I can feel icy claws ripping through my jacket and my cheeks are numb (along with my hands, feet and brain). In fact I’m not sure what’s more depressing: the fact that it’s only late October, the fact that I’m close to freezing or the knowledge it’s actually a pretty tame autumn in this part of the country.
I pull my wet beanie down and follow the flickering red light on Scott’s bike into Wittenburg’s only campsite while wishing for not the first time that our tent was a house and our dinner was something other than two minute noodles.
Ahead of us, Don the Aussie cycle tourer leads the way to our soggy patch of turf where we’ll hole up for the night before we continue south to Dresden, and Don farewells us to follow the Elbe river north to Hamburg.
I know things aren’t that bad, I know we’re on the trip of of a lifetime and I know in reality it’s not even that cold. But right now my thin Australian blood is freezing, I’m nothing short of shagged after a rugged 90km and only the knowledge that we’ll get the shower block to ourselves (there’s only one caravan besides us in the enormous grounds) is keeping me from turning my bike around and beelining for the nearest hotel.
We left Berlin just two days earlier and almost the minute its skyline faded from view the clouds turned grey and the temperature plummeted from 12 degrees to low single digits.
Don had insisted Route number 1 (which leads to the famous Elbe River trail) would be the best way for us to reach Dresden and as the same path would essentially get him to Hamburg in the north it would give us a companion for two days (albeit a much faster and tougher one).
A broken spoke in Berlin (as we peddled out of the city) meant a cruisy 80km day turned into a long one and we arrived south of Potsdam at just after 6.30pm. Our fearless leader Don (who had cycled this precise route while peddling north to Berlin days earlier) directed us to a campsite but as we rounded the corner our hearts plummeted to see the huge, locked iron gates. More and more sites were closing for the winter and it was clear this one had done just that in a matter of days.
One wild, dark goose chase later we found another site and after negotiating a painful discussion with the owner via our phone we set up camp next to the loo block. Scott had spied a table and chairs nearby and we happily ditched the tarp for a more civilised setting but just as the pasta was beginning to boil we encountered our first seriously angry German.
“Privat! Verboten!” He screeched at us, as we sat like stunned deer in the headlights.
It turned out we were perched at his table and he was in danger of bursting several blood vessels if we didn’t pack up our dinner and leave instantly. We grumpily retreated to the tarp and after a good hour of nasty venting, retreated to the tents.
At 9am the following morning we peddled wearily out of the campsite and headed back to the R1, following gorgeous farm trails, woodland cycle paths and lakeside paths towards Wittenburg. There was just one problem, I was shagged, cold and completely uninterested in climbing hills of any kind.
Soon enough Don and Scott disappeared into the distance as I slogged on slower than a World War I tank wondering bitterly why I thought cycling around the world would be such a bloody wonderful idea.
The cold was seeping into my bones, my knee was starting to ache persistently and my muscles had clearly buggered off in search of public transport.
It was at this point that Don began to realise his folly in leading a cold and cranky Queenslander through 90km of cold muddy trails and when Wittenburg finally came into view he began apologising profusely.
The next day the cold and soggy conditions worsened and after forcing ourselves out of the deliciously warm sleeping bags we had an epiphany. Cycling in chilly, heavy rain with a temperature of three degrees would be about as fun as eating a hat full of faeces so instead we’d take a day off and huddle in the laundry room while drinking tea. Don bravely decided to carry on and after we said our goodbyes I honestly wished we had the same determination. Already the Elbe route down to Dresden meant what was meant to be a three day ride would in take five and with a day off in-between our chances of getting to Prague afterwards were slim to none. We had a deadline of October 28 to reach Munich for Scott’s 30th birthday (the Sheraton hotel was booked and I would have chewed off my right arm before missing a treat like that) and unless we caught a train from Dresden to Prague there was no chance of making it.
Already we’d consented to take a train from Dresden to Munich to make the deadline and so our dream of cycling the Elbe to Prague was ditched.
The next day the rain abated but the cold lingered forcing me to cycle in Eskimo attire for almost the entire 80km to Torgau. Even the warm blooded Scott miserably failed at forcing life into his white fingers at lunch and when we finally reached the small town it was dark and we felt frozen through.
We were knackered and rather than hunt around for an illusive campsite (we’d struggled to find a suitable wild camping spot) we ignored the budget worries and knocked on the door of a small and humble looking bed and breakfast.
A grumpy man opened the door and glared at us with suspicion as we attempted to convey our need for a room. He instantly said “no” and all but slammed the door in our face forcing us to trudge back to the bikes.
A minute later he stepped up behind us and reluctantly admitted to having a room – which he would give us for 50 euros a night with breakfast. It was cheap for a hotel but expensive for us and while the man was about as warm and inviting as a blizzard I was too cold to argue.
We slept surprisingly well in the warmth and comfort of the room (largely thanks to a hot bath) and the following morning were able to pack up and hit the road again by 9.30am. From Torgau we followed the river through dismal and boring farmlands to Strehla (cycling just 50kkm) and on the final Dresden leg we polished off 70km, passing tiny towns with cobblestones and delicious bakeries.
The city’s campsite sat 12km from the centre and charged almost as much as a backpackers so we took the latter option and joined a throng of enthusiastic students in a slightly grubby hostel in the hipster part of the CBD.
It was hard to do little more than read, eat and recover over the next two days and we took just a few short meanders around this city that was famously bombed to smithereens during World War II and spectacularly rebuilt.
Train’s in Germany are notoriously expensive but we managed to secure the trip to Munich (which would take six hours) for 60 euros all up the following day and as we hurtled past steadily climbing mountains it was hard to feel too guilty at cheating on this tough-looking leg. On top of that the excitement was growing as we neared the nation’s beer capital and with four nights in a posh pad, dinner in a beer hall, plus the beverages themselves to look forward too we felt nothing short of exhilarated.
The sun had set when we emerged from the heaving train station at 5.30pm and crowds choked dirty looking streets as we cycled a mere two kilometres to the hotel.
It was hard to believe the high tourist season had come and gone and I was immediately less impressed with this Bavarian capital than I’d hoped to be. I’m not sure if it was the shameless tourist gimmicks, the lack of soul or the sheer chaotic nature of it but I felt like Berlin one the German city battle off hands down.
One glimpse at our posh room, however, had me quickly forgiving any negative outward feelings.
Our king-sized bed, glistening bathroom and balcony with views took me right back to the cosmopolitan life we’d left behind and while I wouldn’t give up our trip for the world I sunk into the soft and fluffy bed with the relish of someone who hasn’t slept well in a long time.
It was hard to do anything but bask in a state of bliss for three days but we managed to force ourselves out of the room and explore the centre before strolling to the nearby Augustiner Braustuben – a famous beer hall frequented by the bremeisters themselves. It was Wednesday night, in late October, but still breathing space was scarce and the building heaved with locals and tourists alike while decadent smells wafted over from the kitchen.
We slithered in next to a northern German couple and Scott quickly tucked into a litre beer before ordering (and then savouring) a huge plate of pork knuckle.
There was only one thing that could sour a perfect night and that was the lack of friends or family on hand to help him celebrate the milestone. Homesickness can truly strike when you least expect it but this was one case we probably should have anticipated.
We’re still lying in the huge, white fluffy bed at the Sheraton Hotel and unless Scott makes good of his threat to barricade the door tomorrow we’ll be heading west for our final German leg – a cycle to Stuttgart and the Black Forest. There mountains, foul weather and spectacular scenery will help us bow out Deutchland in style before we hit the real bad boy of winter climates – Switzerland.