Cycling around the world is never meant to be easy. By definition, to bicycle 50,000km is meant to be bloody difficult! The way is not always paved and the going is not always downhill. To bicycle around the world means cycling over mountains, through deserts and over many unpaved roads.
To quote Alistair Humphreys, “It doesn’t have to be fun, to be fun!” I have now been on a world cycle for two years and have peddled over 30,000km, through 28 countries. Although you may call me ‘experienced’, there are times when the going is so hard and the road feels never-ending; when you feel exhausted and lonely, and you ask yourself “why am I doing this?” or “what am I trying to prove?” “ Shouldnt I be back home, with the safety and security of a regular job, with my friends and family around me?”
But my reality is that I’m in the middle of the Atacama Desert, pushing the pedals relentlessly, on my own with only my thoughts for company.
The Atacama Desert is located in Northern Chile, and is the driest non-polar desert in the world. Often compared to Mars, this lunar looking landscape lies between the Andes Mountain range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west, occupying a region of over 100,000sq kilometers and including climbs of 4500m. Needless to say, when you are cycling across the arid land you really feel small, a tiny dot on earth making a slow and steady pace.
I started my Atacama adventure in the town of Copiapo; my original intention was to head over the mountains from Chile to Argentina instead of cycling through the desert, but when I arrived at Copiapo, I was told that I was too late in the season: the border between Chile and Argentina is now close. So I had no choice but to head north for the more temperate borders and the beginning of 1000km of desert cycling.
The first 200km was actually quite pleasant since the road swung inland and took me along the coast with little shops along the way and the Pacific Ocean a constant companion. The road would climb up to give you majestic sea views before plummeting back down to sea level where I was able to purchase a snack or bottled drink. I was making good progress but once at the seaside town of Taltal, everything changes. The road begins to climb and you must climb from sea level to 2500km on very steep terrain and to make matters worse, the headwinds are constant and unforgiving. So my speed was halved meaning my supplies were also halved since it took me twice as long to reach the next re-fueling stop, therefore I had to carefully ration what I had. That was the start of my struggle with the Atacama;. I slowly made my way north, eating half rations and wondering why I was doing this. Who was I to take on the mighty Atacama?
I was really struggling with the wind, and to make matters worse, my bike began to click on every pedal stroke, not letting me forget I was pedaling, and this started to drive me mad! I would scream and curse at the wind and at my pedals, hoping that something would change to make the journey just a little easier. But I reminded myself how far I’ve already come; and so tough it out I did, and after six days, something magical happened. Reaching a toll booth I stopped and asked the police if I can charge my phone (so I can listen to podcasts and not have to listen to the squeaking pedals!) – he agreed but only to a decisive “five minutes!” After five minutes he comes out and instead of telling me to move on, presents me with a package of biscuits, yoghurts and a cheese sandwich!! Yes a cheese sandwich and I was so happy, it was probably this guy’s lunch and he had given it to me as token of goodwill. It was the tastiest, most satisfying sandwich I have ever eaten! Bread, butter and cheese but also sprinkled with the goodwill of humanity. I was so thankful to the policeman and cycled off with a massive smile on my face, and then to my surprise….he wind changed.
So instead of plodding along in the desert, it now felt like I was flying! I was full and I was happy. That night I found an abandoned train station so I set up camp and built a camp fire and watched the stars. Millions and millions of stars! And I was at peace with the world. I was happy and yes I was still alone, exhausted and asking myself again “what I am trying to prove?” but with the stars for company, I was content that whilst I hadn´t beaten the Atacama Desert, it also had not beaten me.
I love what I do and have accepted that sometimes the road will be hard and your head will drop; but the world is a beautiful place and if I never started this journey, or stopped when the going got tough.
The wind didn´t always stay with me after this day but my mood did, and I loved the rest of the desert and the big climbs and beautiful starry nights. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun since if you did not have the hard times how would you truly have the good? Don’t be scared - simply SAY YES MORE…. And who knows what will unfold. Be open, surrender to what life brings, and appreciate every moment… the hills and valleys, the clicking bikes and the cheese sandwiches.
Read more about my world cycle on my blog.
Also plenty of nice pics on my Facebook page!