This week sees the publication of two new books that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for several months. Both are written by accomplished and experienced writers who I highly respect; both sit within the category of adventure; yet these two books could barely be more different in theme and content.
Life Cycles by Julian Sayarer
Julian Sayarer is probably better remembered for the utterly epic post-trip rant he published on his blog than for the feat of athleticism he’d achieved during the previous 169 days of riding.
His words, preserved online since their publication in 2009, were those of a man who — exposed and vulnerable and at 12 miles per hour — had just spent half a year experiencing a vast cross-section of global society, arrived back in London and perceived in a moment of clarity the sheer insanity of mainstream Western society.
Looking for a way to make sense of it, he’d lashed out publicly at the previous record holder, who’d taken the big-corporate sponsorship route to funding his own endeavour and thus represented all that Sayarer saw wrong with the developed world today.
The problem, of course, was that the insanity he’d perceived was one that only he had eyes to see, having earned a perspective almost impossible to gain in any other way than by doing what he’d done. This, together with the demonisation of the sponsored record-breaking rider in question, earned him infamy which doubtless lingers today, as well as the informal moniker of ‘Angry Young Man’.
Life Cycles, published this week by Blake Publishing, begins by acknowledging that while it may have been a slightly rash decision to hit the ‘Publish’ button on the aforementioned article before sleeping on it, there were a great many reasons why things looked that way at the end of the road.
We begin by learning of Julian’s background and upbringing, his deep love for cycling as an escape from the demands of social integration, and his self-identification as a questioner and misfit in a society that seemed blindly off course. We learn of the part the aforementioned record-breaker played in igniting Julian’s reactionary streak:
…it was the final straw… to see the bicycle reduced to no more than a corporate marketing strategy.
And how this spark, combined with the author’s being at a disillusioned loose end in his mid-twenties, set off what would be a self-fulfilling prophecy for his journey:
I was in need of a crusade and, however ridiculous it might sound, a small, embarassing part of me thought that, in beating him, perhaps I could change the world for the better. I suppose, at the very least, it was a worthwhile quest in which to fail.
It seems, perhaps, that the beginnings of the infamous rant were in place before the wheels began to turn. So it will come as a relief to many that Julian’s departure from home also marks a departure from anti-capitalist sentiment — at least, for most of the time — as he reveals himself as a supremely talented wordsmith, weaving an exceptionally succint and poetic tale of the events you’d expect from a long bicycle journey which in other hands would fall flat. Don’t expect a formulaic tale of hardship after hardship overcome; do expect sparkling vignettes of life observed as it passes him by, interspersed with the reflections of a thoughtful idealist who thankfully manages to poke fun at his own indignancy, as in this scene in a brand new Hungarian hypermarket:
Giving up on bread, I make my way to a delicatessen selling pizza and hotdogs. I point at pizza. ‘Ketchup-chilli-muzterd-méjonez?’ she yells. Above her head are four large teats, squeezed by her gloved hand. Down splatter sauces. Shuffling on, I move to another window with chicken legs at a price that guarantees those birds have not led happy lives. I gobble down pizza, lukewarm chicken flesh. She gave me too much méjonez, but all calories are valuable, so I dip chicken bones into surplus méjonez, scoop up a good globule and lick the bone clean, a lollipop of hydrogenated fat. And it’s that, it’s méjonez licked from cheap chicken bones… that’s progress… that’s the future… right there at a French multinational in central Hungary.
This incisive and critical eye, of course, is the one that made his original blog such a refreshing and worthwhile read in a blogosphere swamped with dry, diary-entry-style travelogs about people toddling around the world collecting consumable, commodified experiences. Some will inevitably rile against his tone, his focus and his views; others will be right there with him, wishing they’d both the gall and eloquence to express themselves likewise.
Throughout the story runs an undercurrent of disconnection, of frustration at the unbridgeable gulf between how the long-haul cyclist perceives the world at large and how the world at large perceives the long-haul cyclist. Are the author’s views a beacon of clarity and realism in a world gone utterly mad, or a collection of well-articulated but ultimately abstract rantings in a world that’s getting on with it, despite its various madnesses? Where does Life Cycles figure in its author’s quest to “change the world for the better”? How many traveller-adventurer-writers would put their hands up and say ‘actually, Julian, you’re damn well right’ if they had the bollocks to publicly do so?
I happen to be in a position to see many things through Julian’s eyes, because I’ve been to many of the same places (literally and figuratively). Others may not, and I’d rather not speculate how his tale will read to them. Regardless, Julian’s uncompromising perspective is bound to stir things up (again), and his talent for writing will ensure that he will do so by means of a unique and very worthwhile read.
Life Cycles was released on June 2nd, 2014. Order online via hive.co.uk with free delivery or collection from your local independent bookshop.
Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys
This week I finally made it into every decent bookshop in the UK and became an Amazon UK Bestseller… as a small, unidentifiable bearded bloke on the back cover of Al Humphreys’ superb-looking new book, Microadventures.
For those familiar with his long-running blog, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that this new offering, published today by Harper Collins, is every bit as on the money as his previous books. If you took everything Al’s done with the ‘microadventure’ concept over the last couple of years — including the immaculate photos and short films his own excursions have engendered — and boiled them down over your beer-can stove into a rich, well-seasoned reduction of adventurey goodness, this book is what you’d find at the bottom of your hard-anodized titanium saucepan.
If you’re not yet initiated, the #microadventure concept simply reduces ‘outdoor pursuits’ from specialist hobbies requiring time, skill, preparation and money (i.e. something you never get round to actually doing) to the simple act of going outdoors and pursuing something — whether it’s a daft idea to cycle from your mum’s birthplace to your dad’s, to walk from the highest point in your county to the lowest, or any number of other arbitrary concepts that aren’t actually the point at all. You use the time you already have available if you bother to use it — the 5‑to‑9 in between your 9‑to‑5; the three full nights’ wild camping you can squeeze into a normal weekend.
The point of Al’s new book, I feel, is to prompt you to stop making excuses and get out there doing this kind of stuff already. After leafing through the first part of this full-colour paperback, packed full of Al’s own excursions in the UK (including a couple of cameos from yours truly), you’re bound to be inspired to do something, else risk missing out on all the good old fashioned fun that people like Al are obviously already having. In the second part, you’ll find you’ll be given the tools and starting points to go on a few microadventures of your own.
For me, it’s the photos as much as the words that make this book a success: it is not a linear narrative, but a book to leaf through, see something that catches your eye (and there’s a lot to catch your eye), and dive into the text to see what it’s all about. Al’s photography skills are superb and they shine in both quality and quantity in this book.
It’s worth mentioning, also, that getting a book like this put out by one of the world’s biggest publishers is a huge coup for a previously self-published indie author who hasn’t had a helping hand, pushy agent or stroke of luck to get to where he’s got to: just self-belief and hard graft. And to think it all began with a little idea to cycle round the world…
This guest review has been written by Tim & Laura Moss, who at the time of writing are cycling to Australia, having departed the UK in the summer of 2013. They’re both riding Ridgeback Panoramas and, after 6,000+ miles, have got to know their bikes rather well. Take it away…
The Panorama is British bicycle manufacturer Ridgeback’s top-of-the-range tourer from their World line of touring bikes. Ideally designed for short tours in developed countries, ours have performed well over a longer period (eight months and counting), carrying heavier loads (up to 45kg in winter) and over rough terrain (from dirt tracks in Albania to pot holed messes in India).
This review is based on our experiences from cycling 6,000 miles from England to India as well as shorter training tours in the UK. We are using the 2013 model but, besides the colour, it’s no different from the current model.
One of the central tenets of my new eBook Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring (released this week!) is that there’s no right or wrong way to ‘do’ a bike trip.
This is a truism, of course; I’m far from the first person to point it out! Each one of us has different priorities when we saddle up and hit the road, and the scope for doing things our own way is truly vast. This is one of many qualities that makes the bicycle such a superb choice for long, personal journeys that deeply satisfy the soul.
To really get across the point that one size does not fit all, I asked 15 of the guide’s 50+ contributors to share their favourite personal items they carried with them on their longest tours — items you’re unlikely to find in any prescriptive kit-lists.
“An MP3 player for music and nowadays podcasts. I do not listen to it 24/7, but sometimes it has a magical power to kick in with great motivation, or calm me down when being solo for too long. And a pen & paper to put thoughts down and to draw what I need/want when the language barrier is too high.”
Marija Kozin / Slovenia to China & back
“My favourite bit of kit was a pair of Leatherman pliers for grinding fresh peppercorns into my food at night. I also carried popcorn kernels and made a pan of salty popcorn each evening while I wrote my diary before dinner.” Alastair Humphreys / Round the world
“My favourite piece of non-essential kit is definitely my Kindle (and all the free e‑books people gave me along the way). I never saw the point of them until I was on the road, but now I couldn’t imagine travelling without it. It was wonderful to be able to sit in my tent in the evening and browse through a whole virtual library, rather than relying on whatever dog-eared paperback I’d had in my panniers for the last six months, and I ended up reading more books on the road than I usually do at home. Of all the many things I carried with me, the Kindle was the most enriching.” Emily Chappell / London to Japan
“We bring a big cotton blanket that is totally impractical – it’s relatively heavy, not waterproof, a doozy when wet, and takes up space. But we use it almost every day. It’s home!” Ramona Marks / All over Europe
“My favourite non-essential item is my camera. I travel by bicycle because of the slowness, and with a camera I can enjoy a country and its people in a more extensive way, with an eye on the small things – like flowers or insects or frog babies. And when I get home I can relive my travels again and again.” Blanche van der Meer / Round the world (in progress)
“My favourite thing was a 5 Euro tripod stool bought from Decathlon. The trick was to keep it on top of the gear so I could grab it for any rest stop, and it was really great for the evening camp. I also had it in Morocco with a friend who was on his way to South Africa, and I gave it to him before I flew home. I think he carried it all the way to Cape Town!” Tim Brewer / UK to Australia
“My favourite non-essential piece of gear was a box of beads, needles and thread. I am not a person who can sit around doing nothing, and those rainy days when we were crammed into a tiny tent or hotel room would have driven me nuts if I hadn’t had my beads to occupy my time. Yes, it weighed a couple of pounds. Yes, it took up space. Yes, many people think I was crazy for carrying them. But I know myself, and I would not have made it through our four years on the road without them.” Nancy Sathre-Vogel / Alaska to Argentina (with kids)
“A compact, durable, lined notebook is something I’d always find room for in my panniers. A handful of notebooks provided a frame for capturing each day in restrained one-page diary entries which tracked our progress across Europe and Asia. The back pages are covered in scores from rainy day card games, hand drawn maps and the logistics of route planning and visa restrictions. There’s stick-figure sketches used for bartering train ticket prices, and the addresses and names of people I met on the side of the road. The filled notebooks I posted back home every few months are by far the best souvenir from my long cycle tour.” Emma Philpott / London to Bangkok
“Obvious I guess, but no less important, is a book. I was happy with one and desperate without one. When I had no company for days or weeks, the characters in the book became my friends, and I would spend all day cycling wondering what they’d get up to once I’d set up my tent and snuggled into my sleeping bag. The funniest of my literary experiences was reading Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” whilst cycling across the Mongolian steppe. I’d got it from a friend in Ulaanbaatar and so Austen’s dainty and agreeable set of characters were my companions as I cycled across the plains and mountains into Russia.” Kim Ngyuen / Australia to Denmark via Outer Mongolia
“My favourite piece of kit was my trusty flannel. If you think wild camping means going to bed dirty, dusty and sticky, then think again. It took me 15,000km of cycling to realise this, but with 600ml of water, a bit of soap and a flannel you can clean your entire body, almost as thoroughly as you can in a shower. Now, no matter how cold or public my camp spot, I absolutely refuse to go to bed without a refreshing naked flannel-wash.” Max Goldzweig / UK to South Africa & China
“Luddites may rail against this, but a phone or tablet with the Google Translate app is a fantastic communication tool. Downloading languages and foreign scripts to use offline, we spent many evenings passing a tablet back and forth with local hosts learning and sharing so much more than we could have done with hand gestures or a dictionary.” Tim Moss / UK to Australia (in progress)
“My favourite non-essential piece of kit was a vacuum flask. Not only in winter (when I prepared coffee in the evening and had it ready and warm in the morning without even getting out of the sleeping bag), but also in warmer climates, where I could heat water at breakfast time and have it ready for my lunchtime instant noodles. And in China – where they give you hot water in every restaurant and café – I filled my flask before camping and had pre-boiled water to speed up the cooking!” Francesco Alaimo / Italy to… (in progress)
Big thanks to all of these kind and well-travelled souls for their contributions. You can check out their ongoing projects via the links above.
And as for me? For several months I carried a large metal wok strapped to the back of my bike. Huge, heavy, totally impractical — and absolutely perfect for cooking up the most enormous meals over the DragonFly. (I believe it now resides in a small flat in the Turkish city of Samsun.)
When it comes to essential items of gear (such as your bike!), the combined experience of these riders adds up to a lot of hard-earned wisdom. If you’re getting kitted out for a tour and you’d like to benefit from their knowledge and advice (plus that of 40+ other veterans), you really should check out the new Essential Gear for Adventure Cycle Touring guide at GearForCycleTouring.com.
Today’s guest post is from Bram Reusen, a serial traveller who this summer set off to cycle to Nordkapp in Norway. His tale is a reminder that the best laid plans always go astray — and, when travel is involved, that’s often for the better.
Usually, I tend to romanticize things. I like that about myself, because it allows me to see the positive side of what I do.
In the past three years I have travelled to four continents and got around using various means of transportation. In order to finance those travels I also spent – and am currently spending – a significant time at home working temporary jobs.
Every time I come home I find that it gets easier to adapt to the routine of the work-week. What never changes, though, is the fact that after a certain amount of time has passed, I get anxious and feel the need to leave again. This usually happens after about a month or two. That’s the moment when I start picking up travel books and guides and begin daydreaming about new and exciting adventures.