Tired of the monotony of everyday life, 32 year old Irishman Derek Cullen mounted an old bike and began an epic unsupported cycle across Africa. It is a story with the potential to inspire the ordinary person, to break down the very shackles that we confine ourselves to. I, myself really wanted to interview him, as I am well short of a few Irish adventurers to look up to. And he is every bit the stereotype (the good one) : the pale skin, the ginger beard, the easy warm character, the sense of humour and of course he is much more modest than he needs to be. This interview, I hope, will make you smile, as it did to me, and maybe plant a tiny thought into your mind; if he can do it, then why can I not do it too?
1.What is your current location?
Arusha, Tanzania – exactly half way between the start point Cape Town & Cairo.
2.What type of bike are you ridding?
Trek820 – it’s nothing fancy, 13 years old, has 23 gears and god knows how many previous owners.
3.What have you packed in your panniers?
Clothes, cooking gear, sleeping bag, tent, cameras, water – anything you’d need to survive a wilderness area.
4.What books have you brought with you to entertain you in the evenings?
Arabian Sands, Adrift, Into the Wild, Into Thin Air – are you seeing the trend? Mostly adventure stories about ridiculously lonesome journeys!
5.How are you navigating?
Map and compass, to be honest it would be harder to go the wrong way – there’s not many roads down here. I’ve got the distance wrong several times but who cares, I just pitch the tent behind a bush and carry on the next morning.
6.What distance are you covering each day?
Usually between 60 – 100km. The most covered in a day was 160km, the least 20km (exhausted). I travel very slowly even against bicycle standards, I like to spend more time anywhere that’s cool.
7.What does your diet consist of on the road?
On the bike – bananas, chocolate, biscuits, water, water, water. Off the bike – two minute noodles, beans, rice, heaps of local food (god knows what some of the meat really is). You eat like a horse doing this and literally give up being fussy.
8.What was your cycling experience like before you embarked on this massive trip?
Believe it or not – none. I was never a fan of cycling as strange as that may sound – it’s just the mode in which I seek adventure! My brother likes to tell people about how I struggled to cycle to his house last year in Ireland, I barely made it home – it was a 10km ride.
9.Have you discovered anything about your character, about who you are as a person?
Yeah completely, I realised the world didn’t revolve around me for a start – that was disappointing! It has changed me in ways I never thought imaginable, facing fears and taking on such a big challenge has brought huge confidence and a lot of humility. I genuinely feel a much “better person” now than ever before.
10.Does the joy outweigh the suffering on the road?
Every. Single. Time.
There are pretty depressing times, especially the aspect of being alone so long, for so often – but you get over that. Three words – Cycling with Giraffes. I can’t forget that people are living hard lives back home, I’m very lucky to be where I am.
11. As you make progress, has the fear and anxiety you have mentioned before become more manageable or are you still dealing with it on a daily basis?
It may sound too good to be true but the anxiety has all but disappeared. I spent a lot of time worrying at the beginning but the anxieties proved to be “false concerns” every time – I literally stopped bothering to worry about what never seemed to happen anyway! I still feel the fear of course, that’s a healthy concern to have and I don’t think I’ll ever get over the worry of having Hyenas or lions around my tent.
12. How are you finding using social media and a blog to document your trip? Is it a motivator not to quit or does it take away a little from the adventure?
A lot of work goes into it for sure but it’s worth it for the chance of sharing this experience with someone. Also, writing fills a lot of spare time that is usually spent alone.
13. I am allowed stereotype you here because I am also Irish, but how are you not burnt alive with the heat?!
Yeah it’s kinda hot alright, I got heat exhaustion in the lower Namibia Desert which involved not having the energy to roll over and two days of falling asleep. That was enough reason to be careful in the future. I wear a wide brimmed hat (which looks stupid, I know) and keep putting sun cream on the arms – everything else stays covered while cycling. Yes, I have a farmers tan.
Speaking of stereotypes, I’ve had less than 15 bottles of beer in 7 months – beat that Ireland!
14. How do you make yourself get up and ride again the next day after having a shit day (aka how are you keeping your head in the right place)?
That’s been difficult, I doubt anyone could properly understand just how hard this gets when you spend so much time alone. I keep mentioning being alone but it’s the most influential factor of the trip each day and for staying motivated. The answer is, some days I just do and some days I just don’t – I just stay where I am until the mood has passed.
In general, I keep my head together by finding meaning in everything that happens. No matter how bad it gets, there is always a positive way to look at it. Looking down from the top of a mountain with the bicycle is an empowering feeling but it never feels like that at the time of cycling uphill to get there.
15. Is the journey harder than you thought, or is it living up to your expectations?
Harder yes but not for the reasons I would have thought prior. Physically, it is tough but manageable. Mentally, it can be a right battle. The trip has exceeded anything I could have imagined, it is the single most profound experience in my thirty two years and has definitely changed my outlook on life.
16. Is the stereotypical image of Africa of a poverty stricken and dangerous continent holding true?
Poverty, yes at times but what many people don’t realise is that most Africans are happy with their conditions – they still live traditionally and get by with what they have. It’s wrong of the western world to think of Africans as unprivileged for not having the same standard of living. If you ask me, the simple life being led in these parts has resulted in a community that is much richer and far more content than the complicated world we live in. Mobile phones are everywhere you go now, it disappoints me to see this in Africa too.
Africa is no more dangerous than London, New York, Dublin or Rome. If anything people here are more friendly. The danger associated with Africa is derived from western media and peoples natural feeling to fear the unknown.
17. Why are you doing it, what was the trigger?
My life was crap!!
I was so bored, I wasn’t happy with work, my social life was average, I felt I wasn’t growing or doing what I really wanted to do. Nobody needs to feel this way, it’s a choice really.
I genuinely thought if there was any real meaning to life, it had to be out there to experience but I needed to “go out there” first in order to find out.
18. How are you coping with being alone for so many hours each day?
It can be quite depressing but mostly a great experience. You learn to be your best friend in a situation like this – I really needed that, to gain a better opinion and respect for myself.
19. You are obviously fit by now – 6,000km in. Is the actual physical cycle itself no longer the hard part?
Yes and no. Physically, it gets harder over time with the constant strain on the body but by then you have learnt to just get on with it so it cancels it out somewhat. Being alone and keeping a sane mental state is by far the biggest challenge.
20. What are the descents/downhill’s like?
Elation – to the point of feeling crazy and screaming random words before realising the locals are watching….and continuing on anyway!
Along with “being tied down” and having kids (thinking ahead!) I’ve already no doubt they will be the happiest memories I will ever have – it’s been worth the risk.