I will refer to this day as 'a day of extremities'; extreme ups and downs both mentally and geographically. Matt and I had just had a great time in France: good weather, great food, and a much-needed rest day at a campsite beside a lake. This was topped off by a nice afternoon spent exploring the city of Strasbourg.
Feeling like confident travellers, we spent our first night of wild camping just outside the city, on the German side of the Rhine. This is technically illegal in Germany but if you’re well behaved, are discrete and don’t hang around, then you’ll get away with it. We chose a secluded spot off a quiet cycle path within a forest, set up camp, made dinner and went to bed as it went dark. We were up and off before 7am, cycling under the beautiful morning sun burning orange. The first people we saw were two young revellers (probably post-German rave) sat in the middle of the cycle path waiting for the Burger King to open… Anyway, I was feeling great and I thought to myself: “This is the best morning of the journey so far”.
So a great first wild camping experience. No issues. We were headed for the hills to the Black Forest and to find the true source of the Danube. We cycled through apple and cherry orchards, little rural villages, and climbed our first few steep tracks broken up with regular breaks. I had to push the bike a short distance when the ‘path’ was heavily gravelled and looked to be a 20% incline. But we were still buzzing off the last 24 hours, so I was enjoying myself. We pushed on up into Triberg, a touristy village in the mountain most known for its waterfalls, the highest in Germany. It was our aim to visit these waterfalls; however when we got to the entrance, there was a kiosk asking for an entry fee of €5 per person. Whilst not a bank-breaking amount, Matt refuses to pay for things that are of "a natural formation", so we turned our backs and went for a beer instead.
Two beers each later, we were feeling cocky and ready to climb the final few kilometres to Martinskapelle chapel - our destination point. This sits above the Bregquelle on the watershed between the Rhine and the true source of the Danube (or 'Donau' in German - see blog title..). It was here that we planned to wild camp for a second night. However… Half way up the mountain, out of breath and very sweaty, we stopped for a peanut butter break and a quick check of the guidebook (Cicerone’s The Danube Cycleway). We were looking out for the ‘roundabout’ which would lead us on to our next turning before shortly arriving at the chapel. Half an hour later we made it to the top of the mountain and still no roundabout. We convinced ourselves the turning would be soon, as we appeared to be on the right track from the map shown in the book. A quick check of Google maps (very millennial) told us we were headed in the right direction, so we carried on ahead.
Ahead was in fact downhill, very downhill. We were flying down the mountain with smiles on our faces, thankful for the breeze in our hair, and all the while thinking how the climb up was so worth it for this beautiful decent into the gorge. Remembering the guidebook’s directions, I shouted ahead to Matt to pull over so we can check for this turning. With no roundabout passed and no ’biathlon course’ in sight, we took the hint that something had gone awfully wrong. At this point we again checked ‘trusty’ Google maps, which decided to flip its head and show us having gone in the complete wrong direction.
This was quickly followed by one hell of a tantrum from myself and quite a defensive Matt who prides himself on his orienteering abilities. Unlike usual, I wasn’t actually blaming him. I was frustrated that we’d ignored all the warning signs for so long. The map showed us that the hairpin bend we had bombed passed on our descent had a turning off that would also lead to Martinskapelle. Unless we wanted to camp on the roadside - we would have to make the painful climb all the way back up to this bend.
Now I am sat here writing this so we obviously made it (I say we; Matt was fine. He does this for fun. It was me that we had to worry about)! To most keen cyclists it was probably nothing, this incline to them probably enjoyable. But with 20-something KGs on my bike, legs that had pedalled since 7am, two beers in the system and a broken mindset, it was extremely challenging for an amateur. The first half was okay; I told Matt to go on ahead and let me go at a steady pace with no pressure. I made up stupid songs and talked to myself as I went.
Then the incline got steeper, my songs dried up and so did my remaining energy. More and more cars seemed to be speeding past me. I wanted to stick my thumb out and plead with a van driver to carry my bike and I back up to the hairpin, but they were going too quickly. So I moved slow. Every 10 meters I’d stop, pull over, have a swig of lukewarm water and carry on again, in my lowest gear. It didn’t seem to end. That’s when I got angry, realising that the 2km distance Matt had convinced me of was actually much more. I stopped for longer this time, and said to myself: “This is actually the worst day of my life” and “Why am I even doing this?”; and all the other melodramatic things you can imagine.
And then I saw it. A pick-up truck that had just overtaken me had looped back on itself further on ahead, higher up the mountain. I realised then that the hairpin must just be around the corner. I swang my leg over my bike and lifted my dead weight of body onto the saddle, and didn’t stop pedalling until I caught up to Matt stood patiently waiting at the top. I threw my bike to him and cried like a baby, collapsing into a bus shelter. I’m not sure if they were tears of joy or frustration - most likely both. Matt fed me chocolate and water, and we continued up the right path to the chapel.
I’d like to say my pain ended here. But it didn’t. The road ahead was a 4km gravel track, uphill. Who enjoys cycling uphill on gravel? I pushed it some of the way, I cycled the rest. We eventually found this chapel and I wanted to weep in front of the altar. I nearly did when I remembered we still didn’t know where we’d be sleeping, as we were supposed to be wild camping that night. All I wanted was a good meal inside me and a bed with real pillows. Turns out its the simple comforts you crave when you’re feeling at your lowest.
Matt went to ask somebody about any available places to camp. He found a quant guesthouse/restaurant where the host advised that camping in the Black Forest was illegal, as we were already aware. Matt turned on the sob stories and explained our desperate situation. After making a call to the owner, she managed to get us a room with breakfast for a 1/3 cheaper than originally quoted. I didn’t think twice before saying yes, whilst ordering two beers and a hearty German soup for us both. Whilst lying on an actual bed after a hot shower, and with all my electrics on charge, I thought: “This is the happiest I’ve been so far”. Falling back on modern conveniences, it's quickly how one’s mood can change...
So I’m not really sure what the moral of the story is. But I guess a low point had to come sometime and it was always going to involve hills. What is clear is that I need to toughen up, particularly as we move even further away from home. We’re going to try harder on the wild camping front despite the illegal status in Germany. A few less regular showers, a lot less electricity and many more bugs might do the trick! B
- Total days on road: 19
- Total rest days: 2
- Total distance completed: 1,441 Km
- Best meal cooked: (Canned) Fish, potatoes and veg! It’s the simple things..
- Recent Ailments: 30+ Insect Bites; Unexplainable leg bruises
- Latest argument topic: See blog post above.