Earlier this year, TWC contributor Emily Conrad-Pickles rode from London to Cape Town, to raise money for World Bicycle Relief. The charity use bicycles to change the lives of impoverished individuals – allowing children to get to school and adults to travel for work.
Emily has been back home for a couple of months now – here she looks back on the journey and answers some of the FAQ’s of the last few months…
It turns out that 19,000km on a bicycle is a really long way. And it was much, much harder than I imagined it would ever be. In previous articles, I’ve recounted tales from the journey I took from London to Cape Town by bicycle with my partner James over the past year and now, we have finished, I’m taking a look back on our journey and what it’s like to be back home in London.
Eat, sleep, ride, repeat really became our lives
“You did what?" is a pretty regular question I get asked. I usually reply, somewhat flippantly, “well, I cycled from London to Cape Town". It’s been just over three months since we finished and I still don’t think it’s actually sunk in exactly what we have achieved. I guess it’s because cycling all day, almost every day, for nearly a year, it just becomes normal – it became a new way of life and after a few weeks we forgot what was like to be in an office. Eat, sleep, ride, repeat really became our lives.
It’s been a year of extreme highs and lows but it was quite simply an incredible experience to travel across the world at a pace that was slow enough for us to appreciate every landscape and to try to understand the people who lead very different lives to us.
There are so many tales and stories to tell that it’s impossible to know where to start so I thought I’d answer some of the most frequent questions that we’ve been asked since we returned home. One thing is for sure however, that travelling by bicycle is extraordinary and something that every cycling enthusiast should try to experience at some point in their lives (even if just for a day or two).
What was the best country you cycled in?
This is by far the hardest question to answer and I always feel like I should know what to say. The truth is that so many countries were amazing for so many different reasons but Turkey is the main contender.
Turkey was full of surprises; the rural areas were beautiful (but very hilly) and every day we ventured through new, enchanting landscapes and we met some incredibly friendly people along the way. We wild camped every night (except in Istanbul) and found some weird and wonderful places to sleep; from mountain top forests to petrol stations and we were even invited one night to sleep in an Audi showroom! Throughout the country people welcomed us, offered us tea, gave us their home grown vegetables, shared their bread, laughed and went out of their way to not only welcome us to their country but to ensure that we were looked after and safe. Even the soldiers who’d popped out of the bushes to prevent us from cycling across a military training ground offered us their precious rations and insisted on selfies once they were able to establish that we would cycle round their bombing practice.
What was the worst country?
This is definitely an easier question to answer. Ethiopia presented some of the biggest challenges to cycle through. Our journey in Ethiopia didn’t start well as I was incredibly unwell. The peace, quiet and solitude that we experienced cycling through the Sahara in Sudan ended abruptly as soon as we crossed the border into Ethiopia. We were greeted with constant loud shouts of “YOU! YOU! YOU!" which was generally followed by “Money! Money! Money! Money!" This continued all day, every day without fail.
Ethiopia is mountainous so we spent the best part of a month slowly chugging our 75kg bicycles and panniers up 10,000ft passes often with whole villages of children running after us shouting and throwing stones at us.
It’s no wonder why we found it the most difficult country to cycle across!
What was your best memory?
Crossing the finishing line in Cape Town! That aside, I have one stand out moment from the adventure, which took place in Sudan.
We were about 2-3 days ride from the border with Ethiopia. I was really unwell and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was feeling sick and was experiencing frequent heart palpitations which meant I couldn’t ride for more than 10 minutes at a time before I would have to stop and lie down. All I knew was that I was in a bad place and needed to get into Ethiopia where it was cooler and we could be closer to a hospital.
We’d pulled off the road for a few hours in a small trucking town to get out the searing midday sun and have a cool Coke (or three) but when we left I soon realised that I didn’t have my wallet. We cycled back to where we’d been resting to see if the wallet was still there. I know that seems unlikely but, considering we’d received such incredible hospitality throughout our time in Sudan we did think that it might be possible.
Sadly the wallet had gone gone but we asked around to see if anyone had seen it. There wasn’t much in the wallet - it had a credit card that is useless in Sudan due to international sanctions and about $20 in Sudanese pounds. The only problem was that we would not be able to get hold of any more money until we reached the border – so we needed those few pounds for food.
After a while we had gathered quite a crowd and a man who spoke a little English approached us. We asked him to pass on the message that we did not want anyone to get into trouble, we just needed the wallet back so that we could have the credit card back and a few dollars to buy some bread and rice. A few minutes later, we were handed a pile of cash – about $8 worth – which he had collected from the local people to help us buy enough food to sustain us for a few days. It was humbling. There we were in the middle of the Sahara desert, where people barely scrape enough together to feed themselves each month but they were more than willing to spare something for people in need. Ironically, we actually struggled to spend the $8 before we left the country, as so often in Sudan, the local market sellers and shopkeepers wanted us to have the drink or vegetables we were buying for free as we were “guests in their country". Experiences like this are amazing and I’m sure would never have happened had we not been travelling by bicycle.
What was your worst memory?
Our first day in Kenya. We had now been going for about 14 days non-stop and after descending 3,000m from the Ethiopian highlands into the lower Omo Valley in south west Ethiopia it was as if somebody had opened the oven door and we were cycling straight into it.
It was tough, the terrain was dreadful and often we had found ourselves hauling our 75kg bikes and bags up hills through thick sand. We’d hoped to have a rest day at the border however the immigration official had other ideas and insisted we leave immediately. So, despite me not being well with a very bad stomach on top of starting to experience the same heart palpitations I had in Sudan we were forced to embark on the tough journey through one of the most remote and inhospitable regions of our whole trip.
We were aiming for a remote Catholic mission which we had heard about – which was just over 48km away.
But to get there, we had to travel across the no-mans-land between Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. It’s an area known for military activity and tensions between the local tribes whose ancient rivalries are escalated by the new competition for the dwindling water resources in the West Turkana region.
As soon as we left Ethiopia, the road disappeared and we guided ourselves through the unforgiving desert with a compass. The feint path varied from hardened mud to thick sand within an instant so we were regularly falling off our bikes or having to get off to push.
By the 6pm sunset we had only managed about 44km, that last 4km was a hurdle too far. I spent half of that day in tears…I was completely broken and felt like I had absolutely nothing left in me to carry on. It’s a strange feeling knowing you are in the middle of nowhere, desperate for some water and shade, knowing you can find it in 4km yet you don’t have enough energy left to keep going for another 30-45 minutes to get there. It was days like this day that tested us both to our absolute limits – both as individuals but also at a couple. It’s hard when the person you love more than anything is shouting at you to keep going, purely because he knows that we had to keep going for our safety but you don’t want to, because you feel like you have run out of everything and used all your reserve – and you can’t understand how he can’t see that you are in tears, too tired and can’t move a meter further.
We slept out under the stars in the desert that night, too exhausted to even finish our dinner.
What did you eat / drink?
It depended where we were but for the majority of the journey, we struggled to find much more than rice, tomatoes, onions, bread and biscuits. Oh there is nothing better than a cold Coke (even if you don’t even like fizzy drinks!) when you are hot and thirsty – needless to say the first thing we both did when we got back was go to the dentist.
Did you get a sore bum?
YES! James would often say that it felt like even his saddle sores had saddle sores on them! Sometime having a little extra natural padding does have its benefits as I struggled much less than him in the saddle area! We were very grateful that we had top of the range Brooks saddles and some sturdy VAUDE padded shorts!
You are a couple – how was that? Do you still get on?
People seemed so surprised that we had decided to do this as a couple! I’m happy to say that yes we are still getting on and are engaged to be married next March. It’s safe to say that spending a year on a bicycle with your partner will test any relationship to its limits but we are happier than ever and have probably covered 10 years of a relationship in one year!
How much money did you raise for World Bicycle Relief?
We’re currently on £26,321 - and it’s still rising! We are overwhelmed by the support that we have had and are still working hard to keep this figure growing.
World Bicycle Relief is a fantastic charity that aims to stop distance becoming a barrier to education, healthcare and employment through the power of bicycles.
- When you give a child a bike attendance rises by 28 per cent, grades increase by 59 per cent
- Healthcare workers reach 40 per cent more patients
- Entrepreneurs travel 4 times further carrying 5 times more goods, raising profits by 50 per cent
We have been able to see first hand the real impact that a bicycle can make to individuals living in the more remote communities. Education is always the first thing to disappear in these areas as people struggle to make enough money and the long term impact of this means that areas will never move forward and develop.
Distance can quickly become a barrier to education, healthcare and commerce.
Incredibly, just £95 will buy a Buffalo Bike and can genuinely change someone’s life.
Would you do it again?
NO! Well, yes…maybe.
What’s life like back home and have you been back on your bike?
It’s been tough reintegrating with normality again. At first I was so happy to be back but then, once routine kicks in, it’s only natural that you start to miss the open road and worry that your adventure is fast becoming a just a memory. I got straight back on my bike and completed the Etape Du Tour in France and then James and I did the Ride 100 on our fully loaded touring bikes, which was good fun. I then had a break and have not been on a bicycle for three weeks, I think that’s a record for me and you’ll be pleased to know that I’m now ready and raring to start cycling again now I’ve had a little break!
To read yet more about Emily's adventure, or to donate to World Bicycle Relief, visit the London to Cape website here.