Bicycle touring

  • Cycling East The Movie

     

    Today I released the trailer for my Cycling East adventure. The trailer combines read more

  • Cycle touring in Albania

    Next up is cycle touring in Albania, it is an interesting country hugely different from even its neighbours Montenegro and Macedonia. However many people ask me if it is a dangerous country, and it certainly has a initial uncomfortable atmosphere when you cycle tour through the north. This area is just not set up for any kind of tourism and there is also an edge with the poverty which is a slightly disturbing contrast with the rest of Europe. Here every inch of land is used for farming or housing and wild camping spots were initially hard to find; making us further anxious. Organised crime is obviously an issue as I will discuss below, however we had nothing but kindness and friendly waves, bar the odd confused glare as we rode through.
    We soon learnt that the secret to camping here was just asking around, despite the communication gap we were offered gardens and churchyards to use. That edgy feeling I mention was still apparent, for example one garden we used had large locked gates with huge security lights that were lit up all night. At the same place an English speaking friend was invited over for us to chat with, over some home made toxic spirit, which was all super fun, we were left with her comment of ‘don’t all the bad men around here scare you when cycling?’. With that ringing in our ears we felt like replying, not until now they didn’t!

    The country is pretty much how you would expect after being cut off from the world and run by a communist government. An odd combination of disused bomb shelters like wild mushrooms are dotted about the country side, set against horse and carts that were being overtaken by flash 4x4s and Mercedes Benz’s. I don’t want to say these flash cars are all stolen or that they were anything to do with organised crime, but it does seem a bit odd, for example the UK left hand drive Mercs still have UK plates on and many are almost new…make your own conclusions….
    The country is hugely varied from the stunning beaches in the south to the stunningly overdeveloped and ruined coastline in the North, the steep and high mountains in the east and the lush green remote rolling hills of the north. There are a lot of problems with limited rubbish collection across the country as well as over development and unfinished building sites in many places. Inland there were tons of rubbish simply dumped along the roadsides, this is everywhere. We passed rivers literally full with plastic, we saw verges on fire from just burning plastic. It brought home just how much even the least consuming individuals consume and waste.

    From Montenegro we entered Albania into the large northern city of Shkodra a bustling mass of cars and cyclists all ignoring the road rules! It was a bit of a shock, so what do you do when shocked? Yep that’s correct find a cake shop!

    As happened many times on this trip, we had no idea what the currency was,  nor what the rate was and therefore how much cash to get! Luckily I hand gestured in a bank and was a)not arrested for looking crazy and b) somehow given the rates and currency, I then found an ATM to get cash out. It’s a good advert for Visa cards, it shows you can turn up nearly anywhere and land on your feet! Also, as a bonus, it was the first time in years HSBC managed not to block my account on an extended trip overseas!

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    We veered away from the coast for the first time on the trip and headed into the mountains the picture above was the start of a decent 800m climb, up past Ulez and Burrell. Burrell was famous for its hardline prisons during the Soviet era, the remains of the buildings can be seen on the approach to the town. It’s remoteness combined with the heavy weight of history created an eerie feel to the area, a sinister past hidden behind the pleasant rolling meadows.
    Adding to the surreal, not far from here we were chased by a ragged, crazy goat herder, he wanted our brightly coloured bike helmets I concluded, but worryingly he ran along trying to grab Marion, who was behind me, fortunately a sleek new jet black Mercedes Benz appeared which scared him off. The car stopped and a friendly, but potential “gangster” who asked if anything here needed “sorting”, I gave the thumbs up that all was good, he smiled back two gold teeth reflecting in the sunlight and then drove off. I like to remember he had a gruff voice and casually pointed to a hand gun under his jacket when offering help, this didn’t happen but at least I guess organised crime has nothing against tourists and felt safer!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    On this first climb we passed a number of reservoirs the one above separated a farm from the road. It looked like it was from the 18th century, the hay was being cut by scythe and carted by horse. The only access was by rowing boat across the lake. We saw from afar the ladies dressed in orthodox black dresses with white head scarfs bring out refreshments to the workers, I dreamily dazed that I was part of some Jane Austin era novel, clearly I would be the dashing newcomer arriving by bike.

    The picture below shows another house cut off, this one had a zip wire style crossing!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    Campsites are non existant, in fact our GPS map shows none in the entire country! We were fortunate to be offered a spot in a restaurant garden and a churchyard in a mountain village for the first two nights.

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    These traditional haystack were a common sight in late June which is prime hay season. It felt little had changed in decades expect the plastic sheeting used at the top!

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    Don’t text and ride, the guy in the picture above was texting as he carted down the road, good skills!
    Below is a more modern scene in Albania with tractors rather than horses doing the work. Note the bits of plastic litter, a common theme.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    After entering Albania again this time from Macedonia near Lake Orhid we stayed at a lake resort of sorts, well when I say resort it had these umbrellas. Sadly at 8pm the local sewage started being pumped out into the lake. It roared like a whitewater rapid and smelt well as you might expect.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

    The picture below is when we got a bit lost and headed up a random back road. It followed an old road littered with Soviet era missile bunkers and an old airstrip before the road ended! We had to cross a river on a plank and then a few dirt tracks to regain the highway, we got a few funny looks and a few much needed directions from the locals.Getting lost in Albania

    This picture was looking across Lake Ohrid in the evening light.Lake Ohrid

    A regular feature in Albania are horse and carts this one was particularly heavily loaded, there is a mule under there somewhere.Horse hidden under the hay!

    The view from our campspot in the churchyard in Suc near Burrell in the Albanian North East.View from campsite in Churchyard in Suc, Albania The many reservoirs make for some spectacular views this one shows more of the haystacks that feature all over the countryside.View Across Albania from near Burrell

    Albania was very interesting we never felt fully relaxed for the only part of the trip, but sometimes this brings a greater reward, it means you are exploring. On reflection the only real incident was being chased by the rock hurling goat herder and this was fairly unusual I suspect. The scenery was at times great at other times too ruined by the rubbish piled up or being burnt next to the road, it isn’t a stunning world class beauty spot but nevertheless an interesting place.

  • Cycling from Chamonix, France to Istanbul, Turkey

    So only a few days to go until we cycle across Europe to Asia. Crossing 9 Countries (France, Italy, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey) and 9 language borders.

    The route is about 3000km and we have 31 days. This is fixed as we fly out to Argentina on July 17th to go ski touring for 3 months. Therefore we have  to average 100km everyday, and probably a bit more after factoring in some rest days. It is not an epic challenge to cover every mile so we might get the train if struggling to make that!

    Kit is almost ready, I am taking a Kona Jake the Snake cross bike, and I have created a pimped out CroMo framed hybrid type thing for Marion, still waiting on some brakes but it is looking sweet. We have manged to keep kit minimal so should be fast and light.

    We are a bit interested to see what happens in Turkey and Istanbul…so far the situation seems OK, we still might detour to Athens if needed.Cycle Route

  • Cycle touring New Zealand

    The first trip I wanted to write about on this blog  was our cycle tour the length of New Zealand. This is a very popular trip due to the relatively compact size and vast variation in landscapes that the country holds. There is hardly a single day of dull riding to get to the most spectacular parts, as would be the case in most other counties.

    We spent 3 months cycling from the northern most point to the far south. It is a deceptively long way and took the full 3 months to complete, saying that we didn’t take the most direct but rather the most scenic route.IMG_4300

    North Island

    We started by heading north west towards the originally named Northlands. The first stop was the west coast with its black volcanic sand beaches providing a dramatic backdrop to the stormy weather that was rolling in.

    Further north, we camped in various places, enjoying the beaches and being awoken by loud and varied bird song. One night I was opening the inner tent to be startled by a high pitch screech that shook me to the bone, next to my face was some freaky animal that was impossibly loud and had huge green eyes glaring at me. That was my first possum encounter, most of the future encounters involved the possum being road kill as we cycled past! A particular favourite campspot as we headed north was in the remote and beautiful MimiWhangata bay which is down a one way road shortly before the Bay of Islands ‘urban’ sprawl began. On a bike tour one way roads heading downhill have to have something pretty amazing at the end and this one didn’t disappoint, we had the stunning beach and park to our selves. 

    We then headed north to the famous bay of islands area. We camped next to a bay on an island with a name that is pretty hard to beat – Uruphukphuka, translates as yourcoolcool I think. 

    We next approached 60 mile beach which is a beach but isn’t 60 miles we did a bit of beach riding before reaching the Northern end of new Zealand, technically this was now our start point! The weather was a bit dire so no symbolic photo was taken, just sheltering from the rain!

    Next we made a bee line back down to Auckland. A short ferry ride took us to the quiet and rustic Coromandel Peninsula. We did a complete loop by taking the off-road section at the very top. The track at the top has a super steep hill and is hard work but worth the effort if just to prevent you retracing your steps.

     The route then took as down towards the Volcanoes and Lake Taupo. A scenic ride with loads of hot springs and flumes of steam in the fields all around. The roads in the centre were noticeably busier and we would probably stick further east next time. We cycled to National Park the town next to Tongariro Park, the Tongariro crossing is the famous trek which we did despite less than ideal weather. We climbed the peak Ngauguhoe (Mt Doom in lord of the rings!) after much sliding on loose volcanic rock we reached the top in time for the clouds to clear allowing a perfect inversion. We could see all the way across to Taranaki in the South West.

    After leaving the parks we rode over to the Wanganui River which we followed all the way to the coast. A quiet and scenic ride, a bit further out of the way.

    Next was a quick detour to Palmerston North to visit friends, the place is a bit of a hole and not a scenic hotspot. Unfortunately we we had car crash near Palmerston North enroute to some hiking (in a car not on a bike, there’s a lesson to be learnt there!) which delayed our journey by a few weeks. We stayed in Picton on the South Island while we recovered.

    South Island

    A far more wild and remote part of the country. We set off along the Queen Charlotte track which weaves in and out of the stunning bays and inlets that line the top of South Island. Then we carried on to Takkaka Hill a fearsomely steep and high prospect for any cycle tourer. However the other side rewarded us with a long downhill and the remote and funky town of Nelson. From here we cycled up to the most northern point via a few beaches and Takaka Bay, all of which were spectacular and totally deserted. We tried to make it to a remote light house on the west coast. This section was probably my favourite of the entire tour, check out some of the pictures below. It was on hard sand and involved a few river crossings that meant bikes unloaded and bag by bag walked across the water! The tides had to be timed correctly so the depth was manageable too!

    From the West coast, we rode almost all the way across to the east. The next section was probably my favourite route, we cycled the Rainbow road all the way down into Hamner Springs. This off road route passes some amazing view points. Best of all no smelly cars and camper vans. Well the odd ambitious camper van that was getting in trouble but that’s another story!
    From the Rainbow road we headed West again passing Lewis Pass. We called into some wild hot springs near the pass. First we were bombarded by sand flies then a group of sweaty smelly work men jumped in to join us. Kinda took the shine off them! Still worth a stop! One of the most eccentric stops was the visit to Black Ball and its ‘Hilton’ and the Croeseus track. In Black Ball we camped next to the most huanted house in NZ, it creaked all night and admittedly it’s remote setting made it feeling a little uncomfortable. Black Ball is a remote ghost town from an earlier mining era and pretty unusual place. http://www.blackballhilton.co.nz/

    We were now on the west coast proper, and true to form it started raining.  Strangely I didn’t mind, the scenery is more dramatic with the damp, green temperate rainforest obscured by wisps of mist and cloud.

    After a week or so it was time to head East and away from the spectacularly wild west coast. We climbed Haast pass, struggled to the top only to be met by a chap in victorian clothing who doth-ed his cap at us and rode on astride his penny farthing. Yes a fixed wheel penny farthing up and down possible the steepest pass on south island! The only indication this was the 21st century was his multiple plastic bottle mounts on the handle bars so he didn’t have to dismount at all! 

    Next stop Wanaka, then Queenstown and the far south. We stopped in Wanaka and lived in the town for the next 9 months, I worked at a cool bike shop called Good Sports and Marion in a cafe. It is such a cool town.