Yesterday, somewhere along the Canal de Garonne in Aquitaine, we pedalled our one thousandth kilometre. It amazes me that all those little turns of the pedal really do add up, and suddenly you find you’ve nearly crossed a country. We booked ourselves into a hotel to celebrate, and Huw cooked a meal by firing up our stove in the bathtub.
We’re in vineyard country: the hillsides are covered with rows of stumpy vines and white-flowering plum orchards. We’ve seen bats and heard owls and woodpeckers. While we’ve had occasional glimmers of southern European warmth – dry-grassed and humming with insects – it’s mostly been cold and misty. Our efforts to enjoy the cold while it lasts collapsed when it dipped to minus five one night; we lay in our one season sleeping bags, watching ice form on the tent and willing Africa closer.
Mostly, we’ve been making fair progress. This is partly thanks to the occasional ex-cycle tourer keen to pedal with us, show us the local sights and chat about past tours. They’re invariably lean, weathered men in their 60s or 70s, and they’re all far fitter than we are. We fly along at their pace, too embarrassed to take our usual breaks every hour or so, and collapse on the verge as soon as they’re out of sight.
Our progress has been hindered by two things: a mild knee injury and an abundance of tractor museums in this part of France. The knee injury was the result of a 93-kilometre day, and gave us an excellent excuse to take a couple of days off to drink wine rest with a friend who was in France for a few days. We took a train to meet her, leaving the bikes in the care of a generous Yorkshire couple running a campsite. (They bought it five years ago and moved over here shortly after that, when they realised their campsite managers were sitting in the sun while they were working 13 hour days in coal plants back in Yorkshire. “It just weren’t right,” said Gary, with a big grin on his suntanned face, looking delighted with the way life had turned out.)
The tractor museums: Huw is an agricultural engineer by training, and I’ll just say I now know more about soil engaging implements than I could ever have hoped.
The quest for calories continues. Huw has a higher embarrassment threshold and worse French than I do: a bad combination, for me. I often find myself having to ask for extra calories served up in bizarre ways (two bowls of pasta carbonara with extra bowls of plain pasta on the side, say), eliciting withering stares of disdain for the deep ignorance of the English for all things food-related.
So here we are, in a McDonalds’ (we succombed to the call of free wi-fi) in Aquitaine, heading east – first to stay with old friends to catch up, rest a bit and generally sort ourselves and the website out (we’ll be putting up our first galleries and, hopefully, sound recordings from there), and then onwards to the Mediterranean coast and the boat that will take us to Morocco.
This little milestone is the first of 24, according to our not-very-thorough route planning. Now that we’ve done one thousand kilometres – albeit on tarmac roads with more than our fair share of tailwinds – reaching two thousand, somewhere in Morocco, seems a little more probable. And if we can do two thousand, we can do three thousand, somewhere in the Sahara. The world seems a little smaller, in a good way.