Europe Cycle Tour: Sweden (Part 1)

I was excited going into my cycle tour of Sweden because I had heard about their law that allows anyone to camp anywhere in nature for free. The law is called ‘Allemansvretten’ and roughly translates to ‘all man’s freedom’. It has certain conditions that are fairly obvious – you can’t camp on (or too near to) private property, you can only stay a few days and you must leave the area clean. Those making use of this law clearly abide by its conditions – because Sweden is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen.

However, having heard about a law and knowing how it works in practice are two different things, and I was a bit apprehensive about just how lenient this law is. Could I really just pull in and pitch up my tent wherever I wanted without being asked to move on? I was about to find out…

Day 1 – Stockholm to Soldetalje

I awoke in my overpriced Stockholm hostel ($30) ready to escape into the beautiful, and most importantly free, countryside. I spent the past week on a very expensive and boozy cruise through the Baltic peninsula and desperately needed a few cash-saving days of sobriety.

I had been raining heavily that weekend so I bought a rain suit and wrapped all my bags in plastic before heading out. However, by the time I got to the outskirts of the city, it was starting to clear. My first stop was a Decathlon just outside Stockholm where I hoped to get my bike serviced. Upon arrival, I proudly informed the store attendant that I had purchased my bicycle at a Decathlon in India over a year ago and ridden it through seven African countries. He looked disinterested and told me the bike mechanic wasn’t in yet.

Disheartened, I shopped around for a tent and some waterproof pannier bags, convinced I would be spending the next four months cycling in rain. Eventually, the bike mechanic arrived but told me they were booked up that entire week for services. He was equally disinterested in my global cross-country cycle expedition on a Decathlon-built bike that wasn’t designed to do more than collect groceries from the store.

I packed all my stuff into my new panniers and decided to see if any bike stores in the next town could help me out. Since rebuilding my bike in Stockholm after the flight it wasn’t changing gears properly and just needed a service in general after four months crossing Africa. I soon arrived in the next town of Soldetalje, following Sweden’s intricate but confusing bicycle paths all the way.

In Soldetalje I found a bike shop and the mechanic said he could have it done by tomorrow. I told him that would be fine and asked if there is anywhere to camp. People don’t usually camp in or around cities but Soldetalje benefited from a large forest on a hill right in the middle of it, so he told me that should be fine. I left the bike with him, took what I needed and headed into town to buy a simcard and grab some food. I got a simcard fairly easily at a small shop and topped up 3GB of data for 100 krona (€10).

I then checked out the town and ended settling at a familiar spot, a Subway sandwich shop, where I ate and used the wifi. I realised I was still wearing my cycling shorts so decided to change in the toilets. They only had a single toilet and stupidly I forgot to lock the door, so just as I had pulled down my cycle shorts and was bending over with my ass facing the door, somebody opened it! They must have gotten a terrible shock. Needless to say, I got the hell out of there pronto before someone called the police and reported me for indecent exposure.

I decided to check out the forest on the hill, called ‘Kussens Backe’, or Cousins Hill, and discovered its quite a popular after-work running area. I wondered if I would be able to find a quiet and hidden place to camp. The South African in me couldn’t shake the feeling that if somebody saw me setting up camp they may come back later in the night and try to rob me. Looking back now I realize I was more likely to get offered some coffee and cake than get robbed!

I decided to go work a bit at another nearby restaurant and wait until after dark. Little did I realize that the sun only sets at about 11pm in Sweden at this time of year, so I had a bit of waiting to do. Eventually, around 10pm I decided the park should be empty and I headed back. My suspicions were confirmed and the park was deserted, most likely because it was now freezing cold by this time. I quickly pitched my tent in a secluded area and turned in for the night.

Day 2: Soldetalje to somewhere in the countryside

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much sleep since the sun awoke me at 3am! I suddenly realized why the Decathlon had such a large stock of black-out tents. It never gets dark in this crazy country! I tried to get back to sleep but mostly just lay down for another two hours before packing up and heading down the hill to find coffee.

Nothing was open yet so I sat outside a cafe until they opened and then I promptly left upon discovering their coffee is €3.50 a cup! I sat on some benches at a nearby cafe advertising €1 coffee and did some work while waiting for it to open. Eventually, the owner arrived, opened up and promptly shouted at me to get away, even bringing out a hose for added intimidation. Clearly, he thought I was some kind of laptop-using homeless person with all my bags.

I packed my shit quickly, flipped him the bird and then continued on towards the shop where I had left my bike to get fixed. Fortunately, I found a nice cafe on the way which did bottomless coffee for €2 and had some cheap sandwiches, so I had breakfast and worked there for a few hours until it was time to get the bike.

Unfortunately, the bike shop turned out to be a dud, and they barely did anything to my bike. All they did was replace the gear cable and realign the gears – I was expecting a full service. He even forgot to fix my right brake which I told him was loose. So that was a waste of €30! Long story short, Soldetalje is a shithole, don’t go there.

I cycled off towards a nearby store to buy some camping gear and food and then cycled out of town, happy to see the last of that place. Town quickly gave way to the countryside and I enjoyed the decent roads with a wide shoulder and minimal traffic as lakes and forests passed beside me. Eventually, I had forgotten all about Soldetalje and as the evening drew near I began looking for a camping spot. This turned out to be easier said than done.

As I turned down a side road to find a lake I suddenly got a puncture on my front tyre. It was quite strange as my Schwalbe tyres are practically bulletproof and I couldn’t find any thorn in the tyre. I did find a small split in the side, though, and fixed it quickly enough with a patch and then headed off again. Unable to find any decent lake or grassy area I settled for hiding down a dirt path in small patch of forest.

As soon as I stopped, thousands of mosquitos surrounded me and started sucking the very lifeblood out of my tired soul. Wonderful. I carried mosquito spray 5000 kilometres across Africa and barely used it, and now I need it more than ever! I quickly set up the tent, jumped inside with my stuff and managed to get it closed with only one ill-fated mosquito sneaking inside. After splattering him, I cooked some tasteless tomato pasta and got to bed.

Day 3: Random camp spot to Stavsjo

Cleverly using a thing to cover my eyes, I managed to sleep until about 6 am. I packed soon after a quick cup of coffee and headed off towards Norrkoping, my next destination where I had arranged to stay with someone from the cycle touring app Warmshowers (like Couchsurfing). The route was relatively uneventful as I cycled along back roads and through farms and fields. Towards the afternoon my left knee started to get quite sore so I slowed down and took it easy.

I reached the town of Stavsjo in the early afternoon and decided to get some lunch, rest my knee and do some work. After a few hours I tried to cycle again but my knee was still quite bad and the evening was approaching. I messaged the Warmshowers guy and said I’ll rather stop here the night and could hopefully still stay with him the following night.

Using ‘satellite’ view on Google maps, I managed to find a lovely spot next to a lake to camp for the night. Although it was on a walking track, I barely saw or heard anybody passing until late in the night when somebody ran very close by my tent but didn’t stop to bother me.

Day 4: Stavsjo to Norrkoping

Since it was only about 10km’s to Norrkoping I was in no hurry to rush off. I had a few coffees around my beautiful campsite and waited until the sun was quite high in the sky and morning cold had worn off. Eventually, I packed and headed off on a slow cycle. Along the way, I found an awesome viewpoint and took some pictures overlooking the ocean.

Arriving in Norrkoping around lunchtime, I found my host Emil’s house easily enough and met him, his wife and their toddler. After they kindly shared their lunch with me, we headed out to check out the town. Norrkoping is built upon a complex water system that was one of the oldest operating hydroelectric power stations in the country until it was recently upgraded. Lots of the old construction remains, making for a beautiful old town built around a canal system and man-made waterfalls.

I bought a few extra pieces of equipment I needed and then we headed back for dinner at theirs. Emil offered to introduce me to a Swedish sauna, which inexplicably every building in Sweden has included as default. We grabbed some cold beers and up to the stairs to his buildings roof-top sauna. The experience was actually really cool as I’m not usually a fan of public saunas, but having the whole space to ourselves to drink some beers and chat was a nice change.

This was actually my first time as a Warmshowers guest and I was amazed at how welcoming and hospitable complete strangers can be. That evening after a nice dinner, Emil and I went out to town for a few beers and chatted about football, cycling and my life growing up in Cape Town.

Day 5: An awkward day in Norrkoping

My knee was still hurting in the morning and the night before Emil had offered to let me stay another night, so I told him I would. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had expressly discussed this with his wife so I may have caused an expected exchange between them. I didn’t understand what they were saying but it seemed awkward, even though they both said it was fine. I probably should have just left then but then it may have made her feel like it was her fault, so, unsure what else to do, I just kept quiet and stayed.

We all visited a beautiful nearby lake together which they had probably planned to do alone as a family that day. Either way, everyone seemed happy enough so I just went along with it. We swam briefly in freezing cold water and then hiked a nearby mountain that is clearly very popular with rock climbers.

Feeling bad for overstaying my welcome I stupidly offered to cook everyone dinner, as if my cooking would somehow make things better. Foresight lacking, I headed out to the shops and bought some lasagna sheets, butter, CRAZY EXPENSIVE beef (€10), cheap low-alcohol beers (50c), normally priced cheese (€2) and tinned tomatoes.

Back at their apartment, I placed myself in front of the stove promising my poor hosts the best lasagne they’ve ever had. Within minutes I had burnt the butter and set off a fire alarm that automatically alerts the fire department, so they had to call and tell them it was just an idiot homeless cycle-tourist who had forgotten how kitchens work.

Crisis averted, my long-suffering hosts somehow allowed me to continue my rampage of destruction and I managed to cobble together a barely-passable form of Italian cuisine that I feel unqualified to call lasagne. They assured me it was lovely in that special way that only parents with children are able to do. Needless to say, we all got to bed early and I made my thanks/apologies and departed early the next morning.

Day 6: Norrkoping to Gamleby

I cycled southeast from Norrkoping towards Valdemarksvik, a small coastal town where I hoped to find a pub playing the Liverpool – Spurs Cup final that night. The route took me along some lovely forested lanes and a town bizarrely called Tindered where I would have stopped if they had a pub with a TV.

Arriving at Valdermarksvik by early afternoon I quickly discovered they wouldn’t be showing any football in this tiny fishing village. After some lunch and a nap in a park, I continued on to Gamelby which Google Maps promised had a bowling alley and sports bar. On arrival, however, Gamelby was a literal ghost town, with the bowling alley long-closed and dilapidated.

I realized my quest was doomed and resigned myself to following updates of the score on my phone. I found a lovely quiet little spot on the river mouth, set up camp and made dinner. I briefly attempted to fish with a fishing line and hook that Emil had kindly gifted me but without proper bait, I didn’t have any luck. I ended up eating pasta and tomato sauce again.

Day 7: Gamleby to Oskarshamn

Heading south from Gamleby I discovered a strange wooden troll outside the town of Vastervik and decided to cycle onto a small, dirt forest road to see what I could find. After about 20 kms this quickly turned into a disaster as the path degenerated into a sandy, overgrown scrub that was impossible to cycle on. Too far in to turn back, I pushed my bike for a few kms until a more cyclable terrain reappeared.

I passed a shooting range which inexplicably faced ON to the road but fortunately was empty and then managed to rejoin the main tar road. I got back on the highway and road along in the fairly decently sized shoulder until I was almost in a small town called Oskarshamn.

Once again, Google Maps’ satellite view showed me a nice, discreet bit of lakeside forest that I could reach via a side road. I cycled off down there and found a quiet spot to camp. It was quite early so I spent some time exploring the forest and watching some fishermen who actually knew what they were doing.

Day 8: Oskarshamn to Kalmar

After leaving Oskarshamn I managed to find a decent bicycle path that weaved through the forests along the main road, keeping cyclists away from traffic. Unfortunately, it was also quite difficult to follow and often just ended without notice, leaving the cyclist abandoned in a random town. At one point while I was resting a young cyclist passed by and offered me an energy bar – I must have looked tired!

I decided to stop going on adventures and just get back on the highway and head straight to Kalmar where I was meeting friends I had met in Vietnam the year before. My knee was getting really sore again but all the strange and bizarre objects along the roadside in Sweden managed to keep me distracted long enough to arrive in Kalmar safely.

I pulled into a Burger King and spent a few hours working while waiting for my friends to get home from work. Oskar and Maria are a young couple who live in a lovely 1-bed flat in Kalmar and kindly let me crash on their couch and do some washing. We also visited the amazing Kalmar castle and the nearby island of Oland, accessible by a crazy long bridge.

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 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.

12439423_10156801898575220_7456285006691620107_n

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).

12804860_10156807065350220_7220108651678335385_n
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.

12920284_10156813839710220_8910458373397851993_n
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.

524771_10156813840335220_4315015269896969414_n
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.

12801566_10156813842410220_5461529837977890952_n
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.

12670347_10156813888325220_7144190197612827831_n
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.