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.
Buy me a beer!! Thank you
This blog follows my cycle ride from Reading, Berkshire to Reading, Pennsylvania.