Sydney to Nelson Bay

Day 1

This trip up the Central Coast with Millerine and our friend Chris had been planned for a while, so the rainy weather and unhappy forecast wasn’t enough to scare us away. It did frighten the masses away from the Manly ferry though, which can be packed. Our planned route took us from home in Darlington to the Central Coast via the Manly and Ettalong ferries. The ferries were $7.50 and $10 respectively, and both have places for bikes.

The ride to Palm Beach wasn’t bad, with a few small hills and some heavy, but not too worrisome, traffic. The ferry comes about once an hour, but it was a nice place to stop for lunch anyway. The hills after Ettalong and through Kincumber were more of a bother for our untrained legs, and we were happy for an early finish to the day.

As national park campsites were positioned either too close or too far we opted to stay at Wamberal Beach. We’ve camped on Wamberal Beach before and it’s usually quiet, but it was Australia Day and the beach looked like it would still be busy well into the evening. We found a vacant lot on a street near the beach which looked more private, and set up camp. It was way better than a caravan park; private, free, and we could still use the toilet block and cold showers at the beach. The owner walked past and busted us. Although he seemed reluctant to let us stay there, he couldn’t deny us as we asked so nicely. This gave us peace of mind, but it spoiled our little joke about celebrating Australia Day as it was done originally; by camping on someone else’s land without their permission.

We finished the day with a standard dinner of two minute noodles and beer.

Day 2

Again we were restricted by known camping options, so we decided to go for the caravan park at Stockton – a short ferry ride from Newcastle. This took us along the busy Pacific Highway for a while, but generally there was a good shoulder and it was OK to ride. It was noisy, but bearable. The ride along the Central Coast Highway beside Tuggerah Lake, around The Entrance, was pretty nice.

The Swansea Hotel where we stopped for a long lunch and a beer was large, busy, modern and mundane. It did have bike racks out the back though. Bonus points for them.

Beginning in Belmont is the awesome Fernleigh Track. It’s a paved bike path which follows an old railway line for about 25km. There’s a long, steady, but not at all steep uphill, and then a long almost uninterrupted downhill into Newcastle. It passes through tunnels and a whole heap of bushland, and is a very welcome change from riding on the noisy road. After the end of the track we tried to play it by ear to get to the ferry wharf, and accidentally took an indirect route via the beach and a big hill in a suburb called “The Hill”.

The ferry from Newcastle to Stockton costs $2.40 and seems to just cross backwards and forwards across the narrow channel at very regular intervals. There’s a bar on the Newcastle side so it’s probably a good idea to not be in a hurry. Stockton itself is a reasonably small town, but it has all the facilities one might need.

We were treated to a movie night at the Caravan Park in Stockton, but were a little too tired to care about a crappy family animated movie.

Day 3

It was decided that Port Stephens would be the end of the road for our trip, as it would allow us to be back in Newcastle early the next day to catch the train home. Knowing that we had a short and easy day, we committed to a long stop at Murray’s Brewery, about 30km from Stockton. Their tasting wheel of 6 small beers is expensive at $20, but the beers are superb. After one of those everyone was feeling lazy, so Chris and Millerine had a nap on the grass while I did a bit of wine tasting at the adjoining Port Stephens Winery.

We checked in at Melaleuca Backpackers at One Mile before riding on to Nelson Bay. We’ve stayed there before and it’s great. It’s a little expensive for camping, but they have a nice campground and facilities in a bushy setting. They have quite a managerie; three dogs, a galah, a cockatoo, and a naughty kangaroo who roams freely and stole some of our muesli bars. There are koalas in the area, and sometimes they’ll be found in the trees in the campground.

8km down the road in the tourist centre of Nelson Bay there’s a seafood market type place down near the water – Bub’s “best seafood in NSW”. We bought Myall prawns, which I assume are from the nearby Myall Lakes. They were quite small, but it turns out that freshness matters; they were delicious.

Day 4

The road between Stockton and Port Stephens is very flat, so unimpeded by the headwind (and the beer) of the previous day we made it back to Stockton and across to Newcastle in a good time. It’s just under three hours to Sydney by train. Each carriage has a hanging rack for one bike. They do the job, but there’s nothing to lock the bike to, and anyone moving between carriages will bang the door against the handlebars.

Overall this was a very nice ride. It’s not quiet back roads all the way, but there are some alternate routes. It passes through some pleasant scenery alongside national parks and along the coast. It isn’t far between towns, so if you’re looking for something remote it’s no good, but if you want something easily accessible from Sydney and well serviced it’s excellent. You can also take the ferry out from Nelson Bay and continue riding up the coast, as I did in my earlier trip to Taree.

Rallarvegen: Day 3 – Mjølfjell to Voss

Cycled Mjølfjell Vandrerhjem to Voss

Voss is only about 40 km from the hostel and 68 metres above sea level, so this was always going to be a short day with a lot of downhill. There is no offroad bike path this side of the train tunnel, and the route follows a sealed road all the way to Voss. There wasn’t much traffic until near Voss, and what traffic there was treated us with respect.The road mostly follows the train line and the path of a small river all the way into Voss. The scenery is beautiful green forest and farmland, with small villages along the way. There are some climbs, but as it is a drop in altitude of over 1000 metres it is mostly downhill. Some of it is steep and windy and very fun. At one point we stopped to pick wild blueberries and pretty much gorged ourselves.

A bemused cow, unsure what to make of my attention.

A bemused cow, unsure what to make of my attention.

Forest from the floor

Forest from the floor

We arrived in Voss early enough to check in to the hostel and explore before we had to hand in the bikes. Voss tries to sell itself as an adventure tourism destination, but didn’t give us the impression of being as busy as some other such places. Although it was a nice enough place Norway has so many “must see” destinations that it could easily be overlooked. Its only advantage is that it is accessible by train. We were staying at the Voss Youth Hostel which had an interesting photography exhibition with a bunch of views on freedom.

Initially I’d intended to go further, but Voss was the last place that you could drop the hire bikes off. There is no bike hire office like at the other stations between Haugastøl and Flåm, so you have to be at the train station for a particular train late in the afternoon, and give it to a guard to return for you.

One problem with hiring bikes is that they don’t supply helmets. We were lucky to find a couple of helmets in the hostel in Flåm which had been left by previous cyclists who had no further need for them. We kept the note that had accompanied them, and left them in the same fashion with the same note in the hostel in Voss. After a night in Voss we took the train to Bergen to meet some friends, then flew out of there.

Overall, this was a fantastic bike ride. Riding through the arctic tundra is a trip that large numbers of people repeat year after year, just because it’s awesome. Either route is very worthwhile, one ending at the beautiful Flåm and one giving a bit more variety in scenery. The Rallarvegen bike route is only open from mid July to late October. You may have to deal with partial closures due to snow if you are riding very early in the season.

Rallarvegen: Day 2 – Finse to Mjølfjell Vandrerhjem (Mjølfjell Hostel)

Cycled Finse to Myrdal
Train Myrdal to Upsete
Cycled Upsete to Mjølfjell Vandrerhjem

Date: September 3rd 2011

I awoke on a mattress on the floor of the dining room surrounded by waking Norwegians. There were mattresses covering every available bit of floor space. Through the glass doors was a wide angle view of low fog covered mountains and glaciers.

After breakfast we set out with hordes of other cyclists, who obviously expected the weather and looked more dressed for skiing than cycling. It was 6°C and raining lightly. We donned the hoods of our hoodies under our helmets and managed to fend off the cold OK. We were going uphill for the first 10km or so, and it seemed to get windier and colder as the morning went on. After that it warmed up though.

The highest point of the ride is 1343m above sea level, around 10km from Finse. There is another waffle cafe nearby called Fagernut Vokterbolig, and we were very glad to have the opportunity to get out of the cold and have a hot drink. There is a little history museum in the cafe as well.

The terrain is very rocky and hilly, but beautiful. There is water every step of the way; creeks, lakes, waterfalls and cascades. It was almost overkill, but I never tire of water features. The path itself is a gravel road wide enough for a car, but there is no traffic apart from many bicycles. It can be quite rough in places, and is definitely not suitable for a road bike or anything that can’t take a bit of a beating. There was snow on the hills surrounding us, but not much, and none on the path. It really does make for a spectacular day of cycling. The only issue we had was that it was overcast, and the lack of light did not make for great photos.

After the initial uphill the road rolls along another 25km or so to Myrdal. It is just before Myrdal that the decision point comes for which path to take. Most people continue downhill to Flåm. There is a very steep winding road for a short while, then a gradual downhill all the way into Flåm, where there is a wonderful microbrewery, a beautiful fjord and a range of accommodation including a hostel. If you haven’t been to Flåm then it is definitely recommended. There is also an office where you can drop your bikes off if you have hired them. To continue your journey you can either catch the train back to the main line at Myrdal and go towards Oslo or Bergen, or catch a ferry towards Bergen.

Waterfall by the steep winding road down towards Flåm.

The steep winding road down towards Flåm.

As we had already been to Flåm we opted to go to Voss. There is no direct road between Myrdal and where the bike route continues at Upsete, so you have to catch a train through the tunnel from Myrdal to Upsete. There is no problem taking bikes on the train, and you can buy tickets on the train.

The ride from Upsete to Mjølfjell Hostel was basically a short few km through a sheep paddock with a great view, and was mostly an exercise in avoiding sheep poo. Although not the beautifully stark tundra of the earlier part of the ride, it was welcome to have the contrast in scenery. We stayed the night in the hostel, which was comfortable and in a rural/wilderness setting. It looked as though there might be some nice walks along the creek outside, and it could be a good destination in itself even if you aren’t cycling through. It is also accessible by car and train.

Rallarvegen: Day 1 – Haugastøl to Finse

Train Oslo to Haugastøl
Cycled Haugastøl to Finse

Date: September 2nd 2011

Rallarvegen is a famous cycling route along an old rail service track about halfway between Oslo and Bergen in Norway. You can rent bikes from the rail company, and they’ll take the bikes off you at the other end. The most popular route is to head from Finse down to Flåm, but we spent a couple of nights in Flåm before starting the trip, so we decided to take the alternative route to Voss. Bikes can be hired from the train stations at either Haugastøl or 27km further on at Finse. We chose to start at Haugastøl and stay overnight at Finse. It’s about a six hour train trip from Oslo so you have to stay overnight somewhere, and Finsehytta in Finse is the place to stay.

The bikes they gave us were 8 speed commuters with fat tyres. Initially I laughed at the pedal brakes, but I was very thankful for them later on the steep and rough downhills (for which a mountain bike with hydraulic brakes would be preferable) and when the hand brakes began to get soft after a couple of days. You can hire mountain bikes for a higher price. They are probably the better option, but the commuters handled the trip surprisingly well.

The ride to Finse is mostly a gentle uphill through tundra. It was overcast and quite cool, but there’s a cafe along the way to warm yourself over waffles and hot chocolate. At this elevation it’s often quite cold. The season only lasts from mid July to September, as it’s snowed under the rest of the time. Even though it’s well and truly below the arctic circle it’s apparently an arctic climate, so be prepared for chilly weather.

Cascades on Rallarvegen

Cascades beside the path.

Me with the bikes on Rallarvegen, not far from Finse.

Finse itself has a couple of accommodation options. There’s the very expensive hotel Finse 1222, or the much less expensive but not really cheap camping hut where we stayed, Finsehytta. You can’t book at Finsehytta, but they don’t turn people away. By the time we arrived all the beds were taken and they offered us a mattress on the floor for about 150 NOK. You can’t cook your own food, but the three course meal they provide, although expensive, is amazing. The bar sells beer from a local brewery and is quite busy, and it’s only when it quietens down that they move the chairs and tables and set up the mattresses. Millerine was suffering the tail end of quite a bad fever, so not being able to get to bed early was a bit of a problem. I spoke to a bunch of older women at dinner who did the ride every year. The previous year they had only found sleeping space on the stairs, so, thinking themselves too old for that sort of thing, had finally given in and this year were staying at the comfortable hotel. The hut was still the place to go for dinner though.

Finsehytta

Finsehytta, the full service “hut” where we stayed in Finse.

Cycling in Estonia

Estonia was where I did my first bike trip. In July 2006 I rode from my place in Viimsi to Paldiski with a couple of friends from Australia. We attempted to follow the number 1 cycling route but had no map and found signage a bit lacking, so we ended up riding on the uncomfortably narrow and busy highway for a good part of the trip. Since then signing has improved and there are more maps and information available.

Other trips I’ve done with Millerine are Rakvere to Viimsi and Tartu to Viljandi.

In general, Estonia is a great place for cycling in summer. There are quiet roads, regular villages and towns, and most importantly it is very flat. The highest point in Estonia (and all of the Baltics) is Suur Munamägi at a mear 318 metres high.

There are about a dozen official sign posted bike routes throughout Estonia. The number 1 bike route is part of the number 10 Euro Velo route which circuits the nordic countries.

The Esto Velo website contains a good amount of info in English. I purchased rough maps of the bike routes from a bookshop and they have come in handy when a sign post had gone astray. These days the routes are clearly marked on the Open Street Maps Cycle Map, which can be downloaded with a bunch of different apps on smartphones.

Rakvere to Tallinn

Day 1
Train Tallinn to Rakvere

There were a few days spare in our calendars and the weather looked fine so we decided to go on a bike trip. Rakvere sounded like a nice place to visit, so we packed our panniers, grabbed our bikes, and arrived in Rakvere by train in the afternoon. Rakvere is a nice Estonian town with the usual wooden houses and one of my favourite castles. It is partially ruined, and is set against a foreground of green grass over small hills and a moat. I found myself wishing I owned a holiday house in the town.

We stayed in a nice guest house in town. I’ve no idea how we found it, but I can recommend that friendly and cheap style of accommodation.

Rakvere Castle

Day 2
Rakvere – Võsu

The plan was to follow the number 4 bike route towards the coast and then the number 1 route back to Tallinn. This is not a particularly direct route, but certainly a scenic one. The number 4 route is signposted the entire way, although at one point a sign had gone missing and we went a few kilometres before realising we’d missed a turn.

We passed through quite a lot of wheat farming land in the morning before we reached the coast. It rained quite heavily at lunchtime, but luckily we were under cover at the Altja Kõrts (something similar to a pub) until the rain petered out. Otherwise Altja was a lovely seaside town with old log fishing cabins.

Millerine at Altja Kõrts

Millerine at Altja Kõrts

Millerine checking out a well near Altja

Millerine checking out a well near Altja

The road winds along the coast. It was quiet, flat, and scenic. Basically everything one could want in a lazy day of cycling.

We stayed in a campground outside of Võsu, a few metres from a creek (Võsu jõgi). There were no toilets, but otherwise it was nicely set up with an under cover area with a table, and a metal bbq type enclosed fireplace. These both came in handy, as again it rained but while we were under cover. Campgrounds in Estonia are free and comfortable, but they can be hard to find so it’s worth doing some research first. We found this campsite on the RMK website, which is difficult to navigate, but has good information for the state forests.

Day 3

Võsu – Viimsi

It would have taken a couple of days of cycling to get back to Tallinn if we followed the bike route around the coastal peninsulas. As the weather seemed destined to provide more rain we decided to fast track it home via the highway. On the way we visited a small waterfall, but it was mostly a direct fast and flat ride home. In terms of distance it was the longest day off riding we’ve done, so a satisfying end to a nice few days away.

Gotland: Days 6 & 7 – Visby to Tallinn

Day 6

No travel

Date: 17th July 2010

We had originally planned to go back to Stockholm on this day, but all of the ferries were booked out. Rather than go for standby again we opted to book tickets for the 00:50 ferry at night. This gave us a very long day in Visby. Our plans of spending the day exploring the old town were foiled by a very heavy thunderstorm, which included a blackout from around lunchtime. We couldn’t walk around visiting the sites, and even our usual fallback when bored travelling, the movies, was out of action due to the blackout. Instead our day was spent hiding from the rain in bars and eating salad (the restaurants couldn’t cook anything). The best beer I’ve had in Sweden was from the local brewery and was stocked in all the bars, so it wasn’t all bad. Rather than being an enjoyable and relaxing day it was more of an uncomfortable and boring one. However candle lit dinners (and candle lit trips to the toilet) are always a memorable experience.

Day 7

Ferry Visby – Nynäshamn
Bus Nynäshamn – Stockholm
Ferry Stockholm – Tallinn

Date: 18th July 2010

None of the websites indicated that you could put a bike on the ferry bus to Stockholm, but apparently you can if you’re lucky, and we were. There were two buses picking up passengers from the ferry to Nynäshamn. The first told us definitely no bikes, but the second told us there might be space if we waited. After us, five other cyclists arrived to catch the bus as well. Our driver chatted to the other and between them they managed to fit us all on. I think it’s much like catching a plane on standby – if the driver likes you and you’re a bit lucky you’ll get on. Smile, be courteous, and be there as early as possible.

So we arrived in Stockholm at about 6:00 am and had all day to kill. We started by dropping our gear off in the train station lockers then having a sleep in a park somewhere. After that it was a full day of Stockholm site seeing which was easily filled up. It was actually difficult to find time to fit in a few drinks. The outdoor museum and zoo Skansen was worthwhile and could easily occupy most of a day. We also happened upon a dog show where I met my first Australian sheep dog. They’re a gorgeous breed which look like a mix between kelpie, border collie, and blue cattle dog.

Stockholm is an excellent city for biking around. It has bike paths everywhere which are well sign posted and easy to follow, but it’s not crazy busy like Amsterdam. A lot of design effort has gone into making it a safe and easy place for cyclists. There were enough hills to make me glad to have gears, mostly around Gamlastan (the old town), but not enough to be bothersome.

Again we went for the separate cabins option on the ferry on the way home, but this time we were both in rooms with other people. I had a bunch of Russian dudes who weren’t bothersome in nature, but were in body odour. I stayed up playing blackjack and hanging around the various bars until I thought my tiredness would overcome the bad smell of the cabin. Still, the ferries between Tallinn and Stockholm have a reasonable enough range of facilities to be comfortable, and after combining that with a sunset over the islands I’d recommend taking it over flying if you can spare the time.

We found Gotland a very easy cycling destination. The ride from Stockholm takes about a day, and once there you are only limited by how many hours of riding you’re willing to do. It’s flat and well serviced by small villages, camp grounds, and B&Bs. The views aren’t spectacular, but it’s very relaxing place for a ride.

Gotland: Day 5 – Visby

Cycled Slite to Visby

Date: 16th July 2010

Millerine and I share a birthday, and this was it. We awoke fairly early and had completed the 35km to Visby by mid morning. We left the Gotlandsleden and took the shortest route along one of the main roads. It still felt quite safe, and there were no hills even though we passed through the middle of the island.

Outside the Visby town wall

Outside the Visby town wall

Visby is a very attractive city with a well preserved city wall around the old town and a bunch of church ruins. St Katrins is possibly the most beautiful ruin I’ve seen.

The ruins of St Katrins in Visby

The ruins of St Katrins in Visby

The weather was hot and sunny, and perfect for walking around exploring (with frequent bar stops). We were also fans of the glassworks. Visby is definitely a tourist town, but not incredibly overcrowded and still very pleasant.

View of Visby from the park

View of Visby from the park

Gotland: Day 4 – The Northern Coast

Cycled Stenkyrka to Slite

Date: 15th July 2010

The first part of the ride was spent searching for breakfast, which is pretty difficult when most places seem to open at midday. I can be very grumpy when I go without breakfast, and this morning was a struggle. I highly recommend BYO breakfast unless you’re staying somewhere with breakfast supplied. Supermarkets and even stores are hard to come by outside of the bigger towns, so it’s best to carry some emergency supplies. We eventually came across a cafe that was open and had some incredibly satisfying sandwiches. It seems the Swedes enjoy their sandwiches and don’t care much for a normal heavy breakfast of porridge or eggs and bacon. However they all seem to provide the most excellent tea.

We continued to follow the Gotlandsleden which turned off the main road pretty early and went along a dirt road following the coastline. It wasn’t a terrible road by any standards, but made for slow going compared to the asphalt. Some sections were potholed, but it was generally OK. Along the way we came across a restaurant/B&B with a fantastic beach front, and an Australian waitress who was somewhat excited to see a fellow citizen. We also saw quite a few small snakes. There seem to be a lot of them out on the road sunbaking and turning themselves into roadkill.

Snake on the road in Gotland

Snake on the road

It was another fairly hot day, so our lunch break lasted around four hours. We settled into a roadside cafe and had the tallest hamburger I’ve ever seen and a bottle of wine, then we had a long sleep beside the sea at Hallshuk, near some fishing huts.

Hallshuk fishing huts

Fishing huts near where we napped in Hallshuk

We finished the ride into Slite pretty quickly. Slite is a town entirely based around the cement industry and has the dead feel of a mining town. It does have a campsite, restaurant and supermarket though, so suited us just fine.

Slite cement plant

Slite cement plant

Gotland: Day 3 – Lummelunda Cave

Ferry Nynashamn to Visby
Cycled Visby to Stenkyrka

Date: 14th July 2010

The ferry we went for was sold out, but they allowed us to get standby tickets and, after waiting in line with other cars and motorbikes for some time, we got on. They were expensive tickets for a three hour trip though – around 500 SEK each. There’s a very nice view of Visby as the ferry approaches.

View of Visby from the ferry

Again there’s a bike route signposted immediately when you get off the ferry (Gotlandsleden). There were a lot of cycle tourists in Visby. Looking at the gear some of the bikes are carrying most of them were probably new to the activity. There were families with huge family tents, backpacks sitting in buckets on the rack, and even a rolled up foam mattress (a proper mattress, not a camping one) tied to a pannier rack.

We arrived in the afternoon and left from Visby at about 3:30pm. Following the Gotlandsleden north, it was flat apart from the climbs to get from the beach to the main road, and very little traffic. Even though it was a late start we still managed a stop to see the Lummelunda Cave along the way. It was a fairly regular tourist cave, but a little overhyped. Apart from Visby itself it’s one of the main tourist attractions of the island, but it would be OK to give it a miss.

Accommodation is easy to find in the area. We passed a few signposted campgrounds, and managed to find a small cabin for the reasonable price of 400 SEK at a “Mix Ranch” near Stenkyrka. The place had a bar and restaurant, and a bunch of goats and other animals on the property.