Clear skies and cold nights – cycling the Danube

We’re currently in Vienna and since the last post we’ve been enjoying cycling down the Danube, although mostly into a hefty headwind. Bex has become a master of riding 3 inches from my rear wheel – apparently I create a nice big wind shadow. I can hear cries of “it’s SO easy back here” as I’m grinding the pedals into a force 5 gale.

We had a great day off in Passau (where we first joined the Danube) and we were greeted by glorious sun from the minute we arrived. It was hot enough to rival an English summer’s day, not bad for October! Our state of the art, high tech expedition thermometer (purchased from a supermarket for €2.99) nearly exploded when we put it in direct sunlight.

Whilst in Passau we were lucky enough to stay in an amazing flat belonging to Max and Annika, friends of a friend of a friend. Max runs MyMuesli where you can create your own custom-mixed organic cereal online. They also have a small store in Passau and after a couple of visits to taste test, I can confirm it is excellent stuff. Cereal is something we’ve been missing (as we can’t keep milk fresh), so it was a double bonus.

With our batteries recharged (it’s funny how just one day off and a clothes wash can leave you feeling like new) we set off down the Danube, which we planned to follow for the next 700km or so. As we crossed the border into Austria, country number six, it felt like the sort of cycling that we needed back at the beginning of our journey to patch up any holes in either of our equally intensive (cough) pre trip training regimes – short days, flat roads and good weather. Just before arriving in Vienna we had 5 days in a row without seeing a cloud!

We’ve been mostly staying in campsites whilst on the Danube – there are loads on this popular cycling route, and they’re quiet and cheap as it’s out of season. Whilst looking for a campsite one evening an old man picking apples pointed towards what looked like a farmhouse. Apparently their garden was the campsite, although there were no signs to show it. Either way we were happy, and even more so when he gave us some dodgy home brewed cider to sample. His English was poor and our German is even worse so conversation was a challenge, but he seemed impressed when he found out that we’d cycled all the way from London.

The following evening in the next town we were directed to a rowing club – for a small fee we could sleep on the mattresses in the club house, use the showers and kitchen, and even help ourselves to the bar. The lady then left us with the keys to the boathouse and instructions to leave our money on the side in the morning.

The nights are getting colder as autumn arrives – it was below freezing on clear nights in Austria and we could see our breath inside the tent as ice formed on the outside. Fortunately we were nice and warm inside our sleeping bags, although it did make the night time toilet trip swifter than usual.

Bex’s knees have recovered now and we’ve cycled every kilometre together since leaving Munich a few weeks ago. When Bex started cycling again I thought it would be nice if she had the compass and map (we only have one to save money). Unfortunately Bex didn’t fill me with confidence when she took a confused look at the compass and said “what does the red pointy bit mean? Does that show the way we’re going?” “Only if we’re heading north” I replied, trying to remain calm. After a quick compass 101 lesson we were good to go.

Whilst on the subject of navigational issues, our low point so far came when we decided, over breakfast on a village bench, to take a handy scenic shortcut through a forest. Three hours later, after walking our bikes through a shallow river twice, we returned to the same bench for lunch. Horrific for morale and a few toys were promptly ejected from my pram. We stuck to roads for the rest of the day.

After a rest day or two here in Vienna we’ll continue to follow the Danube to Budapest. Now if the wind could just swing round a bit…

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Wild camping and Beer – Munich to Hirten

I’m anticipating that I will enjoy writing this post a lot more than the last one, and I hope it’s more fun to read!

The knee is on the mend, and we’re a team again, YAHOO! I have had a fright though so we are having a few weeks of lower miles, and Ryan keeps cycling with his hand on my back up the hills. Thank you to everyone for sending me encouragement, it was so lovely to hear kind words from people back home and stopped me feeling too blue.

After being spoilt by my dad for a few days in Augsberg we headed to Munich for the beer fest where Bex Sheldon awaited us (thanks Bex and Dad!). The Oktoberfest is totally mental, the tents are more like giant buildings and the whole place is a circus of drunks. We had more than our fair share of steins (well it was Bex’s birthday) and spent most of the night dancing on the tables – it’s amazing how well the beer sorts out a dodgy knee!!

We met up with another friend, Tom Smith, who happened to be in Munich on Saturday night and I managed to split one of the only two pairs of trousers I have. I’m not talking a little tear – I managed to rip them up the entire inside leg around the crotch and a few inches the other side, and I had to stumble home trying to hold myself together. Hilarious at the time, obviously. The next day saw me in H&M having a brand new shopping experience. As I entered the shop floor I scoured the room… past all the sparkly tops, floral dresses and jeans and my eyes landed on the corner full of dowdy anoraks and tracksuits, BINGO! As I began the selection process there was no “does my bum look big in this” or ” I wonder if these go with that top” – I felt the fabric, predicted how long things would take to dry, how small they would pack and how much they weighed. The colour was obvious, the most washed out dirt black colour I could find.

After the Munich blow out it was great to get back on the bikes with a rested knee and we headed east. We had our first wild camp deep inside a forest and I am VERY proud to say I experienced only a 30 second panic during the night, the irrational fears were of course:

1) A lumberjack man wearing a plaid shirt and dirty jeans (the cockroach bloke in MIB) is waiting until I fall asleep and is going to drag me out of the tent and attack me

2) I was about to be the silent witness to some horrific crime, Ryan won’t believe me, and so I will have to go out in the rain to investigate where something horrific is awaiting me

3) We are so well camouflaged that a bulldozer is going to plough over the tent killing us both, or even worse just Ryan and then I would have to finish the trip alone as a tribute, ARGH!!!

I know all the men reading this will think I was being irrational, but I am truly impressed the fear only got me for a short time!!! I managed to settle into a solid 12 hours kip after that and was excited to wake up the next day feeling like a little explorer in the woods. I’m sure we have many more wild camps ahead of us, and I will eventually feel at peace with the whole thing.

We continued east for a few days and are staying with some hosts in Hirten. I am continually being amazed by the generosity of people, this our 5th night since leaving home that we have been given food, a roof and wonderful company out of pure kindness and we’re still on the doorstep of England. I genuinely can’t wait until we are able to return this kindness to others once we get back home.

Crossing Germany – Den Bosch to Munich

Whilst Bex has (not) been enjoying her inter-railing mini break I’ve been crossing Germany by bike. After cycling through the first four countries in six days it has been nice to spend a bit longer in a single country to get more of a feel for the place.

We’ve crossed Germany from the west to the south east (as seen on our route map) and have followed river cycle paths where possible. After an obligatory look round the impressive cathedral in Koln we joined the Rhein, which we would follow for the next three days. It’s a massive and busy river, full of huge boats struggling along whilst weighed down by heavy cargo. Freight trains also rumble down the tracks that follow each bank which made for several noisy nights in the tent – I woke a few times thinking that an airplane was landing nearby!

Despite this, the Rhine made for scenic cycling. Steep green vineyards enclosed both sides of the valley and castles were perched high up overlooking the river. Each kilometre along the river is marked by a huge sign which I guess shows the number of kilometres from the source. At first it was satisfying to see these go past, however after several hundred they soon lost their novelty.

A quick check of the map in Frankfurt confirmed there was a challenge ahead – we had three days to get to Augsburg in order to meet Bex’s Dad and Grandma. This doesn’t look too bad as the crow flies, or at racing bike speeds. But on a loaded touring bike (typical average speed 12 mph) this meant some long days in the saddle were ahead. I decided to do two ‘quite long’ days and one ‘very long day’ on the basis that we wouldn’t have to camp and cook once we got to Augsburg.

The long day certainly lived up to its name – I set the alarm for an early start and got some kilometres under my belt during a cold, clear morning that required my winter gloves. Gradually a hot late summer’s day emerged with not a single cloud in the sky. The route that day consisted of mostly farmer’s tracks through endless rolling fields full of corn. A hairy descent on a gravel path brought a big grin to my face – it must be 10 years since I rode a mountain bike down a country lane, I’d forgotten how fun it is! The kilometres and sunburn accumulated whilst my food and water supplies diminished. Late afternoon brought with it the inevitable tiredness, so I played my favourite album for an immediate injection of morale.

All day from my saddle I had watched the sun rise up from the east and arc high above my head – it was now sinking in the west. Cycling through shadows had the same cold feel as the morning air many hours earlier – this was a full day spent on the bike, grinding out the distance. Despite multiple snack stops, the fact that a passing Burger King smelt like heaven confirmed I was hungry for dinner, but I resisted the temptation and pressed on. There was still 20km to cover and the only direct road was an autobahn… I did consider taking my chances on the hard shoulder for a few seconds before deciding on the indirect route using bike-friendly roads. The album was now on its second spin, but still having the desired effect of keeping the pedals turning. Finally, after some aimless cycling around the city centre I arrived at the destination – it was 7pm and it had taken 11 hours of cycling and eating to get there.

Food has been very simple so far – as Europe is relatively expensive we’re trying to use our limited funds as efficiently as possible so we still have some left for NZ! This has meant I’ve been eating baguettes and bananas for breakfast, lunch and snacks (two extra large baguettes does the job most days), and pasta or rice for dinner cooked on our stove. It’s good cheap fuel and seems to be satisfying our needs – fortunately after a long day on the bike almost anything tastes delicious (including our worst effort yet which was rice, pesto and a leftover slice of cheese).

We used warmshowers.org for the first time in Germany (similar to couch surfing but specifically for cycle tourers). We stayed with Michael in Koln and Oliver and his family in Frankfurt. On both occasions we received fantastic hospitality – a warm shower, a tasty meal, a comfy bed and company for the evening – exactly what you want after some wet weather camping!

I feel like I’ve adjusted quite well to long days on the bike (the 90 minutes between snack breaks passes surprisingly quickly) but I haven’t yet adapted to a cycle touring mentality, as opposed to chasing targets on the map. Part of the reason has been the need to pre-arrange a meeting place with Bex (e.g. 5pm at Koblenz station), so then the temptation is to put my head down and pedal furiously until I arrive. Also the enforced high mileage due (explained by Bex in her previous post) means there’s been no time in a typical day for me to do anything other than ride, eat, pitch tent and sleep. I was struck by a particular line from a post by Tom at Ride Earth:

“…the point of travelling by bicycle is not to reach a destination, but to watch the world unfold on the way there”

This articulates exactly why we choose to cycle to NZ but as yet, I’ve struggled to put it into practice. However, hopefully this will change when we leave Munich on Monday – we have no time pressure to get anywhere, so we’ll be covering only as many miles a day as we feel like. It should make for a much more pleasant experience, and allow Bex’s newly rested knees to cycle all the way as well. The total journey will likely be upwards of 20,000km, so the fact that Bex has been forced to miss a few hundred km’s in Germany will quickly pale into insignificance in a few weeks.

We’re now in Munich enjoying a few days at Oktoberfest and over the next few weeks we’ll be cycling down the Danube from Passau to Budapest, which promises to be excellent cycling. Arriving in Munich felt like a good milestone, but we’re both looking forward (especially Bex!) to the next stage of the journey, getting back on our bikes and visiting some countries for the first time.