The last woman at the campsite

And it carried on raining.

It rained while I was packing up my tent, it rained on the Romanians as they left with their two tiny dogs in tow. It rained on me as I struggled up the hills that weren’t supposed to be on what the guidebook described as a “mostly flat route” and it rained on me as I slithered down them.

The best-known guidebook for this stretch of the Danube – Rolling East has written a superb post about it that sums up all our feelings – is written by a man who excels at gentle English understatement. “Mostly flat” means flat but, lol, when you least expect it the road will rear up into a 20% gradient. “Generally flat” means not flat at all; “gently undulating” means Himalayan peaks and no comment means you will die of altitude sickness.

This came to a head later in the day when I came to a stop in the rain beside a giant Bavarian maypole and fell off sideways. The German who ran over to my aid – and to translate the maypole – said he was baffled by how many people he saw cycling on this side of the Danube when the other side was completely flat. “The next 10km are catastrophic,” he said.

This made me smile, because catastrophic is the kind of word I like to use for gentle road undulations. But he turned out to be generally right; the route diverted through a close Bavarian forest, onto loose gravel paths that took steep turns and were drenched in sap and rainwater. At the outset I almost Tweeted a picture with the caption: “a woman who tires of cycling through Bavarian forests is tired of life”, but I was glad I didn’t because shortly afterwards I was tired of both Bavarian forests and life.

I summit-ed the hill and the forest edge into a field full of the skeletons of sunflowers and tumbled down it in a thunderstorm towards Ingolstadt. This cheered me up enormously, because in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein the eponymous doctor creates the monster while studying at the anatomy school in Ingolstadt. So I crept through the scrub that surrounds the city, thrilled every time it lit up with lightning, looking out for misshapen hulks in the trees. 

The following day I tripped off to find the medical school – on the pleasingly named Anatomy Street – but in the sunshine its potted plants rather let down my Gothic fantasy so I set off through the messy hop fields towards Kloster Weltenburg, a Benedictine abbey that is home to the oldest monastic brewery in the world.

Three different people told me that the Bock beer (a dark beer) was very strong – the last, a German woman, admitted it was also the best, so I had a half litre then snooped, squiffy, around the cloisters as the bells chimed 6pm. The guidebook said that boats left the abbey regularly for Kelheim, the end of the day’s ride and a short distance down a Danube gorge so sheer that there is no cycleable road. But this turned out to be the 20% gradient of timetabling advice: they were hourly, the last one at 18.30.

Good luck and not the guidebook meant I was aboard when it left on its quietly dramatic cruise. Out on deck an announcer described our route in soft German, saying things about the vast length of the Danube and the distance to the Black Sea that I was glad I couldn’t translate. When I disembarked at Kelsheim at 19.00, with 25km still to go to my campsite, I realised it would be the latest I made camp since the halcyon early days of the Rhine, when I remembered how much I preferred cycling late in the evening sun to getting up in the cold frost.

A lifelong night owl, I had hoped the trip would re-set my bodyclock. I was – I am – invariably the last cyclist at a campsite. For a while, it made me quite folorn, like I wasn’t doing it right. As I carried on down the Danube towards Passau, I picked up more and more groups of friends. And every morning as I sat drinking my coffee and squinting disbelievingly at the guidebook entry for the day they would wheel their bikes over and say goodbye and set off into the early light. One morning I woke up at 5am and peeked out of my tent to see my neighbours drinking coffee and squinting disbelievingly at their guidebook and I realised I would never win this battle and might as well resign myself to the fact that as they slumbered at 9pm I would be propped up on my Thermarest watching episodes of Star Trek on my laptop.

But then something else happened. I realised I was getting stronger. It happened on the day I left Germany: I’d cycled 100km to Passau, encouraged by a headwind. It had been about a week since my last day off. A French couple I’d been camping with the last few nights, part of the 8am garrison of leavers, waved at me as I flew past them in the early afternoon. 

From Passau I entered Austria through another breathtaking gorge: every slope is densely forested, so every tight bend the river makes starts sheer then seems to soften and spread up its leafy slopes. I rode the hills (it was a “mostly flat day”) to Austria’s only Trappist abbey at Engelszell, then on to my campsite nestled in the top bend of a tight “s” created by the river. I found to my surprise that it was 1pm when I made camp, encircled by the friendliest group of Dutch caravaners, who fed me pancakes while they set up an elaborate game of Hoops around my porch. The next day, as I left, one came over to me and said: “I admire your courage” then pressed a pot noodle into my hand for emergencies.

I rode on, expecting to need a rest day and planning for a short ride. I’d done about 40km – to just outside Linz – when my phone buzzed with a message from the cyclists at Rolling East. They were another 40km away; did I want dinner? I stopped and worried about my knee, the twinge in my wrist, about whether some unknown part of me was quietly working its way loose as I pushed on through long days. And then I realised that the wind was behind me and the only thing that was worrying me was that nothing was wrong, and that I was really doing this, on schedule, like I’d daydreamed about while I sat on my bike in clouds of exhaust fumes in London on the way to work. So I stopped to pick up a bottle of wine and rode on, to asparagus risotto, local beers, great company, and a therapeutic rant about the guidebook.

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9 thoughts on “The last woman at the campsite

  1. Oh wonderful! That’s really thoughtful of you, and so helpful. One of my biggest regrets is not taking a GPS tracker with me to measure the distance I travel. Looking at your map I’ve not done too badly!

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  2. So I’ve caught up with you in Austria. Glad to hear that you’re getting stronger it will make it easier to do a long ride should circumstances require.
    I presume you intend to go South around the Black Sea though Turkey. And then?
    Is it really so difficult to find places to wild camp? I would have thought some of the areas you’ve been through would have had some places but of course it would be tiring as you would have only a short night.
    Keep going and good luck

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    1. Actually I find in stealth camping that I have longer evenings at choice, depending when I stop. Sometimes its nice to relax for a few hours before sleep.

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  3. ……I cycled along the Danube (to Budapest from the Atlantic via Loire & Rhine , EV6) in summer ’15, glorious weather all the way……am enjoying following your posts and being reminded of what a great routeway it is……am looking forward to reading more as you go! Best wishes for the journey…..

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  4. Great reading your blog and seeing your article about cycle touring in the Guardian! We’re currently on our own worldwide trip (~10 weeks in, taking a delicious deviation in Italy) so we may see you as we head East and join the Danube. In your Guardian article you mention going through Iran? We were wondering how you have managed to get a visa as we are a little stuck on this? Beeest of luck with your fantastic trip, keep pedalling 😄🚵🏻‍♀️!

    There and Bike Again
    https://kimandkeirscycle.wordpress.com/

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    1. All is well!!! I haven’t had WiFi to upload a blog for a while so I might tap one out on my phone. I’m in Hungary and it’s wonderful 🙂 proper update soon!

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