Wednesday, September 17, 2008

It's all over - Back home again in Caithness 16/09/08

In my previous posting I rode from Fremantle to Waikiki, where my hosts for the final weekend live. I stayed with Andrew and Joanne Hooker, who are very keen bicycle tourers and as it turned out, great hosts. Have a look at their very readable website which describes their epic cycling adventures on recumbents. My tour ended on a high note thanks to their great warmth, friendliness, practical help and not least Joanne's wonderful and wonderfully-frequent cooking, which certainly allows for a touring cyclists' predictably-large appetite.

Whilst I've met hundreds of very friendly and supportive Australians on my travels here, nothing beats exchanges between like-minded long-distance cyclists like ourselves, who have both endured occasional severe hardships whilst experiencing great joy in what we do, and I don't think I've ever talked quite so close to exhaustion as all this weekend. I learnt an awful lot from Andrew and Joanne that will help frame any future expeditions I might undertake (and I very well might!!). Apart from the chat I also enjoyed watching their video footage of their most recent ride from Alaska down to the Carribean coast, which inspired more discussion. I also got a shot on Andrew's recumbent up and down the street, and must say they are very comfortable and practical in some ways, but on the whole I think I still prefer an 'upright' for various reasons.
Andrew drove me to the nearest cycle shop to pick up a cardboard bike box, and on the Saturday afternoon we broke the bike down and packed the bits in the box. It was quite a squeeze just like on the way out here, and we made sure that any sharp bits sticking towards the sides of the box - such as the hub ends - were reinforced so as not to stick through. Andrew also made some dowels to fit between the fork and drop-outs to prevent bending and damage. I still had too much stuff to pack as it turned out, and even though I discarded some of the less-wanted items and packed my rucksack (hand baggage) to the hilt, it still left the box weighing nearly 30kg. I decided to wing it rather than discard more - I could perhaps do this at the airport if necessary. The 32l rucksack fairly swallowed up a lot of stuff but weighed nearly 10kg (7kg only allowed) - I'll try and wing that too.
Despite wanting to extend my stay at mein hosts after a wonderful and stimulating weekend, they kindly drove me and the baggage to Perth airport after dinner on Sunday, in good time before my flight to London. The lady at the check-out desk was very helpful, but eventually confirmed that I would have to both pay $110 for having rebooked the flight some time back (I knew about this but was a little annoyed because the online booking system had not allowed booking of the return flight in one years time) AND for any excess baggage over 25kg i.e. nearly 5kg at $80/kg - ouch! However she pointed out that I could try and transfer some items from hold to hand baggage, which I went away and tried to do. However whilst I was pondering how to 'lose' a few kg the very friendly airline supervisor came over and kind of hinted that if I just removed 1kg from the (29.5kg) bike box this would be OK, and having done this I was issued with boarding card - YESS! Actually, I later observed that some of the more obese passengers must have weighed a good 30kg more than me without penalty.....but hey, I don't wanna be negative!
My flight left on time and after a quite pleasant and well-fed 7 hours we touched down in Hong Kong, where after only 2 hours wait (and a frustrated trying in vain to get the Dell Axim PDA to pick up the free WiFi broadband) the London flight left. Both flights arrived bang on time and I managed to get a few hours shallow sleep on each leg. I can really recommend Cathay Pacific - this is the second time I've flown to Oz with them and it has been hassle-free, punctual and the cabin service is excellent.
Getting from Heathrow to Euston Station was a bit of a nightmare. Whilst the rucksack was easy to carry on my back, obviously the near-30kg box was not liftable, big and awkward. From the carousel to the train was OK since I had the box on a luggage trolley, and as the underground train was quiet at the start of the line I had no problem dragging the box into the carriage, albeit that it was kind of blocking the way a bit. I had to change trains at Green Park for the Victoria line to Euston and by the time we'd reached the former the train was heaving in the peak of the Monday rush-hour, and I had to literally and somewhat rudely push through the crowd to get the box out. People didn't seem to understand that this was awkward to do and many didn't move, seemingly blanking me out. Once on the platform I had to push the box along the (thankfully) slippery floor for 200m, then another 300m along a corridor leading to the other platform. As I neared the Victoria Line a flight of some 30 steps loomed ahead of me, but mercifully a young man eventually took pity on me and gave me a hand (most folk again just looked the other way). The second train soon arrived and I had to literally lunge with the box onto the train to overcome the lack of willingness to let me get on first by all those around me (what's wrong with these people??). Same again, it was terrible trying to get off with everyone packed like sardines, and people being so grumpy about it (I now know why I hate living in a city). Lastly, I had to push for another 500m and up 3 escalators (which was fun looking at people's faces!) before finally arriving in the teeming Euston Station concourse. Next time I swear I will do this differently; I'm getting too old for all that hassle!
I now had 3 hours to wait for the night sleeper so took my time to choose from the many eating places what to have for dinner. There are croissant, pie, burger, fish and chips, sandwich and pastie stalls (to mention but a few) with delicious-looking (and inexpensive) fare displayed, and I finally plumped for a chicken salad baguette and steak and stout Cornish pastie, which (the latter) was particularly and tastily awesome. Around 2045 the nightly sleeper was ready for boarding - I had just booked a reclining seat (£31 single to Inverness) as I have trouble sleeping in a berth. As it turned out there were plenty of spare seats and I grabbed two together which allowed me to lie down, somewhat uncomfortably, but enough to allow me to sleep most of the way to Edinburgh Waverley. There was a buffet car next door which stayed open all night, and I was amazed to only have to pay £1 for coffee; prices must have been reduced since the last time when I payed over £2 as I recall. The train arrived in Inverness at 0840, some 20 minutes late, and pretty soon I was with Lyn and a lovely warm reunion.
We did a little shopping and ate a full Scottish breakfast at Morrison's supermarket in Alness and arrived at Lyn's home, where I will stay for a while, by 1300. I was as expected feeling very weary and stiff after this long journey and was happy to just lay back and relax. I have 2 weeks before starting back at work so plenty of time to recover and brace myslef for the 'real world' again.
Next morning a reporter from the local paper, the John O'Groat's Journal, phoned to ask a few questions about the trip and how I felt now, and I have to say it was nice to remember and reflect in response to questions about it. No doubt that I will miss the enjoyment and freedom of travelling, but I'm sure one day I will do something like this again. I would like to do it with Lyn if she feels up to it; I'll have to discreetly encourage her.....whilst I quite like travelling alone it is nice to share what you see with another, a loved one...