I wanted to interview Tegan Phillips about her adventure for a few reasons:
- she’s young
- she’s a woman
- she’s not a seasoned adventurer – she entered a competition to win a bike and then set off to ride across Europe on it
- her blog is funny, quirky and original
Hopefully all these things will be inspiring for different types of people wondering whether they should try a big adventure.
I started by asking Tegan to explain her trip:
Over the summer I won a bicycle called Charlie. I flew from Cape Town to Bristol to collect him and the two of us spent a few weeks making our way down from there to Alicante on the South-East coast of Spain, to visit my little sister. Our first day included lots of rain hours of going in the wrong direction, a split tube, and ended with a visit to the emergency room. So I learnt very quickly that a big part of adventuring is questioning your own sanity. I had no experience, no GPS, no set route, no sense of direction, no foresight and no coordination, which meant that I spent more time than not with absolutely no idea where I was.
I fell off my bike at least once a day, I was attacked by wasps and thorn bushes and stationary poles. We never spent more than one night in any place. We camped under bridges, on private property (with permission), on private property (without permission), with friends of friends of friends, with people who just happened to be there when we couldn’t go on any more. But in the end I turned up in Alicante, which shows that if I can do it then anyone can.
All you really need to do is this:
Cycle. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.
What were a couple of highlights?
The first moment that I remember as being really spectacular was going up this little hill in the north of Spain and going up and up and up and eventually realising that I was crossing a mountain range of some sort. (This was how I learned that there were mountains in the north of Spain.) And reaching the top to have lunch with some goats and having this feeling like I could probably do anything (which made up for the total lack of feeling in my legs). And after that I was in the countryside and I had the time and the means to go in absolutely any direction I wanted for as long as I wanted. That sensation of absolute freedom has no parallel and I think it’s one of the main things that gets people hooked on adventuring.
That sensation of absolute freedom has no parallel and I think it’s one of the main things that gets people hooked on adventuring.
Then about halfway through my trip I stayed with a Warmshowers guy called Andres, which was also a highlight because we agreed to travel together sort of indefinitely after knowing each other for only a few hours. This was an absolutely terrifying decision to make, not only because he could have been an axe murderer or something but because adventuring with another person is different to just spending time with them. In our case we were sharing a tiny little tent and sharing food and having injuries and illness and it’s sometimes hard to be good-humoured when you’re dying of heat and every single part of your body hurts and you’re going uphill and really you would prefer to be going downhill. But we were very lucky in that we ended up getting along really well and I was glad I didn’t listen to the selfish part of me that had been initially reluctant to share my big adventure.
Every single part of your body hurts and you’re going uphill and really you would prefer to be going downhill.
Why did you do it? Had you done a big bike trip before?
My dad made me watch Tom’s movie Janapar and there was this one part of the movie that I remember so clearly where he is eating peanut butter and jam noodles or something like that and he says “everybody should just do this – if you are thinking about doing it don’t think anymore, just do it” or something to that effect. And then a few days later I see on my dad’s Twitter feed this tweet by Tom about a competition where you could win a bicycle and some touring gear and I said “Dad, I should enter that competition” and he first laughed (because he didn’t believe me) and then he said “No, absolutely not, that’s a terrible idea.” So that gave me all of the motivation I needed to sit down (on the morning of the deadline) and put together my little illustrated entry, and in the end I got the bike. About a week later I was in England, ready to set off.
“Everybody should just do this – if you are thinking about doing it, don’t think anymore, just do it”
What impact did this adventure have on your life?
Without wanting to sound too dramatic, it changed the way I see the world entirely. I started thinking about cycling and running as ways to actually get places, instead of just exercisey things to get outdoors and get nice legs (I haven’t actually used public transport one time since I arrived in Leicester because of this). Also, being so dependent on the environment for so long, I developed a kind of love-hate relationship with nature (I loved it but mostly it seemed to hate me and want to attack me) which got me thinking much more about environmental types of things. I was so used to travelling between cities by car or bus that I had kind of forgotten how much wonderful, non-city land there was in between. Sometimes in the middle of this beautiful land would be enormous factories or chicken farms and they clashed with everything in such an ugly way – you can debate about whether they should or shouldn’t be there (or anywhere) for eternity but when you’re confronted by them in that context you get a different feeling about things altogether. And when you’re just sitting on a bike without anything to distract you, you have to think about that feeling, which was hard for me. One night we camped next to what turned out to be an abattoir and I haven’t been able to make eye contact with a cow since then.
But I think the main thing that changed for me was the way I think about humanity and what it means to be human. In South Africa we have this word ‘Ubuntu’ which means – very roughly – that a person is a person through other people, and this started make a lot of sense to me as I went along. I was so surprised to find that the smallest bit of kindness from a stranger would give me more energy than a huge meal (although I certainly learnt to appreciate the value of huge meals, in such a big way). One day I got stuck going up the mountain which was pretty scary because it was misty and steep and there were tons of cars going quite fast on these narrow roads and I expected motorists to be a bit annoyed with the slow-moving fluorescent blob on wheels that was me, but the more I struggled, the more people started to really support me. Each car that went by shouted something encouraging or gave a little hoot and a wave, one car would even drive on wait for me, then cheer a bit, then drive on again and wait again and cheer again. I thought my heart was going to explode (in a good way, not in a heart attack sort of way, although a heart attack wasn’t entirely unforeseeable at the time). And I think it was really brave of the people who were kind to me throughout the whole trip to take the initiative to ask if I needed help or food or whatever because there’s always that risk of the person you want to help being mean and grumbly and that’s scary. But they gave me courage to reach out to people much more today, especially strangers, which has been very rewarding.
How did you find being female impacted your adventure?
Being female was sometimes helpful and sometimes infuriating.
Being female was sometimes helpful and sometimes infuriating. People were definitely more willing to let me into their homes and help me when I needed help – I think if I had been a guy people would have been a little more suspicious. This is the upside of gender stereotypes really (from a female perspective), if you’re a girl and you’re dirty and sweaty and technically a homeless foreigner and you ask a stranger for help, they are generally quite receptive, concerned even, whereas when it’s a dirty sweaty homeless foreign guy the stranger is more inclined to back away slowly (this is a massive generalisation, obviously). At the beginning there were times when I felt like there were certain things that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do because I was a girl travelling alone and that feeling was incredibly frustrating. I had one really terrible harassment experience and I was a bit shaken after that, but as I grew more confident in terms of figuring out how touring and camping actually worked it became much less of an issue. The other frustrating thing is that when I would fall off or get lost or ride on the wrong side of the road people would laugh and say “oh, women” and I was always saying “no, no, it’s because of my personality, not my breasts”. Otherwise, being female had nothing to do with anything – it turns out adventuring has no gender.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known before your trip?
I wish I had known how easy adventuring can be so I could have avoided the ‘preparation panic’ people often face before trips of any sort, where you somehow convince yourself that if you don’t have this particular tool or type of tent or type of saddle or type of clothing even then your adventure will be a disaster and you will probably die. As I discovered, whatever you are going to do, the chances are somebody has done it with much less than you and somehow survived.
Also, I wish I had known what a difference it makes to take the smaller roads in terms of scenery and traffic and everything really. Before I met up with Andres I was sticking to bigger roads because they were easier in terms of not getting lost and they just seemed the most obvious, but when we were together we managed to avoid all of the main roads for the rest of the trip, going instead through mountains and nature parks and tiny villages, it was a phenomenal improvement.
And I wish I had known is that the dark patches on a map means uphill. Significant uphill. This was a painful lesson to learn.
Whatever you are going to do, the chances are somebody has done it with much less than you and somehow survived.
How old are you?
I am 21. I think my age actually worked to my advantage because, for me anyway, one of the biggest parts of adventuring is unlearning a lot of things that you didn’t even realise you had been taught. A lot of the time I would think things like, “Oh no, I can’t wash my hair in a restaurant bathroom, it just isn’t done” and then I would think, why the hell not? Where did I even get all of these silly ideas from in the first place? And maybe the older you get the more you get used to not questioning these things.
Why did you decide to blog your trip (and, by the way, your blog is brilliant, original and funny: instantly better than 99.9% of all adventure blogs)?
Adventures like mine (and many adventures, I think), happen as the result of a lot of input by a lot of different people. Generally you will have (and need) a home-base, an ‘away’-base and all of the people you meet along the way –all of these people contribute to the experience immeasurably, so I think something like a blog can be a wonderful way to sort of reciprocate in your small way and share the adventure with them (and to let your mum know you haven’t been eaten by wild animals or wandering psychopaths and so on). That said, I learnt very quickly that blogging and social media type of things can take up a lot of time and it is important to get the adventure/blog balance right. If you’re thinking about blogging your adventure I would recommend finding out how much blogging or communication is sustainable for you and trying to and stick to that, which means being strict with yourself in terms of not always including every tiny detail while you miss out on the adventure itself, and conversely sometimes sitting down to blog when you’re a bit tired or lazy. I say this not because it worked for me but because I didn’t do it this way and I wish I had. And it’s nice to be able to keep these records and look back and think “look at that ridiculous thing I did. I should do it again sometime.”
Finally, here is a helpful infographic from Tegan to help you get out on your own adventures:
Follow Tegan online here.
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!