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12,000 MILES ROUND THE WORLD BY BICYCLE

13 June 2000 - 22 May 2001

Margaret and Barry Williamson

Introduction

We were wintering in Greece when the idea of a round-the-world bicycle ride took shape. For 5 enjoyable post-retirement years we had explored Europe, the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa by motorhome, bicycle and motorbike, feeling increasingly constrained by the instability of the surrounding countries. Time was not on our side: after celebrating 114 birthdays, we didn't know how many more were waiting in the wings.

A 1,500-mile training ride took us into the mountains above Sparta and for circuits of Cyprus, Israel and the Aegean islands of Rhodes, Kos, Samos and Xios. Preparations then began in earnest: Travelbag in Alton sold us a round-the-world flight with 5 stopovers; the motorbike was left in Greece; the bicycles were overhauled with new wheels built and re-tyred by Paul Hewitt in Leyland; and the motorhome was retired - to a farm near Stonehenge. We were ready to go!

Singapore Memories

For a more detailed account of our stay in Singapore, click here.

On Tuesday, 13 June, British Airways flew us to Singapore in 13 hours for a few days' cycling and acclimatisation. Barry remembered a former self, an 18-year old National Serviceman en route to Hong Kong, guarding Hastings bombers on the runway at RAF Changi, now the international airport. Sadly, over these many long years, both Barry and Singapore had changed beyond recognition. Margaret would never forget Singapore's kaleidoscope of culture, cuisine and colour.

Australia: Coast to Coast

For a detailed, day-by-day account of our 3,400-mile ride across Australia, click here.

Landing in Perth in Western Australia, we bought essential kit: sunscreen, insect repellent (not used), a camping stove and gas cylinders, mugs and plates, thermal underwear. We rode west initially to meet the Indian Ocean at the nearby port of Fremantle, before turning east for the 3,000-mile ride across the world's emptiest, driest and flattest continent, to Brisbane and the Pacific Ocean. At the gold-mining town of Norseman (population 1,000), 480 miles out from Perth through wheat and bushland, we began the crossing of the Nullarbor (No Trees) Plain on the road to Ceduna in South Australia (population 1,000). For 800 miles, as far as Land's End to John O'Groats, there was nothing but 9 roadhouses - no crossroads, no telegraph poles, no farms, no houses, no Aborigines: just bush, red earth, kangaroos, emus and 3 dead camels. We stayed at a roadhouse when possible and camped in the bush when not, alone under the Southern Cross.

Making a welcome noise, and seen up to 20 minutes away at night, Great Australian Road Trains crossed the Nullarbor in 2 days. Measuring up to 100 ft in length and 79 tons in weight, their drivers came to know us as they took supplies to and from Perth, the world's most isolated city. The road itself, the Eyre Highway, wasn't surfaced until the 1970's. It is 1 of only 2 to cross the continent and for 96 of its miles it produces Australia's, if not the world's, longest straight road.

We rode in the depth of an Australian winter which gave us short, warm days and the long cold nights that ensured deep sleep for flies, spiders and snakes, if not for us. Water was in short supply: pumped from the ground, its salinity required special mariner's soap; collected from shed roofs, its scarcity required special pleading. Ronny Betsch from Leipzig was the only other cyclist we met, riding westward and fighting our prevailing tailwind.

At the Nullarbor roadhouse, on the edge of the Yalata Aboriginal Reserve, bush-pilot Nigel flew us in his single-engine plane, Barry in the co-pilot's seat (Don't Touch Anything), to watch Dolphins and Southern Right Whales breeding in the shelter of the Great Australian Bight.

The first crossroads came at Port Augusta after 1,580 miles: left for Alice Springs and Darwin, right for Adelaide and Sydney, straight on for Brisbane! Entering New South Wales, we rode east for 1,000 miles on the deserted Barrier Highway. At the Olary Hotel in Olary (population 11), host Adam Pay rode his mountain bike, wrote bush poetry and claimed Francis Drake for an ancestor.

The pioneer mining towns of Broken Hill and Cobar led on to Tamworth, where we turned north on the New England Highway, climbing to 4,600 feet along the spine of the Great Dividing Range. Crossing into Queensland, the road ran north to Toowoomba, the city that boasts 4 seasons! A good friendship with Stan and Celia Smith, first met in Greece in 1997, bore more fruit when we were able to spend a pleasant Sunday with their son David and his wife Learne at their spacious bungalow in a leafy suburb. On Monday morning, we turned east and plunged 3,000 ft to reach the Pacific Ocean at Brisbane's Manly Beach, bringing to fruition 55 days of excellent cycling.

The time left on our 3-month visa gave us another 400 miles north along Queensland's Sunshine Coast to the rum, sugar and ginger beer town of Bundaberg, the air crackling with heat and dryness. The smoke of bush fires drifted across the road as we returned to Brisbane on 13 September to fly south and east into the cool greenness of Auckland.

New Zealand: A Complete Circuit

For a detailed, day-by-day account of our 4,600-mile ride in New Zealand, click here.

From Cape Reinga in the semi-tropical far north to Wellington in the windy south, we followed the east coast of New Zealand's North Island for 1,900 miles: the Bay of Islands, Coromandel Peninsula, Bay of Plenty, detouring inland to Rotorua (home of geysers, boiling mud and individual spa pools), Poverty Bay and Hawkes Bay. 700 steps up at the East Cape lighthouse we almost touched the International Dateline - on a clear day you can see yesterday!

Near Pongaroa, 2 nights in the shearers' quarters on George and Pauline Wardle's 1,000 acre sheep farm gave us shelter from the rain and a great insight into the life and history of a New Zealand rural community. In sharp contrast, but equally interesting, were the rides through Maori tribal areas, a people still clinging to their language, customs, hakkas and traditional meeting places.

A 3-hour ferry ride carried us from Wellington, across the Cook Strait to Picton at the top of South Island: from volcanoes to Southern Alps. Together, the 2 islands exceed the area of all the British Isles, room enough for 37 million people and 50 million sheep.

Cresting Spooner's Saddle, the first of many alpine passes, we rode to Westport on the South Island's west coast which we then followed for 270 miles on the narrow shelf between alp and Tasman Sea. Uniquely, the Fox and Franz Josef Glaciers, falling from the frozen 12,400 ft heights of Mount Cook, flow and melt their way through rain forest before reaching the sea. At Haast we again turned inland on the Haast Pass to Wanaka and over New Zealand's highest road, the unsurfaced Crown Range, to Queenstown, the 'Adventure Capital of the World' (if bungee jumping, white-water rafting and helicopter-supported mountain biking count as adventures).

Queenstown lies on the edge of the Fiordland National Park which we accessed by boat down the Milford Sound and out into the Tasman Sea, crossing the 45th Parallel and passing a lone Fiordland Crested Penguin, the last one to leave for a summer in the Antarctic.

From Te Anau, we rode the scenic southern route to Invercargill, the most Scottish of towns, before turning south to Bluff, the Land's End of New Zealand, where State Highway No 1 finally runs into the sea. Our circuitous route had brought us 2,850 miles from Auckland; a signpost pointed directly at London, as far away as it could be, 12,000 miles over the horizon.

An hour's stormy ferry ride south of Bluff landed us on Stewart Island for a rainy day on gravel roads, achieving our southernmost point ever at the monument to missionary Rev Wohler. The following day, 80 Pilot Whales were stranded in the island's Half Moon Bay.

Christmas passed at Owaka at the end of the gravel road through the Catlin Hills; the New Year dawned at Oamaru where Yellow-Eyed and Little Blue Penguins waddle ashore every evening to the delight of tourists and the local economy.

Our return ride to Picton for the ferry back to Wellington followed the South Island's east coast, with a diversion west to visit Mount Cook Village at the end of a long valley, terminating in glaciers. A little further on, we followed a 20-mile hydro-canal to the small settlement of Lake Tekapo at 2,500 ft. Here the Pedallers' Paradise Hostel (cyclists only) is home to one of our few heroes - Nigel Rushton - author of the 2-volume cycle touring guide to New Zealand, not entirely accurately titled: 'Pedallers' Paradise'. It transpired that Nigel has a Lancashire accent, a Japanese wife, a small child, a strong objection to tv and telephones and an encyclopaedic knowledge of New Zealand's back-country roads.

Another diversion enabled us to cross the Alps over Porter's and Arthur's Pass, returning over the Rahu Saddle and Lewis Pass, cols whose total height exceeds 12,000 ft. (Arthur Dobson and Henry Lewis were surveyors opening up routes from Christchurch to the west coast goldfields in the 1860's). The final 100 miles along the Pacific coast from Kaikoura were accompanied by regular sightings of seals and the unfulfilled promise of offshore whales.

Recrossing the Picton Sound to Wellington, the highlights of our 780-mile return ride to Auckland include the circuit of Mount Egmont, an 8,300 ft snow-capped volcano; the ride through the Tongariro National Park, a high volcanic plateau at the heart of the island and the back country roads between Lake Taupo and Auckland, through a land of forests, rivers, lakes and hot springs.

In Stratford the streets are named after Shakespearean characters, and scenes from Romeo and Juliet are performed thrice daily by the only Glockenspiel in the Southern Hemisphere, housed in an Elizabethan Clock Tower (built circa 1996). Christa Scholtz, cyclist and postgraduate student from Princeton University, gave us an evening's introduction to her research into the contrasting treatment of indigenous peoples in Canada, USA, Australia and New Zealand. Fascinating.

We left New Zealand on 20 February for the 3-hour flight to Fiji. We felt that 5 months and 4,600 strenuous miles had given us a great insight into this unique and complex land. Mammal-free (apart from some bats) since the beginning of time and occupied by humans for only 750 years - the Maori arriving about 1250 and Captain Cook in 1769. In smoking volcano, steaming geyser, boiling mud pool, lifting alp, crashing glacier, trembling earthquake and the roaring forties there are constant glimpses of the Earth as it once was - raw, untamed and magnificent.

Fiji: A Turn in the Tropics

For a detailed, day-by-day account of our circuit of Fiji's largest island, click here.

It was the hot season and the rains were due; there had been a military coup and a state of emergency still existed; we didn't have a map but quickly realised that a road ran almost all the way round the largest island, the island we were on, Viti Levu. We had 6 days between flights, the distance was about 300 miles, accommodation might be found, the road couldn't be worse than parts of New Zealand and Australia, people seemed friendly and it was only unbearably hot and humid when we stopped moving: did we need all those rest days?

Our decision to ride was one of the best we ever made. Everyone was friendly: the Fijians greeted us with cries of Bulla Bulla (Welcome); ethnic Indians with a polite Good Morning. Battered lorries and overloaded buses gave a sympathetic toot and a wide berth. Long-dead Indians lived on in the name of their memorial bus-shelters, fully appreciated by 2 cyclists seeking shade, a seat, a drink of orange juice, another chance to meet people. We were offered fruit of all descriptions, invited to rest in people's huts and enjoyed many conversations giving a graphic insight into politics and racial tension, against a background of subsistence living and colonial exploitation.

Even the police and army, manning their barbed-wire checkpoints, smiled, saluted and waved us through. We were sad to see that the few packaged tourists still visiting the island were isolated within their 'resorts'; we enjoyed the open road and the opportunity to stay at back-country hotels.

We completed the circuit and returned to the warm showers and cool air-conditioning of the luxurious Raffles Gateway Hotel by the International Airport at Nadi (at 15 per couple per night!) At the airport, otherwise deserted at midnight, an elderly Air Pacific Jumbo, packed to the doors, groaned and rattled as it strained to lift off after waiting an hour for wind and rain to ease. A typhoon approached as the rainy season finally fulfilled its promise.

USA: Coast to Coast

For a detailed, day-by-day account of our 3,600-mile ride across the southern states of the USA, click here.

10 hours in the air gave a short and restless night, a re-crossing of the Equator and an extra day to add to our lives, wreaking havoc with our accounts which couldn't count Tuesday twice. Los Angeles was cool and showery as we rode south along the Pacific coast on skateboard and bike lanes, past shuttered holiday villas and countless beaches deserted by all but a few hardy surfers. After 80 miles we seemed to be free of the LA conurbation but only a Marine Corps base and a climb over a cliff separated it from the beginnings of San Diego on the border with Mexico.

Bidding farewell to the Pacific Ocean, first met in Brisbane, we turned east for the 3,000-mile ride to meet the Atlantic Ocean on an unknown Florida beach. The road out of San Diego immediately started to climb at the beginning of its 1,000-mile run to El Paso. Mountain ranges alternated with the desert valleys of Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico. An irrigation scheme from the Colorado river made the desert bloom at Imperial Valley, 100 ft below sea level. After needing a full day to cross Phoenix, we rode into a one-million-acre Apache reservation: a young man, claiming to be 'full-blooded', told us that Apache land really stretched from coast to coast.

At Florence Junction Service Station, 17 miles east of Apache Junction in Arizona, we met Dawn Young cycling from San Diego. Amazingly equipped with a shopping bicycle, basket, plastic stool, large umbrella and under-inflated tyres, she paralleled our route for 5 days, sharing 2 motels, 2 campgrounds and several mountain passes including one at 6,295 ft in the Big Lue Mountains. She had worked in Taiwan for 20 years, teaching English, and was now on her way to her father's home on the Florida coast. In New Mexico's Silver City we had a rest day and Dawn rode on with Ralph, a retired football coach, who was on his first cycle tour - from San Diego to Austin, Texas. We were to meet only one other long-distance cyclist in the USA.

We crossed the Continental Divide before Silver City and afterwards climbed the snowy Emory Pass, our highest in the Rockies at 8,228 ft. Dropping down to the Rio Grande, we followed it through El Paso and into the canyons and badlands of West Texas. For a moment in Langtry, Barry was Judge Roy Bean, the Law West of the Pecos. From Van Horn to Alpine, we rode to a record day of 110 miles, fuelled by a school dinner in the desert town of Valentine. Pushing west, cyclist Christoph Oberhauser from Austria put our photograph on the internet: www.biketheworld.at. Choosing a route through the Texas Hill Country to avoid San Antonio, Austin and Houston and welcoming the vast forests of East Texas, the 'Big Thicket', it took 1,100 miles to cross Texas.

Louisiana span beneath our wheels - Baton Rouge, the Mississippi Delta, New Orleans. Robert Petersen approached us outside a supermarket in Covington with the usual questions about where we had come from, where we were going, why, etc. Robert went further and invited us to his 100-year-old wooden home in a shady suburb with resident squirrels and racoons. We met wife Weese, were taken out for an all-you-can-eat Cajun meal of shrimps, crawfish, beer and crackers, kept quiet while Survivor was on the tv, introduced to Southern style American politics, given the grown-up children's beds and seen off the following morning with a cooked breakfast. Brilliant.

In Mississippi we passed through Long Beach and the casino resorts of Biloxi and Pascagoula on the Gulf of Mexico; Alabama meant crossing Mobile Bay on spindly bridges and a linking ferry. We entered the Florida Panhandle at Pensacola, still 500 miles from the Atlantic Ocean. Arriving finally at Flagler Beach, it was time to pause, to paddle and to photograph: we had done it! 3000 miles and 52 riding days from LA, almost the same distance and time as our crossing of Australia.

With time in hand before our 3-month visa expired, we rode south for 500 miles down Florida's Atlantic coast, mainly along a narrow sand spit which parallels the shore, through Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, Fort Pierce, Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and along the 100-mile Keys to the remoteness of Key West. The ghost of Hemingway still walks the streets, Creoles add colour and music while Havana hovers just over the horizon.

Key West is the southernmost point of the continental United States; our visa was nearly up and our one-year round-the-world ticket was about to turn into a pumpkin. Time to stop! We returned to Miami, pausing only to visit the Everglades National Park, pathetically dry after a 3-year drought and the priority water engineers give to humans rather than alligators.

A 9-hour flight (bringing the total to over 40 hours) returned us to Heathrow and the shock of the Old World after a year cycling in the New. The motorhome, like the rest of our life, started first time and we were soon back into our old routines, planning the next journey.

Weather and Climate

The timing of the ride was crucial: we were in Australia during its winter, in New Zealand for spring and summer, in Fiji before the rainy season (just) and the USA for an early southern spring and summer. We left both Queensland and Florida before it got too hot to cycle in comfort.

Overall, the prevailing winds were from the west. In Australia this gave us a tailwind for much of the time, in New Zealand we had a strong, buffeting side wind and a tailwind helped us cover the first half of the US crossing. When we reached the Gulf of Mexico a stronger south-east wind took over and gave us something to push against for the last 1,500 miles.

We were rarely cold, sometimes too hot and not often wet. We used factor 30 sunblock and lip salve most days: in southern New Zealand, UV pouring through holes in the ozone layer punched holes in our T-shirts and disintegrated the canvas tops of Margaret's pannier bags!

Accommodation

Altogether, we spent our nights in 252 different places - 246 after cycling, 6 after flying. Each required us to: collect information, work out distances and times, look at alternatives, ride there, find the place(s), negotiate the price, check alternatives, make a choice, check in, look at the facilities, get the bikes inside, unload 5 bags each, make the bed, make a meal, shower, sleep. Each morning, at least an hour was needed to reverse this procedure and get us back out on the road.

In Australia and New Zealand, caravan park cabins were our mainstay. They varied from simple huts with bunk beds (with no 'Manchester', the down-under name for bed linen) to en-suite 'Tourist Flats' with queen bed, wardrobes, kitchen, air-conditioner/heater and tv. What they all had in common were 2 bicycles leaning on the end of the bed!

We also used hotels (pubs) in back country towns where tourists rarely go. A typical hotel offered a simple room, substantial meals and an opportunity to meet the locals in the long bar which was the main reason for the hotel's existence. The hotel was also an invaluable source of local knowledge and history and a reliable guide to the road ahead. When cabins and hotel rooms were absent, we used backpackers' hostels, a very inexpensive (as little as 350 per person per night) antipodean invention. The hostel was home to every kind of itinerant from the swagman and fruit picker to the budget fly-drive holiday-maker. We would have used them more if we hadn't valued our privacy, particularly at bedtime! We rarely used Bed & Breakfast establishments since these were the most expensive; we camped when necessary, usually in the wilderness when nightfall found us too many miles short of the next bed.

In the USA, motels were the only alternative to camping and campgrounds suitable for tents were rarely found. Motels were everywhere. Older units were located in small towns and on US highways now bypassed by the extensive freeway network. Sometimes reminiscent of 'Psycho', these were the places for us: the welcome was usually extended by an owner/manager from Bombay. We weren't allowed to cycle on freeways, but it was often easy to access a junction where modern motels would cluster: Day's Inn, Best Western, Super 8, Economy Inn, Travelodge, Comfort Inns. These chains offered discounts for members, seniors, weekends, coupons, turning up late. Every motel allowed us to put our bicycles in the room.

Food

We usually made 2 meals a day for ourselves: breakfast in the tent or room, lunch out on the road. We cooked a third meal in the evening when camping or if the room was equipped for it. In addition to this we always carried a couple of tins (corned beef, sardines, tuna or stew), along with bread, honey, biscuits and chocolate for what we called 'emergencies'.

In Australia and New Zealand, food was cheap, plentiful and easily capable of providing the 4,500 calories needed each day by the average round-the-world cyclist. Aussies and Kiwis add a wider range of vegetables (or veggies) and salads to typical English cuisine. A pub meal would be beef or lamb, 5 veggies, potatoes, rice and gravy, followed by a large pudding. Fast food joints were endemic; we also gave good custom to tea-rooms with their pots of tea, sandwiches, fruit slices and the famous Mrs Mac's meat pies. Fish and chips went down well with us and many others at about 1 per head. Self-catering was easy, as most rooms had at least a kettle, toaster and hotplate, if not a full oven or microwave. Campgrounds had well-equipped kitchens and dining rooms.

In the USA, McDonalds and other fast-food chains were oases in deserts (natural and man-made). They provided very welcome air-conditioned breaks for hot, dehydrating cyclists with clean rest-rooms, newspapers and plenty to drink: free iced water to fill ourselves and our bottles, discounts for Seniors' coffee with free refills. The food itself became monotonous but hygienic restaurants were expensive. Free or cheap coffee was usually available at general stores and gas stations. Cooking was more difficult in the US as motel rooms rarely had kitchens (or 'efficiencies').

Shops

Supermarkets were to be found in larger towns and cities, if you had the time to look! In smaller towns and villages, fresh food was often hard to find and more expensive at convenience stores or truckstops. Post offices also acted as general stores except in the USA, where the US Mail was a more formal undertaking altogether. Specialist bicycle shops existed only in the obscure suburbs of larger cities; in small towns they usually doubled as hardware stores, lawnmower and chainsaw repairers, etc, and only had very basic items. We had considerable difficulties finding good quality replacement tyres (700x32C) and small propane gas cylinders for our cooking stove.

Distances and Times

 Country

Days

Days Cycling

Miles

Average

 Singapore

 4

 2

 60

 30

 Australia

 88

 65

 3440

 53

 New Zealand

 160

 108

 4625

 43

 Fiji

 7

 6

 300

 50

 USA

 82

 65

 3645

 56

         
 Totals

 341

 246

 12070

 49

         
 Coast to Coast        
 Australia

 68

 55

 3025

 55

 USA

 60

 52

 3000

 58

No time was lost through illness; Xmas and the New Year consumed a 7-day break in New Zealand and stormy weather kept us indoors for 4 days in total. Otherwise, non-cycling days were used for sight-seeing, maintenance, writing, repairs, cleaning, reading, shopping, planning ahead, telephoning, crosswords, listening to the BBC World Service on our short-wave radio, etc.

What the Cyclist Saw

Singapore: On the menu: 2 Frog Porridge, Pig Organ Soup, Fish Head Curry, Fragrant Claypot.

Australia: Take a Smoko at the Servo (Take a break at the service station). The Golfie with Pokies (The golf club with gambling machines)

NZ: The NZ Air Force base with the kiwi as its symbol - an almost blind, flightless bird!

Fiji: Road sign - 'Drink, Don't Drive!'

USA: Road sign near prison - 'Don't pick up hitchhikers'

Our Motto: Provided by George W Bush: 'If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure'!