A change of plan (or two)

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Shortly after leaving Rome we contacted the container ship company to confirm our booking, but were told that our ship’s scheduled sailing date had been delayed by several days. We did not want to get behind an already relatively tight schedule at such an early stage and were increasingly concerned that the Israeli authorities might insist on stamping our passports (which would mean we would need new passports before we could enter Sudan) and so decided to change our plans by cancelling the ship booking and instead taking a flight from Italy to Sharm El Sheikh.

We’d been reluctant to take any flights during the trip because to do so might mean losing some of the continuity of a journey by land and sea, but in the circumstances it seemed the best thing to do. We spent a very late night packaging the bikes ready to fly and fortunately Egyptair took our bikes and gear without excess charge and all the kit arrived in Egypt undamaged.

From Sharm El Sheikh we hoped it would be straightforward to continue on our original route plan by taking the short boat ride to Hurghada and then riding down Egypt. But the best laid plans…. The boat to Hurghada was “not working” and it was difficult to get much sense of whether/when it would work again.

So with another change of plan, we took a taxi to Cairo, which is where we are now.

All these changes have actually worked out quite well because it means we should be able to do the ‘classic’ Cairo to Cape Town route. We now just need to decide on our route down Egypt – east coast, Nile or western desert. Hmmm, decisions, decisions…


Roads to Rome and the darker side of Italy


We crossed the border into Italy at the lakeside town of Como – looking forward to better weather and some easier cycling, but finding badly worn roads, heavy traffic and strong headwinds. Nevertheless, we were still glad to be one country closer to the more adventurous African part of the journey.

The headwinds made the dull flat lands of the Po valley more difficult than they could have been, but we still managed to cover the distance we needed to each day. We then took a south-westerly direction across more mountains to the Italian coast. One of the photos we’ve posted is me (Chris) cycling up a sunny mountain road on this leg.

More favourable winds helped us down the coast to Pisa, but after weeks largely by ourselves on the road it felt uncomfortable to be among crowds of tourists, so neither of us were keen to hang around very long – although we did take the obligatory picture of the tower…

After a couple of days we headed inland through Tuscany – a hillier route, but one that avoided the main road along the coast, which was the only other option.

It has been much harder to find campsites in Italy than it was in France (where most towns seem to have a campsite) and Switzerland. Italian campsites seem to be in clusters near to the coast, with few, if any, inland and not in the places we needed them. We have therefore found places to ‘wild’ camp most nights, which involves finding a quiet spot in the countryside as night starts to fall, then putting up the tent, cooking dinner under the light of our head lamps and leaving early the next morning before anybody tries to move us on.

This can prove to be eventful. Here are two examples.

The first evening on the Italian coast we struggled to find anywhere suitable because the area was more developed than we had expected. We gave up searching for somewhere to pitch in the end and cycled to the nearest town to find a hostel or hotel. Unfortunately both hotels in the town were full.

By then it was getting quite late, but we continued into the night looking for somewhere to put up our tent. After some time and at the top of a very steep hill we came across the local castle and decided to put the tent up in the grounds – see the photo we’ve posted – on the basis that while we may still get moved on from a public space, it seemed unlikely that anybody would visit the castle before the morning. Fortunately nobody troubled us and we awoke to a panoramic view and packed up before the early morning dog walkers arrived.

The second ‘wild camping’ incident was more disturbing. We were following a relatively quiet road at around 6.30pm, as it was starting to get dark. Clouds were building ahead, we’d felt a few drops of rain and seen a few flashes of lightening, so were keen to find somewhere to put up our tent and shelter quite quickly.

I (Chris) noticed a grassy field with open access from the road and, although there was a house within sight, the field fell away to where I hoped we’d find some flat ground to put up our tent, out of view of the house and road. We rode quickly across the field and reached some bushes and trees, beyond which was the railway line and it seemed a good secluded spot in which to camp.

The rain started to fall more heavily, so we walked under the shelter of some trees. The bushes and tall grass around had been trampled relatively recently, but it didn’t seem obvious why as there was nowhere further to go because of the railway line.

We noticed that the ground under the trees was flatter than the in the field and was more hidden. As there was enough room for the tent we decided to pitch there. We started to put up the tent, but as there was some broken ground immediately in front of the tent needed to pull it back slightly. Once the tent was up, Dan started to cook whilst I put some things away in the tent.

After fifteen minutes or so I stepped out in front of the tent to see how the cooking was going. As we were chatting we both looked more closely at the broken ground in front of the tent and noticed some black plastic that we had exposed by walking over the leaf cover. We shone a light over the ground and both saw a large and intricately tied knot protruding slightly above the ground – and realised at the same time it was a large black sack buried just in front of the tent which was almost completely buried and had been covered in leaves.

Several things came together in an instant – the recently trampled ground, open access from the road, the secluded spot next to the railway line, books I’d read about the shadier side of Italy, The Godfather…

Should we open the sack I asked out loud? Then immediately dismissed the idea, realising that we really did not need to know what was in the sack!

Dan asked whether we should finish dinner and then move on. Fearing the worst case scenario I replied that we should get out of there immediately. We packed the tent and our panniers as fast as we could and pushed our bikes quickly up the field towards the road. By now the rain was heavy and the flashes of lightening more frequent.

As we were leaving the field we both noticed – although only discussed later – a man standing by a window of the nearby house, who disappeared inside the remote house as we cycled by.

We stopped after a few hundred metres and discussed what we should do next, realising that if our discovery was as murky as we feared and we had been seen leaving the field then we could be in some trouble. There seemed little that we could do apart from to carry on. Our lights were packed away, so we pushed our bicycles along the side of the road, getting wetter from heavy rain, puddles and splashes from passing cars – although we were glad that there was some traffic on the road.

After a while we saw some lights of a small town and the first building we passed was a carabinieri (police) station – and if we had been seen and were being followed realised we needed to pass without hesitation. We then arrived at a bar and agreed to stop for a drink and to discuss our next move. There was a man sitting outside the bar in a small car reading something, who stared at us closely as we approached the bar and carried our bikes up the steps at the front. It was probably nothing, but added to our sense of unease, as did the car parked opposite with side lights on and engine running.

We ordered hot chocolate and I asked the bar lady whether she thought any trains would be running at that time of night. She kindly printed the times off the Internet and, although there were still trains, she did not know whether they would stop at the small local station and so we would need to cycle 7 or 8 kilometres to a larger station, back in the direction we had come from, which we were not at all keen to do.

After a while we decided to press on to the next large town and find a hotel, so we found our lights and reflective gear and cycled on quickly through the night for 1 ½ hours. With some sense of relief we found the town and a hotel at around 11pm and checked in, glad that this ordeal was over.

A few days later, we are now staying in a town near to Rome and have met up with our mum and Dan’s girlfriend Sue, who have come to visit for three days – and have given us our opportunity for our first proper rest and chance to sort our kit out for the next stage of the journey.

From here we shall follow the coast to Naples where we have a couple of free days before taking a container ship for nine days across the Mediterranean to Israel. Assuming there is no access to the Internet on the ship this will probably be our last blog post for a couple of weeks.

Crossing the Alps…

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We have made it to the other side of the Alps – and it’s a relief to have confronted the biggest obstacle we should face in Europe.

Given the time of year, we were concerned that bad weather might delay our crossing. There were strong headwinds the day before when we were refused a pitch at a campsite because the owner said the weather was too bad to put up a tent (we were happy to pitch, but were forced to find a room for the night – the first night in a bed for three weeks).

By the next morning the wind had dropped, but there was heavy rain instead. We began our climb with mountain cattle ringing bells of encouragement through the thick morning mist. After a few hours we were wet and cold and found a railway station waiting room in Andermatt to shelter in and warm up. Then, after the steepest section, more hairpin bends and riding through clouds in poor visibility, we reached 2108 metres and the Gotthard Pass. Although we were denied a view from the top, the weather helped in some ways because it kept us cool and prevented us seeing how much further up the mountain we had to ride!

After a quick change into warmer clothing and a bowl of soup at a mountain-top restaurant, we began our long downhill ride. We got some glimpses of the mountain as the mist began to clear and there was a distinctive smell of wood smoke in the air of the villages we passed through.

One day on, we are now camping on the shores of the lake at Lugano, enjoying warmer weather which we hope will last as we ride down Italy. We cross the border near Lake Como tomorrow.

[To get to the Alps we followed the Canal du Rhone au Rhin from Strasbourg and then the Rhine, crossing briefly into Germany and passing through Basel. This section was relatively uneventful, although we did get into trouble with the owner of a French campsite, who ended up locking the toilet block and turning off the water supply to the campsite to try to get us to leave!]