Saturday, 29 April 2017

Java: The Beach Crawl

To read about the beginning of this trip, check out my post, Java: Yogyakarta.

After gorging myself on bubur (Indonesian rice porridge with coconut milk, omg) at the breakfast buffet, we had our hire car delivered to the hotel. There are lots of local vehicle hire places in Yogyakarta that are much cheaper than big international companies (checkout this list); we went with Iwan Transport and had no troubles!

Heading south out of the city was super easy, it was just one long road to Parangtritis for about 45 minutes. Parangtritis is a little seaside town where the locals of Yogya head for the weekend and holidays. Being a weekday we found it completely deserted, which was actually a little disappointing, especially as all the shops and eateries were empty or closed. With our accommodation at Villa Alcheringa not as luxurious as we were expecting things were looking grim, however we ended up having a fantastic, if bizarre day.

The main attraction is Gumuk Pasir, the ‘sand dunes’ a few minutes out of town. Hilariously, this is just a long slope of dirty grey sand, covered in photo taking opportunities like large novelty signs, flower garlands and a swing set. We ended up sitting on the swings for a good half an hour taking photos and boomerangs and just laughing about how ridiculous it all was. The beach had a similar vibe to Maungmagan in Dawei (Myanmar) with warungs lining the beach front, although the sand is a dirty grey and the water, being the Indian Ocean, is a bit too rough to enjoy swimming in. Again we spent a hilarious amount of time just sitting at the waterline getting smashed by the waves and making hilarious videos. The amount of sand that we carried home in our bathers and butt cracks and then deposited in the shower was absurd.

After some time in our infinity spa, we went hunting for the spot where you can go paragliding over the beach, however they were closed that day. Gutting, because when else do you get to go paragliding for $35!? Nearby though was Goa Langse, the path down to which some (apparently) call one of the most dangerous climbs in Indonesia. All I can say is that while it’s steep and the infrastructure questionable, I never felt scared of unsafe. Leaving Angela (who wasn’t game) and her book at the top, I scaled down the Amsterdam-steep stairs, ladders and bamboo poles, the cliff face overlooking the ocean and waves crashing on the rocks below. At the bottom is a little compound of buildings at the entrance of the cave. I was not allowed to enter too far into the cave itself because it’s a religious site, but it really isn’t that remarkable anyway. What was stunning however were the huge rocks, waves and sunset - totally worth it! Worked up quite a sweat on the climb back up, mostly because it was getting dark (is anyone surprised, anyone?). Near the top I heard Ange calling out to me, because it had occurred to her we hadn’t made any kind of plan and if I’d had an accident down there she was stranded by herself in the middle of nowhere. Oops. The 30-minute trek back in the pitch black was not ideal. Back at the room we treated ourselves to an in-room massage.

In the morning the real beach crawl began. The south coast of Java is littered with noteworthy beaches and after some thorough research I had short-listed a number of them to visit. This was no relaxing-in-the-sun type of trip, this was a see as many as we could kind of deal.

First up was Pantai Wohkudu, which was only an hour from Parangtritis and reachable on a very pleasant and sealed road, followed by a 20-minute walk. This beach was a tiny, secluded bay with some beautiful rock overhangs providing shade to lie in. This would be the perfect spot to bring a picnic and book and chill for the day away from any crowds. I did some serious rock scrambling to get some great shots of the rocks and waves. Like almost all of the beaches, we found that swimming was almost impossible with the swell from the Indian Ocean just too rough.

Next up was Pantai Kukup, just another hour along with reasonably good roads. This beach was more built up, with a village of shops and places to eat and more locals enjoying the good weather. And it really was just locals - we barely saw any other tourists or white people between Yogya and Bromo. We got our lunch to go (in a bungkus, wrapped up in paper) to eat on the beach. Literally as soon as we set down, we (and all our belongings) were engulfed by a wave that I saw coming in the nick of time. There’s a second half of the beach with no one on it you can access by running across the rocks/sand while the swell is out. Kukup was nice, but nothing overly remarkable.

(Pantai Wohkudu)

(Pantai Wohkudu)

(Pantai Kukup)

Yet another hours drive along the coast (actually each time we have to drive back inland a bit) was Pantai Timang, which we went to not for the beach, but for the crazy cable car over to Pulau Timang. The last stretch of the drive was our first experience of the rough and narrow roads I had been expecting, but nothing the hire car couldn’t handle. For the last stretch you have to park and then pay to be driven on the back of a motorbike with a local. I think our car could have definitely done it, but I wasn’t in a mood to argue over how they do things and the incredibly bumpy ride was like a rollercoaster. At the coast are some high rock outcrops and an 80m stretch of crashing waves over to a small, rocky island. The locals have built a rope bridge on the left, and on the right a hand-pulled cable car with an absurd amount of rope. Over on the island an incredibly helpful and friendly guide showed us all the best spots, kept us safe and most importantly, gave us our own private photoshoot - his photography skills were to be commended! I asked if we could return via the bridge and he said that foreigners were not allowed, right before a gigantic wave swept over the bridge. It was probably one of the most unique things about the whole trip.

With the day getting late, we decided to skip nearby Pantai Jogan, Nglambor and Wediombo (to be honest, I was being far too optimistic about the amount of beaches we could fit in) and head straight to Watu Karung, which was the most likely place to find accommodation (we hadn’t pre-booked anything). This is where the roads really went full Asia. 20-40km/h was the max we reached, driving along narrow and rocky roads, now in the dark, through forest and tiny villages. To be honest it’s the kind of adventure I love and that kind of driving makes it far less likely I will fall asleep …

(Pantai & Pulau Timang)

I had looked up a place called Pasir Putih Villa but we (and the incredibly friendly and obliging locals) couldn’t find the place at all (I think in the end we decided it had closed down?) and we were led to a very average homestay (Angela reported there were cat sheets, which I unfortunately missed). Also the whole town’s wifi was down. Claiming we needed to go get food, we bailed and instead found our way eventually to Chill Hill Homestay which was much nicer, and right on the beach! We then stumbled upon this cool little outdoor bar run by a foreigner that served pizza. The opportunity to speak a little English and have a non-Indonesian meal at the end of a long and exhausting day was very welcome, especially since the power socket in our room electrocuted me.

Sunrise revealed that we were staying on the most stunning beach in a small sheltered cove. There were a number of other foreigners here too, mostly visiting for the surfing - we got to check out a few very hot surf bods on our morning stroll. This would be the kind of place, in the middle of nowhere, where I could have stayed and checked out from reality for a week or two … but to be brutally honest I don’t think I or anyone I know would say that that kind of holiday is ever going to happen for me!

We headed out early on the back roads to double back to Pantai Klayar, which was suggested as the best of the beaches in the area. The morning drive there along the roughest roads yet, in the middle of nowhere, was really nice. Klayar definitely took the cake on our beach crawl. You can drive right up to and park at the beach, where there is a stretch of shops etc. There’s a long beach that ends in some large rock formations, behind which is a smaller (still connected) beach. The impressive waves constantly crash against and wash over the rocks and beach in different ways, making for stunning scenery. The sand (some white, some black) and the water was beautiful. At the far end you can climb up to a lookout to see the beach in its entirety as well as a blowhole in the rocks. We basically had the whole place to ourselves and wish we could have lingered all day. But we had a 10-hour drive to get through!

You can also check out my video, Java by Instagram Story

(Watu Karung)

(Pantai Klayar)

(Pantai Klayar)

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Java: Yogyakarta

In 2014 I spent seven weeks working at an arts University in West Sumatra and from that developed a fondness (as well as some language skills) for Indonesia, so when the opportunity came up to make a return trip, I jumped at it. My trusty travel partner Angela and I had eight days in Java. I was not prepared for the sheer amount of amazing sights and things to do in Central Java alone, and as I suffer from severe FOMO, we moved through the place at breakneck speed.


We started our journey in Yogyakarta, the Melbourne (cultural capital) of Indonesia, a city that is worlds away from the hot, dirty, unappealing and sprawling mess that is Jakarta (seriously, don’t go). We checked into Greenhost Boutique Hotel, which met all of our expectations of super-cool, Instagram-worthy (yet affordable) Asian accommodation. Every wall is covered in hanging greenery, all surrounding a gorgeous central pool, and the breakfast buffet and top-floor bar received our high praise.

Our first stop, other than hiring a scooter next door at Bamboo House, was to try the traditional Javanese dish Gudeg at Gudeg Yu Djum, which was a great way to dive back into Asian food. While we were unsuccessful into getting into Taman Sari (the Water Castle) because it closes in the afternoon, we had fun wandering around the area until some friendly locals told us we could go around the back and get a great view looking over the wall. This was a fantastic tip, and we got better views of the pool than if we’d gone inside (and it was free too)! Further exploration led us to Masjid Sumur Gumuling nearby, an old Mosque with circular rooms and central staircases that made for some great photos.

There are two main tourist areas in Yogyakarta; Prawirotaman, where we were staying and filled with guesthouses and great places to eat, and just a bit further north, Malioboro, home the reputable markets and shopping strip. We headed there next for a look around, before deciding to come back for dinner after a rest at the hotel, a dip in the pool and some mojitos at the bar. Dining choices along Jalan Malioboro are almost entirely limited to street foot in the curb side stalls. Only one day in, Angela was not feeling so adventurous - we found her some Japanese in a food court, and I had some ayam goreng (fried chicken) at one of the stalls.

Day two saw us up early to make the hour long ride out to Borobodur for sunrise. You can pay an exorbitant fee to book through a neighbouring hotel to be let in before sunrise, but some extra research told us that it was sufficient to just go in as normal as soon as the temple gates open at 6am. We were the first in and made it to the top to watch the sun come up through the clouds. While Borobodur doesn’t compare to the scale of temple complexes such as Bagan and Angkor Wat, it’s still impressive and very beautiful; a definite must if you’re in the area.

Only about fifteen minutes away is the lesser known Gereja Ayam (Chicken Church), literally a church inside a giant chicken. The inside is filled with hilarious, politically charged wall paintings and you can climb up through the tower to look out it’s beak and then stand on its head for some reasonable views. On the walk back, while chasing some chickens, I walked into a massive spider web and basically had a seizure trying to brush potential spiders off of me.

Next up was another hour or so ride east to Kaliuran, a village on the side of the active volcano, Merapi. We made it just in time to Vogels Hostel for lunch before it started pouring and enjoyed some delicious ayam paniki, a kind of vegetable soup with chicken, heavily scented with lemongrass. By the time we were ready to leave, the rain had stopped, and we rode up to the carpark of Bukit Pronojiwo, a good place to lookout over the lava fields. Apart from being ridiculously overpriced, the cloud cover totally wiped out the views, so we turned back in time to be propositioned by a man in a bight yellow jeep, offering a 2-3 hour expedition up the volcano. Done!

Sitting in the back of the open topped jeep, we bounced along (with Ange laughing hysterically) the roughest roads I have ever experienced. We stopped at a decimated house (now museum to the last volcanic eruption), an old bunker, the underwhelming ‘alien rock’ and some fantastic views over the lava fields, with the volcano looming the in clouds in the background. Every stop was accompanied by groups of locals asking to take photos with us … we vowed that on the next trip we would provide them with a hashtag so we could make a collection of all the randoms uploading photos of us.

I only speak a bit of Indonesian, so on the way back when our driver asked us if we wanted to do something involving the words ‘water’ and ‘circle’, I assumed there was some kind of water wheel he wanted to take us too. Next minutes, he goes off road and we’re doing mad wheelies in the river under the bridge. Definitely the highlight of the day.

Back on the scooter the next leg took us to another temple, Prambanan (which kept getting Black Betty by Ram Jam stuck in our heads). By this stage we were flagging in energy and motivation, and the ambience of Prambanan was compromised by the epic Tupperware convention taking place on the grounds. We stopped at the exit for food and I had another Indonesian favourite, gado-gado, a kind of satay salad.

Battling the traffic back into Yogyakarta, we stopped by the Kota Gede neighbourhood so I could try a black soupy dish called Brongkos from Warung Jawi (reputably the best); not something I would need to have again, but I’m glad I tried it. By the time we got back to the hotel we were well and truly dead (remember, this is all still on day two) and we spent the rest of the night in.


After our epic beach crawl and trip to Mount Bromo, I still had two more full days in Yogya, with Ange leaving in the afternoon of the first. We got a private room at Venezia Garden Homestay, quite near our previous accommodation (but a lot cheaper), which was quite nice and near a lot of places to eat. We checked out Bu Ageng, a swanky looking restaurant that came highly reviewed, but I found the staff unusually rude and the food which took a long time to arrive, not great. I think it was probably geared towards fussy, white tourists … I would much rather eat in a dingey, street side warung.

In the morning we hired a scooter (bright pink this time!) to go and check out Kraton, the Sultan’s Palace. On the drive there, a local guy stopped beside us and offered to show us the way, protesting that he wasn’t trying to scam us. He led the way, and when we stopped he gave us directions and suggestions including to see Kraton with a guide and to check out the real batik school (as opposed to all the ‘galleries’ which are just scams). Turned out he really was just a nice guy helping out, which is increasingly rare in Asia. Kraton, which historically significant, is nothing special to look at and I wouldn’t have been disappointed if we missed it. However our friend was right; a guide was essential in making the site interesting and explaining a lot of things we would have walked past without a thought.

Nearby was a batik (a traditional Indonesian art form using wax and dye to make art and clothing) school that was sponsored by the palace in order to preserve local culture. If you’re going to look at and buy batik, this is the place in the city to do it - all of the shops and galleries along Malioboro sell fake, mass-produced batik at inflated prices and pay hawkers on the street to direct people in. At this school you can speak with the artists themselves! Ange ended up buying a piece, but not having a home I thought it a little impractical for me. We then walked up to Malioboro to check out Pasar Beringharjo, a massive market. We bought some matching couples t-shirts from the street, but otherwise Beringharjo was no different than any Asian market packed with cheap (and mostly useless) goods.

After Ange left for the airport I basically laid in my bed and bummed around in the room for the rest of the night before reluctantly going out to find food (I’d eaten all the oreos) - I did find some fantastic satay nearby!

My last full day was packed! I left early morning to ride east out of the city to Goa Jomblang, where I befriended a couple of German travellers while we waited. At Goa Jomblang you are lowered by rope in pairs around 50m down into a huge sinkhole, in which a forest is growing. Only a short walk through the dark (and intensely muddy) cave, you emerge into a larger cave with a round opening in the ceiling high above. At a certain point in the day light streams down through the canopy above and into the cave, making for some spectacular photos. Definitely a must do if you go to Yogya. Back at the camp I bought a hilarious tourist photo on the abseil rope with me and a random Singaporean dude I didn’t know.

Next up was some river tubing through Goa Pindul, also in the area. Everyone knows that tubing is my number one favourite thing to do in the world. The first part included floating in a group through the cave itself, which was filled with tiny bats and some beautiful ceiling openings near the end. Overall though, it’s quite short and largely unremarkable. After climbing out, you and your tubes transported by pickup truck to a more open river. This was beautiful, the river winding through a small, picturesque canyon - our guide mentioned that at another time of year the water is fluorescent green. We came to a waterfall, which has a ladder embedded that you can climb up, and a platform to jump seven metres back into the river. Even that height felt daunting for me, but I did it twice (the impact really hurt my balls!).

My German friends had hired a car and driver, which I guess is good (and cheap enough) if you can’t be bothered driving and navigating, but for me, being able to ride a scooter/motorbike, especially in good, hot weather, is the best part of travelling Asia (rather than being secluded away with tinted windows and air conditioning). In saying that, I did take a wrong turn on the way back and got a bit lost …

The rest of the night and the next morning was spent bludging in my room, thoroughly exhausted, before heading off to perform in Sumatra.

Check out the next leg of our journey in between our stays in Yogya, Java: The Beach Crawl.

You can also check out my video, Java by Instagram Story.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Riding 'Round Part VI: Wales


When I’m travelling I usually have a bit of a research the day before of the area I’m heading into and pin a bunch of potential sights and places to eat and sleep on my map, and then formulate a rough route. After departing the ferry from Dublin, my plans to dine at Anglesey’s most well known (and out of the way) restaurant, Oyster Catcher, were thwarted when I was advised that it was fully booked out, due to the neighbouring towns experiencing a power cut. Oh well.

The road is often filled with too many remarkable sights to stop at every time, and also some that you can’t stop at. The bridge from Anglesey onto mainland Wales at dusk had stunning views over the water, but I could only catch as many glimpses as I dared while taking my eyes off the bridge road and accompanying traffic. I had selected a campsite roughly in the centre of Snowdonia, Wales’ famed national park, to base myself in over the next few days and headed there in the failing light.

All was going well until I went to setup camp and noticed that my sleeping bag was no longer in my employ, and had abandoned me in my hour of need somewhere between there and Dublin. A number of things went through my head such as; oh well I got it for free from the lost and found at work anyway; I’ve only got a week left of my trip and surely I can get thrifty with my motorbike jacket, and; this is so shit I am going to freeze to death. Trusting my luck and sheer optimism I backtracked along the road for about 45 minutes, hoping it had fallen off in the nearby area, rather than somewhere back near the ferry. I guess we’ll never know, because I never did locate my sleeping bag.

But of course things always work out, because when I stopped at a backwater service station for petrol and a sausage roll for dinner (a far cry from the oysters I had planned) there was a whole rack of £15 sleeping bags by the exit. Shazam, day saved! I mean, it really didn’t compare to my arctic, you-can-survive-the-apocalypse-in-this bag, but I wasn’t complaining.

For my first full day in Wales I had splashed out and booked a day-long expedition in an old slate mine with Go Below, which boasted the world’s longest underground zip-line among other things. This was easily one of the best experiences of my ride, if not THE best. I met up with my caving buddies, Michelle, Lee and their daughter Nicole, and another couple, Nicole and Pete, along with our two guides. After kitting up (me in basically my riding gear with gumboots) we trekked up the mine entrance and headed in. The history of the mines and miners itself was really interesting and its effect on the landscape and town unmissable.

I was totally unprepared for what was inside the mine. First up, right off the bat was walking along these tiny lengths of timber that were sitting on bolts, drilled into the smooth stone wall over a massive drop into the dark mine below. After that it was just stepping across on the bolts themselves. It was so amazing that the cave and the experience hadn’t been overtaken with unnecessary safety precautions - of course we were always in harnesses attached to very safe guide lines, but there was still a level of risk and adventure involved. We spent most of the day down there, crossing on lots of mini zip lines, scaling walls and inclines, walking across old beams and bridges that the miners themselves used, and getting down to 300 metres underground. The vibe and camaraderie within the group was really strong and is what topped off a perfect experience.

I’m actually quite scared of heights and it has often been debilitating for me, but I really felt like I conquered it in the mine (granted, I’m also a lot less scared when I’m strapped to something). There was an added level of terror especially on the big zip line because you’re just heading into complete darkness. I also once again proved that my super power is making waterproof things un-waterproof, as my gumboots filled with water even though the water level was never higher than ankle deep.

The experience ended with a 25 metre free fall (you literally just had to step off the edge) into a black cavern, with a machine (and the dashing Dennis) catching us just before we hit the ground. Brilliant. It was hilarious to watch Michelle tackle the drop as she froze up and cackled with laughter. The day ended with much needed hot food and drink at the local cafe.

At this point I should mention that Welsh names really are fantastic, if not seemingly impossible to pronounce. The town near the mine, Blaenau Ffestiniog, and the surrounding landscape was stunning. I don’t think it would be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have an affinity for stone and rock landscapes, and the area was absolutely covered with slate scree, discarded from the mines. Combined with grey skies, green shrubbery and plenty of water, it was so unique. I looped through the town a few times, at one point clambering dangerously up an outcrop I’m pretty sure was in someone’s backyard, for the view.

On the way back to camp, wet, sore and tired I had a real scare. I was heading down the highway on a steep incline when it started to rain and so I began to look for somewhere to pull in and put on my wet weather gear. Seeing a spot just up ahead, and with a wet road and slate dust on my tires, I stupidly pulled too hard and too quickly on the brakes and lost control as it started skidding. I then had to just try and hold on as the bike jolted repeatedly, before thankfully righting itself. I had to pull over and take a bit to calm down, because I’m pretty sure if I had come off at that speed I would have broken a lot of bones, if not be dead. Definitely an experience to learn from. The rest of the night was spent thawing out and recovering in the pub across the road from my campsite.

For day two in Snowdonia, I spent the morning wandering a bit around the small, but stunning town of Betws-y-Coed, having already ridden through it twice to and from the mine. This is the kind of town where I could picture myself escaping to if I wanted to hide from the world, much like Bourton-on-the-Water in England. I then dedicated my afternoon to heading over to Llanberis and climbing Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak.

Admittedly I did take the ‘easy’ path up, but it was so incredibly boring and uneventful, apart from when the train (and the clever people who booked a ticket on it ahead of time) went past. There wasn’t much in the way of views on the way up, and then near the summit I was beaten around in blisteringly cold winds and clouds rolled in, making it hard to see past my nose. I decided to abort the mission and headed down the more difficult path (surely that was the obvious choice) hell bent on getting off that mountain as soon as humanly possible. Disappointingly the views riding past and around the mountain were ten times better. I caught the bus back to my bike, basically passing out with exhaustion against the window.

I think this was the first night I realised I hadn’t gone a single day without having a cider and for some reason (unknown to me now) I decided this was an issue, so I had a coke with dinner, just to prove to myself I hadn’t developed alcoholism. 

The following day was a big ride down south. I passed through Harlech and definitely could have spent some time there, but I was running out of time and hedging my bets that there would be more to see before the end. I stopped for lunch in Aberystwyth, which I dubbed the Launceston of Wales, and was too tired and cranky to do anything more than basically collapse in the nearest Starbucks.

By the time I got to Tenby, my destination (because some blog or another listed it as one of the most picturesque places in the UK), it was 8pm and I had to make a decision on whether I was going to find food or a campsite because there wasn’t enough time for both. I opted for food.

As soon as I sat down in the pub and ordered, a couple asked if I was from Ireland. About 30 seconds into the conversation about me and my trip Tony and Caroline had invited me to have a shower and bed at their place, and even offered to do my washing. Because they were true locals and knew everyone, people would stop by to chat and they would say, 'we've found this Australian and we're giving him a bed for the night'. I had run out of clean clothes about two days back, so it sounded a dream. They really ended up being my saviours and to this day I am regularly thinking of them and the amazing generosity they showed me.

They had a big beautiful house with loads of spare rooms as their kids have moved out (one was the exact same age as me!). They fed me, offered to drive me around and Caroline even lent me her rain coat. In true Welsh style, it absolutely poured down the next day, so as I tried to leave to go for a walk, umbrella over my head (poor thing was not up for the task, the wind kept turning it inside out), I walked right into the side of a reversing truck, which then drove over my foot. Of course it was being driven by their son, who had just arrived.

Metatarsal damage aside, I lasted about ten minutes outside in the torrential downpour before I aborted the mission and went back to spend the day inside with my new adopted family, who were just like Pam and Mick but sounded like Gwen and Bryn from Gavin and Stacey, so really it couldn't have gotten any more perfect, especially when they said 'lush' and 'tidy'. In fact sometimes in my head I call them Pam and Mick and have to remind myself that that isn’t their real names. I did manage to walk into Tenby along the coastal path but seriously underestimated the distance and so spent most of the ‘not-as-rainy’ time walking, so by the time I actually go to Tenby it was raining too much again to see anything, and everything was closed. Caroline, obviously with uncanny motherly skills arrived to save me once again. We ordered Indian take out and spent the night together watching Britain’s Got Talent. It was amazing how quickly I felt comfortable and at home - it was truly like they were my family.

In the morning I (finally) got to Tenby for breakfast and a wander around (yes, it was very picturesque!) before farewelling my family for the road. I headed straight for Barry, the significance of which would be lost on nearly all Australians. There’s a fantastic British comedy called Gavin and Stacey (written and starring James Corden actually!), and Stacey’s house and work are in Barry, the town being the butt of a few jokes in the show. I got some great pics at Barry Island, Stacey and Gwen’s house, and even Pam and Mick’s house in nearby Dinas Powys (even though in the show it’s in England). A neighbour at the latter spotted me and came out for a chat, telling me about the elderly couple that now live in the house and the droves of tourists that came back in the early days.

By the time I got to Cardiff I was done. Done with the day but also done with the trip, just because I was so exhausted and I was ready just to not live out of a small bag and be on the road everyday. There’s not a huge amount to see in Cardiff, but all I managed to do was walk to the mall and eat McDonalds. On my last day I was disappointed I couldn’t use the motorway over the bridge and pay the £5.10 charge (Gavin and Stacey reference), so took the long back back into England and the ride ‘home’.  

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Riding 'Round Part V: Ireland

Arriving with nearly everything I owned damp, the short ride to my hostel in Belfast was a welcome one. I hadn’t actually planned to stay in Belfast at all, so found myself with a day to fill, the first tasks: hot shower, hot tea. Thankfully it was slightly less rainy on this side of the Irish Sea. My strolling brought me first to the opulently decorated Crown Bar where I stopped for my first Irish whiskey - not a fan, but it may be because I didn’t have a fucking clue what the barman was saying because of his accent and ended up with ice, which I hate - and striking up a conversation with a local, if you can call our stilted exchange a conversation because I couldn’t understand him either.

After that I wandered aimlessly; much of it I didn’t pay attention to because I was on the phone to Emily while tipsy, which was a blast. Saw the Titanic building museum thing but was not inspired to go in, City Hall, and the shopping areas. Nothing seemed to jump out food wise so I ended up with a mediocre burger. Sat in another pub for a while with a cider to kill time - another local had also told me about some other hotspots and shows but I wasn’t feeling up to being excitable or sociable so I headed home for a quiet night in.

The following day was glorious; hot, sunny and fresh and perfect for riding north for what ended up being one of my favourite days of the trip. While much of my travels in England took me past Harry Potter filming locations, today was about Game of Thrones! I went to the cave at Cushendun where Mellisandre gives birth to demon-baby-Stannis and was so tempted to recreate the shots, but I thought the other tourists wandering around may have taken it the wrong way. Next was Ballintoy Harbour, which features as two locations on the Iron Islands. The famous rope bridge nearby was closed for the day due to the weather, so I continued on to Bushmills for a tour of the Bushmills Distillery and yes I was that person who asked all the questions. Also the guide was cute. The complimentary whiskey at the end was exactly what I needed when hitting the road as the afternoon wore on. With no baggage storage available I lugged all my bags around the tracks to the Giant’s Causeway. I had high expectations of this landmark and was not disappointed. It was really nice to find little areas on the bizarre hexagonal stones in the warm, late afternoon sun and watch the ocean. I wish that I had more time to sit and spend there but I was conscious of getting out and finding dinner and a campsite before dark.

In the carpark two young boys on bicycles came up to me and made conversation, telling me how cool my bike was and answering my questions about the area. It was really nice and one of the few times I feel like I actually spent time talking to locals … so much of my time was spent travelling alone, and at a fast pace, that the opportunity didn’t often come up.

I had one last thing in the area to see; The Dark Hedges, which feature in both The Lord of the Rings and in Game of Thrones as the King’s Road. While it was a great sight, it was frustrating to try and get photos of as people would continually drive through and stop right in the middle. I even got annoyed enough to ride up to two bikers and ask them why the hell they were spoiling it for everyone else who was obviously all waiting up one end. I was still at a bit of a loss for dinner and lodgings, but ended up lucking out at The Old Courthouse in Coleraine, which was a fantastic pub. Unfortunately when I left it was a dark, moonless night and as soon as I left the town I was plunged into complete blackness, making finding a campsite impossible. I backtracked to a roundabout and found a wheat field, illuminated by some street light - and if I could camp at the gates of Trinity College, I obviously had no issue with throwing all my bags over a gate, stamping down some vegetation and getting some shut eye.

A benefit of ‘stealth camping’ is that you have a number of motivations to get up and hit the road early. I rode west through Derry and stopped only long enough to be told that waterproof boot covers basically don’t exist, before crossing the border into Ireland and only noticing because the petrol I bought was in euros. I powered on through to Donegal to stop for lunch (from Aldi - on a budget, people!) and a phone debrief with Bec Jones from the carpark. A local tourism dude recommended I stop in quite a number of places (ain’t nobody got time for that) including the bay at Mullaghmore. This is where context is often important because while Mullaghmore was undoubtedly an attractive location for local families, it provided little for me as a traveller on a ten-country road trip. Looking at the map now I have no idea how I then made it all the way to Clifden on the west coast, but I do remember throwing my tent up with wild abandon and driving at less-than-safe speeds for food and cider. Clifden was the first place on my whole trip where I couldn’t find a table in a pub to relax with a powerpoint. The whole town was disappointingly over-touristed and every venue packed with visitors, and you could tell that much of it had been designed for that. After wandering around and getting hungrier and crankier I settled for a spot at the bar, where thankfully the staff charged my phone for me. The pub after was equally as unfruitful but I did have a great conversation with an Irish mother about my trip and life in general. Unfortunately her babe of a son did not come over to partake.

There are a lot of recommended rides around Clifden, but as I had already seen a lot of the great scenery when riding in, I opted only to do the Sky Road out on the peninsula before moving on. It was a short and sweet little road with some good views at the end, but I was confident that further down the coast would bring more impressive ones. The next stop was Galway, which while it had a lot going on, felt entirely manufactured for tourists. I only stayed long enough to have lunch with two guys I met, who were also on holiday, before sallying forth to the Cliffs of Moher, which I basically only went to because I had heard Ange bang on about them so much. On the way I unexpectedly came across this completely grey stone coastline, apparently part of The Burren. I honestly could have stayed there all day, it was so breath taking, and I felt a really strong synergy with the place.

In what felt like a daily reoccurrence I arrived in the late afternoon with not really enough time to fully appreciate the cliffs (which were spectacular), but still enough to see and photograph a lot of them. The incredibly friendly girl in the carpark ticket booth told me that in Doolin, the next village over, there was actually a craft beer festival on tonight, which I should definitely check out. This night was another highlight of my trip - the festival had some great live music and ciders (including my absolute favourite that I had there and in Clifden, Stonewell Cider) and I met a couple over dinner who were in the area for their friend’s gay wedding the next day. We also bonded over the absurd amount of butter in our pots of mussels and mutual annoyance at the children scattering pebbles around the outdoor eating area. Upon arriving back to my tent I was hailed by a group of loud Irish campers with cheap booze, who convinced me to drink with them around their fire before they were swiftly scolded by the campsite manager and told to put the fire out and shut the fuck up.

I had to make a decision on whether to head further south to see the Dingle Peninsula and Cork or not, as I really didn’t have enough time, and my trip was rushed enough as it was. I made the sensible decision to forego the south and instead head straight through the centre of Ireland to the east coast and allow myself plenty of time to experience Dublin. That day was a hard slog, but I was rewarded with a beautiful full Irish breakfast at a spot in Athlone, made by the loveliest women who took pity on my tired and weathered self. You guessed it, I made it just in time to Newgrange for the last tour. Panic set in when I saw the signs saying all the tours were full for the day, but the guide fit me in - benefits of travelling solo. I was so tired I practically passed out on the thirty minute bus ride out to the site (and also on the way back). Newgrange, Ireland’s answer to Stonehenge, was pretty cool, although the exterior was a complete restoration, so the authenticity of other sites like Stonehenge and Carnac was lost a little.

The lovely tour guide came to my rescue again, recommending and ranting about a great little pub in the next town I could go for dinner - I was exhausted and famished. However I was dismayed to find I had been misled as said establishment did not offer food at all, and neither did any place in that town. Or the surrounding three towns. I honestly just felt like rolling up in a ball on the footpath and sleeping and could think of nothing worse than riding even further. I put my fuck it boots on and decided to start riding in the direction of Dublin and to keep going until I found somewhere.

I swear good pubs and beautiful middle-aged women were the saving grace of my trip and I was so, so lucky to stumble across so many in my hours of need. It’s like they saw how desperate I was and their innate motherly instincts would kick in, calling me things like ‘pet’ and ‘duck’. The roadhouse only just outside Dublin was like paradise in that moment. That night was my ultimate stealth camping experience, as I practically ended up camping behind someone’s hedge after a suitable wheat field failed to present itself. I had to be as silent as possible as I was setting up in full view of their upstairs window. I’m sure if I had knocked and asked, or even if they had found me, they wouldn’t have minded at all, but I didn’t have any experience with the temperaments of rural Irish landowners. 

It turns out I made the wrong decision about heading east to spend more time in Dublin, because the two and half days I spent there was about two too many. I think as a solo traveller I was really underwhelmed by the city, which was much more about getting drunk at the pub with friends. I didn’t have much luck in that regard; the only other person I encountered in my dorm room was a girl who narrated everything she did out loud. There’s not much to do or see in Dublin apart from the Guinness Storehouse (I’m not a fan of vegemite water) and Trinity College (the price to see the Book of Kells was disproportionately high for my level of interest). I did have some good food and ciders though, and it was a great chance to take a break from riding. Early one evening I did go to a pub with a guy I met and his friends (it was his birthday!) which was nice, but ended quite early when he became extremely drunk and had to be taken home (bless).

I spent one lunch time splashing out on an expensive cheese platter on a rooftop terrace (not many of those in Dublin, unsurprisingly) because the weather was spectacular. I also got some great Dublin tips from the waitress - people were really so nice to me! Walking along the river and harbour, I took my one and only photo of Dublin. Cider, cider etc. Oh also, I did have the most fantastic mexican wrap thing, like world changing, from El Grito.

On my final morning before catching the ferry I asked in the hostel about somewhere for lunch and was rewarded with O’Neill’s; a pub with the best vibe and atmosphere and a massive buffet to pick from for lunch. I also had my first Guinness from Ireland because how could I not, but I really couldn’t tell the difference. But man, how I wished I had found that place on the first day!

It was then onto the ferry, back across the Irish Sea! I actually thought it was taking me to Liverpool, but in fact it was headed further south to Anglesey in Wales, which actually saved me a bunch of riding. The weather was so perfect and an older couple and I were the only ones who discovered the top deck where you could sit in the sunshine and watch the coast disappear, while everyone else was cooped up downstairs. It was like a tropical cruise. We got talking quite a bit and sadly they told me about spending time in Australia because their son who was visiting came off his motorbike and broke his spine and is now in a wheelchair. It was definitely a big reminder to me how dangerous bikes can be and how much I had to ride carefully.

They also shouted me a cider!

Monday, 22 August 2016

Riding 'Round Part IV: Scotland

My arrival into Edinburgh was timed impeccably well to coincide with Anna’s, who was north for two weeks visiting her parents who had just moved to Scotland from New Zealand. After a week alone on the road it was nice to have people I knew to talk to and see the city with. Anna’s family are incredibly beautiful and generous and gave me a couch and home cooked meals while I was there.

Sightseeing with a group makes for a slower pace (which is what I needed) so it was after lunch by the time we made our way up Arthur’s Seat to marvel at the views over the city. Anna used to live in Edinburgh, so had all the hot tips about where to go, including popping into a fudge shop which was incredibly generous with its samples, getting a deep fried mars bar (they originated in Edinburgh apparently) accompanied by an Irn Bru (basically an orange creaming soda) and trying Scottish tablet (hard crumbly fudge, yum). So basically Anna led me to all the Scottish junk food.

I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival, so the streets, centred around the Royal Mile, were packed with performers and people giving out fliers, as well as the hordes of tourists come to see shows. I was also impressed by the large stadium that was erected right outside Edinburgh Castle on the hill for the Tattoo.

The next day Anna and family decided to go for a cycle while I wandered about the city on foot, and by wandering I mean napping in the park in the glorious sunshine. Wet met up at the museum to watch some contemporary duos as a part of the Festival before enjoying some reputable gelato. Anna and I were enjoying our pub meal so much that we lost track of time and has to sprint through the streets of Edinburgh to get to the show we had booked at Dance Base; The End. Following a cider at Edinburgh’s oldest pub (500 years this year, wow!) I opted to continue the night by seeing Briefs, a hilarious gay cabaret featuring my friend James Welsby. I did not expect it to be so good - it was exceptionally hilarious (and featured some very cute boys). I then partied on at a small local gay bar (after some failed venues, including one that appeared to be a disco for first year theatre students).

Morning brought the discovery of ‘butteries’, a kind of salty scone-croissant hybrid local to Scotland, and a farewell to the Noonans as I continued north. I stopped briefly in Pitlochry to eat a Scotch Egg at a particular inn I had read about but they didn’t have it at that time of day (continued story of my life) so pushed on all the way to Loch Ness. Thankfully I scouted out a campsite while it was still light because the pub messed up my order and it took so long by the time I left it was fully dark. But it ended up being the best location I have camped; right on the bank of Loch Ness in a little secluded and isolated pebbly beach, with the full moon shining down on the inky silver-bronze waters. I spent time sitting on a huge boulder by my tent just enjoying the beautiful light and silence (secretly hoping Nessie would appear).

I rode along the Loch and west towards the Isle of Skye, stopping every now and then for photos. Some of the scenery on that ride was the best of my trip to date and rivalled even Iceland. Just after driving over onto Skye I stopped for fish and chips. When you’re travelling by motorbike you automatically attract the attention of anyone else who rides, and so the guy serving me fish and chips started asking me about my trip and telling me about his rides. He gave me some great motorbike-specific suggestions for Skye; basically, just ride everywhere on every road.

I decided to pitch in a campsite smack bang in the middle of the island, giving me access to the facilities and also the a pub across the road. It was a race to get my tent up, as the rain started coming down just as I pulled in. I conceded that I wasn’t going to get much out of Skye that afternoon with the rain continuing so took my laptop to the pub. Skye is home to the Talisker Distillery and so I thought it only appropriate that I give whisky a go. Turns out I kinda like scotch, so #masc. I shared a table with a well-travelled older gentleman, who works in foreign aid, sharing stories for most of the night.

I left early in the morning to start with breakfast on a small, grassy cliff over the water, looking into the bay of Portree. My silence was disturbed by an ungainly German man who appeared behind me, slipped on the grass and slid under half his body was hanging over the edge. It was way too early to be dealing with that shit, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t even move to help him. I mean I wasn’t advocating for his untimely demise on the rocks below, but tromp around like that and you get what’s coming to you.

The day was gorgeously warm and clear as I climbed up to the lookout over The Old Man of Storr, a picturesque rock formation. A couple in the pub the night before told me you could climb the fence and keep trekking further up the mountain for even more spectacular views, which I did. It was a relatively easy climb, but by the time I neared the top, with it’s knife edge peaks and sheer drops, my vertigo started kicking in. Commando crawling up to one edge, I swear I was saved from passing out by the distraction of shimmying into some bird poo. At the very top there was an unexpected plateau of grass, where I met a large group of teenage Czech backpackers, who had climbed from another direction (they’d actually been walking for two days from the north end of the island!). With their huge backpacks on, they stood way too close to the edge (like, heels against the drop off) while I took photos for them. I then helped them find the way down and we had some great chats.

I rode north for the afternoon for some more great landscapes and then stopped to find a quiet grassy spot for a nap in the Fairy Glen, these bizarrely formed grassy hillocks. The day was sunny and beautiful and I think this is where I got most of my unlikely Scottish tan. Exhausted I headed back to camp and the pub for some more cider and whiskey tasting, however their internet was down (and I wasn’t sitting in a pub for 3 hours with no phone service) so I headed back to Portree for a pub with better wifi to eat.

I had a bit of time the next morning before my ferry from the southern end of the island, so I just went riding to the southwest where fate brought me together with three heeland coos (highland cows), which I climbed a fence to go and look at and take photos with. It was honestly one of the highlights of my trip, they are so cute!!!

The Isle of Skye has really poor and patchy phone reception so it was late morning when I received a text saying my ferry had been moved 35 minutes earlier. I have never packed up a tent so fast and hightailed on the bike the other end of the island, just making the ferry! I did think it was quite unreasonable to send out texts in a place where people were unlikely to receive them …

After the short ferry ride I headed for Glen Coe, stopping a few times for photos of the fantastic scenery and more importantly, some great Harry Potter landmarks, such as the island where Dumbledore’s grave was and the famous Hogwarts Express viaduct. Glen Coe was very wet by the time I got there and I was even turned away by a campsite saying it was too wet anywhere to pitch tents, which was lucky anyway because I found a much better site that was right near the pub where I had previous plans to finally get my haggis, neeps and tatties. Glen Coe is one of the most famous glens of Scotland and deservedly so; the roads run through some stunning valleys alongside creeks and small waterfalls, backed by giant green mountains.

I spent the afternoon climbing the track to the Lost Valley, which was going really well until I took a wrong turn and ended up climbing for an hour up a gravel scree slope. There was a point where I spotted the actual track across the other side of the valley and could have turned back, but I went with the spirit of the adventure and the top looked just up ahead. I was deceived. It was a small miracle that I didn’t cause a genuine rockslide, or that I could even get back down into the valley at all. In the end I was rewarded with the giant valley all to myself (the others hikers probably leaving in fear of being crushed by the rocks from aforementioned landslide).

The pub was one of my favourites so far; dim and ambient with lots of wood and earthen tones, the kind that makes you feel you could be in a tavern from a fantasy series. The haggis was great too - very palatable, so I’m not sure what everyone’s fuss is about.

The next day brought more rain so I had a rather slow morning moving from the tent before powering on through to Glasgow and the promise of a dry room and bed. I hadn’t intended to stopover in Scotland’s biggest city, but it made a good halfway point between Glen Coe and the ferry to Ireland, so I thought why not. It was much nicer than I expected and very Melbourne in it’s offerings of dining options (I got the most indulgent poutine I’ve ever experienced, and by indulgent I mean absolutely loaded with gravy and cheese). I spent a few hours wandering around, including going to the top of the Necropolis for some great views.

My final morning in Scotland was the wettest of my whole trip and an absolutely cold and miserable 2.5 hour ride to the ferry port. In the end my day was only saved by a kind woman in a tour group who offered me her cake that she didn’t want. Bless that woman.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Riding 'Round Part III: England

Going back through London meant that I could take my bike back into the shop to resolve the leaking petrol issue, so after packing up and saying goodbye to my housemates once again, I took it in. It only took them a little tinkering to pronounce it fixed. However after visiting friends at work I came out to find it literally pissing out petrol. A few more hours in the shop and the outcome was one of two options; either the carb got enough fuel but leaked, or it didn’t and the engine didn’t start. In the end I just had to opt for the leaking option and to remember to turn the fuel off at the tank every time I stopped (spoiler alert, didn’t happen).

By the time I got to Cambridge it was getting dark … I didn’t mind because I was just going to find dinner and a place to sleep and explore the city the next day. It was going to be my first night camping and because I had limited space on the bike and like travelling light, I opted to go without a tent and just use a waterproof bivvy bag over my sleeping bag. After rejecting a few parks because they were too populated, I found a little reserve with trees; not too light, not too dark. I mean, I didn’t want to be readily seen by passers by, but I also didn’t want to stumble into a drug circle. Set myself up next to my bike and got some sleep under the stars.

Cut to the next day when the early morning light revealed what I had not seen in the dark … I had actually camped next to the giant iron gates to Trinity College, the most prestigious college at Cambridge University. And people were starting to arrive. Abort!

I spent the morning and early afternoon wandering around Cambridge, avidly avoiding paying for anything, which worked out well because I discovered you could see some of the colleges by just going in the entrance around the back. I was a little disappointed in Cambridge; I thought it would be similar to Oxford, which has an incredible amount of beautiful buildings and architecture. While Cambridge is an academic rival, it has nowhere near the grandeur of Oxford, so while the afternoon was hot and sunny, I jumped on my bike to head to Stratford-upon-Avon, which wasn’t really on my itinerary. Of course, half an hour in the sun disappeared and I even got hailed upon. England, everybody,

Arriving at Stratford I realised that I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing Shakespeare’s various houses, so I just looked up a campsite instead (not wanting another mishap and also, I needed a shower). I struck up a conversation with a Russian woman working in Sainsbury’s (while getting my daily fix of granola slices) who spoke about the places she had been in the UK including the Peak District, which was on my route. My brief conversation with her was actually the highlight of my day and it reminded me yet again how the best part of travelling for me is the people. On my way out I even struck up a conversation with a strange man who thought he recognised me (he thought I was a homeless person haha #whereisthatshower). He was the kind of guy that you would shrug off and keep walking past, but I decided to humour him. We had a great chat about living in the UK and it turns out he was from Azerbaijan. Who meets an Azerbaijani in Stratford!?

My campsite, accessible by a partly submerged road in which ducks were swimming, was run by an amazing elderly gentleman in a khaki suit and fedora. Ladies and gentlemen, living on a farm in the middle of nowhere is no inhibitor to dressing smart. I had another beautiful balmy night under the stars, this time accompanied by a family of chickens.

One thing I did take from Stratford was the beginning of my love affair with British pubs. I mean, they’re pretty much perfect. Warm, rustic and friendly, they offer great, CHEAP meals AND alcohol, but are more casual than a restaurant (that’s code for you can totally pick a table by a powerpoint and stay several hours with a cider and charge all your devices).

Taking the advice of my Russian acquaintance, I decided to head for the Peak District; nature was probably both more interesting and also practical for me at this point anyway. On my stopover in picturesque Bakewell (pub meal and cider for lunch of course) I also sampled the Bakewell pudding and got some Bakewell tarts for the road. The Peak District was pretty, but I thought it was really just glorified farm lands, which I felt guilty for. When I arrived at a cute little campsite it had already begun raining, so of course I spent the night in the pub across the road. Did I mention how much I love pubs? This one had wifi, so I even go to watch some of the men’s Olympic diving and gymnastics, which let’s be honest, are the only sports I’m interested in.

Hmm, still raining, time to get creative. I ended up solving my lack of tent situation by putting my umbrella up against the front wheel of my bike and putting my bags and head underneath to keep dry. It actually worked fantastically and I had a great and cosy night even with the rain and howling wind. Mr Bivvy did not turn out to be as waterproof as advertised however and so I decided it was time to invest in a tent.

I was really excited about getting to York, hailed as one of the top places in the UK to visit. Again I feel guilty for admitting I was a little underwhelmed. It had some nice architecture, including the city wall that you could walk on top of, but nowhere near the grandeur or ambience of cities like Bath and Oxford. I did stay in one of the best hostels of my life though, which had hair straighteners, a shower with pressure that could kill and a kitchen that put an Ikea showroom to shame. Meeting some people to hang out with didn’t turn out as expected as I was sharing my room with a 16 and 19 year old, #feelingold. Lacking on sights, I tried to give the food a go and made a to-eat list for York. The pie shop had closed down, the gelato was severely underwhelming and the brunch place had run out of their famous croque madams by 9:30am, so I think we can all agree that York was not the greatest success. On a more positive note I did enjoy a great Yorkshire pudding and got a tent for a very discounted price from probably one of the nicest retail assistants in the world.

On the way to Whitby I rode through the North Yorkshire Moors, which surprisingly I really loved. Barren of nearly all vegetation except for the purple heath, you can see for miles across the highlands and valleys. I think the weather really plays a role on my moods; it was dark and raining in the Peak District, whereas today it was bright and sunny. I setup my tent for the first time at a farm with relative success (found it half blown down from the wind later that night, so maybe not) and was quite pleased with the added bonus that I could leave all my stuff in it, which gave me more freedom to explore off the bike (I usually had to carry everything with me).

Whitby was everything I had been waiting for since leaving St Malo. Fucking. Stunning. The town is built on two hills that straddle the narrow bay and the the afternoon light was beautiful on the river and sea front. Decided in the moment to take a 40-minute boat ride out to sea after I heard them yelling out from the dock … best £3 I have ever spent! The two old guys driving the boat were hilarious and basically gave an unofficial stand up comedy routine for me and the one family on board. On the way back they just gave the steering wheel to the 8-year old and totally left him to steer us back in to port. It was amazing. The views of the coast and town were also fantastic.  After the largest serving of fish and chips I have had or will ever have, I climbed the opposite shore to cemetery and abbey, with great views over the town and then back along the main promenade to the beach. By this point the sun had set and the sky blazed with colour, which prompted another walk along the waterfront to get some great pics.

The next day I rode to Newcastle via Durham (where I had a PB&J burger - how is this not a thing everywhere) and the Angel of the North. While contemplating whether to get a hostel in Newcastle or camp further out, I rode aimlessly around the streets. After getting a feel for the locals and passing my fifth hens party I decided that in fact Newcastle wasn’t for me and I was unlikely to meet any … people of quality … there. Stayed at a campsite out west, where some Geordie families were actually playing great music from the sub in the boot of their Commodore. Pub, cider et al.

I wasn’t really sure what to do the following day. I had a lazy morning in tent writing my journal and so by lunch time it was too late to do the things I wanted to do on the way to Edinburgh, so I decided to stay another night and just poke around the area. I went and sat on a part of Hadrian’s Wall for quite a while and caught up on some emails and admin. It was the first time I had just stopped in a place with nothing particular to see or do and I really enjoyed it. If I had more time I would really have liked to do more of that … just camp in a place for a week or something.

I came across a road (which was actually running through someone’s property) that said ‘not suitable for motor vehicles’, but I had a motorbike so of course that didn’t count. It totally did, but the rocks and large puddles were all part of the fun. After stopping to photograph this ancient arch thing, I noticed that all the cows in the field were converging on me - it was calf season so they get protective. I didn’t want to take a gamble on whether they were coming over to be friendly or to trample me, so in a mad panic I tried to put all my gear back on and start the bike as they got closer and closer. As I took off (which has to be slowly on a gravel road) the cows started pursuing, but thankfully I reached the cattle grid in time and thwarted their homocidal plans.

I got an early night so I could start early the next day (early for me at this point being 9am). First stop was Alnwick Castle, which I was clearly only visiting because it’s where they filmed the flying lesson scenes (among others) from Harry Potter. Imagine my joy (you don’t have to imagine actually, look at the picture) when I discovered they offered broomstick flying lessons, which I undertook with the other 30 small children. The two instructors were also hilarious. I took the tour of the grounds and received ten points for Ravenclaw for naming the three balls used in Quidditch.

Next I called past The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which I was unfortunately unable to get to because the causeway is underwater during high tide, but actually the highlight was just seeing the road disappearing into the ocean; very cool! Finally I drove through Berwick-upon-Tweed to see the viaduct bridge before making my way into Edinburgh to find Anna’s parent’s house (and Anna). Coming up next … SCOTLAND.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Riding 'Round Part II: France

Turns out PAF is in the Champagne region, so I decided to spend a day visiting Epernay and riding along the Cote des Blancs. Went on a tour of the Mercier cellars, mostly because they have a train down in the cellar and that sounded like fun. Of course it came with a complimentary glass on their champagne. Now I’m not condoning drink-driving, but my ride through the hills of champagne after glass of the stuff was incredible. We all know how I feel about wine.

The northern section of the Cote Des Blanc was great. The southern section is literally just flat fields of dirt and wheat, so I’m not really sure what’s going on there. I feel like the tourism board was paid off by the people in the southern towns. As one might expect, I had planned to finish my journey with a spectacular lunch of bread, cheese (I was on the Plateau of Brie!) and champagne however upon arriving in Sezanne, I was told by the tourism office that everything at 3pm on a Saturday was closed and if I wanted to eat, the only option I had was McDonalds. I have never eaten a cheeseburger with such anger and resentment.

I got into Paris around dinner time and checked into my only hostel in my whole European leg of the journey. I’ve been to Paris before so only decided to spend the night there, but actually 2012 me didn’t really appreciate food or people so I wish I could have stayed for a week. Last time I just did all the tourist things, but like London, Paris is so ridiculously magical and there are so, so many things to eat. I unexpectedly spent a few hours in a cafe with some incredible caramel and ginger crepes and dry cider with four Americans, just talking. We all agreed Trump was a disaster. I spent the night just walking past a bunch of landmarks like The Pompidou Centre and Notre Dame before climbing the Eiffel Tower for midnight, the last time I did it being during the day.

I should add also that even though I wasn’t having any driving issues with my bike anymore, since being fixed it had started leaking petrol at an alarming half tank a night. If my bike wasn’t so fuel efficient this might have been a disaster. It was only once back in the UK I realised I could have just turned the fuel nozzle off and stopped it leaking …

In the morning I popped up to Sacre Couer which is decidedly less ambient in the early hours of the day, with all the rubbish and smells of urine and a bizarre 1950’s car convention rallying at the bottom. It was a big riding day and I stopped at Chatres to see the cathedral, Chateau du Chambord and Chateau du Chenonceaux. It was at this point that I discovered that the novelty of the big old buildings was really wearing thin and I wasn’t really enjoying just riding somewhere, looking at the notable landmark and moving on. I’ve essentially been travelling since October so I think not only was the magic of travel not as fresh, but when you’ve seen a lot of world class sights, some things start to not measure up. What I was actually enjoying more were the people I was meeting (and of course the food). I stayed the night in Tours with a very sweet guy (his first time hosting!) who got us pizza to eat while watching the new Karate Kid (with French subtitles so I could learn some words).

I had to get to Carnac which was my biggest ride yet. So of course it was the day I had my first accident. I was turning off the motorway and pulling into a gravel bay to check the map and must have hit it too fast and the bike just came out from under me. I tore my glove up and grazed my leg (but didn’t find out until I took my pants off later that night) but other than that was fine. The bike was a bit scratched up, the gear peddle bent and the chain had come off. I got the chain back on but it was super loose, but thankfully the bike ran fine! I don’t know what I would have done if it had actually broken.

I didn’t really feel like stopping other than a very brief bite to eat in Vannes, so by the time I got there I had been five and a half hours on the motorway. Carnac was bigger than I expected so I decided to come back the next day to give it more time. My hosts were a fantastic couple called Arnaud and Jan and I had a blast with them. We spent the night non-stop talking and Jan was from Reims, so he busted out some champagne for us claiming the Bretons didn’t appreciate it enough. They gave some great French artists to listen to and I put them onto Montaigne.

Backtracking to Carnac I booked in for a tour of the monolithes, which is the only way you can walk amongst them. I usually don’t like tours and audio guides, but it was really interesting hearing about the history of the site (which was older than the pyramids). It would have been really easy to spend a lot of time there and see all the sites and the town itself, but I was short on time, having to get to my next destination, St. Malo!

This was probably my favourite part of the the trip so far. In St. Malo I met up with Nolwenn who took me on an extensive walking tour of the city (which is stunning!); along the waterfront, the ramparts and through the old city. She bought me Kouign Amann, a delicious buttery scroll thing local to Brittany and treated me to a local drink in the pub, refusing to let me pay. At home I met her three sisters, sister’s fiance and parents, all who were so welcoming and talkative. For dinner they made lobster (of which I had almost a whole one), fish, and vegetables and of course wine. If felt like a big family celebration dinner and I was absolutely blown away! In the morning Nolwenn and her sister Marie made me crepes for breakfast and gave me a packed lunch to take. Their mother urged me to stay another night and when I couldn’t she kissed me goodbye. The warmth and generosity was something I never thought to find through couch surfing.

I took the coastal road on the way to Mont Saint Michel and experienced the first rain of my trip (never fear, I have waterproof everything)! Except apparently for my jacket pocket. When I arrived I pulled my phone out to find it covered in water and seriously glitching. I quickly turned it off to prevent damage, dried it and then … it wouldn’t turn back on. Dead. I had a little bit of a freak out because my phone is the only way I can navigate while I’m travelling - on a motorbike you can’t use a map obviously and stopping to check anything involves parking and taking off gear. I also couldn’t contact anyone.

In true French fashion the lady in the information building was blunt and unhelpful. They had no wifi for me to use on my laptop to figure out what to do, and there were no other building or facilities in the area. Also, because of the terror alert in France all baggage storage in the country has been closed. She then advised me that it was forbidden to take bags into the monastery, so essentially (because I have everything with me and can’t just leave it on the bike), I couldn’t go in.

I think I just sat on a bench in the foyer staring into space for a good fifteen minutes.

When I tried to leave the carpark the machine wanted £5 for the less than half hour I was there! Deciding that this was basically criminal I hitched my bike over the little barrier to drive around the gate. Only part way through I realised that I was in sight of a parking attendant and had to gun it. That was when my chain (loose from the accident) decided to come off again, rendering my get away vehicle defunct. Cut to me sitting on my bike and walking it out of the carpark as quick as I could, imagining I was being pursued (I was not).

Rallying, I pulled into the next town, found wifi and used my laptop to find friends for moral support. I then tried to memorise the route to my next destination (apparently with mixed success). Every fifteen minutes or so I had to stop, get my laptop out and try and figure out where on the map I was and how many inevitable wrong turns I had taken. Miraculously I arrived at the American Cemetery in Normandy at 5:55pm, noting that it closed at 6pm. Whhyyyyyy. I basically ran through the grounds before they kicked everyone at 6:30 taking photos (on my iPad, how demeaning), then having an hour to meet my next host in Caen at the designated place which I couldn’t be late for (because, no phone). I got there. Praise be.

Quentin was one of the coolest guys I have met. He also rode motorbikes (a 1000cc, just a little better than mine :P), was a diver and had a fucking backpack plane (a backpack with a propeller and parachute; you basically go to a field and run to take off and then fly yourself up to 2km high). I didn’t know this existed and now that I do, I want! He took me for a ride on his bike and got up to 230km/h on the highway. I felt like I was travelling through time in a wormhole. It was terrifying and incredible. As an extra bonus he fixed up my bike and tightened the chain!

My final day in France was simply a ride to Dieppe and get the ferry to Newhaven in England, but what made it notable was that my phone turned back on! The lock button didn’t work and the up volume was stuck on (making for an uncomfortably loud level of navigation) but I wasn’t about to be picky.

I spent four days of much needed chill out with friends in and around London, which only made me realise so much more how much I think of London as home, how much I have loved my life here and the incredible amount of beautiful people that have become such an important part of my everyday life. I almost didn’t want to leave on the next part of my travel; I could have happily stayed in London for a month but weirdly it was cheaper to leave than to stay!