Friday, 8 August 2014

Hiiuma and Saarema

Map of the Nova area
Although the route was very scenic the RMK campsite at Nova turned out to be a disaster. It was located in a lovely sandy beach but now, on a weekend in summer, it was incredibly crowded. And other than the day before these people were staying overnight and not leaving after a swim. Huge family clans had occupied the cooking shelters, their cars parked right next to their tents and there was even an ice cream parlor that had a generator running.  To make things worse the dry toilets were overwhelmed and smelled badly after all this summer. Although the place was huge I decided to leave and try a smaller RMK campsite nearby without beach access. Same result: all spaces were taken and some groups had parked their car so close to the campfire that I was expecting an explosion soon. I cycled on and discovered another RMK site for swimming. The last visitors were just leaving (in their car, of course) when I arrived giving me the opportunity to go skinny dipping. There was a thermometer in the water and it showed a water temperature of 25° C!

Swimming spot at Nova
It was getting dark now and I still hadn't found a campsite. This was a nature reserve where free camping was explicitly forbidden and I wanted to respect that. After a lot of back and forth I finally settled on an abandoned forest track just outside the reserve - less than a kilometre from the nature centre. The place opened at 10 am and I had thought I would be long gone by then but again I had just slept in. Still I was the first visitor enjoying a nice toilet, free wifi and drinking water. The exhibition was unfortunately in Estonian only and the very eager staff didn't speak English. But the put me in front of a microscope and I enjoyed studying various samples of sand.

But duty was calling: today I wanted to take the ferry to the island of Hiiuma and I still had some miles to pedal. This gave me little time to visit Happsalu but this didn't matter much: a music festival was taking place there and the big castle was only open to festival visitors. So onward to the ferry that took me to Hiiuma in 90 minutes. Soon after getting off the ferry I started to like the place: hardly any traffic, beautiful forest and plenty of beaches. This is how I had pictured the Aland islands.

I wanted to try another RMK campsite at the top of a spit of land. But when I realised that every place with beach access was already taken by families with cars I knew that the RMK campsite would be full. Plus the access road was deep gravel and torture for my bike. I gave up on beach camping and looked into the forest instead where I found the picture perfect campsite: thick soft moss under huge old growth pine trees - and no mosquitos! Life was good again!

Next day brought me into Kärdla, Hiiuma's "capitol". But beside a big supermarket and a nice beach there isn't really much to see. But there is an artesian spring right in town with great tasting water - usually the tap water on the islands tastes very sulphurous. The lady in the local visitor centre food a great job: I wanted to leave the island with the last ferry but she talked me into going to Kopu peninsula. The weather was great and I am in no hurry - so why not?

First I passed Kopu lighthouse, a monster of its kind. Instead of now going back to the main paved road I idiotically decided to cycle the direct route to a RMK Hirmuste campsite. This was a very bad gravel road  and I managed to fall off my bike for the second time on this trip. Beside a scratch on my ankle nothing happened to me, only my mood dropped considerably. The many horseflies didn't help either and I almost regretted my decision to try another RMK campsite that would probably be full anyway. Half a dozen times I was about to just camp somewhere in the forest but luckily I continued.

Hirmuste RMK campsite
When I finally reached the campsite it was completely empty which completely surprised me: this was a picture perfect spot: Picnic tables and camp fire grills right on the beach scad lovely sheltered campspots between small pine trees. There were even dry toilets and trash cans. I set up camp with a view out onto the sea and cooked dinner while watching the sunset. Again life was very good.

Despite this idyllic evening next morning started badly. I had completely miscalculated the sunrise location and was frying in my tent under direct sunlight by 6 am. Well, I had wanted to get up early anyway to get the midday ferry to Saarema. I was cycling shortly after 7 am (a new record on this trip) but I still had to do 5 km of horrible dirt road accompanied by hundreds of even more horrible horseflies. I'd rather deal with mosquitos than aggressive horseflies. I am just not fast enough on dirt roads to escape them.

Sunset at Hirmuste
I arrived at the ferry port with half an hour to spare and was just surprised that no ferry was in sight. I had checked the ferry schedule on the internet and the lady in the tourist information in Kärdla had confirmed that this was the first day of schedule change. Unfortunately, the time table posted at the ferry port said something very different. Time tables did not change today, but in a week. And that meant I had just missed the midday ferry and had to wait 3 1/2 hours. I wasn't the only misinformed person - two other cyclists were also patiently waiting. But whereas they waited in the nearby restaurant over several glasses of beer I cycled into the next village and enjoyed drinking joghurt and free wifi. Thanks to the ferry company's misinformation policy I arrived much later at Saarema than expected - and still did my longest day with 120 km. (Several ice cream stops helped....)

RMK campsite at quarry lake
I wanted to see the cliffs at Panga but when I arrived at a crossroad and saw that I had to do 7 km on corrugated dirt road to get there I chose a different route. What I really wanted was a swim - in a lake and not in the salty sea. Although the beaches here are great the water is very shallow and sometimes full of algae. RMK offered the perfect solution: Konati campsite next to a quarry lake. I just flew along and got there when the last kids were just leaving on their bikes. It was absolutely heavenly to wash off all the sweat and grime and put on clean clothes afterwards. I even cooked sitting on a bench. Unfortunately, an Estonian family had arrived and was noisily setting up camp after driving their car directly next to the fire pit. I fled into the nearby forest.

Beach access
When cycling down the forest road at dusk looking for a suitable campsite in the swamp forest I suddenly saw a dog right ahead of me on the road. This would probably lead to one of two scenarios (and neither one was very good): either the dog would defend its territory by attacking me or at least a lot of barking - or it was a stray dog that would choose me as its new master (and I would have to politely convince it from the opposite). But neither of the two happened! The dog seemed to be local and on its evening stroll - and it was much more amazed to see me than vice versa. After a shock moment it continued its stroll giving me a very wide berth as if to say: “I don't want to come too close to this lunatic on a bike that is climbing swamp ditches at night." It turned around several times after it had passed me to see me and my bike disappear over the ditch....

My swamp camp site had one big advantage: complete morning shade and so I slept in to recover from my 120 km day. And of course I took another short swim before I left the quarry lake.

Beach on Saarema
I was now circling the island on quiet roads mostly following the coastline and I liked it more and more. This was cycle touring at its best and the endless summer weather helped of course. The villages were rather small but usually had a little shop for an ice cream stop and wifi somewhere. And in between more and more beaches with just some occasional Estonian or Russian visitor. Nature was great, too. I stopped at the information centre of Vilsandi nature reserve where visitors admired cute deal babies and little bird chiclets in a documentary. Vilsandi is an islands off Saarema's coast and go can go there by ferry - or walk. The water is that shallow. Actually Saarema itself is rising each year by 3 mm. This doesn't sound like much but it adds up over the centuries.

Sorve peninsula
As I liked the island so much I decided to do another detour into Sorve peninsula, a 30 km long spit of land that was once an island, but is now connected to the main island due to land rising. I quickly turned off the main paved road onto gravel to look for a quiet campsite. Finding a campsite turned out to be difficult but the route along the shallow coastline was fabulous. Huge fields of reeds and sandy beaches, even a lighthouse one one side and pastures and forest on the other. All this in the warm light of dusk and I felt a bit like in a fairy tale. There were plenty of places to camp but they all lacked shade. And I did not want to be woken 6 am when I had only set up camp at 10 pm. Finally a good spot emerged down a little side road - and it was high time as it was already getting dark. At 6 am a farmer came by in his car but didn't see me under the low trees although I was less than 2 metres away from the dirt track.

Kuressare castle
 I now cycled back and headed towards.Kuressare, Saaremas capitol and home of the famous castle of the Teutonic order - a truly impressive place surrounded by a huge moat. Inside there were several exhibitions: a nature centre, a history exhibition and a lot of information about the "Red terror" during the Soviet occupation. I always wonder how the many Russian tourists feel when visiting this. Kuressare would have been a nice overnight stay but the weather was just too good and I continued to Karli, a rather weird sightseeing spot.

Meteorite crater
Saarema was hit by several  meteorites 6000 years ago and here you can see the craters - which don't look like much nowadays. This night my spell of great campsites finally broke. When I reached my "target camping area" I realised in great horror that this was all swamp forest with no tracks getting off the main road. When I finally found one it was so destroyed by tractor tracks that I had to push my bike and was still shaken. Thunder was rumbling and I quickly wanted to find a campsite in the forest jungle which always involves crossing the ditch in swamp forest. It never really rained but I realised quickly that I had camped too close to the road. Each passing car sounded like a thunderstorm and woke me up, especially some idiots who performed a honking concert at 2.30 am for a reason that totally eludes me.

Next day a major thunderstorm was forecasted and I decided therefore to stay in the bigger roads where I could always seek shelter in one of the fabulous bus shelters. I felt very sticky and wanted a quick clean up. Salty sea water just doesn't cut it but where else could I get a quick shower. Like on cue a cemetery appeared with a water pump. I filled a plastic bottle, sought shelter behind the cemetery wall and some bushes and had a quick and refreshing bottle shower. The thunderstorm never materialised and therefore I dared to enter the causeway between the islands of Saarema and Muhu. Still no thunderstorm. I continued on to the ferry that only took half an hour to take me back to the Estonian mainland.

Beach on Saarema
Hiiuma and Saarema have been real highlights of this trip. I can highly recommend this destination which is ideal for people with "normal" one or two week holidays. Get to Tallinn, cycle along the coast to Hiiuma, circle Hiiuma,.take ferry to Saarema, circle Saarema, take the ferry back to mainland via Muhu and return to Tallinn by bus or continue to Pärnu. You'll find quiet, flat and scenic roads, hardly any other tourists, fabulous sandy beaches, plenty of free RMK campsites and other wild camping opportunities, interesting wild life and plenty of nice little villages. There is also a free cycling guidebook about Western Estonia published by the Estonian tourist board printed on waterproof paper that covers the whole area and also gives tips for logistics and sightseeing.

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