One more thing happened on Rab. After more than two thousand kilometres of cycling, I finally opened one of the six blank notebooks I had carried all the way from Lille and began to write. I was not sure what I would do with it but somehow hoped to turn it into a book, someday. I also invited a friend of mine who is aspirant (but experienced) writer to have a writing retreat together in Greece. I hoped she would say yes, but also realized it was not everyone’s ambition to give up their jobs and stable lives just to go enjoy themselves on the beaches.
The old olive trees
After a ten-days long stay in Rab, I finally said goodbye to my hosts Milorad and Ljubica. The previous days’ wind had grown to a halt, announcing a hot day of sun in the Dalmatian Islands. Milorad explained that the sea water on the seaward side of the Dalmatian Island was particularly salty, that it was good for the skin and that I should not shower after swimming. I told him this was good news, because I did not intend to shower much in the coming days. Before I left he said again, “and don’t forget, go slowly”, which felt like some of the best advice I’ve been given on a tour. And the kind of advice I need to hear many times. So I cycled down to Cafe Moderato for a last cappuccino while waiting for my ship. When I saw the size of the boat and the number of people who waited (or rather hurried to board the unstaffed boat), I thought the pilot would refuse my bicycle. But three bikes including mine were attached on the front railings and the bags went onto the roof.
I landed in Tovarnele, the small harbour downstream the village of Lun, in the heat of the day. The ride would start with a 100 m uphill and I knew there was nothing to do for a couple of hours but to swim, eat, swim again, nap, and of course swim again. Then I put on long sleeves and trousers and began the ascent. This was my new cycling outfit and it worked very well. At first the clothes felt hot, but I quickly realised they were more efficient at keeping the sweat on my body to cool me down as I took on speed, rather than letting it directly evaporate in the hot Adriatic air. My thoughts though, were spinning round and round.
I used my smartphone to check the weather across Europe. If it was hot here by the Adriatic Sea, most of France was actually experiencing a scorching heat, some of the villages by the Belgian border reaching a mind-blowing 38°C. Like the previous year. Temperature, I thought, is one of the things we know best of our planet. Some of the temperature records in Europe are almost two hundred years old. Actually, measuring temperature is incredibly easy nowadays. To measure rainfall or wind is much harder, but anybody can go to the local store and buy a thermometer, or even an automated recorder and let it run for a couple of years. Measuring temperature is very easy, that is, unless you want to measure temperature on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet. And the temperature on top of the Greenland Ice Sheet is of course a rather practical thing to know these days.
To start with, you need to go there, which is an expedition. Of course, you would want to measure temperature for more than just a couple of summer days. One needs measurements for a full year, or preferably a couple of cold years, a couple of average years, and a couple of warm years. Since nobody wants to spend winter on the ice sheet, you also have to design instruments that resist very cold weather, fierce katabatic winds, and snow piling up in winter and melting down in summer. Oh and I forgot, there is no solar energy for a quarter of the year. Lastly, you need to come back. In August 2020, Konrad Steffen, a scientist who had pioneered automated temperature measurements on the ice sheet, went to Greenland, but did not come back. He had fell into a crevasse.
I had learned the news from an ex-colleague during my mid-day break. By then, I had left academia for almost half a year, and did no longer consider myself much of a scientist. But the news touched me more than I would have imagined. It is certainly another peculiarity of academia, I thought, that the same colleagues who are fiercely competing against one another, also share a very strong sense of community. At that moment, the community was struck with grief. It was not so much that the man was a renowned scientist and director of a leading research institute in Switzerland. He was also a charismatic, classy-looking bearded man that I had met in person, if just a few times, and did not want to think of in a crevasse.
One thing that disturbed me, is that Konrad Steffen had been to Greenland many times. This accident could have happened to nearly anyone I had shared office with in the last five years, I thought, or to myself of course. I wondered if it was safer to do fieldwork on a Greenlandic glacier or to cycle on a busy road in Croatia. I wondered if collecting climate data was worth risking human lives. I wondered if journalists were not entirely wrong after all, when they made us look like adventurers just to bump up their audience charts.
I wondered who or what was guilty. Had there been security shortcomings in the field? Most likely I thought, because researchers don’t have a TV crew budget to hire mountain guides for every outing, or enough arms to carry around both scientific instruments and the necessary gear to pull someone out of a Greenlandic crevasse. If they are additional arms on the field, it is usually because new research projects have been funded. Was the man’s passion for glaciers to blame? Or the institution he worked at? Or the lack of government funds for field security? Or the stubbornly competitive academic environment, where financial security is so tightly bound to the amount of data one brings home? It took me about twenty-four hours to realise that all these were useless questions. There was nothing to think of. We glaciologists all knew that glacier fieldwork was dangerous. It was just a different thing to feel it.
In Lun, there was an olive garden. On the southern slope of the island, olive trees grew and reproduced naturally. The trees stood still, like a group of wrinkly old men looking at the sea from the terrace of an Italian coffee shop, undisturbed by the ever-going seasonal song of the cicadas. The karstic ground looked like crumbles of a giant Emmental cheese turned to stone. Some trees were spinning like corkscrews, some appeared to be stuck in a slow dance paced by the centuries, others yet seemed to float above the ground, like if even soil erosion was faster than the trees’ growth. Slowly, slowly, had said Milorad. Every here and then, a younger tree had popped straight up from the ground, like a skinny adolescent feeling uneasy in the middle of the elderly crowd.
I walked for about half an hour until I reached the oldest tree, which is thought to have two thousands years. I tried to imagine how many tourists had passed here. The tree had survived empires, countries and wars, the medieval warm period and the little ice age. Before leaving the place, I made a wish that the olive tree would outlive myself. I wished it would also survive the coming centuries of hot weather we have been setting up for it, and hopefully make it into cooler times. I left the place content. For the olive trees, human lives must feel like little more than raindrops in mid-air. Maybe humanity itself did not matter so much after all. Nature would certainly come up with something else.
Slow and back on desert island
The cycle road went on onto the ridge line until it plunged back to Novalja, another Croatian seaside tourist hub, where I hurried into the water, had dinner and watched the sun set. After Novalja, the road became much busier, giving me more matter to think of life and death. I had planned to camp wild when I ran onto Camp Svetih Duh, a quiet campsite by the sea shore. I came from above so I could see from the heights that the place was designed with more common sense than the ugly parking-like campsites on Krk, that it was not overcrowded with camping-cars, and that there was, here, on this arid island, grass.
The next morning, I woke up early, and set up my new cycling routine. I cycled the first few kilometres just in swimming suit because I wanted the rest of my body tanned. Of course, I had a rational reason for it. The scientific part of me thought it would be much more practical in these latitudes to get my skin a little less white. But above all else, I just thought it was cool. I enjoyed feeling the fresh morning air full with sea spray flowing around my body. A few kilometres from the camp, the road was closed due to a small (slow-moving) landslide. There was a one-metre step which was a bit hard to push my loaded bike into, but I had the road to myself for a few kilometres. I found it so cool to cycle in swimwear that I cycled on into the town of Pag in this apparel, and then straight into the sea for my third bath of the day, and then straight from the sea to a beachside cappuccino. From then on it was long sleeves and long trousers for the rest of the day.
Midday was approaching when I reached the incredibly dry, southern part of Pag. I noticed that I did not suffer so much from the heat as on my first days in Croatia. Going slowly helped a lot. Going slowly helped me to stay cool and not loose to much water. Going slowly left me with more energy to pay attention to car traffic on busy roads. Going slowly allowed me to jump in the sea to cool down whenever I felt like it. I did not bother waiting to dry up, cycling wet allowed me to keep cool for a few kilometres. I had also stopped worried my Brooks saddle might get wet. After two major Alpine passes and more than a thousand kilometres, the thing was barely softer than when I had bought it in Zurich. I just protected it with a miniature towel, but sometimes thought maybe I should wet the leather on purpose.
Another of my great fears when bike touring is to forget things along the way. This is one of my special skills. In 2018, I lost a notebook when looking for my bike on a multi-deck overnight car-ferry in Japan. I called the company and harbours multiple times (telephoning in Japan is an art) but never found it back. I have lost a few towels and helmets, keys, wallets, etc. For the last couple of years, I even carry two pairs of sunglasses, just because I have a long-term record in sunglasses. But so far I had managed to cycle more than 2000 km without loosing any single tiny item. This was some kind of a personal score, so I was taking pride in it and hoped to keep it up for a bit longer. But when cycling through the desert of Pag, I suddenly realised something was missing. It was not a crucial item, though recently I had begun to use it to protect my saddle after bathing. Worst, it was a souvenir that I could not imagine giving up. I cycled back about 10 km, carefully looking at the opposite side of the road. I was about to reach the last place where I thought it could have been when suddenly it was there. My mini-towel was taking a nap on the dirt road, still waiting to be ran over by the first passing car.
By mid-afternoon I cycled out of Pag Island and back to the mainland. The road was busy with apparently hurried drivers. I think I spent more time looking into the rearview mirror than in front of me. I moved my arms in all directions to explain to some car drivers that they should put more distance between us or break a little. Sometimes it worked, but not all drivers seemed to agree that my life was perhaps more important than a few extra minutes on the beach. Why did people need to drive so fast from place to place? Why did some of them need to carry half their house in a camping-car? Why was it that jump-around car tourism was still promoted as mainstream kind of tourism these days? Slowly, slowly, I wanted to tell them.
Let me introduce myself
I was approaching the town of Zadar, so I booked a room there for three nights, planning to use it as a hub to visit some of the islands nearby. But when I looked closer at Dugi Otok on a map, I thought the island looked so beautiful I wanted to spend at least one night tenting there. On the other hand Zadar turned out to be the largest city I visited since Ljubljana. At first, I regretted to have booked the room for so long. But then I decided to take the chance to be there to do a couple of city things.
First, I replaced the tires on my bike. The front tire especially had a few deep cuts that worried me, one of them responsible for my lately flat tire in Ljubljana. The rear tire did not look as bad but I decided to replace it too. I am not sure what is the expected life expectancy of bike tires, but I was definitely quite please about the Continental Tour Rides. Both tires had about 5000 km of touring and a couple of day rides, and ever since I had bought the bike I had had only one flat. It was fun to think that the tube in my rear tire was now actually older than the tires themselves. I upgraded to Schwalbe Marathon tires, the de facto gold standard of bicycle touring.
The other thing that I did was to prepare and to print business cards, which I’d been thinking of for a while now. Ever since I had lived for a year in Japan, I somehow really wanted to one day have my own meiji, this tiny item that, when formally introduced says without a doubt “look, this is what I am”. Rather than “I’m French but the French think I’m not, and you can’t say my name correctly but it’s OK cause nobody around me can” or “I’m a scientist, I mean part-time. I mean, they pay me part-time, and only for a few more months. I mean, it’s normal for a scientist, we work out of passion. I mean, they do.” Now I have my own business card, with the logo I designed in Rab, with my own design, my own personal email, and my own personal websites. If we meet on the road, I will give you one.