Riding the Årø Peninsula (Denmark)

One more camping trip on this Danish summer, after my glorious discoveries on the first effort. This time, I had found a map to which I could link on my phone. It was dedicated to ud i nature and listed all the free camping areas across the country (including the ability to sleep without a tent on any forest floor). Denmark may be small corner of the world, with thousands of islands and the Jutland peninsula, but it has an equally small population. So there is plenty of land on which to camp – especially when one could often do so in someone’s back yard.

Day 1: Christiansfeld to Gaasevig Strand, 46 km

On the first day, I had my sights set on a potential camping spot in the woods and away from the coast, given that it was still holiday season. Southward I rode, through Haderslev and then further to Hoptrup, where I loaded up with a few supplies.

Here I turned right onto Skovsbyvej, heading towards the rather tautologically named Skovsby Skov – the Forest Town Forest. Why? I guess that the village had been named after the nearby forest: hence Skovsby. But then they needed a name for the forest, which was named after the village: Skovsby Skov (Forest Town Forest).

Clearly, there was a forest and – after some climbing – I found it, pedalling along a dirt track called Skovsby Skovvej (Forest Town Forest Road), which turned off from Skovsbyvej (Forest Town Road). Confused? I was a little.

Anyway, I was on the lookout for the camping spot. I passed by the old cottage in the midst of the forest and pedalled on. I looked here and I looked there, but even with my new-fangled map I simply could not find it. Eventually, I turned around and went back past the house. Perhaps I could use a more old-fashioned approach: I asked the old woman at the house. Ah yes, she said, the camping place is in my garden, but I do not have a shelter.

I was welcome to stay, but hesitated. Perhaps it was the old European ‘fairy tales’ about forest houses. Perhaps it was the old woman living by herself. Who knows? But I decided to return to Hoptrup and try my luck closer towards the coast.

The second attempt entailed riding along the Skivsø lake and veering left, only to find that the camping shelter here was on a small triangle of land on a farm. I would have a grand view of the barn wall. It had been a long time indeed since the fireplace had been used. Not so inviting.

Third attempt: down to the water proper. Here I passed by immense camping areas, with all manner of facilities should one wish to ‘escape’ the bustle of life. At the end of dirt track was my spot. No water and no toilets and plenty of early evening bugs. But I had an uninterrupted view of the Årøsund, camping on a grassy knoll with a fire nearby. A rinse in the crisp sea water took away the sweat and grime of the day, after which I simply sat for long hours beside my tent, looking out over the water as the sun of a long Danish summer day finally set.

Day 2: Gaasevig Strand to Maugstrup, 71 km

I was in the area of the Haderslev-Næs Pilgrim Route. If I wished, I could wind my way from one church to another, tracing the route of the Christianisation of Denmark a thousand years or so ago.

But I decided on another pilgrimage of sorts: I would assess all of the bush camping areas on the small peninsula that took its name from the island of Årø at its nose. Indeed, in Danish such a peninsula is called a Næs, which means both nose and peninsula.

This entailed some single roads to the coast and backtracking, some circuitous riding and dealing with the inevitable summer crowds. One camping shelter was beside a ‘grill’ on a busy beach; one was simply a picnic table under trees in close proximity to elderly nudists who were totally shaved, and one was in a corner by the ferry wharf to the island of Årø. None of them were overly enticing.

Pausing to reassess my plans, I found that in the village of Maugstrup was a camping area. I was keen, since on an earlier ride I had already camped in such villages. Getting to Maugstrup entailed riding back to Haderslev after circumnavigating the whole of the small ‘nose’ in one day, and riding off into the small hills of southern Jutland.

In the village itself I could not – once again – find the camping area. Was it beside the children’s playground? I was wary. I asked, but some locals did not seem to know. Finally, a faded sign pointed to the Præstegård, literally the ‘priest’s garden’. Still puzzled, I simply knocked on the glorious door of the priest’s residence. A woman answered the door. Are you the priest? No, it was her husband. Do you know where the camping area is? Yes, it is this corner of the garden.

Only in Denmark! It was a glorious spot, with soft grass, towering trees and the public toilet nearby. As I had already found, in Danish villages the public toilet is always near the church and beside the priest’s residence.

But it took me a while to get to the point of pitching the tent and unpacking my food supplies. The priest’s wife had pressed me to share a meal with them, to sit late into the night talking about matters religious and theological with her and her husband. I merely wanted to be by myself on this last evening.

Day 3: Maugstrup to Christiansfeld, 33 km

Not a long ride to wrap up this brief experience. 33 kilometres along quiet roads, with an old Danish farmer on an equally old bicycle passing me while pedalling into the wind. For the sake of numbers, I wanted to get to 150 kilometres for the three days and I wanted to ride into Christiansfeld from the west, which I had not done until now. So I needed 33 kilometres on this day.

Most of the time, however, I pondered the paradoxes of the state church, which – to my knowledge – persists only in Denmark. Other parts of Europe have long since abandoned the state church, and more recently Sweden and then Norway have abandoned it too, albeit in a typical Scandinavian fashion. In its place, the state provides funding for all religious and even quasi-religious groups, depending upon membership.

The key question for me was whether the state church is simply a relic of the past, a curious quirk of the anomalous history of Europe that you simply do not find elsewhere. Or did the idea and practice of the state church still have a function? This is not the best way to put it. Better to ask: does the state church have new roles to play?

On my rides in these parts, I had camped more than once near or beside a village church. Not only are they part of Danish history, going back to Harald Bluetooth’s conversion more than a thousand years ago, not only are the white stone churches of that era astonishing pieces of country architecture, and not only do they provide necessary public functions all the way from toilets to marriage registries – no, I was most intrigued by the renewed emphasis on country priests being integrally involved in community building.

In so many places in this part of the world, the countryside is empty of young people, and the cottages are bought up by foreigners seeking a cute summer escape. Not in Denmark, for they are increasingly seeing the village communities, with their thousands of years of history, as crucial. Nowadays, a country priest, who usually is responsible for two or three centres and who lives in an extraordinary country Præstegård, is also part of rebuilding a sense of community in the villages in question. I would go further, for this is actually part of the common good, especially as the alienations of capitalist market economies become ever more apparent in Europe.

I must admit that through my camping during this Danish summer, riding a Brompton foldup bicycle, I had become somewhat of a supporter of the state church in this part of the world and in this day and age.

Riding the Hærvejen in Denmark

Hærvejen, Ochsenweg – the Military Way or the Oxen Way. In Denmark’s Jutland it has one name, in northern Germany another name. But it is the same route. In medieval times, the Danes thought of it as route for armies to transverse, while the Germans saw it is a cattle route. Both are true.

These days, it has been revived as a walking and cycling trail, running from the north of Jutland down to the German border and through to Hamburg. My partner and I had ridden some of the German parts in 2018, but now I had a tent, it was summer in Denmark, and I was keen to explore the northern parts, up (almost) to the tip of Jutland.

My partner is not such a keen camper, so this was my chance to get away and explore – on my blue Brompton foldup bicycle. I had never before camped in Europe, let alone Denmark, and I had the impression that one had to pay a fee and stay in official camping areas, wherever they might be. This impression turned out to be completely wrong – to my great pleasure.

Day 1: Christiansfeld to Vejle, 46 km

First, I had to get up to Northern Jutland where the cycling route begins in Frederikshaven. This entailed an initial 46 kilometre ride northwards from our small unit in the historic village of Christiansfeld (in southern Jutland).

Why the initial ride? There is no train station in Christiansfeld and the easiest link was to get myself to Vejle and take the train north, via Aarhus, to Frederikshaven. The ride was uneventful, along main roads, but it helped in terms of being a ‘positioning ride’, as they say. I was able to adjust my loading of the bicycle, to accommodate tent, sleeping bag and mat. And I was to become accustomed yet again to longer rides on the Brompton.

In Frederikhaven I did not camp, staying in what the Danish call a ‘youth hostel’. No dormitories here, the Danes being greatly invested in one’s personal privacy, which sits a bit at odds with its collective history in other respects. But then, toilets are similar, for they feel like a small armoured room, closed off entirely from the outside world. The ‘youth hostel’ was what you would expect in Denmark, by which I mean it was not cheap.

Day 2: Frederikshaven to Pall, 114 km

Indeed, bargains come in unexpected ways in this small country. The first of these would come the following evening, after a very long day in the saddle. The very northern parts of Jutland are – a little surprisingly – quite wild by Danish standards. Upon leaving Frederikshaven, I was soon taken onto the Jutland Ridge. In what is supposedly a largely flat country, I found myself peddling up and down one rise after another. Not enormously high, but the cumulative effect is much the same. And I am sure that I rode along every available dirt track in Denmark, which usually meant pebbles and stones – just the thing on a bicycle with small wheels.

I peddled and peddled and peddled – for 114 kilometres. Why? I was looking for the fabled camping shelters. I had seen one in the past and I had heard they were dotted all over Denmark. But I could not find one. Later, I was to find that they are truly hidden. One might be a corner in a forest that one misses on a turn of the head, another might be down a dirt track on a remote beach where one’s only company is swarm of the tiny flies that come out at dusk, or another might be in the backyard of a village Praestegaard (priest’s garden). Today I could find none of these.

As the sun was setting, I wearily rode through the village of Pall, only to find that the few locals had recently constructed a camping shelter in the village’s midst. A small lake, a sexagonal structure of raw timber with a fireplace as a retreat from inclement weather, lean-to shelters should one not have a tent, and a fresh water supply in someone’s backyard. A gift from the Nordic gods, I thought, or perhaps from the ancestors who had dug the many barrows I had passed, or from the iron-age settlements that had sought to make the most of the fertile soils of the North Jutland Ridge. Who knows. But I lit a fire, drank a beer and dug into my reserves of food for an evening repast.

I did not have to pay a cent for my night’s accommodation, which may – due to my background – have had something to do with the fact that I slept long and hard that night.

Day 3: Pall to Vammen, 86 km

I was up at the glimmer of dawn, which I tend to do when camping. Soon the bicycle was packed, with a few readjustments in light of the previous day. This day’s ride would turn out to be the shortest of this initial foray into Danish camping, a mere 86 kilometres.

Early on, I stooped in a clearing, lit a fire and began making coffee. Two young men were slowly packing their tents away and preparing to hike on for the day. Beer bottles almost filled the timber table at which they sat. It turned out that they had a summer with no plans and had decided to hike the Hærvejen in a northward direction. Their daily routine: drink beer all morning until noon, break camp and – literally – stagger for 10-15 kilometres until the next camping site. The next day they would repeat the same. I was intrigued, but realised it may not work so well on a bicycle.

As it was, I knew I was not riding at my best today: I chased sustenance rather than fortifying myself before I needed it. In the tough port town of Aalborg, with its beer halls, kebab outlets and ‘night-time entertainment’, I contemplated the town’s camping area for a moment or two at the 60 kilometre mark. But I was determined to continue.

I was aiming for the lakeside camping area of Vammen, on the Kjele Langsø, a lake formed by glaciers in times long past. With my legs gone and supplies bought already some 20 kilometres earlier, I struggled up 6 climbs before arriving wearily at … a Danish summer holiday camping place. Dutch, German and Danish were the languages used here, and I was told that after dinner there would be fireside singing around the main fireplace. Was I interested? I smiled and told them I was totally buggered.

After pitching the tent and pulling out my sumptuous repast of red kidney beans (in the can), cheese and ryebread, a fellow camper espied my fare and came over. In his hand was a plate of freshly cooked potatoes, vegetables and some unidentifiable meat. As I gratefully ate, I watched people – adults and children – playing various evening games. All had a beer in hand, or at least the adults did and the children wanted to drink beer. As one does on holidays in northern Jutland beside what used to be a glacier.

Day 4: Vammen to Vrads, 87 km

On the fourth morning, I watched the pre-dawn mists swirl around the lake before the summer sun burned them away. A substantial breakfast and a couple of hand-ground coffees set me up for the day; 10-15 kilometres of slow riding focused on my riding position; and I ensured I had regular food stops before my energy drain away.

My route took me through the ancient seat of power in Viborg, with its remnants of the age-old ‘Sortebrødre Klostret’ – literally the ‘Black Brothers Monastery’ but usually known in English as ‘Blackfriers’. All that is left now is the church itself, still known by the name of ‘Black Brothers’. In these parts, sites of religious pilgrimage abound, which developed after the Christianisation of Denmark by Harald Bluetooth 1,000 years ago.

By now I was seeing camping shelters on a regular basis, in corners of towns, along a narrow path to the water’s edge, in the midst of a forest. But when I actually began looking for a place to camp near Funder Kirkeby (it was listed on my basic map), the camping spots chose to conceal themselves once again.

On I peddled, and finally the village of Vrads appeared, with its ancient church still sporting the original boulders, an old-style Købmand, and a small park beside the church. With the memory of my experience in Pall, I thought that must be the camping spot.

Up went the tent, and I searched for water. A toilet sign! I made my way over a stone fence to what turned out to be not only the church toilet, but in villages like this it was actually the public toilet. Open all day, cleaned regularly, the church was still seen as a source of social goods in the village.

As I finished the last of my meal and was staring intently at the flames of the fire, I heard a bell ringing. Surely not! Indeed, it was the Hjemismand, the Danish home ice cream truck. But in a village, in Jutland? Yes indeed. Did he have an ice block? No, I had to buy a box of 10. What about that litre of chocolate ice cream? Yes, I could buy one of those. Without a fridge, I simply had to eat the lot.

At this point, a tall man with long grey hair and pipe-smoke billowing behind him appeared. He said he was ‘going to check the children’s swing’, but he was of course checking on the camper on the green. It turned out that I had missed the camping shelter on the edge of the village, but he said it was perfectly fine to stay where I was. He told me of the 26 residents in the village, who all volunteered to keep the Købmand shop going and maintained the ancient village church.

After his visit, I felt perfectly safe, since everyone in the village would know of my presence moments later.

Sauntering over to the church, I looked at the various announcements: the church was one of three covered by the local Danish Lutheran priest. Service times in each church accommodated a busy schedule. In one corner were a series of pictures from an event with local children, with the priest in her robes. At another point was an announcement of a music concert in the church. More community events were listed and it struck me that the priest’s role was as much religious as it was community building. Increasingly, the church in some parts was seeking to recover its ancient role as the hub of communal activities. This was taking place precisely in the countryside, while the city churches that could be found a stone’s throw from each other were mostly empty.

Day 5: Vrads to Christiansfeld, 99 km

Rain pattering on the tent at night is an extremely cosy experience; rain pouring down when breaking camp in the morning is not. South of Vrads it continued to rain and by Nørre Sunde I met again a man called Lars. We had passed each other few times already. Coffee? I asked. Around the corner.

We sat and talked for more than an hour waiting for the rain to ease and sipping rather good but expensive coffee. He was retired and living most of the time in a summer house on the Djursland Peninsula (near Aalborg). His wife was still working in Roskilde, so they would from time to time spend time together in either place. His practice was to drive a car to a new place and ride 20-30 kilometres in one direction, before retracing his route back to the car.

I set my sights on Kongernes Jelling, clearly the most important historical site in Denmark. Here are buried under massive mounds both Gorm den Gamle (Gorm the Old) and Harald Blåtand Gormsen (Harald Bluetooth son of Gorm). At a time when life expectancy was about 30, Harald lived to ripe old age of 76, from around 910 to 986 CE. But this is not his claim to fame.

Harald not only united Denmark under one kingdom (as narrated in the large runestone), and made the crucial decision to adopt Christianity. During a long reign of 30 years, he had many churches built across the country. These are the typical whitewashed village churches one sees in these parts. He also had one built between the two burial mounds of his father and himself. Obviously, he was not his own mound as yet. But he insisted that his father’s bones be exhumed and put in the church. Why? Gorm had been a ‘pagan’, a believer in the Norse gods, buried in a massive stone ship and mound. Harald had converted, so – just to make sure his father had the right type of afterlife – Harald ordered his father’s bones removed to the church itself.

The Danish monarchy claims its line from Gorm. Like all genealogies, this one is rather flexible, but even so it makes the Danish monarchy not only the oldest continuous line in the world, but also rather inbred.

As I pondered such matters outside the church, the clouds began to build again. I knew it was about 50 kilometres to Christiansfeld from here, but I also knew I was somewhat sore and tender from too many hours in the saddle. Yet ride I did, soon enough throwing off my tender pace and storming home at breakneck speed. I arrived at dusk and as the first drops of rain began to fall again.

The ride turned out to be 432 kilometres in five days, including the modest distance of the first day. More importantly, I had discovered what free camping meant in Denmark. Indeed, I was later to discover that the country is dotted with hundreds, if not thousands, of such places. I would soon be on my way again.

Walking Beijing, Day 2: Parkway Green to find a Brompton Bicycle (8 March 2019)

The hives also arose from sitting too long, especially behind a desk. Three or four hours a day was the most I could manage, even if I wanted to sit longer (which I did not). Today was another with the same awareness. I had to get moving, in some way or another. A run and weights for an hour or so a day no longer did the trick.

So I decided the buy a bicycle. Not any bicycle, but a Brompton bicycle. I already had one, which I used for month-long tours in Europe, but I wanted one for China.

One of the paradoxes of all this time in China is that I had not ridden a bicycle here. Everywhere else in the world, I rode – all the time. But here, I had become accustomed to doing without. Today would rectify the situation.

‘Parkway Green’ was the place for the ‘Brompton Junction’ shop. To the east it was, somewhere in Chaoyang. The metro took me somewhere nearby, but Parkway Green itself was a bit of a walk. Eventually, I turned a corner and found it – a futuristic up-market shopping mall that one finds only in China. A sign, perhaps, that already the socialist market economy was leaping ahead.

I must have walked all of the floors before I finally found the shop at the basement level. Here I had to manage in Chinese, since the young man at the shop spoke very little English. We managed to agree on every item I wanted, so as to fit out the bike for touring. How long would it take? Two to three weeks, I thought I heard him say … only to find out later it would be two to three months! The bicycle had to be assembled to my specifications in England and shipped out.

The Brompton, I must admit, had become part of a plan to feel more at home in Beijing. I had already imagined rides to different parts, to the mountains west, perhaps to Shanghai and elsewhere.

Not yet.

But on returning home, I found a small surprise: I had walked 10 kilometres to find the shop and return home. The constant movement, the enhanced circulation, the focus on finding out where to go – all these seemed to ease the hives and my sickness of the soul.

The Newcastle Rides

An unexpected (re-) discovery, during a summer of self-discovery. Too hot to ride long and hard; too dry to camp in a forest that could at any time ignite. What to do?

The previous summer I had done precisely that: ridden long and hard, and camped in places where I should not have done. Heat exhaustion was the result – due to a daily average of 40 degrees Celsius – and I was loathe to repeat the experience.

Yet ride I must: hours away, letting the mind tick over, the body doing what it loves to do. (Note: the following rides are very local to Newcastle. You will need to check maps to gain an idea of where I rode.)

6 February 2019: Glendale and Warners Bay Circuit

One morning in early February of 2019, I simply packed some daily necessities into the bicycle’s panniers and rode. A few days earlier, I had been enticed by a sign: on a regular route from one part of the city to another, pn a route I had done thousands of times, a sign pointed to somewhere I had not been.

To the sign I rode, along a route so familiar I had forgotten its features. In these parts, the old route is known as R4, running westward along creeks and quiet roads – through Newcastle West, Broadmeadow, Jesmond and Wallsend.

The new route was simply called ‘The Tramway Track’. By now the stiffness of limb and dullness of mind (from sitting too long on earlier days) had passed. The track immediately plunged into countryside, with hills and trees and an occasional field. A tram in these parts? Perhaps, for in earlier times the villages hereabouts clustered around coal mines. The mines are now closed, but the villages have remained, incorporated somewhat into the wider spread of Newcastle. Or perhaps it was originally a line build for coal wagons, subsequently used for a time by passenger service – until many such services were closed in the 1970s.

I could try to find out if I wished, but I preferred to let my mind run, speculate a little, concoct a story or two.

Some six or seven kilometres later the track came to an end, at Glendale. If once it was a village, now it was a major shopping centre in the west.

Turn around? I checked a map and realised that the route continued on-road a little before once again becoming a bicycle path. By Cockle Creek railway station it did precisely that. Cockle Creek: only on a passing train had I espied this small stop, wondering from time to time where exactly it might be. Now I knew. And here was the bicycle path I had also seen from the train, wondering where it went. Now I was to find out.

It veered away from the road, swung under a bridge and before long I found myself at Speers Point on the vast Lake Macquarie. Now I was on familiar territory: along the lake to Warners Bay, up Mount Hutton to Charlestown (on-road), over the top and down to Whitebridge – heading ever eastward.

A decade or so ago I had ridden this section somewhat regularly. For a time, it was a regular way to begin the ride to Sydney. But I discovered other routes and forgot about this one. Now I recalled those earlier times; the rotation of the peddles seems to trigger such memories in a way that is like no other. A teenage daughter interested in a boy somewhere near here; teaching her to drive on her way for a visit; a quiet cigarette secretly imbibed away from those who scolded me to stop; a father who was still alive; a new partner from across the seas, whom I was only beginning to get to know; the frenetic pace of those years … on the memories went.

Until I reached the much-ridden Fernleigh track. This too was a former railway line, built for coal and then with a passenger service included. It too was closed in the 1970s and then – some forty years later – turned into a glorious rail trail. I rode along the last eight kilometres to Adamstown, to follow back streets home.

Returning home, I was surprised to find I had ridden almost 50 kilometres. I was even more surprised at the thrill of discovery. Not earth-shaking, to be sure; small discoveries, but pleasures nonetheless. I felt no desire for work and much for heading out again.

8 February 2019: From Teralba Railway Station to the Hill

A couple of days later, I was on the train from Gosford. Family reasons had taken me there, but, as is my wont, I had my bicycle with me. On a whim, I jumped off at Teralba – yet another mining village on the western shores of Lake Macquarie. Here I had not ridden before, although I had walked once or twice on stages of the Great North Walk.

Yet, from a bicycle you see things differently. The Northern Hotel beckoned, inviting me to return and stay for a night – if only it had accommodation. The artists who seemed to enjoy the forgottenness of the place were more obvious, as were the many long-term residents of the caravan park.

I was peddling through, slowly, conscious of the fact that sitting at work for long hours is not so desirable. I had done enough of that in the 500,000 hours of my life thus far: other desires called me now, especially the desire to be out on a bicycle.

Soon enough, I was on a wide and still new path along western Lake Macquarie. Less popular than further east, the only traveller I met was a determined old man on an electric wheelchair. But I was keen to reverse the newly-discovered direction of the earlier ride. Now I knew I could make it through easily, from Speers Point, through Cockle Creek and Glendale to the Tramway Track.

Today, of course, was different. I pondered why I needed to be out, rediscovering the town in which I had lived for more than fifteen years. Why I had not eaten enough for lunch and why did the long climb of the Tramway Track seemed longer than before (well, I had cruised down it last time)? And why had the clouds had become dark and why did the air smell as though it was going to rain?

Soon enough, I began to race the clouds, watching their edge as they blew in the same direction I was headed. Would I stop at the shops on my way? As I emerged, a few spatters began to fall and I raced on.

Through Wallsend, skirting the university to which I was saying an overdue goodbye, threading my way through Jesmond Brush and Hamilton, I tackled the final hill to home with gusto.

As I wheeled the bike inside, the first real flashes of lightning hit and seriously large drops of rain began to fall. I may about ridden about 30 kilometres, but I was now into this brief spell of summer riding.

10 February 2019: Warners Bay and Belmont Circuit

Leaping out of bed a couple days later, I knew where I wanted to go: down to Warner’s Bay by another route and then to explore what had seemed forbidden until now – a route along the lake to Belmont.

Why forbidden? I had in mind a busy, winding road with much traffic. Or rather, it was a memory from more than a decade, when my youngest daughter and I had taken part in a ‘Loop the Lake’ ride. Then we had strength in numbers, but even so it felt like a hairy ride with traffic buzzing past.

Let’s see, I pondered, as I eagerly rolled out the Surly Long Haul Trucker (a bicycle, in case you were wondering).

Initially, I took one of those routes that were designed and laid out in the 1980s. Cyclists like to amble along, they had thought, peddle a kilometre or two and then head home. The track in question wound its way through parkland from Kotara to Charlestown. Or rather, it simply came to an end on a street with no character. Through riders? What are they.

But I knew the route from years ago and persisted until I reached the busy Charlestown Road. Peddle a long the footpath a little and then drop, drop, drop on Hillsborough Road. Some vague recollection niggled: this road is not the best for riding. Merely a recollection … let us see.

The massive roundabout on the Newcastle bypass was my answer. In theory, one would use the bicycle bridge over the roundabout. In theory … for you could use if crossing four lanes of busy traffic to the other side is your thing. I braved the roundabout.

Past the roundabout and the bicycle path simply gave out. Ah, too complicated, so let us end it here – road planners have their limits.

A mix of guesswork, the odd footpath, a back street or two, and eventually I was in Warners Bay for a late lunch.

Now the discoveries of this day began. The route south-east was nothing as I remembered it from more than a decade ago. Now the path wound on, along wetland bridges and paths hugging the shore. It went much further than I had anticipated, but eventually it too gave out, ending ignominiously in a car park.

The narrow, winding road it would be. But less than two kilometres later I spied a crooked sign, pointing to a bicycle path. Why not? It may be nothing, but then again it may be something.

This path, with its twists and turns, would take me all the way to Belmont. I relished the discovery, curious about local lives, swimming corners, the feel of the track. I pondered why I needed to be out, why I could no longer sit and work all day at the ubiquitous tool known as a computer.

Belmont at last and I knew where to go, for the Fernleigh Track at its full extent began close by. As I pedalled along this well-known route, with its long climb to Whitebridge and then drop to Adamstown, I thought about rail motors to country towns in my youth. One such rail motor ran the 100 kilometres or so between Tumbarumba and Wagga Wagga, providing for many years a much-needed connection for remote towns. But by the 1970s and due to the politico-economic clout of motor vehicle companies, these lines were shut down. So it was too with the railway line between Newcastle and Belmont.

But now I could ride the 16 kilometres or so of the Fernleigh Track on my own, away from the struggle of those curious and by now obsolete contraptions known as motor cars.

Before I knew it, the 50 kilometres of this day were done, with a satisfaction that is impossible to describe.

13 February 2019: Fassifern to Newcastle

Despite my grand plans, this was to be the last day of the Newcastle rides, at least for this summer. Many years ago and with a new partner from across the seas, we had taken the train to Fassifern and ridden along the rail-trail that followed the old route of the Fassifern-Toronto rail motor. It was always a short line, with two stops and barely more than 5 kilometres, but it went the way of so many such services.

Now a bicycle path took its place – a recurrent refrain in these accounts. I never thought I would be back here, but now I pedalled slowly, savouring memories and pondering how much had changed in a decade or more.

But also how much had stayed the same. As then, there were no other riders on the path. And as then, Toronto railway station remains as a landmark to a bygone age. These days it seems to be a haunt for those seeking a quiet setting for a drink and a chat, especially if one has nowhere to call home.

If I expected a new bicycle path between Toronto and Booragul, I was to be disappointed. But at least there was a decent shoulder on the road. That said, I had never been to the Booragul foreshore, so at the railway station I followed a couple of other cyclists and passed a church whose glory had been greater in the past.

The church set me pondering the parlous state of Christianity in ‘Western’ countries, which really seem to have lost their souls in such a way that they have lost the possibility of regaining them. Not merely Christianity, but any religion. I must admit I longed for the packed services at the Haidian Three-Self Patriotic Movement churhc, which I attend in Beijing. What secret do the Chinese have that the ‘West’ has lost? In a socialist state, with a strong communist party in power, and with a robust rule of law that promotes freedom of religion, churches, mosques and temples are full. Yet, in supposedly Christian countries the churches are empty. Who knows?

The quiet few kilometres along the foreshore of Lake Macquarie soon brought me to the wide and luxurious path by Teralba, where I had been a few days earlier, and then to Speers Point for my ride along a route that had become a new favourite. To Glendale I rode, via Cockle Creek, only to join the Tramway Track and then the ride home along the much-ridden ‘R6’, via Throsby Creek, the Newcastle foreshore and home.

That would be it for this summer. The planned full circuit of 70 kilometres would not happen this time, for other events in my life intervened. Nothing much – in retrospect – to excite one, but the experience generated a sense of discovery and self-discovery that surprised me. The full circuit would have to wait, for I had plans elsewhere, in China, Denmark and Germany, where I would ride many more kilometres.

The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 35, 29 August 2018: Halle to Benkendorf return (32 km; 1718 km in total)

2018 08 29 Halle to Benkendorf return - Suesser See route (32 km)

The last day of an extraordinary summer had to come at last. Since I had ridden northward and southward, I opted today for a route to the Süßer See to the west. I had seen a sign on my first ride in Halle and found it again today.

Off I set with glee – only to find my front tyre flat. How so, I wondered. Were not the Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres supposed to be impervious to punctures? It turned out to be a pinched tube from deflating the tyres for the transport case. But the replacement tube also had a small hole, so I undertook the whole process again.

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At last I could get going, only to find the route closed due to roadwork. Ah well, I will simply pick up a bicycle path through Neustadt and see where it takes me. After a few kilometres, the signs to the Süßer See appeared once again. Now they took through forest paths, villages and the double ribbon of concrete farm tracks. Here farmers were ploughing and putting on a layer of topsoil, which had blown away over the dry summer. As always, they hoped for rain in the midst of the dust.

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I took my time along the ride back, savouring the farmlands and forest, thinking back over the 1700 or so kilometres I had ridden and looking forward to the next long ride.

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I was not fully aware of it then, but the month or more of riding was another profound transition. It was not merely that my head had cleared, with a sharp recall of Chinese language – my passion – I had not expected. It was not merely the tanned fitness of day after day on the road. At a deeper level, it would turn out to be a pattern of life in which I did not feel pressured and tensed by all around, an ability to take on relatively little and reflect much. In short, a growing sense of calm and peace.

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The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 34, 28 August 2018: Halle to Merseberg return (41 km; 1686 km in total)

2018 08 28 Halle to Merseburg return - D11 near Halle (41 km)

Today I would head south from Halle along the D11, which entailed riding through the old town and then swinging right to pick up the river. Sooner than yesterday I was out of town and in the fields … until the ‘radweg gesperrt [bicycle route closed]’ sign stopped my gentle progress.

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After pondering which way to go, I followed an old man calmly pedalling along a busy and treacherous road, until we reached the village of Korbetha. Once again I could ride along quieter paths, passing through Schkopau and then back along the D11 to the outskirts of Merseberg.

Once again I had to turn back before I was ready to do so, although I took my time to notice the many industrial ruins around Schkopau. I have encountered this type of scenery before, but each time it is still a shock. One after another, the industries of the former DDR were shut down after 1989. Since they offered too much competition, with good quality products at relatively low prices, they were rapidly bought up and closed. Hence the ruins today, hence the unemployment in these parts. It was a process of comprehensive de-industrialisation, enacted right across eastern Europe. Here in particular, the process was obvious and devastating.

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After Schkopau, I followed the ‘Umleitung [detour]’ sign back to Halle. Once back in the outskirts, I opted to follow a quiet route along the Weiss Elster River, a tributary of the Saale. Here my heart lifted, for I came across an extraordinary apartment complex, winding its way long the river for about half a kilometre. Another DRR dwelling complex, gloriously maintained, painted and lived-in. I sucked it all in and it went on and on.

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I arrived back in Neustadt at sunset and took in yet again the vistas and street scapes of the DDR architecture and town planning.

The Anti-Fascist Trail: Day 33, 27 August 2018: Halle to Brachwitz return (29 km; 1645 km in total)

A pause in riding for a week or more, before the last burst. Were the three days to come a footnote to the summer? Or were they an anticipation of next year? I had been studying the D11 Radweg, a ride – from Rostock on the Baltic coast to the Austrian border – that covers some 1600 kilometres. Much of it goes through the eastern parts of Germany, so it has a natural attraction for me.

We were in Halle, on the Saale River. The D11 ran right through the town, so it was too good an opportunity to miss. We were staying in the Neustadt part of town, in a hotel that had originally been built during the DDR era and had recently been refurbished. A grand building it was, retaining the feel of the effort to create a new sense of space under socialism. Indeed, nearly all the buildings around about had also been constructed at the same time.

Much of the town had been destroyed towards the end of the Second World War, as the Red Army came through and was routing the last of the Wehrmacht. Soon after and under Stalin’s leadership and inspiration, the Red Army would defeat Hitler and bring an end to the war.

In places like Halle, they had to start almost from scratch, building modern apartments for workers in the new society. Streetscapes, open spaces, vistas from the nearby farmlands – all of these indicated a distinct effort to produce space anew. Since 1989, they had been ignored and became dilapidated, but in the last few years people had realised how well-built they really were. So some renovation is underway, albeit too little in light of the grim economic situation in the east.

More recently still, the German government has been housing the millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East in such places. The risk of ghettoes is great, even though the people hereabouts do their best to make a home and create work.

I would see many other parts in my rides out of Halle and back again. On this day, I rode north after negotiating traffic work. Along the Saale I rode, longing to be out of the built-up areas. Eventually I was out in the fields, riding past a mother with a baby in a trailer, and an older woman who seemed to be the grandmother. Slowly they rode, until it was time to feed the baby. I wondered at the story behind these three generations, clearly touring some distance with a small baby.

Too soon did I have to turn back, at the ferry crossing to Brachwitz. Back along the same route, but with a last detour through one of the campuses of the university – also built during DDR times.