Posts Tagged ‘forest’

Life in the wrong lane

Mmm. maybe I’ll get the train.
‘Can ask what is your good name Sir?’ asked the immigration official in the border town of Moreh.
I told him my good name.
‘And can I ask what is your religion?’
My answer arrived in a stream of vowel sounds, a mumble ‘none’.
‘No Sir’ I said, bowing my head in deep, illogical shame.

My cap was pulled down low, and as he led me out into the street I didn’t see the top of the gate. My head smashed into it so hard I was knocked to the floor. Dazed, the guard helped me to my feet.

‘See Sir.’ He said. ‘Everyone needs a religion’.

It took a while to get this photo, after each snap one of the three students would appraise the image in my viewfinder and decide they weren’t looking sultry enough. ‘Another!’ I was ordered.
I had travelled straight from the Burmese monsoon into the more illustrious Indian one. Rain gushed through the streets and pummelled my panniers as it has for months now. In Moreh I took a break, I needed one after the rush across Burma, and spent most of the next day gorging in the same eating house. In the morning I had spotted a man come out of it, jiggling airily to Bollywood tunes blaring from within, and holding out a wodge of chapattis for a passing cow. Was there a more clichéd an image of India than this? Deciding not I ventured inside where I found an amply constructed matriarch, whose belly on occasion loomed at me from between shivers of her sari, and her moustached husband who wiggled his head in that most convivial of Indianisms. The Bollywood medley came and went, victim to the region’s many, many power outages. I stopped often at the shop next door too because the purple-saried Indian girl working there was a smoldering beauty and kept called me ‘my brudder’. I am in love with the Indian accent. What’s more satisfying to the ear? It has music, zeal, insouciant charm. It’s an accent suited to the voice from the Intercom in the event of an imminent aeroplane disaster: things could be worse, I would muse, as my burning co-passengers thrashed and wailed around me.

To Indians, on discovering the extent of my journey, I am a ‘roamer’, and I am not ‘single’ with its rather dreary connotations, but a ‘bachelor’: yesteryear’s player. There are scores of appealing inventions: hotels advertise ‘lodging and fooding’, and the idea that food can be a warped into a present participle is a nice one I think because it implies that food might also become a verb. ‘I’m so famished I’m gonna food the hell out of this place’. Or ‘He fooded excessively for most of his natural life, before his stomach exploded.’ Metaphorical language too has an Indian tang: A young student once told me that he’d love to travel, but that in reality he was to remain ‘like a frog in a well’. Brilliant. And on a poster in the street I found an advertisement for a self-styled sexologist offering all kinds of cures for sexual related problems, from STDs and impotence, but it was the thought-provoking ailment of ‘sexual devility’ which tickled me most, conjuring the image of a pot-bellied man in a red devil outfit with a lusty glint in his eye. ‘Doctor you must help me, I keep scaring girls with this damn sexual devility!’

India felt to arrive on me, more than I did to it, perhaps because of where I’d come in from. On occasion I pass a border where the two countries couldn’t be more at odds: Egypt and Sudan, Albania and Greece, Ethiopia and everywhere. Add Myanmar and India to the list. The roads are the first clue: the drivers more bullish, the streets more hectic. Even the animals move differently: nothing whimpers on the side-lines like in Myanmar, here the cows and goats meander unbidden, assuredly loping up and down the street with the calm of pacing school examiners, and moving through the traffic like the tuk tuks – edging slowly and forcibly across the road despite the blare of horns. Nowhere on earth has the intrigue, the explosion of colour and the air (happily in the figurative sense, unfortunately in the literal) of India.

Tea pickers
The road to Imphal was beset by police and army roadblocks – far more than I had encountered in Burma – the officials were hunting for smugglers of opium or currency. I was usually introduced to the commander – there was never any confusion about who that might be: dark aviator sunglasses, a galaxy of obsequious subordinates spilling about him and the mien of leader: someone who simultaneously exuded a warm and don’t-mess-with-me confidence. The soldier’s questions ranged from the eye-brow raising ‘what weapons do you carry?’ to the apparently pointless ‘father’s profession?’ to the unanswerable ‘vehicle registration?’ after which I’d leave them to grapple with that nightmare scenario shared by officials the world over: a form with an empty box. Occasionally we’d chat about the differences between India and the UK which would often culminate in some optimistic ruminations: ‘You have exciting life in England, no? This is simple life for us in India. In England you go out to casinos all the time, and you run about doing exciting things’.

I didn’t reach Imphal in one day because the road climbed to 1600 metres to an army encampment which straddled a cloud-rushed ridge. On the other side of the mountains my chain snapped: I was oil-stained and dejected when a young guy swung by on his motorbike and offered me a place to stay.

Lightson and his family were the very essence of hospitality. They prepared a bed for me and a meal of fish curry and rice. In India there is a grave responsibility to finish everything on your plate – no problem: the food was delicious. His aunt prowled behind our backs, ladle in one hand and huge pan of rice in the other. Frequently she would snap forward and dump another glut of rice on to our plates. I watched how the others would handle this as the meal progressed – as she went for the swoop they whipped their hands in front of their plates, barring the path of the barreling heap of rice, whilst emitting repellent grunting sounds. But she was persistent. When I tried she just batted my hand away and delivered more rice. It was amazing hospitality, and I had a great trouble moving after the meal.

Then into Imphal, the state capital of Manipur, where I met up with Pedal Attack – a vast tribe of tattooed mountain bikers who adopted me soon after I visited a local bike shop. I spent the next dew days being taken out to scenic sites and restaurants and to a local school where I gave a presentation. Amongst the din and chaos of Indians cities it was great to meet people so enthusiastic and passionate about biking. Thank you guys.

Lightson and fmaily
Leemax from Pedal Attack took me to Loktak lake on his Royal Enfield motorbike
These guys carry car batteries on their backs and electrocute the fish in order to catch them.
The North East of India is a collection of eight states, herniating off the rest of the country and at the slimmest point (the ‘chicken neck’) only a 14 mile wide tract of land connects it to the rest. Many people here would recognize their tribal allegiance, or even just their state, as surmounting their Indian citizenship.

Religion might factor in to this sense of detachment: the majority here are Christian rather than Hindu (and devotedly so). Whilst I sensed a real optimism about the North East (tourism is growing fast in the wake of lifted restrictions and successful PR) the region still has its problems. Imphal was gripped by protests over the reticence of the government to bring in the ‘Inner Line Permit’ – a system aimed at protecting local interests. In the streets I saw a great rush of students in protest, on the walls posters declared ‘Save Manipuri People – Endangered Human Species’ and on the local news hospitalized students were shown in the aftermath of the rounds of tear gas fired by police. The issue is a complicated one, well beyond the ken of a passing tourist like me, but there was a bit of me that was glad to see some evidence of mass dissent, however staged (how political are most 15 year olds?), after a month in Myanmar where to stymie that sort of rebellion, tear gas would be the hors d’oeuvre.

Imphal is pinned in by nine hulking mountains and the rising road out was decorated by government signs that read ‘Drive, don’t fly’, ‘Drive horsepower, not rum-power’ and ‘drunk drivers are bloody idiots’. Soon I battled up the road into the state of Meghalaya which was layered in thick mud, sometimes half a metre deep, halting the passage of traffic entirely. I had to get the help of a team of local men to haul my bike through. To my left a vast sheet of flat land was sprawled, spangled with sun-kissed lakes and rivers, spotted with vegetation. As I admired it a voice from behind me answered my question. ‘Bangladesh!’ it said. Of course it was, but with a single entry VISA for India, it would remain the stuff of remote glimpses.

That night the police at a roadblock found a small tin-roofed shack for me to stay in (‘we salute you and your amazing adventure!’), but first they had to evict seven chickens, one policeman walked out of it with one chicken neck in his grip, mid-execution. It was candle-lit and cobwebbed and dank inside, but it was mine, and from the window the lakes of Bangladesh shimmered like fish scales. The night was jagged with the creak of cicadas, the whirr of the wind and the prickle of rain on metal.

The next day no vehicles were granted permission to use the roads throughout the state of Meghalaya – it was Indian Independence day and local ‘outfits’ (‘militants’ according to the police) had instigated a ban on all traveling vehicles – a protest against a government decision to outlaw a form of coal mining called ‘rat hole mining’ on the grounds that it can lead to landslides, unsafe working conditions and pollution. For me, this meant no traffic and no horns, bliss then, if it weren’t for the torrential, unceasing rain. There was a big depression in the Bay of Bengal – big, I was told, even by monsoon standards. Days were slate-grey and bleary with cloud and soon every bit of clothing I owned was wet through which meant grim-faced shuddering when it was time to get dressed.

India – where even the insects are colourful.
The coolest thing about landslides is the mimicry of elements: for an instant land becomes water. Earth looks to flow and boil, a splash of rock here, a foam of shattering shale there. Running in the dun-coloured gash in the forest beside the road through the Jaintia hills was an actual waterfall, inseparable though from the powerful rockfalls beside it. The road had been closed for two days and as the mountain frayed, spitting out man sized boulders, all I could do was stand about with the truck drivers, who were wrapped in checkered shawls and hypnotized by the tumble. Finally there was something more stare-worthy than I was.

‘Last year we were stuck for a week’ a man told me resignedly. Eventually a JCB got to work but a massive pool of mud remained on the road. A panic of drivers ploughed into it, knowing this might be their only chance for who knows how long. As they drove madly they spread giant wings of mud from their tyres, covering me head to toe. My turn arrived: I whizzed into the soup, eyes ahead, up at the falling rock, ahead, up. Few cars came after me, there must have been another great collapse of the mountain soon after I got through.

Indian streets are knotted with bands of men, chewing paan (betel nut), each crowd absorbing wandering pairs and trios. Everything requires an audience: card games, conversations, arguments, me. India is just a place where people group, compulsively (they have to in a nation of 1.2 billion and growing fast) and here the observation most startling about me, more than the fact I pedal everywhere, is that I do it alone.

I don’t want to indulge in too many gratuitous generalisations but privacy is to be a touch suspicious of in India, famously so. Ostensibly this means people having a good poke and peer at my bike and the contents of my panniers, and there is always interest in the affairs of strangers. Sometimes I hear conversations along the lines of:

‘I’m off to visit Ana’
‘Who’s that?’
‘You don’t know her. She’s in hospital’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘Something with her ears I think’
‘What is wrong with her ears?’

Yes, people stared, yes they grouped about me, yes, it wasn’t always easy, but the Indian hospitality was unyielding. ‘There are good people everywhere’ one of Indian silver-haired professorly type told me in Silchar. ‘I was in England in 1988. I asked an Englishman where was this building, and he showed me right to it! He walked with me for 50 yards!’

He remained there frozen, truly impressed. I thought about how much his example paled in comparison to the generosity I received in the first two measly weeks in the country. Six different people have hosted me so far, strangers all, generally inviting me after spotting me on the street, and more have offered. I wondered if I would recount these stories to visiting Indians back in the UK one day. The man of course then paid for my breakfast, insisting as he did so that he was representing India.

My bicycle often acts as an ice-breaker and opens the door to conversation. At length, it’s established: I’m British, I can’t speak Hindi, I’m going to Darjeeling, Yes I’m a bachelor, yes I’m alone, yes really, yes completely alone. Lately I’ve been getting fed up with the surface nature of travel through countries in which I don’t know the language, so in India its great to learn what people feel about all kinds of issues: the legal system,dowries, population control, religion, the environment, Imperialism and the Commonwealth Games. Oh and cricket, of course.

The rain continued when I reached Jowai on Independence Day, an event which the town celebrates through a display of profound glumness. There was the incessant rain of course, but more depressing to locals was the decimation of their industry: this was the heart of the mining country.

I arrived into Shillong ready for time off, and wet through, though the rain had eased a touch. That’s not to say it was anything less than torrential, it was just marginally less sopping, like stepping out from under Victoria Falls and directly under Niagara. Shillong was much nicer than the other Indian cities I’d visited – with a very blue cathedral, the odd cafe and even pedestrianized areas (though cars do drive down it) and a no-beep zone (though everyone still beeps).

There is nothing as shameful as finding yourself in KFC when you are in a country of food of sublime flavour and renown. Nothing. Not even if I had stolen lunch from a blind street child would I feel this guilty. The Colonel’s crispy chicken only just quelled my self-loathing. But it was in KFC that I met Ankan.

Ankan: an immensely affable and intelligent guy working on an environmental project who had spent time studying in the States. Within minutes of our meeting he had invited me to stay and I took him up on the offer. A presentation was arranged, media interviews, delicious dinners, and drinks and meetings and tea and then we teamed up with his friends: Rahul, Annelie and Max to visit the world famous living root bridges near Cherapunji.

We also did a lot of eating – of good food, not KFC. I’m getting used to people referring to me in the third person when I’m eating. As I gorged in Shillong, among my new awestruck friends, I heard things like:

‘wow, look at him eat. How much do you think he’ll manage?’
‘Dunno. Doesn’t look like he’ll stop any time soon’
‘Give him more rice, lets see what happens’

The Root Bridges, Near Cherripunji, Meghalaya

I am in the about the wettest place on earth, in the wettest time of year, during a particularly wet spell and I am wet. Soaking, in fact. I stare out at a high rim of land, the Sohra plateau, striped by immense waterfalls, a view so vast it’s addictive. I notice Max by my side. ‘Might clear up’ I venture. He stares out, grimly. Silence. Lightning silvers the murk.

Why weather researchers still quote the annual rainfall of Cherripunji in milimetres is not clear considering it comes by the metre, usually around twelve of them each year. It has been raining hard and unendingly for three weeks, a local family tell me. Uncountable waterfalls streamed down every rock face on the way here. We were all out late last night and the twisting road flaired our hangovers.

Outside the car water immediately hijacks my senses: it is all I can see, hear and feel. ‘The clouds come from Bangladesh’ explains Rahul,’and when they hit the mountain, BOOM! They burst. Its incredible man’. Twelve metres, I recall. Incredible indeed.

Resigned to the fact I’m about to get wet, I stomp in the puddles which soon turn into streams. We descend steps, the first of a couple of thousand to the river below, and in its state of swollen fury, I can already hear it’s rumble.

‘If you need to pee, do it now.’ says Rahul. ‘I’m serious. Forest is sacred. No peeing.’

Locals have stories. Of a woman dressed only in white who dissolves out of the mist and wanders through villages: the spirit of the forest. You would do well not to offend her. Another tale recounts the plight of a local man who had forsaken the spirit of the forest in some way. Slowly, tell locals, he went mad – cooking meals for a family he didn’t have.

Eventually we make it down and cross iron bridges, where the violence of the water beneath our feet is mesmerizing, to reach our destination. The living root bridges were built by the War-Khasis native tribe who guided the growth of secondary roots of the Indian Rubber trees using wooden planks so that the roots eventually traversed entire rivers. It takes time to grow a bridge – decades in fact – and some here are over 500 years old.

The one we have hiked to see is known as the Double Decker. As I shuffle across, peering below and then into the mist-dressed jungle, a butterfly as fat and black as a bat flutters past me. The bridge is solid, no sway or give, sturdier in fact than the metal ones in our wake. Miraculously the rain has eased for our hike back, but not for long. As we reach our ride it rains anew. Pelts it down. I say a silent goodbye to the massive waterfalls still in sight, their majesty a good trade for the rain in my hair, in my boots, seeping into my clothes, foisting shudders. I realise at once that my hangover has vanished. In fact, I feel great.

I left Shillong a touch sentimental to be leaving behind new friends and there are a heap of thank yous this month:

Ankan – thank you so much dude, Aiban, Rahul, Annelie and Max, everyone at Asian Confluence, Sumanta (you will feature in the next blog post my friend), all of the boys at Pedal Attack, Lightson and family, the school in Imphal, Vikash and a big thank you to India for being generally fantastic.

Next – I’m heading to Darjeeling and then I cross into Nepal because my Indian VISA expires and I’m optimistically aiming to cross the Himalayas before the pass closes for the winter. Kathmandu will be home whilst I score VISAs for onward travel, collate kit and rest. Oh and write: I have a bunch of articles appearing in various magazines and websites soon – look out for pieces in Adventure Travel, CNN, and Wild among others. I’ll post links to these on my facebook page – and if you haven’t liked it yet: here’s your chance…
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A land of hope and stories

Yangon retreated, streets bled slowly of traffic and people, as I pedaled north with my friend Al, a TV camera crew and a thundering headache from a cheap and pesticide-scented red wine I’d knocked back the night before, or so I thought. When Al and the camera crew peeled off a fever kicked in, chased by diarrhoea of a Hiroshima quality and my hangover theory faded with the urban clutter. The murdered chicken made into Yangon street food was wreaking revenge, and its target was my intestines and Burma’s roadside foliage.

By dusk I was a tremulous train wreck of a man, but I found the owner of a guesthouse, all would be OK if my imminent coma was near a toilet.

‘I have a room but I’m afraid you cannot stay. No foreigners.’

‘Please!’ I beseeched him ‘I’m sick and there’s nowhere else to sleep’ adding some operatics: a belly clutch, a wobble, a loose-mouthed nod that foretold some medical disaster on his doorstep.

‘I’m sorry. The soldiers will punish me’

Great, I thought, and cursed the military junta, adding my woes to their various sins. Forced land confiscations, torturing advocates of democracy, recruiting child soldiers, and now this.

That night, as my fever clambered to ever greater altitudes, I sneaked off the road into a fruit tree plantation to rough camp (which is flouting the law in Burma). I scrambled urgently out of my tent every few minutes, in the style of an army recruit, to squat in the ant-filled dankness, and besieged by mosquitoes, I hoped vaguely that the sonorities of bowel gas didn’t alert the Burmese army to my whereabouts.

The next day I rode until I found a hotel in a town in which the entire street became a stadium: pop-eyed people stalled, slack jawed, as I pedaled by. Travellers, and their dramatic pantaloons, are coming to Burma but few reach these backwaters and I swaggered about in search of dinner, enjoying my new-fangled VIP status. Tourism is not the only change, technology too has proliferated: two years ago Internet was virtually non-existent outside Yangon and mobile phone sim cards cost 200 dollars. Now Yangon has a beguiling clothing store called Facebook Fashion, complete with the logo, a ‘Epson’ sign has been laid over one of the giant Buddha effigies inside the Shwedagon pagoda (which is either product placement or people are now praying to Epson) and there is even an ‘Apple Store’, though it is an un-ironic rundown shack with a jumble of fractured circuit boards and dusty radios that, charmingly, has borrowed the name.

Drivers in Burma are afflicted with that particular Asian compulsion to use car horns so loud they must have been borrowed from oil tankers. Outside Asia, and New York, if anyone sounded their horn for that much time you would expect them to have sustained a gunshot wound to the head and be slumped lifelessly over the steering wheel. Here cars barrel past in a frenzy of clamor and dust and then a flapping hand flies from a window, the right hand window of a right hand drive car which drives on the right hand side of the road, and three letters, tall and robust, pitch up in behind your eye lids – W T F. The explanation: Cars come from Japan, Thailand or India (all of which drive on the left) but in Burma they changed the driving side of the road to the right, to snub old colonial associations probably, (though it is also rumoured one of the General’s wives was told by her astrologer that it would be better this way) and now overtaking means placing the least flappable of the posse in the passenger seat and is as perilous as donning an Aung San Suu Kyi t-shirt and striding into a military base with pamphlets and a megaphone.

North of Pyay the country turned a vivid green scattered with oxon and carts, devoid of modern farm machinery. Women in rice hats set about their crooked work in the paddies, all for the accomplishments of subsistence and lordosis. Its women who build the roads too, and women who work the shops, and women who care for the children. Many men in Burma have the more sweatless tasks of loafing in shadow, whiskey bottle in hand, or approaching me by way of a self-important march and announcing their position in the army or police so I can acknowledge their status and pay due respect. It’s unsurprising though in the context of an authoritarian military regime or government (insert whopping inverted commas) – it’s the minority groups, the women and the poor who always pay the biggest price.

Cycling through Burma I get the impression, however self-aggrandising this may sound, that my being here will find its way into stories: my stories, of a Burma then unsmeared by mass tourism, and those of children I meet who may one day recount stories of the old Burma to the next generation: the military state before Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, and their memories of the flagship tourist they saw as a child – a hirsute, odorous man on a bicycle, tired enough to wear an air of disaster.

Various rules for tourists are enforced in Burma: I am not allowed to be hosted by locals, to camp or to stay in guesthouses. My only option then is the more expensive hotels, of which there are few. So, petulantly, I got into the habit of pitching up to the local police station at dusk, bouncing my shoulders and declaring that I had nowhere to sleep thereby saying, in roundabout fashion, I am your problem. There were myriad phone calls, notes scrawled and debates made until eventually I would be delivered to a monastery or police station where I could spend the night. If I surreptitiously wild camped and had to explain where I’d slept at roadblocks the following day, I would tell them the town with the nearest hotel, and when that town was 80 km away and it was 10 am, I was relying on them thinking me some sort of super-human which I played up to by broad arm stretches and furious moppage of sweat and ‘yep, tough morning’.

In villages I saw young men and boys, their lungis rolled up into Sumo-esque pants, launching their bodies into martial art style flying kicks, aiming to connect with a rattan ball : a sport called Sepak takraw. I often sat to watch these games of incredible dexterity and skill: imagine volley ball but you use your feet and the aim is to go for the smash. Even these photos don’t do it justice.

In eating houses it often felt like a pit stop: a whole team of people, unasked, would busy themselves around me: a lady would fan me to keep me cool, a guy would apply oil to my bike chain, another might put a waterproof sheet over my bike if it was raining, someone would draw me a map and bring me water. Paying was denied me even after pained guilt-wracked pleas. Everyone would smile copiously and it would make me ponder the enamel dissolving betel nut and another of life’s ironies: the Burmese are a people with the easiest smiles, and the worst teeth.

In one village a girl shot to my side, armed with a phrase book entitled ‘English for Ladies and Gentlemen of Business’ a pamphlet from antiquity compiled by the Burmese regime. ‘Do you have any rubies or gems to trade?’ she asked. I shook my head and borrowed her book to find the appropriate response ‘I’m afraid Madam the matter is quite one-sided’. I also noticed the delightful advice if the esteemed business visitor wants to travel the country: ‘These days the hill tribe people are far-seeing, they come down to the plains to visit the spreading markets, like us’.

The girl, who was in her early 20s, struck me as unusually forthright for a Burmese lady, but her intentions soon became clear.

‘Are you married?’
‘Do you have fiancé or lover?’
‘Um, no’
‘I don’t believe you! Give me your passport’

I handed it over

‘Beautiful’ she cooed as she appraised my photo, which was odd since I had always considered my passport photo to smack of someone with a long history of freeganism and paedophilia.

‘I want to travel so much’ she continued. ‘But I have no sponsor for my passport’ Then she looked me dead in the eye, her stare more suffused with determination than desire.

‘My name is Maiah, you will remember me. This is where I work. You can come back here any time’

By the state of me, I surmised that she must really, really want out of Myanmar.

In the tropical wet season there’s futility in scoping the sky for signs of rain, you make slit-eyes at the horizon instead, where a mist sweeps in with the fervor and bite of a Saharan sandstorm. After some torrential bursts in the south though the rains eased and then ended, the fields bieged and were split by rocky gullies. The rivers dried to nothing, vast bridges ranged over sand and succulents. The change of landscape brought with it a powerful feeling of progress: I was moving fast. In this scrubby semi-desert I wild camped, a nameless wild herb perfumed the air and for the first time, possibly since somewhere in Mexico, I left the fly open: there were no mosquitoes in the gloom. In the still dusk I watched hummingbirds zip in and dunk their long beaks into flowers overhanging my tent, and in the bliss of the alfresco and star-lit night, I flopped into sleep.

Bagan: A vast array of ancient temples spots the land for miles. In town the ubiquitous rubble and ladders attest to the explosion of construction for the coming tourists. It’s one of the bigger attractions in Burma and I watched tribes of travelers take to scooters and motorbikes, sitting rigid, upright and uneasy, to explore the surrounds.

For my planned detour to Burma’s mountainous Chin state I didn’t have much to go on. No tour reports, altitude maps or the like, just a patch of orange on my map, as blank as a desert, with the dim names of a few diminutive settlements joined by roads that, with their million sharp wiggles, bore the semblance of electrocuted cartoon worms. My main worry, among a shed load, was that it wouldn’t be possible to ride 900 km over 11 days, usually this would be a cinch, but I had to factor in all the unsealed dirt roads, the 20% grades, the climbs to 3000 metres above sea level, the monsoon turning earth to mud: July was the worst month of the year to be there. I wasn’t even confident I’d be allowed into the state by officials. As far as I knew, no foreign cycle tourer had cycled any of the roads I planned to ride for years or decades. On the road towards the mountains I was offered an alternative: a rod straight temptress of a throughfare, flat probably, soothing my passage to India. I deliberated. It was wet and cold already, it would be worse up in the mountains. But regrets, I remembered, never chase adventures such as this. So I gulped hard, and launching into a game of one-up-man-ship with myself, I paid a wistful glance at the easy road, but instead turned my handlebars hard to the left and set off towards Chin State.

I decided not to worry about miles or kilometres or speeds; instead I’d concentrate on hours. If I got up early, and was on the road for 6 am and ended at sunset with just a few short breaks for food, then maybe I’d make it before my VISA expired. Early one morning I came across two beshawled women, crooked and witch-like, shuffling down the misty road, grinning at me, and I knew I must have arrived: one of the women bore the facial tattoos that mark some of the older women of Chin State, and have garnered them so much renown. The history of the practice is a little cloudy, perhaps the practice arose to make the women less attractive so they wouldn’t be kidnapped by neighbouring tribes. Which to me unnervingly resonated with the practice of cattle branding.

The road twisted into the clouds: on one side of me was a cliff face, lost at times to landslides which I edged around, on the other side a white oblivion, sometimes bright white and heavenly with sun, other times leaden and threatening, but always thick and masking. Near Bagan I had invoked the scarlet smiles and waves from Burma’s betel nut addicts, further out I was met by stone-faced astonishment and I left behind me an array of people statuesque and blank in awe. But as I went up and up, on dirt roads, I found muffled mountain people, an almost Andean evocation, who exploded into half-mocking laughter as I hammered down on my pedals and was chased out of town by snakes of voluble children. In the shabbiest indigent mountain communities leery women would quicken their shuffles, children would scatter, men would shrink into doorways. But always when I approached they would shed their edge and invite me in for tea.

There were only two towns on my route in Chin State, and the villages had no fresh produce, just stale biscuits and noodles and the suggestion of future scurvy, but even in the most desolate of settings I would see the wooden boards declaring ‘National League for Democracy’. Children and chickens would dissolve out of puffs of cloud that drifted through the streets along with men shouldering ancient rifles with enormous barrels, and women puffing pipes, cloth wrapped around their heads. These women led me inside where we all sat around a sputtering fire, the steam rising off my damp clothes blending with the wood smoke, and as the wind rattled the tin roof, and we crouched on our hams, sipping tea in silence, we all wondered what I was doing here.

The cloud obscured the vista from the roads cut into mountainsides but as the wind plowed into me, and drizzle steeped my beard and made glistening morning cobwebs of my arm hair, I felt hardy and alive. It was cold at 2700 metres high though, I warmed my hands on my brake-heated rims after the downhills. When the wind gusted enough to clear the cloud a vast scene launched from the murk: forested peaks dressed in cloud and menace, proving me minuscule. Up here the lowland tropics were a faded photo in my memory, now it was mossy, windy and wet: Wales on steroids. Up two vertical kilometres, down one, up two, down two, up one.

The villages were draped over ridges instead of cut into mountainsides, perhaps because of a particular peril of the season: Landslides. I saw their aftermath every five or ten kilometres, sometimes huge ones blocking the road and only motorbikes could get past so that now no cars or trucks could follow me and if there was a mechanical problem with my bike, I’d be walking out, and that could take a week or more. On cue my right pedal began to click ominously and I realised the bearings were shot. There was nothing for it but denial.

On one precipice-edged mountain road I paused as fist-sized rocks cascaded down the mountain ahead of me. I chose my moment, switched on my Go Pro and pedaled madly past the raining earth and slate. I turned to watch the ongoing tumble when a huge section of soil flowed off the rock face like water. I didn’t feel in danger though until the entire slope suddenly subsided, three trees came crashing down the mountain submerging the entire road, and then the landslide moved horizontally in my direction: I jumped on my bike and pedaled hard shouting, as was later revealed in the video footage, a very bad curse word and the name of a certain deity.

I came out of the clouds and cycled through rolling primary forest, the road was furnished with mud and dozing buffalos, and I had to stop and haul my bike. By night I rough camped, and one morning I woke to find a bloody patch on the wall of my tent – a leach had attached itself to me and feasted, and then I’d turned and squished it. Sometimes I slept in villages, often the local pastor or teacher could speak some English, and sometimes the village prodigal son was home from the States, a refugee on leave. In their stilted wooden homes the walls owned a picture of a blue eyed, lightly bearded Jesus as well as Avril Lavine (her image in remote villages around the world is one of life’s conundrums) and then in the households of the more prosperous, photos of their kids, their faces pasted eerily onto the bodies of other children in suits, on boats or at the seaside. Many times I was told that I was the only foreigner to have stayed in the village, people assumed I worked for an NGO. ‘Where is your interpreter?’ they asked. Once, I was told, a Frenchman had come. ‘On a bicycle?’ I asked ‘No no! A motorbike. Nobody comes here on a bicycle. Except you, Englishman.’

Flat. F-L-A-T. That is what the pastor had said about the road out of Chin State. He’d even demonstrated, with a horizontal swish of his flat hand, and so there has been no semantic mistake, ‘flat’ is not Burmese for ‘vertical’. At every bend I glanced up from the jagged rocks that ‘paved’ the road to find my eyes settling in dismay on something that looked more suitable for base jumping than mountain biking. Deity-decrying terrain. Eventually I made it up and significantly closer to deep space, through my habit of piecemeal optimism: I trick myself time and again into believing that the next uphill bend (or mile, or day) will be the last. If I were more intelligent or cynical doubt would rob me of the mental ability to ride up big mountains. A week or so afterwards, in India, another man described the road as flat. Are you sure? I asked. ‘Yes yes’ he replied. ‘Flat. But it does get a little cold. Especially when you get up into the clouds’.

I made it to Kale, closing in on the border and found a bike shop to get new brake pads. The zesty and sweaty mechanic in charge was wearing a singlet that depicted a swastika (you may think this to be a symbol of Hinduism, but I have my doubts). He motioned frantically for me to sit and then tried to remove my brakes with a cone spanner, before I could tell him he needed an allen key he began bashing my new shimano xt brakes with it! ‘Stop Stop!’ I yelled, ‘what are you doing?’ He pointed to a little mud on the rim which he had decided to remove with ultimate force. Then he gabbled something incomprehensible, jumped onto my bike and cycled off. ‘what the fuck!’ I think I yelled and another mechanic explained he had gone to the workshop ‘but I can replace brake pads!’ I said exasperated. Now a smack-happy nazi was joy-riding my bicycle around a strange Burmese city and I was haunted by the vision of bike verses truck, a scenario I had avoided for 65,000 km. He returned in 20 minutes, both wheels were paralysed through rubbing pads. I adjusted them as he grinned on, and I regretted my funk – he was only trying to help.

Eventually I got to Tamu and checked out of Burma – a country that has worked its way into the answer of that much posed question: ‘And where is your favourite place?’ Not all Burmese people share my sentiment, and why would they? Many are locked up for political reasons and various groups are still persecuted, especially Muslims in Rakhine. Land is still being confiscated. The army consumes around 40% of the country’s money, about 2% is spent on healthcare – a fact I was reminded of as I looked out over rice paddies, at the bent women toiling, as two cutting edge Burmese fighter jets split the blue Burmese sky.

I leave you with the words of a wooden plaque in the immigration station in Tamu which I had to commit to memory, reasoning a photo may not go down too well.

The Myanmar Spirit

The simple-minded Myanmar has no envy for persons of a fair complexion. Nor hatred for the brownishs. Nor differentiates with the blackishs. Nor judges those of different faith. Myanmars have a brethren respect and affection for all.

But if the affairs of our nation, country, land, history, religion or culture are interfered with by foxy-trick, the persons will be dealt with severely, with all our might, whether big or small, black or white, until the last word at the very end, even if we have many injuries and are lying in a pool of blood.

Thank you this month to Al and Jess and Horizons school for having me do a presentation for the students. 

Next up: India.

Dear Iron Rider

The first clue that the Tree In Lodge Hostel in Singapore is a kind of sanctuary for roving cycle tourers is the front door, which has been fitted with a bicycle crank arm for a handle. Inside a scuffed touring bicycle dangles from the ceiling, old photos of those bikers who had once made their temporary home here takes up one wall, looking variously earnest, triumphant and knackered. Downstairs people traipse about in the last of their clean spandex amid unfurled maps. Beards and caps are ubiquitous, and somebody is always eating.

The place belongs to SK, a Malaysian dude who himself cycled from Finland to Singapore which means he knows what bikers want, half price room rates included. So with the help of Singapore’s top go-to man, and Andy, another trans-continental rider, the hostel became the base-camp where I could plan for the mountain of Asia.

Before I set off from Singapore I said an emotional goodbye to Claire who set out for Japan. I then took advantage of the hostel kit swap pile since the other day, when putting on my trousers, I put my leg through a hole in the crotch instead of the leg hole. My entire leg, that’s how bad things are.

I won’t delve into the detail of my thoughts about the route across Asia lest it take up this entire post, but suffice to say planning the continent isn’t easy. Tibet closed to independent travel several years ago, three month visas to china are harder and harder to land, getting through Burma to India requires permits, Pakistan requires an expensive VISA that must be scored in your home country, Iran just recently closed its borders to independent travellers from the UK, the ‘stans and the caucuses – who knows by the time I get there, but five piddly days on your VISA for Turkmenistan is considered a win.

I crossed the border into Malaysia, and by the evening time drenching rain threatened and fork lightning etched the sky so I booked into the beguilingly entitled Impress Star hotel. The long lists of rules and mandates embossed on the wall of my room sounded fairly reasonable.

‘1. No explosives in rooms please (no animals too)’

‘12. Do not play with fire extinguishers without permission – fine 50 rg per extinguisher’.

There was no note of who to ask for this permission but the fine per extinguisher seemed to suggest that maybe they would let me play with several of them at once.

‘27. The following are not to be taken from the room as ‘souvenirs’ – television, water heater, lamp.’

It’s a little worrying that they need to be this specific. It makes you feel a little sorry for the management and the sort of rabble that take advantage of them.
‘Hi, I’d like to check out’
‘Sir, is that a home cinema system under your coat? And what’s that? Sir? Is that the maid?
‘She’s just a souvenir.’

On the other wall was an advertisement for a woman’s health product from Codi Belle –

‘Meet Farah, hormone problem. After two doses of Codi Belle her menstrual cycle is now regular and she has perfect husband-wife relationship.’

‘Meet Nisa. Accident and unable to walk without a stick. After Codi Belle she can walk like normal!’ 

So it was a strange place but the staff were nice and in the quite literal thirty seconds I used to get the wifi code from the reception a mysterious note appeared on my door, I never discovered who left it.

If Indonesia was a rugby match, Malaysia was the languorous sponge bath afterwards. I enjoyed the sense of freedom, gone was the Indonesian habit of heckling and the pillaging of personal space. Lots of people spoke English too and mornings began with a feast of Roti Canai –  a flat bread made by twirling a thin piece of dough, and eaten with a curry sauce which as far as I’m concerned is the best way to start any day.

‘You have strong constitution – mind and body! I admire you’ said a smart middle aged man at a roadside café in a Muslim prayer hat.‘Let me pay for your breakfast!’ I refused but to no avail. On two further occasions as I pushed north I tried to settle my bill only to find that some cunning Malaysian had paid and disappeared! This made for a strange situation where I would take my seat, order food and then eye those around me with deep suspicion, trying to work out which one of these pathologically generous Malaysians was going to try and pay for me and how to stop the devious philanthropists.

It’s fortunate that Malaysians are such note-leaving, bill-paying wonders because the land itself in the south of the country is not just uninspiring and dull, it’s a touch tragic. For most of the last century Malaysia was the world’s greatest palm oil producer (just now surpassed by Indonesia). With world demand erupting for palm oil (now estimated to be found in 50% of supermarket foods) Malaysia cleared vast areas of forest and as I cycled past the miles and miles of palms, broken only by huge tracts of barren wasteland bristled by the dead nubs of cut palms, and as trucks heavy with freshly cut hard wood timber rallied past, I felt a real sense of dismay. It’s easy for me though with my western back-to-nature sensibilities, conveniently ignoring the fact that my own country felled most of it’s natural woodland centuries ago, but I worry about the increase in demand and the misinformation being propagated by those with a financial interest in palm oil. As well as in food, palm oil is being used increasingly for biofuels – you know, the environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, made by ripping down primary forest, burning peat bogs to grow palms, thus paradoxically releasing more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels. Its basically like a pharmaceutical company developing a cure for HIV which in 100% of patients has a side effect of AIDS.

Oil palm plantations do make half decent rough camping sites though, and each night I pedalled down a side-road deeper into the plantation and made a home. Monitor lizards, bats and rodents shared the gloom, and I heard them scraping and scuttling at night. After three days of palms finally a jungle teaser – macaques scampered across railway line and overhead cables, a sign warned for tapir, monitor lizards sprinted across the road.

One night I camped out in the rubber trees, it was hot and humid, and I knew the night ahead would be like the others – like passing out face down in someone’s arm pit. ‘Sweat-time’ is as a necessary part of my nightly routine as setting up my tent or eating dinner and for twenty minutes I lay still inside my tent listening to the wall of malaria buzzing outside, and could do nothing more than dribble onto my sleeping mat, because any other action would have invoked a gush of sweat and use of the ‘sweat-towel’ which if it gets any sweatier will actually open up a porthole to hell. Inside my tent though, I was not alone. A cricket bounced about, a spider flickered in and out of nylon creases, beatles roamed, weaving by caterpillars on expeditions. The rug of dead arthropods inside would have to be added to, but there are priorities, only mosquito murder trumps ‘sweat-time’. Also I had to review my sorry legs which were both branded by a rash I was trying to get to the bottom of. There had been the stinging plant I brushed against two days ago, that, combined with sweat rash would do it. Of course the combined effort of the mosquitoes, horse flies and fire-ants definitely deserves some of the glory. Some sunburn, probably. Perhaps also now infection. In fact the only thing I was relatively confident was not contributing was smallpox, though I couldn’t completely rule it out. There comes a time when you just have to start ignoring things like this.

I had a plan to counter the fever of the Malaysian tropics – a new road up from Sungai Koyan through jungle to the less sweaty, less malarial, less rash-provoking Cameron Highlands, and then dropping down the other side to the historical town of Ipoh and on to Penang and my next days off. The road up was broad and tranquil, knifing through sweeping jungle, dense with vines and creepers, droning with insects. At times entire sections of the road were elevated, enough so that my eye line fell onto the forest canopy and a breeze licked at me as I peered out over a wealth of tree species in a motley of greens.

As I reached the Cameron Highlands black-gassing Land Rovers chugged past, greenhouses blistered the hills. Impressively resplendent tea plantations festooned the crumpled land like a novelty haircut. I took a day off but travel burnout got the better of me and I didn’t muster the ambition to get involved in any of the activities everyone else was here for, the journey to get here was enough. Instead I hung out in the hostel run by a guy so morose he would have made an actual ogre appear quite chipper. Over breakfast the next day I got chatting to a barefoot French guy who was dressed in an enormous crooked wizards hat, 2/3 length multihued pantaloons that made me hum ‘you can’t touch this’ and two entirely functionless sashes from hip to shoulder. His eyes lurched around in their sockets like spinning eight balls, he grinned wildly and spieled about a techno party he had organised in a field in Cambodia when he lived with an eco-community there. Eventually  immigration stopped letting him back into the country on his regular border runs, though why he didn’t conjure up a magical VISA I don’t know.

Tea plantations, Cameron Highlands
I whipped down from the highlands through more jungle until evening sunlight played on the limestone hills near Ipoh. Two days later I fetched up in Penang via the ferry from the mainland and checked into The Love Lane Inn, a place even seedier than it sounds, if that’s possible. It was the second cheapest fleapit in the city, the cheapest was directly opposite and was an actual brothel. Come 11pm prostitutes, at least a couple of whom were over 50, minced around the pavement outside, occasionally dashing inside when the police swung by, who I’m guessing weren’t there for the good of the public.

The manager of the Love Lane Inn looked like Ozzy Ozbourne, if Black Sabbath had never split up and Ozzy had grown his affinity for heroin. He had matchstick arms, an insalubrious pallor and when he moved it was only ever by slinking. On my second morning I woke covered in myriad bites so I showed Ozzy and moaned to him about the mosquitoes.

‘No no no’ he said ‘it’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the bed bugs’
‘Bed bugs?’
‘Yep, we have a lot’
‘Well can I change beds?’
‘Well you can, but most of our beds have the bed bugs. They’re everywhere.’

It was almost admirable, that level of honesty and hard-boiled apathy.

The problem was that skinflint travelers would check in at the brothel, check out again bringing the bed begs with them to other hostels like the Love Lane Inn. I found scores of the blighters in the wood of my bed and so I then joined the gaggle of travelers sat outside, itching themselves sullenly.

Georgetown is all about the food so I struck out for one of the night markets which was arranged on each side of a busy road so that you queue for food amid a ferment of wending motorcycles, rickshaws and cars. The vendors are all a one-man-band of the culinary craft – tossing, throwing, frying, chopping so fast that it often seems simultaneous. Puffs of steam grey the night air, behind it they look like emerging magicians. Women caw instructions to the table runners. I ordered noodles and ate carefully – two days before in Ipoh, not an expert yet with chopsticks, I dropped a dumpling into the chili sauce, a splash of which reached my right eye. I had to leave the restaurant half blind and in severe pain, and also hoping nobody would notice.

Thailand, according to cycle tourers crossing Asia, was a cinch – plenty of flat roads and great food served by a folksy band of smiling, bowing Nice People. I was planning big distances, cruising past lush forest and golden Buddha statues, stopping only for green curry and tea. The border town was the usual gaudy, thrumming staging post, and I was cooking. I had sweated so much I looked fresh from a nautical disaster, so I stood by a giant fan which was turned on two guards and pretended to browse through my passport until I was dry again.

In Thailand, much like Malaysia, the gratuitous generosity continued. Twice I was treated to free food and water on my up to Krabi. There is always the map test – open a map on the road in a new country and see how long until someone slides over to your rescue. I haven’t tried this in Thailand yet though, I’m worried there might be screeching of brakes and a rapidly forming queue with people saying things like ‘Take my GPS!’ or ‘Have you met my sister, Miss Thailand 2014? Let me get you acquainted’.

When I arrived into Ao Nang near Krabi I met Martin, another cycle tourer, who had been in touch by email. That night I felt well and went to bed. I woke up in the night with the headache to end all headaches goading my fever-fuddled brain. By morning a rash had developed over my abdomen, my temperature was consistently topping 39 and everything hurt, not everything I hear you say – yes, everything. I knew it had to be something nasty and my hunch was dengue fever as SE Asia is a particular hotspot. If it was, it would be a long recovery, even without the complications.

I ventured out to the nearest clinic for blood tests. The doctor agreed – this was dengue, a disease that has always sounded particularly threatening to me, but because the name is too inert for some, it has also been dubbed ‘break-bone fever’ and now I know why. Each day I managed a 100 yard mournful shuffle to some food outlet where I ordered something, took a mouthful and binned it. It might have been wasteful but I wanted to know that I could go out and get food even if my body then rejected it. A half-victory.

I didn’t eat at all for three and a half days and my white cell count and platelet count both took a plunge (2.1 and 70 for the medics interested). Only on the 4th day did the fever break but I still felt terrible. It all helped forge the opinion that dengue really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It flattened me, and 8 days after its onset I still feel two-dimensional. In the medical textbooks dengue has a long list of symptoms of which I had a full house, bar the hemorrhagic complications, plus I had others that are definitely symptoms of dengue but must have been accidentally omitted from the texts – one such symptom of dengue is the desire to tell everyone that you have dengue. I had this one, but nobody was very interested. I holed up in a cheap hostel, and I’m still here waiting impatiently for my appetite to return and my body to stop aching so I can get moving, north to Bangkok.

Thank yous – The Garths, SK, Andy and Wayling, David, Anne and Philip – for the insurance which arrived just in time, Ian Humble, Tom Wingfield and the mystery people who bought me breakfast and left notes on my door.

And to the mosquito that gave me dengue – it’s war. Your brethren will suffer for this. Mark my words.

The art of Island Bopping

What is that?

Long, thin, oblique; the island was a lone speech mark amid the wordless Pacific Ocean. I zoomed in until Googlemaps gave up it’s identity – ‘New Caledonia’. The name didn’t ring any bells but since Wikipaedia didn’t mention genocide, cannibalism or ebola, I booked a flight. Its anonymity to me just seemed like a good reason to do so.

The almost ticked out clock of my Aussie VISA meant I needed a border run, but this too was an excuse for an adventure – the spontaneous, half-baked kind. I had in mind an island, and the south Pacific bares 7500 to choose from. I scribbled ‘no bicycle, pack light, travel by foot’ into my journal and then canvassed the bespeckled ocean on googlemaps for inspiration.

New Caledonia is an archipelago and autonomous French overseas territory, and the main island, uninspiringly entitled Grand Terre, is 1200 km from Australian shores, or about half way to Figi. It lies like a giant frozen throwing knife launched from New Zealand and aimed at Papua New Guinea, and after those two, Grand Terre is the third largest island in the Pacific.

Hiking is not how the mainstream wile away hours on a palm-fringed Pacific islands, but I wasn’t planning on indulging in contented comas on surf-soaked white sand beaches, diving amongst coral reefs, or retiring to a resort to wash down the day’s hedonism with lobster and kava. I was going just to walk, hoping later to emerge blister-footed, laden with stories and contentedly beat.

On my way

Comfort costs kilograms, and I didn’t need it. To pack as light as possible I had help from Claire who turned out to be the most extreme weight reducing device known to humanity. She rummaged through my pack, frequently holding aloft an item of kit and demanding I justify its place. ‘Shoelace?!’ came one admonishment. In the end I left with no tent, just a tarp of unproven waterproofness and an unused bivvy bag (to an island in the midst of cyclone-season), a stove, one change of clothes and little else. The burden I carried now mostly psychological.

5.30 am is the time penny pinchers fly to their destinations. The night before my flight I waved goodbye to Claire from the airport concourse hoping to find a quiet corner in the terminal to spend the night, unaware then my adventure was about to start early. ‘Sorry mate’ began the patrolling security guard, ‘airport closes at 12, looks like you’re out the street.’ Begrudging his fatalism, his ‘looks like’, I skulked out into the warm night. As I stumbled around, crooked under the weight of the pack, I wondered how I would hike across an entire island when traversing the departures terminal was amounting to an Iron Man feat of endurance. With the alfresco air as stagnant as swamp water my body’s main concern was not sleep but rather some kind of experiment into finding out exactly how much it was capable of sweating.

A form arrived from the neat air hostess and my pen quivered under indecision among the tick boxes. Where will you be staying in New Caledonia? Hotel? Rental home? Family or friend? There was no option for a bivy bag in the dirt, so I went with friend. The lady sat next to me smiled sympathetically when in reply to her quick-fire nasal gabble I committed conversational suicide with the few French words I could remember, a soon to be well-tested, contrite quartet : ‘Je ne comprend pas’.

I turned then more earnestly to my Lonely Planet phrasebook; which failed to include useful sentences like ‘I’m not entirely sure what I just said either’ or ‘I apologise for the ugly accent’. In their place were a host of purposeless one-liners. For example the ‘Romance’ section has clearly been devised by a womanless letch shipwrecked in the eighties and offers the French for ‘What star sign are you?’ Unfortunately it then leaves you hanging, and neglects to provide a translation to deal with any of the likely aftermaths such as ‘Excuse me, can I borrow a towel, that girl just puked all over me’ or ‘Yes doctor, the pain in my testicles is excruciating. Perhaps she was a pisces’. Things get dramatically weirder though on leafing through the ‘Sex’ section where there sits ‘Chouette alors!’, which we’re told translates as ‘Oh Yeah!’. Presumably the old romantics at Lonely Planet are hoping you keep the book on a bedside table so that you can call an abrupt halt to copulation, turn to the relevant chapter and express sexual gratification in grammatically and phonetically correct French. That’s where the pillow talk ends though as the authors clearly judge their readership to be composed of a more defensive than passionate brand of lovers and there follows ‘That was weird’ and ‘You’re disturbing me’. In the eating section is ‘I can’t eat it for philosophical reasons’ perhaps an appropriate line if you are served the decapitated head of a professor in philosophy. The art of camping is something of a mystery to the authors since this section includes ‘Can I borrow a spade?’ Having set up my tent I then enjoy engaging in mock early 20th century warfare. Finally though Lonely Planet, perhaps conscious of the potential for confusion after commissioning a book by a bunch of imbeciles, states ‘Lonely Planet accepts no responsibility for any loss, injury or inconvenience sustained by anyone using this book’. So if you nonchalantly order a ham and cheese sandwich from a waiter in a Parisian cafe but instead get bashed with a crow bar and later regain consciousness on all fours, clad in nothing more than a leopard skin thong and studded dog collar, watching through glass a leering trail of be-suited business men, with a ‘for sale’ sign around your neck, remember: Don’t even think about writing to the Editor.

Phrase book abandoned, I averted my attention to the likely honeymooners in the seats around me, and the unspooling infinitude of the Pacific that passed beneath. I wondered why I had made such a snap judgement about coming here and began to plunge, panic-stricken, down a dark cascade of what-ifs. Suddenly though I caught site of a lustrous ribbon of turquoise in the ocean – inside it the sea was spotted with islands and atolls; this was the world heritage listed coral reef, the largest after the Great Barrier Reef. More arresting though was what followed – a beige mesh of ridges and valleys which multiplied, greened and swelled into whopping mountains whose upper reaches were poached by hanging cloud. As I sized up the island every doubt I harboured about the possibility of adventure evaporated. Possibility sprawled. 


Like the landscape of New Caledonia, which consists of a central mountain range, mangrove swamps, torrid grassy plains, primary forest and shrubland – the skin tone of these mysterious New Caledonians milling around the airport was as richly various. The black indigenous Kanaks are the arrivals most far flung in time. About a third of the population are ‘Caldoche’ – European descendants, primarily of the French, many of whom were convicts shipped to these remote shores at the end of the 19th century. Contributing to the ethnic melange are migrants from other Pacific islands and East Asia. To meet me at the airport was Lyvia, fashionable, slender and dark skinned who claimed an ancestral pastiche involving most of the above, which in New Caledonia is in no way unique.

New Caledonia was christened as such by the British explorer James Cook who in 1774, when surveying its mountainous form, figured it was redolent of Scotland, Caledonia of course it’s latin alias. Now, outside the airport terminal, in 36 degree heat aside dusty lion-coloured scrub, I had to wonder why the well-travelled Cook was so off the mark with his analogy. Britain’s claim to the islands though didn’t survive, in subsequent years the French gained control.

First off Lyvia gave me a whistle-stop tour of the capital Nouméa. Sea front bars opened onto a main boulevard which nudged up against a beach. A thin spread of foreign tourists dozed and swam and rummaged about in the water. Kanak women in bright wrap-around skirts, pareos, with curlicues and floral motifs, shared the sand with younger Kanaks who preferred the Rasta tricolour and dreadlocks and who played zouk and reggaton from mobile phone. Bonjours and smiles were batted around between strangers and though once rather mawkishly known as the ‘Paris of the Pacific’, Nouméa seemed absent of the surliness the French capital is perhaps unfairly known for. We then scooted over to the next bay which was crowded with moored yachts, and the bay after that, home to a tangle of kite surfers. Some of this tableau seemed reminiscent of life on the Mediterranean, Lyvia though, perhaps having divined me making the parallel, explained ‘When there’s a cyclone, all these boats (she pointed an arc), end up in the street’ and with that I was abruptly transposed, right back into the midst of the wide, wild Pacific Ocean.

So far I had glimpsed two flags fluttering around the capital, the French tricolour and the Kanak flag, which is closely tied to the controversial idea of full independence. I’m here at a sensitive juncture, after some violence and turmoil in the 1980’s, 2014 marks the close of a peaceful period of growth and development and old agreements dictate a vote for independence could take place in the near future. The majority of Kanaks; historically often brutally repressed by the colonial power, seek full independence; the Caldoche and a slice of the Asian migrants though are less likely to share these politics.

I find a book in Lyvia’s parent’s house – Nouvelle Caledonie Sauvage : Wild New Caledonia. In it 511 pages tell of hiking routes, which was about 500 more than I had anticipated. A tiny village and former penal colony, Prony, in the far south of Grand Terre, marks the beginning of the Grand Randonnée (big hike) – an official brand of trail, scores of which crisscross Europe half a world away. This one, inaugurated some ten years ago, is a classic hike; at least here, and perhaps would be considered so outside New Caledonia if a more hearty number of the general public could actually pin the island on a map. It’s 120 km of hiking and scrambling through rolling scrub, forest and over steep mountains up to 1200 metres above the turquoise water glimpsed from the plane window. In all there’s almost 5000 metres of climbing, roughly the height of Mont Blanc.

Trail food stowed in my pack, I sat among Lyvia and her friends who collectively mused about my journey as we picked at cheeses, sliced baguettes and cold meats, a very salubrious and outwardly French affair, from the double kiss entrance and uncorked wine to the unhurried quality to our grazing. ‘We are not French!’ Lyvia remarked, somewhat defiantly, this lot consider themselves ‘Caldoche’ and make light of the old colonial power by referring to French visitors to New Caledonia as ‘les zoreilles’ which almost translates as ‘the ears’, an in-joke that refers to the way the tourists are forever pushing their ears forward in an effort to understand the local accent, though French proper is the lingua franca here, not the French-based creoles of the nation’s other overseas territories. Indeed as a tourist it’s hard to cope here without at least a smidgen of the language.

Over dinner my plan received a rebound of frowns. As usual each at the table had their own theory of how I will expire, heat stroke a top contender and presiding over cyclone-induced floods, being shot by hostile Kanaks for trespassing or simply getting irreconcilably lost. On past experience, my vote went to the latter.

Grand Randonnée in the South

As I searched in vain for the right change to pass the bus driver who would take me half way to Prony, a mess of arms and hands were extended out to me. Their owners, Kanak women, were offering me the money I needed for the fare. Soon the bus lurched through the outskirts of the capital where houses were half concealed by a jungle of mango, papaya and banana plants. 

The last language I used to any proficiency was Spanish and so as my brain hunts for a French word the Spanish is offered up instead. This is how my hitch-hike from the bus stop began, with an open car door and my speaking a strange soup of incongruent words from three languages ‘Hola friend. Je voudrais; um; go, with la voiture, hasta Prony’. Having rightly concluded I wasn’t up to conversation, my driver, a young businessman, let French rock ballads absorb our silence. I watched the crumpled landscape unfurl: green ridges and hillocks, a snake of wind turbines, giant handprints of rust-coloured earth. The spectacle was especially befitting on pondering the island’s ancient origins. Unlike many of the other Pacific archipelagos, New Caledonia’s beginning does not lie in recent volcanic activity, instead it’s a vestige of the supercontinent Gondwana. Before spending several million years beneath the ocean, it was once attached to Australia.

Then I walked, stamped really. Bent, huffing, wet with sweat, overwhelmed and underprepared. The path, marked by the red and white symbols of the GR treks that lace Europe (even the most hapless hiker would have to work pretty hard to get lost here), ambled along the coast and then climbed, skirting two waterfalls, until the vista sparkled as sunlight bounced off a wealth of waxy leaves. Below the shrubs were brain-like nubs of lichen, the colour of glow in the dark stars. An ecologist might know this as Maquis Shrubland – it’s an arid rocky terrain covered by a density of peculiar flora and sometimes it felt as if I were padding through a botanical garden. The feeling was well-founded – almost 80% of the plants exist just here and nowhere else on earth – only Hawaii and New Zealand can boast more endemic species. Unfortunately the nickel mining that bolsters the New Caledonian economy has destroyed much of the habitat – 25% of plant species here are considered at risk and at least five are now extinct. 

Dimness grew and when I spotted a refuge, rouged in light cast by a nearby campfire, I knew I had company. ‘We light the fire for you!’ called one of the trio sat loosely aback from the flames as I approached. The three French hikers, two guys and one girl – Aurelie, Oliver and Tibault – had met by chance days before and conspired to complete the Grand Randonnée together. Behind the refuge a river tumbled over rock and fell a metre into a now black pool I was assured was four metres deep, so in the dark, hoping distances didn’t get lost in translation, I jumped. Drying around the fire it was decided: ‘Tomorrow – we are four.’ 

The next day we hiked upwards through more brush and pockets of forest where palms diced the sunlight into thin slots. Replies to calls of ‘ça va?’ came later and later, in thinner voices, as we individually pondered whether we were in fact OK, decided probably not, and then mustered the energy required to manufacture a ‘Bien!’ that could pass as genuinely upbeat. The track eventually began to bound downwards, along the plunging axis of a ridge. Land to each side tumbled and then sprawled into a wide plain, dotted with shadow from the cloud-blotched sky above. We let gravity do more of the work until at last we threw off steaming boots and staggered through the open door of another of the tidy, wooden refuges which end each day on the trail. Soon chatter was mixed with the hum of gas stoves and the slurping of packet noodles and salted deer sausage scored from Noumea. The groans that followed verged on the sexual as we each flopped our weary legs onto thin sleeping mats as if they were goose down. 

Two of my comrades, like me, were not graduates of the Grand Randonnées of Europe, nor other multi-day treks. Nimble-footed Oliver though had battled perhaps the toughest, the Grand Randonnée 20 in Corsica, and was forever dancing spiritedly down steep descents and taking grand wading steps upwards. At the days close; metres from the refuge I needed ten miles ago, he remarked

‘Is like finger in zee nose, non?’
‘You don’t have finger in zee nose in English? Non? It means IT’S EASY! Like finger in zee nose!’
He demonstrates.
‘Oh right, I see. Yeah, that’s it.’ I fake a smile, ‘easy’ is not a word I would use. I think more of an elbow in my nose. A thigh in my penis.

In the burnt remnant of a forest victim to last year’s wildfires we came across a party of rangers who advised us to ‘Go between the breasts!’ Sure enough an hour later two prodigious bulbs swelled out of the forest, sweaty and breathless we made our way up through the metaphorical cleavage. From the col we spied a mist of approaching rain which blurred the far forest beyond our half-moon of ridges. It’s January, so the deluge that quickly beat down upon us was no big surprise, and we were soon cheered by vistas over Lake Yate and the Blue River which each owned a halo of russet earth and wheeling birds of prey above. Eventually our trail hit the riverbank where there were a stand of dead Kaori pine trees whose reflections stewed in murky water. A giant, living specimen trailside was almost 3 metres in girth, and a sign stateed that it began life a millennium ago. This fact though belies a less impressive one – primary forest like this is rare now in New Caledonia, only a fraction remains and the lion’s share of these fast growing Kaori trees have been long since felled for timber or wiped out in fires. 

We entered the Blue River Provincial Park which, like the shrubland before it, was home to strange and rare and plants and trees aplenty. It was the giant tree ferns that won my immediate attention, some of their trunks were over 50 feet in height and their umbrella of fronds, some of the largest leaves in the entire plant kingdom, conjured an impression of pre-history. It’s a well-deserved one – tree ferns were knocking around the Carboniferous swamps over 300 million years ago. It was these giant fronds that cast swords and daggers of sunlight onto the trail which was thick with fallen leaves, deadening my footfall. Perhaps it was this deftness that failed to startle the chicken sized white bird that strayed across my path. It’s a kagu, known among as the Kanak tribes as ‘the ghost of the forest’ and instantly familiar to me, despite its scarcity, because an image of the bird adorns the country’s bank notes, coins and tourist brochures. I froze so not to scare it away, though I needn’t have, the kagu is almost flightless, but it hissed at me as it waddled on orange legs, unhurried, into the bush.

The following day the dank forest grew much thicker, and kinked palm fronds clawed at us from the gloomy fringes of the narrow alleyway of foliage. Trees drooled moss and our feet faught for purchase on slippery stones among a smattering of carnivorous pitcher plants. Soon we were fighting for headroom as the path segued into a barely discernible trail, floored by a weave of roots where geckos scuttled, and warded by a toppling wall of fern. Often we crossed streams home to electric blue dragonflies where rainfall trickled between old debris – car-sized boulders and hulking trunks of fallen trees – heaved into a bygone torrent on the back of a visiting cyclone. 

At 1150 metres above the Pacific the trail wound up to another clearing and collectively we gave a gasp, of all the sublime vistas the Grand Randonnée had afforded us so far, this one was the best. Great waves of resplendent green ridges, riven by deep valleys, tracked into the far distance, and later, fire-side, there was an air of achievement in reaching the highest point on the hike, our contentment challenged only when a hairy spider crept over to share our warmth.

The ultimate day is a decent crescendo spent aside a yawning valley which dropped to a string of pellucid pools in the Dumbea River. We were not alone. Being a Sunday in the hottest month of the year, scores of families plied the banks. Having spent seven days in the wilderness our collision with humanity felt a rough one: children screamed, reggaton boomed, litter was strewn, and the satisfaction of a cool dip in the river ground against the suddenness of it all. But as we slumped, beaten on the river bank, entertainment arrived when local kids began to plummet at least 15 metres from overhanging trees into the water, and then a large family clustered around us, doling out barbequed meat and baguettes. 

Grand Randonnée of the North

There’s really only one quality the southern Grand Randonnée is missing, and the newly inaugurated Grand Randonnée of the north can supply it: an experience of local Kanak culture. The new four day 75 km trail journeys through the northwest of the island, a more populated and much wetter place. Back in Noumea locals half whispered about a sizable tropical depression that was moving in, as if the island was a testy relative and the storm one of their customary headaches. Perhaps it is Englishness which marks me loath to change plans for the weather, but I decided to set out anyway. Tibault, having declared hiking a new passion on the back of the previous hike, opted to come with me and kept me entertained with endearing malapropisms, suggesting for instance that if the weather turned we could ‘go hijacking’ which after careful questioning of my new friend revealed he meant hitch-hiking, to my immediate relief.

As we waited for a bus, palm fronds flapped maniacally in a punchy breeze and I wondered what was brewing in the Pacific and bound for New Caledonian shores. Our starting point was the village of Tchamba and we were glad to find a thatched hut which sat rather incongruously next to satellite dishes and solar panels. Instead of the refuges of the southern trek, this vernacular accommodation would serve as our shelter.

We began hiking through arable land where Kanaks waved to us from their crops of yam and groves of fruit trees. Then we passed into a dripping forest where dollops of light fell onto the cobweb-crossed path, unwon by a competing umbrella of foliage above. The rain began and built to a cloudburst. Hunched over, consumed by trawling ponchos, eyes hesitant to explore the world beyond the immediacy of the path, we missed quite an important junction. After retracing our muddy footprints, then tiny lakes of rain water, we decided to hitch-hike to Poindimie since the rivers ahead were likely to be impassable. En route we hit a tidal wave of local helpers including a Kanak man who gave us a ride, a student who offered us his phone and then Couchsurfer Thierry who supplied a bed and shower. Tibault, a tad disillusioned, then took a bus back to the capital. I decided to wait out the storm, one that had now grown big enough to put the island on Orange Alert and to earn the inappropriately tepid and rather delightful Christian name of ‘June’. The online weather tracker showed the extent of the hissy fit June was having over the Pacific – she was now an intense red, shaped like a spiral galaxy, and hundreds of kilometres across. And then the power went out. 

Over the next twenty four hours 160 mm of rain soaked my part of the island – twice the average total rainfall for London for the entire month of January. The wind speeds were not high enough to nudge it into the ‘cyclone’ category but even so a visit to the coast at the storm’s capstone – where there were wind-bowed palm trees and a giant swell – left an impression that it might be worthy of the title. In the wake of June I re-joined the trail which burrowed through murky mushroom-dotted forest and climbed up to ridges where it again rode humps of land and offered vistas of woodland awash with a motley of greens.

The river was too high to wade when I arrived, on each attempt I got half way out but the current was dangerously fast and I hiked back up the foul-scented muddy banks, not long ago flooded and covered in decomposing sugar cane. A refuge was my home for a day, every few hours I made a new sally to the river to check the water level (I’d left markers) and weighed up my options. One had been to build a raft – I had plenty of felled bamboo, string and a knife to my disposal, but decided that the idea was probably a bit ‘Bear Grylls’ and also that I had none of the qualities that makes Bear Grylls Bear Grylls, that is to say: know-how, courage or any amount of good sense. Eventually I found an easier channel and trudged onwards. Startled deer ran from path, I munched on wild pineapples and at last made it to a pretty village with more thatched huts, bamboo forests and bright flowers. It was my last stop. 

Coming home

The three weeks I had spent in New Caledonia did not feature resorts, the venerated white sand beaches or the heritage listed reef. Yet surveying the verdant mountains from my departing plane window, and knowing of all those unwalked forest-buried trails I was leaving behind, I felt I had been privy to a vastly underrated side of the island. Why New Caledonia doesn’t then attract a similar-sized flood of tourists as other Pacific destinations, Fiji for example, which gets six times the number each year, is hard to know. On paper, New Caledonia has enticements in droves. Some may be put off because it’s French speaking, others perhaps because it can be a bit pricey, but for adventure-seekers it’s a place that perhaps only in years to come will get the props it deserves.

I love aeroplanes. Every time the wheels thunder down a runway I feel an inch wonderstruck as it occurs to me that air travel really is the quintessence of mankind’s inventiveness, collective genius and raw ambition. So when strolling out into Sydney airport to see an incomprehensibly pathetic number of customs officials serving a line of passengers so vast that the tableau was instantly redolent of some kind of religious pilgrimage, I abruptly experienced the complete anathema to this pride in humanity. We can safely fly millions around the globe, between every major city, every day, how then, can we fuck up routine screening so magnificently? I asked myself. The line twisted like some great malicious tapeworm throughout the enormous terminal building, occasionally bunching and circumventing knots of disillusioned ex-queuers. The inching, beleaguered passengers had been stood for so long that many had taken to shaving and personal grooming. I believe a section of kids were being home schooled. Those with elderly relatives were scoping out suitable burial sites behind the luggage carousel. The International Red Cross were surely not long from intervening in this humanitarian disaster by air dropping bedding and food packages.

So eventually I was reunited with Claire back in Cairns who had spent the last few weeks in Tasmania where she visited a number of music festivals and writes beautifully about the experience here. Unfortunately a knee injury curtailed much cycling and so we’ll be taking it nice and slow when we begin pedalling through East Timor in a week’s time. Next blog post then – probably from Bali.

Lyvia and Krystie, Thierry, Ian, Sarah and Simon – you are all lovely humans, thank you.

Demise of the Shadow Cyclist

There are times when it strikes me that I’ve been cycling for a very long time. In Dawson City the revelation came just after I tried, unsuccessfully, to change gear with the grip-shift. I came to an abrupt halt in the baked goods aisle, looked down at my closed hand, which had subconsciously tensed around the handle of the supermarket trolley, and thought – maybe I should have some time off. Thankfully though I did not extend my arm to indicate whilst rounding the corner into the adjacent aisle, nor did I not lock the trolley to a lamppost in the parking lot.

Dawson City has a sinister seasonal split personality, like every other town at these latitudes. In the winter hardy locals and animals hibernate as the temperature drops to minus forty. In the summer it effervesces and teems with life and shudders under the shuffling feet of tourists, who arrive into town like a migration of wildebeest on the prairie. They get shuttled over the Canadian border from docked cruise ships or else have made their own meandering way here on motorbikes or in RVs. They come to catch a glimpse of this infamous wild-west town, clinging to it’s heritage, where houses are made of wood, the sidewalk is a boardwalk and there’s a nightly can-can show. Since the Klondike Goldrush more than a century ago a tide of misfits are drawn here too, girls with shaved heads and nose rings, burly, hard drinking men. There’s even a pub where there continues an old tradition of serving drinks which contain real pickled human toes donated in people’s wills. As you chug the crowd chants ‘You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips have gotta touch the toe.’ And I think that says everything you need to know about Dawson.

It was here I met a Swizz couple on bicycles, Aurelie and Layko, who had been riding north from Colombia. They had spent the past few weeks picking morel mushrooms in the forest and had earned 6000 dollars in three weeks, so they bought the beers at the local can-can show where it was agreed – we would all ride together over the Top of The World Highway into Alaska. A boat ferried me across the Yukon river where they were waiting for me on the other side, and we set off on a nineteen kilometre climb up into the tundra. On the way up we passed a couple of Canadians dozing under a tree with so much gear they could have been refugees evicted from their homeland. On closer scrutiny the contents of their tumid panniers and laden trailer became clear – they were carrying enough tools to repair an aircraft carrier, a tent that could have comfortably housed a mormon family, a sitar, a mandolin and a didgeridoo.
‘I don’t get it!’ bemoaned the guy ‘it’s taking us ages!’.
I almost pointed out his problem. ‘Well maybe if you’d left the orchestra behind…’

Eventually the road crept up over the ridges and snaked across the tundra, a rash of spruce filled valleys, concealing remote streams. In the distance the mountains were blue-tinged and bleary, somewhere a wild fire had taken hold in the boreal forest, the smoke mushroomed skyward and looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb. Grazing caribou, a reminder of how far north we had come, scarpered as we cycled close by, their white tails bobbing up and down. Grizzly bears hunt the Caribou, so each evening we scanned the tundra and hauled food away from our tents.

The Top of the World Highway

I clicked with the Swizz straight away and the days towards Alaska overflowed with jokes and banter. We cycled at the same pace, although they both lived on a bean-heavy diet and were the most flatulent people I have ever met, so riding behind either of them was to invite a face-full of gas whilst evenings were supplemented by the heavy fug and music of their farts.

We approached the Alaskan border post with trepidation – none of us had a US VISA, I was banking on the guard giving me another 90 day VISA waver, even though I knew this was technically against the rules. The Swizz tactic involved responding to every question the border guard asked with a broad, inane smile and the same bright announcement.

You realise you need a VISA?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
Yes I know, but you’ve stayed in the lower 48 for almost three months, is that right?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’
OK, fine, I got that. Tell me where you’re heading?
‘but vee are from Svitzerland!’

It worked a treat. Eventually the jaded guard stamped their passport, and mine to boot.

Chicken, a small town just across the border, allegedly got it’s name because some official couldn’t spell it’s actual name – ptarmigan, which is a variety of local bird, and so he just wrote Chicken. I’m not so sure. I think some crafty, longsighted entrepreneur saw the potential of the name change and now Chicken, which really has no right to anyone’s attention, has a steady stream of tourists who pose by the town’s signpost and buy bumper stickers and rubber chickens from the town’s souvenir shop. Every year the bustling metropolis of chicken, population 30, holds a music festival: Chickenstock.

Outside the pub in Chicken were dawdling men whose faces seemed to be hanging from their prodigious moustaches rather than being supported by their necks. They pierced cans of beer with knives and downed the contents in seconds. The road signs around here were peppered with bullet marks. There is an adjective to describe all this, and it’s ‘Alaskan’.

The road to Tok cut through a crepuscular light as smoke encroached from the nearby Moon Lake wild fire which had been sparked into action back in June after a lightning strike. There was an orange lip in the otherwise leaden sky and the air reeked – not of burnt wood, but of burning tundra. We got through just in time, two days later they closed the road. Wild fires are of course part of the natural cycle here and the fire fighting heroes of Alaska, the pilots who drop water and fire retardant and the hardcore Smoke Jumpers who parachute in front of fires with chainsaws to cut away the bush, only get called into action when the fire threatens people’s homes or areas of conservation. Otherwise Alaska is left to burn, and it burns a lot. 3000 square miles go up in flames every year, it often burns in a mosaic because of the underlying permafrost so great fingers of boreal forest are left unscorched, unless the wind changes and the fire can burn backwards, firing burning debris into the air which lands in some remote part of the forest and another fire takes hold.

The sun was blazing for my first few days in Alaska and I had to remind myself that winter here is a very different beast, the notion haunted me. I thought about the minus forty of a normal winter day, that the sun rises for only a couple of hours, that snow stays on the ground here for eight months of the year, and that below my wheels dig just a foot or so and the ground is frozen and will not defrost any time soon.

‘There is a kind of biotic riot in the summer outburst of colour, scent and sound… but always the season’s opposite haunts you: What about the winter? What must that be like?’ (David Roberts, Earth and the Great Weather, pub 1971).

Alaska was famously bought from Russia in 1869 at less than two cents an acre. A bargain if you like bog. Permafrost isn’t all that permeable so there are countless mosi-ridden pools brimming with decomposing vegetation, terrain known in these parts as the Muskeg. We cycled too across the flood plains of once epic rivers and I could only imagine the torrent flowing through them come spring. Now, in late summer, there was just a network of cement coloured streams trickling through. The Alaska range poked into view just briefly, ground squirrels scampered across the road and occasionally a moose loped onto the tarmac too forcing some emergency braking from our trio. We made it to Fairbanks where we spent the night in a campsite which was the type that featured, for free, a parade of wacked-out, bedraggled meth heads stumbling past our tents and making slurred, vague and mournful demands for alcohol and tobacco. Ahh, it was good to back in the good old US of A. Canada just doesn’t cut it in terms of desperate drug addicts.

In Fairbanks Ben, a great geezer, took me out for a film and food and then Duncan and his family put me up. Duncan had hosted several cyclists this year and had stories galore about my final stretch, the 750 km of road between Fairbanks and the Arctic Ocean, known as the Dalton highway, or more colloquially as The Haul Road. The Dalton is a supply route for the trans-Alaskan oil pipeline and oil fields of the north slope. The 800 mile pipeline runs adjacent to the road, almost always in view, and was constructed in the 70s, at the time it was the largest privately funded construction project in the world. This road north was only open to the public in 1994. The au caurant and urbane of my readership might know it from series 3 and 4 of the reality TV show ‘Ice Road Truckers’ where the tagline for the season is “In the Dark Heart of Alaska, there’s a road where hell has frozen over”.

If readiness can be measured by the quantity of peanut M&Ms in a pannier, my God I was ready. I was 2.2 kg ready. There were no grocery stores until my last stop, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, so the Haul Road was an apt monikor as I would be lugging eight days of food and my bike was as heavy as it’s ever been. On my second night out of Fairbanks I set up camp by the road only to discover I had lost my spoon, my only bit of cutlery. I’m experienced though, I thought. I’m adaptable. I’ve cycled from Argentina, I’ll improvise. After a spanner, a piece of wood and the lid of a water bottle I was left thinking two things – spoons are amazingly underrated contraptions, and sweet Jesus, I’m hungry.

Now I’m not entirely sure ‘trough’ is actually a verb but when I say I ‘troughed’ my plate of steaming pasta and tomato sauce, I’m sure you get my drift. And as my jaw grinded away, lips sucking up tentacles of spaghetti, sauce oozing down my hairy chin whilst I emitted a sound analogous to a walrus having an orgasm, memories danced through my mind of the journey north from Argentina, the literal one and the personal one too. And with my beard steeped in tomato juice and an indiscernible chunk of vegetable lodged in my right nostril, I thought ‘Wow. Look at how far I’ve come’.

Day three on the Haul Road began with the sound of rain drilling onto my tent and the words of Paul and Duncan echoing through my mind. ‘It’s not so bad‘ they told me ‘unless it rains‘. The unpaved parts of the road are coated with calcium carbonate for the benefit of the truckers but the bane of cyclists. When it rains the surface transforms into a brown goo, the consistency of toothpaste, which sticks to everything. That day was a mud bath as the road continued to get churned up by the downpour. I camped by a river and lugged my bike down to the bank, submerged it and scrubbed her clean, the next day was dry and I grew optimistic that the worst was over, the worst of course, was still to come.

Some drivers think they can scold cyclists as an adult scolds a child. In Fairbanks someone yelled ‘Hey buddy, get off the road, thems for cars’. It was kind of the occupant to share their opinion, and to take time out of their busy schedule of shooting road signs, scratching their balls and incest. Mostly though I get waves and a thumbs up but occasionally when a motorist has to slow down because there’s not enough room to pass and a car is coming the other direction, they get touchy. I won’t ride in the gutter and it’s better that I test their patience than they test my mortality.

‘Hey!‘ yelled the RV driver who had to slow down on the Dalton ‘You should wear something luminous, I could hardly see ya!’ What he meant of course was ‘goddam you for making me slow down!‘. I’m not sure though what was more stupefying about his complaint – the fact that I have a luminous yellow dry bag on the back of my bike, the fact that there were three more hours until sunset or the fact that he was wearing the most enormous eighties-style jet black sunglasses I have ever seen. So I gently reminded him that if he took them off, maybe he wouldn’t get locked up for manslaughter.

I arrived finally to the Arctic Circle to get my obligatory shot by the signpost. The Arctic Circle is the southernmost latitude in the Northern Hemisphere at which the sun can remain continuously above or below the horizon for 24 hours. A tribe of tourists shambled past me with a tour guide who was pointing out notable arctic vegetation whilst giving a nature documentary-like narration, but the camera lenses of the crowd became focused on me instead of the flora. I half expected the tour guide to continue…

‘And here we have a cycle tourist. It’s a solitary male, you can tell from the brown crust of peanut butter in the facial hair. They migrate to Alaska in the summer and are scavengers by nature and will eat vast quantities of anything available, often picking up morcels from the ground, sniffing them, shrugging and devouring the find. This one’s been on the road a while, notice the veneer of filth, the wild stare and the pungent odor. We like to keep the cycle tourers wild, so try not to feed them. Look, there, he’s scratching his arse, we believe that’s a courtship ritual.’

A Shamrock Orb Weever
Parts of the highway have amusing names conceived of by the truckers that ply the road all year – Oil Spill Hill, The Beaver Slide, The Rollercoaster and my favourite – Oh Shit Corner, a place where every trucker has had an Oh Shit moment, one told me. ‘Your brakes go out here in the winter and you’re at the helm of an 18 wheel toboggan’. I rode next through the truck stop of Coldfoot (singular, the other presumably amputated) where I found myself surrounded by burly, bearded men crowding their plates with fried food. I have never been in the presence of so much denim and heart disease in my life.

I rode past Prospect Creek, site of the lowest ever recorded temperature in the US – minus 80°F. Then through forests of spindly black spruce which can grow over the permafrost until I arrived at the Farthest North Spruce Tree (advertised by way of a signpost and which some joker had once tried to cut down), after which there is only bare tundra, a place too cold for trees to survive in the winter. Until the last tree the road had been bounding through the hills but now came the major climb over the Atigun Pass, crossing the Brooks Range and The Continental Divide.

The Atigun was shrouded in cloud and visibility fell to thirty metres. The headwind was fierce and slowed me to a crawl. By the evening I topped the pass, which had just a light dusting of snow, whilst the slopes of the mountains were yellowing with the coming of autumn. I dropped then, only a little, to a river where I spotted a bicycle and a tent. Leonard was a Canadian biker heading south, I camped next to him. The following day he called over to me as I shivered in my four season sleeping bag – ‘Hey Steve, there’s three inches of snow, and it’s still coming down!’. I unzipped the tent expecting a wind up, ready to scoff, only to find we had been engulfed – it was a white-out.

Climbing the Atigun Pass

I admit it – I had wanted some snow, because I wanted an archetypal Alaskan ending and a suitable crescendo to my journey through the Americas. Be careful what you wish for. I dropped roughly the annual produce of a large Colombian coffee plantation into my mug in an effort to warm me up and motivate me to ride in the snow. Leonard more sensibly decided to hitch hike because he still had to clear the pass.

I set out into the bleak white murk. Snow fell all day and the white mountains, peppered with snow yesterday became completely coated and soon blended perfectly into the cloud. My gloves were hole-ridden and wet, my hands took the brunt of the chill. I stopped for food for just 15 minutes – it was a big mistake. For the next hour my blue hands ached with the cold. I put a jar of peanuts on my handlebars so I didn’t have to stop to eat. Soon the mud that had collected on my bike froze solid and my brake levers, gripshift and brake pads were immovable. It didn’t matter much anyway – my hands were too cold to operate the brakes or gears even if they did function.

I camped early to get out of the blizzard by a road workers camp. The next day the sun was blazing and the snow had begun to melt, my bike though was in bad shape. The mud had frozen to completely lock the chain, the brakes and even the wheels. I carried it over to the road workers who had a water jet to get the mud off.

The next night I camped with a cheery bunch of bow hunters who fed me the caribou they’d killed on the north slope. They told me of six grizzly bears just two miles from here, munching on blueberries down by the river. When I left the next day in the fog I scanned the gloom for bear-shaped shadows but saw none. Then I remembered there were ten bow hunters out here scouring the tundra for caribou, with my bike I was about the right size and I hoped they didn’t mistake me for one of the herd. I wondered if I would end up on the ground, impaled, looking up at a circle of gruff, appraising faces whilst someone muttered ‘well, bit of gristle, but he’ll have to do’. Perhaps my head would end up above someone’s fireplace.

As I cycled over the north slope which was a vast, even expanse of tussocks and pools, up sprang my old compadre – the Shadow Cyclist. 21 months ago in the southern Argentinean city of Ushuaia I watched the same shadow cyclist, sinewy and sinister, stretched out to my right into the wind-blasted Patagonian scrub. As I rode north through the Americas the setting sun to my left would bring to life the Shadow Cyclist and he traveled with me. As my shadow glided over the tundra my mind was a whirlpool of memories, full of the weird places I’d been and the people that coloured them. In the distance the dark blots of roaming muskox could be seen on the plains, and up above snow geese honked as they flew in their malformed Vs and Ws, heading to warmer climes, as I continued to the top of the continent.

The Trans-Alaskan Pipeline
Bow Hunters
A Muskox making sure I didn’t come too close
Finally there it was – the town of Deadhorse – my last stop. I arrived with my eyes and face red from the wind, my hair knotted, bike mud-encrusted with a rattling chain and tinkling broken spoke and bare front tyre. I have never been as hairy or as dirty in my adult life. The oil companies, principally BP, don’t let anyone ride the three miles to the Arctic Ocean, which seemed a little unfair considering I’d cycled 22,000 miles from the Southern Ocean, but I guess they are too busy taking baths of money and dowsing sea birds in crude oil than caring about meager cyclists. Still though I admit feeling a tingle of pride that comes at each pivotal moment and each major milestone I get to. But temper that ego, I told myself, because two weeks before I cycled the Haul Road a couple of bikers were here too. They are both almost completely blind and had ridden a tandem 20,000 miles from Argentina. Now that’s impressive. My favourite part of their story is that they they had to paint their bike white, because every so often they would lose it.

Deadhorse – it’s assumed the eponymous horse died of the cold, I wouldn’t rule out boredom. Maybe it was a suicide, the horse might have flung itself headfirst into the Arctic Ocean after a week or so here. Deadhorse is a modern day, real life Mordor, and it didn’t feel like a place to celebrate. It’s the kind of place that might hold the International Agarophobia Society’s annual conference. Or it’s a place to send recurrent sex offenders. Its full of oil workers, metal freight containers, cranes, warehouses and machinery and nothing else. If there was a cemetery or a penal colony here it would actually add character. Of course none of that stops one of the town’s two hotels selling ‘I’ve been to Deadhorse’ T-Shirts. The best thing you can say about Deadhorse is that it is what it is, and what it is is a place for industry, not for travelers. There was no bar, Deadhorse is dry, which is just as well because if there was the residents would no doubt drink themselves nightly into a state of prelapsarian bliss in an attempt to forget about where they were. It was, in short, a massive anti-climax. At the end of Africa was the hubbub of Capetown and the glorious towering symbol of Table Mountain, here there was gloom, mud, bogs and ambient despair. There were no dancing girls to welcome me in and put a wreath around my neck, instead an oil worker came over to me –
‘You cycled up from Argentina then?’
‘Why you wanna do that?’

For two days I sat in the Aurora Hotel where everyone assumed I was a guest or an oil worker and plundered the buffet without ever opening my wallet. I stole so much food, presumably paid for in some round about way by the oil companies – so I felt no guilt, that I could hardly move. It was Grand Theft Edible. That night I sneaked inside a deserted warehouse that was sinking into the permafrost. In the back room was some floor space not covered by the glass and assorted junk over the rest of it, and I made it my home.

Courtesy of British Petroleum, unwitting sponsors of Cycling The Six
I hitch hiked back to Fairbanks after two days in Deadhorse with Ed, every inch the stereotype – a chain-smoking trucker with a paunch and handlebar moustache. He saw me shivering in the snow and didn’t think twice about giving me a ride. As the last week of my life flashed by in hours as Ed drove back the way I had cycled, we came across another truck which had broken down so we stopped to help and Ed performed his second rescue. ‘That’s what we do out here on the Haul Road’ said Ed. ‘We help each other out.’ Alaskans have proved every bit as generous and hospitable as I’d heard they are, though having said that I will never fully understand a group of people who collectively, and one must assume wittingly and without duress, voted Sarah Palin into office.

So what’s next – well my plans have been in flux of late but suffice to say things are looking peachy and there will be some important and very exciting updates coming soon. I will spend September here in Alaska where I will be speaking at the Alaska World Affair’s Council in Anchorage (20th Sep) and in Juneau (18th). In October I will fly to Australia, continent number five – a full plan coming soon. Expect a long overdue equipment review on this blog and some statistics about my ride through the Americas.

Thank yous – Huge thank yous to Duncan and family, Ben, Ed the trucker, the hunters from Minnesota, everyone who fed me on the Top of the World Highway, and anyone I’ve left out.

I’m commencing a 60 day crowd-funding campaign in September which will enable me to finish this journey – I will post on this blog in the coming weeks – please have a read, and if I can convince you to help me realise my dream of riding the length of six continents then make a donation, otherwise this blog will be put to bed, and my Mum for one will be disappointed. You can’t donate yet but I’ll post the link on here when you can. This video doesn’t really explain why you should, but it’s quite amusing…