Vienna waits for you

Rainy, rainy rain. It began as a light smattering. A sprinkle, a dusting, a delicate shower. I thought, ‘I won’t grab the waterproofs out just yet – don’t want to get too hot and sticky; it’s still quite warm. It looks brighter over there, he won’t last long – this dreary newcomer to the trip.’ But, unfamiliar and unwelcome as he was, the rain proved insistent and my old friend the wind was not about to be bested by a rookie. So the two of them dogged my journey to Vienna. I was already on the wrong side of the Danube to the Eurovelo route because of the campsite location and rather than add 14km to my journey I checked the maps. I found a Vienna to Hainburg en Der Donau cycle route and saw a crossing to the north side just 10km upstream. Perfect. Despite inclement weather I was in good spirits, the thought of apfel strudel mit eis was keeping me motivated and after getting stuck on the wrong side of a railway track, and finally stopping to cover my now soaked, cotton K8 and K9 t-shirt, I followed the signs to the river and what I hoped would be a simple car ferry, you know – my fave. After all, it was a recommended cycle route so I figured it had to be vaguely bike-friendly.

I rolled down a steep hill that I knew I’d never get back up if I had to turn around and then the road just…turned into…off road. Rivers ran over cobbles the size (and vague shape) of footballs, as the path carved its way through wetland, rushes, muddy bogs and inlets. Huge trees added to the darkness of the day and the ducks eyed us menacingly. It was all beginning to feel a bit Jurassic Park. The ‘road’ ended at the river, a dirt track to the left with a battered sign high up in a tree commanding no bikes and a hilly continuation of the cement and rocks from before on the right. My map told me there was a ferry point to the right and so I cycled that way until it became clear that unless there truly was a ferry that way, it would be foolish to put Jeeves, trailer and Scout through the pain of the final 15 meters of ‘road’. I parked up, rain beginning to fall fat and loud around us and walked to the sign which I think told me to ring for the ferry and gave a number. My phone was with Jeeves. As I trudged back I could see another cyclist in the darkness of the trees ahead. They were only 30 meters away but KD (who was capturing the excitement on film) had to text me to let me know that a German speaking man was calling a ferry to the left – the wind and rain made conversation impossible, even with her far-reaching Australian tones. 

Photo 19-8-17-3
Scout’s Blue Steel with Wanda-woman

But it looked like we were in business. Stefan and his 6 year old daughter, Wanda, had actually arrived at our campsite late last night and had come the same way as us towards Vienna where they were going to spend a few nights. She sat up on a seat just behind the handlebars and was the toughest little thing I’ve ever seen. Scout had a fully waterproofed carriage.She had a bright red rain mac. What an absolute hero.

A ferry man arrived and we pushed through sandy mud (my bike cleaning work swiftly undone) onto a rocky beach that pulled every wheel in a different direction but to my great relief there was a ramp from boat to beach just about the width of the trailer.We powered across the gushing river with rain and wind lashing at us terribly dramatically for about 45 seconds before the captain docked facing fully upstream alongside a floating boat/restaurant/pontoon, killing the motor with the exact amount of time to leap up to the stern and grab a securing rope so that the flow of the river landed us gently in line with the landing gate. Both Stefan and I commented on how precise and skilled our ferry man was as the bearded man casually opened the gate to the dock.

Off across the Danube (again)

 A little more difficult manoeuvring of bike and trailer, which I am not really getting much better at, and we paid the man, and said our goodbyes – they were going to have hot chocolate and coffee at the restaurant before moving on. A good idea perhaps but I had apfel strudel waiting just a 40km away, on the actual bike path. I was pushing on.

We found the bike path (woohooo) and the signs took me closer and closer to Vienna and apfel strudel. The rain let up and Scout got her second good run of the day – easily hitting 20kmph along the safe, wide and quiet tarmac cycle paths. But I was getting hungry. I was holding out for Strudel but a 45min stop to meet with KD and make central Vienna plans pushed my hunger over the edge, taking my phone battery over with it and allowed the rain to swoop back in on us. I relied on my Garmin to get me into town to a specific park KD suggested and, to be honest, I’m not sure I should have trusted it. It’s a robot. And it gets stuff wrong quite a lot. Anywho it was rainy and a bit cold and I had no idea where I was going in a very big city with big cars and all those things and confusing German bike signs that I hadn’t got used to yet and then I turned across some tram tracks and suddenly I wasn’t turning, I was spilling to the ground. My front tire had slipped happily into the tram track and my momentum hadn’t agreed with the decision at all. Jeeves pulled away from me and I toppled to the left, skidding along the ground a little and after taking the brunt of the impact with my wrist and side, my helmeted head tapped the tarmac sharply as I came to a stop. The trailer had remained upright and Scout was sat up, obviously concerned for my welfare (sure), and as I stood some people crossing the road asked if I was ok. It wasn’t a busy street and no cars had been near, thank goodness, and as I got up I realised I was fine, a little shaken and a slight fizz in my head but nothing I was concerned about having wiped out more than a few times while snowboarding. So I righted Jeeves and got back on the bloody thing, low blood sugar doing me more harm than the tumble, I reasoned, and blindly followed the Garmin, no idea how far I was from strudel but praying it was close. It wasn’t particularly, and when I finally found KD I was cold, wet, hangry as anything and thoroughly disillusioned with Vienna. Having a dog when it’s raining is quite a chore – sitting outside when it’s dry isn’t a problem but when you want to sit inside in the warm quite often der hund isn’t allowed. Not that I had time to be choosy, I ended up grabbing a salmon sandwich and chips at a sea food chain called NORDSEE – nothing the slightest bit Vienese about it but it was food and it was what I needed and they didn’t mind Scout sitting under the table with her Hungarian muzzle on (I removed it when they weren’t looking). It was the definition of an anticlimax and there was still no strudel. The cafes I’ve strudelled at before are grand affairs and I was soggy and muddy and I couldn’t be bothered to even begin to find one that would allow a dog and then find a place to leave Jeeves, preferably within my eyeline, just to sit and have my well earned strudel. So it never happened.

I changed out of my wet under clothes and then we went sight seeing so that KD could get some nice K8 and K9 in the city footage. I’ve had a lovely few days in Vienna with the Globe and a few times since then but today, and with a bike and a dog in the rain, I was disenchanted with it and wanted to set up camp outside the city and start making my way through Austria, finding little towns with little cafes for my strudel fix instead. That’s something I am fast discovering – cities are not the most friendly places to be when you’re on a bike on your own with a dog. I have fond memories of Vienna and I’ll go again but probably on foot or by car. It rained that evening but I showered and warmed up and Scout met a hedgehog that was happily snuffling its way around the campsite – utterly unfazed by the attentions of a curious pup and surprisingly swift! Scout reeeeallly wanted to play with it but I was quite mean and didn’t let her, couldn’t really be bothered with a vet visit, to be honest.

We had a slow morning as the day dawned with the promise of sun in Klosterneuberg and beyond. I’d already found the cycle path the evening before and from here on out Donauradweg (Danube Cycle Way) was all I needed to know. The signs were pretty good and I just double checked with my app when I needed to but mostly you could be either side of the Danube and there was always a cycle path to follow. KD popped up every now and then to film me whizzing by, or struggling up a rare hill, and document (far better than me) the changing landscape as we charged through Austria. The Danube sometimes cuts through vineyard strewn hills, sometimes rocky, tall, pine treed slopes, other times open fields of drooping sunflowers or proud and swaying corn. We had pretty amazing weather, although the wind was almost always against me and I was one of the very few people travelling East to West because, apparently, it’s always slightly up hill that way. Great. There were so many cyclists though, it was amazing to see. Especially older people. Bikes are awesome. For everyone. I love bikes.


 There are several companies that hire bikes and panniers to you and by the looks of things there are several options you can take from a group tour with a guide and your bags dropped at the next hotel by van; no guide but bags dropped at the next hotel of your choosing; or simple hire of bikes and more bags and the freedom to camp or hotel wherever you fancy. Something for everyone. Even electric bikes. The number of old people whizzing past me up hills on their electric bikes…yeah, not jealous at all. Not at all. In all honesty I tend to smile when I see them. I love the fact that they can still get out there and enjoy the beauty of the Donauradweg, I hope I’m still chasing adventures at their age.

Photo 21-8-17

Then, just after my lunch at Dernstein and halfway down a steep hill to rejoin the bike path a man yelled ‘Kate!’ and pulled over on the hill. ‘Are you talking to me?’ I said, surprised. ‘Are there any other Kates on the street?’ he crowed back. ‘Do I know you?’ I uttered, still trying to make sense of the situation, ‘We know you!’ he replied as his wife joined him. Jeff* and Glenda Miller from Adelaide had had breakfast with KD in Vienna before getting the train to Passau to rent bikes and cycle back, and she headed west to find me. IMG_4590

They’re fans of CTM and endeavoured to keep an eye out for me and lo and behold they’d managed it. 10 minutes earlier and I’d still have been eating my lunch and they might not have seen the trailer. It was a remarkable coincidence and a delightful boost. Some more lovely Australians to add to the pile I seem to be encountering in Europe.There have been plenty of others too though – a Swedish over 70s cycle group wished me good luck and commended me, lots of Italian tourers did the same, and I’ve had more than a few photos taken. Hopefully they visit the website and share it – £10,000 is a huge amount and unless I can get more people interested I’m afraid we aren’t going to get there!


Fingers crossed the sign on the back is getting some traffic to the website and get the idea – I really should have had home pages made in different languages – the amount of times I’ve explained the website to people; ‘in English it’s sort of a funny way to write my name and also the scientific name for the dog species…so, it’s sort of, me and the dog…’ you know what they say – if you have to explain it…sigh.

Oh well, please, please share this amongst your English speaking friends and help spread the word – Street Hearts have already started making things happen with some of the money so far and I give you my word that it all goes to Scout’s old mates in Bulgaria so they can find their feet and their forever homes.

* or Geoff – sorry I didn’t check

BONUS: Pictures from KD from Hungary to Vienna © @kdvideo







And we’re rolling (in dead stuff)

I left my riverside campsite in high spirits and ready to face the next day. The path was on roads and gravel tracks and, at one point, a rutted, bumpy, hideous tractor path. But before that point was a fairly hard gravel track far from the road and with no crops around and I let Scout off the lead to run alongside the bike at her own pace as I wasn’t hitting much over 11km per hour. She galloped happily alongside me and occasionally dipped into the grass for a sniff and then rushed to catch up, head-banging with excitement. When she nipped off into the bushes I imagined she’d be out again shortly and continued dodging potholes and choosing the path of least resistance along the track. But when she didn’t emerge and I was a good 60 metres from where I’d seen her last I stopped the bike and started to call her. Ten seconds passed and then I saw the bobbing head and flapping ears as the black and white blur came closer. She ran up to me and as I patted her I realised she had something sticky and muddy on her neck and side, and front, and head, and harness, and bandana. The smell hit me. Something rotten, dead, decaying, long, long, departed but reeking its lasting mark on the world. And it was greasy. Under the reddish dirt was a grey fatty smear. It had saturated the bandana, mashed itself over the harness and worked its way into Scout’s fur. It. Was. Hideous. I whipped off the bandana and gingerly put it in a poo bag and stashed it in the trailer pocket, used the few wet wipes I had to wipe down the harness and Scout and threw her in the trailer hoping she wouldn’t stain the whole thing with her stench. And it was on my gloves. I was pretty sure some of it was on my gloves and therefore on my hands and holy christ it was gag-makingly rancid. I would like to make clear, if I can, that I have dealt with my share of fox poo and other dog related odours but this one was beyond anything else. The fact that it was not water soluble just meant it was pervasive as well.

I then rode through a bumpy, hilly, multilevelled tractor path that would I’m sure entertain mountain bikers but was a fair old annoyance to me. For once, I was actually quite far from the river. I kept praying for a road and a town and one of those adorable blue water pumps that occasionally sat at the side of the road for all to use. And then suddenly, as soon as I met tarmac, a glorious light blue water pump emerged in front of me and I dragged Scout under it to douse her in (regrettably) clean drinking water (sorry for taking your good water, little village). But it was actually quite tricky.

Zero regrets

The pump only gushes water when the handle is being depressed and I needed one hand to hold a squirming Scout in place and the other to try and agitate some of the grease free of her fur. I did my best. My nose told me, quite plainly, it was not good enough. The next few hours I spent stopping at two supermarkets to buy first wet wipes and then kitchen cleaning wipes. I used my sports bottle to squirt water on her and my shampoo in her fur but I could never shift the smell. As I neared Györ, a point I had hoped to camp north of I sought out a hotel. I wanted her in a shower, soaked head to toe and lathered in washing up liquid, I was not sharing a tent with that thing as it was. I found one and within 45 minutes of checking in we were both squeaky clean and happy and I was definitely looking forward to the luxury of a mattress and a duvet for the night.


Györ is also where I met up with KD. She’s a filmmaker from Australia who heard about my trip and outrageously offered her services for a week to get some good footage and help the cause. There are some bloody good people in the world. We can easily forget that but I promise you; they’re there.

So from that point on I had someone meeting me along the road, pointing a camera at me and asking me where we were and what had just happened. She’d race along the road and try to find a place the cycle path intercepted it and set up her tripod for an action shot. When we met at one point I discovered one of the trailer tyres was flat and so we got a good bit of footage of me fixing the puncture in the sun at the side of the road. If it hadn’t been so clearly a thorn that had caused it I might have suspected her of engineering some drama. She promised she had documentary-maker integrity although the number of times she helped me out over the next few days suggests she was not holding herself strictly to the ‘do not interfere’ documentary code.

KD got these printed in Vienna before meeting me!

She offered to take some of the weight from my panniers, I used her trainers almost everyday to save me from the unbearable experience of walking around a town in crocs, and on one very cold morning she had woken early, showered and warmed up and then threw her sleeping bag on me and took Scout for a walk so I could double up the sleeping bags and grab an hour of snugged up sleep. Legend.

From Györ with a good night’s sleep and without the faff of tent drying and breakfast making we were on the road and made it to Bratislava by 5.30 to sit at the river bank festival eating a massive tortilla wrap and listening to live music. Nice work, Bratislava. There was no fanfare as we passed into Slovakia – it’s part of Shengen and the open borders countries so I had to check the map to see if we had crossed over. I took a picture when I figured we’d done it which was when I began riding on this big, wide, recreational road.

Slovakia! (I think)
Bratislava riverside

It was Thursday evening and everyone was out and about on their bikes or roller blades making the most of the evening and being total outdoorsy awesomes. I even passed a little lake with beach-like edges one half of which was clearly for the naturists, right there, at the edge of the cycle path. Go Slovakia, I guess! I was knackered, the day had been hot but I had only thought about getting to Bratislava; I hadn’t thought about where to stay and then realised that campsites were so very rarely in the centre of cities. The nearest one was 10km out the wrong way…last night’s hotel bed had been so wonderful that KD and I jumped on our phones and tried to find the cheapest, nearest pet-friendly place to stay. We took the opportunity to charge our computers and various bits and bobs and steal the toiletries.

Expecting to be wheeled everywhere now.

It was a big hotel, we were on the third floor, and there were long carpeted hallways to the lifts…when I took Scout out for a wee she um…didn’t quite make it. I guess she’s never been anywhere quite like that before and was a little confused. She did go next to a plant so maybe she figured she was actually outside? I lifted her up to try and stop her mid-flow and ended up with a few more things to wash in the bathroom sink. Good job I love that pooch!

From Bratislava the cycle paths were mostly great and clearly marked. But it was hot. We’d spent the morning in town and didn’t get going until about 2pm when it was creeping up to over 30 degrees. Once again I had to guess when we crossed into Austria, but it was around about the time this butterfly decided to chill with us in a shade break.

Shade buddy

We made fair progress and then left the recommended path as the evening drew on to get to a campsite that was on the other side of the river. A brief stop in a pretty little walled town for a cup of tea brought back memories of an Austrian town I’d stayed in when on tour with Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I told myself that not all Austrian towns were alike and besides, lots of things were different, there were just some similarities in the town square and such. Onwards; it was 7km of hilly, wind blown gravel tracks and I felt like I was going absolutely nowhere. When we eventually arrived we found a tiny little campground attached to the back of an indoor tennis centre with changing rooms and showers. A German family were on their second night there, a foursome of young cyclists were lounging in hammocks in a back corner and there were two camper vans with fairly elusive inhabitants. The evening was clear and warm and I sat down to clean my bike – something I hadn’t actually done yet and with a tip from Michael and the baby wipes from Scout’s moment of disgrace I did an alright job I reckon. The whole thing certainly felt smoother and happier the next day. But that night, oh that night was so beautiful. The stars were so bright that we sat out staring up at them for ages.

Just checking there’s none left… 

The next day I messaged my cast mate to ask where it was we’d stayed on tour and she sent back: Hainberg an Der Donau. Exactly where we’d stopped for tea! We actually hired bikes and cycled along the Danube on a day off…I’d post the pictures if I had them with me. If I’d had any sense of the symmetry I’d have had them prepared and done that thing of recreating old photos but…yeah. Nope. The next day dawned with a threat of rain and the wind that had pushed so hard at me the day before. Vienna and apfel strudel were waiting and I was about to get my first taste of wet-weather riding. Tune in next time for the short and sharp story of my front tire meeting a Viennese tram track….

Leaving Budapest – a ferry bad time

Leaving Budapest. Well, that was not the easy move I had hoped for. Firstly, I couldn’t get out of my tent, I was so exhausted and had been so chilly in the night that I couldn’t now remove myself from the snugness of my sleeping bag. It wasn’t until the sun hit me at about 8.30 that I was forced out and I slowly packed away while chatting to various other campers who were curious about Scout and the bike and the Union Jack flag. Most everybody can speak some good english and I’m both grateful and thoroughly embarrassed that I have zero Hungarian and very little German. I tried once again to use the internet at the campsite to upload my pics and video to the cloud which has been a singularly frustrating endeavour for the entire trip. Predictably it didn’t go to plan this time either and I reluctantly set off back into Budapest centre to find the EuroVelo 6 again and head north out of the city. Only I was still so zapped of energy that I stopped for coffee as soon as I crossed over into Buda. Budapest is actually two towns on either side of the river – Buda and Pest – that merged at some point into one sprawling capital. As a result the two have quite different personalities and architectural tendencies. I’d spent most of the day in Pest yesterday and sitting for coffee in Buda (and using good wifi to finally upload my blog with pictures) felt very different – quieter, older, more relaxed and it set me up to move on. One of the waitresses was also a blogger and she took a picture of the website address to follow us – Budapest has been full of lovely people interested in the story. I know how to say ‘she is a street dog’ in French and Spanish and that’s been enough where English fails but people remark on how fine she is and ask her breed: Mongrel, Bulgarian edition.

I’m beginning to feel quite proud of my little urchin pupper, especially when she sits close to the tent and bike and curls up quietly while I build or break camp. She’s a little afraid of the dark though and tends to be a bit barky when loud people, especially men, approach our tent. She actually was very perturbed when a mother was sort of play wrestling with her youngish son who was making those youthful noises of exertion and frustration. I couldn’t tell if he was misbehaving and wanting to run away from her or if they were simply playing but his effortful exhalations could easily be interpreted as distress. Scout was very alarmed and started barking at the pair until he ran away from her and Scout growled and watched the mother as she walked past us with serious suspicion.

IMG_4447The cycle route was fair to middling, a little rough and confusing in places but mostly I could tell I was leaving the city, even if I hadn’t got moving until after twelve. I’d wanted to get to a campsite at Esztegom by evening but that was now impossible, I figured I’d be wild camping somewhere up-stream. I passed crazy looking riverside homes that I envied and waved at lots of cyclists, giving me some confidence at least that I was on the right track.


At some point a Budapest tour guide on his day off joined me and asked where I was heading, what my route was, what my plan for the evening was. I was anxious to make some distance but thought again about my promise to say yes more… We stopped for a swim and some food at a little beach he recommended and he told me about a beautiful camp area on the northern point of the island of Szigetmonostor, one that I needed to take a ferry to get off in the morning and that would take me out onto a busy road the wrong side of the Danube to the cycle route – he termed it the ‘highway to hell’ and, quite frankly, I’d had enough of those. Having been without the EuroVelo for the days leading to Budapest I was loath to deliberately leave it, even with the recommendation of a local but I thought about it.


He was going to come with me – it was a truly special place, he said but in the end it wasgetting late and I bailedand thought I’d be better off crossing the river as per the route before finding somewhere to camp. So Peter sped off, unburdened by dog and belongings and I continued, lost the path, doubled back, asked directions and discovered I needed to take a foot passenger ferry to that island anyway. And there were steps to get to it.

A google search image of the ferry in question. I was too flustered to document it.

When I’m on tarmac, when I’m moving forward, when the wind isn’t catching me from the side, Jeeves and trailer handle the 20kg of luggage, 15kg of dog and 60 odd kg of me incredibly well – we glide, we’re balanced, everything seems so efficient. But stop moving forward, introduce steps, divorce Jeeves from trailer, try manoeuvring them through any space not straight and wide and, my god, they’re like beached whales. Heavy and awkward and not interested in going anywhere fast. Actually they’re more like beached sharks because they also have sharp bits that try to take your leg off. I unhitched the trailer, ran to the ferry, now already loaded with passengers and asked a strong person to help – Jeeves is about 35kg with bags and unwieldy af, – a nice man took on the challenge, and carried the trailer and Scout down the steps along the metal grid gangway she refused to walk on. There were steps down into the tiny boat also – he’d said yes to bikes but it clearly wasn’t built with them in mind. We wrestled Jeeves and trailer and Scout inside, to the bemusement of the other passengers. “I’m going to London!” I said in an attempt to garner sympathy or at least temper the unamused looks of the ferrymen. Of course, to add to the embarrassment and apologising and flustering it turned out I didn’t have enough Forints to pay the fare. I hadn’t realised I’d be taking ferries on the bike path and hadn’t worried about getting more cash after my coffee.

I am so much better at hiding my distress than Scout.
I had euros and the elder ferryman consulted the younger, “five” he said, and I dug around for my change, thankful for their accepting me, thankful I could repay them somehow and gave him all my change – six euros. After the nice man (who I shamelessly thanked by telling him how strong he was) had deposited Jeeves, up a ramp on the other side, stopped the trailer from rolling back onto the gangway when I turned away from it, and had walked back to his car, almost certainly laughing at my claim to be cycling all the way to London I hitched Jeeves and trailer together and got Scout inside again. She hadn’t enjoyed the experience much more than me. Thank god that was over, the ferrymen continued to watch me with that particular unsmiling curiosity I’ve encountered in Eastern Europe and I smiled and waved and tried to hide my utter exhaustion and mounting self-doubt.

It was getting late and I thought about travelling north to the camp ground Peter had told me about. It wasn’t on any of my maps but it was local knowledge, maybe it was a good idea? But this island seemed utterly deserted, nothing here, people had taken the ferry to get in their cars to go somewhere I couldn’t see. I rode on along dirt roads, praying the next ferry (yes, to get off the island again and onto the mainland on the other side of the Danube – I hadn’t looked very closely at the day’s route) was a car one that I could roll onto without making a total tool of myself.IMG_4458 I decided to stick to the bike route and didn’t head north, I wasn’t enjoying this empty island and didn’t fancy getting deeper into it not knowing where exactly I was heading, so I cycled to the other side and to my deep relief saw a car ferry – great floating platforms attached on one side to a boat that basically pushes, drags and twists it from one side to the other – it’s some pretty able sea-manning. By now the day was wearing on and I was, I’ll admit, a little fraught. When the man asked me for a third of the price the other ferry had asked for and I couldn’t even pay it I felt terrible. All I had was a ten euro note and 100 Forints and he dismissed me as the silly foreigner I truly was shaping up to be. I pushed off the barge thoroughly demoralised and foolish feeling and with a creeping sense that finding a place to camp would be a joyless experience and that’s when I met Michael, standing astride his touring bike, his matching panniers oozing experience and confidence. “You’ve got a lot of stuff!” he yelled cheerily at me as he queued up to get on the return trip. “I’ve got a dog!” I said only slightly defensively. “Is there anywhere to camp along the path this side?”

“What? No, I’m heading on to the island – there are two campsites there. Come on!” he beamed in his undulating Australian accent. “Oh, I, er, I ran out of money! I didn’t pay just now!”

“Well I’ve got money. Let’s go. I wanna hear your story.” And so, with a little more protesting from me I finally gave in and fell in with Michael who looked as seasoned a cyclist as you could find and as calm and unhurried as you might expect an Aussie to be. He was my polar opposite right now and his confidence and generosity (he had to pay for my first trip also when the money guy saw that I’d found a man to pay for me, more utter embarrassment on my part) began to slowly smooth my nerves and unruffle my feathers. Both campsites were long closed but one let us set up on what used to be a camp ground and, of course, Michael paid for it.

Aussie saviour
Through some confusion they also opened up a twin room with ensuite in their empty 60s motel-type establishment that we could use, although not with the dog – I was happy to camp and to his enormous credit, Michael forwent a bed and camped alongside me. I was, happily, able to repay him slightly by cooking us dinner and loaning my power bank to charge his phone. He was on his way to a few days in a lovely apartment with family in Budapest and was happy to slum this last night with me. We chatted long and Scout and I were devoured by the most insistent and insidious mosquitos so much so that I popped her half a piriton to relieve her swelling bites. I learnt about touring, about bikes, about his tours and travels – the man has seen a lot since he began biking in retirement – and picked up a few great tips. The night was so cold I had to hug Scout for warmth, I don’t think my sleeping bag is going to cut it if the nights get colder. The next morning Michael showed me even more about touring pace – he was a most unhurried man and I was constantly quelling the voice in my head saying ‘You need to get going, you didn’t cycle far enough yesterday – you’ll have to make up for it today, no time for this, no time for chatting.’ But I was held hostage to Michael’s wallet – he was luckily going back to the side he’d come from and heading to Pest on the East bank and would, again, pay my ferry fare – the ferrymen hid their confusion well. I was so lucky to have met him, but when he invited me to have coffee with him, I declined, the voice in my head finally screaming at me YOU HAVE TO GET GOING – why!? Why, voice? Why do I have to? It didn’t answer that but I decided I would finally appease it and took off, thanking Michael profusely and agreeing to add the amount he paid for my (three) ferry crossings and the camping to the fundraiser and to consider it a donation. What an awesome guy to have met at possibly the most stressed and flustered I’ve been on the whole trip. I literally had to say yes to his suggestions and we shared a very pleasant evening in each other’s company. Thank you Michael! I’m sorry we didn’t get that coffee. But I managed to see Esztegom and clean my chain with baby wipes, and get to grips with – you not only saved me that evening, you continue to make my journey easier. I’m also getting (a little) better at stopping for coffee and taking my time. I cycled a good 90km that day and wild camped at the edge of the river and, having shaken off the tensions of yesterday, I slept like a baby.

Ice-cream and lunch by the river and lovely paths:

A much more relaxed third ferry crossing the next day:

And Esztergom and my river camp:

On My Own…

For the last few days I’ve had a Les Miserables song in my head, the snippets that I remember anyway. “In the rain, the pavement shines like silver,” “all alone, I walk with him till morning” or something like that, “all my liiiife, I’ve ooonly beeeen pretendiiing.” It wasn’t until I sat down to this blog just now that I worked out why that song. It’s called On My Own. And I’ve been on my own for five days. I’m clearly quite preoccupied with the fact.

So, Emma and Anthony packed us on our way with a tear and a wave along a safe and vaguely shady Hungarian cycle path next to a big main road heading North West to the Danube. I absolutely did not cry, it was definitely the wind making my eyes water and IMG_4353my voice shake. Wind does that, guys. Especially in Hungary – you don’t know! It was hot but we had water and a plan to take shelter and a couple of campsite spots to aim for come the evening. As we turned off one main road to another the cycle path disappeared, the road was busy with lorries and there was little to no shade – the sun was on the other side of the road and so was the shadow and it was approaching one pm. But all was well as I saw a petrol station sign with little pictures of WCs, showers, Wifi, coffee, the works, and I pulled into the forecourt and set the bike in the shade so we could settle in for our midday siesta/sun avoidance. About ten minutes later I decided togo into the shop and buy IMG_4514something cold and then discovered it was and had been very closed for a while. There were two cars there which had thrown me but it was most certainly not currently open for business. There would be no coffee or ice-cream. Devastated. Unsure what to do I hid out for a little while longer before deciding to make a push for a station just up the road that was marked on my google maps. It was also closed. So I kept cycling along this hideous road in the baking sun looking for shade or an establishment of some kind. I passed two other closed petrol stations (seriously, what happened to the petrol market?) and pulled into a track that looked like it might be a shady place to stop for a few hours but there were clearly dogs at the house at the end who were none too happy at our presence and so I ventured back onto the road.

This road was heading mostly North. I’ve observed a thing or too about North/South roads in Hungary. The tarmac clearly heats up throughout the day and the final assault of the sun’s east to west trajectory is thrown full throttle at the far right hand side (if you are looking Northwards.) This means that the tarmac gets hot and soft and the heavy and constant traffic manages to squish and push the tarmac so that it rises in a line about two foot in from the edge of the road. Exactly where my bike tyre wants to be so that my rear right trailer tyre stays on the road but not too far into it. So I was forced further into the road than I’d like. Still, with flashing lights and flapping flags people appeared to see me in advance and mostly give me a wide berth. Thanks, driver-folks.

I eventually, at long last found myself a petrol station with some picnic benches and water for sale. We set up camp, read, ate, slept (Scout). We drew stares and puzzled looks. No other cyclists passed and I was dreading getting back on the road. Which eventually I decided I had to do, just after six pm and just hoped that pedalling fast would get me somewhere, anywhere, and away from the zoomy road. Progress was slow and my original camp destination was clearly too ambitious, I thought, as the sun began to finally dip and diminish. There was another place, closer but off the route a little and I pedalled my little legs off to get there just before eight pm and with just enough sunlight left to pitch the tent. It was still warm and close and uncomfortable. The campsite was large and well managed and popular, situated right next to a lake with paid entry and water slides and inflatable islands and stuff. I also think no-dogs were allowed but as the day had drawn to a close and darkness had almost fully descended I just walked confidently through the gates with Scout at my side and strode out into the lake. Oh lord it was delicious. It was warm and cool at the same time and Scout enjoyed the more gradual entry to the water for her second swimming lesson. It was so warm that after cooking and sitting out she was mostly dry by the time we got into the tent…wet dog smell was not as overpowering as I’d feared. We woke and packed up and were on the road by 7.15 and Scout ran beside me along the cycle path before hoping in the trailer and hitting the roads again. I desperately wanted to find the Danube and the Euro Velo bike route that would take me all the way toGermany as safely as the EuroVelo people could devise.


I knew I was close because of the map but my Garmin was taking me parallel to the river but not next to it. And as the temperature raised I took shelter at a little bar to hunt out my evening campsite, a man arrived on a bike and had a beer and then left. He came back about thirty minutes later and did the same. He offered me an ear of corn. I was touched but politely declined, unsure what to do with it. The nearest campsite on route was too far to reach when the temperature dropped and I decided to head back on myself, camp by the river, get a good night’s sleep and make an early start for Budapest – about 85km or so. 

Not as excited to see the Danube as me

I set up camp by about 2.30pm, lay down and couldn’t get back up again. So. So. Tired. When I finally managed to get up and shower I came back with my hair in a towel which Scout voiced her embarrassment at (she did the dog thing of really not enjoying head-gear and barked at me for a second). An older French couple had come the opposite direction that morning and warned me about small fast roads on the route ahead. Damnit. It was awfully hot and it was hard to get an early night – it wasn’t until eleven pm that it started to get windy and the stagnant air shifted and cooled enough for sleep.IMG_4359IMG_4365

She really likes to hide behind the bike. It has fallen on her once, nevertheless she persists

I was up and on the road just after 6.30 for the great Budapest push. I found and lost the Eurovelo twice and then lost it a third time for good. I found myself instead on a fast, narrow road and thought ‘this must be what the couple had warned me about’ it can’t last. And oh my god, the wind. The WIND. I was honestly being blown off the tarmac. The road ended abruptly with a four inch step off onto gravel and scrub and I was constantly in danger of losing a wheel or two off the edge. The wind was coming diagonally from North West and occasionally WNW which I and the trailer absorbed like a sail. Surprising gusts left me fighting to stay in a straight line but, I reasoned, at least it’s blowing me off the road rather than into it. It was also blessedly cooler and I could cycle through the hottest part of the day. And so I just kept cycling. I kept on the fast roads, desperate to see directions to the Eurovelo, or to find an alternative, constantly surprised my flagpole survived as it was bent nearly horizontal by the wind, and greatly perturbed when I saw a big sign depicting NO HORSES, NO TRACTORS, NO CYCLES. I turned off onto a smaller road but that led to basically falling over in dirt sand and having to push the bike and so it was back to the scary fast zooms roads instead. 


After every junction and no cycle path I sighed and pushed on but it was exhausting. I could make good time but it was stressful cycling – I had to pull off on the verge about five or six times because there was someone barrelling towards me trying to overtake a line of cars and I couldn’t be sure they’d seen me. Eventually about 25km from Budapest I googled ‘why can’t I find the Eurovelo 6?’ and found there was an app that could show me where it was. And it was on the other side of the river.


Found it! It was pretty rough and bumpy in places though and I had been making much better time on the fast roads, albeit in fear for my life. Some friendly guys helped me over a poorly sized barrier, lifting Scout ensconced in her throne. I met a Belgian guy on a bike and we travelled a while towards town on the worst bike paths ever – cobbles, tree roots, bushes, mud, massive pot holes, paths with barely enough room for a bike, let alone a trailer. How on earth was this the official bike route 5km out of the capital city?

Budapest seemed so close for so long and then it was there. My old uni friend and director, Tom was visiting our other uni friend, native Hungarian theatre designer and director Eszter, and he was cycling to meet me. What a thing to turn up in a new city to a friendly face. What a thing. We had food and drinks at an outdoor park where Scout had her first park walk – she did pretty well, she stuck close and came to me when she was scared by another dog. And the next day Eszter walked Scout while Tom and I went to a Thermal Spa and put our bodies through a cycle of differently heated baths and steam rooms so that when we left I felt both rejuvenated and utterly exhausted – my mileage had reached 103km the day before and for the first time my legs really knew about it. We saw some touristy things and I bought a laptop so I could keep up the blogging and when Eszter and Tom headed off to the festival that Eszter’s show was at I made my way back to my campsite, on my own again, with a dog wearing a muzzle because that’s a Hungarian public transport regulation.

I nipped out on the bike with Scout running to the local supermarket only to realise it was Sunday evening and everything was closed apart from a pet store where I bought some nice meaty treats and a new rope toy (to divert Scout’s tendency towards the tent guy ropes) and Scout played with a 5 month old chocolate Labrador puppy like they were best friends. She’s so tall and lanky I forget that she’s still a puppy sometimes. I grabbed some food from a petrol station instead and settled in for the night, on my own again and with 250km to Bratislava – the next thing on my mind – having had a ‘rest day’ that more thoroughly exhausted me than my 103km day. I envied my fellow camper’s chairs and back rests and their company. A lovely couple from Oxford on a euro tour with a pair of bounty black dogs were in a campervan next to me and had offered me a chat and a proper cup of tea that morning which was a tonic I didn’t know I needed. They had left on the rest of their trip when I returned. The internet failed me again and late arrivals next to me cooked and caroused together late into the night, tent walls are thin. I wanted more time in Budapest but didn’t feel I could have it – I’ve given myself a punishing schedule and little wiggle room for stopping to smell the roses. It seems at odds with the entire ethos and method of cycle touring. I made a decision to say yes more and make more connections with fellow travellers. I was on my own, yes, but I wasn’t alone. 


All roads lead to Rom(ania)

To pick up where we left off; Emma and I whizzed down the highway and into a campsite run by Dutch people called De Oude Wilg.

It has come to my attention that this means The Old Willow in Dutch, the symbolism was not lost on me – my old Willow would have loved ithere too. It was quiet and beautiful and cool and had warm, clean showers and I was so very happy about that.  On the way we managed to choose a very bumpy and rutted road with zero other traffic and so Scout got out for a run. She did brilliantly beside me, although she was understandably a little scared when we passed a factory with two barking dogs telling us to get away from their place – the dogs weren’t behind any gates so they had the potential to rush right up to us. I had my mind on staying calm and in control, encouraging Scout to keep moving and preparing to protect her at all costs but as with so many dogs they were all bark and no bite and we continued on without incident, however when Scout saw Anthony on the road ahead getting some footage she swerved across and into his arms for a reassurance cuddle. Fair enough, young pup, fair enough.



The pretty little town the campsite sat in had people in traditional dress, horses and carts and, to Scout’s delight and my frustration hundreds of swooping swallows. I suppose they were catching flies but I’m not sure they weren’t just teasing Scout and dive bombing her to make my life more difficult, and to give Emma and the locals a good laugh. She desperately wanted to chase them and I dearly wanted her to stay on the right hand side of the bike and not run across the road and not pull me over. It was quite a clash of wills. To her credit she was quite restrained and we stayed upright all the way to the campsite…where she saw a cat.

We met two lots of cycle tourers at the campsite (French and South African) and compared stories from the nightmare night at the top of the Transfagarasan and offered advice on onward journeys – Romanian dogs nipping at heels and fast roads without cycle paths featured heavily. We decided to continue as we had planned, crossing the border at Cenad into Mako for the 9th and cycling as much as we could on the way given the conditions. Although it had been a rainy night, the sky was beginning to clear as we made our way to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Sibiu. There was ice-cream, there were fountains, it’s seriously worth a visit, guys.

We cycled along roads that had enough space for us and a car and felt pretty ok until we approached the city and the roads doubled up and got busy. We took small roads and eventually found ourselves in the beautiful pedestrian quarter of Sibiu. Scout sat proudly in her chariot with the front flap open without trying to jump out and basking in the interested points and stares. On more than one occasion now I have wished I had a large sign or a t-shirt with K8 and K9 on it so I could direct people to the website and potentially garner more donations. The Transfagarasan Highway was a prime example of advertising opportunities – word had spread about the two women and a dog cycling up the highway – our French friends had heard about us – how great would it have been if people knew we were going all the way to London? Another example of poor foresight and prep from me!

Anyway, we then loaded up the bikes to get out of the city and take a punt on a large Decathlón we’d spied on the way in – I was still cleatless on one shoe and needed a screw to set things right. No luck – only £15 for an entirely new set that I couldn’t bring myself to spend. I did manage to buy myself some new socks – my ‘cycle specific’ ones were too big and fluffy and I only had three of them as one had been stolen by a dog (probably) on our first night in Bulgaria. On taking a wrong turn out of the city we ended up driving past KTM bicycles and I decided to jump out and ask. I showed them the twin of the screw I needed, I was met with an exhalation and a slow shake of the head before I showed them the rest of the cleat and a little cheeky grin spread across the guy’s face. He moved aside some papers, found a small plastic packet and ripped it open, he pulled out one, two screws and gave them both to me, refusing any payment. His partner said ‘nothing but hugs and kisses’ for which, to be fair, she didn’t even exact payment. I showed them the blog name and said I would thank them there. Do me a favour? Like their fb page.

Cleaaaats!! Yay. Oh god so much better. I’ll be honest I was a little worried having only used them for my Oxford training ride and nothing since but when we found a quietish patch of road to whizz along that afternoon I felt like I was really getting in the grove of this cycling malarkey and stopped being scared of falling with heavy bike.

Romanian roads are not amazing for cycling. People drive very fast. The roads are not very wide. People do fairly reckless overtaking. Emma used to be a police officer and she finds it hard to ignore the accidents she’s seen. I cycled on with blissfully ignorant, as we passed shrine after shrine of dedications to perished motorists. Seriously, they erect proper crosses and things, sometimes with pictures, not just temporary flower memorials. ‘Tra la la,’ I cycled on thinking ‘they probably weren’t on bikes, we’ll be fine.’ We planned a stop at the next lay by for snacks and who was sat there but Mr Smith, with GoPro in hand ready to film us…stopping. A quick assessment of the road and the distance still to cover before Wednesday and we decided not to endure the scary roads. We were in the van and on our way in a few minutes. Much better.

We jumped in and out of the van like this as we continued west through Romania and the towns began to change, they got a bit smaller, a bit more run down, there was a large motorway that initially diverted most of the traffic off the ‘B’ roads we were trying to cycle but it hadn’t been finished and so for a good 80km all the traffic piled on to some really small roads that were hairy enough to drive in the van – no way we were going to cycle them.

Scout loves the van. About a month ago Scout was car sick when she went to a fundraising event and she was a little sick when she travelled in the back of the van to the train station at the start of the trip but as soon as she climbs into the cab now she lies down and goes to sleep. Willow always did the same – it meant all the drivers on my TV jobs never objected to her coming along – she slept the whole way in the footwell and was completely unobtrusive. This bodes well, little doggo.

We saddled up again for the journey through the border into Hungary. It was pretty hot and the queue was long – we pushed ahead to see if there was a pedestrian or bike gate we could go through just as they opened another gate to ease the tailback caused by five or six Turkish men in German Mercedes they were not interested in letting in apparently. We passed through with ease and the border guard ladies were quite taken with Scout who sat prettily with her head out the front flap again. Top marks, pup.

CYCLE PATHS! Oh my god there were separate cycle paths parallel to the main road almost immediately. I could taste the easy cycling from here on out. And it tasted gooood. We bumbled along, Scout smiling out at her third country in a week and drawing stares and points and laughs and puzzlement (signage, Lamb, signage would be great).

Not as dramatic or catastrophic as the previous few days had been but it was a few more days with Emma and Anthony by my side. I think the challenge really begins when I set out on my own. For me and for Scout. She knows Emma and Anthony best and although we certainly have a bond, she’s very very attached to them too – I think we’re both going to miss them. I don’t know if Scout will be confused or just take it in her stride. She’s going to mental when she sees Emma in London – she’s attending a Dog’s Trust course just in time to see my triumphant return (I hope).

We spent a good few hours in the thermal baths next to the hotel, leaving Scout in the air-conditioned bathroom of our room where she good-naturedly tore the top off her foldy bowl and a few holes in Willow’s old sleeping bag. Sigh. She did very well with the separation and only seemed very excited to see us rather than extremely stressed by the situation – she’s a very independent little thing (street dog smarts) which is good in many ways, but no so much for her recall – it’s good for dogs to have a small amount of dependency on their owners – it strengthens the bond and prevents them straying too far. Hopefully that will come in time. And so will she!

I had a thoroughly unimpressive massage (I need some serious muscle manipulation and this was just firm stroking) and Emma was so mashed about in hers she ached more afterwards. Win some, lose some I guess and we thought sadly about the next day’s parting. I’m anxious to see what this next stage brings. But I’m really going to miss these guys, I only met them a few months ago but we’ve already shared an awful lot. I peed in a bowl in the same van as them for god’s sake (don’t ask but it was the only option available, there were reasons) and you don’t go through stuff like that without ending up pretty darn close. They opened their home to me with astonishing generosity. The same generosity they show every day to the dogs.

They are good peoples. But it’s clear that they can’t go on doing what they’re doing without help. Help from your donations to create safe and secure spaces for the different dogs (they have 70 right now, guys, and they just don’t have the facilities for that), help from the municipality who offer neutering funds and support, and help from volunteers who will work hard and not be afraid to get dirty and exhausted. They never stop. Which is exhausting. This trip is the first time they’ve managed more than two days away from Street Hearts in over a year and it was only possible with help from four lovely ladies – Candy, Laura, Bianca and Monica who stayed to do doggy duty. But, with your donations, there will be secure puppy areas, sick bays, quarantine pens, scared dog rehab areas and a medical and grooming room. Everything will be easier to muck out and keep clean, and the dogs and the people will be happier. So please share this blog, or the others, or the twitter account, and spread the word; a little goes a long way, I can’t believe where we are already! Or where we’ll be tomorrow. Not quite Budapest yet, but it’s close!

The Transfagarasan Thighway 

The Romanian border guards didn’t seem all that interested in Scout’s papers. In fact I’m not convinced they even knew I had a dog in my trailer. I think I just smuggled a dog. We cycled out of the border, the roads lined with Turkish lorries (notoriously dangerous road buddies) but even at 7.30 the heat was beginning to get to us. There were, of course, no cycle lanes and although the roads were ok and not too busy the heat in the end forced us back into the van. We found a petrol station for coffee and wifi and discovered news warnings of Heatwave Lucifer burning its way across Eastern Europe (way to be dramatic and scary, weather guys). We deemed it acceptable to drive the rest of the day. Scout was extremely pleased with the decision. 

My original route through Romania was a completely different one, a ‘shortest, easiest route possible’ one. But Anthony mentioned a very special road that he thought we needed to see; The Transfagarasan Highway. It was out of the way and didn’t fit with my 5 week plan, but it seemed churlish to miss the opportunity and so knowing we had the van I plotted points we would have to drive to make up the time and distance out of the way. I also knew that as the TH was 100 km of nearly 3000m of ascents and descents (as in; it rises up to 2040m altitude but in real terms because of the the hills and nature of the roads you’re actually cycling up hill for 3000m and going down for the same) that it couldn’t realistically be achieved by me without weight reduction.

It’s talked about as one of the world’s best roads to drive, with tens of hairpin bends and 1000ft drops without barriers and breathtaking views. It’s also a lot higher and therefore potentially cooler than anything at sea level so we resolved to give it a go despite the severe weather warnings (again with the dramatics!). 

We drove on to Pitesti and the start of the Highway. It cuts through the mountains north to south and while the south side is a relatively steady straight incline over 70km from Curtea de Arges, the north side squishes all that height into just over 30km. I thought the slow, gradual ascent would be easier but Jeremiah, the Canadian American cowboy we met on our second day in Bulgaria and who had done North to South didn’t think we’d enjoy it all that much. We hoped he was also being dramatic. 
At a busy roundabout in Pitesti we found ourselves behind a couple whose transit had broken down and we hopped out to help push them to safety. Anthony, ever-ready to help, offered them a tow. They were Romanian but she spoke some Spanish and between us we worked out that they lived very close. She hopped in the cab to direct us and Emma sat in the car with the Romanian man. We set off, brimming with the self satisfaction of good Samaritaning when, at the busy round about, the nervous Romanian braked on the tow (more than a few times) and managed to rip the entire engine out of the bonnet. His horn was also broken (along with his windscreen), and he was unable to alert Anthony for a good fifteen seconds as we proceeded to drag his car through the city, and spill its guts out even further. We eventually realised and pulled over. Emma sprang out of the car, desperately trying to suppress her inappropriate giggles as wife called someone and husband cried on his knees in Romanian at the twisted mess we’d made of his car. I thought it was going to be one of those ‘back away slowly, get in the car and leave’ situations as, through tears he detached the tow. But remarkably he began searching for a part of the car that was more solidly attached to the rest of it and insisted we get him home. Emma could not stop giggling. A little more Spanish revealed home was not far and Anthony finished what he’d started, taking off once more only to immediately stop as the bumper tried to abandon ship and had to be stamped on to detach and stuff through the passenger window. We deposited them at their home, wildly unsure if we’d actually achieved any samaritaning to be smug about. Hmmm, on to the highway then. 

At 5pm on Saturday we began the little routine we would become experts at (bikes and trailer in or out of the van) and donned our highvis again and set our lights – it wasn’t dark but it was busy and the roads were small and windy and we wanted to give people as much chance of seeing us as possible. We were warned that weekend Transfagarasan traffic can be a bit silly but we didn’t find it too bad – people seemed to give us as much room as possible. I like to think it’s because they were so very impressed with us. I’d already decided that if we were going to tackle the TH then I would under no circumstances be doing it with my panniers. It was something we could only do with the support van. I would, of course, take Scout but only water and snacks besides her. Our first evening’s ride took us up and around the large lake/reservoir at around 800m. After first rising up above the lake we continued to roll up and down beside it, losing any altitude we gained but it was shady with large trees and smelled piney and fresh and was the first time we’d been cool in days. Anthony leap frogged us to take pictures and check in every so often and just as the light faded we saw him in a grassy lay by next to the river. It was cool and quiet (apart from the rushing river and spirits were high for a 6am start and a push for the top. By my calculations it looked like only 20-25km to the top and nothing much worse than we’d done before just without the relief and rest of the downs that followed the ups on days one and two in Bulgaria. We’d be there in time for lunch we said. That evening we geared ourselves up to bathe in the mountain river. Scout danced around the rocks beside us, never bold enough to take the freezing plunge herself and I recalled all my Welsh sea childhood training but still got brain freeze after dunking my head and trying to wash my hair. Utterly refreshed and invigorated and we slept with our ears and the van doors open to the river. 

The morning was gentle and gradual and we felt like we were making good progress. Although I think Emma struggles with mornings and never quite wakes up until coffee and second breakfast around 9am, Scout absolutely adores the early hours. She naturally wakes me at 5.30 even when we’re lying in and the cool temperatures and a good night’s sleep are the perfect puppy combo – she chews, she zooms, she chases, she does big energetic head booping cuddles, so with the roads quiet and cool I set her running beside the bike. She only tried to drag us across the road twenty times and chase after birds fifteen – if the conditions were right (Emma ahead, no left turns, not too up, not too down) she was a perfect pulling pooch. She needs constant verbal instruction – “good girl! Ah ah! That’s it, stay on target, stay on target, nice, No! That’s it, nicely, ah ah, no birds, stay on target….” She wasn’t actually in shot on the GoPro so I now have about 10 minutes of footage of the road and my handlebar bag that sounds like me self-coaching my tendency to swerve into the road after birds. Nice work. 

After second breakfast the going was much tougher for me. I couldn’t work out why until I eventually stopped to check the tyres and lo and behold the trailer was lopsided – phew. First puncture of the trip and Anthony had my pump with all the rest of my panniers. Not to worry – he was with us in less than ten minutes and I had to deal with my first puncture…or so I thought. I couldn’t find the culprit on the tyre and the inner seemed to have sealed itself again. There was one tyre that had deflated much more than the other when I left it for three weeks so I decided the tube was leaky and I would just swap it for a new one. It seemed to work and we set off again. 

The climbs began to get steeper. The day began to get warmer. We needed to stop every fifteen minutes. At 11.30 I had absolutely nothing left. My legs couldn’t push. We had about 10km to go but were spinning around 4km per hour with breaks for heart-rate steadying and liquorice eating. I dearly wanted to summit by lunch, before the day got too hot and we had to stop for the midday heatwave, but I couldn’t. We took the decision to recharge by the river (even colder up here – my crocced feet went numb in it and Anthony made us sandwiches that I scarfed down and we had a power nap in the van’s suspended bed. Mercifully, clouds started to roll over and the final (actually final) push wasn’t hampered by too much sun and we saddled up yet again, Anthony sending us off with a  trademark “get on with it then!” motivational speech. But it honestly was not that easy. Scout was just such a dead weight and it was too busy to have her walking beside me. We’d shared many a bell ring or helmet nod with cyclists descending and wishing us luck but we eventually started to be overtaken by day trippers with nothing but water bottles and cameras to document their insane cycling prowess. Honest to god some ten year old kid and his dad on mountain bikes just sped past us like they had wings. I couldn’t work it out. The final kilometres absolutely sagged by. I cycled, stopped, calmed my heart rate, and started again, rinse and repeat. We never seemed to be getting closer. The top seemed like it was so near we could touch it but it still evaded us. Very near the top there’s a stretch of road with stalls and food sellers and the traffic grinds to a halt as everyone tries to squeeze past everyone else without falling off the edge. We clung the mountain-side and pushed the bikes. My trailer still seemed to be pulling me backwards and I was aghast at how difficult these final few kilometres were. Did I need to call it quits? Admit that this was too much for a amateur cyclist?

After the stalls we had a drink, took some more pictures with donkeys and set sail for what we hoped was the final final final push, for real this time, no jokes and no stops okay? And remarkably, it was. It absolutely was. We rounded a corner and saw the beginning of the tunnel we knew was the passageway to the north side of the summit and not terribly suitable for cycles and the signal for us to van-up. We did it, and as if it had been patiently waiting for us to finally ascend, the mountain exploded in rain and hail and thunder and lightening and we clamoured to get everything loaded up and out of the storm, me only then realising that the same trailer tyre was again, flat. 

We sat there for the best part of an hour before the weather and the traffic eased and the other side was clearing so we parked in a cliff-side lay by and watched in awe and horror as the entire world queued up to drive to the summit, park for an hour and go back down. Surely the mountain couldn’t hold this many cars? How many of them fall off every year, I wondered. As the day wore on the traffic eased and we walked up to find some overpriced not very great food before settling in for the night. 
That night. Right. Well. That night, at about 2am the thunderstorm came back with a vengeance. The wind, the rain, the lightening, the rumbles of thunder, it all felt a little “get off my mountain” if you’re familiar with the Himalayan folk-lore. While the pass is closed from October to May because of avalanches I wondered what the chances of rock and mudslides were during Summer storms. Anthony wondered the same and Emma, already convinced we were going to be blown straight off our perch, insisted we find somewhere safer. Cue a 3am drive 5km down the highway in darkness and driving rain, me clinging to the back doors and Scout diving under the bikes for cover, Emma buried in her duvet and none of us all that comfortable if I’m honest. 
We saw out the storm next to a raging river but safe from rockfalls and mudslides and cliff drops. The van still rocked in the wind and it wasn’t until 4.30 that the storm finally left us to sleep. The rain continued into the next morning, however, and Anthony and I sat discovering and digging out thorns from the trailer tires and repairing three inner tubes. Three. Eventually we decided to drive back up to our old lay by if it was still there (it was), grab some local bread and cheese and think about cycling down. I was sat typing my blog and Emma was still in her bunk as Anthony made the short trip back up. Now, being in the back of any vehicle means you feel the bumps and turns and turbulence more than in the front. This was very much the case as we drove back up and without even a view out the front, the turns, bumps and bends were…somewhat alarming to us cargo passengers. Emma may have emitted some squeals as we wove our way up but suddenly the van swerved across the road and back three or four times, bikes rocking and bags sliding as Anthony overcorrected and fought with the wheel. I’m not a panicky person. I’m calm in a crisis but I was quite sure we were about to slide over the side of the road and could only hope it was the side without the huge drop. After a few more terrifying seconds we levelled out and progressed more slowly and evenly up the hill, hearts in our mouths, adrenaline shooting through us. When we stopped Anthony’s grinning face popped into the side door and was met with tears from Emma and near hysterical laughter from me. Turns out he’d done a ‘couple of swerves’ because he thought we were being a bit dramatic. We have vowed to get him back for this. And it will be sweet. 
The descent was long and cool but the clouds prevented the views we had been promised. We had to stop every now and then to regain feeling in our fingertips from the constant braking (sharp turns with a trailer are not allowed) but within an hour or so we’d left the mountain behind and found that flat, straight Romania we’d seen a few days ago. It was a strange feeling, watching the altitude drop so effortlessly when I’d fought so hard the day before to make it climb and given the dramatics of the night before it really felt like we were leaving behind an entirely different time and land. 

The Transfagarasan Highway is a road I could and would never have attempted without Emma and Anthony by my side. And I wonder how many dogs have made the trip by bike? Can’t be that many, can it? Apparently it was Jeremy Clarkson who said it was the best road to drive and I’m inclined to disagree with everything he says on principle. It is rather spectacular, I will concede, but actually I don’t need to agree with him – we didn’t just drive the Transfagarasan Highway. We CYCLED it. And it was marvellous. 

And they’re off…and so are the cleats, and the chain…

August 3rd came about entirely too soon. I had one day of bike building and pannier packing and puppy training and nowhere to trial riding the loaded bike and trailer as Emma and Anthony’s roads are hilly and unpaved. ‘It’ll be fine, other people do this too. It can’t be that hard.’ I figured. So Thursday came and we just got in the van and headed to Tsareva Livada train station where Scout was found. It was the first time she’d been back and when she reached the platform she had a rare moment of stillness. It was quite spooky really – she stood and stared out at the tracks for a full 30 seconds before snuffing and trotting back to the bikes. I don’t know enough about how dogs think and remember – they are wonderful examples of living in in the moment – but I’d love to know what that moment was like for Scout. 

People arrived, tv news crews turned up, I was given a charm bracelet, wished good luck by Bulgarians and British ex-pats, offered a ceremonial mouthful of traditional bread and spices (rather wished I could have scoffed the lot but cameras were there and I was feeling a little queasy…) and most wonderfully, Kirsty and Sam, who were holidaying a few hours away and who have kindly lent me their GoPro for the journey, drove to TL for the send off and managed to find the cable I’d forgotten along the way! Heroes. 

So, with camera people satisfied and 35 kilometres to go, Emma, Scout and I set off up the BIGGEST HILL OUT OF ANY TOWN EVER. I’d never cycled with full panniers plus dog trailer but it was remarkably hard going. I just couldn’t seem to get into a rhythm and was working maddeningly hard, followed patiently by about ten locals on their bikes and a few well wishers in cars, watching with mounting concern as I failed to move at more than about 3km per hour. Embarrassing to say the least but when about five minutes up the the hill, I clipped in to my right cleat and found I couldn’t unclip it, my red face wasn’t much to do with the heat. There was no torque on the cleat when I twisted. I could feel it moving on the shoe rather than the pedal and absolutely couldn’t get out. Halfway up a hill. That I was having to grind my way up. I had to stop, my cavalcade drawing to an unimpressed halt while I stood astride the bike and tried to extricate my foot from my shoe while attempting to stop trailer and bike from rolling back down the hill. Seeing my clear distress, everyone came to help, which may or may not have helped (it didn’t really) and my shoe span around on the pedal like some ghost cyclist while I wrestled with it in my socks. It was mortifying. Luckily the cameras had stayed at the train station and my Mr Bean exploits weren’t played on the news later that day. Still, always good to give people low expectations of your ability so you can surprise them with your competence. Well not always. With a good few yanks we pulled shoe off cleat and cleat out of pedal and turns out one of the screws had come out and the other was loose and was utterly useless. Anthony pocketed the pieces, my shoe went back on cleat-less and I was given a push start to get me going, wobbling incompetently into the middle of the road and going so slowly people were walking faster than me. ‘Scout’s going to have to get out for a second.’ I conceded. We were never going to get out of Dodge.

So someone offered to walk with her while I crawled up the hill and with 15kg less I began to make progress, but I was still huffing and puffing when Andy, a local expat on his bike behind me, said ‘can you get into a lower gear?’ Really helpful, Andy, ‘No, I’m on the smallest at the front. And at the back-….Oh, right.’ For those of you who don’t cycle the lowest or ‘Granny’ gear is with the chain on the smallest cog at the front, largest at the back. I’d been riding with my chain crossed and a full seven gears away from the easiest setting. What. A. Kn*b. Suddenly everything was fine and I could spin up the hills without blinking. Scout hopped back in and 30 seconds later the chain popped off. Awesome. A quick stop and reset and I set off with that same miraculous reassurance that you get when your period turns up a day or two after you were convinced you were losing it because you cried at everything that moved and were sure you were a terrible human. Just me? Ok. Well basically I’d spent thirty minutes thinking I’d never leave Bulgaria let alone make it to London and I was going to disappoint everyone and royally embarrass myself. In actual fact, I’d just forgotten how gears work. Embarrassing but not disastrous to the journey.  

After a brief stop in Dryanovo, a final check with Scout’s vet and another flag to add to the trailer we set off again. It was hot, and hard going and I felt the pressure of being followed by un-laden well wishers. Desperate not to look like a complete novice, I kept on pushing and as soon as we were out of the town and on our way we stopped, poured water on Scout and ourselves and made a plan to go slow and steady with regular shade breaks. Our late ceremonial start put us at the hottest time of the day. We had a hilly route and I off loaded the tent and a few bits and bobs to the van to acclimatise to the weight through the terrain. It was tougher than I wanted to admit but I had fuel in my legs and knew that we just needed to keep drinking and cooling down. I was cautious on the downs, horror stories of trailers jack-knifing playing in my head and Emma whizzed ahead to enjoy the breeze when my light flew off just as a car came hooting behind me and I had to travel an extra 30m round a corner before I could stop safely. Emma was no-where to be seen and I quickly propped my bike on the sloping verge and got Scout out to go light-hunting. The bike fell over (again), and flustered and hot I left it and went after the light. Emma, hearing the car’s horn and realising we weren’t following turned around, cycled back up, saw the toppled bike in the verge, and no dog or girl and had a minor heart attack until I answered her panicked reply from round the corner. Sorry, Emma!

As the temperature climbed and we flailed our way up steep sun baked roads we neared Momin Sbor where Emma’s friends live, they’d already offered tea. It was nearing three and the day was punishing us for brazenly cycling in the heat and we diverted to Norma and Gordon’s soon to be B&B and ice cold drinks and, eventually, inevitably, their pool. Scout played with their street dog Wolfie and had her first swim. She wasn’t much of a fan and clung to me like a baby and was fully terrified of the inflatable Orca whale. Two hours of shade and cool and swimming was an astonishing tonic and the final push to Hotnista and Emma’s other friends Jules and Russ’ place flew by. We showered and fed and were eaten alive by mozzies and got a good few hours’ sleep before a 5 am wakeup, a 6.30 departure and the start of a very long, hot day.

We cycled for 5 hours, stopping every so often for water and food, spinning up hills and freewheeling the descents. There were five big climbs of around 200m before the port at Shvistov and we worked through them methodically, seeking water at every small town (sometimes in vain).. We planned to stop at 11 but the small town we got to by that point had no water or cafe to wait out the day and we were forced to push onwards. My Garmin told me it had got to 41 degrees Celsius when we rolled into Alekevo to the sight of a cafe and directions to the village well. Thank god. We had cold drinks and sandwiches and salty crisps and ice cream and were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves as we lay under a tree and hid from the sun. We thought we’d maybe get going again at three. Or four. But those hours came and went and we still couldn’t move. It was around 35 degrees in the shade and we were prisoners to it, venturing out from the shelter of our tree only to buy more cold things and stand in the air-conditioned shop for as long as we could make it look normal. Eventually we tried to get moving around 4.45, Scout ran alongside the bike as we rolled to the water fountain and managed to wrap herself around a bollard when she decided to sprint along the other side of it. Ah yes, lead walking around objects – not something we’ve worked on yet – flying start though, Scout, flying. 

That ascent was hot and difficult. As we rested at the next town Mr Smith pulled up in the rescue van. We replenished our water and made the decision to put Scout in the cab for the next few hours. It was too hot for her but the day was disappearing and we needed to push on to the ferry. Slow and steady, Emma and I found our rhythm and soon enough, Shvistov was in sight, as it cooled (around 7pm) Scout hopped back in and we arrived triumphant to find the last ferry had left and we would have to spend the night at the dock awaiting the 7am crossing. Anthony made us masses of pasta which I struggled to eat in the heat and we settled in to our first night in the van. Sorry, I mean: the most uncomfortable, noisy, sweaty night in the van. Truck drivers who had arrived on the last ferry were having their own private discos and running their engines for the air con and getting drunk and putting the world to rights, the heat was oppressive and inescapable and the mozzies made me itchy and paranoid. Sleep was elusive. I was quite worried about Scout – she’d been warm in the day and hadn’t really had a chance to cool down and was being quite lethargic. I kept squirting water on her and checking her heart rate and when she woke me at 5.30 to pee she was her old self, mesmerised by pigeons, watching everything around her, and giving some right good cuddles. We had a private ferry crossing – no one else wanted to go to Romania at 7 in the morning – and Scout handled her first boat ride (so many firsts for this one) very well. She’s processing new things every day and she does this little jaw chattering movement like she’s working something out or saying ‘ok that’s new, that’s new, how do we feel about that?’ Mostly I think she’s feeling fine about it. A couple of grumbles and woofs when people surprise her but she’s had a wonderfully secure few months at Street Hearts and this is a lot for any pooch to take in. It’s easy to forget how much hard work it is for her, especially as she’s mostly sat in the trailer resisting the urge to chew it apart or jump out…but that alone is pretty amazing. I think I picked a good’un. 

Wifi is scarce everywhere, but I’ll try and fill you in as much as possible. Your donations are making my heart soar each time my phone finds internet. Tune in next time for Romania, disastrous towing and the Transfagarasan Highway to hell.

(This was put together on my iPhone as my ancient iPad gave up – it will not be completing the journey with me I fear…)

London to Bulgaria…again

Because I am not very good at saying ‘no’, I agreed to be part of a festival Parkour Performance team the weekend before I left for Bulgaria. Which meant those last minute trial packs, practicing with all the gear on the bike etc, all those things you’re definitely supposed to do…I didn’t. Oops. What I did do is spend the weekend alternately throwing myself onto a stunt air bag, swinging and jumping around a scaffolding set up and getting soaked through and cowering in a tent. Honestly, the first night it just chucked it down, which you’ll know if you were at any one of the tens of British festivals in the last weekend of July. After a vaguely warm meal I lay on a deflating air bed, that grassy, rubbery, damp-sock smell of wet tents pervading my nostrils and thought….5 weeks. Oh my god. 5 weeks. 
With the last of my phone battery I ordered a lightweight tarpaulin I can use to rig up an additional shelter if I am indeed assaulted by hideous bouts of rain (again, Amazon Prime, god damn you for being so convenient. Pay your taxes, yo.) and then tried to enjoy myself and forget about all the things I still hadn’t got done. I arrived home about 2am on Monday morning and the next 24 hours were spent bike packing and padding, shopping for the last minute things (tea, food for Bob while I’m away, and a tool bag – my new favourite insult), clearing my room so my lovely friend can stay in it and an unexpected gathering of the Lamb flock from its various corners of the U.K. My brother showed up, mum cooked my ‘last meal’ and my Dad surprised me by coming down from Sheffield to join us – I was sleep deprived and definitely cried when I saw him at the door. It was slowly making the entire thing a whole lot more real and a whole lot more serious – I’ve never had a full family send off before!

With the bike box taped up and slid perfectly into the boot of my mum’s car my brother and dad departed and mum looked up how to track my phone while I’m away…we downloaded an app. As long as she doesn’t request a GPS update every 30 mins and it doesn’t drain my battery I guess there’s no harm in letting her track me. She’s survived this long without it though. It prompted discussions of letting me go to school in Swaziland on my own at 16 when mobiles were barely a thing and how she’s always known she couldn’t hold me back from doing the things I want to do, even if they cause her worry. She’s really pleased that Emma and I will be cycling the first five days together with support from Anthony in the van. But she still filled me in on the new I’ve been kidnapped but can’t talk openly code. The old one used to be asking after whichever dog wasn’t actually alive anymore, i.e. ‘Give Jessie a hug,’ ‘I hope Elsea’s feeling better,’ etc. I guess Willow gets to be kidnap code now too… Despite her natural, motherly concerns, (no, pepper spray is illegal, mum, you can’t buy some for me) she promises me that her proper gift will be that she’s not going to worry. I love that.

We got about three hours’ sleep and set off in darkness to Gatwick. Swift, tear-defying goodbyes at the drop off point and then a slightly anxious wait as the oversize baggage guy told me the bike was two kilos overweight and I would need to unpack. ‘But..but…I don’t have any tape, I’ve checked my other bag, the heavy stuff in there is tools and I won’t get them through security. It can’t be that heavy, I can lift it! I weighed it at home!’ Nothing doing. I looked at the box, loath to do a bad job of packing it back up, only just about confident that everything was safe and secure. ‘Is there anything else I can do?’ Apparently if I could get confirmation from the loaders that a 34kg bike box was acceptable to them, there’d be no issue. Cue talking to a couple of really lovely, helpful, understanding, friendly lead agents from easyjet who were already pretty run off their feet with 50 malfunctioning airport equivalents of ‘self service checkouts’. In the end one lady had to go to the office to call the mobile of one of the loaders to warn about a heavy item and she rushed off to do that ‘What’s the time?  Right, I’ve got 5 mins to get you cleared through here, don’t worry, we can do this!’ hi-vis vest disappearing among swathes of people and suitcases. Honestly, that kind of optimism and cheery manner at 4.30 in the morning. That lady was golden, give her a bonus, easyjet! Oversized baggage guy was eventually convinced that the loaders were happy and they must have been because as I boarded the plane, there was Jeeves, proudly standing upright (thank god) on the tarmac, ready to be loaded. Winning. 

An hour or so waiting for an ATC slot meant a cheeky visit to the flight deck (yes, it is probably meant more for kids but they didn’t specify and I got there first). ‘I’m coming home by bike! With a dog!’ – I sounded about eight anyway. The pilot wished me luck and I let the real kids get their kicks – I’m not a monster. 

I arrived at Varna airport to a disconcertingly hot, sunny, day – holiday makers around me ready to swim and tan, me wondering how fast I’d have to pedal to create a cooling wind… Jeeves came out lying on his side and with a few gouges in the cardboard but relatively unscathed I think and Emma and Anthony were there to meet me. We wasted no time in getting the new magnetic signs on the van – Street Hearts ones for them to use on the sides and back and one for K8 and K9 with the awesome new logo my brother made for me. Looking hella professional and like I know what I’m doing. I wonder when the fact that that is not true will come out…

On the drive back we had to stop and pick up a starving blonde girl dog in a lay-by. She’s called Penelope Pitstop in honour of my mother who drove me to the airport and paid for our seaside lunch as a thank you and good-luck to Emma and Anthony. We didn’t arrive at Street Hearts until about 8 o’clock where I was met by, you guessed it, tens of dogs, one of them quite special. There’s only loads of stuff to do before we leave on Thursday morning and I’ve already realised I’m missing a GoPro cable and have no inner tubes for the trailer….the dogs are awake. So am I. Here’s to a productive day.