Staring out across the river, the bright early morning sunshine was almost blinding us as we searched the horizon for the Elbe vehicle ferry at Wischhafen. We had spent the previous night less than 1km away, camping beside twenty campervans making use of a free Wohnmobilstellplatz. We weren’t really supposed to be there but we were tired after a 100km bike ride in searing heat and just needed to stop. Now we were waiting to cross one of the biggest rivers in Europe, the Elbe. It’s source is in the Czech republic and its catchment covers most of east Germany including the River Spree that runs through Berlin. Here, near to its entry into the North Sea, it is 2km wide and takes over 30 mins to cross. The ferry is a giant version of the Corran ferry near Fort William and takes all sizes of vehicle and people. Travelling with us today was a tanker lorry, a tractor with a trailer full of freshly cut grass destined for a silage clamp, holiday makers in their mobile home, commuters and a party of tiny kids from a local Kindergarten out on an end of term trip. The ferries run every 20 mins from 0430hrs through to 2300hrs. The next crossing is 25 miles upstream at Hamburg so the options are limited.
In the last two weeks we have crossed most of the main rivers draining north in western Europe either by bridge or ferry. We started with the Waal/Rhine in Nijmegen, then crossed the Ems on a little one car and twenty bike ferry between Ditzum and Petkum, south of Emden. A small bridge took us over the Jade and onto the Weser (of Pied Piper fame) where we took a larger vehicle ferry to just south of Bremerhaven. After another day’s riding we were ready for the Elbe.
Not surprisingly, with such large catchments, these rivers are very muddy and rich in nutrients. Lovely, lovely, lovely say all the wading birds that live on the giant estuary mud flats and around the Wadden Sea. We have both waited fifty one years to see an Avocet and were extremely excited to see our first one down on the estuary grassland as we left the Netherlands. Three hours later, having seen about 40 more, we were losing interest. In German, the Avocet is called a Säbelschnäbler, the sabre sifter. It is very apt as this very distinctive white and black bird has a long, black, upturned bill much like a sabre in shape that it uses to sift through mud to find aquatic insects to eat. If you’ve not seen one, its worth a look at a ‘google’ image.
By chance, cycling from the Weser to the Elbe, we came across a different way of crossing a river. At Osten, a small village just outside Henmoor, westnorthwest of Bremerhaven, there is, what is purported to be, the world’s first transporter bridge.
It was built at the same time as the Eiffel tower and predates the one across the Tees by a couple of years. The roadway here is suspended from solid ironwork and was the only way to cross the River Oste at this point from 1909 until 1974, when the nearby road bridge was constructed. Now it provides a tourist attraction and a way for cyclists to cross the river on the Monks Way from Bremen to Fehmarn, an island in the Ostsee. Osten also has an amazing village church. Built in the 18th century in the baroque style, its interior is light, cool and spectacularly ornate.
Equipment failures has been a bit of a theme for the last couple of weeks. At the Groningen campsite, I thought I could hear rain pattering on to our tent. Jerry looked out…. no, no rain falling. The pattering continued. We tuned in our ears for where the sound was coming from. My Thermarest???? Yes, after 20 years of camping, mostly in remote places in the Scottish Highlands, my self inflating sleeping mat was delaminating. By tea time it had developed a large blister. There was nothing for it, I needed to buy a new one. Luckily for us there was a great outdoor shop in Groningen called Bever, who helped us out with a 15% discount.
Next to go, was my bike rack. Nothing dramatic, we had stopped for afternoonses just after crossing the Weser and I looked down at my rack and wondered if the right hand strut had always had a 90 degree angle in it? Then Jerry noticed the lefthand strut had completely snapped. Amazingly, the carrier was still managing to support my two panniers and the tent poles. We cycled gingerly along to a nearby campsite and planned a trip to Bremerhaven the following day. Again, we were lucky enough to find a superb bike shop on the northern side of the city, Der Radgeber, where they had a Tubus steel carrier. The shop owner even helped us fit it after we had taken the old one off. We are now treating all our equipment very gently, as these replacements have taken a knock on our budget.
Other than these big expenses, we are not not doing too badly with the budget. We have been helped out enormously by friends in Britain and Belgium putting us up for free. We do our best to stay on cheaper campsites where there is a reduced rate for ‘trekkers’, we have ‘stealth’ camped a few times and we have stayed with four Warmshowers hosts, one in Britain and three on the continent. They have all welcomed us warmly, helped us with washing clothes, fed us, entertained us with stories from their lives, and given us invaluable information on their country and cycle routes. We have thoroughly enjoyed their company and are very grateful for their support of our adventure.
Now we are in Denmark and heading north to Frederikshavn. We are going to take the ferry from there to Oslo to see if we can still make it to the Lofoten Islands this summer. I post a photo most days on Facebook to give an update on where we are, if you would like to see this send me a friend invite.