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Writing about cycling for this post feels a bit odd as it took place in an ex's homeland of Essex. No, I mean her half Greek-Cypriot heritage obviously.
To be honest, I had put the thought of it into the back of a cupboard, and forgotten about it. Nevertheless, it is a country that I cycled a bit in. Along the southern coast near Larnaca is beauty, splattered with lager-louts. Talk about a sudden change in the way of life for a generation of families who still remember the worst of the awful conflict 45 years ago, as they clashed with the Turkish at Varosha/Famagusta, depending on the perspective one has on the event. Either way, it is and will remain a ghost town.
I rode to the the frontline, which reminded me very much of the barricade from Les Misérables, just nastier. (I assure you, I am not posh). Picture sandbags, ladders and gun turrets. I was shocked and became very interested in what happened as it was the first time I had heard about war first-hand since my Pops' stories of World War 2. Now though, I was old enough to want to learn what caused the battle and what the resulting effect is. I hope that the result is not just that there is a guided and themed bike tour of the area, which would be a bit uncomfortable and likely draw too much attention from the resident armed soldiers for my liking.
Cycling was more of a enhancement to a relaxing beach holiday. I'm not very good at doing nothing, so within a day or two I was itching to do something other than lounge around a resort. This is probably the moment I realised that my holidays to new places would nearly always involve exploring with a bicycle.
There is not much to write about my experience of cycling here, no anecdotes or quips, just the memory of cruising along the southern coastline, sometimes in peace, but other times grimacing at the sound of bad-boyz in their pimped-up rides, revving along the promenade. I'm sure that there is some stunning riding to be had here.
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Croatia is shaped a bit like a Nike swoosh with its base along the Dalmatian coast of the Adriatic Sea. We cycled the country end-to-end from the highlands of Slovenia in the north-west to the bays of Montenegro to it's south-east. What a glorious country it is to cycle. It has a bit of everything for the bicycle tourer, stunning beauty, good roads, welcoming people, fresh food and no Euro, which at the time made it a cheaper place to tour than some of it's neighbours.
We rolled down into the country from Slovenia to the Croatian coast at Opatija. It was a near perfect introduction to the country. There was something in the air that made me remember beach holidays as a kid, as the vivid colours of the forests gave way to the Azure of the sea. There was one thing playing on my mind though, my rear-end. I had been touring on an adapted road bike, which was fast but not very strong. A wobble from the back wheel had become worse over the last few days, and it was only a matter of time before my spokes began to pop out under the pressure of full pannier bags, and me. The 'Ping' and then the 'Clatter' of them snapping and snagging was shocking, but I somehow managed to limp down to sea level.
It was a nervy ride that day, but with no spare spokes and no bike shop, there was no alternative. I played down the severity of the mechanical issue when asked if everything was alright. I of course said that it was fine, but my white knuckles likely revealed the truth. Somehow or another, I made the port, where there was a bike shop. I thought that would be the end of the problem, but the owner seemed sorry as he had nothing suitable to replace my back wheel with. I loitered in his shop, browsing, then, in a quiet moment, I explained what we were doing, and why. After about 30 minutes he told me to hang on whilst he made a phone call. He had managed to find something belonging to his brothers friend, an old Campagnolo wheel-set. Ok, so it was old and expensive, but it would do the job and what other options did I have anyway? The owner then had his brother collect the wheel-set from his friends house, and drove his moped for over an hour to get it to me. Wow. What a good start that was to Croatia.
We enjoyed riding along the coast, so tried to stick close-by whenever possible. But one morning in the seaside town of Senj, we knew there was only one way out - inland. We were still finding our rhythm on this summer's bike tour from Italy to Turkey, and we met a real challenge only a few days in to this country. The climb from the seaside town of 1550 vertical metres to Melnice was a beast, but even with hangovers from a lovely bottle of red for sunset, we made it, and felt great about our ability.
The very next day, and probably the highlight of the the trip to that point was visiting Plitvice National Park through the back-door. We had stayed in a guest house the night before which looked and felt like a Swiss Chalet. The meadows and the animals surrounding were befitting, so we were in no rush to leave initially, as we were not sure whether the entrance fee for the park could be justified, besides where we were was pretty special anyway. We chatted to our host over breakfast, who explained that there was an old un-maintained farm road which entered the park from the south west, rather than the east where the entrance-fee kiosks were. We knew it was a bit cheeky, but we were bike tourers and so normally get away with a lot of things. In fact we are normally ignored by authorities at borders and checkpoints, so we went for it. The ride that morning was unforgettable. It was picture-perfect, like something from a children's book. Thick woodland on either side of a muddy, but thankfully ridable road, then meadows, then duck-filled babbling brooks shimmering in the sun, then geese, piglets and old-style farming families chatting at their gates. Gorgeous. We rounded more corners and the trees began to reveal a lake like none other i've seen. It was so calm, the water was like a mirror for the sky.
Understandably, it took us a while to get going again. We could have camped right there, but we had come to see the waterfalls and the bright-blue lakes of Plitvice, so we toddled on up winding roads, with little or no other traffic for a few hours. Then we saw other tourists, but of the 'package-tour' ilk, so we figured that we must be somewhere significant. Indeed we were, as we soon realised we were now inside the park, next to a viewpoint for something which looked like it had been made-up by Willy Wonka. Milky looking water falling into Raspberry-soda-blue lakes. It was quite enchanting, the whole day was really, except for the nagging on our conscience for not paying the entry fee. But then again, we had made a real effort to get in the hard (but free) way so we were going to make the most of it. Which, for us, as always, means a fleeting and efficient visit, pushing our bikes through bemused 'Awesome OMG'ers'. We walked our bikes right up to a gatehouse, and readied ourself to deal with the figure we would have to pay for what we had seen. Yes, it would have been worth a lot, but let's be honest, it's always better when you experience something without feeling poorer than you did before. The park was clearly doing well for itself, so we made no eye-contact with the park wardens, and neither did they. What a result, what a day.
A week later we took a boat across to the the long thin island of Korcula and cycled along it, back to the mainland, and eventually down to the poster-boy city of Dubrovnik. We attempted to ride our loaded bikes along ancient trade routes, one of these was less than a path, and it took us over 3 hours to do 10 kilometres one day near Orebic. Our chosen route ended up being a path to someones front door, up steps, with our laden bikes. It was hot and we were dry of water; it was real test for us, but with numerous stops and the occasional cider, we eventually made our way along precarious cliff-ledges to the (aptly walled) town of Ston.
It was great that travelling in a country in Europe could still feel adventurous, and Croatia certainly is unique. Honestly, some of the main arteries of Croatia are too busy for cycling in the peak summer months and infrastructure and provisions for cyclists are not a thing. Hence part of the reason why blood was shed in a poorly lit, steep, narrow and winding tunnel near Rijeka. Chainrings sunk their teeth into legs as we struggled to push our steeds out into safety. Ho hum. Overall though, its got to be in my top 10 countries toured.
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My experience of cycling in Chile was mixed; two sedate self-guided city tours of Santiago and Valparaiso, and a near-death experience near Torres del Paine National Park.
I don't remember much about the city rides other than sunny churches on steep hills in both places. The sea breezes of the second longest country in the world (north to south) made for pleasant riding. 3000 kilometres south of these cities however lies a much wilder place. I attacked the stunning area at the southern tip of the Americas known Patagonia on a bicycles one day, setting off from a wood-cabin hostel early in the morning. Come to think of it, that was the only sweet smelling hostel i've ever stayed in, which now makes me wonder why I was so keen to leave it on a rather chilly and breezy day. The surroundings of this isolated town are not spectacular, mainly scrub verging on heathland, but the sight of monstrous mountain peaks in the distance moved me all morning, through the pangs of diarrhoea and the resulting frequent stops, north-east about 60 kilometres towards the 'Three Towers of Paine'.
The only traffic I saw all morning on the straight and otherwise lonely road were buses of various shapes and sizes moving in the same direction as I was. Some carried farm workers, some carried tourists, but all kicked up massive plumes of red dust. I wore a bandana to avoid the worst of it and felt a bit like an outlaw, a rebel, the only cyclist who would dare come to these lands. So you can imagine how my ego deflated when I realised that I had been stupidly slow all day getting here, and now I would have only a few hours to rush to the glacier lake and get back to the trail head at the car park in time to catch the losers bus back to the hostel. More frequent emergency stops took place, and the ramble up the scree-fields was unforgiving. Thankfully the view I was rewarded with was ridiculous and ranks in the top 5 sights i've seen.
Knowing that I would be heading downhill for the rest of the day made me feel good, but the darkening of the day didn't. This would be one of the top 5 places in the world to not be stranded, I imagine, so I certainly didn't want to miss the 6pm last bus of the day. I was not imagining things when I got back to the car park though, it was real, I was alone. It was nearly 6.30, but I didn't panic, which was a surprise considering my predicament. This happened before smartphones, before map apps, before Uber. I was hours from any town and the overnight low here the previous night was -6c. Oh dear. Hunkering down was not an option, I had nothing to hunker with. There were rather an unsettling number of actual vultures in the vicinity, likely scavenging rubbish left by tossers, so I soon realised that a dark and cold night ride was the only option, at least I would keep warm and be back for breakfast.
I was empty, but had thought to collect water from a river before heading off, so I knew that the ride back was feasible. I then started seeing Snickers bars forming in the dust on the horizon, but they never materialised, thankfully for me, (though not for the dramatic effect of this blog post) a bus did. It had been delayed setting off from the town hours ago, and was only now coming to the trailhead. Unsurprisingly, no tourists had stuck with it by the looks of it, likely none fancied the idea of hiking in the dark. I smiled at the driver as he approached, my bright colours were coming in handy here, he acknowledged me with a casual salute. To my horror, he then proceeded to whizz past me at a rate of knots, peppering me with debris.
I belted out a barrage of obscenities and then got back to it, now I just needed to keep my head down and pedal. Of course, I had not thought it through. The driver soon returned from the empty trailhead and for about 3 seconds I toyed with the idea of dismissing the driver as he pulled up alongside me. Instead I was the polite and gracious Englishman that I am towards him and he waved me onboard, laughing and muttering. He was my saviour no matter what he was saying about me.
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A short hop away from where I was living in Togo; Cameroon was a great destination for a spring break.
The thought of travelling there had conjured up images of Roger Milla's goal celebration dance with the corner flag at Italia 90. All in vivid green, red and yellow. The colours of the countrie's flag were well represented by the rich green meadows of the highlands, the red fertile earth, and the prosperity from the country being well-endowed with resources. I found it a fascinating country to learn about, partly because it had experienced both French and British rule, to this day there are English speaking and French speaking regions. On the first day of the trip, I listened long and hard to a multi-lingual chief in a tarpaulin bar after being soaked through having ridden hard-tail mountain bikes around a valley for a day.
After a minor scolding for crossing my legs towards him, "Why would you cross your legs towards me? You people have funny rules of what is ok and what is not in public", he seemed to enjoy explaining some of the virtues of colonisation and the the horror of being its subject. He ridiculed the French for not thinking ahead and praised the Brits for building the infrastructure needed to enforce law. Of course, there was nothing I could offer in return conversation. I was not not going to claim that I understood or accept that I was to blame. I wanted to learn and I could see that was enough for him.
On reflection, I wondered whether if I had chugged into that bar in a white-man's 4x4 in pastel cotton and linen, would I have been invited to join the ever-growing circle of elders, or ear-wiggers that I found myself in the middle of? But as a mere lost-looking cyclist I sat there in my grey-brown sports gear, just being careful to sit correctly and curious enough to want to be part of a debate that was organic . I imagine that people there would likely have been disappointed by my lack of astute counter-assertions, but you know what curiosity did to the cat, so I knew that it was time for diplomacy. Having grown up near Watford High Street, I know that there are some people you don't want to wind up by saying the wrong thing in a weird accent of pidgin English. In this case, could there have been a right thing?
As per normal, I was not planning a relaxing getaway from school, oh no, I had agreed to hike Mount Cameroon with a colleague, and long before arriving in the crazy city of Doula, I could see my nemesis lying there, slightly steaming, 4040 metres of volcanic rock, looming over towns and my conscience. Unlike any other mountain hike I had done, this one would be pretty much up to 4040m from sea level and back down again. I had been higher, but not from such a low elevation to start and finish, this was going to be rather epic. It was. We battled pretty much every element that could be thrown at us on the 4 day ramble. Much of the time in stark rock fields or edging between geysers, other times following elephant tracks through dense jungle and across hardened lava fields dumped by a recent-ish eruption in the year 2000. On one of these hiking sections, in a forest we stumbled across some local dudes. Now I am pretty pale and depending on the season, sometimes skinny, but my hiking partner, whose name I will not state, is even more of these things. So we did not pass them unnoticed. I don't think they will ever forget seeing Jesus that day, and we will never forget the looks on their faces.
Some of these obstacles proved to be impassable on a bicycle as I attempted to take the coastal road around the mountain one day after the hike. So instead I took a moment to relax on the black and red sand beaches. It sure was is a beautiful country and I was happy to have had the chance to visit.
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I've been to Brazil twice, once was during an overly ambitious six week tour of south america, so I didn't get enough time to absorb the place. The second time I got a better sense for the country as I was one of millions of tourists there for the football world-cup in 2014.
Our first stop was Sao Paulo, we had arrived after the first few group games had been played, so it's almost true, though very sad, that we arrived as as the England team boarded the plane home. Nevertheless my memories are of happy people celebrating the beautiful game.
It was always very exciting flying into new towns in regions all across this huge country where we had tickets to see a game. Once in Rio de Janeiro for a knock-out stage match, we cycled the coastal paths around town, taking in all of the famous sites of the bay, beaches and improbably steep sided mountains for a city. There was a spectacular section clinging to the cliff face, even closer to the ocean than the road. We learned a few months after passing through that it had collapsed, killing two. It just goes to show that you never know. Enjoy the ride of life whilst it lasts.
Another stop was the city of Cuiab√°, Mato Grosso, near the wild wetlands of the Pantanal. I travelled here with my dad and stayed in ranches or haciendas, fished, and dodged thousands of snapping Caiman on the paths and roads. We got to know the worlds biggest rodents, the Capybara and searched the riverbanks for other animals. The place is teeming with life, the clouds of bugs would actually slow you down, but it was worth it. I have always been fortunate when looking for wildlife, and sure enough, out of season we witnessed the mighty Jaguar fishing. It was a special thing to see a cat jumping into water to get its food. I was silent for ages after seeing it.
On a match day, we went to a roadside bar. A rusty one next to a gravel road, but it had cold beer and a TV. Germany vs USA was just starting, and we were the only people there, until we noticed some rustling from behind the beer bottle bins, and two sweaty americans wandered out from the bush with stars and stripes T-Shirts. It's a funny old game, but it brings us together. We enjoyed the match more than they did as they deserved a point from it, but at least we could empathise with them as we know very well what losing to Germany feels like.
One of the days spent in the Pantanal was on a bicycle. We had borrowed them from the hacienda and had a plan to cycle the farmland surrounding it. So on another beautiful day we rode through small forests with purple Parrots, crossed small pools and rested at a river. It was whilst we were sat that we noticed a paw print next to us, bigger in area that my footprint. The ride back was nowhere near as relaxing as the ride there, we felt eyes on us all the time. We were tiring and yet when an animal moved making a sudden noise from the darkness of a clump of trees, we yelped and pedalled hard. Looking back, fearing for my life, there it was glistening in the setting sun, a lolloping old, lost looking mule.
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