An Extreme 24 Hours in New Zealand

Extreme is probably a good word to describe New Zealand. It’s well known for its extreme tourist activities. There are innumerable opportunities to jump off something high tied to a thin piece of elastic. Swing bridges are not just for walking across but for zip wiring over, preferably face first. I’ve never seen so many adverts for sky diving, rafting, etc. We managed to resist the temptation to bungee – cycling exposed us to all kinds of extreme without swapping a huge pile of dollars for a few seconds free fall and a t shirt.

The wind is crazy strong – it can smash you in the face to the point you have to get off and walk, get behind you and blow you uphill, or hit you from the side in gusts that push you off the road. Hills are so steep that your legs are at the burning limit after 100m going up hill and down isn’t much better as it’s easy to go out of control fast. People are either really friendly or incredibly rude (the latter are usually found behind the wheel of a large vehicle, or occasionally working in customer service). It’s either been amazing or awful. There’ll be a full catch up on our time here soon, but for now, here’s an amazing/awful 24-hour period last week.

5.00pm. After riding uphill all day, the highway turns into something that seems too steep to be an actual road. Three leg-burning lengthy 16% grade sections are separated by mere 5-6% grades that feel flat in comparison. We have to stop every 100m or so as the legs just won’t go any longer at a time. It’s cold but my t-shirt is drenched in sweat. Chocolate supplies are running low.

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It doesn’t even look that steep. It nearly broke us.

6.00pm. We make it to the top of Arthur’s Pass (920m). Plans to eat our remaining chocolate in celebration are shelved as it’s freezing cold, the rain has picked up and the wind is blowing it into our faces. We quickly each put on two jackets, waterproof trousers, buffs and extra gloves for the steep descent into the village.

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There’s not even a decent sign at the top as a reward. Re-layering for the rainy ride down. Pretty awful all round.

6.05pm. I haven’t put my sunglasses on (it’s dull) and the rain feels so sharp in my eyes I have to part close them. Not a wise idea when riding down a steep hill in cloud.

6.10pm. 4 steep kilometres later we make it to the village. The shop is closed. A bar is open so I go in to get water. It’s so warm inside I don’t want to leave. We swing by the youth hostel ‘just to see’… and it’s full. Time for another 8km downhill to a free campground.

6.30pm. It’s still raining when we get to the campground so we ride straight into the picnic shelter to dry off. Three Aussie girls are eating their dinner. The first thing they say is “do you want some pasta? We can’t finish it…” If you ever see a cold cycle tourist, this is probably the best thing you can say. You could always follow it up with “I’ve also got this huge cake going spare, and a flask of tea, oh and I’ll be making bacon sandwiches in the morning….” (we actually dream of these conversations happening.)

7.30pm. Our pasta starter is followed by a huge pasta main. Appetites are not affected by eating an extra meal. It is still raining.

8.30pm. It’s time, we have to go and put up the tent. It is still raining. We consider putting it up in the picnic shelter but it doesn’t fit properly and we decide it can’t possibly keep raining all night. We choose a nice grassy patch behind a tree to give some wind protection.

9.30pm. The tent is up. We are warm and content. It is still raining, but we have faith in our tent.

2.06am. After about four hours sleep the wind and heavy rain outside wakes us up. It is so loud we have to shout to have a conversation. Debs decides to go to the toilet.

2.07am. Debs steps out of the tent straight into water deeper than her shoe. Turns out one end of our tent is in deep water. It is still raining.

2.30am. After a full assessment of the new swimming pool in the tent porch we decide to pack up and get under the shelter whilst our sleeping stuff is still dry. I’ve never heard of anyone drowning in a tent but you don’t want to be the first. Debs is bitten on the chin by a sandfly whilst packing up and swears a lot. It is still raining.

3.48am. It’s been a slow and wet process but us and all of our possessions are now under shelter. We get the stove out and make porridge and hot chocolate. We are wearing most of our dry clothes, including long johns, puffa jackets, woolly hats, gloves, and all available dry socks. Our trainers are soaking so we are rocking the socks and sandals combo. We are still cold. This is pretty awful.

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Our night shelter

5.00am. It starts getting light, and finally stops raining. We have read two Agatha Christie short stories, and finished our chocolate supplies.

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The calm after the storm

6.00am. The sky is clear, the sun is just up and it’s light enough to ride so we set off, our earliest start since we were trying to avoid the Wyoming wind. There’s not much traffic and it’s nice riding. We can even see the snowy mountains behind us.

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The mountains that were hidden behind thick cloud the day before

8.00am. It feels like it should be lunchtime so we eat breakfast number 2, lemon curd sandwiches. They are awesome.

9.00am. The sun is super strong and it’s time for the second application of factor 50.  The morning layers are off and we are down to shorts and t-shirts. Maybe all the rain was a bad dream. Our wet feet and the number of clothing items drying on the back of the bikes says otherwise.

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9:25am. We stop and eat the last of our biscuits. These were supposed to last all day.

9:45am. There’s nowhere to stop for drinking water on this road, so we pull in to a camping area with a few campervans who can usually spare some. The first van we knock on has two French girls and their families. They fill our bottles, then say the second best thing you could ever ask a cycle tourist (ok, maybe only a British one): “would you like a cup of tea?” Five minutes later we are drinking tea from real mugs with handles (why does this taste so much better than from a flask?) and eating more biscuits. After an awful night, we are having an awesome morning.

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10:30am. It’s time to say goodbye to our new friends and get riding. The scenery is spectacular.

11:20am. The road gets super steep – this isn’t the pass, it’s too soon, so why is it so hard? It’s so hot we are dripping with sweat but still have rain-damp trainers.

12.00pm. We are over the pointless hill and the scenery is amazing. It’s rocky, pointy, and there are strange boulders everywhere. This is awesome.

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Spot tiny Debs. Awesome, awesome and more awesome

12.30pm. It’s definitely lunchtime now. As we ate our sandwiches for breakfast #2 we need to get the stove out and crack open our emergency instant noodles. We spot a perfect picnic area with 360 degree views, hardly any people and a bench. A DoC (Dept of Conservation) lady comes over and tells us she is about to mow the grass so it will be a bit noisy, and enthusiastically suggests another similar place a few kms down the road with big boulders. We heed her warning and ride on.

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Tiny Debs again

12.45pm. Arriving at the suggested spot we have been seriously misled. It is a busy car park with no picnic tables, a naff view and hardly any grass. This is disappointing, so we sit on the grass and cook noodles. Five minutes later the same DoC lady drives in with her mower and starts mowing around us. In true British politeness we smile and move out of her way whilst quietly grumbling to each other. The sun is out and it’s baking hot. Our trainers dry.

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Disappointing lunch spot

1.10pm. The sun goes behind a cloud and it’s cold.

1.11pm. The sun is out and it’s baking hot.

1.12pm. The sun goes behind a cloud and it’s cold. We decide to ride on to warm up.

1.30pm. It starts raining. It’s freezing cold all of a sudden. The road gets steep. The wind is trying to blow us over. The horizontal rain stings our cheeks. It has become hail.This is not fun any more.

2.00pm. We are getting closer to the top of today’s pass, and it’s all downhill after that. The road gets steeper. A car beeps and pulls over. It’s Greg, who we first met on the road in California and who is now cycling/driving around NZ. As we hardly ever see people we know, this is awesome. He gives us some bananas and we chat for a while, trying desperately hard to stay standing up in the wind.

2.30pm. We get to the top of the pass. It’s so windy my gloves blow away (Debs heroically chases them and stops them just before the edge) and putting arms in sleeves of jackets is a more difficult task than it ever should be for adults. We put all of our layers back on (eventually).

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The difficulties of getting dressed in high winds

2.35pm. A scary five minutes riding steeply down hill in the wind. The road then turns into a gradual descent and we hardly have to turn the pedals for the next couple of hours as the wind is pushing us along nicely. We are back down to shorts and t-shirts. The scenery has opened out and we have mountains in one direction and the Canterbury Plains in the other. It is beautiful and we can just sit back and enjoy. This is cycling at its best.

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The descent. Awesome/

4.00pm. We arrive in a town and are confused momentarily by a huge plastic pink donut in the middle of the park until we remember we are in Springfield. We go against Simpsons tradition and buy a couple of pies. The factor 50 is back out.  Our eyes want to close. Were we really wearing all of our clothes and eating porridge to warm up in the middle of a rainstorm 12 hours ago?

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Welcome to Springfield

The 4 rivers cycle route in Korea (we only saw 2…)

As with Japan, we never planned to go to Korea. Until we read that there is an amazing network of mostly off-road, paved cycle routes that cross costs and one of these runs almost the length of the country from Busan in the south, where the ferry from Japan arrives, and Seoul in the north, from where we could fly to New Zealand. Sold. We were going to Korea. The morning we left Japan our AirBnB host had some words of advice. As with most conversations we had in Japan, he talked into his phone in Japanese and showed us the English translation. “Don’t cross the border by mistake”. We laughed. He laughed too. Then he repeated it. Even without his advice, we were pretty sure we’d be staying firmly in South Korea. As soon as we got on the ferry we realised how quiet Japan had been. The ferry, full of Koreans, was loud, and people were shouting and bustling about in a way that was not very Japanese. We found our cabin, which contained 12 cubby holes with futons and a blanket. Half of our roomies were asleep already. We realised Koreans were using plug adaptors for their phones. Hmm so we would have to buy adaptors before we could charge anything in Korea. We realised we didn’t really know much about the country we were about to arrive in. A quick google had search told us that Koreans drive on the right (Japan is left). Good to know.


It was dark when we arrived in Busan. The port area was impressive, and the ferry terminal itself very like Japan, right down to the fancy toilets and the 7/11. As we were foot passengers we had to walk the loaded bikes a long way, and for the first and maybe last time, took them on a moving sidewalk. Stepping outside however was quite the culture shock. We had a 15km ride to our warm showers host, and this was not fun. No bike lanes but only big, fast roads. We stuck to the pavement but it was slow going around all the pedestrians and people selling fruit off the floor. There was a lot of litter and a grubby feel to the city. Korea was different. Our route took us alongside a beach – one thing Busan is famous for is nice beaches – and the waterfront area was full of people having a Saturday evening stroll. It was the 5th November and there were fireworks. We never worked out if this was in honour of Mr Fawkes or just another Saturday night in Busan.


The next nine days were spent cycling the 650 kilometres between Busan and Seoul on the 4 rivers cycle route. It is quite an amazing piece of cycling infrastructure – paved, mostly off-road, mostly well-maintained, loads of facilities on the route (toilets, tool stations, shelters etc). And, as you would imagine when following rivers, mostly flat. Until it isn’t, and then it’s crazy steep. Every now and then the flat path moves away from the river, takes you up a short steep hill (usually 12-20% grade), and then you plummet back down the other side back to the river. There’s a 100km stretch in the middle when you leave one river and climb over a pass to get to the next river but that was nowhere near as strenuous as the short sharp bits.

Mostly great cycling infrastructure….

There are bike bridges, bike tunnels, and even on the road, separate bike lanes. And there are regular ‘certification stations’ in old phone boxes where you can stamp each location on your cycling passport (or if like me you didn’t get a cycling passport, a piece of paper). So all you need to do to get from one end of the country to the other by bike is follow the arrows.

….but not always.

We did wonder if this would get a bit boring, and to be honest the first couple of days were a bit drab – Busan was ugly and went on for ages, and even beyond the city, it was all quite built up. As with Japan, Korea doesn’t seem to do visually appealing cities. So the view was often ugly grey high rise towers and industrial buildings. But this petered out eventually and after those first couple of days the scenery picked up, the sun came out, and life was all good. Riding on a bike route for all that time didn’t lose its novelty at all. Being away from the traffic was great. And autumn was in full swing, so the colours were spectacular.


Autumn also brought us a return to cold camping, last year at this time we were having some chilly nights in the tent in Europe, and Korea beat that. Our third night was the coldest, as we woke up to find everything covered with a thick layer of frost, including the bike computers. After de-icing it we could read that it said -6 (Celsius). Brrr. A great excuse to eat chocolate in your sleeping bag though.



The next couple of nights we escaped into motels. This included a motel with bike lockers on the ground floor, and our first love motel experience. After hearing about these ‘by the hour’ motels in Japan we were expecting seedy and run down, but this was modern, clean and excellent for the cyclist. Loads of space, a big bed, nicely decorated, a desktop computer, a huge bath, free toiletries, a personal garage to store the bikes…. (which was also useful for cooking dinner on the trangia). Everything is a bit secretive in that it is designed for you to drive in, park in a garage, take a private entrance to a room, check in automatically and pay by credit card without being seen by another human being. For us it was a perfect and fairly cheap way to get a good warm sleep.


Camping was easy as there are lots of parks and shelters just off the bike path and nobody seems to care about foreigners just pitching up anywhere. So after two nights of motel luxury we returned to the tent, and a couple of nights later realised that we were not that crazy camping in the cold after all. It was a Saturday night and we came across a camping area on an island in the middle of the river. It was packed. There must have been at least 80 other tents – families, young couples, groups – in November. In Europe you would struggle to find an open campsite, never mind anyone brave enough to camp. There were a few gas heaters visible, but as it was a walk-in campground, not many luxuries. Other than an ability to camp in all weathers, the other thing we learnt about Korean campers was their ability to maximise a weekend away camping. On our first night we pitched our tent at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon at a fairly full campground just outside Busan. An hour later we were cooking dinner and realised a few people were packing up, including our neighbours who were in the middle of a full on BBQ when we arrived. By 6pm it was dark, and more people were packing up. We woke up the next morning to two other tents left. If you go camping for the weekend with some Koreans, don’t expect to be home until late on Sunday night. And take an extra jumper.


We only really left the bike route to find food. This in itself was quite an experience. Somehow we only managed to end up in places where there were no pictures on the menu, just Korean. The first time we managed to order the only thing we knew how to say, bibimbap (fried rice and veg), with success. At the next place, when we were asked what we wanted to order we just shrugged our shoulders and smiled. This didn’t result in an order being taken, so I mimed that I’d like to look in the kitchen, after being shown a couple of huge pots of broth and meat I picked one and pointed at some rice too. We were a bit concerned when the first thing that arrived was a plate with tongs and a pair of scissors on it but luckily this was shortly followed by a bowl of seolleongtang (oxbone soup) and a demonstration of cutting the meat off the bone with the scissors provided. And many other small bowls of food including the tiniest fish I have ever seen and the usual kimchi (fermented cabbage in a spicy sauce). As we were finishing off the soup we were brought a tray of spicy meat. It seemed that the only foreigners in town should also try bulgogi (grilled marinated meat), with more demonstrations of how to eat it (take a lettuce leaf, put in a bit of meat, some sauce and a bit of rice, in the middle, wrap it up and shove it in your mouth). It was a bit spicy for me so I put a bit of extra rice in and was promptly told off with a good strong strike to the arm. It was lots of fun.


Continuing some themes from Japan, we saw more model people and bad English translations. In contrast to Japan, the vast majority of other cyclists we saw were recreational, usually on flashy road or mountain bikes. People didn’t seem to ride functionally (at least not in November, maybe they are all busy camping). We enjoyed that the bike path cycling outfit consists of covering as much skin as possible. As it got colder we realised the sense in this, and adjusted our clothing accordingly.

Cycle trail buddies. The tall guy in the middle is a famous Korean actor. He has 1.8 million instagram followers, so he must be famous.


The bike path was fairly well used, particularly considering the temperatures, and as we approached Seoul on a Sunday afternoon we were weaving in and out of families, racers, and tourists taking selfies or falling off. Before we knew it we were in Seoul. It looked to be a cool city to explore but as we spent our whole day there hunting for bike boxes ready to pack the bikes for the flight, we only explored the bike shop scene. And became well versed in the subway system. This usually simple task was actually very difficult in Seoul as shops have limited space so don’t keep empty boxes longer than a few minutes. We must have visited 20 bike shops, split up at one point to cover different parts of the city, and ended up with 5 boxes, only one of which was full size. Our last night in Korea was spent eating a huge meal at the market for the equivalent of £2.50 and then dismantling our bikes in the narrow hostel corridor. Cycle touring isn’t all glamour.

Korea was fun. Being off the road was great, and the scenery on the whole was pretty nice (if not wow). Ten days was maybe long enough for us on the bike route, but there are attractions you could divert to if you wanted to spend longer in the country. Sticking to a cycle path gave us a certain perspective of Korea – spend more time in towns and cities and I’m sure it would be different. We highly recommend the 4 rivers cycle route, certainly if done in conjunction with a trip to Japan. Though we are not sure where the other two rivers went as we definitely only cycled along two.


Next stop New Zealand!

Thanks to Chris in Busan; and Jess and Tim for the (fake) chocolate digestives.

Did the earth move for you? Kyoto and Kurama

Kyoto is the former capital of Japan and is famous for an abundance of intact original shrines and temples (many elsewhere were bombed in WWII/destroyed in fires/earthquakes and so are modern reconstructions). We visited a few of the more popular ones, but they are always so busy, and there is really no need to do any special detours to see shrines and temples in Japan. We would ride past so many out on the road, often small ones tucked away up hills or between houses, and these were more enjoyable to visit as they were actually quite peaceful. But when in Rome and all that…. we walked around Higashi-ji (biggest), Kinkaku-ji (gold-est) and To-ji (tall-est) temples, Fushimi shrine (most orange gates) and a few others that we happened to pass by. I think we also went to a red one, it’s hard to keep track. Amongst all of this history, the station building shows the other side of the city – a modern glass structure that entertained us with a huge staircase that lit up with animated pictures.

Kinkaju-ji temple
Old and new Kyoto

Another reason for visiting Kyoto was to do a talk to a group of Japanese university students. We spoke to a class studying basic level English and had plenty of questions fired at us about cost, best places, food etc. Our two favourite questions were probably “how close have you come to death?” and for the first time on this trip “where are your husbands?” Quite different to the primary school kids.

The orange gates of Fushimi shrine

One afternoon in Kyoto I was in the Starbucks queue (getting water, we are still not going to big chain places) and suddenly everyone’s phone had a message alert at the same time. It was like something from a film, they all made the same sound, and everyone took their phone out and looked at it simultaneously. It was one of the most surreal things I havhe ever experienced. About 2 seconds later the ground started moving. It was an earthquake text alert. Probably the second most surreal thing I have ever experienced. For over ten seconds the ground shook – I had a mild panic for a millisecond then realised nobody seemed to care, they all put their phones away and carried on staring at their coffee, and my water bottle was filled during the shaking with the skill of an air hostess during turbulence. This is life in Japan. It was a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in the west of the country, which felt like 3.0 to us in Kyoto over 300kms away. The locals might have taken it in their stride but it was a scary reminder to us foreigners that nature is a powerful beast.

Shrines and temples in Kyoto

We had heard that Kurama, a small village about 20km north of Kyoto in the mountains, has an annual fire festival on 22nd October, the day we would happen to be leaving Kyoto. Who doesn’t want to experience a fire festival? That’s also what about 10,000 other people thought. On our way out of the city we were stood outside a supermarket and heard someone shout “Debs and Jo” from a car window. It’s strange that when you first leave home, every time you hear someone shout something that might be your name you turn round only to remind yourself that you are away from home and nobody knows you, of course they are not shouting you. After over a year we are now tuned out to any shouting – who would know us? So it was strange that someone actually did. In the car was a primary school child from the British School in Tokyo who had been in our presentation. We are famous in Japan! Almost.

Fire festival preparations

We arrived in Kurama just before 3pm as we wanted to get our loaded bikes in before the roads around the village closed. All of the houses had piles of wood or large torches ready to be set on fire later, and there were young men wandering round in traditional outfits (read: practically nothing). As it got dark the crowd grew and by 6pm things were starting to be set on fire and the place was packed. In a country where health and safety rules are rarely bent – for example, Tokyo has an Eiffel Tower replica which has to be painted orange and white, like all the masts in Japan, to meet health and safety requirements – it seemed a little risky to have so much fire on a narrow street of old wooden houses surrounded by forest, but maybe that’s just me being picky. Every policeman in the Kyoto region was on hand to control the crowds, and so you couldn’t actually stand and watch what was going on but had to walk (very slowly, 10,000 people remember) around a cordoned off loop. About 30% of this was in front of the interesting stuff, the rest was around the back of the village where you couldn’t see anything. It was all quite odd and very busy, and we didn’t see much until about 9pm when most people got back on the train to Kyoto. Then it got interesting as we could see the chanting, the marching, the carrying of fire torches and other crazy things. It was quite an incredible thing to witness.

Huge fires close to wooden buildings – no worries

About 10.30pm we managed to get back to our bikes and started to think about where we would camp. First choice was north of the village in the forest, but we had seen bear signs and the odd English-speaking local said “bear!” as soon as we mentioned we were sleeping in a tent. Not being a fan of camping with bears we were just wondering what to do when a traditionally-dressed local saw our bikes and shouted “beer” (much better than bear) so we spent the next hour sitting drinking beer and having a strange conversation with two guys in strange outfits in mime and bits of English. As soon as a young person passed by they would be grabbed, shoved in front of us and instructed to translate for a while, and only released from their embarrassment when the next potential translator arrived. When we said we were from Leicester we received the reply of “champions!” (while pointing at his foot) and “Shinji Okazaki” – it’s not just in Italy where our city can now be identified by football fans. Another guy, who turned out to be a chef, brought out a plate of sushi which was amazing as we had mistakenly assumed that there would be food available at the festival (maybe that would be a health and safety problem) and had only eaten a jam sandwich since lunch. There was just about time to witness some more chanting and fire carrying and then at 1am we finally escaped and found a patch of grass under the train line for our tent (hopefully away from the bears, but we hung our food anyway) wondering why we were bothering for four hours sleep. But the evening as a whole was well worth the lack of sleep that followed.

Just a snippet of the flesh on show in Kurama

After a 5am start we rode with our eyes barely open back through Kyoto via the famous bamboo forest and the less famous kimono forest. Being up early we beat the crowds for once and enjoyed some peace and quiet. An uneventful 50km ride through busy suburbia (there is no separation between towns at all in this part of the country – one just blends into the other in an endless stream of supermarkets, car garages, convenience stores etc) took us to Mike and Tomoko’s house. Mike had cycle toured lots himself and as soon as we arrived said the magic words – “you probably want some snacks” – and that’s it, we were settled in for a few days.

Bamboo/kimono forests in Kyoto

Mike and Tomoko drove us out to Dreamton, an English style theme village where the eccentric owner has built English-looking buildings and covered the place with English trinkets, including pub signs, other antiques, and a wedding dress shop. Naturally. It was all very bemusing and a lot of fun. We had afternoon tea in the Pont Oak cafe where the toilet has a picture of Wills and Kate on the wall, cut out to look like it is a photo that was maybe taken of them while they were visiting. It was fun to eat scones and lemon cake and drink Earl Grey, although Bezza would be disappointed that it wasn’t a lemon drizzle. That evening we had our first conveyor-belt sushi experience, which was all the better for being with people who could explain what is was that we were eating.

A slice of England in Japan (kind of)

Chatting to Mike and Tomoko helped us finalise plans for our last week or so in Japan. We were tired of busy, heavily trafficked roads surrounded by buildings, and set out to find some quiet scenic roads on the island of Shikoku.

Thanks to Kevin, Rob, Kurama’s Shinji Okazaki fans, and Mike and Tomoko.

Loving the Slo life in California

We sometimes don’t go to cities on the bikes because of the day required to ride in and the other to ride out. Leaving San Francisco was far more complicated than arriving, lots of navigating, morning rush hour traffic and a sudden scarcity of restrooms right when I really needed one. When we finally climbed out of the suburbs and up to a scenic drive there was an unwelcome diversion directing us back down the hill we had just ascended, to re-climb at a later point. With a big climb still to come (Old La Honda Road) we stepped up the pace as much as we could – we had a hostel treat to get to…
Jo is a big fan of lighthouses, and had been pleased to learn that there are two hostels in light-keepers’ quarters south of San Francisco. After a twisty descent, the last ten miles to Pigeon Point were along a beautiful stretch of coastline. The wind switched to the North and we zoomed along past beaches and rocky headlands. We were very excited to find an extremely comfortable sofa in the hostel (small things) and even more so to find out that the hostel manager is a stargazing enthusiast and would be setting his telescope up that evening.

Giant Jo, comedy genius.

If you have never had the opportunity to look at stars like that, seek one out. Ideally somewhere with a dark sky, a proper telescope and a person who knows a bit about it. We had all three. I have seen Saturn before, but it was no less wow-ing a second time, it looks like someone has drawn a cartoon planet with ring and stuck it on the end of the telescope. We also looked at some globular clusters (not a breakfast cereal for Star Trek fans), a galaxy that’s like ours, and Jeff used a super cool laser pointer to show us some constellations that we instantly forgot. Amazing.

A lazy morning and a speedy wind-assisted afternoon ride took us to Santa Cruz (you’re not that far). We spent most of the ride working out who sang that song. We were sure it started with a ‘The’. Two days later we got it. I won’t spoil the game for noughties music fans. Santa Cruz is a trendy town with a LOT of surfers. We took our cereal and milk down to the sea front to watch the action. I’m afraid that’s all the space it gets in this post though as nearby Carmel steals the show. Not because it is super fancy and historic, but because Carmel law states that a permit is required for high heels and you can actually get a permit from the town hall. Amazing. Sadly it is closed on Saturdays, so Jo was unable to don her stilettos for the ride. We settled for an apple fritter from Safeway instead.

Big Sur, bigger cake

South of Carmel the riding was fantastic. More weekend traffic than we would have liked, but stunning scenery through the Big Sur area. Huge forest fires nearby meant that state park campgrounds were housing firefighters, so we shared a pitch in a private campground with fellow cyclists Greg and Pete. We were next door to some lovely families on a weekend trip, and were very well fed with barbecued meat, refried beans, salad, beer and chocolate cake. Much more interesting than our usual pasta. It was a fun Saturday night and the amazing scenery continued for the next few days. We saw sea lions and funny looking elephant seals. We had possibly the best cycling of the USA, one of the best camp spots (Kirk Creek Forest Service), a few outdoor washes (a creek one night, the ocean the next) and only one more night of raccoon vandalism.

Carmel to Morro Bay: Possibly the best riding of the whole US.

We had been undecided about whether San Luis Obispo or LA would mark the end of our North America ride. As we sat by the sea in Morro Bay eating our first fish and chips since the San Juan Islands I became pretty sure I wanted these great days to be the end of the ride, not a busy dual carriageway into a city. This was cemented when our lovely host in SLO Rod told us about the train journey between the two. The train goes right along the ocean for a long stretch where the road is inland. We had a winner, and the end point of our 6500+ mile cycle.

This gave us almost a week to hang out in SLO, live out a few American dreams, and in my case recover from man flu. Back to the dreams. Since April we have cycled past a lot of signs advertising local pancake breakfasts, or fire station spaghetti nights, or church BBQs. They have always been tantalisingly unavailable, the breakfast is the second Sunday of the month, we are there on the Saturday for example. We had never managed to attend one of these ideal-for-hungry-cyclists events, a source of great sadness. Until Rod revealed that on the first Sunday of every month he cooks eggs at a local community centre’s pancake breakfast. That Sunday! We just hoped they had enough batter and bacon for hungry cyclists…
Whilst waiting for our pancake treat there was time for a fabulous All-American Friday night at the local high school football game. It was just like a movie or TV show. Everyone stood for the anthem. There really were cheerleaders. There was a marching band. And a giant inflatable tiger. There were even more people involved in the overall show than there are on an American football team and lots of students and parents had come to watch. It was a magical experience.

Biking, hiking and living dreams

Pancake breakfast was also totally fabulous, and we were sad to say goodbye to SLO early on Monday morning. The train journey was spectacular and gave us a hassle-free arrival into central LA. We had a few tasks to complete before our flight, beginning with locating some Chinese shopping bags to check our panniers in. We had tried to get some in SLO, they are pretty ubiquitous (we got the last ones in Hinckley) but no one seemed to know what we meant. We started showing photos, which drew the comment “They’re a bit ethnic. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s not very ethnic here.” Anyway, we thought Chinatown in LA would be a safe bet, and we had our very own ‘The Apprentice Shopping Task’ moment as we cycled around the streets: “I’ve seen them, turn round!” Lord Sugar would have been disappointed that we did not negotiate and paid the full price of $5 for two bags.


This gave us time to seek out the Hollywood sign and look at some stars on the floor as we rode to our hosts’ house. Tony and Cathy’s help and a friendly bike shop made our pre-flight prep very easy. We enjoyed our last two days of understanding language and (most of) what was going on around us. With the upcoming election we did slightly have the feeling of leaving at the right time, and to be going to a completely new and very different country was exciting. There would definitely be some things we would miss about being in the USA. It is such a fun place to travel – has amazing scenery, friendly people, does such a great job of being American, and has very entertaining veterinary signs. Here’s our favourites to sign off…

A poem for your dog: Roses are grey, violets are grey.

Neutering your pet makes them less nuts.

Your pets will love us, I shitszu not.
Thanks to: The All-American Veterinary Sign Writers’ Association (if it doesn’t exist, it should, people need recognition for quality work); Ruth & Edward; Jeff at Pigeon Point; Esther; Greg & Pete for great company; Roy, Frank and the rest of the Santa Ana camping crew; Rod, Helen & Casey; Helen’s Bikes, Westwood; Tony & Cathy.

Tall trees and tent invaders: Cycling in Northern California

Usually there’s not much of a change as you cross state lines in the USA, but California felt different. It looked different. The land was brown rather than green. It was dry out here, and hard to believe that just a few days ago we had been pedalling through heavy rain and fog. At least crossing the state lane provided us with plenty of new tunes for the internal radio. Our first night was spent sleeping in a church in Crescent City, and from there the highway turned inland into one of California’s most famous parks – where there would be plenty of trees – the Redwoods.

Redwood trees are tallest trees on earth, and can grow to over 350 feet (over 100m). They can live for over 2000 years. These trees are seriously big – they hurt your neck to look at them while riding. They don’t have low branches, so the trunks seem even taller. The first thing we had to do was ride a big pass, it was hot but the trees provided good shade and kept things cool for us. We met some interesting people that morning. First, at the start of the climb, was a guy who told us with great pride how he had driven all the way from Pennsylvania. Sure, that’s a long way, but when all you have to do is press one pedal at a time (highly unlikely to need a clutch over here) and stay awake, you are not going to impress people who have cycled that far. He also said he loved hugging trees. The second interesting meet was about half way up the climb, we could see a bike ahead with two people stood to the side. When we got closer (slowly, it was steep) we realised it was a tandem, but the two people didn’t look like cyclists. Gradually we could see they had on jeans and backpacks and were smoking. Not your average cycle tourist. They were finding the hill tough. I said “it must be fun downhill though?” to which they replied “I dunno, we haven’t ridden down one yet!” It turned out they had hitched/walked from Missouri (this is a long way, we were impressed this time) and on arrival in Crescent City someone had given them a tandem. So the first thing they had had to do was ride up a huge hill. Bad luck. We said they should probably check the brakes before riding down. They laughed. We repeated this several times, without laughing, and left unsure as whether they knew if the bike even had brakes. Hopefully they survived. On the way down the hill we met a guy riding North (this is very rare) who was carrying everything he owned, including a large knife strapped to his shin. On the the outside of his trousers. Just in case I guess. What was this place?!

It is all about the trees in this part of California. The first place we found to stop for water was a complex with three buildings: Trees of Mystery, Forest Cafe, and Motel Trees. We passed the Immortal Tree (survived lightening, fires, etc), Chimney Tree (hole in the top), Grandfather Tree (old), Big Tree (this made us laugh), two Tree Houses, One Log House… Pretty much anything you could wish for, as long as it was a tree. None of these grabbed our attention until we saw signs for the Tour-Thru Tree. We paid our dollar each to the lady in the booth who told us the road up to the tree was steep and she GUARANTEED we would have to push our bikes the last bit. I heard the word CHALLENGE instead, so of course we rode up. It was steep, but there were no cobbles or gravel – give us a real challenge California. Riding through a tree was fun the first few times, and then it was just as fun watching car drivers try to squeeze their huge vehicles through. We told Ms Cyclist Challenger on the way out that we rode up, did we get a prize etc, and she was very unimpressed. I mean it’s not like we drove there from Pennsylvania.

That night we camped at a state park and were the only people in the hiker/biker site that was miles from anywhere else so quite creepy. We set up camp and watched the Great British Bake Off in the tent (like you do) and then came out to find a raccoon had eaten half of our biscuits and chucked the rest all over the floor. Evil. Why would you waste biscuits like that? This mindless vandalism continued in the night as I was woken up several times by rustling in the tent porch. Each time, I shone the torch on the raccoon which he did not care for in the slightest, staring back at me whilst trying to pull a non-food bag out of the tent. Other times his partner in crime the skunk would wake me. I say me – Debs remained asleep throughout all of this. In the end the only way I could get them to leave the tent was to throw a shoe at them, which worked four times until I ran out of missiles. I was finally getting a bit of decent sleep until it was broken by shouting outside the tent at 6.40am. A college cross country race was passing right by our camp spot and they HAD to set up that early, using very loud voices despite the obvious sign (a tent) that someone was trying to sleep close by.

We only had 25 miles to ride that day but it felt like 100. We were taking up an invitation to stay in Arcata by a family we met in the San Juan Islands. They lived at the top of a huge hill (of course) and on the way up we stopped at a yard sale where some ladies were selling lots of stuff we were not interested in but also had a plate of muffins that we were very interested in. They tried their hardest to offload some books on us and were disappointed to hear that we only wanted muffins, but gave us four anyway as well as a bunch of dried lavender. As we rode off we heard one of them say “look at her leg muscles” and we spent the rest of the ride arguing which one of us they were talking about. Debs has no muscles but was closest to them at the time, so it’s still an unsolved mystery. The 25 miles were completed by early afternoon so we had time for a few hours at the brewery drinking strong local beer in English sized pints.

After a rest day in Arcata it was back into the redwoods for a couple of days. The Avenue of the Giants is a scenic drive through trees so close to the edge of the road that you have to be careful not to ride into them. It really is mesmerising riding through the forest, it makes you feel very small. Not just feel small actually, I enjoyed letting Debs ride ahead of me and see how small she looked when dwarfed by the redwoods. We camped in the state park right among the trees and didn’t see much sunlight for a couple of days. After a particularly brutal pass we suddenly popped out on the coast again, blinded by the sun and instantly amazed by how good the coastal scenery was. So good we had chocolate milk to celebrate.

To rejoin the coast we had left highway 101 behind and forked off onto smaller highway 1. This made a big difference in the amount of traffic squeezing past us as the big trucks stuck to the bigger highway and for the next three days to San Francisco we had the best coastal stretch so far. The road climbs and then drops suddenly to get around a gulch (why not just build a bridge over the gap…. anyway) then climbs again, and repeat. Steep up, steep down. One morning there was a fair amount of fog so we didn’t get any rewarding views for the effort, but on the whole the sun shone and the sea sparkled. We called into Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, where industrial waste was dumped into the sea up until the 1960s. A lot of it was cleaned up but the glass and pottery was left and has been broken down and smoothed by the waves so that now the beach is covered with “glass” pebbles. Pretty cool. As we got closer to San Francisco more and more sports cars passed us and the small towns we passed through became more and more posh. This was the California we were expecting.

Eventually the Golden Gate Bridge emerged on the horizon. The sky was so blue that it seemed to shine against the background. Reaching the iconic bridge felt more momentous than any of the milestones to this point. It has a bike path down the side so for once we didn’t have to fight traffic for space. Unfortunately being a Sunday we had to fight other cyclists instead. These came from two camps – the roadies trying to race across and weave in and out of the slower traffic, and the tourists on rental bikes trying to ride and take selfies at the same time. And then there was us with our wide loads. I’m not sure whether it’s more difficult to dodge truck wing mirrors or selfie sticks – at least wing mirrors follow a predictable pattern of movement. But we made it across safely and into San Francisco.

For two and a half days we left the bikes in the garage and wandered around the Mission neighbourhood where we were staying. It’s a diverse area with Latino bakeries next to posh coffee shops, and alleys full of street art/graffiti (delete as appropriate depending on your perspective. We thought it was cool.)


We sat in Dolores Park, enjoying the view of the city and the people watching. We were close to the Castro neighbourhood, famous for a history of LGBT activism, so joined a walking tour of the area (‘rest day’…).


We had managed to go the whole last five and a half months without going to an American sports fixture so took the opportunity to watch some baseball over in Oakland. It was a Monday night at the end of the season so there was hardly anyone there but it meant we got good cheap tickets. The teams repaid the low crowd with a low score (4-2 loss) and it was difficult to stay awake for the whole match, but we managed. My tv-influenced image of drinking beer and eating pretzels while watching the game was shattered when we saw the prices – $11.50 for a beer (not even an English sized pint), so currently about £9. How do people afford to get drunk there? Despite the low score it was fun to experience a true American Sporting Spectacle.

San Francisco is a cool city, no doubt about it, but walking around you also can’t help but see it’s ugly side – the high level of homelessness. We walked through streets where the sidewalk was lined with tents and people sleeping rough, and along with this comes sanitation issues. Trash/rubbish covered these streets and as you can imagine when people live in tents with no toilet, it didn’t smell great. Homelessness has been very visible as we have ridden down the west coast, more so than any developed country I’ve ever been to, but in San Francisco the gap between the rich and the poor appears to be bigger. Homeless people sit outside expensive whole food shops and cafes, and the tech money pouring into the city is evident in the miles of shiny apartment blocks we rode past on our way out of the city. Our hosts explained that affordable housing is little more than a dream concept and the gentrification of neighbourhoods is driving people out of the city or onto the streets. All of this gave us much food for thought whilst riding out of the city in our own strange situation of self-selected, temporary homelessness.

We had been told many times that the best of the coast was coming up in the next few days, so thought about this instead and hoped for clear skies and a tail wind…

Thanks to Katie; Allison, Ryan and Arwen; the yard sale ladies of Arcata; Judy; Mark; and Ruth and Edward.