That bikepacking is quite different from biketouring is a fact I’d gotten a taste of during the summer. My motivation for this switch was mainly because of the possibilities bikepacking offers to go deeper into (pristine) nature, to visit places where us humans haven’t intervened too much yet and find both peace and adventure there.
On November 5th I started in Valencia, waved goodbye by two dutch biketouring girls I’d coincidentally met at my hostess’s place. It was nice to share this moment with them. An emotionally charged moment for me; two years after I burned out I finally got back on the bike for a long tour.
The week before my departure my head filled with doubts as I sat cozily on the couch in my prince’s apartment. My biggest fear was to discover that I couldn’t do it anymore; cycling adventures. And if that would be the case, what that would mean to me.
But now I was riding my lightly loaded bike across Valencia, looking way much braver than I felt.
I’d planned to ride the ‘Altravesur’, an off-road route leading inland from Valencia towards Albacete where it turns south towards the mountains of the Sierra de Segura and the Sierra de Cazorla. Via the Sierra de Baza I would then reach the biggest (and highest) challenge, the Sierra Nevada. From there the route leads westward towards Antequerra and Ronda hitting every natural park it finds along its way. Just passed Ronda the route crosses a mountainous region one last time to find its final destination on the Atlantic coast in Cadiz.
The Altravesur has hiking route GR7 as it’s backbone, but regularly deviates from it.
I left the city of Valencia behind me riding with my nose in the wind as the scenery started changing from flat to sloping. After 30 kilometers of asphalt I reached the unpaved roads the Altravesur route description had promised me. As I pitched my tent that night behind some small bushes on a hill, the busy city felt like a far memory. Had I taken of that morning in shorts and a T-shirt, now, right after dinner at 7 p.m., I curled up in my sleeping bag wearing every piece of clothing I was carrying. Partially based on research and partially optimistic I packed my summer sleeping bag for this trip, thinking I could always wear my clothes in case I’d feel cold. Starting from that first night I’ve done so the entire trip.
On day two I rode, with my nose up in the quite chilly wind, into the gulch of the Júcar river. I followed a narrow trail between a white cliff and the river. A hiking trail that regularly led over boulders and was littered with rocks over which I had to lift or push my bike.
On my side of the river I encountered some very old cave dwellings. On the other side, where there was a wider path, I saw more recent cave dwellings that were still inhabited. They must be a nice and cool place to live during the very hot summers of southern Spain.
That evening I made my first gulch camping mistake (one I’d repeat a few more times on this trip). There are hardly any flat pieces of ground to find in a gulch where on your left there’s a cliff and on you right there’s the river. Just when I was hoping on a deserted cave dwelling there was not one to be found. I pedaled on quickly on the narrow trail and just before dark I reached the point where the gulch widened and there was a small field. I pitched my tent underneath a walnut tree.
The next morning I left with a bag full of walnuts that I had cracked between two rocks while my tent was drying in the wind.
I continued my way towards Albacete and from there westward to the mountains that I’d been looking forward to most of all.
I didn’t only cycle with just my nose exposed to the wind, but with my whole body. It constantly whizzed over my ears, yanked on my body and chased its cold right through me. A cold that I, even seated in cafes eating hot soup and drinking coffee, couldn’t expel. It moved in with me. And my spirit dropped as did the temperature.
Just before entering the Sierras (mountains) my rear brake resigned. Probably when I put my bicycle straight up on its rear wheel an air bubble got into the caliper which stopped the brake fluid from doing its job. After a vain attempt, by a local bike mechanic, to release the air I found refuge from the rain in a small restaurant. I put my drenched clothes up over several chairs and set down feeling pretty demoralized. I’d looked forward to these mountains so much, but now I couldn’t even get started on them because of the broken rear brake.
I send a whatsapp to a mechanic at Santos and walked back and forward between the bike and the warmth inside trying out all the trips and tricks he suggested, but with no result.
Then I got into a conversation with the Guardia Civil (low key police), who were having in ‘lunchbreak beer’ and told them in crippled Spanish about my dilemma; riding into the mountains with only a front brake or riding 200km back to the city to get the rear brake fixed.
We got slightly lost in translation and they called the villages English teacher to translate. She turned out to be Dutch and immediately invited me to her home where I could more comfortably figure out my next steps.
After a big bowl of Dutch pea soup and a good night’s sleep I went back to the local mechanic, armed with a youtube instruction video and determined to get him to follow that exact procedure. I’d rather tried it myself but I didn’t carry the right tools and he wouldn’t let me use his. The mechanic didn’t like this approach. He wanted to do it ‘his own way’, which didn’t work. But in the end I got him to follow the instructions at least a little bit and finally some pressure started building up again within the brake.
The mechanic didn’t share my excitement but I was over the moon.
I was ready to go into the Sierra de Segura!
As if this repair had cheered on the weather gods, I rode up the first pass in wet snow the next day. Descending I could hardly see the road and I was incredibly thankful for my fixed rear brake, without it this descend would have been very dangerous. After warming up with a coffee in the village cafe on the other side, I started my climb towards the spine of this mountain range. It came in the form of a zig-zag donkey trail over which I pushed my bike up while walking. One of the famous ‘hike-a-bike’s of this route. A term specially invented for these kind of sections. The path got more white and slippery every minute but the view over the valley was beautiful and I enjoyed the sweet taste of Madroños (a kind of big soft berry) that grew along the trail. After walking for over one hour I reached the top and got on my bike again.
I bounced back and forward between intense enjoyment and wondering what on earth I was doing there. I was forced to acknowledge I’m not the same Hera as the one who was riding across central America three years ago. The burn-out knocked a big whole in my vigor and self-confidence. Everything felt so much more challenging now.
Why was I here? Suffering from the cold, looking for a place to sleep every night, making great physical effort, while I could be in Holland cozily together with my prince writing poems for the upcoming pakjesavond* with my family.
*Pakjesavond is a festivity in Holland on December 5th when Sinterklaas (a 300 year old saint) and his helpers deliver presents to kids (and adults). Teenagers and grownups often keep this tradition alive by buying each other presents and often writing a poem to go with them in which they recall events and characteristics of the receiver in a kind and sometimes funny way. This is my favorite holiday of the year!
Instead I locked myself in a room in Cazorla for the rest of the day, overwhelmed by insecurity and doubt about this project and my own capabilities.
After a chocolate bar dinner and a long nights sleep I started the climb back up the spine towards refugio ‘Colado Zamora’. Those 20 kilometers where so beautiful that I forgot my doubts for a little and just enjoyed the beautiful nature and the mesmerizing view from the refugio. Warmly wrapped in all my clothes, tucked in my downjacket hoody, I sat outside with a bottle of hot tea as the sunset colored the valley in all shades of orange.
My breakdown in Cazorla, the beautiful climb and descend to Colardo Zamora and the increasing sunshine and temperature helped me let go of my doubts a bit and enjoy the trip more. The warmth moved back into my body and I packed away my rainjacket and legwarmers in my seatbag together with most of my worries.
I descended to Granada, where I spend a day wandering around the old town. A city of beautiful old buildings but with the same consumptive and stressed daily life as takes place in more modern, less charming, cities. Being hosted by a WarmShowers member I baked a banana bread, found myself in Jurassic Park (virtual reality) and spend a full day on the couch reading while rain poured down from morning till night.
Because of the early snowfall and cold I decided to skip most of the Sierra Nevada and only bite of a little piece of the outskirts. It seemed like a good idea to save myself this challenge and suffering.
Instead I cycled westward where, to my surprise, lots of mountains and rock awaited me.
It was close to sundown when I was looking for a camping spot just outside Arenas del Rey. On both side of the road the land sloped quite steep up and down. As a last resort before dark I chose to ride up a bold hill on the top of which I would be out of view but fully exposed to the wind. Just when I made the turn a man came down with his dog. He asked me where I was going and I told him I was looking for a place to camp. He looked around and up to the hill for a moment and then signed me to told me to follow him. So I did, downhill. He didn’t say anything for minutes and when I finally asked him where we were going he said ‘To my house, if you want..’. ‘Yes please’ I replied, much more confident and thankful then I actually felt.
As we got to the gate of his property he warned me ‘There’s no shower, not toilet, no running water.’. Not something that’s common in Spain but I lightheartedly said ‘No problem!’. He locked the gate behind me and pointed out a small ditch and a shovel which functioned as the toilet, then he showed me his little house. It had two floors. Inside is was almost empty apart from an old desk with computer, a closet, a stove and a small table with two small stools. In the corner stood a bit white tubular device, I had no idea what it was. To take a look upstairs we climbed a ladder that was put where a staircase could be build. There was a bed, a couch and a cushion. ‘This is where I meditate’ he said. Next to the couch I saw I picture of the ‘flower of life’ and some books about naturopathy, yoga and meditation which soothed my nerves and convinced me that this ‘kind of strange wild looking loner’ was actually someone who (just like me) deliberately chose to live in simplicity. I was in a good place here.
During our meal of tea and cake he told me that he’d been the director of the postal services in Jimena de la Frontera for 30 years. When he retired they gave him a telescope to thank him for his work. So that was the tubular white thing I’d wondered about. He owned a house of 200 square meters and four bathrooms in the village but he prefered to live in simplicity now. He studied Peruvian naturopathy through an online course and seminars with a Peruvian guru. Soon he would go there for the second time for a period of six months to study.
The longer we talked the more we were impressed with each others stories. When he sat down at his computer for a live seminar with Peru I pitched my tent next to the house and went to sleep.
The next morning he made a delicious porridge with the most peacefulness and attention I’d ever seen anyone making any meal with. Followed by a ‘tapas’ of brown bread with on each piece a bit of cheese, a walnut, honey and olive oil. It was delicious!
After breakfast we took a walk together along the river down the hill. When I asked him if he was planning on staying there in the future he told me he would do or follow whatever would cross his path and feel good. And that we would like to walk around the world someday maybe, if he’d have the time.
When we said our goodbyes he called me an angel that landed on his path. This encounter had touched us both and I was very thankful that he’d welcomed me into his apparently very sober but in reality very rich life.
TO BE CONTINUED…