With the day drawing towards its end, we both climbed naked into our small two person tent and lay there. The oppressive twilight heat continued to sap our energy, as it had throughout most of the afternoon, and with temperatures reaching into the mid 30’s, it was just too hot for tour cycling. So instead, we parked up on the outskirts of Hungary’s Lake Ballaton and took the therapeutic option on offer. A leisurely long swim. The lake also doubled as a place to wash sweat soaked clothes, in the hope of removing most of our companion mal–odours, that had joined us since the previous wash.
But now, after almost a full day by the water, necessity lead us away from Europe’s third largest lake to a quiet and narrow single lane road, flanked on either side by rows of corn. This was the spot we’d settle for. A tour cyclist home. And as the sun dipped slowly on the horizon, we worked quietly and routinely to push our pannier laden bikes into the landscape and establish a small camp. The density of the corn meant we couldn’t get far off the road, but after a quick run back and visual check, everything looked pretty discreet amongst the tall autumn crop, we would be sleeping in tonight.
After six weeks of traveling, and with the daily packing and un-packing of our worldly possessions, we’d evolved over time, a smooth and meticulous operation which enabled us to quickly establish a base on occasions like this. One where we both knew what was necessary and required without the exchange of words, to set about completing tasks in a routine fashion. This night was no exception. Within 20 minutes, all was complete and our lightweight nylon house awaited its rightful occupants. As the heat lingered, and without any wind, all forms of clothing were removed to allow for a more natural process of cooling . Outside, the sound of cicada song filled the night air as our bodies and minds slowly succumbed to the trickle of melotonin in the lazy moments before sleep.
In the distance, a vehicle interupted the sound of insects, as we lay drifting off.
“What’s that noise”? said Rachel.
“Probably just a car” came my sleepy reply.
We lay there, our senses momentarily heightened as the sound got closer and closer.
“It’s getting louder” Rachel said, with a little more conviction.
“We’re in a cornfield right” I mentioned anxiously.
“Shit, it sounds like a tractor or a combine harvester, get the f*%# out now”.
We panicked, we screamed and we finally crapped ourselves as the sound growled over the top of our small dark home.
I remember being disappointed with myself by the thought, that the last thing I was going to see before I died, wasn’t loved ones sitting around weeping at my death bed in years to come, but instead, the partially illuminated zip of a two man New Zealand bivouac tent.
In the commotion, we managed to throw open the entrance way and jump out, just in time for the combine harvest driver to see us both stumble from the inner bowels of our tent and into full view of his cab, naked bodied and petrified. -Only he wasn’t in the field. But on the road some three metres away. We’d escaped with our lives. From this encounter, came the most valuable lesson of our trip.
-Never, ever, under any circumstances again, would we sleep in the nude when freedom camping.
Strictly speaking, tour cycling encompasses the love of traveling from one place to another by aid of bike. Yet, the magic, doesn’t just come from time on the saddle, but also the time off it. And in the four months we spent biking from Rotterdam to Athens, some of the more memorable moments of our trip came from free camping in places we’d never even heard of, let alone had any idea of what to expect.
Infact, it could be argued that the real appeal for this genre of travel can be found in ‘freedom camping’ with a little tour cycling thrown in for good measure along the way.
After all, nowhere else prior to going on this trip, had we crawled out of an early morning tent to meet face to face with a shepherd standing literally metres away and watching our every movements, as we did whilst camping up in a remote part of Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. And it’s not everyday you pitch your tent in a derelict Bulgarian building, hidden from city lights, all whilst sleeping the night away in an empty shell of a house.
Why did we do it? Well, because it was damn cheap of course! but also because, to freedom camp is to live in the moment. – I guess it comes about from never quite knowing where you’ll call home, until right at the very time a decision is made to finally stop.
Sometimes you find a perfect spot high in the mountains. A place where you can sit with a fire and listen to the call of howling wolves late into the dewy night. Sometimes, you have to wait for the sun to set, just so you can locate a place discreetly amongst town buildings and set about camp with only the glow of a head torch to light your way. At times you sleep the sleep of the grateful dead, whilst at others you lie awake listening to every little noise outside. It can be a real mental game!
When camping this way, places you find to sleep can be as diverse as the landscape itself. And by the end of our trip, the deadline to make Athens airport for a departure home was looming fast. Long days, riding from dawn till dusk kept us both eager to stay close by the road leading into the city. Until eventually, the main road we travelled along by day, became the very motorway we slept next to at night. By this stage, the constant sound and illumination from the overhead lights, flipped night into day, which and after a while had us looking and feeling like unkempt zombies as we finally arrived to our port of departure.
At the check in counter we presented our passports to the staff sitting behind the desks, yet all we received in return, was a blank look and shake of the head. In the confusion of rushing here, we’d mixed up our days and had now arrived almost 36 hours early.
And so it was, that the last night of our grand cycle tour was completed, not in a hotel, backpackers or city free camping spot, but on the most uncomfortable and rigid airport seats on the continent! Special thanks must go to the frequent airport announcements and bright lights that made for a further decline into our zombied state.
If only we’d have stayed by the motorway!