Throwing in the towel…

Days 12-13: La Grange – Bastrop – Austin (90 miles trip total 630 miles)

Arriving in Austin, the state capital of Texas, has confirmed our decision to abandon the rest our trip and return home. Life in the small rural towns we have been through had seemed relatively unaffected save for strategically placed, Texas sized, containers of hand sanitisers.

The city centre, which should have been throbbing with the annual South by Southwest Country Music festival is eerily quiet. Restaurants including fast food joints like McDonald, if not closed, offer only take-out options. A new statewide ban on gatherings of more than 10 people means that motels no longer offer breakfast.

Capitol Building Austin, Texas

Having covered marginally under half of the distance to our intended destination of El Paso, British Airways has allowed us to change our return journey. We will fly from Austin via Dallas on Sunday, arriving in London on Monday morning.

Do not approach – could be dangerous

Spring is a wonderful time to visit southern Texas, the trees are newly dressed in a complementing cacophony of green leaves. The wild spring flowers blanket the verges and fields with a riot of colour and buzz with bee and insect life. The fields are full of newborn calves and foals. The sweet scent of the flowers, song of little birds feasting on humming insects and screeching birds of prey harvesting their smaller cousins have been the sound track to our final couple of days in the hillier, ranch land approaching Austin.

Glorious spring flowers

The weather, until today, has been balmy warm if a little humid. High summer would be almost unbearable.

Whilst the centre is deadly quiet, the parks along the Colorado River, which bisects the city was throbbing with people running, cycling and dog walking. We were luck enough to witness the nightly exodus of hundreds of thousands of tiny Mexican free-tailed bats from their roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge. Apparently, this is the largest urban bat population in North America. As dusk falls the bats stream out to feast on tiny insects over the river.

Mexican Long-Tailed bats hunting for insects.

What to do…

Days 9-11: Kountze-Coldspring-Navasota-Le Grange (212 miles) Trip total 563 miles.

Along with the rest of the world, we are concerned at the impact CV-19 is having. BA emailed to say that our flight home is still scheduled, but gives options to return earlier. This is easier said than done when you are on a bicycle in the boondocks. We have foregone a planned rest days to get to Austin, the state capital of Texas, sooner so we can evaluate our options. We should get there on Thursday all being well. This has resulted in us doing three 70 mile plus days in a row; towns with accommodation are few and far between, so it’s long days or wild camping. My vote is always for the comfy bed and hot shower.

Cycling across the 21,000 acre, man-made Lake Conroe between Coldspring and Navasota. (Provides water for Houston).

As we head ever west, the scenery has changed from the swampy lowland bayous of Louisiana and south east Texas, to rolling open ranch land which is very scenic. There are no roadside hedges so the views are expansive. The many and multi-racial herds of beef cattle are contained by post and wire fences. The Texas Longhorns are a sight to behold but have not been close enough for a decent photo yet. Quite a few of the cows have Brahman bulls with them, no doubt for a bit of hybrid vigour.

The country roads are much quieter and  more pleasurable to cycle. The verges and fields are vibrant with spring flowers. The Blue Bonnet, a variety of lupin, is the state flower of Texas, they are everywhere and remind us of the bluebells at home.

Blue Bonnets and Indian Paintbrushes (orange flowers)
Distant forefather blazing the trail??

It is getting much more hilly now, constant ups and downs, this and a strong headwind has rendered us two very tired bunnies.

Keeping calm & carrying on – for now:


Having cycled 330 miles in 6 days we are spending two nights in the small town of Kountze, Eastern Texas. First job was to find the launderette. As it turned out, a new facility with far more washers and dryers than the population warrants; they must be very clean here! The owner, a cyclist himself, refused to let us pay – such kind people. By the way I apologise to the good people of Newton Abbot, one of whom helped out a friend who found himself short of a few bob in Aldi.

Beautiful bark on a Loblolly Pine Tree

The official Southern Tier route between Kirbyville and Kountze is on the shoulder of busy highways, whilst quite safe, the constant noise gets very waring. With the aid of Kamoot’s excellent mapping we were able to take quiet, adjacent roads through leafy lanes and farmland. The only downside is unrestrained dogs, some of which look fairly ferocious and chase after us. Thank heavens for the Dazer, a device which emits very high frequency sounds audible only to the dogs, in most cases they turn tail and saunter back home.

Our ‘rest’ day was spent in The Big Thicket National Preserve, a leisurely 10 mile cycle along a pristine, bespoke cycle path. The Big Thicket, an area of dense forest, once spanned over one million acres. Today just 3% of that acreage remains encompassing 9 different eco systems. During the Civil war draft dodgers hid in the forest, originating the name Bushwhackers as they were termed the Confederate army sent in to round them up. A three mile walk through diverse forests and areas of bayou was most peaceful.

Knees (roots) of Swamp-dwelling Bald Cypress Trees stick out of the water allowing them to breathe.

A couple of passers by, having just heard, informed us that flights from the UK and Ireland have now been included in the USA’s travel ban in its attempts to halt the spread of Coronavirus. We intend to carry on with our trip as planned, in anticipation that the situation will have eased by our return date.

Days 5&6: Eunice – De Ridder – Kirbyville (111 miles)

Able to cut across country to rejoin our route, the enforced detour to Eunice only added four miles to the planned 61 mile ride to De Ridder; our last full day in Louisiana. Not the most enjoyable of rides, long, straight, flat roads into a headwind, with only the uninspiring town of Oberlin along the way.

As seems to be the case, whilst tucking into a lunch of chicken burger and chips in Oberlin, a friendly couple got chatting, interested in our journey after spotting the bikes outside (and no doubt our funny clothes). From them we learned that not only are the flooded fields we passed, seedbeds for rice, but those with basket tops are breeding grounds for crawfish. These tiny, freshwater cousins of lobsters are eaten by the bucketful here, with the season in full swing. Louisiana produces 100 million pounds of the crustaceans annually.

Rice / crawfish farming -Louisiana

Our final night in Louisiana was in the small, residential town of De Ridder, straddling Highway 190. Our route today to Kirbyville, Texas continued along the 190 which was busy at times with huge trucks and one lane sections due to long sections of roadworks. Fortunately, there was a wide shoulder most of the way, although it was gravelly and strewn with random bits of tyre, probably from lorry blowouts.

Cattle ranch, lots of baby calves as we entered Texas.

The road surface was noticeably better as soon as we crossed into Texas, with the shoulders pothole free and swept. The people we meet continue to astound with their friendliness and generosity. A lady I spoke with in a shop was in the checkout queue behind me and insisted on paying for my item, she would not take no for an answer. Never happened in Newton Abbot!

It was a relief from traffic noise to find adjacent country lanes the last few miles into town.

2nd puncture of the trip just after crossing the Sabine river, the border between Louisiana and Texas.

Days 3 & 4: New Roads to Bunkie to Eunice (131 miles)

Two long days in the saddle; the 71 miles from from New Roads to Bunkie was in the plan, so no surprise. Another completely flat day with a couple of light showers in an otherwise grey day. Again, even the more major roads were very quiet, usually with a wide shoulder and good surface. Some of the country roads, however, had the odd pothole to rival those in Devon. The region is sparsely populated so the traffic on the country roads is light. It is wonderfully peaceful bowling along with only the sound of our tyres, birdsong and crickets.

Quiet country roads

The heavens opened just as we checked in to the, no frills, but clean and perfectly acceptable All Star Inn, Bunkie, run by a very friendly couple, originally from India. Thank goodness for the Pizza Shack, which delivered our supper to the door – saved a drenching.

The destination for today’s ride was the tiny town of Mamou, which claims to be the Cajun music capital of the world. A few minor hills and a twisting route through Bayou country (a slow moving creek or swampy sections of a river or lake) and rice paddies made for a very pleasant ride.

Little green turtles sitting on logs or splashing about in the water are very cute and the screech of numerous birds of prey suggest a healthy eco system hereabouts. A huge area is given over to fields surrounded by man-made dykes, many completely flooded to facilitate rice cultivation, a much more industrial process than in Thailand.

Bald Cypress trees growing in the Bayou

Our relief on arriving in Mamou after 50 miles, was short-lived. The only hotel was shut! Our options, wild camping with biscuits for supper or other 10 miles to the bigger town of Eunice. Eunice won! Carpenter lovers will appreciate Gavin having Gumbo, crawfish pie and good fun on the bayou.

USA Southern Tier Part 2

Day 1. Baton Rouge – New Roads (40 miles)

In Feb-Mar 2019 we cycled c.1,050 miles from San Augustine, Florida to New Orleans in Louisiana, part of Adventure Cycling’s Trans America Southern Tier route. Well, we’re back, and have the first, dead flat, 40 miles of Part 2 under our belts. Our destination for this trip is El Paso on the border of Texas and New Mexico; at least 1,300 miles.

USA Pt 2
USA Southern Tier Part 2 (Red Line) Baton Rouge Louisiana to El Paso Texas

It is glorious to be back in shorts and T shirts with the sun on our skin. Spring is definitely here with lots of birdsong, roadside flowers and deciduous trees just showing hints of green. The locals were busy mowing lawns this Sunday morning. Some of the farmers already have lush fields of grass and red clover cut for hay/silage.

We have been very touched by the kindness of the people here. Gavin was bought a beer last night and a lorry driver drove behind us at cycling pace as we crossed the Mississippi on the Huey P Long bridge this afternoon. There was no shoulder to ride on so he kept us safe from speeding traffic which was forced into the outside lane. Thereafter, we followed the mighty river upstream on quiet rural roads. We stopped at a roadside cabin for a ‘snowball’ (fruit flavoured, finely crushed, ice with ice cream in the middle), the lovely lady, so impressed with our trip and by way of welcome to the US refused to let us pay.

Just a small section of the Huey P Long road and rail bridge over the Mississippi at Baton Rouge

So far it is 2-1 to Gavin in the Alligator spotting competition.

Chiang Saen – Tha Ton – Chiang Dao – Chiang Mai

Twenty days on with 1,022 miles pedaled we have reached Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city and our last stop before flying down to Bangkok on Wednesday evening.

We have seen some big Buddhas, this one at Tha Ton tops them all. Spot Gavin for scale.

The route down from Chiang Saen has been very beautiful with a few long and sometimes steep climbs up through the northern hills. Where possible, we have cycled quiet roads through villages and farmland – so much more enjoyable than some unavoidable stretches along big highways where the traffic noise and fumes get quite wearing. We have generally felt quite safe though.

Breakfast in Chiang Dao looking at Doi Luang, at 2,240 metres, Thailand’s third largest mountain

Despite an awful lot of broken glass on the roadsides we have had no punctures. However, we did have a couple of mechanical issues leaving Tha Ton. The two bolts that hold the eccentric bottom bracket on my bike had worked loose, resulting in some worrying clunking and lack of positivity. Gavin had to do something quite clever to his front cone nuts with a pedal wrench and adjustable spanner when his front wheel stopped spinning freely. Fortunately all running repairs held good.

Trimming chrysanthemum bushes, the flowers are dried for making tea, near Tha Ton

The Thai people are simply delightful and go out of their way to be helpful, none more so than the owner of The Reset Resort in Chiang Dao; we spent last night in one of the four guest cabins, set in a beautifully tended garden, he and his wife run as B&B accommodation. He is the happiest, most smiley person I have ever met. The extra blankets he got us were very welcome as the night time temperatures have plummeted.

Our happy host, with Gavin, wrapped up against the early morning chill

Two rice ricks complete with little top nots

Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen

What a beautiful 50 mile ride we had from Chiang Khong, following the Mekong northwest, to Chiang Saen. The scenery, looking across the river to the hills of Laos, is just magical.

Mekong River dividing the hills of Thailand from those of Laos

Before checking in to a well equipped rustic hut, just back from the riverbank, in the port town of Chiang Saen, we pedalled another 5 miles up river. This brought us to the point of The Golden Triangle; the confluence of the Mekong with the Ruak River where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet. The tortuous Ruak River forms much of Thailand’s northern border with Myanmar.

Rustic bungalow set in beautiful gardens at Chiang Saen

A significant drop temperature, to the mid twenties during the day, is much more pleasant to cycle in and provides for better sleep in cooler nights.

Kitchen on the motor bike sidecar

We are staying in Chiang Saen for a second night tonight, which paved the way for a more leisurely breakfast, some much needed bike cleaning and maintenance, a long conversation with fellow guests, the delightful Mr T and his son, from Bangkok and a cycle around local sites. A long walk up a steep hill with a modern Wat on top provided a spectacular view point over the river.

Chiang Saen to the left of the river

Fabulous ride Chiang Khong to Chiang Saen

Chiang Kham to Chiang Khong

Our 65 mile ride from Chiang Kham to the Riverside town of Chiang Khong was a straightforward blast up the main highway, sharing the wide shoulder with the odd moped. The traffic including freight trucks was fast but not too heavy; the noise got wearing after a while. However the bouganvillea plants flowering the length of the central reservation was pretty. The countryside is becoming evermore scenic as we head north, the hills of Thailand and Laos are covered in indigenous forests.

Laos hills in the distance

A temperature drop of about 10 degrees, together with a lot of cloud cover made the ride much more pleasurable and less tiring.

Chiang Khong is a sleepy border town directly across the Mekong River from Huay Xai; the Laos town from where we set off on our two day, slowboat, trip to Luang Prabang in 2014. We look right across to the little hotel we stayed in then from the balcony of our room in the best hotel we have stayed in. It has lovely staff, an infinity swimming pool and a comfortable bed!!

Sunrise over the Laos hills and Mekong River

We are spending two nights here in Chiang Khong and have so far had a lovely day just mooching about on our bikes as far as the fourth ‘Friendship’ Bridge that link Thailand and Laos along their mutual Mekong border. The bridge was opened in late 2013 and has now replaced the ferry that operated from the heart of town. As the bridge is about 8km downstream, the town has suffered from reduced through traffic.

We are sharing supper tonight with Geoff, an Australian national living in Seattle, who we met whilst on our mooch about. He is traveling in the opposite direction to us, on his first solo cycle tour so there will be much to talk about.

Song – Pong – Chiang Kham

Saturday’s 58 mile ride from Song to Pong included almost 900 metres of climbing, with two major hills. The only other traffic, on this very quiet road was a couple of Canadian cycle tourists. They came over for a chat as we were having an orange juice and breather at the top of the second climb. We were absolutely delighted to meet Chris and Heather, whose blog of their trip down the Mexican Baja inspired and informed our 2018 ride down the peninsula. They are spending 6 months riding around SE Asia, in part to escape the Canadian winter. Their description of cycling in South Korea has planted a seed! It was extraordinary meeting up, but maybe just proves that the long distance cycle touring community is quite small

Chris and Heather our Baja inspiration

The scenery, as we venture North and into the jungle like hills, is ever more scenic. The birdsong, especially during the magical early mornings before the sun is fully up, is wonderful, with many exotic sounds alien to our English ears.

Both Song and Pong are small towns where western faces are a curiosity, clearly not on the tourist trail. However, we have been made very welcome, from the owners of our various accommodations to street restaurant owners who have kept us in either chicken, pork or shrimp fried rice. Whilst there are small supermarkets in most sizable towns most food items, meat, fish, vegetables and fruit are sold in markets which start very early in the morning and go on well into the evening. The produce invariably looks very fresh, the fish are still flapping in most we have seen.

Market at Chiang Kham

Market at Chiang Kham

A short 33 mile north from Pong this morning has brought us to Chiang Kham, a larger busier town than either Song or Pong. Having arrived by 10.00 am we have had plenty of time to potter about, dodging the many young teenagers riding scooters home from school, many with at least one or two younger siblings or friends on the back. Almost none wear helmets.

Ninety four percent of the Thai population are Buddhist, almost every village has a highly decorated Wat (Temple). There are many in the larger towns. Wat Nantaran here in Chiang Kham dates back to the late 18th Centuary when Burmese teak traders lived here.

Wat Nantaran Chiang Kham

Wat – in the town of Phrae