Saturday 30 August 2014

Boats of the Danube


Total Distance Cycled on Tandem: 19,020 km
Total Distance this Trip: 2,839 km
Route: Munich, Germany, via Isar River, via Danube through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia (side trip to Sarajevo, Bosnia) to Constanta, Romania. South to Varna, Bulgaria, via Black Sea Coast.
Duration: Three months
Return to New Zealand: 23 August 2014

Passing under a bridge in Belgrade, Serbia.

Quiet backwater, upstream.

This gentleman regretted that young men were showing less interest these days in rowing. They were, he said, distracted by other things. Budapest, Hungary.

Passenger/bike ferry

Cruise ship Stadt Wien heads up river at Melk, Austria.

Pretty lines

As we approached Belgrade, we spotted this trio way out in the middle of the river using what might have been a bed sheet for a wind assisted passage.

The Danube is still used to barge materials, although tourism and cruise ships dominate the river.

Holiday adventure - these kayakers were part of a bigger group making their way along a 700 km stretch of the Danube from Passau in Germany to Budapest in Hungary.

Danube Delta cruise. Boats leave from Tulcea, Romania, on day long excursions into the wetlands of the delta looking for pelicans and other bird life.

Monday 18 August 2014

Buggered in Bulgaria

The ambulance took forever to arrive and when it did I was disappointed that I rated flashing lights but no siren, nor a police escort.

The doctor was the reassuring sort and the driver was a human gorilla. While the doctor took my blood pressure the gorilla apehandled the heavily loaded tandem into the back of the ambulance and we were off.

Asleep while on a drip at the hospital in Balchik, Bulgaria.

The road was bumpy and as I lay there I tried to figure out where we might be going. It didn't feel like a main road. After a while I gave up caring until we went over several particularly nasty bumps and stopped. Either we were in some remote spot where the doctor and his gorilla were about to slit our throats and drink our blood, or we were in a Bulgarian hospital car park.

Trouble had started as soon as we woke. I felt stuffed, but it was going to be a short ride to the Black Sea city of Varna where we planned to cross by ferry to Georgia. We set out on the ride but I had no energy and began feeling headachy, nauseous, and so thirsty my tongue stuck to my mouth.

On a fantastic downhill it became too much. We screeched to a halt, I shoved the bike at Judy and launched myself into the shrubbery to get rid of breakfast. Over the next little while, matters worsened with more stops and me stupidly trying to push on.

Shortly after Mike's first dash into the shrubbery, an old Volvo pulled up and out climbed three New Zealanders we had met the previous day. Carmen, Yves and Mike (in driver's seat) were on a car rally of Eastern Europe, and one of the few rules was that contestants were not allowed to spend more than €500 on their car. They were having a great time, and after they had been assured Mike was alright they resumed their day's 450 km drive to Sofia.

Judy the Stoker: "At one point I was pushing the bike uphill towards some shade and I looked back to see that Mike was following. There was this pathetic little creature clutching his water bottle and following very slowly. It's an image that will stay with me."

We resumed riding until my legs finally gave out and Judy ordered me into the shade of a small tree, where I watched the ants crawling over my shoes and wondered how I would ever move again. The tank was utterly, completely drained.

Judy was having her own drama. What the hell was she going to do with me? Neither of us could ride the tandem alone - I was too ill, and she couldn't ride at the front to go and fetch help. She did the logical thing and managed to stop a car with a young couple. The woman spoke good English, she phoned an ambulance and eventually there I was wondering if we were going to have our throats cut.

The hospital staff were every bit as professional as you would hope, although it was obvious that facilities were lacking - they couldn't even provide clean drinking water. 

"38 degrees is too hot to be cycling," one of the doctors warned us as he stressed the dangers of heat exhaustion. 

A few hours later, after a saline drip, a jab in the backside and lots of photos by the medical staff intrigued by a couple of tandemists, I was given permission to leave. The next stop was the nearest hotel and an air conditioned room. Bliss. 

The day after. Still feeling tired and in no mood for cycling but on the road to recovery.

Footnote from Judy: "Looking back on it, there were some things that should have alerted us earlier to what was going on. The night before Mike was complaining of feeling very tired, more than usual. In the morning, we suspected he might have eaten something which had upset him, but we had both had the same food. It was unlikely only one of us would have been affected. And on top of that, Mike can be stoical, and likely to keep going when he shouldn't. And sometimes, a person suffering from heat exhaustion doesn't always realise it or may blame something else. If there's a lesson from this, it's maybe cyclists need to be vigilant about themselves and about their companions.

We know of three other cycling couples where heat exhaustion has been a problem. In each case it was the man. I don't know if men are more susceptible for some reason."

Heat Exhaustion - The Warning Signs

Symptoms: Can include some or all of the following: headache, tiredness, thirstiness, confusion, irritability, dizziness, nausea/vomiting and lots of sweating. 
Treatment: Cooling the patient is the most important. Also, drinking lots of cool but not cold fluids, get shade or air conditioning, lie down and rest, do not continue with exercise, cool but not cold shower or bath. Get medical help if symptoms are severe.

Relaxing on the waterfront at Balchik. After a day's rest, we resumed the ride to Varna but the experience was a turning point in the trip. We decided it was too hot to ferry across the Black Sea and resume cycling in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Next time?

Saturday 9 August 2014

The End of the EuroVelo 6

We rode up a slight incline and suddenly between the buildings there was a glimpse of water. "The Black Sea", we both yelled as we wobbled with delight into the next corner.

"It's not even black", called Judy. And it wasn't. It was a sparkling, delicious blue that couldn't help but make us think of sand between toes, sunburned necks and dripping ice creams.

The blue Black Sea on a sunny afternoon.

After 2,641 kms of riding along the Danube River from Germany to Constanta, Romania, it was a wonderful moment - some real water. It wasn't New Zealand with the Pacific on our doorstep, but not bad. The moment lasted only a second as we swept round the corner and the view was lost behind a crumbling high rise block - the sort of post communist sight we have come to expect in this country.

These buildings are on Constanta's restaurant row. Others are being bowled or renovated, still others have been given new life as caf├ęs and occasional boutique shops. The overall impression is of dust and grime as pedestrians tread warily so as not to twist an ankle. Pic: J Yeoman

Selfie in front of Constanta's most spectacular building. A casino built in 1910, it was a gamble that in the end did not pay off. It has fallen into disrepair and has been closed for some years. It is badly overdue for an investment by an oil rich sheikh.

Romania via the Danube has been a fascinating ride, if not a fair representation of the country as a whole. The economic gains made since 2000 are not obvious in most of the places we visited, and the tourism infrastructure is laughable. While the six other countries we visited on this trip have EuroVelo 6 signs on every corner - Romania has none. Not one. While in other countries, large parts of the EV6 are on dedicated bike/pedestrian paths, here in Romania it is entirely on roads. Fortunately, that's not a problem. Traffic is light most of the time and a good cycle map makes it easy to find the way.

A last glimpse of the Danube as we turn away from it and head directly to Constanta on the Black Sea coast.

Finding accommodation can be harder. It requires careful planning to hit a town at the end of each day where a hotel or guesthouse is guaranteed. For budget conscious cyclists, costs go up because there are no campgrounds. Those rooms that are available often seem expensive for what they offer - dodgy electrical wiring and plumbing, half hearted air con and views, if they exist at all, of dusty concrete edifices crumbling under years of poor maintenance and neglect.

Constanta street scene. Pic: J Yeoman

That's the down side. The upside is the cycling. 

Over the past few days the terrain has become more varied. There have been some hills - ok, not big ones, but hills all the same. And we have ridden up onto the occasional plateau, where the surrounding countryside has fallen away until the sky seemed huge. Away to the South lay the mountains of Bulgaria and to the north the horizon disappeared in a pale blue haze. 

Light traffic most of the way has meant pleasant cycling.

We cycled between vineyards, and fields of corn, sunflowers, watermelons and bales of hay. Occasionally we overtook a horse and cart - a picturesque moment but a reminder too that not everyone can afford modern machinery.

Mostly we do the overtaking - until the farmer urges his horse into a canter.

The days have remained hot - well into the 30s, but an easterly headwind has helped cool us even if it made the cycling harder.

When we asked permission to use a seat, this man in the village of Greaca invited us into his garden, set up a table and chairs and put out a plastic tablecloth. He came back with plums from his own garden and water from his well. All we could offer was a sweet biscuit which he devoured with such enthusiasm he left a ring of crumbs around his mouth. We had no common language and never learned his name.

Finding shade for our lunch stops each day has not been easy. We love a park bench but the smaller towns don't have them. Instead, most homes have a bench by the front gate - clearly on private property. In desperation, we have asked permission to use them and have ended up making new best friends. Out has come watermelon and plums and tablecloths.
The people have been the best thing about Romania.

Another lunch stop, and we were treated to a paper table cloth and napkins before the man of the house retired to leave us in peace.

We are taking a few days off to rest and plan the route ahead. That will involve cycling South down the coast from Constanta. Let's hope it's not as frenetic as the ride in - 20 kilometres on a narrow four lane highway with no shoulder and an abrupt drop where the seal ended on the side of the road. Drivers brushed past us too fast for comfort and some tooted threateningly. And there was not even one EV6 sign to say,"Congratulations - you've done it."

At least as we leave town we will have the blue Black Sea for company.

This is "Titi" real name Nitu Dumitru, who was another wonderful person we met along the way. He answered the door at Barlogul Sacalului Mincinos Pensiunea at Ostrov, and gave us chilled water, beer and later stewed grapes for our breakfast. He described himself as a plumber and would have been about 25 when communist rule ended. "Under communism", he said,"I had lots of money but there was nothing to buy. Now I have no money and everything to buy." 
Some people still looked back fondly on the good old days of communist rule. "When I ask them what was good about them, they can't answer." Pic: J Yeoman

Judy on Goose Patrol. Somewhere in southern Romania.

Total Distance on Tandem: 18,822 kms
Distance this Trip: 2,641 Kms
Punctures this Trip: 1
Maintenance: New chains required
Bum Status: Mike the Captain: "Bloody sore, Miss Brooks is never coming on another long trip."
Judy the Stoker: "It's a 7 out of 10 with the gel cover but a new seat is required for the next trip."
Best Coffee East of Budapest: Still looking.

Hot contender for Best Coffee. At a cake shop in Constanta. Hot and strong and cakes with enough calories to suit a pair of cyclists.

Keen gardeners have been at work in many of the villages we passed through. Pic: J Yeoman

The Danube - Black Sea Canal, which was partly excavated by political prisoners during the years of communist rule.

Constanta skyline

Judy dips her toes in the Black Sea, more than two years after we rode the first half of the EV6 from the Atlantic in France to Vienna.