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Cycling and free-camping: an affordable Europe adventure

Crossing a bridge, I spied a bush down by a dry river bed that would afford a much needed squat stop, if I could just get to it.

Ditching the bike – with full panniers – and sliding down the bank in one swift movement, I began the all-too-familiar process of preparing to evacuate what evils had infiltrated my belly and left me pale and making regular forced stops over the past three hours. Fortunately, the bridge wall provided some cover from on-coming vehicles. Or so I thought.

The truth was I had simply exhausted the day’s quota of unassuming and discrete toilet stops and sure enough, the law of averages came through and smacked me right in the butt, literally. There, on the bridge above me, appeared a double-decker tourist bus, showing a load of 20 -somethings (tomorrow’s business leaders, scientist, politicians and the like) the best that Greece had to offer!

It was impossible to move. At the mercy of the explosive gastro gods, and fully engaged in excretion mode, my one thought was: ‘Should I pull my only pair of cycling shorts up and finish the job off inside?’

Better judgement quickly pointed out the odds of my seeing these people ever again were minimal. Furthermore there was no running water, much less a washing machine, for the next 40 km. So I carried on without compromise, baring all and showing those horrified young ‘world circuit explorers’ from middle class homes how to do runny number two’s all over a soon-to-be dead bush in the beautiful Greek countryside.

For a brief but influential moment in our lives, our paths crossed. Then the bus passed, the gastro gods finished with me, and just like that, the moment was gone, at least in the physical sense. I suspect however it remains vivid not only in my memory, but one or two others’ as well…

By now we were drawing near the end of our Continental traverse. It seemed like a lifetime since we’d started a great trip with a single rotation of the crank bracket outside my in-laws’ house in Manchester.

It all began on a warm sunny Lancashire morning as family members gathered in their quiet crescent to bid us a safe journey and wave us on our way. This was followed by a harrowing 10 minutes of cycling through city traffic desperately forming an alliance with a bike as wide and functional as a shopping trolley, before taking a train and ferry to the Dutch culture capital of Amsterdam.

The purpose of Amsterdam was to purchase a map of Holland and develop a route we could take through to Germany. Surprisingly, after three days we were no closer to identifying a pathway that would lead us towards Europe’s biggest nation. In fact, there was very little indeed we could recall about the 72 hours that had elapsed since our arrival in Holland, so we quite literally jumped on our bikes and headed south east, following canal tracks on a whim.

Leaving The Dam, our days meandered through Dutch countryside that rolled into German countryside and then into Czech countryside. As the weather warmed up, so did our insatiable taste for cheap European beer. This was the only time in our lives that we rose at 7 am, cycled until noon and spent the rest of the day sipping alcohol under blazing skies while casually trying to erect a tent in new and different environments.

As countries rolled by, each one became synonymous with a specific event. Austria, for example, still conjures up the memory of countless hours of cycling along the beautiful Danube, away from hordes of traffic, leaving the serene river only for refreshment stops. At that stage, it was the height of summer and we spent endless evenings watching the river boats cruising up and down while families cooked traditional frankfurters on the river bank, and the glow of the evening sun dwindled over yet more carnival horizons.

Slovakia is equally memorable as the country where we made the ‘brave’ decision to carry on riding further east and risk possible death by bear mauling, bird flu or poor hygiene as we set our sights on cutting tracks across Romania.

By now we’d been tour cycling for six weeks without any overtly disabling crisis. So, with spirits high and enjoying a dangerous blend of travel confidence and a taste for the unknown, we decided one night to carry on through Europe until we literally reached the other side. It was a lovely warm evening, and we were lovely and warm with the invincibility that comes with too much alcohol and sun. What could wrong? From the security of our campsite, it all seemed so straightforward as we planned to ‘take a bath in the Black Sea’, only 700 km east and separated from us by Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Romania. By now, 11 days had passed since our last wash, and even the cars were taking a wider berth to get past.

Entering Romania was like jumping into an aged oil painting from a time long since forgotten. Coming from Hungary, where the cities had a Western familiarity, Romania was a stark contrast – beautiful, natural, and a land that for so long, had turned its cheek the other way to to capitalist progress.

Romania still harboured an element of uniqueness, which we hadn’t encountered to date. The infrastructure was worn and the nation’s citizens favoured a conservative yet intrigued attitude. On more than one occasion, we felt like circus entertainers at times and most probably looked like clowns at others, riding through towns with our western clothing and Kiwi paraphernalia hanging off the bikes. Looking back, it’s clear why the locals would stare at us from a safe distance. If we were them, we would have done the same. Children playing in the streets would stop moving we approached, drop what toys they had onto the dusty roads and observe with caution and surprise as we two aliens squeaked our metal donkeys through unfamiliar hamlets.

Camping up in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains after a day’s assault on the roads was breathtaking. As the sun started dropping, what energy we had left would go into finding a suitable area of land to disguise our bikes, establish a fire to cook on, strike a tent and settle in for the evening of simplicity. This spirit of freedom was a world away from computers, cell phones, traffic and other suburban nonsense. During those evenings it was easy to be critical of modern life with its complex demands on society today.

Don’t get me wrong, tour cycling and free camping came with their own anxieties: Man eating bears, isolated thunder storms and bike failure in such a remote location to mention a few. Nevertheless, dozing off to the sound of howling wolves under a starlit sky with a fire crackling its way into the dewy mountain night was an experience neither of us will ever forget.

Unlike driving, tour cycling removes any form of encapsulation from the world around you. And unlike motorcycling, you can’t just open the throttle and zoom on through when the hairs on the back of your neck start to stand up. All you can do is smile and hope you don’t piss off the wrong people or other inhabitants of the land.

While our tour book told us about the bears and wolves of Romania, it didn’t mention a word about the feral packs of dogs lurking in the shadows. That’s why it was there in Romania that we struck up a brief but comforting love affair with the almighty stone! On several occasions we were forced to unleash such weapons of minor destruction at these savage animals that would come bounding towards us from behind an industrial estate or a burned out car.

With our bikes carrying an additional 15 kg of front and back panniers, the power to weight ratio gave us marginally better acceleration than a fruit bowl. Or at least, that’s how the dogs saw the situation. We were juicy and ready for eating with our pips to be tossed aside once finished. Our only salvation lay in the form of these small hard spherical hunks of aggregated minerals, ready to be dispatched at a moment’s notice. For three weeks, stones remained hidden in the palms of our hands every day. Each canine encounter struck a precarious balance – we had to wait for the pack leader to get close before either of us could attempt a hit, but at the same time we were both frantically chopping through gears and pumping legs like racing car pistons to accelerate that extra 5 km/hr that stood between us and death by mauling. Shattered, we would stop down the road and collapse in a heap after the complementary shot of adrenaline had subsided.

The only real difference between the feral dogs and Romanian drivers was that the drivers didn’t hide behind rubbish bins. Otherwise both seemed equally dedicated to trying to mutilate our bodies in some way. Following three weeks of near misses and being run off the road deliberately on countless occasions I lost all rationality for a split second on our last day as yet another vehicle forced me into the curb and sent panniers, cyclist and helmet flying. Without thinking, I chucked that day’s large stone at the vehicle, and watched in horror as it slammed into the passenger door just below the window.

The car skidded to a halt; I picked myself up from the curb. The screech of brakes caught people’s attention and suddenly the locals started converging. For an unusually long moment the car just sat there with the driver’s door open. As time stood still I remember thinking: ‘He must be looking for a pen to write down insurance details…’ But thought soon turned to fright as ‘the pen’ morphed into a rather large metal baton, and, before my eyes, the driver transformed himself into a gladiator. Someone I’d seen before, probably on TV winning bronze in heavyweight wrestling at the ’88 Olympics.

After all, clocking up 50 km a day over the past two months had reduced my physique to that of a pole. I probably didn’t add up to 70 kg even wearing my jacket and its emergency whistle. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the locals exchanging money as the resident town bookie arrived and stacked all odds against me. Suddenly I felt alone and in a strange country. I’d have tried calling for my mummy if she hadn’t been 16,000 km away.

The Olympian had the home ground advantage, the weight advantage, the height advantage and a decent weapon. Crickey, if all else failed he could get in his car and run me over. I knew that if I was to survive, it was a contest I had to lose. This was about damage control, big time. For a brief moment I thought about putting my cycling helmet back on, but it was ten metres away and I knew that if I turned and ran towards it, I probably wouldn’t have come back….

This was all new to me. I’d never fought in front of such a big crowd before. So it went without saying that I suffered from a few extra nerves as we clashed in the street that day. Running on pure adrenaline I managed to keep up for the first five seconds but the continuous repetition of his baton was simply too much for me to bear. By the 30 second mark his wife (just as big and just as mean) had jumped onto my shoulders and placed me in a ‘Brutus the Barber Beefcake’ sleeper hold whilst he stood back and walloped me.

Just as my knees started to buckle, an angel arrived in the form of my wife. Poor Rachel, she’d been further up the road than I and with our bikes having the turning arc of a cruise ship it had taken her a little more time than anticipated to rush to the rescue of her beloved and rather distressed spouse.

Such animation and arm waving (as she put her own body on the line) must have snapped my opposition out of his bloody frenzy. He reeled back and we all broke away. Propped up by Rachel I staggered to a post, whilst Mr and Mrs Olympian sauntered to whence they came, chests out, crowd cheering and with roses being thrown from the roof tops to their feet… (Although in retrospect, the ‘roses’ may have in fact been the blood trickling from my forehead into my eyes.)

Dazed and bleeding I tried to gather my composure but it was too late. The crowd had cast its vote and the score for my first international bout one fight and one loss (by TKO.) In cruel irony, during the fracas my beanie had been literally knocked off my block and snapped up by a mongrel dog. So on our last day in Romania our canine friends had finally got one over us!

And now with Bulgaria only 20 km down the road, the moment was right to make another border crossing.

In beautiful Bulgaria, there were no more ferocious Olympians, and few dogs. The weather kept shining, the roads kept rolling and the wheels kept turning. By this stage autumn was upon us and the countryside was a gallery of seasonal change. With every week the trees became more and more pastel? coloured and the bird song dwindled. As the days shortened, Bulgaria became Turkey and Turkey became Greece.

The final 800 km of our trip were spent riding along Greek motorways until we hit a multi-lane super highway in Athens and weren’t allowed to go any further. For that matter we couldn’t go back either as the last off ramp was 20 minutes behind us. Two police cars arrived and in limited English we were asked sternly where we had come from. When we both said, “Amsterdam, just 5126 km back down the road,” the stern faces broke and we knew we’d escaped fifty strokes of the lash or whatever other chastisement that had been planned.

Ironically, the last km of our transcontinental cycling trip was accompanied by a police escort to the off ramp. It must have looked strange to everyone around as there the two of us were, cycling along illegally with police cars behind and in front traveling on a six lane motorway, everyone laughing and giving each other high fives!!

From there, Athens airport was a short hop away and with it the end of life lived at fifteen km/hr. At least for that trip….

Expedition Sidebar;
Bikes: Second hand, cost $700 each. (Purchased in Auckland.) Countries cycled in: 14! (England, Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece Countries cycled through: Holland, Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece Distance cycled: 5127 km Bananas consumed: 480 Mechanical failure: Four flat tyres, eight broken spokes, one new wheel Longest time without a wash: 11 days. Magical moments: Millions!

More by this author on his very excellent website.

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