Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mid Atlantic - postcard from the edge

Having a brilliant time sailing to South America by cargo ship. Weather good - plain sailing so far. Food excellent and I've kept it all down!

My cargo ship, MSC Lausanne, is a giant of a ship at 275m long and 32.2m wide (that width makes her a Panamax, the widest ship that can pass through the Panama Canal). Onboard there is a crew of 23 and 4 passengers, including me. Of course, this is nothing like a cruise - it's a working ship and the priority is always the cargo. So there is no fancy restaurant or leisure activities. We eat our meals with the crew and are otherwise left to our own devices. With a few limitations we can pretty much wander anywhere on the ship and get a fascinating insight into life at sea on a freighter. I'm happy on deck staring at the sea for hours, spotting dolphins, flying fish and birds; watching the crew at work; observing activities in port; reading in a quiet corner; or visiting the bridge, trying to look like I understand the array of charts, printouts and computer graphics.

From the Canaries, we've sailed south between the Cape Verde Islands and the west African coast, and are now heading southwest to Brazil. Soon we'll cross the Equator and drop off the edge!

NB: There is no internet onboard ship. I have sent an email via the ship's communication system, then a satellite has bounced it down to base camp manager, Graham, in Edinburgh, and he copies it into the blog together with a map he generates. The previous mini updates have been sent to base camp by text whenever I pick up a signal near to land. Isn't technology amazing!

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Las Palmas, Canary Islands - mini update

Our last port of call before crossing the Atlantic to northern Brazil. In case it gets choppy out there we have done an abandon-ship drill and even got into the lifeboats!

Monday, 25 October 2010

Straits of Gibralter - mini update

I've boarded the cargo ship MSC Lausanne and I'm having a great adventure as we sail west into the Atlantic ocean.

(This picture of the ship is off the internet, not my own)

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Valencia, Spain - And the winner is . . .

Shirley, Tigger and I have arrived in Valencia by the power of bus. If all goes to plan, I should leave Valencia on Sunday on a cargo ship bound for South America, arriving in Buenos Aires 16 days later. My cargo ship departure was cancelled, then reinstated with a different ship, then moved forward by two weeks, back by a day, then forward by two days. All of this confusion left me without enough time to cycle from Burgau to Valencia and made me miss meeting my friend Andrew in Seville!

The two weeks at my sister´s house in Burgau seemed to whiz by as I settled into a very enjoyable lifestyle there. Days were filled with walking the dogs along the beautiful cliff-top paths in early morning sunlight and along wild, windswept beaches in the afternoons. We pottered about in the busy little towns and colourful fishing villages that are dotted along the coast of the Algarve and generally relaxed, chilled out and enjoyed being a family together. I found a favourite little spot in Burgau at the Brizze Bar cafe, overlooking the slipway and beach. I loved to sit here with a coffee and gaze out over the ocean or watch the old, weather-beaten menfolk of the village bring in their little fishing boats. The second week of my stay coincided with the British half-term and the little beach at Burgau filled with Brits in bikinis grilling themselves under an October sun that was still fiercely hot.

I´ve managed to put some weight on after arriving in Burgau a little scrawny. This is mostly due to my sister´s fabulous cooking though she was ably assisted by Casa Padaria, the local Italian restaurant. I can barely believe that I cycled thousands of miles to the remote spot that is my sister´s house to discover that the only freshly-baked, gluten-free pizza I have ever had was only five minutes walk away. It´s fate - me and those pizzas were meant to be together!

It was another difficult adjustment leaving Burgau, similar to that required after my friend Graham left at the end of the cycle along the Camino de Santiago. It was so cosy and comfortable being in Burgau, in the bosom of family and with no worries. But again I had to say "goodbyes" as I was whisked away on a bus into the darkness of a Spanish night to be dumped out on my own in Valencia.

However, Valencia is a pleasant, vibrant, modern city. There is old stuff here and there but it´s swamped by contemporary buildings and traffic. My cheap little hotel is ideally placed next to the Turia Gardens. Valencia was orginally bisected by the River Turia but after a catastrophic flood in the 1950s, the river was diverted to the west of the city and the original natural course was filled in. This has created a beautiful, long, sinuous city park with cyclepaths, walks, gardens, fountains, playparks, ponds and skateparks. It´s full of life at all times of day - cyclists, joggers, walkers, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, school-children doing their PE classes and people practising yoga. Just before it meets the sea are the very space-age buildings and cool, blue pools of the Arts and Science Centre. It´s all very nice.

But it´s difficult to enjoy as I´m feeling very nervous at the moment. Not about crossing an ocean or arriving on a new continent - I´m really excited about that. But I´m nervous about making sure I don´t miss the boat! Afterall, we all know how to catch a bus or a train but how do you catch a cargo ship? Do you stand on the beach and stick your hand out - one and a bicycle to Argentina, please!

My nerves aside, what you all really want to know at this moment ... more than who´s been eliminated from the X-Factor ... is ... who has won "the bicycle diaries" competition. Well, I can reveal the winners are Sheila and Dougie McBride from Angus. They guessed that I had eaten 450 rice cakes during my cycle to Burgau, the closest guess to Tigger´s winning figure of 445. Sheila and Dougie have chosen Prize A, to join me for the cycle through South America ... oops, sorry ... I´ve muddled entries ... that should be Prize B, a surprise gift from Portugal. It´s on its way to you now.
I don´t know what the next few weeks will bring but it´s sure to be out of the ordinary so do keep in touch.

All photos from Europe on My Flickr page

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - Thorn in my ride

Gazing out over the blue waters of the Atlantic from the beach-front cafe in Burgau, I got to thinking that I was here courtesy of my fabulous little bike, Shirley - strong and sturdy and a joy to ride every mile of the way! So this is a plug for the people at Thorn Cycles who designed and built her - thank you.
I've added photos from my break in the Algarve to my Flickr page.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition - enter now

"the bicycle diaries" is pleased to bring you a free-to-enter, prize-winning competition. Many of you will know that I have coeliac disease and can't eat bread. Therefore my staple diet on my cycle across Europe has been rice cakes - yes, those things that look and taste like polystyrene coasters!

To enter the competition send your guess of the number of rice cakes that I've eaten on the European leg of my ride from Rosyth to Burgau by email to Please also include your full name and postal address*, your permission to be mentioned on the blog as winner and your choice of prize.

The winner can choose from the following two exciting prizes:

Prize A
The chance to join me on the South American leg of the ride. An arduous journey by bicycle over thousands of miles; you'll suffer saddle sores, malaria, yellow fever and altitude sickness; there'll be months of rough living, not washing for weeks and subsisting on only fried beans and rice. There is no cash alternative. In fact, there is no cash.

Prize B
A surprise gift from Portugal - it's really nice.

Closing date is 20 October and I think I also have to say something like "Tigger is the judge and his decision is final".

Good luck.
*full name and postal address needed for sending out the prize to the winner - it won't appear on the blog or be disclosed anywhere else

Monday, 4 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - Field rat dog

It was a relief to pull into the pleasant city of Tomar which marked the end of the mountains and the gateway to some easier, if hotter, riding. Tomar has an old centre of narrow cobbled streets that radiate from a central square that's paved like a giant chessboard. Overlooking the old town is the majestic Castle Templar, the last ever construction at the order of the Knights Templar. Many of the buildings in Tomar have beautiful tiled facades and host designer shops and trendy cafes.

As I cycled south out of Tomar, the landscape of steep, forest-clad mountains and terraced vineyards gave way to a pancake-flat landscape of olive groves and scrubby pasture - a parched land with rocky escarpments the colour of IrnBru and sparsley-dotted spaghetti-western towns. But this was great riding.

There are a couple of very endearing things about Portugal that I've forgotten to mention so far. First of all, in parks and squares the public seating is set up in little sociable clusters to allow people to sit together and chat. Compare this with, say, stern rows of seats in Princess Street Gardens. Secondly, many of the churches don't just chime the hour, they play a little tune. Though this always has you racing for your wallet, thinking that the ice-cream van has just pulled into town!

If Tomar was a pleasant city then Evora, my next stop, was a stunning one. An ancient settlement that once vied with Lisbon to be the country's most influential centre, it remains wrapped up in its solid city walls. Within its maze of streets are a cathedral, Roman temple, aqueduct, churches and lovely little surprise squares with fountains and cafes. A few more days of fabulously flat riding took me to the sting in Portugal's tail. Just when you think the mountains are behind you, the Serra de Monchique provides one last big climb before you descend into the Algarve and Portugal's southern coast.

The last stop before my sister's house was the busy seaside town of Lagos. I cycled along its smart waterfront esplanade, passing the expensive yachts and motorboats in the marina. It may have been tempting to hang around here and bag a millionaire but in my crispy T-shirt, sweaty cycle shorts and odiferous trainers, my chances were probably slim!

After a few more miles of easy pedalling, I was pulling into my sister's village of Burgau. I didn't know where her house was but at the first street I peaked into there was a row of colourful balloons spelling out "Pauline" and the welcoming party of my sister and my mum and Dougie whose holiday coincided with my arrival. It was really exciting and a bit emotional to at last arrive at this distant point that I'd been cycling towards for months. And I was relieved to arrive safe and well at the end of the European leg of my trip.

Burgau is a pretty little village, set around a sandy beach in one of the coves that provide a break in this otherwise rugged coastline. A steep, narrow road leads down to the beach where a few small fishing boats are pulled out on the slipway and a couple of colourful cafes overlook the Atlantic waves that crash into shore. My sister's house is a few minutes walk from the beach and is currently quite full - Karen, mum and Dougie, my niece Jessica, the cat and two dogs. There's Hamish, the pedigree black labrador, and the mongrel rescued with her family of starving feral dogs. Her name is Maggie May but my sister also calls her the "field rat dog" because she's still a bit wild and, like feral dogs from the fields, is constantly foraging for food and will eat absolutely anything. After three months of camping across Europe in woods and fields, developping an insatiable appetite and spending my days foraging in supermarkets, I can relate to Maggie. I think in a couple of weeks when I have eaten my sister out of house and home, she'll be calling ME the field rat dog.
More Portugal photos on Flickr.

Next blog - the bicycle diaries prize-winning competition.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Burgau, Portugal - mini update

I've made it to my sister's house in Burgau - 2223 miles and 87 days. Woohoo!