Wednesday, 2 November 2011

81. Old cyclists never die, they just fade away

Over the past three years there have been several cyclists mentioned here, some met only for a day or an evening, others for a week or months or who knows how long! Those few regular readers who have been braving it out at this obscure corner of the blogosphere since the early days might be curious to find out what happened to those with whom I have shared the road, spaghetti a la spam and my tent with.

Recently returned from a cycling trip to Cuba, I got a reply from Kirsty to one of my forum posts, about cycling through Europe shortly before I left home. Autumn was arriving to Edinburgh and Kirsty was hoping to flee south with her comprehensive Oxford English-Spanish dictionary in tow. We met in Santander and stayed with my first couchsurfing hosts before setting off on a cake-fuelled journey across the northern Spainish mountain ranges, following fellow pilgrims into Santiago de Compostela, where Kirsty and I parted ways and she returned to Scotland to continue implementing government policies on sustainable transport. A couple of months later I got a message saying that she had been cycling to work as usual when a 32-ton truck ran over herself and the bike. Another few inches and she wouldn't have survived but as it was her leg had received the majority of the injuries and two years of operations and physiotheraphy were to follow where Kirsty was gradually able to begin walking unaided and ultimately begin a very gradual return to cycling, the pyschological impact of the accident lasting as long as the physical injuries. We caught up with Kirsty in southern Mexico for a couple of days earlier this year.

Already cycling partners from a month long tour of the Atlas mountains and Draa valley in Morocco in 2004, my cousin Mark arrived into Lisbon from Denver and we rode the final Iberian leg over to Tarifa, before I took the ferry to Tangiers. At that time the end point of the journey was to be somewhere in west Africa and one day on a quiet Andalusian road I remember telling him that I rather liked this cycling lark and whether he thought I should commit career suicide and keep on pedalling. As one of the more responsible members of the clan, with a secure job and a nice house, I valued his opinion. "Hell yes" was his reply. Recently Mark had planned to join us in Japan but first had to bail out at the last minute after a leg infection forced him to cancel his trip. A few days later Ellie broke her arm. You would think I'd been praying for solitude. Mark is due to join me here in Changsha in three days time to tour Hunan, Guizhou and Guangxi provinces together for a couple of weeks.

Perhaps in every journey of this nature, there comes a point when it seems like a good idea to go home, or go somewhere else, but forget about cycling. My moment came after just two week's into Morocco when I sat at the edge of the Sahara in the oasis town of Erfoud, thinking that I'd had enough. The first couple of weeks had been a shock to the system, the solitude of an alien language and culture were threatening rather than provoking curiousity and over the first couple of weeks as I moved south over the Middle Atlas and into the desert region I gradually felt more apprehensive about spending so much time ahead alone and pedalling the remote route ahead across the desert to west Africa. By the following morning I woke up with a resolve to find a cheap ticket out of Marrakesh and on my way to the internet I met Gernot again. We had met the evening before and had some food together. Although in his late fifties Gernot showed no sign of the middle-aged spread and ate a spartan diet of olives and figs as he covered a couple of hundred kilometres a day on his lightweight bicycle tour of the country. A veteran of the hippy trail to the Himilayas in the sixties and seventies, Gernot listened to me over a sweetbomb of mint tea at breakfast as I outlined the reasons why I thought I should go home. He talked about his own experiences in Asia as a young man and the inspiration he had from his hiking through various parts of the Himilayas for months at a time and now life as a husband, father and business owner where he could only hope to come away for a couple of weeks each year on his pedalling adventures. He pointed at my still largely blank notebook and suggested that it would be a shame not to fill it. Sometimes we meet the right person at just the right moment. I sent Gernot a postcard when I arrived to Cape Town.

Daren and Tatjana appeared out of the sand in southern Morocco and together we spent six weeks crossing "the biggest sand pit in the world" and into tropical west Africa. A week or so after we teamed up we were on the desolate highway about 80 kilometres short of the Moroccan (Western Saharan) border crossing with Mauritania when Daren was knocked off his bike by a passing truck that was being towed by another. A few kilometres on was the last settlement before the border and it consisted of a small hotel, restaurant and petrol station. The newly appointed doctor had just graduated from medical school in Casablanca and regarded his penance stoically, counting the days when he would be able to return to a proper position back in Morocco. He offered Daren some aspirin, the only medicine available. As a nurse, Tati was acutely aware of the risks from the symptoms that Daren was feeling and it was clear that Daren should be checked out further. So the following morning we stuck out our thumbs and hitched a ride in a beat-up old Mercedes with a friendly Mauritanian guy heading back up north, the 300-odd kilometres to Dakhla and the nearest hospital. At the military hospital in Dakhla, Daren was given some pain killers and anti-inflammatories but the doctors felt that his head injury was otherwise not too serious and after a few days rest we were back on the bikes. Daren and Tati continued on and arrived back in the UK last year having circumnavigated the world the pedally way. They had opened a new culinary world to me in utilising local ingredients for impressive one pot stews as well as instilling the value of a fundamentalist approach to wild camping.

German Sven had joined the three of us during our journey south across the Sahara and continued on through some of west Africa's most troubled countries. He returned to Germany for a couple of years and his dormant blog started to send me updates again recently as he left Europe for the Middle East and the crossing to Asia. We may meet on the road.

And then there was Piotr. Having met initially in Mauritania, then again at the Guinea embassy in Dakar, we agreed to meet for Christmas in Guinea. Unfortunately the Guinean president died and the military stepped in to take over the morning I was due to enter the country, being alerted by the BBC world service as I ate my breakfast in Guinea Bissau. So I went around Guinea, through western Senegal into Mali and didn't hear from Peter. A month later he missed me by twenty minutes when I left Mali's capital Bamako. A couple of week's after that and still unaware he was anywhere nearby, a couple of men pulled up in a battered car on a road leading into Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou and told me to sit and wait for my friend, he would be coming down the road. Who was this friend? I had spent most of my first week in Burkina in a toilet and I didn't recall too many friends that would be coming down the road. Fifteen minutes later, a dirty Polish cycling shirt rolled into view. As we sat in the shade of a tree in a small village, while young kids chased giddy goats around, I asked Peter what he thought about cycling to South Africa together and for the next six months we crossed central Africa and reached Namibia. We planned to split for a few days while Peter headed to the coast at Swakopmund and I took a more direct route to Windhoek and a few days later, when Peter didn't show up at the appointed hour I headed on across the Kalahari into Botswana, leaving a message for him. I didn't think it unusual not to hear from him, email was a penance he avoided at all costs, apart from essential communication with home and to let his patient girlfriend know that he was still alive. Months later though I received a message from him explaining how he had broken his foot on his way to Swakopmund and a farmer had taken him in and made him rest and then given him work. When he finally cycled down to Cape Town, his bike was finished and he had decided to return to Poland. We exchange messages about once a year and the last time his girlfriend was expecting a child. If we go back through Poland we'll drop by and say hello.

Peter and I met Rune in Cameroon's capital, Yaounde, as we played the visa game. Rune was a genuine Norwegian giant who had started his journey in Bolivia where he had been working at an orphanage and decided to go cycling and fundraising for it. I made a note about the orphanage in Cochabamba and Rune told me to contact him if I made it to the Bolivian city. A year later I would find myself staying there for a month and then meeting Ellie a couple of days before I started cycling again. When I met Rune he had already been cycling two years, including crossing Canada in the winter and he'd come through some of the more troubled parts of west Africa with some good stories. He hoped to catch up with us in Angola but he wanted to go further inland via the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which I was happy to avoid in the rainy season as well as the unstable security situation in many of the provinces at the time. Unfortunately Rune was there at the same time as a couple of his fellow countrymen were on trial, accused of mercenary activities and diamond smuggling and in one of the areas he went through the local authorities decided to arrest him when they saw his Norwegian passport and then beat him quite badly, including breaking his hearing aid during one beating. A couple of weeks later, staff at the Norwegian embassy managed to secure his release and he was flown home, his first visit in several years.

The longest surviving comrade on the road will be back out in three weeks time, 14 months after we started pedalling up those steep Andean hills out of Medellin in central Colombia.

Changsha, China

1 comment:

Gert & Veerle said...

Nice! we're keeping up with you ;-)