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Technically, you should find a real camp site before putting up a tent in Germany. This works fine when there is a camp site nearby, which there isn’t. Besides, you technically shouldn’t cook dinner on an open stove on the village green directly in front of the fire station when they are having a party, but no-one seems to mind. We move on with our eyes open for overnight possibilities. A patch of woodland, preferably well away from any houses, would be favourite, but we’re stuck in suburbia. It’s not like we can camp in someone’s front garden without them noticing. Then while we’re riding along a track in a woodland Alex disappears through a hole in the hedge, (the location of which I obviously can’t disclose for securit… never mind). When we follow him we get the bakfiets stuck in the undergrowth of what was probably once a carefully tended orchard. It doesn’t look promising, as the only ways through the seeds are trails left by dog walkers, but Alex doesn’t know when to give up and finds us a small Garden of Eden which looks like it hasn’t seen humans in years.
We don’t want to attract attention, and nothing attracts attention like people whispering, waving torches about and falling over in the dark, so there’s a rush to throw the tent up while we have some light. We’re feeling pretty smug about our improvised campsite when we hear voices through the trees to the east. We all stop and listen, wondering if we’re about to be pounced on by mad axemen or the residents association, but they don’t come any closer. There are some lights showing about 300m north but the woods are thick so we don’t expect anyone will notice the tent. We roll out the bags and go to sleep, hoping there are no insomniac dog walkers in the area.
We are woken suddenly at seven, not by angry natives but by someone’s cell phone. It takes us some time to find and extinguish it. We all slept well. My jet-lag seems to have been cured by the riding, and Alex reports the best night so far: he was lying on a tree root which was perfectly positioned for his back.
We take the tent down, Alex expressing disappointment at leaving his orthopaedic tree root behind, and Travis goes to make breakfast on a car park half a kilometre away. I carefully pack the bakfiets and park it, whereupon the stand-with-the-missing-foot sinks into the ground and the whole bike sedately rolls over onto its side, spewing everything onto the wet grass. Thank goodness for well-padded computer bags. We repack it, creep out of the orchard, get stuck in the gate again, and somehow manage to get away unseen. We join Travis who is boiling water in the middle of a car park, and find about ten motor caravans have had the same idea as us and are parked around the tarmac, curtains shut. After celebrating the fact we are alive and haven’t been arrested yet with coffee, tea, and cereal bars, we set off to find someone who can tell us where the heck we are, and which way to get to Düsseldorf.
The weather has improved. This is good news. Even better is that my camera battery survived the storm in the night, wrapped up in a ziplock bag. My shoes didn’t do so well though: despite being wrapped thoroughly in a large rubbish bag, my shoes feel suspiciously heavy and before putting them on I pour enough water out to make a small puddle on the floor. Squelch to the unheated shower hoping that’s not the way the day will continue.
We leave a bit earlier than the previous day, in sunshine, and with a strong tail wind. Everything looks great although we all know we’ll probably get at least one soaking by lunchtime. We’re following dykes again. I’m fascinated by these as they are almost unheard of in the south, certainly on this scale. They provide a dual purpose of protection against the river and a flat means of communication between villages, and all we have to do is stay on the top and they bring us where we need to go. Or that’s what we think until the road stops abruptly in a farm. We see a group of walkers appear from behind a woodland, and the path they are using appears to be bikable . More to the point no-one wants to ride against the wind so we manhandle the bikes straight down the bank -I’ll say this for the Bakfiets, it has good brakes- squeeze through a wood, and find ourselves under a signpost for the Rhine bike way. Unfortunately we annoy the walkers who don’t hear the bike bells, and shout at us that we should whistle. That’s a new one.
We cross flat countryside and roll through small villages with brick built houses which still remind me of the UK. We’ve learned that the showers are short lived, and we’ve been soaked and dried off so many times in three days that no-one even mentions it when a particulairly violent squall hits when we are about a kilometre away from the nearest cover. True to form, the sun emerges straight after the rain and we’re dry in minutes. I suggest to Alex I could have saved myself a shower if I’d known. He grins.
„I’m sharing a tent with you, so I’m glad you didn’t know“
Duisburg creeps up on us. We’re riding through a picturesque village when we turn a corner and there is a blast furnace at the end of the street. A few kilometres later we reach the river once more and suddenly we’re in one of the centres of German heavy industry. Duisburg exists by an accident of geography. It’s where the Ruhr meets the Rhine.The Ruhr isn’t the biggest tributary of the Rhine, in fact it’s the 6th largest, but when the only option was hordes over some pretty steep hills, it made a handy route across the north of the country. The fact this link also led directly to the longest river in Western Europe, giving access to the sea and the cities to the south was an even greater bon us, so so there has been a harbour in Duisburg since records began, and probably long before. In the 19th century someone a few kilometres along the Rhur noticed that if they dug down a bit, there was lots of coal for the asking. Coal is heavy stuff, so this would have been of limited use, but with a but with a nice big river to take it away on, there was money to be made: the Rhine/Ruhr area became the centre of German heavy industry, and Duisburg, at the junction of the rivers, thrived.
More recently the city has become known for its enlightened approach to cycling infrastructure, as we cross the Rhine into the city we find ourselves on the sort of infrastructure that you dream about when following narrow painted ‘bike lanes’ through the door zone: segregated from traffic, bright red, wide and clean. Even better, we get a great view of the point where the Rhine and Rhur meet, so we stop for a few minutes to look at the meeting point of these two rivers which have affected the history of Germany so much.
A few minutes later I lose a foot. Not personally you understand, but from the Bakfiets. I stop to take a photo, and when I lift the stand the foot falls off onto the road. On closer examination it looks like the bolt holding the foot was overtightened and split the rubber. The bike wobbles a bit on its stand without the foot but that’s the only difference, well, that and the fact that for the rest of the journey my progress will be shown by small scratch marks wherever I stop. I’m literally making a mark wherever I go.
We get a lot of time to appreciate the infrastructure in Duisburg, mainly because we get lost. I don’t know what it is with cities on this trip, we don’t seem to be able to leave without making a grand tour. After following the road we think is correct for several kilometres, we stop to ask for directions. The pedestrian we meet is helpful and gives detailed advice, but clearly can’t understand the map we’re using, which leaves us none the wiser. Finally after some more asking around we meet a restraunt owner who not only tells us where we are (on the Rhine cycleway) but also how to get out of this maze of streets and south. It doesn’t look promising. We end up on a road bordered by some pretty shabby apartments on one side and a massive steelworks on the other, but then we cross the railway, go through some woodland, and suddenly we’re in fields again. Duisburg has stopped as suddenly as it started.
However, all this getting lost and then finding the way means it’s now mid-afternoon and we’re a long way north of Düsseldorf, which itself is north of our campsite on the banks of the Rhine. Either we have to ride through one of the biggest cities in Germany in a few hours, or we have to try some wild camping.
Today everything is different: the rain has been replaced by sunshine, the sky is blue, and even the yesterdays side winds are behind us, literally: we’re riding due east so they should be pushing us along today. There is one thing missing: Travis. To lose what is effectively 33% of the group by day 2 may seem careless, so let me explain…
Alex and I set off from the campsite at about 1000 for a relaxed detour around Wijk. I wanted to think deep thoughts about our journey where the Rhine-Amsterdam canal meets with the Rhine, and I’d promised Eldest Son I’d take a photograph of the ferry. Travis, on the other hand, wanted to think deep thoughts with his coffee and journal. We didn’t have mobile phone coverage in the Netherlands, but I was on the Bakfiets, and Alex was on my Xtracycle, and we were going around three sides of the village whereas he would be going directly east, so we were pretty sure Travis would get there before us.
I didn’t get any deep thoughts at the river. We loafed about at the junction taking pictures of the ships, I went down to the river for the promised ferry pictures, and, then we found ourselves on the old side of Wijk, and stopped and wandered into the town to take some photos of the streets and the windmill, and some of the house boats in the harbour, one of which I’d buy tomorrow if I had the money, and could swim.
So that’s how you find us on the dyke road towards Arnhem missing one of our group. Not that we were concerned about this. I’ve long known people have different riding styles. Mine is to hit about 18km/h and keep churning out the kilometres. Travis rides in a series of sprints, stoppng every few kilometres to enjoy the view, and racing on. We typically pass each other several times during the day, so we figure he will pass us, or we’ll find him on a bench. He knew where we were going and the route was well signposted. We keep going at a sedate 15-18km/h through pretty villages, remarkably like villages in the UK, without the traffic, and along the dyke of the Rhine towards Arnhem, stopping periodically to take pictures, get lunch, check for mobile phone coverage and on one occasion to send a postcard.
Arnhem is the destination for the morning. It’s the site of one of the hardest fought battles of the Second World War. On the 17th of September 1944, British, Polish, Canadian and American airborne troops landed around to capture of the bridges and hold them long enough for land-based troops to come and relieve them. Operation Market Garden was supposed to allow the Allies a route over the Rhine, directly into Germany and end the war within a year. Apparently some soldiers, believing they would be part of an occupation force in Germany, packed leisure things in their kitbags. The Allied troops met far stronger resistance than expected, including several divisions of German and Dutch SS troops, and German reenforcements poured into the area throughout the nine-day battle. The allies lost somewhere between 15000-17 200 troops, and the German forces 10000. There’s a memorial just below Arnhem bridge to troops from both sides, and this morning someone set up a table decked in a British flag, with photos, books and some of the things the troops were carrying, like a shaving brush. I never liked war memorials in the UK -they always seem a bit triumphalist- but this one is quite moving and personal.
Still no sign of Travis, but a few kilometres beyond Arnhem, we find a Mammoth looking as if it was waiting for us to pass before crossing the road to find a bit of tundra. Unfortunately he (or she) is only a sculpture, placed next to the bike path, and as the information is all in Dutch, we don’t know why.
Suddenly we ride through some trees and over a narrow bridge, and there in front of us was the Rhine proper, much wider than the northern ‘old’ Rhine we’ve followed until now. It’s here that according to the map, we should cross to the south bank and enter Germany, but we are planning to save a few Euro by staying on the northern bank and cross using a bridge at Emmerich in Germany. Hopefully said bridge will have a bike lane.
Now the other side of the river is a different country, and we follow the dyke expecting the usual European Untion ‘Welcome to Germany’ sign when the border turns north. Unfortunately when we reach the border, there’s nothing of the sort: the only sign says „Diversion“ in German, and behind this there is a hole where the bike lane should be.
We end up following a very unusual street: houses on the left are in the Netherlands, and those on the right are in Germany. Road markings are a mix of the two countries and Dutch and German street signs vie for attention. I wonder what it is like to live here- how do you talk with the neighbours? Do the two sides have seperate rubbish collections?
Just after a Dutch post box we turn right, into Germany. A few kilometres further we find our first major obstacle, a sort of wicket gate for bicycles which is too short for an Xtracycle or a Bakfiets. We consider the situation. To go back would mean a long detour and a busy road, but we can’t lift the bikes over the wicket. After looking around it dawns on us that the fence alongside is made of plastic and wire, designed as a portable electric fence for cattle. It isn’t electrified…
Five minutes later we are riding along the dyke.
After another quick fencing operation and a wiggle over some traffic lights, we arrive at the bridge in Emmerich, which fortunately has a bike lane. Even better, we have a signal, and can call Travis. It turns out that he’s behind us, still in the Netherlands.
While Alex directs Travis to us I make a futile attempt to find a place for the night. When I return I find Travis tired and annoyed. I understand this: I’d be annoyed in his position. Unfortunately there’s nothing for it but to push on for the last few kilometres to the campsite. On the positive side the tailwind is still with us. Just as we are approaching the campsite we pass the massive bulk of the former Kalkar SNR-300 fast-breeder nuclear reactor. It was built from 1972, cost billions of Euros to build and run, and never produced a single watt of electricity. The project was cancelled in 1991 and the place was turned into a theme park called „Wunderland Kalkar“ Obvious when you think about it. I was hopeful it might have slogans like „You’ll glow after staying here!“ but unfortunately there isn’t (there was never nuclear material on site anyway) Just an open gate and a bicycle sign advertising the cafe.
Finally we arrive in the village our campsite is in. Then we have to find the campsite. This is not helped by the owner assuming we came by car and giving directions from the Autobahn. Then the rain hits again. We find a campsite, not the one we booked, but by then we don’t care. We throw the tent up as fast as we can, tying the guy lines to the bikes because pegs won’t hold in the soggy ground, and insert our soggy selves into it.
We add up the miles and I’m astounded to find we’ve managed a cool 110,99km, my first metric century. Suddenly it all feels worthwhile, to me anyway.
It really is happening.
The hallway is full of stuff ready to grab when I go through the door, the bikes are packed and we are ready to leave for the night train to Amsterdam.
Tomorrow morning, all being well, we’ll pick up the Bakfiets and start coming home. I’ll get online when I can and try to at least post occasionally on Twitter when we cross the border into Germany and the phone contract works.
Time to get an hours sleep before we have to leave…