Margators

So it’s been a fair while since the 11th July 2014. Being the beginning of March 2018 that makes for just over 3 and a half years of news to make up. Bugger!

I can’t pretend that I’ll be able to cover everything as that’d be pretty long. It’d also probably be fairly dull as while lots has happened there’s also been lots of times when life has just sort of trundled along.

I think that trundling is exactly what sparked the events that have lead up to this point in time…

Life after cycling round a hot and dusty India and then a wintry Europe turned out to be fairly confusing. We’d gone from the most magical, illogical world of colour, noise, sweat and dirt to a manicured calm and organised place in the middle of winter. It was a tough couple of months making our way back through a chilly Western Europe after the hot joys of India.

We spent a few months decompressing and living with our parents before stuffing a van full of furniture. Most of which we’d forgotten the purpose of, and lugging it all back to Peckham, South East London. Luckily a lot of our friends were nearby and we quickly picked up the baton from where we dropped it 10 months earlier. It felt good to be busy and working again. Our freelance lifestyles had taken a hit. The design world had moved on (a little!). Friends and colleagues had shifted around from job to job and place to place, but a few weeks of social boozing and figuring out how mouses and keyboards worked again and we were back firing on both cylinders! Once again London felt like a great city to be part of.

Life carried on nicely, work was busy, all was good. We were lucky enough to have several bunches of friends getting married in different places around the world and we managed to get away to some of them. A pretty good summer to be honest!

We adopted a cat, well he adopted us. We bought a 1980s car. Life was grand and the wanderlust kept at bay.

I’ll be honest, winter’s not really my favourite season. A crisp snowy morning with the sun out has its charm, but the realities of winter in SE15 are dark, dank mornings (and evenings!) cycling into brain freezing drizzle. Invariably in the wrong clothing, just to get to and from work. It got dull.

We started to make plans for a new life out of the city. Pouring our hearts and souls into developing a project that could become a life’s work. “Velo-Eco” was destined to become the camping/glamping/place to go for anyone with a passion for the outdoors, bicycles and living off-grid. Our business plan was brilliant. The only problem was that we couldn’t find any land for sale/rent (that we could afford!) to start our project. As neither of our families had any land assets it was going to be a super expensive struggle to begin the dream. It was a huge blow. We’d spent months developing this project. Every scrap of spare time and energy had gone into researching and designing something that in the end we just couldn’t afford to do.

Down but not quite out, we decided that we must have been right in one thing. We wanted out of the city.

On a whim we jumped in Nesbitt, our little Renault 5 to drive to the Kent coast for the weekend. The grapevine had been rustling and we’d heard some intriguing things about one of Britain’s tired old seaside towns.

A couple of sunsets over the sea, a well renowned art gallery, some slap up grub and a few brilliant pubs later and we’d fallen in love with the place!

We’d even managed to fit in a few house viewings! (Like I hinted earlier we’re not the types to hang about) and after 6 short hours sat in said sawdusty pub we’d decided to put in an offer on a house at the top of a hill overlooking the victorian terraced landscape of the Dane Valley.

Margate was soon to be our new home! Months of legal to-ing and fro-ing later and we had the keys to our own house. It’s no palace but it’s ours and we love it! Even if the neighbours on one side are bat-shit crazy and shout at each other at ungodly hours. They’re our bat-shit crazy neighbours!!

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Portraits of India

 

Plastic Sorter.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_plastic boy

Family Business.     Dharavi, Mumbai.Dharavi Mumbai_proud family

Teamworkers.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_seated boys

Paint Tin Strippers.     Dharavi, Mumbai.

Dharavi Mumbai_paint tin strippers

Holi Festival.     Smile.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Holi Festival_yellow man

Holi Festival.     Peace.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

Holi Festival_purple man

Holi Festival.     Little Lion Man.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.Holi Festival_little lion man

Holi Festival.     Colourful group.     Jodhpur, Rajasthan.Holi Festival_holi menStreet Portrait.     Village Lady.     Sholavandan, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_village ladyStreet Portrait.     Shoe Polisher.     Madurai, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_shoe polisher

Street Portrait.    Nice Flowers.     Guhager, Maharastra.Street Portraits_nice flowers

Street Portrait.     Market Stall Holder.     Hyderabad, Andra Pradesh.Street Portraits_market stall holder

Street Portrait.     Kerelan Fishermen.     Allepey, Kerela.Street Portraits_kerelan fishermen

Street Portrait.     Father and Son.     Hampi, Karnataka.Street Portraits_father and son

Street Portrait.     Catman and Robin.     Street Portraits_catman and robinStreet Portrait.     Village Boys.     Wayanad, Kerela.Street Portraits_boys with dogStreet Portrait.     Bicycle Shop Owner.     Madurai, Tamil Nadu.Street Portraits_bicycle shop ownerSchool Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.     
Perengadu School Portrait 05School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 04School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 03School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 02School Portrait.     Perengadu, Tamil Nadu.Perengadu School Portrait 01

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Pictures of memories….

I know its been a little too long since I’ve posted anything. Sorry about that!
Lack of internet and spending what feels like ages trying to navigate ‘normal life’ again has taken recent priority!

I have however uploaded quite a few photos to the exploringforever flickr page.
Click on the pics just down there on the right hand side…
If you go to ‘photostream’ it’ll take you to all the recent photos.

I’ll upload some more soon….

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Out of the frying pan and into the…cold and wet?!

Jaded, tired and just a little hungover we touched down at Munich airport. The surrealism crept in. We weren’t in India, we’d arrived in the future!
Vehicles were sleek, fast and silent. Buildings were shiny solid cubes of glass and metal. No bamboo scaffolding anywhere!  The streets and houses were spotless, immaculate even. A far cry from our eastern home of chaos.
We soothed (and to a point, exacerbated!) our culture shock by staying with friends in their fantastic 60s apartment near the city’s English Garden. It was nice to stay in a proper house again, with friends instead of landlords!
We gave ourselves a week off, enjoying the city as if on holiday. Visiting the insanely over designed and overly technical BMW museum, an enthusiast’s dream but a tad boring to us lay folk!

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We cycled around the still contemporary 1972 Olympic park, the top of the ‘Olympic Mountain’ gave us our first glimpse of the snow covered peaks of the Alps.
We ate Indian size, huge portions of delicious Bavarian food. Sitting in sunny biergartens gulping crisp beers and munching fine meaty bratwursts with honey mustard.
After our holiday our legs were yearning to pedal again, even if our minds were happy with the comforts of a home.
It was a tough first week back on the bikes. A baptism of water you could say as the heavens opened and didn’t shut for days. Heading south away from Munich into the grim reality that Europe at the beginning of April might not be quite the balmy, easy ride home we’d hoped for! Days of freezing horizontal rain, temperatures that aren’t exactly ideal for camping plus lots of damn steep hills made for a pretty testing time.
The weather gods decided we’d put up with enough for the time being. The dramatic grey sky eased a little, giving way to glorious sunshine as we camped at the base of the mountains.  After several soggy nights we sat outside the tent enjoying a glorious sunset next to the beautiful lake Banwaldsee.

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Fulfilling our various niece’s dreams we visiting the fairy-tale castle of NeuSchwanstein. Perched on the hillside, all turrets and princess towers its no wonder the building was the inspiration for so many of Disney’s films.

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As we followed the mountain range west towards Lake Constance, we passed by rivers and lakes of the most iridescent blues and greens. It was as if the saturation had been enhanced on our surroundings.

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Leaving the great peaks behind we headed through ever more beautiful scenery. The greenest grass, perfectly sculpted hills and deep beautiful valleys. Smoke billowed into the crisp clear air from beautiful wood shingled chalets and farm-houses. True chocolate box landscapes.
In the lakeside village of Wasserburg we were reunited with some lovely new friends we had met in India. Surrounded by springtime apple blossom, we stayed in their delightful flat above their fantastic organic restaurant, Eulenspiegel.
We all took a day out to Meersburg, indulging in more hearty Bavarian grub, a trip around a medieval castle and more tourist chintz than we’ve seen in a long while. The lace tray covers a signal that some places still hark back to the good old days!
After yet another emotional farewell we took a ferry across the icy blue lake. Eating tinned olives and crisps we sat out on deck, trying to soak up as much of the remaining sun as possible, even if we did have to cower from the wind sat practically underneath a table!
A very brief days jaunt into Switzerland, even more quiet and pristine than Germany. So much so that we felt uneasy and out of place. Our clunky, muddy and messy touring bikes not quite fitting their manicured surroundings. Very pretty and thoroughly neat the place seemed, there was no edge to add any memorable depth. We made our way back into Germany quick sharp!
Out of Bavaria and into the even hillier Black Forest. The weather again turned out of our favour. A week riding through misty forests, lakes and gorges. IMG_5676An unending pine covered landscape, undulating all the way to the horizon strangely suited the gloom of the weather. Our clothing was holding up well to the wind and rain but when there was a huge temperature drop we had to escape the outdoors. -5°c is no fun in a tent but it meant we had to live it up for a day or two in a brilliantly German B&B hotel. The comfiest and warmest beds, huge portions of food and the amazing tiled radiator bench in the deliciously chintzy restaurant, and of course meat, cheese and eggs for breakfast!
After a long and tiring uphill we crossed out of Schwarzwald and down to the lovely market town of Frieburg, all cobbled streets, craft shops and towering church spires. Thinking the big climbs were behind us the thigh crippling 2km long 13% gradient into Kaiser Stuhl was a bit of a shock! Worth all the pain of the ascent as this tiny German wine growing region was one of the most picturesque we’ve seen. IMG_5776Tremendously beautiful vineyards straddling the rolling hills amid tuscanesque scenery leading to our first ride on the huge Rhine river.
We followed the water North, camping in forests where the loud burps of ribbeting frogs woke us in the night. Sat in the trees we greedily slurped wild garlic soup picked just a metre away. With horrendous breath the next day we rode through glorious sunshine along the border to France and the city of Strasbourg.

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Onwards and upwards….just!

With our final day in India upon us we’d planned out our grand departure! A trip to a gallery in the morning, a slap up meal in the evening and then a quick taxi ride to the airport. Easy.
Nope!
In the morning I headed out to book a taxi for later on. Luckily I found a small travel agency who could help us. When the gentleman asked our flight time, he spun the computer screen round with a slightly wary eye. Our flight number didn’t exist. Panicked I put the cab on hold and ran back to the guesthouse to check the net to find out what was going on. A pilots strike at Lufthansa meant out flight had been PRE-poned! Instead of flying early next morning our flight would now leave 11 hours earlier! We still managed a whistle stop tour of the modern art gallery. Turned out the best exhibit was outside anyway! Then our nice meal-out turned into a hurried take away. A white knuckle taxi drive through Delhi’s finest rush hour traffic, complete with a driver who didn’t seem to know where the brake pedal was and we arrived in the more modern building for a long time.

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At the impressive entranceway to the Indira Ghandi airport we were bemused by the queues to get into the terminal. Armed guards stood on each door checking tickets. As ours now didn’t exist we weren’t allowed in! Every single guard barred our entry. The fact that we needed to get into the building even to change our tickets didn’t seem to matter. The flight number no longer existed so they were not letting us in. With time running out of an already frantic day our pleads and tears at every door, literally begging to be let in just weren’t being heard. I had to find a member of staff inside who would eventually persuade the unbending (jobsworth) guard to let us in. Inside the building we were now told our flight had been cancelled!
Even more tears followed, as the strike was planned for 3 days. We thought we were stranded in the airport. Amazingly, we were eventually told that we’d been rerouted.
Via Bangkok!
The wrong way around the globe!
Booking our bikes onto a new carrier proved another fun obstacle, we had the problem that our original tickets allowed all our baggage but Thai Air’s allowance was less than half. It was going to cost an arm and a leg to get out of Delhi, and we had less than an hour to go through the inevitable Indian beaurocracy that would accompany it. Thankfully the Thai Air staff were wonderful, pulled a lot of strings and in the end our costs weren’t quite as extreme as we thought. We still cut it horrendously fine. Once we’d paid, taken the boxes to the oversize luggage office at the other end of the airport,(of course) we had security to deal with. Huge queues everywhere, but incredibly we got through with minutes to spare. Almost a kilometre run with hand luggage panniers through shiny duty-free, we breathlessly shambled our way into the aircraft and breathed a huge sigh of relief!
With the huge stress of our last day in India plus the fact we were now flying 5 hours away from Europe towards a 7 hour stopover in Bangkok, we decided to make it worth our while by drinking as many double gin and tonics as possible!

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Possibly not our finest hour as we drunkenly departed our first flight into the quite unbelievably huge Suvarnabhumi airport.

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Literally km after km of building. The same shops repeating at each huge gate made the place a bewildering maze. Of course we lost each other and spent the next couple of hours trying to find ourselves in the air conditioned labyrinth. A quick alcohol/stress/tiredness/India induced row later and we’d made up. Still with raging hang-overs we found a sofa and while we watched the sun rise over Thailand’s capital we dozed.
Still on Indian time, we couldn’t figure why our gate said it was boarding for our flight 2 hours early. It was only when staff came looking for us that we realised our mistake and almost missed our second flight!
After the nightmare of the last 24 hours, the fabulous flying experience on Thai Air really almost made up for it all! We felt like we were in first class. The food tasted and looked like food. The service was impeccable. The alcohol all top notch and the in-flight entertainment worked the whole way!! After so many crap cheapo airline experiences in the past this almost felt like air travel was a pleasure again! As an extra bonus the plane was half full meaning we both had an aisle each and could start to sleep off our 25 hour extended journey!
Arriving in Munich the next evening, our baggage was waiting for us. Such a relief after ourmangled journey. We left the spotless terminal into the spotless car park to take a swish Mercedes van taxi. As we left the airport into the dark, the Xeon blue lights of BMWs and Mercs flew past. Buildings were lit with spotlights and coloured fluorescents in stairwells. There was no smoke from fires at the side of the road. No cows anywhere in sight, people kept to their lanes and bloody hell did they drive fast! Our taxi had seatbelts, no holes in the floor and the driver wasn’t drunk or spitting out the window.
We were not in India anymore!

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We’ve come full cycle!!

As our last cycle stop in India, Udaipur was the perfect end to a brilliant and sometimes difficult ride.  The beautiful white city is set around a seriously gorgeous lake, flanked on all sides by the sharp peaks of the Aravalli mountains. A really special place and a city that by Indian standards is beautifully romantic and really rather relaxing.

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Stepping off the bikes after a long days ride down from the mountains felt really good. We’d survived 5 months riding on the ever interesting Indian roads! After travelling through some of the most fantastic, fascinating and mind boggling places we were in need of some low key post ride celebrations!
That first night we parked our bikes, dumped our panniers and headed up the 7 flights of stairs to the roof terrace. Drinking ice cold Kingfishers we watched the sun set behind the mountains and the lights twinkle on all around the lakeside. One of the finest city views and a good few days to enjoy it!
Exploring the city we wandered through the usual bustle of tourist shops. The same stalls selling the same (admittedly rather nice) things that cover the rest of India. Not as pushy as some towns, it was enjoyable to browse and wander the steep lanes and alleyways. Pinning ourselves up against the walls every few minutes as the hair raising moped riders bottle necked the junctions, horns beeping at ear piercing decibels. It still amazes us that such situations never arose with any anger or frustration. That’s just the way it’s done. Take any gap possible, others will move out of your way, beeping is mandatory, drive as fast as you can, any direction on any paved surface. It’s an education, that’s for sure!
We visited the immense City Palace. Twelve magnificent buildings, perched on a hill overlooking the lake. Some of the finest and most incredibly elaborate spaces. Elegant interiors and exquisite exhibits along with some lovely views over the city. While having a beer in the palace courtyard we bumped into the Prince Royal! He rolled by quite handsomely suited in a trundling golf cart followed by a crowd of people taking a few photos. Not quite the paparrazi of home!
One evening we climbed the hill to the Karni Mata temple, a delicious sunset viewpoint which gazes out over the white-hued city and the sparkling lake. Sat in the middle of the water is a lovely temple as well as the ‘floating palace’ used in the 007 film Octopussy. Unfortunately now an elite Taj hotel that you can only visit if you book a £290 room!
The White City was definitely a favourite of the towns we visited in Rajasthan. May have been slightly due to our excitement and relief at finishing our Indian bike tour, but it really is a special place.

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With the days ripping swiftly from the calendar we booked our cycles onto the train. Amazingly there was no hassle, we packed them ourselves and basically just handed them over. A pleasure of an experience!
After our last meal of a huge and delicious Thali at a great little place we climbed aboard our last overnight train, headed towards Agra as most people do to add another tick to the tourist list.
Arriving after little sleep on the noisy train, Agra train station was a slightly different experience to Udaipur. We wasted 3 long painful hours going back and forth between luggage offices. Not one person willing to help us or even just to communicate with each other.

 

wpid-agra-parcel-office-photo.jpg.jpegThe coolies in the parcel warehouse had the time of their lives, laughing at us as we struggled with our heavy bikes and bags. Our time in the unfriendly warehouses of staring and laughing underpaid lads was not a pleasant experience. These guys will probably spend their whole lives doing the same tough chores in the same grim sweaty room. They took a fair bit of pleasure meeting our struggle with mockery and abuse. It was a good job neither party could understand the other as we met their taunts with our own cursing and forced insults. It was not turning into a good morning. After a knackering few hours lugging huge 30kg bags back and forth while pulling our hair (what was left of it!) out, we finally booked the bloody things onto the day after’s onward train to Delhi.
We eventually left the train station and found a guesthouse in the seedy mosquito ridden sprawl of Agra. Washing away the stress and train grime with a quick warm shower we started to feel more together. A rushed bite to eat and we jumped back in a rickshaw for a whistle stop tour of Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal. We bought our ‘Non Indian’ tickets at a price of 1000rp, an almost 900% increase on the price an Indian tourist will pay. A quite bewildering thing that we’ve been met with throughout India. Nowhere we’ve travelled before have we come across what we started to call (tongue in cheek) ‘racist tickets’ like these.
Both impressive buildings, the fort is another huge marvel of Indo Muslim strategic architecture. The red stone battlements enclosing some beautiful gardens and elegant palace architecture.

 

wpid-agra-fort-photo-2.jpg.jpegWith little time we took another chaotic ride through the dirty and seedy Taj Gang area. The messy sprawl of settlements appear to be layers of temporary parasite living spaces surviving solely from the tourism for the ubiquitous Taj.
Dropped at the gates we joined a line to go through the strictest of security. Bags, cameras and electronic equipment seemed fine but Jodie’s plastic toy mascot was just too much for the police officers. Obviously they’ve watched too many 80s action films with bombs inside teddies!
After leaving ‘Lewis’ at a stall outside we entered the grounds of the Taj Mahal. Beautiful manicured lawns defined walkways through the geometrically perfect courtyards. The initial view of the mausoleum through the entrance archway was breathtaking. A truly beautiful and architecturally exquisite building. Looking back, that small glimpse at perfection was actually the epitome of the visit.

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Visiting the Taj was obviously a special experience, seeing it in real life, watching the sunlight change the colour of the translucent marble and experiencing Shah Javan’s tribute to love and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal was magnificent. It was however tainted by the huge crowds of people. Although from afar the milling colourful groups gave some scale to the huge white mausoleum.

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On entering the building itself, a bizarre segregation forms on the stairs. Beyond belief, ‘higher priced ticket holders’ (westerners) enter on one side of the staircase and Indian tourists barricaded into the other side. Entering the tomb we were aghast when the Indian tourists flaunted all the signs about ‘no photos’ and ‘silence inside the tomb’. Ridiculous Facebook poses and the all too common shrieking really ruined the ambience inside. Even more shocking, as we made our way out we had to wait pinned against a side wall before another huge group of Indians poured into the sacred place. The only description that suits is like rats deserting a sinking ship! Herded around the circular crypt with whistles and armed guards shouting, slightly diminishing the calm and serenity the space is supposed to embody!
After our quick trip to the most touristy of sites in India we caught our final long distance train in India. Watching as the landscape changed from buffalo herding children in the fields, to smoke spewing industry and the suburb slums of Delhi. We arrived at Nizammudin station. Picked our bikes up from the biggest luggage warehouse we’ve ever seen! This time the workers were more interested in how the air-horns worked than anything else! We all shook hands and laughed when they just wouldn’t work and I had to mime pumping them up and the noise they make!
We cycled into the big scary city to find the room we’d booked. Of course we couldn’t find it for love nor money. A couple of hours riding slowly along the streets looking at house numbers before our hosts called and pointed us the right way. We had our own simple room with access to a shared kitchen and some courtyard space that were ideal for boxing up our bikes. We went straight out into the local market, finding almost immediately all the packaging materials we needed. Several beers with bombay mix along with several hours wrapping parcel tape around boxes and folding our machines into cardboard and there would be no more cycling in India! Quite a bizarre feeling. Luckily Delhi has a great metro system, that may be even better than our own lovable if a little worn tube.

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After 5 months of horror stories from practically every other traveller we met, we loved Delhi! A great big city that feels very modern but with lots of links to its past, forward thinking and open people, as much culture as you can take and all without the level of perceived danger and vulnerability that usually comes with such a large conurbation.
We had a fantastic final few days exploring some parts of the city. We found the contemporary Lotus Temple.

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An opera house-esque building that is possibly the only space in the whole of India whose interior is silent! An evening at Humayan’s tomb, a building easily on a par (IMHO) with the Taj, followed by getting lost amongst the narrow alleyways of the Muslim old town of Nizammudin.

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As the sun set, staining the alleys orange and the low wattage bulbs flickered on, illuminating small groups of people sat chatting in shop doorways. We felt again like we’d travelled back in time. It was a lovely calm place albeit pretty confusing to find our way out of!
Even more confusing the next day, were the electricity cables that run throughout the whole of the Old Town. An insanely manic crush of small shops, shouting cycle-rickshaw drivers and huge hand delivered parcel carts.

 

wpid-delhi-photo-1.jpg.jpegAll pushing between each other along thin lanes crowned with a tangle of wires that stands no chance of being modernised. The unfathomable mess is a direct visual representation of the Indian temporary, think of the present mentality. It is also a testament to their ‘do it for your self’ nature and somehow it seems to work!

 

 

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wpid-delhi-photo-4.jpg.jpegOn our last night we ate some great food and drank some cold beer overlooking the bizarre Connaught Place area. A circular maze of buildings that overlook a huge 30m flying Indian flag. It seemed fitting to toast our journey around the country while looking out over the flapping stripes of saffron orange, white and Indian Green.

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A riot of colour!

For Nana.

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Working our way into the warren of the tangled streets we burrowed into the Blue City. Overlooked by the massive fort above, we spent a couple of days losing ourselves amongst the cubist fascination of blue havellis and the squared off buildings of Jodhpur.

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We took a trip into the immense fort, one of the few tourist attractions we’ve visited that actually works the way it’s meant to, great information, well looked after and properly thought out. Definitely due to the private funding by the Maharaja’s family. It seems most sites paid for by the Indian Government are on roads to nowhere. The unfortunate downfall of so many similar places throughout the country.
After making our way around the many beautiful buildings and courtyards of the fort, we watched sunset over the city from above. Stumbling down the steep hill we were lured into a small havelli where the son of the house told us of his mother’s delicious 35rp thali. His brilliant marketing hooked us in and we followed suit ordering the most expensive 200rp thali and beer! The daughter of the household also trapped Jodie into having some henna done and then she forcefully abused me with the semi permanent dye! writing the typical tourist stamp of the ‘Om’ symbol on my palm. We left feeling we may have been ‘had’ a little. Albeit our bellies were pleasantly full, we were a little pissed and only slightly pissed off!

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Having made the decision to change our plans to cycle out into the desert, we booked the night train to the fortified desert city of Jaisalmer.
We had been recommended a hotel by a chap in Jodhpur. Booking meant we didn’t have to defend ourselves against the relentless touts waiting like hyenas at the railway station. We arrived at 5am and were picked up by a strange little man in a tuk-tuk. Our weariness meant his over friendliness wasn’t quite tickling our bullshit receptors yet. Making us complimentary chai as we watched the sun rise over the golden city was a nice touch. Although when it came to checking in we realised the reasons. The insipid Little Jonny was a very hard sell on his Camel Safari tours. We battled hard for a decent price, and as it was the main reason we’d come to Jaisalmer we relented and booked onto one of their tours. His pushiness leaving a sour taste in our mouths. Despite our negativity towards the hotel itself, the camel safari was a great experience. Dropped 50km into the remote desert environment, ourselves along with two Canadian guys met our camels and their drivers.

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Armand the leader with a particularly regal air, and then Gordon, the more feral camel man, an opium smoker and someone obviously used to living in the harsh desert environment. His continual grimace giving the impression of someone who has ‘seen things’. The two men were great company and leading our small train of great lumbering beasts we headed out into the vast desert.
Camels are uniquely bizarre animals. Huge in stature they appear to be the amalgamation of several different species. Hind legs of a horse, the long swinging neck of a giraffe, chewing motion of a large cow, the muzzle of a huge rabbit or kangaroo, and the balding mullet hairstyle of Terry Nutkins! Their strangely folding double knee joints, patches of rough elbow skin for sitting on and their fantastically cushioned feet make for an animal so strange we were sure by the end that they were aliens!

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Hauling ourselves onto the hump straddling saddle, we clung for dear life as the beasts mechanically raised themselves to a standing posture. A few metres off the ground and the novelty of the ride takes over. Soon enough the pain and discomfort overwhelm the excitement! The inelegant gait of the lumbering animal chaffs the insides of your legs and numbs the behind! Being covered in camel snot and scared for your life as the animal shakes and scratches itself with one of it’s legs is all part of the fun! We trekked through vast arid scrubland, passing the endless wind turbines and out into the sparseness of the dunes. Being surrounded by nothing but huge waves of rippling sand is quite an experience.

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Climbing the curving untouched dunes we made our tracks into the unknown. Cooking over a camp fire in our valley of sand, eating delicious chappatis and drinking sweet chai we watched an alien sunset. Dulled by the dust storms on the horizon, the sun lost it’s intensity and appeared like a huge yellow moon, dipping below the flat land as the warmth and light was filtered from the landscape. Chatting while wrapped in blankets around a camp fire we relished being alone and hassle free for the first time in India! Falling asleep, the moon illuminated the sky unfortunately blocking the stars, although waking at 4am the glowing satellite had set. We spent a while wiping the blurriness of sleep from our eyes and gazing, totally overwhelmed into the vastness of tiny twinkling lights. Stars filled the whole sky as far as the eye could see.
After another long hot morning riding the camels, no-one argued for more when we took a long lunch and waited for our jeep to pick us up again!

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After a few days in the confusing Golden City we returned to the Blue and soon to be Rainbow City! We were in Jodhpur for the brilliant Holi festival. Celebrating all manner of things, ancient Hindu stories, the upcoming harvest as well as the simply joys of water and colour. The first evening we enjoyed the closeness of the local community, all the families near our guesthouse gathered around a bonfire made of cow dung, set alight to commemorate the story of Holika and Prahlad, the firelight representing good over evil, the height of the flames are also a good luck blessing for next years harvest, so its a good job cow shits very flammable!

 

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We spent the twilight hours being doused with colourful powder from all sides by the lovely children of the local families. Invited to carry on the celebration later, the whole street descended on the house of a new-born baby. The poor thing looked terrified as the room filled with people stained in different colours. The men of the families beat a stick above the child’s head, chanting a ritual right of passage, blessing him with good luck and bravery through his life.

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The festival culminates in an energetic fun filled frenzy, everybody throws coloured powder and water at anyone they see!
The next day we truly got involved in the colourful riot, mopeds of purple and orange people sped by, canoning us with vibrant dye powder and colourful liquid.

 

wpid-holi-night-1-photo.jpg.jpegAnyone and everyone is fair game during the festival of Holi! We morphed into giggling human rainbows.

 

wpid-holi-day-2-photo-2b.jpg.jpegDucking out of the madness we drank coffee dusted in colour. As the day hotted up we joined a street party, dancing in the hot sun to loud bouncy music, buckets of water drenched us and bottles of dye changed our cheery rainbows into a sticky brown mess!

 

wpid-holi-faces-photo-3.jpg.jpegThen came the thick indigo dye that was pasted all over our faces. We had been well and truly ‘holi’d’. Such a fantastic and exhilarating experience. As the heat rose we went back to our guesthouse for a beer, the sun baking the colour into our skin, giving us the impression of ancient tribal warriors.

 

wpid-holi-kids-photo.jpg.jpegAfter a painfully long time scrubbing in the shower we gave up, joining the other pink tinged people on the rooftop. Hungrily enjoying dinner as we listened to the intense drumming down below and watched as a huge electrical storm engulfed the sky above. It felt like the whole universe was celebrating!
After the unsettling riding experiences of the desert we were apprehensive to carry on. Making our way out of Jodhpur, leaving the multicolour stained streets behind, it wad much quieter than normal. Everyone nursing and scrubbing their Holi hangover! We rode south towards the Bishnoi villages. A group of small communities, supposedly nature loving and skilled craftspeople. As we weren’t in a tourist jeep tour we cycled through the real village. Disappointingly we realised these villages are no different to anywhere else. Litter plagues everywhere, children begging foreigners for money, sweets and the ubiquitous ‘school pen’. The idea of the nature loving cult has seemingly been swallowed by more and more shops aimed at the tourist dollar.
Riding the long straight roads we came across a huge crowd by the side of the road. Visiting one of the most incredible temples we’ve seen. A crashed Royal Enfield motorcycle is enshrined in glass, a bustle of pilgrims circle the machine, offering alcohol and praying for a safe onward journey. Legend has it that I’m Banna was riding along after a fair bit of drinking, the poor chap hit a tree and died. The police recovered the motorbike, yet in the morning the machine had returned of its own accord to it’s resting place. This supposedly happened several times and now the Bullet Baba seems to be one of the more unusual and most visited shrines around!

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Another few days riding towards and into the lovely Aravali mountains. Pedalling through more small tribal villages, the grimaces we expected turned out to be happy waves and excited greetings, as one child noticed our passing the rest would soon catch on and before we knew it a class of giggling children would be screaming towards us to wave as we passed. We were so relieved to feel a degree of acceptance once more.
The rolling landscape of sand coloured stony peaks and elegantly crafted dry stone walls passed by as we climbed a green forested pass. The first time since the South of India that we’d had shade from leaves!
Riding the long undulating ridge over the mountain range we had to don our dust masks. The road was being widened, rubble and sand strewn all over. Ironically the widening works made the actual road narrower! We were pushed ever closer to the clouds of dust being swept up by the thundering juggernaughts. Mixing with the road dust were plumes of fine particles from literally 20km of side by side marble merchants. Mining the precious building material and selling it astonishingly cheap next to each other along the hilltop highway. The result being fine mountain views and a nice new layer of crusty grime coating our skin.

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Nevertheless we were soon descending from the dusty hills, past ancient temple villages, hidden from the tourists eye they were in turn serene and calming and as energetic as can be.

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The ancient Eklingji, a beautiful Jain monument sat on a remote hilltop and the buzzing Nathdwara. A huge temple complex with as much happening inside as a full sized village. Temple bakery and kitchens sprawled with people next to busy offering rooms and halls of waiting pilgrims. Both utterly delightful and bewildering to wander around.
Templed out we descended towards our final bicycle destination in India, Udaipur. The White City….

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Feeling deserted…

Our train pulled into Ajmer at 3am. Cold and dark, the platforms were already full of blanket huddled families waiting for their onward journey to begin. Immediately we noticed the change in dress, colourful safas,(turbans) thick woollen shawls, the women’s’ double nose piercings and the men’s’ rakishly twizzled moustaches. Decorative leather slippers and beautiful sari scarves adorned the slumbering crowds.
Waiting for the sun to rise so we could cycle to Pushkar, we spent a couple of hours on the platform chatting to a friendly Indian Army squaddie.
As dawn broke we left our military supervision and the already bustling station. Even though we were riding our bicycles out of the rickshaw stand, we were still stopped by the drivers who were insistent that they would be taking us over the hill to Pushkar! Not the first time we’ve experienced this kind of obstinate mindset. Cycling, as in much of the developing world is seen as a very poor person’s mode of transport and not the type that a ‘rich’ westerner would use, so even though we are quite obviously travelling by bike, the taxi drivers chose not to acknowledge them! We are often asked which bus or train we took to get to places. Even when we’re sat on the bikes halfway up a mountain!
Needing some breakfast we found a small fresh food market unpacking its stalls. We bought bananas and joined the huddle around the camp fire as our chai was being cooked, sheltering under a roof overhang away from the unexpected drizzle.
As day began we rode through the filthy waking streets of Ajmer, mainly populated by wind blown rubbish, saddeningly bony cows and viciously barking dogs. Dodging the fanged menace we headed straight out of town. Our legs struggling to shake off a week of train travel as we climbed the low pass over the Snake mountains. For a change there was no glorious morning sun, instead the brooding grey clouds unleashed a heavy rain storm, the kind of which we haven’t had since we left Britain in October. A cow had the right idea and we stopped halfway to join her sheltering underneath a rock overhang. As the rain eased we made our way over the hill to Pushkar. A small town set around the beautiful and auspicious Pushkar Sarovar Ghats (lake). Gorgeously run down buildings and what is best described as a ‘wannabe hippy’ shopping centre line the main street. Handicrafts and festival clobber galore, we felt like the only ones not in fancy dress! Even a bus load of America’s elderlies had bought into the ubiquitous ‘traveller garb!’
On our first trip down to the stepped ghats we were pounced on and gained our ‘Pushkar passports’. A scam we were thankfully notified of by our guide book. Luckily once you’ve undertaken the ‘pooja’ (and paid for the pleasure of course!) by the suspiciously normal looking and strangely whiskey scented ‘holy men’ you have a piece of coloured string ‘from a temple’ wrapped around your wrist. Showing said bangle passport prevents any more attention from the ‘holy men’. Almost as effective as garlic to vampires!
On a fine sunny day walking around the beautiful stepped ghats, we were forced again to cower under a temple roof. Sheltering from another freak thunder and lightning storm. The heavy rain and hail stones making the grim open sewers overflow, creating a 2 inch river of pooey litter ridden water in place of the road.

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As the wet day turned into a muddy evening, we followed a long line of singing and dancing ladies dressed in their best spangly saris in the midst of a wedding procession. Making their way to the huge marriage hall nearby our guesthouse. The skin wrippling-ly loud music blaring from untuned speakers made for an interesting nights sleep as the party went on into the early hours.

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Leaving the touristic bubble of Pushkar we began our journey into a whole new landscape. The lush green was gone and the plentiful agriculture had dwindled. The local vernacular had also changed, terracotta pitched roofs and decorative wooden framed structures given way to much simpler flat roofed box style housing and round mud huts, their tiny windows limiting the fierce desert sun’s heat. It felt like a totally different country let alone a different state. We cycled through arid sandy scrub-land, the long straight roads seemingly never ending, glances to the side showing the same landscape constantly repeating.

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Flat and smooth the challenge was much more of the mental kind rather than physical. We kept ourselves entertained watching the dust snakes ripple across the road following heavy vehicles, the shimmering mirages playing tricks on our minds.
As the heat of day was rising and our dust masks getting increasingly filthy we kept our eyes open for a place to stop. Our gaze drawn to a western elderly gentleman cruising along on his elegant Enfield Bullet. Waving our respective greetings we thought nothing more until the thudding single cylinder engine was drawn up alongside. Chatting a while, the kind man invited us to his ‘small house’ for ‘five minutes’. Riding down a dusty track we came to the type of huge fortifications normally associated with castles! As we stood around waiting for someone inside to open the strong wooden gates, there was a glimmer of slight concern about our safety, until the doors creaked open revealing the most wonderful fortress courtyard and any doubts were swept clean away!

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Painfully courteous staff showed us through the handsome gateway towards the delicate sparseness of the central courtyard. A manicured lawn ringed with tall thin trees shading a brick and sandstone patio, the patterns and subtlety of the stonework and window frames of such an elegant design we could have been in a Chateau somewhere in rural France.

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Sitting under the shade of Eucalyptus trees we shared the courtyard with a family of tortoises, our new hosts Monica and Michel came and found us, the quick 5 minute meeting soon morphed into a delicious 5 hours! Eating warm Swiss bread, cured meats and cheeses topped off with cold beer and fantastic conversation and company. A truly interesting (and random!) meeting, discovering all about how this fine Swiss couple met here in India 39 years ago, were married within 3 months and have since set up a small handicraft foundation. The direction and ethics of which is the first we have seen where the instigators ideas are realistic and will actually do more good than harm. The Nilamoti Trust has been set up to help a group of village women, developing high class stitching and handicraft skills. The team of women work together, leaving outside any discrimination based on caste to create wonderful garments and objects. The products are then sold both in the Trust’s own shop in India as well as back in Switzerland. All profits then pour back into the project in India, Monica and Michel soon realised that they cannot heal India’s problems, the project will run until they can no longer carry on and until the current women will become comfortable grandmothers back in their villages. What happens afterwards is someone else’s project, no idealistic thinking that this project could be set up all over to help the poor, in a country such as India with corruption and ignorance so widespread Monica soon realised there would be no way of achieving such a goal. This idea thrown out the window, Nilamoti now runs successfully, properly helping a few and being an inspiration to others.
It would not be our last meeting and before we left to cycle the quick (not so quick!) 30km to the next town, we accepted an invitation to stay with them the next night at their craft centre in the town of Khimsar, 100km away. That evening was the first of several unfortunate experiences in Rajasthan. Getting into the strange railway town of Merta, our arrival was met with a lot of leery lads, offensive stares and unfriendly cackling. The first time we’ve both felt on edge in a town. Another grotty and overpriced hotel only exaggerating our unease.
As ever a new start and fresh heads made the next day feel slightly better, we continued riding on more relentlessly straight and dusty roads through the barren landscape.

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As we crested a hill we came upon a quite magnificent gypsy camel train, an elderly lady pushed her son towards us, swaddling child in hand to beg for money. Not our only meeting with desert road beggars, a band of urchins sporting the instruments of a travelling band snatched and grabbed at us as we cycled past, totally outnumbered we felt vulnerable even though they were only about 11 years old! It wasn’t taking long for us to realise just how exposed we actually were. As a couple, travelling through this harsh, sparsely populated land whose inhabitants didn’t appear to relish our presence we were soon wondering if our plan to cycle into the desert was wise.

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We stopped for lunch in a roadside dhaba, sitting on charpoys to eat and figure out our plans. We enjoyed the now rare sanctuary where one of the workers had lived in touristic Pushkar and was used to strange westerners. Jodie was even given make up tips by the 65 year old non English speaking owner. Some dark eyeliner would apparently make all the difference!!
Heading towards our meeting at Khimsur we took a small road through the back country, initially enjoying the quiet and isolation of the bush as we passed through a remote village a huge crowd swarmed, prodding and pressing at us and our bikes. We felt out of our depths. I couldn’t look after myself and Jodie as well with such a heaving mass between us. Prising our way out we had to practically race away from the village, worried about the unpleasant young men following us on motorbikes. We only felt safe when we joined the highway an hour later.
Arriving just before our hosts we entered the gated compound around the Nilamoti craft centre. A soothingly hot shower and a couple of bottles of good Chilean red allowed us to shake the day’s rigmarole.
We enjoyed the cool evening, wrapped up in shawls around the warm glow of a candle, we munched the tasty pop corn like fried Lotus seeds. Fine dining at the Raja’s fort hotel made for an extremely pleasant change from our usual cheap local eats. As we discussed Nilamoti and our respective experiences in Rajasthan, we heeded the wise words of nearly 40 years of experience here. It looked like it may be prudent to rethink our route and leave behind the rose tinted romanticism of cycling through the desert. Reality had bitten us a few too many times recently and rather than put ourselves at risk we decided to head instead for the Blue city of Jodhpur.

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Trains and tribulations…

Contrary to all our previous railway experience in India, booking our bikes on at Madurai station was pretty quick and easy. (by Indian standards!) We practically just handed them over! although afterwards, Jodie’s beautiful Brooks saddle had a new permanent marker tattoo! (Hopefully the rest of our trip will wear it away)
Having left our bikes and two big hessian sacks of luggage with the coolies at the parcel office, we boarded our train to find our seats and beds for the next 25 hours. The carriage being arranged into rows of open compartments containing 6 bunks, we pushed and wrestled past huge bustling families to find our berths. What feels like a very long time ago we had some invaluable advice from friends in Gokarna. “Always reserve the upper bunks on a sleeper train, that way you can snooze and have your own space for the whole trip”. The middle bunk being kept upright, and the lower used as bench seating. That little piece of advice has made our journeys so much more pleasant! Being only a couple of feet from the ceiling amongst the whirring fans, our train journeys were mostly spent horizontally!

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The days of travel gave us plenty of time to enjoy the details of Indian train construction. Haphazardly bashed together sheets of thick rippling metal, welded without much accuracy and then painted without much looking! The ceiling of the carriages hold around 60 desktop fans, all buzzing through a thick layer of dust and grime. The constant scraping open and slamming shut of the rickety windows and shutters, a testament to their smoothness and construction. Each piece of each train appears to have been hand beaten and manipulated to fit, just well enough that they don’t fall off.
That said, they do hold together well enough to cover huge distances in relative comfort.

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Setting off after lunch time there were still several hours of daylight to travel, initially we sat in our empty compartment enjoying the views whistling past. A couple of stops further and the train filled, a big, loud and friendly family made themselves at home all around us. There was plenty of jostling for positions as everyone eventually found their space. Then the eating began. Huge pillow case sized bags of deep fried snacks were dished out onto pieces of torn newspaper, onions were then cut and passed around as snack toppers. The kind family included us in their crispy feast, handfuls of food pushed into our grasp. Delicious as it was, we soon edged our way up to our bunks. Our ears ringing from their deafening shouting matches, as the family screeched without listening to each other. It seemed a typical compartment on a typical train as all through the carriage families continued this munching and shrieking ritual. The other reason for making ourselves scarce was due to feeling repulsed yet helpless to the national habit of discarding one’s rubbish out of one’s window when one has finished with it. The Indian mentality seemingly being ‘once I have finished with something I can just throw the litter a distance of around 13 inches and it is no longer my problem’, There doesn’t appear to be any thought whatsoever about what happens to their rubbish once it has left their hands. This problem is not restricted to train travel, every single place we have been we have witnessed disgraceful litter pollution, and watched gobsmacked as adults and children alike add to this manmade disaster without a second thought.
Earplugs, a blanket and a pannier-pillow made for a pleasant enough nights sleep. Woken early by the monotonous drone of the chai wallah making his way through the carriage, drinking the steaming sweet liquid we watched as the orange glow of sunrise gave way to the hot yellow brightness of daytime. As the train stopped at stations we jumped off and bought supplies, waiting for the loud wail of the locomotive’s horn, signalling the next slow departure, even with foil trays of biryani and cups of chai it’s easy to jump into the moving open doors.
As the train pulled into Hyderabad station we stretched out the cramps and went in search of our luggage. After an hour of hanging around, our bikes were returned with no huge damage done. (apart from the saddle) Just a few small scrapes and the distinct scent from the fish crates they shared the luggage carriage with. Saddled up again we made our way onto the unbelievable manic roads. Dirty rivers of beeping traffic bottlenecking at every junction. Black and blue exhaust smoke from every vehicle adding to the choking smog. Breaking up our journey in this historic town had seemed a pleasant idea before we witnessed the horrendous traffic! Luckily we survived the jungle of one-ways, it didn’t seem to matter which way the traffic was meant to flow, there would always be vehicles trying their luck in every other direction until they caused yet another hold up.
We spent a few days on a sort of pilgrimage, Jodie’s Great Grandfather had been stationed here exactly 100 years ago, with the Royal Dragoon Guards protecting the Nizam’s palace.
A thoroughly fascinating couple of days. We took in the immense Salar Jung museum, wandered the tangled backstreets and chaoticly busy bazaars. Dodging through the crowds, gazing up at the remnants of beautiful Mughal Islamic architecture we made our way to the Charminar gate. Similar in size to London’s Marble Arch, the delicately carved monument sat in the centre of one of the craziest markets we’ve witnessed. Hand-carts of precariously balanced tea cups, countless wholesale pearl merchants, endless bangle sellers and literally thousands of sari shops, all selling exactly the same things, and all shouting their wares as loud as they could.

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One evening, the frenzy got too much. After a dosa dinner, where the overly friendly waiter tried to practically steal our jewellery, he so desperately wanted something British!, we escaped the madness and watched early nineties films on the small, flickering satelite TV from the safety of our mosquito net.
Visiting Jodie’s Great Grandfather’s palace made for another fine escape from the busy city. Beautifully manicured gardens and fountains set within a handsome pillared courtyard. Each doorway lining the corridors, crowned with the delicately scalloped alcoves of the Indo-Islamic design. The grand ornate palace proudly sat in the centre, sunlight filtering through the cane blinds and sparkling on the gold and silver leaf of the internal decoration.

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Imagining the similarities and changes of the last hundred years we explored the palace and it’s well laid out exhibition. Although the numerous armoury rooms soon became a bit over bearing!
After eating the most delicious biryiani lunch, (Hyderabad’s signature dish) we got ready to leave the hot, polluted tumult. Pushing our heavy bikes into the heaving dusty parcel warehouse, unaware of the battle that was about to commence. Fighting against unbelievably unbending beurocracy, incredibly inefficient admin processes and ‘queue’ jumping like you wouldn’t believe. We got increasingly exasperated, spending 3 long hours rushing back and forth between numerous people in the same bloody office. None of whom able to communicate with each other. At one point the clerk insisted on a printed copy of our e-ticket. I ran almost a kilometre to find an internet cafe, only for said print-out to be copied by hand and then handed back. The exact same information could so easily have been copied from the phone I was constantly waving in my hand. The ‘machine like’ programming of Indian workers seemingly doesn’t allow for much deviation or use of initiative!
Needless to say, we drank a lot of beer just before boarding another long 36 hour train journey. This time spurning the greasy ready made biryanis, yearning for something fresher we evoked our inherent British idiosyncracies, eating cucumber sandwiches and dunking biscuits in tea. The train hurtling onwards, taking us to Ajmer and the heart of Rajasthan.

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The plains and peaks of Tamil Nadu

Early one morning we left the hill station of Kumily. Pedalling through the wakening chaos of the bus station. Tired hat and scarf wearing bus drivers sprawled in their rusty cabs, steaming chai that misted the windscreen as they waited for their vehicles to fill.
Swinging around the tight hairpins, we dropped through the dense jungle, past waterfalls and out into thinning forest. Almost as speedy a descent as the water in the huge hydro electric pipes that flowed beneath the road.

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Riding down towards the plain we stripped off the layers as the heat rose to meet us.
It was a long fast ride across the hot pan flat plain. Knuckled down against the headwinds, we caught glimpses to the side, flashes of colour as the sari’d bottoms of paddy field workers bobbed up and down.
We rode through some incredibly manic palm leaf and blue tarpaulin tent settlements. Their densely laid out stalls and lives coated by the dust as vehicles overtake their existence. Bundles of bemused and almost dismissive faces gawped out at us as we trundle along. Against the turmoil all around we amused ourselves with our childish humour as we passed through the village of Cumbum!

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As usual we were travelling a route less travelled by other tourists, guesthouses therefore were few and far between. It made for several days of very long and very hot miles. Eventually finding accommodation of a grim nature, the type usually frequented by truckers and their ladies of the night.
After a night in one such grand establishment and following a delicious dosa breakfast we steeled ourselves for the 52km ride back into the mountains. It was a long tough cycle, as the asphalt got steeper and steeper we paced ourselves as we climbed. Snacking on nuts and refreshing coconut water we rode through terraced tribal villages. The locals calling out to their children to watch and giggle as we puffed past.
As the kilometres passed so did the altitude, eventually climbing to over 2000m we were above the cloud line and amongst majestic mountain peaks. Making our way into the hectic and filthy hill town of Kodaikanal.

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As our bodies acclimatised to the radically different climate and relaxed after the sustained effort we succumbed to a few snotty days suffering the flu.
Meandering through the steep streets of the strange town we noticed how everybody was wearing battered 80s ski wear and garish polyester jumpers. It seems some wily members of the local church in collusion with the stall holders outside have been selling off the remnants of unsellable charity clothing from the west. Unbeknownst to the good willed back home, their donated clothes are being sold to chilly and unprepared tourists. Walking around wearing their parent’s clothing, ironic vintage fashion taken to the next level.
Amongst the bustle of the fresh food market we bumped into some lovely friends we had made in Hampi. A fine coincidence that made our days in grimy Kodak more bearable. We caught up on the months over coffee and dreadlocks.

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With a roughly scribbled map we descended down tiny roads and horrendously steep tracks to find the hill side commune of Karuna Farm. We nestled into the forested valley terraces, spending a week living in our own deliciously rustic mud hut.

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Once we’d clambered down the steep filled car tyre steps we had an enjoyable mission just to find the front door. Crossing a small waterfall, balancing along the length of a wall and following more precarious tracks through the trees we finally reached our new home. This humble abode was kitted out with all the essential mod cons. A simple wooden bed, gas burner with one ring rusted away, a wood burner and our own outdoor bathroom. A fine little space we christened ‘a poo with a view’. Once we’d scavenged some wood we could have a warm smoky shower too!

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Enjoying a week tucked away we cooked our own curries, chappatis and (amazingly) cookies. Creating a makeshift oven using pans and magic, Jodie cooked up some delicious baked goods to enjoy with hot chai in the chilly evenings.

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During those lazy days we explored the forest and climbed trees while we reflected on our journey so far. We even managed to catch our most spectacular sun rise so far, being above the clouds made for the most magnificent start to the day.

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Sat proudly across the valley, looking both at home and totally alien was a huge round earthship. Constructed with earth rammed tyres and other reused materials the fantastic building housed a lovely airy living space, a kitchen to die for and its own planted eco system. This off-grid and totally self sufficient place is surely the ultimate home and visiting Alex and his living project was hugely inspiring and gave us food for thought for the future.
Back on the road we doubled back up the mountain to Vattakanal where Stephen and Robyn, some other friends from Hampi had invited us to dinner. We cooked fantastically simple chappati pizzas over an open fire. Fighting the cold of the crisp darkening night, our aerial view of the misty mountains above the carpet of tiny lights down on the plain flickering into life made a wonderful backdrop to a lovely evening.

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Stephen and Robyn have spent the last few months working with a local organisation aiding some of the poorest tribal communities in the area. They have been working tirelessly, practically running a school in a village so remote it takes several Jeep rides and a 2km walk just to reach. Abandoned by the government, Stephen and Robyn are the sole educators for the delightful and hard working children of this remarkable impoverished community. Truly humbling (and knackering!) to spend a day helping in the classroom.

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We left Kodaikanal in eerily thick cloud and drizzle that quietened the usual hectic hill station. Cycling along, dark shapes would suddenly materialise and morph into passers by, vehicles or confused dogs. Not great for our 52km descent, we nervously glided down the steep slopes. Finally the roads became clearer and the day brighter as we left behind the thick damp fog, steam emanating from our clothes to face the heat of the plains below.
Having been unsettled by the relative hostility of our previous descent from Kumily we were pleasantly relieved to be greeted by smiles and waves once more. The couple of days riding towards Madurai, through a myriad of dusty lanes, past delightful mud hut villages, dusty children playing amongst chewing buffalo and scavenging chickens were some of the finest days riding we have done.

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Following the dry rocky bed of the river Vaigai, we made our way to the mediaeval temple town.
We enveloped ourselves in the delightfully run down pattina of Madurai. Getting lost in labyrinthine lanes, wandering through people’s back yards, passing endless stalls of shiny nothingness. A bewildering backdrop to the impressively detailed 50m tall colourful Gopuras. (Gate towers)

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The temple complex, itself the size of a small village was vast and sprawling. Sculpture laiden rooms and wide, high ceilinged corridors made a fine place to get lost. Lined with hand carved columns, smoothed in places by generations of devotees’ touching hands. On several occasions we wandered awe struck, winding our way around groups of elderly Hindus, cross legged discussing their day.

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At 9:30 one evening we witnessed the last pooja (blessing), as non Hindus we patiently gathered outside the golden Shiva temple. A cacophony of drums and chanting crashed through the doors, burning tridents aloft the procession of priests emerged. Carrying a silver Palanquin containing the essence of Shiva they hurtled towards the goddess Meenakshi’s temple. We followed the fiery chaos through the corridors where plumes of perfumed incense was bellowed from the shiny carriage into Shiva’s wife’s chamber. This complex and energetic ritual concludes every single day of temple life!

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Time getting on we packed our panniers into Hessian sacks, wrapped polythene around the bikes and prepared ourselves for the next chapter. Almost a week travelling the network of Indian trains towards the North and Rajasthan. Thus marking the end of our South Indian adventure.

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Crossing the Western Ghats…

Lovely though Fort Cochin is, being surrounded by so many holiday makers, the touts that follow them and the crap restaurants and tourist tat that comes as a package made us weary. We set off one morning, taking a fairly quiet coastal road right out of the busy city. We were immediately happier passing through small farming towns and beautiful fishing villages. Even the Chinese fishing nets out of the city were more impressive!

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Alleppey 45km further south is a bizarre little town. Pretty filty and seedy, the run down mismatch of crap modern buildings and half finished canal-ways has, as we’ve seen so often in India a desperate feeling of unfulfilled potential. The often heard quotes of the town being the “Venice of the East” seems a little far fetched. If anything the stench of the manky canals may be similar but little else!
The big draw of the town being it’s proximation to the famous Keralan backwaters. Taking a look at the impressive if a little tired houseboats we decided, for economic reasons as well as to try and save the local environment, to opt for a days trip in a tiny rowed canoe.

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Travelling slowly past miniature villages perched in thin lines between canals and lagoons was a nice reflection on the way we travel by bicycle. Women doing their washing in the river, men and children bathing happily as we gently paddle past. We ate fabulous fish thali in a waterside dhaba (cafe) watching the huge houseboats with their massive orange generators plod past, spewing diesel into the delicate eco system.

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As the sun set we took over the paddling from our straw umbrella hatted captain, heading back from the intricate beauty of the backwaters to the clunky awkward city.
Back on the road (and water) again we took the morning ferry to Kottayam, a loud, smelly and probably very polluting boat whose saving grace is being public transport for hundreds of locals every day. We powered along the tree lined waterways passing endless watery boulevards, through more and more remote villages, some reduced to one or two houses surrounded by miles of paddy fields.

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Despite the crudeness of the vehicle, in a couple of hours we managed to spot a fair bit of wildlife, water snakes, huge purple water fowl and plenty of buffalo in the paddies. In actual fact we saw so much more of the backwater environment on that ferry than our lovely gentle canoe could have shown us in a week.
Towards the end of the 3 hour ferry ride and un-noticable to most, the crew all slid off to get changed. Before we knew it the boat was being moored, the crew had abandoned ship, the other passengers jumped off and into waiting tuk-tuks while we were left to clamber ashore with 2 bikes and 9 heavy bags. On the hot dusty bank we sweated profusely as we assembled our steeds as quickly as possible to get out of the blazing sun.
With our next destination being what’s known as part of the ‘high range’ it took us a couple of days to reach the foothills. On our way along the crazy state highway out of Kottayam we ran into our first cycle tourist! Sanjay from California has completed an epic 16000 km in a year of riding. Seeing another loon on a bike encouraged us along enough to make a night in a grim lodge in the decrepit town of Erattupetta survivable! In the cool of morning we began our last ascents into the great Western Ghats. The long drawn out climb up the steep endlessly twisting road was one of the toughest yet.

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A stunning route through forested hillsides, overlooking deep terraced valleys and out into remote peaks where roads are half finished and bus stops hang over precipices.

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We were practically alone on the stunning road all day. An almost total road strike meant no vehicles which was a delight, it also meant no open cafes! Snacking on our dates and nuts reserve all the way until we eventually crested the never ending climb. We eventually found a house with a hand painted sign saying ‘homely cooking’ entering the tiny front room, we waited at a long wooden table, listening to the pans clink as a delicious fresh thali had its finishing touches applied. Such good food that when we finally looked up the once empty little room was filled with a queue out the door. Perfect timing on all accounts!

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Our route through the mountains took us around cardamom, pepper, tea and coffee plantations. Passing through colourful towns and climbing up and over numerous other lesser passes on our way to Kumily. We had psyched ourselves up for a tough climb, eating a hearty and delicious buffet breakfast at a posh resort on our way. In the end our stomachs expanded and our legs rejoiced as after the experiences of the last few days, the 8km climb seemed like child’s play!
We spent a joyous few days in the hill station of Kumily. Enjoying the cool evenings and lovely forest surroundings. We made some fine new friends in the owners of a travellers hotel there. Invited into their lovely apartment we were spoilt with proper Gin and Tonics, friendly company and home made pizza and pasta. It was so nice to be ’round a friends’ place for dinner’ we almost felt like we were back in the comfortable bubble of home!
On a cold almost frosty morning we took a tuk-tuk a couple of kilometres to nearby Thekkady and the Periyar National Park. Booked onto a day of bamboo rafting we joined a small group of other sensibly attired westerners. Unlike the locals, who seemed to be dressed in their sparkliest saris and shirts, tottering in glittering high heels and impressively awful leather soled loafers.
At the meeting point the guides handed out paper bags of supplies, we weren’t that surprised when the contents were several sweet pastries, some bread and butter and some more bread products. Luckily we’d thought ahead and brought some fruit to dilute the carb heavy load!

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Setting off into the park together we crossed a river and walked through gorgeous forest to get to the huge lake.

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The landscape reminding us of the wilds of Scottish lochs, it looked like whatever happened it would be an interesting day. On three bamboo rafts the group split and began to paddle our way slowly along the waters edge. As the joking of the guides escalated we were sure that any animals would run a mile. Onwards we paddled, our feet dragging in the cool water. Passing the ghostly stumps of dead termite infested trees we eventually came ashore and settled a while in the shade of the forest.
As we started to tuck into the bread we were hurried to take a trek through the woods. To everyone’s surprise and delight we spotted a pair of Keralan giant flying squirrel circling the trunk of a large Plane tree. One of the wilder looking guides hushed the group as we snuck down a steep hill, peering through the leaves we were awe struck to see a lone wild elephant bathing in the lake in the distance.

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We could have left happily after that, the excitement had surely peaked, rounding another corner and the armed guard, in his slightly too tight khaki uniform hushed us once more. Around a hundred metres away were a family of elephants. As we watched the magnificent herd munching leaves we couldn’t believe our luck! Thankfully we were downwind, as later on the guard confessed to being scared, so close to such huge animals could have turned interesting had they sensed us so near! A quite fascinating experience watching such beautiful beasts in their natural habitat, not much could top that, even the scarily long python we happened upon as we trekked back to the park entrance, exhilerated and tired we needed a few beers before sorting our bags out to leave and try out the state of Tamil Nadu!

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The call of Kerala…

It had been nearly three weeks that we’d been ‘sans cycle’. When finally the time came for us to pick them up from their safe holding at the apartment we’d spent Christmas, both of us felt it instantly. We were whole again! Only the slight issue of the house being empty and the gates being locked. Oh and a guard dog! Nervously clambering over the sharp gates I edged towards Cherry the Alsatian. Knowing from when we stayed that the poor thing was more scared than any of us and as I calmed her shaking body with a few gentle strokes I got the poor creature on side. Animal cruelty being fairly common place in India we had to just grab our stuff, haul it over the gates and pat the chained up dog goodbye, hoping that someone would come and feed her soon.
With Jodie’s arm still healing, we took a train from Mangalore 200km to Kannur in the north of Kerala. A hot, dusty and bustling trade town, wholesale merchants of anything and everything imaginable, selling carts and crates of fresh produce along with huge hessian sacks of spices and dry goods. It was pretty extraordinary just wandering the warren of streets, dodging tuk tuks and clambering past huge wagons unloading their wares.

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At our guest house by the sea we made home for a few days until ‘the elbow’ had recovered! We whiled away the hot daylight by painting designs onto our bicycles, inspired by the beautifully detailed goods carriers we see every single minute of our time on the road.

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During the lazy evenings listening to the surf we met a lovely British couple who live streets away from my old house in Brockley, a night of drinking prohibited booze, chatting about London and anarchism made us homesick but glad to have more friends to visit back home.
Just a couple of days after our arrival in Kerala we took our first outing back on the bikes. Cycling through the streets of Kannur we made our way to the city’s Portuguese fort. An imposing, monolithic building hunched on the sea front overlooking the fishing village. As the sun sank into the crashing waves a smiling police officer came over to tell us of a 3 day “Theyyem” happening in a village nearby. A traditional theatrical event, that takes place in tiny communities all over the north of Kerala during the current festive season. Early the next morning we followed the constable’s instructions to the little village.

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Joining the crowd gathered around the colourful temple courtyard we withessed a quite awe inspiring spectacle. The performers’ stunning make up and costumes, bizarre dance rituals circling the technicolour shrines accompanied by a cacophony of ear splitting drumming and chanting. “Theyyem” is the art of invoking through ritual, a specific deity ‘into’ the performer/s. The individuals then appear possessed by the god, blessing locals (once paid of course!) directly. One of the more interesting things about Theyyem being it can only be performed by people of the lowest Caste. The social order therefore, is reversed during these festivities. People of higher caste, generally more affluent people bowing down to the servant classes.

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After a brief uneventful stop at Mahe, (once a French colony, less French than an English muffin. The only evidence of any French influence was the absurd amount of Wine Shops. More wine shops than Norwich has churches.)
We ascended our first mountain pass to the hill station district of Wayanad. 23km all uphill through 9 steep,tight and busy hairpins. A tough half days climb but the view from the top more than made up for the feat.

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In the mountains we stayed at a beautiful and rather extravagant homestay. Once again on a coffee plantation, a grand old colonial bungalow nestled amongst jungle plants along with some delightfully designed huts perched on the edge of a steep ravine. For a night of exuberance we picked the grandest and our view of the rows of misty peaks kept us transfixed for hours.

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Along with watching the vast variety of wild birds, listening for monkey howls and the crash of elephants we watched sunset and sunrise from the balcony of our wooden home. We soaked up that wonderful place for a couple of nights before riding along the ridge of those jagged mountains. Pedalling through lush hillsides of tea plantations. The vivid green patterns carpeting the landscape all the way to the horizon.

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Crossing briefly into Tamil Nadu for a bite to eat before descending back to the heat of coastal Kerala where we headed towards Kochin. We soon ducked off the busy highway and took a tiny, sandy coastal road.

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The crashing waves on the right side and the calm freshwater lagoons of the backwaters on the left. The gentlest entry into a state capital so far, we eventually boarded a ferry bound for historical Fort Cochin.
Deciding that I knew the way to our homestay I took us 10km out of the way through the crazily busy streets of the city. Needless to say I was not in the good books that evening.
After my short-cut we arrived in the beautiful Fort Cochin, a small, quiet enclave made up of numerous different colonial influences. The tea warehouses, marked with the pattina of hard work, beautifully intricate if slightly Heath Robinson-esque Chinese fishing nets, ramshackle antique shops of Jew town and the grand Dutch palace.

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We stayed with a kind family, although the mosquitoes in the garden were less welcoming, we had our own kitchen for the first time since Christmas! We made the most of it rather than paying through the nose for the overly expensive tourist restaurants. Although we did divert from the budget on occasion and found a lovely arts cafe serving decent coffee (and healthy food). A nice change from the weak milky beige water we have found so far!
Wanting another fix of Keralan culture, we took in a performance of the leathal martial art Kalarippayat, annoyingly toned chaps doing ridiculously dangerous air borne knife and sword fighting making for a breathtaking first half. Followed by an enactment of a Kathakali play.

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More intricate costumes and the most wonderful use of facial expressions, movement of limbs and exaggerated dancing combined with crashing drumming and heart wrenching singing. What a night of entertainment!
We took a trip to Ernakulem, the modern side of the state capital. The labyrinth of plastic stalls and tacky shopping malls sprawled over a maze of hectic streets made for an entertaining if exhausting trip. Dodging our way between speeding mopeds and beeping trucks, we trudged back to the calm sanctuary of the old town. Ready to head further south and into the backwaters of Kerala.

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Mountain air for the New Year…

When Christmas time is spent apart from one’s family and friends the period that follows brings a heightened sense of homesickness. Maybe this feeling of withdrawal is to blame for making us endure 8 hours travelling by ricketty old bus on South India’s worst road. This is actually a factual statement, backing up our feelings a few days later when we read an article titled exactly that. The lurching jolts and shuddering bounces weren’t exactly the best for Jodie’s delicate elbow. Yet we survived the journey, arriving at midnight we clambered wearily from the bus. Our bodies were enveloped by a meteorological environment not experienced in months, we could see our breath and on further inspection the tiny lumps all over our bodies suggested that not just another layer was needed but a thermal jumper!
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Being so high up in the Coorg area we were in a totally different climate. Gone was the tiring humidity, a crisp freshness to the air was a nice change. We eventually found a room in a large hotel. More like a borstal than a lodge we were glad to find a Homestay for the nights after. Our tuk-tuk dived from the twisting roads and down into a lush green valley. All around us were rows and rows of large leaved coffee plants. The beans ripening from light green to a deep burgundy underneath the leaves. We found our wooden cottage nestled within a jungle of exotic plants, tastefully designed and well put together it was as if we had descended into a different country altogether!
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We spent a couple of days in refined peace and quiet. Only the sound of birds and the odd whoop of a monkey kept us company in our Christmas treat to ourselves. The home cooked food was utterly delicious, although the coffee was dreadful. A slight shock seeing as we were staying on a coffee plantation! Venturing out during the day we visited the nearby Tibetan colony of Bylakoppa. Amazed by the sheer number of monks and hurried looking people everywhere we soon found out that the Dalai Lama was in town for a series of lectures. Unfortunately there was no route through the typically dense beurocracy to get ourselves passes. We had to make do with looking round the beautiful Buddhist Golden temple and checking out the surrounding monasteries.
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Having arrived on a whim we had to leave the plantation just before New Years eve. Luckily, as we made our way back into Madikeri, we chanced once again on a lovely family Homestay. A much simpler affair in a small house, we stayed with the most welcoming and affectionate family we could have wished for. For the final hours of 2013 we sat at the Raja’s Seat. A ridge on the edge of town overlooking rows of spectacular misty mountain peaks.
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Unsure of where to try and celebrate the New Year we ducked into a dingy little dive bar. Populated exclusively by men, sat around tables drinking strong beer and deep fried snacks. Being the obvious aliens in such a place was thrilling and slightly uncomfortable. In the dark smoky room it was difficult to make out whether the stares were combined with smiles or sneers. After a couple of cold beers, the lights went up and we all made our way into the night. It turned out that everyone wanted to shake our hands, welcoming us and wishing us happy new year. Our fears were misplaced as the giggling and watching was less than sinister. They were simply guessing amongst themselves as to our native place and figuring the right words in English to begin a conversation.
Back at our homestay we were startled as music was pumping from huge speakers. In broken English we accepted the invitation to join the family in the party room! Awkwardly dancing to Indian pop music we slowly relaxed into the total unselfconscious nature, joining in with elaborately daft and lucid dance moves until the clock struck 12. Outside, firecrackers were let off at frighteningly close range, new year greetings were shouted to all the neighbours and passers by. Jostling back inside we sat around the family table tucking into massive portions of delicious mutton biryani and horrendously sweet cake.
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Welcoming the new year in the only way we know how, we went to eat some more food, fantastic masala dosas in an elegant colonial bungalow. The lovely wooden furniture and simple decor matched the delicious rice pancake snacks. Desperate for decent coffee we found a small cafe that looked promising. They even had explanations of how espresso was made, written in dried coffee beans all over the walls. We were gobsmacked when a foul and sweet mug of light beige liquid emerged. We refused to pay when we were shown the packet of Nescafe cappuccino sachets. Only in India can you be in the midst of the coffee growing region and still be palmed off with rank instant coffee.
Despite the lack of good coffee we couldn’t have wished for a lovelier place to begin 2014. The gorgeous little village of Madikeri, made up of delightfully small houses, beautifully delapidated shops with artistic hand painted signs. Everyone wished us well and came to chat, families even welcomed us in for tea, snacks and conversations. One of those days we walked the 7km to the nearby Abbey waterfalls. Passing gorgeous plantation buildings, vividly coloured flowers and views over the valleys beneath it was one of the finest trips we’ve been on so far. The falls themselves were fine, relatively beautiful but the masses of shrieking Indian tourist groups and the sheer amount of litter made our stay short lived! The journey as the old adage goes, being better than the destination.
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On the friday before we left we chanced upon the bustling and sprawling market. All kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish was being bought and sold under bright tarpaulin roofs. The sounds and smells making us turn and head in all directions. Drinking chai in a small room in the middle of the throng we relished the calm of sanctuary as the melee carried on outside.
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Knowing we couldn’t leave the bikes in Udipi forever we descended from the cool of the mountains. As the hours of the bus journey wound on, we peeled off layers and began our usual perspirative routine!
Staying in the pilgrimage town of Udipi for a couple of days we were lucky enough to wander around the huge Krishna temple complex as it geared up for a festival.
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We joined crowds of devotees into the main temple. An amazingly intense experience, through hot dark wood corridors lined with small brass oil lamps, the smell of smoke and incense mingling with hot bodies. We watched as hundreds of bare chested men and (fully clothed!) women made their way around the dark temple, praying and touching the decorative silver shrines as they went. The atmosphere was thick with a pious energy we haven’t really experienced before. After the intensity of the temple we thought we’d be in luck as we sat for a traditional music demonstration. As the ambling musicians dragged out a couple of lacklustre tunes we skulked out as the music didn’t seem to improve after an hour! Giggling a little we left, heading to our lodge. We were tired and wanted to get ready as we knew that in the morning we would be reunited with our bikes!

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Christmas Break!

Being British and therefore slightly biased towards cold and wintery festive seasons, we were certain that spending this ‘special’ period in India would prove the very antithesis of what we recognise as Christmas.
Cycling through searing 30° temperatures, days that are practically guaranteed to be bright and sunny and eating food so spiced that taste buds are tickled was a good start in confusing our brains in the ‘run up’ to the big day.
The few Christian communities we travelled through might have had a couple of banners or posters wishing onlookers Merry Christmas, while the decorative paper Christmas-star lanterns hung outside houses were the only hint that the festive period was upon us.
There were no ‘XMAS SALE!’ posters in shops windows, nobody was stressing about doing their Christmas shopping and the turkeys we saw still had their beautiful plooms of feathers!
One thing that would keep the spirit alive was to spend the time with other itinerant souls. We had organised to rent an apartment with a big group of brilliant friends we’ve met along our way. On a hillside overlooking the town of Udipi, it may not have been snowy and white but the lush green forest and distant sea made for decent stand in!
The plan was to cook a meal for ourselves. Our own multinational Christmas dinner! Slightly limited by the lack of oven, a roast was out. Settling for whatever we could find in the stores we set out in packs, buying small gifts and groceries while others bought enough beer and spirits to see us through!
On Christmas Eve a traditional Scandinavian ‘Gluk’ (similar to mulled wine but more delicious) bubbled and steeped while all manner of vegetables were chopped and prepared. Everyone took a turn making a dish, sauteed garlic potatoes, delicately spiced okra, aubergine stuffed peppers, buttery mashed yam and carrots with foot long green beans. A veritable feast and one that we topped off with a tandoori chicken from a local restaurant!
In the humid evening and beneath the ubiquitous cheap flashing disco light we drank our warm festive brew, ate our fill of delicious food and cracked into cold beers, Old Monk rum and frighteningly strong gin and tonic. Catching up on everyone’s movements since we’d last met we excitedly chatted for hours, as the alcohol began to work its magic the presents were brought out from under the wonderfully decorated plastic tree. Piled in the centre of the table we began a Danish gift giving (taking!) game. As dice are rolled, a 6 acquires a gift, as they are all divvied up a designated person sets a timer that only they know, from then on, each rolled 6 means you can take a gift from someone else’s pile! No-one knowing the time limit makes for a fantastically fun and fraught game as people scrabble for dice and rush to roll. Cries of laughter and good humoured screams as presents fly back and forth around the table until finally the timer runs out. Eventually we all, (apart from Stephan who hadn’t won any in the ruthless game!!) opened our little piles of gifts. Some cheap and pretty rubbish, a few genuinely quite useful! Finally we had something fitting the original idea of Christmas, maybe even more so than some of the experiences we’re used to. Enjoying time spent with good friends, sharing food and laughs in a truly memorable day.
Christmas day itself was a slightly hung over affair, with the bizarre disjointed feeling of knowing all our friends and family back home would soon be waking up and opening presents around a special breakfast. It started out a fairly solemn one, clearing up from the night before, having some morning after breakfast and downing litres of bottled water. Around lunchtime we decided that heading to the beach was the best option for the rest of the day. The kiwis took charge of the beer run, desperate not to drink warm beer they bought a huge bucket along with bags of ice, carrying the lot during the packed 45 minute bus ride to Malpe beach.
A fairly normal christmas for the Southern Hemispherians amongst us, we lounged on the sand and swam in the sea, watching a beautiful sunset over the water looking out to the idyllic Coconut Island. Only to be destroyed by a horrendous vision. A local fisherman waded knee deep into the sea, crouched slightly and defacated in full view of the beach. Apparently the surfing term is an ‘aquadump’ the kiwis knowledgeably informed the shocked Europeans that made up the rest of the group! Certainly topped off a totally different Christmas for all of us.

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Coastal Karnataka

After a month off the bikes we dusted them down and peeled off the splashes of yellow paint, acquired from being sat on the building site of our friend Vino’s guest house.
After a cold early morning start we found a deserted beach, a single sign for a beach side cafe called us in for breakfast. A sprinkling of wooden furniture, a single bright blue fishing boat and an old hippy scraping barnacles from a canoe were the only residents of Turtle Beach. Maybe this was the goa of bygone days? Before the holiday makers and pushy tat stalls took over.
Crossing into the state of Karnataka we began to be blessed with the finest road surfaces we’ve travelled on in India. Snaking through villages and around mangrove lined estuaries, highway 17 meant we could cover more than double the distance we had struggled with on the horrendous roads of Maharashtra. Although better for riding, we missed the intimacy of travelling through tiny villages. The smooth surface brought some more interesting and exceptional road colleagues! Unfeasibly large loads along with some kind drivers, stopping just to hand us some oranges from their windows.
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The first night, we were in between towns when the sun began to set, with no guest houses around and all the small cafes confusingly calling themselves ‘hotel’ we decided to cut our losses and search out a place to camp. With the dense population even in the rural areas it took a while to find a quiet enough spot. Near an abandoned lorry weigh bridge we dived into the bushes, set ourselves up under the tent inner, lulled to sleep amongst the incredibly strong shadows cast by the moon.
Waking to the sun rising we carried on riding, climbing more gentle hills and crossing beautiful rivers. Taking a turning towards Gokarna, the road passed above salt pans and paddy fields. Arriving down a hill into the spiritual town, we were met with a thronging mass of people and vegetables! We’d arrived during the weekly market, the colourful feast of fresh produce and bartering customers was a lovely introduction to the place.
Deciding to leave the bustling pilgrim town and cross the steep rocky headland we made our home in the more alternative atmosphere of Kudle beach. During the next day of two we were reunited with some of the great friends we had made in Hampi and Goa.
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After the weeks inland in the boulders of Hampi it was refreshing to be near the ocean again. The sunsets over the water and the sound of the waves a backdrop to our games of Frisbee and jembe drumming sessions.
We took trips to the other beaches nearby Gokarna. Visiting the beautiful Om beach, the double hemisphere of the sand between rocks mimicking the auspicious symbol.
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Another day we prepared as a large group to head to Paradise beach to camp. Setting out in groups we organised food and water supplies, a boat to take us and the essential rum and beer that would be needed. In the afternoon all 14 of us boarded a tiny fishing boat, cruising low in the water we rounded the various headlands, following some dolphins through the choppy waters. On getting to our destination, the name seemed a little exagerrated, although a lovely beach it was only small and the remains of beach bars and guest houses took away from the ‘unspoilt’ beach we’d imagined!
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Supposedly, some years ago, Paradise beach had a couple of bars and huts, being remote it was renowned for loud and probably drug fuelled parties. The government bulldozed the lot, leaving a beach but no accommodation. The plan didn’t exactly work as people head there for exactly the same reasons but camp under the stars instead!
Watching the sun setting we settled into our night away from civilisation, building a fire and setting up tents and hammocks. As we cut vegetables on frisbees, half a pineapple filled with rum was passed around the fire. We roasted our own food, played guitar and jembe as a group, occasionally dashing into the sea for midnight swims.
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As the sun rose the next morning, Jodie made an elephant sand sculpture and civilisation was brought back to us!  A group of locals came down to the sand, setting up a simple stove, cooking up tasty omelette-pau and steaming chai as the sun rose over the jungle clad hillside. A policeman also came to the beach that morning, to search for drugs. An unfortunate guy was caught with a joints worth of weed, and taken to an ATM where he was forced to withdraw 20000rp (£200) as a bribe. We later learnt that the police were likely tipped off by those same locals making breakfast. Its hard to get away from the corruption of India, even when you’re in Paradise.
On leaving our friends once more, our next port of call down the coast was Honavar. A lovely quaint village, with a friendly street, fronted by delicately decorated wooden houses, filled shop fronts beneath living areas. The people were more interested in talking to us rather than selling to us. A refreshingly nice time wandering the backstreets, eating delicious street food and picking up a few bits and bobs as we ambled around.
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Woken in the night by a huge bang, we stumbled to our third floor balcony. In the darkened road below, a chaotic scene unfolded, a huge truck had over turned going round a corner. People were rushing around not knowing what to do, the haunting screams of the driver echoing through the streets. An ambulance eventually turned up and he amazingly limped into it. Although his distressed cries still linger in our ears.
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The next morning we ate breakfast in a cafe overlooking the crashed lorry. The driving at this junction seemed to improve slightly as cars and wagons passed by. Jumping into a local bus we headed up into the mountains. Sitting at the back behind the wheels only exagerrated the insanely fast driving. Speeding around corners, taking racing lines around the apexes, we jumped out of our seats by about a foot as the bus launched over a bridge. The frankly terrifying white knuckle ride was thankfully reduced to a slow chug as the single track road became steeper and steeper. We eventually got to Jog Falls, India’s highest waterfall. Although easily the tallest we’ve seen, the trickle of water and the viewing area again didn’t quite live up to the hype.
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With the track down to the base of the falls now closed, the only thing to do was to stay in the run down viewing platform. Doubling as a litter strewn bus stand, and hopping off point for hundreds of excitable school children. We spent an hour dodging groups, occasionally cornered and made to shake hands with each and every one of them.
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Thirty km down the coast we came to a gigantic golden gateway. The road leading towards the sea was lined with cheap run down lodges, stalls selling plastic religious crap and ridiculous cowboy hats, everything the Indian tourist could need. Soon enough we glimpsed through the crowds the reason the area is so popular. Towering over the packed bus park stood a huge gopura and the immense 17m sitting statue of Shiva. A painted silver colossus, along with the golden temple next door they make for an impressive initial sighting, although on closer inspection, the build quality and engineering may not be as long lasting as such a statement building deserves. The lacking sophistication and foresight seems an unfortunate trait of the majority of India’s buildings.
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Back on the bikes again and coming off the road, Jodie’s front wheel skids out from under her, a fall that jars her arm so badly we need to take a taxi van to the nearest town, Bhatkal. A quick and seemingly efficient visit to a small local hospital confirmed the worst, a tiny hairline crack in her arm means we’re off the bikes for another couple of weeks.
Dismayed but undeterred, we organised a truck to transport us the next 80 uncomfortable kilometres to our festive destination of Udipi.

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Happy in Hampi…

For Kyle.

Going against the guide books recommended mode of transport to the ruined “City of Victory” Vijayanaga, (or Hampi to those of a modern persuasion), we shunned the trains and booked tickets for the sleeper bus. Waiting with a small crowd of other travellers in the dark market place of Canacona one evening, we stood looking hopefully at all the oncoming headlights. Eventually, a big white coach roared up, the driver’s mate hanging from the door screaming “AMPI, AMPI, AMPI!!” Once on board we joined a queue of others confused by how the compartment numbers didn’t match up with any of the ticket numbers. No-one really knew what was going on so we all just found empty spaces and claimed them for ourselves. Double bunk compartments on two levels run all the way down the bus, leaving a thin corridor down the middle to get acquainted with your fellow passengers. Really rather comfortable for couples or two friends to travel, whereas for single travellers, what you’re not told on booking, is that you are likely to share the intimately sized bunk with another person. Guess it could go one of two ways!!
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If you can get used to the roar of untuned diesel engines and the swinging of the coach as it hurtles around corners, combined with a bumpy road surface, after 10 hours of ‘sleep’ you’ll find yourself dropped by early morning light just outside the city of Hampi, the bizarre and beautiful boulder strewn landscape twisting your perception of reality. At which point your road-weary brain will relish being pounced on by a pack of friendly tuk-tuk drivers. All trying their very best to take you into town, to their guesthouse, and on a tour. Of course we were having none of it, grabbing our bags from the pile and setting off on foot. We walked over the hill the single kilometre into the town bazaar. All the way hounded by at least five tuk-tuks. As we neared the main street and huge gopura of the temple we couldn’t help laughing when the calls of “ten rupees!” dropped incrementally until they were still driving beside us playfully shouting “two rupees!” “one rupee!!”
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Walking down the hill into town the view is spectacular. The ramshackle and tumble down buildings of Hampi bazaar, housing stalls, guest houses and cafes make for a busy and cramped feel. We drank chai as the town slowly woke up, watching lunghi wearing pilgrims heading for a sunrise bathe in the holy river Tungabhadra. Surrounded on all sides by the ethereal landscape, golden boulder mountains, lush banana trees and weathered temple ruins.
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We decided to head across the river to find the more relaxed vibe of Hampi Island. The idea of getting across the water seems simple enough to solve, especially when there are two boats plying the short 50m route. Although this does not take into account the bizarre way that things operate in India. Numerous times we witnessed empty boats setting off while crowds of paying passengers were left waiting and wondering why. We gave up trying to rationalise the irrational and waited with everyone else for a boat across. India truly is the best place to go for a break from the left side of your brain!
Finding a guesthouse made up of straw roofed mud huts, set around a garden with a slackline between trees. We settled into the super chilled atmosphere of ‘the other side’. In the midst of paddy fields and surrounded by boulder mountains. The main dirt track running through the village was made up of chilled hang-out cafes, relaxed clothes stalls and people wandering around with bouldering mats strapped to their backs. An all round good vibe!
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We spent the first week exploring, walking the twisty roads past banana plantations, watching people working in the fields along with the most elaborate rice threshing ever!
A long plod up nearly 600 steps to the tiny white washed Hanuman temple. Nicknamed the “monkey temple” by westerners, due partly to the deity’s simian incarnation, also because of the troops of monkeys living on the rocky plateau overlooking the majestic landscape below.
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An early morning start across the river meant we could sit on the riverside ghats and watch Lakshmi the temple elephant taking a bath. An experience to watch but seeing this beautiful wild animal tamed as a spectacle made for an interesting but unsettling half hour. Feeling withdrawal symptoms from leaving the bikes in Goa we decided to take a government run bicycle tour of some of the temple areas. The number of temples and sacred sights in and around Hampi is simply staggering, you could explore for months on end and not see the half of it.
Riding around the ruins nearby the city made for a great way to see the sights and not get hounded by other touts. We visited the immense 7m Ganesh statue, another ‘Peanut Ganesh’ so named due to the statue and temple being funded by a peanut seller who operated a stall in the ancient ‘trade only’ Vijayanaga market. In the bazaar no currency changed hands, instead goods and skills were exchanged. A radical concept that nowadays seems like the optimum way of living. Exchanging goods and skills, like for like, without money corrupting things!
We cycled out of the city through banana plantations, scared witless when farmers set off fire crackers as we pass, for their own amusement as well as to frighten off the cunning Langur monkeys.
The Royal palace area, away from the city, houses some stunning pieces of architecture, the elaborate elephant stables that once housed 11 huge beasts used for celebrations and festivals. The queen’s palace space including the impressive Lotus Palace, a beautiful Islamic inspired building that incorporates an ancient water cooling system within the walls, AC from hundreds of years ago!
The riverside walk towards the ancient Vittala temple shows the much more relaxed side to Hampi bazaar, a long winding stone paved path twists along beside the steadily flowing river, ducking beneath huge boulders and around massive banyan trees. Corracle sailors set off up stream in their little round boats, skilfully paddling a vessel that seemingly shouldn’t be able to go in one direction. We crossed over huge rock plateaus, simple holes dug into the rock where pilgrims have mixed spices for generations. Carvings of deities and stories of old are cut into the floor and the boulders. All sacred places appear to be whitewashed with accents of red. We followed the colour codes, leading into tiny cave temples and around holy statues and trees.
On a couple of days we hired some mopeds that can only be described as blue smoke spewing, crazy frog impersonating monkey bikes. The tone of the horn increased in pitch as you accelerated!
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Driving through rice paddies we passed workers carrying hay bales on their heads, as the road snaked around boulder mountains, to the huge Sanapur lake. Lead by a couple of locals we spent a few hours jumping from huge boulders into the cool refreshing water. At their restaurant afterwards we savoured a few illegal beers that we had to hide underneath the tables. Hampi being a dry holy city it was well worth the wait.
Further along the river we found the small ancient town of Anegundi, in times long ago when Vijayagara was a huge powerful city, a thousand war elephants were kept here, who knows where and it was surely a lot different but it was nice to imagine the beautiful old world village with it’s warren of tiny streets and wooden fronted houses with so many huge beasts tromping around!
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Hampi and the surroundings are world renowned for bouldering and climbing. Having brought our boots for this sole reason we joined a great bunch of people in waking before the sun and trekking with huge boulder mats on our backs to the nearby rocky plateaus. Spending a week getting to grips with some of the awesome boulder problems we made a fantastic group of friends, enjoying the landscape and challenging each other with numerous brilliant routes.
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It became our routine to climb in the cool of the early morning until around 10:30, when the heat got too much. We’d head for a brilliant shakshuka breakfasts before resting for the heat of the day. Reemerging in the afternoon to climb through sunset, holding pinch grips of sharp granite until it got too much for the fingers!
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After a few days we gave our hands a rest and headed as a big group out of the village, walking through banana plantations and across elegantly eroded river beds to a waterfall and swimming spot, the cool water a relief in the hot sun. Back in the village we spent evenings at jamming sessions, listening while people played jembe until their hands were as sore as the climbers’.
On our last day in Hampi we all took off on mopeds towards the hilltop monkey temple. Clambering to the top we found a flat area on the plateau where Brigida gave her first ever yoga lesson. Overlooking the ethereal misty mountain landscape we held balance poses and did sun salutations as the glowing orange ball dipped below the horizon. An experience it will be hard to top.
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Go(a)ing Nowhere!

Thankfully we’d booked our first few nights accommodation in Goa. Finding a nice sounding place in the guidebook we’d phoned ahead. Arriving at 11pm after a long day, the last thing we wanted was to hunt out a place to stay. We also thought it would be busier than it actually is. We’re here right on the cusp of the season so actually prices are reasonable and there seem to be plenty of options. (A bit of a tip for anyone coming out for holidays!!) The ayurvedic resort of Bio-Veda was our home for a couple of days. The posh name seems a little over played, being that the place is made up of a couple of nice little shacks next to the beach. Exactly the low key style we wanted for a bit of R&R! A mosquito net covered bed, a simple shower room and a place to hang towels, accompanied by a sweet little balcony, a couple of cane chairs and the crashing ocean waves just a stone’s throw away. Bliss!
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We spent a few days and nights relaxing on the balcony, watching the sun set and the cows wander along the crab filleTheurve of sand. Conscious that we have the money issue of not earning while travelling we decided to move from our lovely beach hut to a much cheaper hostel, where the cleaning is done exactly in time with the yearly solar eclipse! Grimness aside, after cleaning the bathroom ourselves we settled in. Meeting a lovely bunch of people we became part of the Cupids Heaven (the hostel’s weird name!) family. Good to meet you Jannie, Lize, Oliver, Mona and Stephan…

In those first couple of days we spent 6 annoying hours fighting with slow WiFi to figure out the ordering of a new tyre for Jodie’s bike. A slight logistical nightmare but eventually with the help of Adam and Sandy all was sorted and we were forced to relax in the beautiful Goan surroundings until it turned up.
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The days pass relatively easily when the day is made up of walks along the sand, punctuated with dashes into the warm ocean, more adventurous walks through the locality show how unstable the economical climate has been in the past few years. Huge timeshare and resort complexes lie in apparent ruin, barely fully built but already covered in rust and looking run down they sit in the overgrown jungle landscape. Piles of new furniture inside waiting to be put into rooms that will never be finished.
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While in Agonda, we’ve been surrounded by some quite fascinating wildlife. Majestic sea eagles soar just above the huts, black faced Langur monkeys swing through the trees, herds of cows plod along the beach, dolphins are seen jumping out of the water on the horizon and a lone white flamingo has taken residence, taking the advantage of munching its way through the crab community. Although he doesn’t take kindly to German tourists in speedos who try to get too close, but it was funny to watch someone trying to escape in flip flops!

Buzzing around on a scooter became the best way of exploring the area. Being back on two wheels felt really quite nice, having the help of the engine up the steep hills was also a blessing. We made our way inland through small colonial villages and dusty paddy fields, via the Portuguese fort of Cabo de Rama to the large town of Madgaon. A bustling place with shops selling all sorts of household and clothing equipment. Wandering around the labyrinthine under cover marketplace made for an interesting yet confusing time. We sampled the Portuguese style chorizo pieces. Little balls of sweet and spicy meat sold in small pieces and wrapped in newspaper.
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Clambering through tight gaps between laiden stalls we noticed that the fresh foods and spices were plentiful and mouth watering, while pretty much all the plastic and homeware goods look so cheap and badly made that they can only last a single use. On our way back and now getting late we were almost at the top of the final hill when the engine spluttered. We’d misjudged the amount of petrol we needed, as obviously the fuel gauge and speedo didn’t work. This was a daft mistake as everyone everywhere seems to sell litre plastic water bottles of petrol. You needn’t rely on legit petrol stations. They don’t need to have any licence to sell petrol, nor do they appear to worry about having highly flammable liquid in small wooden shacks, all with burning embers right outside! It seems caution doesn’t exist here in India!
We pushed the bike up the hill a while, as ever the crest just ahead was never the very top. Getting a little worried about being so far away and the light failing we were so happy when a young guy from Pallolem pulled up on his gorgeous silver Royal Enfield. Siphoning some of his petrol to rescue us. The only thing he wanted was for us to come for a drink at his bar in the next beach!

One evening we were treated to the most fascinatingly slap dash diwali festivity at the local temple. A tiny place, most of the village people turned out, women and children in delicate traditional dress sat around the deity waiting to give their blessings. While the village men folk seemingly made up the rest of the proceedings on the spot. No-one really knew what they were doing and half were still wearing their T-shirt and jeans. All the while a four piece “band” played, out of tune and miss timed musical ditties, they were nothing if not enthusiastic!
Our spirits lifted by this affair we retreated back to the hostel balcony where the rest of the floor were getting happily sozzled on the local brew. Fenny is made from fermented cashew nuts, comes in plastic bottles and costs 100rp (£0.98) per large bottle. We worked out that to have our party for a few hours with 6 people cost us £0.47 per person. It must be the world’s most cost effective way of getting very happily pissed!

Surprisingly lacking hang overs we got back on the moped. Checked out some of the other beach areas in Southern Goa, we stopped for breakfast at the busy Pallolem, good to take a look and wander around the stalls but we were glad to be staying in more chilled Agonda.
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Patnem was more our style, especially the super chilled southern end of the beach where we spent a few hours laid on the floor mats on the swaying bamboo mezzanine of a beach side bar and cafe.

In contrast to the general super chilled atmosphere, one night we took a cattle dodging late night tuk-tuk out into the pitch black, making our way to an outdoor club for a full moon party. The music was good and the people were brilliant. At home, going to a club you usually know the type of people you’re going to meet there. Here, it was like a melting pot of crazy fantastic individuals, all partying together to old techno and rave tunes under the light of fire dancers, strobes and the glowing moon.
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The 23rd of November brought with it a day of small note. Being my 30th birthday we treated ourselves to Ayurvedic massages and good food with some of the friends we have made. Jodie made the day one to remember by organising a private firework display on the beach and a cake made by our good friend Vino at the bar next door. Complete with brilliantly spelt icing and candles!
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It truly was a night to remember, later on Stephan and I went for a midnight swim, gifted with beautiful glowing particles of phosphorescence as we moved through the water!

Thank you everyone.

After almost two weeks of relaxing in the safety and familiarity of the touristic Goa we began to get itchy feet. With the constant banter of the stall wallahs on the the beach road each time we take a step, “hello my good friend, come see my shop, look costs nothing, why you never look?” At first having people talk in English was a slight comfort, now it was a bane every time we wanted to nip out for a couple of tomatoes. Bored of the same people pretending to be our chums while also wanting to extract cash from us we teamed up with Stephan and got ourselves tickets to go and visit nearby Hampi for a few days. After an evening meal of the fantastic Tibetan momos, we said goodbye to Oliver and sped off in a taxi to nearby Canacona. We stood in the dark marketplace waiting for our night bus.
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Getting tyresome!!

After a day or two and with our appetites and strength returned we started early on great roads, climbing strongly and enjoying being back on the bikes. A slightly cooler day meant we covered more ground than expected. On the descent towards the next ferry town I heard a huge hiss behind me.
Luckily not going too fast Jodie’s front tyre had punctured, initial thoughts were slight annoyance but on further inspection we arrived at disbelief and dismay. One of the brake blocks had come loose, meaning it was braking on the sidewall of the tyre. Rubbing it down and splitting it. A pretty serious problem. I managed to patch the splits with some toothpaste tubes. (Really strong and light material and good to carry for such problems!!)
As we were doing some roadside repairs we heard a huge buzzing noise coming down the hill. 200 people on mopeds began to fly past, all with yellow caps on. Some began stopping, more to get photos with us than to offer any help. In great spirits they lightened our mood, especially Alexander whose full tiger body paint and costume was truly worthy of note! turned out to be an awareness ride, for a tiger charity in the North of India.
We followed them to the ferry launch, where all 200 of them were piling together waiting to get on the tiny boat. A great atmosphere, we waited with them, drinking chai, chatting and obviously having our photos taken with everyone! When the time came we got in the spirit and pushed our way along with everyone else onto a packed boat. Everyone helping each other to get as many people as possible across the water.
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Over the other side and now dark we had another rough dusty climb to the local halfway house hotel. A large grim place, mainly used by the workers at the huge throbbing and glowing power station built 200 metres away!
Just happy for shelter we looked again at the tyre. There would be no way we could trust it to last any real distances.
We’d only made it halfway to Goa so far and felt we’d partly failed. Massively disappointed we decided to take 4×4 taxis to the next main town where there was a slim chance of finding a replacement. All the guys stood around the taxi rank came over to help put the bikes in the back.
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Stopping at the supposedly beautiful town of Ganpatipule, we found a busy and very touristy town that didn’t quite have the calm, serenity of the promotional image we’d seen in Mumbai.
We wandered down the beach away from the crowds near the beach road. For some reason, Indian families that go to the seaside prefer to stay as near to the entrance as possible, coincidentally where the majority of the filth and litter seem to be. If you wander away from these bizarre congregations only half a km the beaches are much cleaner, there are no screaming children and the views are much nicer. We found a little spot away from everyone and spent a couple of hours, Jodie building sand sculptures while I wrote my diary. Watching the sun slowly set over the flocks of gulls floating on the sea.
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In the morning we took a tiny pick up truck to Ratnigiri, the nearest large town where we found a couple of bicycle shops. The bike shop workers were amazingly helpful, bringing us practically the whole of India’s tyre stock for us to try and fit. The wheel would take 28 inch (622) tyres, reading the 28″ printed on the Indian tyres gave us some hope although the Indian dimensions are 635. None would fit. They even suggested that their mechanic could stretch one of the 26 inch tyres onto the 700c wheel. An offer we politely refused as a). This could never be done, and b). Trying would totally knacker the beautiful wheel!
With no other option we decided to take our chances and try to get a train that day to Goa. A place we could hold up for a while until a replacement tyre could be sent. Our only real option to carry on cycling. A mad dash via tiny van taxi, I sat in the back holding two bikes, one on the roof and the other inside the van while we flew to the train station.

Not expecting to take a train until later in our trip we weren’t totally prepared. Typically the computer system was down that day, leading to the unique queueing operation that seems to happen at times of problems in India.
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While Jodie guarded the bikes I ended up queuing three times in total, each at half an hour a pop. Once to get a form to fill in, a second time to buy the train tickets and finally to book the bikes on as luggage!
The other brilliance of the system is that all this can only be done an hour before the train arrives if you want to travel immediately. A chapati-bhaji settled the nerves a bit. Some fantastic curry juice mopped up with bread for the equivalent of 30p makes for the tastiest, cheapest and most nutritious station food in the world!
With tickets sorted and bikes booked on we went to sit on the platform and wait. Obviously it was about an hour and a half late but from the shade we people-watched and saw huge goods trains taking loaded lorries and their drivers all the way to the south of this massive country. A pretty clever cost and time saving initiative from the government, and an interesting spectacle to boot!
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When our train heaved into the station, we had to quickly chuck the bikes into the luggage van, along with boxes and boxes of fish and several motorbikes. With fingers crossed for their safe voyage we climbed into the 3rd class carriage. Fairly packed with people and baggage, we stood for a while, seat swapped every so often as people stood up stretching cramped limbs. As folk moved around the carriage, to the toilet or just to stand at the open doors there were none of the mutterings voiced by people in Britain when gangways are full. Everyone just carefully moves around them no problems at all. Chai-wallahs make their way through the carriages, hauling huge vats of steaming tea, skilfully pouring out little cups of the sweet milky goodness. Food sellers pass through the train carrying baskets on their heads, fresh food is picked up at each station and sold through the train. A genius solution to the crap packaged train food back home.
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The number of passengers thinned out a bit the further we travel and we catch glimpses of the stunning Maharashtra landscape flying past. Views we wouldn’t have seen from the saddle. We sit with a lovely family from Mumbai, chatting and showing our photographs, while Jodie has some delicate henna done by the daughter Jasminta. A talent indeed as I was having trouble writing on my phone with the movement of the train.
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Getting into Goa, after a 6 hour train ride we catch glimpses of lanterns and the lights of houses through the darkness. In Madgaon we don’t even need to stretch and don’t feel too worn out. A bit grimy maybe but not bad for a journey as long as London to Edinburgh. Maybe the fact it cost us a pound each for the pleasure made it easier to handle!
Another late night 4×4 taxi to Agonda beach, again a little worried about our bikes tied to the roof as we swing around the windy mountain roads to the coast. Finding our beach side cottage was such a relief that we dumped everything and ran straight into the midnight ocean. The moon lighting what right now feels like paradise!
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The kindness of strangers…

After the intensity of our first few days we looked at the maps, promising ourselves a nice easy day. Riding next to the ocean before climbing over a headland, to the little coastal town of Murud. (another one!)
A strange little resort place, cottages and rooms accompanied by a bizarre restaurant that never seemed open apart from a few very strict hours. The weird all inclusive atmosphere a bit misleading as you have to pay for everything!
Joining a huge crowd of people on the beach, generations of families, groups of lads with 4x4s blasting music from their sound systems and children on horses trying to sell rides along the flat wide sand. We watched a sunset over the mirror like Arabian sea. The eldest son of a large family came to bring us a plate of fresh Bombay mix, spiced nuts and puffed rice mixed in huge piles on the floor with fresh tomatoes. Followed by sweet coconut treats. We spent a while communicating in single words and hand signals to this generous family before getting stopped every cactually steps, it felt like the whole congregation wanted a photo with us! Bizarre unwarranted celebrity over with, we made our way back to the cottage.

During the night, what I can only describe as a demon was awoken in my stomach and was pretty desperate to get out by any means possible. Without much choice in the matter I spent the night in a fair amount of pain and feeling grim.
A full 24 hours of sleep and recovery to rid myself of the drained feeling was the only option for the next day. Without knowing why I was ill, there was nothing worse than returning to the same, and only restaurant the next day. Although the simple dhal and plain rice was all I could face.
Whatever it was, Mumbai’s revenge maybe, was gone by the next day and feeling much better we had an early start and set off up the long grinding hill for Dapoli.
Down to our last rupees we needed to get to a large town to use an ATM. After 2 exasperated hours we found a machine with money. The delay meant we’d now have to ride in the midday heat to get to our next destination.
Back on the road we set off across the undulating, barren landscape. Some tough roads took us past the glorious red sands of Burondi. Hiding from the heat in some parched paddy fields we snoozed, keeping out of the sun.
After losing the hours in Dapoli we struggled over the mirage like hills to get down to the small port town of Dhabol. Now dusk, we were dismayed to find that the ferry we’d been told ran around the headland to Guhager, instead it was a simple crossing with another 20km to ride. We needed another solution, and fast. Jodie was now feeling both exhausted and very ill. Running off through the dusty warren of the village, asking if anyone had a room. I found a man who spoke a little english. He took me to several places, eventually finding some luck. No more than a stable, no windows, barely any water, just hard wooden beds and a basic toilet. Thankful to even find a room I went back to bring Jodie and our bikes around. As we struggled on the rocky road a moped passed us, asking the usual, ‘where you from?’. The improbable response to our lacklustre ‘England….’ was that the rider’s pillion was from Manchester! Ignoring the comment as we now knew that the demon had returned, residing within Jodie’s stomach and again wasn’t keen on staying for long. Coming to terms with being holed up in a tiny stark and hot room with no running water while being terribly Ill there was a knock at the stable door. Outside gleamed a huge shiny white 4×4 and a man who spoke the most English we’d heard in a long time. Majeed it turns out, lives in Blackburn and runs a second hand car dealership there! Originally from Dapoli, owning practically half the town’s property and a huge farm house just up the road he made the incredibly kind offer of taking us back to a clean and air conditioned room for the night.
Gobsmacked but thankful we found the strength to gather our bags, leaving the bikes in the stable and climbed aboard the Jeep.

We realised we were now in a strange situation. At a hotel, it doesn’t matter if you just want to recover in your room as you’re paying. Being guests in somebody’s house is a different kettle of Pomfret (local fish!). With Jodie incapacitated with no option but to stay in bed near a bathroom, I stayed up talking with the men while the Muslim family’s women prepared some delicious but spicy food. A little complex for my delicate, recovering stomach!
Next morning, still pretty shattered but feeling the obligation of thankful guests we ate a simple breakfast of eggs on toast before Majeed took us on a tour of the area. Indian car insurance is done in a much better way that the UK, the car is insured rather than the driver, so anyone can drive. Meaning when Majeed said I was going to drive today the novelty overtook reason!
Its not as scary as it sounds, driving in India is actually pretty easy. As long as you don’t keep hold of silly western habits, stopping at junctions and driving on a single side of the road. Dodge cows and other vehicles, don’t drive too fast over the rough roads and turn the lights down at night to stop the glare and you’ll be fine!!
It didn’t really matter to us that there ‘may’ have been slight ulterior motives, as for a local, being seen to be driven around by a westerner may in a weird way, add something to the individual’s status. Or maybe That’s purely cynical thinking?

Majeed kindly took Jodie to see a doctor, his ownership of the building meant no queuing was needed, just walk right in to the doctors room and be seen immediately!
We ate a huge lunch at Majeed’s sister’s house. A beautifully decorative wooden framed building, built in 1967 but looking like it was crafted hundreds of years ago. The patina of the yellow painted wood a perfect example of the much sought after ‘worn’ look back home!
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After a drive down the coast back towards where we last cycled, (annoyingly short time needed in a car!) We headed back to Dhabol to try and meet the sunset. Just missing it we wandered around the women selling fish from baskets on the darkening quayside. We were invited into Salim, Majeed’s brother in law’s house. A huge open building with rooms leading off rooms, an open Escher type staircase ran all the way through the middle, leading to the open roof terrace. From which we could see the whole town. Half the buildings occupied by a single huge family, Salim’s uncle told us about how his father had 4 wives, producing 28 children a couple of generations ago. You really can’t escape your family in this town!

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With Jodie feeling much better, the next day we headed for the ferry. Picking the bikes up and thanking the family for looking after them.

Over the river we had a relatively easy day, passing the huge Dhabol power station on our way to Guhager. A lovely beach side temple town. Sacred sites all around there were a lot of Indian tourists. We found a nice simple room at the back of a building overlooking some paddy fields. Relishing our freedom and space again we spent a couple of days just wandering the town and making sure we both felt properly recovered before pushing on for the next leg.
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Our first jaunt into the unknown….

If you get up before the sun, make your way through the city using the beginning dawn light and low wattage street lamps, you can beat the hordes of hawkers and begging children of Mumbai.
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We made our way to buy tickets from a booth, and to the jetties near the Gateway of India, the tourist street photographers and chai wallahs were so baffled by our heavily loaded bikes that they didn’t even bother to try and sell us anything!

Loading the bikes onto a small wooden ferry via slippery steps with the first of many audiences we found some where to perch and watch the sunrise as we sailed across the bay and away from the bustle and stench of Mumbai. A sight we were not too sorry to see the back of! Huge oil tankers and off shore platforms for gas passed by our tiny boat, with it’s colourful but faded paint peeling off and wires hanging precariously from the makeshift lights.

Landing at Mandwe, the sun was already baking but the humidity and foul odour were gone, birds sung from the trees and the groves of coconut plantations swung gently in the breeze as we made our virgin ride into the countryside.
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Our senses heightened from hyped up expectation we warily made our way along the coastal road southwards. After thinking for the past few months about how awful the roads would be we were pleasantly surprised as mopeds started buzzing by, soon followed as time ran on by all manner of other vehicles, tuk-tuks ferrying people around, brightly hand painted goods-carriers (lorries) trundled past, billowing diesel smoke. Our fears immediately put a bit to rest as everything on the road seemed slow, loud as hell and vehicles beep their horns as they pass anything! The only exception are the buses, which are built like huge red monster trucks, don’t slow for anyone but are still noisy as ever so we’ve made a pact that whenever one appears we’ll dive off the road into the tracks and bushes!

Pootling along we passed small roadside settlements of makeshift huts and shacks, mud houses using woven palms for roofs and grander concrete and stone single storey houses. The vibrancy of the materials used, and the colourful paints along with the bright overgrown tropical plants makes every single little place different. As people go about their daily lives taking their goods to market and buzzing through on bicycles and scooters, we stopped for a spot of breakfast at the first place that looked open. We munched our way through some bizarre spicy and deep fried potato slices, a strange doughnut like thing all washed down with some glorious sweet chai.

We got to the hectic dusty town of Alibag, where we found a beach side shaded garden area where we settled down to snooze for the heat of the day. Watching a family of puppies play amongst the sand, litter and plants. A slight downer but Jodie unfortunately managed to sit on her sunglasses, snapping them in several places!
Back on the road we took a different way out of town through the warren of alleyways and shacks, watched and stared at from all sides, excited children followed us through the filthy town as we made our way back to the main road, thanking whoever above for GPS!!

As ever the long main roads have pretty good surfaces, although interspersed with bloody rough track areas. It was one of these areas that knocked my mirror loose and was too late by the time I noticed. 1 day, 1 lost mirror and 1 pair of broken sunglasses! Unbelievable luck!

We consoled ourselves when we made it to our first beach, albeit filthy sand and covered in litter but it was good to make it to the coast. We ate omelette pau, spicy fresh eggs with small buns of soft bread. Our first fresh coconut a welcome break from water and overly sweet mango soft drinks. We cycled down the beach, passing fishermen winding in nets from small colourful boats. Our first guesthouse of the trip was hard to come by, after a couple of naff choices we found a lovely family run place, where we could relax on a verandah overlooking a coconut plantation, buffalo wandering in the fields next door while we watched the sunset through the leaves.
An amazing home cooked vegetable thali listening to crickets in the dark ended our first day of touring India.

Cycling along the coastal road south we pass through lots of tiny villages, people come out of the buildings to wave and shout the garbled phrase “hellohowareyouwhatisyourgoodnamewhichcountry?!?” What most people must learn when it come to English class. More than the sum of our Hindi put together! The road winds its way through paddy fields and up and down hills, the road is bumpy and dusty with little let up. After a particularly long and gruelling uphill we descend, soon learning that in this heat and conditions that the simple things in life are best. Long sweeping downhills, the breeze that sometimes comes through the trees and the taste of simple water to a parched throat.

As peak heat hit we found Kashid beach, pretty much deserted apart from a couple of shacks we swung in shaded hammocks while the heat built up and slowly went away. We’re not yet comfortable enough to swim as the custom here is for everyone, especially women to swim fully clothed. So we settle for some paddling and wait for Goa!
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Stopping in the small but bustling fishing town of Murud-Janjira, the good atmosphere makes us stop for a couple of days for a break. Enjoying the sea view from our room and the smell of burning coconut husks along the beach. The sweet scent accompanies billowing smoke that keeps the mozzies at bay. We speak to a gentle old man for a while in his 100 year old house, who later invites us to a friends place who have a daughter living in Wimbledon and working as a chef in London town! The hospitality of everyone we meet is incredible, everyone is interested in us and our journey and invite us into their homes for chai and diwali treats.

Another early start sees us climbing steep roads over the top of a hill, viewing Janjira fort from the top, needing to cross an estuary we make the mistake of expecting the ferry to be running early. While we wait a few hours for it to start we enjoy more chai and biscuits in the shade and watch the boatmen load 14 mopeds onto a tiny ferry before we board and wobble our way over to the other side.
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After a long hot day in the saddle and watching the most glorious sunset over an estuary we realised we’d slipped up on our timings. It gets dark every day at 6:30 so we really needed somewhere to stay. Coming slowly through the tiny harbour town on Hareharishewa an uneasy feeling came over us, the dark night mixed with the quick talking from all sides make for a fairly anxious time waiting for a ferry. A group of boys practically stand next to us staring at us and the bikes. Nervous we try to spark conversation to no avail. As the ferry arrives it appears the boys are more interested in our LED torches and bicycle gears than us so we board feeling slightly more at ease. The haunting sound of the mosque calling to prayer floats over the quiet waters. On the other side we find a steep rough track to climb with nowhere to stay and no battery left for the GPS we almost crack and lose it, just holding it together and slowly heading into the pitch black a guy on a moped stops and directs us to his guesthouse. Not the cleanest and we shared with several sizeable cockroaches, but it was shelter and sometimes that’s all you need!
Woken by the sound of loud firecrackers signalling the start of Diwali we set off early hoping for an easier day.
Up and up we climbed, beautiful views over the Konkan hills but damn hard going. The bridge on our map appears to be in the (slow) process of being built when we get there, along with the road! We struggle on dehydrated for 30 miles with 3/4 ltr of water between us. Not spared an inch we follow the particularly rough and undulating track around the estuary. We’d mistakenly assumed there was a bridge over the river to the town. Worried but with no option but to carry on we toiled on through the baking sun. Passing tiny villages that could have been from 100 years ago, untouched as yet by a main road, let alone two sweaty alien westerners on space age machines clad in day glow panniers and cycling shorts! We eventually find a hut selling water, buying as much as possible we drink till we feel quenched and strap more to our steeds. Another harsh lesson learnt!

Pushing on through more villages from a time gone by, women in traditional garb walk up the muddy tracks carrying precarious loads of fire wood on their heads, turning with great skill to watch us pass. With hardly any noise pollution you get a little insight into life here. The crackling of stove fires, the rhythmic tap of a hammer from a workshop and the playing voices of children are the background hum to scratching chickens, talking and tobacco spitting menfolk as well as market stall holders selling their meagre wares. We stopped in one village but the only food we could find were a couple of past-their-best ice creams and some stale cashew nuts. A veritable feast after our morning!

As the day started to cool we got back onto the decent coastal road, a nice, smooth tarmacked surface passing monkey filled coconut trees and finding a gentle beach side village where we stopped for the night. A lovely family from Pune were the only other guests and we joined them for dinner, chatting for a few hours about life in India and gaining a lot of helpful tips and directions, topped off by an awesome fire-poi display in the garden by the talented Sahil.
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The last couple of days had been much tough both physically and mentally than we’d anticipated, but witnessing the simple pleasures of the community diwali celebrations made up someway for it. While the five year olds lighting the fireworks in the street ‘looked’ like they knew what they were doing, we still stayed well back in the warm calming glow of the lanterns.

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The complex-city(!) of Mumbai…

After nine hours aboard the ramshackle Indian restaurant in the sky we landed at 3am with a bit of a skid at Mumbai airport. As the humidity hit us through the air-locks we made for the baggage claim. Both bike boxes were there all fine and dandy. Jet lagged and out of sync, we figured out  ordering a taxi van, strapped the bikes to the little silver roof rack and set off on an hour and a half journey through the heart of sleeping Mumbai. As soon as we left the airport building the incredible reality hit. As we trundled over rough pot-holed roads, piles of rubble all over, sparks from welders under huge overpasses lighting the grimy streets beneath. Joining roads it seems the done thing is to keep your speed, not check your mirror or over your shoulder as the other drivers will manoeuvre around you. The traffic seems to flow like water here, slow erratic and uncontrollable. The rules of the road are, there are no rules and the bigger you are, the more right of way you have. Even at first glance, although that sounds terrifying, the roads are not fazing us. The vehicles are so slow and make so much noise that we’ll always know where they are and be able to dodge them if need be!

The putrid smell and hum of the city drifted through the open rickety windows of the van. We filled up with LPG at a little off street filling station, pumps held up with bamboo and bits of old signposts. The loud hissing of the gas pump disengaging didn’t wake the sleeping attendants slumped over barrels and in plastic chairs. We passed slum areas with cramped rooms made from tarpaulin and any other bits the people could find. Hundreds of people just asleep on the half dug up pavements, some with the luxury of a rug. Outside their stalls maybe? or simply because they had nowhere else we’ll never know.

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We found the hotel in the jungle like mass of old colonial buildings of Collaba. In the southern tip of Mumbai. Trees and vines reclaiming the buildings. We left our luggage in a store room and went off to wait till we could check in. Wandering through the dawn lit streets, around the mighty Taj palace hotel and the Gateway of India.

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The sun rose over the bay, bringing the first warm light we saw of India and brought colour and texture to the dark city. The people and stray dogs started to emerge, chai wallahs with their little plastic flasks and street cleaners collecting rubbish to take for recycling to
earn a little money. Eventually we got into our large room and went to sleep of the jet lag and escape the oppressive heat of the city.

We spent a couple of days exploring the bustling streets of Collaba. The backdrop of beautiful gothic victorian buildings from the times of British rule couldn’t detract from the overall sleazy and intense atmosphere of the area. As with all tourist filled areas of large cities, Collaba has an overwhelming number of pushy street vendors, clinging street beggars and dodgy tour operators all vying to extort money from the new tourists. We soon got fed up of all the hassle and found shortcuts from the main drags out to far more pleasant areas of Mumbai.

One particularly hot morning we took an early ferry from the Gateway an hour into the bay to Elephanta island. We walked up the tarpaulin and stall lined steps to the ancient cave temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. We explored the dark stone temples in awe and also grateful for the relief from the heat. Albeit brief!! Cheeky little monkeys followed everyone around trying to steal any food or drink you carry, so we dodged them and had a brilliant veg thali in the shade of some blue plastic sheeting.

We spent a couple of days exploring some other parts of Mumbai. Past the vast green cricket maidens of the Fort area and around Marine Drive, a long artificial crescent bay overlooking the grim sea. The sea breeze although welcome brought with it a foul stink that was at times overwhelming. Everyone else carries on as normal! this is the area that Mumbaikers make for of a weekend to stroll, chat and discreetly canoodle in the anonymity of the crowds.

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Here we met a lovely gentleman with whom we spent a couple of evenings in thoughtful conversation over beers and bottles of water. A true friend and an inspiration we hope to have the chance to meet Madhu again.

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Wanting to get started on our bikes and get out of the city we decided to take a day taxi tour of some of the sights. Taking in the epic cathedral like building of CST station (VT) the main train hub for the city and the busiest place so far.

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We visited Mani Bhaven, Gandhi’s house and now amazing museum. The Hanging gardens overlooking Chowpatty beach, we glimpsed the Towers of Silence where the Parsi people leave their dead to have their bones cleaned by the elements and ever circling vultures.
Unfortunately the Dhobi Ghats were not up and running when we passed, the huge municipal laundries where hundreds of little stone rooms house washers who bash the clothes clean before hanging them out to dry. Practically all of Mumbai sends their washing here and gets it back on time the day after!
We also decided to go on what is known as the Slum tour. To the Dharavi slum in central Mumbai, made famous in the film Slum-dog Millionaire. Initially we were unsure of whether we were comfortable with this, being in effect rich westerners walking round poor people livelihoods for tourism. When we arrived we were shown around the recycling area of the community.

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A vast jumbled muddy warren of little workshops all built on top of each other. A hive of activity where teams of workers disassemble practically any machine or object they can find to either fix or totally re-use as spare parts. Washing machines, plastic bottled, car parts, AC units, you name it there will be a little workshop that can take something that is broken and either fix it or use the parts to make something else. All unused plastic, cardboard and metals are cut into tiny pieces, washed and dried before being sent on for more recycling. In this community of people we met some of the kindest most hard working and rightly proud men and women. So skilled and talented that the way they live and their attitude to the world around them and the things that we and they all use and throw away is truly inspiring. While we back at home put things in a little green bin to be sent away to be sorted these people use and re-use every single thing until it cannot be used again. This is true recycling and I reckon the world could learn a thing or two from them….

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The comedy of Air India!

How does one sum up a flight on air India? Is it possible that a journey on any other airline could consist of such a catalogue of humourous and deliciously ramshackle events.

Never has a queue system been more well meaning but so quickly thrown out the window in exchange for a push and run approach. Boarding went pretty smoothly once we’d pushed in!, finding our seats to be distinctly similar to that of a London bus but without the padding. An in flight entertainment system for which tempramental would be a kind description. After watching the first 10 minutes of a few films before it cut out and restarted itself I decided to go for an ‘off and on’ approach, little did I know that once back up and running it would be in Hindi and with a constant map overlay to all the different menus. Reading would be a good back up if it weren’t for the colour changing lights that run the length of the plane to add ‘ambiance’! I kid you not it is like being inside a very busy tube shaped Indian restaurant in Mile End. (Just without the attentive staff as I turned my steward light off after 15 mins of no show) the similarities carried on as the food is the best airline muck we’ve had for a very long while! Silver linings.

We’re also well aware that the whole experience is gearing us up for the ideocincracies of life in the subcontinent, so we’re lapping it up and head wobbling our way along quite happily.

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Packed!!

Well, its been a while since a proper adventure, and its almost time for a new one to start. A wholely different journey on a couple of levels.
Travelling around a country so large that it is practically it’s own continent, passing through states and regions that will show as many different aspects and elements that any country could possibly have.
Also this time I shan’t be going solo. This time I have someone special to share the trip and its experiences with. On the 23rd October myself and my lovely lady Jodie will be boarding a plane, along with our two adventure touring bikes and two chequered laundry bags of brightly coloured panniers.
At 3:05am on Thursday we will be landing at Chhatrapati Shivaji airport in Mumbai! Gulp!

Our plan is to make our way south along the coast towards Goa then inland across the Western Ghats to take in the ancient temple boulder lands of Hampi before heading further south into the lush jungle waterways of Kerala. The following legs of our journey are yet to become clear enough to publish on the blog but once we get more of an idea I shall post some more….

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We’ve spent the last few months readying our bikes, packing panniers with mosquito repellant and saying farewell to our lovely friends.
We stopped taking on work, packed our lives into cardboard before driving a big van to deposit said boxes of normal life’s trivialities into various garages and lofts (thank you Sarah and Mark!) around the country.
A frantic few weeks at our parents’ homes, taking in as much family love as possible have been the backdrop to the logistical nightmares of packing bicycles into boxes and gathering the last essential bits.

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A spot of wine making and a lot of good bottles of wine later (not our own batch, think our “Chateaux Garage” may turn out more of a fine vinegar than a ‘good’ vintage!) We’ve managed somehow to cram our steeds into cardboard big enough for a large TV and soon they will be out of our control and into the hands of the baggage gods who will hopefully deposit them along with us in Mumbai in a matter of hours! Wish us luck!

We may need it…..

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Plans afoot….

Hmm, its been a busy time of late. Although the busy-ness is due to planning a new adventure due to start soon!

At the moment I’m surrounded by expedition bicycle parts, airline tickets and cardboard boxes….. As soon as I have space I’ll update with more information of our trip to the East!!!

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The summer so far and some night riding to boot!

It’s once again been a good while since posting. Again I have a whole brace of excuses as to why i haven’t managed to spend the time writing a few words!

I am now once again a fully fledged Londoner living in That London and am currently residing in the South East of London.

It’s been a hectic few months, work has been busy enough but life seems to have taken over once more! Spending a long weekend in the North Yorkshire Moors for a friend’s wedding, I had a lovely few days with some of my finest friends. Staying in a glorious house perched on the steep side of a lush green valley. We were blessed with some fantastic weather, waking early to watch the swallows swoop around the fields reminded me of last year’s trip. Only just persuading myself that I need to carry on with setting up my company (at least for a little while!) before setting off on two wheels again.
We spent our time walking the along coastal paths, relaxing and catching up over pints of local ale in beer gardens but mostly by cooking grand feasts and enjoying the food by eating in the garden with such beautiful scenery. Oh and a wedding, we did go to the wedding, stunning it was too, once we found our way. Our lack of directions and long winding country roads didn’t help our cause! Luckily the locals were brilliant and sent us in the right direction. M and S looked the picture of happiness and all wishes of happiness are going out through the waves of the internetweb!

I spent my first week climbing Munros at the beginning of June, staying in the Western Highlands with my old man, his good lady and a man that goes by the name of “Nails”. We climbed during the day and rested at night, eating our fill of wholesome dinners. As my first time climbing the famed pinnacles of Scotland I reckon eight 3000ft peaks is a good start. Only 276 to go! I’ve already been bitten by the bug though and am planning on coming back on the next winter trip to try my hand at ice climbing, an altogether different beast to the sunny strolls of my virgin trip.

Following a weekend of great fun and frivolities which saw several generations of my step dad’s (really dislike that term so I’m going with Dad 0.2’s) family converge on our house in rural Norfolk in a ramshackle family reunion kind of way, I have finally moved myself back to London’s famous City of London!! Its been over a year since I left and it feels like the right time to get back into city life. I’ve found a great flat in South East London, great room, lovely flat, cool flatmate, so far all is rosy. We’ve got a damn fine garden to boot and I have plenty of space in my room for my bikes! So far I’ve made it my own and have even been managing to get some work done. Totally due to setting myself some party restrictions for the first week or two. The reason being that this Saturday night, a good friend and I will join the throng of other slightly loopy cyclists in making our way en-masse all the way to the Suffolk coast. Over night! We’re setting off around 8 o’clock from london Fields and will ride 110 miles through the dark, quiet country lanes to get to Dunwich for sunrise. A sort of epic two wheeled exodus of London, this ride is one of the only non charity (vaguely) organised rides around. there will be over 800 people of all sorts of abilities on all kinds of bicycles in our own run-to-the-sun and I cannot bloody wait! Which is why, on this hot Friday night, with the sun blazing and people getting ready to fill the numerous beer gardens, I am sat inside trying to stop myself from joining them and telling myself that the pint at the pub on the beach will be one of the sweetest I’ll ever taste.

Bring on the Dunwich Dynamo!!


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A whole different adventure!

Firstly, I’d like to make a little apology as it’s been a bloody long time since I’ve posted anything of real note. Sorry about that! Although I do have a few excuses…

So, as you’ve probably figured from, well, the whole of this blog(!) I spent a large part of last year cycling around Europe on a long and beautiful adventure. Before that though, I spent years working in the big city as a designer. I moved around between several jobs in decent companies. Living a rather nice life in one of the most exciting cities in the world. The comfort bubble I found myself in had begun to grate on me. I became more and more uncomfortable both personally and professionally in how I had slipped into routines that I was finding hard to change.

Since I was knee high to a grasshopper I have been a big dreamer, I’d always thought I’d spend a lot of time when I grew up, drawing, thinking and making stuff, I also knew I’d spend a lot of my time either on two wheels or thinking about being on two wheels.

I had become disillusioned by the conventional nature of the design industry, tired of turning a blind eye to business practice and people whose ethics I found questionable. Imagined when I was as a child, ‘design’ was to draw and make exciting and wonderful things. Growing up I later figured that through design I wanted to create spaces and objects that are not just beautiful, but which work and have a positive impact on it’s user. I was designing shops and offices that were pretty for it’s own sake whose outcome was to boost the earnings of large corporations.

I’d found my itch. Now to scratch it.

I left my job, found someone to take my place in the house-share and left the city to set off on an incredible adventure. Enough of that though!

I returned at the end of 2011, with a head full of ideas and a strange wispy beard. I knew I wanted to go back to design but I wanted to work in my own way. I started a new adventure. Setting up a company and now I’m on a journey to work for myself on projects I believe in. It’s not an easy task, takes a lot of time and commitment and I spend a lot of my days wondering what the hell I was thinking and if this whole crazy idea can ever take off. I figured its better to try hard to do something I can believe in rather than plug away hardheartedly on something I can’t.

Now I just need to find time to get back out on two wheels…

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All change please!

There have been a few rather lovely days recently, even though we’re only into March and it only snowed a few weeks ago!

The crocuses and daffodils have started to open their buds and the sparrows have started copulating all over the lawn. Spring is beginning to, well, spring!

We’ve been mulching the veg patch over the last few months and the soils looking…….erm… the same really, although I’m sure it’s much better now! The vinery/greenhouse is now the home to some new Tomato plants, several gutters of pea and bean plants which, once sprouted will be transplanted into the veg patch and covered in netting to stop the birds from munching our crop. We’ve got a whole batch of seed potatoes ready and waiting, looking in certain lights like strange caricatures all sat in rows. I’ve just planted coriander, rocket and spinach in a long gutter that will be harvested once they’re a couple of inches high as ‘micro-salads’ intensely flavoursome little devils that I can’t wait to taste.

Even the flowers are starting to come out to play, the Daffs are opening up to reveal their sunshine yellow flowers, won’t be long until the bluebell wood comes into bloom too. If you can’t wait that long just scroll right down to the bottom to see how it was a whole year ago!

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Time, it runs away!

Sure does fly doesn’t it! We’re getting towards the end of February, and recently the biting cold has taken a turn towards Springtime. The recent brief burst of warmth may have been short lasting but that couple of days last week, when shorts and t-shirts were the order of the day have revitalised my adventurous spirit! Well, my outdoors one anyway!
Since returning from my first long cycle around Europe back in October I’ve been undertaking a different sort of adventure! I’ll elaborate more in the next post as there’s lots to tell and with my sleepy head on it might not make it’s way onto the page properly!
I’ve also heard whisperings over yonder of new cycle adventures for the coming months as well!

Back soon, I promise! x

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My two penneth….

The recent UK industrial action has sparked some interesting (some not so much!) debates on various social media platforms. I’ve read a few different threads started by people who appear to believe that striking is ‘never a good thing’ or that striking over a cut in pensions is irresponsible due to the nature of their jobs.

The fact that people are of an opinion that strikes have happened solely due to pension cuts is to me quite naive. It may be more rational to think that these latest cuts to pensions are the straw that broke the camels back. The majority of public sector workers who took part in the industrial action are the members of society who have already had to deal with cuts to their sector’s funding and already average wages.

The latest ‘austerity programme’ they are now faced with is more than enough of a case for wide-spread industrial action. Cutting child tax credits for the low paid, putting hundreds of thousands of children at risk of living in poverty. A 16% cut in public sector pay over the next three years plus the expected loss of 710,000 jobs. The cuts to their pensions (many of which paid for through funding from their members and not from everyone elses taxes) would push even the hardiest worker over the edge.

Forcing people to work under these measures in a sector that by definition is to serve the public can only risk lowering the quality of services they provide, pushing towards that gloomy prospect of privatisation. We’ve all taken a train across Britain recently haven’t we. (point made!)

The other reason for the strikes is to allow the voices of the lower paid members of society to be heard by the wealthy who wangle and control the country. These people still ride above everyone else with incomes that are still increasing and a ridiculous bonus culture that seemingly hasn’t taken any knock from the floundering economy whose fall it was a huge factor. It makes a mockery of the people out there taking their future prospects in their hands. Why should they be held to account for a crisis they had no part in.

Surely anyone who cares about the public sector and the services they use and probably take for granted should sympathise with those on the picket lines rather than expecting them to bend over and take it, giving their all as the government strips them of their meagre priviledges without uttering a word.

I for one stand with all those taking industrial action and hope that this straw has merely injured the camel and that it will come back kicking and spitting as going on strike is the only way to get across grievances and try to defend the dignity of the low paid people who work to serve the rest of us.

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Its not grim oop north!

After a 3 and a half hour drive I made it up to Yorkshire to spend a long weekend with the Northern part of my lovely family! Greeted by the grey overcast drizzle infested day I had expected I zipped up my rain coat and got set for a long damp weekend mostly spent sheltering from the weather.Woken on Saturday morning by the most glorious pale blue sky, the only clouds a fine sprinkling of Sirrus way up in the stratosphere.

As the sun warmed the air my old man and I donned our walking boots and set out into the Pennines for a short(ish) walk. Making our way along quiet muddy lanes down into the Valley beneath Outlane and Stainland, kicking through the orange leaves of the autumnal forests we began a hilly loop around some of the loveliest countryside. Scattered around the hills and dales are clusters of cottages, the Millstone grit blackened by generations of coal smoke. The odd farmhouse crouched at the crest of exposed hills, small windows allowing just enough light in as the bulk of the walls shrug off the wind and rain. As we trudged along the rocky farm tracks the imagination was the only thing creating such a harsh environment as the November sun was surprisingly strong. Heading out onto the open moorland above the Colne Valley, overlooking Golcar and Marsden down in the bottom of the valley. Passing numerous battered old farms, every scrap of land around which are home to bits of scrap metal, old washing machine parts, piles of fence posts and all manner of other stuff that ‘might come in.’ Never let it be said that a Yorkshireman isn’t resourceful, frugal at least!

After some lunch, a pint of local brew and some time admiring the moorland around the high up Nont Sarah pub, we descended the steep slippery hillside to walk between the Deanhead and Scammonden reservoirs. As the sun was setting a beautiful calm fell over the valley. Scaling back up the valley side to reach a lookout for a glorious view of Pole Moor as the sky turned from blue through pastel yellow into a warming orange, we got back in the dark to a hot cup of tea. Probably the perfect ending to a walk on the hills.

I managed, in between catching up with some good friends and family to get over to the Yorkshire Sculpture park. Probably one of my favourite places in the world, a beautifully considered building, some of the most incredible Henry Moore sculptures and a guarantee that the gallery will be host to an incredible thought provoking artist. Not disappointed with Jaume Plensa’s exhibition, huge illuminated figures that explore the complexities of the human condition, two enormous mesh heads who become part of the landscape around them due to the nature of the material while a room of elongated heads made from alabaster fill the space with such an ethereal atmosphere I had to sit down to fully contemplate it’s beauty.

Back in the open flatlands of Norfolk I took the opportunity of another stunning day to get a few miles on the country roads between the local villages. A great loop filtering between woodland, churches and open fields although I’m not sure taking a fixed wheel lo-pro around the muddy lanes was such a great idea! Lot of fun though, plus now I get to spend longer cleaning the bike, an activity that I enjoy a little too much!

 

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Places I’ve been, just smaller…

So after being back home for a few weeks now, I’ve begun going through the hundreds and thousands of photographs I took along my trip around Europe. I came across some places that when I was there didn’t realise quite how small the landscape felt!

I’m sure there’ll be more interesting pictures that I’ll dig up and I’ll be sure to post some more soon….

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Letterpress printing…

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Just spent the last few hours in the workshop with Peter the printer, my first lesson in letterpress printing. The layout of the workshop and setting up type being the introduction! Looking forward to doing some printing and hopefully putting some of my artwork ideas into practice. Mixed media illustration and moving towards content for a book… Long way to go but I’ve already got a taste for the possibilities of this incredible technique.

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Autumnal goings on in Bawdeswell!

Back from London and starting to get my head together. Added inspiration from seeing friends and finding out about all sorts of creative goings on has given me even more of a spark to begin putting into practice all the scribbled notes and ideas from 5 months on the road!

I set about painting a room and setting up a little work studio living space where I can hopefully push through the constant urge to procrastinate and distract myself (unlikely!) and start drawing, sketching, designing and visualising!

Slightly stumped by the problem of wanting to put up lots of different pictures, maps etc on the walls but also wanting the ‘display’ to be changeable so I can put up current work more so I don’t stand on it or ruin it by spilling coffee all over the paper I came up with an ingenious solution using simple dressmaker’s pins tacked into the wooden beam, from which clothes pegs (which I’ve whittled a little hole in one side!) can be hung giving an easily changeable wall display ‘system’ that’s damn cheap to make and looks rather handsome to boot!

First drawing commission is close to home, well can’t get much closer to be honest. It’s our house! Can’t reveal what it will be used for yet but it’s coming along and I’m loving doing some proper hand drawn illustration for a change rather than the computer renderings.

On a completely different note, I spent a lovely day accompanying my mum on a Fungi Foray walk around the local Pensthorpe nature reserve. A great few hours wandering the woods, led by the Fungi expert Dr Tony Leech. Having been a dry summer the prospect of finding many mushrooms was slim, but to everyone’s surprise the group snuffled through the leafy woodland finding ever more incredible varieties of fungal specimens! Our naive hopes of hopefully finding a good crop of edible shrooms was somewhat blighted by our discovery that the sheer variety of mushroom and toadstool found in the UK makes the distinction between edible and inedible really quite difficult. It hasn’t dampened my interest in forraging the wild larder for food though, collecting fruit and herbs on my travels cemented my love of searching through natural surroundings to find something tasty and I hope I can take advantage of the beautiful and hopefully bountiful Norfolk countryside while I’m here.

Even though we didn’t return home with our pockets full of tasty Chanterelles, we did stumble upon a huge Sweet Chestnut tree that was shedding it’s prickly seeds as we wandered beneath. Scouring the leaf covered ground we spent a good half an hour bend double filling a rucksack with beautiful brown sweet chestnuts ripe for roasting back at the ranch!

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Londinium

Having just recently returned from a brief week in the capital I feel like I’m regaining a perspective and vision for the foreseeable future. I have to admit that as I was peering at the heights of London from the metal National Express train cylinder as I trundled towards the city I was feeling anything but positive.

Back on my loaded bike that was ridiculously almost as heavy as the one I took on my 5 months travels(!), I cycled from rural Norfolk along the lovely Marriot’s Way to Norwich. A city that I have visited a few times and one that I have sort of sentenced myself to for the next few months! Noticing in the bright and crisp autumnal sunlight quite how charming and lovely some areas of the city are I’m now more at ease with the fact that this ‘fine city’ (the phrase used on signposts towards the centre!) will be my nearest conurbation for a while.

Entering into the hustle and bustle of Liverpool Street station and areas of Shoreditch and Hackney that I have up until 6 months ago called home I felt overwhelmed and uncomfortable. To think of the number of times I’ve whizzed up and down these roads, dodging black cabs and buses while going to and fro around the city it was disturbing to feel so unattached.

I spent the best part of a week catching up with what people have been doing for five months, drinking my body weight in alcohol and slowly ruining all the good work that 5 months of exercise have done for my health! Only having a few days I didn’t manage to catch up with all the people I’d have liked to so if anyone is reading and cursing me for missing them out then apologies! next time!!

In between consuming vast quantities of good quality ale and eating scrumptious food, I managed to get away for a glorious day of proper mountain biking with the boys, something I’ve yearned to do since leaving and the combination of beautiful weather, good long trails and top company cemented my love for getting muddy on bikes! Also took in the fantastic new Greyson Perry exhibition at the British Museum, definitely recommended. Helping some friends move into their new design studio (sorry I couldn’t stay for longer!) and talking about new possibilities began stoking the fires of my mind once more! With what appears to be that last of the sun and warmth of autumn we ate around a fire in the evening sunlight, Sunday saw a long walk along the North London nature trail around Finsbury Park and Crouch Hill around which we found a lovely new boozer, a fine place to drink the best ale known to man, Timothy Taylors’ Landlord! I even found the time to attend the London Anarchists book fair in Mile End. A wonderful event packed to bursting with interesting people, stalls of information and ideas for improving our precious society. All that and a marching brass band playing Rage Against the Machine songs outside made a great afternoons activity.

Through these short but packed days, the feelings of not belonging and being unnerved by the chaos of the city slowly fell away. I fear that I have once again become infected by the exciting virus that is life in London. In the back of my mind I always knew that it would happen again. Whether its the opportunities and the sheer quantity of stuff that goes on, or the excitement of weaving along the busy roads that I know so well, or maybe just because of the wonderful people I know there that makes me once again look forward to returning to London i don’t know, but one thing I do know is this.

I’ll be back!

 

 

 

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Collect things.

Whenever I go away or travel for sustained periods I can’t help but collect things. Be it receipts for meals in quaint restaurants, ticket stubs from monuments or simply postcards from places I’ve visited. I also try to have the discipline to keep a journal, admittedly this is sometimes filled in using strong coffee and staring into the sky trying as stimulants to remember what I’ve done a few days ago. Taking photographs while on a trip can seriously slow down progress, everything is so damn beautiful! but is totally worth the time. Documenting a trip is so important, and I urge everyone to take more photos and write things down. Reading diary entries from months and months ago, at the beginning of my trip, I can fully visualise exactly what I was doing. The notes written on the page kicks the memory into touch, close your eyes and you are whisked back in time, re-experiencing the sights sounds and smells! The memory is incredible and its nice to be able to use it while its still there!

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Filed under collections, Cultures, design, distracting myself from reality!, Equipment, General ramblings, ideas, journal, list, Organisation

Everyone likes a statistic don’t they??

1 man, 1 bicycle, 5 pannier bags, 10 countries, 154 days, 8429 kilometres, 3 punctures, 6 days (longest without waching), 560ml Factor30 suncream, 3 energy bars, 360 cereal bars, 16 books, 3 T-shirts, 3 pairs of boxer shorts, 1 snorkel, 95 sunrises, 4 nights under a roof, 2 nights in the open, 4 replacement disc-brake pads, 6 oceans, 1 almost trodden on turtle, 68 nights in campsites, 1 mad Belgian cyclist, 34 minutes juggling conkers, 1 pair of shoes, 12km of tunnels, 1547 ants in tent while at Porto, 70 showers, 32 mountain ranges, 5 days living on an Andalucian farm, 3 crying sessions, 8 days of rain, 5 full moons, 37 glow-worms, 9600 juggernaughts, 175km offroad, 3 islands, 24 types of beer, 1 drunken night in a sunflower field, 24 high mountain passes, 3 capital cities, 132 sunsets, 2 filled notebooks, 1 broken tent pole, 16 maps carried, 1 harmonica, 27 meals in restaurants, 3995 photos, 44 videos, 1 broken pair of glasses, 1 minor crash, 96 churhes visited, 2 nights without sleep, 16 kilos of muesi, 2 tubs of hummous, 20 touring cyclists met, 9 ferries, 18 types of fruit and veg picked from plants, 1 haircut, 137 cups of coffee, 81 nights wild camping, 123 different pastries, 4 snapped bungee ropes, 3 days lime washing a house, 64 listens to the Mighty  Boosh radio show, 1 questionable piece of face furniture….

Don’t worry, it’s gone now…

 

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Places

Bawdeswell > Ely > London > Exeter > Dartmoor > St Mawes > Plymouth > Santander > Bilbao > Santilliana del Mar > Colombres > Fuente De > Poncebos > Las Arenas > Cangas de Onis > Gikun > Oviedo > Grado > Cudillero > Luarca > Navia > Grandas de Salime > A Fonsagrada > Lugo > Guntin > Melide > Arzua > Santiago de Comopostela > Casalonga > Pontevedra > Vigo > Baiona > Guarda > Caminha > Barcelos > Braga > Guimaraes > Felgueiras > Amarante > Espinho > Porto > Aveiro > Coimbra > Pombal > Leira > Batalha > Alcobaca > Caldas da Rainha > Obidos > Bombarral > Torres Vedras > Ericeira > Sintra > Cascais > Lisbon > Barreiro > Setubal > Montemar-O-Novo > Evora > Monsaraz > Morau > Granja > Barrancos > Aracena > El Garrubo > Seville > Dos Hermanas > Utrera > El Coronil > Zahara > Ronda > El Burgo > Coin > Malaga > Torre del Mar > Competa > Marbella > Nerja > Motril > Adra > Almeria > Cabo de Gato > Carboneras > Aguilas > Cartagena > Alicante > Denia > Ibiza Town > Es-Canar > Portinatx > Baracelona > Badelona > Girona > Figueres > Perpignan > Narbonne > Beziers > Agde > Sete > Frontignan > Lunel > Nimes > Avignon > Carpentras > Malaucene > Mt Ventoux > Sault > Revest du Bion > Banon > Forcalquier > Valensole > Riez > Moustieres Saint Marie > Aiguines > Gorges du Verdon > Comps-sur-Artuby > Valderoures > Greolieres > Coursegoules > Vence > Nice > St-Laurent-du-Var > Villefranche-sur-Mer > Monte Carlo > Menton > Ventimiglia > San Remo > Spotorno > Savona > Arenzano > Genova > Sestri Lavante > Bracco > Carrodano > Levanto > Riomaggiore > La Spezia > Sarzana > Viareggio > Pisa > Cascina > Empoli > Florence > Greve in Chianti > Siena > Asciano > Montepulciano > Chianciano Terme > Chiusi > San Savino > Perugia > Assisi > Nocera Umbra > Fiuminata > San Severino Marche > Cingoli > Jesi > Filotrano > Macerata > Loreto > Numana > Portonovo > Ancona > Split > Trogir > Primosten > Sibenik > Pivorac > Pakostane > Biograd >Tkon > Nevidane > Kukljicka > Kali > Preko > Zadar > Posedarje > Starigrad > Karlobag . Senj > Brinj > Josipdol > Generalski Stol > Karlovac > Metlika > Novo Mesto > Zuzemberk > Krka > Ljubljana > Skofia Loka > Zelezniki > Bohinjska Bistica >  Bohinj > Ukanc > Bled > Radovjica > Trzic > Ljoibell > klagenfurt > Wolfsburg > Voltsberg > Graz > Bruck-an-der-Mer > Mariazell > Schiebbs > Mank > Melk > Ybbs > Mauthausen > Linz > Helmansodt > Bad Leonfelden > Vyssi Brod > Rozemberk > Cesky Krumlov > Cesky Budejovic > Vodnany > Strakonic > Nepomuk > PIlsen > Tousim > Karlovy Vary > Nejdek > Wildenthal > Auerbach > Truen > Greiz > Zeulenroda > Jena > Oettern > Weimar > Buckenwald > Bad Berka > Erfurt > Bad Langensalza > Gebessee > Muhlhausen > Witzenhausen > Hann Munden > Wahlsberg > Hoxter > Horn-bad-Meinberg > Detmold > Gutersloh > Warendorf > Muenster > Vreden > Groenlo > Zutphen > Apeldoorn > Vorthuizen > Amersfoort > Neerden > Muiden > Amsterdam > Zeeburg > Haarlem > Zandvoort > Katwijk-aan-Zee > Wassenaar > Den Haag > Delft > Rotterdam > Scheidam > Hook van Holland > Harwich > Manningtree > Ipswich > Debenham > Eye > Diss > Newton Flottman > Hethersett > Little Melton > Taverham > Bawdeswell

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Filed under Cycling, distracting myself from reality!, General ramblings, list, thoughts

The flat place…

Scanning the landscape all around as I cycled into my tenth and final country, the amount of undulation and variation of levels seemed remarkably minimal. Never before have I travelled through a place where everything is on one huge open plane. Quite incredible to think that in theory you can see the curvature of the earth there are so few hills. The expanse of crisp blue overhead feels all the more enveloping and there really is a sense of vastness in the sky due to so few interruptions.

Every road, even the small country lanes that skirt around fields and through farms at the very least have cycle paths marked on the tarmac. Larger roads have their very own satelite paths dedicated to cyclists, and as I found out when one haired past me, little buzzy mopeds!

Setting off from my first night in a dutch wood, one of the few places I found to wild camp in the Netherlands. The size of the country and the flat landscape that I was earlier regarding with pleasure means that most of the open land is used for farming and the few woods appear to be fenced off, presumably to stop buggers like me from enjoying the freedom of the land!

Crossing the country in a northwesterly fashion I journeyed through some rather pleasant little towns and villages. Beautiful large windowed, narrow terraces with strikingly different facades that somehow has a delightful undertone of orderliness.

From the border I travelled along the long straight roads, amazed by the comprehensive signposting, not just the direct routes between towns but the network of short tracks and trails between points that cover the whole of the country. An infrastructure devoted to cyclists!

The placement of cyclists on the vehicular food chain, took me by surprise as well, cars and lorries that I am used to waiting for when for instance, they are turning off the road across my path or even when turning off a roundabout were now waiting for me to cross! Slightly flummoxed when faced with a huge juggernaught that gently comes to a stop, waiting for a bumbling fool on a heavily laden bicycle to figure out which direction to go. The number of times when I was actually looking at signposts and cars would stop to let me cross prompted me to cross over without knowing where I was going just so their slowing down wasn’t in vain is countless!

As I neared the large town of Apeldoorn the weather was looking decidedly shifty, a brief look around and some getting lost in the charming suburban lanes I finally found my way up the single slight incline I found in the whole country. With a dark grey sky I was keen to find somewhere to camp, on a main road that due to roadworks was deathly quiet I cycled for miles peering into the acres of perfect forest on both sides. The only problem being the fence on one side and the strange signs on the other. I couldn’t read the majority but when words similar to ‘explosion’ and ‘army’ crop up I decided that side may not be the best idea! After a while the fence oppisite relented and chased back into the wood a good few hundred metres, leaving some lush open beech forest, big old trees had fallen and the area was suitably overgrown. I made my way around the rotting fallen trees and into a clearing with soft mossy ground. Stunning Bracket funghi growing everywhere giving it a fairytale glen feel.

Settling down to read The Hobbit after dinner, happy in the coincidence of the current passage being in the Mirkwood but hoping the giant spiders would not make an appearance! Luckily I was spared, but the silence of the nearby road meant that through the evening I heard the haunting sound of owls hooting to each other and remarkably the sound of a beetle chewing amongst the leaves around the tent!

A misty morning in the wood was burned off by the sun which came out as I made my way to Amerfoort, a walled city with some remarkable medieval buildings. My first town built around canals as well, I spent a few joyous hours wandering the cobbled backstreets until I tried to find somewhere to eat. The sun had seemingly brought the whole of the Netherlands out to sit in the cafes of the town. A lack of benches saw me stood up making sandwiches balanced precariously on the rear panniers of the bike!

Leaving the city I joined the cycle route towards Amsterdam, practically following a motorway so it wasn’t quite the calm tootle I had in mind. As the density of housing increased I was once more a little worried about where I might get to sleep. This time I sneaked into an old section of road. The new motorway route had left this section redundant and looking rather forlorn. I justified the positive use of the land for camping as the poor grass might not see another use until it gets bulldozed for another building!

A leisurely coffee watching the boats pootle up and down the canal in Muiden before cycling the straight lane towards the city. Making my way along the busy cycle paths, I followed the locals on their dutch bikes wheeling their way around the vast expanse of this diverse capital. As pathways crossed the sheer number of cyclists swerving their way around each other was incredible. Imminent chaos and crashes avoided without so much as a thought. As an onlooker you could stand at a junction with your head in your hands as sporty types whizz along the narrow path, overtaking a family out on their cargo bikes who in turn come up against a couple merrily chatting side by side. Surely be a recipe for disaster but somehow, pedal powered telepathy maybe, the whole city winds it’s way around each other and everyone finds their own way to their destination. All the while retaining an utter coolness and sense of not even trying! Remarkably I managed to join the throng, maybe not appearing quite so cool but I didn’t crash into anyone!

After a brief survey of the centre I decided to make my way to a campsite. I didn’t want to tempt fate flying along the busy cycle lanes fully loaded for too long. Towards Zeeburg to the east I passed through rows and rows of beautiful social housing blocks, something the Dutch are masters at. What could so easily appear monotonous and over populated has a vibrancy and sense of space. Each building is beautifully designed and detailled. The individual houses/flats complementing those around it, just like the terraced houses from smaller towns. The overall blocks have a refined solid quality and the single elements their own idiosyncratic quirks. Built around the network of canals the areas have a real sense of community.

Whole streets of families had taken out sofas and dining tables from garages to enjoy the unseasonal sunny weather. It was almost as if the buildings had lifted themselves up and moved backwards exposing the living quarters within. Just that no-one had noticed! Children playing up and down the roads and central playgrounds without the worry of cars or getting lost, all the while bordered by the delightful houseboats that line the waterways.

Built on an island with a view over the water and a long sweeping bridge, it was a lovely spot for a campsite. The area is an old hippy enclave with old painted campervans and some great street art. The site itself a nicely chilled place, an attempt of adding some psychadelia with brightly painted cabins and flags undermined by having goats living in the middle field!

There was a good atmosphere too, a sort of sparsely populated festival. People camped in groups huddled around passing joints in a circle. A lot of steady shuffling back and forth to the bathroom blocks and cafe, a general relaxed feeling wafting around. In the mornings there was more coughing than I’ve been used to! The groups were now sat around in similar circles eating cereal from mugs and rolling the first of the day. Just like being at a little festival!

I spent a couple of days wandering around the remarkable city, through busy markets and along pretty canals. People watching while eating chocolate cake in the hectic red light district, sunbathing on wooden water-taxi platforms, reading my book while sitting in the lush green parks and generally having a jolly good time! It didn’t take long for me to succomb to the draw (literally!) of the renowned coffeeshops.

After a while of searching the packed centre, the big groups of bawdy young weed tourists and slightly seedy looking lurkers put me off and I decided to widen my search. Away from the mass of obvious and tacky looking cafes I found a few more alternative places which have seemingly been around for years, decorated by artists and frequented by locals.

A strange experience, ordering a coffee as per usual but with the addition of an extra menu where you can select a gram or two of various extravagant sounding weed or hash. Even more bizarre is the normality of sitting reading the paper, and while the coffee cools rolling a nice big reefer to accompany the strong brown liquid and crumbly bisquit! Sitting taking it all in I got chatting to another guy and played cards for an hour, chatting as if we’d always known each other. As I melted into the mass of other slightly hazy people wandering happily through the city everything felt rather warm and fuzzy. I may have been lucky in my findings but the 3 coffeeshops I settled in had friendliness oozing from the warm glow inside.

Everyone chatting away quietly or just minding their own while reading old music magazines. I spent a while writing and trying to rationalise the multitude of thoughts rattling around my head before relenting to just merely enjoying my coffee and weed and the experience of doing so in such lovely surroundings. In Amsterdam I couldn’t feel more safe or comfortable. One evening around 9:30 I was walking down a back street, the lights from the houses oppisite glinting in the water and the chatter from windows above me as some gathering or party was taking place. I sat on the floor under the glow of a streetlamp and read for a while. It just felt right, I was in the centre of a big crazy city on my own in the dark down a side alley utterly enjoying my time.

The culture and atmosphere is unique, everywhere there is something beautiful, a letterpress printshop, the delicate cakes and pastries of a bakery, the elegant instruments in a back street music shop, people sat on the side of a canal engrossed in conversation, boats pootling along with folk sitting in the back drinking a bottle or laughing amongst themselves.

In the end I just had to leave! Otherwise I feared I would stay indefinitely and miss my ferry home!

Departing such a happy and positive place was a strain, although the knowledge that I would come back sometime eased the feeling. I passed through Haarlem another beautiful town with a magnificent church and bustling central marketplace. Making my way all the way west to the coast, I cycled though the sand dune areas north of Zandvoort.

Wild camping for the last time in a pine forest overlooking the small hills of the dunes. The sun cutting through the morning mist created spectacular light effects as I found my way to the North Sea.

After making my way all around Europe, swimming in every ocean I passed I told myself I had to do it. Luckily the weather was kind and even though the swim was refreshing to say the least, getting out and warming myself in the sunshine was a lovely end to the ocean swimming part of this trip!

I followed the coast, through towns that echoed the seaside charm of the ones over the water. Zandvoort even seemed to have a similarity to the Scarborough and Filey that I spent so many cold windswept summer hours in as a child!

I found myself quite amazed at how unDutch The Hague felt, a concrete jungle of business and capitalism. The only sense that I was in Holland were the number of business meetings taking place on the numerous street cafe tables. For a change I wandered into Chinatown and found an asian foodcourt. Similar to the ones in Malaysia. I got chatting to a group of Indonesian people and enjoyed some authentic and spicy grub. Cycling into the wind along the canal to Rotterdam iss apparently not the best way to digest such a feed but I had little choice and had to suffer in silence as my belly gurgled all the way to the city. That bloody song by the Beautiful South incessantly swimming around my head. I don’t even particularly like the tune but for some reason couldn’t stop singing it.

As the last large city on my travels I was somewhat underwhelmed by Rotterdam. Some rather incredible design and architecture galleries and interesting shipyards were offset against a grey sprawl of tired looking streets and once great architectural statements. I don’t know whether my mood was tarnished by thoughts of finishing my trip but everywhere I searched I could only find a small element of the quirk and personality I’d come to recognise in the Netherlands.

My final day in continental Europe was once more a battle against huge force nine headwinds as I made my way to the Hook of Holland. If I weren’t so bamboozled by the idea of the journey coming to it’s conclusion I might have been slightly annoyed. Instead I could only laugh to myself and think that maybe someone upstairs was trying to stop me from leaving!

I drank a few self congratulatory beers and an adequate pizza in the small port town while I waited to board the ship. On board and after a wander through the usual unexceptional self serve restaurant and the brash duty free shop full of expensive things I didn’t want nor need I sat down to read. Only I couldn’t concentrate. For the first time in five months I was surrounded by conversations in english! My ears were drawn to every slight mumble of gossip and chatter. Solitary travel invokes a slightly unbalanced sense of self importance whereas now I was bombarded by the goings on of dozens of other people, let alone the scrolling world news. Totally overwhelmed I made my way to my cosy little cabin and spent a rocky night trying to sleep in a real(ish) bed. It took me a while trying to figure out where the opening of the mattress was before I remembered that unlike a sleeping-bag you rest under it, not in it.

Readjusting to the real world may be more difficult that I thought!

 

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Filed under Amsterdam, cafe coffeeshop, coffee, community, cool, Cultures, Cycling, design, Emotions, ferry, Friends, General ramblings, ideas, Lifestyle, Mountains, Nature, Ocean swimming, Organisation, outdoors, Relaxing, Rotterdam, social housing, Storm, weather, weed, Wild Camping

Germany…

Having spent a more days than I wished traipsing through endless drizzle, damp forests and being drenched on the roads. I woke up in a German pine forest, and an immense joy overtook me as I noticed through the cone shaped trees the azure blue sky and my old friend the sun shining its life affirming light and warmth once more! After a short celebratory naked dance session ( I was in a huge forest halfway up a hill, miles from anywhere. No-one could see!) I got back out onto the newly dry tarmac with a fresh eagerness to discover this new land that would bring back the warmth and dryness that I had so dearly missed.

Cycling towards the nearest points of civilisation that I could make out from my overall map of Europe I soon began to realise this might not be the most sensible way to navigate across such a huge country. I endeavoured to find some form of map that had a little more detail to it than just some big letters spelling Germania and the main autobahns. Unfortunately being a sunday, the villages that I did find and passed through were as void of people as the forest I had just slept in. Using the GPS I figured the basic route and carried on through this densly wooded area in the hope that larger connurbations might have some life with a vague possibility of a book shop.

A few hours of hoping I was going the right way I came to the slightly larger town of Auerbach. A small cafe had tables outside and I managed to find a book shop, one of the only other shops that was open. Hunting through the travel section I found endless maps dedicated to cycling for the whole country. Each one had different routes marked on with some of the interesting places along the way. Unfortunately each one only covered an area of around 30km square, meaning I would have had to carry my own body weight in paper around with me. Put off by this I sneakily photographed pages of an atlas that would help me at least for the first few days.

The weather continued to be rather pleasant towards me as I began crossing Northwest towards Weimar. Allowing me to cook my evening meals outside my tent in the evenings rather than hunching under canvas and eating a re-run of lunch!

As I neared the village of Oettern just outside Weimar the sudden darkness of the sky took me by surprise. Less that 6km from the sanctuary of the campsite the encroaching black clouds began to blow a huge gale, as the trees buckled under the intensity of the wind, apples swung like church bells until their storks could no longer hold them. It felt as though the apocolypse was upon me. Slightly paniced due to the speed and apparent ferocity of the storm I battled my way up a rough track, following signs to the campsite at the top of a hill. Met with the strong handshake of the owner as I made my way breathlessly into the site. A feeling of overwhelming friendliness envelopped me. It felt as though I was a long lost distant relative who had travelled for eons to meet his family. The language barrier seemed irrelavant as we ‘chatted’ and I began to set up camp, the storm seemingly being all mouth and no trousers and my first experience of German hospitality being the complete opposite.

I had chosen the route through Weimar for several reasons, at first to satisfy the designer within! Spending a while in the Bauhaus museum and becoming even more awe inspired by the visionary Walter Gropius than I already was. A school that would accept anyone who had talent, regardless of their educational background, qualifications or lack of. Where the use of art and design through varied disciplines would be used to create objects and buildings that were beautiful and functional with the sole idea that they would benefit the everyday person. Surely the perfect institution? Even though it lasted only a handful of years the movement’s inspiration is all around and anyone interested in literally any creative field could do much worse than to look up old Walt in more detail.

My other reason for visiting the city couldn’t be more contrasting. I wanted to see one of the most renowned concentration camps from WW2. Buchenwald Concentration Camp is located high on a hill to the North of Weimar.

I spent a day wandering around the vast site and trying to comprehend the attrocities that occurred where I was walking. The considerable exhibitions on show explain the history of Buchenwald but there was obviously no way I could ever even come close to having a true understnding of the goings on in the prison so I solemnly tried to pay my respects to the many monuments where the buildings once stood and departed into fittingly bleak weather.

Thankfully pretty brief and as I left the following day the sky had once more opened to blueness and fluffy white cumulonimbus. I journeyed west a while, taking a cycle path through steep forests and across windy fields towards Erfurt. Noticing a sign with a picture of a bike and a simple description of ‘Bicycle and Outdoor shop’, thought to myself, ‘that’s a bit of me!’ And wandered in. Stood dreaming in front of the racks of gear and clothing that were lovely but I didn’t need and certainly couldn’t carry I got chatting to Frank, the owner. We hit it off and he invited me into the workshop where he and his mechanics were about to dig into a sumptuous looking cake. A few happy hours were spent munching carrot cake and talking about touring Germany on cycle routes, two person recumbent bikes and insane cross country racing. Every so often a customer came in and I resumed my equipment dreams as they were being attentively looked after. In the workshop they even helped me repair my broken tent poles, replacing the tent-peg splints with bicyle spokes (and gaffer tape obviously!) So that now the repair would almost definitely last me to the end of this expedition if not into the next!

Bidding farewell to the true gentlemen at Radscheune I cycled off into the sunset. With the landscape falling gently from my feet as I crested a huge wide hill. The vivid orange hue of the falling sun touching everything for miles around, it struck me that I hadn’t seen such a beautiful sunset since looking west over the Adriatic ocean. With the sun dropping, the temperature was also dipping, the best place I could find to camp was the narrow and prickly hedgerow between two fields!

Waking to another warm orange glow, this time on the opposite side of the tent as the morning sun cast vivd shadows of leaves onto the canvas. Removing myself from the bushes as soon as it was warm enough to be able to cycle and still feel my fingers and toes I set off across the incredibly wide open plains. Huge fields being ploughed by immense tractors. The big kid in me reappearing as I excitedly watched the huge tyres and impressive metal contraptions carve up the earth.

Heeding advice from the native bikers I was now keen to follow some of the comprehensive mesh of cycle routes that wind their way all over the country. I followed the Gera radweg (Gera cycle-path) northwards towards Hann Munden, a pretty little town built into the confluence of three rivers. Most of the town’s buildings were of the the half wooden vernacular that seems to be a mainstay of the stunning towns and villages I had already passed through.

All painted in different colours with elements of carved decoration making each one stand out from the rest. It really is a pleasing sight. That saturday night I decided to try out one of the immense buffet restaurants. Remembering the fantastic sunday breakfast buffets that are so much a part of life in Berlin I was hoping for a similar experience. Not disappointed, the food was outstanding, and there was a hell of a lot of it too! An ‘all you can eat’ buffet always seems like such a good idea before and during the meal. Although when you’ve been living on a relatively limited and quite simple diet that is beneficial to doing lots of sustained exercise, the sudden influx of multiple platefuls of rich and diverse foodtypes had an interesting effect on my ability to walk, talk or do anything more than collapse! As I waddled home to my tent trying to limit the amount that my newly pregnant belly was moving I reflected that it might not have been the most sensible dining option. Tasty though!

As my route took me further west and northwards I really started to notice how the landscape was changing. The hills were now few and far between and when they did arise the heights were no more than a few hundred metres. A stark contrast to a few weeks ago and the high peaks of Austria and Slovenia. It was dawning on me that I wouldn’t really see a hill or a mountain until I was back in the UK unless a new one had popped up since I’ve been gone! Doubtful of this I continued to cycle the quiet lanes and tracks, following the rivers Werra and Unstrut. After several very pleasant days travelling across vast farmland, watching farmers go about their business and the animals and birds do similar in readiness for the changing seasons I made my way to Muenster.

A town packed with interesting buildings, churches, parks and marketplaces. I enjoyed several days waking to the crisp autumnal sunshine, bright blue open skies and the lovely morning chill that this time of year has about it. Taking full advantage of the unseasonal heat of the day this late in the year I spent hours and hours wandering through the streets, kicking the fallen leaves in the park and watching the boats on the lake.

Eating an impressive feat of architecture constructed out of ice cream and fruit might seem a strange thing to want to do sat outside in autumn but with the sun shining it felt exactly the right way to while away the afternoon.

The outskirts of Muenster had an atmosphere and vibrance to them that I thought reminiscent of some of the lovelier parts of London. The university term had just started so the street cafes and little shops were full of laughter, chatter and a real sense of life. There was a cool livliness that made me want to stick around longer but in the back of my mind (approaching the front more and more each day!) I knew I needed to move on and so made my way towards the country renowned for bicycles, poppies, windmills and weed and also for having 25% of its land mass under sea level! A winning combination I was looking forward to taking part in!

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Filed under bauhaus, cafe coffeeshop, cold, concentration camp, cool, Cultures, Cycling, design, Emotions, General ramblings, Hann Munden, Lifestyle, Mountains, Munster, Nature, naturism, outdoors, Relaxing, Storm, sunrise, thoughts, weather, Wild Camping

kaffee morgen…

It’s mornings like this that makes me happy to be alive. A stunning sunrise when I woke up and wandered around the site. Picking up the rubbish that had been strewn by the late night visit of a hedgehog. Cheeky bugger woke me up and I went out to find him sniffling around in practically in the bag! Rolled into a ball before I could do anything so i decided to leave him be and drift back to sleep for a few more hours in dreamworld.

The thermometer was showing barely 1 degree above while I sat making my morning brew and porridge. Cupping the bowl to keep my hands warm as the steam surrounded me, lit by the morning rays that were gently stirring some kind of warmth to the frosty ground.

It was one of those mornings when the crisp fresh air and the brightness of the sun gives you such an energy boost that no matter what the hill your legs just feel good and strong and take you swiftly, grinning to your destination. The chill biting my nose and fingers while I had to wear sunglasses as I raced along the bicycle path into town, cars stopping for me as I approach junctions. (not just today, in Germany like the Netherlands bicycles seemingly have right of way at junctions)

I made my way into the outer suburbs of Munster, probably the hipper end of town where the freshly returned students seem to inhabit. Stopping at a quirky looking little cafe I’ve noticed the few times I’ve passed. Leaving my bike outside, locked amongst the huge throng of other 2 wheeled machines I have no doubt that she’ll be there when I return. Inside I’m sat in a wooden floored living room, decked out with photographs and pictures casually but beautifully hanging on the walls, the chilled awesomeness of The Shins is wafting from the speakers, a luscious background to the sound of conversation, snuggled into an old armchair which is one of the comfiest I’ve ever sat in. Even the  antique cash register has an air of cool as if it’s always been there and there it shall always be! The coffee and vegetarian bagel were bloody good too!

Love days like this!

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Filed under cafe coffeeshop, coffee, cool, Cultures, Cycling, Emotions, Equipment, Friends, General ramblings, ideas, Lifestyle, Nature, outdoors, Relaxing, studio, sunrise, tent, thoughts, vegetarian, weather

Open studio Friday!!

This morning I shall be mostly working from my outdoor studio in the more fashionable end of this field near Munster. It’s seven thirty, the sun’s just about to poke it’s head above the horizon. The grass is civered in droplets of dew and my breath is still just clouds of condensation but the birds are waking up, the coffee’s brewing and the ideas are a’flowing!

I’m busy writing up notes and figuring out plans for the future…

Exciting if chilly times going on right now!

HAPPY FRIDAY PEOPLE!

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Filed under cold, Cultures, Emotions, Equipment, General ramblings, ideas, Lifestyle, Nature, Organisation, outdoors, studio, sunrise, talking to yourself, thoughts, weather

Bohemian like me…

Within 200metres of crossing the border it was fairly obvious I wasn’t in Austria any more. Gone were the precise safety barriers around the corners, in fact gone were the road markings altogether!

The landscape in those first few miles were excitingly wild with forests and dales parting to allow the road to wind down to my first town of Vsylly Brod. Taken aback by the amount of stands selling cheap plasicky tat in amongst the lovely medieval wooden buildings. People merrily chatting away and watching intriguingly as an overloaded bicycle clattered past them. The ‘interesting’ public toilets were also a sign that I was no longer in the germanic Austria! After a lunchoen of bread, tomatoes, cucumber and cream cheese. One that has been a partner of mine for many many lunchtimes! Hell I cannot wait to find some hummous again!

I followed the wide waters of the Vltava river as it wound along it’s wide forested valley. The road a lovely wobbly one that made it’s was around trees and up the steep bankings. All the while I was party to the various canoe and raft loads of folk out for an end of summer river ride. Stopping along their way at the various river bars and cafes, an altogether joyous time was being had, harking back to Laos one of the few times where part of me has really wished I wasn’t alone so I could join in, rafting on your own doesn’t really appeal! Instead I made do with riding the twisty bumpy road past tiny houses with the steepest roofs ever sitting next to their beautifully kept allotment of fruit, vegetables and vibrantly coloured flowers. I passed through seemingly one of the most deprived villages I’ve seen, an industrial town made of harsh soviet concrete blocks, everyone sitting on grey slab steps or leaning against rusting wire fences in what felt like pure hopelessness. The sheer contrast between the medieval village of Cesky Krumlov only 8km away was shattering.

A pretty cobbled place with some of the finest sgraffiti and stucco work amongst a fabric of multi-coloured wood framed buildings. Teeming with tourists taking in the picturesque setting in a meander of the Vltava, I sat outside a cafe in a side alley people watching and drinking my first Pilsner Arquell, a fine, crisp lager who’s 12% alcohol made finding a camping spot in a wood up the road slightly harder but much more amusing than otherwise! Sat in my beech glade watching the sun set over the fields of cabbages, I heard the rustle of plants and voices not so far off. Now sitting watching the sunset in panic stricken silence I was relieved to see it was another couple of bike tourers doing similar and finding a spot in the woods to camp. Even they didn’t spot me so I guess I’m doing it right!

My next stop was Cesky Budojevski the home of Budveiser. Not that awful american flavoured water but the proper Budvar. Another strong and flavoursome beer. If the Czech’s can do anything, it’s make amazingly good strong lager! They could also build mighty great towers too. The precariously steep and rickety wooden stairways lead to an impressive view over the mighty square beneath and out over many miles of the Republic.

For the first time in a very long time the landscape looked pretty void of the huge mountains I’ve become used to. Have to admit I wasn’t too disappointed, lovely though the high peaks are a change and maybe some slight relief for the old pins was looking likely! After a glorious couple of days of roaring sunshine I set off Northwards into what looked pretty menacing and brooding clouds. Unperturbed I muscled through the winds that just happened once again to be headwinds. I don’t recall one tail wind on this trip! After not too long making my way through the open farmland full by the smell of cabbages and potatoes the dark grey clouds began to deposit their goods. At first in the form of that fine rain that soaks you through(!), combining with the strong headwinds made for a good lashing in the face of the cold water, getting heavier I donned my wet gear and tried to find some shelter for lunch and a break from the wet wind., the road carried on over long hills and across wide fields for miles in both directions with the best I could find being a roadside shrine to Mary. Sorry Mary!

Having only slight respite from the weather I decided I may as well carry on. The weather thought similar as I trudged my already soggy way over the rolling hills, the heights of which appeared to be much more than they were from up the tower, getting heavier and heavier the rain was now in full force. Getting royally soaked from above and from the sides by the huge trucks that appeared perilously close drenching me as they thundered past. For hours I trudged between bus stops, the only respite I could find on that long open highway. Hoping that it might stop soon as ‘just over there it looks a bit brighter’, didn’t seem to work and I relented taking my leave from the sodden roads and into the dripping forests. Finding a spot that looked sheltered was pointless, after a while of searching in vain I miserably plonked myself down, set up as quickly as the hindrance of clammy soaking wet clothes and tent would allow, and dived inside to the dry felt damn good after such a day. Listening to the drip on canvas carry on through the night I ate my lunch again, as I wasn’t going outside to try and light a stove!

Drifting off to sleep with the sound of trees weeing on you is actually quite relaxing! The morning brough some respite in blue sky and sun, such a difference. Things had hope again, the hills didn’t seem as steep, the birds were singing in the trees and the lorries gave me more space on the road! As I kept looking to the sky trying to work out the weather for the forseeable future I came up to a tail-back, the first I’ve witnessed for ages. On getting closer and finding out that a lorry had come off the road at a junction, sending it’s payload all over the fields and road.

Knowing the driver was ok I couldn’t help chuckle at finding out what the contents were! Making my way to the centre of Southern Bohemia to the city of Plzen, a huge grey place of faded grandeur. It’s central square retaining a glimmer of beauty to it but is overshadowed by the adverts and signage for the endless casino and betting bars that seem to have taken over the whole country. Camping at a particularly coarse feeling site where the toilets were locked at night and the showers were glorified hose pipes that cost extra I made my way to the Pilsner Urquell brewery for some boar ragout, pints of the lush strong beer and sitting in the smoky beige beerhall watching the dressed up old folks inviting each other to dance and moving about the floor in quick stoney-faced dance steps.

It was only half 7 and everyone was up on the dance floor. Incredible, the confidence 12% lager can induce as I found out on my wobbly ride back to my barracks.

Heading north again I spent a couple of days taking cycle routes through the verdant countryside, apple trees lining avenues and fields of crops growing everywhere. Some of the loveliest farming villages too, although very rarely were there many people around or even shops where I could buy supplies.

Apples for breakfast then! Another grim day doing battle against some of the strongest headwinds I’ve had as I climbed to the high up moors and open fields of Northern Bohemia where the wind whistles and rushes along without anything in it’s path to deviate it.

The only respite being when the road turns to follow the edge of a forest or when going through the charming but sparse farming villages. During my time in the CZ-Rep I really noticed the changing seasons, the colours of the forests changing from various greens to warm autumnal shades. Speaking of warmth, it seemed to be weakening too. Taking a break from my conflict with the wind I had a hot lunch for a change at a truckers ‘bistro’ in one of the villages along the road. The hot turkish coffee and goulash were just what the quack ordered. Back out with renewed confidence and strength to take on the elements I carried on until once more it all got too much for me! Wet gear donned and the wind throwing bucketloads of water all over me I decided not to make the mistake of a few days ago and find somewhere to camp before I was totally drenched. Only partially drenched I found another bit of wet forest to nestle into. Making friends with the numerous slugs and other creepy crawlies that are enticed out by the mire all around I struggled to find some warmth outside my sleeping bag. The last main town I was heading towards was Karlovy Vary. What is apparently a ‘very fashionable spa town famous amongst the prosperous of NE Europe’. Needless to say I was already wary!

When I found the full horror of the place, built along the banks of a river and above some thermal reservoirs beneath the ground. People who are still clinging onto ‘fashions’ and ‘styles’ that I’ve never even seen before and hopefully will never witness again. Some incredibly badly fitting garments matched with some impressively intricate and garish patterning. A general tone of beige with a shock of neon or a stain of pastel made a base to some bewildering hair’styles’. The kind I’ve yet to understand how and what the wording would be should you ever be insane enough to request similar in a hair-salon. Watching with horror as the hordes of people hoping to be ‘cured’ by the miraculous water shuffled between the elaborate taps along the river.

Each one piping out subterranean water of varying temperatures, that the congregation would decant into their garish little teapots to devour in their hopefulness. To me the water just tasted like salty bath water, with a metallic tang from the old taps it spews from. Leaving just as quickly as I arrived, well after a coffee and cake obviously! I took to climbing again, the long straight and steep road up to the very north of the country.

Using up my remaining currency on lunch at a hotel restaurant in the obscure hill town of Nejdek. A bizarre mix of chicken with camember and kiwi fruit, served with the traditional potato pancakes. A truly hearty and awesomely greasy meal! Not that great for you but after a long cold climb it tasted damn good! The climb carried on after lunch, heading into the low mist and clouds that surrounded the high up pine forests. The long mountain track winding through the muddy trees and past the last villages to open moorland and the last Czech settlement I would see, two hardy forester’s houses sat drowning amongst a sea of wind blown long grass and stark bracken and moss.

Leaving behind this outpost of civilisation I made my way up and over the muddy track past acres of grey pine forest and through the German border. A shack set up next to a forest path long since forgotten about but where I made my way into my journey’s penultimate country.

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A test of my mettle (and my metal!)

After coming down the ridicuously steep descent from the top of the Ljoiblpass in the cold wet morning, stopping every so often to let my discs cool down and try to warm my hands up! Who’d have thought that it would be so cold without any sun on a pretty high up Alpine peak. (!)

My first experience of Austria would be the town of Klagenfurt, a place I was hoping I may be able to meet some of my distant(ish) relatives. Unfortunately my Great Aunt (I think thats the relationship, might be wrong though!) is ill at the moment so decided that the out of the blue nature of my arrival might put a bit too much pressure on them. So get well soon G.A. Hannah!

My slight disappointment aside I found the town and had a bit of a shock as to quite how upper-middle class everything felt. To a smelly touring cyclist this can seem a bit alien, especially after travelling through places that felt so totally down to earth. As I sat on my bike trying to figure out which way to go, absent mindedly watching a lady setting up a window display at a cosmetics shop. The sole item on show was a bottle of perfume being sold for 400Euros. Slightly amazed and just a little appauled I found a coffee before departing the town which I’d come to immediately have a distaste for. Here again I found that my travelling barometer of the price of a coffee showed that things were awry. For a relatively weak black coffee served on a silver tray I was charged 2Euros and 80 cents. Now, I know that this is more or less the price for coffee back home in the UK but, throughout my journey the humble espresso if I’m feeling flash or a long black if I want a little longer sat on a different seat to my Brooks has been my unscientific gauge of being ripped off! As I have spent many an hour sipping beautiful rich aromatic coffee in the street cafes of Italy or even the strong scented kava of the Baltics for little over a Euro I felt that for this cup of nescafe-crap I was being monstrously overcharged, and therefore had taken an instant dislike for the whole country!

Realising how ridiculous my method of gauging a country solely on one cafe’s produce was, I set off on the long hot highway to discover more. The road that took me East from Klagenfurt to the city of Graz was a bit of a painful experience. Still baking in the end of summer heat the long road was seemingly endless, wide as any highway and with little shade I spent a few days climbing through the southern hills, and doing battle with the huge juggernaughts that sped along the wide expanse of tarmac. It was during these few days that I had a run in with the local constabulary! As I whiled my way along the road minding my own business a car with blue lights pulled up in front of me. Unbeknown to me I’d ridden onto a 4km long (i.e. not very long!) section of Autostrada, a section of road that it’s apparently illegal to ride a bicycle on. Totally oblivious to my wrongdoings I appologised profusely and made my way to the end of the section on foot with police escort! When the cops had departed I suddenly thought that I must have been cycling in a bit of a dreamworld not noticing what was probably a really big sign at the side of the road. A little worried about my apparent drifting off at the hands of a vehicle I turned to notice how rubbish the sign for Autostrada was, A little blue square with a picture of a car in it!

Happy that my brain is still functioning normally I carried on to Graz. Spending a few days wandering the beautiful streets of the city.

Another fantastic market selling local produce, a beautiful opera house and some rather lovely stucco’d buildings around some magnificent squares. And of course one of my reasons to visit was the impressive alien blob nestled into some old half timber buildings.

The Kunsthaus, literally Art-House, an exhibit in itself I spent a good while just encircling the vast shiny bean shaped building in awe of it’s radical contrast to it’s surroundings. Designed in part by Peter Cook it really looks and feels like a distant cousin to one of Archigram’s walking cities. Inside the fantastic exhibitions and the interior itself reinvigorated a feeling of being inspired by design and creation again. Something that was present when studying but seems to have been sucked out of me a little through working as a ‘real’ designer! So thank you PC, as your lecture all those years ago, visiting one of your designs really made me feel excited by design again.

I literally left the exhibition, found a place to eat a burger and wedges (not sure why, just felt right!) and started to write down endless ideas and sketches!

After my brainstorming afternoon, the city suddenly grew very dark and a real storm took over for a while. Sheltering with other’s out in shorts and flipflops we watched the rain bouncing from off the floor and the people caught in it getting drenched almost instantly. Haven’t seen rain like it since the bus stop in Avignon, and as then, when I got back to camp, everything was pretty soggy!

Dried out a bit I then turned north and began crossing the country. Cycling through thick pine forests and along remote rivers, every so often coming across pretty little hillside villages.

These days were tough, climbing through the huge rocky peaks that span the country, my legs straining as I climbed the numerous mountain passes and swung through the awesome hairpin bends.

In one day I counted 25 hairpins going up and 33 going down (over 2 climbs) which is an impressively steep piece of country! Passing over the tops and through ski resorts was like going through strange ghost towns. The lifts not moving, the bars and chalets lain empty and the fields and runs covered with lush green grass and huge brown cows chewing the cud!

As the mountains slowly turned into arable plains and I wound my way to the north of the country and the little town on Melk, who’s golden Benedictine monastary sits looming on a bluff over the mighty Danube river. The monastary a massive place of grotesquely over the top decoration and embellishment, the in your face and quite foul modern exhibition not really helping matters!

Another key point in my journey and I’d made it to the famous Danube and it’s cycle path that I would take Westwards to Linz. Never before have I seen so many other bikes with identical panniers as the couples and groups on rental bikes enjoyed the calm ride along the traffic free river, taking in the little villages on their way.

One of which I stopped in to have a look at the bicycle museum, some amazing examples of old bone shakers and penny farthings made me double happy to see my bike with my rubber tyres waiting for me outside!

After a couple of days I’d gotten rather bored as the view although beautiful didn’t change much from a river on one side and a hill on the other! Plus the constant flat land seemed to fatigue me more than the hills and descents, the constant pedalling not giving any rest whereas normal terrain gives more diversity to my poor weary legs!

Almost at Linz I happened upon an awesome set of dirt jumps where I made a morning coffee hoping someone might come and ride them, I climbed to the top of the ride-in platform and even without a bike was scared silly at how high and steep it was! Unfortunately no-one came to show me how it was done so I carried on around the bend to find a lake, a good few days without campsites meant no showers either so I couldn’t believe my luck as a swim was just what the doctor ordered. Getting myself ready I looked about at the others sunbathing and swimming. No one had any clothes on! I’d found a naturist lake, shrugging to myself I donned my birthday suit and edged into the lake, swimming out to the central floating platform to perform some naked sunbathing! It’s true what they say as well, being all naked you feel totally free and liberated! The fact that everyone else was rather older and on the heavier side probably helped too!

Happy that I’d found showers too, I made myself feel a bit more normal before once again the heavens opened. Two showers in one day! This time it didn’t stop so I put on my wet weather gear and cycled into Linz. As one of my last days in the country I treated myself to a meal, in a ‘traditional’ Austrian pub.

Decked out in the most amazing chinz I’ve ever seen I ate wiener schnitzel just like my grandma makes followed by some surprisingly nice sweet cheese dumplings!

Back on even terms with the country I decided that I was due a change and began to make my way up the hill towards the North and the border. Not making it very far as the storm returned, waiting glumly under a petrol station forecourt I decided the first place I found vaguely suitable I’d set up camp and try and keep a little dry. The wind and rain only getting heavier, and now the hour also getting later the coolness of the changing seasons was noticable in the evening air. I found just off the main road, a seemingly abandoned old bar, obviously not been used all year I nipped to the back of the carpark where some bushes hid a piece of grass from view. Couldn’t believe my luck, I even had a bit of shelter for my poor bike round the back of the building. As I started unpacking the tent, wind blowing the flysheet everywhere and the rain soaking it through I beagn threading the poles when SNAP! One of the sections decided it’d had enough and broke. Stood silently in the pouring rain, aghast at the treachery of the little bugger my panic brain took over.

Somehow I managed to get it together, get under the edge of the roof enough to not be totally soaked as I performed surgery. Splinting the snapped pole with a couple of tent pegs and that friend of all travellers, Gaffer tape! Happy with my bodge job I managed to get the tent up and inside with my belongings and somehow managed to stay relatively dry! Having eaten a huge lunch I congratulated myself with some of the amazing carrot bread I’d recently bought and a bar of dark chocolate! It would appear that until you get hit square on the jaw by a challenge you don’t really know how you’ll cope. Turns out that reading all those outdoors and survival books as a kid, daydreaming about being able to go on adventures seems to have paid off!

 

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There’s a fine line….

It’s become apparent to me as the weeks turn into months and my time on the road increases, that (as I was warned by a very knowledgable gentleman) solitary travel can make you go a little doo-lally shall we say!

Being practically solitary for long periods of time, cycling all day and not really coming into proper contact with that many other human beings, camping alone in woods where the only companions are the wild animals and trees around you, must all contribute to what I can only deem to be slight insanity. Being one of the afore-mentioned human beings, it’s surely only natural to want to communicate and talk with others. Well, when I’m not really coming into that much contact with these ‘others’ it appears that I have (less and less subconciously I might add) been carrying on and creating contexts where I am chatting merrily away to myself as I cycle along. Having really quite in depth conversations with myself, taking on usually all parts of the discussion as well! (well, otherwise it wouldn’t go very far would it!)

But over the last couple of days as I’ve been making my way along the rivers of Germany I’ve noticed another ascention into craziness. I’ve started talking to things, objects, parts of the countryside too!

I had justchanged route from one path to another to follow the river Werra, when I started chatting away. Thinking it funny in my head and a good way to break the ice I asked the river ‘So, river Werra, werra you goin?’

I didn’t get a reply, in fact we haven’t spoken since.

I’ll be on a different route from now on, I can’t deal with rejection!

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A green and very pleasant land!

My last night in Croatia I camped on the edge of a field not far from the border. Accompanied as I watched the sun go down by a deer stalking it’s way through the nearby woods. Not my only visitor that night as later a persistant fox wouldn’t stop poking it’s snout through under the canvas! Obviously fancied some of what I’d eaten earlier in the evening. Strange as not sure that cous cous is a big one for wild animals.

In the morning I made my way to the border and my first customs officers. Not expecting to be questioned this early in the morning I probably made abit of a fool of myself as I was asked where I’d come from and I unthinking, turned round and pointed mumbling ‘err… Croatia’. As the other officers sniggered I knew all would be well as I don’t really have anything to declare apart from some clothes that haven’t been washed for a while and some bread that’s probably a few days past it!

My first morning in Slovenia was spent climbing once again a mountain pass. Through similarly green farming landscape to Croatia but noticably more developed yet retaining the simple beauty of the natural surroundings.

I descended the long twisty road to get to the town of Novo Mesto. A lovely old town nestled into the bend in the river Krka. Also happens to be the town my Grandmother was born in so it was a slightly emotional visit and one that truly marked the turning point in my journey. Completing one of my aims for my expedition I celebrated by eating a hearty lunch in a small but renowned family restaurant.

When I ordered the salmon I kind of expected one fillet but when two turned up I knew I’d picked well! The potatoes as a side dish tasted just as my grandmother used to make them too! Well and truly satisfied I spent an hour or two listening to the jazz that was being performed by a local group under the arches of the main square. Turned out there was a jazz festival on this week and so I listened while digesting my huge and delicious meal.

After a while I realised I wasn’t all that into jazz, far too much face pulling as the saxophonist tried to wangle out a few more notes that probably shouldn’t have been played succesively anyway. Away from the freeform music I followed the river along it’s course. Finding a little clearing next to it I spent the night battling mosquitos once again. I’m sure that removing them from the eco system wouldn’t do that much harm would it?! I’d take the chance anyway!

A misty morning and the wet tent that comes with it accompanied me on my route for a few hours. Taking a glorious small road that on the map is a highway but turned out to be a fantastic off road track up and over a hill, through cool forests and past clearings where the rays of sunlight caught the dust kicked up from the track.

There’s something about riding a bike off road, the rumble and crunch as the tyres pass through the loose rocks and dirt, looking behind you for the clouds of dust that are kicked up as you ride along the trail. It must be something to do with watching rallying on TV when I was a child. The plumes of smoke that follow the cars as they speed through forests always caught my imagination when I was younger. So much so that as kids, my friends and I would run around in the dust with brooms just to create the tracks of dust as we pretended to drive our own rally cars around our driveways! Much to the dismay I’m sure of my lovely parents!

After reliving my childhood through the forest tracks I eventually found my way to the capital city.

Ljubljana, a fantastic city full of vibrancy, markets of fresh produce, beautiful buildings and some incredible modern architecture. A relaxed atmosphere but one filled with potential and creativity. Spending a few days there I came to think it could one of the few places I could see myself living, at some time in the future! Even though I’ve seen some quite lovely places that feeling of being comfortable in a city yet knowing there’s so much more to explore doesn’t seem to happen often.

Spending some time looking around the numerous art exhibitions ,on every street there’s a little gallery with some incredible art or photography being displayed.

One morning I trekked up the ridiculously steep track to the castle. A stunning old building whose renovation has some of the most well considered architectural interventions I’ve seen in a long time. Some great artwork on show too along with one of the loveliest things I’ve come across on my travels. Under a tree was set up some little bookshelves along with deckchairs and cushions. A little outdoor library where you can browse some books or magazines while being surrounded by the medieval walls of the castle. A rather nice way to spend my sunday morning!

All the while through my stay in Ljubljana I was entranced by glimpses of the magestic Julian Alps in the background. I decided to follow my gaze and made my way across the decievingly flat plains to join a river valley. The clear glacial waters looked so inviting but were a little too cold for a morning swim so I carried on. Instead taking one of the steepest and toughest tracks I’ve come across.

An off road alpine pass, through logging areas and up a 15% gradient, hairpin after hairpin as I had to climb standing up for the duration of the 13km. So tough that at the top I was so hot and sweaty that a cloud of flies were swarming around me, the hottest, wettest thing on that high up mountain side! Distracted maybe but up here I made a little mistake and fell, dropping the bike on the thick gravel at the side of the track.

Thankfully going slowly the only damage was a graze on my knee and a dented ego. Helmet on for the downhill then!

At the bottom I came to the glorious Lake Bohinj. A vast finger of water that curls under the steep sides of the mountains.

The waters, lovely and warm making the swim even more enjoyable after a strenuous morning’s climb. Refreshed once more I decided to do even more climbing to get to the Slap Savica waterfall. Glutton for punishment I know but I do love a waterfall!

Slightly annoyed at having to pay to see it I decided I’d get my own back by camping out in the National Park forest. A gorgeous spot just up the hillside behind a giant boulder. So peaceful and dark that during the night I had to turn the torch on to make sure I hadn’t lost the use of my eyes!

Rising before dawn I made it down to the lake shore where I ate my breakfast in the coolness of the morning, the only sound the gentle lapping of the clear water on the rocky beach. As the sun rose and the noise of cars began I cycled down along the river Sava’s course down to Lake Bled. A much busier place, taking in a quick Picasso exhibition on the way (some of his ceramic work don’tcha know!) before heading to the very north of the country.

So small and compact yet perfectly formed. Green farmland, amazing citys, vast mountains, gorgeous rivers and lakes and a coast that I’ve yet to discover! Even though the day was ending I decided that I’d try an evening mountain pass. Setting off in the cool with the sun dipping behind the peaks made a change from the heat that these climbs have been accompanied by so far!

The long and steep Lojblpass was a tough one with some surprises on the way. Humbled by the monument where the Ljubel concentration camp was sited I solemnly carried on to the top. The border to Austria and my 7th country was halfway through the 1.5km long tunnel. Before which I had to do a quick puncture repair! Couldn’t believe my luck although better for it to happen then than on the way down I guess!

The evening well and truly upon me I descended slightly down the stupidly steep hill on the Austrian side, stopping on a hairpin and an old abandoned house whose garden I camped in, thanking whoever’s up there that I’ve been lugging around my full seasons sleeping bag! The added weight had been (and I’m sure will continue to be) worth it! So, thanks Nat for your encouragement all those months ago!

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Land of plenty, Diversity anyway!

Spending a couple of days with the professional sunbathers of Italy around Portonovo on the Adriatic coast I was bored of basting myself and turning over every half hour to get the full treatment.

My ferry across the ocean was at sunset and I watched the huge orange globe fall into the now quiet ocean as we set sail. Chatting to an Australian traveller who had basically gone from one huge drinking session to the next and although it sounded fun for about 3 minutes I was ever so glad that I’m travelling on my own with my trusty steed as company!

If anyone tries to convince you that the ‘airline seats’ in the ‘lounge’ area of any ferry is a comfortable place to drift into slumber for a night. Look them right in the eye and with fixed poker stare turn around slowly and walk away from them until you’re out of sight and then de-friend them on any social messenger site you may be acquainted on as if they lie about that who knows what else they lie about! These ‘lounges’ are the least comfortable places to ever even think about sleeping so as I had tried and failed miserably to catch some shut-eye in that hot sweaty room of snoring and arguing Italian holiday groups.

I went to find a much more comfortable piece of floor on deck until I was awoken by the glow of the sun after we’d rotated all the way around it again. Only this time it was illuminating the island ridden mountainous coastline of the Dalmation coast. The huge grey mountains that fall from great heights until their edges are lapped gently by the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. Long islands and peninsulars scattered with tiny terracotta rooved villages animate the coastline which made me want to explore every single inch of the new lands I was about to briefly inhabit.

Docking early into the manic and exciting town of Split I was hit by the nervousness that comes when you don’t have any real grasp of the language or any idea of how the place you’ve just landed in works! So far it’s been relatively easy with some knowledge from school and the similarities of the main latin based languages. I decided the best solution was to sit in a cafe and try and muddle my way through ordering some much needed caffeine! Guidebook in hand I mumbled a few works in my best Croatian accent, met by a mystified look from the waiter who’s english was probably better than mine I slid back into English and ordered my strong black kava and sat back a little less nervous. First step done with! Now just to find my way out of this notoriously crazy city.

Strong black coffee fully taking effect I set about the long winded route through the docklands and out towards the coastline.

Within an hour of leaving the city I got my first taste of the clear waters of this side of the Adriatic. As I ducked off the road to a quiet and relatively non-descript lane I came to a deserted bay apart from an old rowing boat gently rocking on the lapping tide. Eating some lunch in the shade of a tree I couldn’t believe the contrast between this and the Italian coast, where every single inch of available beach has been swallowed up by beach bars and cafes with their umbrellas and plastic sun loungers. Slipping into the water for a post lunchtime swim and was amazed by just how blue yet clear the water was, I couldn’t wait to get the snorkel that I’d lugged from Ibiza out for another go!

Finding a place to put my tent for the night would prove tricky to say the least over the next few days. The rugged and rocky beauty of the Croatian coastline doesn’t just stop at the coast but carries on all the way up the mountains meaning the ground I would sleep on for my time along this stretch would be pretty hard to say the least! Somehow I managed to find places that would allow my body to mould into the rocky ground rather than the other way round. Generally camping just off the road in a clearing between thorny bushes or occasionally in the spaces underneath olive trees I made my way Northwards. Taking in the view of the ocean and it’s tiny coastal towns dotted along the shore as I ate a breakfast of fresh ripe figs and apricots from the trees that are scattered along the sides of the roads.

It turns out that the Adriatic coast is made out of fig trees as everywhere I looked there were trees full to bursting with green and purple figs, each one more juicy and sweet than the last.

After breakfast the routine that I happily slipped into was of a morning snorkel to freshen up and greet the schools of fish that shimmer like silver leaf in the dappled morning sunlight.

After a couple of obviously stressful (!) days on the mainland I hopped on the ferry to Pasman Island and followed the coast from the opposite side. A wholely different experience and one that reminded me of my time in Ibiza. I had swapped the main coastal road with it’s lorries and fast moving commuters for tiny island lanes, edged with fruit trees and half built island villas. The pace of life taken even further down a peg or two a welcome change. Settling into island life a little too easily maybe as I finished a lunchtime beer at a beach shack I went to pay and immediately felt ill. Not due to the price but I’d somehow mislaid my wallet. My sole means of paying for anything and also for getting money out! As I sweated even more than usual, I apologised profusely and had to pay in my last few Euros, my Croatian currency tucked into my now lost wallet. Retracing my tracks for a few miles down the island my thoughts racked with trying to figure out exactly how I’d get off the island with just my remaining 16 euros, and also how I’d be able to carry on my travels if I was unable to get any more currency out. Thinking I’d have to live off the figs and stow away on the ferry I got to the cafe I’d had a morning coffee in. Thankfully some beautiful sole had handed my dropped wallet into the bar! With someone obviously looking out for me and my karma balance well and truly tipped to one side I sat trembling as the worries eventually drifted away. With my money and cash cards divvied up and seperated all over my belongings (just in case!) I continued along the island and over the bridge to Ugljan where I spent the night looking up at the stars and thanking each and every one of them from my tent stashed in the olive groves of an abandoned house.

Back on the mainland at Zadar, and after a dip at a deserted fisherman’s shack, the mussel shells lining the cove giving a hint as to the main quarry, I got back onto the coast road. This time taking me high up, following the water from the clifftops. The road climbing and swooping as it followed the endless inlets into the land.

Each one more beautiful than the last. Fishermen’s cottages and their tiny boats crammed between the sea and the steep cliff walls. As the road climbed and climbed the headwinds increased, making life ever harder as I travelled North to the little town of Senj. Stopping for the night for my last swim in an ocean for this trip. I dived from the quayside and into the cool sparkling waters for the last time.

Camping at a site right next to the ocean I watched the sun sink behind the mountains of the Islands. Kept company by the huge alsatian of the Italian couple who’s campervan I had to camp right next to due to the business of the site. At least I knew my stuff was safe as I slept listening to the waves and the ever increasing winds.

Waking in the morning and the storm hadn’t subsided, packing a tent away in a gale is never fun, especially with the mocking glare of a massive wolf! Even with the winds as strong as they were I’d made the decision to leave the coast, and since doing this trip my stubbornness ever more increased I headed into the wind to tackle the Vlatnic mountain pass. Not the highest pass that I’ve done but certainly one of the toughest as the winds literally brought me to a standstill on more than one occasion. The only respite when I doubled back on myself on the hairpins realising how much strength I was battling as I was propelled uphill by my blustery nemesis!

Reaching the top and descending slightly into a completely different landscape. For one the winds relented a bit, but now I was surrounded by lush green, fields and fields of crops and vegetable plots, neighboured by thick pine forests and surrounded on all sides by the vast rocky mountain peaks.

As I travelled through this wonderful landscape, I was struck by just how remote the communities felt. A quiet gentle beauty that seems to resonate from countryside farming villages, rickety but elegant wooden barns being stocked with hay, smouldering fires with woodsmoke filling the air, people old and young, out in the fields bent double picking out the ripe crops while the old tractors slowly plough the steep fields. Only just making it to the turn at the top before the engine strains it’s last effort and gives in.

As the days turned into evenings and I cycled through these hamlets I was greeted by the waves and smiles from families sat out in the evening sun. Relishing the coolness and the contrasting fresh air against the searing hours they’ve spent out in their fields. It struck me as how friendly everyone was, if not even saying anything, the smiles and looks I received lifted my weary spirits. What an incredible place this is to travel through. So many different landscapes, cultures and lifestyles in such a short space of time.

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Giro D’Italia!

With my passion well and truly returned for travelling with my bike after journeying across France I was full of hope that Italy would hold similar pleasures. Crossing the border into the land of campagnolo, pasta and colnagos after coming through the bizarre entity that is Monte Carlo was a slightly uninspiring one! As most of the borders I’ve crossed so far have just been signs I was hoping for something a bit flashier after such an apparently ‘glam’ place. I couldn’t see it myself, the towering mirrored skyscrapers, acres of sparkling black-top roads, and fake palm tree gardens topped off with middle aged men revving their ferrari’s just didn’t do it for me! The sign for Italy could even do with another coat of paint!

From travelling along the Cote D’Azur I kind of knew in my heart that the landscape would be similar but I spent a lot of energy willing it to be a little bit easier to get through. Unfortunately my summoning of a higher being didn’t stop the coast being as spectacularly rocky and steep as anything, with my route along the Northwest of the country basically being cut into and following the cliffside! As the road wound it’s way up and down the mountains that drop into the ocean, at the top the most spectacular views of the inaccessible coastline below and the low parts completely packed with resort after resort, their coloured unbrellas positioned like armed forces standing their ground on parade, not allowing anyone who doesn’t want to pay over the odds for a coffee onto the beaches. The miles wound on and on, as I followed the over populated coast with no way of making my way into the mountains and round without doubling my journey I was stuck playing cat and mouse with gravity and trying to dodge the holiday makers wobbling out into the road, loaded down with lilos and beach umbrellas. The roads were crazy enough as it was without these added obstacles, it seemed that the locals drove as though they were the only ones on the road, passing on blind bends and cutting corners without much care for the scared cyclist sweating his way up the hairpins! Adding to my troubles for the first part of my Italian job the weather decided to change and dumped rain onto me every day, adding to my weight and making it more uncomfortable cycling in waterproofs that stick to your skin and make you sweat so you’re just as wet as you would be if you weren’t wearing them due to it still being pretty warm. You can’t win sometimes!

The landscape being as tough as it was there were few chances of finding places to wild camp. Being so developed and industrialised, almost all the land was used, and the little that was left over was so steep that sleeping on it would be practically impossible. Just after San Remo I was more than lucky to find a cycle path that by-passed the hilly road and also seemed relatively quiet. As night was falling I came across the first area of wild land, on it a newly built pavillion type building, probably to be turned into some kind of cafe with a decked area to the rear.

Almost hidden from view I ducked behind and decided I’d hang out here to avoid the rain and wait for dark to see if it’d be possible to sleep there. As the hours passed I watched the sunset and the lights of San Remo start to turn on. Turned out I wasn’t the only one who thought the view might be good, as people started to come around to take their photo with the gorgeous backdrop, I smiled meekly and tried to pass off that I was just doing the same. As darkness fell more deeply and the people became fewer my tiredness overcame me and I though bugger it, if I look like a hobo tonight, well it’s not much of a change to how I appear most days! So there I was, my first night in Italy sleeping out in the open on the decking of a building that might be over-run with builders in the morning. Wasn’t the best night’s sleep but certainly wasn’t the worst either. At least I had a good view in the morning!

So my initial idea of Italy wasn’t the greatest. After a couple of nights having to stay in campsites that were high priced due to the season and built into steep terraces meaning unloading and carrying all my gear up the cliff-like hills to a mosquito ridden pitch at night and doing the opposite in the morning. I was knackered before I even set off to tackle my day of hill climbing!

Things became more interesting as the weather decided to change back to glorious sun and the city of Genova gave me an insight into how incredible Italy really is. The grandeur of the buildings, beautifully fading with the dirt of generations of industrialisation muddying the colonades and vaulted archways.

As I wandered the narrow passageways of the city’s old docklands, eating beautiful foccacia while sat on the steps of one of the run down shops awaiting renewal and watching the people pass, shouting greetings behind them to all and sundry. The intensity and engrossing confidence of Italian personalities spewed out of all the open doorways.

Joining the locals taking coffee at the bars in the mornings, stood at the counter sipping the most beautiful thick and strong espressos and helping yourself to the crossiants or other pastrys, to pay on your way out to the eagle eyed lady at the doorway cashdesk. A great way to start the day. Made even better one day by watching a ferrari driver trying to explain to the constabulary why he thought himself above the law by putting his hazards on and parking on a roundabout while he enjoyed his morning brew!

As I rounded the bay of Genova and went inland along my route to Pisa I was joined halfway up the Passo del Braco by two great British guys who were cycling from Newcastle to Naples in 28 days. No mean feat and two of the nicest guys I’ve met yet. We did a few kilometres together until I turned off to go and take a look at the Cinque Terra.

Five beautiful little villages nest to each other on the coast, joined by a walkable pathway. As the climb up and over the mountain was a lot harder than I initially thought my legs didn’t really like the idea of descending the 600 metres only to climb back up once again so I made do with a great view from the high up road that wound it’s way around the hillside.

Entering into Tuscany I was hoping that my travels might get a bit easier, passing the marble harvesting areas, digging monstrous holes in the beautiful mountains I made my way to Pisa to join the hordes in taking in the beautiful tower.

Surely the most fantastic accident to ever happen to a town. When the foundations collapsed in the initial stages of the building all those years ago I doubt anyone realised quite how many people would flock from all over the world to see how the tower leans so dramatically defying the forces of physics. It really is a stunning sight, but the crowds got too much and I deserted the tourist area and fled to the other side of the river to wander the backstreets around the lovely town that surely gets a little left out by that bloody pinnacle!

Luckily for me though, travelling through Tuscany became much more enjoyable, and as I rode over the rolling countryside, covered in olive groves, those spiked coniferous trees and beautiful Tuscan villas I began to appreciate how lovely central Italy actually is. Passing briefly through Florence, I always knew it would be the wrong time of year to properly take in such a city. Just wandering the streets taking in the architecture and external artworks gave me more than enough reasons to come back. Even the thought of queuing for the Uffizi gallery let alone figuring out what to do with the bike made me reluctantly leave the city and cycle out and into the countryside.

Eating my lunch under the shaded arches of a tiny chapel, watching the clouds pass across the bright blue sky and the trees sway in the breeze. I then realised that even if I hadn’t seen the artwork in the galleries I was living amongst the landscape that inspired them.

I stayed for a few days in Siena, the quieter sister town of Florence and just as beautiful in the architecture with a much calmer atmosphere I ate some good Tuscan food and drank vino rosso in a local bar wishing I could be one of the guys who frequent it. Everyone knowing each other, chatting and joking that it felt like someone’s living room rather than a bar.

As the hills rolled by and the villas past in their golden stoned glory, the wild camping became much easier, fields by the side of the road, under fruit trees, down a little lane and into a forest all became my home for the night as I made my way into Umbria and through the mountains.

Taking in the hilltop towns of Montepulciano where I sampled the local vino, Perugia where I ate pizza on the steepest street I’ve ever seen.

And Assisi, the stunning medieval ‘town of peace’ where I wandered unknowing into the birthplace chapel of St Francis, and sat watching the congregation at his tomb. From here I crossed the thickly forested Umbrian mountains, to follow a glacial valley and the clear waters of the stream and into the Marche region.

An area in which I travelled between many small beautiful towns and villages. So far the place that has most resembled the beautiful countryside of my childhood. As I passed through the forests and fields I could have been cycling through the Yorkshire Dales or Cumbria. It really was lovely to travel through a landscape that seemed so familiar. Eating the most beautiful Italian meal at the town of San Severino.

A gloriously simple starter of Mixed Bruchetta, the toasts covered with a single slice of tomato drizzled with the strong local olive oil, a pungent truffle pate and a slice of the finest Prucietto ham I’ve ever eaten. Followed by freshly made tagliatelle with Porcini mushrooms and truffles. So simple the sauce that the hint of parsley and olive oil joined the mushrooms in perfect simple harmony. Even after a rough start my love of all things Italian is now well and truly confirmed!

And so ends the first half of my journey. In distance I think I’ve already reached the halfway stage at over 3000 miles, but from here I turn on my heels and head North and West towards the shores of Britain. Although I’m sure there’ll be more adventures still to come before I reach them!

 

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Provence, Ah Provence!!

After our escapades drinking chilled wine in the sea, we awoke near the beach with slightly sore heads and made our way slowly into the city of Montpellier. Stopping first at the Village du tour! We had made it to hopefully realise one of my boyhood dreams of seeing the Tour de France. Still a good 7 hours before the peleton would ride through we spent some time amongst the merchandise stands and riding part of a stage on a computer simulator hooked up to a bicycle. Good fun but it made me gulp when I realised that this is the kind of riding I’ll be doing over the next few days through the Alps!

After a few hours wandering the monuments of the city, busy with cycle fans from all over the world, it came time for Mattieu to board the ridiculously busy train to find his ferry to Corsica and therefore the end of the Anglo-French invasion. For now anyway! I still don’t know how he made it aboard the packed train with his trailer but somehow he managed and has apparently spent an amazing week on the French island.

Following his departure I got used to being on my own again by finding a spot to watch the race go past. It was pretty exciting seeing the merch vehicles go through and the mad scrabble for the free tat that gets thrown out. As the team cars and press whizzed through it was a couple of minutes until the pack sped over the crest of the hill I was stood at. So quickly I barely got to see them riding as I focused my camera!

Although it was great to see the spectacle, it’s way better to watch on TV, I didn’t even know who had taken the stage victory!

Back on my way, slightly elated at seeing the Tour, I set off from the city along a long straight road, pasthe supermarkets I’d hoped to pick supplies up from. Forgetting it was Sunday evening and now without food or water, I had to carry on cycling until I found some kind of sanctuary otherwise it would be a long, hungry and thirsty night!

I cycled for miles into the countryside until I came across a tiny farm smallholding by the side of the road. I stopped to ask if I could buy some tomatoes from the farmer. Once initial greetings had been done with, we got chatting and he noticed my Tour hat and loaded bike. He showed me through his array of fruit and vegetables. Some I’d never heard of before, Green Zebra tomatoes, Black tomatoes and some of the sweetest and most flavoursome french strawberries. He loaded a basket with tomatoes , cucumbers, peppers, apricots and strawberries.

Glad I’d found food but unsure I had enough money we chatted more about life on the road, his kids and everything in such a short space of time I felt I’d made a great friend. The feeling must have been kind of mutual as he wouldn’t accept any money and sent me on my merry way! Still no water though so I tried a campsite as it had been agood while since having a wash, they wanted to charge me the price of a campervan and two people! bloody high season so I excused myself and asked to fill my bottles instead. Doing so I also sneaked into the toilets and had the quickest but most needed shower ever and then found a lovely bush by the side of the road to camp next to and watch the sunset, I reckon I got the best deal!

The next day I made it to Nimes, another beautiful city with an incredible ampitheatre as the mainstay monument, gorgous to wander through I found a quiet fountain and took the opportunity to use the water to wash my clothes while I enjoyed my lunch in the sun.

Freshly showered and with relatively clean clothes I went in search of the huge Rhone river, following the valley for a while I could get a glimpse of the Alps in the background. My first view of what was to come! I dived into a fruit orchard as the light failed and amongst the plum trees made my bed for the night. A lot of mosquitos but the fresh fruit breakfast made up for the itching! The clouds in the morning looked incredibly threatening, a kind of black candyfloss was following me across the sky. As the rains began I stopped in a bus shelter. Full wet gear donned I endured a storm the likes of which I haven’t seen since the monsoons of Asia. Unfortunately the place I stopped was at the bottom of a hill. Quite incredibly the water backed up and over the bonnets of the cars just down the road and as they passed myself and all my things got the most awesome drenching ever! Once it had passed I soggily made it to Avignon, and found the public WCs where I socialised with the local hobos and showered amongst the city’s homeless. A nice bunch, they offered me their towel but I made do with my own!

As the sun re-appeared I spent the next few hours wandering the packed streets of the city, taking in free theatre performances and watching live bands that were touting for their acts at the city’s famous drama festival.

An incredible atmosphere of costumed people mingled amongst the streets covered with posters and flyers, eating in the cafes and chatting to the theatre going masses.

A fantastic experience that was a shame to depart from. I cycled to find a place to camp for the night, chancing upon a lovely tumble down house backed away from the road I set myself amongst the wild overgrown garden for a night in one of the loveliest free camping spots I have found so far. I decided that the next day would be a mental preperation day as I meditated amongst the wild mint and read my book in the shade. I knew the following day would probably be the toughest of my trip so far.

I woke early at a campsite at the base of the mountain. Before the sun had come up I began my ascent up Mt Ventoux from the town of Malaucene. A stunning alpine mountain road that twisted and wound it’s way through the forests at the bottom and out onto the bare limestone summit plains. The climb was unrelenting, a constant struggle against gravity as I rode my heavily laden bike up and up the steep road.

Never going lower than a 6% gradient and regularly stepping up to 13% I sweated out for almost 3 hours before reaching the 1912m summit. Hearing a cry from an obviously British, and northern chap of “Well done that lad!” I felt genuinely elated with my achievement of getting to the top I celebrated amongst the crowds of carbon bike riding lycra clad riders that had already made it to the freezing top.

Descending past Tom Simpson’s memorial I donned my cap in respect and made my way safely to the bottom and carried on riding through the delightful Provencal countryside. The wonderfully undulating road carving through fields of pungent lavender and past golden farm buikldings, their shutters painted in glorious and subtle pastel shades. I stopped at a lovely municipal campsite amongst this glorious landscape and ate my well deserved dinner watching the sun set directly behind the mountain I had climbed over that morning.

Over the following few days I carried on through the tiny villages of Provence, dodging the 2CV vans and farmers wandering to the next village. Passing through the countryside, climbing the alpine hills into pine forests and past rivers with their cold blue tinged water fresh from the glaciers atop the collosal peaks I realised I felt truly at home, this was the image I had imagined so often when I dreamt about cycle touring. What a wonderful place, filling every sense, smell, sight, taste and hearing with the glories of life in this part of France.

I stopped at the lovely town of Forcalquier for a late celebration lunch on reaching the summit of one of the hardest climbs in the history of cycling. (apparently true, so say some folk!) A thrilling meal that began with fresh local salad with tostas, pots of tapenade, lavender honey and creamy goats cheese.

The most exquisite seafood spaghetti and some of the most delicious and sickeningly sweet profiteroles I have ever tasted in my life! What a treat, made getting back in the saddle pretty tough though!

Although I did and after a night in an olive grove, possibly not the best chosen as I was nervous to leave the tent until completely dark it was so close to the road but I slept not badly either! I set about my next task of cycling up and over the Verdon gorge. A stunningly steep road that follows the precipice of an immense canyon, looking over into the cliff lined depths to the river far below and the people in canoes that looked just like tiny ants from that far above. I watched as people bungee jumped from a high up bridge before climbing out of the valley and over to the high up mountain village of Comps Sur Artuby where I rested for a day before my final jaunt through this lovely part of the world. Climbing over the Col du Vence and descending down the steep hairpinned road and into the Cote D’Azur and Nice! The superyaught filled bays of Monte Carlo and Villefrench Sur Mer where I ate lunch on the road high above, watching the sunbathers and the massive cruise liner docked in the crystal waters below. A bit of a change from the remote alpine villages I had been climbing through over the last few days, but as the saying goes, a change is as good as a rest!

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A new beginning!

Following a 9 hour ferry ride out of the beautiful Ibizan sunshine and into an altogether duller and cooler climate I made the radical and probably somewhat unpopular decision to by-pass the city of Barcelona. Arriving at 9:30 in the evening on a night brooding with a tempest I set out North, making my way out of the centre along busy, chaotic and exciting boulevards, passing huge monuments and street side cafes I wondered if I was making the right decision to head on straight away. Once a few miles away from the city the recollection of the horror stories I have heard so many times as well as having visited the city before and not been totally allured told me I’d done the right thing. Stopping for the first meal since breakfast, as the ferry restaurant only opened for the first hour and by that time I was still waving goodbye to my beloved island! So glad to have some tapas in an atmospheric local tavern on the way to Badelona, although the fattiness of the meal reminded me of my yearning for new places. As I cycled along the highway following the coast, not sure of finding a place to camp and already 11:30 I had relented to the fact I’d be cycling through the night kept company by the magnificent electrical storm out at sea. Luckily as my friend, the storm came more towards the land I found a campsite, expensive but at least somewhere I could keep dry during my first storm for weeks. The sensation of the strong rain on my skin was lovely to feel. For a minute or two until I was soaked and went to sleep with the beautiful sound of rain on canvas.

Heading north I followed a fair sized road towards the Pyrennean border. Obviously a truckers route as the numerous ladies of the, well, day I guess as it was morning when I first passed them. Sat on plastic chairs by the side of the road done up in ill fitting bikinis, wearing awful sunglasses and chain smoking. Even a touring cyclist on the road for months found it hard to imagine them any where near alluring!

I followed ‘hooker alley’ to the gorgeous town of Girona, deciding to stay the night at a great central hostel and taking in all the delights the place had to offer. Amazing views of the hotchpotch houses backing onto the river, the Arab baths and the winding cobbled streets with unending intruiguing boutiques and cafes. Glad I had missed Barcelona for this I carried on Northwards to join the huge queues for the impressive Salvador Dali museum in his home town of Figueres.

A damn impressive place, set out by the artist himself in beautifully typical surreal style, the only problem being all the other tourists doing the same thing as me. So annoying! The bizarreness of Dali’s mind would be the last impression I would have of Spain, quite fitting really as the differences and bizarreness of the regions I have passed through were in essence reflected.

I climbed towards the border at the top of the Pyrennees. This sounds a lot more impressive than my ascent actually was! One of the lowest passes in the spectacular mountain range but still a Pyrennean pass! It was just before the border that I met a Frenchman astride his bicycle with a trailer adorned with the French and Catalan flags. Another cycle-tourer, similar in age and ideas and for once going the same way as me!!

I spent the next few days travelling with a good looking and charming French gentleman. Surely a lot of girls and probably a lot of guys ideas of a dream!

We descended through my journey’s first snapshot of France. A twisting incredible road through forests and across farm plains, past stalls selling local fruit and vegetables. The new language prickling my interest and fanning the flames of the romance that I feared to have lost during the last hard few weeks of Southern Spain. Unwittingly to me, we had arrived in France on the 14th of July, the French independence day so hardly anything in Perpignan was open. Deciding to take advantage of those golden arches I had so far tried to avoid we dined a la McDonalds! Not exactly my dream beginning of travelling through the country, but the food was actually pretty good and the free wifi was quite handy to boast of our Pyrennean trek(!) As the evening descended, the miles we had done began to show in our legs as passing through the wonderfully flat farmland of the LangueDoc region we ducked off the little lane and into a vineyard.

Setting up our tents in the fading light of a magnificent sunset, we cemented our newly founded friendship over a few bottles of beer stowed in Mattieu’s trailer. The quiet rustle of the vines and babbling of the little brook we were camped next to made perfect company for the bright new full moon that made it’s way across the sky as we chatted about that thing called life.

For the following couple of days we travelled next to the sea, along the golden sandy beaches and through stunning french villages, buying food at markets packed with local fresh produce and people that oozed the beautiful style that French people just seem to have by the bucketload. We feasted on saucisson, baguettes, crossiants, avocadoes and vine tomatoes while sat in the cool shade of a golden granite church. We battled against relentless strong headwinds that were gusting from the central Massif of the country, making our way through the rolling hillsides through the lovely towns of Narbonne and Beziers.

Taking in the beauty of the landscape and the bustling culture of the cities while eating some of the best mango sorbet I’ve ever tasted.

Camping sauvage or wild camping in France is the best and easiest I have found so far. We enjoyed nights in gorgeous fields overlooking canals and sunsets over the mountains, amongst the trees of fruit packed orchards that made breakfast the next morning even healthier, and in the wildlife scattered marshes next to beaches as we made our way north towards Provence. Passing through the lovely coastal town of Sete, a place that Mattieu has known since he was young as his grandmother had lived there all her life. We ate on the quayside, devouring with pleasure the local seafood delicacy of Tielle. A tart made with spiced tomato sauce and fresh octopus. A delight as we basked in the afternoon sun, watching two youg boys swim amongst the boats of the quay estuary. We unfortunately missed the traditional ‘Jute’ a boat fight where two men on platforms attached on ladders high above boats battle with jousting sticks.

Although we more than made up for it by heading to Frontignan where we bought a cold bottle of the local Muscat and drank it with goats cheese and bread while swimming in the sea as the evening sunlight faded.

So far France has reignited the dulled flames of my desire to travel and has been everything I dreamed of when I started to think about cycling around Europe. The landscape, the people, the food, the roads. And this is only one region! The next will be Provance, will it live up to everything I have heard?

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Hard times and Good times!

As I might have mentioned briefly the departure of a familiar face after so long without seeing one is a bloody hard thing to face up to and deal with alone. Magnified some what by the environment I’ve been cycling through for the last week has made it the most testing and toughest time so far on this journey.

Once I had got myself together after Matt leaving, I set off the next morning before the sun came over the mountains behind the villa. The road that we zoomed up and down in the tank suddenly felt much steeper than ever before. The few days of drinking too much and having a boys holiday caught up with me pretty quickly too. Thankfully the winding descent around the valley and back down to the coast road was spectacular. Perfectly graded bends that throw you in the nicest possible way into the next and let you keep the speed all the way to the bottom where you arrive grinning maniacally wanting to go again but not really willing to climb the 30km hill just for thrills!

I was already a bit deflated after looking over the maps to realise quite how far south I actually was. The Costa del Sol is a hell of a long way from the next place I was setting my sights on. The crossing into France. Gritting my teeth I began travelling eastwards, moving away from the Costa del Sol and along the Almerian coast. The roads began snaking through a landscape that seemed quite alien to all that I have been through previously. Green plants and trees gave way to hard orange dusty soil, barely alive thorny shrubs and magnificent cacti. Open farmland was replaced by white plastic covered fields, presumably for intensive crop growing but the majority appeared empty. Some had the appearance of battery chicken farms, thankfully I thought they may be empty due to the very recent banning of battery farmed chickens but I couldn’t be sure. There were barely any signs and seemingly no-one around for miles, especially once the heat rose during the day. \The roads were populated only by silly Brits on heavily loaded bikes and long distance lorry drivers that kicked up all the dust from the sides of the road. Passing through this barren, forgotten landscape I had little to distract me from the ridiculous spiralling heat and the long dusty highways. The roads soon began to add their 2 pence to the mix, as the coastline became more rocky and mountainous, the spectacular Sierra Nevada mountains to my left and the ocean to my right I had little choice than to snake up and down and over the endless hills of the coast. The only respite was the stunningly clear Mediterranean, with the crowds left behind around the grey beached Costa del Sol I was more or less alone with my choice of beautiful bays and crystal waters tempting me down from the roads high above. Occasionally I had the chance to dive into the refreshing water and cool my road weary body.

The ever increasing heat soon became very nearly unbearable. As I passed through the arabian influenced Almeria stopping only briefly to watch the boats destined for Africa, and thinking to myself if I can’t stand the heat of Spain then Africa might have to wait a bit longer!

Setting off early around 6:30 meant I got at least 3 hours of cycling before the heat of the day really kicked off. By 9 o’clock the temperature was in the mid 30s, rising over the rest of the day to incredible 40 degree plus. The kind of heat that even the movement from being on a bike, that usually allows for a cool breeze now only brought gusts of hot air that stifles as soon as it’s breathed in. Although these few brief hours gave me a chance to cycle in a normal temperature they were just that and all too brief. The whole rest of the day was far too hot to even sleep so by the time I had done my riding for a day I still had hours before it was comfortable to sleep. The constant routine of waking early to cycle and falling asleep late meant I was beginning to be totally drained.

I cycled through the spectacular desert landscape of the Cabo de Gata National Park. The route through this beautifully desolate region climbed some spectacular leg munching mountains, sweat pouring from me as I made my way up and over the lovely mountain roads. Every time I stopped,the flies that through Andalucia had been mildly annoying now became the sole target for all the hatred I could muster. In my ears, up my nose, in my eyes and all over my body became a fly feeding ground as my sweat drenched body made it’s way through the dry arid desert. Eating lunch at a tiny village halfway through the park really showed me that this harsh environment was taking it’s toll. I ordered from a waiter as there was no menu, my limited spanish meant my order of a salad and small portion of fresh fish became a huge and delicious mixed salad with a large plate of garlic grilled fish steaks. Happy with my mis-ordering I began to devour, forgetting the flies for a second I sat back to take a breath and the two plates were covered in the crawling, flying, buzzing nazis! My relaxing mealtime’s were now a constant arm waving battle against an endless army of the little buggers.

My mental state began to break slightly, I was uninspired by the places I travelled through and began to lose the wonder of the sights I passed. The large expanses of nothingness made me feel utterly depressed and I soon began to worry that I was letting things I could do nothing about affect me too much and didn’t want it to ruin my trip. An option I looked into to relieve me of this nightmare was to take a train from Alicante all the way along the coast and into France. At the time the news that bicycles weren’t allowed on this train almost broke me but my resiliance shone through and I decided instead to take a ferry over to Eivissa, or Ibiza for the lay-folk!!

Knowing that at least I would have a break from the relentless heat and mountains while also making up a vast amount of ground on my return to Barcelona way up the coast I soon began to feel the magic rekindling.

Stepping off the ferry and into Ibiza town I came across a world of possibility and excitement. Everywhere I looked were weird and wonderful people, beautiful and carefree shopping amongst the mass of jewellery stalls, or old tanned hippies drinking coffee and chatting in doorways. Even in the first few hours of being on the White Isle I could tell there was something special about the place and it’s people. Having lunch at a little Italian restaurant I was chatting with the beautiful waitress and old Italian owner about travelling and living on Ibiza, when she came over and gave me the present of some home grown herbs! My spirits lifted by chatting and being amongst a whole island of like minded people I found my way to a gorgeously hippyish campsite on the North East coast. Adjoined to a beach I immediately felt at home and the most comfortable on my own for a long time.

All over the island people actually greeted me with smiles and chatted to me as if I were a normal person instead of the strange almost resentful looks that I had gotten used to. It felt for a while that I had another head growing out of my back or green antennae sticking out of my head the way some folks regarded me through the rest of Spain.

My days on Ibiza were far too short, I felt that I could live here quite happily for a very long time. Spending the time I did have cycling the lucious tree lined lanes, fruit and vegetables growing everywhere and the hilly landscape dotted with awesome white villas and farm houses. Making my way along dusty tracks I re-found the amazement I had as a child at the clouds of dust from vehicles travelling along hot dusty tracks. It must have been all those years watching rallying on TV that made this simple feat of physics so exciting.

Covered in the white dust I found cove upon cove of clear waters where I snorkelled to my hearts content amongst the fish of the Balearic sea.

Sitting in the shady wooden coastal shacks, smoking grass and talking about cycling with old French island veterans was as enjoyable as it sounds. Made the hills on the way home that little bit tougher though! At the campsite I met numerous new friends and spent a night partying with a group of German friends, drinking beer, playing cards before watching the fireworks from the nearest village for Saint Christopher’s day explode through the trees, topped off only by a midnight swim watching the reflection of the moon ripple on the waves and the chilled basslines wafting from the nearest Chiriniguito beach bar.

When people talk about the island having a buzz and a magic. There really is a spiritual pulse that emenates from the island, out of the caves in the beautiful tree lined mountains, through the rocky coves that line the coast or through people themselves I don’t know, but the essence of positivity, energy, happiness, love, open mindedness, hedonism, peacefulness is all around and I defy anyone to travel to the island and not feel it. Throw away all those preconceptions of ‘Beefa, in fact throw away preconceptions full stop, about everything. They’re very rarely right and you’re usually surprised by what you find in reality. I certainly was when I came to Ibiza

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