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.