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Book Serialisation

It was such a delightful little combination of words. It undermined the status quo so wonderfully

I read Andy’s message from my spot beneath a tree. In my lap was the copy of The Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook that I’d just put down – a book which explained, in detail, the practicalities of cycling round the world.

I’d bought the book whilst browsing in a store that morning, not knowing it would become one of those twists of poetry that sometimes emerge from everyday life. As I sat under the tree, the future came into focus. Job applications had long been shelved. Shunning the temp-job circuit in favour of eking out a living as a freelance programmer in my bedroom, I had no ties that couldn’t easily be cut. I’d been stashing every penny I could in a savings account, and with nothing else to lose, the idea could not have made more sense. Yes! My best mate and I were going to cycle round the world!

The idea thrilled the heck out of me. Cycling round the world! It was such a delightful little combination of words. It undermined the status quo so wonderfully. A bicycle was for short journeys, and for eccentrics, fitness freaks and the financially challenged. What better way to blow people’s expectations out of the water and cement my maverick reputation?

Since graduation, my university friends had developed a habit of donning backpacks full of expensive apparel and credit cards and Lonely Planet guidebooks and setting forth into the unknown. They’d go for months at a time, wandering the Planet’s well-worn paths in – I scoffed – a Lonely kind of way. But they inevitably came back with curiously similar photos, stories, bank balances and signs of premature ageing brought on by heavy drinking and sunburn. Then they would leap back into the rat race as if the mind-expanding experiences they’d yarned about in the pub had turned out to be nothing but a long holiday, a temporary escape from reality and responsibility; an obligatory part of being Western and middle class and in one’s early twenties and having money to spend and an easy passport to travel on. And all too often their stories seemed to involve starting out poor and itinerant and hard done by, becoming enlightened as to the folly of Western materialism, and then putting those new Eastern philosophies into practice by getting a high-powered career in a multinational corporation.

I could certainly see the appeal of full-moon parties on South-East Asian beaches, of performing improbable yogic stretches at sunrise in Goa with the aroma of fish curry still lingering in my dreadlocks, of pretending that sleeping in a hostel was poverty redefined. But I was always held back by a feeling that there must be more to it than those recycled clichés; than bus journeys, bedbugs, touts, temples and the company of other rich young white people on unique journeys of self-discovery. And so I never bought a seventy-litre backpack or a pair of ultra-light zip-off trekking trousers, and I never danced the night away in Thailand or pulled a muscle one morning in India.

No. I wanted adventure and authenticity, bewilderment instead of beauty, challenge rather than charm. I wanted my preconceptions dashed against the rocks of reality. I wanted to discover how little I knew.

With a similarly deep distaste for conformity, Andy had also avoided the backpackers’ trail. The difference was that he’d found an alternative, rather than sitting on his backside like me. While I was moping about in my East Midlands village and my mates were elephant-trekking in Thailand, he’d been working as a mountain-bike guide on the small Croatian island of Korcula. Through his experience and passion for riding, Andy had taught me everything I knew about bicycles. There was no way I would be able to get my act together without him. I thought his idea a stroke of genius, taking mountain biking to its natural conclusion.

The ball was soon rolling. Both being far more interested in off-road than on-road cycling, we quickly hit upon the idea to attempt the round-the-world journey on dirt roads alone. It would be done for the thrill of adventure, of course, rather than to break records, though in all likelihood it would be the first journey to be carried out in such a way. What could be more worthwhile than doing what we loved, mountain biking across a vast range of landscapes for the next few years? And we would learn so much about life outdoors. Given the terrain we were likely to cover and the laughably small budget on which we would need to do so, bushcraft skills would be needed simply for day-to-day survival. I mail-ordered a set of brass rabbit snares and a pocket-sized copy of the SAS Survival Guide in preparation.

A route plan was soon under way, and I dropped an email to my old university mountain-biking buddy and housemate Mark, who had recently lost his job at the owl sanctuary in Dorset and was labouring away unhappily as a mortgage analyst for a building society.

‘I was going to email you to see if you were interested in the first bit of next year’s bike trip,’ I wrote. Though it would still be more than six months until we departed, I was excited and I wanted to share it. I’d been scouring maps and books detailing long-distance walking routes, pilgrimage trails and cycling paths across Western Europe, and my efforts had strung together a fascinating-looking tour of France and Spain, heading as far south as Gibraltar before looping back up via the Alps to Geneva, where some friends had offered to put us up. Between bouts of heroic biking, the plan featured a healthy menu of medieval and religious history, cutting-edge continental culture, gastronomic wonders, and spared time for the beautiful women we would meet along the way. About two and a half thousand miles in length, it had been designed to gobble up maximum distance and variety before we left Western Europe, and I guessed that it would take us two or three action-packed months to complete it. From Geneva, Andy and I would head east towards Turkey, offering Mark an easy route back to England via Belgium. Having a girlfriend to think about, Mark only wanted to spend a couple of months with us, rather than choosing freedom, ditching the relationship and becoming a fully signed-up member of our team.

Mark had been a good friend throughout our days as a student; a bookworm, sceptic, passionate eco-warrior and Bob Dylan enthusiast, tall and skinny, with a floppy blond mop and a thoughtful-looking goatee. The fact that, like me, he was not particularly athletic was comforting, although I noted that he had become a dab hand on a unicycle. Studying for a degree in English meant that he’d spent a lot of time reading, usually without getting out of bed. And, when he wasn’t devouring literature, the house that Mark and I had shared with five other students had become the venue for debates of great philosophical significance, as well as Mark’s occasional fire-juggling performances. After graduation, he’d spent a week with me and Andy on a spur-of-the-moment bike trip through the Scottish Highlands. The two had hit it off and a great deal of hilarity had ensued. Despite the trip itself being ridiculously ill-planned and thus the coldest, wettest and most miserable week of our lives, we returned home with the strange conviction that it had been the most fun we’d ever had. The trip had sown the early seeds, and so Mark was the obvious third rider. Our combined intellects would surely be able to find novel answers to many of life’s great questions as we undertook our unprecedented mountain-biking odyssey.

I liked Mark because he would never back down from a debate. He held strong opinions and extolled them with passion, particularly when they involved science, religion, or – heaven forbid – both. He was quick to point out flaws in others’ arguments, and I considered him the kind of ultra-rationalist who’d be able to defuse disagreements between me and Andy, helping us to work logically through the challenges we’d face. As well as this, Mark managed to be laid-back to an almost fatalistic degree, and his relaxed and candid demeanour would help me avoid taking myself too seriously. The trip, after all, was supposed to be enjoyable. Mark’s company would make it all the more so.

‘Ever thought about just heading south from Spain to cycle down through Africa?’ he wrote in response to my email.

I didn’t want to go to Africa. It was too dangerous. There were far too many problems in Africa – it was all I ever seemed to hear about in the news. A terrible place for a bike ride. In any case, Mark was treading on my toes: I’d spent ages coming up with these route plans, investing weeks of my time in the creation of intricate off-road routes. Mark wasn’t even coming with us all the way – he was just going to tag along for a few pleasant weeks in Western Europe, at my invitation!

Eventually I suggested that we cycle to Gibraltar and hop on the ferry to Africa for a day or two before continuing on our way, and returned to my route-planning for Eastern Europe and Turkey. It’d be easier to find off-road routes from that point on, because paved roads would obviously become rare once the developed world was behind us. Mark’s enjoyable and provocative company would be welcome during those first months in Europe; the months that would be the testing ground for our equipment, and where we’d toughen up for the hard riding ahead. We would depart as a group of three, and setting off from my front door seemed the natural way to begin.

It’s Friday, which means the comments section is open for questions about this week’s instalments. Fire away!

Categories
Book Serialisation

I’d never planned on being anywhere near Sudan, alone or otherwise

I never planned to be cycling alone through Sudan. But now that I am, I have plenty of time – too much, perhaps – to dwell on the complicated tale of adventure and romance that led me here.

In fact, I’d never planned on being anywhere near Sudan, alone or otherwise.

‘I would rather not bike in Africa at the moment,’ I’d replied in a typically hard-headed email to my good friends Mark and Andy. ‘There’s a lot of screwed-up stuff happening there, and there are places in the world that I’d rather see.’

No – the dream that brought us to my parents’ house in Northamptonshire one summer’s day, bikes packed and ready to leave on the ride of a lifetime, was not of cycling to Africa.

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‘Speech! Speech!’ someone shouted, and the chatter died down in anticipation. Mark was the first to respond, with his typical understated humour:

‘Right – see you all in a bit!’

Everyone laughed.

Mark was standing outside the front door on the patio of my family home, me and Andy next to him, our heads all roughly shaved the previous night by someone who’d had a drink too many before picking up the clippers. In front of us was a garden table, and upon it was the huge rectangular cake which my mother had baked in preparation for the big send-off. The white icing was studded with little paper flags on cocktail sticks, each one wishing us a safe journey. And around the table were friends and acquaintances whose chatter dimmed as they sensed the ceremony about to begin. I looked down at the massive cake. It seemed misplaced, as if delivered to the wrong house that morning, leaving some birthday boy or girl in tears.

The crowd watched solemnly as together we grasped the knife handle and cut firmly into the cake. Then, tentatively, we each raised a slice of cake to our mouths. The crowd cheered.

‘Right at Rockingham!’ shouted my dad from the back of the hubbub. He loved to create a scene when there were enough people within earshot to make it worth the effort.

‘Straight on, isn’t it?’ I mumbled half-heartedly through my cake, being just the opposite and hating the fact that I’d been put at the centre of attention.

‘Which way is it at the end of the drive?’ asked Mark.

‘Er … right,’ I replied, not sure whether he was being funny.

‘Right? OK – cheers.’

‘You will send us a postcard, won’t you?’

‘Do you know which way you’re going, Tom?’

‘Do you have a plan?’

‘Is it Gretton?’

‘And then Harringworth?’

‘Amsterdam’s the first stop, isn’t it?’

‘You know it’s not signposted from here?’

 

I remember it so clearly – pottering down to the corner of the high street with the chattering entourage, the way my bicycle nosed its way along as I nursed it down the road on foot, the surprising weight I found myself heaving upright when the unfamiliar machine began to overbalance. And I remember the eruption of cheering and the waving of banners as I transferred my weight onto the right-hand pedal, gripped the handlebars, and stepped away from the ground and into motion.

Every component gleamed with that special sheen that only something freshly pulled from its packaging can exhibit. I shifted my weight back onto the handmade leather saddle. Simultaneously, the left-hand pedal rose upwards and, as I engaged the pedal clip with a metallic snap and looked up towards the road ahead, the crane operator swept the big camera up in a smooth arc, panning to capture Mark and Andy rolling forward ahead of me. We rode round the bend at the bottom of the hill and out onto the main street of the village, amid cheering and clapping, beginning to gather speed.

It felt so unnaturally cumbersome, the steering so heavy – but then it was, after all, the first time I had ridden a fully loaded bicycle. As we passed beneath a string of white balloons, I suddenly wobbled – before nervously correcting my balance. I grinned, imagining the ribbing we’d receive if we collapsed in convoy on the way past my front door. The small crowd passed behind me; rows of familiar faces brought together by us and our journey. I was moved by how many had turned out to see us off – people coming from all over the country. It had given me a real sense of just how important it was, this thing that we had decided to do. I looked ahead at the brightly coloured luggage of my two friends with whom I was going to live out the next chapter of my life – a chapter that I knew without doubt was the beginning of a monumental tale.

I stole a glance in the rear-view mirror by my right hand, where the send-off party was drifting out of sight. Looking ahead again, I was struck by how smooth the bicycle’s motion was. It was a sensation of unstoppable grace, unlike any bike I’d ridden before. The quality of the machine was tangible, the intricate choice of parts coming together beautifully. Given our very specialised requirements, no off-the-peg touring bike had really fitted the bill. Those bikes were invariably designed for road touring, and I couldn’t think of anything more tedious than following paved highways for years on end. Nor could Andy, who was riding just ahead of me; tall, lean and broad-shouldered, trusty old blue-and-silver helmet strapped to his freshly shaved head, cargo trailer close to bursting with sacks of equipment, shiny cardboard label still swinging from his handlebar bag. Together we had spent almost a year working towards this moment.

Andy had been a close friend since our secondary school days. We’d grown up on a healthy diet of English, maths, science and football at a small-town comprehensive in the East Midlands; a diet inevitably supplemented in later years with girls, loud music, experimental hairstyles and underage drinking.

But Andy and I differed from our peers in one fundamental way. We lived in tiny villages and travelled each day to the big town school by bus. In the afternoons I returned home to the ancient little cottage where my family lived in peace and quiet, and this, for me, was home. Mum and Dad taught at local primary schools, we went on our annual holiday to warm and sunny places, and life moved slowly, one year indistinguishable from the next. Kettering was little more than the place where I happened to be dumped for a few hours each day, its politics and dramas as strange and foreign as the upbringings of the town kids around me. I’d travelled ten thousand miles on that school bus before my eighteenth birthday, ears plugged with headphones, peering out through the grubby glass at the unchanging farmland of rural Northamptonshire.

During the holidays, Kettering vanished from existence and the land surrounding the villages of the Welland Valley became mine to explore. It was little more than some unremarkable fields, rivers, woods and railway cuttings. But there was always the hope of discovering something that everyone else had overlooked. These escapades would always be carried out with my younger brother, because our parents had sent us to a different secondary school from the other village kids, and my early childhood friends all vanished when we went our separate ways. As I grew older, Andy’s village became an achievable destination for a bike ride, and in that way we became each other’s local riding partners.

Then university swallowed everything. Life in Exeter brought brand new friends, unmentionable kinds of fun, socialising and studying in a self-contained bubble. I found people who shared my taste in music, and presented a campus radio show to which they would sometimes even listen. This bubble lasted for three years before silently bursting, leaving me equipped with a large box of records and the theories of Computer Science but absolutely no idea what to do with them. And there was the growing feeling that I’d chosen the degree out of the necessity of choosing one, rather than out of any real passion for the subject.

One autumn day I was interviewed for an appropriate-sounding job as a software engineer in Barnstaple. I sailed through the interview and took a handful of tests to prove my skills in the fields of programming and database design. But when I was offered the job on the spot, I realised with a shock that this could actually be my future. Did my destiny really lie in an office in a small Devonshire town? It was a recipe for a stable, comfortable existence – of that, there was no doubt – and there was much to like about Devon, with her coastlines and moors and custard and her ever-so-quaint traditions. But at the age of twenty-two, what was the value of a stable, comfortable existence? Where was the risk? The excitement? The adventure?

I told my potential employer that I’d think about it, drove home in my mum’s Vauxhall Astra, gave my Dad back his tie, and tapped out a short email to the company.

‘I’m writing to let you know that I will not be able to accept your position at this time,’ I wrote. ‘I have decided to spend some time exploring my options before I commit to a career.’

The young and enthusiastic director with whom I’d spend the morning talking wrote back within minutes.

‘Sorry to hear that, Tom. You were first on my list. But probably good to get it out of your system. Good luck!’

So I was going to explore my options, duty-bound to ‘get it out of my system’. I just wasn’t sure what these options were, or how I was supposed to find them. And I soon found myself back in the musty old bedroom of my adolescence, ten thousand pounds into the red, with my graduation-day portrait hanging in the downstairs loo and a depressing-looking question mark above the last three years of my life.

 

If anyone else had suggested it, I’d have thought twice. But when a text message arrived from Andy a few months later, the last piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

‘Mate. I have decided to cycle round the world.’

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Book Serialisation

The essential beauty of the bicycle journey lies with the freedom that it gifts the rider

I peer out through my mangled sunglasses. I dropped them long ago – in the Alps, I think it was – and ran over them before I noticed. Still, they do their job. As mile after indistinguishable mile goes past, palpable waves of heat pass through me. The brown tint of the glasses makes the place feel even hotter.

A distant whir invades the trance. I pull over to watch the passing of my first vehicle in Sudan, when it’s still just a shape in the north. The shape grows quickly, and then in a spectacular explosion of dust and violence the first of many trucks thunders past me in the greatest sensory assault I’ve had for twenty-four hours. Of course – it’s the day after the weekly ship comes into port from Aswan. Skipping the paperwork has put me a day ahead of the slow train of trucks and buses that begins to rumble past, drivers honking elaborate symphonies in greeting. Then I come across a little lizard perched upon the roadside, and it’s as if between the tiny animal and the enormous vehicles I’ve somehow found my place within this family of desert travellers.

As if to confirm the notion, an encampment comes into view, figures and machines moving slowly through the dust. The tarmac comes to an abrupt end, and I rattle along a tyre-track, emerging into a wide circle of shelters and shipping containers. Stinking tar-stained barrels sit beneath the sun among mounds of sand and gravel, like heaps of dye powder waiting to be mixed on an artist’s workbench. Under one of the shelters is a group of men. I instinctively send a wave in their direction. The act of smiling seems to change my mood, and I suddenly want nothing more than to join them in the shade for a nice little glass of tea. Luckily – judging by the way they’re waving me over – it seems that they’re of a similar mind. I flop down in the shade, feeling immediately at home, and all the trepidation of the previous day evaporates into the heat of the desert noon: I know now that everything in Sudan is going to be OK.

 

The labourers are not surprised to see a white man on a bicycle. I know nothing about them, the Nubian culture here in the north, or the circumstances of their employment out in the desert. But it’s clear that they’ve been camped here, blasting rock and moving earth, for long enough to have seen my kind before.

‘How often do you see a cyclist?’ I ask the most forthcoming tea-drinker. He regards me from between a moustache and a furrowed brow, his front teeth missing. I put him at around forty. He’s wearing a tidy cotton shirt and trousers with socks and smartly polished shoes. It’s an interesting outfit for a road-builder in a stifling desert camp. Roughly once a month, a cyclist – or usually a pair – is seen passing through these parts, he says. That’s more than I’m expecting to hear, but I’m not altogether surprised. Because it seems that the renaissance of the long-distance bicycle journey is about to begin.

A few months ago, Scotsman Mark Beaumont had set a new world record for a bicycle-powered circumnavigation of the globe. A few gruelling months of unsupported cycling, linked up with flights between the continents, had secured him a place in the record books and a television career. Several retaliatory attempts on the record were announced, and soon Mark’s record had been broken, then broken again, until almost halved in duration. It’s funny, because – aside from our mode of transport – I feel little in common with Mark and his peers. My reasons for being here have nothing to do with a circumnavigation, even less to do with breaking a record. I’ve learnt the hard way that the essential beauty of the bicycle journey lies with the freedom that it gifts the rider: bound by no route, beholden to no timetable. My ride wasn’t always so unstructured. But a lot has changed in the last couple of years.

‘You see?’ asks the chief tea-drinker, walking me out into the sun and pointing up. Squinting, I scan the skyline from our spot deep in the stony hills. Ridges sit starkly in all directions against the burning sky. Following his outstretched arm I notice the telltale lines and angles of a man-made structure. The size and purpose, from this distance and with my less-than-perfect eyesight, are indistinct. Given its hilltop perch, however, I guess at an old military watchtower.

He lowers his arm and looks me square in the eye.

‘British!’

With a grin whose meaning I can’t fathom, he catches me out with my own ignorance. I smile sheepishly, not knowing what to say. Nobody has taught me about my home nation’s imperial past except for these people, the descendants of its subjects. Given the scale of its influence in the world, though, the British Empire seems quite an omission from my history lessons.

But the look turns to laughter and he claps me on the back: there’s far too much tea-drinking and lying around to do to bother teasing a khawayya – a white guy – over a historical triviality. He sits down, and I glance back up at the watchtower. Up on the hilltop I imagine tiny figures: bored, feverish redcoats, wondering what whim had torn them from their families to travel thousands of miles and sit sweating in the sun, looking out over the parched, diabolical landscape of Nubia, days away from even a modestly sized town. And I laugh, because right now I am doing exactly that.

Refreshed and rejuvenated as much by the pleasant company as by the tea and the shade, it’s time to continue. I say my thanks, heave my dusty mountain bike up from the ground, and set a course for the least treacherous-looking path on which to disappear over the horizon – forever out of sight and mind of another collection of souls who briefly became the closest thing I have out here to friends. I didn’t even learn their names.

The camp sinks away beneath a ridge of rock. Ahead of me and in every other direction lies the desert; the same sand-blasted landscape that has existed here for millennia. And my road – my final thread of attachment to the world of man – has vanished. Only a faint set of tyre tracks disappearing into the nothingness indicates that anyone has passed here before.

Well, I came here for a challenge, didn’t I? For something I wouldn’t be sure I could pull off unless I tried. It was the only way I could justify the decisions I’d made. And now I’ve found it.

Categories
Book Serialisation

The Sahara doesn’t really look like I’d pictured it. But then nowhere ever quite did

The Sahara doesn’t really look like I’d pictured it. But then nowhere ever quite did.

My bicycle rests against the milestone. A slope of crushed red rock drops from the roadside and slips into the sand. I pull a bottle of water from the rear pocket of one of my bags; take a swig. It’s hot enough for a bath.

I replace the bottle. These dusty bags contain everything I need to survive the world’s largest desert. A thin sleeping-bag, a handful of tools, a change of clothes. I’ll soon run out of water and food. But just because this is the Sahara doesn’t mean there’s nobody here. There’s a road, after all. A brand new road, unadvertised, running down through the Sahara. Sooner or later, roads mean people. And people mean water and food. Right?

The sun has barely set, but I’m cooling down now, my senses recalibrating to a motionless world. When life is scrolling past you, it’s difficult to register all the detail and intrigue – especially in a place as otherworldly as this. And there’s a stillness and silence here of a kind I’ve never felt before; beautiful, yet at the same time deeply frightening.

My breathing gradually slows, and as it does, the last remaining sound dies away. I take off my boots, and with bare feet I pad around in the sand. It feels cool and soft between my toes. I look about. Broken mounds of black and crimson rock stand out against the sand, all painted in twilight pastels.

There is nothing here. I shouldn’t be here, a young man from rural England, at home with green and pleasant. This is a place to run from, not to explore.

And I don’t know how far I’ll have to ride before I find supplies. I bought a reassuring amount of food and water and then pedalled south before I could change my mind. A day of riding later and I still have no more idea of what lies ahead. I am banking on little more than a roll of the dice. And my number had better come up, because a bad roll in a place like this could have the worst consequences of all.

I unstrap my belongings from the bike, telling myself that this is probably just another dip. The world has been merciless with my emotions. A free meal can have me beaming with joy, but this joy can be turned to rage by a single thoughtless driver. Too often I feel like I’m hanging onto my mood for dear life as it thrashes and squirms. It was never such a rollercoaster when I had someone next to me.

My tent sits upon the sand, constructed. I don’t remember putting it up. I must have done it out of habit, I think, and I rummage for my video camera. This thing has had the questionable privilege of seeing me at my worst and my best. I’m not quite sure where tonight is going to fit into the spectrum, but for almost two years the camera has been my closest confidant, so I find a rock on which to sit. Adjusting the tripod legs, I position myself in front of the lens, the interaction as familiar as picking up the phone and calling a friend.

Flipping open the tiny screen so that I can see myself, I recoil with surprise. Matted greasy hair of about three months’ growth is plastered against my scalp. My beard has reached a length at which it adds a decade to my age. The bridge of my nose is burnt deep red, and my skin and clothes are coated in a beige film of dust, sweat and grease. I look worn out by thought and worry. My face, it seems, could tell my story on its own.

I adjust the camera to produce the best possible picture. The well-practised calibrations happen in an instant. I have lost count of the hours of footage I’ve shot. I usually capture plenty of the scenery behind me, but something suggests that the important thing tonight will be written across my face, so, pressing the red button, I zoom in slightly and my mirror image fills the frame: some guy, talking to a camera in the middle of a desert. I fold the screen back out of sight, fix my gaze on the dark circle of glass, and open my mouth to begin to speak.

‘ … ’

I try, desperately, to force a word – just one word – to come forth. But it’s as if words have lost all meaning. I am entirely unable to speak. Because there is no utterance on Earth that comes close to expressing how I feel.

I shake my head and stare into the distance, looking around at the desert, as if answers will come springing from behind the dunes. I look back. There it is. Right before my eyes. How stupid. How stupid to think that I could pour it all out into this thing, this little black box of cables and microchips. It is nothing but a placeholder for what I really want, which is to take her in my arms and to tell her I love her and that I’m a poor stupid fool for having done this; to beg her forgiveness and to lie down on the ground and tell her how scared I am right now.

I try again.

I must continue telling this story.

Well …

This is it. This is where it gets tough.

This is the … um.

This is the … er …

This is the furthest I’ve ever been from civilisation. In my life. In the Sahara Desert. Of Sudan.

Yeah, I just … I just cycled out of this little port town, and into just these vast, empty wastes. Of nothing. Of nothingness.

There’s not … I … I can’t hear a thing. It’s completely and utterly silent. There’s no slight background noise from a road. There’s no dogs barking in the distance. There’s no birds singing. It’s just completely and utterly silent. And that makes me feel even more … even more exposed than I do anyway.

I really don’t know … what I’m doing. I’ve got off this boat, and I’ve put about twelve litres of water on my bike, stocked up with enough food to last me for about two days – and just left! And now I’m just hoping for the best. I have no previous experience of dealing with vast distances in the desert. I’ve no experience with cycling in sand. I’ve no experience of cycling in this kind of weather. Just pure … un- … un- … pure … ugh, my god. I can’t even string a sentence together.

I need to get my head round all of this.

Yes. Just pure unbroken sunlight from sunrise to sunset. Not a single cloud – no, nothing. Completely empty sky. Completely empty dead landscape. Just me. On my own.

And I just feel … I just feel confused. Really. Just confused. What am I doing? Where am I going? I don’t know what direction I’m going in, because every direction looks the same. There’s no traffic to stop and ask. There’s a river – the longest river in the world – around here somewhere, though I’ve no idea where! How ridiculous is that?!

My god, it’s just …

And this is just Day One.

Tomorrow morning I’m going to ride my bike. And however I feel, it doesn’t matter – I’ve just got to keep going. That’s all. Nothing else. Going, from one little pocket of existence to the next.

And I really – I miss Tenny so much. So much. And right now I’m here, talking to a camera, and she’s in Armenia, on her own. Waiting for me to come back.

And I know she’s there, and I can’t be with her. Because I’ve decided to do this instead.

 

A grey pallor seeps into the sky. Ripples of fabric brush up against each other, nudged by a hint of breeze, but there is little else greeting my groggy awakening. With a practised contortion I unzip the tent door by my head, roll over in the thin sleeping-bag and look out again at the world, all painted in bone and soot, without sound or sensation, as if time itself has ceased to flow. The murmur of pink in the east will soon become a roaring angry whiteness, a heat of such ferocity that it could actually kill me. I drag my bike and trailer back up the slope to where the new road still glistens absurdly, like a liquorice lace flopped across an orange tablecloth. Last night I stood here, more afraid than I had ever been. But the time for self-pity and doubt is over.

So I swing a leg over the top-tube, feel the teeth of the pedal connect with the sole of my boot, lift myself into the saddle, and suddenly the wind is untangling my hair and the sticky tarmac is crackling and the world is scrolling past like a computer game. I have returned to my natural state: pedalling until the action is unconscious, dealing with whatever pops over the horizon, forgetting what falls away behind – until the end of the day, when a moment to digest may present itself. Until then, momentum is all I need to sustain this life – this life of glorious simplicity.

Categories
Book Serialisation

I went on a journey seeking answers. What I found instead were questions

I went on a journey seeking answers. What I found instead were questions. Things I thought were black and white dissolved into grey. This was annoying: the world was easier to understand before I’d experienced its realities.

I’d chosen to ride a bicycle because it would bring life back to basics and allow for unmatched independence. There was no other reason, least of all an interest in cycling itself. Combined with the tools and skills of outdoor living, it had seemed that bicycle travel could hardly be bettered as a means of simple, spontaneous and open-ended exploration. Satisfying basic needs and excluding all else, I assumed, would concentrate the mind on what was important, but I was not ready for the sheer extent to which this was true. My experience opened the door to deeper questions than those of the world outside. I found that I had made some foolish assumptions, and soon learned why others told of the difficulty they had reintegrating with mainstream society after years on the road. And it was exploring these questions that took my journey so far from its original intention as a simple bike trip.

During a particularly strange and challenging few months, a friend wrote to me with the following helpful reminder: “If things aren’t changing, you can’t be learning anything.” And think that neatly summarises how things play out when you take the scenic route. It would have been easier to press single-mindedly forth and then write yet another book about a bicycle-powered lap of the planet. But while I did indeed encounter mountains and deserts, challenge and hostility, long days in the saddle and the kindness of strangers, this is not what my journey was really about – and nor is the book that recounts it.

Janapar is not linear in chronology. Life is full of unfinished moments. There are no neat lines drawn across continents; it didn’t matter where I went as long as I kept moving. It is far from comprehensive in its exposition of places visited, it excludes maps and statistics entirely, and is missing periods of time measured in weeks and months. But the result is a truer portrayal of this particular tale than a mere transcription of a traveller’s diary could ever provide.

Any book that could be comfortably transplanted into the ‘memoirs’ department runs the risk of being self-absorbed. It was my priority to avoid this. While the motivation to write may have come from within, the book you now hold was written to be read. Trains of thought are lazy; far better to show and not tell. Years on the road provide no shortage of raw material: no two days are the same, the details of each one still etched into my memory, my diaries, photographs and film footage. Writing this book was an exercise in picking through the anecdotes, identifying crucial turning points and bringing them back to life. I revisited all the chance meetings with friendly strangers who became friends, trying to figure out what they’d taught me and how those lessons had affected later decisions.

I also took the grisly but unavoidable step of looking inward at my own character. It is easy for an author to selectively edit out his or her own less appealing errors of judgement for the sake of ego protection; I chose to bare all because real life is messy and full of mistakes and it’s precisely this that allows us to grow and make progress. Besides, I could not change the past, so I might as well tell it how it was. And I might also add that if I had not had my weaknesses, and growth and progress had not been the result of coming up against them, my story would not have an ending, and this book would have no cause for existence.

I wrote this book because I am an idealist. I am affected by the frankly ridiculous notion that by poking around in the dusty corners of the human experience and reporting what I find there, my efforts will somehow nudge the balance towards a commonly held idea of a better world. Journeys like mine have been happening ever since humans started to think of themselves as distinct from ‘the other’ and became preoccupied with finding out what that ‘other’ really is. This can be seen from the rites of passage of Ancient Greek civilization to the Native American ‘vision quest’ and the Australian Aboriginal ‘walkabout’; coming-of-age experiences built into cultural tradition. (The closest we have today appears to be the mildly inebriated gap-year, and even that’s been killed off by mounting student debt.)

By publishing Janapar alongside the documentary film of the same name, I’d like to think that this story will inspire a new wave of personal journeys made in the spirit of each such quest becoming a unique, formative experience. These are clearly the actions of a madman, because life is so regrettably fleeting and the actions of a million others will undo what I’ve brought into being. (But I am an idealist, and so this won’t stop me trying.)

Let me leave you to continue reading in the simple knowledge that these are the things that happened when I took my life into my own hands, though I did not know that I was doing so at the time. They happen to include a bicycle and the most unlikely kind of love story. They are not meant to fit a pattern or genre. But they are meant to speak to you as a person living this very same unpredictable, unfinished, exciting, adventurous life.