Greasing Palms: Pilots and Gifts on the Pacific Crossing

How best to travel from Australia to Europe? Most do not think twice about boarding one of those compact silver cigars that double as enforced movie marathons. I prefer ships. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days.

Even though our ship is a smooth, clean and fast (built in 2000), and even though it carries the basic, tangible stuff of capitalism, it engages in an ancient practice: mediating between two elements, water and land. Gently it does so, but the touch may also be treacherous – reefs, sandbars, hidden rocks, bewildering currents.

Pilots

Hence the pilots: possibly one of the most fascinating features of a voyage like this and often the main human contact between sea and land. Personality types may have something to do with differences between the taciturn and the garrulous, the sourpusses and the charmers, the obnoxiously rude and the gratefully polite. But each port also has its own pilot cultures. English pilots are overly officious, uniformed and officious. Australians and kiwis tend to be quiet and focused, sipping a coffee, uttering commands quietly and often saying a calm thankyou when the reply comes. They seem to prefer compass points – 231 or 067 or … – rather than the more usual ‘port 10’, ‘starboard 20’, ‘midships’ and so on. The Panamanians are something else, all of them – and there are many – given to pilot versions of machismo. Disdain for the crew, ignoring passengers, barely acknowledging the captain’s authority, never saying a thankyou for a command carried out and gold chains on hairy chests. By contrast, Jamaicans simply charm the pants off you (there is but one woman present): smiles, jokes, stories, laughter, a constant chatter that made you feel like you are sitting at a pub with the best of friends. All the while, the commands are passed on in between the long narratives, calmly and in plenty of control. Only when the ship has to dock in a tight corner does he stop for a few moments, although now chattering into the walkie-talkie. As for the Americans on the east coast, they are garrulous and friendly to a superficial fault and usually full of crap – at least whenever they open their mouths, which is almost all the time.

But what does the pilot do? Vital for the very functioning of the world’s shipping networks, pilots specialise in access to ports for large ships. They may be canal pilots, guiding ships through the Panama or Suez, river pilots for long hauls up navigable rivers such as the Savannah or Delaware, or harbour pilots, specialising in the intricate knowledge required to escort ships in and out of the world’s harbours. In each case, they require intimate and specialist knowledge – of shoals, rocks, sandbanks, currents, tides, quirks and tricks – in order to navigate those massive ships in the tightest of spaces.

Even though I have encountered pilots often enough to be familiar with their roles, they never cease to amaze me. Some use computer mapping, GPS and whatever the latest gizmos might be, while some rely purely on years of experience, along with sight and sound. But they carry out their tasks with uncanny precision. Let me give three very different examples, one from Australia as we depart Melbourne, another in Jamaica and the third in the run up to Savannah.

Encounters

In Melbourne, the pilot guides the ship out of the tight heads on a dark and stormy night, after the long, four-hour passage through Port Philip Bay. The echoed calls on the bridge are enough to thrill any lover of the sea: port 10, port 10; midships, midships; 222, 222 …. But the most astonishing of all is, when out past the heads and in a heavy swell, he goes down to the side more protected from the swell, climbs down the side of the massive container ship on a swaying rope ladder and leaps – in the dark – onto a tiny orange pilot boat bobbing in the waves. As he speeds off to join another ship, now heading into port, we turn to New Zealand and are off.

The second moment comes from Kingston, Jamaica, where a tense and furious situation is overcome by the sheer force of personality on behalf of the pilot. We arrive early, are told to wait for a berth in port, then told to ‘go, go’, and then, when we are at full steam, to wait once again. The captain is absolutely furious and gives the ship the equivalent of an ocean burnout: 40,000 tonnes hard to port at full steam. A foul mood ensues on the bridge, until the calypso pilot comes on board and eases the mood within minutes. A smile, a joke, a declaration that the harbourmaster is responsible for the stuff-up and therefore an idiot – he has the captain laughing in no time.

And then Savannah, with its quiet river pilot and garrulous harbour pilot: here the pilots are willing to talk with me rather than the captain and mate on duty, although I suspect they are immediately drawn to me since I am the only ‘native’ English speaker on the ship. In the dog-watch hours the river pilot boards, preparing to guide the ship for about four hours up the Savannah River to the city of the same name. Intrigued with long-distance travellers when his job keeps him to the end of the voyage, we talks of the sea and home, of destinations and plans – as one does at sea, I suppose.

As river pilot, his task is to protect the river itself, ensuring that the ship does not do anything too outrageous. Not so the ageing harbour pilot, who comes on with the tug and guides the ship into its berth. In about fifteen minutes I have his life story, his politics, and his view of the world. He has done it all – tug captain, salvage captain, NY pilot, for 40 years – and takes no shit, whether that is homeland security (‘what do you think, that I’m a terrorist?’), or the feeling that Japanese ‘fishing boats’ have far too much surveillance equipment upon them, or that container screening is pointless, since if you actually get caught smuggling you are really, really stupid.

The Way It Has Always Been Done

But I also learn that American pilots occasionally accept cartons of cigarettes as gifts. Australians and Kiwis do not accept them – or rather, they are never offered – whereas everyone else seems more than happy for a carton or two. Never a word is said, the pilot expresses feigned surprise and gratefulness when the carton appears, even though he has perhaps placed a cigarette packet in an obvious place to indicate a preferred brand – a ritual of practised exchange.

Intrigued, I later ask the captain about the cigarettes.

‘If their opinion is important’, he says, ‘it makes things easier. The inspector at Panama, who checks the worthiness of the ship before entering the canal, is vital. Without his OK, the pilots won’t board and we won’t proceed. That’s why he gets two cartons. The others, if they have been helpful, one each’.

‘What about New Zealand?’ I say. ‘No smokes there’.

‘No’, says the captain. ‘They tell me they could take them, but it would create far too many problems with customs if caught. Actually, I prefer the Jamaicans and Panamanians. It is easier to get things done; no masses of paperwork; no small-minded officials who will find something if they look hard enough. You know, in Australia or the USA, a blinkered petty bureaucrat will look over all the paperwork in minute detail, looking for a slip. Waste of time’.

But after I notice a carton slipped to one American pilot, the captain simply observes, ‘It is the way it has always been done, a way to build relationships’.

Advertisements

Water Planet

Gripping the handrail, about to climb the outside stairs to the bridge, a movement catches my eye: less than ten metres away, a massive grey-black back, slick with sea-water, breaks the surface and rolls in a leisurely fashion on the surface for a moment before plunging again into the deep. A dolphin? No, too small and not out here. A whale? It must be.

Upstairs on the bridge I ask the mate on duty. It was a whale, he assures me. Until now we had sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one had come right by the ship. Did it come to have a look, I wonder, attracted by the thundering noise of its engine and propellers thrashing away in the water? Or was it as surprised as I was, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?

But what am I doing on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the Pacific Ocean no less? I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats the worst form of transport ever invented by human beings (flying) I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by the French company, CMA-CGM, supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

At Sea

Once out at sea, you immediately become aware of how tiny the ship is – even this relatively modern and fast one – and how vast the sea is. Beyond the boundaries of the ship is the ever-present reminder that Earth is a water planet; that land and land-based creatures are in the minority. No wonder ancient mythologies, such as those of Mesopotamia, depict the sea as a chaotic threat to the order of land. But our presence on the sea embodies another paradox: the sea is both danger and support, both threat and succour, potentially threatening to sink us any moment and yet providing the only means of bulk, long-distance transport that we know. Ultimately, the sea holds the power of death and life.

Needless to say, I find it absolutely fascinating, spending long hours on the bridge or on deck, watching and experiencing its constantly changing nature. From the Tasman, through the Pacific, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and finally to the English Channel, we are crossing half the world by sea.

Pacific

After the four simple days of crossing the ditch known as the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with our ship, belting along at 20 knots, it takes us 16 days from New Zealand to Panama. On this crossing we pass from one hemisphere to another (on the tenth day at 400 in the dark of early morning), water in the toilet and plug holes begins rotating in the other direction; the southern cross disappears and the pole star appears – the great navigational device of timid Euro sailors who feared to pass out of their comfort zone. To experience the Pacific in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home the sense of vastness as nothing else can.

And that vastness is ever-changing. With my eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I watch the ocean change from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifts from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slip into port, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shines through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what is perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home. At other times I would experience an astonishing moment that can only happen at sea: the clouds open for a few minutes and a full moon throws a couple of patches of glistening light directly before the bow of the ship.

Once you get into the Pacific, they had said, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. But the first two days of the crossing have a heavy roll, with the south-westerly swell (from the Southern Ocean), lifting us from the starboard rear and rolling through to port. And then the swell turns to ENE, precisely our direction, gradually gaining strength. A tropical storm hits us: rain belts down, leaks through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gains a sideways judder and roll. We began to hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind. Some sleep less well than they might, although I sleep in rocking comfort.

Eventually we steam through the wintry southern Pacific and into an early summer. Yet being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. The seasons arrive in a hurry, skipping along in a way that suggests the earth’s orbit has sped up: hour by hour the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises, as does lust … Soon summer arrives. The water looks inviting, and given that at home I swim at the beach for nine months of the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – the urge to go for a swim comes mightily upon me. But then I know that as a MOB in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.

Sitting on the bridge I think often of sailors in small boats navigating the Pacific: Islander sailors so many centuries ago setting off for distant and most likely unknown shores on rafts and canoes; Magellan and his crew as the first Europeans who were promptly becalmed and spent months on the ocean; Bligh and the open boat that he navigated all the way to Batavia, but above all lone sailors, especially at night in heavy seas, having to rely on the boat-builder’s skill and a good deal of luck, particularly when the stars are obscured, the moon is on strike and the night pitch-black. For the captain, to take on an ocean like this as a solo sailor (we are talking about 16-year Jessica Watson) is pure madness, the risk of accident at night – a log, a whale, whatever – far too high. And it certainly wouldn’t be pleasurable.

Animals

Perhaps the greatest surprise is the animals. This time I know what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life can be found out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath the surface team with life, but I can see only what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we meet the mollymooks, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.

Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spot one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I think it is a small black bird like a swallow … but then realise: in the middle of the Pacific? And then there are those strange seabirds from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They bring home the effect of land-based birds on a sailor: four appear initially, hovering, with wingtips curled, waiting for the flying fish to appear. As soon as one is spotted, they flip over, pull in their wings and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch. They join our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. But land birds signal hope for sailors; an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.

Atlantic

The grey Atlantic! At last. The Pacific might have myriad moods, colours and facets, but the Atlantic is – primarily – grey. For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic may glitter in the sun as I make my way about the deck. But the captain says that sun on the Atlantic is unusual, even in summer. He speaks of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during a fierce one, of the mere half dozen captains who take ships in winter on the northern Atlantic route, for most cannot sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find be troubled by such storms even if rough weather doesn’t bother me. As the captain speaks, the fog and rain return … But the Atlantic is a signal that the end of the voyage is in sight – about nine days away.

All too soon am I standing on the bridge and silently watching a final Atlantic dawn over the port bow. I realise two things: this is an experience impossible to express and it is to be one of the last mornings at sea, for the voyage is drawing to a close. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the oceans. I wonder what it would be like to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains. I feel a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways.

Capitalism on the High Seas

I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

But for now I ponder a weightier question: capitalism on the high seas. The ship may be a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may enjoy the simple solitude of the oceans while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, this company is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major events of the world seem very distant from our day-to-day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – the World Cup, Tour de France, an oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but the rest vary in the hands of a creative cook. So we read the new menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                               8 Cases

Cigarettes                                   79 CTN        15800 Stick

Whisky:

Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,      4 Btl             2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr          7 Btl             7.00 Litres

Liquor:

Bacardi Rum, white, 1L               2 Btl             2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                     7 Btl             7.00 Litres

Wine:

Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl            6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl           48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask    76.00 Litres

Engine:

Fuel oil                                                           196 MT

Diesel oil                                                        146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                          51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                                    500.0 MT

General:

Detergent & soap                                           40 kgs

Grease                                                            550 kgs

Paint                                                              1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                          274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                     nil

Steward:

Cereal & pasta                                                35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                                 5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                        8.0 Box

Sugar                                                              21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                                 8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                     511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                       155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                              310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                               900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                        53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                              114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                             8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                       nil

Cheese                                                           33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                               96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                             30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                              75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                             5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick.

Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he earns far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘but they want to cut us down to two’. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? A captain on an earlier ship, the Hansa Flensburg, once opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew is Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen.

Ship

Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with roughly three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that means we burn 3400 tonnes for our voyage – all of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion. The only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec, as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:      18,000,000

Average capacity:              27,500 kg

Subtotal:                           495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                               99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

Mines, Bricks and Chook-Poo: A Hunter Ride

Nothing quite beats setting off on a bicycle – with a chance to light a fire, boil a billy and think. I had six days in between the rush of changing lives, so there was no question as to what I would do: take to some steep, winding, country roads for about 430 km, from Scone to Newcastle.

So I slipped onto the 3.51 a.m. Scone train. 3.51? A.m.? Sunday morning? Of course, it’s the drug and alcohol post-party train, although by the time I got to Scone the last of the revellers had fallen off at stations along the way.

Scone’s claim to fame is that it is the horse capital of Australia. Fine if you like horses, but I was keen to get riding – but not down the highway. On a bike the back way becomes a blessing. It may be a few kilometres further than the busy highway, but the absence of traffic is worth a fortune. I was to find such back roads a few times on this ride, the best ones being the forgotten tracks. A single lane of bitumen, barely wide enough for a car, saying loudly and clearly that it was made for me and my ilk – a bike track through the hills, bush and farmland.

Later on that first day I found that track on the run into Denman, but a little earlier the back road out of Scone came close. It was full of horse studs, many, many flies, and an 11-year old girl on a bicycle of her own. At the roadward end of the farm track, she watched me pass with a question in her eye: from where had I come and where was I going? What is out there in the wider world? She reminded me a small boy who looked at me longingly in the remote town of Bombala a couple of years ago, willing himself to be older so he could follow the road out of town. I know that look and that longing, for I too have lived as a child in small country towns, full of the appeal of known communities, of their support for their own and exclusion of outsiders, of genuine concern, perpetual intrigue and endless gossip. But some long to take the road out of town and see what the world really is like.

The blond, curly-haired girl out the back of Scone did in fact follow me on the road for a few moments. I had stopped to check my map, so she pedalled up a few hundred metres and asked me if I needed some help. ‘Is that Muswellbrook over there?’ I asked, pointing to a town on the hill. ‘No, that’s Aberdeen’, she said. ‘But if you keep going along this road and turn left, you’ll get to Muswellbrook’. With a thankyou I was off. And so would she, I guessed, in a few years.

The first day might have been brilliant, with the cold beer in the pub at Denman, the old man who greeted me there with ‘Didn’t I see you in Muswellbrook?’ and even with the glorious camping spot by the creek and its welcoming party of mosquitoes, but the next day was a bitch. I felt like I was playing a lottery in which I couldn’t win. My best option was to get one out of three evils. Out of heat (it was 40 degrees), incessant flies and a gale-force head wind, I had won the wind. In its favour was the fact I kept coolish and that the flies had no chance of landing on me. But I had to grind away in gears usually reserved for steep climbs.

Singleton appeared too slowly out of the hills, but on the way I was gobsmacked by the coal mines. I have been in Singleton on a few occasions, daily I see the trains and trucks and conveyor belt bringing to coal to Newcastle, where up to 50 ships wait off the headland to haul coal to China. But the hugeness of the mines can only be experienced. Whole country-sides swept away, mountains full of coal seams blown apart, vast shovels digging, monster trucks carting, and the roads full of young miners on high pay packets. The old rural town of Singleton is now a booming mining town and the prices show it – I paid far more for basic foodstuffs than anywhere I have been for a while.

In a quiet corner of the camp ground I met Rob, who had come from WA to drive massive cranes over this way. There is an even greater job shortage here, he said. And they say they need 40,000 more people over the next couple of years. Hunter and WA mining are the reason why Australia avoided a recession in the economic crisis of 2008-9; forget the government’s economic stimulus package, since China wants our raw materials.

Eventually, the mines will run out of coal, the land will be rehabilitated and once again there will be hills and trees and grasslands (different ones than before), but I couldn’t wait a century or more, so I pedalled off to Gresford and Dungog. A great road, with its pick-a-plank bridges, villages, decent climbs and drops as you pass into the mountains. Here it was that I was asked if I had a rooster for sale, since the sign said they were wanted. Having no rooster on me just then, I had to pass up the opportunity. But I did manage to do better in the lottery, for the wind and heat had dropped and the flies had fled to seek more promising pastures.

Apart from a great pub where you can stay for next to nothing, Gresford is a country town that boasts a camping ground out the back of the showground and next to the swimming hole, expects you to light an open fire when you camp instead of those wimpy electric barbeques, and it still has – unlike the thirsty cities – handles on all the outdoor taps. And in Gresford I was helped out with my lunch fire by a grizzled man from the road crew which had stopped for lunch. Seeing that I was having trouble lighting the fire, he limped over and poured kerosene onto the wood. ‘Here’, he said, ‘and these rags’ll burn well for while’. I might have produced a billowing cloud of black smoke but the billy boiled soon enough.

The final climb to Dungog over Bingleburra is a grind in granny gear, but I don’t mind a good hill: get in gear, get in rhythm and eventually you make the top. It helps when you get drenched on the way up (why else is this part temperate rainforest?) to keep cool. And the drop down the other side is whooping, exhilarating mountain man stuff.

Still pumped, I flew into Dead Dog, aka Dungog, once a backwater no-one would dream of visiting, but now just beginning to emulate Lazarus. Day Four was to be a short ride, a hop over the range to Stroud (in lieu of a rest day). I hit the road earlyish, but already the road stuck to me every now and then, or rather my tyres. The hottest day of my ride so far had begun to melt the bitumen in parts, making small sucking noises as my wheels rolled over them.

Already pouring sweat, feeling the effects of the previous day’s climbing, I hit a tough climb within a few kilometres. It was simply a struggle all the way to the top. Country roads may be quiet, leaving you to your thoughts and spinning spokes, but they usually cut over the tough mountain passes, have rickety one-lane bridges, and patchwork surfaces that rattle the teeth out of your head. That’s why I love them so much.

Stroud was my destination for the night, a village where you could camp beside the showground for absolutely nothing. Here too you could light a fire – beats TV any night, I reckon. But first I had to find some food. A small grocery shop and a pub were my choices. In the first I grabbed a large bottle of what turned out to be disgusting creaming soda and some bread. On my way out I spotted a five cent piece and, as is my wont, picked it up. ‘I saw that too’, said an old woman in front of me. ‘But you keep it’, she smiled, ‘it’s good luck’. At the door of the second I met a man, stumbling up the steps from his Ute (a pickup). Tired, I guessed, time for a beer. A few minutes later he staggered out again, almost fell down the stairs and wove his way back to his vehicle, another bottle of beer under his arm. It took him a while to get the Ute started, before which he rolled half way down the hill. Finally he got going; I decided to give him a good fifteen minutes so I wouldn’t have to meet him on the road.

But Stroud also boasts an annual brick-throwing contest (I missed it), a solitary cyclist known as Tom (he came up and greeted me at 7am in the morning), and old fogeys who like walking around the showground at sunrise. I can vouch for the latter, since as I staggered out of my tent – the one I made with my father when I was 16 – the next morning in nothing but my undies, four of the local fossils greeted me enthusiastically on their morning walk and gossip.

But that next day was brilliant. I found my climbing legs again for another mountain pass, stopped at the top for a fire, billy and tea, and then dropped like a stone down the other side. At the thriving Bulahdelah I watched an old man trying to teach a silly dog how to swim, bought a massive lunch from a man with a Sikh turban, and then plunged into the mosquito infested Myall Lakes National Park.

I always feel like I’m on my way when a ride evokes former journeys and triggers plans for a new one. As I rode along the lakes, fighting off swarms of mosquitoes, I recalled an earlier trip down this road; then it was rough as guts and almost destroyed the old car I was driving. I remembered that my father, who died only six months before, had loved getting into the country and camping whenever he could, finding places much the way I do. And I began dreaming of a ride around Australia – 20,000 km through extensive deserts.

The spot for my last night backed onto the beach. There was no drinking water, so I carried in my own. But the ocean was the place to rinse off the sticky sweat, soak some muscles and enjoy entirely on my own and entirely naked. Fortified with tropical-strength mozzie-repellent, I cooked over a fire and watched it fade into the night.

Too soon it was the last day, but I had chosen a route that gave me an hour in an old boat – euphemistically called a ‘ferry’ – across Port Stephens (from Tea Gardens to Nelson Bay), before the run home. At the quiet Tea Gardens, young boys would run their boats as though they were bicycles. I preferred simply to sit and watch for dolphins. But I knew I was still in the country on the last stretch to home when I was introduced to the hamlet of Salt Ash with the sign, ‘Chook Poo at round-a-bout’. Now of course I already am planning the next ride – longer of course.

Bikes on Dykes, or, ‘Moin’ All the Way

One usually associates endless dykes and canals and windmills and immense tidal flats with the Dutch landscape. That feeling of riding along a ‘fietspad’ (bike path) on top of a dyke, past fields divided purely by small canals instead of fences, is a quintessentially Dutch experience, is it not? Not quite. The Dutch have been quite adept at marketing a certain image of their flat land, with its dykes and mills and canals and neat village-museum windmills (the real mills are now modest motor pumps and wind generators). In fact, the same landscape runs all the way from the northern Netherlands through Germany to southern Denmark, that is, from the provinces of Friesland to southern Jutland, passing through Groningen and Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein on the way. If you expect the landscape to change, even subtly, after crossing the border into Germany, you will be disappointed. The land is just as flat; people are everywhere on bicycles; you meet just as many cows and sheep; age-old problem of moving water against gravity and out to the sea means that here too are windmills a-plenty; and the sea-dyke runs all the way up the coast for hundreds of kilometres.

In other words, our ride wasn’t so much dykes on bikes, as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras would have it, but bikes on dykes. From Groningen to Copenhagen, through the ancient Greater Frisia, it was a coast-hugging ride I had wanted to do for many years. Apart from a general sense that we were roughly following the North Sea Cycle route, I had not planned it much further, relying on maps acquired, routes found, hopefully a bed in which to sleep for the night. As it was, we covered on average almost 100 km per day, soon settling into a distance-eating rhythm across dyke and canal strewn lands. On the way we met blueberry-stained, Plattdeutsch speaking farmers, swarms of German tourists taking a holiday in the muddy beaches and numberless sheep, cows and bumps.

Finding our Legs

From Groningen we set off, quite unfit for the ride after a long sea voyage to get here (from Melbourne). Groningen was as wonderful as ever, a town of human proportions which had some years ago ripped up a freeway in order to make room for bicycles and people. But I was also a nursing a bandaged thumb. Why? The night before I had impersonated a bicycle-repair klutz: as I was putting lights on the bikes, I cut my thumb with the pocket-knife, dropped a pile of papers on the floor, sprayed blood over them as I picked them up, banged my head as I stood up and kept dropping tools as I tried to work while stemming the flow of blood.

Even with my bandaged thumb, with maps to find, riding legs to find, a riding rhythm for two to establish and last minute adjustments to the bikes, we managed to roll over 70 kms of the polders across Groningen province. And I was keen to linger in the Netherlands, at least for this one day, so we followed the Waddenzee route (marked as Landesfietsrouten, or LF 10). The day was full of earlier Dutch memories, evoked by the sheep shit on the dyke path, the dykes and fields and rich smells of Dutch rural land, the feel of the sun, the mites around 6pm, the sense of open, flat country – the Platteland. I also wanted to ride this stretch out of a perverse desire to complete a job: I had ridden the other section of this route some years before, heading the other way from Groningen, west and south. Now I could finish off this last, relatively remote and rural and quiet section.

It helped that I can get by almost entirely in Dutch, understanding it all and speaking much more freely than I expected. Ik versta het meestals en ik kan het praate veel beter dan ik heb gedenkt. Just as well, for our stop for the night, Nieuwenschans on the border, required Dutch or German, but English was nowhere to be found. Exactly the kind of place you encounter only on rides like this: a small border village with lanes running by its few houses, one cheap motel with great rooms, a pub and two cafes and one small food shop.

Lessons Learned

By the second day we found our cycling legs, covering 100 km, from Nieuweschans to Scheiburg on the Ostfriesland coast. But now we had entered ‘moin’ territory, or rather, ‘moin, moin’, a shortening of ‘morgen’ and said very quickly to all and sundry. A cyclist comes past, ‘moin, moin’; and old couple walking, ‘moin, moin’; a shop attendant, ‘moin, moin’; a dog, ‘moin, moin’. Soon enough I had mastered the art, voice running ragged by the end of each day with the million ‘moin-moins’ I had growled to anyone within earshot. It was moin all the way to Ribe in Jutland, an unwitting mark of the common territory that used to be Greater Frisia.

We learned three other lessons that day, one concerning energy resources. All too easily do you forget how much energy is burned on a ride, how quickly the wall comes. It hit me in Neuenberg, a long stretch of straight road with nary a shop in sight. Until I spied a ‘Blauberen’ sign hard by a farm, sold by a gum-booted and Plattdeutsch-speaking farmer whom I almost understood, given the closeness to northern Dutch. Half a kilogram of the freshest blueberries disappeared down our gullets. Far better than a sports-bar or energy-drink! We felt like we had had a shot of something very strong and very illicit. Our legs blurred, the wheels whirred and the last kilometres disappeared without effort.

The second lesson involved toilets. Soon enough I developed a unique skill of finding a toilet in the most populous of places. Without the uniquely Australian custom of free and liberally sprinkled toilets across the land, not to speak of long stretches with many trees and few people, here one usually has to pay for the sparse toilets available. Operating on Georg Lukács’s – the Hungarian communist – principle that if one does the deed quickly, the chances of being caught are minimal, I am able to find that brief corner of a building, a low shrub, a tree, where even the hordes swarm.

Hard by the deich/dyke on the Jadebusen we found a ferienwohnung called Cafe Landlust (evocative names would soon become a constant feature of the ride). But I also noticed that the dyke had a knack of being broached, given the long tidal flats and build-up of water in a storm. So on each of its three rebuilds from the 18th century it had risen to over six metres. And now we learned the third lesson: the relationship between seats and bums. As we dismounted, we realised our arses had been rubbed raw in all the wrong places. The seats on the second-hand bicycles had obviously been picked up in bulk, for they were far too narrow, missing my sit-bones, pushing into tender places and crunching anything that dangled. Hopefully, I thought, my delicate parts would feel better in the morning.

It was not to be, as I learnt when first mounting for the next day’s ride. All day, covering 90km from Scheiburg to the village of Ostend, on the Wesel-Elbe Canal, I kept trying to find positions that would avoid the tender places on my arse. It did not help matters in the least that the quiet, reasonably well-sign-posted tracks were as bumpy as hell – farm tracks, lanes really between fields, are not the smoothest of passages, so much so that they deter cars and pretty much any other form of transport.

‘Perhaps we need new seats’, she said.

‘Nah, let’s see’, said I, the penny-pincher, teeth rattling from the bumps. ‘At least we’ve rattled our way across Neidersachsen’.

In between the bumps, I found time to enjoy the ride, the feel, once again, of a northern European summer with its riot of flowers and plants and bugs and birds and animals and smells. In contrast to my bum, my legs were fully into the ride, with plenty of reserve. The day brought us from the province of Niedersachsen and into Schleswig-Holstein, that eternally contested zone between Germany and Denmark. In the end, the compromise was to cut it in half, leaving a German-speaking minority in one and a Danish minority in the other.

On a border of different sorts, between the two German provinces, was Bremerhaven. The arrival in Bremerhaven was an accident, since we had intended to hit the Emer River further south, at the Steinensingel ferry, but ended up at the Brexel ferry, which dumped us in the middle of Bremerhaven. But what a fascinating town: Germany’s main port to the west, from where immigrants left for north and south America, where warships and u-boats departed during WWII, where now container ships ply their trade. As is so often the case with such ports, since the ships now are so large, the container port has moved so the old area has become a museum/tourist zone.

In Bremerhaven I had another memory to tag: the two years Friedrich Engels spent in these parts in the late 1830s, including a wonderful story of a drunken day on the harbour. Engels was here to gain experience in order to work in his father’s firm, but he also wrote his most fascinating reflections on the Bible, in lengthy debate with his theological friends and pastors, the Graeber brothers. Here too he based his tale of the cotton-bale, or at least identified Bremerhaven as a major stage on the bale’s journey from the southern USA, through many hands of swindlers, until it became a garment in Prussia. And here he noted in detail the theological controversies, between the rationalist ministers and the larger number of conservative Reformed ministers. That the latter won shows up today in the fact that you simply cannot find a shop open on Sundays (for one must not work or encourage anyone else to work on a Sunday). Desperate for food, we eventually hunted down a small kiosk with some basic and stale supplies.

Of Arses and Bicycles

Day four, the mid-point of the ride, pushing deep into Nordfreisland (in the state of Schleswig-Holstein), it became clear that something serious had to happen for the sake of our arses. By now there were no spots left that were not rubbed, ground, blistered or raw. They wouldn’t even become numb after a while so that I could ride for a while in pretended ignorance of one’s nether regions. So in the small town of Brünsbuttel, which I translated as Brown Butt, we found a small bicycle shop, longingly pondered the seats, massaged out tender behinds. The existing torture-devices were gladly handed over to the proprietor, replaced with a sumptuous leather Brooks saddle for me and one for my riding companion that did not disappear into tender internal regions. Mounting the bikes afterwards was a tentative process, but I immediately sighed in relief, for the Brooks saddle seemed to know what was required, gently massaging my hind-quarters as it moulded to my shape. I wondered why I had ever broken my vow of some years before not to use any other saddle but a Brooks leather one.

Part of the reason was a perverse desire to save a little money – I managed to hold out for three says. Another was due to the second-hand bicycles we had bought in Copenhagen. We had decided to acquire some recycled bicycles for six months in Europe: good quality bikes, checked over, rebuilt, all by a local operator in an effort to bypass the exorbitant prices asked for bicycles in Denmark. I had purchased a second-hand, 8-speed internal hub Kildemoes; a bomb-proof piece of machinery, designed for rough Danish winters and a life outside. But these worthy bicycle recyclers in Copenhagen had also obviously come across a collection of bicycle seats, perhaps from a friend, perhaps off the back of the proverbial truck, perhaps from some narrow-arse who had designed a saddle with the assumption that everyone else has the same shaped behind.

Later, as I fiddled with my reconditioned bicycle, preparing for the long ride by making all those minute adjustments so that it suited my own bodily dimensions, I noticed a profound difference between Danish and Australian bicycles – all of it to do with the weather. Danish bikes come standard with mudguards and water-and-dirt-proof internal gears, but hardly a bidon (water-bottle holder) to be seen. By contrast, Australian bikes come standard with bidons, but mudguards and internal gears are found with difficulty. Wet, muddy and icy winters versus stinking hot and dry summers.

The Pure Relaxation of Wandering Minds

At a certain point in a longer ride, usually around the fourth or fifth day, your mind achieves full relaxation. The issues that had lain beneath the surface have been brought up, processed endlessly and then laid to rest – arguments, scuffles, petty hatreds, loves lost and so on. Now you can become truly creative. As out arses recovered while we ran up for 100 km along the coastal dyke to the seaside town of Büsum, I pondered the sensuous names of these old Frisian towns. Brünsbuttel we had already met, a place to restore our own butts, and Büsum had its own bodily associations. But we also passed through Dingeldonn (guess), Deichberg (Dyke Town), Deichweg (Dyke Road), Deichstraße (Dyke Street), to name but a few. Butts, bosoms, dongs and dykes … Add to that the towel fetish at the last hotel bed in Büsum (at Hotel Siegfried) and the picture is complete.

And on the next day, on a long, loping ride up the dyke-coast from Büsum to Niebüll, I began noticing and talking with our constant companions – the sheep. So began the speculation on sheep’s udders: the older ones sag and hang, while the younger ones, with fewer years of farmers pulling on them for the precious milk, were fuller and rounder. Did one distinguish between A-cup, B-cup and C-cup, I wondered, without too much titillation.

The day ended in as surreal a fashion as it began. 125 km later, in a town – Niebüll – a little inland and just shy of the Danish border, we were desperately chasing a room in the high summer season when all the coastal beds (at Dägebull) were overflowing with bodies. At last, a room appeared on the edge of town: not only was it called the Nietzsche Pension, but the proprietor, Wolfgang, turned out to be a great lover of Australia. When he heard we were from Australia, Wolfgang Nietzsche’s face lit up – Australia! I have been to Australia seven times!! I love it!!! From then he did his best with English, revealed with a flourish his wall of massive photographs of outback tours (Uluru, King’s Canyon and so on), wanted to know where we live and what the hell we were doing in Niebüll, in Nordfriesland. All we wanted to do was collapse in bed.

Into Sønderjylland

A couple of days earlier than planned we rode across the Danish ‘border’, pushing up 75 km from Niebüll and riding deep into Sønderjylland (Southern Jutland) all the way to Ribe. In six days we had ridden a shade under 600 km, so tomorrow was to be a rest day. It gave me a chance to think more about economics, not so much in abstract terms, but in terms of the concrete reality we saw around us day by day.

The dykes and mills and canals are not merely picturesque and welcoming features of a sweeping, open landscape, nor is their only function the preservation of human life from an unpredictable sea. No, what was important was behind the dykes, contained by the canals, pumped dry by the windmills: the endless fields of sheep and cows, wheat and rye that stretched out before us, day by day, kilometre by kilometre. In a word, the physical reality of farming was everywhere around us. No amount of a financialised market can substitute for food itself, the vitamins and proteins and energy and roughage that keep human bodies functioning and alive.

Of course, agribusiness is the capitalist reality of farming, supported in these parts by state subsidies to farmers. And that economic reality showed up in the machinery we met: running along remote tracks through fields of grain and cattle, my simple piece of machinery contrasted sharply with the towering monsters of farm machines again and again. The harvest was beginning in the northern parts, so harvesters and transporters would greet us on a corner, lumbering along a quiet lane (and swallowing the lane itself), or blowing chaff into the wind in the middle of a field.

Peasants had well and truly disappeared, unlike Romania or parts of Bulgaria. Except for one small corner, were we came across a couple of peasants, scruffy and straw-hatted, their equipment aged and fully workable, a cart full of hay pulled by an ancient tractor. Obviously, they were still not persuaded by the value of the massive machines their neighbours had long since acquired.

The ancestors of these peasants had first settled our destination for the day, Ribe, which was celebrating its 1300th birthday (the ancient cathedral has a list of priests and bishops who predate and postdate the Reformation). Most likely Frisians first came here, drawn by the navigable river and its rich farmlands. And for all the claims by the Viking Museum that trade, trade, trade is supposed to have been the drawing power of the town, it soon became clear that the prime concern for the Frisians and Vikings of the town was … cattle and crops. The merchants? They were the unaccountable exception for the medieval town, granted exemption by the king to trade (as long as they stayed within the ‘ditch’ which marked the exception zone).

On Ancestors

But why had I wanted to do this particular ride and why had I wanted to do it for almost a decade? Quite simply, the ride runs through the land of my maternal ancestors, the ancient Greater Frisia that stretched all the way from today’s province of Friesland in the northern Netherlands to Southern Jutland in Denmark. It is still characterised by a common sea (the Waddenzee) with its characteristic boats, a common, low-lying and storm-prone landscape laced with dykes and dunes and mills and rich farmland, with its lowering clouds, soft light and long, and stretching vistas of water-strewn fields to the horizon … so much so that the sense of regional identity is greater than the arbitrariness of national borders. A couple of young boys in Niebüll (in Nordfriedland) from whom we asked directions were much more familiar with towns and the lie of the land across the Danish-German ‘border’ than with other parts of their ‘own’ country.

And they still retain traces of a common language. Common language? Of course, Dutch and German and Danish are all part of the same language group, but that is not quite the same thing, for they are distinct languages. The signal of much older common language came with the Frisian street names you encounter in coastal villages throughout these parts of Germany, as well as ‘moin, moin’, the universal greeting for the vast bulk of our ride. And that greeting became a signal of that ancient language: Fries or Frisian. It lies at the root of the guttural Sønderjysk, which Danes from elsewhere can barely understand, or the Plattdeutsch which I seemed to comprehend at a visceral level, or the Frisian spoken today in the province of Friesland, itself the living form of a language that was once much more widespread and is the basis of modern English. I should not have been surprised, for sections in Germany are still called Ostfriesland and Nordfriesland, but surprised I was. Perhaps it was the old dialectic of the immigrant’s child, who knows that the land is part of me and yet not.

Eventually we passed out of Greater Frisia, on the last day of the ride: a brief journey by train from Ribe to Korsør, and then 60km to Haraldsted, close by Copenhagen. The distance barely troubled our legs as we pedalled along the King’s Way, marked by occasional phallic milestones erected by various kings – whether Christian or Frederik or Christian or …. Haraldsted may have been the place where Harald, the king’s guard, took his last stand – ‘Her stod Harald, Kong’s gård’, said the stone in ancient Danish script before the church – but I was not ready to take my stand in one place. Instead of Harald’s statement, ‘I am going no further, this looks like a nice place to settle’, I was already planning my next ride.