Bikepacking the Camino de Santiago. My own way…
Marco King recently completed his first bikepacking trip, a 900km impromptu version of the Camino de Santiago through northern Portugal and Spain. With a DIY kit in tow, sticking as often as possible to dirt roads, goat paths and the infamous GR hiking trails that crisscross the countryside, his pilgrimage was a steep learning curve… but one that was most rewarding.
Until very recently my story was similar to that of most people who set out on a journey. I was living in a big city for some time, working in a frantic industry with long hours and a very erratic lifestyle. I allowed my personal life to falter and stagnate. I needed a change of pace; time enough to re-discover my goals, my relationships, and myself. So I came to my grandparents’ farm in Portugal one autumn to spend some time with them and help out with the harvest. After a few weeks, life certainly slowed down and I enjoyed the days of simple labor out in the fields or under the orchards. Yet I still felt that there were many personal questions unanswered. I had heard about the pilgrimage people make to Santiago de Compostela and decided that a few weeks on the road would be a perfect opportunity to reconnect with myself once more. The thought of using a bicycle came to mind, thinking that it would offer more freedom to explore the land than my two feet alone could provide.
Whilst looking online at bikepacking bikes, I came across an image that stood out from the rest, one that instantly changed my whole perception of riding a bicycle; it was none other than a Surly ECR sporting rugged off-road tires and loaded with bags and provisions; a thing of sheer simplicity and beauty. I followed the image link and landed up on bikepacking.com. After consuming countless stories and information with greedy gusto I purchased an inexpensive hardtail mountain bike, and then researched options for gear. I had a very limited budget and it didn’t take me long to realize that even a basic setup was going to be expensive. But I decided that I wasn’t going to let a lack of money stop me from getting out there, so I set myself up using what little I had and buying only the absolute necessities:
I made two front fork bags using insulated picnic wine bottle holders. Each cost about three dollars, and were perfect for carrying bike tools and a gas stove. I fashioned holsters made from old pieces of wire that allowed each bag to be removed easily whilst keeping them firmly in place. I then gathered a few pieces of scrap wood that were lying around the farm and hacked together a crate to the dimensions of my camera bag, which I clamped onto the handlebars using more wood and some old bolts. Cable ties, bongo ties and duct tape held most of the other items in place. I used a thick dry-bag designed for Kayaking and boating to keep my clothes, sleeping bag and towel dry. This was strapped to a seatpost rack and the seat itself, along with a tent I had purchased for about forty Euros that held its own on some very rainy nights. Overall, my bikepacking rig was anything but elegant.
So on a blustery Autumn day under a leaden sky I set off on my makeshift steed and after only a short distance turned off the tar onto a gravel track. The going was hard, my bike was far too heavy and it had begun to rain again. I only made a few short hours in the saddle before my legs gave out and daylight began to fade. I hadn’t even come close to covering my goal of only forty kilometers. Somewhat disheartened I turned off the road into the forest to set up my first camp.
As the day drew to a close the mist cleared and revealed a view that seemed to stretch into the infinite, the sky blending into the receding hills below. There in the dimming light I saw my journey north. It seemed vast and endless and I couldn’t help feeling overwhelmed by what I had just set out to do. Worried, I wobbled back to my camp on aching legs and brewed some tea in the immense silence of that sodden forest. As the trees turned to silhouettes against a cobalt blue sky and I sipped on the heart-warming rim of my cup, a moment of clarity, like the parting of those mists, made me realize something; if I stopped worrying about the end goal and focused instead on each day, each moment, and allowed the process of simply moving along to become my only goal, then that vast distance became easy, even meaningless; suddenly I was no longer daunted, but filled with anticipation for the days to come. I had received my first lesson of the Camino.
On the second day, after shedding some altitude down towards the mighty Douro River, I began climbing a nearly endless hill that took me up into the beginning of a small but dramatic mountain range called the Serra Do Alvão. This became the Serra do Gerês and the Serra da Peneda after that. Each range was broken up by sections of fertile valleys and deep river gorges spanned by impressive bridges. Whilst this made for some seriously tough riding, it also rewarded me with some staggering views. Small villages clung to the mountainside, still rooted in medieval soil, and echoing the days of Roman influence. Here, for the most part, life has remained beautifully simple; people grow their own food on patchworks of earthly color laid out on valley floors or on terraces cut from the slopes of the mountains.In ancient villages worn out doors are set into moss-covered walls, chickens peck away between cobblestones and old farm implements lean against even older vines that have been shaped over years to shade alleys and entrances. All of this is set to a soundtrack of goat bells, church bells, rooster calls and the occasional thud of firewood being chopped up in readiness for winter.
I stuck predominantly to tar for long ascents but would leave the road again to rattle down the mountain on whatever path I could find. Despite taking some rather perilous and grueling singletrack (hiking trails and goat paths mostly) my makeshift bike parts were holding up splendidly. I was particularly impressed by the wooden basket. Although a little heavy it was bombproof and protected my camera bag even when my bike ended upside down after a crash on a mountain slope.
In the following days I came to love the pace of riding a bicycle. It was fast enough to see landscapes unfold and change, yet slow enough for me to really absorb the immense saturation of beauty that existed in every little corner of that magical land. Life had become simple; my possessions were limited to what I could attach to my bike, and I became lost in the process of travel and forgot about my stressful life in the city I had left behind. I started seeing everything as if I had just come into the world, small moments turned to momentous occasions; a smile or incredulous stare from a passing stranger, the fresh burst of grapes or berries foraged along the roadside, hearing the rain drumming on my jacket hood or feeling the cold wind across my face. With the right mindset even numb hands and tired muscles became new experiences.
I descended out of the mountains and crossed into Spain, where ‘Obrigado’ turned to ‘Gracias’, but really very little else seemed to have changed. I was still greeted warmly by locals who often went far out of their way to assist when I had bike troubles or simply needed some water or directions. People are people, I realized, despite the borders that separate them. If you only open your heart to them, they will offer you the world. I was to experience this more than once in the weeks to come.
After multiple punctures, a broken chain and two failed tires, I reached Santiago de Compostela, finding sanctuary moments before a huge storm unloaded itself upon the land. I had completed my pilgrimage, and for the first time encountered other pilgrims. Santiago De Compostela receives upwards of two hundred thousand of them a year. I had met none on my custom-camino. It was amazing to see so many people coming from all corners of the compass to end up in the same big empty square, all under the looming presence of the cathedral. Everyone one had their own reasons for giving everything up to do little else but walk or ride for weeks through a foreign land. It was overwhelmingly evident that every pilgrim, having endured mountains and rain, hours on their feet, injuries and pain, were all radiating happiness. Not one of them seemed regretful of the time spent on the road, all of them lighthearted and full of energy and ready to return to their lives with a new passion for the very things many left dreading only a few weeks before.
I went to go receive my official certificate for having completed my pilgrimage, but was denied the accolade because I hadn’t followed an official route or even bothered to buy the passport. I was momentarily dismayed, but then burst out laughing and said to the person behind the counter “If you only knew what I have gone through to get here”. It was never about the laurels anyway. After some reflection and much celebration I hit the road once again, this time west towards the Galician coast and what was once believed to be the end of the known world.One major difference about this second leg was the sudden presence of arrows pointing me in the direction of the official way. Following a well demarcated path was great, as it allowed me to ride along getting lost in the views and in my thoughts. I even walked my bike for a good distance alongside other pilgrims who were making their way to the end of the world and we discussed ideas about life, love and everything in between.
The land finally gave way to big open beaches and mossy cliffs and the salted air filled my lungs. After paying homage to the end of the world I rode south hugging the coastline, passing forts built close enough for waves to crash onto their ramparts, sleepy seaside villages and a few port cities. This stretch was almost completely void of hills and couldn’t have been more contrasting to the mountainous terrain I had traversed at the start of the journey. I crossed the Spanish-Portuguese border once again, turned my back on that rugged coastline and plunged into the mountains once more. This was the last leg home. By now it was almost fully winter and although I was accustomed to being cold and wet I was ready to be welcomed home by my grandparents. I was ready for hot food, four walls and a comfortable bed. Riding hard through the weather I made it home as the light of day petered out, beating winter by the skin of my teeth; for the next day that same mountain road that had led me home was closed for ice and snow!
Though the route presented many hardships for a solo traveller such as myself, it was always the people that helped soften those hard puncture-inducing edges with their easy going kindness; something I experienced many times over on my journey. The road taught me many lessons, a few of which I have imparted here, and cycling opened up a new world of travel for me that has changed the way I see myself moving through spaces in the future. I hope to take these new lessons and apply them to my old life so I can find new perspectives and inspiration in even the most mundane daily tasks. I hope that you can find some inspiration in this and do the same. Buen Camino!
About Marco King
Marco is a 28 year old surfer from Cape Town, South Africa who makes art and travels in his spare time. For a day job, Marco works as a freelance cinematographer and camera technician in the film industry. Follow Marco on Instagram @MarcoStevenKing.