The Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands

 

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A Faroese Village

We decided to go to the Faroe’s almost on a whim. The ferry stops there and you can get off for 72 hours for the same price as going directly back to Denmark. So we thought why not?

I must admit by the time we were leaving Iceland the Faroe’s just seemed like another cold, wet place preventing me from getting back to summer and our enthusiasm was not at its highest.

However things have a way of working out and in the campground we met Torhallur, a native Faroese guy in his 70’s who’d been cycle touring on Iceland. After a few conversations he invited us to camp in his yard, which was soon upgraded to his living room.

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The ever present (or so it seems) sea mist

fullsizeoutput_a37The ferry docked around 3am and while Astrid had been sleeping I had decided to ‘have a few beers’ with a German cycle tourist. This had turned into an all night whiskey drinking session. It seems you can take me away from London, but I haven’t quite shed my London ways. None the less, thanks to Astrid (who had packed up everything) we rolled off the ferry in a timely fashion and followed Torhallur into the damp and heavy sea mist. It’s always mildly discombobulating arriving at a place in the semi dark (darkness for the first time in months!) and this was accentuated by the cragged out lines of rocks and a swirling white fog. It seemed fittingly atmospheric in a place as remote and mysterious as the Faroe Islands.

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Just off the ferry

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Almost there

It was a 12km ride through sea mist and up hills to Torhallur’s place who lived in a traditional Faroese house. Inside his beautiful home the place perfectly reflected his eccentricities; all wood, books, antique furniture and high speed wireless Internet. We sat down to a mish mash of what was left in our panniers and strong coffee while Torhallur smoked a pipe. You can’t make this stuff up.

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Torhallur’s house

After a nap we caught the bus into the main town and capital of the Faroe’s, Torshavn. And then we marched in Faroese Pride. As you do. Seems we had arrived on the biggest weekend of the year. Not only was it Faroe pride, but it was also their national holiday Olavsoka.

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Pride!

Olavsoka is a sporting and cultural festival and the opening of the Faroese parliament. Torhallur warned us it was actually a huge national drinking session. After marching in pride and listening to speeches none of which we could understand, we ate a falafel, drank a beer and caught the bus home. Torhallur chided us for being home so early but we wanted to save our energy for the following day when Olavsoka actually kicked off.

A calm morning preceded the chaos that followed. In the afternoon we pedalled our bikes into Torshavn so we would have a way of getting home (or so we thought). We were armed with a water bottle full of whiskey and a lot of enthusiasm. People were everywhere, walking around in their national costumes and the atmosphere was one of celebration and fun. We watched the boat races, walked around and just enjoyed the atmosphere. At one point we stumbled into an art gallery/printing press run by some friendly Danish people. After showing us around they invited us to share some food and drinks. A quick stop turned into a couple of hours of chatting and drinking as people dropped by the gallery. Some were locals, some expats, some Faroese who lived abroad. There was an interesting conversation about eating whales. A local man explained that they eat whales because they come directly from the immediate environment and only the ones that are not endangered. From an environmental perspective this does make sense. It’s like eating yaks in Tibet, a place where little else grows or can survive. While the Faroese aren’t as remote as Tibet, they are pretty far away with a seemingly rough climate and they must import a lot of their food. In many ways in makes sense to eat what is local (providing it is not endangered). Many people would feel more uncomfortable about eating a whale than say a cow, but frankly that seems quite speciest. Why is a cow’s life worth less than a whales? They are both sentient beings. I certainly don’t have all the answers and am still working this all out. Generally though I am uncomfortable eating any animal products. But it was interesting to hear and learn about this rather controversial subject.

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After 5 weeks of not drinking much, why did we think this was a good idea?

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Looking cool on the ride in

We moved on to a bar where Torhallur found us and took us visiting. There was a lot of food, too much aquavit, many lovely people and blurry memories. At some point Astrid went home. At another point I found myself walking the 12km home, having lost the key to our bikes and a fair bit of memory.

Luckily, we were able to retrieve the keys the following day (otherwise leaving would have proved difficult). After managing to squeeze in a visit to the national gallery we rode our bikes back to Torhallur’s and prepared to leave the Faroe’s.

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Ready to go. Outside Torhallur’s place

What a lovely man Torhallur was to offer us a place to stay and show us a little of the life here on this remote string of Islands. I don’t think we could have asked for a better experience.

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Torhallur was so kind to host us

Torhavn was already in full swing for it’s second night of festivities by the time we rolled into town to the ferry port. I was a little sad to go, I don’t honestly know if we’ll ever be back. It is a mystical, otherworldly place that certainly deserves more time.

We secured our bikes in the now familiar spot and headed down to our dungeon dorm room and went for a much needed 12 hour sleep as the ferry gently sailed out of the harbour and towards Denmark and the half forgotten summer.

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How dreams compare to reality – a cycle through Iceland during the worst summer in 100 years.

Dream cycle tour destinations:

  1. Iceland
  2. Oman
  3. Africa – west coast

A list scrawled in the back of my diary from our last cycle tour.

After an epic 14-day dash from London to Hirtshals, we were now stood in the line of cars, campervans and motorcycles about to board the Smyril-Line ferry to Seydisfjordur, for a five week romp through Iceland.  I had butterflies in my stomach. The type brought on by the excitement and anxiety of embarking on something one has dreamed of, hoping that reality will compare to the dream. 35 days and a few thousand kilometres of cycling on a shoestring budget through the wilderness of Iceland would give me an answer.

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The Iceland of my dreams.

Getting there.

It’s a 46-hour ferry ride to Iceland. At times like these our morals (no short haul flights due to their environmental impact) and our budget have a boxing match. As usual our morals threw the winning punch and we opted for the cheapest ferry tickets available – about 700 Euros each, return. For double the budget of our entire time in Iceland, we slept on a plastic mattress in a tiny, stuffy, overheated 6-bed dorm room in the bowels of the boat. Even our bikes had a better deck than we did. In addition to our ‘dungeon’, we could also partake in one meal a day at the Dinner – an all you can eat meat fest with overcooked veggies – a vegan’s bad dream. Then there was the full day of seasickness, which saw me curled up in a corner feeling like I wanted to die. Reality sucks sometimes.

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Diary writing on the boat

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When I could still eat.

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The start of the rain.

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The Smyril-line ferry.

First impressions.

On the third morning, I spotted land. Snow capped peaks crowned grey-green mountains rising out of the deep blue waters. The sun glistened in a clear blue sky and a whale crested in the wake of the ferry. I ran from window to window like an excited child as the Eastern fjords reached out like the fingers of a friend welcoming us. We docked at the colourful port of Seydisfjordur and the relaxed, friendly vibe saw us heading to the campground eager to spend time exploring the surrounding mountains and celebrate mid-summer in this vibrant village. That afternoon we hiked up the Vestdulur Valley in the glorious summer sun. Five vibrant green plateaus were tiered together by gushing waterfalls, and above the snow line a frozen lake awaited us. On our return we celebrated the summer solstice with good tunes, vegan sausages and the last of our duty free, full strength beer. Crawling into bed after midnight we were overjoyed by our first day and the beauty that surrounded us.

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Our first sighting of the Eastern fjords made my heart leap 🙂

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The colourful port of Seydisfjordur.

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The tiers of the Vestdulur Valley.

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Jude reaching the next plateau of the Vestdulur Valley.

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It’s summertime at the snow line in Iceland.

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Jude walking on the snow towards the frozen lake.

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On the way back to Seydisfjordur and our vegan summer solstice celebration.

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Gay pride street, Seydisfjordur.

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Celebrating mid-summer with beer 🙂

Early days.

Our plan was simple – to circumnavigate Iceland by bicycle for four weeks and then spend a week hiking in the mountains. But which way should we go? After chatting to the locals we were convinced that heading northwards first would be best, both for the better weather (it was pouring in the south and west) and because this was meant to be the less touristy part of Iceland. Hitting the road was delayed by a little thing called the World Cup, as Iceland was playing Nigeria that afternoon and they were showing the match on the big screen in the community hall. As it never gets dark this time of year, we reasoned that we could stay for the match and still cycle for few hours afterwards. So that afternoon, along with the locals, we lived and breathed every excitement and heartbreak of Iceland’s unfortunate defeat by Nigeria. Pulling on our warmer gear we reasoned that a 650-metre ascent with a 10% gradient most of the way, would be the perfect antidote to the loss, and we were right. Sweating and panting, we realised that we were not as hill fit as we used to be. Luckily this changed over the next few weeks.

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Don’t judge – I’m carb loading before the big game and cycle.

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The climb out of Seydisfjordur.

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Having a peanut butter sandwich at the top.

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Cycling along top of the pass out of Seydisfjordur.

Reaching the top of the pass a huge valley opened before us, and mountain range after mountain range filled the horizon. We followed this valley northwards as I was determined to fulfill another desire – that of seeing puffins – even if it meant a 70 kilometre detour over another pass. Borgarfjordur Eystri is the home of a 10,000 strong puffin colony. These iconic, funny looking birds, bring so much joy. Especially when they are either taking off or landing. You’d think evolution could have made them a little more graceful but they look so uncoordinated – like they are going to crash at any minute. We spent a couple of hours watching them walk about, leave/return from fishing and posing for the tourists – including us.

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The valley north.

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Chilling on the side of the road while Jude has a pee.

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Borgarfjordur Eystri

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Watching puffins.

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Puffins!!

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Puffins love to pose for us tourists.

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Puffin love.

We had seen it a little, but here at the puffin colony we were to have our first real exposure to what I called Tourist Photo Syndrome (TPS). And I must admit it was rife for our whole time in Iceland with the disease becoming more prevalent the closer we got to the Golden Triangle area. It’s basic pathology consists of tourists arriving at a place of beauty or animal life, and instead of taking some time to just be in the moment and enjoy whatever it was that drew them there, they would photograph it for a few minutes and then leave. In extreme cases, after photographing they wouldn’t leave, but instead they would sit and look at the photos they just took, or prepare them then and there for uploading on to social media. And don’t even get me started on people who use drones. When I was feeling particularly annoyed at such behaviour, my favourite thing to do was to sit in a prime position and enjoy the view for about 15 minutes with groups of increasingly frustrated TPS sufferers getting annoyed that I was ruining their perfect photograph by sitting in it. Childish I know, but it did bring me glee, as well as time to enjoy the place I had cycled so far to see.

Interactions with Icelanders.

Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with 335,000 inhabitants, most of whom live in Reykjavik. During that time, 10% of the population were also in Russia watching the World Cup live. One of our favourite things about travelling is meeting and getting to know the people who live there, but so far our interactions with Icelanders had been very limited. Most tourist businesses are staffed with foreign workers over the summer, and at those that weren’t our interactions were limited to fleeting moments of small talk. So when Elissa and her children (who we met at the campground in Seydisfjordur) invited us to visit them on their farm, we jumped at the chance. We arrived late, after 100 kilometres of rough cycling mostly into a headwind. Luckily life in Hrafnabjorg is organised chaos of the best kind, and within moments of arriving we were sat around a table with our new friends and their friends, eating, drinking and learning about life in Iceland. Summers sound glorious but full of hard work, winters sound long and cold, but also beautiful in a different way. Turns out that knitting is best thing to do in times of bad weather. After 5 weeks of spending lots of time sheltering from bad weather, we agree!

We had planned to leave the following morning but were invited to stay an extra day as a yellow weather warning had been declared. Extreme winds were due to arrive overnight and continue the following day. How bad could they be, we though naively. We woke to the sound of a faint howling through the thick brick walls. Everything outside was standing side-wards and when we stepped outdoors the gusts almost blew us over. Humbled, we agreed to stay and leant a hand with the farm work. This mainly involved hugging baby goats (I LOVE goats!) and trying to herd bulls from one barn to another, which is harder than it sounds. Cycle touring provides you with the most random experiences.

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Outside the house of fun, Hfranabjorg.

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The crazy wind blowing the grass flat.

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Chilling with the horses on the way to the farm.

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Preparing for bull herding.

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Goats!!!

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Baby goat love.

Epic scenery.

Epic, diverse, majestic and spectacular are all adjectives I continually used to describe the scenery in my diary. I hadn’t felt such space and wilderness for years. The sky seemed endless, lakes and glaciers would fill my whole visual field. From the grandeur of the Eastern fjords, up the fertile river valley flanked by the snow capped Dyrfjoll and Smjorfjoll ranges, we climbed up to the lunar landscape of the highlands. Jude and I love such desert landscapes. The subtle differences in colour, the small details of plants and wildlife you would miss if you were in a car, provided delight as the cycling got tougher as the road deteriorated. Volcanoes would rise like solitary sentinels from the earth. The blue Jokulsa river cut like a gash through the brown parched earth. Waterfalls like Detifoss, Godafoss and Gullfoss, would make the earth tremble beneath you, and sitting next to them would be a full sensory experience. You could believe that the canyon at Asbyrgi, was created by the hoof of Odin’s eight legged flying horse Sleipnir, landing on the earth. We watched for whales in the mirror like seas as we rounded peninsulas in north. Grass and moss were slowly reclaiming the cracked lava fields near lake Myvatn. My favourite day of cycling was crossing Trollaskagi along the Lagheidi road. Most people take the tunnels that run under the peaks while we enjoyed the solitude of the lush green valleys that climbed between snow capped mountains with waterfalls gushing down their sides. It reminded us of mountainous places dear to our hearts – especially Kyrgyzstan and the European Alps. As the weather deteriorated, we gave up on our dream of cycling in the Western fjords. Instead we opted for some F roads and Route 35, which cut a path in the desolate highlands between the incredible glaciers Hofsjokull and Langjokull. Steam and boiling water spouted out of the earth in the otherworldly geothermal areas of Hveravellir and Geysir. Due to the weather and the intense amount of tourists, we opted to spend as little time in the Golden Triangle as possible. Making a dash for the southern coast we spent a week with the Atlantic Sea and fields of black sand and lava to our right and a never-ending mass of ancient sea cliffs, waterfalls and glaciers to our left. This wilderness has left a lasting impression deep in my soul and the reality of such natural beauty was far beyond anything I could have ever dreamed of.

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The road into Borgarfjordur Eystri.

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Hiking into Strorud.

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Through the lunar landscape.

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Loving the rocky landscape.

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Sunrise with a volcano.

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The Jokulsa River.

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The earth-shaking Detifoss.

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Asbyrgi

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Taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.

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Early mornings along the northern coast.

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My favourite day of cycling – the Lagheidi Road.

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Loving the Trollaskagi peninsula.

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View from our afternoon rest spot.

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Through the middle.

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Heading up to the high roads.

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Geysir geo-thermal area.

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Hveravellir geo-thermal area.

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Steam!!

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Red flowers, black sand and green cliffs: such a beautiful contrast.

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The ancient sea cliffs of the south coast.

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Icebergs like giant diamonds on the beach.

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Glacier!!!

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More glaciers!!!

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Viking village of the south east.

The weather.

Everyone knows that Iceland’s weather can be unpredictable. Jude’s and my biggest disagreements prior to going would revolve around the type of weather we would experience while there. I dreamed of mild sunny days and cold nights, like we had experienced in Scotland the previous month. Jude would warn me that we were in for five weeks of cold, wet and windy weather. Even looking at the awful forecast before leaving could not dissuade me to give up on my Icelandic ideal. And the first week or so was glorious. We wore t-shirts and shorts cycling. I got sunburnt. Picnic lunches were followed by naps in the warm afternoon sun. There was the occasional cloud or short-lived rain shower, but to me it was perfect. Even Jude admitted that it far exceeded her expectations.

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Glorious, warm, sunny days.

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Even when cloudy it is warm enough for shorts and t-shirt.

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We loved the blue sky days.

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Even Jude agreed that the weather was better than she expected.

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Views are always nicer in the sunshine.

And then it all changed. The cold, clouds and rain became like annoying, unwanted guests to our cycle touring party. While England and Europe were experiencing the hottest and driest summer in centuries, Iceland was having the worst summer in over 100 years of recorded history. While our friends drank cold beers in parks and rooftop bars, we sheltered for hours, sometimes days, in our tent or anywhere dry that we could find. We would read, knit, write in our diaries and drink copious cups of tea to pass the time. Thankfully almost all supermarkets have a self-serve café style seated section in them where you can sit and eat, charge your devices and wait for the front to pass.

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And then it all changed…

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But we made the most of it – days of biscuits and tea in the tent.

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Hiding from the rain behind buildings to cook breakfast.

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… or to drink a light beer in the freezing cold ?!?

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Days in the tent meant time for pancake breakfasts.

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When the campsite kitchen is full and you have to cook dinner in the rain.

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So grateful for the supermarket cafe-style areas that were warm and dry.

The glorious views disappeared, obscured like grey curtains falling at a theatre – nothing to see here, the show is over, go home. During these days, the only way I knew that I was in Iceland was by the familiar spring flowers that were still blooming on the roadside, the distinctive Icelandic horses in the fields and the birds that would constantly fly alongside us squawking alarms to others at our approach. Occasionally the cloud would lift a little, showing the base of a cliff or a waterfall, but like a woman only showing her ankles, we knew that the best bits were still above.

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The views disappeared.

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Sometimes even Jude did, but then appeared like a shadow on the horizon.

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Sometimes the views weren’t all obscured.

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Yet the low lying cloud did hide the top of everything.

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Occasionally you would get a fleeting glimpse of something.

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But that grey curtain still hung low.

Some days the weather did not bother us and we rode into the rain and wind singing songs to ourselves, enjoying just being alive. On others, I would be soaked through to my underpants, wearing five layers of clothing just to keep warm while riding uphill, and a mixture of anger and regret would come bubbling to the surface. The fact that my waterproof jacket was no longer waterproof did not help either. Being in the elements makes us feel alive. That is why we love cycle touring so much. But for us there is a limit to how much cold, wet and wind we can tolerate before it sinks in and wears on our souls, and by the end of the forth week we had both reached that point.

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It may be cold, wet and cloudy…

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Yet you can smile and be happy.

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And sometimes you can’t

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And sometimes you just need a cup of tea.

The riding and routine.

It takes a few days to figure out the best routine for each country. The elements, traffic and access to water are our biggest considerations when determining how we would structure our days. Quickly we realised that the wind would pick up around 9-10am making riding more difficult and the tourists would come out about the same time putting our sanity and safety in danger with their TPS and driving. As it was light all the time and as cyclists, we could legally camp anywhere on the roadside as long as there was not a campground nearby, stopping time did not need to rely on nightfall as it does in some other countries. Therefore we chose to wake at 4am, have a skinny dip in the nearest body of water (as discussed in the Scotland blog, this is one of the most exhilarating experiences we know of), watch the sun come above the horizon as we drank tea/coffee and ate breakfast (thus also avoiding the hundreds of flies that were still dormant at this hour), and start pedalling just after 5am. We would then have close to four glorious hours of traffic-free cycling and tourist-free exploring. We stopped every two hours for a rest and snack, and by 5pm we were searching for a place to pitch our tent for the night. Each was as spectacular as the next, but the most memorable was by a glacial lake with icebergs floating by, with three glaciers visible from my tent door. Once the tent was set up it was time to drink copious amounts of tea, write our diaries, meditate, sketch, practice headstands, knit/crochet, write to friends, route plan and our favourite activity – eat!

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The day would start while the moon was still up.

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We would have a daily wash.

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Wherever we could find it.

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And then be ready to hit the road.

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We would have the road to ourselves.

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For a few precious hours.

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Then we would stop to eat the fruit that we had dumpster dived.

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Or make a full second breakfast.

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Later we would stop for tea.

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And then some lunch.

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We would dry our tent and clothes when the sun came out.

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And before finding a place to camp, get ourselves some food.

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Then there would be time to meditate.

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Or have a cup of tea and biscuit.

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Practice headstands.

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Set up camp.

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Make dinner.

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Eat dinner.

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Write our diaries.

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And sometimes even sit by a fire.

We tried as much as possible to avoid riding on the Ring Road, Route 1, as this was the one most tourists, buses, trucks and pretty much everyone in a car would use. This found us consulting our free cycling map and chatting to locals for the best alternative routes and we found some brilliant back roads. Some were paved, some gravel, some newly graded, others in a state of washboard disrepair. The roads climbed steadily, with the occasional white-knuckle descent, which added to the pleasure of cycling after a fortnight of flat riding. Being used to European styles of driving, we abhorred the total disregard for cyclist’s safety by the drivers in Iceland. Basically the driving was shit. Too fast, too close and way too aggressive, especially when we had to ride on Route 1 as there was no other alternative. Our sanity saver was our music blasted through a portable speaker that one of us would attach to our bikes for the afternoon. You can’t get that upset bopping along, singing full voiced to Cindy Lauper, Crowded House or Belle & Sebastian.

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The riding.

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Sometimes we would route plan together.

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At other times alone with a cup of tea.

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We would try and find routes where this was the only traffic.

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Or where we could enjoy our cycling.

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Gravel roads over passes were our favourites.

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Though sometimes the gravel was so loose you had to push.

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Occasionally you had to lift your bike over a face to get to them.

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And then there would be no-one around for miles.

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Better a corrugated road than one with drivers.

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Sometimes there were tunnels.

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At others there was the high road.

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But a smooth quiet road is the best.

The hot springs.

As much as I complained about the bad weather, our first hot spring experience was brought about by it. We were cycling out of Husavik and due to the cold, spotted steam rising from a lake just behind some bushes next to the road. We pulled over, put our frozen hands in, and within seconds we were stripping off to get the rest of our bodies warm. Happy at having located our first free thermal pool, we pedaled on in the rain oblivious until later that we had just swam in the outlet of the town’s heating. The rest of our experiences were in actual geothermal springs. The hot tub and infinity pool overlooking the sea in Hofsos, the natural pool next to a waterfall near Varmahlid, the superhot pool at Hveravellir and the random tub on the side of the road that the universe guided me to when I was almost in tears from cold and frustration one particularly bleak afternoon. Most towns also have swimming pools and hot tubs that can be accessed for a small fee. It’s amazing how on the road hot water can change a shit day to a great one. And before you ask, no we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon. You now us: too commercial, too expensive and just not our style.

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Our first, err, hot spring…

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Infinity pool in Hofsos.

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We got this one all to ourselves for an hour.

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The day saver hot tub.

The emotional stuff.

Cycle touring is life amplified. Being constantly exposed to so much stimuli, the highs feel higher and the lows, lower. I found this even more so in Iceland, which is a country of such extremes. Extremes of beauty, and unfortunately for us, the extremes of weather. In most countries the saving grace is the kindness of people and the interactions that you have. Iceland was the first country we have cycled to where I felt mostly uncared for and isolated. Almost everyone we met was a tourist, there for short trip, only interested in ticking off the next thing on their list of things to see/do. Iceland is expensive, so people seemed more loath to share in what they had. We would get looks of confusion when we offered to share our tea and biscuits with others, and such small things like this that are abundant elsewhere in the world were not forthcoming here. That is not to say that there weren’t moments and people whose kindness was a saving grace. Elissa and her family, Bee who pulled over and offered to cook us dinner and stocked us up on food and coffee the next time we ran into her, the kind lady at the café in the highlands, the couple who offered us shelter when our tent ripped and broke in a storm, the Icelandic man who chatted for an hour with me in the hot tub in Vik, the other cycle tourists that we met and shared experiences and a laugh with. You will all be etched in my heart forever – thank you. But in the end the bad weather, the terrible driving, the millions of tourists, the cost of things, the grey curtain hiding the scenery, it all slowly wore us down. Despite moments of joy and beauty in the last week, we felt trapped there. We longed to get to Europe and the sunshine.

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Sometimes a look can say it all.

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No matter who does it.

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Dreaming of the European summer.

Writing about Iceland has been difficult. I couldn’t do it straight after we left, as the experience and my emotions were so immense. As you read, by the end we just wanted to get out of there and to write in such a mindset would not be fair to the reality of our cycle through Iceland. It took a few weeks for the brilliance of this trip to shine through again.   I now sit here fondly recalling our time, the people, the landscape, the camping, the early mornings, the freedom and the immense impact that Iceland had on my soul.

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Enjoying a light beer on the top of the pass on our way back to Seydisfjordur.

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Our final dinner in Iceland.

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Very happy to be getting on the ferry and out of the rain.

The End.

 

More scenery if you so wish….

Denmark is Awesome

 

It began raining just before the border and continued steadily for the next two hours or so that it took us to reach Carsten’s (a friend from London) family home in the village of Bolderslev. Wet and dirty we were welcomed with open arms by Carsten’s mum Christa and his sister Lea. It was a familiar feeling of deep gratitude from almost complete strangers and we appreciated the hospitality so much. Not only could we shower, escape the rain, wash our clothes, but Christa had even cooked us a vegan meal. Amazing. I will never stop being so utterly thankful and humbled by the kindness we receive.

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Hmmmm this was just over the border!

We woke to sun and after a lazy breakfast (sampling many Danish treats) Christa and Lea left for work with goodbyes and instructions of how to lock up. Astrid had to run to the post office where her new bankcard had miraculously arrived in 4 days from London and both our chains needed a cleaning. After some bike maintenance and random chores we had neglected so far, it was time to head off.

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So kind to be hosted by Carsten’s family

To cycle from the south of Denmark to the ferry port of Hirtshals we had decided (on the advice of Carsten) to take the Haervejen which was an ancient trading route which in the past was actually a series of small roads linking the south to the north. Now it is a biking and hiking path traversing through the picturesque Danish countryside. I like taking trails like this as they are often off road and it’s lovely to just follow signs rather than having to use maps on our phones and remember routes (something I am not super good at!). We set off and were soon winding our way through rural Denmark on small roads and tracks through the forest, passed farms and into villages and towns. While the pressure was still on to make it to Hirtshals we felt more relaxed. Germany was behind us and all that remained were a few 100km.

The first day in a new country is always a little bit the same and a little bit exciting. Being Europe, the differences aren’t huge but important none the less. Firstly, how much is our money worth? We used to work from Australian dollars but now use pounds (which makes us feel falsely richer). Next, is there a Lidl and what do they sell, especially do they sell hummus and what vegan products do they have? Is the bread good? And beer? How friendly are car drivers and what is the bicycle infrastructure like? And lastly, how easy is it to wild camp?

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We really love these buildings, found all over the countryside

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Denmark is more expensive than Germany (not hard), there is indeed Lidl (less vegan products but it does have hummus), there are loads of bike paths, drivers are mostly good,  but best of all, wild camping is amazing in Denmark. This is due to something called shelters. Basically a system of shelters built all over Denmark where you are allowed to free camp. These shelters can include literally a wooden shelter in which to put your sleeping bag, a fire pit, wood, access to water, toilets and sometimes even a shower (we’ve heard). They are amazing and an app lets you view them on a map and see what is available at each shelter (it’s in Danish but pretty easy to figure out). We are used to hiding ourselves away in forests or parks so this was utter luxury.

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First lunch time

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The amazing shelter

Our first night camping in Denmark found us stumbling across a shelter (we had been planning to go to another one) in a clearing in some woods, with a fire already going and some friendly Dutch cycle tourists who also happened to be ICU nurses. They offered us dinner and some kind of spirits. A night of merriment ensued.

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Relaxing with fellow cyclists 

Travelling by bike in many ways is a microcosm of life; one minute everything is going along smoothly, the next you are wondering what the hell went wrong. You feel the highs and lows acutely because there is no hiding, just you and your bike out in the world. While cycling in Europe these highs and lows are certainly less extreme,  but they do still exist. From our perfect camp in the woods by a fire, we went to sheltering outside a supermarket in torrential rain, dirty, cold and wet. To top it off I got a flat tyre.

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The not so glamorous side to bike travel..

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Sheltering in a supermarket

But from a relative low we pushed back out into the summer storm, pedalling through beautiful woods and sheltering under trees when the rain got particularly heavy. It’s often about shifting or adjusting your thinking, too. While being wet can be uncomfortable, it wasn’t really cold and the strength of the thunderstorm was an acute reminder of the power of nature and always makes me feel awed and inspired.

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The beautiful rainy forest 

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Sheltering from the worst of it

By evening the rain had ceased and we reached another shelter in the forest and met Alex. Alex is a Ukrainian asylum seeker and a reminder of the (potential) grace and strength of humanity and the cruelty of systems. After fleeing war and seeking asylum, Alex who is an engineer by trade has been forced to live on the road (he rides a big Danish bicycle, staying at shelters and occasionally with families). The road to us embodies freedom, because we choose it, and can equally leave at any time. Alex does not have that privilege and is instead relying on the cruelly slow bureaucratic nightmare that is seeking asylum in todays Europe (not that Denmark is even close to being the worst).   Until his asylum claims are dealt with (several years so far), he cannot leave the EU, nor really work, or see his children. His life is effectively on hold. It was a sobering reminder of our own privilege. We spent a wonderful evening sharing a fire, food and conversation with this most excellent human.

Our ferry departure was getting closer so on our last two days we decided to ditch the Haervejen and take a more direct route north. We were still on small roads and often bike paths. Denmark is certainly up there with cycling infrastructure. I would put it third behind Netherlands and Germany for it’s overall network of paths and roads (obviously Copenhagen is special and right up there with bike awesomeness).

It was about this time that Astrid became a ‘eco warrior cyclo bum’ (her phrase). What this meant was that she would collect cans and bottles on the side of the road, carry them in a plastic bag on her bike and then recycle them at supermarkets. Most cans and bottles have ‘pant’ which means that you get money (in the form of a refund docket) back and can then spend it at the supermarket. Not only does this clean up the environment, it also gives us some krona. She became quite obsessed and I would have to be careful when cycling behind her as she was likely to slam on the brakes and go diving into the woods to retrieve a potential ‘pant’. Sadly, some of the cans don’t carry pant but we pick them up anyway as it seems the right thing to do.

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Trying to convince the slug to leave the can..

On our final evening before leaving for Iceland we met up with fellow bicycle travellers, Lucy, Colin and their dog Tilly. We had met Lucy and Colin at the cycle touring festival in the UK and stayed loosely in contact via social media. They are on an extended honeymoon/bicycle adventure through Europe and were headed towards Norway, which perfectly coincided with our route towards Iceland. So we decided a catch up was in order on our collective last night in Denmark. We met at a shelter which was in the middle of a village park and even had a fire pit (but randomly no toilet). There was lots to talk about and we all banded together to cook up a vegan feast complete with hot chocolate and a delicious dessert. It’s always such a pleasure to spend time with like minded people and we talked late into the night.

Lucy, Colin and Tilly left early the next day to catch their ferry to Norway. We pottered about before rolling the 4kms down the hill to Hirtshals where we stocked up on last minute things in the supermarket (Iceland is rumoured to be insanely expensive) before heading to the port and joining the queue for the 2 day Smyrill Line ferry to Iceland. Exciting!

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In the line for Iceland!

 

 

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.