It’s taken me a while to transfer my first bike touring experience from my head to my blog – probably because the emotional scarring has only just started to dissipate and the memories are slightly easier to look back on.
For those that don’t know, bike touring is a multi-day ride, when you take everything you need with you on the bike. Sleeping bag, food, tent, water, fluffy slippers – it all comes with you on the bike somehow. Obviously the lighter your gear is, the better experience you are going to have riding your bike (I didn’t actually take my fluffy slippers. Mr S wouldn’t let me).
We spent weeks discussing what gear to take, what clothes to wear and what food to eat. It was very exciting, and a big challenge for me – the route we were planning to take would be the furthest I have ever cycled. We packed up the van on Labour Weekend (thank the gods that we did it when there was a public holiday on the Monday) and set off for Eastbourne, about 30 minutes away from where we live.
The first bit wasn’t so bad, it was mostly on a gravel path, and mostly flat. We cycled along in the sunshine, grinning away and excited about the adventure in front of us.
Then we came to the first real hill, more of a mountain actually. I started off strong, a little too strong, as I broke my chain. Quite an important bit of the bike I think you’ll agree – luckily I had my fantastic handy husband with me and he fixed it in 20 minutes and we got underway again.
The mountain took it out of me a bit, and I looked forward to the short road section that was coming next. Turned out that the road was built on what felt like an old rollercoaster track and I spent a painful 45 minutes going up and over some pretty steep bits. As I pushed myself to keep going, I saw the sea in the distance and felt very excited, we were nearing the campsite for our overnight stay! I could sit down in the sun and rub my aching bits! I called out to Mr S and he replied that we only had about 4 or 5km to go. Bliss.
At this point we arrived at the car park on the beach and found the sign pointing to our campsite. 14 m****r f****** kilometres to go. I tried to hold it together, honestly. I’m even sort of smiling in the picture of me next to the sign.
About 10 minutes after this photo we passed a decapitated lamb on the trail, and I threw myself to the floor and cried like a Disney princess. Not entirely because of the lamb, but because my bottom hurt and didn’t want to ride my bike anymore.
A quick side note on the dead animal front – New Zealand has a lot of animals but not a lot of people. In fact, the population of NZ is equivalent to half of London. So when livestock dies, it is generally not moved from where it has expired for a little while. More on this later…
Anyway, crying fit over with, I got back in the saddle and started the 14km ride to our campsite. It wasn’t just the distance that had worried me, the sign had also helpfully pointed out what grade of mountain biking we were about to undertake – higher than I had ever attempted. The steep downhill sections were either peppered with huge boulders to avoid or slightly smaller rocks that slipped out from underneath your tyres. Plus, there were a ridiculous amount of wild goats on the track that only got out of the way when they could see the whites of your eyes.
Poor Mr S, he could see how much I was struggling, and was incessantly upbeat, positive and encouraging until we got to ‘the fan’. The Fan is a large stretch of beach that was impossible to cycle on, and we started to push our heavy bikes (loaded with all our gear, remember) through the sand. And over the rocks. And then through a fast flowing deep river, where we got soaked up to our knees.But I think it was what happened next that completely broke him.
We had finally started riding again, after the back-breaking push through the sand, when we smelled something strange on the wind. Mr S thought it could be a sewage outlet going into the sea, but told me not to worry, as we’d just cycle past as quickly as possible then the smell would be gone. We cycled over a small hill and were promptly brought to a halt by yet more deep sand. We got off and started to push, making our way towards a very large dark mass in the distance as the smell got stronger.
As we came closer, I realised that it was not the smell of sewage, but the smell of the very large, obviously a couple of weeks old, rotting corpse of a cow in front of us. I threw up.
I honestly cannot explain the smell to you, and I hope you never find out what it smells like. We ran, dragging our bikes through the sand until we couldn’t smell it anymore.
At this point we had realised that our initial assessment of the time we would reach the campsite was long gone, and we were in danger of completing the last few kilometres of the journey in the dark. We had not anticipated the amount of time we’d spend pushing our bikes or being sick on dead animals, and the sun was going down. By this point I was so tired that I was mountain biking down sections so steep that Mr S thought we should be walking – I honestly had reached the point where I didn’t care if I injured myself, I just wanted to get there quicker.
10 minutes before the sun disappeared behind the horizon, we arrived at the campsite. We pitched our little tent in the dark and failed to locate the water source. Thankfully some kind Kiwis filled my water bottle as Mr S got the stove going and started cooking our pasta. I was shivering and got inside my sleeping bag to eat my meal. Unfortunately we’d forgotten to bring cutlery, so I had to fashion a spoon out of the pasta packet.
I know I don’t look good, but in all fairness, it had been a challenging day.
After a restless night punctuated by a guy called Mike shouting at his friends until 3am, we awoke and got bitten alive by mosquitoes in the long drop toilets. The smell from the toilets was retch-inducing, but nothing compared to ex-Ermintrude.
I wasn’t massively keen on getting back in the saddle, but was determined to complete this adventure and thought things would seem better once we’d had breakfast. At this point we discovered the water supply, with this helpful note:
Bugger. We’d only brought enough water with us to last for the first day, we had planned to fill up at the campsite for our trip back to the van, and now some dead possums had ruined that plan. We had a little bit of water left, so we used some of it to make some porridge, which was surprisingly tasty (but I think most food probably is when you’re that hungry). Time for a positive mental attitude and to get ready for the same journey in reverse! This was the best positive face I could muster.
We set off again, and the return journey was nowhere near as eventful as the first part – probably because we knew what to expect. We handled the cow by walking slightly in the sea, we knew our feet were going to get wet in each river we traversed, and I already knew I could handle the mountain biking grade.
The only problem was lack of water, we were getting very dehydrated and had almost run out by the time we were halfway back. Thankfully, a lovely couple in the car park at the halfway point took pity on me and filled my water bottle from a bottle in their car. I almost snogged them, but managed to hold myself back.
We even started to enjoy ourselves again, and I felt such a sense of pride that I was close to completing this challenge. I even rode down the side of the huge mountain that broke my chain the day before, I’ve got rad skillz now bro.
We finally made it back to the van, where we purchased 6 bottles of water and some orange ice lollies from a bemused shop owner. I couldn’t walk for the whole of the next day, I think I started to put down roots on our sofa.
So, despite the hideous parts of the adventure, I learned a lot and hope to go bike touring again, just with adequate water supplies and an oxygen mask for those dead animal moments.
On a random note, I am listening to Queen today as it’s 25 years since we lost the legend that was Freddie Mercury, and he is advising me that he wants to ride his bicycle. And I’m pretty sure that I still want to as well.