The Journey

Europe 2015 pt. IV: It suddenly gets interesting

“Planning is the enemy of adventure”

––– Jamie Duncan
My grandmother passed away a few weeks ago, which was devastating for any number of reasons. First and foremost, of course, is the simple fact she’s gone. My grandmother was a superwoman and I had genuinely expected her to live, and thrive, at least to the age of 120. She was a sprightly 88 years old when we found out in late March she had leukemia and I had anticipated it as being nothing more than an inconvenience for her. It was more than that. She died on 9 May.
I am blessed to have been so heavily influenced by her, so I know that I have the intestinal fortitude to move forward, even though it doesn’t feel like it right now.
Anyway, in practical terms, attending her funeral in Texas blew a massive hole in my finances. International flights on less than a week’s notice do not come cheap. I maxed out my credit card and used almost all the money I had been setting aside for July’s trip to Tuscany.

When I returned to Britain I sat down to look at the state of things and my initial feeling was that the European adventure would have to be scrapped. Then the July issue of Bike magazine came through my door, featuring an article about motorcyclists travelling on a limited budget, and I thought: “Well, you know, maybe.”

So, I’m now rapidly trying come up with solutions to salvage the trip. All that stuff about screens, tank bags, CamelBaks,textile jackets and sat-navs I mentioned previously is totally out the window, of course. If I don’t already have it, I ain’t taking it.

Which is OK. After all, my ferry to Rotterdam is already paid for. I already have a top-notch motorcycle. I already have panniers and Kriega bags and a tangle of bungee cords. And I’ve already got all the camping gear.

Because that’s the biggest thing I’ve realised: if I’m going to make this trip work, hotels are out. I will be roughing it.

This is in Switzerland, apparently. Who knows? I might end up sleeping here.

The implications of that last statement has been keeping me awake at night. It adds a whole new dynamic, a whole new set of challenges. First and foremost, of course, is the challenge of how to do it.

Not camping, I mean. I used to spend days by myself trekking the Superior Hiking Trail, sleeping amongst the wolves and bears and myriad other wildlife of Minnesota, so I am confident in my ability. And, although it’s a little old, I’m equally confident in my gear. I am equipped to spend several days on foot in wilderness, so I’m sure I’ll manage just fine on a motorcycle through more civilized terrain.

The thing that’s vexing me is the question of where: How do I find out about camping spots? I’ve never been to Germany/Switzerland/Italy and I don’t speak the languages. How do I find out where I can sleep cheap (or better yet, for free)? And what’s the process? What are the ins and outs?

For example, if this trip were taking place in the United States, I would know to aim for state parks, national forests, national parks, wilderness refuges, etc. I might stay at designated sites, or I might just pick a spot that’s far away from everything else and keep out of sight. With designated campsite areas I wouldn’t bother to book ahead because: a) I might find some place better along the way; b) campsites exist in time vortices, so there is no way to accurately gauge how long it will take you to get to one.

But, see, in the above scenario I am fluent in the common language, possessing the vocabulary to ask specific questions and receive specific answers from locals about where to go, as well as the nuanced ability to (try to) talk my way out of trouble if I get caught setting up a tent where it isn’t technically allowed. I lose that in Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Meanwhile, living in Britain has taught me that the definition of natural space isn’t as clear cut as I used to think. For example, the term “national park” has a dramatically different meaning. The picture below was taken inside a “national park” (Yorkshire Dales). It’s charming and lovely, but setting up a tent and frying some eggs in the middle of it would be difficult to do unnoticed.

Grassington, England. In the heart of Yorkshire Dales National Park

Meanwhile, the entire concept of camping is unrecognizably different here. Where it is allowed, camping in Britain is more akin to spending time in a refugee camp. No, really. Here’s an image of a refugee camp in Africa, and here’s an image of a campsite in Britain. Bafflingly, available spaces in the latter will book up months in advance. If life on the continent is anything like it is here in the Soggy Nations, I may find it very difficult to get by on wits and luck.

Still, unless someone with experience wants to tell me what a terrible idea it is, I’m inclined to try to tackle the question of sleeping accommodations in continental Europe the same way I would in the God-blessed United States of America. I’m encouraged to do this for a number of reasons:

  1. Practicality. See the above statement about going sans sat-nav. As such, I will struggle to accurately predict destination times. I don’t want to put myself into a situation of trying to arrive somewhere that turns out to be 3 hours further away than I imagined.
  2. It’s most likely my camping will take place in Germany and Switzerland. In my years of backpacking in Minnesota, California, Utah, Nevada, and Colorado I ran into a lot of Germans and Swiss. Which leads me to hope-believe our understandings of nature and how to function within it are similar.
  3. The German word for camping is “camping.” The word for campsite is “campingplatz.” I feel confident I will be able to remember this.
  4. Germans (and presumably the Swiss, as well) are really smart. I’ve honestly never met a German who didn’t possess a more impressive English vocabulary than myself. So, I’m optimistic that communication won’t be as much of a problem as it might if I were travelling to, say, Kazakhstan.
  5. I have noticed on my map of Switzerland a number of little blue tent-esque triangles which I perceive to represent campsites (campingplätze). The map key doesn’t really say what they are, so they may turn out to be something else entirely: missile silos or brothels. I’m guessing campingplätze, though, and there are a decent number of these triangles. Enough that if one campingplatz is full, I should be able to arrive at another before der nacht

Note: This bike’s plates are Swiss. I’m going to the right place.

That’s not the end of the challenges faced in opting to camp, though. There’s also the fact I will have to carry all my camping gear, and doing so will inherently use up a lot of the space I would have otherwise dedicated to carrying all my mankinis and evening gowns.

I had previously calculated my luggage would afford 90 liters of storage. I anticipate a tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, camp stove, frying pan and steel mug will eat up 30 liters of that. Or, rather, it’ll eat up the space on my rack where I had planned to secure a 30-liter dry bag.

Additionally, I’ll want to keep at least 10 liters free somewhere for the sake of supplies: the food and beer I’ll pick up at markets along the way. Subtract the space that will be allocated to tools and chain-maintenance supplies, laptop and related electronic equipment, and it leaves me with very little room for clothes/toiletries.

To this end, I’ve been trying to think of how to add carrying space. I’ve ruled out use of a backpack because I’m pretty sure it’s the thing that was causing shoulder pain in previous rides. You’ll remember my old Oxford X30 tank bag doesn’t fit properly on the Strom. Which is a shame. I spent a few moments this morning contemplating some sort of jerry-rigged system of bungee-strapping it to the crash bars but I suspect that would only end in disaster.

I also contemplated bodging my old Viking soft panniers to sit atop the Suzuki panniers, but again, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Perhaps more realistic would be to bend the no-buying-stuff rule and purchase two small, cheap dry sacks I could strap to the top of the Suzuki panniers. Say 10 liters each –- costing about £10 total. I could ensure waterproofing by lining them with trash bags and store clothes in them. Of course, the drawback is that strapping anything to the top of the panniers will mean I will first have to remove that thing before I can get the actual panniers open.

Perhaps that’s not a problem. Just pack intelligently, making sure all the items I need on the ride are in the Kriega bags that will be on the passenger seat. Or, perhaps I could use those small dry bags for carrying the aforementioned food and beer supplies. That way they can be put away on fast, non-camping sections of the trip, such as when I’m travelling across the UK or from Rotterdam to Saarbrücken.

The more I look at pictures of Switzerland, the better I feel about my decision to camp there.

Hmm, obviously there is a lot to think about. Ultimately, I feel I’ll need to do a few test runs over the coming month or so, to work out exactly how to get everything strapped to the bike. Which means I will very soon need to come up with a comprehensive list of everything I intend to take.

Additionally, I need to make sure I have some experience adjusting the V-Strom’s chain and performing whatever other maintenance and minor fixes might be necessary. I’m being realistic about what I can actually do and will be carrying my RAC card to help me deal with any major incidents. I’m skeptical of RAC’s ability to legitimately provide European breakdown coverage, but my policy says they do and I suppose even that is better than nothing.

This whole thing feels daunting. Money will be very tight, and I’m inclined to scrap my plans to spend a day swimming in the River Aare in Bern because there will be nowhere to safely store all the stuff in soft luggage. But surely there will be opportunity for all kinds of other fun stuff. Adventure will present itself. I have only a month to prepare myself for it.


On a side note: It’s always been my understanding that socks with sandals is a perfectly acceptable fashion choice in Germany. If this turns out to be untrue I’m going to be heartbroken.