The flames from the open fire provide a flickering light as the smoke from the huge wok fills the tent, encouraging the clouds of midges to find somewhere else to huddle. Lightening flashes across the sky behind us. Thunder follows, as the warm rain batters down. With a smile, we are handed a plate to share. Nepalese curry, crafted of part British Army rations and part local supplies. This isn’t how I remember any Army operations. The Gurkhas clearly know how to look after themselves. Even in West Sussex.
Debbie posted on Explorers Connect looking for other people who wanted to bike and bivvy the South Downs Way, after some other plans she had for the summer fell through. Agreeing to ride with some people I had never met sounds like a good way of committing to the trip so I sign up. After a few emails making arrangements, Harry, Moritz, Debbie and I all meet up at Winchester station on a sunny Friday lunchtime.
After navigating our way out of Winchester’s ridiculous one way system (great for keeping cars out to the centre of town, not so great for actually finding your way anywhere on a bike), passing along the trail that runs alongside a main road and getting lost again, we are eventually on our way up gravel tracks towards the South Downs.
The beginning of a ride is always hard work, as the legs try to remember what they’re meant to be doing, readjusting to the weight of a loaded bike. We have a couple of mechanicals to sort out and stop at a pub for a drink and to cool our feet in the stream.
[Photo from Debbie]
Along the way we think we may have spotted a rare species…
We haven’t really made it very far on day 1, but have only been riding since mid afternoon. Tomorrow will be a bigger day. As the light fades, we look for somewhere to sleep, eventually hiding away in the corner of a farmer’s field as the sun sets.
A short ride after setting off again, we come across QECP (Queen Elizabeth Country Park) and decide that it must already be time for a little coffee and cake stop. It seems there is a charity walk that has just started, with hundreds of participants walking continuously through the day and overnight to arrive at Brighton the following morning, whilst raising money for the Gurka Welfare Trust. We spend the rest of the day dodging many people on the trail as it undulates its way eastwards.
[Photo from Moritz]
We all have quite different setups for carrying our gear. Harry has a rear rack with two small panniers, a drybag strapped under his saddle (which could equally sit on top of the rack) and a rucksack. His 1995 Kona Cinder Cone came from eBay for just £200.
Moritz is riding his supercool urban Scott Sportster. Despite the skinny tyres, the big wheels and suspension fork handle the trail pretty well. I don’t fancy carrying a rucksack that size whilst mountain biking, but Moritz is young, strong and fast, and it doesn’t seem to hold him back!
I’ve got the usual bikepacking setup, but in an attempt to ride without a rucksack, am trying out a lumbar pack. Yup, thats right. Its a lumbar pack. Its definitely not a bumbag. Absolutely not.
[Photo from Debbie]
If the main triangle of my Nerve was bigger and without the rear shock, I could probably get everything into a frame bag. But as it is, I can’t completely do away with carrying something on my back on this bike.
At one point Moritz takes a tumble, sprains his wrist and takes a chunk out of his knee. We have an extended lunch at the next pub, patch up his knee and help the pub landlady sit with an elderly lady who has fallen and suffered a huge gash in her forehead until the ambulance arrives.
[Photo from Moritz]
By the time we are ready to leave again, most of the walkers that we have overtaken have passed us again, and it has started to rain. The Downs are chalk and water falling from the sky produces a surface layer like ice – treacherous and in places unrideable. We squirm along the trail, slipping and sliding as we keep our fingers crossed that the rain isn’t here to stay.
Dotted along the trail are checkpoints run by the Gurkhas and Oxfam providing tea and snacks for the walkers. By the time we get to the checkpoint at Amberley, it is raining hard. We shelter in the Oxfam tea tent and contemplate our next move. The rain is really coming down and we have a couple of hours of light left. We need somewhere to bivvy but the map shows an absence of woodland on the trail ahead. I for one clearly didn’t look at the forecast closely enough – the thunder storm that appears to be settling in for the night is something of a surprise.
Rather randomly, Debbie realises that she knows the Gurkha site commander, who very hospitably offers us a tent for the night if we need it. It doesn’t quite feel in the spirit of our original plan so we decide to push on to the next small bit of woodland marked on the map to see if we can find a spot to camp. We only have poles for one tarp and so really need trees in order to pitch the second. The rain is heavy and the thought of four of us squeezing in under one tarp for the night becomes less and less appealing when compared to nice big British Army tent waiting for us back in Amberley. So after a quick scout around proves fairly fruitless, we head back to the Gurkhas.
And so we find ourselves in a smoke filled (and therefore midge free) tent, sharing Gurkha curry cooked up on a huge wok above a fire contained in a vehicle drip tray. The Gurkhas have to be the most polite and friendly people in the British Army, at least of those I’ve come across, and they certainly know how look after themselves. They were more than happy to give us a tent for the night, which was certainly better than hunkering down under a tarp in the thunderstorm that stayed for the night.
Moritz needs to take care of his wrist and knee (which the medics at the checkpoint tended to the previous night, and which seems to be a little worse than we had realised) to avoid jeopardizing a sailing trip in a few weeks time. Debbie’s legs are suffering, having been off the bike for a few weeks with an injury and, for some unexplained reason I have had the worst saddle sore I’ve ever experienced, despite my nice comfy Brooks saddle. It appears that only Harry isn’t suffering in some way. He is a machine. It is pretty clear that we probably won’t make it to Eastbourne today so we take the easy decision to quit whilst we’re ahead and end the ride early. Although we’ve been with the Army overnight, this isn’t meant to be a beasting and getting to Eastbourne today doesn’t seem to be the fun option. So we head off for breakfast in Amberley and an early train home, happy with a day and a half of beautiful views and riding bikes.
*Harry has a bit of a thing about Konas.