IT’S 4pm and I’m soaked to the skin while dark clouds hover over an autumn Dutch sky and icy winds pierce my bones in a firm reminder that winter is on its miserable way.
I’m a soaked picture of gloominess thanks to four hours of cycling in the rain from Amsterdam to Nijkerk but through the drizzly haze a charming thatched cottage springs into view and my heart dramatically lifts.
For the first time in months I’m moments away from a warm double bed, a home cooked meal and a couch that’s not inhabited by dirty backpackers. It’s enough to make me weep.
The house belongs to my sister-in-law’s cousin Hendrik and his wife Alex who ( without ever having met me or my partner Scott) offered us a bed, food and amazing company for two nights while we savoured the rare experience of a home (albeit for a bloody short time).
For three months now our two man tent has served us a house, our bikes as vehicles and the grimy, wet and mouldy showers of campgrounds as our bathroom. A tiny MSR stove has served as our kitchen, two plastic sporks as our cutlery and our badly tanned legs as the only source of power to get our sorry backsides from Scotland to Argentina via one hell of a long four year cycling adventure.
We’ve been on the road for just three months but already a double bed with a duvet and real pillows has felt like a long lost friend that you no longer have the right mobile phone number for.
Just half an hour later we’re perched on a comfortable couch in a cosy living room with a fire crackling merrily away as we nurse steaming cups of Nespresso coffee. In short, it’s bliss. It’s hard not to bask in the warmth and safety a home like this offers and suddenly our mad mission seems infinitely easy. Even the thought of hitting Switzerland in winter and pitching a tent in snow seems like a grand old adventure from the comfort of this classic Dutch cottage and I happily begin to ponder the next Long Rode Home leg – a wide loop of Germany, followed by the Alps, the west French coast, the Pyrenees and then Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Tunisia.
There’s just the smallest twinge of doubt. Autumn leaves are already lying thick on the ground and an icy wind had begun to seep into our bones while we explored Amsterdam two days earlier.
It was there that we’d met up with two old friends – Janine and Martine – who unhesitatingly jumped on a train for over two hours just to spend an awesome afternoon buying us drinks and dinner in what was an amazing act of kindness while showing us the famous sights (red light district included).
We’d marvelled at a city that was full to the brim with amazing architecture, green, winding canals and a quirky sense of fun that was only slightly overshadowed by the fact every tourist under the age of 25 treated it as a seedy 24-hour party thanks to the abundance of “coffee shops”. It was there that billows of smoke seeped out of dark and dingy bars where the patrons sat slumped in moth eaten chairs while staring through vacant blood shot eyes in what was clearly an overindulgence of their new found “freedom”.
The red light district too seemed to attract hordes of a different kind of tourist – particularly middle-aged single (sometimes) men who treated the abundance of scantily clad prostitutes winking suggestively from their glass cages with an almost business-like criticism before selecting a whore to their taste. It seemed surreal. They plucked women like butchers in a meat market while nearby tourists smoked themselves to oblivion in “coffee shops” where families walked by en route to the supermarket before home.
It seemed a shame that this city – with its grand old buildings, winding canals and sheer hordes of cyclists, was suffocated in a stereotype of sex and drugs. But in light of what we’d seen I could see why.
After two days of mouth-open sight seeing we packed up our soggy tent and prepared for the 60km meander west to Hendrik’s and Alex’s house where we again immersed ourselves in true Holland (warm people, rich food and charming villages).
The pair, with their young daughter Fien, had led an amazing life which included moving to South Africa to start up a lodge on an enormous reserve in the north of the nation for a few years. When the time came to move back to Holland they loaded up the rugged land cruiser, bought a tent for the top and proceeded to drive the long way back through Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia and Saudi Arabia (to name but a few countries) which took them four months.
Their colourful depiction of Africa made me wonder if we were making a huge mistake in missing so much of this massive and diverse continent and to be honest the real reason we’d decided to skip the bulk of it was fear. I vaguely wondered if we should revisit this plan and throw our fears to the wind for what would undoubtedly be one awesome adventure.
The morning we were due to depart a a heavy drizzle clouded the landscape and I felt a heavy reluctance to pull back the duvet and pack up the scattered panniers before a flat cycle west to Deventer.
It was a slow peddle out of the village, past green farmlands, old windmills and the occasional restaurant and our legs remained fast asleep and stubbornly reluctant until the first hill in days appeared suddenly in the foggy gloom.
Within seconds we were checking our tyres in the hope they were flat before resuming the painful slog of towing a hippo up a slope while the relentless drizzle seeped through our jerseys.
On the other side we rolled gratefully into the colourful town of Apeldoorn, which houses the country-seat of the royal family of the Netherlands called the palace Het Loo.
A hot lunch was on the cards but as we ducked under cover to avoid the now heavy rain a weariness washed over us and with mutual consent we did something we hadn’t done in months – checked into a hotel.
It was completely out of the budget and we’d cycled scarcely more than 30km but suddenly the lure of just one more night in a bed out of the foul weather was too strong to ignore and we quickly jumped online before pouncing on a 62 euro per night establishment just 2km out of town.
A small, portly man with white lochs and a harried but friendly air met us at reception and minutes later we’d hauled our bags upstairs, whipped off our lycra, hopped into our pyjamas and climbed into a wide and soft bed with a fluffy white duvet and wide pillows.
There was just a small, block television perched atop a tall closet but thanks to the Comedy Channel we were able to soak up American sitcoms before sinking into the kind of oblivion that comes from a comfortable bed and the familiarity of trash TV while rain sprinkles dot the window.
Sunshine peeked through the curtains the following morning and we fantasised briefly with spending another day in bed before realising the good weather was too good to waste.
The aim was to reach the German border – some 70km away depending where you crossed – and after a quick look at Google maps (over a big breakfast and coffee) we settled on Alstatte. Without any knowledge of the town, roads or sights we figured we’d strike directly west for Berlin (about a 500km sprint) in the hope of reaching the capital in just over a week before heading south. Somewhere in between we would also reach the next major milestone – Scott’s 30th birthday. October 29 was the magical date and while we didn’t know exactly where we would be the essential ingredients had already been decided: Hotel, fluffy white slippers, thick bathrobe, copious amounts of food (the kind you pay for at a restaurant) and some extremely fine German beer. After all you don’t turn 30 every day and while we prepared to leave our cosy little hotel I smiled happily at the thought it was just a few more weeks until we’d get the chance to stay in another one.