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Welcome to Jordan!

Jordan is one of the countries that we were looking forward to most when we decided to do this journey. Being unable to cycle through Syria made it an obvious country to miss out because we could very easily have just flown from Turkey to Egypt. However, wanting to ensure that we cycled as much of our route as was safely possible, Jordan was firmly on the agenda and we are so incredibly glad that it was!

Before arriving in Jordan we had been in contact with the Jordanian Tourist Board (JTB) because we had an article planned for publication in Total Women’s Cycling. The JTB agreed to support our stay in Jordan and arranged some hotels for us. A couple of weeks cycling without camping was a very welcome break for us and we really hope that we can help to encourage more people to visit the country with the article as it really is a truly fantastic place and we both feel passionately about trying to help them encourage more people to come and visit. Don’t worry though, the hotels did not take much away from how tough the cycling was and we will be back in the tent and roughing it again for the remainder of the adventure!

“Welcome to Jordan!” were the first words we heard when we arrived in Jordan and they were continually shouted to us all the way through our journey down the country – and we really did feel very welcome. Thankfully our bikes and bags arrived safely in Amman airport. Our bikes had been packed into cardboard boxes we’d picked up from a bike shop in Cyprus and our panniers had been packed up into large builders’ sacks that we then wrapped up with gaffer tape (we love gaffer tape, it fixes everything!).

Our makeshift luggage bags to transport our bikes and panniers

Our makeshift luggage bags to transport our bikes and panniers. The distracting background makes it appear we have three wheels sticking out of our boxes!

We bought our VISAs from the immigration desk (even the immigration officer warmly welcomed us!) and sought our way into the city to find our hotel. First we tried to get a taxi but, after a conference between the many taxi drivers at the airport, they all decided not to drive us into town because our luggage was too big. Thankfully a nice man from Syria came to our rescue and suggested that we take the bus (he even bought our tickets for us).  Our new friend told us where to alight and helped us get our bags out of the bus but we quickly realised that we were still some way from our hotel. Resisting the urge to build our bikes there at the side of the road and cycle there (not the best of ideas on a really busy inner city ring road!) we eventually found a couple of taxis to take us the remaining few kilometers and, after a lot of faff, we were loaded up into two cars and ready to go. Just before setting off, I noticed that James had started to take his bags out of his taxi and we were back to square one. Apparently his taxi driver offered a lift to his friend and, because he would not agree to split the fare and James was not going to budge, he was turfed out! We eventually arrived at the hotel in time to build our bikes and have some dinner.

The next morning we were on the road early to weave our way out of Amman on some quieter roads. The driving in Amman is crazy and the city is built on an incredibly steep valley so there were quite a few sharp hills to start our day off but it was not long before we were onto the main road out and heading towards the Dead Sea. Much like Turkey, the main roads in Jordan also have a large hard shoulder that we could safely cycle in. Riding to the lowest place on earth is as great as it sounds as it’s downhill all the way! We were there in no time at all; excited about floating in the Dead Sea.

Dead Sea-11

Emily floats on the Dead Sea reading Adventure Travel – we were featured in the magazine

It is a really extraordinary experience swimming in the Dead Sea – all of your natural instincts tell you that your legs should stay below the water however, as soon as you are in the water, your legs are instantly propelled to the surface and you can lie flat on the water. It is completely surreal and incredibly relaxing – you just need to be careful not to get the water in your eyes as it feel a little like you have had acid thrown into your eyes – as James found out!

The next day was my birthday so it was a real treat to wake up in a lovely hotel and enjoy a buffet breakfast (no comments please Michael and Catherine!!) but it wasn’t long before we were on the road knowing we had a big hill climb ahead before we arrived in Madaba. Once we turned off the road next to the Dead Sea we started to climb and it was tough. The temperatures were high and the climb was gruelling – much harder than we had expected. You can read how tough is was on James’s blog post about cycling from the Dead Sea to Madaba.

Jordan - cycling Dead Sea to Madaba climb-7

The gruelling climb from the Dead Sea to Madaba

Celebrating my birthday in Madaba!

Celebrating my birthday in Madaba!

From Madaba, we were then headed to Karak, a town famous for its castle, and got on the road early knowing that we had another tough day ahead of us. The landscape in Jordan is breathtaking and seems to change around every corner however it is the views that are most striking – most of which are created by the gorges, called wadis. Little did we know that, on this day, we were about to take on the most iconic wadi in Jordan – the Wadi Mujib is dubbed “Jordan’s Grand Canyon.” The photos go only some way to illustrate quite how hard the climb was.

The Wadi Mujib descent from Madaba to Karak

The Wadi Mujib descent from Madaba to Karak

The incredibly tough climb up the Wadi Mujib towards Karak

The incredibly tough climb up the Wadi Mujib towards Karak

It was one of those roads that you dream about at home when you are watching the TV and see people cycle/drive down epic switchbacks with stunning views. That is, until you are sat at the top of one side of the canyon contemplating the road ahead – it was incredibly daunting with all the weight we are carrying on our bikes. Riding up steep, lengthy climbs like this on our touring bikes often reduces us to 5kph which is very painful indeed but we survived in one piece. Once you get into a rhythm it’s just a matter of switching off and surviving, knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before you will eventually reach the top – and reminding yourself that if you stop, it will be much harder to walk up than cycle. Luckily we chanced upon a café near the top where we stopped to top up our water and enjoy a tea with an incredible view. It was an incredibly long day and by the time we arrived in Karak the sun was setting.

Sammi runs a small cafe near the top of the Wadi Mujib climb and welcomed us warmly!

Sammi runs a small cafe near the top of the Wadi Mujib climb and welcomed us warmly!

We were staying with a lovely chap called Mohammed who was opening a hotel in the town early next year so we stayed in his house and had a lovely evening. In fact, we were even treated to a glass of red wine, which was most unexpected until we discovered that Mohammed is perhaps the world’s only non-believing Christian called Mohammed!

Quick selfie with Mohammed outside his new hotel he is opening

Quick selfie with Mohammed outside his new hotel he is opening

The next day saw yet more wadis in blindingly hot temperatures. Being such a hot day, and with fatigue in our legs from the past two days the hills pushed us both to our limits and on the last climb of the day I came to a stand still. That was it. I’d had enough and I honestly did not think that I could go a millimeter further. Twenty minutes later after a good cry, some sugar and encouragement from James I felt ready to get going again. It wasn’t the smoothest of starts however as we had stopped on a hill and I am not very good at hill starts on my bike – nor parking it – so it took some time for me to get the courage to get going without feeling like I was going to fall off. I’m sure there are plenty of jokes about female drivers that I could insert here.

We finally made it to the top of the hill where we were greeted with a surprise! Khaled from the Jordanian Tourist Board was waiting for us at the top of the hill where there was a panoramic view of the Dana Nature Reserve, which was where we were to spend the night. A fire was lit, we shared a pot of very sweet mint tea and watched the sunset while discussing our time in Jordan and learning some more about the difficulties the tourist board are having in encouraging visitors.

The Dana Nature Reserve is stunning and Jordan’s largest protected area. It’s home to four separate ecosystems, an impressive amount of plant and wildlife and you can see why it’s been the location of a number of films. If we had some more time we could have easily spent a few days exploring this area but we had to make do with a sunrise walk into the gorge the next morning before getting back on the road towards Petra.

Dana Nature Reserve

The stunning Dana Nature Reserve.

Words cannot do justice when trying to describe Petra. It is one of those places that really make you marvel at the human race and what we are capable of. Petra is an ancient city carved into a valley of pink sandstone that dates back as early as 312BC as the capital city of the Nabataeans. The city is within a mountain range, which form part of the eastern flank of Arabah and runs all the way to the Gulf of Aqaba. UNESCO describe the site as “one of the most precious cultural properties of man’s cultural heritage” and we would agree.

Cycling Jordan Kings highway Amman Petra Aqaba-1-4

There was hardly anyone there when we visited – perhaps 300 people when, in the past, there would be over 3,000 visitors a day. It was great for us as we felt we had the place to ourselves and, at times, we didn’t see any other tourists. Sadly, though, it’s a sign of the unjustified problems that Jordan is having with tourism. We managed to walk through the stunning Siq and into the city where you see the postcard sight, the Treasury building before exploring the tombs, Amphitheatre and market areas where the Romans had opened up the city as an important trading city. What is quite extraordinary is learning that when constructing Petra the Nabataeans we able to control the water supply into the city by collecting the flood waters into and artificial oasis using dams, cisterns and conduits. Quite extraordinary when you consider the scale of the place and that this was all taking place over 2000 years ago without any modern technology.

The first glimpse of the Treasury in Petra

The first glimpse of the Treasury in Petra

The picture postcard site in Petra - The Treasury

The picture postcard site in Petra – The Treasury

We then walked up to a site called the monastery, which was on top of a relatively steep climb, but it was more than worth it for the views across to Israel. Then we also managed another of the trails and clamber up to a place called the High Place of Sacrifice. It was on this trail where we really felt like we had Petra to ourselves, I think that we saw about 8 people in 3 hours. This route weaves its way up into the mountain side past hundreds of caves, ancient rock carvings and buildings that have been excavated. On the summit is an ancient place of sacrific. From the top you are able to fully appreciate the sheer magnitude of Petra and marvel at quite how impressive it is that all this was created around 2,500 years ago. Once back at the bottom we fought the urge to take a camel or donkey back to the park gates, which were another 4km away! It was an action packed day but a day we will never forget – and one my brother Harry will be jealous of, as it was the set of his favourite childhood film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The Monastery op top of the hilltops in Petra

The Monastery op top of the hilltops in Petra

From Petra it was back on the road – 100km to the desert at Wadi Rum. We arrived at the visitor centre where you go to pick up your park permits and before long we had been whisked away across the desert in a 4×4 to our Bedouin Camp where we would spend the night. Wadi Rum is beautiful and unlike anywhere that I have been before – the sand is a striking red and pink colour and you do feel like you are on Mars – it’s no wonder that it has been used as the set of the new Matt Damon film, The Martian, which we believe is out at the cinemas at the moment. We had a great night under the stars and I saw the milky way for the first time properly while James took photos (if you are reading this Kev, apparently the photos are not quite good enough yet as James says that the wind was wobbling the tripod) but I have no doubt we will get lots of practice elsewhere.

Our Beduoin camp at Wadi Rum

Our Beduoin camp at Wadi Rum

The next morning two camels arrived as we were to ride back to the village instead of taking the 4×4 to complete our desert experience. (Before you ask we could not take our bikes into the desert, they don’t ride too well in thick sand!). To be honest, we should have both known better having ridden camels before. They are unnecessarily painful. I lasted around an hour before getting off and chose to walk the remaining hour while our guide hopped on my camel – not that easy in thick sand with cycling shoes on but considerably better than riding the camel. James gallantly remained on his camel much to my amusement because as soon as the guide got onto my camel he decided that it was time for some camel racing – not sure James found it quite so amusing after screaming for the camels to stop as it was so very painful in all the wrong places.

Camel riding: Never again!

Camel riding: Never again!

It wasn’t long before we were reunited with our bikes and on our way on the final leg of our Jordanian adventure – the Red Sea. The route was 80km, slightly downhill; easy. Not so much…this area is notorious for strong winds which if they are behind you I imagine will allow us to cycle at some amazing speeds however, if they form a headwind – as they did all the way to Aqaba – they slow you down to 14kph downhill riding in granny gear!

The Red Sea is home to amazing coral reefs and is famous for its scuba diving. I love diving and, although I’ve not been underwater since 2008, I was keen to do a couple of dives as they were really reasonably priced. What was slightly concerning, however, was that I was allowed to dive without showing a certificate whatsoever and James was soon below the waves having never SCUBA dived before in his life! I’ve got enough experience to know that we were in a safe environment with an instructor who seemed to know his stuff when it came to the actual diving. We lived to tell the tale so all was good.

Sadly, from Aqaba, we could not continue our journey overland into Egypt, which was incredibly frustrating as we could see Egyptian land across the water. The British Government advise against travel to this area (except Sharm El Sheik) which therefore meant our insurance would become invalid if we did so much as broke a toe so we reluctantly took a bus back to Amman (with our bikes underneath) to take a short flight to Cairo.

In Amman a lovely British expat called Jason hosted us. He’d seen our blog and got in touch as he’s a cycle tourist himself and he kindly to invited us to stay. We were very well looked after and we’re incredibly thankful to Jason for his kindness and hospitality. When we arrived we discovered that he’d already been to the hotel where we had left our bike boxes to pick them up and had also arranged a day trip for us to the Roman ruins in Jarash and for a drive through the mountainous pine forests of northern Jordan. The true spectacle, however, was the lift he gave us to the airport where we managed to fit two bike boxes in the boot, our luggage on the back seats and James and myself on the front seat of the car!

Jason was a fantastic host and a thoroughly nice bloke!

Jason was a fantastic host and a thoroughly nice bloke!

We loved our stay in Jordan; the cycling has been incredibly challenging but rewarding at the same time and we’ve seen the beauty and magnitude of this great country. We’ve met some awesome people and Jordan will remain a collection of fond memories for us both.


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.

Cycling Jordan’s Dead Sea to Madaba ascent

Today I decided to give Emily a birthday treat by setting the challenge of climbing 1,600 meters from the Dead Sea to Madaba; achievable on paper. Much, much tougher in reality when faced with a 40km climb that was consistently steeper than anything we have tackled on this trip so far. Throw in the blazing sun, no shade, 42 degrees on the thermometer and nowhere to fill our bottles (other than the 4 liters each we’d brought with us) and it made for a very, very tough day.

Jordan's Dead Sea to Madaba road. It's steep. Very steep!

Jordan’s Dead Sea to Madaba road. It’s steep. Very steep!

We had some entertainment, however, when a passing motorist did a U-turn to join us for the climb. He drove next to us, urging us to stop and get in or to grab the side of the car for a pull. When we refused he flicked through the radio channels and, with windows down, our climbing was accompanied by an eclectic mix of music, which included Arabic pop songs, stirring classical music, iconic Eye of the Tiger and shouts of “you can do it” as he crawled along next to us.

Further up the mountain, we stopped for a breather and he offered us biscuits and, had I not been around, I’m certain he would have asked for Emily’s hand in marriage.

Emily rebuffs the advances of our new cycling coach

Emily rebuffs the advances of our new cycling coach

We continued our struggle up the mountain. We knocked back a few rehydration sachets. It was tough and we both struggled. Massively.

About two thirds of the way up another car pulled over and out came a gent who offered us water (which we gratefully accepted) and I tried an Arabic coffee that he offered me (tasted of cardamom). He warmly welcomed us to Jordan and asked we posed for a photo at his request.

Our new friend after he stopped to offer us water and Arabian coffee as we climb from the Dead sea to Madaba.

Our new friend after he stopped to offer us water and Arabian coffee as we climb from the Dead sea to Madaba.

 

Nearly 6 hours later at an average speed of just 8km per hour, we completed our 1,600m climb that started from 395 meters below sea level and are now in Madaba. Emily has certainly earned her birthday drink tonight!


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.

Cyprus

In order to transit from Turkey to Jordan we travelled via Cyprus so that we could take an onward flight to Amman in Jordan. We took a ferry from Tasacu in Turkey to Girne port in Cyprus, (a journey I would rather forget about after being ill for 5 of the 6 hour journey!). Upon arrival we cycled over the Troodos Mountains to the southern side of the island where we met my parents and our great friend Tamara for a few days R&R. Cyprus was an awesome island to cycle across and a much needed refresh after the European section of our journey and amazing to see my parents and Tamara – it was a fantastic, much needed few days!

Smiles all round having conquered the Troodos Mountains

Smiles all round having conquered the Troodos Mountains

 

Looking back at the Troodos Mountains as we approached the southern coast of Cyprus.

Looking back at the Troodos Mountains as we approached the southern coast of Cyprus

 

Reunited with my parents and best friend Tamara in Cyprus

Reunited with my parents and best friend Tamara in Cyprus

 

A very happy Emily getting in a nice hour long sea swim

A very happy Emily getting in a nice hour long sea swim


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.

Cycling across Turkey: Tough times but fantastically friendly folk

We’d been in Turkey a matter of hours when we swung into a small village to pick up supplies. Outside the shop, a group of men were sat at a plastic table chatting as they stirred sugar lumps into their tiny glasses of Turkish tea. They greeted us with smiles and, eager to know more about the strange foreign visitors on bicycles, they asked us where we were cycling to and we replied ‘Cape Town’. Whilst we went into the shop to buy drinks, they must have had a quick conference amongst themselves because, as we sat in the shade nearby, two of the chaps came straight over to us looking very concerned. “Big problem in Syria!” they warned. “Very dangerous!”

They relaxed visibly when we explained we weren’t going anywhere near Syria or indeed the far east of Turkey (where there are also problems). We continued chatting and we were compliant with their requests for selfies – something we’re getting used to now. One of our new friends then explained that they were gathered because his grandmother had died the night before. At the back of the house we could see the women congregating too, all greeting each other solemnly. Even at a time of grief, we were being welcomed to a country that, over the next few weeks, we would find to be one of the friendliest places on earth.

Turkey was our 11th country and we’d set ourselves two targets that, in retrospect, were a little too ambitious. Firstly, to get from the Bulgarian border at Malko Tarnovo to Istanbul in 3 days in time to meet my parents and, secondly, to get from Istanbul to Cappadocia in the east and onwards to the southern port of Taşucu where we were to catch the ferry to Cyprus; a route we chose to avoid Syria and where we were to meet Emily’s parents for a short break.

We took 3 days to cycle from the Bulgarian border to the centre of Istanbul. We followed the D20 road which took us over undulating countryside. The road itself is being transformed from a single carriage secondary highway to a colossal 6-lane highway. Luckily for us, the newly built road was eerily quiet and we enjoyed the whole carriageway to ourselves. Nearer Istanbul, vast road-construction projects are under way and we got caught up with (literally) hundreds of trucks thundering close by us that were delivering the materials. At one stage, we caused a lengthy tailback as the road turned into a single-lane contraflow and the trucks couldn’t pass us as we cycled at 8kph up a long hill before we found an escape route onto the newly built carriageway the other side of the barrier.

Cycling Turkey D20 road to Istanbul

We had a brand new highway to ourselves!

Cycling the D20 road into Istanbul

We managed to get off the contraflow to avoid the trucks thundering past us: not before causing a lengthy tailback!

On our second day in Turkey we pulled off the highway to find a shop to satisfy our new-found addiction to Magnum ice creams. The friendly shopkeeper refused to accept payment for our late-morning snacks despite our protests and, as we rested in the shade outside his shop, he brought us bread, cheese, grapes and tomatoes for us to take with us.

Cycling through Turkey

The shopkeeper simply refused to accept payment for our drinks and brought us bread, grapes and cheese for us to take with us!

It was fantastic to meet my parents in Istanbul. Although I think they were astonished and somewhat embarrassed at how we both attacked the breakfast buffet at the hotel. After weeks of enduring tasteless muesli soaked in water for breakfast, the prospect of a feasting on fresh fruit, pastries and honeycomb that oozed fresh golden sweetness was too much to resist. It was unsurprising, then, that my saddle broke the moment I picked the bike up from the shop a few days’ later.

We took time to see all the major sights but it was also an opportunity for us to do some vital admin. We got our bikes serviced and our wheels re-built with much stronger rims and spokes.

cycling into Istanbul

We just about made it safely to Istanbul

After four fantastic days in Istanbul, we said goodbye to my folks, sad that the next time I’ll see them is when we reach Cape Town in June, and caught the ferry across the Bosphorus to our second continent of the trip, Asia. Within moments, though, we realised something wasn’t quite right with our new wheels so we diverted to a bike shop and had to wait for an entire afternoon whilst they were sorted. (It turned out they hadn’t been built correctly so they weren’t sitting straight in the forks).

Now behind on our schedule, we booked into a cheap hotel, which we thought was close by. It turned out that it was 35km away and 12km away from where we were expecting it to be. En route, we joined a busy highway but the traffic was crawling along, each car was parading the Turkish flag and there was a deafening sound of horns. We had stumbled upon an impromptu protest.

We later found out that the PKK had killed 16 Turkish soldiers in the east of the country and protesters were making their feelings known by bringing the traffic to a standstill by blocking driving slowly, sounding their horns and waving flags out of the window.

We picked our way through the traffic with the deafening crescendo of car horns all around us as crowds flocked to watch from the bridges above the highway.

We eventually made our way to the hotel in the dark on a very busy road. Something that we vowed never to do again (one of our self-imposed rules is to never cycle at night) but on that occasion, we simply had no other option.

The next day, and a day later than planned, we jumped on the ferry from Pendik to Yalova. The reason for this was simple: There is a cycle path from the Asian side of Istanbul that hugs the coastline all the way to Pendik. After Pendik, the cycle path disappears and cyclists are left at the mercy of the incredibly dangerous (and boring) road eastwards. It was a far safer to catch the ferry to Yalova and continue our journey from there.

We had intended to stay the night in Orhangazi with a contact from Warm Showers, but we were delayed further as we had to visit another bike shop in Yalova for a few more tweaks to our wheels.

After overcoming the huge climb between Yalova and Orhangazi, we spent the day cycling into a headwind beside lake Iznik with olive groves either side of the road, eager to catch up on the miles we’d lost to two unexpected and lengthy visits to bike shops.

We headed to a reservoir we’d spotted on the map to pitch the tent. As we made our way to the bank furthest from the road, we slowed to make way for a tractor pulling a trailer laden with freshly picked grapes from the surrounding vineyards. The young farmers greeted us cheerfully and motioned that we should take some grapes from the trailer. Thanking them, I reached up and grabbed a bunch as their tractor slowly passed, only to realise when I picked it up that each of the bunches were nearly a foot long and half a foot wide! But, after a long day in the saddle, they were the sweetest, juiciest grapes I’ve ever had.

We pitched the tent on the shores of the reservoir where we met a couple of local fishermen who were also camped nearby and who took great interest in trying to help us pitch our tent and chase away the local stray dogs that repeatedly approached. After performing our own rituals of pitching, washing, cooking and eating the the call to prayer drifted in the breeze across the still water as we drifted off to sleep.

We pitched our tent on the banks of the Çerkeşli göleti reservoir. The reservoir's banks were dotted with fisherman and we were even given a huge bunch of freshly-picked grapes from the farmers as we pitched our tent

We pitched our tent on the banks of the Çerkeşli göleti reservoir. The reservoir’s banks were dotted with fisherman and we were even given a huge bunch of freshly-picked grapes from the farmers as we pitched our tent

A beautiful sunrise and the sound of clinking bells woke us. Getting out of the tent we were surrounded by goats that were being herded past us. We had a friendly chat with the herder and I made friends with his huge dogs just enough for them not to take my leg off.

We had a long day in the saddle but the scenery more than made up for the strain on the legs. After a few tough climbs the views opened up to reveal a stunning vista of colourful cliffs and distant mountains that felt like we had been transported onto another planet with beautiful bands of horizontal sedimentary stripes. These were the landscapes you dream about cycling through.

Cycling stunning central Turkey

Cycling stunning central Turkey

With nowhere obvious to camp that evening, we cycled on to a petrol station in the town of Cayirhan and were immediately offered tea by the two gents whose job it was to fill vehicles with fuel. As we chatted, we asked them if they knew any good places that we could camp nearby and, after a little conference in Turkish between them, they very kindly invited us to pitch our tent on the grass beside the petrol station! They also offered us fresh, cool watermelon and, best of all, use of the staff shower. We slept well that night, albeit to the soundtrack of trucks pulling in to be refuelled.

Relying on petrol stations continued to be a theme for the rest of our time cycling across central Turkey. The staff were all really friendly and went out of their way to try and make us comfortable. Further east, we found lots of disused petrol stations that still had small shops. Most were run by Kurdish refugees who talked to us about their struggles. It was incredible that, despite their obvious economic hardship, they would ply us with bread, cucumbers, tomatoes and cheese. We either looked in a horrendous state, or it was their natural and cultural urge to look after visitors and travellers.

After our first night camped at a petrol station, we bid farewell to our new friends and headed north, passing giant coal mining facilities either side of the road. We turned off the main road and descended into a fertile valley, with crops of chillies and fruit being doused in water by vast irrigation systems. We past a large camp of what looked like either refugees or nomadic people working on the crops.

We followed our route, plotted in advance on our GPS, until the small road stopped abruptly. In front of us was a river and, where the bridge should have been, was a pile of rubble. As we stood scratching our heads mulling over how we would get across the torrent, a big JCB digger chugged round the corner, made its way to the water and crossed with ease and disappeared out of view on the far bank. Just as we thought we’d missed our only chance of crossing this remote river that day, the digger reemerged back round the corner, reversed back across the river, the driver jumped out and said he’d give us a lift. Without hesitation, we loaded the bikes and panniers into the digger’s ‘bucket’. Emily hitched a ride in the cab whilst I climbed in with the gear and hung on as he raised the bucket and took us across the river. Sadly, he asked me to delete the photos I took (apart from the one below) because they featured his company’s logo.

The bridge was down so we couldn't cross the river...so hitched a lift in a JCB!

The bridge was down so we couldn’t cross the river…so hitched a lift in a JCB!

Just up the road, we were cycling up the track, sticky with mud, when three huge dogs spotted us. They leapt up and came charging at us. Only at the last second were they restrained by the chains around the neck. Barking and frothing at the chops, they were the most ferocious beasts we’d seen and, had they not been chained, I swear they would have eaten us whole!

The next challenge was a killer climb up to the Anatolian Plain. It was the steepest, longest and toughest test yet and, judging by writing scrawled on the tarmac, it must have been used for cycling races in the recent past. After the relatively flat cycling in Europe, we were finally getting used to the hills but it is still a shock to the system, especially when often you can only manage 6-8kph!

It was another very, very tough day and we just managed to find a wild camping spot behind some reeds next to the road about 5km north of Polati as the sun was setting.

 

Can you see Emily? We take on one of the toughest climbs yet - this photo doesn't do justice to the gradient!

Can you see Emily? We take on one of the toughest climbs yet – this photo doesn’t do justice to the gradient!

The next day we came off the busy highway and onto a quiet country road as we had planned to cycle across Tuz Gölü; a vast salt lake just southeast of Ankara and en route to Capadoccia as I’d spotted on Google Earth that it might be possible to crossTuz Gölü on a causeway and both Google maps directions and my GPS confirmed that the crossing was valid.

The further we cycled from the main road the quieter it became and we were happy to have the countryside to ourselves once more. This was short lived however as the tarmac soon disappeared and the surface changed to a rough track. We rattled along, cursing our decision to take the scenic route.

As we approached the lake, we rounded a corner and 3 soldiers suddenly appeared from the bushes and stopped us. In Turkish, they asked where we were from, what we were doing and one demanded to see our passports. We answered the questions and I managed to dissuade them from seeing our passports by saying that they were buried deep in our panniers. In reality, our passports were in my handlebar bag but, although these fellas were in camouflage uniform, I wasn’t 100% sure who they were so I was reluctant to handover documents to them.

We soon learnt that the Turkish army were using the salt lake for firing practice. In a bewildering game of charades, they were making loud explosion noises. They then waved us on…but I wanted to be certain that we weren’t going to be in the line of fire so I too had to make explosion noises whilst pointing at us and miming death by bomb. Although I’m not Marcel Marceau, I just about managed to establish that we were going to be safe if we stuck to the track.

Later on, and just before we reached the causeway, 2 more soldiers stopped us again tried to ask for our passports. In our best sign language, we managed to let them that them know that we had already met their colleagues round the corner and so they then relaxed and insisted that we eat grapes and drink tea with them. They were pretty impressed and somewhat jealous as we explained our London to Cape Town trip to them; especially when we pointed at their small tent and said that we were camping like them too.

Friendly soldiers at Tuz Gölü

Friendly soldiers at Tuz Gölü

After photos with the soldiers, we made it to the causeway. The salt stretched as far as the horizon in each direction. Behind us, in the distance, we could see the large army trucks in position ready to fire their weapons into the salt plain. Perhaps they also had a-salt rifles too? (My niece Maura will give me 1 out of 10 for that pun!).

Tuz Gölü salt lake went on for miles - and was being used as target practice for Turkish soldiers

Tuz Gölü salt lake went on for miles – and was being used as target practice for Turkish soldiers

After 8 days of genuinely gruelling cycling from Istanbul, we reached Cappadocia: the land of the “fairy chimneys” or, as I prefer to call them (and as you can see by the photos) “phantom phalluses”.

Cappadocia: 'Fairy chimneys' or 'Phantom Phalluses'?

Cappadocia: ‘Fairy chimneys’ or ‘Phantom Phalluses’?

The volcanic rockforms surround Cappadocia and, in their need for fertiliser, past generations carved niches into the rocks so they could collect perching pigeons’ poo. They also carved caves and churches into the hillsides; our hostel bedroom itself was hewn into the hillside.

Cappadocia was stunning. And the ‘done thing’ here is to see the area from above from a hot air balloon which, after a lot of debate, we decided was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. Emily has wanted to fly in a hot air balloon since she was a small girl and what better place to try it out than the best place in the world for hot air ballooning.

So, a very early alarm was set and, just before dawn, we jumped into the basket (with a few others!),

Neither of us had been up in a balloon before. I was excited! Emily was, let’s say, slightly ‘apprehensive’ about the idea and had tears in her eyes as we watched the balloon inflate and climbed into the basket – I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or just complete fear. But, as soon as the ground anchor was released and we started to float, all nerves quickly disappeared. It was simply a magical experience to gently float in the dawn air, above the beautiful rock pillars as the sun crept over the hill to bathe the whole scene in a warm golden light. What’s more, there were about 100 other balloons in the air at the same time, which only added to the spectacle. Without a breathe of breeze in the air, the whole experience was so smooth and calm that the pilot even managed to land the balloon on the trailer.

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia, Turkey

There were over 100 balloons in the sky!

There were over 100 balloons in the sky!

After leaving Cappadocia, we had 4 days to cycle 450km south to the southern port of Taşucu to catch our ferry. A challenge greatened by the climb over the Taurus mountains that separate central Turkey from the southern coast.

At the end of the first day we pulled into a petrol station on the busy E90 road near Yeniköy and got chatting to the three chaps that worked their. We learnt quickly that a) they were Kurdish refugees and b) they liked a drink! They were very happy for us to stay the night there though.

We pitched our tent on a tiny patch of grass by the loos (we thought it would be convenient) and the chaps joined us for a chat whilst we set up the stove and boiled our rice – only a few meters from the petrol pumps. By this time, they’d had quite a few beers…and it didn’t look as though the supply was going to dry up any time soon.

After turning in, we soon found our choice of campsite by the loos was a poor one: each group that passed our tent during the night talked loudly about our presence, keeping us awake. More importantly, our sleeping mats had deflated by the morning. Some rogue thorns had turned them into colanders.

In the morning our new (and slightly hung-over) friends cooked a huge omelette for breakfast and we were invited to join them; yet another example of the hospitality shown to us in the most unlikely of situations.

Saying bye to our new Kurdish friends who hosted us in their petrol station

Saying bye to our new Kurdish friends who hosted us in their petrol station

Our intention was to keep north of the Taurus mountains and cycle along the D350 as far as Karaman before heading over the mountain pass at Mut. It was to be a slightly longer route but the traffic was likely to be a lot quieter. When we got to the junction, however, we could see that our chosen road towards form the E90 to Ereğli had recently been upgraded to a motorway. In practise, the road looked like any other large highway we’d been cycling on in Turkey, but the higher status meant that bikes weren’t allowed.

I unfurled the map on the crash barrier at the side of the road and found another route. This time, a secondary highway that headed directly south in parallel to the E90 motorway and crossed the Taurus mountains at Akçatekir. This would mean crossing the Taurus mountains earlier, by then cycling South West along the coast to Taşucu.

An impromptu change of route!

An impromptu change of route!

We set off and, within 200m, mounds of rubble across the road meant that our diversion route was closed due to resurfacing. Nevertheless, we hauled our bikes over the mounds and set off, with a whole closed carriageway to ourselves, ducking off the road only where the contractors were laying the fresh tar.

Yet another barrier – but we soon had a closed road to ourselves!

Yet another barrier – but we soon had a closed road to ourselves!

It was a very, very tough climb. At points the gradients reached nearly 20% and all we could do was grit our teeth and hold on tight. But we made it to top and found a wild camping spot in the pine trees just north of Çamalan Bucağı. A cheeky fox came to visit us as we cooked and re-visited to take a sniff round the tent just after we’d got into bed, exhausted, 9pm.

After breakfasting at a nearby look-out spot above a beautiful steep-sided mountain valley, the morning’s descent more than made up for yesterdays killer uphill. However, my disc brake pads paid the price, wearing out to the extent that I had minimal brakes for the 25km long descent. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve descended with minimal braking power, however. Thankfully this time didn’t mirror the last occasion, which, when I was 16, resulted in a broken clavicle and a trip to hospital.

We cycled along the horrifically busy road west from Tarsus and got my brake pads replaced at a shop in Mersin. It was now late afternoon so we asked the shop owner if he knew anywhere we could camp. He explained vaguely that there were some woods near the beach behind an Audi garage 15km away and we should head there. We set off.

We found the Audi garage and sat at a fast food place opposite as we waited for the sun to go down before we took our bikes round the back of the building. Just as we were getting to the woods, a guy came running after us shouting “stop”. We both thought we were in trouble. He introduced himself as Doğan and said we should follow him and we were to “stay at his workplace”.

We soon found out that Doğan was a Sales Executive in the Audi Showroom. We parked our bikes in the service area and had tea with him in his office. Just as we thought we were going to roll our sleeping mats out amongst the gleaming cars on display, he took us upstairs to the staff quarters where there was a shower and, best of all, a bathroom with a hot shower.

We were searching for a place to pitch our tent in the trees between the car showroom and the beach when Doğan came running after us. He said that we could stay 'at his workplace' and we were quickly ushered into the Audi showroom. OK, it wasn't strictly camping. But sleeping in the staff bedroom upstairs was very welcome and a very kind gesture from Doğan and his colleagues.

We were searching for a place to pitch our tent in the trees between the car showroom and the beach when Doğan came running after us. He said that we could stay ‘at his workplace’ and we were quickly ushered into the Audi showroom. OK, it wasn’t strictly camping. But sleeping in the staff bedroom upstairs was very welcome and a very kind gesture from Doğan and his colleagues.

Doğan is a keen cyclist and, we learned later, was friends with the guy in the Mersin bike shop that had replaced my brakes. He was planning to cycle 200km the next day, starting at 3pm, so he left us to it and we took over a salesman’s desk to do some admin before heading up to the staff bedroom.

It was yet another example of overwhelming hospitality in the most unlikely of places. We could not have been more grateful forDoğan’s genuine help and hospitality that night – especially when he explained that the woods in which we’d planned to camp were the local hangout for drunks (a rare thing in Turkey!).

In the morning, we had breakfast on another salesman’s desk and chatted to the lonely security guard, whose job it was to sit at the reception desk watching YouTube.

The next day, we’d arranged to meet Doğan for lunch at his cousin’s hotel 40km down the coast. We arrived at noon.  By this time Doğan and his friend had already cycled 120km up into the mountains and back, had a shower, swim and were relaxing by the pool when we arrived. We had fun chatting to them over lunch: something that was noted by one beady-eyed family member who’d been watching our GPS tracker as he sent a message asking if we’d checked into a nice hotel. If only we had, because later that night, we made it to our destination, Tasucu and pitched our tent behind some sand dunes by the sea. Idyllic in theory. In practise, not so great because the dunes were used by the fishermen as a toilet and the sand flies feasted on us as we had our last meal in Turkey. The next day we were set to take the ferry to Cyprus where we were meeting Emily’s parents and our friend Tamara for a few days R&R (well after cycling over the island’s mountains.

Camping on sand dunes may seem idyllic. However, we were attacked by sand flies and we soon found out that the bush we'd used to prop our bikes on was used by the beach-goers as a lavatory.

Camping on sand dunes may seem idyllic. However, we were attacked by sand flies and we soon found out that the bush we’d used to prop our bikes on was used by the beach-goers as a lavatory.

Cycling through Turkey was gruelling. We set ourselves punchy targets before and after Istanbul not quite realising how hilly it was going to be, nor how slowly we cycle up hills carrying so much weight. Throw in the searing heat and it made for very, very tough cycling which left us with only enough time and energy to find a place to sleep, wash and eat each evening before getting up at dawn to repeat the whole process.

But, no matter how tough the cycling was, the genuine friendliness and hospitality of everyone we met – not to mention the beautiful countryside – made Turkey one of the highlights of the trip so far.

Emily has also shared her views on cycling across Turkey on Total Women’s Cycling.


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.

A day I’d rather forget

It had to happen to one of us sooner or later. It just happened to be me that was first. What started as a good day, later descended into one I’d rather forget.

The day started well; we woke to beautiful misty views across the Danube and, after a quick bowl of cereal, we were on the road by 08:30.

Misty morning on the Danube near Eşelniţa, Romania

Misty morning on the Danube near Eşelniţa, Romania

There was sharp climb out of the village then, a few KMs into the ride, we joined the E70: a main trunk road adjacent to the Danube. After cycling on the Euro Velo 6 path and quiet country roads, it was a shock to the system to have countless lorries thunder past us. To be fair, there was a reasonable hard shoulder and the majority of the trucks gave us gave us plenty of room; but it was a bit hairy when we had to cycle through a tunnel with a juggernaut bearing down on us from behind.

The traffic eased off but the terrain didn’t. We started ascending the day’s main climb, which was about 6km long at 8%-10% gradient. It was now midday and we felt the full force of the sun on our faces. Sweat dripped from my forehead and pooled on the inner rims of my sunglasses until it poured, in one go, onto my shorts, mixing with the salt patterns that had already formed on my thighs from the previous days’ cycling.

At the summit, I spied a patch of shade by a layby and called for a quick time out out to get my breath back. As soon as I stopped the bike I didn’t feel well, but I couldn’t quite place why.

I managed to prop my bike up and leant against a concrete buttress at the side of the layby. Suddenly, a huge wave of dizziness hit me. The world in front of me rotated but I couldn’t focus on it. My legs went weak and, had I not had my back against the wall, I’d have fallen to the ground in the litter-strewn ditch.

I took a step forward and lay down on the filthy floor. A mangy mutt approached and licked its lips as If I were to be his first and only meal for the month.

At this point, Emily took over. She mixed a High5 energy drink and commanded me to drink it whilst force-feeding me sugary sweets.

Once I felt a little better, we decided to find somewhere more comfortable to rest so crossed the road towards a small stand where two kids were selling honey. Beside their stand was a large metal box, which was in the shade, so I motioned to them that I wanted to sit on it. They agreed that I could, but without looking me in the eye.

I sat on the box, tilted my head back and closed my eyes. I could hear buzzing. Was this a symptom of the dizziness? I opened my eyes and saw a cloud of bees buzzing by my head. It was only then that I released that the metal box I was sat on was one of the many mobile bee-hives we’ve seen in the fields throughout Serbia and Romania. I had sat on a beehive! The kids selling the honey looked on blankly, possibly wondering why anyone would do such a thing.

Emily got the stools out and, after another High5 and sugary sweets we moved on and tentatively took on the descent.

Emily decided it was time to eat, so a few KMs further on, we found a grassy spot under a big tree outside a police station. Sandwiches were consumed slowly; with every mouthful I had the overarching desire to fall asleep.

We discussed weather we should continue or find somewhere to rest up. I wanted to continue but, every time I got to my feet, I immediately had to lie down again. Emily was clearly concerned as to whether we should continue. I wanted to give it one last go because we still had over 80km to do so, after my 5th attempt, I made it onto the bike and back on to the road.

With about 75km on the clock, and the same distance again to go, we stopped at a petrol station to stock up on water. Sadly, with my first sip of water, my sandwiches reappeared in a somewhat more diluted form as a puddle by my feet.

However, I almost instantly felt better.

I got back on the bike and I plodded on, keeping on Emily’s back wheel for a further 25km along the trunk road. (No change there, some might say!).

We stopped at another fuel station and, as Emily went in to buy more water, I lay on my back on the paving at the side of the kiosk. This, apparently, caused a scene and, as Emily emerged from the shop, a couple of motorists asked her if I was OK. Right on cue, I scurried to the grass verge to be ill again. My body simply wasn’t taking in all the liquid I’d consumed.

Emily had a quick conference with a motorist who’d stopped and asked about accommodation nearby. The closest being 25km away. Our intended destination was still 40km away.

Again, I felt marginally better after being ill, so we got back on the bikes to see how further we could get. By this time, I’d lost all strength and if was an effort just to look at Emily’s back wheel let alone keep up with it.

It was a touh decision to make but, in the state I was, It would not have been possible to complete the 40km to our intended destination, Calafat.

We plugged the nearest accommodation into the sat nav and made our way towards that, 2km as the crow flies, but an agonizing 7km by road. All I wanted to do was lie down and go to sleep but Emily was really keen that we slept near to civilization and not in a field (just for peace of mind).

With 5km to go, the final hurdle was a short and steep hill; which I simply didn’t have the energy to climb. I looked at the map and thought I could see an off-road route that would bypass the hill so we pulled onto a track, where two farmers watched as I was ill again at the side of the road.

I was wrong about the shortcut so, we had to take on the hill. However, I simply didn’t have the energy. About a quarter of the way up I had stopped and Emily put her bike to one side, ascended on my bike and left it at the top, then ran down to walk with me and her bike up the hill. I simply couldn’t ride or push the bike up to the top, I cannot remember ever feeling this weak. I knew in my head it was only about 5km more to go, now downhill but it took every once of energy, and a lot of gentle encouragement to get me to the hotel on the banks of the Danube, some 30km short of our intended destination.

Emily was told that ‘they were full as they were holding s festival’ but after a bit of pleading and pointing in my direction (I was now a familiar position lying on my back at the side of the road) the hotelier miraculously found us a room.

I was ill once more en route to the bedroom, to the surprise of the hotel workers but once I was inside, it was a quick shower then a power nap.

We put the day’s episode down to dehydration. And it’s no surprise really. We’ve been cycling in temperatures in the late 30s and, foolishly, we haven’t been stopping for enough water since we have been in Romania – I think this is because there has not been a water pump in every village we pass through. Foolish in hindsight. I remembered that I hadn’t really drunk anything the night before whereas, normally, we’d drink at least a litre of water in the evenings.

Emily mixed up two rehydration sachets during the evening and, although I wasn’t able to eat anything, I spent the evening sipping salty drinks whilst listening to the sounds of the music and film festival outside.

The hotel itself was wonderful. It’s owned by a poet and they have various cultural events throughout the year. It was very tempting to stay another night there but, after a good breakfast, I managed to find a 30km shortcut meaning we didn’t have to add on yesterday’s missed mileage to reach tonight’s destination, Bechet where, I’m writing this sipping a water and feeling, thankfully better.

A lesson was learnt the hard way but we are both glad we have some decent first aid knowledge that allowed us to monitor our situation and stay safe.


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.

Life on the Danube

29th July 2015 | 1,399 km | Written by Emily

Germany is a country I knew very little about before leaving home, and it’s not heavily marketed to us Brits, so we don’t tend to visit much. I had visited Munich and a small place called Friedrichshafen on the Swiss border a few times for work, but other than that, if I am honest, it has never been a country on my “must-see” list. For this reason, I was both intrigued and excited about the prospect of spending 10 days cycling through the Black Forest and along the Danube River – to see some of Germany had I been missing.

We knew instantly we’d arrived in Germany when we bumped into a couple with bikes laden with VAUDE panniers heading to the bike paths within minutes of crossing the border. We were going to fit in here just fine. In fact, we’ve been the envy of many of our fellow cycle tourers when they see all of our great VAUDE kit – we’ve been stopped a few times now!

Our first few days in Germany were beautiful but hilly. I’m not sure Germany got the memo on mountain road switchbacks that we all dream about cycling up as roads have been straight with frequent 20-25% gradients, making it tough going when we’re carrying our worldly possessions with us. At times my heart was beating so fast I wondered if it might leap right out of my chest onto the road in front of me!

The Danube is the second-longest river in Europe. It originates in Donaueschingen in the Black Forest of Germany, and flows for 2,800km to the Black Sea in Hungary. Once a main frontier of the Roman Empire, the river is the lifeline to 10 countries from central to Eastern Europe. We have been tracking it for 10 days now, and it has not failed to impress.

The source of the Danube (Donauquelle) is an underground spring that is encased in a well outside a stately home in Donaueschingen. We went to take a look but, but it sadly was undergoing repair work. However, we took a moment to reflect beside the water that would be our route marker for around 2,500km. We were unsure what to expect ahead, but we were excited to get going.

James and Emily at the Donauquelle: the source of the Danube

James and Emily at the Donauquelle: the source of the Danube

From there, we left the concrete jungle, and the path took us offroad, on mainly well-managed gravel paths through a simply breathtaking gorge steeped in Geological history. Once upon a time, I would have been able to tell you more about the surroundings, but long-term memory fails me; my Geography teachers will be most unimpressed. We could not stop smiling as we made our way along the river alongside the other cycle tourers on their summer holidays.

Biking the Danube

Cycling down the beautiful Danube Gorge

A quick pit stop in Sigmaringen was our first taste of the beautiful towns that lay ahead; we celebrated with pizza and a beer before heading back to our campsite.

From there we headed to a town called Ulm where we were due to spend a day. Much to my excitement, it was also one of the only towns along the Danube in Germany that does not have a campsite, and so, by the time we realised we’d overshot the Youth Hostel by 5km, we were forced to stay in a hotel for a night. A mattress meant my first proper night’s sleep since Alsace, and it was pure bliss.

Actually enjoying a German meal

Actually enjoying a German meal

Ulm is a stunning 12th-century town on the riverbank full of hidden gems around every corner. Apparently, it has the tallest church spire in Europe. It was undoubtedly impressive; walking around the streets felt more like I was in an Italian town than a German one – why had I never heard of this place? More was to follow with the following few towns we passed – all should go onto a holiday visit list – Donauworth, Ingolstadt and the most impressive of them all, Regensburg.

We’ve slowed down a bit since France to allow us to enjoy the surroundings – we don’t want to miss anything – cycling for 4-6 hours a day instead of 8-10 hours has made a real difference. However, it does not take away some excellent moments that only tiredness can produce, such as James getting on his bike backwards and I lost my sunglasses for a good 10 minutes before finding them on my head.

Regensburg is the oldest town in Germany and the old capital of Bavaria. We checked into a campsite for a couple of nights to spend a day looking around the city. In Bavaria a can of beer costs 40p – around half the price of a can of coke. As my Grandpa would have said, “It would be dangerous not to”, so we enjoyed a few beers and cooked a feast at the campsite and enjoyed a rare a lie in the following morning before heading into town.

Regensburg

Regensburg

Naturally, being a rest day, it rained nearly all day, but that did not take anything away from how magnificent Regensburg is. The cathedral was a highlight, dating back to pre-1100; it is home to world-famous medieval stained glass windows dating to 1230.

We are currently around 60kms (and one puncture) further along the river in another charming town called Straubing, again home to a beautiful church and an idyllic walled town centre with cobbled streets lined with cafés.

Before you ask – no, sadly, we are not wining and dining in all these towns as budgets do not allow. But it’s been an absolute privilege to travel through them and experience their beauty with a packed lunch!

We have been camping on and off for nearly 3 weeks and are now into a routine. James has almost managed to work out how to pack his panniers in under two hours every morning whilst I have time to dismantle the tent, have a shower and do my nails :-). It was with much excitement that, 5 nights ago, we finally worked out how to put our tent up properly. We have been enjoying some good sleep and making the most of German campsites with hot showers and fresh water as we are fully aware that, before long, these luxuries will disappear.

So, naturally, being the man, James is in charge of fire and map reading (for those who know me well, you will all agree that both these things are good responsibilities for me not to have; otherwise, we’d have burnt down the tent and be cycling towards Norway). I am mainly responsible for the relatively safe kitchen duties; chopping vegetables and washing up. And no, I have not cut my fingers off with a knife yet!

It’s safe to say, we are having the time of our lives and loving every minute of this adventure so far. We’ve met some great people along the way already. I don’t think we will ever get tired of seeing people’s expressions when they ask how far along the Danube we are going, and we tell them we’re cycling it all and then continuing to Cape Town. It’s been especially great to meet so many families out here, all cycling together – some with kids as young as 2 years old.

Smiles by the Danube

Smiles by the Danube

Germany is as slick and efficient as you might imagine. We’d highly recommend it as a place for cyclists to visit – whether on touring or road bikes. The national bike paths are incredibly well signposted and take you to some unbelievably beautiful places, and nearly every major road has a cycle path alongside it. If you fancy cycling for a week or two without any cars, this is the place to come!

Ahead of the storm

Tomorrow we head about 110km further along to our last stop in Germany, Passau, which is meant to be Germany’s answer to Venice. We shall mark our last day in Bavaria with a Stein, a few sausages and some Sauerkraut. After that, it’s on to Austria, and we hope to be in Vienna by next weekend.

Thank you, Germany; we can’t wait to come back again someday.


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.

Guest blog: Big Game Hunting by Bicycle

My big brother, Jeremy, joined us for a couple of days cycling as well as looking after us exceptionally well with his wife Marie-Agnès and daughter Laurie-Anne at Marie-Agnès’ family home in Alsace.

He wrote us a blog, we hope you enjoy reading it!

[Disclaimer : the author was riding his shiny Scott Solace (5kg) with a +/- 5kg tyre around his waist; the principle characters were riding 2-wheeled tanks with 50+ kg of panniers]

I very much doubt that when James and Emily set off on their adventure to Africa, they intended that the first of the big game to spot would be the giant cuckoo but that was James’ primary objective on cycling day 10. More of that later.

Disappointed to have missed the Grand Départ in London and having been scheduled to climb 4 cols in the Alps on Sunday, I eventually (after a nano-second of thought) decided a more enjoyable day would be spent accompanying my sister Emily and her partner James across the Vosges to my in-laws in Alsace.

So, I pitched up at 9.15 in Grondexange, which is a typical village in Lorraine (no pictures required) for a 9h30 depart. At 9.45 (which I think is pretty good punctuality for Emily), two figures in white appeared on the other side of the little lake and promptly turned right not left so Marie-Agnès jumped in the car to give chase.

It had been a long and hot week in France so the two protagonists probably cursed when they saw my unladen bike and didn’t appreciate the humour when I suggested a little col over the Vosges instead of the Northern detour avoiding the climbs. A few ‘pain au chocolat’ later, however and the challenge was on.

It was a pretty uneventful journey into the Vosges; some excellently maintained cycle paths and quiet Sunday roads and before long we were slowly climbing to the entrance to the village of Dabo. This is where all the stories one hears about GPS taking lorries into fields became relevant for bikes. Garmin said left, the road went right and fortunately there was consensus that the track to the left didn’t look such a good idea.

Heading out of Dabo village, the climb continued, I enjoyed the leisurely pace and the two tourers behind me no doubt wondered why they‘d let me talk them into taking the high road. We soon reached the Rocher du Dabo (or at least a bit below it), a church unnecessarily built on the top of a rocky outcrop providing a good excuse for discussing the merits (or otherwise) of religion in the 21st or other centuries. Soon afterwards we paused with a few other tourists to admire the view of said outcrop, where Emily – who apparently reacts badly to insect bites, inexplicably lay down in the grass to provide the insects with their lunch. A few more meandering bends and we officially reached the Col de Valsberg (653m) where we would have taken a picture except I was to discover that our cameraman is a rather keen descent specialist so he’d gone and it would have been harsh to send him back up the hill to capture the moment.

A quick descent into a deserted Wasselone in search of some lunch ended with a pretzel and warm sweaty dried apricots. Emily and James then took a unanimous and instant decision not to take the direct route over a few short sharp hills and we enjoyed a leisurely last leg along the cycle path by the Mossig to Bergbieten. After a sunny/cloudy but muggy day the heavens opened with about 2k to go for an early shower.

Day 2 of my mini tour, and the queen stage awaited. Emily & James had spent the rest day diligently cleaning their bikes, checking their equipment and battling my mother in law’s attempts to force feed them. A clear blue sky awaited and we set off only about an hour behind schedule. The pace for the first 3k was blistering with 6yr old Laurie-Anne determined to forge ahead. To our relief she was soon collected by the ‘voiture balai’ and we were able to settle into a more leisurely rhythm.

The plan for the day was simple enough. Find the giant cuckoo clock. James’ Lonely Planet guide had picked out a giant cuckoo clock near Triberg in the Black Forest as a site worth seeing. So there we headed. Now, I was under the impression the lonely planet was a young people’s guide but I’m afraid to say that if the giant cuckoo clock is considered a site worth seeing, the authors were probably escaped from a Saga tour. Give it a miss.

The journey into Strasbourg was pretty idyllic – super smooth shady cycle paths along the Bruche and the Canal de la Bruche. Strasbourg by bike is a pleasure – a bike path almost to the city centre where Emily and James were able to marvel at Petit France, get some photos and wave goodbye to France before crossing the Rhine into country number 3.

Emily Conrad-pickles and Jeremy Conrad-Pickles in Strasbourg

Emily with her brother, Jeremy in Strasbourg.

The scenery changed from sumptuous Strasbourg to concrete Kehl and the bike paths changed as well. All of a sudden the two-wheeled tanks were looking a better option than a fancy road bike, as we hit stony gravel paths. Fortunately I emerged with tyres intact and we took a left at Offenberg and headed away from the Rhine valley up the Kinzig river to the Black Forest, the scenery reverted to beautiful, the bike paths (mainly) reverted to tarmac and the temperature started to rise close to the 40c mark.

One particularly pretty Germanic castle made me stop for a photo; Emily and James pressed on unknowingly. Of course there was a junction in the cycle path and by the time I got to it, they were out of sight.   It took me 3 different attempts to choose the right path off from the junction, by which time they had noticed they’d lost me and Emily was cycling back to check the ditches. They both decided that scrumping apples and plums was a good idea (justified survival training I guess) – ignoring the ‘local’s advice, that the season wasn’t quite upon us yet; to be fair the plums weren’t far off but the apple was on the sour side.

Through the afternoon we climbed gently upwards, and the temperature seemed to soar upwards. We finally made it to shaded mountainous roads and in Hornberg we came across our first mountain road tunnel – 1.9km long, we gave it a miss and cycled through the town centre. Our friend Garmin lead us to a footpath, which was kind but the detour did add the discovery that Hornberg is the home of toilets … at which point I learned that James’s distant relative invented the flushing toilet – which you won’t find in his bio.

A series of mountain tunnels followed, where there were generally pavements – much to our relief since oddly enough they cut big pine trees in the Black Forest and need very big lorries to transport them – except of course when workmen had blocked the pavement with street furniture.

Close to our target (the cuckoo clock, remember?), we were passed by my support vehicle (carrying daughter, wife, mother-in-law) who were no doubt stressing mainly about those tunnels and lorries.

The objective was achieved at about 18.40 but of course we had to wait another 20 minutes to see the Big Game Giant Cuckoo emerge. Not knowing how much further there was to climb to find a beer (or for Emily and James to find a bed), waiting for the 7pm chime was perhaps a risky choice. And I think it’s probably fair to say that rarely has 20 minutes been worse spent after more than 8 hour’s cycling. Apparently Germany’s highest waterfall is also in Triberg – go see it; it surely can’t be worse than the World’s largest cuckoo clock.

World's Largest Cuckoo Clock

World’s Largest Cuckoo Clock

At 19.45, we were finally installed in Triberg in front of a German lager. We were at 864m and James and Emily had to bravely climb and another 150m to their youth hostel after a couple of beers. By which time we’d been out for about 11 hours, and covered 110km.

3 weeks ago, I was fortunate to spend a couple days cycling with my family on holiday on the Ile de Ré; Sunday and yesterday I had two fantastic days cycling in great company a small piece of London2Capetown.   For me riding my bike for whatever reason is an absolute pleasure; for many in the world, it’s an access to education, to work. If you enjoyed reading this blog, put another £10 in Emily & James’s World Bicycle Relief campaign.

Thanks to both of them for letting me join them & I look forward to seeing the GPS tracker in Cape Town.


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.

Feeling the heat in the first week

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.”

Wild camping in the Retz Forest

Wild camping in the Retz Forest – before the wild boar surrounded us at night!

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.

The cool of the champagne cellar was a welcome respite from the heat of the day

Champagne cellar in Epernay

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!

Camping in Marylène's garden

Camping in Marylène’s 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.

Wild camping in France

Wild camping beside the Canal de la Marne au Rhin, France.

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’.

Climbing up to Dabo

Climbing up to Dabo

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!

Donaueschingen: The source of the Danube

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.

Ride London 100 route download TCX GPS Garmin

So it all begins

What an emotional two days. And what in incredible start to the next year of our lives. Yesterday morning, along with 100 others, we took on the first leg of our London to Cape Town adventure with a London to Brighton charity ride. The weather was cruel. A head wind all the way to the coast, and rain most of the way there, but that did not stop us – after weeks of sunshine, it seemed almost right that some good old English weather greeted us for our send off.

James and Emily set off to cycle from London to Cape Town

100 riders, from ironmen to complete beginners, all made the finish line in excellent spirits (despite my brother Harry’s continual moaning about how uncomfortable his saddle was!) to enjoy a pint or three on the beach, despite the rain and wind. It was really inspiring to see so many people take on this challenge.  We had a rider on a Brompton, my great friend Tim on a hand bike, and a few people who had never ridden more than 5 miles before taking on this challenge – I love seeing that smile on people’s faces when they have achieved a personal goal, no matter how big or small. For those who had not ridden a bike before this event, we hope you will continue to enjoy life on two wheels.

Thanks too to the West Group, who sent a team up to take part in the ride.  What’s more, the whole company are doing an exercise bike challenge to raise funds for World Bicycle Relief.

The West Group

A huge thank you to Adam and the team from Tri Adventure for organising the event.  Together we have given our fundraising an amazing boost and have now raised nearly £13,000. This is just incredible and means we are well on the way our target of £50,000. Watch this space, we may be back for another go next year….

The route to Brighton was a little bit of an eye opener for James and I with our panniers fully loaded for the first time; climbing Ditching Beacon was character building. We’ve both been making the most of saying goodbye to friends and family so can’t confess to being at our peak fitness but goodness, it took every ounce of grit, strength and quite frankly pure fear on my behalf. I knew that if I stopped, I’d fall off and then have to push the 50+kg bikes up the hill, I wasn’t sure I would make it. Good God it hurt, but we made it…. just!

James cycling Ditchling BeaconEmily cycling Ditchling Beacon James and Emily cycling London to brighton

Trident Sensors support London to Cape Town

Today our thoughts have turned to saying goodbye to our families. It has been so hard. We’ve known that this day has been coming for a year now but it can never prepare you. We are both extremely lucky to have incredible, loving, supportive families who we see on a very regular basis and although we will be in touch on a very regular basis, we are both going to miss our families like mad. Thank you for your love and support – we love you to bits.

James and Emily cycling from London to Cape Town

Now we await our DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe – we’re hoping for some calmer and sunnier weather in France. I’ve not got a great track history on boats so here’s hoping the crossing’s not too rough.

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