I’m a 25-year-old bloke from Australia who grew up on a farm and has worked in electrical maintenance for the past few years. I’m just over one month into my 6-month bicycle tour across Europe from Greece to Scotland.
Back home I’m still living on the farm near Melbourne with my father. But I’d been thinking about traveling through Europe for over a year. But it is expensive and I’m broke. Also I wanted to explore it properly if I was going to do it. Then last December I got sick and was in bed for a week. As you do, I ended up watching YouTube videos most of the time and thinking about what I was doing with my life. Somehow I came across some videos of people riding their bikes around the world, and I couldn’t stop watching.
Though you couldn’t tell now, I’ve been a serious gym junkie for the past 3 years and have a passion for deer hunting and mountain bike riding. So as soon as I heard about this bicycle touring, which combined parts of the three things I enjoy doing the most and also how cheap you can do it, I thought: “I have to do this!”. All week I watched how-to bicycle touring videos, then I immediately began to save money, plan my route, and equipment list. I told everyone my plans, bought all the gear, applied for a passport and before I knew it at the end of March I was on a 20-hour flight to Athens, Greece.
I wanted to do this as a solo trip from the start because I was hoping it would make me grow as a person and force me to be more outgoing and sociable, which is something I’ve struggled with all my life.
Considering what I was about to do, in the lead up to leaving I was very calm and just in the moment. Not excited or anxious. It wasn’t until I saw the mountains from the window of the airplane that I gave a massive grin from ear to ear. It was only then I realized that I was making my dream come true.
And so the adventure began. I had with me my bike in a box pulled to pieces. When I arrived at the airport, my plan was to put the bike together there and ride the 30km into the city to my hotel. However, my duffel bag that contained my tools had not made it onto flight during the layover in Doha! After calling my brother and mother, we decided my best bet would be to get a taxi to the hotel and wait for my bag there. But none of the taxis were big enough to fit the bike box.
After walking around the airport with this 20kg box and 7kg pannier for an hour, I found a tourist information desk where the bloke told me my best option would be the train. After asking a beautiful young lady which train I needed to take to get into the city I knew roughly where the hotel was from there. So I was walking 10m at a time then having to stop and change hands. I walked about half a kilometer the wrong way on the street the hotel was on because I couldn’t see any numbers. I entered the front door with a big smile of relief. The next day my duffel bag was delivered and my adventure could finally begin.
I was ready to hit the road. It was a hot day but I was feeling good and excited to be starting the journey. I made it about 30km to the bottom of the mountains when I stopped for lunch in the shade on the side of the road. Then as soon as I hit the start of the climb both my thighs cramped badly. I had to pull off into the ditch and sit there, cursing while trying to stretch them out.
I knew from training in the gym my body was going to suffer for the first 2 or 3 weeks until it adapted, and I had mentally prepared myself for that. I had not done any training on a 35kg touring bike before I’d left because I only got the last of my gear just before flying out. After 15 minutes or so I could walk again. So I pushed the bike to the top of the first little hill then rolled down the other side into a small town.
On the flat ground I could pedal without problem. I pulled into the last restaurant at the edge of the town to fill up my water bottles then I was off down the hill feeling good again. Then it started again: Bang! Cramping again. Being the first day I was very determined to make it to the town another 70km away on the other side of the mountains. And I began to walk again up this mountain road. Then I heard a stray dog barking from a cliff above.
Shit, what had I got myself into?
I’d been warned about them before I left but didn’t really know what to expect. Anyway, while I was watching the dog as I walked around the corner there were five more on the road in front of me! Shit, what had I got myself into? I can’t walk, I’m by myself, and surrounded by feral dogs in the mountains of Greece!
Luckily the dogs weren’t that aggressive. I walked past keeping the bike between me and them. As I continued up the mountain the cramping began again until I couldn’t even walk. I remember being stuck up against the cut-away cliff on the inside corner of the road for 30 minutes unable to stand. I was so frustrated! I knew: all I had to do was move forward and I would make it eventually. But I couldn’t and that was the only thing that scared me.
After I could stand again I made a plan slowly to walk five to ten minutes then stop and rest. I tried walking backwards, crab walking and putting all my weight on the bike to try and use different muscles. After a few hours I could start to walk a little faster. And when I felt my thighs start to tighten again I’d force myself to slow down. At least the mountain view was amazing.
As I got closer to the top, I could see all the way to the sea. The road finally leveled out and I jumped back on the bike. When I got to the very top of the mountain I was so happy and I couldn’t help but let out a huge “Woohoo!”
I rolled down the other side of the mountains onto the open flats below. At this point I had gone 80 kilometers. Before that the furthest I’d gone on a bike in one day was 60 kilometers, with no pannier! So after another 30 and a total of 110, just in the darķ, I rode and headed straight for the first fast food place I could find. Nobody spoke any English there. I just gestured, “lots of food, biggest meal you’ve got.” After they brought out a big pizza for me, I sat down. I’d never been so exhausted in my life. I was so exhausted I could hardly eat.
I sat there for an hour and a half only to force down half the pizza. It was about ten in the evening by then and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep. There were no hostels or campgrounds in this area. I put my bike lights on and rode in the direction I had to go the next day, looking for a place to put up my tent. As I was leaving the other side of town I came across a vacant overgrown industrial block with only a few retails stores around.
There was a row of trees and a high fence running up the side of it. I was so exhausted that that will have to do. I waited until there were no cars in sight and quickly hid next to the fence. I opened my sleeping bag and camping mat, then put the alarm for 5:30am. I had to be out of there before daybreak. This was the first day of my journey.
Later that week, I stopped at a cafe in central Greece to get some lunch. I met another lovely young lady there and a man from Athens that spoke English very well. After spending the afternoon talking with him, he organized for me to camp behind the cafe then bought me a beer before he left! I only had to ride 60km the next day, so I was in no hurry. I went for a ride up the mountain nearby, got some lunch and went back to the cafe to spend some time with this girl after she finished her shift.
No time for love stories
After spending a few hours together talking and sharing our photos I ended up leaving for Thermopolis at about 4pm. Did you expect a love story now? This is an adventure and no rom com, you fools!
My legs had come a long way already and I made it up and over the mountains to the coast without any problems. I got to the statue of Leonidas just before dark, which was another dream-come-true moment. If you have seen the movie “300” (or know greek history) then you know that Leonidas was a king of the ancient Sparta. He died fighting the Persians together with 300 of his best warriors.
I sure felt hungry as a greek warrior. But where to find food? According to my GPS there were no restaurants in Thermopolis so I rode another 10 kilometers up the highway to a larger city. Before I reached it I came across a massive fast food restaurant. Perfect. It was dark and cold outside and as I ate my meal I thought about where I was going to sleep. Again it was after 10pm. By the time I left and I was not very keen on riding into the city at that time of night. So I looked at the GPS to see if I could find somewhere to camp.
There was only open farmland between me and the city. I was on a smaller road running parallel with the freeway when I found a big dark tunnel running under the freeway. I stopped for a look. It was fairly new and clean with a gravel floor and a small canal running through it. This will do, I thought, I’m too exhausted to look for anything else. So I set up my camp and slept with my down jacket on for warmth. Although there were odd splashing sounds coming from the canal I slept quite well. I was up and out of there before daybreak. On the road again.
After these and a few other experiences I quickly learned that I needed to find better camping spots. Another thing that I was learning: Greek people are incredible hospitable. One afternoon I stopped at an out-of-the-way petrol station in the farmland of north central Greece. When I sat down to eat my orange the owner appeared. The old man an didn’t speak much English. But he sat with me as I told him what I was up to, with the help of some pictures. When I showed him the map of where I was planning to ride, he went inside and came back with a shot of vodka for me. He laughed as I coughed from the strength of it as he went to serve a customer.
Watch out for bears!
The local farmer he was serving spoke a little English and joined us. We drank frapee and ate nuts as we looked out at Mount Olympus in the distance. I asked if I could camp behind the petrol station and he was happy to have me there. As a cyclist is always hungry I then asked where I could find food. He sent me to the little village 5 kilomters up the road to a small restaurant where I got a Souvlaki for 1 euro! When I was leaving the next morning I tried to pay him for everything. But he insisted I didn’t, saying “souvenir souvenir”. That was just one of the times people have been so welcoming and hospitable on my journey.
That was all in the first few week. Since then I’ve been riding for two and half days through the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria with no money or food except three small bags of peanuts. One night the police came visit me in my tent while camping next to the road. I’ve been humbled and inspired by meeting a huge variety of fellow travelers on their own adventures that make mine seem like a walk in the park. I even had a dog joyfully follow me up one side of the Carpathian mountains in the pouring rain when I felt like giving up for the day. And I was scared to shit when a bear wandered past my tent while camped in the forest.
Every four or five days I would stop at hostels in towns and cities that I want to see more of. Like in the Hikers Hostel in Plovdiv, the second biggest city in Bulgaria, that I had never heard of but which looks amazing. I usually stay for a couple of days, which allowed me to meet lots of others travelers from all over the world. When I meet other cyclists we share experiences and talk about our bikes like we are formula 1 drivers. But in Plovdiv a 70-year-old Russian guy put us in our place. He was riding around the world since many years, and I shit you not, on what looked like a 12-year-old girl’s bike from the 80s. All he was carrying was a small backpack, a sleeping bag and a thin foam sleeping mat. Not even a tent. This was the toughest guy I’ve ever met. He had joy in his eyes and a cheeky grin on his face like a 15-year-old boy that was up to no good.
Surprised by rivalries between European countries
Also, while in Plovdiv I made friends and partied (a little too hard) with a group of fellow adventurers that had either recently finished or were currently on big journies like myself. It was very difficult leaving the hostel after having had such a great time with people that shared a common bond. I’ve continued to meet and befriend many more cool and crazy characters since.
Being my first time out of Australia it’s funny to notice all the differences compared to home. Besides the obvious things like the incredible architecture and history in all the cities, it’s things like the animals I have liked most. I’ve grown up watching tv shows and movies with skunks and squirrels. They’re in all the cartoons but I’d never seen them before. I guess most people not from Australia feel the same way about kangaroos.
But probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is how different and interdependent all these tiny countries are, the vast cultures, languages and rivalries have really surprised me. I had thought that considering the countries were so small and close together the people would be similar and happy to move around freely. But there seems to be a lot of stigma about neighbouring countries and old grudges that divide them.
Overall I’m just so grateful to have spent time with the awesome people I’ve meet and befriended so far. I have my health and the opportunity to do what I’m doing. My plan is simple: just keep being cheerful in the face of adversity and soak up every bit of this crazy adventure as it comes. Because good decisions never make great stories!