Leaving the fair shores of Blighty on a cold but crystal clear day, only to arrive in Santander the following morning under brooding, ominous skies was not supposed to be in the script. No sooner had I hit the road the skies opened with a vengeance, proceeding to bucket hail and driving rain in unimaginable quantities for the rest of the day. Determined to to put as much distance between the port and my first night on the Iberian Peninsula, I managed to find a secluded spot about 45kms due east of Santander overlooking a sleepy valley dotted with rustic farmhouses. I didn’t sleep much that night as I was woken with frequent regularity as the next wave of hailstones hammered the canvas. Still, I felt dry and cosy in my Terra Nova Quasar tent augmented by a slightly righteous warm glow of someone who had successfully carried out the art of their very first ‘stealth camp’. Or so I thought…
A french breakfast of strong Ugandan Robusta (High Roast) espresso and dark chocolate fortified me enough for the pack up and go. By now, pretty much everything was either damp or just plain wet through. The rain and hail continued to fall from a seemingly bottomless sky and I kept on having to dive back into the tent to take cover as the storm clouds marched on overhead and deposited yet another torrential downpour. Like a ridiculously outmatched game of cat and mouse, it went on like this for two hours until a break in the sky meant I could eventually get the kit fully packed and back onto the Sherpa.
Pleased with myself, I decided to fire up the MSR stove to brew a celebratory Robusta. It was at this very juncture when the farmer and his son chose their moment to turn up on their tractor for a bale of hay which had served as my windbreak for the night. Now, I have an admission to make; I’m not that fluent in Spanish. In fact, despite my repeated attempts to translate phrasebook scenarios into real life situations with varying degrees of success, I struggle to get understood as soon as I deviate from the basics such as ‘Hola!, Gracias’ and ‘Cerveza, por favor?’
How was I going to explain my way out of this? I couldn’t remember reading a chapter on ‘How to Placate Farmers’ in my Lonely Planet Spanish Fast Talk edition phrasebook.
After a surreal exchange where I attempt to articulate why I was brewing a cup of coffee on his land which revolved around the words ‘camping’, ‘frio’ (cold), and ‘perdido’ (lost), the farmer looked at me with bemused puzzlement, smiled, turned his tractor around and headed off with his hay bale, giving a salutary wave.
‘So much for the Lonely Planet, thank heavens for the international language of mime’ I thought to myself and made my getaway.
After the round of emotional farewells with family and friends, the Big Day finally arrived. Like a meeting with an old friend who you haven’t seen for years, you prepare yourself for how you are going to react, hoping that the moment isn’t going to be forced or uncomfortable. When it did finally arrive, it felt as natural as a proverbial duck to water although somewhat tinged with sadness, excitement and apprehension as I was waved goodbye by my dear sister Catherine, from her North London home. By coincidence, it happened that my departure from London to Plymouth by train also fell on the auspicious day of the 21st December – the Winter Solstice – a turning point in the year when the dark days begin to recede and the light, new hope, begins to grow again.
A clear, crisp midwinter’s sunrise heralds a new day over Plymouth, and indeed a new dawn, as I took the short ride to the ferry port after spending a welcoming night’s stopover with special thanks to the hospitality of family friends, Matt, Gen, Laurence and Luke.
The 24 hour crossing was unseasonably calm. Even the Bay of Biscay, notorious for its strong currents and unpredictable weather ,was strangely tranquil. Deeply breathing in the fresh sea air with a G&T in one hand and a book in the other, the hours slipped away on deck whilst the Orca Whales remained out of sight and as illusive as ever. Taking the ferry gives you the full sense of the expansivness of the oceans (if our blue planet is covered by 70 per cent saltwater, why do we call it Earth?) and the sheer distance covered that a flight merely compress into just a few dehydrating, high-altitude hours. It allows the senses and body to adjust and provides space to contemplate the land and loved ones that you leave for the new experiences and places that lie on the road ahead. A perfect start.
S0, let’s get straight to the point, steel is real.
The only material that can be forged into a diamond geometry that offers the most durable, load-bearing bike frame at an affordable price. And so, after hours of painstaking research, I settled on putting my faith in the good people at Thorn Cycles in Bridgewater, Somerset, to build a bike that will withstand the many bumps, pot holes, uneven dirt tracks and all the abuse that terra firma can inflict along the winding road ahead. With 35 kilos on the front and rear pannier racks combined and another 80 kilos (I could lose a few!) on the saddle, it has to. Otherwise it’s going to be a very long walk indeed.
Introducing my – fully loaded – trusty steed, the lovely Sherpa ‘Kaldi’:
It is told that the rejuvenating and stimulating effects of the coffee bean plant were first discovered in Ethiopia by an Abyssinian goat herder, named Kaldi, back in the 9th century.
One day, while Kaldi was tending to his goats, he grew tired and decided to take a quick nap. He later awoke to find his goats dancing gleefully around him.
Kaldi decided to investigate what was causing his goats to behave so energetically. Following them, he was led to a certain bush that produced an abundance of bright red, yellow and green berries.
After tasting a small handful, Kaldi began to experience a similar elation that he had observed in his goats earlier that day. He took them back to his village and presented the berries to the village elder in a state of excitement. The elder, skeptical of Kaldi’s discovery, threw them into the fire. Minutes later, a rich enticing aroma filled the air. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers of the fire, ground up, and placed into a bowl of steaming hot water.
And so legend has it, that high up in the in the Ethiopian province of Kaffa many centuries ago, the world’s first cup of coffee was made. The rest, as they say, is history.