To summarise a few things and update you…
Days since we left: 15
Kilometers cycled: 1024 (636 miles)
Average daily distance cycled: 80 km
Baguettes consumed: 29
Whole cheeses consumed: 17
Canned meals eaten: 10
Bike falls (owing to clip-ins): Imran 6/ Mikaela 1
Well, leaving Bordeaux was never going to be easy, but it was a departure made easier by one of Polo’s lovely housemates Arnaud who generously suggested we stay with his parents on the next leg of our journey. Somehow the incentive of a bed and shower led us to cycle 120 km across hilly terrain reaching the warmth of French hospitality in a village called Lavardac by nightfall. Feeding us with a fantastic feast and insisting we try a local digéstif, we settled down to sleep with absolute contentment. The next day, in spite of the bum-suffering, we continued to cycle through the Lot-et-Garonne and past the Landes, known as ‘France’s lungs’ as it’s composed entirely of sand and pine trees.
We were relieved however to reach Toulouse and the beginning of the Canal du Midi, a beautiful stretch of water listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and running for 240 km from Toulouse to Séte .
The original purpose of the Canal du Midi was to provide a shortcut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, avoiding a long sea voyage, a hostile Spain and Barbary pirates. The canal has a rich history including the story of the thousands of labourers it took to build it, of these many were women who came from the Pyrenees specifically for this work. These peasant women were mainly of Roman descent and their knowledge of water systems was apparently vital to the construction of the canal, which in its era was a feat of engineering never seen before.
We followed the path of the Canal du Midi for just under 200 km, passing Europe’s largest medieval fortress in Carcassonne. Our time by the canal had its advantages given that it was of course very flat, but the ground was broken, uneven and seriously bumpy. We were slowed down by the difficult terrain and tired of camping in the cold we decided to take a slightly different route and made our way to Montpellier to stay with friends. Once again we have been shown huge generosity and when we catch our ferry this evening we’ll be sad to have only stayed one night. But the new leg of our journey begins soon, crossing continents from Europe to Africa on the 36 hour ferry from Séte to Tangier putting us another step closer to Mali.
It’s just over one week since we spent our last morning in the UK, frantically tying up all the loose ends, running from bike shops to banks and everywhere in between. It all sort-of came together by lunchtime when friends and family gave us a beautiful send off (involving industrial quantities of tea and bacon sarnies). It was an emotional goodbye but one of excitement as we headed towards Portsmouth Harbour, only a 40 mile cycle from my family’s home.
We cruised happily towards the ferry port averaging a good pace and mapless on a route I have driven many times. As we followed the A3 the road became increasingly busy and the space at the side of the road looked more and more like a hard shoulder. I’ll be honest that this concerned me, a hard shoulder surely meant we were cycling on a motorway? This thought occurred to me about 5 mins before the highway authority and police pulled us over. Smiling sweetly we apologised and pleaded total (and honest) ignorance, which seemed to be enough. They were great and escorted us on a new route, they were also highly amused that we were planning to cycle to Mali, I guess we probably didn’t inspire a whole lot of confidence at that early stage in our journey…
We safely made it to the ferry and relaxed for the very comfortable 10 1/2 hour journey to St Malo. Arriving first thing in the morning we began a fairly heavy day cycling with Pete, a cyclist we met on the ferry. Following the path of the beautifully picturesque Ille Rance Canal (bound for Rennes) Pete helped to support a good pace and put our posterior resistance to shame (Imran and I felt compelled to take regular ‘bum breaks’). Around 100km later as we pumped filthy water from the canal with Pete watching, concerned for the welfare of our guts, we seemed to be warming to our new lifestyle; then of course, 8 hours later we faced a cold morning (after little sleep because of the low temperature), and a heavy dew that had fallen on our tent, panniers, shoes and just about everywhere else.
Surprisingly it was Imran who stirred to the sound of the alarm and boldly trod where he had never walked before… getting up before me. He then proceeded to encourage me out of bed, simple amazement at this stage was enough to get me up and before I could even feel my toes again we were off on a slightly kinder 60km day of cycling. Reaching Guipry (Brittany) by mid afternoon we decided to call it a day at the sight of a campsite. We faced another cold and pretty sleepless night driving us to the decision to invest in a blanket from the nearest SuperU. Whilst heavy it provided some warmth and the following night was a little toastier, but we still woke up at about 1 am shivering and waiting for the sun to come up. Thus by the time we reached Machecoul it seemed a treat was due and we spent out a very worthwhile 20 euros on a caravan for the night… the luxury was beyond all human conception, despite its 1960s decor (which I like to think was retro-vintage).
In spite of me dragging my heels, we made good progress the next day and cycled another 90 km to reach La Rochelle- bringing our total distance covered to 500 km in 6 days, a proud achievement for both of us. By the time we got to Bordeaux and Polo (a musician friend of Imrans) we were seriously grateful for the hot shower and warm bed so kindly sacrificed by Polo. A few days of rest has been just what we needed, tomorrow we will head towards Toulouse with an aim to reach Sète by Friday when a 36 hour ferry journey will take us across the Mediterranean to Tangier, Morocco, leaving Europe behind us for a year and welcoming a new, warmer leg of our journey, the bridge between the Desert and Europe, our climatic transition.