Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Andes revisited: memories

I've returned to Mendoza in Argentina. Those who followed my long cycle ride may recall that it was here in Mendoza in 2013 after over 2 years and 3 months on the road my journey ended abruptly and I had to fly home. More about that another time..

As usual I was chasing winter when I was here last and I've just started reading a few of the drafts I never posted. Some are amusing. Some I think I was verging on delirium. So here are a few snippets of those days. There may come more
Imagine a highway whose southern start point is reached only by crossing two lakes, hiking up a steep, muddy narrow trail, barely wide enough for a person never mind a bicycle and panniers, crossing through streams and boggy ground and over a tangle of tree roots, rocks and ferns. A gravel highway stretching for 1200km that winds it way through fjords, lakes and mountains, the sharp  bends as capricious as the weather where humidity and still air is cut through with an icy chill, where clouds caress the lowers slopes of steep verdure hills, or lenticularly hover over jagged peaks.  where limestone cliffs and bluffs erupt with water, trickling, pouring, bubbling, gushing from every crack in the rock. Where glaciers hang from towering peaks. 

Imagine arriving at the beginning of the first lake crossing on a blustery day leaving behind the rime mushroomed peak of cerre Torre in El Chalten dipped in fire at sunset and later cooled under a full moon sky

Imagine heaving your bicycle on to a small ferry after a panicked 40km clattering of a ride on an undulating track  and smiling with relief that you've made it just in time and you cross the lake as the sun lowers and the wind strengthens and at the other side you pitch your tent with 2 hitch-hikers who are to accompany you on one of the most adventurous and vertically challenged border crossings of your journey so far and the three of you sit there on plump grass and look out in silence, breathing in the view of Fitz Roy across Lake Desierto

As I sit between the two of them, camera in my hands and examine the photo of the 3 of us I've just taken on self-timer, Fabien leans towards me "they are not the hands of a typical lady". The 3 of us peer at my hands: scorched, wrinkled and dehydrated skin, creased knuckles with a purple tinge, a recent cut stretches from a ragged cuticle deepening and raw before petering out, each nail though different in length wears the same uniform of embedded grime, the side of my right thumb calloused from 2 years of changing Rohloff gears. I sigh and bury my hands into my jacket. "I think they look great" whispers Michi.

I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (Macbeth. Act 3, Scene 4)
I am in snow/Stepp'd in so far that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o'er. (Sherlocktales. Year 2, Month 3)

The woman at the information kiosk who has first hand information from the Argentinian Automobile Association told me the road over the mountain pass was closed due to heavy snowfall and under no circumstances should be attempted BUT then I'd spoken to a man who owned a brewery who told me it was open. As any normal human being would I trusted the advice of the man who knows his beer. As it turned out he knew an awful lot about beer but tiddly squat about mountain passes, closed roads and deep snow.

Macbeth of course was mulling over his current dilemma with blood without the intervention of the brewery man nor the  info kiosk AAA informed lady yet as I stood there, knee deep in snow with a heavily laden bicycle I'd managed to drag approximately one km after the car tracks disappeared, I faced the same issue: paved road had turned to gravel, then to sand, then to snow yet a deep tyre track from a vehicle had enabled me to at least push my bicycle for a few kilometres yet the tracks had disappeared and now a few feet snow and a mountain pass lay ahead. The pass was too steep, the snow too deep and my bike too heavy to make any progress. WHat to do.."should I wade no more" yet to return the way I'd just come would be as Macbeth eloquently pointed out "as friggin tedious as go o'er". Back tracking would also mean a 130km detour to reach my destination but the last 1km had taken me so long.

 I was also confused as 2 cars had passed me earlier that day, one heading the same direction as me and then later on another one the opposite way. Maybe I'd missed an alternative route over this mountain pass. I dropped my bike in the snow and began to hike up a hill to my right to see if the top of it offered a view of a detour. In the shade of the monkey puzzle trees the snow held firm yet soon I found myself up to my thighs as I sank and stumbled through north facing soft snow. 300m of ascent brought nothing just cold feet and apathy. But the cars must have got through somehow..unless.. ah bugger..unless..it was the same car. I slid back down the hill to my bike.. what to do, what to do..

I like snow, I like all things cold and hilly and difficult. The last time I'd faced a situation like this had been in Tajikistan where with 3 other cyclists, we'd found ourselves stranded at over 4000m altitude during the worst early winter snowfall in Tajikistan for 20 years. Yet this time it wad half the altitude and I had no visa that was to expire the next day, I had food, water and shelter and only had to cover some 80km to the next town so this was doable. It just may take some time.

I unloaded my bicycle and began the slow process of carrying my gear in relay. Walk /stumble for 15mins with first load, dump on snow, return for second load, dump on snow, return for bike, drag through snow. Time consuming and exhausting but I checked my altitude, just 500m more of ascent over 8km. By nightfall I'd eventually reached the top of the pass, pitched my tent and consumed 300g of pasta!

As I watched the sunset over the mountains and thawed out frozen fingers over my stove I felt exhilarated. These last few weeks had been some of my toughest but also some of my most enjoyable. Lessons had been learned of course: always listen to the man who owns a brewery.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Hardship and Sheepshit

“You know the lady with the log from Twin Peaks? That’s you”. Huh? “Yes you, just google it..” oh ok.

Oh shit yes that is me. Caressing a log. That glazed look in my eye as I lovingly stroke the bark. I’m obsessed with wood.  I now have books on trees, I've even started drawing the darn things. I talk about wood.. a lot. I gaze into holiday cottage lounges at twee powder blue baskets with a pink ribbon trim full of BnQ chopped hardwood, I scan my surroundings for a fallen tree. I drag branches back to my tipi, I climb over the wall and snap twigs off dead fall for fun while the rest of the UK is watching Eastenders. 

I stand staring at woodpiles outside friends' houses with the same jealousy and forlorn as a jilted spouse staring at the curtained window of an ex partner’s new home. ‘B..b..but look at your wood collection” I stutter “AND you have central heating too, dammit!!”   

I stroke public house logs that tease me in glorious textured uniform piles as I exit the building. I suffer wood envy. I, Jilly Sherlock, am a woodaholic.  Badly. Wood piles, wood sheds, wood stores. I'd read Woodburner Weekly if it existed. I get axes for birthdays, bow saws for Christmas. I have callouses from sawing. I have 2 new blades. I need wood. Forget wooing me with jewels, 2nd growth Bordeaux or brown-lipped abalone just give me a log. Don’t even woo me, or don't want to woo me? just give me a log. Now. A month’s supply please... at the very least. 

Wood. I dream of it. I’m particular too.  Forgive me if I turn my nose up at some shitty little offering. I have now experienced wet wood, plywood, pine wood, green wood, seasoned wood and way too dry wood that is like sawing through concrete with a plastic straw.. wood dragged from houseboat renovations, wood from yorkshire gardens, wood from farmyards, from wood piles left abandoned in fields, wood from railways. I’m indebted to the people who’ve donated to my log pile. Sadly my log tent blew away in the storm. I miss it dearly.

 I despair at the bags that cost you £4.50.. that just blacken and I’d get more warmth and productivity crouched and cooking over a tea light. I know my ash, my hawthorn, my oak. I know how they behave. I don't trust some logs though. I despair how I can have a roaring of heat and bubbling of food on the burner one night so I can strip off my clothing to just my thermals.. while the next night I'm shivering, cursing and starving as the wood darkens, splutters and any light dies and I give up on the hot water bottle and chilli and eat a wedge of cheese instead and bury myself into my sleeping bag in down jacket and wooly hat: damp, cold and intensely unsatisfied. 

When it all comes together it's the best feeling ever

 I live in a tent that’s why. I have neither electricity nor central heating. I’m cold. I’m damp, but it is winter after all. 

My belongings have that vibrant green pungent fuzziness on them. My down sleeping bag is tattooed with inky webs of mould. I have that smell about me. People are polite and say I don’t.  I mask it with Love in White by Creed of course and er... Febreeze. I wake with my glass of water frozen by my bedside some mornings, I wipe mud off my pajamas, I have to plunge my olive oil in a saucepan of boiling water to de solidify it and then coax out a few drops into my frying pan and then the fire dies.. again.. I have a lot to learn. My hair is often to be seen poking out in pigtails or as an involuntary dreadlock from a woolly hat. I wear rigger boots. My life is wood and mud..and wood. But the sun arrived last week and I have painted my nails.

It was easier on the road.. on the bicycle I mean.. living in a tent. I had little clothing so nothing got damaged. You’re moving each day. Things dry out. Things don’t fester and rot. Frogs don’t move in to your tent and you don't get over excited about having a frog and build a little tent to house it..

you don’t get a hen who befriends you and jumps on your knee every morning when you unzip your tent.

 A hen that you miss desperately when you leave and move to a new location in the valley where, you get a proper canvas tent with a pole and have reindeer skins and a stove.

It’s called a tipi, it’s a sought after Tentipi Safir, it’s nice, it’s big, it takes you back to childhood and the smell of canvas and the sound of a zip. You can stand up in your home for the first time in 9 months, you can swing a cat in it if you had one. A cat appears one stormy night and sits in my log basket and every day since comes in for warmth when the sun sets and leaves as the sun rises. 

The winter rota begins. I have 2 alarm clocks now: the strange cat cries each morning to wake me up and purrs as I feign admiration at the head of a mouse she has deposited on my pillow. Tyrant cat. I went away for a week and expected to see miniature stakes sporting the closed-eyed feebleness of a hundred mice heads on my return. DONT EVER ABANDON ME AGAIN. lots of love Kurtz x. I stroke it and say well done. "Murderer" I mutter as it leaves. Then the Robin comes in. He flies around my tipi pole tweeting and I’m woken to a whirr of wings. He craps everywhere. A monochrome splattering of bird poop on all his favourite targets: ooh woodburning stove.. let it fry babe!. Kapow! pillow case.. freshly washed..Zap! let’s go for her head..Kaboom! ahh books.. splatter splatter.  I like the fact he visits though. I like my solitude but it can get lonely in the field.

There are some things you shouldn't complain about .. one being it can get lonely in the field..before i know it I am up to my eyes in sheepshit. "How many sheep are there in my field" I ask as I make a feeble attempt to grab a ewe's head between my thighs. He chuckles and rubs the blue paint on a tup's chest.. "about 150. maybe more." 

 I watch his shoulders shake with mirth as I carry the bucket of blue paint around after him. "Rub their chests and balls with coloured paint and you can see how many yows he’s had."  It’s not rocket science but it kind of is.. to me. 

That is until I wake to the sound of grunts around my tipi.  Marvellous. Sod the paint.. I can tell you that this tup has had 10 'yows' in the last hour. That is not counting the other 4 tups who are also doing 10 yows an hour. I feel my home has become one of those places in the woods where cars congregate at night. My dreams of sketching the fells, willing Wordsworth's words to spill from my mouth, and following in the adventurous steps and bold drops of Coleridge are dashed by sleepless nights: tups wooing yows, tripping over my guy ropes which ping with the same ferocity as the tups desire as my tent shudders. Grunts of lust echo back through the canvas, girly eweish denials of passion. I feel I’m in cheap thailand backpacker accommodation listening to the notches on the bedposts of conquests of gap year abandon. Oh solitude and silence.. wherefore art thou. 

Yet that is the other problem. I am becoming somewhat obsessed with sheep too. Herdwicks only of course. Other sheep fill me with disdain in that manner of “Christ your child is ugly, you’ve just birthed an alien". Yet you look at the Herdwicks and you think this really is how sheep should look. Lovely fluffy little teddy bears. These sheep smile. These sheep are unique. I want to learn more about sheep farming.

But that’s another tale and the lambing time is still a couple of months away and for now, as I write in my tipi there is only one thing I need and love and still have so much to learn about..


Monday, 8 December 2014

A Confession

‘I’m living in a tent mum. I’m sorry. I’m living in a frigging tent.’ I snapped in confession.  She carried on, stepping cautiously down The Band seemingly unhearing, head down as her mind tried to control her flatland Suffolk earth feet on uneven steep and Lake District rock. This complication of her daughter apparently homeless and - god forbid -‘a tent dweller’ was seemingly not, at that moment, welcome or important.

I love it when my mother is concentrating. “How was your day dear?” she’d ask. My sister and I used to take great delight as adolescents informing her we were pregnant or had been expelled as she was carefully measuring the ingredients for a recipe while wondering how she would pay the gas bill let alone afford Christmas presents. “Oh that’s nice dear” she’d reply as she reached for the sieve.
‘What are you doing in the sunroom, dinner’s ready soon?’ as she lovingly doused the potatoes with rosemary, olive oil and black cracked pepper while filling in a tax return form. “oh just dealing in drugs’ we’d retort and she’d smile and say distractedly “That sounds like fun. Can you lay the table? Dinner’s ready in 10 minutes”.

I’ve inherited my mum’s lack of listening and absorbing while multi tasking so I thought it had worked out well as we continued out through Stool End Farm.. that was until she stopped at the cattle grid and burst into tears.

Oh shit.

Let’s go up to Stickle Tarn I suggested. She nodded, bottom lip wobbling as I embraced her awkwardly and shed a few tears too. My problem had turned into a reassurance “I’m ok mum honestly, I’m fine. I like living in a tent, really I do.” By the time we’d climbed up the ghyll to Stickle Tarn and I looked on proudly at my mum as she rested wearily her 69 years of neverending care and responsibility for others on her walking pole and gazed down over the verdant Langdale Valley with a slight smile on her face: her hazel eyes bright under a furrowed brow, I felt she would understand.

Thank god.

To be honest I blame her: endless camping trips as a kid, that comforting sound of a tent zip still excites me even now living in a tent.

Her waking me, my sister and cousins up at 4am: we slumped like cast aside marionettes propped up against steel tent poles and camp beds under a stage of damp canvas, inert and lifeless, willing for some type of Child helpline to be invented as she forced cagoules over our heads and tucked our pyjama bottoms into wellington boots.

Bleary eyed and wondering why we couldn’t just have a mum who watched daytime television, took us to Sainsburys on a Saturday and did her nails and had facials on her holiday we followed her out into the trembling of dawn in quiet, sleep-numbed compliance.

Yet when there is only the gentle murmurings and creaking of nature you don’t wish to speak to question what you are doing, even as a child, you don’t dare interrupt and your ears strain to simply listen and understand. The refreshing smell of crushed forest pine needles with each step mingled with the pungent odour of dank, foot disturbed roots and leaves of forest floor, the choral song of blackbirds, the warbling of chaffinches and bullfinches, the rising call and swooping of swallows, the rhythmic tapping of woodpeckers replacing the fading screams of nightmares and owls; the wisps of mist that you wish to grab as candyfloss, uplit clouds you yearn to trampoline upon and wonder if you will ever afford to go up in an aeroplane to see them, just those sounds, calming smells and mystical sights as you feel the morning uncurl from its nighttime slumber.

We stopped and gazed in a cluster of trees, around a patch of impossibly green grass, at a vibrant ring of toadstools of all shapes and sizes; “fairy toadstools’ my mother whispered with finger to mouth as we, now wide-eyed, shook our cloaks of tiredness from our shoulders and marched on through the forest, taking care not to step on a twig should the bears, tigers or natives with bows and poisonous arrows find us, our eyes searching through the dawn for leprechauns peeping out from gnarly tree trunks, tree stumps became the hiding place of treasure chests and we knew the vampires would leave us alone in daylight. As for dinosaurs.. well they were simply the stuff of fairytales. Then we came to a clearing and there before us stretched an ocean of golden corn.

“I gazed - and gazed  - but little thought 
what wealth to me the show had brought:” 

A Pastoral delight, embracing everything childhood memories can offer. I recall it so vividly. I just need to close my eyes to return to that day - those golden, dreamlike and abundant neverending heydays of childhood.

 “For oft, when on my couch I lie 
 In vacant or in pensive mood, 
 They flash upon that inward eye..” 

The milkiness of the sky, that bright yellow globe peeping over the horizon setting the whole crop on fire and igniting every cliched turn of phrase; the morning dew converted into mist wafting up in curls of genie smoke, the glare mesmorising and poetry inducing.

..“Which is the bliss of solitude;..”

And then we saw him. wading through the corn. “It’s a man with a gun!’ as I hurriedly crouched down. An arm yanked me up, finger to lips again and a nod of the head forwards: we stood there - in our orange cagoules, our M&S pyjama hand me downs, our green wellingtons that made our socks undress themselves and curl into a ball under our toes - with wide eyes as we watched the man with the gun stop and turn it towards us. As my 6 years of age flashed before me my eyes finally adjusted to that bright mid summer sunrise and he became a magnificent stag with antlers ablaze and a chest of fur I wished to embrace and bury my life into. We gasped, he paused and gazed at us for eternity.

“And then my heart with pleasure fills..”

Is there a greater gift you can receive from your mother?

So as we walked silently back down to the valley floor and into the Old Dungeon Ghyll pub for a pint of ale I knew she understood.

She always does.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Laos: Leave no Trace

I don't do high fives simply because I don't understand them. I'll be sitting there with someone, we agree and then suddenly I see an open palm before me. I look blankly, they look confused at my reticence, 'high five' they prompt: my smile strains as my palm reluctantly reaches up and touches theirs and that's where it goes so terribly wrong. Sometimes people grasp my hand on contact sometimes they don't so then there's an awkward fumbling on my behalf as I keep their hand in mine waiting for them to guide me through the next steps. Do we twist or slide, do you then punch my knuckles. My hand seizes and their eyes are saying 'What are you doing?? Let go of my hand!' My eyes are saying 'Help me, I just don't get this'. I finally release my grasp when I feel the sweat from our palms mingling and mirrored we both lower our offending hand, surreptitiously wipe it on our trousers and try and forget it ever happened.

Through Laos I further resented every high fiver that ever lived. Hurtling down a dusty potholed hill with panniers flapping I see excited children jumping from stilted verandahs, clambering down trees, dropping their catapults and rushing to greet the falang with their palms outstretched. It's not just the navigation and coordination of such a challenge - ensuring you hit each child for fear of retribution from the dropped catapult or tears from the 3 year old whom you missed while trying to keep upright while braking with one hand over terrain that is akin to the north side of scafell pike - it's the trepidation of pain. I'm lucky I have good genes that have given me a high pain threshold, however it appears that all my nerve endings were allocated to the palm of my hand and hitting a child’s palm at 40km an hour hurts!

Yet it's not all high fives and as I continue with my journey through Laos the 'sabaidee' call from every single child lifts your heart. I'm chased up steep inclines by young boys with sticks masterfully spinning tyres, children from the fields greet me clutching minature scythes. 

 In hill top villages where I stop to regain my breath and quietly observe and absorb the village life children coyly appear from wooden huts with sides of woven bamboo to see me. I try not to intrude, to force upon them the high fives, the low fives, to give them pens and sweets. Maybe I'm wrong I don't know I just try and do what feels right . Should a camera even be pulled out and a shot taken..

Yet then there's the strange phenomenon where some villages greet me with a cry of 'goodbye'. Confused I return it with a Sabaidee.  While pedalling up my 2nd 25km uphill of the day I mull this over. Leave no trace becomes my mantra with each turn of the crank. Leave no trace. I like to see cycle touring - or whatever you wish to call it -as one of the less intrusive means of tourism yet us myriad cycle tourers have left our wake in Laos. Shouting goodbye in return to the hello to some villagers means that now in the hills of Laos people no longer say hello or simply Sabaidee. So be it our innocent high fives or our goodbyes – we have left a trace.

And then there is Vang Vieng...
As I make my way towards the bamboo bridge that defies the laws of engineering I stumble over a body. I peer at it in the dim light. Indistinguishable letters are scrawled in fluorescent pen across his naked beer-stretched torso: a waterproof pouch around his neck lolls to the side like a hangman's noose.. A moan. It's alive. "Erm, are you ok?" I ask. He opens his eyes and lifts his head slightly. "I don’t know where I’m staying" he says and promptly bursts into tears, letting his head drop back heavily on the road. A girl with braided hair sporting the 'tubing in Vang Vieng' vest top uniform and with ample bosom spilling out from the sides staggers by clutching the arm of another flourescent tattooed, bare-chested man with his hair in a high ponytail who holds under his arm the obligatory bucket of local spirit- Lao lao - and red bull. I stop them and ask if they can help. They peer down yet stagger back but eventually between the 3 of us we get him to his feet. I remove my arm from his clammy waist and with him wedged in the middle of the two, arms around shoulders I watch them vacillate for a while before they reach a more in tune drunken gait and wander off towards one of the bars to refuel

I return to the hut I'm staying in, a tranquil place on the other side of the river surrounded by magnificent Karst scenery. After months of seeing only a handful of travellers I am overwhelmed by this in your face alcohol and amphetimine fuelled debauchery. They clutch their Lonely Planets to their chests, open them up on arrival, go to the place the Lonely Planet recommends, obeying everything their bible tells them apart from the section on modesty and that the reserved Laos people have covered themselves up for centuries for religious reasons: walking down the street in a bikini or with naked torso is not considered respectful, neither is peeing or vomiting in the river, taking your clothes off and doing things that should be done in a bedroom.. nor is dying... Guardian - Vang Vieng the world's most unlikely party town . I begin to annoy myself with my self righteousness and recall the times I had woken up  wrapped round a table leg, after the free tequila shots that came with my spaghetti bolognaise, during my early backpacking years (and no doubt in recent years, months,.. erm..weeks too). I realise I am suffering culture shock after all these months on the road yet I never believed it would have come from meeting my fellow country men again!

The beauty of Laos is staggering yet I only became privy to it when I reached the lowlands. Higher up I saw nothing while cloaked in a cloud of dust from potholed roads and choked by the smoke of slash and burn farming. This was not the ideal time of year to see Laos in all its glory. I would arrive at my destination for the day covered in a yellow grime from the road and smears of black on my face and clothing from the fallout of the ash.  In one small village at 1400m where old men wore halfmast widelegged trousers and brimmed bamboo hats I went in search of a guesthouse. A man beckoned me, he had rooms. We have a view too he insisted as he took me to a ledge where there was a great expanse of.. nothing. I can imagine what lay behind that layer of smoke. I knew there was a valley below us of vibrant green paddy fields, dramatic limestone pinnacles and jagged hills carpeted in trees that had so far escaped the deforestation horror yet I could see absolutely nothing. I looked at him, he looked back at me and nodded towards the nonexistent view and we both gazed out over a blank canvas, a mutual the Emperor's got no clothes agreement of silence, compliance and acceptance.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Patagonia: somewhere in the middle of nowhere

As I sat hunched up in a culvert pipe under the road as a storm raged above I did start to question what I was doing with my life

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Tierra del Fuego: Guanacos, Gauchos and Gravel

I felt a gnawing emptiness within me as I left the sanctuary of the campsite perched high up on the hill of Ushuaia overlooking the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel, surrounded by mountains whose peaks just a week earlier had been bare with a postcard prettiness about them, yet now seemed menacing, daubed in snow, shafts of light piercing them through a squally sky
. I was not meant to feel like this. I was leaving the 'end of the world' and a whole continent and another 12,000km lay ahead of me, I had to be up for the challenge yet all I felt was dread and apathy. 

I struggled with my thoughts as I made my way to the waterfront to take the obligatory photograph of Ushuaia's 'fin del mundo' sign. Cruise ship passengers in pastel jumpsuits and large sunglasses swept past me in a fleeting cloud of duty free perfume, jewelled knuckles clutching garishly expensive handbags, spare hands frantically patting down stiff lacquered hair as the Fuegian wind raged. In a hustle of people I felt so very alone and this isolation and loneliness crept up on me and before I knew it I was engulfed: no-one smiled at me, no-one spoke to me yet why should they? I made no eye contact: I was sullen, detached, afraid. What was I expecting? champagne corks popping, beatific faces, lingering embraces and encouraging words as I set off to cycle my 4th continent?

Evidently I did . 

As I left the crowd and cycled to the outskirts of Ushuaia along a littered highway lined with drab and dusty container yards, trucks thundering past sucking me in then spitting me out on to the gravel shoulder my mood suddenly changed from an unexpected source..

Sunday, 10 March 2013

New Zealand: the Pinball Cyclist

Rather than one of my usual tales about a Honey Seller's bottom or a near mental breakdown in China  I thought it may be a pleasant change to try and sum up almost 6000km of a journey through New Zealand in one blog post with a few pretty pictures and a few words.

Looking at my map on Social Hiking one may wonder if I had no clue where I was heading in New Zealand and I can safely say yep, one is absolutely right! I sometimes feel a bit inadequate when I've peeked at other cyclist's blogs and seen magnificent spreadsheets detailing their plans filling me with admiration.. and fear! Yet I decided to not let it bother me and as I had a few months to explore this country while waiting for extortionate air fares to South America to lower I set off with a view to get to the south island and well.. just go where the wind took me.

What I learnt very quickly is that there is a reason people 'plan'. Planning would have been good for Tajikistan - arriving to cycle up to 4655m in the Pamirs at the beginning of winter could have been avoided with foresight yet  it did turn out to be a great adventure despite having to get rescued

Saturday, 2 March 2013

New Zealand: Helmets, Hitchcock and Binges

Having not looked at a mirror that morning I peered into his aviator shades sheltered under a peaked hat and in the sepia reflection self consciously readjusted the bandana covering my head. The policeman interrupted my preening with a slight cough and my eyes were drawn to his lips, the upper remained taut in a permanent smile yet the lower did the moving above the cleft chin.  His skin perfectly tanned. 
Good god you look like one of the Thunderbird puppets I thought as he continued
"Do you know why I have stopped you?"
Now which one do you look like? Scott or the one beginning with V? it was Scott wasn't it? Scott Tracy? yep must be..
"No, I'm sorry no idea at all" I lied having watched him pass me going the opposite direction in his patrol car on the deserted road as I'd left the Marlborough Sounds on a sunny but frosty day and winced as I watched again as he returned, pulled into the side of the road and flagged me down.
"You're not wearing a helmet. It is the law in New Zealand to wear a helmet, you know that don't you"

I am shockingly one of those people who feel they have a right to choose whether they wear a helmet or not. It's not a big, clever or insightful statement, it is just me being me and you can throw all the statistics you want at me and I know wearing one has saved people's lives, friend's lives even. Maybe having cycled from an early age an eon before people wore helmets or squeezed lumpy flesh into unflattering lycra, where mending a puncture in the back garden was a thrice weekly pastime at the age of 10 is my reason, but this is not a discussion for this blog post. It is just me. 

I thought back to the helmet I'd bought for this journey while I prepared my reply. It had ridden with me for 12,000 km on the back of my bicycle. I'd worn it twice, once with James a cycling buddy for a week in Turkey for a steep downhill after we'd consumed 4 beers then found out we couldnt camp at the top of the hill we were on and once in Hungary when camped in the countryside I watched with alarm as 2 wild boar stampeded past within a whisker of my tent. My slumber reassuringly more comfortable in the knowledge I was tucked into my sleeping bag wearing my helmet should these beasts return and have no night vision. In the end my helmet and I parted ways in a small town in the Taklamakan Desert in China, confusing an old man in a ramshackle bike shop by thrusting my helmet upon him as there was no room for it with all my winter supplies loaded onto my bike nor on my head with all my layers on for cycling in -25'C . Arriving at Auckland airport I saw the sign "$200 fine" for not wearing a helmet. I bought one immediately.

Ok, deep breath and Oscar performance. "Oh gosh" I said patting my head, "where is it?" His perfect chiseled chin lifted slightly in a 'don't try and pull this one on me' confrontation. I blundered I flustered I pleaded as I undid the helmet from the back of my bike and plonked it on my head leaning towards him for another glance at my aviator shade image to ensure it wasn't askew. 

"Do you often cycle without a helmet?" 
"well for the last 26 countries yes! (hmm.. too aggressive). Until I arrived here and I bought one and I've worn it every time but today I visited Pelorus Bridge and I went for a walk and forgot to put it back on. "

That was the truth apart from the 'forgetting to put it back on' bit. I just wanted a day without it. What I didn't mention to him was the relief I'd found in wearing a helmet in New Zealand

The first assault on my head had scared the life out of me. Cycling along a quiet road in wind and rain and then something hit my helmet. I continued, a little unsettled, but dismissed it thinking it must have been a twig or something in this high wind. 2 minutes later my head jolted again and so the assault continued at regular 2 minute intervals for 5km. A few cars passed me but did nothing. Surely surely they can see what is happening I thought as once again I was hit and I stopped to confront my aggressor.

Nesting territorial magpies: the bane of my cycling life in New Zealand during spring time. The worst attack was a 30km stretch before reaching the town of Bulls (incidentally a remarka-bull town where they have insisted on coining everything in the town with a bull attached. The police station "const-a-bull" ,the public toilets "reliev-a-bull", the estate agents "Move-a-bull"..) where these evil Hitchcock film re-enactment birds attacked relentlessly. There was evidently some Magpie Neighbourhood Watch in place as once I'd finally escaped the territory of one nesting pair the residents of the next 3km had been alerted and would begin their attack. I turned to rather aptly named Twitter for assistance. "Turn and face the bird", "wear sunglasses on the back of your helmet", "stop cycling", "Just come home" were some of the helpful tips. Probably the best solution to the problem I saw was a girl on her roadbike, tanned, slim and streamlined in red and black lycra and sporting a helmet with what looked like her grandmother's stash of knitting needles poking out from the top. 

Realising the policeman was not going to wallop me with a $200 fine I succumbed to the fact his face was actually rather agreeable and he asked about my trip and wished me good luck for the rest of my journey. As he seated himself into his car he leaned out of the window and said "Enjoy the rest of your chocolate!" and drove off.

Chocolate? I hadn't mentioned chocolate. I'd babbled a lot but I hadn't mentioned chocolate and certainly not the secret compulsive consumption of the 750g of Nutella I had finished that morning after only 2.5 days. Oh no surely not..

I searched frantically in my handlebar bag for my mirror and found it wedged between my journal entries of 8th and 9th September. I held it up before my face and - with no sepia tinge to hide behind - there it was, the tell-tale chocolate smile from a frenzied spooning of 250g into my mouth that morning. Yet worse was to come as I saw the results of a succession of failed footballer's nose blows leaving a snail-like trail from my nose, across my cheek, before coming to a glistening finale on my right shoulder. 

I had to face the truth I would never have the same etiquette and class as Lady Penelope..

A birthday cake I made from my 2nd 750g jar of Nutella

Like a painting. exploring the marlborough sounds

camouflaged camping
Exploring Queen Charlotte Sound

Pelorus Bridge: scene in the Hobbit where the dwarves escaped in barrels down the river

Friendly locals helping me with dinner..
and the washing up
Marlborough Sounds. Sailing across to New Zealand's south island

The Police Station in the quirky town of Bulls

Note: I am still wearing my helmet on busy roads here in South America

Friday, 1 March 2013

New Zealand : Avalanches and Arrests

As days go this was turning out to be not one of my best ones. I was wedged up to my chest in boulders of ice and snow. My right arm forced aloft, high above my head, hand clutching my walking pole as if in some excalibur re-enactment, a hand rescuing it from misty waters. Damn. The fall into the snow had caused my rucksack to ride up my jacket and it now pressed into the back of my skull, its straps digging into my armpits like a pair of  helping hands trying to prise me out of my icy hole. My right foot was in mid-air, a gap between the snow and the river whose roar I could still hear beneath the avalanche debris field I was on..or should I say in! My left foot was on something solid, a rock, maybe. I shifted my right foot across to join its companion and stood there, encased in snow thinking hmm this is rather misfortunate.

There is something to be said about travelling alone. I never really seem to panic that much. When there's only yourself to contend with things just need to be dealt with instinctively without all the drama that 2 heads may create and my mishaps (to me) become amusing rather than frightening, (or maybe that's just the way I cope with coping) and as I stood there hapless and encased - yet fairly cool and comfortable (apart from the strangling rucksack) having worked up a bit of a sweat on my ascent - I wondered why the 2 young men I'd seen hiking in the opposite direction hadn't warned me there was an avalanche field to cross. At that moment I heard more rocks and snow crashing down from the gully above and then it slowly began to dawn on me, the avalanche had just happened and was still happening. Ok time to get out of here.

I recalled my uncontrollable giggles once watching Harry Hill's comments on BearGrylls trying to get out of an ice hole and with that I, with a swimming action, a flurry of arms, a kick of the legs, belly slapping and intermittent grunts in a manner as cumbersome as the fur seals I’d seen lumbering over the rocks of Kaikoura, flopped out of my icy tomb on to the cold surface and cautiously slid and scrambled over the snow blocks to the safety of the tussocked slope.

The exertion had made me hungry. I sat looking wistfully at the avalanche debris and the Blue Lake beyond, so close yet it now seemed unattainable but maybe after a bowl of pasta I'd feel reenergised and could find another way to cross that was not going to result in me falling through the snow again and deposited this time into rapids for a white water adventure. I’d hiked for 3 days through mossed forests of beech, tripping over the roots, wading through streams, clambering over rocks, keeping warm at nights chopping logs for the woodburner stove in backcountry huts - shared once with a hunter and his gun and the other with a family of mice - to see this remote Blue Lake in the Nelson Lakes area of New Zealand's South Island. A lake so pure and clear that there is a visibility of up to 80m.

 It was thanks to being 'arrested' that I’d had this opportunity to leave my bike and explore by foot...

“Yes, we’re arresting this girl. Interpol have been after her for illegal camping around the world for over a year and half” boomed the stentorian voice of Greg from New Zealand’s Department of Conservation to the confused young German man in a striped beanie who watched as my bicycle and panniers were loaded into a pick up truck.

 I'd returned to my tent hidden in the trees of St Arnauds magnificent lakeside to find a message pinned to my tent
My temporary home had been spectacular while it lasted. I was unused to rules and regulations in New Zealand having always had to wild camp where possible on this journey and in need of free accommodation more than ever now that my bank account was empty. Yet it wasn't just about it being free, it was about being among the nature, the solitude and away from the ubiquitous white campervans and boggy campgrounds

I wasn't proud of my reaction to the "stop squatting on our land note" nor for my frustrated plea interlaced with a rant about trying to cycle round the world on a budget of zero when Greg came to check if I'd moved. I knew it was my fault and problem and not his of course but he saw my desperation and said look I know a place where you can freedom camp, let me drive you there. After my bicycle and panniers were loaded into his van we left the young German still standing there perplexed with his uneaten bowl of spaghetti in hand. Greg was silent for a while as we drove away from the lake then
Look I cant let you camp the weather is going to be bad. Come and stay with me and my family.

And so it was that I stayed in the garage of this wonderful family who fed me, washed my stinking muddy clothes, shared their lives with me and then lent me some tramping gear so I could make the most of the area when the weather improved and showed me the route I could take to reach the mysterious Blue Lake.

Pasta I need pasta! I was feeling the cold now and probably a little shaken from my snow hole encounter. I reached into my rucksack for my other food bag having split the supplies in two: for the journey to the Blue Lake and for the return. There is one thing I can't abide and that is people who are ill-prepared for a hike, mountain trip whatever. People who forget vital clothing, run out of food, rely on others for a rescue that they themselves could have so easily prevented. Digging deeper I found nothing only the empty bags of my walk-in supply. Panicking I emptied my rucksack. No food bag. My vocal reaction was lost to the deafening roar of the Sabine River that hurtled past beneath me. Idiot I muttered more audibly as I recalled trying to clear up my pannier explosion in the garage as I packed my bags for the trip. I must have packed my food supply into my pannier.

Unable to reach the Blue Lake hut due to the avalanche and realising it was folly with no food too, my other option was a hut across the raging river yet, as luck would have it the river had washed away the bridge! I stared at this torrent of water through the beech trees knowing I could not attempt a river crossing alone at this point so I reached for a few leaves, stuffed them in my pocket and dejectedly began to retrace my steps.

If you've ever wondered, chewing on beech tree leaves is, I imagine, similar to popping a hardened piece of chewing gum that you've had to chisel off a pavement outside of Tesco's into your mouth.

I was fortunate to meet 3 guys in a hut the following night who - trying hard to hide their 'what an idiot, shouldn't be allowed out in the hills' expressions - generously shared some couscous with me, yet were unable to spare any further food for my walk-out.  It was 2 days later that I reached the village of St Arnaud.

"Hey Jilly is steak and sausage and chips ok for you tonight" boomed Greg handing me a beer as I came out of the shower..

Oh go on..beats beech leaves any time...

Eternally grateful to the lovely Carter family!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

New Zealand : Tongariro National Park & the 'F' Word

'Wh' is pronounced 'F' in Maori which until I discovered this and in addition to me either anglicising every Maori place name or giving it an inexplicable Italian twist meant that no-one understood where I'd visited, nor where I was requesting directions to and when someone asked whether I'd been to "X" I had no idea if I had or not

After this revelation I impulsively decided to cycle to an unnamed ski village some 7km uphill from Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu (2797m) the highest mountain of New Zealand’s North Island. The word became my mantra as I battled a relentless headwind of ascent in freezing temperatures, sharp fingernails of rain tearing at my exposed face. I shouldn't have been that surprised, this was New Zealand and I was already losing count of the severe weather warnings I'd cycled or camped in

With visibility at 10 metres a car slammed on its brakes in front of me just before my turn off to the high mountain road. In what had now turned into horizontal hail I saw the shape of a lady wrapped in cerise emerging from the door, hurriedly pulling a jacket over her head.

“You ok?” she shouted above the volcanic roar of the wind. “Where are you going? Let me give you a lift, you'll catch your death.” she said peering at the 35kg of my life stuffed in 6 bags strapped to my bicycle.

“Going to..”- I hesitated - “Fuka.. Fak..Fakapapa” I stuttered .

She gave me a strange look. “Where?”

 ”Fak.. National Park Village” I lied and feigning cheer continued “I'm ok, all downhill from here.”

With a nod and the uncertain smile of someone who is not sure if they have just been insulted she returned to the warmth of her car and drove off.

I shivered and looked around. The stunning view of Tongariro National Park was out there somewhere. I'd seen it just 2 days before when complete with ice axe and crampons I'd traversed the Tongariro Alpine Trail, closed half way due to the previous month's eruption of Mt Tongariro. In fact I did it the following day too having been fortunate enough to be invited back as a mountain guide for a group of clients for the day.

Frozen directions to the Summit

 This was Lord of the Rings territory: Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe) dominated the view with its perfect conical shape; the volcanic rock and craters now under a scape of hard ice and snow. This lava plateau wilderness was surrounded by swathes of flax and tussock, alpine herbs and flowers straining to be seen in early spring on the edges of black beech forests.

Some 2 hours of crunching gears uphill later and on the verge of hypothermia I finally saw shelter in the form of ‘Tussock Bar’ as I entered the ski village of Whakapapa. People turned their heads and stared as I entered. “Are you ok?” ventured one. “We passed you” chipped in another “You're mental!”

I nodded in agreement and walked towards the open fire to wait for Tom, the mountain guide, whom I'd convinced to let  me stay in the ski lodge he was custodian of as I'd decided cycling the height of Ben Nevis was quite enough for one day. Having agreed with the barman that I could leave my bike in the bottle store for a day and while waiting for Tom I thawed out by the fire and wrote a few words in my journal.

A few days ago while reading my journal for some tales to tell on my blog I was amused to see my journal entry for that day was simply "Cycled up to Whakapapa. Whaking soaked!"

A huge thanks to David, Tom, Karlee & Josh of Ruapehu for some great memories and the members of the lodge for making me so very welcome