Hellfire in Transylvania - Jimmy Carter thinks I'm a sinner - CycleBlaze

May 22, 2007

Hellfire in Transylvania

Nothing is certain in Romania. Maybe that's the charm. On the other hand, it can be frustrating. Especially the roads. Sometimes the map will tell you you're in for a tiny road from one unknown place to another and you get a ride as smooth as an angel's sigh. Then another time it tells you to expect a 'main highway, second class' and there's nothing but a scattered heap of rocks.

This is the tale of one such a road.

It starts a couple of days ago when we rode a moderate pass further into Transylvania. And then, because it was easier than expected and we arrived sooner than we thought at our destination, we embarked on the first slopes of Pasul Groapa Seaca, a climb to 1,600m. Wherever we were when we felt ready, there we would camp.

The road began through a brief area of depressed and depressing apartment blocks, then opened up along the broad base of a valley along which families finished their picnics by the riverside. It was all rather bucolic.

The family parties ended where the flat valley ended and the sides of the road were enclosed by near-vertical rock with tall conifers packed densely in the earth that clung where it could. Alongside us, a foaming stream made angry by the rain of the past days.

Instantly, the temperature dropped and it became damper but the ride was fine. The only concern was where to camp. For 10km there was nothing but small patches of grass between the road and the stream, barely large enough to pitch a tent and - in a country where wild camping is illegal if apparently far from unknown - with not a hint of cover from passing cars.

We rode on, picking our way through fist-deep holes and weaving round what must have been the original road surface, of which only intermittent patches remained. And then - wonderful! - a ledge three metres above the road and hidden from it.

It was from there next morning that we started the two hours of steady climbing to the top of the mountain. We passed 1,300m with the first patches of snow appearing above us. The only buildings were infrequent wooden cabins by hairpins, blue smoke rising from their chimneys and a bulldozer parked outside. I assume they were road-mending or bridge-maintaining crews, but I never did find out. I dismissed logging because signs said this was a nature reserve.

Climb number one: that was adventure enough but we had little idea what was to follow
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At 1,575m we reached the summit, marked by nothing but patches of icy snow and a change of road surface. Where the climb had been bumpy, the descent was wholly unsurfaced. The road had become compressed and puddled mud interspersed with small craters and bergs of stone.

To be honest, I didn't mind. It took a long time to get down, clinging to the brakes, whipping the front wheel this way and that, but at any greater speed, we'd have missed the most wonderful scenery I have seen. The sun shone through conifers of a dozen different shades, the river bubbled and raced over rocks and down cascades, and the mountain rose ever higher above us as we fell. The journey took half as long again because of stops for photos.

It's a nuisance to lose height when you know that a still higher climb will follow. But we trusted what we read into the map, which was that the descent would lead to a junction with a more important road and that a few kilometres later we would turn left to the regional centre of Sebes. More than that, the road surface had deteriorated when we changed from one region to another and, since we would leave that shortly, there was a good guess that things would improve.


After a beautiful valley, with two Dutch women in a car the only traffic we saw, we reached our junction and gazed left in disbelief. The 'main highway, second class' was a rocky path which reared at 12 per cent. But we were committed. The only other way was back to where we'd been the previous afternoon or along the other road at the junction, which went the wrong way and was anyway closed after 30km.

Cartographia shows this as a major road, second only to the trans-European highways.
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For a long time we bumped, wriggled and pushed our bikes up this path, which eventually grew less steep for stretches. There'd been just a few houses in the valley and now there were even fewer as the road climbed. But with luck, the 'improved' road for drivers turned into an unimproved road that was easier, if not easy, to pass by bike.

Just before 1,700m, almost at the col, Pasul Tartarau, we were crossed by a couple on a German motorbike. They said 'hi' and rode on, presumably speechless at the sight of two laden cyclists coming the other way.

'They'd probably felt heroic until then,' Steph laughed.

I was sure the 70km down to Sebes would be surfaced. I looked forward to a swoop down to compensate for the pretty but slow ride down the previous mountain. But what had been bad going up

We started the second descent, not believing it could be worse than the climb.
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became almost unridable going down. The road had never been surfaced and much of what was left had been turned into deep trenches by the storm rain. Boulders lay across our path where water had washed away the earth banks, and fallen trees rested across the road.

Down and down we went at creeping speed, each moment expecting a twanged spoke or a puncture. Each moment, too,

Forget mere potholes... this road had holes big enough to swallow a bikie and his bike.
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we expected or at any rate hoped for a hard surface. Sometimes, once every two kilometres, it would come, but mysteriously it would last a hundred metres before ending equally abruptly.

Would that be as bad as it would get? No, it wouldn't.

With 60km to go and the road still bad and enclosed by caverns of rock, a storm broke. The light vanished and Wagnerian lightning flashed above us before exploding instantly in a rocky echo, sending down rain that might have been tipped from a bucket. At points the road had all but been washed away by the stream, undermined, and elsewhere mud had made the going impossible. How much rain would it take to strand us on a broken road or in a swamp, in a place where there was nowhere to camp, where nobody had passed in hours and probably wouldn't, or couldn't, for days?

It became now a race against the road, the weather and time. Life became an exhausting combination of fatigue, concentration and tiredness. And even, so far as breaking something vital on the bike was concerned, of fear.

Well, we're alive. We reached the first village in late afternoon. Not a hint of a hotel, a lodging house or a room in a private house. Another 30km remained to Sebes. If the road stayed as it had become in the village, we could do it. And we did it. We got another storm and a gale-blown drenching in the last kilometres but we got there, our legs smothered in sand, mud and grit, our eyes red from effort and strain.

We found a three-star hotel and dripped our way through the door. And the receptionists were kind enough not to mention it.

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