In case you’ve been on hiatus from our star system, Levison is an adventurer whom Channel 4 follow about doing venturesome things.
‘He’s such an adventurous guy’ my mum says.
‘Mum’ I begin, steadily. ‘I’ve been cycling around the world for six years.’
‘I know, I know darling’ she says, before lapsing into a reverie.
‘But he’s so handsome, isn’t he?’
She follows him on Twitter. It makes me wonder when she’s going to follow me. ‘Oh, are you on Twitter? I didn’t know’ she says when I remind her. I send her the link, but she’s lost to Lev’s feed, embarking on a festival of ‘likes’.
She bought tickets to see him speak at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, weeks after I’d given a talk to the students of the Oxford University Exploration Society, in a classroom. They were lovely and full of appreciation, all 16 of them.
I went with my mum to hear Levison. Crowds surged towards the entrances, as if at the tomb of a prophet. An elderly lady jabbed her bony elbow into my ribs, anxious there wouldn’t be sufficient space in the rafters if she didn’t get in quick. When I turned to face her I saw a sort of black fire in her eyes and I have no doubt that she would have lanced me with her broach had I stood in her way.
My mum told the usher she had vertigo and wouldn’t be able to sit in the balcony. She asked if she could sit downstairs instead. My mum doesn’t have vertigo. She got a front row seat. She reminds of this, every few days.
And there he was, in a white shirt, resplendent. An adventurous Jesus. Levison did his thing: spinning yarns with well-versed aplomb, splicing in video from his polished Channel 4 films, lauding his many hosts, quoting adventurers from yesteryear and defining his own sense of wanderlust.
The audience guffawed at his jokes, they purred in incredulity. They oohed and ahhhed with gusto. No-one fainted, but my mum was close.
My mum calls him Lev these days. Lev says this, Lev says that.
‘Yeah’ I say. ‘He sounds like a golf club’. In my lowest moments, I imagine a golfer on the fairway, turning to his caddy: ‘Hmmm. Looks about 450 yards. Pass me the Levison.’
I don’t have Lev’s facebook followers, the clamorous hordes of them. But that’s OK, I tell myself, I’m writing a book. I say writing, I mean I’m labouring it out, like an 18-pound baby. It’s abrading my soul. When I take a break from the writing process there are times when almost anything would feel like a relief. An acid-bath, for example. Or meningitis.
Lev has written two books, they sit conspicuously in book shops, stacked high on the tables out front instead of tucked away on the shelves. At least at the moment. I’ve considered hiding them in the Astrophysics section. I’m not sure what’s happening to me.
My book will launch at some point, but not like Lev’s books. I say launch, it may just drift up a bit and hang. It may droop. Is that what you call an anticlimactic book launch? A Book Droop? Maybe I’ll droop it in a pub, to a few mates and devotees of my blog, the kind of lonely people who’d come to a Neighbourhood Watch meeting if there were pretzels. I hope my mum will be there too, but I’ll have to check Levison’s tour dates in case he has an event on the same night in the northern hemisphere.
The blurb of Lev’s latest book comes with a quote from The Times: ‘Lev is ‘Britain’s best-loved adventurer… he looks like a man who will stare danger in the face and soak up pain without complaint.’ I wonder if the Times reviewer will be as kind to me. ‘Best-loved’ could be ‘most enigmatic’, if they were feeling generous. Maybe I could fake a quote from Lev himself, chances are he won’t read my book anyway.
‘Fabes is a bit like me, only more starey to danger, and more absorbent of pain’. Levison Wood.
There are some hard facts I’m hoping to live with: I’m 35 years old. Lev is 34. I live with my mum. I’m going bald with alarming velocity. Lev looks as though he could donate follicles to orphans with alopecia. My debit cards and credits cards are maxed out, the Student Loan Company are going to repossess my shoes and I’m living on cut-price baked beans, the kind that taste like salty cork. I borrow the neighbour’s tin opener and tell them I haven’t had time to buy one. But really, I’m trying to save the money.
‘Oh, but you have such memories…’ people chirp.
Fuck you. I’m malnourished, for fucks sake. I thought I’d be coming home to kudos and sell-out talks, not loan sharks and scurvy.
The other day my mum took me shopping because I couldn’t afford new clothes. We went to Sports Direct. I clumped along behind her as she said things like ‘try this one on Stevey’. I was the only 35-year-old man on the premises in this position, though there were a number of 12 year olds in a similar one. I caught the eye of one, traipsing behind his own mum, and we exchanged a little heads-up as if to say ‘Pffff. Mums.’ When we got to the check-out I sulked behind my mum as she paid, and I could see the staff thinking: what’s wrong with that guy?
This is the dark reality of cycling around the world, the bit that nobody warned me about. I doubt Lev goes to Sport’s Direct with his mum, not even as a brand ambassador.
It’s not that I’m jealous of Lev, you understand. Jealousy is base and unbecoming. It’s just that I want to hold him down and pour liquid silver onto his handsome face, until it sets and he suffocates, and then I’d keep pouring, and mould him into a big silver ball and roll him into the North Sea. It would be a striking end to the trilogy: Walking the Nile, Walking the Himalayas, Sinking into the Ocean.
Apologies if you’d been expecting my monthly update and got radio-silence… It was the first time I’ve missed a blog post in the last seven years. My excuse is that I’ve been embroiled in all manner of projects since coming back and the blog had to take a back seat. But I will continue to post here.
Last weekend I was at the exciting Cycle Touring Festival giving a presentation about my world ride as well as a number of how-to talks, alongside superstars of the cycle touring world. It was a lot of fun. For Londoners – I’m speaking again at an Explorers Connect event on Thursday 16th June in the Prince of Wales pub, Covent Garden. You will need to buy a ticket in advance (there will be none on the door) and they’re limited, so get one here.
I’ve also been putting together a couple of videos. The one below focuses on some of the highlights of my trip, and for me, that meant people.
When I speak to audiences about my ride, there’s a general lusting for the bad stuff – men with guns, tropical diseases, the worst food, brushes with death. But I think this video is more representative of the experience of cycling around the world, and I’m sure it will prove more popular than my ‘scary-stuff’ one (to come)…
It was Germany that played host to the chilly, damp dregs of my journey around the world by bicycle. But I’d become distracted. In principle, this was still cycle touring, more pertinently I was on an extensive tour of German bakeries, an awesome bout of scattered binge-eating . Cycling had become somewhat incidental, a means to an end, and that end was strudel.
Recurrently I devastated the front row of doughnuts in bakeries across Bavaria, with more competitive vigour than I’d ever shown for riding a bike. I’d arrive into dozy, sunlit villages – baroque church, yeah whatever, where’s the pastries at? The flat riverside miles, the breezy pedaling, all at odds with my mountainous appetite, and I began thinking that perhaps I wouldn’t be the sleek, toned champion I conjured when dreaming of my return to British soil.
Talk across Europe remained on the refugee crisis, thought to be the largest movement of people to the continent since the Second World War. In Munich PEGIDA were distributing flyers (The acronym, translated, stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – doing the Heil Hitler whilst saying this is optional at present), my hosts across the continent had assisted at refugee camps or put up refugees themselves or felt driven to angst with each fear-mongering headline, each evoking tidal waves, rivers and other water-features of displaced people. In Nuremburg I watched a girl of Middle Eastern looks holding a solitary cabbage she’d bought from Aldi, I wondered about her as she teetered on the threshold of the escalator, unsure.
I left the Danube at Regensburg and pedaled north, following the weaving passage of other rivers whose names I forget. Northbound though, rather than straight west, because of a visit I wanted to pay to certain celebrity of the cycle touring community: Heinz Stucke. Whenever someone gets a little excited by my admission of being on a six year bike ride, Heinz’s story is the one I dust off. ‘Let me tell you about this guy…’
It’s almost impossible to hurdle the mere facts of his ride: 51 years on the road without returning to his home in Germany, roughly 650,000 km pedaled during that time, a distance of 16 times around the planet through 196 countries, all made even more incredible when you consider that nobody else is in the ballpark. I wanted to get behind the numbers and meet the man, and I knew Heinz, now 76 years old, had finally stopped pedaling and had returned to his home town in Germany a few years back – I was hoping to fish him out. I hope you’ll forgive me, but meeting Heinz is a tale I’m going to cordon off and save for the book because I can’t hope to do it justice in this blog.
Holland: Flat! Windmills! (they’re just for show) Cheery blond elongated people! All the clichés! In fact it was all so Dutch I half suspected it was some sort of ruse, that perhaps when my back was turned the windmills disappeared through hatches underground and everyone took their platform shoes off.
The Dutch, it has to be said, love to say ‘Hallo!’ Even the teenagers whose British peers would be sniffing tip-ex and having MC battles in preference to giving cheery greetings to guests. I gloried in entering a peloton with three Dutch girls who giggled as we all glided along, on a perfect bike lane, shouldered by meadows.
I like to think I’ve acquired at least some navigational skills over the last six years, though apparently not after submitting to losing one of Europe’s major cities: Amsterdam. How could this happen? I was only 40 km away. Finally, on a canal path, a dog walker came to my aid. Her expression, that of someone who suspects they’re on a hidden camera show, suggested that my question might have been a first: ‘excuse me – Amsterdam: have you seen it?’ (Perhaps she was expecting me to continue: ‘that acid was CRAZY!’)
Amsterdam: city of cyclists. Or to be more accurate: City of cyclists and a quite astounding number of dead cyclists. It is possible a city can simultaneously love and hate bikes so lustily?
A Dutch person will always assure you that it’s just the tourists who get clattered, Dutch cyclists, they say, are more or less immune to accidents, being more practiced and vigilant.
Dutch people spend more time on their bicycles than people of any other nationality, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that all kinds of other activities occur on bicycles too. Texting or Internet browsing is more or less universal, I’ve watched cyclists dressing and undressing, flirting (which invites the possibility of being romantically clothes-lined by speeding young lovers), reading, eating, smoking, combing hair, fashioning dreadlocks, and often managing a combination of the above. It’s quite incredible how much a Dutch person can achieve whilst cycling, their natural state. This of course adds an extra anxiety when pondering the perilous nature of Dutch cycle lanes, as if they need any more perils.
Consider this: bicycle lanes in Amsterdam are skinny runways that swarm with cyclists – there are more bicycles than people in the city (almost as many again in the canals). Said cyclists effortlessly maintain a speed comparable to the escape velocity of a rocket, in a dynamic made more insane because they share the prized inches with scooters. Add to this the fact that everyone is being pummeled by gale force wind, tyre-wide tram lines slice the lanes at unpredictable intervals and any cycling tourist in the melee hasn’t pedaled a bicycle for more than a decade and is three days into a sleepless mescaline bender.
It’s like the Dutch have designed it that way: sure, come to our lovely city, marvel at our canals, take our drugs, but don’t you dare try to survive. It’s evidence of a dark wit the Dutch conceal well but that I know is brewing beneath the surface. Who else would make drugs so potent and available, and cycling so potentially fatal? Amsterdam is where bicycles go to get stolen, and cyclists go to die.
I stayed in Amsterdam with my friend Tim, a guy I’d cycled through South America with many moons ago. Tim, like all Dutch people, is still tall and smiling, probably happy he’s alive at all, considering his commute to work.
I wandered the canals for a time, noting that Amsterdam is beautiful, gregarious, self-confident and a tractor beam for most of the damaged and insightless moochers from other parts of Europe. I tried desperately to avoid conversations with British people in particular, following one which went something like this:
‘Hey man, have you seen Brian?’
‘I don’t know you, or Brian’
‘Yeah, anyway, he took some of the blue pills and I haven’t seen him since… wait, what day is it?’
‘I have to go now’
‘OK, but wait, have you seen Brian?’
‘No. And you should put a t-shirt on, it’s cold and people are staring’
‘Yeah. Someone else told me that’
Just two weeks before I arrived, Tim told me, a young British man was found floating quite peacefully, and lifelessly, in one of the canals. CCTV footage shows him wandering about minutes beforehand, making curious cross-stitch style progress down the street, and stumbling little detours, one of which eventually took him to muddy water he was probably too wasted to appreciate was not going to be good for him.
After Amsterdam I began to get worried about some desperate anticlimax befalling my journey. Perhaps, having survived Outer Mongolia, I would die somewhere entirely safe and ordinary, like Belgium. My bicycle frame could snap into seven after summiting a Dutch speedbump. I could collide slowly but devastatingly with a six year old French girl on a tricycle. I could become victim to a stampede of sheep, or get irretrievably lost in London’s traffic, or forget my own identity in the panic of the homecoming, or finally acquire an answer to that question that has pestered me for years: is it possible to die from over-consumption of dairy milk chocolate? On perusing my map I realized I’d be passing near a village called Bonnington, and if there were to be a zombie apocalypse, I became fairly certain this would be the epicenter, at exactly the moment I happened to be cycling by.
I enjoyed the fact this was a warning in the singular, a rooster gone rogue. Actually ‘rooster’ in Dutch means a kind of grid: this is warning for a cattle grid, not the marauding foul I’d hoped for
A curious combination in Amsterdam. Makes you wonder which came first. If it was Weight Watchers, you have to compliment Domino’s on their cynical opportunism. I imagine the head of the Weightwatchers group: ‘hey guys, you’ve all put weight on again this week, what’s going on? Wait, can I smell pizza?’
Something that strikes me after living a life of relative (by European standards) frugality is the wastefulness of people. I ask for tap water, ‘not bottled water’, from a cashier in a petrol station who’s standing beside a sink. She blinks at me, fretful, as if I’d asked her what time Ghengis Khan was dropping by. And one morning, in a hostel, I handed some rubbish to the receptionist who added it to the bin behind the desk. And then I remembered, he’d lent me a spoon, it was now amongst the rubbish he’d deposited. I told him, and this is what he said: ‘Its OK, we’ve got more’ and went back to work. ‘But it’s a spoon… a metal spoon…’ I stammered, surely it’s the height of lassitude to leave it in the bin?
A quick check of the weather forecast and I knew I was in for a meteorological slap about the chops. This shouldn’t be so much of a surprise to regular readers of this blog. I’m in a long term barny with mother nature, and a storm named ‘Imogen’ was her parting gift before I was to join the indoor world of London professionals, out of her reach. Holland’s windmills soon acquired an irritating logic. ‘You’re country’s too windy’ I told Tim who smiled meekly ‘yeah, I’m sorry about that’.
Imogen was a bitch, though Britain had the worst of her slapping. 93 km/hr winds thrashed me on the nose, launched wind farms into terrific whirling, tossed grey herons about like newspaper. A man stopped to kindly offer an explanation, or at least a description. ‘It’s very windy’ he shouted above the roar. ‘I wondered what that noise was’ I screamed back. ‘If you’re going to the Hague, its full headwind.’ It is legal in Holland to drown a man in a canal for being annoying?
In Bruges I met Edit, a lovely Hungarian lady I’d met before in Budapest, and we hung out for three days strolling the art galleries and book shops and bars before my final plunge towards home.
Heading towards Calais, the weather still very much unfriendly, I set upon Nuiport and suburbia when I was searching out my last rough camping spot of my six year ride, and for this reason, it had to be a good one, a glorious climax. I dithered for ages about some wind turbines before noticing the CCTV and shuffling a retreat. The rain was flying sideways, daylight petering to a grey glow, when I finally pitched in a muddy puddled clay-pit near a canal, inadvertently angling my tent entrance into the wind on a slab of ground so uneven I slept fitfully like a high jumper mid-flop. I also managed to knock my pan of water all over my ground sheet and the wind was so strong it was as if my tent was being savaged by an entire flock of angry and epileptic seagulls.
I’m gonna miss this, I thought, or wanted to, shivering violently in my tent porch. And because I didn’t quite believe it, I said it out loud ‘I’m gonna miss this’ and tried hard to mean it, but as my tent flapped madly in the gale, added ‘sometimes’.
It was a rough night, evidenced by the man whom I stopped the next morning to ask directions to Veurne and who kept frowning at my pronunciation before asking ‘du vin?’ and making the drinky drinky sign. It was 8.30 am. It’s reassuring I suppose that some things never change. The French were still resolutely refusing to recognize any of the syllables I created as belonged to their own language.
I couldn’t lose the paranoid visions of my return: on a canal path I was chased for an endless two metres by a pissed off goose.
Headline: Transcontinental cyclist found in Belgian canal
Subheading: A startled goose is thought to have driven a man on a six year bike ride into a fatal drowning after his jacket zip got caught in his bike chain.
The first signs of Britain arrived near Dunkirk when a string of shops shamelessly catering for British booze and fag runners arrived, all union jacks and names like ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Smugglers Corner baccy shop’
For the last two weeks the weather had been all things British, and by that I mean changeable, and by that I mean changing between drizzle to windy drizzle to overcast to drizzle. I could, if I was to remain riding south, reach the Riviera in a few weeks. Might be nice in the Spring. I’ve never been to Morocco.
Yep, that building in the background is a school. It had to be Germany.
The unfortunate name of a band
The French were noticeably laisse-faire about the creation of bike lanes, which would disappear abruptly, terminate in tree stumps, linger meanderingly for a bit before petering out near some bollards. It was good preparation for what England had in store. Bike lanes in England drift and fade and weave, like dreams.
But before I made it to British shores, I had another mission to attend to. Because it meshed with the theme of marginalization which will be part of my book, and because my experience of Europe had been so patterned by the ‘crisis’, I felt an urge to visit the large refugee camp in Calais called the Jungle. As with the other occasions I visited projects focusing on the health of those on the edges of society, I will reserve my observations for the book.
The next day I boarded the ferry bound for Dover, which moved off at a rattle through the yellow-tan sea. The journey itself was imbued with little moments of weight and emotion, but that was only true for me and not the other passengers and staff, which was why the man at the information desk looked back at me oddly as I ogled him in wonder after he placed a shiny pound coin into my palm, change for a map of London, which I then received as one might the holy communion or a magic amulet.
Everything had the gloss of Britishness. Accents sounds more regional, even my own adapted and I was surprised to note I’d begun subconsciously to release a cockney twang, and I’m not even from London, I’m from the Home Counties, with a tragic non-accent. I guess my eyesight had changed on that bright blue day, seagulls twisting through the sky.
‘World Cyclist dies in first ever P&O ferry sinking 50 metres from port of Dover. Seagulls to blame’
The chalky cliffs appeared earlier than I’d anticipated, rising in froth-like welcome from a green sea. A fighter jet ripped the powder blue above the shore. The BBC and the Mail started reporting on my return. I couldn’t see the adulating crowds at Dover yet, but I was still a way off.
As I started to wheel my bike off the ferry a guard stopped me:
‘Sorry mate. You gotta wait til this lot get off (gesturing to the trucks). Health and Safety’
At this exact moment ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ began playing in my head.
‘If I let ya go, you see, you’ll get run over’
Not: you might get run over, but the promise I definitely would, seemed startlingly, attractively British in my awed and fragile state. I’d been gone six years. I could wait another ten minutes.
Ironically the most dangerous part was outside the port when I steamed off onto the right side of the road and almost hit a car. ‘Shit, left side, left side’ I scolded myself. I then got dishearteningly lost in Dover before finding somewhere to change the last of my Euros into pounds. I eyed up the revolving door of the currency exchange, pondering whether my bike would fit inside. ‘Just leave it there’ a man told me ‘who’d wanna nick that?’
The A2 was horrible, it proved just how hurried I was as I left the UK in 2010 to have actually chosen this nightmare. But I wanted to retrace the path I cut six years before – I had people to meet in Sittingbourne. I was cheered up momentarily by the return of a particularly virulent strain of the British Pun in the guise of a small car with a large opened-topped receptacle on the roof emblazoned with the words ‘Junk and disorderly. All Rubbish Cleared. We do wives, girlfriends, mothers-in-law, husbands, taxmen…etc’
I detoured though villages when I could, had a pint of ‘Old Dairy Ale’ in the Black Robin. The country continued to swell with English nuance. I expected the emotion of homecoming, but never so surreal, fuzzy, close. I eavesdropped, imbibed the snippets:
‘The problem with Clive is that he’s a lazy sod’
‘Bloody council! Same as always!’
‘I ain’t drunk ‘ere for ages. Not since it was pie-night’
Nobody recognized me from the BBC, even when I smiled expectantly at them until they frowned and told their children to look away. The barman, noticing my bike, eventually asked ‘been far then?’ I considered, for a nanosecond, false modesty, but shelved it.
‘For six years actually’
‘And five more continents!’
I am now an incorrigible twat. He commended me, though rightfully I should have been barred for smugness.
I felt the opposite of the tumult I’d experienced at my departure, I felt soothed even when I shouldn’t have, the white van drivers blissfully skimmed by, too close, the rogues! I stopped in a shop to ask the staff how far to Sittingbourne.
‘God couldn’t tell ya. 2 mile?’
‘Nah, about 6’ explained another.
Customers in the queue all then got involved, opinions oscillated from one to eight miles. These were local people! ‘Take bloody days if you wanted to walk it’ said the man who’d suggested it was 4 miles away. About an hour, actually, I thought.
On January 6th 2010 Kent was snow-covered, and children were on the attack, platoons of them flinging snowballs at me for miles. I was wet, tired and defeated, with nowhere to camp. And it was in Sittingbourne that Tommy and Roger, strangers, offered me a place to stay. It was the first of a long line of acts of hospitality, impossible, I’d assumed, in miserable England. ‘We just hope that people treat our kids the same way’ explained Tommy. I arrived back at their home six years later, perhaps a little more dilapidated than they remembered me, but a bed was made up, a cake was baked in my honour and my faith in humanity was assured.
Onward, through villages now, the gleam of the Thames estuary. I would have laughed at the state of British cycle lanes, if I wasn’t wincing because of them. Woefully buttock-bashing mockeries of the concept, they did nothing for my sense of pride in my home country. Honestly, in Gravesend the bike path gave all the smoothness of cyclocross on tarmac – the lanes were landscaped by tussocks, a lacework of tree roots and water-features, stamped by echoing potholes, muddled by random bits of curb, wheelie bins and parked cars. Near Dartford one bike lane took me a generous twenty metres before fading into car-ridden noise and desolation. They were so flagrantly atrocious; it became easy to assume they’d been deliberately sabotaged. I imagined two road workers:
‘Eh Dave, we should probably flatten this bit out’
‘What?! For cyclists! Wouldn’t bother’
‘Yeah, good point. Got any thumb tacks?’
‘Lets run that next bike lane along all those parked cars. That’ll fox em’
And while I’m on the subject, England, stop painting the odd bicycle onto the road – that’s not a bike lane, it’s just paint. In fact, save the money on paint, and invest it in something more useful, like Intensive Care beds for broken cyclists.
And England, what’s going on with the ‘no cycling’ signs? They arrive as soon as a bicycle lane ends, but without recourse or explanation. Rationally, the council must have installed teleporters that would transport a cyclist from that point to another where the cycle path restarts. Perhaps someone nicked the teleporter. It’s only logical. Unless… unless bike lanes in England are devised and created by half-hearted half-wits. The ‘no bicycles’ sign in this context cannot be reasonably assumed to mean ‘no cyclists’ but instead ‘from now on town planners will not be considering the possibility that cyclists exist.’ It’s a threatening chaos of misdirection and bafflements.
And we’ve got the money! We spend it on putting Ferris wheels in major cities. It’s embarrassing, having biked in Belgium, Holland and Germany. It got worse: cycle paths came with weird slanting gates that were designed apparently to prevent motorbikes entering but were so harrowingly narrow it was implausible to get bicycle handlebars through without a virtual war on geometry, and impossible with a loaded touring bike like mine. I had to cycle on roads, pissing off the drivers, but I wasn’t going to use the undulating ribbons of piteousness that Britiain calls bike paths. It’s insulting. It would be like going to restaurant; explaining to the waiter that you can’t eat the meat on the menu, you’re vegetarian, and being served a steaming cow pat fresh from the anus of a leprous bullock. Get stuck in!
Put on your ‘writing jumper’. It’s oversized, woolly and you found it behind the dressing gowns at Scope. Forget that it still smells of a gouty pensioner. Breathe. Feel powerful. You are ready to begin.
Have a shot of hot water if you drool any of the grounds.
Limber up: Look about your room and create luminous, poetic similes. The widow shines like a pair of shiny glasses in the glassy sun. The can of coke is as crepuscular as an isotope of beryllium. The sunrise is as bloody as a road traffic victim. The road traffic victim is as flat as a bad simile.
Reread yesterday’s work. Eat / snort another coffee. Know that life is dark, hopeless and devoid of all meaning. Tape cotton wool over all the sharp edges in the vicinity of your desk and lock all windows above the ground floor.
Ha ha ha! Look! What’s a pig doing on a surfboard?! Look at it wobble about! Remove facebook from your bookmarks.
Decide on style of section break, * * * too cliché. Maybe a lozenge ◊, maybe that nameless fleuron §. Wait, was there something about the * * * thing that I didn’t fully appreciate the first-time round?
Ask a friend to read your first chapter and provide feedback. Explain that yes, you appreciate that they’re a full-time carer, and yes, if your mum had multiple sclerosis it would be devastating too, but none of that changes the fact that your deadline is approaching and it will only take nine hours and she won’t know if you don’t wash her once.
Email your agent. Explain how the industry doesn’t understand you, go into detail. Remind them of how many genres you are, right now, defying. Explain about that woman who wrote about the boy wizard and how many times she was rejected by publishers. Tell them you are almost exactly like her, but with significantly less wizards in your work.
Apologise to your agent for your behaviour. Blame gin. Tell her alcoholism will add a frisson to your biog.
Research what is selling really well right now and adapt so that a publishing deal is a shoo in. If nature writing is all the rage, add badgers.
Redefine your audience in your book proposal to include all Corbyn voters.
Go online and book a ticket to a reading by a published author. It will be motivating. Watch them closely, pinpoint their smugness. Know that you could be that smug too.
Go to the British library archives and research the fascinating life and letters of a historical pioneer. Never question the relevancy to your book until at least 17 hours of hard study have elapsed. Then make little sobbing sounds until the staff escort you from the premises.
Check out this months Amazon bestsellers in the closest genre to your work of great genre-defiance. Hate this genre. Lean out of the window. Scream ‘WHHHHHHHYYYYY!’ Do not make it sound like a question.
No creative sparks flying? Go for a walk. Do not come home until you have a clear head and have been suitably inspired. Also: pack supplies, say goodbye to close relatives, get a vaccination for Japanese encephalitis.
Edit for specificity: I climbed through the forest in the darkness. I elevated my hand and gripped a rock and curled my fingers around it and heaved myself up and moved my other hand and gripped another rock and noticed that the light that fell across the larch was roughly that of a three-watt bulb in the corner of a 3 by 4 metre square cellar at 67 degrees latitude at 5pm on midsummers day.
Make your writing sensory. What did the wind taste like?
Remember that listicle you were going to write for your blog? No better time than the present.
Write 1000 decent, effortless words. Chortle to yourself. Stroke your own face. Go to high five yourself… whoa! too slow! Sleep soundly. Wake up. See point 5.
To discover what motivated this journey, readpart one. For the journey itself, read on…
I like running, but not in the way some people like running. In the days before I set off on an unplanned run through the UK, footage appeared on social media and TV news of the two Brownlee brothers at the end of a triathlon so gruelling that just pondering it saps calories. In the video, one of the brothers pauses, reels on the spot, staggers, looks about as close to cardiac arrest as it’s possible to look without being attached to a defibrillator, and then his brother appears, throws his arm over his brother’s shoulder and aides him in an ungainly stumble, reminiscent of a three-legged race, towards the finish line where he swoons into pain, physical oblivion and post-traumatic stress disorder. This is a psychological aberration. People are sectioned for less.
But I do get the draw of pain and punishment. To some extent, far removed from the Brownlee’s limit of endurance, I enjoy exertion. I thought this as I began my run from my Mum’s house in Oxford, an unplanned jaunt to no destination, with no time-frame, route or objectives. I felt the light-headed buzz of breathlessness, the gush of endorphins. I passed a sign advertising a coming fun run. Fun. That was for wimps. This would be the unfunnest, unfunniest, most funless run of my life. But if I got really tired I’d stop and have a cup of tea in Subway.
With Ordinance Survey maps on my phone, my route was planned only as far as the screen or two allowed, and when I got to the edge of this known zone I’d have another look ahead, replan, run and repeat. That way I’d capture the spontaneous spirit of adventure I needed, and I’d have no idea where my unprimed legs would take me. But to avoid a soul-crushing epiphany that I’d been running circles around somewhere dreary, say, Northampton, I decided that I needed a vague course, and since more of the country lay up the map than in any other direction, this is the way I would head.
As it turned out, September is a sublime month for distance running in the UK. Not too cold, not too hot, 12 hours of daylight and that loamy scent of autumn on the wind. Even better: every hedgerow is speckled in blackberries. Their ubiquity is amazing once you get your eye in, and this meant I could carry less food, pausing hourly for childish, messy-faced plundering.
At first I felt a huge weight of relief in not having a goal, not mapping my route or counting miles. I had nothing to lose, failure wasn’t an option, not through determination, but because I refused to define success. I was relieved too that I hadn’t told anyone I was going… if I was home in half a day, there would be no face to save.
I knew the first bit… spritely now, I verily cantered through Hampton Poyle, rounded the green at Bletchingdon, my pace holding out to upper Heyford. This was the countryside of real ale festivals and vicarages, of fierce and pointless protests to new housing developments, of village ponds and duck crossings and particular women who looked a little like Theresa May.
I hadn’t done any training. My legs started to get sore, but I realised there was a simile: new saddles are sore too. Maybe my legs were behaving like a new saddle, and like a new saddle, I’d just have to break them in. Unfortunately, there is a tried and tested way to ‘break in’ legs, and it’s called training. And ideally, you should do some before running 40 miles a day. But I decided not to allow myself to complain about the predictable muscle aches, as long as I didn’t suffer the lancing pain of a buggered knee or ankle, in other words, unless I underwent Massive Leg Failure.
You notice more on foot than on bike. I jogged up to Parish council notice boards, which I wouldn’t have bothered to explore had I been cycling. They were stuck with twee and endearingly parochial announcements. In Plumpton it was hedgehog watch. There were the minutes of the type of meetings that would have been no less detailed if you recorded the timeline in hours. There was a band playing in one church hall called Holy Moly and the Crackers. I felt a sudden urge to join the Green Valley quilters, and get in some hardcore quilting.
The temptation to plan, which is a habit so embedded in my life, was enormous. I found myself thinking maybe I’ll run to Leicester, or Derby, and then No! And I’d try to clear my head, put myself on a new, foreign setting, feel the release of a truly aimless adventure. I only discovered I’d crossed county lines when the signs on the bins told me I was in Northamptonshire. On my OS map Fartington popped up. This was excellent, a suitably scatological place to have dinner. So imagine my disappointment when I came to the signpost pronouncing it Farthington. In the pub, it wasn’t long until the bar staff began asking questions. What was I up to? (not sure) Where was I going? (dunno) Where will you sleep? (some woods?) Word spread and I quickly gained celebrity. ‘He’s gonna sleep in the woods!’ I heard from the other side of the bar. Then the barmaid edged over to me ‘Hey, are you from that show Hunted?’
That night I found woodland and settled into my bivy bag, moonlight dappled the leaf litter, as brilliant as road markings. I had no clue how many miles I’d run, it didn’t matter. Unfortunately, my feet remembered quite clearly the next day. My soles felt bruised. I started the day in a limping trot, amusing the rare early morning motorists. The pain was excruciating, which of course is a warning sign, your body’s way of telling you to run through it until you break something.
I checked the next screen on my map and gasped. Leicester. It loomed, like the Battlestar Galactica. Fuck. I’d have to run around it. So I began edging west for a time, cutting through bridleways where I could. For most of the day the pain in my ankles especially was dramatic, I was getting sure I wouldn’t last much longer. Things took an even more baleful twist in Primethorpe, which seemed a prime place for something very bad to happen. This is because Primethorpe is populated overwhelmingly by people on remand for throwing kittens into reservoirs. Cautiously I slowed to ask directions from a burly character, etched by tattoos. The fact that he managed to offer half decent directions was a nice surprise, considering he was six pints and two ecstasy tablets deep into his Sunday morning.
My OS maps began to become littered with ovoid blemishes, a scribble of contour lines suggested they were granite quarries. I veered around a couple and then met Rugby at twilight, which meant trouble finding a rough sleeping spot. I prowled unsuitable bits of waste ground for too long, grass too high, thicketed by nettles, the kind of place you’d be unsurprised to uncover the mutilated corpse of a hitch-hiker. Eventually I settled on the fringe of a field as traffic thrummed beside me.
The next morning by feet remained a pair of spiteful and painful protrusions. But by lunch time, we were friends again. Miraculously, the pain had begun to settle. They had realized the futility of their protest. Which was good, because I could survive for only so long on blackberries and ibuprofen.
In Desford I ordered a sandwich in pub, and earned a sideways glance from a guy at the bar. ‘Come far?’ ‘Oxford!’ I chirped, hoping for kudos. Unfortunately for me, Nicky was an ultra-marathon athlete, fresh from the Marathon des Sables, which means running through places hotter and sandier than Desford. Nicky invited me back to his house for a cup of tea with his wife and trampolining kids, and made it clear that if I needed any additional kit, it was mine. I thanked him for his generosity, cadged a few snacks and set off again, to fuck knows where.
I gained some altitude, almost unknowingly, and found myself running through the enchanting sounding Charnwood Forest which broke into a barren rocky upland, where I fought my way through fern and brambles to reach an outcrop of rocks and gazed over a spread of fields: Nottinghamshire to the north east, Derbyshire ahead and Leicestershire behind me.
Scotland famously has ‘the right to roam’. England has this too, but it does mean ignoring the ‘Private Property’ and ‘No Entry’ signs and enduring the occasional mauling by a rabid farm dog. Villages came and went, often announced by their church spire, sticking up amid distant green hills. Pheasants were surprisingly rampant in this part of the world and I passed youths trekking their little socks off on Duke of Edinburgh expeditions.
In Belton I stopped in the Queens Head for a Sunday roast, there was a gentle flow of banter from barstaff, and taciturn men sitting around pints, ‘socialising’. I’d run so far now the accents had changed, which was satisfying. That night it rained, which is bad news for the bivy-dweller. Next day I set off again, my legs were less painful now, more adjusted, but I had developed an interesting sensation at the back of my ankle: it was as if I were being lashed intermittently with an elastic band. After checking my shoe laces were well fastened, I realised this was in fact my inflamed Achilles tendon. This confirmed, more than the of rollcall of counties, that I had run quite far.
I crossed the river Trent and into my fifth English county, Derbyshire, and the town of Shardow where I indulged my habit of pub dinner followed by breaking into a farmers field and setting out my bivy bag for a 4th night and a heavy sleep. There was something dystopian about the following morning: the silhouetted towers of the Radcliffe power station guffed steam into a magenta dawn. I ran on, into Stanley Common, Brexit heartlands. St George Cross flags everywhere and presumably people who says things like ‘there’s too many of ‘em’ and ‘I ain’t racist, but they ain’t like us are they? They’re different.’
And then I saw it… Smalley Green, a village just a few miles away. I knew then I had found a destination, because it was the ultimate non-destination. Somewhere small in name, size and significance. An apt end to a run unplanned from the outset, befitting that travellers cliché about the importance of the journey. It was that moment in Forest Gump when he slows and realises, for no apparent reason, that his journey is at an end, and it ends as spontaneously as it began.
Problem was: Smalley Green didn’t have much. Scattered homes, a green warehouse and a dog photographing business called Zoe’s Paws. Not even a signpost. But Smalley Village up the hill had one (I needed a photo), and it had bus stops. That would do.
I sat at the bus stop, on one of those benches formed of two metal bars, which must have been designed by a man with no concept of comfort and possibly without an actual arse and any experience of sitting. But as I took the weight off, it felt luxurious. I’d made it! To Smalley Green! Just like I always dreamed I… well, maybe not.
As I sat on a train darting back to Oxford, I’d knew that I’d achieved my only goal which was to embrace unpredictability, that mysterious substance so often leached from life in the city. I hate it when people say that everything happens for a reason, not just because they’re almost certainly wrong, but because of how boring life would be if it did. How much more exciting to know that literally anything could befall you, at any time, good or bad, outrageous or trivial. That’s amazing.
I’d noticed it take form in my diary. A run of blank pages, cleaned of life as it should be. The weeks leading up to and after this time were messy with scribbled reminders of tasks and presentations, shifts in A&E, meet-ups with mates. I wasn’t sure how this void came about, but sometimes I wondered if I’d made it happen.
Half-consciously, perhaps I’d cultivated a little nest of free time, meticulously positioning my life outside of it. Perhaps I needed to journey again. Perhaps I was straining to hear the call of a new adventure, like everybody warned me I would.
It had been eight months since I’d got back from cycling around the world, and the journey itself felt more like a single place than a string of them; a place now fenced off and unreachable, with a shimmery and yearnful quality. It’s extraordinary how divorced I feel from those years, considering they’ve only just passed. I get a misty-eyed, hollow feeling when a trawl through my photos on flickr. I feel oddly bereft.
Back home, the sense of physical pursuit faded as the mental pursuit of authorship heaved into its place. I’ve tried to embrace the writing life. Mainly by living on bland food and being broke. But my new flat is not quite a garret, and I’m not suicidal. So there’s still some way to go on these fronts.
I go to writing circles. I browse second hand book shops, often when I should be writing. But there’s something about motion that really helps my mind carve through the din and create, so I still go for bike rides, whipping through the bridleways around Oxford, leafy tunnels of green light, dank air, slapping stems.
It was something Sarah Outen said at Basecamp festival that got me into a dangerous frame of mind. She talked about the unpredictability of life on the road, and how crucial this was to her concept of adventure. I sat there nodding, an idea easing half-noticed into my mind. Hmmm… unpredictability….
After the festival, I found myself watching a facebook video of a pig on a surfboard. ‘Weeee!’ I exclaimed inanely, guffawing like a simpleton. This, coupled with the word ‘wow!’ exiting my lips when I heard of the Angelina and Brad split, cemented a very strong feeling that I needed to get the fuck out of here.
I eyeballed that space in my diary again, it sparkled now, shivered with potential energy. I felt something stirring: a need to stretch my muscles, light out for somewhere new and wide-open, somewhere to be wind-rushed and lonely, and fired up again by the challenge of wilderness and the insecurity of a challenge.
So I’d go away. But how could I reclaim this feeling of uncertainty, the blustering soul of any adventure? Perhaps I could set out on a journey that was almost entirely unplanned?
But not by bike. It’s hard to find adventure on a bicycle in the UK, when my benchmarks for exhilaration are Mongolia and Afghanistan. Something more simple then. Maybe I could run?
And that was that. A light flared up the dark. It was obvious now: I’d run. No plan. No destination. No time frame. No idea of places to sleep or miles to cover each day. No training, because there was no time. No explanations. No social media. No idea whether I’d make it further than half a day. Wherever I ended up, it would be more or less by accident. I felt suddenly excited, having peeled off any purpose other than movement. My mum didn’t agree. She needed my journey to have some sort of blueprint.
‘Where are you going?’ she asked, as I tried on my new rucksack and trotted around the table to check it was comfy enough.
‘Dunno’ I said, hurdling the coffee table.
‘How long will you be gone?’
‘Honestly, I can’t say’ sipping then on the tube to my camel bak.
‘Where will you sleep?’
‘No idea’. Grinning.
And then, because she was looking anxious, I thought I’d better give her something.
‘Mum… I can tell you this much. I’ll be going vaguely north’
She looked more worried than ever.
It’s amazing how unnerved people are when you admit to having no idea what you’re up to. This conversation would repeat itself in pubs in five counties over the next few days, as bar staff and locals asked the same questions and I offered shrugs in return.
I realised that a run through the UK would have some happy side effects. It would help me become reacquainted with a place I’d absented for so long. It was a chance to explore the vast maze of bridleways and byways and towpaths and footpaths and backroads I’d spotted winding away to nothingness on my bicycle.
But there was a problem. Actually there were several problems: my knees, my ankles, my feet, my hips and my lower back. Musculoskeletally, I’m a disaster. Born of stock crippled by arthritis in their 50s, requiring joint replacements, and having undergone knee surgery once already, I knew my body could deal with the less stressful pursuits of cycling and swimming, but that running was not a particularly good idea. In the few days between deciding to leave and leaving, my knees ached when I climbed the stairs. My back was giving me jip. But I couldn’t wait, the weather would turn, this was my chance. And anyway, it only added to the unpredictability I craved: I had no idea which part of body would fail me first. How exciting!
But I knew that if I had any chance of making it far, considering I’d never run more than 10km in a stretch in my life, I’d better get the right kit.
Everyone knows the best way to prepare for run longer and tougher than you’ve ever attempted before, is to buy a pair of trainers named after an Ancient Greek Horse God.
My Nike Pegasus would easily compensate for the fact that during my life to date, running had mostly been a spectator sport, and not something to actually do. Mo Farah was a poxy dilettante compared to me. This was also confirmed by the local running shop (not, I should say, in so many words) when they put me on a treadmill and filmed my feet as I ran to check my running style. Some people are heal runners, some toe, I am neutral. In other words, bloody perfect, born to skip ultramarathons whilst others suffer on the sidelines. Nothing could stop me.
I always get excited at the prospect of taking off with the absolute minimum of kit, only to pack it all up and realise that the absolute minimum is quite a lot less minimal than I’d anticipated. But somehow I stashed 5kg of kit, none of which I could do without, into an 8 litre rucksack. My down jacket was the Mountain Hardware Ghost Whisperer. Exactly what would need on an expedition, because as well as the cold, ghosts are frequently a problem, and it’s great that I now own an item of clothing apparently invented for those who are keen on whispering to them. Very practical.
I left on the Autumnal equinox, when night and day are mirrored in length. The moon was a waning gibbous, just shy of the harvest moon. Then morning came, I stood at my front door, my rucksack hard against my shoulder blades, momentarily overwhelmed by the simplicity of what I hadn’t planned at all.
I narrowed my sight onto this moment. I moved off, one pace, two, a spring in my step. I was running, and that’s all I hoped to know. Off, though blissfully unaware, to Smalley Green.
I know what you’re thinking. That man is made for leggings.
I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,
And all around me, a voice was sounding:
This land was made for you and me.
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing —
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun come shining, then I was strolling
In wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling;
The voice was chanting as the fog was lifting:
This land was made for you and me. Woody Guthrie
There’s a tradition to uphold, I’m aware, in writing these how-to posts. I’m supposed to peacock my own expertise, describe how flawlessly I’ve rough camped, in misty glens, on pine-sprinkled clifftops, amid glittering dunes. But then how could you trust the advice? To paraphrase ancient wisdom, we learn through our fuck-ups. And in my experience of rough camping, there has been quite a lot of learning, because there have been an enormous number of fuck-ups.
I’ve catalogued these events in names that invoke time-worn horror movies. There has been The Night of The Fire Ants (El Salvador), The Dawn of the Scorpion under my Thermorest (Argentina). The Midnight of the Flood (Australia). The Raging Gunman (Peru). Almost Crushed to Death by Deadwood (Nicaragua). Citizens have become so concerned about my tent, and the beardy creature lurking within, they have called the police to have me removed from their slice of suburbia. Twice.
Whatever your monikor – rough camping, wild camping, stealth camping – it calls for cunning and initiative. There’s something obviously seductive about sleeping in wild places. Sunrise feels like something you’ve earned. It’s uplifting: the glint of stars, the scent of a wet forest, the cheep and rustle of the natural world. And the next day you just pack up and go, simple as that, uncertain where you’ll sleep the next night, but certain you’ll figure it out. It’s freedom. It’s addictive too.
My favourite campsite: Lake Khovsgol, northern Mongolia, minus 35 degrees Celcius
But there can be something even more exhilarating about rough camping in the edgeland, sneaking beneath the skin of cities and towns, in the waste ground, behind carparks and beside highways, enclosed in half-light and jumbled shrubs, listening to droning traffic, the clank and grumble of industry, the pylons which hiss like vipers, the harangue of farm dogs that have fixed your scent. It’s thrillingly outsiderish. You’re the thief at the window.
Rough camping is, without doubt, one of my very favourite things in the world.
Before I embark on my top tips for rough camping, you should know that there is one important stratagem for rough camping wherever you are. Think of it this way:
Rough camping is a game of hide and seek against the world.
As is often noted by travellers, the world is populated overwhelmingly by benevolent souls unlikely to cause you any concern, even if you’re spotted rough camping in their neighbourhood. However, very little happens in villages around the world. You, my friend, are news. So if one person finds out where you are, it’s not difficult to imagine that word will spread and you will be the topic of conversation, soon 100 people know there’s a gringo, farangi or mzungu down the road. It only takes one bad apple to give you a stressful night: maybe they’re drunk and want a drinking buddy. Maybe they want money, or your bike. Most likely they’re simply curious and would like to watch you sleep for a while. Anyone rough camping in Ethiopia for example will be well used to the feeling of opening your bleary eyes of a morning to discover 37 people crowded around your tent porch, all watching you as if you’re Match of the Day.
Here’s how I approach the job of rough camping. Usually I begin scouring for a place to camp about half an hour before the sun sets. This is because I’d like to use as much of the day as I can to cycle, and once my tent is up I’d like it to get dark fairly quickly (remember: hide and seek against the world). However the half an hour is not fixed, it depends where I am. If you’re on a road carved into a rocky mountainside, a tortuous uphill, the chances of finding a decent rough camping spot in the 3 km you’ll accomplish in half an hour is slim, so maybe I’ll extend my hunting time to an hour. Equally if I’m whistling through an empty desert, turbo charged by a tailwind, then I don’t bother looking at all: as the sun sets, my campsite is guaranteed. I begin only noticing really great spots, but as dusk approaches, my fussiness falls, until in near darkness I’ll take anything I can get. Remember too that night falls fast near the equator, whereas at northern and southern latitudes you have lots more time.
Here’s another important rule, one I have learnt the hard way. If you think you’ve spotted a great rough camping spot from the road, then it’s not a great rough camping spot. You have the same binocular apparatus as everyone else, ideally hiding means no line of sight. I pause when suspicion grows of a decent place (at the risk of sounding wanky, there is a bit of instinct in this), and then lay down my bike and go for a brief foray on foot. Look behind things, on top of things, scour for cover. Follow trails (but always imagine where they might lead). Think about where car headlights will go once the sun sets (I’ve been outed many a time by camping on a corner). No joy? Collect your wheels, pedal on, and ‘sense’ the next opportunity. You’re a Jedi.
Camping in a Californian sea cave
A question that stumped me when I presented on this topic at the excellent cycle touring festival recently was that of legality. It stumped me, because it’s not something I care to think about much. Clean up, don’t camp on a farmer’s prize marrow patch (for one thing, it’s won’t be comfortable) and indulge your anarchic side, but do it steathily. If you’re good at rough camping, it doesn’t matter whose property you’re on.
Here are a few top tips:
Think about your tent. If your tent is the right colour to attract the attention of a remote helicopter pilot in the case of an avalanche, then you deserve everything you get. For rough camping, your tent should be of a dark tone, green or blue, not yellow or red. Otherwise it’s like the SAS putting on day glow and high vis to storm the jungle den of a Colombian Drug Cartel. It’s rough camping suicide.
Get a free standing tent. I virtually never use pegs, and I can’t recall ever using guys. There’s far too much weight in there for it to go anywhere. And if you don’t need pegs you can camp on concrete and on sand. The former is surprisingly useful: I’ve set up on petrol station forecourts, inside derelict houses, on old runways. Some tents will allow you to pitch the entire tent without pegs, others will allow just the inner. But at least some part of your tent must be freestanding. Smaller is obviously an advantage too, but always keep your kit inside.
Use a ground sheet. The terrain of rough camping is unpredictable and it will be harder than you imagine on your tent. Thorns, sharp rocks, cacti: all risk that slow, glum deflation of your sleeping mat, so take the precaution.
My friend Nyomi’s tent for traversing Africa. Try not to do this.
Think: do I need to? There are some parts of the world when it may not be worth the hassle. In places like Egypt and Ethiopia the attention can be overwhelming, getting found out would be too fraught with trouble and hotels in the latter cost a quid a night. In Myanmar it’s strictly forbidden, so be extra cautious, or take another option. In China, if anyone spots you, the police won’t be far away. In built up areas where accommodation is cheap and ubiquitous, maybe it’s better to use it. If you’re concerned about safety, I would often ask in the village instead of hiding away, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa where you’ll often be directed to camp outside the chief’s hut, and hence under his protection. You may also be invited to sleep in someone’s home, or in the local police station, fire station, hospital or school. Be careful in borderlands, which can be sensitive areas, especially if there’s refugees moving between countries and often military about.
Camping in a Zambian village, with permission from the chief
The Greek island of Samothraki. ‘Hi Mum. Yep, I’m in jail. Uh-huh…. camping.’
Never let anyone see you leave the road. Always wait for cars to pass before you make your foray.
Look up. There’s a tendency for people to look down into things rather than up at things, so aim high if you can, and there’s less chance of getting caught. Not such a great call if there’s a thunder storm. Obvs.
Found a decent spot. Good. But are you sure? I like the old cub scout adage: Look up, down and around. Up for deadwood, potential landslides (take care in the wet season in mountainous places, listening to the sound of crashing earth from my tent in western Myanmar was terrifying). Look down at the ground, make a guess at how absorbent the earth is. Leaf litter will absorb rain, sandy or clay-like soil could leave you with a soggy sleeping bag. Check for rodent holes and ants. It’s impossible to ant proof a tent. The gaps at the end of zips offer easy access. If there’s a morsel of food, they’ll find a way in, and they’ll invite a million mates. I’ve been evicted from my tent when a pullulating ball of fireants appeared on the roof of my tent through a half centimetre slit in the fabric, and I couldn’t return until the next morning. Leaf cutters have been known to march off with fabric too, creating a slowly enlarging hole in your tent. I’ve had a black widow spider and a scorpion under my sleeping mat. And look around for evidence of larger animals which can be a nuisance too. In bear-country you’ll have to remove your food from the tent and stash it somewhere (I’d hang it in a tree, or open the metal bins and stick it in the back.) But dogs will be problematic everywhere, not so much strays, more likely farm dogs. You can do your best to hide, but dogs will often give you away, as they’ll hear and smell you first and sound the alarm. Occasionally they’ll approach your tent, but remember most dogs are territorial, and anxious, especially at night. Usually they won’t go too far from home.
I was a bit worried about this. The idea that there was only one: a psychotic bird stalking the countryside. Turns out it’s Dutch for ‘cattle grid’.
Be discreet. Once the tent is up, it’s not time to celebrate with fireworks. If you’re close to houses, remember that a multifuel stove can reach 130 decibels. Don’t mess it up once you’ve done the hard work.
Greet strangers. If the games up, don’t look shifty and furtive. Take a few long, confident strides over to any onlookers, smile and say hello. This makes it more likely you’ll enjoy a night of peace.
ALWAYS lock your bike to your tent. I wish there was something else more attention grabbing than caplocks. ALWAYS!!! do this. I’ve heard all sorts of tales: Mongolian horsemen tying bikes to their horses and galloping away across the steppe. Doesn’t matter how remote you are, just make it habit.
Be practical. Here are some places you might want to avoid: hollows, unless you’re very confident it won’t rain. Dry rivers beds, unless you’re very, very confident it won’t rain (and if so, they actually make pretty good places, as it’s easy to get far from the road).
Beaches: A sea view. A morning dip. A setting sun firing up the sea. It sounds a nice idea, in the same way as building a raft and lighting out for distant shores sounds a nice idea, until you’re parched and starving and cold and soon-to-be-dead. There is little cover on beaches, few places to hide, and they tend to contain some irritating things for rough campers: sand, which fucks up zips, wind, which fucks up tents and frustrates stoves, dodgy characters and drunks, for whom beaches are a common stomping ground. And if it rains, it will likely come through the groundsheet.
Lakes: also nice for a morning dip, but if it’s mosquito season and you’re in the northern latitudes, be prepared to spend the night pissing into a bottle rather than risk unzipping the door.
How not to do it. Trying to escape gale force wind, Mongolia
My top tip: have patience. Not being choosy enough is the number one reason you’ll get found out. Scout well, be particular and you’ll be daisy-fresh for the road the next day. Cycling 130 km on 2 hours kip is really annoying.
A bit shit (the French Alps)
Best (The Peruvian Andes)
I hope I haven’t made that sound too troublesome. I have probably spent around 800-1000 nights rough camping over the six years I was on the road, so there have been a remarkable number of nights without fire ants and the threat of rabies. This must be true, though to tell you the truth, I can’t think of that many. You tend to remember the snafus.
I’ll be writing a number of these how-go guides over the next few months for touring cyclists. If you’ve enjoyed this, share it and leave a comment, and I’ll know I’m on the right track.
Spot the tent (Sayram Lake, Xinjiang province, western China)
Last week I posted a video featuring some highlights from the six years I spent travelling around the world on a bicycle, and it was predictably dominated by the people I met and cycled alongside. But it wasn’t all shits and giggles. In the name of balance, I’ve put together another film about the more gruelling times. Here’s something from the darker side…
This blog will continue! I’m just taking two months off to give talks, write my book proposal, make a video and rejoin my profession. I’ve created a new personal website, which has the dates of my upcoming talks around the UK…. www.stephenfabes.com. For now, I leave you with my last blog post…Stage one
I know what I said, alright. I know I made promises of a silky new blog, some quick and tidy tribute to the age of WordPress, with an array of mind-flipping images and prose to inspire great belches of pleasure. The pixelated equivalent to a newborn’s smile.
In truth I just didn’t realise how busy I was going to be once I got home, all that time I had for cycling has been wrestled away from me by obligations imparted by The Real World. I need a job. I need socks. I need time to be wistful for the open road.
So for now you’ll have to make do with this rickety, bug-infested clunker of a blog. I will continue here until it’s unsafe to do so.
So, how does it feel, one month after completing a six year bike ride? Surprisingly fresh, actually. But in a precarious way, like when you leap into an icy lake and realise it’s not that bad, but wait, is that an anaconda rippling the surface? My anaconda moment hasn’t come yet, there’s a honeymoon quality to my days, but I’m fully prepared for an emotional nose-dive in a few months’ time. As for now, I’m enjoying the not being a guest part.
I’m back in the bedroom of my adolescent self, surrounded again by medical notes I haven’t had the front to open and consider just yet. A mind map appeared one day on my bedroom wall in pencil. I wrote ‘life after cycling’ in the centre and the small spawning clouds about it soon took over the entire wall, thoroughly answering the question of what will I do once I get home. Answer: A lot.
Few journals to ponder
One morning it hailed. Ice, falling from a blue-grey sky, tinkled against my window and skittered down the roof. It doesn’t matter, I thought, and then lingered glumly on how unaffected I am now by the caprices of the outside world. I wasn’t going anywhere. Coming home keeps dealing me that familiar combo: a kiss, and a punch in the guts. Relief and disappointment. Bitter and sweet.
But whilst my experience of coming home is inevitably a bipolar one, the balance falls on the side of relief and satisfaction because, well, I was cooked. Done. I wanted to live more meaningfully. I wanted to populate my life with other people. I wanted to treat patients and work hard. I wanted all of this, and yet I have drawn up a list of future plans which include rowing the Pacific, hiking Madagascar and swimming the channel. Shit.
I did some media interviews on my return – radio shows, podcasts, that sort of malarky. Nobody though has taken me aside and said ‘you’re that cycling guy!’ no matter how much I’ve stared into their face and wished them to.
I’m broke, of course, and on a come-down from a six year buzz of regular exercise. I’ve discovered that whipping professionally attired men on road bikes on my mum’s rattling shopping contraption is only an ephemeral pleasure, that quickly gets boring. My appetite is unchanged, which is a worry considering my physical expenditure has changed quite a lot. The maths is easy, the result is momentus and jowly.
Mother’s day was a particularly special one for my mum, not just because it was the first in six years I’d been home, but because she got to take me clothes shopping and pay for all my stuff, the lucky lady. Leading me round Sports Direct, I clumped along behind, as she said things like ‘try this one on Stevey’. I was the only balding 35 year old man on the premises in this position, though there were a number of 12 year olds in a similar one. I could see the staff thinking: what’s wrong with that guy? The poor woman, mother to the most destitute and grimly attired medical doctor in the UK. She can’t have predicted this as she proudly watched me graduate from medical school.
But there is something wonderfully regressive about coming home to my mums. I toss my clothes into a laundry basket. Meals sometimes just arrive without me having to check how much petrol I have. On occasion I stand at the top of the stairs and shout ‘Muuuuuum!’ just so I can hear her say ‘yes Stephen?’ Ahhhhhh. Home. I’m threatening to stay for years.
A whole gang of the best people in my life made it to the homecoming and the homecoming party – that friendships were strong enough to survive six years was a relief, and I’m sure in some part due to the fact my mates are innately wonderful human beings, and another part due to facebook. It must have been challenging to forget me or my bike ride, as I steadfastly refused to be moved from people’s feeds.
I live in Oxford now, somewhere between a self-consciously scabby part of town, and a decidedly plush part. But Summertown, the small shopping bit, falls within the better part. Summertown has changed. The stinky chippy with its sodden hunk of chips in newspaper has gone, replaced by a bistro joint. The newsagents have similarly been cleared out at the cost of a Costa. A homeless man was sitting outside – I don’t remember homeless people in Summertown before, and I wondered whether the Costa had something tangential to do with it. And where all the yoots would sit and cram skunk into king Rizla, an eastern European man sells seafood paella out of a huge wok. Life moves on.
Sainsburys has automatic paying machines now, but they don’t hand you a receipt with terminator-like arms, and that’s a disgrace. This is the future. We have hoverboards, for Christ’s sake. I want to be served by an android, I almost pay taxes now, and it’s my right.
There is a wonderful cure for the crash landing of a long travel. And that’s to travel some more. So three weeks after travelling for six years, I went to Singapore.
The invitation arrived by email from an affable corporate man with the voice of a radio DJ. He’d read an article I’d written for an adventure travel magazine. And considering I had just drafted a list of all my various debts that went off the page and onto the back and onto another page and half way around the universe, the offer of payment for my services was hard to resist. I was to be an inspirational speaker, and I could handle that. I inspire myself sometimes, especially when it comes to eating cheesecake.
The trip came with additional benefits: I could visit my main men SK and Andy in Singapore, and fly to Jakarta and visit one of the marginalized people projects and my other friends Anne, Phillipe, Zoe and Simon. There was only one drawback really: I would fly to Singapore, which meant covering in 12 hours what had taken me two years to cycle. Balls.
I walked into arrivals in Singapore airport to find that there was a man holding a sign with my name on it. MY NAME! I was one of those people now, people who have their names on signs in airports! A dream come true!
‘It is I’ I announced with a solemn and suave affectation. The name was in Times New Roman! Not daubed onto a piece of cardboard like a hitch-hiker’s effort. I deserved Times New Roman! Sure, it wasn’t Georgia, but still. I wondered briefly who would get Comic Sans. Probably a drug-addled rock star with a penchant for paedophilia.
Of course I had a fierce bond with this stranger holding my name in his hands. We were basically blood brothers. Perhaps he didn’t share this sentiment as I plied him with questions about his family, life and passions in Singapore. And that was just on the way to the carpark.
He asked me, sternly now, to wait whilst he brought the car round, and so I stood in the muggy night beside an air hostess from Singapore airlines, who was also waiting for her ride. The air hostesses from Singapore airlines are dazzling, in every case. They wear clinging flowery dresses and smell like warm butter and when they smile an angel ejaculates.
The car, MY CAR!, arrived and it was a glitzy black BMW. Casually I stepped up to the vehicle as my driver opened the door, and then I swiveled to flash a smile at the hostess. Perhaps realising there was a real risk I was going to wink at her, my driver jumped in front of me blocking my sightline and took my bag.
Inside the car I supped on mineral water amid an assault of Kenny G type music on the stereo, but I didn’t let that spoil my excitement. This was big time baby.
Singapore was as I remembered it: reaching, glitzy, futuristic and stock full of supercars with nowhere to go, growling from one stop light to the next. It was another chance to marvel at the unlikeliness of it all – a city that grew from nothing, no natural resources to speak of. The BBC had, once again, just reported that Singapore is the most expensive city in the world to live in. So it was just as well that the company paid for all my expenses including the five star Swiss Hotel The Stamford, once, in the eighties, the tallest hotel in the world. Stepping out of the beemer a preened lady appeared immediately ‘Mr Fabes – let me show me to your room’ It’s possible she’s been waiting for me on the street for days.
I sauntered through the lobby where abstract impressionism adorned the walls and into the lift aside two generously bicepped Russian oligarchs. I was on the 56th floor and the lift moved so fast my ears popped.
When you’ve spent the meat of six years in a dank, congested tent, this is what happens when you arrive into a five star hotel suite. First: you sprawl, starfish-like, on the bed, as if you’re an actor in a TV advert for a hotel chain. Then you steal a few bedroom items for the sheer fuck of it – lamps and chairs etc. Then you photograph everything in the room, post on facebook and jeer at your mates for being paupers. Then you undress and stand naked in front of the twinkling expanse of Singapore with your arms outstretched and penis exposed to the city. Then you use the first name of the bellboy when you thank them, like a wanker. Then you push buttons for a while, turning on every electrical item simultaneously and the air con to minus 80. Then a boy knocks on your door and gives you complimentary chocolates in elegant packaging – there is nothing elegant in your manner of consumption. And then another man arrives, asking if you want a local or international newspaper delivered to your room each day. You demand both, of course. It was almost worth the frequent miseries and privations of rough camping for six years, just to appreciate the contrast. Almost, but not.
The towels were as big as curtains and as white as story-book clouds. I eyeballed the mini-bar ‘8 quid for 330ml can of beer!’ I yelled in blissful pleasure. The menu said that ‘guests may enjoy their favourite aperitif’ – I didn’t even have a favourite aperitif! How amazing! I briefly considered calling room service and asking for a heap of cocaine on a silver tray, or a massage ‘with extras’. I didn’t want a high class prostitute, you understand, I was just interested in whether I could get one.
The balcony, which opened onto the staggering gaud of the Singapore skyline, was unfortunately locked. I learned later this was because melancholy billionaires occasionally throw themselves off instead of taking the elevator. One landed quite recently on the pavement below, near McDonalds, an uncongenial entrance which presumably made someone’s happy meal a memorably unhappy one. Even the prospect of suicide at the Swiss hotel sounded rather fun. I’d do it at 3 am, high on coke, not a second story stumble off the roof of the Holiday Inn for me, but a glorious swan dive, careering 80 stories racing against a sparkling sky line. A rockstar’s death.
But then a curious thing happened: encompassed by all this opulence, it began to feel more novel than luxurious. Interesting, I thought, in my star-fish pose, rather than delightful! I thought the hotel might raise the bar, but in truth my tent had already done that on the occasional mornings I’d zip open its door to receive the glow of another dawn breaking over a distant saw of mountains. And then I’d find a spider in my sandal and shatter the peace with percussive bouts of ‘Arse!’
At the all-you-can-obliterate dinner buffet the hotel laid on, a little voice piped up in my head saying ‘play it cool’, but that took half a second, and by that time I’d played it extremely uncool by turning my plate into a glorious massif of incompatible foodstuffs. Sushi got a dressing of beef bouillon. Smoked salmon sat in a lake of, what was that anyway? Thousand island?
I wanted something to complain about, to watch as aghast staff scattered in all directions to alleviate my displeasure, but alas, everything was perfect. I used to wonder about those people who sat in hotel lobbies and drank coffee at seven times the price of the coffee on sale from an outlet 50 metres away. And now I was one of them! How wonderful!
There was an antidote on offer for the glutinous: the hotel had a gym, and I owed it to myself, after three weeks of determined inactivity, to go to it. I hate the fact that I have a choice to exercise now. Before, choosing not to exercise would mean not moving anywhere, and this wasn’t a choice I would ever make. Yet another complication of this new brassy life: guilt.
There are only two types of people that populate a gym. The first are vain, beautiful people, whose vanity and beauty is both a cause and effect of their visits to the gym. The second group consists of people who come to leer at the vain, beautiful people: a blobsome, physically conspicuous underclass. These people use special treadmills that I must assume have different settings to the usual ones: Stroll for the most determined and least blobulous. Followed in descending order by Saunter. Waddle. Lumber. And finally, Roll.
I imagine that the beautiful people leave the gym together, jump into cars and burn a few extra calories by ravenously fucking each other. This they do in three minute bursts, keeping their heartbeat less than 160, orgasming simultaneously on exactly 20 minutes and grading their performance against a Personal Best. The other group press their chops up against the glass and watch.
So I didn’t feel I really belonged in the gym. I didn’t fit into either group. But I knew I was a helpless victim to tomorrow’s extravagant breakfast, so I decided to give it a try.
First I did an ergo, and then, reverently, I moved onto an exercise bike. A fall from grace: from round the world bike ride to spinning class. There were preset workouts, but I tried each one and even on the mountain setting my heart beat plodded along in unimpressed applause. I’d have to crank this baby up.
Switching to manual mode, I put everything on maximum, dialed up an hour, and began to pedal, to some amused faces of the gym staff. The look turned to agog as I pistoned through mile after virtual mile. I hadn’t done any cycling for three weeks and so the fact that I did so well told me one thing: strudel is the elixir of life.
The gym was air-conditioned, just not enough. This was Singapore, and air-conditioning hasn’t yet got advanced enough for this city. My God did I sweat. It fountained off my brow, spurted from my pits, pooled beneath me and irrigated the rest of the gym, making little gutters and waterfalls beside neighbouring machines and their nonplussed operators.
For me a gym should be an all or nothing affair, I need to risk emergency cardiac surgery or I might as well stay on the sofa. Part of the reason is that buzzy hallucinogenic thrill that only comes with real exertion. It’s like briefly joining another world, where voices shimmer and colours sing. It’s addictive. I scare people in gyms, with my scarlet mug and gruntsome masochism. Sometimes, when I’m on one of those machines that tells you what your heart rate is, I wonder if my final fleeting vision in this life will be that of a digital display with the sequential figures 705, ?, error, 802, 0.
Not everyone feels the same way as me of course, especially not ones in the gym of the Swiss Hotel. One man on a treadmill was walking slower than most people do in the street. He’d come to the gym to become lazier. I half expected he’d be reaching for some nachos, and clocking up more calories than he was losing in real time. There were people reclining on the exercise mats, as if they were sun loungers. Another man was reading a book, READING! IN A GYM! If I’d tried that sweat alone would caused me to paper-mashe my own forearms. The only person seemingly working hard was a man on one of those squish-your-legs-toegether-and-grunt machines, I don’t know the technical term. You know what I mean. And he was only sweating because he’d hired what appeared to be a professional nagger. I’m told there is another word for these people: personal trainer. I wonder how a gym would advertise for that position ‘Jobs on offer. We’re hiring people who enjoy badgering others endlessly and who have little or no sense of compassion. Must be comfortable slinging insults at strangers. Previous experience as a school bully preferred.’
Nothing happened in all that cycling in the gym, nothing but my reflection growing sweatier in the copious mirrors all gyms have so that the vain can gorge on themselves. There were no landslides, torrential downpours (apart from of sweat) or ferocious dog chases. It just wasn’t the same thing. Surely I didn’t miss the wreckless drivers? I did, a little, I did. Somewhere, I thought, perhaps 100 or 200 or 500 km north of here, in the Malaysian palm oil plantations, was a cycle tourer hopefully scouting for a place to pitch their tent, amongst the dash of monitor lizards. And I envied them that, even though I could now sit in a white dressing gown, at a desk, and decide on my favourite aperitif.
I flew next to Jakarta and spent some nice days with my friends Anne, Phillipe and Zoe, giving talks and visiting the rubbish pickers homes on the edge of the city (research for the book).
And then I flew back to London, the captain of my plane announcing that the weather was ‘overcast with light rain’ which brought a small sarcastic cheer from my fellow passengers and made me smile at the Britishness of taking pride in our shortcomings, and pride in this pride too.
I arrived back to Heathrow to a very British clog of passengers at immigration, proving the comparative naffness of the UK compared to the efficiency of Singapore. In Singapore there was an electronic touch screen outside the toilets where you could rate their cleanliness. In Heathrow there were two blocked urinals, brimming with cold piss.
Travelators stun me, or rather the people who use them without walking. They are supposed to save you time in airports, but they’ve been hijacked by those who want to save on effort. Oh the laboriousness of bipedal locomotion! They are emblematic of modern societal sloth. Perhaps these people have some sort of laziness quota they have to fulfil per day, and the hours of sedentary stewing on planes wasn’t enough. I wondered what would happen if one of these travelators broke down with a full load of lazy souls on board. Would they just stand there, befuddled, until they succumbed days later to dehydration? Would I walk past skeletal shapes bleakly begging for nourishment? Would they end as a dry pile of bones stacked on top of the metal floor, rather than take a step forward? I want to grab them by the lapels and scream ‘LIFE is passing you by!’
So that’s it for this month, I will try to continue this blog monthly until the new one takes shape – I have no idea how long that will be.
Next for me: some talks, more writing (the book is shaping up), some kind of sport that doesn’t involve wheels and, if possible, a little less cheesecake. After all, I’m not a cycle tourer any more; I’m a writer, and one who doesn’t lust after heart disease (unless the heart disease comes with sprinkles and chocolate sauce, then: I’m game).