Five reasons why you should do the Fjällräven Classic

There are so many reasons why (if you like trekking) you should have a go at the Fjällräven Classic. In no particular order, here are five of them.

  1. How many people can say they’ve trekked in the Arctic? On the list of cool destinations, it’s pretty much guaranteed to give you hero status. And nobody will know (unless you tell them) that it’s not quite as extreme as trekking to the North Pole. And while you probably won’t see any polar bears, you might spot some reindeer.

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    Not quite what you’d expect the Arctic to look like

  2. It’s incredibly well-organised. The Swedes – and Fjällräven in particular – really know how to make an event work. Granted, they’ve had more than 10 years of practice, and have fine-tuned it over the years, but with frequent checkpoints  (including shops where you can stock up on snacks and critical items, medics to check you out, and even saunas at some of them), excellent signage, all food provided, buses to and from the start/finish, and advice coming out of their eyeballs, all you really have to worry about it is putting one foot in front of the other for hours on end. Which is just as well, as this requires intense concentration given the assault course of rocks, river crossings, slippery mud and narrow boardwalks you have to negotiate. It’s as much a mental challenge as a physical one, but there’s masses of support along the way, from the practical (a little man sitting in a tent in the middle of nowhere brewing up coffee and offering to fix your gear) to the moral (Fjällräven reps popping up on the trail handing out sweets and encouragement, and strategically placed meditation spots to remind you that there’s more to the trek than pain).                                                                                           

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    One of the constant surprises en route

  3. There’s nothing like being out in the wilderness for a few days to restore your soul. So much so that I wrote a whole separate post about this. On my return after describing the trip to a work colleague, his reaction was “You might as well spend a week tied to a tree being beaten with a stick.” I tried to explain that the pain was only a minor part of it, and that there were so many worthwhile reasons for going, despite the state of my feet on my return, but he just didn’t get it. Ah well, each to their own. But a sense of accomplishment does wonders for your mental health and general wellbeing.

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    One of the many boardwalks through the wilderness

  4. New scenery, new culture. Admittedly, my grasp of Swedish pronunciation isn’t that much better than before I went, but I can at least pronounce Fjällräven more or less correctly now (thanks to the patience of the one Swedish speaker in our group). For the record, it’s supposed to sound pretty much like you have a mouthful of rubber bands. And the scenery is fantastic, even if the weather might be a bit on the drizzly side (which can at least make for some good old-fashioned moody photos).

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    Snow patches on the hills

  5. You’ll make new friends and have some odd experiences. The beauty of this event is that with 2000 people entering every year, you’re bound to meet some new people. And it’s worth getting to know them. The plane between Stockholm and Kiruna is guaranteed to be almost exclusively full of trekkers during the week of the event, and it’s pretty easy to strike up a conversation. I sat next to two lovely Korean gentlemen on the way out, and a member of the Dutch police force on the way back, and had some fascinating conversations with them. The Dutchman in particular was full of interesting stories and information about the event, since it was already his second time doing it. It turned out that he was also a high-functioning autistic, though I’d never have guessed. Furthermore, on the trek itself you can’t help but chat to fellow trekkers. A German surgeon told me in the loo queue at a checkpoint one morning about how he’d found a young girl who’d fallen on the rocks the previous day and had dislocated her shoulder, and how he was able to put it back in place for her so she could continue the trip. (Other accident sufferers were not so lucky and had to be airlifted out by helicopter). A Hungarian man offered me some of his homemade firewater from a hipflask on a particularly cold and wet afternoon as we huddled round an open fire at one of the checkpoints.  I wouldn’t normally accept unknown alcoholic drinks from a stranger’s pocket, but I was incredibly grateful as I’d been cold right through to the core after several unrelenting hours in the rain, and it really hit the spot for the next few hours of walking! More bizarrely, a Dutch trekker got out his electric razor and started having a shave while we were huddled around the campfire. Admittedly, I had just mentioned that I wasn’t interested in men with more than 1/4 of stubble, so perhaps he had ulterior motives, but unfortunately I never saw him again.

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    Fellow trekker contemplating the best approach through a river crossing

I’ve returned from the trip stronger, wiser and more knowledgeable, and with a new-found love of Sweden and the Arctic, not to mention some great memories and new friends. They say that the reason you forget about pain is because otherwise no one would ever undergo childbirth more than once. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I’m already looking forward to doing the Classic again some time.

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Top 5 tips for trekking the Fjällräven Classic

I can’t claim to be an expert trekker. There are many people out there far more experienced than I am, although I’ve now ticked off a few classics – Kilimanjaro, Everest Base Camp, Mt Toubkal, the Inca Trail, and the Abel Tasman –  as well as a number of other lesser-known ones. But the Fjällräven Classic last week was my first real experience of a long-distance trek carrying 15kg+ of kit, not to mention my first ever experience of the Arctic (though admittedly in summer the Arctic is more like the Scottish or Icelandic wilderness than the stereotypical image of snow, ice and polar bears). However, what I did have on my side was plenty of experience in the group I travelled with, being organised by Jagged Globe, accompanied by a number of seasoned trekkers, and none other than the famous Alan ‘all 8000m peaks’ Hinkes as our leader. I use the term leader rather than guide because you’d really have to try very hard to get lost on the Kungsleden (King’s Trail), that forms the route for the 110km Fjallraven Classic, even if you’re legally blind like me and can barely see anything of interest more than a few feet away. Furthermore, with 2000 people completing the event every year, there’s  a wealth of information to be gleaned from the fellow trekkers you meet en route, especially with a number of them having completed the event multiple times, and with plenty of time to kill waiting in the interminable loo queues at the checkpoints.

So without further ado, here are some of my top tips for the event, many of which would also apply to any similar trip.

  1. It’s not about the distance, it’s about the weight. You’ll hear this time and again on the Classic, and it really is true. 110km over 4 days (for most people) equates to only about 25k or 15 miles a day on average, which is nothing when you’re used to walking 20 miles a day in the hills. And it’s almost entirely flat, so it should be much easier. More on that in another post. What makes it hard is not the distance, but the 15-20kg you’re carrying. I tried to go as light as possible, even packing a half-size toothbrush to shave off a few grammes (though I didn’t go as far as cutting off the labels on my clothes), and still ended up with between 15-17kg depending how much water I was carrying at any one point. When I had an extra litre of water I really noticed the difference, and more than 16kg seemed to be the tipping point beyond which my shoulders and back really started to hurt. I could go on at length about tips for packing, so I’ve made that into a separate post. But in terms of water, it really is abundant, so you really never need to carry more than a litre at any one time.
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    You’ll appreciate a light rucksack when you’re going uphill

  2. Take your boots and socks off at every opportunity. I can’t really take the credit for this one, as it was drummed into us at every opportunity by Mr. Hinkes (OBE). Although he can’t actually take credit for it either, as when he did the trek for the first time last year, he laughed at the locals who gave him this tip (after all, when you’re climbing Everest, the last thing on your mind is taking your socks off)  but he tried it and found it really did help. I’ve actually learned this tip previously from softball tournaments, where you can spend up to 12 hours a day running around in not-so-comfortable cleats, and most of us have learned to swap them for Crocs or flipflops during the rest periods). Note: if an Australian tells you to swap your boots for thongs, don’t put your underwear on your feet — it’s simply the Australian word for flipflops.                                                                                          DSCN8512
    Alan leading by example
  3. Be flexible. While you may plan to stop and have a lunch break, get out the stove and cook up a delicious dehydrated meal (not entirely sarcastic – the Real Turmat ones provided really are quite good, even if I wouldn’t serve them at a dinner party), and it’s a great idea to do so if you can, when the weather turns to freezing rain and biting wind, it’s much better to crack on rather than risk hypothermia and faffing around in the wet opening up your rucksack, not to mention freezing off your fingers in the process. Make do with your favourite choice of snacks until you reach a checkpoint or the weather improves. Similarly, you may plan a particular place to camp, or a goal to reach for that day, but conditions change, your body may give up on you, or conversely you may feel still energetic and want to push on a bit further. And of course, it’s not just you but also your companions that you may need to consider. There’s nothing wrong with pushing your body a bit out of its comfort zone, but there’s no point breaking yourself on day 1 either if you don’t have to.

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    Unfortunately we were beaten to the spot we’d planned to camp at on day 1, so we had to push on a bit further

  4. Establish a good packing system and stick to it. It’s best to get this down to a fine art before the trek with some practice days out, if you can. Everyone’s very different in how they like to pack, but the basic principle involves making sure you know your system so you can quickly reach the things you need without having to delve around in your bag and faff needlessly. This typically means having waterproofs and extra layers (including hat and gloves) easily available, keeping plenty of sweets and cereal bars (or your favourite snack items) easily accessible (for me, this is my hip belt pockets where I can reach them without having to stop – especially useful when it’s pouring with rain and you don’t want to stop for proper food), camera at the ready (not just for the beautiful views, but also for when your companion slips and falls headfirst into the river, so you can quickly snap them before pulling them out), and stove and cooking materials (including mug, teabags etc) near the top of your pack so you don’t have to empty everything out when you stop for a quick brew. It’s also worth having a similar system for the items you need for camping – it’s likely there won’t be much spare space in your rucksack, so having a good system means you know how everything fits together, and your rucksack won’t have any sharp pointy things sticking into your back. It also means you can get everything ready fast in the evening when you’re exhausted, and similarly pack up quickly in the morning. As soon as you get lazy and stuff that mid-layer into an exposed side pocket instead of packing it away properly in a drybag, you can guarantee the rain will descend, you’ll forget it’s there and before you know it, your warm layer is soaking wet and useless.

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    Cooking breakfast in the rain – it helps if everything you need is accessible

  5. Have fun! I’ll make no bones about it, the Fjällräven Classic is not easy (there’d be no point in doing it if it were!), and there will be moments when the rain is hammering down, you can’t feel your fingers, your feet hurt, your companions are monosyllabic (or even swearing at you), and there’s still 10km to go till the next checkpoint, but the challenge is a mental one. Some people turn to music to keep them going, but personally I prefer making myself laugh. My favourite distraction is to sing to myself a song about how horrible everything is to the tune of something really silly (Postman Pat or the Wombles are always good ones). If you’ve ever listened to “One Song to the Tune of Another” on Radio 4’s “I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue”, you’ll understand why I can be found singing and laughing manically to myself in a rainstorm. I’ve long since given up worrying what others might think. One of my teammates told me he thought I’d entirely lost the plot when he was overtaken by me marching along a boardwalk at full speed, swinging my arms and shouting poetry  at passers-by (for the record, it was “Lepanto” by G.K. Chesterton, which is one of my favourite gutsy and onomatopaeic poems, guaranteed to drive me up the steepest hill – and in that particular instance, the only way to forget about my aching feet, back and shoulders). I also found Shelley’s “The Cloud” particularly beneficial when walking in the pouring rain. Luckily no one saw me practising Monty Python-esque Silly Walks in an attempt to amuse myself, or doing a quickstep along a boardwalk (or at least they were too polite to say anything if they did). Do whatever works for you, and forget about how silly you look.

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    Who cares if it’s raining? I’m a ninja and I’m here to have fun!

And finally, it isn’t all doom and gloom. Despite the inclement weather which you’ll probably encounter at some point (the Arctic is hardly known for its desert conditions after all – one of the many reasons why camels are not popular modes of transport there), it’s a fantastic trip and one I would highly recommend. You’ll have stunning scenery, magical moments, laughter and smiles, seamless organisation from Fjällräven, and the satisfaction of having trekked 110km in the Arctic, even if you do come back with blisters and sore shoulders or worse. It’s worth it just for the hero status when you return, if nothing else. And if in the worst case you get helicoptered out with a broken leg or worse, your kudos will be even higher and you’ll have a great story to tell your grandchildren / dog / strangers in the pub.

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What’s so special about the Wilderness Experience?

Alistair Humphreys writes frequently about the benefits of microadventures and getting away from it all, even if only for a night. He was named as National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year precisely for his pioneering work on this concept. Having just returned from a 5-day trek in the Arctic Circle with Jagged Globe, which is pretty good going as far as wilderness territory is concerned, I can only echo his feelings. Even after being back in the UK for 2 days, I’m still feeling very disoriented. Oddly, the thing that’s affecting me the most is the level of noise, and I live on the edge of Sheffield where I have stunning views of the Peak District and it’s generally very quiet. I spend a lot of my time travelling, both for work and pleasure, being away from home at least twice a month, and out of the country at least 12 times a year, and I have no issues with staying in a comfortable 5-star hotel with all mod cons. Indeed, when I travel for fun, I often pick at least a youth hostel with a minimum level of comfort (electricity, hot showers, hot food, a bar and a comfortable bed) over camping in the freezing cold rain after a long day of walking. It’s easy to forget not only how much fun, but also how beneficial for the soul a night or 5 of roughing it can actually be.

It didn’t take long on our Arctic trek – the 110km Fjallraven Classic – before I remembered why I love wild camping. On the first night, after we’d been walking for around 8 hours with 15-20kg rucksacks carrying all our needs for the next 5 days, having started at 1pm due to the necessity of leaving at the official start time rather than earlier in the day, we were all pretty tired. But as we found a suitable spot to pitch our tents, and 5 minutes later my tent was up, my boots were off, I’d collected water from the river 20 yards away, and my stove was boiling for my dinner (a delicious dehydrated Swedish game stew, in case you’re wondering), I was in heaven. I couldn’t have been happier had I been in a Michelin-starred restaurant. There was no proper darkness, this being Arctic summer and pretty much 24 hour daylight, I was warm and dry, I had stunning views and it was silent. Nothing but me, nature, and 9 other fellow trekkers (it would be churlish to mention the swearing of the person who was struggling to put up their brand new tent they’d never used before). But even the fact that I was not entirely alone was not a problem — with thousands of acres of wilderness at our disposal, we had plenty of space between our tents and I had an unobstructed view of the stunning Swedish landscape.                                   DSCN8588

The fact that the mists were descending only served to make it more atmospheric as they swirled around our tents and clung to the mountain tops, emphasising our fragile vulnerability, but at the same time the sense of being at one with nature and the elements. I instantly remembered how much I enjoy wild camping, and I knew that no matter how hard the next 4 days would be, this was why I was here, miles from civilisation with only an emergency helicopter or my own two feet and several days walking for an escape route.

DSCN8533Having a tried and tested tent, my 10 year old Macpac Microlight Solo (known to my friends as the “hobbit tent” on account of its small size and low profile), meant I wasn’t worried about whatever weather the gods might choose to send my way (and they certainly sent some challenging conditions during the course of the trip!). The beauty of this tent is that despite its small size and weight, it’s designed with really usable space so that I can easily store my bag either in the porch or in the sleeping compartment, and can also cook in the porch with plenty of room in case of inclement weather.

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Cooking breakfast in the tent porch during a rain storm

There’s also something very primal about having to fetch water from a river, light a stove and cook your dinner with nothing more than a gas canister and a tiny stove (in my case the excellent Jetboil Zip, pictured above). Although admittedly there’s nothing very primal about dehydrated meals, but catching and killing our own dinner was perhaps a step too far at this stage, and besides, there wasn’t much in the way of wildlife to be caught (although one of our team did spot some reindeer in the middle of the night).

Of course, it was a lovely treat to come home and be able to make a cup of tea by simply boiling a kettle, not to mention having plenty of that white liquid to go in it that actually bears resemblance to something emanating from a cow, unlike Coffee Mate or skimmed milk powder. And not having to get out of the tent in the pouring rain to pee in the night was definitely a bonus. I did, however, repurpose my pink Nalgene water bottle for use in those night-time emergencies when getting out of the tent would have required full waterproofs and wasn’t really on the agenda (top tip: practise at home first before trying this in a tent with minimal space). Don’t worry, I did wash it thoroughly before reusing it as a water bottle the next day.

But oddly, the thing I found the hardest on coming back to civilisation was dealing with the noise. Everything is so quiet in the wilderness (other than the delicate snoring sounds of the local bears and lions – surely not my fellow trekkers) that it takes some getting used to even just everyday sounds of people, traffic and animals, when you’ve become used to the solitude. The comfy bed and warm duvet may be more conducive to a good night’s sleep, but there’s something about the raw primal nature of the wilderness that draws me back time and again.

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Preparation is key: the Fjällräven Classic

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I’m not quite sure how it happened, but somehow I’ve found myself booked on a trip next month to trek the classic Kungsleden hiking trail in the northernmost tip of Sweden (Swedish Lapland – I didn’t even know there was a bit of Lapland in Sweden). It’s actually in the Arctic Circle, which sounds very impressive, but in August it’s more like northern Scotland than what most people would imagine as the Arctic. There are no polar bears for starters, so at least that’s one less thing to worry about being attacked by in the middle of the night. The event, the Fjällräven Classic, is a 110km trek, organised every year by Fjällräven, and attracts around 2,000 people from all over the world. There are official checkpoints and start times, and although we’re not really doing it as a race, some people do: the record time for completing it is something like 8 hours. I don’t think we’ll be doing it quite that fast, however (the plan is to do it in 4 1/2 days). We also get kit from Fjällräven and last but not least, the esteemed Alan Hinkes as our group leader. While he might have summited all 14 mountains over 8,000m (including Everest) and has an OBE, I’ve heard he only has one joke – it’s going to be a long week if so!

The reason this is challenging is more the remoteness than anything else, and for me the fact that we’ll be carrying all our kit including tents, stoves etc. When I thought back to the last time I’ve actually carried that much kit on a trek, the answer is actually “never”. I’ve been wild camping many times, but never unsupported, and I’ve done long-distance trails, but never actually had to carry a tent as there have always been huts of some sort on the unsupported trips. My mum suggested helpfully that we could always flag down a passing reindeer to carry our kit, but I’m not so convinced of the wisdom of that. It was bad enough in Morocco with recalcitrant mules carrying our kit and disappearing frequently into the sunset! The nearest I came to carrying a full pack was in New Zealand in 1990 on the Abel Tasman trail, but we stayed in a hut so didn’t need tents, although we did need stoves and sleeping bags. We did the whole thing in 2 days, although it’s supposed to take 4 – well we were young and fit and possibly stupid – so we saved weight by not having to carry so much food and fuel, and I also wrecked my knee the day before the trip, so we split most of my pack among the among the other members of the group to lighten my load and reduce impact on my knee. I trekked in Mallorca on the GR221 last year for 5 days, but again, we didn’t carry sleeping bags, tents or stoves, and minimal food as again we were staying in mountain huts where food was also provided every night and morning.

The other reason why this will be challenging is because I haven’t been able to use my shoulders for the last 2 years, and am still not fully recovered from the shoulder surgery I had in February – I have “functional movement” now but can’t get my arms behind my back still, can’t throw with my right arm, and can only lift the lightest of weights (which is still a major improvement on not even being able to lift a full kettle for the last 2 years!). Oh and following my mountain biking accident in Sardinia in April, my ankle is still bruised and swollen and decidedly dodgy. So walking with a 20kg rucksack will be interesting. I deliberated for a long time before booking the trip, and just as I had pretty much decided I could do it, I asked the advice of a friend who knows me well and has walked many times with me, and even she was a bit doubtful even though she is normally very positive about my abilities! Of course that made me more determined than ever to do it!

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On day 2 of our training weekend carrying full kit – the fact that we did the “coffin route” over Hollins Cross is not prophetic I hope!

One of the good things about the trip is that Jagged Globe organised a pre-trip training weekend to meet the rest of the team and to practise trekking with a big pack and any campcraft skills we might be lacking. The week before the training weekend I lay awake almost an entire night worrying about whether I could actually carry a 20kg rucksack over 15 miles without dying, whether everyone else would be superfit and laugh at me, what kit I should take, and so on. For a 5-day trek (for the real thing) there’s only a limited amount of spare jelly babies and medical supplies you can conceivably carry. The internal debate went on for hours – on the one hand, I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, but on the other hand, I worry about stupid things as soon as I have to do something new. The challenge for me is often more about overcoming the stupid fears than the physical element. However, another friend reminded me that 75% of any challenge is the mental part rather than the fitness part, and that I am never one to give up on a challenge!

Of course, the training weekend turned out to be absolutely fine despite the fact that I came down with tonsillitis 2 days beforehand – not ideal conditions! When I felt the weight of my rucksack with everything in it, I was terrified at the thought of walking all day with it, but once it was on my back, I soon discovered that it was actually very comfortable. Despite the fact that the rest of the group were all more experienced with this kind of trip than I was, I wasn’t out of my depth at all, and amazingly had no major (or even minor) incidents during the weekend! The others laughed when I gave them the rundown on how to deal with a medical emergency. “We’ve never heard of jelly babies being described as life-saving medical kit before!” For them, a luxury, but for me, of course, they could literally be the difference between life and death. Even my first ever time eating dehydrated food wasn’t as bad as I had feared, despite everyone telling me that it was always disgusting. I learnt lots of small tips along the way (porridge mixed with hot chocolate powder is infinitely nicer; bringing real coffee instead of instant coffee would not have been considered “princess-like”; a spare water carrier is a really good idea and weighs nothing when empty; super lightweight tent pegs are an excellent way to save a bit of weight…).

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Practising our cooking skills – porridge with hot chocolate is a great breakfast!

Most importantly, I managed to push myself just a little bit further out of my comfort zone. The real trip in August will push me just a little bit more no doubt, but at least I now feel prepared. And without a mountain bike to fall off or altitude sickness to worry about, I only really have to concern myself with being mauled to death by a very lost polar bear. I’m sure I could defend myself with a spork in that case. Or offer it a handful of jelly babies. Maybe I should take some spare.

 

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Resetting your comfort zone

One of the aims in my role as ambassador to the charity Action4Diabetics is to lead by example and show how people with diabetes (and potentially the resulting complications) shouldn’t be afraid to get out and do adventurous things. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, or if you know me in real life, you’ll know that I like to push myself out of my comfort zone, occasionally with unfortunate consequences (like falling off mountain bikes, as I did (twice) last week on holiday). I feel very strongly that people shouldn’t feel limited by health problems, disabilities and other potential barriers to get out and do what they want to do, provided they’re sensible and take relevant precautions. However, I’m also the first to admit that it can be scary as hell, and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll also know that I don’t shy away from talking about my own fears and insecurities. As a famous adventurer once told me: “It’s good to be scared when you’re out of your comfort zone. If you’re not scared about dangerous activities, you’re either a psychopath or you’ll make mistakes and die. Or both.”

I had a conversation recently on Twitter with someone who mentioned that there were lots of things that diabetes prevented them doing, because they felt it was too dangerous. Hiking and wild camping alone was one of them. I know other people who are too scared to travel alone or stay in a hotel room alone in case something happens. I feel quite sad when people feel limited in this way, especially when it’s about mental rather than physical limitations. There’s a world of difference between being physically unable to do something, and weighing up the pros and cons and making an active decision not to do something because you feel it’s too risky. Doing the latter is very sensible. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on anything risky. I don’t go mountain biking in the dark, because it would be ridiculously dangerous given my inability to see in the dark even with a powerful torch. I never went hiking up mountains in the dark either until very recently, because the danger felt too great for me, especially after a very scary experience on Kilimanjaro. But recently, I gave night hiking a go, after I found a very bright headtorch and in the company of people I trusted, and I survived without incident. I then tried night hiking on more difficult terrain, and it was scary, but I also survived without incident. Next time, I might feel brave enough to try it on my own. When I lost my sight, I sold my bikes because I thought I would never be able to cycle again. These things, and many others, have taken time for me to decide that they were worth having a go at and seeing if I could find a way to still do them. And mostly, I have found a way. It might be more dangerous for me than for other people, but I’ve weighed up the risks and decided that they’re worth taking.

As I wrote in my previous post about Sardinia, when I fell off my mountain bike last week I lost all confidence, and seriously considered giving up mountain biking. To be brutally honest, I didn’t really portray a very good impression of myself during that trip – I was scared and annoyed with myself for being negative, something which isn’t in my nature normally. I had too much time on my own thinking, as a result of being incapacitated for a couple of days, and I brooded instead of talking it through with someone who could understand. But since I’ve got back from the trip, I can see the funny side, and I can see the positive side. Nothing really bad happened, I learnt a lot, but I also made myself aware of my own vulnerability, something I try to avoid thinking about too much.

So back to the point of this post. There are lots of things in life that present obstacles. It’s always good to think things through logically and decide how to tackle them. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for deciding that something is beyond your capabilities, or is too dangerous. Interestingly, I’ve met a lot of people on cycling trips who have some kind of physical disability, and they put me to shame because they’re almost always much fitter than I am, despite their problems. It’s important to know your limits, but it’s also important to remember that your personal limits don’t have to be fixed. You can push them forwards when you feel confident, but there’s no harm in sometimes resetting them back in your comfort zone while you regroup.

A week after I fell off my mountain bike, I’ve thought long and hard about whether mountain biking is sensible or not. Given that anyone who goes mountain biking falls off at some point, and often frequently, I don’t think I need to rule it out just yet as something that’s too dangerous for me to do, I just need to learn to get better at it! Meanwhile, I’m also going to get a road bike again.

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The Espresso Bloodbath Tour of Sardinia

There were a number of things I was expecting when I booked a mountain biking holiday to Sardinia with Saddle Skedaddle, most of which didn’t happen. The two things I wasn’t particularly expecting were the number of espresso stops on our rides, and the trail of blood I managed to leave behind. The espresso stops were allegedly so we could use the toilets, but they were very welcome. And they occasionally involved gelato too. I also wasn’t expecting it to have quite such an effect on me, again for rather unforeseen reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time, although I did have some moments of self-doubt and quite a lot more pain than I’d been anticipating. But I take away the positives, which are that I learnt an awful lot on that trip: not just about Sardinia and mountain biking, but also about myself.

Before you get worried, I should point out that there were no axe murderers on the trip. The trail of blood I left behind in various hotel rooms and on the trails was entirely the result of my own carelessness, and not a psychopathic room mate (even if I did stupidly mention to my room mate on the first evening that I often have dreams about killing people). First lesson learnt: at least wait until the second night before mentioning such things. I blame the wine.

So what had I been expecting? Actually, many of my assumptions were correct. Fantastic locally-produced and home-cooked food every night, large quantities of red wine, beautiful scenery, challenging riding, excellent rural accommodation, fun people, excellent guides, and laughter till it hurt. All those things came true, and more.

What had I been worried about that didn’t happen? I was a bit worried about the technical level of the riding, since I’m only a mountain biking dabbler, and even though Skedaddle had assured me that I’d be fine, I wasn’t entirely sure. I figured I could always get off and walk if there were any bits that were too technical for me, however. It turned out that the technical level was no harder than I was used to, apart from a couple of “Skedaddle cheeky climbs” – which I discovered actually just meant “impossible unless your name is Steve Peat” (google him if you don’t know who he is) – even the guides couldn’t do one of them (though it was fun watching them attempt it). I knew I’d be slow up the hills, and I was, but I wasn’t always the slowest in the group, and the others assured me they didn’t mind waiting. Actually the main reason for being slow up hills was a consequence of something else, which I’ll come on to. As usual, I was worried about my (lack of) sight and general lack of understanding by the group. Not so much the cycling part of not being able to see, but the usual fears about getting lost or not finding my way around, being too scared to ask for help in the dark, and so on. Again, it wasn’t an issue, even if I did end up going into the gents one day by mistake and incurring the wrath of an old man having a pee. Of course, he didn’t know I couldn’t see anything anyway.

What I wasn’t particularly worried about was falling off. Which is possibly stupid, because mountain biking is renowned for accidents, even if you can actually see where you’re going. In the past I’ve never actually fallen off (other than a “technical dismount”) mountain biking, because I tend to ride very cautiously. I’ve fallen off road bikes when I’ve slipped, but only once had a serious accident (many years ago, cycling back from church I slipped on wet rock on a farm track and fractured my elbow quite spectacularly – obviously God punishing me for not putting enough money in the collection!). What I also wasn’t really worried about was self-doubt. I’ve done lots of cycling trips before and enough mountain biking, and I’m generally a very positive person. Not many people with as many medical conditions as I have, plus being registered blind, go off on cycling holidays on their own and do all the crazy things I do. I have my self-doubts of course, but only over stupid things like not recognising people and falling down long-drop toilets in the dark.

So enough of the suspense. I won’t go into the full story or you’ll be here all night and this blog post will be marketed as a sleeping aid for insomniacs, but the bloodbath started on the morning of the first day’s cycling when I changed gear too enthusiastically and the chain came off. In reattaching it, I sliced my finger open on the sharp edge. After cycling for a few minutes I noticed that my leg and the handlebars were bright red and my finger was pouring blood, so I stopped to put a plaster on, while one of the guides administered some anti-bleeding spray. Of course, the plaster fell off later and more blood poured out, but it was only a minor wound. Still, I had the kudos of first blood on the trip!

On day 2, something slightly more serious happened when I was descending a slightly rocky path and hit a gully. Having negotiated much tricker terrain that morning and feeling rather pleased with myself for attacking it with reasonable gusto (and not even a wobble), this time I was not concentrating quite so hard, and the next thing I knew, I was face down in the dirt, having hit my right knee on a rock and bashed my left leg on the bike. Blood poured out of my knee this time. Luckily, Alessandro was right with me and quickly got out his first aid kit to patch me up, after checking there was no major damage. Ironically, only at lunchtime that day I’d been teasing him about the size of his rucksack and asking if he had dead bodies in it, as it seemed to be much larger than that of the other two guides. Luckily for me, it had not only a full first aid kit, but also a spare warm top which he lent me as the weather had turned very cold while we had stopped. I was actually giggling at this for the next few minutes, despite the pain. I realised later that I never did actually check for dead bodies though – I’m sure there was still room for one in his bag.

As we got back on the bikes, feeling a bit stiff and shaken but otherwise OK, I realised after a couple of miles that my left shin was hurting. I looked down and to my horror realised that there was a tennis ball-sized lump on it. Clearly the bike had hit me in the shin when I fell. Remembering the last time something similar happened, I was a little concerned (hit on the shin by a softball – which incidentally is not soft – the same thing had happened and it had turned out to be a cracked shin bone). Back at the accommodation, I iced my leg and tried to get the grit out of my knee in the shower, but it was impossible to see what I was doing in the gloomy bathroom light, and it turned out that my room mate was terrified of blood (and incidentally needles – neither of which are handy when sharing the room with a diabetic who also tends to get injured!). Dr Alessandro came to the rescue again and proceeded to get his medical kit out a second time. He may be an excellent first aider, but he would make a terrible torturer, as somehow he managed to disinfect and scrape out lots of grit without causing me any pain. He’d never get any secrets out of me with his torture techniques! Throughout the night and the following night, my knee bled into the bed, and I felt rather guilty for leaving a trail of blood in every hotel room we stayed in!

After two days’ rest, a trip to the hospital to check for fractured ribs or worse (another story), I was ready to ride properly again, even if I could barely walk, bend my knee, or breathe without intense pain, and only then after taking both ibuprofen and paracetamol at regular intervals. My confidence started to regain until we rode through my worst possible nightmare – rough forest in bright sunlight with deep shadows, meaning that I couldn’t even see where the path went, let alone distinguish rock from shadow on the ground. Being already injured, I was terrified of falling off, and it literally took every ounce of courage I could muster to get through that section. I was shaking at the end of it, but it was impossible to explain to anyone the extent of my fear and difficulty. And anyway, I’d come on the trip all confident about my ability, so I could hardly then complain that a few trees were so problematic. My self-confidence ebbed away and I just couldn’t get the nagging voice out of my head telling me I shouldn’t be out mountain biking and that I was an idiot for deluding myself that I could do this when I wasn’t up to it. I can’t even begin to explain what riding that stretch of ground was like for me, except perhaps mountain biking in a forest at night without any lights at all.

Normally I can snap myself out of these things, but I just became more and more frustrated and annoyed with myself, and by the evening I realised I had to talk to the guides. After a few glasses of wine I summoned up the courage to talk to them and try to explain my situation, feeling completely pathetic as I did so. I knew how it was sounding – they must be thinking surely what an idiot I was for coming on such a trip when it was clearly beyond me. However, they reassured me that it was normal to feel scared after a fall, and that I would be fine. I again felt like an idiot for getting so upset, but at least I felt a bit better.

Renato and Alessandro, I have to say, were very patient with me and of course they were right. My confidence started returning and I began to enjoy myself properly, until 2 days later I was descending a relatively smooth road and somehow managed to release the back brake unintentionally. I still don’t know quite how or why. The next thing I knew, I’d flown over the handlebars and the bike had flipped over me, and once again I was lying face down in the road, winded. Of course, I’d hit the same knee and shin as the previous time, and also scraped my ribs, chest, nose, arms and hands. I thought my finger was broken at first, but it turned out just to be cut and badly bruised, along with my other hand. Once again, Alessandro was on hand to get out the first aid kit and mop the blood from about 6 different bits of my body. My back and chest, already bruised and in severe pain before the fall, were now excruciating, but there was nothing for it but to limp onwards on the bike for the last few miles to the lunch stop where the others were waiting. Can you limp on a bike? I certainly felt as if I was. This time I was even more shaken than before and struggled to even form words and sentences. Yet again, I spent an afternoon sitting in the van with Renato, while the others got some challenging biking in. I was so annoyed with myself for such a stupid mistake.

That evening I tried to clean up my various injuries in the shower and get rid of the grit. I thought I’d done a good job, but shortly after getting dressed, I looked down and realised that the leg of my jeans was covered in blood. It took me a while to find the source, but it turned out my elbow was pouring blood like a tap, so I grabbed the nearest towel to staunch the flow, and used up the last of my supply of plasters. Of course, that night both elbows bled spectacularly into the bed again, so I left the room the next morning looking as if I’d murdered a goat in the night, or perhaps that a mad axeman had chopped my head off.

There was no way I was not going to ride the next day, but if it had been painful and mentally challenging before, it was now twice as bad, and I laboured up (and down) the hills feeling mentally and physically wrecked. All confidence gone, I spent the entire day debating whether I should give up mountain biking forever, and even if I should give up road cycling too. Maybe I just wasn’t cut out for it. On the bright side, however, I finally knew what it felt like to go over the handlebars, something I’d always wondered (and also feared the most out of all my cycling accidents – well, other than death of course, but there’s no point worrying about that, because once you’re dead you don’t feel anything anyway).

The final day’s riding brought so many challenges – legs and back that hurt so much I could barely move them, an inability to breathe without intense pain, an insulin pump that stopped working for several hours, and getting so cold I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour. However, by the evening after a hot shower and a stern talking-to (from myself) I managed to regain my composure and enjoy the final evening together with the group.

This all sounds like a terribly negative post, and as if I had an awful holiday, but that’s only one side of it. The other side of it is less interesting to describe, but I had many wonderful hours of riding, laughing till my sides hurt, learning new tips from the guides, drinking wine, eating wonderful food, all the things I’ve already mentioned and so much more. The rest of the group were very patient with me despite being very slow at times (me, not them!), and despite being very grumpy at times (not like me at all), and they constantly made sure I was OK.  The guides I can’t fault. Alessandro looked after me following both my falls, and always encouraged me when I was feeling low. Renato was quietly solicitous the whole time, and nothing was too much trouble, including spending several hours in the hospital with me one night, even though he was tired and in pain himself. Laura kept me smiling throughout the trip and gave me lots of cycling tips and motivational encouragement – the best of which was a video of her falling over the handlebars only a few years ago when she had first started mountain biking herself. I shouldn’t laugh, but it made me feel a lot better. Even though it was her first tour as a cycle guide, and her English was not quite as proficient as the other two, which made her a little quiet a first, it’s clear that she learnt so much during the trip and will be an excellent guide in no time at all. Well, she already is.

The enjoyment of the trip is so strongly related to the quality of the guides, and for this reason despite the challenges I encountered, I really did have an excellent time. Alessandro told me on the last night that I’d have enjoyed the trip more had I been more positive, which I at first took to be quite insulting, since I think I’m generally quite a positive person, but I think he was talking more about my own self-doubt, which was the only thing that let me down. And that’s a totally fair point.

So, lessons learnt from the trip. I’ll never stop worrying about the stupid things. That’s just my nature. But the only thing that really let me down was getting injured, and both of those were really my fault for not paying enough attention on the less technical sections of the route. I was so worried about the hard bits I forgot to concentrate on the easy bits too. They say you’re not a good horse rider until you’ve fallen off at least 20 times. Having grown up riding horses, I must have fallen off at least 20 times by now, though I’m not sure if I’m really a good horse rider yet. I wrote previously about my experience of riding a horse again for the first time after 30 years. I’m clearly nowhere near a good mountain biker as I’ve only properly fallen off twice, both on this trip. So I guess the moral of the story is not to let my lack of falling off mountain bikes put me off continuing to ride.

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 Postscript: In retrospect, this post doesn’t really do Sardinia and Saddle Skedaddle the justice they deserve. I’ll rectify that in another post…

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Grumpy people don’t make friends on group trips

I’ve written already about my first impressions of South Africa and the contrasts I found in the country, not just internally but compared with the rest of Africa (or at least the parts I know). Interestingly, a friend just recommended me the book Drawn in Colour by Noni Jabavus, in which a South African woman goes to live in Uganda and finds it surprisingly primitive, so perhaps I’m not alone in my impressions. In this post, I’m going to talk about expectations, a theme I’ve touched on many times in the past (see for example It’s a fine balanceI didn’t go on this trip to make friends and The beauty of going on holiday with strangers). Looking back, it seems I talk about the same topics quite a lot. But the thing about going on a group holiday with a bunch of strangers is that, while you may not be going on the trip to make new friends, and while you’re probably not going to get on with everybody, especially the “Christmas oddballs” (see my previous posts), enjoyment of the trip is nevertheless inextricably linked with the ability to take things in your stride and not be too grumpy.

Every group trip I go on, I learn something new about travelling on group trips, even though I consider myself a fairly seasoned expert now. You can travel to the most fantastic places, have the best guides in the world, but if you don’t get on with the rest of the group, it’s going to be not only a pretty lonely place for you but can spoil everyone else’s enjoyment too. And even if you’re the grumpiest person in the world, I still think that’s a pretty selfish attitude to take. If you’re not happy with something, by all means make your point to the relevant person, whether it’s someone else in the group or the leader, but there are ways of doing it politely and with least aggravation. The worst possible thing is to say nothing, be grumpy and then complain bitterly afterwards.

So, back from my recent trip to South Africa with Exodus, a company I’ve travelled with many times, and organised locally by the South African company Mask Expeditions, with whom I had not, I can honestly say I had one of the best holidays of my life. I know because I was not in the slightest bit glad to be back home in rainy England despite the lure of getting back to my own house, friends, the wonderful Peak District where I live, an actual bath, a proper cup of tea, social media and email (having been off the grid for the entire 2 weeks), showing off my suntan to jealous friends, and work (yes, I’m one of those lucky people who love their work!). The trip was brilliantly organised, and despite a number of minor problems, the Exodus and Mask Expeditions teams did a wonderful job of resolving them. Peter, our guide, often had to think fast on his feet when things didn’t quite go to plan, but remained calm, efficient and cheerful, and none of the changes were in any way detrimental to the trip. However, there was one thing that could have made the trip better, and that is the attitude of a couple of people who did not see it the same way.

You can divide the world into two types of people in a million and one ways. But there are two types of people who go on group holidays in terms of expectations: those who get on with it and go with the flow, and those who religiously read the trip notes and immediately get their knickers in a twist if things don’t go according to plan, even if it’s no one’s fault. Even when some things get changed for the better (such as an upgrade in accommodation) or in order to prevent things getting worse (shortening a day due to adverse weather conditions or timing issues), they cannot seem to balance this out when anything detrimental happens (slightly worse accommodation, or the fact that their day has been curtailed even though for good reasons), and start allocating blame. And this is nothing to do with their love of rigid plans (I love rigid plans, and get a bit antsy if we start the day even 5 minutes late, but I understand also that it’s not always possible). It’s to do with their critical nature and ability to focus on the negatives without ever considering the positives. It must be sad and lonely to be such a person, as their lives must be constantly full of disappointment. Unfortunate things are always going to happen on a trip: delays, bad meals, changes to the itinerary, bad weather; but there are two ways to look at it. You can complain and be miserable, or you can see the funny side. I’m still giggling about the “Fawlty Towers” guest house we stayed in, running through Johannesburg airport not once but twice to catch flights, and my own utter stupidity when in a total absence of rationality I picked up what I thought was a beetle to save my roommate from her insect fear, only to find out it was a giant bee which stung me viciously. OK, I’m still embarrassed about that last one, but at least I can laugh at myself. What upsets me most, however, is when such people blame those in charge of a trip for things beyond their control, or for incidents where they have nevertheless tried to do the best thing in a difficult situation. These people may think it is their own business and nobody else’s, but it affects everyone on the trip, and it certainly doesn’t do them any favours in the popularity stakes.

Of course, the people who should be reading this won’t be, but my advice to everyone going on a group trip is not to forget to pack your sense of humour. Voice your concerns politely by all means, but be prepared to accept a bit of flexibility and the fact that everything might not go exactly as planned. It will all work out, and if everything went to plan, there wouldn’t be much in the way of funny stories to tell later. I leave you with the words of Monty Python.

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