Spontaneity vs. Control

When we began this journey we had not planned a route. A vague bit of Google-ing had ear-marked a few interesting places to check out on the way (such as Doel in Belgium) but in general our aim was to allow spontaneity and our own sense of adventure to take hold as we weaved our way across new landscapes towards our goal.

This has proved a fantastic way to travel – keeping the sunrise at our noses and sunset at our backs as we travel eastwards, filling in the gaps by picking wild blueberries or just slowing down to appreciate the simplicity our our journey. This was our mentality in the beginning and certainly saw us in good stead.

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However, as we entered our third week of cycling an interesting dilemma emerged. As we prepared to cross the German boarder we had set our sights on Berlin: the Cold War embodiment of West meeting East, the halfway point in our journey and a city we have a strong affinity to. In essence, a perfect place to take a few days off from riding. Our homing pigeon instincts were drawing us towards this important milestone; a gravitational tug too strong to resist.

At this point the dynamic of our ride had changed. We were no longer free spirits guided only by our sense of exploration but two increasingly weary cyclists with 500km between us and our chosen goal. Such a distance is not a problem for an inquisitive mind free of deadlines and schedules but for a mind that is wrestling with the desire to slow down and not turn this journey into a race and a burgeoning eagerness to get arse on saddle and cover some serious distance, this scenario proved tricky.

Impatience won through as we picked up the pace, abandoning our care-free meandering for a much more direct line heading east, recalculating averages each day as we pushed on towards our halfway point. Reaching Berlin was growing into an obsession as we broke the 100km mark several times. Our fitness was fantastic and covering such distance was a great morale boost but I knew we were sacrificing our enjoyment in order to reach such peaks. Despite this realisation, it took a strong message from my body to jolt me out of this ‘Tour de France’ mentality and back to reality. After our longest ever day in the saddle (127km), my body sent me a very clear message that it was time to slow as the kilometres caught up with me and forced us into a rest day.

This day of exhaustion was an important jolt, reminding me that we had been allowing our desire to make geographical progress obstruct our enjoyment. Berlin wasn’t going anywhere. Whether we averaged 100km a day or just 10km, I’m pretty sure the German capital wasn’t going to do a runner overnight. Prompted by this wake-up call, we decided to add a few extra days to our projected arrival date, slice our daily average and instead head for the green areas on the map. Consequently, we glided into Berlin through dirt tracks in the forest, across farmland and through some amazing quiet countryside roads.

So what have we learnt from our first three and a half weeks on the road?

Firstly, there is no harm in having an end goal. Berlin provided fantastic motivation to set an early alarm each day, get out of bed, eat a good oat-based breakfast and hit the road. We had focus that were able to channel towards physical achievements that we never thought ourselves capable of. 127km in one day is certainly a first for me!

However, we have learnt that there is certainly a compromise that must be made between ‘control’ and ‘spontaneity’ when it comes to bicycle travel. A destination provides the direction of a journey with a clearly defined beginning and end but without spontaneity and a keen nose for exploration there is no story. We are here precisely for these stories. London to Estonia is the ‘A-to-B’. The experiences and achievements in between are the reasons we keep going.

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Free Camping in the Netherlands

At the time of crossing the German boarder we had kept up a simple ratio of one night wild camping followed by one night on a campsite. This enables us to spread the cost of our accommodation, catch up on some sleep after a 6am sunrise start and helps reduce the pressure of searching for wild camping spots every single night. Experienced adventurers would be dismayed at this sparse ratio of wild camping but we know that as our confidence  grows we will certainly step up our stealth camping game in the weeks to come. Right now, this compromise works well for us as we adapt to this new lifestyle.

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One of our favourite features of the Netherlands was the availability of so-called ‘pole camping’ sites. These are free wild campsites set away from the road, nestled in the forest and accessible only by foot or bicycle. With a lack of signposting they are deliberately difficult to find but with a simple smart phone or a decent map even a pair of amateurs like us had no problems tracking them down. Their website contains all the GPS co-odrinates scattered across an interactive map so with a tiny amount of prep it’s possible to set of on a days ride with several ‘accommodation’ options for the night!

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Wild camping in the Netherlands – like every country so far – is illegal so this is a fantastic compromise. The sites are already set up with space for a campfire and flat ground to pitch your tents but there are no other facilities so providing you have the GPS co-ordinates and an eagle-eye to spot the official ‘pole camping’ signpost you have an authentic wild camping experience, for free in an absolutely gorgeous spot. Kudos Netherlands, kudos.

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We Found Blueberries!

For those with a keen nose and eagle eye, the forest holds much more than beautiful aesthetics, shade from the heat of the day and a place to pitch a tent for the night; there are more than deer and rabbits hiding within those trees.

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In keeping with our mantra of slowing down we were determined not to rush out of the Netherlands, despite the obvious temptations of crossing the German boarder and adding another important milestone to our journey. This mantra served us well once again when our progress through the stunning Veluwezoom National Park was halted. Screeching to a halt, it was clear that Kerli’s nose had sensed something, nestled among the mighty trunks of the trees; something sweet, something delicious, something… no, it couldn’t be, could it? Not here, in the forest. Surely not.

…but it was. It really was. In our casual saunter through the forest we had found blueberries! An endless supply. Way too many for two people to devour alone.

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Needless to say, we did not waste such a precious opportunity and within half an hour we had two full stomachs and two full pots for the road. Nature provided us with a bounty… and we obliged. A great start to any day on the road.

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Slowing Down

Two weeks ago we set off from Dartford to cross the Kent countryside on our way to Dover, Dunkirk and beyond. We are currently relaxing in a campsite just outside of Arnhem in the Netherlands and hope to be crossing the border into Germany tomorrow. It feels like pretty good progress so far and our legs are gradually gathering the necessary strength needed to power through the kilometres

In reality, our progress in terms of distance covered is nowhere near what it could be if we really got our heads down and rode hard every day. Initially this bothered us. Sometimes we have decided to stop cycling three or four hours before sunset and find a campsite to enjoy the evening sunshine and other times we have woken up and decided spontaneously on a rest day when the open road is there begging to be explored. Were we being lazy? Were we too slow? Were we having too many ‘rest days’?

Gradually we are coming to terms with the fact that this trip is not just an ‘A to B’ journey, this is a new lifestyle; a way of living that strips away many of the unnecessary distractions of modern life. We are not in a race, we don’t have to set any land speed records here and we don’t have to be rushing. This is an unfortunate symptom of city life: rushing. Day-to-day lives are played out at a hundred miles an hour with constant stimulation and a neglect of simple down time.

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From the vantage point of a saddle the world goes by slowly. There is time to take in our surroundings, breath in the air, pay attention to the scents of a country, the warmth of the sun, the coldness of the nights, the damp freshness of mornings; time to notice the landscapes morph from cityscapes to farmland to forest and back again. To this end, our ‘rest days’ are a vital aspect of our trip, allowing time to just be. Sit on the grass with a book, start a diary, maybe take some photos, simply sit back and listen to the wind rustling the leaves or, in my case, make a coffee!

Slowing down has become an important part of our lifestyle on this journey and is certainly a lesson that we hope to take into our normal lives once we return home. Our riding could be faster, our distances could be greater, but part of this simplified life is the ability to enjoy quietness and stillness, to slow down and pay attention to where you are and appreciate this amazing opportunity we have given ourselves to cycle to Estonia.

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Doel: Street Art Ghost Town

One of the places we were very keen to check out before the start if this trip was the ghost town of Doel; a post-apocalyptic urban settlement tucked away under the looming shadow of the mighty harbour just outside of Antwerp, Belgium. The rise and fall of Doel is a David v.s Goliath story that Goliath is set to win in the very near future when this fascinating town is demolished.

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Doel has stood on the shores of Sheldt River for several centuries, quietly minding its own business, never bothering anybody. The residents going about their day-to-day life with quiet dignity. Sadly for these residents, Antwerp harbour had begun to swell, eating up all the land in its path and regurgitating industrial infrastructure. Doel was the next target.

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In an attempt to save the town and prove that there was more to life than relentless industrial expansion a group called ‘Doel 2020’ tried to turn the town into a blank canvas for street artists morphing it into a dreamlike landscape inhabited by giant rats, skulls and a gorilla proposing to a bird. Alas, such creativity could not save Doel and the dwindling population of 25 bravely stay to defend their homes against the bulldozers and wrecking balls looming on the horizon.

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Until they arrive though Doel is a very unique place. A minuscule population living alongside derelict old buildings, giants murals of birds encased within an an eerie atmosphere of silence and stillness. Undoubtedly a fantastic place for three bicycle travellers to explore.

 

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First Wild Camping Experience

The Sun sets very late here in Belgium; around 2230 in fact. Not only does this allow us to cycle way into the evening but it also gives us plenty of time to find a place to sleep.

We are hoping to try our hand at wild camping on this journey. That is, the process of finding a quiet spot away from the road, moving in under the cover of the setting Sun, pop up our tents, sleep and sneak away before dawn the next day. This practice has been mimicked by many bicycle travellers over the years but for us this is very new territoty.

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The idea of waking up in the morning without knowing where you are going to sleep that night can seem a daunting one but we have viewed it not just as a challenge to be embraced but one that truly expresses the freedom we hope to pursue on this ride. Last night, for example, we had to wait until after 8pm to find our perfect spot, which in this case was a perch on the bank of a tranquil lake near Deinze (with a loud frog for company).

Finding a spot to camp for free is an exhilarating experience. The rush of sneaking away from the road in the late evening, scouting around for passers-by then taking the plunge and trusting our better judgements that our chosen sleeping spot is concealed enough to allow us to grab a few hours of sleep. All that excitement is guaranteed to get the heart racing at the end of a days riding.

I guess this bicycle trip is our attempt to live a life of freedom. To be answerable only to ourselves and to travel, explore and discover these amazing places on our own terms. Stealth camping is a vital part of this.

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Although this style of camping is not legal in many European countries and can be very nerve-racking, our wish is a simple one: to sleep in nature. In keeping with the unwritten code of all wild  campers we will always remain respectful of the land and never leave a trace of our presence. In its purest form, this process is a right, not a privilege.

A I lay in my tent, tucked away in the beautiful Belgian countryside, I must take a moment to reflect on our trip so far and to count myself incredibly fortunate to be learning, growing and living in this way.

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Beginning

Often the hardest part on any journey is the beginning. Sitting around pouring over maps and sitting in the pub telling your friends about your heroic plans is one thing, but leaving the comfort of your home, your family, a warm bed, a job and all the secure trappings that accompany a normal life is something quite different.

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Out on the open road many of the external distractions of busy city life are replaced by new objectives and challenges. Finding food, correct directions and a place to sleep each night become the priority. There is no time to contemplate failure when you have an empty stomach or a tired head – it’s time to switch on, wake up and deal with the situation. It’s difficult to imagine voluntarily stepping out from the comfort of home and into this uncertainty but if you believe this is something you have to do, there comes a time when thoughts and dreams must become a reality. This is, by far, the most important and the most difficult step of any adventure.

Are we fully prepared for this trip? No

Do we know the way? No.

Have we done anything like this before? No.

Is it scary? Of course.

Although these are valid feelings and emotions, they should not be barriers to having an adventure. Part of growing and developing as a human being is to acknowledge these apprehensions, contemplate all the potential pitfalls of the plan, carefully plan a route and research where we might be able to put our tent… then throw all those apprehensions out of the window and trust yourself to deal with any problems that may arise while on the journey.

People are good. They will help you if they can. We are not heading out into the wilderness, isolated from all human contact and completely alone. We are heading out of our comfort zone to see how we react.

In essence, the most important step is the one we have just taken; the step outside of our front door and onto the bike. The beginning.

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