5 out of 5 stars
A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.
Undertaking training to become a doctor is around seven years of your life, or longer depending on your specialism. To take the decision to pause when you are a junior doctor and cycle around the world is not a light decision. He had the idea from Langer’s lines, the topological lines that are drawn on the body and show the natural orientation of the collagen fibres. He sat down with an atlas and drew lines across each of the seven continents of a possible route. His mum pointed out that Antarctica might be a bit chilly, so he decided on six continents. The travel bug was in his blood though, as a teenager he would often be found standing on a road holding a sign to ‘Anywhere’. This would be the ultimate way of getting it out of his system.
He departed from St Thomas’s Hospital where he had been working and a few of his friends there had gathered to see him off and even managed to find a piece of tape for him to cross. Being January it was a bit chilly and was soon going to get much colder. Before departing he had volunteered to be examined medically before the trip to see what the effects of cycling that far around the world would have on his body, though perhaps agreeing to be checked for anything was not the wisest decision. He hadn’t done much training for the trip, reasoning that it was going to be tough, so why add extra months of toughness. He did rue his decision a little, as he struggled to overtake a jogger on his fully loaded bike… He did 14 miles on his first day and slept in a guesthouse in Bexleyheath and woke the following morning to snow.
It was to get much colder as he cycled through France and up into the Alps and sleeping in a tent he would wake up to find everything frozen solid. Sitting hunched over a cup of coffee in a café desperately trying to get warm he makes the decision to head to Nice and the warmth of the French riviera. He was eating lots and the city boy blubber was beginning to drop away. He had filled one of his front panniers with biscuits. More worryingly was a pain in one of his knees, and being a doctor he had a mental list of what it could be, and none of the prognosis was good. Surgery was needed and it would be three months before he could resume.
But he did. He was reunited with his bike in Istanbul and the continent of Africa beckoned. His plan was to head down the eastern side and then halfway down, head across to the western side heading towards South Africa. He was joined by Nyomi, a former flatmate from London for this part of the trip. All the way through, children were fascinated by them, they would wake up, open the tent to find an audience of twenty looking at them. They found that they were pretty good shots with the slings that they used too. To understand the place though he felt that he had to see its hinterland and to do this he offered to help at the hospital in Lodwar. It makes him think about the reason that people become ill; in the UK it is a combination of factors, but in that part of Africa it is almost always down to the crushing poverty.
They reached Cape town and Nyomi returned home. He headed to the airport to get a flight to Ushuaia for the South American leg of his trip. He had set himself the target of reaching Alaska in 20 months, ensuring that when he got there he was cycling during the summer, and not freezing his arse off again… As he cycled north through Chile, the volcano Puyehue which had been dormant for 50 years had exploded leaving a six-mile by three-mile gash in the surface and covering everything in a good layer of dust for good measure. As he headed north, climbing the mountains was making him suffer from altitude sickness, he lived for each descent. But it is an encounter at gunpoint that changes him on this continent, and every time he has tomato soup, he remembers that moment.
Filling out the form for the entry into the USA brought back memories of childhood where the excitement of American culture seeped into ours and seemed shinier and better. Sitting outside a bar called Kansas City Barbeque, where a scene from Top Gun was filmed, he strikes up a conversation with the waitress and manages to get a place to sleep for free. He contemplates staying a little longer, but Highway One beckons so he heads off. It is the least eventful part of his trip and he crosses the Arctic Circle to reach his final destination in North America, Deadhorse. Next stop, Australia.
He had messaged, Claire, an on and off girlfriend, and she had agreed to cycle across Australia with him and they met up in Sydney. It was fairly uneventful, apart from Claire being bitten by a huntsman spider which thankfully wasn’t serious. They were soon across the country and on their way to Timor. Asia is another level of intensity to his ride, the traffic was much busier, Jakarta was almost permanent gridlock which made for stressful cycling. It was in Singapore that Claire decided that she wanted to go to Japan, alone. They parted company and he headed for Malaysia, where he was to acquire dengue fever…
He spent a few days off fromcycling in Bangkok, planning the next stage and took up the invitation to join a medical team in Cambodia who were visiting people who lived in floating villages on the Tonle Sap River. He had a brief excursion into Myanmar and then reached India. He heads north again, passing through one of the wettest places in the world, Cherrapunjee, which receives 12m (yes that is metres) of rain a year and was even too wet for Welsh missionaries. A visit to a clinic that is treating mental health patients is eye-opening, most of the time in India, these sort of health problems are suppressed. The visa for Pakistan was proving problematic, so he booked a flight to Hong Kong.
China was going to be an experience, the guidebook he had found only had a slim phrasebook and it didn’t have the words for rice and noodles but he could learn how to ask to buy a padlock. He hooks up with a couple of Chinese cycle tourers, which makes it a little less daunting. Mongolia and the steppe was approaching rapidly. It was bitterly cold up there, so much so that he ends up using socks in more than one place to keep appendages warm… He passes back through China and is then passing through the ‘stans, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan with a brief but nerve-wracking trip into Afghanistan. Next would be Georgia and then he was almost at the edge of Europe and the final leg of his epic journey.
Rather than go back the same way through Europe as he came out he headed home via Austria and Germany where he caught up with a man called Heinz Stücke. He had spent 51 years cycling around the world and had wracked up a total of 650,000 kilometres in total. It was an eye-opening evening. He then found one of the worst countries to cycle through, the Netherlands, not because of the car drivers, rather other cyclists who paid little or no attention to anyone else on the cycle path. Soon enough he was departing the ferry at Dover for the run back into London.
I have read a fair number of round the world cycling trips. There is Mark Beaumont’s book of his round the world races where he is against the clock, Sean Conway’s ride started off as a race around the world, but just became the ride of a lifetime after an accident. Alastair Humphries is another who has followed a similar journey and who wrote about it in two books. If you’re going to spend six years doing something, a trip like this seems to be the best way of seeing our planet and Stephen Fables journey around the world is a worthwhile addition to the bookshelf of these sorts of trips. He is a passionate cyclist and keen observers of human life, but what makes this a little bit different is his medical training. He thinks nothing of taking time out to visit medical centres to help others who are tending to the sick and needy. He brings his knowledge to them, they in turn teach him a little bit of humility and humanity. Occasionally, it felt a little rushed, you would pass through some countries in the blink of an eye, but to condense six years worth of memories into just four hundred pages cannot have been easy. Apart from that, this is an excellent travelogue and account of a world tour by bicycle. Very highly recommended.