Rhine Source to Sea: I’m Back!

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Big Adventures

Where to start? I’ve been back home now for a few days, after cycling home (almost) from Switzerland. More about that “almost” later. I’ve had to try to sum up the Rhine Source to Sea to my family, my friends… and to my colleagues in our weekly team meeting.

“Hi guys, I’m back!” turned fairly rapidly into a verbal splat. Maybe entertaining for everyone at work, but probably not for the right reasons!

Summing up the trip succinctly has proved difficult. So much happened and so much went completely and utterly NOT to plan. It’s too easy to run away with just listing everything that went “wrong”. That’s pretty negative, so I’ll try to explain instead.

At Home on a Bicycle

To be completely honest, I left home for Switzerland expecting a bit of a holiday. Other than the fear of taking a bike on a plane (don’t worry, there was suitable drama), I was going on a cycle tour. I can do touring. There’s a part of my brain that knows life is really just waking up in a tent, riding a bike all day and finding somewhere to sleep. Waken up that bit of brain and everything is fine.

For more about my pre-adventure fears, you might like to read: And We’re Off! Rhine Source to Sea Commences

Alex and I did a calculation somewhere in a particularly miserable stretch of German gravel: the Rhine was my 7th bike tour. All of those tours have been in UK, Ireland and (mostly) Western Europe. This says one of two things: I enjoy European cycling or I need to get out more… Either way, living on a bike and in a tent come naturally to me. I flip a switch in my brain and I’m home.

Little did I know.

It all went wrong…

It’s tempting to quote Murphy’s Law here: “Anything that can go wrong will (did!) go wrong”. But that would be unfair. Not everything went wrong. My flight to Switzerland wasn’t struck by lightning. I didn’t rip a hole through the outer of my tent. They weren’t sold out of biscuits at every supermarket and the ferry home didn’t leave without us.

Many things went wrong. Or, fairer: many things went very not to plan. The plan changed so many times that I lost count… and it kept changing right up until I arrived at my front door at 11:45pm on Wednesday.

But the “going wrong” events were so relentless and consistent that after a while I began to just expect them. Not in a pessimistic way, but just accepting to expect the unexpected and open up for the ride. Very quickly, Alex and I had personified the Rhine cycle route as a cruel, hard beast, who would sling a back-hand at you just when you thought it was starting to get easy.

Tell us what happened!

I still haven’t managed to get events straight in my head for a good old Emily story post. However, what I can do is show you my weekly updates. These were going to a few people including my parents and Ridgeback who sponsored me my bike. As this was my first time taking technology and internet with me, I wasn’t sure how it would work out. In hindsight, I could have updated you too as I went along. Maybe next time.

For now, here’s the updates in chronological order. I’ll add in some extra comments from me now, with hindsight in square brackets [like this].

Rhine Update 1 – Written 27th July

Where to start? It’s been an eventful few days! [Ha, sound familiar?!]

Day 0 25th: Emily’s flight after work is delayed and then re routed to Lyon because of extreme lightning around Geneva. No flights had been able to land for an hour and you could see the forks from the plane! This meant getting to Geneva airport by bus finally at 3am.

Day 1 26th: Emily pulls her second ever all-nighter! Bike arrived safe and sound at Geneva airport. The only minor damage is on the seat where I’d dragged the box across Bristol airport so much it had worn through the cardboard… Even that you can barely seen unless you’re looking – sturdy bike! I reassembled bike at Geneva train station at 3am ish. Then waited until the first train to Andermatt: the start of our tour. I managed to meet up with Alex on the way. We then got off at a wrong stop and killed an hour until the next one by eating ice cream… It is ridiculously hot.

We arrived at Andermatt by 2pm and found the campsite. I still hadn’t slept, so got a 30min nap in before heading to Lake Toma. Lake Toma is the actual source of the Rhine. We caught the train up and saw the hair-pinned mountain road we have to cycle up tomorrow. YIKES!

From the top of the pass we did the 3.5 hour walk in 2 hours – there and back at a jog! Didn’t want to miss the last train. And a lot of uphill. Beautiful views of the mountains and the slightly alarming rumbles of distant thunder moving in. We made it to Lake Toma. We made it back to the train as the rain was setting in. Then early night in the tent.

Day 2 27th: Up bright an early more overcast than yesterday. Conquered the pass and had an amazing downhill. I love this bike! The handling is hard work because it’s heavily laden on the back but it is so smooth to ride. Bit of a baptism of fire for me and Alex going straight into the biggest pass on the trip but hey ho!

All went well until sometime after lunchtime. We were off the main road and into back roads in Swiss countryside. An unnecessary amount of ups and downs but hey it’s Switzerland. Then we were signed onto a path that turned from tarmac to dirt and stones. It was just about doable but when everyone you pass is of a mountain bike you start to wonder…

Then it started raining. Alex: it didn’t start raining it started thunderstorming! And it did. We could hear thunder in the forest and as we got out on to the main road we could see the lightning. And we were cycling towards it.

As we continued the rain got harder and harder until it was pummelling down. In the meantime the road turned into a relentless uphill for over an hour. We were soaked through. We ended up sheltering In a shed for the local dustbin collection for 30min until the rain got less.

By that time it was 5.30pm. We were both exhausted. My arms were more tired than anything from the bumps and up and down. By the time we reached Chur, our destination for the evening I was on the point of dropping. But we found the campsite and got very excited by the fact it had a restaurant… We haven’t had the camping stove out tonight!

All in all 95kms cycling and a lot of uphill. The lady at the campsite reception assures us it’s flatter tomorrow. We’ll have to wait and see.

Rhine Update 2 – Written 2nd August

Lots has happened since our last update. On the plus side, the cycling has got generally flatter and the weather sunnier. I’m writing this from a picnic bench 19km outside of Strasbourg – our destination for the day. It’s 1pm and we’ve been cycling along the peaceful Rhone-Rhine canal all day. There is so much wildlife: dragonflies, beavers, the occasional plop of a big fish.

In the past few days we’ve cycled through Germany, Switzerland and France. It’s not always obvious which one we’re in! The Rhine is getting more and more industrial. It’s already an enormous river and we’re not even near the sea.

On 30th July, a tent pole snapped. [I snapped a tent pole. I was not a happy bunny, I love that tent like my first home. It is 7 years old and still bomb-proof.] This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it wasn’t a free standing tent made up of two poles… After several repair attempts, involving tent pegs and electrical tape, we gave up. A fellow camper lent us a spare tent for the night and I ordered replacement curved pole sections to arrive in Bonn with Alex’s Uncle. We intended to stay with them anyway and will pick it up when we arrive around 7th August.

In the meantime we’ve been finding places to stay using the cycle touring network [Warmshowers]. We stayed in Basel and watched the fireworks for Switzerland Day. We spent a night in France with a German engineer who works in renewables. And we have a week of more interesting and kind people to come until we reach Bonn. So far we’ve cycled 500km so that’s about 700km left to go. It feels like we’ve been on the road for ages and yet at the same time I can hardly believe it’s been a week already.

Rhine Update 3 – Written 10th August

Today we reached the Netherlands! And hit 1000km cycled (or at least planned cycling – not including going off route to campsites or doing the tour de Mullhouse because of bad signage!). Weather has been really tough going today. It is ferociously windy, coming predominantly from the west… the direction we want to cycle in.

At least the tent is now back in action. We had a mammoth 140km day on Tuesday, doing two days’ worth of cycling in one to get to Bonn early. This gave us time to have a rest day staying with Alex’s uncle’s and receive the replacement pole parts in the post. Phew. [This wasn’t as smooth as it sounds!]

In the interim, we stayed with some interesting and lovely people, all cyclists living on the Rhine. We met an engineer, the head of the planetarium in Strasbourg and a family who have been touring across the world. The kindness of strangers never ceases to humble me.

Since Strasbourg, the Rhine has been becoming increasingly industrial. Aside from the short section of the Romantic Rhine (we counted 30 castles in one day’s cycling) it is a working river. There are hoards of cruise ships and cargo. On the left bank, we are cycling past factories, quarries, logistics companies and chemical plants. A lot of it looks like an industrial wasteland. The smell varies from the strange sweet chemistry lab smell, to glue to bleach to far worse.

We can’t believe that we’re almost at the sea. On Monday we need to cycle 60km before breakfast to make the ferry! Let’s hope the Dutch headwinds are kind to us that day. We’ll be getting up extra early just in case [4:30am]. Then there’s the cycle back to Devon across the UK. The weather forecast looks grim. We’ll see what happens. Our planned route is from Harwich to Chelmsford, London and Reading along an International cycle route. Then heading down south and west towards home.

Rhine Update 4 – Finished!

The only thing certain about adventures is that something unexpected will happen. “We’ll I wasn’t expecting that” quickly became the catchphrase of our trip. Whether that was from cycling through a thunderstorm, breaking a tent pole, or sheer disbelief at the direction the Rhine route was sending us. That’s why I’m writing this final update 3 days early from the comfort of my own home. We’re finished.

The last stretch through Holland was tight to catch the ferry. We had to get up at 4.30am to [be 100% certain that we’d] cover the distance on time. But I’m so glad we did! Starting cycling with stars overhead was an incredible way to reach the end of the Rhine. We cycled through the windmills of Kinderdijk at sunrise, empty of tourists.

Then the world (and the wind) woke up. We got mixed up in a German cycling tour group in Rotterdam. [This was the most stressful experience of the trip!] As we reached the home stretch to Hoek van Holland, we could only see a thick blanket of mist. We cycled into it, and the rain came. It was the last test of the Rhine and we made it out the other side.

Early and drenched for the ferry, we had time to cycle down the long finger pier at Hoek van Holland. Surrounded by sea, we’d touched the source of the Rhine and over 2 weeks later, we’d touched the sea. Later on the ferry, we saw the line where the fresh water gives way to seawater and the Rhine mixes with the ocean.

But that wasn’t the end of the journey. From where the ferry docked in Harwich, we’d always intended to cycle back home across the UK to Devon. It would have taken us another full week of cycling. As you can tell by this update coming early, we decided to cut our losses and catch a train some of the way between London and home. I arrived back at my doorstep at 11.45pm having cycled through the capital.

Cycling through London was a very surreal experience. People kept saying how dangerous it would be, but actually I felt completely safe 95% of the time. That’s because almost all of it was off road or on dedicated cycle paths. In fact I feel like I’ve had an insight into London’s underground network of canals and green spaces.

What was even more surreal was that we’d pedalled there all the way from Switzerland. In typical British summer fashion it rained torrentially the entire day. We were eating lunch under the awning of a public loos somewhere in the outskirts of London. Classy I know. Two other cyclists walked past exclaiming that they were glad they weren’t the only ones crazy enough to be out cycling that day. We got talking and they realised how crazy we actually were.

“Where have you come from?”


“Well I must say your English is superb!”

No, we explained, that’s where we started cycling. Their eyes widened and they backed away slowly…