Why cycle around the world?

The short answer is that I wanted an adventure, a new challenge, to learn about and experience the world in an intimate way. The intrinsic appeal of using a bicycle is that I can take off into more remote regions, avoiding the jump from one tourist spot to the next. It also breaks down barriers and brings me closer to local people, and I love the slow transition. One place slowly merges with another as you watch the world pass slowly by your handlebars. The bicycle is simply one of the best mediums to explore a country in detail.

I also enjoy a less complicated life on my bike… I have relatively few possessions, little money and hardly any strict schedules or deadlines. Living outside, all the exercise and all the unfamiliar faces and places have conspired to make me feel more alive than ever before. I’ve relished the unpredictability, of having no clue where I’ll be sleeping that evening, the buzz of carrying everything I need in my panniers and the freedom I’ll probably never have again. There have been few big decisions to make and those that come up can be mulled over and meditated on. I am no longer caught up in the tide of rapid decisions and consequences that inevitably comes with life in the city. It’s a good feeling.

The journey has also been an opportunity to visit remote medical clinics and observe the fight against neglected tropical disease, an issue that I care about. I raised more than 20,000 pounds for the medical NGO Merlin before they merged with another NGO in 2013.

Finally I’ve also been able to hone a new set of skills – I enjoy writing, speaking and slowly getting to grips with video and still photography. In this way I hope to communicate my story in an engaging way, and perhaps even to inspire others to begin an adventure. I’ve also been learning about international healthcare by visiting medical projects. A long term goal is to write a book about the experience.

Have you done anything like this before?

When I was 19 I cycled the length of Chile with my 17 year old brother. We covered around four thousand miles over five months from the southern town of Punta Arenas in Patagonia up to Arica in the Atacama desert. This experience, which was a magnificently amateurish effort packed full of misadventures, was a big part of what inspired me to bike around the world.

Later on, whilst I was a medical student, it became hard to find time to embark on a cycle tour of any great distance, but I have always been hungry for travel and I spent my holidays in exotic places like East Africa, Iceland, India and Iran.

Is anyone going to cycle with you?

It’s not easy to find someone with six years free! I was alone for Europe and the Middle East but on the African leg I was joined by Nyomi, a friend from the UK, for around seven months. She then returned home to finish her studies. For the Americas I was back to being alone again but occasionally I teamed up with cyclists I met on the road for a day or two. I cycled with Claire Press for five months through Australia and Indonesia and then I was back to solo travel. My friend Oli Davy joined me for a one month loop of Georgia.

How long did it take you to plan the journey?

I started putting things together about 18 months before I left the UK.

How much training did you do before you left?

Very little. I did a couple of short training rides in the UK, but knowing I had lots of cycling ahead of me I didn’t bother exerting myself! Cycle touring isn’t a sprint, and I’m not an athlete. I got fit fairly quickly as I traveled – Europe was the proving ground.

How do your family feel?

My parents are both pretty relaxed. My mum visits when she can, sometimes with my brother, and so far she has come out to meet me in Istanbul, Cape Town and San Francisco.

What’s your route?

It’s basically a very wonky circuit around the planet, connecting up routes through six of the earth’s continents. Here’s a rough map of the route.

How do you cross the oceans?

There had been talk of manufacturing some peddle-boat contraption for watery stretches, mercifully long since dismissed. Neither do I have to cycle around the top deck of a boat. I have tried to connect up the route using boats but sometimes this hasn’t been feasible, financially or logistically, so I have been forced to fly.

How long will it take and far will you ride?

I’ll probably cover around 86,000 km (53,438 miles) over about six years, give or take.

How can people track your progress?

I make regular updates to my blog and I send out a regular newsletter / email update… you can subscribe by emailing me with ‘subscribe to newsletter’ in the subject line (cyclingthe6 (at) gmail.com). You can also join the Facebook Page, follow me on Twitter, Flickr and Vimeo.

How can you afford to bike around the world for five years?

The first thing to say is that cycling around the world is very cheap… there are very few transportation costs and I often rough camp by the road for free. What I’ll spend in six years on the road might be the same that people my age spend on a small car. I live comfortably on less than ten dollars a day in most parts of the world. To save cash I rough camp as often as I can, use hostel book swaps and travel networking websites, I try to repair – not replace, I avoid touristy hangouts, I eat with the locals, haggle, trade things, shop around, let people buy me beer and if it’s free… I go to town!

With a voracious appetite though, and the need to invest in the odd VISA and campsite, obviously I need some cash. Before I left the UK I saved as much as I could by working lots of hospital shifts, living in the cheap hospital accommodation and spending like I was still a student. I have a number of equipment sponsors so most of my gear is paid for, although I get no financial support.

I ran out of money completely in Mexico, but that seemed like the worst reason of all to quit. Since then I have managed to continue through…
  • Writing – I have started working as a freelance features writer and regularly pitch pieces to travel, cycling and leisure magazines, newspapers and websites.
  • Public speaking – I talk regularly in schools and public events as I travel.
  • Selling photographs – either as postcards or as calendars.
  • Public donations via my website
To fund the remaining two years of my journey I decided to launch a crowd-funding campaign in September 2013. I have also won some bursaries and writing competitions.

Do you have sponsors?

Yes – I have several equipment sponsors, but no financial backing.

How do you go about getting sponsors?

In general it’s a hard task, there are lots of people on long, exciting bike rides and cyclists often approach the same companies for sponsorship. The way I went about it was to spell out why my trip was different and to approach the companies in a professional manner with a detailed expedition prospectus which listed promises I could keep, these included mention of the company or product in media interviews, links from my blog and website, a multimedia presentation to the company employees on my return, product reviews, rights to photographs of the products in use etc. I left the UK with more than 5000 pounds worth of free gear and I regularly get replacements from sponsors as I travel. The companies that sponsor me are all at the pinnacle of the bicycle touring gear market.

Do you have any problems at the borders?

Only rarely, border officials are usually very happy to see cyclists. The most difficult borders I’ve crossed so far have included Canada (biking for such a long time means sometimes you have convince immigration officials you have funds to continue, even when you don’t, and that you won’t be working illegally) and Uzbekistan, which involved some pretty tedious searches.

How do you manage VISAs?

Asia is where it becomes complicated, the rest of the world has been fairly easy. Attaining visas for Asian countries can be frustrating and expensive, though of course nothing compared to the process most Asians would face to get a visa to my home country.

What do you do about water?

I carry plenty and I have a Sawyer filter if it’s a risky water source. I often drink from rivers and streams, I don’t always need to filter it, it depends upon the location and if there’s livestock around. I virtually never buy bottled water and I have never been refused water after asking local people for it.

How do you stay in touch with people from home?

Email and Skype. I don’t carry a phone.

How do you cope with all the different languages?

I do my best to learn at least the basics of each new language; this always ingratiates me with local people, especially if the language is very region specific and rarely attempted by visitors. I was in the Spanish speaking world for more than a year and spoke it to an intermediate level after a while. I also speak some Russian. I picked up maybe 200 words or so in Swahili, Bahasa and Arabic, which goes a long way. I failed quite magnificently at Chinese.

How far do you ride on an average day?

On a on a flat(ish) paved road I like to cover about 130 km (81 miles) but high in the mountains on bad roads with a headwind – it’s a lot less. I virtually never ride at night so the number of hours of sunlight often governs how far I can go. My record is 209 km through the Namib desert with the help of a tail wind and lots of Dairy Milk chocolate. My average speed over the course of a day has ranged from 7 to 30 km/hr. The road conditions, the gradient, my energy (and stubbornness), headwinds and tailwinds all play a part in how far I get.

Do you take lifts?

Not unless I have no choice.

Does your ass hurt?

No! Maybe for the first 2 months but now it’s hard as nails. I wear padded Lycra, I have a great saddle from Brooks and a Thud Buster which is a form of seat suspension.

How do you entertain yourself en route?

Books. Books. Books. Old school hiphop on my IPOD. Podcasts. My imagination.

Where do you sleep?

I wild camp in the main so… anywhere I can pitch my tent, usually somewhere well hidden, just off the road. In larger towns and cities I often use travel networking websites like Couchsurfing.com or Warmshowers.org to find a host and I often cajole friends and family into giving me contacts around the world who’d be happy to have me for a night or two. Occasionally I splash out on a hostel or campsite but I sleep for free at least 3 out of every 4 nights and I am often invited to sleep inside people’s homes or in schools, hospitals, police stations, churches etc. Amongst the more bizarre places I have made a bed for the night are a shed with a water buffalo and the research facility on a crocodile farm.

What have been your favourite countries / places so far?

Ethiopia was unique, I loved the strange cultures, the landscape and the unexpected dramas around every corner (not always a good thing!) I loved Albania, Syria and Turkey for the incredible hospitality of the people. The Namib desert, the salt flats in Bolivia and the high Andes in Chile, Peru and Argentina offered unbeatable landscapes. Colombia – for the friendly people, the girls, the great food, the girls, the landscape, the girls and the girls. I really liked Colombia. I had never been to the States or Canada and had masses of hospitality whilst I was there too. Asia was an adventure, especially Myanmar, Mongolia and Afghanistan.

What do you miss the most from home?

All my old hiphop, funk, soul and breaks vinyl records, family, friends and my job (bar all the night shifts and constant exams). Not necessarily in that order. Also the little things – chocolate hobnobs, British music festivals and comedy, my own bed and of course that British delicacy – fish and chips.

Have you been ill?

I caught dengue fever in Malaysia and was pretty sick for a time. Diarrhoea unfortunately is par for the course, especially when cycling through Africa and Asia. I suffered a bit with altitude sickness in the Andes.

Is it dangerous?

Not as much as people might assume. There’s always some risk involved and I do what I can to reduce it.

People though often want to hear about the scary bits and the close shaves, so here’s a few…
  • Wild animals – in Argentina a scorpion found its way inside my tent, in El Salvador my tent was invaded by fire ants, in South Africa the intruder was a more dangerous Black Widow spider. Lion country was sometimes a frightening place to ride and in Botswana I had some lions prowling around outside my tent. I came across about a dozen bears during the time I spent cycling in Canada but they all scarpered when I got close. Dogs have been more of a problem than anything else – I was chased almost every day in South America, a large pack of dogs attacked me in rural Greece and I was bitten in Mexico.
  • People – Generally local people have been kind and hospitable but I’ve had a few problems. In Egypt some kids tried to rob me in the middle of the night, it’s something that could have happened anywhere. A drunk kid stabbed me in the finger with a knife in Ecuador. And a guy put a gun to my head in Peru, but half an hour later he made me some soup and we became friends.
  • Traffic – In Uganda I had a head on collision with a motorbike but wasn’t injured much, in fact the motorbike rider came off worse than me.
  • I got pretty sick with altitude in the Andes and I’ve been lost a few times, memorably in the remote tribal lands of Turkana in Northern Kenya and also in the Andes. I cycled through the aftermath of a volcanic eruption in Argentina. And I survived a cold snap in Alaska and a Mongolian winter as well as Bolivia’s Death Road. I was also on the Annapurna circuit when a blizzard hit and claimed 43 lives, though fortunately I wasn’t at the highest pass when it struck. Traveling through a small part of Afghanistan was potentially dangerous as well, though everyone I met treated me kindly.

Have you had any mechanical problems?

A few. I replaced my Rohloff hub four times. A piece of the shell of my Rohloff hub (a flashy bit of machinery that houses 14 internal gears) came loose in Sudan, the company sent me a whole new wheel within a few days. I’ve had some internal failures as well. I’ve also had problems with the Rohloff gear cables which repeatedly frayed. Every component has been replaced now except the frame and headset.

What are your favourite bits of kit?

I love my 160 GB iPod Classic, Panasonic DMC G2 camera, Schwalbe tyres, Go Pro and Leatherman and Thermos flask.

How heavy is it all?

My bike – 20 kg
My kit – 40 kg, though it depends on how much food and water I’m carrying.

I’m planning my own bike tour – could you offer me any advice?
  • Document as much as you can. When you get home and the memories start to fade this is all you’ll have to help recall the experience. Do whatever suits you. Keep a journal and if you have a penchant for writing, start a blog. Take good photos or video and get some tips before you set off. Remember also to document how you planned and prepared for the journey. It all takes time, energy and money, but it’s good fun too.
  • Don’t over-plan. Avoid the temptation to plan every detail of your journey before you leave. Chances are you’ll meet other travelers, perhaps even other cyclists, and you’ll get some inspiration about your next move. I relish that flexibility and enjoy making spontaneous decisions about the roads ahead.
  • Get off the beaten track. People are more welcoming and surprised to see you when you’re away from other tourists. Take advantage of the bicycle, you have the perfect vehicle to see the world slowly and in detail.
  • Don’t rush, enjoy the present. I met a number of cyclists rushing through at breakneck speed. Fine if you’re chasing a world record or you’re in a competition, but why else would you want to fly through? Savour the experience. Don’t always take the shortest or easiest path.  By setting a time limit you beef up the challenge but sacrifice something more important – the adventure. You may see a lot, but you experience little. The times I have felt most alive have not been on busy highways but on those rough tracks on the very edge of civilization, in those wild places. The times I’ve most enjoyed have been when I’ve taken up offers of hospitality from local people, offers which would have to be declined by the speed freaks.
  • Eat plenty! It’s a good idea to watch your weight. Cycling though the mountains you may end up burning 6000 calories or more. I shed 15 kg in three months before deciding I needed to up my calorie intake by incorporating a ‘middle breakfast’ into my daily routine! And let’s face it – there’s nothing more bleak or farcical than the image of someone sporting baggy Spandex.
  • Don’t believe the hype. Before I entered Africa I was assured it was the most dangerous, frustrating and incomprehensible continent on earth. I think I will remember Africa as the most life affirming, the most human and the most surprising. Throughout my journey I’ve heard warnings of ‘bad people’ yet 99.9% of the people I met along the way were welcoming, open and friendly. You are much more intimately connected to people when you pass through on a bicycle, trust them and you will enjoy the ride even more.
Do you think you will find it tough coming home after so long?

Probably. I am prepared to pitch my tent in my mum’s back garden and cook goat’s meat over open fires for at least a few months after I return so I can gently ease myself back into ‘normal’ life.

What will you do when you come home?

I loved my job as a doctor so I aim to rejoin the medical profession. I’d also love to write a book which will be half travelogue, and half about my experience visiting marginalised people.

Comments (3)

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    w o w ! ! !

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    You're a very engaging writer with a different angle to add to the already busy travel book market. I look forward to reading it

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    I'm jealous, that's all I can say!
    If only I had the guts….

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