The climb up to the Simplon Pass was slow and steep and long. We had already discovered that we actually love the pain and jubilation combo offered by hills over three glorious days that took us from Bourg en Bresse, through the French Jura, up to Col de la Faucille and down into the warm embrace of Katy and Rich in Geneva. Those were tough climbs rewarded with alpine meadows, cow bells and beers in the sun. Simplon was different.
We set off at around 7am on a dry but overcast morning. Five hours later we were still forcing ourselves uphill as trucks swept past on our left and the valley plunged down on our right before swooping back up as an incredible mountain on the far side. The scenery was as jaw dropping as your mind can imagine but it was difficult to enjoy. The increasing altitude was mirrored by a dropping temperature and it had started to rain. We were cold, stressed and knackered.
Then we entered another of the unpleasant tunnels which are scattered along the way. Dark and cramped, the traffic squeezed past uncomfortably close and the noise of truck engines growled towards you from the distance until it filled the air. To top it all we turned a corner and were faced with roadworks inside this one. Traffic was reduced to one lane with lights controlling the flow. Not knowing how long the roadworks lasted I panicked at the thought of travelling too slow and getting caught halfway by the traffic coming in the opposite direction.
We waited at the red light for the oncoming flow to petter out. Then, sure nothing more was coming, jumped the lights to get a head start. As we made our way through the road works as fast as we could the lights changed and the lorry behind us caught up. A bit of panicked miscommunication and shouting sent Hannah and I separate ways, her sheltering next to some workers on the right, me behind some cones on the left. The traffic roared past. We screamed at each other for screaming at each other. The tension and exhaustion released - Simplon was pushing us to the edge. We pressed on and soon were coming to the end of the tunnel and could see the traffic held at the other red light. We made it out.
And then Hannah shouted in joy. She thought we'd made it to the top, but I couldn't believe it. The road seemed to keep climbing. But then I started to hear other shouts and cheers. People held at the lights waiting to drive down into Switzerland were leaning out their windows shouting incomprehensible congratulations. We must be at the top. The stress of the final push was blown away by the car horns of the queuing traffic. We punched the air and exchanged smiles with the drivers who were about to cover a stretch of road in 20 minutes that had taken us five hours.
We snatched photos at the top, but it was so bitterly cold we couldn't stop to soak it in. Travelling on to a little to a restaurant just after the summit, we ate and drank and grinned. It felt for the first time that maybe we might actually do this. We might actually make it to Cape Town.
But we'd still to make it down the far side. The downhill was just as tough; no letup in traffic, our fingers and arms as sore from breaking in the cold wind as our legs were from driving us up the hill. The wind funneled up through the crevasse on the Italian side almost forcing us off course and fighting to stay on. The rain kept coming and the traffic was released by the lights at the summit in intense cavalcades of metal and noise. But we got back below the cloud, the road widened and the gradient lessened. We made it down and into another country. We danced at the border point. Italy, the land of the exceptional €5 margherita pizza.