After setting out from his Wiltshire village in July 2010, Charlie Walker spent four-and-a-half years cycling across three continents. His route took him into the Arctic Circle, through the Himalayas and across the Sahara. Over 40,000 miles later – the equivalent of cycling twice around the world – Charlie recently arrived back in the UK. Rough Guides editor Greg Dickinson caught up with him to hear how he got on.
What inspired you to set out on your journey in the first place?
The reason I set out is probably different in my memory to what it actually was at the time, but the best I can come up with is that I wasn’t quite ready to plunge into a career. I was 22, I didn’t have a long term girlfriend, I didn’t have a job or a mortgage or kids or anything like that, so it seemed like a very easy time to just cut off and do it.
How did you prepare for such an epic trip?
Preparation for something like this is difficult. I didn’t prepare, really. I got my funds together and bought cheap kit and a third-hand bike called “Old Geoff”. I chose three points to reach on the trip – Nordkapp (Norway), Singapore and Cape Town – and didn’t work out how I was going to get between them. Nor did I prepare physically; I hadn’t sat on a bike for a couple of months before I started, so the first few weeks were something of a baptism of fire.
You and “Old Geoff” spent a lot of time together. Did you have any scrapes during your travels?
I suppose the nearest I came to believing I was in real danger was when I got lost in a whiteout in Tibet. I was up there in the winter and that’s not advisable, especially if you’re ill equipped. I was cycling up into the mountains and it started to snow, and then it slowly became a blizzard. I lost the track and was pushing through knee-deep snow. Then, just when I was thinking about digging a hole and sleeping in the snow, I came across a small hut where a Tibetan family let me stay with them for the night. It was sort of miraculous. If I believed in fate, this would have been it.
Isn’t it quite tricky to get into Tibet as a solo traveller?
Yeah. I realized the only way I could do it would be to get into China first and then sneak in, because if you want to go officially then you need a driver and a guide. So one night, at about 3am, I managed to cut a hole in the fence at the military base that guards the entrance to Tibet. I got caught after three weeks, but it was interesting while it lasted.
Didn’t you also have a near-miss with an elephant in Botswana?
I did indeed. I was following the road in the north east of Botswana called the “Elephant Highway”. The elephants are perfectly used to vehicles, but a silent vehicle moving at speed with an animal-type shape is quite unnerving. They’re not used to bicycles. There was a large bull grazing on the roadside, so I just cycled past him, but as I went past he stepped up towards the roadside and flapped his ears out and started waving his trunk and trumpeting. In that instance he looked like a double-decker bus. Just huge. He started chasing me, so I had to keep pedalling as hard and fast as I could. He eventually slowed off, but there was about a hundred metres where I was too afraid to look back.
What was the most memorable meal you had on the road?
In one supermarket in Sweden there was a pyramid display of cheap, tinned meat. The label was a white sticker with cartoony pictures of fish on it. They were disgustingly cheap – and that’s the key word. It was gelatinous and not very tasty. Then the next time I stocked up in a supermarket I saw the same can was surrounded by animal food… I had been eating cat food for three days.
Anything more… exotic?
I inadvertently ate pig’s penis in China. It didn’t taste that bad.
Which was the friendliest country that you visited?
Iran, hands down. There are such negative preconceptions about that country, but as a rule, the more suppressive or autocratic the regime, the nicer the people are in defiance of that. On a daily basis I was invited into people’s homes, and I couldn’t accept every offer because I never would have got anywhere. It’s just part of the culture; one of the pillars for Islam is hospitality for travellers because of the Hajj – the pilgrimage to Mecca.
So did people join you during your round-the-world pilgrimage?
I met a German guy in Vietnam called Micky. We were in a bar, and late that night he said: “You know, I think I’ll sell my motorbike and buy a bicycle, and we will cycle to Beijing together”. And we did. In the DRC I bought a dugout canoe with a Scottish guy and we spent a few weeks going down a river. So yeah, some people joined the adventure.
You took some stunning photos on the road. Is there one picture that stands out as a favourite?
There was one I took of a very old monk in Thailand. I was sleeping on the floor in his room at a Buddhist temple. He was 75 and had been a monk since he was five, and he’d started to lose his mind a little bit – he was wandering around and peeing in the corner of his room. In the morning he posed for a picture and the planets aligned. He’s got a very austere, wise expression. And by chance, in the background there’s a nice golden statue of the Buddha. That’s probably my favourite photo.
How has it been adjusting to normality now that you’re back?
Easier than I thought. During the last six months I was quite ready to come back. I got quite ill. In the Congo I had malaria and typhoid at the same time, and I was very weak for a while after that. So from then on I was really looking forward to getting home. By the time I was going through France I had a couple of weeks by myself to reflect on everything, and when I crossed over to Dover suddenly it just felt right and comfortable.
A lot of people dream of embarking on an adventure like this but never quite get around to it. What would you say to inspire someone to get out and just do it?
Anyone can do it. I’m not a sportsman. I’m not rich, I never stood out in sports teams at school. I’m not a cyclist, as such. The biggest thing is just to decide to do it and go. Set yourself a date and cancel your phone contract – then you’re really stuffed and you’ve got to go. And you don’t need to cycle around continents. Just walk out your door, hitchhike to Dover and see where it takes you. I think there’s so much to be said for just roaming for a while in a chaotic, quixotic fashion.