Pétanque.

Day 6: Saint-Felix-De-Raillac-Et-Mortemart to Luzech.

Distance: 99.91km (YES!!!!)
Trip total: 769.59km
Average: 18.4kph
Max: 44.8kph
Time: 05:25:40

Dead foxes: 2
Live deer: 1
Cuckoos: More bloody cuckoos.

Today was a much better day in the saddle, partly due to the change in terrain, and partly the shorter distance cycled. I’ve now decided to ban any more days over 100km for the rest of the trip – in 40 degree heat they’re just too much, and take the enjoyment out of it. I’ve also been warned of hills hills hills between here and Perpignan, so trying to keep up the same pace I’ve been traveling at for the last six days would be stupid.

I left the campsite at about 08:50, joining the same road I’d descended a few km on the night before, and was again treated to more uninterrupted downhill riding. I descended for a full 12km all the way down to Les Eyzies-De-Tayac-Sireuil, the only downside being a headwind blowing up the hill and stopping me going at a decent speed. When you’re having to pedal downhill to get anywhere you know you’re up against it.

At Les Eyzies the route took me along the valley of the La Vezere to Le Bugue, then along the Dordoigne to Soirac-En-Perigord. Here I headed into the hills again, but thankfully it was a series of long but steady climbs, followed by equally long descents, as opposed to the endless ups and downs of the past couple of days.

After a few of these climbs and descents, I finally enjoyed a long downhill section which took me to the river Lot, which I joined at Prayssac and followed through the valley all the way through to Luzech, my destination for the night. By this point the temperature had reached 40 degrees in the sun again, and it had been climbing steadily since midday, but I managed to get finished by just after 3pm, just as I was starting to seriously overheat, and found shade to cool down while I waited to get in touch with my hosts for the night.

I’m staying with a lovely family in Luzech, who I got in touch with through Warm Showers. They’re Valerie and Christophe, and have two young children, and they all live in an apartment attached to a home for adults and children with learning disabilities, which V&C run.

They’ve been extremely accommodating, greeting me with a cool beer as soon as I arrived, making sure I had a shower, putting on a load of washing for me, and finally including me in a game of pétanque (boules) and a barbecue this evening with a group of friends. I’d mentioned in passing that the first day of my trip had been my birthday, and at the end of the meal they suddenly started singing happy birthday and brought over a cake they’d already made but had put candles in for me when they’d found out. They’ve been amazing, and tonight was just what I needed after a gruelling few days in the heat, after which I’d really started to question my resolve.

I’ve got a few options for tomorrow – Valerie and Christophe have offered to accommodate me for another night if necessary, or I can move on if I feel like it in the morning. I’ve found a campsite 50km away, so if I do head off that’ll be the most I’ll do. It’s just impossible to keep going into the afternoon during the hottest part of the day, and I’ve got until Saturday to get to Ceret, so can afford to slow down.

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Elation.

Day 5: Rochechouart to Camping Le Roc de Levandre, near Saint-Felix-De-Raillac-Et-Mortemart.

Distance: 122.14km
Trip total: 669.68km
Average: 17.2kph
Max: 49.4kph
Time: 07:04:10

Cuckoos: 3
Squashed adders: 1
Squashed subtracters: 0
Moments of utter desperation: 1
Moments of sheer elation: 1

Storms overnight took the heat out of the air, and I woke to an overcast sky and a cool morning. I’d had vague thoughts of taking a tactical rest day at Rochechouart, but the cool morning made the choice to carry on an easy one. Also, I’d checked my emails and had one from the family I’m due to stay with tomorrow night in Luzech, confirming our plans, so I felt obliged to keep going and rest once I’d kept to our arrangement.

I set off at around 8:30, the air cool and a cloudy sky keeping the sun at bay for a few hours. The first half of the day was so much easier than yesterday had been, and by early afternoon I’d covered about 80km, crossing the Perigord Limousin national park,and still felt fresh.

The route took me through Oradour-Sur-Vayres and Chalus, then followed a railway line (flat) to Thiviers, which announced itself as ‘The fois gras capital of France!’. I didn’t stop for a taste.

After Thiviers the route met the river L’isle at Corgnac-Sur-L’isle, and I enjoyed more flat, fast riding along the river valley until Savignac-Les-Eglises, where it veered off and I started to climb and climb and climb, through remote countryside and forests.

The climbing was as tough as yesterday, and the temperature peaked at 40C in the sun, but I was within 20km of my intended campsite and pushed on, eventually closing to within a couple of km of the supposed location.

Which is where it all went horribly wrong. What had been listed as a campsite on the GPS (I hadn’t managed to find a site for today at home, so decided to rely on the GPS finding one for me, which I’ve done successfully before, but was a big mistake today), turned out to be a few derelict and deserted farm buildings, with no sign of anyone to ask. Annoyingly, I’d passed a Gite/campsite place about 5km back, but since that point had climbed countless steep hills and couldn’t face turning back.

I checked the GPS again, and the nearest campsite south of me was a further 20km away, and I’d run out of water. My heart sank at the thought of another 20km of the same kind of hills I’d been climbing all afternoon, with the temperature still about 30 degrees.

I pushed on over a few more hills, and suddenly turned onto the D47, where in the space of three or four km I descended probably all of what I’d climbed during the day. There didn’t seem to be an end to the descent, which gave me hope that I could cover the 20km to the campsite on the GPS in good time, rather than crawling along at walking speed through the hills as I’d been doing for hours. I’d enjoyed a smooth, fast 5km descent in no time when suddenly, as I came round a corner, I saw a huge sign saying ‘CAMPING’ on my right, and to my left an idyllic looking campsite.

Having prepared myself mentally for another 20km slog through the hills, the combination of such an amazing descent and a campsite waiting for me at the bottom instantly lifted me from the depths of gloom to sheer jubilation.

I rolled into the campsite and was greeted by an English speaking owner and a bar, and within two minutes had an ice cold beer and a place to stay for the night.

For once, when I say tomorrow will be a shorter day, I can say it with a degree of certainty. I’ve just plotted a new route file on the GPS, and double checked the distance, which comes in at 94km. Also, I know where I’m staying, and there won’t be any nasty surprises with campsites.

If I end tomorrow on anything approaching 130km I’m giving up through sheer frustration.

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Vienne.

Day 4: Morthemer (N-F-P-H-T-R-E-R-E-R) to Rochechouart.

Distance: 104.30km
Trip total: 547.54km
Average: 15.7kph
Max: 49.8kph
Time: 06:38:09

Cuckoos: lost count
Bright green lizards crossing the road: 3
Bright green lizards who died trying: 1
Bad Polish lorry drivers: 1

Anna and I left Morthemer early, leaving her house at 7:10 so that she could get to work in time. Almost as soon as we left the village I noticed the front end of my bike wasn’t handling as it should going down hill, then when we climbed the next hill I heard the tell-tale sound of a totally flat tyre, and realised why I’d been struggling to go at a decent speed. Anna had to get to work, so we said goodbye and I set about repairing the puncture, which should have been a 10 minute job.

40 minutes later I was still there, and had only managed to locate the offending nail tip, replace the inner tube, and put the wheel back together, as when I got the pump off the bike and tried to inflate the wheel, as much air was coming out as I was putting in, and I was getting nowhere. I checked the wheel, which was all as it should be, and realised that the pump was broken.

I was miles from any town that might have a pump, and had no other options, so I had to persevere with the pump, eventually working out that if I held it in a certain position and went slowly (yes, I know…) I could get just enough air into the wheel to get me to the next big town.

Anna had texted to find out whether I’d got on ok with fixing the flat, and while I was struggling with sorting it out, she googled where the nearest bike shop south of Morthemer was, and came up with a motorbike/cycle shop on the road into Lussac, 15km or so from where I was, and on my intended route anyway.

I found the shop as soon as I cycled into the town, but they didn’t sell pumps, and only had a track pump, so I used that to get both wheels up to the right pressure, then found a supermarket round the corner and bought a new pump.

Although today was far shorter in distance terms, it was probably the most physically gruelling of the trip so far, due to relentless hills far more severe than anything I’d climbed already) and searing heat. By 9am it was already climbing into the mid-20s, and the afternoon was far too hot for comfort, peaking at 42C in the sun at around 2pm.

The route generally followed the river Vienne heading south, but not through the river valley itself. Instead, it took me through the hills above the valley, and as a result cut across every single one of the rivers flowing down off the hills and into the Vienne from the east. This was a bad bit of route planning, and I’ll have to compare it to the google route I’d planned at home.

The result of crossing all these small rivers was an interminable succession of short, fast descents into the river valleys, and then tedious, hard, steep climbs back out again, which by early afternoon, in 40+ degree heat, was starting to test my patience and stamina.

In the end, I just accepted that it was going to be a hard slog of a day, and short of changing the route and adding tens of km, I couldn’t do anything about the route, or the heat, so I took it very slowly (hence the painfully slow 15kph average), and rested in the shade every half hour or so.

Eventually I got within a few km of Rochechouart, and La Vienne gave me one final kick in the teeth as I crossed it and had to climb back out of the valley for a final time today.

I arrived at the campsite completely exhausted and with nothing left in my legs, and have done very little since, apart from stuffing my face with omelette at the campsite’s restaurant.

The moment I got to the site, inevitably, a cuckoo started cuckooing in the woods nearby, and it’s still at it now. I’ve reached the conclusion that the majority of France is made out of cuckoo.

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Montagu.

Day 3: Saumur to Morthemer

Distance: 133.36
Trip distance: 443.24
Av: 18.0kph
Max: 44.4kph
Time: 07:22:10

Montagu’s Harriers: 1, maybe 2
Deer carcasses: 1/2 (front end)
Large squashed snakes: 1
Cuckoos: 2 (you know the drill)

Today couldn’t have begun any more differently from yesterday’s ride. I woke up in my hotel room feeling refreshed and recovered from the challenging ride the day before, and most importantly everything was dry and packed away ready to get back on the road.

After a huge breakfast (involving another spillage…) I headed out into a gloriously sunny morning, setting off at 09:10 and heading south out of Saumur, soon finding myself climbing gradually through dense woodland. This lasted for the next 15km or so, and appeared to be France’s answer to Area 51. The entire forest was some kind of military training area, with signs on either side warning road users not to enter the forest, and barriers blocking all the paths and roads leading in for anything other than military vehicles.

After leaving the forest I passed through a little town called Fontevraud-L’abbaye, and as I stopped for a rest a group of 40 or more cyclists, all dressed in identical jerseys and caps, and all riding vintage steel-framed road bikes, climbed the hill into the village, which resulted in a lot of bonjouring from me to them and them to me (insert Chuckle Brothers joke). Leaving Fontevraud, I rode through vast expanses of farmland, and spotted what turned out to be a Montagu’s Harrier (probably – found out courtesy of a phonecall to my Uncle) flying low over a field of barley.

The rest of the day, while not being particularly noteworthy, was very rural and picturesque, and involved a fair amount of climbing as the temperature hovered around 33C all afternoon, peaking at 34 at one point. This turned what would have been a really enjoyable afternoon of riding into a bit of a slog towards the end of the day, but it was still great riding.

I passed through Mirebeau, skirted round the edge of Poitiers (which looked large, uninviting, and busy), then pushed on through the final 25km or so to Morthemer, suffering towards the end due to the effect riding in 30+ degrees all afternoon had had on my legs.

I quickly found my host for the night, Anna, who I’d got in touch with through WarmShowers.org. A garage full of bikes and tandems in various states of repair was a good sign straight away, and she showed me round the house and then to my room, with a huge comfy looking bed.

Anna works as an engineer at the nuclear power plant a few km from Morthemer (so THAT’S what those two huge chimneys I could see from miles away were), and has been the perfect host – we’ve spent the evening looking at maps, chatting about bikes and travel (she’s just come back from a cycling trip in Andalusia) and she cooked a huge bowl of pasta and pesto for me – perfect cycling food.

We’re having an early start tomorrow, setting off at 7am when she leaves for work, and she’ll cycle with me for a few km to put me on a nearby bike path she knows that will get me onto my route for the day, rather than using a busy road.

Day three has been another great day, but a real challenge in the heat, and I’m more tired tonight than I was after days one and two. Time to get my head down, and then a genuinely shorter day tomorrow at 90km or so, instead of the 150/150/133 I’ve done over the last three days.

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Loire.

Day 2: Beaumont-sur-Sarthe to Saumur.

Distance: 158.23km
Trip distance: 309.88km
Av: 19.1kph
Max: 45.3kph
Time: 08:15:50

Red squirrels: 1
Horses startled: 2
Cuckoos heard: 1 (I’m definitely being followed)
Mystery meats: 1 (for ‘meats’ read ‘birds of prey’)
Herons: 1

They say you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth. In that case, this morning was the coarse edge of a cheese grater to my rear end.

I had a really good sleep in the tent, with the sound of the rain sending me off almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Unfortunately, this was as good as it got, and I woke to heavy rain in the morning, which kept me in my tent longer than I’d planned. I waited for a lull in the downpour, and eventually managed to surface at around 8:15, and quickly showered and packed the panniers, only for it to start pouring again as soon as I’d got the bike loaded.

The morning’s cycling was truly dreadful – it rained continuously for the first three or four hours, and I made painfully slow progress through the countryside, fighting a slight headwind and going mainly uphill, soaked to the bone apart from my top half which, mercifully, was kept bone-dry by my fairly new GoreTex jacket (fully justifying the cost…).

After what seemed like a lifetime of climbing out of the Sarthe valley in the rain, I finally got as high as I could get just as the rain stopped and I glimpsed my first bit of blue sky of the day, before I enjoyed a long downhill section all the way down to Avoise then Parce-sur-Sarthe, crossing the river which by this point was noticeably wider than it had been up-river at Beaumont.

I found my way through La Fleche and crossed Le Loir (not the be confused with La Loire), then almost immediately joined a traffic-free cycle path which would provide the most enjoyable 20km stretch of the trip so far. The path cut a path straight through a vast forest, leading gradually downhill all the way to Saint Martin D’Arce, and was clearly originally a railway line, similar to some sections of the Devon coast-to-coast route. There was more rain during this section, but thankfully the trees provided a roof over the whole path and kept the worst of it off me.

Rejoining the roads the route took me through Bauge, then finally onto my first major river crossing of the trip – La Loire at Gennes. I crossed the bridges (the river splits into two there, with an island in the middle), then turned left, following the south bank of the river heading east through picturesque villages all the way to Saumur.

Due to the fact that I’d had to pack away my camping gear while it was still soaking wet, then endure a soul-destroying soaking all morning, followed by further drenchings throughout the course of the day, I took the decision to take a tactical bed and breakfast stop tonight, and like any self-respecting 29 year old, phoned my mother for help in arranging said stop while I pushed on in the rain.

The result was a fantastically spacious room in an equally spacious bed and breakfast at the top of the hill in Saumur, a stone’s throw from the castle. There was room to erect the tent in front of some huge double doors, and the whole lot was dry in an hour or so, while I soaked my aching muscles in the bath. And having covered a shade under 310km in two days, I think I deserve it.

Tomorrow should be a shorter day, but I said that yesterday. The plan is to make my way from Saumur to Morthemer, just south of Chauvigny, where I’ll be staying with the first of my ‘WarmShowers.org’ contacts… If they get back in touch to confirm our arrangements, which they haven’t yet, unless I’ve got an email waiting. If not, I’ll find a campsite at around the 100km mark, and make sure I don’t do another 150km+ day. I’ve had quite enough of that.

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Cuckoo.

Day 1: Ouistreham to Beaumont-sur-Sarthe.

Total distance: 151.65km
Average speed: 19.6kph
Max speed: 53kph
Total time cycling: 07:43:16

2 cuckoos heard (unless I was followed)
1 red squirrel
2 herons
1 buzzard
8 million kestrels
An infinite number of angry French guard dogs
Many friendly French cyclists
0 bad French drivers

The ferry arrived in Ouistreham (Caen) at 6:45am local time, 5:45 English time, so I only managed about five hours of sleep before my alarm went off. I got up and went straight to the restaurant for a huge breakfast, and in my usual fumbling, bleary-eyed morning state, spilled an entire bowl of cereal and milk over the table as soon as I sat down.

After stuffing my face with replacement cereal, pastries, rolls, cheese, and smoked salmon, washed down with gallons of coffee and orange juice, I stole a boiled egg and a roll, and escaped to my cabin for a quick shower, pursued by the Gendarmerie in little Renaults, weaving in and out of the Parisian traffic (ferry passengers), and performing handbrake turns in the narrow side streets (slowing down to a gentle jog because the corridors were narrow). I got back to my cabin, had a shower, and checked my documents to make sure I hadn’t left anything behind. Everything was fine, except my passport, which had ‘Jason Bourne’ written where my name should have been. Weird.

As soon as I’d cycled off the ferry I had my first minor disaster of the day, when I stopped to load the first route file onto the GPS only to find that it crashed and froze every time I tried to do so. After wasting 20 minutes trying to get it to work I gave up, and managed to figure out an alternative way to get the GPS to navigate. I was annoyed that all those hours of making sure I had the route files sorted out had been wasted, but I’ve found a fix and may as well forget about it.

I left Ouistreham on a smooth, traffic free cycle path, hearing a cuckoo in the distance. It no doubt knew I was coming, and had been waiting to do its cuckooing at me to remind me how insignificant my little trip to the south of France is compared with its annual winter holiday in sub-Saharan Africa.

The rest of the morning took me along flat and gently undulating countryside, under an overcast sky with occasional rain, but it was nice not to be too hot, and I made good progress, reaching 60km by about 10:30. After passing round the outskirts of Argentan, the route took me right through the Foret d’Ecouves, a huge forest on an equally huge hill. This involved a long, painfully slow climb, which on a road bike with no luggage would have been a nice challenge, but on the heavy, loaded tourer was pretty arduous.

Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity of climbing at a tediously slow 10kph, I reached the top of the hill, and was instantly rewarded with a long, steep descent down the other side of the hill, and I descended for a good 6 or 7km without turning the pedals, at a continuous 45-50kph.

Shortly after leaving the forest I arrived at Alencon, a stunningly beautiful, pictureque old town, with ancient-looking buildings and streets paved in small square cobbles, laid out in a fan-like pattern. Although the route took me right through the centre on the narrow cobbled streets, I was disappointed I was having to pass through so quickly and couldn’t stop to explore. I’ll have to visit again.

As was the case when I cycled from London to Paris last summer, I’ve been impressed by the courteousness and respectfulness of drivers towards cyclists on the roads. Whereas in England people tend to scream past far too close, almost without exception French drivers will slow down (always a reassuring sound when you can hear the revs slowing as a car approaches from behind), indicate, and pull right out onto the other side of the road as they pass. One HGV driver, traveling in the opposite direction, even gave me a honk/flash of the lights/thumbs-up/grin combo as he passed. He obviously knew it was my birthday.

Anyway. Back to the trip. With fatigued legs, the final 40km or so from Alencon took me south to tonight’s campsite, a fantastic municipal site in the town of Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, right next to the river. For the astonishingly cheap (and slightly random) price of 4 euros and 83 cents (roughly £4), I’ve got a huge pitch to myself, surrounded on three sides by hedges, a view of the river, and the most modern and clean shower block I’ve ever seem at a French campsite.

I treated myself to a tin of Hoegaarden when I arrived, then promptly passed out in my tent for an hour and a half. More, I think, to do with having just cycled a pretty tough 151km on very little sleep, than my inability to handle a drink…

And so to the sound of gentle rain on the tent, and a cuckoo mocking my efforts from somewhere across the river, I’m going to get a decent sleep and prepare for tomorrow’s 120km to Saumur on the river Loire.

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Erasmus.

After months of preparation and planning, I’m finally taking the tourer abroad again, for the first time since last summer’s London to Paris trip. Before I’d even come home from Paris last June, I’d started dreaming up my next trip, and decided I’d have a go at a self-supported ‘Manche to Med’ trip this summer.

So I’m now writing this on the train from Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour, where I’ll board an overnight ferry, arriving at Caen at around 7am tomorrow, my 29th birthday. Finally the trip that’s seemed like a distant pipedream for so many months is now a reality, and tomorrow I’ll pedal the first 140km of around 1300km I’ll be cycling in France on this trip.

Despite having been planning for so long, inevitably the last few days have been a bit of a wild rush to make sure everything was ready, and until last night I hadn’t even uploaded (or even planned) the final few days of my route onto the GPS, and left it until today to sort out my travel insurance and euros. But I’ve always been pretty good at procrastination, so none of this is much of a surprise.

So. A quick overview of the next few weeks in France. I’m planning on taking ten days to cycle from Caen to Perpignan, which is a distance of around 1000km, and will average around 100km each day. The first three days are a bit further, and I’ll cycle 140km, 130km and 120km each day, followed by some easier, shorter days of around 90km.

Once I’ve made it down to Perpignan, on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, I’ll head inland to Ceret, where I’ll meet Mum, Dad, and my two sisters for a week of rest and recuperation in a villa with a swimming pool. Then I’ll take a three day trip along the south coast, covering 300km from Ceret to Avignon, passing through the Camargue on the way. Then, at Avignon, I’ll hand the bike over to my parents so that they can take it back to England in their motorhome, due to the virtual impossibility of getting a bicycle onto a TGV in anything other than a bike box.

From Avignon, I’ll take a super-speedy TGV up to Paris (under three hours from city to city I think), where I’ll stay with Luke and Krystelle (frineds of my elder sister), before boarding a Eurostar home the following day, June 25th.

Already, day one of the trip has involved one or two hurdles, and more stress than should be necessary. I’ve lost one of my back lights (I knew the mount was rubbish, and thought it might fall off at some point), but it was the cheaper of the two, so it wasn’t a big deal, and had one idiotic driver pull out in front of me from a junction in Lincoln.

As ever, boarding the two-carriage train at Lincoln with a fully loaded bike was stressful and more effort than it should be, and highlighted the lack of provision for cyclists on smaller, local trains. There were already two bikes on the train when it pulled into the station, and two is officially the limit. Which was a problem considering I was waiting on the platform with a loaded touring bike and another cyclist. We just about managed to squeeze on with a lot of help and baggage-moving from the guard.

Boarding the East Coast Mainline train at Newark was a little easier, but involved the usual dash from putting the bike into the bike carriage at the very front of the train, and running to climb into one of the passenger carriages further along, in the 5 seconds or so they allow the train to stop at the station for.

The cycle from Kings Cross to Waterloo was brief and pretty straightforward with the aid of the GPS, and gave me a chance to get used to the handling of a fully loaded bike, which felt nice and smooth, and not too much effort once I got moving.

The bike has had a fairly major overhaul since London to Paris. I’ve built a new set of wheels from scratch, and included a dynamo hub in the front, which provides a perfect solution for the power-hungry GPS I’ll be using to navigate all the way down through France. One of the main problems with the GPS last summer was that I needed a lot of very high capacity rechargeable batteries, which didn’t quite last a full day of cycling. I was able to get round the problem last time due to the fact that I was only on the road for four days, and could carry enough batteries to last the trip.

The dynamo hub seemed like the ideal solution to powering the GPS for a ten day cycle, and has (so far) worked faultlessly. An added bonus is that I’ve also been able to attach a battery pack with a USB connection, which is kept constantly topped up by the dynamo even while the GPS is running, so can be used at the end of each day to provide power for other batteries (GoPro, phone, etc). I also invested in a front dynamo light, from Germany, which means I don’t ever have to worry about keeping batteries topped up for that either.

I’ve also invested in more Ortlieb luggage this time, as one of the most annoying things on the London to Paris trip was having to cram my four panniers with all my gear, which made getting to small bits and bobs like my wallet, snacks, and so on a bit of a nightmare. In addition to the two front and two rear panniers I took to Paris, I’ve now got a handlebar bag (which I’m now wondering how on earth I coped without), and a rack pack, which sits across the two rear panniers on top of the rear rack.

Well, I think that’s quite enough geeky bike drivel for the time being. I’ll be arriving at Portsmouth in an hour or so, feeling a crazy mix of extreme excitement and nervous anticipation, wondering what lies ahead over the next ten days. I can’t wait to get cycling, and I’m hoping the 140km I’ll cover tomorrow will be eased by all this excitement, and of course plenty of croissants.

The blog will be updated as and when I find wifi…

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