Redon – Nantes
Well, as it transpires and as if none of you already had serious concerns, Google isn’t to be trusted! Yes, my idyllic campsite in Redon lived up to and exceeded every expectation with regards to it beauty, a truly gorgeous place to be homeless but the weather reports I was promised by the multitude of satellites that Google have floating around our planets atmosphere seemed a little out of kilter and, being honest, I’d probably have received a more accurate report from good old Michael Fish. A low of 16c at 3am they promised and, well, if that was true then the temperature of my breath should have been enough to replace my camping stove. “Freezing” would have been a little mean but the term “cold” just didn’t cut even the mildest of mustards. Maybe it was the winds making their way under the 6″ gap over the tarp I had sheltering my mozzie net like twig bobbing down the expansive width of the Brest Canal, maybe it was something to do with the mountain of calories inside me not making a dent in the lack of food intake from the previous few days. Whatever is was, it delivered another night of putrid socks on hands and bin liner scalfs. But I’m slowly becoming accustomed to my new sleep pattern: bed by 9pm, a chapter of “the gun seller” and lights out at 10, wake at 2, don everything that can be fashioned into a layer, sleep till 4, wake shivering to the ambient but rather unwelcome sounds of the dawn chorus, ear plugs in, another couple of hours and then packing up my tent at 6am with nothing to do with wanting to be a proud early riser but just to get the blood flowing and some degree of temperature back in my aching appendages.
It’s a tough routine that comes culminates with a happy ending – steaming coffee in the morning sun overlooking stunning views. There you go!, it’s not all bad.
And on that particular morning I rose to a milestone on the long push – the eurovelo1 cycle path. After an extremely short push back into town, beckoned by the wafting smell of food and the sounds of the local church bell that rings every 15 mins (for which reason I can only imagine is some kind of monkish boredom), I first arrive at an attraction I simply couldn’t pass by, even with my level of stinginess – a crepe van – knocking out pancakes 10 to the dozen at a euro a pop.
Browsing the menu like I could understand every option other than “butter and sugar” I spot my choice: “butter and sugar please me ole’ China” and only a matter of seconds later I’m tucking into taste heaven, overly salted grease dripping down my hands and onto the floor, so delicious I seriously consider how dirty the floor is and wether or not it would be appropriate to get down on all fours and lick the pavement. With that demolished and firmly stored in my book of “this is now what I’m having for breakfast for the rest of my life”, I head to the local tourist office I order to find out where “the 1″ passes through town and recon the requirements to find out that for once, and slightly disappointingly, my previous planning was spot on – 100km of gravelly towpath down the Brest canal towards Nantes – the term “mean feat” being most appropriate after a rough nights hedging it. A quick trip to la supermarchet to stock up on essentials (2ltrs of ice cold coke, nuts, crisps and haribo), i find the source, pick up my board almost as if I actually wanted to add an extra 4.7kg of weight to my already overloaded backpack and press on hard, determined to, for the first time on the trip, hit my 25mile per day target. Feeling my new addiction to saying “hello” and “bonjour” to anything that moves in the slightest case that I might find someone to communicate with, I trudge the canal path, occasionally checking the sat nav for any possibility of an adjacent road to skate. It delivers the goods immediately and, for 3 blissful km, I enjoy a sense of perpetual motion as my board whisks me along a smooth and completely traffic free stretch of spirit level flat land. Overjoyed at the short distance I traveled in less than you average pee break, my spirits soon wilted when the gravel, once again, becomes my only option. I’ve come equipped alright, with polyurethane wheels that make good old boardie look like some kind of monster truck but, even the best the industry can offer is not enough to combat this terrain and the probability of hitting something too big to handle and, therefore, coming off my board and break my wrists for the third time is something I’d prefer to avoid if possible. So I man up, hoik the Landyachtz Evo under my right arm and start “the long hike”.
Sounds like an arduous challenge eh – 60 odd miles of walking with a 30lb weight for someone that can barely make it up the infamous Angel escalator without experiencing psychedelic hallucinations at the top – but let me tell you, when you simply haven’t got enough eyes to take in the amount of sights this region has to offer, the time passes fast and the aching sits firmly on the back burner occasionally piping up with an “are we nearly there yet” like whinge for attention from the rear seats. It was a hot day! (-6 by googles guess I imagine) doing no favours for my rapidly developing two tone tan. I coped well! But the ignorance towards my physical capability was not the wisest of methods to adopt given that this is my first real days slog without a lack of calories hindering my progress.
Much to my surprise, the canal was almost dead. A reddish brown in colour with the occasional (and I use that words gingerly) fish appearing only if it was within 3″ of the surface. Grayling I believe, or maybe some kind of elongAted bream. I would have needed to get very intimate to be sure. The same applied only to human life above the waterline (I suppose that sentence only makes sense to the mermaid believers out there). Far from the bustling cycle highway I’d imagined during my planning I sense my first experience of cold turkey from my newfound addiction. This route is seems to be either long forgotten or seriously under promoted from a tourism aspect. Lines of rotting row boats barely distinguishable from the surrounding overgrowth reinforce the former, the kilometres rack up in groups of 10 between the occasional meeting with local fishermen and often elderly fisherwomen. The life is this region belongs to the wild – herons, grebes, cormorants, hen harriers (at a guess as even my extensive childhood studies into birds of prey draws blank with these large and magnificent specimens). The attention hogging flashes of turquoise blue delivered by passing kingfishers almost become boring due to the abundance – now there’s a lie if I’ve ever told one.
Stripped to the bare essentials to minimise the amount of fluid loss through my sweat glands, I make some serious progress, checking the navigation more and more rarely as the day passes, 7km, 20km. Time to stop, find some shade, refuel, check my messaging facilities and… Oh wait, what’s this? Trouble at home! Not a surprise but news that was bound to crop up sooner rather than my chosen later. The boat (my home back in the UK) is rocking and I feel an extreme sense of sorry for my friends that can only be experiencing the nausea that comes with it. I break and, for the first time in 5 years of denial, decide it’s finally time to don the captains hat I’ve always denied I hold procession of. So, it seems my chosen distance is not the only challenge I have to accomplish on this day. I pitch in and spend the remaining 20km not ignoring the sights but, multitasking by formulating a plan to reunite a long split team in order to rinse the best outcome for all.
The break didn’t see me well. 25mins of fruit and formulation lets fatigue set into my pushing leg, my lower calf tightening more with every step under the added weight of my board. I reach out for advise from the one person I am certain has the expertise I need in order to treat this with careful consideration – my brother, a person that the title of intrepid hiker simply does not do justice. He responds in the rapid time I need and I’m done for the day, at a guess, with about 38k under my belt, at a guess, bang on my target but hey, I’m not in this situation because I have a mathematical brain worth advertising and, fuck, I now don’t even know what day it is – embrace it Michael! Don’t try and figure it out! Enjoy it!.
The area is not short of beautiful spots for me to set up camp for the evening but searching for heaven is not a task my legs are capable of. A bridge up ahead lead to a public picnic area with way too many tables to justify the amount of visitors, tall trees shading shortly trimmed and flat grassland, search further I need not.
It’s 7pm. Sun peering through the foliage, I de-sack, perch my achy back up against a stump, elevate my throbbing leg carefully following the expert advise and await a group conversation with a selection of the 15 (it’s a big ole boat you know) crew I left behind 10 days ago. The conversation is unwantingly serious but regardless, we achieve a positive outcome and I can only hope they understand my mentality and turse wording. An hour and 40 mins of my free talk time disappears from that months mobile plan but a worthy cause to say the least putting me well past my bed time and leaving little daylight left to build my home for the night, another cold one at that.
With a standard 4hrs of shut eye, I wake again the the dawn chorus, an experience that I can only recommend you harness on a couple of occasions, much like a rid eye steak, you know, too much of a good thing n all that jazz and realise I’m seriously under stocked. No water at all for my morning coffee and more energy sapping out of me whilst I dance around the tent in order to warm up, I pack my kit up within an ever reducing timeframe, check my position and skate off to the nearest town listed in desperate search of my morning coffee. 5km later it transpires that this town consists of two houses and a goat trying to enter me into a staring competition. I give it my best shot but the guy had some serious talent. I cope with the failure, still content with the previous day’s accomplishments and skate to the next town, again, not worth listing on a map and getting me nowhere near my caffeine. Zoom out. Saint-Omer-du-blain. Got it! 4km, one road, happy days I can smell the not so delicious aroma of the cheapest freeze friend coffee I could find in the previous day’s supply run – maxwell house – I suggest you try it, if I don’t like you that is. I arrive, are inside the extortionately prices local shop and swallow the price of a single orange and a bottle of water. Wind blowing hard, I find a break to aid the efficiency of my stove and summon up a barrel of bitter black brew which, in my state, was still more than satisfying. Contemplating my problem solving efforts it suddenly dawn on me that I’ve skated a lot already, shit! I’m skating! No gravel! My concentration on the coffee run had overshadows that I am now able to skate adjacent roads to the canal at double the speed of the trodge, making good progress on the remaining 60km to Nantes. But it’s not 60km anymore as I’m not following the low lands of the canal path, I’m now almost as the crow flies. 50km left? 40? I don’t care. I’ve got a litre of caffeine in me, an extremely overpriced croissant and I ready to push on an hour later, still unable to disturb my family back in the UK due to the early hour and the timezone difference. Into the much large town of Blain a further 6km and out into the stick for what seemed like a whole day in its own accord. The roads are kind, the traffic is non existent, I puff, I pant. The green turns grey, the trees become brickwork and the next time I check my GPS, I’m only 11km from the centre of Nantes. How far have I travelled? I no longer care. I’m not interested in facts and figures anymore but my milestone and the simple fact that, after all, I’m still on my way to ibiza.