Saturday, July 14, 2012

Cycling and camping: highs and lows

Now that I have enough energy to write instead of just posting photos... :)

Last week, I went on a six day trip through part of the Belgian Ardennes. The basic itinerary was designed by my friends (I was tagging along for part of their longer tour) until the morning of Day Five when I turned tail and cycled back to the Netherlands on my own. The travel route is below. For sustenance, my friends did a lot camp cooking and we had a few cafe stops for beer. For shelter, I camped for five nights and then booked a fancypants hotel in Spa with a private funicular to the Spa (They gave me a discounted price and kept the bicycle in a staff closet... but the true deciding factor was that it was located at the base of a hill. I'm spoiled and a wimp.) 

Day One - Maastricht to Vaals via the scenic hills of the Netherlands.
Day Two: Vaals to Tilff via some dismal villages of Belgium.
Day Three: Tilff to Bomal along the river.
Day Four: Bomal to La Roche en Ardenne through cute Belgian hilltop villages.
Day Five: La Roche en Ardenne to Vielsalm (via car), then cycling to Grand Coo and Spa.
Day Six: Spa to Maastricht.

Overall, I cycled about 300km. It's not a lot for six days, but it's more than enough for hills, rain, carrying 24 kilos of gear (I weighed my bags when I got home) and camping. It was my first "longer than a long weekend" trip and it's getting more and more fun the further away I get from it. Funny how that happens. There was great company, beautiful hills, cute cows and plentiful beer. I'm thinking about where to plan my next excursions...

During the trip, the hills were very challenging, the rain was challenging and camping was challenging. Somehow, my amazing friends had the energy to enjoy themselves, feed and put up with me (they made pizza calzones with beer-can rolled dough on a camping stove... seriously), and keep it all together. They really kept me going, I might have become a mushroom on the side of the road without them. I was happy in sunshine but whenever it rained- which is often in Belgium, I'd forget that it was ever sunny...

How does one gain a hardier attitude? Experience? The love of adorable shrine thingys appearing at every local road intersection?

Belgian cows are the prettiest.

Huge switchback, but just a prelude. 7 km at a 5-6% grade. Lovely.

A few things I learned that will help on my next trips:

1) Hills are hard!! Don't attack them, take it easy and go slowly in the granny gear. Singing to yourself also helps. This makes it almost fun and definitely embarrassing when racers pass you. But remember, they are on bicycles that weigh less than one of your bags.

2) Carrying 24 kilos of wet tent over monster hills in the rain without a good night's sleep is actually NOT fun. No amount of singing will help, it's best to just get through it. Remember for next time: (and then forget) One challenge is more than enough! Carry less stuff OR book a hotel OR travel in dry flat desert countries.

3) Travelling and camping with friends IS fun! But watch out for trashy loud birthday parties and Belgian lumberjacks at the campsites. 

4) Reminder to myself: I like to know where I am or where I'm going, even if I don't plan the route. Maps are wonderful. I should have rigged up this sooner (with medical tape from my emergency kit):
Navigation preparation

More photos and rambling from the trip!


Pretty hills! Beer at the Boscafe Hijgend Hart.
Highest pub in the Netherlands!
Saluton from Neutral Moresnet!
Rail trail with nice low 4% grade.
Sunshine by the time we reached the campsite!
Friends joining us at the campsite! Dry tent! Sun in the morning!
Warm happy baby snuggling.
Eclair for breakfast!
Breakfast éclair
Beautiful river valley.
Friends! Only a few hills.
Lovely weather in the valley
Crazy pub. Beer.
Pub stop in Hamoir
Cute Belgian villages. Hilltop cafes.
People watching and beer in La Roche en Ardenne.
La Roche en Ardenne!
Beautiful campsite with cut pine trees that smelled like Christmas.
Day Five waterfall in Grand Coo
SPA! Hotel! Spa at Spa.
The Thermes of Spa
An hour over a waterjet in a warm pool of Spa water. Spa.
Laundry museum of Spa!
Full night's sleep on a bed.
Dry packed tent.
Downhill ride along the river. All downhill, gloriously downhill. Smooth paths.

Lows: Sudden torrential downpours, wet tent, forecast of rain. Ugly villages of Belgium. Belgian standards of road maintenance are far lower than the Netherlands. Slow progress up the hills, on bad roads, in the rain. Pig slaughterhouse. Screaming pigs. Pig smell. Rain. Wet tent. Crowded campsite. Jason. Jason's friends singing happy birthday to Jason at midnight, top volume. Jason's love of techno music and partying through the night. No sleep. Wet tent. Too tired to do proper sight-seeing. Next day begans with Belgian lumberjack starting work at 5:30am (Jason?). Not enough sleep. Sleepy. Wet. Wet tent.


  1. Tip 1:
    Buy a good tent :)
    You need a tunnel tent. Keep the outerside and innerside in different bags.
    If it's raining you can keep the inerside dry by first build the outerside.
    Tip 2:
    Buy earplugs


    1. Industrial grade earplugs! Jason is LOUD. Maybe I need whatever the belgian lumberjack was wearing. :)

  2. When possible, plan your route along rivers or converted railway alignments. Both of those tend to have minimal inclines.

  3. Yes! The railway routes were a nice grade, just in rough condition. I followed a river all the way home from Spa which was lovely and downhill. La Vesdre to the Meuse.

    Something else I've discovered-
    5) Cycle touring will lead to weird tan lines.

  4. LOL - Wonderful to hear about the highs and lows! I would love to join you on a cycling camping trip someday :) I remember fondly a crazy gang of russians cycling OVER THE HIMALAYAS.... So glad you had fun!

  5. Great view! I really love cycling! It was indeed a great trip. I enjoyed reading your blog a lot. Great post.