Iceland To Africa By Bicycle 2004

Newsletter 5

Written 8th October 2004

Key statistics so far:
  • Pedalled distance: 2,107 miles
  • Furthest in a day: 84 miles
  • Punctures: 3
  • Replaced tyres: 2
  • Maximum speed: 42.0 mph
  • Highest temperature: 39 Degrees.
  • Top of The Pops: As the fatalistic, laissez faire, attitude has finally engulfed me it came as no surprise that "Que sera sera" would be the next tune to top the tour chart.

This week is something a bit different. The following was written last night (7th Oct) as I tried to scribe this latest newsletter. After that I've decided to quote from today's real diary (my personal diary - it's rough at the edges but sometimes it just expresses things right!):

Today (remember this is yesterday's attempt at a newsletter) I feel proud! For a while I felt a bit of a cheat taking the generally flatter coastal route in Spain, a country with a mean elevation of 650 metres above sea level making it the second highest country in Europe after Switzerland. Today (yesterday now) though, being forced to head inland, we achieved two 400 metre climbs and topped it off with a 600 metre pass before dropping for more than 10km into Aguilas where I now sit outside my tent enjoying a fine glass of vino tinto and the still very warm evening air. Each climb returned to sea level before the next and overall in the day we have done substantially more than the height of Ben Nevis, covered 55 miles and coped with the 36 degree heat - all this with 45kg of kit. I know this doesn't exactly qualify me for the olympics, but then I'm no spring chicken anymore ... and I feel proud! Mind you, I was very careful ... since I was leaving a trail of dripping sweat that had evaporated within 50 yards, I drank more than 8 litres of water, had two sachets of Boots Own rehydration powder and ate two bags of crisps for extra salt!

Today's (8th Oct) personal diary is copied below as follows:

"Yesterday I didn't do a diary because I was trying to write a newsletter (the day - and what a day - was described in detail in that). Did 55 miles to Aguilas over the hills in 36 degrees and stayed in a shi**y campsite. Miles on odo - 2,049.

Today I set out in high spirits for the big day ahead - maybe as much as 90 miles to Almeria. Little did I know what lay in store! Having been ripped off at the campsite, I first made 22 miles to Garrucha for brunch where I was warmly received by Jill and Rene (a Dutch couple) who wouldn't let me pay for my burger, chips, two naranjas, a big bottle of water and a coffee. After that the day deteriorated. The wind strengthened and the road went upwards (it was a direct headwind too).

The roads got worse but I was trying hard not to stray onto the motorway. I turned off to Los Giles and headed into La Huelga. One tour of the pueblo revealed no exit route (which was clearly marked on the map as existing). I went back down the street, asked, got directed, couldn't find it, asked again, was told it didn't exist ... I set off following my nose down a rough track. Two miles later I was trudging through ankle deep, foul smelling mud, in the middle of nowhere, on a mountainside ... terrified of snakes and surrounded by all sorts of strange bugs and foliage. Eventually I had to turn back. I did the 5 miles back to the junction and headed for the autopista!! Within 20 yards, and barely off the slip road, the police were there!! Two of them on motorbikes, looking very stern and very hard! I negotiated desperately in appalling Spanish. Showing them the map I pointed to the road I'd been trying to find "esta caratella no exista!" I pointed to the mud that caked me and the bike! Achieving a compromise I was allowed to carry on for two junctions where they insisted there was a "caratella como esta" pointing at the tarmac. Before setting off again I asked if I could take a photo ... a rather nice cheeky touch I thought :)! The stern faces got sterner and I didn't push it!

Two hours later, my skin crusted white with salt from the waist up and brown with mud from the waist down, I arrived by awful roads (and sin agua!) at Venta del Pobre. The same two police were there (all smiles this time ... hmmm) - I think they were watching to see if I made it ... I wonder which of them won the bet and whether they would have come to find me had I not! By this point I'd done 55 miles, was exhausted, having trudged through the mire, up the mountain, along dusty, rocky "caminos" and I'd lost all hope of reaching Almeria today! In the small motorway-side town I asked for directions and quickly found that there was zero chance of getting from here to Almeria by bike without either shouldering it and hiking for up to 40km through the mountains of the Cabo de Gata national park ... or taking the autopista! With the entertained policia watching I gladly ordered a taxi ... mind you the driver was not impressed with the mud, no matter how many times I offered my apologies "lo siento!" We got chatting though - having passed "La Legion" and on enquiring "que significa?" I found out that they have a version of the French Foreign Legion here ... serving in Bosnia and Iraq, from all nationalities, La Legion is apparently Spain's answer to the 'special' forces. 50 euros and 40km later I was there! Today I guess I cheated ... but I did try, to the limit of all my abilities and endurance, to cycle it so I will not berate myself! Now for a couple of days' holiday in Almeria ... bliss!!"

That's my apology ... But I really had run out of strength and ideas! I hope nobody feels I let them down!

The newsletter continues: So, the last correspondence was from San Sebastian. Since then we have travelled by train Eastwards to Barcelona and then cycled 563 miles down the Mediterranean Coast in the following fashion:

  • Barcelona to Cambrils (south of Tarragona) - 70 miles
  • Benicarlo - 70 miles
  • Benicassim - 44 miles (unwell with an oral infection, probably caused by the dust and fumes)
  • Valencia - 56 miles
  • Javea - 77 miles
  • Benidorm - 33 miles (how could I resist a night out in Benidorm!)
  • Guardar del Segura - 50 miles
  • Cartagena - 50 miles
  • Aguilas - 55 very hilly miles
  • Almeria - 58 miles by bike and 40km in taxi!

The temperature has not been less than 30 degrees on any day so it was hot and tough at times but Oh what a change from the UK - and I'm not complaining!!

Aswell as the very pleasant change in the weather, Spain brings it's own unusual change in the roadkill. Gone are the badgers, voles, rabbits, frogs of England - they've been replaced by Rats, snakes, dogs, cats ... and one monkey! I know, I know, they're not indiginous ... But I saw a dead monkey! I think it was a baby orangutan ... The mind boggles! Having said that, I've been surprised at what is indigenous to Spain - apparently there are brown bears in the north! Had I known I would probably have been a damn site more careful as I cycled through the lush green hills of the Basque country. That has been another interesting observation, the change in countryside as you travel through this land is unreal! Starting in the green, wet, lush, hilly land of Euskadi, the scenery has transformed to the arid, dusty, cactus-strewn semi-desert of Murcia and Andalucia. The change in crops is noticeable too, both by sight and smell. From the sweet but musky odour of unripe orange plantations around Valencia to the miles of tomato farms yesterday. I have seen grapes, pomegranates, aloe vera, pepper ..... and chemical plants to rival the worst science imagifaction of Stephen King!! Whatever you do, NEVER take a holiday just south of Tarragona, no matter how cheap!

There is, alongside the beauty of the sea and the mountains, a level of industry and construction down this coastline that is probably unparalleld anywhere else in the world! A place of particular note is Cartagena ... A more depressing place I have yet to even imagine! In fact, if God were to give the world an enema I have absolutely no doubt he would stick the tube in Cartagena! It is surrounded by the scarred mountainous landscape that once was a massive industry in lead and pyrite mining (apparently since Roman times) but died a merciless death in the late 20th century! The city centre is no better, being somewhat reminiscent of the poverty and rubble I saw in Tibet! I am, of course, being a little unfair and, later in the evening, as I sat outside a bar by the impressive harbour I upgraded my estimation to "pretty awful!".

Before you think I've taken an overdose of cynical depression tablets, there has been some real architectural beauty too. From the Iglesia de Santa Maria del Coro in San Sebastian to pretty much the whole of Valencia ... Now there's a beautiful place! I took time to visit the Cathedral where it's claimed the Holy Grail is housed. Well, it's definately housed there because I saw it, but whether it really is the Holy Grail I guess we'll never know!

My main thanks this week are extended to Richard and July of Camping Alegria Del Mar in Benicarlo who fed me, watered me and allowed me a pitch for the night for free ... In support of Marie Curie and the challenge taken on. Also to Geoff and Pat Simpson who I met on the Santander ferry. I enjoyed their wonderful hospitality, food and warm conversation on the the 3rd of October when they very kindly put me up in their villa at Javea, a beautiful, hilly promontery that juts into the Mediterranean about 30 miles north of Benidorm at the southern reach of the Catalonian speaking Valencia Province.

From here I estimate I have 300 miles left to do in Spain to Algeciras/Gibralter and then a week in Morocco to my final destination ... Casablanca!

Thank you again for all your messages of encouragement and support. Photos this week are the green hills of Euskadi above Gernika, contrasted to a picture of the tomato plantions in the arid land around Murcia.

All the very best.


Tom Bottomley
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