Questions from a Bike Ride (15 November 2002)
Cape Town, South Africa
Everyone I meet asks me the same questions. So here are a few reflections from deep amongst the empty tea cups, toast crumbs and general air of lethargic joy that surround me at the moment…
“It was bad but it was real”
I had sold the idea to myself so well. The whole package seemed perfect so I grabbed at it and refused to let go. Despite a fantastic group of friends, a flattering job offer, a comfy seat on the gentle conveyor belt of conformity and a girlfriend who, by most accounts, was way out of my league I decided that this was an opportunity I could not ignore.
Cycling around the world seemed ideal for me as it would allow me to escape from the looming threat of a normal job. The prospect of decades in an unloved job was always enough to work me into a sweat-beaded lather of frustration and terror. I just couldn’t see the sense in plodding all week towards the lone bright light of a Friday night out on a gloomy town. It has taken me time to appreciate that everyone has different dreams and goals and that to venture to judge your own way superior to another’s is both arrogant and plain wrong. But I needed to leave England and this seemed the perfect way to do it.
My head was full of luminous visions of Himalayan peaks, Alaskan forests, coconut palms and cheesy sunsets. Every day would be an adventure. Everybody I met would greet me, smiling. Smiling, I would wave back and so would begin wonderful cultural interactions and learning opportunities not available to me queuing for the bus back home. I would be utterly free, with time to potter around the globe living a life of adventure, fun and just enough challenges to keep me high on my patronising pedestal. For years I have wanted to be a travel writer. This would be the perfect apprenticeship for me. If I was unable to write a good book after cycling around the world then I would never be able to do it. In short, the benefits and end products of cycling around the world were so appealing that I couldn’t wait to get out on the road.
The reality, as anyone who has been following my progress will know, has been rather different. Once on the bike I realised in a wave of terror the grim hopelessness of what I had got myself into. It was too big, too hard. I was too alone. I could never make it. But I could never quit either. I was trapped. The smiling citizens of the world didn’t seem to notice me as I rode through their lives. Most were not even smiling. On my first day one smiling citizen called me a w@*#$r! If I had known before I left all that I know now there is no way that I would have had the guts to start. Looking back I cannot believe that I managed to keep pushing on. But much has already been written on this site about those times. Suffice to say that it didn’t take me long to realise that I wasn’t quite as tough as I had liked to imagine!
Echoing the sentiments of one of the most irritating songs of all time, I have had a few regrets, but too few to dwell on. Do I regret what I’ve done? No. I will never regret the experiences I have had so far. I will regret it though if I throw it all away too lightly. I regret how long it took me to let go of my past life and to start looking forwards once more. I regret the lack of media and fundraising impact that my journey has had thus far and I will be working hard to improve that. I regret that I don’t always live for today and find myself wishing away my life (“I can’t wait to reach Cape Town” etc.). I never regret spending too long in a place but occasionally regret rushing on. But I often think that there is not too much to regret when you have the freedom of every single sunset and dawn, to ride a cool road at sunrise when nobody on the whole planet knows where you are.
Ironically, leaving my past life has made me truly appreciate it (wasn’t it the lyrical genius of Janet Jackson who crooned “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”?). I was lucky – I found friends with amazing lust for life and attitudes that have taught me so much. I can look back and really appreciate the people in my life now. Absurd adventures, challenges and so much fun. I look forward to resuming it one day.
Being alone has given me so much time, too much perhaps, to reflect on these things. Doing this alone was, I still believe, the right decision. It’s stress free, it adds to the challenges and leaves you with no excuses if you fail. It opens many doors. But it is tough, it is more dangerous and there is nobody to pick you up when you’re down and struggling to keep life in perspective.
The question that everyone, without exception, asks is the biggest question of all: “WHY are you doing this?!” Here are a few thoughts…
I didn’t know if I could succeed at this (still don’t) and that holds quite an appeal. You never know unless you try. Why not do it? Ffyona Campbell [walked round the world. (And yes, she cheated, but I can't bear how many people criticise her. None of us come close to being able to understand her guts and effort)] wrote “I don’t know if I can do this. Then again I don’t know that I can’t”. A friend of mine says that I am banging my head against a brick wall purely for the pleasure of stopping.
George Mallory [perhaps the first man to climb Everest] did it “because it’s there”. Robert Swann’s [polar expeditions] motivation was that “it’s a good way to impress girls at parties”. (In my experience the effort to reward ratio of that theory is horribly unappealing!) Ranulph Fiennes [my inspiration] claims it is just a “way of paying the bills.” These are not answers, they are evasions.
Here’s what Lance Armstrong [cancer survivor and four-time winner of the Tour de France] has to say: “I had learned what it means to ride the Tour de France. It’s not about the bike. It’s a metaphor for life, not only the longest race in the World but also the most exalting and heartbreaking and potentially tragic. It poses every conceivable element to the rider, and more… unspeakably bad luck, unthinkable beauty, yawning senselessness and above all a great, deep self-questioning. During our lives we’re faced with so many different elements as well, we experience so many setbacks and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope. The Tour is not just a bike race, not at all. It is a test. It tests you physically, it tests you mentally and it even tests you morally.”
TE Lawrence [of Arabia] wrote that “all men dream but not equally… the dreamers of the day are dangerous men for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible”. I am chasing a dream. I want to ‘go always a little farther’. Wally Herbert [Arctic explorer] is quoted as saying “and what of those who ask [why]? It is as well for them that there are others who feel the answer and never need to ask”. In a BBC documentary an emotional Ellen MacArthur [RTW yachtswoman] spoke of “…realising a dream …best experience of life …pushed harder than ever …more despair than ever …no-one else will understand …parts of me I never knew existed …Things that will stay with me forever …very special feeling”. Oh, to find a wife like her!
Am I glad I’ve ridden through Africa? Yes. Would I do it again? No. There is a theory that giving 100% of yourself to something is dangerous because if you fail you have no excuse save your own inadequacy. Being alone and giving 100% means that whether I succeed or fail depends solely on me – there can be no excuses or safety nets. I’ll probably be dead within 60 years and that terrifies me: there is so much to do in so little time. I fear having regrets.
It seems that the answer to the question ‘why’ is intangible; it’s just a feeling of something that you have to do. One of my favourite activities (or inactivities) in life is to slob on a sofa, feet up and watching football on the telly. But it always feels like such a terrifying waste of precious minutes. Perhaps then my reason for why I am doing all this is that I’m just trying to earn the right to sit on my sofa!
There are lots of other questions that I get asked all the time. Here’s a few quick answers:
Greenday “Time of your Life” (“another turning point, a fork stuck in the road… there’s something unpredictable but in the end it’s right, I hope you had the time of your life”).
Lance Armstrong “It’s not about the bike: my journey back to life”. Quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. Even if you have zero interest in Lance, cycling or the Tour de France, you must read this book.
Ben Okri “To an English Friend in Africa”.
The breaking of the day’s fast during the Islamic month of Ramadan meant spectacular iftar feasts in Syria and Jordan. Or my final mini-Xmas pud in a rainstorm in Ethiopia in April.
Boiled mice on sticks (Malawi). I am ashamed to say that I wimped out of eating these!
Christmas morning at Dana in Jordan or the top of Kloofnek Road, Cape Town – absolutely the last hill in Africa!
A tough call! Jordan, Sudan, Lesotho, South Africa…
LEAST FAVOURITE COUNTRY?
I loved Ethiopia, but it was tough.
MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS?
Beirut. (Sorry, Cape Town! Blame the residents of 42 Orient Road…)
Watching Macbeth in Beirut, Lebanon.
Being told on a phone in Tanzania that I was shortly going to be beaten and robbed.
Sewage pipe in Turkey, Masai kraal in Tanzania or perhaps even the sumptuous Sheraton on the Red Sea.
From Fight Club: “If you were to die right now, how would you feel about your life”.
(Please do send me some good, cheesy, inspirational quotes for future use!)
I will be in Cape Town until around New Year, fundraising for HHC (please click to see how you can help), giving talks at schools, after-dinners etc, searching for some media support, trying to find sponsorship for the next stage (equipment, clothing, PDA, cash, media support) and looking to find a berth on the Cape to Rio yacht race. Oh, and having some fun too! I need to get my mojo back…
I will be stuck on a very small boat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for about three weeks. What books must I take with me to pass the time between bouts of vomiting and shark wrestling?
A thank you:
Thanks to everyone who has helped me so far in Cape Town, especially Adam Alexander who has been (and still is being) a star, Mike West for politely getting as awful a golf score as me and so making me feel better and Andrew Laing who worries because he is not mentioned anywhere on the Internet (though I may venture that that should not be your greatest worry, Laingers!). So, Andrew Laing will be delighted that the world can now read of his fabulous cooking skills (‘fish finger surprise’ et al). He may not be so delighted that the entire world now also knows about the incident involving him and the note with his phone number on and the schoolgirl…
A final request:
If there are actually any girls in Cape Town, please do get in touch with the boys of 42 Orient Road: they are devoid of female friends…