Iceland To Africa By Bicycle 2004

Newsletter 4

Written 26th September 2004

Key statistics so far:
  • Pedalled distance: 1,544 miles
  • Furthest in a day: 84 miles
  • Punctures: 3
  • Shredded tyres: 2
  • Mechanical failures: 2 (a pannier bolt and a pedal that gave up the journey in favour of a decent burial) ... I've seen metal break and can't help wondering what this is doing to my ageing joints! Maximum speed: 42.0 mph
  • Highest altitude: 671 metres (Iceland)
  • Top of The Pops: Having started with mum's old favourite, The Carpenters, then moved on to tunes I played on a tin whistle when I was 10, I seem to be progressing slowly through my childhood! This week it was Kayleigh by Marillion ... and I can only assume that the rebellious, anarchic heavy rock death metal phase is coming next!

Last seen in Craven Arms with a boil on the bottom and cursing the wind and rain, the bike and I have now arrived safely in Spain and are three days and 170 miles into the Spanish journey (San Sebastian to be precise). The wind has finally given up defeated and skulked away to bother someone else somewhere else, although it did go out with a show of strength - an almighty Force 8 north-westerly as we crossed the Bay of Biscay aboard Brittany Ferries' Pont Aven which weathered it remarkably well.

We completed the John O'Groats to Land's End section on 19th September with a flourish to the sea. This was a beautiful sight - I've missed the sea so much! Incidentally, by "we" I mean me and the bike - I've not gone mad yet ... it's just that we've become rather well aquainted by now and it is, after all, my load bearing companion. It doesn't complain and just gets on with job in hand in stoic fashion. I wish I could be as stolid but having hurled abuse at the skies and nearly thrown it in a ditch on more than one occasion I realise I have yet to master this art!

The total miles on the UK stretch added up to 1,003 against the 1,025 predicted - not bad for the primary school 'string and a map' method of planning. From Craven Arms we travelled south to Gloucester, then on to Bristol, Taunton, Okehampton, Lostwithiel, Penzance and Land's End (photgraph attached). The prize for the hotel of the week this week lands firmly at the door of The Lugger Hotel in Penzance. Lesley, the proprietor, very kindly put up with me free for 3 days as we waited for the 4:00pm ferry from Plymouth to Santander on the 22nd September.

The observent will have noticed that San Sebastian is East of Santander and not South which is where we should be heading. There's a reason for this ... actually several reasons and my logic is as follows:

When I set out on the journey I believed that I would handle the solitude very well, thinking myself to be a loner, thinker and traveller at heart (a bit like Kane in Kung Fu if anyone remembers that?). Not so! You learn so much about yourself which is the beauty of being alone, but it's a pain in the proverbial when you find out that it's being alone you have a problem with. I crave company in a way I've never known before. Don't get me wrong, there are many encounters every day with wonderfully warm, generous, genuine and caring people ... even in northern Spain where language is a problem (I have chatted to lots of people in a new language invented for this purpose: In the Basque country people speak Spanish, Basque and usually French but very little English. My French is not good but better than my paltry Spanish, so we get by in what i've come to call Hispano-Franglais). It's just not the same though as having friends around you where there's a bond, and a level of comfort and understanding. It's this closeness I miss.

To continue with the reasoning ... I came up with an idea on the ferry which was this: The interior of Spain is very sparsely populated (apparently Spain is Europe's second largest country after France with a population of just 41 million - most of these people live in the cities or on the coast) and it would probably have driven me mad to try and cross it! I decided therefore to head for the coast. In a funny way I also regard the sea as a friend - it's difficult to be lonely by the sea although I haven't the faintest idea why that is.

The next question was, which coast? This one was easy ... in order to escape the weather we should head East for the relative shelter of the Mediterranean rather than the exposure of the Portuguese Atlantic. And there you have it! This will elongate the journey by some 500 miles so I'm not expecting to get home now until the very end of October. The new route takes in Barcelona, Valencia, Alicante, Almeria, Malaga and then on to Gibralter, should take around 4 weeks and I'm really looking forward to it.

Because of the extended stay I've started to work hard at learning Spanish ... and have also been learning plenty of history along the route. Yesterday for example I stayed in Gernika, a name I knew but didn't know why. It's a rather dreary place but has a terrible history immortalised by Pablo Picasso in 1937 in his canvas "Guernica". During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) it was subjected to a devastating carpet bombing by Nazi Germany in support of Franco's Nationalist rebellion. Some 2,000 people died in that one attack alone and 350,000 died during the war in total. I didn't realise what a terrible, bloody and long conflict this was. I'm sure everyone else knew but unfortunately I preferred playing cards and taunting my teacher in history lessons! How he'd laugh now!

So, here we are in sunny San Sebastian waiting for the overnight train on Tuesday to Barcelona from where we will begin to cycle the length of the Spanish Mediterranean. I estimate this to be around 1,000 to 1,200 miles depending on the roads. In the meantime, there's shopping and tanning to be done - well it doesn't always have to be hard work does it? As they say in the Basque Country (Pais Vasco in Castillian Spanish or Euskadi in Basque): "Euskal Herrian beti jai!" ... "The Basque Country is always partying!"



PS - The charitable total has now reached £5,700 which is fantastic - thank you so much to all of you who have been so charitable! The original target was £5,000 but I always hoped it might reach £7,000. Any help is massively appreciated and if you can think of any further ways to reach this sum or other people that might be interested in the story, please let me know or forward this email to them. Thanks again!

Tom Bottomley
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