Never The End…

Well, another trip is over. Eight months and 11,600km cycled, 725km sailed and 250km packrafted on the North American continent.

But my journey, continuing down the road around the world continues. Who knows where it will take me, but that is where the fun (and fear) lies.

But for now, here are some highlights from the last eight months…

Pushing up the Heckman Pass…
Top of Heckman's Pass
Top of Heckman's Pass

To cycle across the Chilcotin Plateau…

Chilcotin Plateau
Chilcotin Plateau

Cycling the Icefields Parkway from Jasper to Banff in beautiful British Columbia…

Icefields Parkway, British Columbia
Icefields Parkway, British Columbia

Over the Elk Pass and into Montana…

Spray Lake Trail on way to Elk Pass
Spray Lake Trail on way to Elk Pass

Over the Lolo and Whitebird Passes through Idaho…

Whitebird Pass, Idaho
Whitebird Pass, Idaho

Biking the backroads of Nevada…

Off the Beaten Track...
Off the Beaten Track...

And facing snow in Utah…

Summit in the Snow
Summit in the Snow

Seeing some of the most stunning landscapes in Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks…

Bryce Canyon
Bryce Canyon

Crossing the Mohave desert and Joshua Tree…

Joshua Tree...
Joshua Tree...

Through Southern California and into Baja, Mexico with it’s abundance of cacti…

Cacti in Baja
Cacti in Baja

Sailing the Sea of Cortez with Kevin on board Alex II and sighting whales, dolphins, turtles and a shark…

Sailing Sea of Cortez
Sailing Sea of Cortez

Cycling Mexico’s coast…

All up and down along the coast...
All up and down along the coast...

And inland and over hill to Oaxaca and San Cristobal de las Casas…

Oaxaca Cathedral
Oaxaca Cathedral

Visiting the Mayan ruins of Palenque and Tikal…

Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala

Cycling through Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras…

El Salvador, a small country of many volcanoes
El Salvador, a small country of many volcanoes

Packrafting the Rio Bocay and Rio Coco in the Moskitia border region of Nicaragua…

Packrafting the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua
Packrafting the Rio Bocay in Nicaragua

And finishing it all off with some back-road biking through Belize…

Backroads of Belize, Through Rio Bravo Conservation Area
Backroads of Belize, Through Rio Bravo Conservation Area
I am now back in the UK and looking forward to the rest of the year exploring a little closer to home… our little British island has just as much to offer!

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Water Travel, Like a Local

I’ve just returned from a great trip, packrafting down about 250km of remote rivers in Nicaragua.

Packrafting is relatively new to me, but so far I love it. Because the raft is so compact, I could carry it in my backpack together with food and gear for 10 days out.

Packrafting Rio Bocay in Nicaragua
Packrafting Rio Bocay in Nicaragua

The rafting trip had fun, adventure, challenge, white-water, wild-camping and a chance to see how the local indigenous Mayangna and Miskito people live.

I have only one other water trip I can compare it with, and that is paddling down the Niger River in West Africa. For that trip, we had a local fisherman build us a pirogue, just like those the locals use. If I had had a packraft with me, I probably would have used that. But I’m glad I didn’t.

Paddling a pirogue was physically much more challenging and we encountered difficulties navigating downstream which wouldn’t have been a problem in a packraft.

But the pirogue let us experience the river as the locals do. And it brought us closer to those we met.

Paddling a Pirogue on the Niger River
Paddling a Pirogue on the Niger River

In Nicaragua, I felt we were viewed as a passing novelty; rich tourists with hi-tech products. On the Niger river, we were just two more people heading downstream.

Both ways of river travel were great. And I’m pretty sure i’ll be doing more trips in both styles…

Since i’ll be back in the UK for the rest of the year, the packraft will be seeing plenty of action in the coming months. Pirogues aren’t so common on British waterways…. Narrowboat barges though, now there’s an idea!

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Stats Update from Chiapas, Mexico

Time for a quick update on how the Take On The Americas trip is going, now that the journey has passed the 10,000km mark. I suppose the best way to do it is with a few numbers…

Distance cycled: 9222km
Distance sailed: 725km
Distance travelled on bus: 425km

Total nights: 165
Nights camping: 118
Nights in paid accommodation: 34

No. of cycling days: 122

Countries cycled: 3 (Canada, US, Mexico
US states: 6 (Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California)
Mexico states: 7

Lowest/Highest altitude: -226ft / 9600ft (-69m/2926m)
Most km in one day: 136km
Coldest night/hottest day: -11C/+30C* (12F/86F)

Bridges/roads slept under: 5
Firestations slept at: 1
No. of times disturbed by men with machetes/men with guns/mountain lions: 3

No. of times cautioned/warned by warden/police: 2

Brake cables replaced: 1
Bottom brackets replaced: 1
Tyres used: 5
Punctures: 22*

Bears/coyotes seen: 6 / 3
Sealions/sharks seen: 1 / 1
Whales seen: 31*
Tarantulas seen: 3

No of times fallen off bike: 0(me), 1(Lars)

No of burgers eaten by Lars: lost count
No. of Thai red curries eaten: 6
No. of tortillas eaten: 173*

No. of lucid dreams: 5

No. of beers: 182
No. of glasses of wine: 31

Average distance cycled: 75.5km/day (not including rest days)
Average distance cycled inc. rest days: 55.9km

Average km/beer: 50.7km/beer (compared to Take On Africa trip of 24.5km/beer!)

If you want to read more about the trip, best go to my blog.

(Photo courtesy of Lars Bengtsson)

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A Wild Night to Remember…

Wild camping

So what do you do when you are seen wild camping in a not-so-stealthy spot? Where three teenagers, a cocky lad and two girls, walk past with a bottle of rum to be drunk down by the river, just 30km outside San Salvador near the main road?

Well, we said hello as they went by and stayed where we were.
But half an hour later the three return, inebriated.

The lad was staggering and slurring his words. Barely understandable. But he is asking for a phone. We don’t have one (so we say), but soon he gets aggressive and starts demanding our phone. And the girls are peering through the tents looking to see what they can take. Time to get serious. Take a stand. Make clear there’ll be no messing with us. How exactly they thought they could steal from us in their intoxicated state I don’t know. I suppose they weren’t really thinking at all!

But as they leave, we immediately start packing up. Time to find another place. We don’t know if they will come back, or bring others, or if someone else will see us.

And that’s how, at 8pm, in darkness, we push our bikes back to the main road and hesitantly cycle on. But being on the road after dark in these areas is not safe either. So we ask if we can camp in the yard of the first home we see.

Although it is difficult to understand all that the father is saying, he eventually tells us go follow him across the road to another house.

The gate is locked, but it’s only wood and barbed wire, so it is bent and we carry our bikes over. And up to the front door of this simple single room, corrugated roof house. The door is locked, the curtains drawn. The father and son knock on the door. No reply.

The son raises up one of the glass slats on the window, pulls back the curtain and calls inside. No reply.

I peer through too. The TV is on and a man is sat in an armchair with his back to us, watching it. The son calls again. No reply.

Maybe he is sleeping.

I feel guilty for not only disturbing one family, but now waking up another stranger having broken through his gate and pulled apart his window.

I say that perhaps it is better if we carry on and look for somewhere else to camp. But the father will have none of it.

I think the man must be drunkenly unconscious not to hear our racket outside. But his left hand is up in the air.

Now the father has a 3metre long stick from the garden and is starting to poke it through the window. I hope the man inside isn’t startled and have a shotgun close to hand. Seriously, how can he not have heard us? We have been here a good fifteen minutes trying to raise the dead…

Actually, it turns out we’ve been trying to raise the deaf.

So there we are, calling to a deaf man in the darkness and waving a long pole through the window to get his attention.

Finally he sees us.

He opens the door, wide lop-sided grin on his face, pleased to see his neighbour, even if it is nighttime and there are two strange gringos with bikes there too.

Now we know we are in a safe place. He wants us to stay in his home, but we insist on camping in the garden. We have intruded enough already.

The father and son leave us to put up our tents. The happy deaf man offers us fruit and gives us a bottle of ice cold water. With a few hand gestures he shows us the toilet and explains what time he must go to work in the morning. Not only is he deaf, but he doesn’t speak either. Surprisingly though, it is easier to communicate with him than with some locals who speak Spanish very fast and no English at all.

What a night and we haven’t even cooked dinner yet! But at least we are safe it. And so I sleep well… until the roosters start calling at 5.30am, which apparently is enough to raise even the deaf, because our man is already sweeping the yard when I emerge from the tent.

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The Grass is Greener Down the Road

So often I find myself wishing I was somewhere else. Or at least, that the someplace here (wherever that may be at that time) was just some little bit different….

Cycling in British Columbia

When I was in rainy Montana, I longed for the dry desert. After a month in the forests of British Columbia and I dreamed of barren lands. The cold, snowy passes of Utah and freezing nights in the high valleys of Nevada and I was looking forward to speeding south to warmer climes.

Freezing hands in the snow

While rushing along the busy interstate to Las Vegas, I pictured empty dirt tracks down the Baja peninsula, but when I got there, the corrugated paths and loose sand were not so fun afterall.

Las Vegas Strip

And now I’ve come south to a low land of sun, the sweltering heat and endless sweating find me once again looking forward to the interior highlands. Although I know that whem I get there I’ll be cursing the hills!

Dirt roads of Baja

Of course, all these places are great for a while. But familiarity breeds contempt and the road ahead always looks better. Perhaps that is what keeps me moving…

Fun cycling through the Red Canyon

I just occasionally have to remind myself to enjoy the here and now too, while it lasts. Because the here and now can only be had once and it’s a pretty darn good place to be, all things considered.

Cacti at sunset

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A Chocolate-Loving Cyclist

Some people may say that I am not really living a conventional life. Well, it’s true that I’m not married, don’t have a mortgage (or a house) and don’t lead a regular 9-to-5 life.

I decided I didn’t want all that a while ago.

But some conventions are harder to change…

It has taken me to the age of 30 to realise I’ve been missing out on one of life’s great pleasures.

I’m talking about chocolate for breakfast.

For 30 years I’ve eaten toast with tea or maybe cereals and coffee. That’s what everyone does. That’s what breakfast is. Or sometimes I don’t eat at all. And I’ve never considered the need for something different.

But recently I happened to eat a chocolate brownie with my morning coffee. It was there, so I ate it.

And it was delicious. The best breakfast ever!


Chocolate Brownies -YUM!!
Chocolate Brownies -YUM!!

So since that revelationary day, I’ve had more brownie-coffee combo breakfasts.

Sure, I know it’s not healthy. But when you’re cycling several hours a day, calories are to be consumed, not rationed.

And one of the best things about being an adult is you are responsible for your own actions. No longer is mum saying what you should or shouldn’t do.

Of course, if I get fat from breakfast-brownie overload, it’ll be my own fault.

But with this discovery of one of life’s little pleasures, made in my third decade of life, I am confident I will find many more over the years to come.

Getting older has it’s advantages!

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Helen’s Take On…Vancouver to Vegas

Trip Update

5,000km and 3 months since Vancouver and I’m in Vegas.

In neighbouring countries, these cities are worlds apart.

Vancouver is a modern, cosmopolitan city with high-rise offices, chic cafes and a buzzing life on the streets. It has green parks and a laid-back atmosphere.

Vegas stands alone in the desert. High hotels, casinos and bars concentrated on The Strip with their flashing neon signs and 24 hour doors. Beyond that is a sprawl that festers, feeding off this fabrication.

But the best bits of the trip, are the bits in between… In between is rural British Columbia and small town America. In between are thick forest, towering mountains and open plains, winding rivers and barren deserts. A bit of everything and all a whole lot better than either city.

It’s been Indian summer heat in the  Chilcotin, where water runs cold and bears roam free. It’s been wet, waterlogged and muddy in Montana. It’s been endless hills and long valleys in Idaho. And high desert in Nevada where the coyote calls through the night. It’s been snowstorms and freezing nights on Utah’s winding roads through red rock canyons.

Now it’s into southern California and the road to Mexico.

And I can’t wait…

As usual, if you want to read more about thecycle trip, see my website Helen’s Take On…

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Nameless Strangers – The Good Samaritan

On the road we meet many people. Some we will forget. Others will remain in our memories forever.

Travellers’ stories of hospitality from strangers are not uncommon. But that doesn’t make them any less memorable.

These chance encounters are often over with in a flash, but they will remain in the memory forever.

Whether it’s the tall grey-haired fellow who stops his red pick-up to tell you there’s a really scenic off-road route that will also avoid the steep hill and.then goes on to explain how to reach it.

Or the larger than life, jovial old chap from the farm you stopped at ons search for water, who tells of good spot to camp and later turns up there in his truck with wood for a fire, diesel to get it started and a thermos of hot water, on a particularly cold night.

Or the talkative man who asks interestedly about our journey over coffee in McDonalds one morning and tells of how he has damaged his car when he hit an elk in the way into town. And then as he says goodbye and wishes us well drops a $20 note on our table saying he’s sure we could use it for a meal or more coffees.

I never had a chance to ask these people’s names. As quickly as they entered my day, they left again.

But why is it that so often we don’t even know their name?

It’s because the stranger expects nothing in return. A purely altruistic act. (Except perhaps to feel good, if you believe in the selfish gene.)

And good samaritans don’t have names.

Not heroes with a name for whom fame usually follows.

(now since I rarely learn these helpful strangers names, it’s even rarer that I get a photo. So instead, here are a couple of photos of the kind of  places where these unlikely encounters sometimes occur…)

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Plans Are Made To Be Changed

One of the best things about travel, is the part before you even leave home… the planning. Whether you are shortly off on your annual holiday, going away for a short weekend or even embarking on a ‘journey of a lifetime’, it’s great fun to pore over maps, peruse guide books and google away contentedly about your upcoming destination.

But the best thing about making plans is changing them. Sponteneity is the key. Especially on long trips. When life on the road is getting monotonous and dull, or just plain hard, that is the time to change your plans. Suddenly you will find enjoyment and a new interest.

Muddy Feet!
Muddy Feet!

The original plan, for my latest trip, was to bike the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. But it seemed a shame not to see more of Canada before starting. So we added on a bike loop of Vancouver Island and British Columbia. A mere 2,000km extra! We knew we were already starting late in the season, but by the time we arrived in Banff for the start of the GDMBR, there were far more cold and rainy days than sun-filled ones.

Gravel roads of the Great Divide
Gravel roads of the Great Divide

We had a fun few days after leaving Banff, but both of us were looking forward to getting south as fast as possible, just so we could get to the better weather. And that just wasn’t fun. So, sat in a small cafe in Eureka, Montana, drinking coffee, delaying leaving…. one of us jokingly said, ‘why don’t we head to Idaho instead of Wyoming?’ and the other said, ‘Well, why not?’ This would mean no longer following the Great Divide, but it would mean heading to Boise where we could meet and stay with other cycle tourers. The idea of having somewhere to stay for longer than one or two days, was a big draw. In six weeks, we’d had only six rest days. We were both tired of cycling.

So we ordered another coffee, dug out the map, replanned our route. In twenty minutes we went from tired and unenthusiastic to raring to hit the road.

Welcome to Idaho
Welcome to Idaho

We are now in Boise, Idaho state’s capital; the biggest town since we started the trip. It was the right decision. It was a beautiful journey here and now it’s time to dig out the maps again and plan ahead.

Beautiful Horsehoe Hill, Idaho
Beautiful Horsehoe Hill, Idaho

Next up is Utah and Arizona. Let’s hope we pass through before the snow arrives!

The Great Divide will just had to wait for another time, when I can leave earlier in the year.

(if you would like to follow my journey, you can do so on my blog, Helen’s Take On…)

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The Dangers of Bush (or wild or stealth) Camping

On my journey through Africa, I was often asked by friends and strangers back home whether it isn’t dangerous to just pitch your tent in the bush or by the roadside? And I was often told by locals that it really is dangerous to camp in the wild.

What about deadly snakes and poisonous spiders? What about lions and hippos?

What about being robbed or attacked.

The reality is, of course, bush camping can be dangerous. So can crossing the road. But in the same way that you always look left and right before stepping off the pavement, it’s only common sense to be selective with your camp spot.

Road to Booue, Gabon, Central Africa
Road to Booue, Gabon, Central Africa

I always look for a secluded spot where I shouldn’t be seen by people and certainly not from the road. If I know there are ‘dangerous’ animals around, then I either don’t camp in the bush or I do what I can to minimize the risks. For example, always zipping up the tent inner to keep out snakes, spiders, scorpions etc. If there could be lions, I make sure I’m inside my tent well before sunset and don’t get out again until the sun is high in the sky (no matter how desperate for the toilet!). If there could be hippos, then I don’t camp where they may choose a route down to the river…

The Niger River, Guinea, West Africa
The Niger River, Guinea, West Africa

Well that was all in Africa. Now I’m in Canada, but the same rules apply. Only now I have to be careful about bears, rather than lions. That means carrying bear repellent spray everywhere in case of a chance encounter and keeping the camp spot spotless from food. Bears love the smell of food. So that means cooking away from the tent and storing food at a distance too. That’s not good when I wake in the middle of the night with food cravings, but it’s small price to pay.

The Chicotin Plateau, BC, Canada
The Chicotin Plateau, BC, Canada

In, 20 months of bush camping between the UK and Cape Town and now a month under canvas in Canada, I had no serious encounters.

As chance would have it, my closest encounter came just a couple of days ago, ironically, when I was in town.

Walking to the shop, a sudden gust of wind sent unsecured items flying. I had to dodge a piece of flying sheet metal by jumping into the road before continuing down the pavement, when a tree fell down just a few feet from me. I emerged, slightly surprised, with nothing more than a lot of dirt and leaf debris in my right ear. The parked car wasn’t quite so lucky!

You see, there are risks in all walks of life. Of we were scared of every potential threat or danger, then we’d procrastinate in bed all day. But that’s no way to live. Better to get out there and take a chance. You never know when fate will deal the fatal blow, but it’ll probably be when you least expect it.

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