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The Continental Way: Our Camino Part 2

“Sube, sube, sube” Paco kept reminding me. To reach Spain, the road led up, up, up, for about thirty kilometres across the first mountain pass, then into an undulating collection of colls that roll you towards Pamplona. Despite the grind of climbing long hills, I always enjoy it more than flat riding. The twists and turns hold intrigue and surprises, the tops reveal dramatic panoramas, the descents whisk away the old and blow in fresh inspiration.

Many years ago and recently paralysed, I joined a section of the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees as part of a relay team. I have memories of being squashed up in a racing wheelchair, my head thrust down toward the tarmac, struggling up hills with no gears and arm muscles not yet adapted to a life of wheels. The journey across the mountains was a far better experience this time, the laid-back position of handcycling allowing views of the peaks, of lovely raw rock, of trees stretching tall to expansive blue sky. From the popular Camino starting point of St Jean Pied de Port, it isn’t far to the Spanish border, and on crossing it, my companions changed dramatically. Underlying anxiety and frowns were transformed to smiles and talk of Tapas trails. Paco and Solís were ecstatic to be on home turf, in warmer temperatures and familiar culture.

The Camino wanders between pretty villages with old stone churches and shuttered houses with colourful window boxes, alive with invitations to ‘Peregrinos’ – the Pilgrims – to sample the menu of the day or take a bed in a hostel. The Peregrinos are guided by the iconic symbol of the ‘Way’, a painted yellow Concha (shell) shining bright on blue, with a bold yellow arrow beneath indicating which way to go. Everyone walks with purpose in their stride, the ‘Way’ beckoning to move onward and forward. The path is often at the roadside or crosses it as it twists across fields, and as we pedaled by we exchanged calls of “Buen Camino”. I wondered about each person’s journey: Why are they there? What is their story? Why do they walk?

Whilst walking or riding, there is little interaction. The repetition of putting one foot in front of the other or the rhythmic circles of propelling a bike seem to lull each person into a quiet inner space. There is a feeling of peace and introspection, a moving meditation. But there is contrast too. On arriving in Pamplona, the city felt a shock after weeks on the road and any peaceful contemplation must be purged from any Peregrino: it’s narrow old streets ooze with life, it’s heartbeat pulsates strong. Crowds and tapas are pumped around cobbled alleys famed for the running of bulls. Paco is fast. He beats at the pace of Pamplona, his energy constantly buzzing. Without moment to object, he dragged us into the back of a shop and lifted me up some rickety stairs, insisting we pose for photos amongst a mock-up bull run. Rigged out in white t-shirts and red neckerchiefs, the guy working there enthusiastically arranged us amongst the plastic bulls, handing out props and encouraging dramatic body poses. The picture looked so ridiculous I didn’t think anyone would think it real. Posted with innocence and not a supporter of bull sport myself, I hadn’t thought it would be my most popular instagram post ever, or of the objections it would raise. Needless to say, we never saw a real bull except grazing in a distant field as we cycled by.

Back on the trail, the temperatures cooled and the weather turned a little bleak. We traded chilly camping and self-catering for hostels and menu of the day. We shared dinner with other way-goers, and at last learned a little of their motivation. “I’m on a career break and want to strengthen my connection with God again”, Susan from Texas tells me. “This is my third time” says Michael from Germany “I wasn’t planning to do it all the way to Santiago again, but it somehow just draws you along”. Some seem led by religion or a spiritual quest, others just by the route and the feeling it creates, or by a desire for change or to do something differently. Perhaps some that walk have been motivated by the Camino’s inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list, or by a spiritual path to journey to the remains of the apostle St James said to be buried beneath the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Certainly there is something special to be sensed. On the surface, the Camino is simply a way-marked path, but beneath it lies a story and richness that generates a journey: a shared experience whilst being alone, a daily purpose, a goal, an adventure into the unknown. It offers the ingredients that I perceive are vital to keeping lifeblood flowing, things so easily lost in the chaos of modern day living where many operate in survival mode. It is no surprise that so many people from all corners of the world are drawn to follow the Camino’s dusty trails across northern Spain and into the ancient mystical city of Santiago.

Our companion Stephen had to leave soon after Pamplona but in final week we were joined by my nephew Archie and a school teacher, Sean, from years ago. Sean is a chemistry teacher: the perfect fit for a Quest 79 project given it’s all about alchemy: encouraging people to step out of their comfort zones and discover something new, transforming ‘muddy’ bits into some ‘inner gold’: doubt into confidence, hesitance into boldness, fear into bravery, lethargy into action…

Fifteen and a rugby player not a cyclist, I was worried that Archie would suffer with a sore bum or aches from body parts not often used. Instead it looked effortless for him and he seemed to free-wheel uphill. He embraced the biting cold and wet of Galicia with barely a flinch, and on the final day riding into Santiago, the views non-existent through the mist of heavy rain and water jumping off the roads, he optimistically stated “we’ll be stronger for it when we get there”. His comment lifted me from the dread of five hours of wet riding – a handbike in the heavy rain effectively simulates a power-shower – and made me embrace the final leg of the Camino.

Following Paco’s backside up the road had become a familiar view and in the final kilometres of doing so, I reflected on the month gone by. Paco had taken control of everything. He had been our leader, the boss, a machine, a motivator and passionate dictator. I had let go and gone with his flow. The journey had not been a retreat or escape, I’m not religious and I hadn’t been in search of God. I hadn’t consciously thought about it, but I’d been riding through a life transition…but I find the most profound changes are those not over-thought or ruminated. I am moving away from a life I have known toward something new and I sense the excitement and expansion inside me. I feel healthy and whole, ready for new beginnings.

There is no finer way to take a journey than to share it with others and be welcomed by loved ones at the end. Waiting at the paving stone that marks kilometre zero, in the centre of the indescribably beautiful plaza beneath the cathedral of Santiago, we were greeted with hugs and dry clothes.

SPECIAL THANKS to Paco, Solís, Stephen, Sean and Archie, and to all of those who supported and encouraged us along the way, and our fundraising for Spinal Injuries and other good causes.

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The Continental Way: Our Camino Part 1

It took me a week to arrive. Until I watched the sun sink and burst amber across the foaming surf, until I collapsed with five hundred kilometres of arm- ache into the cosy cocoon of my tent in the woods of La Crabasse L’Eau, my soul had been missing: lost somewhere in the tide that has swept me from racing to journeying, from athlete to adventurer. The tide that I have swirled in for a decade.

We began our journey in the tiny Breton village of Hopital-Camfrout, once home to a leprosy hospital and the beginning of others’ Caminos. In theory we are pilgrims, though I’m not sure what we seek beyond a quiet place to rest our bodies, clean water and food. Maybe that’s part of the mystery, not knowing what we’re looking for until we find it.

This is my penultimate quest, the penultimate continent. My eyes close to the lull of breaking sea, and I see a mosaic of places and faces of the last three years. I’ve been handbiking a rollercoaster around the world. Every lump and bump is recorded in my arms. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t raced fast. Every smile and kindness is entrained in my heart. Perhaps that’s why the heavy clouds that weighed on me after Paralympic success and all that it took have finally cleared.

As I lay shivering in the European autumn, I think of the last remaining continent, Antarctica. I wonder if it’s cold hostility is beyond me, beyond the physiology of my paralysed body, beyond my skills of survival. But deep down I know I will rise to it. It will just mean good planning, detailed thinking, lots of training, and a sponsor who aligns with the ethos of our expedition. I feel the familiar flicker of excitement and uncertainty, the unknown always more appealing than certainty and routine. I like not knowing, like the surprises of our Camino: we never know how the day will go, what we will experience, where we will sleep.

We roll to the beat of my friend Paco’s drum. He is Spanish, direct, fast. It is his tenth Camino over twenty-five years. He doesn’t like France so we are fast-tracking to the border to his call of “Vamos!” and promises of “comida y precios mejores” – better food and prices. We are four days ahead of schedule after only a week, and as we follow Paco’s ass up the road, he never seems to tire. “He’s a machine” Stephen comments, but I think Stephen is of the same mechanically strong ilk given he’s leapt from office chair to 100km plus a day without problem or complaint, and that he has never toured by bike before. We are a rare mix of characters, an unusual bunch. As with most of the Quests, we had never all met before we began. Not everyone can take weeks or a month away from jobs and commitments, and I muse that I am a tart to adventure, willing to journey with anyone who has time and thirst. This time we are two Spaniards and two Brits cycling through France; three men and more swear words than I ever knew, my head bursting as I flick between ‘Coffee Break French’ podcasts and Spanish or Spanglish obscenities.

The Spanish border has got closer and the sun has appeared at last. I have been layered up for the chill of France, but with blue sky finally blazing, I sweated yesterday in boil-in-the-bag style waterproof trousers. Tired beyond sleep, it seemed too much effort to stop and strip, and so I limped up the final hill into St Jean Pied de Port, thankful for the promise of a day to rest.

We’ve barely left the pilgrim’s hostel, cosy with mattress and unlimited coffee, luxurious after cold canvas and campsites. We have briefly ventured out into the rain. It drizzles onto excited pilgrims exploring the cobbled streets of the old walled town. The long queue from the old wooden door into the ‘Pilgrim’s office’ suggest many are here to begin their Camino, though some like us look too tired to be just starting out. We think back over our journey so far. The days have rolled into weeks, a conveyer belt of forest, lakes, waves and campsites merged into a movie. We try to take it apart. Which place had that cracking sunset? Where were we on that really windy night? Which was the campsite with barking dogs and what day did you get that massive bee sting?

I didn’t need to ask myself when the phonecall had been. It had been day one, a missed call, a bizarre twist to the start of my Camino. It was the British Paracycling team manager. I knew he was calling to tell me I was dropped, that fifth in the world wasn’t good enough. Paralympic handbike training has been the constant, the pillar of my life for over a decade. It’s hard to let go of something you love, especially when someone else deems it time for you to move on. And so for now I will keep riding, thousands of kilometres, towards unknown horizons. Whilst I have no religion, I have faith, and know that before the spires of Santiago, I will have find signs to indicate which path beckons next.

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The Sacred Way – Part 4

We cycle down a three lane highway, a toll road actually, except bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians and horses seem to go free of charge. Actually it’s a no-lane highway but in Europe it would have three. Under-taking is the least of our concerns as trucks come head on towards us, hurtling contra flow, horns blasting, traffic weaving and dodging… but incredibly there are no collisions. It’s a living version of some kind of chaos theory, a self organising system that is a sea of chaotic unpredictability. We’d never consider cycling a motorway at home, but the tarmac is black gold, and we eat up the kilometres much quicker than we have been. It means we can, if all goes well, find a bed beneath a fan and rest up for the afternoon in relative cool.

Planning this journey involved random plotting of a route that followed the course of the Ganges. The roads could have been dirt trails, bumpy tracks or full-on highway. The place names could have been sleepy villages or sprawling cities for all we knew. We have for sure encountered it all in this final part of our journey and two days out from the end we slowed to a crawl. We trundled through villages, the dust dampened with hose pipes, wiggling through potholes and puddles. We longed for smooth road again, Christine’s spine sore with the shaking, Kevin sapped of strength tugging a rattling trailer, me grounding and grinding my low ride handbike over lumps.

“It could have been like this all the way” I remind us, feeling so grateful that on the whole, India’s tarmac has been better than that of Scotland.

‘The Sleeping Bike’ is what the locals call it here in our Varanasi neighbourhood. Within two days of being here we feel a small part of the community. Rocky from the clothes shop, Panda-gi the rickshaw-walla whose house is a den of cardboard, corrugated metal and cloth in front of our hotel with the cows, Shammy the henna hands lady who has painted Christine in intricate detail, the handicraft ladies on the ghat… but of course, in their entrepreneurial, resourceful way, everyone is wanting our rupees.

Within our small team of three, we have bonded stronger than we could have imagined. When the nozzle of your colonic irrigation gadget falls down the loo and your friend goes fishing it out of the pan whilst you’re sat there but can’t reach it, you know your friendship has moved to a level it has never known before. When you are showing your besties partner a picture of a bathroom whilst she is inspecting saddle rash on his ass at the same time, you know you have entered the realms of ‘extreme friendship’.

In these few days of rest and packing, we reflect on the journey. After many bike tours, it is the special views and the wind in your hair that leave their imprint. This journey has been different. There have been no striking views since the first few days with Himalayan backdrop. Glimpses of the river have been few and far between. The skies have been clouded with smog. Our views of the sugar cane and wheat fields have been obscured by a paparazzi of motor bikes. It may not sound ideal, but we are imprinted with other kinds of memories. The way people shake our hand then touch their heart. The way they kiss the notes and thank the gods for the rupees we give them. “How you like India?” they ask us, eager to know our country, our names, and what we are doing. “You are guest, you is god” they tell us, and selfie after selfie they snap, so chuffed to have a photo with us, the subtle sideways nod of the head an indication they are pleased with the picture. People here are proud of India, proud to have us, excited to see us. Small shrines and temples from miniature to grand have decorated our experience. Candles, orange flowers, red dye on the forehead, colourful flags, big eyes and inquisitive faces have lined our way. Emotion, heart and spirit have replaced the views, skies and breezes of a more ‘regular’ cycle tour.

Varanasi has been a more intense and psychedelic conclusion than we could ever have imagined, but oh, so India. We float in a rickety rowing boat on the Ganges and absorb the activities that unfold along its banks. The billows of smoke from fires of burning bodies, the celebratory rituals, the fusion of life and death. We feel sad to leave this colourful world, but grateful to have it coming home with us, infused in our hearts.

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The Sacred Way – Part 3

Cycle touring usually means a sore ass, aching leg muscles or in my case, shoulders. We never expected that the sorest part of our bodies cycling through India would be our lungs. Our chests burn, a deep sting inside, like all the alveoli are raw and inflamed. Christine has almost lost her voice, and Kevin sounds like he smokes sixty a day. We are all coughing but nothing comes up. We want to dust the sky, polish the brown hue away, breathe in deep, fresh, clean air. Luckily for us we have the Scottish Highlands to return to and we’ll soon recover, but the people we wave to as we whizz by on our daily travelator will stay, breathing this thick polluted gunk.

Where we get off the travelator is a daily surprise. Our worst was a roadside dhaba (transport cafe), shoved in a dingy room that mosts prisons would quarantine, with rats scurrying over us and mosquitoes feasting on our blood, sleeping on two tables amongst giant truck batteries on charge and air so thick with dust it’s surprising we didn’t asphyxiate in the night. We got to recover in a nice hotel before another rough night in a “men’s hostel” where Christine elected to pee in a bucket rather than risk entering the toilet.

“Have a good holiday in India!” people said before we left home, but this is no holiday. This is an adventure into the wild north of India, the band of land – the state of Utter Pradesh – sandwiched between the Himalaya and the golden triangle, where tourists do not venture.

“We never saw white people here” a local student tells us. “It is a first in history. No tourist come.” Crowds follow us relentlessly until we lock ourselves into an overnight room. On the road, paparazzi gangs on motorbikes film us and snap selfies, sometimes driving us off the road until we stop. Off the bike, hoards of locals swarm and swamp us as we go in search of food and water. In our overnight accommodation, young men rush to help Christine and I with bags or stairs, but their true motivation is to sneak a set of selfies with us, away from the disapproving eyes of their manager. But meanwhile, the manager is getting selfies with Kevin out of view of his staff. We hadn’t appreciated until now our pure novelty, the strangeness of our white skin and fair hair.

To say we are following a river, we have seen little of her. For the first time in a week, we crossed the Ganga, excited to be united again. But the turquoise water of upstream is now grey and lifeless. We paused on the bridge to look down. A car stopped and a group of beautiful well-dressed women in colourful saris emerged, a traffic jam forming where they had blocked the road. They gathered by the railing above the water and reached into bags, we thought to throw flowers or some kind of offering to Ma Ganga. They turned their bags upside down and as they shook, we were taken aback to watch plastic and rubbish tumble out. Ma Ganga, the revered sacred water, is both loved and badly abused.

We have found a rhythm that helps us through the smothering of heat, humidity and people. There is a window between 7 and 9.30 am that is cooler and relatively peaceful, when for a brief time we can breathe, when our skin doesn’t pour with sweat, when we are dry enough for the dirt not to stick. By 10 we are swarmed, and our mentality switches to survival mode. We ride in formation, efficiently rotating to set the pace, cruising up to roadside stalls to top up water and bananas (and a few for the days “selfie” count), and swerving around cows, pigs and speed bumps like pro dodgem pilots. By 11am the heat it is up to max – 36 degrees the last few days – and our progress gradually slows from 30km/ hr to 25 then 20, and then we limp towards a room with a fan, drenched as if we’ve just showered except there is nothing clean about us. As we pedal for our lives in the heat and chaos of the wide-awake day, I think of a saying sent to us by our Indian friend Sanjay. “It is not an adverse situation that disturbs us, but our inability to handle such a situation”. I feel grateful to be with Christine and Kevin. We are a solid team, nothing is throwing us off. We are in it, on it, and enjoying it for all the colour, texture and intensity of the experience. I know many wouldn’t, and with the wrong team, neither would I.  But this is a ride of love and friendship, and a reminder that with those bonds, everything is fun and surmountable.

How fitting it was then to take our first day off to visit the worlds most famous icon of love and one of the new 7 wonders of the world. After days on the road it was tempting to lie in air conditioning and rest instead of take a 500km round trip to the Taj Mahal and it’s daily flock of visitors. But as we walked beneath the gate to see the floating domes and towers of marble, we were glad we had. The good things in life never come without effort.

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The Sacred Way – Part 2

In May this year, a bunch of Scottish Scouts took on their own Quest 79 challenge, crossing Scotland via the Great Glen Way. The cycled and canoed 79 miles over four days through sun, rain and midges. “What was the hardest bit?” I asked.
“The big hill! It went on and on and it was so steep.”
“And the best bit?”
“Errrr. It’s weird but maybe the best bit was going uphill too” they declared. “Because we didn’t think we could do it, and then we discovered we were stronger than we thought.”

The Himalayan hills are behind us now, but whilst they were hard, we are missing them as we cycle on the plains of the Ganges. A piece of our hearts is left in the drama of the scenery we have passed through, in the unexpected terrain, with the turquoise Ganga tumbling beside us, with the resilient spirits and gentle smiles of mountain people.

Our challenges are different now. We cycle by monkeys and road signs for elephants. We are grateful for the sacred cows that bimble all over the roads, slowing the onslaught of traffic to a safer pace. We dodge between rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tuktuks, battered old cars, trucks and buses, mules and donkeys, carts, dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys, people, puddles, potholes, bumps and lumps.

“One Selfie!” all the motorbikes call to us, anything from one to five passengers squeezed on a single seat, hands full of mobile phones pointing at us whilst shouting “What your country?!”

When we pause for a break, crowds gather within seconds, motorbikes abandoned in the middle of the road for videos and selfies with us, overladen buses veering around, sometimes with a small crowd sat on top or someone on the roof-rack playing a drum.

In this land of motorbikes and selfies, noise is relentless. After a few days we manage to zone out from the blaring horns, rumbling engines, squeals of monkeys and calls to prayer. The heat is oppressive, thirst impossible to quench. We seek sanctuary in our overnight abodes, a screen of concrete and glass between us and the chaos, a waft of cool from a fan that looks ready to propel itself from a misfitting hole in a crumbling ceiling. Kevin dreamt last night of a fan spinning from the ceiling into the giant bed and mincing us all up. Maybe he is wanting a get-out from the sticky hard work or the incessant overload on the senses.

Christine is a changed woman. “We’ll get another day out of these cycling jerseys” she suggests on day four of ten hours on the road. It is a polar opposite to her usual habit of putting every last scrap of clothing in a washing machine after a half-hour cycle that raises no sweat. I am a changed woman too, saturated with grime and years of dirty adventures, eager to rinse our jerseys in a bucket.

“I love all these bruises and scrapes on my legs. Some of them are spectacular!” Christine adds, “I’m a real adventurer now”. Meanwhile, the seasoned adventurer in me is scrubbing myself clean, cleaning my feet with tea tree and seeking the moisturiser. There has been an exchange between us somewhere along the way. Christine has downed her standards (even happy to eat some day-old pizza crawling with ants), and I have upped mine.

We are exhausted with ‘our public’ but appreciative of Christine bringing up the rear and acting as our relationship manager with the motorbikes chasing us down from behind. They have heard we are on the road and are out to investigate. “Namaste! Gangotri to Varanasi” she calls out like a broken record, and intermittently we hear “Very well thank you!” In desperation to escape a growing crowd and a gang of bikes in the town of Bijnor, we flee.

10km out of town, our newly acquired Indian SIM card not working, I briefly turn my data roaming on to check we are on the right road. We are going totally the wrong direction. Back on track and my phone full of texts from Three informing me that the 90 seconds online has cost me more than £1 a second (seriously Three?!), we decide to cut our day short and find a riverside Ashram. We are hoping for some peace and a spiritual experience on our “Sacred Way”.

We leave the tarmac and follow a dusty lane towards the Ganges, temporarily lost amongst donkey poo and inquisitive villagers. Kevin’s data roaming, at a much more reasonable rate, navigates us to the Ashram gates. A friendly crowd starts to gather and lifts us and our bikes up the flight of steps, and through a gateway that has an air of temple about it. Before entering inside, we are spoiled with hot chai, snacks and a bunch more selfies. Ready for some rest and maybe a lesson in meditation, we begin heading inside, asking where there is a room we can lie down. Instead we are guided outside again, back down the steps, up the dusty street and toward the ‘the old house’. I imagine an ancient temple, maybe a bit dilapidated, excited for our first Ashram.
We are shown to a room, Kevin reporting that an old man had been fast asleep on the bed until a few seconds before.
“This old Ashram?” I ask Kum Kum in my new Indian English. She seems to be in charge.
“Old home,” she says, “I manager”.

A few hours later, tucking into daal and chapatis with a bunch of old men in their 90’s, we realise that the Ashram is actually an old people’s home, and we are booked in for the night.
Never a dull moment in India.

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The Sacred Way – Part 2

In May this year, a bunch of Scottish Scouts took on their own Quest 79 challenge, crossing Scotland via the Great Glen Way. The cycled and canoed 79 miles over four days through sun, rain and midges. “What was the hardest bit?” I asked.
“The big hill! It went on and on and it was so steep.”
“And the best bit?”
“Errrr. It’s weird but maybe the best bit was going uphill too” they declared. “Because we didn’t think we could do it, and then we discovered we were stronger than we thought.”

The Himalayan hills are behind us now, but whilst they were hard, we are missing them as we cycle on the plains of the Ganges. A piece of our hearts is left in the drama of the scenery we have passed through, in the unexpected terrain, with the turquoise Ganga tumbling beside us, with the resilient spirits and gentle smiles of mountain people.

Our challenges are different now. We cycle by monkeys and road signs for elephants. We are grateful for the sacred cows that bimble all over the roads, slowing the onslaught of traffic to a safer pace. We dodge between rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, tuktuks, battered old cars, trucks and buses, mules and donkeys, carts, dogs, cows, pigs, monkeys, people, puddles, potholes, bumps and lumps.

“One Selfie!” all the motorbikes call to us, anything from one to five passengers squeezed on a single seat, hands full of mobile phones pointing at us whilst shouting “What your country?!”

When we pause for a break, crowds gather within seconds, motorbikes abandoned in the middle of the road for videos and selfies with us, overladen buses veering around, sometimes with a small crowd sat on top or someone on the roof-rack playing a drum.


In this land of motorbikes and selfies, noise is relentless. After a few days we manage to zone out from the blaring horns, rumbling engines, squeals of monkeys and calls to prayer. The heat is oppressive, thirst impossible to quench. We seek sanctuary in our overnight abodes, a screen of concrete and glass between us and the chaos, a waft of cool from a fan that looks ready to propel itself from a misfitting hole in a crumbling ceiling. Kevin dreamt last night of a fan spinning from the ceiling into the giant bed and mincing us all up. Maybe he is wanting a get-out from the sticky hard work or the incessant overload on the senses.

Christine is a changed woman. “We’ll get another day out of these cycling jerseys” she suggests on day four of ten hours on the road. It is a polar opposite to her usual habit of putting every last scrap of clothing in a washing machine after a half-hour cycle that raises no sweat. I am a changed woman too, saturated with grime and years of dirty adventures, eager to rinse our jerseys in a bucket.

“I love all these bruises and scrapes on my legs. Some of them are spectacular!” Christine adds, “I’m a real adventurer now”. Meanwhile, the seasoned adventurer in me is scrubbing myself clean, cleaning my feet with tea tree and seeking the moisturiser. There has been an exchange between us somewhere along the way. Christine has downed her standards (even happy to eat some day-old pizza crawling with ants), and I have upped mine.

We are exhausted with ‘our public’ but appreciative of Christine bringing up the rear and acting as our relationship manager with the motorbikes chasing us down from behind. They have heard we are on the road and are out to investigate. “Namaste! Gangotri to Varanasi” she calls out like a broken record, and intermittently we hear “Very well thank you!” In desperation to escape a growing crowd and a gang of bikes in the town of Bijnor, we flee.

10km out of town, our newly acquired Indian SIM card not working, I briefly turn my data roaming on to check we are on the right road. We are going totally the wrong direction. Back on track and my phone full of texts from Three informing me that the 90 seconds online has cost me more than £1 a second (seriously Three?!), we decide to cut our day short and find a riverside Ashram. We are hoping for some peace and a spiritual experience on our “Sacred Way”.

We leave the tarmac and follow a dusty lane towards the Ganges, temporarily lost amongst donkey poo and inquisitive villagers. Kevin’s data roaming, at a much more reasonable rate, navigates us to the Ashram gates. A friendly crowd starts to gather and lifts us and our bikes up the flight of steps, and through a gateway that has an air of temple about it. Before entering inside, we are spoiled with hot chai, snacks and a bunch more selfies. Ready for some rest and maybe a lesson in meditation, we begin heading inside, asking where there is a room we can lie down. Instead we are guided outside again, back down the steps, up the dusty street and toward the ‘the old house’. I imagine an ancient temple, maybe a bit dilapidated, excited for our first Ashram.
We are shown to a room, Kevin reporting that an old man had been fast asleep on the bed until a few seconds before.
“This old Ashram?” I ask Kum Kum in my new Indian English. She seems to be in charge.
“Old home” she says, “I manager”.

A few hours later, tucking into daal and chapatis with a bunch of old men in their 90’s, we realise that the Ashram is actually an old people’s home, and we are booked in for the night.
Never a dull moment in India.

New Road Part 3

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The Sacred Way – Part 1

The rickety village of Gangotri is the end of the road and the start of our journey. We are 3500m high, buried in a Himalayan valley. A few short rows of tumbledown houses line the upper Ganges, a smattering of colour etched across golden towers of rock. Massive blocks of mountain are suspended precariously above us, ready to fall from contorted walls that stretch to the sky. Towards the heavens, rugged peaks crown the valley like meringue, and from their heart flows Ma Ganga. The crystal water of the worlds most sacred river is the reason we are here. Today we throw a feather in the river. Tomorrow we will begin chasing it downstream. In the next three weeks we will cycle 1500km from these dizzy heights to the winding streets of Varanasi and its two-thousand temples. The pristine scene before us is a stark contrast to what awaits us downstream. Here the water is pure enough to drink but by the end of our journey the river will be awash with rubbish and the remains of burned bodies. Varanasi is the fourth most polluted city in the world.

Tushi-shy is our new best friend, our Nepali Sherpa adopted for the day. A slight man, he magically makes the village wheelchair friendly, deftly navigating us up steps and along riverside paths, hauling two heavy bike boxes on his head with the strength of the mightiest Hindu God. He guides us to Ganga Aarti, evening worship of the banks of the river, and then to the temple for sunset. We share daal and chapatis and in broken English, exchange snippets of our radically different lives. We would like to stay a while, trek to the glacier and absorb more mountain energy, but our bikes are beckoning for action. Our journey must begin.

Downstream we go. The river goes down, down, down, but we go up and down. The valley sides plummet into the Ganges gorge so that ridges of mountain force us upwards. Our loads wobble and our legs and arms shake at the effort of each hill. On day three the mountains hit us like a wall, 60 km of climb. Our average speed slows to 6km an hour and we set in for a long hard day. Christine makes noises like she is giving birth, but she digs in, bend by bend, bite-size chunks her mantra. After 35km of climb, clinging to the mountainside and aghast at how high we are, she upgrades her and Kevin from ordinary human beings to extraordinary. A few bends later they are honorary superhumans, ”for one day only” she emphasises, barely able to believe where we are and how high we have climbed.
“It’s two years ago since we started the couch to 50km British Cycling training programme” she reflects ”and I thought the hill from the Dores Tesco was too much then. It’s not even a hill!”
“And now look where you are. Never mind 50 km, this is couch to Himalayas in 2 years!” I remind her.

We chase darkness to the top of the hill, and just 2 km from the hilltop village of Chamba, Christine cracks. “I can’t go on!” she wails in a brief moment of despair, but some Harry Krishna pilgrims from Russia and Kazakhstan abandon their motorbikes to help push her bike around a particularly gruesome steep bend. We are nearly there – just a few more km to the top of Christines Everest and a bed in the village of Chamba.

Storms, landslides and mud took us back to the lowlands, to our Glow on the Ganges location in Rishikesh. It feels hot, steamy and busy. We intended to visit an Ashram for a few moments of meditative peace but instead we choose a few hours of reprieve in our hostel bedroom. The assault on the senses is non-stop. The horns and throb of India can wait  for tomorrow.

We lie on beds that in India would likely sleep a whole family in each. The sheets have a grey tinge, probably washed in Ganges water. Brown dirty fans whir above us, vaguely stirring the hot sticky air. Damp stains the yellow walls and a metal grid over the window separates us from the bustle and chaos outside. Beyond the hostel wall, people are sleeping in shacks and tents amongst rubbish and moo (=mud + poo). We have monetary abundance compared to most around here, but the blessings, ceremonies, sacred rituals, smiles and hearts of the people we meet tell of spiritual richness. Who is better off I wonder?

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Quest 79 One Year Anniversary

Whilst in the Nevada desert about to attempt the Human Powered Speed Championships land-speed record for armpower, I reflect on the year that has gone since we officially launched the Quest 79 project. It’s all about encouraging people to challenge themselves, try something new, and hopefully find their ‘inner gold’ – that is, to discover something new, surprising and positive about themselves.
My personal Quest is to ride 7 continents, 9 rides (one on each continent, and 2 Paralympic Games). It has been a moving and special year to see people taking on their own projects and gathering their stories. Rowan at age 10, began his challenge to climb 79 peaks in 79 weeks and is about two-thirds of the way through already! Mark Pitcher decided to ask 79 people to donate blood, to help support a child in his family with a rare disease requiring blood platelets. When 79 people donate, he will run his first marathon. Groups of children have been taking to their bikes to do 7.9km rides, and Anne cycled 79 miles for her 79 years. The Moray Scouts took on a 79 mile trek to cross Scotland’s Great Glen by mountain bike and kayak. I asked a couple of the younger scouts about what was the hardest bit, and they said “The long hill that we had up on the second day”. When I asked them what was the best bit, they said “It was the long hill as well! Because we didn’t think we could do it and we did. We realised we were stronger than we thought”.
That sums it up to me. Life throws things at us, and sometimes nearly breaks us. But if we discover in advance that we have hidden strengths, through overcoming things we didn’t think we could, it gives us the resilience to deal with life so much better. Look out for the short films that are coming out about some of the Quest79 projects, and watch the trailer at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=11J7RXIXgWI
Meanwhile I am preparing to embark on the next of the Quest79 rides, the ‘The Sacred Way’. It is the fifth of nine rides. Our route will begin high in the Himalaya at 3100m by the source of the River Ganges, and follow the river to its sacred centre in Varanasi. During the journey we are holding a special event, GLOW ON THE GANGES, raising funds towards the £79k target I have pledged to raise for the Spinal Injuries Association. I hope it will be a unique spectacle, as we set alight a flotilla of candles and send them down the river. Each candle will be dedicated to a person, memory, dream or aspiration – special things that you dedicate a candle to. It would be amazing if you could join this journey by sponsoring a candle and offering your support. https://glowontheganges79.muchloved.com/frame.aspx?df=false or follow us on twitter @kdarke or Facebook @karenquest79
THANK YOU! Have a fabulous autumn, and if you are looking for a new challenge, why not consider inventing your own Quest 79 project and tell us about it! Maybe you can help with our fundraising target for the Spinal Injuries Association.
And in case you missed the facebook post, here is a short piece to give you a flavour of the World Human Speed Championships in Nevada…

I’m in the Nevada desert. The burning sun and dusty yawns of the landscape are otherworldly, far removed from the early autumn hues and dipping temperatures of my home in northern Scotland. Each year, the second week of September, a collection of teams come together in this desert town of Battle Mountain, for the World Human Speed Championships.
As you drive the dusty highway into town, a tall sign announces ‘Battle Mountain: Are you tough enough?’, as if the town slogan has been designed especially for this event. There is nothing for miles but dust and desert scenery, but the town this week is packed to the brim, every motel room full. The iconic arches of McDonalds loom like a cathedral tower, an emblem of America. We try hard to find some healthy sustenance, but choice is slim.
I’m with a team of engineering students from the University of Liverpool. They have spent two years designing and building a special bike. It doesn’t look like a bike though, more resemblent of an egg on wheels. I am the female pilot. Each day this week, I will climb into the capsule with the sunrise and the sunset. The lid will go down, and I’ll be taped and sealed in. I will take the pedals in my hands, push hard on the giant gear to get the pod rolling, then have a five mile strip of tar across a stretch of desert to crank the machine up to speed. There is no window in the egg. I’ll have an X-box view of the desert highway, a tiny camera on top of the shell feeding to a screen the size of a mobile phone. The mission? To break the land speed record for an arm-powered vehicle. I am the female rider, Ken Talbot the male rider. Can we do the student work justice and break the current records? We’ll soon find out. Today is ‘test’ day. I’ve only sat in the bike once – last week on a strip of old runway near Manchester. I’m eager to climb in before it gets too hot. Fully sealed in there, oxygen is short and temperatures soar, especially when its 30 plus degrees outside. Previous bike designs have had an air supply. I believe Graham Obree had a snorkel! We have a very cosy snug capsule, head an knuckles just a few mm from the shell. I hope the air supply will last long enough for the 5 mile run. How long it will take isn’t clear. 5 minutes would be fast. 10 minutes would be slow….
As Gladiators might say, ‘”Let the battles begin…”☺ ☺

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The Water Way – Part 3

The end of the river
Over the past three weeks we have journeyed alongside the meandering 2520km of river and finally to the mouth, where it disappears into the surf of the Southern Ocean. My pace has slowed – it’s hard not to when you share a journey with a river that moves at 1km/hr. That means that the bubbling stream water we began with is still many kilometres upstream. Our slow pace is still rapid compared to that of nature, and it makes me feel more than ever that our lives are just a blip in the passage of time.

In our final week, the flat dry plains have fallen away to slightly more rolling terrain. We could follow the river more tightly, quiet back roads instead of desert highway. There were hills to descend and climb, down and up the escarpments sculpted by the river, even greenery and trees sprung from the floodplain. It felt cooler, the sun on our backs instead of burning on our faces since the river turned south. We rode through sunsets and into stars, moonlight riding a new found pleasure after our desert nighttime odyssey. Arriving late into the village of Walker Flat, thankful for the all night ferry across the river, we didn’t realise we were camped on ‘Sprinkler Drive’. Our peaceful breakfast tent scene was sprayed by sprinklers too powerful to warrant their name, more like jets of water that drenched us through.

But soon we lost the river, its guts spilled into Lake Alexandrina, a giant lake more like sea. Without the river I felt a little lost. Our focus had dispersed. We had choices of routes to follow, different roads and trails that might lead us to the official end, where the river flow meets the waves. Winery Road, abundant in vineyards and labels familiar from supermarket shelves, led us to the small town of Goolwa, the end of our ride.

The only way to the very end was by boat, from the lake, through a lock across a barrage, and into the special landscape of the Coorong – a fragile wetland ecosystem threatened by salinity. At the river mouth, I listened to the drone of small boats dredging sand to keep the connection open between the ocean and the lakes, a project that has already cost 40 billion. It seems somewhat futile, a few tiny boats and a stream of dollars attempting to control Mother Nature. As if we can.
The flow of people with hearts as full as the vines are in grapes, has never stopped. Our penultimate village, Clayton Bay, led us to Hal, Luci, John and Barbara, locals and ‘grey nomads’ with collections of trikes, boats, utes and trailers, more hospitality, beds and lifts to the airport. The people of Australia continue to astound. But the lovely twist in the story was the discovery through Hal of the ‘Inland Rivers National Marathon Register’ a register that began somewhat accidentally when a legendary man, Frank Tuckwell, now 84, bumped into a canoeist on the banks of the lake many years ago. He had paddled the Murray and asked Frank where he could register his effort. There was no such register but Frank made one up there and then, and has curated it ever since!

We are proud to be the first cyclists on the register, and to share it with a woman I have never met, but who inspired me to take this journey. Tammy Van Wisse swam the whole length of the river in 2001. We are numbers 350 and 351 on the register of people who have travelled the Murray’s course. I love that the world has plenty of crazies in it. If we aren’t a little crazy, how can we cope in this world that has gone mad?!

Thanks to the Murray River and the special people we have met, to the Royal Geographical Society and to BBC Radio 4, for the experience of making a radio documentary (to be aired later this year). The insights, perspectives and connections I’ve been lucky to experience have truly made this a Journey of a Lifetime. It has reconnected me with nature , with people and with myself. I’m sincerely grateful.

And a huge thank you to BBraun U.K. and Adidas UK for your support of me as an athlete and adventurer.
Also to Gerald Simonds for a fantastic pressure relieving bike seat, & to Tiso Outdoors, Alpine Bikes, Calico UK and Odlo for support of the Quest79 project.

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The Water Way – Part 2

Lines of tar, as straight as straight can be, hundreds of kilometres with nothing but crops and bush. ‘It was a lake out there once upon a time. Flat as can be, salt flats to the south, and nothing much before Adelaide’ the lovely Ian Lockhart explained. We thought we might be better and safer skipping the long dull ride, trading it for more time by the river, but the realisation dawned that there are only two buses a week – we just missed one, and they don’t take bikes anyway. And nobody wants to give a ride to our circus of bikes, trailers and luggage. So, from Sunraysia to Riverland, we have had some epic days cycling the very section of our route that we had decided not to cycle.
Weirdly though, it was unexpectedly magical. Where else can you ride hundreds of kilometres of desert highway, lines of bitumen leading to infinity, where double-trailer trucks hurtle crops out from the ‘food bowl’ of Australia?! Our oasis across the desert were the amazing artists Liz and Clint Frankel, www.frankelglassandbooks.com.au , with warm hearts, a well-stocked larder of stories and food, and a spectacular studio at the end of a dusty track overlooking the river. ‘It’s not Australia’s food bowl’ they passionately explained, ‘it’s an international export bowl run by multinationals: a vine, wine and almond bowl, all about profit.’ The startling fact that a litre of water costs more than a litre of wine here sums things up.

Without the Mighty Murray River and manipulation of its waters, nobody would live here. It is arid country, where droughts, floods and bush fires are constant threats. It is not cycle touring country. ‘Are we mad?’ I wondered, as hours into the night, starlight and truck lights illuminating our passage across the desert, I ran over a chunky lump of road kill, thankful it was smaller than a kangaroo. The stench of rotting flesh permeated the night air, but I was happy to be riding. It was twenty degrees cooler than the burning daytime sun, and we could ride on the skin smooth surface of the carriageway instead of the rubbly shoulder, dodging in when we saw the juggernaut lights bearing down.

Water is a hot topic for everyone living here. In the millennium drought, eighteen years of water shortage that ended with a flood in 2010, livlihoods were seriously affected. Small farms had to close, rich multinationals moved in, and they care nothing for the health of a river basin on the other side of the world, as long as profits are being reaped. They bottle more wine than can be sold, to the point where the supply of water to the vines is so jeopardised and so expensive, that it costs more than the wine. In this land, water is a highly sought after commodity. We’ve been dependent on bottled water as many places are empty of drinkable tap water.
Water is liquid gold. It keeps us alive cycling through the wheat and vine desert. It gives life to everyone and everything here. It is vital, and yet it is a tradeable asset…wars will no doubt be fought over it.

It’s been some journey so far, the spirit and kindness of the people we’ve met along our way something quite extraordinary. Tough times are normal around here, from drought to flood to bush fires to general survival, and I wonder if the traumas have made people more resilient, more connected with the environment and each other, important aspects of being human. Survival here means water, strength of spirit, and community connection. The Mighty Murray and its region highlights some raw fundamentals about life. We are privileged to be having this experience. I’ll never think the same again when drinking water or wine.
And now we have the final section downstream to look forward to, and arriving at the great Southern Ocean…