December 2016. Lulworth Cove, Dorset, UK
‘So what was the most important thing you learnt?’ asked the man opposite me. He was in his early fifties, bald and quietly spoken. We were sat in the smart offices of a Westminster recruitment agency. The job I was being interviewed for was big one. Suits. White shirts. Cufflinks. Ties. Black shoes, polished (his, not mine). The only reminders of my life on the road were a substantial (albeit now well-groomed) ginger beard and a scar on my right hand from the crash in Kyrgyzstan.
My mind whirled. I hadn’t expected a question like that. Less than three weeks before, the wheels of the Philippine Airlines 777 flight from Manila had touched down on the tarmac at Heathrow. A week before that I had been shivering in the cold of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales, soaked to the skin by the wet Australian winter, scoffing super noodles in my tent as the rain hammered down outside. I was living the final days of a full-on hobo lifestyle that was now a whole world away.
‘That it’s a really long way to Oz!’ I joked. He responded with an awkward smile and a tilt of his head to the right. He didn’t see the joke. And I didn’t get the job.
I’ve been looking forward to writing a ‘six months on’ blog post for a while. One of the things I love about writing is the process of playing with the articulation of thoughts, concepts and emotions, and when you return home from a big trip there is of course a lot to get your head around.
Others have set out some of the lessons they learnt from travelling solo long distance overland probably far better and in more detail than I ever could. Tom Allen’s blog about cycle touring is excellent. Nathan Millward’s blog about The Hitchhiker (not online at the moment) and his book about his ride from Sydney to Alaska resonates more strongly than anything else I’ve read.
And now it’s my turn. Not to show off, to relive past glories nor to somehow to find away to relate to people now that I’m back in ‘normal’ life. Don’t get me wrong – all of those things are temptations that you naturally succumb to at various points once you’re back. It’s all part of trying to fit back in. But one the most important lessons I’ve learnt since I’ve been back is that if you follow them, you’re on a hiding to nothing.
No matter how often you talk about what you saw and experienced, it’s not enough. Those things are so far removed from any sense of normality and they are unique to you and you alone. Only other people undertaking similar trips ‘get it’. And even then each trip is as much about the person as it is about any geography they’ve crossed. Do it by all means with people who are interested, who care – to questioning friends and interested audiences. But enjoy for what it is and nothing more.
That might sound like a negative thing but it’s not. There’s a quiet but warm satisfaction in realising that that’s OK – you don’t need anyone else to understand, or appreciate your stories because those things are for you and you alone – that’s why you set out on an adventure in the first place. I just wanted to sit in my bed in my old age, feel like I’d lived a bit and seen the world with my own eyes. And that’s what I got.
So why write at all?
There were three reasons why I decided to ride solo from London to Sydney: A desire to learn more about the world by seeing things with my own eyes; a sense of adventure, born out of a thrill of the unknown and a love of riding motorbikes; and a desperate need to scratch the itch that, at the age of 32, I’d never fulfilled my ambitions to see or experience the world in a way that I had always hoped to.
Writing about these things is a valuable means of articulating and understanding what I learnt from the trip. Having spent some time with others who have done similar journeys, I know that I’m not alone in that.
But doing so publicly is important because there is the opportunity to contribute to a debate about adventure travel that already exists and one which I think is important we all hear more of. So I’m planning to write series of blogs drawing on my experiences, based around those three themes – about whether what I found on the road met my understanding about the world we live in; about what adventure really is about in a world there is more closely connected than ever before; and about how adventure met my hopes and fears.
2016 is almost done. A year ago I was in Delhi, decorating my bike with tinsel and confusing the hell out of Indian drivers in the process. But I’m looking forward to starting 2017 by getting more out the trip, even though I’m a long way from life on the road.