As part of my Grand Adventures campaign I want to share the adventurous tales of other folk who’ve committed to action and set off in search of something different, challenging and fun. First up is David Charles who cycled to Africa for less than £1000…
In February 2012, as the street sweepers cleared the last Occupy protesters in slush piles from the steps of St Paul’s, I set off on a cycle to the Sahara. There’s no specific plan, except to cross the Mediterranean on a ferryboat to Tunis and head south until I feel the fine red Saharan sand between my toes.
Two weeks later, I’m staring in disbelief at the scrappy Tunisian youth blocking my path with his moped. He looks about fifteen and shouldn’t even be driving a moped, as far as I’m concerned. Worse: he’s just made me a lurid proposition that would have made even the fleshpots of Deptford blush.
‘What?’ I say, aghast.
‘Stop,’ he says, taking a closer look at me, confusion on his forehead. ‘Are you man or woman?’
‘I’m a man!’
He shrugs. ‘It’s okay, man-on-man is better.’
Before I can react, with slippery fingers, he’s pinched the Walkman from my top pocket and scarpered.
‘Hey, come back!’ I shout into his moped fumes. To my satisfied surprise, he does indeed come back, laughing. And steals the bag from my front basket.
‘Hey, not – no!’ I watch helplessly as my camera, books and passport disappear down the hill, to the laughable sound of his putt-putt engine. This has to be the most ridiculous highway heist in history.
And it certainly wasn’t what I had in mind when I left London. But, before I let this tale get too melodramatic, I should tell you that the shameful youth only drove a little way down the hill, before changing his mind and returning my precious possessions.
‘I’m just playing with you,’ he says with a cackle. Hmm. I’m pretty confident that the only reason he came back was thanks to a nice old man in a van who stopped, checked that I was okay and then tailed me up the hill for a mile or so, just to make sure.
Four weeks of cycling and twelve hundred miles: it’s going to be hard work in places. But easy doesn’t give you that buzz from your knees to your carotid artery. In Haouria, a waiter asks me where I’m going on my cycle tour. I tell him that I’ll be riding the Cap Bon, all verdant valleys and tourist traps. He nods politely.
‘And then to the Sahara,’ I add, with a stupid smile.
The waiter slaps his forehead and brings me a free plate of French fries.
Other things happened while cycling to the Sahara: I got trapped on a boat in Marseille after a bomb was discovered in port, I was stung for drinks by a pair of alcoholics in paradise and attacked with tear gas by riot police in Tunis. I even got a motorbike escort through one particularly desolate stretch of olive countryside.
‘After the revolution, there are many thieves and catastrophes,’ my self-appointed bodyguard tells me. ‘Even the police are afraid of them.’ We cruise for a few miles together, my engine gasping in the heat, his engine growling in first, through dangerous country villages full of wavy, smiley people.
Later, a chap called Hamdi picks me up at the side of the road and near drags me to his farm for a cup of tea. He introduces me to Ali, ‘married’ to his seven month old calf, and Khaled, a young fella who works for the Garde Nationale and drives a tractor. They feed me yoghurt fresh from mama cow, bread fresh from their clay oven and an enormous egg fresh from one of their geese and we all watch the National Geographic channel together.
The point of these micro-stories is hopefully this: don’t be afraid of engagement. Embrace the people you meet, sink your fingernails into the sand, drink the milk dry. One day, all you’ll have is stories to remember; engagement, for better or worse, is how stories are made. The point is not the destination (I did eventually get to the Sahara, if you’re curious); the point is the journey, the stories and the memories. If you travel with an open heart, then your adventures will become a well-spring of happiness, for decades to come.
Four weeks of cycling around Tunisia cost me £714.
David has written a free eBook that will be really useful for any non-cyclists dreaming of a cycling adventure. It’s called How to Cycle 4000 Miles Without Lycra and is full of tips that will help anyone who is planning their first adventure by bicycle. You can get the book here.
10 Tips for Cycling to the Sahara, and other silliness.
To stay under budget, I’d always scrimp on accommodation, not on food. Inspired by this very blog, I’ve spent many a beautiful night sleeping rough, but I’ve always enjoyed a hearty breakfast the next morning. And the food in Tunisia is wonderful.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not possible or that you’re crazy. In fact, if someone tells you you are crazy, then you are most likely on the right track.
Don’t fly. Use your imagination to find a way through the world. There is as much beauty in a dual carriageway off the M2 as there is in a coral beach off the coast of Barbuda. Make the most of wherever you find yourself. Typical tourist destinations I had the misfortune of cycling through were the least interesting and the most threatening.
Pick a destination that fires your imagination, but remember that the destination is arbitrary and ultimately unimportant. The idea of the sand between my toes was just the impetus to force me off the sofa.
Allow financial contingency for things like your bike packing in. But don’t let contingency rule your life. Take risks.
Take time to engage and connect with the people you meet. I find talking to strangers a struggle. But I force myself to interact and it is always those personal interactions that I cherish most in my memory. Remember that, no matter how timid you might be, you are the interloper, you are the guest. So be nice and say hello.
Wear a big manly beard, a beard that speaks of death-match wrestles with grizzly bears, a beard that hints at dark days hacking through tarantula-infested jungles, a beard that sings songs of violent tempests and nightmarish sandstorms overcome by sheer force of will and beardy fortitude. It will be of immense help in repelling petty thieves and sexual advances. Particularly recommended for women travellers.
Easy just isn’t worth it. It might feel good now, but you’ll regret the short cuts later. Go the extra mile.
Make stories. Don’t shy away from situations. Take part. I still remember the stories my gran used to tell about her adventures during the war. No one lives forever; their stories do.
Read more from David on his website.
Would you like an adventure like this? All you need to do is save £1000 (here’s how to do that) and get going!
Have you had a great, cheap adventure that you think might inspire other people to head off into the sunset? If so, please get in touch!
My new book, Grand Adventures, is out now.
It’s designed to help you dream big, plan quick, then go explore.
The book contains interviews and expertise from around 100 adventurers, plus masses of great photos to get you excited.
I would be extremely grateful if you bought a copy here today!
Thank you so much!