In my head I do not think I ever really pictured the finish line. When imagining the end of my three year bike trip, I always imagined the parties, the catch-up drinks & the stories of where I had been and what I had missed. But in reality the most emotional moment is when I crossed the finish line in Reading, Pennsylvania. Crossing the finish line marks the end of my cycling, a line drawn in the sand which makes the present the past and the moment when I went from being someone who was cycling around the world to someone who just had.
My finish line was the town of Reading, PA, a small former industrial town, which is now going through some hard times. As I approached Reading and told people that this was my end goal they would ask me why? There is nothing there they said. But to me it was the imagined american version of my Reading. In my head it represented the people and the place in which I loved, a town which in many people said there is nothing there, a former industrial town, but scratch just below the surface and you will find something beautiful.There is a beautiful river running through it, two iconic bars, hardworking and honest people who are looking to share and smile. In fact there is not too much difference between the two Readings and looking back it made the perfect place to finish the trip.
As I cycled north from across the states of Virginia and Pennsylvania I would often smile as I got ever closer to the finish line. I was excited to finish and I looked forward to whatever was next. I received lots of messages of support not least from my parents who wanted to know where the precise finish line was. In my mind I was going to finish at a large ‘Welcome to Reading’ sign but it seemed there was not an official marker in the center of town so I decided to pick the landmark of the Reading pagoda. The Reading pagoda is a japanese style pagoda built in 1908 which overlooks the town from its perch 200m above the town and is the most famous landmark. The perfect place to finish.
My final campsite saw me camp on a small high next to the road approaching Reading, and even though it was mid april it snowed! Bicycle life was never meant to be easy! I made a tasty dinner of pasta and vegetables washed down with a cold beer and some biscuits and slept soundly knowing tomorrow would bring be to the end of the round the world bike trip. That morning I packed up slowly, ate my oatmeal, and cycled north the final 30 miles. About 5 miles into my final ride, my tyre on the front wheel blew a hole in the sidewall and with no spares I pushed some spare rubber into the hole and hoped it would hold. Bikey was really starting to feel the strain of my bodge style mechanics over the years and I am often surprised how strong the bicycle really is.
Luckily my rubber boot healed for the final 25 miles although it did make for some perilous downhill riding! As I approached Reading, I was greeted with lots of signage to tell me I was getting closer and on arrival I found the city limits and took a big old photo. I had done it, now all was left was to cycle to the Pagoda.
As I neared the pagoda, I was flying and I climbed the 200m hill in about ten minutes, my legs strong, my mind stronger. As I crested the hill and the pagoda came into view I was greeted by the sights of two photographers and as I got closer I was greeted by the amazing sight of my mum and dad jumping up and down cheering me on as I approached. I was so happy to see them and they had surprised me at the finish line. I cycled straight up to them and gave them both big big hugs and it was the most emotional reunion and there is nothing better than to be greeted by your loved ones at the finish line of any adventure let alone one which goes around the world. Tears were flowing as we embraced and my parents said simply ‘you did it’ and I had. At lunch at the iconic ugly oyster bar my parents tentatively asked me if I wanted to cycle to the airport in New York and as I drunk my beer, I looked them both in the eyes and said ‘no’. I had cycled 46500km and did not need to cycle further, I was with my parents and I had had enough of being alone. Let's enjoy the rest of the USA together. And with that, i’ll have another beer!
Today is the 27th March 2018 and this marks the final four weeks to what has been the most amazing thing I have ever done. I guess time has been creeping up on me since I booked my flight home but as the final day looms ever closer; the reality of actually having cycled around the world is slowly starting to dawn upon me. I guess I just see myself in the moment as someone who is bumbling around on a bike, sleeping in the woods and eating banana sandwiches but as I think back to all the countries I have passed and all the people I have met it really has been one hell of a journey.
When I left England I was pretty sure I would make it that if I just cycled a little bit every day I would eventually propel myself around the world. I remember when Finola and I first arrived into France it was dark around 10pm when we disembarked off the ferry, we had no maps and we decided to camp in this little French park. I didn’t even know how to attach the fly sheet of the tent and broke my headlamp in frustration! We awoke to rain coming in the tent and a French security guard shouting at us “NON ALLER” We quickly packed up and found a cheap French hotel!! I have come a long way since those early days.
I am often asked what I am going to do when I finally get home and apart from drinking lots of beer with my closest family and friends I really have no clear plan. I guess it will be hard to settle at first, I am so used to seeing new things everyday and constantly being on the move that it will seem strange at first to being back in one place but I am looking forward to being part of a community. I have seen and experienced so much but always I am passing through, not being able to be part of wider community and this is something I am looking forward to. I also do not think I will be able to be part of the 9-5 lifestyle and will have to set myself on a new and exciting career path and I look forward to what this will bring.
When I left England three years ago one of the things I wanted to prove was that the World is really good place and I can confirm this is wholeheartedly true. I have received so much beautiful hospitality on the road, people who have opened their homes and hearts and for this I am truly thankful. I am just some bum on bike but people just keep on surprising me with gifts and hospitality, even as I write this today I met a older American couple at lunchtime who saw me riding and after a quick chat invited to the local pub for lunch. This hospitality has been received around the world, from Turkey to China to Columbia to the USA, with people wanting to share stories and show me their hometown. I look forward to paying all this back once I get back to Reading, and I am very excited to invite travellers into my home and show them all the highlights of Reading.
I know I have not updated this blog since I last had a crash but so much has happened. After the crash I wanted to leave social media and wanted to leave the website alone. I think I was low on confidence and I just wanted to get cycling. I have my mojo back now and I have cycled through Guatemala and Southern Mexico with Kenneth and Marie, I have crossed into the USA and been interrogated at the border, I got drunk on a boat in Texas, set fire to my own leg and have been meeting so many progressive minded people from the USA that the trump election really does seem to have come from a strong minded minority. I won’t write everything that has happened to me here as I am going to save those stories for the book…
All in all I am ready to finish this damn bike, am ready to return to England and ready to rest my legs from cycling over 46000 km, through 39 countries, 5 continents and across 1 world!!
Here's to the next adventure :)
Ahhhhhhhhhhhh SHIT! This is the last thing I remember after being hit from behind by a hit and run driver in El Salvador. Life did not flash before my eyes, I did not see any white lights, I just heard the screech of brakes behind me and as I turned to see the blue pick-up about to hit me all that registed in my brain was Ahhhhhhhhhh SHIT!
It was my second day in El Salvador and I was cycling towards the town of San Miguel. I had just finished my lunch which consisted of banana sandwiches and biscuits washed down with tap water (the diet of a budget cyclist) and I had rejoined the potholed highway to continue my way to the town when the accident happened. Unfortunately I have no memory from the incident, I do not remember if I flipped, flopped or fell to ground. I do not remember who called the police or what happened to me, I must have been hit pretty good as I was unconscious and just remember waking up on the side of the road, looking up at the standing policeman and just uttering the words “hospital” before he agreed and put me in the back of his police car and with sirens going drove me straight to the national hospital in San Miguel, ironically my destination for the day!
My injuries included one concussion, two holes in my forehead large enough to see down to my skull, two bashed up knees including a large hole in my left knee which is still healing one month after the incident. My left hand was all cut up, my calf muscles swelled along with my feet but luckily there were no broken bones and my brain/skull did not receive any major trauma even though stupidly I was not wearing my helmet. In the hospital I was quickly rushed to the x-ray room for brain and body scans before being whisked to surgery to sew up the two holes in my head and the one in my left knee. I needed 20 stiches in total. I was pretty drugged up on painkillers at this point but remember telling the surgeon just before he began that I didn’t have any insurance…to my relief he tells me “it’s ok, in El Salvador we have public health cover” and proceeded to inject general anesthetic into my head!
It was the next day when everything started to hit me, here I was in a hospital in El Salvador, and I had been hit, and hit hard enough to put me in hospital. I was also alone, I didn’t speak much Spanish and nobody knew I was here. I think I cried three times that day. I was to spend 8 days in hospital and hospital life became a sort of prison. I was woken at 5:30am for checks, before breakfast came at 9am. Lunch arrived at midday and dinner at 4pm. Painkiller drugs came sporadically throughout the day along with new hospital clothes and replacement bandages. I was not allowed outside and there was nothing to do. All my belongings were left at the site of the crash so I didn’t have anything including any way to contact my family in England. I kind of just sat there, drifting in and out of sleep, but overall I knew I was lucky to be this bored. In my room there was a guy who had been in a motorbike crash and he had sustained really bad spine damage, a guy who had also had a bicycle crash and was in a neck and head brace to stop him moving around and also a guy who had his fingers cut off with a machete after getting into a drunken new year eve fight!
After about five days one of the doctors let me use his phone to call my parents back in England, and it was great to see friendly faces although I knew they would be upset and worried. It was really good to speak to them and following the phone call I knew I had a decision to make, do I fly home to continue my recuperation or do I continue cycling. At this stage I wanted to come home, I was bored and lonely, I could hardly walk let alone cycle and I didn’t know the state of my bike or belongings. I was released from hospital after 8 days and checked into a local hotel to continue getting better there, which was a great relief as I was able to use the wifi, watch television and eat dinner at a more decent time. I was slowly getting better and it was with all the support of my family and friends back home. I was so touched to read the outpouring of support of everybody, and a massive thank you to everybody who got in touch, who called, who sent me money, and in the case of Kenneth and Marie who took a pause from their own bike trip to get a bus across the country to visit me. It was truly touching and meant so much at a time when I needed it. Thank you everybody. The support from and my quickly healing body meant that I knew I was to continue this damn bike ride, I had gotten so far and would not let one fucking stupid driver stop me!!!!!
I am now writing this post from Mexico, where I am again cycling with Kenneth and Marie. I cycled solo across the rest of El Salvador before joining my Danish friends in Guatemala. I have a new bike (the old one took most of the damage and was snapped and bent in the frame, rack and wheels) and after slowly building up my confidence I am back to full steam again, a be it this time wearing my helmet everyday! I thank my luck stars that I was not more seriously hurt and it is now only 5000km to the finish line of Reading, USA!! BRING IT ON!
Riding my bicycle around the world there are so many world heritage sites and natural attractions that it would be impossible both logistically and financially to visit each and every one but every now and again I am shown a picture a picture of something which blows me away. This is the case of the rainbow mountain in Peru. The minute I saw a picture of a mountain striped with the colours of the rainbow I knew I had to visit this. I had never seen anything like it and knew I never would again.
Tours run from Cusco and cost about $100 but for me and my bicycle I was able to cycle up to the start of hike and then just pay the $2 entry fee to hike to the top and back. To be able to visit the mountain outside of the mass tourism was also an amazing opportunity since I was able to stand on top of the mountain and take in all the views without hordes of people queuing up with their selfie sticks! I was also lucky enough to be joined by Morgane and Greg two cyclists from France and it was great to share the experience with them and also laugh and joke on the long uphill to the start of the hike.
We were kindly hosted by Jamie, a keen cyclist in the town of Chechacupe which sits at the base of the climb and he also permitted us to leave some of our heavier gear at his house whilst we went exploring for two days. This made the climbs so much easier and his hospitality both before and after visiting the mountain will not be forgotten. The first day the cycling was beautiful as pavement gave way to a well maintained off road track which ran alongside a fast flowing little river and we all made steady progress uphill. The highlight of the day was when we decided to camp in little village at around 4000m elevation. We were told we could camp on the school field and when we arrived a football game was in full flow so me and Greg asked to play. Playing football at 4000m is a tough task and after about 10 minutes both Greg and I were in goal, too tired to run with the lack of oxygen at this elevation. It was fun to play and some of the kids were really good, much better than us and we went to bed exhausted ready to hike to the top of the mountain the following day.
The hike begins at 4600m and there are a few little stalls selling snacks and drinks should you require them. We arrived at around 2pm which I think is the perfect time as all the tourists are then leaving to join their buses back to Cusco so you have the hike and the views all to yourself. The hike itself is steady with the last 100m being quite windy and steep as you climb to 5200! When you reach the top the views are amazing and it is simply mind blowing to take it all in. The colours, the peaks and valleys of the Ausengate mountain range all around you! We all were smiling huge smiles as together we jumped around and took photos to celebrate this amazing place.
There are some things which have taken my breath away on this trip and the Rainbow Mountain is one of many and a must see if you are passing this in Peru.
I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by the great adventure pursuits website Limitless Pursuits. Read the full article by following the link here:
TIM MILLIKIN had an epiphany when he was travelling in Australia. He was inspired to cycle home from the country but his idea was halted by his girlfriend who thought he was mad!
However, on his return to England he couldn’t shake off this idea to explore the world by bike and soon set himself the challenge to cycle from Reading in the UK to Reading in the US, cycling through as many countries as possible along the way. You can follow his journey and read his blogs at www.reading2reading.com.
Here Tim takes time out from his daily ride to talk to us about his travels so far and some of the interesting people he’s met along the way. Read on to find out about the toughest moments he’s faced as well as the highlights of his truly mesmerising journey.
Where did the idea to cycle around the world come from and who has joined you on the challenge?
The idea first came to me when I was living in Australia. I was sitting on a twelve-hour bus and looking out the window realising I was missing everything. I was just driving pasta ll these little towns and countryside.
I decided to make a plan to cycle home from Australia but my girlfriend at the time, Finola thought I’d gone mad! She thought the idea was crazy so we both flew back to England but the idea never left me.
At the beginning of the trip it was just Finola and I but you quickly meet other people and it is great cycling in little groups. In Turkey and Georgia there were five of us, in Kazakhstan four, and once in Peru we were even an eight for a very short amount of time!
At the moment though I am cycling solo with Finola going home in New Zealand but I hope to meet up with some friends towards the Peru/Ecuador border and cycling in a little gang again!
Where are you currently and how much further do you have to ride?
I am currently in the mountain town of Huanaco in Central Peru heading towards the beautiful Cordillera Blanca mountain range. The other day I passed the 35,000km marker on my bike! My route from here will take me north to Ecuador then Columbia before Central America, Mexico and finally across the USA. I think there are about 10,000km left to cycle and aim to be in Reading, Pennslyvania sometime in May 2018!
What have been some of the highlights so far?
There have been so many. I just recently returned from cycling sidetrip around the Jungle region of Peru from Satipo to Pullcalpa. It was beautiful with fantastic weather and food but with old jungle trails running alongside fast flowing rivers. I was able to camp with native Ashinaka tribes and play football with the kids in the villages. After cycling over mountains for the previous two months it was a beautiful change.
My favourite countries to ride in so far have been Krgzstan, Georgia, Romania, Mayalasia and Peru. Each one has been beautiful in its own way and on a bicycle you really get a sense of the country and its people. You are slow enough to interact with the communities and environments but fast enough to make some distance if you want to. It is the interactions which make this trip so special, I have been taken inside peoples homes and shared food all over the world even when we cannot speak each others language. The world is a really good place!
What have been some of the toughest moments you’ve endured during the challenge?
The toughest moments for me come the extremes in temperatures and loneliness. I remember in Krgzstan the weather was -15 degrees at night and we had to sleep with all of our clothes on inside our sleeping bags to stop ourselves from freezing. Our feet and hands would constantly be so cold that to stop was too painful but the surroundings were so beautiful it was worth the pain.
Likewise in Australia the weather was +40 and there was 150km between water stops, I was cycling alone around Kakudu national park and ran out of water, since the water location on my map was incorrect. I was scared but got up super early before the sun and cycled in the coolness of dawn to ensure I could get some. You have to be really careful when your on you’re own as you are totally responsible for your own health and safety.
The other tough moments are inside my head as when cycling alone it can get quite lonely at times and you need to keep yourself motivated with good food and positivity otherwise you can go quite mad! I remember in the Australian outback with long distances and no one around I was constantly singing to myself to keep myself sane but it would have been much more fun to cycle with other people.
If you find yourself getting down it can be quite difficult to get out of so it is important to keep your spirits up, food is a big saviour as is good music on your iPod. I like to listen to Def Leppard and Black Sabbath when I feel myself waning!
Luckily cycle touring is growing in popularity so quickly that it is never too long before you seen another cyclist no matter where in the world you are.
Who are you raising money for and how can our readers get behind you and back the cause?
I am raising money alongside the trip for two charities. Royal Berkshire Hospital in Reading, England is the local charity and SOS Childrens Villages is the international one. I am accepting any charitable donations to either alongside the length of my cycle and to donate please go to www.reading2reading.com/charities.html.
Tell us about what we can expect from your blog and website?
My blog is my storytelling page where I write about once a month to show where I have been and what I have been doing. I try to keep it light, more about how I feel than writing a how to or guide about certain places. You are able to go there check out my latest photos, read past and present blogs, and make contact using the contact me tabs. The other day I actually met a fellow cyclist who recognised me from my blog! That was really cool!
Do you have any other challenges planned for the near future?
I have many I would like to do. I would like to cycle from East London, UK to East London in Africa. I would also like to go one a few sea kayak expeditions as that has always been a big passion of mine but is something I have not been able to do for many years. Something like sea kayak around England or from Scotland to Norway.
First thing first is to return home to Reading, England around May time and say a big hello to all my friends and family! I don’t think my mum will let leave again so we will see…
My first impression of Bolivia was mainly seen from the inside of my tent as I recovered from my sickness. I had heard that South-West Bolivia is a baron and remote place with very few towns and lots of grand open spaces with towering mountains above you but it was not until I was fully recovered that I could really grasp the scale of the this beautiful country. Fully recovered my aim was to cycle to the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat on earth so with re-newed energy and belly empty of any fluid I pedaled north east looking for the salt flats. Unfortunately there is not much of a road system in this part of Bolivia so the path I was followed was actually leading me in the wrong direction and over one of the large mountains! It seemed that I should have taken a left half an hour ago, and headed across a large and empty salt flat! You really need to check your compass/gps all the time to ensure you do not go the wrong way.
Two days later I reached the salt flats with a huge smile on my face. The Salar De Uyuni is completely flat, spans a massive 10,000Km square and was once a massive salt lake which has since dried under the oppressive Bolivian sun. The resulting salt flat creates a beautiful moonlike surface with the salt dried into hexagonal shapes everywhere you look. The only things you can see are small islands which dot the horizon and you simply aim your bike in the direction of the island you wish to visit and cycle. You can simply go in any direction you like as there are no roads. My direction saw me headed north to Isle Incahuasi and then east to the town of Uyuni over two days.
I loved cycling the Salar, openness of the landscape and the lack of people meant for two things. Lots of singing and naked cycling!! Naked cycling on the salar is a cyclist tradition shows just how remote the landscape is. I would never contemplate doing this anywhere else but was great fun and I cycled for about half an hour before putting my clothes back on as I didn’t want to burn anywhere which was not used to sun exposure!
I took two days off in Uyuni to relax and to clean the bike. The town of Uyuni is very small and really just centers as a tourist spot for tours of the salar and other regions of South-West Bolivia. It is important to clean the bike after the salar as the salt can corrode the steel frame so I stayed at Hotel Avenida for two days which offers a single room for just $5 with good wifi and hot showers the perfect place to relax.
From Uyuni my next stop was to ride to Potosi and then to Sucre. I did not know much about this road and found very little written about it but to my most welcome surprise it was the most beautiful road in Bolivia. The road goes up across the most beautiful mountains with massive high passes of over 4300m before dropping back down to 3500m where you are greeted by sweeping valleys with cactus plants waving at you as you pass. I highly recommend this route rather than the more boring northern highway which takes you straight to Oruro. Leaving Uyuni you start climbing straight away to 4000m and it is a slow and steady climb with views of the town and the salt flats if you look behind you. Then you cycle up and down past the old mining town of Pulacayo towards TicaTica and Potosi. There are plenty of wild camping places along this route especially in the valley of the cactus and food and water are found in each small town so you do not have to take too many supplies with you. Potosi is located at 4100m and is famous for the silver mine here which was set up by the Spanish and is still in use.
I only stayed in Potosi for one night but you can do tours of the mine including buying dynamite in the local market if you wish! The next stop for me was Sucre; located at 2500m this meant warmer temperatures and a big downhill from Potosi. Yea Baby! I cruised down towards Sucre with a massive smile and it was the first time in a long time I could just sit and cruise for such a long stretch. Cycling past small villages and waving at sheep farmers as I left the altiplano it was great to see trees and vegetation again along with being able to ride in my shorts for the first time in a very long time I was very very happy. This is what cycling is all about!
In Sucre I took ten days off the bike in the beautiful Celtic Cross hostel where they offer stay 4 nights and pay for 3! Sucre is a beautiful city with beautiful white Spanish architecture and did I mention sunshine!! I remember talking to a Dutch cyclist who told me that when she cycled the road from Uyuni to Sucre she cried at how beautiful it was. This hidden gem of a road needs to be cycled and I would even go as far to say I think I enjoyed this route more than my time in the much more famous salar. Bolivia is beautiful and there is more to come…..Happy times!
There seems to be a running theme among cycle tourists, myself included to only show the good sides of the journey, the beautiful mountains and sunsets, pictures of yourself holding beers or cycling along some sweeping dramatic landscape. Look at the picture above and what do you see. Upon first instance you see a great little campsite located next to an emerald water hole, but what I see is the memory of my two day sickness, isolated and alone and at least 100km from the nearest village. I was unable to eat and had stomach cramps, diahorrea and vomiting and there was nothing to do but wait it out!!
This story starts as I cycled over the Bolivian border after climbing for 2000m and reaching the high pass at 4200m. I began to feel unwell but was unsure what was wrong. I thought it must be the altitude sickness since it is common to feel tired and headaches once above 4000m. The only real cures for altitude sickness are to climb back down to a lower altitude or take medication and since I was up on the altiplano and there was no going back I decided to do what the locals do and bought myself a big bag of coca leaves and began chewing!! I am unsure if the coca leaves had any real benefit and they tasted horrible so this self medication didn’t last long so I decided to continue and find a nice place to rest up for the night. The first place I found as an abandoned salt mine with lots of empty huts and offices. Knowing this would give me the break I needed and important shelter from the wind I set up a camp in the main abandoned office. I rested, cooked a simple pasta dinner and listened to the radio as I began to feel better. The little office had everything I needed included a working toilet and running water in the taps. Perfect. In the morning I felt much better so had a wash, a little breakfast and filled up my water bottles from the taps. This was a big mistake. I believe the mine closed in 2009 since everything in the office was dated from 2009 so I guess the water had been sitting in the pipes since 2009. I normally filter my water straight away to ensure I do not get sick but on this occasion I did not and defiantly drank some water whilst brushing my teeth and also drank a little from one of the water bottles before filtering. I didn´t think anything was wrong at the time and it was only the following day did I begin to think something was wrong.
I awoke the following day and couldn’t eat, my stomach was bloated and I did not feel well. Something was up but I choose to ignore it and cycled around 50km across hard and soft sand until at lunchtime I still couldn’t eat. This is when the diahorrea started. I felt awful and knew I had to stop but couldn’t just camp out in the open due to wind. I pushed on for another 10km and found the water hole and wind break spot in the picture at the top. I set up camp quickly and went to bed. I hadn´t been this sick since Cambodia and knew I was in for a rough ride. The vomiting and diahorrea continued for two days and I was unable to eat anything. It was not nice and I started to get worried incase I had something serious, since it was unlikely anyone would pass me if things got really bad. I kept positive though and knew at least that I had enough food and a water source I could filter and that if I just rested enough it would pass. I spent two full days lying in my tent and running outside whenever I felt the need. It was horrible but on the third morning I awoke starving and managed to eat a simple breakfast of bread and spread. I felt stronger and the sickness had all but left my body. I felt weak still but able to continue and rested all morning before wanting to get out of there! I packed up and cycled a simple 30km that day to another restful campsite where I cooked lots of pasta and veggies and began putting the calories back into my body. The following morning I was much much better and had lived through the sickness. I was glad it was nothing serious but I have to be careful with things like food and water since it is very easy to get sick out in the middle of nowhere!
Sometimes when you are far from home, without any comforts there is not much you can do but ride it out. It´s not all sunshine and rainbows to cycle around the world and there times when all you want is a proper bed and your mums chicken soup but to have the good you must also have the bad times. It’s a test of character sometimes and this was definatly a test of my fortitude and decision making. Every day I have to ensure I look after myself since I am completely self supported and solo if anything goes wrong it’s on me. You learn lessons as you go and the main lesson from this episode must be to not drink the water from an abandoned mine…
This is an article I wrote for the website Say Yes More as part of their tribe stories feature.
Check out their website on www.sayyesmore.com
Cycling around the world is never meant to be easy. By definition, to bicycle 50,000km is meant to be bloody difficult! The way is not always paved and the going is not always downhill. To bicycle around the world means cycling over mountains, through deserts and over many unpaved roads.
To quote Alistair Humphreys, “It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun!” I have now been on a world cycle for two years and have peddled over 30,000km, through 28 countries. Although you may call me ‘experienced’, there are times when the going is so hard and the road feels never-ending; when you feel exhausted and lonely, and you ask yourself “why am I doing this?” or “what am I trying to prove?” “ Shouldnt I be back home, with the safety and security of a regular job, with my friends and family around me?”
But my reality is that I’m in the middle of the Atacama Desert, pushing the pedals relentlessly, on my own with only my thoughts for company.
The Atacama Desert is located in Northern Chile, and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. Often compared to Mars, this lunar looking landscape lies between the Andes Mountain range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, occupying a region of over 100,000sq kilometers and including climbs of 4500m. Needless to say, when you are cycling across the arid land you really feel small, a tiny dot on earth making a slow and steady pace.
I started my Atacama adventure in the town of Copiapo; my original intention was to head over the mountains from Chile to Argentina instead of cycling through the desert, but when I arrived at Copiapo, I was told that I was too late in the season: the border between Chile and Argentina is now close. So I had no choice but to head north for the more temperate borders and the beginning of 1000km of desert cycling.
The first 200km was actually quite pleasant since the road swung inland and took me along the coast with little shops along the way and the Pacific Ocean a constant companion. The road would climb up to give you majestic sea views before plummeting back down to sea level where I was able to purchase a snack or bottled drink. I was making good progress but once at the seaside town of Taltal, everything changes. The road begins to climb and you must climb from sea level to 2500km on very steep terrain and to make matters worse, the headwinds are constant and unforgiving. So my speed was halved meaning my supplies were also halved since it took me twice as long to reach the next re-fueling stop, therefore I had to carefully ration what I had. That was the start of my struggle with the Atacama;. I slowly made my way north, eating half rations and wondering why I was doing this. Who was I to take on the mighty Atacama?
I was really struggling with the wind, and to make matters worse, my bike began to click on every pedal stroke, not letting me forget I was pedaling, and this started to drive me mad! I would scream and curse at the wind and at my pedals, hoping that something would change to make the journey just a little easier. But I reminded myself how far I’ve already come; and so tough it out I did, and after six days, something magical happened. Reaching a toll booth I stopped and asked the police if I can charge my phone (so I can listen to podcasts and not have to listen to the squeaking pedals!) – he agreed but only to a decisive “five minutes!” After five minutes he comes out and instead of telling me to move on, presents me with a package of biscuits, yoghurts and a cheese sandwich!! Yes a cheese sandwich and I was so happy, it was probably this guy’s lunch and he had given it to me as token of goodwill. It was the tastiest, most satisfying sandwich I have ever eaten! Bread, butter and cheese but also sprinkled with the goodwill of humanity. I was so thankful to the policeman and cycled off with a massive smile on my face, and then to my surprise….he wind changed.
So instead of plodding along in the desert, it now felt like I was flying! I was full and I was happy. That night I found an abandoned train station so I set up camp and built a camp fire and watched the stars. Millions and millions of stars! And I was at peace with the world. I was happy and yes I was still alone, exhausted and asking myself again “what I am trying to prove?” but with the stars for company, I was content that whilst I hadn´t beaten the Atacama Desert, it also had not beaten me.
I love what I do and have accepted that sometimes the road will be hard and your head will drop; but the world is a beautiful place and if I never started this journey, or stopped when the going got tough.
The wind didn´t always stay with me after this day but my mood did, and I loved the rest of the desert and the big climbs and beautiful starry nights. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun since if you did not have the hard times how would you truly have the good? Don’t be scared - simply SAY YES MORE…. And who knows what will unfold. Be open, surrender to what life brings, and appreciate every moment… the hills and valleys, the clicking bikes and the cheese sandwiches.
This is a short recap of my experience when cycling the famous Carraterra Austral road in Southern Chile. The Carraterra Austral is a road which was built in the 1970s by then dicator General Pinochet to link the towns of southern Chile with the more densly populated mainland. This road has linked thousands of people by bringing together isolated communities which were once left isolated due to the numerous mountains, lakes, rivers and glaciers which form Southern Chile. The Carraterra Austral has also become a famous cycling destination for the same very reason. As you cycle along what is mainly very rough ripio roads (ripio is spanish for gravel roads) you will pass beautiful waterfalls, lakes, rivers, glaicers and cycle up and down the mountains which make up this famous road. Sounds Idyillac, and it nearly was but as I rode from south to north looking for adventure what I discovered was a well beaten cycle tourist trail which extended for over a thousand kilometers.
Now do not get me wrong the reason this road has become a famous cycle touring destination is due to its remoteness and areas of natual beauty. It really is beautiful with flowing wateralls and rivers so clean I was able to fill my water bottles anywhere. The downside is everybody else is also on the same trail. I was late in the season and was passing around 8 other cycle tourists daily and whilst normally when I meet another cycle tourist I stop excitedly for a chat, on this road due to the number of cyclists it is often a simple wave if that. People are cycling fast and heading for the latest secret campsite on their secret camping apps, the locals are so used to seeing cyclists that you lose any wonder or interaction with the local community and every shop and campsite is therefore super expensive.
I think maybe I am spoiled. I have been on the road for nearly two years and have cycled many many roads. I myself may have fell for the hype, for the beauty was there but the isolation and local communities were missing. Also I am on a super long tour therefore money and budgeting is a big deal to me, if you were to just cycle the Carraterra Austral money would not be as much as a option and you could enjoy more of the local tastes in the small bars and restaurents.
I would often compare the Carraterra Austral to other roads I have cycled and I can honestly felt that here the adventure was missing. If you are really looking to get lost, to ride across beautiful scenery whilst not feeling like a tourist on a bike but a bike tourist then I recommend these top three roads to explore:
1.G213, China-The old nataional highway runing south from Chengdu to Kunming in China. Famous for mountain views, small remote chinese communitys and cobble mountain. (Cobble mountain is named so by Finola & I as it is a 2700m pass with cobbles for the road surface)
2.Bishkek to Osh, Krgyzstan-The most beautiful road I have ever ridden. Climb to 3600m to the Torugart Pass before desending for almost two days as you come down from the snow lined mountains to beautiful rivers and gorges.
3.Alba Lulia to Brasov, Romania-Cycle past authentic Romania villages where people still sell their wares from horse and cart. Climb over the Fagaras mountains and experience beautiful friendly people and the feel the ledgend of dracula around you. Black bears are also found along this road.
This is just my thoughts and you will find many other people looking to experience the beauty of the Carrera Austal and it is stunning just not adventure I was hoping for.
There is something exciting still about crossing an international land border. I still get excited when I approach a new country and have to hand over my ragged passport to collect another stamp. Each border is different and of all the international borders in which you can choose to cross between Argentina and Chile one of these has become infamous. This is the border between El Chalten in Argentina and Villa O Higgins in Chile. This border is known for its remoteness and the fact that it links the famous trekking town of El Chalten to the start (or end depending on how you look at it) of the famous Carraterra Austral Road in Southern Chile.
I first read about this border crossing when planning my South American adventure and essentially this little known border goes like this. A 40km gravel road to Lago Del Deserto ferry terminal where you must purchase a ticket to get across the lake. This takes about 40 minutes. At the other end of the lake you then get stamped out of Argentina before you need to push your bike across 6km of mud, glacial streams, rocks and boulders before you reach another 15km of gravel track which leads to the Chilean entry border. From the Chilean border you must take another ferry this time taking 2 hours to cross Lago O´Higgins where you reach the township and the Carraterra Austral.
My orginal plan was to go around this border due to the cost of the two ferries working out to about $80US which would take a huge dent out of my small budget. Thankfully after speaking to my sister and telling her about the 250km detour back into the wind she kindly donated me the money for ferries and I was off into the border in the bush. I was super excited to be able to go this way and to follow in the bicyle footprints of those who have tackled this route before me. I was joined by a Belgian cyclist called Alan, who I first met in Purto Arenas and together we set about tackling the mud and steams. The first kilometer is the hardest as the trail goes straight uphill and with my bike and gear weighing close of 50kg I was slipping and sliding all over the place, I was super glad to be joined by Alan as it took two of us to push my bike up the first hill.
The route then becomes a bit of a dug out with my bike fitting snugly in the track with me pushing from above. After the first kilometer the track went across the first of the streams and with care we unpacked our bikes and walked everything across over the little bridge. This was slow going so after this we decided to just get stuck off, socks and shoes off and through the steams and mud we went. It was great fun really, almost like a obsticle course but you have your bike along with you.
This route is well trodden and is in fact not as remote as we were led to belive with and we passed many other cyclists and trekkers going in the opposite direction. I remember reading that people needing to have GPS units to cross this border but this is now not the case anymore as there are signs pointing the way and even kilometer markers to let you know how far there is to go. It is a fun border crossing and whilst much more exciting than the standard entry-exit process it is not difficult to do and I think anyone can manage it even if they were on their own.
By going this way it means I was able to cycle the Carraterra Austral from the begining as it was from Villa O´Higgins I was able to begin the next 1000km of rough gravel road, but more on this next time!
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.