From Strangers to Friends on the European Divide Trail
When Jacob Martin couldn’t find anyone to join him for his three-month ride of the European Divide Trail, he committed to setting out on the 4,700-mile route on his own. As luck would have it, he met a fellow bikepacker on the very first day, and the pair navigated the entirety of the route together. See Jacob’s story of finding friendship on the trail and a lovely set of 35mm film photos here…
Words and photos by Jacob Martin (@mid_nowhere)
I was sitting looking out across the Arctic Ocean just a couple of hundred metres away from Russia. It was a weird place, with military lookouts on the hills on either side of the valley. This was Grense Jakobselv, the furthest northeast corner of Europe and the start of the European Divide Trail.
I was having lunch after a dip in the cold sea with my mate Max. He was the only person I could find bold enough to join me. He was going to be with me for the first three weeks, and then it was just me. Or I thought it was going to be just me, anyway.
Unbelievably, not long after we’d sat down, another bikepacker turned up. As soon as I saw her, I knew where she was going, but I asked anyway, not really believing this would happen. “Portugal,” she replied. Then, half an hour or so later, the three of us pointed our bikes south and started cycling.
I stumbled across the European Divide Trail route when it was first published here on BIKEPACKING.com. From the moment I saw it, I knew I wanted to do it. But, in my head, I put it in the “too big for now but maybe one day” box. It never quite seemed like it’d become a reality and stayed swirling around in my head. I told many people about it, and somewhere along the line, “this would be cool” turned into “I’m going to do this.”
Eventually, I had told enough people I was going to do it that I couldn’t back out. So, I booked my flights and was committed. I then went about trying to convince anyone and everyone I knew to join me. Many were “keen,” but only Max seemed like he was going to join for any part of it.
We pedalled away from the coast of Norway and into the forests of Finland. Within hours, we met a group of cycle tourers with whom we rode a day. It was strange going from just Max and I feeling alone out there to riding along in a pack of six.
Anna, Max, and I continued off the tarmac and onto the dirt tracks wiggling into the forests. By this point, we’d only known each other for fewer than 48 hours, but we were already very much a team. Each evening, we would camp together. Usually not far off the route and often with a little fire to help keep the insects away.
Sections of the route seemed to be broken up by when the next shop was. Sometimes only a day away, but sometimes as much as three. How much food we needed to get to the next shop was always on our minds. Only once did it really become an issue; it was a Monday, and we’d been aiming for a particular shop all day. I remember it being one of the harder days, and we were tired and ready for the luxury of a good resupply. However, when we turned up at the shop, we found it closed, dropping our morale another notch.
We decided to carry on and live with what we had. We would have enough food, but it would be a low day. However, only a short time into the next morning, we bumped into Martin and Karin, who were riding the same section of the trail but heading north. They were the loveliest Dutch couple who, over the years, had cycled 100,000 kilometres together. Very kindly, they insisted we have their packet of biscuits and chocolate bar. That saved us that day. Morale was back up, and we got to a shop for a resupply that evening.
We met a fair few other bikepackers up in the north. Among them was Steve, from New Zealand, who we met on about the fifth day. He started the trail a couple of days behind us and caught up one morning as we filled water from the river. We cycled with him on and off all the way to Gothenburg.
Sweden seemed like an endless forest. However, it never got monotonous. New friends, cabins to stay in, and cooking on open fires every evening kept it fun. Seeing reindeer and moose and hearing wolves in the night kept it exciting, too, as did my desire to spot a bear (we never did).
As planned, Max left us after three weeks. I’m so glad he was there to start the adventure. I’d have struggled to get to the start line on my own. Thanks, Max. Then, another week later, after I’d had some issues with my bike, we were spat out of the forests and found ourselves in the beautiful city of Gothenburg.
It felt weird leaving the north. Anna and I chatted as we left Gothenburg on the ferry. It felt like the end of a trip but also like we’d barely started this long journey.
We rolled off the ferry into Denmark with the same excitement as if we were starting a whole new adventure. As much as we enjoyed the forests of Sweden, it was nice to be in a different landscape. It was good to see different architecture and find out how delicious the pastries were here.
The central section starts very flat across Denmark and into northern Germany. The hills start somewhere just outside of Hanover, getting bigger and bigger before turning to mountains by the time you get to Spain. But with most things in life, the more up and down, the more interesting it gets. And the mountains here were no different.
We found Germany challenging. There were many parts of the trail that were unrideable, the main one being a two-kilometre section with hundreds upon hundreds of fallen trees across the track. After hours of lifting our heavy bikes over them, Anna tripped as she crossed the very last one, falling right on her knee and her bike landing on top of her. She was lucky to come away with just a large cut.
Finding drinking water was another thing we found difficult in Germany. Through Scandinavia, we could fill our water straight from the rivers. And, in France and Spain, most villages have a water tap. However, in Germany, we couldn’t do either, and on many occasions, we had to spend a lot of time searching for water.
The mountains of France were amazing. The Vosges and Jura were quite the surprise, and we enjoyed our days there. One of the parts I particularly loved was the refuges in the mountains. During one stretch in France, we didn’t put our tents up for almost a week as there were places to stay each night, occasionally hiding away inside as thunder and lightning shook the night outside.
The south was hot. Very hot. Up to 45°C (113°F) and over some days. There were a few times when it became unbearable, but as we’d started in the north and slowly moved into the heat, we’d at least somewhat acclimatised, making it more tolerable than I had imagined.
The first sighting of the Mediterranean was exciting. It was as far as I ever thought I might get on the trip when I thought I’d be riding alone, but we still had a month to go. Portugal was very much in sight at that point.
We crossed into Catalonia at the start of August, climbing into the Pyrenees and over the border one beautiful evening. We would take any opportunity to jump into the water down there: rivers and reservoirs and the tiniest fountain pools in the mountains. There were times we saw rivers on the map, but when we got there, we found only dried-up river beds. Other times, we found the most perfectly clear waters in the middle of nowhere.
The centre of Spain actually felt a lot more remote than the far reaches of Finland and Sweden. Here is where the mountains of the trip were. The distance we travelled each day dropped dramatically. One day, we only managed 16 kilometres before we decided we couldn’t do any more and stopped for the night at the refuge we’d been aiming for the day before.
Refugi Dels Cogullons was the best place we could have been shut down. We managed to find enough of a trickle of water from a nearby spring to fill our bottles, and the sunrise and sunset from up there were possibly the best of the trip.
We continued on through beautiful but barren mountains and in and out of often surprisingly bustling little villages. We tried to wake early so we could take a siesta during the hottest hours of the day, though we often slept in way longer than we should have.
There was constant change throughout the trip: culture, language, architecture, what food was available in the shops, the cars people drove. Every big and small difference was fascinating to me. Travelling from where it is too cold for things to grow to where it is too hot for anything to survive. From being hundreds of kilometres from the nearest town all the way to the centre of large wildly busy cities like Cologne and Hamburg.
Unfortunately, the change wasn’t always positive. I remember writing in my notebook, “Civilisation isn’t civilised,” when I could no longer drink the water from the rivers or leave my bike on its own outside a shop. It was reinforced when we travelled between wealth and poverty, when there was a woman in a supermarket having to put half her things back as she didn’t have enough money while we bought endless amounts of food to fuel this adventure we had so much privilege to be on.
Then, our final big change came. The air cooled as we neared the Atlantic, and we crossed into Portugal. We were sad the adventure was almost over but, at the same time, very much ready for rest. It would be nice to carry on forever, we thought, but the value of going away only exists if you return.
The route that Andy Cox has put together is quite extraordinary. So many times, we were blown away by how he had found these special little trails in such obscure places. It seems like he must have ridden every piece of trial in Europe to find these perfect patches of dirt. I’m not even sure how it was possible.
There were imperfections, of course, and parts that required detours, as the trail didn’t exist or the horrible 100-metre section in Portugal that took a whole hour to get up. But, really, these frustrating parts added to the adventure now that I look back at them.
We cycled from the north to the south, mostly as we thought it might be downhill all the way like that. We travelled through Scandinavia early in the season, so we missed the worst of the mosquitoes that others going north had serious issues with. And, as mentioned, it was incredibly hot in the south. But, by the time we got there, we had gotten a lot more used to the heat since temperatures became progressively warmer the whole trip. North-south or south-north is a hard one to get right, and both options have their benefits, but I would stick to what we did if I had to make the choice again.
It was quite easy to get to the start. You could have done it overland with a series of trains and ferries as Anna had hoped to do. Unfortunately, it comes at quite a cost and uses up a number of the limited days we’re allowed in the Schengen visa area with our passports.
So, flying was the only feasible option for us. There are plenty of flights from Oslo to the tiny Kirkenes airport. This puts you about half a day’s ride from the start at Grense Jakobselv. It’s a very lovely half a day too.
We were slightly delayed when our bikes did not turn up on our plane, but they finally arrived nine hours later on the next flight. Kirkenes has everything you may need. There’s a friendly bike shop that Anna got help from, and the petrol stations stocked gas canisters and alcohol for Trangia stoves.
Three months or so after setting off with a stranger, I arrived in the opposite corner of the continent with one of my best friends. If you’d asked me my wildest dreams for this trip, finding someone to cycle with every day from the very start would not have even been something I’d thought possible. That idea was far too wild. But, such turned out to be my experience, and it was the best thing that could possibly have happened. I’m not sure where I’d have ended up had I been on my own, but I certainly wouldn’t have made it all the way to Portugal. Thank you, Anna.
I took all the photos from the trip on 35mm film on an Olympus XA. In my opinion, it’s possibly the ideal bikepacking camera. I have made a photo book showing the full story of the trip. It’s available on my website, which is linked in the bio below.
Make sure to dig into these related articles for more info...
Please keep the conversation civil, constructive, and inclusive, or your comment will be removed.