Fatbiking the Cami de Cavalles
The Camí de Cavalls, Menorca
Day 1: Mahon Airport to a Pine Forest near Arenal de Castell
I was exhausted after hauling a six by three foot cardboard box containing my fatbike and the rest of my equipment through the endless Jet2 check in queue at Manchester Airport. Bidding farewell to my bike at the oversized baggage check-in counter, and praying that the baggage handlers didn't destroy it, I passed through security, boarded the plane and within two hours, was landing at the tiny Mahon Airport on Menorca. As we were coming into land, I got a great view of the Island, which is pretty flat in comparison to its neighbour, Mallorca. Menorca's highest hill tops out at 358 metres, but as I was to find out, the Camí de Cavalls is far from flat! Looking out of the plane window, I thought that Menorca looked significantly larger than I had anticipated and as I was planning to cycle first around the island, and then across it, on a fatbike (which aren't known for their speed or pedalling efficiency), I had my work cut out over the next few days.
After an anxious wait, my bike was returned to me without damage. I found a quiet corner of the airport car park and reassembled it, loaded it with luggage, which was contained in a triangular shaped bag that fits inside the frame, and a dry bag, that I strapped to the handlebars with a ratchet strap. After about half an hour, I was ready to leave and was sweating in the scorching midday sun, despite not having cycled a single metre of my journey. The heat wave that Europe was currently experiencing had certainly not missed Menorca and the temperature was in the high-thirties when I set off. I had programmed the route into my small Garmin GPS unit, having mapped it out using the excellent route planning tool on www.bikehike.co.uk. The little computer, that doubles up as a running watch, doesn't have maps on it, but plots a "breadcrumb trail" on the screen that is easy enough to follow. It also vibrates when you go off course so if I was to miss a turning, I would be warned straight away. I cycled along a fantastic roadside cycle path, stocked up on supplies at a LIDL supermarket and after a few kilometres of road cycling, I arrived at a large map displayed in a glass covered frame, that introduced the next section of the Camí de Cavalls. There is no start or finish to the trail, since it is a circular route. Walkers, horse riders or (more rarely) cyclists, can start at any access point and indeed leave at any, so certain sections can easily be explored. The route appeared to be very well signposted and this combined with my GPS breadcrumb trail meant that there was little chance that I would go the wrong way.
Very soon after beginning cycling on the off-road trail, I realised that this bike tour was going to be very different from any I had done before and that circumnavigating the island of Menorca was going to be a very difficult thing to do! The Camí de Cavalls follows the coastline as closely as possible and as a result hugs the contours of the land very closely. As it is an ancient path, no engineering was employed to flatten bits out, as would be the case on a well trodden hiking trail developed in more modern times. For me, this meant that the trail was almost never flat. It rose and fell over every headland, skirted cliff tops and every few kilometres, deposited me onto wide, sandy beaches, on which the wide tyres of my fatbike excelled!
I started on the trail at around 4 pm so I had a few hours of daylight before needing to look for a place to sleep. Within these few hours the trail surface changed from red dirt, to dusty hard-packed earth, to sand, to loose stones, to rock slabs, to clusters of small rocks, to stony beaches, to sandy beaches, to wooden boardwalks, to root covered forested sections with steep descents, flowing singletrack, technical climbs, unrideable climbs, smooth easy sections, bumpy slow sections, and really technical descents, which kept me alert at all times. On one descent, a stick got stuck in my back wheel and vibrated annoyingly against the spokes. I tried to kick it out but my foot got stuck in the spokes and locked the wheel up. I toppled over into a spiky bush. Idiot... I was never bored on the Camí de Cavalls!
What I was though, was hot. Very hot. It was 38 degree Celsius and there was little shade on the exposed sections. Menorca was very dry too and it was early August (the middle of summer). Almost all of the fresh water appeared to have dried up. There were no lakes, all the seasonal rivers were just stony river beds at that time of year, and the Camí de Cavalls was wonderfully remote, which made the adventure more memorable, but made the logistics of keeping hydrated very difficult. I had a three litre water bladder in my rucksack, which kept the water cool, but being able to carry more water would have been useful. I was travelling as lightweight as possible though, as the trail was so technically difficult, I needed to be able to move the bike around quickly and extra weight would make the riding more difficult. I had to strike a balance between travelling light and carrying enough water to stay safe in the relentless sun.
Without a doubt, the highlight of this section of the Camí de Cavalls, was when the trail reached each of the many beaches on Menorca's northern coast. Some beaches were busy and covered in tourists sunbathing, but many more were completely isolated from the tourist train. The beaches further than about one kilometre from vehicular access were generally completely empty or only had a couple of other people there. These beaches could only be accessed by either the trail or the sea, which meant that incredibly expensive luxury yachts and catamarans were often moored in the natural harbours in which the beaches sat. Oh, and the beaches were spectacular... The water was a deep shade of blue and so clear and calm that I could see fish swimming in the shallows from trail. Some beaches were yellow sand and some were pebbles, but all were stunningly beautiful. I kept cool by going for regular dips in the sea, and exploring the underwater world and colourful fish in the shallow water near the coastline. Goggles were one of the most essential item on my kitlist.
After about four hours of wonderful cycling, I reached the resort town of Arenal de Castell, which contained many tourist villas, bars and nightclubs, but also an excellent supermarket, where I bought local cheese, chorizo, mozzarella and tomatoes for dinner, as well as five litres of water; enough to drink, wash and ensure I had a reasonable amount in my backpack for the start of the ride the following day. On the far side of the town, I reached another large beach, which had a bar that sold ice cold Estrella beer, so I ordered a large one and sat down to write my diary. This was the life!
After my drink, I continued on the Camí de Cavalls, into a pine forest and after putting a couple of kilometres between myself and the town, left the trail, found two appropriate spaced trees and hung my hammock between them. This hammock was a new addition to my cycling equipment and cost just £8.99 from Decathlon. I had never slept in a hammock before that day, so I spent a while ensuring that the knots were tight. Quite quickly I realised I had a problem in the form of ants, that seemed to have ant "motorways" up every tree in the wood. Long trails of ants moved up and down the trunks and they were using my hammock as a route between two trees. There wasn't really an option to put it anywhere else though and the ants didn't bite so I had to live with a trail of ants crawling across my bed during the night. Other than the ants, the hammock was very comfortable. I ate the food I bought earlier and went to sleep with the distant dance music coming from the nightclubs in the nearby town, audible above the sound of crickets.
Day 2: Short of water on the Northern Sea Cliffs
I awoke in my hammock as the sun rose and was happy to find that I wasn't covered in ants, whose activity levels seemed to have dropped during the night. After a quick breakfast of ham, cheese and bread, I cycled out of the wood and passed through a small town where I stocked up with more food and water. The trail once again reached the coast, where a group of six French cyclists were joining the trail. They were all riding expensive full suspension mountain bikes but were intrigued by my fatbike. Although fatbikes are becoming more common, they are still a rare sight and are definitely viewed as a novelty! I have lost count of the number of times that I've been asked "why does your bike have such large wheels?!". On the first beach the relative performance of both bike types on sand was clear! I flew past the French, riding on the loose sand as if it were a tarmac road, whereas their skinnier tyres sank into the beach, meaning that they had to push. The fatbike also gripped far better on the technical climb on the other side of the beach, meaning I could ride a lot more of the trail than the French guys. I had set up the fatbike with an extremely small front chainring, which made it easy to pedal on steep climbs. Not needing a large gear on this sort of trail, it was a great decision and meant I could cycle some very technical climbs fairly easily. The fatbike has amazing stability too, with its relatively heavy, high-inertia wheels that keep the bike upright, working somewhat like a gyroscope.
The trail continued in its incredibly varied way, passing through many different environments, including thin passageways between high dry stone walls, which Menorca is famous for. On this day, I cycled past the most beautiful beaches of my lap of Menorca. One of which was entirely empty, situated in a bay, with large rugged sea cliffs sheltering the soft sand from the Mediterranean. I got off the bike went for a swim, trying to get a photo of the colourful fish with my phone, that is advertised as also working as an underwater camera. It didn't... About 20 seconds after submerging it, the phone turned off and wouldn't respond at all. Damn! All my photos from the previous day were on it and it was the only camera I had with me. I hoped that when it dried out I'd be able to resurrect it, but I was unable to take any more photos that day. This was unfortunate, since almost straight away after restarting my ride, I saw three mountain goats on a ledge right at the top of a high sea cliff, which would have made a fantastic photo.
For the first few hours that day, I'd been fairly liberal with the amount of water I'd been drinking from my rucksack bladder. These bladders have many advantages including ease of access and that they keep the water out of the sun, but have the disadvantage that you have no idea how much you've drunk or how much you have left to drink unless you open your rucksack to see. I didn't check and realised with a shock that I had less than one litre left. It was just before midday so the sun was very hot. To make things worse, I had no map either, since the one I had been using was on my phone and my GPS just showed the shape of the trail. I decided that I should carry on cycling and not stop until I found some fresh water. I passed gorgeous beach after gorgeous beach, crossed rocky headlands, pushed up steep climbs, cycled down technical descents, for around two hours, where I hardly drank anything. I was becoming dehydrated, my mouth was dry and I was feeling absolutely shattered.
I reached another beach situated in a bay, in which a large catamaran was moored. Thinking I could swim out to it to ask for some water I leant my bike against a rock. Looking round, I saw a small shack on the other side of the beach, with a covered area and a barbeque. There were some large containers leaning against it so I went to investigate. They contained fresh water, although I had no idea how long it had been there. There was loads of it, so I didn't have to worry about drinking all of somebody's water supply, but I was desperate so I took two litres, cleaning it with my small water filter in case it had been sitting there for a very long time. I felt guilty doing this but I didn't have much choice due to my poor planning. I had assumed that I would be able to get water fairly regularly, knowing that there were beaches all the way along the north coast of Menorca. It turned out however, that most of these beaches were empty, with no tourists in sight, and nowhere selling food or drink.
With a full water bladder, I cycled on up a steep climb, followed by a fantastic section of flowing singletrack that led to another larger beach, with a few moored boats, some nude sunbathers and a group of fishermen sat in a beachside hut playing cards and drinking beer. I imagined them lamenting the lack of fish when telling their wives about their day when they returned home. Their boats that were tied together by the hut, fishing rods lying aboard, unused: "No bites today darling!".
After a quick cooling dip in the sea, I looked at the trail ahead, A very steep climb, although it looked like it may be rideable if I concentrated hard and put a lot of effort it. At the bottom I pushed hard on the pedals, clearing the first rocky section. I heard a cheer from the fishermen and thought that someone must have just won the card game. I continued uphill and managed to ride up a small rocky step in the trail to another cheer. I looked over and realised that the fishermen were all watching me and cheering me up the climb, pressure was on! I continued up straining on the pedals and spurred on by the ever increasing volume of cheering and now whooping, I managed to get to the top, where there was a wooden railing. I held on to it, caught my breath and waved at the fishermen before continuing on my way to continuing cheers.
Finally, after nine hours of cycling, I reached the next town. It didn't have a supermarket, but fortunately there was a restaurant. I stopped for a cheap mid-afternoon meal of spaghetti bolognaise, a coffee and a large bottle of sparkling water. My phone still wouldn't switch on so I asked about what lay ahead and was pleased to hear that I was about 20 kilometres from Ciutadella, a large town on the Western end of Menorca. It was getting late in the afternoon so I wouldn't reach there that day but I had enough food for an evening meal and breakfast and would be able to get water from the restaurant. I would have a second breakfast when I reached the town the following morning.
I left the small town of Cala Morell, passing some interesting cave dwellings, the Coves de Cala Morell, which contain water channels, supporting pillars, beds, windows and lots of other features hewn from the rock. Some of the caves were hewn from the rock by ancient inhabitants of the island as early as 2,500 BC but since then, the settlement has been developed into a sophisticated cave village. Soon after the cave village, the Camí de Cavalls entered a wood for a short period then threw me out into the wild of a windswept barren rocky plateau. The epic scenery was made more so by the breaking waves on the now towering sea cliffs, which had a large lighthouse perched on the point that stuck out furthest into the sea. The trail was technical, and very bumpy with large rocks to ride over. Progress was slow but it was almost all rideable. Eventually, when the sun was going down, I reached a sheltered valley, containing some troughs full of drinking water for the sheep that lived there, carved into a cliff face. Next to the troughs was a porous boulder that was shaped like a horseshoe when viewed from above. It was possible to thread a rope through the holes in the rock, so I was able to hang my hammock between the two sides of the boulder. Investigating the sheep troughs, I found that they were plumbed into a large black pipe, from which water flowed when the level became too low. By unscrewing the pipe, I was able to quickly fill my water bladder, have a makeshift shower and wash my cycling clothes, before reattaching the pipe to the troughs, leaving no trace that I had been there. Settling down in my hammock, I ate more ham and cheese sandwiches and fell asleep underneath a spectacular night sky, including a couple of shooting stars. It had been an unbelievable day through some of the most spectacularly beautiful scenery I have ever experienced on a trail that could have been purpose built for cycling on a fatbike!
Day 3: The most varied day of cycling
I slept very well in the night and awoke refreshed in my rocky alcove. A runner passed at about seven o' clock when the sun was rising, but was so focussed on his exercise that he didn't spot me a few metres away from the trailside. I packed my kit away, had a snack, then began the ride again, slowly cycling along the very bumpy, rocky trail. The barren, windswept headland continued, passing the massive natural arch formed in the sea cliffs, the Pont d'en Gil. After around an hour of slow progress on the difficult terrain, the trail reached a road and I sped along into Ciutedella, the large port town on the west of Menorca. On the outskirts I bought water and found a disposable camera, which would allow me at least to take a few photos, since my phone was still unresponsive.
I navigated my way through the town, into the centre, where there was a large square containing a large church situated next to a café, which had a large outdoor seating area on the wide pavement. I ordered a pain au chocolat and a large coffee, which I sipped while I sat and watched the world go by and caught up on my diary. The peace and quiet was interrupted by constant exclamations about how large my bike's wheels were and people wanting to test the tyre pressures and the weight of the bike (which people were consistently impressed with, since the bike looks a lot heavier than it is!). I plugged my phone in at the café and it lit up and began charging, YESSS!! My photos were safe.
The trail out of Ciutedella passed the port that I would be returning to in a couple of days' time, to cross to Mallorca. It then weaved in and out of the town until the last building was behind my wheels and a coastal path in front once more. Progress was again slow, due to the rocky terrain, but the technical singletrack was fun to ride. I was able to progress at about ten kilometres per hour, which was significantly quicker than most of the previous day. This section of the trail was fairly flat in comparison. After around an hour, the rocky headland came to an end and the trail changed to a sandy track on top of the small sand dunes set back from a series of stunning beaches. Every few kilometres, there was a large resort and the beaches, unlike the deserted beautiful bays on the north coast, were busy with sunbathing tourists. The trail was busier too and many people walking on it, between the beaches and their hotels, although not overly so and the riding was still enjoyable and the scenery very pretty. The sandy trail wove its way through spiky bushes on the sand dunes. Horses were being ridden along the same track and kids ran around playing in the sand.
After a while, the trail climbed back into a thick forest that smelled strongly of pine trees, a smell that reminded me of cycling through the vast forests surrounding Yosemite National Park in the USA. The quality of riding over this section was the best of the Camí de Cavalls. The trail was all rideable, the climbs were interesting and the descents flowing, rocky, technical and fast. I thoroughly enjoyed the mountain biking that morning, until I reached the lovely, but very busy beach named Cala Macarella. There was a large canteen style outdoor restaurant there where I ordered a delicious lasagne and a coke. This section of trail was much more logically simple, as there were frequent shops and restaurants where I could buy food and water.
I spent most of the afternoon cycling along the brilliant woodland trails. Everything was perfect, except that during one of the descents, a large spiky bit of wood pierced my rear tyre. I was running a tubeless setup, which means that the tyres seal onto the rim, with no inner tubes required. The hole through my rear tyre was too large to reseal though so I was force to put an inner tube into the wheel to fix it, pumping it up much harder, as inner tubes are prone to "pinch flats", caused by the tube getting caught between the rim and a sharp bump in the trail. After around 15 minutes, I'd fixed the problem, but fat bike tyres (being about five times the volume of typical mountain bike tyres, take some pumping up!). The woodland trails continued, climbing to a height of around 60 metres from each beach, then descending the same distance to the next beach. This was world-class mountain biking.
The next large town on the Camí de Cavalls was Saint Tomas, closely followed by Son Bou. A short section of flat trail through agricultural fields full of crops linked the two, which I cycled in the early evening. After stocking up on food supplies, I stopped at a bar for a pint of Estrella, a refreshing end to a fantastic day. I climbed up as I left Son Bou, along a path that passed in front of cliffs, through another pine forest, then onto a difficult singletrack descent to a quiet beach, whose last occupants were leaving in the evening gloom. I pushed up the hill on the far side of the beach until I found a suitable pair of trees to hang the hammock from, set up camp, ate, then went to bed. The day had been just as good as the previous two. It had been different, on a much less remote trail, but with such good mountain biking that that didn't matter at all. The Camí de Cavalls was providing one of the best adventures that I have ever had.
Day 4: Completing the lap of Menorca
I awoke at six, but couldn't persuade myself to leave the comfort of my hammock until half past seven. I left my campsite just after eight, having eaten my breakfast, packed my kit up and said good morning to two runners and a group of hikers who had already passed me on the Camí de Cavalls. The forest trail continued until it became a rocky, bumpy track between dry stone walls. The first difficult climb led up a sandy track that switchbacked up to the top of a hill and was followed by a pleasant singletrack descent back towards the coast. The cycling was perfectly pleasant but the views not so spectacular as those during the first two days.
This section of the trail was much more frequented by other users than the one on the northern coast, being generally much closer to inhabited areas. I was passed on climbs by two other cyclists on much lighter bikes than mine (both stopped to exclaim about the width of my tyres...). The towns separated by the trail were fairly bland and very anglicised. Each generally contained a beach, a number of bars showing sport with drinks deals, and a few cafés with English signs advertising breakfasts, coffee, cold beer etc. It started raining so I sheltered in one, ordering a coffee and a chocolate waffle from two Londoners who had settled in Menorca over 15 years ago. They were very pleasant people, and seemed to have regular British customers, judging by their clients during the hour-or-so period that I spent there. There were a lot of Brits in that town, named Canutells. The rain got heavier and heavier and made for quite a show as I sat in the café . I was told that this was the first rain for six weeks, but that if you could see the outline of Mallorca from the coast, with a dark black skyline (I had earlier that day), then the rain would be set in for at least three days... my heart sank. The guy who ran the café told me that a couple of years ago there'd been a huge thunderstorm, during which he smelt a strong smell of barbequed meat and was very surprised that anyone was barbequing in the heavy rain. He found out afterwards that the smell had come from a sheep that had been struck by lightning on the nearby hill! Depressed at thought of getting completely soaked and worried about the possibility of lightning, I prepared to leave. Soon afterwards, though, I found that the superstition about the Mallorcan skyline was nonsense as the sun reappeared and remained for the rest of the day.
The Camí de Cavalls headed inland for a while, following the characteristic dry stone walls again, and passed close to the south end of Mahon Airport; where I had arrived four days earlier. Soon back on the coast, the trail passed a number of large resorts and reached another rugged section of rocky and sandy headland, on which was perched a large ruined lighthouse. A larger modern lighthouse seemed to have replaced the older one, situated off the coast on a small island. I was soon heading north for the first time in a few days, along the final section of the Camí de Cavalls before Mahon. I had a swim in a small bay, where a few sailing boats were moored, then on the next section of trail saw a tortoise that a group of people were petting. It didn't seem to mind being picked up, and one girl stroked its head. Eventually it was let free and plodded off into the undergrowth on the trailside.
The trail followed roads on the approach to Mahon. I stopped at a bus stop to complete some bike maintenance in the shade, before continuing into Mahon, the end of my circuit of the island. I had completed the Camí de Cavalls and what a journey it had been. The lap of Menorca had been the most varied four days of cycling that I could remember, with constantly changing spectacular views, some serious physically demanding sections, and plenty of gorgeous beaches to relax on. I stopped for a celebratory ice cream and coffee at a café on the harbour, admiring the many beautiful yachts moored there. One particularly large one had a jet ski attached to its rear. Mahon has one of the largest natural harbours in the world; being five kilometres long and nearly one kilometre wide.
After finishing my ice cream, I continued inland and was soon in the Menorcan countryside since Mahon doesn't sprawl very far. I crossed the road that I'd cycled along from the airport, officially completing my lap! I continued along the country road name the Cami d'en Kane, which was built by the British Govenor, Richard Kane, in the 17th Century during the British occupation of Menorca. The road was built to link the two large port towns of Ciutedella and Mahon. I cycled along the very quiet, perfectly straight and narrow lane, through the peaceful landscape, past pastures lined with dry stone wall, to the pretty town of Aolior.
The centre of Aolior was full of bustling narrow streets, lined with tall stone buildings with lots of small flags, similar to bunting, hung between the buildings on either side. I purchased a croissant, a cold bottle of water and some of the town's famous cheese, before resting in the shade at a central square. Following a different back road to an equally pleasant town named Es Migjorn Gran, I bought food for dinner. I ended up cycling quite late into the evening that day, because it was very difficult to find a suitable place to hand the hammock. The inland of Menorca is not heavily populated, but there are lots of houses built close to the roads, and lots of people around most of the time. Every small track leaving the road was marked as private and there was little undergrowth on the roadside. I eventually came to a small wood which was situated behind a small wall on the edge of the road. Waiting for a gap in the evening traffic so that I wouldn't be seen, I lifted my bike over the wall and found two trees to hang my hammock between. It had been great to cycling inland, which showed me much more what traditional life is like on Menorca. The creamy cheese from Aolior was delicious as I ate it in my hammock. Unfortunately, I waged a war with mosquitoes that night, which interrupted my sleep. I also saw a few large rodents scurrying through the trees. I am not sure what they were, but I hoped that none would choose to pay me a visit during the night!
Day 5: To the ferry!
After a broken night of sleep thanks to the frequent mosquito attacks, I awoke early and cycled the remaining 13 uneventful kilometres to Ciutedella in just over an hour, mainly on the main road across the island. I arrived in the town at around nine o' clock but wasn't allowed to transfer my pre-booked ferry ticket to an earlier crossing so I had to wait until the two o' clock ferry that afternoon. That was fine by me though, since I had plenty to do. I cycled into the town centre, stocked up on supplies, got some cash out for the next few days and then found a beach. I went for a swim, washed my clothes then had a quick wash in the shower on the beach. It was midday by the time I got back to the port, where I charged my phone and GPS, before boarding the boat.
I locked my bike around a pipe in the ship's hold and went upstairs to a comfortable reclining seat where I caught up on my diary, had a coffee from the café on board, then slept for the majority of the crossing. Mallorca was up next and I had no idea what to expect because the limited time I'd had to plan the trip had been focussed on the logistics of cycling the Camí de Cavalls. It would be a different adventure since I planned to explore the high mountains in the north of the country. (Next blog post on Mallorca fatbiking coming soon).