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From Hamburgers to Noodle Soup

 

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.

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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.

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Just over the border from Laos

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.

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The tank that marked the end of the war

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.

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Emerging from the Cu Chi tunnels

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.

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At the guesthouse in A-Luoi

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.

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Noodle Soup

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.

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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.”

Ernest Hemingway

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Coffee break on one of our best ever biking days

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.

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The Citadel at Hue

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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.

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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!

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Elephants, horses and mini-mandarins guarding the tomb for Tu Duc

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.

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Graves in the dunes on the ‘road of death’
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Some very elaborate

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.

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Looking back from the lower slopes of the Hai Van pass
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A pig truck on a hairpin bend
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A narrow escape for this motorbike (and us!)

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.

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Anyone fancy a fat buddha for their garden?

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.

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The old buildings of Hoi An
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Traditional Vietnamese Nón Lá’ … Leaf Hats

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!

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Our favourite: Bánh Xèo … crispy pancakes filled with shrimps and fresh vegetables

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.

Laid back in Laos

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.

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Part of the Lalay Border Post

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.

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You can see his problem

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!

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On the way up to the border

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’.

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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.

img_1133It 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.

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This natural barrier gives the Mekong it’s special charm – it’s one of the world great rivers meandering 4350km from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, but it can never become a shipping super-highway.

img_1149We 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.

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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.

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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.

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Looking down on Wat Pho

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.

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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.

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Cycling up to the Bolaven Plateau

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.

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The Bolaven Plateau is a market garden

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!!

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Cruising down … all day long!

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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.

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Tat Lo Village

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.

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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.

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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.

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Clare and Poh

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!

Clare and Andy

Cycling with your husband

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.

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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.

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Or just get some new wheels …

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.

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50 cents a bunch

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.

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Sadly there was no room on this one

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.

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Our room at Palamei Guesthouse, Tad Lo

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!

Clare

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Strangers from another world

“Heyoooo … Heyoooo mister … Heyoooo mummy … Heyoooooo!!!”

Little people running out to us, waving, jumping up and down, huge smiles lighting up the dusty, parched landscape.

“Byeeeeeeee!!”

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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.

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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.

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Cassava is an important cash crop
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Two-wheeled tractor

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.

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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.

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Vegetable seller

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.

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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.

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Petrol station

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.

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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.

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Thanks Atith

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!

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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.

We came to learn a little of both of them.

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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 were both 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 at Tuol Sleng, an estimated 20,000 victims were incarcerated and brutally tortured until they made false confessions. There were only 12 known survivors each because they had a skill that was useful to their captors.

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The rules at S-21

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.

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The Memorial Stupa at Choeung Ek, with more than 8000 skulls inside

We travelled from the 320km from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap by bus to avoid several days of cycling up 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.

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Ta Prohm, the Tomb Raider temple

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.

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Apsaras, female dancing spirits

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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

It’s another world … isn’t it!

Clare and Andy

Meandering through the Mekong

Cycling in Vietnam is different to 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.

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Traffic jam, Saigon style

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!

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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 Tet holiday so the traffic was much lighter than normal.

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We’ve enjoyed getting to know a few Lunar New Year (Tet) traditions. 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 in the year ahead.

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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’.

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A typical Tet offering

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!”

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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 too with the sun especially fierce in the middle of the day. Mad dogs and English cyclists out in the midday sun!

4FD9A2E9-8E4D-4FFA-9566-734722CF8278Taking 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.

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Following the back roads was something of a navigational challenge, as several of the paths were not marked on Google maps or 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. 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.

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Everyday life on the Mekong

Meandering through the Mekong Delta took us across lots of little bridges. And one old ferry that shuffled across a muddy tributary.

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Monks using the ferry

We also braved four huge, daunting bridges across the wide rivers that drain the Mekong, each 2 to 3 kilometres long.

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The bridge at Can Tho

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.

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View from Sam Mountain

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!

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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.

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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.

 

Fools Gold

Most of Tasmania is green. Queenstown is orange. Mining has turned it into a moonscape of bare rock and eroded gullies.

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Mount Lyell mine in Queenstown

Abel Tasman’s 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.

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The ‘Blowhole’ – the first place they found 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.

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Mount Lyell miners

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.

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Penghana

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.

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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 those tourists visit Queenstown specifically to see the haunting orange landscape that is the legacy of a century of open-caste mining.

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Cradle Mountain

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.

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Clare definitely made the right decision to get the bus from Strahan to Burnie and really enjoyed a few days morphing into a tourist.

All the locals enjoyed telling Andy what a fool he was not to jump in the car with her!

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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 it’s tail.

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Strahan to Tullah

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.

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Tullah to Cradle Mountain

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.)

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You don’t say!

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.

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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.

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There is a platypus in the picture, honest

Fittingly, the final descent wound through a magnificent Eucalyptus forest shrouded in mist. In Australia, we’ve seen 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.

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Our route around Tasmania (clockwise from Devonport):

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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!

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Postboxes

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 with 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.

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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.

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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?

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A country pub at 8:30pm

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:

  1. Strahan: wilderness tours, fascinating history
  2. Cradle Mountain: dramatic landscape
  3. Maria Island: wildlife, peace, simplicity
  4. Mona in Hobart: mind-boggling
  5. Riding past the east coast beaches: white sand, gin-clear seas
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Strahan at dawn

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.

It’s pure bicycle-touring gold!

Clare and Andy

The Wilderness Road

 The challenge of cycling from Hobart over the mountains to the West Coast is well summed up by ‘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!”

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Our route from Hobart to Strahan

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 of terms like ‘long distance buses’, ‘large taxis’, ‘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.

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A bit windy

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.

Phew! 

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 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.

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Andy though … 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.

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The calm before the storm

Then only 10km away 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 … don’t ever get delayed by losing your dongle!

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Fish and chips by the harbour in Hobart

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.

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Port Arthur
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One of the convicts at Port Arthur

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.

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Fat Car
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Human Art – he meditates there all day
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Not sure we’d have got far on this bike?

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.

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The hotel in a school
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Hydro-electric pipes

Good friends from Sydney suggested Pumphouse Point at Lake St Clair, an even more unusual hotel converted from a water pumping station built at the end of a pier.

Our friends were right, it was a lovely treat.

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The hotel in a pumphouse

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It might have felt to us that we’d been riding through wilderness for several days but the actual ‘Wilderness Road’ started at Lake St Clair and took us across the vast Franklin Gordon Wild Rivers National Park.

We left early to try and get to Queenstown before the arrival of heavy downpours 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.

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Along the Wilderness Road

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 predictably arrived and we got completely drenched just 5km away from Queenstown. It was like the taps being turned on.

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Brewing up before the downpour

A last breathtaking descent the following day took us down to the remote town of Strahan on the banks of MacQuarie Harbour, six times bigger than Sydney Harbour.

One of the reasons tourists come to Strahan is to take an extraordinary boat trip across to the narrow ‘Hells Gates’ harbour entrance and then up the Gordon River deep into the rain forest.

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Hells Gates

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 the toughest conditions imaginable combined with a brutal regime of hard labour and vicious punishments.

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Sarah Island

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.

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The old penitentiary on Sarah Island

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 it’s buoyancy and 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.

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A dodgy cast member

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’!

Clare and Andy