Category Archives: Touring
At the risk of sounding churlish and curmudgeonly, I find myself growing a little irritated by the regularity with which I see long-distance bicycle touring associated with fund raising for some cause or another. It is as if the two things were inseparable, as though no one would, could or should contemplate a long tour unless it were for some higher cause.
Don’t get my wrong, I am all for charity and giving and supporting noble causes. It just seems to me that every time I read where someone is setting off on a longish bike tour, especially if they are doing the old classic Land’s End to John O’Groats, they are invariably doing it in aid of some charity or other.
I know that when I rode Land’s End to John O’Groats a few years ago I was constantly being asked along the way which charity I was riding for and how much I hoped to raise. When I replied that I was just touring on my own, for no loftier purpose than to see the countryside and have a good time, I got dubious looks and often as not some negative vibes. To ride a thousand miles for charity is a fine thing; to go touring for pleasure on the other hand indicates some kind of character flaw or moral weakness – at the very least a touch of selfishness. After all, I could have been doing this for charity and if I were a better person, I would have.
I know that by the end of my ride I was mighty weary of all those charity fund-raising questions, and most definitely becoming curmudgeonly. What I found troubling, as a cyclist, is the unspoken idea that cycling a thousand miles is such a stunt that it must be something one would only do to raise money. What happened to the idea of bicycles as a genuine mode of transport, not just to commute to work or down to the shops but to see the world? Of saddling up and pushing off down the road for the sheer picaresque joy of it?
Having just returned last night from Orkney and still feeling a bit wistful about not having been able to take my bicycle along this time and go for a spin on what is after all one of my favourite places in all the world to ride, I thought I’d indulge in a bit of vicarious touring and write up a few suggestions for anyone thinking of heading up that way. I’ve been up there seven times now, come to know the various islands rather well, and would go up there again in a heartbeat; believe me, they really are a lovely set of islands to explore by bike.
Getting there: There are flights into Kirkwall from around Britain, but if you are taking your bicycle (and are not already riding to John O’Groats) your best bet, and by far the most economical option, is to take one of the ferries.
There are three from which to choose – the big one from Aberdeen, an eight-hour journey that arrives in Kirkwall at midnight (and continues on to Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands), or take one of the much shorter crossings from Scrabster or Gills Bay, on the north coast of Scotland, over to Stromness and St Margaret’s Hope respectively. These run through the day, are quick and easy and get you there at a respectable hour. I’ve always gone for the Scrabster-Stromness option myself, partly because the Gills Bay ferry seems to be more heavily used by bus tours and day-trippers from Inverness, but mainly because Stromness is nearer my favourite part of Orkney – the vast heathery uplands of West Mainland, Orkney’s largest island.
To get to Scrabster and the Stromness ferry you buy a rail ticket to Inverness and from there take the slow, oh-so-local all-stations train to Thurso. It is a three-hour train journey and a very scenic one through what is known as ‘the flow country’, a wide open and beautifully desolate landscape of peat bog.
A word of advice for anyone planning to catch the train up here, especially in the summer months – book your ticket well in advance and be sure to get a reservation for your bicycle. And make certain that your reservation names a specific train and time. This is really important. There is space for only four bicycles on each train and conductors, guards and stationmasters are very strict about this and since this train (to Thurso, and on to Wick) is the same one used by countless LEJOG cyclists to get to or from the northern end point, demand for bicycle space is very high.
Once you’ve alighted at Thurso it is an easy three-mile ride along the coast to Scrabster and the Northlink ferry terminal, where you catch the ferry to Stromness . There is plenty of space here for bicycles, and the bikes themselves go free. Be sure though to have some photo ID – they won’t let you on the ferry without it. Chances are, given the train timetables, you’ll have an hour or two to wait for the ferry. Scrabster is about the deadest and dreariest place imaginable being little more than an industrial port and ferry terminal. Your best bet if you want to kill time or get something to eat is to ride back to Thurso (a very easy jaunt). Here too the pickings are slim when it comes to nice eateries, but there is a nice café on the beach called The Pavilion where I have spent some pleasant afternoons waiting for my ferry.
The ferry ride to Stromness is pleasant (as long as there’s no swell) and very scenic, skirting as it does the cliffs on the western flank of Hoy and the spectacular 137-metre sea stack in front of them. The view makes the ferry a bargain as well; cruise ship passengers pay fancy money for this view. Ninety minutes after you left Scrabster, you’re docking in Stromness, an old and atmospheric seaport on the southwestern corner of Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands (Oh and by the way, they are NOT ‘the Orkneys'; you’ll sound like a tourist coming out with that one. Orcadians refer to their homey archipelago as ‘Orkney’, using the familiar singular.)
Another useful piece of advice – book your accommodation in Orkney well in advance, especially if you plan to be going up there during the busy summer months and even more especially if you are going to me there mid-August, around the time of the big County Agricultural Show at Kirkwall when Orcadians come in from the outer islands and scattered family members return on their annual holidays and the hotels, hostels and B&Bs are full to bursting.
Now for the cycling. What I love most about cycling in Orkney is simply being out and about in its wide open spaces, the windswept immensity of purple heather and moor, and the sense of ancient magic in the landscape. As easy as it is to hop inter-island ferries from Kirkwall and head out to the more remote islands, my favourite places to ride in Orkney are the desolate roads through the heart of West Mainland the biggest and emptiest part of the archipelago’s biggest island. I love it there, or riding along the rugged southern coast overlooking Scapa Flow, or heading up to the wild headland near Birsay with its ancient Pictish ruins, or stopping up by the haunting Ring of Brodgar, an eerie stone circle erected by an unknown people 5000 years ago on a neck of land overlooking two silvery lochs. Although by now I have been to every one of the islands, it is this ancient mystical heart of Orkney that always draws me back.
If you’re going to Orkney for the first time, taking the ferry from Tingwell out to Rousay and doing a loop of the island is a pleasant introduction to going further afield. Going out to Westray one of the northern isles, will give you, in effect, a scenic island cruise and a pleasant out and back ride on the island itself, to an old ruined castle on the northern tip, by Noltland. As for Scotland’s famous midges, the Orkney winds generally sweep them away – although I have been there when the lochs are still as mirrors and then they can get pretty itchy.
As for guidebook specifics, lists of things to see and must-dos, don’t ask me; I am a pretty lousy tourist. For me the joy is always just seeing the countryside or the streetscapes wherever I go.
I will put in a plug, though, for my favourite B&B up there, a really lovely spot called Holland House, run by a delightful lady named Jan, and in a beautifully restored old vicarage in the heart of West Mainland. Basing myself there, heading out each morning to explore my favourite island, fortified by a hearty B&B breakfast, and with a crackling fire to return to each evening is my idea of cyclo-touring in the grand old style.
It is late in the evening here in Orkney and after a long and convoluted day’s travel I am sitting before an open fire in the cosy parlour of my favourite B&B with a tumbler of Highland Park single malt within easy reach and in a mood of reminiscence. It has been ten years, almost to the day, since my first trip up this way – that was the time I rode my bike from Land’s End to John o’Groats (and beyond).
LEJOG as it is known, an acronym formed by the names of the start and end points, is one of the great classic British cycling jaunts: pedalling the entire length of the kingdom, from the outermost tip of Cornwall to the northeastern tip of Scotland. It has been a right-of-passage for British cyclo-tourists and long-distance record-setters since the days of Pennyfarthings.
When I did my LEJOG in the summer of 2002 I extended my journey somewhat to include the Isles of Scilly (in the south) and my first taste of Orkney, up here in the north. In truth, it was my first taste of Britain as well, for I was new here and hadn’t really seen much of the countryside outside of my corner Sussex and occasional trips up to London, generally to go to Heathrow Airport and on overseas.
Taking the train to Penzance, a name straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, then hopping a ferry to St Mary on the Scilly Isles and later on, once back on the mainland, pedalling down to Land’s End and heading north along the rugged Cornish coast was the start of a gloriously adventure full of scenes and settings and storybook place names. I’d not long earlier completed a cycling journey from London to Istanbul (boy, those were free-wheeling days) in which I’d ridden through something like fourteen countries and yet here, riding through just this one United Kingdom, Britain, I felt a far greater and more exhilarating sense of travel and diversity than I ever did crossing Europe. Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire – everyone one of these places were strikingly different and rich in their own local character, accents architecture, geography. By the time I reached the Scottish Highlands and islands I felt as travelled and storied as a mediaeval pilgrim.
I won’t say I’d forgotten how rich and rewarding that journey was, a taste of travel in the grand old style, but the old memories came back with a particular keenness this afternoon. As I mentioned in a previous post, on my more recent trips to Orkney with my bicycle, coming up here for work, I’ve put the bike on the train, bought a ticket to Thurso and took the ferry. This time though I was obliged to leave the bike at home, fly to Inverness and drive from there. It was the first time I’d been on these roads since I’d ridden along here on my tourer in 2002. As I was driving up along the coast north of Inverness and felt the road start to rise a few miles northeast of Helmsdale and realised it was the beginnings of the long winding grade up the Ord of Caithness – one of the more imposing climbs on the LEJOG route, or at least the one I had heard the most about before I left. I was as excited as a kid. I recognized it all with a kind of deja vue clarity and eeriness, every rising bend and curve, the sense of the sea falling away below me and then the way the road plummeted downhill from the top, at a breezy grade of thirteen percent back to sea level – and another staggeringly steep climb through the Berriedale Braes, a shorter but much tougher ascent than the Ord of Caithness, and which caught me completely by surprise.
I remembered it all, just exactly how it was, in vivid detail, even the old church halfway up the grade, the one with the old graveyard whose weathered headstones you could read as you churned and sweated up the grade – one of them bearing the inscription: A Cyclist. I remembered my sense of bemusement when I saw it and how, using curiosity as my excuse for taking a breather I’ hopped off and walked the bike around and into the old churchyard to find out who this cyclist was and how he came to be there. It turned out to be the grave of a WWI cycle corps messenger, killed in action in France, as I recall.
I spotted the headstone once again, in passing, unchanged in all the years. I spared a thought for the long-forgotten cyclist, and marvelled at the passage of time. That was a grand trip. It was wonderful to take it out of the attic of my memories yesterday on the drive up from Inverness, and find that it had been aging and mellowing like a fine old single malt whisky.
I was reminded of that a lot this past fortnight in the far north of Norway, where every day I felt myself growing wistful at the sight of so many touring cyclists, all loaded up for distant places, pedalling the beautiful winding highways along the fjords. Up here in Norway camping rough is simplicity itself – it’s perfectly legal. The Scandinavians take a pretty healthy view of the freedom of the road. You just pull over and pitch your camp in the woods or by the shore, wherever, although of course you’d still want to be sensible and discrete about it.
For that matter this sort of thing is pretty simple in the Australian outback too, even if the law is not on your side: there is generally nobody around for a hundred miles. You just pull off the road, set your camp well back in the spinifex scrub so you’re out of sight of any cars or road trains that may pass during the night, and settle in. You’re as safe as houses.
The tricky part is doing it in those less enlightened and more populated places, which is to say, alas, most of the rest of the civilized world. Technically speaking, camping free and easy along the roadside is illegal. Actually, there’s no ‘technically’ about it, it is against the law, plain and simple, authorities the world over taking a dim view of this sort of thing. That said, if you possess the moral flexibility to clear this legal hurdle, trespass and vagrancy are among the easier misdemeanours to get away with, especially if you are on a bicycle. Be discrete, develop a taste for sombre coloured camping gear and a soldier’s (or a burglar’s) eye for cover and you can vanish like a deer among the shadows.
The best thing is to get yourself onto a quiet country road, long about the shank of the evening, when the light is fading; when there is still enough glow in the sky for you to see by, but motorists are starting to flick on their headlights. Then it is perfect. The idea is for you to be pedalling along in a leisurely manner, easy and nonchalant, full of innocent purpose, as though you had a destination in mind and worthy people expecting you, and not at all looking like a man scheming against the public order.
Which, of course, you are.
Your innocent eyes are looking for concealment, a break in the roadside greenery into which you can push your bicycle and disappear. It should never be near a town park, or picnic ground or a roadside rest area – in short, no place where anyone, passing troublemaker or night patrolman, is likely to expect an illegal camper to pitch his tent, or to pull over themselves to party or sit and eat donuts. Randomness is your friend. Pick an anonymous place along the roadside, chosen by chance, and you are most unlikely to be sprung.
Once you’ve spotted such a place, you want to give a swift, searching but oh-so-casual glance up and down the road to be sure nobody is coming and that you’re out of the line of sight of any farmhouse windows. Then, if the coast is clear, you dismount at a glide and head briskly into the tall timber, going deep as you can and well out of sight. Find yourself a nice level spot, and stake out your tent or tarp or bivvy bag. I tend to prefer lighter, lower-slung tarps and bivvy bags myself, done in dark blues, or greens or purples. I lay the bike down, taking care if I am close to the road that any reflectors on the bike won’t catch the beams of any passing cars’ headlights. If in doubt, I hang some dark clothes over them.
I am here to sleep. I don’t build fires or cook, don’t show any lights. I’ll either have had my dinner back along the road somewhere, or sit up nibbling something – cheese and biscuits, fruit and nuts – that doesn’t require cooking. I’ll turn in early and be gone before sun-up, with no one the wiser. Stolen beer, they say, tastes the sweetest, and so it would seem. Nothing beats that quiet thrill in the morning when you push your bicycle back up onto the road and set off once again, making your getaway in the dewy dawn when all the world’s asleep. It works every time.
The woods may indeed be full of wardens, as Jack Kerouac laments at the end of Lonesome Traveler, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet them.
Travel romantic that I am, I’ve always had a soft spot for those old-style French touring bikes, the sort you see in those golden-age-of-cycling photographs – bike and rider all kitted up for distant places on dusty untrammelled roads and projecting either pre-war innocence or sunny, post-war optimism depending on the date of the photo.
So naturally enough when I decided to build up my own dream tourer last year I was keen to affect a bit of that yesteryear elegance and styling for myself. And to me one of the most evocative elements of that French randonneur ‘style’ were those boxy French handlebar bags into which you could tuck a bottle and a bird and head out into the countryside for your picnic. They were de rigueur on tourers back then but have largely vanished today.
Largely, that is, but not quite, for I discovered that there are a few boutique pannier makers these days – generally in the US – that have taken to reissuing these old style randonneuring bags; obviously I am not the only romantic out there. I wanted the originals, though, if I could, and once I found that French hand-built bicycle-maker Gilles Berthoud had acquired the patterns of the old original Sologne bags – the very ones you see in the old photos – and was making them, by hand, in a workshop France, as of old, my heart was set having one of those.
Knowing my champagne tastes I had a niggling feeling they were going to be expensive, and by golly they were. Not only did you need to buy the elegant hand-sewn bag itself, which on its own was nearly twice the price of Ortlieb’s top-self bar bag, but you also required a front rack on which to support it. In addition, when using these old-style bags a decaleur – a kind of bolt-on support bar that extends from the stem – is also considered not a bad idea. It was all there in the Gilles Berthoud catalogue – randonneuring bags of varying sizes, racks and decaleurs to match – everyone you needed to achieve this stylish authenticity, all of it hand-made in France, and all of them together adding up to a pretty hefty bill.
I had pushed the boat out pretty far already in the design and building of this dream tourer of mine, but after a bit of soul searching, and being the kind of guy who can resist anything but temptation, I decided I’d regret it if I didn’t nudge the boat out that bit further and so I took a deep breath and placed my order. The parcel from France arrived a few days later. I wasn’t disappointed. The goods inside oozed class. I’d ordered the GB28 bar bag, the largest size, in grey. It was an exquisite piece of luggage, hand-crafted of sturdy water-resistant cotton, trimmed with fine harness leather. As I took it out of the box it filled the air with an expensive, leathery smell. The accompanying rack and decaleur had also obviously been constructed with the same care and precision as the bag. Any lingering doubts I might have been harbouring at my having splurged like this were cast to the winds; here was the perfect finishing touch to my dream classic tourer. Guilt be damned.
The proof though is in using, and in this I was still a bit leery. I’d bought into this old-style randonneuring set up purely on the strength of its visual and emotional appeal. In practice I’d never ridden with anything like this combination of top-of-the-wheel front rack and bag, and frankly I wondered what the effect on handling would be.
At twelve litres my new GB28 bag was nearly twice the size of any of the bar bags I’d used in the past (my Carradice Super-C at 5.5 litres, and my old Ortlieb at 7) while the only front racks I’d ever used were low-riders. I was well used to riding with those, but here the weight would be higher up, riding above the front wheel. I am happy to report I needn’t have worried. As far as handling went, I soon forgot my big new randonneuring bag was even there. The bike rode like a dream.
I’ve had bag and bike for nearly eight months now, and while my lovely new tourer led a pretty sheltered life over the winter, I put enough miles on it last autumn and, more recently, this spring to form a better – and very favourable – impression of how the boxy randonneuring bar bag functions in real life. It rests nicely on the rack, despite there being no attachment point on the bottom of the bag – something I’d wondered about when I first set it up. I suspect the decaleur helps there, in keeping it stable. There is no shifting.
As I noted from the get-go, the bag’s effect on the bike’s overall handling is negligible, really, at least not with the loads I have put in it thus far – typically camera gear in the main compartment and with the usual assortment of roadside tools and spares tucked in the side pockets, of which the GB28 has five. Modest loads in other words, but enough to count. Obviously, with twelve litres capacity at your disposal and a rack to support it, you could carry a lot more.
From a photographer’s point of view, the extra space is useful simply by virtue of its being there. With so much elbow room in the bag I do not need to fuss and fiddle to pack things away, but can just chuck in my camera and mini tripod when I have finished a shot and want to move on. This can be especially handy when the light is changing and I want to shift my perspective in a hurry. Just grab and go. And with the classic bag’s old traditional loop closures – as opposed to the company’s newer style model with the (more expensive) buckles – getting stuff in and out is very quick. It’s great.
I suspect too the extra spaciousness of the big GB28 will prove very handy when touring. I like to travel light and for week-long tours in the past I’ve managed nicely, but with a squeeze, with just my Carradice Super-C bar bag (at 5.5 litres) and a Carradice Super-C saddlebag (at 23 litres). By using the capacious Gilles Berthoud randonneuring bag instead, I have 35 cubic litres to play with. While I wouldn’t fill the vacuum with more gear, the extra space would allow for swifter and easier packing on the road and give me greater freedom to buy and carry trail snacks et cetera along the way – or to keep my cameras handy and ready for use. In short, I really like this old randonneuring set up and while its retro styling might clash with modern compact-frame tourers and road bikes, someone who wanted to dispense with panniers and travel light could do a lot worse. And if you want to grab a decent bottle of red and all the accompaniments head out into the countryside for a stylish retro-classic picnic, you couldn’t do better.
I had a read through it yesterday – and a very enjoyable and informative read it was. In its 246 pages, they have distilled not just their own considerable experience on the road, but that of fifty other veteran road-hardened cyclo-tourists as well, and vividly brought to life the thrills and adventure of setting out on a bicycle expedition, what to expect on the road, what you’ll need to bring along or take into consideration, risks and hazards along the way, and how to maintain and repair your gear, be it your bicycle’s drive train or your tent and cook stove – even a chapter about what it is like returning home after a grand globe-trotting adventure and dealing with the sense of anticlimax that often follows. This latter bit is a particularly thoughtful inclusion, and an aspect of adventuring that is often overlooked by lesser, run-of-the-mill guidebook writers, but as with everything else in this highly experienced couple’s book, rings absolutely true to anyone who has ever taken a long and involving tour.
Everything a bicycle tourist could possibly want is in there, and all of it well-written, well researched, well thought-out, practical, neatly ordered and nicely presented. The style is conversational, and the authors have managed to pitch it so that anybody, from rank beginners to sinewy sun-bronzed hard-cases who’ve been on the road for years, can get something out of it – even if it is just an nodding affirmation of some of their own thoughts, ideas and experiences.
Writing a guide book is a drawn-out and mentally exhausting process as anyone who has ever written one will attest. My own experience with this hard-to-do-well genre was writing National Geographic Traveler’s Guidebook to Australia. Whether I did it well or not is for others to say, but the experience of researching and writing it certainly gave me an appreciation for just how difficult it is to do a book such as this, and Andrew and Friedel Grant have done a cracking job. It would be fair to say that with this in hand anyone who wanted to could, with confidence, set out to see a bit of the world on their bicycle – be it a long weekend on leafy Sustrans route through England’s Lakes District or tackling the Takla Makan desert on the Silk Road.
The book is available through the couple’s website Travelling Two which is itself an excellent source of information for anyone planning a tour.
“Isle of Fright!” screamed the page-three headlines in the newspaper that morning announcing the discovery of a new species of ‘vicious’ flesh-eating dinosaur that had been found embedded in the 120 million year-old cliffs of England’s fair and gentle Isle of Wight. Believing this walking nightmare to be the long-elusive great-great-grand-daddy of Tyrannosaurus rex, palaeontologists around the world were hailing it as one of the most significant dinosaur finds in recent years. An artist’s rendition showed it striding, fang and claw, through the swampy landscape that characterised the area at the time, in the company of an iguanodon, a brachiosaurus, and an armour-plated polecanthus, other prehistoric beasties that had also once roamed the island.
It all made for a stirring read over the breakfast bacon and eggs. I’d always thought of the Isle of Wight in gentlemanly terms: yachting regattas at Cowes, America’s Cup, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat at Osborne House, and those fashionable 19th century seaside resorts where England’s well-to-do used to go to ‘take the air’.
It never occurred to me that the island might be a dinosaur graveyard as well, let alone that its Cretaceous sandstones were the final resting place for some of those very same prehistoric monsters whose fossils inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912 – a novel that would one day provide the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But so it apparently was.
And what’s more, thanks to the wettest winter since 1659, landslides along the coast were exposing fresh new rock faces riddled with the bones and teeth of dinosaurs. Anybody could go looking and, according to the newspaper, just about everybody was. Anywhere below the high-tide mark was Crown land and therefore fair game.
This was a few years ago. I was new in England then. And as I read all this, beautiful vistas rolled out before me. I used to love reading The Lost World when I was a kid and always fancied myself as the Edward Malone character, the journalist who accompanies Professor Challenger into the prehistoric jungles of South America. And now here I was, in jaded middle age, twenty-some years into a real-life career in journalism, and with a geology degree to boot, and yet to go on a dinosaur hunt. That was about to change. Here was my chance, not just to go a-dinosaur hunting but to do it in the style of my most cherished boyhood daydreams: sling myself aboard my bike and set off down the street, jaunty and cavalier, my cap set for adventure. How many times had I played out that scene in my head. Now I could do it for real.
The Isle of Wight was less than a hundred miles from my doorstep, and waiting out in my garden shed was a doughty old English-built, black-and-cream tourer, propped against a load of rusty paint tins, looking hopeful, ready to go. Like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything but temptation. I threw a few things together and, like a character in a storybook, set off within the hour with a heart for any fate.
Professor Challenger’s party began their adventures with an arduous journey by steamship to a dangerous South American seaport. I, on the other hand, had a long, wet and windy ride along the coast to Portsmouth, followed by a short but rather bouncy crossing of the Solent on the Wightlink ferry. I didn’t mind the lousy weather, not for the first few miles anyway. The lashing rain and stormy skies gave a nice sense of drama and danger to the undertaking, but by the time I rolled off the ferry and onto the rain-slickened streets of Ryde, I was more in the mood for hot coffee than cold hardship.
I collected my thoughts over a latte in the steamy warmth of one of the cafes along the seafront, watching the rain streak down on the windows and looking over the brochures I’d picked up at the tourism office, across the street. The best thing to do, I gathered would be to head first for Sandown, five miles away, visit The Dinosaur Isle Museum and get my bearings.
I arrived late afternoon, near closing time, under a cold slanting rain. I browsed amongst the glass-cased exhibits and artists’ renditions of what the island might have looked like in the bad old days of the Cretaceous. There were loads of fossil shells, ammonites, sponges, ferns, insects and chunks of petrified wood on display but they weren’t what I, or anyone else there, was interested in. We were all of us gazing at the bones, teeth and claws of the scarier critters, most particularly the newly discovered Eotyrannus lengi.
As dinosaurs go, Eotyrannus wasn’t terribly huge – about fifteen feet long, a mere morsel for T. rex, which could grow to over forty feet, but still more than double the size of those scene-stealing velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It sported rows of two-inch saw-edged teeth and nightmarish Freddy Krueger-style claws with which it could tear other dinosaurs to pieces. It was fast and agile and considered to be the most ferocious of any of the twenty or so species of dinosaur known to have inhabited the island. It had been found mingled with the remains of a plant eater – upon which it may have preyed – and surrounded by a lot of plant debris, leading to speculation that it may have been caught up in a flash flood.
I took this all on board, bought a where-to-find-fossils guide in the museum bookshop, and dropped another two quid on a waterproof geology map of the island. That night I sat up late in my B&B, in Ventnor, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and worked out a plan of campaign. Most of the new dinosaurs, including Eotyrannus, were being found amongst the crumbling sandstones on the cliffs near Brighstone, on the southwest side of the island. That was the place to be and where everybody was heading. There was even a small dinosaur museum that had recently opened up on one of the farms down there, where excavations were continually turning up interesting bones and where a team of palaeontologists had set up a booth to help amateurs identify their finds.
I marked it on the map. Early the next morning, after two-thousand calories of ‘full English breakfast’, I set out in the wind and rain for Brighstone, about fifteen miles away. I arrived just on low tide. Dismounting at a likely looking spot, I wheeled my bicycle down onto the beach, then propped it up against a rock face at the bottom of a cliff and started prospecting.
Everything I remembered about Cretaceous geology you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, but as a setting for windswept drama you’d have to give this spot high marks: a romantic old smuggler’s coast, lashed by storms, with the hollow boom of the surf in your ears and the windows of some old brooding manor house gazing down from the wooded heights nearby.
I pecked around for the better part of two hours without finding anything more interesting than a few faint impressions of shells and some squiggles in the rock that could have been anything. By then the weather was closing in and the tide was on the rise. I was daydreaming about lunch and hot coffee when I turned over an oblong lump of rock and realised, with a start, as I was about to put it down again, that it was shaped uncannily like a butcher’s bone – a tibia, to be precise. The hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I hastily brushed off the sand and grit. It was unmistakably a fossil, and its resemblance to the top part of a thigh bone was positively unnerving.
It was big, too; not as big as the ones I’d seen in the museum, but plenty big enough to satisfy me. I cast my eyes greedily around to see if there was any more to this skeleton, but it seemed as though the surf must have messed it all up, because this one chunk was all there was. But that was enough. I hoisted it up and, with a furtive look up and down the desolate beach, to be sure that I was alone with my treasure, I lugged it over to my bicycle and lashed it onto the rear rack with a length of shock cord I’d brought along, just in case. Five minutes later I was on my way, wobbling down the road to the farmstead where the palaeontologists awaited, eager to show off my weighty prize. This had to be seen by experts.
The rain was coming down harder now, with raw gusts blowing in from the sea. They skittered the bicycle some on the wet and slippery road, but the cold and wet couldn’t touch the inner me – warmed as I was by the glow of discovery, and of course the effort of lugging a sizeable chunk of Cretaceous-era relic along a hilly coast and into a stiff breeze. As I pedalled along I tried to imagine the fearsome creature whose leg bone I had found. Maybe it was a young Eotyrannus, a new and vital piece in the unfolding evolutionary puzzle. Maybe it was a bit of a completely new and still more vicious predator. Maybe … but who knew. It could be anything.
I found the farm I was looking for. Despite the atrocious weather the yard was filled with cars; I wasn’t the only one scouring the slumped cliffs that morning, looking for fossils. Inside the barn a knot of people in oilskins and gumboots were gathered around a table, waiting to show their finds to the resident palaeontologist. He was busy sorting through the bucket of stony curios brought in by a local woman. I sidled up, listening in, my altogether heftier specimen concealed by my dripping cape.
The woman’s seemingly shapeless lumps turned out to be rather interesting: a piece of vertebrae from an iguanodon, a bit of armour from polecanthus, and a piece of bone from an unidentified, but undoubtedly flesh-eating, monster. She was so pleased. I had mixed emotions, myself. My own find looked so much more impressive and bone-like, and was so much larger and grander that I hated to spoil her moment.
“Yes?” said the palaeontologist, looking up at me through his half-moon spectacles.
I stepped up, smiling apologetically to the woman whose find I was about to trump, and hefted my great fossilised tibia onto the table. “I found this near the bottom of the cliffs a few miles from here,” I began, striking just the right tone of self-important modesty. “…and I was wondering if it might be of interest.”
His eyebrows arched impressively. “My goodness! You brought that all the way here on your bicycle?”
I nodded an affirmative, and flashed a smile around the room. Anything for science, my good man.
“Hmmm.” He groped for words. Then he found them. “I’m afraid that what you’ve got there, young man, is a rather heavy chunk of flint, with a large fossilised sponge at the end of it.”
It took a few seconds before his words sunk in. I had been prepared to hear that this thigh bone might not actually have come from Eotyrannus lengi, and in fact might not even have belonged to anything carnivorous at all, but had instead been the thigh bone of some harmless moss-nibbling thing – but a sponge? What kind of a sick joke was this?
“Yes, indeed,” he continued, as he examined it more closely. “It’s a sponge all right. And rather badly eroded at that.”
“Uh-huh.” I could feel my face flush. Eyes were on me. “Of course it is. I knew that. I was just hoping you could tell me what kind of a sponge, what species. I’m most curious on the point.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s not really my area. But there is a palaeontologist here who could probably help you. She’s at tea just now, if you care to wait.”
I stepped smilingly aside, nodded knowledgeably to the crowd, easing backwards away from the table then waiting until he (and they) were busy poring through a bucket of someone else’s more interesting specimens before slipping out the door.
I abandoned Spongiferous rex discretely behind a fence post, together with my career as a swashbuckling dinosaur hunter. I saddled up, pushed off and pedalled onward through the rain, sneezing by now, another thirty miles back to Ryde where I caught an afternoon ferry to Portsmouth and the mainland. Conan Doyle could keep his blessed Professor Challenger and Edward Malone and the whole lot of them. The more I thought about it – and I had much time for thinking the next day on the long and dreary ride home – I liked Sherlock Holmes better anyway. Perhaps Dartmoor next time.
They call it the sleigh ride: the three-hour flight on a ski-equipped Hercules cargo plane from the U.S. base at McMurdo to that most exotic of Antarctic destinations: the South Pole. Schoolboy keen, I showed up early at the icy airstrip, bundled up, bags packed, eager to go. It was the summer of 2000 and I was in Antarctica on an assignment for National Geographic, bound for Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station where I was supposed do a story on the future of science at the Last Place on Earth, talk with climatologists about such worthy topics as global warming and the ozone hole, and write a side piece about the construction of a new $150 million super-high-tech base the Americans were building there. Unbeknownst to my editors, I had a hidden agenda as well: to ride a bicycle around the world. I love touring and I’d always wanted to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle, but never could find the spare year or so such a journey would take. At the South Pole, however, not only could I ride around the world on a flat course free of traffic, but I could do it in a time that would make even the space shuttle’s ninety-minute orbits seem pedestrian by comparison.
A few quick turns of the pedals was all it would take, a little circle around the pole itself, and I would have passed through every single line of longitude, both the Prime and Ante Meridians, and geographically speaking, could claim to have ridden round the world.
The stars must have been all in alignment on this one. It turned out I wouldn’t even need to bring my own bicycle. In the course of my research into the goings-on at Pole that summer, I learned that a team of design students from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, working in conjunction with scientists from the U.S. Antarctic Program, had recently come up with a ‘Polar Bicycle’ for use in the South Pole’s extreme conditions.
Given the high cost of getting fuel to Antarctica, the sensitivity of the astronomical instruments at the South Pole Observatory, a half mile away from the base, and in keeping with the general low-impact eco-philosophy of Antarctic research, it was decided to make Amundsen-Scott South Pole base a bicycle friendly zone-or at least take a crack at it. A prototype of the new Polar Bicycle had been built and shipped down to Pole for testing-and yes, sure, I could take it for a spin if I liked. I liked.
The Sleigh Ride to ‘Pole’ was magic, three-hours of high adventure, following at 22,000 feet the route taken by both Scott and Shackleton back in Antarctica’s Heroic Age: across the Ross Ice Shelf, through the towering peaks of the Trans-Antarctic Mountains along the Beardmore Glacier, up to the hauntingly empty vastness of the high polar plateau. Amundsen-Scott base, when I eventually spotted it in the distance, looked almost frighteningly remote, a few scattered specks of colour in an immensity of white that stretched to every horizon.
We circled once and then the big turbo prop touched down, its skis kicking up a blizzard of snow. The hatch opened and we emerged, blinking, into a dazzlingly bright, bitterly cold, alien world, where the air was razor thin with the nearly 10,000-foot altitude, a double halo circled the sun, and home was a great blue Plexiglas dome that belonged more to the realm of science fiction than real life. The outside temperature on that balmy summer day was minus-33, the wind chill minus-61, while in the dimness beneath the dome, where the sun’s rays never reached, the temperature stayed at the Poles constant year-round average of about minus-60.
But all was pleasingly snug and warm inside Sally’s Galley, as the base canteen was affectionately known. Cramped and crowded, with lots of heavyweight red parkas hanging on hooks along the walls, it made me think of a truckstop café on the Alaska Highway, circa 1975. Meals here were hot and hearty – 5000 calories a day was the reckoning for people living and working in the extreme conditions at Pole – and there were always pots of steaming coffee on hand, trays of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies, and generally plenty of amiable company as well, for this was the social hub of the base.
And it was there, the following day, over mid-morning coffee and biscuits, I met Jeffrey Petersen, an astrophysicist from Carnegie-Mellon University who, it turned out, was Pole’s resident wheelman, commuting back and forth between the dome and the futuristic astronomy complex half a mile away.
He took me around to the Polar Bike. It was quite a piece of work. With its chunky frame and seven-inch-wide steel-mesh tyres it was never going to make me forget my whippet-lean Italian road bike back home, but then Italian road bikes aren’t designed to run in minus-80 temperatures, and be operated by someone wearing huge fur-lined gauntlets and enormous insulated ‘bunny boots’ that are standard South Pole-issue. This one was.
I hopped aboard. Jeffery grabbed his studded-tyre mountain bike which he’d freighted all the way from America and together we pedalled off to trot the globe. And yes, if you’re wondering, there really is a pole at Pole. There are two of them in fact: the barber-striped ‘Ceremonial Pole’ with all the flags around it, where everyone goes to have their photo taken in Hero mode, and, because the ice cap shifts about thirty feet or so each year, a more portable and more precise Pole a few yards away, its position being recalculated by GPS each January. We looped both. Many, many times.
We pedalled east to west, west to east, racing each other, cracking jokes and playing the location for all the quirky humour we could conjure. We even paused to wind our watches for the different time zones. As far as handling goes, the Polar Bicycle made a Mao-era Flying Pigeon look as light and responsive as a Pegoretti-Jeffrey’s mountain bike performed far better-but it was a fun toy to play with out there on the high polar plateau. Finally when we’d had enough we turned for home and pedalled back to the sheltering warmth of Sally’s Galley. Our best time, we reckoned, was somewhat under ten seconds, or as I like to think of it now, we lapped the entire world in around the time Usain Bolt can run a hundred metres.
Alas, I’m afraid our record doesn’t stand. I’ve since learned, with all the recent hoopla over round-the-world cycling records, that the nice folks at the Guinness Book of World Records take a picky stance as regards circumnavigations. They expect you to suffer a little more than we did, the morning’s minus-72 windchill and Pole’s razor thin air notwithstanding.
They expect hills, traffic, bandits, war zones, bad food, bad roads, near misses, and hairbreadth escapes. They want visas and stamps in your passport. They want you to have cycled a full eighteen thousand miles, to be precise, like James Bowthorpe did when he set the record of 175 days, not to do it playfully during your tea break as we did on a sparkling summer morning at the South Pole, then trot inside for milk and cookies like a couple of overgrown kids in the world’s biggest winter wonderland.
I dunno. Maybe I should see if they’ll give it to us with an asterisk: done at altitude.
In July of 1996 I left my job at Time Magazine and set off to cycle around Australia, unsupported and on my own, free clear and beholden to no-one. Shortly before I left though, I approached the editors of National Geographic, told them my plans, and after due consideration their story approval committee responded with cautious enthusiasm – a contract to write a small feature on the expedition (how I loved to hear it called that, and by such an august lot as the expeditions committee of the National Geographic Society!) along with a hundred rolls of Fuji Velvia film.
On the chance that the story might actually be better than expected, and that I might actually complete my ambitious 10,000 mile circumnavigation of Australia, they said they’d like to send one of their photographers to join me occasionally on the road for a few days, starting when I reached the Kimberley – or rather if I reached the Kimberley, as I recall the photo editor putting it at the time. I couldn’t blame him for the caution. I was an unknown quantity and the Kimberley was a good 4000 miles from Sydney, where I was starting, and getting there involved crossing some mighty harsh stretches of Outback.
I set off late in July and over the next three months I cycled up Australia’s bustling eastern seaboard, took an experimental 600-mile side-trip into the Queensland outback along the Capricorn Highway, returned to the coast again at Townsville, then pedalled up to Cairns and before turning west and heading into the so-called ‘Gulf Country’, the achingly desolate, blazing hot savannah that skirts the Gulf of Carpentaria. I was in seriously remote territory now, some of the harshest and loneliest scrub in Australia. I survived this baptism of fire and eventually made it to Darwin, arriving there much browner, fitter and leaner, and much, much wiser in the ways of the bush.
The day after I got there I called the photo editor collect from a pay phone on Mitchell Street and told him I was just about ready to start tackling the Kimberley. My stock had risen around the magazine by then. I’d been posting chatty, informal letters back to the manuscripts editor about my life on the road. He’d enjoyed them and passed them around – remember, this was before the age of Broadband, when letters were well thumbed sheets of paper in enveloped with postage stamps on them – and a consensus was building in the august halls of the magazine that this bicycle journey of mine might actually end up being a good story. Certainly the photo editor greeted me in welcoming fashion. When I told him where I was and my plans were he replied ‘just a moment’ and for the next few seconds I could hear the sounds of an atlas being spread open on a desk in an office 12,000 miles away.
“Is there an airport at this place, Kununurra?” he asked after a moment’s silent study. I told him there was. “Okay. We’ll have a photographer meet you there in a couple weeks,” he said, “He’ll follow you along the road to, hmmm, let’s see, how about Broome? Will he be able to get a flight out of there?” I assured him he would. We chatted bit, he wished me luck and we rang off.
I lingered in Darwin a couple more days, and set out for Kununurra, an isolated settlement in the eastern part of the Kimberley, about 600 miles away. When I got there I learned there would be a delay: the photographer they were sending was off on another assignment and couldn’t get here for another couple of weeks. And so I spent a fortnight getting to know Kununurra, where it was 115 degrees every day and sweltering in humidity in the build-up to the rains. I put in the time picking fruit in the irrigated melon fields on the outskirts of town – brutally hot hard work by normal standards, but a doddle compared the long days I’d put in on the bicycle riding out to this place from Darwin.
It was the first week of November by then, time for the running of the Melbourne Cup, the famous Australian horse race that stops the nation. Like everybody else in town I spent the day in the pub, drinking cold beer and investing my fruit-picking earnings in slow-running horses. The good news was, though, at long last, the photographer would be flying in the next morning.
I went out to the airport to meet him, curious and a little apprehensive to see what a National Geographic photographer was like – you hear so many myths and stories. What came out of the plane was a cheerful Canadian guy named Ian Lloyd who lived in Singapore and did specialised in Asia. Aside from magazine work he had a long list of corporate clients, including many of southeast Asia’s grand hotels and five-star resorts. This was his first visit to Kununurra. He glanced around and said: ‘You’re kidding, right?’
We had lunch together in the pub and then he went off to see about renting a Land Cruiser or some such for the 600-mile drive to Broome, and pick up some camping things and supplies so he could stay with me on the road. You can get all kinds of gear in Kununurra, anything from geologist’s hammer to a helicopter. It may be just a lonely dot on the map, but it is also the main service and access town for the big Argyle Diamond Mine, some two hundred miles further out in the desert. Geologists, mine engineers, site surveyors, contractors, you name it, go in and out of here all the time.
While Ian took care of his end of things, I moseyed on back to the seedy backpacker’s hostel in which I’d been staying for the past fortnight, packed my things and gave my bicycle a thorough going-over ahead of the dawn start I proposed to make on the morrow.
I’d told Ian I would be leaving at first light, which at that time of year, in that part of Western Australia, is about half past four in the morning. He smiled and shook his head and said he’d catch up with me later, that he had a few things to attend to yet in town, This seemed a little odd to me; all the photographers I’d ever known and worked with in the past were always dead keen to get out there at the crack of dawn and work the morning light for all it was worth. And yet here was this guy, National Geographic no less, going to sleep in. What was this all about?
For the time being though, at least on the gloriously sunny morning when I finally pedalled out of town, I was just grateful to be shaking the dust of Kununurra off my pannier bags, and enjoying the freedom of the open road once more. I’d done my part, said where I’d be and when I’d be going. Presumably this Ian knew what he was doing; if he screwed up, that was his look-out, not mine. Now it just felt good to be up and moving.
I made decent time. I always did this hour of the day. That was the trick to cycling through the deserts out here: put in the work in the relative cool of the mornings, and then, around eleven o’clock or so, when the mercury has soared up over the century mark, pull over make yourself a day-camp in whatever scrap of shade you can find and sit out the worst of the heat, sipping from a water bottle, reading, dozing, listening to the drowsy hum of the insects. Then set off again late afternoon, when a subtle but recognizable shift in the light told you that the day was on the wane and the gentle slide towards evening had begun.
On the subject of light I began looking around as I pedalled along the desolate highway that morning and thinking to myself that perhaps Ian had called the right turn after all; this was a nice time of day for riding, but a bit early yet for the outback colours to have taken on those nice rich tones that photographers so rightly love.
A couple of hours later though, the morning sunlight was as honeyed and sweet as anyone could hope for – the sky had deepened by then to a rich enamel blue and the majestic red rock country of the Kimberley was practically aglow with golden sunrise warmth. It was lovely and getting lovelier by the moment. But still no sign of Ian.
I pulled over on the roadside for a drink and thoughtful look around, wondering where this guy might be, if he’d broken down or gone the wrong way out of town. Wherever he was, he was a long way from where I was. My stretch of road was dead quiet, just a desolate ribbon of bitumen stretching away for miles in both directions and that great primal hush that descends over you when you stand all by yourself along a lonely roadside in the Outback. The horizons on every side were empty. The only thing that was moving anywhere was a distant speck of a helicopter off to the north – somebody doing a bit of cattle mustering, probably. That’s the way they round up their livestock here in the Kimberley, where cattle stations run into the millions of acres: they use helicopters. This time of year, with the rains about to start, the big Kimberley pastoralists are usually busy moving their cattle up onto higher, firmer ground – one of the many chores they need to attend to in the battening down of hatches before the onset of ‘The Wet’, when the homesteads get flooded in, the roads washed out and pretty much everything up here shuts down.
I had about 2000 miles to cover if I was going to get myself far enough south to be out of reach of big tropical rains that were coming. I’d been dawdling these past few weeks, what with one thing or another – taking a well-earned breather in Darwin, revelling in the romance of having ridden my bicycle from Sydney to the Timor Sea, and that fortnight I’d just spent cooling my heels in Kununurra waiting for Ian to show up. We were well into November now, very much time for me to get cracking. I capped my water bottle, mounted up and set off down the highway into the pretty morning light, the buzz of that helicopter growing ever more insistent in my ears.
Ever seen that old Hitchcock movie North by Northwest? You know that scene where Cary Grant is standing all by himself at that impossibly desolate crossroads in South Dakota, looking as lonely as a pin on a map, and watching the crop-duster swooping in the distance? Where the audience feels a gathering sense of unease and menace that Cary Grant’s character doesn’t notice until it is nearly too late? Well, except for the fact that I don’t look a thing like Cary Grant, that could have been me. And like his character, I never saw it coming. I was pedalling blithely along the highway when suddenly there came a deafening roar as the no-longer-distant helicopter zoomed up behind me, shoulder height and frighteningly close, its powerful down-drafts buffeting me across the road. As it whooshed by I noticed Ian leaning out the open hatch with a big motor-driven Canon SLR clapped to his face.
Nose down, the chopper sped up the highway ahead of me, Ian leaning out and shooting back at me like a tail-gunner. As I watched, open-mouthed, the pilot wheeled his craft around in a low, tight turn and came back for another pass.
And so it went. Back and forth, hovering low – and I mean reach-out-and-grab-the-struts low – with Ian shooting close-ups, the pilot smiling and nodded reassurance, and me wrestling the downdrafts, gripping the handlebars like a strangler, flabbergasted, awestruck, and all the while trying to look casual for the camera: a carefree cyclist breezing down an empty desert highway with just the twittering of the birds for company.
The pilot was a genius, his skills honed by years of mustering cattle and dropping off geologists in weird and inaccessible locations. He was easily able to pace me on the bike, occupying the lane beside me, even doing it backwards when Ian wanted to take pictures from the other side of the road. At one point, when they were riding along close beside me, he’d had to haul back on the joystick and jump clear to let a road train barrel through beneath him. A moment later he was back again, hovering beside me, little more than an arm’s length away, as though nothing had happened. I can only imagine what that truck driver must have thought. The spectacle of a cyclist being monstered by a helicopter must have been a little odd even by outback Australian standards.
As for me, I’ve been able to play dodge-‘ems with the most aggressive of London’s taxis, busses and white-panel-van delivery men with complete equanimity ever since. They are all just pussycats compared with a bush pilot in a Bell Jet Ranger.
After a few more passes they put down on the roadside and the pilot switched off the engine. Silent fell over the desert. I drew up on my bicycle, chuckling to myself with relief and amazement, accepting gratefully the ice-cold bottle of Gatorade Ian thrust into my hands, and the oversized bag of breakfast goodies he’d brought along to go with it. Ian and the pilot and I then stood around gasbagging for a while – for I felt there was much for us to discuss – after which they hopped back in the whirlybird and, all smiles and waves, took off in a roar of engines and swirling dust, back to Kununurra, shooting aerials along the way. And there was me standing by my bicycle in a big empty desert wondering what on earth I’d let myself in for.
We spent the following week together, Ian and I, crossing the Kimberley east to west, all the way to the old pearling port of Broome. No more helicopter chases after that first day, just him driving a rental Land Cruiser packed with camera gear and me working long days in front of the lens, pedalling back and forth as required, jollied on by Ian’s infallible good humour and his assurances that this would all pay off in the end. As indeed it did. Buoyed along by the strength of the images that were shot that week, the story of my ride around Australia grew in National Geographic’s editorial panel’s estimation from the original planned shortish feature to a full three-part series – the first in the magazine’s history.
In fact, one of the shots Ian took that week, of a beleaguered me pedalling past a bush fire not far from Fitzroy Crossing, very nearly became a National Geographic cover, narrowly losing out at the last minute to a more adorable shot of baby leopard cubs (but winning the reader’s choice poll!) To this day whenever I see that shot I can still hear him calling out to me from a safe distance away (thanks to his 300mm lens), as I pedalled across the viewfinder: “Can – you – ride – closer – to – the – flames?” And my plaintive response, a wailed: “Noooooo!”
Ian was to join me several more times over the course of my journey – in the towering Karri forests and Margaret River wine region south of Perth, and again in Melbourne, in the cold, blustery wilds of Tasmania and one final time at the very end of the trail, at the steps of the Opera House when I finally reached Sydney. I came to look forward to his visits on the trail, a familiar face after weeks of encountering only strangers, and having the opportunity to step outside my traveller’s anonymity and be somebody, a somebody with a name, a background, colleagues, and friends – one of them fast becoming a jaunty Canadian photographer named Ian Lloyd. All these years later we still keep in touch, exchanging the news of our families and children and marvelling at the passage of time.
As for me, I’ve always wanted to write the story of scooting down that lonely desert highway, wide-eyed, with the blades of that Bell Jet Ranger prodding me along – without doubt the weirdest bit of traffic I’ve ever encountered in my cycling career – but writing the photographer into the story just isn’t usually the done thing in the magazine game, not even in a first person account. It just seems too indulgent and anyway there wasn’t space. But what is a blog if not an opportunity for a little writerly indulgence? And so here, fifteen years late, is my helicopter story.