touring

The Start of the Road to Mandalay (and other Interesting Places)

I’m not sure I’d recommend the streets of Hanoi to an inexperienced cyclist.  I’m certainly sure that I wouldn’t recommend them to a slightly chubby touring cyclist who hasn’t ridden with bags on for a couple of months.

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But still, after an early morning today (Tuesday), I wobbled unsteadily off into the scooter lunacy.  Back on the road again.

And after just a few slightly anxious minutes (mainly involving remembering how to steer), I’d got my head around the virtually non-existent ‘rules’ of the Vietnamese road, at least roughly.  I’d found the main drag out of town.  And I’d picked up a reasonably strong tailwind to blow me south.  Apart from a little bit of drizzle, Round-the-World Part 2 began OK.

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I gave myself a few days off the bike in Vietnam to acclimatise to the tropical heat before I started riding.  But I think I might have misread a bit of my pre-trip research.  Although the rest of South East Asia appears to be basking in 30-degree Celsius sunshine, the north-east of Vietnam is grey and cool.  Perfect weather for cycling, but not so great for a nice bit of winter sun.

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Despite the slightly iffy weather, I had a really good few days in Hanoi and on Cat Ba island (near Ha Long Bay) with Matt, a friend I used to work with.  Hanoi is surprisingly relaxed for a capital city, and has all you’d expect, with a bit of added interest from the remaining trappings of Communism (like Ho Chi Minh’s giant mausoleum (above).  Although the global-standard advertising hoardings (TVs, phones, cosmetics) now heavily outnumber the old-school communist posters, which are presumably still exhorting the population to triple tractor production and so on.  It seems a shame in a way.

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Cat Ba island was a nice break from the constant traffic noise of Hanoi.  Vietnamese is a tonal language, with words which are ‘sung’ in different ways to give different meanings.  I’m sure that’s also true of the way that the locals use the horns on their trucks, buses and scooters.  But I’m equally sure that they would drive me nuts before I learned any of their subtleties.  You definitely need a break from time to time.

Anyway, getting back into Hanoi yesterday afternoon marked the start of a bit of frantic bike re-building (the Beastlet made it out here in one piece, you’ll be glad to know).  Followed by a quick round of re-packing all my stuff into the correct panniers.  A couple of insanely cheap beers, a nice steak, and then a relatively early night, allegedly ready for eight months on the bike.

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And so, back to today.  The first day of the second half of my round-the-world jaunt.  The first day back on a major Asian highway since I got scraped off one by an ambulance.

It ended up being the easiest day’s riding I’ve had for a long time while touring.  The traffic was fairly light once I got out of Hanoi, and the tailwind (combined with that painful early start) meant that I knocked off just over a hundred kilometres by three in the afternoon, even allowing for a gentle twiddle around the beautiful limestone hills just outside town (above).

Not a bad start, then, on day one.  Just another two-hundred-and-odd days to go…

A Summer Break

It’s been a little while, hasn’t it?

Partly, I was a bit bored of writing about how my shoulder, back and neck were feeling.  Partly I was getting stressed trying to make training rides on country lanes seem interesting.  And partly, I suspected that you, dear readers, were probably a bit bored of reading about the same stuff over and over again, too.

But things are getting (at least vaguely) interesting once more, and there’s a bit to catch up on.  So I think it’s time to put virtual pen to virtual paper again.

It may be a bit of a bumper issue, so you might want to get a nice cup of tea if you intend to wade through the whole thing in one go…

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I’ve been discharged from medical supervision (assuming no relapses), which is nice.  I’m apparently about 20-30% off full shoulder movement, which may or may not get any better.  The broken vertebrae in my back and neck should continue to strengthen with time.  In terms of day-to-day activities I’m about 90% sorted.  I may never again be able to do overhand chin-ups, but since I never could anyway, that’s no great loss.

The x-ray above was taken when I got back to Bristol, a week after the crash, and is (hopefully) the last you’ll hear about the Thai Truck Incident.  It gives at least a vague impression of how many bits were mangled and / or moved about at the time, and how big the impact was.  For me, it’s a nice reminder of how lucky I am to be more-or-less together four-and-a-half months later.

I’m fairly confident that I won’t be bothering you with further medical details because I completed my summer sportive programme on Sunday.  I can appreciate that some people may think that recovering from a major accident by building up to a timed 100-plus mile ride is somewhat masochistic, but it seems to have worked OK for me.  And if I was going to break down physically, it would’ve happened by now.  I think.

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My second sportive (after the one in Newbury which I wrote about last time) took me north to the Peak District National Park.  I wanted to get some proper hills under my belt, which is difficult in the south of England.  The Peaks are also a beautiful part of the world.  And I was lucky enough to ride mountain bikes up there while I was a student, so there was a nostalgic motivation for the ride too.

The ride itself was all a bit different from the Newbury event.  This was partly down to the much tougher terrain, but mostly down to my riding buddy for the day.  If you remember, I rode the first sportive with Luke, who’d only had a bike for a few weeks.  As the faster rider, all I had to worry about that day was whether I could manage the distance.

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To add to my Peak District nostalgia, I was riding with Jon.  He was one of my mountain-bike buddies from Uni, but we hadn’t seen each other for about 20 years (a good reason for writing a blog; he rediscovered me through this site while I was in Indonesia, or somewhere).

Jon’s a thoroughly good bloke, and we got on as if the decades-long gap had never happened.  Unfortunately, as you may be able to tell from the picture above, he’s also at least as fit as he was 20 years ago, and certainly way more than a match for me.

So in a slightly painful reversal of the Newbury ride, I spent most of the day clinging to Jon’s wheel as he nonchalantly climbed pretty much everything in the big chainring.  I thought I was keeping up OK until he decided to ‘have some fun’ on the steeper slopes at the top of Snake Pass (below).  He put at least a couple of minutes into me just in the last mile of the climb.  And I don’t think he was really working very hard even then.

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I’m sure there was a time (a couple of weeks in 1992, maybe?) when I could have done the same to him.  That time definitely isn’t now.

But at least I could console myself with: the three or four other riders who dropped off my wheel on the lower slopes of the pass; a reasonable time (at least by my current standards, and given the amount of climbing involved); and a couple of very decent pints of cider in the sunshine afterwards.  A really good day.

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The drive up to the Peaks reminded me of why I’m looking forward to my upcoming tour up the length of the UK.  Just over three-hours in the car (roughly 150 miles) whisked me from the flat flood plain of the Severn estuary, to the exposed moorland of the Peaks.  From golden stone cottages in Cotswold villages to dark brick terraced towns.  From people who over-pronounce the letter ‘r’ to people who don’t always bother with the word ‘the’.  And that’s just the start and end points; between the two I passed the UK’s second-biggest city, Birmingham, as well as the former centre of world pottery production around Stoke.

None of this will surprise anyone in the UK.  But there are so many countries where you can ride a bike for weeks without seeing that sort of variety of landscape, accent and culture (the American mid-west and Australia, for example).  150 miles is only two or three days’ cycle touring, so riding the whole length of the country for a month or so should be really interesting.

But I was getting ahead of myself.  I still had Sunday’s ‘ton’ to come.

This was the big test of my fitness to get back to touring.  I reckoned that if I was reasonably comfortable doing 100 miles as a one-off ride, then touring more slowly at 50-70 miles a day should be fine.  If Sunday went wrong, then the UK tour (and eventually getting back to Asia and finishing the round-the-world trip) would have to be put on hold.

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I needn’t have worried, as it turned out.

The Sodbury Sportive starts and finishes just a few miles from home, and is distinct from the other events I’d ridden, as the profits go to charity (it made nearly £19000 last year), rather than fattening corporate wallets.  Volunteers, organised by the local Rotary Club, made it run like clockwork.  There were a pair of enthusiastic pensioners pointing the way at almost every turn, and semi-professional cheerers (with cow bells!) and a steel band at the finish line to welcome the riders in.  A really good event.

Most importantly, from my point of view, the weather was spot-on for cycling; not too hot, not too windy, and no rain (always a bonus in this country).  And, with a thousand, mostly local, riders on the road, there was plenty of friendly company.  I even ran into Graham, who I went to school with, and Nev, who I used to work with.  Which makes the whole thing sound a bit more parochial than it actually was, but still…

It would be pushing it to say it was easy (though the first sixty or seventy miles, which included all the main climbing, felt surprisingly good).  I was hanging on a bit at the end, if I’m honest.  But 103 miles (166km) in 7 hours 30 minutes, including food stops, is not too shabby.  I missed the ‘silver’ award time by about five minutes, but I didn’t know what it was until after I finished, so can’t be upset about that.

The bottom line is that the distance and the time were fine.  My back and neck were not too battered at the end.  So the return to cycle touring is on.

The Beastlet is currently tucked up in a local bike shop, getting its wheels and mechanicals rearranged for touring purposes.  I just need to get the racks bolted on when it comes back, and it’ll be good to go.  And I’ve got a detailed plan for the UK tour, starting late next week, and running to late September.  But, in keeping with my severe procrastination habit, I’ve not actually booked any of it yet.

There should be updates on the bike and the route over the next few days.

And then I’ll be back into touring mode.  The full length of the UK in four-ish weeks.  It’s not exactly India or Iran, but it should be a lot more interesting than broken bones and training rides.

Can’t wait…

Type 2 Fun – The First Sportive

It’s after four on Sunday afternoon, but it feels much later with the glowering black clouds cutting the light down.  Driving rain lashes Newbury racecourse, as it has, intermittently, for most of the day.  And it’s chilly, even for the fickle English summer.

The Wiggle Magnificat Sportive is drawing to a close.  Think of it as a mass-participation marathon on wheels, without an elite race in front.  Hundreds of damp, tired cyclists have completed their choice of 44, 85 or 128 mile rides.  They shelter in the cafe and bar, easing their pain with alcohol or warming up with steaming cups of tea.

Maybe a few of the nicer ones among them are sparing a thought for the stragglers still out on the course.

A couple of miles away, two of those stragglers are finally rolling down the last hill towards the finishing line, and carefully negotiating the slippery white paint of the mini-roundabout on the last corner.  One of them is trying, unsuccessfully, to prevent his teeth from chattering as the cold wind cuts through his soaked clothes.  This is me.  The other can’t quite believe that his legs, which stopped working properly over an hour ago, are actually getting him to the finish line.  This is my friend Luke.

Few would argue that this is conventional, Type 1, instant gratification fun.  But we finished.  It wasn’t fast, and it wasn’t pretty in places.  But that really isn’t the point.  We’ve been there, and (literally) got the T-shirts:

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And, at least for me, as a protein-rich dinner and a couple of pints of cider mingled happily in my stomach a few hours later, it retrospectively became so much fun that I signed up to do another one in a couple of weeks.

Luke may take a bit longer to convince.  But I’m sure that, eventually (when he can sit down again without a soft cushion), he’ll agree that it was fun too.

Given our various physical issues and relative lack of preparation (basically, find a sportive training guide online, tear it into tiny pieces, and replace it with a few sporadic short rides, beer, and darts marathons), I reckon we did OK.

85 miles (136km) and 1366m (nearly 4500ft) of climbing in a day is a decent ride by most standards.

In a straight line, the 85 miles would have taken us from Newbury (pretty much in the middle of southern England) to Newport in Wales, or Birmingham in the midlands.  And the climbing was a little more than going from sea level to the summit of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in the UK.

For me, it was really about continuing my rehab after the accident.  I was pretty sure I’d be fine with the mileage after touring halfway round the world in the last year (the same Sunday in 2014 saw me rolling off from Greenwich to start my still-unfinished circumnavigation).

But, with my shoulder, back and neck still in pieces, it was a test to see if my body could deal with a whole day on the bike.  It can, which makes me very happy.  I’d struggle to do it for several days in a row, though, so I’ve still got some recovering to do before I get back to touring in a few weeks.

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For Luke (above, climbing one of the countless small hills in a rare non-rainy moment), it was a different sort of challenge.  He only bought his bike a few weeks ago, and his training’s been limited to laps of Richmond Park in London.  Which means that Sunday was his first ever ride over 40 miles, and the first time he’d gone anywhere close to that level of climbing.  Forcing his exhausted legs over the last few hills and miles was a proper result for him.

So, a cycling first for both of us; sportive number one completed.  An achievement, if not quite on the level of what Team Sky just did to the rest of the Tour de France this afternoon (Tuesday).

Was it worth it?  I’d say ‘definitely’.  But then, I’ve made hard riding a bit of a habit over the last year.  Luke might say ‘maybe’.  Or something unprintable.  The countryside was lovely, if damp.  The riding was fairly tough, but not outrageous.  The organisation was excellent.  The weather was shocking, and the course designer was a bit of a sadist, throwing stacks of stinging little climbs into the last few kilometres.  But in the end it was good, if definitely Type 2, fun.

And it hasn’t put Luke off cycling.  He’s talking about putting some bags on his bike and joining me for a couple of days on my UK tour in a few weeks.

Assuming he can bear to sit on a bike again by then, of course…

Celebrations and Coincidence on The Slab

Dull but efficient.

There are hardly any worse words with which to begin a post, I’d imagine.  Sounds like a lecture on German public toilets, or something.

However, it’s the only way I can describe Thai Highway 41 (also known as Asian Highway 2).  And it’s dominated the last few days.  It’s a pretty flat, very smooth, unnecessarily wide and interminably long lump of tarmac that runs all the way up peninsular Thailand.  It’s got me pretty much all the way across to the east coast.

But it’s crushingly boring.  And it’s hot.  And it just goes on, and on, and on.  I’m calling it ‘The Slab’.

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Thankfully, other events have taken my mind off it in the last couple of days.

To start with, I stayed up too late on Sunday, and had an extra drink.  Or two.

I should know better than to have too much beer on a school night (especially now that ‘school night’ implies that the next day will involve a vast amount of sweating).

But it was a momentous day, as I’m sure you’re all aware.  Bristol City were playing Walsall in the FA Trophy final (now named after an otherwise obscure paint company) at Wembley Stadium.  I spent ages trying to find a live stream.  I ended up listening on internet radio.  Not quite the same as being there.  Still, City won 2-0, and will now forever be the first team to win the trophy three times.  So you can hopefully understand why a small over-indulgence was called for.

An entirely predictable consequence was that I didn’t get enough sleep.  But, given no obvious hangover (and more importantly, a tailwind), yesterday became a low effort, high-speed rush along The Slab for 90-odd kilometres.  I even had enough time to grab a picture of the one interesting thing I saw; a huge, lonely Buddha waiting on a huge building site for a temple to be built around him:

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The lack of sleep (and, just possibly, a touch of delayed dehydration) caught up with me this morning.  I felt abysmally rough, and failed to get out of bed with anything approaching enthusiasm.  It was baking outside already, so I did some emergency re-planning, and settled on a much shorter day to give myself a chance to recover.

I was, therefore, only about 60km down the road by three o’clock this afternoon, and nearly finished for the day.  I saw a loaded touring cyclist, decked out in Thai flags on the other side of the road.  He didn’t notice me, but I noticed a cafe behind him.  I trundled over for a drink.  And saw another loaded bike hiding in the shadows.  It belonged to Colin.

And, get this…  Colin is from the UK.  From England.  From the West Midlands.  From Walsall.  What are the chances?

Bristol and Walsall meet twice in three days.  Once at Wembley Stadium in London, and once (with bikes) in a cafe in southern Thailand.  And all because of that extra lager on Sunday.  Isn’t that remarkable?

No?  Well, it’s as remarkable as this post’s getting, anyway.

The only other vaguely remarkable thing to happen to me in the last few days is my discovery of the range of room quality that you get in Thailand for more-or-less the same price.  A few days ago, my room had an improvised washing facility involving (spotlessly clean) dustbins.  Yesterday, I was in a brand new motel unit.  With (slightly alarmingly) mirrors on the ceiling:

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That picture looks odder the more I see it…

Now, the sharp-eyed among you will have noticed that the title of this post implies that more than one celebration should have been featured.  The second has nothing to do with me, at all (not sure that the first one had that much to do with me, either, come to think of it).

But it’s still well worth celebrating.  My cousin Jess, and her husband Jay (though I’m guessing he’s getting less of the credit), have just had a baby girl!  Congratulations and love to all three of you, and I’m looking forward to meeting Winnie when I get back home.

And that seems like a good place to leave it for now.  My dependence on The Slab should lessen from tomorrow onwards, as smaller coast roads link the various seaside resorts and hotels along the shore.  There might even be something interesting to write about next time.

Betrayal and Photo-Mugging

You might have got the impression from recent posts that I’d fallen for the happy madness of Indonesia’s National Road 3.

You’d have been right too.  But not any more.  It’s let me down badly.

Maybe I expected too much, and tried to push too hard (I have been trying to increase the mileage since Yogyakarta).  Whatever, by yesterday afternoon (Friday), I was sat at a level crossing watching a train flash smoothly by, and wishing I was on it.

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It’s not the scenery, which has remained pleasant and lush and green (if a little hilly as I approach the inevitable volcanic passes I need to clear to get towards the north coast and Jakarta).  It’s not the people, who have remained lovely throughout.  And It’s not the traffic, which I’m well used to by now.  Or even my standard bugbear, the weather.

No.  It’s the road itself.

Ever since Yogyakarta, the surface has deteriorated.  There have always been a few rough spots, but it’s got kind of ridiculous for the last hundred and fifty kilometres or so.  For long, seemingly endless, sections it might as well be ploughed.

Potholes, ruts, tree root damage, odd ripples which look like the road’s melted and then stuck together again in waves.  I actually hit some roadworks this morning, where they had stripped the surface off the top of the road.  The bare gravel was much smoother than most of what I’d been riding.

Down goes the speed, up goes the effort.  It’s like mountain biking, having to use your whole body to keep moving while keeping the bike and bags in one piece.  Constantly out of the saddle to absorb shocks.  Constantly un-weighting the front, then the back on every lump and bump to avoid damaging the wheels.  Constantly concentrating to find the smoothest line, and make sure you can take it without getting rear-ended by a bus.

It’s hard work, is what I’m trying to say.  And I’m getting a wee bit tired of it.

There may be a little hope.  The Beast and I rattled and bumped to the border between central and west Java this afternoon.

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The road has been a little better since the border, though it’s only been a few miles.  I’m not counting my chickens yet.

While the road might have changed, one thing has remained constant since I was at Borobudur.  Being photo-mugged by the locals.  It never happened before Yogyakarta, but it’s been pretty much constant since.  Indonesians don’t do the full-on gawking, ‘staring at the weird foreigner’ thing which happens in other places.

But they pretty much all have camera phones.  And they do all seem to want a photo with the weird foreigner.  A couple of local tourists got me at the border.  Before that, a bunch of scootering girls caught me at a shop at lunchtime.  And then another school football team got me at my final drink-break.  It’s nice, but a bit odd to be a tourist attraction when I’m the one on tour.

I guess I’ll just have to get used to the road and the photo-mugging, and try not to let them distract me.  There are still a few miles to go, after all.  And I need to focus on the big hills in the next few days.  Just hope that road surface holds up…

Summertime in the Sunshine State

Back at home in the UK, there’s an ancient summer tradition of kids riding donkeys at the seaside.  That’s on the five days of the summer that it’s not raining, blowing a gale or freezing cold, obviously.  And on the couple of beaches from which animals are not banned in the name of health and safety.  It probably doesn’t happen quite as much as it once did.

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In Queensland, it’s a little different.  There’s a camel train which wanders along the (fairly tiny) Airlie Beach, and it looks like it’s there to stay for another generation, at least.  The little chap above was being trained (not especially effectively, it appeared) to follow the rest of his family around, in preparation for a lifetime of trudging about with apes on his back.  I suspect the Beast sympathises.

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The sunshine and heat lasted for another day before I had something else to moan about.  At sunset in Bowen on Tuesday, I could already see clouds building behind the palm trees.  And by the time I started rolling up the highway on Wednesday morning, it was to the accompaniment of dire predictions of thunderstorms, torrential rain, and even possible highway closures due to flooding.

This was a bit of a bummer, as I was hoping to get to Townsville (roughly 200km / 125 miles away) by this evening (Thursday).

It’s been known to rain in the UK in the summer, too, so I shrugged off the warnings, slapped on the factor fifty, and pootled off determinedly up the road.  By lunchtime, I’d begun to think that I might get away with it, and make it to my target destination of Home Hill before anything too dramatic happened.  Then I stopped for a nice cold drink at the tiny hamlet of Gumlu, and emerged to see this hurtling down the road towards me:

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Ouch.

Needless to say, the Queensland rain’s not quite the same as at home either.  I spent three hours cowering in Gumlu as wave after wave of clouds unloaded, along with a spectacular lightning show.

Just as I thought I’d be stuck there forever, the clouds parted.  Enough time to dash the remaining 40km?  It looked like it might be.  And it would be light just about long enough, too.  I shifted into time-trial mode, ignoring the protests from my legs, and floored it.

For about ten kilometres.

Then I got a flat tyre.  Only the fifth of the whole trip.  Just one every 39 days.  So why, oh why do I get one in the middle of nowhere when I’m trying to beat a gazillion litres of airborne water to the next shelter?

I’m still not sure whether the puncture did me a favour in the end.  I was still 15kms out of Home Hill when the rain began again.  Amazingly, the arrival of the heavy stuff coincided with me spotting the illuminated sign of the petrol station / hotel / campground at Inkerman.  In I dived, and was rewarded by their phenomenal ‘waifs and strays’ policy – a free worker’s cabin (rather dubiously known as a ‘donga’) for the night.  Lucky, lucky boy…

Today’s forecast was even worse that yesterday’s, so I didn’t really expect to make Townsville.  In fact, I only just scraped that elusive 15kms to Home Hill before cloudburst number one arrived at eight this morning.

I hung around (under shelter) in town for a couple of hours, but things didn’t improve a great deal:

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And so in Home Hill I remain.  As I write, the sixth cloudburst of the day is ongoing.  At home, one shower like that would clear the air for days.  Not here.

Things are forecast to be a little better tomorrow, so I might be able to scramble up to Townsville with just a few showers to dodge.  My optimism remains undimmed.  More likely, I’ll make it to the next town, Ayr, and get stranded again.

So, summer in Queensland.  Animal rides on the beach and changeable weather.  Sounds very much like an English summer on paper.

But it’s really, really, not the same at all.

Liquid Air: The Path to Plan C?

I’m not a huge fan of selfies.

I have a contract with my five-year-old nephew, Tom (Hi, Tom!), to provide him with a selfie from every country (or major part of a country) that I go to on this trip.  And that’s as far as I really want to go with them.

Except today.  I wanted to explain the Queensland humidity in words.  But I found that ‘damp’, ‘moist’, and even ‘swampy’, were not really cutting the mustard.  None of them get close to the experience of sweating through your shirt while sitting immobile in a chair.  At 7am.  Hopefully, this might help:

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Ignore the cheerful (if slightly awkward) grin.  More accurately, ignore the forced and painful smile.  It’s not my best picture, I know.  That’s not what this is about, though.

I’d been riding for 50 minutes, on an outrageously flat road, with a gentle tailwind.  In other words, I should hardly have broken sweat.  And no, it hadn’t rained.  Yet, as you may have noted, my top appears to have been doused by a particularly enthusiastic bunch of firefighters.  The sunscreen, which was perfectly absorbed into my skin just a few minutes before, has made a disturbing reappearance.  I’m not sure how much water there is in a human body, but pretty much all of mine had simply dived out through my pores, saturating everything in its path.  Lovely.

This is one effect of Queensland’s Liquid Air.  Another is that the air actually feels thicker than usual.  It’s not that is doesn’t provide any oxygen, it just feels like harder work than normal to drag it in and out of your lungs.  Combined with the inability to hold water inside the body, this makes the riding less than easy.  And that’s before the third aspect of the humidity hits.

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The air turns pretty readily (and very rapidly) into actual moisture.  Lots and lots of actual moisture.  The term in these parts is ‘showers’.  I think of them more as full-on monsoons.  They pop up at any time of day, leaving you (if you’re lucky) stranded under a tree or a petrol station canopy for a while, cutting your riding time.  And they hunt in packs, with unfeasibly heavy downpour following unfeasibly heavy downpour.  Sometimes for hours.

What I’m trying to say, with all this Liquid Air nonsense, is that progress has slowed alarmingly once again.

I had to have a couple of days’ rest at Mackay, partly due to a few beers with a Belgian card-sharp who I met in New Zealand, but mainly due to the humidity.  The Liquid Air effect really took hold there, and with the addition of sunshine, significant distances would have been difficult, if not actually dangerous.  I was better staying cool.

I’ve made it to Airlie Beach in two days from there, which is not terrible.  But, sadly, I missed the guy who’s walking around Australia in a Star Wars Stormtrooper costume.  If I’d been on the road a day earlier, I could have heard how his ‘armour’ saved him from a snakebite first-hand instead of on telly.  Grr…

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Airlie Beach is a tourist town, and, as the name may suggest, is on the coast.  I figured that there would be cool sea breezes here to ease the heat a little.  So far, I’ve been proved wrong, although it is (maybe) a degree or two cooler than inland, and a colossal black cloud floated over earlier, rather than discharging floods of rain on the town.

So maybe things are looking up.  The worry is that, with conditions like this, I won’t be able to make the distances I need to get across the outback to Darwin before my visa expires.  And these conditions are rolling straight out of the outback at present.  It may be that I’ll have to content myself with Cairns instead.  And maybe a day or two off to see the Great Barrier Reef.

Plan C, anyone?

Not a Ferry Good Birthday*, and Eating Australia

*Actually, it was fine, but I needed to use the awful pun somewhere…

I never thought there could be a downside to a strong tailwind, but there can.  I never thought that riding through a National Park in the sunshine would be anything other than idyllic, but it was.

My birthday (Friday) began well, as I woke up to a strong southerly wind, which would shove me effortlessly up the coast from Newcastle.  And it did.  For a while.

I was so chuffed with the tailwind that I decided to push on from my (extremely unambitious) target for the day.  I’d initially decided to give myself a super short day as a birthday present.  But I’ve learned never to waste a tailwind, especially a gale-force one, so I sailed gleefully onwards, to catch the ferry from Nelson Bay.

I got to Nelson Bay with twenty minutes to spare before the ferry.  And it was only lunchtime.  I’d be able to make ground at a superb rate.  Perfect.

The ferry was cancelled, due to my tailwind.  In fact, all the ferries that day were cancelled due to my tailwind.  Not so perfect.

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Still, the town was fairly large, and touristy, with a lot of yachts.  By dinner time, there was a throng of brightly (some might say less-than-tastefully) dressed tourists bouncing around.  Looked like it should be a decent evening for a couple of beers to celebrate being another year older.

They disappeared.  Nearly all of them.  Vanished.

The maximum number of other people in the pub was seven.  In the middle of town.  On a Friday night.  What manner of madness is this?

On the bright side, a gentle birthday evening meant that I didn’t need to use my ‘Emergency Hangover Day Off’, which I’ve been carefully holding in reserve (think it may still come in handy for Christmas or New Year, mind you).  On Saturday morning I was raring to go.  And the ferries were running.  Onwards!

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While the ferry rolled its way across to Tea Gardens, we kept a sharp look-out for dolphins.  Apparently, the bay’s residential pod means that they are spotted on 95% of trips.  Given my wildlife history thus far, I’m sure you won’t be super-surprised to learn that the nearest thing to dolphins we spotted was a bunch of kids in speedboats.  Still, dolphins are not the highest on my wildlife-spotting list.  I can live with the disappointment, as long as I can see a kangaroo at some point.  Or even a wallaby.

After leaving the ferry, eating a massive pie, and heading north again, I met Bruce and Marg. They are in the relatively early stages of riding around the edge of Australia, pausing only to climb the highest peak in each state.  They gave me some very useful advice on surviving the outback, having just done a chunk, and also provided me with a useful shortcut through the bush, which would save me time, save me climbing, and provide the Beast with a little off-road action.

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It was a track.  Not good enough to count as a dirt road, and closed to vehicles, but easy enough for the Beast to deal with.  I even heard some panicked crashing in the undergrowth, which I took to be kangaroos legging it from my rattling, crashing, and altogether not very subtle approach.  Didn’t see any, obviously.  But I was getting closer, and decided that dirt roads are something I needed more of.

Today (Sunday), after a night in the pleasant, but again, surprisingly empty, town of Forster, I resumed my northward progress.  I thought I might just be able to make Port Macquarie today, as there was a fair chunk of fast but dull highway involved.

Then I got distracted.  There was a dirt road through Crowdy Bay National Park, which would take me to Laurieton, just a short hop from ‘Port’.  Another 25km of quiet, pleasant meandering for the Beast, and another chance to nail that elusive first marsupial.

Or, as it turned out, a chance to get a real taste of Australia.

It tastes gritty, and slightly metallic.

A lesson learned about dirt roads.  If they have cars on them, you’re going to ingest the countryside as well as see it.  Cycling has a real knack of bringing you closer to the environment through which you travel…

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To round things off, the hostel which the internet had advertised in Laurieton doesn’t exist.  There is some debate locally about whether it ever did.  It is, however, a thoroughly agreeable town with a lovely harbour.  And a paragliding school who were kind enough to take me in for a small fee.

As I try to wash the flavours of Australia from my mouth with lashings of ginger beer, I think it’s fair to say that I won’t be rushing back to the dirt roads.  Anyway, I have a hot tip that golf courses are the way to go if you want to see kangaroos.

I’ll let you know how that works out…

Killing Time

I’ve spent the last few days killing time, as well as swapping hemispheres and seasons and climate. It’s all a little bit disorientating.

I actually tried to use LA’s ‘public transport system’ to kill some of the time I had before the flight went on Saturday evening. I even gave it a chance to take me to the city centre. It failed.

Having waited for an inordinate amount of time for a bus connection to the city, I headed for the beach instead. When I got to the end of the tram line, I discovered I was still two miles away. I waited for another bus. Nothing.

I gave up trying to actually get anywhere, and went for a burger. And then to LAX for my flight away. At least the airport looked nice (or as nice as airports can) as night fell.

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Having struggled to kill eight or nine hours of wait time on Saturday, I killed Sunday effortlessly. By the time dawn broke after about 11 of the 13 hour flight, it was already Monday morning in New Zealand.

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I presume that there’s some tedious law of physics which prevents one from fast-forwarding the date constantly by zipping across the International Date Line. Which is probably a shame, but would also probably make very dull sci-fi.

What’s important for me is that the IDL is directly opposite the Greenwich Meridian where I started. I’m actually halfway round the world. Strangely, every mile west from here takes me closer to home.

Of course, time will have the last laugh again. I’ve used up both my ‘big ocean fast-forwards’, meaning that the vast majority of the rest of the trip will be overland. And therefore slow. I’ve just left the Beast with a local bike shop to prepare.

Auckland feels very much like home initially. There are the obvious marks of proper civilisation. The roads are the right way round. The Queen’s head is on the money. People can spell properly. And it’s drizzled constantly since I arrived.

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It’s actually more complicated than that, of course. Auckland city centre is gridded, like an American city. There are US chains which haven’t made it to Europe, but flourish here. There are masses of kebab houses, sushi bars and Chinese students, adding an Asian tinge to the culture. And of course, there is the Maori influence too.

So it’s very much like home, and a quite different at the same time.

It promises to be an interesting few weeks exploring NZ. The volcanic north island, the fjords in the south. The whole place looks stunning (when it’s not shrouded in rain). It also looks hilly, which makes me happy I’ve got time to explore properly.

Just hope the drizzle stops occasionally…

Erm, What’s that Big Blue Thing?

Turns out it’s the Pacific Ocean.

Three months and two days after leaving London, I seem to have emulated the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and (inexplicably) One Direction, and ‘broken’ the States.  It’s an odd feeling; with the time-warping properties of bicycle travel, it seems like I’ve been in the US for ever and for five minutes at the same time.  And it hasn’t really sunk in yet that I’m apparently capable of riding a bike across a continent.  Odd…

The day before yesterday, I was still in the desert.  Another blistering drag across a sandy and featureless landscape, with just the coastal mountains getting closer on the horizon to reassure me that I was making progress.  Still close to a hundred in the shade, if there had been any shade.  Thankfully, I had the sense to make it a shortish day after the 90-miler previously, so I didn’t have too many hours of the ‘sunscreen in eyes’ thing to put up with.  I’d have struggled to make it any further in any case, as the long desert run had really taken it out of me, and I was feeling fairly rough.

20141014RTW_1By yesterday, I was feeling much better, but those mountains had become a reality.  There are 30-mile rides and there are 30-mile rides.  This one was 30 miles of uphill.  With over 1100 metres, or 3500ft, of vertical gain, it was also (slightly oddly) the biggest single climb of the trip so far, just because it started near sea-level, rather than from much higher up.  It felt like it too, although at least the temperature dropped to comfortable levels with the increasing elevation.  And that scent of pines, which I’d been fantasising about in the desert, was back for real for the last few miles.

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Just before the last major section of climbing, I met Don (“call me Rainbow – everyone else does” – I didn’t even ask…).  He was yet another super-impressive pensioner, who’d just spent five hours thrashing a mountain bike over the same hills I was puffing up.  And who looked as fresh as a daisy.  He was giving out free apples which he’d pinched off someone’s tree further up the hill.  Sixty-four going on fourteen.  It was nice to chat, but I was exhausted in a matter of minutes.

After a rest and junk-fuel lunch at a shop, and recovering slowly from the encounter with Rainbow, I ground on up the hill.  Ten minutes later, I was stopped again, this time after meeting Tim and Laura Moss, a pair of Brits who are on the final leg of their round-the-world ride.  I tried to sound knowledgable and experienced with the cycle touring stuff, but given that they’ve been 14 months on the road, and are just nipping across the US before getting home for Christmas, I didn’t really have much to offer except admiration.

Thankfully, getting to the beautiful little town of Julian at the top of the climb restored my self-worth a wee bit.  I’d nailed the big climb.  My dodgy knee was actually feeling better than it had in the morning, which was good, but peculiar.  And I was only a day away from San Diego.

20141014RTW_12I celebrated (arguably a little prematurely) with a giant spicy burrito.  That’s not some sort of euphemism, by the way.  Just dinner.  I wandered round town for a while, breathing in those pine scents, and marvelling at the change from the arid, super-heated desert just a few miles away.  It’s a completely different world given that it must take less than an hour in a car (even though the roads are small and twisty).  Amazing.

And then today.  Basically just a 60-mile plunge down from the mountains to the sea.  Ignoring a couple of nasty hills which provided a little sting in the tail.  Another completely different climate, with drizzle threatened overnight, and extremely moderate temperatures.  And a couple of entertaining hours on main roads, playing with trucks and buffoons in cars.  I haven’t seen this much traffic since Portugal; such fun!

I was even welcomed into the area by a pair of F15s (I think – they were a little way away), which were circling the big military base at Miramar.  Really nice of them to make the effort to mark my arrival.  Must remember to write them a ‘thank you’ note…

But more important to me than the weather, the military or the traffic was hitting the Pacific at La Jolla Cove at half-past four this afternoon.  I immediately handed my camera to the nearest total stranger to capture the magic moment.  He did OK.  And he gave the camera back.

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And that was it.  Across a continent on a heavy, heavy bicycle.  Job done.

What next?  A rest in San Diego (probably a week or so), and a tedious period of financial calculations to work out quite how badly I’ve obliterated the budget.  Probably some fairly radical surgery to Plan A to compensate.  Certain places may no longer have the future pleasure of a visit from me to look forward to.  If you see what I mean.

But at least I know I can get around the world on a bike now.  Whether I will or not is down to a vast amount of factors, only some of which I can control. I can’t be worrying about stuff all the time.

So, fingers crossed for the next stage; I’ll tell you exactly what that looks like as soon as I know!