Helen Lloyd has done great trips by bike, packraft and horse. She writes well, takes nice pics, and enjoys beer. I like her!
Your website for your ride down Africa featured a count of how many beers you drank. Was the trip more about fun for you, rather than a challenge or whatever other reason people go on big journeys?
There were many reasons I decided to cycle through Africa, but ‘for the challenge’ wasn’t one of them. The reason I love to travel is to see new places and meet new people, to learn from other cultures and try to understand how we all fit together in this world. I chose to cycle because it struck me that this would be the ideal way to get about. Backpacking, and reliance on public transport, which was how I’d travelled before, tends to give a slightly warped view of the world. By cycling, I hoped I would spend time in the places between the guidebooks’ must-see highlights, and meet the people like you and me. I guess, simply put, I wanted to see normal life, except there is no ‘normal’.
For a long time I had been plagued by what I now see as the idealism and naivety of youth – that the world needed saving and maybe I could help save it – and I had toyed with the idea of going into international development or working for an NGO. Even though I was in my late 20’s, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, what I wanted to be when I grew up. The problem was, I couldn’t tell which organisations were really making a positive difference, and what exactly I could offer. I decided I would have to go and see for myself what problems were being faced and make up my own mind, away from the media and propaganda and ulterior motives. The conclusions I came to weren’t what I had expected.
Yes, I travel because it is fun and I enjoy it. One thing I did come to realise is that before you can truly make a positive difference to the lives of others, it’s important to be happy in yourself.
In the words of Ernest Hemingway,
‘The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know, and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can get to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly’.
That’s what I realised during my journey through Africa – that I’m not the one to save the world. But I can write about it, and that’s why I wrote Desert Snow.
You’ve done well at combining big adventures and a ‘proper’ career. It’s nice to see that you don’t have to risk everything by trying to make a career out of adventure, but nor do you have to settle for small little escapes – how do you combine normal work with big adventures?
I got my first job as an engineer during my gap year after school, then worked during university holidays, followed by a permanent position after graduating, which I stayed in for four years before quitting to cycle through Africa. The engineering, although it started as a career, is now a means to an end. It’s how I earn money to do the things I really want. That said, I do enjoy the job, and the chance to be more intellectually challenged than when on the road. I’ve been very lucky with my job, in that up until now I have been able to return to the same company after each trip. I now work short-term contracts, live cheap, save up and plan another journey. For me, the mix of travel and engineering job satisfies all my needs, which I couldn’t get from just one. It isn’t all great though – it’s like living two contrasting lives – I find myself, increasingly, feeling an outsider in both of them, not entirely satisfied with either. I suppose this is something I will have to figure out myself, in my own time. Life is all about compromises; it’s just finding the right balance.
I like your phrase “a lot can change, so can nothing.” How have you found the experience of returning home after your journeys?
Returning home has never been hugely significant, merely a continuation of my life, rolling onto the next adventure, whatever that might be. Until my most recent return, I have always had something else planned to look forward to or work towards. Returning from Siberia last winter has been different because I don’t have a definite plan. Partly, I want to leave my options open. Mostly though, I don’t know what I want to do next. I have lots of ideas, but no burning desire for one in particular. Whatever the reasons, I have found this latest return very hard. Call it the post-expedition blues or depression. I think, after five years of fairly intensive travel, I’m physically and mentally exhausted. [See here and here and here for two other adventurers’ thoughts on this phase.]
I often get asked “could you do the trips you do if you were a woman?” Please will you answer this for me?!
I find it amazing that in today’s society we still make such a differentiation between the sexes. What I do is no more dangerous than if I were a man. Mostly, the risks are the same and as long as you take sensible precautions (as anyone would when travelling) then there shouldn’t be any problems. Of course, you may get unlucky and end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, but being a woman shouldn’t make any difference. The only additional risk as a woman, is that of ‘unwanted advances’ from men, but that isn’t necessarily a problem confined to the realms of travel.
Actually, in many ways, I think being a woman is an advantage. Most people in this world are good and want to help. Perhaps they see me as a woman and think I may need help, or protecting. As a woman, I am sure I appear more approachable, less intimidating than a man. And in some cultures, being a woman means you’ll be invited into all kinds of situations that a man never would.
Can I point you towards an excellent set of similar questions and answers from a female perspective?
The blurb for your book urges people to “dare to follow their dreams and not let fear prevail.” What were you worried about, and how did you overcome it?
This phrase really comes from what other people say about my trips. Yes, they are my dreams, but they don’t scare me. They scare other people. However, many people have said that they have a dream, but are scared to make it a reality. It can be hard to make a change in your life, take a leap into the unknown. But what scares me more is living a life of regret, wishing I had had the courage to do what I dreamed. Of course, there are things that I have worried about with some of my journeys. Anxiety and fear are useful tools and shouldn’t be ignored. But I try to turn those feelings into something positive. Do research, plan, prepare, equip, quantify risk and minimise it. Risk is real, fear is an essentially an emotion, and if you can reduce the risk then the fear subsides too.
Why / how did you end up paddling the Niger in a canoe? That sounds wonderful!
Paddling a pirogue in West Africa was Lars Bengtsson’s idea – that’s the Swedish cycle-tourer I met in Morocco and cycled with for five months. He had thought about paddling in Sierra Leone, but as I wasn’t going that way, I realised my route would take me near the Niger River instead. In the end, our plans merged and we did the trip together in Guinea – paying a fisherman in Faranah, near the source of the Niger River, to build us our own pirogue. It was the best two weeks and toughest physical challenge of the entire journey through Africa. (There’s a video of the trip here.)
How did you find cycling the Road of Bones in Siberia? I don’t know of anyone else who has done it in winter so I’m curious to hear how you found it.
I’m also curious to hear how you found it! The first month (February), cycling to Yakutsk, was incredibly hard. It was simply too cold (-40C was about the average, and down to -50C at night), and all about survival. After Yakutsk, to Magadan, which is what most people think of as the Road of Bones, was mostly great. By then it was getting warmer and I could enjoy the cycling and camping more. In many ways it became too easy – the cycling itself wasn’t hard. The biggest difficulty I had was the amount of time I was spending without any human interaction. Not only that, but in the winter, there’s very little to stimulate the senses – it’s quiet, with no smells and few sounds, and everything is covered in white snow, only dark trees and rocks showing through. There were times I wondered if I was going crazy!
The best thing about the journey was all the great people I met – isn’t that always the way…
What are the pros and cons of travelling by bike, packraft or horse?
- Bike pro: Can carry significant amount of gear easily. It allows relative luxury, or ability to carry large quantity of food/water and get really off the beaten track. Can cover ground relatively, compared to packraft/horse, quickly if you want, and very quickly if you need by putting the bike on a bus/truck/train etc.
- Bike con: it can be physically exhausting (but that does mean you can eat all you want!). You are confined to roads/tracks etc, so are ultimately constrained in where you can go.
- Packraft: You can go where the roads don’t, so you can really get into the wilderness, but now you are constrained to the rivers. There is a limit to how much you can carry, so luxury is unaffordable. It’s a much slower pace of travel, so you get to see a small section in extreme detail. However, the view is rather constricted from the river.
- Horse: Now you have the freedom to go almost anywhere and have a companion too (one that doesn’t answer back or get angry). You generally travel slowly, but can cover larger distances when necessary. However, the first priority must always be the welfare of the horse. It doesn’t matter how tired you may be, or how much you may want to do something, always, the horse’s needs come first. For some, that may be a con. Personally, I find it very rewarding. For me, horse has been my favourite mode of travel – although I was riding in Kyrgyzstan, which is ideal horse territory.
If I gave you £1000 to do an adventure, what would you do?
This is a difficult one – you can do a lot with £1000!
I would possibly just open the door, passport in hand, and start walking. I’ve ‘plans’ to go on a long(ish) walk some day. Or, I would pick up my mountain bike and a small rucksack and spend my time in the UK walking the best paths and riding the best trails, camping in between and taking the train as and when I needed or wanted. I’ve ‘plans’ to do that too. Neither would cost much money, so I would just keep doing it until the money ran out, or I got bored, or found something else I’d rather do.
Basically, I’d just get on with what I’m going to do anyway – I suppose that sounds rather boring.
Here’s another idea that has been brewing a few years – I could hitchhike my way back to the Congo [see this post], then buy two dugout canoes in a small town in the southeast of the country, rig them together with a small platform for a makeshift tent (Huckleberry Finn style) and fix a little outboard motor (to aid getting through any rapids). I’d then hire a local who knows the rivers, and make our way to Kinshasa (where all rivers in the Congo flow through) over the course of a couple of months. That would give plenty of time to read and write and learn some of the local language. I’d either need to bring lots of books with me and a notepad and pen, or I’d need a small solar panel to charge my kindle and laptop. The only stresses would be dealing with corrupt officials, not getting malaria, and not getting snapped up by a croc.
You’ve got me started now… I might even find a quiet, cheap spot to live a few months and set about writing a series of fictional short stories. Not the sort of adventure you had in mind, but it would be for me. Isn’t adventure just doing something outside your comfort zone?
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!