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…)