After reaching Barcelona where I spent a couple of nights reunited with my Mum who had come out to visit, I headed north out of the city towards Andorra which sits up in the Pyrenees. I'd love to say that my choice of route was to allow me to conquer Port d'Envalira, the highest sealed road in the Pyrenees, where many riders competing in the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana have toiled towards the summit. I'd also love to say that my choice of hostel in Andorra halfway up a mountainside which I'd have to descend again in the morning before climbing up to the mountain pass was chosen to give me beautiful views overlooking the capital. However it was just 'luck' that allowed me to 'enjoy' these things as I only spent five minutes looking at a map and less time searching for a hostel, not looking to see where exactly it was located. It's fair to say I'd become a little complacent about my ability to easily ride anywhere a road dared to lead me. The climbs were not the most difficult I've encountered on my trip but since Morocco I've struggled a little with illness leaving me lacking energy and spluttering up the road above the ski slopes to its snowy summit.
With great relief I could sit on my bike throughout the rest of the day, peeling off layers as the air rushing past me gradually became warmer up as I descended for many miles to my campsite for the night just outside Toulouse. From there I could spend the next day and a half following the cycle track that runs along the tow path of the Canal des Deux Mers. Some flat, easy riding to Bordeaux, away from traffic and with some nice scenery. Perfect I thought. That was until I was stopped by an old French fellow who stood at the side of the canal. He spoke good English and started asking me about my trip. He seemed very interested but to my horror after a few minutes I felt his hand where it definitely shouldn't be. After removing it as quickly as possible I got straight onto my bike and rode away as fast as my legs could take me. Looking back now I really should have gone to the Gendarmerie and shown them on a teddy bear where he touched me as I expect he just hangs round along the canal waiting for unsuspecting people in lycra to prey upon. The rest of the ride along the canal I felt a little uncomfortable and I was very glad to arrive in Bordeaux to meet up with my friend Daisy where the nasty old Frenchman couldn't get me.
After a few more days eating cheese and numerous packets of Lidl's pain au chocolat as I made my way up through Northern France, I arrived in Roscoff not really believing that I was just a few hours away from England. I expected to feel a bit emotional when I first viewed the green hills of England as the ferry approached Plymouth but I just encountered feelings of tiredness and a craving for fish & chips which I rushed to satisfy as soon as I'd dropped my bike off at the hostel. It was so nice to walk through the old British streets, to see the Queen's face on the crisp £10 note I'd just withdrawn from the cash machine outside the Co-op and to feel the grease of the chips on my fingers, but the thing that struck me most was that everyone spoke with a British accent. It was music to my ears. In the morning after a full English breakfast I set off across Dartmoor to weave between the sheep and ponies that wander across the roads, as I started the final couple of days riding to Calne, Wiltshire where I would complete my circumnavigation as it would be the first point that I had passed through twice on my trip (except following the odd wrong turn of course). A stop with family just outside Exeter and an evening reunited with my cycling chums Chris & Lucy, who loyal readers may remember kept me company through some of China and Vietnam, led me to the start of my last morning as a mere mortal who hasn't cycled round the world. That was all to change as I set off along the final 60km to become the first person to ever complete a journey around the world on a bicycle in Calne. An achievement worthy of mention in the local paper who sent a photographer out in force. Who knows, they may even one day erect a statue of me next to the pigs outside the Coral bookmakers. I was fortunate to have Josh Simpson with me for company from Bristol and a few more familiar faces for the last few miles along the old railway line from Chippenham. It turned out to be a very strange day as it felt like I was just riding home from a night away in Bristol but I was really glad to be able to share it with family and friends. Its strange, I spent two years looking forward to this moment and now all of a sudden it has past.
Life seems to have changed dramatically for me since I arrived home. There is a comfortable bed to sleep in upstairs, family and friends nearby to socialise with and a packet of chocolate Hobnobs in the cupboard. My bicycle was wheeled into the garage four days ago and hasn't been looked at since and my lycra has had its turn in the washing machine and sits nicely folded away in the spare room. I switch on the TV and unfamiliar faces tell me the news and others what I should be buying to make my life better. I meet up with friends and have to ask them what is happening in the football while they all consult their smart phones as news of Swindon's play-off exit comes through over the news feeds, my slightly dated Nokia X2 not-so-smart-phone remaining firmly in my pocket as it rejoins a world in which it no longer belongs and is unable to keep up. Until four days ago life was simple. I just had to sit on my bicycle and every pedal stroke brought me gradually closer to my goal. Now it's time to set new goals, to enjoy the things I've missed over the past two years and to find the next path to bring purpose and excitement to life (and a short course in popular culture 2011-2013 will probably be required to help keep me 'down with the kids'). But first there is the small matter of completing my journey, for although I have completed the circumnavigation, I have not yet returned to the place where it all started. So before my bike has time to gather dust and my lycra to become too tight, I will set off for the last section up to Aberdeen. So fear not, there will be a few more capers to come before this site starts to gather dust tucked away somewhere on the world wide web until the next adventure begins...
It was with some relief that I sat on Royal Air Maroc flight AT201 with a cup of tea in my hands and the completion of another continent in my legs. I had finally made it across the last big stretch of my journey and now was just weeks away from home. The final section of America was not the most inspiring in terms of cycling; busy, noisy roads up the generally forgettable, built-up east coast to New York; but it was made up for by the joy of riding through Manhattan itself. I rode with a big smile on my face as I bustled through the lines of SUV's and yellow cabs, doing my best not to be distracted by the buildings stretching above into the skies, instead trying to keep my eyes out for opening doors and turning traffic. I also had the chance to spend an evening in two of the most iconic jazz bars in the world: Blues Alley in Washington DC to see Kevin Eubanks and Blue Note Jazz Club in New York where Clint Eastwood's son, Kyle was playing. America had been a little bit of a long slog in the end, not helped by the colder weather, but had provided plenty of highlights along the way. I was ready to head into warmer climes and to get across the Atlantic, closer to home.
I arrived in Casablanca early on Easter Sunday after just one hour of sleep and with a bike to reassemble outside the terminal building. The air was warm and everything was quiet. I was expecting the place to be busy with passengers rushing around and traders going about their daily business, so was relieved to be able to just get on with it quietly. The serenity didn't last long as I made my way into the city, adapting to the driving style of the locals. Lanes didn't seem to be fixed at all and instead you just had to ride on the waves of traffic as it shifted from side to side across the road as someone decided to turn a little to the left or right for no apparent reason. I arrived at the hotel I had booked and after a quick chat with my folks to let them know I'd successfully arrived I fell fast asleep.
Just a day in Casablanca was enough to see it and its only real attraction (apart from Rick's Cafe of course), The Hassan II Mosque. I was told that this was the third largest in the world but Wikipedia has just overruled by declaring it merely the seventh. Still, it seemed pretty impressive. Casablanca is a pretty dirty, industrial city and whilst it was good to start to get a feel for Morocco and go into a supermarket to get an idea of prices so I don't just get ripped off by everyone, I was glad to start making my way to Fes. After passing through Rabat, I headed inland and met a German cyclist heading the other way. Cedrik had just ridden a day and a half from Fes but was in no rush to get anywhere so decided to turn around and join me for the next few days. He had a very different style of touring with no real plan or final destination. I'm not sure I could ever have faced deliberately turning round and going back on myself just for no real reason other than the company of a scruffy Englishman. Still, a guide to the city who wouldn't end the day asking for lots of money shouldn't be sniffed at! It was great to have some company and we continued on out of Fes and then into the hills in the pouring rain. Something else where we differed as Cedrik couldn't see the point in riding in such conditions when it's no longer fun, whereas I'm much more in the head down and get the miles in camp. He was also feeling a little under the weather so I didn't blame him when the next day he decided to do something unthinkable and take a bus up to Tangier rather than cycle there. As I followed the miles of diversions and ended up pushing my bike along the railway line to avoid some flooding, I couldn't help but think that he was maybe onto something. Still, I pressed on towards the end of my long day and found a hotel for the evening where I learnt that Moroccans take a slightly relaxed approach to maintenance.
The next morning I got up and packed all my bits back onto my bike and wheeled it to the door. I turned the key to unlock it but nothing happened. The lock had felt a little loose last night but had successfully sealed me into the room for the night. Now however, it continued to seal me in. Thankfully I had been unfortunate in being unable to find a very basic, cheap hotel to stay at. I had ended the long day in a very touristy little town and the only hotel had rooms with balconies and sea views. Whilst it left me with a slightly lighter wallet, this did leave me with an alternative exit however there was a large drop down from the balcony. With my cycle helmet on (always safety first) I tentatively hauled myself up onto the roof of the building and across to the other side where I was able to drop down and get help from the guy at reception. He didn't seem too bothered by it, like it happened all the time, and so gave me the key to the room next door so I could get my bike out through the linked balconies. I just feel sorry for the old lady who gets locked in next time and doesn't have a cycle helmet to keep her safe as she clambers over the roof.
I rode on up to Tangier where I had arranged to meet up again with Cedrik. As I entered the city I met a group of teenagers at a set of red lights. Like I had experienced with many Moroccans, they had big smiles on their faces and wanted to say hello with a couple of them going for the old high five. However, soon there were five or six of them around my bike and suddenly I could feel it being pulled from side to side as they tried to relieve me of my bags. Before the lights turned green (sorry Mr Police Officer) I tried to ride through them with my hands busily trying to push them away and trying to hold onto the items on my bike they were trying to pull off. From what I'd seen and heard, such obvious, public attempts at theft are rare in Morocco and thankfully they stayed that way as I managed to break clear retaining all my possessions, not really sure how. Feeling slightly shaken by the experience, it was good to be back in Cedrik's company in the safety of our little hotel room.
After saying farewell to Cedrik, I rode over the hills to Ceuta, glancing often across the Strait of Gibraltar to mainland Europe where shortly a brief ferry ride would take me. I felt very pleased with myself that in a super organised moment I had checked the time in Cueta which is a Spanish enclave located north coast of Africa, the place I'd be getting the ferry from. Turns out I would have missed it by two hours had I been less on the ball. As I disembarked the ferry and pedalled away from Algeciras, the familiar feeling of riding in European surroundings was brilliant. I had a few familiar coins in my pocket, in just a few days I will be meeting my Mum in Barcelona and in just over a couple of weeks I will be back at home ready to embrace a 'normal life' again.
Racing through Spain
As I perched on a bench enjoying my reaquaintance with baguettes, brie and ham, a couple of Dutch cyclists appeared heading in my direction. After the quick obligatory introductory chat (where do you come from, where are you headed etc) we set forth together towards Alicante. One of the cyclists continued on at his own pace while together with the other, we sped on ahead. The wind was on our backs and we were descending slightly most of the afternoon making the riding pretty fast. My companion decided to play a game with himself (I joined in the spirit but was not anything like as committed to it) called 'do not touch the brakes or slow down at all through very busy roundabouts'. As we whizzed through numerous junctions he weaved like a ghost through the oncoming, turning traffic and I panted behind as I tried to catch up between each one, slightly amazed by the lack of an accident. Who was this slightly crazy, slightly deaf Dutchman I'd been ready to scrape off the radiator grill of a passing car? Turns out I had been riding all afternoon with former F1 driver Huub Rothengatter!
I don't know what it is about laundry and the scrawling of my thoughts here, but these activities seem to coincide as I've just put a few quarters in the washer and now wait for the delicates cycle to run its course. You'll be pleased to hear that thankfully today there is not a snowman in sight halting my progress as the sun does it's best to convince me that despite the frost on the ground this morning, that it is indeed the first day of spring. (Mother, you may also be pleased to hear that despite the four weeks since I last wrote something it has not been four weeks since I last put on a clean pair of cycling shorts)!
Since those colder days up near the Grand Canyon, I slowly descended over the next week or so, only having to sit waiting for the snow to clear once more just for half a day. It was a great relief to arrive in Texas where my red face was no longer a result of the cold weather but instead a reminder that I needed to start applying sun cream again. It was also here that I was delighted to start experiencing American hospitality towards men in lycra as I was invited for lunch on a ranch by the owner who thought I might be hungry, and he was right. Since then I've been taken to lunch by his friend, had someone shout at me from their car for me to pull over so that they could insist that I come and stay the night at their house, been invited to spend the night sharing a room with the greatest number of bicycles I've ever seen in a living room and I was even taken to dinner with two sets of fifth cousins I had never met before.
On my way into Memphis, I got wet for the first time while I was actually riding since I left Christchurch back in January. I've had sleet and snow but somehow had managed to avoid any rain. Boy did the dark clouds try to make up for it. I crossed the great brown Mississippi river and arrived in a very wrinkled state at my motel on its eastern bank not far from the Hershey's factory. Inspired by the smell, I tried my first ever bar of Hershey's chocolate and was left greatly underwhelmed by both its taste and its lack of thickness. They have nothing on Cadbury's. My time in Memphis did improve however as I got to see Elvis Presley's bicycle at Graceland (disappointingly not mentioned in the audio tour or cared for like the rest of his possessions as it is just left rusting and hanging up in one of the out-buildings) and spent an evening enjoying both my main courses at BB Kings Club on Beale Street (because sometimes one American portion just isn't enough). Oh, how I've missed live music over the past two years.
After a couple more days riding, I arrived in Nashville and after depositing my possessions at the hostel I set out on foot to explore. Every twenty metres or so I was asked if I needed a ticket. After the third guy asked I became curious and asked what it was for. Nashville was hosting the SEC Champs. After doing my best impression of a confused Englishman who had no idea what this was or whether I was at all interested, which came very easily, the price had already reduced by half and the seat offered had moved from top tier to almost court-side. Wary of the folk offering these tickets, I watched a policeman hand over some money to one of them and so with my suspicions eased slightly went ahead and bought my ticket, entered the Bridgestone Arena, purchase the obligatory overpriced, wilted hot-dog and sat down to an afternoon of college basketball entertainment. For those of you who aren't aware, college sports are a big deal over here and believe it or not attract larger crowds than even Swindon Town Football Club.
It's taken over two years but it seems that over the last few weeks I have finally found my cycling legs. In fact cycling has become pretty easy and in the evenings my legs show no signs of having done any physical exercise during the day. Even as I've re-entered the hills, on more than one occasion I have had to look round to see if my rear panniers are still there convinced that they must have fallen off my bike because it feels so light. Maybe it's like the horses rides you get at beaches where when you are heading away from the start, they remain stubbornly slow and need plenty of coercion to get anywhere but as soon as you have turned around and they realise they are on their way back to the start they can't wait to get there and get it over with. The end of my journey now feels very much in sight as I just have 10 days left in the land of opportunity before re-entering the same time zone as my neglected guitars and pointy shoes as I fly to Morocco for Easter Day.
I will arrive in the nations capital in just a few days time and I have a couple of issues which I would like President Obama to address. The price of almost everything in America is not the actual price. You have to add tax and anything else that the seller wishes to hide from you and the final figure therefore rarely lies anywhere close to a round figure. This is not only misleading and inefficient but adds unnecessary weight to my load as the collection of loose change inevitably grows. Also, signs saying 'bicycle route' should be accompanied with a road more suitable for bicycles than others around it, preferably with a bicycle lane or even just a slightly wider road and not just like any other busy city road (Dallas requires most urgent attention here).
As I write this I'm sat in a laundromat in a pair of shorts watching the snow falling out of the window. I am strategically positioned by the driers so as to reduce the temporary regret of not having another set of trousers for laundry days. One of the trials of the cycle tourist! As you may have guessed, cycling is temporarily on hold as it is a snow day.
The last time I wrote, it was also cold and this has generally been the theme for the past couple of weeks. I made my way through the Mojave Desert and after a steep climb, descended a very chilly 1,500m into Death Valley dipping down below sea level. The scenery was like everything in America, very big and dramatic. I saw a sign warning about coyotes, scorpions, black widows and rattlesnakes but thankfully the only wildlife I saw were some slightly sinister looking blackbirds. Death Valley also contained some of the hardest ground I have tried to camp on requiring me to use piles of rocks rather than pegs to hold it up and as the wind picked up I was relieved that it remained upright and provided protection from those blackbirds overnight. The following day after a long, steady climb out of the valley, I crossed into Nevada. The only reason I realised I had crossed the state line was because someone had scrawled very lazily across the tarmac 'Nevada'. I arrived in the very forgettable town of Pahrump and set about finding a place I could sleep. I pulled up to a Best Western Motel and enquired about camping in the RV park which it also managed. No tents allowed. A few seconds later an Australian chap on a bicycle pulled up and before we had even told each other our names had agreed to split the cost of a room for the night. Peter cooked us dinner in the room on his little gas burners as we shared details of our trips as we were both heading in the direction the other had just arrived from. After making the most of the buffet breakfast we headed our separate ways and I set off towards the most cringe-inducing city in the world.
I arrived in Las Vegas I was greeted by none other than Elvis Presley himself as he conducted a wedding ceremony in front of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign. As I rode along Las Vegas Boulevard I started to understand why only a third of Americans have a passport as they can just come to Vegas and see the world along just one street. You can visit The Sphinx and an Egyptian pyramid, take a gondola through Venice, visit ancient Rome at Caesar's Palace and you don't even need to go all the way across to the other side of the country to visit the Statue of Liberty. As I passed The Bellagio, The Mirage and The MGM Grand, I thought back to Ocean's Eleven and after arriving at my hostel I hatched a plan for a casino heist, cycle tourer style. With a group of folk from the hostel and a hostel guide, we headed off in the back of a van onto a secluded rooftop car park and slid into our first target, Wynn Casino. Our plan was simple, if a little unambitious. We were to walk in there, sign up to their players card and play $10 free casino money on the slots. As soon as the $10 was through the machine I walked out of there with $9.63 in my hand of the casinos money and to rub their noses in it, drank the free beverages that the waitresses collected for us. We moved onto the next casino and this time I came out with over $13 more in my pocket. By the end of my time in Vegas, without risking a cent, I had enough to pay for a night's accommodation and to enjoy an all-you-can-eat buffet. Who says the casino's always win!
After having my fill of bright lights and tackiness for for a lifetime, I jumped on my bike and made my getaway heading to the Hoover Dam, crossing over the border into the State of Arizona. At this point, my GPS let me down slightly suggesting that I could leave the highway, ride across the dam and rejoin the highway on the other-side. After climbing up to the top of the far side a gate blocked my path with a rather threatening no trespassing sign persuading me to add 15km to my day by back-tracking and riding up to the highway on the Nevada side again.
I spent that night tucked away in a dry river bed on my new Thermorest. When in Vegas I finally decided to replace my sleeping mat which had been punctured since I was in China! I had made a number of attempts to repair it but it was on the seam and a flat piece of fabric isn't great for dampening the effect of an inconveniently placed rock or providing an insulating layer. The following day I rode into Kingman and started rolling along Route 66. I started realising how much I was enjoying America as everyday I was experiencing something new and interesting, despite often having to wear just about all my clothes in order to keep warm. The next day I rode on my first Interstate and then headed up to by the most incredible place I've been to this whole trip, The Grand Canyon. After quickly putting up my tent to secure my spot at the campsite at the National Park, I rode to the rim and nearly fell off my bike when I first saw it, and not just due to the ice and snow on the track. The smile that came across my face didn't disappear until long after I had ridden along the rim, watched the sunset, and was settled in my sleeping bag with my breakfast and water bottle inside with me to prevent me repeating the mistake of having to eat partly frozen cream bun I had made a couple of days previously.
I would loved to have spent more time at the Grand Canyon but heavy snow was forecast so I set off early heading past Bedrock and Fred Flintstone, and across to Flagstaff where I am currently situated. I passed over the highest point of my American section of this trip along a very quiet road with just the occasional, random snowman watching me struggle into the wind and watching the clouds starting to gather overhead. So now I sit waiting for the drier to finish its cycle and the weather to pass sufficiently to ride again.
As I propped my bike against a handy signpost and sat down upon a nearby log to enjoy second breakfast of a muesli bar, some mixed peanuts and raisins, and some chocolate chip cookies, I had a look at my map. I had started the day just outside Athens, had already passed through London and Jerusalem, and I was less than a day’s ride to Mordor. It was all making me feel very geographically challenged. Thankfully I was having a better time of it than Mr Frodo though as New Zealand is a wonderful place for a man in lycra. The roads are relatively quiet, the scenery is different every day and I wasn’t rained on once since I left Christchurch to when I arrived in Auckland.
When I rode away from Christchurch to commence these final few months of my journey, my bike was in much better shape than me. For the past six months or so, the furthest I have ridden was the 12km to work on a very old but light and narrow-tyred road bike which I had purchased when I arrived in New Zealand, and the only incline I had cycled up was the one on the bridge going over the railway line. Not ideal preparation for cycling in a rather hilly country. My touring bike was looking very sharp however with a shiny re-built back wheel, a new gear shifter which no longer required me to hold it in place to prevent it from selecting gears for me, some brakes which do not require any assistance from the soles of my feet on the ground to slow me down, and some new cream coloured go-faster stripes covering the small patches of rust which were starting to appear. Almost as soon as I had left it felt like I had never stopped cycling, apart from the tired legs and the slightly tender posterior, as I slipped back into the same old routine, just now with a little more money to make life on the road more comfortable again and a few new songs to add to my singing cyclist repertoire.
It seemed that no sooner had I started riding again, it was time to pack up my bike again and board a flight to LAX (minus my fuel bottle which had been confiscated by security as although empty, still had the slightest whiff of petrol - at least I was heading to LA where I could get a new one fairly readily). After a short interrogation by a slightly bemused immigration official who struggled to believe that I needed 2 months to cycle to New York, I was ready to become Forrest Gump on wheels.
I proceeded to bounce and weave my way through the cracked and often potholed roads from the airport into Hollywood, where I was to stay for a couple of days, trying hard to remember to ride on the right hand side of the road whilst attempting to readjust my eyes to the bold and in your face environment I had entered, a huge contrast to New Zealand. Slightly more adjusted to my new environment, having started to sample some of the many varieties of donut on offer in America and after failing to convince Johnny Depp that he should star as me in the film version of this trip, I waved goodbye to the glamour of Hollywood and today rode up into the hills north of LA. Having been enjoying the summer in New Zealand it’s time to get those leg warmers back out as I was greeted with sleet when I arrived today in Palmdale and have freezing temperatures to look forward to tonight. Over the next few days I will have my winter woollies on as I travel through Death Valley, which according to CNN is “officially the hottest place on Earth”, just perhaps not this week. Hello winter...
After a couple of nights in the hills to the east of Adelaide (yes, you read that right, Australia apparently does contain the odd reasonably significant undulation), I set off towards the Great Ocean Road. I had been told that the Great Ocean Road, which is built along the hilly stretch of coastline between Warrnambool and Torquay was one of the most beautiful routes to ride in Australia. Perhaps riding it in the middle of winter on a tired bicycle was not the best way to appreciate it. There were moments when my eyes grew slightly wider at the glimpses of beauty that I passed, but my lasting memory will be slogging up one of the hills in the pouring rain with twenty of the available twenty-four gears no longer available to me due to the cassette and chainrings becoming so worn that the chain simply slid over the top of them when I put any pressure on the pedals, and with cramp in my right hand as it had to hold the gear shifter together to keep one of these gears selected (this too had decided to join its gear related friends in wearing out on that same day) only to reach the top and be thoroughly underwhelmed by the view which was hidden beneath the dark clouds. I had been hoping that I could nurse my bike through to New Zealand before having to replace a number of parts which had seen much happier and less worn days but sadly it had other ideas and in the end I was very glad to arrive in Melbourne where I could had a day off to make a visit to a bike shop.
Since setting off from the days of farming spuds, eating spuds and dreaming about spuds in Western Australia, I had been looking forward to reaching Christchurch, New Zealand where I would be taking another saddle-sore-free period in order to devote time to increasing the weight of my piggy bank, this time to give me enough pennies to allow me to ride all the rest of the way home. In preparation for my arrival, Melbourne was kind enough to give me my first noticeable earthquake experience. Sat on the floor with my back against the wall of Adrian and his bunny rabbit's home, the wall started to give me a back massage set to a magnitude of 5.3. After a slightly surreal few seconds as I watched the television set start to wobble backwards and forwards, Adrian called in a slightly sanity questioning tone, 'did you feel that'? The news channels in the morning were full of pictures from the same shop where a few items had been displaced from the shelves, possibly thrown to the ground by the quake or maybe by an eager freelance cameraman for journalistic effect.
I spent the next week riding from Melbourne along the busy Hume Highway, and after a slight detour into Canberra for an evening with Adrian's brother and his partner, I eventually managed to camp not far from the start of Sydney's urban sprawl. For the last time for the next few months, I stepped out of my tent into the cold, dark morning waiting for the sun to appear and breathe it's warmth onto my chilly fingers and toes, ready to tackle the ride into Sydney. With no obvious cycle routes into the centre I set off along the busy roads. As I neared the centre I heard a bang and a pain in my right hand as a car quickly moved away ahead of me jumping the lights as I shouted and waved the affected limb at the driver. He had clipped me with his mirror and no real damage done but gave me a bit of a fright. He had obviously realised that he had hit me but didn't bother to stop to see if I was ok. After all, I'm only a cyclist. Before riding back out of the city centre to my host for the weekend who I'd met at the hostel in Denmark, Western Australia, I got my obligatory photograph with my bike in front of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge thinking, 'gosh, I've actually ridden quite a long way from home'.
Following a couple of days spent scrubbing and packing up all my kit in preparation for immigration officials in New Zealand, I set off to the airport to say goodbye to Australia and hello to the start of my forth decade of life for somewhere across the Tasman Sea I would become another year older.
So now I sit on a comfortable sofa in the company of my Aunt, Uncle and cousin enjoying a more normal and comfortable life again. Since arriving in Christchurch I've helped old ladies retune their televisions whilst working in a government call centre, unloaded a furniture at a furniture store, laid turf for a landscape gardener, carried multiple heavy panels down a flight of stairs for an events company, and now have two jobs to see me through for the rest of my time here. The first driving round a warehouse at 5:30 in the morning picking up the items the robot lady in my ear tells me to which are to go out to supermarkets across the south island of New Zealand, and the second being a well groomed, pointy shoe wearing attendant at the cinema.
According to The Guinness World Records, the distance one needs to pedal in order to have cycled around the world is 30,000km (18,000 miles). I have now surpassed this figure but find myself not back where I started, but instead further from home than I have ever been before. I think I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere!
If nothing else, years of watching Neighbours (that rather dire but addictive soap opera) when growing up has taught me that if you go into the Australian bush, you will either get lost, become trapped in a bush fire, fall off a cliff or end up in some other rather unfortunate and slightly implausable situation. With this in mind I set off from my home of 3 months or so in Denmark (Western Australia) deep into the bush armed with my reasonably detailed cycling guide of the route, a good few litres of water, 11 days worth of food, a replenished first aid kit and everything else that has swelled my bike to its all time highest weight as I made my way across The Nullarbor to 'over East' as they say.
Given that I have done very little cycling over the past few months, I was glad to have a four day warm up as it were to Esperance where I took a day off to recover, relax and prepare myself for the journey ahead. This day soon turned into two days as I spent much of the weekend with a someone who passed through the hostel I stayed at in Denmark and together with her friends I was walking up hills, eating lots of good food and reintroduced to my old friend Mr Glenfiddich which I had not sampled since I left Scotland. I even managed to watch the Champions League final at silly o'clock in the morning which wouldn't have been ideal preparation for a day of cycling ahead.
For those of you whose geography of Australia was as bad as mine when I first got here, according to Wikipedia, our old favourite source of sometimes suspect knowledge, 'the Nullarbor plain is part of the area of flat, almost treeless, arid or semi-arid country of southern Australia.' I can verify the claims of Wikipedia in this instance. Basically it is a pretty barren place in which not many folk live at all. In such places, wind direction and strength plays a huge role in whether I have a happy day or not. When there are no trees or hills to shelter you from the wind, it can be relentless if you are riding 8 or so hours a day into it. Not only does a tailwind give you a constant hand on your back, allow you greater warning of approaching road trains (lorries with multiple trailers) that are about to overtake you as it carries their deep menacing roar towards you, but also allows you to see the dead kangaroo at the side of the road before you smell it. I saw hundreds of these in one day in various stages of decomposition and discovered how difficult it is to cycle when holding your breathe regularly. Despite the numerous corpses I saw, I didn't see a single live kangaroo in the 1200km between Norseman and Ceduna. I had roughly half the time with the wind as a help and half as a hindrance.
Although there is very little civilisation across this area of Australia, apart from the very expensive roadhouses (service stations) which are dotted along, it was a fairly sociable section of riding. Aside from the road trains who I got a friendly wave off very infrequently, there are a good number of caravans that go across, mostly carrying very friendly, fruit carrying individuals who are more than happy to pass me a banana out of the window as they go past. Each night I camped in parking areas at the side of the road where these predominantly grey nomads also stopped. I was also stopped by a very nice chap with a video camera and a rabbit in the middle of nowhere. He is the man behind Fast Ford, the number one place for all your recycled auto parts and repairs (www.fastford.com.au
), and Fast Bunny Promotions, hence the fluffy bunny. After a good chat I was stocked up with lots of energy which had me buzzing for the rest of the day. I'd forgotten how much of a difference energy drinks and sweets make when riding.
After a day off in the cheapest and roughest looking caravan park in Ceduna, not fully recovered, I made my way rather lazily round to Adelaide into which I arrived rather surprised at how busy cities actually are, where I sit enjoying a Domino's BBQ Meat Lovers' pizza, some rare internet access and the thought of a comfortable matress to sleep on tonight. Having survived the last few weeks in the Australian bush, it seems that you can't believe everything you see on TV.
In addition to the various food I was kindly given on my way across the Nullarbor, this was what my bike was packed with for the 11 days between Esperance and Ceduna:
3 loaves of multi-grain bread
1 pot of cheap but sweet honey
3kg of pasta spirals
2 jars of green pesto
3 tins of tuna in spring water
1 tin of cheap, watery baked beans
2.7kg of traditional muesli
8 royal gala apples
1kg of chocolate chip cookies
25 apricot and yoghurt flavoured muesli bars
1 bag of dried fruit, courtesy of the potato farm
1 pack of salted peanuts
4 packs of emergency noodles with a pig on the label which I have been carrying since Russia and which I finally ate half of when I arrived Ceduna.
Sitting down to try to glean any gems of adventure or wisdom from my diary entries of the last three months has been tricky largely due to the fact that when not riding a bicycle, life becomes more predictable, mundane and rather unworthy of much comment. Save for antagonising a member of the world's 4th most venomous species of snake (a tiger snake) by cycling over its middle as it was basking in the sun and narrowly avoiding a night of watching a group of male strippers (work night out and not my choice of entertainment), the most excitement I've had since putting away my golden lycra has been sitting down on a sofa with a pizza and a beer to watch some cricket. It's been brilliant!
I suppose that when you are used to rationing yourself to up to two wet wipes a day depending on just how filthy you have become, when the only music you really listen to is that which warbles suspectly from your lips as you ride along, and when the only person that you regularly talk to is yourself in a more bizarre and convoluted internal monologue, the access to a hot shower, Spotify (a music streaming application) and seeing a few of the same people regularly is really quite exciting for a while. Even the monotony of watching multiple tonnes of spuds passing before my eyes each day has given me a welcome variation in routine and allowed my bank balance to recover slightly from the past year. I've been able treat myself to the occasional glass of wine, to watch champions league football at silly o'clock at night and to follow Swindon Town's triumphant rise back into League One.
The last spud has been plucked from the ground, and after a few days gardening, I will be departing from my more sedentary existence. I look forward to having the wind on my back as I float across the flat Nullarbor Plain to the eastern states of Australia, or at least that's what I've been dreaming about. The only problem is that I am unsure what level of protestation my legs are going to raise at the sudden departure from the months of relative relaxation. What I do know is that for the meantime, I sit in a rather excited mood ready to load up and roll out because life is simply more exciting in lycra!
Since the wet, crowded, crazy days of Java, the world that passes around me has altered dramatically. I can finally understand the labels on food, step outside without peering up at the skies wondering how soon I'm going to be very soggy, and when I stop I can hear nothing but silence. I can even watch cricket and eat a Chocolate Hob Nob. On one particuarly momentous occasion I was able to do both of these things at the same time. Oh life is good! Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred is that I have stopped cycling.
After a short, urine scented ferry ride to Bali, I was expecting to find an island overrun with lager fuelled Aussies, obnoxious Lonely Planet fuelled backpackers and who-knows-what fuelled hippies. I was therefore delighted to be surprised on the upside when I discovered that these tourists were trapped in small pockets on the island. The change from Java was huge. Roads were so much quieter, the regular wailing from the mosque calling folk to prayer were less abundant, shrines and statues provided something for the eyes to regularly feast upon, cows seemed much more prevalant and chickens were much healthier than their very scrawny Javanese cousins. I also found a new word on the menu: 'babi' which is pork in Bahasa. After spending the last while in muslim areas, it was so good to eat a bit of pig again.
After studying my map, looking at possible routes to get down to Denpasar, I cast my eye on a road that climbs up into the crater of a volcano. After slogging up the steep northern slope of the volcano, my bike computer suggesting a maximum gradient of 30%, gushing with sweat and being hounded by a couple of pesky flies, I was disappointed to find that the crater looks more spectacular on the terrain setting of google maps than it does in real life. The problem was that trees obscurred potentially good view points and it wasn't until I had decended the other side the following day that I read that there were good view points from another road.
Over the past year my cycling skills have improved, as you will notice by the reduction in my falling off regularity, and I've even got to the point where I am descending mountains with my eyes closed. After a very opimistic application of suncream, I began my increasingly frightening descent out of the crater as the skies emptied rendering my brakes very ineffective on the steeper sections. The rain also washed the suncream into my eyes which became impossible to keep open for more than a fraction of a second due to the stinging pain, or wipe as my hands were both locked on the brake levers. It was therefore with great relief that the road started to flatten out so I could come to a complete stop with the assistance of dragging my feet along the floor and not to rely on the aid of an unseen tree or the foot of a cliff to reduce my speed!
I spent my final couple of days in Asia in Kuta, the Aussie version of the Costa Del Sol. It was one of the last places on the planet I ever wanted to step foot in but happens to be right next to the airport. Up until that point I had crossed all water by bridge or boat and all land, but for a couple of border crossings, by bicycle. I would have loved to have continud in this fashion but couldn't justify spending five times as much to ride on a cargo ship than a flight cost. It's also pretty much impossible to hitch a ride on a yacht this time of year so I found myself a cardboard box, took my bicycle apart and spent hours scrubbing it with my toothbrush in order to please the Australian immigration officers, then left it in the hands of the Indonesian baggage handlers.
As I collected my torn box with my precious bike inside from the floor of the baggage reclaim as it had fallen off the conveyor, I proceeded through immigration and into the quarantine/customs area to show off my very shiny, hopefully undamaged steed. After so long scrubbing I was pretty disappointed when the official said "G'day, is your bike clean?" then just waved me through when I enthusiastically replied "it's spotless, do you want to see?"
After piecing my bike back together, thankfully uninjured since I laid eyes on it last, I set off into Perth to buy a new toothbrush and to meet Paul, a good friend from uni days who had come to visit me and was kind enough to appreciate how shiny my bike was. After a few days of fine food, fine wine, fine cricket and fine company, Paul headed off to watch the Aussie Open in Melbourne and I set off in search of an apple to pick or something similar that would allow me to refill my piggy bank a little.
So here I am sat in my new home, a youth hostel in Denmark, waiting to start my new job on a potato farm tomorrow. For the next three months I think, I shall be plucking rocks and rotten potatoes from a conveyor belt on top of a potato harvester. But do not worry, the lycra based adventures will return.
(Queue Stars Wars soundtrack) To be continued...
After ten and a half months of saddle sores, numb hands and the unpleasant odour that often seems to follow me around with increasing regularity, I'm coming home. On my last day of cycling before Christmas, I passed the 25,000km mark which by my very rough and unscientific estimation is about half of the total distance I am going to cycle before I can peel off the golden lycra shorts for the last time, dig out my white, pointy shoes, and try to integrate back into society again.
Christmas was a strange one. Full of the festive spirit, I was generous enough to give myself a few days off at a hostel in Jakarta run by an Englishman and an Irishman where I hoped it would be celebrated in this predominantly Muslim country. Not much evidence of Christmas had been present up until this point in Indonesia. Despite the Christmas tree in the corner, the traditional roast dinner, the watching of Christmas films and even the taste of a Marks & Spencer mince pie that I had somehow managed not to devour since it was given to me in Singapore, whilst all of this enjoyable, it just didn't feel right. The weather wasn't disappointing, silly games were not played and there was no family there to share it with.
New Year felt a little bit less peculiar. After riding for a few days through the wet, busy and potholed roads to Yogyakarta in Central Java, I arrived at the hostel I had booked, hoping to find other people to celebrate it with. I discovered that I was the only one booked into the dormitory over the New Year but at breakfast on New Year's Eve I met a gay Muslim from Sheffield who invited me to join him and a group of other people he had met the night before to celebrate in a bar with a live reggae band in the center of Yogya. As we walked into town, the streets were packed with people sitting quietly and soberly, waiting for the New Year to come upon us. A very different and slightly refreshing atmosphere to that of Britain where drunken revelers stumble noisily through the streets, bottle in hand. New Year was brought in with very dodgy fireworks, one of which flew into the crowd in the entrance to the bar we were in, giving one unfortunate punter a shock as it struck her face but thankfully doing no serious damage. When my new friend headed onto a gay bar, I thought it was time for me to head back to the hostel for my first sleep of 2012!
My time in Indonesia started with one of the most uncomfortable ferry journeys I have ever taken. In true adventurous and scrimping fashion, I had booked an economy ticket from Bintan (an island just off Singapore) to Jakarta in order to travel as the locals do. I carried my bike with all luggage attached up a flight of steps onto the ferry and into the economy cabin where I joined a hundred or so Indonesians. I was trapped there in the very warm conditions (no air-con or fans) with cockroaches scuttling around all over the place for the next 30 hours as people stared at the weird ginger bearded white man with a bicycle. When we finally arrived in Jakarta an announcement in Bahasa was relayed over the intercom and everyone stayed where they were. Over the next hour traders came on board and walked round trying to flog their pink stuffed bunnies and dodgy rolex watches. By this point my patience was starting to wear slightly so I stood up and took my bike to the exit to see if I could get some special treatment and be let off the boat. I was hopeful that I could pull the special white man card and escape as so far I had been given special care by being forced to take double portions of the rather unpleasant meals we were provided with, and the people around me were very glad to have this excess shared out between them. As it turns out, the announcement had been that we had arrived and that anyone getting off in Jakarta should do so at that point in time. Despite the people around me knowing where I was going, no-one thought to relay this to me. It transpires that everyone else in the cabin was going onto the next port! For the next two hours I stood with my bike waiting for a chance to carry my bike down the steps and off the boat but a constant stream of cargo being loaded onto the ferry prevented any escape. Finally, a big guy took pity on me, took a couple of my bags and cleared a path to make good my escape. As it was getting late I battled into Jakarta through the absolutely mental traffic, chasing a girl on a motorcycle who decided that instead of telling me how to get to the cheap area for accommodation 5km away, she would lead me there in true Indonesian riding style.
After a day off to recover from my ordeal and from the cold I had developed, I headed west and into Sumatra to make the most of the time I had before I was booked to be back in Jakarta for Christmas. My delays meant that I didn't have time to get up to the National Park I was hoping to visit so instead I decided to revisit my primary school topic of volcanoes and our case study of Krakatoa, this time in the flesh. Krakatoa is a volcano just off Sumartra which blew itself apart in 1883 to leave a group of small islands behind and 'the child of Krakatoa' (Anak Krakatau) has been emerging from the sea since the 1920s. As I was unable to cycle out there, I had to rely on an organised tour. The only other organised tour I've been on during this trip so far was in Vietnam and didn't go as well as hoped so I crossed my fingers that this time would be different. I was expecting to join a group of other tourists on a reasonably sized vessel. I was therefore slightly surprised to arrive at a fisherman's house and to be taken to the small, narrow boat which was going to take just him, his crew member and me across the Sunda Straight, which was a little lively that day, to Anak Krakatau. On the active volcano we came across the largest lizards I have ever seen. Not as big as a Komodo Dragon, but still around 2 meters in length. I read later that these lizards are carnivorous and are from the same genus as the Komodo Dragon. We walked up the first level of the volcano before heading back down and to another island for snorkeling at the coral reef. The mask I was given was very ill-fitting and I ended up inhaling water a couple of times before calling it a day. The little boat survived the waves and rain and as we headed back to shore. Despite threats from the waves tossing the little boat around, the volcano, the dragons and the water inhalation, the only time I feared for my life was when we arrived back at the shore where I was met by a crazy 12 year old who was providing my 15km ride back to the hotel on the back of his scooter!
Resolutions for the revolutions
We have arrived at that time of year where resolutions are made and if we are lucky are not yet broken, so I thought I would make a few of my own to try to adhere to whilst I am cycling for the second half of my trip:
One of my most frustrating habits is the choosing of locations to stop for food and supplies. Over 95% of the times that I stop, it is on the side of the road I am cycling on and when I have not passed it yet. If a perfectly reasonable cafe or store appears on the other side of the road or I am past level with it then my fingers will remain away from my brake levers and my mind will tell me, 'oh, lets just go onto the next one'. This has led at times to hungry and thirsty periods as I realise that it was the last opportunity in that town to stop. My mind seems determined to save time by not having to cross a road twice, even if it is a really quiet road, or turn back the 10 to 20m which would add 20 to 40m to my day's ride! Totally ridiculous and a statistic that needs improvement.
Another frustrating statistic is that my 4th Kindle of the trip will be waiting for me when I arrive in Perth, Australia. I somehow managed to break the screen on my latest kindle on Christmas day so that is two broken screens and one theft! Thankfully it is still under warranty but in the days since then I have been reduced to playing solitaire on my ipod and sitting on floors of internet cafes (for some reason many of them don't have seats) in order to provide my evening entertainment. I therefore resolve to pay more care and attention to the object that keeps me most sane on my trip.
Finally, my taste in music is straying towards the absolutely detestable end of the scale. Recently I found myself singing Lady In Red by Chris de Burgh through the Javanese traffic and it led to me taking a serious look at myself. I have admitted that I have a problem and hopefully this is the first step to recovery. I am very ashamed indeed!
Please note that if you have any suggestions for other resolutions I should have, particularly involving any items of clothing or facial hair, please keep them to yourselves!