I’M crouched under a salmon pink hand dryer while vigorously ruffling my soaking hair before I face the icy cold night fast approaching on the west coast of Wales. The spider-riddled bathroom has loos that look like they’re channeling 1960s-chic and the lock doesn’t seem to work but I couldn’t be happier as I bask in the mildly-warm air and enjoy the fact that for now, I’m warm, clean and most importantly, not cycling.
My left bum cheek is splotched with bruises (not sure why my right one escaped the damage) and since entering this mild-looking country I’ve discovered with its brutally steep climbs, ridiculously high rain fall and bloody hard ground it’s anything but.
I poke my newly dried head out the door and look at the soggy green landscape of the camp site to discover it’s yet again raining and the temperature has plummeted to a nasty six degrees. Just the knowledge this freezing valley had record lows of minus 25 degrees two winters back is enough to send you hurtling for the nearest train south and I can’t help but wonder if this green land – where Welsh is the preferred language (especially if you’re English) and sheep stereotypes put New Zealanders to shame has bred one of the toughest races out.
Just one week earlier we landed in the port town of Holyhead – minds overloaded with one of the most contentious opinions of a region yet.
For the last week we’d been told of how beautiful, hilly, traditional, cold and delicious (the bakeries in particular) this country was but it wasn’t until we boarded the ferry at Dublin that an English cyclist leaned over to warn us “I’m not much fussed on Wales really – the only thing to see is sheep and the rain clouds seem to form right over it and just dump it all straight down”.
We’d gulped nervously as we heaved our bikes into gale force winds and began slowly peddling to a camp site before tackling the first leg the next day – through the Isle of Anglesey.
After epic bowels of porridge and two steaming coffees we headed west early the next morning marvelling at the bright green rolling hills and picturesque landscape.
A slight headwind and some climbs sparked us to roll into a village just an hour later on the hunt for another coffee and after tracking down the empty local store we wandered in to ask the startled owner if a white coffee was on the cards.
“No,” she said sharply.
“You wont get any of that for at least another 20 miles.”
Struck between amusement and alarm we slowly peddled on with a blissful tail wind pushing us the final 10km to a town called Menai Bridge.
A magnificent historic bridge arched over a gushing river and gorgeous stone buildings lined each side to paint the perfect quintessential country town picture.
The plan was to cycle another 20km that day but we were dying to see more of this quaint region and so pulled into a caravan site on the outskirts where a bubbly Irish woman charged us 12 pounds for the night.
“And if you’re looking to visit a pub, you might want to try the Liverpool Arms, it’s a bit friendlier than the local Welsh pubs if you catch my drift,” she warned.
Baffled that anywhere so beautiful could have unfriendly locals we pitched our tent before hooking into a loaf of fresh Welsh bread and butter.
Within 10 minutes our neighbours to the left, Barry and Chris, had offered us a cup of tea before introducing their gorgeous granddaughter Lana. The Liverpool family was on their annual holiday and within minutes they had as laughing ourselves out of breath. We felt so comfortable at this little site on the outskirts of such a charming village we decided to stay another day which we spent picnicking on the river before a lazy cycle to an historic cemetery and church perched on its own island.
The church was built in the 11th century and amazingly, it remained largely intact.
At the end of the day the Liverpool trio came back from their daily outing with a gift – two flasks from a local camping store to ensure we could have a hot cuppa on the road. We’d told them the day before that despite our enormous amount of kit we still regretted not owning a thermos and after taking it upon themselves to remedy the situation they refused payment and left us absolutely bowled over and humbled at their generosity.
It was tough to leave this Welsh paradise but as we trundled south the next day more stunning scenery hit us from both sides and after just 12km we rolled into Caenarfon. Within seconds our mouths were open as we pushed our bikes through, wide-eyed at the magnificent tradition and beauty.
Here Welsh is almost exclusively spoken by the locals and we marvelled to hear it on every street corner and in every shop.
Flags fluttered over the streets and stone shops filled with fresh baked bread and independent wares made you feel as though you’d gone back in time.
From almost all points of the town spectacular Caenarfon castle loomed impressively in the distance from its waterside location. The striking monolith was the very castle where the Prince of Wales was crowned and attracted hordes of tourists who were just as impressed as us at this slice of history.
Despite cycling a pathetic 12km we were loath to leave and so stayed the night in a bid to explore the town. In a fit of Welsh fever I bought a language and phrases book but after struggling to say “Diolch” (thankyou) I gave it up for a bad cause.
From Caenarfon the plan was to work our way steadily south along the west coast with the hope of eventually reaching Cardiff before cycling back over the border to England.
But as we pushed on down the coast road the sweet introduction to Wales began to sour as the roads grew narrow, the traffic more aggressive and the locals more reserved.
The wind had also picked up and without fail it rained every day.
While camped at one site (the owner had grumpily muttered “I s’pose” when we’d asked if we camp the night) we encountered a group of the unfriendliest locals yet. The fellow campers had simply ignored us when we’d said hello and asked how they were going and we’d soon gaped to realise they spoke English unless they thought we were in earshot, at which time they abruptly changed back to Welsh.
I jokingly said to Scott: “We should start speaking Spanish every time they walk past us.” To which he said: “What? With our 10 words of Spanish that we know?”
After another day of foul weather, foul hills and foul rain it was just the bakeries that kept my spirits alive but when a truck nearly hit us after dangerously overtaking us on a blind corner even the thought of a spiced Welsh cake couldn’t improve the mood.
Despite dramatic coast lines and stunning views the high prices of campsites and the dangerous traffic forced us to eventually meander inland which meant our route would instead cut through the mountain range of Cadair Idris down towards the famous Brecon Beacons range and national park then straight down to Cardiff.
As we peddled further above sea level the temperature dropped forcing us into our sleeping bags before 8pm each night where we lay huddling and shivering in a desperate attempt to get warm.
I suddenly felt desperate for a more temperate climate and countries where wifi wasn’t deemed a luxurious bonus but I knew as we peddled towards France and then up into Belgium, Holland, Germany and Switzerland it was just going to get much, much colder.
My Australian-bought thermals and pants just couldn’t stand the conditions and without so much as verbalising it we both decided we would pedal to Cardiff as fast as possible and then purchase some tougher threads.
It was a week and a half into this often fair and foul country that we cycled into Newtown on the hunt for a camp site.
We pretty quickly discovered there were none that would accept tents and a friendly local eventually pointed us in the direction of a nearby village that had a pub with a back yard.
“They’ll let you pitch there, I’m sure of it,” he announced.
Night was falling and so we skeptically headed in the direction of his pointed finger and soon an alarmingly steep narrow road had us sweating, panting and eventually pushing our bikes to the peak.
An hour later, at 7pm, a rickety old pub came into view, naming itself the Dolau Inn. We glanced alarmingly at the closed sign but within seconds a head with a long mane of grizzled grey hair thrust itself out of an upstairs window with a voice announcing it would be down in a minute.
The friendly publican lead us out the back to his “camping pitch” and said he’d charge us the bargain price of a “fiver” to stay the night.
Our neighbours were a club of bikers on flame painted beasts they’d speed down on from Liverpool in honour of an annual rally.
We parked our minuscule bicycles next to their metal machines and within minutes one of the tattooed, scary-looking members came around the corner thrusting a finger at our bikes and asking “who on earth bought those bloody things?”
I thought about telling them that thing was called Hercules, thank you very much, but decided to wisely to shut my mouth.
The old pub was precisely 100 miles from Cardiff and so in a fit of energy we decided to smash out the distance in two days. What we didn’t account for, however, was the landscape and just minutes after leaving the pub and its colourful bikers the narrow road turned into a steep, winding goat track through a series of farms. It felt like we’d chugged our way up 10 Mt Everests and a few K2s to boot before we stumbled across the main road almost two hours later but as the “short cut” had been my suggestion I had to keep my screaming thighs to myself while Scott made it abundantly clear I was off the Christmas card list for life.
We were absolutely shagged and 50km later we were forced to call it a day, all but stumbling into a camp site that charged a whopping 17 pounds for just one night.
Cardiff, it seemed, would take three days to reach and with day two taking us to the highest pub in the Black Mountains (at well over 1000 feet above sea level) I secretly wondered we’d be lucky if it didn’t take longer.
As we wheeled slowly out of the pricey campsite my legs screamed in protested and every hill felt like a mountain range. A quick chat to some locals had revealed the the last five miles of the leg was a steep and narrow climb to the pub (which also had its own campsite) and I began to seriously think about chucking a sicky and rolling up in the curb.
I’m not sure if it was the muscle fatigue, the weather or the fact that Scott and I had been spending far too much time together but it was after one particular nasty hill that I realised we had become extraordinarily weird.
Scott began referring to me as “Alfa Bravo Darling” while I crowned him the masculine title of “Alfa Bravo Twinkle”. It seemed we were in desperate need of proper human interaction but our daily consumption of baked beans and curry would undoubtedly slim down our chances.
Eventually the final 5 mile mountain climb loomed and with our heads down (too tired to even mutter Alfa Bravo Twinkle) we slogged our way up to the Castle Inn.
Legs visibly shaking with fatigue we staggered into the warm and bright pub where the owner announced “You’re Australian are you? Well I won’t hold that against you! You’re not criminals are you”?
I was too tired to laugh and made a strangled sounding gurgle to my and the owner’s alarm before hastening to put the tent up and dive in.
We’d cycled just 35km that day and so had 80km left on the final sprint to Cardiff but as a eased my cold and sore muscles into the sleeping bag I wondered just how tough it would be.
Icy cold conditions seeped into our bones as we wheeled off the following morning (not before an enormous breakfast of porridge, coffee and biscuits) and only the hectic headwind could slightly mar the fact that we had 11.2km of initial downhill.
We’d got a late start (11am) and as the wind picked up and road turned back into a winding, rolling, track, I wondered if my shagged legs would hold up.
The main roads were packed with holiday traffic and in an attempt to seek out quieter routes we soon wound up lost and hungry as we finally stopped at 3pm for lunch just 30km out of Cardiff.
It had been a slow and painful trek to get there but even a loaded up bun and some extra slices of bread and butter couldn’t fill me with energy for the final leg.
Two hours later we were still 18km from Cardiff and I was ready to hurl the bike under a bus and admit defeat. The mere fact that we’d entered a seriously dodgy part of the nearby city Newport kept me peddling and I hoped fervently that Cardiff was at least a small improvement.
I’m not sure if we’d chanced upon the worst route possible but the outer slums seemed to continue as we peddled into the capital city and junkies hovered on street corners while rubbish lay strewn over the pavements. I’d been told this coastal city was a stunner but it was hard to see the appeal in this dodgy looking part of it.
At 7.30pm the inner city blissfully came into view and we eventually stumbled across our backpackers where we were treated to a cold shower before greedily tucking into McDonalds and then bed.