The morning of the 11th April was grey and cool and overnight Mike had strayed from our learnt keeping-warm technique of sleeping in the sleeping bag silk liner, cover yourself in a cheap Ikea blanket, all enclosed in our sleeping bags. It's unbelievably cozy and does make getting up difficult on such grey, cool days. Mike was cold overnight because he neglected his silk liner AND the blanket. What a sausage.
We really wanted to get into Bremen to stay with our friends Nina and Rasmus by that evening since the 12th was my birthday and we were hoping for our first full day off. This meant a 135km day - the longest so far.
The night before we had stopped in the town of Meppen to and bought supplies for our long ride. To be honest, those were mostly chocolate bars, but we also had some delicious German muesli bread rolls which we ate with bananas and Dutch jam that we bought from a charming little roadside honesty shop (the bakeries here are AMAZING, and cheap, and everywhere).
We had loaded up on carbs the night before, and with more carbs in our bellies we were ready to hit the road again. Like previous days we planned our ride on a town to town basis. This has helped us break the ride up into more mentally manageable chunks, as well as provide useful top up stops. It turned out Mike was on a hungry day so we needed lots of stops along the way.
Hungry days are funny things, sometimes one of us will just feel the need to eat almost constantly, and others we will be able to ride with not much more than a normal day's food. We have learned that Mike must eat at 3pm, whatever the situation, or he'll face a bonking. It's not even so much the energy, but the need to feel something in his stomach that makes eating necessary.
The ride itself was pleasant enough. The German cycle ways mostly run alongside main roads, so they are often very direct between towns but not very varied. Despite that, they are not always in the best condition, and can be very bumpy because of plant roots beneath the tarmac. Every time we hit a root a jolt would shoot through our wrists and elbows, and we would have to slow right down and speed back up again, which, with heavy bikes can be hard going, even on flat ground. After a few hundred kilometres of these we've been a bit concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome, especially for Mike whose hands were getting very sensitive, but with a bit of a rest those troubles are clearing.
There were two real, and unexpected highlights to the day. Firstly we had a short detour from the main road and through a beautiful pine forest, which was a real welcome break form the dozens of lorries passing every hour. Second, as we neared Bremen, Mike noticed a sign for "High Stones" just off the roadway. Curious, we turned back and down a short bridleway, and there, just tucked away in the woods was a brilliantly preserved neolithic mass tomb, built around 5000 years ago to hold the remains of the dead. We learned from Nina that there are many of these tombs in the area that she and her friends used to (not terribly respectfully) play on. Nevertheless, we were amazed by the sight and in particular the fact that, after all this time, the capstones were still in place.
We pedalled on our merry way to Bremen, the last kilometers still passing with ease, where we were met with hugs from Nina, a delicious and much needed dinner of nutritious roasted vegetables, a glass of wine, a hot shower and a very comfortable bed. And then a long night's sleep. A great day.
Next up: time in Bremen, and the unpleasant trip to Hamburg (saved by a lovely man called Dennis), and a small change in route.
The ferry to Ijmuiden (Amsterdam) was fantastic. Neither of us had been on an overnight ferry before but were impressed with the level of comfort we were afforded. On the boarding ramp, we met David, another long distance cyclist on his way to Australia from Ireland and had a drink with him on board and learnt a bit about each other and the nature of the trips we were undertaking. We're hoping to bump into David later down the line in a future country so watch this space.
We had originally planned to cycle north of Ijmuiden and miss out Amsterdam to speed along our journey on to Bremen (where we were to spend my birthday with friends) but changed our minds last minute and went east off the boat to the 'dam. So lucky we did! What a stunner of a city, and built for people on foot and by bike, less so by car. That's how a city should feel. You shouldn't feel alienated and at risk of being hit by a car. That's just my thought.
Anyway, we stopped for lunch (as disembarking from the ferry took forever since we were the last ones off) and journeyed onwards towards our first night in the Netherlands. We had previously contacted a Warm Showers host over in Hardewijk so had set ourselves a target distance. You can't really wild camp in the Netherlands (there are designated spots but they can be hard to find) so we needed hosts if we weren't to be disrespectful.
So the Netherlands is flat and all the way through Scotland and England when it had been really hard and muscle damage had caused my thighs to bruise we had been telling ourselves how easy the Netherlands was going to be and it would be a good rest to get used to the bikes. We hadn't accounted for the possibility of general tiredness taking over, a low tyre pressure we didn't notice until the next morning, and the psychological difficulty of long, straight, flat roads. We are very used to hills and undulations causing the scenery to change all the time and the feeling that you're actually getting somewhere. There were some roads in the Netherlands which were so long and flat, it felt like you were cycling on the spot because nothing changed for miles. It was sometimes like a mini Nullabor desert 90 mile straight in Australia, but with less desert. At least it gave us a tiny tiny inkling of what that's going to be like next year…
Nevertheless, we got to our hosts who were gracious and welcoming. They're a lovely family of three boys, mum and dad and the very excitable pet dog, much to Mike's delight. Thank you so much Anita and Jochim, we had a much needed relaxing, if short, stay with you. And thank you for the air for the tyres!
The next morning we aimed for a much shorter day - just 30 miles - to let ourselves recover. Scotland and England had been a difficult start with the weight of the bikes to get used to and we just didn't give ourselves any room to settle into a routine. The plan was to find a campsite close to Zwolle, finish early and have a proper relaxing evening. Cycling past 5.30pm had been a bad plan previously as we got far too hungry and tired to really keep going, so we just gave ourselves a break! And that's OK! We found a fantastic campsite with an attached B&B just a few miles out of Zwolle called Boerhoes. I'd go back, it was brilliant. It was basically a farm with a field for camping. So relaxing, so calm; just what we needed. As you showered you realised a section of the barn has been cornered off to create a wash room and the rooster would crow whenever he heard you. Just brilliant.
This short day gave us two long days to get to Bremen in time for my birthday on the 12th. We both wanted a complete day off on that day as that would mean it had been 8 days of back to back solid cycling and we needed to rest our legs. So onwards we pushed into Germany and stopped at Meppen to look at our options for the night. It is illegal to wild camp in Germany as there were no Warm Showers hosts in the area which we could see were active. However, there was a camp site nearby in a tiny village called Durgen. It was on Google maps and had a review from 9 months ago so we figured it would still be there. The route there took us off road and at one point involved us lifting the bikes over a fence. Once we got to Durgen, the only sign of the camp site was literally a sign on a barn. The website showed a huge field big enough for 100 people and a shower block so we were a bit confused. All we could hear was a German lady shouting at some cows in the barn, but no other signs of life. We rang the doorbell of the house listed on the website as the location, but no answer. We felt like it could've been the start of a horror movie, so I posted a picture to Instagram of the camping sign *just in case* something happened. (We were clearly over tired by this point and our imaginations were running wild). We sat and evaluated our options and decided that we had four:
1) Wild camp in the woods (we were surrounded by woods and probably wouldn't have been seen).
2) Go to the next town and get a B&B.
3) Push on to two towns over where there was an active warm showers host but that would've taken another few hours with no guarantee he'd take us in
4) Knock on the house one last time and try again.
We knocked. The lady from the barn answered. Mike's not bad at German and asked the lady where the camp site was. She pointed us down a dirt track which we hadn't ventured all the way down and said it was the first thing we would come to. She didn't ever ask for money so we said thank you and went on our merry way. A way down the track we saw signs of a huge field and a shower block. I can't tell you how relieved we were! Tent up, food eaten, pots washed, showers had and we were in to bed to watch a episode of Game of Thrones before falling very quickly to sleep. All we heard all night long was a woodpecker having a good old go at a tree nearby, and a little bit of light wind and rain, but that was it.
We love camping.