Viewing entries tagged
UNESCO

It's Not All Good

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It's Not All Good

I’ve been quiet lately so here’s a bit of a recap post. I’ve continued to meet many awesome and inspiring people in Slovenia and Croatia, of whom I could’ve written several posts. But I really dislike interrupting conversations and meetings by taking out the camera. It usually makes everyone uncomfortable and disrupts the entire flow of the meeting. So I haven’t really been taking photos lately.

Also the nature hasn’t been quite so inspiring. The beautiful and perfectly clear Sava river turned into dark slimy mud somewhere after Ljubljana, after which it wasn’t even okay for swimming in. “We used to swim there as kids, but now…” is a phrase I heard many times. In Croatia there have been some nice places, but the world famous Plitvice lakes were just a huge expensive tourist trap. (Mass tourism is a topic I’ve been thinking about every day recently, and I’ll probably talk more about that later.) I took zero photos while there. And I don’t like to make blog posts with only text.

The Sava river back near Bled where it was still clean. Before “the incident”.

In addition to that, I was battling 30 degree weather with humidity, which really makes it hard to concentrate on anything. Heat dulls the mind and dries up any creativity. Whenever I ducked under some trees for a rest in the shade, I was chased back onto the road by vicious tiger mosquitoes.

The trip has felt a little too routine lately, which is worrying. After all, routine is what I was originally trying to get away from, in search of adventure and excitement. But after 15 months on the road, touring can sometimes feel even mundane. Wake up, breakfast, pack up, cycle, find food and water, take breaks, locate a campsite, sleep. Instead of adventure, it’s just my regular life, the normal way of things. I still enjoy many aspects of traveling, but enthusiasm for cycling itself has been lost recently.

Waiting for the ferry to leave in Zadar.

So what to do? Firstly, a change of scenery. I returned to the seashore for the first time since Italy. Outside the Croatian city of Zadar, I boarded a ferry to the island Dugi Otok, and camped on a small beach on the northernmost corner, based on a tip I’d received from a Decathlon employee. It turned out to be a nudist beach. To me nudism is a lot like dancing: I don’t mind other people doing it, but I really prefer to be an outside observer at the most. I tried to shoot a few sunset photos without cocks and balls wandering into the frame.

Okay, so there were only a couple naked people at this part of the tourist season, but still.

Darkness arrived, and brought with it a number of rats. They were highly interested in my campsite. I had to hang my food pannier between two trees, after they tried to gnaw through the fabric. My sleep was interrupted many times by them rustling the leaves around me, and even climbing up the inner mosquito net to the top of my tent. Rats climbing right above your head is too disgusting and disorienting to just easily fall back asleep. At least sometimes there was a satisfying thumping sound of them falling off the clothesline that I tied my food supply from.

In the morning I surveyed the damage. One Ortlieb bag had gotten a small hole from the initial attack, and the tent’s mesh had been chewed through in a couple places. Nothing major, but annoying nevertheless.

Lake Fusine back in Italy. Because I’m low on usable photos.

I packed up and continued towards the nearest grocery store. In a tiny residential area I saw a small cat, still a kitten really, rolling on the road ahead in the sunshine. Except it wasn’t rolling, but twitching in a weird way. To my horror, I realised it had been hit by a car and was dying. Fuck. I caught the attention of a woman on her porch. She explained it was one of the numerous strays of the area. No, there were no vets. There wasn’t even a human doctor on the whole island. But it wouldn’t have mattered, there was clearly no hope for the poor thing. So there was only one option.

Now, let me just explain how much I like cats. Because it’s a lot. As an example, there was one occasion in Corsica where we were staying at someone’s home, and their beautiful long-haired kitty sat on my lap and purred so cutely that my eyes actually teared up quite a bit. Look, the cat was soft and cuddly and I’m an emotional guy, alright? Anyway, to say that I like cats would be an understatement. Of course I still agree dogs are clearly better people, but cats will always have a soft spot in my heart.

Having to kill a kitten was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do, even though it would’ve been cruel to let it suffer. I spent the rest of the day drinking red wine and crying.

So yeah. As great as the bike trip is overall, it’s not all good. Sometimes it’s boring, sometimes disgusting, and occasionally it’s downright awful.

There’s a storm brewin’.

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High Season at the Dolomites

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High Season at the Dolomites

The Dolomites are a special mountain range and UNESCO site in the Alps of northeast Italy. They have a lighter colour from the rest of the Alps, due to their limestone mineral composition. The peaks formed under the sea, as evidenced by the many ancient ocean fossils found there now. A fact which really baffled scientists until about the 1800s.

I had been considering spending all summer in the “Pale Mountains". Mostly to enjoy the cooler air of higher altitudes, and only continue eastwards after the summer’s temperatures became more tolerable. Some friends I’d met along the way had told me that Dolomites were the most beautiful mountains in the world. So my expectations were high, which is often a mistake.

The peaks are in the somewhere.

The first couple days were rough. Soaking rain, fog blocking all views, camping in a heavy lightning storm, and a strange situation that required the assistance of local police. But that's a story for later - more on this (kind of) in the next post.

I could’ve taken the easy way from Bolzano via Bruneck along the dedicated bike path without many climbs. Instead I chose the scenic route. Via the alpine village Selva, crossing the barren Passo del Sella, over a windy Passo Pordoi, stopping for a shower at Passo Campolongo at a fancy hotel spa, camping on the top of Passo Valparola. Climb after climb.

Next to my campsite on Passo Valparola.

By the time I got to Cortina d’Ampezzo, I was in the mood for something different. I went to the ski lifts to find out if they accepted bicycles. The man looked at all my luggage and said I could go up, but the way down was along the ski slope, which in the summer was a steep gravel road that would be a challenge to come down on without a mountain bike. Not really recommended. I explained that my trip isn’t really about the ride per se, as much as experiencing beautiful places. I was happy just walking the bike down if need be.

His recommendation changed. “In that case, go. It’s amazing up there, just go.” He asked a ton of curious questions about my trip. He was one of those cool people whose eyes light up with visible excitement when I say how long I’ve been on the road and where I plan to go. Almost always such people have been dreaming of something similar but haven’t found the time, so they are full of admiration for adventurers doing what they do.

Every mountain should have ski lifts for bicycles!

So after a ski lift ride up one mountain, a 400m descent (where I did indeed come close to falling down on loose gravel a couple times), and another ski lift ride, I was on Monte Cristallo. It was the most peaceful place I had found in the Dolomites so far. I settled down to shoot some time-lapse of the sunset by a little pond, showering under a tree, and enjoying the night. He was right. It was amazing. I laid out only the sleeping bag for the night, and woke up soaked in morning dew.

This little pond was my favourite thing in the Dolomites.

Ultimately I had to change my plans of staying in the Alps for a month or two. The desire to rest and the fear of heat were overcome by a need to keep moving and my dwindling bank account balance. The Alps were expensive, so it was better to cycle towards cheaper countries in the east before I’d get myself into financial trouble.

Plus most of the beautiful places people recommended to me were full of people. As you should know by now, I’m not a fan of crowds or the high season, so it would be a challenge to find places I could enjoy fully in August. I was on my way to Lago di Braies, “the most beautiful lake in the Dolomites”, as I’d been told. But then I read closer recommendations that said it was a great place for photography, but you better get there before sunrise, before the literal busloads of tourists arrive. When I hear that, I lose interest. I’m sure it’s pleasing to look at, but the rush of people everywhere is a such a turn-off.

I would rather take a less impressive photo in a place where I feel at peace and connected with the landscape, than my best photo ever while surrounded by the chaos of mass tourism.

I miss the wilderness of Lapland. I think I need to go find some quieter countries now.

Here they are, the majestic Dolomites.

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Hoornaar

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Hoornaar

Remember the couple from that camping ground in Norway during a three-day downpour? They live in Holland in a small village called Hoornaar, so we paid them a visit. A replacement for my broken SSD drive was waiting for me at their address. Originally I thought we’d stay maybe a night or two, but upon arrival it turned out that various activities had been planned for us, so there’d be no hurry to leave.

Jan is a retired headmaster of a Christian school with a calm demeanour. Corrie has the kind of helpful and caring personality that you might expect from a housewife from the sixties. She conjured up amazingly delicious dinners every night we stayed there. They have been married for over 50 years, and I can see why.

I was expecting space for our tents in their garden, but instead we were given a whole summer cabin to ourselves. Later I learnt that Corrie had never allowed overnight visitors to this cabin until our visit, so it was quite an honour to stay there. It was a quaint little place by a small river lining the beautiful countryside houses. “Romantisch”, our hosts pointed out.

Hoornaar in the morning.

They had endearingly old-fashioned views, where Isabelle was expected to take care of all the cooking and other kitchen activities. And yet this was combined with unabashed curiosity about the status of our travel partnership after having met only two weeks earlier. In fact, quite a few people seem to share this interest and are asking if we’re going to cycle around the world together as a couple now. Personally, I think it seems a touch early to be considering such a thing.

We arrived on Tuesday and already by Wednesday afternoon I was being interviewed for a local newspaper. The reporter was one of Jan’s old students. Again we took questions about whether we were a couple already, with Corrie fanning the flames mischievously. Our picture was taken by a veteran photographer who, among many other subjects, had shot the queen of the Netherlands more than a thousand times. Going from the queen to us is quite a career drop. I tried to look regal to make him feel better. Judging by the photo, I looked more like the court jester.

On Thursday Jan gave us a photo tour of the surroundings. In the morning we went to Kinderdijk, a famous UNESCO site of an area with 19 windmills east of Rotterdam. In the afternoon we saw the Biesbosch National Park, where Jan shared a lot of interesting information about the history of the area. After another great dinner, I went with him to a meeting of the local photo club.

Kinderdijk with the ND1000 filter.
Weather at Biesbosch was too grey for landscapes, so we took macros instead.

Speaking in front of an audience is a pretty scary thought to me, so I was anxious at first when Jan asked me to show some photographs and talk about my trip. On the other hand, it was also an excellent opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, so I was eager to give it a try. No reason to let such fears control your life, after all.

There were about 20-30 people at the club. When I introduced myself in front of the group, they suddenly remembered that there was a microphone around somewhere. I guess my voice doesn’t exactly fill a room. I did a slideshow of two dozen of my more or less favourite photos of the trip so far. I talked about the shooting or processing workflow of each photo, and pointed out where I’d made mistakes.

Past the initial nervousness I started to get into the whole thing and actually enjoyed it. Afterwards I spoke with several of the members and overall had a great time. I felt an excited rush long after we had left.

We were supposed to leave the next day, but it had been such an eventful and tiring day that we decided to rest and stay for one more night. We could’ve happily stayed for weeks, but winter is coming and it’s better to keep heading towards the southern climate. So on Saturday we said our goodbyes to Jan and Corrie. Their last gift was a fresh copy or the newspaper article: “Tomi Rantanen cycles around the world.”

 I’ll never forget their friendship and hospitality, and hope we’ll get to meet again some day.

Jan, Isabelle and Corrie before our departure.
Throwback to the previous spiderweb field.
 

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Vadehavet National Park

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Vadehavet National Park

All of Denmark is pretty flat, but especially the west side. It was almost eerie to not see any hills or elevation. Just perfectly level farmland, far into the distance. The only things blocking the view were buildings and occasional trees. And lots of massive wind turbines, which provide almost half of Denmark’s energy.

I’d felt a slight headache all day, and when I reached the shore of the Vadehavet National Park, it got worse. Suddenly I felt completely out of it and was barely able to pitch my tent on some grass by the sea. Skipping all my usual evening routines, I went straight to bed to sleep it off. This kind of thing seems to happen to me a couple times a year. Headache accompanied by nausea, and for the rest of the day I can’t function at all. Some kind of ‘mangraine', I suppose.

I love wind power in theory, but that constant wooshing sound can get a little annoying.
Is flat.

The next day I felt fine again. I backtracked a couple kilometres to visit the nearby Nature Centre, but it would’ve cost 14€ just to get in the building. That’s an unreasonable price tag for information that ought to be free. I dried my tent and clothes in the sun outside while muttering about how Finnish national parks are better.

Vadehavet (or the Wadden Sea) is a huge national park and another UNESCO World Heritage site. It spans 10000km2 off the coasts of Denmark and Germany. I assumed (probably incorrectly) that the name means something like “The Wading Sea”, because it’s so shallow that you could walk into it for miles, especially during low tide. Even the sea was flat here.

I was about to continue towards Germany, when an older gentleman suggested I visit the island of Mandø. It was connected to the mainland by five kilometres of rocky road, which was inaccessible every 12 hours or so, because it got submerged during high tide! This sounded like a fun place to visit. At the start of the road there were warning signs saying “Tide Race” and “No crossing without knowledge of the tides”. The old man had said it was several hours until the water would rise. I googled to double check, and then crossed the sea like some bicycle touring Moses.

This road looks fine for cycling!
This sight would become all too familiar soon enough.

Mandø was surrounded by a three-meter tall dike, a sloping seawall, covered in grass. It kept the water away during storms and also provided grazing ground for a lot of sheep. The mainland had the same kind of dike. (And it continued very, very far, as I would later find out.)

The island was a few kilometres across, with some farms, houses, summer cabins, and a small village centre. There was a camping ground, a shop, a couple restaurants and a very nice-looking windmill. I figured I’d stay at least until the next low tide. I showered at the campsite, took some photos, ate dinner, and chatted with a couple bird spotters. There were many different migratory birds in the nature reserve and subsequently also many enthusiastic people with binoculars and telescopes.

There's nothing quite like a sunset by the sea.

When the stars came out I returned to the windmill. The village had quieted down. I took a few still photos and then set a time-lapse of the scene below. This gave me an hour and a half to lie down and look at the stars while waiting for the camera. I really enjoy these moments of doing nothing while the camera’s shutter clicks away, recording movement where I see stillness.

I’ve been hooked on time-lapse since the first clip I ever shot, three years ago in Finland. It was the second week of my photography studies at the Kuusamo College, and I had a new camera with a timer to play with. The northern lights were expected to appear, and I had recently moved there from South Finland so had never seen them before. I cycled out at night to a lake by a forest, and waited until there was a hint of green in the sky.

I set the tripod and shot a sequence over something like half an hour, with stars and auroras reflecting off the water. Even now I remember thinking how cool it was, and I couldn’t wait to see the video. Of course it was out of focus, and unstable because I kept touching the camera's buttons. I even composed the shot vertically, which really shows how clueless I was.

But I loved it, and kept doing it. And here I am now, traveling the world and shooting time-lapses semi-professionally.

Funny how one night can change the course of your whole life.

I got lucky and there were no cars with headlights ruining the 90-minute shot.
 

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Geiranger and 1000m Above the Sea

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Geiranger and 1000m Above the Sea

There are 206 UNESCO World Heritage Nature sites around the world, and I plan to visit as many of them as I can during this trip. The first one was Geirangerfjord. It’s the famous quintessential Norwegian fjord landscape.

In order to get there from Eidsdal I had to first climb a 620m tall hill as a warmup, then descend down a fun serpentine road with views of the fjord to the village of Geiranger. It was clearly a tourist town, consisting mostly of camping grounds, hotels, restaurants, and trinket shops. And of course masses of tourists everywhere. That aspect doesn't really interest me, so I only stopped for restocking, general maintenance and photos:

Panorama of Geirangerfjord in Norway.
A fully loaded touring bicycle enjoying misty mountain views.

From Geiranger the road continued up, at or near a 10% incline all the way to 1000m above sea level. That’s where I wanted to be. Knowing I’d mostly be walking the bike, I preferred to go up during the night. There would be no traffic, and a comfortably cool temperature. I started somewhere around midnight.

At 700 meters and 4am the visibility suddenly dropped. All I could see with my headlamp were tiny droplets of water floating in the air. I wasn’t sure if this counted as a cloud or just fog. Is there even any difference between the two, when you think about it? I suppose they are basically the same thing.

In any case, I thought if I could get to 1000m and above the fog/cloud, there might be some pretty cool photos and time-lapses available. I’ve always wanted a video of a thick layer of billowing clouds seen from a higher elevation. It was a couple hours until the best light at sunrise, so I picked up the pace a little.

Chebici bike 1000m above sea level.

On the top the conditions cleared only slightly, and another layer of clouds/fog above me was blocking any sunlight. That video would have to wait. But I’d made it to 1000m! The highest point of the journey so far. The landscape had changed quickly into nothing but barren rock, partially covered by a thin carpet of green moss. The snow up on the peaks was still melting even in late August, with many resulting streams and ponds and rivers tumbling down towards the sea.

On the high plateau there was a film crew taking advantage of the first light of morning. Their project had a much higher budget than any I’ve ever taken part in. They had a truck carrying a car, with cameras, lights and actors sitting inside pretending to be driving. A couple support vehicles with walkie-talkies were behind and in front.

It was a commercial shoot, but I didn’t get a chance to ask what for. Certainly not a car commercial, judging by the age of the vehicle they were sitting in. But if anyone in Norway ever sees a TV ad where a brown [insert car knowledge here] is driving in the barren mountains of Geiranger and some dumb cyclist is wandering in the background of the shots looking for a place to camp, do let me know.

It was all rather barren.
The sun was rising, but the cloud made it impossible to see.

The entire plateau was outstanding for camping. Almost anywhere I could just walk off the road and disappear behind a rocky hill into wilderness without well-worn paths or any other signs of humans.

After examining my surroundings I settled down by a small pond that still had one persistent 10m long snow bank to the side. There was no cell phone coverage - so no distractions. Nothing to do but rest, eat, take photos and relish in the freedom I had.

I love places like this. They nourish the soul in a way that isn’t possible in civilization. The bicycle kind of ties me down to near the road, where these experiences aren't usually as easy to obtain. I think I need to figure out a way to combine bicycle touring with overnight hiking so I can enjoy mountains and other deserted places more often. Just a very light backpack in one pannier, I suppose? If any of you have done this and have suggestions, please let me know!

One of the best campsites of the trip. Simple and basic, but beautiful.
One of the many streams in the vicinity.
Stars over mountains is a sight I'll never get tired of.
 

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