Category Archives: Essays
This was no mean accomplishment when you stop to think that at the time Lahaina, in Hawaii, Papeete, in Tahiti, and Nuku’alofa, in Tonga were also in the running. But Levuka in the 1860s was said to beat them all, a veritable honeypot for riff-raff from all over the Pacific – whalers, slavers, outlaws, traders, land speculators, conmen, beachcombers, sailors, deserters and remittance men – famous for drunkenness, lewdness and debauchery. Its harbour in those days was crowded with ships of all nationalities and Beach Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, was a cavalcade of saloons, hotels and brothels. Anything went.
But Levuka’s days as a godless, wide-open town came to an screeching halt in 1874 when Fiji’s self-appointed king, Seru Cakobau, ceded his country to Britain as a way of getting the British to settle some of his government’s outstanding debts. The bustling seaport of Levuka was proclaimed the country’s new capital. British authorities moved in and the good times ceased to roll.
Within a few years – by 1882, in fact – the colonial administration had shifted to Suva and Levuka went into a long, genteel decline. It dozed away much of the 20th century and was still dozing in 1999 when I visited the place, with well-known sea and surf photographer Art Brewer, on assignment for Islands Magazine.
Our story was to be called Adventures in Paradise, exploring the outer islands and inner jungles, getting away from the beaches and the usual maddening coconut-oiled tourist crowd.
As an adjunct to this assignment the magazine’s editor (who, it must be said, apologised profusely for this later) attached us to a press trip organised by the Fiji Tourism Board. Normally she would not have gone the press junket route but since the theme of the junket she’d been offered – Fiji Away From The Beaches – seemed to overlap with our Adventures in Paradise storyline, she decided to sign us up.
Now, if you have never been on a press junket (and I advise you never to go on one should one be offered) let me explain a little about the sorts of freeloading journalists who do go on them – nay, live for them.
Generally they write for travel, wedding or honeymoon magazines you never heard of. Brimming with self-importance, and sporting business cards that introduce them as ‘travel writers’, they belong to every travel writer’s association that will have them as members, and spend much of their time schmoozing any travel industry PR they can find who might have an expense account or a press trip in the making or attending lavishly catered tourism board lunches in their home cities.
Invariably they all know each other having travelled together on many a junket in the past. And as I say, they live for them. Indeed, I suspect may literally be the truth having watched with awe the piles of food some of these freeloading scribes manage to put away at hotel buffets. The vagabonds that came together for this particular junket in 1999 were the very bottom of the barrel: arrogant, demanding, quixotic, selfish, hard-drinking and boorish to an almost unbelievable degree. It was beyond embarrassing to be seen with them.
By the time our not-so-merry little band of scribes were boarding the twin-engine turboprop for the short hop from Suva to Ovalau, Art and I were deep in plotting our escape. That day’s itinerary called for a morning sightseeing walk around Levuka, then a ferry transfer to a $1300-a-day (then!) private island resort for lunch and an evening return to Suva. Art and I, exchanging meaningful looks on the plane, had other plans. Levuka was where we were jumping ship – as many a sailor before us had done.
Any doubts we might have had about the wisdom of our plan were dispelled when we arrived in Levuka itself and saw its incredibly pretty and unspoiled main street, flanked with old buildings and bright with flowers, and the whole of it enveloped by lush green rain-forested hills. We bailed, there and then. While our junketeering friends went on to do whatever they went on to do, Art and I breakfasted at a funky little place called the Café Levuka, on Beach Street – eggs, bacon, papaya slices, with some cool jazz playing on a CD player.
While we were eating we noticed some bicycles in front of a shop a little further down the street, and a sign saying they were for rent. They were pretty dilapidated bicycles, it was true, but bicycles nonetheless and from the map they had in the Café Levuka we saw that a lonely jungle road made a 32-mile loop around the island. It was a hilly island, and the road was said to be rather rough in places, but wasn’t our story supposed to be Adventures in Paradise?
We rented bikes and took rooms at the Royal Hotel, a rambling old colonial structure build in the 1860s that looked like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel, all potted palms and wicker chairs, ceiling fans, an old-fashioned billiard room and a barman who had literally been born behind the bar 58 years earlier. Having dropped off the heavy bags we loaded up camera gear, snacks and bottled water in our knapsacks, hopped aboard our creaky rental bicycles and with an almost Victorian gameness set out to explore the island.
Within an hour we were splattered with mud, pushing our bicycles up a hideously steep jungle track, sweating in the sauna like heat between bursts of torrential rain, while peals of distant thunder promised greater downpours to come. At the top of the grade I paused to try to repair my front brake which had failed so spectacularly on my last, terrifying descent.
As I fiddled with my badly worn cantilever brakes I glanced through the glistening palm fronds, across a grey and rainy sweep of Pacific to the exclusive private island resort where the junketeers were being pampered over lunch and which, sure enough, was enjoying its own exclusive ray of sunshine, illuminating the lush green island like a spotlight.
I used the last, vaguely clean bit of my shirt to wipe the mud from the lip of my water-bottle, my mind conjuring up images of the iterating rum drinks that were no doubt being enjoyed over there, and visions of deck chairs and clean fluffy white towels piled three feet high. A peal of thunder directly overhead brought be back to the vulgar here and now, the rainy jungle clearing and the troubles of the aging bicycle and dodgy brakes. Three scraped knuckles later I was back in business, clattering down another treacherous grade, bouncing pothole-to-rock, eyes wide and feet splayed out like pontoons.
Such seat of the pants travel may have its perils and discomforts but it also has hidden joys as any touring cyclist knows. Seeing the things you would normally miss – in Ovalau’s case the strange (to me) bright-winged jungle birds, the brilliantly metallic dragonflies darting among the roadside flowers, the rich earthy fragrance of the rainforest itself. And of course the ornery independence of getting about under your own steam, village to village, dodging the occasional stray pig, chicken or cow, and observing the world at your own pace.
It was Sunday and the rural valleys were filled with the sounds of hymns rising up from little pastel-coloured village churches. Later, when church was out, we would encounter families walking homeward along the road. Peaceful, smiling, dressed in their Sunday best – the men in crisp white shirts, newly pressed sulus, leather-bound catechisms in one hand, umbrellas in the other – they somehow managed to look as fresh as peeled eggs as they made their way back to their homes, tucked away somewhere back in the rainforest. We looked like drowned rats.
By mid afternoon the sun had burned through the clouds, magnifying the heat and humidity beyond anything we’d experienced thus far. The hills were behind us now. We’d rounded the northern part of the island by then and were on the homeward stretch, spinning along flat coastal road and seafront villages painted in bright pastel hues. Children and dogs played on the beaches, fishermen cast wide looping nets into the sea.
Four o’clock found us pedalling back up Beach Street with a warm soft afternoon breeze at our backs. We were dirty, tired, sunburned, feeling (and probably smelling) like one of the old salts coming into port, with a nice thirst worked up. We dumped our bicycles back at the Royal Hotel, showered and sauntered over to the Ovalau Club – another old colonial relic which opened in 1904 and (back then anyway) didn’t appear to have changed a whole lot. A photograph of King George VI, taken sometime in the late 1930s graced the entranceway and the barroom was festooned with nautical flags and black-and-white photos of old schooners and Catalina flying boats. A ceiling fan stirred the heavy tropical air.
As my aching thighs mellowed out at the bar, I let my mind wander down memory lane thirty-odd years to a New England porch and a stack of paperbacks brimming with tropical adventure and far away places and watering holes just like this one. As my mind wandered, my eye caught on an old sketch on the wall – a faded pen-and-ink portrait of a jaunty man in a pith helmet, a pipe clenched in his strong white teeth, staring into the 1920s as confidently as though he owned them. I raised my glass to him. “You and me both, mate.”
It was a tram driver’s strike in Melbourne back in the early Nineties that got me riding a bicycle again as an adult. I was living in Elsternwick that year, an old bayside suburb in the city’s inner, and catching the ting-a-ling tram down Glenhuntly Road each morning to a fairly dull job writing features for a lightweight, parochial and oh-so-earnest Sunday broadsheet.
I didn’t own a car but relied on shoe leather and public transport to get around and so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going on strike from midnight, and the bus and train drivers agreed to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way in to work.
The twelve-mile round trip between home and office seemed just that bit too far to walk and you could grow a beard trying to catch a cab in Melbourne during the rush hour in those days, any rush hour, let alone one during a transport strike. As I sat at my desk that afternoon pondering my options, the cheeky idea popped into my head that I could always try riding my bike.
I still had a bike, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had somehow never quite had the heart to get rid of either. As far as I knew it was still in working order, buried somewhere deep amongst the clutter in the garden shed. The more I thought about it, the better liked the idea. It might be fun, an adventure, and certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.
When I arrived home that evening I found my old bike and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from years of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back when I was still daydreaming of cycling adventures in Asia, Africa and South America.
This here would have been just the thing to take you wherever you wanted to go, or so the man at the bike shop had assured me: the Gemini World Randonneur. It was the company’s expedition model: pine green with silver mudguards, fifteen speeds, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water bottle cages, drop bars with bar-end shifters and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking for those times when you were descending tricky mountain passes with a load of gear lashed on the back.
Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, this one ran on twenty-six inch tyres, rather an old-fashioned size in those pre-mountain-bike days, but one which was plenty common in the Third World, meaning I could source spares wherever my wanderings took me: from the Bolivian altiplano to the market bazaars of Samarqand. It was that which sold me on the model. I loved that touch of practical worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, seriousness of intent, and set my rugged World Randonneur apart from those tame suburban road bikes you saw tooling around the campus.
But as they say about buying novels, you don’t buy the book so much as the imagined leisure time to read it, and so it must be with expedition bicycles, for the way things panned out I never actually rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways along King Street in the student ghetto around the University of Sydney. I never even put enough miles on it to wear out the original set of tyres. Those same old Michelins were still clinging to the rims all these years later, soft and flabby and grimy with age.
I rummaged around some more in the shed, found my pump and set to work inflating them. Surprisingly enough, the things held air.
They were still plump and firm the next morning, too—disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have some second thoughts about the wisdom of all this. A good many years had passed since I’d ridden a bike, and then it had been mostly just tooling around the University of Sydney campus or riding the bridle paths in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying about in the mean streets of a big city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike.
Having those mouldy tyres deflate overnight—not an unreasonable expectation—would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back away from my brash plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. But the tyres remained firm and the weather outside was gorgeous, a perfect spring day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off, and pride forbade that.
And so after breakfast, with my heart in my mouth, I wobbled out into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, my office clothes folded into a bundle and tied on the rear rack. I headed for the city as a motorist would: straight up the main stem, along the fast and furious Nepean Highway and St Kilda Road.
It was a harrowing ride, peppered with what seemed at the time to be many near-misses, but half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with effort and the exhilaration of danger, I was kind of sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close.
All that day I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with a heady adrenalin-charged stab of eagerness and apprehension. I made it home unscathed, and feeling victorious, and the next morning’s commute wasn’t nearly so fraught. The first-day awkwardness was gone. I felt more assured out there, accepting as a matter of course the stream of cars and their wing mirrors whooshing close by my elbow. Along with this confidence came a certain quiet satisfaction at having taken matters into my own hands, a sense of having reclaimed some part of me that had lain fallow for years without my being aware of it. As I bowled home that evening along the margins of the Nepean Highway, I found myself marvelling that I hadn’t done this earlier.
The trammies went back the following day, but not I. I stayed out and with the money I saved from not buying tram tickets I tricked up my old tourer with a brand new flashing red taillight and a snazzy rear-view mirror. I bought myself a pair of padded shorts and cycling gloves as well, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days, and a pair of sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry—all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and traffic a regular thing.
Over the coming weeks and months I came to know the city streets in the intimate way only a cyclist can. By that I don’t just mean where the potholes were or the misaligned storm drains, but the pulse and mood of the place, the thousand-and-one vignettes and details that pass unnoticed when you rattle by in a tram with your nose in the paper.
Morning commutes were my favourites, when the day was fresh, bright as a newly minted penny and full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d find myself drawn to the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid lines and thermoses of coffee. I’d ride out to the kiosk at the end of the pier, lean my bike against the decorative iron railing and just stand there and watch the city wake up and greet the day, the upper flanks of the Rialto Tower catching the early morning sunshine, and the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge, and the big Tasmanian ferry steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight run across the moody waters of Bass Strait.
Other times I’d veer inland and follow the Yarra River into the city through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Park. Or if I were in a gritty inner-urban frame of mind call in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, and lose myself for an hour in its cheerful ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit and fresh fish and scorched Asian spices. I’d buy a handful of dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, soaking up the ambience and marvelling at all the lives lived out beyond the periphery of my own. It was like being a kid again, this roving around on a bicycle, taking the worm’s eye view. I’d forgotten.
As summer bloomed and the weather became warmer and finer, I found myself toying with the idea of playing hooky sometime; taking French leave from work and swanning off down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine and piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there.
What started out as a bit of whimsy, a wouldn’t-that-be-fun sort of thing, evolved into niggling temptation, which in turn grew into a bold-faced dare: go on, be a devil, do it. I fought the good fight, but in the end the bicycle and its seductive freedom won out, and one sparkling Wednesday morning early in autumn, I bolted.
I phoned in ‘sick’ from a payphone in Frankston, one of the outer suburbs along Melbourne’s southeast flank, and, with baited breath, recited the lie I’d been rehearsing since I veered off course twenty miles back: sore throat, headache, fever—one of those twenty-four hour things, no doubt I’d be fine tomorrow. It was the copy boy I spoke with. He bought my story with touching naïveté, and I rang off feeling mean and low and guilty—and elated and relieved as well, a heady cocktail of emotions. I’d been brought up well, imbued with a doughty middle class work ethic and had never before pulled a sickie, or at least nothing quite so flagrant.
Now the deed was done, the crime committed. Might as well enjoy the fruits of it, come what may. Which I did. I had a wonderful time.
It was lovely down the peninsula: plenty of warm cheerful sunshine, a creamy surf, and the bracing tang of eucalypt in the air. I did a spot of wine tasting at one of the vineyards I passed along the way, had an excellent lunch of fish and chips on a picnic table shaded by Norfolk pines along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a wonderful ice cream parlour.
Later on, at a stylish café in Portsea, over poppy-seed cake and cappuccino, I pondered the remains of the afternoon. I had come a long way and had just as long a ride ahead of me to get home but I was feeling fit and besides, I could always bail out at Frankston, if I had to; catch a train back to the city from there if it was getting too late or too dark. With that as my fall-back net, I reckoned I could afford to venture all the way down to Cape Schanck, the wild, windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula, another ten twelve miles further south.
I’d never been there before. I’d understood it was beautiful, haunting in its loneliness with its weathered lighthouse overlooking the moody waters of the Southern Ocean. And so it proved to be. And on a midweek autumn afternoon I had the place all to myself, too just me and a few wheeling gulls and the hollow boom of the surf far below. I sprawled on the clifftop for a long dreamy while, well satisfied, gazing into the violet haze, letting my mind tinker with the notion that the next landfall from here would be Antarctica and, like a kid, imagining myself going there one day.
After a while a sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch, but from the angle of the sun, and the increasing honeyed quality of the light, it was clear that afternoon was on the wane. Time was getting away from me. It was still a solid thirty miles back to Frankston and if I wanted to get there before dark (which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp) I’d best get cracking. And so with a wistful but contented sigh I picked up my trusty World Randonneur and pushed off.
Not many yards later I heard a hiss as my rear tyre went flat. An annoyance, to be sure, but hardly the end of the world since like any seasoned cyclist I carried a pump, tyre levers and a patch kit. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, and a few minutes later, patched and pumped, I was on my way once more. But not for long. Within thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again.
I dismounted, a bit peevish this time, removed the wheel and peeled off the tyre, thinking that I must have overlooked a piece of grit or shard of glass embedded in the rubber, allowing it to re-puncture the tube. I ran my fingers around the lining, in a cursory sort of way and, feeling nothing, shrugged and chalked it up to experience and bad luck. Whatever was in there must have fallen out. I fixed the flat, replaced the wheel, put away pump and patch kit, and mounted up again. Less than a minute later I was standing once again in the tall grass along the roadside, hands on hips, glaring at yet another flabby rear tyre.
This was losing its charm. I cast my eyes around to see if there were tacks or thorns or something scattered on the road, but all I saw was the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the—what?—one car a day that came along this dead-quiet ribbon of bitumen. Lordy, how unlucky was that? Like getting hit by a meteor, or spontaneous combustion, or getting three punctures in less than a hundred yards for no particular reason. I shook my head at the improbable wonder of it all and gave him a sympathetic nod. “You and me both, brother.”
I sat down on the gravel with a heavy put-upon sigh and peeled off the tyre yet again, this time giving the flabby rubber the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Remember, these were the same tyres I’d had in college all those years ago, the ones on which I was going to ride off to Zanzibar or down the Silk Road. Sturdy things, just like the man said. I’d been riding around on them in the city for months now without a flat. They’d remained plump and firm and so reliable that I’d forgotten all about them. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres, and here on the lonely Cape Schanck road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon and miles from anywhere, I made the belated discovery that my globe-trotting Michelins were finally, at long last, well and truly shot—beyond repair.
The front one was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear had frayed through completely. I could patch that inner tube as many times as I liked, but with the tyre holed like that, the first stray piece of grit that came along would get in and puncture the tube again. What I needed was a new tyre or, failing that, at least some flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed bits in the old one. I had neither. I toyed with the idea of using the snake but he was too far gone. The ten-dollar bill I’d frittered away on coffee and cake back in Portsea might have done for a make-shift tyre plug, but of course I’d spent that. All I had on me was coins and plastic, and this was one hole my VISA card couldn’t bail me out of.
It was eight miles to Rosebud, the nearest town, over on the bay side of the peninsula. They might have had a bike shop there where I could buy a tyre, but I doubted it, not in a sleepy little berg like that—and, oh, the sweet irony of it all, if there was a shop they almost certainly wouldn’t have a twenty-six inch tyre to suit my expedition rims; I needed to be on the Silk Road for that. But supposing there was a bike shop in Rosebud, and they did have a suitable tyre, it was still too late in the day to do me any good. They’d have long rolled down the shutters by the time I got there.
With luck I could probably scrounge something at a petrol station, a bit of rubber or plastic with which I could line the tyre well enough to carry on, but that would still leave me with at least a twenty-five mile ride into Frankston, at night, with no lights and dodgy tyres, and on the narrow, fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning—maybe.
A sickly smile crossed my face as I thought of everybody back in the office, packing up for the day right now, easy of mind, clear of conscience, looking forward to home and hearth, an evening of TV and off to bed. How I wished I was there. I could have been. Should have been, too. My inner Calvinist rose up with smirking glee: serves you right, bucko; here’s the old cosmic payback for the lies, the shirking, and the theft of a day’s pay: the absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, receives his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery and danger, muttering curses, prayers, and mea culpas every inch of the way.
Not a bit of it. Instead I made my best discovery of the summer, a sublime truth that would sustain and embolden me through many a cycling adventure and misadventure in the years to come: God, it seems, truly does look after children, drunks and tramp cyclists. No sooner had I begun the heavy-hearted trudge to Rosebud when I heard the distant purl of a car engine, the first such sound in what seemed like hours. I turned, hope and presentiment rising within me, to see a battered old Holden top the rise. The driver slowed as he drew abreast then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder a few yards up the road, his brake lights aglow.
It was then I noticed the bicycle rack on the rear.
A lanky young Catholic priest climbed out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic smile, as though he were sorry for having not arrived a little sooner.
“Hello, there!” he called as he approached. “Trouble?”
I nodded, staring as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.
He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and its threadbare tyres, sighed and shook his head. “It looks pretty final to me. How about I give you a lift to Frankston?”
I gave a feverish laugh, then sprang to life, eager to strap my bike onto that rack before this miraculous apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and an hour later I was standing beside my bicycle on the city-bound platform of the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.
I was back in the city by a fashionable hour, sooner in fact than if I had never had any of that flat tyre business. I bought myself a new pair of Michelins at a late-opening bike shop in town and toasted the sweetness of my escape over dinner that night with a fine bottle of merlot from one of the vineyards I’d seen down there on the Mornington Peninsula.
But the dice of God are always loaded, as the old saying goes. That beatific smile I’d been wearing on the Frankston railway platform wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. When I swanned into the office the morning after, as neatly recovered from my recent malaise as though I’d been to Lourdes, I was sporting a beautiful set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been. The real moral of the story? Seize the day, by all means. Get out there. Lie, cheat and shirk if you have to. All will be forgiven. It is a big beautiful world out there, rich in possibility and ripe for discovery and Heaven knows there’s no finer way to see it than from the saddle of a bicycle. But all the same, do not tempt the Lord thy God, as the Good Book says, for he clearly Hath a wicked sense of humour. So check your treads before you go, keep something in your tool kit you can use to plug a holed tyre if need be, and no matter what, always, always, always remember the sunscreen.
At long last some warm weather, with out temperatures skyrocketing into the mid-70s this weekend and even warmer weather predicted for the coming week. And with this belated arrival of summer and warm July nights the flower of Hastings youth comes into its own, helped along on this particular Friday-night/Saturday-morning combo by the Hastings beer festival taking place down in the park. They were all out this morning, full of piss and vinegar, having not yet been to bed.
As I spun along Bexhill Road at half past four this morning, with visions of an early morning jaunt up onto the South Downs and a return along the cliff-tops at Beachy Head, I was treated to a stream of drunken invective from two staggeringly drunk yobs who were wending their way…somewhere. It’s been a while. I’d forgotten about this aspect of summer; the sultry July nights and the drunks.
One of them lurched onto the road in what, I guess, was at attempt to grab me or knock me off my bike. It seemed to be his intention although the meaning of his slurred obscenity-laced outburst was a little unclear. I carved a wide sweep around him – thankfully no traffic at that hour – and sped on by. When I glanced over my shoulder to see what he had made of this, his latest failure in life, I noticed he had dropped his trousers and was taking a dump in the middle of Bexhill Road, his beer bottle beside him.
Where, oh where, are the fast and careless drivers when you want them?
Happily the conurbation that is Hastings is fairly easy to escape and it wasn’t long before I found myself spinning through the wide open spaces of the South Downs, with sheep dotting the pastures and the purplish hills beckoning in the distance. Once away from town it was a lovely ride: seventy beautiful invigorating miles. The air was cool and fresh, the roads invitingly open, and as the sun climbed higher the horizons took on a pleasing painterly effect. I hadn’t ridden up this way for a long time and even now as I sit here writing about it I wonder why not. It was a wonderful escape – town, the drunks, the work piled up on my desk back home, all forgotten in the simple pleasure of a bike ride
On the way back home, as I pedalled up and over Beachy Head I looked back to see the highway snaking away behind me and the chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters in the distance. Something about this view just summed up the ride for me. I stopped and set up my camera and tripod and listened carefully in the big hush to hear if there were any cars coming, for I was going to have to leave my camera and tripod unattended for a while and be rather far away to get the shot I wanted.
All was happily silent. I set the timer for a thirty seconds and, with heart in mouth, launched myself down the hill, pedaling fast, trying to get into place on the curve when the shutter went off. The gamble worked. I put myself in the frame where I wanted to be and nobody came along and swiped my camera. I liked the result. I can look at it here, back at home, with the cares of a work day ahead and relive something of the freedom of bicycling along the South Downs.
This past week I wrote a short piece for the National Geographic Newswatch website about a new scientific study into the physiology of extreme ultra-marathon mountain runners. Curiously enough it found that athletes who ran 200-mile races, such as the Tor des Geants in the Italian Alps tended to finish up fresher and with noticeably less muscle fatigue and tissue damage than those who competed in much shorter races.
The thinking seemed to be that pacing and the body’s own defence mechanisms to sleep deprivation were the main factors in preserving muscle tissue in these extreme events – but this is only by-the-by in terms of this post. As part of my research for the story I interviewed a world renowned ultra-marathoner named Dean Karnazes who, aside from being quite a nice guy, seems to have just about done it all in terms of extreme long-distance running – doing 50 marathons in 50 days (and in 50 states), crossing the Gobi Desert, the Sahara Desert, the Atacama Desert in Chile and of course America’s own Death Valley, which has been much in the news this week with its 128F temperatures.
Indeed, later this month he will be running Death Valley again as a participant in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, billed as the word’s toughest footrace. As we were chatting about running in general, seguing a bit from the immediate interview topic at hand, I found myself thinking rather wistfully of the long ago days of the 1970s when I used to do a lot of long distance running, turning in creditable marathon times and having fond aspirations of competing in some of the great mountain running events – the Western States 100 being one of my favourite daydreams, running a hundred miles through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and earning the coveted silver belt buckle for those who finish in under twenty-four hours. I was pretty sure I could have done it too.
Alas I was pretty much penniless in those days and, living on the opposite side of the country, three thousand miles away in New Hampshire, I couldn’t have afforded even to get myself to the starting line. By the time I did have that kind of disposable income my life had taken a different turn, I was living on the far side of the globe and the old aspirations had faded. “Well, it’s never too late,” Dean said encouragingly, clearly detecting the wistfulness in my manner when he revealed he had done the Western States twelve times.
Perhaps. Maybe further down the track. At the moment though, inspired by my chat with Dean, I’ve set myself a couple of closer-to-hand goals, ones more in keeping with my cycling personae. It has been a couple of years since I have ridden a century, and a very long while since I did a double. I think I will set myself a target of doing both of these things in the near term.
The century should be no trouble – I went out for a ‘tester’ spin of a bit over sixty miles the other day on my Pegoretti and came home much quicker than I expected, feeling refreshed and animated and keen. I’ll chalk in the century for later this month, perhaps on the 9th anniversary of the badly ruptured disc and emergency spinal surgery that nearly ended by cycling career, but didn’t. The double should be a good test of character for later this autumn – one I am looking forward to. It is nice to have goals.
This past week I found myself thinking of Clancy of the Overflow, one of Australia’s most iconic poems. Written in 1889 by A.B. Banjo Paterson, a country-bred Sydney lawyer who romanticised the bush, it tells of his own wistfulness at the thought of the big, bold freewheeling life being led by a drover named Clancy, who was at that moment out roaming the vast Queensland outback while he sat in his city office hemmed in by work and worry. I think I understand now just how he felt.
What prompted my own sudden burst of appreciation and wistfulness for the sunburnt Queensland plains was an e-mail I received from a couple (from New Hampshire, of all places!) who are circumnavigating Australia by bicycle and wanted some route advice. Having ridden from Sydney up to Brisbane and on to the Sunshine Coast along the main coastal highway, and not enjoying the traffic one little bit, they were keen to find an alternate, less harrowing route to take them on to Cairns, a thousand miles (and more) to the north.
I could wholly sympathise with their plight. When I made my journey around Australia I too tended to hug the coast, more or less, all the way up to Rockhampton – the first thousand miles or so of my journey. Much of it was unpleasant, particular in the heavily built-up southeast corner of Queensland, from Coolangatta and the Gold Coast through Caboolture and the Sunshine Coast and on up to Gympie. It was nightmarish. The roads were narrow, potholed, busy with fast moving traffic and, what’s more, they generally had no view of the sea. Before I’d started out, when the trip was still a dream, I’d imagined myself riding along one glorious corniche after another, with white sand and the gorgeous blue expanse of the Pacific stretching away to my right. But it just wasn’t so.
To be sure, you could turn off at places and find lovely beaches, and that made a nice enough break now and then, but there was no getting away from the fact that all of your northward progress had to be made on a major truck route and through this deeply unpleasant tide of traffic. I hated it. If there was one part of my journey I could do over differently, it would be this initial stretch, up the eastern seaboard, no doubt about it.
And so when this e-mail lobbed in, presenting me with a chance to recommend, I put aside my more pressing work and instead waded into Google maps and some of my own happy recollections of the mythical Queensland outback I travelled through years later when I did a story on Banjo Paterson for National Geographic. Go inland, I urged them. Forget the coast. There’s nothing for you there but the well-trodden tourist route.
Be different. Cut through the Glass House Mountains and keep on going west, over the ranges, perhaps even as far inland as far as Roma, three hundred miles into the bush, and then head north along the lonely outback highways to Emerald and on up to Charter’s Towers and then either return to the coast at Townsville or stick to the bush some more, and from Charter’s Towers follow the old roads up into the rainforests in the Atherton Tableland and then drop down to Cairns and the citified coast. Even as I was writing these things I could feel myself growing wistful, wishing it was me that was going, and had the sunny freedom to follow my own advice.
Don’t know if the couple I wrote to will ever do that, probably not. Couldn’t blame them. The sea and the coast, and the desire to miss nothing and tick all the familiar eastern seaboard boxes is a powerful lure. It was for me. And who’s ever heard of Roma, or Emerald or any of the other crossroad specks on these dusty Queensland highways? All the same I like to imagine them doing that, and like A.B. Paterson at his desk like to imagine having the opportunity to do it myself.
For those of you who have never read Clancy of the Overflow, here it is. And if you would care to read my National Geographic feature on Banjo Paterson, you can do so here.
Clancy of The Overflow
I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan years ago;
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just on spec, addressed as follows, “Clancy, of The Overflow.”
And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar);
‘Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
“Clancy’s gone to Queensland droving, and we don’t know where he are.”
In my wild erratic fancy, visions come to me of Clancy
Gone a-droving “down the Cooper” where the Western drovers go;
As the stock are slowly stringing, Clancy rides behind them singing,
For the drover’s life has pleasures that the townsfolk never know.
And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plain extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
Ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,
And the foetid air and gritty of the dusty, dirty city,
Through the open window floating, spreads it foulness over all.
And in place of lowing cattle, I can hear the fiendish rattle
Of the tramways and the buses making hurry down the street;
And the language uninviting of the gutter children fighting
Comes fitfully and faintly through the ceaseless tramp of feet.
And the hurrying people daunt me, and their pallid faces haunt me
As they shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste,
With their eager eyes and greedy, and their stunted forms and weedy,
For townsfolk have no time to grow, they have no time to waste.
And I somehow rather fancy that I’d like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal
But I doubt he’s suit the office, Clancy, of The Overflow.
I slept well on the deck that night. I pegged out a darkened nook up near the bridge in which to throw down my bedroll roll, and after snuggling in, let the lateness of the hour and the rolling of the ship lull me to sleep. A stiff and surprisingly chilly breeze was blowing out at sea, and unlike the stuffy night on the ferry out of Trieste, I was glad to have my sleeping bag around me. When I woke, it was morning. The sea was dead calm, and we were chugging around a breakwater and into the harbour at Mytilene.
It was a pretty town, the biggest on the island, with an old Byzantine castle and a great domed church and a sprawl of rooftops draped over a series of hills. From here it would be only a short hop across the Mytilini Strait to Turkey, whose wooded coast had been visible in the salt haze before we turned into the harbour. It was already too late to catch the daily boat to Ayvalik, not that that bothered me much. I had a fine summer day before me, a Greek island and a bicycle – three things I thought I just might be able to combine to good effect. I bought myself breakfast and a map and set off to explore the island.
What a lovely place. The tourist map described it as mountainous, and I suppose it was, in a way, but nothing that was going to put the wind up anybody who’d just ridden their bicycle over Katara Pass. It was its olive groves, rather than its hills, that stuck in my memory, and the ancient ruins dotted about the place, and the crescent beaches and the long views of pretty little churches and towns, and the dazzling sun and the faultless blue sky overhead. I had a glorious day, even if it didn’t bring me a single pedal stroke closer to Istanbul.
I rolled back into Mytilene in the twilight, in time to see a succession of colours reflecting in the mirror smooth harbour – crimson, gold, mint green, peacock blue and finally a rich luminous violet after the sun had finally set. The air was still and warm, and little silver fish splashed in the water.
The next morning I caught the motor launch to Ayvalik.
The Turkish customs office on the wharf at Ayvalik was a run-down room in which a couple of stern-looking officials with thick black moustaches sat at a wooden table, stamped your passport and waved you through. And once you stepped through the door on the far side of the room, and out into the street, you were in no doubt that you’d left Europe behind and had arrived in Asia – or the Near East, as the old-time travellers used to refer to this part of the world.
I made my way up the crowded thoroughfare, found a bank, and withdrew some few millions of Turkish lira – one lira, I gathered, as I trousered the seven- and eight-figure notes, didn’t take you very far in Turkey these days. With my newfound millions I bought myself a stash of dried apricots, almonds, figs, dates, and pistachios, and while I was at it, acquired a map of the roads around Balikesir Province – the hinterland I needed to find my way through in order to get from Ayvalik to Istanbul.
All the way across Greece, whenever I mentioned that I was heading for Turkey, a look of alarm would register on the face of whoever I was talking to, heads would shake and straight away would come the horror stories of solo travellers robbed, murdered or, more creepily still, vanished without a trace on its lawless roads; Turkey, I was assured, was an extremely dangerous country in which to travel alone, especially on a bicycle.
Here in Ayvalik, on the other hand, the old shopkeeper who sold me the map expressed his heartfelt relief and astonishment that I had made it through Greece without being robbed, drugged, having my throat slit. “My friend,” he said resting a paternal hand on my shoulder, “you do not know how lucky you are. But not to worry. You made it. Now, at least you are in a safe country. Be glad of that. Turkey is a very safe place. Not at all like Greece. Nobody will harm you here.”
In point for fact, for all their mutual antipathy, you could hardly find two nicer sets of people or friendlier countries in which to travel by bicycle. I lost count of the cold drinks that were pressed upon me as I pedalled through Greece, the waves, the smiles, the cheerfully tooted horns, the good-natured greengrocers who’d throw in for free a couple extra peaches or apples or whatever it was I was buying, and then insist on washing everything for me before I took it away.
And now it was the turn of the Turks in rural Balikesir. It followed a pattern: each of these villages had a sort of dusty, hole-in-the-wall cantina where the menfolk would congregate, sitting around on plastic chairs or overturned buckets, smoking, chatting, and drinking glasses of hot sweet tea. An ornery looking lot they were as a rule, some of them, shepherds with flocks to mind, with stubby shotguns slung over their shoulders and donkeys tethered nearby; in appearances the very incarnation of the sorts of brigands the Greeks warned me about, but in fact were the salt of the earth.
You couldn’t ride through their villages without the lot of them jumping up, all hail-fellow-well-met cheer, waving and beckoning, motioning you to come over and join them. And when you did chairs were dragged out, tea was served, sometimes bread and pistachios as well, and although I knew no Turkish and they, as a rule, knew little or no English, the general air of camaraderie transcended the boundaries of language.
We communicated by smiles and nods, raised glasses, the odd word in English, French or German, and a sort of charades. They obviously did not get many foreigners passing through these parts, certainly not on bicycles, and so were keen to make a good impression on the one that did. They wouldn’t take any money for the tea, or anything else that was served up – not that it would have been easy to figure out who to pay, since these little cantinas were generally pretty informal places, with everybody seeming to serve themselves out of a samovar that was often-as-not fabricated out of a bunch of old olive oil tins that had been soldered together.
Since everyone seemed to want their turn at standing the stranger a drink, I often found myself sipping my way through six or eight glasses of tea before I could take my leave. It could take forty five minutes to pass through a single village. And then, next thing you know, a couple of miles later you’d be cresting a rise or rounding a bend and find yourself coming into another dusty wide-spot with its own hole-in-the-wall cantina, and another group of tough, kindly, villainous-looking men loitering about on plastic chairs, calling out and waving you to come over and join them.
Sometimes, in the more prosperous villages, there would be a second cantina or even a third, and as the minor celebrity of the moment you’d be obliged to make the rounds.
All this made for very slow going. But then I was in no hurry, and growing less so by the mile as the distance to Istanbul wound down and the end of the trip drew near. The greedy urge to gobble up scenery that had powered me across Austria, and Slovenia, and the Plains of Thessaly was gone now. In its place was a leisureliness, a reluctance to bring the journey to a close and surrender the picaresque freedoms of life on the road – especially here in Turkey where life was indeed so easy and picaresque.
The weather remained hot and sunny, the backroads dead quiet, the hospitality out of another age. Fruit and nuts were cheap to buy at roadside stands, and the blackberry brambles I was continually seeing draped over dry stone walls were heavy with ripe, plump late-summer fruit, there for the picking. What was not to like? And so I dawdled.
But even the most desultory progress is still progress. And three nights after I’d landed at Ayvalik I found myself camped in sweet-scented scrub on a hillside above a village not too far from Gönen, in far northern part of the province, listening to the tinkle of goat bells nearby and the muezzin’s wail from the village mosque, and realising as I looked over my map and planned the next day’s ride that I was now within unavoidable striking distance of Bandirma, the coastal city on the Sea of Marmara, from which I’d intended to catch the ferry into Istanbul proper and avoid its messy suburban sprawl. This time tomorrow I’d be in Istanbul, journey’s end; this was my last night on the road.
To travel hopefully is better than to arrive, or so Robert Louis Stevenson tells us in the forward to his Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes. And so it may be, but all the same to arrive in Istanbul on a warm, hazy, late-summer afternoon, on the bicycle you’ve pedalled from home, is a pretty fine thing too.
I threaded my way up from the ferry landing, through the Byzantine alleys of the old quarter, and across the Galata Bridge to the European district. I was headed for the Pera Palas Hotel, the classic finishing-up point for travellers on the Orient Express back in the day.
I’d have loved to have checked in there myself, and would happily have splurged on a room if I could, but alas it was peak season and travelling by guess and by golly as I had, rambling about on no fixed schedule, I’d no reservations and so a drink at the Orient bar was the best I could manage.
The hotel’s doorman was accommodating enough to find a secure place for me to leave my bike – grand hotels are good about things like that – while I dug out a pair of trousers and a rather dressier than usual linen shirt I’d saved for the occasion and slipped into the men’s room to change.
The bar was quiet. It was that time of day. I had the place nearly all to myself, the only other patrons being a middle-aged English couple a few empty tables away who, by the sounds of their conversation, had just flown in from Gatwick that morning. Having dropped off their suitcases and freshened up in their room, they were now conspiring agreeably over guides books and brochures, planning their first afternoon’s sightseeing and, just like me, basking in the hotel’s redolence of nostalgia and travel as it used to be back the grand old days.
It was pleasantly strange, if a little unsettling, to hear them speak so casually of the flight out here and to realise they’d left England only a few hours earlier. I’d grown used to Istanbul’s feeling further away than that.
I finished my beer and ordered a second, pleased to see that when the waiter brought it he hadn’t neglected to bring along another of those classy little bowls of nuts and nibblies that had accompanied the first. I was in no hurry to go anywhere; I’d done my dash. After scribbling off a couple of postcards and wrapping up a final entry in my little hardback journal I took great pleasure in breaking out the tatty secondhand copy of Around The World in Eighty Days I’d stumbled across at that book shop back in Volos.
I’d been looking forward to this.
How many times as a kid had I lazed on the porch reading this book, wishing I could have adventures too, just like they did back in the Golden Age of Travel, when the going was good and the world was wide. And now here I was sitting in the Orient Bar at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, having pedalled all the way here on my bicycle, across the whole grand tableau of Europe – the very incarnation of the lyrical old-style sort of travel I’d had in mind.
Yet even then I hadn’t realised how fully I’d succeeded in bringing it alive. The penny dropped at the start of Chapter Four, a casual reference to something that caught my eye and made me laugh out loud. I lowered the book, and glanced around the room eyes alight, wanting to share the joke, the sheer poetic truth of it all. By golly, I’d done it. I really had. I’d travelled precisely in the manner of those old-time Victorians: often in error but never in doubt. And I’d done it right from the get-go, too.
Phileas Fogg hadn’t left from Folkestone at all. He sailed out of Dover.
I’d been pedalling across Europe for some weeks now, travelled about fifteen hundred miles through nine countries and in that time seen what I considered to be my fair share of hills, from that puffy little rise on the way to Parenty my first day on the road, to those tortuous grinds in the Ardennes to that endless upward crawl to Zuflucht in the rain that day in the Black Forest to the previous day’s long hot thirsty climbs through the scrub along the Greek-Albanian border, but it turned out that all these challenges had been merely the opening acts, the warm-up if you will, for the journey’s main event, the hors category monster that lay in wait on the road out of Ioannina.
I’d no idea, of course. Everything I knew about Greek geography you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, and my cheap and cheerful road map of Epirus hadn’t enlightened me much. A squiggly line of road was all it showed and I assumed that to mean another day of moderately strenuous ups and downs, pretty much a reprise of the ride from Igoumenitsa and so I set off from Ioannina full of jaunty high spirits, blissfully ignorant of the Pindus mountains up ahead, sometimes known as the ‘spine of Greece’.
It was another fine day, hot and sunny and not a cloud in the sky. I topped up my water supply at a grocery shop on the edge of town, bought and ate a fresh hot flat-loaf of olive bread from the baker’s for breakfast, and thus fortified began the climb up the long slow grade out of Ioannina, admiring the view over the lake as I went. The first inkling I had that this was not going to be a day like yesterday came a few miles down the track, when I’d already been up and over one tougher-than-expected climb and was beginning the day’s second hard upward slog.
Another of these hospitable Greek motorists had slowed beside me to offer me a bottle of water, and while he was about it asked, in concerned tones, if I realised that the road ahead continued to climb like this for the next thirteen kilometres. I hadn’t known that, but I shrugged and smiled as though it were all in a day’s work and thanked him for the gift of the water. I tucked the bottle in my jersey pocket and waved him on, hoping that I’d misheard that bit about the thirteen kilometres; this gradient was damned steep.
In point of fact, I had misheard him. He hadn’t said thirteen at all: he’d said thirty. And at that, he was low-balling it. It turned out to be nearer thirty-five kilometres of solid upward slog from where he spoke to me to the top of Katara Pass, the notch in the as-yet-unsighted mountain range into which I was heading.
On and on it went, that steep, narrow precipice road winding around one shoulder of the mountain after another, angling ever higher. Every now and then I’d look up from my toils, hoping to see some sign that this grade was coming to an end, only to see instead the twinkle of a distant car moving upward across a seemingly inaccessible cliff face far away and far above and realise with sinking heart that there was at least that much further to go. And when at long last you reached the point where that sparkle of car had disappeared from view, and rounded the next, you’d see another long serpentine rise up the mountain, and perhaps again the distant twinkle of a car much, much higher yet.
I’d lapsed into reverie and was musing over the ancient Greek legend of Sisyphus, how he had been condemned Zeus to keep pushing a huge rock up a hill for the rest of eternity, and wondering if this was the road that had inspired the story, when I noticed a sign up ahead for a turn off to a village called Metsovo. The side road dipped invitingly. I could see Metsovo’s red tile roofs down amongst the trees and imagined the cool shade in its village square. Sisyphus mightn’t have been entitled to take a break, but I sure was.
Metsovo turned out to be as cool and shady and invitingly old-fashioned as I’d imagined, with little old Greek ladies in black dresses and scarves tending terraced herb plots beside their houses, and gruff old men in smoking in front of cafes. I bought myself a couple bottles of water, some more peaches, a slab of local cheese and bread, propped myself up against the base of a tree, settled in with a book – and, well, before I knew it the afternoon sort of slipped away.
Looking up, around four or so, with the light sweetening and shadows lengthening around me, and contemplating the uphill slog I faced just to get back to the main road, I decided I’d make this a two-day hill, establish my advance camp here for the night and mount my final assault on the summit in the morning.
I woke to the tinkling of bells and the clatter of many little hooves as a shepherd drove his flock up the narrow stone passageway that ran just outside the window at the guest house where I’d put up for the night. I rolled out of bed and peered out the window at the cool damp of a mountain morning. Time for Sisyphus to be up, shoulder his boulder and set off to his hill. I filled up my water bottles, and pedalled back up to the main road.
A dense and clammy mist had enveloped the mountains during the night, reducing visibility to practically nil. There was no traffic at this hour, nothing stirring at all, just me and these cold, grasping fingers of mist and a few visible feet of bitumen which I followed upwards, curve after curve until at last a road sign materialised – Katara Pass, elevation 1690 metres. I glided to a halt beside it, feeling like a conqueror. I broke out a chocolate bar to celebrate, and ate it in the ghostly stillness, the hush broken only by the tinkling of a goat’s bell somewhere out there in the mist.
It was cold up there once you’d stopped pedalling. I shrugged into my fleece to keep from becoming chilled and in preparation for what I expected would be a brisk and breezy descent. They’d told me back in Metsovo that it would be all downhill once I’d cleared the pass. They weren’t kidding. I barely had to touch the pedals for the next thirty miles.
By any reckoning it was a spectacular stretch of road, plunging like a cataract down the mountainside in a series of fast tight S-bends. As the mists lifted, and the road dropped, stomach-fluttering views opened up beside me of rocky gorges hundreds of feet deep and yawning precipices and crumbly curves where guard rails might profitably have been placed, but weren’t.
As I pumped my brakes and averted my eyes, I thought of Federico Bahamontes, winner of the 1959 Tour de France, and a man who, although he was a brilliant out-of-the-saddle climber was such a nervous descender that once, after handily beating the peloton to the top of the Galibier, he astonished spectators by pulling over and spending the next few minutes idling about the summit, licking an ice cream cone, and waiting for the others to catch up so he could descend the mountain in the psychological safety of the pack. I knew just how he felt. But I had neither ice cream nor company, just the swift silent pull of gravity to keep me warm and interested.
Thirty miles spun by in a blur, and as the landscape eased and relaxed around me, so did I – pedalling now and again to maintain my momentum, booming along out of the mountains and on to the broad sunlit Plains of Thessaly, the so called breadbasket of Greece, with nothing but farmland stretching before me now clear to the Aegean Sea.
I made brisk time. The roads down here were busy, but miles flew. I’d clocked my century for the day, and more, by the time I reached the town of Larissa – birthplace of that famous heel, Achilles – but there was still plenty of daylight in the sky so after threading my way through its tangle of streets, I pressed on, my sights on Volos.
I got there just on dusk, with the lights twinkling on the hillsides above the town and the harbour shimmering a luminous violet-blue in the afterglow of the sunset. I found a cheap hotel a couple of streets back from the waterfront and after stowing away the bike, treated myself to a slap-up dinner of fried calamari with all the fixings at a open-air place along the promenade, and waded into it with the gusto of a man who’d clocked a hundred and fifty miles on the day. In the morning I’d trot down here to the harbour, first thing, and check out the ferry possibilities for island-hopping across the Aegean.
Volos, as I’d surmised from seeing it on the map, is a busy seaport and had quite a decent selection of ferry services out to the islands, most them scuttling back and forth to a nearby island group called the Sporades, but one that went all the way out to Mytilene on the far side of the Aegean and just off the Turkish coast. That looked like the one for me. Trouble was, it didn’t leave until two o’clock in the morning, giving me plenty of time to kill here in Volos.
I spent the forenoon browsing around the town and found a bookshop that had a gratifyingly decent stash of English-language paperbacks, quite a few second-hand. My afternoon read-a-thon in the shade at Metsovo had left me low on reading material, and now with another long day of leisure stretching before me and nothing to do with it but idle in some café or other and improve my mind, I bought not just one book but three: a Penguin edition of The Odyssey; an old copy of Murder on The Orient Express, with a garish Seventies cover; and an equally shop-worn copy of my old boyhood favourite: Around the World in Eighty Days.
With these in my bar bag I coasted down to the waterfront, ordered myself a bottle of lemonade at a nicely shaded café, and settled in, choosing The Odyssey for my afternoon fare. Time passed agreeably. The seating was comfortable, the sea breeze soft and warm, and Homer turned out to be quite an entertaining storyteller.
I ordered calamari for lunch, and a succession of lemonades as the afternoon progressed to justify my continued occupation of a table, but the café was never more than about a third full and nobody seemed to care in the least whether I ordered anything or not; it was a pretty relaxed sort of a place. Every now and then I put the book away, took a leisurely turn around the town, then drifted back again to this same old café, and usually to the same old wobbly table.
Afternoon segued into evening, a lamb dish for dinner, more Odysseus, more slowly sipped lemonades. About ten o’clock a migratory urge came upon me and I drifted out to the ferry landing. It was night-time dark by then, but the wharf was well-peopled, and well lit, everybody waiting on the ferry. I found a comfortable bollard to sit and lean against, and sprawled out, watching the constellation of lights twinkle on the harbour and the hazy stars overhead. I wasn’t feeling at all sleepy, nor even bored, and two o’clock in the morning rolled around more quickly than I’d have thought possible – and bringing with it the throb of an engine in the night and the navigation lights of an approaching ferry.
The ferry company’s booking office was in an old dockside terminal that used to belong to the White Star Line back in the day, judging by the block letters still visible through the faded whitewash on the brick facade.
It was crowded inside, a swirl of brassy voices and cigarette smoke and piled-up luggage in a great, lofty, old-fashioned waiting room. I shuffled my way through the crowd and up to one of the ticket windows where I paid for deck passage to Igoumenitsa. Ticket in hand, I drifted over to the yellowed route map on the wall curious to know, now that I was about to go there, just where in Greece this place was supposed to be.
I found it after a bit of looking: just opposite the island of Corfu, and near the Albanian border. Interesting; I’d never been quite sure where Corfu was either, although of course I’d heard the name. At any rate, from Igoumenitsa it appeared to be a fairly straightforward matter of riding across northern Greece down to Volos, a port city on the Aegean Sea, and from there island hopping to Turkey. All that was for later; at the moment I had a twenty-hour sea passage ahead of me and not much in the way of supplies laid in to tide me over.
Judging by the look of my fellow deck passengers, extended Greek and Albanian families mainly, and the bulging sacks of foodstuffs and bottled water piled around them, the done thing was to stock up well and err on the side of plenty. I had hours yet before the ship sailed, so I hopped back on my bike and took a turn around Trieste to see what I could find that was open this early on a Sunday morning. Not much; the city was dead quiet. All the holiday bustle was down the coast, seeking sea and sun, not cluttering up the streets of faded old Trieste.
At that, it was kind of nice pedalling up one grand old boulevard and down another, getting a feel for the place, without a lot of distracting traffic. Back in the day Trieste was one of the grandest seaports in Europe, a name on luggage labels that conjured the romance and intrigue of steamship travel to the East. A lot of tides had ebbed and flowed out of its harbour since then, but it was still a pretty and evocative place, in an antique sort of way.
I roamed the city far and wide, stopping off for gelati here and an espresso there, and in the course of my wanderings found enough open delicatessens to gather up an goodly array of supplies. I finished up at the Caffe Tommaseo, Trieste’s oldest and most opulent café and in its brass and mahogany surrounds and played at being a boulevardier and imagined Sir Richard Burton sitting over cigars and coffee here when he was the British consul in Trieste, until finally the wall clock told me it was time to head back to the wharf.
Other than the lot filling up with more cars and truck, not much had happened there since I’d pedalled away that morning. The ship still wasn’t in, although it should have been. Engine troubles was the story being passed around. I parked my bike amongst a group of motorcycles and sprawled in the sun to read and wait. And wait. And wait.
Dusk was gathering by the time we finally put to sea, an anticlimactic five hours behind schedule. I leaned against the railing that curved around the stern, and watched Trieste recede with a growing sense of relief: whatever else happened now, I was going to have made it at least as far as Greece, something I’d begun to doubt a couple nights earlier, back in Pula.
My bicycle was stowed below with the cars and trucks, lashed to a railing along one of the bulkheads. My saddlebags, bedroll and bags of groceries were at my feet and, taking my cue from the scramble unfolding around me, in the first great rush to come aboard, I’d pegged out a few square feet of deck space to call my own, and to sleep on later on in the evening. A twenty-hour passage lay ahead of me. Sometime tomorrow afternoon we’d dock at Igoumenitsa and then I’d have to start worrying about Greek drivers and Greek topography, but for now at least I could loiter by this railing, nibbling from a bag of dried fruit, and watch Trieste slip astern in the soft evening light.
It was a warm night, and a long one. The deck was crowded and restless and too brightly floodlit for sleeping. A couple of times, in the small hours, I gave up even trying, and stood by the rails looking at the lights of cities and town twinkling on shore, listening to the throb of the engine and watching our silvery wake recede into the darkness. Dawn found us running along a barren coast: Albania, unless I missed my guess. More tedious hours dragged by. The sun climbed higher and beat down on the deck. From memory of that wall map in the ferry terminal back in Trieste, I knew that we had to be seeing Corfu off our starboard side before we could consider ourselves close to Igoumenitsa.
It seemed to take forever, but eventually a rocky, lightly wooded coast appeared off the bow and the ship entered the strait between Corfu and mainland Greece and after steaming nearly the whole length of Corfu made a long slow turn to port and headed into the harbour at Igoumenitsa. It was mid-afternoon by then and breathlessly hot, the town dead quiet in the glare and the mercury hovering well above the century mark on the old Fahrenheit scale.
I was among the last to disembark from the ferry, walking my bicycle down the steel ramp and thinking back to that ferry landing in Boulogne five weeks ago and what felt like ten thousand miles, but in an agreeable sort of way. I like the world to feel big and grand, a little larger than life, and for distance to take on meaning. And now I was in Greece, on a white hot afternoon, in a seaport I’d never heard of until two days ago.
Not much was happening here. Igoumenitsa dozed in the heat. It seemed the only traffic that afternoon had been whatever we brought with us on the ferry. Once its bellyful of cars and trucks had rumbled away off the wharf and dispersed – to where, I don’t know – the town’s sun-drenched streets resumed their slumbers. Nothing stirred. As I pedalled up the wharf and into town, groggy from lack of sleep myself, I decided to follow the locals’ lead, find myself a place to hole up, get some shut-eye in a darkened room, and make a fresh start in the morning.
And really, there wasn’t much else I could do. Other than a vaguely formed idea of riding across northern Greece to a town called Volos, on the Aegean Sea, and that from only a brief study of a large-scale map on a shipping company’s office wall, I hadn’t a clue where to go from here, which roads to take, and which to avoid, and the shops, where I might be able to buy a road map, all seemed to be closed for the heat of the day, everyone off taking a nap.
I found a cheap hotel near the waterfront and took a room. The girl at reception gave me a can of insect spray along with my key. “The mosquitoes are pretty bad here at night,” she explained, “and some of the screens in the windows have holes in them.” And so they did. But if they let in any mosquitoes, I never knew about it. I drew the shades to shut out the glare then sprawled out on the mattress in cool, blessed darkness and knew no more until the next morning.
I’d wanted the hot yellow landscapes and boy did I find them. The countryside through here was open and stony, with a cloudless vault of sky arching overhead and a narrow road winding its way higher into the mountains in a series of long meandering switchbacks. It was set to be another scorcher – forty-one degrees, according to the shopkeeper back in Igoumenitsa who’d sold me a road map of Epirus and a couple of extra bottles of mineral water to supplement what I was already carrying.
I had no doubt it would get there, either. Ten o’clock in the morning and already the sun was packing a wallop. I didn’t mind though. It was dry heat, unlike the thundery sultriness back in Trieste, and such a blessed change from the damp chill in the Ardennes and the Black Forest and along the Danube that all I wanted to do was soak it up. I was a sponge for heat.
All the same it was steep going, hot, hard and thirsty work. Villages were few and far between along the dusty backroads I’d chosen for myself and there was little in the way of traffic. But what people I did encounter up here were friendly – like the shopkeeper who insisted on washing the peaches he sold me in case I didn’t have an opportunity chance to wash them myself before I ate them.
Or the local family who, on driving by and seeing a cyclist pedalling up their desolate mountain road, and on such a hot day too, slowed to a crawl beside me, rolled down their windows and asked in English if I needed anything. When I said I was fine, they insisted that I at least accept a bottle of Coke, which they passed out the window to me with as much pleasure as I had in receiving it, before driving on, all smiles and waves and tooting horns. Such kindness, together with all that hot bright yellow sunshine and the tranquillity of the roads and the growing sense that I might just make it to Istanbul after all, made these miles as upbeat as they were uphill. I finished the day on a long cooling downhill glide and camped in the scrub near Ioannina.
Another hot clear morning dawned on the Istrian Riviera. I broke camp at half past five, grumpy and bleary-eyed after another fitful night in that rowdy campground. A quarter of an hour’s easy pedalling brought me around to Pula’s sleepy railway station. The place was practically deserted at that hour, just an old man in a floppy brown suit sitting beside his suitcase on a bench out front.
I glided up to the curb, dismounted and ushered my bicycle into the vaulted cool of the station, looking furtively around and about, this way and that, curious to know if there was anybody manning the ticket counter at that time of the morning. By golly, there was. And she had titian hair. Our eyes met, mine registering disbelief, her frosty blues touched by irony, implacability and the exquisiteness of the situation. She shook her head, jabbed a finger at me and snapped out those by-now oh-so-familiar words: “Nicht mit fahrad!”
And so to the highway.
It wasn’t so bad, really. Traffic was still light at that hour, relatively sane, and the air fairly fresh, with most of the lead molecules from the previous day’s burden of auto exhaust having precipitated out overnight. I made good use of my early start and by the time the world and his wife were pushing back from their breakfast tables and feeling the urge to drive somewhere, I was rolling up to the picturesque seaport of Rovinj, some twenty-five miles up the coast, my roadwork done for the day. I’d decided to do this thing in stages: Rovinj today, then make another dawn run up to Porec or Piran on the morrow, and reach Trieste the day after that. Slow going to be sure, but infinitely safer than riding through the midday rush on that highway. It was also infinitely pleasanter and prettier. All you see of Istria from the highway is an ugly sprawl of hotels and condominiums and holiday homes.
Rovinj is said to be one of Croatia’s most beautiful towns, and it would seem churlish to argue the point. You’ve seen it. It’s one of those aspirational places that’s forever appearing on glossy travel calendars, coffee table books and the covers of Conde Nast; that familiar cluster of ancient red-tile roofs and weathered facades huddled together at the end of a promontory, with the Adriatic sparking all around it and the bell tower of St Euphemia’s Basilica – a twin to the one at St Mark’s in Venice – standing proud overhead.
To ride into such a scene bright and early on a fine hot August morning was lovely indeed, even if Rovinj’s narrow streets were rather more clogged with double parked Audis and jaywalking pedestrians in designer gear than the pictures in the travel magazines would have you believe. I wasn’t inclined to be hypercritical, not after making such an unexpectedly safe, easy and uneventful run up the coast from Pula.
There was still the potentially fraught matter of securing a place to stay for the night, but it was hard not to feel optimistic this early on a bright and sunny morning. I swung around to one of the dozens of ‘official’ tourist office-travel agencies that were dotted about the place, leaned my bike against the big front window, where I could keep an eye on it, and trotted inside.
It was already busy, crowded and full of holiday expectancy. I joined the cue, eavesdropping on a conversation in English taking place at the counter to get an inkling of how likely or unlikely I’d be to find accommodation. From what I could gather, it sounded possible, but expensive. As I was mulling over the cost in time, effort, risk and money this ill-advised jaunt down the Istrian coast was putting me to, and hoping that fellow at the counter wasn’t hogging the last room in Rovinj, I glanced up and noticed on a placard that the daily ferry from Pula to Trieste called in here on its way north.
“Say, I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get aboard today’s ferry to Trieste is there?” I asked the girl behind the counter, when it was my turn to speak.
“Sure.” She reached for her ticket book.
“I…ah…I have a bicycle,” I said, imparting this salient piece of information in the sort of low, confidential murmur you might use to tell someone that you had a particularly loathsome communicable disease.
“Oh, that’s no problem,” she replied, not even looking up as she began the routine of filling out the ticket. “Bicycles go free.”
“They do?” I replied, a waspish note of challenge in my voice. I craned my head back for another look at the logo and the name of the ferry company; it was the same one as in Pula, no doubt about it. “I was given to understand that bicycles were not allowed on your ferries.”
She looked up from her ticket pad and frowned, puzzled. “Who told you that?”
“Your man in Pula.”
She shrugged. “Well, he’s wrong.”
“He’s a prick.”
“Sounds like it. We carry bicycles all the time. He ought to know that. If you want, I‘ll radio the captain and make doubly sure for you.”
“Would you mind?”
“Not at all.” She stepped into a back room and returned a few moments later, with an I-told-you-so smile on her face. “It’s all set. I’ve spoken with the captain and he’ll be expecting you and your bicycle when he docks this afternoon. Was there anything else?”
I celebrated my new lease on life with a slap-up lunch at a restaurant by the old church and afterwards did a spot of sightseeing. Freed from the life and death struggle of the highway, I could appreciate things like antiquities, architecture and Byzantine mosaics. All the same I kept a chary eye on the clock. The last thing I wanted to do was miss that ferry. And so I drifted back to the landing a good half hour early, and bought an ice cream cone and sprawled on a bench in the sunshine, watching all the comings and goings along the harbourside while I waited for the boat.
It arrived dead on time, a smallish, fairly ordinary passenger ferry but looking beautiful to me as it glided out of the violet haze to the south, motored purposefully into the harbour and up to the wharf. A gangplank clattered down and in the next few minutes the usual exchange of people took place – one crowd shuffling off the boat, while another waited in the wings to board. There was no trouble whatever about the bike. A deckhand showed me where to stow it, up near the bow. I lashed it to a railing. By the time I’d finished we were moving.
An Italian customs official was on board, impeccable in a dark and crisply fitted uniform, making the rounds of the new boarders. He examined my passport, thumbing absently through its pages in that way they do, then paused for a moment at the page containing my personal details. He smiled as he handed it back to me: “Happy birthday.”
And so it was. I’d forgotten.
It turned into the laziest of Saturday afternoons. This particular ferry was the slow service, calling in at every town and hamlet along the coast. The scenery was so beautiful it felt more like a cruise: a cavalcade of achingly pretty Italianate seaports, wooded inlets, and golden beaches, all bathed in a fine champagne light. Seeing it from out the water, you’d never imagine the nightmarish sprawl of overdevelopment and traffic-clogged highways that existed just over those hills.
It had been hot and sultry all day, and as the afternoon wore on a heavy waxy violet cast came over the sky. Up ahead, to the north, massive cumulus clouds billowed in the heat, reaching incredible heights. As the long afternoon declined into evening, and the sun dipped into the sea, the tops of these mountainous clouds caught the dying rays and glowed creamy gold and pink, while their lower reaches were a deep smudgy indigo.
There was plenty of weather in those clouds and we were steaming straight for it. By the time the lights of Trieste could be seen twinkling in the distance, the sky behind it was pulsing with lightning. The constant flickering, and the scratchy way it lit the heights behind the city made me think of newsreel footage of old artillery battles.
By now, too, the ferry was nearly empty. Only a couple passengers besides myself were travelling all the way through to Trieste. The rows of vacant seats, the reflections of the harbour lights, and the night sounds carrying across the water, made it feel much later than it was.
I wheeled my bicycle down the ramp, said good night to the steward who was puttering about the deck, tidying up, and then set off along the darkened wharf, towards the lights and purling traffic on the boulevard that ran along the waterfront. It wasn’t raining, but it had done so recently; the night-lit pavement glistened and the air had the fusty aftertaste of rain, and held the promise of more to come. Lightning was flickering almost constantly over the hills now, and from here you could hear the low growl of thunder mingling with the restless murmurs of the city.
I wished I had somewhere to go.
A couple of grandiloquent hotels along the seafront suggested themselves. I marked them in my mind as I strolled past, hoping that I might find something a trifle easier on the budget, but prepared to turn back and sound them out if something didn’t turn up soon. Something did. A couple blocks’ walk brought me to the doors of a tourist bureau. Surprisingly enough, at that desolate hour on a Saturday night, it was still open. There was nobody about, just the girl who worked there, standing in the lighted spill of the doorway, smoking a closing-time cigarette as she watched the lightning flicker overhead.
If she was put out at having a last-minute straggler front up and break the spell, she didn’t show it, but obligingly led me inside and went to work. She put through a couple of calls and found me a room in private house a few blocks away. A bed for the night would be about ten pounds. I couldn’t believe my luck.
Feeling on a roll, I mentioned that I wanted to take a ferry south as soon as possible – Greece or Albania, I didn’t care which, so long as it got me around the holiday hordes in Istria and the Dalmatian Coast.
Once more I came up trumps. A ship for Igoumenitsa would be sailing tomorrow afternoon, she said, plucking a shipping schedule out of a rack of brochures and handing it to me. As I cast my eyes over the fares I saw in amongst the fine print the very words I’d hoped to see: the ones about bicycles being welcome on board, and better still, carried for free.
She couldn’t book the passage for me, she explained; that was something I’d have to do myself in the morning at the shipping agency office just down the road. She handed me a folding tourist map of Trieste, labelled in English, and sent me on my way.
I found the address on the card easily enough. It was one of a long row of ornate old Habsburg piles, about six stories high, that had long ago gone to seed but in a genteel sort of way. I scanned the row of buzzers in the entry way, pushed the one that matched the apartment number on my piece of paper, the waited for my landlady to bustle down several flights of stairs to admit me.
She showed me where I could park my bicycle – underneath the stairwell, beside her Vespa – and then we began the long climb up to where my room was.
As we mounted the steps she explained, apologetically and in fractured English, that something had gone ‘wrong’ with the room she had been going to give me, and that instead she would make up a bed for me in the old kitchen on the uppermost floor; she was sorry but it was the best she could do at such short notice; I could take a look and if it was acceptable, the charge would be only half the rate she’d quoted the girl at the tourist office.
I put on my concerned but understanding face, brow furrowed, lips pursed. The truth was, this late on a Saturday night, I didn’t care where I slept, as long as it was safe, reasonably clean and out of the storm. Which this was: a fold-out cot in the middle of a cramped Fifties-vintage Italian kitchen, with the old classic black-and-white chequered tile floor, Formica table, a pair of rickety chairs and an ancient gas stove.
The open window looked out over a narrow courtyard, six stories deep, that was full of family sounds, laughing, scolding, and the garlic-and-onion smells of dinners frying, and the cyan glow of TV sets flickering through the net curtains of the windows opposite and below.
The woman pointed out where the bathroom was, bade me good night, and retired down the stairs. I took a long, steamy shower and afterwards sprawled on the springy cot and listened to the rainy thundery night, scarcely able to believe how sweetly everything had played out. And all it cost me was five quid. A happy birthday indeed.