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The official website of adventurer and author of It Takes Two To Tandem, Louise George. Louise currently resides in Adelaide, South Australia with her husband. The two regularly travel and undertake many adventures together, including riding travelling 880 miles through the United Kingdom, from John O’Groats to Lands End.

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Taiwan: Cycling South from Taroko Gorge to Kenting via the East Rift Valley

Louise George

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Although there is a signed ‘Cycle Route 1’, a circuit of Taiwan that can be completed in 5 to 12 days, and we have more time than that, the entire route doesn’t really appeal to us as we’ve read that the western side of the island is very industrial, and the north will likely receive monsoonal rains at this time. We are riding in December. We’ve decided to have a good look at the East and Southern areas, and take advantage of public transport to link sections if we need to.

We’ve decided to give up on camping for now. We’ve come from South Korean autumn, where we found it too cold for camping, and continuing to lug camping gear seems superfluous to requirements now in Taiwan and later in the Philippines, that will be the next country we travel in. Neither Taiwan nor the Philippines seem too expensive for accommodation so we chose to take a more comfortable option and posted the small front panniers and all of the camping equipment to New Zealand where we figured it might next come in handy.

We´d had an enjoyable couple of days exploring Taipei; but keen to get out of the metropolis

We´d had an enjoyable couple of days exploring Taipei; but keen to get out of the metropolis

Our first section by train is from Taipei to Hualien. Bikes are allowed to be taken on trains, in a specific carriage, however no bikes are allowed on a station platform. Anyone cycle touring would know that the easiest way to get a loaded bike to within cooee of a train carriage, would be to wheel the bike, right up to where the carriage would stop, and then package the bike to meet the travel requirements. We were sure that officials would understand this, so arrived at the lift used for transferring luggage to the platform, armed with tools, bags and tape that would eventually conjure our bicycles into a form such that they would no longer be recognised as such offending items. We rang the bell, as the lift had a ‘lock’, that summoned the official, who made it clear she would not let the bikes on to the platform. We soon had a group of curious passersby keen to interpret our request and concerns, but to no avail. Rules are rules! We set about dismantling and packaging the bikes, beside the lift with our audience taking an active interest in the proceedings, us, and our travels to date. The inquisitiveness slowed us a bit, and by the time we completed the job and got approval to use the lift, we were getting uncomfortably close to departure time, and trains wait for no-one! Finally we arrived at the platform, but outside where carriage 8 would stop. We then had to run relays of heavy, awkward bikes, and then panniers and handlebar bags, what seemed like 500 metres down to where carriage one was identified on the platform concrete. By the time we, and the bikes boarded, we were exhausted.

Hualien to Xiulin near Taroko Gorge 30km

Hualien was a small station and we easily alighted and got the bikes ready to ride. Before setting off, for what we expected would be about 16 kilometres to our guesthouse, we enjoyed a Railway Box lunch and Bubble Tea near the station. We knew we would be following the coast and that there was a cycle route to follow, so we headed for the ocean, stopping briefly at the roadside to glimpse Hualien Railway Culture Park and Tungching Temple. Finally beyond the city, the coastline reminded us of the West Coast of New Zealand as the shore was of dark weathered stones and huge waves pounded the coast. On dusk we arrived at an area where many tourists were milling about and watching the ocean. There were also a couple of food stalls so we stopped to eat baked sweet potato. We couldn’t figure out what people were waiting for, but noticed fishnets on the ocean and wondered if they were about to be hauled in. By this point we had ridden well beyond 16 kilometres and couldn’t understand why we still had such a long way to go. We checked the cycle brochure and found we had headed south out of the city and hit the coast lower than we needed to, then by hugging the coast had skirted around a headland, clearly quite a few extra kilometres! Darkness followed us into the guesthouse. We were shown our room and the kitchen where we could prepare our dinner.

We had been told what time breakfast would be ready and duly arrived outside the kitchen on time. Nothing appeared to be ready but our host ushered us into his truck and drove us out the gate, across the stone beach to the ocean shore where a long table and chairs were set up. We were left to enjoy the unique beach setting and then he returned with a huge array of food, with other guests following on foot behind his vehicle.

Taroko Gorge, from Xiulin and return 50.53 km, 635 m ascent

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Taroko Gorge was an 18 kilometre gradual incline on a narrow winding road with spectacular marble canyon walls hemming in the Liwu River. Cut by the Japanese (using Taroko labour) the Zhongbu Cross Country Highway was to extract natural resources and access to control the mountain tribes. Just as well traffic was light, because the width of the occasional tour bus, took up all of the road. We took our time, stopping for many photos, to climb up to shrines and temples and just take in the spectacle of the road.

We ate lunch at the only village, Tien-hsiang, and then onward and upwards continued our cycling, but not for too long. We parked the bikes and walked in to the Baiyang Trail that surprisingly started with an entrance tunnel of 380 metres.

The walk was a 4km round trip that took in the scenic view of Baiyang Falls and finished with us wading through a dark tunnel to the Water Curtain that was sheets of water escaping through a rock fissure. The crack occurred when digging of the cave accidentally pierced the stream bed above the cave. The tunnels were built with a view to creating a power source that would have blocked the ecosystem of the Taroko Gorge. Fortunately public pressure caused the power plant concept to be abandoned.

Xiulin To Guangfu 80 km, 450 m ascent

We rode through Banana plantations before joining the main road to Hualien, and yes the direct route was exactly 16km. We easily added another 6 kilometres looking for an ATM! The narrow roads, we took on the outskirts of Hualien took us through a farming area where a variety of produce was grown, such as Taro, sweet potato, and onions. We followed a canal, on a path that must have been a footpath as it was narrow and negotiating steps was involved.

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Lake Liyu marked the entrance to the East Rift Valley where Coastal Mountains rose on our left, and Central Mountains to the right.

Rain fell heavily not long after we left the lake. There was an open garage close to the road so we ducked in. The man who’s garage we occupied pulled up a chair for each of us and we sat comfortably until the rain stopped. The man was drying very small chips of wood that I think was camphor.

It was getting dark and we couldn’t find our accommodation. We had ridden through Guangfu and had already passed through, turned around and come back to another small village. We showed a group of people sitting outside a house where we wanted to go. One lady indicated for us to follow her on her motorscooter. I was riding as fast as I could and felt anxious every time the motorscooter and Nev disappeared around a corner. Eventually we arrived at the Guesthouse (that incidentally was on the wrong road on Google Maps). We were quite a long way out of town and dinner here wasn’t an option. Thankfully our host spoke English. We took him up on his offer to drive us to town, and then he ordered our meal, left us to enjoy dinner and returned later to take us back to our room.

Guangfu to Yuli 77 km, including a detour up to the Walami Trail 747 m ascent

Our host told us his wife taught him how to cook when, following his retirement, he took on the guesthouse. She taught him well. There was an enormous breakfast laid before us. We ate as much as we could, and then on leaving we were given some bananas, a loaf of bread, a huge vegetable dumpling, and cumquats to take away. Our host also wanted to be sure we got to route 193 as he had recommended it to be the most scenic, so he rode with us. Ahead of us actually; and flat out. We had trouble keeping up. We were parting ways near a dragon fruit plantation that had been recently harvested. Next thing he was back with us, passing a couple of dragon fruit to stuff in our already full panniers.

Route 193 was rather hilly, but very picturesque, with plantations of coconut, pineapple, rice, dragon fruit, and a view across to the mountains on the opposite side of the East Rift Valley. We dropped into the town of Ruisui for coffee and then continued on Route 9 so we could see the Wuhe Tea Plantation (although we didn’t stop there) and the Tropic of Cancer Marker Park so we could get a photo to mark the milestone. Next stop was at Satokoay Stone Pillars that are a ruin of the late Stone Age of Beinan Culture; a holy place where ancestors spirits live.

Yuli was to be our home for the night and we arrived at midday, too early to check-in, so rather than dumping our gear as we would have liked as we knew we had a long climb ahead of us, we continued with loaded bikes. Our effort took us uphill, past Nan’an Waterfall to the start of the Walami Trail in Yushan National Park. There was a tour bus and a few vehicles in the car park at the top of the climb, and we were greeted by applause and a cheering squad of strangers as we arrived at the highest point; rather a delightful way for two very sweat-drenched cyclists to finish a challenging ride.

Welcoming committee!

Welcoming committee!

We didn't have the permit, nor the time needed to walk the trail, as we only had 30 minutes before we would need to start our ride back down. We walked the first kilometre to the swing bridge, passed warning signs about bears, snakes and wasps, through pretty forest. Back out to the road we walked with some people from the tour group, who shared their baked sweet potatoes with us, and then helped us by phoning the number to our accommodation and arranging a time for us to meet our host. The downhill ride was a ‘blast’ and a great way to finish another long day.

Yuli to Dulan 81.8 km, 681 m ascent

There are three ways to exit the East Rift Valley. Either continue on south and eventually arrive at the coast at Taitung or take either of two routes across the mountains in an easterly direction to the coast. We chose Highway 30, that would take us over the mountains and then give us a longer ride along the coast. We left Yuli crossing the river on a bridge for cyclists and then following the Yufi Cycle Trail. The recently harvested rice field on our right would soon be prepared for rapeseed that would paint the lowlands yellow in Spring. Papaya and Bananas would ripen on our left. The areas we have ridden in to date have had a high indigenous population. Their farming methods has changed over time from a scattered burn approach of farming millet to the production of fields of maize, and now of rice. Traditionally they sing in 8 part harmony, to make the gods happy and achieve the success of the crops.

For now we weren’t concentrating on our course and should have ducked out to the road a few kilometres back. An about turn, took us back to a turn off to Highway 30. We then passed Antong Hot Spring area and straight into the climb. It wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated; 4 kilometres of steady effort and then the road plateaued.

A 2660 metre long tunnel took the sting out of the mountain crossing. On exiting the tunnel we had cloud hanging low, cooling us with water droplets and obliterating the Liushishi mountain tops (In Spring the slops are covered in Day Lily blooms).

The Pacific Ocean spread before us. A wonderful downhill dropped us beside the coast, where a very strong wind had whipped the waves into a frenzy, but to our advantage that strength would blow favourably on our backs. We stopped at Sanxiantai Bridge and dragged our weary legs up and down the eight arches of the dragon structure, that to us seemed an incongruent link between the mainland and the ocean-eroded volcanic islands. The wind was so strong it was an effort to stay upright as we walked around the island.

Sanxiantai Bridge

Sanxiantai Bridge

We decided to take advantage of the wind and with only two hours of daylight remaining, smashed out the 36 kilometres to Dulan, a small town with a reputation for an arts scene and good food. It didnt take long to find the Sintung Sugar Factory Culture Park, and less time for us to take in the ´vibe´ there. It seemed more suitable as a venue for younger people to enjoy music, and buy food and crafts from ´pop-up´ stall.s

Dulan to Taitung 26.4 km, 118 m ascent

Because we have a short riding day to Taitung we spent the morning at Dulan with a walk to the beach, evidently a popular surf beach, and a stop for Bubble Tea that we have become addicted to. We stopped just out of town to join other tourists at the phenomena of ´Water Running Up´ but were more intrigued to sample some of the local custard apple grown with care, in local orchards.

Our arrival at Taitung was in time for lunch in the city then it was five kilometres to our accommodation near the railway station and close to the eastern exit from the East Rift Valley. We’ve had an amazing type of accommodation while in Taiwan. Lin Yuan Bicycle Homestay is one level of a private town-house, there is no restaurant nor cooking facilities, but breakfast is included, our room is large and we are given access to filtered water and to the laundry. After a rest and clothes washing, we set off on foot looking for a restaurant. Eventually we find a Railway Box restaurant that closes in 15 minutes. These ‘meals-in-a-box’ are created for passengers to take on their train journey and we have found them to be very adequate meals. They typically resemble a Japanese Bento Box and almost always include a combination of protein: pork, chicken, mackerel and other items such as tofu, pickles, a vegetable and an egg that is black edged because it has been marinated in soy, all served over a bed of rice.

Taitung 26 km

We had planned to have a day off the bikes but being out in the suburbs, cycling is the easiest way to get around. We started the day at the eastern head of the East Rift Valley to see the Badlands.

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Next was a ride through the city centre in a south-easterly direction to the National Museum of Prehistory that gave interesting displays of the geographical formation of the island of Taiwan, the development of Homosapiens through the ages, including the human species in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese First Nation people´s rights.

Taitung to Dawu 62 km, 456 m ascent

We set out from Taitung not knowing where we would be staying for the night. I’d had a quick look on Maps.me and there appeared to be little accommodation available on the coast, however we didn’t know how far we would ride so took the chance of booking later. Probably not so wise as it was a Saturday and once we were riding the coast road south, became aware of how many tourists buses were on the road. The coast road was a four lane highway. We were riding on the right so, apart from snatches of distant sea views, didn’t get to see the coast. We did however see the built up highway ahead, as it climbed up and over headlands. Our road shoulder was very wide so we felt comfortable in the traffic, but later there were long sections of road works. A new high speed railway was being built on pillars above the road, and the work halted traffic for long periods, alternating between north and southbound.

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One hundred tourists can’t be wrong so when we saw a number of vehicles, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we parked and walked up a switchback track to an area that looked like it had previously been a railway station. There were a couple of food stalls but apart from that we had no idea why we were there, amongst at least 100 other people milling around.

A little later at a 7/11 coffee stop Nev had access to 1-minute WiFi and established there was no accommodation available on our route. We wondered about what obstacles we might face if we found a secluded spot and slept ´bivvy-style´ in our bike bags tonight. Whenever we have been in difficult circumstances like this, something good has happened so I wasn’t too worried. Cycling routes are well signposted in Taiwan and there are designated cycling Stations, with distances between them signposted along the route. The cycling stations are usually at Railway or Police Stations. We haven’t used them yet but spoke to another cyclist who did spend the night at a Police Station, so that is always another option.

When we arrived in Dawu we noticed a sign with a snowflake on it, that we assumed meant air-conditioning, therefore a room. While crossing to that building entrance, we noticed another shop-front with pictures on the window indicating a Bike Hostel. Yes, they had a room so we settled in. A man at the seafood restaurant next door spoke good English so we were able to order prawn fried-rice, seafood omelette, cabbage, and Day-Lily Soup, in quantities that filled our hungry bellies.

Dawu to Kenting 74.5 km, 717 m ascent

We’re still carrying muesli, so that, with fruit and yoghurt was a solid start to the day. After eight kilometres our course took us inland into a twelve kilometre climb to cross the Central Mountains. Stunning views of forest clad mountains diverted our attention from the climbing task. We saw one monkey, but crashing branches indicated the presence of others leaving the roadside. Way below at the bottom of the valley an almost finished section of the high-speed railway snaked through the jungle.

We turned onto the 199 road in a south westerly direction and not long into our descent came across an Australian family of two adults and three children, riding up. We stopped for a very long chat. They’d had the bagging bikes (5) for trains issue and also experienced the northern monsoons and now rapidly escaping the industrial east. I could only admire their fortitude, and I expect infinite patience, to make their first experience of cycle touring as a family, a success.

Our descent took us through tribal villages that had buildings decorated with bright murals and statues that depicted the indigenous way of life.

Eventually, on the outskirts of Checheng, the course became flat, the landscape more densely populated and the Chinese influence more obvious.

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With the wind light today, we were soon on the South-west coast at Kenting. What a difference a day makes! Our accommodation faced a golden sand beach (no swimming allowed because of the undertow) and in the evening the Kenting night market came to life, with food, cocktail and side-show stalls, and a constant stream of Asian tourists dawdling passed these on each side of the main road.

Kenting

Today was to be a day off. We’ve been travelling by bicycle for almost six months, just clicked over 7000 kilometres and to be honest I’m feeling physically weary and getting tired of the cycle touring routine. Maybe I’m feeling a bit melancholic because this is the time of the end-of-year wind up for Australia and the lead up to the Holiday Season. I know I have the luck of a perpetual holiday but it’s losing its glamour and I’d dearly love a hug with my children, the company of friends, and a touch of a normal life. So we decided this was to be a proper day off. No cycling! By 3 in the afternoon I was feeling jittery so we headed out on the bikes and rode uphill, 4 kilometres to Kenting Forest Park, just to take in the view and then enjoy a lovely downhill back to base.


Kenting to Taiwan’s southernmost point and return 22.5 km, 322 m ascent

We came to the south of Taiwan to cycle to the southernmost point and today we intended achieving that. We’d mapped a short 21 kilometre loop course from Kenting. With blue skies, and a late breakfast of too many calories providing energy to burn, we expected a couple of hours of pleasant riding. We passed a couple of pretty beaches but our view of the coast was usually hidden by shrubbery that thankfully offered some protection from the wind. By the time we got to the southernmost point we could barely stand to view the ocean.

The wind whipped at us so erratically, as we rode north on the high western cliff side of the peninsula, that I stopped a couple of times and walked, for fear of being blown into the path of a vehicle. Later there was no traffic on the narrow, sometimes gravel, minor road that we took back to the east, but the wind gusts continued to thrash us unpredictably, and it was with a feeling of ‘well that was a short but epic ride’ that we returned the bikes to the security of the foyer at our accommodation. Tomorrow we ride north with headwinds forecast.

Kenting to Kaohsiung 108.68 km 343 m ascent

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We planned and achieved an early start as we wanted to get to Kaohsiung in one day. We knew it would be a flat ride but not sure how much of a handicap the wind would be. We started with the wind blustering sideways, but not too strong. At first we passed through the same flat route we had come south on, passing the paintball venues, and about six go-kart tracks; one even with miniature diggers and a mound of dirt suitably placed for removal. We followed a dual carriageway the entire route, with a breakfast break at McDonalds. Once we were in the lee of the mountains that stretched across the entire peninsula from west to east, we hugged the coast, sheltered from the wind. Later the route was signposted as a scenic area, and maybe it would have been if we had detoured to a beach, but we were riding in urban sprawl interspersed with orchards of mango, dragon fruit, and the wax apples that were currently in season, and the only fruits being sold at roadside stalls. Other stalls sold only onions so my guess was these were also in season. We crossed the very wide bridge over the shingle flats of the Kaoping River and arrived in an industrial zone of Kaohsiung. Many steel works and other industrial buildings lined the road and even though we had a designated cycle lane we were constantly stopping at traffic lights for trucks to turn across our path, into entrance ways of factories.

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Kaohsiung was our last cycle destination. From here the bikes were bagged and taken by train with us to Taipei where we had a final stint riding from the railway station to a suburb a few kilometres from the airport. Our evening was spent wrapping the bikes in Gladwrap, with cardboard protecting the frame, and finally bagged in the IDWorx cover bags that Nev had continued to carry. Duck tape secured the packages.

Next stop Philippines.



Morocco: To the desert and beyond

Louise George

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“Where are you from? Welcome to Morocco!” These two statements we heard on a daily basis, said with genuine interest and cordiality; no strings attached! I would however highly recommend having an understanding of French language if travelling in Morocco. My schoolgirl French was very limited. We got by; but we would have liked to have communicated with locals more as that would likely have given us a richer experience.

Travelling on a bike seat can be difficult, but any time, in many of the countries we’ve travelled in, when we’ve chosen to travel by bus with the bikes and our many bags (we each have 4 panniers and a handlebar bag), there has usually been a lot of bike preparation, and difficulties transferring gear. We had already used CTM buses to travel from Agadir to Marrakesh with boxed bikes in the luggage compartment. Now we’ve established that, for a fee, we can freight items from Marrakech to Fez. So the smaller bike box was put inside the larger bike box along with the front panniers and various items we would not need as we rode south. Fingers crossed the very large package will be safely transported from Marrakesh, and will be in Fez when we arrive in a fortnight.

Next we walked up the road to a different bus station and booked a ticket for us to travel on a Supr@Tours bus the next day, from Marrakesh to Ouarzazate. We chose Supr@tours because their timetable was more suitable for us, but we were advised to arrive next day at least 30 minutes before departure to book the bikes as freight. Carrying the bikes would then still be at the discretion of the driver, and it would also be up to the driver to allow us to get off the bus at Tiz’n’Tichka Pass, as we actually want to ride some of the way to Ouarzazate. The bus would save us 106 km of cycling, and a significant amount of climbing.

Tiz’n’Tichka - Ouarzazate 89 kilometres, 355 m ascent

Fortunately, on the day, everything was as we wanted and after a three hour bus journey, the driver pulled over at Col du Tichka, and left us on the roadside with bikes and panniers. Nev quickly got the bikes ready for riding. We took a couple of photos at the highest pass in Morocco, and set off. At 2260m the air was thin, and the landscape bare red soil. We were quite out of breath as we climbed a little more to the highest section of road. I was hoping for a ride of only downhill (descent was 1336 metres) but the total ascent of 355 metres, kept the day honest.

With temperatures up to 35C, the heat from the sun and the warm wind, sucked the energy and the moisture from our bodies. There was no shade so we had one short break in the scorching sun to eat the croissants we had brought along with us for lunch. Later we took a longer break at a cafe to re-hydrate.

Many photo stops stretched out our travel time. We were enthralled by the constantly changing landscape and colour variations. With not being sure what the road surface would be like, we didn’t detour to the tourist attraction area of Ait Benhaddou. On the first day of this cycle tour we were not ready to make it an epic, as had been the case when we rode a three day loop from Agadir, (you can read the blog about that ride here). The modest accommodation we had booked in Ouarzazate, ‘Hotel Valley Rose’ was very comfortable. With a fridge in our room we looked forward to cold drinks at least for the start of tomorrow. Reception offered to store the bikes securely; no trouble, and pointed us in the direction of a shop that sold water and food so we purchased supplies for a back-up.

Ouarzazate - Ait Sedrate Sahi El Ghar, 87.31 kilometres, 750m ascent

It would have been great to start early but the restaurant opened at 7 a.m. and it was actually very dark until that time too. We were packed and ready to leave as soon as we’d eaten. We had watched the sun rise as we ate breakfast, and with the early temperature at a pleasant 17C, we set off to get a head start on temperatures that reached 35C before midday. With only a few photo stops we easily covered the 41km to Skoura, and settled at the first cafe we come across for coffee and Wifi. Later we went into the Skoura town centre, but because we didn’t find anywhere more appealing to eat at, ended up returning to the cafe we had sat at earlier. Nev was just recovering from a couple of days of diarrhoea that started in Marrakesh, and my appetite was dulled because of the heat and dehydration. Even though neither of us was hungry, we knew we needed to eat the meagre lunch we’d chosen of tomato salad and chips.

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A soft pink hue kissed the landscape. Distant mountains melted into silhouettes in the heat haze. The arid terrain didn’t seem like it would support a large population so we were surprised to pass through many villages. At a high vantage point on the road, we could see six villages dotted over about a 15 km distance. From our bike seats these villages often appeared to be clusters of small mud brick houses hidden behind walls of the same material, (kasbahs) but we found that there is often quite a large population in the villages, with dwellings that actually extend well back from the road. To locate the typical Moroccan Auberge in the village of Ait Sedrate Sahi El Ghar where we stayed the night, we rode, as if negotiating a maze; along narrow dirt tracks between high walls, to the outskirts of town, about two kilometres from the main road.

Ait Sedrate Sahi El Ghar - near Dades Gorge, 43.31 kilometres, 385m ascent

We chose not to eat breakfast at the auberge for a few reasons; last night’s tagine had been very expensive so we assumed breakfast would probably also be pricey; I had been in hot and cold sweats all night, had hardly slept and didn’t feel like eating, and we wanted to make an early start. We rode out at 7:30, on a snack of Orange Juice and a Meusli Bar. At the main road we passed hundreds of children walking to school. From Kalaat M´Gouna to Boumaine Dades it seemed like Highway N10 was one long route where villages conjoined each other; with houses of the small mud brick variety or grand homes of many levels, all dressed in sandy pink.

We were riding the valley formed by the Dades River. As with any area in Morocco where there is a water source, populations are dense. The small town of Kalaat M’Gouna had an industry of rosewater and rose fragrances. Every second shop was selling rose products. Evidently there is a Rose Festival every May. We continued towards Boumaine but made a left turn just before the town in the direction of Dades Gorge. Only ten kilometres along the road into the gorge, we settled into Hotel Cascades Dades. Nev did bike maintenance, while I napped, then we spent a relaxing afternoon on the terrace perched high above the fields. We were looking down on a group of industrious women who cut the dried stalks off corn plants and stacked them on a donkey, then cleared the remaining stubble, readying the land for the next crop. We decided to stay out of the heat and leave the ride to the gorge until tomorrow.

Dades Gorge - Boumaine Dades, 50 kilometres, 626m ascent

My feeling unwell yesterday turned into Moroccan belly overnight. Breakfast was out of the question for me, however I wanted to see the gorge. We left our panniers and cycled at a gentle pace for the 22 kilometres.

We passed through many small villages along the way. The valley is fed by the Dades River and was densely populated. There were some new buildings under construction; some very grand. We shared the road with women coaxing donkeys loaded with corn plants, presumably to be used for winter stock feed. These swaying loads amused me, but it saddened me that sometimes only two legs were visible and on closer inspection it was an old woman carrying the burden. There were clusters of olive trees and fig, almond and walnut trees dotted the borders of many small fields of corn, from which the cobs had already been picked. Women were industriously chopping the plants at ground level, then drawing them into bundles to load onto the donkeys. The background was of rich red rock. We rode to the top of the gorge for the best views.

A magic descent

A magic descent

The road zigzagged up the rocky escarpment, upon which sat an eyesore of a building. Nev rode a few kilometres further to the head of the gorge then returned to where I had waited at the restaurant/hotel at the top. We had a nice coffee, then returned to last nights hotel for our panniers, before taking the final 10 km to Boumaine. Boumaine is one of the largest towns in the area. It hugs the hillside and blends with the ochre earth. Our accommodation had a view along the oasis of the Dades River, a swathe of deep green at the bottom of the red valley. We walked to a nearby cafe for pizza and an avocado juice. The pizza wasn’t much more than a bread base topped with cheese and herbs and the juice was very milky. I was drinking mine quickly, because I really wanted the experience of consuming it to be finished as soon as possible, as I was feeling a bit ‘grossed-out’. I had glanced across to see another avocado juice being made. The milk comes in plastic bags and the young man making the drink, tore the corner of the bag open with his teeth!

Boumaine Dades - Ait Oussalem and Gorges Todgha, 70.3 kilometres, 405m ascent

There were only a couple of climbs over the 43km to Tinghir. The road went along the centre of a broad arid valley that only supported hardy scrubby bushes. There wasn’t much visible in the way of life except a couple of goat herds and their herder, a flock of scraggly sheep and their shepherd, a group of donkeys. Occasionally a dirt road would branch from the tarmac into the dry hills that bordered the valley, and often a person would be waiting at these intersections, for a bus.

For about three kilometres before Tinghir, we passed through Nouvelle Tinghir. This area was new roading and vacant blocks that would take hundreds of new homes. There was a beautiful new Polytechnic educational complex. Clearly a lot of population growth expected! Tinghir Town was our lunch stop and what a mission it was to find food! My stomach was still delicate and I had a fruit juice drink in mind. Nev just wanted a sandwich or similar. We slowed at each cafe, trying to see what food they served. We went into a couple but I was put off by the poor quality fruit or diced chicken meat sitting out, unrefrigerated. Eventually we settled at a cafe for juice, coffee and icecream!

We rode almost to the head of Todgha Gorge and rested at our accommodation at Ait Oussalem. I had developed full on Moroccan Belly again. When the sun left the gorge we rode to the most spectacular section, the last 600 metres where the canyon narrowed to about 12 metres wide and sheer rock walls towered to 160 metres. The road we were cycling narrowed, and the river that had been flowing on our right, just disappeared. Many people had set up stalls selling scarves and rugs. They were beginning to pack up but we wondered if they might be staying in caves in the area as there were no vehicles parked.

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Back at our accommodation we had been hearing a youngster crying on and off, and on entering the dining room noticed that a child was lying in a woman’s lap, with a doctor appearing to be doing sutures on the child´s stomach. We sat at a table at the far side of the room and discussed whether an appendectomy was being performed; and the doctor doesn’t have gloves on! When I was a child I would be unable to continue a meal if there was so much as a hair in the food. Now the dinner, that had been ordered before I was aware I had gastro issues, was placed in front of me, and I tried not to think of my illness, surgical procedures, and teeth tearing at milk containers. Nev had to eat most of the two tagines, salad, bread and fruit. We later discovered the child did have an appendectomy, two weeks ago, and we had witnessed the sutures being removed

Ait Oussalem - Ksar Touroug, 100.30 kilometres, 282 m ascent

A delicious looking Berber Eggs for two, kick started Nevs day. I was still unwell, so ate bread. The ride back out to the valley was grandly picturesque, but we soon left the gorge and were back in the same broad valley of yesterday, this time for 100 kilometres.

We had pinpointed a town, Ksar Touroug, to stop at that we could see on Google maps had three cafes. Surely there would be accommodation. But no; that was not the case. As we had no cooking gear we decided to eat at the Sahara Cafe, where the cook had told us there was no camping, nor accommodation that he knew of. We were on the outskirts of town so we decided we would leave the cafe to find a spot in the desert to camp. As we were about to leave the young man at the cafe asked if we’d like to stay at his house. “We’d love to!” He took us across an open area, then through a double gate, were he introduced us to a woman. She took us upstairs to a room with a mattress on the floor and we set up our camping bed. And so began my evening with Aisha, and later her mother, who joined us after attending to the two cows housed in a walled compound next to the kitchen. We sat on tiny stools on the floor of the kitchen. Aisha prepared the filling for Berber pancakes: Grated Onion, lard, carrot, chopped chilli, basil. We were later joined by Aisha’s father, and Nev, for the evening meal. A small low round table was brought in and, as it was a snack for us, we shared a small portion of their meal; bread torn from the large flat loaf, dipped in oil, with black olives. This was followed by mint tea. We tried to communicate in French, but were now in an Arabic speaking area. Google translate came up with some weird responses, but I did learn that Aisha was a widow with two school age children. She lived here with her parents and her income was from selling breakfast at the weekly Souk.

Ksar Touroug - Erfoud, 52 kilometres, 71m ascent

I agreed to get up at 5 a.m. and go to the Souk with Aisha. We walked in the dark to the cafe, where the cooking facilities were; just a bench and sink and one gas burner. We quietly stepped over someone who was sleeping on the concrete outside, beside the door. I watched Aisha make the Berber Pancakes. Firstly she prepared an enormous mix in a large plastic bowl: 000 grade flour and coarser wheat flour, yeast, and water, set aside to rise. About 6 a.m. the first trucks arrived to set up awnings, designating individual shops of the Souk. By daylight at 7 a.m. there were many stalls ready and the first customer arrived at the cafe for breakfast. I went to the house to get Nev who had packed both our bikes, ready for the day’s ride. We fare-welled Aisha’s dad and were given two enormous pomegranates. Back at the cafe we ate freshly prepared Berber pancake, that is the dough mix cooked neatly in two exact same size pancake-like circles. The filling, prepared last night was spread over the entire surface of one circle and then the two circles were sandwiched together for further cooking. It was a tasty start to the day. We set off with a heartfelt farewell of Aisha and Amin.

As soon as we left the protection of the town buildings we were into a head wind. We weren’t anticipating a long riding day but the force of the wind slowed our pace considerably. The wind intensified and our flat ride resembled an uphill battle. A haze of sand particles obscured the distant range of hills. Sand could not be seen on the road but must have settled between the stones pressed into the tarmac. The tyres of oncoming vehicles sucked out the sand and sprayed it over us, the same as water forms into sheets when wheels pass through puddles on a wet day. Fortunately the battle into the wind was only for a couple of hours, as a change in our direction brought a reprieve.

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We passed by many kilometres of what appeared to be rows of holes, with the fill from the holes in surrounding mounds. A number of vehicles parked in one place piqued our interest and this was our cue to stop and take a look. We joined a couple of other English speakers for a guided tour. The area was of sophisticated underground canals called Khettaras, about four to eight kilometres long, used historically as a water source for irrigation. The canal contained the water but the shafts, spaced regularly, were access for maintenance and for aeration. We were shown how water was raised from the canals and also taken down into the canals to walk along a section. They hadn’t been in use since a Dam was built changing access to water, but prior to that the ground water source had been used for irrigation for 1000 of years. The separate rows were so that there were no fights over water rights between the Arabs and the Berber people.

While we rode, we’d often had children wave or run beside us as if we are in a race. To have two boys run either side of the bike was not unusual so I didn’t think anything of it. Seconds later I heard a noise behind and turned in time to see them darting up a sand hill with my locks in their hands. The locks were clipped under the pannier straps and the boys had simultaneously unclipped each side. We stopped and called to them but they just waved the locks, laughing at their cleverness. Nev waved a money note and they scarpered down the slope, threw the locks in Nev’s direction, snatched the money and raced back up and over the sandhill. I’d like to think that the boys were just being pranksters but it was a good warning for us; so the locks were then locked securely to my bike and remained that way for the rest of our trip. Later a young man rode beside Nev for a little while, then later dropped back to ride beside me. He repeatedly asked the same questions in English. I was now paranoid about our valuables and watched Nev’s phone and my Garmin, like a hawk. We slipped the devices into the handlebar bag when the lad wasn’t looking. Oddly enough a little later a man pulled in front of the young man and yelled at him, to which he slunk off. We continued to slip our valuables away whenever anyone rode beside us, or came over to talk; rather than have them on display.

The arid land slowly changed to fertile fields. It looked like some were prepared for planting. It is autumn now and I expect that Spring in Morocco is a very different scene.

Erfoud and Erg Chebbi

We arrived at Erfoud by mid afternoon and had booked a more superior hotel, because we wanted a couple of days break from riding and to celebrate our 43rd Wedding Anniversary. To be honest I’d been sucked in by the tourist hype that the ‘thing to do’ here was join the stream of other romantically inclined travellers and see the sunset over Erg Chebbi, from the back of a camel. I was exhausted from days of cycling while feeling unwell, plonked myself beside the pool and asked Nev to organise our excursion.

Late afternoon the following day, the 4WD arrived and took us to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes south of Erfoud. The track to Sandfisch followed a short section of the Paris to Dakar race. It certainly was fun to be moving faster than our bicycle pace. We arrived at Sandfisch, where we will stay the night and the vehicle was swapped for a camel each. We jostled and swayed as the animals plodded three kilometres towards the large sand dunes, and then they continued to climb with us on their backs for quite a height. Believe me, it was a pleasure to dismount. We’ve travelled almost 5000 kilometres by bicycle with no saddle sore issues, yet an hour on a camel and we both thought our butts were grazed! The camels were hobbled and we walked a little higher up the dune to rest on a blanket, that had been spread out for us by the camel driver. We watched as many other tourists arrived at the foot of the dunes by 4WD, and then mounted camels for a ride of about ten minutes. Lucky them! We were on an enormous dune, not at the top, and the summit didn’t look more than 30 metres away so we set off to conquer it. The distance was deceptive and it took a while to get to the top, but the view was well worth it.

Happy Anniversary!

Happy Anniversary!

After many sunset photos, we joined the camels and they carried us off the dune. For fear that we would be too stiff legged to ride our bikes the next day, we chose to dismount at the sandy trail, and walked the 3 km back to the auberge. Dinner was being served when we arrived and we joined another tourist group in the dining room, for a delicious tagine dinner. The evening finished with an open fire outside, and traditional music played by locals. We wanted to shower before bed as we had been romping around in the sand. Evidently a shower is not usually included in the tourist package we had chosen, but we were happy that they changed their minds and let us shower in someone else’s room. We were taken in the dark to our tent accommodation. Sure it was a Berber tent but in reality just a tent. We had been sleeping in our own tent many nights in the past five months.

We rose before sunrise so we could witness the glory of an expanse of sky throwing spotlights that changed the colourful golden tones of the desert.

Our driver returned us to Erfoud where we collected the gear we had left stored at the hotel and were on the bikes by 9:30 a.m.

Erfoud - Er-Erichidia, 83.65 kilometres, 464m ascent

We rode through a broad desert valley with a rift of rock either side. Contrasting with the barren landscape was an oasis of date palms for many kilometres. We stopped at a market. I stayed with the bikes while Nev went to look for bananas and salad vegetables. While waiting I was watching men rummage through boxes of dates, looking for good quality, and thinking to myself, ‘no wonder we get sick, where have their hands been’, then a man walked over to me and kindly gave me some dates that I put in my handle-bar bag.

As usual temperatures were hot and it was hard to find shade for our lunch break. We left the road on a single track towards date palms, and an area that seemed tucked away out sight. Within moments of laying out lunch a boy rode passed on a donkey. Not long after, a man walked by. The man later returned with a handful of dates for us.

We had passed the 5000 kilometres milestone of cycle touring without mishaps, and had hardly finished congratulating ourselves when my tyre went flat. Our first puncture! Nev found a thorn in the tyre, presumably picked up at lunchtime. Within moments we were surrounded by five boys full of business, who took the tube from Nev and found the hole. Another boy carefully checked the interior of the tyre and found two more thorns. Nev couldn’t locate the puncture repair kit and assumed he must have left it behind at Dades Gorge when he had his tool kit out for bike maintenance. We also found that the spare tube Nev had been carrying so carefully, was actually a skinny tube and not for our broad tyre. Nevertheless he inserted that tube and one of the boys helped with inflating it. Then the boy asked if he could have our Lezyne Cycle Pump. No way!

Later in the afternoon we passed through Er-Erichidia; a large town. Keen to get the punctured tube repaired we stopped at a vehicle tyre shop. Success! Later we found the items needed for puncture repair at a bike maintenance shop. Two rounds of bread restocked our emergency provisions and we headed to a family run auberge at a small village not far from town. We were shown to our room and the strains of guitar music filled the house. At dinner we met our host Youssif, the talented young musician, who spoke English. We had hardly spoken to another person in English for weeks and we found it very refreshing to be able to share Australian music with Yousif through YouTube and to learn from him what life was like for his family. His brother who was working in Saudi, telephoned home while we were there. Youssif was a qualified accountant but not happy in that profession, who had decided to open the family home to guests, and manage the Hostel, with Mum as the cook. Dad helped out as well as working on the farm.

Er-Erichidia - Er Rich, 60.45 kilometres, 689m ascent

Breakfast was Berber pancakes, Berber bread, eggs, oil, olives, jam and honey. When we left we were given the Berber Pancakes we had not eaten, for our mid morning snack. The ride of 40 kilometres took us at first high above the Barrage, an enormous lake of water storage. Long climbs led us through the red rocky terrain of the Middle Atlas Mountains. On one gruelling climb we were passed by a car that pulled over a little ahead of us. I must admit I was thinking ‘is this going to be a problem situation for us?’ When a man, very enthusiastic about our effort, came towards us taking photos. We stopped and he offered us water. Turned out he was Karim Mosta, Moroccan Desert Runner, former World Champion and his companion. We felt invigorated as they took delight in what we were doing!

The mountains ended, swapped by a spectacular ride through Gorges de Ziz, following the Ziz River and exiting through Legionnaires Tunnel built by French colonial troops in the 1930s to create a route through to the Ziz Valley that we had just ridden.

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Many Peugeot vehicles came towards us and with numbers displayed, it was clear we were on a rally route. We stopped at one car that was parked beside the road, that had people standing around it, and the bonnet slightly ajar. We asked if they had broken down, but no, having the bonnet slightly open made a level surface on which to place the wine and cheeses that was their lunch!

Our ride finished at Er Rich, 3 kilometres from the main road. We had no accommodation booked but found Hotel Tisslite had a room with ensuite. We wandered around the market, and I soon became aware that there were few women in public and that we were the only Westerners. This was an observation rather than a discomfort for me. I must admit though that in Morocco I did feel more comfortable wearing shorts and T-shirt when I was on or pushing my bike. L'sportif was sometimes said as I walked by. We had difficulty finding somewhere to eat. Eventually we asked a female chemist if she could draw a map to a restaurant. We never did find that restaurant but, while searching, came across a snack bar, walked in and ordered the same meal as the only other customer was eating. Our meal of Harissa soup, chips, cold chicken sandwich, was tasty, and fingers crossed okay for our gut. Back at the room, I showered and found the plumbing broken so had a quick cold wash. We eyed the single beds with suspicion and decided to sleep in our own sleeping bags. Er Rich was not on the tourist route, prices were low, indicative of the quality and service but we left feeling like Er Rich was the most honest little town we had stayed in.

Leaving Er Rich for the bus station

Leaving Er Rich for the bus station

Er Rich - Azrou by bus

Early morning we were at the bus station to take a local bus to Azrou. I’m not sure what is worse; cycling up a mountain pass or sitting on a bus amongst people spewing into plastic bags. The bus was however a good choice as most of the journey was a gentle climb through scenery similar to what we had ridden through previously. Because we went all the way to Azrou, we missed out on riding a very long ascent. Once we crossed the Ante Atlas Mountains, the presence of higher precipitation was evident. Fresh meadows were grazed by many sheep herds. The clusters of trees turned into swathes of forest. It was mid afternoon when we got off the bus and we responded to being ushered into a street side cafe, because the waitress spoke English. We were quickly seated and served, but lunch was marred by the smell of caged sheep. Yesterday many trucks and small vans with sheep in cages on the roofs, had come towards us, presumably going to market. Today while we ate, sheep looked down at us from the roof of a small van that was parked next to us at the kerb.

We checked into Riad Azrou, our home for two nights. The accommodation was furnished in traditional Moroccan style, with earthy tones and drapery giving a Bedouin atmosphere. We had a large room with ensuite on the ground floor adjacent to the lounge area, where we parked our bikes. Breakfast was served each morning on the roof.

Azrou - Ain Leuh - Azrou, 51.36 kilometres, 809m ascent

Looking down to Azrou

Looking down to Azrou

Azrou is nestled in the Middle Atlas Mountains, with a backdrop of lush forest and a fertile valley stretching out below. We took the opportunity to ride unloaded on a loop from Azrou, at first climbing up to the forest behind the town and for many kilometres along the hillside in the shadow of the trees. Eventually we were rewarded with many kilometres of downhill passing acres of stone fruit trees. There were new fields being prepared for planting. It looked like machinery had recently moved the enormous boulders that would have been scattered over the area, into piles, or to create a boundary, freeing the fertile soil for production. Our destination was Ain Leuh, a small town that had a waterfall. We knew, as it was the end of summer, that there would likely be no water, and we were right, but were surprised to see that for many kilometres we followed an aqueduct of fast flowing water that delivered water to homes and fields. We rode down the steep main road of Ain Leuh, dodging people and shop-front wares that intruded into the narrow street. We continued a small distance beyond the town to where the weekly Souk was spread under canvas shelters.

Many times we have seen vans with all sorts of goods stacked on the roof and covered in netting. These are mobile shops, going from one village Souk to the next. The stalls are set up and dismantled each day. What an effort, and as an observer, it seemed for little reward! Our loop route returned to Azrou, following the valley. Now and again we were passed by taxis dropping off passengers or pick-up trucks with many people standing in the back tray, getting a ride home.

Azrou - Ifrane, 29.5 kilometres, 766m ascent

Our destination was Ifrane but we took the 'scenic' route. Over eight kilometres we climb 500 metres to get to the Cedar Forest of Ifrane National Park. The ancient trees stood proudly on the hilltops. We saw the occasional monkey. Back on the main road we continued to climb to within ten kilometres of Ifrane before we got a breather. Ifrane in the distance was an unexpected sight. The buildings are all white with pointed red-tile roofs; certainly nothing like the kasbah style of town we have seen throughout Morocco.

Ifrane to Fes, 66.39 kilometres, 115m ascent, 1301m descent

Our last day of cycle touring in Morocco, was the most delightful of rides. We rode our fully loaded bikes for 66 kilometres at an average speed of 25.4 kilometres an hour. Not because we had become super strong by rotating those pedals on loaded bikes, but because apart from the first couple of kilometres, it was all down hill! We stopped in Ouled Tayet for breakfast and coffee at a cafe that was sparkling clean. Such a contrast to the dirt and dust that we had previously experienced. We didn´t stop for any photos.

We retrieved our bike boxes from Fes bus station and packed the bikes ready for their next unridden journey; by bus to Casablanca, followed by a long flight to South Korea. You can read about our ride of the South Korean River Trails here.

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Morocco: Cycling a Loop from Agadir To Imouzzer and return

Louise George

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We’d been in Agadir for four days, hardly venturing out of our hotel. That was intentional. Nev needed a couple of days to prepare our tax for the accountant and I wanted to catch up with our blogs and sort out photos. Poor wifi, even when using our phone data, was a source of frustration, stretching out the hours we spent indoors. We’d been on the go since April and even though we had a few periods of 2 or 3 nights in one place, that was always to take in the sites, and we had walked many kilometres each day. I particularly was keen for a proper rest, so apart from a couple of walks around the block to get food, a walk to the Souk, and two visits to Agadir beach, we had been very laid back. It seems that Agadir may not have more much than that as far as tourist sightseeing goes. The city was totally destroyed in an earthquake in 1960, and up to 15,000 people killed; 1/3 of the cities population at that time.

I’d be fooling myself if I didn’t acknowledge that I was anxious about riding in Morocco. So to get a feel for the country, we decided to do a three day loop on the bikes.

Day 1, Agadir to top of Paradise Valley

40 km Ascent 1130m Descent 538m 

We easily rode to Agadir’s outer suburbs and admired the grand real estate we passed. Some of the very large homes had green lawns, something we hadn’t seen until now, as the green spaces representing parks on the map had been browned off dust bowls. We were advised later that this suburb was the home to expats and corporations. Then we turned a corner and faced brown hills, scrubby bushes and cactus. Nev commented sarcastically “I’ll be interested to see what ‘real’ desert is like!” Our route planner had taken us on a little road, with a patchy tarmac surface, and virtually no traffic; which is a good thing. We had been climbing through the outer suburbs but the climbing now began with a vengeance. We climbed 536m in 14 kilometres at 4kph, not much greater than walking pace! Then we plunged into a valley, loosing all the height we had gained, and joined a well formed (main) road, climbing at a gentle gradient into Paradise Valley. The oasis of many date palms was a stunning contrast to the arid countryside, festooned with scrub and cactus that we had been riding through. On our approach to the valley, there was a shop with items that would appeal to tourists. The shop keeper ushered us to the rooftop “for the best photo” and invited us to enter other display rooms on the way down, of many colourful bowls and plates, some jewellery and Ammonites, as well as rocks broken to reveal coloured crystals. All very beautiful but we are not adding to our load, “no, not even a necklace”. Around the corner we stopped at a small shop, hoping for lunch but came out with an ice-cream and bananas. Up to now we’d seen two shepherds watching their small flocks of a half dozen sheep, and a female goat herder so we found it interesting to sit under the shop’s canvas porch, in the shade, watching the comings and goings of a number of people. A couple of motor scooters for a petrol fill from a plastic soft drink bottle, a delivery of bread, carried in a cane basket on the back of a motorcycle. We snacked on the supply of food we’d brought with us; dates, apricots, walnuts and almonds before getting back on the bikes and facing the heat.

Onward and upwards, there was a lot of dusty road works; it appeared that they are trying to make the road edges more secure so that when heavy rains come, the road will stay intake. We passed a couple of places where huge chunks of concrete had dropped away. At the moment the river is flowing at such a slow rate, some restaurants (that appeared to be not open) have put plastic chairs and tables in the stream of water, so that potential customers can cool their feet while eating. A heavy rock on the seat kept the furniture from floating away. We continued climbing gradually in intense heat as, in the afternoon, there was virtually no shade in the gorge. We came across a parking area, and vehicles parked along both side of the road. With thirty vehicles in one place, we applied our usual thought of ‘this many people can’t be wrong’ so we pulled into the parking area and walked down to another palm shaded Paradise Valley, and stopped for a soft drink at a restaurant. One group of tourists was eating lunch of tagine. Tagines (clay pots with burning hot coals underneath) were lined up along the bench waiting for customers. They looked delicious but we weren’t hungry. Back at the bikes, the carpark attendant came over for a chat. As we were about to ride off he said “there’s one other matter; the car park fee”. Fair enough!

Paradise Valley

Paradise Valley

The afternoon continued with climbing and more climbing. For me the best approach was to put the bike into ‘walking mode’, that is gear one, and try to ride at a cadence of about 60, one pedal stroke after another, while focusing on the view of the stunning gorge cliffs to the side, rather than looking up to see how much more climbing there was because I knew it was going to be never-ending. The heat was intense! Nev thinks my Garmin is incorrect when it displayed 40C, but even drop it by five degrees and it’s too hot for my riding comfort. We’ve come from 6 weeks of flat riding in cool temperatures to the opposite extreme and my body is struggling. The best thing Nev did was pre-book a room at Hotel Tifrit, with a pool, (that actually contained water) 17 kilometres before Imouzzer (which we know is at the top of the climb). We take a refreshing swim before dinner of grilled chicken, couscous, vegetables, and chips. We are offered wine, and are so surprised (we had been lead to believe that alcohol was generally unavailable) that we said “yes a glass with dinner would be nice” didn’t ask the price (advice we had read about). We are given a bottle of Gris, made in Morocco! After dinner we established that breakfast would be served at 8:30. That is late for us as we still have 17 kilometres to Imouzzer and would like to ‘beat the heat’ but apart from dried fruit and nuts we have no supplies, so we have no option but to wait.


Day 2 Paradise Valley to somewhere in the middle of nowhere!

75 km, Ascent 1544m, Descent 1774m, Riding time 7 hours and 4 minutes!

We had the bikes packed before 8:30 but hadn’t noticed any signs of other life at the hotel. We went to the restaurant and waited. Eventually we were served a fried egg each, and given some flat bread buns, honey, almond butter and jam. 

On the bikes we rode the 17km to Imouzzer in 2 hours 6 minutes! The scenery continued to be stunning as we climbed to the full height of the gorge and then had a small reprieve when we turned into a high broad valley with some crops, or fields ready for planting. At Imouzzer we found a cafe open and when we asked about food we were offered lunch of fried eggs, garnished with olives and tomatoes, served with flat breads and bowls of oil and honey. Quite tasty but at this age do we need to watch our cholesterol levels? 

The next 17 km was covered in 50 minutes as we dropped into another valley. With a bit of a head wind holding us back we dropped at a comfortable rate, not needing to brake too intensely. Stretched before us was ‘wow factor’ scenery. The valleys we viewed were oases of green palms; quite a contrast to the reds or golds of the cliffs, that changed from valley to valley.

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We knew we had three major climbs and had completed two of them; each at least six kilometres long, with gradients of 7-12%, we rode no faster than walking pace and stopped for many photos along the way. At the top of the second climb, we came to a road junction and I found that Nev, who had been navigating, hadn’t bothered checking because his phone was flat! We should have turned off “a few k’s back”. Ten kilometres! Actually 9.8 to be precise. I was furious! We had already ridden 50 kilometres, I was feeling exhausted and was hanging out to get the last major climb over with. Now our options were to continue 49 km to the coast from this point, and end up many kilometres further north of Agadir, probably necessitating an extra night out, or turn around and back-track. It was my decision, so I chose the latter, and fumed under my breath as we road down the climb we had just completed and then climbed for six kilometres. I tried to focus on the second opportunity to enjoy the amazing scenery but my head was filled with negativity. We found the turn off, and it was on to a very steep single lane concrete track.

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No wonder neither of us had noticed a turn-off; and probably had we done so, we would have reviewed our options, and considered alternatives, that would have likely meant we would have ridden in the direction we had just turned back from. We didn’t want to cover the same road three times so with no option now, we started climbing. We came across a group of African men who were building more concrete road in a different direction. They indicated to Nev that the road we were about to ride was good! Not long after, the concrete ran out and we were riding a rocky four wheel drive track. We followed this! And surprisingly passed a few people. At one point a 4WD vehicle came towards us, full of local people. I told myself that in other circumstances (overnight trip with friends, and good provisions), I would be finding this ride an adventure, but neither of us had drunken any water for ages and we were each down to about one cup left. I must admit I was beginning to feel very afraid. Occasionally the surface was loose rock and I was afraid I might have an accident. I was afraid we were going to have to camp out with only our snacks to eat, and virtually no water; although I told myself this was unlikely to kill me. I was afraid we would be lost in here forever! My Garmin, that did have a good map, was almost flat. Nev’s phone was charged but for some reason he couldn’t see the course. Our power pack was flat. No-one knew where we were. We passed some women who had been collecting Argon nuts and from their flask, they filled one of our drink bottles.

Later we passed a women, with two boys who were loading donkeys with boxes, but she didn’t understand that we were asking for water, I’m using the Duolingo App to do a crash course in French, but not learning fast enough! We continued riding until almost dark and fortunately came across some women walking towards a mosque. We followed the direction they went and noticed some lads playing soccer. We hoped they would speak English so headed over to them. Their English was as limited as my French but we eventually got the help we needed; a flat place to pitch the tent, and some water. Then they offered for us to go to their Souk. I picked up the words ‘to eat’ so we accepted, wondering if we were being asked to join them for dinner. We were taken to three little shops. From one we purchased apples, tomatoes and the flat breads eaten here. The next store we purchased a can of Sardines, and the third store a bottle of soft drink for us, for our new friend, and for a small boy who had tagged along. We were guided back to our tent where we made peanut butter and tomato sandwiches (thank you Russell Brown for introducing us to this weird combination when we visited New Zealand in February) to eat, followed by apples for dessert. Neither of us could face the sardines. As soon as we finished eating I lay down, and promptly fell into a deep sleep. A couple of hours later I woke to a cacophony of dogs barking and donkeys braying. The animals alternated the chorus throughout the night. I’d turned my phone off to save battery, expecting I’d wake early as usual. The call to prayer disturbed me at around 5:15 a.m. but my next conscious moment was when light infused the tent at 8:30. 

Flat and not so stony ground outside the community of Ait Oussa

Flat and not so stony ground outside the community of Ait Oussa


Day 3 Somewhere in the middle of nowhere (AIT OUSSA) to Agadir

51.2km Garmin closed but Ascent approximately 450m Descent 766m

The young man who had helped us last night had explained, a number of times, the direction we needed to take this morning. While we broke camp we saw many men arriving at the Souk, on donkeys. We also saw two vehicles on the road in the distance, so that was encouraging; we shouldn’t be entirely alone. Having breakfasted on a handful of our nuts and dates washed down with water, we set off. 

We had 11 kilometres of mostly climbing on the rocky track, at first towards the mountain, and then left, left, left, as we had been told. We passed a group of men, some in a vehicle and three walking beside it, who were carrying guns. I asked what they were hunting and they produced a couple of dead hares that they will eat. We saw a few children who waved enthusiastically, and two vehicles came towards us, that we made room for. We were almost at what appeared to be the highest point, when we stopped for Nev to deflate the tyres a little so that we didn’t bounce around so much. Five hundred metres later, we were on firm tarmac.

And so began our descent, initially along a ridge through an area bordered by areas of scrubby Juniper, and then for five kilometres downhill, along the lip of an arid gorge. Eventually through the coastal haze, the Atlantic Ocean came into view. The road passed by the village of Aghroud, then dropped to meet the main coastal road at a cluster of what appeared to be old holiday shacks. The cafe was closed, but the owner of a little shop offered to prepare us a four-egg omelette, served with bread and mint tea. He advised he was a waiter at a large hotel complex nearby and took a photo of us and the meal, so he could show his boss how versatile he was. Three kilometres down the road we passed a number of resort style accommodations, and some rather lovely restaurants!

Our final thirty kilometres was an easy ride along the coast, taking the main road, with a broad shoulder through the surfer town of Taghazout and then along the newly made promenade that made up the foreshore of many kilometres of building construction of holiday apartment complexes in varying stages of completion; some looking like the project had been abandoned. There are many old cars in Morocco and the final few kilometres on the four lane main road into Agadir was rather fumy, and that was later replaced with a very fishy odour as we rode through the industrial and port areas. Finally two weary travellers arrived back to the comfort of a hotel room and a much needed shower.

Lessons we have learned; again! (maybe dementia is setting in!)

  • Take more water than just our 2 bottles each

  • Take a meal; just in case (at a minimum: bread, bananas, peanut butter)

  • Check the course before setting off, for both gradient and distance ´off road´

  • One of us is to have the course visible at all times

  • Communicate better!

  • Try to find cafes that serve meals other than eggs.

To see if we learned our lesson you can read about our other ride in Morocco (Marrakesh to Fez) here

Eastern Europe: Lithuania

Louise George

Sculpture park in Kaunas

Sculpture park in Kaunas

Coming from Latvia, (you can read my Latvia blog here) right on the border is a small Bar. We are excited to see it, as we are both out of water. We stop for a soft-drink and a reprieve from battling the wind. Back on the bikes, the road appears to have narrowed a little, but we are now hemmed in by tall forests either side, and the wind doesn’t seem so bad for the remaining distance we have to Palanga.

Latvia / Lithuania border

Latvia / Lithuania border

At Palanga we stock up on groceries, and cook in the shared kitchen at our accommodation. Rain falls throughout the night.

It´s still raining when we wake, but at least it’s dry when we leave our room. We both agree there is nothing worse than starting in rain. If it comes later you just ‘get on with it’. Palanga is a thriving summer holiday destination for Lithuanians, but it’s now cool autumn, and very noticeable that the holiday season is over with the number of deserted restaurants along the pedestrian precinct, that leads up and over a sand hill to the beach where it’s howling wind.

From Palanga we have only 30 kilometres to get us to Klaipeda and it’s a pretty ride, mostly sheltered, through forests on a bike trail. We stop to look at a small lake set up for bird watching and later at a blustery view-point looking out to Dutchmen Cap, where the wind is so strong it’s hard to stand up. Rain hits us at this point and stays with us to Klaipeda where we stay for two nights.

We’ve come to Klaipeda so that we can ride on the Curonian Spit, a 98 kilometre sand dune that separates the Curonian Lagoon from the Baltic Sea. The lagoon is a resting place for many migrating birds and the sand dune is a protected area. We catch the bus down to Nida, only four kilometres from the border of the Russian land of Kaliningrad. Nida is hit with a hail storm not long after we get off the bus.

Fortunately we are indoors having lunch at the time but the afternoon is cold and we keep our raincoats on for extra warmth. The spit has dedicated cycle trails, mostly through wooded areas. We take our time and include a walk out to the moving dunes, and later to the dead dunes. Time gets away on us and we realise we’ve still got about 28km of Trail to ride and the signpost beside us, shows that for vehicles it is about 8km shorter. We take the road option, only to find later that there are signs that bikes are not allowed on the road and there is no shoulder. There’s not much traffic so we chose to ignore the signs and race to the ferry. We arrive back at Klaipeda in darkness.

A few days ago we had spoken with a local cyclist who told us that most cycle tourers in the Baltic State ride from Germany on the EuroVelo Route and in the opposite direction to us. This would give them the advantage of tail winds. but we had chosen the most interesting route south by coming south-west. He said that there was nothing much between Klaipeda and Kaunas. We had the option of taking a train, but a transfer was involved, or a bus. We found that the bus had bike racks and was the quickest option so we loaded up and sat back and enjoyed a bus ride from Klaipeda to Kaunas.

Kaunas is a town that had a large river and a couple of hills and we were staying for two nights in the suburbs at the top of one of them. We had one day exploring on foot. The bike lane through the walking precinct was very impressive! The weather had turned cold and while our raincoats protected us from a couple of heavy rain showers, we were not warm. We walked for many kilometres that day and late afternoon went to a movie, (English with Lithuanian sub-titles) to sit somewhere warm and dry. 

We are back on the bikes Kaunas, heading towards Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. The morning was heavily overcast, but dry. We have booked accommodation about 50km away so with not too far to ride, this should be easy. As soon as we left the outer suburbs of Kaunas we were riding firm packed sandy forest roads. It was nice to be away from traffic and to just focus on dodging the occasional pot-hole. The scenery was typical of what we had seen throughout Lithuania. Occasionally we came across people foraging for forest mushrooms, and we had seen many different varieties available at the markets and on menus. Occasionally we came across ´Cross-Craft´; that is a centuries old artistic tradition, expressing the Christian faith, through remembering the dead, expressing gratitude, or repentance; and styles were unique to different areas. We continued to pass by thousands of homes of the same style pictured here, in both towns and in the country-side; some were made of wood but many were made of whitish-grey brick. Towns we passed through were only a cluster of farm houses with no services, so it was just as well I’d dropped into a supermarket for a couple of ‘marmalades’ (jam doughnuts) before leaving the Kaunas behind. These doughnuts were eaten roadside, washed down with water rather than the hot coffee we would have preferred. Lunch was pre-packaged sandwiches and vendor-machine coffee that was eaten at the kerb, outside the petrol station we purchased them from. 

For the final 12 km of the day’s ride we went through the Regionalpark Kaunasser Meer, on tarmac to Ziezmariai. Often with a tail wind we moved along quickly. It was threatening rain on our approach to Ziezmariai and we were keen to get to our accommodation without a drenching. Alas it was not meant to be. Google had taken us to a street of the name Parko g. in Kaisiadorys but this was rows of apartment blocks and nothing like the picture of our accommodation, nor was there a lake that the building was supposed to face! We dropped into a shopping centre to escape the rain and get our bearings, only to find we should be at Parko g. in Stasiunai, 6 km away. We knew we wouldn’t have kitchen facilities but had decided to get supplies that we could cook outside, on our stove; with the hope that there’d be enough gas for one lastcook up! Finally we made it to Dalyios Sodyba, wet and cold. A man turned up and showed us to our room then kindly opened a nearby lodge for us to use the commercial kitchen facilities.

Our last day cycling in Europe! The day dawned dry, at least only the ground was wet from a recent shower. Knowing we only had about 60 kilometres to ride, followed by a number of days off the bikes was a positive. Another boost occurred as we rode through the countryside. A young man out walking, called “marvellous” and “beautiful” accompanied by applause, and that brought a grin to our faces. Today the entire ride was a pleasure; there was farmland, forest and marshlands with many lakes that are sanctuaries for migratory birds, but none present at the moment. There were many hills that added exertion, as well as interest. What goes up, must come down and instead of free-wheeling we wound the gears up to the top of 18 and tried to see what we could get for maximum speed. Nev got 52kph and I got just under 51kph. Goes to show how much we trust these loaded idworx bikes; good speeds and not even a shimmer!

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We stopped at Trakai that has a 14th Century castle fortress on an island in Lake Galve. We found the day’s temperature very cold and having already been inside of, and climbed many castle towers over our travels, decided it was more important to warm up by having a solid lunch of hot soup and Lithuanian potato dumplings; potato similar to a mash texture, filled with something similar to a meat patty, deep fried and covered in a sauce such as mushroom.

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Warmed from within we had a brisk walk around the castle and then rode the lake shore track to the railway station. To avoid entering a city on busy roads, we caught the train, the final 30 kilometres, to Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. 

Vilnius would be our final European city. Our Schengen Visa is about to expire and we fly out in two days. We struck the jackpot with the apartment we booked. It was reasonably central and was the first one we’ve had with a separate bedroom. The little kitchen had everything we needed. We soon cluttered the lounge  with cardboard bike boxes and drying laundry. 

Vilnius has some hills, great for view-points, and every time we raised our eyes there was a new spire in sight. Vilnius is a city of churches and the different denominations, and different time periods have all produced beautiful architecture. The impressive St Anne’s Church remains much the same as when it was built 500 years ago. There is a beautiful Old Town to explore. A quaint area that was the Jewish Ghetto. Until World War 2, Vilnius had a Jewish population of 100,000 making up 45% of the population. There were over 110 Synagogues; now there is one remaining. Most of the communities were decimated and 90% of the Jewish population exterminated. There is a KGB museum here and other historic buildings that have been witness to years, recent, and in the ancient past, of turmoil and war. There is also a quirky ‘Republic Uzupio’ an artistic community by the river, as well as cosmopolitan suburbs and malls as you would expect in any modern city. We found Vilnius to be a delightful city in which to finish our Eastern Europe cycling tour. 

Eastern Europe: Latvia

Louise George

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We crossed from Estonia (you can read our Estonia blog here) into Latvia. Of course, the road and scenery hadn’t changed; flat, forest, occasionally farmland, with no view of the ocean, and I was beginning to think that our ride in Latvia was going to be uneventful. I started to question why we were here. We wanted to experience the Baltic States, as these countries were closed to travellers in the mid 70’s when we travelled extensively in Europe, by VW Combi van. We hadn’t found much information about riding here, and the relative unknown had an appeal, but the ride was starting to feel monotonous, and unspectacular. There were two points of interest, published in tourist brochures so we headed inland to see Cesis and Sigula.

At Salacgriva, a bill-board map showed we could follow cycle route 7, then later switch to 111, to get to Cesis. The route went through Limbazi and there was a lake that had a trail along the shoreline. We felt certain we’d find a suitable camp spot there, but scrubby bush grew almost to the spongy lake edge so we continued into the countryside. Near the start of the minor road we would take the next day, we found a secluded area beside a small lake near an abandoned cottage. 

The night was our coldest yet, it was only 6 degrees when we broke camp. On the minor road the surface was sandy-gravel and it sucked our energy but warmed us up quickly. We rode about twenty kilometres on forest roads, although still gravel, fortunately the surface firmed up. It was good to get back onto tarmac near Stalbes and buy some more water that was ‘normal’. Last night’s supply, purchased as a back up, had been mineral water. Not so good for making coffee. We rode through Gaujas National Park, a heavily wooded area, popular for hiking, and with small lakes for boating. 

Cesis, a small town of cobbled streets and wooden houses that seemed to have mostly been converted to coffee shops, is known for its medieval castle built in the 13th Century, and rebuilt many times since. There is also a ‘new castle’ that was a palace. We visited both, walked all of the streets and around the castle lake and had an early dinner at a restaurant serving Latvian traditional food, before making our way to the station and catching a train to Sigulda, saving ourselves a 40km cold, wet, ride. We had read that Latvian trains are awkward to get bikes onto and that was certainly the case. We had unloaded the bags but had to hoist them up a number of steep steps to get them onto the carriage. Fortunately we got offers of help to get them onto, and later off, the train. We had trouble finding our accommodation. It was near town and the location easy enough to find, but we’d booked an apartment and found ourselves standing outside a concrete apartment block, that with an exterior of peeling paint, looked rather dismal. Eventually a young man stopped and asked if he could help. He rang the phone number on the booking. We were at the right place. A man came to let us in to a very nice apartment on the third floor. I guess here people who rent apartments in huge blocks have no control over the condition of the exterior. With no secure parking, Nev, as usual, had to lug each bike up the stairs.

A tourist brochure had a couple of cycle routes to explore. “Sigulda ‘Thrills’ Bike Ride” guided us to Walking Stick Park, that acknowledges the 200 year old history of walking stick making, that began to assist people walking in the woods. On the outskirts of town we had extensive views of forest of the National Park that surrounds the town. Sigulda is proud of the two adventure parks and a Bobsled and Luge track, used for training by locals who have won medals at Olympics. There is also a Serpentine Road, the only one in the Baltics, and a castle, but our hearts were no longer in sightseeing mode, so we headed back to the station and caught a midday train to Riga.

Riga is the capital of Latvia, and we enjoyed one and a half days exploring, on foot and by bike. Riga is a pretty city with a canal and parklands running through the centre. There is also the very wide Daugava River that has a port. The Old town, had many interesting buildings and many streets on the more modern area of the city had buildings of ‘art nouveau’ style; painted in pretty pastels with white decorations as elaborate as wedding cakes.

To depart from Riga, we took a train to Slokas Station, Jurmala, 24 kilometres away. This gave us an easy exit from the city and allowed us to start our ride from the coast. We had deliberately chosen a, not so direct, route to Liepaja, because there were a couple of attractions on the way. While our ride began by following the Riga Gulf coast, we couldn’t actually see it. Later, at the place where we detoured to go to look at the ocean, it happened to be a war memorial, remembrance to the Finnish Jaegers who fought along this coast in World War 1. Indentations of the trenches were still visible. We continued our ride rather sombrely as we passed a number of cemeteries in the area, and reflected again on our good fortune to be born in a ‘lucky” country. Even though we’d started our day by train, and the ride had been only 60 kilometres, with only occasional waves of hills that added interest to the landscape, it had seemed like a long day. We pitched our tent amongst some trees and settled for the night.

The following days became a blur of a view that hardly ever changed. A long stretch of road, that eventually led into a corner, farmland either side and in the distance some forest. Apart from breaks at a couple of towns, this view continued for 300km, getting ever more drawn out as we battled into headwinds, all the way to Klaipeda in Lithuania. Over the next few days we covered around 80km each day, taking turns in the lead for 2 km at a time. We were mostly riding main roads, watching the white line, pulling into the lay-by every second bus stop, and changing lead position. At least traffic was light, and continued to overtake us courteously. 

We’ve come this way to see Latvia’s highest waterfall, Ventas Rumba but we won’t get there until later in the day. We’re attracted by a bill-board that boasts to be Latvia’s second highest waterfall so pay the €1.50 each to take a look. We ride to a pretty river that has not much more than a small rapid on a bend. It’s a tranquil spot with a camping or picnic area beside it. I note the sentence on the bill-board as we leave to the effect that; ¨people from overseas may not be impressed by the size of the waterfall, but people form opinions based on their world view and other experiences¨. I am reminded again of my privileged lifestyle. We’ve been given opportunities and made some good choices in life that have lead to our current retirement travel by bicycle. People here have only had 30 years of freedom, and still many would not have the opportunity to travel beyond their own country. 

Ventas Rumba

Ventas Rumba

Our next stop was at Ventas Rumba, the widest waterfall in Europe – 249 metres (817 ft) and up to 270 metres (886 ft) during spring floods. At certain times of the year, fish jump it to go to their spawning grounds. The waterfall was a solid obstruction on the Venta River, and at times between the 17th and 19th centuries, efforts were made to dig a channel around the falls to achieve a waterway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. These efforts were later abandoned. We crossed the brick bridge built in 1874 into the ancient town of Kuldiga, first mentioned in 1242, and wandered around the cobbled streets, admiring the wooden buildings.

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Riding into Kuldiga

Riding into Kuldiga

From Kuldiga we ride another 10 kilometres, as we’d noticed a small lake on the map just off our route, and decided to head there to camp. We passed open pasture, and some farm houses to get to the lake but after some exploring, found the lake to be surrounded by reeds and bog with many mosquitoes. By the time we got back to the main road it was almost dark. Fortunately we found a good place to pitch the tent on a grassy unused track, just to the left of, and on a rise, higher than the road. 

Another long day of riding into headwinds delivers us to a nice ‘granny flat’ in Leipaja that is situated in the backyard of the owner. Having had 2 nights of free-camping we are ready for a shower and catching up on laundry. We walk into the town centre for dinner and the next morning ride around the key points of interest in the town, along the river promenade and through a park that borders the beach, before battling another long day of 80km into headwinds. We stop for lunch at Nica, and are each served an enormous meal. Potato fritters and salad for me, and for Nev, pork and mash. From here it’s a long ride to Palanga, but we cross the border into Lithuania before we get there. You can read our Lithuania blog here

Eastern Europe: Estonia

Louise George

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The cruise ship we had travelled on, overnight from Stockholm, the Baltic Queen, berthed mid morning, and with the paper map and occasionally using Google maps to pinpoint our exact position, we easily skirted the old town and headed towards north-east Tallinn to the suburb of Pohja, where our accommodation was. We noticed that the style of housing in Tallinn was apartment living. The apartments closest to the city were wooden, either a natural brown or painted in pastel colours. Further out the apartments were concrete structures and we found we were staying in a residential housing block similar to the hundreds we had already ridden past. We had an almost new shopping mall one hundred metres away and although it wasn’t beach weather, there was a beach three minutes walk away.

The bikes were locked in the lower level, at the base of the stairs along with an assortment of other bikes and kick-scooters. The panniers were dumped in the room and we went to the supermarket for lunch supplies. What a surprise this supermarket was! Stacks of fresh fruit and vegetables, cold meats and fish, herrings mostly; presented in every way imaginable (smoked, marinated, pickled), a bakery with whole-grain, seed breads and black breads, and many cakes. Bowls of every type of salad. Cooked potato’s, even mashed! We couldn’t find any ready-made packet food (for a standby meal to carry on the ride) but there was certainly no need to cook here as there were so many other meals that could be microwaved. To sum it up, this was one of the best supermarkets we had ever seen!

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We’ve seen many ‘old towns’ on our travels and each has been interesting to wander around. We found Tallinn both interesting and quirky! Quirky as in the entrance to the Farm Restaurant that was a display of stuffed animals having some ales! Some quirky handcrafts. Marzipan was manufactured here from the 19th Century, first sold in pharmacies because it was thought to have healing properties and later as a confectionery. I’m very fond of Marzipan so pigged out on Dark chocolate with Marzipan centres.

The entrance to the old town of stone wall and Viru gates was very impressive and we paid to climb the wall. The stone stair was narrow and steep ending in a large circular ‘war room’ that had an enormous fireplace along one wall. We got some good views of the city at rooftop height. Later on our walk we found other sections of wall (there is almost 2km of the wall still standing) and in all, 26 towers, that were more intact and photogenic. Unfortunately each section charges a separate entrance fee.

There are many museums in Tallinn. We chose to visit two. The KGB cells are housed in the basement of what is now an apartment block, but was formerly the headquarters of the KGB. The basement has a few small cells and each tell the sobering story of some of those interred here, before their deportation or execution under Soviet rule. 

The Estonian History museum exhibit ‘Spirit of Survival, 11,000 years of Estonian History, is housed in The Great Guild Hall, a gothic-style building completed in 1410 as the home of Tallinn’s union of wealthy merchants. The exhibit gives an overview of the history of the Estonian people and the occupation of the country by whom and when. The details are staggering, but essentially Estonia has been occupied by the Swedes, Germans or Russians since the 1500’s until freedom from Russian occupation in 1991. In the last 800 years, Estonians have ruled their own country for only 40 years!

Freedom and Perseverance were words that featured in both these museums. I was reminded then, and many times during our travel in Eastern Europe, how fortunate we are, to be born in a country that our forebears chose to emigrate to, and that for us, has only ever known freedom.

Estonia has some interesting statistics: 

  • Population: 1,354,989 (2018) of which about half live in five cities. 68% are ethnic Estonians. 

  • The largest minority group is Russian, roughly 26%. 

  • 60% of the country is forest. 

  • Population density 29/2km. 

  • Estonia is not a religious country. There is no state religion and only 29% of the population claims any religious affiliation (Lutheran or Russian Orthodox). 

  • 60% of babies born, (2009) were out of wedlock. 

  • Estonian’s are considered some of the unhappiest people! Possibly due to the Nordic winter and the hardship of the centuries of foreign rule. 

I’m not sure how ‘unhappy’ pairs with their love of music and singing. There are regular song festivals in Tallinn attended by about 100,000 people. Imagine the joy of that number of people singing in one place! Evidently Estonia had a massive musical demonstration that in 1988 demonstrated against Soviet rule and was a catalyst towards independence.

We had two days in Tallinn, a city dating back to the 13th century, and explored on foot and by bike. There is a network of roads that skirts the old town, and out through the suburbs. Near the city centre, roads are narrow with many traffic lanes and these broaden as they extend into the suburbs; there are motorways that lead to other cities. Every road we went on in the city, (apart from the motorway, that we did not ride) had a cycle lane, either marked on the road, sharing a broad footpath, or sometimes a dedicated pathway. We rode out to the Kadriorg Palace and then through the enormous arena of the Tallinn Song Festival grounds, and then continued for a few kilometres towards the TV tower. The tower was still a long way off and we decided not to continue but should have done, because then we could say we had been to the second highest point in Estonia. The highest is Suur Munamagi, only 318m, and not in the direction we will be riding.

Returning to town we rode around the small Pae Lake. Our intention was then to have a look at Ulemiste Lake, that took up a large part of the city map. From the approach we took, the lake was beyond a network of roads, a motorway and a railway line. There didn’t appear to be an easy direct road to the lake and after riding single track along a wooded area that popped us into a cemetery, and nowhere near the lake, we had another look at the map and decided that if the lake had motorway along the shoreline, then it probably wouldn´t be an area worth looking at, and gave up. We will never know if we were wrong!

With the statistics mentioned earlier we envisaged our travel would be through flat, wooded, sparsely populated countryside; and we were right! There was about 1500 kilometres between Tallinn and Vilnius, in Lithuania, where our flight left from, and not much elevation over that distance. We had 21 days to cover Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. 

For our first night we’d booked a cabin at Kuijoe, about 12km away from the section of the rail trail route we’d planned for the day. That would make our first day back on the bikes to 98km, a distance we hadn’t covered, all in one day, for weeks. We decided to make the day easier by taking a train, only an hour’s journey to Risipere. From Risipere we started the Laanemaa Tervisetee (64km long Health Trail) built along a disused railway that “gives locals the opportunity to exercise (walk, jog, cycle or ski) enjoying movement, joy, fresh air and wonderful nature such as rural settlements, bogs and woodlands”.

The first 12km was a fast, flat, straight, lightly gravelled path through woodlands of birch, oak, pine and juniper. We left the trail to see Turba, a small rural town that boasts a Post Office in an old wooden building and a motor sport museum housed in a former power supply building; we didn’t enter either. There were a couple of high-rise apartment blocks and little else. Back on course, the route continued as before, all the way to Risti. We had a little excitement that day! At one point we saw lights ahead and eventually came across a double trailer logging truck. We squeezed passed, and then watched the driver negotiate a narrow bridge, with tyres hanging over the edge! We saw a snake in the middle of the track, and a squirrel darted away quickly at one point. We found the blue berries (Logan berries) we had read about that grow wild, and sampled a few. Similar to a blackberry, except blue; even though plump and juicy looking, they were a little tart. 

Risti had a memorial to the 3000 people of the region who would have passed through the Risti Station on their deportation to Siberia. Nationally the Soviets organised two major deportations, in 1941 and 1949. At least 30,000 people were deported on account of their nationality or financial status. In addition it is estimated that between 1940 and 1988, 60-80,000 we’re arrested and sent to Russian labour camps. That equates to about every tenth Estonia resident, deported during the period of the Soviet occupation. 

A large scenic place of natural interest is Marimetsa bog and we went to seek it out. Evidently there is an 8km nature trail of which 5km is boardwalk and there are 3 watch towers for bird watching. The bog is a migration stop for cranes and there are Golden Eagles and wading birds. We rode for about 5 km and then came across signage showing we had another 11km to get there. We were heading in the opposite direction of our cabin, so turned around and headed back to Risti. Bog visit wasn’t really on our ‘must do’ list. On the way to Kuijoe I realised we’d forgotten to go and look at the 250 year old pine tree!

Just as well we’d purchased Instant Noodles and cheese at Risti Coop. We found that Rehe Turismitalu (our accommodation) only provided dinner with advanced notice, so our dinner was going to be meagre. We bought from our host, some eggs and bread, and a couple of bottles of his craft beer. We didn’t go hungry and we had a cosy little cabin to sleep in.

Yesterday the rail trail hadn’t been visually stimulating so we decided rather than ride 12 km to return there, we would take a road that ran on a diagonal to Haapsalu. We noticed that the road we travelled on was signed EuroVelo Route 10; the route was flat, and the scenery almost identical to that along the rail trail; forest each side of the road, the occasional small house tucked among the trees, and then towards the coast some larger farms, cattle, and rolled hay bales. Only seven vehicles overtook us in the first hour! We didn’t really stop the 35km to Haapsalu, apart from, on the outskirts, where we stopped at a supermarket in a new shopping mall (as was our experience in Tallinn, there were no people in the shops, except the supermarket).

Haapsalu is a historic seaside spa town, famous for the healing powers of its mud. In times passed it was often frequented by the Tsars of Russia and other Russian aristocracy. At one time Tchaikovsky also visited, and worked on a piece while he was staying here, incorporating a local tune into the music score. There is a bench on the promenade in memory of this. Today tourists walk the Promenade, and see the sites already mentioned, take a spa, poke around souvenir shops and eat at restaurants. A visit to the Episcopal Castle in the centre of town is also of interest. The castle, established in mid 1200 was built over the next 3 centuries, as a diocese for the bishop. Within the castle walls there is a cathedral with a window, haunted by the ‘white lady’. 

The ferry to Huuimaa Island leaves from Rohukula. On the way we passed the impressive ruins of Ungru Castle and taking time over getting the best photo meant we had to fly to catch the boat. Just made it!

Huuimaa Island was not in our initial plan but Nev doesn’t like to backtrack and riding through the island would mean we wouldn’t have to do so. From Huuimaa we intend crossing by ferry to Saaremaa Island and back to the mainland via Muhu Island. On Huuimaa Island we only stopped to look at the exterior of a church and a windmill. By the time we got to Saaretirp, we’d covered in total today, 82km. Saaretirp is a spit that, legend has it, started to be built as a bridge, from this point to Saaremaa Island, by a giant of a man named Leiger, however it was never finished. We experienced our first free-camping that Estonia boasts about.  Our tent was pitched in a huge mown area beside a cluster of trees. There were long-drop toilets and an enormous wooden swing that would seat a number of people on benches at either end of a wooden platform. Evidently swinging in Estonian is a cultural ‘thing’. People come together at times of celebrations to swing and sing together. 500 metres, in the direction we’d come from was the Lest & Lamas Restaurant that we returned to for dinner. Then we dashed to the seashore to catch a stunningly rich sunset. 

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Breakfast was camp pan-cooked wild mushrooms, black bread, and a few red currants found growing near our tent.

An easy 31 kilometres got us to Soru to catch the ferry, but we weren’t sure what the ferry timetable was. Apart from a couple of photo breaks and an ATM stop there was no reason to delay. We saw a ferry at the dock and rushed to board it; only to be told that the boat doesn’t sail until 17:30! It was now only 11:00, there was no cafe, or Internet. The museum was closed. Only a shop with a coffee vending machine and a few provisions was open, so at least we could buy snacks. It was frustrating to see the ferry berthed, but not going anywhere, and that the island of Saaremaa was in sight, a distance of what appeared to be only one kilometre away, and we had 6&1/2 hours to wait. With our tight schedule we might get behind in our riding time! Yet if we wanted a perfect day to be stranded this would be it. The temperature was 23C, the sun shone and there wasn’t a breath of wind. The sea was as calm as a millpond. There was a swing that made an ideal spot to hang washing to dry and update the blog.

Later in the afternoon three other cycle tourists came to catch the ferry. They were three men from Finland, who go on an excursion together for a week every year; two of them were on e-bikes. We enjoyed a discussion about bikes and cycling in Finland. By the time we’d docked at Saaremaa it was 6:30 p.m. While on the ferry we had used the free Wifi frantically, and we knew the restaurant at Leisi, a few kilometres away, would close at 7. We arrived with 10 minutes to spare and the lady was happy to serve us. The air was cool as we left Leisi so we put on an extra layer and hit the road. While riding on Huuimaa Island, we’d thought the bus stops, small shelters with a door and window, would be good for a late stop, and decided we’d stay in one here, as soon as it started getting dark. Only problem was the bus stops on Saaremaa we’re only three sides with a bench at the rear and the road facing aspect was open. We set up camp in an area beyond the road and went to bed.

Waking to the patter of rain didn’t inspire us to start the day, but we had a long one planned. This was the first morning ever on our cycle tour that we ate breakfast inside the tent. The rain had stopped by the time we were ready to ride, but it caught us later and we stood in a wooded area waiting for it to ease. We’d taken a small detour to see the Kaali meteor crater, and got caught in another downpour. The crater had been publicised as, “first in Europe and second in the world, which has proven meteor heritage” so internationally unique. This was the largest of nine craters in a one square kilometre area. While impressive that a meteor should find its way to land on the island of Saaremaa, I think one of the comments we got on Instagram summed it up; ¨that it looked like a New Zealand pond¨! Fortunately the rain eased to light drizzle and by the time we arrived in the town of Kuressaare it had stopped and we remained dry the rest of the day. Kuressaare is another spa town catering to tourists, but the tourist season is over and there were only a few people about. The entire town centre was rather unattractive as it was undergoing major road works and was dug up from building to building each side. It will look great for next year’s summer season, but we dodged working machinery, rain puddles and open ditches. We walked along the castle bastions, and got a view of the beach, but the castle and museum were closed. Another area promoted as interesting was the Panga Cliff. In a country that is largely vertical, a horizontal cliff of 21.2 metres is probably stunning, but the photos publicising the feature were taken from a drone over the ocean, looking towards land, and we were never going to get that view! 

With 58km to Orissaare we needed to get moving. We rode the EuroVelo 10 route, along a quiet secondary road, through farmland. With only an occasional stop to take a photo or sample free-fall apples, we pretty much just kept moving. We’d made a note of a couple of accommodation options at Orissaare but didn’t want to book anything. I thought we would pass them both on the way into town, but no luck. Evidently I didn’t have the map oriented on my phone, so they were both the other side of town. Fortunately we found a hostel with a spare room, but no food, right in the middle of town. At the end of that riding day my Garmin showed my fastest 40km in 2 hours. I thought that was pretty good for a loaded bike! Nev thought it was a cheat when I told him the time pauses when I stop. 

From Orissaare we rode across the land bridge, to Muhu and then across the small island. A short ferry ride then took us back to the mainland. We chose to leave EuroVelo 10 as it followed the coast to Parnu. We cut through on the diagonal and shaved off 44km. I’m sure the two routes would have been much the same; quiet country roads, farmland and forest. With the rain gone, the wind had come up, and mostly from behind it was in our favour as we covered 96 km.  Parnu is a town on a peninsula and as we crossed the bridge we noticed a Mexican Restaurant and unanimously decided that was going to be our dinner destination. When we returned later, we were the only customers! Tourist season is finished! Our room in Parnu was one bedroom of three, with shared kitchen and bathroom, in a residential block. All of the rooms were very small but the bathroom included a washing machine (a rare treat) so our room became rather cramped with gear, bikes, and drying rack! 

We stopped at Parnu’s wind-swept beach just long enough to be sand-blasted while taking a photo. The beach looked like it would be a lovely place to be on a summer’s day. A self-guided walking tour of Parnu didn’t take long so we were soon on the bikes for the day’s ride. There was only one direct route south, following the coast. We were back on EuroVelo 10 that, wherever possible, would take us onto small roads that ran parallel. The main road had a wide sealed shoulder, edged with compacted gravel. While there were a lot of trucks and buses, in reality the traffic was quite light. With long spaces between vehicles, both on our side and on-coming, the drivers were all very considerate, giving us at least half a lane as they overtook. We got into slip-steam mode and moved along easily. Generally the wind had been in our favour and the rain showers light enough to only be a nuisance. After 57km, near Kabli, we came across a camp. Although a number of children were on school camp there, they were happy for us to pitch our tent, sheltered behind reeds on the sea-shore that the wind had made dirty brown and frothy.

The coastal route continued; flat, forest, occasionally farmland, with no view of the ocean. There were only a couple of small towns and only some had a COOP store that had little in the way of fresh provisions.  The coastal forested area is popular for people hiking, there are many trails marked through the woods; there are also wild animals such as Linx and Beaver and snakes. Free camping is allowed at designated areas that have long-drop toilets and a supply of firewood available and steel fires to burn the wood in. We were disappointed not to have found one of these camp sites at a distance that matched a time we would want to be stopping for the night. Then we crossed into Latvia (you can read our Latvia blog here).




































Ciro Bike Trail: Croatia - Bosnia-Herzegoniva

Louise George

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Day 1

Our campsite was packed up early because we want to beat the heat. By the time I’d located an official website, downloaded the trail brochure and gpx file for the map, stocked up on supplies at the supermarket (we will be self-sufficient for 3 breakfasts, 2 lunches, and 2 evening meals), it was already 8:30. We’d both read a couple of ‘blogs’ with contradictory points of view so we didn’t know what to expect. Although we’ve now got access to the brochure, we haven’t read it. If you are intending to do the trail, the following link may help you. http://www.ciro.herzegovinabike.ba/gb/

From Mlini on the Croatian coast, just out of Dubrovnik, it’s a climb of 12 km, up to the border. It’s 10:30 by the time we join the queue to leave Croatia, and then a second queue to enter Bosnia-Herzegovina, and already the temperature is 36 C. Nev looks at the steep rocky mountain to the right of the road. He points high up to where there is a stone wall, of zig-zag formation. He reckons, from a blog he read, that will be the route. I’m confused because I’d had a quick glance at the contour graph, and felt good about the first 40km being mainly flat. Nev asks what direction the route notes started from, and I didn’t know, so he reckons it was from Mostar, our destination; and he was correct.  Looks like I’ll have to mentally prepare myself for at least one kilometre of torture! We’re not sure if we can queue hop, as we have been able to do at other borders, but there is no shade, the line of vehicles is moving tooooi slowly, so we take the risk. No-one tells us off, and we are quickly through with another stamp in the passports.

About 20 metres from the border, there is a sign on our right, Ciro Cycling Trail is over the road; a narrow asphalt track. First we have coffee at Ivanika, and realise we have no local currency. Fortunately they accept any of Euro, Croatian Kuna, or Bosnia-Herzegovina Mark. We are not sure if there will be water tanks on route, so fill our four water bottles and an extra two litre container. 

The trail follows what was formerly a narrow gauge railway, that was operational from 1901 until 1976, linking Dubrovnik and Trebinje in Croatia, with Mostar, Herzegovina. The first train that used the line was named ‘Ciro.’ There is possibly another trail starting point at Trebinje in Croatia, but we are starting from the Dubrovnik end, in the village of Ivanika.

In the far distance there are the remnants of a village. Stone houses with walls collapsed and roofs missing. Immediately we have a surreal feeling, in response to the desolation, and that we know we are entering what we think is an isolated area, and will need to remain on the trail as the area was land-mined during the war in the 1990’s. We believe we will have no traffic for 130km, and after recently riding 100’s of kilometres of busy main roads, this will be bliss. 

We don’t have a tortuous start, and the gradient is gentle, between -2 and +2%, and continues in this manner for much of the day. The narrow sliver of road is bordered by green shrubbery. After only a few kilometres we come to the first Station, now a ruin, and surrounding buildings in the same state. We are surprised to be overtaken by a vehicle but we later come across the occasional occupied home. At the larger village of Hum, a few houses appear to be occupied but many are partially destroyed and have ‘OK’ painted near the doorway; we expect that means that they had been searched and cleared of weapons and mines. 

Our ride continued in this manner; stopping to read the notice boards at each station, stopping to wander around a church, or for photos of the amazing views; all at a relaxed pace. We were following the contour line along the edge of Popovo Polji, looking out to a large flat basin formed in the past by the Trebišnjica river. Occasionally the canal, that was built on the riverbed of the  Trebišnjica  River, and through which it now flows,(at 68km is the longest slab of concrete in the world), snakes through our view. 

We encountered little in the way of danger or difficulty. One dead snake, a good reminder not to venture off the asphalt, one sign warning about land mines, one hornet that took a dislike to me when I spent too long observing them going into a hole in some concrete, three vehicles. The heat reached 40 C by the middle of the afternoon, but as long as we were moving, we created our own airflow. Just as well we had an adequate water supply, as, (apart from knocking on someone’s door if we’d got desperate) there had been no places to refill. At one time we waved to two cyclists coming toward us. They had no gear so appeared to be on a day trip. Other than the cyclists we had seen no more than ten other people.

Just before Zavala, the track widened and some cars were parked. A group of people on our left were wearing blue jackets and had yellow helmets on their heads. We’d arrived at the Cave Vjetrenica, and this was a tour group. At the cave entrance, with a grill to prevent unguided people entering, it was the best natural air-conditioning you could wish for. We sat with our drink, waiting to take the 4p.m. tour, in the blast from the ‘wind cave’ and with the air that was blowing out, at just over 11C, we soon forgot that it was actually extremely hot elsewhere. Our cave tour, of 6 people and guide, was following a path 600 metres through the cave, with key points explained. The cave was limestone and key features were the ponds, with water so calm and clear, it was invisible. We saw one Salamander with almost translucent white skin. Evidently the Salamander has the slowest metabolism of any creature on earth, only needing to eat once every ten years. Now that would be handy for a cyclist!

Zavala has a well presented, renovated station, hotel, with a row of green bikes parked at the kerb, free for people to use. We ordered coffee and noted that a room was €60 and they had a nice menu. Nev has his heart set on wild camping, so we fill our water containers and then move on to visit the Cave Museum that explains some of the geology of the cave system and history of the cave exploration. 

The lady working at the museum recommended we now take the road option to Radvo. We would avoid a dangerous bridge and a tunnel full of bats, and it’s only a 6 kilometre climb!  The last point clinches our decision to go via the trail, as we had always intended, even though the asphalt is replaced by the macadam surface; whatever that is! We find ourselves on a flat, easily ridden gravel section and not far from Zavala we round a bend to find a grassy verge beside the trail, tucked against a bank. An ideal spot for our camp. It’s almost 6 o’clock; a long day to have been out in the heat.

Today’s distance: 49 km from Mlini

Day 2

I must admit I was worried about the tunnel. Another lady we spoke with at Zavala yesterday had said she rode there with her son, had twice entered the tunnel and each time turned back because of the bats. Nev leads and all goes well until I suggest we stop for a photo. Trouble is, when we stop our dynamo lights go out. So we’re in complete darkness with bats squeaking above us. I take a photo and then hot foot it out of there. For the next tunnel I’ll wear my headlamp as a back-up light source! The viaduct was immediately after the tunnel. It was a steel bridge with solid wooden decking, wide enough to ride over.

Ravno had a kafe open so we took the opportunity to have coffee. There is another nice station hotel here. 

Our morning continues to be 30km of delightful riding, with views of the Popovo Polje and later across to the artificial lake Vrutak that is filled with water of the Trebišnjica River flowing into it. We had assumed the river was flowing to the sea! 

We come to another macadam section. This section becomes quite challenging as, in patches, the surface is large chunks of rock that roll under the wheels. The line had been built high on the karst stone field, and with steep drop-offs either side I choose to walk a couple of the sections that I find more difficult. Fortunately this rough section is only 2.5 km long. Nev of course, rides it all. By the time we get to Donji Zelenikovac it’s 36C at 1100 a.m.  We meet a guy from Finland cycling in the same direction as us. He has based himself at Ravno, and is doing a day trip loop. We chat for a while about the trail and the area we have ridden through. He tells us that at one point he stopped to take a photo, glanced down and noticed a hand grenade in a hole in the ground! He rides on, but we are on the main road, at a house where there are a couple of tables and chairs set up and cold drinks for sale. We take a refreshment break in the shade of a tree. 

The next section is 22km of macadam surface. Nev has let some of the air out of our tyres, and we find this section is not as rocky as the last one, so we move along at a steady pace. The changed surface adds interest to the ride, as does negotiating ten tunnels over the distance. I swear Bats squeak in all of them. Some tunnels are quite long and even with the bike light it feels like the walls are closing in. Sometimes I find it difficult to keep my line on the firm part of the track, and end up in the rocky mound in the middle. I take the tunnels cautiously because I don’t want to fall off. 

We caught up with the Finnish guy at end of tunnel 10. There was an almighty ‘bang’ and his front tyre had blown! Back on road tarmac, just before Hutovo, we cross the Neretva river and stop for a couple of hours, enjoying a meal in the shade of a pergola riverside. At 36C in the shade, the heat has not dissipated. 

At 3p.m. we decide to move on, but only a couple of kilometres later, we saw people enjoying themselves by a pretty river. We take a left turn, follow signs to Canoe Tours, and take up a small portion of the pebble riverside, swim in the cold, translucent, green water, and watching the children enjoying the Saturday afternoon, are reminded of similar summer activities of our childhood in New Zealand.

Hutovo is the largest town we’ve come across. It has an ATM, so we finally get some Bosnian Marks, and a few more grocery items. About 4 km out of town we find a secluded spot, and camp beside the river.

Today’s distance: 62.5 km

Day 3

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Our last day is only 30 km to Mostar. We follow the river for a while. There are very impressive waterfalls, with a bridge crossing the river. We made an excursion the next day, but if you have time, make a diversion here and cross the river and go to Blagaj where you will find the source of the Buna River, and it is very beautiful to see as it comes from a cave within an enormous stone cliff. Our entry into Mostar is from the industrial side of town. It’s Sunday and the roads in the early morning are quiet. It’s a flat ride.

 I reflect on our time riding the trail. We chose the off-road option when it was available, and that made the route more interesting. We had no hills! I can only assume that the climbs we saw on the contour map related to the road section. The railway history was interesting and well documented on bill-boards. It was impossible not to feel saddened when thinking about the war that had torn this region; lives had been lost, families and property destroyed. Camping was no issue but there was accommodation available at the distances we wanted to stop. For us, it was good to be self sufficient with food and to take extra water, as it meant we could take our time. 

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Albania: Shkoder - Berat by bicycle

Louise George

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Our ride into Albania is at the end of a brutal day. (Post about Montenegro coming soon).  We´ve just completed a long descent, stopped at a service station cafe for a cool drink and about 5 km later, crossed the border. In fact that means we have been ´checked-out´ of Montenegro but there has been no official entry into Albania; we´re just there! We have 20 km more to ride and it is flat all the way to Shkoder. We stop for a phone card, and a city map, and easily make our way to Green Garden Hostel, where Warmshowers guests are welcome, and offered the first night camping for free.  (Warmshowers is an international group of cyclists who host, or are hosted by, other Warmshowers members). We are told there are still rooms available, and because we will be in Shkoder for two nights, and we like comfort; we skip the free back-yard camping and choose a room.

Statistics for a brutal day: 71km, 5:42hrs, 1154m ascent, 1161m descent.

A day off the bikes! We don´t want to do too much as we´re both tired. We take a walk into Shkoder centre; passing vendors who have set up temporary stalls on the edge of the wide footpath, beside the road.  Typical wares for sale include fruit and vegetables, knick knacks, plastic wares, piles of tobacco, filters and paper, second hand clothes, and shoes.  We also pass two streets of market stalls piled deep with second-hand clothing. It appears that all of Australia´s Goodwill bins have been sent to Albania!

We have another three days off the bikes, as we take a minibus to Theth and hike from Theth to Valbone and then a ferry on Lake Komani. See photo below. You can read about that trip here.

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After much discussion about temporarily lightening our loads by storing our camping gear and warm clothing, having studied maps, terrain and altitude, we have decided to head south tomorrow; with everything! Nev had suggested we consider returning to Montenegro and we did so briefly, but I know I´ve been influenced by talking with other people about their experiences, and am keen to see more of Albania and what will unfold. I am very conscious that there will be hills, but will worry about that later. We’ve had a few days off the bikes, one in Shkoder recovering from the previous three days of riding, one day travelling to, and one day travelling from the mountains, with a tough day of hiking in between. I’m thinking I’d like another day in Shkoder to get organised for the days ahead, but in reality I’m just delaying because, in spite of what I said earlier, I feel like I’ve lost the confidence to be a nomadic cyclist! Difficulties will be the climbing and the heat, now forecast at over 30C that is typical for this time of year. In reality, what is there to organise when your home is in the panniers, there are shops along the way, and the washing can be dry in two hours?

Checking navigation, overlooked by Shkroder Castle

Checking navigation, overlooked by Shkroder Castle

We’re on the bikes at 8 a.m. looking forward to a comfortable, yet long day. Around 85 km of mostly flat riding. The easiest route south is the main highway. While we had travelled in the minibus, I’d felt like I would not want to be riding these roads. In reality it’s like canoeing a fast moving river; everything’s flowing in the same direction and you’re only aware of what is immediately beside you. As we moved through the rural landscape of cornfields, and small farms, the traffic was mostly courteous; giving plenty of room as they passed and many trucks and buses gave a gentle warning toot. It was helpful to have the mirrors and keep an eye on what vehicles were coming from behind.

We’re coming up to a motorway section and turn off just before it, because we want to access a minor road. Somehow we’ve missed the road we have been looking for, and find ourselves on a secondary road flyover, with the narrow road below us. We can’t be bothered returning 5 km to the turn off we missed. There is a very steep gravel path (something the locals would have made for a shortcut) from the flyover we are on, down to the road we want. The bikes are unloaded. Slipping and sliding we make numerous trips to transfer everything from one road to the other.

This minor road is more to our liking. There were many “hello” calls from children and adults on the roadside, there are few vehicles and many give the occasional honk of greeting with the peace sign offered out the window. We pass through a couple of villages that have acres of buildings and brick chimney stacks, in various stages of ruin. Evidently when the country was under the Communist regime, there was a lot of industry; steel, woollen, and cotton mills. Now it is long gone, and some urban areas are looking quite forlorn. There is a lot of unemployment in Albania. There was also a boom in high rise accommodation that was built for the people who came from the countryside to work in the factories. These unattractive buildings on the outer suburbs of most cities are still used as housing.

We had regular breaks and by lunchtime we’d covered 50 km and still feeling good. Nev went to Booking.com and found that the room that appealed to him last night was still available at Krujë. Even though I know this will mean our ride will finish with a climb, I’m sucked in by the romantic notion of a room directly overlooking the castle, and so the booking is made.

The afternoon heat continues to intensify. I’m deliberately not checking the temperature on my Garmin hoping that by not knowing, I’ll not be affected by it. I don’t need to see a number to know that it is very hot; it’s hot enough that after lunch I pull into a car wash (hand-done here) and am given the hose and am able to give myself a thorough wetting. Later a very loud “hello” hailed from the shade of trees at a Bar/Kafe is a good excuse to stop for a cool drink, and chat (via charades and google translate) with a couple of men who are interested in where we have come from, how did we get here, and the bikes, particularly the gear-box, (most people think they are e-bikes, which is a bit disappointing)!

The road surface fluctuates between new seal and potholes, then to newly laid, firm, pressed rock, and later deteriorates further, to many kilometres of potholes and road works. Finally we’re at the turn-off to Krujë and the beginning of the climb. There is a car wash ahead, so I go in for another drenching. There´s a sign showing 8 km to Hotel Panorama. With a name like that, it must be high. We’re not staying there, but we know our accommodation is at the top of the hill, so it will be at least that far. The climb is almost immediately horrendous, waivering between 5 and 9%. It isn’t long before we’re stopping after each kilometre, to give my heartrate the opportunity to drop, to snatch some water, and get the fortitude to continue. It takes us 1 & 1/2 hours to cover nine kilometres. We’re finally in the town but still have two kilometres to go, and the road narrows, continuing up. I’ve been telling myself how amazing my body is to get thrashed like this and keep going, when I round a switchback corner to where Nev is waiting, and see the gradient increases. Wracking sobs overwhelm me! While wiping my eyes, I realise I don’t have any glasses on. I always wear glasses! Because we’re experiencing intense sunny days, today I wore my prescription sunglasses. They had often annoyed me as I rode, slipping down my nose, and I’ve got no idea if I’ve been so stressed I didn’t notice them slip off. Also I reckon Nev must have looked at me, at least each time we stopped; surely he noticed my glasses missing, There’s no way I’m going back to look for them.

To get to our accommodation, Nev suggests that he’ll continue upward, and then come back for me. Nev rides on, and I begin pushing my bike. Suddenly it’s rolling easier and a man has grabbed the carrier and continues to assist me for about 500 metres of the steepest section. I am so thankful for his kindness! I’ve regained the strength to ride, and find that the top of the immediate hill is followed by a short descent. Nev has parked his bike at the bottom, on the castle cobblestones, and is trying to decide which of the three directions is the correct way. A car pulls up and a young man asks if he can help. It happens he is from Emiliano where we are staying. He phones his brother, who comes to guide us. My bike is taken from me and I have no way of keeping up with the young man’s pace as he pushes my bike and I walk freely, to cover the final 150 metres to our accommodation. We are shown to the shady garden, given a ‘welcome’ beer, and just go “wow!” Behind, across a valley, is the rocky face of a mountain with some homes clinging to the surface and situated higher than the hill we are perched upon. The other three directions are uninterupted views of at least 30 kilometres, out to the ocean, and south to beyond Tirane. We are at the top of a hill, within the perimeter of an old castle, staying in a family home that is 300 years old, and being served by the fifth generation of inhabitants.

Today we will not be riding. We both feel weary after yesterday’s effort, so relax by exploring Krujë Castle, built in the 5th or 6th Century. The National Skanderbeg museum there, gives a good perspective of Albanian history. Albania has been inhabited by people, the Illyrians (Indo-European tribes) from antiquity. More recent history shows Albania has been ruled at various times over the centuries (1200´s to late 1800´s) by the Venetians, Sicilians. Serbians, Ottomans, Italians, and Greeks. In 1922 Albania was admitted to the League of Nations as a sovereign independent state. Even up to the 2nd world war Albania was being carved up and dished out to neighboring countries.

We learn of Albania’s National Hero, Skanderbeg, who served the Ottomans but deserted in 1944, along with hundreds of Albanians under his leadership, and became the ruler of Krujë. He reconverted to Christianity and for 25 years he lead many rebellions against the Ottomans, that continued even after his death. He has been recognised as a hero in many Western European countries as a model of Christian resistance against Muslims!

The drop from Krujë should have been a ripper of a ride, but we take it easy, checking each corner where we had stopped while climbing a couple of days ago, to see if my sunglasses have fallen to the roadside. They don´t show up so at the bottom, I pull into the Lavazh where I’d given myself a cool drenching. A man immediately waves, and with his fingers circled before his eyes, demonstrates he has my glasses. He indicates for me to wait, goes up the road beside the car wash, and returns with them. I am so grateful, and he will not accept any thanks other than the words, and the kiss that I blow in his direction as we ride away.

The route to Tirana (the capital) is quite straight-forward. Through the city centre there is a designated cycle path, although navigating some of the roundabouts is challenging. Soon we are out the other side. We are not stopping as we will be coming back this way. We stop at a bar/kafe just before the countryside and have a Coca-Cola and a cheese pie that we purchased from the bakery downstairs. Not very satisfying food but we appear to have passed all shops, other than bakeries. We have a climb out of Tirana and onto a secondary road through Rolling Hills. This is a new suburb with grand houses and an International school nearby. The suburb´s name is not true!  The climbs are really steep! Nev doesn't seem to know where we are. We end up following the course that he created using the Komoot APP, and end up bouncing our way down a trail that would be suitable for tractors,  eventually dropping into Mullet. It is still not clear what road we should be on, but we can both see a motorway on our right; and that is where we are heading. 

Our navigation shows we’ve got a couple of climbs before Elbasan (we are not actually going to Elbasan, but in that direction) so we’ll decide later how far to ride today. We’re on SH3, and there is a lot of traffic. For much of the morning, my view has been of the bitumen immediately before me, making sure I keep as close as possible to Nev in front, to minimise overtaking time for vehicles, and also as close as possible to the white line delineating the road edge. There are constant quick glances at the rear-view mirror to check what is coming from behind. Decisions then need to be made. Can the vehicle overtake us easily. If there is on-coming traffic, will we need to move into the gravel for those coming from behind to overtake, or will we need to stop completely. Nev pulls into a lay-by for a drink from his water bottle. I’m surprised to see that he too, is not game to take his hands off the handle-bars, for fear of losing his line.

We are almost at the top of the climbing for today. There is only a little blip left on Nev´s graph. We pull into a bar/kafe just beyond Ibe. I´ve already had Coca-Cola today and a bottle of sweet electrolyte drink, I feel like something not sweet, so I order a beer, and Nev does likewise. I´m going to celebrate the end of the climbing and enjoy the refreshment.  We are also each given a huge glass of iced water, that dilutes the alcohol significantly. Sitting in the shade and high in the hills we´re able to feel a light breeze; bliss!

Back on the bikes we´ve decided to stop and find accommodation at Mushqeta, at the bottom of the hill, only another five kilometres. As we begin to drop into the valley there is a sign about a tunnel. Tractors and bicycles must not enter, but are to take the road towards Gracen.  The road to Gracen completely bypasses Mushqeta and begins with a climb, and then continues climbing for 12 km.  We pass a few grand residences, that appear to have been abandoned. Finally we get to the restaurant, that, when we turned onto this road, a bill-board had displayed as being 3 km!  We take the opportunity to fill up all of our water bottles from the fountain in front of the restaurant. Evidently we still have 23km to go to Elbasen! It was only 22km to Elbasan from the tunnel! The road continues undulating along the ridge, with stunning views and then at last we begin descending.

The long 12 km descent follows a ridge only as wide as the road, so we have views on both sides, when we dare to cast a peripheral glance. We ride with some care, as we share the road with goats watched by their herders, donkeys rolling in the dust, the occasional horse grazing, chickens flapping roadside, and the pair of cows that each rural family appears to own, being moved for milking. There are also a few switchback corners that keep us from having a blast, and the occasional pothole that has been repaired to overflowing, so large bumps of concrete are bounced over. Nevertheless it’s a great way to finish a very long day and we roll into Landis Bar Camping at Bradashesh, and pitch the tent in the company of the kennelled family dog, a rooster and batch of very shrill chickens calling to the hens. Our host at Landis offers us a very large beer and his wife makes us a simple meal. We are happy to make our way early to the tent and leave our host with his family who are celebrating a birthday, in the bar. In Albania there are many bar/kafe businesses that sell only alcohol, soft drinks and coffee. Bar Landis is unique as it has camping on the side as well as offering locals the opportunity to have a drink while their car is being washed (by hand). Albania is the home of many bar/kafes, many car washes, and many very shiny, black Mercedes!

We left Landis Bar Camping at 6:05 because we want to beat the heat but it´s 26 degrees already. We take the main road out of Bradashesh, and it´s an easy 15km to the next reasonable sized village, where we decide to stop for sustenance; we haven´t eaten yet today. Breakfast of Pilaf and Fried Eggs hits the spot and we are off again for a couple of kilometres in the wrong direction before Nev realises we should have turned off. I haven’t got a navigation system and find it exceedingly annoying when Nev gets it wrong. This will be rectified before we ride another day!  With our course corrected we continue on main roads. There is little traffic, the road is wide and there is also a wide shoulder. The climbs are long and steady, the surface is usually good, in fact some of the bitumen is so new, there are no road markings, and I feel like I might be the first person to travel on it. One of the descents is memorable because it was so long, with few corners, and at a gradient where we could roll at quite a good speed without ever braking. It brought a smile to my face on a day that fascilated between negativity and positivity, probably in accordance with whether I was climbing or descending hills

Our travel is through a few small villages. There is a noticeable number of abandoned houses. In some places there are many new, partly built houses. Some of these are quite grand. We are later told that many Albanians live and work in other countries, and send back money to family, so building progress is likely, subject to these contributions. We pass many homes with the cut bushes of what smells like thyme (possibly mountain tea), drying in the sun on tarpaulins spread on the roadside, sometimes taking the space to the centre line! Occasionally a car doesn’t pass widely enough and sweet scent wafts around us as we ride by.

Our progress is good, traffic is light, surroundings are interesting, all the while the day gets increasingly hotter until by 11:30 it is 36 degrees. We stop briefly for photos of nodding donkeys. Some are very old, looking neglected and appear to not be operating. Some have muddy oil around the structure. In one village we rode through, one is nodding away in the centre of the car-park area. Evidently Albania is rich in petroleum and gas resources. 

At Kucove, Nev’s route has us turning from the town, continuing along the base of the hills with what appear to be a number of little climbs. We’re facing a small road that climbs at a gradient I’m not interested in riding right now, and then repeating for the next little while, so I opt that we go back to the main road, and fortunately that gives a perfectly flat ride for the next ten kilometres. We’ve hardly stopped today apart from breakfast, a few photos and purchasing a couple of bananas at a market. The heat is intense so just 5 km from Berat we take a long break to sit in the shade and buy cold water that we drink in copious amounts.

We arrive in Berat around 1 pm. Nev suggests lunch but I’m too hot to eat so we have a snow freeze. We think our accommodation is in the old town. Sure enough it is but not down near the river, the road looks to be quite near the top of the hill on our left. We check Google maps for directions and choose what appears to be the most direct route. It certainly is! Immediately it is slippery shiny uneven flagstones, so we dismount and walk. Pushing the bikes is relatively easy at first but then the gradient becomes so steep that we park one bike and both push the other. Park that one, return for the first and repeat, and repeat and repeat, all the while thinking ´we must be almost there´.  Eventually we get to tarmac and Nev reckons he can ride, so he sets off with the intention of finding the guesthouse and then returning to help me. When he gets back, much later, he has still not found the guesthouse, but he has phoned them. Evidently our accommodation is within the castle, not the old town as we had thought. Nev has parked his bike at the castle gate and returned about 700 metres to me. Nev takes my bike and rides, with me pushing for as long as I can keep up. We pay the castle entry fee and are directed to take the middle road. Guesthouse Vasili is at the top!

Nev’s shirt is sodden with sweat. It could be rung out. I’m in awe that he rode the gradient on both his own, and then my bike. What was supposed to be a moderately easy day of cycling; turned to custard at the end. We are shown to our room and the adjoining shaded balcony offers a place for recovery with a small breeze. The two night stay we have booked at Guesthouse Vasili is a highlight of our time in Albania. Freddie and his wife Nina are very welcoming and their neighbour and life-time friend, Mickel joins us for each breakfast and evening meal and is our personal translator. We pass two evenings sitting outdoors, eating Nina´s delicious home-cooked food, to the point of bursting, and hearing of what life is like living within a castle in heritage listed houses, as well as life in general in Albania.

Freddie drives us down to Berat city via a route much easier than the one we took (evidently our route was the second steepest way), and we visit the ethnological museum and walk the main streets. There is no noticeable tourist population and it is refreshing to note that shops appear to be more to meet the needs of the locals. Later we catch the local ´mini-bus´ back up to the castle. The castle dates back 2,500 years and is unique in that there is a well inhabited village within the walls; homes such as the one we are staying at. We have an interesting explore of the fortress perimeter walls, wander around the exterior of a mosque and byzantine church, check out the water cistern and visit inside one of the Orthodox churches that is home to 16th Century iconic paintings by Master Onufri. 

Berat down-town with view of ´old town´ and castle

Berat down-town with view of ´old town´ and castle

We have decided to head north and hopefully find cooler riding. With that decision made we decide not to stop in Tirane on our way to Shkodra, even though we change buses there. The large bus from Berat station is very suitable because it has a large luggage compartment underneath. Even so, Nev has to remove the pedals, turn the handle-bars and bag the bikes, in the idworx bags he has been carrying for such an occasion.  At Tirane he puts the bikes back together so that we can ride the seven kilometres to the Shkodra bus station. Google maps, pops up a photo ‘welcome to the Shkodra Bus Station’ but it has lead us astray. We find ourselves in an empty gravel space. There is a small shed and a man there calls someone over who speaks English. Soon we are back on the bikes returning half the distance we have already ridden to a parking area where there are only mini-buses. Making the connection work for us from Tirane to Shkoder is very challenging as Nev and the driver complete the puzzle of stowing our bikes and gear along with that of other passengers in the very full mini-bus. 

The day passes quickly with a very easy journey from Berat to Shkoder, where we return to Green Garden Hostel for the third time. Tomorrow we will leave early and ride to Montenegro.

 

In conclusion we had a wonderful time in Albania. In July, the heat combined with the hills made the cycling too challenging for me. We would like to return, maybe in April/May. We chose accommodation at the lower end of the market and it was always well presented and our hosts were very friendly. Some Albanians have never left Albania, and they are as interested in our home (Australia) and lifestyle, as much as we are in theirs. We loved the fresh fruit and vegetables. Food is presented as is in season. We found it unusual but not distasteful to have cucumbers, tomatoes and white cheese at every meal, including breakfast. On leaving we were surprised that it was near impossible to change Albanian currency, so it’s best to spend all cash, or change money at an Albanian bank before leaving.

Albania: Theth to Valbone and Lake Komani

Louise George

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We are picked up by a Mercedes mini van, organised by Green Garden Hostel, and driven to Theth. We felt like we’d been teleported to Nepal. Initially the road was narrow and although sealed, dodging or moving over for other traffic made the journey slow.  We drive past fields of lavender and what appear to be chamomile flowers blooming. Soon we were on a mountain road. The mountains were steep and rocky, some with pockets of dirty snow. Clouds hung low in the drizzle. The road was very narrow with steep drop offs. Later the surface deteriorated to rough gravel and embedded raised rocks. There was no room to pass on-coming vehicles, so some backing-up to wider verges was required. It took almost 3 hours to travel 70 kms.  

We arrived in drizzle at accommodation Alpbes Theth, a guesthouse that is associated with Green Garden Hostel. Meals are included and we are almost immediately sat down to lunch of bread, spinach pie, sheep milk cheese, salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, and yellow capsicum, coated in olive oil, sheep milk yoghurt, washed down with a shot of Rakija. The soft rain turned the air cold. In fact I found it hard to generate any warmth in spite of donning all of the clothes I’d brought for the hike. While packing for the trip the last thing Nev said to me was he had his bathers, because there was a blue spring, and you could swim there. I didn’t even open my bag of warm gear that I had brought for the possibility of cycling getting cool, and now I am berating myself for my stupidity, entering a mountain region unprepared. For most of the afternoon we rested in the room, I was wrapped in the quilt.

Later we were bored, and still had to wait until 8 pm for dinner, so we walked out in the soft drizzle.

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When we were called for dinner, I was reluctant to go to the dining room and leave the quilt behind, but soon warmed up after a dinner of soup, chips, BBQ lamb leg, cheese, salad, bread, and vegetable slice.

We requested breakfast for 7:30 and hoped that the weather would be fine so that tomorrow we can undertake the hike we intended. Breakfast is: mountain tea, bread, omelette, homemade butter, white cheese, ricotta, honey, fig jam. Feeling very full of food, and with a pile of additional food hastily prepared for a picnic, (our hosts hadn´t realised our intention to complete the hike) we departed just after 9. The 4WD track lead us about 3 km downhill to the trail head. The sign indicates that it´s 6km to Valbone Col, so that means 6km uphill! We continue on a rocky 4wd trail, that soon turned to zigzag up the steep shingle hill. Later it was muddy underfoot through beech forest. Still we continue upwards with occasional pauses for photos. The mountain views were stunning. About 40 minutes from the top, on the edge of the forest there was a cafe! We supported the local economy by purchasing cans of Nescafé Latte, and a slice of pancake-layer-stack, glued with honey.

At the Col, nimble Nev detoured out to the highest point to get some 360 degree views. We crossed through to the other side and then began descending, crossing many shingle avalanches.  Sometimes the track was quite narrow. This is the type of surface I don’t like walking on. I’ve never slipped, but the consequences of doing so, would be treacherous. Eventually, after much descending, we arrived at a meadow that was a good place to stop for lunch. Our packed lunch was bread, white cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. Up to now we had seen only one other couple, but at this point we passed many people going up from the Valbone side. 

The descent continued following a stark white, rocky riverbed, and we are completely surrounded by mountains. The sun was shining and it was a pleasant walk all the way to Valbone where we stepped onto tarmac opposite a luxury hotel, where we celebrated by sharing a bottle of beer.

The trail finishes near the hotel tucked in the forest

The trail finishes near the hotel tucked in the forest

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The walk wasn’t over for us; we didn’t have anywhere to stay, so we continued, looking for a guesthouse with a spare room.  We met 2 French couples on bikes. They were travelling separately, and had met a month ago, and now, by chance, had met up again. It was interesting to get their perspecive of cycling in Albania. By the time we had found suitable accommodation we had walked 22.2km. I was extremely cold, and again I’d been tucked under a quilt trying to be warm, but dinner was served outside, sitting in armchairs at a small table, surrounded by peaks kissed by the last of the sun.  Tepid Moussaka with some rice mixed in, bread, pasta shells that had been cooked in a broth, (but with no sauce) salad of tomatoes and cucumbers, ricotta with chopped green pickled tomatoes stirred in. We watched as goats on the road were herded to safety for the night, and a lone horse wandered home. We declined the offer to watch the World Cup Soccer, and headed for bed.

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An early start; breakfast is to be at 6:30. I used Nev´s phone to set the time not realising that the 6:00 alarm was only for Saturday, for the rides he used to go on in Australia, with his mates! Just as well I wake early. By the time I thought to check the time it was 6:15. We managed to pack ready to leave, and be at the outdoor table in time for breakfast of deep fried omelette, bread, another type of white cheese, and fig jam, washed down with mountain tea. Mountain Tea is an Albanian breakfast accompaniment. It is made by steeping the plant, stem and leaves, in hot water. It is served hot or room temperature, and has a very pleasant flavour with a hint of perfume similar to lavender. Evidently it is an endangered plant, Sideritis Raeseri, a medicinal herb, rich in antioxidants.

A minibus took us to Busan, where we needed to catch another minibus to Fierze. While we waited on the footpath what appeared to be a minibus pulled up in front of us. Yes he was going to Fierze and we had difficulty understanding the fare. Nev gave him 1500 Lek and then he snatched the remaining 600 Nev was still holding. We took off at a crazy rate. Nev and I simultaneously reaching around for seat belts, and exchanging the same thought as we looked into each other´s eyes; ¨what have we got into!¨ Nev checked Google maps and the exchange rate. It was now obvious that this vehicle, in spite of it´s disheveled state, was a taxi, and we were in the hands of a crazy Albanian driver! At a village he pulled over and he told us to get out, and pointing and waving, indicated we were to go with another man who was at the side of the road standing beside a small car. We clarified that we didn’t need to pay the man any money, then the minibus did a u-turn and disappeared. The driver of the small car lit a cigarette, and we were off, enveloped in smoke, to Fierze, only a few kilometres away. The driver stopped outside a restaurant and told us, quite sternly, to get out. So we did! On asking at the restaurant, we found it was still 3 km to the ferry and it departed in 45 minutes. We set off at a brisk walk and then decided to hitchhike. Thumbs out to the first car and it pulled over. Two young men quickly moved stuff to one side of the back seat and we squeezed in. We were offered, and ate their biscuits, and soon dropped at the ferry.

The three hour ferry ride on Lake Komani was beautiful, even though the peace was disturbed by accompanying local music, played just a little too loudly! Lake Komani is a man-made reservoir as a result of damming the Drin River. Large hills rise from the water and occasionally there is a view of mountains behind. The scenes are very picturesque but not dramatic like the country we had walked through yesterday.

As soon as we disembark the ferry we are approached by a man who asks if we need a ride to Shkoder. He has a taxi with two passengers and is happy for two more fares. We are happy to accept his offer that is cheaper than the minibus we were expecting to catch. Today, in terms of transport; you lose some; you win some! 

Sri Lanka: Ella to Colombo - including Udawalawa National Park, Talalla, Uluwatuna

Louise George

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Our calf muscles are a bit stiff but we’ve planned a day of walking. It’s May Day Public Holiday; usually held 1st May but deferred this year because last Monday was a Poya Public Holiday. 

The walking route to Ella from the height of our accommodation is down a long section of concrete steps and then along the railway.  There is a narrow track beside the line but with puddles and sometimes overhanging long grasses to brush against us at face height, we do what the locals do, and take no notice of the signs pointing out the danger of walking on the line, and make our walk easier by stepping from sleeper to sleeper, first a section on solid concrete ones and later, old wooden sleepers, that squelch in the moist mud. We walked a number of kilometres, along the railway line, through the short tunnel, to Nine Arch Bridge, a span of 91 metres at a height of 24 metres. The bridge was commissioned by the British in 1941. We took our place in the queue for a photo, along with many locals who were also out walking. I took my hat off for the photo and put it on the ground with the bag. We were about to walk on, when I said to Nev that it seemed odd, but my ear felt like it was sweating. On removing my hat he told me there was a leech attached to the top of my ear. Those around me panicked and one person, (Tasmanian)who fortunately has a leech phobia, had a bag of salt to sprinkle on it. It soon curled up and dropped to the ground but not before Nev took a photo of it. The Tasmanian took great delight in stomping the leech flat. From that time, I am constantly checking myself when we walk through long grasses.

We climbed a dirt track from the railway, and on joining a road came across a juice bar, that had a view directly down to the bridge. Sipping on passionfruit juice, we’d timed it right to see the crowds on the bridge scuttle, and the morning train crossed. More climbing and steps took us to the top of Little Adam’s Peak, but by the time we arrived, cloud had obscured the view. On heading towards town, raindrops fell just as we were passing a restaurant. The impending rain and attraction of a sign of Espresso, cappuccino, latte, seemed like a great time to stop. The restaurant had no coffee and we were too late for small meals. Nev ordered and I ate a small portion of his meal. By now it was 3 p.m. and we’d booked to attend a cooking class at 5, so I didn’t want to spoil my appetite. Rain bucketed down for the next 2 hours. We shared our table with an English couple, Cherry, Keith and daughter Kate. Kate and Keith, 70, had just completed Lanka Tuk Tuk challenge, and we loved hearing of their adventure. If anyone is crazy enough, here is a link to the organisation that runs that challenge; https://www.largeminority.travel/lanka-challenge/  (A few days later, in a car park in Unawatuna we saw two Tuk Tuks emblazoned with New Zealand stickers and flags that appear to have also participated in the event).

There were four of us at the Ella Rocks Cooking class. The Sri Lanka curries are mild and flavoursome. We cooked rice, yellow dhall, bean curry, pumpkin curry and coconut roti, all from scratch, even made the coconut milk; all very delicious, with a side of avocado salad. Dessert was a sweet, nutty, cinnamon, sago pudding, a National dish called Sauw.

Here is one very simple cooking tip you may like to use: when cooking rice, add a few cloves of Garlic (in their skins) to the water. They come out creamy, just like baked garlic. You can also do this when cooking yellow lentils for dhall.

Our calf muscles are tight! We’re going to have a ‘taking it easy’ day but as Ella Hide View is perched at the top of a hill, our outing starts with a stiff walk down the steps and along the railway to Ella. It’s easy to locate the bus stop and catch a blue one, that takes over the road as it speeds downhill around tight corners, towards Wellawaya. We get off after 6 km at the Rawana Ella falls, that drop an impressive 19 metres down to the roadside. There are large boulders and warnings not to climb them, as to date 36 people have died at this waterfall. The road each side was bordered by stalls selling peeled and sliced Mango, temptingly displayed as fruit strips protruding from small plastic bags. We’d had the most amazing breakfast at Ella Hide View that had included a fruit starter of slices each of mango, papaya, watermelon, orange, pineapple, small banana and half a passion fruit; so couldn’t be tempted. There is a bus stop nearby and we enjoy the wait for a return bus, as there are monkey’s antics to be entertained by. 

Back in Ella, we’re tempted by a coffee sign, only to find there is no power to restaurants in town, so again coffee is elusive. There is stormy cloud filling the space between the steep hills that border the valley of Ella Gap, so we returned to Ella Hide View to sit out what becomes torrential rain, that fell for a few hours.  We holed up for an admin afternoon. Our view was towards little Ella Falls and they had grown from two riverlets of silver to a solid burnished brown curtain, that was held apart by a ridge of green shrubbery. We wondered if Rawana Ella was cascading over the road!

Ella Hide View do not do lunch, and after such a large breakfast we thought that wouldn’t matter, but after the accumulated walking over the past few days, by 3 p.m. I’m feeling light headed.  The easiest way to town is another railway line walk, but this time we decided to follow a sign pointing down a road to Ella City, and found ourselves walking down a steep slippery narrow road with tourist accommodation built into the slopes. No wonder the locals prefer the flat railway. From a small store we buy peanuts and cashews. These are going in my bag so we’re never caught without food again, and then we eat a hearty meal at a local restaurant.

Were winding our way to Uva Halpewaththa tea plantation when the Tuk Tuk we are passengers in, stops. It’s broken down. At the rear of the vehicle, the flap is lifted and this gives Nev the opportunity to question the driver about the engine. It’s a four stroke, one cylinder, of only 125cc, that defies the massive ‘grunt’ they have, hauling three people (including the driver) up the steep hills in this region. The problem is a fuel blockage that the driver seems unable to fix, so a replacement vehicle and driver is called for and we continue on, leaving him to sort out his problem. 

The tea factory visit is very interesting. It starts with a lecture of the history and process, followed by a tour. The high country climate grows the best quality tea but it’s still graded into white or golden (being the delicate centre leaf), and three other grades, of which the third is used for tea bags. Later I read more about the tea industry and find that the British bought the plant from China, but the Sinhalese didn’t want to work in the plantations so southern Indians (Tamils) were bought here to pick. Pickers often live in community housing on the plantations, but the wage was a low $5 (2016) per 8 hour day, and living conditions often poor. Some plantations offer medical and educational services (such as Pedro’s we visited in Nuwara Eliya that advertise as ‘ethical’ tea), but I haven’t researched to confirm the extent of these claims. We´ve seen hundreds of acres of tea being grown and wonder at the enormity of the market for the leaf, considering our own capacity of a couple of tea bags each day!

The Tuk Tuk driver detours passed Ella Hide View so we can pick up our bag, and drops us at Ella where we sit at a restaurant eating Pizza Margherita, that we save half of for the bus journey.  The bus stops at Matalla and we need to change. The next bus isn’t leaving for 30 minutes and the driver and conductor are going to lunch. We sit outside the library and eat our pizza. By the time we get back to the bus it’s full of giggling school girls (school is from 7-1). By 3 we’re at Embilipitiya, and easily make our way to Pavana resort (Google maps, one of our most used Apps).  The welcome board displays Nev’s name and one other! The very welcoming manager plonks us in the foyer, delivers a juice drink, and insists we watch a BBC elephant documentary about Udawalawa Park, that will take 50 minutes! He fiddles for about 5 minutes trying to get the video to play, and then Nev puts him out of his misery, asks for the remote and easily loads it. (From this, Shirlee deduces that Nev must work in IT!) At 4 the screen dies, and we’re told that a transformer has blown; there is no power to the town! We are now taken to our room, that is very dark. Shirlee shows us the pool outside and explains the resort has been closed for 18 months. He is the very proud new proprietor, retired from an occupation in geology, and has been in his new role for only 2 weeks; we are his first guests. Well that explains his awkward exuberance!

Later we walk the short distance to town and see three men working up the pole to fix the power outage. We sit in a dark restaurant, barely lit by one torch lantern. Fried rice, cooked on gas, is an adequate meal. Power is restored early evening but we’re going to bed as we have an early start tomorrow.

We’re waiting for our Jeep at 5:15. Shirlee has prepared a large pink plastic basket with our picnic breakfast. Pick up time is 5:30 but at 6:15 after numerous attempts to contact by phone, both the driver and the company we booked through, we are still waiting. We go out to the main road and flag down a Tuk Tuk driver. We’ve covered half the 20 kms, when the driver pulls to a stop. The left rear tyre is flat. We get out of the little vehicle and watch as the spare is brought out from behind the back flap. The nuts on the wheel that is flat are undone. Nev and I both gasp as the driver lifts the vehicle to tilt it on one side and then balances it on his knee while he replaces the wheel! Nev offers to help but none is needed! Repairs completed and we continue, almost to Udawalawa National Park, to where the hire jeeps are waiting for customers.

Udawalawa National Park is known to be a great park to see elephants, and we have a delightful three hours, stopping at times to observe groups of them, many with young. The females and babies graze oblivious of us, but one male comes right up to the front passenger window and doesn’t appear to want to move. He nudges the vehicle and the driver squirts the elephant’s trunk from his water bottle! I saw those horror movies on the bus a few days ago, and I know that if the elephant decides to be aggressive, we will be the losers. Whenever one gets too close, I scarper to the opposite side of the Jeep. To be honest I got just as much pleasure looking at the beautiful birds (eagles, kingfishers, toucan, spotted crane, Weaver birds, that build nests that hang) as I did looking at elephants.

We return to Embilipitiya just to shower, check-out and catch a bus. As usual we both nod off. It’s a much longer ride than we expected and we find we’ve caught a bus that takes the very long coastal route. It’s a hot sticky ride but eventually we get to Talalla. This is a very pretty, crescent-shaped, golden-sand beach, edged with palms. Talalla Freedom Resort at the northern end (at the top of the hill) has a spare room (in fact no-one is staying here). The beach is deserted and the turquoise ocean breaks close to the shore. A picturesque scene spoiled by the zing of mosquitoes. The only restaurant we find open is at a Talalla Retreat and the fixed price meal is very expensive, but we’re hungry. The courses of soup, salad, main and dessert are delivered in such quick succession, that we’ve eaten an enormous amount in under an hour! We drag ourselves along the beach and back up the hill to pass out in food coma!

Talalla Beach

Talalla Beach

We’ve caught two buses but it hasn’t been difficult to transition at Matara, as a chap guided us (for a fee) through the station to seats on the bus to Unawatuna. We don’t have far to travel on this section. Soon there are a few people standing in the narrow aisle. Nev’s backpack is at the front of the bus and I have mine on my lap. We’ve been following our dot on Google Maps and know we’re almost at the peninsula where our accommodation is situated. There are more people to squeeze past to move forward, so I tell Nev I’ll go to the rear door while he goes to the front. The conductor is at the back by the door, and at the stop he indicates for me to get off. I move along the roadside towards the front door, but when I’m at only half the bus length, the bus moves off. Nev has not alighted! Oh shit! I’ve got no money and didn’t take any notice of the name of the place we’re going to stay. I set off in the direction of the bus at a fast paced walk. After about a kilometre I see Nev a long way in the distance, and run to catch up. Nev continues to walk quickly, away from me. I’m afraid he will think I’m still on the bus and grab a Tuk Tuk to chase it, so I break into a sprint. Finally I catch him but I’m exhausted and dripping sweat as if I’ve just stepped out of a shower. We flag a Tuk Tuk and don’t even haggle the price. We’ve spluttered up a hill and been dropped at the beginning of a steep driveway. How have we chosen accommodation on top of the only hill on the peninsula between Unawatuna Beach and Jungle Beach?

This begins a couple of days of relaxation, at Lanka Eco Village, getting laundry done (the humidity has been so high we’ve been unable to dry the clothes we washed ourselves in Ella, and they’re a bit musty), and preparing for our next travel. We’ve enjoyed lazying by the pool, and eating more food than we need. What would relaxation be without many walks, checking out the beaches, looking for restaurants (many are closed, because there are few tourists), and returning to our accommodation dripping wet from either perspiration, or from getting caught in torrential monsoon rains.

Yesterday dawned fresh and just a smidgen cooler as the thunderstorm that had raged all night had moved on. Everything dripped under the clear sky and on our hillside the road surfaces ran like rivers and the ocean had lost its turquoise hue. Nadee our accommodation manager, when we’d commented about very few women working in the service industries, had arranged for a female Tuk Tuk driver to take us to Galle Fort.  There has been a fort here since 1589 built initially by the Portuguese that was destroyed when the Dutch took Galle in 1640. The Dutch built the edifice that stands today. Galle was the main port for 200 years. There are many historic buildings, some still used as administrative offices or museums and churches, and we wander along the ramparts for a bird’s eye view.  

Apart from the historic attraction of the Fort, we’re intrigued by the number of couples we have seen getting formal photographs taken. Some are wearing very elaborate costumes and these are always colour coordinated. Poses are conjectured against a matching backdrop.

Unlike yesterday when breakfast was a buffet, today, Monday we’re the only two at breakfast that is included in our accommodation rate, and it’s taken at Villa Thawthisa Hotel next door. It is probably the only time in our lives that we will have a waiter attending only to us, and three cooks preparing our breakfast. We have juice, coffee, toast, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes lyonnaise, and the world’s best cheese omelette. Mind you; eggs have been part of every breakfast in Sri Lanka, and I don’t want to eat another one for a very long time!

Our last train is half an hour late. Not at all unusual, but eventually the engine and shabby carriages pull in front of the platform. We get a 2nd class seat by a wide open window and appreciate any air that comes in.  Even though we’re following the coast, there is no coolness in the breeze. Apart from long stretches alongside beaches and the Indian Ocean we have rivers and swampy mangrove areas to cross. There is the occasional resort or tidy home but as living adjacent to a railway line is not usually desirable, many of the homes are small makeshift dwellings, close to dirty ditches that are full from recent rains. I’m reminded of the Smart Traveller warning of dengue fever in Sri Lanka and hope the occasional mosquito bite I’ve had is clean.

Last sunset in Sri Lanka, from the train on the way to Colombo

Last sunset in Sri Lanka, from the train on the way to Colombo

Our final dinner is in Colombo at a local restaurant. The tasty meal is washed down with Avocado juice, that we’ve seen as available throughout the trip, but never tried. Avocados here are enormous, and of the green smooth skinned variety. We did buy two (35c each) at one point to make our breakfast eggs into smashed avocado and eggs. The juice was very tasty, with a little sugar added. If you love avocados as much as I do you might like these nifty icons by Adelaide creative, Lisa Vertudaches. There is a link from Lisa’s Instagram

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The Grand Oriental Hotel has a top floor restaurant with a bird’s eye view of the Port. We try the local liquor called Arrack. Essentially it is like a brandy but made out of the fermented sap of coconut flowers. Sitting out on the balcony we watch the comings and goings of trucks out to the docked ships. For us, alcohol hasn’t featured while we´ve been traveling in Sri Lanka. Liquor is not allowed for a week either side of Vesak Poya, and the local restaurants we have eaten at do not usually sell alcohol. We did eventually go out to seek beers in Ullawatuna, and found a liquor shop that had bars covering the windows, and the bottles and staff were behind a metal grill; very high security! Later we are told that alcohol, brought to Sri Lanka by the British, is a real issue here; especially in the communities we’re poor grade Arrack is made and consumed in large quantities. Supported by the majority Buddhist nation, law forbids women to purchase alcohol.

In all the mornings here, we’ve not had a true Sri Lankan breakfast, so have to remedy that on our last morning. There are some local restaurants near the Grand Oriental so we go to look for one. We’ve only walked 100 metres and are joined by a young man who says he has seen us at the hotel; he works there the night shift and is on his way home. Can he help? He explains that the restaurants in the area will be closed as this is a Muslin area and today is the first day of Ramadan.  (Ramadan is a period of fasting, held this year from 15 May. Ramadan is observed by people of Muslim faith to commemorate the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad). This chatty young man can show us to the best Sri Lankan restaurant at a food plaza, he is walking to his car and it’s in the same direction. When we get to the roads that converge at a roundabout with board fences securing building sites, he suggests it is difficult to walk (we’ve actually walked around this traffic island three times before without difficulty) and we should get a Tuk Tuk. Always take a government one he says, they have a meter; here is one now, and he flags the Tuk Tuk to the kerb. He tells the driver to take us to the restaurant but first he will stop at a gem shop that is on the way. Today being first day of Ramadan there is a sale from 6 a.m to 10 a.m., a once a year opportunity to get 50-60% off gem stones. It is a long ride in the Tuk Tuk in early morning traffic, and we’re both thinking this is a long way for breakfast! The vehicle pulls in front of the gem shop and we try to explain we’re not interested. It’s easier to ‘go with the flow’ so we go in to the shop, and are sat down to look at drawers of sparkling gems and jewellery. We humour the chap for five minutes and then insist we must go as we definitely do not want to buy, even with a 50% discount. The ‘government’ Tuk Tuk driver takes us to Lotus Food Court. He glances down at a dark screen I cannot read, and says the fee is R800, and would we like him to wait? We know this is a ludicrously expensive fee for the distance; pay, and say we will make our own way back. He isn’t very impressed!

Lotus Food Court has String Hoppers and Curry so we eat the same meal as the locals with the same utensils; our fingers! A very tasty breakfast, that we immediately ‘burn off’ as we power-walk the 3.3km back to the Grand Oriental, with only enough time spare for a quick shower and to get to the lobby to meet our driver. The driver of the car to the airport confirms we have been scammed! We laugh about dropping our guard, and being ‘caught out’ in the last moments of this trip. We parted with only a few dollars more for the orchestrated ride, and weren’t held at knifepoint and forced to part with large amounts of money, as he describes has happened to some tourists!

 

Sri Lanka: Kandy to Ella - including Nuwara Eliya and Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada)

Louise George

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A Tuk Tuk driver was called for by our hostess and he delivered us to the bus station and pointed out the bus to Nuwara Eliya. It’s a blue one! I nodded into a heat induced stupor, even before leaving the bus station, and missed the first hour of travel. By then we were in tea country. The journey continues for another 2 hours of constant climbing and twisting around corners at a speed that sometimes throws the bus into a lean, as if it were a motorcycle. On one corner the jamming of brakes brought us to a complete halt, with the acrid smell of burning rubber, but we did not connect with the bus coming towards us! 

We have a stunning vista of tea plantations and vegetable garden beds. Eventually we started descending, winding past plantings of beautiful bright flowers. On the outside edge of each switchback there was a broader verge, and each of these was taken up with a vegetable stall.

We check-in to Blue Moon Hotel. The room is clean, it has an ensuite and the bonus of using shared kitchen facilities downstairs; breakfast is provided. For the three nights we stayed here, there are no other guests!

Because Nuwara Eliya is elevated, (1,868m) the air is cooler, so we set off for a late afternoon walk. It was harrowing walking on the narrow road shoulder during peak traffic. The detail on our map was scanty; in reality we had no idea where we were; so we made a decision to abandon the walk to Lovers Leap Waterfall until tomorrow.

A Tuk Tuk dropped us at Pedro Tea Estate. The factory here only operates at night when it is cooler, to ensure the tea is lighter and of a higher quality. Even though only one machine was operating, the tour was interesting. The estate was a better place to start the walk to Lovers Leap. The track took us through the tea plantation where we passed women picking, (they work an eight hour day, picking 18 kilograms) and men weeding or spraying. From the waterfall, the walk back to town is descending via narrow roads that gave us a good view of industrious local people going about their work; digging in compost, weeding and planting seedlings, and as always, someone is sweeping (the swish, swish of brush brooms is as common a sound as bird chirps).  From the main road we caught a Tuk Tuk that dropped us back to town in time for lunch. At the local restaurant a noodle meal cost R200 but the green tea was R350 each! 

Thunder and rain caught us as we wandered around Victoria Park (named to commemorate the 60th jubilee coronation of Queen Victoria), so we sat under the rotunda, for almost an hour, waiting for it to ease. Nuwara Eliya is a delightful little town. The city was founded in 1846 and the British used it to escape summer heat and found the climate was good for growing English plants, both floral and vegetable. Many large colonial houses still stand, with large lawns and brightly coloured gardens of plant varieties that are very familiar to us from our colder climate New Zealand gardens. The Grand Hotel is of Tudor design, and the local Post Office looks like it has been teleported from an English village.

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Trip Advisor reviews pointed us to dinner at Sri Ambaal. We point to a variety of photos on the menu to order what are called ‘short eats’. The waiter indicates we should also have what everyone else is eating.  A plate of samosas and curry roll is delivered to the table. Then the meal of the evening is added to our stainless steel platter. It looked like a pancake, crispy around the edge, but tastes like cottage cheese fried in ghee and this is used to mop up yellow dhall and pumpkin curry, that is poured onto the platter from a stainless steel jug, then taken to the next table. What a great idea; the same meal for every diner. All very delicious, but so much food!

Finally we’re getting lucky. Were seated on the bus to Hatton. It’s a red short-length bus, with 2 seats on the right side, and 1 seat on the left. The seats are cloth, so maybe we won’t slide as much as usual, and Nev sitting near the aisle, has an arm rest. The full bus leaves the station. We’re surprised to find that the arm rest soon turns into a dickey seat, and the bus becomes very full!

At Hatton we walk to the railway station to catch a direct bus to Nallathanniya, but we’re told it’s not the season, and the direct bus is not now operating. Our c