In January 2016 I sat down and wrote a retrospective blog on my first year cycling. It felt surreal to be celebrating 365 days in the saddle after an uneasy start to the year but by then I was back in China with a new visa and a plan extending roughly across the next 9 months.
One year later and I am sat down writing a summary of my second year on the bike. Reaching the first anniversary was exciting. I couldn’t believe I’d managed to pedal for so long and cover so much ground since leaving home. Hitting a second anniversary was still a cause for celebrating but with a little less ecstasy. Two years is a long time. I had no idea I would be away from home for so long. I initially guessed it might take a year and a half to reach Australia. I wasn’t far off: London to Darwin took me 19 months. During my second year I decided that I wanted to end in Melbourne. Then I decided I wanted to cycle even further. Then I got a job. Now, more than two years since I cycled out of London I’m working on a cattle farm in Queensland, a thousand miles from my bicycle.
The ‘one year’ celebration was: I have smashed those last 12 months! I never thought I’d be capable of something like that! The ‘two years’ celebration was: I knew I could do that, another 12 months in the bag! and then nervously thinking will I ever be able to stop?
Just as I began 2016 with a plan to settle my nerves, so too have I come up with one this year. Fortunately, it involves stopping. My third year of cycling will be my final (but more on that later).
The first 12 months of riding was a gentle warm up. It got tougher and tougher the further east I rode but it was not until the second year that I really had to face Mother Nature at her meanest. This year was one of extremes, from the brutal winter in China’s high mountains to the scorching summer in Australia’s outback.
I felt invincible having cycled from London to Chengdu in a year. What I had seen of the Tibetan Plateau had been beautiful and I wanted more. The only problem was that the road back up from Chengdu (pictured above and heading west towards Lhasa) was even higher. It was now the middle of January and even colder but I ignored the snow warnings and headed back up into the mountains.
That following month was one of the hardest of my life. The road climbed up to almost 4,800m and the air was thin. In Tajikstan I’d suffered from altitude sickness but now my body was ready for the lack of oxygen and I conquered the passes above 4,500m without too much trouble. I never sleep well at that altitude, but here the low temperatures weren’t helping. Most nights it was between -15 to -20C and the dark hours were long. Getting out of the sleeping bag in that cold is not easy, especially when you know you will spend the day pushing through deep snow.
When I arrived in Australia 8 months later I felt invincible once again. It had, after all, been my ‘impossible’ dream to cycle all the way to Oz. Now that I had achieved that it seemed unlikely that anything could defeat me. And so I prepared for the greatest challenge of my two-wheeled adventure: crossing the outback from North to South in the heart of summer. Just as when I had planned to ride up to the Tibetan Plateau in winter, I was warned that the idea was stupid. Just as I had done in China, I ignored the advice. Bad ideas are usually the most fun.
The heat was a struggle in Australia. Temperatures were often up in the mid 40s and the sun was relentless on clear days with only the desert shrubs for shade. I was lucky: the thermometers can hit 50C+ in some of the places I cycled in December. I think that would be too much for me, as tough as I like to think I am.
The heat was dry in the desert and actually not as uncomfortable as the humid tropics. I was so excited when I reached the Tropic of Capricorn and finally escaped the sweaty clutches of the equator. I will never forgot how exhausting humidity can be. I think the heat in South East Asia was harder for cycling.
It was not the heat that caused the greatest trouble in the outback – it was the remoteness of the environment. Roads are built for a reason. Often they are old tracks that are developed into roads over time, sometimes they are made to create an easier connection between settlements and often people start new lives beside roads where passing traffic delivers trade. As a result, you are rarely alone on them. Not in Australia. For the first time on my tour more than a day passed without me seeing a single vehicle or human being. The long stretches between life was a problem in the heat. At times the distances were greater than 200km between water sources and I had find a way of strapping 25 litres onto my bike to survive the lonely sections.
Thinking about it, my second year of cycling divides quite neatly into 3 sections. First, there was cold China and it’s menacing mountains. I then descended into the tropics and cycled across 8 countries in South East Asia, that was section two. Finally, there was the 3 months in Australia – at last reunited with the English-speaking world but outcast into the lonely outback.
I had imagined SE Asia to be the magical reward after a long year riding across unfamiliar corners of the world. I’d backpacked in most of the countries I was about to cycle in and so I knew they were easy places to travel. In China I’d be lucky to see a white person in a month but on the travelers’ circuit in SE Asia I’d be back with all the backpackers.
Cycle touring is quite unlike any other type of travelling. You can still visit the touristy places but you have to cover the miles of ‘normal’ places in between them. SE Asia was often a strange mixture of days travelling through small villages before then arriving in a tourist-friendly town and being surrounded by other foreign visitors.
I took my reward in Chiang Mai, Thailand when I stayed with my mate Toby who owns a guesthouse there. I’d planned on resting for a month to relax and re-focus, hoping that I’d get back on my bike with a clearer idea about how to approach the rest of the year. Instead, I did almost nothing for 30 unproductive days apart from drink. There was never a shortage of new company at his hostel and so the afternoons passed in lazy sessions boozing on Hong Thong.
I might have changed since I left London but clearly I hadn’t changed that much. I had a blast in Chiang Mai but I should never have stayed that long. When I got back on my bike I had a new found respect for my body and all its fine tunings. My first year had been full of European parties, daytime vodka picnics in the former Soviet countries and baiju sessions with the Chinese. My second year on the road was impressively teetotal in comparison.
I also paid more attention to what I ate. I got sick far less than in my first year and the food was amazing everywhere I went (apart from Myanmar). I’d been on the road long enough to know what intake kept me moving without loosing weight and which camp site meals fueled me most effectively. It is impossible to go cycle touring without gaining an acute understanding of your own body and its capabilities.
In many ways South East Asia was boring. That part of the world is quite monotonous in comparison with the cultural patchwork that makes up the Silk Road. I went mad from the dull miles riding through endless rubber tree and palm oil plantations. It was supposed to be easy cycling: the roads never pass anywhere particularly remote, tasty food is always available and accommodation is cheap. Actually, SE Asia was an extremely tough place to cycle. Its climate was the reason why.
I met very few touring cyclists this year compared to the one before. When I did meet people riding around SE Asia I was impressed. I would travel with a backpack in the tropics – then I could move on buses and sit in air-con rather than sweat all day in the humid air. For months I had to endure the same sticky climate and I never stopped feeling uncomfortable in it. People said I would struggle in the outback sun trying to cross Australia in summer but the weather was harder to deal with in SE Asia. The toughest heat cycling I ever faced was actually in Northern Thailand in mid-May. It was 43 degrees when I left Chiang Mai and the road over the mountains towards Myanmar was a brutal workout. There were times I had to stop or I would have passed out trying to push my bike up those steep hills in the midday sun. Whenever possible I would pause between 11am and 2pm. I never felt I had to do that in Australia.
The nights were the worst. 30 degrees and muggy as hell. I don’t miss those evenings in the jungle rolling around on my floor mat trying not to swim in my own sweat. If I got out my tent I would be eaten by the millions of mosquitoes waiting for me.
In Thailand I finally got to chuck my old Vango Banshee 200 tent in the bin. It had been leaking for months and the poles were broken. I felt very chuffed when I got my first sponsor on board and received a Microlight fs-2 tent from L.L. Bean in the US. Check me out! With that tent I could sleep under just a mesh layer, keeping the nasty animals away but letting a breeze catch me in the night. When the nights are clear I can fall asleep watching the stars. I have made a million wishes over shooting stars since I got that tent.
At one point I was a little allergic to the idea of sponsors. To me, the beauty of this life is being entirely self-sufficient. I don’t owe anyone anything, just my own two legs. I don’t need help. When I want to sleep I put my tent up. When I’m hungry, I eat. I need people to sell me food but I can cook what I’ve bought wherever and whenever I like. I can spend my money how I like and when it runs out I can get a job.
I’ve been asked in the past if I have a donations page where people can contribute to my trip. I’m very flattered by this but I would never have one. I am in a lucky position where I can easily get work to raise funds and that is precisely what I am doing now. As soon as I have the cash I need I’ll be back on my bike again.
A my journey has grown so too has this little blog of mine. I just started it so that I wouldn’t have to repeat the same stories over and over again to my friends and family but now it has grown to have a reach far beyond that. It’s quite amazing. The other day I looked at the WordPress stats and there have been hits from more than a hundred different countries!
This second year of cycling I have thought more about what it means to pedal the world, both to me and others. What kind of message do I or can I promote from two wheels. I think it is the same whether I meet someone on the road or write about my experiences on this site. It is about sharing the positives about this world, because they always outweigh the negatives.
The other day I was talking to someone here in Australia about my route. Pointing at some of the countries they’d said “surely that can’t have been safe!?” and I replied “it was perfectly safe and the people there were far nicer to me than anywhere else in the world”. Challenging pre-conceived ideas like that only takes a second but reassessing one can have long after effects. I know so because many things I thought I knew about the world turned out to be complete nonsense.
My blog has not changed much since I started it one month into my trip. Hopefully the writing and photography skills have improved but the idea is still the same: to give an honest description of what life on a bicycle is like, documenting both the good and the bad times. I love complaining but it’s always the good moments that are remembered and I hope that is the same for you readers. The world is a fantastic place and I can’t think of anything I’d rather do right now that continue exploring it.
Our planet is a fantastic place and it is so because of the people that we share it with. No matter how long I cycle for I don’t think I will ever become so jaded that I don’t feel moved when a stranger goes out of their way to help me.
After my break in Thailand I headed over to Myanmar. There the adventure started once again. The monsoon rains finally arrived and I spent days soaked as I pedalled into the unknown south. I say ‘unknown’ because no foreigners had really been allowed there before. I know that I wasn’t the first to make it through on a bicycle but I may have been the second. I loved that country – it was messy, chaotic and totally bonkers. The roads were hard work, the people hilarious and the authorities a total menace. Those are the ingredients for an adventure!
It was a relief to get out the country after my 5 day police escort to the border but I quickly missed mad Myanmar. Southern Thailand was easy going and Western Malaysia was far from scenic.
Things got fun again in Indonesia. Of all the 10 countries I cycled through this year, Indonesia was easily my favourite. I was back in the Muslim world and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the people were far more hospitable than anywhere I’d been that year. The people were fantastic but the roads in Sumatra and Java were the worst I have ever cycled.
I was glad to still be alive when I reach East Timor after Indonesia’s suicidal roads. My loop around that far corner of the archipelago was the perfect way to end my time in Asia. It was gorgeous, the roads were rough, there were no other tourists and the people super-hospitable. It was also the last I could possibly handle of that continent. Everywhere I went people stared at me and every village I cycled past kids would yell ‘malae!’ at me. I was tired of being the weird white guy on a bicycle. I just wanted to be the weird guy on a bicycle. I was tired of the language challenges and the cultural barriers. I wanted some ‘normal’ and I knew it was waiting for me just a few hundred miles away in Australia.
I wrote in a blog in Indonesia that the ‘rose tinted glasses had come off’. I think that was a good way of describing how I felt. I had a lot of people ask me for money in Eastern Indonesia and Timor-Leste. It had never happened like that anywhere else on this tour and I was unsure how to feel about it. I suddenly became aware of the fact that I was not just the peculiar foreigner, I was now the rich foreigner who owed something. When those metaphorical glasses came off I began to feel like a stranger everywhere I went. I wasn’t just on a bicycle. I was riding a lifetime of privilege through some of the poorest parts of the world and all I had to offer was a smile. It was time for me to return to the developed world.
Arriving in Darwin in October was a day I will never forget. That was the moment the mission became complete. I left home to try and cycle to Australia and now I was on the red soil. What a feeling! 20 months of progress had been made for one simple dream and now it had come true. I felt like the King of The World.
It was ironic that after all that time out of the English speaking world I then headed into the loneliest stretch of my tour. After a few days soaking in the comforts of Darwin, I was lucky to even get a single conversation in a day while I crossed the outback.
Getting off the plane was not the only special moment in Australia. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn and finally escaping the tropics was a glorious moment. So too was the arrival of Adelaide – the first big city I’d reached in Oz and the finish line of my crazy desert crossing. Finally there was my touchdown into Melbourne. That city on the other side of the world had become my end point for quite some time. It was the place where the plan ended at midnight as 2017 began.
Everything changed in Melbourne. I parked the bike and began to job seek. At some point during the year I’d decided I wanted to cycle beyond Australia but if I wanted to do that I’d need some cash. I’d seemed like a waste to get a working visa and then only work for a short while so I planned to chose a job tactfully. If you work 3 months in a agricultural industry/area you can qualify for the same visa again. I figured that it I could nail my 3 months, I’d have plenty of money to continue cycling and I’d have the option to come back to Australia another time. I’m not desperate to return any time soon, but I like keeping doors open rather than closing them.
My second year on the road ended very far from the road. By the 16th January 2017 I’d completed my first week on the cattle feedlot in Queensland where I’d received a job offer. My bicycle was a thousand miles away in Melbourne.
I started writing this blog months ago but I’ll run over into the third year now. It’s mid-April and I have two more weeks of work left before I can reunite with the bike. It has been a very strange few months for me. I am no longer my own boss. I start my day when I’m told to and go home when instructed. All day long I do what other people tell me to and I am there all day. At the moment I’m on the farm for more than 60 hours a week. It’s been worth it, though. I am a lot richer than I was at the start of the year and by the time I leave Australia I will be comfortable for funds.
I’ll write a blog summarising my last 4 months in Oz before I leave the country, but I should include one recent episode here. On the 17 February I received a phone call from my dad that flipped my world upside-down. He told me that my grandad was dying and the next day I caught a plane back to the UK. I’d gone to work that morning as usual and two days later I was landing in the very same city I cycled out of 36,000km ago. It took me 40 hours to erase two years of cycling across 36 countries.
The trip was a blur. Usually I am good at channeling my thoughts into words for the blog but not on this occasion. Let’s just just say that my head was all over the place that journey. All I remember is the eternal sunset as we flew west.
My grandad did die, but only after I’d been home for a fortnight. When I arrived in Devon he was still ‘with it’ – knew who I was and what I’d been away doing. To have been able to see him before he passed away meant the world to me. Getting that flight was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Death has a habit of putting things into perspective. It is sobering like nothing else. I realised when I flew home that I’d been so quick to get the ticket because I was already prepared for the moment. I’d been feeling homesick and was becoming increasingly aware of how long I’d been away from my family for. I knew that eventually something could force me to come home and I felt guilty for tempting fate. If my grandad had died without me seeing him during his last two years alive I’d have felt wretched. Not only because of his passing, but because of everything else I have missed as well.
If death has a habit of putting things into perspective then it gave me a healthy dose of clarity. It spoiled my fairy-tale of cycling back into London having been away for three years but it reminded me how important living is. Fairty-tales are great, but real life is of more value and the more worth you can suck out of it the better. I have done a pretty good job with living the last couple of years, I think. I need more of it. London is my home and I will never feel a stranger there, no matter how long it has been. But I do not want home just yet. So, here’s what is happening next…
I have a couple more weeks of work left until the end of April. Then I’ll have completed the three months required for my visa (to qualify for a return to Australia another time) and I’ll have plenty of dosh. I will fly from Melbourne to New Zealand in early May and cycle around there for a month. I shall spend 3-4 months crossing USA from West to East coast (visa pending) before returning to Europe and back to London. I haven’t quite figured the last part out, but whatever happens I want to be home by Christmas.
When I left home the dream was to cycle to Australia. Now the dream is to pedal around the world. May as well give it a shot now that I’ve come this far, right?
I can’t wait to get back on the bike and share more stories from the road. I hope you are excited to read them. As ever, it is a pleasure to document this life on two wheels.
While I’ve been off the bike the last few months I put together the first couple of videos I’ve ever made of my trip.
The first is a montage of clips from the road. After I left Denmark with a new camera I started filming a second-long snippet of the road I cycled ever single day. Here’s them all together from Copenhagen to Melbourne!
The second film I made is a short movie on my crossing of the Australian outback from North to South coast. Check it out…
Catch you soon!