What a year! – Botswana

What a year!
Botswana


Many thanks to the Guardian for their support and to all of you who have helped get me through this first epic year….

A year ago today I was at home in Yorkshire toying nervously with my
breakfast, a neat packed lunch made by Dad (“to see you on your way”) beside
me, with the awful realisation slowly dawning on me that this time I really
had bitten off more than I could chew. Today I am in Botswana, sitting in
the shade of a tree, mop-haired, barefoot and tearing hungrily at a papaya,
the juices pouring down my face and onto my filthy, torn shirt and trousers.
And in between? I cycled. 11,000 miles and 24 countries lie between now and
then.

Newly graduated from university, I set off to cycle solo around the world to
raise funds for Hope and Homes for Children: a three-year project that
involves cycling the length of the planet’s three major landmasses, crossing
five continents and more than 50 countries. While my friends were being paid
vast salaries at glamorous-sounding London companies, I turned away from the
conventional life – and from my girlfriend. Many times over this last year I
have wondered: what have I done?

It has been a tough year. Day after day of cycling, in which I have seen and
learned more than I imagined possible, faced more challenges than I dreamed
of, and cried more than most babies. I’ve cycled across deserts and mountain
ranges and up the length of the world’s longest river. I’ve slept in
five-star hotels, Bedouin tents, road workers camps, Maasai villages and a
sewage pipe, not to mention countless nights in my tent beneath the stars,
watching the constellations slowly change as I cycled into the southern
hemisphere.

The cycling itself has been a blend of fatigue, boredom and disgruntlement:
slogging across hundreds of dull kilometres, interspersed with occasional
lactic acid spasms of painful misery on the hard stretches, such as the
climbs up from the Dead Sea or the Blue Nile gorge in Ethiopia. The bike is
pretty irritating too: naturally I have had vast numbers of punctures along
the way. I have also gone through four sets of tyres, three wheels and two
bicycles (I snapped one in the desert in Sudan). My back wheel, now in the
process of falling apart, is egg-shaped, making for rather uncomfortable
cycling – plus I can now only change gear by manually moving the chain with
a toothbrush (not, incidentally, the same one I use on my teeth).

Being on my own in crazy, obscure places has led to memorable meetings and
adventures, but it also viciously intensifies feelings of loneliness,
boredom or fear: there is no one around to tell me to stop being ridiculous.
The downward spirals are hard to brake, but I have only twice come close to
quitting. The first time was during two days I spent in tears in Damascus,
too close to home to let go, but with too far still to go for me even to
contemplate returning. The second was when I was sitting, exhausted,
bedraggled and ill (and once again in tears), on a dirt track in Ethiopia,
surrounded by a crowd of obnoxious, begging, jeering youths. Fuck this, I
thought. But I didn’t. I kept riding. I knew that if I quit, I would be
disappointed with myself for ever.

My encounters with people have been fascinating. During the aftermath of
September 11 I was in eastern Europe, torn between an ingrained mistrust of
the east together with a newer displeasure at their treatment by the west:
the destruction from British and American bombing campaigns was still very
much apparent in Yugoslavia. In the Middle East I needed to be a diplomat as
well as a pedal pusher. “Who do you support, Bush or Bin Laden?” was a
regular opening to conversations. The Middle East was bereft of visitors,
with the western world fearing for its safety in Islamic countries, yet I
have never felt safer or been better looked after than during my months
there.

The Sudan was a different kind of challenge: 45�C heat and weeks of
hauling 60kg of bike, food and water through deep desert sand. Yet it was
easy compared to my time in Ethiopia where I was hit by the ugly fallout
from the outpourings of western guilt which manifested itself in the form of
cash handouts during the famines of the 1980s. This beautiful, fascinating
country has captivated, upset and confused me like no other on the journey.
Continual pushy demands for money, a horde of 200 people staring and
laughing at me as I rested in villages, crowds of brats chasing me out of
villages, shouting and trying to pull bread from my panniers, hurling stones
at me when I did not hand over my money. Ethiopia has left me extremely
confused about how Africa can best be helped.

Riding through Zimbabwe during Mugabe’s sinister land ‘redistribution’
programme, I met and enjoyed the company of many white farmers. Their
consensus seemed to be that the land should indeed be redistributed among
the people, but not via a process of kicking families out of their homes to
make room for the president’s cronies. It was tremendously sad to ride
through this beautiful African success story, knowing that the country’s
days are numbered as it slides deeper into chaos, corruption and total
collapse.

The size of my post-cycling appetite is staggering, yet I have still managed
to come through 2002 on a daily budget of just $1 per day. My equipment
sponsors have been extremely supportive, although unless I can find a
financial sponsor I must resign myself to another two years’ subsistence on
a diet of banana sandwiches if I am to succeed in cycling around the world.

Looking at my map of Africa is something I enjoy very much these days. So
much is now behind me, and Cape Town feels to be just over the horizon. From
Cape Town I hope to hitch a ride on a sailing boat to South America from
where I will begin all over again, heading north towards Alaska. But for now
I just have my sights set on Cape Town and the end of Africa. After a year
on the road I feel that at last I am at the beginning of the end of the
beginning.

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