In June 2019 I decided to put my bikepacking ambitions to the test and travel overseas with my own bike, camping gear and test my ability in unfamiliar territory. I don’t remember why I chose Basque Country in Northern Spain but I was looking for somewhere where I could ride 90% of the time off road and stealth camp along the way. I was nervous about riding alone in mountain ranges but left enough days in my trip to be flexible. I don’t like racing or keeping to a tight schedule, I’m more of a wanderer and like my days to involve many rest breaks and time to explore areas. I had no idea what I was in for – but I was ready to enter into the unknown like a true explorer.
Train from Barcelona to Bilbao
After five days of partying or recovering with backpackers in Barcelona, I jumped on a train and found myself on the other side of the country. Welcome to Bilbao, Basque Country – Spain. The beginning of my solo bikepacking adventure. I didn’t expect to be blown away by Bilbao because it isn’t as well known compared to San Sebastian but the architecture was special, especially in old town and I ended up liking it way more than Barcelona or San Seb. It also has a lot of modern artwork mixed in with the old. I stayed with Warmshowers host Saioa, who helped me prepare for the trip ahead. Saioa and her husband were also cycle tourers and had travelled extensively through Europe.
I need a bike shop!
I had to find a bike shop to help me fix my bike as it came off the plane in rough shape and one of the tyres had come off the rim spreading tubeless tyre goop through all my stuff. Just by sheer luck, I walked into the only Surly Distributor in the region, Cyclos La Ferro, to get my bike repaired after the plane ride. It was like walking into a parallel universe mirroring my local bike shop @cyclesbespoke – the mechanic looked and dressed like Brad @ride_that_trail and he even rides a yellow Karate Monkey. What are the chances!
Bilbao – it’s all just uphill from here (Day 1)
I was so nervous the day I left. My first aim was to ride out of the city and towards Mt Gorbea. I started feeling a bit of a head cold before I left and almost called it off but I knew I just had to give it a go. Bilbao has steep hills – something I wasn’t used to coming from Perth. I rode an open air escalator designed to just help pedestrians up the street. I took my bike even though it was the wrong direction for me just so I could bomb down from the top. On my way towards Mt Gorbea, I hit Mountain Bike country. Every now and then through the endless forest, a mountain biker would pass me. One stopped and we had a chat in my basic Spanish. He wished me luck and told me he thinks I’m a super hero! What a compliment!
Mt Gorbea is just ridiculous (Day 2, 3)
Up Mt Gorbea was a true test of my wild camping skills, my very little Spanish and my heart and body while riding this very mountainous region. The aim is to hit three national parks and I can now claim I’ve ridden up the highest mountain in Spain – Mt Gorbea. Lesson learnt: Do not attempt to hit the peak of Mt Gorbea from the Northern side no matter what map someone online has uploaded. There were a few slippery moments, including the moment – I thought this was the end of me. Thank god for a couple of “mountain men” appearing out of the mist who grabbed my bike and my exhausted body and led me around the other side (without hitting the peak). They didn’t speak English but we understood each other perfectly well – That I was “loco”. I also couldn’t see two metres in front of me, all I could hear through the mist were bells from farm animals let loose on the mountain. Every couple of hours felt like I was in a completely different place but mostly it had a “Silent Hill” vibe… without the silence. The mountain men took me to some really old houses around the peak. These looked very old. Even more strange, I seemed to have walked into a End of Financial Year party. There were people drinking champagne! Some of them spoke English and we had a great chat. They told me the way to go and warned me not to go the way I was intending while the fog was bad.
Writing this from the future – I have forgiven myself for riding the wrong road down (the suggested road by these party-goers), putting me back a day. But at the time, I was quite sad to have not made it to the downhill track. The bonus is that I found myself in a completely different forest at the foothills and camped on some wild track that looks like it hasn’t been used in a long time. I didn’t really have a structured plan to start with and I have found bikepacking anywhere requires a high degree of flexibility. Just keep moving.
Down Mt Gorbea into the unknown (and unplanned)
Down Mt Gorbea – I’ve learnt so much in the last four days; mainly how to survive without the ability to communicate, not understanding little culture cues either, rationing water and food, pushing my body and bike to way past my known limit, getting lost often and camping in completely unfamiliar territory.
I’ve got many days to go and many more mountains to climb. So far, so worth it.
Vía Verde del FC Vasco – Greenway Rail Trail to Vitoria-Gasteiz (Day 4)
I made it to Vitoria! I rode the highway for a bit which was nerve wracking and then some old country roads, then I found a “greenway” which is a bike track that heads straight into the city.
That night I woke up in my accommodation to silence – thinking about the bells on the mountain! The bells will haunt me. I spent 3 days listening to them – they are around the necks of sheep, cows, horses, goats… donkeys! In the mist there are bells. Now I’m in Vitoria, on the plains, surrounded by buildings and people… I kind of miss them.
Vitoria to Leorza via another Green way and then some MTB tracks (Day 5)
Heading east out of Vitoria, the land changed – it felt more like the arid desert and sand that I expected Spain to be like. This was supposed to be the easy part but my headcold started to get the better of me (damn backpackers!) and soon I was pushing my bike up hills feeling like I was going to pass out. It was threatening to end my tour but I just happened to stumble upon a blog website https://www.bizipozatours.com/ while researching the next days in Vitoria the night before. The blogger was Phil, a Scottish guy who has lived in Basque Country for the last 20 years, had a property, a bnb and some eccentric hobbies including a passion for long multi-day treks with donkeys and he lived about half way of my intended day’s ride. This guy pretty much saved me. As I stumbled into his farmhouse in Leorza (which looked more like a place out of mountainous Turkey with the light coloured sand and limestone gorges, than where I was 2 days prior), I was feeling like death. The generosity and complete openness of him and his friends Diego and Urmana managed to keep me alive – or at least conscious. Phil’s incredible knowledge of Basque history and culture gave me context of my experiences so far.
Making friends at Phil’s house
The Spanish language is generally a second language for most people in Basque Country. The Basque language is one of the oldest languages in the world and was forbidden for many years up to the 1970s. But there were secret societies keeping it alive and now (not without fighting and casualties) Basque is now widely used.
So I think I’m forgiven when I try and speak my broken Spanish with people. I learnt Spanish 12 years ago when volunteering in Peru but haven’t had the chance to speak it since. It felt easy after attempting Japanese for 10 years of school. Sometimes when I’m speaking it, it kind of just falls out, too fast for me to translate it back to English (for myself). I think learning at 17 years old was just early enough that it feels natural – that I can understand things and say things I didn’t even know I could. A lot of the time, people will reply to me in broken English – but I struggle to switch back so we have this weird conversation where they speak broken English and I speak broken Spanish. I was tired and we were talking around the dinner table and I said something and Urmana goes “what?” And I go “oh shit, I think that’s Japanese. It’s time for bed,” to the slightly horrified faces of everyone else in the room.
I stayed an extra day to recover and explore Phil’s many eccentric hobbies (including bee keeping!) and amazing owner-built (and also eccentric) house. On the 3rd day Phil gave me a lift up to the top of the next pass to put me back on track to Urbasa Natural Park. Urbasa Natural Park is a strange looking plateau, once up the sheer high cliff side – it’s flat for 20-30 kms before dropping back down. And this place is ancient. It feels so secret and I felt so close to the sky. Or maybe I was just going crazy with fatigue? I was so happy up here.
A lift to Urbasa-Andia Plateau and then a ride along the sky (Day 8, 9)
When I woke up this morning, maybe being so high up has made me feel like this but I felt amazing! Even the bells on all the random farm animals made me happy (thanks for the 8am alarm clock Mrs cow who thought my tent was some juicy grass). The ride across the plateau, stopping every 10 mins to drink in the view (and some erratic zig-zagging looking for water) and then the steep fast long downhill back to the villages made me grin ear to ear. Except for the bit when a swooping vulture (lucky I could smell it before I could see it) and I almost collided at 50km/hr…
**Note: the only water I found on Urbasa was at a little tap hidden under some concrete right in the middle of the plateau. My water finding skills were developing (of course there would be no water running on something so flat!)
I had all the time in the world every day I was riding. There is no chasing the sun in Spain during summer. It’s up until 10pm so it’s more about waiting for it to set. It doesn’t seem to be dark long enough to get cold either. Perfect touring weather but it was a little exhausting waiting for dark so I could stealth camp. My riding days were long and filled with lots of breaks from the bike to explore and chase random animals. At one point riding through the forest in Urbasa, there was a crashing sound through the bush as if I had scared a kangaroo. Turns out it was a deer. They sound really similar. But this is definitely not Australia!
Making more friends and skirting around the Aralar Mountains (Day 10)
Down from Urbasa, I found myself riding on some back roads for a while at the foothills of Aralar National Park for a while. I had originally planned to ride back up into the mountains, but my Mt Gorbea near death experience made me think twice… and I finally felt like I was getting less sicker! While riding and in my own thoughts, a boy jumped out of the bushes and started yelling at me in broken Spanish from the other side of the path. I knew the word for help so I identified I wasn’t being mugged and stopped and came over to him, turns out he was a cycle tourer from France and he had a flat tyre and couldn’t fix it himself. His bike was really old and the tyre pretty much had deteriorated beyond repair. He was carrying so much stuff and our conversation was difficult because we had to speak in slow Spanish and English because I know absolutely no French. I found out he was only 23 and lives permanently on his bike. I felt like I was talking to the real deal! I asked him so many questions about his life and we shared our food and cups of tea for a couple of hours. He ended up staying where he was for the night but I wanted to keep moving as the day was long from over. I kept riding a Camino (The French Way) and then finding the flat boring (I know! – who am I?), and with a lot more energy from making a new friend I decided to ride up a mountain instead of taking the easy route. That night I slept just outside of a mountain town overlooking the township under these weird looking trees I keep finding – they look like they should be on another planet (I’ll upload a photo). I fell asleep to the sound of all sorts of weird noises – possibly foxes or wolves – and the many sounds of the town echoing off the mountains surrounding it.
Via Verde del Plazaola (Lekunberri to a secret waterfall) (Day 11)
The next day I found the most beautiful Green Way Rail Trail you could ever hope for! If you AREN’T the type of person to go on a two week bikepacking/camping adventure but you do find yourself in Basque Country. Do yourself the biggest favour and hire a bike and ride the 60km Plazaola Via Verde (Rail Trail)! Do yourself an even bigger favour and make sure you head north towards San Sebastián for that slight decline the entire way. Just when I thought I had seen it all and now I’m on the flat land, it’s going to get boring. NOPE! This ride is like a fairytale. The entire route is covered in greenery, more than I have ever seen in one place and it goes through about 50 rock or concrete train tunnels ranging from a 20m long to 2.7km!! Just when I was wondering why did I bother bringing my torch if the sun is up until 10pm… not all the tunnels are lit with lights. I hope you aren’t afraid of the dark! And some of them have vines crawling up the inside making the entire place wet. I’ve seen waterfalls, moss covered bridges, black cliffs with vines hanging down, green on green on green. Is this Spain? Nobody told me this was what Spain was!
About 7:30pm and half way, I decided to start looking for a camp spot – I wandered up this little track off to the side and followed it until I came to a small canyon, put my bike down and wandered 10m further around the corner into a waterfall. My own private waterfall at my campsite. A swim (shower), then soup and then bed. Couldn’t have asked for more 🙂
The insane mountains between Andoain and San Seb (Day 12)
The next day: As much as that rail trail to San Sebastián would have been nice – of course my map (from bikepacking.com *warning*) only took me half the way and then veered off and took me back into the mountains for some intense and stupidly dangerous climbing Singletrack in the rain. I had to lift my loaded bike over a dozen tree trunks, skull drag my bike up washouts, I crashed on a short slippery descent and smashed my phone and tore up my arms. I was covered in mud, blood, thorns and drenched to the bone. My battery packs were dead, my GoPro was dead, I had ran out of snacks and at once point just screamed at the forest through the mist. But this track did give me amazing panoramic views of the ocean and San Sebastián city before descending so steep that my brakes were a pretty much useless. But today reminded me:
Bikepacking is not cycle touring, it’s mountain biking. And if it doesn’t hurt – it’s not worth my time.
San Sebastian-Donostia (Day 13, 14, 15)
I finally made it to San Sebastian for a 3 day break. Crazy enough, an old school friend was in a nearby town so I met up with her and her friends. It was really nice to socialize. I have found, even though I have spoken to a few locals throughout my trip so far, that Basque people are generally more reserved than other places I have travelled and it made me feel quite isolated, even in rural villages where I would have expected to meet more people. Most of the time people just looked at me from afar with judgemental expressions rather than smiles. For somebody from Western Australia who is used to strangers saying hello to you all the time and curious locals asking about my bike set-up or where I came from – it was very different. I never felt lonely but I definitely felt out of place or vulnerable. My theory is that the Basque population has had a pretty brutal (relatively recent) history with their own country and then throw just the stereotypical European “reservedness” in the mix. After 3 days in San Sebastian, the crowds got too much for this bikepacker and I set off as early as I could.
But did you die? Camino Del Norte (Day 15, 16)
“Coastlines are flat, it will be a cruisy finish” – said nobody ever, except for me, 14 days ago. Anyone who decides to walk to Camino Del Norte (The Northern Way) is insane let alone me thinking I can bounce between that hiking trail and a coastal (equal to a black run) mountain bike trail. I’m probably doubly insane. That was stupid. 20kg+ non-suspension loaded bike, going up a walking track that even in one section the hikers use a rope to help them to the top. What was I thinking?! I was thinking “coastlines are flat”. They aren’t. After a couple 40 degree Celsius days and some “almost crying” I almost made it through – except the one section I needed to jump on the highway, was closed. I took two trains to get around it and explored Urdaibai inlet (World Heritage area) while I was at it (I just wasn’t ready to go back to the city just yet). Anytime I did stop to wipe the sweat out of my eyes, or stop to open a farm gate, or stop halfway to give my arms a rest from pushing my bike – I did look around – the cliffs, the mountains, the ocean, the greenery – it made it worth it. But it was only worth it because I survived!
My old friend Bilbao
As I was riding the last 5km, a road cyclist riding the other way cheered me on, yelling and fist pumping the air – he had no idea it was my last hill, but it really felt I got a finish! It was the best feeling (with a few tears) – thank you random cyclist!
Coming back to Bilbao was awesome. I felt like I had experienced so much in a short period of time and to meet back with my Warmshowers hosts (where I also left my bike bag and my noise-cancelling headphones) to tell them all about it was great. They made me a massive Spanish dinner and we talked all night over wine. The kindness and openness of new friends is the best. What an adventure!
My final feelings
I bikepacked solo and wild camped across Basque Country, choosing the biggest mountains and the rockiest valleys I could find. I knew nothing about this pocket of the world (chosen at random) so I set out to explore and come home richer in experience. It was a true test of my ability, my endurance and my equipment. I still have all my bones, my face and my bike – so mission is a success!
I drew out a rough map but it’s very rough. The map I got from Bikepacking.com was just as rough even though it claims its not. I learnt that when cycling – elevation and distance isn’t a true indicator of difficulty, the true test is terrain type (how many times I have to lift my bike up or down over things). Basque Country is wonderful to ride, it’s true cycling country and there is terrain for every type of bike and rider or you can zigzag hitting all types (even the unrideable types). The bike and gear I took was perfect (except I did buy longer socks in Vitoria to protect my ankles against daily thorn attacks), a lot of thought was put into it and I was very impressed how the bike handled and how great my camping gear was – I probably would of had a harder time on and with anything else. I also learnt when riding like this, the best things is to do everything early – drink/find water before you’re thirsty, eat before you’re hungry, change gears before you have to, put your jacket on before it’s cold, check the map before it’s too late. This has changed the way I travel and the way I live – be kind to yourself.
Culturally, I didn’t expect it to be so different to Australia but it is – in so many ways that I’m still attempting to decipher some experiences! Camping in the mountains alone with the animals and strange trees and strange noises was my favourite thing of all – I have never slept so well, surrounded by nature and it was (and always is) my true motivation for riding.