I have recently begun feeling that cycle touring fits me very well. Despite of an initial dose of suffering I started to tolerate not only the heat but also the wind and the ascents. Riding has become more of a joy than pain and I began looking forward to each day of cycling. I even thought that I am getting pretty good at it. Only until I met a fellow cyclist from Latvia, that is. We were cycling along each other for good 30 kms until the head wind picked up, I slowed down, and he carried on, leaving me behind as if I were cycling on a kiddie bike. My legs definitely got stronger over the last 3 weeks but there is still a big room for improvement. To my excuse, he has been a keen cyclist for the last 8 years. I am not sure I am as keen as him but I now feel I can definitely carry on cycling at my own pace until the end of my trip. I am not so far away from Bolivia now, probably just one more solid week of cycling. However, the stretch of the road ahead of me is not going to be easy. I am about to cycle across the highest motorable pass in Argentina called Abra del Acay. It’s over 4,900 metres high and, coming from the south, starts at around 3,200 metres with a 25 kilometre ascent of a mean gradient of 7%. It’s steep, unpaved and offers no time for acclimatisation. I have never been that high up on foot, not to mention climbing up there with a heavily loaded bicycle. It is going to be a challenge but I am willing to have a try. What could possibly go wrong? ;) I am now staying at a really nice free camp-site in a town of Santa Maria. It’s not just free and with electrical connections like the one in Jachal, which I enjoyed pretty much, but it has a hot shower too. My first warm shower, or actually… any shower, since I left Santiago. I arrived here last night but I might stay here one more day to feed on humitos, local pastries, milanesas (a kind of a schnitzel sandwich with fried egg and salad), and mandatory ice creams. Perhaps also read one of the books I brought over here with me. Climbing Abra del Acay calls for more weight shedding efforts.
Myself and the aforementioned rather speedy Latvian cyclist happened to bump into one another one more time at the campsite last night. This opportunity called for an exchange of experiences so far on Argentina and the whereabouts. This is the second time I am visiting Argentina, first time being around 6 years ago when I rode a motorbike from Montevideo, Uruguay to Tierra del Fuego. I had all but nice experiences back then, even though I happened to smash my bike, myself and my poor bleeding kidney, which landed me in a hospital. The local hospital staff not only helped me to fix my bike but also mended me with asado and yerba mate. This time has been no different. The people are very friendly and inviting. I especially like riding on the weekends because people picnicking on the side of the road pull me over and feed me with food and drinks. I once stopped in a little village just to get some water and the local older couple gave me a bag of figs which was so big it hardly fitted into my backpack. My friend has had a completely different experience. He told me that people treat him here as if he was a homeless person and look at him rather suspiciously- shopping assistants follow him around the shop, etc.. I contemplated on this and recall one event when I was sat at a petrol station and I was suggested there was wifi elsewhere. However, it was an isolated event. I wonder if homeless people around here carry their stuff on bicycles or if it’s the lycra that bedazzles people. Ever since I swapped my dodgy 1 Euro beach shorts for pricey Patagonia trousers and started looking cooler I only get friendly waves :) In all the seriousness though, I believe that many of our experiences during travels depend on our attitude and our own efforts to understand the local customs and culture. Since I came here I have not spoken a word of English with a local Argentinian – just twisted English words to sound more ‘Castilliano’ in an effort that they understand me. I think people like that I am making an effort to speak Spanish. A few broken sentences in a local language can get you far. Luckily, Spanish is quite an easy language. I wish I could say this about French. I’d trade Spanish for French. I could then find out what they accused me of in Congo, back in the old days when I got imprisoned :)
The only negative thing I can say about Argentina is high prices and unavailability of many products. The infrastructure here is very outdated, the shops, even the supermarkets, have very limited stock. I have not been able to buy a gas canister since I came here. I ran out of cooking gas today and so I had to improvise an alcohol stove out of two cans of beer. It worked in Africa, it should work here too. However, in a country such as Argentina finding a camping gas canister should not have been a problem. Another thing is withdrawing money from cash machines. Not only that many of them don’t work with foreign cards, the maximum amount to withdraw is 2,000 Argentinian Pesos (equivalent of 100 Pounds) for which the cash machine operator charges you 95 Pesos (around 5 Pounds) on top of other bank charges. The towns here are far apart and everything is closed in the middle of the day – just when you need a cold drink or a snack. And even when they’re fully functioning, there is not much there to do. However, when you get to know the customs and try doing what the locals do, it’s not so bad here either. If you know where to get local products, what to buy in ‘carniceria’ (meat shop) or ‘panaderia’ (bakery), when you know where to find humitos or empanadas or tortillas, life gets much easier. However, I am also quite happy that I am slowly getting closer to Bolivia. What I have been missing here is street food. I hope that in a poorer country such as Bolivia it will be more accessible. What is a better way to get to know a country than food and drinks and music?
Just when I thought that cycle touring might not be my thing I suddenly got a bit better at it. Perhaps it’s the rest I took in Jachal or the fact that after finishing my research paper I stopped rushing to and in between places. My dear friend Pei, who just finished her first cycling trip in Taiwan, advised me to take it easy, take a good care of myself and stop pushing hard all the time. And so I did. I cycle slower but more steadily and the pace seems to be better. Yesterday I did 100kms across the mountains in about 2/3 of the day. Today I am taking a mandatory rest in Chilicito as I had to get the money out and buy a few things, including spokes and pedals for my bicycle. It’s all done but I am still waiting for siesta to finish to look for a gas canister for my stove. I have recently been cooking lots of improvised pasta dishes and steaks to keep me going. I got used to the life on the road again. It takes time to get everything in order and get into the ‘groove’ of it. Initially, it always seems hard but eventually all falls in place and you begin to enjoy the life on the move, despite of its discomforts. Although, I must admit, I began to look like a tramp with my dirty long sleeve and the cheapest Hawaiian shorts I managed to find once in Tarifa worn on top of thermal underwear which I have to be wearing now to protect my burnt left thigh.. Having said so, I have accidentally come across a new invention – salt impregnated wear. After three days of sweating in the sun all you wear stops smelling. It’s pale and stained and slightly stiff (a bit like an old sock) but it doesn’t smell. I urge you to try, all you myth debunkers :)
The last, and the first at the same time, week of cycling was very difficult, tiring and eye-opening. I feel like a rookie here, because long distance cycling is an entirely different ball game to motorcycle touring. It is slow, physically tiring and your success depends on many more factors. On a motorbike you just think of fuel in your tank and oil in your engine. There are very few places in the world where you won’t be able to reach another town in a day. Now I need to think about taking enough water with me, enough food, and paying attention that I eat regularly. Otherwise the energy may just run out and cycling will no longer be fun. Northern Argentina is a difficult terrain to start a bicycle journey. It’s hot, dry, mountainous and windy, with small villages far apart and nothing in between.
On the first day of cycling between Santiago and Los Andes I was battling with the heat but being in an urbanised area I had access to water and cold drinks :) On the second day I had to climb up the 3,200 m.a.s.l. mountain pass over to Argentina. It was a long and a very tiring day with very slow progress. At points I was glad that my mountain-bike was having such low gearing because I had to use the lowest gears available. At one point, during my many rests, motorcyclists whizzed past me speeding up the 32 steep curves which I dreaded. I thought to myself: “You are just thinking of the bends, I am thinking of the gradient, how far up they’re going and if the wind is not in my face”. Despite of cycling all day I barely did 60 kms. At the end I was so tired I could hardly walk. It began to drizzle and I decided to call it a day and camp on, what I thought was an empty military camp. As I was about to find the best spot for my tent I heard a whistle, looked back, and saw a young soldier waving at me to come inside the building. The entire complex was guarded by two young soldiers – one volunteer and one young professional officer. I explained to them where I was going and what I was doing in my broken Spanish and luckily for me, they invited me over, offered me a warm bed, food and drinks. We ended staying till late trying to chat in Spanish with the help of Google Translator about world affairs, sport, food, girls and music. Next day, I woke up early and headed off to the border which was still about 20 kms up the mountain. It took some time to reach Argentina but I was motivated by the fact that as soon as I cross the tunnel onto the other side it will all going to be downhill. And it was. 4 hours later I was in the first Argentinian town on the way, called Uspallata, where I treated myself to good meal and a big bottle of cold beer. I also met an interesting Swiss couple who went on a two week cycling holiday on a tandem bike. The guy was a retired structural engineer, studied for his PhD in Berkeley and specialised in vibrations. He even worked on the unfortunate case of the swaying ‘Millenium Bridge’ in London which was designed by Arup in such a way that its natural frequency was equal to the frequency with which people walk. We had an interesting discussion about frequency domain, Bode diagrams, resonance and cycling. You can meet interesting people in very random places.
From Uspallata I took a small road 149 which turned into a very washboarded gravel road and which was going through very windy parts of Argentina. I later found out that a nearby town of San Juan is a kite surfing spot. Never choose roads that go near places known for wind sports :) A few days later I arrived in a place called Jachal which is situated on the famous Route 40 100 kms from San Juan. When I arrived here I was absolutely tired and in need for a rest. As I got to the town centre I spotted a long distance cyclist who, as I later found out, was on a trip from Alaska to Ushuaia and headed south. Nick was an Englishman living in Sydney and a seasoned cyclist by now. He travelled light, which made me look like a BMW GS1200 rider compared to him. Tips were recorded and points taken. I shall made corrections if I decide to do more long distance riding at some point. It’s just a reconnaissance trip anyway. My bicycle is bloody heavy though. I might need to call Lans for some doping ideas ;) The town of Jachal turned out to be a rather friendly and accommodating town with free public wifi, free access to electricity at the town square and at the municipal camp-site which, have a guess, is free too. I ended up spending 4 entire days here, charging my batteries – literally and figuratively speaking, and finishing my long overdue journal paper. The job is done. The first draft is ready and sent over to Leicester, and as the shared drive is being sluggishly synchronised, I am finishing this blog entry and getting ready to get back to the campsite for my last night in here. I am ready for another week of cycling now and I’m happy knowing that from now on my evenings will be spent not on writing the manuscript but on watching the collection of movies I took with me on this journey. The day is drawing to a close. The wind is picking up. It seems like another rainy night tonight. Why is the internet so slow again?
Gravel roads in Northern Agentina
Self made, microelement drink
I am skinny, innit?
Some dirty water
More dirty water
Praying to gods for inventing tarmac
Evening time cooking
Los-Andes – Mendoza road, Argentinean side
Bridge and fallen truck
Something about the Incas
Mi beloved Trek :)
Right after crossing the border, East of Las Cuarvas
Queue at the border – Argentinean side
Chilean side, near the border
Views during the 1day long ascent
On the stretch before a steep ascent
On the first day of mountain cycling
This kind Argentinian is 73 years old and cycling the Andes!!!
Beginning of a mountain climb
My new office – free wifi, free electrical connection, free municipal camping – Jachal
After taking a well deserved rest in Puerto Varas, Marek and me came back to La Junta for the last week of long awaited climbing. Equipped with 7 day worth of carefully selected food supplies having absolutely zero intersection with the menu we had on Capicua we hiked back to the campsite. Stronger, recuperated and on higher calorie diet full of nuts, chocolate and pasta we set out to climb some classic lines around the area of Anfiteatro and Trinidad mountains. We had good intentions and motivation but unfortunately Chilean mountains had a different plan for us. Instead of climbing we had to endure more hiking, illness and getting lost on the mountain. In the end, we were still newbies in there, we had to learn our lesson. It happened as follows.
On the first day we set out to reach Anfiteatro. As we were hiking up we came across a hiking running down the trail towards the campsite. ‘Are you climbers?’, he asked. ‘Yes, we are’. ‘There’s a climber on Trinidad with a broken femur, are you walking there?’. ‘We are walking to Anfiteatro’. ‘No worries then, I’m going to get some help in La Junta anyway’ he said and continued running down as fast as he could. Me and Marek looked at each other. ‘We should go up there’. We got to a junction of two routes, left our backpacks and walked to Anfiteatro in a rather fast pace. We didn’t know where the climber was, if he was alone or with friends, if he was still on the rock or at the base. It all went too fast to ask the right questions. We just took some water, our helmets and what Marek thought was painkillers but what turned out to be just anti-inflamatory medications and we came to Trinidad to see how we can help. There, we saw two American climbers trying to help the injured Chilean climber who, we later found out, was called Nico, walk down the slabby start of the route. We asked if they needed help and without waiting for an answer we walked up the slab to swap with them. Nico was bleeding, blood dripping down his leg. It was a compound fracture. We took Nico down and laid him on the ground. Then Marek proceeded with first aid while I just cut his trousers and cut off his shoe with my Leatherman multitool that I always carry around with me. It turned out that Nico broke his foot and the ankle, not his femur. A big relief. Nico was in pain and the only thing we could give him (or his friend could give him, actually) was some marijuana. We took off his shoe and Marek dressed his wound. Soon more people started arriving to the spot, local American climbers with a stretcher, a Chilean doctor, Canadians, an Italian, couple of Spaniards. After an hour most of the climbers staying in La Junta were there. The local people started calling for medical evac. The helicopter wouldn’t get there so the only way forward was to take him down the trail to La Junta. 30 people strong we started taking Nico down. By that time he was bit stoned after taking Marek’s Tramal which one of the guys brought from the campsite. At the beginning we didn’t know it would take us around 6 hours to get him down. It was a big endeavour and a nice thing to see people come together to help a fellow climber. We got down to La Junta, rested and got back to take our backpacks and set off to Anfiteatro. We were so wasted we got there after dark after long breaks and very slow paced hike. Me and Marek looked at one another: ‘F***ng climbing holiday…’.
Next morning we woke up late and the only route we could do was a short 4-pitch entry level route called ‘Sweet and Bitter Fruit’. It took us quite some time since I’m a newbie trad climber but with every climb I was getting better. On the next day we decided to get ambitious and climb a 12 pitch Al Centro y Adentro. It was such an amazing climb with cracks, offwidths, dihedrals, face climbing. I lead 3 out of 4 pitches as we bailed out of the route when we couldn’t see any protection and run out bolts on the crux pitch. Later we found out that it was well protected but at that time we were still learning to climb in Cochamo. Big wall climbing on Capicua was a different ball game and it didn’t allow us to learn the local rock. The route still got us tired. It was the first time I climbed offwidths and such long crack lines. We woke up quite late and instead of trying another long classic line we decided to do a shorter easier one. Marek sourced a hand drawn topo and we set off on the approach, but the path looked a bit dubious. Before we even started climbing the route we had to make a belay and climb quite an easy but bit ballsy to free-solo slab. The climb got us to some line with a visible anchor 15 metres off the ground. ‘You have all the gear, do you want to lead this short line?’ asked Marek. ‘sure’ I replied and started arranging my gear and putting the shoes on. We thought we were in the middle of the first 60 metre pitch of the route. We were looking for a double-bolted anchor point. The route started easy but the anchor point was not bolted. ‘It’s not the anchor point, you need to climb higher’. And so I were up to the next improvised anchor point, past it and into another improvised anchor point. By that time we ran out of our 60metre rope so we used the last anchor point for a belay station. Marek joined me and started leading another pitch which ended up to be quite short. Then we ran out of options. We were in the wrong place. Marek went on a recon mission to find the line but with no success, so we ended up traversing down the wall looking for bolted belays that we could use for abseiling. We ended up walking across almost half of Anfiteatro and it was getting late. Fortunately we found some bit dodgy belays which we used for abseiling. We got down before it got dark. We got lost on the wall with only half a day left for climbing… Cochamo is a great place for climbing but you need to learn how to go climb there first. On the last climbing day we climbed another shorter 4 pitch route and walked down to La Junta. The climbing trip got to an end.
On the last day we had to walk down the trail to Cochamo with all our climbing gear. Tom and Guy took Tom’s equipment and we took ours plus all the rubbish. Their bags looked heavy and despite of the fact that we left the campsite one our after them we caught up with them quite quickly. ‘Do you want to swap bags Tom?’ – both me and Marek asked a few times but Tom said he would manage. We walked down the trail in a normal pace but we could see that our time safety marging was getting dangrously low. We had to take the 4pm bus if Guy and Marek were going to safely make it to their 8.30pm coach from Puerto Montt to Santiago. We stopped for a hot dog and chips and began to wait for the other two guys. In the meantime we met our Scottish friends – Andy, Phil and Robbie. ‘How far are Tom and Guy?’, I asked. ‘They’re very far and they look nackered’, ‘Yeah, they look f***d, mate. When we saw them they were just taking rests and not going anywhere’. It was already past 4pm by that time so me and Marek left our luggage and ran up the trail. We met the guys probably near 1/3 of the way, i.e. 3.5/4.0 kms. ‘Tom, you look like you need some help, give me your bag’. I took his bag, Marek joined us and we repacked, we shared the load and walked down the trail rather fast. We were running very late. We wouldn’t make it to the bus if a local parking guy didn’t give us a lift and the bus wasn’t late. We saw the bus down the road. ‘Awesome’. We ran out of the truck, put our bags inside the luggage compartment and sat down relieved. In the meantime, Marek went to a shop and bought us cold beer, almost… It was a 0% shandy but we didn’t complain. It was cold and citrusy… We were on the bus heading towards Puerto Montt. Time was getting short but there was a chance we would make it to the bus, if the bus wasn’t going at a snail’s pace. What should take 2/2.5 hours took us 4 hours. We were very late… We arrived at the bus station and while we were unpacking and repacking our luggage, Tom ran out to the ticket offices to look for later buses to Santiago. He found two seats on a 10pm bus. Marek and Guy onto the bus, we bought some last minute supplies and they left. ‘ooooooph’ – we’ve made it.
Next day was spent in Puerto Montt waiting for the woman who had my bicycle. Then I got onto the bus to Santiago and here I am, at the hostel, ready to leave. The bike is packed, spare parts bought, satnav is set, local maps are ready to be used. I’m setting off into the Andes to the border crossing with Argentina, then going north to JuJuy and crossing back to Chile to San Pedro de Atacama. Good bye comfortable hostel life, welcome my simple life on the road. Let’s hope my legs manage with all the cycling.
Big wall … it has entirely changed my perspective on mountain climbing. Before coming here and trying it out I was naive and ignorant enough to expect just a longer trad climbing trip up a taller than usual multi-pitch crag. How wrong had I been. Capicua, which is the mountain we climbed up here in Cochamo and which means palindrome, i.e. the word or a number that spells the same forwards and backwards, threw me about and spat me out like a ping pong ball. It has been nothing I expected and everything I did not expect. I was prepared for lots of climbing, trying out leading new pitches and seconding the ones that would prove too hard for me but could be tried out by my colleagues more experienced in trad climbing. In summary, I expected it to be all about climbing but on a larger scale and on higher grounds than e.g. Lake District or Wales. However big walls, especially when it comes to opening and freeing new lines, which is what we were helping our team leader Tom with, are first and foremost about the logistics of setting up camps, choosing right gear and taking all the supplies up the wall, and only later about climbing itself. And even when the team is climbing only the person who leads actually does the climbing while the others that follow just jummer up the wall using ascenders. There is not really that much time for climbing and testing things out, especially when one gets to deal with the wall as hard as this one. We estimated that this 23 pitch 1000 metre route called Picaflor (Hummingbird) has a crux pitch of about 7c/7c+ whilst 7 others are of 7b/7b+ difficulty – and it’s mostly trad. We could not manage to free climb it. My more experienced colleagues aided it and we will be looking forward to see who can free climb this route which is now prepared, bolted in places where gear placements is not possible and ready to be sent. For us it had been too hard and too long, considering not only our limited physical prowess but also the fact that we had limited time on the wall and had to haul all our stuff up. It has been indeed very arduous and heavy work. We had to bring all our climbing and camping gear, our clothes and 14 days worth of food nine 60-80 metre pitches up the wall, set up a camp and start trying out the remaining 14 pitches of similar length but of much higher difficulty than the previous ones. Then we needed to haul again all our gear, two portaledges, all our clothes and 4 days of food and water another 12 long pitches up the wall to the point where we could set up our portaledges before attempting the remaining three pitches that would take us to the very top. As soon as we reached our first camp site the time started running out together with our food supplies which had been rather restrictive from day one. We ate porridge in the mornings, one or two little snacks during the day and a bean or lentil based meal in the evenings. Me and my colleague Marek calculated that we were eating about 1,500 calories per day whilst we were burning about 4,500-5,000. I was slimming down and my waist was shrinking. I could feel it not only when I had to shorten a rubber tightener in my trousers every two or three days but also as I was getting progressively weaker. I came to my lowest point where I could hardly do on top rope the pitch that my friend Marek led and it was probably not even of a F6b difficulty. I started doubting whether I could actually climb anything at all. All those extra tasks or hauling, lifting things up combined with the difficulty of the climbs and the fact that I am neither experienced in trad climbing nor climbing in granite meant that I had a rather difficult time. Having said that, as the saying goes what does not kill you makes you stronger I believe I am now richer not only in new experience or new adventure but I am more knowledgeable about climbing long lines. I do not think I will ever take part in a similar big wall project but I would very much like to start trad climbing multi pitch routes in an alpine style. Although still a rookie I now know what can go wrong and what to look out for on the rock. I also now know how beautiful the mountains look when you look down the portaledge as you are waking up close to 1,000 metres above ground. If only my words could explain the beauty of the landscape as the mist covering an entire valley slowly kept rising below our feet as the first rays of the rising sun warmed up the mountainsides. Or how uneasy I felt at first when I first sat down on the portaledge facing out of the wall and into the void or when it started becoming worryingly natural and I began to think about not loosing concentration. I do not have any photos from the wall as I left my camera at the campsite to limit the total weight of my personal gear but our colleague David who was taking pictures reportedly took over 1,500 of them. As soon as they are selected and available I shall make a separate post dedicated to photography and place a good chunk of them to show you how our climbing endeavours looked like in pictures. In the meantime, albeit aware of the disappointment, I attached a few pictures from our walk into the campsite and from the campsite itself. I am now temporarily staying in the nearby touristy town of Puerto Varas situated on the shore of the second largest lake in Chile called Lago Llanquihue and overlooking two active volcanoes – Osorno and Calbuco. I am planning to eat and relax and perhaps work on my long overdue research paper before heading back to the valley for a long expected week of trad climbing. Today I purchased a map of Chile in order to plan my bicycle trip. I saw a few touring bicycles in town which made me want to hop on my bike and ride away into the sunset even more. I cannot wait to confront high mountain passes in the Andes, Bolivian Altiplano, The North Yungas Road aka. Road of Death, cycle across Salar de Atacama and Salar de Uyuni, or see Cuzco and Nazca. The adventure began three weeks ago but is now taking a different turn.
Horses in the morning mist
Another big wall, Marek quenching fire with transparent Coca Cola
Marek unhappy, bamboo forest too wet to set it on fire
Guy drinking, Marek thinking of setting fire to a shed
Marek contemplating setting a cat on fire
Marek devising ways to set fire
Waiting for the bus to the entrance of the La Junta valley
So….. it’s all happening. The idea of leaving Midlands and going away to explore the world has finally materialised. I have been so busy with my usual hectic life running in between Leicester and Loughborough, building a camper, fixing bikes, selling stuff, buying stuff, giving away stuff, working, climbing, writing papers and having occasional little life adventures that I didn’t even feel I left my job for good until I actually woke up after a rather comfy sleep on Boeing 878 Dreamliner heading off to Santiago de Chile. Have you ever felt that, as my friend Tomek put it, although referring to my particular attempts to fix a leaking radiator on my motorcycle, that life is like a Sisyphus’ job – you finish one task and another one pops up like a Leprechaun always giving us something more to do? It is so hard to break that pattern and for me, the only two choices were either to give up my research ambitions and to make my university work into a ‘normal’ teaching job with no after-hours or quit and focus on what I love doing – travel, climb, surf and write publications. I chose the latter and here I am: homeless, jobless and going to climb a 1000m big wall in Patagonia with people who, unlike me ‘boulder monkey’ can actually climb stuff that is high, splendid and breath-taking while I usually try to top some 5m tall pieces of rock scattered around some forest south of Paris. If I survive this experience I shall cycle from our climbing venue Cochamo in Chilean Patagonia through Argentina to Bolivia and Peru. We are now flying above the Andes or Cordilleras as they call them in Latin America. It is only a short while till I step on South American soil but I shall stay here for quite some time.
I am sorry I did not say good bye to all of my friends at the Climbing Station in Loughborough- among many: Ed ‘BetaMonkey’ and Joe O’Grady, Jana Alexandrova and the Leicester Uni Biology Team, Andy Harper, Matthieu and Ollie Leger, Emma Wiik and Michael Hoult, Tom Hall, Andy Emm, Ethan Walton, Bill and Alex Norton, and all of the Climbing Station crew. To my excuse, I barely made it to both of the planes last night – first time because I was stopped, questioned and checked by the police apparently for, quote, “loitering in motorcycle parking area at terminal 5 known for motorcycle thefts”, although I suspect they need to file reports once in a while to prove they’re doing something. It can’t be the dreads, can it? Or the fact that I had the keys to the bike, the chain, the boxes, a helmet and I actually got into the parking lot instead of trying to get get out of it. However, I am happy to know that my bike is safe and under protection of officer Malcolm Dunlop. Second time I had to run across the airport because two flights leave from Madrid to Santiago at exactly the same time and I happened to go to the wrong gate. I only found out minutes before the take off when I overheard an Israeli backpacker telling his newly acquainted friends that he had done exactly the same thing as I was about to do a minute later – run, fat boy, run!!. Happy go lucky. I’m just sat on the corridor with my bicycle next to me waiting for the other guys. It’s hot and sunny in here :)
At the gates of Heathrow
Bicycle trip meets climbing trip meets a motorbike
On motorbikenomad all adventure starts on the bike (and with repairs)
Travelling alone for a long period of time can be tedious and I would be a liar if I said that I completed my journey without any reliance on the help of others. In fact, it is fair to say that I might not even be able to get to Cape Town if not for the help of numerous people who offered me their kindness and support.
Here I would like to acknowledge those who helped me along the way, in order of appearance. If I forgot someone, I apologise in advance.
Gloria Rodriguez, for hosting us in Malaga and helping out with internet orders.
Marta, for boosting my morale throughout an entire trip.
Anna – because she demanded to be acknowledged ;).
My parents, for sending me hints and warnings on Gmail and Facebook.
Miriam, for helping me out with invitation letters to Ghanaian and Nigerian embassies.
Tega and Afoama, for hosting me in Lagos.
Anonymous boy in DRC who translated for me when I was kidnapped and falsely imprisoned in DRC.
Dave Atkinson for helping me out with motorbike parts and finding my pipe.
Andre, Reino, Deleur and Thibaut from Power Sport Gabon for hosting me in Libreville and being cool.
Daniil for giving me food and shelter when I broke my foot in DRC.
Peter Howarth from Clanwilliam for helping me out with the chain and sprockets change in his motorboat shop.
Dan and Kath from Velddrif for sorting me and my bike out and hosting me in their house. You’re the coolest people I’ve met and Dan is the most down-to-earth guy I have known. I hope I will have pleasure to meet you again some time.
Chris from Riversdale for letting me stay in his house in Cape Town. You’re bonkers but that’s a good thing :)
Tim from Tim’s motorcycles in Waterkannt street for doing a great job on my bike and charging me peanuts for it.
Theresa Assad from CT for hosting me and helping me out with my camera repair.
Chipo for hosting me and showing me around in Zim.
Chris from Jungle Junction in Nairobi for letting me use his workshop tools.
James from Honeybadger crew for helping me out with bringing the bike crate back to JJs.
Yana for hosting me in Sofia.
Pawel and Marta for hosting me in Krakow.
Dodo and Marek for organising a great party for me in Sunny Wyoming.
Thanks to you All. Your kindness will never be forgotten.
I want to start this blog entry with due apologies for procrastination and lack of any input for several weeks. I left Sofia with one idea in mind – to let my hair down and ride off-road through Bulgarian mountains as fast and rough as I could with no more worries of ‘what will I do if I break down’. What I intended I actually did, with the help of a great GPS map of Bulgaria which I got from my wonderful host Yana. It was always pointing me in the right direction and showing me amazing 4×4 and single tracks in most remote locations. I had a truly great time in Bulgaria and I absolutely recommend getting the map and going there on a dirt bike for holiday as the amount of off-roading to be done in Bulgaria is just astounding. Having said this, since I left Sofia the trip no longer felt like an adventure but more like a 2-week off-road motorcycling holiday in the Balkans. In the back of my head I just knew that the trip was coming to an end and I would have to face the shear reality of going back to my ordinary life shortly after. I also already knew how many things I would have to sort out after I would get back to Poland – fix the bikes, prepare the van for the trip to UK, pack everything up, visit the doctors, not to mention sorting out some unfinished business with my PhD research, i.e. my overdue publications. It was all too much for a guy whose only worries up to then had been to get visas, cross borders and never run out of petrol, water, food and toilet paper.
In fact I am now sitting in front of my computer in the UK and still feeling in the same way. I have already taken my stuff back to the UK, I have even moved into my new apartment, I have already, albeit prematurely, went to my uni only to become aggravated with the stuff that had been aggravating me before, but I somehow forgot about all of that over the last year. You see, going on an adventure like this has its drawbacks. Once you do such a thing you want to do it again and again and again. Perhaps you will want to go back to your ordinary life for a while but wanderlust once ignited will never fade away and eventually you will try your best to go back to riding your bike, bicycle, backpacking or whatever style of travelling you like. In other words it is very difficult to start an ordinary monotonous life once you lived a colourful and adventurous one that brings you something new and exciting each and every day. In the long run it is also difficult to re-integrate back into the society that, in its majority, is oblivious to what is really happening in the world. I don’t want to sound too pretentious but I just came back from the biggest journey of my life that significantly altered my perception of the world and, most importantly, from a journey of self discovery but not many people seem to care about what I saw and experienced. I am not pursuing any fame or attention – that would be unjustified, but at the same time I’m surprised by the lack of peoples’ curiosity. Is it because they have no time as they’re busy with their own problems, they don’t know what to ask, they’re not interested or they are just not bothered?
I began to realise that for the last year I lived an easy, exciting and problem-free life devoid of any complications while the reality is not so easy and trouble-free. We live in the part of the world where although rich, we are often also discontent with our jobs, subjected to peer pressure, affected by social anxiety, and generally feeling unappreciated and unimportant. All this tension, having to deal with hundreds of little problems whilst knowing that noone cares makes us anxious and guarded. We can be cheerful and fool around with mates, talk about nonsence, but it’s too much for us to discuss serious issues, discuss the world and its problems, talk about ideas, be inquisitive – no, it’s too depressing in an already depressing reality where your boss is shit and you’re nothing but a number on a payroll. I don’t blame any of these people, but at the same time, I feel like an outsider – a hippie who ‘wastes’ his time travelling and dreaming of more travels, while they work hard for the betterment of the society. How can I fall back into that system of lonely busy people when I just went through so many emotions, ups and downs, moments of joy and depression and so many thoughts that made me realise and understand how dysfunctional, albeit comfortable, that system is.
There are so many things going in my head nowadays, so many doubts, fears, unanswered questions. “So how was the trip?” – people ask. It was great, it was tough, it was challenging and rewarding, sometimes I felt lonely and tired, sometimes I felt like I was Livingstone discovering the world, sometimes I was down, sometimes I was happy, I was melancholic and I was cheerful, I had some bad moments, one very scary one, but so many wonderful experiences too. I met so many great people and saw so many ways that humans live. I saw many contrasts. I went through an emotional journey. I confronted my demons. For a long time I was out of my comfort zone. For most of the time I was, sort of, homeless. I say ‘sort of’ because although I slept rough in my tent most of the nights I always had money on me which gave me a lot of comfort. I also learned about myself, about my needs, my insecurities, what things in life I value most, what things I fear. The trip was a journey of discovering Africa but it also turned out to be the trip of self-discovery and this, although many people told me that it would, I did not believe a year ago. I thought that I had known a lot about myself already but I had not. Whatever stage of your life you’re in, you always find new things about yourself when you’re out of your comfort zone. And I was out of my comfort zone being alone and far away from home. I had to go through places where I only could count on myself, where there were no health clinics, no motorbike garages or spare part dealers. I knew that if something went wrong, I’d have to come up with the solution. When the trip got tough I also had to deal with other personal things which hit me really hard. At one point, and that happened to be DRC, I was on the verge of emotional breakdown and needed a lot of comforting to get me through. I realised that no matter how tough we think we are, when we’re alone and the troubles come we quickly find out that we’re not all that tough after all. We are actually very fragile beings and the unwanted series of bad decisions or random events can bring us down from prosperous happiness machines to being poor and miserable little souls in no time. Good moments in life can be short and thus we should cherish them as they come instead of wasting them whilst being focused too much on the past or on the future. We all know that this is true but it takes effort to actually come to this approach to life ourselves. Noone’s words can change you until you make an effort. “So how was the trip”. In brief, it was a great adventure and a lot of free time that I spent on my own. It was time off-work which helped me to find focus for the next few years to come and, most importantly, realise what’s good in life and hence what is worth pursuing.
Now, going back to the actual travelling, I had 10 days of amazing riding in Bulgarian mountains. I know that people often go riding in Romania and I’m sure it’s equally great or even better than Bulgaria. I cannot really rate Romania however as I did not do any off-roading there and that was for two reasons. First, I did not have an off-road GPS map of Romania, like I had for Bulgaria – only a few .gpx tracks off wikiloc; but most importantly, my bike suffered so much abuse in Bulgaria that I actually worried if would not come back to Poland in one piece. As you maybe remember, my Honda was already suffering from chronic issues back in Africa and riding on purposely chosen off-road rocky trails in Bulgaria only made the problems worse. By the time I was half way through Bulgaria, my headset bearings were completely knackered and my rear wheel bearing again loosened in the hub. I fixed it in the same way as before but I knew that it was only a temporary fix and the problem would reappear shortly. And it did in Romania, although I stuck only to tar roads, such as the Transalpina. After Romania came Hungary which invited me with a torrential rain and cold. I looked outside from my tent in the morning. It rained cats and dogs and the whole sky was gray. I’d probably consider staying in the tent and waiting for improvement if my tent was not flooded. My MSR Hubba Hubba tent did not stand the amount of rain and leaked water like a sieve. I expected more from it, but I will deal with it in my next post where I will talk about what worked for me and what didn’t on this trip. Surrounded by water I decided to get going. It rained all day from the Hungarian-Romanian border all the way up to Poland. It was the worst weather I had on the entire trip. By 5PM I arrived in Zakopane. I waited for this moment for so long. I remember fantasizing in DRC about eating in my favourite bar in Zakopane called ‘Pod Smrekiem’. Now I was eating the food I was dreaming of in Africa and while I was eating it I was dreaming of Africa and how awesome experience it had been.
Poland greeted me well. First, visit at my friend Pawel’s and Marta’s place in Krakow, a party organised specially for me by Dodo & Marek in Sunny Wyoming. Then, lots of beer drinking and bike fixing with my parents in Izabelin. Time went by very fast and soon I had to drive back to UK in my Transit van. 120 kms down the road I had one more and the last breakdown on my trip. The serpentine belt snapped and I lost the charge, power steering and brake assist. I left the car on the side of the road and went to the nearest village where I was told that there was a car parts shop 1 km further. I got in, asked for the serpentine belt for 2002 Ford Transit 2.4 TD, no AC and, surprisingly, they had one. Not a bad result for a break-down 2 kms away from a village called ‘Kaczki Srednie’. I walked back to the car test if the belt is of the right length but there were so many rollers and possibilities to route the belt that I could not come up with the right routing. I went back to the shop with a rough sketch of the rollers. They had a servicing book too. I drew the correct belt route, walked back to the car and put the new belt on whilst keeping the tensioner in the down position with one of my motorbike ratchet straps. But that was not the end of the story. I had to find out what caused the belt to snap in the first place. It turned out that one of the rollers was seized up. I took it out. The bearing did not move at all. I drove it out with one of the allen keys and a hammer. Fortunately, it turned out to be a standard bearing. I had a spare one in the back of the car. It was exactly the same type as the small bearing from a rear wheel of my Africa Twin. After three hours of looking for parts and fixing, I had everything put back together and could resume my journey, happy to be lucky, happy for being able to fix the problem myself and happy from my choice of small roads instead of the motorway. The remainder of the trip was uneventful – short stop in Duisburg for beer and wurst, nice overnight stay on the beach in Calais, then costly MOT service in Dover and I soon found myself in Southampton.
The trip is over and I’m getting used to a desk job, drafting plans for my next year at uni and collecting poo samples for the surgery to be tested for parasite infection. Good bye adventure and welcome real world. Being tired of a motorbike I resumed cycling, as you can see on some of the photos below. My first trip – Leicester to Southampton in two days. I am planning a couple of more in order to get fit and lose weight for climbing.
I am going to write a few more posts in the near future with the reviews of the equipment I used, with acknowledgements of people who helped me along the way and made this journey an unforgettable experience, and perhaps also some photo outtakes.
For now I am saying ‘Good Bye and thank you for reading’.
Well, let’s state the fact. My trip is over and I’m now just enjoying a break from travelling – a little holiday before I get back to work. However, I’m now fully refreshed and would be ready to go back to Africa if I only had time and money. Unfortunately, as all things eventually come to an end, we eventually must move on and find new pursuits. I have had a great time in Sofia and a great week in the UK. Yes, I am in Europe now – the distances are small and with the help of technology they got even smaller. In 3.5 hours I flew from Sofia to London to get familiar again with ale, pies, wet weather and sarcasm. I remember how I missed England when I was in the DRC deprived of good food, all dirty and tired. Now, after I spent a week there I am positive I would not miss it for another year or so. The town full of the unemployed funded by the working part of the public, meat that losing all its colour and becoming white when washed, congestion and people moving in all directions in haste and hurry. UK also reminded me of work such that I even made my first post this year on the faculty-wide email discussion :) Now that I came back from this short visit to England I feel like I’m on a short holiday with my job start date looming just above the horizon.
Since I came to Europe I have tried to adjust to my new life-style and better life quality but it’s proven difficult. I cannot stop thinking of my time in Africa and that it has come to an end. I have lived on the road for so long and now I’m taking it easy sleeping in a bed, sipping beer and generally being comfortable, but short of excitement. Compared to the time I had in Africa riding across Europe is like a walk in the park. I’m afraid that this trip has spoiled me for conventional holidays and every next time I take a larger chunk of time off-work I will try to go on an adventure surpassing or at least matching this one. However, for the time being I will need to start an ordinary life of a research fellow, albeit with a vision of another long bike travel materialising some time in the future.
Speaking of a shorter timescale I still have 2-3 weeks of riding in Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Poland. I will probably have (or seek) no internext access for the main part of my trip so I can enjoy the last days of my trip without technology. My next blog post (and one of the last ones) will be on the familiar ground, in a Polish town of Zakopane.