Some of you may remember a few posts we shared last year about a couple of our customers Nigel & Martina, who embarked on a mammoth adventure from London to Auckland on their beloved Shand Stoater Rohloffs. Well their trip was completed a few months ago and now Nigel has kindly put finger to keyboard and written us a blog post sharing with us just some of what they both experienced.
This is exactly the kind of journey where a Stoater Rohloff, fitted with S&S travel couplers is in its absolute element. Here’s their story, as told in the words & photos of Nigel Birdsall…..
My wife, Martina, and I cycled from London to Auckland between April 2018 and March 2020. During this time we visited 28 countries, 20 capital cities, cycled over 35,000km and climbed over 160,000m. The following piece is about how our adventure unfolded…
About 6 years ago when we were talking about our future over a beer or three we came to the conclusion that we didn’t want our lives to be just about work. We both enjoyed travelling and as we don’t have children we were fairly free to do whatever we wanted. I’d always envisaged that I would travel around Europe in van with a bike and kayak to just explore for an extended period of time. However, as our conversation progressed we both thought ‘why don’t we cycle around Europe instead of driving’? It sounded like a great idea and another beer later when we felt even braver and more adventurous it developed into …’let’s cycle to New Zealand’! I’d read a few books about others that had done similar long-distance cycling trips, so if they could do it then so could we – well at least that’s how the logic went in my head at the time!
It all sounded good at the time and even in the cold light of the following morning when we discussed it again it still sounded like a good idea, so the seed was sown! We initially didn’t tell anyone of our plan as we needed to do some research to be sure that it was something we could do as well something we wanted to really do. We then spent the next 4 years saving and secretly making some more in-depth plans. We’d initially said that we’d start out in spring 2020, for no other reason other than it was a nice round number! However, our saving plan progressed faster than we had hoped, so we brought it forwards to spring 2018 as we had no reason to wait for 2020 other than it was the made-up date we had initially given ourselves! The outbreak of Coronavirus this year has highlighted to us just how fortuitous that decision turned out to be.
The purpose of our journey was never to set any kind of speed record or to just clock up the miles, so we came up with our motto to ‘discover the world from the back of a bike’. We gave ourselves a rather arbitrary 2 years for our adventure, but we’d saved enough money that if it went over that time frame it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Reading other cyclists’ accounts suggested that this would give us enough ‘meandering time’ to see enough of the countries we wanted to visit.
Planning started in earnest about 2.5 years ahead of departure: we got married in September 2016 and Martina, who is Irish by birth, applied for and became a British citizen as we thought that we should travel on the same passports in case anything went wrong! Our wedding present to each other was a shiny new Shand Stoater and for our honeymoon we collected them from their Livingston workshop and cycled them to York over the period of a week. We’d originally met Fraser and the Shand team at the Bespoke Bicycle Show in Bristol and the Stoater seemed to fit the bill, so shortly after the show we travelled to Livingston for a bike fitting. Fraser and the crew looked after us so well, asking all the right questions about what type of cycling we were going to do etc. There are plenty of other touring bikes on the market, but these are generally made overseas, so as well as being really well looked after we also felt like we were doing our bit to support the UK bike industry.
It was only about a year before departure that we told our friends and family of our plans – some thought we were mad, others wondered whether it was actually possible, some said ‘good for you’ and others thought it might be dangerous – as it was there was a generous dollop of all of these in our journey! But having told people of our plans it meant we couldn’t back out and we really had to go!
In the final 6 months prior to leaving we ramped up our preparations: I went on a bike maintenance course (where I basically learnt to take my bike apart and put it back together again!), we went on a wilderness first aid course and we both became human pincushions care of the local NHS inoculations centre! I gave up my job as a project manager for an aerospace company and Martina started to wind down the amount of work she was doing with her own marketing company, but continued working up to the last minute.
We also started a diary which documented our activities and feelings – this became our blog which, if anyone is interested, can be found at www.thelifecyclers.com. Though this was primarily our own diary it is online and available to the public, which meant that we didn’t have to email loads of people whist we were away as they could log in and catch up with our progress for themselves. And because we knew people were reading the blog, it also meant that we were more disciplined in writing it.
We had an extensive kit list to purchase and an enormous ‘to do’ list at this point, which we ploughed through, and then before we knew it, we only had a month before we left …
We put our flat in London on to the rental market and sold or gave away all of our furniture over our final few weeks. When the letting agent called to say that they had a tenant for the flat, that was it – we really had to go as we would be out on the street! We visited family for the final time and moved in with friends for the 2 weeks prior to departure…
Northern Europe and Scandinavia April 2018 – May 2018 – A Comfort Blanket
We set off from North West London early on Easter Monday (2 April 2018), with a few friends to wave us off. As it turned out it wasn’t a great day to set out as the traffic was horrendous and it chucked it down with rain as it usually does on a bank holiday in the UK!
Leaving a Very Wet North London – Not Looking Very Cool to be Honest!
We’d also never actually been on fully-loaded bikes until this point. Although we’d had a couple of short practice runs within the UK, they were never with this amount of weight, which including the weight of the bikes was about 45kgs. This weight fluctuated somewhat during our trip and depending on how much food and water we were carrying could increase to as much as 60kgs each – which still amazes us considering Martina doesn’t weigh this much herself!
Initially we had intended to take a ferry from the north of England or Scotland direct to Norway, but this service no long exists. And as it turned, the route from London to the coast at Harwich, then through the Netherlands, northern Germany and Denmark was a good training ground for what turned out to be some pretty tough cycling in southern Norway.
The North Sea Route in Denmark
The three weeks we spent cycling the flatlands of northern Europe (always against the wind of course!) built our fitness and gave us time to get used to managing loaded bikes. It also gave Martina the chance to experience camping for the first time in her life! We mainly stuck to campsites at this point as we weren’t confident enough to wild camp at this point. The Netherlands had its hottest April day on record, 25C, which set the tone for much of the rest of 2018.
Having cycled to the very north of Denmark we then took a ferry to Stavanger in Norway and cycled along the southern coast to Oslo. This part of Norway is quite mountainous and there was still snow at the top of many of the passes that we crossed…
Hairpins in the Mountains of Southern Norway
But the scenery there was spectacular and made all of the effort worthwhile. It also proved to us, for the first time, that we could successfully conquer some big hills on our fully-loaded, heavy bikes, albeit very slowly! Scandinavia was also a baptism of fire for our finances – these countries are well renowned for being expensive, but we hadn’t expected basic food essentials in supermarkets to so pricy – for example a cucumber was the equivalent of £2 and don’t even think of having a beer….we did indulge one Saturday night and two 0.3l beers that cost £19!
East and Southern Europe – June 2018 – November 2018 –The Stabilisers Were Off
Whilst in Northern Europe and Scandinavia we were very much still in our comfort zone. We’d been to many of these countries before and nearly everyone spoke English. When we arrived in Gdansk, Poland, this all changed. Though much of what we were to see in Eastern Europe was still familiar the further south and east we went the weirdness increased! Many people back in the UK questioned whether we should cycle through Eastern Europe as the ‘people there are all thieves and bandits’ and ‘your bikes will definitely get stolen’. I even questioned it myself at the start, but as it turned out we had a fantastic time and the people we met were great. It just goes to show that you should experience these places yourself so that you can make up your own mind rather than just listening to other people who often have no real first-hand experience of these places themselves. Obviously there are bad apples in every society and we took the same precautions we would have done if we’d been in London – or anywhere else in the UK for that matter.
So, we meandered our way through Poland, Czech Republic, Austria and Slovakia…
Beautiful Quiet Roads in Central Slovakia
We found it amazing that when crossing a border we would pass through a sort of invisible barrier where everything that we’d got used to in one country was then taken away and a new set of weirdness was waiting for us on the other side! Each country is so unique and within just a few kilometres we would suddenly realise that things were very different. We would then go through a 48-hour period of uncertainty until we adjusted to our new environment. And with UK passports we didn’t have to worry about visas to cross borders at this stage of our trip.
The Polish Border
Rather than just camping we really wanted to stay with people along our journey so that we could better understand their culture and way of life and there are a couple of communities online that facilitate this sort of thing. Specifically for cyclists there is www.warmshowers.org, and for more general travellers there is www.couchsurfing.com. We tried warmshowers as early as Norway, but had no luck with hosts either not replying or we couldn’t coordinate suitable dates with the ones that did actually reply.
We’d got a bit disillusioned with warmshowers to be honest as we would send out loads of emails and get very few replies. That is until we got to Slovakia, where we had an amazing 3 days with Jan, Evit and their two boys who live in Banska Bystrica, a small town in the centre of the country. They showed us a level of kindness and hospitality that we’d never experienced from absolute strangers before – this, as it turns out, became the theme of all the people we stayed with during our journey.
For a very brief few days we joined the throngs of cyclists that peddle along the side of the Danube River towards Vienna – mostly day-trippers on electric-assist bikes with a few more serious cyclists in between. There are literally hundreds of cyclists around to the point where there were actually traffic jams in places!
Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria…
The central and southern part of Eastern Europe was an absolute revelation to us with Romania and Bulgaria in particular turning out to be fantastic experiences. The central part of Romania with the mighty Carpathian Mountains and the rather bizarre city of Bucharest with its recent history, made this a fascinating part of our ride…
The Carpathian Mountains
We were warned off the coastal route of Bulgaria by another cyclist we had been in touch with as he said it was a busy road with aggressive drivers, so we stuck to a central route instead and were really glad that we did. This area is largely untrodden by tourists, despite the spectacular limestone scenery and the fascinating history in the area.
Throughout this period, Eastern Europe was going through its hottest summer on record and we would regularly cycle in 35C. We didn’t know this at the time, but this was acclimatising us to what we would experience later on in our trip. Luckily water was abundant and in many of these countries there are old-fashioned hand pumps at the side of the road that we regularly used. Food is also easy and cheap to come by and the nearest Lidl is never too far away!
When in Poland we discovered that we would have to return to the UK in order to apply for visas to get into Pakistan (seemed like it was way down the line at this point but we had to continually look ahead for these things). The process can take up to 5 weeks to complete and we weren’t prepared to go home and wait this long. The political situation between the West and Iran was also of concern and the Iranians were picking up a few tourists to be used as political pawns, so we decided at this point that we would avoid these countries and fly from Istanbul straight to India. This meant that we had more time to spend in Europe, which we decided to spend in Greece.
We found Greece surprisingly expensive, despite the fact that it was very off-season (October) and many of the tourist places were closed for the winter, so we spent a lot of time wild camping. We had become more adventurous with wild camping throughout our time in Eastern Europe though we varied it with AirBnB, agri-tourist accommodation (farm and homestays) and normal campsites. Wild camping comes in two forms: firstly, stealth camping which is basically hiding so that no one can see you or secondly asking people whether it’s okay to put your tent up somewhere. We never got moved on during our trip but when we left Greece we found out that it’s actually illegal to wild camp there!
Camping in Full Sight, a beach front in Halkidiki, Greece
Our cycling journey in Turkey was very brief, but it was possibly the most hectic and we reckon that cycling into Istanbul was the closest we came to death during the whole 2 years. The day and a half that it took us to get into the centre of the city were very uncomfortable, mainly because of the manic, very fast-moving traffic, but also because it was very cold (-2C) and there was torrential rain throughout. We did, however, have two great nights with warmshowers hosts on our way, so it certainly wasn’t all doom and gloom. But it’s definitely not an experience we want to go through again!
Sub-continent – December 2018 – April 2019 – Cutting Our ‘Travelling Teeth’
We spent a total of 3.5 months in the main part of India (we would also go through two of the eastern states on our way to Myanmar later) and it was probably the most intense and tiring period of our journey. The constant interest shown in two white westerners, who were on bikes, is not something that the locals are used to seeing so we were a constant source of interest. This is something we’d never encountered before and something we never really got used to. From people surrounding us every time we stopped, to the thousands of times we were asked for selfies by motorbike riders, to fighting not to be ripped off every day, it was a test of our patience to say the least! However, that’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy ourselves.
And We Only Stopped For Some Water!
We started in Delhi and after a week of doing the touristy sites (Taj Mahal etc) we headed out across the city towards Jaipur, which meant crossing Delhi from a northern suburb to exit to the south west. The roads in India are chaotic at the best of times, but in a city of 18 million it’s doubly so. Drivers use any part of the road and drive in any direction they want which means that there are vehicles coming at you from multiple directions all the time. Whilst cycling across Delhi I was concentrating mainly on not being knocked off and making sure that I could still see Martina behind me as it was going to be very difficult to find each other if we got parted (I had a little mirror attached to my sunglasses that would let me view behind me – one of the most valuable pieces of kit in the entire trip I think!). Though I had my GPS switched on, the maps of the city weren’t very accurate and I hardly had time to look at it anyway as I feared something would hit me. So for a few hours I was actually navigating by the sun’s position – seriously! And miraculously we came out on exactly the right road!
Believe it or not the crazy world of India’s roads very quickly became the norm – seeing a bus coming in the opposite direction, on our side of the road, honking its horn for us to move out of its way was common; as were vendors pushing carts down the middle of a motorway road selling food to car drivers who would stop where the cart was. Sacred cows would wander in the middle of an 8-lane motorway whilst swerved drivers avoided them at all costs – as it’s bad luck to kill a cow. This actually became normal to us and we found we were less fazed by it all the longer we were there.
Anything Goes on India’s Roads!
Our route took us through Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udiapur, along the south-eastern side of the Thar Desert and then south to Mumbai. Every day was a cacophony of sounds and sights – it is a very full-on place to visit, especially on a bike. Getting into Mumbai reminded us of the journey into Istanbul, but without the rain – lots of traffic, moving very fast in a random fashion! After Mumbai we head south to Goa and then inland, across central India to Kolkata and then on to Bangladesh.
Outside of the cycling we had some amazing interactions with locals through warmshowers and couchsurfing. From being taught how to make chapatti to working with children in schools…
One of the Many Schools We Visited
To visiting and being hosted by indigenous tribes…
Talking With Tribal People in Maharashtra State
None of this was planned, it just happened through interactions with local people, many of whom we are still in touch with.
We had allocated part of our budget to pay for experiences and mini-breaks during our trip and whilst in India we went on a Leopard and a Tiger safari. During the tiger safari we were privileged to get within almost touching distance of an adult female. She was literally a metre away from us, so close in fact we could see her heart beating…
Though we had heard of other cyclists camping in India we felt that for personal security reasons we wouldn’t. There are people everywhere in India and even when we thought we were alone people would just appear from nowhere so at no point did we feel that we could safely stealth camp. Even many Indians that we met told us it wouldn’t be safe to camp, so we took their advice and stayed in cheap accommodation. It was also comforting to put a door between us and the hectic outside world at the end of an intense day, and for a while we could at least relax.
By the time we got beyond Kolkota to the eastern border we were quite weary of the intense interest in us and had expected Bangladesh to be more of what we had experienced in India. However it turns out that the Bangladeshis are very different to the Indians and although there is still an intensity to them, they are a much calmer people. Surprisingly Bangladesh has a very active cycling community, and as we found out quite early on, other cyclists wanted to take us under their wings. We visited Dhaka and found it to be more modern and not as crowded as we’d been led to believe. We also reached the far north east of the country and the city of Sylhet, which is famous for its tea gardens/plantations. Sylhet is also where most of the people that run the Indian restaurants in the UK originate from!
Tea Gardens in Sreemongal, Bangladesh
After Bangladesh we crossed back into India and cycled through the hilly and remote states of Tripura and Mizoram. Surprisingly the people there looked Burmese (not Indian), they speak their own local language (not Hindi) and are mainly Christian (not Hindu). This portion of our journey was one of the most challenging for lots of reason, but it was also one of the most rewarding both for the scenery and the interactions we had with the locals.
South-East Asia – April 2019 – October 2019 – Battling the Elements
We crossed the border from Mizoram into Myanmar and that was the start of the South-East Asian leg of our journey. The temperature in this part of the world definitely started to ramp up and we were regularly cycling in 40C+. One particular day it reached 48C! As a result we changed our cycling routine to get up at 4:30am, be on the road by 5:30am and cycle in the coolest part of the day. We’d then do what the locals all did, which was to find a cool place to sit out the heat of the afternoon – for us that was generally an air-conditioned hotel room. In Myanmar foreigners are required to stay in government-licenced guesthouses and hotels, so our route was very much governed by where we could get accommodation. The locals are amazing and we could really tell that they loved having westerners visiting their country…
The crossing into Thailand from here was a real culture shock. We felt we’d almost arrived in America as it was very developed and modern compared to what we had experienced since India. We didn’t go to the tourist areas in the far north, but we found that there was still plenty of areas of interest between the border and our crossing point over the Mekong River into Laos…..
Laos was very hot, sweaty and hilly, especially the further north we travelled. It’s largely undeveloped as far as tourism is concerned and our journey often took us into very rural and remote areas. We had what we think is probably our toughest cycling day of our trip in Laos, where we climbed over 2,500m in one day with the gradient reaching 22% at times on gravel-covered roads. It was also 35C and about 90% humidity – we definitely earned our cold beers at the end of that day!
The Mountains of Northern Laos
Northern Vietnam was a continuation of hills, high temperatures and high humidity. We went to Hanoi, which turned out to be one of our favourite cities of our tour – lots to see and do, plus the food and people are great. We then went to Cat Ba, which is the touristy part of the north east coast, and joined the other westerners in some sightseeing. Our journey south towards Ho Chi Minh City took us the length of Vietnam along the coast, through towns that generally cater for Vietnamese tourists rather than westerners, which was always interesting to observe. On the outskirts of Nha Trang, unfortunately Martina had an accident after hitting some gravel going down a hill and knocked herself out. Luckily there was a large hospital in the city where she could get treatment and also some great accommodation for her to recover in, and ten days later we were back on the road again fit and healthy.
From Vietnam we crossed into Cambodia, which was one of our favourite countries of our whole tour. And again the locals were friendly and helpful. The country’s ancient and recent history means that there is loads to see and do especially in the capital Phnom Penh, and the historical sites around Siem Reap.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
From Cambodia we crossed into southern Thailand, spent some time in Bangkok and then headed south along the not-so-popular east coast of the Thai peninsular where there are beautiful untouched beached and remote fishing villages – and not a western tourist in sight!
A Fishing Village, East Coast Thai Peninsular
We then continued our way south into Malaysia – firstly to Penang, which although it is a tourist destination is still a beautiful town to visit. The cycle into Kuala Lumpur is another experienced that we don’t want to repeat as for an entire day we were on busy main roads, which really wasn’t very pleasant. But the city itself was great – an interesting mix of old and new – and we really enjoyed our time there. We had another harrowing day leaving KL but thankfully managed to get on some quiet roads all the way to Malacca. By this point we were on a mission to get to Singapore for a flight to Perth, but when we reached Malacca we realised we were ahead of schedule so had a couple of days spare. And Malacca turned out to be just the place to spend those extra few days with lots of history and a real mix of cultures.
‘Normal’ life on the road in Malaysia. A pit stop for a cold drink in a petrol station and palm-tree lined road – just shows a not-so-glamorous side to world cycling, but also shows off our well laden, trusty Stoaters nicely.
We’d been to Singapore before, but had stuck to the central touristy part on that trip. This time we stayed in an AirBnB with a local family in a Chinese area, so we saw a completely different side to the city, and actually enjoyed staying there much more than we’d expected to! Mind you cleaning our bikes in 95% humidity for our onward journey to Australia wasn’t that pleasant – but a necessary requirement to get through Australia customs!
Marina Bay, Singapore
Throughout South-East Asia we found the locals amazing with kids regularly come running out shouting hello and waving. At times our faces actually hurt because we had been smiling so much!
Accommodation and food is unbelievably cheap there: On average it would cost £5 for a decent room for 2 people with air-conditioning, with a meal costing £1 or less per person. As the temperature and humidity in the region was so high we elected not to camp, plus our budget was such that we didn’t need to put ourselves through that discomfort!
Australia – November 2019 – January 2020 – All About the Cycling
We’d been told that the Aussie customs were very strict on bringing outdoor equipment into the country – it has to be spotless. So even though we knew we had scrubbed everything to within an inch of its life, it was with some nervousness that we walked into the customs area of Perth airport. But the officer there just waved us through and didn’t even check – but at least our consciences were clear!
From Perth we cycled south along the west and south coasts of the state of Western Australia, which turned out to be absolute gems and almost devoid of tourists…
Near Esperance, Western Australia
We then crossed the mighty Nullarbor Desert – a 1,200km stretch of nothing but desert, a few roadhouses and the odd road train (massive two- or three-trailer truck)…
One of the Smaller Road Trains We Saw
Food and water for this part of our journey needed careful planning and on the advice of another cyclist we sent a food package ahead to a roadhouse at the halfway mark for us to pick up, so that we would only have to carry 6 days of food when we set off. We also had to carry an additional 10ltrs of water each. At times the temperatures got up to 45C and we could see the smoke from bush fires – at one point the main highway behind us was closed because of the fires. The different state that we passed through on this journey posted record high summer temperatures, so the riding was a bit uncomfortable at times!
An Awful Lot of Nothing Much!
However, the Aussies are fantastic people and the many motorhome and caravan owners (‘grey nomads’) would regularly take it upon themselves to look after us by giving us cold drinks and food. This friendliness also extended to the many different people that we stayed with throughout Australia and so we had a great time! From the desert our cycle route took us through Adelaide and along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, where we spent a very different Christmas and New Year to what we are used to in the UK and Ireland.
New Zealand – January – March 2020 – A ‘Holiday’
New Zealand was the finale to our overall tour and we decide to cover less distance and take as much time off as we could – so we treated it as a sort of touring holiday.
We flew from Melbourne to Christchurch in South Island and cycled south to Dunedin. On the way we passed the 45th parallel, which is basically equidistant from the South Pole and the equator.
We then cycled west to Te Anau where we took a bus tour to the very spectacular Milford Sound. We weren’t actually sure if we were allowed to cycle the road to Milford Sound so we chose the easier option of the bus. From there we took an amazing cycle trail (‘Around the Mountain’) to Queenstown, across the Southern Alps and up the very rainy west coast of the South Island to Nelson…
‘Around The Mountain’, Near Queenstown, New Zealand
We spent a couple of days sea kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park before crossing to Wellington on the North Island. We then joined the tourist trail through Taupo, Rotorua and Hobbiton and proceeded north to Auckland. Our route took us even further north to Kerikeri where we were guests on a yacht around the amazing Bay of Islands.
It was at this point that we started to get concerned about the Coronavirus outbreak and its associated travel restrictions. We were aware that the major airlines were grounding their fleets and borders were being closed, so we decide to return to the UK earlier than planned. As it was, we only cut our tour short by 2.5 weeks, which is really nothing in the grand scheme of things. We were very glad that we made this decision when we did, as our original fight was cancelled a few days later, so we think we did it just in time. Unfortunately cutting short our tour meant that we didn’t get to meet up with Rod, a Kiwi Stoater-rider, who had been in touch via our blog inviting us to stay – our visit to him had been planned for our final week.
Home and the Future
I describe our journey as being similar to a 2-year fully-immersive university course where we learned about history, geography, politics and culture on a daily basis. We learned a huge amount about the world, the people in it, and even ourselves and would highly recommend this type of adventure to everyone.
Re-integration after a tour of this length was always going to be a challenge, but in the current climate it has been quite a shock. We have gone from roaming wherever we wanted to on a day-to-day basis to being in lockdown. However, we are thankful that we have made it home safe and sound and ready for our next tour wherever that might take us. And we are also grateful that we set out in 2018 and didn’t wait until our original start date of spring 2020!
As I had some time on my hands when we got back I took our bikes apart, cleaned them and put them back together. The fact that they are sill in such good condition, considering everything they have endured over the past two years is testament to their quality …..
From dirt tracks, nightmare pot-holed roads, wind, rain, hail, sun, temperatures from -3 to +48 degrees C, loads of ferry and boat journeys, two maxi taxi rides (one where they were strapped to the roof!) and 5 international flights, they haven’t missed a beat and they’re now ready for at least another 35,000+ km!