Thursday, March 20, 2014

A String of Delightful Company

We made it! A long hard climb up the Stelvio with Frank Gamboso in September 2013

“Awwww!!! Oooohhhh!!! Ahhhhh!!!  Oh my gosh!!!”

“Mel, I’m going to have a hard time explaining to my wife who this young lady is, riding next to me in all my videos!  It doesn’t look good, especially with all your sound effects.” Frank admitted politely as we were climbing up the Stelvio pass. This was the last of our grueling climbs on the Thomson Bike Tour Trans-Dolomite trip back in September.  The climb started about 15 kilometers into the route and involved pedaling up some 48 switchbacks, gaining almost 2000 meters.  With snow flurries in the air, we were sweating heavily and cranking on the pedals, lucky to hit 8 kph.  It took us close to 3 hours to do the climb.  When we arrived, we did a quick photo at the top in the frigid air, celebrating our arrival, and entered the bar immediately for our well deserved hot chocolate and apple strudel (make that plural)! 

Frank was one of the many crazy clients on the Trans Dolomite trip, who come to "suffer" and experience some of Europe's finest mountains in northern Italy.  For me, it was the last of the ride leading I did for my Thomson Bike Tour trips during the 2013 season.  I had cycled from Barcelona to Venice, where I met the crew.  We spent a week climbing all the major mountain passes in the Dolomites from the Stelvio to Gavia and Motirolo.  It’s hard to believe, but you get to know people pretty well when you spend all day with them on the road, riding.  

6 months later, we meet again in Australia to ride from Wollongong to Gerrigong
Today, six months later after the ohhing and awing in Italy, we ment again in Wollongong and he and Toni were my ride leaders for the first 50 kilometers of my route. Frank had been following my trip and contacted me to meet up upon arriving to the Sydney area.   Frank and Toni are just some of the many delightful people I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying during my last three weeks in Australia.

In fact, ever since I arrived in Australia, I’ve been accompanied.  People have come and gone from my travels and it’s made for a lot of memorable moments in this immense country that I’ve become quite fond of.  First I had my parent’s company, which fulfilled a long time dream of theirs to travel to Australia and New Zealand once they retired.  After they left me off in Melbourne, I stayed with a young Australian tour cycling couple I had met randomly on the road in Albania.  Just outside of Shkodër, Albania after a rainstorm had passed early in the morning, Matt and Kate were headed off to Montenegro, exactly where I had come from the day before.  They were making their way to Morocco, so I gave them a few pointers from my route and set them up with some contacts in Barcelona.  They invited me to Melbourne, which at that moment felt like a far off destination on my itinerary.  But sure enough, four months later I arrived to their city. They’d finished their tour around Christmas time and it seemed hard to believe that they were settled back in their normal life.  Here I was still pedaling on my route, only 12,000 kilometers later.  Matt and Kate are an incredibly active and fun couple, so I felt right at home.  They took me up to Northern Victoria and spent the weekend cycling while I did the big bike race with my friends.  I said good-bye to them and headed up to Mudgee with Stu, Kersti, and family. 

As you know by now, I had met Stu on a Thomson Bike Tour, another memorable client.  We’d developed quite a good relationship in our week of riding with The Tour de France and it was neat to be able to see his “normal” life and spend time with his family. Although I live on my own abroad, I’m a big family girl and appreciate being “apoted” by other families once in awhile.  I had a lot of deja veux moments with their kids playing games outside and always being active.  It reminded me so of my upbringing with my 4 siblings, always outside playing until we were forced to go inside and eat dinner.  I joined in the Faulkner’s daily routines: cooking, working on the farm, and running errands- A delightful visit! 

The "Get Belted" team departing Pepper Tree Farm

From the Faulkner’s I headed off to Sydney and pedaled to a little town of Wallerawang, the first night.  I had two warm showers hosts awaiting me, Bike Friday enthusiasts.  Bike Friday is an unusual small foldable bike that is designed and made in Eugene, Oregon, my hometown.  Therefore, I had an automatic connection with Bronwyn and Dave, who had me at their house for the night.  The next morning Bronwyn’s parents, who are in their late seventies, accompanied me for a good 30 kilometers along my route to Sydney to show me the back roads, something I would have never managed on my own.  For my lunch stop, I ran into a Uruguayan Australian who invited me to coffee and I had a nice conversation with him in Spanish.

When I grow up I want to be like Gerry and Clyve, still tour cycling strong in their 70's

I continued pedaling on to Castle Hill, a suburb of Sydney.  I had a long day with a thunderstorm chasing me the entire way.  Although the majority of the ride was downhill, I cycled 90 kilometers without stopping trying to avoid the rain.  Needless to say, I was famished when I arrived at Gary’s house, my next Warm Shower host. Gary is deserving of the  title “The Smoothie and Sushi King”.  He made me a delicious watermelon juice when I arrived and a fruit one the next morning.  That evening we went out for sushi- I LOVE SUSHI, but obviously, it doesn’t really enter in my trip budget, so this and the ice cream dessert was a cherished treat. 

The next morning I set off to meet Hugh, a friend of Stu’s who had been with us for the 3 Peak race.  Hugh was Stu’s old neighbor in Avalon, a small town north of Sydney on the peninsula, a gorgeous area.  He designed a route that took me through Bobbin Head National Park where we had lunch and then caught a ferry to Palm Beach on the Northern Beaches of Sydney.  We rode along the coast down to Avalon, a short hilly ride with stunning ocean cliff views.  That night I stayed with Hugh’s family and it just so happened that Hugh, an Englishman living with his British wife and kids in Australia, was an expert Paella chef. I was right at home.  Oddly enough, Hugh’s brother has a Masia, an old Catalan Villa, on the outskirts of Barcelona that I have cycled past a million times.

Approaching Avalon with Hugh

The next morning Hugh rode with me down to Manly, where I caught the ferry across to Sydney, a “must-do” picturesque arrival to the big city.  Luckily it was a Sunday and the streets of Sydney were empty except for the people out at the St. Patrick’s Day festival.  I made my way to Lou’s house, an old colleague of some teachers I worked with in Barcelona.  I had a delightful restful visit at her place in an eastern neighborhood of Sydney.  In fact, I was even able to sleep in the three mornings I was there! 

Clint, my wonderful Sydney tour guide
In Sydney I met up with another familiar face from my trip.   Do you remember the guy from the supermarket in Hokitika, New Zealand?  Clint and I met outside the New World and he’d nicely escorted me up to my host’s house that evening.  He gave me an all day VIP bike tour of Sydney, the perfect way to see so many sights, from Centennial park and Chinatown, to Harbor Bridge, the Opera House and botanical gardens.  In fact, we saw so much that day on bike, I spent my last day in Sydney just relaxing and wandering a few neighborhoods on foot.  That evening I got another VIP tour during the evening, visiting several little coves and beaches to see the sunset and moonrise over the bay.  He made sure I was well nourished for my ride the next morning and took me to a delicious burger joint on Bondi Beach, followed of course by ice cream.  Clint is an avid outdoors man who has done a ton of tour cycling himself and gave me some great travel trips for the rest of my trip.  It had been a long time since I had connected with someone my age who shares a lot of my same passions in life.  Nothing compares to a local guide who also tour cycles.  They know exactly where to take you and the conversations are endless.

TBT Ride leaders Toni and Melissa take on Australia's coast
Departing Sydney on bike could have been a disaster, but Toni from Thomson Bike Tours, cycled with me from Sydney to Wollongong to start my route back down to Melbourne.  Toni, who used to live in Sitges with his family recently moved to Australia, where his wife grew up.  Chattering in Catalan the entire 70 kilometers made the ride go by quickly, not to mention the gorgeous scenery through the Royal National Park.  Speaking a foreign language is a big part of my identity and I don’t get enough opportunities to speak Catalan on my trip.  After my visit with Toni and the Folque family, I got my fill of Catalan! 

The Folqué family.....wherever you go there is always a Catalan, even in Wolongong, Australia

It’s no wonder I’ve fallen in love with Australia! Not only have I seen some incredible landscapes, but people have treated me like a VIC, a very important cyclist. To tell you the truth, I wasn’t looking forward to Australia as much as New Zealand.  For me, New Zealand was the country that was going to capture my heart: the mountains, lush forests, and crystal clear blue water.  From a previous post, it was obviously that I thoroughly enjoyed cycling in New Zealand.  No matter where I was on the south island, the scenery was breathtaking! Therefore, I didn’t think Australia could even come close, or win my heart.  But I was wrong, I’ve fallen in love with Australia.  The combination of the vast and diverse scenery caught me by surprise.  The cities I’ve visited so far are livable, lively, and outdoor friendly.  The small towns in the outlying areas, quaint and pleasant, perfect for day trips.

Alone? Am I really traveling solo on this loong journey? I’ve had heaps of fabulous company recently and although I don’t have any more planned meet-ups with friends until I arrive in Melbourne again, something tells me I’ll be pleasantly surprised and equally entertained during the next week. As always,…..let the adventures continue!

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