A book review

I first came across Alastair Humphreys and his remarkable 46,000 mile journey at a presentation he gave at Sheffield University. In just two hours he was able to convey the sheer excitement, torture, uncertainty and the whole gamut of emotions that accompanied his four year ride around the world that I wanted to find out more, so I turned to his books.

It is hard to believe that at first publishers were not interested in his story. He truly immersed himself in the adventure, avoiding short cuts and easy options even when they were thrown at him. His disbelief and that of others at this monumental plan impelled him to push himself to his absolute physical and psychological limits. He wanted to really test himself, and he succeeded.

Part 1, Moods of Future Joys, depicts the doubt and emotional struggles particularly well, especially the grief of separating from his long-term girlfriend for what must have seemed at times like an impossible and ridiculous ride. Two weeks into his ride the events of 9/11 unfolded, changing the world and his route around it. Alastair abandoned his plan to cross the Middle-East, and instead pedalled cautiously though Syria and Jordan before descending the vast expanse of Africa. Here his accounts of how aid donations from the developed world has affected communities and their perceptions of Westerners are particularly interesting and pose some important questions. While he appreciated the general hospitality and outstanding generosity of local people and the freedom of his nomadic life, he was clearly overwhelmed by the journey and at times struggled to keep going, planning to return home at the end of the continent. The physical and psychological strain is depicted well in the following extract:

The philosophy of those days was smiles not smiles. I was ahead of schedule, but it took a toll on me, and I very nearly cheated. The road was so hot and so dull, with nothing to help pass the time. Only the untrustworthy combination of me and my head. Every movement a trial. I thought I couldn’t ride any more, I knew I couldn't think anymore. Dry, shimmering plains. Scrawny goats. Clattering trucks. Liquid horizon: pale earth meets white sky. Overhead strong blue round massive sun. Sky too big and too empty for just one person. Can't ignore that sun. Remorseless sky, so quiet. Empty. Expressionless. Grass huts. People's homes. Life and normality for them. Too hard for me. Truckers chai stops. On and on, and on. Sun too big, too bright, too hot. Headwind brutal. Only 7mph. Damn. Must ride faster. Head pounding protest. Must drink more. Water hot as bathwater. Horrible. Can't keep eyes open anymore. Need to sleep. Must keep going. Always a little further. Too hot, too hard, too pointless…

It wasn’t until Cape Town that he finally began to enjoy himself. With a change of heart and a more positive outlook on his adventure he decided to continue, and by chance secured a place on a race across the Atlantic, where the sequel begins.

Part 2, Thunder and Sunshine, documents the majority of his journey through the Americas, Siberia, Japan, China, Russia and back home through Europe. In this book he faces a number of unique challenges, from navigating a canoe along a treacherous river surrounded by forest fires to traversing snow peaked mountain ranges and enduring the minus 40 degree temperatures of a Siberian winter. While these are his most gruelling challenges he manages to struggle through with his unparalleled fitness and remarkably upbeat attitude. He is no longer the emotional wreck he was in Part 1.

His stubborn quest for ultimate adventure lead him to ignore advice and danger at particularly crucial times. This however produces a book full of riveting accounts that make you wonder whether he survived through sheer luck and determination, good judgement or both. You become immersed in the adventure, and it is hard not to feel his sadness when the journey which has been his life for so long draws to a close.

Below is one of my favourite passages, taken from Part 2, Thunder and Sunshine:

Chinese driving was a nightmare. It is easy to drive Chinese-style. You could try it this evening on your way home from work. Enjoy these strategies either one at a time or simultaneously:

  1. 1.Set out to be annoying as possible. Bear that in mind at ALL times.

  2. 2.Meander from lane to lane as your fancy takes you.

  3. 3.Drive very fast in the slow lane, or very slow in the fast lane.

  4. 4.Beep your horn at all times.

  5. 5.Never use your mirrors.

  6. 6.When you have to pull out into traffic, do just that. Pull out into the traffic. Waiting for a gap is for wimps. It is preferable to force a fellow driving at top speed on the highway to hoot in panic and swerve wildly out of your way than to wait a few seconds for the road to clear.

  7. 7.Occasionally drive the wrong way down the carriageway. Get annoyed if people get annoyed at you. Beep at them.

  8. 8.When you tire of these games go fetch a flock of sheep and wander down the road with it.

It is difficult not to want to set off on your own adventure after reading his experiences, which I think was one of his intentions. With the success of these books, Alastair Humphries has established himself as a full-time writer and adventurer. I contacted him for an interview but he was busy preparing for his next trip, rowing across the Atlantic.

Search for the books online or in a shop, you won’t be disappointed. Essential reading.



Around the world by bike

Alastair Humphreys

"Happy Birthday, Mum!" Xinjiang, Western China