One year ago, I woke up in a roadside motel. The humidity was suffocating and the fan in the room provided little relief. The room was choked with dirty bikes, panniers, and clothing crystallised with dried sweat. It was the end of our first week on the road and I had a realisation as I got out of bed: this would be our reality for more than a year.
In May of 2017, Sean, my brother Arthur, and I set off from Auckland Airport for Bali. We had boxes loaded with Surly Long Haul Truckers and panniers chaotically packed into a stuffed bag. That morning we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The fear of leaving a comfortable life for one of uncertainty was very much taking hold.
On the outset we decided to cycle from Bali, in Indonesia, to London. It was to be the culmination of years of dreaming, planning, and training and was to be the greatest adventure of our lives. Leaving behind family and friends at the departure gate was impossibly difficult. We were taking on a challenge we could plan for endlessly but could never be totally ready for.
In our first few weeks, the cycling was difficult and the days long and hot. We had no idea about the importance of mapping, so on our first day we rode over an unplanned 1,400 metre mountain pass. Consequently, we cycled until sundown that day. The heat was oppressive, the cars and scooters noisy, and the fitness lacking with bikes that weighed more than 50 kg.
After the first few weeks we got used to the pace of life on the road. The comings and goings of fatigue and rest. Never being in the same bed twice. It all started to fit into place and a few weeks after landing in Indonesia we had made it to the country’s capital, Jakarta.
For the next few months we enjoyed white sand beaches on the east coast of Malaysia and in South Thailand. The pace of the trip slowed. We began to meet other travellers and cycle tourers, all enjoying the long days in the sun. Coral reefs and beaches morphed into the endlessly flat rice fields of Cambodia.
In Vietnam, we cycled the Ho Chi Minh Highway up the mountains of the central highlands. Every day we rode through the inevitable midday thunderstorm, crossing passes once negotiated by the Viet Minh to supply guerrilla troops in the south during the American War. In one month, we cycled from Hanoi to Yangon, in Myanmar, across the mountains of Laos and Thailand. Regular bouts of food poisoning weakened our bodies and we became thinner and thinner on a diet of rice and noodle soup.
In January we cycled across the Ganges in the Indian province of West Bengal on our way to the Himalayas in Nepal. We crossed the lowlands, known as the Terai, and then up into the mountains themselves from Kathmandu to Pokhara. The sense of the immensity of our journey certainly took hold as we stared up at the 8,000 metre peak, Annapurna.
It took a month to cycle through the winter of Georgia and Turkey to Istanbul. After weeks of riding in snow, fog, and rain we crossed the Bosphorus Bridge into Europe. With inconspicuous promptitude, the sun came out and shined on us during our ride towards the port town of Izmir and on to the Greek islands.
It’s a strange thing being on a bicycle almost every day, spending eight hours in the saddle, the only distraction being the mountains you pass or the river and the snakes beside the road. I’ve had endless amounts of time to think about what matters to me and I consider that to be one of the joys of the bicycle. People have reached out, sensing our vulnerability to the elements, to our own self-prescribed torture. It’s been a truly special exercise in embracing ourselves and the countries and cultures we have experienced.
When we set off we decided to work with Leukaemia and Blood Cancer NZ with the aim of raising $1 per kilometre. At this stage we have raised more than $15,000, which was our initial goal. Upon our arrival in London in July we hope to have raised over $20,000 and ridden more than 20,000 kms. Our journey will conclude in November when we ride the Round Taupo race, fully kitted out with 50 kg touring bicycles loaded with all that is unnecessary to complete the race. We are all looking forward to joining Kiwis in the biggest race in the country and celebrating the end of our expedition.
You can contribute to the The Big Bike Trip ride for leukemia here.
Words & Images: Freddie Gillies & Sean Wakely
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