Friday, February 18, 2011

Cycling vs. Backpacking- a personal view

I wrote this piece when I returned from South America. It gives a personal view on the advantages of travelling as a cyclist compared with the experiences of a backpacker (i.e. from a Latin American perspective).

Cycling gives the traveller freedom and independence. It is a cheaper, cleaner and healthier form of transport. And, remarkably, it is safer.

Freedom and Independence
A cycle tourist (or touring cyclist) has more independence than the backpacker. With his/her own form of transport the cyclist can stop where he wants to marvel for ages at the unfettered scenery in peace. The landscape is not blemished by a filthy window or obscured by dust and not whizzing passed in a blur. Instead of being deposited at a crowded bus station with touts and thieves hassling you, you can look for a secluded and quiet campsite unbothered by anyone. Not staying in the Lonely Planet gringo hotel where all backpackers congregate, meeting only other foreigners. On a bicycle you are constantly engaging with the local population, laughing with them, marvelling at their culture and sharing something special. It is improvised, unplanned and authentic.
To really appreciate this sense of independence, I had to take the odd bus (3 in all) between towns and it proved to be a drab, boring and uncomfortable experience. You feel like leaping out of the window and getting back on your rolling wheels. In Tibetan it is called jota, or iron horse. So, it's a hankering to get back on the saddle and to be a lung ta, or wind horse. (Actually in Patagonia wind was the predominant factor).

In South America I was initially concerned about safety, especially threats of robbery, kidnapping and political unrest. However, I found out cycle-touring was in fact safer than travelling by local transport. The bus drivers are death-defying madmen and I saw the tragic evidence of many accidents littering the dangerous Andean roads. Also we met many backpackers who were robbed by professional thieves lurking in bus and railway stations and around ‘gringo’ hotels. On a bicycle you don’t frequent crowded transport hubs and you are less vulnerable cycling through large towns and cities than the lone walking backpacker. Camping in the wild can expose you to danger but we were always well hidden and well away from the road. We were often seen camping by locals but no-one bothered us. After nearly 14,000kms we arrived at our destination unscathed, without losing a single item to theft. (In comparison, when I travelled through Peru on my own as a backpacker in 1985 I had 4 robbery attempts on me and 2 were successful).

The Philosophy and Psychology of Cycling
 I took up cycle touring in 2001 after a climbing accident (Mt. Geryon, Tasmania). I suffered a badly fractured ankle which ruled out overnight hiking for a few years (ie. carrying heavy loads). So, on a trip to Canada I bought a canary yellow, oversized Cannondale (OK, it went cheap cheep like a canary) and a BOB trailer.

 On returning home to Tasmania, I set off on a trip in Central Australia, riding through the rugged Flinders Ranges, the Oodnadatta track and on the edges of the Simpson Desert. I travelled with an old mate of mine (Stu Graham) and we were totally self-sufficient. This trip was like an epiphany to me - the vast open outback country where the days were as endless as the horizon. Camping wild in sandy dry creek beds and riding on rough tracks brought a carefree simplicity to our lives. Away from the madding crowd and  boring and frivolous suburban society, your life becomes a joy and not a chore. Waking up in a tent, getting breakfast ready, packing up the bike and riding off into the unknown gives my life a completeness. I keep cycling now to recapture that pared-down, simple, self-reliant, nomadic existence I first experienced in the outback in 2001. I was ecstatic and moved by the multi-coloured painted deserts, the vast emptiness and big sky, and the stillness and tranquility of the arid environment. I re-discover this body-mind-spirit thrill each time I set forth on cycling expeditions.

Cycling out there on lonely, remote roads gives you an intense feeling difficult to describe. The Perth band, the Triffids, captured some of this feeling in their song "Wide Open Road"......
The sky was big and empty
My chest filled to explode
I yelled my insides out at the sun
At the wide open road.

Cycling Trips 2003-9. When, Where & Who
·       2003 Eastern Tibet (with Rob Cooper, friend)

·       2005 Eastern Tibet (with Judy, partner)

·       2006 Trans Tibet -Yunnan, China to Kathmandu Nepal (solo)

·       2007 Australia -Alice Springs to Adelaide via Simpson Desert (w/4 special mates)

·       2008-9 Sth America Andean ride - Colombia to Patagonia (solo 2008 w/Judy 2009)

The solo rides are the most intense, where you really feel ‘out there’. It’s nice to have company to share the long days on the road but the solitude and aloneness adds a new dimension to the trip. Just you, the elements and your shadow on the ground.

The Good, the Bad & the Beautiful
Like the high mountain passes, cycling has its ups and downs. Here are some personal ones.

Bad moments - mishaps and downers
·       Tibet – rabid aggressive Tibetan mastiffs. I was always in fear of these beasts as I rode through towns, security posts and nomad settlements. Only speed, rocks and the pink sausages would save me from a fate worse than death. The choice is in the moment and situation (quick thinking needed here!). In the vein of the kids game of 'paper, rock, scissors', I call this trio - sanger, rock, clappers (as in 'go like the clappers' - bloody quick, which is no small thing at over 4000m).

·       Tibet- climbing my last pass in Tibet Larung La at 5200m with a bad bout of food poisoning. High altitude and bad stomachs don’t mix too well.

·       Tibet- riding through towns with security posts (6 times) at 4-5am in -20 degrees Celsius temperatures. Lurking dogs keeping me alert. Pitch-black darkness and passed the sleeping security. Chinese PSB (Public Security Bureau) try to stop independent travellers from entering Tibet from the east as it is illegal.

·       Tibet- the day my mate, Rob Cooper lost his bicycle. It was stolen by Tibetan bandits as we camped in a remote area of Sichuan province. Rob was terribly disappointed and returned to Indonesia.

·       Central Australia- carrying 25 litres of water and 7 days of food in the BOB along the waterless and rough Old Andado track.  A difficult route with heavy loads - thick sand & corrugations.

·       South America – Peru. On June 7 2008 I fell on a bad rocky stretch of road and broke my collarbone. It was quite remote, I was alone and it took me 4 days to get to Lima and another 3 to get back to Tasmania. It was a painful ordeal. After some excruciating manipulation by a huesero, or 'bone man' in Lima, and the lack of painkillers on the 20 hour flight across the Pacific, I arrived in Tasmania a shadow of my former self. The bone took over 6 months to heal. I returned to Peru with Judy the following year to complete the ride (north of where I fell off the previous year).

South America- Patagonia – the Land of Tempest. The winds of Patagonia are hard to describe. We had 140kph headwinds in Argentina (we pushed our bikes all day to go 28kms!). 120kph tailwind into Punta Arenas, Chile. I reached 57kph without pedaling for 10kms! And lateral crosswinds try to push you into cars- leaning your body and bike into the wind was the best strategy.

Here is a video of the 120 kph tailwind hurtling towards Punta Arenas, Chile. Look at my feet, no pedalling and still clocking 47 kph on the flat!
    You can see more videos of the Patagonian winds on my other blog- (scroll down page to post on Jan 3, 2010) and find 'Land Of Tempest'- 3 videos of crosswind, headwind and tailwind on the pampa.

·       South America  - Bolivia. Dust storm between Uyuni and Atocha Sept 2009. Judy disappeared and lost her way in the wild dust storm. 2 metre visibility. Little water, no camping, so we had to ride all day. Rode the last hour in the dark. 108 kms, 10 hours on the bicycle seat!

Other problems-
·        Deep sand in roads (Bolivia, Tibet), impossible to ride, lots of pushing.

·        Altitude problems- lots of climbing. In Colombia I climbed 2300m in one day! In South America I climbed a total of 130,000 vertical metres, about 15 times up Mt. Everest.

·       Rain - lots of wet weather in Sth Chile and Ecuador. Very muddy roads.

High moments
·       Reaching a 5000m pass in Tibet after climbing all day from the valley floor. Shouting "Gyatso la" to the gods as the prayer flags flapped in the wind.

·       Riding in the shadow of Mt Everest at 5350m at 7am and watching bharal (blue sheep) climbing a distant ridge above the fluted ice of Rongbuk glacier.

·       Soaking my body in an outdoor hot spring in Tibet after climbing over Trola Pass (4980m). Snowing, drinking a cold beer and laughing with a Tibetan family. All naked!

·       Descending from Black Mud Pass 3800m to the Maranon valley at 600m. 55kms of exhilarating downhill riding on the best graded road in Northern Peru (the only one).

·       Wandering in the Karma valley on the Kangshung West face of Everest. Blue poppies and rhododendron paradise- one of the highest forests in the world. Camping under the towering Mt. Makalu (5th highest in the world).

·       Chliean Patagonia- seeing a pair of condors flying over the Torres del Paine, spotting a rare huemel (Sth Andean deer) and an even rarer pudu (miniature deer), and mating guanucos.

·       Chile- spotting 5 species of Patagonian orchids in 3 days hiking in the Torre del Paine national park.

·       Nth. Chile – soaking in a remote natural hot spring surrounded by salt flats, smoking volcanoes and flying Chilean flamingoes. All alone!

And lastly….the people I met on my journeys. The kind Tibetan family who took us in and fed us in the Minya valley, the monks in the various monasteries across Tibet who gave me simple hospitality, the ribald Tibetan women who pulled the hair on my legs and arms, the truck drivers and road-building gangs who laughed and toyed with me, and the grubby and curious Tibetan children who peered in wonder as I built my ‘house’ for the night.

The Quechuan and Aymaran Indians of the Andes, who are more timid and reserved than the gregarious Tibetans, but who were kind and hospitable when they warmed to you.

The Colombians, and especially the Castrillon family in Popayan, who are possibly the friendliest people I’ve met (except the Malagasy of Madagscar, of course). 

My dear friends in Peru
And last, but not least, David, Isaac and their wonderful families and friends in Lima and Conchucos, who helped me so generously when I had that accident on the dusty road to Huanuco. I can never repay their hospitality and kindness. Muchas gracias amigos!

Here are some photos I took on my return to Peru with Judy in 2009. Before our cycling trip, we spent 7 days with David, Carlos Bravo and the people of Conchucos, a hidden paradise in Ancash department. Unforgettable memories. I hope to return here in May 2012.

David Herrera, champion and friend,  above his hometown of Conchucos, the hidden paradise. He
is founder of UFISPERU, an NGO advocating, health and fitness in the pueblos of Lima and Ancash.

Isaac Soto and his family in Lima welcoming me back.

Our hiking friends from Conchucos

At the hot spring near Conchucos

The classroom and Quechuan schoolchildren of Tauli. Some of the funds from my slideshow in Hobart, Tasmania went to buy much-needed materials for this school.

Carlos Bravo and el burro at our campsite in an old Incan tambo

Beti, at 4 years of age, the youngest in the class.
Mother and daughter - Sonja and Jhely in Lima. 

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