Early Monday morning, and we gather our things by our bikes. Our stay with Madis had included a rest day where it had done little else but rain. Like someone who had been trying to sneeze but failing, the dry spell had come to an end with a relieving downpour. It can rain ‘ in the night ‘ and on ‘ rest days ‘, and that is the deal we have struck, so no complaining. We turn back on to the road dirt road. Where a day and a half ago it had been dust, it was now in places, the consistency of badly-made porridge.
The surface is making the riding hard. It would have been a nightmare yesterday if we had needed to make some distance. We reach the 5 ( just that, no A or B and no highway ), a big but not too busy road, and take a right towards Tori. We have lost the shelter of the forest, here are big open arable fields, offering almost no protection from the wind. Lucky for us that today it is at our backs, pushing us along. We take a left towards Tori and see our first ploughed field of the harvest. The soil that has been turned to the sky is dark and wonderfully crumbly. You would be happy with this in your garden, and here it is in fields that must be 20 or 30 hectare.
The fourth or fifth bus of the day passes us. They are still so important in a country that has limited car ownership, and they still go everywhere. We have been on the remotest track, and there, every few K’s is a bus stop. Today is a special day and people are spilling out of the buses onto Tori main street. A crowd is outside the church and stalls have been set up. It is 21 years to the day that Estonia was declared an independent state. The band starts. For some reason they chose a spirited and almost jazz rendition of ‘ Roll out the barrel ‘.
The amazing soil around here has led to this area being the heart of Estonian agriculture. For most of history this has meant muscle power in the form of strong horses with a willing temperament. The Tori Horse has been bred and developed in these fields as a sort of equine diesel engine. It is slow and powerful and has been exported all over the world. They are putting on a bit of a show at the stud and we go and have a look.
We pick up bike route 5, and follow a road out along the River Pärnu. The sun is now positively warm and this is beautiful countryside to be pedalling through late on a Monday morning in August. Late morning is very close to early afternoon and when we get to Joesuu the possibility of a cheap meal is too much to resist. Whilst we are being weak willed, make that a beer too. Our lack of resolve continues a little way along the road when we come across the perfect campground. It is idyllic, we are the only campers and there are almost no mosquitos.
We watch the fish jump, as the sun goes down over the River Navesti. We both have on down clothing as the evenings are becoming much cooler. The sun is lost a good three hours earlier than just a few weeks ago in Finland. As it dips low on the horizon it sends our shadows out across the grass. Veelaager campground is an absolute peach. It is also a canoe and sauna centre, imagine that as a business model back home in the UK.
The night is by far our coldest yet. I am out of the tent at about 3.00 am, answering a call of nature. It is almost a minute before I can organise my feet and legs enough to get sandals on. I get my balance and look up at one of those star filled sky’s that make you wonder about your place in it all. You can only see just under 3,000 stars with the naked eye, but it looks like much more. And you know there are more out there than grains of sand in the world that it adds up to so many head spinning numbers.
We will be on ‘ rough stuff ‘ for most of the day. We both know this as we sit eating breakfast. It has been like this all across Europe since we started in late January in Portugal. If it is not a bike path in Germany it is a river bank in France or a forest track in Sweden and don’t forget the railway line paths in Spain. This year there has been a lot of off road as you bike across Europe. We turn left out of the farm and head towards Soomaa National Park.
We enter a tunnel of tall trees on a straight road. The trunks are so close together and branches touching, that it may as well be a wall. We can hear half a dozen Buzzards overhead, screaming at each other. Every so often the trees stop and there are meadows with cows that look up at our passing. Four stomachs to fill means they quickly get their heads back down to the grass. Very occasionally there are farms. A woman is picking flowers watched by her dog. We wave in solidarity with her remoteness.
We come to a junction with a diversion sign. Up the road there is a problem with the bridge, but we decide to go on. You can almost always get around a building site, but here we need a big helping hand and some luck. I think the workmen are pleased to have a bit of a diversion from their day. Soomaa is not too big, but it is very empty. In winter it gets so inundated with melt water and rain that it is almost completely submerged across the whole park.
These floods have shaped the people here and their lives. It is so total, that it is called ‘ the fifth season ‘ and a time when every thing is done by boat. Traditionally, this was a dugout canoe made from Aspen or Lime. One of the hardest parts is stripping the bark from the chosen tree. The master builder, Jaan Rahumaa says that ‘ It is as difficult as skinning a bear ‘. So, we can guess that it is difficult.
We end the day in Viljandi in a cheap hotel. It is unexpectedly beautiful, with some of the best wooden houses we have seen. Madis sister and family are all here to show us around. They tell us about close family that were sent to Siberia. With 400,000 people, almost a third of the population of Estonia being sentenced to labour in the Gulags of Siberia every family can tell similar stories. The Russians set out to break the resistance and spirit here in a systematic way. There is a statue in the town of the Mayor. He is a hero of the nation now, but ended his life in Siberia. I think some of the distrust of authority remains as we come across graffiti in the style of Banksy on the Police station wall.
The next morning we are on fast roads with the wind from behind. We reach Lake Vortsjärv and watch a Great White Egret take to the air. It is a huge lake, and today the wind is whipping up waves that make it look more like the sea. We turn right on the 47 to Rannu and turn around the end of the lake. This is bike route 15 and it passes through rich arable and dairy land. Combine harvesters have been fuelled, lubed and driven from the back of big sheds and are now harvesting many field of Barley and Rye. Many have Storks following them looking for casualties of the blades.
We go through Rannu and pass a line of Lime trees all starting to turn brown and drop their first leaves to the ground. We have been told where the campground is and the kind person also made a nice blue cross in biro on our map. It is not there nor is it 3k further on and nor is it signed at the junction that we now have to go the 3k back to. Come on Estonia, just use a sign for a tent and we will not have to put in an extra 10k at the end of the day. It is just €3 per person, which helps to lift my mood.
It rains very heavily overnight and more annoyingly, it continues while we have breakfast. It makes the start hard and now the wind is getting up and blowing into our faces. It is becoming lumpy and yet I have not once needed to drop into the Granny gear in Estonia. I think I may try to get to the border – a whole country without the low cog. We arrive in Otepää and it is quite clear that the thing to do is sit in a cafe, which is what we do. The heavens open and the day ends here after just 23k.
It could be very much worse. Otepää is nice enough, and is Estonias self proclaimed ‘ winter capital ‘ with a hill of just 300m making it the highest place in the country. It has a lot of snow but also quite a bit of history, with the first Estonian flag being raised here in 1884. Far from the attention of Russia, the colours appeared in choirs and hung from farm houses and were worn in wedding ceremonies. It’s first political appearance was in 1917 when thousands of Estonians marched in St Petersburg. They demanded independence and got it, only to have it taken from them in 1940. Flags were hidden as a possible sentence was time in a Siberian Gulag for having one. In February 1989 the flag was again raised and independence followed for this small and beautiful country.