Inspiring Individuals: Charlie Walker, who cycled 43,630 miles around the world for over 4 years
At this very moment while you’re reading this blog post, there is a handful of brave individuals who are undertaking extreme expeditions which to us mere mortals seem unfathomable and frankly a bit mad. At this very moment they’re setting up camp for the night in their wild, unknown surroundings, they’re treating their blisters from their long hikes, or perhaps they’re floating solo in the middle of the Atlantic, or maybe they’re struggling across crevasses in -30°C temperatures in Antarctica. What they all have in common is that these expeditions all stretch over a very long period of time, some even as long as 4 years and 5 months in the case of Charlie Walker (that’s a staggering total of 53 months / 229 weeks / 1,606 days). Charlie Walker has recently completed a four-and-a-half-year cycle across 61 countries, covering 43,630 miles on just two wheels. Feeling exhausted just thinking about it? Yes, me too. But it’s an incredible achievement and such an adventure!
I had the chance to meet Charlie Walker at the Adventure Travel show in London last month, as he and his trusty bike returned to the UK just three months ago. I was intrigued to find out more about his trip, about the various countries he encountered along the way and about his motivations. Throughout his trip he fundraised for the charities the RNLI and Future Hope, which you can donate to here and here. To get a climpse of what he experienced during his 43,630 mile cycle, watch this brilliant time-lapse video:
Q. First of all, congratulations on recently completing your trip! How many countries did you go to in total?
A. 60 or 61 countries, around 40 of which were new countries to me.
Q. And why did you choose to cycle as opposed to any other form of transport?
A. I didn’t really have any money, I’m not really into motorbikes, and so cycling was the cheapest way to do it. The bike was simply a means to an end. When I started I was much more motivated by the cycling element and I wanted to be really strict and cycle everywhere, never having to get a truck through a difficult area or anything like that. Then as time went on, I ended up flying a couple of times when I couldn’t get visas or over war zones. My route on a map is a pretty ridiculous wiggly line. The journey became more about stubbornly seeing it out, and the people and the places along the way. The bike became very very secondary.
Q. And when you planned the trip, was it initially for four years or did it grow along the way?
A. At the beginning I planned to cycle from the Dead Sea to Everest Base Camp and then I realised that was rather redundant if I wasn’t going to climb Everest, and that’s really expensive, so I expanded the trip and it grew and grew. Then by the time I started, I basically just selected three capes or peninsulas and decided I’d try to get to each of those and then get home. I thought it would take roughly four years and in the end it took four and a half, but I stopped for a few months over one winter in Beijing to work and relax a bit, so it did take about the time that I’d guessed.
Q. So you stayed in Beijing for a winter. Are there any other countries you’d have liked to stay longer in?
A. Lots, lots. I would have liked to spend more time in China actually, South Africa I really really liked, and Kenya. In most cases my visa was running out or I just felt in the back of my head that I should carry on, because I was only answering to myself. No one gave a shit, so I was just carrying out this long lonely penance and I’m still not really sure why. But there are a few countries which I didn’t want to stay longer in.
For example, Ethiopia is actually a really great country, the cities are fascinating and the people are on the whole cool. But in the countryside they’re really really aggressive and I had stones thrown at me, throughout the trip children would run up and slap me while I was cycling, and one night in a village a couple hundred people pulled me off the bike and beat me up for a bit. That happened when I was nearly out of the country, so a few days later I crossed into Kenya and was quite happy to do so.
Q. I can imagine! I see that you were fundraising for Future Hope and the RNLI. What were your reasons for choosing those two charities?
A. I wanted to raise money for two charities, and I think people either prefer their money to go overseas or to stay in England. I’d supported the RNLI for years and years and years and I think it’s really important – it’s not government funded, it’s completely funded by citizens. And I chose Future Hope because I saw Tim Grandage, the founder, give a talk at the Royal Geographical Society and I was inspired by what he’d done, setting up schools and homes for street kids in Kolkata, India. Once I saw that I knew that was the right thing to raise money for.
Q. And during the trip, having passed through so many countries and obviously having seen a huge amount of poverty and social problems, did you ever wish you could add charities? Or did you ever reflect on your decision to choose those two?
A. A bit. With the exception of Nepal, Afghanistan and India, most of the African nations were obviously in much worse shape than the Asian ones. But I became quite jaded about charity work in Africa. I saw how it works and how it often doesn’t work and how people drive round in flashy 4x4s and actually don’t do a great deal. But of course you see stuff and you want to change it, you want to help and then I suppose you do become slightly inured and you learn to live with it I suppose.
Q. So apart from getting used to it and it becoming the norm, what shocked you most on your trip?
A. I was very shocked by the fanatical Christianity in Africa. I had travelled around East and West Africa before when I was significantly younger and I hadn’t really looked into that much. Then I got to the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, and the church there is just about the only stable institution and they have untold power. I went into an evangelical church in Lubumbashi and watched a thousand people or more all hand over their money to the church. It was an American evangelical style thing and the preacher was shouting “L’argent! L’argent!” meaning “Money! Money!” and the people in the DRC don’t have any money, but the preacher is selling CDs at the front and there was a woman falling down to the floor and vomiting and speaking in tongues and having fits. I was very shocked by that and it’s such a exploitative use of religion. I’m not a big fan of religion in many senses but that was the worst excess I saw of it.
Q. That’s so interesting, I wasn’t expecting you to say that. So during the four and a half years, did you ever consider giving up and if so what persuaded you to push through?
A. I only genuinely thought about it twice. I think I always knew at the back of my mind that I’d see it out. The first time I fell in love, it was pathetic really, and I was going to move to Frankfurt but it didn’t work out, so I carried on.
The second time I was in Iran, about two and a half years in to the trip. Iran is an incredible country and one I returned to, I went there both on my way east and then on my way west. I spent an incredible three months the second time and met up with a lot of the same people I’d seen before, it’s an absolutely fascinating country and one that I am most keen to return to. But it just got quite hard. The longer I was there the more I was questioned by police, “What are you doing here? Why are you taking pictures?”, the more people tried to convert me, and I was quite burned out by the end. And just a few days before I was due to leave Iran I got an email that a couple from The Channel Islands who I’d met in Kazakhstan, who were also cycling, had just been killed in Thailand when a driver veered off the road and killed them both. They were found in the woods nearby, horrific, and at that point I very seriously considered just cycling back across Europe and skipping the leg around Africa. But then I got into Turkey and things got brighter. It was also the end of a really long winter, from my first snow to the last was about 6 months, starting in West Mongolia then going through all the ‘Stans and then Afghanistan, Iran, just lots of snow.
Q. And you were camping along the way?
A. Yes, and I got into Turkey and it seemed like spring had come, I was in the mountains and the world just seemed a better place so I stuck with it. There’s part of me that wonders if I should have come home at that point because I’d probably be a lot further along with where I want to be right now had I done that, but although quite hard, Africa was probably the most character building.
Q. And how did you cope with being alone by yourself?
A. I just became quite used to it, I think you can get used to anything. There weren’t that many times when I didn’t talk to anyone for a while. In pretty much every country of the world you can always find someone that speaks English. I just got used to being alone and got quite comfortable with it, the bigger shock is being back now.
Q. Do you speak any other languages?
A. French, passable Russian and very very pidgin Chinese. Which isn’t good enough considering I was in China for a year.
Q. How do you feel now that you’re back in England?
A. It’s still early days. I just started a job and it’s a bit alien sitting in an office. Being back has been fun so far, I just find I have so little time to get things done in London that normally I wouldn’t think twice about. I haven’t written a diary in ages, I haven’t had time to sit down and get any writing done or work on my photos. Suddenly the world rushes in.
Q. Did you carry a laptop around with you on the bike? How did you maintain your blog?
A. Internet cafes. Normally I wrote it on scraps of paper and then typed it up. A laptop probably would have made life easier but I would have lost or broken it, or had it stolen.
Q. So what are you planning to do now?
A. I’m planning to write a book about the trip, or maybe a couple, and hopefully in a couple of years head off on another expedition, something much more challenging.
Q. I wanted to ask you if you were going to cycle the Americas?
A. No, I’m done with bikes. Actually I rode my bike here today, but I would like to do something different that’s more of an expedition. What I’ve just done was more of a journey, like a rite of passage. Although it was challenging, it was an introduction for me.
Q. And what do you want to do?
A. There are some rivers in Siberia that I want to sniff around, we’ll see.
Q. How long do you think you’ll stay put for? Will you get restless?
A. Yes, probably. I’ll stick around until I have enough money for something else.
Q. So at least you have a goal to be working towards. And finally, what was the biggest high and the biggest low of the trip?
A. The biggest low to be honest, was cycling through Vietnam heartbroken!
The biggest high was every downhill, particularly if you’ve been climbing a pass for a day or half a day, and then whizzing down the other side just feels incredible every time. And then you start grinning inanely and shouting, even though you’re by yourself. Or at least I did!