November 13, 2016
By the time we wake in the morning, yesterdays waffle-hangover has long since passed and the surly skies have been replaced with a bright sun and deep blue. It’s a short hop from Brugge to Oss in the Netherlands and another wonderfully unguarded border awaits. The riding is easy and the road unfolds in front of us as a ribbon of tarmac that passes effortlessly beneath our wheels. The road to Oss is very straight.
It’s not long before the rural fields hint at the city and soon we’re riding down a long boulevard that’s flanked by more speed cameras than either of us have ever seen. Every 500 m or so, perched atop a metal tree, there’s a camera in a box just waiting to catch some ne’er-do-well. The road’s unique claim to “Most-cameras-per-linear-foot” quickly wears thin as our last thirty minutes seem to crawl by – stuck behind cars doing a good 10 kph under the limit to avoid a ticket.
Finally, freed of the boulevard, we make our way down some narrow streets before finding ourselves on a walking path. Yes, there’s a bollard to stop cars and yes, riding down the path seems to make sense. No, it doesn’t seem legal. Still, it exits at our hotel and the pedestrians genuinely don’t seem to mind. Just as rain begins to come down, we nod at the last person on the path and park our bikes.
Hotel de Naaldhof is a Best Western and, if I’m honest, BW’s have been good to us in the past – and this is no exception. It’s affordable, well-appointed and, even with plenty of construction underway, the staff try to find us a secure place to stash the bikes – a gesture that’s always appreciated. With our gear moved into the lobby, a man jumps up and begins hauling all of our gear to the room almost single-handedly.
“Sorry about the construction, we’re just finishing up. This is your room.”
He introduces himself as Bob and while he doesn’t say it, he’s the owner. How often does that happen? He’s also a rider and, seeing our bikes, want’s to share his own stories and experiences with us. Originally from Hungary, he seems genuinely happy that we’re planning on taking in some of that countries great scenery.
Once we’re settled, we wait out the rain in the hotel and spend an evening in, enjoying a bottle of wine and some colourful conversations with the staff and with Bob. There’s a family feel here that’s truly welcoming and soon we feel as if we’ve been here for ages.
The next morning we make our way to REV’IT! for a long-overdue visit with one of our very first sponsors. We’re met at the entry way by Rineke, who’s been our contact at the company for the past year and a half and her smile makes us instantly happy to be here. We grab a coffee and take a seat in the boardroom – the first boardroom I’ve been inside for years. We talk about the journey so far and we’re given a new set of gloves and cooling bands which will come in useful for our journey through Australia. It’s really all we need; the gear we’ve been using for the past year has been standing up incredibly well to some punishing conditions (you can read our 25000km review here).
With the first cup of coffee down, Rineke takes us on a tour of the facilities and they’re quite impressive. The entryway is decorated with suits from MotoGP riders, helping us to visualize just how tiny in stature these guys are – but truly giants on any circuit! Next up, she shows us some of the new casual riding gear that’s coming out and we both think of how wonderful it would be to ride in gear that doesn’t make us look like astronauts – though being an astronaut is pretty cool too.
We’re then shown through the warehouse, repair and R&D areas which help us truly understand the effort required to design and manufacture this gear. It’s scope is epic. Just before lunch Rineke takes us to a very special place where the crashed suits of REV’IT!’s MotoGP riders are kept. She explains that after every off, the riders gear is sent back and the design teams review the damage in an effort to continually improve the safety of their products. Their commitment to rider safety is obvious throughout.
We grab a bite at a nearby restaurant where Rineke introduces me to the MegaDutch – a burger who’s size has no equal. It’s easily too much food, but a good part of the tasty treat makes it into my belly before I tap out. We close the restaurant telling each other stories of travel and get some inside information regarding spiders in Australia.
“They’re horrible. Huge, fast and they jump.” It’s the last thing an arachnophobe wants to hear before heading downundah. As we prepare to leave REV’IT! we’re met by boss Ivan Vos in the parking lot and a couple of curious employees who take the time to say hello before we leave. It’s been a great way to spend the day and only reinforces the great feeling we have about this company: it’s filled with awesome people.
We cap off the day with dinner at the hotel and a drink on the patio watching Bob mingle with the occasional guest and meet with various locals who stop by to say hello. In some ways it’s like he’s the host of his own talk show! Every once in a while he jumps into his Range Rover and runs off to gather supplies for the hotel, always sharing a wave as he passes by. Just as we’re about to head to our room, he stops by and offers to go over some maps of Hungary with us in the morning.
True to his word, as soon as we’re done breakfast, Bob pulls up a seat across from me and drops a pile of maps and brochures on the table.
“Listen. I have a house – here – along Lake Balaton. It’s a nice place and, when I’m not using it, I let the staff go there for a holiday if they want. You can go there after Budapest if you’d like. I’ll give you the number of the woman who looks after it.”
As always, the offer seems unbelievable. Bob shows us pictures of the place and he’s right, it’s a beautiful spot. We gladly take the number and thank him endlessly for his kindness. Offers like this are so unexpected but often given out so matter-of-factly it’s almost as if the subtext is “Yeah, of course. This is what we do.”
Feeling as though we’ve successfully met the Canadian quotient for thank-you’s, we hop onto the bikes for another quick ride, this time toward Amsterdam where we’ll be spending the next few nights.
It’s only an hour to Amsterdam from Oss but we’re both excited to arrive. We take the fastest and least interesting route there and, after mostly-flat farmland and the occasional windmill (Old Dutch!) we begin to weave our way through the cities busy streets. After North Africa getting through a city anywhere else seems comparably easy and the only hiccup to our hotel is having to ride the tram-lines after a delivery truck blocks the road.
Fortunately there’s no drama and, with the passing of a few small bridges, we navigate our way to the busy centre and it’s mass of bicycles, pedestrians, scooters and buses. The only place to park is the sidewalk and we hop the curb and leave the bikes while Nita checks us into the Park Hotel Amsterdam.
There are a few realities about Amsterdam which quickly come to light. One, scooters use the bike paths which share the pedestrian lanes and travel as quickly as they would on roads. This makes paying attention important as I nearly get taken out crossing to the other side of the sidewalk. Two, parking in Amsterdam is insane – it’s almost as expensive as our room if there’s a spot available! Fortunately for us, some kitchen staff and a valet lead us down a ramp, into the back of the parkade and have us load our bikes into a freight elevator. When the doors open we’re offered a non-spot next to kitchen tray-dollies and we hope with all our might that this is a free spot. Unfortunately it’s not. Since we can park both bikes in a single spot we’re given a “Break” and are only charged $60 per day! It’s getting more expensive as we head north.
Thanks to a short day on the bikes, Nita and I have a full afternoon to wander the streets and make Amsterdam feel more like home. Interestingly, we’re immediately flooded with sensory overload. Bikes flash past us in every direction, trains criss-cross along the streets and people are packed shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks. Everywhere around us it’s all about jockeying for position.
We cross Stadhouderskade and take some time to walk the increasingly narrow streets which are packed with people from around the world. The energy is high and folks are lively, but somehow we both find ourselves struggling with the manic pace. We duck into a small pub with a quiet corner to regroup and a large window offers us a respite – a place to observe with a little separation.
The feeling slowly passes and soon the vitality of Amsterdam begins to fill us. The architecture is beautiful and the canals break the experience of the city into sections of controlled chaos. Something that does dominate our attention are the bikes.
Amsterdam is famous for it’s bicycle culture and it’s a wonderful thing to witness. Far from the orderly (and comparatively empty) bike paths at home, here it’s a bit of a hot mess. The locals are like bright flags on an open field, easy to spot and moving effortlessly with the wind. These titans of human-powered transport seem to fall into three groups; those who can only ride as fast as possible (they comprise the majority), those who saunter while texting or talking on the phone, and those who are doubling others.
At the other end of the talent spectrum are the visitors who, after having never ridden a bike, decide Amsterdam is the place to learn. Generally they can be seen gripping onto fences while trying to discover the secrets of balance, or wildly weaving all over the path (and sidewalk) with the whites of their knuckles threatening to puncture skin with bone. It’s fascinating to watch.
The manic nature of the city never really dwindles but it’s effect on us certainly does. After a day it all feels quite normal and we’re able to make our way about the city without our shoulders touching our ears. It’s a fabulous place to visit.
On our second night we have the chance to see Regina Spektor play at a nearby theatre. We head down to the Paradiso and wait in a long line that stretches into the nearby square. Soon though we’re slowly moved into the venue which is small and wonderfully rustic. As the crowd continues to filter in the temperature rises to a truly oppressive height and, moments before Regina is set to play, a woman by the stage passes out and is carried off to a back room to recover.
We wonder aloud why the many windows around the venue aren’t opened but, at that moment, it doesn’t seem all that important; Regina is on the stage and music that falls somewhere between quirk, whimsy and virtuosity leaves all of us entranced. Indeed, by the fourth song the young girl next to us is mouthing the words to every song through a curtain of tears! Ah, music.
About half-way through the show another woman passes out and Regina quits the song to help her out, getting down on her knees while waiting for security to come along and whisk her away to the back. A nearby fan tries to grab an opportunistic close-up which is waved-off with a smile. Now’s probably not the right time…
We add an extra night in Amsterdam to see it’s sights and spend a little more time walking it’s streets. We give the red-light district a pass; we see plenty of guys stumbling from that part of town wearing t-shirts touting their virility. Perhaps if we were younger but probably not. Instead, we saunter over a few of Amsterdams twelve-hundred bridges trying not to get hit by the trains, cycles and scooters that pack it’s streets.
For some, the canals themselves are home. One person’s built a raft from daisy palettes and fashioned a barge with a tent for shelter while other’s sleep on more traditional canal boats. There’s also plenty of smiles to go around here and we get the distinct impression that meeting people would be quite easy. Stopping into a camping store a conversation about carabiners quickly becomes a long chat about life, love and travel. Before we leave, Mike’s offered us a place to stay and shown us again that kindness and great people are truly everywhere.
By the time we depart the next morning we’re ready for some quiet but we also leave excited by the prospect of returning to Amsterdam one day. We haven’t given the city enough time and it’s a fantastic place filled with far too much to see in three days. As we make a right onto the road we take what feels like a hundred detours as we negotiate a parade that’s weaving it’s way through the city. Eventually we find a ramp that takes us out in to the country and, as the buildings turn to fields our shoulders return to their proper place.
The wider roads filter to narrower ones and, once we’ve entered Germany for the second time they become narrower still. The road takes us northeast towards Bremen and Camping Stadtwaldsee, a nice communal campground whose tent area is effectively a field where folks can pick a spot – any spot – and settle in for a day or a week. While it’s not packed there’s enough people here that anyone arriving in the afternoon will need to set up within shouting distance of a neighbour. It seems quite lovely.
We find a spot near a tree and a picnic table that’s far enough away from the nearest tent that we don’t crowd them. It’s the Canadian in us. We also carefully position our gear to not block access to the communal table. Feeling quite satisfied with our set-up, Nita and I stand back to admire our work.
“Are these your bikes?”
I look to our left and see our neighbour for the night. She’s a tall German woman with fine hair and slight hippyishness to her. There’s a smile on her face that’s hard to read.
“These are yours?”
I answer yes and get ready to tell her about our travels, what we’re doing, how we sold everything… it’s not pretension, it’s routine. It’s also how an introvert prepares for being extroverted.
“Can you move them?”
It’s a question that, for a moment, makes me smile. Then it feels like a slap in the face.
“The bikes. Move them. I don’t want them this close to our tent.”
I look at Nita. Our bikes are in front of our tent and at least twenty feet from the nearest guy-line on their tent.
“Ah. Okay. Sure.” I’m shocked.
I move the bikes to the other side of the tent and hope that our existence doesn’t continue to irritate our prickly neighbour. Apparently it does. While she saves us another talking to, the position of our tent seems to be causing her some real distress, moving her chair a number of times before hiding on the far side of her own shelter. It would seem that she meant to find a park where no other people exist.
Her husband looks at us apologetically before sharing a weak smile and also disappearing behind the tent. After cooking our meal and shaking off the energy of that meeting the sun begins to dip creating a beautiful reddish haze that seems to blur everything just slightly. Then, suddenly, the thump-thump-thump of a bass drum destroys the silence. Looking around for a car with little ground-clearance being driven by a kid who doesn’t understand baseball caps, we see nothing.
Incredibly, we’ve managed to pick the one night of the year that there’s an industrial/electronica music festival just down the road. We crawl into our tent and try to fall asleep to the roar of applause and the pulsating bass of dance music which rolls on until three in the morning. This is the strangest welcome to a campsite we’ve had.
The next morning, with golden sunlight pouring into our tent, we awake to find a new tent pitched within two feet of our space-craving neighbour and we can only imagine how upsetting it is for her. Emerging from their tent, the husband makes a concerted effort to make some small talk; it’s obvious he’s sheepish about the previous night. While we’re talking, crazy (his wife) begins tearing down their site. The proximity of the new tent has proven too much. There’s a small row between them but soon enough they’re on their bicycles and out of our minds.
It’s not long before we’re all packed and ready for the road. A mixed offering, there’s plenty of highway and traffic until Hamburg before a bridge takes us over the Elbe, past the cities giant port and north toward Husum. These roads are much quieter and we’re frequently flanked by crops that drift right to the edge of the tarmac. While they’re not exactly sweeping, these pin-straight lanes lead us to the North Sea and our camp for the night where once again we’re met by a locked office! Fortunately, this place has comfortable chairs we can sleep in until the owners return.
After an hour long snooze, our hosts arrive and their cheerfulness is instantly warming. Gunhild and Holmer let us know that there’s only two pitches left at Nordsee Camping but for a single night we’re quite happy with whatever they have. The directions to our spot are well explained but my failing attention has us riding around looking for an obvious site. Stopping by a tall hedge to regroup, we realize that this is our spot. A small entryway leads us into a beautiful area surrounded by greenery; a completely private camping spot with water, a picnic table and power just for us! It’s our own Secret Garden and an amazing home for the night.
Much to our surprise, everything here is inexpensive; coffee is twenty-five cents, the showers are free, and even the sauna is available at no charge. In fact, the facilities in general at Nordsee are phenomenal. There’s a restaurant which serves excellent food, free laundry and the washrooms are cleaner than many hotels we’ve stayed in. Holmer lets us know that it’s their mission to keep camping affordable and it’s obvious that their efforts resonate with their guests – this place is completely full.
In the distance, kites fly high in the sky, anchored to the ground by pilots made invisible by a berm. Their graceful dance has us intrigued and, as we crest the hill, we’re greeted by an incredible view. Beside us, hundreds of sheep line the bright green hillside eating a healthy fill of grass while the landscape gently descends toward a muddy inlet that reaches to the north sea a good kilometre away. If we had wellies we could walk to it.
We’ve never seen the North Sea before but we’ve been hearing about people vacationing along it’s coast for the past couple of weeks. It’s an idea that sharply contradicts the images of a violent and unyielding impasse to those brave enough to face it. Here though the light bounces off gentle waves and we both succumb to the warmth of it.
As the sun drops over the horizon, we’re able to walk out onto the bay as low tide reveals the black sand which covers the earth here. All around us children play unattended, chasing sheep who always manage a remarkable escape leaving them just out of reach. Shallow pools lead people out for miles towards the water gifting their return to the hillside with muddy legs and broad smiles. This place is as close to heaven as we could get.
Eventually, we head back towards our campsite, weaving an awkward path as we try to avoid the frequent poop-bombs that line the ground. Heaven would be boring if it was perfect.
It turns out that the electrician who installed the hook-ups in our area didn’t actually connect them to the mains, so Holmer is kind enough to run an extension cable from the park to our tent. It gives us a chance to charge the headsets and all the other knick-knacks we carry, but just sitting in the fading light listening to people mill about all around us is a beautiful way to spend the night.
By the time we wake in the morning the electrician is already fixing the outlets. The family Leve don’t mess around! They’re in working order by the time our bikes are packed and we say our goodbyes to Gunhild and Holmer, the sheep and the beautiful landscape.
Our plan for the day is simple, if a bit offensive to the Danish: run the length of Denmark in a day to make our ferry to Norway. Originally we’d planned to camp halfway then ride a couple hundred kilometres in the morning to make the boat but, as nice as that sounds, it’s better for my soul to just be there, ready to go when we get up. We opt for a longer day of riding to get us all the way to Tornby for the night and a campsite ten minutes away front the port in Hirtshals.
The roads in Denmark are in great condition even if they’re not the most inspiring, but they do a great job of getting us to where we need to be. Denmark deserves better but this is all we can muster at the moment. The ferry tickets aren’t cheap and missing the boat isn’t an option.
Rolling into Tornby Strand Camping, it’s a communal space like Husum but rather than a wide open field it’s a long, narrow strip next some trees. Down from us we see two adventure bikes parked up and a couple of giant men sipping beers beside them. After parking up we wander over for a bit of an awkward chat; one looks like a balding Liam Neeson while the other is quite a strange fellow.
After some long, drawn silences we find out they’re on their way to Iceland where they plan to ride for a grand total of two days! Two. It’s hard to imagine taking a two-day, €1500 (each) ferry journey on the hostile North Sea to ride for two days, before getting back onboard for another two-day return trip. Perhaps that’s where the sheepishness is coming from. Either way, it’s a strange conversation.
We return to our tent still amazed at their plan but another thought is creeping into our minds; the prices in Denmark are already higher than we’re used to and we keep hearing about how much more expensive Norway is. With our budget getting tighter it’s a nagging concern that’s beginning to distract me from the moments. We’re also out of the land of the Euro – here the Danish Krone is king and the dollar isn’t as strong as it once was.
As we settle in for the night, the wind picks up and soon it’s howling through the trees. For the first time in as long as I can remember we actually have to use the guy lines to keep the tent from blowing away! As the nylon walls compress and expand we fall asleep thinking of Norway and it’s incredible landscape. Tomorrow we’ll be back on a ferry, this time heading North toward the Arctic Circle.