A bowl of honeymoon goulash
The High Tatras rise incessantly to our left and make us feel small; like any mountain range they are beautiful, inspiring, yet imposing forces of nature. And as we make our way up and down a road that tracks around them, passing through mountain towns, villages and off-season ski resorts, they throw all sorts of challenges our way. The daily triple challenge of heat, hard climbing and hydration is most problematic and, despite the fact their antics lighten our load, the children have to be warned not to pour too much water over each other’s heads in case there’s nothing left for us to drink. And after a few mountain days we are not just inspired but tired, and some of us are more irritable than others.
But the road is lined with treats
But these small discomforts are forgotten in an instant when nature, or human nature, throws a treat our way. Like a mountain river where we stop and all plunge into the freezing water. Or an afternoon’s ride where a mountain storm rages just a few kilometres away providing a thunder and lightning show, which seems to move with us as we blast downhill. We count the elephants between thunder and lightning and wonder if it’s getting closer. We feel the wind building, wait for raindrops, and watch the mountain rivers expand into huge cascades as rainwater is dumped in the mountain tops high above us. We feel the sun on our backs and the breeze in our hair yet the darkness falls elsewhere, and not a drop of rain touches us.
The tiredness is telling
The elation of escaping the storm is short lived as we pull into Stara Lesna campsite, near Tatranska Lomnica. The amazing backdrop of Lomnicky Stit summit provides an atmospheric background to our pitch. But the previous day was a long hard uphill ride, and it has taken its toll on everyone. And the cumulative tiredness of this and some 5 weeks on the road is telling.
Since early morning Hannah’s bottom lip has been forced out so much in tantrum and sulk that she now starts to resemble a duck. Matthew sits down on a bench and takes out his i-pod, sending out signals that no one is to go near, which Cameron ignores. Cameron and Hannah start to fight over who is going to assemble the tent poles, and Hannah takes umbrage at being called Duck Face.
And as usual for a Slovakian campsite, facilities are delightfully simple. There are no kitchens, showers are a communal affair, and a single roll of toilet paper needs to be taken piece by piece from a roll high on the wall in a public area. Added to this, our neighbours are heading our way to stare at our bikes. This happens a lot on campsites; particularly with German cyclists. It’s not unusual to leave your bikes for a moment and find them standing over them, pushing a stick at the chain to see how the kiddy-crank mechanism works, or poking their heads through the panniers to get a better look.
But these visitors are honeymooners
Our neighbours are German, but they haven’t come to stare but to share. With a tentative “Do you speak English?” they invite us to have dinner with them, “because we respect how you are travelling,” they add. Just two hours earlier we had the worst meal of the trip, where even Stuart was defeated by ‘meat soup’ involving a broth with dozens of chunks of fat swimming in it, where we tried and failed to play ‘spot the ingredients.’
We gratefully accept their kind offer of home made Hungarian Goulash, washed down with Hungarian Red wine they bought in an expedition to some caves a few days before. Pia and Rainer, from the German City of Mainz, are excellent company. They are also excellent cooks; we wolf down the goulash as he explains his profession is a combination of chef and car mechanic. “Both involve working with oil,” as he puts it.
The couple are on their honeymoon; touring around in an old Volvo estate that they sleep in and cooking their meals in a pot they bought on their travels that is sitting over an open fire, full of bean goulash. Travelling without a plan they wake up each morning before deciding where to go and are clearly enjoying the freedom. Compared to us they have all mod cons; a fridge they run off the car battery; a huge mattress they sleep on; “This is the kitchen area, and here the bedroom,” they laugh, giving us a tour of the car.
A meeting of mads
It soon appears that Rainer thinks we are quite mad. “But then, all English people are crazy!” he announces. We confirm every suspicion as we tell them about our honeymoon cycling in South America and our years of travelling with kids and bikes. As evening draws in they light tiny candles and we sit around the pot drinking wine as the children takes themselves off to put themselves to bed in our tent. The mountain attracts one last storm, but this time it is headed our way. As Pia chats, in fluent English, lightning flashes above our heads and rain falls. “It is just wet air,” shrugs Rainer, who merely gets an umbrella out to protect the goulash, and carries on talking.
After a while the air gets so wet it is too much for even Rainer so we take shelter under a wooden patio shelter with other campers. And there we learn that Rainer has a hint of madness in his own personality as he shares stories of his car rallying. In a race from Britain’s Plymouth to Timbuktoo, he tells us he drove a car costing less than two hundred Euros (part of the race rules) across the desert, exchanging the vehicle at the end of the race for just two cold beers, and finding his own way home. It’s a story that makes perfect sense to me. There are so many times in the last few days that I’d have exchanged my bike and baggage for just one cold beer.