Thursday 6th August
Miles: our mileometer has stopped working… 35?
We awoke ready to see what Austria had in store for us, and it wasn’t long until we found out.
Steep hills. Pain.
Our morning began with a long, slow pedal up a mountain at 16%. On a heavy tandem this is fairly awful.
On the way down it was just as steep. That’s a lot of pressure on our back wheel brake!
WHAT’S WRONG WITH A HAIRPIN OR TWO?
So hot… so sweaty… such pain… why did they have to build this village on top of the mountain?
We had a drink at the village. We carried on.
Christssakes… so tired…
Reached the top, thanked whatever deities popped into our excercise-mangled brains and sailed downhill in a state of exhausted bliss.
We reached Millstatter Lake at around lunchtime, wobbled into a supermarket, bought the usual bread, ham, cheese, fruit, biscuits, found a shady spot in a park and consumed with wild abandon.
This is where things get more interesting.
It had been a tough few hours to say the least, but there wasn’t actually much further to go. We got back on our bikes and joined the cycle path that ran alongside the lake. The road slowly rose, but the incline wasn’t too bad. At the top of the incline the cycle path disappeared, and instead became a narrow pavement which was crowded with pedestrians. We decided to join the road instead… a decision which we would come to bitterly regret in not very long.
Not long after we joined the road the cycle path reappeared, but there was no way to rejoin it due to a barrier. We carried on for about 500 metres looking for a way back on. At this point we were going downhill, and Steve overtook us. We saw him zoom away.
A minute later we saw a car some distance in front of us slow down, presumably because Steve was there, and there wasn’t enough room for the car to overtake him. A second car slowed down quite sharply behind the first. Then a third car, with a driver clearly not paying attention to the road, slammed straight into the car in front, which in turn was jerked into the first car. At the point of impact we were probably about twenty metres behind. From our raised position (we were going downhill) we got a good view. The third car had not even hit the brakes.
We pulled up beside the third car and saw a man and a woman in the two front seats. Their airbags had deployed and they were looking very dazed. They got out of their car and surveyed their crumpled bonnet and the damage they had done to the car in front.
‘Are you OK?’ I asked the woman, who was nearest. She ignored me, still looking at the cars, obviously still quite shocked, and possibly not understanding me anyway.
The other two cars had stopped and the owners were getting out of them and approaching. For a second we thought of staying, but the six people involved had stopped, nobody looked seriously hurt and it’s likely that we didn’t speak the same language as them. Plus, to be honest, we were feeling really tired and just wanted to get to our campsite. We carried on. It didn’t occur to me at this point that we might be useful as witnesses.
A bit shaken, we found a way back onto the cycle path. We found Steve and told him what we had seen. He had no idea about the crash, he must have already been quite far ahead when it happened – we can’t be sure whether the first car slowed down because of him or not. I felt pretty bad for those people. I wished that we had somehow been able to rejoin the cycle path sooner.
We stopped to take a picture of the lake.
‘Hallo!’ he said to me and Eric. Realising by our response that we were English, he said: ‘I have been asked to stop you. It is to do with a road accident.’
Oh yes, we said. We explained what we had seen.
‘OK, I don’t know about it, I have just been asked to stop you. We need you to come to the station for some questions, and then tomorrow a judge will decide whether you need to give a statement. Can I have your passports please?’
I felt the first twinges of unease. A judge? Our passports? Was this normal for witnesses?
We gave them our passports and agreed to meet them at the police station, a couple of kilometres away.
The police left and we carried on cycling. After we had gone a kilometre or so a middle aged man stepped into our path. He spoke to us in rapid German, we told him we didn’t understand, and asked if he spoke English.
‘A little,’ he said, and then: ‘You must stop.’
‘Why?’ Steve said.
‘You must stop,’ he repeated.
‘We can’t, we’re going to the police station,’ we all said.
‘My son was in a car accident, you must stay here,’ he said.
‘The police have spoken to us about this, we’re going to the police station now,’ said Steve.
‘Then I must take a photo of you,’ he said.
‘No! No!’ said Eric and Steve.
‘You must stay,’ said the man.
‘You are not a police officer. You can’t make us stay anywhere. We are going to leave now, we have to go to the police station,’ said Steve.
Well done Steve.
We cycled on, feeling rattled. The way the man had spoken to us had been angry, as if he thought that the accident was our fault. At that moment I had a sudden strong suspicion that the people in the third car were trying to shift the blame onto me and Eric, by saying something like they had swerved to avoid us, and this had caused them to crash (not at all true!).
We arrived at the police station feeling nervous. Someone had to stay and watch the bikes, so Eric waited outside while me and Steve went up first.
The policemen let us in, I took a seat at a desk and was asked some strange questions, which included my parents’ names, my salary (that would be £0) and the names of all my schools, from primary all the way to university.
Afterwards he told me again that a judge would decide whether I needed to give a statement about my involvement in the accident, and if so somebody would translate my rights to me.
‘We were not involved in the accident, we were witnesses,’ I said.
He also told me that we had been in the wrong because we were on the road instead of the cycle path. If there is a cycle path available we needed to be on it.
‘Is that the law?’ I asked.
‘Yes, it’s the law,’ he said.
‘Sorry, I didn’t know,’ I said. We had already explained to the police when we first met them why we went onto the road instead of the cycle path, I didn’t see any point explaining a second time. I thought back to our trouble with the Slovenian police and thought: I can’t believe it. Not again!
After this they gave me a breathalyser test, and then I sat in the waiting area, listening to Steve answer the same questions. Steve was a feistier interviewee than I was, and told the police that we had to go onto the road because the cycle path disappeared. The police said ‘No it doesn’t.’ Steve said ‘Yes it does!’
They were actually quite nice, friendly policemen, but we had the growing feeling that things were not looking good.
I was sent back down to watch the bikes so that Eric could be interviewed. I sat outside and took a picture, hoping that this story would end in such a way that I would want to be telling it.
Not that long afterwards Eric and Steve reappeared with our passports. We found our campsite, which was very close to the police station, and sat in a patch of shade by our plot. We had a long and gloomy discussion about what we thought might happen. Steve was worried that because the cars had slowed down for him, he would be blamed for the accident and have to pay for the car damage. Me and Eric were worried that the people in the third car were trying to pin the blame on us, and we would have to pay. It didn’t look too good, did it? Two unemployed travellers who “fled the scene”.
In my head the cost spiralled to thousands, and I was imagining a premature end to our year of travelling because of it.
The little things that we had been looking forward to suddenly felt empty. Dinner at the end of a long day held no attraction. The prospect of falling asleep in our tent turned into a long night of not knowing.
And if only we had just stayed on the cycle path. If only the driver of the third car had been paying attention. If only we had stopped lunch one minute earlier, or one minute later…
We could have a criminal record. The insurance wouldn’t pay out if we had been breaking the law. All of our savings could be taken away from us. Endless speculation and discussion of what would happen took up the rest of our afternoon.
Then, at about 6PM the two policemen appeared.
‘So,’ one of them said, ‘it is good news for you. We do not need a statement from any of you, we will just need a… what is the word… a witness statement from you’ – indicating Eric – ‘as you saw the accident.’
Witness! What a great word to hear.
We agreed a time for Eric to give his statement, enquired if the people in the accident were OK (minor injuries only) and parted on cheerful terms.
And just like that we had our holiday back, our money was still in our account, and we wouldn’t have a criminal record. The feeling of relief and liberation was amazing.
I will give a little spoiler and tell you what Eric learned when he went to give his statement the next day. The people in the third car had claimed that we had been “cycling erratically”. This is a total lie, which they obviously told to try and shift some of the blame from themselves onto us. The people in the other two cars who were involved in the accident, and overtook us only seconds before the third one did, said that we were cycling normally, so based on this, the judge decided not to believe the people in the third car (thanks judge!). The policeman said that it was likely that the accident would be left to the insurance companies to deal with. Eric asked him about the law regarding using cycle lanes… it turns out that it isn’t the law to use them (so the policeman lied to me, probably to scare me) but is preferred practice.
So a happy ending after a scary afternoon. The moral is: use cycle lanes, and stop witnessing road accidents!!