It seams that some of our best ideas often begin as spur of the moment decisions, and our recent bicycle trip was no exception! We were working in an old hotel in Aviemore, Scotland, feeling the bite of the northern winter when it occurred to us how nice it would be to go back to Australia; and what better way than by bicycle? From our wintery wonderland we planned our route to The Antipodes and wrote off many letters for information on the several different options. I had worked for two years as a tour leader/driver for a London based tour operator driving and leading expeditions from Kathmandu to London so I knew much of the route already. Before we were sacked from our dishwasher positions in the hotel in Aviemore for questioning pay rewards we had most of the route already planned.
Returning to Edinburgh we worked for six months saving as much money as possible and planning our itinerary. We had several possible routes we could take and after obtaining all the necessary information from the relevant Embassies we decided on a particular one. With the money we had saved we expected to take about a year to reach "The Land Down Under". I had worked for two years as an expedition leader/driver on the traditional Asian overland route and, as Louise had done the same route once, we decided to more or less stick to this route. We spent the week before leaving packing and repacking our panniers, every time leaving out some article of clothing or equipment. We thought we had it all worked out but on the actual day of departure our bikes were just a bit overladen and heavy and after a few practise laps around the housing estate we decided to leave out the tent. It was an easy decision to make as we knew what the weather was like at this time of year and we just hoped we would not get caught out. As it turned out we only had about 4 days of rain throughout the trip.
On the warm June morning when we cycled the first few kilometers out of my home town of Carnoustie, the thought really struck us," What a hell of a long way to Australia". No-one really took us seriously and in fact, it wasn't until we had cycled quite a few thousand kilometers that we even began to take ourselves seriously.
For the next week we travelled slowly southwards, enjoying the pleasant British springtime and giving ourselves a chance to adjust to cycling as a full time occupation. During that week we were treated to some of the best weather the country had seen for a while and we didn't even have one drop of rain. We took it in very easy stages and on our first day we only covered 50km to the town of Falkland which we reached in the early afternoon. We spent the rest of the day exploring the Palace and other ancient buildings. The following day we crossed the Forth Road Bridge and arrived in Edinburgh, hot and sweaty and looking for a cold shower. We stayed with friends and spent that last evening in Scotland drinking beer on the Rose Street circuit.
The next morning, after an emotional farewell to our friends, we took the backroads out of town and headed south to the "Border". Although there is no passport control between Scotland and England you do cross Hadrian's Wall. This wall was built by the Emperor Hadrian in the 4th Century AD in an effort to protect their conquered land from the marrauding Picts. The undulating hills of The Border's, as it is affectionately known in Scotland, tested our energy levels but we made steady progress and crossed the border early that afternoon. That evening we stopped in the Youth Hostel in Wooller and quickly cooked our meal before sinking into a deep sleep.
Our sleep was broken the next morning by a noisy bunch of school kids rampaging down the dormitories but as we had a long day ahead of us we dragged our weary bodies out of the bunk. We bypassed Newcastle but had a beautiful and fast descent into the Tyne Valley followed by an equally steep grind out again. We were only about 30km from my brother's house when we encountered roadworks! The road was being re-sealed and we had to push our bikes for 2km. We spent the following hour scraping the tar from in between the mudguards and from the tyres with the help of some diesel we bought from a very convenient service station. After two more horrendous hills we arrived at my brother's cottage near Durham.
During the previous few days we built up a routine on the bikes and had decided that we were carrying too much gear. On going through our belongings we decided to leave behind one sleeping bag, all the cooking utensils, one of our expensive padlocks and some odds and ends. Of course my brother was very happy with what we left as he knew he could make use of them. Were we making the correct decision? What would happen if we could not find shelter on a wet and cold night? With these thoughts going through our heads we took a walk through historic Durham and popped into the 'local' for a few drinks.
We only had time to spend one night there and the next morning saw us on our way before the sun was up. It was a sad farewell as we did not know when we would see Alasdair and his wife, Penny, again.
We took it very easy as we were still in the middle of a rare heatwave. We cycled the backroads wherever possible and made life as easy as possible. We arrived in York just as a thundersorm struck and finding the Youth Hostel full we cycled to the nearest campsite. It was also full! However the owner was in the middle of renovations and he said we could sleep amongst the debris. At least it was a roof over our heads and it kept out the rain that was now bucketing down.
This was the first of many building sites we were to sleep in during the following six months. During the night part of the York Minster was burnt to the ground so we made a detour the next morning to see the smoking ruins. Apparently a lightening bolt had struck during the thunder storm.
"This is a sign from God," said one of the locals who was standing next to us. He went on to explain that the fire had not destroyed the huge stained glass window or the main building. One of the locals ministers had spoken out against God's teachings and this was God's way of punishing him. With this in mind we walked our bikes through the old part of the city and headed south through the lush green fields with the livestock also enjoying the pleasant weather.
Three days later we arrived in Cambridge very early in the morning and headed straight for the Youth Hostel. Our plan was to leave the bicycles there and take the bus to London to see a few friends before leaving the country. This all went well until we heard the rumour of a Channel Ferry strike. We immediately bought a ticket to Zeebrugge in Belgium and made a mad dash back to Cambridge on the very late bus after only one night in London. Unfortunately we had to sleep the night in the local park until the YH opened the next morning. After grabbing a very quick breakfast we pedalled at a fast speed toward the Felixstowe. We were now testing our muscles we had built up over the previous few days. We made it in good time as it was flat all the way and the back roads were all very direct.
With the few extra pounds we had left we bought some food for the first few days in Belgium and drank a last couple of beers before tying our bikes up in the ferry's hold. While the cars were still queueing to get on we found ourselves a very cosy and secluded piece of deck and, as it is not compulsory to have a cabin, laid out our sleeping bag in a relatively quiet and secluded spot.
Across the Channel in Zeebrugge we were greeted by a curtain of grey drizzle which accompanied us all the way to Amsterdam. Luckily we escaped the traffic by taking to the excellent system of "Fietspad", or cycle paths which criss-cross the country. Most of the time they run parallel to the main roads but in the province of Zeeland they run through the fields and backcountry. It must have been when we were 'out bush' that we lost our way to Amsterdam. We did a scenic tour of Holland looking for the correct fietspad and eventually found our way into the suburbs in the pouring rain. Of course punctures only happen in the rain and it was with a feeling of acceptance when I felt the back tyre blow out. It wasn't much fun changing the tube in the pouring rain but it had to be done. We knew we were going in the right direction when we passed Schipol airport, Europe's busiest airport. Amsterdam wasn't exactly en route but, as Louise's grandmother and uncle lived there, we decided to spend a few days with them catching up on family gossip.
Louise's grandmother, Oma, had some lovely hot soup for us when we eventually arrived at the door. After demolishing the soup we set about drying off our bikes and checking our equipment. Luckily all our gear was in plastic bags but we did have to sort out our dirty washing. This was done with clothes pegs on our noses! By this stage of the trip we were more attuned to the bikes and our needs and we were able to streamline our panniers even more. We kept only what we knew we would need and left behind what was in excess. Any old or worn clothes were put into the rag bag for future cleanings of the trusted machines. This was to be an ongoing process throughout the trip.
After only three days in Amsterdam we set off again and continued south to Germany via Arnhem. Two days later we crossed into Germany for one night before cycling into Luxembourg. The two days in Germany were the most luxurious days I have ever had on a bike. Roads in this country are so smooth even cycling uphill became a joy with the downhill runs quite exquisite. As Luxembourg is only a very small country straddled between Germany, Belgium and France it took us just 2 days to cycle from one border to the other. After a quick day in Belgium we cycled into France where the weather finally improved and we took to sleeping out in the ripe cornfields and lunching on juicy peaches, crusty bread, soft cheeses and bottles of local wine. By this stage we were becoming rather stressed out with all the different currencies and exchanging and re-exchanging money.
We then followed the Rhone valley in a southerly direction toward Lyon. This was a very pleasant part of the trip as we took it easy and kept as much as possible to the back roads. We cycled through the vineyards of the Cote d'Or often stopping at the many cellars to sample to local vintage while enjoying some lovely food. We met an English cyclist in Beaune and spent two days in the local Youth Hostel talking about cycle touring and all its pleasures. However we had to keep going and after passing through Lyons we turned east into the grey-white hills of the spectacular Verdon Gorge and then south again through the lavender-scented fields of Provence. Reaching Nice and the coastal playground of the Cote d'Azur, we were confronted with wall to wall villas, not to mention electrified fences and guard dogs so we decided to retreat to the local Youth Hostel rather than sleep out!
From Nice we caught the ferry to Corsica, a densely green, rugged little island with horrendously steep mountain roads designed to test our fitness. It was here that we discovered another strange law of punctures: that is, tubes are most likely to blow out on Sundays, on isolated roads and when you only have one repair patch left.
Across the small straight again by ferry and we were in Sardinia, then mainland Italy via Civitaveccia. It was here that we met another cycling duo from Scotland who were hoping to get to Greece despite the fact they had run out of money. We approached Rome timidly on a Sunday afternoon, in fear of the legendary traffic, however the roads seemed strangely quiet and civilised. We kept waiting for the horror to begin and it wasn't until we were standing in full view of the Coliseum that we realised we were in the middle of town. In ignorance we had arrived in the middle of the main Roman holiday so we had the wide avenues to explore to ourselves.
In Rome we applied for our Iranian visas and while waiting for them to be approved we availed ourselves of vast quantities of pasta, pizza and vino rosso served at the tables on the pavement. The Iranians were very circuitous in their demands and after initially informing us that our visas would take three months they delivered them in only 4 hours.
Leaving Rome on the Appia Antica we travelled down the coast towards Naples, following an unending trail of squashed tomatoes, fallen from passing trucks. On the second day out from Rome we met Dave, a fellow Australian cycling around Europe who decided, after talking to us for only a day, to come with us. Dave was also sleeping rough and when he told us he had woken that morning with a rat nibbling his toe we knew he would fit in very well with our plans.
Naples, for the cyclist, is a morass of cobblestones and the built-up area extends almost 100km down the coast. The Italians in their true effervescent style would ride alongside us on their mopeds and attempt to practice their English in the middle of major intersections and peak hour traffic. Our concentration wasn't quite up to this feat. Darkness fell while we were in the middle of the city so we decided to eat first then find somewhere to stay. A giant pizza and a litre each of wine later we stumbled into a nursery and sports complex in the middle of a giant roundabout. We laid our sleeping bags out on the concrete of a tennis court and fell to sleep with the noise of the traffic blasting in our ears. Even with all the perpetual noise we all slept soundly and only woke the next morning when the workers arrived. They didn't even take exception to us as we realised it was a place many lovers came to for a bit of fun.
We continued down the heel of Italy where Louise had the first taste of feeling conspicuous as a woman wearing shorts. We didn't stay long in Italy and we were soon at Otranto waiting for the ferry to Greece. We took deck class and were soon asleep to the vibrations of the engine chugging beneath the wooden deck.
The heat of Greece was quite draining so we kept close to the aqua-blue water whenever possible. By the time we reached Athens we were beginning to wonder if the heat would melt our tyres, so we were glad to reserve our piece of deck on the boat to Santorini. Unfortunately the agent omitted to tell us that we would land on the island by boarding small boats which would row out to the larger ferry. Naturally there were a few precarious moments trying to load our heavily laden bikes onto the bobbing corks alongside. However, the disembarkation was nothing compared to having to haul the bikes up the 598 steps (we counted) to Thira. Later we discovered there was a proper jetty with a road leading to it further around the island. Our island hopping took us to Crete and then Rhodes where we admired the enormous yachts of the wealthy and had our last meal of moussaka, retsina and plump red tomato salad before mainland Turkey.
We arrived in Marmaris in the early evening and waved goodbye to a group of Australians on BMW motorbikes who had also made the crossing. After a comfortable night on clean sheets in the home of a friendly tailor we cycled into the sunny morning and were immediately confronted by a huge slain bull, bleeding all over the front lawn. A dozen dead goats down the road, we discovered that it was the Moslem festival of Beyram and the killing was part of a thanksgiving service.
We quickly found that the sturdy looking Turkish roads were not built with the cyclist in mind. The country has a vast network of sealed roads in good condition although the actual surface is very, very rough. They are built for the buses and trucks and not for the cyclists and at the end of the day our hands were all numb with the constant vibrations, very much as if we had been using a pneumatic drill all day. All towns are signposted at nearly all intersections with the distance marked to the next town. All villages and towns have a name indicator as you enter, giving the 'Nufus' (population) and 'Rakim' (height above sea level). As we made our way up the fertile coast to Istanbul we found our eyes watering on several occasions as miles of chilli peppers lay alongside the road. Turkey is full of historical ruins and we only had time to see a very few of them during our limited time in the country. On our way up to Istanbul we visited the Roman ruins of Ephesus and the Greco Roman ruins at Bergama. Istanbul is a magnificent, big, dirty and fascinating city which we spent several days exploring before taking the ferry to the Black Sea port of Sinop. We cycled for 14 days as far as a place called Hopa, 23kms short of the Russian Border.
The Black Sea coast was one of the most beautiful, serene and enjoyable stretches of our journey and was by far the most rewarding section. It was easy laid back cycling with very little traffic and beautiful scenery. Most of Turkey's tea and tobacco is grown here and it was great fun cycling past tea plantations with tobacco drying by the roadside. We had two major stops along this route, one at Samsun and one at Trabzon. At Trabzon we made a 100km day trip to visit the monastery at Sumela. This monastery is built into the side of a cliff and is surrounded by tree covered slopes as far as the eye could see, very reminiscent of central Europe. We had left all the gear in the hotel and had only taken a pannier each which made the journey a lot faster and a little strange as we were used to riding with our full compliment of panniers and gear.
We proved quite a novelty in the local villages and whenever we stopped we were plied with strong, sweet tea, fresh hazel nuts, quinces and asked continuously "Sind Sie Deutsch?" Many Turks speak German as they had often worked in Germany for many years to save some money. They would then come back to Turkey in their Mercedes cars, buy a house and often live well for the rest of their lives.
The Turks were always curious about the relationship between the three of us and were seldom satisfied with the explanation that we were "just friends". Later, I took to saying that Colin and Dave were both my husbands and this seemed more acceptable.
Once we left the coast, the road became quite rough as it wound through the arid mountainous landscape. On the very border with the USSR (Georgia) we visited the ruins of Ani, an ancient town built on the old silk route. The extreme stillness of this beautiful, overgrown town was only marred by the sight of barbed wire, guard towers in the distance and the graffiti left by WW1 soldiers on the crumbling frescoes. After Ani we headed south, through some of the most desolate countryside around, toward Erzerum. Three days later we arrived in Erzerum only to find out that we had to go back the way we had just cycled as now we were to meet the 'overland truck', that was to be our lift through Iran, in Dogubayazit, just a hop, skip and a jump from the Iranian frontier. We had a few days rest in Erzerum before heading east again. The day before we arrived in Dogubayazit we didn't find a bed until quite late in the evening. We only passed one village on this particular day which didn't even have a resemblance of a hotel so we were very fortunate to find a truckie stop out in the middle of nowhere just as darkness was falling. We were feeling really good that night as a new stage of our journey, reaching the Indian sub-continent, was soon to begin. We drank mercimek corba by the bowlful to warm us up as it was a very cold night and played backgammon with the truckies before retiring to our flea-ridden beds. If only we had known what the following day was to bring us we may have stayed in Erzerum a little longer and taken the more direct route.
The next morning we awoke to rain lashing at the windows. It had not rained since we were in Corsica two months ago and now we were in a very grubby little truckie stop in the shadow of Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey. Of course we couldn't see the mountain, or Noah's Ark for that matter, due to low flying cloud. This was to be our last day on the bicycle before our rendezvous with the "overland truck". The Iranian authorities in Rome had only issued us with a visa for a week which did not give us enough time to cycle the 2400km through to Pakistan.
Dogubayzit,"Doggy-Biscuit, as it is affectionately known by overland travellers, was only 80km over the hill but it was to be a very eventful day. The day started with several bowls of tasty lentil corba (soup) and several glasses of cay (tea) while watching the front yard turn into a mudbath due to the incessant rain. "Tuvalet, tuvalet" I enquired gesticulating my need for the toilet. He took me out into the mud and we slid our way around the back where he showed me a 4ft square hole with two very weak looking planks placed across. After a few years travelling you become used to the various unhygienic dunnies of the world but this one was unbelievable. I mean what happened if you slipped...... and with your pants at your ankles? Needless to stay we found an alternative.
It was still pouring down when a Turkish Truckie carrying spares for the Iranian war machine invited us to put our bikes on the back and join him for the ride to "Doggy-Biscuit". After jamming our bikes and sodden panniers into the back Louise and I climbed into one cab while Dave went with one of the other truckies. " You cannot obtain beer in Iran" the truckies said " so we have our fill before we cross the border." Three beers later we were on our way again, climbing slowly over the shoulder of Agri Dagi (Mt. Ararat). The rain turned to sleet then to snow as we laboriously gained altitude where the snow quickly turned to ice on the road. The only chains in this part of the world are around the necks of the ferocious, man-eating sheep-dogs which stand about three feet tall and love chasing after panicking cyclists. "Where is the snow plough?" my mind said to itself "What snow plough?" I thought. Of course there wasn't one so we just kept going and hoping. Our biggest fear, our only fear at that moment in time, was being wiped out in a head on collision with a downhill truckie in top gear speeding toward oblivion.
In near white out conditions we pulled into a truck stop for a spot of lunch, to watch a Turkish love video and to carry out some black market transactions. We asked ourselves "why stop now when it would be more sensible to cross the pass descend out of the blizzard and then eat lunch?" An enormous plate of sis kebab and an endless supply of Effes beer was lunch. While all this was happening Turkish lire were being changed into Iranian Rials at rates well above the official one. The video ended and it was time to climb back into the fridge-like cab. Surprise, surprise the engine wouldn't start---- the diesel was beginning to freeze but the problem was soon solved by adding some petrol. After a little coaxing the mixture was pumped through to the engine which then coughed and spluttered before eventually starting. We were on our way--- well nearly so! A battery in one of the other trucks in the convoy was flat! No problem I hear you say, just use the jump leads and away you go. We had no such luck, nobody carries such useless paraphernalia out here. In the next hour or so we were kept amused by the frolics of these drivers using medieval tactics to bump start this truck. Have you ever thought how easy it is to bump start a truck, uphill, on an icy surface and in a raging blizzard.
Picture the setting; two trucks side by side on a narrow mountain road. Standing bravely between them a shivering young lad holding a large block of wood which he jammed up against the immobile truck. The other truck would rev up, slip the clutch until the wood catches then carry on forward until the engine fired. I have seen this many a time in Turkey and in India and it actually works. However in the aforementioned conditions no traction was gained. After several attempts at this they decided to try a different approach. Our truck does a twenty point turn and reverses back to back with the other truck. The block of wood is placed in between, rev up, let out the clutch but as expected all the wheels started spinning and we started to slide toward the icy drop. Meanwhile we just sat and watched and froze.
Eventually someone produces, of all things, a tow rope and with everyone pushing, the truck actually started. Whoopee! Hurray! Let's have a cold beer to celebrate they say. When in Rome_ _ _ . Sometime in the next ten minutes the convoy sets off into the still raging blizzard, crosses the pass and starts descending, only a few kilometres from the lunch stop.
As we descended the snow turned to sleet which in turn became rain and our bodies started the painful process of defrosting. An hour later we were off loading our poor snow covered bicycles from the truck on the outskirts of "Doggy Biscuit". We bade farewell to our truckie friends and cycled the last few hundred meters to the Hotel Ararat. After a steamy hot shower in our hotel under Mt. Ararat we wondered if Noah had as much trouble getting there as we did.
Dogubayazit brought back some bad memories for me as I spent three days in jail after running over a local policeman. The incident happened after crossing the border from Iran and I had come across a police check point. I slowed down to a crawl but for some reason a policeman back stepped into the path of my truck and the front wheel had run over his foot. I got out to help him when my head was jerked back by the hair and I was summarily beaten up by his mate. I had visions of "Midnight Express" but it all ended well when the judge let me off because of what the police had done to me. I still have nightmares thinking about what would have happened if the police hadn't hit me or if I had injured the policeman more seriously. Although it happened more than two years ago I was still recognised by the locals by the nature of my bright red hair and freckles. The manager of the Ararat Hotel had been my interpreter then and every time I had been back since I stayed at his hotel.
We lived on mercimek corba (Turkish lentil soup), eckmek (bread), cay (tea) and the many variations of kebabs that are available. Turkey is renowned for its food and we certainly went out of our way to have a taste of everything. Although it is an Islamic country, Turkey makes some of the best lager in the World and wine is made in certain areas of the country. Hotels are numerous in all the major towns and cities and we never had any problems finding some place to sleep. We had to make sure that we could fit our bikes up the stairs and into the room before we started bargaining the price. In some of the smaller villages there was only the one hotel so you really had no choice. Some of the hotels we stayed in were very basic due to lack of money but at least we had a roof over our heads. We always locked the bikes up together in the room, put our own padlock on the door and always carried our valuables with us. On average we spent just $10 a day between us which included a room, three meals a day and even a beer or a bottle of wine. Often we would have meals and tea bought for us by the locals, a tremendous gesture really considering that we probably earn more in a month than they would earn in a year.
Our biggest headache in Turkey came, not from the beer or the wine but from the dogs! These dogs are not your usual canine friends that we all love in Australia but are rather large marauding brutes that guard the nomadic flocks of sheep against attacks from the many wild dogs and wolves that roam the steppes. These dogs wear large metal studded collars to stop the wolves going for the throat and are barely controllable by their owners. The further east that we cycled the bigger and more ferocious the dogs seemed to be. We would hear the dog first, the adrenalin would start pumping and then we would see it chasing after us! We had to make a very quite decision. Should we get off the bike and walk or should we pedal as hard as possible and outrun the dog? Sometimes we made the wrong decision and the dog caught us up! We then had to dismount and fend them off with our batons. When we had arrived in Turkey we had purchased police truncheons which were made of a heavy bendable rubber and made very good weapons with which to beat off the dogs. We put them to good use on many occasions and we even slept with them just in case, whether we were sleeping under the stars or in a hotel. The memories of these dog attacks are still etched in our brains to this day and every time we think about them that familiar feeling of panic starts to build up in our throats.
Since we were only able to secure a one week visa for Iran we had to arrange a lift with my old overland company. The border crossing was a frustrating, tense affair and we spent the next few days driving endlessly through scorched, stony deserts and Biblical mud villages. The cool green-blue domes of Ishfahan offered our only respite on the push through Iran, and it was here that we heard of the assassination of Indira Ghandi and the massacre which followed. Now we definitely had doubts about crossing the Pakistan-India border at Amritsar.
At the Pakistan-Iran border it was a relief to throw off the head scarf and leave the uneasy tension of Iran, even though we were entering the most isolated section of the trip. The border itself is the most desolate spot imaginable and consists of a few aging buildings and a scattering of makeshift cane huts- the equivalent of duty free stores. Camels munch on cardboard boxes and the smiling customs officer told us we would have to wait three hours since they were closed for lunch. We had definitely arrived on the Indian Sub-Continent!
It was lovely to hop on the bikes again and set off into the quiet, featureless desert. It was now November and the sun was not hot enough to scald, but we did take the precaution of filling our water bottles at every available well (which occurred every 100kms). At one stage the road deteriorated so badly that we took to the mud flats, following the dust trails of the multi-coloured Pakistai buses. These flat grey expanses stretching out to the horizon turned out to be the best cycling surface of the whole trip.
For five days we survived on fruit and nuts brought from Turkey, since the only villages we passed were small tribal settlements and vast, sprawling Afghan refugee camps seen in the distance. Upon reaching Quetta, a hot meal was the first thing on the agenda! The cold wash was not relished quite as much.
In this area of Pakistan the people strike a romantic note - the men are tall, dark and swathed in pale robes and turbans, most of whom would be carrying some sort of gun across the shoulder and looking very fierce. The women, when visible, appear in complete chador with only a mesh for their eyes. We also encountered long camel caravans packed with tents, materials and baby animals and driven by men on horseback and women dressed in multi- coloured dresses with scarlet and purple scarves protecting their faces and a profusion of heavy gold jewellery.
Leaving Quetta we entered the high mountainous plateau of Baluchistan where we were alone again on the road except for the occasional ludicrous, tooting bus. We discovered the hard way that bicycles are not very good at fording streams so we had to carry them over quite a few. By the fifteenth November we were descending the jagged convoluted bends of the impressive Fort Munro Pass to the endless plains of the Punjab.
The shock of the overcrowded towns in the Indus Valley was hard to take after the solitude of the desert. In addition Louise became quite ill with a stomach infection which slowed our pace right down. Dave decided to go ahead with Jan, a Dutch cyclist we had met, and Colin and I continued alone. When we finally limped into Lahore after 100km of muddy roadworks, our well earned R&R was snatched away when we discovered that the border, which had been closed since Gandhi's assassination, was to be re-opened for one day to allow a convoy through. We had only twenty four hours to get to Islamabad and get our Indian visas. With the help of a terrifying minibus, we made it!
Delhi showed little sign of the violence which had recently racked its streets, and apart from a few burnt-out cars and shopfronts it was "business as normal." We stayed long enough to recoup ourselves, clean up our bikes and have a few brushes with India's legendary bureaucracy whilst applying for a Sikkim permit. In the green Indian countryside we became just two of the thousands of cycle commuters: many of whom would curiously ask "What is your purpose?" A hard question to answer at the best of times! When we stopped for chai, an inquisitive group would cluster around our bikes searching for the motor and asking whether we carried diesel in our water bottles!
We cycled along the bust road to Agra, then headed north through Kanpur and Lucknow and onto the quiet roads of Nepal. We often stayed in the beautiful colonial Dak Bungalows or in small hotels. Sleeping rough in Utter Pradesh, with its one hundred million inhabitants, is hard work finding an empty spot.
Entering Nepal at the little-used border post of Nepalganj we spent a few blissfully peaceful days cycling along the superb new East-West highway. Our surprise at the complete lack of traffic was satisfied when we discovered that the bridge connecting the new section of the highway was not due for completion until 1987 so the only crossing was a small rusty punt.
At Butwal we started our ascent of the foothills of the Himalaya and after a day and a half of steep climbing and traversing we had our first glimpse of the huge snow capped Annapurnas, sitting like lords overlooking the lesser hills. We spent a day on the lake at Pokhara then set off again as we were very keen to reach Kathmandu. The road became more and more spectacular and when we finally looked down on the Kathmandu Valley that dusky evening we felt as if we were home.
We broke our cycle trip in Kathmandu and spent Christmas indulging in good food and cakes with friends we had met in various places en route. On Boxing Day we put on our walking boots and set off for Dharan in east Nepal to trek to the Everest region. Our trek lasted for four weeks and took us to Kalar Pattar which, at nearly 6,000m, is still three kilometres beneath the summit of Everest.
When we jumped on the bikes again in Kathmandu we felt the fittest we had ever felt. It was hard to leave Nepal and the mountains so we took a last detour up to Darjeeling before pedalling south to the plains of West Bengal.
"Better late Mr. Motorist than the late Mr. Motorist." "Rather meet your wife than lose your life." These are just two of the many sayings displayed prominently before hairpin bends on the narrow, winding road to Darjeeling. After having cycled several thousand kilometres on Indian roads we could see the reasoning behind these warnings. In a country renowned for its cultural pacifity and slow pace of life we were constantly amazed by the reckless suicidal tendencies of the drivers.
Having made sure that our visa and Darjeeling permit were in order we passed through immigration and customs relatively quickly considering that Indian bureaucracy is not renowned for its speed. Sharing the road with millions of other cyclists, bullock carts, over-laden trucks, crowded buses and countless people going about their daily business can be very demanding and quite exciting, especially after the tranquillity of Nepal. However, within the hour we were installed in our hotel room recovering from our eventful day's ride and feeling clean after a refreshing cold shower.
Sitting later in the "bar-cum-restaurant" enjoying a cold beer and catching up with our diaries when a rather large turbaned Sikh asked if he could join us. "From where are you coming?" he demanded. We were not quite sure whether he meant what country we lived in or where we had come from that particular day.
"Nepal." we decided.
"Ah, that beautiful Himalayan Kingdom supported by India," he continued "and how do you like India? Have you visited our magnificent Golden Temple in Amritsar? Do you not think that there should be an independent state of Kalistan?"
All those questions demanded complex and well-thought out answers but as we did not have the time nor the inclination to continue the discussion so we both agreed with him. Before leaving for a little walk he told us how he had barricaded himself in the hotel to avoid the vengeance of the rampaging Hindus in the days immediately after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. We were very thankful that we had not been in the country at that time!
The street vendors and scavenging dogs were the only signs of life as we pedalled out along the unusually empty streets, northwards, toward the old British hill station of Darjeeling. The sun was just appearing on the hazy horizon as we started the slow, peaceful climb into the Himalayan foothills. We were looking forward to leaving the Terrai of northern India and spending a few days in the refreshing mountain air before heading south again to the smog and pollution of Calcutta.
The first 10 kilometres were flat and straight but this soon gave way to an incline which was to remain constant all the way to the top. Once second gear was engaged we were not to change up nor down until we reached the highest point at a place called Ghoom (8217ft), only 10km before Darjeeling (7207ft). But Ghoom was still 63km away! Although we were very fit by this stage it still took 9 hours to tackle the gradient. However it was a very enjoyable climb and we stopped often to admire the views and to drown ourselves in spice tea and the ubiquitous Glucose biscuits. As we ascended, the moist tropical vegetation changed to neat but steep sided tea plantations. We could see the famous tea glistening in the morning dew as we twisted our way around the mountainside, one eye on the vistas and the other on the lookout for the killer truckies and suicidal bus drivers. This particular day is etched in our memories as one of the most enjoyable and rewarding of our marathon cycle expedition from Scotland to Australia.
Darjeeling is famous for many things, one of which is the small "toy" train chugging its way up to the town on a regular basis. In fact it is a miniature train which services the little villages between Siliguri and Darjeeling and is also a favourite of the many tourists visiting the area and on their way to the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. This train not only follows the road with all its curves and bends but crosses it an incredible 119 times (I counted) all in the space of 80kms and a height gain of 8,000 feet. Its small coal burning engine is only capable of pulling three carriages, one first class and two second class and, as elsewhere in India, it becomes overcrowded with people sitting on the roof, sticking out of windows and generally hanging on wherever they can. Every so often some of the passengers have to disembark when the incline becomes too steep or when the train stops at a station since the engine is just not powerful enough to do a hill start fully laden. However, once the fire has been re-stoked and momentum has been regained the passengers jump back on and all is well until next time! At any given time of the day there are several of these trains spaced out along the route either slowly descending or chugging noisily uphill.
Two thirds of the way up the mist descended, chilling us to the marrow and covering everything with a thin layer of moisture. Unfortunately, at this stage of our expedition we only had a few warm clothes left as we had streamlined our panniers by selling our excess clothing in Kathmandu. Not only were we cold and damp but we could not see the train! We had to be doubly alert, listening for the car traffic as well as the train, but how far does sound travel in fog? As long as the traffic was ascending we were relatively safe since we could hear the overburdened engines, but descending traffic could have easily wiped out and who would have known?
After a nerve racking eight hours we arrived in Ghoom, as cold and as miserable as the name suggests. By the time we cycled the last ten kilometres down to Darjeeling our hands were like blocks of ice and our bodies were in dire need of defrosting. We were just entering town when my back tire blew! Not only did the tyre blow in town but it blew right in front of a hotel. The Gods (or someone who looks after cyclists) must have been on our side as there was no way that we could have fixed the puncture in the frozen state that we were in. This tyre had lasted 3,300kms since it was changed it in Pakistan 3 months ago. We were in no mood for the habitual bargaining so a room was secured promptly at an inflated price. After our bikes were safely ensconced in the room, we began the slow and painful process of defrosting.
This particular hotel did not have running hot water but buckets of this revitalising, steaming liquid were brought to our room one at a time. With clumsy, frozen hands we were somehow able to dilute the hot with the running cold and pour it over each other without scalding ourselves. Once our blood was again circulating through our veins we felt human once more. We didn't have the energy to clean our trusted cycles so after making up our bed with all the available blankets we went out to sample the local cuisine. Following a very pleasant meal and plenty of spice tea in the Washington Restaurant we retired to our bed of blankets and dreamed about sun drenched beaches on the tropical island of Koh Samui. This island lies off the east coast of Thailand and we were to be there in less than 3 weeks.
Darjeeling has seen many mountaineering expeditions pass through its tea plantations en route to the north side of Everest via Tibet, but with the opening of Nepal in 1950 and the closing of Tibet in the same year all the expeditions to the north side stopped. Everest, of course, was climbed three years later by a British expedition from the easier Nepalese side. Besides being the last town on the old route to Everest, Darjeeling was and still is the base for any attempts on Kanchenjunga (28,208ft), the world's third highest mountain and the most easterly of the Himalayan range. It was first climbed in 1956 by Joe Brown and George Band from a British party led by Charles Evans. The panorama of Kanchenjunga is clearly visible from Darjeeling and the best time to see it is naturally sunrise. Isn't it a strange phenomenon that all the tourist attractions are best seen at this ungodly hour? It is well worth the effort to climb the hill behind town and have an unobstructed view of the Himalayas from as far west as Everest and Makalu to the most easterly of the Kanchenjunga massif. For those too lazy to get out of bed the Y.H offers dormitory accommodation whose large north facing windows allow you to take photographs of the sunrise without even leaving your bed. Just make sure that you ask for a dormitory facing north
We spent our time in Darjeeling on foot as it made a welcome change from the saddle. It’s a fascinating place to explore as it is built along a ridge and down one side of a hill. It can take a while to get anywhere in the town as the ridge is long and it is a steep climb from the bottom to the top. You can keep fit just doing your shopping or going to the post office. We paid a visit to the Mountaineering Institute, which was run by Sherpa Tenzing of Everest fame until his recent death. We also visited the zoo which is famous for having a rare Bengal Tiger as one of its residents.
Dealing with Indian bureaucracy is a nightmare and we spent the best part of a morning chasing a Sikkim permit which we had applied for in Kathmandu at least two months previous. You really have to apply for it several months before and be flexible about your entry date. As expected we never ever got to Sikkim so we spent the extra time inside in the warmth, drinking spice tea and admiring the panoramas.
On the third morning it was time to leave and we were up at dawn for the short initial uphill stretch to Ghoom. Although it was cold it was hot work pedalling the 10kms. From Ghoom it was all downhill but freewheeling down hill was not as easy as we had thought since the Indian roads were not designed for modern 10 speed touring bikes. It was quite a hazardous descent as we had to watch out for the rather large potholes, the train, the speeding drivers and the people who just wander along the road. We also had to take great care in crossing the train tracks as we could easily have skidded on the wet metal and ended up under the wheels of a Tata truck or bus. To make matters worse my front tyre, which had lasted me 7,000kms since I had put it on in Italy, gave up and we had to throw it away. Punctures were a rare occurrence for us and only happened when the tyre was almost thin and bald. We kept the tyres well pumped up to the correct pressure and rode sensibly. Between us we only wore out 14 tyres in the 17,000kms we cycled. Throughout the whole trip we maintained our trusted bikes with the thought that 'if you look after your bike then it will look after you.' Even with the puncture we still managed to descend in 2 hours what took us 9 hours to ascend and in fact, that day, we managed to cycle 160kms toward our next destination, Calcutta, which was still 650kms and 5 days away.
The day we arrived in Calcutta we managed to get ourselves into a traffic jam of cars, rickshaws, bullock carts, bicycles and people just going about their daily business. We just couldn't move as we were totally hemmed in - it took us nearly 3 hours of walking and cycling from the outskirts to Sudder Street where all the backpacking hotels are situated. One interesting sight in Calcuuta, not mentioned in the tourist literature, is the Rat Circus located in the park in the centre of town. This consists of an enclose corner of bare earth, honeycombed with rat warrens, where the Indians would feed chapattis to the sleek, fast rats in the same way one would feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. Calcutta was a different story altogether from any other city we had been in and it didn't take us long to buy our airline ticket to Bangkok. Unfortunately we had to miss out on spending a week in Burma as we were running very low on funds. We were now in the tropical belt and for the next 6 weeks we were to cycle in the tropics of Thailand and Malaysia. The toy trains and the spice tea were to change into electric trains and iced coffee.
On February 11th, we flew out on Bangladesh Biman flight to Bangkok. We were not prepared for the tropical heat of Thailand and as we headed south we found we could not cycle past one o'clock without expiring. However, the well placed seaside towns offered vast quantities of cold drinks and a respite from the afternoon heat. Unfortunately we had forgotten to buy a Thai phrase book so our diet was somewhat limited to the only Thai dish we knew, Khao Phat, (pronounced "cowpat" or fried rice).
We planned to stay four days on the island of Koh Samui, however with the lure of the tropical beaches, palm trees and pure relaxation we stayed for two weeks. Here we were warned of the trouble with bandits further south and even we were treated to several grisly tales, our good fortune saw us through.
Arriving in Malaysia, we wondered whether we weren't better off risking the Thai bandits than the Malaysian drivers! With only one narrow road connecting all the major cities on the peninsula, the traffic was fast and treacherous. Neither of us had been to Penang for several years and we were surprised with the progress of the bridge which was soon to connect Penang with the mainland. After a day's rest, we took to the highway again for Kuala Lumpur. The weather was very humid and steamy and the rain came down in bucket loads every afternoon. Cycling in torrential rain was a very pleasant relief in Thailand, however, the lack of visibility would have proved suicidal in Malaysia so we always pulled off the road. With only a $50 traveller's cheque left we stayed in the Youth Hostel in Kuala Lumpur and dined off the street stalls until the day of our flight. On March 19th, we pedalled our last few kilometres of Asia to the airport and, with our trusty bikes safely stashed away, we took off just as a thunderstorm was gathering.
We arrived into Perth at 2am and slept the night on the floor of the airport. Before we cycled the few kilometres into Perth we bought a cup of tea. Shock horror!! We were charged the exorbitant price of one dollar per cup and the same for a refill. What a realisation of First World prices. We checked into the YH and enjoyed a nice hot shower before searching out the goodies we had missed in Asia. Such things as brown bread, different cheeses and some good wine! This we enjoyed while sitting in Kings Park relaxing and thinking of what lay ahead. We still had a lot of cycling to do with our eventual destination being Sydney, some 4,700kms to the east.
After only two days in Australia we were still growing accustomed to the distinctive dry smell of the eucalypts and still being horrified at paying a dollar for a cup of tea. We left Perth early to beat rush hour and made good time in reaching the YH at Northam. This was to be our last comfortable accommodation until we reached Ceduna.
Have you ever had your sleep disturbed by noisy neighbours, droning traffic or the inevitable car alarm sounding off at 2 o'clock in the morning? If you have ever longed for that elusive peace and quiet then sleeping out on the Nulabor Plain could be the answer to your problem. As we lay in our sleeping bags under a carpet of stars the only noise we could hear was the rustling of the wind through the low scrub. Before we drifted off to sleep each night we would count the satellites and shooting stars miles and light years above us.
One of the main dangers cycling across the Nullabor Plain was from speeding truckies on their long haul across the continent from Perth and Sydney. The possibility of being knocked over by the wind from one of these massive juggernauts always scared us but fortunately we could see the dust cloud a long way off. We were not sure whether our main danger was Man or Nature but what we did know was how to survive. After all we had cycled 13,000kms on some of the worst roads in Europe and Asia, not to mention coping with the various forms of transport for our piece of the highway.
The name Nullabor is a Latin word meaning "no trees' and the plain itself is 692kms long and 402kms wide. Although we refer to the Nullabor as being the section between Norseman and Ceduna, it is not until you approach the small settlement of Nullabor itself that you actually cross a tiny section of the true 'treeless plain'. The bulk of this treeless desert lies to the north of the Eyre Highway
After eight days of enjoyable cycling through the wheat belt of Western Australia we arrived in Norseman, the gateway to the Nullabor and still 1,200kms to Ceduna in South Australia. As we were debating which service station to take our weekly shower in, a young Canadian cyclist on his way around Australia, pedalled into view. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to exchange stories of our exploits with someone who had the same inspiration and spirit of adventure as us but as time was of the essence it was not long before we parted company and, as he set off for Kalgoorlie we tossed a coin to decide who would be first to have that shower. Due to weight saving measures earlier en route we shared one towel so, while one washed the other ate breakfast and guarded the bikes.
Feeling clean and refreshed we filled our back panniers with plenty high energy food from the local supermarket and loaded our front panniers with two 5 litre containers of water. We had left Scotland with only one sleeping bag and neither tent nor cooking equipment and so by the time we reached Norseman we were carrying only the basic essentials. As we cycled out of town into the perennial headwind we could see the undulating road stretching out ahead of us, mile upon mile. Struggling against the wind is one of the occupational hazards of cycling and although we were not normally to paranoid we did feel that someone up there did not want us to reach Sydney.
Contrary to popular belief the Nullabor is not always as hot as 40 C and we soon found out how cold it could become. Our second night out turned into an epic as a thunder and lightning storm hit us as we lay huddled together under a small tree. Our inadequate piece of plastic, purchased in Turkey for such an occasion but never used, began to disintegrate with the force of the wind and eventually took off into the surrounding darkness. For the next few days it was a mixture of showers and blue sky but fortunately it did not rain again at night.
We discussed many topics out there on the endless road and came close to solving the world's problems on many an occasion. At times we became quite lonely, however our existence was constantly enlivened by encounters with many "weird and wonderful" people. Late one afternoon two young travellers nearly wrote us off in their panel van then reversed at the same speed to ask us if we had found God or the source of the Ganges. They were so pleased when we told them we had seen the source of the Ganges that they brought out their esky to celebrate and passed the cold stubbies around. An hour later they drove off even more drunk than before but with the knowledge that God could be found. Whether their search was hindered by the Highway Patrol which passed shortly after they departed, we will never know.
It was just past Madura that a car stopped next to us and the driver shouted out, "Are you Louise and Colin?" Our reaction was one of total surprise but our question was soon answered. Whilst putting a new kitchen in Louise's mother's house in Sydney he had learned of our exploits and as he and his family were driving to Perth soon after, he promised to say hello. A few days later a fella in a ute pulled over in a cloud of dust and offered us a drink of ice cold orange juice from his on-board fridge. I think it must rank as the best cold orange juice I have ever tasted. He then promised that he would leave the rest of exactly 10kms up the road under a bush. The next hour was perhaps the slowest and thirstiest part of the trip and true to his word, under a bush, covered with an oily rag and marked with a paper flag was the bottle of cold orange juice. His name and address was attached to the flagpole and when we arrived in Sydney we wrote and thanked him for the very kind gesture.
Every day brought new people into our lives; we had morning coffee with a lonely German girl in her kombi van on the road to nowhere, breakfast with a bus full of West Australians armed with ice-axes on their way to Kosciusko and afternoon tea with a retired couple caravaning their way around Australia at their leisure. We were constantly being overtaken by gangs of bikes in a hurry to reach Bathurst for the races. A week later they were on their way home, battle scarred and weary but still able to wave to us. We became known to the coach drivers and could see them mention us into their microphones as they sped past. At the too infrequent roadhouses the passengers would give us a progress report of the two American and the Japanese cyclists a day or so ahead of us.
With monotonous regularity we were warned about the dead camel ahead of us. It had been killed in a collision with a car and both lay by the roadside exposed to the elements. We soon knew when we were approaching the scene of the accident as we could smell the decomposing flesh some distance away. One thing the smell did not do was put us off our food and we looked forward to that day's roadhouse as often we had no food left.
It is hard to describe how one can have an emotional reaction at the sight of a drab roadhouse but each one represented a milestone to us and offered the only source of comfort across half of Australia. Small things such as a bag of chips, a cup of tea or a conversation with another person took on a new significance. At one such roadhouse we were rather taken aback when we were asked to pay 26 cents per litre of water but we were more than pleased when a Dutch family offered us some ice-cold water from their own supply.
Ten days after we had left Norseman we entered Ceduna where we were stopped by the agricultural control who asked us if we had any fruit to declare. We had absolutely no food left whatsoever so we just stared at him incredulously and uttered some remark about the last greengrocer's being some 1,200kms to the west. That night in the soft bed of an on-site van and with a full stomach we drifted off into a deep, deep sleep knowing that the most trying section of our marathon trip was over.
The wind conveniently changed to a southerly just as we turned south at Port Augusta and only sixty kilometres from Adelaide it picked up to a 90km/h gale. It became so windy we had to push our bikes. We were getting nowhere when a truckie stopped and offered us a lift to Adelaide. We accepted but was a little puzzled at where he was going to put our bikes as he was carrying a full load of wool bales. No problem he said! He hoisted one bike up onto the tail gate and lashed it on and placed the other bike behind the prime mover. In no time we were on our way and after a quick stop to secure some beer we arrived in Adelaide where it was still wet and windy. A few days rest in
Adelaide restored our spirits and we set off for Melbourne through the lush green coastal scenery. When Louise had left Melbourne in 1983 the region was in the grip of a very severe drought.
As the speed and ferocity of Australian traffic having sufficiently unnerved us, we forsook the Hume Highway for the coast road to Sydney. The wild, beautiful north east corner of Victoria was our last lonely stretch before hitting the traffic of the hilly south coast of NSW. The journey from Melbourne took ten days and it was with a feeling of extreme exhilaration that we stood on the crest of Stanwell Tops and gazed back down the coast. Three hours cycling through the Royal National Park brought us to Louise's parents home in Blakehurst on the 12th May 1985 and the 17,000km, eleven month trip was over.
It took us a few days to finally realise we had reached our goal bur we both still had that feeling just to keep going. What stopped us, of course, was the lack of money. What next! We spent a few days just enjoying not being on the bike and resting. It was then time to join the work force again which was a shock to the system after almost five years travelling for me and three for Louise.
FACTS ON THE TRIP
We crossed 17 countries and 3 continents. We cycled 17,000km, bussed 4,230km, hitched lifts on trucks for 2,841km, took 29 ferries of all sizes and description over 1,830km of water (salt and fresh), trekked 200km and flew 6,000km. Of course not in a very direct route! We were on the road for 45 weeks and used 14 tyres, 8 for Colin and 6 for Louise. Colin had 9 punctures and broke three spokes while Louise, with her lighter weight, had five punctures and broke no spokes. We had 169 cycling days, 22 trekking days 103 rest days and 97 rough camps. We had a tool kit to fit every part and carried only a few necessary spares. We bought two new bikes in Edinburgh Claud Butler Dalesman" and had the back wheel spokes four crossed instead of three. They performed better than expected and gave us almost trouble free cycling. We maintained them by cleaning and oiling them as often as possible, at every major stop we gave them a thorough overhaul.