I was only two weeks down the road on my way from Yorkshire to Sydney when the attacks of September 11, 2001 shook America. Suddenly war was declared and my scenic ride through Afghanistan no longer seemed like such a fun idea. So when I reached Istanbul, instead of carrying straight on towards Australia, I turned right for Africa. The freedom to choose my own path, to be my own master, was one of the greatest pleasures of my journey.
One of the many appeals of travelling by bike is that you arrive gradually. There is none of the shock you experience when you roll your luggage trolley out of an air-conditioned airport and into the sudden sweating chaos of the Developing World. The heat! The noise! The smell! The crowding clamour of men eager to carry your bags, to find you a taxi, to find you a hotel and to con you while you are soft and naive. On a bike you experience the proximity or the distance between people and places that accounts for the way they interact, or do not interact, and consequently the way that the very history of our planet has unfurled. You appreciate the world as a single, gradually morphing blend rather than the separate, isolated communities that air travel, politics and television suggest. I remember when I noticed this: I was in Damascus, one of the most ancient cities on Earth and yet I kept forgetting the fact. I felt that spice markets and hooting taxis and bushy moustaches and kebab stalls and historic heaving streets and noisy mosque loudspeakers were all quite normal. It showed how ideal my bike was for slipping me gradually into different environments and allowing me to see the world as one single entity.
I made it all the way down Africa, to my great surprise. Weeks in the heat of the Nubian desert in Sudan, hauling my bike through hot, soft sand; sleeping beneath the stars, watching new constellations appearing above me as I crept ever so slowly towards the equator, the southern hemisphere and a new ceiling of stars; through the mountains of Ethiopia, the plains of Kenya, and on and on until the end of the road in Cape Town.
When I left home I had vaguely assumed that I would fly across any oceans I encountered between cycling across continents. However, the idea of trying to make it round the planet without leaving its surface germinated in my mind as I rode the hot and dry roads of Africa. It sounded a lot more exciting than flying. But how would I find a sailing boat willing to give me a lift across an ocean – especially as I had little money?
I introduced myself at the Yacht Club in Cape Town and sought advice. I set about making myself useful, crewing for people who needed extra hands for races, cleaning boats, networking, phoning people and asking around whether anybody knew anybody who knew anybody who was planning to sail across the Atlantic. After six weeks of dead ends and rejections I struck lucky and secured a berth on a yacht across the Atlantic Ocean.
As our first night at sea approached, the breeze stiffened and the yacht began to heel. As we cut smoothly through the waves, I felt a basic thrill to be travelling again, to be on the move for no other reason than for the sheer hell of it. I was free, totally free, and I was a lucky man for that. I sat on the side of the boat with my legs dangling above the rushing water. I had not cut my hair since leaving home and the sun-bleached dreadlocks whipped around my face. We were chasing the sunset, bearing west, heaving across the planet by the simple force of the wind in our sails. The hull thumped the waves and spray leapt up to embrace me, glowing with sunlight and bent in a scimitar curve as the wind blew it across the deck. I was soaked, frozen, nauseous and grinning like an idiot.
It took 24 days to cross the Atlantic. Think how many people you talk to, how many miles you drive and how many phone calls you make in 24 days. Weeks in the office, weekends at home. Ever-changing horizons. Hours of television, reams of newspapers. Text messages, emails, changes of pants. But, for us, at sea, the world was reduced to blue water and 58ft of boat. There was nowhere else to go. It was a massive simplification of my life, which had already been magnificently pared down when I pedalled away from my past priorities and cares. I loved the experience of crossing an ocean because it was so different to being a cyclist. On the bike I had grown enormously sensitive, literally, becoming so aware of all that was around me, of the sights and sounds and smells and tastes and the feel of the wind upon my face. Out at sea the changes, and the senses, were more gradual and subtler.
Crossing the Greenwich Meridian I thought about how I would feel the next time I crossed it. I would be back in London. We all cheered as the GPS rolled over to 0.00.000. I had only 360° still to travel, so I was on my way home now at last. It was a luxurious feeling to be moving but without having to invest a single calorie in the movement. The waves thumped, sluiced and fizzed against the hull. Come on wind, take me homewards.
The days blazed beneath a pale blue sky and above an incredibly clear blue ocean streaked deep with shafts of white light. The world felt a simple and pure place. Sunset brought relief from the heat, leaving the world to darkness, us and the comforting glow of the GPS and compass. When there was no moon the black sky was crowded with so many stars and shooting stars that they seemed to spill over into the ocean, where showers of phosphorescent sparks streamed in our wake like a bonfire, a wake of churning white water that stretched back to Africa and the end of the thin tyre tracks that started from my home. We had begun the voyage with a fat cream moon in a golden halo. The moon was dead ahead and we placed bets on the precise time of moonset. Silver clouds shone as we cruised down the yellow carpet of moonlight. The helmsman heaved on the wheel as we surfed the heavy, fast black waves. Eternal motion, racing ever onwards towards South America.
This article first appeared in a Lonely Planet book