Location: Ljusdal, Sweden
Miles covered: 1720
I was swept out of Amsterdam amid a somnolent tide of Dutch commuters, bleary-eyed from celebrations having reached the world cup final the previous night. Trying, and failing, to imitate the perfect, straight-backed postures of those around me, I drifted alongside the waterways and followed the coast around an inland sea. As evening hovered I was very suddenly besieged by insects as they lurched into life after lying in the grass all day. They positively pelted me as I passed and lodged themselves severally among my arm hairs and fledgeling beard. At one point I noticed that my billowing breast pocket had filled with probably close to 200 crawling, writing black shapes which had struck my chest and fallen in.
Near the town of Saskøbing in Denmark I was eating a yoghurt when Bruce hove into view. With such a name, I was hardly surprised to learn he was from Australia; his accent told me as much. Bruce is 60. He looks 50, cycles like he is 20 and bares an uncanny resemblance to Michael Palin. Every other year for the last 30 he has embarked on a four month cycle tour in countries all over the world. He is a true veteran and always wears a friendly smile under his nose which is left pale from religiously reapplying suncream. As we rode together I learnt that Bruce sees a country, really sees it. His route through Denmark formed a wiggly line all over the map which constantly doubled back on itself, thoroughly probing the land and all its nooks. Mine, by comparison, was as close to a straight line as I could make it and I realised that I’m seeing only what is within eyesight of a thin line through the country. This brought to my mind the mantra that ‘travel is the journey, not the destination’ and I must always try to adhere to this wisdom. That night we camped in the bush and I greedily absorbed as much of Bruce’s useful information as I could. The next morning we parted ways and I knew that, for me, Bruce personified contentment.
I followed the coast to Copenhagen where just four hours were enough to fall in love. If ever I’m lonely and old, I’ll move to Copenhagen and marry the city. Regardless, I fully intend to make this merry metropolis my mistress for a summer some year soon. The wide streets are lined with grand, ornate buildings and the picturesque waterways were dotted with people strolling in the evening sun. The people are (for the most part) tall, statuesque and beautiful. The girls sport skimpy beach wear and are over-flowing with self-assurance while the bare-chested boys move to and fro with visibly sculpted sinews shifting beneath their sun-burnished skin. I cooked my supper and washed on a beach in the Northern suburbs where at 9pm people still swam and played volleyball. Reclining on the sand and swigging from a three euro bottle of homemade erdberrenwein (strawberry wine; brought from a farmhouse in Germany), I happily watched the pretty people.
I decided to ask a suburban home-owner if I could camp in their garden. The area was evidently affluent and the first house I tried was vast with an ample lawn. I felt optimistic. Ringing the doorbell, I put on a face that was simultaneously vulnerable, friendly and unassuming. A balding man appeared and confirmed that he did indeed speak English. Oozing English charm (or so I thought) I asked the question and received a “no”, a curt apology and a closed door. Unperturbed, I tried another house. This time the kitchen window was thrust open and a head (I say ‘head’ as the front of it was too buried in botox, collagen and make-up to be considered a face) popped out. The owner looked at me once and launched into a Danish rant. I patiently waited for the tirade to cease before asking if she spoke English. She paused a moment and then repeated the rant in English, the gist of which was “go away!” I hadn’t even asked anything of her yet. The third and final house was similar to the first. The excuse given was that there was a valuable statue in the garden which they feared might get damaged or stolen. As I wheeled back down the drive I glimpsed a bronze scale sculpture of a leaping dolphin and wondered how I was supposed to steal it on a bicycle. Feeling disheartened, I slept in a mosquito-infested wood.
The next day I crossed from Helsingør (Hamlet’s Elsinore) to Sweden’s Helsingborg on a 20 minute ferry. In Sweden things changed. The land that had until now been flat throughout the Low Countries began to crease and undulate. I was off the enlarged area of my map and I unfolded the 1:3,000,000 scale section to fully comprehend the size of the country. I suddenly felt a Lilliputian in the enormity of the landscape that lay before me, stretching into the Arctic Circle. I delved into the forests and allowed my nostrils to gorge on the sweet and faintly festive scent of freshly-felled pine. There were some desolate clearings left by lumber workers but I felt glad as I spotted the light green sprouts of recently planted saplings climbing from the mulch-like debris. As evening fell I pulled into the first farmhouse I saw and was gladly given a patch of mown lawn to bunk down on. This night and the next I was welcomed and given a beer each time.
Forging further north, the settlements seem to simplify and are spread more sparsely. Many centre around farms or small carpentry workshops. It is hard to travel five miles without encountering a pristine lake. These are invariably very calm and mirror the surrounding pine forest; a green monotony of silent, matchstick sentinels which serrate the curving crests of the hilly landscape. Avoiding large towns and busy roads, I have taken some many backward and bumpy shale paths where tiny groups of wooden houses are found daubed in a rich maroon which glows a regal red in the late sun. The sun sets very late here and it never gets completely dark. I usually pitch camp on the mossy floor late after supper, a swim and a wash in a deserted lake. Security isn’t a problem and only one night have I been disturbed. I was woken by a noise and peered drowsily through my partially open tent flap to see the head of a man rising and falling as he crept away wheeling my bicycle as quietly as he could. I coiled my body in silence, took a deep breath and sprang out, charging towards the sneak thief. I didn’t get far due to a guide rope and a lack of balance. After my face hit the soft ground I looked up to see that the head had transformed into a fern leaf, softly bobbing in the breeze. As I clumsily clambered back to bed it seemed a chorus of birdsong was mocking my sleepy distrust. In this rich land where every other car is a Volvo and every other man a millionaire, what could anyone want with an old bike with a pair of boxer shorts drying over the handlebars?
A couple days ago a computer “reformatted” my camera’s memory card and wiped all the photos I had taken up to that point so it might be a while longer until I can post some online.
I now push on to the Arctic…