“No, I didn’t camp here, it’s too cold,” is what I thought I told the Ranger who caught me wheeling my bike back out towards the road that bisected the Hurtgen Forest. It had been a few years since I last practiced my German, and even more since my last lesson, so I had probably told him that I was a carrot or something.
The previous night was the first time I had plucked up the courage to try out wild camping and I was busted. Before this trip I was nothing more than an armchair expert on wild camping, or ‘illegitimate sleeping’, as it is apparently seen by the law in too many countries; I knew the mantra ‘arrive late, depart early, and leave no trace’ from the countless blogs I read before I set out form London two weeks earlier. But in practice, those early days of this trip involved way too many nights spent in campsites, when I had succumbed to the reassurance of legitimate,albeit expensive, use of a patch of well maintained grass. As I received some odd looks from the inhabitants of the cosy, heated caravans while I set up my one person tent, I usually regretted paying for the privilege: even if it avoided being caught by officials or land owners, my insufficiently stuffed summer sleeping bag (and my own stubbornness to buy a new one) meant I was going to have an uncomfortably cold night, anyway.
After a few weeks on the road, I could say I had cycled across a couple of countries in Western Europe and, from that experience, I could say that the whole process of actually riding a bike this far was pretty straightforward: you pedal until you get a bit tired and then you stop. Next, you eat something and repeat step one if you feel like it, otherwise you find somewhere to sleep. Gradually the time it takes for you to get tired gets longer and that, in a nutshell, is how you cycle across continents with no prior training and a post-Christmas pot belly.
The cycling infrastructure found in Western Europe also meant that maps were unnecessary and the fear of traffic passing too close was unfounded, thanks to a network of segregated cycle paths that spanned half a continent. These paths led me along the great rivers of Europe – the Rhine, the Mainz, and the Danube – and through parts of Bavaria that, with their fairytalesque walled towns and disney-like castles that sat watchfully over the river valleys, never felt so stereotypically (and inaccurately) German.What proved to be the tricky bit was life off the bike. I had never done a bike trip where I am completely self-sufficient, where I carry everything I need to sleep and cook and ride until I find somewhere suitable to spend the night. As the incident with the forest ranger demonstrated, this latter point of finding somewhere to sleep was one of the main challenges during those first few weeks. This was not only due to the fact that I was too worried of being caught to wild camp, but also because my expectations were so far from reality. My daydreams of cycling through Europe consisted of images of sunny blue skies and lush green forests. At the end of each day, I imagined I’d find a quiet spot to camp that boasted a tremendous view of the setting sun as I cooked myself a delicious meal. That’s the problem with daydreaming, you only image the perfect conditions; it’s always summer in your mind’s eye.In reality it was still March. As I rode along the banks of those rivers, the valley sides were dark shades of brown and grey of bare, leafless tress that were yet to bud. Those fairytale-like towns of Bavaria remained in hibernation of the low-season, their streets filled only with the rather jealously-inducing smell of woodsmoke that comforted the warm inhabitants of the cafes, B&Bs, and restaurants my budget wouldn’t let me enter. Those idealistic camp spots were yet to materialise for a few more weeks.
But in spite of the gloom of Europe in March, the Hurtgen forest was too good an opportunity to miss, even though that forest Ranger told me the next morning that sleeping in these parts was verboten. Luckily for me, thanks to the language barrier erected by my terrible attempt to make up an excuse in German, the ranger probably realised the problem of me sleeping there wasn’t worth perusing, muttered “Alles klar” while he knowingly patted me on my arm and was on his way. And that was that; after I had done it once, the worry of being caught faded away. As I continued across Europe, I slowly developed a better eye for finding places to sleep through trial and error. By the last days of this trip, as any long-term cycle tourist will tell you, that eye for a wild camping spot was more akin to a sixth sense.
When you think of cycling from London to China, its easy to think of the active parts, of all that pedalling. But in reality more time is spent off the bike than on it, and it’s all those things off the bike that proved to be the most challenging as I slowly adjusted to life on the road. My time crossing Western Europe really acted as a period of transition as it was here, through trial and error, that I ironed out all those aspects off the bike while the riding remained straightforward. It was here that I tried (and failed) to wild/stealth camp for the first time but also, a few weeks later, where I managed to proactively approach a farm-come-biergarten and asked if I could sleep on their land. It was the first time of many on this trip that the owner said yes.
I was, it seemed, starting to act more like a bicycle tourist.
Next Chapter: Two pleasant surprises