Today we landed on British soil, but we're not quite home yet. We slept quite well at the rest area in Holland and had an early start across to Leuven, Belgium, the home of Stella Artois and a lovely little university town. Bicycle was definitely the chosen mode of transport, with loads of them all over the place.
The traffic in Brussels was a bit nightmarish and the Belgians certainly deserve their maniacal driving reputation. The city was pleasant enough, but we chose to spend time in Bruges in the north west. Bruges was packed with tourists and locals alike, but had a lovely atmosphere and didn't feel overcrowded. It had a great shopping street and a number of very traditional squares lined with imposing buildings. We were fortunate to hear a Naval wind and brass orchestra performing an open-air concert in front of the City Hall. We sat on a bench and ate our frites and mayo and munched on a hot dog.
There were lots of quaint antique shops some of which were selling Congolese artefacts for exorbitant prices. The skyline was pierced with spires, towers and oddly-pitched roofs and as every European tourist town, the regular beat of horseshoe on cobbled stone filled the air.
There were lovely canals cutting through the old town past stone churches and houses and pubs with colourful flower boxes. When we got back to Nyathi she had lots of attention and we ended up speaking to an English chap who sadly derided England and told us how terrible and dangerous it had become! We certainly don't think he comes from the same England we know.
We considered sending the night near Ostend and enjoying the the evening and tomorrow at the beach, but decided we would rather see if we could catch the ferry today instead. So we drove down into France to Dunkerque and Norfolk Lines said it was no problem to go on an earlier ferry. So we stocked up on some MORE beer and wine and filled up with diesel, which sounds like a simple task but took us an hour. It was after 19h30 and none of the fuel stations would accept our credit cards in the 24/24 automated system. We eventually found a BP garage on the A16 motorway that charged an extra 6 cents per litre, but had people to take cash and credit cards!
We raced back and only just caught the 21h30 ferry. The loading was a little delayed and we got across to Dover at 11h00 (local time). There were no border problems and off we went. It was strange to be driving on the left hand side of the road after so long on the right. We got to Lex & Isabel's (Michael's brother and sister in law) at 01h30, parked in their garden and got to sleep as soon as possible. Thankfully they have a large garden and live in the countryside so there is lots of place and it's really quiet. It seemed so weird to know this was the home stretch...
We spent a fabulous day relaxing and catching up. Isabel and I went to the shops and I kept looking down the aisles and thinking "I remember that", "I'd forgotten you could get that"... Of course the price of things was quite shocking, but we expected them to be.
Michael's youngest sister, Susan came to visit for the day. We didn't feel like we did very much excepted chatted and chatted and swiftly the day disappeared. We were lucky to have fantastically warm weather. I went for a run at about 19h30 and it was still hot, with the added "bonus" of little midges flying about. Melissa took great delight in running about the garden with one of the bug zappers we'd bought in SE Asia, killing every flying insect in sight.
I got up early and sat in the sun in the garden planning what we need to get done over the next few days, weeks and months. We were saying to each other yesterday that we seem a little at a loss now because for the last five years our life had been focused on the goal of travelling around the world and now we have accomplished that we have to think about what we're doing next. We have already considered some designs for an insulated off-road camper vehicle on a Unimog chassis so we can visit much colder climes, but that's a dream right now, first we need to earn money!
We had a tasty breakfast of egg, bacon, tomato and toast. We did more washing and then I went with Isabel to Melissa's (my niece) primary school, where the head teacher had asked if we would come along and to a bit of "show and tell". I parked Nyathi in the playground and the children gathered round and sat on the grass in the shade of a tree .
It was fun and the children asked loads of really good questions, ranging from "what distance did we cover and how did we keep oil for the car" to "which was our favourite country and where did we go to the toilet?" The children then all lined up and had a look inside the vehicle. Their enthusiasm and interest was infectious.
Michael's mom (Hilary) and sister (Jennifer) visited for the day and the time simply disappeared while we spent time chatting, emptying out fish tanks (Lex and Isabel are moving house soon) and doing the things families do. Michael and I had to do a few more mundane and not particularly fun tasks like chasing the property letting agents and the debt collectors and cleaning.
The evening was spent drinking laughing and generally having a good time.
It is 815 days ago that we drove out of Nottingham with an immense feeling of excitement and anticipation. Driving Nyathi back to our home city was unbelievable. The time has flown by and our feelings are a combination of elation - that we successfully completed our trip and we are back home with friends and family - and sadness - that our journey is over and we have to return to our everyday lives.
We would have loved to drive back to our home in Barton-in-Fabis, but Graham Ridley, our tenant, has not moved out despite the 30th April being D-day. (Nor has he paid his rent for the past six months!). So, instead we went to Ivor's house (which is actually quite fitting as we departed from his old house on the 15th April 2003). Seeing Ivor and Al walk out onto the driveway to welcome us was wonderful. Michael and I couldn't stop beaming at each other. We really felt like we were home. They had a cake ready for us saying "Welcome back. Now where's the beer?" Needless to say we celebrated with a drink and then a few hours later we went to play squash. The evening was spent eating curries, drinking and catching up.
All of my family and friends are coming up from Oxford tomorrow and we'll be seeing Kathy, Martin, Conor and Niamh. Ange and Andrew are coming over when they get back from Edinburgh and before long we will have caught up with everybody.
I still cannot believe we are back. The journey has been absolutely amazing - all we dreamt of, and more! There were moments of angst and frustration and many times (most often when elbow deep in dirt or grease) when we asked ourselves why we were doing this? However, those paled into insignificance when compared to the countless moments we had saying to each other how spectacular places were and how exceptionally kind and friendly people were. We only had four instances throughout our entire journey where we felt unwelcome. We are extremely lucky to have met so many wonderful people on our travels. We'd like to thank everyone we encountered who helped us in big and small ways (you know who you are) for enriching our journey.