Over the Border

I have finally reached the last new country of my world bike tour:


Yesterday I crossed the border near Langholm, tomorrow I should arrive in Edinburgh. Driving rain, strong winds and low temperatures didn’t make things the easiest today, but as I said to someone “I didn’t come to Scotland to work on my tan.” Besides, so far it’s been warmer than Patagonia.

One thing I forgot to mention last time too – a big thank you to the crew at Evans Cycles in Kendal. As I was passing through Kendal, one of my seat post bolts snapped. Hunting through my pile of spares, the closest replacement I had was just a little bit short, resulting in a seat at an unnatural angle. I went in to Evans, where they found some spare bolts, fixed up the outstanding minor issue I’d had with my front brake, and loosened a tight pedal. I wanted to buy some muscle recovery rub, and they felt that was sufficient charge – the other work was free! Cool. Very grateful for the quick service, and being able to get back on the road no hassles at all.


Odd characters

I’m not sure exactly what it is, but for some reason I often run into random characters, who want to tell me their life story. Often they are ex-military. People seem to see what they want to see in me, and tell me things I would perhaps rather not know. I was in Lancaster, after having gone shopping at the Oxfam charity store for some books, sitting in a pub trying to have a quiet pint. The first person to sit opposite me was a traffic planner, and reasonably interesting. Apparently if you are fourth-generation unemployed, lack of access to transport facilities is not the reason you’re unemployed, and don’t want a job. Who would have thought?

We were joined by someone I’ll call Mark, for that was the name he gave. Tall, with a nose that had been broken more than once, he had the underweight appearance you associate with people with too much nervous energy, or a heroin addiction. In this case it would be the former though. All sorts of stories started coming out, about his being an ex-British Army sniper, serving in Desert Storm, working as a mercenary in South Africa, poaching game from the local laird’s land, living in Holland for years without speaking any Dutch, now living in a caravan while back here temporarily…it all came out. Somewhere along the line, I mentioned having received a hard time getting into the UK recently – well last time he came into England, he ended up in jail. And he’s a British citizen. But it’s because he’s one of those people who wants to be a prick about officialdom, not realising that sometimes the best thing to do is just play along with the petty power games. You’d think that he would have learnt that in the Army – or maybe his behaviour now is a reaction to that.

Along the way a completely wasted woman tried latching onto us, when she could barely stand (this was on a Monday night, about 7pm). We advised management, who escorted her from the premises. She’d been fine when she ordered a drink 20 minutes ago, according to the barman, and had then rapidly gone downhill, presumably having taken something. Mark tells me he sticks to beer, 8 pints is fine, he can just see straight enough to walk home…it was an interesting evening.

Lancaster was nice enough to pass through, although too many of those obviously English-looking young men, with plastered-down hair, shell suits and no chins. Silly schoolgirls wearing super short skirts, didn’t anyone tell them it’s freezing? I liked the signs along the redeveloped waterfront, referring to the place being a major trading center between West Africa and the West Indies, but having declined after 1815. No mention of what they were trading, or why it declined…it was in slaves. Whoops.

I’ve had some nice riding heading north, a bit of rain, but some superb canal riding, along the Lancaster Canal. This used to go between Lancaster and Kendal, but the northern part was filled in when the motorway was built. There are plans afoot to resurrect it though, which would be a good thing. Canals are everywhere in Britain, they are a truly impressive engineering feat. It’s interesting the way they declined, and many were filled in during the 1960s, but there has been a massive revival, as people realise that canals are fantastic for cruising along, or walking beside. More power to the people restoring them I say.

I’ve entered the Lake District, having a few easy days, between Lancaster, Ambleside and now Keswick. Easy going, sometimes a bit hilly around here, but short days matched with beautiful countryside. Far busier than I recall from 6 years ago though. Today I stopped at a circle of standing stones, at the top of a hill, in the drizzle. Too wet to take pictures, but a superb, solemn sort of a place, looking around the valleys, wondering about what the hell a bunch of eejits dragged all those big rocks all that way for.

I must make a special mention of Peter Gostelow, someone who inspired me, years ago when I was living in Edinburgh. At that time, Peter had started riding from Japan back to the UK. His was one of the websites that inspired me to start doing this. Most recently he’s started riding from the UK to Cape Town. Along the way, he’s had a few thefts, as have I. But recently things got much worse for him, when he was attacked by men with machetes, and received deep cuts to his wrist and foot. Tendon damage to his wrist means no riding for a while, and he’s in a very tough position. I think he’ll carry on, assuming he’s able to ride in a month or so, but it’s very difficult. That is almost as bad as it can get, being physically attacked. I can only wish him well, and hope he’s able to continue. There but for the grace of God…

A few photos from the last few days

League Towns

Every road sign seems to point to a league town around here – Wigan, St Helens, Huddersfield, Bradford, Leeds, etc. But I’ve managed to avoid them all, although it’s taken some torturous routing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I need to get the map out during the day, to work out which way to go, to avoid the busy roads, but still keep moving in the right direction. Thankfully the signage is usually good, the road grading system works well, and excellent high quality maps are available. Except of course I didn’t want to buy the enormous highly detailed map, and so the one I have is sometimes just a touch lacking in detail. Such a change from most of the other bike touring I’ve done, where I would follow one road for weeks, with few, if any intersections.

From Bath, I headed west to Bristol on the “Bristol and Bath Railway Path”, the first path that started the Sustrans movement, back in 1979. Where I come from there are few railways, but here they are everywhere. But what you don’t at first realise is that there used to be far more, before Beeching’s Axe fell. So even though there are many, many lines, in use by millions of people, there are also huge numbers of disused lines, abandoned stations, etc. Some of this land has been reused, for housing, etc., some of it is just abandoned, but large parts have been turned into walking and cycling tracks. It’s all very pleasant riding.

One strange thing along the way though: The line was ripped up years ago, then later Sustrans came along, and turned it into a cycling track. But now some anorak-wearers want to revive a steam railway, and have been relaying track, alongside the bike path, at a cost of £100,000 per mile. Classic.

I decided not to stop in Bristol, instead pushing on over the the Severn, and very briefly into Wales. But I got out of there quickly, don’t worry. Ended up staying in a little village, where Mine Host was down to his last week running the place, and was about to retire to Portugal. A very British thing to do, to retire to Spain or Portugal. But he was OK, he speaks some Portugese, and has Portugese friends – he’s not looking to join another British enclave.

Finally turning north was a relief, because it meant the winds were behind me, and I’ve made steady progress north, now getting to Preston. I should be past the worst of the industrial sprawl now. It’s amazing how many little villages there are, all so close together, with freshly plowed fields between them. Even with the large industrial towns, I can still find little villages, with pretty much anything rating a dot on the map having at least a pub.

The pubs are in decline though, 40 close per week. I’ve wondered about that in the past, because I haven’t seen a lot of evidence for it, but today especially I noticed large numbers of boarded up places, and many others with signs saying “For Lease.” One was only £200/week, would be a reasonable price to pay to live there. It’s obvious why some are closed though, large carparks, with no surrounding houses – people just don’t drink and drive as much any more.

I’ve been looking at the maps, trying to work out my route north. I think I’ll go through the Lake District, it’s years since I was there. I’ve got a day in hand, so I should be able to get to Dundee (my final cycling destination) with time to spare.

UPDATE: Added some photos

Second Lap

33,735km, 3 years and 1 month later, and I’ve completed my first lap of the world. No big song and dance at the line though…in fact I couldn’t even get a picture right on the Meridian, as I arrived too early, and they were closed! Because of the location on a hill, you can only approach it from the east anyway, so I’d already crossed it. Got a photo at the gate, couldn’t be bothered waiting the half hour for it to open, so back on the bike, and started the second lap.

Slight change of tack this time though, I’m going backwards, heading away from the rising sun. So far, that’s not been the best of ideas either, as the wind has been against me. But no matter, I’m riding about in the English countryside at the start of spring, and I’m loving it! Quiet country lanes, impossibly picturesque villages of thatched-roof houses, plenty of pubs serving solid food and real ales…suits me pretty well. Being able to have proper conversations with people who are interested in what you are doing is a huge benefit. So many times you meet people on the road, and you can talk about the basics of what you’re doing, but language difficulties stop you going much further. Nice to be able to pick up books and newspapers too.

I had a day off in London, doing a bit of shopping. I’ve picked up a netbook, which makes it much easier getting online. No more hunting down Internet cafes, now I just need to wander around finding free Wi-Fi. It was as crowded as ever in London, and of course multiple Tube lines were closed for maintenance, but I loved being able to visit shops like Stanfords, the best map shop I’ve ever seen. If you have even a vague interest in maps, this is the shop to go to. Also superb book shops in the area.

Part of the reason for doing this leg of the trip is to catch up with people I know, but part is to do a few things I meant to do when I lived here. One of those things was to see “We Will Rock You” – a musical by Queen and Ben Elton. Recently they gave their 3,000th performance, and the theatre was still at least 80% full at the matinee performance I caught. Gives you an idea of the popularity. Totally worth it too, it’s a fantastic show.

Riding out of London on the Thames, it seemed that half of London was out enjoying the start of spring. Boats on the water, people walking along the paths, enjoying some sunshine…even if it is still a touch cool. First stop for me was High Wycombe, where I stayed with the Slatters. A couple of years ago, I rode with Jan in Turkey and Iran, and caught up again in Malaysia. Couldn’t have asked for better hospitality – plenty of food to feed a hungry cyclist, beer to wash it down, and good conversation.

From here, it was undeniably countryside I was in, as I tooled along through villages, along bridleways, country lanes and minor roads. A few flashes of motorways and busy roads, but they were mostly avoided. I ended up in a hostel pretty much by myself. It’s a bit strange rattling about in a big old dark place, but it’s familiar from back when I started out doing all this. This time of year, some of these places aren’t even open.

I’m now in Bath, where I’ve had the day off. After all this time, oddly enough my right kneecap is giving me some niggles. I think it’s because I had three weeks off in Argentina, and I’ve been doing longish days in the saddle over the last couple of days. So I took a rest day here, hoping that it’s just minor tendonitis, that will clear with rest. Good city to stop in too, Roman history, interesting Georgian buildings, bit busier than I expected though, must be carnage in summer when every tourist in England visits.

The rough plan is to head from here to Bristol, then turn north, heading towards Scotland. Depends on how the knee behaves over the next few days as to what sort of mileage I make. At least there are usually plenty of places to stay, so I have options of doing shorter days if required.

Now that I’ve got the netbook, managing photos should be easier – here’s a few from the last few days on the road

Fallen Short

After just over three years, and about 33,000km, I have…just about made it back to where I started.

I’ll post more info shortly, but I’ve made it to London OK, and after a long tedious discussion with an immigration official, I was allowed into the country. But we’ll be watching you…

I put the bike back together outside Terminal 5, looked at the two options for riding out, and chose the more complicated one. Interesting times though, hunting about trying to find the bike trail I wanted, that runs more or less along the Thames. I was passing through villages, thinking that things looked very familiar, perhaps I was here 3 years ago. No wait, it’s just a standard anonymous English village. A lot of them look the same, all the same shops, same style houses, etc.

But then I got onto the trail I wanted, and had a very nice time, tooling along, stopping in a pub for fish and chips, with a couple of ales. Nice part of town, leafy suburbs, huge parks, etc. But of course it still has London’s drug problem. While stopped waiting for a train to pass, I realised that the well to do looking woman in the eco-dork Prius next to me was not wasting the downtime. No, she had the lighter, foil and pipe out. At 2:00 in the afternoon, while driving around a good suburb. I made sure I was well out of the way when she drove off.

Closer to the center things were busy, and I kept losing the trail I was following. I knew my general direction, so could get back on, but it wasn’t the most enjoyable in traffic. Eventually I made it past the center, and to the east, closer to Greenwich. All that time, and I was just about there. But for some reason I didn’t want to do it today. So I made it to the Cutty Sark, very close the Royal Observatory. I’ll finish off the distance on Sunday, before starting my trip about the UK, heading out to Bristol and then up to Scotland via Wales.

To mark this occasion, of almost reaching my goal, I have taken a new image of my feet, by popular request. They weren’t very interesting when I was wearing shoes every day, this is after a day of walking about Buenos Aires in jandals


Big City

At long last, I made it to Buenos Aires, the biggest, and last city for me in South America. I’m staying in an apartment, which is making a very pleasant change. The price is quite reasonable, and I get my own space, my own kitchen, cable TV, aircon. It’s an older place, so it’s nothing fancy, but it is very well located. Comes complete with the clunking lift with manually operated folding grill doors. The sort you could stick your hand through when it’s moving. I still haven’t gotten used to the sickening lurch every time it starts moving.

Having my own place, I’ve been taking it easy, doing a bit of wandering around, but not too much in the way of museums, etc. The city isn’t the best for walking anyway, footpaths are generally crowded, narrow, and in poor condition. Plus I find it just depressing crossing 15+ lanes of traffic to get to the other side of the road. The other day I was trying to get to the Post Office, and I could see the building, but it took me a long time to get there. To cross the enormous roads, and chaotic intersections, I had to move away from my target, circle around, and finally approach it from an oblique angle.

When I got to the Post Office, the next difficulty was how to get in. Lots of fences, cars, but not many doors. Found a door, a small crowded room with lots of hot, stressed looking people. Not quite sure what they were doing. Just didn’t look right though for sending a package overseas. Let’s try door number two: Hmmm, everyone sitting on rows of seats, facing forward, with a blank, bored look. Not sure what’s going on here either, although I see someone get up in response to some unseen signal, and go through a turnstile at the end of the room. Hmmm, try door number 3. Aha! This looks more like it, only a handful of people, and an unmanned Customs desk. I meet an Australian couple, also looking to post stuff. When the Customs official turns up, they get a grilling about the items they want to send. They speak no Spanish, but Customs official speaks English. I chat a bit with him in Spanish, he just takes a half-assed look at my stuff, doesn’t even want to open the bags, just says sure, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. A bit later on, everything’s boxed and shipped. Bloody expensive though, only service is airmail, costs me around NZD$200 for 6kg. But that’s 6kg less for me to carry.

I spent a day over around the Palermo area, a bit fancier part of town. It’s a bit strange, it’s very high density living, but it’s hard to see why so many people want to live there. Perhaps it’s because there’s more parks than most of the city, although still not enough greenery. I wandered through one of the parks, where people were sunbathing in bikinis, in a small park overlooking a busy intersection. Portenos are strange. There was also plenty of evidence of leathery skin, jutting collarbones and shoulder blades, and ribs you could play the piano. All the things that come from severe poverty, or in this case, from decades of being a trophy wife. Lower and middle class people are overweight, sometimes you need to be very rich or very poor to be severely skinny.

There’s an interesting method used by the hawkers on the subway. They walk down a carriage, with a box of whatever they are selling. A sample is placed on everyone’s lap, for them to look at, or ignore. Then the seller comes back down the carriage, either retrieving the trinket, or better yet, getting some money for it. The guy selling small lights wasn’t doing so well, but the young man selling a bunch of hair ties, targetting women with long hair, was making quite a few sales.

I’m not quite sure what it is with the city though, but I haven’t quite gotten into it. Not sure, maybe I was expecting a more interesting place, but so far it just hasn’t grabbed me the way that Asian cities do. There’s hints of an interesting past, but many of the buildings are a bit anonymous. Not modernist anonymous, a little bit older, but anonymous all the same. I wandered over to Retiro station, where the long distance bus station, train station, and subway converge. This is packed with people, stalls selling random stuff on the street, dodgy standup eating joints, etc. I picked up a very cheap striped bag to put my panniers in on the plane. You see poor people all around the world with these bags, but I’ve had great trouble tracking one down to buy here. Anyway, I got one, then went into a dirty restaurant, the sort where the seats and table are sticky. No airconditioning here, but the fan tries hard. There are packed seats outside, but it’s empty inside. I agree with Peter Robb, better to sit inside, less hassle that way. But as I’m sitting inside, drinking my cheap beer, I’m feeling much happier about the city. Perhaps I just need to try and find my sort of area.

The weather here is like Auckland in February – high twenties, high humidity. I can’t give my Scottish readers a comparison time, they just don’t get weather like this. Sometimes a touch warm, but very pleasant, and I’m going to struggle when I get to the UK on Friday. Currently it’s raining and cold there, it’s going to be tough if I try and ride out of Heathrow airport…

UPDATE: Photos added at last. Not too many, didn’t take many in BA for some reason.

A week of it

I have been in Puerto Madryn for a week now. This marks the longest I have stayed in one place for this trip. Tonight I will be taking an 18 hour bus ride to Buenos Aires, and will be staying there for a week, matching my lag here.

Sometimes you get a bit bored staying in one place for a while, but in other ways it’s interesting. You get to know quite a bit more about a place, you don’t need a map, you know how the buses work, where to eat, which Internet cafes are reasonable, etc. It helps if you’re staying in a reasonable place, and El Gualicho has been pretty good. Staying in a 4-bed dorm, but half the time I was the only one in there. Plenty of other people around though.

You also see the normal activity of a town, its ebbs and flows. You see many, many police walking about Argentina, but they are a scruffy lot, often with little to mark them as a policeman. If you put on a plain blue shirt and trousers, with no markings, then as long as you have a baseball cap with “Policia” on it, no-one thinks anything of you walking around with a gun strapped to your hip. Sometimes they wear fluoro vests, sometimes T-shirts. I suspect maybe they all buy their own uniforms from wherever they like, with the bribe monies they extract from the locals. Anyway, it was still somewhat disturbing to see one of them running down the street, loosely holding a pump-action shotgun. Not sure exactly what was going on, but I saw them apprehending someone on a bicycle. A large number of officers and firearms seemed a bit of an overwhelming show of force to arrest a middle-aged man on a bike. Not sure what he did, probably riding on the footpath or something.

There’s been plenty of time to do the various tourist things about town, including a trip out to Peninsula Valdes to look at sea lions. We had to stand behind a fence, some way back off the beach. But yesterday, I had a chance to get a lot closer.

Dive operators here offer trips to go diving with sea lions, and I’d signed up for one. We’d put the trip off for a couple of days, because the wind was not being very helpful, and was was stirring up the weed in the bay, dramatically reducing visibility. But we could only put it off for so long, as I have to leave here sooner or later. So on a windless day, at high tide, I went out with Scuba Duba. Carolina driving the boat, Emilia as Divemaster, and just the two customers, myself and Julia, an Open Water diver from Toronto.

Glassy seas, but a bit of groundswell, as we bumped over to Punta Loma, about 30 minutes away. It’s not possible to do anything in Argentina without maté, so of course we had to have some of that on the way over. I should write about it more another time, but for now just understand the Argentines seem to go everywhere clutching their maté cup and Thermos of hot water.

As soon as we moored, we had small sea lions nosing up against the boat. We geared up, and dropped in. Even at the top of a very high tide, it’s only around 6-7m where we were, 50m out from the shore. We’re not allowed any closer, and we can’t go and annoy the animals, but if we just kneel in one place, they soon come around to check you out.

Obviously the big bulls are happy to sit on the shore sleeping, but the young ones are very keeen to come and check you out. Visibility was very poor – for my Auckland readers, it was similar to Lake Pupuke on a good day – but suddenly this large shape looms up and nibbles your hand. Although they have four limbs, and can walk on all of them (one of the differentiating features between seals and sea lions), they don’t really have hands. As such, they use their mouths to investigate things. If you hold out your hand, they will come and gently nibble it, not hurting you. You feel a tug behind you, and think perhaps it’s another diver, before realising it’s a sea lion investigating your hoses. One took a real shine to Julia’s hood, coming back again and again, in spite of being pushed off. For the other divers it is amusing, but it can be a bit disconcerting when you can’t see what it is that keeps bumping your head about.

They will swim up and look, move away, come back closer, then away, then come closer still. And then they get bored with you and disappear. So you tug on one of the ropes holding a marker buoy, and they come back to investigate. Good fun. Different sort of dive too, just sitting more or less in one place the whole time. Would have been amazing if the visibility was better – it is normally more like 7m, getting up to 20m – but it was still a good dive. Due to the poor visibility, we didn’t take any pictures, but this link should give you an idea of what it was like.

Being geared up, we took the opportunity for another dive, on one of the wrecks in the bay. Visibility was better, but still only 2m, so it was a bit hard to work out what was actually going on with the wreck. It tended to loom up at you rather suddenly.

I think that I may have become a little used to excellent dive briefings from the crew at Global Dive, as I was underwhelmed with the briefing from Scuba Duba. Possibly due to English not being the DM’s first language, I don’t know. But I shouldn’t have to prompt them to do a signal review when you have an Open Water diver on the dive, who has only done 8 dives, and 6 months ago at that. Oh and I think that all Americans should be forced to learn the metric system, so I don’t get gauges with PSI. Takes me too long to do the 15 timestable in my head underwater.

So I’m on the overnight bus this evening, just another 18 hours. But I’m travelling cama, the closest to business travel I’ll ever get. It’s the “express” service too, with only a handful of stops, so I should get a fair bit of sleep. Since I’ve got a week in Buenos Aires, I’ve rented an apartment, as the prices are quite reasonable. Hopefully that all works out wellm and by this time tomorrow, I’m happily ensconced.