Krista is in a yoga pose, stretching out stiff limbs by the pool while I write only my second diary entry since leaving the UK and arriving in Holland. Two weeks have passed since we reached Den Haag, our first mainland European city and now finally Europe is beginning to open up its green doors.
To this point the going has been mixed. Through Holland we followed the North Sea Route south-west through sand dunes, with often a headwind from the sea. To cycle in this direction was a bit disconcerting as our general direct to Tibet is south-east! Brielle was our first camp, a perfect and well-hidden spot in a nature reserve on an islet of the Dutch coast.
The next day – 8 June – we sneaked our way from our secret wild camp and continued south-west. The next two nights we stopped at around 7pm-8pm at farm campsites in Serooskerke and Hoofdsplaat, each time buying fresh eggs and vegetables from the farmers for dinner. We were now a day away from Antwerp.
The 85km we had to cover to get to this interesting and vibrant Belgian city were the most tiring yet. The signposts that had been so good in Holland vanished almost immediately when we crossed into Belgium and we were funnelled onto a cycle path alongside a motorway!
We finally found the Sint Anna Pedestrian Tunnel that took us under the river and into the heart of Antwerp. This tunnel was long and strange, filled with cyclists coming and going from Antwerp through what felt like a secret passage, tiled and smooth, glowing with a strange light. We shot through and popped up the other side into a beautiful old square with bars, shops and historic buildings on three sides, with huge plane trees throughout and a basketball court in the centre.
Hoboken, the industrial suburb, was our destination here, as Jasper had hooked us up with friends of his, living there. They too are cyclists and travelled the world for three years on recumbent bicycles, interviewing people in Africa, South America, Asia, Europe and Australia about their views on the future. It was fascinating hearing their work on futurism, and we were lucky to have to opportunity to view the documentary they had made about it. It made us ponder on our own visions on the future…
We stayed for three nights and for the whole time were treated by Bram’s delectable dinners. We were also grateful for their infectious enthusiasm and encouragement. They helped us refine the last bits of kit, and Bram took us on a bicycle tour of the city. Bram held with a tradition that my brother, Lee, started on the day we left Daventry, and rode with us to the outskirts of the city, to see us off safely. We passed grid-locked roads and made our way to the Albert Canal and waved goodbye to our new friend Bram.
The 13 June was the first of two days along the canal, heading south-east (our general direction at last!), with a tailwind that pushed us 55km in just three hours of riding! The day had been easy and just what we required – easily gained momentum, no map reading, no traffic and we could ride side by side and talk over our experiences.
Our camp that night was a fortunate find, only just wide enough to fit the tent. We squeezed in between the trees and rushed to erect the tent before it rained, hardly noticing the pylon and overhead cables above us!!!
The second day on the canal taxed us. We woke to rain and crawled back out onto the towpath. The sky was grey, the drizzle persisted and with bursts of heavy rain, we remained in our waterproofs everyday in fear and frustration, as the cloudy sky and murky water in the heavily industrialised canal seemed to merge together. Sheltering under a road bridge, we studied the map for an alternative route.
It was a fine decision to take a different path and as we picked our way across land from village to village, the sun seemed to return in an instant, as did our good spirits. The hospitality that greeted us 20km around the corner was completely unexpected. I nodded a hello at a cool looking man with mid-length hair, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, who in return, offered a validating nod and smile. A few minutes later, we were asking the same man for directions to Alken. He and his wife took it upon themselves to arrange for us a place to stay. Michel and Tina phoned around friends and family until they had secured us a floor to sleep on at their friends house!
In Alken, Michel, Tina and daughter Eva joined us at our new hosts house, who are teachers Ivo and Marina. We talked for many hours over a dinner that they all rushed to prepare for us, and we were entertained by the children’s music and singing. Marina was even kind enough to wash our clothes, while Michel and Ivo picked us an excellent route towards the Ardennes and kindly gave us maps.
On 15 June, the route picked for us, led beautifully through pretty towns and small, historical villages. We had clearly reached the French speaking half of Belgium and the atmosphere changed, perhaps due to the hills we were entering and the lush green surroundings.
For the majority of the 15th and 16th, we climbed steep hills, the first hills I have experienced with a bike fully loaded and the first hills on our route so far. After sweeping and speeding down hills alongside rivers and glowing valleys lit by the late afternoon sun, we found a campsite with a swimming pool. Krista negotiated a discount and for 10 euro, we stayed for two nights in Theux, relaxing and catching up with bike maintenance chores!
Posted by Dan