Out of its calm bigness and blackness of night to the subtlest change, behind the horizon.
A distant glint of gray to the shade of blue, stretching towards the morning. A crack in the charcoal coated sphere, causing a leakage. Pouring in, a thick oozing mixture of molten gold, burning and bruising the edges of night.
This was a trip, through half of Europe, using only muscular power. Starting on the 19.06.2016 in Palermo, Italy and ending on the 04.10.2016 in Cologne, Germany. I travelled by bicycle from Palermo anticlockwise around Sicily to Messina, along the west coast of Italy, up into the Alps. Carrying the bicycle over 2 alpine passes, one of them being the border to Switzerland. Cycling over the Splügenpass and down to the Bodensee /Lake Constance. From there I went by Kayak along the Rhein- River to my hometown Cologne. During this time, I covered a minimum of 3156 km by bicycle, of which 574 km was a conscious detour, and did a minimum of 30.000 meters of elevation up and down. I carried the bicycle by taking off the wheels and tying everything to my backpack, for 14,4km over two alpine passes, 1700hm up and 1800hm down, both passes lying at about 2600hm and 2900hm. By kayak, an old two-person collapsible boat, I paddled about 733km, unloading, carrying, pushing and reloading the kayak over waterways or other hindrances a minimum of 18 times. I had one week of rest at Lake Como and one climbing week in Vale Bregalia. Apart from this, I would take a rest day whenever I felt like it. All distances of horizontal kilometers combined add up to a total of 3903km with no motorization support except for the 2km ferry crossing to Italy. I had failed twice before on a shorter, similar trip attempt in 2014 and 2015.
This was never about the numbers. My motivation for these trips is the experience outside of my given reality.
I grew tired. Tired of the repetition, tired of the voices and the loudness of the city. I could not possibly imagine that I could do it. Mostly because I had failed so miserably at a previous bicycle-trip attempt, which was not even half the distance of this. But I also couldn’t possibly not try. I rolled this idea around in my head for a while, until I noticed its importance. The idea began to resurface regularly now. A creative combination of lines, over miles. How amazing would it be?
I would repeatedly remember and get excited by the memories of my climbing trips with friends. Of the pure ecstasy of hanging on small pinches of stone. Or simply just being in the wilderness as the wind picks up. Excited by the love of elements, nature and its physics. Excited by the idea of a direct and pure physical interaction with the world. No filters. Excited by all the adventure stories, the new circumstances. Excited by the people who write and sing about that freedom, the people and places inviting and pulling me outward to an away.
Sometimes I seem to forget that we are free. And how beautiful it is to be light, imperfect and wild.
All the experiences and emotions sensed during this trip are incomprehensible. By their volume and intensity, I find myself absolutely unable to communicate them correctly.
Palermo, Sicily, June 20, 2016 - We arrive at their home, an Airbnb by Palermo, and immediately upon arrival, I get a cold. Some kind of flu. I stayed there for two days. Really kind people. We watched the last episode of Game of Thrones together, I had a nice big bed, and we could walk down to the sea. I just wanted to stay a bit longer, enjoy the place, the good food, and spend some more time with these nice people. But I knew I really had to go.
Silently I was freaking out.
No matter how sick or tired I felt, I had to start. I had passed a point of no return. I had rented out my city flat to someone else for the time being, in Germany. I assembled the new and unridden bicycle, luckily only one of the disc brakes was damaged during the flight, and I could easily repair this. Repeatedly the outside voice in my head would attack my good ambitions. “How can I ride this distance if I actually have no idea of cycling or have never ridden more than 15km in my whole life? You don't know how to navigate properly. Look, there are so many problems to this trip and so many decisions and uncertainties, you cannot possibly make it. Just stay here and enjoy yourself, why do you always have to be so extravagant and ambitious? Do you really want to fail the third time? You're doing this for the others, aren't you? This is actually dangerous, Sicily is actually dangerous, there are people with guns who will want to rob and murder you while buying oranges!
I had to mentally ignore the weight of my ambition. I had to dial down the pressure of the project. And trick myself to slightly believing in what I had told everyone at home.
That I was going on an easy cycling trip for about 2 weeks around Sicily. Mainly to avoid the social pressure and judgment. And just see if it works. Basically, I didn't ́t have to do anything but ride some kilometers per day, eat, sleep and enjoy. So, I gave myself a nudge, got my shit together, paid and booked for a place for the following night in the next city about 15km away.
Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily, June 21, 2016 – I have this big smile stuck to my face that I couldn’t wash off for the rest of the day. I can't believe it; this is happening! I am actually riding my bike along the coast of Sicily, looking out over the ocean. Really sick but incredibly happy. The sun was penetrating so hard, my soft white German skin got instant sunburn. Giving my body a t-shirt and short tan. Making it look like I was still wearing some kind of invisible white swimsuit when naked. Smelling the salty air, hearing the different language, eating the different food, riding into this different lifestyle. Taking it all in, breathing in all the small cities. Still being quite scared, wobbly and insecure on the bike. All of a sudden on a big street with fast-moving traffic or lost and having to turn around, multiple times.
Caltagirone, Sicily, 25 June 2016 -
About half a kilometre before you pass them, you can smell it. The dead rotting body of a dog, cat, rat or any other less lucky creature.
It’s often smashed, crushed or an open body, lying there. The hot tar burning from beneath, no shading, separating them and the beautifully penetrating sun.
12 hours a day, stuck, inactive, motionless. Drying and oozing from the inside out, by the side of the road. Either lost, forgotten or never known.
I am in a full aero-position, tucked in tight, piercing through the air down the street like an arrow. Enjoying the downhill. It feels like I am going somewhere around 50kmh plus. I never really knew because I didn't use a speedometer. The perfectly smooth tar and the straight stretch is most welcoming, and I am happily cruising on the big excess length of tar to the right of the road, firmly gripping the handlebar, on a highway. I cut the bottom right peak of Sicily from Gela to Catania, resulting in a massive downhill back to the coast. I had two big downhill descends during this trip, this being one of them. This wasn't really planned, to cycle along a highway, I just kind of ended up on one. This stretch went on for about 50km and it felt like it would go on forever. I was nervous that someone would call the police, stopping me and telling me to get off the road. But as a police car overtook me to my left, and clearly seeing me, it did not stop, there didn't seem to be a problem.
Somewhere along the trip - What a ride?! After weeks of starting my bicycle ride before sunrise, repeatedly watching the sun break the otherwise dead-strait horizon. One morning the land mass of Italy popped up from around the corner.
Itri, Italy, 21 July 2016 - I could not sleep. I'm too excited and anxious because of the long ride ahead. Everything is packed, everything is waiting for the alarm. It’s an hour before the alarm goes off at three in the morning. I probably dozed off around 2:55. I get up, sneak into the kitchen. The Airbnb Host is snoring as I make coffee as silently and quickly as I can. He was so friendly during my two rest days here in Itri; not to mention his self-made wine which made me beautifully sleepy during the days of resting. Coffee coffee coffee shower. I slip into my fresh body-hugging cycling clothes and strap my bags to the bike. And I am off into the darkness. I switch on the lights and start spinning on a high cadence until my legs warm up. I'm riding through a forest, a slight uphill. The dark trees surround me, the street is highlighted by rays of the moon. As I approach the top of the mountain the trees lighten and I look over great fields and rocks, down to the ocean. The full moon is beaming and hanging heavily over the ocean. A gorgeous pale shimmer of white rises to the moon, and there it is - the diamond sea. The slightly bumpy road turns into a perfectly flat tar and I start my descent to the ocean. There is no one to be seen and there is absolute silence except for the wind and my speed as I swoop around the corners around the rugged cliffs.
I can't believe that there is only me here to soak up all this beauty.
The sun begins to set and the street gradually flattens. The smell of marina gets stronger, the seaweed and other sea life. Riding through the small towns the markets are busy being built up, selling fish and mussels. Bakeries start to open, spreading their smell of fresh bread and igniting the thought of filled pastries. I continue riding for a few hours, not really concentrating for a while until I am forced to stop and step to my right on a small patch of pavement. The road turned into an expressway without me noticing it, and now there was a long tunnel in front of me with no clearance distance to the wall. The thought of riding into this tunnel was dangerous and scary. Being enclosed in an expressway tunnel, with no space, cycling on the street in morning traffic. No way. Going back was no option either because I had just passed an access road onto this expressway. There is just not enough space for me to reverse or ride in the opposite direction. To make the situation a bit trickier the street is enclosed by railings on a kind of bridge leading into the tunnel about 4m above the ground. The traffic was picking up like crazy because everyone was driving to work, so crossing two lanes and going back on the other side was no option either. Luckily there was a field beneath the bridge. So, I detached the bags off my bike, dropped them off the bridge, lifted my bike over the railing, climbed over the railing and lowered the bike as far down as I could and let it drop. I did the same and did a sort of judo roll, only backwards. I reattached everything and rode past the farmer into whose soft field I just had plunged. He smiled and greeted me with a “journo”. It is incredible that my bike did not malfunction once during the trip. I wonder what the farmer thought.
Cori, 21 July, Italy, 2016 - After some time the light hits the trees. Not long after that, I can smell the pine roasting in the sun. I'm on my bicycle and lost in its perpetual motion, on and on and on. I concentrate on the street.
Hours go by and I am drenched in sweat. I enter the tunnel. I start thinking about the most beautiful things and the saddest things. Memories surface that I considered long forgotten.
The ebbs and tides of energy come and go. The empty streets get filled with cars and after that get relatively quiet again. So much passes me, it is impossible to take it all in. Scenes fly past, I remember seeing two horses standing under a bridge, prostitutes in bright clothes sitting on a chair in the middle of nowhere, long distant plains, riding along a river, scaring up a flock of birds, the sound and sight of a porcupine dragging his spikes along the asphalt. I am over 5 hours into my ride now and on my last climb to the village where my Airbnb guest house is. The shower, the bed, and the food. Often it is a real battle to eat before I lie down for my afternoon nap. Because if I don’t, I wake up after a half an hour, feeling as if I had been out drinking heavily, craving anything salty and nutritious like a zombie. I am starting to hurt. My legs hurt, I feel tired, my hands and arms hurt, the saddle hurts. My breathing gets stronger as the road steepens. Every time I hope the village is behind the turn, there is another one ahead. This goes on forever.
As I start to forget why and what I am doing, I arrive.
Now the actual difficult part starts, I have to really concentrate on trying to communicate with the person who is housing me. You know to say who you are and cover the basic small talk and so on. But by this time, I am speaking a new language. It is a mixture of Italian, which I don't speak, and the Spanish I never bothered to learn in school. Add in heavy breathing and a bit of drooling. At this point, I feel everything except human. It’s actually a wonder anyone recognized me as human. I must say that the new language, in general, worked really well. The host showed me the house, which is a mansion with the most exquisite view over the city and surrounding landscape. I immediately fill the bath with cold water and have an “ice bath”. All the endorphins kick in and I am happy.
To say that I feel alive is an understatement.
I buy food at the nearest place possible, get back home and rest. I am so tired I fall asleep in my dreams a second time.
Napoli, 17 July, Italy, 2016 - A song blasts in through the window, or through the walls because the window is closed, and wakes me up in an old person’s room. I can tell because of the furniture - it’s really, really old. There are pictures of family everywhere and a few kitsch objects spread out on the shelves and tables. Each one connected to a memory. There is a particularly bright blue snow globe next to my bed on the nightstand. The snowman inside is smiling at me. And there is this smell, this smell of old people, man it smells really strong. But wait, this smell is kind of different. This smell was not there as I lay down a few hours ago. It’s an incredibly strong scent of fish. I open the window and it comes rushing in. I pop my head out the window and look down a small alley of Naples. And there it was, right under the window, a small fish market was set up while I was having my “nap”. Bustling with people interacting between the fish on ice and mussels in water. One stand was blasting particularly loud Italian pop music from the speakers, echoing through the alley.
The host is an incredibly polite and talkative woman who can't stop giving me food. To be honest I don't want her to stop either. Spaghetti, coffee, cake, dessert. We spend an afternoon chatting and arguing. She says that she, like many other Italians, are disappointed in the EU not supporting Italy and frustrated that Germany is negotiating with the US so much. More importantly, we should close the borders to foreign immigrants before the country is flooded. Confidently she says she reads a lot of news on the internet, and that's why she knows so much about the current political situation and the corresponding facts.
In this sort of fashion, I would wake up to a new surrounding nearly every morning. It’s an incredible feeling covering such a distance and entering or leaving a new big Italian city. Messina, Naples, Rome or Milan.
Somewhere along the trip - It was soothing to see the rich green tone of plants again as whole landscapes changed from dry, sandy hills to thick forests. I was able to cool down in the increasing patches of shade.
Rome, Italy, 22 July 2016 - One day I went to the cinema in Rome. Two Americans sat down next to me and started discussing the evil in the world. We were watching Star Trek Beyond at a two o ́clock show in the afternoon. The one in the brown robe had a bald head. The other had cowboy boots on and wore his hat throughout the movie. During their conversation, the bald one in the robe said: “Jesus didn't ́t carry a gun, so neither do we.”
Somewhere after Milan, Italy, 15 August 2016 - While moving through physical space one develops a sense of scaling objects. One learns to determine the height of the hills or mountains ahead through distance, how it changes during the motion towards it and its sharpness of vision. Well, you know, to prepare and figure out the bicycle climb ahead. One afternoon, after two months of doing this, I noticed the Alps building up in the distance before me.
I had never seen something that large, an incredibly massive barrier of stone and earth,
filling up my spectrum of sight, stretching as far as I could see from left to right.
What an obstacle.
I remember thinking that this would be the last few strenuous weeks of the trip and that after this the tour would become easy.
Como, Italy, 14 August 2016 - At Lake Como a group of black immigrants were rejected as they tried to get into a public bus which would, a few minutes later, cross the border into Switzerland. We got into a conversation. They had traveled from Ethiopia by all means possible. By foot, car or train over the past few months. The group of 5 were my age and we talked about our travels.
Before the trip - In a garage somewhere in Europe, the neon lights show me the slightest water stain on a bonnet of the sports car I am wiping down. Repeatedly hovering over a car like a little swarm-like cleaning unit. All in the same perpetual motion, night shift after night shift. Mostly silent due to our language difference, occasionally a haptic or mimicable joke. This was my 4 weeks of preparation. Mechanics rushing around, doing quick last-minute checks and tuning.
Drenched in the dirt of the garage and cars, my sticky sweet sweat and the chemicals of the cleaning fluid make my hands go all wrinkly.
Pass Procellizzo, Italy-Switzerland, 30 August 2016 – 60 days of cycling later, I lay down my backpack, to which my bicycle is neatly strapped to, resting. Standing on the border of Italy and Switzerland. On the topmost blades of the Alpine Pass Procellizzo 2961hm. Looking back over Italy, the wind picking up and the whiteness of clouds surrounds me. Coating me invisible and visible, on the damp rock beneath. Everything leaves me, and
I feel like the simplest being between the dust, stones, and sky.
Indistinct in the distance lies Sicily. I cycled around that island, transitioned to Italy by ferry and cycled up along the west coast into the alps. It ́s all invisible now and the memory is starting to fade, but I know it exists. I am sure because I drew the line physically with my body. Over and after the next two mountain passes lies Switzerland with its lake Konstanz, advancing into the Rhein-River flowing by my hometown Cologne.
Man, what a view… I could have never imagined this idea turning real, it is the most surreal feeling.
Somewhere along the Road during a detour, after the Alps, before the boat, Austria, September 2016 - I really thought I had learned. I thought I had learned to go slow and steady, and not rush. Not to rush into an injury like a damn donkey of a person. I have attempted a trip in a similar fashion, riding a bicycle to a mountain before. That time I did everything wrong - the wrong bicycle, wrong gear, too much gear. But most of all too much strain at once.
I had so much fun riding and pushing that I rode myself into a knee injury.
Fucking up the whole trip and damaging my knee long term so that one day, as I slowly started doing sports again, I couldn't walk anymore. I had to have a knee operation followed by a rehabilitation phase.
So, lesson learned, I thought. Wrong! During this trip and after months of riding my bike daily and feeling absolutely on top of all things I all of a sudden thought that it would be great to give it a blast the last 4 days of cycling before getting to my boat. To double my daily mileage at that point to a minimum of 100km and max my performance. This went fine the first day; it was a long day in the saddle but it was fine. But on the morning of the second day, I injured my knee. Giving me strong pain while riding, resulting in my whole body tensing up and my muscles contracting in short spasms now and then. I wish I could have seen myself.
So now I am actually one day away from ending the bicycle riding part and getting on to my kayaking. With 2000km plus of riding behind me and about 100 km in front of me.
At this point, I started feeling extra stupid, ,
my morale being quite low. Now being realistically close to succeeding and after putting months in of hard physical work, and working the worst jobs, doing night shifts in a garage somewhere, cleaning cars. Giving up could not be an option.
So, I just continued, slowly.
Turning a normally short, one day ride, into a painfully slow and long two-day mega mission.
My riding speed alternating in relation to the pain, trying to reduce it as much as possible, cycling grannies and granddads overtaking me now, which was quite strange at first.
Somewhere along the trip - In the Alps I saw the Rhein River, built up out of a glacier stream to later turn into a major river shooting out the water mass of 2900m3 a second.
Somewhere by Speyer, 2 October, 2016 – I am in my boat now, riding downstream along the Rhein River. I thought of this as of the easy, last part of the trip. It just made sense, a big stream of water on which I only had to get on to my boat and float home to Cologne. Easy right?
Ironically, I didn't think of the fact that a current needs to build up. That current only started to pick up somewhere after 350km. And there are water locks along the way, over 20 barriers. Every time I approached a water lock, I would have to unload my boat, get everything on land, and lift the boat out of the water then reload everything onto the boat. I put the boat on small wheels to push it to a place where I can put it back in to the water and hopefully just push it in. Often being on an enormous set of stairs or just bush on both sides.
Somewhere along the trip - Humans are highly adaptable beings. Able to transform and react to a new and complex situation, surrounding and reality. With the constant repetition and ease, the buildup of confidence culminates a certain strength and precision allowing us to move more elegantly in the given medium. Which one could then define as success - this ‘thing’ everyone seems to be chasing.
But if you boil it down, success is the most boring thing.
It ́s just a constant repetition of action while knowing, or having a vague idea, of your strengths and weaknesses.
By Strasbourg, Germany, 14 September 2016 - More than once I did some kind of miscalculation and paddled into the night. Due to overambitious planning or simply underestimating the current or waterways ahead. After paddling for quite some time in the dark, I noticed just how tired I was. And that I was starting to get cold no matter how hard I paddled. How my clothing was wet because it had rained that day and how I was feeling wasted. Wanting to stop and get warm. I paddled to the nearest capable looking area, a little island/nature reserve. I could barely get out of the boat due to exhaustion and knee pain. Walking and wobbling around on stones the wet fabric on my skin moved a bit, giving me the chills, shivering uncontrollably.
Giving me a short fright, releasing adrenaline into my body, relieving me of my knee pain.
This is the time to get warm as fast as possible. Tying the boat to the nearest tree, getting the stuff out of the boat and laying down my camping mat and sleeping bag in the nearest bush/ semi wind-protected ditch in the ground. I hadn't eaten that day, but luckily, I had a beer and chocolate in my bag from Switzerland that I was wanting to take home to my friends. I ate all the chocolate right there at that moment. Slightly drunk and slightly shivering I fell into a comfortable dream waking up to a misty sunrise the next morning.
Somewhere along the Rhein - Ok, shit it is getting dark again. The last hours I’ve just been paddling faster whilst wishfully thinking I would just arrive at the hostel or hotel I had planned on sleeping at. Now it is undeniably dark. The result of a simple miscalculation of my condition of fitness that day or the size or number of waterways to carry my boat around and the mileage ahead. Along the trip this happened a few times, but this night was a bit more eventful. Being on the water since day break, paddling while the sun was going down was as if someone had started to turn everything down a notch.
Coating everything in cotton wool until the last rays of sun are drained out of the romantic sky.
The birds stop singing and the bright reflections on the water have faded completely now. As the night comes a whole new side of the river would open up to me. Fewer ships and less cars in the surrounding allow the quietness to rise, letting me listen to the current.
Surrounded by darkness, flowing forward.
Riding a loaded, two-person, open kayak of 4,5m on a river with a headlamp with 4m visibility is clearly pushing it a bit. I would ride as close to the land as possible. Riding slower in a softer current, in case of my boat flipping I would be guaranteed a safer and shorter swim to the land. The Rhein is furnished with some sort of stone barrier, regulating the current and water flow every now and then. They would reach up to 20m into the river and be partly over and partly under water. Making them hardly visible and invisible by night. Riding too close to the bank would mean risking crashing into these stones or riding over them, ripping open the plastic skin of the boat. But, if I would listen really carefully, I was able to hear them before they would appear in front of me, giving me enough time to paddle more towards the middle of the river and pass beside them. Additionally, I wouldn’t want to ride too far to the centre of the river due to the bigger freight-ships having a stronger and quieter motor. They would creep up behind me without warning. So, I would try to ride somewhere in the middle, stone barriers slightly under the surface to the right and big ships which would probably not see me to the left. And it just was one of those days. After about 2,5 hours paddling after nightfall, I was not concentrating and did not hear the stones coming up before me. I had passed about 6 of these walls before by anticipating them beforehand and felt like I had figured it out. In a split second the calmness of attentive night-riding was ripped into a hectic quick panic.
Shoved forward by the abrupt halt of my boat as I hit the stones.
Looking at what was happening I saw a thick black amount of water towering up on both sides, rushing by at double speed.
Slowly being tilted backwards, water splashing in I could feel the edges of the stones being pushing dangerously hard to the bottom of the PVC plastic coat.
This boat was an old model built in East Germany. Held together by a wooden skeleton, completely detachable, most of these joints reinforced with a gaffer wrap. I spend about half a day building the boat together and the other half putting tape on it. It was properly and highly professionally plastered with multiple sheets of gaffer-tape inside and out, covering the fraying seams connecting the fabric. By the look of my boat, I would joke that Gaffer was my primary sponsor.
I launched my body forward, lying and moving over the front of the boat. Doing the funkiest of moves, trying to loosen from the rock. Trying out any thinkable technique. I was able to break free by somehow stretching out; my weight evenly balanced on all fours whilst wiggling and jumping up and down and simultaneously pushing myself away with a paddle. The boat came loose and continued as if nothing had happened. Wet and some water on my seat. I would have loved to have seen this action from a distance. Luckily the nylon coat was not torn. I felt relieved as some time later, I saw the city lights where my hostel was that particular night. About 2km away, I decided to relax for a second and light a cigarette.
Being really happy with my decision of riding on and being done with that stone situation, and knowing that I’ll be in a warm bed soon, I leaned back and enjoyed the moment. Watching the city lights getting closer. I was so relaxed I didn’t notice my boat drifting towards the middle of the river. Looking at the city lights in front and trying to figure out what could be the hostel and what could be the bridge I have to dock at before getting to the boat-house. Particularly looking at one bridge in front of me for some time until I noticed it wasn’t a bridge at all. It was a big, dark object giving off a subtle sound, pushing the waves in front of it. For some seconds I was confused until I noticed quite literally that it was a big ship right in front of me. Its “front light” had integrated itself in the city skyline of lights, rendering it hardly visible.
On a direct course of max 20m I got the second fright of my life and immediately transformed into a world class athlete paddler now covering 30m in a second.
Surfing the soft waves of the ship.
Just before Cologne, Germany, 4 October 2016 – I didn't know if I was going to cry when I arrived or start crying right at this moment in my boat. I was on an absolute emotional rollercoaster. Being all excited and having this weird feeling of being in a recognizable surrounding again. A feeling of home. I started the day paddling early, at about 4 in the morning, witnessed the whole day on the water and arrived at about 7 in the evening during sundown. Giving it all I got, pulling this big thing of a boat as fast as I can now, feeling heavier than ever, racing towards and around the last corner before seeing the skyline of this city. Riding towards its five bridges, the big cathedral, and all its characteristics. Remembering its structures and all its features, all cracks and corners. I truly know this place like a lyric, off by heart.
Crazy how all of this distance just leads up to this point. To a point of a place. Set in a sundown surrounding, by a river.
I get into bed and pass out. Looking forward to the city, and its routine. Till I get excited again to leave.
After 2 attempts over the last 3 years, in different variations, a knee injury and an operation, I am still amazed that it all worked out. All the money saved and spent. The months of preparation and days of 12h+ physical work. The mental strength to transform the way of things, I arrive in Cologne, having drawn an invisible line.
A streak of nothingness, physically not existent. Like a dream, turning into reality and fading away again.
To see what we are - a beautifully complex system - with the option of changing.