Expect the unexpected

Like soldiers and boy scouts, road trippers must prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. Because sometimes, things can go a bit pear-shaped…

Like when the GPS unexpectedly sends you to a ferry port to get to your next destination...

...although forced down time is never a bad thing.

Or when the bike suddenly, quietly runs out of oil while you're busy getting lost in Angers.

That’s Toby using a baby bottle to refill the bike’s oil. Because oil comes in bottles that can’t pour. And the garage only has their own funnel, and look surprised when you ask for it but don’t have the bike with you, and the language barrier is just too much so you say “merci” about 1000 times and run away before you embarrass yourself any further. And the average funnel bought from a supermarket, I assume meant for some kind of special French dessert cooking, doesn’t cut it so you spill oil everywhere and hope no one slips on it. But a 7 euro baby bottle with pink pictures of bunnies on it? Perfect.


Why we bothered to come all this way on a motorbike…

Our day of riding between Estamariu and Bielsa was the most spectacular of the trip, and one of the best we’ve ever done. Words can’t really explain the exhilaration, nor the sense of being the luckiest person in the world. Will show some pictures instead on the ride to Bielsa and then Sos, which deserves a post of its own.

40 degrees in the shadow

When we were packing up the bike in Chartres there were two little Irish kids strapped into their car seats next to us, while their parents did who knows what. (I think mum thought dad was minding them, while dad had obviously decided we were trustworthy and left them there while he went and had a coffee or something.) The little boy was 5 and very chatty, asking us lots of questions, some easy to answer (“how did you get the bike to France?”) and others not so easy (“what do elephants eat?”). The parents returned eventually and as they started to drive off, the little boy stuck his head out the window and yelled back at us, “What happens if it rains?”

What happens indeed, little Irish man. In one question he managed to sum up the biggest problem with a motorbike – your vulnerability to the elements. But this trip it hasn’t been the rain that’s bothered us as much as the heat. Particularly the day after Chateauroux.

After our mosey through the Loire Valley we continued south, deep into the Dordogne region. If we thought summer had hit us in Chartres we had another thought coming. We stayed off the motorway, meaning a pleasant meander through little villages and proper winding roads, but also meaning a lower speed limit. The sun turns riding gear into a sauna suit, and not the kind that will help you lose some croissant weight but the kind that makes you feel like you might die of heatstroke, especially at low speeds.

Toby’s phone, also our GPS, got super hot. Here it is trying to cool down so it can get us where we need to go without melting.

We had a lunchtime stop at Hautefort chateau, but it wasn’t as spectacular as Chambord and there was nowhere to eat and it cost 8.50 just to see the garden. Plus, it was freaking hot. So we walked a little way into town and found a nice restaurant with air conditioning which didn’t really seem to work. The view didn’t quite make up for it.

View from Hautefort restaurant at lunchtime

We left Hautefort, wishing we didn’t have accommodation booked and we could just stop at the next hotel and hide from the heat. But we couldn’t so we kept going. The ride was magnificent, the kind where I enjoy the scenery while Toby enjoys the corners, and the scenery was unlike anything we’ve seen before. But the heat was relentless and it was hard to keep misery at bay. We finally pulled into Moissac at 6.30pm, passing a sign that told us it was still 31 degrees. I hate to think what temperatures we’d been riding through. If only we’d had the TV on to warn us of what was to come we might have stuck to the motorway and been less ambitious with our distance. But most small French hotels don’t have any English-speaking channels like BBC or CNN so we just don’t bother putting them on. A shame and quite silly of us – I’m quite sure we could have understood a weather map.

We had some issues with the hotel room’s air conditioning but luckily got it sorted before bedtime and had a delicious salad dinner near the hotel – much better than the buttery omelettes we’d had to eat at lunchtime which made me feel ill. We also drank 1.5 litres of water between us – we were super dehydrated thanks to the fact that both our camel baks have given up on being sources of water and are now just packs. Moissac is known for its 12th century cloister which we saw from the outside since we arrived so late, but other than that the hotel was in a carpark and I guess the young people are bored there. Felt kind of like a carpark in Western Sydney.

In the morning when we were packing up the bike to leave the woman from the hotel cheerfully told me they were expecting 40 degrees “in the shadow” that day, and yes it was quite normal for June. We were glad we were heading for the coast and decided to follow the motorway to cut down on time and get more air flow. It’s amazing the difference 130 km/h can make. The lady asked about air conditioning (on the bike?) and I had to say “the wind” which she thought was hilarious. Not so hilarious when it’s you.

So unfortunately our best day scenery-wise will mostly be remembered for the sweat and headaches that kind of heat brings on. And this kind of crankiness:

Motorway fun

Have you seen a snazzier toilet in a roadside cafe? It cost 50 cents to use but was totally worth it.

Was I mauled by a pack of wild dogs? No, this is just what happens when you wear a $15 raincoat on the motorway at 80 miles an hour…

Fun on the Ferry & Undecided in Utrecht

Our extra day in the Lake District put us behind in getting to Edinburgh, and by the time we got there I’d managed to catch Toby’s illness and lost another day lying on Rob & Kim’s couch drinking tea. But in the end we made the most of our few days catching up with old friends and not being rained on, despite the odds.

Yesterday we packed up the bike and drove two hours down the coast to Newcastle to get the ferry to the Netherlands. Entering the belly of the ship in a big group of bikes made me feel like I was in a gang, finally.

Toby secures the bike so it doesn’t roll away if we have a Titanic moment.

And then he had to make the most of the time we had close to shore so could get the internet.

Last view out of Newcastle (first view was coal-related infrastructure).

This Dutch couple waved frantically to the Newcastle coal workers as we left port. Their enthusiasm was very entertaining. I don’t think anyone waved back.

We were lucky to get a very smooth crossing over the North Sea, including a good meal, a drink at the top deck bar overlooking the sunset, and buffet breakfast surrounded by tall, tanned, outdoorsy Dutch and pale, bloated Brits. The ship also had shops and cinemas and a “nightclub” but because we’re pensioners in disguise we just went to bed. The only downer was when we waited for the message for passengers with vehicles on deck 4 which took ages to come, and finally we went down anyway, opening the door to see a line of motorbikes with lights on and engines running pointed straight at us. Oops. We didn’t hold too many people up. Since I’m not an EU citizen like Toby I then held us up at passport control by having to take my helmet off and get a stamp in my passport.

Then we were on our way. The ship docks 18 miles from Amsterdam but since we’ve been there before we decided to head south to Utrecht, a smaller town I remembered being suggested by Lonely Planet for some reason or another. We still don’t know how to pronounce it – a British biker pulled up next to us at some traffic lights and asked where we were off to and we just had to shrug helplessly. We just put Utrecht into the GPS and away we went…

…straight to the Utrecht tennis club, which apparently is the geographic centre of town?

So Toby tried to get the GPS to take us somewhere more useful, like a tourist information centre.

Which we found, by ourselves, after paying 4.20 euro by credit card to park the bike in the centre of town and walking in circles for an hour before going into a library asking them to help us organise a hotel. The lady said “oh you need to ask the tourist information office” and at that point I basically sobbed “we can’t find it” so she very nicely pulled out a map and showed us where it was – about 500 metres from where we’d parked the bike.

So here we are in our hotel in Utrecht, having had lunch and dinner and a walk through the town centre once we’d recovered from the morning’s adventure. I think Lonely Planet must have been talking about the cathedral and the clock tower when it suggested a visit here – both are very impressive.

The pipe organ in the Dom.

The clock tower.

Thank goodness for that, because otherwise Utrecht would not have been a great call on my part. I haven’t seen a university but I’m sure it must be a university town, filled as it is with young people on bicycles who seem to have all the time in the world for shopping and drinking beer. The canals make it seem a bit like a mini Amsterdam with lots of trees and lovely old buildings and yes, all those bicycles. My favourite are the ones with children in baskets, standing on bars, sitting in wagons attached to the front – stuff that in Australia would look a lot like child neglect or endangerment but here it just makes sense. Adults ride bikes so how else would you get the kidlets home from school? While I waited for Toby outside a supermarket this afternoon not a car went by on the main road but there was constant gridlock on the bike path. If they weren’t such heavy smokers it would make the Dutch look really smart and super healthy.

Tomorrow the plan is to head for Paris in the hopes of scamming a free couch in the Curley’s Notre Dame apartment on Thursday night. We will see how that turns out…