TEENAGERS WHO CYCLED THE LENGTH OF AFRICA
John Farley and Ben Watson left Monkton Combe School in 2013. As with many teenagers they were a little unsure as to what to do next? They had several options, one of which was to take a gap year. But what does one do with a gap year? Get a job? Go on holiday? Or maybe, cycle from Egypt to South Africa? Yes, they decided on the latter… Their journey would take them over six months as they travelled over 13,000km through ten different countries. Here’s what they made of it all.
So how did the idea for this extraordinary trip originate?
Ben: I wanted to do something on my gap year that was more than just travelling. I wanted a real challenge, so I suggested the African Cycle Challenge to a few friends at dinner one night. We sketched a map of Africa onto a dinner tray with a line down from top to bottom, and the seed was planted.
And when did the magnitude of the task you had set yourselves first sink in?
John: It was only when we were sitting in the crowded plane that I truly appreciated what I had let myself in for. To be honest I didn’t know how far we would get – I didn’t even know whether we would leave Egypt. But I didn’t care. I had faith that I was protected, and that I was making my dream for the past year into a reality. It had all seemed so much like a dream that I hadn’t done any proper preparation. I didn’t even know how to change a tyre! The first few days were a steep learning curve.
What kind of planning did you do leading up to your departure?
Ben: Neither John or I had any real knowledge about cycling maintenance. So learning to fix basic parts of the bike whilst on the open road was quite a challenge. We also had the added stress of border crossings, and organising visas was very time consuming. The six-month trip only cost £2,000, so I had managed to save that working in a bar, lifeguarding and doing any possible casual work I could find in the build up to the departure date.
John: I just got a job, bought a bike and booked the flights. I think what stops people going travelling can often be overthinking it. We didn’t suffer from that, and we learnt most of the essentials on the road. Each day was different and offered different challenges and that was the most unusual but exciting part of the journey – not knowing what was going to happen next!
What was it like setting off on your first day?
Ben: Nerve-wracking! Egypt was a bit unsettled at the time, but I was far more scared of the prospect of failing. It would have been really embarrassing if we had failed in the first week (which was a possibility). I was praying a lot!
John: I was pretty clueless from the risk point of view, but I did find it weird. I had done a couple of practice rides at home, but this wasn’t like that. When we pitched our first camp I didn’t really know how to go about camping out in a desert, so I was just awkwardly waiting for Ben to do something and following his lead.
What were some of the strangest, or hairiest, moments of the trip?
Ben: Ethiopia was tough: constant mountain climbs and we both got very ill (I lost 10kg). Kids threw rocks at us and I got robbed. Then in Botswana I was more scared than I have ever been, we kept seeing huge elephants standing by the road and trying to stare us down. It felt like being in a film like Jurassic Park.
John: I agree with Ben – Ethiopia was tough! But the strangest moment has to be convincing a substance-abusing tribesman who spoke not a word of English that we didn’t want to go back to his house, especially at three o’clock in the morning!
What was the moment when you were closest to giving up and what kept you going?
John: Probably after we had been in Ethiopia for a while, when I was very worn down. We stopped briefly to meet a friend of Ben’s for coffee at his office. His boss came out, heard our story and promptly offered us an ancient VW campervan, which apparently was never going to be used again. It would have had room for our bikes and luggage, but we left pretty quickly to avoid being tempted! I guess thinking of the people at home who were following our journey and rooting for us kept me motivated and focused on the highs as opposed to the lows.
Ben: Giving up and failing to make it to our final destination never crossed my mind.
When you weren’t camping or hostelling you stayed with contacts. How did you find the local hospitality?
Ben: Friends from Monkton were amazing at putting us in contact with all kinds of different people, and since I was brought up in Sudan I had a few friends across Northeast Africa. I am so grateful to them for their unbelievable kindness. They played such a motivating role throughout our trip and their warmth really made the overall experience unforgettable.
John: They were amazing! Although we had a list of people to contact in different parts of the continent, sometimes we’d just get chatting to someone on the side of the road and they would offer us a place to stay at their home, which was always a welcome surprise. It was such an unexpected blessing and it really encouraged and refreshed us.
Did you ever get into arguments?
Ben: Yep! When you’re exhausted, a long way from home, you have run out of water, your entire body is straining with every push of the pedal, you’ve spent the whole day in the sun and both your mind and body are exhausted… arguments are always going to happen! John’s easy-going nature meant they usually didn’t last long. We kept each other company and I really found it helpful as a Christian being with John because we could encourage each other in our faith along the way.
John: We are both quite different characters and I like to think that we helped each other at different times when things got tough. Of course, there were disagreements, but we never got into a physical fight so I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t know whether I could have done it without Ben: he was the common sense, determination and motivator of our two-man team.
How do you think your gap year has prepared you for university life?
John: I think being a little older and surer of myself has helped me be a lot more confident at university than I would otherwise have been. I’ve tried not to talk too much about it because I don’t want to be ‘that guy who talks about his gap year’, but it has made me a lot less stressed about the little things in life, because I have the stresses of the trip to compare them against.
Ben: The trip taught me so many things! I’m studying International Development, so chatting to locals about their lives and remembering everyone’s story really helps me envision what I’m working towards. God was with us the whole way (thank you everyone who prayed). Things don’t always go the way you want, and that’s something I’ve learnt to deal with in many different ways. There’s just so much life and adventure in the world and it would be a shame not to get out there and experience it.
For the full story please visit John and Ben’s blog at bwatson-jfarlz-cyclingafrica.tumblr.com