Greece - Turkey
We heard their ferocious barking long before we caught sight of them. Then we spotted the pack on the other side of the steep valley. Maybe eight or ten strong - and heading our way.
"Are you ready to cycle faster than you've
ever cycled before?" I shouted.
The snarling animals chased us for almost a kilometre, snapping at our ankles. I managed to squirt a few in the face with our new found dog deterrent - my water bottle, but Lowanna was faring less well. After an exhausting uphill chase we managed to outrun them.
As we continued towards the snow capped mountains in the distance I remembered a conversation with Constantinos in his bike shop the day before. "You will be OK but I am worried about your wife. I don't think she will make it. Only athletes can climb to the top" he warned as he sold me a handful of spokes.
Struggling out of the tent that morning I wished I hadn't told her. Lowanna was quite rightly determined to prove him wrong, and decided the best way to do it was to deprive me of sleep. We had learnt very quickly that the only way to get any distance in the heat a Greek summer was to start cycling before dawn.
I was still trying to open my eyes as we started pedalling. It was a race against time. Ahead we could see the road snaking slowly upwards. By 7am we were in solid sunshine. Sweating already. We carried on curving our way into the heavens until the sound of friendly horns brought us to a halt.
"Would you like some coffee?" asked the smiling Dutch couple as they pulled over to the side of the road just ahead of us. As we shared biscuits in the shade of their camper-van they told us about their destination; a beautiful campsite with good food, cooling swims and refreshing showers. But this alluring sanctuary was over 100 kilometres away.
Thanks to all the encouragement from passing trucks, we reached the pass five hours later. At 1700 metres it was higher than anything attempted in the Alps. A rusty sign was hanging by one nail. We could barely make out the letters K.A.T.A.R.A. For once we chose not to photograph or film the moment. Instead we just stopped and stood by the side of the road. Listening to our breathing rise and fall. Inhaling the fresh clean air. Enjoying the silence and the refreshing wind.
As darkness fell we arrived in Meteora, where ancient monasteries perch on top of giant rocks. The Dutch campers nearly fell off their deck chairs when we wobbled through the gates. Ten and a half hours in the saddle and 126 kilometres later we had made it!
Cycling through the unforgiving Greek mountains had taken its toll and we decided to stop until we felt like getting back on the bikes again. Two Slovenian cyclists were camped next to us and we passed the time swopping stories of steep roads and dusty heat. Eventually we knew it was time to continue.
Meeting Constantinos had reassured me that we were not the only people mad enough to cycle in Greece. In Ioannina the 5000-strong group Friends of the Bicycle hold a monthly tour of the city to highlight the bike as the most ecological mode of transport. But Constantinos explained that they still face some large hurdles: "Until 1974 Greece was a very poor country, but now there is a lot of money - and people want to use it. They use their car to drive 100 metres down the road."
With that in mind we set off once more towards the capital - one of the most polluted cities in the world. We made it as far as the outskirts of the city before the traffic got to us so we decided to jump on a train.
Home to the 2004 Olympics, Athens is attempting to tackle some huge infrastructure deficiencies. A new metro has just been completed - eighteen kilometres long with twenty-one new stations. But would it be possible to pedal our way through the 7000 year old metropolis? Before we could come to any conclusions the train pulled into the station. We saw the guard leaning out of his van. Whiskers ran from his bottom lip up towards his ears. His belly projected out of the door.
He looked down at the pile of panniers and waiting
bicycles and bellowed "No".
Watching the train disappear we realised how far the city of Athens had to go. It is one thing to provide smart new metro lines and bike space on trains. It is another to change the attitudes of people. After taking in the Acropolis we battled our way through beaurocracy until we found a combination of two boats would take us all the way to Cesme on the Turkish coast.
A necklace of red chillies hung across a veranda. Green grapes dripped heavily from a vine. "Walk like an Egyptian" blared from a restaurant, competing with the evening call to prayer. Older woman in traditional head scarves chatted happily with the tanned younger generation sporting bikini tops. Children on mountain bikes weaved their way through the crowd.
As we pushed our bikes up the street we heard someone call: "England to Australia - England to my shop". We turned to see a man with a huge smile across his face, pointing at my Bike2oz t-shirt and pleading for us buy a leather handbag! With our Agu front panniers falling apart it seemed to offer a possible solution. But reality eventually got the better of us.
After a hot dry day cycling into an unforgiving headwind, we knew we had reached Izmir when the overwhelming stench from the 'sea' reached our nostrils. The sewage from a million houses pours straight into the harbour, and the only sign of movement as we pedalled along the shore were the bubbles of gas making their way up through the slime.
The 'All You Can Eat' breakfast in the hotel restaurant resulted in us not setting off until 9am the next morning. We fought for space with trucks, coaches and local buses for twenty five kilometres in an increasingly intense heat. The lorries blew waves of exhaust fumes over us, and every few minutes a rubbish truck would leave us choking our way through the smell of decomposing household waste. Every few kilometres we squeezed our way past another minor accident with drivers screaming at each other over the roar of the engines and the blare of the horns. We struggled to cling to our ever narrowing hard shoulder and deal with the temperature which was already starting to dry my eyes out.
I finally lost it; my scream of frustration startling a woman sitting out on a balcony five floors above us. We stopped for a cup of cay (Turkish tea) and watched the rivers of sweat make paths through the dust that caked our arms and faces. We knew there were another 300 kilometres to go, and the cafe owner started telling us how much worse it would get. And we weren't even heading for Australia. We were making a detour to the ANZAC trenches at Gallipoli. "If I am going to die on this expedition I want to be cycling east in the direction of Sydney, rather that northwest, back towards England!" exclaimed Lowanna as she examined the heat rash spreading over her legs.
The chef came over and suggested catching a bus. We looked at each other. Was it cheating? Had we lost sight of what we were trying to achieve? One look at the racing traffic decided it. We pulled ourselves onto the bikes and turned back towards Izmir.
We awoke in a land full of backpackers on the essential pilgrimage to the site of Australia's first large battle. We quickly realised that the bike was the best way to see the peninsula. As we timed our stops between the coach tours we had the cemeteries and memorials to ourselves.
The next morning my chain began to slip and Lowanna experienced her first puncture of the expedition. We sent an urgent e-mail to Australia requesting spares to be sent to our next stop-over - Cappadocia.
We had heard that the area was famous for the incredible scenery - and was also a great place to meet other travellers. We wanted to pick up some advice before the long ride through Iran and Pakistan, but were not ready for the stunning scenery that greeted us. As soon as we saw the fairy chimneys and homes carved into the rock face, we knew we had to put our bikes to one side and explore the region properly.
One of the first things we did was to take an early morning ride in a hot air balloon. The two hours we spent in the air were quite incredible, and the textures and depths of the landscape were revealed in ways impossible to see from the ground.
As we returned we bumped into Claude, Francoise and Manon. Claude and Francoise spent fourteen years between 1980 and 1994 cycling 150 000 kilometres around the world. Manon was born in New Zealand and, not to be put off, they continued pedalling until she was five.
With renewed energy we returned to the pansion to find our parcel of spares had arrived from Australia. Amongst the tyres, cogs and family letters we found a dog deterrent whistle. Next time we would be prepared.