though and we had a very pleasant walk through to Bath. Contrary to my perception back in NZ, the last day was a very pretty walk and we did not break into the city until about 1km from the finish line.
On to Ireland
After a day enjoying the sights of Bath we boarded a train for Cardiff on route to Fishguard. After a brief but pleasant stopover in Cardiff we were soon on our way again. We managed to secure seats on the train and were congratulating ourselves as the train started to edge out of the station. However, just at that point three “ladies”, six young children and enough luggage to sink the Titanic (again) suddenly clogged the aisle. They made an announcement to everyone that they were “lookun” for 9 seats all together. After about 10 minutes they came to the conclusion that it was a physical impossibility on a train and nobody else was moving to accommodate them. There were plenty of seats, but not 9 in a convenient semi circle around a table. Had we known what was in store we probably would have evacuated the entire car and left them to it.
The three ladies proceeded to sit in a four seat table arrangement and became engrossed in conversation while the kids spread out through the car and focussed on creating unrestrained mayhem. It was an interesting trip and very entertaining.
A ferry crossing is a ferry crossing whether it is Cook Strait or the Irish Sea there will probably be swells, and for most of the trip, little of interest to look at. Ruth decided that the Irish Sea fish looked hungry and fed as many as she could during the roughish crossing. The shade of green that she turned was appropriate given that we were about to set foot on the Emerald Isle.
When planning the Irish leg of our travels we concluded that using public transport was probably going to be a little more challenging and time consuming than we wanted. So we had booked a rental car and were scheduled to have met the representative at the terminal in Rosslare at least 45minutes earlier than our eventual arrival. An elderly woman (about our age) made eye contact and as she had a
clipboard in hand I correctly concluded that she was our person. She grumbled about our lateness and led us out into the car park. When Ruth started to undertake her usual visual of the car panel work to ensure that we did not get charged for pre-existing damage she became quite agitated. “Tis a new car, there all be no dumage on thus”. Well the delivery miles were considerably higher than ‘new’ and to make matters worse, the fuel gauge registered empty.It was my turn to grumble but again she was not going to suffer any whining from foreign dude. She quickly shut down my complaint by pointing out that there was a gas station just down the road (somewhere) and all I had to do was tell them when I return the car, in Dublin, that it was empty when we got it.
We found a gas station before we had to push the car and were soon walking into our hotel in Wexford, a few kilometres along the road from the ferry terminal. The receptionist at the hotel congratulated us on bringing the fine weather with us. Given that it was blowing a gale and rather overcast we assumed she had been sitting in the bar most of the day drinking the profits.
By morning, the gale had eased to a very strong wind with only frequent passing showers. As a result, our trip south through Cork county and then into Kerry county was punctuated by me turning the car indicators on whenever I need to clear the windscreen and the wipers on when we wanted to turn. As visibility reduced to near zero it then became a scramble to find how the lights worked. The cars behind probably thought that I had downed a couple of pints of Guinness for breakfast. This weather was to be our regular companion while in Ireland and as they say, practice makes perfect, and I had the car controls sorted before we had gone too far.
The hosts at the airbnb we are staying at somewhere in the countryside outside of Killarney have sensibly provided GPS co-ordinates and with the help of our not so trusty Kupe (GPS app) we found the place rather than spending the rest of our lives aimlessly wandering around South Western Ireland. When we arrived I had no idea where we were but discovered that it was beneath Irelands highest “mountains”, MacGillycuddy’s Reeks somewhere between Killarney (Taupo on steroids) and Killorgan where they were about to crown a goat as king of the town for three days and three nights in their annual Puck Festival, the oldest festival in Ireland. They have to go out and capture the goat and after my first day’s driving efforts I was a little concerned that I had, that day, ticked many goat “boxes’.
Our hosts, Riona and Paddy, invited us over for drinks and gave us a great briefing on the area. Their “shed” was a very comfortable arrangement with a loft bed and a very pleasant kitchen, dining, lounge area downstairs. Amazingly stocked with food and the location turned out to be great for exploring the South West. The hosts got top marks from us.
Day one in Kerry was a complete washout, biblical rain which did not upset us too much, a good excuse to not do too much. We did venture out in the afternoon to get some money and petrol and kind of hoped that the forecast clearance in the weather may arrive early. The traffic in the town was chaotic and rain still torrential so we gave shop browsing a miss. As we were about to leave town, it briefly brightened so we headed up to Torc Falls thinking that they would be ‘pumping’ given the abundance of moisture in the air.
It was only 200 metres from the carpark to the falls, cool, the rain eased to steady drizzle so we went for it, but 50 metres into our dash it seemed as if we had run under the falls but, no, it was a predicted heavy burst of rain that we were encountering. We grabbed a photo on the camera and sprinted back to the car, turned the heater up full and attempted to dry out on the slow trip “home”. I hoped that the brief exposure of my camera to so much water was not going to be the final straw for my already suffering new camera.
The next day we decided to on a road trip around the Dingle Peninsula. It delivered everything that you expect to see in Ireland. Barren hills with cottages dotted across them, brooding clouds, the Atlantic smashing into the cliffs (not me), the fields separated by stone walls. We even discovered that many of the hedges were made up of fuchsias which were flowering profusely. The weather stayed dry; we negotiated the, at times, very narrow roads, especially over the Connor Pass. We struggled to find a place to get a cup of tea and coffee in Dingle, if you had a thirst for a pint, this was your paradise, every building seemed to be a pub.
We popped into a shop to purchase a card we had spotted and liked. Both of us were dressed in three layers of clothes to keep out the summer chill. The lady in the shop commented on what a nice day it was but warned that we needed to make the most of it as it was not going to stay like this for long.
One of the most important things we learned quickly in Ireland was; get over the weather quickly! Once you do that you can get on with enjoying your time. Let’s face it, you do go there to lie on the beach or undertake a remake of “Lawrence of Arabia” so don’t expect the weather to be hot and sunny.
We were in a line to buy some groceries when a lady came in and proclaimed “summer is arriving on Tuesday”. I noticed that, like the weather forecasts which seem to cover all possibilities, which Tuesday this event was to occur on was not specified. However, we observed that the locals just get on with summer regardless. Most beaches that happened upon (unintentionally), often in conditions that would be marginal for seals or penguins, there was usually one or two or more hardy souls swimming in the water mostly sans a wet suit. Maybe they were visitors from Iceland.
We had a number of opportunities to get our walking shoes on and wandered through some pretty amazing places. In Kerry, we walked the Dunloe Gap and Black Valley catching a small 12 person boat back via three lakes and a connecting river. The walk was along a road that carried very little car traffic but a lot of horse and trap traffic which, was the way most people completed the journey. At 11km and with the best weather day we experienced in Ireland, walking was the only way to go.
We drove the Ring of Kerry, getting away to an early start to avoid the crowds. This drive is on the tour bus route but, for us, it did not compare to the Dingle Peninsular which had a more remote feel to it. Either peninsular we would have preferred to walk around had we had more time and better weather.
We are pleased we did not consider biking, you would need to be on a “death wish” to bike on the busy regional (R) roads here. They are narrow, windy, no shoulder and the speed limit is 80km. Our worst nightmare was that we would round a corner and be faced with the option of hitting; a cyclist, stone wall or oncoming car, tractor or truck.
The forrest in Killarney National park was being overrun by Rhododendrons and on our walk around Muckross lake you could see how these shrubs (well trees really) were muscling out the native trees. Interesting, in England a couple had raved about the agapanthus they had seen in The Isle of Scily and we told them they were considered a noxious weed in NZ. In Ireland we were seeing the much revered (in NZ) Rhodo being considered a noxious weed. I would later learn from my volunteering colleagues in Kerikeri that most weeds were once much loved garden plants of someone.
On our trip north to Galway we decided to check out at the Cliffs of Moher. We had been warned that “they were very touristy” but after a very quiet drive north, we were a still a little stunned by how packed it was. Parking was challenging and I could see the car insurance excess having to be paid as we almost had to flip the car on it’s side to squeeze in. The cliffs were impressive but with buses as far as the eye could see, it was a challenge to move around “cliff side”. Having the same name did not get you any special privileges. Every time we come into contact with the packaged tour set we make a note to limit our exposure to these box-ticking-sites in future. They do not tend to account for the most fond experiences we take home from our travels, in fact usually quite the opposite.
One observation that we made at “The Cliffs” was the suicidal tendencies of those trying to get the ultimate selfie. The cliffs are 214m (702ft) high and the number of people standing on the very edge leaning back with phone aloft to get that to-die-for shot for Facebook was amazing. I later found out that there have been more than 180 selfie related deaths recorded.
During the second week of our Irish road trip we stayed east of Galway in another airbnb, this time a stone cottage. The owners Martina and John were great hosts, John’s parents were married in Timaru with his mother being a New Zealander and he has family living in the Nelson area so they knew quite a bit about our country.
We had yet another one of those unexpected but very cool experiences when John and Martina mentioned that there would be hound training early the next morning which we could observe if we were prepared to rise a little earlier.
That sounded like an opportunity not to miss although we only expected to see a few people on horses with the puppies running around looking confused. After some trekking through the countryside in the morning chill with the distant sound of dogs, we came across two gents in full regalia, complete with hunting horn being blown and a mass of steaming and excited dogs milling around them. En route we came across castle ruins which we got to enjoy all to ourselves. Such a treat after the crush at Moher.
The next day, after a late breakfast, we headed out to “The Burren” and spent 3 hours walking through this surreal landscape. Even stranger was passing Father Ted’s House just up the road in the middle of “The Burren”. No sign of Mrs Doyle or the Fathers; Jack, Dougal or Ted. As we were driving through largely deserted country lanes we were surprised at the number of selfie takers present. We joined in.
Images of Galway
John and Martina had a couple of mountain bikes and suggested that we really should bike out to ‘The Bog’ as it was such a quintessential Irish experience. They assured u that the lanes would be quiet and, apart from a few frenetic farmers on their tractors who were endeavouring to get hay in while the rain held off, that turned out to be true. Our fears of ending up as “road kill” were baseless.
Visiting a bog is not activity you will find in the Lonely Plant Guide but it was a truly Irish experience. There was a gent and his two sons loading a trailer with “turf” so he gave us the inside knowledge on how it all worked and the consumption rates of turf for an evening in front of the fire. An hour later we were coming out of a narrow country lane about 10km from the bog when a car went past and the occupant tooted and waved frantically to us, it was our new friend from the bog. He probably went home and told the amazing story of two plonkers from NZ who were lost in the bog.
That afternoon we were again able to avoid the crowds by visiting Coole Park. It was the gardens that has inspired the likes of George Bernard Shaw and W B Yeats who would spend time staying with the Gregory Family that owned the Estate. We walked the seven woods which were referred to in one of Yeats poems. That evening Martina insisted that we head down to the tiny thatch roofed pub that we had spotted
during our cycle ride. It was a truly fitting end to our visit. On the way home we called in on John who was busy trying to get his last crop of hay completed before the next rains. The rains were proving very troubling to both the turf and hay makers.
We managed to get the car to the drop-off destination in Dublin without any dings which was pretty amazing given the narrow country lanes that we had been traveling along. Dublin was a pleasant conclusion to our our Irish jig
A road trip through the North of England and The Highlands
The Irish sea was glassy smooth for our crossing back and the town selected for a stopover on the North Wales coast (Llandudno) turned out to be one of the surprises of the trip. It was everything you would ever imagine the British seaside to be like; a pier, Punch and Judy show, donkey rides on the sand, striped deck chairs, a promenade and nobody in the water swimming.
The town had a sweeping bay, fronted by hotels and bed and breakfasts. At each end were significant land masses, on the town end, a cable car wound up through the steep streets which we decided to walk up post dinner and were rewarded by some great views across north Wales. Unfortunately, in their desire to not detract from the land based scenery, they have decided to install all the wind farms out in the ocean. In our travels to date, the land based wind generators actually don’t look too bad, but a mass of them out at sea looks kind of hideous. However, suffering a little ‘eye-pollution’ is a small price for us to pay in order to hopefully have a liveable planet to hand over to future generations. More on that later.
Our trip north to Cumbria in Northwest England was to be achieved as an A to B road trip, as quick and easy as we could. That meant a venture up the M6 and even for hardened A-B roadies such as us, that was enough. No more long motorway trips.
The brilliant sunshine of the previous day was not the result of a slow moving high pressure system but a brief respite in between the relentless series of weather fronts that the Atlantic threw at Britain during the summer of 2015. By the time we reached Windermere the rain was setting in, the traffic was thick and the town heaving with people looking for somewhere to escape the elements. It did not look like travellers heaven.
The airbnb we were staying in did not have WIFI but did have a TV. We tuned into the BBC to get the latest weather and news. Both turned out to be totally depressing.
If I believe the media, our accommodation in Greece would be occupied by refugees or closed down due to economic collapse, or, we could be arrested as part of the impending political turmoil resulting from the resignation of the Prime Minister. Istanbul was being targeted by every extremist in the Middle East and Bangkok was being blown up by unknown crazies. China and Vietnam were likely to go to war over the Spratly Islands and, there was every chance that New Zealand would launch a surprise bombing attack on Canberra in a squadron of aerial topdressing aircraft. We tried not to get too stressed about all that, ignorance can be bliss. We kept a closer watch on the briefs issued by our Ministry of Foreign Affairs just in case plans needed to be changed.
I digress, on the weather front, it promised rain, rain and more rain. We needed a plan B.
Well plan B was simple, go to our designated walking spot, if we could see the first gate, it was probably ok to walk. What we had not planned on was the “Robin Hood” nature of the local authorities, and of course the crowds. In the wilds at home, you go to a place, park the car (at your own risk) and wander off into the bush. In the Lake District you tried to find a car space, if you were lucky enough, then you had to find the ‘pay and display’ machine (oh yes even miles from nowhere) and purchase the number of hours required and, still park “at your own risk”. They had not yet found a way to extend their “pay for a pee” regime to the “wilds” but I am sure that if we returned in another 10 years every tree would have a coin machine to charge for the pleasure.
Our first walk was a circular one, 4 hours was the estimated time to complete the walk. We had got lucky and found a car park, paid the ransom and headed off into the wilderness. After 3 hours Ruth commented that we had passed this farm house before, I was sure we hadn’t but was concerned to note that someone had shifted the Village where we left the car, from the bottom of the valley up onto one of the hillsides. “Hang about, this is not the valley we started in, we are in another valley”. Lost again! I know you are all thinking what is this plonker on, can he not read a map, use a compass or trust his wife? Hey, cut me a little slack here, it is confusing north of the equator, the moss grows on the wrong side of the trees, the sun is in the wrong place and the water goes down the plug hole the wrong way. Don’t expect me to walk the right way.
Well he rain saved my bacon for the rest of our stay, it had been very muddy on the day we had managed a hike. After further regular outbursts of rain we would have needed thigh waders to negotiate the tracks so we limited our walking to tarmac surfaces, when the weather permitted.
We were happy to point the car north for Edinburgh, the day started with a five minute burst of sunshine and then quickly descended into the standard gloom.
I asked Ruth shortly after passing the “Welcome to Scotland” sign if she felt that it was like coming home, given her solid scottish heritage. Zzzzzzzzzz…. was the response, the skirl of the pipes and whoosh of the kilts had failed to stir her scottish blood.
Kupe, our trusty maps.me navigator decided to again have a little fun with us on the way. It had refused to play ball in Windermere and calculate a route for us to take to Edinburgh. This meant I had to work out a route (I know what you are thinking). After a couple of hours of driving I decided to see if “the navigator” would determine a route as I wanted some help finding our car drop off point in Edinburgh. It did, and we found out that Scotland also has very narrow country lanes. We had our suspicions and these were confirmed. It will determine the shortest route but not necessarily the fastest. The road we ended up on was devoid of; cars, kilted Scot warriors and even sheep. We eventually came across four people walking four abreast down the road, they were shocked to see a car on it.
Edinburgh was not the dour grey city that I had visited in the 70s. It was pumping which was of course due to it being the month of the Edinburgh festival. I read that as many as 21,000 participants perform during the month long festival. The fringe festival is now the major drawcard and for those wandering the streets, there is also a never ending array of street performers. The downside is that you can barely move let alone get access to food or drink.
We had booked a self catering AirBnB a long time before. It turned out to be a gem, situated just below the Castle in the Grassmarket area, opposite Greyfrairs Kirk and cemetery (as in Greyfrairs Bobby fame). It not only had heating (to dry our sodden clothes post Tattoo) but had a washing machine. These little things had become very important to us.
We attended the Military Tattoo up at the Castle. The leaden clouds that had threatened to burst all day finally dumped their load as the last of the massed bands left the arena. We received a thorough wash on the short but very slow trip back from the Castle but the next day were compensated by a very rare event, a sunny and warm(ish) day. I logged onto the Metservice website but you guessed it, the outlook was for rain for the next week.
We had decided on Dyke as a base for a few days to explore the Moray area east of Inverness. The challenge was to find Dyke on a map, it seemed that it did not exist. Well, it consisted of a few houses scattered along a narrow country lane, no services but our airbnb had everything we needed including a washing machine and more important, given the wet weather, a dryer.
We had travelled north via the Cairngorm National Park and at Grantown-on-Spey Kupe took us on an interesting detour along roads less travelled but right to the co-ordinates of the bnb.
The Moray coast is not exactly on the tourist trail but Ruth was on a bit of a mission. She had started delving into her ancestry on her mother’s side of the family, The Frasers. The Fraser that came to New Zealand had hailed from a town along the Moray coast called, Cullen.
Her investigations in New Zealand had lead to a graveyard in Whangarei and, via the web, she found and came into contact with a local (NZ) historian who was writing a book on the early settlers to that New Zealand city. She was keen to get details from the old graveyard at the Kirk (Church) and up-to-date photos of other key historical spots in Cullen.
So a priority for our stay was to visit Cullen. I had fossicked around and found a few walks in the area so we decided to may a day of it. The forecast for the designated day was for rain (what else!) in the morning possibly clearing in the afternoon. Sounded as good as it was going get, a soggy morning in a graveyard and town and a slightly less soggy afternoon warming up with some exercise.
A walk back in time for Ruth
We found the Auld Kirk without a problem. It was wet and cold but the gate was open and we quickly found the Fraser family memorial. We also happened across the Kirk handyman (Bill) who was very knowledgeable on the history of the Kirk, the area and many other things including the Shetland Bus which had a strong link to the nearby town of Buckie.
While the Kirk was not normally open in the morning, Bill took us through the church which dated back to the 13th century. He explained the intricacies of the various lofts and preferential seating that could be purchased. The history of the kirk included links to Robert the Bruce whose second wife, Queen Elizabeth de Burgh died at Cullen and her “vital organs” were buried at the church. King Robert made an endowment of “thretty three schillings foure penny’s” to establish a chaplainry to pray daily for the soul of his Queen. The endowment is still paid to the incumbent minister.
Cumberland had also used the Church as a stable on his way to Culloden which is just “down the road” from Dyke.
The church and surrounding area were on the lands of the Earl of Seafield (Ruth’s ancestor had worked for the then Earl as his commisioner). The Kirk was originally a central part of the town but in the early 1800’s the then Earl decided that he wanted to be a little more distant from his town folk and had the town moved out towards the coast. No evidence of the old town remains near the old Kirk. The Earl owned all the land in the area. You could be a tennat and in the unlikely event that you did some how become a freeman and own land in your own right, the Earl had first dibs on your land should you ever choose to sell it.
I guess that this feudal system was a significant factor, especially for rural dwellers, that lead them to leave for countries like New Zealand where class had no bearing on your ability to succeed.
As hoped, the rain eased off and we were able to complete a circular walk along the coast to the nearby village of Portknockie. A crisp breeze continued to blow off the North Sea, the sun stayed put behind the heavy layer of slate grey cloud, the villages were deserted except for the shrieking gulls searching for their lunch or possibly afternoon tea. It all seemed very appropriate for the location.
We ended the day in high spirits by visiting the Glen Moray whiskey distillery. Ruth got right into the spirit of it all knocking back single malts like there was no tomorrow.
Our visit to Scotland was a bit of an add-on, we felt that having spent eight weeks in the British Isles we should at least include a bit of a ‘Highland Fling’ for the grand finale.
We were driving because it was simply the easiest and quickest way to get around. We had now spent the last four weeks in a car and were not really enjoying the experience. Taking life at a slower pace on two wheels or on two legs had really spoilt us. You simply don’t get to experience the country the same way from a car window. The places you would really like to stop don’t have any parking and having to look for a car parking space in a town is always an exercise in frustration. I digress.
This was the region we had packed our extra layers of clothing for but little did we realise we would live in our warmer clothes for the entire 53 days we were in the British Isles.
When packing for a longer trip that was largely focussed on warmer climates or, an expectation of warmer summer weather, we had to compromise. We could not carry all of the gear you really needed when setting out on ‘expeditions’ from our base in Portree on the Isle of Skye.
If the sole purpose of our time away was walking on the Isle of Skye, I would have packed specialist gear; wet suit, scuba gear, ropes for pulling companions out of the bog, etc. All we had was sturdy footwear (but not water proof enough), quick drying pants (not quick enough), rain jacket (the wind still drove the rain in through any little gap) and in Ruth’s case, gloves and a woolly hat (very sensible lady). This gear was no match for the conditions so we restricted our walks to well formed paths, relatively lower altitudes and timed our walks for what looked like breaks in the weather. The latter proved impossible to judge, we got lucky on several occasions but our last outing we did get a water blasting at the point furthest from shelter, not that there was much of that anywhere.
The scenery was stunning. Bleak but at the same time beautiful and well worth the minor discomforts we encountered. Ruth said she felt strangely at home but when I suggested that we purchase one of the little “do up” crofters cottages I noticed that the nostalgia quickly disappeared.
Images of Skye
We had one last stop before flying out to Greece. I wanted to visit Oban where I had spent an interesting three months in 1975 working as a labourer on the building of a water supply pipeline from a nearby loch. We stayed just out of the town at a place called Connell where the rip tides were unbelievable. My day in Oban was a little disappointing. It was really a pretty tacky “mass” tourist town. I found the old pub that we used to frequent after our 12 hours in the trenches. My memories were of a pretty simple establishment where you got a pint of McKewans lager, it seemed very Scottish to me. The 2015 version was pitched at the tourist market and just no longer seemed the same.
We scooted back to Edinburgh, well to the airport, dropped off the rental and battled our way onto a flight packed with Bank Holiday weekenders also heading back to London. The pre departure activities were entertaining, just like the reality TV show ‘Come Fly with Me’. Disorganised travellers and frustrated airline staff that seemed to end up affecting all of us - it was a short flight from hell. We stayed at Heathrow for the night in an awful big brand hotel and caught the very expensive bus for a few hundred congested meters.
We were laden with Euro’s. Greece had lurched back into crisis and they had pretty much shut down the banking system. ATMs were operating but dispensing very limited amounts of cash. The country was also due to head back to the polls while we were there. Rather than find ourselves in our own monetary pickle we started hoarding Euros while in Ireland.By the time we hit the UK again we were carrying all of our Greek spending money in cash.
The weather on the morning of our departure was bleak but as our Aegean Airlines flight headed across the channel the clouds cleared and we experienced the most amazing flight across a cloudless Europe to Athens. The awful summer weather we had experienced was hopefully behind us and we were looking forward to autumn in Greece and Turkey.
Island hopping through Greece to Turkey
After Heathrow, Athens airport felt deserted. Our airbnb host had organised a pickup for us and he turned out to the first of many Greek taxi drivers who seemed hell-bent on prematurely ending our lives. He also lost interest in our fare and dropped us in a street that was not where we were staying. We were lost and also back in a country where English was not the language of choice. However, it never fails to amaze us as to how you get by and we had soon relayed our predicament to a gentleman several floors above us who sensed that we were lost. Before long we were settled into our Greek villa.
Athens was our first encounter with the flood of Syrian refugees that were then heading towards Germany. As we were arriving in Greece, the Macedonians were shutting their border. Our last Greek Island before heading to Turkey, Kos, was at that stage one of the main landing points for the inflatable craft being used to make the short crossing from Turkey. There had been a riot in Kos while we were in the UK and it was yet another destination that we were debating whether to keep in the itinerary. To add to our concerns, bombs had gone off in both Istanbul and Bangkok, also on the list of destinations. It looked as though our travels were going to get a lot more interesting.
Having worked for a news organisation for the previous 15 years I should have been a little more savvy. Come-on Cliff, if you let the news form your opinion of the current state of the world you would not have even got on the plane three months ago. Furthermore, we always leave a detailed itinerary with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is easy to do although a bit of a painstaking process if you are going to be away for a long period of time and visiting many countries. The advantage is that you do get ‘warnings’ of current risks associated with the areas you are about to visit. We were receiving them in relation to all of these destinations but none were telling us not to go, just be aware of the current situation and risk level.
The immediate risk we faced was acclimatising to the change in weather. Clear cloudless skies were delivering a late season heat wave to Athens and the temperatures were in the high thirties and pushed into the mid forties on our last day in the city. On that day we not only experienced our first encounters with the refugees who were arriving in Piraeus (our departure point for Crete) in their droves but also learned that you need to “hunker down” in those temperatures. It was simply too hot to do anything unless it involved doing it in an air conditioned environment. Hot sounds good but we would discover on many occasions that adventure and heat are not good ‘bed mates’.
In our wanders around Athens we found ourselves gravitating to the areas where the locals (especially the older generation – like us) seemed to spend very extended periods consuming coffee and engaging in animated debate. People watching is so fascinating. We came to the conclusion that despite being in a large city, in these neighbourhood areas everyone seemed to know everyone else. It was a part of the World untouched by Facebook and text messaging. Life seems to amble rather than rush along. Unfortunately, the price Greece was paying for being part of the Euro and having these financial bailouts was that they would probably have to forego some of that lifestyle and learn to “enjoy” the faster paced life like the rest of us (lucky them). I suspected that would be a painful adjustment as the hot summer was not conducive to a fast pace, as we were finding out.
Greece’s other problem, the refugee crisis, appeared to be getting shunted up the road / rail line. There was no evidence of it in central Athens but when we went out to Piraeus to catch the boat to Crete we got our first taste of something that would be obvious during a lot of our travels through the islands, especially in Kos.
As we walked to the ferry we passed a procession of the latest arrivals from the Dodecanese Islands off the Turkish coast. They had no possessions with them but were all extremely happy, no doubt to have finally hit mainland Europe. While that escape had been completed, there were many further obstacles waiting for them, probably for a large part of the rest of their lives. Would the grass turn out to be greener in a Europe that was titling back towards the 1930’s?
We had decided to use the ferry to Crete as both our transport and overnight accommodation and booked a suite at a cost that fitted comfortably within our budget. After a long hot day we needed little rocking and my intentions to be on deck as the sun rose so that I could, as one travel guide suggested, “smell the olive oil” as we neared Souda Bay on Crete. Ruth shook me awake and said that the boat was deserted. I popped my head out into the gangway and she was right, it was full of bedlinen as the cleaners made there way through the empty cabins.
We hurriedly packed our bags and headed down through the empty vehicle garage and onto a deserted wharf. Everyone had gone but it was only 8am. As we started to consider our options for get from the Port into Chania, a hot and hilly 8km away, a taxi rolled out of the shadows and pulled up to rescue what was no doubt a regular supply of ‘tail-end-charlies’.
We loved Chania. It was pretty touristy down on the waterfront but the no-exit little alleyway that our airBnB was in seemed a world away from that bustle. We found that by taking a short walk off the main beaten tourist track you could experience the real-deal.
Rather than getting lost on Crete we thought we would indulge in a new activity of locking ourselves out of our accommodation. We were sitting out in the alleyway, along with a few cats and dogs that seemed to make it their home. Ruth mentioned that we should shut the door in an effort to optimise the performance of the air conditioning. I duly obliged but as soon as the door snapped shut I knew that the key was still in the wrong side of it with no handle on the outside. The host did not live on site, we had no phone and it looked like a long (but warm) night outside was on the agenda. I tried a few nearby doors in vain, an English couple offered us their mobile phone and a shopkeeper recalled that she had the contact number somewhere. We had diligently closed all of the windows but I wondered if we had closed ALL of them.
There were panels in the door that you could open when the door was shut. I tried pushing one, just in case we had left it unlatched. Someone was keeping a watchful eye on us, it was open and I was able to put my arm through and unlock the door.
One of the highlights of stay in Chania was a walk through the Samaria Gorge in the White Mountains that dominate the skyline behind the city. It required a very early start in order to catch the bus to the drop off point high in the mountains. From there you descended down through the gorge which at times narrowed to little more than a few meters.
The walk is a around 16km and downhill but the terrain is rugged and when the sun gets overhead the heat is punishing.
Friends of ours had given us a forewarning of the challenges and also the rewards at the other end if you did not dawdle too much in the gorge. We were certainly not racing to the finish point of Agia Roumeli on the Libyan Sea but were pleased that we made it in time to rent a shaded lounger on the waterfront. Those arriving later had to sit in the punishing heat while we waited for the boat to arrive to transport us down the coast to catch the bus back to Chania. It was a long but memorable day that started and ended in darkness.
Images of Chania
The Samaria Gorge
Our second week on Crete was to be based in the geographic centre of the island in a tiny village called Siva. This necessitated the hiring of a car which was to be an adventure in itself.
Cars are not allowed into the old town in Chania so we were to wait until the rental agent walked in to get us as he was unsure where he would be able to find a car park. After a long wait at the airBnB he finally turned up and took us to our ‘trusty steed’. It was a relatively new looking Peugeot but when Ruth started to undertake the usual pre-hire damage checks it became clear that it was a rent-a-dent. The interior was covered in dus, there was obviously no pre-rental car valeting. It did not take us long to find out why the car was full of dents and dust.
Our first drive from Chania to Siva was reasonable nerve wracking, not helped by being an hour behind schedule or, by Kupe, our less than trustee navigation app. Kupe took us off the main highway about 10km from Siva and delivered us into what was clearly a small Greek village, just a little behind the agreed meeting time of 3pm. According to the maps this was Siva all one or two (unnamed) streets of it. We had arranged to meet the owners of the AirBnB at the property but could not find anything that looked like it. So we rang them. “We are here, where is the property”. Manalos responded “I am walking out onto the street- can you see me”. “No” I responded. “According to our map we are in Siva”. “You can’t be, I would be able to see you”. “There is only one way that you can get into Siva” “Ah” was my rather despondent reply.
So we turned Kupe off and retracted our steps back to the main highway and proceeded further east along this road until we saw another turn off. Not far off the road we found another tiny village and Manalos.
It was Manalos’s old family home, two levels with a loverly outdoor area, we could see that this would be a great base for the next 8 days. Manalos and Susanna took us for a drive to show us where everything was. We turned up a street close to the property and probably no more than 100m from the property we both exclaimed, “that is where we were in the car!”. “How did you get there?” responded Manalos. “Kupe!” we responded.
Ruth was keen to hear some local greek music and Manalos suggested that we venture to a restaurant in the village of Daphnes, not too far from Siva. It was famous for it’s local food as well. He told us that it would probably be open around 8:30pm which for us was a very late time to be having dinner. We arrived at 8:30pm more than a little peckish. It was shut. Ruth knocked on the door and a lady came shuffling out into the courtyard. She did not speak english but we got the gist that we were too early. She offered for us to sit down and brought out the menu which of course we did not understand. We eventually got a meal and wine and around 10:30pm a few locals drifted in including the musicians. But no music appeared to be going to be played so we got up to leave. The musicians jumped up and told us to sit down, they would play some music before we left, one of them indicated that he had lost his voice. We got some very sad songs that seemed appropriate to the events of the day. We thanked them and left around 11pm, well before the place started to rock - or maybe it never did.
The only services in Siva were an organic winery and two Greek Orthodox churches with loud speakers mounted on them. At around 7am the next morning the priests at these two churches engaged in what appeared to be an ecclesiastical breakfast show over their respective speakers. Competition for the souls of the tiny community appeared to be fierce. The chanting went on for about an hour. What’s more, it happened every morning.
Images of Siva
Siva was surrounded by impressive mountains with villages adorning the tops of several of the olive and grape covered hillsides. The nearest village with services was a place called Venerato, about 2 hot kilometres along the road. Everything shut down from around mid-day until 4pm so we would often wander down to the ‘general store’ around 4pm to pick up our ingredients for our meals. Local fruit and vegetables, greek yoghurt, feta cheese - yes this was living like a local. Not a tourist in sight in these villages and best of all, the Cretan weather did not require you to look at forecasts. You just knew that the next day would dawn cloudless and warm.
We found trails through the vineyards and olive groves up to the nearby hilltop village of Agios Mironas but not much open when we got there. We did manage a cool drink on the deck of a Taverna and enjoyed the amazing views across central Crete.
We were planning many drives to the eastern part of the island and did undertake several including one out to the Gulf of Mirebello that included getting onto a local fishing boat and heading out to the Island of Spinalonga. We also wound our way up onto the Lasithi Plateau and out to a town called Zaros where we walked up into the Rouvas Gorge. This latter adventure took us high into the mountains where there was an impressive looking monastery. A local approached us and took us into the monastery where there was a severe looking priest complete with the long flowing beard and square topped hat. He motioned us over to where he was sitting in the shade of a tree. He pulled out a rather grubby looking plastic bottle and poured a small glass of the liquid for me then motioned for me to have a biscuit - Ruth did not seem to be visible to him - it was obviously a guy thing. The liquid was Raki which in the 30+ heat was the last thing I wanted but I duly obliged. We asked if he would mind if we took a photo and after the little Raki ceremony we thanked him and moved on. The local was waiting in ambush when we exited the monastery and he had eyes for Ruth - he did not seem to see me. He wanted to give Ruth the traditional Greek kiss styled greeting but the objective was to take it a little further. When it became obvious that this was not a greeting I had to help Ruth out. We managed to shake him off and scampered off the mountain as quick as we could.
Siva was a place that you could relax and in the end we forgot about the sightseeing and battling the terrible roads and drivers and just soaked up the village life. It was a little sad to leave and make our way into Hereklion to catch the ferry to Santorini. We were looking forward to our four days on the volcanic Island but knew that it would be tourist hell.
Images of Crete
We were not disappointed with either of our pre arrival presumptions. The island is stunning, certainly one of the more amazing places that we have ever visited and yes, it was heaving with tourists.
Our introduction to Santorini gave us another of our adventures, a terrifying taxi ride up the steep crater from the port to the town of Oia around 10km along the island. The host of the airBnB had arranged the taxi for us - it was a Mercedes with the hood up and steam coming from the radiator - not a promising sign. However, the driver put some water from his drink bottle into the radiator and we headed off. The road from the port up to the crater rim is steep with many switch backs. I noticed that the driver had two mobile phones and while heading up the switch backs he was dealing with calls on both - he was using his knees to steer the car. I indicated to Ruth to start praying as this ride was starting to look like our last ride.
Our Cave house in Oia, a smaller town located at one end of the island, was basic but had the most amazing location and view. Sitting on the crater rim high above the sea, the location more than compensated for the fairly spartan facilities of the dwelling.
Each day around 6 cruise liners would be moored off the island and their occupants would choke the towns, well the main streets of the towns. We quickly realised that by wandering the back alleys you could have the place to yourself. We also found a spectacular walk that took us along the crater rim from Oia to the main settlement of Fira around 10km away. This walk was also devoid of tourists yet was probably one of the more spectacular we have done, anywhere in the World. We were lucky to have encountered a rare overcast day for the walk which made the huffing and puffing up some of the steeper slopes a little more bearable although with the cloud and a little precipitation came our first humidity since leaving the UK.
Our ride back to the Port, to catch the midnight boat to Rhodes in the Dodecanese islands, was as exciting as the ride from it. We had to be out of the Cave House by mid day but had found a bar and pool complex that we could hangout at, provided we ordered a drink. Our bags were deposited at a local restaurant for the day. Around 10pm our taxi arrived and we headed off in total darkness. The taxi driver and everyone else turned their lights off unless they detected an oncoming vehicle. We were familiar with this stretch of road through the countryside, it was pretty treacherous and during our walk had observed a tourist, on a quad bike, come to grief on it.
The taxi driver got behind another vehicle and started berating Asian drivers, “the worst drivers in the World” he screamed at the back of the car. Mmmm; after our experiences driving on Crete and our taxi rides on Santorini we had a strong view on who we would give that “crown” to.
We had a very simple three level dwelling nor far from the port in old Rhodes town. Many of the surrounding buildings were in a state of disrepair but ours was comfortable and quiet and despite being in the old town, was devoid of tourists. The beach crowds were located about 5km further along the coast and the only challenges were the crowds that the regular flow of cruise boats would disgorge into the more popular parts of the old town. They usually disappeared by late afternoon and as usual were limited in where they ventured leaving plenty of scope for us to avoid them.
Ruth had decided that she needed to ship her Greek treasures back to New Zealand as the bag space was again at a premium. We found the location of a local post office and headed off on what was often an adventure in itself - using the local postal service. She got to the post office and was directed to collect a number and wait for it to be called. I knew that this was often a lengthy process and decided to head back to a Starbucks that I had spotted on our walk to the Post Office - good coffee had been in short supply for a long time now - I said that I would hang around there for her.
After about an hour there was still no sign of Ruth so I decided to wander back to the Post Office and see what was going on. There was no sign of Ruth when I entered. I wandered back out into the street and checked for any sign of her. Maybe we missed each other in transit, I headed back to Starbucks and checked it out, still no sign of Ruth. I was starting to get a little concerned, had she gone back to our apartment, been kidnapped or gone shopping. None of these seemed likely scenarios based on past form and there were no shops in the area that would appeal to Ruth. It was now 90 minutes since I last saw her and while I was deciding what to do, she emerged from a nearby building looking a little exasperated but minus the parcel. They had called her number and then directed her to a completely different building to complete the transaction. This was a new, and still standing, record (just) for sending a parcel home - well done Greece!
Images of Rhodes
Our trip up the Turkish coastline to Kos was on the smallest of the ferries that we would travel on, probably carrying less than 50 passengers. After a brief stopover at Symi, a very pretty but desolate looking island, we were soon dragging our bags around the pretty harbour in Kos town towards our Apartment. When we arrived it was deserted. The owner eventually appeared and greeted us like long lost friends as the refugee crisis had resulted in much of his expected business for the recent summer, failing to show. When he saw our passports he wanted to know who was looking after our sheep back in New Zealand. He had read that there were 36 sheep for every New Zealander and assumed (he was serious) that we were a nation of shepherds. We explained that farm sizes were a little larger than in Greece and that we owned no sheep so they weren’t aimlessly wandering around the countryside in our absence. He told us that he had upgraded us to his biggest room, “big enough to play basketball in”.
We seemed to be the only ones in the place apart from a few other hardened visitors in the town. There were plenty of refugees although not as many as the news reports had lead us to believe. They were housed in a Red Cross camp on the waterfront, by the police station, where they would wait to be processed and could then catch the ferry to Athens to begin their journey towards Germany and, hopefully, a new and better life.
Images of Kos
A long walk along the coast took us through a surreal landscape. Inflatable boats were punctured as soon as they hit the shore and were left where they landed. The beaches were strewn with these deflated ‘boats’ and littered with life jackets. In a few places the life jackets had been stacked into huge piles but mostly they were just discarded rubbish. Amongst this, there were a few sun worshippers, on rented loungers, catching the last of the early autumn sun. Turkey looked to be within swimming distance and you could easily make out the detail of the villages just across the water. However, a strong wind whipped the narrow stretch of water into a challenging boat ride, especially one where there was little freeboard.
The final ferry trip to Bodrum in Turkey was short but the language, currency and culture changed noticeably. We were now being woken by the Muezzins calling the faithful to their prayers.
We flew from Bodrum to Istanbul. On this one hour flight I think nearly every other passenger (they were all locals) used the “call button’ to request something from the poor over worked cabin crew. We caught a bus from Ataturk Airport into town and had about a 2km walk that took us across Taksim Square and then down the length of Istikial St, the city’s main shopping drag. Our airBnB was located just off the street not far from the Galata Tower.
Mohammad, the owner, was a friendly and helpful type and we enjoyed our stay in the penthouse apartment that had fine views across the Bosphorus. It was a perfect place for us, well within walking distance of the main attractions and again nice and quiet.
After 6 weeks of brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures we were again pulling out the warmer clothing. We had hoped that it would stay in the bottom of the bag but it was overcast with a cool breeze for most of our stay.
Ruth was in heaven, the shopping was brilliant and she set about buying Christmas and birthday presents for the next decade. She out bartered the traders and generally probably pulled the first rung out of the Turkish economy as she scored ‘Ruthless’ bargains. Well we suspect that she didn’t but it was always ego building to think that you were getting one over the experts.
We were going to be crossing the date line on our next flight from Istanbul to Bangkok and somehow this messed with my booking - I had booked an extra night in Istanbul, the only hiccup of the entire trip. However, it was an extra, rather than leaving us one short. It also meant that we had the use of the apartment for the day rather than having to hangout on the streets or at the airport.
Russia had started firing cruise missiles in the direction of Syria. When I looked at our proposed flight path I hoped that they were having the night off - our flight took us right across missile alley.
Heading towards home
We had set aside four days in Bangkok; to organise visa’s for our month long visit to Vietnam. However, prior to leaving NZ we were able to arrange to obtain a visa on arrival through our hotel in Hanoi.
With the exception of Bangkok, hotels in South East Asia were cheap and so we decided to make that our accommodation of choice for the 6 weeks we were there. We also had an approaching wedding to attend in Victoria, Australia and needed to start thinking about acquiring some suitable attire for that. Our limited range of clothing in our bags had taken a hammering and was only going to be good for the rubbish bin by the time we touched down in Melbourne.
Our first mistake in Bangkok was to get on board a tuk tuk only to end up mid stream being taken to a ‘kick-back’ destination along our route. We were rather annoyed at falling into this trap but the destination was a tailor, the products were good quality and very reasonable so we decided to plunge in and get our ‘glad rags’ made.
The delivery of our new clothes only took a day but reorganising our bags took somewhat longer. It was another trip to a courier to send some of our gear back home. This time it took a new record of only 10 minutes to get the package on it’s way.
We flew from Bangkok to Hanoi and that visa on arrival took a long time to arrange. I think that every official at the airport was required to handle the application. By the time we collected it and made our way down to the luggage pick-up our two bags were all alone on the carousel. The hotel had organised a ride and the driver was getting pretty anxious by the time we finally met him.
This was so different to Bangkok. In the ride from the airport we passed people in the fields in their conical bamboo hats and the roads were choked with motorcycles. As we pulled up outside the Hotel the staff came rushing out to greet us. One stopped the traffic while we crossed the street, in the old quarter of Hanoi. We thought this process which was rather quaint but would later understand their concern for our wellbeing.
The hotel was a small five bedroom affair that appeared to have more staff than guests. Every time we made an appearance the staff would be on hand to open doors, press lift buttons or suggest activities. Our first activity was to get some Dong, the local currency. It was dark by the time we ventured out in search of an ATM. A challenge compounded by a lack of street lighting. We had to use the light on our iPhone to see the keypad and then we had the mental gymnastics of trying to work out what our usual budget was in Dong. A conversion rate of around 18-19,000 Dong per dollar came up with some mind boggling numbers. We had spare Euros and USD on our debit card and were using those to purchase our Dong - it was a ‘ding dong’ mental battle in the dark, not helped by machines that did not like our card.
There is an art to crossing street in Hanoi (and many other parts of South East Asia) where pedestrian crossings or controlled intersections are non existent and, the flow of traffic unrelenting. We spent a little time observing the few locals who were on foot and noticed that they simply walked slowly into the traffic flow while carefully watching the oncoming flow. You keep walking at a steady pace and miraculously, the flow runs around you, like a rock in a river. It looks easy enough but when you take those first few terrifying steps you do wonder if they will be your last. After a few days we were happily throwing ourselves amongst the motorcycles and occasional car. Intersections were chaotic but it seemed to work, the riders rarely came to grief and during our entire stay in Vietnam we only saw one accident, in Nha Trang during a torrential downpour.
We had booked a couple of nights (through the hotel) out on Halong Bay. They were happy for us to leave our bags at the hotel and collect them upon our return. We were catching the 8pm “Friendship Express” south to Hue. After our three day excursion to Halong Bay we returned to the Hotel and while we were not booked to stay anymore nights, they had a room for us so that we could freshen up before heading off to the railway station. Furthermore, they insisted on us taking some food that they had packaged up as they did not think that we would like the on-board food. We were bundled into a car and taken to the station and the bellhop from the hotel pedalled along behind us. When we jumped out of the car he rushed over and grabbed our bags and took us and the bags to our sleeper cabin on the train.
Our train travels would take us nearly 2,000km from Hanoi to stopovers at Hue, Da Nang (for Hoi An), Nha Trang and finally Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). At each stage we would catch the same train (The SE3) and it’s state of hygiene would be progressively worse. By the last stage Ruth was having extreme difficulty facing the prospect of using the bathroom which was in very bad shape.
We were expecting a lot of rain as we moved south as it was the end of the monsoon season. However, we enjoyed dry warm weather in both Hue and Hoi An. In Hoi An we stayed in a homestay in the centre of town, across the river and used the homestay bicycles to explore the nearby coast and delta. We had a full day of guided cycling of the delta with two guides and an English couple. It was a great day on the bikes and we enjoyed spending time with local families and making our way from island to island, through rice paddies and along some fairly dusty paths. It was a great taster for our planned cycle and boat journey through the Mekong Delta a couple of weeks later.
Nha Trang was forgettable. I had thought that it would be nice to chill out in a beach location for a few days but it was not something that really resonated with our style of travel. It was a city that had pitched itself to Russian tourists and that combined with the monsoon that we finally caught up with, made for a less memorable stay. The beach was stunning but rubbish in the water along the sand was too prevalent for our liking. The waterfront hotels had rubbish boons set up so that their guest could swim unmolested.
Saigon was really just a brief stopover to connect with another small group (a German couple) to take us through the Mekong Delta. Again we enjoyed the combination of bicycling and boat travel through the delta to Can Tho and then the next day to Chau Doc where we were catching a boat up the Mekong river to Phnom Penh. My bike had very limited braking capabilities which made for some challenging riding along the narrow paths that often crossed even narrower bridges. It was important to allow plenty of pace between myself and Ruth to ensure that we both did not end up in a tangle on the ground.
Chau Doc had a more Communist feel to the town. The hotel reminded me of my stay in Moscow at the height of the cold war and the city was certainly not geared towards foreign visitors. Our transport to the riverside dock was on local manpowered rickshaws - more like something you see in harness racing but we were soon underway on our boat ride up the Mekong to Phnom Penh.
The Vietnam - Cambodian border crossing has ‘gone down’ as the most unusual of any of our travels. The boat pulled into the immigration checkpoint on the Vietnam side of the border where we had to disembark and get our passports stamped. We then boarded the boat, for about 500 metres, and pulled into the Cambodian border post where we needed to again disembark and this time get our visa on arrival. The outpost was a collection of shacks around a courtyard that was full of chickens and dogs and ‘officials’. The latter seemed to be on a meal break. Two of the dogs started to get very amorous which resulted in a short spell of chaos as we had guards hurling objects at the dogs that did not want to be interrupted. This entry point certainly got the award as the most unique of our travels.
After a few days in Phnom Penh we caught the bus north to Siem Reap, some six hours ride away.
We had decided to join a guided cycle around Angkor Wat on our first day, in order to get some orientation of this vast complex. We joined a couple from Mexico as well as a guide. After watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat we had breakfast in the jungle and then made our way around the temples. It was tough riding in the heat and along the sandy jungle paths. We almost lost Ruth while she was trying to get her bike across a rather challenging river bridge but despite the challenging conditions, we agreed that it was worth the effort. We joined a slightly larger group later in the week to bike around the surrounding countryside at Siem Reap and again enjoyed seeing the less touristy aspect of the rural areas close to the city. You did not have to venture far before encountering real Cambodian villages.
Despite all of our walking and cycling our weight had stayed persistently heavier than we desired until we hit South East Asia. A radical change of diet combined with the humid and hot weather had the desired effect and the weight fell off us during our six weeks in Vietnam and Cambodia. The clothes were suddenly too loose, in fact I was concerned that I would be ‘swimming’ in my yet-to-be-worn wedding gear.
Images from Cambodia
We caught the plane to Singapore via Bangkok, now very much on the homebound leg of our journey. On the day we were due to fly out to Melbourne I asked Ruth if she felt that she could keep travelling after such a long time on the road. The answer was yes, it had been an amazing experience, we felt that we had approached it the right way, each step involved taking us a little further out of our comfort zone but we always felt ready for the next change.
Eight hours later we touched down in Melbourne and picked up a van and family from New Zealand (they had arrived the night before) to head out to Mark and Louise’s wedding in Castlemaine, about 100km Northwest of Melbourne. It was great to catchup with everyone after such a long break. However, Australia and the family suddenly made us feel as if we were home, the feeling of difference that had been such a part of most of our travels had suddenly gone.
Following the wedding we dropped the Kiwi contingent back to Melbourne airport, traded our van for a car and headed off to Adelaide via the Great Southern Ocean Highway. En route Ruth got a sliver of glass in her foot while walking along the beach at Apollo Bay which laid her up for a few days, her only major ailment in the six months on the road. Our heart was no longer in this trip, we simply wanted to get home. We had a further week in Sydney before finally touching down in Auckland to be greeted by my daughter and her children. After a quick catchup we were back on the plane for the last short hop back to our new home in Kerikeri.
Pics from the Aussie Foray
It was great to be back but what an adventure and what a privilege to be able to do something like that.