bikes european bike epic general

Flashback: Cycle touring in Japan in 2009

Phew, I don’t want to even think about how long ago it was that I started working on this video. Long enough. It’s finally finished now – a selection of our photos from the Hokkaido, Japan portion of our 2009 cycle tour, set to a frenetic ska version of Turning Japanese, and invoking awesome route-drawn-on-map technology (well, not that awesome, but shh).

european bike epic general hiking trip reports

Tramping the Routeburn (21 – 23 Nov 2009)

The Routeburn track is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” in the South Island. It winds through Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks for 32km of some spectacular scenery – provided it’s not raining. Raining is the default weather condition on the west coast though, so we were lucky to hit one dry day on our hike.

We parked the car in Queenstown and took ourselves and our backpacks down to catch the shuttle bus. That’s one thing about the Routeburn, it annoyingly starts on one side of a range and finishes on the other. It’s a huge drive to get from one end of the trail to the other, so taking the shuttle bus (or hitch-hiking) is the obvious option. So, we were dropped off in the rain and the hiking began.


Rainy beginnings and roaring rivers



With Mum at the start



Crossing wibbly wobbly bridges


It actually began to clear up a bit after the first hour; the rain stopped and the clouds lifted a little.


Looking down to Routeburn Flats (site of the first hut, which we didn’t stay in) from a large landslip


And so we reached Routeburn Falls Hut, our home for the first night. Huts have to be booked well in advance through the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC). They’re not cheap, but are pretty nicely equipped. Camping is an option too, but again, spots have to be booked well in advance (for the tramping season anyway, out of season it’s first come, first served, like a lot of the smaller NZ backcountry huts always are).


Routeburn Falls Hut, and Routeburn Flats beyond



Alpine Flowers



Sunset from the balcony of Routeburn Falls Hut


The next morning we hung around to receive our helicopter rendezvous time. So far this season, everyone tramping the Routeburn had been shuttled by helicopter over Harris Saddle, as there were a few patches of snow hanging around threatening the track. The quoted time was pretty late in the day, so we had a relaxing morning, and wandered up Paddy’s Peak to watch the helicopter flying back and forth dropping explosives on the threatening patches of snow. One slid, but the other took about seven blasts without budging, so they changed tactics and the helicopter started scooping up loads of water from Lake Harris to dump onto the snow. Back and forth for hours.


Down to Routeburn Flats from Paddy’s Peak



Looking across to Harris Saddle from Paddy’s Peak


When we finally reached the rendezvous point, we were told that we’d be hiking through, no helicopter ride today.


Hiking through the snow – we were the first group through for the season, everyone else had been helicoptered across this small section



Lake Harris



The far side of Harris Saddle, hot and dry. Thankfully there were a lot of waterfalls along this stretch to refill water bottles. And the warm sun was definitely preferable to driving rain.



Looking down on Lake Mackenzie and the hut – lots of switchbacks to descend


Reaching Lake Mackenzie Hut, we dropped our gear on bunks and I was one of a few mad enough to go for a dip in the lake before dinner. It was not warm.


Lake Mackenzie, with Emily Peak in the background


The third morning we woke up to more rain – persistent rain today, it kept going as we hiked all the way out to the highway.


More traditional South Island west coast weather as we hike out on the third day



Lots of waterfalls happily flowing across the track


And back at the highway with plenty of time to spare, we lurked in the shelter and brewed up some lukewarm tea, and waited for the shuttle bus to take us back to Queenstown.

bikes european bike epic general trip reports

Paris to London (28 – 29 October 2009)

On the next morning we left our bikes behind to guard the apartment and tried walking around Paris. Our walking muscles had atrophied, and this proved to be a task more challenging than expected. Around as many of the major sights we could manage, and through random little back streets and interesting areas, in and out of shops and museums, until meeting up with friends for hot chocolate later in the day. This was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had, and I may never be able to drink a normal hot chocolate ever again. Rather unfortunately it was followed up by the best falafel I’d ever had, in the Jewish section of town. With our cyclist’s appetites still fully intact, we then went out for a second dinner with the friends we were staying with, and swore we’d never be able to eat normal food again.


Notre Dame



At the Louvre



Sitting on a bridge over the Seine, drinking hot chocolate and watching the sun set – bliss



My accomplices in hot chocolate debauchery



Look, you can see the Eiffel Tower in the background… sort of (no I didn’t go there to get a photo close up)


The following morning had us repacking and riding our bikes down to catch the Eurostar at Gare du Nord. We’d decided to pay the extra to have our bikes transported fully assembled – which was definitely worth it given the lower levels of hassle, and the small luggage space available for normal luggage on the train. Even our pannier sacks (the trusty cheap stripy plastic woven bags) took up a lot of room.

We cleared through French and UK immigration without any problems – there were no Schengen zone questions directed as Alex. This was something which we’d worried about – Australian nationals are now limited to 3 months travel within the Schengen zone, making extended European trips illegal. But I’m a dual EU/Australian citizen, and technically as we were married and he’s a visa waiver national then we could live and work in any country – we just have to register by 3 months. Travelling should also be covered under this provision, but I didn’t really want to have to argue the point, and didn’t have any documentation to help back me up. Due to the lack of stamps in his passport it wasn’t really obvious when we’d entered the Schengen zone, which we’d been in for just a little over 3 months – I can see this being a problem if we’d hit an uncooperative border guard, even if we’d been in the Schengen zone for under 3 months, as the onus is on you to be able to prove it.

The Eurostar seemed to take no time at all, and the chunnel section was barely obvious – maybe one day it will be a glass tunnel so we could stare out at all the plastic floating around in the sea. Then finally – London. We grabbed the man who was trying to escape to somewhere inconvenient with our bikes, and reattached panniers, exited to meet our mountainbiking old family friend who was meeting us, and headed off into London, and a much less simple world.

bikes european bike epic general trip reports

Final days: Bound for Paris (21 – 27 Oct 2009)

We got going along the river once more – it was fast cycling past lots of vineyards still in the full swing of harvest, and a sunny warm-ish day. After finding a bakery in Remich we continued on to shop for groceries in Germany, then onwards along the river into France. As we crossed the border, the bike path was suddenly filled with lycra-clad road bikes. On arriving on the outskirts of Thionville we discovered that the campground was closed for the season, and so instead we disappeared into the forest by the Cattenom Nuclear Plant – nice and scenic it is too.


Luxembourg grapes – the ones that were machine harvested often had stray un-harvested grapes you could take, and very tasty they were too


Our forest was noisy and spent the night dripping on us. From here we just had to return to the Moselle River, then find our way to Metz where we had a host organised for the night. The cycle path continued to Thionville, where we ended up on an unpleasantly busy road for a few kilometers before finding our way onto a new cycle path by the canal and river. It took us most of the way to Metz, until we hit the workmen who were still making the bikepath ahead of us. They shooed us onto the road, and from there we headed into Metz to see the sites – such as the impressive cathedral and multitude of yellow sandstone buildings. Before too long it was 4pm and we met our host and returned to her apartment where we were offered all manner of tasty treats and hospitality (and were introduced to the card-game Set, which could get incredibly addictive).


The impressive cathedral of Metz (after nearly 5 months in Europe, our architecture and impressive building standards were quite high, but there was a lot of Metz worth looking at)


The following morning brought drizzly and miserable weather, but at least it was warm. As we packed our groceries into our panniers outside a supermarket in Metz, a man came up and asked us a question in French – we weren’t sure what it was, but on hearing the word ‘kilometer’ I showed him the odometer on my bike computer. “Magnifique!” He responded… followed by some effusive sentences and some more French we didn’t understand. That’s one thing about France – we haven’t found the roads or drivers the best, but there have been a lot of displays of random enthusiasm from passing cars and cyclists and pedestrians.


Autumn tree on the plateau between Metz and Verdun, site of many battles in the past


Initially the road we were following was quite busy and full of ups and downs, but gradually the road grew quieter and the drizzle eased, and we were surrounded by war memorials and graves. Cycling along a plateau with Autumn trees lining the road we grew closer to Verdun, then just a few more hills and we descended into town. The fort and statues and fountains and old walls and river and such things were admired, then we headed out of town as the sun set to find some forest to camp in.


Drawing near to Verdun





As we cycled out of our little patch of forest, we passed one of the Army signs informing us that the area we’d just left was one of the no-go Red Zone areas (areas that were physically and environmentally destroyed during the First World War, remaining closed due to hundreds of thousands of human and animal corpses and millions of unexploded ordnance that contaminated the land)…. Oops. We’d entered it from farmland on the other side, where there had been no signs. Well we hadn’t come across any unexploded munitions, and hopefully had been respectful enough that any ghosts haunting the area hadn’t been bothered by our presence.

Another rainy day, it started with mizzle, moved on to drizzle, then decided on some real rain. We cycled on through the rain, along small roads crossing rolling hills, dead hedgehogs, and huge piles of what I assumed were turnips but are apparently sugar beets. Then we retired to a dripping patch of forest – we’d hardly seen another soul all day.


And then the scenery looked like this for a few days


Well the following morning the rain had gone, but the empty rolling landscape was beginning to get a bit repetitive, even if the autumn trees lining the roads were very pretty. We dreamt of being on the French Riviera. Or maybe somewhere in Italy, or Greece… maybe Turkey? Cycling through town we found an open bakery, and a French Army man stopped to chat with us, telling us about the training he’ll be doing in the mountains soon.

Around 12.30pm I called for lunchtime. Alex told me it’s only 11.30am and not time for lunch yet. “No it isn’t!” I declared in alarm. We both checked our cameras, which confirmed the 12.30 verdict. It occurred to us then that this being a Sunday, Daylight Savings had probably just ended, and the GPS was clever enough to know this. Alex tried to claim that it was still too early for lunch, but my stomach allowed no arguments.


More round autumnal trees


Gradually the sun came out to glare at us from between the clouds. We passed a few cyclists on roadbikes, and motorcyclists who waved and made peace signs at us. Then it was just the standard piles of sugar beets and a headwind for the rest of the afternoon.



Then sun now rose at the incredibly early hour of 7.16am, so we could be on the road easily not long after 8. Making good time along the small quiet roads we were soon on the Seine River plain – although we barely saw the river at all, we were just picking our way along near it on small roads. Lunching on baguette and a very tasty Camembert (oh French cheese, how I will miss you), we continued into a headwind – but at least it was sunny.


Into the Seine floodplain


On reaching Montereau we found an actual campground, and after settling down for the night realised that we would probably have been better off hunting for somewhere free to camp. The showers were the trusty old ‘pull and hold chain to make water come’ variety, with only one temperature setting: ‘hypothermia inducing’. The toilets were manky and dirty, and the whole place seemed to mainly work as short-term accommodation for workers in town – who were being noisy and drinking all night.

The next morning we were on the final stretch into Paris. And a foggy morning! I’d missed the foggy mornings recently. We continued picking our way on small roads, occasionally getting trapped and doubling back, and doing our best to avoid riding on the busier roads, which were more than a little hairy in the fog.




Finally the fog burnt off around midday, and we lunched by the Seine on a patch of grass that even had wifi available, as well as copious amounts of sunlight and some swans. We ended up going through some interesting urban areas on our way in, but then gradually made it to the outskirts of Paris proper, with views of the Eiffel Tower, just as the sun was getting close to the horizon. We battled the traffic into town, with more and more bike lanes gradually appearing.


Lunch by the Seine with curious swans


Our destination was an old friend’s place near the Bastille – but we were early, so found a nice patch of street with a cheese shop, bakery/patisserie, wine shop, fruit&veg shop and bookshop all next to each other. If you lived above them you’d hardly have to leave the area. Finally we finished our dinner and moved on to my friends place – the panniers were removed from the bikes and the bikes locked up for the final time. Sad but exciting.


The Bastille by night – we’re arrived (no other pictures of Paris coming in, the light was low, and we were too busy battling traffic)


Distance cycled: 517km
Sleeping arrangements: Wild camping,, campground and friend’s house
Days of rain: 2/7
Public toilets: Available
Bike friendliness: Good until we got close to Paris, then it was harder to find quiet roads, and the busy ones didn’t have much shoulder
Free wifi availability: Well we found one lot of free wireless at least

bikes european bike epic general trip reports

Cycling: Along the Rhein and the Mosel Rivers (13 – 20 Oct 2009)

We were leaving the Black Forest now and heading along the Rhein – first to Strasbourg, and then north and into Germany again. Plans were vague, there were a few places we’d like to reach to the north-east, but we didn’t know where exactly we’d get from here.

We hadn’t camped too far from Strasbourg last night, so a long sleep-in, then a quick cycle in the cold and we were in town, cycling around to check out the sights before meeting Julien (a friend from the internet – ah, magical internet) at 6pm. At his place he fed us dinner and PIE! and we met his white rabbit, before heading out to sample the Strasbourg nightlife – it’s always an experience going out in Europe, whenever we’ve done so the group has been a varied mix of nationalities with all sorts of different languages in common with each other.


Strasbourg – old railway building



Tea with Julien (and route planning)


We were woken by the white rabbit at 8am, then after a few morning chores (laundry, market, new rear wheel for Alex after he realised his old one had cracked on the rim), Julien took us for a tour of the city (where I learnt that both budgerigars and cockatiels are Australia – I’m so used to them being a common pet bird I didn’t realise), before leaving us at the University after lunch.

From there we crossed the Rhein into Germany and cycled north in the cold and wind. The cycling wasn’t terribly exciting (although we did find blackberries!) and neither of us felt terribly motivated. We found a patch of forest to camp in, and kept the deers company.


Leaving Strasbourg along the Rhein – nice and sunny, but cold and windy



Standard forest camp, hidden from passers-by


After another sleep-in (well, the mornings are getting darker and colder) we packed up in the sun and cycled off to find a bakery. It was one of the coldest days we’ve had yet – I had on pretty much all of the clothes I own (including my down jacket), and still wasn’t feeling particularly warm. We continued north along the Rhein, cycling through towns where a glance at a thermometer sign let us know that it was 4oC. Ah. The cycling was boring and thoroughly NOT RECOMMENDED; although the wind and cold weren’t really improving our impressions of the area. In the end we found camping in another forest, and the whole day had passed without really noticing anything much exciting about our surroundings.

After yet another sleep-in (we were getting 10-12 hours sleep every night, and somehow kept needing it anyway) we eventually dragged ourselves out of bed to cycle onwards along the river. Today was slightly warmer than yesterday, at about 6oC. But then it started to rain. After stopping to shelter a few times we gave up and found a campsite – this was huddling in the tent weather if we’d ever hit it. If we had any definite goal to aim for we could have made ourselves keep going, but at this point we were just meandering and trying to see a few more interesting towns before we had to be in Paris in 12 days time. So campground it was.

The owner seemed initially hesitant to let us camp there – apparently he thought Alex was Irish, and there’d been a few scamming Irish thieves in the area recently. As soon as he saw Alex’s Australian passport he became thoroughly friendly. So we set up by a power-point and spent the rest of the day catching up with things on the internet and watching movies in the warmth of our tent as the rain continued to fall outside.


The campground by a nuclear power plant


We lay around in the tent waiting for the rain to clear the next morning, which it did eventually. Cycling onwards we spend some time wandering around in Speyer – a very touristy town, then continue on to Neustadt. There was a little rain, and the day seemed windy and muddy. Up and into the hills we went, before getting side-tracked south and diving into a forest to find camping. Our first attempt at finding a camping spot led us to one of the hunting setups we’d seen a few of before. They have corn, apples and a salt lick scattered on the ground, all surrounded by high towers for shooting from. We decided it didn’t look like a friendly spot to camp, and moved on to a patch of forest further along.

The shortening daylight hours mean it’s now nearly 8am before the sun is up. We left our forest and backtracked to the main road which we followed to Frankenstein – there was even a convenient castle perched above the town, just the thing for aspiring mad inventors to work in. The traffic was quiet, and the road scenic, and it wasn’t so bone-numbingly cold as it has been recently.

We spent some time wandering around Kaiserslautern, which has the best fountain sculpture I’ve come across, and then followed the bike path to Lauterecken before striking out on road 270. We left the road just before 4pm to stop early, following a rough trail above the road to camp on an old section of track, between two blackberry thickets. We spent the rest of the daylight hours reading and eating and watching the autumn leaves fall. As you can perhaps tell, our cycling is beginning to wind down now – although it hasn’t helped that our current route isn’t terribly exciting. We’d hoped to reach Heidelberg and Wurzberg and perhaps even Frankfurt – but a series of cold and unpleasant days put and end to that idea.





Kaiserslautern fountain


Deep frost overnight leads to another cold morning – we’ve taken to storing the Nutella in our sleeping bags overnight after one night a week or two ago where it solidified overnight and had to be chipped out in the morning. Sleeping bag warmed Nutella is always lovely and spreadable (and yes, Nutella became a staple breakfast food at some point a couple of months back – I was dreaming of finding the 5kg jars that are reportedly sometimes available in Italy – just imagine the look on a car drivers face as they overtake you cycling up some mountain pass with 5kg jar of Nutella tied to the back of your bike).


Frosty leaves


Anyway, the morning was cold, but pretty; we made lots of stops to photograph the frost as we got going. The leaves were raining down from the trees as they defrosted in the morning sun, leaving huge piles on the road. When we reached Idar-Oberstein at 11am it was a toasty 0oC. The cold didn’t seem that bad with nice scenery to distract me from it, although our fingers and toes were getting quite numb at times.

With the standard bakery, grocery and lunch stops out of the way we cycled on through Morbach and down to Bernkastel. There was lots of going uphill, then plateaus, wind turbines, and then a hairpin descent down to the river valley. Once we hit the river (the Mosel) there were hoards of tourists – and no wonder, as it’s quite an interesting old town, with lots of old buildings and cobbles and shoppes. After a thorough poke around we continued west along the river. Today’s scenery was definitely an improvement over the last few days! There were grape vines all over the hills on either bank of the river, spreading out in all directions.


On the Mosel River



Vineyards and wine for sale everywhere along the Mosel – and it was sunny and warm!


When we found a campground by the river to stop in for the night, a friendly man came over and asked us if it would offend our honour if he offered us a table and chairs? We said why no of course not, and thank you very much. As we sat up to prepare our meal with the aid of these fancy chair and table arrangements, he came by again and offered us a half-bottle of local red wine that he wouldn’t need, and some glasses! Thoroughly overwhelmed by his generosity and our good fortune we enjoyed our wine and dinner, sitting in chairs and watching the sun set over the vineyards and the Mosel River.


The glasses and table lent to us by a fellow camper, together with the half bottle of red wine he gave us! (Plus the Spot, and preparations for dinner)


We awoke to another frosty morning – a really deep hoar frost which covers the table and wine glasses and bikes and panniers and the tent. The sky was almost clear and the sun was appearing – oh for a warm misty morning! With frozen fingers we packed up the tent and headed to reception to quickly go online and try to sort out some housed accommodation for some of the coming days.

After a bakery stop in town we continued along the river. It was a nice sunny day, the river was clear and blue(ish) and the grapes were being harvested and lots of wine was for sale. We grabbed some meat and cheese for lunch on a bench by the river, then continued. Apart from the morning, this was turning out to be a reasonably warm day. It’s been a nice cycle along the Mosel so far, along quiet roads and bike path, well sign-posted too. We hope it will continue in France.


More vineyards and cute little villages along the Mosel


Finally we crossed over into Luxembourg, and found a campground in Wasserbillig, on the river and looking across into Germany. My German came into use once again as we met the elderly campground owners who spoke only German or French. But hurrah, the shower was free! We’ve noticed that the rule of campgrounds in Europe seems to be that the more expensive a campground is, the more noisy and unpleasant it will be to camp in, the more likely that the facilities are dirty, and the more likely that you’ll have to pay extra for a shower. The best campgrounds we’ve stayed in have been the cheapest. Sad but true (and they’re always the ones that are impossible to track down on the internet, so you just have to get lucky and find them by chance).


Into Luxembourg, the last ‘new’ country of the trip


Distance cycled: 487km
Sleeping arrangements: Wild camping, a campground and a friend’s house
Days of rain: 2/8
Public toilets: Available
Bike friendliness: Not bad, some difficult following poorly signposted trails along the Rhein, mostly good roads to cycle on though
Free wifi availability: Lousy