Europe Cycle Trip 1999 – Part 1 – Leaving

Jenny and her bike before leaving

When Jenny and I first got together one thing we quickly learnt was that we had both done a lot of cycle touring ~ in fact her a lot more than me. I also soon learnt that she was planning a trip back to her home country of Ireland in mid ’99 – and after we decided we’d get married well it became pretty obvious what to do!

We both worked casually so getting time off from work wasn’t too hard, and we saved and started to plan for a trip. Our original plan was to cycle around England, Scotland, Ireland and France and Germany – and then cycle back to Australia – going through Egypt and India, amongst other places on the way back. We soon found however that Jenny was pregnant! ~ which changed everything! We were getting married in Australia in July and had planned another reception in Ireland for Jenny’s family and friends – so all of that could go ahead, but we had to truncate the cycling part of the trip, with the baby due in December ~ so we just decided to cycle around the Europe section instead.

The idea of touring while 7 months pregnant would probably put most people off, but let me just say Jenny is force of nature and nothing was going to stop her – so we went ahead and planned it all – much to the shock and amusement of our family and friends.

The bike that Jenny used to cycle around Tasmania was stolen on Christmas Eve 1998 – out of a Church foyer can you believe it! So she bought a new bike and I traded in my mountain bike and  with a bit of help from her got a new bike as well – one more suited to touring.

Me and my bike

One thing I’d been working on just before we left was a self published collection of my poetry called Gymea – the picture at left shows the covers laid out before I bound the book. I printed about 70 of them and decided I’d take 7 of them with me and leave them at strategic locations around the world! Of course they all probably ended up in a bin – but it’s the thought that counts!!

My DIY poetry book Gymea in the publishing stage (on our kitchen table!)

I knew that Shakespeare’s Globe had only recently opened so i was very keen to see something there. I rang them and made some enquiries – while we would be there Antony and Cleopatra would be playing and the only way to guarantee seats would be to buy the tickets now – which I could do over the phone with credit card – all this technology amazed me and I bought the tickets – standing room only ~ but what an authentic feeling that would give us, I thought – and it was a great thrill when the tickets arrived in the post – it really made the impending trip feel real.

Tickets to Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe

The gear we planned to take on the trip was pretty straight forward – we both had new bikes – 15 speed each – with new trip computers. It’d been just over 12 years since I’d last done a tour, but Jenny had done some far more recently and was up on all the latest gear – she also had a friend who worked at a camping store that was closing down and who was keen to give us the *best* deals on everything! We walked away with new sleeping bags (rated to -10 degrees), a gortex jacket for me, boots for her and a few other things that would have cost around $700 for about $250! We were very impressed.

Jenny also organised a tent maker to make some new paniers for us – a great idea which saved a lot of money – except he didn’t realise how the paniers had to be a mirror image of each other! This meant we each effectively had 2 left panniers – so the right hand one actually sat forward a bit – enough to scrape the foot on the follow through on the pedal – you could bend your foot down a bit to avoid this, but this was annoying. We only got the panniers in the week before we left, and there wasn’t really much we could do ~ so I decided I’d think about it and try and come up with a solution on the way. I also bought the Let’s Go Europe 99 book – which probably wasn’t necessary as Jenny had so many friends and family in that part of the world, and knew it all very well anyway – but it was still good reading before we left, but a bit bulky on the way.

It was a very exciting time to be going with the count down to the Year 2000 on – and the last vestiges of national currencies in Europe before the Euro came in. We stocked up on some cash, travellers cheques and had our bank accounts and a credit card with a very small limit on it – we didn’t have a lot but we had enough.

So after getting married in July we were ready to depart on the 26th of August. It was the usual mad scramble – moving out of a house – giving our chooks to an Auntie and staying at a friends house for the few days before we left. Jenny had suffered terribly with morning sickness for the first trimester but was now over that thank goodness and everything had gone well all up – until we got to the airport!

My name is a bit complicated – it’s Alexander Scot McPhie – but I’ve always been called by my second name. Jenny bought our tickets through her uni travel club and mine was in the name Scot McPhie – but my passport was Alexander Scot McPhie. They didn’t match – and as I tried to go through the customs control area at Brisbane International they wouldn’t let me through – as the ticket and boarding pass were different to my passport. I tried to explain then I was sat down and a supervisor was brought over – I thought the whole thing was going to be over before it started!  But thankfully she politely explained it to me and let me go through – but warned me she didn’t know how I’d fair in the transit countries! So it kind of gnawed in the back of my brain but I was too excited to really worry and we boarded the plane.

Filling in the customs forms at Brisbane International Airport
Jenny at Brisbane International

We were flying Royal Brunei – being on a budget we took the cheapest tickets we could – but that was fine by me and I was very much looking forward to the places we were stopping at on the way. The flight was Brisbane – Darwin – Brunei – Singapore – Dubai – London, with a six hour break in Brunei. I was born in Malaysia but our family came back to Australia just before I turned one – so I don’t remember it at all, and to all intents and purposes this was really my first trip overseas.

We landed in Darwin after a few hours and it was a really strange experience. I’d lived here as a littley when my Dad was in the Air Force – and loved it. He was an Air Traffice controller and at the end of his shifts when the airport was being shut up he used to take us up in to the control tower and let us flick the switches on the run way lights – I was probably only about 4 or 5 – and now I was sitting at the same airport with my new wife about to head overseas 🙂 We could only stay in the gate lounge, as the plane was refuelled and I decided I’d leave one copy of Gymea here to start with.

After the plane was fuelled we boarded back on, but had to wait for some F-16’s to take off before we got clearance – the Air Force and the commercial jets share the one airport at Darwin. That was pretty exciting seeing them line up, and then we were off – it was quite something to know we were heading out past the Australian border into the great unknown (for me at least!) 

View out the window as were flying up into Asia

We landed in Brunei in the early afternoon, and had 6 hours to kill. Most people get a taxi or bus into the capital Bandar Seri Begawan, but we decided to walk as we thought the exercise would be good for us and it would give us a better view of the country – it was a pretty clear road all the way to the capital so why not.

Being my first foreign country I was pretty excited – especially so as a bird nerd – I was very keen to see what birdlife I could – and I still remember fiddling with luggage outside the airport – trying to look up and see what I could see – not far from the gates below I saw a long tailed black and white bird – no idea what it was, but it was quite different to anything I’d seen in Australia – and my first ‘overseas bird’!

Jenny at the gates leaving Brunei Airport

The walk in was quite pleasant – but a few things struck us right away – firstly we hadn’t really thought too much about how it was a conservative Muslim country – and Jenny wearing tight maroon tights got some very enthusiastic cheers from men in cars as we walked in ~ we thought it was funny and not threatening, but we did hope we hadn’t overstepped any lines. We were also struck by the huge disparity in wealth – the place is very rich due to oil and there are many huge ornate mosques, but with people still living in shacks down on the water. There are medium high rise public housing projects but they all looked generally run down ~ probably due to a lack of sense of ownership that these places tend to have worldwide

Mosque being built in the distance

We made it into the town and bought some drinks at a market – I did one year of Indonesian at school but that was long gone, but we still managed to communicate well enough. We were struck by the deep monsoonal gutters and saw a rather dishevelled tortoise shell kitten in one – we went over to say gidday but didn’t dare pat it or pick it up for fear of rabies and the like.

We were on quite a budget with our photos as well – we had 16 rolls of film for the whole trip (almost 2 months) but wanted to save most of them for when we were actually cycling in Europe, so we didn’t take that many in Brunei unfortunately.

We went further into the city and found a food court at a shopping centre and bought dinner – everywhere seemed quite empty and we soon found out almost everyone was at prayers. I remember an Indian family sitting at a table next to us looking at us – as white westerners we really stood out – I can tell they were interested in us and I really wanted to bridge the cultural gap there but didn’t know how, and I think there were just a few smiles and nods in the end. I remember people selling stacks and stacks of VCD’s – every title under the sun most likely pirated and little hand held computer game controllers that plugged directly into the TV and had all the 8 bit games on board in the controller. I thought long and hard about buying one of them, but since we were on a budget didn’t as I’d have to carry it with us or post it home – but technology had certainly come on since the bulky days of my Spectravideo, I thought.

By now it was dark and we knew we’d have to be heading back to the airport soon – there was a fun park nearby so we decided to have a look there before we caught a taxi back to the airport. Like everywhere else the funpark was virtually empty – with people just starting to come out from prayers – we had a look around, didn’t go on any of the rides and I left a copy of Gymea on a table under a gazebo and we got a taxi back to the airport.

The taxi trip was fun – and getting it rather than walking back meant we had more time to look around. The driver was quite an educated man and didn’t mind telling us some of the inside news on the country!

They didn’t compare our tickets to our passoports and I had no trouble boarding, so we got on and headed off to the next stop – Singapore ~ but not before I left another copy of Gymea at the Brunei Airport! It was a bit annoying that we didn’t have far to go before another stop – but that was part of the reason in doing the long walk – we hoped it would tire us so we could sleep quite easily after Singapore.

Goldfish at Changi airport

We had about an hour to kill at Changi airport – which was pretty boring, though we found the fish that can nibble your toes interesting!

After the break as we lined up to board there was an attendent checking everyone’s boarding pass against their ticket – he was taking his time and looking in a lot of detail, so I started to get a bit worried – but I turned out to be quite lucky – a stamp placed on the boarding pass in Brisbane had gone right over the A – so it just looked like S McPhie – and matched my ticket exactly, so there was no problem!

Now we headed into the long haul – Singapore to Dubai. In flight entertainment was pretty light on – with TV’s descending from the overhead lockers about every 10 rows – and the same movie being played on all of them. We managed to get a bit of sleep, but not much and arrived in Dubai at 6a.m. – right on surise – as the doors of the plane were opened the heat rushed in – it was 30 degrees already!

Sunrise in Dubai – 30 Degrees already!

Things really did start to feel different now – I knew we were a long way from home and in a very different culture – even the architecture inside the airport was different – low with archways that almost seemed like Japanese gates – and then women in burkas – I’d never seen this before in Australia and found it quite confronting. The whole experience was amazing and I wanted to photograph parts of the airport and so got our little camera out but Jenny quickly told me that probably wasn’t a good idea – so I slid it back in our backpack.

We had a couple of hours to kill and were chaperoned from what was obviously now an older part of the airport to a newer part with more modern shops and facilities – I couldn’t believe it as I saw an Irish themed pub inside the airport!

We were pretty tired and really looking forward to getting on the last leg of the flight – I left another copy of Gymea lying around – on a table not far from the Irish pub in fact – and we eventually boarded the flight – after being carried out to it on the tarmac by a bus – there’d been no problems with my ticket again thank goodness.

We were pretty catatonic once we settled into it on the plane and both had a good sleep – I woke up some hours later – to bright daylight and a land mass below us – after a few enquiries I deduced it was Italy – and it felt quite magical – we were here at last – Europe!

Italy ( I think!!)

We didn’t sleep from here on – even though we were still a bit tired it was too exciting – and once you’re awake you’re awake!

We got a meal and in fact the food and the service was pretty good the whole time on Royal Brunei, despite the budget status.

We finally got above England and as I looked out the window at the patchwork of farmland I thought ‘So this is what all the fuss is about!’ ~ Australians have a very unique relationship with England, and I was really looking 

forward to experiencing the country first hand. I wondered if this was the kind of view that the Spitfire pilots saw in the Battle of Britain ~ and how much they gave for their country.

As we flew over London I spotted Twickenham and we soon landed. It was now Friday the 27th of August.

Travelling on planes with bikes is a pretty fraught thing. The planes will take them in large boxes (which you can get for free from bike stores, as they throw out the boxes that new bikes come in). Then you have to disassemble your bikes to get them in there – but as little as possible so as to make the re-assembly relatively easy.

So there we were at Heathrow – jet lagged and with two large boxes and bikes to re-assemble. I’d had to take my handle bars off when I packed mine as they were too wide, but Jenny didn’t, and of course you deflate the tyres so that they don’t pop in the high altitude of the flight.

We found a quieter part of Heathrow to go to work – but I couldn’t help but be interested and over stimulated by the things around me – this was England, we were here! – even the announcments were intriguing – so many of them were security related, I’d never heard anything like that in Australia – but I wanted to experience and enjoy it all! As a kid at boarding school English culture was a huge influence – Monty Python, Dire Straits, The Falklands War, Clive Sinclair and his computers ~ the whole personal computer boom that had gone on in England in the early 80’s had excited me – and we were assembling our bikes opposite a news agent – what kind of computer magazines would they have? The English just seemed so homely I couldn’t wait to get out there!

After just under an hour we had the bikes re-assembled and the paniers mounted and were ready to go! ~ after I’d left two copies of Gymea of course! One by a phone and one in a departure lounge ~ and that was the last  of the copies I had with me.

We decided we’d ride out of Heathrow – which is something I’d never do again……

Bikes assembled and ready to go!