Duisburg (Germany) to Amsterdam, 440km; total 7,755km
For a while, we thought maybe the marijuana just wafts permanently through the Dutch air, gradually building up in your system until you suddenly begin imagining things.
After winding whimsically through the corn fields, maple trees and charming brick-bungalow villages of the southern Netherlands all afternoon, we were expecting to arrive at Camping de Lievelinge with the usual rows of motor homes and cabins, a small patch of grass for tents - hopefully some shade, a table and a place to swim.
Instead we seemed to pass through some kind of sci-fi alternate-universe bubble, emerging and into a psychedelic dreamland in the woods.
First thing we saw was a full-sized amusement-park spinning swings ride, hundreds of lightbulbs flashing and carnival music cranked to full blast. Funky tea-candle lanterns hung from trees with brightly painted trunks. There were no trailer homes - but elaborate, vividly coloured yurts; tiny wooden homestead cabins covered in trinkets and surrounded by wildly alive flower gardens; and (of course) rainbow-painted school buses converted to summer residences with streamers of Tibetan prayer flags.
A bushy-grey-bearded man with a top hat, badge-covered leather vest, sequined tanktop and knee-high leather boots drove a standard-issue campground cart with two enormous speakers and a load of firewood. His assistant wore no shoes, an army-green Australian outback hat, and what looked like a canvas-sack poncho. Half the campers mulling around the outdoor bar and humongous fire pit looked like any regular folk at a summer music festival; the other half looked like they’d come for a re-enactment of Woodstock. A group of kids whizzed past riding in a toy wagon - one with a crow resting on his forearm. Two elderly women in flowing dresses approached us one point later that evening with looks of consternation - we thought we’d taken their table or were drinking our beverages the wrong way, but they were seeking a lighter to start up their joint.
It took an hour for our eyes (after visiting the shower block lit like a neon-pink-themed nightclub) and brains to adjust to camping in a Tim Burton movie set. We half expected to be escorted to our site by a talking rabbit checking his timepiece, but instead we had to stake out a small claim in the middle of a bustling tent city - next to a beer hut, a soaring leafy treehouse with thin cloth drapes, a double-decker bus straight out of London, and an artificial lake with a rickety wooden diving platform in the middle, a dozen heads bobbing and nattering away.
It was perfect.
This contrast in campgrounds was actually in keeping with our whole week - the last with our Yukon bike-buddies the McConnells - in a fascinating country of sharply distinct sides. Miles of flat cornfields and canals suddenly gave way to windy sea coast with tall, rolling dunes. Bike paths and cyclists are abundantly everywhere - but if you’re not following the rules of the bike road, get ready for trouble. There were moments of pure exhilaration and also of unexpected challenges. And we met some of the most welcoming, patient and laid-back people in Europe - and also some of the grumpiest.
Just before crossing the border, we got a last taste of funky Germany, stumbling upon an organic outdoor health “spa” in Xanten’s town park. A striking rectangular structure - six metres tall, two wide and 12 long - is covered with a mossy plant dripping with moisture and crusted with salt. Benches beneath allow visitors to aim in the refreshing, replenishing “sea air” seeping out. Nearby, a knee-height pool with grooved bottom and neighbouring pits of bark chips, jagged stones and other materials are for sensory foot therapy. Ideal for weary cyclists in the increasing summer heat.
Again we passed into a new country without noticing for several kilometres until we saw the license plates had a little “NL” instead of “D”. Soon afterward we were entering our first Dutch city, Arnhem - like a mystical bicycle Candyland.
Immediately we were swept up in the bustling traffic on the “bike highway” - a direct, uninterrupted yellow-brick road (actually red asphalt) across the city that cars are required to yield to, with its own bike roundabouts and signed exits onto lesser routes. It was liberating to pedal fast and freely, yet daunting and a bit stressful with all the serious cycle commuters hurrying on their way past the meandering, gawking Canadian newbies.
Indeed, our unruly gaggle of eight riders had grown accustomed to having these marvellous European paths largely to ourselves. So we struggled at first to tighten our formation (the boys love riding two or three abreast to keep up their animated conversations) and learn the new rules of the road in the land where cyclists rule.
With such a complex web of trails, we often needed to stop to get our bearings, piling up and clogging the narrow path. Then we would understandably encounter angry-sounding ding-dings, shaking heads and sometimes fierce tongue-lashings we couldn’t understand - to which we could only answer (in perfect Dutch) “Sorry!” We also got earfuls if we wandered off the prescribed bikeways onto pedestrian streets (Ed was pulled over by the politie in Arnhem and given a stern first warning - saved from harsher punishment by the helmet showing his naive foreigner status), and especially if we leaned our bikes against the wrong building at a bakery stop. Given the briliantly ample, well-planned bike parking racks at every turn, there’s no excuse to mark up someone’s wall with your handlebar tape. But with over 80,000 bikes in Amsterdam alone, we frequently found racks stuffed full, and mostly designed for kickstand-equipped varieties without all our wide loads of panniers. So we often found ourselves craning our heads for somewhere to park - a curious turnabout from bike life back in Canada where we lock up against any pole and giggle at drivers desperately seeking spots.
In this strange new world of bicycle domination, we were struck by the extraordinary patience and chill of the grand majority of Dutch travellers - in cars as on bikes. Driving must be tough in a place where bikes are prioritized in urban design and yielding rights - but we met nary a grumpy or impatient driver, and in fact were graciously waved ahead even when we didn’t have the right of way.
Meanwhile, the intense volume of cycle traffic on constantly criss-crossing paths surely must lead to countless crashes and derailleur-benders. But aside from the few path-rage moments we caused, we watched bikers and walkers interact with efficient anticipation of each other’s movements. In the odd instance of a near-miss or little bump between bikes or biker-walker, both culprits would stop, check in and touch hand to shoulder to ensure alles is goed before moving on. It’s an impressive culture of care and respect between strangers that we could use more in North America.
Once back in the countryside, we could spread out again a bit, though we were never alone. Even more than other places we’ve visited in Europe so far, elderly couples cycle lovingly together (the Dutch way of cycling with one’s sweetheart is to rest one hand on your darling’s arm while pedaling), on daily errands or just out for a rip (in the Netherlands, though, they’re still old-school hardcore on non-electric bikes). In Oosterbeek, one older couple slowed down after passing us, to suggest a visit to the church where the scars of a showdown between Germans and retreating English soldiers in 1944 are still starkly visible. Hearing our Canadian accents, the older generation of Dutch shift right to the war and our forefathers’ role in liberating the Netherlands from the Nazis. So we were warmly welcomed at the tiny church, shown the bullethole in the bible and told the story of the bitter battle centred around this hamlet. Standing on the same soil as these young men once did, likely scared stiff but valiantly fighting on, was a humbling lesson in gratitude for living where and when we do - and in appreciating the sheer stupidity of humans killing humans over tracts of land as lovely and peaceful as this one.
Having our bike-family pals with us was especially sweet this week. Micah and Jonah first spotted the 24-metre-high waterslide at the WipeOut park in Zoelen, and without them Ed might have been outvoted for giving it a try. But the three daredevils convinced Heron to join, and after five turns plummeting in near-freefall down the watery bobsled halfpipe like a rollercoaster without the seatbelt, our bellies were sufficiently queasy for the rest of the day.
Tommy hit full stride this week, pedaling right on Ed’s heels at the front of the pack and shouting regular encouragement - “Doin’ a great job, Ed!”. He can be found up before everyone else, unlocking his bike to ride laps around the campground, calling “Let’s go, my boyeees!” to his sleepy teenaged biking buddies. Tommy’s enthusiasm waned as we turned onto the long straightaway toward the North Sea and met a ferocious headwind along the last stretch of Rhine, But when we finally reached the Hoek of Holland and bounded into the saltwater waves - having followed the famous river from its source in the Alps to its mouth at the sea - his elation at achieving this remarkable feat - 1,400km over three weeks in his first bike tour - was a giddy spectacle all to itself.
Before our paths split as our friends flew back to Canada, we enjoyed a few days cycling along the North Sea dunes, witnessing the ingenuity of Dutch water management at Kinderdijk, surfing in clouds of seaweed at Sheveningen, dining on sweet and savoury Dutch pancakes in Haarlem, taking a break day to tour fabulous Amsterdam (by boat, by wheel and by foot), and encountering the full force of Dutch summer holiday crowds - with campgrounds so packed we wound up stuffed in tent ghettos, crammed up against hedges and (generously on one desperate occasion) squished next to a 15-foot metal ocean buoy next to an entrance gate.
But our friend Chrissy always has a way to find the fun in adversity, laughing off our ridiculous camp spots, muttering witty comebacks to bike-ragers, and encouraging us to make time every evening to unwind.
At Camping de Lievelinge, we had a beer amongst the chill chaos next to the huge firepit, while the resident kids showed Tommy, Sitka and the other boys how to coax Harry the domesticated crow onto their arms for a visit. Then we returned to our site in tent city, where the dude in the top hat had brought those speakers to the beach for the community’s regular trance music night, several more fires ablaze as campers gathered to stare at the sunset.
The groovy, heavy vibes became sweet white noise to which we contentedly fell fast asleep in this cyclists’ paradise where we don’t just belong - we rule.
As we turned in for the night, our camp’s Mad Hatter patted Ed on the shoulder.
“Welcome home, brother.”