ADVENTURE: Bordering on Insanity – A Brompton Adventure

Belgium. Brunt of jokes on radio 4 comedy programs, Brewer of brilliant beer, and maker of fine chocolates. It’s often grouped in with The Netherlands and Luxembourg as the low countries. It’s easy to think of Belgium as a polder landscape punctuated with abbeys awash with beer. Tell someone you’re setting out to cycle to the highest point of the country, it doesn’t immediately come across as a particularly big challenge. Point out that the highest point is 694m above sea level, and you start to get some amusing reactions.

In summer 2015 I set out on my Brompton to cycle from Wiltz (Lu) to Aachen(De) via the highest point of all three of the low countries, Kneiff (559.8m), Signal de Botrange (694 m), and Vaalserberg (322.7 m). I made it to the top of Knieff, before aborting due to the heat. I wasn’t happy about aborting, tho I know in my heart that it was the right decision. As soon as I got home I started planning a second attempt. I’d done Knieff, so there was no point trying that bit again. I opened the map of the Hoge Venen, the area in which Signal de Botrange is found, and started to plan.

The borders of Belgium allow for some creative cartography. Exclave and counter exclave in the area of Baarle-Hertog provides an interesting diversion. But as I stared at the map, what caught my eye was a strange border marking through the middle of Germany. I switched from the paper map to opencyclemap. What was marked as a border on my paper map, showed up as a cycle path on OCM. I googled the cycle path.

Opened in 1885, the Vennbahn railway ran from Aachen to Trois-Ponts. In 1919 as part of the Treaty of Versailles, the line was given to Belgium. Creating in the process, exclaves of German territory within Belgium. With the closure of the railway, this line was turned into a cycle route. A cycle route that ran from Aachen to just south of Signal de Botrange, and did so with a maximum gradient of 2%. A plan formed. I could ride from Aachen along the vennrad to Sour Brot, where I could hang a right for the final ascent up to Botrange, then it’s just a simple down hill all the way to the Netherlands, via a bit of Germany and Belgium, and maybe the curiosity that is Moresnet.

And so on a somewhat grey but cool day in October I set of from a youth hostel next to Aachen Hauptbahnhof, and followed my GPS through the city streets of in search of a strip of Belgium.

The first few kilometres of the ride took me through rather unscenic suburbs of Aachen, before eventually I left the industry and houses behind and entered farmland.

The day had started quite chilly, and I had worn both my wind proof and fleece to begin with, but as I got into the groove, I shed the windproof. My body was warm, but my summer shoes with their ample ventilation were making my toes cold.

I pressed onwards and upwards.

I had been led to believe from my research that the railway line had been removed along all of it’s length apart from a short part now used for rail biking. So I was a bit surprised when track started to appear next to the path. I was even more surprised when the cycle route deviated slightly from the railway and when I rejoined it a number of wagons and a loco were parked on the rails.

I pedalled on towards Belgium proper. I knew from my map that the route crossed into Belgium near Botz, before doing a large loop back on itself to exit Belgium, yet remain Belgium surrounded by Germany. Before the turn a disused triebwagen lay in a siding disconnected from the railway, covered in graffiti.

As I pedalled on my feet got colder. By the time I rounded the turn and headed back west towards Belgium-Surrounded-by-Germany, my toes were starting to feel numb.

When I packed for this trip 2 weeks previous (I had tacked it onto the return of a week in Eastern Germany), the forecast had been for relatively warm weather, with night temps of 9°C, and day temps of nearly 20°C. Just days before I was due to start riding the weather had swung towards cold. As my toes got colder, I started to worry that I had the wrong sleeping bag. I’d packed my summer bag hoping for temps in the 7-10°C mark. Much colder than that and night time could be rather miserable.

The kilometres ticked by. As I approached Roetgen my feet had gone from comfortably numb, to painfully so, everything forward of the metatarsels was in numb pain. Reflecting that it was somewhat ironic that on a trip that gave me issues due to excess heat the first time, would cause me issues with cold on the second attempt. I considered my options and decided that I would hang a left into Roetgen in hope of finding a cafe or coffee shop where I could warm up, and as it was around midday, maybe find some lunch.

A speedy descent into Roetgen following the signs for zentrum brought me to a main road, where I saw a bakery and cafe. I screeched to a halt and carefully wheeled my bike in, resting it just behind the door. The staff at the counter looked up, but didn’t say anything about the bike in the building.

“Sprechen sie Englisch?”

“Nein”

Ok, this should be fun, time to see if the previous 260 days of Duo lingo had been of any use.

With much pointing, poor German, smiling, and a lot of hope, I managed to order a hot pizza and a bottle of coke. I plonked down in a comfortable chair, ate my lunch and with each heart beat felt the feeling slowly return to my poor feet. I spent nearly 90 minutes warming up and sampling the German cakes. The time to leave approached, I considered the options for my feet. I didn’t have any over shoes to keep the wind off, nor did I have any plastic bags that might work. I did have a thick pair of wool socks. Would adding those to the socks I already wore provide enough warmth, keep the wind out enough, and above all, fit inside my shoes? I tried the left (and bigger) foot first. It fit. Snug, but it fit. I put the other sock on, and prepared to go out again.

The descent into Roetgen had been fast and fun. But this meant that to get back to the Vennrad would mean going up. Fortunately not too much, and I ground my way up in bottom gear. The relative flatness once I rejoined the route of the railway was most welcome. The double sock solution seemed to be working, not too warm, nor too cold, pretty much just right. Temperature sorted, I started to pay more attention to my surroundings.

Coniferous forest flanked me on either side for several kilometres. Here and there I could see beyond the bracken into the understory, passing dozens of spots that would make great wild camp locations. This filled me with hope for later when I would need to find somewhere to bivvi down. The rough plan in my head being find somewhere just before Kalterherberg, before the route left Germany behind.

Along the route were regular signs with a map of the Vennrad, a blurb about the history of the route, a useful “you are here”, and an even more useful elevation graph.

The elevation graph told me that at Lammersdorf things levelled out a bit and may even descend. This would be most welcome, tho every metre of descent would have to later be paid for with more ascent. But for now I welcomed the ability to coast for a bit.

At Lammersdorf I also found a sign telling me about the locals.

There's Beavers in them thar hills!

There’s Beavers in them thar hills!

In the lead up to this trip I had joked with friends that if I had an accident on this trip I could have the accident in Belgium, land in Germany, and it would be a nightmare on the insurance form. This had also got me thinking about how one might call in such an event. How would they know where I am? As it turns out, every 500m along the route signs gave details of who to call, and where you were. A bit like hecto-metre posts on motorways.

I cycled onwards towards my intended overnight camp. The kilometres went by, the terrain changed subtly. Forest  became higher, and the gradients either side became steeper.

Just beyond the turning for Monschau something in the distance caught my eye. I pulled out my camera and looked through the zoom lens. Yep, it was. Far off in the distance, near the edge of the field, a deer grazed.

I spent a few minutes just watching the deer. I was far enough away that it either couldn’t see me, or didn’t consider me a threat. It was the only mammalian wildlife I’d see other than a couple of red squirrels near Aachen.

A few kilometres further on I passed 50km distance for the day, and started to think about where to stop for the night. Around this point the terrain either side of the track tool a turn for the unhelpful. Large rocky outcrops towered on my right, whilst a steep ravine fell away to my left. This would certainly make finding a spot to camp harder.

I crossed a viaduct over a valley, hoping that the woods I could see on the other side would yield a potential camp spot. No such luck, ravines and boulders. Even if there was a flat spot big enough for my bivvi bag there, I wouldn’t get to it with the bike.

A few hundred metres further on there was a small car park, and a path heading up into the woods. The gradient had lessened. This had potential.

I left the Vennrad behind and pushed the bike along the footpath. I had tried to ride it, but the mud was a bit much for the Brompton, so I pushed. There was a barrier across the path, and to the right there was an area of wood which was flat, if a bit exposed. It would do if I could’t find somewhere better. I followed the path for another couple of hundred metres, There were a few spots that looked plausible, but they were rather exposed, and not really flat enough. I found one spot, at the base of a fir tree, nice clear area, flat, and not obvious from the path. Alas I was not the first to have found the spot and several small piles of decomposing bog roll littered the area round the tree. The same was found near another promising tree. Bah. Why couldn’t they have burned/buried it?

I returned to the path and concluded that I’d have to go with the fall back option. I returned to the first spot, and lent the bike against a tree. I wandered in an increasing circle to find the flattest spot. My circle brought me back to the path. Looking down the other side of the path, I saw a spot that looked ideal. Sure it was several metres down a 45° slope, but it was flat, not a toilet, and concealed from obvious view.

I slid down the forest floor with my Brompton in a controlled descent mostly on 2 feet. Up close the spot was perfect. A slight depression only a few inches deep would conceal my sleeping mat (bright yellow :() from prying eyes on the cycle path, there were no dead branches above to worry about. Yes, this would be perfect.

I sat under a tree and while dinner cooked, sent a friend a message on my inReach asking if they could work out what country I was in. I only had a 1:50k map, and the borders here are somewhat blurry, so wanted someone with zoom on their map to take a closer look. The message came back. Germany. Belgium’s just up by the treeline. Dinner cooked, I rolled out the bivvi bag, and crawled into my sleeping bag. I was still nervous about how cold it would be, some forecasts said 1°C, some 7°C, if the former, there was no way my bag would be upto it, if the later, I may just be ok.

The previous night I had stayed at a youth hostel, which meant that I had with me in my bag my Towel. In true hitchhiker’s fashion, I deployed this as an extra blanket inside my sleeping bag, along with my fleece and a hot water bottle.

It wasn’t enough.

Within an hour of laying there, the cold had seeped in and I conceded that I needed something more. I dug into my bag for my space blanket. The last time I had needed to use it, I had put it between bivvi bag and sleeping bag, and it had caused a lot of condensation problems. As I had another night after this, I didn’t want a soaking wet sleeping bag, so decided this time to try it inside the sleeping bag, between it and the silk liner. This and my base layers should at least dry pretty quickly.

With the space blanket and towel wrapped round me, cocooned in my sleeping bag, I wrapped my feet round the hot water bottle, and drifted off to sleep.

I slept beautifully.

My alarm woke me to a dark 0600. I lay in my bivvi bag comfortably warm, well rested, and surrounded by dark trees. Dawn was the best part of an hour away, so I hit snooze and lay back to enjoy my surroundings. As I lay there, the first drops of rain could be heard on my bivvi bag. I sinched the entrance down tight, leaving just enough space for my mouth and nose, and then rolled onto my side hoping that it wouldn’t start to rain properly if for no other reason than so I didn’t have to pack away wet gear.

Dawn broke, and the rain stopped.

The view from my bivvi bag.

I broke camp and repacked everything onto the bike. Now I  had a decision. Climb up the hill with everything to the path, or slide down the hill to the cycle track. I considered my options, and decided to give down a go.

It wasn’t the right decision.

I slid down the hill on my arse, with the Brompton across my lap side on, landing in a ditch (thankfully not full of water) next to the cycle track. Now I just had to limb the 1.5m up out of the ditch… Eventually I made it, with little dignity, and a very wet arse. I didn’t care, it was a beautiful morning.

Damp, misty, and beautiful.

I detoured into Kalterherberg for a hot chocolate and some breakfast, before leaving Germany and entering Belgium for the last of the Vennrad to Sour Brot.

The terrain started to open out again and at 500m above sea level, took on the appearance characteristic of the High Fenn.

A few kilometres down the line I left the Vennrad for the last time at Sour Brot, and headed North towards the whole purpose of this trip. Signal de Botrange.

Up until now I had had at most a 2% gradient on the vennrad, with occasional steeper bits when I’d left the route in search of food, but here things started to get steeper. Even with the extra low gear I’d added to the Brompton since the last attempt, I still found myself pushing the bike.

The final 200m of ascent over a distance of 2km was largely walked with occasional riding for short bursts before getting off and walking again.

As I neared the peak, the road started to level out and the amount of riding increased,  still interspersed with pushing.

Eventually, just before midday, I arrived at the top of Belgium. Where I found a cafe.

Not exactly the most intrepid of peaks. But they didn’t complain when I wheeled the Brompton inside and collapse into a chair. I’d done it! And in time for lunch. It’s at this point that I discovered the waiter was in fact the only monolingual Belgian, and didn’t understand English, Dutch or German. Eventually, with the help of google, and some pointing, I ordered a steak, followed by ice cream. It was delicious. Made even better by the ride here to get it.

At 694m above sea level, Signal de Botrange is actually little more than the highest point of a large bump, standing in the carpark it would be hard to spot the exact point that’s highest. Fortunately the Belgians have built a 6m tall tower on the highest point, giving you a nice round 700m height. Alas as it was so cloudy and raining, I didn’t bother climbing the tower, just to see a cloud, I could see the same cloud from ground level…

From here on, it should be down hill. All the way to the Netherlands. I put on both jackets, 2 pairs of gloves, and my buff. This descent would be cold.

I eased the Brompton out of the carpark onto the road, and started to pedal down. It was a slow start, the wind wasn’t helping, but eventually gravity kicked in, pulling me down towards the Netherlands. At 50kph, the windchill is substantial and I was rather glad of the extra layers. At 50kph, I descended rather quickly and with every 100m of altitude drop, things got warmer. By the time I turned off the N68 onto the country lanes, things had warmed up enough that I stopped to take some layers off.

The next 20k was largely uneventful, through sleepy Belgian villages. Despite .nl being down hill, it seems my route crossed a couple of valleys, giving me a couple more hills to push the bike up.

A couple of kilometres from Vaalserberg I crossed the border back into Germany into the village of Wald. I hung a left off the main road and started to go Up. I had another 100m to climb in the next k. Bah. Not good. I left wald and crossed back into Belgium and into woods. Here I ground to a halt in a clearing at the base of a 40° incline. I’d already done over 50km today, and energy levels were low. Common sense says I should have sat down, had a mars bar, had a drink, then continued. Alas, common sense isn’t all that common, and with much swearing, I slowly climbed the hill.

As I paused for breath on the climb, two birds of prey caught my eye. They circled the clearing a few times, as I watched, before disappearing into the canopy. The pause gave me enough energy to get to the top of the incline, where things levelled out a bit into a slope which had an element of down to it. Unfortunately the descent was perpendicular to the direction of travel, which made cycling along it slightly more interesting. Fortunately this was short lived, and at node marker 5, I really did reach the top of the final ascent, that allowed me to coast down to the Vaalserberg.

Goal achieved.

Front wheel in Germany, rear wheel in Belgium, bottom bracket in The Netherlands. An international bike.

Front wheel in Germany, rear wheel in Belgium, bottom bracket in The Netherlands. An international bike.

I had originally planned to bivvi somewhere in the woods on the Belgian side, but it was still only 1700, my legs felt good, and Heerlen station was only 22km away. So I decided rather than risk a cold night out, I’d make a break for Heerlen and a train home. It took me a bit over an hour to do, but just after 1830, I arrived at Heerlen station. On the first day I did 50km through 2 countries.  Today I’d ridden 80km, through 3 countries and reaching 694m above sea level. My longest Brompton ride yet, my second longest ride on any bike, and my highest Climb. The total for the trip was 130km.

It had taken two attempts, but I’d finally done it. The High points of the low countries on my Brompton.

ADVENTURE: Getting high in the low countries

There is a sinister Dutchman sitting at this table writing. The pen scratching over the paper as I stare impassively at my phone waiting for twitter to update.

A gust of wind, a thunder clap, the windows shake. We both look up at the windows, rain streaming down them in sheets.

I’m sat in the common room of a Youth Hostel somewhere in the German speaking part of Eastern Belgium. I’m waiting for a friend who’s flying in from Oman to rescue me. I’m not supposed to be here. This isn’t how this adventure was supposed to turn out.

Day 1 – Getting high.

Collectively Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands are known as the low countries. Mention them and people tend to picture the polder landscapes of the west, the beautiful architecture of Ghent, and the strong dark beers of Rochefort. But look at a map, and you notice that it’s not all flat earth. The eastern side of the BeNeLux is marked by an area of hills, The Ardennes. They are predominantly in Belgium and Luxembourg, but stretch into Germany and France. I had to be in Wiltz for the Linux Bier Wanderung, so as I was going to be in the area, decided to turn up a few days early and have a bit of a cycle tour. Looking at the map It occured to me that the highest points of the three countries, Kneiff (560masl), Signal de Botrange (694masl) and Valserberg (322masl) form a neat line 66.4km from north to south. That’s cycling distance. A plan formed.

Starting from where my previous Luxembourg cycle adventure started, in Wiltz, I would cycle north to the three high points of the three BeNeLux countries, then hang a right to Aachen for a train back to Wiltz. I played around with route planners and maps, and eventually I had a rough route plan. 123km total distance, over 3 days with a total ascent of 1719m. This split into 3 sections, Wiltz to Kneiff – 36.6km, Kneiff to Signal de Botrange – 51km, Signal de Botrange to Valserberg – 35.5km. Even better the elevation graph showed that from Signal de Botrange to Valserberg was basically 30km of down hill. I loaded my Brompton with kit for a bivvi, 3 days food, a pile of maps (three for Belgium, 2 for Luxembourg). And left for the Eurostar.

Tuesday was spent travelling via Eurostar and train to Luxembourg city. I spent the evening there, exploring a bit and finding a rather novel cycle path with a spiral stair case on it (I hope sustrans don’t get any ideas…). Then on Wednesday morning I took the train from Luxembourg station North towards Wiltz.

I had tried to find a bike shop in Luxembourg city so I could buy a bike bottle, I’d discovered to my disgust that the bottle I had bought with me had gone a bit manky and wasn’t something I wanted to drink from, even after putting a puritab through it. I texted a friend in Belgium via my inReach asking for UTM coordinates of some bike shops in Luxembourg. Turns out that there are more bike shops in the Canterbury postcode than there are in the whole of Luxembourg… looking at the options it seemed the most accessible would be to get off at Mersch, and do the 5k round trip to the bike shop at Rollingen.

Brief bike shop visit including asking them to pump my tyres up, complete with using fingers to show what pressure, and I returned to the station for the train journey to Wiltz with a nice clean new bottle, as well as a free bottle of water the bike shop insisted on giving me.

Changing trains with a fully loaded Brompton at Kautenbach was a less than pleasant experience. It seems that Luxembourg hasn’t quite realised that the point of a railway platform is to get you upto the height of the train, rather than a small step to get you on the bottom rung of a ladder to climb into the train…

Fully Loaded Brompton

Eventually I arrived in Wiltz, and headed to Camping Kaul where I was staying for the Linux Bier Wanderung, and had arranged to leave the baggage I didn’t need for my cycle trip. I quick bite to eat in their Bistro, and I hit the road.

I needed to pick up some meths for my stove, so I swung by the local supermarket. They sold 1L bottles of the stuff, but were out of stock at the time. I decided I’d try at the next town with a shop… I didn’t realise the that I wouldn’t see another shop until the following day in Sankt Vith.

Leaving the supermarket I headed out of town. It was a beautiful sunny day and Europe basked in a heat wave. I was full of enthusiasm for the ride ahead of me and followed the GPS trace past the local brewery, up the hill.

I knew this hill was here, I was expecting it. It showed as an almost vertical cliff on the elevation graph (due to compression of the X axis). But I wasn’t quite prepared for it. I dropped down the gears to first, and continued to pedal. I managed about 200m of horizontal distance before I had reached the limits of the gearing. I got off and pushed.

Day 1 elevation graph.

Day 1 elevation graph.

One foot in front of the other I plodded up the hill, the sun beating down on me. There was no shade. I stopped after a couple km in the shade of a barn to have a drink and let my temperature drop. I may be cooking, but I was feeling good. Temperature back down to normalish, I continued up the hill to Noertrange. Another water stop in a convenient bus shelter, then back on the bike. The major climb was over and I was on what should be a plateaux. It had taken me 45 minutes to cover just 2.3km. Now I should finally be able to start riding and put distance under my belt.

Leaving Noertrange I entered an area of woodland. The shade was welcome, but the gradient wasn’t. Rather than push, I took a 5 minute break to enjoy the scenery. Before continuing onwards.

Climbing out of Noertrange

Past Derenbach, onwards to Allerborn. In the fields around me various bits of agricultural machinery toiled away reaping the harvest of golden cereal crops that stretched out on all sides. In one field the wind had kicked up the dust and chaff into spinning vortexes.

The route here went down hill slightly, being able to freewheel down the hill was wonderful, but back in my mind I knew that every metre I went down, I would just have to claw back later.

I left the metalled road at Allerborn and followed a track up hill towards Troine Route. On this ascent a ache in my feet progressed into pain and onwards through towards excruciating. I pulled over in the shade of some birch trees at Troine-Route and took my shoes and socks off. There was no obvious signs of what would be causing the pain. Then I touched my feet. Turns out I had just discovered what it feels like to try cooking your own limbs while still attached. Not something I would recommend. I put the socks into my bag, so much for cool in summer…

Letting my feet cool down in the shade of some Birch trees

Cooling down in the shade of the stand of silver birch, I studied the map. Here my planned route was a deviation west towards the Belgian border, before swinging east to Troine. Looking up from the map towards the direction of travel. I looked down on Belgium. Hmmm. I studied the map some more, comparing spot hikes in the area. If I was to stand any chance in this heat I was going to have to adapt. I decided to deviate from my route and head on the main road to Troine. This should cut some ascent as well as maybe shortening my journey by half a k or so.

I didn’t regret the decision, I managed to clear some distance quickly passing Troine I headed North for Belgium.

I crossed the border at about 17km into my trip. 2 hours 42 minutes after I had left Wiltz. There are signs either side of the road marking the border between Luxembourg and Belgium, but you don’t really need them. You can tell that you’ve crossed border by the state of the road. Gone was the beautiful smooth tarmac, replaced by the pot hole slalom towards Buret.

Just over 1km into Belgium I turned right onto a disused railway that has been turned into a cycle path. It’s marked on my map as RAVel. By choosing a disused railway I hoped that it’s relative flatness would allow me to cover some distance. Oh my misguided foolishness.

Yes railways don’t have steep inclines, no they have have long slow laborious gradients. False flat. It looks flat, until you start to ride it. But it was better than the steep hills I had been slogging up so I took the opportunity to get my head down and pedal some. I averaged about 22kph on this section, peaking at over 30kph at one point.

My planned route involved turning off the railway line just outside Limerlé. This is where I found the slight error in my map work. Sure the railway line crossed the road at this point. But not at the same height. This wasn’t a level crossing, this was a bridge. And there was no easy way to get from it to the road. I’d just have to continue on along the railway line until I found a way off. This blunder added about 3km to my journey.

I left the railway and climbed up towards Hautbellair. Somewhere around here I finished the last of the water. It had been over 34°C during the afternoon, and I was starting to get hot. I needed water. A need that was growing in urgency as I went on.

Every field of livestock I passed I looked to see if I could get water from the trough. Not one that I passed had an accessible valve, and quite a few were clearly filled not off a pipe but by the farmer from a bowser. Every stream marked on my map was dried up. The one I did find was next to a field that showed very obvious signs of recently being treated with Glyphosphate.

My map showed a stream in the woods just North of Goedange. Maybe I could fill up from this.

As I headed towards Goedange the climb started, 110m over 2km. The first symptoms of hyperthermia were starting to show. I started to look everywhere for water, eyeing up every puddle, trying to weigh the risk vs reward of trying to filter it.

At the 35k mark my planned route took me off East to join the Vennrad cycle route. But when I got to the turning, it was impassable. I continued North East towards the main road at Knauf. If I didn’t find something to drink soon I was going to be in trouble. In my befuggled mind I tried to run over the options. Could this be grounds to hit the SOS function on my inReach? Was I going to give myself Heat stroke? As I left the woods a few hundred meters before Knauf I saw a building. I would stop there and ask for water, I had to. As I pushed closer the building came into focus. This wasn’t just any building. This was a bar. No wait, a restaurant. WATER!

I pulled up at the restaurant, and hobbled upto the bar a pair of empty water pouches in hand.

“Wasser, Aqua, Water.” Proffering them the pouches to fill. As one bartender filled my pouches I turned to another and asked for a Fanta. He handed me the bottle and the glass. I downed the bottle and asked for another. He gave me a slightly strange look and handed me another bottle. Two full pouches, and a bottle of Fanta in hand, I hobbled over to a table and collapsed into a seat.

Status check. As I sat rehydrating, I ran my mind over my condition. I couldn’t remember the symptoms of hyperthermia, so resorted to googling them. I ran through the symptoms. Heavy sweating. Check. Rapid breathing. Check. Fast weak pulse. I tried to take my radial pulse. Nothing. I switched to the other arm. Nothing. I switched to the carotid. There, something. It’s there. But it’s feint. And it’s fast. I drank some more.

I texted a friend back in the UK updating on my situation. Before I arrived in the bar, I’d drunk over 5L of water. Yet I hadn’t pee’d in over 6 hours. Getting out of the sun and rehydrating, my mind started to clear. I ordered another Fanta and tried to regain my composure. The text exchange with the friend helped me decide that I would rest here until just before sunset (about an hour after arriving), then go find somewhere to bivvi down, then decide on onwards travel in the morning.

Having drunk a over a litre since arriving at the pub, I was finally able visit the loo. This added another confirmation of my dehydration, but reassured me that my body was at least able to process what I was pouring in the top.

Fifteen minutes before sunset and with a 3.8L of water in my pouches/bottles, I hit the bike for the final kilometre to Kneiff.

With the sun below the horizon, in the cool twilight of a summers evening, I arrived at the highest point of Luxembourg. A nondescript concrete marker on the edge of a field. I’d done it. One down two to go. Right, bivvi time.

The plough over Kneiff

I looked around. On one side a field of maize stretched into the distance, next to that an already harvested wheat field. On the other side of the track a large grass pasture and a few hundred yards down the track, woodland.

I cycled over to the woodland hoping it would present a bivvi opportunity. It was a dense plantation of pine trees, hardly ideal bivvi territory. I looked around. On the other side of the grass field there was a small copse. That might do the trick.

I pushed the Brompton across the lush pasture towards the copse. It was a mix of pine and oak 50m from a larger plot of woodland. In it’s lee side there was a slight depression. This would give me shelter from view of anyone on the track. Yes, This is it, this is perfect.

I sat down to drink and listen. As I did I looked up at the sky and watched a light speed across the sky. My first thought was it was the ISS, but that wasn’t right, that wasn’t for another hour. I had printed out the ISS pass times for my trip, and checked them. Yep, an hours time. Wait what time zone are these in. Ah yeah, that was the ISS, these times are UK time, not EU time. Oops. At least I had seen it.

If you look carefully, to the left of centre you can see the trace of a Persied meteor.

I rolled out the bivvi bag, inflated my sleep mat, and lay on top of it staring at the sky. My body temp was normal, my pulse was normal. I was starting to feel good. I nibble on a biscuit. I couldn’t cook the meal I had with me as I hadn’t found any fuel. As I lay there one by one the stars came out. Blazing across the sky the many camp fires of the hunters who go before. As my eyes adjust, more stars become visible. With full darkness I see for the first time with my own naked eye The Milky Way. I let out an audible wow when I realise what it is I am seeing. I then spent the next hour trying to get a photograph of the sky. Not content with the million star view, the persieds joined the party shooting across the sky towards their firey climax in the upper atmosphere. Happy that I had got some shots that almost did justice to the view, I crawled into my bivvi bag and drifted off to sleep watching persieds shooting across the milky way.

The view from my bivvi bag

Day 2 – Bordering on insanity

I woke the next morning hot. Really warm. Too Warm. That wasn’t right. I wasn’t even moving how can this be? I stuck my head out the bivvi bag and was blinded by the sun. Ah, yeah, that would do it. The sun had crested the trees and I was now laying in full sun. I rolled myself and my bed across into the shade of the trees and lay back. The starlit view of the previous night was now a clear blue sky above a lush green pasture flanked by woodland.

The view I woke to.

I spread my bedding out in the sunshine to air, and sat in the shade of a tree eating biscuits and pondering the plan. Yesterday had been just 38km. Todays plan was 51km. Not just further, but also higher. If the heat was the same as yesterday would I be able to do it?

I looked at the map. From here to Sankt Vith is just over 20km, and by the looks of it it should be mostly downhill. I will pay later for each metre of descent. But at least I should be eating up some distance.

I packed the bike, and hit the road. The first couple of km would be descent to join the Vennrad cycle route along a disused railway. Due to particularities of political geography the trackbed of the Vennrad is in Belgium along it’s whole length, but large sections of it run through Germany creating all sorts of exclaves and counter exclaves.

Crossing into Belgium I descended down a long sweeping track, hitting 37kph as I headed for the turn onto the cycle route. The 90° turn. The 90° turn was compounded by a small collection of mamil’s loitering on the corner blocking the only path that would allow any useful speed carry through the corner. I cursed, and hammered the brakes to bring my speed down and coast past the mamils onto the Vennrad with a cheery “Morgan”.

After the open shadeless scenery of the previous day a track through the dappled shade of woodland was a welcome change. The route tended downwards for the first 12km, past idylic farmsteads, pasture and woodland. After a few km I stopped at an information board which had some information of the history of the Venn Bahn. There were some Dutch cyclists there trying to work out where they were and where they were going. They didn’t have a map, so I pulled mine out and helped them work out where they were and where they wanted to go. Between my broken Dutch and their broken English, we chatted about our rides before bidding each other Goede Reis and departing in opposite directions.

The 12km of downhill came to and abrupt end in Germany. Only I didn’t realise it was Germany at first. I stopped in a bus shelter to have a drink and some more biscuits. I was trying to work out where I was when I noticed the design of the postbox opposite. That was most definitely a Deutschepost logo. Quick GPS check, yep I’m in Hemmeres, Germany. Which used to be Belgian before it was returned in 1958.

I crossed back into Belgium and begun the long dragging ascent towards Sankt Vith. Passed beautiful river side meadows, tree covered hillsides and pastures of livestock. Past scout camps, villages and farmsteads. I plodded on. Even in the shade of the trees there was no escaping the heat. It was’t quite as bad as yesterday, but was still enough to leave my body covered in a near constant sheen of sweat. Somewhere short of Sankt Vith I ran out of water again.

Nearing Breitfeld things started to take on a more built up appearance with an elevated motorway. It was near here that I saw a Slow Worm slinking it’s way across the hot tarmac.

Two and a half hours, and 26km after leaving my Bivvi site, I coasted into Sankt Vith. I pulled up at a bar on the site of the old train station. Ordering a brace of drinks and requestion refills of my water pouches, I sat in the shade and pondered my options. It was about 1300, and I was hot and sore. I’d managed about half the days distance, but hadn’t got to the main ascents of the day. Even with every container I had on me I didn’t seem to be able to carry enough water to cycle in this heat, and so far places to refill had been rather few and far between.

I pondered my options. Go on, risk further dehydration and heat exhaustion? If I bailed here what were my options? I pulled out my phone to see where the nearest youth hostel was. Two kilometres away. That sealed it. I booked a bed for the night from my phone, paid my tab, and slowly rode up the hill to the hostel.

Which finds me sat in a Youth hostel, in German speaking Belgium with a Sinister Dutchman scribbling away across the table. I’d set out to cycle 123km, I’d managed 64. I’ve had to bail out due to high temperatures, dehydration and the first stages of Heat Exhaustion. In Belgium. This really is bordering on insanity…

ADVENTURE: Going Dutch – A Dutch microadventure

August 2000

Through the gloom of the Sound of Mull looms a shape. As we descend, the shape takes on the form of a ships hull. The SS Breda lays with it’s stern at 22meters, 7m above the 29m Sea bed which slopes gently up towards the bow, with 19m of water above the front of the bow. My Dive buddy and I dropped onto the sea bed by the rudder, and after a few minutes playing with the squat lobsters, we rose up over the stern and entered the hull. Through cargo holds full of life we travelled slowly to the bow, before dropping over the bow to have a look at her from that angle. Alas our dive time was soon to end, and we slowly rose up to our safety stop at 3m. Hanging there in the gloom, I pondered my first wreck penetration. A beautiful vessel, teaming with life. I couldn’t help but wonder what the city the ship was named after is like, and decided that I should visit Breda at some point.

October 2015

I boarded the Half speed train service from Amsterdam bound for Breda. I had with me my trusty Brompton in a full touring config, loaded up with kit for a Microadventure in the woods. Watching the flat polder landscape pass by the window of the train, the first spots of rain started to appear on the window. That didn’t bode well, the forecast was for an overcast day, not rain.

Arriving into Breda Centraal station, I loaded the Brompton up with it’s baggage and alighted the train. This station has had extensive renovation work done to it producing a modern well thought out station.

Outside the station, I booted up the GPS, and hit the road. Or rather the Fietspad. Like every other Dutch city the streets of Breda are full of segregated cycle paths running parallel to the roads. I followed the GPS along these cycle paths past wide tree lined roads. The Netherlands has a reputation for being densely populated country, yet the roads are wide with green spaces between the buildings, avoiding the claustrophobic feeling you can get in other countries. As I progressed along my route, the buildings changed and things became increasingly rural. Medium rise buildings giving way to detached houses, giving way to fields.

Eventually I crossed a motorway and decended into the woods. Being late October the trees displayed their autumnal clothes in a shades of gold, yellow and orange.

Cyclists in the woods.

I progressed through woodland interspersed with pasture, stopping occasionally to take photos.

Pasture and Woodland.

As I progressed I rode into the Chaamse Bossen, the forest I was aiming for to bivvi for the night.

Autumn Colours

Everywhere I looked the colours shone from a pallet of golds, reds, oranges and yellows. The colours of autumn.

Autumn Woods.

Across the Netherlands there is a network of authorised wild camping sites, each site comprises a wooden post in the ground with a sign on it, detailing that upto three tents can camp within 10 metres of the post. In the Chaamse Bossen three of these posts exist.

Pin oak in full autumn colour

A Pin Oak in full autumn colour

I followed the route I’d programmed into my GPS heading for the northern most of the camping posts. I had a loose idea of a plan to visit all three of the posts, and then decide which one to camp at.

Small camping post sign.

Sign on the path to the camping post

The first of the posts is located in a conifer plantation with an herb layer of golden grass. Intermixed with the conifers were the occasional hardwood.

Sign on the camping post.

The sign on the Posts. Loosely translated into English: “Camp within 10 meters of the post. Max stay 72 hours, max 3 tents, no open fires, take your litter home, bury your toilet waste.”

The website that lists all of the posts mentioned that fire wasn’t allowed, and I’d had a discussion with a Dutch friend who reckoned that this would include my little meths stove. I was rather surprised to find a fire pit next to the post. I was also slightly surprised to find two tents setup in the undergrowth, midweek in October I had expected noone else would be mad enough to be out here… I was wrong.

I looked at the map, the next post is 2.7km further south. Do I gamble on the next post being better, or do I go with this spot. I um’d and ah’d.

I decided to push on.

Given the impending sunset, I decided to put the camera away, and concentrate on getting to the next site fast. This meant that I arrived at the second site just over 10 minutes later, having pushed the bike along the last 50m or so to get to the post. Here I found the same fire ring, surrounded with a square of logs. Unlike the coniferous location of the first post, this one was a mixture of pines and hardwoods. The herb layer seemed to be mostly made up of mosses. There was noone else here. It would be perfect.

I chose a bivvi site between a small oak and a pine. It was only 1700, so rather than setup my bivvi bag, I decided to light a fire. Having travelled via eurostar, I was limited in what tools I could bring to the Netherlands with me. Just a Leatherman Juice CS4 and my Svord Peasant Mini had made the journey to the Netherlands with me, but I’d left the Leatherman in Amsterdam, not expecting to be able to have fire, I hadn’t expected to need it… Bah.

I’ll be limited to only burning what I could snap, or find already small enough to fit in the pit. Fortunately some previous users of the site had left quite a bit of material laying around, so along with the pile I collected I had a small number of chared logs. I started with some dead hanging wood I’d removed from an ash tree along with a pile of dried pine needles, arranging this on one side of the fire ring. I had in my bag a Spark-lite aviators fire kit, these are a small plastic box containing 8 tinder-quik fire tabs, and a single handed sparker. I fluffed up a tinder-quik, spun the wheel on the spark-lite. It caught first strike. I hadn’t quite been prepared for that. It also burned faster than I had expected because I’d fluffed it up too much. In my surprise I dropped the fire tab on the arranged kindling… missing. I tried to push it into the target kindling with a twig, but before I could, it burned out. On the second tinder-quik I didn’t fluff it up as much, so it took half a dozen strikes before it caught. I placed it into the kindling. The twigs caught. Success.

I spent the next 5 hours slowly feeding twigs into fire, cooked a simple meal, enjoyed the woods.

Starting to get sleepy at about 2200, I started to pitch my camp. Sleep mat inflated, bivvi bag rolled out with sleeping bag inside it. I started readying for bed when the first few spots of drizzel landed on my glasses. I had hoped to not need a tarp, but the weather wasn’t allowing that. I rolled out my small tarp in a basic A ridge config and crawled into my bivvi bag. I was glad of the tarp later in the night, listening to the acorns bouncing off it.

As I was arranging my self into my bivvi bag, something caught my attention in the direction of the path leading to the post, a light. Dimming my head torch I studied it. The light moved. Slowly the light approached the camp ground and I could make out it was attached to a bike. The light was shined at me. I turned my light on and flashed it back. A voice in the darkness said something in German. I replied in Dutch “Auf engels?”.
They repeated themselves. “Do you speak English?”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes”
He had a brief look around the area near the post before selecting a spot to pitch his tent, then spent the next 20 minutes noisily moving kit between his bike and the tent.

I woke up to my alarm at 0630. I’d chosen 0630 to be before dawn, so I could make an early start. I was slightly confused to find the woods lit up brightly. I poked my head out from under my tarp and looked up at a bright moon. That would explain it. I visited the shrubbery, and crawled back into my bivvi bag to watch the dawn.

I woke again at 1000 to find the woods filled with sunshine. Oops.

Woodland in the sunshine

A room with a view. The view I woke up to

I crawled out of my bivvi bag and sat by the fire pit. Coffee. I fired up the stove and tried to wake up a bit. I noticed that the guy who’d turned up late had already left, leaving behind a clear pitch. I sat drinking my coffee and soaking up the sunshine. Mug empty, time to pack up.

Tarp and Brompton.

My camp. The dip in the ridgeline is my jacket hanging up to dry.

It took about 10 minutes to get everything loaded back on the Brompton, and I set off into the woods for the 18km ride back to Breda and the train to Amsterdam.

On the way here the day before the trees had looked amazing even in the grey overcast. This morning in the sunshine they looked even better.

Cyclists in the forest.

I wasn’t the only one who had ventured out on the bike to enjoy the warm autumn weather, as I cycled back to Breda I passed a number of cyclists, ranging from lycra clad road cyclists zooming past, to old couples slowly plodding along. The ride back was faster than the ride to the woods, and it wasn’t long before I reached the edge of Breda. I was struck by the juxtaposition of a medium rise block sat on one side of the road, while on the other side grass fields and farmland. A meeting of city and countryside, and everywhere there were trees in stunning display of Autumn colours.

Orange coloured tree.

This tree was less than 1km from the railway station, next to a main road.

I stocked up on food and drink in the AH togo at the station, before boarding the half speed service back to Amsterdam, recharged and invigorated after a fantastic night out in the woods. Breda and the Chaamse Bossen was fantastic, I might have to come back.