Wood Brothers Expeditions Blog
Bikes Instead of Elephants
Here's an article in Spain's El Pais newspaper about the section of our cycle route between Ristolas in the French Alps and Piasco in nothern Italy. This will test your Spanish! An English translation appears below.
ElPaisAnibal.pdf (377.24 kb)
BikesInsteadofElephantsEnglishVersion.odt (29.83 kb)
In Madrid Magazine Article
Here's an article on our trip in the latest issue of Madrid's, English-language magazine "In Madrid":
Radio National Australia Interview
Travel Tales: Retracing the steps of an ancient military leader. This is an interview Ben and Danny did for ABC radio in Australia.
End of an Epic
The morning of our second day of riding in Tunisia was spent at a spectacular ancient Roman ruin: Dougga. There seemed to be no-one there except us and an army of caretakers restoring old walls. Dougga is on top of a hill and as you enter the site you hit the very well preserved Roman theatre. But there are a lot of good Carthaginian related remnants as well. Beyond the temple, next to a tethered donkey, was a big Temple of Saturn-Baal with its large front columns and stone structure and floor slabs intact. An interesting mixture of gods! – Saturn the Roman god of the harvests and Baal, the supreme god of the Carthaginians. Then we curved back to the centre of the site past more temple ruins, a gathering of feeding sheep whose heads were invisible because they were shoved inside a bail of hay (quite strange), the remains of the forum and also dozens of houses and shopfronts along paved roads, with their lower walls heavily restored but still standing. Peeping over the top of an olive grove there was also an impressive tower like mausoleum, described as in the ancient Libyo-Phoenician style. A great way to start the day! But we had to get going, partly because we hadn’t had breakfast yet! That was causing something of a minor panic and there wasn’t much around to be eaten – or at least not that we could find quickly and easily. We ended up with that spicy mixture of fresh tomatoes and chiles on bread and a bowel of olives. It was served by a man with few teeth, who showed us his black gaps when he was warning us to be careful eating the olives. One of my teeth fell out into my cereal on the trip so I considered comparing my hole to his but thought better of it. After that challenging breakfast, we cycled on a little warily.
The theatre at Dougga
The Temple of Saturn-Baal
These last days on the road felt very good, partly because of the new landscapes we were enjoying. The countryside in Tunisia is like being in the middle ages and reminded me of those delicately painted scenes that you can see on paper room dividers in Asian houses where one man is in the field scattering seeds, another is riding up a track, a couple are on the balcony of their wooden house, to the left of them, a river running through a wood. That was what the landscapes were like in Tunisia – lots of simultaneous activities were visible from the seat of the bicycle that looked like they should have been happening a thousand years ago.
We also felt happy because we were coming to the end of our epic. However amazing the trip, ten weeks is a long time and the prospect of home and being still for a while was very appealing.
But the action wasn’t over yet. Near the town of Siliana, adjacent to Zama, the police took an interest in us and escorted us into town in their green and white jeep and then tried to make us continue riding towards the next town that was a good 15 km away, when all we wanted to do was stop, rest and have a drink. There wasn’t a lot of logic to their argument except the insistence that further on was much nicer than Siliana. Ben politely conversed with them in broken French for a while and we managed to extricate ourselves.
In the end, our visit to the last important part of the Hannibal story, the battlefield of Zama, was very memorable. Zama, or Jama, is a little village about 140 km south west of the city of Tunes that is thought to be on the site of, or at least near where the Battle of Zama was fought. This is the historic battle Hannibal lost to the Roman general Scipio, ending the Second Punic War with Carthage surrendering. It was very strange to be gazing over this battlefield after thinking about it for a couple of years. We didn’t really have any expectations about what it would be like when we got here – the dusty farmland, olive groves and mountains in the distance seemed to fit the bill. But I don’t think any of us have ever heard a donkey, sheep, chickens and a dog all making noise at once. Zama is the battle that changed the course of history, but the battle changed little at Zama. The locals were still riding donkeys and seemed to own a few scattered cows and little else. The cluster of white houses were dusty and without windows. Water was fetched from a fountain down the hill. Little children chased us and laughed us past. You felt a world away from Europe, but only a few hours away in a car another name that belongs to the past, Carthage - described by Ben in the last blog - was now a wealthy suburb of the capital with palacial houses that you would see in any prosperous Mediterranean city. The contrasts were really stark in Tunisia.
The battlefield at Zama?
The Jama locals
This is being written from a comfortable chair in the sitting room of my Granny’s home in London. The trip seems like a dream. But we are back from something real, and it was great.
Attack dog or escort?
Final day of filming with cameraman John and Hamet our Tunisian fixer (in white)
El Presidente, sheep and the universal necessity of causation
And so to the last stage of our trip. Tunisia – a land dominated by President Ben Ali who was fresh from winning a recent election with 90% of the vote. His picture features in every cafe and car and on every street corner. We arrived at the ferry terminal in Tunis under his gaze and got a little worried when Sam was taken away by a dozen Police to get a visa (Sam is the only one of us travelling on his Australian passport I’m embarrassed to admit!). There seemed to be thousands of different sorts of Police and border guards wandering about and we all became a little concerned as to what sort of freedoms the people of Tunisia enjoyed. But then the representative from the Ministry of Culture who met us at customs quoted Kant at us – “free will is inherently unknowable - even a free person could not possibly have knowledge of their own freedom. So we cannot use our failure to find a proof for freedom as evidence for a lack of it.” So I asked if he thought Ben Ali considered the universal necessity of causation, the synthetic nature of mathematics and the Newtonian absoluteness of space and time in his rulings? Luckily Sam arrived intact with his visa at this moment so he couldn’t answer. And seeing as it was getting late, he had filled in my visitor’s card for me and got me through customs without the border guards even looking at me we continued on into Tunisia without an argument.
Typical Tunis skyline
Our first day here was a rest day which we always seem to spend searching for bike shops to restock. We’d got some dodgy inner tubes in southern Italy – the valves would fall out shortly after pumping them up! Unfortunately our new Tunisians ones weren’t much better and a couple of days later we were cursing them as we spent a tense 50kms in the middle of nowhere with no spares praying we didn’t get a puncture. Tunis has a great atmosphere though and the people are very open and friendly. We visited Hannibal’s home town of Carthage most of which is covered in Roman rather than Carthaginian ruins. It also seems to be one of the wealthier suburbs of Tunis. Nice big modern houses ring the ancient Punic twin ports and President Ben Ali’s palace is just to the north. We weren’t allowed to film in that direction and if we strayed too close a bloke with a machine gun would come and tell us off.
Antonine Baths at Carthage
Turkeys in Carthage and some strange birds in the foreground too
We had lunch in a cafe called Uranium – we assumed they named it that as it took the half life of uranium (4.5 billion years) for your order to arrive. So after quite a long wait camera man John endeared himself to the waitress by demanding tomato sauce. She was also about the 4.5 billionth waiter/waitress he had aggravated on our trip so far. After some more filming and riding we had dinner in an amazing restaurant (we are eating a lot) that used to be a sultan’s palace – the resident sitar player asked where we were from and then started playing the Australian national anthem! Impressive, but it is one of the worst national anthems in the world don’t you think??
View from the Byrsa Hill over Carthage
Anyway after a few days of travel, a rest day and some filming days in Carthage and Tunis we were wondering if we would be capable of riding 120kms inland towards Zama – the site of the last battle of the Second Punic War. We had no idea really what the roads where like or whether Tunisian drivers would run us over without a second thought. But after some navigational issues getting out of Tunis and a quick stop at a bike shop where Mehdi, a former cyclo-cross champion of Tunisia sold us some new water bottles – the old ones had gone irretrievably mouldy, we found that Tunisian drivers were actually really good. Not as respectful as Spanish drivers perhaps but certainly better than Italians.
Mehdi Thameur outside his shop kindly greasing our chains
It turned out to be a very long day but completely different riding to anything we had done previously. Riding through dirt poor towns on a bike that would probably feed the entire village for a year if they sold it wasn’t the best feeling. But the kids would scream at you – usually in a friendly way we thought until a rock bounced between me and Danny and then we started to wonder! No really everyone seemed very friendly and lunch was at a roadside restaurant. A kilogram of barbeque sheep and a very spicy mixture of tomato and chilli was on the menu. The next sheep in line was tethered to the bbq – waiting for his turn while his brother cooked!
We passed an amazing ruined Roman aqueduct that seemed to go for miles in either direction and the last 10km of the day were really very hard work...but only a few days of riding left...
BBC History Magazine - Zama
Our final instalment for the BBC History Magazine is here:
Sunset over the modern village of Jama believed to be near where the battle of Zama took place (thanks Andrea Illescas for the photo)
On a long trip like this interpersonal relationships become very important and are often the cause of the most interesting bits of the journey. I imagine it might make a pretty good documentary following a crew making a documentary? A bit like the new show we are thinking of pitching to the BBC: "Entertainment Tonight Entertainment Tonight" - as the presenters of Entertainment Tonight have become celebrities in their own right they surely need another show just to follow them? It will be an endless supply of new shows - after a few years there will presumably be "Entertainment Tonight Entertainment Tonight Entertainment Tonight"??
Anyway us three have had some good arguments - the best one when riding through the northern suburbs of Naples on slippery black basalt cobble stones, hungry, in pouring rain and mad Neapolitan traffic. Luckily most of the things we screamed at each other were inaudible! The crew also have their moments but there are also times when everyone works together, sacrificing themselves for the team...harmony, symphony, mellifluousness, rappaport etc. One such heart warming moment was in Trani. We were filming in the port and a grumpy looking bloke was sitting at a stall ironically selling friendship bands. He yelled something at us when we arrived - his wild eyes betraying something we couldn't quite pin down. My first guess was evangelical christian so we ignored him and kept riding. A minute later there was a commotion behind us and we turned to see him attacking John! He was grabbing for the camera and lashing out and did actually manage to kick John in the bum!! I must admit we laughed and secretly thought he deserved it (he does) but Francesco had other ideas. He threw himself into the line of fire - separating our cameraman from the rabid friendship band stall holder. He was very calm and professional and pleaded with the attacker to calm down. After multiple "cazzos" and "va fancullos" the (as it turns out) recently released convict and drug addict also kicked Francesco. By this time a crowd had gathered but Francesco the bodyguard had the situation under control.
We overheard this exchange between Francesco and John soon afterwards:
Rachel(John): And you're ready to die for me?
Frank: It's the job.
Rachel(John): And you'd do it? Why?
Frank: I can't sing.
The Way it is Baby
When you cycle day after day the rhythm naturally brings music to your mind. At the beginning of the trip I tended to hum fairly epic stuff as the wheels turned – tunes from the film The Dark Knight for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfO3szikvnI&feature=related or some of those ponderous but very catchy Michael Nyman movie sound tracks, like, The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZG_-iTyQdog
They all seeemed to help with the peddling. As the trip became never ending, and getting on the bike a little harder, the melodies got worse (arguably) but adjusted appropriately, and we even started to vocalise them. I cringe a bit to admit it, but Ben started this one and Sam sang snippets of it too: That´s Just the Way it is Baby by the Rembrandts, was hard to shift from my head as getting into the saddle just one more time started to feel like that Bill Murray film, Ground Hog Day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_yDWQsrajA
Silly as it may seem, the on camera side of things and the desperate search for conversation topics made us fantasize about who would be appropriate to play us in a Hollywood version of our BBC epic. We had this conversation with the help of Andrea our Director and it was in no way a serious one, just to pass the time! We brothers thought Sam should be played by David Wenham, Ben by Jim Carrey and me by Joaquin Phoenix. Andrea thought Ben should be played by Keanu Reeves, me by Tom Cruise and from what I recall, Sam by Russell Crowe! We are contacting their agents…
This part of Hannibal's Trail was about discovering the parts of Italy the tourist brochures have generally forgotten. Trani, is on the Adriatic coast of Italy and near Cannae where Hannibal won his greatest victory against the Romans. Trani is a beautiful, old stone town where the main street is paved with large, slipperly slabs and the port area is like a mini-Marseille. If you think you have read about Trani before, you are right – this leg of our Italian trip is a a return to the locations we had already cycled, in order to do the filming. This time in Trani we had a lot of fun in a local barber run by a friendly Italian called Frank. He and his two middle aged male assistants gave us all the sort of old fashioned shave you only thought possible in spaghetti westerns.
After our clean shaves..
After Trani, we headed to the deep south of Italy. It´s a curious place, in some ways reminiscent of our cycling in the south of Spain where rubbish and ugly buildings can predominate a little too much. For western Europe, southern Italy has surprising poverty and neglect. In the port city of Taranto, for example, the old town centre is literally rotting and collapsing. Rows of abandoned buildings and others that look difficult to inhabit, but are lived in by people whose looks and gestures remind you of those black an white pictures of sufffering Italians in rubble strewn streets post World War II. But this is 2009!
Statues at Altamura
Riccardo Chiaradia, a local Archaeologist who helped us find the hotspots of Taranto
Mussolini's doors at Taranto
One other difference – I always expected Italian restaurants to be chatty places, and they generally are in the centre and north. Here, in the deep south, everywhere we ate – whether it was lunch or dinner - had at least one big television screen blaring out banal chat shows. No-one who was eating seemed to talk as much as you hoped they would, instead their attentions were distracted by the box. This drove Francesco our Italian producer bonkers and at least once he saved our sanity by asking restaurants to turn off the tv.
We were all looking forward to visiting Crotone, situated where the instep part of the Italian foot, becomes the foot proper. This is one of the few places where the archaeology and the Hannibal literature coincide. Our main ancient literary source, Polybius, writes that Hannibal recorded his achievements on a tablet that was fixed to a column on the Temple of Hera that stood here. On a streatch of green coastline there is an archaeological site and a column belonging to this temple still standing. Unfortunately this lone column was surrounded by a wire fence – but it was still an atmospheric spot where we were encouraged by our Director Andrea to mimic Hannibal and reflect on our achievements. This made a lot of sense but at the time seemed like a potentially egotistical and difficult thing to do with the cameras rolling. Sam and I were both impressed with how Ben got around that by saying that our biggest achievement was getting on so well with each other most of the time during our weeks together on the road. On an unusual, intensive trip like this one, I think we would all agree, that just saying nice things, even if they may not be entirely true, helps them to come true. I certainly felt that after Ben’s statement.
The remaining column of the Temple of Hera at Crotone
From Crotone, we slipped down to the very toe of the Italian mainland – to Reggio, on the Straits of Messina. This is a mythical place where you can look across a narrow slither of sea to Sicily, a rising green hill with buildings staring back at you from only 2 miles away. In Greek mythology two sea monsters were on either side of this strait. We didn't spot them – perhaps because the ferry ride was so quick.
Early morning filming near Crotone
We dashed across Sicily – it is not part of Hannibal's trail. After a night in Trapani, on Sicily's southern side, we boarded another ferry to head for our final destination – Tunisia, once the home of Hannibal's Carthaginian civilization. While we were boarding we met Cristof, a Belgian, who was about to start an astonishing, solo bike ride that would begin in Tunisia and take him all the way to India! He said he was going to take a year and a half to do it! We wished him luck!
It's always exciting arriving at a port city by boat. At sunset our ferry cruised in towards the port of Tunis. To the right we could easily make out the peninsular of pretty white buildings that is Sidi Bou Said. Just below that we knew there was what remained of the old Punic port and beyond that, Carthage itself, now a wealthy suburb of this bustling city. The final leg of Hannibal´s Trail and lots left to explore!
Our journey with the film crew continued to Lake Trasimene, where as described in a previous blog, Hannibal won a major battle against the Romans.....
For us it was much less dramatic - a dodgy highway hotel in Touro where we hung out our wet shoes and clothes soaked from our journey into the swamps and then a revisit to the 'Ciao Ciao' bar. This time we were there to film the sunrise over Lake Trasimene rather than have a night out, like we did last time with our guest riders Perry and Will. On that first occasion we got stuck in a square dancing, country music, over 50's night! The fact that we came back means this was obviously excellent recceeing!
Dancing Ciao Ciao
Sunrise at Lake Trasimene
Hannibal didn't get into Rome but it was a must stop for filming, especially as we planned to visit the Quirinale which is the president's palace. Here they have the most famous likeness of Hannibal.
Hannibal keeping an eye on John..
The Quirinale is a very security conscious place - We were first checked out by the police as we filmed in the piazza out the front, then met by the Cuirassiers. The Cuirassiers are the presidents personal guard - to qualify for this, the application says, you have to be over 190cm tall and extremely good looking - only Italians would come up with these prerequisites - nothing about being able to protect the president or be intelligent or capable - as long as you are big and handsome that is all the president needs!
Italians love uniforms too so you can imagine these guys... dressed up poncing about trying to look as big and beautiful as possible. They seemed constantly amazed at their own beauty while we struggled to take them seriously especially when they told us that we were not dressed appropriately, of course this being the prime issue with a security force - no shorts allowed in the president's residence! Luckily they let us off after we promised to tell everyone about them - and the reality is that we have never taken our shorts off in 10 weeks of cycling so to do so, even for the president of Italy was highly unlikely!
The other force we met in Rome was the 12th legion - Caesar's own soldiers, a re-inactment group who paraded around the Roman forum and were great to talk to - no pretensions and seemingly much more capable than their pretty and giant compatriots, they would have made a much more apt guard for the president!
We beat him up after this photo...
We continued to Pozzuoli where we slept in a campsite in the crater of a volcano. It really stank - considering our shoes were still wet from the swamps many days before and we only own 3 coloured t-shirts each, it must have been very bad to overcome our dull senses! We did manage to cycle through the steam it produces and cook an egg on one of the geysers - I wouldn't recommend it - Egg cooked on volcanic sulphur gas makes basically, its pretty horrible to imagine, let alone taste like we had to for the camera - fart flavoured eggs! The reason we stayed here is because Lake Averno is around the corner - the entrance to the Roman underworld. Hannibal came here to make an offering to the dead to try and see his future - we too made a offering - water, wine, milk, honey and barley as he may have but we just thanked the Gods for not being run over so far - Italians drivers are not the greatest with cyclists!
Solfatarna at Pozzouli
The steam was frizzing my hair it was a bit worrying!
Our days off we look forward too and with Naples so close we decided to go in for the night - John the cameraman took us to a local restaurant he knew which was excellent and we also shopped for Italian fashions.... Each year it seems the locals choose a colour and everyone wears it religiously, especially at passagiata - when everyone comes out for their evening walk. This year the colour is Purple so Ben and I got some quality purchases - multiple purple tracksuits, shirts, vests, jackets, gloves and belts... the shop assistant was fairly confused as we continually insisted we only buy in purple but happy as we bought half of their shop! We have tested these fashions since and the Italians in the passagiatas are always impressed by our kit! The only problem we have now is shoes - Since Ben and Danny lost their flip flops at the Rhone crossing they have been wearing white slippers out most nights - the sort escapees from a physc ward might wear so no matter the clothes we are still looked down upon by the fashionatas of Italy!
Italian Fashions at their very best!
Barcelona Metropolitan Article
An article in the Barcelona Metropolitan about our journey: