Sometimes it seems that when cycling in South America that it is just a forward march through the relentless wind but after reaching Punta Arenas everything started to change. Punta Arenas is the last major city you go through before reaching Puerto Natales which is the gateway to the Torres Del Paine National Park and that means that mountains were on the horizon-literally. As you cycle towards Puerto Natales you can see huge monoliths rise up from the horizon and it gives you a real lift as you cycle towards them, giving you something to aim for and perhaps a bit of shelter from the wind. This was the start of the Patagonian ice field a solid mass of ice and glaciers stretching over 700km between Chile and Argentina and is the third largest glacier ice mass in the world. Something told me this was going to be fun!
I didn´t visit the Torres Del Paine National Park due to its huge entry cost and the fact that all the free campsites were fully booked, but it was great to cycle past the park and the mountains within it. From Torres Del Paine National Park you cross back into Argentina and there is another 250km of cycling to do before you reach the next town which is called El Calafate. El Calafete is famous due to it being the home of the huge Perito Moreno Glacier and although again entry to see the glacier is quite expensive this was something I was not going to miss. I remember showing pictures of this glacier to my collegues back at Flight Centre in Auckland to make them jealous of my upcoming trip and I can tell you the glacier is even more majestic in real life.
On the road to El Calafete I had the pleasure of being joined by two other cyclists; Monica from Poland and Hector from Spain. It was great to cycle with these two as we all cycled together in the sunshine and shared our travel stories over dinners and different campsites. We even all stayed in an Estancia (farm) together for the night with the owner letting us all sleep in his spare room which luckily for us had three beds. The owner of the estancia was called Marcelo and he was a real gentleman welcoming us in, and also cooking us a traditiomal Argentinal meal of roasted lamb for dinner. A real treat and an experice I wont forget.
Once all three of us reached El Calafete it was time to visit the glacier but with Monica already having visited it and me having to make some temporary bike repairs I decided to cycle there alone the next day. By cycling there I managed to avoid the $20 return bus journey but it did mean it would take me 2 full days rather than one so I waved goodbye to my new friends and set off to see the glacier. The ride there was brilliant with no wind and a great twisty turny road around the national park to the glacier. Once the glacier came into view…wow. I had never seen anything like it. It was beautiful with the sunlight reflecting off the mass of ice which stares back at you whilst making a cracking sound all the time before huge bits of ice collapse off the main glacier and come down crashing into the lake below. I swear bits of ice as large as houses were falling off since the glacier is still moving forward, a beit around 2cm per year. It was a really special place and is somewhere not to be missed.
From the glacier you cycle another 250 km this time with massive sides winds to the town of El Chalten, which is the famous town of the Fitzoy peak and Chalten National park. This park consists of a famous 2 day hike and after dropping my bags and bike off in the Casa De Cyclista in the town I ventured out to do the hike. The only downside is that since I do not have a backpack I had to carry two of my panniers at all times with me, consisting of food, stove, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and extra clothes. Everyone was staring at me as I plodded along but I was not to be denied the hike and as I ventured up to Mount Fitzroy it was a beautiful site with the clouds parting and the sun coming out just as I arrived to the main lookout.
The great thing with El Chalten is that since it is much smaller than Torres Del Paine it is free to enter and free to camp without reservations so I was able to enjoy myself and take my time as I hiked up to all the different viewpoints on this national park and spend the nights in comfort in the free campsites.
From El Chalten, my intention was to originally cycle back into the pampa and the wind and take a 250km detour to avoid taking two ferrys which cost a total of $80! But after talking to my sister she told me to stop being stupid and kindly paid for me to take the two ferrys so what loomed next is the famous border in the bush with a 40km cycle followed by a 40 minute boat ride followed by a 15km hike with bike until I was once again to leave Argentina dn head back into Chile. So thank you Linny for the donation and I will cover this most remote of border crossings in my next post.
Never before have I felt winds like this. The route from Tolhuin to the border with Chile was almost straight North and the winds blew almost straight South leaving me with little option but to battle headwinds all the way to the border. Cycling into a headwind is the most frustrating cycling since there is nothing you can do but fight on as the wind stops you from making any forward momentum. Patagonia is known for strong winds and I have not encountered any like this since I cycled through the Hami Hurricane in China! My average speed dropped to around 7-8km/hour and if I stopped pedalling I would stop still even when going downhill. Uphill was a push only! It was taking me almost 8 hours of cycling to reach 40-50km and all the time I was seeing South bound cyclists flying past me with a knowing smile and wave!
On my first night out of Tolhuin I decided to pitch my tent by the sea, thinking that the wind would die down in the evening as it used to in Australia. Little did I know that Patagonia winds do not stop at all and I couldn’t sleep as my tent flapped around all night! Lesson one. Put up your tent where there is shelter!
Pushing on through the wind I made steady if slow progress with the key being long hours in the saddle and any worries about me losing my fitness whilst I worked in New Zealand soon disappeared. It is amazing that the body can take six months of any real exercise and then when asked can jump straight back into long days of cycling, without really missing a beat. Luckily for me!
I was soon approaching the border of Argentina and Chile and about to cross into my second South American country when the wind stopped along with the paved road. This was my first experience of ripio (unpaved roads) and as I bounced along the corrogated road I had a massive smile on my face as with my hidden cheese I was about to cross into Chile :) Border crossing beer time….
Unfortunately there was nowhere to have a beer for the next 150km since the border town acts only as border with no shops or restaurants it meant I had to save my celebrations for the town of Punta Arenas which was 150km and 2 hour ferry ride away. Long distances between towns are very common in Patagonia and this region is even more remote than Australia since in Australia you had a camping spot or petrol station about every 100km. In Chile you must ensure you have enough food to keep you going for about five days as if the wind hits you will make very slow progress. Water however is not much of a problem with glacial streams crossing the roads along with large farms and police stations where you can get water.
The road to Punta Arenas went due West and just I awoke from my night in an abandoned barn the winds also moved due east meaning I was back pedalling into a headwind. I think something was trying to send me back to New Zealand. With my head down I decided to press on and cycle and push as much as I could. With being so far South the sun would not set until 9:30pm so I decided to use all of the daylight available to get me to civilization as quickly as possible. At the half way point of the road there is a small hut covered in graffiti and it was here where the wind was at its worst. I took shelter for a few hours whilst chatting to two French cyclists going south before deciding to jump into my bike and head back into the winds. This was the hardest of all the cycling. Ever. I had to often get off and push even when on the flat ground I must have been blown off the road about 15 times. I was knackered. But with no shelter being available in any direction but backwards I press on and as I'm pushing my bike over this big hill two police officers stop me and ask me what I'm up to! I tell them I'm going to the ferry port which is about 80km away and they laugh and tell me they will take me. It is too dangerous they tell me in Spanish and I tell them I am gringo loco-meaning crazy white man! (thank you Eddie Guerrero for my Spanish)
The police insist and soon my bike is straped to the back of their pick up and I am sat in the police car with two officers both called Marcus! Both Marcus's are sporting aviator sunglasses and neat haircuts and look like they have both come straight out of Hollywood. One of the Marcus’s even turns around mid journey to let me know he is a sex machine-his words!!!
As we arrive at the ferry port I wave both Marcus’s goodbye and they tell me that the ferry will leave tomorrow afternoon so I find a sheltered spot to sleep only to find the ferry port also acts as a fishing port so all the fisherman and their friends are up and working around 3am so I didn’t get any sleep but was glad to be enroute to the town where I could find a campsite and grab a beer :)
Arriving into Ushuaia was like reaching the end of the Earth. As the plane swept down to land carefully avoiding the mountain peaks around it, it was clear this was a land which was tough, cold and desolate. Ushuaia sits only 4000km away from Antartica, and is called the end of the world due to it being the most southern city on the planet. Ushuaia felt cold, everyone instantly putting on their expensive down jackets the moment they touched down. This is a land of adventure. This is Patagonia.
My first job upon arriving apart from locating my not so expensive down jacket was to assemble the bike, and to my horror my bike box arrived open and upside. My fears began to spread through my body, what has happened, are my pedals still in the box, or my saddle or my down jacket! Who would do this to me….Luckily it seems the box had just been opened by security since everything was there and thankfully all in good order. It took me maybe an hour to put the bike back together then with a massive smile on my face I pedaled into the mountains and into the town of Ushuaia.
In Ushuaia, I took two days to get everything in order and to prepare myself for the upcoming 25000km cycle! It was great to explore the city where I was able to bike & hike up to Glacier Martial which sits above Ushuaia and also cycle to and spend the night in the national park which also acts as the end point of the Pan-American highway, the famous road which connects the tip of Alaska to the tip of Argentina. After two days of exploration it was time to go, and cycle my first kilometer north and my first kilometer towards home. Mama I’m coming home!!
My first night was spent in a free campsite just 50km out of Ushuaia. Here I set my new tent up for the first time and it was just like starting out all over again since I did not know how to put the new fly sheet on. I remember having the same problem when Finola and I first arrived in France! Preparation is obviously over-rated! Here at the camp site I tried in vain to make a camp fire but due to all the wood around me being too wet I had to give up and will therefore have to gain back some macho points down the road somewhere.
The second day saw me climb over my first South America Pass called Paso Garibaldi, which made me laugh as I was on route to stay the night in the famous bakery in Tolhuin, the first town after Ushuaia. Tolhuin is famous in cycling circles due to the town’s bakery, which not only offers delicious cakes and biscuits but also also free accommodation, wifi and showers for passing cyclists of all kinds. There were 8 people staying there from all over the world and it was great to chat and share stories from our trips.
Out of the 8 people there I was the only one going North, meaning I set off alone the following day bound for the town of Rio Grande. The reason everything is heading
south as this area is famously windy with 40-60mph winds common place and they all blow from the north to the south meaning I had at least 1000km of headwinds to come. Time to claw back those macho points!
Unfortunatly after leaving Tolhuin I broke my Iphone once again. After having lunch I left my phone on top of my front pannier and the wind decided to pick it up and throw it screen first against a rock, so that is why there are not too pioctures to accompnaiy this first blog post. I have a new camera now and although not as good quality as the Iphone I will put lots of new photos up on the next blog.
Time for me to tackle the headwinds as I leave Argentina and head into Chile where the paved road ends and turns into 500km of gravel unpaved road (known as ripio). Wish me luck
It has been a massive 628 days and 25000km since I left England on that sunny bank holiday in May 2015. I remember waving goodbye to family and friends outside the Reading Bicycle Kitchen to begin a journey that many thought, including me at times, that I would not be able to finish. Well as I write this I am only 8 days away from packing the bike back up into a box and flying to Ushuaia, Argentina to begin the second half of the cycle home. I am excited and nervous once again, having been living what seems most like a normal life for the past six months in Auckland. I have been living in flat shares in the city, have had a steady job, have been out to birthday parties and dinners, I have done very little cycling aside from my little commute to work and as a result I can tell my fitness has decreased in correlation with my waistband increasing! It is time to get cycling again.
I have never been to South America before and am therefore super excited about setting off again. I speak no Spanish but am sure when given enough hard work and time I will learn. I have heard that it is dangerous and that the roads are full of banditos and drug dealers but I have heard these same warnings across the world so far and have not run into any trouble as yet. The food is going to be amazing and the scenery is going to be among the best I have ever seen. I have sketched a route below so you can see the rough outline of my plans.
My route will see me cycle from the very tip of Argentina to Reading, Pennsylvania completing the Reading to Reading adventure. My route will see my cycle along the rough ripio (unpaved road) of both Argentinean and Chilean Patagonia. I will cycle past glaciers and over mountains. I will camp under the stars and fish for my dinner. My plan is to cycle another 25000km through another 15 countries and to reach Reading in the summer of 2018. I will also be cycling this half on my own with Finola and I separating in New Zealand meaning that I am going to have to fend for myself and ensure I do not get into any trouble!
New Zealand has been the most expensive country I have visited this whole trip and it is only by living in temporary accommodation or room sharing that I have managed to save enough money to continue. The average cost of rent and living is higher in Auckland than London meaning any money I was making from work disappeared very quickly. This is why I have been living and working for six months and it also means I have not seen enough of New Zealand, I never even managed to get down to the South Island during my time here and my original idea of cycling around New Zealand has had to be cut short. It is however a beautiful country, with beaches and mountains and friendly people and it is a country I am going to come back to one day to explore more. Perhaps I will kayak around the beautiful coastline one day...never say never!
So on the first of February I will be back on the road, living day to day rather than week to week and I cannot wait. I have met so many great people here in New Zealand that it is hard to say goodbye, but it is not goodbye forever just until next time...
After leaving Tennant Creek my next main destination was to go and see Uluru. Back in 2011 Finola and I backpacked around the coast of Australia but we never made it to Uluru, When deciding on my route through Australia Uluru was therefore big on my not to miss list. I left Tennant Creek with my panniers full of food and my bike loaded with extra water as I planned on a six day ride to cover the 500km to the turnoff and then another 250km west to reach the big rock. Before reaching Uluru the first highlight was to spend the night at the Devil’s Marbles Campground. The Devils Marbles is a natural rock outcrop rising up out of the desert which due to erosion from the strong southwesterly winds the rocks have been shaped into huge marbles looking like they should just roll away. It was a beautiful cycle ride around the small national park and my arrival into the campsite was greeted by the standard hollers and cheers of a touring cyclist entering the arena of the camper van. It is always fun to cycle into these campsites since everyone is always so friendly and it is great to share stories about life on a bicycle with Australians who have their own version of freedom in their cars.
The Devil’s Marbles campsite is located right in the heart of the park so after setting up I was able to climb and jump up on and around the rocks having a great little time exploring before finding that perfect rock to relax and watch the sunset on. It was great to sit upon these rocks which have been here for thousands of years and reflect upon my tiny imprint in life, it makes you feel very small but very humble as you look out at the power of nature across the vast desert plain.
I awoke in the morning and said my goodbyes to my neighbours before cycling the 400km to the turnoff. The road to Uluru runs westward away from the main highway and my first port of call was to top up on water and fuel at the Kulgera roadhouse. The Kulgera road house is a great little stop to get supplies since it is surprising not too expensive and has wifi and even a happy hour for beer. Result.
The start of the road westwards was a dream since the wind was blowing my way. I was riding steadily at around 20-22km/hour and felt strong and excited as I was approaching Uluru. On my way whilst stopping off at a small roadhouse to collect water I was approached by the tour leader of a large group of tourists being guided by AAT Kings also en-route to Uluru. The tour leader had seen many cyclists but always from the window of her bus so wanted me to give a small talk to the tour group explaining all about the trip and telling a few stories from the road. I spent a good ten minutes giving a little talk, explaining where I had been, what I had seen and the kindness I had received. I really enjoyed this little talk and was happy to answer their questions afterwards. Everyone seemed to enjoy my talk, with even an aboriginal man telling me that I was a good storyteller, an honour coming from a man whose culture is based on story telling. The group then gave me a little bit of money and food to contribute towards my trip and bade me farewell as they drove off into the distance.
Once this trip is over and if given the opportunity I would love to give some more talks at schools and events, and this is something I would not have thought of if I had never met that lovely little group.
The following day I awoke early and climbed out of my sleeping bag into fresh morning air. I always woke up cold in the desert sections of central Australia since although the average daytime temperature is around 20-25 degrees due to the lack of cloud cover the morning temperatures average around 0-5 degrees! I had awoke early and had cycled around 2 hours when I bumped into another cyclist packing up along the road. His name was Matteo from Italy and he was also going to Uluru as part of his around Australia bicycle tour. We quickly decided to cycle together and it was a welcome break to cycle with someone else. The last time I cycled with someone was when I was with Finola back in Malaysia and I forget how good it was to have company. We cycled with the wind behind us, talking about our travels and our future plans. Matteo like me was a cyclist on a big tour and therefore a cyclist on a budget. This was good as we were well matched in our tight spending and free camping ways so it was fun to cycle together, without the pressure of the other person wanting to visit restaurants and hotels. It took us a further 1.5 days to reach Yulara, the touristy township of Uluru. We celebrated with matteo buying a 4 litre tub of ice cream and wolfing down the contents with another german cyclist we had met in the town. Uluru is a bottleneck for cyclists with people either arriving or leaving on the same road so it is in stark contrast with the rest of Australia that I met more cyclists along this road to or from Uluru than I did in the rest of Australia combined!
Uluru is actually made of two rock formations, not just the famous monolith but another called Kata Tjuta, which is located a further 50km away from the Uluru. This poses no challenge for the motoring tourist but since this national park has an enforced no camping policy, it becomes a huge day to cycle 100km and spend time visiting both rock sites. It was here Matteo and I decided we would just continue as we had been throughout Australia and push our bikes into area of thick bush when it gets dark and camp hidden behind the sprawling Aussie shrub-land. I would recommend this idea to anyone who also wants to visit Uluru by bike as it gives you time to explore without being rushed, avoids the $40 Yulara campsite fee and you are able to see the most amazing sunrise over the rocks as day comes to life.
It was great to visit both rock sites but I was more impressed by Uluru than Kata Tjuta, most likely due to its fame and how it seems to rise out of nowhere. I didn’t choose to climb the rock but there were plenty of people who did. My view being that if there needs to be a debate about offending anyone or not it is probably best not to climb. And after watching an especially large lady struggle with the steepness of the climb it was more fun to watch than to climb!
After leaving Uluru, it was time to return to my solitary ways with Matteo trying to get a lift back to Alice Springs and me heading back east and then south towards Coober Pedy and then Adelaide. Australia was coming to an end with only 1200km left before Adelaide, but at least I could now say goodbye to the flies and hello again to the mosquitoes!!
Australia, Australia! Australia was the largest and most remote country that I have yet to cycle through. My Australian route was to cycle south from Darwin to Melbourne, cycling mainly along the Stuart Highway but coming off the main road to visit Kakudu National Park and Uluru. I was the most nervous about cycling in Australia than I had been about any previous country. Australia is hot, deserted, barren, there are no shops or water stops for hundreds to kilometers. There are snakes, spiders crocodiles, road trains, grey nomads and that guy from wolf creek! I was also on my own, meaning my sanity was going to put under pressure as I travel south with nothing to see and no-one to talk to! My mp3 player was also stolen in Thailand so I had no music! Nervous, you bet I was.
I arrived in Darwin in the middle of April, thinking I would be adjusted to the heat having flown in from Singapore but I was surprised as even though Darwin was not as humid as Singapore, the dry and oppressive 36 degrees heat seem to suck out the moisture in my throat as I re-assembled and re-packed my bike. I want to quickly thank the lovely lady at Jetstar check-in in Singapore who did not charge me any extra even through my bike and baggage was 8kg over the allowed 40kg baggage limit. Asian hospitality extending its smile right to the end. I checked into a small hostel in Darwin city, and this gave me time to rest and stock up on supplies since I had a 400km ride to the main township of Kakudu before I would be able to buy food again. I purchased $40 of dry foods and snacks, hoping this would be enough and after loading the extra food and another 13 litres of water I was surprised at the weight. This must have added about 25kg to the total weight, making my cycling seem slow and cumbersome. My total weight upon leaving Darwin was around 73kg, the heaviest it has ever been!
Out of Darwin there is a beautiful cycle path leading down to the township of Humpty Doo. This extends for 40km and from there the main road to Kakudu begins. Ensure you have all your supplies before you leave Humpty Doo as after leaving here there is nothing until you reach Jabiru, Jabiru is the main township of Kakuku and another 350km away. I was smiling and singing to myself as I left Humpty Doo, with the large open road stretching out in front of me. I was in Australia, I was cycling the outback on my own and I was headed for one of the most beautiful national parks in Australia. But my word was it hot, very hot! I was drinking my water too quickly and found I had to sit out of the heat of day by relaxing in the shade from 12-3pm otherwise it was too much. On day two, I realized how under prepared I had been for cycling the long distances without seeing anything. In Asia there is always a small village or street vendor about every 10km but here there is nothing, just passing caravans and open road. I was starting to struggle mentally and physically especially since my water was running out. My map showed a rest stop where I could camp for free at the end of the day, and I stupidly guessed that I would be able to find water here. Upon arriving at the rest stop I had maybe just two liters left of the thirteen I began the day with and after finding that the rest stop was dry, I really started to worry. I had to save my water so I could not cook or wash that night, since the next place where there was water was another 60km away. 60km would take me around 4 hours cycling on my very heavy bike and there was no way 2 liters was going to last in this heat. I camped that night, with the intention to get up super early when the day is at its coolest and cycle in the cooler morning air, meaning I would not need as much water. I did not have any coffee or oats that morning but set off at 6am with the sun just starting to rise its head. I cycled east towards the mapped petrol station, with the knowledge I could get water there, and I sipped at my two liters to make it last the morning. I did not stop cycling or take any rest that morning and arrived at the petrol thirsty but with a big smile on my face at around 10:00am. I had made it and had learnt my first Australian lesson, never rely on unmanned water sources since you do not know what you are going to find and always fill up on water wherever you can. This is a desert after all!
Cycling in Kakudu was still a learning curve for Australian distance cycling as many of the best spots are located 20-30km away from the main route being it could take a full day to get there and back whilst cycling in the heat. These little turn-offs were also mostly closed due to it still being the very end of the wet season so most of the swimming holes were off limits which added to the dryness of the heat. It was wonderful however to get to camp in the little rest stops dotted throughout the park and meet other people as generally when cycling in Australia you meet no-one. Other tourists would generally share their dinners and beers with me as we chatted into the evenings, sharing stories travel and life on a bike. If cycling through Kakudu, it would be better to go in May or June when all the access roads are open and the weather is a little bit cooler.
After leaving Kakudu the first main town you come across was Katherine. Katherine is located on the junction of east-west and north south roads so is quite a large town with a cheap supermarket and internet connection. Katherine was a perfect place to rest whilst stocking up again, since the next supermarket is located in Tennent Creek, 700km south. Upon leaving Katherine, my bike must have been feeling the strain since my front rack snapped about 50km out of town meaning I had to use cable ties to ties it back together, a temporary solution until I could find a welder to put it back together. This solution was working fine, but only another 30km I heard another bang, this time from the rear wheel and stopped to see that my rear wheel had lost 2 spokes meaning the wheel was buckling around like a rodeo. I had used my last spare so had to improvise using string which I threaded through the hub, tied onto the rim and then tighten the rig up with another cable tie. My bike was falling apart under the weight but luckily I had enough tricks in the tool box to bodge it. I am always surprised of the resourcefulness I find when having to deal with a bicycle problem, I am no mechanic but can always find a solution to get myself back on the road. I rode off south slowly slightly scared of what might brake next and with 700km to the nearest town promised my bike a nice new rear wheel and a wash if it made it there! Rule number two of cycling Australia is to ensure you are carrying enough spares/tools to enable you to fix/bodge your bike if anything brakes.
It was a beautiful road to Tennant Creek. There was a petrol station or rest stop every 100km so I had enough places to pick up water and had some beautiful bush camping spots to stop off at every night. The isolation of the bush was magical at night, with me cooking and camping under the stars, listening to the sounds of the bush and giving me plenty of time to think and dream. I slept peacefully every night since there was very little traffic along the road and my body was getting stronger than ever before. Cycling 100km every day to reach the next water stop gives you a very good incentive to keep going during the day, and with no distractions you start to reach almost a Zen cycling state where I felt at ease cycling for 3 hours at a time without stopping, just watching the bush go by. I would occasionally meet other cyclists going North and we would stop and chat a while in the shade, talk about the upcoming roads and where to get water or where to camp. It was nice to stop and share stories, but I was always surprised at the distances some of the guys do daily. On more than one occasion people would tell me they would cycle 150-200km per day and complete a large amount of this at night. This always surprised me as I found prospect of cycling at night far too dangerous with road trains and animals in the road and also did not allow for enough bush camping for my tastes! I really loved Australian bush camping since the country is so big and isolated it makes it so easy to take your time and pick the best spot for the night.
Upon arriving at Tennant Creek the rain started and I had to dig out my waterproofs before I got soaked. The weather had suddenly turned and I found myself needing my fly sheet on and my sleeping bag out every night from here on. Tennant Creek is a small town with a BP Garage with a wifi connection, a supermarket and a few pubs dotted around. Unfortunately there is no bicycle shop in town so I had to make my string wheel and cable tied rack last another 500km to Alice Springs. I decided to have rest day in Tennant Creek to avoid the rain and to rest my legs which had cycled 700km in six days. It was on this rest day that I bumped into a Dutch cyclist called Henri Manders. Henri was carrying just a backpack and a super light race bike and he was traveling north to Darwin after having worked at the mountain bike world cup. We agreed to meet later in the day for dinner one of the local pubs and it was over dinner Henri told me how he used to cycle professionally. It was only after a few further questions that I found out Henri raced in the 1985 Tour De France and even won a stage at the worlds biggest bike race. I was having dinner with a cycling legend. It was great to share stories with Henri about how his cycling and mine differed and what it was like to cycle in the Tour De France. It is amazing who you meet on the road, and even in Australia when people are few and far between it always good to remember that everyone has an interesting story and that it is important to stop and talk as it is to cycle.
Tennant Creek marked 20,000km and the half way point around the world. I celebrated this with a massive smile and lots of expensive Australian beer! It was great to celebrate a little in the desert and fell asleep that night in my tent thinking how much of an achievement this was and how much more there was to cycle ahead.
Rules for cycling Australia.
It has seemed to be far too long since I have been able to update everyone on the blog but I want to give everyone a quick recap of our happenings over the last 2 months. Since leaving Laos we cycled south east through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. It was a dream cycling through SE Asia and we spent far too much money on cheap meals, beers and small hotels. It seems that the cheaper the country the more we spend since when a hotel is $5 and a meal just $1 you cannot really object to spending the cash!! Asia is so beautiful and it was amazing cycling through small villages and alongside beachside resorts and I really would recommend it to anyone wanting a fun cycle tour with great food and lots to see.
As I write this I am currently cycling through Australia alone. Fin has had to fly home from Kuala Lumpar, leaving me to cycle across the outback! It has given her a great opportunity to see her friends and family so she missed them terribly and meant she didn't have to endure endless Australian desert! Sometimes it hard to be away from friends and family for so long and keeping in contact does not replace actually being home. Fin will join me in New Zealand at the beginning of July, and we will carry on being nomads together then :)
Australia has been a new challenge, gone are the iced coffees and cheap meals of SE Asia. Australia is the most expensive country I have cycled through since we left Western Europe over a year ago, and along with distances over 100km between stops (petrol stations!) meant you had to cycle with a attitude, stocking up with everything and averaging about 100km per day to ensure water & supplies last the distance. I have enjoyed Australia and there are times I have enjoyed cycling on my own but it is defiantly better to cycle with someone else-I am surprised I still have my marbles since I do not even own an iPod anymore!
I am currently in Port Augusta, 3800 km into Australia from Darwin which is where I started and I will write a full Australia blog once I am able to. Fin flew home with the tablet computer and it has been very difficult writing on the phone hence the reason this is just an update! My aim now is to head south still towards Adelaide which just 300km from before headed east again to Melbourne and then Sydney where I will fly to New Zealand at the end of June. Lots of exciting things are planned for New Zealand including an overhaul of this blog so watch this space for upcoming notices!
Tim and Fin
It took us three months to cycle across China and Vietnam, and we forgot what it was like to cycle without the constant beep beep beep of traffic going past. In Vietnam especially, the drivers seem to prefer the horn to the brake , ensuring they whizz past you at 100mph whilst blowing their air horn right into your ear. Not fun. Cycling through Laos and Cambodia was the complete opposite and it was beautiful to be able to hear the birds again and camp without the sound of the expressway in the distance. We entered Laos with high expectations that it would be the cheapest of the SE Asia countries due to reading too many blogs dated around 2011. In fact Laos is now the most expensive SE Asian country we visited (expect Singapore) and this is mainly due to the fact that Laos imports everything from Thailand or Vietnam so expect to pay more for accommodation, food and beer. This of course is relative compared to western pricing but it is something we were not prepared for especially when we are trying to stick to such a small budget.
Whilst we are on the subject of beer, the local beer is called Beer Lao and is the best of the region. Beer Lao is made using jasmine rice alongside hops and yeast. A Beer Lao will cost you about 15000kip (£1.20) for 600ml and is really really tasty! 99% of all beer sold in Laos is beer Lao so it must be good! We had our first beer Lao in first main town you reach after coming over the border, a little two street town called Lak Sao. Lak Sao is about 30km downhill from the border and features a small market, alongside a small number of hotels and restaurants. We spent the night in Lak Sao before heading off the following day to cycle the Thathek loop, a circular road around through and around the national park, with beautiful scenery and some very dodgy roads!
The road goes south from Lak Sao to Thalong before Nakay and then Grommalat and is very peaceful with very few cars and only a few hills before reaching the plateau. We met many cyclists on this road including a group of French and Belgian cyclists aged between 45-70 who were aiming for 100-120km per day and with temperatures reaching 30 degrees I do hope they all made it!! The start of the loop was under construction and this along with lots of recent rainfall created some very bad roads for the first 30km. It was like cycling through a bog, with me having to stop continuously to clean the mud out from under my mudguard with a combination of a kitchen knife and a trusty stick! After this first 30km, the roadworks had been completed so we completed the loop on smooth tarmac, and was my favourite part of cycling in Laos. Beautiful.
From Grommalet, we cycled west to the river town of Thatkek where you can sit by the Mekong river with a cold beer and look over at Thailand. It was a great place to reflect from, Finola had never been to Thailand but had always wanted to go since her dad and step-mum went there for their honeymoon. We were so close and we had actually cycled there! It felt really good. From Thatkek we followed the river south for two days before reaching the town of Savannahket. Savannahket was a large town, dominated by fading colonial style french buildings which are found alongside a bustling riverfront marketplace. En-route to Savannahket, we bumped into a female cyclist from Australia, who lived in Savannahket who was her way to a meeting in another town. We swapped contact details and the following day we were treated to a lovely green curry lunch in a local cafe by Helen. As a keen cyclist Helen had done lots of tours including the nullabor straight in Australia, so we keenly picked her brains for advice for our own Australia desert crossing, Darwin to Adelaide. Helen also runs a charity assisting girls in Laos and helps keep them safe from trafficking. Check our her website http://lotuseducationalfund.com
The road south from Savannahket was best remembered by our lunch safari. We decided to break for lunch and lunch usually involved a two hour rest stop since the sun was beating down on us. We stopped by this large water hole and cooked our noodles before lazily lying down and waiting out the heat. We then saw all the local animals joining us by the water hole, we were watching great oxen bath alongside goats, pigs, ducks and geese all trying to beat the midday sun! It was so funny to watch they roll around in the mud we thought we might join them!! As 2pm rolled past all the animals went back to work so we thought we should do the same and hopped back on our bikes towards Pakse.
Pakse was busy tourist town with since it is a large backpacker bus hub. The first two hostels we tried were full but we found a nice one at the third time of asking. We spent our time in Pakse chilling out as I was starting to feel unwell and didn't want to get worse so spent two days relaxing and not doing too much. We did climb up to the golden budda for sunset and it was a beautiful view over the town. If wanting to visit the golden budda you can walk through the jungle rather then the steep steps which is much more fun, just turn right after the long bridge and take small stairs there, you then have a 2km jungle trek with a great lookout rather than a very steep stairwell. Finola took some great photos of the Budda below.
From Pakse you have an 150km cycle south to the town of Ban Nakasang and it is here you can get a ferry to the island of Don Det. Don Det is known as the chill out island, and is therefore very popular. The island is famous for beautiful sunsets and chilling out so we hopped on board the boat (20,000kip inc bikes pp) and sailed the easy 15 minutes to the island. We rented an small double bungalow here which consisted of a bed, fan, mosquito night and importantly a hammock overlooking the river. Our aim was to relax and that it what we did, it was great to get off the bikes for 4 days and put our feet up, drink some good beer and go for short walks. We went looking at waterfalls and eat beautiful home cooked banana samosas. It was a beautiful place and there was not the sound of a car horn anywhere. Laos makes a beautiful change of pace and scenery from China and Vietnam and although only spent three weeks here we loved it, and will one day go back and explore the north.
If you wanted to fly out somewhere and enjoy two-four weeks cycling around you cannot do much better than in Laos.
Tim and Fin
When in Hanoi you just have to try the all the delicious street food available. Vietnamese street food is available on every street corner, smelling and sounding so fresh that it is often too good to resist. Once you have picked your favourite stall you are seated on a small plastic stool around a small table, often shared with other diners. The food is always cooked fresh and served fast, and you will usually find condiments on the table to include, fish sauce, dried chills, picked garlic, vinegar, lime and a chilli sauce. This is to ensure you can make your dish exactly how you want it and how spicy it is! I would also recommend that each meal is washed down by either a Bia Hanoi or a Bia Hoi. Bia Hanoi is the local lager and is very good and comes by the bottle whilst Bia Hoi is drawn straight out of the barrel and is much cheaper. I have included the cost of each dish so you can see how affordable it is to eat out whilst in Hanoi. We didn't use the stove once!
This is a short guide to our best five dishes in Hanoi.
If asked which region we were looking forward to most then the answer would have to be South-East Asia. Beautiful weather, amazing beaches and cheap prices combined with a laid back atmosphere make for the perfect destination for a couple of cycle tourists. After combating the mountains of Kyrgyzstan in winter followed by the cultural difficulty of China it was with wide smiles as we crossed into Vietnam. We had purchased a thirty day visa in Kunming ($65, three day wait) to ensure we would not be rushed as our plan was to head to Hanoi, followed by a short cycle to Ha Long Bay before getting a boat over to Cat Ba Island for an enforced beach break. We would then head south aiming to cross over into Laos at the border close to Vientiane. Our first view of Vietnam was the border town of Loa Cai, where we decided to get a cheap hotel and look around. Lao Cai, is similar to most other border towns in the sense that it does not reflect the true nature of the country but we had a nice time walking down the busy streets after dark and celebrating our arrived with a beer Hanoi and a bahn mi sandwich. We also were beginning to discover just how cheap Vietnam would be, since this dinner of two beers and three sandwiches between us cost just £2.50. Bargain. Vietnam is the cheapest of all the South East Asian countries we visited and also takes over from Georgia from having the cheapest beer found on this trip so far. Local food is available everywhere and costs between 50-80p per dish and the range available is simply stunning especially after the same same noodles of China. My favourite is the bahn mi sandwich, freshly baked french bread combined with BBQ pork and homemade pate alongside picked carrot, cucumber, coriander and spicy sauce. Super Yummy!
After leaving Lao Cai, we departed towards Hanoi with about 250km to cover we aimed for 4-5 days since we did not want to have to rush during this cycle and with cheap beer, cheap food and sunny days there was no reason to. We cycled past village after village with each village directly adjoining the previous one. We had no idea how populous Vietnam was, and with a population of 90 million it was perhaps the busiest country we had been to after China! The cycling was fun as we rode between these villages, always someone to shout hello to and somewhere to stop for a rest or a sandwich! The downside to being so populous was that it made camping very difficult since there was nowhere quiet or free in which to camp. We often had to camp alongside the busy road and struggled to get to sleep as the trucks and cars passed by all night. The upside to this is that since Vietnam is so cheap we often found we could stay the night in a cheap guesthouse for between three or four pounds per night, meaning we could leave the tent in the bag every other night!
On our way to Hanoi we past many shops selling all sorts of soups. Pho or Bun is the Vietnamese word for noodle soup and this is combined with the select meat. Bo is beef, Ga is chicken, Ca is fish and Cho is dog! We had no wifi before we reached Hanoi so we were unsure what meat we were eating as we walked this tightrope of cultural difference. Dog is eaten everywhere in northern Vietnam and is found is most local restaurants, but this is something we wanted to avoid. On arrival into one noodle soup shop we ordered our Pho something and sat down to have a beer and wait for our food. Fin then had to go use the toilet out back and found to her surprise the chef cutting up a dog on the back patio! Once told I had to have a look and prepared myself before finding three dogs heads in a metal bowl beside the toilets. With horror I returned and we tried to gesture wildly to the lady that we really really wanted chicken but she just kept saying she did not understand. Had we just ordered dog soup? We finished our beers and our chicken looking soup arrived but we were too unsure as to what we had ordered that we could not eat any of the meat and only really picked at the noodles out of courtesy. We left feeling quite unwell but only out of cultural difference since whatever the meat was it was definitely cooked through. We decided to only eat vegetarian food until we got to Hanoi and could download a dictionary to help us out. In reflection I don't think it was dog that we were served and if we did not see the preparation out back we would have eaten our meal without worry. It is a different country, and they eat different food and we would often past restaurants advertising dog, cat or even snake. I am sure they all taste like chicken but it was a step too far for us!!
Once we reached Hanoi, we could not believe how busy it was, motorbikes and people were everywhere and turning left or right at a junction was a game of death! Once inside the old town we found a cheap hotel and booked ourselves in for three nights. We took time to explore this lively city and often found ourselves at the mercy of delicious street food. Finola found a guide online to all the best street food restaurants and we followed this perfectly eating Bun Cha, Bahn Mi, Bahn Cuon all for the average price of 60-80p per dish! I will post again shortly with a guide to the best of Vietnamese street food! We had so much fun in Hanoi we didn't want to leave, but the next destination was calling and that was the beach!
We had promised ourselves a real beach break on Cat Ba Island, where we would down tools and become real tourists as opposed to cycle tourists, walking around rather than cycling with the world on our racks! On leaving Hanoi the weather gods conspired against us, whilst Hanoi was a calm and lovely 20-25 degrees upon leaving we found the temperature drop to about 15 degrees combined with headwinds and light rain-typical British beach weather but not for South East Asia! Cat Ba Island ferry port was 120km cycle away and then a short one hour ferry to the island. We purchased the cheaper ferry ticket which is mostly used by locals since it drops you off about 25km away from the main Cat Ba town. With it getting dark we stopped at a local cafe for a few beers rather than cycling on, and decided to camp and cycle the remainder in the morning. It was beautiful scenery with dense forest covered limestone karsts rising up from the sea and small winding roads giving you insights into village life on the island.
Once you arrive into the main town it does get very touristy as expected for any beach destination but since this was off season it was very quiet. We were approached by a nice man on our arrival who promised us a room with sea views for £4 per night, we were hesitant but he showed us up to the 9th floor of his hotel and as promised we were greeted with sea views overlooking the harbour. We took five nights straight away. Unfortunately we were met with the same gloomy weather throughout our beach break, often we would have to go out in our winter clothing to battle the weather but we did manage to find a restaurant serving the cheapest beer found in the world so far. 30p for a 500ml bottle of Tiger! That's 7.5p cheaper than Georgia! We were sold and although it was windy and the sitting on the beach was out. Sitting in drinking cheap beer was definitely in! We enjoyed our short tourist break and it is important to spend time off the bike to relax and reminisce about the trip so far. It didn't matter than we could not swim in the sea we had a fun little time, even rented a motorbike and whizzed around the island and national park areas which was great fun and made such a change from pedalling. On the day we left the island the sun came out!
Our exploration of Northern Vietnam was coming to end, and we were now headed south towards the border with Laos. It was a pretty uneventful five days cycle to the border, with the highlight being an afternoon off in the town Nimh Binh which has a really nice lake which is worth going to see if you are in the area. Camping was again quite difficult due to the volume of people and traffic but we often found a small patch of land in between rice paddys and banana plantations. The rain continued unabated and reached its crescendo going over the 700m pass between Vietnam and Laos, the temperature dropped to about 8 degrees and we were both wet and freezing. Finola was very sick that day and had to stop every twenty minutes or so to go to the toilet behind a small bush! She was a battler though since she made it up to the top of the pass without a fuss and into Laos. I was very proud of her. We paid our money for our visa on arrival and reached Loas without a problem, but my brakes were not working, both our hands were beyond cold due to lack of gloves at this stage and with Finola still feeling sick we took a taxi downhill to the nearest guesthouse and both feel asleep exhausted. Vietnam was wonderful although a surprise cold snap made it harder work than it should have been but Loas was meant to be warmer and we were headed south so everything was looking up for us!
Tim and Fin
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.