July 21, 2015 | 898 km | By James
For the few months before we set off to cycle from London to Cape Town, I had imagined the first week on the road in great detail. We would both gently amble through the French countryside, the sun gently warming our backs, we’d get the day’s miles done by noon, allowing for ample time to kick back and relax after the last few hectic weeks before we departed. I imagined I’d have Tweeted every hour, written a blog post every day, stopped to take enough photos worthy of winning the Travel Photographer of the Year, and I’d be well into the second book on my to-read list by now.
In reality, our daily mileage has been high, our days long, we’ve battled heat fiercer than anything we were expecting in Africa, photos have been snatched from the side of the road, and we’ve arrived at our days’ destination late (both having a remarkably similar odour and saltiness to the camembert we bought one lunchtime that slowly baked and disintegrated in our panniers all afternoon) and with only enough energy to find a bed for the night or pitch the tent and with mouths as dry as our dust-filled cycling sandals.
Ten days in, and I still haven’t made it past the first chapter of my book. I’ve had to re-read the same page three times as my eyes have involuntarily closed at each attempt, and our sleep has been interrupted by round-the-clock harvest vehicles, church bells and even wild boar surrounding our stealth camping spot in the middle of the night.
Our first week has been hot. Very hot. Temperatures have been at or over 40 degrees all week, making cycling over undulating French countryside with fully-laden panniers incredibly tough and slow!
After crossing the channel courtesy of DFDS Seaways, we landed on French soil very early on Bastille Day and followed the Avenue Vert and country lanes to Beauvais. As everything was closed, we picnicked in our cheap hotel room.
We rose early the next day and followed quiet country lanes through wheat fields towards our destination, Villers-Cotterêts. There, as we stopped for a chilled Coke in the town square dedicated to Three Muskateers authors Alexandre Dumas who was born there, the temperature on our Garmin topped 43 degrees. That night, we headed deep into the Retz Forest and found a quiet spot to pitch our tent. The forest’s described as “home to a wonderful variety of fauna including deer, rabbits, hares, foxes, pheasants and even wild boar.”
As we cleared our cooking equipment away, a large deer wandered by in the distance, making its distinctive call into the empty darkness.
“What’s the hell is that!” Emily grabbed my arm and jolted me from my deep sleep. “They’re coming!” with panic in Emily’s voice. Listening, I could hear the rustling of the leaves coming nearer and nearer. I urged Emily to keep quiet. We both lay rigid as, closer and closer, movement in what would otherwise be an empty, dark and lonely forest came nearer. There was a grunt. “Wild boar!” Emily whispered.
These potentially dangerous beasts were now surrounding the tent, millimetres of fabric between us, our food and their sharp tasks. They grunted, sniffed and rummaged in the foliage around our tent whilst we lay, hearts pounding, daring not to make a sound.
We’d tied our rubbish up in a tree, so, after finding our presence didn’t bring any food source outside our tent, they finally continued their way through the forest. It was almost impossible to sleep after that; every movement of a leaf would make us bolt upright.
Our third-day cycling in France was also a scorcher, but it was fantastic to cycle through the vineyards of the Champagne region. Epernay was our destination but, champagne was the last thing on our mind by the time we arrived; we would have happily paid champagne prices for jeroboams of tap water.
After Epernay, we had a long 85-mile day, which mostly followed a canal-side bike path. After a very long and tiring day, we struggled to find a camping spot, so we asked some villagers if they knew anywhere to pitch our tent. We were astonished and incredibly grateful to Marylène, who invited us to camp in her garden. She offered us showers, drinking water and even vegetables from her garden!
As we left the flat bike path behind the next day, we cycled 93 miles over very hilly terrain. We reached our wild-camping spot by a lake exhausted and were munched by mosquitos and red ants as we cooked in the dark.
Emily’s brother, Jeremy, joined us for the next day’s cycling. Although our handicap of panniers ensured the pace was slow as we climbed over the North Vosges Mountains to Alsace. It was fantastic to meet Jeremy, Marie-Agnes, Laurie-Anne, Lawrence and Richard, and they looked after us incredibly well over two evenings and a rest day.
It was a special moment when 6-year-old Laurie-Anne joined us for the first few KMs of the day from the family home in Bergbieten. Again, it was sweltering as we spent a very long day in the saddle as we gradually climbed up to Triberg in the heart of the Black Forest, where our efforts were ‘rewarded’ with the display of the ‘world’s largest cuckoo clock’.
After so many punishing days in the saddle, we decided we needed a shorter day. Apart from two horrifically steep climbs to the ski slopes above Triberg in the morning, it’s been a descent to tonight’s campsite at Donaueschingen; a town that sits at the source of the Danube; the river we’ll be following for the next 2,500km or so!
Take a look our the London2CapeTown Facebook page for more photos!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this blog post, please donate to World Bicycle Relief. Every penny goes to the great work the charity does in Africa – not to fund our expedition in any way.