I have worked hard my whole life, slogged away at it quietly behind closed doors; the junior cert, the leaving cert, my degree, countless unpaid internships, countless shitty part time jobs. All on the basis that once I came out the end of that tunnel, my efforts would be rewarded. I would have the offer of a job, not just any job, but the dream job.
Alas, here I sit, a year on and not only do I not have the offer of thee job, I have no offers for any jobs, not even the ones I once thought beneath me to apply for. What has happened, where have I gone wrong?
I have followed societies orders, I have studied hard, never smoked or taken drugs, been nice to people, rarely fought with my parents, never had ‘issues’, never was demanding, or attention seeking, never built up a credit card debt, never gambled, never did anything illegal, never did anything too reckless. I’ve been a good little girl. Yet it seems, none of that plays a part, none of that counts…
I mustn’t be good enough?
Ouch. Saying it out loud is like getting punched in the gut.
So what do I do, I emigrate of course, like countless Irish before me. So here I sit in Perth, Australia crashing in a cousin’s house. Taking up space. I have announced to the world that I am here, you can employ me now, and once again I am met with stony silence. Moving was meant to solve the problem, a bigger marketplace, a better chance… instead just more people to reject my resume.
It has been suggested to me that I should think about retraining? One year after graduating, I should admit defeat and choose a more sensible option. To give up on Journalism, to give up on the dream before I’ve even given it a chance to take off.
No, I can’t do that, not yet. Shall I slug away once more, working bar jobs, scraping by, living the student life, waiting for the opportunity that might never arrive?
Or do I take the less sensible option and gather together the scrapings of my bank account to explore Australia, in the hope that while I shuffle through the outback, someone will reach out and take a chance on me? With the knowledge ever weighing on my shoulders that if they don’t, I’ll have to crawl back home with my tail between my legs, my confidence in shatters, and ask Mammy and Daddy to support their failing 24 year old once more.
Do I gamble in the hope that this may actually happen for me, or do I settle down to a reality that I’ve never wanted?
The time has come to make a decison.
Go on, roll the dice. Decide my fate.
There’s something very appealing about hitchhiking.
What’s not to love? It’s free, it’s spontaneous, you will see and experience incredible things and meet people from all walks of life.
It is a little reckless however, and while we love a little recklessness from time to time, its important that anyone who does want to try hitchhiking is prepared and as safe as possible.
I recently got to chat to Jade Braden, a regular solo hitchhiker…here are her thoughts on it all.
1.Tell me about one of your hitchhiking experiences?
My second hitchhiking experience comprised of 21 hitchhikes in a single trip. I wanted to get out of my town to escape monotony and go on an adventure – the thought of traveling alone was initially quite scary to me but also felt necessary so I followed through with my plan to travel towards the West Coast.
The length I traveled varied from a mile to as much as 8 and a half hours of driving with a single person. On average, I would travel about 30-45 minutes before transferring to another rider. Waiting time for a ride was 15 minutes on average with as short as 3 minutes (two cars nearly collided into each other in California trying to pick me up) and as long as 2 hours.
The reasons for why drivers picked me up varied from “It’s not safe for a girl to be hitchhiking alone,” “You remind me of my kid/niece,” to “I once was a hitchhiker too.”
2. Best experience?
I had a great number of experiences – it’s difficult to narrow them down! My overall favourite thing about hitchhiking is trading stories by talking about traveling experiences, personal stories and overall learning about the other person.
For instance, I heard about a man’s hitchhiking experience during the Polish riots in Europe and how he evaded soldiers with machine guns at the border who claimed that his passport picture was not him, causing the driver and other hitchhikers anxiety while he sat confused, not understanding the language. Thankfully, that was cleared up by showing another picture of himself to adjust the claim and shortly afterward, getting kicked out by the driver after crossing the border.
Otherwise, a favourite driving experience was when I got a 6 and a half hour ride from Green River Utah to Nevada with a cool guy who pulled over to call a relative, only to see me running to his car. He was kind enough to offer the ride, provide food along the way, and even offered a place for me to stay after playing a few billiard games with him and his friend.
Another favourite experience was during my last day in Phoenix in which I had met another hitchhiker who traveled alongside me for the past 3 days from California. I was invited to a burning man meet and greet event by a group of people at a firehouse shelter and impulsively said yes to come along. I was driven to Tempe, had great conversations with them, and experienced a new culture. I even got to try out fire breathing, which was exciting.
Lastly, I became a traveling therapist in a way with a young veteran who experienced PTSD following his deployment out in Afghanistan. We were able to resolve some difficulties he had without getting too in depth and he seemed more relaxed once he dropped me off in Green River Utah.
3. Worst experience?
I had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences as well as pleasant experiences, two of which involved boundary issues with people. I had an uncomfortable driving experience with a couch surfer host in Carson City, Nevada. Although in general, I found no fault with the site and their list of hosts, the host who offered a ride along the Northern part of California back to San Francisco gave off an uncomfortable vibe while conversing with me about his broken relationship (and his interest in me) as he understood myself as a therapist. It was a long drive to tolerate before I arrived at my next couchsurfing host. If the situation became any more intolerable, I would have asked to be dropped off, then receive another ride with someone else.
Another uncomfortable experience was when I agreed to stay over with two people (a young woman and her uncle) at a house in Vale, Colorado who saw that I was hitchhiking and offered their place for me to stay. I enjoyed spending time with the woman however the uncle was being too physically touchy before going to bed. I set my boundaries firmly, stated that there was no relationship between us, and he backed off for the rest of the night. Thankfully, he respected my wishes, although he complained a bit beforehand, then let me be. If that situation continued, I would have left the house promptly and went camping instead.
4. What do you think of the taboo that exists, that as a female solo traveler you shouldn’t hitchhike?
There is some truth to the idea in which females may have more dangers to face when hitchhiking. However, I challenge that idea in which you need to be smart and aware of any red flags before you accept a ride from anyone. If you get a bad feeling from someone when offered a ride, say no or state that you are not heading the same direction as they are while making your intentions clear that you do not wish to inconvenience them anyway. If you feel uncomfortable during a car ride, you have a few ways to approach the situation – you can ask to be dropped off if you feel that they will let you or you can pretend to be sick or need to use the restroom, forcing them to pull over. Watch how you are dressed and be clear with your boundaries and expectations. Truly though, in my experience, I met far more amazing people on the road than anything else since most people who stopped by to pick me up wanted to help.
5. Top tip you would give to a female trying hitchhiking for the first time?
Again, there are many tips I can offer but the biggest one is do your research on hitchhiking before taking the journey and trust your instincts. I went through several sites, looking up ways to stay safe, where to stand on the road, how to interact with others, and what supplies to bring.
For more hitchhiking stories from female travellers and for some top tips on how to do it safely, have a read of this story I did recently for Cooler Magazine…
My Da (age 54) and I (age 23) decided to cycle Vietnam together, 2000km from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min.
This is our story…
Man, real life is tougher than I thought it would be. Trying to make me sit down and stare at a screen for hours a day is fruitless. I will fidget, I will moan, I will become grumpy. I will rebel.
I try to get up but society puts its hand on my shoulders and pushes me back down. Like a dog, I am told to sit, stay, as they slowly back away, hands outstretched in an attempt to placate me, so I don’t make a run for it.
I really thought I was done this time, that I’d be happy to settle, to begin to build a life for myself. It wasn’t lies, but now I know, it’s not the way I was built. I can’t make you all happy. I can’t sit still. I must return to the open road again even if it destroys me. I must try, before time escapes my grasp.
Bicycle Adventure #2: Mizen to Malin Head (length of Ireland) by bike | camping at night | alone (unless I can convince my lovely Aunty Ann to accompany me, hint hint!)
If anyone is considering doing something similar (Hanoi to Ho Chi Min), here is our route, distance travelled each day and our kit list. If you need any more help or information, feel free to get in touch.
Ho Chi Min Highway & A1 Highway
Day 1: 92km – Destination: Hang Tram, maybe Hoa Binh?
Day 2: 69.5km – Destination: Roughly Lam Son
Day 3: 83km – Destination: somewhere near Thai Hoa
Day 4: 113km – Destination: near Phou Chau
Day 5: 83km – Destination: Huong Khe
Day 6: 132km – Destination: somewhere after Phuc Trach
Day 7: 59.5km – Destination: near Cam Lo
Day 8: 82km – Destination: Dong Ha
Day 9: 70km – Destination: Hue
Day 10: 100+km – Destination: Da Nang
Day 11: Rest Day
Day 12: 68km – Destination: Tam Ky
Day 13: Day off (sick)
Day 14: 98km – Destination: near Quang Nga
Day 15: 89km – somewhere on the highway
Day 16: 93km – Destination: Song Cau
Day 17: 132km – Destination: Dai Lan
Day 18: – Destination: Nha Trang
Day 19: Rest Day
Day 20: 92km – Destination: Phang Rang
Day 21: 82km – Destination: Phang Rang/Phang Thiet
Day 22: 77km – Destination: Phan Thien
Day 23: 75km – Destination: Long Khan
Day 24: 84km – Destination: near Bien Hoa
Day 25: – Destination: Ho Chi Min City
- Unlocked IPhone with Vietnamese sim-card.
- 2x panniers – (Oxford Low Rider Rear Panniers 36L)
- 2x pairs of cycling shorts
- 2x cycling t-shirts
- 5x knickers/5x socks
- Baseball cap
- T-shirt and light pants for evening wear
- Cycling boots with cleats (Shimano Gore-Tex Mountain bike boots & pedals)
- Lightweight rain jacket
- Canon 700D camera & Tripod
- GoPro camera
- 2x Waterbottles
- Phone/camera chargers
- Small towl
- Garmin Sat Nav
- 4x bungee cords
- Small pack of cable ties
- 2x Touring bikes (bought on Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi)
- 2x Buffs
- 2x standard bike lights
- 2x spare tubes
- Chain link
- Allen keys
- Mileage clock
- Water bottles
- Medication: Immodium, parcetemol, motillium, insect repellent, amoxicillan, dioralyte, bandages, plasters, antiseptic cream.
- 2x Helmets
- Map of the entire country
Vietnam is a country of contradictions. A stranger can hold my face between their hands, rub the hair on my arms, braid my blonde locks. Two minutes later another is shoving against me flogging their goods: “Madame smell the coffee, taste the pho, feel the texture, see the colours of the spices, buy from me, buy from me, Madame…”
I thread softly through the markets to pick up supplies. Sweaty bodies push against me, pungent air caresses my nostrils, humidity sticks my hair to the back of my neck. Smoke rises in the alleys, plastic kids chairs and tables consume the pathways, a cacophony of horns intertwined with the high pitched natter of the Vietnamese language drown out the peace, the dust churns and settles, churns and settles, the flies hover over the raw meat spread out across cardboard on the ground, the final flick of a live fish before the machete drops to behead it and life seeps out.
The Vietnamese crouch, the sweet iced coffee with condensed milk as it touches your lips, the tacky flashing lights over every shop front, the Buddha and mini pagoda statues adorned with fruit and cigarettes and cans of booze, the heaving flem filled hack of the locals whose lives play out in a world of putrid air pollution, the smoke and inhale of the thuoc lao pipe and the fifteen second blissful high that follows.
The tanned creases of the old women’s skin, the stereotypical straw farmers hat, the kindness colliding with the meanness, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and stepping out on the road to cross, the cruelty to animals, the resonating sound of a slap of a child across the face, the red flag and yellow star, the fat white tourists licking ice-creams, the ao xao, the sauces, the lizards darting across the walls surrounding you. Every town has its product; aloe vera land, tile land, corn on the cob land, duck land…
Millions of mopeds zoom past. The squeak of the overloaded battered bikes with no gears. The crisp linen shirts and red chiffon bow of the school kids. The terrible roads, the contrast of stunning limestone eroded mountains with the polluted dirty cities. Like Ireland eighty years ago.
This is my Vietnam.
It is a dangerous world we live in. Or so everyone keeps telling me.
But fear is a terrible thing. Fear traps you, restricts you, and confines your mind. Fear makes you settle for average, when you were destined for so much more.
I decided I would not let fear of the unknown dictate my path, so I moved to Vietnam alone. Six months later my fifty-four year old Da flew out to Vietnam’s capital city to cycle the country with me. North to South, 2000km, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City.
My foot presses down, the pedal begins its rotation, and we are off, Hanoi to Ho Chi Min by bicycle. Instant chaos in the city’s streets, we push our way slowly out of Hanoi while trying to find our balance with our overstuffed panniers. Finally we break out of the cities confines and into pure countryside, to the town made of sludge. With no compact ground to stabilise ourselves, we struggle in vain through a road of ankle high muck, we fight to keep the momentum going because if you stop, you’re stuck and you will sink. The locals on the side of the street look on laughing their asses off at us. Dad makes it through the fifteen minute mud bath. I stutter and fall and have to drag my way out on foot, giggling in disbelief. The madness has commenced, we have reached the Ho Chi Min highway, our home for the next two weeks.
We cycle against a backdrop of limestone cut mountains, patterned paddy fields, farming women bent over their crops, while a constant dribble of kids emerge from their homes and chase us down the road to scream their hellos. We aim for 70km but end up doing 92km because there is no place to rest our weary heads. The series of hills gnaw away at our energy and leave us replete. Day one and already a routine, one we will fine tune over the coming weeks. A shitty motel tonight, with cigarette butts, squat toilets, no sheets to line the rank mattresses, and only an uncased fan to cool us in the hazy heat. A full chicken carcass, beak, bones, feet, organs intact and some leaves and rice thrown in front of us to dine on. But what magic, we are here, we are finally doing it. What a wonderful life it is.
The days roll by; I quickly learn the Vietnamese words for father and daughter because everyone thinks we are married, creepy. Da’s gears won’t change cogs, so he’s having a rough time trying to get up the hills of which there are many. Low mileage forces us to ride on through peak sunshine, ebbing away at our battery, stopping every few miles to force water down our throats and slather on sun cream over the sweat. We push on, making a note of what not to do; there will be no lie in tomorrow, up early to get the miles under our belt before the heat hits. Surreal beauty surrounds us, blue skies, water buffaloes bathing in the lakes, the beautiful people waving, we have to fight the urge to stop every minute and take a photo or we will never get there.
A sense of easiness settles between us as I plague Da with questions about his life, about the world, which at twenty-three I still have so much to learn about. He entertains me with tales about the life he has led until now, about work, about my brilliant mother. It distracts us both from the heat and the pain. We keep commenting that maybe it is us westerners that have it the wrong way round, these people in all their poverty seem happier than us. Labouring in the farms or chilling in a hammock in the shop/restaurant/house they own until a customer rocks up to be served. Taking a siesta between twelve and two each day, cruising through the rolling landscape on a motorbike, spreading seed in a paddy field knee high in mud underneath the sweltering sun. Meanwhile we burst our balls to build a career, to get another promotion to make more money to buy more crap that we do not need. Are we really the developed country or is the joke on us?
We are both tired, needing a place to stay and not finding any, there is nothing worse than having to push on when you’ve already given up. Da grabs on to the back of a bamboo truck, to hitch a ride up the hill. Tonight is another cheap motel, another hand held shower, washing out our gear with soap in the sink. I treat myself to a fresh pair of knickers after three days. This is the life. The days start to morph together. We stop to help an unconscious drunken man out of a dike. We despair at the miles and miles of deforestation in process around us. It saddens me to witness a world ‘develop’, Vietnam will soon mourn the loss of a simpler lifestyle without machines and technology. I want to shout at them to stop, to look at the western world and see that they are making a mistake. They should be preserving their way of life, not destroying it. We ride past a dead man on the road, after been knocked down, a sheet covering a part of him, blood pouring out of his head onto the tarmac. Tragedy, and yet somehow the world continues on as if nothing has happened. I have a rash and blistered backside and heel, and an infected ant bite on top of the foot. I am punishing my body, forcing it to adjust rapidly. But in all this pain, there must be some light, some beauty.
I push my bike up the side of a mountain in tears; a frightening descent follows as darkness closes in. Our bodies hurt; we need to rest if we are going to have a chance at making this. The Vietnamese point and laugh at us, overcharging us because we are white, therefore assumed to be wealthy. Sometimes I hate it all, the people, what we are doing. Pushing eighty to a hundred and thirty kilometres a day, every day on a motorway consumed by road works in the pissing rain. I’m in misery, questioning everything, this trip is going to change who I am. We pass war memorials every few miles, reminding us of this countrys bloody past. I snap at Da because he’s left handed and if we sit beside each other and share one plate, his elbow constantly hits off me because I’m right handed. A car hits a motorbike who hits me, knocks my panniers off and nearly topples me. Rashes, ant bites, dark rims under my eyes, a bad cycling tan, knotted dreadlocks… I look a mess. Why do we choose to suffer? But every time we reach those lows, a moment will follow that lifts us right back up. Always such simple things; a pea and grain flavoured ice-pop for breakfast, a nap under a tree at noon, the blast of a shower, calling home, a cool beer, a pineapple. And voila, day saved.
1000km later, we crawl into Da Nang, head to toe in muck, the dirty rain filling and corrupting our lungs. We have reached our half way point. We gorge ourselves on glorious western food, satisfied for the first time since we started. We take a moment to appreciate what it is we are doing. To appreciate life, kindness, beauty, fun, calmness, the freedom of choice, the freedom to change things, to evolve, to change myself and the path I walk on. To suffer in order to appreciate what I have, the luxuries of my world.
The rest is short lived and we return to the road, this time on the A1 motorway in the lashing rain. A series of wrong turns, added miles, a puncture and more rain follows. Hardship. Maybe there is something after all to the 9-5 job, the mortgage, the husband, the babies, the log fire, the cable TV? Day thirteen becomes an unplanned rest day, after I submit to fever through the night. Da fusses around me worrying that they are malaria symptoms. We ride to the hospital to do the test. There we witness real suffering; a young man after a motorbike accident, bleeding out, with broken legs. In another corner two old men writhe in pain on their deathbeds. We perch awkwardly on the edge of a trolley. The test comes back clear, but a high white blood cell count suggests a viral infection. Rolling with the punches.
We trudge on. Miles of road works; dredging up so much dust it’s dangerous. The buses and lorries beep and barrel on through, if you don’t make a swift jerk of the handlebars towards the ditch then you’re a goner. We bellow profanities after them after the near misses, but they just wave, carting their busloads of fat white tourists from scenic spot to scenic spot, missing all the culture, the actual food and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people, content to be blindfolded to reality as they holiday. Some days I think, wow look at what we are doing with the time we have been given, what badasses we are but sometimes for a second I think, I wish I was on that bus that nearly barrelled me over into a paddy field. How great it would be to be reclining, eating a can of Pringles, and looking out the window at the lovely scenery, but not looking close enough to see the wrinkles on the locals faces, the bend of their spines after years of being hunched over labouring in a field. Not close enough to see the poverty, to see suffering. To see their lean, sinewy figures in motion. not from dieting but from manual labour. No notion of what indulgence or McDonalds or spare cash is. I pull my baseball cap down, my buff up around my nose and mouth, and through squinted eyes I push on through the dust cascading down around us.
I can feel myself growing stronger. I am starting to enjoy the burn; I don’t dread the hills as much. There is something about earning it; it’s a good kind of suffering. Around us the world chugs on, a migration of yellow butterflies surrounds us like snow falling. The hammering of the stone breakers clinking out a tune, chimes around us. After a tidy descent, we stuff our faces with mangoes; bananas and cans of coke at a quaint little food stall, enjoying the evenings heat on the back of our necks. The Vietnamese talk to Dad, he replies in Gaelic and they both pretend they are having an actual conversation. I stand back and laugh.
Day 18 and we roll into the resorts of Nha Trang to feast on Mexican food and large pints of golden San Miguel. The sheer enjoyment we get from the taste, from understanding the conversations around us, and from simply being anonymous again. Six beers and we are blotto, like giddy school girls. We discuss life, make plans, and marvel at the wonder of it all, and the realisation that we are actually here and in the midst of doing it. We stumble back to the hotel, and call home to tell them all how much we love them in slurred words. What a hand we’ve been dealt.
Day twenty-one and we are somewhere between Phang Rang and Phan Thiet. A miserable start, a man on a motorbike drives up and grabs my breast, Dad chases him but in a case of bicycle versus motorbike, the motorbike is going to win. What is wrong with this world that makes people think it is alright for men to do that? If I am to survive, I must toughen up. Sparse desert surrounds us, there is nothing to entertain our irises, but you can’t put your head down and focus solely on pedalling because a truck will devour you. Every day we guzzle litres of hot water and butter biscuits, undercooked eggs, coriander, chilli and soya sauce thrown on a bread roll, or if we are lucky a banana sandwich. My stomach is curdling and Da’s lost so much weight he’s now got a pair of moobs. I’ll never again take a fridge for granted.
Morals are low, my body is starting to give up, I’m sick of trying. Da is the only thing keeping my legs rotating. Four days left, we must push on. The heat presses down as we push up an exposed hill, we find a cluster of trees, lay out the sleeping bag, and lay down to ponder it all. These are the moments we crave. I cannot describe the pleasure derived from a cold can of coke pressed to your lips, when your tongue is dry and the sweat is gathering in beads on your forehead. Somehow, time passes; more crazy heat, another crusty motel with squat toilets, bum guns and no sink. I break down; Da rubs my back and tells me not to be so hard on myself. This better get better in hindsight! I swear if I ever see a bike tourer or backpacker walking past my house, I’m going to chase them down to smother them with tea, cake, dinner, a bed to sleep in and nourish the shit out of them.
And then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it is day twenty-five. The final day. We stumble into Ho Chi Min city among a traffic jam of motorbikes. I cannot believe it. Finally after all of that, it’s actually over. We make a beeline for McDonalds, sup cans of Saigon in bed, it’s all sinking in. We really did it. What an extraordinary thing for a father and daughter to do together. And although at times, I wanted to kill him, he’s my Dad, he’s my hero. He’d never been to a developing country before and at fifty four, with a year to go to retirement after years psychiatric nursing; he jumps on a plane and cycles the length of Vietnam.
I’ve realised that your life doesn’t have to be the stereotypical idea of perfect, the Facebook perfect; the far flung lands, the backpack, the tan, the Raybans, the bleach blonde hair, the figure, the boy, the parties, the selfies, the Instagrams. None of that is real. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, you don’t have to impress anyone or make them jealous. How about striving for your own version of perfect? It can be on a much smaller scale. Having a family, living in your home town, having a group of friends who you can laugh with, a Friday night beer, a little job that you love, your own idea of perfect. We are so privileged here in Ireland, and we have no idea. But I suppose I never would have known I could be happy with this, unless I did what I did, have done what I’ve done.
Two weeks later, my blisters have healed. My muscles stopped aching. The hardships suffered are but a hazy memory. I am home. I am free and I am already bored… the next adventure awaits.
We stepped foot into Cambodia. Five of us, the original five, all such different people forced together through circumstance and found that we fit together. Three Canadians, one South African and me. The first night we partied hard, free of Vietnam, of work. We were young and reckless once more. In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, here for one night only to gulp long island ice teas and one dollar beers. To sway to the music underneath a canopy of fairy lights on a roof top bar.
A six hour bus to Sihanoukville, to the beach. I gazed out the dusty pane with heavy eyelids… and it was there that I fell in love with a country for the first time since my own beloved Eire. Head resting against the window I watched the world go by, watching the landscape morph from flat plains to towering hills, from dessert to jungle, from turquoise bath water to open sewers. I saw the blood orange moon, the houses built on stilts, the red dirt paths, the kids running and laughing, playing barefoot soccer… young and wild and free.
Such a simple life. A hard but happy life.
I am jealous of them , they are jealous of me.
How can such polar opposite worlds exist simultaneously? The Western world and the developing world, seemingly oblivious to one another’s woes.
Could I live this life, after growing up on the privileged side? Could I really be poor, not the kind of poor that we already say we are, but real poverty. Could I give up all my possessions, relinquish the internet and work as a labourer? Eat slower, live slower, appreciate the little things in life once more. Family, the beauty of a sunrise, the texture of the ground beneath your bare feet. Laugh sporadically and cathartically, work with my hands, draw sweat. Find joy in the feeling of a shower after a hard day’s work, the feeling of calluses forming on your hands and feet, in the satisfying but relentless itch of a mosquito bite, the peel of a sunburn. Every second playing out as if in slow motion.
We escaped to the island of Koh Rong, to Long Beach a forty-five minute climb over a vertical collage of rocks and then a straight drop back down the other side. Sweat pumping and heart pulsing between my ears I progressed slowly, the effort cleansing me of my over indulgent past few days… to emerge onto paradise. No postcards, no film, no tourist advertisement could do this justice. It was like being high, all your senses attuned to the magic unfolding around you, high on life. The sand like fluffy flour sifting between our toes, the water rippling clear and turquoise. We wrapped hammocks around spare trees to camp for the night. Another first for me, but encompassing everything I have ever dreamed up of for myself. Only other youthful hippies to share its floured shores for the night, all packing for one night, but staying forever.
Watching the magic of bioluminescence explode around me during a late night swim, sparkling plankton lighting up the dark waters beneath my hands. Gathering wood, lighting a campfire and dozing off beside it. Fleeing to our hammocks when the buckets of rain and lighting start hailing down upon us. Rising and stretching in the morning air, gathering our belongings swiftly and power walking back along the beach to catch a boat to reality in a typhoon. Laughing out loud at my luck, it hasn’t rained in four months here, but the day I come, typically the tarp is yanked free and the water unleashed. Wading out to the old wooden boat, body fully submerged in the rocking tide, bags held high over our heads. Tossing them carelessly on board and scrambling awkwardly in after them for a bumpy ride back to the central hub.
The days blurring together, a mash up of bed bugs and insect bites, we looked like we had chicken pox. Chronic diarrhoea and vomiting for three days in squat toilets with no flush and no toilet roll, “character building” my Ma and Da would say. I can’t shave my legs because it’s like a cacophony of sores kissing my skin. I can’t shower too often because the communal ones are usually covered in shit and when I do its under cold spurts of water that I have to psych myself up to put my head under. Highs and lows. Cambodia you have not been kind to my body but you have freed my mind. I think if I shimmy a few steps left of paradise I could find an oasis of real life that is more my style and while away my days here contently.
But I can’t stay in paradise forever. A trip to The Killing Fields see’s to that, pulling us back to reality, shaking us into the present after one by one we succumbed to tiredness and grumpiness with the passing days, with the constant company. Opening our eyes to real suffering, real problems. What Cambodia went through, genocide and now poverty and my utter inadequacy or inability to do something about it. Am I who I want to be yet? Still I disappoint myself. It’s all so fake, white people’s paradise, the white’s working the easy jobs in the bars etc, while the local people unclog the booze and drug induced puke smeared toilets, clean the rooms, man the boats, collect the rubbish left behind by the white partiers as they continue to blaze a trail of destruction though their chosen holiday destinations.
The world is a funny place. It both baffles and awes me frequently.
So much still to do. So much still to learn.
But I’m starting to grow weary, I’m starting to miss home. My family, my old friends. I have turned the final corner in my journey, but I can’t pack it in yet, I’m so close. Home is in sight, three more months, three months brimming with so much potential. The preparations are under way, two more weeks of work, of selling the last of my possessions, of having a routine, of lie ins and a steady income.
Da is coming… two more weeks until we cycle the length of Vietnam…
“You can’t fall if you don’t climb, but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground.” – Unknown.
“There can be no place more desolate, despairing and awful.” – Lord Kennet (1971)
Last summer Nick Hancock landed on an isolated rock in the North Atlantic Ocean in pursuit of two records, the longest solo occupation of Rockall and the longest occupation of Rockall in history, after 45 days in solitude he achieved both, earning himself a nomination for Adventurer of the Year. I got the opportunity recently to discuss the incredible expedition with the man himself.
1. Where did you get the idea from?
I was made redundant in 2008 and moved to Scotland. There was no work in property, so I took a job in an outdoor clothing shop. Whilst there, and bored at the till one day, I decided I needed a challenge and started to research the possibility of sea kayaking from mainland Scotland to St. Kilda, via Skye and the Outer Hebrides. In doing that I came across a story about some Spanish sailors being ship wrecked on Rockall and making it safely to St. Kilda. That drew my attention West. I read a lot about the rock and quickly became aware of the existing group and solo occupation records. I decided then that I wanted to visit and hopefully break the records.
2. What gear did you bring with you?
I had to take all of my food and water for two months as there’s no fresh water supply on Rockall and nowhere to prepare fresh food. I also had to take a method of generating power in order that I could charge the communications equipment and electronics I took with me, so I built an Ampair wind turbine on top of Rockall, which provided more than sufficient power, and I was loaned a BGAN satellite unit by Inmarsat, via which I could blog and Tweet. In addition to these key items, I also had a laptop, from which I blogged, and which had hundreds of ebooks on for passing the time.
3. What item proved the most useful?
It was probably a combination of the laptop, BGAN unit and my satellite phone, all of which I used to get up to date weather forecasts, so I knew what weather was coming and the sea state to expect, and also, after the storm, they were critical to communicating and planning my exit strategy.
4. What was your day to day routine like for the 45 days?
In order to eat into the time I tried to slow everything I did down and take as long as possible over tasks. There was no concurrent activity out there. I’d generally tried to not get out of my sleeping bag before 0900 and would then take an average of around an hour to have breakfast and complete daily ablutions. Then, depending on the forecast, I would either read, if the weather was poor, or I would get out of the RockPod and exercise, collect samples, measure features, or generally try and enjoy being there by watching the wildlife. Lunch was around 1400, and I would eat again around 1900, after checking the forecasts online, before more reading and bedding down around 2200hrs.
- Was there even a decent piece of flat to set up camp on?
The summit is properly flat, as it was blown off by the Royal Engineers for a light beacon to be fitted. Unfortunately it’s too small to live on and most of it is taken up by the light housing. A few metres below the summit is Hall’s Ledge, named after the first person recorded to have landed on Rockall. It’s generally level although not particularly flat, nor big at around 11’ by 4’ at the widest points, but it offers the best place for a shelter and is where I and the previous occupants set up camp.
- What did you see while out there…marine life, seabirds etc?
There were lots of birds all the time, mostly gannets and guillemots, but also puffins, shearwaters and even a couple of lost racing pigeons and a starling! In terms of mammals, there were often two or three seals about, hunting in the shallower water around Rockall and Hasselwood Rock (about 100 metres to the North). The most spectacular sight though was the minke whales, of which there were at least three if not four or five around at any one time. It was amazing to be able to watch them hunt and blow at the surface, and I spent a lot of time just sitting and enjoying the privilege.
- What kind of training was involved?
Physically it was just a matter of being fit and strong enough for the initial climb, the descent at the end, and hauling and lowering kit up the rock. Apart from that, I had to learn quite a few new skills relating to winching and hauling the RockPod, for which I trained with the local Fire and Rescue team instructors. Mentally, I’m pretty self-reliant anyway, and am able to entertain myself, so it was just a matter of setting enough tasks to stave off any boredom.
- You managed 45 days, but had planned for sixty, what happened?
I had originally planned to stay for two months as the existing records were 40 days solo and 42 days as a group; I wanted to beat these records and push them out far enough that they wouldn’t be broken for a while. Two months was a good round number to aim for and fitted within the tight weather window that summer in the North Atlantic allowed. Early in the morning of day 28, I was hit by a Force 9 storm which dislodged my shelter, the RockPod, and also ripped away four of my barrels of food and equipment. This left me with around fifty days’ worth of food if I was frugal, and I then had to strike a balance with the weather forecasts, food reserves and when the charter boat was available to get me. This all came together at forty five days, which is why I left the rock then.
- The planning and logistics of this expedition must of been a nightmare? How long did it take to get it all together?
I had originally thought that I would be ready to go in two years and the expedition was christened ‘Rockall 2011’ as I hoped to land in the 200th anniversary year of the first recorded landing. In reality, it took five years hard work to design and build the RockPod, find a suitable boat (the one I used wasn’t even launched until 2012) and to raise the funding to pay for the boat fuel and charter. That included a reconnaissance trip and a failed attempt to land in 2013 due to bad weather.
- What safety precautions had you in place in case of an emergency?
The coastguard knew I was on the rock, and I was just on the outer limit of helicopter rescue; although it would take several hours and a refuel to get to me, and then they would have less than half an hour on site to search for me. I took with me an EPIRB, and SPOT location beacon which I set off every morning to say that I was OK, and my satellite phone also had an emergency beacon built in. In terms of living on the rock, whenever I was out of the pod I wore a climbing harness and was tethered to Rockall with a life line clipped into various anchors around the summit and Hall’s Ledge. I didn’t want to slip off!
- Did you experience any fear, putting that much trust in the elements and also being completely reliant on the gear you bring to survive?
The only time I was scared was during the storm I mentioned. I was on my own, 250 miles out in the North Atlantic, in a Force 9, in the middle of the night. I couldn’t see anything it was so dark, and I couldn’t leave the RockPod for fear of the high winds and waves. Around one in the morning, after a lot of spray and few small waves had hit the pod, a large wave came and shunted my shelter across the ledge. I didn’t know if the straps holding me down were still attached, and couldn’t check because of the weather conditions. I just had to lie there and hope that was the worst of it. The pod quickly slipped back to near its original position, but in the morning I saw that a number of the straps were slack and an anchor bolt had bent under the force of the water that hit. It was not an experience I ever want to repeat.
- Can you describe what the Rockpod is?
The RockPod is a converted water bowser like the ones you see at road works. It’s a rigid plastic capsule that would have held around 2.5 tonnes of water, so it very strong, but light too. I added an access hatch, port hole and deck vent from Lewmar in order to provide light and ventilation, and bolted fourteen 1 tonne rated lifting points to the shell so that I could tie it down to Rockall with ratchet straps. I then levelled the floor with plastic sheeting and insulated it with spray on expanding foam insulation. The only other thing I did was to screw a plywood sheet on the bottom to level out the concave base in order to assist with the initial winching up the rock at the start of the expedition. It was perhaps more an evolutionary process then direct design, but I had certain requirements that my shelter had to fulfil, and what resulted was a strong, light weight, water proof shelter that floated and could be relatively easily winched.
- Will you return for an attempt at sixty days or are you done with it for good?
No, I won’t go back to try and extend my record, even if someone does beat it. I am hoping to go back to Rockall soon though, perhaps next year. The place just gets under your skin.
- What was the highlight of the trip?
That’s hard to answer, there were so many highlights: the minke whales, watching an amazing sunset and knowing you were the only one seeing it, the solitude (a rare thing in the world these days), surviving the storm, speaking to passing vessels over the VHF, and then seeing my ride home coming over the horizon. All were fantastic in their own way and went together to make the expedition an amazing experience for me.
Follow Nick’s future adventures on Twitter @RockallNick or his website.
I am still not fully satisfied.
Why is it that I can’t be content with a 9-5, with good friends, good food, a great family, an income. Why do I want to suffer? Why do I crave mud, sweat and tears above all else? Why do I want to feel hardship? Why do I think this way when so many others don’t?
This constant search for adrenaline, this search for freedom is exhausting. Nothing I do blots out this scalding desire to be more, to do something reckless, scary… something epic. I don’t have a concrete plan, I don’t have any money. But I don’t think I ever will. I am 23, I have no commitments, no offers of jobs or internships, no credit card debts, no loans, no boyfriend, no kids. Therefore I have no excuse. No reason to be doing nothing. Technically I am free, yet I have never felt free, all I hear are rules, rules rules, how to act, how to dress,… so much bullshit. This is why I need an adventure.
I know I’m not alone, others like me are out there, others that get it. Sir Ranulph Fiennes once said: “Those that ask the question will never understand the answer. Those that understand the answer will never ask the question.” That is it. That’s the best explanation I’ve ever gotten as to why I am this way, why I live the way I live. It can’t be explained in words.
My life is by no means boring. I spent Christmas abroad in a country that doesn’t celebrate Christmas. I ate a curry for Christmas dinner and skyped my family while they opened their presents and narrated the humdrum of goings on, of who got what. I rang in the New Year with three brilliant Canadians in Hanoi. The next day I boarded a plane to the Philippines for my cousins wedding.
I stayed in a four and a half star, gem of a resort with its own private beach, two pools, an all you can eat breakfast buffet but all I felt was eerily concious of the people who are living mere yards away on the breadline in galvanised sheds with dirt floors. And they were the most polite and kind people I have ever met. I was uncomfortable, I felt guilty as I gorged myself. This is not me, this is not who I am. I like lying on the ground when I’ve eating too much, sitting on the edges of pavements, wearing out a pair of boots so much that my mam has to throw them out on the sly, eating seven bowls of cereal in a day so i won’t have to buy food.
But I got to see the grown ups, the Irish, my brilliant family. Some who I never felt quite in sync with before to discover a common interest; a bid for the Seven Summits, a recklessness to backflip off a banana boat, to rent jet ski’s, to parasail…A family all hailing from rural Ireland, flying in from their adopted homes in New Zealand, Australia, Doha, and London to celebrate the unification of two family’s and two cultures, the Filipinos and the Irish. Seeing my Mammy and my auntie Ann after months. The two of them halves of a whole, black and white, providing comfort and a good kick up the arse when required. Snorkelling, kayaking, jet skiing, hobie cat sailing in the luke warm waters of the South China Sea. Finally letting myself relax and be content to laze away a day or two on the beach, drinking and stuffing my face.
But it was a temporary respite from my ever restless consciousness, it came to an end and I had to return to Vietnam upset, tired of flights and layovers and crappy buses. So I handed in my notice, just so as I could feel like I was in motion, like I was making progress and I began the countdown.
Four weeks until the Lunar New Year and Cambodia.
Eight weeks until Da comes and the pedalling begins.
Thirteen weeks until the cycle ends and then who knows what…
It’s all figured out until April 17th, the date Da fly’s home. After that I have no further plans, no nuggets of knowledge or ideas, no money, no return flight, nada. And it really is a scary feeling.
I’ve always had some vague, fuzzy idea of the next step but this time the horizon is blank, scarily blank. I chose a year of teaching abroad to put off the inevitable decision. I thought within a year of bought time, surely I will have figured it out by then… but maybe not knowing the next step, what I will do or where I will be a week from now or even a day from now is the key, that is after all the very essence of adventure, and that is exactly what I keep saying that I am seeking.
I leave you with an extract from an article by journalist George Monbiot, something I reread every now and then when my resolves are starting to sway and I’m tempted to pack it all in and go home.”When faced with the choice between engaging with reality or engaging with what Erich Fromm calls the “necrophiliac” world of wealth and power, choose life, whatever the apparent costs may be. Your peers might at first look down on you: poor Nina, she’s twenty-six and she still doesn’t own a car. But those who have put wealth and power above life are living in the world of death, in which the living put their tombstones – their framed certificates signifying acceptance to that world – on their walls. Remember that even the editor of the Times, for all his income and prestige, is still a functionary, who must still take orders from his boss. He has less freedom than we do, and being the editor of the Times is as good as it gets.” (From: http://www.monbiot.com/career-advice/)
Just think about it.