WITH just 80km left until the border our time in The Netherlands was fast drawing to a close and with it, the end of what had felt like a long, lazy weekend – the kind where you sip tea, read books and lounge about on the couch.
For the last 400km we’d encountered little more than a gentle rise in the way of altitude and while the occasional head wind jolted our legs out of the deep slumber the riding had been nothing short of easy.
We’d even fallen into the dangerous delusion that this sudden cycling ease meant we were getting fitter but with the Alps leg fast approaching I had no doubt we were in for one hell of a rude shock.
Rusty gold leaves were falling fast from soaring trees as we meandered down cycling lanes towards the border of Germany, stopping briefly in the lively market town of Deventer before chugging on to the small Deutch town of Gronau.
Mere minutes after crossing the border distinct changes began to crop up with everything from the scenery, to the architecture and the cycling lanes announcing more than anything that we’d reached a new country.
Where Holland was a bike infrastructure Utopia filled with charming towns, unimaginative country side and a large number of retirees kicking back in the camping grounds, Germany seemed to be a little darker, a little more rugged and a little less smooth in the way of bicycle lanes. Bumpy paths had your love handles jiggling worse than an out of tune Christmas carol but where this huge European nation lacked in terms of smooth roads, it made up for in signs.
In good natured jest we’d been warned the Germans loved rules and were big on order and organisation. Sign posts for everything dotted every bicycle lane and after stopping off for a big juicy bratwurst from a modest street stall we followed the array of red bike signs out of the village on the hunt for a camp ground.
A stop off at an enormous supermarket revealed food and beer prices were the cheapest we’d encountered in Europe yet (a sign advertised a mere 7 euros for 20 cans of beer) but as we looked at our newly bought maps we realised the one thing this part of Germany was scarce on – camping sites.
Holland had sprouted a park of some description every few kilometres but Germany, it seemed, had just a handful within a 200km radius. They also seemed to spring up in obscure parts of the countryside that were a good 30 minute cycle out of even the most humble hamlets and so with an uneasy feeling in our stomachs we made for one of those obscure spots on the map as the sun began to set and clouds begun to hover.
At 6.30 we stumbled across the site but immediately discovered there was no English spoken at all. A hilarious game of charades ensued (with much arm flapping and pointing) and eventually we established the cost was a mere 10 euros and that we were in fact the only people mad enough to be in a tent. Big splashy caravans and camper vans were the most common object in any European campsite but with the high season officially over and many grounds shutting for the year the bitter realisation soon struck that all the sensible campers and bicycle tourers had hibernated for the winter, leaving just two mad Australians who believed a slight frost marked the depths of a cold climate.
The tent was scarcely up before a persistent rain turned everything into a wet, soggy and grey landscape forcing us to retreat to our beds with nothing but a peanut butter sandwich for dinner.
Ibbenburen, some 70km east, was our vague destination the following day and we meandered past small villages and even our first real hill in weeks before stopping at a town called Rheine for lunch.
If you are wise (and stupid) enough to read the guide books you’ll hear stories about the fairy tale towns of this diverse country where famed wordsmiths such as the Brother’s Grimm wandered about and museums payed homage to Falkor from the Neverending Story but this very modern, and thus, very boring town seemed about as far away from this summation as a yeti is from the beach.
Over lunch I even attempted to search my Lonely Planet e book for some tips on what to do in this part but it turned out the region wasn’t exciting enough to even earn a perfunctory mention in the enormous guide.
After an alarmingly long lunch we vowed to do a little more research on our vague route to Berlin before slowly cycling out of Rheine at 4pm.
According to the local tourist office (and my little map) a campsite sat just 20km from Rheine and we stocked up on noodles in Harlem before peddling north towards it.
Two hours later a big flashy site came into view with a pair of even flashier, fully locked gates.
It turned out the site was shut for the off season with the closest alternative 20km away.
The light was already beginning to fade but there was nothing for it and so we cycled off into the gloom while munching down a big entree of bugs.
At just after 7.30pm we stumbled across the campsite and its completely empty tent field.
In German (with a few English words thrown into the mix) the owner pointed us to a specific patch of greenery which stood next to what looked like a small green shed.
With a key he opened it up and simply said “is all yours”.
We looked inside and to our complete astonishment discovered an immaculate little bathroom complete with a toilet, shower and a handbasin.
“I can’t believe it Scott, we actually have an ensuite,” I muttered.
The following day (after enjoying a long luxurious shower and a feast of two minute noodles) we discovered this posh site also had its own private beach (well, sort of) playgrounds, ping pong tables and even a room dedicated to vending machines spewing everything from coffee, to soup and frozen yoghurt.
The luxury of an ensuite was too good to just give up after a night so we took the following day off taking it in turns to have showers (just kidding), do the washing and generally lounge around reading and eating biscuits.
The following morning it suddenly occurred to us we should do some serious route planning before hitting the road so we leafed through our maps and the Lonely Planet while chugging down 50 cent cups of “Irish Coffee” from the vending machine.
As a little girl I’d read the famous old fairy tale The Musicians of Bremen and it was on the basis of that alone that we decided to veer north for the historic city before again heading east for Berlin.
Some more research revealed the largest concentration camp on German soil (Bergen-Belsen) also lay south east of the city, housing the grave of Anne Frank alongside up to 100,000 other Jews, Soviet soldiers, political hostages and other prisoners. Unlike Auschwitz in Poland, there were said to be none of the original buildings from the infamous camp, just mass graves hidden deceptively under grassy lumps of earth.
With a vague plan to strike for Bremen, followed by Bergen Belsen, we peddled slowly north out of the grounds (bellies sloshing with machine coffee) and by lunch time we’d scarcely covered 15km thanks to our first burst of serious hill climbing in weeks.
A pit stop at a traditional German cafeteria seemed in order and so we tucked into steaming bowls of cabbage and pork soup (for 2 euros) before sampling some (you guessed it) bakery goods and again hitting the winding roads north.
Lush green farms dotted the landscape with gorgeous old homesteads and fields of canola interspersed making from some pretty scenic riding.
We were severely behind schedule but a campsite just 15km north of the town of Bramsche seemed just achievable and so we pulled in at 6.30pm to find ourselves in what seemed like a mega resort full to the brim with local tourists.
We joined a 10-deep queue to the reception desk where we found out the camp site offered everything from restaurants, to archery, to horse riding and even a mini Oktoberfest celebration that would be held on the Saturday. We also discovered the huge crowd was owed to the fact that the following day (Friday) was a public holiday in honour of the abolition of the east and west borders back in 1989 and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.
Suddenly this seemed like the place to be and as the queue moved sluggishly forward we toyed with the idea of taking a few days off and staying in this heavenly resort until Sunday to lap up the festivities.
When we finally reached the counter we asked “and how much for one night?”
“26 euros … and how many nights will you be staying?” asked the tired and grumpy receptionist.
“Um just one thanks,” I muttered.
With dreams of a fancy mini break spectacularly burst we set up the tent and scoffed down some bratwurst and salad before jumping into the tent at just 8.30pm.
People were conspicuous by their absence as we rolled out of the camp amid some seriously balmy sunshine the following morning and after cycling through our second near empty village we cottoned on. It was a public holiday and this meant our chances of finding even the most basic grocery store open would be slim to none.
We had a few slices of bread and some nutella in the way of supplies but just before the hunger pains really set in a giant golden arch came to the rescue.
A seriously decked-out McDonalds popped into view in the town of Vecht and we scoffed down a cheeseburger before wrapping up the last 15km to Goldenstedt – a tiny town with a campsite just 60km shy of Bremen.
By this point there was a small, less pleasant, fact about some locals that we were not just starting to notice, but get seriously peeved by.
While some were friendly and would cross roads to help you decipher a map others would just stare. I don’t mean the kind of curious gaze one might let fly when encountering two wobbly Aussies peddling two seriously wobbly bikes – but the kind of rude, unblinking cat stare with no hint of a smile (or any expression at all really).
As we peddled into the campsite rude, unblinking stares followed us until we found our patch of damp grass, set up the tent and then jumped into the shower in a bid to wash off the millions of dead bugs that had flown into our face, arms and hair while cycling.
We quickly decided (despite the staring) that we’d take another day off to simply get some house keeping done as this campsite cost a mere 10 euros a night and we were eventually lulled to sleep by the sound of locals partying to the tunes of very bad American disco tunes.
The following morning (after a walk around the town to discover there was just a supermarket, no cafes with wifi, or in fact any other attraction of any kind) we set up a picnic in front of our tent and lounged back from some R&R before we felt yet another set of eyes.
It was in fact two sets of eyes in the form of our campsite neighbours who were staring almost unblinkingly at us from their caravan.
I’d had enough. I mean really – weren’t we all taught from a young age that staring was rude?!
I decided it was time for action so with my best “your dead to me” look I stared beadily back at the elderly couple until one of them dropped their gaze and they went back to their tea.
“Can you believe them?” I said angrily to Scott – who whole heartedly agreed.
Feeling a little smug I took the dishes to a nearby tap only to see the man from the caravan come over and talk to Scott.
It turned out the couple had been watching us playing with the laptop and were offering us their own personal electricity supply and plug so we could keep our “knick knacks” charged.
I felt about as big as an ant.
Fifteen minutes later his wife “knocked” on our tent with a kettle to fill up our thermos after watching us polish off the contents on two cups of tea earlier.
Unfortunately the generosity didn’t end there.
The couple returned from the shops in the mid afternoon with a jar of “British jam” (they thought we were English) and then proceeded to cook us up some chips to go with our wurst for dinner.
To top it off they hauled over their very own table and chairs so we could forgo the ground tarp in lieu of a more comfortable dinner setting – placing a little candle in the middle for extra ambience.
The following day we headed off for Bremen, pushing out 70km (thanks to some seriously squiggly routes courtesy of the confused GPS) to reach a schmick campsite in the heart of the city where we would spend the next two nights before striking east for Berlin.