IT’S 8.30am on a surprisingly sunny autumn morning in the slightly shabby and crime-riddled suburb of Shepherds Bush, London. To my left the traffic is banked up in the usual impatient pre-work crawl and to my right is a pub – the kind that complements its location and attracts a rough clientele who drink bitter ales and suck down hand-rolled cigarettes while giving off a trail of body odour that sourly combines the two.
It also happens to be the place we’ve called home for the last four days.
This rough-as-guts pit stop (which we were forced to extend after a head cold knocked me for six) gave us the chance to catch up with a good friend from home while exploring England’s colourful capital before farewelling the English speaking world for at least two years and as I glance back one last time at Belushi’s bar the thought gives me nothing but a wild thrill.
For the last week we continued to meander along England’s charming canals as we pushed past Henley on Thames (an upmarket destination for wealthy Londoners) and made for the west of the city in a bid to have a quick break before making for Dover and crossing via the ferry to France.
As we’d rolled into the cheap backpackers (which was full of New Zealanders and Australians) I couldn’t help but feel an unsettling pang that was somehow a mix of homesickness and loneliness. Seeing our friend Kate – a fellow journalist who had packed up her life in Townsville to travel Europe before moving to Canada for a year – just made it worse.
I’d missed her dearly and even the mummified remains of an ancient man entombed in the British Museum couldn’t distract me from the fact I’d been ridiculously thrilled to see a close friend while feeling irrationally depressed that she was flying out in two days.
I’d come down with the kind of snot-inducing cold that makes your dorm mates don face masks in your presence just a day later and consequently spent the next two days in bed making disgusting noises while Scott played the empathetic nurse.
And now we were here, mere seconds away from plunging wildly into London’s peak hour morning traffic in what was to be a mad dash through the guts of the city to reach Waterloo East train station.
After hearing stories of drugged up truckies and terrifying outer suburbs we’d decided to skip the unpleasant leg between London and Dover and instead take the train before hopping on the ferry.
I was still coughing and spluttering like a smoker on their death bed and so the 9km cycle to the inner city train station on a loaded tourer seemed tough enough.
Within minutes of kicking off we found ourselves swept up in the mad peloton of morning cyclists as we moved slowly through the sluggish traffic.
I was expecting to be terrified but this mad mix of cars and bikes moved in an almost routine-like dance and when Scott glanced back at me with an elated smile on his face it was clear he felt the same.
I felt safer in this epic traffic tangle then I had while cycling in many Australian towns and as the city loomed in front of us, outlining Big Ben in all it’s glory, I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear.
Here we were, loaded up like gypises, cycling next to a torrent of cars, buses and bikes while meandering past some of the world’s most iconic monuments.
One relaxing train ride later (followed by a mad dash to the ferry thanks to a ticket mishap) we were watching the spectacular white cliffs of Dover slide slowly out of view. The next stop was the rough French port town of Calais and as I whipped out my French dictionary to begin reciting my sporadic lessons all feelings of homesickness were rapidly forgotten.
Calais is a dirty, rundown haven for residents of similar attributes and after we rolled our bikes off the P&O ferry into mouth-drying headwinds we made a beeline straight for the main road north that would carry us into Belgium – some 70kms away.
I wanted to get as far away from the dilapidated town as possible but as the ferocious headwind struck with gusto our meander became a grim faced slug with a week of sleeping, eating and relaxed site seeing taking its toll.
Just 20km later (at 6pm) we rolled into a dated seaside village and followed the signs to a small camping site on its outskirts.
The reception desk was empty but a small bell (accompanied by some undecipherable words in French) sat on the wall so we pushed it hopefully and waited.
A few minutes later an old woman waddled out of a nearby house calling out “bonjour” before looking at us expectantly.
“Bonjour … err parlez vous Ingles?” I asked hopefully.
“No,” she answered succinctly.
“Oh shit,” I said.
I quickly scrambled for my precious dictionary and flicked to the phrases section before asking in woefully pronounced French: “nous voudrions un emplacement pour une tente”?
She miraculously understood me and after establishing it would cost 15 euros we quickly pitched in our allocated patch before tucking into yet another gourmet dinner of two minute noodles.
The site was clearly old with a dated decor but rather than being shabby it put you in the mind of meticulous old ladies who still thought doilies and tea sets were the height of fashion.
We lapped up a uniquely pleasant shower and soaked up a spectacular sunset before curling into our tent at 9pm.
A foggy morning dawned the next day and in a fit of tired laziness we swapped a hearty breakfast of porridge for some bread and peanut butter before again facing the relentless headwind. The aim was to get well into Belgium before finding a place to pitch along the coast but the soul-sucking gusts had us pulling into the first available bakery to escape the wind as much as to fill our bellies with delicious French morsels and hot coffee.
The tiny patisserie was a hive of activity and I confidently ordered my “deux cafe au lait sil vous plait et deux croissants merci beaucoup” before announcing to Scott that was the only kind of coffee I knew how to order and so I hoped we liked it.
The espresso with a dash of milk was divine and as lunch time was approaching we thought it only sensible to order some filled baguettes before moving on (we’d been eyeing them off for half an hour like greedy deprived children).
Two fully loaded ham, cheese and salad (which includes egg and pickle) baguettes later we were rubbing our tummies contentedly while marvelling at how much better this fairly simply fare tasted in France and how cheap they were (four euro each).
It took some serious willpower (and the desire to at least reach the border) to get back on the beasts and a couple of hours later we reached the underwhelming sign of “Belgie” before cycling over.
In a last minute fit of “oh shit I know bugger all about Belgium” I’d downloaded the Lonely Planet ebook before announcing to Scott that we should be fine for most of Belgium as it was predominately French.
But as the coast road meandered on signs were conspicuous by their lack of French and when a campsite came into view I realised I couldn’t understand a single word.
“Umm what do you reckon it is?” Asked Scott.
“German, maybe,” I said, all confidence lost.”
Five minutes later the very kind owner informed us it was Dutch – as we were indeed in the Dutch speaking part of the country.
I felt like a complete tool and after forking out 12 euros for our site I quickly absorbed myself in the Lonely Planet to get at least a basic grasp on the language.
They switched from Dutch, to French and then English (considered the neutral language) with ease and while I felt relief we’d be largely understood it soon became clear English travellers were pretty uncommon in this part of the world.
“Hallo! Hoe gaat het met je?”
The man on the bicycle had pulled up beside us the next morning to offer some pleasantries in Dutch before realising we were staring at him with complete incomprehension.
“Ah”, he said, knowingly, “Bonjour …” (cue sentence filled with unknown French words)
We continued to stare at him.
“Deutch?” He asked.
“English,” this was clearly his last ditch attempt.
“Yes, yes,” we chorused.
Language difficulties and that prevailing headwind aside there was one thing setting this nation dramatically apart from the UK and that was cycling infrastructure. Wide, meticulously cared for cycling paths ran next to almost every main road with wonderful lanes accompanying others and even special sets of lights for bike riders. As we slowly slugged our way further north past De Panne before stopping in Niewpoort it also became clear that for the first time in our lives every part of our steel beasts were welcome on the road with cars carefully giving us space and patience on the rare times we were forced onto the main traffic lane.
A heavy fog lay over the flat dunes and water of Niewpoort when we pulled onto the path that ran along the shore giving it an eerie atmosphere that looked strangely Soviet thanks to the mass of ugly apartment buildings built ruthlessly beyond the dunes.
My snotty nose was again wreaking havoc and we pulled up for a long lunch (after some pitiful window shopping where we pressed our noses up against the glass of decadent looking bakeries and chocolate cafes).
I felt wrung out and bereft of energy but at 3pm we forced ourselves to push on into the wind in the hope of reaching Oostende, some 20km north.
At Westende we fell just 8km shy of it but the lure of a cheap campsite proved too strong and we happily ditched the bikes to wander into a grocery shop.
Half an hour later, arms laden with delicious creamy tarts, some fresh tortellini and a jar of pesto we wandered back to the dreary campsite with its nevertheless cheerful owner and made a feast fit for a king before wearily crawling into the tent.
Bruge, some 40km north east, was the mild aim for the following day but the ferocious headwind felt as though we were pushing our bikes through thigh deep mud as we stuck to the flat canal which ran all the way to the popular city.
At 2pm we we wearily rolled into the ancient, cobble-stoned streets, stopping vaguely to gape openly at striking old flower covered buildings, lush canals and gothic churches, before wandering to the campsite.
We paid a mere 13 euros to pitch in a large field on the outskirts and soon discovered our modest patch was surrounded by fellow bicycle tourers.
On one side was a happy-go lucky tourer from Liverpool (aiming for Oktoberfest in Germany) and on the other was Matt from Cardiff – a cheerful solo traveller heading in the same direction as us.
We took the next day off to discover this culturally rich city (wandering through its narrow streets before spending a couple of hours in the Groeningmuseum) and finished off the day by sampling the local cuisine (frites – double fried chips).
Later that night we planned the next leg – a short sprint to Ghent before meandering up to Antwerp and then onto Holland while hopping to the gods of cold weather that we made it through Switzerland before winter’s claws took hold.