INTERISLANDER FERRY! – Thanks for your support

A big thanks to Interislander for their support for the South Island leg of our tour! Colour Interislander full stacked logo

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PHOTO FEATURE-BIHAR :The things you’re glad you (and your parents!) didn’t know…


(More photos featured below, to access scroll down….)

Since my last blog entry,the combination of travel by bicycle and train through Northern India has continued to be very amazing  and very challenging indeed!

Both Dave and I have gotten rottenly sick. It was a dark moment when I looked around at Agra railway station, the time : 11pm, our train 5 hours late. Dave lay wrapt in a sleeping bag shivering and shaking with fever on the train platform and I was trying to keep one eye on panniers whilst trying to book the bikes onto train through legal and trustworthy pathways. This all came after a previous experience where I shamefully fell prey to a scam in Varanasi and ended up paying an ‘official’ to untruthfully book them on for us. Consequently, we missed the train and were a few rupees down.

So , after some amazing train travel where the only place we could find room for ourselves was in the women’s carriage (Dave hiding in a sleeping bag again) and a ‘disabled’ carriage (quite evidently, a substandard, tinny cattle carriage for ‘untouchables’) we have made it to Jaipur. Dave is now on the mend  and out and about checking the sights and sounds of Rajasthan. I , on the other hand have been bowled over with a horrid chest infection of some sort and will therefore use this moment to share some interesting information.

After our ride through Bihar, I was curious as to what was going on there. What was this Bihar place all about? A little reading shed alot of light on the situation and has left us feeling that we’re glad we didn’t know all this before heading blindly over the border from Nepal.

The following are exerts from various websites and travel guides:

“Bihar is a state seriously troubled by poverty, a lack of infrastructure, inter-caste violence and general lawlessness. Although the ordinary visitor is usually unaffected by by Bihar’s frequent kidnappings, murders and acts of banditary, Buddhist pilgrims and tourists have been robbed and very few travelers spend much time here. this is a great shame because the region is well off the tourist track and has a refreshing mix of religious history. You should always check the safety situation with your foreign office before visiting and the loval press are a good source of information. Avoid the region during local elections, when tensions fun high, and riots and violent crime are not uncommon”

Bihar-along with its neighbouring State Jharkhand- continues to languish at the bottom of almost every measure of development : from literacy rates to GDP. Roads are appalling , buses and trains are ancient, power cuts are common and even in the state capital of Patna there are very few street lights. Author William Dalrymple has described Bihar as “the most ungovernable and anarchic state in India”,even though it is blessed with ample coal and iron deposits and areas of good arable land. The problem has been a disastrous combination of virulent intercaste conflict and criminal mis-governance. Since independence Bihar has largely been ruled by a mafia of high caste landowners, with the lower castes- who together with untouchables and tribal people make up over seventy percent of the states population- marginalised to the point of persecution. All that seemed set to change in 1991 when a rabble rouser from a lowly class of buffalo milkers , Lalu Prasad Yadav, united the ‘backward castes’, the Muslims and the untouchables under the banner of social justice, winning that years state election by a landslide. Unfortunately Lalu proved little better than his predecessors. His cabinet of caste brethren consisted of men wanted for murder, rape and kidnap, and violence remained the main tool of political persuasion- as one hopeful election candidate said ” without one hundred men with guns you cannot contest an election in Bihar”. Much of the state degenerated into virtual civil was as the upper castes, lower castes, Maoist Naxalite guerrillas, police and private armies clashed violently” – The Rough Guide

Sadly, that explained a lot for me about what we saw and experienced in the state of Bihar. You will see from the photos that follow however that there is still  much love, life and joy in such a place.

Enjoy the insanity!

Cycling from Kathmandu to Varanasi : Back into India!

Sitting here in Varanasi, on the banks of the Ganges River. This is the sacred city where thousands of  Hindus are cremated every year  to have their bodies returned to the earth and their souls to the next life. The morning light hits the houses heaped upon eachother, scrambling for their spot on the river banks. Birds glide their way across the sandy flats beyond and children upon rooftops fly their beautiful kites all day long, dancing and darting  under the hazy sky.  the thick fog that covers Northern India at this time of year slowly parts and the sun filters through.

With three and half weeks left on this cycle journey and the sub continent of India sitting just south of us, perhaps we have become too greedy! We have decided to head south to Kochin on the southern tip of india  by bike and by train to get a tiny taste of what this mysterious India is all about. Continue reading

PHOTO FEATURE: Annapurna Circuit Adventures – Overview (By Dave)

Annapurna circuit trek!


The Team – Alice, Moni, Mel, Pembo and Dave –  with the Annapurna Massif behind


Having cycled through Nepal’s Western Terai and up into Pokhara, we decided to give the bikes a rest for a few weeks! Due to a successful rendezvous with Pembo’s girlfriend Mel, our team of four morphed into five, and we headed into the Himalaya for a 17 day trek around the Annapurna  circuit – the realm of some of the world’s most majestic and grand mountains, as well as vibrant, diverse and hardy local cultures.

The following is an excerpt from the (soon to be) best-selling Monica and the Mountains – Mighty Moments in Really High One with White stuff and Steep bits.  It’s an account of some of the adventures we got up to… Continue reading

Brakes, gears and steel: The hard rd to the Himalaya and the art of bicycle maintenance

Well, tonight I’m taking a slightly new approach to the the postings on the blog!

It is after all, 2 in the morning, Dave is asleep here beside me, I am listening to the cicadas out the window and can see the shadow of Annapurna in the moonlight outside.

Life has been full full full full full since last I managed to update the blog for our roaring great fan base (namely the mums and aunty Anna!).

So, straight up …in a few words that don’t belong to me but if I were asked to give the most brief of briefest synopsis’ of the last few weeks of the trip , here is how it would roll:

Behind the mountain is a river, and once you cross this river, another mountain. It’s simple, but it’s truly enough to make you happy.
Does it belong to a Pemberton? Be the answer yes or no, it was the only thing that inspired me when I received Facebook and internet for the first time in a while here tonight and stumbled across it.

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PHOTO FEATURE: The Twosome becomes an Awesome Foursome on the Leh to Manali Road!

THE PEMBERTON / ALICE UPDATE: Musings on the Road from the new team members

Email correspondence 25 September 2012 

From: Matthew Pemberton

To: Alice McCubbin-Howell

Ok, I’ve been for my first bike ride in two years and I’ve boxed “Vivian” (bike), you want me to send a gear list of what I’m taking? Btw where are Mon and Dave at the mo?

From: Alice McCubbin-Howell

To: Matthew Pemberton

Na. I’m good. Prep has involved a 10km bike ride and pitching a tent on my parents front lawn. Got my bike (“Jimmy James), will be in box, I think we’re all over this cycle touring business. See you in DELHI! PS – Mon and Dave are either in China or Pakistan…. I think?

And so, two days later, straight from the respective home comforts of cushy flat Perth and predictable safe Wellington, two ex-lawyers turned cycle touring wannabes arrived in Delhi. Preparation? Minimal. Enthusiasm? High. Slight terror about meeting cycle touring gurus Mon and Dave – Extremely High. The adventure had begun!

After a whirlwind tour of Delhi and the Taj Mahal we found ourselves at the footsteps of the Himalayas, in Manali eagerly awaiting the arrival of Mon and Dave who’s exact location at the time was still: “somewhere in Pakistan. We think”.

We ignored the slightly vague email suggestion from a Pakistani hotel manager purportedly sent on Mon and Dave’s behalf (that we meet them at an unspecified time, on an unspecified mountain pass, in order to enact Dave’s visions of a romantic high attitude rendezvous under fluttering Tibetan prayer flags.) and instead chose to warm up with a first ride over a 4000m pass. Day one involved a 1400m vertical climb over 36km – we polished that off before lunch time – however our enthusiasm to continue after lunch waned after altitude sickness kicked in so that in fact we spent the afternoon half delirious and knocking back Diamox/panadol/ibuprophen cocktails.

Nevertheless by the end of the next day, having knocked off the pass and made it back to Manali we felt at least somewhat less underprepared for whatever it was that Mon and Dave had in store for us…. which was of course to do the same pass again, with an additional 5000m pass!

Our first two nights as a 4 were spent huddled at 5000m trying to keep warm by eating Maggi noodles and all spooning in a 2 man tent while Mon read us the Hobbit. Our plans to descend to a more comfortable altitude were somewhat thwarted by a high speed Himalayan car rally coming towards us…– welcome to adventure cycle touring!!

Over the past two weeks since we have emerged from the Leh Manali road (without frostbite) and started plotting east through the “foothills” towards Nepal we have been relieved to find out that not all cycle touring involves quite this level of extremity. Nonetheless there have been many notable incidents and we share our top 10 below…

  1. Mon inhaling petrol fumes and passing out at 5000m and having to be resuscitated by Alice (because the menfolk were off enjoying the Alpine Environment while the womenfolk made porridge)
  2. Treating the Indian Army for altitude sickness.
  3. Close encounters in a two man tent with Mon’s socks which hadn’t been washed since China.
  4. Pembo unilaterally deciding to jettison the jam he was carrying for Dave. Turns out, this was VERY SPECIAL PAKISTAN NEVER TO BE FOUND AGAIN jam. Whoops.
  5. Descending down a pitch black forest track led by random Indian and making a last minute abort decision not to follow him through the jungle to his “village” to stay the night.
  6. Run in with the Indian Police who were convinced we were carrying a satellite phone and therefore posed a national security threat.
  7. Dave and Pembo successfully cycling up a 2000m climb in an afternoon. Alice and Mon successfully sweet talking an Indian truck driver not only to transport them and their bikes up aforesaid 2000m climb, but also to buy them lunch.
  8. Cycling an additional 30km in order to bootleg alcohol into one of India’s holiest cities.
  9. Pembo and Dave insisting on doing an overnight “Man’s Mission” through the mountains, leaving Alice and Mon to have to circumnavigate an Indian city and national highway at night.
  10. Pembo wandering around tiny town in desperation looking for toilet paper after smashing an extremely hot curry the night before.

No doubt there will be many more incidents to come on the road from Rishikesh to Nepal. Bring it on!

New members of the team!

Oh how the times have changed!

Our cycling duo has enjoyed the addition of our two great friends Alice and Pembo (and their bikes Jimmy James and Vivian) for the last few weeks and oh what a blast we’ve been having!

This update will unfortunately be rather factual and slightly short as I’m struggling to get some good internet that won’t crash on me….so here’s hoping!!!
After some small and insignificant but almost inevitable teething…..issues lets call them…..we were all well and good and on our way.

We started our journey in Sachu on the very high altitude Leh to Manali Rd. The weather was ferocious and bitterly cold but with beautiful sunny days. We endured two snowy nights at about 5000m and poor Pembo straight from the flats of Perth braved the change in temp awfully well. The Leh to Manali is considered really the Mecca of cycling in the Himalaya and We were super lucky to get to cycle this rd at all as it was within days of closing for the winter season. We all made it out and over two passes over 5000m successfully and happily with no frost bite and all bikes in tact and in fact Rockin’ it!

From Manali we have enjoyed a very intese, very fun and very beautiful ride up and down and up and down and up and down adn around and through the ‘foothills’ of the Himalaya. We havae made it to Rishekesh on the banks of the Ganges river, where last night we witnessed a Hindu festival in which a very large blue statue was made and then lit on fire and exploded with fireworks tucked in his inners. It involved ALOT of explosives and pink powder. A merry time was had by all.

We have faced some pretty big physical challenges as a four, with a shocking 3200m pass which turned out to be so steep and so rough that we had to push the bikes much of the 20kms up hill. If you are ever looking to cycle the Himalayan foothills, think twice or three times before you head up Jelori Pass with a fully loaded steel frame touring bike!

But for the most part, the riding has just been absolutely awesome and breath taking and we’ve been having SO much fun as a four. Alice and Pembo have absolutely dominated and blown us away with how they’ve dealt with such intense riding without woring into this for months as we have.

It has been such a great time hanging out as a bunch of mates every day and every night with many laughs, some tears, alot of euphoria upon reaching the tops of huge passes and hills, a few health dilemmas, a lot of problem solving, a few sketchy trips down the sides of pine clad mountains with random Indians in the dark of the night and some very enjoyable drams of whisky and a whole lot of curry and roti to top it all off.

In fact, we are lucky enough to have Alice and Pembo keen to contribute to the blog posts, so i’m going to sign off here and get them to add their two cents worth on this great journey we’re all sharing.

In the meantime, here are a collection of photos from the Manali Leh section of our journey through the Himalaya to Nepal.


On the 19th Sep…

On the 19th September, 2012, we finally rolled out of the city of Kashgar in Xinjiang, China and headed south on the Karakoram Highway toward Pakistan.

The decision to cycle through Pakistan was not one we took lightly and understood the concerns of family and friends very well. It had been a politically volatile few weeks across the ‘Muslim world’, with a small but vocal minority of people reacting fiercely to the creation of a distasteful anti Islamic film by (ironically) an Egyptian American Coptic Christian in California.

Right up until our departure we kept our finger on the pulse of what was happening in Pakistan and maintained contact with friends within the country. We were reassured to find that the film was unable to be accessed in Pakistan and therefore mass hysteria has not spread as it had done in some other countries.

So we decided to go…and it was possibly the best decision we ever made.

What followed was a most intense, challenging, eye opening, rich and wonderful couple of weeks of riding the KKH from Kashgar to Gilgit Northern Pakistan.

Four days riding  the Chinese side of the border (on perfect seal) took us through vast desert, arid rocky mountains, a 5000m pass onto high vast plains and alongside pristine alpine lakes, the lands of the nomadic Kyrgyz and their yurts, yaks and immense blue skies. It was barren and isolated and required us to be self sufficient which we thrived on! Every evening blessed us with a ridiculous sunset and perfect peaceful spot of land upon which to pitch the tent.

We crossing into Pakistan, over the Kunjerab pass, where unfortunately the Chinese Government do not allow independent cyclists. So bus it we did! As we crossed through customs in China and met our Pakistani bus comrades, two things became immediately apparent to me. Two things which struck me in the face time and time and time again in Pakistan.

1) The absence of women in public life in rural areas

2) The widespread and perfect use of English in much of Northern Pakistan.

I am suddenly the only woman on the bus and we are suddenly having lengthy conversations with people in English. This had become so foreign to me in China, I hardly knew the sound of my own voice speaking my native language to anybody other than Dave.

The bus crawled high up into the mountains, with the Pamir range stretching out to the West and Pakistan ahead. As we cross over the border, ditch our Chinese military guards who’ve been keeping the bus company (who might I say looked no older than about 19 years old and baby faced, listening to 90s Backstreet boys hits and playing Angry Birds on their I Phones) . A Pakistani man leans over and with a laugh, says to me ‘So we say Good bye to China……now you can enjoy the roads of Pakistan’. And boy oh boy we did. That great road threw us around all afternoon and actually left us physically exhausted with all that immensely beautiful and gigantic scenery.

We depart the bus at the border post of Sost in the Hunza Valley and from here …..we cycle.

Northern Pakistan has the highest concentration of 8000m + peaks in the world and we were fortunate enough to cycle through them under perfect blue skies everyday. Much to our surprise, large sections of the KKH have just recently been sealed which made for hugely pleasurable and relatively easy riding!


Autumn colours were beginning to creep up the hillsides and splash the trees with rich reds and brilliant yellows, the mountains pierced the blue skies above our heads, the trees were so heavy with fruit it literally dropped onto the road, little mudstone villages hang precariously on the steep slopes of the valleys as if suspended almost in mid air, mountain streams erupt from the mouths of glaciers at 5000m above sea level and from here water is diverted through an intricate stone handmade system of irrigation canals, cut into cliff sides and feeding the villages up and down these otherwise barren valleys.

The people of the Hunza Valley practice a unique form of Islam called Ismaeli. This branch of Islam is relatively liberal, very peaceful, values hospitality and places a huge emphasis on education of both men and women. I would go so far as to say that The Hunza Valley felt like Heaven on earth. It was safe, peaceful, had an abundance of locally grown food and the most hospitable people I’ve ever met. We have alot to learn from the Pakistanis when it comes to welcoming foreigners!!

We were overwhelmed by their hospitality and were invited in for tea and chapatis more times in a day than we could handle. People were constantly offering us apricots, walnuts and apples from their trees..there was only so much weight in fruit our bikes could handle.

But despite all this hospitality and all the great conversations we were able to enter into (about everything from politics, religion, atheism and agnosticism to mountain climbing, cricket and the fall of tourism in Pakistan) I was never able to really talk to a Pakistani woman. I missed this alot and was struck by the fact that all the talk of progression and improvement of women’s situation in Pakistan was being told to us by men. When I asked if women learnt English as well as men in Pakistan, I received a mixture of responses. In Ismaeli areas I was told they did learn but they were shy, in areas further south I was laughed at once for asking such a silly question.

As we travelled through Pakistani, I went ‘under’ the veil’ which was a fun and frustrating experience at times. I had alot of time under there to think about all these issues, the role of women in Pakistani society, how your dress sense influences deeply your perception and sense of yourself. No grand conclusions as yet as this cold require a life time of thought and research and the answers still wouldn’t be clear!

After a few hundred kilometres of awesome and perfect riding , we were sad we had to stop in Gilgit. Sectarian violence has made the area south of here on the KKH unstable and too dangerous to travel independently for the time being. We were put onto a bus which joined another 20 buses and was escorted through the night by an armed local police force.

We were finally spat out the other end in Lahore having had a blast of a time and for me, being left with more questions than answers about Pakistan , its troubles and its beauties and what the future holds for the place.

There really is so much, TOO much stored up in us now from our time in Pakistan that it is impossible to articulate it all while it is still so fresh and close. I think it will take time to process a lot of the experiences and conversations and they will trickle out over time.

I don’t think I’ve ever fallen quite so in love with a country as I did with Pakistan and I am left feeling hopeful and yet concerned for what its future holds with corruption rife within its political arena and religious and sectarian issues simmering and often boiling over, with ongoing border issues with India over the Kashmir dispute and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with the North West Frontier and the ‘Talibanistan’ there are no shortage of issues for Pakistan to deal with. But I am filled with hope when I think of all the wonderful people we met there, the courage they show and the pride they feel for being Pakistani.

I will watch with a keen interest as Pakistan carves a path for itself into the future and I sure hope it involves a whole lot of women!!

……..There will be photos to follow so watch this space!