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mistakes

Frazzled

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Frazzled

Even slowing down in the Alps didn’t really do wonders for my mood. The whole thing with Isabelle has left me a little unravelled. Compared to any challenges that bicycle touring across Europe for a year can throw at me, relationship and friendship woes are 100 times more difficult to deal with.

Plus I seem to have picked up some of her bad habits. Very unlike her, I’ve kind of prided myself with never losing or breaking things, because I tend to be careful with my stuff. For example, there’s this little black plastic thing that I need to cover my camera’s viewfinder with when shooting time-lapse. I just keep it in my right pocket, where it’s free to fall out when I’m sleeping, or while taking various other items from my pocket a dozen times a day.

So I’ve told myself that if I haven’t even lost that little piece of plastic, I’ll never lose anything.

Random valley between the mountains.

Well, in Carisolo I was packing my bags after eating dinner, and noticed that my towel wasn’t in the pannier it’s normally in. I mentally traced my steps back to the shower I’d had the previous afternoon at a camping ground, but I was sure I took it with me from there. Afterwards I’d dried it on the back of a picnic table chair while eating, which is where I must’ve left it. A quick calculation of the odds of it still being there the following day, the amount of uphill required to check, as well as the price of towels, made me give up on seeing it again.

Weird, though. I never lose anything. Let alone a big fluffy highly visible towel on a picnic chair.

The next morning I continued from a forest camping spot to discover a campground called Fae 100 meters away from my tent. I nonchalantly rolled in to bargain for another shower, except with paper towels for drying this time. The receptionist said showers are only for overnight guests, but had a change of heart when he saw me walk out with the heavy steps of a man who had suffered losses and had really been looking forward to being clean again. Four euros would cover the use of the facilities, after all.

When I was handwashing my laundry, I noticed something in the bottom of my foldable sink. Oh yep, that's my phone.

Crap.

I didn’t even bother taking it out of the water right away. The screen had cracked a few weeks earlier to the point where it had huge gaping holes in it, so I knew the entire device was already full of soapy water. So much for being careful with my stuff. The price of the shower shot up another couple hundred euros.

But never mind. I had 700 meters of climbing to Madonna di Campiglio, where I could maybe buy a new phone. With all my gear and no muscles it took most of the day. The sun was shining, but at least past 1000m the temperature wasn’t too hot. I still stopped what felt like every 50-100 meters to catch my breath. And I’m not talking about vertical meters. Countless passing road cyclists with their carbon bikes and spandex either waved encouragingly, or tried not to laugh at my struggles.

Easy does it.

I got to Campiglio eventually. There was one shop with a selection of four phones, all of them mysteriously in the same price range. I used a bar’s wifi to research the options, and none of them seemed worth buying. Which meant that the next day I would have to go back down almost 1000m to Pinzolo, where there were more phone shops. That’s too much unnecessary up and down with the bike, but I could take a bus. And a bike rental mechanic promised to watch over my stuff the next day while I was gone. Great. It was time to find a campsite.

Except I realized I didn't have my glasses with me. Fucking hell, I lost those too? Yes, of course. I vividly recalled putting them on the windowsill of the bathroom of Fae camping to put on my contact lenses. I even remembered thinking “better not forget them there”.

Ossana looking disapproving.

What the hell was happening to me? My mind was completely non-functional, it seemed. My vision is -4.00, and the contacts are dailies, so there was not much choice but to roll back down the mountain I just spent all day climbing. Which took about 10 minutes in the other direction. At least my glasses were still there on the windowsill.

I ended up back in the same forest spot where I stayed the previous night. No progress was made, and I was minus one phone.

This was not a good day.

This is pretty much what everything looks like in the Alps.

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Underwater Camping

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Underwater Camping

After Isabelle rejoined me we stayed a few days at my campsite on farmland near the Cargèse beach. Neither of us felt like cycling and it was raining, so we just waited out the weather. On the first sunny morning an old man drove up to our apparently-not-hidden-enough camp. He was the owner of the land and came to politely inform us that camping wasn’t legal around these parts, even if alternative accommodation is practically unavailable during off season.

The timing was fine, since we were about to leave anyway. But to my recollection this is the first time ever I’ve been asked to leave while stealth camping, even if he was rather nice about it. Probably won’t be the last, though.

We spent the day in town charging our devices.

The beaches look nice, but waves are often too much for swimming.

At the next beach we set up our tents between the bushes. Late in the evening it started raining again, so I got up to cover my tent with a tarp. After hundreds of uses during the last five years the outer fly is showing signs of wear and tear. It’s not too serious yet, but it can let a few drops of water seep through in heavy rain. I preferred not waking up to that, so the tarp is a decent extra insurance against the elements. I was glad to have it, because the sound of the rain grew quite heavy as I was falling asleep.

Long exposure shot by the Mediterranean shore.

A couple hours later I woke up to a weird sensation. I was wet, inside the sleeping bag. That was very bad news. Water was still falling outside, and somehow it had gotten into the tent, soaking everything. I opened the door to investigate. The tarp above remained intact, but what used to be grass below me was now four inches of water.

When choosing the campsite I had only paid attention to how visible it was from the few houses near the shore just outside the beach. We wouldn’t want to be thrown out again, after all. I hadn’t stopped to consider that the place was also on a slight depression, and the hills around us collected all the water to run through that exact spot on its way to the sea. So my nice campsite had quickly turned into a small stream.

Oops.

I picked up my tent and carried it to a drier spot, with water sloshing around on the bottom of it. There was no choice but to abandon everything. At least my panniers kept the electronics dry.

In moments like these it's great to not be travelling alone. Isabelle was only a few metres away, but on slightly higher ground and therefore relatively safe. Sometimes I make light fun of her oversized and difficult to pitch tent, but on this occasion it saved me from a very uncomfortable night.

It's her favourite toy - any random stick.
Everything was dry again the next day.

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Germany is a Cruel Mistress

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Germany is a Cruel Mistress

After the great experience at the lighthouse, challenges started piling up again. I had a hard time coming to grips with Germany. It wasn’t anything major, just many small things adding together. The near-continuous headwind set the mood, and everything else made it worse.

I would wake up before joggers and dog walkers found my campsite, and look for a camping ground with a shower. 3G connection in rural areas was surprisingly awful for such an advanced first world country. This meant no Google Maps or info on routes or destinations, so I’d cycle the wrong way just to return empty-handed.

Yep, still going along the dike.

Asking people for directions didn't work, because in the German countryside, very few speak English. People are usually friendly - often saying hello when cycling by, or stopping to ask something about me or my bike. But when I say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t speak German?', 90% of conversations end right there.

Although not everyone is friendly. Some people respond to my ‘hello' by looking at me with such disdain that I may as well be literally poop in human form.

Which also reminds me - businesses are not so helpful to passing travellers looking for a toilet. But you can use the disgusting public bathroom without a seat three kilometres that way. Oh and no, the showers are only for overnight guests.

Although one particular morning brought nice conditions with autumn morning light.

Camping grounds can be hideous as well. After crossing the Elbe on a ferry to Cuxhaven, it was late and raining and I tried to find a place to sleep. Two other camping grounds were either full or closed, until I found one where the owner was a tough-as-nails old lady. She looked at me like some idiot. Trying to find a tent place, in late September, without a reservation? Shaking her head she looked for a free spot among a thousand white caravans parked inches from each other.

She pointed her flashlight at a bit of grass surrounded by caravans. From her gesturing I understood that it was the only available place. The grass squelched from the rainwater. And I didn’t see how my neighbours wouldn’t stumble over my tent when they’d wake up. I basically would’ve had to put some of my stakes under their cars. Why do people stay in these overcrowded trailer parks? I genuinely don’t comprehend the appeal of them. "We have a home on wheels that we can drive practically anywhere on Earth - let’s park it in a Tetris block of mobile homes until the holiday is over."

Even while tired and frustrated, I preferred to return to the rain and darkness rather than take that spot. After examining satellite images under a bus stop I rode another few kilometres to a forest behind a hospital and camped there. It was midnight, but I had to set the alarm to after six to leave early, because I wasn’t supposed to be there.

I'll take a horror movie forest over a shitty camping ground any day.

It continued like this. Too little sleep, back into the demoralising headwind, rear brakes start dragging on the disc and need adjusting, nope - you can’t use the toilets here either, now the front shifter isn’t shifting, and the chain is rusting from all the rain... nothing went my way.

Oh, you want to have a rest day? Nein, das kamping ground ist closed. No good news anywhere. Finally in Bremerhaven I camped in the only place I could find, by the shore near a massive cargo harbour. It was a windy spot, and it rained hard during the night. I slept uneasily in the storm. The wind forced the outer fly of my tent against the inner mesh, which sometimes causes a few drops of water to seep through.

At 4am I woke up to a strange sensation. My sleeping bag was wet, as well as the backpack with my electronics. There was a puddle around me. For the first time in about 400 nights of camping, my tent had failed me.

Fucking hell.

To expand my time-lapse horizons, I started a new series of cityscapes with this scene.
"The day does shine on a pile of twigs as well", as the wise old saying in Finland goes.
 

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It’s All Downhill to Sweden

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It’s All Downhill to Sweden

Examining my route map and the calendar, it was clear I needed to make some decisions. August was turning into September, with temperatures falling towards winter. There was a lot more I wanted to see in Norway - I could easily spend a year or two here. As lovely as it was however, I didn’t want to get stuck in any single place. The rest of the world was still waiting for me. Plus I had to get away from the cold.

It was time to start heading towards Sweden. Google Maps said that from the mountain at Geiranger, the road was several days of mostly gradual downhill, which sounded just lovely. Especially the first part, which was still mountainous and wide open. My eyes were lost in the vastness of the landscape. I stopped often just to look around me and breathe in the views.

Spot the yellow bus in this photo:

Cycling through this makes me feel very small.
Lunchtime rest stop.

The first evening I stopped by a resting area to shoot the sunset. A couple of German guys were cooking sausages and potatoes by a fire behind their camper van. I thought they were avoiding eye contact, which typically means they prefer to be left alone. So I did, and focused on my photos. It turned out my judgement was wrong though, because one of them broke the ice by asking if I would like a potato. Well, I’m not one to turn down food while cycling.

I sat down gladly. They were coming back from Nordkapp towards the end of a long holiday. We ended up having a very nice conversation by the fire, while they kept offering more delicious potatoes and sausages. Eventually I had to depart to look for a campsite before it got dark.

When leaving I was thoughtful. The meeting almost didn’t happen due to my assumption or misread, which makes me wonder how often I miss out on meeting people due to not being open to it or initiating the situations myself. Probably quite a lot. I am much more social while touring than otherwise, but there is still a lot to improve in that regard. It’s certainly something to be mindful of in the future.

Sun setting over the Otta river.

To find a place to sleep I crossed a concrete dam into a quiet pine forest with only one small gravel road and no buildings that I could find. After setting up the tent near the shore of the dammed Otta river I noticed a huge pile of what could only be bear poop just a few meters from my campsite. And two more nearby. I poked the freshest-looking one with a stick. It hadn’t even fully dried yet.

Oh well. They say bears are more afraid of us than we are of them. And I have spent quite a bit of time in forests without ever seeing a glimpse of one, so I didn’t feel concerned. Tiny little ticks worry me more than huge bears with sharp fangs and claws. Which sounds odd, and yet is statistically very sensible. Bears attack something like one person per year in Scandinavia, and most of them are hunters.

The night was clear and full of stars, so I set about to do some astrophotography. There wasn’t much light pollution, and I was south enough to maybe try shooting a Milky Way time-lapse. The centre of the galaxy is below the horizon in North Finland, so this was a rare treat for me. It was the coldest night since June and every breath fogged up. I tried not to breathe on the camera while setting it up, and then paced back and forth to keep warm while waiting for it to finish.

Unfortunately I (again!) stupidly didn't use a hand warmer packet, so the lens fogged up and ruined the sequence. I really ought to stop repeating the same mistakes.

Here's the first shot. You'll just have to imagine the Milky Way behind the trees gliding majestically in the night sky.

The video would've been really nice.
 

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Never Thought I’d be Happy to See a Tunnel

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Never Thought I’d be Happy to See a Tunnel

What kind of circumstances does it require to make a 2.5 kilometer tunnel, all of it an uphill climb, look appealing to a cyclist? Cold, rain, and a laptop water damage emergency.

Let me paint a picture to those of you who have never cycled through a tunnel:

Imagine it’s summer. You’re on a bicycle tour. The sun is shining and birds are singing. You couldn’t be happier. Until you turn around a bend and your heart sinks. The road continues into blackness through a mountain.

So far I've also had to "imagine" summer.

All of a sudden, you’re banished from The Shire into the Mines of Moria. The temperature drops 20 degrees to near zero. Drops of icy water fall from the cracks in the rock onto your skin. The floor is wet and slippery. Strange echoes and creepy unidentifiable tunnel sounds, almost like whispers, slither into your ears.

You turn your head to try to light up every nook and crevice with your headlamp to look for monsters. Every two seconds your breath fogs up and hits the beam of light, essentially blinding you.

And then you hear the rumbling. They are coming.

One does not simply pedal into Mordor.

You start to cycle more frantically, trying to figure out if the sound is coming from the front or back. Then you see headlights behind you on the same lane. Shit. The rumbling builds into a deafening cascade of sound. The two bright dots in your rear view mirror fuse into one ball of pure light that burns your retinas. All the while you’re trying to cycle as straight as you can, which is not easy with a heavy bicycle in an uphill tunnel with an icy floor and severely compromised eyesight.

But there’s nowhere else to go. You can only hope the car passes safely.

And that's what tunnels are like.

This one's okay.

I try to avoid going through them whenever possible, but on Senja there usually aren’t alternative routes. So at the very least I make an effort to cycle through tunnels during very low traffic hours.

Hence, I never thought I’d be happy at the sight of the 2.5km Skaland tunnel. It had been raining for a while and I’d realized the rain cover of my backpack was leaking. That’s the one that contains the laptop and other important electronics, so water seeping into it was a huge problem. And there was no shelter anywhere. Until I spotted the tunnel. I could stay there by the side of the gate, safe from rain.

This looks like a fine place to camp!

I stayed there for a few hours until the weather cleared. There was little traffic, and it was split about evenly between drivers with a "best of luck with the weather!" kind of smile and wave, and the "what the hell is this guy doing?" stare.

Luckily no damage was done. But until I can find a more waterproof backpack, I need to figure out a whole new system of protecting my valuables.

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Why I Don’t Like Cities

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Why I Don’t Like Cities

As I've already said elsewhere, this trip is mostly about nature destinations. Cities are not my thing. And I say this as someone who used to genuinely prefer large cities - the bigger the better. I've lived in several cities with populations in the multiple millions. As I got out of my 20's however, I suddenly gained a deep appreciation towards the serenity that can only be found in nature. So that’s where I try to spend most of my time now.

Cities are loud, dirty, polluted and unnatural places. There's a constant background noise of cars. The air smells like concrete and exhaust fumes. Everything is artificial; even the park is designed by an architect. There are so many people it’s hard to make contact with anyone.

And that’s under normal circumstances. When I'm on a bicycle trip it gets much worse. Now I can barely visit a toilet somewhere without worrying about where to leave my bike and bags so they won’t be stolen. I don’t even like camping grounds due to the prices (among many other reasons), how am I going to pay for a hotel room that costs my entire week’s budget?

Plus of course cities are just miles and miles of definitely-not-camping-here grounds that it’s difficult to navigate out of. 

That’s why I didn’t have the greatest time when I entered an actual city for the first time on this trip. Despite the fact that the place was Tromsø, undoubtedly one of the nicest little cities in the whole world. I was also tired from riding all night. For some reason I hadn’t found a campsite before Tromsø, so I made the very questionable decision of riding through it, instead of turning back and being less picky with my sleeping spot. Another rookie mistake.

So, with all the above in mind, exhausted after a long day, on an increasingly hot morning, surrounded by busy “oh shit I’m late for work" commuters, trying to stay out of everyone’s way and figuring out the local traffic rules, with a very heavy bicycle in a city that isn’t exactly “flat” ‘cos there’s a bloody mountain in the middle (probably higher than any in Finland), having Google Maps shout instructions into one ear with incomprehensible street names telling me to take turns that don’t exist, and after 45 minutes of trying to navigate my way out and somehow ending up almost exactly where I started from… I was, overall, not the happiest I've ever been.

A lonely tree by the fjord in Skibotn. Or not lonely, perhaps. It could have a very active social life for all I know.

Of course I am fully aware that I can only blame myself for all of this.

Nevertheless, cities are not my thing. And if you are reading this blog hoping to see photos of Paris, Rome and Barcelona, you are most likely going to be disappointed. For the most part I will be avoiding cities, preferring to stock up in small towns and villages. Hopefully I'll get to spend the vast majority of my time in the peace and quiet of nature.

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Cold Nights and Soggy Matches

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Cold Nights and Soggy Matches

It’s been over a week on the road now and it hasn’t rained once. I don’t even know what to say. This has never happened before.

Despite the ongoing drought I still managed, through a series of rookie mistakes, to get my matches wet.

I’ve always packed multiple boxes of matches in ziplock bags in multiple panniers. I’ve never actually ended up needing more than one box though, which is probably why this time I didn’t bother with the backups. I don’t know why I decided to forgo the waterproof ziplock as well. I also don’t know why the matches were on the bottom of the pannier, instead of the usual side pocket. Or why I put an apparently still wet pocket shower in the same pannier.

But I did all those things, and the water soaked my matches. (While somehow everything else stayed completely dry.) Fortunately there was a friendly Dutch gentleman photographing in the same resting area, so I was able to borrow a match and cook my spaghetti.

Oh, good.

Oh, good.

The weather so far has been mostly quite nice. Lack of rain is certainly a plus. The first couple days were actually really warm (+20C) and sunny, almost too hot for cycling at times. Yes, that’s correct - I haven’t even gotten south of the Arctic Circle yet and I’m already complaining about the heat. I don’t know how I’ll ever survive tropical climates, to be honest.

On the Norwegian side, nights have been fairly cold -  at or close to freezing point. My down sleeping bag is still perfectly comfortable at those temperatures, so that’s not an issue. Bathing is, however. Lakes and rivers are freezing and some still have ice on them. Just dipping my fingers in long enough to fill a water bottle is genuinely painful. So for now I’m visiting camping grounds to pay for hot showers, thank you.

Fancy a swim?

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