Monday 30 September 2013

From home to Spain, through France and Andorra.

The day that I had to cut my three year long World wide bicycle ride short after just eleven painful days was nothing less than devastating. Three years of planning, saving and obsessive thinking had gone into the preparation of that journey, and having to come home was like my life had been hit with a blunt hammer. I had quit my job to do the ride and it was the only thing I had expected to be doing for the next three years. It was hard to find a reason why it had worked out that way. I don't believe in fate, but sometimes when you are faced with drastic life changes it is only natural to try and find a sense and meaning. Then, seven days later I met Caroline, and a whirlwind of love ensued.

I always knew I had to leave again. Various departure dates came and went. I still held on to the cycling idea, but it became evident that it had to be abandoned - my knee still gives me trouble to this day. Besides, its the discovery within travel that's important, not the physical achievement. I think I had lost that idea somewhere along the way. It was actually Caroline who asked how I would do it if I couldn't ride a bicycle. Several options came into my head. I consulted my Dad and he mentioned a Honda c90. I was then hooked on the idea.

I bought my little 90 in February 2013 and gave the final departure date for the end of the coming summer. I had my test to pass in between, save up some more money as it was now going to be more expensive, and, try and savour every last moment with Caroline that I could. We both knew the date was coming, but it always seemed far away. We had from Winter, then from Spring, then from Summer. Then like those mid summer days where it never really gets truly dark, it seemed that we could hold on in those days forever. But as the morning chill carried with it the scent of Autumn, it was clear that the day was coming to say goodbye. I had thought about this day every day since I met her, and dreaded it. The night before I left was way beyond my expectations of how painful it would be. The pain was fierce. And within Caroline, where my love lay, was where my emotions laid bare and vulnerable, and within that space was where I was saying goodbye to everyone I knew and loved dear. My family and friends, my home where I grew up, my life. Turning away from this was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.

The morning as I rode away from home through Leeds was dull, grey and depressing. In the outskirts of the city suburbs the streets were ugly, the buildings drab. The people looked ill and the air was cold. I was glad I was leaving in some ways. My first stop on route was Banbury. A few years previous, whilst in the midst of my travelling research, I had come across a website of a guy called Matthew Blake who was cycling around the World. When I first discovered his site he had just landed in Cape town after cycling from England, over the Eurasain landmass and the Americas. He was on the final stretch to home. In some ways he had inspired me to go further. I was toying with the idea of maybe just doing Asia at the time, but my mind became firmly made up after seeing just how accessible the World can be.
 I had sent him an email asking a logistic question about being on the road and he invited me to come stay with him on the day that I was leaving. It was nice to meet him, good to talk to, and he gave me some tips on handling Africa. He was a very generous host too. The food and beer was very welcome after riding my little 90 from Leeds to Banbury on that cold, hard day.

 Here's Matthew, a really nice guy. He's written a book about his journey; a four year bicycle ride around the World, covering over 46.000 miles in over more than 60 countries. You can find his book on his website

When the morning came, after very little sleep over the past two days, I knew I had a very long day of riding ahead of me. I wanted to get off that island as quick as possible, so I was aiming to get to Plymouth to catch the ferry that day. About 230 miles. Everyone in the Blake household had to go to work early in the morning, and so I was left in the house to eat breakfast, lock up and leave when I wanted. I felt honoured that people could be so trusting with me. It was nice to know that they felt comfortable in leaving me in their house on my own. This is a side of humanity I like to see.
Matthew mentioned before he went to work that he had a parcel that was due to be delivered, and that if I was around when it came, that I could sign for it. So as I was packing up things there was a knock on the door, so I just though 'Ah, the postman's here.' So I opened the door and found him at the bottom of the long drive, and without thinking walked towards him. Then, as I heard the door slam shut I was safe in the knowledge that I had just locked myself out of the house, with no shoes on, no phone and no wallet. I calmly signed for the parcel. Luckily his neighbour came to the rescue. I find it brilliant that some neighbours still have keys for each others houses!

The ride to Plymouth was arduous. Another cold, windy and sometimes wet day. I just focused on getting to the ferry, thinking that the further away from home I get, the more comfortable I'm going to feel. Which is actually quite true! The ferry was due to set sail at 22:00, and I arrived at the port just as it was starting to get dark, so I was one of the first there.

Little 90 waiting to be let on the ferry.

As we were waiting for the ferry I got talking to a couple in a car. Two quite eccentric retired teachers, Andy and Barb. They were lovely people and were really excited about my trip and invited me for a few drinks with them in the bar later that night. I took up there offer, and after tying my bike up in the loading bay of the ferry with all the other disbelieving motorcyclists with their big bikes who looked with wonder at me and little 90 who were bound for Africa, I joined them for a drink. It was brilliant talking to them, and encouraging that there were some quite well to do and educated people who saw my impending adventure to be a wonderful thing. They bought me pints of Guinness and we talked of travelling around Europe. They then brought it to my attention that its a legal requirement to travel in France with a high vis jacket. I didn't have one, but they said if they saw me in the morning they would give me one. They were lovely people.
 I stayed up until 2:30 in the morning drinking and talking with other passengers, and when the excitement wore off and tiredness hit I laid down on a little bench and went to sleep. My budget doesn't cover a cabin when I could sleep on a bench - which they made me pay £5 for anyway.

The lights came on two and a half hours later. I was still quite drunk and tasted of booze. I went out into the cold blue morning on the deck and drank a coffee with some of the other motorcyclist.

"We have been talking about you, and we've decided to call your bike 'Triggers broom,' as in Trigger from Only fools and horses. 'I've had this broom for twenty years and I've only ever had to replace the brush and the handle!' We think your bike will be like that."

I decided not to call my bike 'Trigger.'

The blue wet dawn still clung in the air as we disembarked from the ferry. I was waved off by the other motorcyclists at customs and was on my way, experiencing riding on the right hand side for the first time, probably over the limit. A roundabout came. Instinct told me to look on the right. 'Fuck!' Glance left, slam on brakes. Angry looking people glare from the car. 'Take notice!'

It was like riding through a cloud that morning. Moisture was set thick in the deep air. I was trying to follow signs to the towns on the way to Cameret that I had written down on a bit of paper. I couldn't see any signs for the towns and really wasn't sure I was going the right way so I pulled over and stopped for a second. Miraculously Andy and Barb pulled up along side me, handed me a high vis vest and got me to follow them until they pointed me on the right direction. Fantastic people.

I arrived in Cameret a few hours later, and with a bit of luck stopped just outside of Stephanes house without realising. Stephane was a good friend I met when we both studied in Romania and I had planned to stay with him whilst I made my journey South through Europe. By the time I arrived I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I'd slept for ten hours over three days and wasn't holding together particularly well. I slept for twelve hours that night.

I had only planned to stay in Cameret of a couple of days, but I ended up staying for eight. It was fantastic seeing Stephane again. He lived in a big house by the coast in the beautiful fishing village of Cameret. We would often visit local bars, drink wheat beer, and go fishing in the day time. Brendan, his house mate, teaches sailing and has access to all kinds of boats in the harbour. The three of us decided to go out fishing at sea, so we got into a tiny boat with a 135 horsepower 4 stroke engine and took it out to sea. Once we were out of the harbour Brendan said 'you drive, Liam!' I took the wheel and we put the boat on full throttle, skimming over the waves at 20 knots per hours. It only equates to around 25 mph, but it felt extremely fast when moving over water. We would bounce over waves and the boat would get air and then crash down onto the surface... and then up another wave. We continued like that for around three miles.
 I've never been fishing before, but to fish for our evening meal felt good. We had a line with around 7 hooks which we cast off the back of the boat. It had a Japanese invention attached to the line, a little bit of white plastic that would float down under the water, but when a fish got attached to a hook the plastic would turn upside down and float to the surface, indicating that you had a catch. I don't know if it was beginners look, but within literally less than ten seconds the plastic floated to the top. We reeled the line in and had three mackerel. We each held one in our hands and then what seemed to be in slow motion, Stephane and Brendan pulled back the heads of the fish, killing them in an instant. 'We don't want them to suffer.' I held mine, put my fingers into its gills and pulled the head back. A cracking noise which was accompanied with drops of blood reverberated through my palm, the innards of the neck protruded as its tail stopped flapping. I've never killed anything that could look me in the eye before. But I would be a hypocrite if I couldn't kill my own food.
 By the end of the day we had 8 mackerel and one squid. I nearly caught the first squid, by dangling a line just above the sea bed, but as I pulled it up it squirted a jet of water into my neck and chest and disappeared into a cloud of ink. I'm glad I didn't have to kill the squid though. It was a beautiful creature and would change colour in the bucket of water. Once we got in on shore Brendan cut into it with a knife and it let out a squeal like a baby, laying on its back and spluttering ink all over the harbour. The calamari and barbecued mackerel tasted good though.    

I was sad to leave Cameret. The days were good and I met some amazing friends. But the Autumn was fast approaching Northern France and I knew I had to leave quickly before it became too uncomfortable.

Stephane and Brendan.

The day I left Cameret I was heading to Nantes, trying to get there in one day. I wasn't sure if it was the bad directions, French road signs or me being an idiot (probably a bit off all three!) but for most of the day I was lost. It really isn't a good feeling when for the best part of three hours you only have a vague idea of where you are, or no idea at all. I was going through a particularly bad patch of despair when I came across a man walking up the road wearing a kilt and brandishing a staff. I thought I'd better stop and say hi, just in case he was Scottish. I pulled over and he started walking over the road towards me and I gave a 'bonjour monsieur' to which he replied 'all right!' in a very broad Scottish accent.

    This is Frank. He walked from Scotland, through Ireland, I met him around 100 miles away from Nantes and he's heading to Spain. It took him two months for him to get where we met. He's doing the walk for Alzheimer's disease. And he's 57! What a guy. He's been sleeping outside for most of it. We shared some food and some stories. And he gave me a consoling fact that when I'm lost, for instance, its not so bad if I have to backtrack 6 miles, yet when it happens to him, which it has, it can take 2 hours. At the time we were both on a bit of a down. He said I'd made his day, and in truth, he made mine. He's definitely one of the most extreme travellers that I've met. Really nice guy too. You can read all about his journey here -

It was a tough ride to Nantes. I really didn't think it would take me as long to get there as it did, and when I arrived the sun was setting and I was nothing short of exhausted. Stephane had put me in touch with a friend who was staying in Nantes. I was so glad to have a place to stay and that was one of the reasons that I rushed and raped my energy levels to get there... But due to a misunderstanding his mobile phone was switched off. Now I've been in tighter situations in my life before, this one really isn't that bad in comparison to some, but as I stood there, in the centre of a big city that I didn't know, in the dark with my fully loaded bike, not knowing anyone and with nowhere to stay and absolutely knackered - the thought did cross my mind what I was doing here, doing this, when I could be in a warm comfortable bed with my girlfriend. I was overtired. I knew that more often than not things turn out OK and I was trying to tell myself that through my tired voile, but I really thought that the only option for me would be to ride out of the city for an hour in the dark and try to find a hedge to hide behind and get some sleep. But within an hour I had a place to stay in a top floor apartment in an old Gothic building in the centre of Nantes and was sat drinking a beer with some new friends. Stephanes girlfriend, Pauline, had phoned round her friends to see if anybody could offer me a place to stay. Aminata came to the rescue!

My night time Nantes rescuer. 

Aminata's a lovely person and it was really kind of her to take me in. We went round the city in the day, went to some art galleries and played ping pong with her friends. It was Saturday, and that night was her anniversary meal but some of her friends had invited me to a party. When Aminata went out that night I was at her apartment alone when she went out to the restaurant, well, not completely alone, that dog you can see is Marley, a dog that Aminata was looking after for a friend for a few days. Marley is a rescue dog, and as such was very scared of men, generally. Even though we seemed to make friends quite quickly. I thought we had! So when Pierre rang the buzzer for me to go to the party I opened the door and Marley bolted out. I didn't know where the light switch was for the staircase to I fumbled my way down and opened the front door to let Pierre know that I had to get Marley back upstairs. Marley bolted out of the door and sprinted into the Saturday night life of Nantes. Me and Pierre gave chase but we lost him at the Cathedral. We tried asking people if they had seen a dog, but after the Cathedral he was lost. We spent hours walking round hoping to bump into him before Aminata had finished her meal, it was her anniversary after all and I felt awful. But it was no use, we couldn't find him. Aminata came home and I had to explain that I lost her friends dog. This was such an awful situation to put someone in. Aminata was such a lovely person and I'd just lost her dog that she was looking after for her friend, after only been in her life for 26 hours. On her anniversary! We searched all night, called the police, but nothing worked. We thought the most likely way of finding him was if he turned up to the flat on his own. By the morning he hadn't showed up and Aminata had to go through the painful task of explaining to her friend that she lost her dog. Her friend wasn't pleased. I was due to go that day, and our parting goodbye was in a sombre mood. I wished I'd never came, but Aminata explained that it wasn't my fault. I still felt awful though. An hour later as I was riding into the French countryside, Aminata sent me a text saying that Marley had come back.

Marley! Don't let that face fool you, he's a bad dog. Bad Marley!

That night I spent my first night of the trip outside, camping in a forest. This isn't the first time I'd wild camped in a foreign country, and not the first time I'd wild camped alone. But it was the first time I'd wild camped alone in a foreign country. I felt a bit of trepidation, but once it gets dark, no one is going to see you. Unless they have a torch. Which is what I saw at one in the morning. I was drifting in semi sleep where I saw a brightness in the corner of my eye, I turned my head and saw a light through the trees moving from side to side. It was quite far away, but accompanied with the sounds of dogs it was quite a scary prospect. I could here my heart pounding in my ears. Then the light went away, my heart rate went back to normal but my perception of fear was still on overdrive. Things and situations can become magnified when your alone in the dark in a strange place. I thought I could hear a dog or a fox trying to get into my tent, maybe chewing through my bags. I hissed, clicked and flapped the tent door to try and scare it but the noise still continued. I thought it was time to face my foe. I got my torch, quickly unzipped my tent door and shone it at the invading beast.
 It was a beetle on my groundsheet.

For the rest of the night there were helicopters with searchlights going over the forest. It was a disturbed night. I don't know if the people with the torch had anything to do with the helicopters, but still, I'd got through my first night alone.

Off-roading it in the forest with the wee one.

I made it to Bordeaux that night and stayed with some friends of friends from Nantes. Once again arriving in a city late at night was a stressful ordeal, with not knowing where to go or where I was. The beautiful nature of humanity prevailed though and a man from Columbia took me to the door of my hosts using his phone's GPS. He stopped to chat with me as I was pushing my bike through the streets. He said that it was strange he's met me, as, only three days previous he was thinking about doing a World wide journey on a motorcycle. I hope he does it. Outside the front door of my hosts a man invited me to stay with some of his friends in South Africa also. It seemed like a beautiful city, but I was only staying for one night.

My hosts in Bordeaux.

Little 90 in the city suburbs.

Within three days I had made Barcelona, and during these days I had lived outside. On the morning that I woke up in the forest before I reached Bordeaux, one of my two tent poles shattered at the pivot point and ripped through the tent. I patched the tent up and glued the fibre glass back together and assumed it would be okay. Then after a long day on the bike I pulled off the road into some woods to try and find a place to sleep. All the area's around me were hilly so it was hard to find a decent patch to pitch the tent, but eventually I found one. I tried to pitch the tent, but no, there came the cracking noise and the pole ripped through the tent again. I can count how many times I've pitched that tent. TWELVE. Twelve bastard times. Don't buy a Blacks Octane 2 tent. They're rubbish and the customer service is dire.
So there was nothing else to do that night other than to find a patch of mossy grass and lie down on it with my sleeping back as the darkness gathered. I didn't feel comfortable reading my kindle with the light with me being so exposed. It was a private would with quite a lot of warning signs hung in trees. So I just lay there, looking at the sky through the silhouette of the trees as the stars came out. It was quite beautiful once darkness had fully set in, I felt safe hidden within my patch. Aside from the nearby barking dogs.

My woodland morning.

In the morning, as I packed up my bike and made my way up the steep woodland incline with 90. I managed to crash her in a tree. 1st gear is really low and I underestimated it, put on too much power and the bike threw itself sideways and smashed screen first into the trunk. I liked that screen, so I just pulled out my super glue and stuck it back together.

Its fine.

I was aiming for Andorra that day, a tiny country hidden away in the mountains of the Pyrenees. The ride to the foothills was beautiful. My parents often mentioned just how nice the South of France was, and it didn't disappoint. I think the scenery would have been more beautiful a few months ago though, as now, at the end of September I rode past fields of dying sunflowers. All what was left from the those covered golden hills were expanses of decay. Which is also quite beautiful.  

The foothills of the Pyrenees. I was looking forward to seeing how little 90 would cope with some big climbs.

From quite a bit before this photo was taken I filled up the tank to the brim, which only holds 3.5 litres. Then by the time I'd reached to summit, gone over Andorra and was again in a semi flat landscape I still had half a tank of fuel left. And another ten litres that I was carrying that I filled up in that remarkably cheap country, Andorra. For quite a lot of the climb though, I had to hover around 18mph in 2nd gear, much to the disdain of the traffic behind me. She had some trouble ticking over once we reached the summit too, due to the lack of oxygen. I went slightly dizzy. But we both got there without a hiccup!

The decent back down was easier, although it was getting dark. I spotted a lot of good places to camp on the French side of the mountains and didn't expect the Andorran side to be so populated. I ended up riding for miles in the dark trying to find a place. I was nackered and it wasn't looking hopeful that I could find anywhere. All I was riding past was tourist towns and villages with hotels and restaurants. It may sound strange that I'm saying that I couldn't find a place to sleep when all I was riding past was hotels, but if I'm going to make it around the World on my budget I'm not prepared to pay nearly the equivalent of what I've spent on petrol so far from England on one night in a hotel.
 It was looking pretty hopeless, but then I spotted a little dirt track heading up off the main road. I turned around when the road was clear and headed up it. The track continued up onto the side of the mountain, but there was a little opening onto a crop field. I rode my bike in and managed to get behind some bails of hay that were wrapped up in plastic. I threw the camouflage tarpaulin over 90 and settled in a tyre track between the small green plants. If I even had a tent then it would have been useless. I was hidden and felt fairly comfortable that no one would find me, if a little unnerved by the Jack Russell that obliviously bounded past me after killing a ferrit. Once again the quietness of the night was interrupted with the sound of farmers dogs which would echo off the mountains. The sky was beautiful though as the stars shone clear in the mountain air. Sleep came quite easy and I awoke naturally at dawn with the moon above me in the pale blue sky. I was covered in morning due though, and if anyone looked my way in the morning light it would be obvious I was there, so I packed up my wet gear, left as quickly as I could and rode into Spain.

Its amazing how the landscape changed. The mountains that form a barrier between France and Spain aren't particularly big, but the differences between the climate and foliage on either side of the mountains is vast. The weather was hot, and the lush land of fields and trees that lived in the wet air was replaced by arid scrub land in the sand and dust. I rode past my first dust tornado that day.
Getting to Barcelona was painful. It would really serve me well if I bought a map, then I wouldn't get lost with only the position of the Sun to guide me if I'm going the right way or not. But I've made it thus far without one and probably won't invest in one if I'm honest.

Barcelona has been a wonderful place to stay in. I've been staying with my friend Maria, who I lived with in Romania. Its good to rekindle old friendships that I made on my previous travels, and to make new friends through them also. It seems that the further away from home I get, the more comfortable I feel.
 Looking back on that cold wet day when I turned away from the one I love and rode off alone was literally one of the hardest moments of my life. I'm surprised I managed to do it, and sometimes look back on that day and shudder.
 On the eve of the day that I said to say goodbye to everyone I love, I went to a local bar to have one last drink with my friends. A man was at the bar who I knew from the pub I used to do some shifts in, which we were always on quite friendly terms with each other. There was an edge in his voice that was different than usual went I went to go say hi, and in a short amount of time he tried to pick apart my journey. First hinting that I failed it with a bicycle (certainly a no go area) then that I was doing it on a tiny bike and that that wouldn't make it. I explained to him why it would to the point where he couldn't argue, so then he started spouting accusations of...

 'Well its you, you won't be able to do it.Your not man enough to do it. You haven't got it in you.'

Ever the diplomat, and not wanting to get into an argument with a social retard on the last night I had with my friends, I just said

'Well we'll see.'

'No we won't cos' you won't do it!'  

Its a stupid thing to say, because either way if I finish the ride or not, we would see.This derelict, buffoon of a man, slumped over a bar on his own in his 50's fortunately only makes up a small percentage of people who hold such negative opinions of what I'm doing. Some people don't understand it, some people shake there heads in disbelief, mouths open, as if I'm completely insane. But most are encouraging and some really go out of their way to help me. I've only met one other person who's actively gone out of their way to pick holes on my plans - an over weight red faced man with a loud voice and thick ears who I used to work with who took great pleasure in the fact that I had to come home early from cycling around the world. No doubt that with both these men that there was jealousy behind their words, looking at some young guy who's got the gall to go out there and follow his dream. Its quite pathetic.
 It is quite encouraging though, that out of the hundreds of people that I have spoken to about my journey, that only two have reacted like this, whereas everyone else has offered encouragement or help where they can. I expect it to be like this the World over. I have met some truly wonderful people so far, both before I left home, and on the road.
 I feel comfortable in saying that the hardest part is over, and that is saying goodbye and leaving. Out of everyone I've spoken to, or read about, of people who have done similar things to this, this is the general consensus; that leaving is the hardest part of any journey. I feel assured in saying that losing loved ones is the worst kind of pain for a human being. The night before I left, I'd never felt anything like it. I felt ill from it, and the mental battle that was going through my head that night and the morning after is something I never want to have to experience again. I may get ill on this journey, malaria, dysentery (I've had one of those before) I will no doubt have to face fears, harbour loneliness and conquer despair. But things things are all relative, and they don't cut deep. As my French friend Brendan said, when I left home I ripped a wound inside me, after time it heals, but I will always carry the scar.
 The wheels are in motion now though. With each day the journey becomes better and better. I've met some truly wonderful people so far and I'm humbled by these experiences already. I feel inside it now and feel extremely privileged to be doing this. And I'm only at the very tip.    


  1. I really like the pic of you near the camper vans on top of a hill! Glad it's going well man xx

  2. A 'hill', Joe? A mountain my friend. I'm very much looking forward to Africa. Hope things are going well your end. Much love x

  3. A great update Liam and a real insight to your travels so far ;-)
    Well done and stay safe .

  4. Can't wait for the next instalment ...

  5. Youre an inspiration dude. Being a similar age to you (well i assume so, i was sitting in the car when geordie kev dropped your water proofs off...yes he can reproduce!) Youve made me want ti take on a similar trip when im in my 40s (newborn on the way lol). Keep the updates coming and remember, youre doing something only 000000.1% of people can say theyve done, or had the balls to for that matter. Ride safe man.

  6. Thanks guys. These comments are really appreciated. They're good to read in the solo moments.

  7. Hey Liam, How are you?
    I finally took the time to read all your articles, that's great !
    Thanks for all the nice things you said, as I told you it was very nice meeting you.
    Keep on riding ! All the shits that happen will be good memories at the end.
    Guess what? I'm doing eveything to save money and travel too by my own but it will be a short journey for me. I'm thinking about a trip to Asia !

    See you soon and enjoy Africa !


  8. A Wonderful tour guide of spain, I really glad to read this information, thanks for sharing this guide.