Crossing the Sahara

Wadi Halfa to Lug Di

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_1112eSudan felt almost immediately different. Although we were delayed in disembarking from the ferry by at least an hour, as they had somehow managed to ram it into the dock in a rather obscure way, meaning no one, and no one’s washing machines could get off.

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Finally getting off at  Wadi Halfa

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Pleased to be here

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I decided to take a short cut

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Lots of stuff coming from Egypt

When this was finally rectified, we joined the masses in piling off the ferry. This was an exercise in unorganised chaos, but eventually we got everything unloaded. A quick search of our bags (not very thorough) and we were finally in The Sudan. We pedalled the short distance into Wadi Halfa itself, where we had to register at the police station (a load of more random paperwork, passport photo and copy of passport). Once that was achieved we set about getting Sim cards (note to anyone reading this who is planning to go there, at the time we visited MTN had almost no coverage outside of major towns, I would consider going with ZAIN). When that was done, as well as some drinking of mango juice, we set about finding a hotel for the night. The arrival of the ferry is a big event in this small, desert town and hotels book up fast. We did manage to find one in the back streets however.

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Night time food, Wadi Halfa

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Banks don’t work for us in Sudan. Cashed up with Sudanese pounds.

In the evening we walked around Wadi Halfa and took in the atmosphere of this new country. We are definitely in the desert now, surrounding the town are the sands of the Sahara, with shimmering lake Nasser in the distance. The vibe is completely different to Egypt. So much more relaxed. We were able to walk through the town without being hassled, stared at, or asked for money. I felt like I could breathe again. People were friendly, but not overbearing. Not all of Egypt had been like that of course, I guess it was just the accumulation of stress and frustration over the last few weeks. Sometimes you don’t notice how much a place has worn on you until you leave it.

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Typical tea/coffee stand in Sudan. Definitely more women working here.

The four of us left Wadi Halfa in high spirits, ready for the long stretches of solitude and desert. After Egypt I was craving the wild places and the space to just be alone. I was not disappointed. The road south was lightly trafficked, the trucks that did pass were full of waving and smiling people, and we felt very welcome in this new country. The highlight for me was the end of the day, when we pulled off into the desert and built a fire, surrounded by nothing but the Sahara and some low lying hills. Sure, we could hear the road a little, but the sense of freedom and nature was palpable.

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Leaving Wadi Halfa

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Happiness headstand

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Drink break

Our days pedalling south started early, we’d break camp after a quick breakfast and coffee. Second breakfast was at one of the road side tea houses, which served fuul (fava beans in a broth, sometimes spiced a little), bread and hot, sweet chay. The food in Sudan was filling, but not particularly variable! We’d push on and take tea breaks almost whenever the opportunity presented. The road was hot and sparsely populated, the tea houses offered relief from the daily increasing temperatures (and beds on which to rest!). Water became a big part of our day, well drinking and sourcing it anyway. Luckily Sudan is very well organised when it comes to water. The side of the road is doted with ceramic pots full of water for everyone to use. Just another way Sudan’s friendliness extends into all aspects of life. It’s hard not to feel welcome in a country like this. Just before sunset we’d pull off the road and make camp in the desert, usually with a little bit of time for yoga, meditation and generalised relaxing before building a fire and making dinner all together. At night we’d stare at the sky and try and recognise the stars. Beetle juice became a favourite.

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Typical water pots

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Lunch time in a shelter where you can also resupply with water

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Fuul cooking

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More water pots

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Really feeling the Sahara vibes

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A typical meal in Sudan

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Such beautiful landscape

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I wish! Sudan is dry, sadly.

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A magical time of day to be on the bikes

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Looking ahead for camping opportunities

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Definitely prime wild camps

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Campfire happiness

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Another super camp

On one day Astrid and I lost half the Habibi team. We’d met up with tour d’ Afrique, an organised cycle tour between Cairo and Cape Town. For many weeks we’d heard about them, trying to guess when our paths would cross. Anyway, while cycling and chatting, Martin and Ewaut completely missed our agreed turnoff. We had all decided to go to the other side of the Nile to see Soleb temple. The Egyptian influence reached far beyond what is now modern day Egypt, into Nubia (this region of Sudan). Astrid and I pedalled into the dusty Nubian village of Wawa alone but were soon found by a local guy who said we could store our bikes at his guest house while he arranged a boat for us. This coincided with arrival of Israa and Van who we had met on the ferry, as well as Oscar who they had met further down the road. Israa speaks Arabic, so after some negotiation, a price was agreed and we all trudged down to the Nile. It was so beautiful; date palms, fields of fava beans, and the shimmering Nile. One of those ‘I can’t believe I’m really here,’ moments.

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Pedalling through Wawa

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Walking passed the fava fields

We motored across the Nile and then walked the remaining way to Soleb temple, rising out of the landscape in an almost mythical way, this piece of beauty from the ancient world just sitting their amongst the fields of fava beans. It was amazing to explore a temple so devoid of other tourists, or touts. Sudan is such a gem for this. On our way back to the other side of the Nile, we even spot the rather shy Nile crocodile.

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Boating across the Nile

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First glimpse of Soleb

From Wawa Astrid and I now had to find the lost habibi’s. We bade Israa, Van and Oscar farewell, sure that our paths would cross again, and began to pedal. We surmised that somewhere along the road we would find them. And indeed we did. They greeted us with open arms about 50km up the road and we all hugged excitedly right in the middle of the highway. It felt so good to be reunited and highlighted to us all how much we loved travelling together. From here we rode a little further down the road and ran into the Tour d’Afrique team, camped on the bank above the Nile. They kindly offered us the left over of their dinner (everything is catered for) and we gratefully tucked in.

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Taking a break on a rock

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Loved these beds, available in tea houses to wait out the heat of the day

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The Nile

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Happiness is a free dinner!

Sudan is scattered with temples, pyramids and archaeological sites, and part of its charm is that there are nowhere near as many tourists, nor is it as easy to get to. Travel feels more like an adventure here, more off the beaten track, and I like it. Because Astrid and I are slight dorks, we dragged the others to Dukki Gel, an ancient Egyptian city, to explore the really interesting rounded mud brick structures that were scattered in an unassuming field. We also visited to the site of Kerma, an ancient Nubian settlement with the largest mud brick structure (western defufa) in the ancient world.

After this we had a choice; to continue on to Dongola on the main highway, or take a detour to Karima to see some pyramids. Ever since we had seen a photo of Neil (who we cycled with in China and Central Asia) camped by some Sudanese pyramids, it had been a dream of ours to do the same. Everyone else was on board too, so we stocked up on water and supplies and headed deeper into the Sahara. Until now, although at times spread out there had been enough places to get food and water along the road. Now there was only one place we had been told we could collect water until the town of Karima 150km away.

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Desert fashion

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Finding a small amount of shade for lunch

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Something is dangerous!

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Camels chilling

Heading towards Karima also meant turning into a ferocious cross wind – we rode in a fan like formation, swapping out the leader every 5km and rotating around. It was hard going, but working as a team took the pressure off somewhat. And playing music really loudly from Ewaut’s speaker. The temperature also soared – well into the 40’s and it became even more desolate and harsh. Not much survives out here; a few derelict buildings, long deserted, some mobile phone towers, and petrified bits of wood. Not much else.

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Riding in formation to help with the crazy cross/headwind

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Tough going out here

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Riding into the wind

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Love it. Nothing out here.

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Astrid and the salmon

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I love these buildings.

We did indeed find water and some shade after about 80km and gratefully refilled. In the evening we pulled off into the desert to make our camp. It really felt like the Sahara now, I could see sand dunes, which weirdly, although we’ve crossed many deserts, haven’t actually been that common.

The following day we reached Karima in the late afternoon, restocked and headed to the pyramids on the other side of town. There was almost no one there when we arrived – just one local who looked like he was maybe guarding the place. I think he was trying to tell us we couldn’t camp there, but as the sunset and the call to prayer reverberated through the valley, he too left. So it was just us Habibi’s and the pyramids. We found a spot not far from them and set up camp. Dream of sleeping next to pyramids realised.

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Headstand happiness at Karima

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Astrid and the pyramids

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Pyramid posing

From Karima we rode towards Khartoum, looking forward to up coming rest days. On one particularly dark and moonless night, we decided to all get naked and dance in the desert under the stars. Ewaut, ever the DJ had a perfect mix ready, and even Martin, slightly hesitant at first, partook. There was something about being in socially conservative countries for the last two months that had gotten to our psyche. There was something so liberating, just being with other humans, dancing under the starlit African desert sky. It was somehow something my soul had really needed.

We woke one morning to a ferocious dust storm, thankfully the wind was at our backs and propelled us on to Khartoum. Our entry into the Sudanese capital coincided with the build up to the revolution. We saw a lot of security, evidence of the protests, but no violence or protests as such. None of us ever felt unsafe, either. In fact we just continued to feel welcomed, like we had everywhere else in Sudan.

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Testing Ewaut’s super porridge

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Ewaut and  I were delighted to find this!

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Desert picnic

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Washing wherever we can!

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The kettle is always on in Sudan.

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Astrid creates a lot of interest writing in her journal

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Curious boys in a tea house

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Fuul. Again.

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Ewaut has the best sense of style

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Resting

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Typical desert shelter

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Dust storm

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Wind break out of bikes and panniers

Our short break in Khartoum was relatively busy. We needed to apply for our Ethiopian visa, wash clothes and meet up with other cyclists. Ethiopia is the most difficult country to cycle in (rock throwing kids for starters) and has a horrible reputation. Arthur, another Cairo to Cape cyclist had started a WhatsApp group for those of us who were going to be in Ethiopia around the same time. Most of us were in Khartoum at the same time and we all met up one afternoon to discuss plans. I’d actually been chatting to Craig – a British cyclist – since Cairo on WhatsApp, so it was cool to finally meet him. Craig was on a similar route to us – London to Cape Town. There was also Clo who’d cycled all the way from France through Iran and Oman, Dimitri who was on an epic human powered mission, and Arthur from Belgium who is a insulin dependent diabetic and is interviewing diabetics as he travels. It’s always great to meet up with fellow cyclists and we had a lot to talk about. We weren’t sure if we would all pedal together as such, but it was certainly good to meet and talk, especially as we all had different bits of information about Ethiopia.

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tea on the street, Khartoum

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Khartoum at night

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Washing our bikes at the Blue Nile Yacht Club

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Exploring Tuti island which sits in the middle of the Nile in Khartoum

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Tuti Island

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Can’t really tell, but the white and the blue Nile meet just behind us

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Bike gang – the habibi’s plus Craig and Clo

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Riding around Khartoum

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We can still cannulate! Using our paramedic skills on a sick Dimitri.

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Heading out of Khartoum

Aside from route planning and generalised chores, Martin had a contact in Sudan who soon became a friend. He and his wife took us for coffee on the banks of the Nile and for a party BBQ at their home (complete with home brewed alcohol!). It was brilliant to spend time with them and it saddens my heart greatly that none of us have heard from them post revolution. The Internet in Sudan is currently shutdown and the situation appears to have deteriorated with the security forces attacking peaceful protesters.

After several days resting, acquiring our Ethiopian visa, socialising, route planning and running errands, it was time to head south and into sub Saharan Africa. As Clo and Dimitri, and then Craig had all fallen ill, it was only going to be us leaving Khartoum. We felt pretty sure our paths with the others would cross again somewhere in Ethiopia.

The desert gave way to Savannah as we rode south and then east towards Ethiopia. Due to ethnic conflict in the region and reports of cyclists needing armed escorts, we had decided to forgo the normal border of Metema and head towards the more remote border of Lug Di, near Eritrea. This meant more kilometres, both in Sudan and Ethiopia. Not that we minded. We’d heard some positive reports from other cyclists about the Tigray region of Ethiopia (where we’d be crossing into) and were keen to have whatever positive experiences that we could. Our days towards Ethiopia were not without drama however. One day, while minding my own business, riding along the road, I heard an almighty scrapping behind me. I was just about to turn to see what it was, when I was hit from behind. Hard. The greenfairy and I were sent flying. Luckily I only sustained superficial injuries, and the greenfairy was also okay, although the force had been hard enough to bend my steel rear rack. I looked around to see what had hit me. Turns out 4 metal beds had fallen off a Sudanese army truck and slid down the road at speed. Astrid, who had been behind me said it was absolutely terrifying. Out of all the things that I thought might nearly kill me in Africa, a bunch Sudanese army beds was not one of them.

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Nile at sunset, we had a quick dip!

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Last camp by the Nile

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Slight damage…the extent to be revealed much later on in Ethiopia…

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Could have been a lot worse! The offending beds are in the background.

Later that day it was poor Martin who needed the medical attention. He became quite ill and could barely stand up. We sat with him under a tree for a while, but he seemed to not improve at all. Possibly heat exhaustion combined with a dodgy stomach. We decided to hail down a lift. This being Sudan it took all of about 10 mins, the first suitable car pulled over and a bunch of friendly guys came to our aid. There wasn’t enough room for us all, so Martin and Ewaut’s bikes were loaded in the tray and they piled into the back. Astrid and I agreed to meet them the following day in town where they would take a rest.

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Martin and Ewaut’s transport

Martin soon recovered and we continued on the unpleasant narrow and busy road south, before turning off to wind our way passed Chinese mining interests and a relatively new dam (also Chinese made). In a village that definitely had an edgy vibe (a man we bought soda’s off said it was a mix of locals and refugees, displaced by conflict)  we also ran into our first problem with the police. We were detained (after much loud objection from Martin and I) and questioned why we were there. After a lot of explaining (and apologising for my somewhat irate behaviour) we were escorted across the village to yet another official. This one spoke French, and luckily so did Ewaut. He basically explained that they just wanted to know why we were there and that because we were in a border area, things could sometimes get tense. Once reassured that we were in fact just a bunch of dirty tourists, not spies, we were free to go and find the ferry across the dam.

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Donkeys sheltering from the heat

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On the ferry

Once across we took a quick dip and collected water before heading off on a bumpy dirt road towards the border. Until now Sudan had been so friendly and quite relaxed. The vibe had changed slightly now, and for the first time we felt a bit wary finding somewhere to camp. We’d tried at a teahouse, but the people seemed suspicious of us and the police indicated that we should move on. And when we did the police came by and told us not to take photos of the moon.

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Last wild camp in Sudan

That was our last night in the Sudan, and it was a particularly beautiful. What an incredible country this has been. In a place where the environment is often harsh and quite stark, I cannot over emphasise how warm the people have been. They make Sudan the amazing country it is. There is such a beautiful soul here. We, as the international community cannot forget them. The Sudanese people, like all people, deserve free and fair elections and a civilian government. I hope one day to return, and until then I will never forget the hospitality and kindness we received.

Thank you.

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The illegal photo of the full moon rising.

Albanian Impressions

unadjustednonraw_thumb_10c95Although we had not planned to cycle through Albania this time round, neither of us minded coming back, and even retracing some of our cycle from 2015. Albania is a place close to our hearts. It’s like nowhere else in Europe we have been, and reminds us a little of everywhere we have travelled.

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Cars on the roof, why not?

It’s always interesting when you only cycle in a country for a short amount of time, don’t speak the language, or have much meaningful contact with locals. Sometimes that just happens, and in a country, particularly one as seemingly obscure as Albania, one can be left with somewhat confusing impressions. Many things don’t ever quite make sense.

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These bunkers dot the landscape, built by the former dictator

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Another abandoned something

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Enjoying the wide shoulder

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Lady birds painted on a building, why not?

Why does Albania have so many car washes, for instance? Seriously, every few kilometres you find them. And sometimes a few grouped together. Men (with perfectly coiffed hair) either sit around on their phones waiting for business, or carefully soap up already shiny black Mercedes. Another thing; there are so many fancy German cars in this country. Mainly Mercedes, but also Audi’s and BMW’s. In a country that obviously has problems with poverty, it seems quite crazy. I’ve heard some of them are second hand from Germany, brought here because they last longer on the bad Albanian roads. Staying with the car theme, there are also a phenomenal amount of petrol stations. And quite a few abandoned shells of petrol stations. Was there some kind of petrol station fad? Get rich abroad and come back and buy a petrol station? I have no idea. Sometimes it’s fun to make up stories as to why things are the way they are.

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Excited to find this vegan burek type thing

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Albanian drivers unfortunately haven’t improved much since 2015. The roads are generally narrow and people drive fast. It is certainly a country gripped by the status of the car. Safety and road rules are not a thing. I was nearly reversed in to, and it is standard to talk on the phone, pull over suddenly, use the horn furiously, or use the street as a car park. We saw quite a few amusing arguments as people parked their cars in what up until then had been a lane to drive in, blocking all traffic behind them. The constant feeling of being a second class citizen whose right to life on the road was only temporary, was exhausting and we took breaks sometimes just to get out of the traffic. Thankfully after Tirana, things became better.

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second breakfast

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off road to look for camping..

The landscape we cycled through was initially flat and dusty, heavily cultivated and dotted with eccentric large pink houses (built by rich Albanians?), petrol stations, car washes and random shops and small villages. We saw a woman herding turkey’s in a field, men driving what looked like pimped up wheel barrows with a motor, and quite obscurely, one person in a wheel chair, on a highway, going backwards. Go figure, it’s Albania.

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Turkey’s!

The gap between rich and poor appears immense here, the corruption is almost palpable. Men in shiny black sports cars, big shopping malls, huge houses. This is interspersed with families travelling by horse and cart, barefoot children begging outside supermarkets and shanty towns. We received some candid stares and shouts, one manchild threw a bottle at Astrid’s head. Women had faded into the background of life here, and it was mainly men we saw – washing cars, driving cars, drinking coffee, milling about. Still, by and large people were kind to us and I feel no animosity towards Albanians. It is a country still coming to grips with its identity after a tragic and frightening past, running head first into capitalism and all the problems that come with this very flawed system.

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left over second lunch

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tea time

At one point there was a no bicycle sign on a motorway, but all we got was a smile and nod as we cycled by the police. Later, on another motorway we wanted to ride through a newly built tunnel. Here the traffic man became quite insistent that it was dangerous. I became quite irate; not riding through the tunnel would mean a climb up a narrow road that had already proved dangerous. After days of exposure to bad driving I was having none of it and refused to comply. He said he would call the police and I told him to go ahead and rode off. Poor Astrid had no choice but to follow me. Ironically, pedalling on the footpath of the tunnel was the safest we’d felt all day (possibly in the whole of Albania). We then flew along the newly built motorway at top speed, with a wide shoulder and almost no traffic. Either we outran the police (unlikely), or they were never actually called.

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On the illegal motorway..

From camping hidden in people’s orchards on the crowded agricultural lowlands of Albania, our path took us into the mountains. Here the air was fresher, the landscape wilder and more beautiful. We followed a river upward towards the border with the Republic of Macedonia. Our time in Albania this time was brief, but I am sure it won’t be the last time we visit this unique country.

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Camping in a vineyard

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By the river

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heading up towards the border

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A different Albania

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Leaving the lowland behind

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Border post

Thirty six hours through Montenegro

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Signs are there to be climbed!

After climbing all morning through the beautiful mountains of Bosnia, the first thing I thought as we free wheeled down the road on the Montenegrin side was; it’s not as beautiful as I expected. Kind of harsh I admit! The landscape was rocky, dry, and quite bare. Not the Montenegro I remember of 2015. Of course, first impressions are often wrong.

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Happy to be back in Montenegro

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Overlooking a dam on our way into Niksic

After snacking on left overs, we rolled into Niksic in search of potato burek (second lunch) and an ATM. We found both, with the potato burek possibly being the best we’ve ever had (big statement I know!). While in the bakery, unashamedly scoffing our second helping, a guy came over to talk to us. Petar was a local Warmshowers host, and after chatting for a bit, he offered to show us a scenic route to Podgarica. We happily accepted.

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Petar showing us the way

What followed was up there with some of the best and most scenic cycling we’ve done. We followed Pieter up a small, smooth road (Montenegro has ridiculously good roads) as it wound itself gently up the mountains. The views were magnificent and I felt dwarfed by the sheer beauty of nature all around us. By the time we reached the Ostrog monastery it was late in the day, making Podgarica as we had planned was looking unlikely. It was one of those moments where you choose just to embrace the moment and go with the flow of what is being offered up. Petar showed us the church and explained a little bit about his religion. Although neither of us are the slightest bit religious, I do appreciate the sacredness of churches, temples, mosques, and the beauty of the architecture and art work. The icons in orthodox churches are impressive. And it has an air of mysticism I did not expect.

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The amazing road

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So fun and so beautiful

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After Petar had a quick chat with a priest, we all ended up being invited in to eat in the monastery dining room. I can only imagine this is where the monks eat? There was some praying and then we were served up delicious food, including quite a lot of wine. Some people joined us, and it turns out the woman was an Abbott from Russia. So that’s how we ended up sharing wine and food with a Russian Abbott and some monks in an orthodox monastery in Montenegro. You never quite know how your day will turn out on the road…

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A church at the monastary

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At the Monastary

Later on we explored the high monastery, which is impressively cut into the stone. It is a really beautiful and spiritual place and a site of Pilgrimage for Christians, as Saint Basil of Ostrog’s body is there (rather creepily in an open coffin). He is apparently the saint of Miracles.  Petar, being the generous and humble guy he was, organised for us to stay in the monastery dormitory that night. He also stayed as he is currently in between jobs and had no plans. I love how he could just spontaneously join us. We spent the evening drinking tea and talking; about religion, the difference in our lives, relationships, travel, anxiety, love…Petar is not one to waste time on trivial matters and it was refreshing to talk to someone obviously so smart and interested in everything.

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The high monastary, built into the rock

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Impressive!

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Exploring by night

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Outside the monastery where we slept

In the morning singing from the church reverberated over valley in a wonderful and other worldly manner. The sun shone, promising another perfect autumn day. It felt like we were outrunning the bad weather again. The three of us left early and headed down the mountain and valley into Podgarica, the Montenegrin capital. Here we ate lunch in a park by the university that Petar had once attended.

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The road down

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more beautiful road..

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On the road to Podgarica

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Podgarica

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Outside the church Petar showed us in Podgarica

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Church and bike posing..

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Inside the church

It was now time to head to the Albanian border, just over 20km away. Petar decided he may as well join us right to the border. Unfortunately he hadn’t brought his passport, otherwise I think we would have continued cycling with us! The road out of Podgarica was awful at first, fast and busy, but luckily improved as we began climbing out of the valley and back into nature in the late afternoon sunshine.

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Looking towards Albania..

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Towards the border

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Lovely in the late afternoon!

At the border we said our goodbyes. Meeting Petar was certainly the best thing that happened to us in Montenegro. It made our brief 36 or so hours here so much richer, and showed us places we would otherwise not have seen. We may lead very different lives, and come from very different backgrounds, but this ride was a reminder of how human’s are kind and open, given half a chance.

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Thanks for everything!

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A pedal through the changing cultural landscape of Bosnia Herzegovina

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Bosnia Herzegovina. I am not really sure how to start this blog. There is so much I want to say and express. It is probably one of my favourite places in Europe, rich in history, culture and natural beauty. And it would be impossible not to mention the recent tragedy of the war and genocide that followed the break up of Yugoslavia in the early 90’s. But I guess I am going to pair it right back to how we experienced this varied and often complex country. It is far beyond the scope of this blog to delve into the complexities of the history and politics of this region. Although I will not completely omit them either.

 

We arrived in Bosnia Herzegovina over the Drina River, cars with Bosnian and Serbian number plates crossed the border seemingly without issue, and it was hard to believe that this area was once the site of major fighting. We pedalled a short distance into Bratunac to find food and an ATM (typical just arrived in a country activities). While I was in the supermarket Astrid got chatting to a man who invited us for coffee. When first in a new place it’s always so lovely to be able to speak to someone about the country, to try and get a sense of it. Our new friend had spent 25 years living in Britain and had only recently returned. He was frustrated by the corruption and slowness of getting things done, and he expressed a sadness about the huge divide that now exists between Serbs and Bosnian’s, which he said in his youth had not been the case. To clarify; there are three main ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina; Serbs who are mainly orthodox Christians, Bosniaks who are mainly Muslim and Croatian’s who are Catholic. One can see how these ethnic divisions can easily be exploited.

 

With history and politics swirling around in my head we headed off, the sky felt heavy, the air was cold and damp. It felt like autumn had really arrived. Our road towards Sarajevo took us through an area that had been involved in intense fighting between Serbs and Bosnian’s (we went quite near Srebrenica). There had been massacres of entire Bosnian villages in this area.

 

Later, while eating lunch by a Church, we spoke about our first impressions of this new and complicated country. Firstly, there are many taps, which we loved. Water being freely available is a cycle tourist’s dream. Next, the Serbian nationalism in this area was potent. Almost every village had a Serbian flag. Many houses were literally painted in Serbian colours. I mean, nationalism and flags always make me a little uncomfortable at the best of times, let alone in the context of the recent history. Then there were the deserted villages and obvious shrapnel damage to the houses…what happened there? One shudders to think. We passed a Muslim graveyard too, a whole field of white pillars, eerie and silent in the damp afternoon. There were a few mosques as well, nestled amongst some of the villages we cycled by. How must it feel to be a Muslim in this part of Bosnia Herzegovina now?

 

The autumn afternoons were becoming shorter and not long after we began a gentle but steady climb, the light began to fade. In the last few days the weather had certainly changed; the Indian summer felt over. It was already mid October and the fact that it was only now getting cold was such a blessing. Finding a place to camp had an added difficulty here in Bosnia as there are still landmines from the war. From what I hear no one has been maimed or killed in quite a while (and the areas where they are appear to be signposted) but we were still wary of going off piste too much. We found an old mountain road, which definitely looked like it had been in use after the 90’s and pitched up on it, next to a creek. Over dinner I looked at the map on my phone; we had 96km to go to reach Sarajevo, including two big climbs. Our plan had been to reach it in two days, but with the drizzly, cold weather, another night in the mountains didn’t massively appeal.

 

The next day was Sunday and therefore pancake day, a tradition we had started in Iceland. Astrid has perfected the art of the vegan pancake over the last few months and it’s always lovely to have a break from our usual muesli with water and banana. Over pancakes and coffee we discussed the possibility of making it to Sarajevo. It’s always a bit exciting setting a challenge like this. Especially if there is a warm bed and a cold beer at the end of it.

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chopping banana for the pancakes..

We climbed all morning, a steady but constant gradient winding ever upwards into the Bosnian mountains. There was little traffic. We passed a few villages but mostly it was forest. Occasionally there was drizzle but the worst of the rain held off. It was cold and we both wore full waterproofs. Hard to imagine a week ago we were in t shirts in the sun. At the top of the first and hardest climb was a restaurant and we gratefully scrambled inside to get out of the cold and have something to eat. I looked at the kilometres. We still had 80km to go and it was 1.30pm. To hell with it: I emailed our host in Sarajevo (who owns a hostel) and told her we would probably be showing up later that day.

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checking the kilometres..

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A village in the mountains

A cold descent followed, through forest and then across windswept alpine meadows. I pedalled hard, trying to keep up with Astrid. After an hour we stopped and checked our map – we had done just under 30km. We could do this. I was starting to really enjoy the challenge, as was Astrid.

 

We stopped once more to stuff Burek into our faces and then climbed hard out of the valley. As we neared Sarajevo the traffic got heavier. I got surprised by a huge descent and found myself braking because the cars were going too slow. We flew off the mountain, through beautiful gorges and into another valley. It was cold and beginning to head towards dark. We put on more layers and braced ourselves for the traffic and the icy wind.

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Downwards..

At a petrol station we pulled up with 12km to go and the weather coming in. We needed a break though. It is sometimes these last few kilometres that can be your undoing. So we had a hot drink and ate a pack of crisps. Then we attached our lights and once again joined the traffic. It got a bit scary then, it was dark and busy and we needed to ride through quite a few tunnels. Riding close together we kept our nerves and our lives, and were soon in the city, amongst trams and traffic lights and people. One final insane climb and we reached our goal; The Doctors House Hostel, owned by the wonderful Cat who is also a Warmshowers Host. Cat wasn’t in but we were greeted by Riccardo who was not only doing a workaway there but also happened to have just cycled east Africa on a bamboo bike. Life.

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Cat’s wonderful hostel

We quickly settled down for an evening of beer and bike chat. It felt wonderful to have succeeded in our cycling challenge. My body ached in all the right places and I felt tired but elated. We now had several days off the bikes and one of our friend’s was arriving the next day.

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View over Sarajevo

Sarajevo. What a city. I visited 2 years ago with Misch (one of my oldest and closest friends), and ever since then I’d been keen to show it to Astrid. To me it feels like one of the most interesting places in Europe; the strong Ottoman influence meeting the distinctly European one, the beautiful architecture, the surrounding mountains, and of course it’s place very much in the centre of 20th century European history. The city of today dates back to the 15th century and the Ottoman occupation. When that empire began to crumble and lose its grip, it was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During this occupation the city was industrialised and rapidly developed (it had the first tram in Europe). While the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo was the catalyst for WW1, it was certainly not the cause. Europe at that time was increasingly unsettled, with the major players all vying for power and new territories (not to mention colonies). After being part of the two Yugoslavia’s, (the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) when Bosnia Herzegovina declared independence, Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. So definitely a place that has a varied and complicated history!

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Fuelled by falafel and a long sleep we packed up our bikes the following afternoon and headed the short way to meet Doug, who had kindly rented an apartment for us to stay in while we were all in Sarajevo together. After a lot of excited hugging and a cup of tea, the three of us headed off to explore the city. It was fun just to wander around the old bazaar, exploring narrow lanes, popping into tiny bars and marvelling at the architecture. The sounds, sights, smells, made me feel like I wasn’t in Europe at all. Then, walk a few hundred metres and we were surrounded by huge impressive buildings from the Austro-Hungarian period, complete with wide streets and trams.

 

 

Over the next few days we explored the old bazaar, watched the sunset from high above the city, visited the very disturbing museum of war crimes and genocide, went dancing at Kino Bosniak (highly recommend Monday nights!), had a fight with a stick (stick 1, Jude 0 – Astrid and Doug had to patch up my face), drank probably too much raki, went to an amazing vegan restaurant and had many chats late into the night. It is always so wonderful when friends visit and we both thoroughly enjoyed Doug’s company. All too soon it was time to bid Doug farewell, however with the hope we may see him again in a few weeks for Astrid’s birthday.

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Raki time!

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Patched up face..

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At Kino Bosniak

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cake!

After a day recovering from late nights and Raki at Cat’s hostel, it was once again time for Astrid and I to hit the road south. We had a two day pedal to Mostar in front of us and had read on the internet that the road wasn’t particularly nice for cyclists. I must say I was pleasantly surprised; the road wasn’t too busy and the end of the day brought one of the most stunning descents of the trip (unfortunately not many photos exist of this descent!). Our warmshowers host Orhan in Konjic would not hear of us camping, but instead gave us a room in his lovely hostel for the night. Konjic seemed like a great town to explore, but by now Greece was calling. In just a few short weeks 15 friends are meeting us for Astrid’s 40th. It would be rude for us not to be there.

 

 

We followed the Neretva River through narrow canyons, which included 8 tunnels (luckily not scary death tunnels). The last part of the day we were blasted by a ferocious headwind, which was exacerbated by being in a narrow valley. The riding was hard and we took it in turns to act as a wind break, the kilometres slowly ticking by. Our next host had a permaculture plot just outside of Mostar. Our kind of place. We had intended to stop there for a day and maybe help with some of the construction, or the garden. Sometimes things don’t go to plan though. The wind brought a huge storm which more or less raged for two nights and a whole day. Instead of gardening we pitched our tent inside Bambi’s greenhouse and spent a day drinking tea, eating, cuddling kittens and playing board games with another cycle tourist, Goren, and Dafni and Shilo, a couple walking through Europe, looking for some land to buy in order to start their own permaculture farm. I love how random the road can be and we definitely thoroughly enjoyed our time living in a greenhouse.

 

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Pomegranates!

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Happiness is a kitten and making pancakes

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Pancakes!

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The “little cat”.

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Had a great time with these folks!

Mostar also has a history of siege and division. During the war, the city was initially besieged by the Serb dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, and later by the Bosnian Croats from the surrounding mountains and buildings. I’ve seen footage of soldiers and civilians running across the medieval bridge (before it collapsed) under fire. It was strange to walk across it now in the cool evening air with only tourists around taking selfies. The old part of Mostar is magical but to me not quite as magical as Sarajevo. It is beautiful though; all Ottoman architecture, cobble stones and hidden bridges.

 

In Mostar we really began feeling that mental fatigue that creeps up on you unexpectedly. We had planned one night in a hostel after our time in the greenhouse and then a steady pedal over the mountains to Kosovo. For a few days we’d talked about maybe changing our route as time was running away from us, but had decided, no, we would head to the mountains. The morning we were to leave I felt so incredibly morose. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Then Astrid turned around and said; “why don’t we just stay here today and ride through Montenegro and Albania instead? And spend your birthday at Lake Ohrid?” As soon as she said it I felt such relief. It’s funny, sometimes until someone verbalises something, you don’t know that it’s exactly the thing you need.

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Sniper Tower

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heading up to the roof

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Art in sniper tower

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Sniper tower was supposed to be a bank..

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On the roof

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Sunset beer

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View over Mostar

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More view

So we rested up in Mostar (attending to life admin which we’d very much neglected) before hitting the road south refreshed. Only we didn’t get far. It began to rain, then it began to pour. By 2pm after having explored Blagaj and the Dervish house, we were both soaked and freezing. There was no sign of the rain stopping. If we’d been somewhere like Iceland, where basic accommodation was often close to 100 euros, we would have had to suck it up. Here in the Balkans, we could pay much less than that for a warm apartment with a kitchen, fast wifi and a hot shower. So we did that and ate delicious curry and watched a BBC program. I just realised how British that sentence sounded..

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Dervish house in Blagaj

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The swollen river

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Last time i was here I ate where the water is now!

The rain stopped. We now had a couple of day’s cycle on a rail trail. Probably one of the last things I expected to find in Bosnia Herzegovina was a rail trail. But thanks to an EU project, an old rail line had been converted into a bike path. It’s amazing and we would highly recommend it (especially the unpaved part). The trail winds it’s way through rural Bosnia Herzegovina, passed tiny villages (with no bakeries!), along the Neretva river and then high up alongside the mountains, through hand cut tunnels. The engineering of this rail line was amazing. The cultural landscape had shifted again as we headed south of Mostar. Now instead of the Bosnian flag and mosques we were seeing catholic churches and Croatian flags. Croatia and the former front line was just over the hill. We rode passed signs warning against landmines.

 

You can actually ride all the way to Dubrovnik on the rail trail, although we turned off early, having already explored Dubrovnik on our way to London. We pedalled through what felt like ghost towns, with ruined buildings and hardly an occupied house. The rail line from the Austro Hungarian era closed in 1975 after the abolition of narrow gauge railway, but it was the war in the 1990’s that really laid waste to the area. This project to bring tourists back into the area is brilliant as cyclists, just by the nature of the way that they travel tend to spend local. I hope it will bring many cyclists to explore and revitalise this beautiful part of Bosnia Herzegovina.

 

On our last day we shopped at the local market in order to try and spend the last of our Bosnian marks, ate a huge amount of Burek, decided to cycle via the Croatian Coast (we were enjoying the warmer weather), rode 500m and then changed our minds and headed for the mountains and Montenegro instead. Just another typical day on the road south.

 

A Danish Summer Holiday

 

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Back to summer!

As hoped we rode off the ferry and back into the long awaited summer. Heat, wind and sun hit our faces and layers were quickly removed. Having grown up in a place with long, hot summers and recently lived in a place where summer lasts for about 2 weeks (this year being an exception obviously) I don’t think I realised quite how much I would miss the warmth and sunlight until our cold and rather dreary (weather wise) 5 weeks in Iceland. I don’t want to take away from Iceland. It is a magical place and I am so happy we went it’s just that the worst summer in 100 years put an ever so slight dampener (pun intended) on our experience.

Our first stop was the supermarket where we bought all the things we hadn’t been able to afford in Iceland. Like hummus, fresh fruit and good bread. We gorged ourselves and then headed for the northern point of Denmark, Skagen. Here the North Sea and the Baltic meet and it was a popular place for impressionist painters in the late 19th century due to it’s unique light. We were mainly going because Carsten had told us we must. And Hannah’s parents had so kindly lent us their house (they were on holiday) so it seemed the perfect place to relax and re group after Iceland.

Arriving in Skagen after a swim in the sea and a day of sunshine our spirits were high. Having an entire house after 7 weeks in the tent was also complete luxury. I am deeply grateful for the kindness we so often receive. We relished the chance to drink wine in the garden, bake focaccia, do yoga, meditate, wash our clothes and relax. During the day we visited the seaside, ate sorbet, walked around the town (a popular tourist destination) and watched the sunset (where everyone claps when the sun finally sinks below the horizon). It definitely felt like a summer holiday.

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Sorbet!

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Craft beers in the park

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Breakfast in the garden

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Beautiful sunsets

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Watermelon anyone? All our clothes are being washed!

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we can afford to eat salad again!

After a few days it was time to tear ourselves away from the luxury and head south. It was hard to leave but we were excited to see Hannah and Carsten in Aarhus and meet up with Bec who was coming to join us. The three days it took us to cycle down to Aarhus opened us up to a few surprising things. Firstly we found loads of fruit on the side of the road apparently going to waste, so we picked it. Next we found an entire dumpster full of artisan bread outside a supermarket, we also helped ourselves to that. Then, on an afternoon swim we found mussels and after some discussion we helped ourselves to a few of those too. Mussels are one of those borderline things where due to a lack of central nervous system some articles argue they are more like plants than animals. They don’t for instance react or move away from painful stimuli. And from an environmental perspective they rate quite well. I love mussels (we both do) and so after some deliberation we took a few of those too. It felt wonderful and surprising to have been able to forage a large part of our food in a country as developed as Denmark.

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Dumpster dived

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Foraged (aside from the bread!)

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So much fruit!

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Fresh bread from the dumpster

At night we slept at some of the best shelters we had encountered yet. One was like a mansion cubby house, built in the dunes with a view out to the sea. Another boasted running water, a toilet, multiple shelters and even recycle bins (so European). The landscape itself was baked dry from the long, harsh summer. The browns, yellows and bright blue of the sky reminded me more of home than how I thought about northern Europe. I must say, I enjoyed it immensely.

In Aarhus we were warmly greeted by Hanna and Carsten and proceeded like usual to mess up their lovely flat with our chaotic panniers and dirty clothes. Being cycle tourist themselves they completely understood and pointed us towards the washing machine and shower. It was wonderful to share food and wine and catch up with friends. It had been a while since we had spent any time with people we knew.

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So happy to see Carsten

The following day we embarked on a mission that could have gone horribly wrong. For a while now Astrid has been riding on a seat that is too low. Unfortunately we didn’t know that one needs to regularly grease the seat post, otherwise the aluminium post and steel of the bike sheer together in an unmovable mess. After consulting Carsten (who knows a lot more about bikes than us) and visiting his cousins bike shop for tools, Astrid bravely cut the seat post off. Now we were committed. In order to continue our trip, we needed to saw the remaining seat post out of the bike in order to fit a new one. At least 10cm of the post (still firmly stuck in) needed to be removed. It seemed an easy enough task and Astrid and Carsten started off in high spirits. By 7pm with many hours already spent seemingly achieving nothing, a mild panic set in. What would happen if we couldn’t get it out? Would Astrid’s bike be completely fucked? And what about Bec, who was arriving the next day to cycle with us?

While Carsten and Astrid slaved away I made food and occasionally had a go at sawing myself. I think we all went to bed thinking about that damn seat post.

The next day armed with fresh enthusiasm that a rest brings, Carsten and Astrid rode off to the bike shop to use some more heavy duty tools. Several hours later I got the good news that they had been successful. What a relief.

We then picked up Bec and proceeded to have a lovely evening and night, exploring Aarhus and eating lots of delicious food. It was wonderful to spend a few days with Carsten and Hannah and sad to say goodbye. Hopefully they will be able to join us on the road at some point.

The summer holiday vibes continued with Bec as we rode towards Copenhagen, hugging the coast. Pedalling was followed by a swim, then lunch somewhere by the sea. In the afternoons there was sorbet, or sometimes beer. We also continued to dumpster dive, finding an unbelievable amount of unspoiled food. In the evenings we found shelters or forests to camp by, cooking up delicious curries, washed down with beer. Although not used to cycling such big distances, and not on her own bicycle, Bec, like always was amazing. She powered through with high spirits, even though at times it must have been hard. It’s always such a pleasure to share our lives with friends and we feel so humbled and grateful that Bec made the effort to join us.

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Badass cyclogang

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Fresh veg from the side of the road

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Hiding from a summer rain storm

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Our last day into Copenhagen we even managed to “tourist”. Exploring the castle Hamlet is set in and the Louisiana MoMA (which is amazing). Our good luck also continued, or should I say Carsten continued to be amazing. We had no plan of where to stay in Copenhagen. Warmshowers, while excellent has it’s limitations. A popular city in the heart of the European summer; frankly many hosts are themselves out on cycling holidays. After sending several requests with nothing, we had left Aarhus with nowhere to stay but deep down I knew something would work out. And it did. Carsten’s cousin had a small summer cottage 15km from the centre and she just happened to be going away that weekend and was happy to lend us the cottage. Perfect. It felt wonderful to have our own place in which to relax after three awesome days of cycling.

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Our little cottage outside of Copenhagen

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Long lazy breakfast

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Did we kill Bec?!

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Excited with wine!

After exploring Copenhagen and gorging ourselves on an all you can eat Chinese vegan buffet it was time to say goodbye to Bec. It was sad to see her go but there are already plans in the working to meet again in November.

We explored Copenhagen a bit more after Bec’s train departed and then retreated to our cottage just before the thunderstorm hit and it rained all night. Now it was time to make a decision. We had been talking for days about where we would head next. Our original plan had been Sweden and then the Baltic States, followed by Poland and then south. We looked at maps and counted kilometres and considered the eventual arrival of autumn. By chance Astrid had found a Danish Island called Bornholm from which one could catch a ferry to Poland. We also talked about riding through northern Germany to Poland (to save on ferry fees). Or perhaps sticking to the original plan. Eventually we decided that in all reality we probably didn’t have enough time to really explore the Baltic States and Sweden properly as we wanted to be in southern Europe to celebrate Astrid’s 40th in November and Egypt probably by early to mid December. Bornholm seemed like an interesting and direct way we could get to Poland and from there continue south.

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Exploring

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All the tourists crowding the little mermaid statue!

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Copenhagen is a cyclists dream

After a prolonged morning packing we headed off towards Koge from where we would catch the overnight ferry to Bornholm. It was a fairly uninspiring ride, although we managed to successfully dumpster dive a ridiculous amount of food (including still cold and in date salmon) which we cooked up at the ferry terminal. We got a lot of comments about how good our food smelt. If only they knew our entire meal bar the garlic and oil had come from the dumpster, destined to rot and go to waste.

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Perfectly edible dumpster dived food

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At the ferry terminal cooking

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Our almost 100% dumpster dived meal

Being seasoned travellers, or maybe because we don’t care Astrid and I both slept well on the ferry. Unlike our fellow passengers who uncomfortably (it seemed) curled up on seats, we had brought our mats and sleeping bags and made ourselves quite at home, sleeping more or less soundly as the ferry headed eastwards.

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On the ferry to Bornholm

Bornholm proved to be as wonderful as every Danish person we met had told us it would be. On our first morning we cooked breakfast on a pier and then swam in the sea, followed by a lovely pedal through the forest. The landscape was beautiful with sea cliffs, forests and gorgeous villages. We explored a fort, marvelled at the old smoke houses and spent a delightful afternoon relaxing in a free camping spot in a clearing.

After only a short time on Bornholm it was time to finally bid Denmark farewell and head to Poland. Neither of us had ever been and we were super excited to be moving on to this large eastern European country of which we knew very little.

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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 r