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the trouble with exes: ex-empire, ex-communist, ex-yugoslavia

The evening with its fading light is my favourite time of day and the midsummer gloaming affords a slow lingering glow to bask in long after the brute force of the sun has gone. But tonight my pleasure is tempered by unease.

I’m approaching the Croatian border with Bosnia. All land borders are scored into the landscape arbitrarily but the violence here is stark and overt. The houses that line the road are scarred with shrapnel pock-marks, burnt out, all the roofs caved in. This is a border marked out in obvious human suffering.

Most of the houses are boarded up but amongst the derelict abandoned buildings are a few that have been repaired, replastered, repainted. Flowers bloom on the occasional window sill, some gardens are planted out with tomatoes and salad greens. Fruit trees that have probably seen more than one war pass over them still bear fruit. This is a bountiful time of year.

But the people who can be seen at work in the fields and gardens, or the ones already at rest on the benches at their front gates, are all old. There are no young people here and most of the buildings bear hopeful notices advertising the house “For Sale”. It is a melancholy scene and the camping prospects look grim. Sheltering for the night in the gutted shell of a house destroyed in an internecine war bodes fitful sleep.

But suddenly I hear music. An accordion, a guitar, voices singing. I turn and standing astride my bike on the road gaze back at a party of people sitting partly visible on a wide veranda at the back of one of the smarter houses. The song finishes and, after a moment of laughter and comment, another starts up.

A woman comes round the corner of the house to the open door at the side of the house carrying a pile of plates. She smiles and waves. A man sitting at the table looks up, catches sight of me, and beckons extravagantly. I am drawn in. The host of the party rises from the table to shake my hand. He sizes me up briefly, and then bids me sit down. A plate, food, a glass, wine, all appear in front of me as the bittersweet accordion music goes on.

The music is interspersed with snatches of conversation and those who can switch to English for my benefit. Milan, my host, takes it upon himself to make sure that I am adequately informed of the area’s history.

“As you can see, we had a war here.”

“Yes. I do see.”

He gestures at the circle of people around the table.

“This is my family. My sister, there, she lives in Belgrade. In Serbia. These are her children. They are Serbs. The man playing the accordion – he is my friend. He is Croatian. I am Croatian but I live in Bosnia.”

The children run out onto the neatly mowed lawn of the backyard. One little girl executes a neat cartwheel, legs straight and toes elegantly pointed. There are three children, a brother and a sister, and their younger cousin, the acrobat.

Milan gestures around the table again and tersely sums the matter up.

“Croatians. Serbs. Bosnians. It doesn’t matter.”

Another song starts and my wine glass is refilled. I protest but I am informed that this a drinking song and so we must drink. The guitarist speaks good English and is obviously a professional performer. He introduces each song with an anecdote or a joke. The songs are traditional songs from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bulgaria. Everyone knows the words and even I am familiar with a few.

“This was my father’s house,” Milan tells me. “I grew up here. Now all the houses are for sale. Nobody wants to live here after the war. Everybody has left. There is no money here. No work. I live on the other side of the border in Banja Luka.”

People around the table ask me questions.

Where am I from? Where am I going? What am I doing here?

These are questions that have no simple concrete answers. Or not ones that I am aware of.

I’m just travelling around, I say. Just looking at things. Meeting different people. It my turn to gesture around the table. Different people, different food, different music, I say, inanely, and my superficiality doesn’t pass unchecked.

Milan looks at me and says urgently, impatiently, “Yes, yes, all that is different – but really people are all deeply deeply deeply the same.”

I have no argument with him.

“Yes, of course. You are right.”

Later, after the musicians are gone and the party is breaking up, we stand around my bike gazing at it.

“When I was ten years old I remember seeing foreigners for the first time,” Milan says. “An Englishman on a bike. He had a big beard. I’ve never forgotten it.”

I try to imagine which of the legendary cycle tourists might have been in Yugoslavia in 1968 – there can’t have been that many cyclists casually passing by back then. Milan looks at the three children standing next to us.

“And they will remember you!” he adds. And then, suddenly and emphatically, he says, “I’m scared that there will be war again here.”

We look at the children and the little girl turns another pretty cartwheel.

Finally, when everyone has left, Milan shows me a bed and the bathroom, hands me a bunch of keys and instructs me where to put them when I leave in the morning and then he gets into his car with his wife and they drive back to Bosnia leaving me in sole possession of the house.

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leaving the citadel

Most people in south-eastern Europe don’t like the term ‘the Balkans’ and don’t use it to refer to themselves. And there is no real agreement as to exactly what area the name refers to, even amongst people who do use it, so I’m going to try to avoid it.

If there is a single thing that is generally agreed on, most probably it is that borders and identities are vexed and complicated around here. Certain categories are vague, overlapping, ill-defined, loose – and they continue to pose a problematic challenge to our modern fiction of the linguistically and ethnically homogenous nation state. But more of that later. For now what is important, to me at least, is that when I cross the frontier between Slovenia and Croatia I leave the Schengen Area, if not the EU. Croatia joined the EU in 2013 but for some reason, that isn’t clear to me, is not yet eligible to join the Schengen Agreement.

If Croatia’s membership of the EU has brought major economic improvements with it they are certainly not immediately apparent in this part of the country. Suddenly, I feel less scruffy and out of place. If Australia and Western Europe, where I have spent more that the last year, represent the land of plenty, well, now I have returned to the desert to resume my wanderings in the wilderness. And somehow I feel much more at home here.

Bye bye, Fortress Europe.


I’m not one to romanticise poverty but I really do like countries where people still have livestock, grow at least some of their own food and know how to fix things when they break. That seems like a valuable set of resources and skills to me.


Storks are a common sight all through Southern Europe. (They don’t care about borders, though: Schengen, EU, Slovenia, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia – it’s all the same to them.)

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western europe: connections and disconnections

I have to confess that Western Europe passed by in a bit of a blur and the experience was a little strange. On one hand it was just like home, I mean I’ve actually lived in a lot of these countries and have friends, family and even possessions, dotted about the place, but on the other hand, here I am itinerant and sleeping in roadside ditches with wild hair and smelly clothes. Most of the other touring cyclists that I came across look at me in askance and kept a wary distance and after a few of these awkward encounters I came to accept that my style of cycle touring isn’t necessarily the norm in these parts.

But it wasn’t all alienation.

I met a German guy living in a campervan when I was scouting about some abandoned railway station on a ViaVerde cycle route in Spain. When he realised that I was looking for somewhere dry to sleep he set up a tent for me and then we talked about meditation and travel and ate a meal together. In the morning he offered me the tent and when I declined on the grounds that it was too big for me to carry on my bike he rummaged around in his van until he found a smaller one. He had three tents, he said, and he’d bought this one for €30 at a super-market. If I didn’t like I could just dump it again. And so I took it.

I caught up with some old friends in Spain – friends I hadn’t seen in the 20 odd years since I was an aspiring young(ish) acrobat training in Barcelona and we were all living in a rather unglamorous squat in a uncompleted apartment block on the opposite side of the road from Parc Güell. The tourists used to stand up above us on the hill-top gazing down at the building’s outdoor terraces unaccountably distracted from the extravagantly adorned landscape they had come to admire by the banal doings of our daily life. Sonia and Alison have got married, and have an adopted child, and they live, without a constant audience now, in a small town to the north of Barcelona in a suburban house on a quarter acre block with a thriving vegetable garden. They have a dog and a cat and hope to add a foster child to their family soon.

Meeting Jan and Jan, a Dutch guy and a Canadian girl, who live in France and work in Switzerland, was a charmed, and charming, encounter courtesy of Warm Showers. I was regaled with good food, fine wine, a new inflatable sleeping mat, help and advice on bicycle maintenance, and exciting bicycling tales and left with renewed optimism and fortitude.

In the corner of France where it meets Germany and Switzerland, I visited a cousin. He and I are somewhat unlikely friends. We are within a week or two of being the same age but he was born and raised in the US and we’ve met less than half a dozen times in the course of our lives. He is a successful businessman, and has a family of girls just setting off to college back in the US, but somehow we share a taste in literature and an interest in discussing challenging ideas.

My friend, and an erstwhile cycle companion, Jeff, who I rode with – along with Jason, his brother, and Cass Gilbert – for several months in the US and Mexico back in 2009 and 2010, is also travelling around Europe on his bike. Jeff is generally accompanied by his family now but since his girlfriend and three year old son were attending family obligations in the UK we decided to ride together for a few days through the Black Forest and catch up on the last six years of life. We raced along the Danube, laughing and squabbling uproariously, in relentless torrential rain as the river steadily rose.

Germany seemed a marginally friendlier place than Spain and France. In a sodden park in Ulm, where Jeff and I were about to go our separate ways, a young man saw our bikes and approached us with a welcome offer of hospitality. We retired to this man’s flat to drink a nostalgic maté and I stayed the night after Jeff had boarded his bus to visit another friend in the north of the country.

Still in floods of rain, I continued north-east to the Czech Republic, which is the last country where I had a fixed address. First, I visited my friends, Nic and Mike, in their South Bohemian farmhouse where I still have half a dozen boxes of books and some stylish kitchen equipment stashed in the attic. Nic tends a vegetable garden and an unruly menagerie of domestic and farmyard animals as she slowly renovates the crumbling house and barns while Mike does something mysterious with computers in a closed room at the back of the house.

I sidestepped Prague and headed further north to see another friend as the end of my Schengen visa-free time hurtled towards me. It was here that all thoughts I had of maybe resurrecting my Czech life and settling down again faded away as if they had never occurred to me. With a day or two left to leave the Schengen area I rushed through Austria by train and bus and descended in Slovenia ready to ride into the unknown.

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dispatches from europe: france (via rhona)

The trouble with following rivers, I decide, standing astride my bike on the banks of the Rhône, somewhere a just little north of Lyon, is that you are always at the lowest point in the landscape. And, without a moment of subsequent regret, I turn my back on the river and abandon the ViaRhona.

But, actually, it isn’t just the topography, there are a few other things that mitigate against enjoyment of this cycle route that is being aggressively promoted in tourist information offices across France.

The ViaRhona cycle path is said to run all the way from Sète, on the Mediterranean coast, to Geneva, in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, loosely following the Rhône which flows through areas like the Camargue famed for natural beauty and such charming historic cities as Arles, Avignon, Valence, and Lyon. It looks convincing on paper and even somewhat tempting especially since, as I only have 90 visa-free days in the Schengen Zone, I am a little pushed for time.

However, the sad truth about the major rivers of Europe is that they are primarily industrial zones and transport routes, hemmed in by flood walls and tamed by countless locks, with hulking factories and power stations squatting gracelessly on their banks belching out menacing clouds of smoke and steam. But that said, industrial landscapes can have their own grimly impressive grandeur. So, no, the real problem with the ViaRhona lies elsewhere.

To explain properly, let me digress momentarily.

Once years ago when I lived in Prague and taught English, a student proudly announced in one of my classes, “We Czechs have beautiful mountains,… but…(sotto voce)… they are in Slovakia.” Now, the problem with the ViaRhona is similar. Everyone says, “We have a beautiful bike path along the Rhône, …(and then, sotto voce)…but we haven’t built it yet.” There is some fundamental failure here to grasp reality as it stands.

In many places even where it does, ostensibly, exist the ViaRhona runs alongside busy highways. Sometimes, only marginally better, it runs along the top of a dyke parallel to the river but more often than not without a view of the water. But then without the slightest warning, without shame, it can terminate, as it did at a point not long before I finally decided to abandon it, in three massive flights of stairs under a bridge. What kind of cycle path does that? And at the top of the stairs, nothing! Just a tangle of busy roads with not a signpost, not an arrow, not a hint, absolutely nothing. You’re on your own.

Forget it.


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dispatches from europe: france (the camargue)

Sitting in a seedy-ish cafe on the outskirts of Arles drinking coffee and recharging my camera and laptop batteries is a welcome moment of relaxation. It’s all go go go, my European cycle touring style. ‘Stealth’ camping in these densely populated unfriendly ‘developed’ countries requires late stops and early starts and cheap eating means bleak windy excuses for picnics.

And I’ve been sleeping out, tentless, next to mosquito infested canals. But I can’t begin to explain how much I like sleeping on the ground just any old where – wind, rain, mosquitos – all of it good when every time you turn over you can open your eyes to the sky above. It is the very best kind of home there is.

Yesterday, I cycled across the Camargue, a swampy wetland, which is France’s and possibly all of Europe’s biggest ‘wilderness’ area. All sea walls and dykes to stop winter floods, crawling with people and crossed in a couple of hours, it’s something of a sorry kind of wilderness, but despite all that it does remain a huge nesting area for birds migrating between African wintering sites and European summering areas.

A little ornithological park I visit seems more zoo than genuine wildlife reserve with a series of dreary cages housing birds of prey, stonily unblinking owls and aloof eagles, so still and expressionless that it’s hard to believe they are breathing. The storks and herons and egrets are that used to people I could get close enough to clearly see the downy young in the nests.

And thousands of flamingos. Whoever would have imagined flamingos in the south of France? Not me. But there they are and they even have a nesting colony which I see later in the day in the distance in a wilder more inaccessible part of the nature reserve. But these ones in the park are unfazed by people and I can see the pupils of their beady little yellow eyes. They are weird ungainly birds walking around with their heads underwater sucking up stuff like demented aquatic hoovers. They are at their best when they fly, normally at dawn or sunset, in those long v-shaped lines, honking in melancholic tones with their long legs trailing behind them.

An ornithologist in the nature reserve gives me chocolate biscuits and water and listens to my stories. He is convinced I must be world famous for the simple act of riding a bike here and there. I am charmed by his attentions, even though in the end he says he can’t offer me a room in the lighthouse – yes, a real lighthouse! – for the night because he isn’t single. I mean, really! Who does he think he is? There are so many things wrong with his statement I can’t even muster a sigh but cycle off into the wind scoured dunes to look for somewhere out of the way to sleep.

And so that is how this morning I woke to a real Van Gogh sunrise. Truly. The clouds were exactly like that. I don’t know if it is a Van Gogh painting that I’ve ever seen or even exists and maybe if I hadn’t been 20 km outside of Arles I wouldn’t have seen it that way at all. But the clouds were crazy pink swirly curly lines, visibly brush stokes, and the poplars trees were waving back and forth against the wild sky and the canal was right there.

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dispatches from europe: spain

Spain. Spring. The time of orange blossom and nightingales and rapidly changing weather.

I’m travelling hobo style, sleeping under bridges or creeping into the inadequate shelter of orange and olive groves. My tent and sleeping bag have fallen, via Australia Post, into the hands of the Spanish customs and no appeal to reason or compassion is capable of moving that authority, it seems.


But the weeds flowering amongst the garbage on the verge may as well be a garden planted for my pleasure: red poppies, sunny dandelions, dog rose, and all those I cannot name, delicate arrangements of fragile purple and white stars, a scattering of tiny yellow pom-poms on spiky twigs.


And if the highway is a torrent of fierce energy, a constant to and fro too fast to contemplate, old stones stand sentinel on the hills and a boarded up farmhouse stares across the valley as it has done for centuries. It gazes blindly back at an ancient hilltop town, the city walls guarding an empty heart given over now to sight-seers and souvenir sellers, a ghost town animated only by a group of fractious teenagers playing pakour on the historic monuments. (A youth hangs Christ-like from the metal railings above a wall, drops down to the pavement in front of a stolid señora brandishing a menacing umbrella. He strides across the road, measures up a pillar, scales it with a bound, steadies himself a moment and then leaps the gap, landing with only a minor adjustment. But by now I have passed this unfolding scene and the señora, too, has moved on, ambling up the road with her umbrella.)

Back in the hills, the wind mills are still here after all this time, multiplied and transformed by modern aerodynamic lines. They congregate on mountain ridges, like a row of crucifixes, the three pointed stars spinning atop their pedestals, waiting there for some new kind a martyr, for a reborn Don Quixote.

And everything arises from the same silence, the thundering trucks and the startled meadowlark singing in frantic ascent.


I wonder, maybe, if Frans and Fans, the two old Dutchmen on bicycles I met this morning on a freezing mountain top, wreathed in sodden clouds, might have been some kind of angels with their improbable names and welcome gifts of coffee, cake and maps.

Now the sun shines brightly, lingering until almost 9 o’clock, and after a long twilight hour, the stars light up one by one gathering into constellations that swing wildly overhead all through the chill of the night as dew drops on my unprotected sleeping bag*.


*The alert reader will note that my real sleeping bag is actually in the hands of Spanish Customs along with my tent but my kind friend, Atma, who I was staying with in Forna, passed on an old one of hers that henceforth will be referred to as my sleeping bag until such a time as I may be reunited with what is really my sleeping bag.


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the blog

Hmmmm. Well, it’s been over a year since my last real post. The one where I packed up my bike and flew from Uruguay in South America back to Australia. That was in the beginning of March 2015 and now it’s mid-August 2016.*

A few things have happened since then. I spent a year without really riding my bike. There was six months in Australia where I did most of my general commuting around the various places I visited by bike but that was it. And then there was six months in Scotland where I didn’t really go anywhere at all.

But now I’m back on the bike in Bulgaria. Somehow or other the bike ended up a little south of Valencia, in an unassuming village called Forna, in Spain while I was in Scotland and so my European sojourn started there. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it – there’s no real reason why you should have – and I don’t really believe in beginnings or ends so it doesn’t really matter anyway. My current destination is Turkey and after that I’ve got a few plans but they’re not laid in stone yet.

So… it’s kind of old news by now, but let me state it publicly. I’m back on the bike.

In fact, I’ve been back on the bike since April. And now, it’s September. And since I got back on the bike I’ve been thinking about this blog, and blogs and blogging in general. I’m just media savvy enough to know that we are probably in a post-blog world by now. Blogs are old. It’s all about Twitter, Instagram, and things that I’ve never ever even heard of. So I’ve been wondering if I should continue to blog. Do people read blogs anymore? And what are blogs for anyway?

I suppose I should also mention that I’ve never really had a clear idea of what this blog is about. I’ve got a few ideas of what it’s not about. It’s not about cycling, exactly. And I don’t think that it really is a travel blog. I would hate for it to be primarily about me. So what is it about?

It’s a question that dogs me and I don’t know the answer. So, if anyone reads this — and there really isn’t much reason to suspect that I have a huge audience just waiting for me to upload another post after all this time — but nonetheless, if anyone reads this, maybe you could give me a hint as to what you think this blog is about?

But actually, it’s more fundamental than that – I’ve even been wondering about photos and the nature of the whole photographic enterprise. I’ve been pondering the place of images in society. The rise of selfies. All those visual updates of everyone’s every move. And I’ve been asking myself, do I want to be part of all that?

I’ve been on a bit of a photographic strike and I’ve only gotten out my camera half a dozen times or so since April. It’s a bit annoying really because I’m carrying a DSLR at the moment and a couple of lenses and that’s a hefty load for someone who’s not taking photos. There was a mountain pass somewhere early on, in Spain, where I thought, “I should just dump all this electronic stuff on the side of the road!” But I didn’t. It all cost good money and now that I don’t earn good money there would be no way to replace it if I changed my mind later.

But it’s a thought that I can’t quite shake.

Maybe I really should dump all this electronic stuff by the side of the road.


*Since I have now decided to continue blogging, to keep the time line more of less intelligible, I’ve backdated this post and I’ll date subsequent posts to more of less reflect the date when the various incidents and anecdotes took place.


adventure cycle-touring handbook

Authored by the inimitable Harriet and Neil Pike, with contributions from lots of other experienced cycle tourists*, the all new updated version of the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook is finally out.


*Including me!


turns and returns

Some people know exactly where they’re going and some don’t. I have never ridden with a plan and and so I don’t have any real way to know if things are running according to it.

I had thought for a while that I might ride my bike north from Brazil, via Argentina and Paraguay, ending up in Venezula, perhaps by way of Suriname, Guyana and French Guyana. That would have given my America experience a superficial air of completeness. But when my time finally came to leave Brazil, I found that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do.


And so I ended up retracing my steps to Uruguay, instead,..


… to spend my birthday on horseback…


…on a four day trek in the Sierra Rocha…


… with my good friends, Lucie,…


… and Santi.


And then, I spent four days in Montevideo…


…exploring out of the way corners…


…with Mara, a young German volunteer at Caballos de Luz, over coffee.


Montevideo’s faded glamour is reminiscent…


…of Cuba…


…with colourful…


…retro cars…


…and glimpses of intriguing courtyards…



… and the interiors of dusty shops…


…inhabited only by the birds.


Colonial juxtaposed with modern.






Another coffee in the afternoon.


People crowd into the centre of Montevideo to bid Pepe, Uruguay’s beloved President, goodbye. Pepe is famous for his blue VW beetle and other humble ways. Unlike most populist South American presidents he hasn’t tried to cement his power and seems content to hand over the reigns after his allotted time – Uruguay’s constitution only allows for power to be held for a single presidential term and Pepe is happy to honour that.


Bye bye, Pepe.

You’d be right in thinking that you haven’t seen much about cycling here on this blog for while. And I guess we might have to talk about that eventually. But trust me, bicycles and the people who love them are still an important part of my life.


After Mara returns to Caballos de Luz I too leave the faded glories of the run down hotel by the docks. My new hosts in Montevideo are the charming, Carlos, and his partner, Ruth, who I contact through Warm Showers. Carlos here is posing as a typical Uruguayan with maté clutched in tight proximity – but in reality the maté equipment had to be dusted off especially for me. Carlos and Ruth aren’t fans of this stereotypically Uruguayan beverage. (Yes, I know, the Chileans, the Argentinians and even the guachos of Brazil all imbibe maté but none with quite the same demented addictive fervour of Uruguayans.)


Carlos examines my bike with a somewhat critical eye. His and Ruth’s stable of bikes are more stylish steeds.


Carlos runs a bike organisation that uses volunteer labour to refurbish donated bikes to sell to people who are interested in starting out on a bike at affordable prices.


And then finally I put my bike in a box and flew to Sydney.

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change of address

a thousand turns can now be found at

For the moment the old address – – will still bring you here but please update your links and records.