Dumping our bikes on the grass in Deenethorpe, we nervously unpacked our tents and tried to remember how to pitch them. We’d chosen this particular model of tent for its natural shade of green that would blend into the foliage, and I had been looking forward to putting them to the test. I hadn’t expected the reality of it to be so fraught with worry. Looking up from the instruction manual with a mouthful of left-over party cake, I saw with horror that a passing middle-aged couple had noticed us.
They slowed their Sunday evening walk; muttered something to each other. Then the wife quickened her pace while the husband crossed the road and marched onto the green with a look of intent.
I gulped down my cake and hissed a warning at the others.
We’d been busted on our first attempt, and were about to be booted out into the night!
The idea of wild camping had been a fantasy for years, but I’d never had the balls to actually do it, at least not outside a few TA training weekends as a student. This was not for want of trying. On one memorable occasion, Andy and I had set off across the fields near my home with a backpack containing a knife, some firewood and a six-pound salmon, intent on finding a spinney somewhere, lighting a fire, roasting the smelly fish and sleeping in the shelter that we would build with our bare hands. Having failed to find any trees in the dark and become entirely lost and covered in mud, we’d trudged all the way back to the village before cooking the salmon in the oven at two in the morning and going to sleep in Andy’s dad’s trailer-tent.
Well! This time, things would be different. Wild camping, after all, would be the ultimate expression of freedom. It would be the exercising of our natural-born right to sleep on land which had once been owned by nobody. We would spend weeks – months – at a time under canvas, living a monk-like existence, sitting round campfires, quoting philosophy, learning constellations, and putting the world to rights as we gradually pedalled round it. Oh yes.
‘Just here for the night, are you?’
‘Uh. Yes. Hopefully. Or something. We’re – uh.’
‘We’re cycling round the world.’
‘Right . . .’
‘So when did you start?’
‘Erm . . . this morning . . .’
‘Well, I guess you’d better come in!’
It was with more guilt than pleasure that I found myself sitting in the newly renovated kitchen of Mr Look-Of-Intent and his wife. As it turned out, the lady who had hurried away from the malevolent-looking bicycle-gypsies was none other than my primary-school teacher Mrs Chamberlain, who I hadn’t seen since I was eleven. She slid another helping of strawberry pavlova under my nose, while a nearby platter of assorted cheeses eyed me in a seductive fashion. Despite being wracked with guilt at yet another wild camping failure, I couldn’t quite believe our good fortune.
We did manage to salvage some kind of credibility as adventurers by politely refusing an offer of sleeping on the conservatory floor, Deenethorpe Village Green being far more appropriate for our first night in the wild.
‘Cycle on the right, cycle on the right, cycle on the right . . . or die!!!’ hollered Mark as we rolled off the ferry and onto the European mainland. There was no turning back now: we had escaped the British Isles and set foot and rubber on the soil of the Netherlands, five days after my parents’ driveway fell out of sight in my rear-view mirror. It was staggering how little time it had taken to cycle to another country – just five days! How small England suddenly seemed – how silly that I’d never thought to cycle more than a dozen or so miles away from my home until now. It seemed so ridiculously easy to hop on a bike and ride it into the great unknown, and I tried to remember why it had taken me an entire year to work out how to do it.
I knew why, of course: the real mission ahead was a true epic, rivalling some of the greatest journeys undertaken by man. The surface of the earth now lay unbroken in front of us, from the Hook of Holland to the tip of Singapore eight time zones to the east. At my best guess, we’d be riding for more than a year before reaching that impossibly distant point, tackling extreme conditions and passing through wildly foreign lands. This winter we’d be battling searing heat in the deserts of the Middle East; as spring broke next year we’d be crawling through the mountains of Central Asia, or perhaps India; meandering through China and South-East Asia as the following year drew on; and we hoped to reach Australia by the end of the second year. Some time later would come the Americas. There was no way such a mission could be accomplished without careful preparation. And my heart leapt at the image of such a line snaking its way across the surface of a globe. What a thing to do!
Yes – that was the plan, wasn’t it? A line, so simple and straightforward. It is impossible to recall how it could have seemed so clear. The miles between then and now have clouded the road to a point where I’m riding into a never-ending dust storm.
The end of each day looks the same as its start, the rubble of the Nubian desert extending endlessly in all directions. Only occasionally do I catch sight of palm branches to the west, rows of green asterisks on the horizon line, reassuring me that the set of tyre trails I’ve chosen to follow is the right one, or that at least it’s heading in the same direction as the Nile. It’s not much on which to base my progress. But it’s all I’ve got.
My tyres roll through bulldozed rubble. They sink into patches of sand. They bounce over the furrows that emerge from the passage of trucks, hammering at the corrugated dirt. Gusts of hot air carry grit and dust through the channels of this rugged landscape, sometimes from the side, sometimes behind, but mostly from ahead of me – from the south. Only the wind has the power to make a mockery of my best energies. The going has never been harder than this. Yet, in a way, riding is still easy. Any act of endurance is nothing but one small action, repeated. Press down once upon a pedal and I move forward a few feet. Do it again and I’ve travelled a little further. Another million repetitions later and I’ll have cycled to Cape Town and the end of the African continent. On a physical level, it really is as simple as that – given enough motivation, which is where things have become more complicated.
Right now, I cannot say what I’m trying to achieve by taking this on. I’ve been telling myself that searching is not going to produce any answers. I don’t need to focus on a goal, navigate with precision, or reach some destination. I need to do exactly the opposite. I need to let go of myself, and get completely and utterly lost. Only by doing so can I hope to find my way. This is easier said than done, given my particular menu of personality defects. I find myself prone to wild flights of introspection, harangued by warring voices in each ear: one telling me how great everyone’s going to think I am for cycling across the Sahara desert; the other reminding me that I’m a self-absorbed bastard for doing what I did in order to be here. I need a way to switch these voices off. And so I’ve developed a technique. It’s very simple.
Devote one hundred percent concentration to the simple act of preparing breakfast. By doing so, everything else ceases to exist. Extract, with undivided attention, a bag of bread from the right-hand pannier. Break off the black mould around the edges. Squash a banana into a floury wrap. Devour. Taste the moist, sweet banana; feel the brittle graininess of the bread. Squint briefly at the horizon. Mount bike in a manoeuvre of acrobatic grace. Press down once upon a pedal and move forward a few feet.
I’m hiding behind my bicycle for a couple of hours, because there’s nowhere else that I can get any shade in the middle of the day. I don’t know how long it’s going to go on for. Luckily there’s the occasional truck going by now, so if I do run out of water I should be able to get hold of some more.
And I was also just thinking about what we mean when we say that we want to go somewhere hot and sunny. And I was thinking that what we actually mean is that we want to go somewhere hot and sunny, and that we can escape from . . . erm . . .
I’ll try that again.
When we say we want to go somewhere hot and sunny – on holiday, for example – what we mean is that we want to go somewhere where we can escape from it being hot and sunny whenever we want. (Oh – a ladybird. Hello.) So, yeah. It’s like people who say that they like cold weather. It’s not really that, it’s the fact that they can enjoy it whilst being protected against it.
And I guess it’s the same for any kind of extreme, isn’t it? I mean, really – it does get boring, being out in the sun. It does get very unpleasant, if there’s no way of getting away from it, as I’m now finding out in the middle of the Sudanese desert at midday.
There’s no air-conditioning. There’s no water-cooler. There’s no shady little hut, or anything like that. No, it’s just burning desert, and nothing else! Not a pleasant place to come on holiday – that, I can promise you.
Towards the end of the day I come across a second group of road-workers, blasting their way through rock and pounding reddish foundations. They wave and shout greetings when they see me bouncing past in the distance, and I head towards the huddle of ageing canvas tents pitched in the desert, because given the choice between two options I might as well take the more interesting one.
I drop my bike on the sand and greet the workers in a flurry of handshakes and as-salaam-alaikums. One of them gives me a tour of the camp. It doesn’t take long: a circle of tents, each lined with flimsy bed-frames, tatty mosquito nets held together with masking tape, and a few blankets. In the centre of the circle is a rough quadrangle of stones dragged from the desert and a couple of small rugs, grey and indistinct in the dusk, but oriented in a familiar direction: the camp’s mosque. A cylindrical water tank squats on a trailer, dropped off by a tow-truck. I refill my plastic bottles with the tepid, rough-tasting water. Then I sit on the ground in the largest tent, and the half-dozen workers and I share the evening staple of bread and stewed beans. Illuminated by a dim light bulb and entertained by the growl of the diesel generator outside, there seems little need for conversation, and the evening passes quietly.
Early the next morning I depart with thanks and continue to pedal south. After a jittery start in Sudan, that all-important momentum is back and I want to make the most of it. I stop mid-morning to watch an earthmoving machine crawling along the trail, reassigned to pave an indistinguishable section of Nubia that I have already passed. This entire stretch of road, from Wadi Halfa to the capital, will be complete in less than a year; the final leg of a paved route running the full length of Africa. Although it’s futile to think in such terms, I can’t help wondering how long it will take me to reach the end of the road, and what might happen along the way. And I can’t help thinking back along that same road to the early days of my journey. How impossible it would be to invent the story that led here!
As the vibrations subside and the dust begins to sink back towards the ground, I feel another rumble. But there are no vehicles to be seen. This rumble is coming from within. And I panic, stupidly, because – despite being in the middle of the very definition of ‘nowhere’ and probably the only person for miles around – it seems inappropriate to drop my pants there and then. So I dash around in agony, trying to find a human-sized crevice in the landscape, where I discover that there is something green in the desert after all. And this leaping from the saddle settles into a pattern that continues for the rest of the morning. It is a huge relief when, with the sun overhead and the furnace at its hottest, I spot buildings in the distance, and I veer off the track and strike out across the bare earth towards them. Palms rise up behind the little village, reminding me that the Nile is just beyond. I wonder what I’ll find in my first Nubian settlement. What does a Nubian home look like? How do its inhabitants make a living? What kind of food do they eat?
After all this time, I love the fact that I still have these simple questions. The answers are not really the point.
It was on Day Six of Ride Earth that we rolled down the metal ramp and onto Dutch concrete, sniffing the air of a brand new place, allowing the unfamiliar to flood our senses – the cute interlocking pavement tiles, the slanted bicycle-friendly kerbs, the low brick dwellings that lay scattered across the flat and featureless plains. But the colourless fog overhead served as a reminder that we weren’t yet so far from home.
Before we’d set sail, Mark and Andy had found an Internet terminal and mail-ordered bicycle parts to be sent to Amsterdam’s main post office, from where we would later collect them. Andy had been suffering from back pain and sore wrists, and in his wisdom had diagnosed a case of wrongly sized handlebars. Mark was still struggling to fit all of his kit into the hold-all that he carried on a cargo trailer behind his bike, and had decided that a saddlebag was in order. It made complete sense to have these items posted from England to Amsterdam, the cycling capital of the world, rather than to buy them from a shop there. What if they didn’t have saddlebags or handlebars in Amsterdam? It was a risk we couldn’t afford to take.
In the meantime, Mark needn’t have bothered worrying about which side of the road we cycled on – the Netherlands sported a fantastic crop of cycle routes, winding among coastal dunes, weaving along old railway cuttings and delving through leafy forests. Soon it started spitting with rain. Lightly at first, then with increasing zeal, until by the time we emerged from the tangle of bike paths into the industrial outskirts of Amsterdam it was positively torrential. I donned my serious-looking army poncho. It collected rain in large quantities and channelled it into my boots. Back in the saddle, the poncho acted as a massive parachute, billowing superhero-style behind me and wrapping itself around my torso whenever I tried to gather speed.
We stopped beneath an overpass and I put on my sponsored waterproof socks and neoprene over-boots. Their performance was astonishing: never had a product so effectively stopped the water already inside my boots from escaping! Things continued to go downhill through the grey, drenched flatness of Amsterdam’s suburbs. Reaching the centre, we found a youth hostel, marched in swinging our video cameras, claimed we were from the BBC and demanded a generous discount.
I lay on my back in the dormitory, alone and deflated. We’d been defeated by a bit of bloody rain. What had happened to this heroic adventure I’d spent so long imagining? All we’d really done was make a stressful dash out of England and then grind through the rain all the way to Amsterdam (where we didn’t really need to go), before handing over precious cash in exchange for one night in a youth hostel (in which we didn’t really need to stay). Even the hostel had a torrent of rainwater pouring through the ceiling into a bucket on the floor.
The next day we got up early and set off to find the post office. It was closed. Today was Saturday, and it wouldn’t reopen until Monday. We would now have to spend the weekend in the city, putting us several days behind schedule. At this rate, we wouldn’t even make it to Gibraltar before winter set in, let alone all the way across Europe!
Bike safely stowed in the hostel’s backyard, I wandered into the city to calm down, finding that Amsterdam was just as I remembered it: brick, canals, bicycles, charm; a happy, circular city of trams, pedestrians and pedals, and a welcome change from the traffic-clogged roads and miserable commuter towns of England. I returned to the hostel buoyed up by the novelty of being in a foreign land. I found the others in the laundrette next door, Mark gazing absently into the distance, Andy drooping towards the floor, half-asleep, as the machines clinked and churned around them. They were obviously feeling the same homesickness that I’d experienced during the first couple of days on the road, and they both wanted to remain at the hostel for the whole weekend. I told them exactly what I thought of that. What a waste of money! Far better to find a park, crawl beneath a clump of greenery and sleep there, heroically. After some wringing of hands we came to a grumpy compromise and pedalled off to a campsite on the outskirts of the city, passing several good wild-camping spots in the process. We pitched our top-of-the-range tents in a neat row next to a hundred cheap and cheerful vestibules. Then we hung around in the communal kitchen eating instant mashed potato, while happy European families cooked elaborate dinners, sat down to eat on the opposite side of the room, and carefully avoided eye contact with us.
On Monday, after a protracted wild-goose chase, the errant packages were found in an out-of-town parcel depot on the wrong side of the city. And thus it was mid-afternoon on Day Ten by the time we left Amsterdam, where we’d expected to stay no longer than a night. But our collective woes were forgotten, and all was smiles, because we were finally on our way to cycle round the world.