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Episode 7

How do you feel your ride around the world would be different if you did it today in the free WiFi, social media and smart phone era? 

I descended from a ferocious day of whiteouts, crampons, ice axes, bitter wind and a beautiful white Arctic hare up on the Cairngorm plateau. Down to the peace of a spring evening in Aviemore. Waiting for the sleeper train back down to London, I headed to the pub. I sat down, had a few drinks, and tried to recapture a little of the glory days of my adventures before the juggernaut of social media came along. 

Before I launch into a misty-eyed rant about the good-old-days and the youth-of-today, let me say this. Back when I cycled round the world (2001 to 2005), I was…

• Striving to be as high-tech as possible. I had my own website which isn’t significantly different to an expedition website today. I had a digital camera which felt slightly miraculous to use. “Look on the back - that’s the photo I just took! Amazing!"

• I was trying to tell as many people as I could about my ride. I had a list of email addresses that I updated whenever I encountered an Internet cafe.

• And I was eager to use the internet as much as possible to sort out the logistics of the trip: getting visas for wild countries, road conditions in rainy seasons etc. The Lonely Planet 'On Your Bike' forum was invaluable.

If I was 24 today and about to set off around the world then I would definitely embrace all the social media and mobile phone technology available. 

And yet, at the same time, I also hold the contradictory belief that I am so glad to have done that trip without those things.

I once wrote a long blog post suggesting that nobody should blog on their first expedition. But at the time I would have torn your arm off for it all. WhatsApp?! Internet on a phone?! A PHONE?! Kindle books. Google Maps (I cycled into places like Cairo, Mexico City, and Tokyo with no freaking maps at all!) Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, even Wordpress / a “blog” that I could update by myself. A SPOT tracker in dodgy places. All of these things are amazing! They keep your friends and family in touch. They connect you with likeminded people. They are helpful, useful, and are wonderful for telling the story of an adventure. They are invaluable to the aspiring working adventurer.

I asked a few current long-range cyclists for their view on how social media and phone technology has improved their experience. Their answers are at the bottom of this post.

On my later trips I have felt more in touch with the world. I was in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean when Whitney Houston died and out on the Greenland Ice Cap when Sergio Aguero won the league in the last minute. Contrast that to pedalling peacefully through a rainy German autumn without realising that 9/11 had rocked the world!

In general I appreciate being distanced from the daily news cycle. Really big news catches up with you at some point anyway and there is little need to catch it in real time. Meanwhile all the flash in the pan stories pass and evaporate without worrying you or wasting your time.

But lest I get too smug about my glory days, we should remember the ‘six young boys from Bombay Weightlifting Club’ who cycled round the world in 1923. In With Cyclists Around The World they wrote, “we wired for a new cycle. But there was a strike of the Chinese workers and the telegram could not be dispatched.”

And then there is Heinz Stücke who spent 50 years cycling round the world, amassing 100,000 analogue photos along the way!

Internet cafes were one of my favourite things in my years on the road. They were a tantalising hook to the outside world and home. Those ramshackle, pay as you go, backroom enterprises were my opportunity to snatch at a few admin tasks on painfully slow dial-up connections before my time was up or the lights went out. Whilst teenagers chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, listened to loud music through tinny speakers, and slaughtered each other in violent gun battles, I would ship a bottom bracket to a postal address a few months’ ride away, confirm a school talk next month, grin at banter from a mate, and hope for a message from a girl. Nostalgically, I even cherish the screeching dial-up tone when the routers needed resetting.

As I cycled the length of Africa, I wrote updates for my website in Cairo, Aswan, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Moshi, Dar Es Salaam, Blantyre (Malawi), Francistown (Botswana), East London (South Africa), and Cape Town. That’s it! 11 updates from a year spent cycling the length of a continent. These days I sometimes do 11 Instagram Story updates in a day.

By the time I reached Cape Town I had uploaded nine photos to my website, and had the temerity to thank Olympus at the top of the page for sponsoring me the camera! I’m not sure they got a great return on their investment! 😂 In my whole ride round the world I only took 3425 photos (No wonder I have never since managed to find sponsorship from a camera company...) 

Looking back I am grateful for the total immersion that comes from being cut off from the outside world when you have no means of communication. I used to send emails along the lines of "I'm leaving Beijing in the morning. Don't worry if you don't hear from me until I reach Kazakhstan next month."

After a couple of weeks hauling my bike through the Nubian desert in Sudan, a passing pick-up stopped to chat. The driver said that he had a computer in Khartoum. I gave him my parents' email address on a scrap of paper and asked him to reassure them that I would be back online in a week or so when I emerged from the desert.

When I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean nobody had any idea where I was until I phoned home from a payphone on a humid street busy with hawkers and taxis. “I’m in Rio!” And later that night a girl gently took my head in her hands and cut off 18-months of my curly hair, scissors in one hand, Caipirinha in the other; cicadas and samba and the Southern Cross in the air. My hair fell at our feet and it was the end of Africa and it was the beginning of the Americas. And it was the beginning and the end of that girl; without WhatsApp to keep in touch we faded like smoke rings from each others’ lives.

In Patagonia I heard rumour of a remote, alternative border crossing into Chile. The crossing was not open to vehicles and did not appear on my large-scale map (half of South America on one sheet of paper). It would require cross-country travel and a boat ride. I could not find out any detailed information at all. Even a helpful police station, after much noisy telephoning and gesticulation, could only advise me that “there is no road, and there are only two boats a month, perhaps around the 5th and 20th of the month…”

At the deserted border post hut the customs official pointed out a skinny, muddy path disappearing up the forested mountain and said, “You want to get to Chile, amigo? Just follow the horse sh!t…”

When I eventually reached the grey waters of Lago O’Higgins, dotted with blue icebergs, I did not know when, or if, a boat would arrive. I had no Kindle or Instagram to kill the time. Instead the weight of time felt luxuriant, decadent and fascinating.

Compare that to the time-consuming task of creating daily stories that I did whilst cycling around Yorkshire recently. I didn't read a single book on that ride, yet on other adventures I had the time to read War and Peace in Russia, Atlas Shrugged in California, Anna Karenina in the Arctic and so on. The luxury of time: happy adventures are all alike; every unhappy adventure is unhappy in its own way.

If I was cycling round the world today to try to build a career in adventure then I would insist on full connectivity. Yet by not having the internet back then, I had such a rich experience which possibly gave me a solid platform to slowly build a career in the long run. Who knows: it’s all speculation and guessing, of course. But it does seem to fit with the slow and steady approach to longevity I prefer over any sudden explosion of social media fame.

Social media helps you grow an audience, build a reputation and a portfolio. These are the starting points for earning the cash to pay for your adventures. With all the modern tools you would be so far ahead of where I was when I used to idle away long and empty miles with ludicrous fantasies of somehow becoming a 'working adventurer' one day.

Yet now that I am a working adventurer I feel as though I have got into bed with the devil that is social media.

I have to tell my stories: it is my job. (It is also, I suspect, a habit and possibly an addiction.) Online story telling is useful for my ‘brand’. I try to make it useful or interesting for people who follow me. And I enjoy doing it. So it is all good.

And yet I also know that it comes at the cost of changing the experience itself, the experience which is supposed to be the point of the whole thing.

It changes the experience but does not necessarily make it worse. Walking across the Empty Quarter was the first trip I ever did where the story was my priority above the journey itself. And I revelled in my new-found obsession with camera angles, continuity, and charging batteries.

Did this mean that the cart was in front of the horse, or the other way round? I don't really know! I only know that it changes things.

Back when I was on the road there were fewer people tackling long haul rides. I had little idea who they were or where they were. I knew of a few legends from forums (Corax, Tracksterman...), but I had no idea what they looked like or who they really were.

I cannot overstate the thrill of seeing a loaded bike approach down a long straight road (and the disappointment when it turned out to be yet another donkey loaded with water barrels). Or seeing a touring bike leaned up outside a dusty adobe stall for warm bottles of fizzy drink in a sleepy village somewhere far from a paved road.

Those meetings and excited babbling of stories were perhaps my greatest connection in the five and a bit years of my life I have spent cycling around. 

“I hear you! I understand you!” 

Empathy, sympathy, company. 

I wonder whether overall I was more or less lonely by being unconnected for so long?

I felt solitude not loneliness during the ten days on the altiplano when the only soul I spoke to was my own, dragging my bike and equipment across the lunar landscape, oxygen-starved, spitting blood, wind-whipped.

I passed so many nights weather-locked in my tent without the scrolling glow of Twitter to fill the void. I memorised a poem in a snowstorm in China after reading everything else in the tent. Outside the polluted smear of the city in the valley was slowly blanketed clean by the snow. I read out loud, over and over, accompanied by the noise of coal lorries sluicing through the slush,

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold;
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

Oh well, I sighed, as the light faded and the snow continued to fall. At least I’ll get a break and a new book when I reach Almaty next month.

The key point of the social media debate, I think, are the times like that. When total disengagement with one world permits total engagement in the world and the adventure that you are actually in.

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Thinking of books that highlighted the pros and cons of travelling with and without the internet, these books sprang to mind:

The Places In Between: a 21st Century adventure revelling in a slower pace of life.

- Mad White Giant: the disparaging Amazon 2-star review that describes this book as ‘rather amateur and dated’ is exactly why I am mentioning it here in a positive way.

- Wind, Sand and Stars: A book filled with adventures made thrilling by their notion of total commitment. To dare to fly over the Andes without any technology. To fly across a desert navigating by the stars. To live or die by the consequences. “But silence continued in the layers of the earth, and this density that I could feel at my shoulders continued harmonious, sustained, unaltered through eternity. I lay there pondering my situation, lost in the desert, and in danger, naked between sky and sand and stars, withdrawn by too much silence from the poles of my life.”

It’s interesting to compare the pros and cons of the different experiences that unfold in these books with a hugely-successful recent book about a longish bike journey which very much revolves around Instagram and social media. No less a luminary than Adele endorsed ‘To Shake the Sleeping Self’ on Instagram!

Recent Viewpoints

Alee Denham said that “the best part would have to be the fact that it motivates others to travel the world by bike. 

The biggest help from social media is the social interaction and knowledge associated with a big online community. I have made literally hundreds of friends from purely discovering that we share similar interests! 

I like to use a smartphone for navigation, as well as for listening to podcasts. But I purposely never get a sim card when I travel because I like to unplug from society to enhance my experience of the world around me. It makes me feel much more present and it allows me to really look forward to catching up with the online world after around 4-7 days (sometimes up to two weeks).

The way I go about travelling the world financially is through many different income sources, including my website, product sponsors, book sales, YouTube ads and generous donations from people who appreciate my content. I can’t attribute social media directly to any single income stream, but it works as an important funnel to direct people to content on other platforms which are monetised.”

Geordie Stewart told me that “social media provided three main things on my cycle. First, connectivity. Second, creativity. Third, an amusing contradiction. I suppose it provided some thread of normality to my life in the UK given my abnormal life on the road.

The creativity was something that only really emerged during the ride. I had so much time to think, so I enjoyed trying to create mini-narratives on a daily basis with Instagram stories. Like my writing or photographs, it was just another means of creative self-expression.

The contradiction was, arguably, the most interesting aspect of social media use. I say that because seemingly I shared a lot but felt I actually shared very little. I captured small moments or particular images but those were immediate snapshots rather than everyday life. Social media, therefore, was often a contradiction between the perception people had of the trip and how I actually felt.

My phone was probably my most important bit of kit. Primarily it was my means of navigation and communication but, crucially, it was also my audio source. I rode most of the day with my headphones in listening to music and podcasts. I finished the trip and still wished for more time to listen, learn and think.”

Ed Pratt felt that “by far the best thing was being able to meet people who travelled out to find me on the road because they’d somehow heard about my ride or stumbled across my videos. I met some real lovely nutters in this way. One couple out in New Zealand drove six hours just to hand me a can of baked beans!

When I was out in Kazakhstan my hub’s flange started cracking. Hundreds of miles from Aral, the next town, I had to find a way to reattach the spokes that had pulled through the broken holes. I posted an image on Facebook to see if anyone had any advice. Many did, and some even sent illustrated photos of the best way they I could fix it with wire.

In terms of income, for advertising talks and the sale of my film series, social media has been invaluable.”

Lars Bengtsson appreciates “the fast and easy connection to fellow travellers. I can find information about every bit of the world. I follow a lot of other adventure cyclists. Their stories and their pictures help keep me motivated.”

Dean Nicholson (YouTube) first set up social media “so I could share my adventure with friends back home. This soon exploded and now people from all other the world can see what I’m up to. I can show the state of the world from plastic pollution to refugees.

Fans have reached out to me and offered up their sofas and spare beds which I am so grateful for!”

Ann Johansson told me that “the reason I first got the idea to my tour was because of social media. And after setting off I started to noticed that I inspired others. That circle of inspiration is amazing to be part of. 

I wouldn’t have survived all the long dark lonely evenings tucked up in my tent without my phone, haha. No, but seriously. Touring without a phone would be really hard. While riding Kazakhstan my phone suddenly died. In a blink of a moment I was without my navigation tool. I had to check into a hotel, open Google maps and draw my whole route through the country in my notebook. For the next month those drawings were the only map I had to follow. In the end it worked out well. The hardest thing was to be without music and podcasts. Riding 8 hours a day over the vast Kazakh steppe with nothing to look at except the horizon in front of you without my phone was a challenge 😉.

It was never my plan to gain anything financially from my social media platforms and therefore I got quite surprised when I first got my first ambassador offer. I’ve had several companies sponsoring me with gear and clothes which has been really helpful.”

Franzi says that "it's a great way to connect to others who are also traveling. The best times we had were when we shared the road with others for a little while. Of course, sometimes you simply cross paths, but we also arranged meet-up points via Instagram with others in the area to ride together. We made so many friends this way.

We use several apps for traveling like warmshowers, alpine quest, osm and so on. They make traveling easier in many ways."

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