Riding the Rough Roads to Southern Skies

I’m not a sporty person, but sometimes I dream of some sort of grand walking or biking tour. Steve has actually done it- he’s biking across the entire world! Here’s his account of his harrowing trip through Europe and Africa:

Like all decisions of great consequence my plan to cycle around the world was made in a pub, beer in one hand, mini-atlas in the other. I was working as a hospital doctor in London and struggled with the question of whether it was brave or stupid to say goodbye to it all, to my friends, to my family, to my country and to the job that I loved. Finally I gave myself permission to ignore my doubts and to embark on an epic adventure – a five year bicycle ride across six of the earth’s continents. I was terrified but I couldn’t wait to get started.

As my lonely migration east began and I cycled slowly away, full of trepidation and emotion, the coldest snap in almost thirty years descended upon the UK. As the snow piled up hoards of hyperactive kids began hurling snowballs at anything mobile; it was akin to a military operation. They flanked bridges over the A2 and aerial bombardments rained down upon me as they fired at will and without restraint. I was relieved to board a boat bound for France but the big freeze continued and as I climbed up into the Alps the temperature at night plummeted to minus twenty degrees Celsius.

Eastern Europe was warmer but came with its own unique challenges and Greece was the venue for the first in a series of acts of terrorism from fiercely territorial farm dogs, making haste from menacing mutts became part of my daily routine. By the time I had reached the Turkish border my left knee was swollen and sore. Twice I wondered which component of my bike was clicking only to realise the sound was emanating from my leg. Following a scan I discovered that a chunk of cartilage had broken off the end of my femur. Crushed and heartbroken I stashed my bike somewhere safe and then hitch-hiked back to London for surgery.

Post op and after two months of physiotherapy I returned to Istanbul. Mid-summer now I sweated my way through the cauldron of the Middle East, drinking up to eleven litres of water a day, but the hardship was tempered by unparalleled hospitality I encountered along the way. In Cairo I met up with Nyomi, a friend from the UK, together we planned to tackle all of Africa.

We set off, a curious, grinning, two-person peloton. I took a long look at my new companion. She sat proudly aloft her heavily laden touring bike wearing a large green rimmed hat. Two dreadlocks protruded from under the rim, a piece of luminous twine was tied into her hair and a ukulele was strapped to her back. Tethered to her handlebar bag was a bright yellow metal plate emblazoned with the words “I DON’T BRAKE FOR ANYONE’. I laughed at the sharp contrast – she appeared at once to be a friendly hippy and violent sociopath.

Crossing a vast wild lake at night gave our entry into Sudan a surreptitious and mysterious edge. With the serene solitude of the night time desert there comes a filament of vulnerability, something I’ve always been drawn to and the essence of a good adventure. In the baking climes we kept our spirits up by riding side by side, talking of life back in England, shared friends and past experiences, the good and the bad.

Ethiopia was a land brimming with both people and livestock and after two and a half thousand kilometres with barely an incline to test our quads, it was here that we spied our first mountains. It soon felt as though we were at sea and a vicious storm was brewing, the hills rolled in like great waves, each one more foreboding than the last. Every day gangs of children chased after us, chanting ‘YOU! YOU! YOU!’, demanding money, waving sticks, throwing stones and stealing from our bikes. But I soon discovered that what Ethiopia takes, it also gives back. The same boisterous chancers would push us up the hills, tiny hands pressed against my racks and panniers, propelling me upwards for five or even ten kilometres. I realize that the image of a group of small, poor, exhausted, black African children pushing a white Englishman uphill on a bicycle is a disconcerting one. Some would say that it even has colonial undertones. I guess you just had to be there.

Over Christmas I gorged myself, safe in the knowledge that I needed the calories. I had lost 15 kg since Istanbul and there’s not an image more bleak or farcical than a grown man in baggy Lycra. Whilst Nyomi sat on a bus bound for Nairobi I cycled off alone into the arid, thinly populated badlands of Northern Kenya, a region famed for tribal warriors, nomads and ruthless bandits. I pushed my bike through a sandy, desolate wilderness for days, this was the very edge of civilization. Finally reunited with Nyomi we rode together through the verdant and undulating tea plantations of Uganda and Rwanda, the roadside was full of bright eyes and winsome grins, but it wasn’t long before we found ourselves immersed in the tropical wet season. Every day a portentous concrescence of black clouds gathered overhead but hoods up; we resolved to keep on pedaling through the onslaught. The more horizontal the rain and the more punishing the headwind the sunnier our songs became. In the torrential bursts we bashed out an assortment of reggae classics.

Finally after 23,215 kilometres, 26 international boundaries, one year and four months on the road, 265 days in Africa and a whopping puncture count yet to be tallied, I rode into the Cape of Good Hope. I studied Belinda, my bicycle. She had scrappy ribbons of electrical tape holding together the handlebar grip, there were scratches on the frame and tie wraps sat where long lost pannier clips should be. She wore the marks and scrapes of those sixteen months on the road, and so do I. The contours of my legs have changed, I’m thinner, there are two small scars on my left knee and my hairstyle is bordering on full blown mullet.

I have relished this first stage of my ride for many, many reasons. Living outside, plenty of exercise and all the unfamiliar faces and places have conspired to make me feel more alive than ever before. I’ve reveled in the unpredictability of life, of often having no clue where I’ll be sleeping, the buzz of carrying everything I need in my panniers and the freedom that I know I’ll never have again. I am no longer caught up in the tide of rapid choices and consequences that inevitably comes with a life in the city. It’s a good feeling.

I have many warm and enduring memories from Africa. I remember the magnificent vistas, the thick forests, the empty deserts, the towering mountains and the rolling hills, but no landscape was as vivid, colourful or inspiring as the people I met along the way. Nine months ago I set off into what I was assured was the most frustrating, dangerous and incomprehensible continent on earth. I think I will remember Africa as the most life-affirming, the most human, and perhaps the most beautiful. And when people ask me ‘what was the best bit?’ I find it hard to answer. The best bits all involved people, but there are far too many to mention.

St Thomas’ Hospital forecourt, London – January 5th 2010. Steve said cheerio to loved ones and then started pedaling – he will be pedaling for the next five years. Steve’s lonely migration east began in Europe and then south through Africa but will eventually see him travel by bicycle the length of six of the earth’s continents in an epic journey during which he will cycle a distance equivalent to twice the circumference of the earth.

Some time in late 2014 Dr Fabes will return and who knows what travails he will have endured to reach this frontier, although it is likely he will be sporting an ungodly amount of body hair and intermittently blurting out the insane ramblings of someone who has become more calf muscle than man.

To follow the blog go to http://www.cyclingthe6.blogspot.com and to find out more about Steve’s journey visithttp://www.cyclingthe6.com

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5 thoughts on “Riding the Rough Roads to Southern Skies”

  1. Hahahaha!!! This is classic!

    “…there are two small scars on my left knee and my hairstyle is bordering on full blown mullet.”

    Besides the mullet, this is quite an inspirational story! I’ve been wanting to backpack through South America for a while now. One day I hope to have as much freedom as you did going through Africa. 😀

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