THE VAGABOND CYCLIST
Taste is personal, good taste is a standard. But whatever the taste or standard, Rob believes good photography always begins with meticulous observation. Which is why he prefers to discover the world around him slowly. Preferably by bike, or failing that by car. Photographing what you see is more than looking and clicking, more than witnessing and recording. Observing and photographing takes time. It’s a process of looking, seeing, choosing an angle and what to crop, lighting, arranging, setting, waiting for the image to appear what the photographer has already seen, and then freezing it. In that process lies the individuality of the artist. In the time that process takes, you become one with your surroundings. This is how Rob has come to learn about dead and living nature, and comes into contact with local people, their customs and their cultures.
Rob is a vagabond photographer. At home, he seeks out and scouts his destination. He then loads his personal and photographic gear onto his touring bike and disappears for weeks, becoming one with his destination and filling SD cards. Back in his studio, he selects the most striking work to edit, show on his site and print for exhibition in its full glory.
Photography has turned Rob into an experienced rover. This requires strength, good equipment and some navigation know-how, because the bi-roads may be safe in terms of traffic, but often not been properly mapped. Sparsely populated areas and long distances call for careful rationing of food and drink. Nature and its elements have become a second home in which Rob has learned to live. It is where he likes to be, with his very sturdy and special bike as his loyal companion.
On these pages you’ll find some of Rob’s travelling photography adventures, and those of his friends who share his passion. Rob’s motto? “Grab your bike and set off, and the most beautiful images will automatically come to you.”
Rob demands a lot from his bike, in his photographic quests often testing the boundaries of what’s possible. As he does his most interesting photographic work under the most abominable weather conditions. Including rain, mud, poor roads, boulders, climbing and descending. The loaded weight is enormous. The modern ultra-light camping equipment, clothing, tools and spare parts together weigh in at about 30 kilos. Then there’s water and food. And Rob’s photo equipment including camera, tripod, lenses and laptop. Bringing the total luggage weight to over 55kg.
Such a bicycle is built as light as possible, but is no toy. It is specially designed for transporting lots of baggage under harsh conditions. Which calls for a strong, rigid construction developed for long distances. Some riders prefer steel frames, others aluminium and the most expensive are made of titanium, making such bikes pricey.
Rob’s first touring bike was a Giant Expedition. An old model 1993, significantly modified over the years. He called his beloved bike ‘Dear One’.
The touring bike has become extremely popular among national and international touring, holiday and travel cyclists. In its latest manifestation, this is known as ‘bike packing’ and recent years have seen huge improvements in technology and equipment. Today people prefer to cycle with a reliable, low-maintenance belt drive rather than a chain. Open derailleurs are passé and have been replaced by advanced, internal gear hubs (IGHs).
Given the continuing technical advances, Rob swapped his cherished Dear One #1 and took grateful possession of his current beloved, Dear One #2. It’s a Dutch-made Santos bike and by far the toughest of the tough hiking bikes out there. Ideally-suited for Rob’s meandering cycling expeditions, though the factory did have to make a few customised adaptations for him before he could set off.
Though he may be using the most modern gear system, pedalling 55kg of luggage, the weight of the bike and his own bodyweight up mountain roads is barely possible. And in recent years Rob’s muscle power has started to diminish. Fortunately, however, Santos also builds models with motors, enabling Rob to increase his radius and keep on photographing and travelling along the unmarked paths he so loves.
Whether you call it bike packing or something else, Rob’s motto still applies: “Grab your bike and set off, and the most beautiful images will automatically come to you.”
July 24 – August 3 1995
After a year of hard work in our photo studio, the three of us made a tour through our homeland. We started in Eindhoven located in the south of The Netherlands and travelled north, then west and south again. It was an extremely hot summer that year. We did not camp, but stayed in bed and breakfast pensions for the night, so our bikes were not that heavily loaded. It was our first main bike tour as a team.
Sorry for the poor quality of the photos, I had to scan them out of our personal diaries.
Day 1 – 2 > Eindhoven – Tiel – Apeldoorn 168 km
Except for the very south and centre of the country, where it’s a bit hilly, the Netherlands is a more or less completely flat country.
Our journey took us through sandy heather country, changing to clay in the river areas a little more to the north. Something you can see from the good farmland for which the region is renowned, though today the local population works predominantly in industry.
Cycling was easy in the shade of the woods along the bike route, although one of us suffered from saddle saws, which later became a serious problem, forcing us to change the offending saddle for a better one. A good example of how lack of experience can ruin one’s holiday. We had a good night’s rest each night, staying with some wonderful people.
Day 2 – 4 > Apeldoorn – Nunspeet – Hasselt 122 km
After the varied greens of the meadows and forests, we entered the heathered landscape of the Veluwe. A little hilly, but our winter training turned out to have put us in good stead: no problems at all.
For the first time, we could really feel the burning sun. Our water consumption increased, but drinking tap water is never a problem in Holland. The distances are short, and the water is high-quality and easily available every few miles.
This part of Holland is a nature reserve much loved by outdoorsy tourists. The area is mainly wooded with pines. The chicken farms around Barneveld are famous for their large, tasty eggs and chicken meat.
After one hot day it started to rain, producing a warm shower.
Day 5 – 6 > Hasselt – Balk – Joure 158 km
We then entered a quite different landscape. This part of Holland, situated along the eastern shores of the IJsselmeer, was formerly known as the Southern Sea (Zuiderzee). In 1932, it was shut off with a dam separating it from the North Sea to form a vast lake. Along its shores one can still see the ancient ports, fishing villages and towns, and it is still easy to see that centuries ago these were once busy trading centres.
In Zwart Sluis, we heard a peculiar story of a hermit called Bolle Willempien. Round about 1880 he lived a simple life in this rough and swampy area. In old Dutch, ‘bolle’ means dead-born calf. That was his food. Why he lived out there in the back of beyond, where he also died, we’ll never know. A charity bought this tiny piece of land, visible just behind us in the photograph, in his memory.
That night we stayed with an old theologian and had a fascinating evening. When you travel this way, you get to meet some colourful characters.
The next day was again extremely hot. At the end of the day, the sky turned coal black within a matter of minutes. We couldn’t make a bolt for the next village, two miles further on and so got to witness the heavy rain, lightning and thunder from under the shelter of a tree.
Day 7 – 8 > Joure – Breezand – Hoorn 211 km
A hot summer built up to a heatwave that lasted some weeks. Temperatures rose above 35° Celsius, almost unheard of in the Netherlands. Thank goodness we’d been blessed with a full head of thick hair!
In this area there is no forest shade. Instead there is a series of attractive old ports, such as Stavoren, that have silted up over the centuries.
Before us lay the Afsluitdijk, 30kms long with no protection from the wind, but we were lucky, with a strong easterly following wind.
Heading south again, we entered a part of northwest Holland famous for its bulbs, in particular tulips. In spring, it makes for a colourful sight.
Impressive: we could see how not a single brick was out of place. Holland’s protection against heavy storms depends on the condition of these dams, dunes and dikes. Most of the land and towns in the west have been reclaimed from the sea with the help of dams, and lie below sea level.
We ended this unforgettable stage of the journey in Hoorn. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Hoorn was a more important seaport than Amsterdam. Ships returning from the Indies had easy access to the harbour, but when Amsterdam improved its facilities, it shortened this final stretch of the ships’ journey.
Day 9 – 10 > Hoorn – Naarden – Overheicop 101 + 80 km
My companions, Josie and Edo, had to be very patient with me. Every time I spotted an interesting subject for a photo, I had to stop. A selection of the results you can see in ‘Barns’ and ‘Low Lands’. Those last 3 days I was quite lucky with my photography, although contrasts were much too high in the hot sun.
When the IJsselmeer was still open sea, it was called De Zuiderzee (Southern Sea), and towns like Marken and Volendam were little islands. People lived an isolated life with their fishing fleet. At the time of this trip, the inhabitants still held on to their old traditions and clothing.
We cycled beside the River Vecht, along which in the 1600s rich traders built beautiful homes for themselves.
In the Netherlands, we’re blessed with safe, high-quality bike paths, separated from the main road, which means flats are rare. But a cycling trip always calls for some knowledge and experience in essential bike repairs, and we finally had our first mechanical problem, having to change two broken spokes. However, it’s another issue that forces us to alter our plans: saddle pain!
Day 11 > Overheicop – ‘s Hertogenbosch – Eindhoven
Before our eyes, the landscape and architecture change into something more familiar. We’re back in our home region once more amidst, as you can see, a rich variety of greens from the woods and meadows, typical of the southern part of the Netherlands.
The loads on each bike was about 20 kilos, which is light, because we didn’t carry camping gear. The terrain was flat, so except for the hot weather, the trip had been easy.
After lunch on the last day, Edo broke away, pushing on to arrive back in Eindhoven two hours before us. He was in pretty good shape and we simply couldn’t keep up with him. But with a bit more long-distance training, we all felt we should be ready for more daring challenges…
July 19 – August 8 1996
After touring the north of Holland the previous year, this time we spent our summer holiday in the south. Starting in the province of Limburg, then into the Ardennes region of Belgium. It was once again a really hot summer, the landscape hilly and in the Ardennes at times almost mountainous.
Poor photography on this page, too, I’m afraid.
Day 1 – 2 > Eindhoven – Maastricht – Bemelen
We started out early and it was a little chilly in the morning as for several miles we cycled alongside a canal. But the conditions were pleasant, with absolutely flat terrain and no wind.
We arrived in Maastricht, checked-in at our campsite and decided to stay in this city that’s over 2000 years old for one more day, just so we could cycle about in the wonderful hills of this most southern part of the Netherlands.
Day 3 – 4 > Bemelen – Vaals – Valkenburg – Bemelen
Next day we made a reconnaissance trip to Vaals, not knowing this was the most demanding cycling route in the whole of the country. That Vaals was the highest point in the Netherlands, we knew. But that there would be such steep hills…!
Beautiful landscape, with shady routes and little brooks. We made a visit to Valkenburg, a lovely little touristy town. Old sandstone architecture that over the centuries has been extracted from the St. Pietersberg hill south of Maastricht.
Day 4 – 6 > Berg en Terblijt – Maastricht
Two days without long-distance cycling, as we toured the typical local villages, such as Berg en Terblijt, where one can also visit the cave houses.
Founded by the Romans, Maastricht is not a typical Dutch city. You might think you were in France. Easy-going people. Maastricht and Nijmegen are the oldest towns in the Netherlands. If you come to Holland, as well as Amsterdam, do visit these cities.
Lovely countryside, relaxed cycling. We got some practice at climbing and I took a few photos every now and then, some of which you can see in ‘Red Flowers’.
A cold beer in the afternoon. Have two and your legs feel like lead!
Cadier en Keer was a small town we frequently visited, the reason being a lovely little café where they served delightful meals. Some ten years later, my son Edo went to study Law in Maastricht. Luckily, he found a room in Cadier en Keer and almost weekly could enjoy a great dinner in this café.
Day 7 – 8 > Maastricht – Luik – Amay
Next morning, we left for Luik (Liege). The route was uphill along the river Maas (Meuse). This region in Belgium is called Wallonia and the language is French.
The suburbs of Liege are a little grey, but its centre is beautiful with lovely routes along the Meuse. Liege once had thriving coal and steel industries. We had a lovely evening in a restaurant where the Italian cook sang us songs from his native Naples.
On our way to Amay, a German guy lost control of his bicycle and fell. He had to go to hospital with an injured knee. Going downhill with a heavy bike can be tricky.
A good rest and a nice dinner on a little campsite in Amay.
Day 9 – 10 – 11 > Amay – Namur – Dinant
A wonderful route along the River Meuse, so there wasn’t much climbing. Sometimes we climbed away from the river valley to visit the little villages on the high banks. A lot of outdoor sports here such as cycling, wild water canoeing and climbing.
We met Will, a funny English guy with his French wife. He was a hobby photographer and took pictures with a very old camera and black cloth.
It was high season and Namur and Dinant were crowded. Youngsters enjoying outdoor sports. Hotels and campsites were noisy.
Day 12 – 13 – 14 > Dinant – St. Hubert – La Roche-en-Ardenne – Spa
This was a difficult part of the route. It was hot and the steepest climbing we had done until then. We crossed the Rivers Lesse and Lomme and continued climbing up to St. Hubert (590m).
A little less touristy. Quiet villages in the woods and along the rivers. Mostly farming and forestry. Friendly people.
A few miles to the east is Bastogne. In the last winter of World War II, American allies fought a bitter battle here when their positions were surrounded.
We turned north for La Roche-en-Ardenne, and at last descended into the valley of the River Ourthe.
We found a little hotel and had a good dinner with a welcome glass of cold beer. This is a traditional brewing region.
Day 15 – 16 – 17 > Spa – Verviers – Eupen
A hot day and we had to do some serious climbing. I was happy with every little bit of shade from the large trees along the route. But after each climb there was a reward: a beautiful view of the valley.
They say in cycling you have to be born a climber. Well, I wasn’t; but nevertheless I have learnt a good technique: take your time, concentrate, feel no fear. Choose the right gear and don’t shift gears too much. Take deep breaths: you may think you’re hyperventilating but that’s impossible. At the same time, keep your legs turning in your own rhythm. It’s not easy, but keep at it and after a few seconds the oxygen reaches your leg muscles and the fatigue is gone. Don’t start climbing with a lack of oxygen: you’ll run out of it within ten minutes and then it’ll take some time to get over it, physically and mentally. What’s between your ears is the most important. There’s no mountain you cannot climb if you really want to. At the end, you laugh at those young gorillas who went ahead of you.
We reached Eupen. A nice campsite, if a little noisy.
Day 18 – 19 > Eupen – Epen – Heerlen
The day started a little hazy and chilly but it was soon sunny again. We descended into the valley of the River Geul and just followed it down stream. An easy ride that took us back over the border into Holland, where we toured the little villages in the very south of Limburg. Beautiful woods and ancient Roman architecture.
We stayed in a B&B with a nice family who had just opened their little hotel for backpackers. Our host was a history teacher and we are still friends after all these years. One meets wonderful people on cycling trips!
The next day we continued north to Heerlen, when one of us didn’t feel too well: stomach problems and even a bit of fever. After a while, she became so weak she couldn’t stay on her bike. Probably polluted drinking water. We hopped on the train in Heerlen and rode back to Eindhoven.
August 14 – August 24 1997
The character of a river-district fascinates me. Its landscape and history, the architecture of the towns along the banks and the differences between the inhabitants. Even along riverbanks in the same district, you sometimes feel a different atmosphere. What is it? Could I visualize that in photography?
Summer holiday 1997.
This year there was only the two of us. We took our bicycles in a caravan and drove south.
Day 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 > Eindhoven – Charleroi – Paris – Orleans – Crouy sur Cosson
An extremely hot summer again that year. We started out early in the morning, filled our fuel tank and jerrycans near Maastricht, in the deep south of Holland, and enjoyed a good trip to Crouy where we stayed in a quiet, simple campsite, but with all the comforts we needed.
Next day, we made a reconnaissance cycle tour along the banks of the Loire. Fairly flat terrain, nice people and a good road infrastructure. We decided to stay a little longer. The bicycle routes were safe and the countryside interesting.
Next day we visited a little town called Meung-sur-Loire, located on the old north-south route to Paris. There was not much to see. However, I read Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers as a boy and Meung is mentioned in the book. Throughout the story, the young hero has as an adversary, someone he met in Meung. It made me curious what the town would be like. And here I was.
One can still visit the stalls where the soldiers took care of their horses, surrounded by the small buildings where the hospital and officers’ mess used to be. You can see why Dumas was inspired by Meung.
This region of France is famous for its castles. Most were not built as fortifications, but showy status symbols for French aristocrats, where they held hunting parties and meetings with important ambassadors or business partners. As you can see from the architecture and beautiful gardens.
Most of the interiors and furniture were destroyed during the French Revolution (1789-1799), when thousands lost their lives at the guillotine. However, much furniture has been preserved to give an impression of how the castles would have been furnished at the time.
Day 4 – 5 – 6 > Crouy – Amboise – Montbazon
We left our car and caravan in Crouy and began cycling along the river Loire. Most of the riverbank is private grounds, used for gardening, farming, fishing or recreation. The terrain is a little hilly, but the slopes aren’t steep. It was hot, but there was plenty of shade in the woods. A nice cycle tour with safe roads and understanding motorists.
We saw some very large castles and decided to visit the one at Chambord. We crossed the River Cher and cycled along the Indre. The views were like something out of a fairy tale, with lush green banks and exquisite wild flowers. For anyone who likes peaceful nature, the river Indre is the most beautiful in the area. And cycling gives one the time to really absorb what you see.
We stayed in small hotels and guesthouses. What we needed, we carried in our panniers. We just had a few clothes, some food, bits of fruit and some water. With minimum weight, we were prepared for some climbing, but in the end there wasn’t really any.
Anything that could be bought fresh in the morning, such as baguettes and cheese, was delicious. We also had to do our laundry, but that dried within a few hours. In the evening, we had good meals in local cafés.
Navigating on old topographical maps sometimes proved tricky. What seems a good route on the map can turn out to be anything but. Like this one, where we followed our compass only to discover our way blocked by the fence of a new high-speed railway. Never cross the tracks the way we did that day: only moments later a train went by at about 300km/h!
Another important story for the French, and especially in this region, is that of Joan of Arc (1412-1431). She was a simple young farmer’s daughter who rode with the French army during the long war against the English. While dressed in armour, she heard the voice of God. She served as an inspiration to French soldiers and rose to high political office before being captured and sold to the English. After a series of complicated trials where she was accused of witchcraft, she was sentenced to death in the castle at Loches and finally burnt at the stake in Rouen.
Loches itself is a well-preserved village with a beautiful Medieval centre.
Day 7 – 8 – 9 > Loches – St. Aignan – Salbis – Gien – Orleans
We cycled south and then north-east again. It was an easy route, farming country with a little commercial activity in the old towns, but nothing too busy. Following this trip, my approach to trekking changed and I started to cycle with camping gear in my panniers.
A final rest in the shade before driving home.
My companion Josephine finished at the university where she had been working for years and then left for Indonesia, where another wonderful job awaited her working amongst the poor.
My trekking friends all share a sense of humour, a love for people and their cultures, a passion for nature and its wordless language, curiosity, and above all the bravery to confront and face themselves. They like company, but also value being alone.
As you will notice if you follow the links below to people’s own sites, we all have different reasons for being devoted to trekking. Mine is culture and architecture in Western Europe, mainly the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods. To me, trekking is also about taking on the elements in a fair battle: overcoming that challenge I consider an accomplishment.
Some of my friends are professional globetrotters. They write wonderful books, give lectures and teach students. Some have demonstrated how man can survive in the most extreme conditions our planet has to offer without mechanical help. Which in turn suggests that all of us can explore the wonderful world between these extremes, without needing to be as fit as top athletes.
We also share a belief that our world is beautiful and needs to be taken care by applying both our hearts and our intellects to the task. Below you can learn a little more about my friends and the wonderful things their inquisitive natures have helped them create.
Frank van Rijn
After studying Electronics at the University of Delft, Frank tried working as a teacher but discovered cycling round the world was more his thing. He has been doing it now for more than 40 years. When not on his bike, Frank lives a simple life in a small village in Holland, where he writes fascinating books about his journeys.
www.frankvanrijn.nl | NL / E
Concentration. Poor navigation leads to uncertainty, uncertainty to panic, and panic to being lost and lonely somewhere in the hot desert sands. Frank knows (there were no satnavs in those days).
Photography: Van Rijn / Courtesy: Elmar publishers
Eric is another Dutch cyclist. He studied Accountancy but then decided to cycle the globe. He runs a friendly bike shop in Amsterdam, where he is supported by excellent technicians, highly experienced assistants and his companion, Carla. If Dear One needs serious treatment, Eric is the man. And on top of all this, he’s also a fine musician.
www.vakantiefietser.nl | NL / E
www.carlaeneric.nl | NL
Photography: Schuyt-Vermond / Courtesy: Holland publishers
Does it really matter where you were born? Tilmann was born – maybe in Germany, maybe elsewhere – and now lives on our planet. And also for it.
He is an excellent photographer and journalist, but above all Tilmann was born for a bicycle’s saddle. He has lived his life as a cyclist and continues to do so. Of all the many places he has been, it was Australia that won his heart.
View his site carefully, and listen especially to the words he doesn’t speak.
www.tilmann.com | D / E
As 15-year-old lads, Reinhold and his brother Günter were already among the world’s best mountaineers. Born in the Tirol in Austria, Reinhold has spent his whole life as an explorer and geographic researcher. Not only in the high mountains but also traversing remote regions like the Antarctic and the Gobi Desert. Mostly he does this entirely alone and by foot. In 1970, he paid the highest price a man can pay: he lost his brother Günter to the Nanga Parbat in The Himalayas. A tragedy that nevertheless did not rob him of his extraordinary bravery.
An Italian, Reinhold has written many books, and works as a political activist and an ambassador for nature.
Visit his site: “Who I am is what I do”.
As chance had it, cycling lass Mirjam Wouters never studied, but after more than 10 years and 90,000 kilometres peddling, she finally returned home — a mother. All that time she had followed her nose, letting Fate takes its course in the belief that what happens, happens. Over the years, Mirjam’s motto changed from ‘one life, two wheels’ to ‘the only certainty is change’.
After all her amazing travel adventures, you might expect a more spiritual take on life, but her tales remain very down-to-earth, characterised by the attitude “if I can, I cycle; if I have to, I work”. And that much-needed work always seems to fall her way. For anyone inclined to envy her, she has a simple message: “Leave it all behind you and just cycle”.
Visit her site: “Cycling Dutch Girl”.
You won’t hear founder Robbert Rutgrink say it, but his Dutch bicycle factory, Santos, can only have been born out of frustration: “If no one else is going to think about what the travelling cyclist actually needs, we’ll do so ourselves”. Santos’ bikes are made exclusively for their owners and equipped like no other for their task. Many come complete with the now legendary combination of a Rohloff gear hub and belt drive.
Visit the site: “Custombuilt bicycles”.
www.santosbikes.nl | NL / E