Friday, 31 May 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: Day one

Start in Neukoelln
 I flew back from my little narrow boating holiday to Berlin. A hiker friend was accommodating me and we had a great time swapping stories as she had just hiked the Swedish C2C. I had already prepared my bike gear and just had to swap luggage. But of course there is always hundreds of other little things to do and I was busy for two days. Then, on Friday 31st of May I finally set off after the soothing words of my friend Nano that I am riding directly into a severe weather warning. I set off nevertheless and as always felt pretty horrible. The day I start a new trip I always feel pretty bad and wonder why I am doing all this.

As my friends had been teasing me I felt that I had to start cycling directly from Nano's place in Neukoelln. Taking the metro to the Berlin suburbs was for wusses I was told. At least this saved me 4 Eur for the metro ticket. I managed to get lost the first time in Tiergarten but managed fine otherwise. At 1 pm I arrived at Berlin city limits and things started to brighten up.  I actually cycled in bright sunshine and my bike path, the Havellandradweg turned out to be a very positive surprise. Hardly ever I had to cycle on roads, sometimes on bike paths next to the road but mostly on beautiful paved bike only roads.

Storm approaching
But eventually the weather forecast threatened to come true. The sky turned almost black and I realised I had only minutes left to find shelter. I made it just in time. I cycled into a small village and prayed for a bus shelter - and there it was. Two minutes later all hell broke loose and it was bucketing down. A group of retirees had not been that lucky.They came in 15 minutes later soaking wet and left quickly to get to their accommodation in the next town. I was waiting until the rain stopped almost completely. It had  indeed been a severe storm as I  saw the fire brigade passing twice.

I was opting for a short day. This was my first day cycling and I did not want to overdo it. After 80 km I passed through some nice forest and decided to call it a day. This was also the first time in years I was travelling with another tent than a Tarptent. I had brought a Big Agnes Fly Creek for this trip and wanted enough time and a good camp spot to set it up. Then the next test: would my petrol stove work? Yes, it did and soon Bratwurst was served before the next downpour. Alas, after dinner I discovered the first ticks on me.... But now I am happily lying in my tent starting to look forward to this trip.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Cycling Scandinavia: The Plan

Bike touring in Australia
 In a couple of days I will return to Germany and after a brief stop over in Berlin to change gear I will embark on my three months cycling trip across Scandinavia. So what is the plan? The plan is that there is not much of a plan, only more of a rough idea. Last year I had to learn the hard way that fixed routes and finish dates lead to time pressure that can seriously reduce the enjoyment of trip. So on this trip I will try to avoid any time constraints.

One way to avoid time constraints is not booking any transportation in advance which is most easily achieved by starting from home. As the only thing I could call home now is the place where my storage unit is located I will start directly in Berlin. No flights to catch, no trains to board - I have never started a trip that easily.

From there I plan to cycle up to Denmark visiting friends in Northern Germany on the way. I will spend plenty of time in Denmark taking advantage of the extended bike route system there before taking the ferry to Sweden. There again I want to use a bike trail called "Sverigeleden" to make my way up North and cross into Finland. And now comes the beauty of this trip: If I run out of time or don't like it, I don't have to cycle all the way but can take a ferry over to Finland. Finland does not have that many bike routes, but there is the Baltic Sea Cycle Route and Via Finlandia that can take me to Helsinki where I will take the ferry to Tallinn. In the Baltic States there is the Baltic Sea Cycle Route again and the Tour LatEst. I could theoretically cycle from the Baltic States all the way back to Berlin on the international bike route R1 but I doubt I will have enough time left. But again: The beauty of this trip is that I can just take a ferry back to Germany from Klaipeda. So with all these possibilities of shortcuts via ferry I hope not to encounter any time constraints this time. I am planning on being back to Germany around September 1st to start my next long hike across Europe.

My bike set up
I was a worried about what to prepare for this bike trip. I have cycled across Japan and South Korea with basically no preparation at all and just a road atlas. So bike touring does not require a lot of preparation. But on the other hand preparation could save me time on the road and make decisions en route easier. Therefore I have bought most of the maps beforehand which was relatively easy: Only one road atlas from Freytag&Berndt is required for almost the whole trip! So 29,95 EUR bought me the maps for almost three months. Additionally I discovered a great free map of Denmark from their tourist organisation that shows all the national bike routes! The rest of my preparation consisted of marking the bike routes on the maps and reading a lot of guidebooks which left me more planless than before. In my experience bike trips are very spontaneous. You decide on the spot where you want to go and then go. You don't need bike trails and I wonder how much I will actually stick to them once on the road.

The other half of the preparation concerned my bike. I spent a couple of evenings at my local bike club and with my friend Wulf and in the end I had changed the oil of my Rohloff hub, put on a new back tube and tire, changed brake pads and gear shift cable. Already having a true and tested bike set up helped a lot. I basically just had to do a tiny bit of maintenance and get my old bike gear out.

I am most worried now about the weather. I have spent the whole month of May in Britain basically freezing my ass off. And now I am going even further North! I just hope the weather improves and summer finally arrives. Updating this blog will be another challenge: Usually I buy a SIM card for every country I hike in  but I'll be passing through so many countries in such a short time that this does not make much sense. I will rely on free wifi and my smartphone. Also I have not cycled long-distance for quite a since 2010 and wonder how I will get back into it.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Narrowboating revisited

On May 1st my sedentary life in Germany was over and I flew to Birmingham in the UK - but not for hiking or cycling. I was visiting my friend and former cycling partner John again who is now permanently living on a narrowboat on the British canals. I had already stayed with him for almost a month in November 2011 and had liked narrowboating a lot! Although it had taken me forever to understand the principles of steering an 18 m long narrowboat into tiny little locks my hard acquired knowledge had not been forgotten. Back on the tiller again I almost immediately became an experienced helmswoman again - until I banged the boat for the first time.....

Nantwich cathedral
But before we left our lovely mooring place in the Gas Street Basin of Birmingham I had a visitor: Andy Howell whom I knew from his outdoor blog. When I had learnt that he is living in Birmingham I had sent him an email asking whether he would like to meet me - and indeed he wanted to. We spent a couple of hours drinking tea and chatting - and this is the result. But he was not the only guest: I had sent out another email to Gayle and her husband Mick, both British long-distance hikers and avid bloggers. They have traversed Great Britain four times: Twice from Land's End to John O'Groats and also from Kent to Cape Wrath and from Lowestoft (most Easterly point) to Ardnarmurchan (most westerly point in the UK). Although I am not the greatest fan of hiking long-distance in the UK after my rather disastrous John O'Groats to Land's End hike in 2011 Gayle and Mick tempted me to give it another try one day. From their blog I have also learned a new statistical number: whinges per mile.... Gayle and I also compete for the title of most organised European hiker, but a look at her blog will tell you that she wins the price for the most ingenous pie charts on an outdoor blog.  I was very glad that the timing worked out to meet them as they were just about to depart on another TGO challenge.

This time we are travelling very slowly, only about 2 to 4 hours per day behind the tiller. This suits me very well as I have to finish up the research for my upcoming trips. We spend a lot of time in the little towns along the canal and as last time most of these places are very charming: Market Drayton, Nantwich and now Chester. A big highlight has been the National Waterway Museum in Ellesmere Port: an entire museum dedicated to life on the canals. Our entrance fee even allowed us to moor inside the museum compound.

So far I have managed to get myself into two disasters: A week ago I was trying to get the boat ready for departure and wanted to step back onto the boat. But what I thought is grass covered ground turned out to be grass only - and I slipped straight into the canal. My left leg got caught between the boat and the bank and I almost panicked: Although I knew that the engine was only idling I felt dangerously close to the propeller. Once I had extracted myself out of this mess I assessed the damage: Wet shoes and trousers were not a big problem, but I had banged my left knee and shin badly. Not good if you are about to embark on a long bike trip! On top of all that I had also bruised my ribs which made laughing and coughing very painful. I was limping badly for several days, but now luckily my leg is almost back to normal.

Lock gates
The second  disaster happened today as I prepared the locks to get out of the museum in Ellesmore. I had just opened the paddles of the lock gates when the whole lock area started to flood. The lock basin was overflowing and I realised I would soon have very wet feet! But how could this happen? I assumed that the flooding would stop when the lock itself had emptied but the flooding continued for minutes. I was clueless until John yelled at me from the lower lock to close the lock paddles - which was difficult enough as I had to wade through the flooded lawn. Then John explained to me what had happened. Someone had left the upper lock paddles upon and therefore I had not only tried to empty the lock, but the whole canal as water was continuously flowing into the lock from the canal. Normally the last person to operate the lock always shuts the panels and therefore I had not checked on it - big mistake! But as soon as the paddles were shut the flooding stopped and the lawn had just received a generous watering.... I did not even get a deserved bollocking from the museum staff. They even explained to me that their overflow system does not work very well and that had not helped either.

Although I very much enjoy the boating again, the weather is not cooperating. Seems like whenever I am in the UK something weird happens. This time it is an incredibly cold May. I am freezing at night on the boat and have even considered playing cards with my gloves on. I am wearing three to four layers and I am still cold - and this is May! I am only warming up when cooking which I love doing! I even brought three German recipe books to try out new dishes. So far at least no cooking disaster has happened. And although British cuisine is not the greatest in the world I love having cream tea at all hours of the day. I have to warm up somehow....

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Outdoor cuisine

Dave has posted a comment asking me to describe my diet on the trail - and triggered this post.

What I am eating outdoors depends very much on the activity. My hiking diet varies very much from my paddling/cycling diet (which is another reason to go cycling and paddling - you eat so much better....)

Let me start with my rather austere hiking diet. When hiking long distance weight saving is everything and therefore my food has to offer the most calories for the least weight. It has to be prepared with very little fuel. It has to be compact. It has to be non-perishable. That leaves very few appetizing things.....

Breakfast: Half a pound of granola eaten with nothing but cold water (sounds horrible, but you get used to it)
Lunch: Dehydrated package food. Not the fancy stuff you can buy in outdoor shops - this is way too expensive on the long run. I am talking about your typical supermarket pasta or rice package food. Depending on the country the brand is Lipton, Knorr, Continental, Gallina Blanca - but the food tastes the same. Variations are Asian noodle soup packages (Top Ramen is the worst, Asian produced ones are much better) or flavoured mashed potatoes.
Dinner: The same as for lunch - another dehydrated package meal
Snacks: A lot! Mostly chocolate - on a normal day I eat up to 300 gr of chocolate. In hot climates I substitute chocolate with Nutella in plastic jars and eat it with a spoon. But I also eat gummi bears, all sorts of nuts, granola bars, potatoe chips and whatever is available in the supermarket.

My birthday dinner in Alaska
I calculate about about 1 kg of food per day: 250 gr of granola for breakfast, 2 x 150 gr of package food for lunch and dinner and 400 gr of snacks.

When I hike in populated areas with lots of resupply options my diet gets better. I then try to eat a cold lunch from a supermarket like bread and cheese and some fruit and vegetables. And dinner might be upgraded to fresh pasta or sausages.

Still I usually loose weight on a hike - especially hiking in wilderness areas with few resupply options. I lost 5 - 10 kg of weight on my PCT and CDT thruhikes, but only little weight on my hike through Europe.

Things improve tremendously when I am cycling or paddling. Weight is not much of an issue then and I can indulge in better food. I carry a petrol stove instead of a gas canister stove. I carry two pots and a pan instead of one tiny titanium 0.9 l pot. I carry a big pocket knife with a nice blade instead of a tiny one. And I carry a lot better food!

Cooking on a bike trip in NZ
Breakfast: Will still usually be granola with cold water, but depending on the country can also be oatmeal or rice.
Lunch: Will usually be a cold lunch consisting of some bread type and cheese, sausage, tofu and some sort of fruit or vegetable.
Dinner: is the highlight of the day as I will be cooking on a nice stove with no fuel restrictions! Although not quite as good as cooking in a real kitchen I will turn into a domestic goddess with a camp stove! On my 7 months bike trip with John I cooked a 3-course dinner almost every night.... On my own I am not quite so extravagant but still cook something decent with anything that has been on offer in the last supermarket. On cycling trips I use a lot of fresh food like fruit, vegetables and even meats because I can resupply every day. On paddling trips I am more confined to non-perishable food like cans or long lasting veggies like carrots, onions or dried fruit. Having no fuel restrictions also allows me to drink a cup of tea or hot chocolate.