Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Grampians 3-Day Bikepacking Trip

I did feel for Pete lugging that big ol' girls bike up those hills with all the weight on the back, I think my set-up was a bit kinder to me.
I'm back in Australia now and without my trusty Soma touring bike, however, I was looking for a slight change in direction anyway with regards to adventuring.

While I was in England, I really got into watching Iohan Gueorguiev's "See the World" series of documentaries. If you haven't checked him out on YouTube already, you should definitely watch some of his inspiring videos. Iohan goes not just off-road, but regularly off the map and documents it all very well. I don't have the time for such ambitious riding, but he certainly made me interested in doing some bikepacking trips.

Bikepacking differs slightly from bicycle touring in that it is mainly on isolated dirt roads and trails. You generally see less people, but you get really up close and personal with nature and it does feel like even more of an adventure. With it comes some more problems, like sourcing water and food, and you obviously are further away from any support if you run into trouble, so you need to be a little more prepared.

For my first venture out then, I chose the Grampians in Victoria, here in Australia. This is a pretty little mountainous area North-West of Melbourne. I was riding my housemate's abandoned bike that he left to rust in the back garden; after a little bit of attention, it seemed as if it could stand up to a few short tours, so I thought I'd give it a go.

New bike, new kind of touring, and instead of doing it all on my own, this time I was joined by my friend Peter from England, who is in Melbourne for a few months. This was the chap that was partly responsible for inspiring me to give bicycle touring a go in the first place after his trip from South Korea to England a few years ago.

She kind of looks the part, especially for a free bike.
Between us we were riding bikes that had cost us a total of $10. I got mine for free, and he paid $10 for his girls bike - but who cares right, it did the job after all. I did buy some panniers and a handlebar bag online, which totalled to a little over $100, but even so, this was travelling on a budget, especially as we wild camped every night.

From Melbourne, we took a train for about 2 and a half hours to the small town of Ararat. From there it was an easy 40Km or so to our first wild camp spot about 5Km outside of Halls Gap. I had an idea where this would be before hand but was happy to find a reasonable area in the trees.

Day 1 campsite in the trees with Pete and his family-sized tent.
The first night was extremely cold, which tested my new sleeping bag. By the time I had switched my phone on in the morning, the mercury had dropped to about -2 degrees Celsius. We were in the last throws of Winter, so this wasn't too surprising, but it did make for a slightly uncomfortable morning until the sun started shining and then the cold dissipated pretty quickly.

The cold didn't stop the kangaroos coming out to feast on the frosty grass and they were present in the hundreds in the fields beside the road around Halls Gap. We decided to stop and have a coffee and a sit down for 45 minutes to warm up. Just holding the coffee cup brought feeling back into my fingers.

Our plan was to head South and cut into the main part of the Grampians and from there take dirt roads and 4-wheel drive tracks and loop back to Halls Gap and then back to Ararat. This being my first bikepacking trip - although I have done some off-road sections before on my touring bike - I didn't really know what to expect, but I figured about 70Km a day wouldn't be too arduous.

As soon as we turned off the tarmac, we were confronted with a climb, but nothing too major and the road then flattened-out nicely. There were campsites aplenty just off the side of the track all day, but we planned to finish at about 5pm and typically at this time there was nothing and we were climbing again, on often very sandy 4-wheel drive tracks, which started to take its toll on us.

Sandy tracks made for difficult riding and there were few camping opportunities as the sun was going down on day 2.
Fortunately, as we were getting desperate to set-up camp we found an excellent spot which already had an area for a fire and some nice flat ground between the trees. We got a fire going and cooked-up some dinner. I don't normally bring a camping stove with me, so a hot dinner was definitely welcome, as well as some warmth in the morning and a hot porridge breakfast. I think in future I might start bringing a stove with me on trips again. I need a bit more luxury as I get older.

It had been a hard day, but a cracking camp to finish, and although we had been in the trees most of the day we did manage to find the odd lookout point to get an idea of the lay of the land.

The perfect campsite to end day 2.
On the morning of day 3 we knew we had a bit of a climb after an exhilarating downhill section on the 4-wheel drive tracks. The ascent was back on the asphalt, however, so it wasn't too difficult. We were heading to Mackenzie Falls, one of the popular attractions of the area. I had been there a few years previously with my mum when she visited us in Melbourne in the summer, but this time we were the only one's there and the walk seemed shorter and easier than before.

Victoria is not an especially famous part of Australia for waterfalls, but this is quite a nice one and a bit of time walking without the bikes was much needed.

Our next target was to get to Boroka lookout via the long road around the reservoir, which was quite aptly named, "Mount Difficult Road". It started innocuously enough, fairly flat around the reservoir, but then began rising steeply for what seemed like forever up to the lookout. Pete was suffering, which I think was chiefly down to his set-up and the extra weight he was carrying, I was tired but wasn't feeling completely spent.

Taking a break halfway up Mt Difficult Road
After reaching Boroka Lookout, we decided to have a bit of a powernap and chill out with the beautiful view of the Grampians as a background. Hard work done we had an easy roll downhill into Halls Gap. It is at such times when you tend to gorge yourself on food, and we sat down for a good couple of hours until I realised the weather forecast was predicting rain in the morning and with this in mind it might be a good idea to get as early a train possible back to Melbourne.

Despite the cold mornings, we had unbelievable weather over the trip; for two whole days we didn't even see a cloud and the daytime temperatures were very pleasant. In hindsight this was lucky as those sandy 4-wheel drive tracks would have been even worse had they been wet. From my other tours in Australia, I have learned that unsealed roads here can be a bit of a lottery, sometimes sandy, sometimes rutted, bumpy, and potholed. At least now - as strange as it sounds with a free bike - I have the kind of bike that can take it with a bit of a suspension and wider tyres.

Looking at the forecast, and with a couple of hours still left in the day, I persuaded Pete to push on and try to get within striking distance of Ararat for the early 8.15am train back to Melbourne. We also had a slight tailwind in the afternoon.

All 3 nights we free camped. This can be uncomfortable sometimes, but every campsite was excellent.
As luck would have it, it turned-out to be a great decision. We had some energy back from the rest and some hot food and as the light was fading we found a free camping area about 17Km from Ararat, with perfect soft grass and even a toilet and a place to sit down. Luxury indeed.

Anyway, we made it before the rain and got back to Melbourne in good time. Excellent little trip that was tougher than I had imagined it would be, although I was very happy with my bike set-up and I will be doing a few more short tours with it by the end of the year.

Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Northern England - The Lakes, Dales, and Moors.

After an interesting, but slightly underwhelming and frustrating tour of Spain, Northern England didn't disappoint, despite the bitter cold towards the end of the week.  Whereas plans changed continuously in Spain, this tour went almost exactly by the book.

Aira Force (waterfalls in the North are called 'force').
I started out from Colchester early in the morning on the train to London Liverpool Street.  From there I had about an 8Km cycle to London Euston station where I caught the train towards Carlisle.  I was slightly concerned about this leg of the journey, but I needn't have been as everything went very smoothly.

The only slight change was where I disembarked from on the bike.  I noticed that the train stopped at Penrith before Carlisle, a much smaller town and slightly closer to the Lake District.

Almost immediately, I was quite struck by how beautiful the Lake District was.  The mountains there are not huge, but they are quite craggy and scenic amidst the lakes, with even a little snow left at the tops of the higher peaks.

My first little target was Aira Force waterfall for a bit of a walk and a spot of lunch.  I took the scenic route along the banks of Ullswater lake.

Almost immediately I was quite taken with how many people were in the more popular areas of the Lake District.  Aira Force car park was extremely busy and each time I stopped in a town it was bustling with activity.  As I went down some of the smaller roads, however, I soon lost the crowds.

The 3-wheeler tour through the Lakes.  They were very nice people actually with cool little cars.
After passing through Keswick, I took the road less travelled to Buttermere which was also incredibly steep at times.  I was followed by a team of 3-wheel cars that were obviously on a Top Gear-like tour of the Lake District and they seemed to suit the surroundings quite nicely.

The standard one photo of me on the tour.
After Buttermere, I psyched myself up for the Honnister Pass.  It is one of the most beautiful roads in the whole of Britain, but again, very steep.  Towards the end of the climb the incline hits 25%.  Not a chance of riding up that on a fully-loaded touring bike, so I had to get off and push.  Pushing the bike up that incline is a challenge in itself, but it was worth the effort as the top of the pass was very grand and impressive.

My first camping area of the tour was just down the other side of the pass at a farm located at the beginning of the trail up to Scafell Pike, the highest mountain in England.  Everything was pretty basic, but it left me the option of hiking up to the top of the mountain in the morning.  Unfortunately, the cloud was very low, so I didn't see much up there and I couldn't wait around for very long.

Ridiculous inclines.  I had to push, but not for that long as you get to the top pretty quickly.  This is very common in the UK, short, steep, punchy climbs.
First campsite on the tour, very quiet and comfortable in beautiful surroundings.
The cloud finally cleared in the afternoon and by then I had made my way towards Windemere, possibly the most famous of the Lakes.  Not my favourite, though, as it was quite busy and the highest of the mountains had gone by then.

Black sheep on a cloudy, misty morning.
I was quite amazed by the variety of trails through the Lake District, which really made me want to go back there one day and hike around for a week or so.  With hundreds of miles of trails through stunning countryside and wilderness, it is definitely something I'd come back for.  I think the Lake District is the most beautiful part of the whole of the UK from what I have seen so far, rivaling the Scottish Highlands, which are also wonderful.

I was quite surprised just how stunning the Lake District was; as you can see I took some great photos, some of the best I have ever taken on my travels.  As I headed out of the Lakes, I had no plan of where to camp overnight, but eventually found a public footpath to get me off the road and thought I'd take a chance on where it went.  It led to a locked gate, but with stones placed next to it so walkers could access the path which was ongoing.

Day 2 campsite was a bit exposed, but I had little choice.
It seemed liked a route that was rarely used, and there was some ground to pitch a tent further on, so I unloaded the bike and lifted it over and then camped about 100 metres away on the other side.  A bit exposed to the wind, but I was sure no one would disturb me up there and there really was no other options around.

The wind had picked up overnight and in the morning it was colder also.  The wind was blowing from the North East - basically where I was going - and by mid-morning it was creating quite a problem on the bike, pushing me around everywhere.

The river running through the town of Kendal, home to the famous Kendal mint cake.  Supplying hikers and climbers with energy for almost 150 years.
I passed through a number of small towns and villages on the outskirts of the Yorkshire Dales before stopping at some nice church gardens which also sat at the top of a hill with great views over the river and into the dales.

As I headed into the Dales the wind picked up and the higher I got, the worse it got.  High in the Yorkshire Dales is probably one of the worst places in the UK to be confronted by high winds as there is absolutely no tree cover and no steep mountains to shield you from the wind, just open, high hillsides.  I was buffeted by a full-on headwind as I climbed up to the highest section.  The decent incline and high winds brought me to a standstill.

The Ribblehead viaduct high up in the Yorkshire Dales.
I was again experiencing those moments of despair that only a relentless headwind can give you, but fortunately I had a nice target to push me through the latter part of the day.

I camped every night on the trip, bar one, which was this night.  The YHA at Hawes was in the perfect place and with the cold winds knocking the stuffing out of me, I just had to stop for the night and get some welcome shelter from the elements.

The YHA couldn't come soon enough, despite the pleasant scenery of the Dales.  Shortly after arriving I was joined by fellow cyclist, traveling a little lighter, who had come up from Leeds and was planning a trip into the Lake District for a few days also.  He was a really nice chap, actually, and we had some good chats about our travels, as he was as well-travelled as I am.  He also gave me some useful tips on good routes to take and ones to avoid as he had ridden this way many times.

I was so exhausted that the thought of battling into the cold wind the next day was something I wasn't willing to entertain, so I tricked myself into thinking I'd have an easy day and start late.  Obviously I didn't, just setting-off a little later than normal at 8am.

I had mentally prepared myself for a slow-going day, however, and this helped initially, but then I started to struggle again.  I decided to pick my way through 10-15km at a time and eventually I made it to a reservoir and forested area, which was the only place around I had a chance to pitch a tent.

Campsite 3 in the woods near the Yorkshire Moors.
It was a tricky one, however, because the tiny villages a few miles down the road seemed to empty into this park where everyone was walking their dogs or walking with the family.  I managed to find a quiet spot in the trees and settled down for a cold night.

The temperature was down to -2 degrees when I woke up in the morning.  I didn't feel overly cold in the tent as I think the bed of pine needles underneath the tent insulated me quite well, but getting going in the morning was difficult and once on the bike the cold wind was blowing once more.  I was freezing and utterly exhausted from the previous 2 days of battling the wind.

These pots of tea powered me through fatigue and the cold on this trip.
My legs simply were not working and I was struggling big time.  I managed to make it to the Buck Inn at Chop Gate and despite it not technically being open, the lovely lady who owned it let me in for a pot of tea, which warmed me up and together with the rest gave me a bit of energy again.

I purposely didn't go to my uncle's place via Rosedale because I knew I would be going there anyway, and it was a less direct route.  It was also higher and more open and I was not only struggling a bit physically, but I had become bone-chillingly cold.  I just could not get warm the whole day and this continued into the next day as you can probably see from the picture I had taken with my mum below.

Perhaps you can see in this picture how cold I stayed, even a day after finishing on the bike.
I finally arrived at my uncle's cottage, just south of the Yorkshire Moors, very cold and weather beaten.  The North Easterly winds took chunks out of me in the previous 3 days, so I was glad to finish.  Although these winds were against me and were icy cold, the benefit of the weather coming from the East is that it was at least dry for the whole trip, not a drop of rain.

Despite the physical hardship, I really enjoyed this tour and along the with tour through Wales and Southern England I did almost 2 years ago, I feel like I have explored my own country quite well now.  The UK is actually a really good place to tour on the bike; lots of small roads and pretty landscapes punctuated by, in my opinion, the prettiest towns and villages in the whole world.  What my country lacks in spectacular landscapes it makes up for in culture and architecture.

The top of the Rosedale Chimney, the steepest road in the UK at 33%.
Anyway the last couple of days were spent with my aunt and uncle who were extremely friendly and hospitable, even though I hadn't seen them in years.  I especially loved the homemade rhubarb crumble made with rhubarb straight from the garden.

Their little cottage was lovely and I stayed in the swanky little room above their garage.  On the first day with them they showed us around the Moors and we took all the dogs for a walk.  I was extremely impressed with their collie Tanzie (my aunt is an incredibly good trainer of dogs; agility training, flyball, and sheep herding) who was very obedient and did everything first time on command.  I was freezing for every second when I was outside and I only warmed-up on the second day after sitting in their front room with the fire blaring out.  I must have been seriously cold.

But apart from the cold it was a great tour and then a lovely finish with my relatives; the bike then fit into my mum's car easily for the trip back home.  Basically a perfectly planned and executed week away.

Friday, 5 April 2019

Lakes, Dales, and Moors - The Northern England Short Tour

Well, I was going to have a bit of a break from cycle touring after Spain, but I have never been to the far North of my own country, and with 3 supposedly stunning national parks in this region, I couldn't resist.

I plan to take the train to London from my hometown in Colchester, then head up to Carlisle, where I will disembark on the bike.  Carlisle is one of the most northerly cities in England, just 10 miles south of Scotland.  From there it is a relatively short ride into the Lake District National Park.

Famed as one of the most picturesque locations in the UK, it is also one of the wettest (these two factors almost always come together), so it is a big fingers-crossed for the weather on this trip, especially as April isn't exactly the driest time of year.

The weather isn't the only challenge, my route takes me through the Lake District, then the Yorkshire Dales, and finally the Yorkshire Moors, where I will rendez-vous with my aunt and uncle for a day or so before going back home to Colchester with my mum.  This route takes me up and down some serious climbs.

I don't know how I do it to myself, every time I go somewhere new, I seem to be setting myself another horrendous physical challenge.  This time it is not distance, it shouldn't be the wind - as I should be travelling with the prevailing wind for most of the ride, although it looks like the winds are shifting just for me (as usual) - and it certainly won't be heat and lack of water as in Australia.  This time it will be the sheer steepness of the climbs.

After doing a bit of research, I have noticed that I will certainly hit some sections of road where the incline will exceed 25%!  There are also roads where climbs can reach as high a gradient as 33%!  I will be cycling backwards!  In New Zealand, the steepest section of road I encountered was about 16% up to Arthur's Pass, and that was brutal.  I will be packed a lot lighter for this tour, but I can't imagine I will be able to cycle the whole way up such roads, not to mention ride down them - it is recommended that cyclists dismount going down some of these roads.

I have about 5-6 days to complete this ride, which works out at about 60Km a day, which should be manageable, but I would like a day in hand in case of bad weather, and with these hills, well, I might need that extra day.

The weather is really my major concern.  A few days away now, and if I can trust the long range weather forecast, it looks like it will be cold, but not wet, which is just fine by me.  If I have some good weather, the scenery should be absolutely beautiful.

With some flexibility built-in to the tour, if the weather is good, I may hike up to England's highest mountain, Scarfell Pike, which is not a big detour off my route through the Lake District.  It is always good to get off the bike and do some hiking as well.

Looking forward to this short, punchy, and potentially very picturesque tour of the North.  Hopefully the bike and the gear holds out, as much of it is on its last legs; the panniers are being held together with pegs with a few holes appearing, the bike is starting to develop the odd minor problem or two (understandably after all the hard work she's done), and my racks are bent and being held together with cable ties after a breakage or two in Australia and New Zealand.  She just has to get me through this one last tour, and I'll make her a commuter bike, but what a job she has done over the past 3 years.  Let's see how this one goes.

Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Spectacular Roads and Mazes of Spain

Another tour done and this one didn't exactly go to plan.  To be fair, only the first tour I did in Australia and my tour in England have gone exactly to plan, most of the tours I have done have had at least minor changes once I am in the reality of the situation.

My actual tour route. Slightly different than planned.
For this one, I significantly overestimated the mileage I could achieve in a day.  Perhaps I am getting old, but I think the main issue in this case was the difficulty of finding my way around.  Stopping to check maps, going the wrong way, and winding your way through mazes of roads takes a lot more time out of your day than you imagine.

One of the great benefits of having a very common name is that I often come across things like this.
Spain has to be one of the best places for cycling in the world; there are plenty of hills and mountains, stunning vistas, the weather is almost always sunny, and the roads are in great condition with very little traffic.

Great for cycling, definitely, but good for bicycle touring?  I'm not so sure about that.  If someone were to ask for my advice about cycling in Spain, I would advise them to fly over with their road bike and do day cycles, maybe hiring a car and finding a 100Km ride to do, then do something similar somewhere else on another day.

The reason for this is that there some wonderful roads, but getting from a to b on a bike over a period of days and weeks can be tricky in Spain.  The are a number of different kinds of roads here; APs, AVs, As, RMs, GLs, ALs, etc.  The first two seemed to always not allow cyclists on them, but the As and RMs also had times when they didn't allow cyclists, but the problem was that you didn't know until things started looking like a motorway or when a sign popped-up.  There didn't seem to be any hard and fast rules to it all.

Going down the side of these more major roads were service roads that looked very good at times, but would often deteriorate into rubble or just end altogether without warning.

My troubles with the roads were summed-up on the last day when I discovered that I could not legally enter Murcia International airport on the bike, despite two bicycle lanes appearing to lead right into the airport (at least on the map).

When I arrived I must have ridden on the road illegally to get going, not seeing any signs.  But on the way in, I saw the signs clearly so diverted down a service road with a bicycle path that led to the airport.  Having discovered that one bicycle path came to a dead end with a 2 metre-high fence, I tried to cycle around, only to discover that this fence stretched on seemingly endlessly.

Turning back, I tried the bicycle path on the other side, but the same thing, it ended at a very high fence.  The airport was in sight the whole time, but I just couldn't reach it.  Hopping onto the main road was not an option either as it was protected by yet another fence and a rather large gutter.  Fortunately, however, a tree had fallen on the fence and this acted like a bridge so I could cross the gutter (slightly precariously) with my bike and then lift it over the barrier.  Without that tree, I have no idea how I would have gotten into the airport.

Wild camping with the new tent.
I had another problem, and that was that I couldn't put my bike on the trains, which meant that my original plans to take the train to Seville and Cordoba was pretty much finished.  In the end, I just cycled to Granada via the coast and then circled back to my Dad's place in Los Alcazeres.

Even then, I had to take the bus between Guadix and Baza because I couldn't find a route that would accept my bicycle.

Troubles aside, when I was actually cycling, the roads and scenery were absolutely beautiful both on the coast and inland.  Despite the fact hills and mountains were everywhere, I found the gradients a lot less severe than New Zealand also, so no climbs were especially tough, particularly with less gear on the bike. The ease of wild camping was also very welcome.  Pretty much any area without houses or farms was easy to just turn off the road and find a nice sheltered place to camp.

It was a shame I couldn't go to Seville or Cordoba, but Granada was a truly beautiful city to spend a day resting and wandering around in.  A combination of Christian and Islamic architecture with the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada mountains.  European cities are so beautiful, sometimes you forget it when you travel elsewhere in the world.  Australia and New Zealand have the natural wonders, but culturally, hardly anywhere in the world beats Europe.

The main attraction in Granada was Alhambra, a large Islamic fort set on top of a hill overlooking the whole city.  It was an impressive sight, and as usual, I was there early in the day to get in before all the crowds of tourists showed-up.  So early in fact, that I managed to beat the entrance fee as well, and sneaked in for a walk around the castle on my own as the sun rose across the city.  This was a great pick-me-up after the disappointment of not being able to carry out my original plans.

Once I had finished with Alhambra I explored the old quarter of the city, winding through the hilly streets and taking pictures of some of the quaintly beautiful architecture.

The afternoon before, I checked into my only paid accommodation of the whole tour.  At 35 Euros it was quite a luxury for me, especially with my own room.  I had intended to stay at a much cheaper hostel, but typically showed-up in Granada at the weekend and everywhere was full.  This did surprise me, though, as I wouldn't have expected the city to be busy with tourists during winter.

It was a great relief to have a shower and have my own comfortable bed and just be able to catch-up with the world for the evening.  When you cycle all day for consecutive days, you really earn your rest.

The way out of Granada towards a town called Guadix was some of the best cycling of the trip, with steady gradients into the mountains.  For this reason it was also popular with a lot of other cyclists; I have never seen so many in a day.  They were not of the touring kind, but bicycles outnumbered cars significantly all day.  As they all rode by me I was given quizzical looks, like why was I punishing myself by riding with all this gear up a mountain.

I managed to get up to about 1300m, a few hundred metres higher than any road in New Zealand, and passed many pretty villages on the way to an extremely chilly overnight camp next to tunnels drilled in the rock.  These tunnels were slightly mysterious, but over the other side of the valley I had noticed some houses that were actually part of the rock and mountainside.  I assume that I was camping next to a work in progress, as I saw a few of these kinds of houses in this area of Spain.

Some pleasant roads then followed on the way back to my Dad's place in Los Alcazeres, but on one section from Guadix to Baza the route planning was nigh on impossible.  The only way on the bike looked as if I would be doing an extra 100Km or more because the direct route was on a road I couldn't cycle on.  For this reason, I decided to hop on a bus for 60Km, which actually wasn't nearly as troublesome as I anticipated.

I got back to Los Alcazeres a day early, which I was very happy about so I was able to get some rest before the stressful business of packing up and going home.  It had been an eventful trip, much harder logistically than I had imagined, but it had been nice to take a break from the doom and gloom of a British winter and get some sunshine, which it was every single day.

I am thinking now of taking a break from the cycle touring, at least the conventional kind.  The plan is to move to New Zealand in 2020 and I have no plans for any more bike tours in 2019.  I am certainly thinking of other things though, like a return to some hiking and maybe some running.  Once in New Zealand, I am hoping to hit the trails on a new bike and perhaps do some bikepacking.  The adventures will definitely continue.