Saturday, 30 January 2016

Top 5 Worst Camping Sites Ever

Why Camp?
Since I was a small child I have adored camping - and the more basic the better. I loved nothing more than being tucked up warm in a sleeping bag while breathing in the clean fresh air and listening to birds singing – the scratchy sounds of beetles and other insects crawling around under the makeshift groundsheet. When I built a 'Red Indian camp' in the garden, aged 4, I wanted to move into it. I made myself a table using scrap wood and a toolkit my parents had bought me for Christmas. They were worried. And yet this tent, made of an old blanket, two brooms for poles and some string for guylines, was not the most uncomfortable camp I have spent the night in - not by a long way.

Number 5 - Chertsey
We went camping often during the time I lived in England as a child. One place we camped a few times at weekends was a well established formal site by the River Thames in Chertsey, to the west of London. One summer my parents decided my brother and I liked the place so much we would go there for a whole summer. We were in between houses so it was a doubly convenient as my father could get to work from there. We had a big frame tent, a canoe and we fished every day. It should have been a delightful summer, except that it rained. It rained hard and not for just a day. 
It rained for weeks. The site had poorly drained ground and a tide of water washed into our tent on a daily and nightly basis. In the mornings we had to collect shoes, pots and pans etc from all around where they had washed away. One day while my mother was out washing and drying everything at a laundrette, my brother and I watched a very worldly-wise man with a trowel dig a small trench around his tent for water to drain into. It clearly worked well so we borrowed one of the gardener's shovels and dug a trench around our tent. We were pleased with our efforts. When my mother got back she was horrified. The trench was two feet deep. But it worked. The following week we had to move to a rented house. The police had come when a mobile home was washed into the River Thames with people in it and floated away downstream. Luckily the people managed to get out and swim to the shore but the police closed the site down afterwards. It was a miserable experience and I don't think we ever went back.

Number 4 - Shanklin, Isle of Wight - The last of the great English romantics
Looking for somewhere quirky to take my wife for Valentines Day, I read about a restaurant on the
Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. To add a bit of adventure I took her in my VW camper-van. We arrived straight to the restaurant. The food was good but it was in a bit of a slummy place. Arriving at a nearby campsite in darkness we found the place with a few mobile homes but no lights on. The sign at the gate said 'Campsite Open' however, so we drove in and found a spare pitch (there were many). Backing down a slope onto the grassy pitch we immediately sunk up to the axles in soft mud. My heart sank. This would require a tractor to pull us out. There was no answer at the house. Trying to be philosophical we went to bed and slept. In the morning we saw the full horror of our situation. I phoned the AA but there were no breakdown services available on the island. Knocking on caravan doors we realised this was a place where homeless people holed-up at minimal rent for the winter. The site owner came once a week. Nobody had a car except one guy with a Reliant Robin 3-wheeler pick-up (you literally could pick it up). He very kindly tried to pull us out using a makeshift rope from junk. My wife went to the toilet block for a shower. It was derelict. The homeless people washed under
an old hosepipe. The site began to fill with the smell of cheap fried sausages. Once people had eaten they came to help. Many were semi-disabled. It was a mud bath. The little 3-wheel plastic car's wheel spun as it tried to pull the VW out. The smell of burning rubber did not go well with the sausages. Finally after about 2hrs of gargantuan effort, someone 'salvaged' some carpet from a large mobile home and we got some grip. We tried for hours. Eventually by 'flooring' the accelerator the VW managed to slide haphazardly onto some gravel and in a shower of flying mud we reached the path. Handing over all the cash I had to the poverty-stricken team of disabled and clinically obese helpers, we just carried on driving - 6hrs all the way home to Kent, hungry and caked in mud. I'm not one for buying chocolates and flowers. I like to treat my wife to something a bit special.

Number 3 - Katerini
It was March. Hitchhiking in Yugoslavia on my way to Greece with a girlfriend, we were picked up
by a Greek truck-driver who told us we really must visit the beautiful holiday resort of Katerini on the east coast where he and his family regularly spent their holidays. Greece is full of stunningly beautiful places but this guy really enthused about this place so a few weeks later we decided to make a detour on our way from Montenegro to Thessaloniki. We arrived in Katerini by train late at night. All the hotels and B&Bs seemed closed down for the winter period. We looked for someone to ask about where to camp but there were absolutely no people. Walking along the beach we finally decided to pitch our tent in a bit of a cove where we might not be seen from the town. We climbed down a slope and pitched on a flat area. Not having a torch we felt about in the dark and found somewhere level with no rocks. Tired and rather disappointed by the lack of a welcoming resort that we had imagined as a beachside paradise, we got into bed and slept a heavy sleep. Poking our heads out of the tent in the morning we gazed open-mouthed at the site before us. A burned out shack, emaciated wild dogs, all manner of rubbish strewn about a disgusting smell and swarms of flies. Climbing out we found, worse still, that we were camped in the mouth of an untreated sewage outlet. The evidence of this was all around us. Striking camp and heading quickly back to the station, we found one or two sorry looking people. "Yes" they told us, this was a lovely resort before they built the meat rendering plant. It seemed the water pollution and the smell of the plant had driven away the tourists. We spent the whole day and half that night waiting at the deserted station for a promised train before we finally managed to get out of the place.

Number 2 - Orsova, Romania
Cycling along the Danube in Romania on our way from Ireland to Japan, my son and I found ourselves in the riverside military town of Orsova. We had become separated and had not found each other until 11:30pm at night. Everywhere was closed up so we looked for a place to pitch out tent. Unfortunately everywhere seemed either concreted over or flooded with water. Heading on the road out of town we found a derelict children's play park in a lay-by. The ground seemed unsuitable to pitch a tent as it was knee-deep in broken bottles, cans, take-away cartons, old pushchairs and sacks of household waste. Dog tired we decided to sleep on a pair of broken benches. We lay there amongst the rubbish looking at the stars, but we got no sleep. The lay-by, it seems, was used by what I believe are now termed 'doggers'. Every ten minutes a new car would arrive and people would get out and talk. Doors banged, then the springs of the car would begin to squeak. Finally it got light and the full horror of our campsite became apparent. It would have been unsurprising to find a dead body or two amongst the detritus. We packed up quickly and left.

The derelict playpark was vile but the view of the Danube in the morning almost made up for it 

Number 1 - Camp-Platz Petronell Carnuntum, Austria
I have never lost my love of sleeping outdoors. In fact I prefer most things outdoors. Most of all I enjoy wild camping. Wild camping allows few of the comforts of modern settled life we find in houses and hotels. However, in my experience it is surprising how organised campsites with full facilities can be far more uncomfortable. It was in Austria that I encountered my worst camping site. Petronell Carnuntum is a small historic town on the Danube and within a nature reserve. My son Sam and I stopped a night there on our way cycling to Japan. It was a lovely hot sunny day and the site looked idyllic as we rode in. Pitch anywhere you like, the manager told us, then come and pay in the bar – we have nice cold beer and good food. The site had pleasant lawns and decent shower blocks too. It seemed quite a few others had recently arrived and were happily putting up tents. People smiled at us and a few young people came over to chat to Sam. We had the feeling this was going to be a nice place to stop. After putting up the tent we took our leave from our fellow campers and headed over to the bar to pay.

"Let's have a beer now, shall we Sam, then we can have a shower later and go out to eat?"

As we sat at the window drinking our beer, the evening sun going down, the scene outside began to change. The new arrivals had begun heading to the washrooms for showers and after a few minutes, tensions began to develop. Shrieks could be heard as people began swatting mosquitos as they were bitten. One by one freshly showered campers emerged in swimming trunks and shorts from the washrooms and began running towards their tents, vaulting over anything in their path and screeching to their partners to hold open the tent door for them. The mosquito population, quickly alert to their tactics, grouped into a swarm and attacked en-mass. Mass hysteria seemed to fill the site. It was like a battlefield with half naked people running for their lives to barricade themselves in the shelter of their tents. The assault came when a group of around six showerers who had been hiding in the washrooms decided to make a run for it together. These poor souls had covered themselves as best they could, even winding towels around their heads and faces. They sprinted like a crazy heard of stampeding buffalo, tripping over guylines and knocking over flowerpots as they were bitten half to death by the swarm. They paid a high price for this poor strategy. 

The site managers - an elderly couple retired here from Vienna – watched with us from the bar, unmoved but miserable. Clearly this was nothing new to them. They had been unaware of the mosquito problem when they bought the lease, they told us. The local authority would not allow insecticide to be used in the reserve - strictly verboten! - so the mosquito larvae could not be sprayed on the surrounding ponds. People only stayed one night, they told us. 

"Jah, it is all looking so lovely when they are arriving, but then when the evening is coming they discover the true horror of this place."

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores. A new book entitled 'People I've Met On The Road' will be published soon.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Pilgrimage of the Spirit

A Question of Belief
Presenting myself before one of the "Grand Inquisitors" at the office of the Archbishopric in the ancient Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, I handed over my "Credencial" – a treasured booklet of official stamps (sellos). These I had received at various pilgrims' hostels (albergues de peregrinos) along the route of the Camino Primitivo. I had just completed a walk of over 350km (218 miles) in the space of 12 sweltering hot days. My feet were somewhat sensitive but I felt elated. So why did I need this "Compostela" (official certificate), I asked myself? A pilgrimage it may be but after all I am not religious.

The Inquisitor folded her pale hands and began questioning me. How had I travelled – by bicycle or on foot? Had I really walked the whole of the last 100km (the minimum requirement)? Where had my walk begun? What
was my motivation? I mumbled awkwardly, stumbling over the Spanish grammar. Her stare, her dark eyes and the quiet, reedy tone of her voice had unsettled me. Sternly she pushed a register towards me, followed by a Godly looking pen. Managing to break eye contact, I looked down and began completing the details, while she scrutinised my credencial. My name – my country – my town – my beliefs, then a list to select from. Was I, a) religious, b) spiritual, or c) a heathen, unbeliever or some such condemning descriptor. I ticked "spiritual" and then looked at what all the others above me had ticked. I looked over to the previous pages. By my estimate I think about 75% had ticked spiritual. About 15% had called themselves unbelievers and only the remaining 10% had ticked "religious." I was surprised. Was this a reliable reflection of the state of the world, or only of the type of people who are motivated to walk until their feet bleed for no material gain? I decided upon the latter.

The Inquisition - A Stern Business

After walking all the way to Santiago, the queue for the Compostela can be long

Pilgrims services are held daily in the cathedral. If you're lucky you'll witness the jaw-dropping sight of the huge incense burner swinging dangerously from side to side across the massed congregation

I normally steadfastly resist labels and stereotypes for myself, and yet I had comfortably ticked the box describing myself as spiritual. And thinking about it still, as I wandered back out into the sunlit cathedral square, it is how I could easily describe the mentality of the people I had found myself walking with for those 2 weeks. People I now, strangely, felt bonded to as if they were lifelong friends.
A few of those friends

Goals and The Pot of Gold Metaphor
There have been many illustrative folk stories over time which seek to demonstrate that a treasure which is sought as a goal, results in the person seeking it later realising that what was really to be gained by their quest, was not the goal itself but that which he or she experienced along the road to that goal.

Most religions embrace and promote the idea of pilgrimage. Moslems are encouraged to make at least
one journey to Mecca in their lives, while Hindus follow great rivers and Christians walk between great cathedral cities. I have little doubt that the wise originators of these religious groups had this aim in mind – for people to gain wisdom along the way. Even secular pilgrimages are not uncommon. The young shepherd boy in Paul Coelho's book "The Alchemist," who had a dream of a chest of buried gold, finally found the Alchemist he sought, in order to ask where he might find the treasure. Finally tracking him down, he was sent home again, back to his fields, but not before he had learned along the way to understand about the soul of the world and that his own destiny was entwined with that of the world, since, he was told, "they were written by the same hand." Only then did the young man discover the gold, buried in his own fields. And of course most of us know this metaphor to be true in practice. Yet as with many of life's most valuable lessons, what we subliminally know to be true is kept hidden from us while we are focussed too closely on our daily toils. We need to escape from work and responsibilities in order to really understand it to the level that we can act upon it – live by it.

The Camino Primitivo crosses mountainous and unspoilt Asturias before meeting the Camino Frances trail as one enters Galicia. The route has been extended to start north of Oviedo, close to the coast east of Gijon.

The Camino Primitivo
Amazingly around 200,000 people a year currently complete one of the Caminos de Santiago. Like all the best treasures in life, I stumbled upon this pilgrimage by accident. In Paul Coelho's Alchemist's terms, I allowed my destiny to take me down a path I needed to go. I had done a short 1 week Camino a year before – the Camino Finisterre – at the instigation of my wife (a wise woman where I am concerned). My brother then showed an interest and we agreed to do a 2 week Camino together. For a number of historic reasons this made the experience more profound – probably for both of us. Even the choice of the Camino Primitivo seemed like an accident, and yet it all came together, along with the selection of people we met, many of whom I feel sure will remain friends, to form something powerful and life-changing. Something that from my current perspective seems far from accidental. Fear not my friends, I have not "found religion," but I have found something valuable, or at least a large piece of it.

Priorities and Redirecting One's Life
At some point, often in late middle-age, we all seem to find ourselves bogged down in responsibilities, habits and the pressures of mortgages and careers etc. We tell ourselves we want to escape these things but that we don't have the time. We look for a friend or partner to join us and then use them as an excuse for not doing it. Our job begins to look busier or less secure. An elderly relative looks like they might be on their last legs. These are excuses and are almost never a valid reason. A week away on a short Camino is possible for almost anyone, both in terms of time and physical capability. The "nobody to do it with" excuse seems to be the most common. But one meets people along the way – in hostels you can hardly avoid it. Two weeks I found to be far more rewarding but that could be Step 2 if you are apprehensive. Nobody – and I mean nobody – who does a Camino regrets it. It is one of life's great truths. In fact most who do it never stop telling others what an amazing experience it was, which can become a pain.

 Memorable dinner together in Bodenaya Albergue - Frienships are easily made on Camino

The Ecstasy and the Agony
Despite the intense feelings of "rightness" I felt as my camino progressed – a feeling that sometimes did border on the ecstatic – I came down to earth with a bump about two days from Santiago de Compostela. Suddenly I realised that what had almost become a way of life – getting up at 05:45, starting walking just before sunrise, stopping at small village cafes for simple breakfasts, striding over almost deserted sun-drenched and forested mountainsides with mist hanging in the valleys like cotton-wool, talking with friends about our lives and our feelings, then arriving tired but elated at a country albergue to rest before going out to the village bar for well deserved beer and simple food – would soon be over. Just a memory. I sunk into a partial depression. Could I not continue walking forever – a lifelong pilgrimage? I got over this malaise of course, once I was home and able to share my thoughts and experiences with my family and close friends, but there is a part of me that will always be sad that it is over. Until the next time, perhaps?

 After a hundred kilometres, unaccustomed feet begin to suffer

 Some of the early morning vistas in Asturias take your breath away

 The (optional) pass of the Hospitales near Campiello is the 
toughest of any Camino, the book says. It's well worth the effort.

 Often you look out from the green and gold hills and the windmills are the only manmade thing you can see

 Typical path on the Camino Primitivo

The sun, the green forests and the golden grass were always there. 
The Primitivo is less known than other Caminos so silence is not hard to find.

Information on Caminos
There are many guidebooks and on-line resources. My brother and I carried with us the recently updated book, The Northern Caminos, by Laura Perazzoli and Dave Whitson, published by Ciserone. I found it accurate and helpful, but I do find it is usually rewarding to stray away from the recommendations of others at times, even if it means going "wrong." My camino is my camino, and yours is yours.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Palio of Siena

Tuscany in Italy has created and still houses some of the greatest works of art mankind has ever produced.
Spending time in this region I find myself wondering why. Examining the culture it is noticeable how much people are driven by passion. Passion for love, for beauty, for good food and wine, for music, poetry and prose, design, the thrill of speed, the love of battling to win and of overcoming one's enemies. Passion is predominately credited in Italy for driving success. The works of great composers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and designers. The subliminal and inexplicable elements that are the spirit of a Ferrari, a great film or the best Italian cooking. So what is it about passion that seems to produce such impressive results?
I would like to think that all of us possess the capacity to feel passion. I believe we do, but that it is more easily sparked in some of us than others. Advertisers work hard to unlock it. But is it something that comes from within us or is it injected? Some would have it that passion is something primeval, coming from nature – not something logical, predictable or controllable. I like to come down on that side. Yet I know that it is possible to unlock passion in others if we understand them well enough. This must be the ultimate power.

In August, in the beautiful city of Siena I encounter a society with so much of its sophisticated historical past intact in its current culture. I am here for the annual Palio. An ancient and somewhat strange horse race run through the streets of the main square. The passion for the Palio is palpable everywhere. It is not a tourist event. In fact outsiders are barely tolerated. Intrigued, I look up the history.

There are two Palios each year. One in July and one in August, when people are mad with the heat and their blood is up. Ten horses are selected and assigned to the ten participating 'Contrada' by lottery from those offered by local breeders. Owners win little money. It is about the glory of winning - these are riches enough. Riders however can become financially rich, it is said. The horses are named 'The Barbero' and the jockey 'The Barbesco'. As you can see, this is a primitive battle, not a sport. The Contrada were originally local barracks of soldiers. When not fighting wars, they needed an outlet for their passions and desire for danger. Warlike games were devised. Over time these were banned or died out, leaving only the Palio horse race. The motivations of the race are hard for outsiders to understand. They are based in historic issues. The ten horses are blessed in the church of the Contrada they run for. Yes, horses in church! Yet it is a secular festival. The race is dangerous both for riders and horses. The track is compacted Tufo earth over the cobbled square. Corners are padded with mattresses and leather. Horses and riders die (less so of late). Crowds go wild for what is merely a 4 minute race. The passion swells from the start of the week, building through the 3 days of practice races and culminates in an explosion of madness (it is said it is as if the walls of Siena are about to fall) when it comes to the final event.

The Palio is both moral and openly corrupt (bribery goes with the territory). There is no advertising or sponsorship by the likes of Coca Cola or Heineken here. Yet this is no contradiction to the locals. It is The Palio. It is for me an undeniably beautiful and thrilling spectacle, where over years they have learned the power of the long, painful buildup to an explosive crescendo. To have any hope of a good view, spectators either pay between 250 and 2500 Euro to stand or sit on a balcony or they bag a place in the centre of the square and stand in blazing heat, crammed cheek by jowl for 6hrs. For the last 2hrs of that wait, the crowd needs to endure a painfully slow procession of traditionally dressed flag tossers then finally a bullock cart of dignitaries. Just when you think boredom will kill you if the heat doesn't, a gun goes off and the horses arrive to tumultuous applause. There is a further agonising wait as they try to get each of the ten horses and Jockeys to line up. Maybe half-an-hour before the shouts of a desperate crowd (many now carried away on stretchers due to heatstroke) result in the starting gun being fired.

Bang! Complete orgasmic madness ensues. The Colosseum in Rome with its gladiators never saw the like.
The writhing mass of thousands of spectators as they stretch and fight to see, while the horses run at literally breakneck speed around the track. A faller at the San Martino bend sees a rider break his leg. The horse runs on. The rules say it can still win without a rider. As the horses pass us at the end of a lap the crowd around me is wild with passion - as am I. Involuntary tears blur my vision. Fear is there too. The hoofs thunder. Jockeys pull at one another as they dice with death at our turn. Our Contrada's horse is ahead! It's unbelievable. People all around seem as if they might die of their excitement. Women wail and clasp their heads. Men, like crazed beasts, bellow encouragement and foam at the mouth. The final lap is upon us already. Our horse still ahead followed by the riderless horse. People swoon and collapse beneath the feet of the crowd with emotional exhaustion as the winner thunders past in a blur. And it's our Contrada's horse - the people we shared dinner with in the streets last night! It is as if we have been in the midst of an epic battle rather than a race. Everyone is crying and looking like they've lost their minds. People tear at their clothes, their hair. None of us will ever be the same again. Celebrations begin before the shock has even begun to subside. Scenes of absolute mania. They climb the barriers en-mass and mob the jockey, pulling him from his horse. The jockey looks afraid, as well he might. The foaming horse rears up and has to be restrained. I have never seen or experienced anything like it. This is true passion – three and a half minutes of explosively devastating passion. This is The Palio di Siena. Now I know why someone at dinner last night told me with a flash of manic fire in his eyes, that once you've seen one, you are hooked.
I am calm now. My heartbeat is almost normal again - but not quite. The very thought of it makes my heart-rate begin to climb.
In the same way that Zen Archery is said to be the key to understanding Zen, for me The Palio is the key to understanding the notion of passion - in the Italians at least, but probably in the human race. It's primitive. Lust. The quest for fire. The climb of the men of the winning Contrada, up a wooden tower to retrieve the flag with the Madonna, that they will cherish until next year. They climb and fall several times in their mania. Finally they reach it and parade it around the circuit. Again the crowd goes wild. I feel like I died and was reborn that day. I kid you not!

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Cycling For Weight-Loss

A Familiar Story
Many long-distance cyclists will have experienced it. You come across another westerner, cycling out in the wilds of Laos, Thailand or Borneo and you stop for a conversation. They seem to have cycled almost everywhere in the world worth cycling. There is a zeal in their eyes when they talk about it. Looking down you see sculpted calfs and a physique that belies the age of the rider - he says he's retired so he's probably in his sixties. Then you ask the question - "So how long have you been into cycling?"

And this is the familiar bit. Frequently these irrepressible enthusiasts will tell you that five or ten years ago they weighed twice or even three times as much as they do now, drank heavily and smoked forty a day. They hadn't ridden a bike since they were a kid.

"I had a heart attack. The doctors told me if I didn't change the way I lived I would be dead within a year. I stopped smoking, stopped the heavy drinking, stopped eating junk and got some regular exercise. Then a friend suggested I take up cycling."

What they then tell you is how the weight began to fall off them and their health began to return. But invariably they go on to talk about how they began to love the cycling - the buzz it gave them, the people they met, the places they went and the simple pleasure of being out in the countryside.

Countryside is made to cycle in

One Dutchman I met in Laos was a case in point. In fact his name was Kase. We met him at the bottom of a long steep hill somewhere north of Vientiane (the diminutive capital). We stopped.

"Are you okay, do you have a problem with the bike?"
"No no, my wife was telephoning from Holland so I stopped. Where are you from?"
"England. You're from Holland yes – is this your first time in Laos?"
"No my third. I'm on my way to Vietnam then I'll fly home from Saigon. Only three weeks this time."
"You do a lot of this then?"
"Oh yes. I'm nearly always away. I can't stop, because I love it so much. Six years ago I was so fat and unhealthy and my doctor told me to get exercise. I bought a bike and I found I loved cycling so much. Now Im obsessed – my family hardly see me. Ha ha, before they could always find me sitting in the chair, watching TV and drinking beer. Complaining! I love my life so much now. It's incredible. Anyhow I'm sorry I have to go, I want to make it to Luang Prabang tonight. Watch out for the hills, guys - there is a big one about one hour ahead. It continues up and up for about sixty kilometres... but the view is incredible. Enjoy it and watch out for the hot springs place – you can't miss it... incredible!"

The cycling paradise that is Laos

Miracle Weight-loss Formula
I always sigh when I hear someone say they are on a special weight-loss diet or that they are going to the gym. For a start these are unlikely to work because (unlike Kase) their way of life will not fundamentally change. Moreover, I cannot for the life of me understand why someone would suffer this kind of boring regime when they could be out there in the beauty of the world, enjoying the gentle motion of pedalling a bicycle. Cycling is the best route to fitness and good health I know. It's gentle - you are unlikely to suffer impact injuries etc that you may well experience in other sports - it's meditative, it needn't be expensive and you can do it almost anywhere. But the big selling point is that you can be going somewhere, visiting interesting places and enjoying beautiful scenery while you're getting your exercise. There is also a tremendous sense of achievement at the end of every day's ride and even more-so at the end of every expedition. In fact I would say I have rarely met a depressed, miserable or pessimistic long-distance cyclist.

Why endure the blandness of a gym when you could be out there doing it for real?

Next time you are thinking you need to go on a diet or that you should take out a gym membership, do yourself a favour, take a trip to your local cycle shop instead.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Ageing & Simple Pleasures

Waking again this morning to spring sunshine, my still dreamy mind leaped instantly to the thought of a cycle ride. Get out there on the lanes, amongst the trees, the English hedgerows, the sound of birdsong and the sobering sight of squashed hedgehogs. Recently I passed 57. That's years old, not squashed hedgehogs or miles per hour! I know 57 is far from old, but I already see how people my age are telling themselves they are too old to do things. Some of them even think they are too old for sex, for goodness sake! (a bad back is no excuse - be more imaginative). Thankfully my passion for such things – physical exertion, expeditionary travel and the great outdoors – is as strong as ever. I am determined to stave off the depressing world of coach trips, mobility scooters, Zimmer-frames, Tenna-pants, stretch waistbands, cream teas, gift shops and queues for the toilets. Surely these things needn't be the mark of a person over sixty-five?
If all else fails one could take up Zimmer-frame racing

Dementia & Obesity Epidemics
Recently there has been much publicity about the "dementia epidemic." It is due to strike Western
Europe and other developed regions any time now, we are told. Partly this is due to many more people living into their eighties and nineties and beyond, but research suggests that more sedentary
lifestyles plays a strong part in it. Nowadays, far fewer people do active outdoor jobs – it has become more the norm for people to sit at a desk all day. Sport in schools has been hugely reduced and we
have gone to great lengths to find ways to avoid the need to walk or cycle to work, school or to the shops. Leisure for many increasingly means "pampering." It begins early – children do not go out to play like they used to. They have become voluntary prisoners of their screens. This sets up habits for a lifetime. And clearly the obesity epidemic goes hand in hand with this sedentary lifestyle. Only the recently resurgent interests in cycling, hill-walking and camping (albeit largely at the more mature end of the spectrum) give any cause for cautious optimism. So I am relying on this kind of regular activity to keep me sane, and enjoying it at the same time. And for those who dislike the outdoors, I suggest you check out the strange but effective activity that is  Finnish Disco Dancing

For those who can manage the outdoors, there is still plenty of it available

The Benefits of Maturity
No doubt at some point my physical ability to cycle, surf or walk long distances over hilly terrain will begin diminish, but so far it seems to be improving. I intend to keep it that way for as long as possible. What I lack in sheer strength I seem to make up for in a more relaxed approach, which seems to get me further and in a more pleasurable manner. I find my judgement is a bit better. I have learned from experience to give a little more thought to when it makes sense to stop, how much water and food to carry and most of all to remind myself that I have nothing to prove to anyone, not even myself. I've done it all before so I can just enjoy it. I am happy to reassure younger people that this is a great stage of life to reach. For me it feels like a reward for years of self-induced pain and hardship. But the greatest reward of being a "mature" cyclist, surfer, motorcyclist and rambler is to have the time. No longer the 2 week summer holiday once a year, at the same time as everyone else is out congesting the roads. No longer the all too brief weekend jaunt stolen between the intense responsibilities of work and child-rearing. Now I am becoming more able to go where I want, when I want and almost for as long as I want. And the great thing about cycle touring or any of the other outdoor pastimes I've mentioned, is that you don't need a fortune to do it. I urge you not to give in to old age incapacity. As Dylan Thomas said (although he was frequently incapacitated) "Do not go gentle into that good night."

Pick Up Thy Zimmer-frame And Walk!

Where To Go
I tend to divide up my cycling, surfing, walking and motorcycling (I also squeeze in a few sailing trips with friends) trips into categories based upon the length of time they take and therefore the amount of preparation required.

Half day and one day trips tend to involve cycling or walking to a country pub - usually a micropub (
Long weekend trips naturally require a little more planning, but not much. These might involve a cycle tour of a number of micropubs in Kent, where I mostly live. My friends and I usually take a packed lunch and eat it in a churchyard as micropubs don't serve food. Yes, it's very much like "The Last of the Summer Wine." Sometimes I cycle alone somewhere, out to a farm shop or to visit a friend. Half-day motorcycle trips tend to follow the same pattern. The main thing is these activities require little or no pre-planning. A phone call the evening before or on the morning, fill my water-bottle and perhaps make a sandwich before I set off. Sometimes it might be a trip across to France or Belgium. Motorcycle jaunts can be longer - perhaps down to Wales, up to Yorkshire or over to Belgium or France. Every so often I ride over to Ireland to see a race like the thrilling North-west 200 near the Giant's Causeway. One or two week trips usually involve going further and might involve camping if the weather is good. I often go with friends to cycle The Way of The Roses cycle route from Morecambe to Bridlington (coast to coast in Lancashire and Yorkshire). I've also recently started doing Camino walks (pilgrimage walks to Santiago de la Compostela in Spain) which can take months. It's not all old fogeys mate! And then there are expeditionary trips. These usually take anything from a month to a year. My longest was 9 months cycling from Ireland to Japan with my son. This November my son and I are thinking of doing a one month cycle trip in India or Morocco. Last summer I cycled the Elbe in East Germany, down through Czech Republic and then back along the Danube with my wife (slowly). It's hard to be bored when you have a bike or a good pair of boots. I'm waiting to cycle The Himalayas at some point, but I'm in no rush. My body seems to work better than ever and that's probably thanks to all this regular exercise.

 Men in lycra. A trip to Poperinge Beer Festival (Belgium)

 The road from Ireland to Tokyo was 10,000 miles. Thankfully not all of it was like this. 
Track over Mt Anai Mudi. Kerala, near to Munar.

 The NW200 Port Rush, Northern Ireland. They're at nearly 200mph!

 The Way of The Roses, somewhere near York

Passing pilgrims on the Camino Finisterre, Galicia, Spain

Next Expedition
My son Sam and I are currently discussing the finer detail of a one month trip in India. This time we think we will either buy a couple of those old-fashioned Indian bicycles (very heavy and very unreliable but very cheap) then give them away to some deserving local family at the end. Sam favours the idea of getting a couple of scooters (Honda C90 type) and riding them back to UK. I'm thinking we'd need to add at least another month for that but it sounds great. So long as my ageing body holds up.

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.