A Very Long Journey

A Very Long Journey

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We had a 5:50 am start today, far too early for breakfast even in a German hotel, so we finished up our packing and got ourselves out of the hotel by 6:20am ready for the short walk over to the Hauptbahnhof where our bus would be waiting for us.

We were due to leave at 7 am, so we had a bit of time available to buy sandwiches and other provisions for the journey and for me to grab a few more Euros cash.

We initially headed off west along the A96, which leads towards the very far western tip of Austria. Our overall plan was to grab quick caches in Austria, Liechtenstein and Switzerland before hitting the “hard miles” up through France and back home. That was the plan, anyway.

We stopped somewhere on the A96 to fill the bus with diesel, and somehow managed to find the only motorway service station on the planet that doesn’t have a cache at it. Hmmm!

Onwards and upwards. We crossed the Austrian border to the south of Lindau and made our way towards Dornbirn for our first appointment with a cache. The cache in question was Easy Drive In, which we expected to be, well, an easy drive-by cache. It wasn’t. The bus parked up in a bus stop outside some local shops and we all piled off the bus to do a spot of tupperware hunting. In the immediate vicinity (i.e. in places where GZ might feasibly be) there was a small space of scrubland with a big woodpile, someone’s hedge, and the entrance to a driving school. We tried all of them, much to the amusement and bewilderment of several locals. Eventually, just as we were contemplating moving on before someone called the police, one of our number had the bright idea of going into the driving school to ask. After all, it was called the “Easy Driving School”, so the name was a bit of a giveaway. Inside there was apparently a flicker of recognition and understanding, and then several of our party came out of the school and began to dismantle the nice coffee table on the forecourt. It consisted of a dark glass sheet resting on top of a couple of old tyres. Inside one of the old tyres was a small plastic box…….

Our next target was to find one cache, any old cache, in the tiny country of Liechtenstein. It is such a small country though that whoever was up front doing the navigating had quite a job finding the place. I was watching on my GPS with despair as we passed the motorway junction, and then turned around, came back and nearly missed it again. Eventually though, someone up front spotted a sign with Vaduz written on it in sufficient time for the bus driver to react. For one of only two occasions on the whole trip there was a proper border crossing, with customs officers and armed guards and everything. They didn’t stop us.

Liechtenstein has quite a few caches for such a small place, a fact which turned rapidly into comedy as we drove past three or four perfectly good lay-bys that had caches before arriving at our chosen location, which seemed to be in the middle of a major set of roadworks. There wasn’t really anywhere to park a bus and the GZ seemed to be coming up right where the heavy equipment was working, even though the cache in question had been found only the previous day. After a brief bit of being shouted at and gestured at by an irate workman, we got back on the bus and jacked it in. This isn’t good. We’re tight for time and we need a cache here. So it’s just as well that a couple of us had our phones out and had downloaded most of the local ones before leaving home. We noticed there was a bus station about 3km down the road which appeared to have a cache nearby. Result. A bus-based drive-by. You don’t get many of those to the pound.

Bunter Bushof Schaan was indeed right in the bus station, a quirky and really rather wonderful little bus station. It was also quite easy to find the cache, thankfully.

From here we crossed over into Switzerland and someone had the bright idea of putting The Sound of Music into the DVD player, so we were driving through some fantastic alpine scenery whilst listening to Julie Andrews and the rest of them yodelling on about lonely goatherds, edelweiss and brown paper packages. It was some kind of surreal torture for me. It was most definitely not one of my favourite things.

What made it more of a torture was a short section of off-motorway just west of Zurich that the bus drivers chose because it lead more directly to our next caching stop. The section in question runs around and through the small town of Hinwil, which is the home of the Sauber F1 Team. It was also the home of far too many roadworks. We came to a crossroads and after exhausting all three options (and seeing most of the town on the way) we eventually managed to escape the town by driving back the way we’d come. We must have wasted 30 minutes there, 30 minutes that we really didn’t have, if we’re being honest.

Our next caching target was Hagenholx 491, a very rare beast indeed. It is the oldest cache in Switzerland and one of only a few left in Europe that were placed in March 2001. From where we parked it was most of a kilometre of trekking through a fairly pretty little forest, but rather noisy because of its proximity to Zürich Airport. Still, it was a welcome leg stretch and a good opportunity to check the football scores for us chaps.

This left us with the proverbial Mother of All Long Bus Journeys to get back home again. It was just before 2 pm local time when we left here, and we’d got something like 750km of driving left just to reach Calais. I think it was at this point that we had that “moment”, much as we did on the way down, where we realised there was a long way to go.

Our route took us on a motorway based route across to Basel and then up through Alsace before heading towards Metz and Reims and then along the Autoroute des Anglais back to Calais. That makes it sound frighteningly easy, doesn’t it?


We stopped at some motorway services for a quick wee break and were able to find AutoStop: A4 Ouest – Verdun Saint Nicolas Nord while we were there. Then we drove for a little over an hour before a few complaints were raised about lack of food stops (and the fact that the toilet on the bus was full, and hence unusable). So we stopped at some more services for food and to find AutoStop: A4 Est + A4 Ouest Reims Champagne. The food was most welcome, but I’m not sure the service station quite knew what hit them when we all piled in. We also had a total communication failure here as no one had any idea whether we were stopping to eat in the service station or whether we were supposed to be getting a takeaway. Given the length of the queues at every desk I doubt it would have affected the time for the stop anyway, to be honest.

After this we thought we were home and dry until the bus drivers needed to make an unscheduled stop at a garage to top up with the “blue stuff” that has to be put in the fuel tank to keep it below European emissions targets.

It seemed a very, very long way through France before we eventually made it back to the Eurotunnel Terminal at Calais. It was a long time – 10 hours since we left the cache at Zürich. Once we got there though, we were straight through passport control and up into the queue to get onto standby on a train leaving at 1:22 am. We didn’t get on that one. We missed by the length of one bus. We were the only vehicle waiting that didn’t get onto it.

And then began the worst part of the trip, for me. Just as we were missing the 1:22 train all the train times disappeared from the information board, and we were left with no idea what was going on. There was supposed to have been another train at 3:42 am, but that time came and went. Eventually at about 4 am we found out that there was a broken rail in one of the tunnels which needed to be fixed and, basically, no one was going anywhere until they’d done it. Eventually, they’d done it at 5 am. So at this time Ami and me had already been out of bed for 23 hours and we were still in France. In fact it had taken as long to get to here as it took us to get all the way down. Boooo! And Hiss!

And because we’d been going so long, when we did eventually make it back into England we immediately had to pull off into a car park and change drivers. Don’t get me wrong, the drivers did a sterling job for the whole weekend, but it was a bit annoying to be so far behind schedule and for them to be obliged to stop right here rather than continuing another 10 miles to where we were going to have to stop anyway to drop people off.

The remainder of the trip was as uneventful as we could have wanted though, and we eventually got back to MK Coachways just before 8 am UK time (which would be 26 hours after we got on the bus in Munich and 27 hours since either of us had seen a bed or a shower). Becky of Dave’s Piglings fame very kindly gave us a lift back home, whereupon Ami went to bed and stayed there most of the day, while I had a shower and a very large coffee and started my day of work. It was, after all, a Tuesday morning.

It certainly had been a bit of an adventure.

Munich Old Town

Munich Old Town

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We got up at 9:20 am again this morning and had a quick shower before dashing into the breakfast room for some more bread products, chocolate muesli and strong, hot beverages. All was going well until I had a bit of a yawn & stretch in my seat and heard a loud cracking noise behind me. Whoops! Somehow I was strong enough to break the back of the chair simply by arching my back. That can’t be good.

So there was a bit of whistling and staring into the corner of the ceiling until the waitress in the “full Bavarian” went out of the room, at which point we made a swift exit in the hope that no one noticed. Well, I’m sure they’d notice eventually, but we’d got a busy day ahead and we were going back later in the evening, so if they were going to hold me accountable they could do it in the evening.

It was a beautiful bright, sunny morning and we’d agreed to meet the rest of our new “caching crew” at Karlsplatz at 11 am. We set off in plenty of time to make the, oh, 100m journey there from the front door of our hotel, and we arrived a little before the others so we had time to mooch about a bit taking arty photos of rainbows in the fountain and trying to ignore the shopping trolley that someone had left in the middle.

When the rest of the posse did arrive there were rather a lot of them. Several more than the previous morning. We didn’t have any particular plan other than to enjoy the day. There was an informal gathering planned up in the English Garden mid afternoon, to be followed by “doing a webcam”, and there were plenty of caches in the Old Town as well as the prospect of another easy one for the total by attending the Giga Sunday morning event at the Hofbräuhaus. There were also 10 more lab caches available around the Old Town.

All of which sounded like the makings of a plan, or at least some kind of a fuzzy cloud type thing on a whiteboard with “Sunday” written in the middle and a few random arrows pointing to words like “geocache” and “beer” and “sunshine”. Not so much of a plan, more of a nebulous concept, if you like. A cumulo-nebulous, probably.

So our very large group we started walking a bit of a loop in a clockwise direction towards the Hofbräuhaus. Note that it has to be a clockwise loop. If you go the other way, the dark path, the way that shall not be named, you are obliged to rebalance the universe by playing pattycake and chanting “Hot potato, orchestra falls, pluck will make amends!” It’s true. A bloke down the pub said.

After a couple of lab caches and a traditional we found ourselves at the Hofbräuhaus, whereupon we proceeded to queue round a large gallery whilst waiting to sign the log book. Ami also decided she quite liked all three of the official heart-shaped geocoins so we queued up to buy her one each of the two that she hadn’t bought in advance. Luckily they had a few leftovers at the Hofbräuhaus event. She paid with the money out of her own purse, so that was OK.

By this time Ami was getting a bit twitchy, as it was a warm morning, and we were on another day of official “holiday rules”, so 2 hours after her breakfast she was ready for an ice cream. It’s just as well there was an ice cream parlour over the square then.

We re-met with most of the same group after our ice creams and continued our clockwise meanderings, taking in a couple more lab caches, a traditional and a puzzle, and at this point we came to the conclusion that there were, essentially, two separate Sundays floating around on the whiteboard. One involved a lot of caching and the other was tending towards lunch, beer, sunshine and more ice cream, so rather than ending up with two groups of not particularly people we decided it would be better to split into two smaller but somewhat happier groups. We were in a group with the attending members of Dave’s Piglings and EmmaW, this being the group that favoured the lunch, beer, sunshine and more ice cream school of thought.

We looped back into the centre of town towards Marienplatz (still going clockwise) passing another puzzle and a traditional and another couple of lab caches, before arriving at the foot of St Peter’s Church. We’d managed to establish that there was a WherIGo cache somewhere in the church tower, and had got a hint from someone about the location, before we arrived. However that hint implied it was necessary to climb the 300 or so steps to the top. I’d figured out that the cache was in this church some weeks earlier by reading the cache hint, which identifies that the final location costs money to enter and is only open between certain hours. From there it is a fairly trivial task to find tourist sites in central Munich that are open between those times and which charge that amount of money to get in. There was a shortlist of one possible option.

300 and something steps up sounded like a bit much for just now though, so we opted for lunch and beer at a little cafe right where we were standing. It looked quite nice. And indeed, it was quite nice really. The food was good and the toilets were very ornately decorated and lit. I had some rather nice gnocchi in chilli tomato sauce and some even nicer beer. The only downside was that our waitress seemed to get the hump about something or other and spent the rest of our meal wandering up to us with a face like a bulldog chewing a wasp. It was rather pleasant sitting outside under a sunshade on a scorchio day though, and the beer hit the spot nicely.

Me, Ami and Izzy all were keen to go and explore the church tower but Becky and Emma seemed more happy to explore another drink, so off the three of us went. Izzy became my child temporarily again, to keep the cost down, and we then proceeded to make our way up 300 and something rather tight and claustrophobia-inducing wooden steps up to the top of the tower. At about one-third of the distance up there was a family playing with what looked very much like a geocache, so I asked if it was the WherIGo cache and received a positive reply. So before they had time to put it back into its locked box and allow me to “do it properly” I swiftly borrowed the log and added all our names in. We then stole away off up the church tower, just in case they thought we were cheating.

The view from the top is quite spectacular, but to be honest it needs to be, because there isn’t a lot of room. It was difficult for someone of my, errr, healthy stature to pass anyone coming the other way, so I had to play catch up with the two girls, who were managing to get their relatively slight frames through gaps that I couldn’t even get my rucksack through. At least they’re both bright enough to realise and make a bit of a game out of it. If you have the patience to go all the way round you’re rewarded with good views down on the Marienplatz on the north side and all the way across to the Austrian Alps on the south side. Fantastic!

After this rather extended lunch with added climbing we shuffled our way around to Marienplatz to make an attempt on the webcam cache there. Initially our problem was that it was really busy. We waited for a while to allow it to calm down a bit, at which point Becky and Izzy extracted a fairly impressive collection of English flags from their bags which would “help the camera to spot us”, as it were. It worked – partly because the flags stood out, and partly because everyone within a 20-yard radius decided to move out of the way, as we were obviously quite insane. So we snapped a nice photo of ourselves standing out like a sore thumb, before returning to some form of decorum. Well, not that much decorum, to be honest. It was a hot day and there was a fountain. The shoes and socks just had to come off.

By the time we got here it was getting on towards late afternoon, so we followed a road out for a hundred yards or so to grab one more puzzle cache and then decided we’d just about all had enough for the day, having made about 8 finds plus 10 lab caches, so we wandered back along to Karlsplatz marvelling at our own inability to find any tourist-tat shops that were actually open (it was a holiday Sunday, which meant that more or less all of the shops were shut). We decided that Karlsplatz was a pleasant enough spot to engage in some more of the beer and ice cream side of the floaty-cloud-on-the-whiteboard equation, so we grabbed an outdoor table at a cafe on the square and ordered a not inconsiderable quantity of calories.

By this time we were at a bit of a loss on how to finish our day off and late afternoon had turned into early evening, so whilst Becky, Izzy and Emma wandered into the nearby McDonalds again for some dinner, Ami complained that she felt a bit ill (for which I read “tired”) and we retired to our hotel room for a couple of hours to grab a quick snooze.

We did eventually end up having Macky-D’s for tea again, after which we strolled down to Marienplatz and back one final time in the rapidly setting sun before going back to our hotel for showers, packing and sleep. We had another long day in prospect for the following day.

Caches found during the day were :

Going Giga

Going Giga

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After the delights of spending 21 hours the previous day riding a bus across Europe (see All Aboard the Gigabus) we set our alarm at a fairly lazy 9:40 am. Both of us woke up a bit earlier than that (partly due to the noise of people going in and out of the nearby breakfast room), and we grabbed a quick shower before going for breakfast ourselves. Thankfully the breakfast room was open quite late, by German standards.

Ami seemed to be in fairly good condition (probably better than me, to be honest) and we managed to get ready without any argy-bargy or grumpiness.

The breakfast room was literally only 10 yards away from our bedroom door, just along the corridor. It was a traditional German affair consisting of a selection of breads, cereals, meats & cheeses with hot drinks delivered by a fairly friendly waitress dressed in the “full Bavarian”

We had an appointment to meet up at 11am at the Hauptbahnhof with some others who were staying locally, so we could travel up to the event together. We arrived nice and early and I took the opportunity to grab some Euros from a nearby cashpoint, as I’d only got 30 or so in my wallet. The day promised to involve the use of cash for anything needing to be purchased, such as food and beer.

Our companions turned out to be more numerous than we expected and somewhat late, but we got there eventually and then descended into the U-Bahn. Ticket negotiations proved troublesome (always research and decide beforehand when trying to use public transport somewhere they don’t speak your language) but we ended up with some kind of a group ticket that covered several of us but only provided one receipt, and hence which meant we’d all need to stay together or meet up somewhere to go home later. One of the assembled company was carrying an ironing board, which apparently is trackable.

We took the U8 line up to Olympiazentrum and ascended into the sunshine feeling ready for some eventing and box hunting.

The route from the station to the stadium was heaving – never has one single area been packed with so many people who know so precisely where they are, but who have such little idea about why they are there. Probably.

Anyway, we were suitably armed with all forms of GPS device, onto which we’d variously downloaded a selection of regular caches, lab caches, events, and other random stuff. The whole weekend proved to a be big exercise in negotiation as we variously met up with and then separated from people who had or hadn’t got the solutions to puzzles in the vicinity, and were aware of which ones had been temporarily disabled and which hadn’t.

First up we followed a crowd to an item hanging in a tree which purported to be a “travelling” cache visiting from elsewhere in Bavaria, but which ultimately turned out to be a wind-up job – some irritating soul had decided to hang a bit of tupperware in a tree and label it with the name of someone else’s cache, and that someone else started receiving hundreds of logs about people finding his cache in Munich until at some point he just archived it and deleted all the logs. Not such a good start, not that we knew that until the evening, when we tried logging everything.

Then we continued wandering towards the stadium, where we found our first Lab Cache (at the Art Gallery). Lab Caches are strange, aren’t they? Somewhere in-between the old Virtual cache type and the modern-day Munzee, and generally a bit half-arsed in the implementation at the moment.

As we left the art gallery and moved towards the stadium we had the first of several heavy showers during the day. It was quite impressive watching the way the roofs of the stadium channel water along the edges and into the (inadequate) drains. We huddled under the roof until this one stopped. It was a good one.

And then we wandered over to find our way into the event itself. When we arrived at the stadium entrance we were greeted by the sight of a massive queue, and our hearts immediately sank a bit until we realised that it was the queue for people who hadn’t pre-registered for the event. We all had pre-registered and were, therefore, able to walk right up to an empty desk with our confirmation receipts to pick up our geocoins, goody-bags and other items. And this meant we could then descend directly into the stadium without really having to queue at all.

What greeted us inside the stadium was a veritable cacophony of caching chaos, consisting of a stage with a very loud PA system, several food and beverage outlets, a selection of Bavarian pub-games, multiple vendors of geocaching items, a series of tables for swapping trackables and a series of huge boards that constituted the official event “logbook” And a lot of people. Oh, and several people walking along the stadium roof and jumping down a massize zip wire that ran into the stadium bowl.

The stadium itself was very similar to the previous time I’d visited (in 1989) except that it no longer seems to have a running track or grass field. It seems to have been covered in tarmac. Well I guess it helps the rain to drain away. It is still a very impressive place when you’re standing down on the stadium floor, though. The roof really towers over you from down there.

All of this excitement was getting the better of us, so we decided it was time for some kind of refreshment. We wandered over to a nearby stall and negotiated our way towards some coffee and cakes. I had a bit of a dialogue issue whereby I seemed to be overcharged and discussed with someone who said no, I’d definitely been charged correctly. I couldn’t be bothered to argue over a Euro so I left with my coffee and cake in hand while we all wandered over to one of the many Coca-Cola concession stands. At this one we got talking to a chap who was very aware of who we were (claiming to have heard of Simply Paul) and who explained to us the issue with the pricing. What the coffee stallholder had failed to get across to me was that the drinking vessels in the stadium carried a 1 Euro deposit, which I could get back when I’d finished and returned my empty cup to any of the stalls in the stadium. He also told us that the plastic bottles of soft drinks carry a 25 cent deposit that can be redeemed at any vendor of such items anywhere in Germany. I guess it encourages recycling. Or it encourages you to nick the glass instead of throwing it away.

Once we’d got ourselves suitably caffeinated we ventured off around stadium floor to see what was going on.  There seemed to be a whole host of Bavarian pub games going on that we obviously had to have a go at, such as “milk the rubber cow”, “shove beer glass”, “chuck the beer mat in a barrel”, “walk on a beer crate”, “hold a full beer glass out at arm’s length” and “hammer the nail” – All of these resulted in your getting a little rubber stamp, and when your sheet was full you could enter your sheet into a prize draw. None of us won.

The thing about pub games is that they make you hungry and thirsty, though. So after finishing our course, we retired to the food area to grab some lunch. It was at roughly this time that the heavens opened again and we had to take a gamble on whether to stand out in the rain whilst queuing or whether to keep hiding under the awning of the Coke tent in the hope that people would all wander out of the queues just as the rain was stopping. We settled for getting wet in the queue. Ami had some extremely healthy chips. I had my chips with an even healthier currywurst. We ate them whilst standing under the awning and watching the rain come down in buckets.

Just as we were finishing our lunch the rain relented and we were greeted by some bright sunshine (again), so we decided it was time for a quick look at the trackables tables and to go sign the big sheets that were acting as the event log. The logs were dry enough. Many of the bits of paper containing trackable codes (for discovery) had been suitably turned to mush. I still managed to get photos of about 400 codes for discovery though.

By now the sun was properly out, so we decided to say goodbye to the stadium and to shoot off to do a bit of the tupperware hunting. We had a collection of trads, puzzles, WherIGos and other items in the Olympic Park as well as 9 of the 10 Lab Caches remaining to be found, so lots to have a go at and time was marching on.

We decided to walk a clockwise route heading (initially) north out of the stadium towards the old Olympic Village. This took us past a number of “proper” caches as well as a few of the lab ones. There was a multi which started at the site of the infamous Munich Massacre and finished really close to the stadium (and which I’d pre-solved using Google). Then there was a traditional that involved scrambling down a very mucky and very slippery slope. After this, we were actually at the site of the Munich Massacre on Connollystraße, where there is a small memorial to the Israeli athletes who lost their lives.

From here we walked northwards to find a traditional cache stuck in a birdhouse in the middle of the Olympic Village, and from there southwards again for a lab cache in the area of the village that contains single floor bungalow style accommodation. This area is now used chiefly by students, many of whom have painted some very ornate murals on the outside.

This looped us nicely back to the lab cache at BMW World and back into the Olympic Park for a puzzle cache I’d solved and a lab cache by the side of the lake (which proved tricky because the original clue was buried beneath a flea market and whilst they’d changed the lab cache they’d done this sufficiently late that none of us had the new instructions. We only realised when another cacher told us the what and how…..

That was a fair amount of walking in itself but we weren’t done yet as we still had the whole of the Olympic Park itself to search through. We walked around the lake continuing in a clockwise loop where we found a traditional stuck to an anchor, another lab and a traditional on the “rubble hill”, then the earthcache on the very top of the Olympic Mountain plus a bonus traditional stuck in the trig point (that none of us had in our GPS devices for some reason). From here we descended to the south and west of the stadium to find the end point of a WherIGo cache and two more lab caches, and then the bonus for the WherIGo and two more traditionals before ending up at the last lab cache (at the Olympic Swimming Pool). At this last juncture the Dave’s Piglings scooted off in the direction of a puzzle they’d solved that was outside the Olympic Park by a few hundred metres, but sadly they didn’t find it.

Ami and me arrived at the swimming pool, shortly followed by EmmaW, and by now it was raining again, so we grabbed a drink and an over-sized pretzel each and mooched about in the rain waiting for the others to arrive. There’s a little stage jutting out into the lake and there was a live band playing, so there was some entertainment. By this time the clock had marched its way around to about 7 pm, I think. We’d been out caching for a good 4-5 hours since we’d left the stadium, so I felt we owed ourselves a beer and a sit down for a while.

We reassembled ourselves and decided we’d rather like to go up the extremely tall Olympiaturm for a look around. We’d deliberately waited until quite late in the evening though, to try to avoid the seething mass of humanity that had been around the park all day. By this time of the evening it was quite quiet by comparison. We cheated slightly here as the tower gave discounts for family groups, so myself and Ami were temporarily joined with Becky and Izzy into the Garford (or Mundner) family from Leighton Keynes (or Milton Buzzard).

The lift up to the top was quite quick, but not quite to the top. There are three or four floors up top, including a viewing gallery, a restaurant, and a nausea-inducing open terrace with mezzanine on top. It’s 190m up to the viewing gallery level and one good flight of stairs up to the outside level from there. Above there is another 90m of pointy televisual and communications gubbins. It’s quite spacious up top, which isn’t what I was expecting, even though it does look quite large from ground level. The view is superb though. You can see quite a long way on a clear day and you get a very impressive bird’s eye view of the stadium complex below. For some reason there’s also a small rock ‘n’ roll museum up there too. There’s also a little box on the wall with a combination lock, and inside that box is a geocache.

On the ground floor there’s a little tourist tat shop and some toilets, both of which were required before we left. It was starting to get distinctly dusky by the time we got down to the bottom so we had a quick chat about what to do for an evening meal. Our conclusion was that we wanted something quick and cheap, so we ended up returning to the centre of town on the U-Bahn and going to McDonalds. This particular outlet was all of about 100m away from the front of our hotel, so we were laughing.

The McDonalds was very McDonalds-ish and we sauntered back to our hotel feeling suitably stuffed in the now darkness of 10:30 pm, having arranged to meet up with our tour party right outside the same establishment at 11 am the following morning.

Not a bad day, overall. Ami survived well, given the absence of sleep (as did I) and we found a clutch of caches as well as attending the world’s first Giga event. Can’t be bad.

By way of reference, the caches we found were :

All Aboard the Gigabus

All Aboard the Gigabus

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Early on a Friday morning in August, and the start of what promised to be a bit of an adventure. Oh yes indeedy – Daughterus Maximus, a.k.a. Travelling Pumpkin, and myself had a ticket to ride on the now infamous charter coach from Milton Keynes down to the world’s first ever Giga Event, which was being held in Munich on August 16th.

The bus was due to leave the MK Coachways bus station at 7am, so we got up at 5:40am to grab a bit of breakfast and sort ourselves out in time for Kas driving us down there. Anyway, there was a pre-coach flashmob event to be attended at 6:45am.

Obviously the previous night we’d prepared ourselves thoroughly by making sure everything was packed up and ready to go, before having a final evening meal in Blighty by attending BBH #80 – Bordering on a Giga! at a pub just up the road from our house. Kas very kindly drove to that one so all four of us attended and I was able to consume the (cough) correct amount of beer required to prepare for a long coach journey, i.e. enough to feel groggy but not nauseous the following morning. And as ever, because there was an exciting weekend in prospect and I was knackered anyway, I was totally unable to get to sleep.

There was a bit of general discombobulation at the coach station caused by several factors – an absence of strong coffee, a requirement to pay for the toilets, a daft idea about people on the bus signing the log for the event in the building rather than getting on the bus and signing it there, that kind of thing – but then not long after 7am and with the requisite number of people onboard we set off down the motorway for the start of our somewhat epic trip.

The first part wasn’t so epic though. “Tedious” would be a better description. At least there were some good friends on the bus and, judging by the chat from behind us, there were some vodka-filled gummy bears too. So that got the party off to a good start for some of the crew while we were plodding our way around the M25 and over the QE2 Bridge.

And all of this joy lead us to another pick-up point in Ashford, where we were joined by enough bums to fill the remaining few seats. All of those bums had a cacher attached to them, by the way. We got there at about 9:30, which was slightly late for the Breakfast event, but they bought the book onboard and we all signed it anyway.

From here we had an appointment with a large ship at the Dover Ferry Terminal. On the way, though, we had to make a stop at Maidstone Services to swap drivers – we’d been driven down by one guy who was obviously doing the UK-only section, and we were joined by two drivers who were coming all the way down to Munich and back with us.

Somehow when Simply Paul was working out the costs it looked better to take the trip out by ferry but come back on the Eurotunnel Shuttle, so that’s what we did. There were some rumours about what time we’d got a ferry booked. In the event it was very quick to get into the ferry terminal, despite having to fill out loads of forms for the one Canadian national onboard, and we made it onto a ferry leaving at about 10:45.

I’ve never been on a ferry from Dover to Calais before. Blimey!

It wasn’t actually as bad as I thought it might be. The weather wasn’t great so it was a bit damp out on deck as we were setting off, but once we were underway it all seemed very pleasant. Ami and me went inside to the food court to grab a very healthy lunch of pasties and chips and we sat with EmmaW and the attending members of Dave’s Piglings watching the sea, sky, and pasties drift by. Once suitably lunched-up we decided to go and grab some fresh air out on deck, at the “blunt end” as we seafaring folks call it. I was just making a comment about how close the French coast was starting to look when I glanced over the other side of the ship and saw a cliff right next to us. OK, so it doesn’t take that long really.

Getting off the ferry and onto the motorways was a doddle. Seemingly no checks whatsoever were involved and we were up on the nearest autoroute before you could say “Robert est ton oncle”.

We were heading for Belgium’s oldest cache and then a random cache in Luxembourg, but before we could get there we had a few miles of French motorway to get across. For myself an Ami the first bit of this all looked very familiar, having only been back from our holiday about 10 days earlier (see Coming Home). It wasn’t long though before we were off down the A25 towards Lille – new territory for most of us, I would suspect. It was definitely new territory for Izzy from the Piglings, who up until this trip hadn’t ever been abroad, and for Mrs Pigling, who hadn’t been abroad since before the junior Piglings came on the scene. I’d like to say myself and Ami are a bit old hat at this European motorway malarkey, but that would be a bit grand. Let’s just say I have a lot of European motorways in my past and Ami has had the delights of driving long distances through France, Belgium and the Netherlands on at least four occasions already. The  A25 towards Lille was new, but not particularly spectacular, territory for us all then, I suspect.

By the time we got to Lille there was a bit of muttering about not having done any caches “on the continent” yet so Simply Paul identified a random roadside cache (street art n°1) that looked like we could park a bus, and he jumped off with one of the drivers, who went along to get to grips with what they’d let themselves in for. Well that was a quick one.

After this we had a short stretch of no motorways followed by a seamless transition into Belgium from France and then a bit of Belgian motorway before going off piste to make an attempt at what is supposedly Continental Europe’s oldest geocache – the imaginatively named “Geocache“. This one is placed at exactly N 50° 00.000 E 005° 00.000, a spot in the middle of a forest to the south of Dinant. This was what you might lovingly refer to as “one for the purists”, not because of the cache, which was a fine effort of the ammo can variety, but because of the miserable weather. As we were in a bus, the driver had to park wherever he could manage, which turned out to be up a small side-road about 400m from the cache itself, and just as we were arriving the heavens opened and “il pleut des chats et des chiens” as they undoubtedly don’t say in that part of the world. Seriously – it was only a few hundred metres, but everyone got absolutely soaked. It did also provide the opportunity for several male members of the group to turn their bikes round in a forest setting before getting back on the bus.

So as we moved on from here there was a sort of soggy, foresty smell on the bus. Nice!

By now it was well after 5 pm and we still had a long way to go. In fact, I think it was around this time that we started to realise that we’d maybe got a lot further to go than we’d thought we’d have by this time of the day.

Next stop was a very heavily favourited cache in the very bottom corner of Luxembourg – another 120km or so away. Given the state of the roads, we were going to be travelling another 2 hours at least to get there.

The cache in question was Forever, which is at that little bit in the south-east corner of Luxembourg where it seems to co-exist with Germany and France. The cache is a padlock attached to a local monument where the form is that you’re supposed to add your own padlock to represent togetherness and permanence. It proved to be a fairly quick find with upwards of 20 people scrambling all over it.

As we were leaving and the bus driver was attempting to find somewhere to turn around, we passed a small museum, and then we drove into France very briefly, turned round, and passed the museum again and then joined the motorway crossing the bridge over into Germany over the Moselle River. Someone behind made a comment about how the countries were all so close together here and how easy it was to cross between them, completely failing to notice that the little museum was, in fact, in celebration of the Schengen Agreement – the treaty that in 1996 removed all internal border controls between the states of Germany, France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands originally, and which now encompasses all European Union states (or will encompass them) with the exception of the Republic of Ireland and the UK. Yes, the cache was in Schengen. And in our current time of wondering whether we should stay in the European Union or leave it, this, my friends, is a fine example of what the EU is supposed to be about – treating the continent of Europe as a single economic entity rather than several. Notice though that I say it’s what the EU is “supposed” to be about, rather than what it actually currently is about. That is a whole other debate which will run for ages, and which is irrelevant to this blog, and which, given the political mood in the UK at the moment, is liable to make my blood boil at some point soon.

And so began what proved to be the nightmare part of the journey. Luxembourg to Munich is at least as far as Calais to Luxembourg, and at the point where we left it was already well past 8 pm, we hadn’t stopped at all for any length of time and it had taken us more than 7 hours from Calais already. People were frantically calling their hotels to make sure they had a 24-hour check-in facility. Ours did – I checked it before we set off.

Initially, we followed the motorways around Saarbrücken and over towards Karlsruhe. By the time we got there, it was already well into darkness. At some point there was some general discontent and the bus drivers were persuaded to stop at some motorway services near Pforzheim at about 11:30 as we still had a long way to go and most of us hadn’t packed food to last quite this long. So we made a brief stop which involved some burgers, a quick cache (T-Helferzelle), and, in my case, a total scare as I stuck my bank card into an ATM to grab some Euros and ended up not getting anything back. In the event, the machine didn’t charge me anything, but it took me until I got home to discover that, and in the intervening time I was kicking myself for having stupidly chucked away 80 Euros or so. I didn’t know whether the machine had rejected my card, or whether I’d cancelled the transaction, or whether I’d been too slow and the machine had locked the cash away, or even whether it had produced the cash but dropped it behind a swing door where I hadn’t looked. The moral of that tale is probably to only use a foreign bank machine that is attached to a bank, and to do so in daylight and whilst vaguely awake.

The route from here took us around Stuttgart and then all the way into Munich along the A8 autobahn past Ulm and Augsburg. Well, it should have been “straight along”, but we seemed to spend some unearthly amount of time in roadworks or being diverted off the autobahn through quiet little towns, so it wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been.

Eventually, those of us that were still awake (or who had woken up after a short and fitful night’s sleep) were greeted by some motorway signs advertising our arrival in Munich. It still took another half hour after that to get into the city centre and the bus eventually pulled up outside the Hauptbahnhof at a rather frightening 4:30 am. After leaving our house at 6:30 am UK time the previous day that means it took a full 21 hours to get from MK Coachways to central Munich.

Several people were having a serious sense of humour crisis. Simply Paul resolved to rearrange the trip home to make our scheduled train crossing rather later. And everyone still had to get from the station to their hotel. At 4:30 am there are a few, but not many, taxis at the station. For Ami and me though we had just a 5 minutes walk through reasonably lit streets to get to our gaff – the Hotel Daniel. We made it last 10 minutes though as we had trouble finding the right exit from a huge U-Bahn station/underpass thing that walked into to avoid crossing a busy road with no route through the tram lines.  Thankfully, once we did arrive, there was indeed a night porter who checked us in, told us about the breakfast arrangements and gave us our room key. So we were quickly upstairs to find our nice cosy little twin room (long and thin with two single beds arranged end-to-end). We were both too tired to bother with the niceties of cleaning our teeth of properly finding our jim-jams, so straight to bed it was with the alarm set for a fairly reasonable 9:30 am and a promise made to Dave’s Piglings and EmmaW that we’d call them about meeting up back at the Hauptbahnhof at around 11 am to get on with a bit of caching.

That was a long day!