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.
‘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!’
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.’