As we bumped down the cobbled streets of Porto and wound our way past the decaying port wine warehouses that line the Douro river estuary, we felt a frisson of excitement for the open road ahead wrapped in a blanket of familiarity.
Back on our bikes. The weight of our panniers. A salty breeze in our faces.
As we all know, it’s been a tough 18 months for many people across the world since COVID-19 raised it’s ugly head. A world of lockdowns, restrictions, cancellations, social distance, travel plans on hold. A world of severe illness and loss.
Many, many people have suffered far more badly than we have. After all, cancelled bike tours are hardly the worst impact of a global pandemic.
But here we are at last. Back on our bikes and armed with vaccination passports, lateral flow tests and passenger locator forms.
It felt like a little bit of normal.
Our original plan was to cycle down the East Coast of the United States from Boston to Miami. But the American government are not yet welcoming vaccinated Brits to their shores so that will need to wait for another time.
We’ve come to Portugal instead, seeking warm air and warm hospitality. Our plan is simply to cycle south from Porto and see where it takes us. Mainly following Eurovelo 1 (EV1) down the coast but wiggling inland whenever there is something interesting to see. Hopefully into Spain as well.
EV1, the Eurovelo Atlantic Coast Route, is part of a network of cycle paths that criss-cross Europe and runs from Norway to Portugal. We’ve cycled bits of it before, as it includes the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland.
Porto (literally port or harbour) is a spectacular city that twists its way up from the mouth of the Douro river in a maze of medieval streets, colourful houses and ornate churches.
Some of the food is as unique as the city itself.
We enjoyed the port wine (of course), the Pastel de Nata (deliciously light custard and cinnamon tarts that are a one-a-day treat for many) but were not so sure about the Francesinha (literally little Frenchie, as it was adapted to local Porto tastes from the Croque Monsieur sandwich in the 1950’s).
A steak, some fresh sausage, cured sausage and cured ham are all stuffed inside two slices of bread and covered with melted cheese and an optional fried egg. It’s then doused in a hot thick spicy tomato and beer sauce and served with chips and a large beer.
Enough calories to fuel any bike ride!
But not enough for a ride into the steep hills of the Douro Valley.
Haunted by memories of long, hilly days at the beginning of past trips we decided to take a tour instead. As we drove up yet another sharp ridge it felt like a smart decision … and gave us more time for wine tasting!
The Douro valley is stunning. Terraced vineyards, built behind ancient dry stone walls climb precipitously away from the river as far the eye can see, their whitewashed quintas (wine estates) glistening in the sunshine. Many with names that remember the end of a good dinner … Sandeman, Dow, Taylor’s, Graham’s, Croft.
The first few days of this bicycle adventure have been spent gently pedalling down the coast on flat roads, cycle paths and board walks. Through pretty little beach towns and across salt marshes that attract a variety of migratory birds … herons, egrets, even some flamingoes.
A striking part of this area are azulejos, decorative tiles that adorn many buildings. In a tradition dating back to the 13th century these hand painted tiles help keep houses cool and beautiful.
Ovar, our first overnight stop, is a ‘living museum’ of azulejos with many fine examples from the 19th and 20th century.
From Ovar we cycled onto Aveiro, a city that grew rich from salt but now relies on tourism as the self styled ‘Venice of Portugal’. It’s not quite as grand as the Queen of the Adriatic … although a gondola ride makes for a pleasant diversion, passing under many bridges adorned with thousands of brightly coloured ribbons.
Our young guide giggled as she encouraged us to join in … “you can tie a ribbon on the bridge for everlasting love and friendship … ooh-la-la!”
Sadly the ribbon shop was closed for lunch.
The next day, we were reminded that bicycle touring is not all about easy cycle paths, boat rides and pretty coastal views. A fierce headwind blew up and it poured with rain as we struggled into Praia de Mira, sodden and a little weary.
It almost felt like cycling in England.
But not quite. We’re in Portugal. Back on our bikes.
This is now an old story. But it’s still a story worth telling.
Much has happened since we left Vietnam on Tuesday March 10th. The coronavirus pandemic has taken over the world with many countries in lockdown. At the time of writing, the UK has sadly suffered more deaths from Covid-19 than any other European country. The government estimates that around 7% of the population or 4.7 million people have caught the virus with over 300,000 confirmed by a positive test.
In contrast, Vietnam has had 355 official cases, Cambodia 141 and Laos just 19. So far, none of these countries have recorded a single death linked to Covid-19. Indeed, Vietnam is now cited by many experts as having one of the best epidemic control programs in the world, alongside Taiwan and South Korea.
It seems that the Vietnamese authorities learnt a lot from previous viral outbreaks, including Sars in 2003 and Avian Flu in 2010. They took fast, decisive action as soon as the first case arrived from Wuhan on January 23rd.
The border with China was immediately closed, schools remained shut after the New Year Tet holiday and strict quarantines were placed around any local outbreaks. Most impressively, every single case was individually recorded and all the people they’d been in contact with were traced, tested and isolated. Then they traced the contacts of the contacts … and so on.
On Sunday March 8th we were enjoying a pizza in the old French hill station of Dalat, excited about our final 4-day bike ride back to Saigon and completing a round trip of over 2000km.
Another long cruise downhill would take us through some beautiful but remote mountain countryside, before reaching the outskirts of the city. Accommodation for the first two nights had been difficult to find, but eventually we’d managed to book a small guesthouse by a pretty lake about 10km off our route.
We were really looking forward to the ride. Until that is, we received this message from the guesthouse …
We’d noticed that concern about Covid-19 had grown significantly in Vietnam over the previous few days. Most people were now wearing masks and our temperature was taken at every hotel, restaurant and museum. This had surprised us a little, as the country only had 16 cases at that time and were proud to have gone 22 days without anyone testing positive.
After a little googling, we soon found out why visitors from the UK were suddenly less welcome. A Vietnamese ‘socialite’ had flown back to Hanoi from London, after visiting the Milan Fashion Show. She turned out to be a super-spreader, infecting all the people around her on the plane. Most of them were British tourists heading to Vietnam for a special holiday.
This meant that the headlines in the local news were full of the danger of any contact with Brits. And any other Europeans for that matter. On Instagram we learnt that other bicycle tourists were suddenly being turned away from guesthouses, restaurants and even shops.
We could see that people were becoming a bit wary of us. Smiles were replaced with nervous glances. Perhaps we were not quite as welcome as we had been? Maybe it was time to leave?
Instead of cycling back to Saigon, we jumped on a bus. Once there, we rode through the busy traffic in the dark to find a travel agent and change our flights. 48 hours after finishing that pizza in Dalat, we were on the plane home … a week ahead of schedule but pleased to be getting back to our families.
As things turned out we were leaping from the frying pan into the fire, leaving a safe country behind us and returning to a country where the number of coronavirus infections were accelerating quickly.
It was disappointing to leave Dalat by bus as we’d also arrived by car … not really the point of a bicycle tour!
The bike ride up to Dalat from the coast is beautiful but brutal. 150km and over 3500m of climbing with little along the way to break the journey. No lodgings, no restaurants, not even any small shops selling water. Many young adventurous bicycle tourists have had great fun going down … very few have tried to cycle up.
It was clearly beyond our capabilities!
Dalat itself is the cheesy-music love-capital of Vietnam, hugely popular with honeymooners and hen parties. A few dollars to one of the many street karaoke busking groups buys you a great night out. You get a backing band and an appreciative audience of several hundred like-minded romantics as you belt out “Killing me softly with his song … ” or “I-e-ii-ee-iiiii will always love yooouuuu … “
Our journey from Hoi An to Dalat had begun with yet another bus (we know … this is turning into a troubling theme). There was not enough time to cycle the rest of the way down the coast, so we picked a section that promised ‘a spectacular mix of craggy wind-lashed capes, fishing villages and pretty coves.’ Just as importantly, it also promised plenty of backroads away from the trucks rumbling down Highway 1.
This time it was one of the dreaded night buses, infamous with young backpackers. Built for small Vietnamese people, not for tall foreigners, Andy had to squeeze so tightly into his seat that he appeared to be trapped in an old-fashioned fairground ride!
After eight sleepless hours, the bus dropped us off at 3am on the outskirts of a sprawling and rather soulless city called Tuy Hoa. We didn’t particularly fancy cycling in the dark so looked around for a hotel to hang out in for a couple of hours. They all looked a bit seedy, with big neon signs advertising 24-hour massages. Sure enough, as we locked up our bikes, a lady-of-the-night tottered out, presumably on her way home.
The night manager then followed her out to find out what we were up to. Once he understood our situation, he couldn’t have been any nicer, offering drinks, power for our phones and a quiet lie down on the lobby sofa.
Just before dawn we waved him goodbye and headed off in search of the coast road, some strong coffee and breakfast. Everything was closed but eventually we came across a street stall offering delicious Bánh Mì (Omelette Baguettes), just the right energy boost for the 75km ahead of us.
This part of the Vietnamese coast is a land of contrasts.
Some parts of it are indeed very pretty … craggy capes, secluded coves, chalk-white beaches and small islands nestled in a turquoise sea. But there’s also a lot of industry here with oil refineries and giant ports dotting the horizon.
Most striking are the multitude of fish farms which stretch out across the bays as far as the eye can see. Farmers and their families live on the floating houses, growing fish, shrimp and crab to serve the incessant demand from city markets with their ever-expanding population.
Traditional fishing boats, each painted blue with a red trim, potter between the farms and head out at night in search of the wild tuna and bream.
The fish farms are an arresting site. Less attractive are the piles of rubbish that build up by the side of the road. Managing single-use plastic waste is global issue that is brought into sharp focus in this part of the world. People simply discard their leftovers on the ground as their forefathers have done for centuries. Unfortunately, unlike the waste of previous generations, plastic doesn’t degrade … so it just sits there waiting to be burnt every few months.
Occasionally as we cycled along a quiet road a bus would drive past us with empty bottles and cans literally raining out of the windows. It would be comical, if it wasn’t so sad.
This is a representative of a wider problem that applies to all three countries but especially to Vietnam, with its higher population density and rapid economic development.
Vietnamese people are rightly optimistic about the future. But many are also worried that their natural resources are being quickly exhausted to fuel the economic growth. Forests are being burnt down, cities rapidly enlarged, waterways polluted. They know that their country will need to nurture its natural resources much better in future for the good times to be sustainable.
Trying not to notice the piles of rubbish, we meandered down the coast at a gentle pace, pausing for a couple of nights on Whale Island and at a quiet beachside retreat called ‘Some Days of Silence.’ There was no need to hurry.
For our last night on the coast, we treated ourselves to a taste of luxury at one of the upmarket resorts that grace Ninh Van Bay and can only be reached by speedboat. Described in the guidebook as an ‘alternative reality populated by European royalty, film stars and the otherwise rich and secretive’, we were not sure what they would make of two sweaty cyclists.
Here we’d arranged to meet up with Richard and Sue, the friends from home that we’d bumped into by surprise back in Champasak. As the sun set over the hills that lead up to Dalat, we toasted both our trips with some very welcome crisp white wine.
We didn’t know it at the time, but it was to be the end of this particular cycling adventure. A perfect celebration!
Here’s the map of our whole trip around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos:
We have to admit that there are a lot more red lines (for buses), green lines (for cars) and pink lines (for boats) on this map than usual.
But we still pedalled 1712km, climbed 18,629m and spent 126 hours in our saddles. That’s slightly more kilometres than our trips to Chile or to Australia.
And we only had two mechanical problems, both punctures to Andy’s rear wheel.
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are three very different countries, but they’re all great places to tour around by bicycle.
The scenery is spectacular … from the green rice carpets of the Mekong Delta to the rough red clay roads of Northeast Cambodia … from the temples of Angkor to the tranquillity of the Four Thousand Islands in landlocked Laos … from the cassava and coffee plantations of the Bolaven Plateau to the thick, high jungle of the Ho Chi Minh highway.
As you set out at sunrise in the cool morning air there are endless scenes of everyday life to entertain you … families cooking noodles for breakfast under their house, hawkers selling dried fish, women slowly pedalling back from the market in brightly coloured pyjamas topped with conical leaf hats.
Once you get used to the rules of the road it’s even fun to cruise through town, scooters buzzing past in every direction.
But four months after coming home, it’s still the sound of children’s voices that we remember most … “Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”
Whilst the world fights back against this terrible virus, we can conjure up this soundtrack to lull us off to sleep … and start dreaming about where to go next.
Dong Ap Bia (the Mountain of the Crouching Beast) stands 14 kilometres west of A-Luoi, a small town nestled in the central highlands of Vietnam. Officially called Hill 937 by the US army, it was the site of one the most famous battles of the Vietnam War in May 1969 … known thereafter as ‘Hamburger Hill’.
“Have you ever been inside a hamburger machine? Well we just got cut to pieces by extremely accurate machine-gun fire.”
Sergeant James Spears, 19 years old
For some people, Hamburger Hill became a symbol of the bravery of both the attacking American infantry and the North Vietnamese defenders.
For others it epitomised the futility and waste of this long war.
On the day we crossed back into Vietnam from Laos we stayed overnight in A-Luoi.
Waving goodbye to Mr Poh and his school bus we had spent the afternoon cycling down through high jungle to join the Ho Chi Minh Highway. This road follows the route of the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, a network of mountain footpaths that were used to supply and reinforce Vietcong fighters in the south. The attack on Hamburger Hill was part of a campaign to stop this supply.
The ‘Rakkasans’ from the 101st Airborne (one of the US Army’s most decorated units) fought their way up the steep slopes battling with triple canopy jungle and waist high elephant grass as well as the machine gun fire. They were repelled again and again by the ‘Pride of Ho Chi Minh’, the elite North Vietnamese 29th regiment.
After dropping more than 1000 tonnes of bombs, 140 tonnes of napalm, 31000 rounds of 20mm shells and 500 tonnes of teargas, the Americans eventually prevailed and took control of the ‘moonscape’ that was left of the summit. 72 Americans lay dead with 370 wounded. Estimates of North Vietnamese losses vary, but at least 600 were killed.
The Americans only stayed for a couple of days before they abandoned Hamburger Hill. A few months later the North Vietnamese were back in their original positions.
It was the apparent futility of this battle that whipped up the anti-war sentiment that was then building a strong head of steam in America. Senator Edward Kennedy reflected the view of many people when he called the battle “senseless and irresponsible”.
At the time of Hamburger Hill, America had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam but this turned out to be the high water mark of their involvement. By the end of 1969 US troops had begun to withdraw and their focus had switched to training the South Vietnamese army to bear the brunt of the fighting. This eventually led to the North Vietnamese victory in 1975.
Today both the hill and the whole area is very peaceful, mountain rice growing in the valleys and birdsong replacing the sound of gunfire in the hills.
It’s difficult to imagine the horror that both sides endured. Except that the landscape is very familiar to anyone who has watched a few Vietnam War films. So familiar that you almost expect to see an Apache attack helicopter appearing over the next ridge.
As we cycled around the country, we enjoyed learning a little about the ‘American War’ (as it’s known in Vietnam) from their perspective. The War Remnants Museum in Saigon is a stark reminder of the hardships and atrocities faced by ordinary people. The tours to the complex multi-level network of tunnels at Cu Chi show off the ingenuity of the Vietcong and the difficulty the Americans had in facing an enemy that kept melting away. And Tank 390 still guards the grounds of the presidential palace, having crashed through the gates on April 30th 1975 to end the war.
Ultimately though, we have been left with a feeling that this war of attrition became senseless. For everyone involved.
A-Luoi was the most undiluted Vietnamese town we visited. We stayed in a motel style guesthouse, no-one we met spoke English and it was tricky to find somewhere to eat. We walked past lots of beer gardens and coffee shops but no restaurants.
Eventually we managed to find a large bag of pistachio nuts and headed into a family run café to enjoy them with a beer. The family had just finished their own dinner so, more in hope than expectation, we made eating signs to the lady. She must have seen our faces drop as she shook her head because she disappeared, returning fifteen minutes later with a big smile and two steaming bowls of noodles, packed with chicken, vegetables and fresh salad.
It was one of the most delicious meals we had in Vietnam. Much better than the hamburgers we’d been hoping to find … in tribute to the nearby hill!
To her obvious delight we gave her half our remaining pistachios. It seemed only right. The bag had cost us more than she insisted on charging for the meal.
The next day’s ride down to Hue was one of best days we’ve ever had on a bicycle. Under a cloudless sky we wound our way down through stunning jungle canopy, up over a pass then down again into the wide fertile valley of the Perfume River (named for the flowers that drop into its clear waters).
It was the kind of day that reminds you that the simplicity of bicycle touring is one of the best experiences in the world.
“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
People we’d met on our travels had told us that Hue was a bit of a disappointment. Well we beg to differ, we loved it.
It was the imperial capital of the last emperors of Vietnam, the Nguyen dynasty that ruled from 1802 to 1945. Today it is a vibrant, bustling city that blends old and new, wide embankments on both sides of the river giving it an air of calm.
The main attraction is the citadel, home to the Nguyen emperors and their seat of government. Several walls are pockmarked with bullet holes as an evocative reminder of the major battle that raged here in 1968 during the Tet offensive. Most of the buildings were destroyed but they are now being lovingly restored to their former glory. It’s a huge site and a wonderful place to get a little lost in, roaming through tree-lined boulevards, ceremonial reception rooms and ornate gardens.
A few kilometres upriver from the Citadel is another poignant reminder of the conflict. Tucked away in a corner of the Thien Mu Pagoda complex is an old 1956 Austin saloon car that transported a monk called Thich Quang Duc to Saigon, where he calmly set himself on fire as a protest against the policies of the South Vietnamese regime. Captured by an American film crew it became one of the most emotive images of the war.
We also enjoyed the tomb of Tu Duc, emperor at the time of the French invasion in 1883 and a man who lived a life of imperial luxury and carnal excess (104 wives, countless concubines but no offspring). Just 5 foot small he decreed that the statues of the mandarins guarding his tomb had to be even smaller than he was.
But he wasn’t buried here. Instead he was interned at a secret location where the 200 servants who helped with the burial were beheaded to stop the location and its treasures being discovered. It worked … the site has never been found.
One entertainment enjoyed by Tu Duc were the fights between tigers and elephants at Ho Quyen, a mini Romanesque amphitheatre that now sits in the middle of a quiet suburb. The tigers had their claws and teeth removed so that the elephants, a symbol of the emperor’s power, could triumph every time!
From Hue, we cycled 160km down the coast to the graceful and historic town of Hoi An, full of preserved merchant houses, ancient tea warehouses and Chinese temples.
At first, the road took us past miles and miles of sand dunes all filled with thousands of graves and elaborate private family mausoleums. These are the final resting places of Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), all seeking to be buried in their homeland.
Ancestors are worshipped in Vietnam and the majority of people are buried, often in large tombs on the family small holding. Given that the population has doubled to 99 million since the end of the war in 1975 (it’s now the world’s 15th most populated country), the density of tombs of this ‘road of death’ did make us wonder whether the rest of the country would look the same in future, such will be the demand for graves.
Just north of the large coastal city of Danang is the Hai Van (Sea Cloud) pass, a mountain spur than runs down to the sea and a sizeable cycling challenge at 496m high. It’s an important North-South divide both strategically and geographically, protecting Danang from the fierce ‘Chinese’ winds that sweep in from the north east.
The main artery of Vietnam, Highway 1, used to run over this pass but today there is a 6.3km long tunnel. Unfortunately, neither livestock nor fuel are allowed through the tunnel so we had to stop frequently to avoid the trucks full of pigs and petrol, recklessly overtaking each other on the hairpin bends.
Further entertainment was to be found at the Marble Mountains south of Danang, five craggy marble outcrops named for the five natural elements (water, wood, fire, metal and earth). Each one has an army of statues for sale at their base – from the ever-popular Laughing Fat Buddha to replicas of the Venus de Milo. The actual marble in the mountains is now exhausted … so it’s imported from China instead.
In Hoi An we were suddenly surrounded by tourists. Not surprising as it’s a delightful place, especially at night when the roads are closed to traffic and the town is lit up by thousands of lanterns. This makes it feel slightly like a Disneyland version of itself … but creates a fun atmosphere.
As well as a few of the 800 historic buildings we enjoyed traditional Vietnamese food, traditional music and dance and traditional water puppets. Much to our amusement each show was wrapped up by a rendition of Auld Lang Syne, sung in English. And no, they didn’t know the words either!
Perhaps our most magical moment in Hoi An came early one evening as we cycled around the paddy fields that encircle the town. A light sea breeze had blown up and several groups of grandparents (who would have known the horrors of the war) emerged onto the pathways that criss-cross the fields to enjoy flying kites with their grandchildren.
The air was filled with colour and laughter. It was a bewitching scene and one that made the American War seem like a very long time ago.
Clare and Andy
Apologies – we’re a little bit behind with this blog.
We cycled from the Laos border to Hoi An between 23rd and 27th February. We’re now safely back home, having left Vietnam a few days earlier than planned when the Covid-19 virus made cycle touring a little complicated. We’ll tell that story in the next post.
We only started to get worried when the border guards summoned the bossman to examine our passports for a third time, all stern and officious in his crisp green Vietnamese army uniform.
Quite reasonably, they were on high alert for the coronavirus.
Our temperatures had already been checked and two masked officers had carefully scrutinised our passports, checking and double checking each stamp to make 100% sure we hadn’t recently been to China.
A few days before, we’d read that some travellers had been turned away from remote borders (such as this one at Lalay) if they had a Chinese visa in their passport, no matter how out of date it was. Andy has three Chinese visas (a legacy from his old job), the most recent of which expired in 2015.
First the bossman studied the front of Andy’s passport to make sure of his nationality. This was quite amusing as most of the lettering had worn away and become impossible to read. He was only satisfied when we persuaded him that, honestly, it was the same type of passport as Clare’s and therefore came from the same country.
Then he painstakingly examined every single entry and exit stamp whilst his junior colleagues gathered around pointing and shaking their heads. Andy has 94 stamps in his passport, so this took quite a while.
Eventually and with enormous relief, as much for him as for us, he looked up and smiled … “Welcome to Vietnam!”
It’s not that we wanted to leave Laos. It’s that we’d like to head home in a few weeks time and crossing back into Vietnam makes that a whole lot easier. Plus … we really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere!
The people of southern Laos are amongst the most laid back individuals we have ever met.Guided by Theravada Buddhism which emphasises ‘the cooling of human passions’, they don’t get too worked up about the future, considering it to be determined by karma rather than by devotion or hard work. They also believe that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’ and feel sorry for people who ‘think too much’.
The people we’ve met in Vietnam and Cambodia appear to be quite driven by comparison. It’s neatly summed up by a French saying:
‘The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians tend the rice and the Lao listen to it grow.’
But they also come across as a happy bunch. Unless any activity, work or leisure, contains an element of fun, it’s not worth pursuing.
It was very easy to be seduced into the laid back life of Si Phan Don, literally meaning ‘Four Thousand Islands’. Here the Mekong bulges to a breadth of 14km, slowly easing it’s way past a few large inhabited islands and many islets and sandbars, then rushing down a series of rapids and waterfalls.
This natural barrier gives the Mekong it’s special charm – it’s one of the world’s great rivers meandering 4350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, but it can never become a shipping super-highway.
We enjoyed some gentle days pottering around the three main islands of Si Phan Don (Don Det, Don Khon and Don Khong), gradually becoming more proficient at manoeuvring our bikes on and off the small longtail boats and more chilled about doing so.
We came to love the Mekong so much we even made our own tribute to it. Late one afternoon, Andy dived into the refreshing cool water without realising he had some cash tucked in the pocket of his swimming shorts, never to be seen again.
From Don Khong it was a sweaty and dusty ride 110km up river to Champasak where we enjoyed two lovely surprises.
The first surprise was Wat Pho (meaning Mountain Temple), a contemporary of Angkor which stretches up the slopes of Phu Pasak, a sacred mountain known locally as Mount Penis. It’s a quirky, tumbledown place with attractions that include a crocodile stone carving allegedly used for human sacrifice and a sacred spring that cows now clamber up to for a holy drink.
The second surprise was to hear our names being bellowed out as we cycled back to Champasak. Unbelievably it was Richard and Sue, good friends from home. We’d planned to meet up in Vietnam in a few weeks time but neither of us had any idea that we’d both be in this part of Laos at the same time. It was really good to see them and to spend an evening of easy conversation over beer and pizza.
From Champasak, we changed plans and decided to cycle up to Paksong on the Bolaven Plateau, 1300m above sea level and famous for it’s waterfalls and it’s coffee plantations.
Why did we do it? Well, it wasn’t for the coffee. It wasn’t for the waterfalls. It wasn’t even to experience some cooler temperatures. No … the attraction was the promise of a whole day of descending, a whole day of cruising gently downhill.
In the event, Andy very nearly messed it up!
The road he’d planned to go down was the wrong road. Very wrong indeed. It quickly disintegrated into a very rough, very dusty stone track.
For about an hour, we bumped and banged our way down it almost killing our bikes and ourselves in the process. Andy was ever hopeful it would improve on the other side of the next ridge despite Clare’s increasingly frantic protestations. Eventually he had to admit that it was physically impossible for us to go any further.
We turned around and slowly climbed back up.
By the time we got back to the top, we’d run out of time and daylight so were forced to find some emergency accommodation and try again the next morning.
This time we found the right road … and it was glorious! Just what we’d dreamed of. Even when crossing the Pyrenees or the Andes we have never cruised down such a long descent, the gradient gently taking us through coffee plantations, past mango groves and fields of cassava. For 50km!!
It ended in a serene little village called Tat Lo. In recent years, this has become a quiet retreat on the backpacker trail, nestled in a river valley full of forest trails, small waterfalls and swimming holes. It’s location is remote enough for the small guesthouses and cafes selling banana pancakes to sit alongside normal village life, not to overwhelm it.
We stayed in a simple, stilted room in a lovely guesthouse called Palamei, owned by Poh and Tim and named for their daughter.
We’ve enjoyed a wide range of accommodation on this trip, including a couple of luxury hotels as the coronavirus scare has made everything so cheap … but this was one of our favourites.
We always knew that getting back into Vietnam from this part of Laos was going to be the greatest challenge of our trip.
We looked at various options, including cycling back to Pakse and taking a long sleeper bus ride north to Savannakhet and onto Hue in Vietnam via the main border crossing at Lao Bao. A journey of over 700km this was not a fun prospect for two aging touring cyclists.
We also knew that cycling up to the remote border at Lalay (only 170km away) was beyond our cycling capabilities. It would mean three days of riding over some very steep hills with few towns or villages along the way. A great ride for proper (young) adventure touring cyclists … but not for us!
Poh asked which day we planned to leave. When we told him it was Sunday his face lit up. His van normally serves as the local school bus but Sunday meant no school.
So that’s what happened. It turned out to be a fascinating journey through a dramatic mountain landscape, the school bus struggling to make it up some of the steeper inclines as we gave grateful thanks to the cycling gods that we weren’t pushing our bikes up instead.
During the drive up to the border and over a bowl of noodle soup, Poh shared some stories of his life. Born into desperately poor circumstances, he spent several years as a child living in the village temple as his mother had died when he was just two years old. With only rudimentary schooling, he recognised his one good fortune was to be born in a village that was starting to attract tourists, so he worked 16 hour days in a nearby lodge to learn both the business and how to speak English. Eventually he was able to set up his own guesthouse.
Poh and Tim, his wife, have three children but they have also adopted five more, all from the same tough circumstances he knew as a child. Now he is giving back to his community, one small part of which is providing the local school bus.
The journey passed quickly and before long, we found ourselves at the border to be greeted by the smart Vietnamese guards and the medical team.
It’s just as well we didn’t cycle … we’d have been so hot and bothered we’d have failed the temperature test. Then they’d never have let us back into Vietnam!
A few people have asked me for some tips on how to stay safe, healthy and happy while cycling with your husband in a place like South East Asia.
I’ve had plenty of time to think about this whilst peddling across rural NE Cambodia and, in the last few days, pushing my bike up a seemingly endless 1200m climb in Laos (we’ll tell this story in our next blog post).
So here are my tips:
Tips to say safe
Follow Andy’s rules of the roads. This has surprised me as my natural instinct is to stop whenever I sense danger. Here, I’ve become a road warrior, maintaining speed and direction … and never ever stopping.
Don’t let him take side roads unless you can see tarmac. They’ll either be rocky and bottom-pummelling or sandy and dusty. A passing truck will inevitably cover you in a gritty cloud of red dust.
Start cycling at sunrise to avoid the midday sun. So far, the intense heat has curdled my shampoo and heated my water bottle enough to brew a decent cup of tea. It’s also a beautiful time of day and there’s usually far less traffic on the road.
Use suntan lotion sparingly. It was impossible to buy more in rural Cambodia as the locals don’t use it. I’m not even sure they know what it is as people found it very funny when we put some on.
Respect local customs. Covering up your shoulders and knees in rural areas and at temples is polite, even when it’s 33 degrees.
Make him ride in-between you and any dogs. I was chased 3 times before he realised it was his manly duty to protect me.
Tips to stay healthy
Persuade him to take a rest. A few days pottering around the 4000 Islands in southern Laos on the mighty Mekong was restful, replenishing and reflective.
Don’t expect to always get a perfect coffee. Sometimes it comes with condensed milk that sits at the bottom of the cup. Just be grateful you’re having a coffee break at all.
Drink lots of water. Tap water is not safe and whilst refillable water stations are becoming more popular, they’re not yet freely available. Sadly, plastic waste is a real and obvious problem. It feels weird buying a big bottle of water and immediately pouring it into our cycling bidons.
Drink fresh coconut water whenever it’s available … it’s delicious and refreshing! Bottled fruit drinks are usually sticky and very sweet but Japanese green tea flavoured with honey & lemon has become another favourite.
Eat bananas. They’ve become our staple cycling snack. You can only buy them in big bunches … but he can manage the extra weight in his panniers.
Eat well … today’s food is tomorrow’s fuel. We’ve found the food in all three countries to be really good. Local family-run places offering home cooked meals are often better than bigger (more expensive) restaurants.
Tips to stay happy
Mentally add at least 20% extra to the distance and elevation he’s suggesting for the days ride. That way you won’t have a meltdown when there’s still 10km uphill or off-road to go.
Take public transport if the distance and elevation he’s suggesting is too much.
Get to know the currency. There are no coins in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos and the notes look very similar especially when they’re well worn. The 50,000 Laos Kip note (about £4.50) looks almost the same as the 5000 Kip note (45p). Andy has got it embarrassingly wrong a few times!
Stick on your headphones when the going gets tough. Gazing out at beautiful scenery is wonderful, but it’s not beautiful all the time. When it becomes less interesting or your backside starts aching, you need a distraction. A podcast or talking book works for me.
Make sure there’s a decent shower to get rid of the dust wherever you stay. We’ve slept in a wide variety of places from homestays to luxurious hotels (very good value at the moment because of the coronavirus). Often the cheapest is the best … right now we’re in a typical Laos room on stilts in a lovely guesthouse for £7/night.
Travel light. A good thing about travelling in warm climates is that your clothes dry really quickly. I’m getting used to wearing the same things again and again so next time I’ll try to bring even less. A hotel hairdryer remains a nice surprise but is no longer a necessity – my pink hair roller still does the job well!
And finally … join your husband for a cold beer at the end of the day. It’s tastes great here and is usually the cheapest drink on the menu!
After all … there’s no gain without pain. And he’s still the best cycling buddy a wife could want!
Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.
Followed by noisy, excited laughter, gossip of what they’d said and how they’d waved to these two strangers from another world.
This was our soundtrack from thousands of children as we slowly pedalled by.
We were cycling along Route 64, a recently paved road that winds it’s way 300km across the remote north east of Cambodia from Siem Reap (home of the famous Angkor temples) to Stung Treng … our gateway to Laos.
It’s a rough, rural landscape that mixes open scrubland with smallholdings growing crops – cassava, peppers, bananas, sugar cane, mangoes, coconuts.
We were rarely alone. Houses are strung out on both sides of this dusty road. As well as the children, we were greeted by women chopping cassava to dry on the roadside or by young men passing by in two-wheeled tractors.
Best of all was a father bringing a tiny child out to wave back at us and join in the fun. Or four children passing by on a motor scooter (the oldest driving but not yet a teenager) giggling “heyoooooo” in unison.
Cycling is the only way to have this kind of experience … walking is too slow, a motorbike is too fast, a car too enclosed and a bus is too busy.
There is relatively little fast moving traffic on Route 64, especially east of the Mayan looking 10th century temples at Koh Ker. Most common are hawkers on scooters pedalling vegetables, eggs, salted fish, household items, ice-cream or huge blocks of ice … each with their distinctive call sign.
Sounds like cycling heaven? Nearly, but not quite. It’s hot and dusty at this time of year and small towns that might have places to stay are spaced further apart than we would ideally like.
This meant we needed to cycle just over 100km from Siem Reap to reach Koh Ker, our first destination. Most of it was slightly uphill, which would have been fine had we not been surprised by a persistent headwind.
This wasn’t an Irish gale. It wasn’t even a stiff breeze. But it was the kind of wind that makes smoke lean sideways. Enough to make you feel that you’re pushing the air aside as you ride through it. And it never stopped!
Luckily, there were lots of places to pause and rest. Nearly every house is a shop of sorts, selling petrol in old water bottles, strange snacks and best of all … fresh coconut water. Delicious and cool, it slipped down like a reviving nectar.
Much to the locals surprise, we drank a whole coconut each, about half a litre. They had no idea how dehydrating it is to cycle into a warm wind all day. As the day wore on, our stops became more frequent … every 25km, then 15km, then struggling to make 10km.
The following day was a manageable 65km from Koh Ker to the county town of Preah Vihear. Then we faced a choice … cycle 140km to Stung Treng in one day, stay overnight at the only guesthouse in a small town called Chhaeb (Google review – “only stay there if you have to”) … or find alternative transport.
The minivans that serve as buses couldn’t squeeze us in. So without any expectations, we wandered down to the local taxi rank to see what we could find.
Leaving the next morning at sunrise in Atith’s taxi was possibly the best $30 we’d ever spent. He dropped us off a few kilometres beyond Chhaeb with a pleasant 70km still to cycle. As we put the front wheels back on our bikes in the middle of nowhere, Atith could not hide his amusement at these strangers from another world. He found the whole thing hilarious!
But it turned a tough day into a really enjoyable day.
It also shows how much we’ve changed over the years, especially Andy. We’re now more interested in the experience than the journey. And as longtime readers will know, we’ve never claimed to be real touring cyclists!
What’s in a letter?
Angkor with an ‘o’ means ‘city’ and is the name of the great civilization of the Khmer kings who ruled Cambodia from the 802 to 1432.
Angkar with an ‘a’ means ‘the organisation’ and is the name the Khmer Rouge used for its own leadership.
Angkor is the country’s national pride and celebrated everywhere, on the national flag, on money, as the leading brand of beer.
Angkar is Cambodia’s deep trauma.
Back in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city and in Siem Reap, it’s major tourist attraction we were able to learn a little of both Angkar and Angkor.
Of course, we’re not qualified to comment on the terrible atrocities the Khmer Rouge regime inflicted on the Cambodian people from 1975-79, except to say that it still feels recent and raw.
The two sites we visited in Phnom Penh were simply and sympathetically presented. Much is left as it was found and visitors are guided by an excellent audio system that tells the story and creates an atmosphere of quiet reflection.
No-one was taking lots of photographs on the days we were there.
First to the notorious S-21 security prison. Housed in an old school in a quiet suburb, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured there until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors, each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.
Then to Choeung Ek, one of 300 ‘Killing Fields’ spread across the country. The people in S-21 were taken here in the middle of the night for execution, made to kneel down beside an open grave and killed with a rough agricultural tool as bullets were too noisy and too precious.
Estimates vary but roughly 2 million people died, a quarter of the population.
We had travelled the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling on a busy, featureless main road. This was by far the most hassle free bus journey we’ve ever made with our bikes, which were safely stowed in the hold without the need for packaging or removal of wheels.
Cycling around the Angkor complex of temples was pure delight.
It’s a vast area, a city that boasted a population of around 1 million people at a time when London was a small town of 50,000. Most of them were engaged in building ever grander temples for each successive Khmer God King as they switched from Hinduism to Buddhism and back again.
The gateway to Angkor is 8km outside Siem Reap so a tour of a few temples adds up to a proper bike ride of around 50km each day.
We saved the best until last. Angkor Wat at dawn. It was genuinely a spine-tingling moment to emerge through the outer gates and see the lotus-bud towers lit from behind by the sun of a new day.
As was ascending the precipitous steps to reach the kingdom of the gods.
After 600 years, the empire of Angkar fell into decline partly as a result of over-population and deforestation. A lesson for us all today perhaps?
As we cycled away from Angkor Wat towards Stung Treng, there were many quirky things we enjoyed about rural Cambodia … such as the hawkers on motor scooters and the petrol in plastic bottles,
Here are a few more:
Every house is a shop but it’s not a shop as you know it. Customers pull up outside on their motor scooters and shout their demands to the shopkeeper. There’s no browsing and you get a very odd look if you try to go inside!
Bright coloured pyjamas are all day wear for many rural Cambodian women.
Wooden houses are built on stilts, not so much for risk of flooding but to provide a nice shady area to swing in a hammock in the heat of the day.
Baguettes are everywhere … a legacy from the French colonialists.
Instant coffee is only available as pre-mixed ‘3 in 1’ with milk powder and sugar. Yuk!
Cycling in Vietnam is quite different to the other countries we’ve pedalled through. It’s much busier … with millions of motor scooters buzzing in all directions.
Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as most people still call it) is Scooter City. There are 8 million scooters for 14 million people! They’re used as family vehicles, often carrying four people from three generations … everyone wearing helmets except for young children!
And they’re the best way to get around narrow village roads in the countryside.
Surprised and a little horrified to hear we were cycling around Vietnam, some friendly young people we met in Saigon insisted that we learn the local rules of the road.Size matters, they said. Buses and trucks are the top dogs they said. Bicycles are right at the bottom so you must know what to do.
The golden rule is to keep your speed and direction constant, so that everyone else knows roughly where you’re going.
Never stop. Never hesitate. Never turn suddenly.
Always keep moving.
And there are more …
Traffic lights and roadsigns are only suggestions.
Don’t bother looking when you pull out of a parking space or turn onto a busy road.
Take every opportunity to overtake – even if there’s no space, even if you’re only 20 metres from your destination.
Honk your horn a lot. It’s then up to the vehicle in front of you to get out of the way.
If you’re on the wrong side of the road it’s always your right of way. You can stay next to the kerb where it’s nice and safe.
Always cut a corner, especially at a busy junction.
When crossing the road, simply walk out into the traffic and let it move around you.
It’s up to you to get out of the way if something big comes anywhere near you. Especially if you’re stupid enough to be on transport as old-fashioned as a bicycle!
But if you do see two crazy foreigners on bikes, always shout out a cheery hello!
It was good advice. When you get used to the rules, being surrounded by buzzing scooters becomes surprisingly good fun. A bit like being on a busy ski slope. Or the dodgems at a fairground.
And we were lucky. It was the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday, so the traffic was much lighter than normal.
We’ve enjoyed getting to know a few Tet traditions, starting with flowers, lots and lots of them.
We’d barely got going before we came across a huge flower market in a town called Tan An. It was a colourful and busy scene, everyone piling impossible quantities of flowers onto their scooters as gifts for their families. All in red, orange and yellow to bring luck, joy and prosperity for the year ahead.
Every few kilometres we cycled past stallholders selling gift hampers of special New Year food and huge crates of beer. And outside each house stood offerings of five different fruits (one for each of the five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth) bringing ‘harmony to the universe’.
Then as the party got going in the afternoon, the karaoke systems were cranked up with drunken love songs competing with each other from amongst the coconut groves. Apparently they only work properly at maximum volume!
As a smiley lady said to us … “it’s nice for you to be in Vietnam at this time … everybody happy!”
We were a bit surprised to be peddling through coconut groves rather than paddy fields. From Tan An, we cycled to Ben Tre and then onto a small village called Ap Don, resting both nights in homestays.
It was blazing hot, with the sun especially fierce in the middle of the day. Mad dogs and English cyclists out in the midday sun!
Taking back roads from Ap Don towards Can Tho, we suddenly emerged into a picture perfect carpet of rice that stretched towards the horizon. Fringed by palm tress it was a tapestry of every shade of green.
This was the Mekong Delta we’d come to see.
Following the back roads is something of a navigational challenge, as several of the paths are not marked on Google maps nor on our trusty ViewRanger. After some debate, we decided to follow them anyway … as long as they were paved and heading in roughly the right direction.
It was a somewhat risky approach but amazingly, it paid off. Each time, we managed to get to the next bridge or the next road that was marked on our map.
The surface became a bit rough at times. But it was good to get away from the scooters. And all the kids were so surprised to see us, they would often charge out of their houses just to shout “Hellooooo” or“How are yooouuu?”Their enthusiasm was infectious and uplifting.
Meandering through the Mekong Delta took us across lots of little bridges. And one old ferry that shuffled across a muddy tributary.
We also braved four huge, daunting bridges across the wide rivers that drain the Mekong, each 2 to 3 kilometres long.
Our last leg across the delta turned out to be over 120km on a busy road, so we chickened out and took the bus. This worked out fairly well, although it was not without the sort of challenges we’re now learning to expect when we try and load our bikes on buses during a busy holiday.
It doesn’t matter how many times you check that the bikes will be OK on the phone. It’s the staff at the bus station that make the call. At first they refused to let us board, but eventually relented and let us change our tickets to a bigger bus … departing 3 hours later.
In Châu Doc we rode out to Nui Sam (Sam Mountain), a granite outcrop some 284m high and full of pagodas and monasteries. As they zoomed by on their scooters, everyone else thought it was hilarious to see us struggling up the 10-12 degree climb.
But the views at the top were well worth the sweat.
We’re now in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia, having cheated again by taking a boat all the way from Châu Doc up the Mekong River. This turned out to be a lovely trip … boats are definitely our favourite alternative transport!
Overall, our journey through the Mekong Delta was not quite what we’d imagined … meandering through a gentle landscape of rice paddies and waterways.
It is much nosier and much busier … with those pesky motor scooters buzzing past us most of the time. Each road or path is lined with houses and Vietnamese flags. People are everywhere.
But it’s the people who have made it such a wonderful experience. Smiles and laughter all the way as they enjoyed their holiday. And each one greeting us with a few words of perfect Queen’s English.
Not “Hi” or “How yer doing?”
but “Hello, how are you?”
And our favourite … “It’s very nice to meet you!”
Well, it was very nice to meet you too.
Clare and Andy
If you’d like to see a video of one days ride through the Mekong, we have posted it on our Facebook and Instagram pages together with some other photos.
Use the links underneath the main menu on this blog. Or go to Facebook/Instagram and search for avoidingpotholes.
Most of Tasmania is green. Queenstown is orange. Mining has turned it into a moonscape of bare rock and eroded gullies.
Abel Tasman was the first European to sight the west coast of Tasmania in 1642. Surprised to see his compass behaving strangely, he made a note in the log that there may be “plentiful mineral wealth hereabouts”.
There was, but not of a colour people expected. Prospectors arrived some 240 years later seeking gold, but the quantity extracted did not match the extreme hardships they faced to find it. It was ‘fools gold’.
A few years later some canny metallurgists returned and found copper … lots and lots of copper.
Founded in 1893, the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company became famous as one of the richest copper mines in the world, producing more than a million tonnes in its 100 years of operation. But this came at a cost … blasting away the mountain and polluting the nearby Queen and King Rivers with so much waste that they won’t recover for another 100 years.
We stayed at Penghana, a British Victorian red brick that still dominates Queenstown from the top of a small hill. Now a B&B, it was once the mine manager’s private house. He had a special balcony built at the top of the house so he could smoke his pipe in the evening and still watch his precious smelters.
All the settlements on Tasmania’s west coast started out as mining towns. Tullah for lead, Rosebery for zinc and Zeehan for silver. Known as ‘Silver City’, Zeehan had a peak population of over 10,000 with more than 20 pubs. Today there’s one pub and only 728 people.
Strahan was not always the quaint little harbour town we’d so enjoyed. It used to be an extremely busy port taking the ore out to an insatiable world.
How did the ore get from the inland mining towns to the ships at Strahan? With great difficulty. They laboriously built a network of narrow-gauge railways, cutting through rocky mountain ridges and dense rainforest … all by hand. Despite an average speed of just 10kph, the steam engines became a lifeline for these communities.
The trains stopped working in 1963 when road travel took over. But in 2002 they were restored by a group of enthusiasts as a tourist wilderness experience, using the original locomotives. It’s not your average steam train ride, and has become so popular that the railway is once again one of the biggest employers in town.
Ironically many of these tourists visit Queenstown specifically to see the haunting orange landscape that is the legacy of a century of open-caste mining.
In complete contrast, Cradle Mountain is a natural beauty, pure and healthy. On a crisp, sunny day, we were lucky enough to see it in all its glory as we hiked up to Marion’s Lookout (1290m) and across to Ronny Creek.
Clare definitely made the right decision to get the bus from Strahan to Burnie and really enjoyed a few days morphing into a tourist.
Especially as all the locals really enjoyed telling Andy what a fool he was not to jump in the car with her!
The cycling turned out to be even harder than expected. The first day’s ride from Strahan to Tullah was long at 85km and had a nasty sting in its tail.
The second day was only 56km from Tullah to Cradle Mountain but it was relentlessly uphill. The first 30km, followed the Murchison Highway which meant plenty of logging trucks roaring past at 100km/hour.
Those of you who follow professional cycling will be familiar with commentators dramatically announcing that a rider has “lost his legs!” as he falls behind the others. This is what happened to Andy on this climb, as he started to resemble Fabian Aru on a bad day. (Aru is known for his untidy, bobbing riding style and gurning expressions.)
The final day’s ride from Cradle Mountain back down to Devonport is normally a spectacular route through rolling hills and forests. But the weather gods must have decided that one sunny day was enough. They gave us cold, penetrating Irish mizzle instead. So cold in fact, that Andy put on two coats to try and stay warm.
In the early afternoon the clouds lifted, the rain stopped and this foolish cyclist was rewarded with a golden moment. Seeking hot coffee, he stumbled across the Tasmania Arboretum where he found several platypuses frolicking lazily in a pool.
Fittingly, the final descent wound through a magnificent Eucalyptus forest shrouded in mist. In Australia, we’ve seen thousands and thousands of Eucalypts, but they’ve never become boring. Papery blue-grey bark peals off in shreds to reveal a changing canvas of smooth white trunks highlighted with patches of yellow or orange.
Our route around Tasmania (clockwise from Devonport):
Tasmania: 1,328km (825 miles) over 21 days. 18,774m of climbing.
Australia total: 1,700km (1,055 miles) over 27 days. 21,190m of climbing.
This makes Tasmania as hilly as Chile!
Tasmania definitely lives up to its reputation as a great place for a bike tour. Any tour come to that … by car, by campervan, especially by motorbike. It’s a beautiful and unspoilt island with lots of variety and without huge distances between places. The roads are in good condition with only light traffic and almost all the drivers are considerate to cyclists. Especially the logging trucks in our experience!
It is a tough cycling challenge, mainly because of all those hills. Perhaps that’s why we only bumped into 6 other touring cyclists.
The weather is variable at any time of year with plenty of wind and rain. We probably started 2-3 weeks too late in the season for perfect cycling conditions but were lucky to enjoy lots of nice days.
We’ve had no injuries, no illness and most surprisingly no mechanicals. Not a single puncture. Andy did spectacularly fall off his bike on a downhill near Hobart, landing in a petrol station forecourt but it was only his pride that was hurt.
There’s lots of things for a cyclist to love about Australia …. impressive public toilets, great camping and accommodation, quirky community-run museums, incredibly good coffee. And brunches to die for!
In cities, the cafe culture is amongst the best in the world and there’s no tipping culture, as the staff are well paid. It’s all very straightforward and simple.
In rural Australia the food can be a bit more basic. But it’s the early closing time that catches people out. Last food orders are normally at 7:30, and by 8:30 a typical country pub is deserted. How do Spanish people manage?
On the flight back home we had a bit of fun by each listing our top five Tassie highlights. We were amazed to find they were identical:
Strahan: wilderness tours, fascinating history
Cradle Mountain: dramatic landscape
Maria Island: wildlife, peace, simplicity
MONA in Hobart: mind-boggling
Riding past the east coast beaches: white sand, gin-clear seas
Clare was no fool to jump on that bus in Strahan. And she was no fool to suggest we quit cycling to Sydney and come to Tasmania instead.
The challenge of cycling from Hobart over the mountains to the West Coast is well summed up in ‘Discover Tasmania: A Cycle Touring Guide’, a small leaflet that has become our bible:
“The West Coast is vastly different to the East Coast. It’s rugged, mountainous, beautifully wild and has a temperamental climate.
The remoteness of this route can be daunting for many and you must be well equipped to tackle the terrain.
The road from Hobart to Strahan is winding and brutally hilly at times. But it’s also beautiful and deserving of the challenge.
The climbs are not insurmountable but the descents are breathtaking!”
Our first bit of ‘temperamental climate’ was the strongest headwind we’ve ever encountered. It became so windy that we were repeatedly blown to a standstill or knocked sideways into the road, as we dragged ourselves up the River Derwent. Taking sanctuary in a bus shelter, we seriously considered turning around and sailing back downwind to Hobart.
After much debate and googling things like ‘long distance buses’ or ‘large taxis’ or ‘weather forecast’, we decided to struggle on, at least to the small town of New Norfolk where we gratefully came across the Badgers Bike Cafe for a very welcome coffee.
To his horror, Andy then discovered he’d left our ‘dongle’ 15km back down the road in the bus shelter. This is an important bit of kit … it’s an old mobile phone fitted with an Aussie sim card that we use to ‘hotspot’ to all our devices as a sort of wifi server.
Arrgghhhh … and lots of other expletives!
While Clare happily enjoyed a second cappuccino, Andy found a taxi to take him back to the bus shelter and recover the dongle, still on the bench where he’d left it.
Then on the taxi ride back to New Norfolk, he casually used the dongle to re-check the weather forecast for the 100th time.
Not phew! The opposite of phew!
The first cold front of winter, full of even fiercer wind and rain stirred up from the Southern Ocean, had spookily sped up and was now going to cross our path much, much, much earlier than we’d expected.
We’d have to ride very fast across the hills to make it to Hamilton before it struck.
Or … we could take a taxi?
Yes … our friendly driver, John, would be very happy to take us to Hamilton. But … his back seats didn’t fold down so he could only fit one small lady-sized bike in his boot. And yes … he was the only taxi in town.
Ten minutes later, before she’d quite realised quite what was happening, Clare had been bundled into the taxi and driven the 40km to Hamilton. Somewhat surprised at her early arrival and dishevelled state, the elderly B&B owner took pity on her and lit a lovely warm fire.
Andy had no choice but to get back on his bike.
To start with all was sunny and calm as he climbed into the hills away from the river. He took off his rain jacket, put on his sun glasses and started humming tunelessly on what (surprisingly) seemed like a lovely ride.
Then only 10km from Hamilton, the sky suddenly darkened as the cold front hit, hurling down rain and small piercing hailstones fired horizontally by 60kph winds. This was the same weather system that would later destroy a concrete bridge when it rammed into New Zealand.
That 10km took Andy well over two hours, mainly because he spent most of it sheltering in trees. However, it gave him plenty of time to contemplate an important rule of bicycle touring … never get delayed by losing your dongle!
Hobart had turned out to be a very pleasant place for a city-break, especially as our son Chris flew over from Melbourne to join us. We poked around the impressive Salamanca market, enjoyed fresh fish and chips on the harbourside, and hired a car to visit the haunting ruins of Port Arthur, a penal colony set up for repeat offenders.
Best of all we went to MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art.
MONA was set up by self-made gambling billionaire, David Walsh, as a ‘subversive, adult Disneyland’. It’s provocative, compelling, disturbing, shocking, enticing. We found ourselves drawn in by each exhibit with increasing curiosity. All three of us agreed … it’s worth coming to Hobart just to see MONA.
After a restful night in Hamilton we rode uphill to Tarraleah in much better weather and then onto Lake St Clair, the deepest glacial lake in Australia.
We slept in an old school that served the children of workers building a massive hydro-electric project in Tarraleah. Built in the 1930’s the village once boasted 100 houses, a police station, a town hall, shops, a church, a golf course and a school.
Hydro-electricity was and is vital for Tasmania not only for power but also for the identity and confidence of the state. But once the construction workers left, Tarraleah became a ghost town and was almost reclaimed by the bush until another entrepreneur rescued it and turned it into an activity centre and hotel.
Good friends from Sydney suggested we stay at Pumphouse Point on Lake St Clair, an even more unusual hotel converted from a water pumping station that was built at the end of a pier.
Our friends were right, it was a lovely treat.
It felt to us that we’d already been riding through the wilderness for several days, but the actual ‘Wilderness Road’ starts at Lake St Clair and meanders across the vast Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park to Queenstown.
We left early to try and avoid the heavy downpours that were forecast for the afternoon.
Riding across this world heritage area genuinely felt like a wilderness experience. There were no shops, no cafes, no petrol stations … just some of the most magnificent scenery we’ve ever cycled through.
It was remote, raw and wild. And brutally hilly at times.
We crossed the ‘Great Divide’ halfway along the 85km ride, moving from the relatively dry eastern side to the much wetter west.
Weather systems from the southern ocean deposit over 2m of rainfall a year on the west coast, creating perfect conditions for thick temperate rain forest. Many of these ancient trees are only found in Tasmania … Huon Pine, Leatherwood, Celery Top, Whitey Wood, Sassafras, King Billy Pine.
The downpours duly arrived and we got completely drenched just 5km away from Queenstown. It was like the taps being turned on.
A last breathtaking descent the following day took us down to the remote town of Strahan on the banks of MacQuarie Harbour which, surprisingly, is six times bigger than Sydney Harbour.
One of the reasons that tourists come to Strahan is the extraordinary boat trip through the narrow ‘Hells Gates’ harbour entrance and then up the Gordon River, deep into the rain forest.
The boat tour also stops at Sarah Island.
On this tiny strip of land, seemingly at the end of the earth, around 500 of the worst offending convicts endured some of the toughest weather conditions imaginable, together with a brutal regime of hard labour and vicious punishments.
They had to build a wooden fence wall to stop the ‘Roaring Forties’ blowing the whole place away.
They had no fresh water, it had to be shipped in, so was heavily rationed.
The convicts had little shelter. Many slept where they worked.
Much of that work was sawing huge tree trunks to make ships. The saw was operated by two men, a ‘top dog’ sawing down and an ‘underdog’ sawing up. The underdogs were often waste deep in sea water and wore a hood to prevent the sawdust falling in their eyes.
The prisoners successfully protested that no underdog should have to work if the water was less than 8°C. Which means that 9°C was OK!
This put our minor inconveniences with the west coast weather somewhat in perspective.
Sarah Island only operated as a penal colony for 9 years until Port Arthur was built. Remarkably in the last 5 years, a more enlightened regime persuaded these hardened men to manufacture 96 boats, known throughout Australia for their quality. All built from local Huon Pine which is prized for both its buoyancy and its natural waterproofing.
This included several large ships, the last of which was unsurprisingly pinched by the ten convicts left behind on the island to finish it. They escaped by sailing all the way across the Pacific to Chile.
This is brought to life each evening in a pantomime called ‘The Ship That Never Was’, now Australia’s longest running play.
Five days of cycling across the Great Divide from Hobart to Strahan took us 366km with 5271m of climbing. Now we find ourselves back down at sea level. To get to Devonport we’ll need to do it all over again, this time via Cradle Mountain.
Clare has decided that this is a thankless task and that Strahan makes a perfect end-point to her Tasmanian bike tour.
To her delight, she’s discovered a daily bus service from Strahan to Burnie on the north coast. There, she’s planning to rent a car for a few days and enjoy becoming Andy’s support team.
In total she’s cycled over 1500km and climbed more than 17,000m.
Sometimes enough is enough!
This means that Clare has completed a ‘journey’ by travelling A to B from Devonport to Strahan. If Andy makes it back to Devonport he will merely have ridden a ‘round trip’!
Leave ordinary life behind … that’s all they ask of visitors to Maria Island. And it’s an easy thing to do.
Maria Island is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s a carefree, car-free haven for walking, biking, camping and watching wildlife with not a single shop, cafe or ice-cream kiosk in sight.
We loved leaving ordinary life behind so much that we decided to camp on for a second night … stretching out the pasta, chicken, cereal and red wine that we’d brought with us.
We loved watching wallabies, wombats and the strange looking Cape Barren geese grazing around our tent as we cooked. And we absolutely loved stumbling across a herd of over 50 kangaroos quietly grazing on a headland against the setting sun.
We heard (but didn’t see) Tasmanian devils shrieking at night. It was fortunate that they weren’t too close, as the rangers had told us to cover up our bike saddles so little devils couldn’t eat them.
The island has a colourful human history too. It endured two brief periods as a penal colony for re-offenders but, after repeated escapes, was closed in favour of the more secure Port Arthur.
An ill-fated attempt by a colourful Italian entrepreneur called Diego Bernacchi to develop industry, agriculture and tourism didn’t last long either. His large cement works once supported over 500 people with hotels, shops and a tramline. It never came close to break-even and collapsed in the 1930’s Great Depression.
This has left an eclectic mix of ruined buildings on the island.
A small museum vividly brings to life the experiences of all the people who lived there, both the incarcerated and the free. One diarist was William Smith O’Brien, an Irish MP and a leader of the Young Irish movement that fought against the potato famine amongst other injustices. He was imprisoned here in 1849, before being sent to Port Arthur and eventually pardoned some 7 years later.
As well as describing a failed escape attempt on a whaling boat, he laments his fate to be cast so far away from his loved ones. So far away, that he was on a small island, off the coast of an island, which was itself off the coast of Australia.
We could sense his isolation.
These were our last few nights camping, as we’re sending our stuff back to Melbourne before we head to the colder mountains in the west.
Camping on Maria Island has made buying and carrying all that gear worthwhile. The tent is a great design and the sleeping bags are warm and cosy. But the air mattresses are seriously embarrassing in the stillness of the night. They squeak so loudly whenever we roll over or so much as move a muscle.
As a man of a certain age, Andy is forced to go to the loo once or twice a night. Not known for his agility, this becomes quite a performance, especially with the noisy mattresses. It’s no wonder the devils stayed away from us!
Fortunately on clear moonless nights the stars have added to his relief. The night sky seems so much more intense down here … especially the Southern Cross and the wide sweep of the Milky Way, a pearly rainbow from one horizon to the other.
We recently learnt the reason for this. In the southern hemisphere you look down into the centre of the Milky Way, whereas in the north, you’re looking out to it’s edge.
Saying goodbye to Maria Island on the early ferry, we headed south across country to the small village of Dunalley. This turned into one of those cycling days that are more than we bargained for.
It was actually over 50km of cycling on ’ripio’ gravel roads! And the road went uphill! And it rained! And Clare got stung by a wasp (presumably one that had followed us expecting yet more honeydew)!
But … she stayed impressively cheerful as you can see from these pictures, just very relieved to be back on firm, black tarmac.
The wildlife surprised us yet again. We turned one corner and disturbed a large flock of bright green and red parrots who launched themselves up into the sky in a colourful, noisy, irritable carnival. Later it happened again, this time with scores of white cockatoos swirling in front of us like confetti.
A sadder feature of this road was that there was even more roadkill than usual, in various states of decay … small kangaroos, wallabies, possums and (just once) a snake. It made for a pretty stinky ride!
Roadkill is much more noticeable on Tasmanian roads than on the ‘mainland’, but the locals tell us that this also proves the populations are healthy.
Another feature of country roads are the house numbers. Anyone fancy living at number 29762? The next house a few kilometres down the road might be 25640. This seems confusing until you discover that a new number is allocated every 10 metres.
This house is therefore 297.62km from the end of the road in Hobart … a handy way of measuring our progress.
At the end of this particular gravel road was a welcome B&B in a lovely old colonial house. We’ve noticed a few interesting touches that seem to be particular to Tasmania B&B’s … heating lamps in the bathroom ceilings, washing machines and a complimentary decanter of sherry and port to “help you sleep”.
From Dunalley we rode along the coast to Richmond, a pretty town famous for being the site of Australia’s oldest bridge (convict built of course). Then onto Hobart where our son Chris has joined us for a few days rest and recreation.
Next up is the challenge of the mountainous, wet n’wild West Coast and the road up to Cradle Mountain, the highest point on our circuit.
The weather has turned and there’s a storm on the horizon. Winter is coming!
It doesn’t look like life for the next two weeks will be ordinary at all.