Leaving home 2.0

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Leaving was always going to be tough. My last week in London was pretty magical. Both Astrid and I loved living with Brenda, Terry, Ben, Charlotte and Rachel. We got thoroughly spoilt and cared for and it was wonderful being in a family home and so fitting to end our time with the very people that brought us to east London in the first place. Not only that, but Ben has recently been employed by the LAS and I worked my last ever shift with him out of Homerton. A perfect ending to my time working in Hackney and for the LAS. The final week was a smattering of lovely social activity which included going to a festival, being taken on a day out in London and finally our farewell party on the marshes on a perfect summers day with all the people we love. Thank you everyone who was part of these wonderful last days.

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Last shift ever with Ben, Victoria Park

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Erica and I outside the best cafe ever

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Farewell gathering, Stone Circle, Hackney Marshes

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These guys have been such a big part of our lives

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Hadlee, Bec and Dave

Such perfect summers evening

So the day we were to depart I woke up feeling morose, rather than excited. For many reasons London felt harder to leave than Melbourne had. Probably because I always felt I will move back to Melbourne. I don’t know when I will be back in London. We packed our bikes, had a final breakfast and then said a teary goodbye to everyone. A deep thank you to Brenda, Terry, Ben, Rachel and Charlotte. It’s been absolutely wonderful living with you all.

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Last family dinner

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Goodbye!

With Ben leading, we headed to the Greenwich observatory. This is where it had all ended/began almost 3 years ago. We drank Prosecco and looked at the drizzling London skyline. I don’t think I have quite the words to describe exactly what London has meant to me yet but I am so grateful for all the experiences I’ve had and the friends I have made. Those who have touched my soul, you know who you are. Thank you.

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2015…

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2018..

We were soon joined by our friends Bec and Hadlee, rocking up on hipster bikes with a can do attitude. Their enthusiasm began to drag me out of my sad state and we all headed down towards the Thames. In a way our final cycle through London was a journey through all the places I held dear; along my beloved canals, passed canal boats, by the climbing gym, through Victoria park, passed Hackney Wick and finally into the Hackney Marshes to collect Doug by the stone circle.

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It is always time for procecco

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Ready to ride

Our group of 6 then retraced our pedal of 2015 along the Lee River to Waltham Abbey. We sat at the very same picnic table we had almost 3 years before and shared lunch (and some of us may have drunk a fair bit of whiskey instead). Then it was a tearful goodbye to Ben and Doug who were headed back to London.

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The farewell team

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In polaroid..

Bec, Hadlee, Astrid and I turned our bikes north and followed the NCN 1 deeper into Essex. England had truly turned on the weather and the grey drizzle of the morning gave way to bright sunshine. There is something exceptional about an English summer day and it was hard not to feel joy. Everything was green and beautiful and the cycling was divine. Through the countryside we rolled, stopping for pints and then dinner at a quaint country pub. Astrid and I were endlessly impressed by Bec and Hadlee who had never done such a long cycle, but took it all in their stride and remained so positive despite probably feeling quite wrecked. After dinner we found a small track that led to a field beside a river where we pitched our tents and enjoyed the sweetness of the summer evening.

The following day dawned hot and sunny and we continued our pedal east through the undulating country roads and lanes. By lunchtime we were all wrecked and lay in the shade by a castle and ate and drank some beers. After a prolonged recovery we were ready for the last 30km to Harwich. Seeing the sea was emotional. This was really the end: and the beginning of a new adventure. A new life.

Harwich itself felt half familiar, as it was the same port we had arrived at in 2015. We found a pub by international port and shared a final meal and a few beers. Bec and Hadlee you are truly rockin. Thank you so much for joining us on this leg of the journey.

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Final beers

After goodbyes we headed to the ferry and Bec and Hadlee to the station. Well, this was it. We cleared immigration and pedalled onto the ferry. Goodbye England. Our life as bicycle travellers was beginning once more.

The ride on the ferry was smooth and luxurious; we had a cabin with a shower and a view out to sea. I fell asleep as we pulled out of Harwich and woke just before we docked at Hook of Holland.

Again, the Hook of Holland was very familiar and after breakfast overlooking the port we pedaled through the sand dunes along the beautifully large bike paths following the signs to Den Haag. At the central station we were reunited with our good friends Frans and Eveline. It was so fantastic to see them! After hugs and coffee we began our cycle east across Holland.

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And it begins!

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Breakfast

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The port

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Meeting Frans and Eveline outside Den Haag Centraal

Frans had chosen LF4 (a long distance bike route) and had the maps all downloaded on his GPS so all we had to do was follow that. While we cycled on wide, well marked and very picturesque paths we excitedly chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. Frans and Eveline are how I want to be when I reach their age; energetic, a curiosity for the world with a strong sense of adventure and connection to their community. We talked about everything, stopped for beers in the sun and rolled through the idyllic, very typical Dutch landscape of canals, windmills and cute villages.

Like all scenic bike routes (NCN!!), the LF4 doesn’t exactly take the most direct route and by the time we rolled into the campsite at Utrecht we were all exhausted and it was well passed 9pm. Luck was on our side though, the campsite was gorgeous and they had a BBQ (including vegan chicken!) going and a bar open. Although the BBQ was somewhat over priced as we had turned up late they gave us our beers for free. Frans and I saw this as a challenge as to how many beers we could consume before close (Frans and I are obviously very similar!).

We were greeted by rain the next day and it took us ages to get going as coffee and cake needed to be consumed in the picturesque centre of Utrecht. The landscape now changed from canals to a more forested one and it was a delight to cycle through. Not only that, the manner in which cycle travel is completely normalised in this country and seen as a legitimate form of transport (not a novelty) is so utterly refreshing. I only despair slightly that every country cannot be like this. I mean surely in this day and age of environmental destruction, obesity and disconnection this (cycling) is part of the solution?

Our delightful day of pedalling came to an end in Arhnem where we celebrated with an Indonesian feast and quite a few beers. Bidding Frans and Eveline farewell was hard. I feel we will see them again but I just don’t know when. Too many goodbyes this week! We do however feel so lucky that they came and joined us for this part of our journey.

From our forest camp on the outskirts of Arhnem we now headed north and west, aiming for big days to ensure we would reach Denmark and our ferry onwards to Iceland in time. These things however don’t often go to plan and that day one of the most crazy and random things occurred; as Astrid and I pedalled out of Deventer having just finished lunch, someone called out my name. I stopped and turned around and was greeted by Jorinda who I had not seen for more than 20 years! She had been an exchange student in my school when I was 15 and other than being FB friends we had not had contact since then. Incidentally I had thought about her that morning, knowing she lived in Holland but no idea where. What are the chances we would cross paths right at that moment?! The world is a wonderful and mysterious place, but having experienced many seemingly random events, especially when traveling I was surprised but also not. Jorinda and her husband Pieter had been on their way to drink some beers but they quickly invited us to their home as it was closer. At that point we were still saying we needed to leave after a quick drink.

However, once settled in their sunny backyard drinking a Dutch beer it took Astrid and I about half an hour to decide that surely we could somehow make up the kilometres…We decided to stay and had a delightful evening of catching up on the last 20 years, BBQing, beers, then a pedal to a brewery, more beers, more pedalling, more beers and then finally at some point we made it to bed. What a super brilliant night. Thank you universe.

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Fancy meeting on a bike path in Holland!!

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Beer tasting is serious stuff

We pulled our hungover arses out of bed the next day and gingerly set about getting ready for the day. Fuelled by coffee and breakfast we headed out into the bright sunshine and turned our bikes towards Germany and the 100km we needed to do. It was a day where cycling felt a bit like a chore (still a good chore) and I plugged my music in (old school British techno is sometimes needed) and we just pedalled. By the evening we crossed the border (an unassuming, unmarked road in the countryside) but being Sunday no shops were open in rural Germany. Luckily we found a small pub to drink a radler (shandy) and eat a plate of fried potatoes. By the time we reached the outskirts of Meppen we were both shattered and barely functioning. Added to that we found ourselves in a weird oil field. I must say, I’ve camped in many strange places but that’s the first time I’ve slept next to an oil pump.

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Hair of the dog in Germany

We left early before the workers arrived and ate breakfast by the river in Meppen. The ride across northern Germany was one of long days. Our alarm would go off early although it would take us increasingly pathetic amounts of time to finally rise as we got more fatigued. Porridge and coffee (tea for Astrid) would fuel us until our first bretzel stop. That was followed by our first Lidl stop where we would then consume huge amounts of bread and hummus in a park, or the picturesque centre of an old city. Another 30km and another stop, usually our afternoon stop we treated ourselves to a radler in the sun. Our day finished around 8pm when we would find a forest or park to camp in, make dinner, drink a 40 cent beer and fall into bed. Of course I like to go slow, explore places and take my time, but there is also something satisfying and joyous about the rituals of a long and purpose driven day. Each evening we would find ourselves a little chunk closer to the Danish border and our goal seemed more achievable.

I really enjoyed the pedal through northern Germany. The big industrial rivers that cut through the landscape, the farmland, forests, cute villages and lovely cities. There were always cheap supermarkets, cheap beers and communication (for me) was easy and for once I didn’t have to feel like the guilty English speaker who makes no effort to learn another language (although ironically I didn’t actually make any effort when I learnt German). That and the ease of wild camping always makes Germany feel a little like home to me. By the time we reached Flensburg on the Danish border we were both feeling pretty excited about the next country. Neither of us had ever been to Denmark before and knew very little about the place. We drank our last cheap German beer in the square in Flensburg while watching an ambulance attend some drunken chaps nearby. It was so familiar I felt like we hadn’t left Hackney.

It was time to head for Denmark.

A slow meander through the north west

IMG_20180512_165352.jpgOur ferry to Ullapool was mercifully smooth. I hardly remember any of it as after eating I basically fell asleep, exhausted after the epic pedal into the wind. We docked in the late afternoon with plans (my plans) to buy food and pedal a few kilometres to find somewhere to camp. However, after some discussion (and me probably being quite annoying) I could see that Astrid was shattered and not really up for any more pedalling. So we called it a day and opted for the hostel 200m away. It was a cosy, friendly place, perfect for spending an evening relaxing, eating and watching the rain lash the windows.

The next morning we pushed out into the highlands of Scotland and were afforded views of mountains, lochs, the sea and vast moors. I was enthralled. The power and wildness of the landscape filled me with joy. This is exactly what I had come to Scotland for. It is this wilderness our hearts had been craving.

After 23km we turned off the main road and followed a wonderful small road to the base of Stac Pollaidh, a mountain that Ben, the guy who worked at the hostel, had told us we shouldn’t miss. A quick lunch in the sun and we were ready to climb. The ascent wasn’t difficult but we had to keep hiding as fronts of hail and rain came over. This was interspersed with bright sunshine and stunning views. Once off the mountain we drank tea and then continued on towards Lochinver, a small village on a loch. Here food was purchased and we optimistically turned onto a small road for the last few miles to Suileag bothy. Other cyclists (the cool bike packing kind) had told us it got a bit rough but we wouldn’t have to push too much. Ha. I think it took us about 2.5 hours to do 4 miles. The road was so rough and steep that at times the two of us were pushing and pulling one bike up at a time! At the end of an already long day it was tough going and we questioned our sanity and dedication to sleeping at a bothy.

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Suilven dominates the landscape

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Heading in to the Bothy

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Firewood collection

IMG_20180510_184857.jpg The road gets smaller..

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And rougher!

However, as soon as we rounded the last corner and saw the bothy nestled in amongst all the wild beauty it felt worth it. There is something so charming about these remote huts. I am completely enchanted by them. Inside we met Tony, a guy in his 70’s from London. He was here on a 2 week fishing trip of the remote lochs and had been coming to the area since 1982. Tony was delighted that we can collected enough wood on our bikes (not all bothies have firewood) to start the fire and we spent a lovely evening sharing stories about each others’s lives while watching the flickering (natures tv) of the flames. Tony certainly impressed me with his tales of quitting his job his and working ski seasons in France and becoming an amazing skier in his 50’s. It goes to show you don’t have to be young to do crazy adventurous things. I guess I know this, but it’s nice to hear stories from people who have actually lived it.

Suileag bothy

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Outside the bothy

Natures TV

When you sleep so near to a mountain as epic as Suilven, it would be a shame not to climb it. So after breakfast Astrid and I headed the two or so hours up the mountain. Unfortunately we couldn’t actually summit. We got as far as the saddle and then the wind was so ferocious I actually got blown over and was almost crawling to reach the top. We decided it wasn’t worth it. The walk and the views from the saddle were stunning enough for us.

Back at the bothy we debated the merits of staying another night as after a 5 hour hike up a mountain we were both pretty tired. In the end we decided to leave and bade Tony farewell and pushed and pedalled our bikes back out onto the main road. From there it was only a short cycle to Shore camping ground and as we had not spotted anywhere free to camp and the camping ground sold (hot) chips, it wasn’t hard to decide to stay there.

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The way back wasn’t quite as tough as the way in..

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Chips! And beer!

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Another beautiful spot

Brilliant sun greeted us the next day and we enthusiastically jumped into the icy bay. Aside from being freezing, these beautiful beaches with their white sand and turquoise water remind me of places like the prom. I love starting the day with (preferably nude) swim. It makes me feel so alive. There is something so invigorating and life affirming about icy cold water.

It was late by the time we rolled out of the campsite but we didn’t care and had decided to embrace the fact that it was a weekend. The road undulated gently with stunning views. We stopped at a beach to meditate and simply enjoyed the fact that it was sunny and warm in northern Scotland. We ate lunch at Drumbeg looking at a sparkling loch and then began what turned into quite an epic afternoon and evening of steep ascents. Some of the gradients reduced me to pushing. This almost never happens, although I’ve been feeling that my bike is way too heavy and my hill fitness very lacking. Astrid managed to cycle them all. Amazing. We kept trying to find a spot to camp but all we found was boggy peat. Finally we reached the A road and then not long after a beautiful camp spot under a bridge, overlooking a loch with a pub a short walk away. Perfect. The road always provides in the end.

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Meditation

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Lunch feast

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Stunning views

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Hefty climbs

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rest

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Happy to be at the top

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Beer!

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Bridge trolls once again

Shockingly we woke to rain. This was not part of the plan. The met office had promised sun. And so had the locals. I lay there listening to the rain and being annoyed. Astrid wanted to have a tent day. I wanted to walk/cycle into Glendhu bothy 10km away at the far end of the loch. Eventually my whining and optimistic talk of ‘it’s stopping’ won her over and it did indeed stop. We packed up and headed to the pub to try and buy firewood. It seemed too expensive so we decided to chance it. We learnt a good lesson that if you turn up to a bothy on Sunday there is a good chance that some firewood will be left over from the weekend. The cycle in was much easier than the last bothy, only requiring pushing towards the end. Soon we were sat with some hikers eating lunch, enjoying the sun and tranquility. One of them, Lawrence had a sad story. We’d actually heard about him from another hiker (and later found out he knew someone else from Sheffield we had met cycling in Albania!) a few hours earlier. Lawrence was hiking the Scottish national trail with his dog Suzi and had lost Suzi the night before. He was understandably quite devastated. However, later that evening two men turned up in a boat looking for Lawrence. Suzi had been located at a hostel he had visited the previous day and they were here to take him to her. A brilliant ending. After Lawrence left in the boat the rest of us – hikers doing the Scottish national trail – sat by the fire drinking tea and chatting as the light gently faded outside. I’m loving how late it gets dark here.

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Sunset beers outside Glendhu Bothy

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Glendhu

IMG_20180513_203236.jpgThe morning began with a swim in the loch and we then pushed and pedalled our bikes back out to the road and headed north. At Scourie I convinced a kind motorcyclist to fill my fuel bottle with petrol (again, such a pain in Britain) and we made the best of the poor selection of food from the local shop (instant mashed potato, beans and tomatoes) for lunch. In the afternoon the landscape began to feel more remote, even for Scotland. We had turned off the main road and were headed for a beach – Sandwood Bay, only accessible by a 12km walk or pedal.

I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Australia or spent a lot of my younger years on hikes and camps in the wilderness, but it is this remoteness I crave. Sitting on the deserted beach, as the waves pounded, with only Astrid and one enthusiastic surfer around, my soul felt at peace. I love cities for all their vibrancy and culture but there is something healing and restorative about the wild places on our planet. That’s why I feel so strongly that they needed to be protected. They are beyond precious. I think connection with wilderness makes us better humans because it brings into focus what really matters. This is probably why I cycle and travel the way I do because this connection comes so organically.

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Searching for a campsite

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One of the best yet..

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Beers at Sandwood Bay

We left probably one of the most picturesque camp spot we’ve had, hid our bikes behind a dry stone wall and finally packed the backpacks we’d been carrying. Then we began what ended up being a rather wet trek into Strathchalleach bothy. This bothy had once been home to a local hermit called Sandy, like all kind of legends he seemed like quite an eccentric guy but I fear there was a deeper, sadder story as to why he turned to alcoholism and the life of a hermit (there are quite a few stories at to why but people seem more interested in his eccentricities than his tragedy).

By the time we reached the bothy we were soaked from the rain and the bog and ready for it to be over. Inside the small bothy we met Becci who was bimbling about the area for a few days, hiking and biking. She was battling with the peat fire which turns out none of us had any idea how to manage. We spent the better part of the afternoon through trial and error figuring out how to get it going. In the end we had moderate success interspersed with severe periods of almost choking ourselves with smoke. Some other hikers with a dog arrived and then Lucy, who we had met two nights ago at Glendhu. She came with digestives and we spent the evening eating biscuits and drinking tea. In the wilderness Astrid and I are often surrounded by men; it was nice to spend an evening with strong, adventurous women. We laughed a lot. Especially when we had a closer look at the hermits murals and saw how x rated some of them actually were.

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Stratchalleach

The morning’s hike out was sunny and much quicker than the previous day. We repacked the bikes and headed out to the road. A pass greeted our return to the main road and then a long descent almost all the way into Durness. Stunning cycling as always. I felt dwarfed by the dramatic landscape. You can feel the presence of glaciers that shaped this land, even though they are long gone. Just out of Durness we marvelled at the Kyle of Durness – a huge tidal river cutting through the landscape, separating Cape Wrath from the rest of Scotland.

We had made plans to meet Lucy that night to celebrate her completion of the Scottish National Trail, an epic hike from Southern Scotland to Cape Wrath. When she finally arrived we greeted her with beer and enthusiasm and were reunited with a few other hikers we had met along the way as well. An evening at the pub ensued.

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After we bade Lucy and the others farewell we had a decision to make about where the road would take us. I felt a bit discombobulated; we don’t normally have so much time or freedom. It’s actually a nice feeling, just takes some getting used to. After some discussion we decided to go and get a hot chocolate and then take the boat to Cape Wrath and pedal to Kervaig bothy. Lots of good things happened once we had made that decision; we got a smashing vegan hot chocolate, the sun shone, we didn’t have to wait long for the boat across the Kyle, the pedal was lovely and we met Becci again just before the bothy. The bothy itself was in probably one of the most stunning locations and it was a joy to watch the sunset over the ocean while sharing some whisky.

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Walking back to the Bothy post icy dip in the sea

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We clambered over these looking (unsuccessfully) for puffins

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Happy hour Scottish style

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Kervaig Bothy

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Good spot for a tent..

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It seemed weird to be nearly at Cape Wrath and not visit the lighthouse. So we rode out to it, sheltered in the weird little café from the rain and then headed back to get the boat. We stopped briefly in Durness to restock and then headed east. Often my favourite part of the day is when we stop and this is especially true in Scotland. Mainly because of the right to roam and the ample amount of amazing places to put a tent. To me finding a flat place to put our tent, with a view of a beautiful beach, dry firewood and stream with fresh water, well life actually doesn’t get much better than that. It is the deep appreciation of the simple things that I think ultimately facilitates my ongoing happiness.

We had met a Swiss girl who had told us about a Munroe (mountains over 900m mostly in Scotland) nearby so we decided to head there the following day. Our pedal took us along a beautiful sea loch and then up a stunning remote valley. We had lunch at the foot of the mountain and then spent the afternoon climbing it. Amazing views. Astrid was particularly impressed by a fell runner who literally ran down the mountain. I thought I had stable footing, but this guy was like a super hero. Amazing.

On our way down we had met Ben again – the guy who worked at the hostel in Ullapool. After a bit of chat we all decided to camp together. It’s always fun to have company and Ben is a really cool guy. We found a spot to make camp, built a fire and spent the evening chatting and drinking tea. Ben is more or less bike packing and hiking, something that has sparked my interest. It’s a lot more light weight and allows for easier off road cycling in more remote places. Astrid and I definitely want to try it. I think I am going to make it a project when I get back to Melbourne.

Sundays always pose problems in remote areas where shops are often not open long. We had managed to almost run out of food but luckily somehow also managed to make it 2 minutes before the only shop for miles closed (it was open for one hour). Phew. Astrid would have had to deal with quite an irate me. I am not so good with a lack of food.

It was now a 2 day cycle to John O’Groats which we kind of didn’t care so much about reaching. However, we decided we might as well do it since we had come so far. Astrid and I are obviously not particularly goal orientated; we kind of do what feels right at the time. And if that means changing plans, well that’s fine. However, Astrid did want to go to Dunnet Head (the actual most north easterly point) as it was famous for its birds. And it kind of felt right to finish what we started. So we pedalled onwards, facing some rough weather on the way. The landscape changed from the wildness we had become accustomed to, to much more cultivated and populated. Reaching John O’Groats did feel momentous in a way, but Dunnet Head with its many nesting birds and beautiful views was much more of a highlight. Our last night wild camping was next to a beach with a fire and it was hard to believe we would soon be in London again. I had really gotten back into this traveling, wild life. It would be hard to leave it. Although it wouldn’t be for long.

On our last day we pedalled into Thurso, caught a train to Inverness and spent a wonderful afternoon exploring the city in the sunshine. Then, to our delight we were let into the Caledonian sleeper lounge, given towels and access to a luxurious shower and then a room full of snacks. It felt very olde worldly and like how I imagine train travel used to be. What a treat in this day and age. Once on the sleeper we sat in the lounge cart and drank a whisky while watching the sunset over the highlands. What a stunning way to end an amazing adventure. And not only that, in a way this trip, starting all the way back at Lands End last year, had been about paying homage to the island we have called home for the last 2.5 years. Of course there will always be things we haven’t seen, but I feel like we have given it our best shot to explore and understand this wonderful little island. Thanks Britain, in the end you were pretty swell.

Exploring the Outer Hebrides

IMG_20180502_125652.jpgIncorporating the Outer Hebrides (a remote string of islands off the North West Coast of Scotland)  as part of our exploration of Scotland had never really been in doubt. In fact last year we had started to plan a stand alone tour of the islands but this had fallen through due to a lack of time.

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Hebridean Way signs make it very easy to follow

But now, here I was in Oban waiting for the 11:30am train to deliver three friends from London (Astrid was in a cafe waiting with the bikes). Rob, Erica and Dave had all decided to join us and we would be a group of 5 heading for this far flung corner of Britain.

The tiny train pulled in and we all exchanged excited greetings. It had only been a few days but I was incredibly delighted to see them. With two hours till our sailing we efficiently bought ferry tickets, went food shopping and shoved large amounts of chips in our faces.

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Chip happiness before the ferry

Before long we were boarding the ferry with a large amount of other cyclists, it seems the Hebridean Way is rather popular. Our ferry took off with us all in high spirits. Unfortunately this was not to last. Rob and I made the mistake of eating a kind of second lunch and we enthusiastically bought a round of beers to celebrate our adventure. It was not long before we hit the open water and what to us felt like huge waves. We all dealt with it slightly differently; Rob vomited, I pretended to be dead (and vomited), Erica and Dave sought relief by moving further to the back of the boat and trying to sleep, and poor Astrid remained at the front of the boat (where we had naively decided to sit) stuck on the bench, unable to move due to sea sickness. The end couldn’t come fast enough.

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Excitement, right before it all went wrong..

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Post sea sickness

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Shamefully this was what remained. Although I finished mine. Probably why I spewed.

By the time we reached Castle Bay our earlier enthusiasm was somewhat curbed and we gingerly rolled our bikes off the boat. Luckily once on land seasickness passes rapidly and we were soon pedalling off to find somewhere to camp. There had been a storm but it was thankfully now dry and the first beach we stopped at provided some shelter from the wind and good spots for tents. It seems when you put a bunch of people together who are used to thinking on their feet and solving problems, everything runs smoothly (this was to be a theme for the week). We all set to work and soon all our tents were up, beds sorted and a system of efficient cooking was taking place on our rather small stoves. By the time we had finished eating we were all shattered and ready for bed.

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We camped right next to this

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Day one camp

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Dinner time

Astrid and I woke early; it was the warmest nights sleep we had since beginning our trip and we both finally felt well rested. Taking the opportunity the quiet early morning brings, we got up and headed to the beach for a quick dip in the icy water. It felt amazing! By the time we returned, our little camp was half stirring the stoves were fired up to provide the morning’s coffee. Not without near disaster however. As Rob lit his stove it caught fire, seeking to get away from the group and the very flammable tents, he did a kind of dive, which unfortunately resulted in Rob landing on his tent, snapping a pole, doing a kind of commando role and then flinging the still lit stove like some kind of grenade away from us. He then had to still run up and turn it off.  A lot of action before 9am. Luckily Rob, the stove and the tent all survived.

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Excited by sun and the sea!

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Such a good morning

Our first mornings pedal saw us hug the west coast of Barra. We had it all; sun, sweeping views and a rather smashing tail wind. At the ferry terminal to Eriskay we pulled out Rob’s now subdued stove and made tea. Life was pretty perfect.

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Barra

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More beautiful beaches

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A lovely mornings cycle

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Rob is the man servant and makes the tea

The 40 min ferry had none of the trauma of the previous days crossing and we were soon climbing away from the bay with more amazing views out to sea. At the community co op we purchased wine and lunch and headed off to be stunned by the views across the causeway. It looked like SE Asia or the Caribbean, only about 20 degrees too cold. The wind had picked up and it took us a while to find a sheltered beach in which to cook up our lunch.

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Happy on this ferry!

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Climbing in the sun

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Being weirdos

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Cyclo women gang

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Lunch on the beach

The afternoon saw a series of brief hailstorms followed by bright sunshine. We rode together in twos and threes chatting and I was reminded again how nice it is to travel in a group like this. Mid afternoon beers brought a hilarious coincidence and a solution to a slightly annoying problem. Astrid and I have a multi fuel stove which we usually run on petrol. This has never been a problem until Britain. Here however they have a rule which does not allow you to buy unleaded petrol in the small quantity that we require. I’d already tried talking an attendant into letting me buy fuel the previous day without success. In the pub we mentioned this the bar tender in passing. She casually mentioned she grew up in Plaistow and normally worked as a paramedic on the islands (where they do 250 jobs a month as apposed to 6000 a day!). Ha. What are the chances of 5 east London paramedics ending up in her pub?! Anyway, as we went to leave her wife turned up with a can of petrol for us. The road. It takes care of you.

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Cycle gang

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Hebridean cows like to walk in lines..

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Fronts of crazy weather

A guy Astrid and I had met on ferry coming off Arran had told us about a group of hostels built in the traditional hebredian style that you could camp at and use their kitchen and facilities. With the icy wind picking up we all decided a warm fire might be required. In the end all but Rob opted for a hostel bed (Erica and I even spent half an hour trying to put her tent up in the almost gale force winds before giving up). Inside the warm cosy structure we found a mix of hikers and bikers and a lovely fire. Food was cooked. Wine was consumed.

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The awesome Hebridean Hostel

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Astrid and Erica cooking us dinner/drinking

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Breakfast!

Grey dreariness greeted us but our spirits were not dampened. A hefty tailwind pushed us northwards. Towards the afternoon it began to drizzle but we found refuge in a pub with a fire. The rain having finally cleared we pushed on towards an illusive co op which felt like it would never materialise. Eventually co op was located and many items purchased. We wearily rolled down a hill to where a picnic site was indicated on a map. Unfortunately it was gravel. And the grass around it looked suspiciously like the tide would reach it. Images of floating a tent butt naked out of a mangrove swamp way back in Australia came back to haunt me. We were all tired and just wanted to get out of the wind and set up camp. It was one of those moments were our lack of direction matched our waning energy. Until Rob decided to go and ask the farmer if we could camp on their field. They agreed and were possibly even going to offer us dinner but Rob assured them we were not that ill prepared. Tents were quickly set up and our cooking production line efficiently started and in a short while we were all much warmer and sipping on cup o soup. Classic bike touring, you go from everything being a bit challenging with no where to camp to drinking wine and eating curry in a field.

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cooking curry in a field

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Curry in a field camp

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Curry should be eaten with a gigantic spoon

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Life is better with wine in a bag..

The wind picked up in the early hours, followed by the rain. By the time the morning came around I felt utterly overwhelmed at the prospect of getting up. Eventually I forced myself out with the thinking; one chore at a time. By the time I had done the dishes, Rob was up too. We set about getting breakfast ready and Dave soon joined us. As it was Erica’s birthday, we had decided to put on a spread, by camping standards anyway. Rob had bought prosecco and balloons and we deposited these and cards into Erica’s tent. While we had been cooking vegan sausages and making coffee, Astrid had cleared our tent and we all proceeded to climb in there and have a breakfast party. It’s not everyday you get to wake up in a damp farmer’s field on your birthday and drink prosecco in a tent!

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Happy birthday Erica!

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Bigger than your head bread

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Party tent

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Having some kind of episode while cooking breakfast

We packed up and pushed our bikes out of the now sodden field, leaving a note of thanks for letting us make it our home for the night. A short pedal and we were on the ferry and heading away from North Uist, bound for the next island, Harris. Here we had opted to spent the rest of Erica’s birthday relaxing and celebrating in a bunkhouse. When we arrived, the place was deserted but open. A note said to make yourself at home and take any free beds. Eventually the owner was located in a shed out the back. He gave us the whole top level to use and we soon had our soaking tents and clothes hanging everywhere and a fire crackling. Cups of tea and relaxing followed. It was lovely to be out of the weather in such a lovely place with such beautiful views.

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A wet ride to the ferry

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Random stop

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Ferry ninjas?

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Before it all descended in chaos..

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On the way..

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And yes

I’d like to think we weren’t one of those loud groups that takes over a place, we certainly tried not to be. However, I am not sure I have ever laughed quite so much before. There was a lot of giggling and marginally ludicrous behaviour. That is probably all I am going to say here. Definitely an evening to remember!

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recovery breakfast

A slow morning of pancakes and cups of tea and we hit the road in good spirits, despite the late night. The cycling was truly stunning. Lochs, moors, crazy rock formations and wild views out to sea. Some of the most superb pedalling I’ve done. And the undulations made it sometimes feel like being on a rollercoaster. Super fun. It began to rain as we reached Tarbert. Being the Hebrides and thus more traditional than places on the mainland, all food shops are shut on a Sunday. So we bought supplies for two days and then went to the distillery to make a plan. With the weather coming in none of us fancied a long cycle which involved a hefty climb. Instead we opted for the backpackers in Tarbert but unfortunately being a bank holiday weekend it was full (although we learnt the next day that wasn’t actually true. Perhaps word had got out about an unruly group of  cyclists who spend all night in fits of giggles). Asking around, some locals told us people sometimes camp next to the post office. So that’s what we did. I love Scotland. No one cares about 5 people putting up tents in the middle of their village. A guy even gave us sympathy wine, given the drizzle.

 

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Great riding on small roads

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Overwhelmed. That time Rob ate 2 mains and then ordered dessert..

So while London and the rest of the UK was having the warmest early spring bank holiday in decades, we huddled together in a bus shelter out of the constant drizzle cooking pasta and drinking wine. I had a moment of feeling rather morose about it all (the rain was irritating me) but it’s hard to stay in a bad mood when the group you are with are so upbeat and fun and it wasn’t long before I could appreciate the humour of it all.

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Cooking dinner in our bus shelter

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rage and wine in a bus stop

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Camping in the centre of town

Our final day together saw a biggish climb out of Tarbert, a lot of drizzle, lunch in a bus shelter and arriving soaked and grateful for a roof over our heads at the Heb Hostel in Stornoway. By now we had reached Lewis (which is technically part of one landmass with Harris but has quite a different vibe) and there was a lot more agriculture and development. Stornoway felt like a big town after the tiny clusters of houses we had come to expect as villages. Clothes and people drying and washing ensued.

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Climbing

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Resting

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Instant mashed potato in a bus stop

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It tasted so good

While shops may all be closed on Sundays, pubs are not. We headed to the Lewis Bar to celebrate the completion of our journey together. Most of the locals were already well on their way to being drunk and we witnessed one Wellington booted chap slam his beer down and storm out. We also made friends with a dog and a woman who told us we were crazy for cycling and seemed to blame Dave and Rob for putting us ladies in such a predicament. Ha.

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Final beers in Stornoway

The evening was finished off with wine and curry at the hostel and I felt so grateful to have had such a wonderful week with our fantastic friends. I have laughed so much and been constantly reminded how wonderful it is to go on trips with a group that gets along so well. Everyone was always in such good spirits and despite the mildly annoying weather, I don’t think it took away from the experience at all. Thanks guys for joining us, we had a brilliant time.

The others left in the early hours of that morning and we sleepily hugged them farewell before falling back into bed. We woke late and I was sad in the way I knew I would be. Always when others leave us, be it family or friends, it takes some adjusting. I missed the laughter and group dynamics.

Our day went like many rest days. Many cups of tea, a meander around, a random trip to the museum, a prolonged shop in the supermarket and then back to the hostel. The weather was still uninspiring. So we ate more food and hoped the next day would be better.

It was. Sun and a cracking tailwind saw us pedal out to look at some standing stones, a Broch and then all the way to the Butt of Lewis light house and the official end of the Hebridean Way. It was beautiful standing looking over the cliffs and the wild Atlantic as the sun set. Because it’s Scotland we put our tent up right by the lighthouse as we had never slept next to one before.

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So happy with this spot

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Cup of soup time

Life is all about balance, what goes up, must come down and tailwinds, once you turn around are headwinds. We woke early, knowing that we would be pushing into wind for 46km and were hoping to make the 2pm ferry. It was probably one of the hardest cycles we’d done in a while. Maybe ever. A ferocious headwind combined with rain and hills across a rather desolate landscape. A day where I almost wondered why I am doing this.  By the time we reached Stornoway 7 hours later we had 15 mins till the ferry left, well passed the official time we were allowed to board. But we thought what the hell, lets try. So we pedalled as hard as we could through the port, I dumped my bike and ran inside ready to plead with the lady behind the counter. Instead she calmly informed me the ferry was running late and we could certainly get on if we hurried. So hurry we did. Exhausted and windswept it was such a relief to board the warm ferry.

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46km of headwind in front of me face

Thank you Outer Hebrides, you are wild and beautiful and we’ve had a super time. Now it is time to continue the road north on the main land..

love

Jude

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Sunset over the north Atlantic

 

 

 

 

Failte Scotland

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Ready for our ‘big’ bike tour of Scotland…

A year on and it is time to finish what we had started. On a sunny spring day last year we had cycled into Glasgow, from Lands End, and promised ourselves that we would come back and give Scotland the time it deserved.  We also had promised ourselves at some point, that we would cycle the Hebridean Way (a tour of the islands of the Outer Hebrides).  With a month and a half left in the land we have called home for the last two and half years, it was time to honour these promises.  It was with great excitement that we pulled out all of our touring gear and packed for our “practice run” for our upcoming journey home.  Gear wise, Scotland in spring would be a worthy comparison for Iceland in summer.  The tent and and our waterproofs were reproofed, the holes in the panniers and clothing patched, our gear sorted and the bikes self-serviced at our fave bike place – the London Bike Kitchen.

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A cycle touring bomb exploded in our room

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The girl’s got a good going over here before the trip

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Ready to set off from Charlton

Fully decked out, we cycled from Brenda’s place in South London to Euston Station to catch the train to Glasgow.  In true Virgin Train’s style we were given only minutes notice of our departure platform and had to scurry to get the bikes and our gear on in time.  In true Network Rail style the train was continuously delayed by signalling failures and half way through the journey the train behind us had caught up with us so we were made to get off our train and get on it.  We arrived in Glasgow late and due to this our whole fare was refunded – who doesn’t love a free trip to Scotland?

 

We had loved Glasgow so much last time, that we chose to explore it for a couple of days before hitting the road.  We wandered around the Cathedral precinct, admired the pomp of the graves in the Necropolis, gazed at the architectural designs of Mackintosh, counted the heads and appreciated the art at Kelvingrove, indulged our love of all things transport at the Riverside museum, ate delicious asian street food at one of the many vegan restaurants/pubs that make Glasgow the vegan capital of the UK, sampled many of the the local microbrewery beers and our highlight, watching the amazing kinemats of Eduard Bersudsky at Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre.  A very big thank you to our wonderful WarmShowers hosts Adrian and Laura, whose company was fabulous at the end of each day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last year our friend Paul had cycled with his brother around the Isle of Arran, and his enthusiasm about it had been infectious.  So in true Foons on Bikes style, we headed south before heading north.  After a quick stop and shop for some last minute camping needs at Decathlon, we joined and followed the fabulous National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 7 from Paisley to Ardrossan.  It is mostly along a now defunct railway line that winds it way through farmland, woodland, alongside lochs, more farmland and finally deposits you at the coast overlooking the Firth of Clyde.  We made our way to the ferry terminal and joined the crowds to board the ferry to Brodick.

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NCN Route 7 sign

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Old rail trail

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Easy riding

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Nice path to the coast

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Lunch break

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Made it to the coast

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Beach time

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Looking to Arran

The peaks of Arran shone in the evening sun and we were elated when we were able to cycle along the coast looking for a place to camp for the night.  Wild camping is legal in Scotland and is something that should be protected and celebrated, as well as respected by those who are partaking in it.  We headed uphill for a bit and found our home for the night in what I termed the fairy glen, a gorgeous open woodland above a river canyon. It was great to be back in our tent in nature, and the joy and freedom of cycle touring flooded our hearts.

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Arriving in Arran

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Looking for a campsite as the light fades

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Our home set up

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The moon from our magical place

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Having breakfast

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We rose with the sun to climb Goat Fell.  Well I hiked and Jude trail ran, at times I do believe she is part mountain goat.  Mist and cloud hugged the peak during our ascent and whilst we were up there it gave us fleeting windows of clear views of the surrounds.  We still had a brewery to visit and half an island to cycle so we headed down as fast as our legs, and then our bikes, would carry us.  The ales at the Arran Brewery were exceedingly tasty and we bought one of their puffin red ales to celebrate our climb.  After being warned that we faced legal trouble from the police if caught drinking in public (i.e. in front of the brewery), we poured the beer into our tea cups and supped them in the sun anyway.

 

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Trying the beers at the Isle of Arran brewery

The rest of Arran was just as glorious as Paul had said.  It was a long climb over the middle of the island and we both had a little ego boost when we passed two people pushing their unladen Bromptons.  The joy of the descent after a long climb is always exhilarating and something that I would savour many more times on our trip through Scotland.  Pedalling freely on the west coast we watched the sun sparkle on the water, the seals flap and play on the rocks and the birds soar in the sky.  We pulled over when our legs said they could do no more and made our home on the seaside.  Jude had just managed to start a fire when the dark clouds above opened and the first of many rapid rain storms passed over us.  Luckily it didn’t dampen the embers and she had it going again in no time.  We made dinner, supped whiskey and watched the glorious sunset over the Mull of Kintyre – while Jude sang the song.

 

 

I’m physically a cold person who constantly has cold feet.  So in preparation for Scotland and Iceland I had devised a plan to shift this internal thermometer by getting in all the cold water I possibly could over the coming journeys.  This was the morning to test my resolve, so as the sun rose, so did Jude’s and my bare bum in the frigid waters off the coast.  I managed to stay in for about a minute before I couldn’t feel my body anymore, but the exhilaration of both being in and coming out of cold water was incredible.  Jude told me about an article that she read that likens such swimming to taking Class A drugs.  They may in fact be on to something.  Anyhow, after the dip we headed to the ferry port in Lochranza in time for a coffee and a vegan toastie, before boarding the boat to Claonaig.  We met a lovely cycle tourist who was partaking in his yearly tour of the Herbridean islands.  He was packed super light and had the whole thing sorted.  Made me feel like the Dirty Salmon was elephant sized and made wish that we had done more research about the other Hebridean islands – next time as always 🙂

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The ferry

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Coffee and vegan toasties before boarding

Back on the mainland, our destination now was Oban which we hoped to reach in two and a half days, as we had organised to meet our new cycle touring posse there who would join us for the Outer Hebrides leg.  We could have easily followed the main road straight up to Oban, but what would be the fun in that?  And the traffic?  Wouldn’t the meandering and longer NCN Route 78 be much more fun and interesting?  Yes, yes it would.  So we did.

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Old birch trees line the NCN Route 78

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One of the many beaches

We cycled the quiet road along the edge of West Loch, surrounded by moss covered ancient birch trees with the occasional little hut surrounded by daffodils.  The road was undulating and we rewarded our bodies with a carb on carb lunch (no judgement please) at the headland overlooking Gisha island.  Jura soon came into sight and with the hot sunshine, the little beaches and the azure blue water, we could believe what the locals said about this area being like the Mediterranean.  But Scotland being Scotland, she was a changing.  We cycled into a dark grey rain storm as we climbed back over to the other side of the peninsula.  Whilst admiring the first of many lochans of our journey we noticed a thin covering of hail on the grass and the rain no longer seemed all that bad.  Got to love a change of perspective.  At Ardrishaig the Crinan Canal cycle path begins and we followed this for a few kilometres before pulling over beside it and pitching our tent for the night.  We enjoyed a few whiskeys in the late evening sun and chatted with the tourists and locals that were walking by.

 

We pulled off the canal path at Bellanoch and cycled through moorlands and woodlands into the Kilmartin Valley, home to a plethora of Bronze Age historic sites.  We explored the stone circles, cairns and standing stones thousands of years old and when looking down on to the valley from the town you can see why people had chosen this place as their hunting grounds and then their home.  Unless you’re a die hard Bronze Age fan, save your pounds and skip the Kilmartin Heritage Museum – better to spend it in the cafe and read a book on the subject.  Overwhelmed with facts and history we headed back to the things we enjoy most – cycling and nature.  We followed the steeply undulating northern shore of Scotland’s longest freshwater loch – Loch Awe.  If the old forests hanging with moss had continued it would have been a perfect ride, unfortunately the clear felling of pine plantations was in full swing here.   The Old Roman cafe in Dalvich was  hidden gem, especially as their meal of the day was a vegan red curry, we polished off a few bowls and followed these with a few local ciders.  The ciders didn’t make the hills any easier, but did make them more enjoyable.  A walking path along a river leading to a picnic table was the perfect place to pitch for the night and our ritual of a wash, a whiskey, a cuppa soup, followed by dinner was now beginning to cement itself.

 

Despite my best efforts to change my internal thermometer, my feet were still freezing every night.  I have tried all the tricks – sleeping fully clothed, sleeping half clothed, sleeping naked, sleeping naked with socks on, but nothing was working.  It was at this point that a hot water bottle just made it on to the packing list for Iceland.  Cold feet aside, we had our last push into Oban to do that morning as the posse’s train was arriving at 11:30.  So back on the bikes and we were off down the back road through a lovely valley surrounded by sheep and lambs grazing and highland cows chewing cud.  The first were skittish and would run at the sound of our bikes approaching, the second didn’t care and we would have Mexican stand-off with them if they were ever on the road.  We always kept the bikes between ourselves and the cows, as those horns look like they would hurt if they were stuck into any part of our bodies.

 

We did make it to Oban on time.  The posse arrived bringing with them the rain.  But also the beginning of the next fun adventure – our group tour of the Outer Hebrides.

 

 

A Farewell to London

IMG_20180214_142131.jpgIt is a little over 5 years ago that we pedalled out of Melbourne. Back then it was hard to imagine what adventures lay ahead and what our life would look like. Sometimes it all still feels quite surreal and now our time in London is drawing to a close.  We have both finished full time work, our house has been packed up, our possessions given away and in a few days we will begin our pedal through Scotland (to finish our failed LEJOG). After that we will have another week or so in London before heading towards Harwich, reversing our journey of a few years ago. A ferry will take us to Den Haag from where we head north to the Danish port town of Hirtshals. Here a ferry will take us to Iceland and we will finally pay homage to the wild beauty we have heard so much about. After more than two years in London my heart craves for nature and quiet. For the wild and desolate places, devoid of humans, buildings, noise. After Iceland our plans are loose. From Denmark we will probably head south east, or maybe we will head to Nordkapp first. Perhaps we will go to Africa, perhaps not. We might cycle home. We might not. Our plan is not to have a plan, to stay open to opportunities as they arise and embrace the freedom of the road.

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View from Greenwich observatory. Same view as almost 3 years ago..
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Bikes outside our home

In the mean time, I’m having to say goodbye to a place that has become a home. For both of us. We have both struggled with London for different reasons and for varying periods of time. Astrid has had a much tougher time than me and it is a testament to her spirit that she has prevailed and eventually found happiness and a sense of belonging as well.

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Same view we saw when we first arrived nearly 3 years ago

While we have obviously travelled through many different cultures, it was always quite transient. There is something very different from passing through a country, with fleeting connections, to moving to a place and making some kind of life. This is further complicated by the fact that we always knew we would be leaving, which is actually so common in London. It is a huge globalised city with a population that is often shifting; people come to make money,  to study, to live a little while in the craziness, for music, for theatre, for any number of reasons that people are attracted to big cities. This is part of what makes it so exciting but also part of what can make it so isolating and soul destroying.  It can be hard to connect to Londoners and many people seem to drift towards their expat communities. Perhaps in a way this is a protective mechanism as well. A friend said to me the other day something that rang really true; when you move countries (and as a side note I want to add this goes for those of us choosing to move countries, not those forced to flee their homes) you need to do it like you are going to stay.  That’s another way of saying do it with presence and your with your whole heart. And when you do this you ultimately leave people behind you love.

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Victoria Park

And while it is mostly the people I will miss, I also want to celebrate and remember the places and often seemingly mundane moments that make pieces of a life anywhere you find yourself living. Perhaps I am being unnecessarily nostalgic or sentimental but I think that’s probably okay.

When I think of London in terms of physical spaces I think firstly of our home; a solid Victorian brick house in an east London suburb where gentrification hadn’t quite fully arrived. It was the first house since our journey finished and I loved it for all the simple reasons; coming in from the pouring rain, knowing I didn’t need to put up a wet tent or crawl into a damp sleeping bag, heating, a kettle, baking bread, cooking with more than one pot, building garden beds from reclaimed wood, growing vegetables. All those things filled me with a quiet, simple joy.  It helped with the transition from a wild traveling life to something more quietly wild. Things we hadn’t been able to do while travelling brought a different kind of meaning to our lives; hosting couchsurfers and cyclists from all over the world (giving back a little of the kindness we received!), cooking dinners for our friends, parties and nights by the fire in our garden. All these little moments made our life at Downsell Road feel so full.

While our home was my anchoring point, my sense of connection to London as a place also grew. First through exploring London on my bike, and then rattling around the streets in an ambulance. There is something quite unique about working as a paramedic in a city you don’t know. It gives you an understanding and insight into a place that is somehow fast tracked. I don’t think I’d know London and specifically Hackney half as well if I hadn’t spent hours upon hours driving around the impossibly narrow streets, dragging equipment into flats, tube stations, work places and even the Tower of London a few times. There is something intimate about the work we do. Very few jobs allow you to glimpse people’s lives so closely and this certainly added to my fondness of London and all its people.

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I want to remember all the places and moments and keep them in my heart.

Firstly, pedalling to work in all seasons; in spring when the geese and their babies are around (the geese are quite intimidating!), in summer when I often saw ravers leaving the woods on my way to work (wish I was cool enough to join them), to autumn when the pure beauty of the colours filled me with joy, and then winter when it was sometimes so cold I wanted to cry but none the less a thrill, and beautiful in its stillness.

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Canal boats in the snow!

Also, Victoria Park; summer picnics, jumping the fence with other cyclists when we all hadn’t quite made the dusk curfew,  rare summer days where we would get enough of a break to grab a coffee and park the ambulance by the lake, enjoying the sun and brief interlude to an otherwise hectic shift.

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Rare moment of quiet, Vic Park

Then the Hackney Marshes; So many runs – in sun and snow, blustering wind and icy cold. Sitting by the river with Astrid and having dinner on summer evenings, trying to recapture some of the wildness in our life. Parties at the stone circle.

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Old tree man found on a run

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The very snow Hackney Marshes

And more random moments, the ones that are just flashes and feelings and seemingly insignificant but still contribute to it all. Driving an ambulance through the crazy traffic around Dalston junction. Getting curry from my favourite place near the royal London. That time I got to go in a crane at work (career highlight). That curb I once rode into after a night shift, causing me to fall of my bike and look around in embarrassment. Dinners at the Black Cat. Riding down Homerton high street after work, or a few pints at the Adam and Eve (the Adam and eve!).  Running through the Epping Forest. Pub quiz at our local. Climbing at mile end, then going for pints. Eating an amazing amount of Pampelmouse. Staying up all night dancing and watching the sunrise in the park. The smell of woodsmoke from the canal boats in winter. Getting a backie on my bike after several pints. Incredibly long summer evenings in our yard.  Pedaling home drunk in the snow and laughing at the joy of it all. So many small moments and places that are in my memory and give me a sense of meaning and belonging.

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Heading back from a run in the forest

There are also a few things I am going to miss about living in Britain, things that over time I have incorporated into my life, or learnt to appreciate. Firstly and foremost the NHS. I have worked both in the British and Australian healthcare system and while not without it flaws, I have a deep appreciation and respect for the NHS.  Healthcare should be free at the point of use for everyone. By chronically underfunding it and then pointing out its failings the Tory government has been seeking to destroy the NHS and this is something I deeply hope does not happen. It almost feels like a gift from another era, from when we cared about things like healthcare for all and the welfare state.

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London Bike Kitchen

The more random things include the tube – while I actually dislike going on it (think intimate relationship with someones arm pit but no speaking allowed) I love the fact that it exists. I am definitely a huge fan of public transport infrastructure and this is something I very much appreciate about London. Also, being able to go on trips outside of London without needing a car – I love this. I never once felt I needed a car to explore Britain. The national cycle network. Off West End theatres (and theatre in general). Old British pubs. Dogs being allowed in pubs. Hand pulled ales. London’s first fully vegan pub opening up right work. All the delicious vegan food in London. Radio 4. Radio 6. The BBC in general. Access to the Eurostar. Off licenses. British summer days (although rare, those perfect summer days are so bloody lovely). Canal boats (of course). British festivals and partying in general (the British do this so well!). London buses (in melbourne I mistrust buses but in London I prefer them). Urban foxes. The ability to sleep with the window open and no fly screen. Squirrels in parks. London bike Kitchen (DIY space for fixing bikes). Royal mail (twice a day pick up!). The postcode system. How multi cultural London is (Australia seems rather white, even Melbourne). Prosecco. Affordable dentistry.

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Ultimately it is the people I will miss most however. We have solidified some friendships here and forged some strong new ones. You all know who you are and I want say a heartfelt thank you for making London something special. Without your friendship, laughter, crazy all nighters and so many other wonderful moments London wouldn’t have been half the experience it was.

Also, please move to Melbourne (-: Or at least visit.

Much Love

Jude

 

 

 

Hiking in the Alps on a shoestring

IMG_20170723_140924.jpgIt had been a long held dream of mine to hike in the European alps. Perhaps having spent a lot of my childhood listening to Heidi (a story about a girl who goes and lives in the Swiss alps with her grandfather) on cassette tape (yeah i am that old), or just my inherent love of mountains, but I have had a long held fascination with hiking the alps. In my 20’s I’d bought books and read about several long distance hikes, and even once did a short hike in the German alps with my sister and some friends. Now that we lived in London it seemed time to fulfil another long held dream of a long distance walk through the alps.

IMG_20170714_212711.jpgIt wasn’t exactly hard to convince Astrid that a walking holiday surrounded by mountains and wilderness would be a good thing. Our friends Chris and Pete have done many hiking holidays and it was with their help that we finally decided on the Vanoise National Park in France.IMG_20170715_133633.jpgI wanted to write this blog partly to share the amazing photos and inspire anyone thinking of a hike in the alps, but also because we did it on the cheap. Weirdly enough, hiking in the alps could, if you let it, cost you a lot of money. If we had done it how many of the French do it, I am not sure we could have afforded it. The good news is that you can actually do it on quite a small budget. To save money there are three things you need to do; camp wherever possible, carry all your own food and not drink alcohol. We did the first two but decided a cheeky wine at the end of the day would be our treat. Not exactly unpredictable for us!

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We could’t resist the French wine!

In a lot of European National Parks you can only camp in allocated areas, or not at all. In the Vanoise National Park you can only camp at huts that allow camping. Luckily most huts on the tour of the Vanoise do allow camping. A lot of people will stay in the huts which cost around 45 euros per night –  this usually includes breakfast (but not dinner which will set you back around a further 25 Euros). Some even have a vegetarian surcharge! Being vegan I imagine would be near impossible. I know many huts helicopter in their food, or walk it in (although some huts are near roads and still charge the same as the more remote ones). I can’t help feeling that at least some of the prices are charged just because they can.  By eliminating the hut sleeping fees and meal costs we spent significantly less. Most huts have kitchens which you can use for around 2 euros and for those that don’t, we just carried our trusty stove anyway. On a tour of the Vanoise self catering is totally possible. You do have to carry enough food for the first 6 days, but after that resupply is much easier. We paid to sleep in the hut on only two occasions. The cost to camp at the huts is around 5 euros per person and includes use of the toilets and showers. It is probably possible to wild camp (although inside the park it’s illegal), especially outside the park, but on this occasion we opted not to.

In the beginning there was a night bus. Luckily, this time we had both packed sober and were well prepared. We reached St Pancras with enough time to easily get through security and partake in our usual pre train beer. Never mind that it was ludicrously early. The first Eurostar of the day was soon speeding through the green English countryside before popping under the channel and into northern France where it was raining. An hour or so later were were in Paris.

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Boarding the Eurostar

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Pre train drinks

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Our train in France

From Gard De Nord we took the RER 3 stops to Gare De Lyon, pushed our way through the crowds and found our train heading south. The dreary plains of northern France with their grey skies and depressing monocultures gradually gave way to vineyards, mountains and blue skies. Several hours later when we reached Modane at the trail head, it was hot and sunny. I was shattered from the early morning but the excitement of arriving livened me up. We were now in the Maurienne valley and mountains surrounded us.

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Modane train station

davAlthough we had been super organised and already bought all our food for the first 6 days (not actually necessary as Modane has a big supermarket), we did not have fuel. Unfortunately even the Eurostar does not allow petrol on board. I had googled the french equivalent of white gas and kerosene and had come up with a few options. However, none of these had been available in the supermarkets I had quickly checked. I was a little anxious. We did not yet know that most huts would allow us to use their kitchens and I was imagining two weeks worth of cold meals and more importantly, no cups of tea. The thought was depressing and alarming. Luckily Modane has an unmanned petrol station which allowed us to fill our 1 litre fuel bottle (it can sometimes be tricky due to it being so small and petrol station attendants getting angry).

Now we were ready to hike.

We followed the signs pointing out of the town and into the promising wilderness. Soon the path became unforgivingly steep and we sweated and puffed in the warm evening air. Higher and higher we climbed, through pine forest with the occasional glimpses into the valley below and the mountains towering above. Eventually we broke out into an alpine meadow and were finally granted the stunning vistas the trees had been obscuring. I had one of those perfect moments were everything comes together. The views were just beautiful, I felt amazing, I was with Astrid and we were finally in the alps, hiking.

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This is what I have been dreaming of

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davNot long after that, just as the light was starting to fade we reached the first hut, Refuge de l’Aiguille Doran. Everyone else was inside eating already and we could see the relief on the Guardien’s face when we only wanted a beer and a place to put our tent. We cooked our pasta and drank a cold beer over looking the mountains. It was crazy to think that morning we had woken up in London and now we were here, surrounded by all this beauty.

The morning dawned misty and the previous day’s epic travel had taken it’s toll. It took me an hour to pull myself out of the tent. Finally, we ate breakfast, packed up and headed back into the forest. As we hiked upwards, the clouds swirled around and it was quite cold. However, I felt it was only a matter of time before the high summer sun would triumph. Mornings in the mountains we would learn would often start misty and cold, until the sun burnt away the clouds. On reaching an alpine meadow, dotted with huts we were afforded views of rocky crags and even the refuge we were heading to. We snacked and headed up the valley, passed clear creeks and over rocks. It was so beautiful. At one point there were two shining blue dams below us and like predicted the sun came out and our layers came off.  It wasn’t long before we reached refuge Plan de Sec. The guardien showed us somewhere to put our tent and we settled in for an afternoon of yoga, writing and reading. It was nice to get somewhere early. More and more people arrived and we realised that it was in fact a French public holiday. Even though we were surrounded by others, Astrid and I were clearly the only foreigners and as our french was minimal at best we didn’t really get to chat to anyone.

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Huge dams

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From refuge Plan de Sec we were headed to refuge L’Arpont, along with many french families and groups. It was the only time things became a little crowded in the park. We didn’t really care, it was still nothing like walking the Camino. The first part of the day took us through alpine meadows, some which had temporary fencing for cows. We were learning that even here, in the high alps, people eked out a living from agriculture. It was often a topic of conversation as it was clear how destructive the cows were on the environment. Yet, at the same time it was such a tradition, people had been using the high summer pastures of the alps for centuries. However, tradition doesn’t necessarily make something inherently good. Then again, perhaps there is room for small scale, sustainable agriculture? Is agriculture ever sustainable though? And while the cows looked peaceful (and are no doubt better off than many) we don’t get to see when their babies get torn away from them so that humans can drink their milk and turn it into cheese. While there may be times in the future when out of necessity I’ll eat cheese or drink milk, I can’t really get along with the exploitation of animals for human consumption, no matter how picturesque. While our topic of conversation may at times have been heavy, our mood was light. We soon left the meadows behind and walked into a much wilder valley with craggy snow capped peaks, steep drops, pine forests and sweeping views. It was everything I’d hoped hiking in the alps would be. We spotted wild flowers, marmots and even an ibex! After dumping our packs by refuge L’Arpont we walked up to the glacial lake and sat in the afternoon sun, enjoying the beauty that surrounded us.

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So misty in the mornings

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Route signage

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Mist beginning to clear

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Mid morning

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Beautiful view across the valley

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Our first ibex!

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More ibex awesomeness

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Half ruined alpine buildings were quite common

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Refuge L’Arpont

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camping

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Loving the lake

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Lake happiness

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And more

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On the way down

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We woke to clear blue skies and bright sunshine. I managed to buy a coffee from the cafe at the hut and savoured the views and the sun while drinking it. A perfect start to the day. Our walk took us further into the valley again and we were surrounded by high peaks and glaciers. Every vista was more amazing than the next.

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In the late morning we came to a spot where our book said you could climb up to a tarn fed by waterfalls. We had time and were feeling adventurous and strong and decided we needed to explore further. There was no visible path so we just walked towards some imposing rocks where we thought the path should be. After quite a bit of searching, we spotted something that might have been a track and began our climb upwards. It was tough going and took us around an hour, scrambling over large boulders and jumping over small creeks. When we eventually made it up to the tarn it was well worth the effort. No one else was up there and we surrounded by the epic beauty of rocks, ice water and the brilliant blue of the sky. It was so peaceful. We got undressed and dipped into the icy water, then lay naked on the rocks in the sun. Life was perfect.

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Heading upwards to mind the tarn

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So happy to have found this spot

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Totally worth the hike

IMG_20170716_124933.jpgOnce we hiked back down we at lunch by a small tarn and then hiked the rest of the way to refuge plan de lac in the hot afternoon sun. Unfortunately this was one of the only huts that didn’t allow camping, so we checked into a dorm and then went and sat on the balcony enjoying a cold beer as the heat faded out of the day. A wonderful end to a spectacular day in the mountains.

I slept badly in the hut but luckily we had made a friend the night before – a French Canadian lady called Francoise who provided me with instant coffee to keep going. We set off fairly early but it wasn’t long before the heat of the day was upon us. Our day took us through more alpine meadows and then an ascent with views of the ever present high peaks. Later we descended into a beautiful pine forest, which reminded me of my childhood Christmas fantasies. We had lunch at an unmanned refuge before heading along a very exposed track before finally descending into a valley, dotted with cows and refuge Vallobrun. The guardien at this refuge treated us very kindly and gifted us left over blueberry tart.