9 Lessons From A 38,000km Bicycle Journey Across The World
In 2010 I made an excellent decision. I quit my job and with zero experience pedalled 38,000km’s from London to Sydney over 2 years to raise $100,000 for charity.
I went from working in a bank to living like a glorified hobo. A vagabond at best. I survived on $5 a day and minimalised my entire worldly possessions to a few bags that I strapped onto a two wheeler. I slept in a tent or with kind locals that took me in for the night. Every day was an entirely new experience; predictability vanished and a deep-seeded excitement for life consumed me. My bum hurt and my legs ached.
I was the happiest man on earth.
Adventure has the power to change people, and this one chewed me up and spat me out a different and dare I say it, better person. The trip became the fuel that ignited the digital travel publication We Are Explorers as well as this in-house content agency, Explorer Studios. I wouldn’t have done this had not been for a number of things I learned along the way.
Here are 9 of those lessons that I hope resonate with you in some way, or at the very least make you chuckle.
Lesson 1 – Don’t Let A Lack Of Experience Get In The Way
When my Dad had to show me how to fix a puncture in the week preceding d-day, I began to question my sanity. I’d never ridden a bike further than the shops, the only time i’d worn lycra was an 80s themed birthday party and I had absolutely no idea where Turkmenistan was on a world map. Ambition beats experience in most arm wrestles, and being a fairly resilient species over the millennia, we’re biologically programmed to figure things out. I went from being completely buggered after a 70km day on the flats of France to smashing out 3,000m + mountain passes on 12 hour days with gas in the tanks for an evening jog. I became a jedi master in the art of ‘having a go’, focusing more on ‘how can I make this work’ rather than ‘I can’t do that’.
To be brutally honest I never became overly adept at fixing my bicycle, but I quickly found that there are incredibly resourceful people out there who will help personified spanners. After an impressive over-the-handlebars cirque-du-soleil style crash outside of Alice Springs, inmates at the local prison came to our rescue after word got out that we needed some help. They’d recently completed a bicycle maintenance course and were keen to put their new found skills to the test, with famed backpacker murderer Bradley Murdoch leading the pack!
Lesson 2 – An Army Of Modern Day Saints Roam The Earth
Little did I know that lurking in all corners of the world are an army of modern day saints; angelic beings assuming the human form who appear out of nowhere to support travellers when most needed. Particularly cycle tourists with offensive body odour. We just couldn’t predict it either: one was a portly mayor in a sleepy French town, another was a recovering drug addict in a Viennese park. Tibetan monks, Syrian bedouins, Iranian red cross volunteers, Bosnian Eurovision song contest winners…the Middle East and Central Asia in particular took pure kindness and warmth to stratospheric levels. A family in Kyrgyzstan gave up their beds for us! The unadulterated generosity of strangers was hands down the most remarkable part of the journey and it’s made a deep impression on my moral fibre – I’ve since made it my duty to pass on the favour.
Despite what we may read, the world is an incredibly loving and compassionate planet and I lost count of the times I was reminded of this.
Lesson 3 – Be A Dreamer (But With Follow Through)
I have a (self diagnosed) condition called ‘delusional optimism’, which means I feel quite comfortable striving for what naysayers deem unattainable. I’ve realised that aiming big is a pretty exciting way to live life, and by just making those initial baby steps – or baby pedals – towards our goals we actually create a vortex of awesomeness that spirals way out of comprehension; igniting a chain of events that can completely deviate the course of our lives. This bike trip sucked me into a tornado and spat me out somewhere I literally couldn’t have imagined beforehand.
“In taking those baby steps towards our goals we actually create a vortex of awesomeness that spirals way out of comprehension; igniting a chain of events that can completely deviate the course of our lives.”
Lesson 4 – Take The Rough With The Smooth
The Gobi desert is drier than Bill Bailey’s humour and 4000m Kyrgyz mountains in winter actually freeze bicycle brakes (which may or may not require urine to de-freeze). We were flooded in Hungary and dry-roasted in Australia’s Outback sauna. But the extremes of long distance bike travel extend far beyond the weather conditions; taking the rough with the smooth is par for the course and my journey was far from sunshines and rainbows. Things don’t go to plan: that’s a sobering reality of long distance travel. We were robbed on three occasions, survived a biblical sandstorm that flattened our tent, spent time in an Iraqi prison cell and were held up by the Turkish military who mistakenly took us for Syrian border jumpers (turns out, they actually saved us from pitching our tent upon a live minefield with enough explosives to blast us into orbit).
What’s more, our most popular blogs from the road were not of the dreamy landscapes we passed through or the intergalactic displays on show in Iranian deserts, but when things went horrendously wrong, thus affirming my faith that humans are a twisted species who love to read about the suffering (and hard-fought survival) of others. Misadventure is true adventure. Over-planning is dangerous. I learned to be flexible; to keep my eyes and mind open and to embrace the randomness of life.
Lesson 5 – Magic Actually Exists
This one is best demonstrated through an excerpt from my diary:
“The morning had begun so positively. I was well-rested, having found respite with a typically warm-hearted Kyrgyz family in a remote village called Sary Tash. They’d let me sleep in a storeroom behind their roadside eatery the night before.
The eldest daughter served a carb-rich breakfast of rice and lamb, her shy eyes reflecting the deep blue morning skies through the window. I noticed how the hard, jagged contours of her cheek and jawbones matched the ominous mountain peaks looming over the village.
She smiled at me and I grinned back. She must have thought I possessed an intellect rivalled only by a bike spanner.
I pedalled eastwards, determinedly weaving my way towards the Chinese border through the wild and enchanted Narnian landscape. The crunching of my tyres pierced the catacomb-quiet air. The only soul I encountered was a truck driver coming the opposite way, and I caught his puzzled expression through the frosted windscreen.
Mother nature can be a cruel temptress.
Suddenly, the sun was swallowed by a biblical whiteout and everything from my bike to my bones froze. Had I made fateful eye contact with Medusa behind the wheel of that passing truck? The situation became as bleak as the blizzard now cocooned me.
It was then that I saw it..
Was it just a cruel arctic mirage in the distance or potential warmth and shelter for the night?
My ice-covered beard twitched with excitement and I pedalled again, unremittingly, albeit at a snails pace as the wind whipped my face.
Inside the unlocked, mystical van was a bucket of coal to get the furnace started, a jar of tea bags, and more quilts than a granny convention. Was this a gift from the vagabond-gods for an overly ambitious British traveller? I felt like an expected guest.
A grin returned to my lips for the first time since breakfast. I had found a magic bus.”
Experiences and opportunities beyond my wildest imagination occurred on this trip; I simply couldn’t have prepared myself for what happened. From raves in a lightning storm, breakfast TV in Australia, bunkering down in hidden Syrian monasteries in the middle of a desert and being invited to the British Embassy in Tehran.
As we get older sensibilities and logic elbow in on our imagination, we sadly lose sight of the magic that exists in the world. I learned to be open to the magic that exists everywhere.
Lesson 6 – Wild Camping is Adventuring’s Greatest Pleasure
Once you’ve tasted the fruits of sleeping in wild places, it becomes an addiction that’s veryhard to give up!
From cave hideouts in Turkey to roman ruins in Syria, river banks in Kurdistan, lakeside beaches in Sumatra, pine forests of Germany and the harsh deserts of Turkmenistan. Being crafty hobos on a laughable daily budget led us to the some spectacular places. Sometimes we had to think outside of the box too, supplanting caravans on the Silk Road in Uzbekistan, farmers huts in Laos and making our own beach side ‘cabanas’ in Turkey.
I loved that feeling in the late afternoon when my primitive instincts sprang into action and the search for shelter began. Of course you don’t always come up trumps. I slept next to a motorway in Iran that was festered with rats, under a billboard in Croatia and numerous park benches, building sites, bridges and petrol station forecourts.
Lesson 7 – No money? No problem!
You’ll surprise yourself with how far a meagre daily budget will take you when you apply creativity and a sprinkle of resourcefulness. We had a budget of $5 per day each, so we HAD to embrace the life of a vagabond! I may have broken an unofficial world record in Europe with a non-showering stint of 25 days, something I’m immensely proud of despite the head-turning disgust from anyone caught downwind of passing pong.
Shrinking my entire worldly possessions down to the vital contents of a few panniers was an immensely pleasurable experience too.
I learned that people with the least, often had the most. I met a man called Jimmy in Laos who had lost both arms when he picked up a landmine as a young boy but he was a part time break dancer with the most infectiously positive outlook on life.
Riding a bicycle for up to 12 hours a day presents a wonderful opportunity to ponder the core philosophical questions around what makes you happy. Having purpose and excitement coursing through my veins made me the happiest i’ve ever been.
Lesson 8 – No Diet In The World Matches That Of A Long Distance Cyclist
To meet the body’s requirement for energy, a cheap and cheerful option for a hungry cyclist is bread and pasta. Bread (particularly in Europe and the Middle East) formed such a core part of my diet that I believed I may one day wake up to find that I’d morphed into a walking, talking, cycling loaf; crusty skin and doughy flesh. The challenge was to find something interesting to spread on top – strawberry jam and honey would fight for top prize. I once staggered into a bakery in Sarajevo as it was closing and bought everything in the counters. Literally everything. 3 bin liners full in fact, all for a paltry sum of $15 Euros! We toddled off to find somewhere to camp and I still dream of the congealed iced donut/sausage roll combo we had for breaky the following day.
Beyond the carbs, hungry cyclists are a rare breed who can’t afford to be picky so tend to eat what we’re given, and not always for the better. Chowing down on a jungle rat with Laotian policeman was a taste I’m still trying to wash from my taste buds. The ‘plov’ we ate with Saint Baha was washed down with 1.5 litres of vodka and ended in a dance-off with an Uzbek bride and the unleashing of a ‘vomcano’ in the cloak room.
Lesson 9 – Chose Your Travel Companion Wisely
First rule of bike club: if you’re going to ride with someone else, pick a good’un (particularly if it’s for two years). I was introduced to Jamie in a Soho pub in London after I heard that a friend of a friend was also toying with the idea of doing a ridiculously long bike ride. It is to this day the best blind date I’ve ever been on.
Why did it work so well for us? Being flexible happy-go-luckers definitely helped but at our core of it we were driven by a shared purpose. I do believe there may also have been some degree of divine intervention at play that forced our paths to cross. The fact that we never fell out in 2 years is testament to that.
I did question his sanity three weeks into the trip though when in the middle of the night I woke to him holding a bloody knife in a extremely panicked state. Turns out a tick had burrowed into his penis, spurning the song ‘Tick on the D**k’ which we played to audiences around the world as the travelling duo ‘The Sideways Halo’s’.
Yep, we travelled with a ukulele and a harmonica and were the least successful buskers in history.