Categories
Inspiration Janapar Philosophy Of Travel

What Happens When A Non-Cyclist Spends 3½ Years Travelling The World By Bicycle

When I tell people I rode a bicycle 15,000-odd miles across Europe, Africa and the Middle East for fun, but that I’m not a cyclist, I get some funny looks.

I try to explain that it wasn’t thunderous thigh-muscles I wanted but visceral life experience, fresh out of university with a head full of theories and not a job opportunity in sight. No commitments, no prospects, and no desire to grab a backpack and bus the planet’s roads: the combination of bike and tent would allow unmatched freedom, and screw the wild-camping laws while I still rode in countries that had them. I scrimped and saved and stretched it out as far as possible. With pedal-powered transport and pop-up accommodation, my only remaining costs were calories.

I try to explain that while there were gruelling climbs in the Alps and switchback descents in Romania, swooping panoramas on Turkey’s coasts and vast orange vistas in the Sudanese Sahara, these views have faded beside the faces I’ll never forget: the Swiss newspaper editor who flung open the doors of his mountain chalet, the gypsy villagers and that forest mushroom breakfast, the Middle Eastern petrol-station attendants leaving their pumps to provide company and kebabs, the Nile-side Nubians and their unconditional desert hospitality. And let’s not forget back gardens and bacon sandwiches in Cambridgeshire, nor fresh eggs and animal sanctuary sleepovers in Suffolk. I could never have bought such memories.

I try to explain that – while I’d planned out a rather hopeful off-road route away from my Midlands home and across Europe – the route had been ditched within days in favour of going where the tailwinds took me. Following maps in the early days had earned me the confidence to travel without them. Faced with the choice of two roads, I’d take the smaller. When lost, I’d ask directions, or enjoy being lost. For bearings, I’d guess the time and look to the sun, or when raining sit in a bus stop and look at my compass. This was a brand new lifestyle, not a Sunday-morning bike ride.

I try to explain that when I met a girl in the Armenian capital of Yerevan, it was the freedom and flexibility of the open-ended bicycle journey that allowed me to stop and change tack. I had no onward plane ticket or pre-planned itinerary, no date reserved for my heroic return home; setting up shop was a matter of handing over £80 worth of banknotes each month to the landlord of my former-Soviet apartment. My girfriend and I set off riding together; another non-cyclist taking to the road to experience freedom. And her transformation was incredible to watch.

I try to explain why I had to leave her behind; explore the world alone again. It’s even more difficult than explaining why I don’t consider myself a cyclist. But crossing one continent was just the initiation. My bike had opened a door to reality, a world of faces and sounds and emotions, a world out of doors, living simply, getting on with it, rough and smooth, and I’d experience it right here and now from the seat of my bicycle in all its beauty and imperfection.

Riding to Africa, the continent that scared me most, put the stories and images of the planet we live on firmly in context. Crossing Mongolia rewrote the rules of the road completely: there weren’t any roads at all. Cycling to the Arctic Circle in midwinter proved that climate and season were pitiful barriers to adventure. And riding the Pacific Coast of America with my younger brother brought two adult siblings back together again. I learned new languages and alphabets, to write from right to left, gained a second passport, and forgot where I was from.

Now, years later, I’ve married the girl and we’re exploring new roads together. These travels by bicycle have shaped my life more than anything else, and continue to this day. I don’t regret a moment of it.

And all too often I try to explain all this to the people who ask about my journeys. But it’s difficult. No — it’s impossible.

All I really feel able to do is encourage as many people as I can to rethink cycling – not as a sporting discipline, a hobby or a fashion statement, but as a way of experiencing the world and its people that is second to none, no matter where or for how long you go.

I hope that you will consider giving it a try. Even if, like me, you’re not a cyclist.

The full story of this journey is told in the award-winning film Janapar: Love on a Bike, as well as in the book of the same name.

A version of this piece originally appeared in The Sunday Times. Header photograph by Andrew Welch.

Categories
Budgeting & Finance Guest Posts

Save More Money & Have More Fun By WWOOFing Around The World By Bicycle

Today’s guest post is by 28-year-old Erwin Zantinga, a Dutch bicycle traveller who has spent the last six years Working Worldwide On Organic Farms (WWOOFing). Given its obvious relevance to the #freeLEJOG experiment, I asked him if he’d be interested in giving us an introduction to this now well-established world of casual outdoor work on the road. Take it away, Erwin…

It was 2008 and I found myself almost crying because of her departure, a new friend I’d known for just two weeks.

It’d been an intense fortnight of working, eating, talking, dancing and hanging out in lovely Sweden — Eekerö, to be precise — on a small piece of the world called Rosenhill Trädgård, the very first WWOOF farm on which I’d worked.

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My name’s Erwin. I’m not naturally green-fingered, but they quickly became greener (and dirtier!) as I became a more experienced WWOOFer.

I originally found out about this global network of farms through a friend:

“Just try it! It’ll be a great way to spend a free year!”

So off I went to the website of WWOOF Sweden, found a farm that appealed to me and simply called them. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was preparing to travel. I packed my freshly-bought backpack and took a 24-hour bus ride to Sweden, arriving at the farm where I was welcomed by 10 young people asking if I wanted to join them for a game of soccer. I hadn’t even had time to put my backpack down.

This is the essence of WWOOF: togetherness. You become a part of the family you stay with, eating what they eat, sleeping on their land and learning the techniques they use to work with the soil, and sometimes even learning a new language in the process!

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WWOOFing doesn’t feel like work — it feels more like helping somebody out for a couple of hours a day. There were days when you work 12 hours straight, too. But a great group dynamic makes 12 hours of hard work feel like a nice workout. At that first farm, I’d planned to stay for 2 or maybe 3 weeks. It was in December I realized that 5 months had gone by.

Eventually it was time to move on, and I found another farm, just above the Arctic circle, working mostly with husky dogs. Unfortunately I didn’t get on so well with the people I stayed with, so I lasted just 4 days. But WWOOFing does not oblige you to stay. It’s your time, so you can come and go whenever you want to. It wasn’t easy to make the decision to leave so soon, especially since they’d taken me into their home and fed me, but it just wasn’t going to work out.

The next place I went to was Bulgaria. One of the most exciting things about the network is the fact that you have no clue where you will end up and who you will meet. Will it be hippies in a shack on the edge of the forest? Or will it be a family trying to live in a self-sustainable way? What will the work be? How will the food be? Will there be other WWOOFers? Each and every time I find myself surprised, just by going to a farm or smallholding and seeing how the people live there.

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I see the WWOOF movement and long distance bicycle touring as very much compatible, with huge potential for self-sustainability. A bit of weeding, a bit of welding and you’re ready to go again. Last year I cycled back from Hungary to my hometown in 
The Netherlands, and on the way I passed 5 different farms. I stayed for 3 days at each farm, working, as well as interviewing and filming.

Stopping off at WWOOF farms like this has some great advantages. You can rest, using other muscles then your legs.
 You get a real bed (sometimes even a double bed!). You get proper food, made on a real stove or in a real oven.
 You get space and time and proper tools to fix your bike. You have other people to talk to, instead of talking to yourself.
 And in general you get the feeling of staying in one place for more than just a night.
 It’s a change to work with the ground instead of just pedalling for miles on end. You emerge recharged and with renewed energy to continue your trip. 
Connections with your fellow workers are made quickly, too, and you might well find cycling companions with whom to continue riding.

Actually starting WWOOFing is incredibly easy. Simply check online if the country you’re going to (or are already in) has a WWOOF community of its own. If not, check the WWOOF Independents site to see if your country of choice is on their website. You pay a small membership fee in order to see the contact details for the farms. And then you just pick up the phone and call your future hosts. (It’s usually a good idea to call them again a couple of days before you arrive, so you won’t be left standing in front of a locked door.)

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The most beautiful thing about my cycling-WWOOFing experience, I think, was the kindness of the hosts. Normally there is a minimum stay of about a week, but at these farms they happily let me stay for just 2 or 3 days. It was still hard work, of course. But when I left the first farm, they gave me a parting gift: 2 pairs of hand-made knitted socks.

And this is really why I WWOOF: the mutual sense of appreciation.

If you’re interested in learning more, check out my own video documentary about my cycling-WWOOFing experience:

Who knows — maybe we’ll see each other on a WWOOF farm in the future…

Thanks, Erwin! In addition to WWOOF, check out HelpX and Workaway — two work exchange networks on similar missions to enable (money-free) mutual help and appreciation between those who need it and those who can give it.
Categories
Planning & Logistics

6 Simple Steps To Planning Your First Ever Bicycle Adventure

If the busyness of modern life is stopping you from getting out there on your first bicycle adventure, try following these steps:

  1. Find the next available window in your calendar. Multiply the number of full days it contains by 50 and write the answer down.
  2. Choose a nearby country or region – somewhere new you’d like to see – and book a plane/bus/train there. (If booking flights, check that your airline is bike-friendly.)
  3. Take your answer from question 1, find another city roughly that many kilometres away, and book a return plane/bus/train home. (Use a route planning app to quickly estimate cycling distances.)
  4. Get a cardboard box from your nearest bike shop and pack your bike into it like this. Pack your panniers, tent and rollmat into one of these, and take your bar-bag as a carry-on (if flying).
  5. Arrive and unpack your bike. Meander towards your destination at a leisurely pace. Eat when you’re hungry. Sleep when you’re tired. Do entirely as you feel.
  6. Repeat step 4, having successfully completed your first ever cycle tour.

Today I have a few additional thoughts to share with you about cycle touring, one of the simplest and most rewarding forms of travel there is.

Despite what I tend to talk about on this blog, going on an overseas bicycle adventure does not have to involve quitting your job, spending years planning, and then embarking upon a long-winded odyssey of self discovery (though that’s fun too).

Sometimes it can simply mean going somewhere new, nosing around for long enough to unwind fully from daily life, and coming home refreshed.

It does not have to be heroic. It does not have to involve ‘epic’ days in the saddle. Or energy gels. Or lycra.

It does not have to involve hardship, heavy traffic, mountain ranges and continental crossings on £5 a day and with nothing but pasta and stock-cubes for sustenance.

Believe it or not, you’re allowed to have fun on a bike tour. Not the type of fun you later convince yourself you had. Actual, real fun. Sit by the riverside and read your favourite book. Wallow in a state of post-lunch, post-beer relaxation for hours every afternoon. Cook elaborate meals. Eat ice cream. Brew coffee. Occasionally do some cycling.

It does not have to involve telling anyone about it. Do not blog. Sleep in wonderful, wild places that only you will ever know. Meet new people every day. Ignore everyone and everything except what’s happening right here, right now. Leave your phone and laptop at home. I dare you. I double dare you. Throw out your calendar. Spontaneously change your plans, your flights, your life.


Come to think of it, I should probably get around to doing this myself.

Yes. I really should. I work too hard. I need a break — a break from writing all this stuff about adventure cycle touring.

Right.

That’s it.

I’m going to go and ride my bike.

I leave tomorrow.

Bye!

Think planning’s more complicated than this? Click here for more help.

Categories
Books & Reading

New Travel & Adventure Books for August 2014

It seems to be the season for new books (or new editions) in the world of cycle touring. This month I’d like to showcase three recent releases: two travel memoirs and a revised edition of one of the most useful cycle-touring guides there is.


The Road Headed West by Leon McCarron

Cover of The Road Headed West by Leon McCarron

Leon McCarron has a long list of impressive adventures behind him, amongst them dragging a mattress across a desert for a month, walking the entire breadth of the world’s most populated nation, and — of course — attempting a source to sea of Iran’s longest river (accompanied by yours truly).

So it is interesting that for his first published book he has chosen to write about a cycling journey across the USA.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this would be the least interesting-sounding of his adventures — a long bike ride across a developed English-speaking country with its all-too-familiar culture. But for Leon, this was a rite of passage, a personal coming-of-age journey apparent from the opening paragraph as he ruminates on why it’d be a shame to die at the hands of a drunk, shotgun-wielding rancher, just when life was beginning to get interesting.

It’s this underlying human story that the book is really about, the places and people a backdrop for the growing-up of a young man on the road — yet, as Leon discovers, even cultures we think of as familiar can deliver the greatest surprises. My own coming-of-age journey happened during a crossing of Europe, so I can empathise well with the tale, and if I were in my early twenties and struggling to find a likely-looking path to follow, I’d devour stories like Leon’s ad infinitum. Such tales never get old.

Leon McCarron at Explorers Connect London

After attending his book launch in London a couple of weeks ago, I asked Leon to explain why he wrote The Road Headed West:

I began writing this book purely for selfish reasons — I just wanted a way to remember what had been a very formative journey for me. The more I wrote, however, the more I realised that this was a story a lot of people could relate to — much of it will be familiar to anyone who has ever travelled, or those who have at one time or another felt the need to escape from ordinary life and seek out a new challenge. My hope for the book is that it will be an entertaining tale to read and, ultimately, that it’ll show how anyone can go on an adventure (and why everyone should!).

Leon’s also put together a short video about his book, which you can watch here.

Order the paperback from Amazon.co.uk

Download the Kindle edition from Amazon.co.uk


Ipanema Turtles by Laura Mottram

Cover of Ipanema Turtles by Laura MottramLaura Mottram, one half of Pedalling About, has just published her account of her and Paddy’s 21,000km exploration of South America on two wheels between 2011 and 2012. As someone who’s never been to South America, I’m devouring this with gusto, and it’s doing a great job of re-igniting those familiar cravings to hit the road again in search of fresh adventures and lessons.

What’s nice about Ipanema Turtles are the local tales of South American politics and society that the author has woven through the book. In her own words:

It’s an inspirational travel memoir about exploration and self-discovery during an adventure of a lifetime. It tells the stories of the strangers we met, close encounters with sloths and tarantulas, and the incredible places we visited, as well as providing an insight into life as a couple on the road.

Ipanema Turtles is also a fantastic read if you want to learn more about the amazing continent that is South America. In the book we explain the stories of the 13 countries through which we rode – the history, culture and politics – as was told to us by the many strangers we met on the road.

Pushing through a Brazilian village

Order the paperback from Amazon.co.uk

Download the Kindle edition from Amazon.co.uk


Bike Touring Survival Guide by Andrew & Friedel Grant (aka TravellingTwo)

Cover of Bike Touring Survival Guide by Friedel & Andrew GrantLast but not least is the second edition of TravellingTwo’s cycle touring guide to end all guides. As I said to Friedel recently, one of the main reasons I haven’t been able to muster the impetus to sit down and write a trip-planning guide of my own is because I could never do a better job than she and her husband Andrew have done with the Bike Touring Survival Guide.

Taking the format of a structured Q&A, with each chapter dedicated to comprehensively answering one of the big questions asked by newcomers to cycle touring, as well as plenty of questions a newcomer wouldn’t know to ask, the guide combines the lessons learned from the authors’ own 60,000km of bike touring with the stories and photos of over 50 touring cyclists (including yours truly).

Our leap into the world of cycle touring began with a dream: to bike around the world. At that time (in 2006), it was difficult to find practical information about bike touring. We were searching for straightforward answers to questions such as what to pack, which gear to select, how to plan a route and what life would be like on the road — and we weren’t finding the information we needed. That’s why we wrote the Bike Touring Survival Guide.

Download the digital guide from TravellingTwo.com


I’ll be featuring new adventure, travel and cycling books once a month for as long as there are books to review! If you’ve got a recently-published book you’d like to see here, or are releasing one in the near future, I’d like to hear about it.

Categories
#freeLEJOG 2014 Other People's Adventures

#freeLEJOG: How Tegan Gave My Touring Bike A New Lease Of Life

A couple of weeks back I offered up my no-budget touring bike and gear to whoever came up with the most appropriate plan for what they’d do with it.

The winner, a South African student by the name of Tegan Phillips (whose video entry you just have to watch), is now en route for Spain, having dropped by last week to collect it all.

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I’m not going to ramble on about Tegan, her trip plans, what happened the day she departed on her first big cycling adventure, or anything like that.

Instead, I’d like you to take the time you’d put aside for reading my blog and spend it reading hers instead.

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Well, not exactly reading… in fact, I’m not quite sure what the right word is.

Tegan’s unique story can be followed at unclippedadventure.blogspot.com.