Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.


 

The stunning temples of Hampi, India

Hampi

Hidden Gem of India

Hampi is a surprisingly unknown place in India considering how amazing it is. I had briefly heard of it before going but not to a large degree, and I hadn’t seen many pictures of it. All I knew is that it had some old temples.


 

Well, I’m very glad I decided to go in the end because I very almost skipped it, which would have been a great loss. Ancient ruins and temples continue for miles over a huge area amongst beautiful surrounding scenery. The town itself is very small and quite rural, but across the river, a more developed town has sprung up with a number of modern restaurants and guesthouses aimed at tourists. In fact, we were told the government is planning to relocate the local villagers to new residences across the river and bulldozing the town in order to preserve the Unesco Heritage status of the ruins. Whether or not this is a good thing is debatable, and understandably some of the villagers who have lived there for decades are against it, but at the same time most of them earn a living from the tourism and therefore maintaining it would likely be in their best interests.

Sunset Panorama

We arrived without any of this information and as a result, ended up booking and paying upfront for two nights in a room at a small, run-down guesthouse on the rural village side. I thought it was a bit odd they wanted us to pay for both nights upfront and only realised why after crossing the river. They knew we would move once seeing the amazing views and beautiful guesthouses available across the river, in what is colloquially referred to as ‘Hippie Island’ (although it is not, in fact, an island).


View of the River

Boat Politics

At the time we went there was only a small boat service to take people across the river but apparently, a bridge is being built in preparation for when the village is relocated. The boat service is really annoying because there are two boats and according to the driver each can only take passengers in one direction. They will also only go once they have reached 20 passengers, so many times we found ourselves waiting for ages for our boat to leave, while the other boat came across and dropped off passengers a number of times and each time went back empty.


Walk to the River Boat

On top of this, the boat guys are very proficient at ripping tourists off, in a number of ways which I’ll cover later. At the end of the day, it’s still very cheap, but it’s the principle of the matter.  More importantly, it’s sad to see people who were once probably self-sufficient and unconcerned with making a quick buck, reduced to money-hunger and morally-bankrupt because of the encroachment of capitalist-fuelled tourism. This is in no way unique to Hampi, or India, but for some reason, it felt more apparent here. I think a recent and sudden burst of tourism has affected the area and people in a way that still needs to find a constructive and beneficial balance for all involved.


Baby on Board

We had arrived at 7 am on an overnight bus from Goa, so after dropping off our bags we went for some breakfast at a small street-side cafe and met a lovely Slovenian couple who were travelling with their 2-year-old. We chatted for quite awhile about travelling, India, babies and Miha’s freelance work as a video producer. Their baby had been quite sick for days so they hadn’t managed to leave their guesthouse or do any sightseeing. Being about the same age as us, I was impressed – but not at all envious – that they didn’t let their child stop them living their lives as they desired. You could tell Miha’s poor wife was feeling the pressure though, but fortunately when we saw them again the next day their child was already feeling better.


Ancient Water Temple

Lazy Lunch

After breakfast, we explored some of the nearby temples by foot before catching the boat across to hippie island and discovering the beauty that is there. Although to be fair, we actually only discovered the comfortable mattresses inside of a restaurant built on bamboo stilts overlooking a rice paddy because we were both so exhausted from the bus journey we promptly fell asleep as soon as we had eaten lunch. Luckily we awoke in time to catch the last boat back! Once back we decided to climb the rocks behind our guesthouse and were rewarded with a stunning sunset over the temples of Hampi.

Hampi Sunset
Sunset Yoga

Cycling and Swimming

We awoke quite late the next day and after a quick traditional breakfast of idli and puri we crossed the river, hired some 100 rupee mountain bikes and cycled off to find Sampar lake. Along the way, we bumped into Rutger, a Dutch guy we had met on the bus who followed us on his scooter and joined us at the lake. We went on a brief but quite fun bamboo-boat ride and swam in the (apparently) crocodile-infested lake. Afterwards, we cycled back to town and enjoyed sun-downers at one of the beautiful riverside resorts.

bamboo boat
Bamboo boat sailing!

Even though we arrived at the boat jetty before the last cut-off time of 5:30 pm (along with a number of other tourists), the boat guy purposely disappeared for about 20 minutes and then came back and told us we’d have to pay 50 rupees now because it was too late. We all protested but soon realised that unless we were going to swim across, we didn’t have any choice but to pay him. What made it even more annoying was that another boat carrying locals did three crossings during this time, with lots of empty seats each time, but wouldn’t let any of us on “because we were foreigners”. I imagine they have some agreement to do this and share the profits.

bicycle
Cycling Hampi

Ancient Temples

We decided to wake up early the next day, view some more of the temples before it got too hot and then return before midday to check out. A short walk over the hill from our guesthouse we discovered a massive ruined complex the size of a small airport, consisting of a large temple on one side made up of a few smaller buildings and a huge pillared courtyard that stretched over a few hundred metres. This led on to a few more temples and ended down by the riverside at a temple with the famous ‘stone chariot’ – which is, as the name suggests, a chariot made out of stone.

By 11 am we were tired and it was hot, so we started heading back and stopped for tea and idli at a small food stall. While there a cheeky monkey came out of nowhere and stole one of our idli cakes right off our plate! We also saw another monkey that must have been attacked – it had all his gums missing, exposing his teeth and skull and looking like something out of a horror movie. It was quite sad although somehow the monkey didn’t seem too bothered.


Rock Diving

Escape the Heat

Once packed and checked-out we crossed the river for the final time and left our bags at the bus collection point. Then we rented a scooter and drove to a swimming spot somebody had told us about a few kilometres upriver. We spent a few hours there swimming and jumping off rocks. There were some Indian guys hanging around there who claimed to own the land and annoyingly kept bugging us to buy their snacks or drinks, with the unspoken threat of kicking us out if we didn’t. I highly doubt they really own the land, but I bought some over-priced crisps anyway to placate them.

Beautiful Rice paddies in Hippie Island

We had our sleeper bus back to Goa booked for 7 pm that evening, so we quickly took the scooter back and watched one last beautiful sunset over the rice paddies before getting on a tuk-tuk to take us to the bus.  This turned out to be a rather insane drive hanging off the back while squashed in with four other people and our bags balanced precariously on the roof.  Along the way, the driver had to swerve to avoid cows sleeping in the road and the usual head-on traffic – and that was before we even go to our actual bus!

Just another day in India….

Cycling India: Tamil Nadu

Okay so I’m guessing it’s because I was flying Spice Jet from Sri Lanka, but for some reason, I landed at the domestic arrivals hall of Chennai airport, which I’ve discovered since is far more basic than the international terminal – so basic in fact that it has no ATM’s whatsoever! It’s literally just a tiny building with three customs gates and two baggage carousels.

I never organize local currency before travelling somewhere new because it is almost always cheaper to just draw from an ATM on arrival, so this was a significant problem. I didn’t have a single cent for a bus, train or anything. I managed to explain my plight to a nice parking attendant who told me there was an ATM about 2km’s away and showed me on Google Maps.

He must have felt sorry for me because a few minutes after walking off he came up behind me on his motorbike and offered me a lift, which was a godsend as I soon found out there is NO WAY I would have found the ATM and also walking on the streets doesn’t seem particularly safe, especially at 4 am when you are sick and haven’t slept. Chennai is pretty chaotic.


The airport also didn’t have wifi or a sim card shop, so I couldn’t transfer any more money to my current account but luckily managed to draw about 2000 rupees (about £20) – more than enough for the 25 rupee bus to a hostel that the nice attendant found for me on his phone.


By the time I got to the hostel Red Lollipop (highly recommended), it was about 7 am and I couldn’t check in yet but they told me where I could get some food and let me nap on a chair until 9:30 am when a bed became free. I slept until about 2 pm and then headed out to a nearby Decathlon store to buy a bike, as my plan is to bike tour India.

Red Lollipop Kitchen
Red Lollipop Kitchen

The selection was significantly more limited than in Europe so I ended up getting a kind of road/tour hybrid version of the B-Twin Triban, which aren’t exactly the best bikes but only cost £300 and would do the job for now. I might have to upgrade some parts but the frame seems solid and I’m carrying minimal weight.

I also bought a handlebar bag, lock, bottle with cage, pannier rack, hand pump and lights. Annoyingly they didn’t have spare tubes or puncture-resistant tyres, so I might have to do old-school roadside puncture patching until I can get some.

The bike
The bike

When I got back to the hostel I managed to convince the nice receptionist to let me keep the bike inside, and then he told me about a secret place called Trouser Kadai that serves the best local food. He wasn’t joking about secret – it has no name or sign outside and you wouldn’t know it was there if somebody didn’t show you. They seemed very surprised and honoured to have a westerner in their establishment and went to great length explaining to me the different dishes and how they are made. I had two servings of Idli with curry and a masala dosa all for only 40 rupees (less than 50p), served on a banana leaf and eaten by hand, of course.

Trouser Kadai
Trouser Kadai

After that, I just chilled at Red Lollipop watching movies in their awesome TV room and chatting with the other guests, from whom I picked up some very useful info from about Auroville and other places to go in Pondicherry.


DAY 2: Mahabalipurum

On day 2 it was time to set off properly!  I awoke early, still coughing a bit, grabbed some coffee and biscuits, packed my bike and started cycling south. After about an hour I arrived at another Decathlon store where the guy yesterday said I could get pannier bags for Rs699 (about £8).


Just after packing the bags and getting ready to leave I noticed my back tyre was flat! A quick inspection revealed it was a bit damaged around the valve and had a slow leak. Annoyingly they didn’t have any replacement tubes in the correct size, so I had to patch it. I think Decathlon is quite new in India because their stock is very limited. At least they gave me the patch for free.

On route
On route

The patch worked well because I didn’t have any problems for the next 40km to Mahabalipuram. The roads, once you are out of the city, are actually quite nice and not too busy, plus quite well paved and even.  I only stopped once briefly for an excellent 30 rupee coffee and had a chat with a nice old Indian guy about my bike and South African cricket.

I arrived in Mahabalipuram in the early afternoon and stopped for more coffee and some Aloo Tiki, which are like potato cakes (£1.50). Afterwards, I decided to try push on through to Pondicherry which means I must have been delirious from the heat because it was almost 100km’s away!

Luckily trusty old Google Maps directed me straight into a nuclear power plant (in fact, the Indra Ghandi Atomic Research plant), and so I had to back track about 10km to Mahabalipuram and then smartly decided to stop there for the night.


This turned out to be a great idea because Mahabalipuram is awesome! It’s a tiny little village with these mad rock formations and old temples, including one called Krishna’s Butterball which is just a big round rock that somehow is balanced on a slope. Magic!  Check out some pics in the slideshow below:

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I found a cheap motel called Full Moon that gave me a private room with en-suite for Rs500 (£5.50), parked my bike inside, had a shower and headed out to explore.  While exploring the ruins I got chatting to an Indian guy who told me about the history of one ruin that looks like an elephant with a temple built into it’s rib cage, with the pillars making up the ribs.

 

My room at Full Moon
My room at Full Moon

I felt amazed that this place existed and yet I had never even heard of it, and it made me wonder what else is out there?  These days you tend to assume the entire world is discovered and there is nothing new to see, and yet sometimes we can fall upon a treasure like this akin to how ancient explorers did in the past.

 

After that, I went down to the beach which sadly wasn’t very impressive and then walked around the village, which really comes alive at night with lots of bars and restaurants. I was still feeling quite sick so instead of beer I just had some 60p vegetable soup, bought some snacks and headed off to bed. Big bags of Lays in India are only 30p – awesome!

India Day 3: Auroville

My sickness got particularly bad last night for some reason and I was worried putting on the fan would make it worse, but then I kept getting annoyed by mosquito’s so I had to put it on. In the end, I eventually fell asleep but I only got about 4 hours.

I had some coffee and a toasted sandwich and then headed off at about 8am. Unfortunately after Mahabalipuram the road isn’t as good as the stretch from Chennai. Due to the power station blocking off the coastal road you have to take the highway which doesn’t have a proper tarred shoulder – it’s made from bricks more like a sidewalk which makes it difficult to cycle on.

As a result, you need to cycle on the road and continuously move off and on the bricks when a vehicle comes. Fortunately, the traffic is quiet for the most part until you get closer to Pondicherry, which is also when the shoulder becomes tar again.


I cycled almost non-stop for the first 50km’s and then stopped at a CoffeeBreak, which are these very westernised road side cafe’s with over-priced sandwiches and coffee for tourists, but I hadn’t seen anything else for ages and I was starving.

I had a fairly decent veg burger for Rs110 (£1.20) while watching an old French guy pretend to dance to Hindi music, and then continued on. A few kilometres later I reached a small village with lots of cheap local food, so I should have waited! I stopped and had some excellent Rs10 (12p) coffee and four bananas that a kind girl gave me for free.

 

That night, because Pondi was full, I had booked into a hostel in Auroville, which is this kind of hippie commune that was started decades ago as a social experiment, I think? I’m not quite sure. Anyway, it’s quite nice and peaceful, if a little bit run-down and rustic.

It’s got lost of dirt tracks through the forest which was fun to cycle on and lots of interesting areas and pavilions based around different countries and cultures. It’s very multi-cultural although bizarrely also has a strict membership policy for a lot of things so at times can feel a bit unwelcoming.

The hostel I was staying at called Blue Lotus appeared to be run or managed by a Spanish guy who really enjoyed doing handstands, but did not enjoy checking for online bookings. As result, it was full because he had given my bed away to a walk-in. (To be honest, this happens quite often in small towns, especially with cheaper hostels that have a very relaxed attitude, so in some cases, it’s best not to try book ahead).

Fortunately, he made room for me by moving the office around and putting a bed in there which meant I kind of had my own room, only it didn’t have any curtains or windows that closed properly so I had trouble sleeping until everyone outside had gone to bed and put the lights out. It was okay in the end I still got 7 hours sleep.

India Day 4: Pondicherry

On my way to Pondicherry, after some morning yoga and free breakfast, I was stopped by a French resident of Auroville who told me about ‘the best cycle cafe in India’ which just happens to be in Auroville. I don’t know if it’s the best but it is pretty cool so if you’re ever in Auroville check it out.

I had a coffee and chatted with the owner for awhile about touring and various bike stuff and mentioned I might want to camp. He happened to have a second-hand tent available which was very convenient since nowhere in India sells tents, although also kind of inconvenient as I found out later it’s not really possible to camp anywhere in India!

Auroville Bike shop
Auroville Bike shop

Anyway I bought the tent and then continued on to Pondi down a convenient side road he told me about that was quiet and got me there quicker. I had some serious trouble finding the hostel I was booked into because Google Maps was completely wrong but eventually someone helped me by phoning the number.

I checked in and then went to get a simcard, which requires your passport and a passport photo – India has a lot of strict rules compared with most places I’ve been and they are obsessed with seeing your passport at any opportunity – they must have real problems with illegal immigrants.

The simcard with data package was Rs520 (about £6) and was supposed to include 1GB data a day for 70 days, but as I found out later it never activated and since Airtel has no customer service I had no choice but to top up again for £5. Annoyingly it takes 24 hours to activate so if you do get a simcard make sure you stay in the same place you got it so 24 hours later you can go back to the shop if it doesn’t activate. I was already miles away 24 hours later.

I cycled around Pondicherry a bit seeing the sites, got some Rs20 samosas for dinner, bought a yoga mat for sleeping and then just chilled in the hostel writing various blog updates and drinking the free tea until about midnight.

Cycled: 10km

Hostel Olivia… lacking furniture 😀

India Day 5: Villapuram and Trichy

Despite waking up early I took a long time getting ready because I was obsessed with making a stupid rope attachment work for putting my tent on the bike.  I had come up with the idea in my head the night before of putting it on the handlebars to distribute the weight better and I was convinced it was a genius idea. I did make it work in the end but it’s far from genius.

Then around 11am I cycled off to Villapuram, getting some bananas along the way and arriving there about 2pm after a very slow 30km. The route is not particularly interesting and being a main route into Pondi it was very busy and quite annoying.

The plan was to get a train or bus from Villapuram to Kochi on the west coast, but things didn’t work out that easily. In Villapuram I was told there is no bus and was directed to the train station. At the train station, I was told there is no direct train, I must go to Trichy (Tiruchichivalli) and change there.

Villapauram
Villapauram

I also had to put my bike on a separate postal train for delivery and it would arrive later than me. I wasn’t totally comfortable with this but did it anyway as the road and scenery around here aren’t great and I wanted to save time getting to the west coast.

The train to Trichy was quite an experience, having to literally squeeze in like sardines for 3 hours while people constantly push past to go to the toilet. Not too much unlike most trains just exceptionally busier! By the time I got to Trichy it was already 7pm and my bike arrived at 9pm so I wasn’t going anywhere that night. I managed to find a very cheap hotel room (Rs350) which was really just some cardboard walls in a garage with a folding single bed, but it would do fine for the night.

 

I used the free wifi at the train station for a bit and got some spicy dosa for dinner at a really dodgy looking restaurant next door, then crashed out early with the fan going on full blast to keep out the mosquito’s.

India Day 6: Trichy to Theni

Today was an excellent day. I started off very early, about 6:45am and headed south to Dindigul, my goal for the day. On the way, I had a quick roadside cake and coffee for breakfast but otherwise road non-stop for 50km.

All along the way were pilgrims dressed in some traditional clothing walking along the roadside. I said hello to almost all of them as I went, wanting to know what it was about but unwilling to stop long enough to ask.

Eventually, a guy on a scooter stopped me just when I was getting very tired and hungry and asked me the usual questions – ‘Where you from?’ ‘Where you going?’ etc. As we were chatting one of the pilgrims invited me to join them for food, so I happily obliged.

He sat me down with the others and gave me the traditional banana leaf to eat off and then served me up huge portions of Idly and this porridge they eat that is similar to congee.

After eating one of the pilgrims told me about the walk, that it was a 5 day pilgrimage to the Murugan Temple in Palani. We chatted a bit more about my cycle and then I thanked them both and headed off again. I was well rested and energized so I powered through to Dindigul non-stop and arrived by 2pm.

Now I had already done my 100km for the day and it was only 2pm, so after another short rest and getting my simcard data sorted out I hit the road again for another quite difficult 60km’s to Vaigai dam where I was hoping to camp for the night.

I stopped only once for some awesome chilli bhaji’s and an orange soda, and a nice guy on a motorbike road along with me for 10km’s chatting and then bought me some tea.

In the end, I wasn’t allowed to camp at Vaigai dam and couldn’t find anywhere else, plus it was getting dark so I continued to Theni and found a cheap Rs500 hotel room.  I checked in and then had some tea with the security guard who was playing crazy loud music on this huge speaker system.  I think it’s some kind of festival this weekend.  Luckily the music went off about midnight, but started up again at 5am!

Cycled: 178km

Day 7: Uphill to Kerala!

I was awoken at 5am by the crazy music at my hotel so I figured I may as well get ready and head off early.  By 7am I was on the road and stopped only for some cakes and coffee for breakfast.  It’s great how many little food and coffee stores there are along the roads here – perfect for cycling!

In fact, I’m surprised India isn’t more well known as a cycle destination because it’s really built for it – excellent roads, very affordable and lots of facilities along the way.  The only problem I’ve had so far is the lack of camping but I guess this is just not the place for it, and since accommodation is so cheap it’s not a huge problem.  I do feel a bit silly lugging around a 2kg tent for no reason though.


Today I had to cycle up to Munnar, a hill town up in the Western Ghats which is the mountain range that provides the border between the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  I reached the foot of the mountains in about an hour and started the ascent.  I should have refilled my second water bottle but I was sure there would be something on the way.

Well there wasn’t – I climbed continuously for about 3 hours and just before the top, just as I had run out of water and food, I was saved by an awesome guy on a coffee plantation.  He runs a little shop on the side of the road selling snacks and water, as well as the best coffee I’ve ever had that he makes himself from his coffee beans.  He even gave me some beans and told me how I can make my own.

 

I rested for an hour and had three cups of his coffee while chatting to him, bought two more bottles of water and about ten cakes and biscuits and then attempted the last few hundred metres to the top.

Best coffee in India
Best coffee in India

There is an awesome campsite at the top which on reflection I should have stopped at, but it was only 2pm and I felt like I still could make it to Munnar, since it appeared mostly downhill on Google Maps.

Unfortunately on the first bit of the descent, I was chased by two crazy dogs which I had to cycle like mad to get away from, and as a result, I missed the Munnar turn off.  After I realised this I didn’t want to go back and face the dogs again so I found another route, but somehow I missed that turn off too because all the beautiful tea distracted me!  I should probably get a GPS.


By now it was about 3 pm and I was exhausted and way off track.  I found a road that would get me to what looked like a nice lake before dark where I could maybe camp, but the road was closed.

Anyway, I ignored the sign and cycled down the road anyway, which was good because it turned out there wasn’t any good reason for it being closed.  However, as usual, I couldn’t camp at the lake and was told to continue on 5km to a lodge – this doesn’t sound a lot but it was all uphill and by this point, I could barely walk let alone cycle.


Along the way I came across an Indian wedding and a guy outside invited me to join them for dinner.  I was worried as it was already almost dark but I hoped maybe someone in the wedding could help me with a place to sleep.  They kept serving me up loads of rice with curry and sambal until I eventually I had to politely decline.

Hindu Wedding
Hindu Wedding

It was really good though and fully re-energized my dampened spirit.  Unfortunately after eating I couldn’t find my new friend and nobody else spoke much English, so I gave in and pushed the bike uphill for a few more kilometres until I finally came across a small hotel.

Fortunately, they had cheap dorm room beds for Rs350 (£4) so I said I’ll take one.  Even more, fortunately, the dorm room electricity didn’t work so they put me in an empty private room for the same cost – bonus!

Cycled: 75km

 

Cycling to Amsterdam

 

I decided to make use of the four day Easter holiday weekend and cycle from London to Amsterdam.  However, since I was leaving directly after work on Thursday evening and didn’t want to cycle dangerous British roads in the dark, I got a train to Dover and made it just in time to catch the midnight ferry to Dunkirk.  This however, proved to be a mistake, as, due to the length of the journey and the hour time difference, I arrived in Dunkirk at 3am.  Predictably the hostel I had booked gave up waiting for me and locked up, so I had no choice but to either keep cycling and hope to find somewhere open, or sleep outdoors in the rain with the refugees.

I cycled on for the next two hours through rainy traffic and refugee camps until eventually at five am I was lucky enough to find another hostel, the lovely owner of which took me in and gave me my own private room for the night/morning.  I knew I had to make it 150km’s the next day through Belgium to Breskens in the Netherlands if I wanted to catch the last ferry to Vlissengen, so I didn’t have the luxury of sleeping in late.  I grabbed five hours sleep and was up at 10am, had a quick (free) breakfast and was back on the road.

Riding along the beach in Belgium

The day went fairly smoothly for the first few hours – it was nice and sunny and I dried out my wet clothes by hanging them off my bike as I rode. Initially I felt I was making good time, but after a number of stops for photographs, lunch and exploring I realised at 5pm I was going to have to hurry to make the 9pm ferry!  I abandoned the slow moving beach roads and got onto the main road for a few hours of hard pedalling.  I whisked through Belgium fairly quickly and then just after entering the Netherlands developed a rather serious pain in my left Achilles tendon.  I tried adjusting my foot to accommodate it but I couldn’t really slow down or rest so I had to push through, despite the pain worsening.  Luckily I made it to the ferry in time, but I was seriously worried about whether I could continue the next day.

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I spent that evening in quite a nice hostel in Vlissengen, and being that it was a seemingly quiet deserted town I thought nothing of leaving my bike locked up outside on the street.  Bad idea…. but more of that later.

Anyway this hostel had been left in the care of a very young lad from somewhere or other who was travelling and needed work, and the owner was busy that night DJ’ing at a club in town.  Luckily the hostel only had one or two other guests who were already in bed, so he decided he would come with me for a few drinks at an Irish pub down the road, where we chatted about our respective travels and had a few beers.  He was a nice enough chap but clearly didn’t know anything about how the hostel worked, and forgot to take any payment from me before I left the next morning!  (the owner, luckily for him, had my email and tracked me down for payment a few days later).

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My bike with stolen seat

Upon returning to my bike I found my seat missing – the whole seat-post and saddle as well as my saddlebag with all my tools and puncture kit!  Coupled with the somewhat better but still sore pain in my Achilles tendon this was not good news.  I hummed-and-harred about what to do for awhile until eventually deciding to push on through, standing up to pedal until I found a bike shop.

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New seat and ready to go

Fortunately this was exactly what my Achilles tendon needed, as the change in foot position while standing took the pressure off it and I went along quite well and full of renewed energy for the next hour until I reached a town with a fairly big bike shop.  There a very helpful bike mechanic found me a cheap, used seat-post and saddle and I was on my way again, only €30 poorer.

dykes
The route along the dykes

I continued on along a route I’ve been wanting to cycle for many years, along the Dutch dyke system that holds back the ocean south of Rotterdam and The Hague and connects many small islands and outcropping bits of land.  It’s an incredibly interesting landscape and the huge, modern mechanical dykes are amazing to see up close.

Unfortunately the weather wasn’t great that day, and with the combination of a headwind, my sore Achilles tendon and the delays of buying a new seat it didn’t look like I would make it to Amsterdam that evening as planned. However I still had a good time exploring the dykes and cycling the tiny little villages on the many islands along the route.  The cycle infrastructure in the Netherlands is incredible, and is maintained equally if not better than the roads.

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A typical Dutch dyke bridge

There is a seperate, dedicated bicycle lane next to every single street, no matter where you go.  In many places it even goes under or over the road when crossing, so for the most part you need never be involved with or worry about vehicular traffic.  Despite this I still managed to accidentally cycle onto the freeway at one point, and had to get off and walk back along the grass verge to the normal road.  The truckers driving past in their massive 18-wheelers found this rather amusing.

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Rotterdam

I stopped for lunch in a great little seafood restaurant in the docks of a small village and had a well deserved beer with calamari and chips.  By the time I got to Rotterdam it was already 6pm and I was exhausted, so I had to choose to spend a night in Rotterdam and continue the next day, or get the train to Amsterdam and spend the night there.

I decided to go with the latter as I knew Amsterdam better and figured I would have a good Saturday night there.  I almost got in trouble on the train as I didn’t put my bike in the correct section, but luckily the conductors are understanding of foreigners and let me off.

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Amsterdam

So I finally arrived in Amsterdam, and although I didn’t quite cycle all the way I had a great trip and overcame many obstacles.  That night I made some friends in The Flying Pig hostel, drank an entire pitcher of beer and multiple tequila’s, explored a bit of the red light district and then we went out to a techno club until 4am.  The next afternoon, slightly hungover, I packed up my bike into a box kindly donated by a local bike shop, and headed off to the airport to fly back home to London.

I hope to do this trip again some time, however I would spread it over 3 days and go via Bruges.