Rhine Source to Sea: The Story Part 1

Emily Woodhouse Adventure Stories, Big Adventures

Well everyone, I started off with this post being called “Rhine Source to Sea: The Full Story”. But after several thousand words and still going strong, I think too much happened to fit it into one post. Either that or you’ll be waiting about a month…

So, here is the first instalment of my cycling the Rhine from Source to Sea and then home. If you’ve just stumbled across this check out this page for the back story and links to all other related posts in the run up to the adventure.

The Start

Somehow, at a busy station platform somewhere in Switzerland, I found Alex. My eyes went from the bicycle, to her and then did a double take.

“Oh, you’ve got a rucksack,” I said.

Alex rattled off something about it being useful for shopping and a whole host of other things. She was in a frantic state of nervous excitement. I think I managed to say something like, “It’s just it can be uncomfortable cycling with a backpack on.” But that might not have ever made it out of my mouth. My teenage self managed all of 2 hours of a 2 week tour before strapping mine to the pannier rack.

My dazed brain didn’t manage to put that memory into a sentence. It was currently pulling the second ever all-nighter of its life. By this point it was a good 28 hours in and finding everything just a bit too bright and loud and fast.

My biggest fear for the whole trip was getting myself and my bicycle to Switzerland. While bike touring in Europe is a very familiar pattern, taking fragile large luggage on an aeroplane was a huge unknown. It was a make or break point of the trip. No bike: no bike ride.

You can imagine my alarm when the flight was not only delayed by unable to land in Geneva due to lightning. The captain called it, “The worst storm of his career.” In hindsight, the tone was set when I arrived at the bus to Bristol Airport with my bike box and was told I couldn’t get on, and that the box was 3kg over the weight allowance…

Instead, the flight landed at Lyon in France. I sat by the Extra-Large Luggage carousel for what seemed like an eternity, hoping my bike had arrived at the same airport as me. All the other passengers had already got their bags and were queuing for the replacement buses. Eventually, the flashing lights came on and my enormous bike box lurched through the flaps.

Against the odds, myself and the other cyclist managed to get both our bikes in the compartment under the replacement bus in a way that would have put the Bristol Airport bus driver to shame. We then drove for hours into the night across to Geneva Airport. Unlike any of the other passengers, at least I had a sleeping bag in my hand luggage.

I arrived at a deserted Geneva Airport at about 3:30 am and reassembled my bike outside. After an interesting Franglais conversation with one of the cleaners (I understand French very well but struggle to make a coherent sentence), I establish she wanted me to stop ripping the box up and just leave it by the bins. Even in my sleep deprived state, I rolled the bike away looking back at the box and hoping it didn’t cause a bomb scare.

The next train was a 6 am, so I sat on a bench in the train station and ate dry roasted peanuts to try to stay awake. Then I had a go at playing the piano and had a bizarre conversation with another tourist about his cycle tour in Yugoslavia.

“Where have you been cycling?” he asked.

“I’m still trying to start,” I explained.


Lake Toma

When, from the comfort of a sunny living room, you decide you need to go to the literal source of the Rhine (not the town at the start of the bike route), you don’t imagine the reality. You don’t think about what actually doing it will be like: a fun little afternoon’s hike, perhaps.

I went to sleep in our tent in Andermatt after some 36 hours awake, giving Alex strict instructions to wake me up after 30 minutes not matter what.

“We could just not go today and have a day to chill out in Andermatt tomorrow,” she said.

“No, we don’t have time.”

I get a bit blunt when I’m tired. But I was right: we didn’t have time. We had a plan to stick to. Alex had made us a scheduled spreadsheet that would get us back home the afternoon that my year’s holiday allowance was up. With some days scheduled in at 100km we were already cutting it fine.

So 40 minutes later, still shaking myself awake, we took the short train ride up the imposing hairpinned climb to Oberalppass. The pass we’d cycling up first thing tomorrow morning. Not that I had much concept of today, tomorrow or yesterday at that point.

As the train chugged uphill, we realised that we’d have to do the hike to Lake Toma and back in double time – or miss the last train back to Andermatt. Wake up Emily, wake up!

It felt like one of the most dangerous hikes I’ve ever set out on. Not because of the mountains. We were in a rush. We were in a “summit or nothing” mindset – although we did set a turn around time. In our rush to get the train up and my sleep haze, I had no water, no food and no waterproof coat. It was hot and I was in thermal leggings, a bike jersey and trail shoes. We rounded the corner of the waymarked bath and there was a huge rumble of thunder in the distance. We could see the dark clouds rolling towards Andermatt. We carried on. We had no map or compass or anything. Let me tell you: it felt irresponsible.

But, like I’ve often said, you have to acknowledge the risks you take in the outdoors. At the end of the day, it’s always your choice to accept the risks or turn back. We kept going. Despite everything, I’m so glad we did.

After storming uphill, we arrived at a beautiful clear mountain lake. It was so still that the grey peaks reflected perfectly in the turquoise water. There was a plaque marking the source of the Rhine and it hadn’t even started raining yet. I dipped my hand in the water. Then we ran back down the mountain.

The Bin Shed

I was soaked. Completely and utterly soaked. Everything from top to toe with complete disregard for waterproof jacket or GoreTex shoes. But it was raining so hard that Alex wouldn’t have heard me shout to stop from up ahead. And anyway, I needed my breath. We were stuck on one of those impossible Swiss roads that seems to wind steadily but endlessly uphill, like an Escher painting. What a place to be cycling through a thunderstorm.

At yet another “it must nearly be the top” lay-by, Alex pulled over to wait for me. I deliberately pulled a long way into the lay-by. There was pine forest behind us and a small hut, like a garden shed.

“We could try sit out the rain,” I shouted. “Even just for half an hour.”

Alex, also drenched but on a mission, reluctantly agreed. The small landslide below us in the bank of the river probably swayed her.

“Can we get in here?”

My joy that the shed was unlocked got quickly dampened. I yanked the door open and unleashed the smell of rubbish. It was a bin shed. The place that the locals left their black bags for pick up by the bin men. It also appeared to be the place local youths came to drink, light tea lights and eat pistachios. What a life.

In almost any other situation, I would have shut that door again immediately. But instead, I took a deep breath and clambered in, dripping on the dry wooden floor. Alex stood in the doorway. We timed half an hour.

The Tent Pole

“It’s okay, these things happen,” said Alex.

“Not to my tent, they don’t!”

You must understand that I was in a state of shock. I have had my Vaude Taurus II since my 19th birthday and consider it my first house. Over 7 years I have camped in it relentlessly across half a dozen countries. It is infallible. It’s bombproof. It’s almost pristine.

So when I put a normal amount of force into clipping pole 1 of 2 into its eyelet and it made a noise like a branch snapping, I was in denial. Then disbelief as I held the sheared metal pole. Then, “Oh we are really screwed“. Because why would you pack a tent repair kit for an infallible tent? I didn’t even know where I’d left it in the past 7 years.

It was day four of cycling. To say we were hot and bothered doesn’t even cover it. Temperatures were hitting 30°C and, unlike in the UK, it would get hotter and hotter until about 7pm. We could hide out a thunderstorm, but we couldn’t hide from the heat.

Couple that with long hilly days, navigational errors (we were only following EV15 signs for direction) and getting into campsites at 6pm each day. I was starting to question if we’d even have time to cycle the whole of the Rhine and back across the UK.

All of that and now, to top off a scorching and monotonous day, I had snapped a tent pole. Let me tell you, it nearly wasn’t the only thing that snapped. It felt like our trip was cursed. Even on All the Tors I didn’t have such an endless one thing after another after another. At least I knew that deep down Dartmoor liked me. Alex and I had already decided that the Rhine hated us.

When the pole snapped, it was so loud that all the people camping near us heard it. There was a collective wince and gasp. Then everyone came running with offers of help. Are you sure you don’t want some electrical tape? You could try taping a tyre lever to the break? Or a tent peg? There’s a caravanning shop the other side of town. You could sleep in our one-sided beach-screen. Would you like a hammer? Or a screw to fit inside the pole? I’ve got some metal pipe in my car…

After politely turning down and fending off all the suggestions and help, I sat on the grass and stared at the split pole in my hands. Think. Think.

Alex came over. “Could you please just stop making suggestions a minute so I can think please?” I smiled wanly and desperately.

To Alex’s eternal credit she said, “Okay, you need to think.” And went to start cooking dinner.

In my head we were not going to fix it. Nor were we likely to find a replacement off-chance in a camping shop. It was too niche, the segments were pre-curved. We could waste a day cycling from one place to the next and still not have a fix. Tonight at least we could sleep under the cooking awning, on top of the benches. I could…

A man from the tent next to us walked over.

“I have a spare tent. I got it from my car.”

I couldn’t thank him enough. At least we could sleep in a tent tonight – there was a thunderstorm forecast.

I packed my broken tent away, unpacked and pitched the spare tent. It was tiny, but it was far better than nothing. Then I went over to Alex.

“Right, here’s what I’m thinking. I’ll contact the guys at Vaude and see if I can get two replacement pole sections shipped out. Would your uncle be able to receive a package in Bonn? We could pick it up when we visit them. That leaves us a week. I’m on Warmshowers, so we can use that for the meantime.”

That was the plan. I spent the rest of the evening firing off messages to people along on our planned route. Colin Garfoot of the wonderful Vaude UK customer service had already replied to my crazy request before we went to bed. Sure, we’ll make it happen.