Rendezvous With A Gorilla

My bike and I wait for Stewart near Koliba in Roztoky on a beautiful spring morning.

It was a text message almost impossible to ignore:

Tomoro, early, im riding to the zoo to see a gorilla. meet me and we ride out. 9 am. name the meeting point

The message was from Stewart. He's an artist. I didn't ask why he needed to see a gorilla early on a Sunday morning. I figured he needed to see one in the flesh -- uh, fur -- for some sort of project.

It was Saturday night, January 19. I was sore from squash and my 58k ride from the day before. My body needed some rest. Then again, it might do me good to stretch my aching thigh muscles a bit. Plus, it has been pretty mild lately, and it might be a lovely day. And the zoo is only 10 kilometers or so away after all.

There was one fatal flaw in my thinking.

I forgot that I'd be riding with Stewart. Stupid me.

Stewart doesn't like riding on roads. He loathes cars and bikes in close proximity. He curses drivers. Trucks make him apoplectic. He believes every Czech driver is on a mission to injure or kill us. (I believe only that most Czech drivers are.)

Stewart and I cross the Vltava by ferry near Klecany.

Most of the wonderful forest paths I know I know because of Stewart. That's because he was there before me, scouting routes, avoiding cars, trying to connect one village to another with a long squiggly path drawn by his bike like a stylus through the woods. An Etch A Skotch, of sorts. (He's from Aberdeen.)

I've discovered, however, that finding fantastic trails is a little like making sausage. The end result is tasty, but you don't necessarily want to be there during the production process.

I told Stewart I'd meet him at the restaurant Koliba in Roztoky at 9:30 a.m. It takes me about 20 minutes to ride there from my houses in Cerny Vul.

What a gorgeous morning it was. The sun was shining. The temperature was around 13 Celsius (55 Fahrenheit). There was a warmish breeze. It truly felt like spring in mid-January. All the snow and ice that I had encountered on my ride on Friday had melted. All that was left was lots of mud. Lots of mud.

From Roztoky, it's a clear shot over to the Prague Zoo, upriver, on the other side of the Vltava River. Somehow I thought we'd ride down to Sedlec, take the ferry across, and be at the zoo in about 15 minutes.

What was I thinking?! That route involves sharing the road with cars.

Instead, we headed downriver toward Klecany, on a trail, and took the local ferry across. You have to pay for this ferry (Prague metro passes don't work) since you're not in Prague anymore. It was Stewart's treat (15 CZK, I believe).

Once across, we headed upriver, in the general direction of the zoo, with Stewart on the lookout for an old trail or little-used country road to follow just for the fun of it. He found one (he always does). The only problem was that, while it began innocently enough, it soon turned into a monster of a hill -- very steep, very long and very winding.

Not exactly what my thighs were hoping for, but I, my thighs and Stewart all made it.

"What an ass-kicker!" Stewart proclaimed at the top.

From the top, we could see the far-away clock tower of Bohunice, Prague's mental hospital. And that's when things turned a little crazy.

In his zeal to explore, Stewart took us down an old road that, sadly, dead-ended in a freshly ploughed farmer's field. We gingerly rode in the grass around the field a ways, and Stewart made a foray into the flora, searching for a path back down to the river and the zoo.

No luck.

Stewart searches for a way out.

He suggested we continue cycling on the edge of the field, expressing certainty that a path of some sort would present itself. I gamely obliged, and even took the lead. For about 20 meters.

That's how long it took for the thick mud to completely paralyze my front and rear wheels, and for my sneakers and shoe covers to become encased by the sticky, heavy earth. As Stewart put it, we both felt a bit like Herman Munster.

Even walking our bikes became impossible after a few meters. We were forced to carry them on our shoulders, like wounded soldiers.

Stewart left his bike and walked ahead, trying to find a way out.

This is where I lost my patience.

I said I'd had enough of this, and went on a rant about how I actually like to ride my bike, not carry it, and how I thought we were going to the friggin' zoo, and what the %$#@ are we doing stuck out here in a farmer's field, and it's going to take me forever to get the mud out of my rings and things, blah blah blah.

We turned around.

It became almost impossible to determine where my shoes ended and the field began. They had become one.

Eventually, we discovered a cool walking trail that headed steeply down toward the river. Not a lot of space to cycle on, and with a precipitous drop on one side, but fun.

We did make it to the zoo, with Stewart picking up the tab again. (I think he felt guilty.) And we did see the gorillas.

Stewart leads the way down.

I'm not a big fan of zoos. I rarely go. I think they're depressing, all those wild animals kept in cages, thinking, "How did I end up here?" I also hold a grudge against the Prague Zoo for shooting to death some of their animals, including an elephant and hippo, during the big floods in August 2002, rather than to let them drown. Somehow that was more humane.

Elephants and hippos are both amazing swimmers, for god's sake. Why shoot them in the head?! Let 'em swim!

In any event, the gorillas at the Prague Zoo (a few also drowned in 2002) seemed happy enough, and it is quite something to look them in the eyes, which is all Stewart wanted to do, in the end.

There was no art project he was researching. He just wanted to have a moment with a primate, to experience a connection, to feel that frisson when you look at a gorilla and he looks back at you.

(Insert joke here about Stewart and me making eye contact.)

I limped home that day, my thighs burning from a ride that was lengthier, more strenuous, and more eventful than I had expected.

And more memorable.

Thanks, my friend.

Length of ride: 39.5 kilometers
Average speed: 14.5 kph
Maximum speed: 40.1 kph
Time on the bike: 2.41.53
Distance ridden so far in 2008: 129.5 kilometers

While we were visiting the gorillas, we witnessed this magical moment -- a baby gorilla making faces and licking the glass, while another child on the other side did the same.

We discovered that much of the biking/walking trail on the east side of the Vltava has been newly paved. It's smooth, wide and wonderful.

A view of the Vltava, discovered as we tried to find a way back down to the river.


Julia said…
Excellent to hear about the paved hiking path! Where does it start?

I enjoyed living vicariously through your mud expedition (coffee and dry feet make the whole thing seem much more tolerable). So glad to see you are still blogging and logging km even in the middle of winter!
... that beardy picture is hilarious! 8 or so days I'll be able to moult some and I'll be less like a grrrrilla masell!
Grant said…
Hi, Julia,

Sorry for the delay in responding. I've been away.

The paved hiking path starts just downriver from the Prague Zoo, and runs, I'd say, for two kilometers or so. It's fantastic. Cycling heaven, especially in this mild January weather!
Grant said…
Hey, Stewart,

It was a hoot, indeed. Always a pleasure with you (OK, except for the mud).
Stewart is a good friend. I wonder if you have the same problem understanding him as I do when I talk to my friend from Scotland.

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