It already seems like an age ago that we were lined up full of anticipation and nervous energy at the Harwich ferry terminal. Riding onto and off of the ferry was incredibly exciting. There were a reasonable number of cyclists in our small peloton (possibly 10-15), and we were all sent off together to negotiate a short sharp ramp on to an elevated roadway before plunging down into the cavernous hull. There were two types of cyclists in the peloton, those who had been cycle touring before, and those who had not (with our shiny new bikes there was no doubt which category we fitted into). One poor man was having a very rough time of his first outing; twice his fully laden bike had fallen heavily on him, in much the same way as Steven’s bike tackled him on to the towpath. Negotiating both the up and down slopes of the ramp without incident was unfortunately beyond him.
In his panic and desperation to get his bike upright following an earlier, painful fall, he had clearly forgotten to fasten all bungy cords (no one noticed until it was undoubtedly noticeable), one of which must have been dangling precariously near his front wheel hub. On the down slope of the elevated ramp he came to a grinding and somewhat uncomfortable stop, straddled painfully on the top bar of the bike, determined not to fall again. The cause of his severe discomfort was in fact the bungy and its willingness to associate itself with his front wheel (it had wrapped itself in a horrible mess of a knot around the spokes). Had this happened anywhere other than on the ramp into the bowels of the ship I fear he may never have recovered; as it was, the peloton leaped to his rescue, every manner of tool was produced, most people had an opinion (excluding Steven; I think he was in a state of shock and bewilderment of how painfully uncomfortable the poor man looked) and very quickly a solution had been achieved. All of this happened as his mortified son and hundreds of hooting motorists impatiently queuing to board looked on. An unforgettable start, to what will surely be an unforgettable journey.
Riding off the ferry the next day, it was immediately clear who rules the road in Holland. We were waved to the front of the queue and within minutes we were off and cycling into the clear, sunny morning. It is almost impossible not to cycle on a cycle path in Holland. There certainly appears to be more cycle paths than roads and they have their own sign-posting, traffic lights, complex junctions and, more often than not, are completely segregated from the road traffic. In Rotterdam, when searching in vain for a way across the river, a couple of men in uniform beckoned to us and pointed out an unmarked doorway in an unusual shaped building. There was already a dreadlocked man standing patiently outside it with a bicycle beside him and his daughter on the back, so naturally we went and stood behind him. On closer inspection, the door was actually for a lift, and the lift took us down deep underground to a huge tunnel under the river. Just for bikes! Only in Holland.
We have had a love-hate relationship with the cycle paths ever since that first day, or more specifically, navigating them. Of course, this is most certainly the fault of the cycle paths and nothing whatsoever to do with our navigational skills.
On our first full day in Germany we had our biggest falling out with the cycle path signs to date. After a very early start, we cycled east from our campsite, heading for the Rhine. It was a miserable, wet morning and we just wanted to get some miles under our belts quickly to put us in with a chance of making our goal of reaching Cologne that evening. After about 10km of cycling, we arrived at the water and sure enough there was a signpost that stated that this was the Rhine Cycle Path (our chosen route for the next few days). So we turned right and set off along the path in a southerly direction. Or so we thought. The path meandered around endlessly and eventually it seemed to peter out completely. It started to rain more heavily and we were steadily getting more and more frustrated. Luckily, help arrived in the form of a couple of Tasmanians who were cycling the length of the Rhine in the other direction. They were lost, but were able to point out to us that we were even more lost as we had been heading North for the previous half an hour (not very conducive to getting to the Southern Hemisphere)! The section of the Rhine that we had arrived at was a confusing mass of smaller rivers and lakes and it was not the Rhine that we had arrived at and turned right but some other mass of water. At this point, Steven vowed we were never to follow a cycle path ever again (this lasted until the next convenient cycle path appeared). And so we set off down the very straight roads from town to town until we reached Cologne. In the end this fiasco was probably a blessing in disguise as we subsequently discovered that north of Cologne there is power station after chemical plant after power station which the cycle path winds its way slowly around and we would probably never have made it to our destination in one day. It also taught us a valuable lesson; use the compass. Now our general rule is that if a path doesn’t head in our vague required direction (south east) then it must be viewed with a very hefty dose of suspicion.
Crossing borders in Europe is different from most places in the world as more often than not, you are entirely unaware that you have entered a new country. In our case, the border was an anonymous looking stream. The day before crossing however, we did remark that the countryside was changing. More trees, more open space, less intensive agriculture, a change in the style of houses from beautifully crafted, thatched Dutch barns to more standard looking detached houses. A welcome change in Germany is that there are supermarkets everywhere and they are easy to find, in Holland they all seemed to be tucked away in the most obscure places, which at times can feel life threatening to ravenous, underprepared cycle tourists.
We are now getting into the swing of things; spending time every day having picnics in Lidl carparks is the norm, the tent is beginning to feel like home and our every day chores are supermarket shopping, guarding the bikes and asking for directions. I’m really surprised at how good I feel about the cycling. Yes, my leg muscles are sore, but only for the first few minutes after getting going again after a rest. I have no other aches and pains to speak of (touch wood) and at the end of each day I’m tired but not exhausted. I’m loving spending all of every day outside, I’m sure that will all change as it gets colder, but we’re making the most of the warmish weather while it lasts.